Thursday, April 21, 2016

Jennifer Kinney Boylan's She's Not There: an audible problem

As I'm still struggling with Sylvia, I decided to pick up another book to work on. I chose an audiobook to listen to while I'm driving, doing laundry, picking up the house, etc.

Sad to say, about two-thirds of the books I've "read" are books I've listened to. Not because don't enjoy sitting around for hours with my head in a book, but because my house will implode if I don't keep moving. Not to mention my frequent time behind the wheel of a car. What with errands, driving back and forth to Chicago, and folding laundry, I can listen to a ten hour-long audiobook start to finish in two days. Easily.

This time I branched out to the BookRiot's 2016 Read Harder Challenge part of my list. This task is "Read a book by or about a person that [sic] identifies as transgender." I picked She's Not There, by Jennifer Finney Boylan.

After listening to about half of the book, I've unfortunately realized that I'd like the book much more if I were reading it. It's a sad fact that most of the time, authors don't do particularly well by their own books. Jen Lancaster being a notable exception to the rule that Jennifer Kenney Boylan illustrates beautifully.

First of all, Boylan claims to have an androgynous-sounding voice, but it's more androgynous-lite. When I listen to the audiobook, I never think "I'm listening to a woman," and this undercuts some of the things she says. The power of her prose would be increased if I read all the way through the book, which starts when she's a five year old boy, and heard a woman's voice in my head. Or if she started narrating in a man's voice and then gradually became more feminine-sounding. (OK, it's a bit much to expect audiobooks to contain special effects. They're not movies.)

The thing is, in She's Not There, Boylan discusses her speaking voice and speech patterns. She worked with a vocal coach. She consciously tried to employ the rising inflection (referred to by linguists as "uptalk") that she claims many women adopt. She also mentions how ironic it is that the same rising inflection she criticized as a male English professor is now something she uses herself. In the book, she describes being nonplussed when she catches herself using uptalk. And she does it pretty frequently.

The thing is, when she reads her book aloud, you can't tell whether she realizes she's doing it. Is the uptalk deliberate, and employed for humorous effect, or is Boylan better than I am at sounding like a stereotypical young woman? I became so curious about it that I checked out the text over on Amazon. I couldn't see the whole book, but I caught a couple of examples where Boylan has added a question mark to her text to convey the use of uptalk. But when you hear it, you can't tell whether she knows she's doing it? And it bugs me?

I also find her sloppy S's off-putting.

But worst of all is her habit of separating nouns and verbs with a moment or two of silence, as though she were, adding a comma. That's what it sounds like when she, reads. And it's incredibly, annoying.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Review: Mycroft Holmes, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Mary Sue

In another attempt to avoid reading more serious books :cough: theendlessjournalsofSylviaPlath :cough: I decided to listen to the audiobook edition of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's expansion of the Sherlock Holmes universe, Mycroft Holmes.

I should begin by saying that although I have read all of the Conan Doyle stories and novels, watched all of the BBC television adaptations starring Jeremy Brett, and am currently keeping company with both Sherlock and Elementary, I am by no means a Holmes fanatic. I just like mysteries and Victorian literature, so it's kind of a natural direction for me to head in.

Because of this liking-but-not-LOVING point of view, I have no problem with updates to the canon. I thought it was brilliant in Sherlock when Benedict Cumberbatch texted, rather than spoke to people, or covered himself with nicotine patches instead of smoking a pipe. In Elementary, Jonny Lee Miller can be a recovering addict, and Lucy Liu can be a female Watson; it's all good.

Therefore I was delighted to try Mycroft Holmes. I mean, really. Talk about a built-in opportunity to broaden the readership's knowledge of a character. I felt the same way you'd feel if J. K. Rowling decided to write The Adventures of Dumbledore.

Parts of the book were quite good. I liked the interplay between Mycroft and Sherlock; I liked the hints of a juicy backstory for their mother. I liked that Mycroft's fiancée was pursuing higher education and social reform. I liked the sense of the massive bureaucracy needed to run the British Empire and the way Mycroft happily envisioned himself as a cog in that enormous machine. I liked the insights I got into the history and culture of Trinidad as well as the post-Civil War period in American and international history.

But Mycroft Holmes is, at heart, fan fiction. Fan fiction, in case you aren't aware of the phenomenon, is written by fans of popular novels, television shows, and movies. It started with Star Trek and was published in zines. Now it's happening with Star Wars, Harry Potter, My Little Pony, Naruto, Pokemon, Supernatural, and it's all over the internet. You may or may not be aware that the Fifty Shades trilogy, now threatening to continue into what—a sexology?—started as Twilight fan fiction.

So you see, fanfic has a lot to answer for. But it can also be considered a form of adaptation. We have expectations of film adaptations of our favorite novels; we expect them to be faithful to the originals. But at times, a filmmaker takes familiar characters and settings and runs amok. This is pretty much what happened with Tim Burton's version of Alice in Wonderland. There's Alice, and a Mad Hatter, and a Red Queen, but the story itself is all but unrecognizable. In this sense, the movie is failed fanfic.

One way of reviewing Mycroft Holmes is to see how well it succeeds with already existing characters and situations. In this, I think Abdul-Jabbar did pretty well. The Mycroft in this book is only 23 years old, and Sherlock is only 17, so they are at an embryonic state, and Abdul-Jabbar handles this well. He doesn't do anything that conflicts with our already-established understanding of the characters.

My only problem, other than the somewhat pedestrian prose and flat dialogue, was in the character of Cyrus Douglas. He is a middle-aged Trinidadian who has moved to London to go into the tobacco business, and has become Mycroft's best friend. At many times during the novel, Cyrus, who seems destined to be the Watson to Mycroft's Holmes, takes over the narrative. Without including any spoilers, I'll just say that Cyrus is Practically Perfect in Every Way. Which makes sense, because Cyrus is a Mary Sue.

In case this isn't clear (I mean, not everyone spends their time reading 15-year-old Buffy the Vampire Slayer fanfic ... SPUFFY4EVA) a Mary Sue is basically the author of a fanfic, made pluperfect, and inserted into the narrative. She's the beautiful, talented, kind, understanding—basically perfect—girl who shows up at Hogwarts and Harry Potter (or Draco Malfoy) falls in love with her. 

In Mycroft Holmes, Cyrus is athletic, intelligent, enterprising, open-minded, and capable of teaching many things to his young friend Mycroft. He has a rich backstory and has suffered and endured things that Mycroft can not even imagine. This gives the author the opportunity to school his callow white English character on Imperialism, racism, social skills, martial arts, and how to be a good person. 

This is not to say that I didn't enjoy the book. It is more of an action story than a mystery, and the pace plods a bit at times, but parts of it are very good. I get a clear sense of place, whether we are in London, Trinidad, or on board a steam ship. And the end, in particular, kicks ass.  I hope that Abdul-Jabbar continues the series. I just hope that next time, he pays a bit more attention to his eponymous hero.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Slogging through Sylvia

Not me.

I picked up The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath at a second-hand store in Hyde Park back in January. In the past week, I've managed to read 100 pages of it. Needless to say, this hasn't been a particularly inviting read. Not only is it over 700 finely-printed pages long, it's Sylvia Plath. Which isn't easy for me to deal with. 

Here's the thing; I get incredible secondhand embarrassment from reading Sylvia Plath's letters and journals. It's almost like watching I Love Lucy. There are many reasons for this, the first of which is primary identification. Sylvia Plath grew up in a suburb of Boston, went to Smith College, majored in English literature, and wrote poetry (duh). So did I. So there are times when it's a cringing embarrassment to read her ... the self-centeredness, the judgmental attitudes, and most of all, the rhapsodies about the various boys she had crushes on. And I don't get the feeling that she was writing with an eye towards publication, so on top of everything else, I feel like a voyeur. I've also read the collection of letters she wrote home to her mother, so to read her journals and get an idea of what she really thought, as opposed to what she was telling Mom ... well, it fills me with literary insight and such, but it makes me feel uncomfortable. Then there's the fact that I know what happened to her.

What with one thing and another, it's almost as awful as reading Anne Frank.

And she's so focused on men. I want to tell her, "Jesus, Sylvia, calm down. You're a freshman in college. You don't have to find a husband right now." But then I realize that she was writing in the 1950s, at the height of the get-the-women-back-into-the-kitchen postwar period. As a rising sophomore, she was already worried that she wasn't going to be able to have a family and a career. 

I can't tell whether I was spoiled rotten. Perhaps I was. But as a student in the 1970s, it never occurred to me that I wouldn't be able to have a career as well as a husband. And I also realize how incredibly thoughtful she was. And already such a wordsmith. I mean, yeah, an annoyingly show-offy one, but holy hell. She was 18.

I remember being an 18-year old poetry-writing freshman English major at Smith College ... and I think I was putting about 10 percent of her energy, work ethic, and intelligence into thinking about my life, where I wanted to go, and what I wanted to do.

Then again ... I wasn't a genius.  I guess that helps.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Susan Silverman is Spenser's Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and other ruminations

OK, so for April I decided to give myself a bit of a break. I'd been reading some rather heavy books that were, frankly, unenjoyable in the extreme. And these were sandwiched between books that were amazingly dumb, like The Da Vinci Code. So I thought, "Hey, there are New York Times best selling mystery stories on the Rory list. They must be pretty good. I'll read some of them!"

Accordingly, I read

R is for Ricochet, Sue Grafton (Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge list)
S is for Silence, Sue Grafton (Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge list)

Eh. They were OK. I guess I like my private investigators funnier, more literary, and based in Boston. Basically, I want them to be Spenser. In fact, the last time I was in Boston, I took advantage of my Back Bay location to go running on the Esplanade. I may or may have not looked (in vain) for Spenser and Hawk.

Fixed that for you

However, if I take a minute or two to stop fangirling and force my thoughts along somewhat more intellectual lines, I find myself wanting to do a compare-and-contrast conference paper about female private investigators dreamed up by women, and women characters as dreamed up by men. Because I've always been uneasy about the tiny amount of food Robert Parker allowed Susan Silverman to eat. Susan will sit there and peel apart a club sandwich, nibble on a lettuce leaf, and maybe finish a quarter of a sandwich in half an hour. On the other hand, Grafton's character Kinsey Millhone has the appetite and eating habits of a teenaged boy.

That says something about the two characters and their authors; I just don't know what.