Thursday, August 25, 2005

Vote Now!

Well, in continuing coverage of my library addiction, I direct your attention to Edmonton Public Library's contest, The Last Word, which asks patrons to name their favourite Alberta book. If you have an EPL account (or maybe even a TAL or NEOS account), you are eligible to win a big collection of Alberta books. I have already entered, of course, and nominated No Fixed Address by Aritha van Herk, a delightfully funny, intelligent read. But notice that several of Lois Hole's books appear on the list, and I'll Never Marry a Farmer is highly ranked, currently with six votes (the top book has twelve, for the sake of comparison). Wow!

I am enjoying my final two weeks of holidays very much and have been reading a lot. In addition to many, many articles on postcolonialism and other relevant scholarly topics, last week I read three books that offered some moments of fascinating juxtaposition. My little brain is smokin'!

First, as mentioned earlier, I read Stephanie Coontz's study Marriage, A History. It is a suitably academic tome with fully 98 pages of notes and an 18-page index. The back jacket provides complimentary blurbs from close to a dozen scholars and cultural authorities. With an apparatus like that, I was expecting to be impressed, and for the first few chapters I was. However, as Coontz moved into the early twentieth century (a period I have more than passing familarity with), I realized exactly how superficial and selective her argument is. Although she provides a breathtaking range of sources and quotations, her analysis of changing gender roles post-WWI is suspect, making me wonder about the solidity of the discussion leading up to it. Beyond her relentless American bias, she ignores many significant social facts — for instance, the social impact of the World War One itself and the flu pandemic of the late 1910s. As she moves into the post-war period, her analysis becomes even more glib, as if the facts of our culture are so self-evident as to need no explanation (if that were true, how could she justify writing her book in the first place?). Coontz's final conclusion — that the male breadwinner marriage of the 1950s and early 1960s was a carefully constructed historical aberration unlikely to be seen again in our culture of increasing individualism — is not groundbreaking, and her placid call for patience while the concept of marriage continues to sort itself out feels disappointingly flat after some 300 pages of build-up. I did like her busting of several common marriage myths regularly trotted out by mass media to drive political and economic agendas (for instance, that single women over 35 are more likely to be killed by terrorists than married — obviously untrue, and not because the women are so panicked that they'll marry any man who offers a ring). But in the end I was not impressed by this book as I was by, say, The Meaning of Wife.

Immediately after finishing with Coontz — perhaps as an antidote? — I read Melvin Burgess' YA novel Doing It. This is a surprisingly complex story told by alternating narrators, predominantly three seventeen-year-old males preoccupied with sex. One young man is involved with a young woman almost as self-absorbed as he is, the second is struggling with dating a young woman whose body does not confirm to his peer group's stereotypes, and the third is trying to extricate himself from an abusive relationship with his drama teacher. Be warned: this novel is not for those with delicate sensibilities. The word fuck appears on virtually every page in some form or another, and the main characters' thoughts about sexuality are unabashedly frank. Interestingly, some attitudes identified by Coontz are engaged here as the various narrators negotiate the social, cultural, and physical boundaries around sex. I have some trouble anticipating the readership for this novel, however: I can't see many boys age fourteen-plus reading this sort of book (other than perhaps skimming it for titillation value), and I expect that many girls in the YA age-group would be put off by the males' attitudes (it would be unfortunate if I'm right, though, because teenage girls could learn a lot about "how the other half lives" from this book). Burgess is a fine writer who handles uncomfortable scenes with sensitivity and honesty — there was a lot about this book to like. Just don't expect to find it in every high school library.

I heard Susan Jane Gilman's memoir Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress discussed by a book panel on the CBC (before the workers were locked out, of course). Gilman is only slightly older than I am, and the subtitle of the book, Tales of Growing Up Groovy and Clueless, got me instantly. The first two sections of this book made me laugh out loud regularly; Gilman recounts her childhood and adolescence in loopy, original prose that is delicious, occasionally dazzling. The guys had to sit through many, many passages bracketed by "Just listen to this... Don't you wish you'd written that?". I enjoyed the book overall but felt the final section, which describes Gilman's university experiences and early career (ending with her recent move to Switzerland), loses much of the charm of the earlier chapters. Gilman's account of her parents' divorce is unbelievably whiny, and her story of working in Washington is almost hopelessly naive — here the "clueless" of the subtitle certainly rings true. Women in their thirties may find Gilman's embarrassed enchantment with her wedding dress poignant, but her bride stories are so much better when Susan Jane is a kindergartener who insists on wearing a tutu to class every day. Hypocrite is definitely worth your time, but don't expect insightful feminist analysis or deep cultural commentary. Gilman is at her best in the voice of a girl becoming a young woman, and I hope she will continue to mine this vein — perhaps through YA narrative?

Well, that was last week!

The other day I finished Roddy Doyle's Oh, Play That Thing, the continuing tale of Henry Smart. I adored the first Henry novel, A Star Called Henry, and have been eagerly waiting to get the new installment from the library. I was not disappointed. The last thirty pages were riveting — they left me breathless — and I can only hope the next book comes soon. I didn't know much about Louis Armstrong prior to reading the novel, but I'm motivated now to learn more (although when I'll do that exactly is uncertain...). The particular copy I borrowed was filled with surprisingly angry marginal notes, scribbled (in pencil) by someone much less charmed by Henry, and by Doyle's use of source materials, than I was — they added an unusual, but not negative, dimension to the reading.

Oh, and I wanted to mention another book that I devoured a few weeks ago. My Father Had a Daughter by Grace Tiffany is another reconstruction of Shakespeare, this one told from the perspective of Judith Shakespeare, Will's daughter. Judith is a richly developed, appealing narrator that you won't soon forget. The intended readership is YA, but the author is an American Shakespeare scholar, so her speculations are well grounded in research and the story should satisfy any adult reader. Interestingly, the text covers some of the same material as the play we saw earlier this year, Shakespeare's Will — comparing the authors' treatment of the extant facts could lead to some fertile discussion. But that's for someone else to pursue — Shakespeare's not really my guy (although earlier we were discussing the idea that someone might write a five-act history of Elizabeth I in the style of Shakespeare...).

I should also mention Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, my second experience with the graphic narrative form. (My first was Blankets by Craig Thompson, which made me cry — it is so gentle and wistful.) Persepolis isn't technically a graphic "novel" because its story is the author's own memoir of her childhood in Iran. I am ashamed to admit how little I knew and know about Iranian history; thankfully, the book includes a quick primer to contextualize Marjane's story. This book also made me cry, all the more so because of its continuing resonance. I quickly learned to love the young Marjane, and her parents' decision at the end of the story is heartbreaking. I will be watching for more from Satrapi — she writes and illustrates in France — and I'm grateful to the friend who recommended this wonderful book.

I'm currently struggling through Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter by Steven Johnson — not at all what I expected. And as I mentioned, I'm back to reading fairly academic stuff in preparation for my continuing course work. I have a pile of YA requested at various libraries, plus a few other books to try to finish before the school year starts. And I've been watching movies on video during the days I'm at home. It's been a text-rich summer, in short, and I'm looking forward to going back to school with a head full of new ideas and lots of fresh energy. So... wish me luck!

with love,

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