The Curse of the Singletons

Back in graduate school, I wrote a paper that remains one of the most fun things I ever wrote for my entire school career. It was on single women, film and cultural memory. I mean, a paper which required me to watch Katherine Hepburn comedies and the latest Sex and the City movie is always a good idea. Now, my professor didn’t think much of it and re-reading it recently I’d have to slightly agree that perhaps it missed the mark of the assignment a bit. But it is still a topic that fascinates me. Mainly because I am a single girl, living on my own and now on the wrong side of 25 (why does that feel like such a turning point!?). However, unlike most of the cool single girls I could hope to imitate (If she’d lose the smoking and excessive drinking, Bridget Jones would quite possibly be my idol), I live in the middle of nowhere so the exciting aspect of the city is missing. But, at the end of day, being a singleton is interesting in terms of how people think of you and interact with you. My parents for the most part don’t seem that worried about me. At least I’m not getting the plaintive questions of when they can expect to be grandparents. It’s my grandmothers and aunts that seem to be my willing marriage brokers. Next time I go home, I need to avoid Olive Garden. My grammy apparently found just the guy for me working there. It’s not that I don’t appreciate it; I do. And I know it comes from a place of love, that she wants me to have someone to share my life with. But I’m not sure I’m ready for it yet. If I were, I’d be trying harder to find someone. Wouldn’t I?

Isn’t this cover divine? From Goodreads

Enter Betsy Israel’s Bachelor Girl: The Secret History of Single Women in the Twentieth Century, a 2002 exploration of the single girl in American culture from the early 1800s to today. What first strikes me is how little has changed in terms of social pressure to marry. Shouldn’t we have gotten beyond that by now? There are billions of people on the planet, if I don’t marry and pop out some kids, I’m sure the world will be relieved. I’m also filled with gratitude of the women who came before me, who dared to venture into the cities, fight for jobs and their right to hold them. The women who wanted to be able to rent their own apartments, buy their own homes and adopt children on their own if they decided they did want to be mothers. My life has been fairly easy as a single woman; I just had to endure the occasional pitying look and the good-natured ribbing at family events. I never have to defend my very existence as a single woman. No one automatically thinks I am mentally deranged or a “girl on the make” just because I don’t rush home to a husband at the end of the day. I can travel alone, shop alone, eat out alone and go to the movies alone. (Though full disclosure, still working on the eating out alone thing – sandwich and coffee shops? No problem. An actual sit-down restaurant? Depends on the day and where I am. In DC, I didn’t have any problem with it. Around here, I find it harder.)

So, while I suggest you read Israel’s highly interesting and entertaining book, what I most want you to do, if you’re single and female like me, is take a minute to give thanks to those that came before us. Single girls of the world unite!

My Introduction to Verne

From Goodreads

Believe it or not, I’ve never gotten around to reading a Jules Verne book until recently. I’ve seen many a movie based on his stories, adored a ride at Walt Disney World where he was a main character and certainly loved the ideas he stood for – exploration, the impossible is possible, innovation, imagination, time travel. But, I’d never actually read one of his books. I have a bunch of them on my to-read list and I thought now, as I was already in a deep science fiction haze, was an ideal time to finally read one. I chose Journey to the Centre of the Earth to start myself off. I thought perhaps I should step away from the time machine stories for awhile.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth is aptly named. It is about an adventure, undertaken by an English geologist, his brilliant uncle, also a scientist, and their mute Icelandic guide to the center of the earth after being tipped off that a path exists thanks to a scrap of paper with runes on it that falls out of a book the uncle has recently acquired.

One thing that was comforting about Verne immediately was his style is a lot like a personal favorite, Charles Dickens. I’m not sure why Verne reminded me of Dickens so much. I think it was the earnest English narrator, his grumpy if fabulously funny uncle and the silent but loyal servant that did it. It was the cast of many of a Dickens novel, just missing about another 20 characters. Verne is more sparse in his character list but the three men, who must carry the entire narrative, never bored me. I liked them, even when I did want to lovingly hit them up side the head and tell them they are being idiots. At times the story is predictable and a little cliche. But Verne is one of those wonderful writers where I can step back and remember he wasn’t being cliche. He was actually the first one to do it this way.

Verne also frames the story as a memoir, being written after the adventures have been completed. It does take a little of the fun out of it when the characters are in dangerous situations. We know very early on that everyone survives. Where Verne hooks you is putting the characters into situations and making a reader wonder how on earth they survive it. His storytelling, because of the format, is very matter of fact and full of facts and figures. Verne is believable as a science fiction writer because he based his ideas on facts and possibilities, not far-fetched too-fantastical-to-be-real theories. We know no lost world exists beneath the crust of the earth but Verne surrounds his fantasies with enough fact to leave you wondering. I liked my first meeting with Verne. I’m definitely looking forward to reading more of his work.

A new opinion of Cather

From Goodreads

Willa Cather and I have always had a rocky relationship. I enjoyed my first introduction to her in eighth grade when my English class read O Pioneers!, a book in retrospect that was really not appropriate for eight graders but that is neither here nor there. It was still a delightful read about high drama on the Great Plains. Murder! Love! Misunderstandings! To a girl raised with a healthy dose of soap operas, I could appreciate and enjoy Cather’s subject matter. It was always my intention to read My Antonia shortly after but life got in the way and I ended up re-reading O Pioneers! in an American Lit survey class in college before I got back around to My Antonia. I read it the summer after, or tried to several times before I finally powered through it one stormy Saturday afternoon. I found the subject matter boring and uninteresting. It was set in the same place but lacked the action and strong characters of O Pioneers! to keep my attention for long. I was sad that I hadn’t enjoyed and scrapped plans to read Cather’s other often-mentioned work Death Comes for the Archbishop that summer.

Well, flash forward to now and I finally got back around to reading Death Comes for the Archbishop and was pleasantly surprised. For one, this book is nothing like O Pioneers! or My Antonia. Different setting, different subject matter, and a completely different reason for writing the book. As a reader, that threw me for a loop at first. I was expecting a version of My Antonia, just moved to a new location. Instead, what I got was a series of vignettes starring the man who was tasked with bringing Catholicism back to the newly acquired Southwest territories of the United States and the path his life took over many years to his death (I feel that is not a spoiler since the title is a dead giveaway. Pun intended.). I liked the many stories Cather chose to highlight in the Archbishop’s life. His travels throughout his massive diocese, his intellectual approach to the world he lives in, and the many friends he meets and loses along the way. There is always the undercurrent of religion but I liked that the Archbishop appreciated and respected the traditional religions and cults of the Native Americans in his diocese. I, never one for religion and especially not all that fond of the idea of missionaries, not once felt like I was being hit over the head with the religion of this book. It was more an exploration of daily life on the southwest frontier and the good, and bad, that entailed for the characters, many of whom just happened to be Catholic clergy. There is no overarching story to the book, just episodes in the priest’s life from the moment he arrives in his new territory to the moment he dies there many years later. I found it a comforting read; each chapter was like checking in on an old friend to see how he has fared in the few years since we last spoke.

So Cather surprised me in a good way. Maybe one of these days I’ll come back around to her short stories and see how they fit into her oeuvre. For now, it is spring (or will be one of these days around here) and I felt it was time for some Austen. Or at least, for the book of essays that came out on Austen last year. The book gives me an excuse to say “It is a truth universally acknowledged” a lot which always makes me happy.

Tenacious things, trees are

When I was a kid, there was a forest behind my house. It led all the way back to the road beyond the field, far off from the end of my dead end road. During my sophomore year of college, they chopped it all down and preceded to build McMansions in the empty lot. I cried. It wasn’t just that they chopped down trees. They’d chopped down where I’d played as a kid, paths I’d traipsed with my dog, a log I liked to sit on and read near a small stream. Those were my woods, my trees, my flowers and some one came along and built monstrosities no one can afford there. I didn’t open my curtains for three years. Want to know why I finally opened them? The trees were starting to come back. At least the smaller shrub like ones that bordered our yard with the woods. The wildflowers had long ago reclaimed the small hill, reminding me of the early summers where sweet peas went as far as the eye could see. I figured I would meet Mother Nature halfway and realize it would take her a lot longer to give me the towering giants of my childhood and enjoy the little she’d been able to regrow in a short time. The point is, my childhood was measured in trees, much like Francie’s was in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Only her tree was growing out of the concrete and refuse of the poor neighborhoods and it was if anything, much more stubborn than my trees just managing to regain a foothold next to my home.

While this is yet another book I should have read long before now, and if I ever have a daughter her reading list is growing by the second, I am also glad I found Francie now for the end of her story. As a kid I would not have appreciated the ending of Francie’s narrative. I would have been looking for her happy ending, the comforting ending that would assure me that all would be well for me some day. We aren’t so sure of that as Francie’s story draws to a close. She is finally heading off to college (go UM!) but she’s lost who she thought was the love of her life. She’s gained a man as a dad who could take care of her mother and baby sister but still grieved for her handsome papa who slowly drank himself to death. She was smart but scared, determined but still longing for something she could never have. She was every twenty-something in the middle of their quarter life crisis even if she is only seventeen as the book ends. I was glad to find Francie now because her struggles remind me of myself as I still fight to adjust to this adult life I have now. Francie’s nostalgia for her childhood, for the days when she knew what to expect and what was expected of her hit a chord with me. I often do that still, wishing against hope that I could go back to those comfortable, carefree summer days in the woods they cut down.

From The Heroine’s Bookshelf

Another reason the story resonates with me is it is a story of a family of women. Strong-willed, smart, determined women who often realize their men are more of an accessory than a necessity. Reminded me of a paper I wrote once about Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and Alcott’s Work where the men become the obstacle, not the goal of the female characters. Francie’s mother is pure strength but she doesn’t understand her eldest daughter. They are too much alike, cut from the same cloth with fatal differences than mean they can never be close. Her papa had been the dreamer, the man who got Francie and once he was gone, she was on her own. Yet, with her mother, her aunts and her grandmother’s example, she keeps going and when she loses the man she loves (in a really unrealistic quick moment in the book that rang false to me in a book that was brilliantly written otherwise), her mother truthfully tells her that she’ll love again but she’ll never forget him. The women in this family love and lose children, husbands, homes and yet nothing destroys them. The tree growing against all the odds in the hostile environment of Brooklyn, the tree Francie safely sits under to read as a child is her family of women, shielding her until the tree has to be cut down and grow out of the ashes on her own, elsewhere, where it can someday protect her children.

So to recap, a coming of age story with a brilliant female protagonist surrounded by inspiring, if somewhat unorthodox, women who uses her brains to raise above her upbringing to head west to go to university and the sky is the limit…talk about a book made for me. Seriously though, this is a book a person can read at different times in their life and always find the advice they are looking for, always with the idea that the tree growing against all odds, even when it’s burned down, will always find a way to start over again.

Boys will be boys

I almost didn’t finish William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. After 60 pages, it put me to sleep for a good two hours last weekend so I was hesitant to pick it back up but I had to reach my 100-page limit before I could call it. So I picked it up again Monday night and somehow, it managed to capture my attention enough to help me finish it. I didn’t care for it all that much but then again I am not a fourteen year old boy.
I am not one for survival stories either so a book with all male protagonists on an island trying to survive was pretty much everything Krystal is bound to not care about in a story. While I appreciated what Golding was trying to convey in his characterizations and plot, I can’t say I cared much either way who lived or who died. Also, I thought the ending was a bit, I don’t know, odd. Though can you imagine the therapy bills for those boys once they got to civilization?
From Lostpedia

A few scenes however made me stop and think for a moment. The character of Roger especially caught my eye as he’s on the periphery of the story except for two all-important moments. In the first scene, he is throwing stones at one of the younger boys but all the stones miss their mark, as if he is afraid of throwing them directly at the child for fear of punishment. Golding notes the chains of society, still clinging to him, stopped his aim for hitting the child directly. Fast forward to the climax of the story and Roger is one of the most bloodthirsty boys on the island, Jack’s right hand man who terrifies the twins into disclosing Ralph’s location. I thought his particular storyline crystalized the rest of the boys’ evolution as they all went to the extreme in some degree or another. My logical brain though just can’t quite see how a boy comes to the conclusions Jack makes in this storyline. I guess that would explain my affinity for poor Piggy. And why I spent the whole book thinking, “If this had been girls, we wouldn’t have this problem.” So, I got to feel superior. Bonus!

This book ended up on my “books I should have read by now” list because I remember the Regents English classes reading it in high school and wondering what it was about. Why I didn’t read it back then, who knows, I imagine I was too busy trying to keep up with the reading for my own English class. I can see the teachability of the novel and how it would make excellent discussion fodder in a high school English class but still, I would have been unamused even as a high schooler to find that book assigned reading. I just failed to connect to it in a way that made it relevant to myself. Perhaps I was just too old to understand the instincts of kids left on their own.

Sigh, what to say?

As I sat yesterday and watched the Packers and Steelers in this year’s installment of the Super Bowl, I decided it was time to finally write about Slaughterhouse-Five. I finished it early last week but have been avoiding writing about in the blog. I need to as it is part of my reading challenge for this year but I really didn’t have much to say. Reading Vonnegut’s “Children’s Crusade” reminded me of an essay I wrote for a class I sadly had to take my last semester of undergrad. I had avoided Contemporary American Literature successfully up until that point but I needed one last 300 level class to graduate and that was the only one I could fit into my schedule.

I was nervous to hand in my last essay for that class. I basically stated that I didn’t get the contemporary American novel, that in fact I found them ridiculous and a waste of my time to read. Re-reading it for this blog post, I am surprised at my strong language and use of my own voice so much in an essay I was handing to a teacher. It was clear I was frustrated with the contemporary American novel and that it was my last paper ever for my undergraduate career. I sort of threw the rule book out of the window and spoke for myself. For the fun of it, here is part of my opening paragraph:

Contemporary American fiction writers are, in my opinion, a difficult lot. Perhaps
I am too much in love with my Dickens, Brontë, and Austen but I do not understand the
contemporary tendency to write in riddles. However, I was beginning to think this was
simply me not getting the point. These contemporary authors were trying to communicate
the great truths of our century and I am apparently too dense to get the hint. Luckily,
through the help of Tom Wolfe and B.R. Myers, I realized that it was not just me. Indeed,
there is something wrong with the contemporary American writer and the works
produced by him/her. In exploring both Wolfe and Myers’s essays, and applying them to
Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer and Don DeLillo’s White Noise, I have come to
the conclusion that contemporary literature has little involvement with the reality we
actually inhabit and that there is little opportunity for the reader to connect to the novels
themselves. The result is literature which makes no sense and has no connection to the
actual reader. The distance installed between novel and reader makes for an unsatisfying
reading experience and a frustrating one as well.

I will spare you all the details of my tirade in the essay but reading Vonnegut I was reminded of this class and its experience. Slaughterhouse-Five was a novel that didn’t seem to have a point; that had useless sentences, ridiculous segways and pointless observations. I had no connection to the characters or the story. The actions they take are unbelievable and just…odd. Like I wondered in my essay four years ago, was this really the American experience of someone, somewhere? I wonder if I just have been too sheltered or had too stereotypical an upbringing to connect with the cynicism and disillusionment of the contemporary American novel. Then again, maybe it’s not just me that reads novels like Slaughterhouse-Five and respond with a shrug and a ‘eh.’

From Lostpedia

What’s weird about my experience with Slaughterhouse-Five is I enjoyed reading it, I think. I read it in an evening; it held my interest enough to keep reading but it left no lasting impression. I read it and I moved on. I didn’t gain anything from it and I’ll never feel the need to read it again. It was an odd experience. One I think I am heading into a lot in the coming weeks as I attempt to read a bunch of novels I have for some reason always grouped together in my mind. Slaughterhouse-Five was always attached to Catch-22 and A Clockwork Orange. We’ll see how I get along with them. After this experience and reminding me of my issues with the ‘contemporary’ American classic, I might try and move along pretty fast.