18 March 2013

Gone Girl

by Gillian Flynn

At this point, I think that just about everybody in the world – and most definitely anybody who might be reading this blog – has read a plot summary of Gone Girl. It’s been on just about every bestseller list there is, and if your reading habits are in any way similar to mine, then Amazon steadfastly shoved it down your throat until you finally gave in and ordered it. When I reviewed it on Goodreads, I said that I’d had more fun reading Gone Girl than I have reading any other book in recent memory. I stand by that statement. I read a lot of crime fiction. A lot. I’ve gotten to the point where formulaic who-dun-its just don’t hold my attention, so even though I thought for a minute that Gone Girl might be just such a book, I found out differently after I finished reading the first section.

Some people have trouble liking books when they don’t like the narrators, and some people have trouble liking books when they can’t trust the narrator. I don’t suffer from that, though, and I generally enjoy books more when their narrators are flawed, just like real people are flawed. People have their biases and their own agendas, and I’m not sure why we so often presume that those very human traits will not exist in even our most beloved characters in our most beloved novels. Even more to the point, we know that eyewitness testimony is often some of the most unreliable evidence that exists, especially when eyewitnesses are telling us about events they perceived as traumatic. Even if a person isn’t actually trying to mislead, he or she is just as likely to benignly misremember and give us bad information.

Anyway, the plot of Gone Girl relies almost exclusively on misinformation, incorrect assumptions, inaccurate perceptions, and quick judgments. It’s full of surprises, and even once the surprises are over, it was icky enough and creepy enough to hold my attention until the end. Loved it. LOVED.

16 March 2013

Happy birthday, Grandmama.

March 16, 1929. My Grandmama was born 84 years ago today. I think about her all the time - when I am getting dressed and remembering how she took me to school every morning when I was growing up, when I'm getting a manicure and remembering how she used to ask me to file and paint her fingernails for her when I was home from boarding school on the weekends, when I try to make biscuits like hers but always fail, and mostly, when I look at pictures of all her great-grandbabies that have been born since she died and smile knowing how much she would have loved to spoil them as much as she spoiled my cousins and me. 

I was very lucky growing up. My grandparents lived just across the street, and I probably spent as many nights at their house as I did my own. Grandmama would meet me at the road, and we'd walk back to her house together. She was a really great grandma; I'm sure lots of people think this, but I think she was the best grandma in the whole world. We would watch Wheel of Fortune, and play Scrabble (I have her to thank for my winning record in Words With Friends), and iron pillow cases (I don't know why), and shell peas, and can figs, and do a thousand other everyday things that always felt special because that's the kind of person she was. She taught me so much. How to sew a button, to season an iron skillet, to make cornbread. To celebrate every little thing that makes you smile, and to be kind to people, always. 

I miss her every day, but I know she's with me. I hear her voice in my head on my happiest and saddest days. I try to be a person who would make her proud, and even though I don't think she would care one way or another about the "lawyer" part of my job, I know that she would be proud that I work hard to help children. Everyone who knew her knows that children were her heart - any children, all children. I am proud to have inherited that from her...and her iron skillet.  Happy birthday, Grandmama. I love you.

15 March 2013

When She Was Good

by Philip Roth

Philip Roth is one of those authors that people have been telling me for ages I should read. I was visiting with one of my favorite families over the holidays, and I was once again implored to pick up a Roth novel and give it a go. I think, however, that in my zeal to load up my new Kindle, I may have picked the wrong one to start with. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it, because I did; it’s just that I didn’t finish it and have the irrepressible urge to read every single word he’s ever written.

From the inside book flap: “In this funny and chilling novel, the setting is a small town in the 1940s Midwest, and the subject is the heart of a wounded and ferociously moralistic young woman, one of those implacable American moralists whose "goodness" is a terrible disease. When she was still a child, Lucy Nelson had her alcoholic failure of a father thrown in jail. Ever since then she has been trying to reform the men around her, even if that ultimately means destroying herself in the process. With his unerring portraits of Lucy and her hapless, childlike husband, Roy, Roth has created an uncompromising work of fictional realism, a vision of provincial American piety, yearning, and discontent that is at once pitiless and compassionate.”

Here’s the thing. I get the distinct feeling from all the reviews I’ve read that I’m supposed to dislike Lucy. For example, she’s described variously as chilling, controlling, unforgiving, inflexible, unsympathetic, and deeply flawed. I completely disagree with most of those descriptions, and I can’t decide if it’s because I missed something, or if it’s because I started out liking her and just refused to stop, or if it’s because I’ve had a few of those same things said about me and believe that maybe they’re not altogether negative characteristics to have.

Mostly, I guess, I think they’re one-dimensional observations about a character who is decidedly three-dimensional, and if we’re going to crucify Lucy for having a little bit of a nervous breakdown, then she also deserves to be recognized for her intellect and strength. There’s a scene where she’s sitting at her kitchen table, pregnant with her first child, watching her mother fall apart – again – not because she was beaten by her persistently drunk and unemployed husband, but rather because he left the house after the beating and hasn’t come back home. When he finally raps at the door, Lucy meets him there and does what her mother has never had the backbone to do for herself: she tells her father to leave and not to return. I reread those pages several times, struck not only by Roth’s description of such an awful, debilitatingly moving moment, but also by his ability to make me feel it from multiple perspectives at once. I felt Lucy’s exhilaration and adrenaline, but I also felt her mother’s shame and her father’s humiliation. It’s magnificently written, really.

I suppose, if I try really hard, I can see how some people may think that Lucy’s mean or hard-hearted, but…well, not really. What choice does she have? Her grandparents are classic hands-off enablers, her mother is a co-dependent victim and apparently not willing or able to change that, and Lucy spent her childhood watching the chaos around her and hoping for the best. Yes, she’s puritanical, but we see that all the time when children are parented by neglectful substance abusers. It’s no small wonder that she takes some pretty drastic action once she finally realizes that she’s an adult and can exercise some control over all the lazy, complacent people who have raised her.

I wish I had read this book in college because there are so many facets and intriguing little details that would have made for a great term paper. At the same time, I’m also relieved that the term paper part of my life is over.

13 March 2013

The Round House

by Louise Erdrich

Why did I read this book? My reasons are pretty simple, really. I am a woman, and therefore concerned about women’s issues in general, but especially crimes committed against women. I am a prosecutor, and my case load consists almost entirely of violent offenses and sex crimes. I work on an Indian reservation, so I’m woefully aware both of the brutality and injustice suffered by Indian women who are victims of violent crime, and of the technical stumbling blocks that often arise and sometimes prevent an offender from being held responsible.

I’ve read a couple reviews that compare this book to To Kill a Mockingbird, I suppose because it explains and embraces Native American culture in the same way that Mockingbird does for small-town Alabama. I can’t speak for how accurate that is because I didn’t grow up on a reservation, and in any event, I imagine that all reservations are different, the same way that all small Southern towns are different. I can tell you, though, that Erdrich knows her stuff. Her Indian Law assertions are right-on, and the way she describes tribal interaction with police officers and prosecutors who are “outsiders” is definitely consistent not only with what I’ve experienced, but also what has been shared with me by those who practice in other communities.

I am taking this plot synopsis from an Amazon.com review because I can never seem to synopsize without editorializing: “Our narrator - an Ojibwe lawyer named Joe Coutts - recalls his 13th summer from the perspective of time. Joe's position as the only child of tribal judge Bazil Coutts and tribal clerk Geraldine Coutts kept him feeling loved and secure until his mother is brutally and sadistically raped as she attempts to retrieve a potentially damning file. Although the rapist is rather quickly identified, the location of the rape--in the vicinity of a sacred round house - lies within that "no-man's land" where tribal courts are in charge and the neighboring Caucasians cannot be prosecuted, no matter how heinous the crime. Thrust into an adult world, Joe and his best friends Cappy, Zack and Angus are propelled to seek their own answers.”

I found this book to be both touching and uniquely effective in both entertaining and teaching. Moving, thoughtful, well-paced. The end is heartbreaking, and all too often absolutely within the realm of possibility.

07 March 2013

Like Truvy in Steel Magnolias, “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion!”

When I blog, I try to strike a balance between light-hearted frivolity and discussion of serious topics about which I feel passionately. I do this for two reasons, first because I think that a blog devoted solely to either extreme would become tiresome after a while, and because Southern women (like women everywhere) have to navigate both worlds all the time, so I want my blog to represent us accurately. We often find ourselves laughing hysterically at a funeral or crying at a baby shower, and while either of those may feel wildly inappropriate someplace else, in the South, it’s just how it is.

I find that, in general, some people are pretty eager to dismiss Southerners as stupid, and I don’t think that pinning down the cause of that is as easy as rewinding to the Civil Rights Movement and pressing the play button. I hate that part of my home state’s history, but I’m still proud of the progress made since then, and the ongoing struggle and those that are fighting through it. I’ve tried to figure out just what it is about Southerners, and Southern women in particular, that makes people feel so entitled to judge us. Is it the big hair and the heels and the bright lipstick? Is it the accent in general, or maybe that we regularly use words like “sugar” and “honey” when referring to humans? Does it just drive everybody insane at the grocery store when we talk about “sacks” and “buggies” instead of “bags” and carts”?

Now, I have a friend who would agree with Suzanne Sugarbaker – that women who aren’t Southern are just jealous of women who are, and this jealousy accounts for their rudeness. I’m not really convinced that’s true, but at the same time, I do often feel like I have to overcome some preconceived bias before people will listen to me. Yes, it’s true that we take football just as seriously as we take church on Easter morning, and yes, when it comes right down to it, we are probably even more serious what we wear to either occasion. This is not about some misplaced sense of priority, although I think lots of people would make that accusation. The smartest and kindest women I know, without exception, are Southern, and for me, “smart” and “kind” are the highest compliments that exist.

Perhaps I’m just hypersensitive because I work in law, which punishes femininity and rewards severity. I admit that my natural response to conflict used to be softer, but after six years of constant confrontation, I’m harsher now – partly because I’m more sure of myself and my decisions, but also because harsh works and soft wastes time. Although I know lots of female lawyers who strive to be more like their masculine counterparts, I actually try very hard every single day to be more like my grandmother. And I guess that at the end of the day, that’s the point that I’m trying ever so circuitously to make: Southern women are soft and feminine and still effective, and I’m really, really trying to be more aware of that in my everyday life.

05 March 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

Forgive me if I take the long way around this film review.

I find that books are inextricably linked to my important life events. For example, I learned that I had been accepted to law school when I got home from the library at 1:30 a.m. and listened to a voice mail from the Dean. I was researching The Sound and the Fury and Absalom! Absalom! for my final paper in an English class.

And, I specifically remember that the semester I decided not to go to medical school, I was reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Maybe it seems odd, but it’s still one of my favorite books, and that’s probably because there’s this paragraph in which the narrator perfectly explains why she could never be a doctor. She’s looking at the Periodic Table – all symbols and abbreviations, impersonal and sanitized – and just sees, in that moment, that she can’t spend the rest of her life caring about it. I felt validated, inasmuch as I could feel validated by a fictional character in a book whose author committed suicide by sticking her head in the oven, I suppose.

The semester after that, I took five English classes, so thrilled with the prospect of being able to take classes that I actually wanted to take that I apparently forgot to consider what it would actually mean to read five books every single week for 16 weeks in a row. Now, admittedly, some of those books were just awful; in fact, I’m pretty sure that every book I read for my British Literature class was terrible, and made more so by the professor, an American man in his sixties who was educated at Vanderbilt, but who at some point spent like six months at Oxford and in that brief time, developed an affected British accent so thick that it barely diminished despite him spending the subsequent four decades teaching at Alabama. But I digress.

The World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks happened during my Shakespeare class in 2001. Literally, during. I left my classroom, walked out of Morgan Hall to my car, turned on the radio, and heard that One World Trade Center had collapsed. I remember that we were discussing Othello that day, which was notable because it is my most favorite of Shakespeare’s tragedies. I also remember that we were reading e.e. cummings in my Poetry class that met the next morning; I know because we were assigned to imitate a poem of our choosing every week, and I imitated a cummings poem when I wrote about 9/11.

A few weekends ago, I finally saw Zero Dark Thirty. I had put it off for a while, mostly because I just wasn’t really ready to deal with it. I finally had to bite the bullet because the Academy Awards were airing the next Sunday, and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to watch a movie that long during the week. I think the reasons for my hesitance are pretty obvious, but at the same time that I worried about revisiting the trauma of that time, I was also a little bit anxious about the scenes depicting torture.

Those scenes in particular had gotten quite a bit of bad press and brought back all the conflicting feelings I had when the practices at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo were exposed during the summer following my first year of law school. My guess is that Kathryn Bigelow anticipated that her audience may take issue with watching something that intensely graphic, but that she wouldn’t risk being called a hypocrite by making a film about the hunt for bin Laden but not addressing the systematic methodology of torture used to extract information about him. She’s smart. And because she’s smart, she starts her film with 9-1-1 recordings from the victims in the towers; she uses their words, their fear, the moments when they struggle to accept their own deaths, to help us accept (justify? rationalize?) what we will see later.

I can’t really say much else about Zero Dark Thirty that hasn’t been said someplace else. I enjoyed it, despite all the time I spent with my hands covering my mouth, and all the tears I cried – some in horror, some because I am so proud of those who serve our country. It is a fantastic film, and really, so much better than The Hurt Locker. I loved Silver Linings Playbook, and I think that Jennifer Lawrence is a fine young actress, but Jessica Chastain deserved the Oscar for Leading Actress.

GNC Be Beautiful Vitamins

I started taking these about two months ago after I read that Kristin Ess of The Beauty Department (she also does Lauren Conrad’s hair) recommends them. I got the chewable version because I always have trouble with vitamin pills making me feel sick. The chewables don’t, so that’s wonderful, and they taste alright, too.

Two months in, and my hair is growing like crazy. I just got my color done about four weeks ago, and the growth is already noticeable. Plus, I have to use hairspray on the crazy tiny baby hairs that I’m seeing pop up all over the place. My eyelash extensions damaged my natural lashes when I had them removed last fall, so I was anxious for them to grow back in. They’re definitely growing faster, but I’ve also been using Latisse since Christmas, which may account for that more than the vitamins.

My fingernails are growing, too, and I can tell that they’re stronger than usual and they don’t peel and split. I was having lots of problems with my skin being super dry this winter; my lips were peeling and bleeding, and my hands were just awful. I’ve noticed a significant difference in my skin texture since I’ve been taking the vitamins; at least there’s no more peeling or bleeding because that was painful.