Cousinly love

Image from Mansfield Park film
Everyone’s favorite “kissing cousins”

While we’re on the subject of Mauprat–what is it about romance between relatives? Because it makes us uncomfortable these days, we have a tendency to shrug our shoulders, look the other way and say, “well, that was the olden days, they didn’t know any better.” Although clearly, of course, they did; 19th century novelists and the characters who populate their work were the wealthiest people in agricultural economies; they understood breeding just fine.

Historians can tell us that marriages between cousins were a fiscal strategy of the upper class, a way to soften the blow of female disenfranchisement, lessen the impact of primogeniture and keep wealth concentrated within the family. This political and financial necessity was deliberately romanticized in the culture, some argue. It was desirable from a prudential standpoint, and so it became desirable form a psychosocial one as well.

But, as all diligent english majors know, cousin love in 19th century novels isn’t about practicality or money or social acceptability or even, really, about love. Its a way of expressing the fundamental sameness between two individuals. Romances of this period are obsessed by the idea of transcendental love, of fated spiritual connection, a union of souls–of two people who are, in some mysterious way actually one personThis concept is not infrequently expressed as familial relationship. Blood of my blood. All that. Its also a sneaky blow for gender equality. In depicting male and female characters as two halves of one whole, brothers and sisters (don’t worry, its a figure of speech), matched souls, these authors are tacitly placing them on equal footing.

Mauprat, George Sand

Mauprat by George SandI’ve been struggling to come up with something to say about Mauprat that’s not completely obvious for a while now. But here’s the thing: this book is completely obvious. Theres no ambiguity; no “showing, not telling”; nothing obtuse or inconclusive. It’s utterly transparent. The author tells us what happens in definite terms, and then she tells us how to interpret it, and then she tells us how we should feel about it. Sand had a point; a message about feminine value and feminine strength, about the complex relationship between nature and education in the formation of human character, which she wanted to convey to readers, critics, and very probably her soon-to-be ex-husband, loud and clear.

In Mauprat (1837), George Sand relates the life story young Bernard de Mauprat, tracing his progress from a busque and villainous youth, to a respectable and worthy gentleman. The novel adopts elements of many popular genres–its a gothic novel, a romance, a history, an (almost) murder mystery, and at its core, a coming of age story.

Like many novels of the same period and genre, Mauprat employs a nested story structure which lends itself to that uniquely 19th century combination of first person narration and omniscient soap boxing. Sand narrates the tale in the voice of an aged Bernard de Mauprat, relating his life-story to a pair of younger men over the course of two evenings spent before the fire at his home.

Bernard was born the grandson of an infamous noble tyrant and was, after the death of his parents raised by his grandfather and his eight brutal bachelor uncles in their deteriorating castle, Roche-Mauprat. He was brought up to a life of violence, indulgence, and oppression by a group of men who robbed, murdered, fought and drank, seizing what they wanted from the peasantry at will, abused by the old patriarch, and eager to treat anyone weaker than themselves in the same style.

Then, we meet the girl. The uncles bring her back to Roche-Mauprat after one of their marauding trips, having evidently discovered her lost in the woods after becoming separated from a hunting party and tricked her into believing that they would help her home. Of course, she’s beautiful. Somewhat less predictably she’s also their cousin. It seems that a lesser branch of the Mauprat family lives nearby, a cousin of the head of the house, and his daughter. This is the daughter, Edmee. She’s given to Bernard by his uncles, the first woman he’s ever had. Bernard is possessed by an instant passion, but can’t bring himself to rape the girl then hand her over to his uncles. Instead, he extracts an as-it-turns out, unfortunately unspecific promise of love, and the two escape to her home, where her father (his great uncle) receives Bernard joyfully. Safe at home, Edmee explains herself more fully: she’s not going to “give herself to him” immediately as payment for her life (which is what he expects), but she will marry him if he becomes educated. To be clear, Edmee is not asking Bernard to read a few books and learn to add; she’s speaking of a moral, social and philosophical education.

What follows his a seven-year courtship during which Bernard discovers, through painful trial and error, what it means to care for and think about others, to take responsibility, to exercise self control. He travels the world, fights in the American Revolution, make real friends, becomes a whole person. This provides Sand with a wealth of opportunities to discourse on the subjects of love and human nature.

There is, she tells us,

reason to believe that we carry within us from our earliest years the seeds of those virtues and vices which are in time made to bear fruit by the action of our environment.

and yet,

A man cannot change the essence of his nature, but he can guide his divers faculties towards a right path; he can almost succeed in turning his faults to account

Her advice, then, is:

Do not believe in any absolute and inevitable fate; and yet acknowledge, in a measure, that we are moulded by instincts, our faculties, the impressions of our infancy, the surroundings of our earliest childhood–in short, by all that outside world which has presided over the development of our soul. Admit that we are not always absolutely free to choose between good and evil, if you would be indulgent towards the guilty…

Bernard credits Edmee and his love for her with the evolution of his character, “from a wolf into a man.” She is not, however, a female pygmalion. Sand is very clear about this. Edmee, we are told, loved Bernard from the instant they met. She would not degrade herself by surrendering to him while he was so unworthy, or endanger herself by placing her person and property in his care while he was so incompetent–but she always loved him. She didn’t carve a statue and then fall in love with it; she fell in love with the block of marble and but refused to compromise her own principles or well being, until eventually it carved itself.

In this way, Sand gives us a three dimensional heroine; a woman who is both passionate and sane (is there anything more rare in gothic fiction?); a woman who is thoughtful and intelligent, but still gets angry; a woman of principal and integrity, who has weaknesses, but doesn’t give in to them.

Channeling her own voice through her characters, Sand asserts,

Men imagine that a woman can have no separate existence of her own, and that she must always be wrapped up in them; and yet the only woman they love deeply is she whose character seems to raise her above the weakness and indolence of her sex…

A spirit of independence, the conception of virtue, a love of duty, all these privileges of lofty souls are essential…in the woman who is to be one’s companion through life; and the more your mistress gives proof of strength and patience, the more you cherish her, in spite of what you may have to suffer.

Sand executes a neat trick in writing this novel from Bernard’s perspective, appropriating the authoritative voice of an elderly wealthy landed nobleman and using it to endorse a controversial message of gender and class equality. This approach also has a tempering effect on the feminist novel format. This is no hopeless, soul sucking Kate Chopin sob-fest. There’s no lonesome Margaret Fuller austerity. No one goes swimming with a pocket full of rocks. The men in this book are universally (with the exception of the Mauprat uncles and few other stray villains) estimable, offered up as examples of the solution, not causes of the problem.

Though not frequently read today, Mauprat has an important role in the literary discusion of education. In it, Sand replies to Rousseau’s Emile (1762) and borrows from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The novel exudes an air of La Belle et Bete (1740). Its easy to  imagine Charlotte Bronte drawing upon Mauprat for Jane Eyre (1847).

Man is born with more or less of passions, with more or less power to satisfy them, with more or less capacity for turning them to a good or bad account in society. But education can and must find a remedy for everything.

(quotes are from the free Kindle version)

New Years 2013

New Years Resolution imageNot so long ago (or at least it doesn’t feel long ago), in a fit of credulous sentimentality, I made the mistake of publicly posting my New Years resolutions, in the mistaken belief that it would somehow make a difference. The whole exercise was ludicrous  and I don’t know what’s wrong with me. But, since I did that, I might as well do this….

 

5. Care for skin. I didn’t do so bad with this one, actually. No shocking sunburns. Nothing but a mild tan acquired despite layers of spf. The liklihood of my getting skin cancer has not risen since last year.

4. Weigh 125 lbs. Not so much. Its not that I didn’t loose any weight; its just that I gained it all back. Carry that one over into 2013, I guess.

3. Achieve a modicum of financial stability. Not so bad in this department either. More lucrative job? Check. Two, actually. Small savings? Check. It was hard. Really, really hard. But its there somehow, and I’m not touching it.

2. Graduate! Oh, right. No thesis; no diploma. May 2013, here I come.

1. Write everyday. Um…no. Huge improvements in this area actually; I’ve put in a lot of work. But everyday? No. It does occur to me that this was a dumb idea. That if I was going insist on quantifying, I should have gone with something like total pages, or total hours. Excuses, excuses.

Top 5 Worst Calendars of 2013

When shopping for a calendar turned into an extended exercise in yikes, I decided to share. If you really think about wall calendars, they’re all a little strange–flowers, pets, farm animals, sports teams, scenic views, children dressed like adults–but these are each in one way or another, a new level of terrible. I give you, the worst calendars of 2013.

The rules: No Cafe Press weirdness (examples: this or this). Too easy. You could fill up a top fifty list in 5 minutes on there. Calendars must be offered on websites which feature mostly mainstream products normal people could conceivably want.

The Worst of the Worst

5. Butter my ButtFull title: Butter my butt and call me a biscuit. Classin’ up the joint, I see. Well, I’ll be.

4. Underwater Dogs. What. the. fuck. This gives me the shivers, but people love this calendar: 58 positive customer reviews.

3. The Peeps Show. Something the quirky-hot-girl in a romantic comedy would come up with. Listen, honey, you’re not that charming. Just stop.

2. Thomas Kinkade: The Disney Dreams CollectionAppalling. There is so much sentimental bullshit crammed into this, its hard to know what to say.

1. Celebrity Feast. I take that back. Now it’s hard to know what to say.

Runners up:

Breastfeeding Mamas. Okay, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for breast feeding, empowered moms, cute babies, and going topless. I’m just saying: wouldn’t this look great on my desk at work?

One Direction. Its like there was a most-unintentionally-homoerotic photo contest.

 

Ma’s Dolls. Six haphazard snapshots of super creepy mice dolls. Alright.

Goals for 2012

I decided to make my 2013 New Years Resolutions public. At least as public as a blog read by exactly 2 people can be. Partly for purposes of accountability, and partly so that I do not loose the piece of paper I wrote them down on and forget what they were. Without further ado then, my resolutions, in order of importance, are:

5. Care for skin. This means sunscreen. And aloe, and lotion, and no more super-hot showers.

4. Weigh 125 lbs. I’m not going to tell you how much weight loss will be required to achieve this. Suffice it to say that it will be challenging, but neither impossible nor unhealthy.

3. Achieve a modicum of financial stability. Pay off some debt, spend responsibly, find a more lucrative job, develop a small savings account, win lottery.

2. Graduate! I am currently two classes (6 unites) behind if I want to graduate in December 2012. Somehow, I’m going to have to find some way to make up for this. But how?

And, the big one…

1. Write everyday. I mean fiction. If you count journals and letters, I actually do this. But I write fiction, and do pretty much everything else, in slightly frantic bouts spanning 1-4 days, with respites in between of inappropriate duration. This must stop! This is not the first time I’ve made this particular commitment, but this time it’s the serious number one thing. I will call in sick to work, I will miss an assignment at school (anathema!); if I have a 103 degree fever I will write about my visions, if I’m on a road trip I will pull over by the side of the road, if I’m tired I will drink a case of 5-hour energy. This one is the one.

Olive Kittridge, Elizabeth Strout

Cover illustration for Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth StroutOlive Kitteridge is easily the most depressing book I’ve read in years…maybe ever. This is the kind of book that sucks your soul away. The volume consists of 13 internlinking vignettes about the residents of a small Maine town, with the title character, Olive Kittridge, appearing in each. In some of sections, Olive is the star of her own story, in others she merely wanders, Where’s Waldo like, through the background.

This is no quaint charmer, however. Olive Kittridge is a book about resignation, disappointment, and loss, leavened with the lightest dusting of dark humor. These are stories of violence, illness, and divorce. There are robberies at gun point, near drownings, hunting accidents, strokes. Multiple characters have lost parents to suicide. A young girl starves herself to death, dying of a heart attack, a symptom of her chronic anorexia. The parents of a murderer become recluses, leaving the house only at night for twenty years. A lonely barroom piano player leaves her married lover. A wife discovers her spouse and childhood sweetheart’s infidelity on the day of his funeral.

More than the dark events, however, what makes this work so incredibly difficult is the overwhelming sense of helpless inertia. Strout shows us a sad, quiet town plagued by senseless, insurmountable pain. There’s no adventure here, and little hope. Only a grim decline, prejudice, gossip, resistance to change, inescapable circumstance, everything that’s worst about small town life, condensed into 250 pages.

Olive herself is eminently sympathetic without being exactly likable. A middle school math teacher, smarter than she needs to be, with a caustic edge capable of delivering dry humor or bitter reproof. Enormously judgmental, sporadically capable of profound intuitive empathy, insatiably hungry for a level of meaningful human interaction she can never attain.

All this isn’t to say Olive Kittridge is a bad book, necessarily. Its intelligent and nuanced, with moments of real beauty. It won a Pulitzer for a reason, after all. Its just very difficult. More difficult, for me, than stereotypically difficult novels, like 1984, The Road or the Bell Jar, because of its sickening, solid realism, untempered by the interest inherent in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, authoritarian dystopian government, or elegant madness. These are real people in circumstances not outside the realm of possibility for any of us.

Notes from a Writing Workshop

While looking through my files in search of something else (obviously) I stumbled upon the list of requirement from my senior writing workshop. They read,

No crying, and absolutely no single tears.
No vomiting, except in cases of drunkenness or illness.
No opening the mouth without speaking.

(I have to admit, I had been guilty of the vomiting thing.)

Other rules for this class included, but were not limited to:

Double space everything, and print only on one side of the paper. No, I don’t care what the college says. Writers hate trees.

I will lock the door behind me. Don’t knock; if you arrive after me, you cannot come in.

In the (unlikely) event that anyone ever asks me to lead a workshop I will adopt all these rules.

Not dead, just busy…

Cover illustration for Fair Game by Patricia Briggs…too busy, for many months, to actually finish any non-school book. But not too busy to dork out at the first opportunity. Now I’m back, and, predictably, back with something trashy. Fair Game, the latest installment of Patricia Briggs’ off-shoot series, Alpha and Omega, falls somewhat short of the author’s usual standard–the funny, sexy fantasy for which she is so deservedly known–but it’s still more cleverly orchestrated and better written than the vast majority of the competition, and the ending promises a new and exciting future for the series.

In this installment, werewolves Anna and Charles find themselves partnering with the FBI (and a made-up paranormal governmental agency) to track a serial killer who has been targeting their kind. Their mission and their relationship are hampered by the fact that Charles is secretly haunted by ghosts–but not to worry–they can be dispelled via cell phone. Anna, meanwhile, is concerned because she and Charles haven’t had sex lately. Fortunately, midway through the novel, the couple go ahead and fuck in the woods in front of the FBI and a bunch of other werewolves, so that gets resolved, too. Happy endings all around. And, you know, they catch the killer and all.

Of course, there comes an inevitable moment when Charles has to save Anna. All the passion of their relationship is wound up with the desperate threat of loss. It’s sort of hilarious watching as Briggs tries to balance her deep-seated BDSM fantasies about domination and possessiveness with feminism. It’s not that these things are inherently incompatible. Rather, the author’s own internal tension is palpable in the work. Anna, like all Briggs’ female leads, walks a thin line between resilience and strength, luck and wit; her greatest asset is the fact that she is beloved of someone far more dangerous and far more deeply damaged than herself. It seems with each successive book some of the artifice and some of the craft is stripped away, and readers are brought closer and closer to whatever it is that lies at the core of all Briggs’ stories–perhaps the author herself, perhaps merely a question she asks. Or maybe I’ve just read too many of these things.

Weirdly, this book is packed (no pun intended) with references to popular SciFi–something I don’t recall from previous installments. The characters banter about zombies and Tolkien. It’s all very meta. Perhaps my favorite moment comes when a drunk cop rudely asks Anna whether she and Charles have sex as animals, and what its like. Anna, of course, doesn’t confirm or deny. I can only suppose people must have asked the author about it at comic-con or something, and she decided to taunt us.

Like River Marked before it, this is very much a series-building book, occupied more with getting the characters from one place to another than with telling us anymore about them–but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun.

Bad Teacher

Guess I need to start vetting art books better before I bring them into class. One of my fifth graders discovered a photo of a live pig with the word ‘fuck’ spray painted on it’s side during our half hour reading time yesterday.

Another student insisted that a group photo of French street artists included several who were “showing their privates.” However I contend that those are just the kind of shorts French people wear.

Needless to say, the art books are extremely popular during reading time.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender

Cover illustration for The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee BenderAs gifted a short story writer as Aimee Bender is, the long form is not her strong suit. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is ploddingly, draggingly, achingly slow–especially considering that the events of the story are actually pretty fantastical.

The narrator, Rose Edelstein, is the eager younger sibling in an ordinary middle class family of four living in Los Angeles–reserved lawyer father, crafty hippie mother, still searching for her place in life, brilliant older brother, cut off from his high school peers and, increasingly, from the world at large. But at the age of nine, Rose begins to experience a strange new phenomenon: when she eats, she can taste the emotions and often even discern the secrets of the person who prepared it. Alienated by her ability, Rose grows up avoiding decisions, depth, relationships. Her brother Joseph, meanwhile, becomes increasingly antisocial, until finally he simply disappears, a development that leaves the family bereft. Rose cannot bring herself to follow a traditional path–leaving home, attending college–but in time she finds some solace in cooking her own food and working in a restaurant and discovers the secret behind her strange ability and her brother’s disappearance.

I see The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake as an inverted Like Water for Chocolate set in a Southern California suburban wasteland, minus all the drama and most of the sex (wasn’t there also a Sarah Michelle Geller movie with this exact same premise?). I don’t want to imply that this book wasn’t good–it was well written, intelligently crafted–but also extremely slow. The plot is so simple in its essentials that it cannot sustain a whole novel. As a short story, it would have been brilliant. As it is, it comes up lacking.

This is exacerbated by a certainly flatness about the main character and narrator, Rose. In the early chapters, nine-year-old Rose is effectively and endearingly animated by childish confidences and concerns, but as she matures the burden of her gift seems to take over her whole personality. Her character is stripped away, leaving a passive observer of a first person narrator, inert and ill-defined. This is a deliberate choice on Bender’s part, and a truth Rose herself discovers when sampling her own food, “I was left with two particularly disturbing first impressions. One was the sickly-sweet nostalgia, in the taste of a tantrum, the longing for an earlier, sweeter time with an aftertaste like cancer-casing sugar substitution. And the second was that factory.” (241) Later, when the taste of the factory continues to show up in her cooking, she concludes, “it must’ve come from the cook.” (242) She has been so dominated by her ability that her emotions have become mechanical, her internal life repressed out of a desire for self-preservation. This is a sensible choice for the character, but a 300 page novel in which we know as much about the main character at the end as at the beginning doesn’t exactly make for a page turner.

The other characters are almost equally elusive. Kind, vague father, smart and efficient, and yet haunted in someway; mother, lost in her own life, waiting for signs and portents, missing her lost son; and George, her brother’s charming best friend and her own lifelong crush, perpetually cheerful, insightful, good, but always receding–college, grad school, married, gone. It’s a story of profound and unavoidable loss–of innocence, of loved ones, of human connection, of hopes for the future. As the title promised, a truly depressing novel.