City of Ember

What is it called when you try to suspend disbelief, but whatever you're suspending it with just isn't strong enough, and disbelief keeps crashing down on your head?

That was my feeling about Jeanne DuPrau's City of Ember, especially the premise that the citizens of the City of Ember have, over the centuries, forgotten the secrets of electricity. Electric lights make the place work, and they know how to fix plumbing (or "pipeworks"), but they can't figure out electricity. Maybe I've watched too many home improvement shows, or maybe I just married a spouse whose astounding technical competency causes electrically powered machines to, apparently, fix themselves in his presence... whatever the reason, I just couldn't buy this one. And the ending is just the setup for the sequel, which always bugs me.

Still, Lina and Doon are fine 12-year-old heroes. The best part is the opening, when Lina and Doon swap the jobs to which they are assigned, just after everyone in their class is assigned their first 3-year stint at various jobs in the city. I did enjoy watching them unravel the secret message which allows them to, ultimately, save their city, but the journey out of the city is somewhat anti-climatic, especially when the warning about the "rapids" (which the reader understands, but the characters do not) is dealt with by a mildly bumpy boat ride. Though I couldn't buy that electricity was used daily and yet forgotten (while plumbing was remembered), I did like the other lost concepts, like "heaven" and "boat" and other familiar-to-us words. And this is the sunniest post-apocalyptic story I've read in a long time, picking up just at the point where humans did survive and can now reinhabit the earth. So, if the electricity thing doesn't bother the heck out of you, this might be worth a read. I was glad I tried it, but I doubt I'll read the second one.

The Dud Avocado

Way back in 1958, long before Sex in the City, Elaine Dundy crafted a novel of a 21 year old woman's year abroad that perfectly captures the disorientation inherent in that neverending task of discovering oneself. (Fair warning: there are spoilers all through this, and if you don't want to know the ending, skip the marked sections below). This is a young adult story, not in the sense of "teenaged," but in the sense of early 20s self-discovery, the post-college years when anything seems possible but odds against the great stuff seem insurmountable. The protagonist, Sally Jay Gorce, has been funded by her Uncle Roger to spend a full 2 years abroad. Sally Jay (henceforth S.J.) is by turns profound and flippant, with the flippant winning out more often than not because of the dizzying speed with which she changes her mind. But that's the fun of this book, the sense of life and adventure that she narrates, sometimes by incisive observation and other times by barely noticing something before her extremely short attention span is diverted to new things. Her flip observations can be hillarious, as when she falls in with "a rowdy bunch" at a left band cafe in Paris who were "so violently individual as to be practically interchangeable." (p. 31)

In fact, the only people who stand out in her narrative are her current or potential lovers. First comes Teddy a wealthy older diplomat who, in the end, wants her for money. When he reveals this, she laughs and thanks him for "restoring my cynicism. I was too young to lose it." (p. 54) Teddy does not give up so easily, and in fact sets up a humiliating dinner party for S.J. that sparks her to an unexpected (even to her) moral outrage: "The vehemence of my moral indignation surprised me. Was I beginning to have standards and principles and, oh dear, scruples? What were they, and what would I do with them, and how much were they going to get in the way?" (p. 80) In another surprising moment of self-reflection (surprising because, although she talks about herself constantly, she rarely seems to see herself), S.J. describes her moods as "midnight black, excited, and deeply dreading" or "beautiful midnight-blue ones, calm but deeply excited," and it's no accident that the common thread there is "excited."

[spoilers below]

Comparisons to Catcher in the Rye are apt, but there are real difference between S. J. and Holden, and I can't help but wonder if this has to do with gender. Holden's fears of being "phony" are paralleled by S.J.'s deepest fear: becoming a spinster librarian. (I know! Cracked me up to no end!)

"I'm so tired. What happens when your curiosity just suddenly gives out? When the will and the energy snap and it all seems so once-over-again? [...] Then, from outer space, that librarian who is going to be me, who is me, that dreaded librarian from outer space who is always waiting for me, always ready to pounce, is going to take over. And I'll be cooked. If I don't stop it." (p. 199)

(This makes me want t-shirts printed with "That Dreaded Librarian from Outer Space.")

While Holden Caufield's destiny remains ambiguous in the end, S. J. is trounced a bit for her adventures, and her attitudes become more sober. She overhears a conversation between two girls in a washroom, and her response reveals a whole new attitude toward the sexual revelry she earlier celebrated:

"'You gonna let him take you home? He's an awful wolf, you know.'
'Sure,' shrugged the other. 'I should say no to life?'
Yeh yeh, I thought. Great, oh great. Zop zop and all dot. De Village don't say no to life; jazz don't say no to life. But dis baby do. Right now. Cause it hurts too much. And I can't take it no more." (p. 249)

So, while Holden may be ever so slightly morally reformed or at least a bit less cynical, our heroine is more beaten into submission. Her friend Larry turns out to be a pimp who stole her passport, and possibly a murderer (though it's hard to tell if this last character flaw is real or a product of S.J.'s rather vivid imagination). Yet there is a happy, if awfully quick and convenient, ending. Famous photographer, Max, who had photographed S.J. in Paris, runs into her in New York, after she has beaten a hasty retreat from the Continent. He loves her, she lets him love her, and when she wakes up at his place, she finds that the bed is in the library, recasting her fears as premonitions. He proposes within days, and she accepts immediately. In the end, they are off to Japan together. Before leaving Paris, S.J. discovers that everyone in her former set has been getting married, taking out large swaths of the rowdy Left Bank crowd. A hasty marriage is not deeply sober behavior, and it would be the expected ending for a character of this time period (and there are numerous possible objections to that, of course). Nevertheless, as a reader I found it to be a satisfying ending for a heroine who was, if not actually likable, very entertaining to follow.

I wish this novel had received some of the same acclaim as Salinger's, and, again, find myself wondering about how much the then-shocking sexual behavior of a 21-year-old woman at loose ends in Paris has to do with its relatively obscure status.

An Education

My mother is an Anglophile, and I grew up with a kind of baseline admiration for all things British as a result. English accents alone cause my ears to perk up expectantly, even when (as is so often the case) the content falls short of my expectations. Soldiers marching into soft boiled eggs, cucumber sandwiches, proper tea sets... these and other accoutrements were part of my childhood.

Ben picked up a Nick Hornby directed movie for me, set in Britain, and the movie led me to Lynn Barber's memoir An Education, on which the film was based. It is the story of Barber's life from schoolgirl to unwitting mistress to an older man, on to read English at Oxford, and then to work at Penthouse (as a writer, not as a "Pet"). Others have criticized her writing for being abrupt, and it is. Barber herself is sympathetic at times, not likeable at others. The movie focuses extensively on her teen years and her involvement with a much older man, who was later discovered to be already married. In the memoir, the story is, of course, a bit different. The older man, Simon, played his part in acculturating her to finer things, and the schoolgirl Barber played her part in being petulant and resistant to his plying. He deceived her, no doubt, but there's some question at to whether she ever liked him or just liked the status he conferred. She did see clues, of course, about his deception and she came away from the relationship with a sense of how "ultimately unknowable" other people are. She also makes a very apt description of the self-delusion that allows dishonest people to perpetrate deceptions: "I suspect this is always the way with conmen: they don't even have to construct a whole story, their victims fill in the gaps, reconcile the irreconcilables--their victims do most of the work. Simon hardly had to con me at all, because I was so busy conning myself." (p. 32)

I found the descriptions of working at Penthouse in the early days to be intriguing, as everyone there felt that they were on the cusp of something very new. And they were, in those early days of the sexual revolution. Barber never experienced sexual discrimination or harassment in that setting, but she did in later years in more traditional journalistic settings. Beyond the Penthouse chapters, the rest of her career is less intriguing to follow.

Overall, I would recommend the memoir to memoir fans only, in that Barber has an unusually unsentimental voice. This means that the final chapters, in which her husband is dying, are especially jarring to read, as sentiment and even at times compassion are far flung from the pragmatic sorts of redirection she does from the tender subject of death. It's a stark picture of love, but one has the sense that Barber is exactingly honest with herself. So, if you really like memoirs, this is one to read for its unflinching look at life by a woman who is, admittedly, self-centered, and doesn't hesitate to show that on the page.


And now for something completely different... here's a brief but intriguing excerpt from a poem by Sarton, about the Hindu goddess of destruction, Kali:

It is time for the invocation, to atone
For what we fear most and have not dared to face:
Kali, the destroyer, cannot be overthrown;
We must stay, open-eyed, in the terrible place.

--May Sarton

teen humor

I love silly YA fiction... I always need a series at this time of year, and so it's the last 3 books of the Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging series by Rennison. Substance? Not really. Amusing fluff? Yes, for days! Highly engaging and distracting as Georgia Nicholson pals around with the Ace Gang and tries to decide between Luuurve Gods Robbie and Masimo while constantly being distracted by Dave the Laugh. It's the last book in the series now, #10, and obviously we all hope she comes to her senses and picks Dave the Laugh. We shall see. She doesn't grow up so much as just change tack on a kind of ridiculousness that, as her parents' shenanigans demonstrate, it's not really necessary to grow out of, and may in fact be more fun to maintain. Series recommended only if you're ready and able to put all seriousness (possibly even part of your brain) aside for the duration of the reading experience.

Confessions of a Teenage Drama Quesn was a much better book than movie (Thanks Kat!), and I will admit that I do own the movie. Instead of the film's magical surrealism, the book actually creates a plausible interaction between bold teens and a rock star. Rock star was neither overly impressive nor impressed, and the teens did not reform his life but instead saw a glimpse of it, and that glimpse was ugly in all the ordinary ways. I much prefer the book, and I definitely recommend it.

one more quote from Ehrenreich

before it has to go back to the library, from Bright-Sided, p. 56

"But in the world of positive thinking other people are not there to be nurtured or to provide unwelcome reality checks. They are there only to nourish, praise, and affirm. Harsh as this dictum sounds, many ordinary people adopt it as their creed, displaying wall plaques of bumper stickers showing the word "Whining" with a cancel sign through it. There seems to be a massive empathy deficit, which people respond to by withdrawing their own. No one has time or patience for anyone else's problems."


Barbara Ehrenreich's latest book indicts recent American tendencies toward "positive thinking" for its Calvinist roots, its Stalinist applications, and its utter lack of grounding in empirical evidence. Though Ehrenreich acknowledges the social utility and even intelligence of trying to get along with others, she suggests that relentless positive thinking in fact encourages people *not* to think of others, especially on a social level. If we're always tinkering with our own minds, trying to "attract" the right things or purge the "negative" people from our lives, how would anyone have time to change the society around them?

Ehrenreich's thoughtful skepticism and suspicion of claims that seem too good to be true are a breath of fresh air in this post-subprime-mortgage collapse era. Ever since hearing the This American Life shows on the economy, I can't think of it as an "economic" collapse without thinking of the subprime mortgage connection. She shows the seriously delusional thinking in corporate America that led to the economic Ponzie scheme, the consequences of which are now everywhere, and connects it to positive thinking self-help gurus who made millions "motivating" top corporate executives.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of this book is that it finally gives fodder for resisting new age bullies and judgmental optimism pushers who would have us blame our own attitudes for everything from cancer to defaulting on a mortgage. Bad things happen. We don't have mind control over the world. My own tests of this at the age of about six were enough to prove to me that I couldn't, say, control thunder with my mind. But apparently most corporate executives and a whole lot of other people who believe they can control things like money with their minds didn't perform these same tests.

I hope they read Ehrenreich's book so they can catch up.