Monday, March 2, 2015

Natchez Burning: What Penn Cage Really Thinks of Women

Full disclosure: I read only 571 of the 800 pages of Natchez Burning, and that was because the central story regarding long-unsolved civil rights crimes in Mississippi and the men who perpetrated them was really, really exciting.

However, I stopped reading long after I should have. I found Greg Iles' depiction of women in this novel sexist. Men were characters with purpose, whose actions defined them and whose purpose was clear. Not so for women.

In Natchez Burning, women are caricatures who smell like sex and whose actions are not honest or honorable. Women are described regularly with ample adjectives: beautiful, ambitious, desirable, wild, sexual or ruthless. Their actions need adjectives and adverbs, and they're reduced to hormones and a uterus.

At first, I thought it was the failure of the characters. I thought maybe that is just how Penn Cage saw them. Maybe Penn Cage was the sexist. Alas, I should have taken a clue when Albert needed to turn on a fan to get a woman's sex smell out of a room early in the book. Following that, Tom and Page both thought Viola smelled like sex, then Katie Royal was "never the same" after her wild encounters with Pookie. Then Mrs. Doctor Cage was the stand-by-your-man wife of 52 years with literal blind trust in her husband and seen only in relation to them. Then Pithy was the town gossip. The myriad of nurses were stalwart, but rather forgettable.

Then there was Caitlin, the beautiful, ambitious, ruthless and cruel newspaper publisher whose only thought was a story that could win her a second Pulitzer Prize. However, her sexuality was never far away: one of the first conversations between Penn and Caitlin involve Penn asking how late her period was, to distract her from wheedling information out of him. Thus I understood what I suspected would become a major plot complication.

Caitlin's male counterpart, Henry, is ambitious and working in near-obscurity to crack wide open a story steeped in civil rights struggles and murder. Henry's physical description is part of the story, but the narrative doesn't describe his "flashing green eyes," not once. Caitlin, however, has flashing green eyes — and, when she dashes out to a story, the narration notes that she doesn't have time to fix her hair or put on makeup. Her ambition, her wealth, her drive, her physical presence and feminine elements are described in great detail. Henry, however, simply does his job without mention of his need to shower, shave or primp.

I slowed down a little when Caitlin described how her life may change with the responsibilities of home and hearth. She reviewed the whole career-home dichotomy, which may have been fair. However, Penn the single father rarely worried about how his activities would affect his pre-teen daughter, Annie. Aside from a couple of inconveniences when his family or fiancée stepped in to help him with — well, anything, Annie was not a major concern.

Caitlin was ruthless almost to the point of twirling a virtual mustache. She shows more interested in whether Henry will be her employee to give her the story he's developed over the years than in his physical safety or health. Caitlin pumps her arms in glee that she has a story while Henry is in eminent danger. She has lived and worked in close proximity to the people and place of the news but shows interest only when it's big enough for her and shows interest in Henry only for what he can give her. Penn has built a relationship, but Caitlin has bought a story.

What made me close this book? The stupidest conversation I ever read between two ambitious, successful women.

Penn and Caitlin met Jordan and John for a major plot complication. The men marched off to talk business, and the women presumably did the same — only not. Penn and John mentioned the women only peripherally, and that was to confirm the wall between their professional and private roles. Jordan and Caitlin, however, began with griping about their men, which then devolved into "don't wait to make marriage and babies because life is too short." Really? Two women with three Pulitzer Prizes between them, one of whom had been in a war zone, who are knee-deep in solving a historic civil rights mystery (and possibly earning another Pulitzer each) aren't talking about the case, but over-sharing about their family lives.

I had to put it down.

I am very disappointed. I was sucked into an exciting story that had scope, pathos, historic resonance and relevance. What I got was a man who created female caricatures.

Let me know what you thought of the characters and the depiction of the sexes in Natchez Burning. I would love to be proven wrong, or maybe even over-sensitive. I'm a huge fan of Iles and I don't want to be disappointed.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Poetry Wednesday: Reincarnation


Who would believe in reincarnation

if she thought she would return as

an oyster? Eagles and wolves

are popular. Even domesticated cats

have their appeal. It’s not terribly distressing

to imagine being Missy, nibbling

kibble and lounging on the windowsill.

But I doubt the toothsome oyster has ever

been the totem of any shaman

fanning the Motherpeace Tarot

or smudging with sage.

Yet perhaps we could do worse

than aspire to be a plump bivalve. Humbly,

the oyster persists in filtering

seawater and fashioning the daily

irritations into lustre.

Dash a dot of Tabasco, pair it

with a dry Martini, not only

will this tender button inspire

an erotic fire in tuxedoed men

and women whose shoulders gleam

in candlelight, this hermit praying

in its rocky cave, this anchorite of iron,

calcium, and protein, is practically

a molluskan saint. Revered and sacrificed,

body and salty liquor of the soul,

the oyster is devoured, surrendering

all—again and again—for love.

by Ellen Bass
Listen to the poet read "Reincarnation"
courtesy of The New Yorker

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Fill In the Gap: The 2015 List — New and Improved!

The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things...

Which for me usually means books.

It's been years since I mentioned my "Filling in the Gaps" list, and for good reasons. First, I have knocked a few more off my list (including, but not limited to, Ender's Game and Tobacco Road).

Second, the list evolved into an interactive project with Carole regarding Weighty Reads. We chose 20 books to read in the ensuing years, with a few related books included along the way.

For those of you playing along at home, "Filling in the Gaps" is a list of 100 books the reader strives to finish in five years. I first posted my list in 2010. I have not finished all 100 books. 

My list has changed little since 2010, most often because I realized I already read it. A few others fell off the list because I didn't want to read them after all, while others have regained their seat at the table. For example, does Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance really deserve to be on the list after all? How about Love in the Time of Cholera? Three Men in a Boat?

So, without further ado, I give you:

Fill in the Gaps, 2015
  1. 1001 Nights / Arabian Nights            
  2. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
  3. Highsmoor, Peter Ackroyd
  4. Foundation, Isaac Asimov
  5. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
  6. Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
  7. √ Sundays With Vlad, Paul Bibeau
  8. √ The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown
  9. The Early Fears, Robert Bloch
  10. The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck
  11. A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett
  12. Cold Sassy Tree, Olive Ann Burns
  13. √ The Land that Time Forgot, Edgar Rice  Burroughs
  14. √  Tobacco Road, Erskine Caldwell
  15. √  Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card
  16. Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather
  17. O Pioneers!, Willa Cather
  18. Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes
  19. Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon
  20. The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
  21. The Stories of John Cheever, John Cheever
  22. Girl with the Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier
  23. The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins
  24. Moll Flanders, Daniel DeFoe
  25. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
  26. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
  27. Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens
  28. Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens
  29. The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
  30. The Man in the Iron Mask, Alexandre Dumas
  31. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers
  32. Middlemarch, George Eliot
  33. So Big, Edna Ferber
  34. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
  35. Where Angels Fear to Tread, E.M. Forster
  36. The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen
  37. In the Woods, Tana French
  38. The Talented Mr. Ripley Patricia Highsmith
  39. √ Unbroken, Lauren Hildenbrand
  40. √ Goodbye, Mr. Chips, James Hilton
  41. Les Miserables, Victor Hugo
  42. The Bone People, Keri Hulme
  43. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
  44. The  Lost Weekend, Charles R. Jackson
  45. √ The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson
  46. The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James
  47. Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome
  48. √ Up the Down Staircase, Bel Kaufman
  49. On the Road, Jack Kerouac
  50. √ Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, Jean Kerr
  51. √  The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
  52. The Jungle Books, Rudyard Kipling
  53. The Man Who Would Be King, Rudyard Kipling
  54. A Separate Peace, John Knowles
  55. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, John LeCarre
  56. The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing
  57. Sliver, Ira Levin
  58. Elmer Gantry, Sinclair Lewis
  59. The Monk, Matthew Gregory Lewis
  60. The Call of the Wild, Jack London
  61. √ The Best of H.P. Lovecraft, H.P. Lovecraft
  62. Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  63. The Road, Cormac McCarthy
  64. The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers
  65. √ Atonement, Ian McEwan
  66. Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurty
  67. Peyton Place, Grace Metalious
  68. Beloved, Toni Morrison
  69. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
  70. Suite Française, Irene Nemirovsky
  71. A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy O'Toole
  72. The Portable Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Parker
  73. Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak
  74. Bel Canto, Ann Patchett
  75. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig
  76. Anubis Gates, Tim Powers
  77. Remembrance of Things Past/In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust
  78. All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque
  79. Home, Marylynne Robinson
  80. The Human Stain, Philip Roth
  81. The God of Small Things, Arundathi Roy
  82. Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
  83. √ A Town Like Alice, Nevil Shute
  84. Prayers to Broken Stones, Dan Simmons
  85. Enemies, A Love Story, Isaac Bashevis Singer
  86. Angle of Repose, Wallace Steigner
  87. √ Dracula, Bram Stoker
  88. The Valley of the Dolls, Jacqueline Suzanne
  89. The Magnificent Ambersons, Booth Tarkington
  90. The Man Who Fell to Earth, Walter Tevis
  91. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson
  92. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
  93. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
  94. Traffic, Tom Vanderbilt
  95. All the King's Men, Robert Penn Warren
  96. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
  97. Night, Elie Weisel
  98. Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh
  99. The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
  100. The Inimitable Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse

I tried very hard to choose only one book per author, or maybe two. Charles Dickens was an exception with three, but that may change in the future. Narrowing Jane Austen to two was a challenge as well.

There is a dearth of non-fiction, and I may have to include A Brief History of Time. Stay tuned.

I tried to make my list as inclusive as possible. If you have suggestions, please share your ideas with me.

Do you have a Fill in the Gaps list? What's on it? If you haven't compiled such list yet, what would you put on it? Let me know!

Monday, January 19, 2015

What I Read in 2014 — or, It's Never Too Late To Talk About Last Year's Books

Another year, another whole bunch of books read.

The year began with a bang but ended with a bit of a whimper, I am sorry to say. My total book consumption was a little shy of six dozen books, but I read only one novel in December: All the Light We Cannot See.

I started the year out favorably with one of my favorites of the year: The House of Silk, a Sherlock Holmes novel authorized by the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is worthy: while still writing in the style of the original, Anthony Horowitz brings The House of Silk — and Holmes' usual suspect — gingerly, but strongly, into the modern-day mindset (review).

Horowitz's follow-up, Moriarty, hit the shelves right before Christmas, and it's on my list of January reads.

A favorite read from 2011, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (review) was followed up in 2014 by Hollow City. It also was wonderful, but it wasn't the end — which will please author Ransom Riggs' fans.

It was not the only series on my reading list in 2014. I consumed the entire All Souls trilogy by Deborah Harkness, including re-reading Discovery of Witches (also from 2011). The series was far-reaching in time and geography. It was very intriguing, and very worthy.

Another favorite read was One Summer: America, 1927. Who knew so much happened during a few months in a single year? Well, I suppose Bill Bryson, one of my favorite authors, who did not disappoint with this book (review). It's incredible, and a worthy read.

Another fascinating historical read was was American Decameron, a series of stories written by another favorite author, Mark Dunn (review). Based on the structure of  Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron, a classic short story collection (which I also read in 2014), Dunn wrote one story for every year of the 20th century, set in every state and a couple of geographical locations outside of the United States. Many of the stories have stayed with me, especially 1948.

If you think human culture and society is strict and complicated, try living life as a bee. Laline Paul showed readers that in another fabulous novel, The Bees. Told from the perspective of Flora 717, a bee in the hive, Paull shows us what life in the hive is like — and helps us understand their lives and plight. I cannot see the world the same way after seeing it through the eyes of Flora 717.

The Book of Unknown Americans took my breath away. The character-driven novel features people who live in a particular apartment building in Delaware. Latino residents had come to the United States for their own reasons, bringing their families for a better life, for safety, for opportunities. How many left prosperous lives, how many were far from everything they knew, how many sacrificed everything to be in a country not their own — at least, not yet. How do people adapt, how do they cope, how do they relate? Cristina Henriquez's characters take us places we never could have imagined.

My least favorite book of the year was Unbroken — not because Louie Zamperini's story is not compelling or interesting, but because Laura Hillenbrand's storytelling did not feel compelling or urgent. I felt the same way about Seabiscuit, another of the author's books.

What were your favorite books of 2014? Which did you like least? Did any disappoint you? Let me know!

Here is a complete list of my 2014 reads:
  1. All the Light We Cannot See
  2. The Miracle Jar
  3. One Yellow Daffodil
  4. Hanukkah Around the World
  5. Judaism (DK Eyewitness Book)
  6. Hanukkah, Schmanukkah!
  7. Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Holidays
  8. Hanukkah Lights: Stories of the Season
  9. This House is Haunted
  10. The Family Fang
  11. The Book of Unknown Americans
  12. Unbroken
  13. The Brothers Cabal
  14. The Bees
  15. A Red Herring Without Mustard
  16. Second Glance
  17. Centuries of June
  18. A Room With A Zoo (
  19. The Interestings
  20. Bats at the Ballgame
  21. Ouroboros Ouzo / Extent Demon King / Johannesburg Cabal and the Blustery Day/A Long Spoon: A Original
  22. Bats at the Library
  23. I Lost My Bear
  24. The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag
  25. Bats at the Beach
  26. Bandit’s Surprise
  27. What Successful People Do Before Breakfast
  28. Tobacco Road
  29. Bandit
  30. The Book of Life
  31. Shadow of Night
  32. The Fault in Our Stars
  33. A Discovery of Witches
  34. The True Story of Stellina
  35. Top Secret Twenty-One
  36. Toots the Cat
  37. Millions of Cats
  38. The Beauty of the Beast : poems from the animal kingdom
  39. Takedown Twenty: a Stephanie Plum novel
  40. The Eye of Zoltar
  41. The Eyre Affair
  42. The Goldfinch
  43. American Decameron
  44. The Decameron
  45. Year of No Sugar
  46. Petropolis
  47. The River of No Return
  48. Philomena
  49. Healthy bread in five minutes a day : 100 new recipes featuring whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and gluten-free Ingredients
  50. The creative habit : learn it and use it for life: a practical guide
  51. One Summer: America, 1927
  52. A Face in the Crowd
  53. Twittering from the Circus of the Dead
  54. Ender’s Game
  55. Hollow City
  56. I Suck at Girls
  57. Sleep Donation
  58. A Walk in the Woods
  59. Talking Pictures: Images and Messages Rescued from the Past
  60. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
  61. Coffee is good for you : from vitamin C and organic foods to low-carb and detox diets, the truth about diet and nutrition claims
  62. Fossil
  63. Not left behind : rescuing the pets of New Orleans
  64. You can't take a balloon into the Metropolitan Museum
  65. You can't take a balloon into the National Gallery of Art
  66. You can't take a balloon into the Museum of Fine Art
  67. A contract with God : and other tenement stories
  68. House of Silk