Thoughts about Blue Angel, Francine Prose

(I haven’t called this a review because it isn’t one. I have some thoughts, but mostly I want to know what y’all think about some stuff.)

Says a Boston Review review of Blue Angel: “If Francine Prose’s latest [it was her latest then but is not her latest now] novel, Blue Angel, were written by a man, its author would surely be called a sexist.”

Boy it sure would. I only finished it because I wanted to talk to y’all about stereotypes and satire. Francine Prose, set off I guess by a friend of hers getting suspended without pay for two years because he was talking about students’ breasts, has written a book about a creative writing professor who lives in terror that he will accidentally sexually harass a student and get fired forever. Cf. this. Then he has sex with a student and gets fired. But you can still sympathize with him because the student is a calculating vixen who’s just using him to gain access to his publisher and have her own novel published.

Our hero Swenson has written two novels in his career, the second of which was a wild success. But that was many years ago, and now he is floundering, trying to finish a third novel (alas! to no avail!) whilst he teaches a creative writing class at a small liberal arts college in Vermont. The college is very concerned about sexual harassment, and Swenson — whose students perpetually turn in stories about giving blow jobs and sex with chickens and incest — is concerned about it too. When he meets a young, gifted writer called Angela who I swear to God is writing a novel about having sex with her teacher, he simply cannot resist the sexytimes temptation anymore. Matters unfold from there.

Because people I like are Francine Prose fans, I am giving her the following benefit of the doubt: I was not paying attention to the mid-1990s zeitgeist she is satirizing. At that period in my life I was big into this game I used to play with Social Sister and her best friend where I was the mother bird and they were the baby birds and I would hatch them and then teach them the ropes of being a bird, such as how to escape from cats (the cats were Legal Sister, if she could be convinced to play with us) and how to take shelter during storms. It is perfectly possible that everybody was having kittens about sexual harassment in 1995, and all the college girls were possessed of a Crucible-esque (GOD that was an annoying article) fervor for destroying the lives of innocent men; and I just didn’t know about it because I was playing this awesome bird game. And maybe if I had been politically and socially aware at the time I’d have been giggling helplessly at stuff like, for instance, this:

Just as Swenson suspected from the inverted bowl of gray hair and the tense, aggrieved shoulders, it’s Lauren Healy, the English Department’s expert in the feminist misreading of literature and acting head of the Faculty-Student Women’s Alliance. Swenson and Lauren always fake a chilly collegiality, but for reasons he can’t fathom — a testosterone allergy, he guesses — Lauren wants him dead.

And this:

Deconstructionist Jamie shoots daggers at harmless, ga-ga Ruth, while Lauren Healy glares at Jamie, protecting the older woman from his patronizing, oppressive maleness.

Maybe in another time I would have found it hilarious.

I sort of doubt it, though, and here’s why. The plot “Vixen uses her womanly wiles to bring about a good man’s downfall” is a plot that can happen. But if you are going to use that trope as the basis of your book, it behooves you to be exceptionally careful in how you play it out. For one thing it’s been done a trillion times so it does run the risk of coming off (as it does in Blue Angel) predictable. In more important concerns, it is a trope that has been trotted out as an excuse to oppress women since before the days of Moses, and the world has not yet scooted itself out from under the burden of that history. The story of men being victimized by lady sex fiends is not the actual story of the world, but it’s a story that has had and continues to have remarkable staying power. It has been told so often and to the detriment of so many people that if you’re going to tell it again, I think you have to have something new and interesting to say about it. I mean that you have some responsibility — in a way that you don’t necessarily have with other types of stories — to explain why you are retreading this ground.

I do not think — Francine Prose fans, if you are going to fuss at me, don’t let it be for this! I have already disclaimed it! — that Francine Prose is a sexist bastard. She has, however, written a slightly sexist bastard book. It satirizes a historically disenfranchised group (young women) by employing one of the stereotypes that has historically disenfranchised them. And not even really subverting it, but playing it straight all the way through. That is rather ick.

Anyway. I did not wade through this entire irritating book just to hear myself talk. I want to know what y’all think about this. What elements have to be present in a book or a book’s author for it to be okay that the book employs historically oppressive stereotypes to make the plot go? Should an author have to worry about the history of a trope s/he is using in his/her own personal book?

And another question that came to mind while I was reading this book, and to which I have no good answer: How do you feel about satirizing historically disenfranchised groups? I don’t feel great about it, and I was definitely having a reaction while reading Blue Angel of like, Really, Francine Prose? You’re going to satirize college girls for complaining about sexual harassment? There’s nobody else you could satirize who deserves it more? I was a bit surprised at myself for reacting that way, so tell me what y’all think. Is it cool to satirize anyone, any time? Or is satire only good when directed at the powerful? If you think that satirizing a relatively unpowerful group is less like satire and more like kicking someone when they’re down, what differentiates the former from the latter?

Review: The Book of Blood and Shadow, Robin Wasserman

I have a weird, specific pet peeve which is that Latin should sound like Latin. There is a way that translated Latin sounds, and if you’re writing something that’s supposed to be an English translation of a Latin manuscript, it should sound like it was Latin before it was English. I get antsy reading something that’s supposed to be a translation of Latin, and thinking, Wait, how would that go in Latin? Wouldn’t there sometimes be some ablative absolutes? Wouldn’t a lot of those words have been left out because that would all get conveyed by the way the nouns are declined?

These are real questions and you should feel free to see in them my deep regret that I stopped taking Latin after high school. I loved Latin! I have no idea why I was so hell-bent on getting a degree in English when I could have gotten one in classical studies and taken cooler classes and hung out with cooler people. (This is not a referendum on English majors or classics programs everywhere. I’m talking about my university only.) And then I could have said with authority that a protagonist in flight from the terror behind would just translate it as “Philosophers and mathematicians ask how the universe is arranged” because that’s what the straight translation would be and she would be much too frightened to start getting cute with appositives.

(Sometimes when I wasn’t crazy about a book I take a really long time to start talking about it in the blog post I am writing about it. I know that’s a thing I do.)

The Book of Blood and Shadow is about a girl called Nora who’s working on a translation project with her best friend Chris and her boyfriend Max, and it turns out the book they’re translating is of The Greatest Significance to History, so much so that people would kill for it. So one day Nora comes over to Chris’s and finds him dead and his girlfriend in a state of catatonia, and Max has vanished and is under suspicion of murder. Nora knows that he did not do it and embarks on a journey across Europe to clear his name by translating important letters that uncover a conspiracy stretching across space and time.

I’m not sure it’s worthwhile to rehearse the manifold sillinesses of a book like this. It’s a Dan Browny sort of thing where religion and history are involved, and everyone wants to find a MacGuffin and destroy it or release it upon the world. Nora could go to the police but she never does because they wouldn’t believe her (of course), and she thinks that her getting more involved in the MacGuffin hunt will convince the crazed killers to leave her alone. She has information they will kill to get their hands on/destroy, but she does not Xerox her original manuscript copy of the information and distribute it on street corners so that her possessing it will cease to be of specific interest to the crazed killers. There are so many things a sensible person would do that Nora does not do! Once she and her friends get to Prague they are always splitting up (despite the ongoing threat of crazed killers) and I felt like that part in Cabin in the Woods where they suggest splitting up and the stoner guy is like, “…Really?”

What I’m doing right now is complaining about the silly aspects of a book I read because I wanted to read something silly and fast-paced. I can do that. I am capricious that way. Besides, there are fast-paced books in this world where the protagonists at least try to go to the police. Or at least where they do not withhold from the police key pieces of evidence and send each other cryptic coded graveyard messages when it would be much much easier to get a burner phone and call from that.

Many other reviews exist. I was not early to this party.

Some stuff I read on public transportation

Y’all, I wish I could teleport. If I had back the two hours a day I currently spend getting to and from work, I would be the awesomest book blogger instead of the very lamest. I have been going back and forth and forth and back to work and to visit friends-and-relations, and these are good times to read but it is not the funnest reading time because I’m slightly on edge from being in transit (trains are very peaceful and pleasant, but buses and subways are not). And I would like to be using that time to catch up on blog reading and writing because I love you guys.

Anyway, here are some of the books I read on public transportation and forgot to write up as full posts:

Woman, Natalie Angier – Finally. I have tried reading Woman several times and been utterly put off by Natalie Angier’s writing style, which is close to unbearably florid and precious at times. I feel fine about, for instance, my Fallopian tubes. I do not need to see them compared to beautiful beautiful flowers:

The tubes are exquisite, soft and rosy and slim as pens, tipped like a feather duster with a bell of fronds, called fimbriae…To me they look like sea anemones, flowers of flesh, the petals throbbing to the cadence of blood.

Gag. And, throbbing is a word you should use as little as possible because it’s gross.. However, as noted by many other book bloggers, Woman contains lots of good information about women’s biology, sexuality, evolution, and so forth, and it’s worth reading for that reason. You just might have to give yourself some time to adjust to Natalie Angier’s love-letter-to-an-ovary-style writing. I reiterate that I am a sex-positive girl who does not have a problem with any part of her body, but I nevertheless think that Natalie Angier’s imagery can be a trifle overblown. It was distracting. Moar science, less flourishing.

The Uses of Enchantment, Heidi Julavits – As often happens when I want Book B by a certain author and am forced by circumstances to get Book A instead, I was disappointed. (I wanted to read The Vanishers.) The Uses of Enchantment is about a girl called Mary who may or may not have been kidnapped and raped as a teenager and had a book written about how she was indeed not kidnapped and raped but was just a liar, and now many years later, she’s back in town for her mother’s funeral. Eh, it was fine, I guess. I wanted the plot to be twistier, the reveals to be more interesting, the sister relationships to feel more like actual sisters. Heidi Julavits uses one of my favorite literary techniques, an unreliable narrator, to utterly boring effect.

Juliet, Naked, Nick Hornby – Juliet, Naked is about a woman called Annie who breaks up with her boyfriend Duncan who is obsessed with a musician Tucker Crowe who has not produced any new music since 1989 or something; Annie and Tucker Crowe happen to strike up a correspondence, and events proceed from there. Again, fine. If Nick Hornby were a woman no one would give him two seconds of their time, but I suppose that is not Nick Hornby’s fault. As much as I want to like him, his books leave me feeling vaguely unfulfilled, like below-average vegetarian sushi.

Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him, Danielle Ganek – An artist dies on the night of his first big show, a show in which the primary piece is a picture of his niece Lulu as a little girl. That piece, entitled “Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him”, becomes the subject of great interest in the New York art world, and we see all this unfold through the eyes of gallery girl and unsuccessful painter Mia McMurray. The book is interesting in its use of ekphrasis — I love me some ekphrasis — and for its depiction of the New York art world.

Nightingale Wood, Stella Gibbon – Stella Gibbon! Would do business with her again. Cold Comfort Farm never quite altogether does it for me, which I’ve always chalked up to having seen the extremely faithful movie before reading the book. But in fact I think it’s that Stella Gibbon is very close to, but not exactly, the author for me. I enjoyed Nightingale Wood while not taking pure pleasure in it the way I do when reading, say, Elinor Lipman. Matters ended well for everyone, but none of the characters was nice enough for me to be enthusiastic about his or her marital or professional success.

So that’s it! I now consider myself all caught on all the things. Probably by the time this post posts, I’ll be behind again, but what can you do? I am a bad blogger and I have not been good in ages. I wish I didn’t have to commute. If I could teleport I’d never have to commute to work ever again, and that would be amazing.

The heat is melting my brain

And that is why I posted one of my Diana Wynne Jones posts instead of scheduling it. And that is why it’s presumably showing up in your Google Reader. PAY IT NO MIND. It will post properly in August. I am stupid today. I have been out in the heat all morning and now it is hot in my apartment and I am doing laundry, which is using up more of my attention than you might anticipate. Also, I am very stupid all the time.


I just realized I haven’t posted here in like ten years. Oops. It’s not because I suddenly ceased to read; it’s because I had exams and graduation. But now I’m a college graduate with a degree! A useful degree! And a shiny gold medal (but it’s not real gold, and I know because I bit it)!

But I have been reading. I’m trying to remember what I’ve been reading, and here is what I came up with, and I’m posting in brief:

Fallen, David Maine – mainly research for a story I’m writing, and I found this book unremarkable. It starts with Cain at the end of his life and works backward, back and back and back, all the way to Adam and Eve and their Eden situation. Kind of blah, though I liked this line:

For long disorienting moments Cain hovered outside his body, calmly looking down from above at two young men tussling at the edge of a cliff. Then one of them became a murderer and the other one died.

Otherwise, I could have lived contentedly without it. Just not that interesting. Oh well.

The Diary of Adam and Eve, by Mark Twain – made me smile. Not really a book, just a collection of individually published pieces, most of which were quite delightful. Mark Twain. God bless him.

A graphic novel whose name I just can’t even remotely remember right now. Um, that’s very annoying. I quite liked it, even though it was on the predictable side and the writing as writing didn’t touch Neil Gaiman, to whom I compare all graphic novels everywhere (very unfair). It was all about a guy who lost his soul and this girl Laurel was his guide taking him on a walking quest to get his soul back, and if they didn’t get it by the end of the year, he would turn into an evil green dude. That’s so strange because I Just finished it last night and I am so chagrined to find that I can’t remember the name of the author or the book. Damn.

Midnight Nation.  That’s what it was.  Midnight Nation and the author was J. Michael Straczynski – and to be fair to me, that is a name that is very hard to remember.

Affinity, Sarah Waters – Couldn’t finish it! Of all things! I just got totally bored and returned it to the library. Very out of character. I don’t even know who I am anymore.

So that’s the four I can think of right now. I will update again when I remember what else I have been reading. I guess I’ve been doing some rereading activities, and then of course I’ve been very busy with exams and finishing watching Angel (of which I now own all seasons but the last, and I do own all the seasons of Buffy, and oh what a happy birthday girl I was when that happened).