Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The David Bowie Project, The Bad: In Between the Sheets by Ian McEwan

Short stories aren't a genre that I typically gravitate towards. Because I teach English, I have used a lot of short stories (and story segments) in the classroom over the years; so, I tend to shy away from the genre in my recreational reading.  However, with the spate of "Try a Story" tags that have gone around BookTube once or thrice in the past few months, I decided to try out a few collections a whirl, one of which was on the list of David Bowie's 100 Favorite Books that I am working through this year.

Like a lot of people, I was assigned McEwan's Atonement in college and gateway-read some of his other novels . . . but was never overly enchanted with his work.  To be perfectly frank, I quickly bored of reading about middle aged men who encounter a "nasty surprise."  It's not a surprise if the reader knows it's coming bruh . . .

Anyhoo, I picked up this tome with measured expectations.  I mean, the Thin White Duke loved it and I loved the TWD, so why wouldn't I love this collection, right?  Riiiight? Wrong.  So much NOPE.  It was terrible.

Originally published in 1978, each of the seven stories from In Between the Sheets was McEwan's first short story collection.  In the first selection, "Pornography," a hapless, two-timing newsagent meets his match in a pair of avenging nurses.  "Reflections of a Kept Ape" and "Dead as They Come" the characters have contemptuous relationships with non-human partners.  With other stories, McEwan explores the hazards of romantic entanglements after an apocalyptic event ("Two Fragments") and amongst a coterie of deranged Los Angelenos ("Psychopolis").

Despite these intriguing premises,  In Between the Sheets doesn't deliver.  The stories are poorly structured, ending either at climactic moments or well past the point of resolution.  Why leave your readers mired in exposition with no payoff?  Or make your reader slog through pointless minutiae that clutters the narrative?  It would seem that, at this early point in his career anyway, McEwan had less control over the short story format, or his later aptitude for revealing a *nasty twist*.

Forty years on, In Between the Sheets's depiction of *modern* sexuality reads as dated.  All but one of the relationships in the collection are heterosexual in nature.  Even those sexual encounters that are not explicitly heteronormative in nature are implicitly in character.  For instance, in "Dead as They Come," the narrator forms an obsessive relationship with a mannequin that is eerily reminiscent of the circumscribed existence of ornamental "kept women."

Similarly, in "Reflections of a Kept Ape," a bestial relationship between the titular character and a successful female author is characterized as decidedly, if not unhappily, heterosexual.  The "ape" is a "toy boy" who grows weary of his emotionless mistress.  It is only through a literal reading of the story's title that one begins to see the tale as an examination of a bestiality through the subjectivity of the beast.  In both "Reflections of a Kept Ape" as well as "Dead as They Come," individuals who are supported by their partner are either inanimate objects or (at best?) exploited pets.

The one queer relationship in the collection, found in the titular story, is between two young women, one of whom is a little person.  This lesbian relationship, however, is almost entirely filtered through the subjectivity of one of the girls's father who is uneasy about his daughter's burgeoning desires and his own failed marriage.  The girl's relationship seems to exist not for its own sake, but as a reflection of the father's discomfort with his own sexual abilities.  In this way, the young women's relationship is characterized by its freakishness, just as the relationships in "Reflections of a Kept Ape" and "Dead as They Come" are played for their freakishness.  Pathologizing queer love, juxtaposing queer relationships with bestiality and objectophilia is deeply offensive and reflective of an outmoded way of thinking.

So, so, problematic.

Suffice it to say, In Between the Sheets is not the best place to start with McEwan.  Rather, in my case, it may well be my last.
Thursday, March 9, 2017

Monthly Wrap Up: February 2017

It’s that time again.  Time to take a deep dive into what I read during the previous month.  Overall, I am pleased with my February reading. I read broadly and managed to finish at least one book a week; so, I am on pace to meet or exceed my goal of reading fifty books this year.

How I Read

Here is how the month broke down for me statistically:

  • I read four books
    • One ebook,
    • One print book, and
    • Two audiobooks
  • I read a total of 1103 pages
    • This averages out to approximately 276 pages per book
  • The average rating for my February reads was a four
    • I read one five star book,
    • Two four star books, and
    • One three star book

What I Read

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood [ebook; 4/5 ]: This is another volume in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, a project that sees bestselling contemporary authors re-imaging some of the Bard’s seminal works.  Hag-Seed was my first Atwood novel (though I own four) and my second read in the Hogarth Shakespeare series (last year I read Anne Tyler’s middling Vinegar Girl, a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew) and, if my experience with Hag-Seed is indicative of Atwood’s other works, I am excited to dive deeper into her bibliography.  

If you are unfamiliar with Hag-Seed’s premise, the novel re-imagines Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In Atwood’s version of events Prospero becomes Felix, the deposed artistic director of an Ontario theater festival, forced to eek out a humble existence teaching theater under an alias at a local prison.  When the usurper who fired Felix, now Cultural Minister, plans to visit the prison, a pretense for shutting down the education program, Felix uses the opportunity to stage the ultimate revenge: a production of The Tempest.

Overall, I loved Hag-Seed and found the story easy to read and deeply engrossing.  Readers who may feel overwhelmed by starting elsewhere in Atwood’s bibliography may find, like, that Hag-Seed is an easier entry point into her work.  However, I would warn potential readers that it (obviously) helps to have read The Tempest before Hag-Seed.

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman [audiobook; 4/5]: My first audiobook read of the month was Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison.  I love the Netflix show based on this book; however, I approached the text with some trepidation.  You see, Piper is my least favorite character on the show and this book is told entirely from Piper’s perspective.  Thankfully, the real Piper is a far cry from her television incarnation.  
In the series, Piper is frequently taken to task for her false bravado, half-hearted attempts at connecting with inmates of color, and her general “basic white girl” in a prison jumpsuit aesthetic.  The most compelling part of Orange is the New Black (the series) is the complex lives and backstories of the non-Piper inmates at the fictional Litchfield prison.  

While the real Piper is more self-aware and likable than her fictional counterpart, the reader isn’t given insight into the lives or experiences of the other inmates, really as you should expect from a first person narrative.  Nonetheless, Piper comes across as having genuine empathy for her fellow inmates and their personal circumstances; Kerman manages to both recognize her own socio-economic privileges while, simultaneously, acknowledge the systemic obstacles her peers encounter.  Rather than simply identifying these obstacles and moving on to the next anecdote, Kerman contextualizes these challenges-- namely mandatory sentencing laws and how they have an inordinately punitive impact on communities of color-- and explicitly advocates for them to be changed.  

At it’s core, Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison is a story about one woman’s embarrassing, emotionally exhausting, and often dehumanizing experience in the corrections system and how, with a support system that is atypical of most offenders, is able to both survive and agitate for change. Indeed, since her incarceration, Kerman (in addition to writing her memoir) has worked extensively with nonprofits regarding human rights for incarcerated persons as well as against mandatory minimum sentencing.  

Because of my affection for the show, I started my look at the American prison system with Orange is the New Black; however, I am not going to stop here.  In the coming months, I am planning to continue my reading and documentary with a particular focus on how incarceration impacts communities of color.  I think my next prison-related read will be George Jackson’s Blood in My Eye.  

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain [print; 3/5]: There really isn’t much to say about Tom Sawyer that really hasn’t been said before.  It’s a classic of children’s literature.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a better book.  I had to read Tom Sawyer  for work.  It’s a good ‘un, but not a personal favorite.  

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates [audiobook; 5/5]: Hands down, this is one of the most important books I have ever read (well, listened to, really).  For a long time, I flirted with the idea of reading Between the World and Me but ultimately read other things because I was put off by the hype Coates’ essay collection has received.  Last month, following  through on my commitment to read more diversely and to take a deep dive into own-voices narratives, I listed to the audiobook and was enthralled.

Between the World and Me is structured as a prolonged letter from Coates to his then fifteen year old son, written in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Missouri.  In unflinching language, but in the loving tone of a distraught father, Coates addresses the corporal reality of being an African-American man (or woman, really; see the Sandra Bland case) in America, namely that, at any time and for almost any reason, you can be killed and your death will go unpunished.  If you consider yourself an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement,  if you are curious about the sentiments behind the movement, or if you are one of those white people who shakes police officers’ hands at the end of a protest march, read Between the World and Me.

What did you read in February?  Do you have any own voices or prison memoirs to suggest?  Let me know on Twitter @thelexicondev.
Saturday, March 4, 2017

Bookish Haul: January and February 2017

There is something about buying a new book after a stressful day that makes my kneading anxiety tolerable.  Well, Xanax helps, too, but pill bottles can't double as charming decor pieces.  But I digress . . .

In January and February, fueled a paralyzing pre-and-post-inauguration anxiety, I purchased a bunch of books-- like a sheeeat ton-- to make myself feel better.  To my credit, these purchases all work towards my 2017 reading goals and, in many cases, support the work of persons of color.  Y'know, if you are going to spend a chunk of your paycheck on something you should make your purchases meaningful ones, right?    Right.

The One That Will Consume My Summer.  A few months ago, my mother picked up two hardback first edition volumes of  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago at a library book sale . . . volumes I and III. I recently was able to find a volume II of the same set good condition on Amazon.  I plan to tuck into the series during the summer months.  Nothing screams summer quite like a detailed history history of the gulag system.

The Public Intellectual We Need Right Now.  In January, as part of my David Bowie project, I read The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, a slim nonfiction volume from the famed writer and public intellectual.  The following month, I went to see Raoul Peck's stirring Oscar-nominated Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro.  Both experiences spurred me into buying copies of Baldwin's debut novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, the famed essay collection Notes of a Native Son, and picked up the companion nonfiction collection-by-way-of-pastiche to I Am Not Your Negro-- I'll have a post about both the film and the collection up later this month.

When You Want to Contextualize Your Activism. I've already been involved in a few non-violent protests since the election, so I feel like I am starting to "get the hang of it."  That being said, and me being nerdy, I felt like I needed to explore protest movements from the past to better understand my own activism, especially since we seem to be fighting the same socio-cultural battles that activists were trying to address forty years ago.  The first avenue I wanted to explore was the work (for better or worse) of The Weather Underground.  I had seen the 2002 documentary about the group years ago and had read some of the scholarship of one of their members, Bill Ayers (he's an educational theorist), when I was in grad school.  Bargain maven that I am, I purchased two used copies of Ayer's activist memoirs-- Fugitive Days: Memoirs of an American Dissident and Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident-- for a song on Amazon.  And now the Feds are probably watching . . .

Where to Start When You Want to Develop a Nuanced Understanding. Much as been made of the violent crime rate in America's cities by politicians and the press.  Before taking a deep dive into the literature on the intersection of race, violence, and law enforcement I wanted to get a general overview of the nuanced topic.  In came Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy.  The book follows the predominantly white homicide detectives who are tasked with closing cases in predominately African-American South Central Los Angeles.  From what I have been able to gather the book takes a nuanced look at the institutionalized racism that has engendered distrust between the police and community they have been sworn to protect while also highlights the dedication of detectives who want to close cases but are often stymied by a lack of resources and a lack of community cooperation.

Contemporary Own-Voices Literary Classics: In my last Amazon order, I picked up copies of The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao for my Bowie  project and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah because I am the last person in the world who hasn't read it.  Both works are contemporary classics and are own-voices narratives . . .  which ticks almost all of my boxes!

The Month I Went "Overboard" with Book of the Month Club. In January, I skipped a month from BMC because none of the selections spoke to me.  In February, on the other hand, I not only picked up Min Jin Lee's Pachinko, a novel about Koreans living in Japan, I also added Zadie Smith's Swing Time and Kathleen Collins's short story collection Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? to my box.  I may have also gone cray this month, too.

So, my bedside table is now a mountain range of books, but . . .