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He was both veiled and exact. Selective, but not averse to giving a suggestive illustration. “Multiple killers have a thing, a way to kill effectively that they use over and over again. It’s like anything. We all do it. We use what works, and usually it’s the easy way. A killer learns on the job. He gets better at it. But he’ll do it the same each time. These two homicides were different. Different styles.”

I never really take the time to explain why I am a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. To me it’s a shibboleth. You either know why, or you don’t and nothing I can say is going to help. But let’s pause for a moment. One of the things about the show that I enjoyed was how much it poked fun at the faux-romanticism of vampire culture, that obsession with vampirism as a metaphor for transgressive sex. The figure of the vampire symbolises the union between sex and death. It is recognizably human, but also monstrous, unclean and threatening. Yet despite its ‘Otherness’ (oh yes I have read many academic papers on vampires – they’re terribly amusing, you should investigate them for yourselves) the vampire is also seen as a romantic figure, sexually attractive because of its forbidden nature.

Along comes Buffy The Vampire Slayer the television series, which presumably attracted fans at least initially who were convinced on some level of the above and only for the show to rubbish that whole notion of vampires. I even recall the protagonist Buffy Summers dismissively stating: “See, this is what I hate about you vampires. Sex and death and love and pain — it’s all the same damn thing to you”.

This brings me to today’s novel, which even in the title marries sex and violence.  The protagonist Frannie complains at the story’s opening about her difficulties in teaching her English Lit. college class. Language fascinates her, the shifts and changes in local idioms. New York itself is a heaving metropolis of mutating language, such that she finds herself stopping and querying her own students on what they are trying to say. She has begun work on a dictionary of vernacular phrases, drawing attention to the number of slang words used to describe differences in race and gender, with a particular focus on female genitalia.

One evening in her local bar, she finds herself lost in the basement looking for a bathroom when she happens upon a couple performing a sex act in a secluded space. The man’s face is hidden to her, but she notices a distinctive tattoo on his wrist. He sees her, but does not interrupt his partner, allowing Frannie to watch. Embarrassed she retreats and goes home.

Later that week a detective visits her at home. A young woman has been murdered in Frannie’s neighbourhood. The description matches that of the woman she saw in the bar’s basement that evening. She keeps this to herself, for she has noticed the detective has the same tattoo on his wrist. Frannie rapidly becomes obsessed with the detective, an Irish-American divorcee whose vulgarity disguises a quick wit. With him she feels increasingly uninhibited, their relationship competitive both sexually and in their contest of wills. Has she fallen for a murderer?

Susanna Moore‘s novel prides itself on its uncensored use of language. The dialogue has the same uncaring regard to political correctness as the aggressive sex scenes. This points to the disinterested stance of the academic, seeing the substance of life as simply another stylistic quirk. Frannie is unable to separate her own circumstances from the literary experiments she sets her students. Her growing sense of fear and suspicion regarding Molloy only serves to heighten her attraction to him.

I reviewed a book with similar themes back in August, Dorothy Parker’s The Monkey’s Mask. That book also satirised the disaffected lives of academic theorists by introducing murder to the proceedings, but far more successfully than here. Another point of comparison for me was Anthony Burgess’ The Clockwork Testament, which also treated of idiomatic language overcoming the civilised veneer of collegiate discourse. Burgess was quite funny in his observations though, whereas Moore seems happy to merely present lists of offensive phrases. Parker’s writing was far more comfortable with its eroticism. Moore again seems to be trying to shock. The ‘loving submission’, of Frannie to her lover/potential murderer just removes any interest for me in her eventual fate.

Tiresome, pretentious and nonsensical.

A sixty-something desk clerk with a dishevelled stare and dark armpits told me to sign my name in the registration book. I blanked. He repeated I should sign my name. I couldn’t sign my full name, Mary Alice Baker. Nina was the first name that came to me, because it was exotic, foreign sounding. I couldn’t imagine a terrorist Nina. The sum total of my life to date would be my last name. I signed myself in as Nina Zero.

Let me tell you about a weird little incident that happened to me in Amsterdam. Oh don’t worry, it’s nothing like that. I broke the mould on visitors to that capital of lax morality by visiting comic stores to hunt down hard-to-get titles. In one store I asked the owner if he had any copies of Nexus by Mike Baron and Steve Rude. He directed me to accompany him downstairs to the basement. There I found a low-ceilinged room stuffed with long-boxes. The owner began to list the contents of each, naming companies I was familiar with and then he pointed to the fifth box along and said “those are Bad Girl comics”. The pattern repeated itself, with several other boxes being identified in the same way.

Bad girls? I really did not know what he meant. Female protagonists that act like pulp fiction tough guys, often written by men and parodying feminist heroines perhaps.

Mary Alice Baker starts this book as a ‘good girl’, but informs us that she soon learned how to be a ‘bad girl’. Living on a meagre wage from taking pictures of children for doting parents, Mary’s own family life is an abusive, dysfunctional nightmare. Her father rules the home with an iron fist, frequently taking out his frustrations on his children and long-suffering wife. Mary does not have much luck with the men in her life, as her boyfriend Wrex is an emotionally manipulative parasite, whose relationship with her is dependent on her allowing him to sleep in her bed.

Then he asks her one favour too many, deliver a package to a stranger at LAX Airport. Seconds later the man, and indeed the arrivals lounge, are blown to smithereens. Mary suddenly finds herself a suspected terrorist, her name and face decorating the front pages of newspapers across Los Angeles. One safety pin through her nose and a dye-job later and Nina Zero is born. She falls in with fame-hungry Warholian artists, even gets a crash course in becoming a private eye and decides to hunt down the party responsible for the bombing. Maybe put a few holes in Wrex as well if possible.

This novel has some fun with poking fun at the shallow LA art scene. Nina’s new flatmates are a paranoid film-maker who expresses contempt for Hollywood, but is desperate to get her own picture deal. Then there’s Billy b, an intense artist who likes to draw portraits of Elvis and Kim Basinger. Together they talk long into the night about the philosophy of kitsch, which Mary/Nina can only barely follow. When they discover she’s a suspected terrorist she becomes their goose with the golden egg.

The eagerness of the people in Mary’s life to stab her in the back allows for a certain amount of black humour. However, the sheer negativity of this book becomes tiresome. What’s more every man in Mary’s life treats her like crap. For all R.M. Eversz’s claims to the contrary, she seems less like a bad girl and more like a victim. This leads to the uncomfortable notion that the rough sex and the violence featured is itself meant to be entertaining. Personally I found it distressing. Compare Nina Zero to Lisbeth Salander. Stieg Larsson avoided accusations of voyeurism by creating a character with genuine mental issues, as well as a fierce independence.  Eversz does not convince, Nina’s problems are solved by handing her a gun. She even points out to her abusive father at one point that while he has fists, she has the means to kill him now she has a weapon.

What a wonderful moral!

While this book was a quick read, it left a bitter aftertaste. Not for everyone. Sadly I only figured out the meaning of the title after realizing the Warhol connection. And yes, a print of Elvis is actually shot.

While she’s in the toilet

I check out her books,

On the shelf

thick books

fresh-smelling paper

academic stuff.

A muddle of novels

by the bed

French and South American

no thrillers, no crap.

Detective novels have a fairly set format. This is why they can be dismissed in such an offhand manner by critics on occasion. They are the definition of formulaic, and no amount of true life mysteries, vampires, sf future noir settings or even Hippo detectives can change that. The stories all begin to look the same from a certain remove. So Dorothy Porter’s solution is to write her detective tale entirely in verse!

Jill is an ex-cop who has moved into private investigation. Living out in the Blue Mountains she just barely manages to pay her bills, but she likes the quiet life. Eventually Jill’s finances force her to take on a missing person case. Nineteen year old Mickey Norris is a poetry-loving student, just another shy girl with ambitions of finding a patron and fame. Her parents are worried, but Jill reckons it will be a simple case. She travels to the college Mickey attends and questions her friends about her lifestyle. They all give the same report. Mickey was a quiet, retiring nondescript sort, who had recently discovered poetry.

Then Jill meets Mickey’s tutor Diana, who proves to be something of a distraction from the case. Married to an ambitious legal eagle Nick, she seems way out of the world weary private eye’s league, but surprisingly the two begin a torrid affair. Jill enters Diana’s more refined world of academic scandals and hobnobbing at book launches, feeling out of place and even slightly vulgar. Is this nothing more than a silly fling for Diana? Jill’s feelings continue to grow until she loses all perspective on the case. Then the police find Mickey’s body.

Detectives deal in simple, hard facts. Detective stories must contend with the dry, logical structure of deduction and the prose employed in these tales reflect that. Porter’s story opts for slippery free verse, embracing an Otherness in keeping with its lesbian protagonist to set it apart from plodding flatfoots and shamuses.

Porter also is having quite a lot of fun at the expense of ligging poets and pretentious artists. By adopting the standard plot of a detective novel, with the hero descending into a criminal world to avenge the death of an innocent, the literary scene is transformed into hellish trap for the young and beautiful, exploited by the corrupt and venal.

It is a funny little joke and Porter’s erotic content adds a frisson of excitement to the proceedings. Overall though I found the book a bit too cool, too detached. This is an assembled satire that lacks the necessary earthy punch of the best kind of mockery. Still worth a gander though.

Annie wasn’t a hero. She was ten years old and had long blonde hair and blue eyes, and her father said she’d make an excellent damsel one day. He had her practicing her screams every morning for an hour and said they were the best he had ever heard. But now her father was missing and there were no heroes available, and her mother wouldn’t stop crying.

For my final review of Children’s Literature Week I have chosen S.E. Connolly’s debut, Damsel published by Mercier Press. It is a short and sweet fantasy tale about a girl setting out to rescue her father from an evil wizard. If ever you found yourself reading Harry Potter and wondering why Hermione Granger wasn’t the main character instead the bumbling eponymous wizard messiah, I reckon this is a neat corrective. More than that though, it’s an excellent first novel from a young Irish writer, whom I hope to see more from some day.

Angelina Cerestina Tiffenemina Brave (aka Annie) is a young damsel-in-training who’s famous father was once a mighty hero. Having promised his wife that his adventuring days were behind him, he focused on raising a family and writing his guide to becoming a hero, so that other young men could learn from his experiences. Then one day he heard the wizard Greenlott was loose on a rampage and set off to defeat the evil mage. When he did not return, a messenger arrives at the Brave household with the news that Tristan Brave had been captured.

As Greenlott has already defeated most of the heroes in the land, Annie takes it upon herself to vanquish him. She sets off accompanied only by her ‘fiery’ pony Chestnut and her dog, Squire, as well as an incomplete copy of her father’s guide to being a hero. Following the advice in the book she manages to evade threats including under-bridge trolls, giant spiders and dragons. She also learns the dangers of kissing a frog. Along her travels she befriends Roger, who claims to be a prince and while he does carry a sword, is not altogether reliable. Can a girl be a hero? Or has Annie nothing better to look forward to than screaming for rescue and looking pretty?

In the interest of full disclosure, the author’s sister is a friend of mine. She was pleasantly surprised when I reported back to her how much I enjoyed reading Damsel, assuming that I was just being kind. If anything, I found it to be a fun and inventive tale that pokes fun at the standards of romantic fantasy. Annie does not mind being a damsel as such, but she would prefer to have a choice as to whether she could be a hero. Throughout the book she is frustrated with how the folk they encounter assume Roger is the real hero, despite his occasional cowardice and bookish manner. The author cannily does not allow the dynamic between them to be too one-sided. Sometimes Roger helps Annie escape from danger, but when you need someone to risk life and giant spider-goo, she’s your girl.

I will happily continue to sing this book’s praises and have already foisted copy onto my in-laws. It is a sweet and rewarding tale, with a neat wry tone and some beautiful illustrations from Axel Rator.

This being the last entry in Children’s Literature Week, I would just like to say I’ve had a great time reviewing these books and I hope you enjoyed reading ‘em. Just because a writer writes for children, it doesn’t mean the books should be silly and unimportant. Often the most important things we learn during our lives we first discover as children. The books we read should be equally as enriching and inspiring. Cheers folks.

‘As for your stay here, you must not cherish any hope of leaving this place. Escape and death are the only ways. I do not imagine you want to die, and, as for escape, the nearest settlement is Dartnor, some leagues from here and off the main road – a mining town. And of course there is the tainted ground which the highlanders prefer to call badlands. I’m sure you noticed them in your journey here. On all sides of Obernewtyn lies the wilderness. Do not imagine that you have seen wilderness before, perhaps even roamed in it, for this is true wild country, untamed by men. The forests are filled with wolves of the most savage kind and there are still bears living in the heights. Even stranger things dwell in these shadow-pocked high mountains.’

The very first line of this book describes a nuclear holocaust. Aha, I thought to myself, post-nuclear apocalypse. Something of a common enough trope for a long period of time and I note that Obernewtyn was published in 1987, so still during the dying embers of the Cold War. Isobelle Carmody reverses expectations by going on to write something that’s more akin to Tolkien-inspired fantasy though.

Elspeth and her brother’s parents were killed by the tyrannical Council for the crime of ‘sedition’. Both of their children still do not know what exactly this involved. They find themselves orphaned in a land ruled with an iron fist by a religious hierarchy that worships a god called Lud and rejects all technology. The few remaining fertile lands are controlled by the Council, who employ an enclave of clergy known as Herders to enforce their belief that the holocaust was a punishment from god and they are his chosen people. Some children are born with mutations due to radiation. The Council hunts them down and sends them to work on labour farms. Less obvious mutations can leave the child undiscovered for many years. These hidden mutants are referred to as Misfits and are greatly feared, for the Herders teach that they are possessed by demons.

Elspeth is a Misfit. Her brother is unsympathetic, as over the years he has begun to confuse keeping them both safe from harm, with gaining power and prestige. He wants to become a Herder and is more concerned that if his sister’s secret is discovered, it may rob him of his chosen career. Despite the danger, Elspeth enjoys the abilities she has gained as a Misfit. Sometimes she has premonitions, she can hear thoughts and even, she learns after meeting an old cat named Maruman, speak telepathically to animals.

Then one day an agent from the secretive institution known as Obernewtyn arrives at the orphanage, hunting Misfits. Elspeth is denounced and taken across the blasted countryside to a mountainous fortress where a mysterious Dr. Seraphim is said to perform experiments on children born with mutations. There Elspeth is forced to endure endless days of hard labour, but she also discovers a sense of liberation through being in the company of her own kind. No one has ever seen the strange doctor who is said to run the institution, but occasionally children disappear from their bunks, only to be found later delirious and weakened. Elspeth and her new-found friends decide to plot their escape from Obernewtyn, fearing they will be next. The villainous Madam Vega and her pet Misfit Ariel have other plans for her though and soon she finds herself caught in a struggle between the forces of Obernewtyn and the hidden rebel army of Henry Druid.

Right, first things first, when I announced Children’s Literature Week, I mentioned in the comments that I wanted to get away from the books I had read as a child, primarily Tolkien and Lewis. Seems I have fallen at the second hurdle. Isobelle Carmody riffs shamelessly on Tolkien, even lifting whole lines from The Lord of the Rings and Germano-Celt names. At one point Elspeth has a vision of a giant eye searching for her. At times the book seems derivative of A Canticle for  Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr (dytopian religious fanatics) and The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks (nuclear holocaust creates fantasy world).

So I am sorry to say there is nothing here I have not read before. I could damn it with faint praise by saying it’s readable (Obernewtyn is like Hogwarts but more realistic, i.e. depressing), but it pains me to do so.

In the middle of the afternoon, she went down to the first floor and bought a card in the greetings-card department. It was not a very interesting card, but at least it was simple, in plain blue and gold. She stood with the pen poised over the card, thinking of what she might have written – ‘You are magnificent’ or even ‘I love you’ – finally writing quickly the excruciatingly dull and impersonal: ‘Special salutations from Frankenberg’s’. She added her number, 645-A, in lieu of a signature.

Patricia Highsmith’s books are tightly plotted and emotionally jagged noir mysteries. From the chameleon-like Tom Ripley to Strangers on a Train’s Charles Anthony Bruno, the author specialized in characters with a lump of ice in their hearts. The Price of Salt is something quite different. It has the requisite Highsmith paranoia and emotional blackmail common to her other novels, but it draws upon her own life, the plot inspired by a brief period the author spent working in a department store. It is a story about an affair between shopgirl and aspiring stage designer Therese Belivet and Carol Aird. Unusually for a Highsmith novel the book is ultimately hopeful, the love between the characters genuine and was considered revolutionary at the time of publication for being a story about homosexuality with a happy ending.

Therese is a young woman just out of boarding school with artistic ambitions trying to make it in New York. Estranged from her family, who packed her off to boarding school once her father died, she has become solitary and possessed of changeable moods. She is in an unfulfilling relationship with an aspiring artist named Richard, who is a lot more secure than she is, both emotionally and financially. He also seems to merely be dabbling in art, whereas Therese pounds the pavement trying to get stage designer jobs with theatre companies. To make some extra cash she takes a job working in Frankenberg’s department store selling toys in the run up to Christmas. The monotony and boredom of the job suddenly evaporates one afternoon when she meets a customer named Carol, whom she helps find a doll to give to her daughter as a Christmas gift. Therese leaps at the chance to strike up a friendship with the cool and contained woman, who is involved in bitter divorce proceedings. As the two grow closer, Therese realizes that she loves Carol and that she feels nothing romantic for the feckless Richard. However, the more she gets to know this woman who seems so self-assured and calm, the more she realizes that it is Carol who has everything to lose, as her ex-husband Harge is eager to use whatever leverage he can to win full custody of their daughter. What possible future do the two of them have together, if their love carries such a terrible price?

Highsmith writes with a singular intimacy and intensity, establishing the conflicting thoughts that rush through Therese’s uncertain mind. When Therese meets the elderly shop assistant Ruby Robichek one night for a quiet meal, the encounter proves to be a brief vignette on a life wasted by loneliness and failure. Ms Robichek is a presentiment of what could happen to Therese if she gives in to convention and abandons her desires. We also begin to understand just how pressurized Carol Aird’s life has been to date, with her husband and in-laws arrayed against her. She describes how Harge chose her to be his wife in the way he might have chosen a carpet, as an object he could possess. Her crime is not that she is a lesbian per se, but more that she refuses to toe the line and lead a conventional life as a doting wife. Richard’s confident belief that Therese will agree to marry him is also rooted in the narrative conventions of typical male and female relationships. He has put the time into getting to know her and surely this is what happens next?

This edition of The Price of Salt comes with a quote from Terry Castle of The New Republic arguing that the transgressive sex and climactic cross-country car chase of the novel inspired Nabochov’s Lolita. I feel this is a tacked on conclusion that risks equivocating Humbert Humbert’s paedophilia with homosexuality. The novel is a corrective to the dour fates assigned to lesbians in pulp fiction, (suicide; acceptance of a dutiful husband).

An underappreciated classic.

And she and Ginny laughed together, a giddy, earthy, delightful laugh, and Marian laughed too. She laughed too and it was all so grown-up. She’d never met any women so young yet so grown-up. So beautiful and no husbands around or downy babies, and if it weren’t for the tubercular rack that ripped through Ginny’s laugh as it further unpeeled, everything would seem too perfect for words.

If James Ellroy were to get in a time machine and travel back to the 1950’s to seduce Patricia Highsmith with the joys of heterosexual coupling (which, given the success of the male lead in The Black Dahlia to do just that I assume he believes is possible. Converting a lesbian that is, not time travel.) I imagine the eventual product of their union would turn out to be a writer like Megan Abbott, whose grasp of period detail and exacting plotting combines the best of both.

Is that too laboured an analogy? Probably.

Taking inspiration from actual events, Bury Me Deep is the story of nurse Marian Seeley, left to fend for herself in a small town in Phoenix by her husband, a doctor who has had to resort to finding work in Mexico due to his troubled past. Lonely and self-admonishing, she blames herself for her husband’s ‘troubles’, Marian is taken under the wing of Louise Mercer, a fellow nurse at Werden clinic. Her new friend passes on all the gossip, lets her young, naieve charge know which doctors have busy hands and how to avoid the endlessly dull Bible sermons of the more religiously inclined members of staff. She also introduces some fun into Marian’s life, inviting her to join her and housemate Ginny in their home where they host wild parties.

All the important men in the town seem to attend these hooch-fueled soirees, most arriving with an expensive gift for the two raucous hostesses. Marian thinks it strange initially, but she learns to go with the flow. She doesn’t even seem too bothered that a brisk trade in stolen pills from the hospital is carried out at these parties. In fact she doesn’t think much of anything after Louise introduces her to Gentleman Joe Lanigan, a dashing local businessman whose company sells to most of the pharmacies in town, has friends in very high places and is gifted with movie star looks. Despite her misgivings and strained loyalty to her husband in Mexico – whom she increasingly refers to as Dr. Seeley instead of by his name Everett – Marian is swept up by the charismatic Joe, their affair in her mind a great romance right out of the pictures. Little does she know that she is set on a course for tragedy that will strike at the heart of her friendship with Louise and Ginny, and reveal just how much of a gent Joe Lanigan really is.

Megan Abbott has taken the real life story of the so-called ‘Tiger Woman’, Winnie Ruth Judd, at the centre of a notorious case in 1931 in Arizona and cherry-picked the details for her own fictionalised account. In many ways I find her approach superior to James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia. For one, this is a book about women, written from the point of view of a woman, without any of the cloying misogyny that noir fiction sometimes revels in. Female characters seem often to have two roles only, the victim and the femme fatale. Marian Seeley is initially young and naieve, but Abbott invests in her the obvious survival skills of Winnie Judd, whose incredible story I find fascinating. There is also more of a sense of hope here, with the forces of corruption not nearly as monolithic. The language is very detailed and Abbott has a beautiful gift for imagery, describing Gentleman Jim’s maroon hat as having a teardrop crease, or Marian staring out of a train window into the black night and seeing nothing but the reflection of the drunk sitting next to her leering over her shoulder. Finally Abbott never claims to know the truth about the ‘Tiger Woman’, case. This is clearly a fictionalised departure from the events described in the trial. She merely takes some of the events and repositions the characters as she imagines them.

This vision of America captures the period perfectly, where an unstarched nurse’s uniform was the height of excitement and Jim Lannigan’s mayoral ambitions are kept at bay only due to his being a ‘papist’. I enjoyed this book immensely and look forward to reading more of Megan Abbott’s work.

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