Thursday, January 10, 2013

All good things...

...must come to an end, including this blog. I've realized recently that it has run its course, and when I'm blogging about books I've read months earlier, well, it's time to close up shop. I'll still aim to read 30 books a year, but for now, I'll just try to keep my thoughts to myself. :)

It Ain't Abuse If You Don't Call the Cops -- The Enduring Wisdom of 50 Shades of Grey

Yes, I read Fifty Shades of Grey. After about four months of waiting, my turn finally came up at the library, and against my better judgement, I checked the thing out. Truth be told, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, seeing as I was prepared for Fifty Shades of Grey to be the worst book ever. It’s certainly better written that Twilight (though that's not saying much). But mostly, I was just confused by it, by its unparalled success – who are these millions of women who are avidly reading and recommending Fifty Shades of Grey? Okay, it wasn’t terrible, but it certainly was ridiculous. And fucked-up. And culturally damaging. And juvenile, which strikes me as odd considering it was written by a woman in her mid-40s. The dialogue was juvenile and ridiculous. Anastasia’s “cute” and overly repetitive quirks – like biting her lip, rolling her eyes, and her vocal inner goddess and subconscious – were ridiculous. I mean, the girl’s lucky she’s got any lip left. The sex scenes and Anastasia’s instant orgasms were ridiculous – so much so that if I was supposed to be turned on, it didn’t work because I was too busy rolling my eyes. And don't get me started on Christian Grey...

If you're not familiar with the premise, Fifty Shades of Grey is the tale of the naive Anastasia Steele, whose world is rocked when she takes up with the handsome, sexy billionaire Christian Grey. Ana manages to meet this god when she interviews him as a favor for her roommate shortly before her college graduation. She’s instantly attracted to him and can’t believe it when he seems to take a liking to her, too – because she’s plain and clumsy and boring, of course. They go through a little flirty-flirty, but they’re both in for a shock – she’s a virgin, and he only enters into Dominant-Submissive sexual relationships that come with a contract. In short, he's looking for someone he can abuse in his Red Room of Pain, and Ana spends the rest of the book hemming and hawing over whether or not she wants to participate.
Apparently this is the housewife fantasy. Which makes me really sad because at its core, Fifty Shades of Gray puts forth a really destructive message for women, one we've been fighting against culturally for a really long time. Seems like this is more than a few steps back.
Throughout Fifty Shades of Grey is the oft-repeated trope of the ugly duckling being turned into a swan because of a man’s “love.” Anastasia spends the entire book insecurely wondering why the devastatingly handsome and rich Christian Grey is attracted to her. “I am rendered speechless by the look of hunger in his eyes. Wow … to be this wanted by this Greek god.” (358)  It doesn’t matter that he has deep-rooted psychological issues that will damage her emotionally and physically – He’s rich! He’s handsome! He must be too good for her! Ugh.
And then beneath that, Fifty Shades of Gray presents the disturbing premise that beating your partner is arousing, not abusing – because hey, she doesn’t call the cops, right? He actually suggests at one point that it’s all in how you look at it, that maybe it’s only society telling her spanking/punishing (i.e. physical hurting) your partner is bad. Despite the overwhelming evidence that Ana should run for the hills, she's convinced that her love can fix him. That when he says he doesn't do the girlfriend thing and he's bad for her, he actually means the opposite. 
E.L. James uses this ugly duckling fantasy -- rich, handsome god-man falls in love with Plain Jane, recognizing her special specialness, breaking all of his austere rules because even though he's damaged, love makes him want to reach out -- to cloud the main issue. “I want to hurt you. But not beyond anything that you couldn’t take.” (376) There are a couple of passages like this, and all I can think is: HE STILL WANTS TO HIT YOU! The rest is bullshit. But what is Ana's response? “This is a man in need. His fear is naked and obvious, but he’s lost … somewhere in his darkness. His eyes are wide and bleak and tortured. I can soothe him, join him briefly in the darkness and bring him into the light.” (377) God, bring back the vampires – this shit is toxic.
And the thing is, Fifty Shades of Grey only works because of Christian Grey’s superficial qualities. Strip away the youth, the wealth and the handsome face, and all you have a man who gets insanely jealous when his girlfriend talks to another guy, stalks her movements through her cell phone, is a complete control freak, and  gets his sexual kicks from fully dominating and beating his girlfriend (but only in places where others won’t see the bruises). Wow, so erotic. Usually, you have these types of guys arrested. So why has this book become housewife porn? Anastasia literally only recognizes these superficial things once. ONCE. And the second she admits it, she goes into the whole, oh, poor him, he’s so damaged, my heart hurts for him. Perhaps you think I’m irrationally angry because Fifty Shades of Grey is just a book, but the thing is, I’ve been there. And you know what happens? It doesn't matter how rich or handsome he is. You can’t heal his wounds with love. He just keeps abusing you. And it makes me so angry that this woman has made like $20 million peddling the idea there’s something erotic or sexy in that.

Hello, 2013

Yes, I fell off the wagon. But I blame the books -- after The Power of Habit, I read Elif Shafak's Forty Rules of Love, and it was so terrible that I never wanted to think about it again, much less blog about it. So I stopped book blogging all together. :( 

In the end, I managed to read 25 books in 2012. Filling out the rest of the list were Janet Reitman's Inside Scientology, the fifth Game of Thrones book, Karen Essex's Dracula in Love, Rosamunde Pilcher's The Shell Seekers, Fifty Shades of Grey (yup, I went there), Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project and Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, along with two books on screenwriting.

My final tally was not great, but it wasn't awful, either. Because I did read all five Game of Thrones books last year, and each of those is at least 800 pages. I also managed to write a screenplay. So, all in all, not so bad.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Imagine the Power of Habit: The science of science-y self-help

Probably the two books I was most excited about reading this summer were Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit and Jonah Lehrer's Imagine. I borrowed the Power of Habit ebook from the library, but I had bought the Imagine ebook off the Barnes n' Noble website -- and was then quite disappointed when it turned out that Mr. Lehrer had fabricated some of the quotes in his best-selling book and subsequently resigned from his position at the New Yorker. So in the end, I didn't read Imagine (and eventually managed to get a refund).

But why were these my books of choice? I had never really thought about it, beyond the superficial -- they were bestsellers and they sounded interesting. Doesn't that seem like enough? But then I read a really interesting critique of Imagine on the New Republic website, and it flipped my whole perspective of these intellectual, science-y self-help books that have become immensely popular the last couple of years. In his review, Issac Chotiner of TNR writes, "Imagine is really a pop-science book, which these days usually means that it is an exercise in laboratory-approved self-help. Like Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks, Lehrer writes self-help for people who would be embarrassed to be seen reading it. For this reason, their chestnuts must be roasted in 'studies' and given a scientific gloss. The surrender to brain science is particularly zeitgeisty."

I saw another article about Lehrer, post-scandal, that was discussing this same issue. Eric Garland essentially says on his blog that we, the reading public, have become enamored with these sorts of easy answers to difficult questions, which is what has funded this trend. I personally thought The Secret was a little ridiculous -- believe away your cancer! -- but when you add scientific studies and whatnot to the mix, it suddenly seems like these books will allow you to grasp creativity, success and your habits, and even better, grab hold of them. When I think about it, this too sounds a little ridiculous -- these concepts are not that simple -- but I suppose we all want some easy solution, myself included.

Interestingly, when I look back at my blog posts on both The Secret and Outliers, I noted that both books seem to ignore the hard work that has to take place in order to be successful. In discussing Outliers, I wrote, "While [Gladwell's] theory may be true, I felt that it lacked personal responsibility, that duty to get up and do your best to do your thing every single day." And about The Secret, I said, "I think my biggest issue with [it] is that it ignores the work and actions that have to take place for anything to happen, much less to achieve success. I mean, I can visualize a best-selling novel all day – I can believe it with every fiber of my being – but I can't attract those 80,000 words. Maybe I can attract an agent and a good review from Michiko Kakutani and an appearance on Oprah, but I can't attract the creation of a book – I will actually have to sit down every day and write it and there's no magical formula for that." And even The Power of Habit downplays the work changing a habit takes.
Hmm, so where does that leave us? Still struggling with the complexity of trying to be great, creative and successful. Alas. I suppose this is why everyone wants the magic pill.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Power of Habit: Why we do what we do (#15)

The title of the Power of Habit says it all – habits are powerful, and  author Charles Duhigg explores how habits affect individuals, companies and societies, and how they can be changed. “Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not. They’re habits. And though each habit means relatively little on its own, over time, [they] have enormous impacts on our health, productivity, financial security and happiness.” (p.11) While a lot of Amazon readers found the book to be redundant and many were disappointed that it’s not actually a self-help book, I found all of the anecdotes and research about habits to be fascinating. So  fascinating, in fact, that I’ve already repeated a number of Duhigg's anecdotes to others.

In the book, a habit loop seems a pretty simple thing, composed of three things: a cue, a routine and a reward. What separates a habit (a must-do) from a routine (should-do) is a craving. The person has to want the reward badly enough so that when he/she sees the cue, he/she will act automatically in terms of the habit that’s already been created. So, for example, you may not actually want the donut in the break room, but when you see it, your mind automatically associates it with the reward (sugar high!) and the craving drives you to eat it. If you want to change this habit, you have to really look at your behavior and figure out the cue and reward. (All of this is pretty hard work, which I thought was understressed -- in the appendix, one of the researchers notes that some simple habits, like nail biting and stuttering, can be changed using this Simplified Habit Reversal, but those with more serious habits, like smoking, gambling and depression, need cognitive behavior therapy, which requires more a intensive intervention.)

The first section of the Power of Habit was the most convincing -- it was pretty easy to understand and recognize how an individual's habit loop works. I thought the book went a little off the rails in the second section -- which examined a company's habits -- and I was completely unconvinced in the third section, about social movements. I didn't buy that the things he called habits were, in fact, habits. (In regards to companies, he talked about how truces between departments allowed them to get on with work, but it seemed to be more about relationships; in terms of the civil rights movement, his examples seemed more to reflect relationships and peer pressure.)

But the book ends on an interesting note, about how the brain activity of, say, compulsive gamblers and people who suffer from sleep terrors (or those on certain medications) look the same, and yet we don’t hold them equally accountable for their actions. Is that right? On the one hand, we have this socially accepted view of the individual, who is completely responsible for his/her conscious choices – but the point of the book is that the primitive parts of the brain take over when it comes to habits. It made me think, which is all that I really ask. So, despite some flaws, I can say that I did enjoy the Power of Habit, and I would definitely recommend it.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Not Without My Daughter: Scary, very scary (#14)

When I was in elementary school, an unremarkable woman named Betty Mahmoody was married to a crazy person. He also happened to be Muslim, originally hailing from Iran. For reasons that aren't explained until nearly the end, this man convinces Betty that he, she and their young daughter should take a trip to Iran to see the family, and when they get there, he goes through a complete personality shift and tries to keep them there, as his chattel, forever. This is the basic premise of Not Without My Daughter, the bestseller published in 1987.

It's a pretty scary book -- and not one to read right before you get married, as I did. Betty goes on what she thinks is a two-week holiday to Tehran, only to learn once the two weeks are up that her husband plans to keep them there. Since women have absolutely no rights there, there's nothing she can do about it -- she doesn't have the right to travel without her husband, she doesn't have any rights to her daughter, and her husband has the right to do whatever he pleases with the both of them, including beating them in the street if he so chooses. As she says early on, "I tried to deal with the realization that I was married to a madman and trapped in a country where the laws decreed that he was my absolute master" (68). Betty decides that she will get herself out of Iran, somehow -- but only if she can take her daughter, too, providing the title of the book.

It was a quick, enjoyable read, though more than once I found myself looking at my fiance, thinking, Do I really know this man? Because that's the real issue in Not Without My Daughter. My impression was that Mahmoody primarily blamed Iran and Islam for what happened to her and while I understand it, given what she went through and how personal it felt, I thought this blame was a little heavy-handed in the book. Because let's face it, there are people being held against their will in America per directives from so-called religions -- just last week, there was the Vanity Fair teaser about Scientology auditioning wives for Tom Cruise and the punishment Iranian actress Nazanin Boniadi suffered when she failed to please him. Then there are the FLDS people. My point is, these things can actually happen to you in America, too; Mahmoody's problem wasn't that she was married to a Muslim, it was that she was married to a crazy person. And she knew he was crazy long before she ever agreed to go to Iran with him. It's just that the problem spiraled way out of control when she went to a country where he was legally and culturally allowed to be that crazy, and hopping a fence in the middle of the night wouldn't cut it as an escape. But I often felt that in the novel, Mahmoody wrongfully blamed the religion and the country more than she blamed the individual, her husband, who had been severely depressed and acting strange when they were living in the US.

I haven't seen the movie version of Not Without My Daughter -- released in 1991 and starring Sally Field (who, incidentally, I once saw in a drugstore in Vancouver). And I probably won't -- the trailer looks horribly dated, and according to Wikipedia, the film got mixed reviews and was criticized for its racist characterization of Iranians and their culture. There's apparently also a 2002 documentary called Without My Daughter, telling the husband's side of the story.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Sweet Confusion on the Princes' Islands: Yet another passive friggin' protagonist (#13)

When in Rome, do as the Romans do, goes the old adage -- and when in Rome, read their books. While I am still deep in the throes of Game of Thrones -- I've just started Dance with Dragons -- I've also realized that while I am spending time in Turkey, I should explore some of their literature and expand my horizons a little bit further.

And so I began with Sweet Confusion on the Princes' Islands, a novel by expatriate Lawrence Goodman that was published in Turkey, which accounts for its scarcity of (Okay, so it's not exactly "Turkish" literature, but it is set in Turkey, on an island in the Sea of Marmara, just off Istanbul.) I didn't expect much from it, though I hoped it would be a sweet read in the vein of My Father's Glory & My Mother's Castle by Marcel Pagnol or Rosamunde Pilcher's Sleeping Tiger. But it wasn't to be, mostly because Sweet Confusion on the Princes' Islands features one of fiction's most passive protagonists -- something that any casual reader of this blog knows I hate. And most interestingly, for once that boring protagonist is a man!

The novel revolves around Ed Wilkie, a Californian in his early 30s who has impulsively decided to take a job teaching English at a boys' school on one of the Princes' Islands. It begins with his arrival in Istanbul -- he's a single man, accompanied only by his dog, Starleen -- and though things seem to be a bit odd, merely a sign of things to come, Ed takes it all in stride. It turns out that Ed never questions a thing -- despite all the bizarre incidents that happen over the course of Sweet Confusion, the man never shows the slightest bit of curiousity about anything. He doesn't even know the first name, nationality or specific line of business of his closest friend on the island. The book blurb calls him naive, but he struck me as sort of a dimwit.

Superficially, Sweet Confusion is a tale about the minor but zany adventures surrounding a naive young man thrust into a new world. But the adventures aren't always minor -- there is murder and drug trafficking, after all -- and they aren't particularly zany. And that's because the story is from Ed's point of view, and again, Ed never has a reaction to anything or asks any questions. As a result, nothing in the plot is well-developed; weird things happen, but it's generally without significant or emotional comment from any of the characters, making for a very flat book. Not surprisingly, the end was completely contrived and ridiculous.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Feast for Crows: Weakest of the group, SPOILERS AHEAD (#12)

By the end of a Storm of Swords, the third book in George R.R. Martin's fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, I felt like I'd gone through a war (and barely survived). At that point, nearly all of the main characters have died, usually in the most brutal of ways, and those that are left have escaped off into the world, their status and location generally unknown. PLEASE STOP READING NOW IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW WHO'S ALIVE AND WHO'S DEAD AT THE BEGINNING OF BOOK FOUR.

As I said in my last post on the seriesStorm of Swords contains somewhat of an ending. There's a definite lull in the action -- the war for the throne seems to have mostly abated with the deaths of Robb Stark, Joffrey and Renly, and Stannis' choice to instead fight at the Wall, so there is somewhat of a peace in the realm. Almost everyone else of major importance to the story -- Arya, Sansa, Tyrion, Bran and Rickon -- has skipped off to locations unknown, almost all outside of the kingdom.

It's a definite and necessary lull in the action, and I expected that A Feast for Crows, book four, would pick up that thread, following the far-flung characters. They are the major characters left, after all. But that's not what happens at all, and it's very perplexing. Martin chose to dedicate the bulk of A Feast for Crows to the activities of minor characters, and the result is a pretty boring 800-page tome. Tyrion, Bran and Rickon, and Daenerys Targaryen are not in A Feast for Crows at all; Jon Snow only makes a brief appearance in Sam's narration. Instead, the book focuses heavily on Brienne of Tarth's fruitless search for the Stark sisters, family intrigue in Dorne and power struggles on the Iron Islands; the most interesting segment of the book is Cersei's, where she finally, at the end, gets what she deserves. Samwell Tarly, Arya and Sansa do make appearances, but not a lot happens with them.

Ultimately, A Feast for Crows spent too much time on the details. The book ends in a really interesting place -- it just didn't need all the minutae to get there. Apparently when George R.R. Martin was writing the book, he couldn't stop, and when he realized he had too much material, he split the story (and characters) into two books -- A Feast for Crows and book five, A Dance with Dragons. But I feel like he would have been much better served to cut the minor characters from this book (or at least limit them to a chapter), creating a tighter, more exciting read. Having said that, I know expect A Dance with Dragons to be a fireworks show...maybe it will be worth it?

Friday, August 10, 2012

Death Comes to Pemberly: So, apparently, does boredom (#11)

I don't generally read mysteries or crime novels. There's so much death, destruction and terror in the world that I generally avoid these genres in my reading choices -- and frankly, I've never really understood it as a form of entertainment. So, not surprisingly, I haven't read much by P.D. James, just one book whose name I can't remember. But I was pretty excited when I heard she'd written a mystery incorporating the characters from Pride and Prejudice -- I'm not a raving Jane Austen fan, but there's a reason that book's a classic.

Unfortunately, P.D. James' attempt to recapture the magic of Pride and Prejudice in her mystery Death Comes to Pemberly falls short. While all of the main Pride and Prejudice characters appear -- Darcy and Elizabeth, Georgiana, Wickham and Lydia, Jane and Bingley -- the relationships between them are very wooden. It appears that James was attempting to imitate Austen's style, and in that, I suppose, she succeed -- it's just that she succeeed at imitating the aloof style of Persuasion rather than the sparkling wit of Pride and Prejudice. The tone of Death Comes to Pemberly is pretty lifeless, and there's almost no development of the characters' inner lives -- Darcy and Elizabeth, for example, are happy because the text says so, not because you see any true warmth between them on the page.

Six years after the close of Pride and Prejudice, Dary and Elizabeth are living happily on their estate, Pemberly, with their two young sons. Life is apparently perfect. Elizabeth is preparing to throw a huge ball the next evening when her headstrong younger sister Lydia unexpectedly arrives, absolutely hysterical. She had been traveling with her husband, the ever-disgraced Wickham, and his friend, Captain Denny, preparing to crash the ball. But Wickham and Denny had gotten into an argument, and Denny had exited the carriage and headed into the dark woods. Wickham followed and then...gunshots. When Darcy and the members of his search party locate them, Wickham is standing over his friend's lifeless body, seemingly confessing to the murder. But, of course, it's never that simple in a mystery, and Darcy spends the rest of the novel trying to figure out who the real culprit is.

This quest involves a number of people that weren't in Pride and Prejudice, but James doesn't develop them enough for the reader to care, which makes the mystery pretty dull. We don't learn anything about Captain Denny so there's no emotional attachment to the crime; at the same time, Wickham (along with everyone else) has apparently not changed in the slightest in six years, so it's hard to care all that much about whether an unreformed scoundrel gets saved from the hangman's noose.

If you don't care about a novel's characters or plot, there's really not a lot to hang your hat on. In this case, you're probably just better off re-reading Pride and Prejudice. And then making up your own fan-fiction version about what happened after the happily-ever-after.