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We Have A Winner!

The Orphan Master's Son: A Novel of North Korea Cover

After last year’s committee chose not to award a Pulitzer for fiction (which was pretty controversial), I was more interested than usual in this year’s results. The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson has won the prize.  I’ve not read this one, but it’s been on my TBR list since it won the Tournament of Books against some pretty tough competition.  This year’s winner, set in a fictional North Korea, is particularly relevant given recent events.

What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank: Stories (Vintage) Cover The Snow Child Cover

The finalists were Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (perhaps someone ought to send the Biebs a copy of this one) and Eowan Ivey’s The Snow Child.  I remember a lot of buzz about Englander’s stories and saw this one mentioned as a possible Pulitzer contender, but The Snow Child is a surprise to me.  I remember some positive reviews, but not the rush of critical acclaim the other two have gotten.  I’m not even sure it got a NYT review (based on a quick google search I think it was overlooked).  So here’s to a female author getting some recognition from the Pulitzer committee! This one’s going to the top of my TBR list.

What do you all think about the Pulitzer this year?

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Dear John

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk Cover

Like pretty much every other woman in America (or at least the ones I’m friends with on Facebook), I can’t stop thinking about what just happened in Steubenville, Ohio.  It’s so sad and so horrible I almost feel bad writing about it on a book blog.  But, books have always been a part of how I try to understand the world.  Sometimes literature provides the best insight into the really troubling aspects of our society.  I’d say that’s the case with Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, so bear with me for a minute.

While we don’t have a TV, I’ve watched the media’s bizarrely sympathetic coverage of the convicted rapists (cable news just won the tough battle with reality television and saving the environment for the #1 reason I don’t own a TV).  After watching this this clip all I wanted to do was spend the rest of the day listening to old school Ani Difranco.  The year or two the rapists will spend in Juvie is apparently a death sentence for their football careers.  And some people are very upset about this because football is the most important thing in the world, especially if you live in Steubenville, Ohio.    Do we really value football more than women’s health and safety?  Yes, we do.

The fact that I blog about literary fiction, don’t own a TV, and just admitted to being into Ani fifteen years after it was cool (if it was ever cool), might reasonably lead you to believe that I already think football is dumb and boring and bad.  You’d be so wrong because you’d have forgotten the most relevant fact: I’m from Wisconsin.  I love watching football.  I threw a Superbowl party in my (all-girls) dorm when the Packers won Superbowl XXXI.  I still have the VHS tape I used to record the game so that I could watch it whenever I wanted, like I did with my favorite movies.  The next year, I got in an actual email fight with one of my then best friends (who happens to be from Chicago) when she got all gloaty after we lost to the Broncos.  My angry, drunken, The Bears Still Suck emails were not a highpoint in our friendship. Soooo, I was totally, embarrassingly, emotionally involved in football when I was in college.

How did I learn to equate winningness in football with happiness in life? From my Dad.  Who this very past fall stormed out of my birthday party when this happened.  In the world of true football fans, no emotional outburst is too extreme when your team loses.  When 4th and 26 happened, I threw shrimp at my parents’ television.  That I’d just dunked in red cocktail sauce.  Were my parents pissed that I got in a food fight with the Philadelphia Eagles in their living room?  Of course not.  There’s not a Packer Fan on earth who’d have blamed me.  It was a heartbreaking loss.

So I think I understand the emotional connection that people in Steubenville have with football.  I don’t condone it, but I think I understand how it works.  Here in Wisconsin, it’s socially acceptable for my dad to storm out of my birthday party because the replacement refs blew a call and cost the Pack the game.  But what was the effect on me?  Well, it made me feel like a football game was more important to my dad than the day I was born.  Which made me sad.  Now, take this and multiply it by a million.  In Steubenville, the football careers of high school rapists are more important than the young woman who was victimized.  Which isn’t just sad, it’s tragic.

For a while now, I’ve known that getting emotional about football is stupid.  Like really, really stupid.  In the years since college, I’ve learned that the final score of the Packer game has absolutely no bearing on the real world or my life.  I don’t really care who wins anymore.  But, I still love to watch football.  Why?  Because it’s fun.  I get to wear this T-shirt, tailgate (beer and brats!), and hang out with my friends and family for a few hours on the weekend.  I know it’s barbaric, but it’s exciting to watch.  And sometimes, I still can’t help but get a little tiny bit involved in the soap opera plotlines.  If Greg Jennings ever reads this I’d like him to know I was none too happy to hear about this, but I commend whoever is handling his publicity.  You get the picture:  I’m still a Packer Fan.

Or at least I was until today.  Admittedly, I should have ditched football a long time ago.  I broke up with Catholicism when I was thirteen because its anti-feminist, anti-gay, pro-pedophile, big money politics sickened me. Sound like any other all-male organization that’s been in the news a lot lately?  As the child of a Sicilian immigrant, was it really easier to break up with this church than with this one?  It’s not just one corrupt program at one university or a few bad seeds.  At every level, football is a fundamentally corrupt institution.

We’re part of a society that mistakenly treats athletes like heroes.  Over and over and over again.  We somehow invest so much of ourselves in a game that it becomes more important than real life.  We have a bad, bad relationship with sports.  It’s not just a fun game anymore.  It’s not just a nice escape from the real world for a few hours on the weekends.  We’ve allowed this hero-worship to perpetuate a rape culture so pervasive even our high schools are infected.

So what’s the first step in breaking up with football?  To stop spending money on it.  I don’t think I’ll every pay for Packers’ tickets or buy another Aaron Rodgers T-shirt.  If more women in America did that, we might get somewhere, because it’s all about the money.

Then, with the money I save, I’m going to buy everyone I know a copy of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.  Happy Birthday!  Here’s a book I think you’ll love.  Merry Christmas!  I got you a book.  Despite its flaws (overly wise nineteen-year old protagonist, lame female characters etc.), I think Billy Lynn says a lot of what really needs to be said about our absurd national obsession with football.  It’s also a really good read.

Placing Billy and the Bravos at a Dallas Cowboy’s game on Thanksgiving is a brilliant concept.  Through the eyes of actual soldiers, Fountain exposes the sad absurdity of our misplaced hero-worship for overpaid athletes.  When Billy and the rest of the guys meet the players, Billy is struck by the uselessness of this well-fed, well-supplied team.  Sarcastically, Billy imagines sending the NFL, with all of its warrior propaganda, to an actual war:

Attack with all our bears and raiders, our ferocious redskins, our jets, eagles, falcons, chiefs, patriots, cowboys… they are so huge, so strong, so fearsomely ripped that your bombs and bullets bounce off their bones of steel.  Submit, lest our awesome NFL show you straight to the gates of hell!  (184)

But, war pays a lot less than football and the huge gulf between the actual soldiers and the Sunday warriors widens as they interact.  Fountain deftly explores the contrast between these two groups when Billy and Sargeant Dime tour the equipment room.  Overwhelmed by the amount of supplies and resources, Billy thinks:

How does it come to be, that’s what he wants to know, not just the how but the why off all this stuff. Only in America, apparently.  Only America could take such a product-intensive sport and grow it into the civic necessity it is today.  (182-3)

It’s not just our American obsession with stuff that the reader takes away from this scene, but the contrast with how dangerously under-supplied our troops were in Iraq.  The supply room perfectly illustrates the extraordinary expense and effort wasted on a meaningless game.  The power of corporate greed and the superficiality of the spectacle paints a disturbing portrait of American values.

While this isn’t a novel that deals with women all that well, it seems to get at the same feelings I have about Steubenville.  Our real lives and the real people in them are more important than sports. In the same way that I can’t believe we care more about football than we do about women’s safety, Billy is appalled by parents who care more about football than their own children. (Hi dad!)  After meeting the players, Billy decides to give away his autographed football to a kid who looks like he could use it.

Outside the Whataburger booth he spots him, a smallish, twitchy kid with a head too big for his neck, ill dressed for the cold in a thin cotton hoodie and fake falling-apart Reeboks, and why the fock would parents spend hundreds of dollars on Cowboys tickets when their son lacks a proper winter coat? (189)

Why do we feel like it’s okay to elevate a game above other people’s well-being?  After Steubenville, I hope more people are asking themselves that question right now. That’s one of the great things about Billy Lynn – it asks that question while also being funny, smart, sad, entertaining and well-written.  It’s a book about a lot more than football, but after this week in the news, I’ve got football on my mind even if it is officially out of my life.

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The more I read about the end of literature, the more interested I am in learning about its origins. The history of the novel and the development of different genres is pretty fascinating stuff. Because it’s winter in Wisconsin and we still don’t have a TV, I’ve decided to attempt a study in 18th century British literature.

Not knowing much about 18th century literature, I’ve decided to rely on the reading lists for PhD students’ oral exams.  Students are expected to craft their own lists so I’ll use these samples as guides, rather than a checklist.

The first novel I picked from the 18th century reading list is Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. It’s insanely entertaining.  Haunted castles and Italian villains abound.  More about that next time!

For theory, I’m starting with Nancy Armstrong’s Desire and Domestic Fiction in which she basically makes the argument that the rise of the novel allowed for the rise of the middle class in England.  Like even more so than the industrial revolution.  So obviously a super ambitious theory and I’m a bit skeptical.  Still, Armstrong’s focus on the representation of the ideal woman in literature and the emergence of female authors is really interesting to me.

I’ll try to blog about my little project here so that I actually write down my thoughts on what I’ve read.  The plan right now is to alternate between my 18th Century novels and just reading whatever the hell I feel like reading.  It’ll be like when I needed a break from studying in college except popular fiction will take the place of boys and booze.

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The Moonstone Cover

I just finished Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone so it has the honor of being the very first book reviewed here on Married With Books.  I could write a review and talk about the plot (mystery!) and the characters (oh my Miss Clack!) and its significance (first detective novel!), but I’d rather drag The Moonstone right into the muck of U.S. politics.  Let me offer a little explanation for those of you who didn’t stop reading after you saw the word politics.

I get riled up whenever I encounter the argument that classic literature isn’t relevant to the modern reader.  There was a lively discussion on this topic over at Book Riot this week and I’m on team Dead White Guys.  What does this have to do with politics?  During the same week that I read The Moonstone, I watched the State of the Union Address and the Republican debate. I wondered how Rick Santorum caught such a bad case of religious fervor?  I wondered how the hell Mitt Romney’s tax rate is less than mine?

I don’t have a television so I can’t turn to CNN for political analysis.  Heeding the good example of Mr. Betteredge and his trusty copy of Robinson Crusoe, I had no choice but to consult The Moonstone and hope it could help me make sense of it all.

Let’s begin with Rick Santorum.  He recently shared his opinion that women who become pregnant as the result of rape should make the best out of a bad situation and accept God’s gift.  Let’s hear what The Moonstone’s Miss Clack has to say about Rick Santorum’s religious convictions:

Once self-supported by conscience, once embarked on a career of manifest usefulness, the true Christian never yields.  Neither public nor private influences produce the slightest effect on us, when we have once got our mission.  Taxation may be the consequence of a mission; riots may be the consequence of a mission; wars may be the consequence of a mission:  we go on with our work, irrespective of every human consideration which moves the world outside ours  We are above reason; we are beyond ridicule; we see with nobody’s eyes, we hear with nobody’s ears, we feel with nobody’s hearts, but our own.  Glorious, glorious privilege!  And how is it earned?  Ah, my friends, you may spare yourselves the useless inquiry!  We are the only people who can earn it – for we are the only people who are always right. (272-73)

I wasn’t too fond of Miss Clack. She gets an A for effort for all of her hard work handing out religious tracts, but I didn’t trust her as a narrator.  She was flawed by the fact that her own religious fanaticism took precedence over any actual compassion for and understanding of the other characters’ struggles.  She was comically absurd, but I was laughing at her, not with her.  The same thing that bothers the reader about Miss Clack seems equally applicable to the religious right these days.  So what’s Wilkie’s vote on Santorum?  Nay.

What about good old Newt Gingrich?  He’s been plagued by some pretty interesting revelations about his past marriages.  He resigned as Speaker of the House after being disciplined for ethical wrongdoing.  Would it be fair to say he can’t erase the stain on his reputation?  The Moonstone’s Rosanna Spearman, reformed thief, would agree with that: “The stain is take off, she said.  But the place shows, Mr. Betteredge – the place shows!” (57) So what’s Wilke’s vote on Gingrich?  The open marriage thing probably wouldn’t have bothered Wilke – he had a similar arrangement going on back in the day.  But ethical and financial corruption?  The stain still shows.  Wilke’s vote?  Nay.

Finally, there’s the issue of economic equality.  Let’s consider the matchup between Mitt Romney and President Obama.

I’m pretty sure that U.S. economy is starting to look a lot like the The Moonstone’s Shivering Sands.  As Rosanna Spearman reflects on her life she describes the Shivering Sands to Mr. Betteredge: “It looks as if it had hundreds of suffocating people under it all struggling to get to the surface, and all sinking lower and lower in the dreadful deeps!” (58)  What could be the purpose of having two servants discuss this particularly distressing phenomenon?  I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that this is a metaphor for class struggles in society.

Mr. Franklin Blake, The Moonstone’s pretty rich boy, views the Shivering Sands quite differently than poor Rosanna:

The sunlight poured its unclouded beauty on every object that I could see.  The exquisite freshness of the air made the mere act of living and breathing a luxury.  Even the lonely little bay welcomed the morning with a show of cheerfulness: and the bared wet surface of the quicksand itself, glittering with a golden brightness, hid the horror of its false brown face under a passing smile.  It was the finest day I had seen since my return to Engand. (356)

Mr. Blake sees the sands as beautiful.  On the surface it looks good and he doesn’t much care so long as it hides the horror underneath.

Which makes me think about Mitt Romney.  Millionaire.  Doesn’t seem to care too much about middle class workers.  Doesn’t see the need to change a tax code that benefits the wealthiest at the expense of just about everyone else.  Like Mr. Blake, he’d rather not see the human struggles underneath the shiny corporations.  (Blake has some serious difficulty seeing Rosanna throughout the novel.  He closes his eyes, he looks away from her, he fails to notice her, he intentionally ignores her etc.)

Now consider the language President Obama used in his State of Union Address when he warned that the “decades-old promise of a secure and rising middle class is under threat because of growing disparities between the rich and everyone else in America.”  It’s strikingly similar to the language used by Rosanna Spearman when she described the Shivering Sands.

Will the middle-class sink into the Shivering Sands or will it rise again?  Mitt Romney enjoys firing his employees and has profited from a tax code that favors the wealthiest citizens.  President Obama wants to raise taxes on the rich.  He’s worried about the upward mobility of the middle-class.  Based on my trusty guide, The Moonstone, I’ve been able to figure a few things out.  Wilkie Collins wants me to vote for President Obama.

My point is not that Wilkie Collins is a card-carrying Democrat (he’s dead and British after all).  My point is that the themes of The Moonstone and the struggles of the characters are still relevant in the modern world.  One of the joys of classic literature is discovering the universal themes of humanity that transcend time and place.  Religious extremism and economic equality, two of the major themes of The Moonstone, are as relevant today as they were in 19th century Britain.

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