Tag Archives: relationships

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

I was recommended this book by BrittanyBrittanyBrittany, who described it – as many of the reviews have – as “Harry Potter for grownups”. In some ways, that’s true, but it manages to get past that and become absolutely its own book, where the only thing it has in common with Rowling’s world is the existence of a magical school, and a group of friends who have to save the world.

But the major difference between The Magicians and Harry Potter is that Brakebills is a college, with college-age students and all the accompanying “freedom from parents” activities that go along with going to university and becoming an adult, while Hogwarts is a prep school, where the students grow up but are still very structured and regulated. There’s a lot of sex and drinking in this book, both at Brakebills as people negotiate their place in whatever social group they end up in and afterwards as a way to stave off the boredom of real life and as an effort for Quentin, the main character, to establish some sort of sense and meaning.

For much of his time before and at Brakebills, Quentin reminded me of myself. Not with the sex and the drinking – okay, maybe a little with the drinking – but with his general outlook and understanding of his situation. Quentin, like me, didn’t dream of a future beyond university, didn’t have a life goal outside of education. He could do, potentially, everything, and therefore ended up doing essentially nothing.

(I didn’t do nothing, but I have spent most of the last ten years not knowing what I was going to be working towards next. Because I can do almost anything, because I have so many potential choices, I find it difficult to focus on any one thing, constantly terrified that I’ve picked the wrong thing to focus on and I would really be happier and more satisfied if I went in this direction, but now I’ve spent so much time on this that I haven’t been able to do that…. and that’s how I end up with teaching experience but no teaching qualifications, a couple of years in mind-numbing retail, and a hard drive filled with lists of ideas, half-begun stories, and manuscripts waiting for revision….)

The part that rang most true for me was the description of the last semester at Brakebills, where Quentin and Alice oscillate between a fierce desire to cling on to familiarity and eke every last experience and memory out of Luther   Brakebills, and a desperate chafing at the restrictions and requirements and an almost angry impatience to start their “real lives.” It’s the best, most accurate depiction of senioritis I’ve ever read.

But Brakebills is only the beginning, of course. There are other dimensions, other worlds, and eventually our group goes to visit one, a Narnia-type place without (as far as I know) the blatant Christian parallels. They fight, they die (or nearly die), and Quentin, at least, learns that you can either engage fully with the world or disengage fully from it – there are no half-measures if you want to survive.

There are only two loose ends for me in this book. The first one is not very significant, I think: what is Quentin’s Discipline? I don’t really think the answer to this is essential – it’s ultimately just another way to categorize and/or isolate people, after all. It strikes me as something only marginally more self-defining than your stated major in college. It may affect how you do things in the wider world, but it doesn’t necessarily affect what you do.

The second lose end is Julia, Quentin’s adolescent crush who failed the Brakebills entrance exam and the subsequent memory wipe. If she hadn’t reappeared, begging for help, I probably would have forgotten about her, as Quentin had nearly forgotten about her, as you tend to forget about high school friends whose life experiences end up so radically different from your own. But she did reappear, and her story wasn’t really resolved, so the niggling question of “what happened to Julia” persists. (I did look at a blurb about the sequel, The Magician King, and it seems she’ll reappear there.)

It’s a very, very good book. It is not Harry Potter (in fact, it takes a few pains to point out that fact) – it’s a book for adults and possibly young adults rather than children. I wouldn’t give it to a 13-year-old. I might to a 16-year-old, as long as I didn’t think it would horribly depress and discourage them. It was captivating, a tiny notch lower on my personal absorption scale than Ready Player One and The Name of the Wind – but only a tiny notch. I am already actively seeking a copy of The Magician King. (And Codex, by the same author but not in the same storyworld, looks very interesting as well….)

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Dogs and Goddesses, by Jennifer Crusie, Anne Stuart, and Lani Diane Rich

I love these women. I’ve never met them, of course (although I do have a signed copy of Faking It that my writer-mom got for me at RWA one year) but I read Argh Ink and ReFabbing It on a daily or more often basis – pretty much as soon as they post anything, I read it. I enjoy – okay, enjoy is not QUITE the right word – their progress through their struggles, and I especially like reading their articles about craft and rewriting. I remember when they first collaborated on Dogs and Goddesses, when they were working through plots and characters and scenes.

I wish I liked it better. It’s not that I didn’t like it – it was fun enough – but it wasn’t as tight as I was expecting or hoping, and certainly not as good as their individual titles. My all-time standard for Jennifer Crusie and similar authors is Bet Me,  which has an excellent mix of friendship, lust, manic madcap slapstick, family tension, etc. This book had a lot of that, even all of that, but it doesn’t work as well.

I’ve been thinking about it since I finished the book, and I actually think that my problem is with the romances – they’re too quick. All three women fall in lust, sparked by the “temple tonic” and their latent powers, and by the end they’re in “love”. But none of the relationships are much more than sex. The closest thing is Shar and Sam, who actually do communicate as she tries to teach him what modern life is like. The other two couples don’t even have that.

Even the female friendships, the strongest part of the book, aren’t exactly organic. They’re friends because Kammani says, “You Will Be Friends” and then, magically, they are all inseparable friends. Even Gen and Bun get pulled into it. I suppose it’s part of the whole past lives/inevitable reliving aspect, but it didn’t work that well for me. I suppose in a book that makes such a big deal out of free will versus required service, having none of the relationships come apart through free will doesn’t sit that well.

It’s not bad though. Certainly better than some others that I’ve read (not by these three). It’s just not as good as their standalone books.

PS Lani Diane Rich is another author that’s a hero like Sara Gruen. She finished NaNo, found a publisher, and is now writing full-time (and teaching writing via StoryWonk and Writewell).

Crusie and Krissie are heroes of mine as well, but for other reasons.

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Certain Girls, by Jennifer Weiner

It’s been years since I read Good in Bed, but there are some things that stay with you. The shock of that one scene, the frantic scanning to find out whether the baby would be okay, and most of all, how much I liked Cannie.

Certain Girls is Joy’s book, though. Cannie is a point-of-view character, and stuff happens to Cannie, but the main point of the book is to detail the changing situation between mother and daughter, between teenager and the world. This is made absolutely clear in the first two chapters. The first chapter, Cannie’s, includes a list of all the things that they do together and all the ways that they are close. The second chapter, Joy’s, includes the same list but as a list of reasons why Joy can’t stand her mother.

Just like Good in Bed, it’s a tumultuous time in their lives. Joy is approaching thirteen, which is a difficult time for anyone, and she’s also secretly discovering the truth about her conception and birth – ultimately, about all her male ancestors (Cannie’s dad is included in her formerly idealised disappointments). She surreptitiously reads Cannie’s book (taking it as autobiographical),  overhears a devastating conversation between her father and his wife, and flies across the country to try to meet her grandfather. Pretty big stuff for a thirteen-year-old to deal with, on top of the normal stuff that a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl has to deal with – bat mitzvah planning, schoolwork, first crushes, peer pressure, and the need to be treated as both an adult and a child simultaneously.

Just like Good in Bed, though, there’s a stunning and devastating moment about two-thirds of the way through that sets the book and the characters on a completely different path.  But while that scene in Good in Bed feels natural and important and organic, here it feels jarring. And it’s the type of thing that is jarring in real life, but from a narrative perspective, it doesn’t quite work for me. I mean, she makes it work because she’s a good writer. But it doesn’t work nearly as well as the analogous scene in Good in Bed. It takes over the rest of the novel, and not necessarily in a good way. It doesn’t reshape what went before; it just overshadows everything else. And again, that’s what an event like that does in real life, but it feels forced here. “Oh, we need some kind of trauma and something to get Cannie writing again. I know!….”

Sidenote: why does suffering/trauma/difficult life situation always equate to prolific writing?  Is my problem just that I’ve been too relatively happy over my life? Please someone write a book about a writer that doesn’t imply that you need suffering in order to be successful….

I did like Certain Girls, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read Good in Bed. It’s not the best introduction to Weiner’s work, if only because most of the story and character development for both Cannie and Joy rely so heavily on the events of Good in Bed.  If you have read the first one, though, this is a great way to catch up with Cannie and Joy – despite the abrupt heartbreak that leads to the end.

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Joanna, the Notorious Queen of Naples, Jerusalem, and Sicily, by Nancy Goldstone

I know quite a lot about England in the late Middle Ages (1100-ish to 1500-ish). I can rattle off kings, battles, works of literature, major and minor social upheavals, geography and demographics, you name it.

I know next to nothing (relatively speaking) about the rest of Europe, and essentially nothing about the rest of the world, in that same time period. I vaguely know some of the major points, but just as names, not as details.

This book taught me a lot, in other words. Not just about Joanna, although obviously I knew nothing about her going in, but about Europe outside of England and France during the Hundred Years War. And it was fascinating. The constantly shifting balance of powers between the kingdoms, other non-monarchical countries, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Papacy – not to mention the Pope versus the Cardinals – was dizzying. And Joanna managed to do that and, mostly, rule alone and keep her power for thirty years.

She had terrible taste in men, though. Her first three husbands were not exactly stable, and each one of them signed treaties and promised faithfully not to interfere with the government of Naples. Of course, as soon as they had the chance, each one of them interfered with the government of Naples. Her first husband was an idiot (possibly in a medical sense) who took advantage of Joanna’s illness to release a notorious murderer from prison, and ended up being murdered. Her second husband was a cousin, who only waited about a month before he started physically abusing her in public. Her third husband had spent half his life in prison, and was mentally affected by that – he also physically abused her and then started wandering the world in search of his own kingdom.

But she managed, somehow. She governed effectively, in the midst of an economic meltdown and a number of Hungarian invasions (her first husband was a cousin, and Hungarian, so they had some claims to the throne), managed to sweet-talk three different Popes into various things, and even controlled Sicily for a while – something the monarchs of Naples had been trying to do for at least 50 years.

The book itself, besides being outrageously informative, is very readable. I powered through it, in part because I couldn’t put it down.  By the end, though, I did notice that Joanna was almost idealised: she didn’t do anything wrong, never made a mistake, was never unreasonable. I didn’t come in with any preconceptions about Joanna (unlike, say, Isabella of France when I read Alison Weir’s biography of her), so I don’t know how balanced the book was or what impressions it was trying to correct. I did feel, by the end, that it wasn’t balanced. I’m sure there were negative things about Joanna, and negative reputations and rumours over the centuries – maybe I’ll seek those out now in an attempt to get a fuller picture. At the very least, I’m pretty sure that some people will have seen her merely as a pawn of the various popes, especially the ones that she got on well with, instead of someone working the system and trying to maintain whatever power and status she had.

It was excellent as an introduction (for me) to “my” time period, outside England. I have added a lot of things to my “must research more” list, including Neapolitan history, the kingship of Jerusalem (Joanna held the title of Queen of Jerusalem, but by now it was an honorific; the lack of information didn’t dim my desire to know more about it at all), the Kingdom of Hungary, the Kingdom of Poland, and the Great Schism.

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The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

A few days ago, I finished reading The Help. I can’t imagine that there are many people reading this who haven’t at least heard of it – I know at least three people who regularly read this are the ones who recommended it to me, at various times – but just in case: In 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, a young white woman, an aspiring writer, decides to write about the lives of the black maids working for her circle of friends.

But even that is somewhat wrong, because it gives far too much agency to Skeeter and not enough to the maids. It is, after all, 1962, and the Civil Rights Movement is in full swing. The women might not see themselves as having much power at the beginning, but they certainly do by the end. Skeeter’s project wouldn’t have worked without the cooperation of the maids – and everyone involved knows it.

The shifting of power is a major theme in this book. At the beginning, the world is run by Hilly, a local politician’s wife and Skeeter’s “best friend” – and one of the coldest employers in town. She has the power to make or break anyone, from the black maids and their families to the white women who, for some reason, look up to her, fear her, and follow her every mandate. She struggles to maintain her power throughout the book, isolating everyone who dares to cross her until you’re a little bit surprised that she has anyone left to boss around. At Christmas, I watched “The Flint Street Nativity”, a comedy special about a children’s Christmas program, and there was a character there that Hilly really reminded me of. This character was the leader of a trio, and constantly pronounced social doom on one or the other of her friends in the form of “Come on, we’re not talking to her anymore.”  This lasted until the two friends got wise, and one said, “Let’s talk to each other…and not to her.” I really wanted someone to do that to Hilly: if they all stood up to her, her power would cease.  (Of course, that’s essentially what Skeeter’s project, and its eventual publication, did, even if that wasn’t its original goal.)

The most obvious people in the book who start off with no, or limited, power are the maids. They’re black in a society ruled by white. They’re poor in a culture ruled by money. They’re women in a world ruled by men. Their jobs hang on the good will of the white women, and punishment for any infraction is not limited to firing, but can include exile and/or incarceration. At one point, they talk about the possible consequences of sharing their stories, and imminent death – a very real possibility in the South in the early 60s – is by far the least of their concerns.  By the end of the book, they’ve realised that sharing their stories has given them their own power. Their jobs may be the same, but because everyone in Jackson now knows what their treatment has been, many of them are stronger then before. They are certainly less afraid, and that in itself is a major improvement for their lives.

Skeeter – the white woman who collects the maids’ stories – is part of her own power shift, on two fronts. The first front is, of course, Hilly. This one is completely internal – Hilly doesn’t lose power as much as Skeeter realises that Hilly has no power over her. Up until the end of the book, Hilly attempts to exert her form of power over Skeeter, ostracizing her at every level. Skeeter, though, becomes so involved with her writing and the necessity of keeping her work secret that Hilly’s attempts become almost laughable to her.

The second front for Skeeter’s power struggles is her mother. Skeeter’s mother is a Southern belle of the “old school” – she was surprised and disappointed that Skeeter actually finished college with a degree instead of leaving to get married, she is horrified by the idea that Skeeter would work (again, instead of getting married), and she is constantly demanding input on Skeeter’s hair, clothes, makeup, general appearance, and activities. But, as with Hilly, Skeeter’s writing projects give her a new confidence in dealing with her mother. Her success in getting the maids to talk to her eventually reveals information about their own (former) maid, and the way her mother treated that maid. She finally gets her mother to see her as an adult, and after her mother’s death feels independent enough to leave Mississippi and pursue a career.

There are other, individual power shifts over the course of the novel – like the maid who successfully teaches her pre-school-aged charge good self-esteem mantras and stories about colour-blindness. Or the maid who uses the strength and power from telling her story to Skeeter to finally leave her drunkenly abusive husband. Or the white woman who finds the power to stand up to Hilly, and who openly declares that her maid is her friend. Plus, it’s 1962 so there’s the Medgar Evars assassination, the March on Washington, and the way that the world was changing.

I was also going to say something about the problems of writing any work purporting to show the “reality” of blacks when you’re not, but Skeeter as a character – and presumably Kathryn Stockett as a writer – becomes aware of the patriarchal tone of her first requests and does her best to fight against them. She (Skeeter) still, by the end, doesn’t really have any concept of the consequences that the maids face if their parts in the book are revealed, but the maids themselves are ready to face them – and the implication is strong that at least one or two of the employers will support the maids if Hilly and her coterie strike back.

There is a lot more in this book than just the power struggles, but this is just one blog. Next step? I suppose I should watch the film…..

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Best Friends Forever, by Jennifer Weiner

Some authors have certain themes that they come back to, over and over again. This is not necessarily a bad thing, of course. Some themes, some concerns, are important enough to come back to. Body image, bullying, mental illness – these are all important things to explore on a regular basis. Best Friends Forever does that, to some extent. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do it completely successfully for me.

Part of my problem may be my own high school experience.  I wasn’t bullied, per se, much – that had come in middle school, before we moved – but I was certainly not part of the “popular” group (meaning cheerleaders, athletes, the well-dressed, the apparently socially well-adjusted). I had my own (divided) circle of friends, and ultimately became the happy, functioning adult that I am today. (hahahahahahahaha)

What I have noticed, since high school, is that very few of my classmates still remember or care who was “popular” or who wasn’t in high school. When I go back to my hometown and run into someone I was in high school with, they usually greet me with enthusiasm and recognition, whether we spoke to each other in high school or not. This is even true with the bullies – several years after we’d moved, I ran across one of the girls who’d been one of my worst tormenters in middle school. This girl was one of the reasons that I had literally no friends during fifth grade. She had been one of the organisers of the physical and emotional abuse that I underwent on a daily basis. (She wasn’t the one who’d audibly cheered when she learned I was leaving the school district; that was her best friend.)  But even just a few years afterwards, this girl greeted me as though nothing had ever happened between us. As one of my friends wrote in our graduation issue newspaper – high school doesn’t matter after high school.

So I don’t completely understand the world that Best Friends Forever is set in – a world where neither the bullies nor the bullied have moved on in twenty years. I understand where the main character is coming from – her school life was absolutely horrible, my fifth-grade year multiplied by every other year – but  I don’t understand the way that her bullies have not let up on her.

There were so many frustrating things about the main character to me. I empathised with her, but I got frustrated. I got frustrated with the obliviousness to the relatively severe social anxiety disorder she was clearly experiencing, as well as everyone else’s obliviousness to her mental disorders in high school. She was secretly binge eating, like, every night, and no one picked up on this, or thought, “Hmm, maybe she needs medical intervention?”

Mostly, though, I got frustrated with her “friendship” with her high school best friend. This girl essentially betrays her in high school (although in a fairly understandable way, given a lot of other circumstances), calls her to help cover up a potential murder, and generally acts like a controlling psychotic bitch. And the main character lets her. There is nothing good about this friendship. There is no reason, other than desperation, for this friendship to exist.  And that is frustrating for me.

I would have enjoyed this book more if either of the main female characters had undergone any sort of growth, any sort of recognition of and dealing with the past. And I don’t feel like they did, really. I mean,  there was a lot of discussion of the past – quite a lot of the book is flashback/backstory. But they didn’t seem to move on a lot from the past, and that was disturbing to me.

To get back to my first paragraph, Jennifer Weiner’s first book, Good in Bed, deals with some of the same issues: especially body image. And I enjoyed Good in Bed a lot. I wish I had enjoyed this more.

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Thoughts on reading and friendship

I read a lot of blogs. News blogs, celebrity blogs (for a certain definition of celebrity – mostly authors, as I look at my RSS feed), publishing blogs, a couple of cooking blogs….  Sometimes links in those blogs lead me to other blogs that I then subscribe to (although sometimes I go through a decluttering phase and the new subscriptions fall prey to my service industry, shift-based job). And sometimes things in those blogs lead me to consider things that are not the point of the blog at all.

Which is a long-winded way of leading up to this blog post, which caused me not to think about the different types of friendship, but the ancillary mentioned that “women who love books…are especially prone to close friendships with women because there is an obvious subject to talk about: books.”

I cry foul. And not just because, as Rachel points out very well, books are not the only shared interest that can lead to extended conversation and eventual friendship. I cry foul because books are not an automatic point of common interest, even when both people love books and reading.

True story: I met a new colleague one year while teaching abroad. We shared our love of reading. She asked what my favourite books were, and I listed a few of my all-time favourites (Room with a View, Rilla of Ingleside, Outlaws of Sherwood, etc.). She’d never heard of any of them. I asked hers. “The Notebook, by Nicholas Sparks,” she said. “Because it’s just so well-written.” That was my first clue that we were going to have nothing in common. (We didn’t.)

I attended a seminar during my Master’s  about writing CVs. The instructor suggested that, when describing interests, you should avoid saying things like “I like reading” and “I like music” because the categories are too broad. I don’t know how effective it is on CVs to say “I like historical biography and classical music” but at least it gives more of a sense of the applicant’s personality and tastes.

Because that’s the thing about books (and music) that is not as true about, say, knitting or even cooking. The categories are too wide to give any sense of what the person actually enjoys. Someone who reads exclusively non-fiction and someone who reads exclusively Mills and Boon (Harlequin) are not going to have a lot to talk about – even though both of them would describe themselves as readers and probably as people who love books and reading.

Friendships – any sort of relationships – have to be built on points of commonality. The two people involved don’t have to have everything in common, of course: how boring is it to have a conversation about books that goes, “I loved that book!” “Me too!” “And this one!” “Me too!” “And … now what do we talk about?” But just saying “I love books!” isn’t enough of a commonalit y to build a conversation on, much less a relationship.

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