Friday, June 22, 2012

Two for the Price of One: CT Mystery Book Club

I never posted on the last book for the CT book discussion group, so I am going to include my thoughts on it here, but first, my thoughts on the book being discussed this go-round.

Persson, Leif G. W.  Norlen, Paul, tr. Between Summer's Longing and Winter's End. New York: Pantheon, 2010. 

(This book was originally published in Sweden in 2002.)

This is a first: a CT mystery book club discussion book that I didn't finish and that I don't intend to finish. I read nearly 100 pages (97 to be exact) and just decided I didn't want to bother anymore.

It isn't that I hated it. It isn't even that I wasn't interested. It's just, I guess, that I wasn't quite interested enough. I mean, I sort of wanted to find out what the connection was between an apparent suicide of an American living in a student dorm in Stockholm and the 1986 murder of Sweden's prime minister (and I knew there was a connection because the jacket copy told me so), but not really, especially if it meant slogging my way through 450 more pages (and, ultimately, two more books, since this is the first in a trilogy) while keeping company with a cast of characters who, so far, had proven themselves not to be very likable while not being fascinating enough that whether or not they were likable didn't matter.

Given what I just said, you may be surprised by what I have to say next, which is that, due to the (unexpected and, to some degree -- at least, the way all publishing phenoms are -- inexplicable) success of Stieg Larsson in this country, publishers have all jumped on the Swedish mystery bandwagon, suddenly presenting us with hot, "new" Swedish authors whom our Nordic brothers and sisters have been reading almost as long as our British brothers and sisters have been reading Agatha Christie. (Okay, please excuse my exaggeration. Still. Persson isn't some new author. He's been around for a while, writing for well over 30 years.) Persson is, naturally, compared to Larsson on the cover copy (more impressive, to me, is that he's also compared to Ingmar Bergman  -- probably a slight exaggeration. I mean, Bergman's characters are fascinating). Of Larsson's books, I've only read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and (when I wasn't recoiling in shock from its most brutal and sadistic scenes), I liked it quite a lot. But from what I've now read of the two authors, I'd say Persson is a better writer. Persson, in this book, has set a stage and has gotten inside his characters' heads a little better than I remember Larsson doing. Yes, Larsson wrote psychological thrillers, but his emphasis seemed to be more on the thriller. Persson pays more attention to the psychological, and in doing so, writes more carefully, which, in this instance, means better writing.

Even so, I don't want to continue with it. Why not? I think it may have to do with a problem I have with sexism in 21st-century pop culture. I can read a book written in 1940 riddled with sexism, and, although it disturbs me, I just put it into its time and place (and I marvel when I read a book written in 1940 that attempts to attack sexism). Lately, though, I've begun to theorize that some 21st-century writers are choosing to write about other eras that allow them to live out sexist fantasies (Mad Men and its creator and head writer Matthew Weiner -- and yes, I've watched and like the show, although I've only watched episodes from the first two seasons -- spring to mind) while writing today.

I found some very offensive sexist passages in the first 97 pages of Persson's book pertaining to the way the male characters regard women. I don't know how sexist Sweden was in the late 1970s, but I am hoping that Persson was imagining a way that men used to think and act toward women and not the way they do today. I'll excuse him if he was doing the former, trying to make his work more realistic (and, really, since I haven't finished the book, I probably shouldn't be saying anything, because maybe there was a point to what he was doing. I mean, if I'd stopped reading The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo when I thought I wanted to, I would have felt quite differently about it than I did by the time I'd finished it). Still, unless you're fantasizing about "the good old days, when men were allowed to degrade women without having to worry about being attacked by feminazis", why write about it? It's the same argument I have with Larsson: so, you're the great champion of women, fighting against men who hate them? Then don't put your female character through that debasement at all. How many male heroes are subjected to such utter degradation? Rarely do we see a male character put through so much before he comes out on top. It's the same with the horribly sexist office workers on Mad Men. In the name of "telling it like it was," the writers seem (to me) to be "telling it like they wish it was and still were." Maybe it was bad, probably worse than most of the portrayals we have of the era that were written at the time, but, really, was it quite the way 21st-century male writers portray it?

I digress. Back to the book. Maybe it gets better. Maybe I would have eventually been ensnared by the "web of international espionage, backroom politics, greed, sheer incompetence, and the shoddy work of Sweden's intelligence force" that the jacket copy promises. Then again, maybe not.

One final maybe: maybe the big problem is that shortly after I began this one, I also began The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale. I'm afraid the latter just captured my imagination and ran off with it, leaving poor old Summer's Longing to sit all by itself, forgotten in an old hammock, mouldering in the summer's heat, humidity, and sudden violent downpours. Perhaps I'm just more of a country-house-murder-and-interesting-detective sort (especially when it's true crime that constantly refers to favorite 19th-century novels and novelists) than I am a corrupt-police-force-international-espionage sort. Uh-oh: did I just identify some sexist tendencies in my preferences?

And, now, onto the last book the group discussed:

Mosley, Walter. Little Scarlet. New York: Little, Brown, and Co., 2004.

I have to admit that I was not too keen on reading Walter Mosley. I'd tried, years ago, to listen to one of his audiobooks and hadn't been able to get into it (I now realize that this probably had more to do with the narrator than it did with the book). I did (also, years ago) see the movie Devil in a Blue Dress, and I really liked it, so I approached this book hoping it would be more like my experience with "Movie Mosley" than my experience with "Audiobook Mosley." Still, my hopes did not run high.

Yet again, hopes that hadn't gone soaring way above my head proved to be a good formula. I was fascinated and riveted from the moment I began reading this mystery, which takes place just after the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles and involves a complicated plot that eventually uncovers whodunit to a young black woman known as Scarlet. Although the plot itself and the solution to the crime are the sort that, if someone were to explain them to me, would probably have me snorting derisively (if I knew how to snort derisively, that is), casting them aside as completely unbelievable, Mosley is such a talented writer that he had me completely convinced.

His protagonist (Easy Rawlins, for those of you who don't know) is an extremely likable character. Easy has his faults, yes -- he's a bit too distracted by a pretty face, a bit too quick to jump to violent solutions to problems -- but, ultimately, he's a marshmallow. A righteous marshmallow, sure, but he has good reason to be so, having grown up black in America during the first half of the 20th century. Mosley does a superb job of helping his white readers walk in that black man's shoes, providing us with a wee taste of something we will never truly be able to understand.

Interestingly, I read this book at the same time that my church book discussion group was reading The Help (a book I'd read a couple of years ago and didn't bother to reread). Both books take place around the same time. Both books address racial issues and bigotry. They have very different approaches, and one, of course, was written by a black man while the other was written by a white woman. Still, there are similarities, not the least of which is that they both beg the question, "How far have we come since the Civil Rights movement?" Something we should all ponder in this country. I couldn't help wondering, while reading this, if Mosley chose to set his Easy Rawlins mysteries back in time because people wouldn't believe him if he wrote about how racist this country still is today (sort of the opposite of men setting their stories back in time in order to take advantage of the sexism of the era).

Anyway, I will no longer be hesitant to read another Easy Rawlins novel. (So many good mystery series, so little time... )

Thursday, June 14, 2012

A Controversial Post

I realized, when I was working on my last post, that I don't have any controversial posts here at Telecommuter Talk that stick out in my mind. Courtney has recently made the decision to be a little more brave at The Public, The Private, and Everything In Between, and I've decided to copy support her by doing the same. Be prepared. When I decide to be controversial, I, apparently, decide to go all the way. By the same token, when I decide to be controversial, it isn't because I necessarily think I'm right or that I have all the answers. What I really want to do is to open up a dialogue, to get others' thoughts, to find out where I might have errors in my thinking, and I certainly don't want to take my cue from television these days, whose sole goal seems to be to divide people and to get them to spew vitriol at each other. I'm in this world to learn and to grow and to (I hope) become a better person, and that means I need to listen to those who might think differently than I do and to be willing to change my mind, if necessary, or just to agree to disagree if their arguments don't convince me.

So, here is my controversial argument at its most basic: Americans are having too many children. It's the taboo environmental issue that no one wants to address, because, let's face it: who wants to tell people they shouldn't have (anymore) children? And yet, overpopulation is one of the most devastating environmental hazards. This planet may seem huge, but it definitely has its limits, one of which is that it can only hold so many creatures, and it can especially only hold so many of those creatures responsible for doing the most damage to it (i.e. human beings). The most obvious solution to this problem (and the one I'd most like to embrace)? Nobody should have more than one or two children. Those who want to have more than two should adopt.

I have to admit that I've not always felt this way. First of all, I'm the third of four children. Someone could easily say to me, "If your parents had stopped at two, you wouldn't have been born." Of course, I'm not someone who is busy changing the world, so if I had never been born, I'm sure it wouldn't have been a real tragedy, and I'd have no idea, having never existed, so I can't say I'd regret never having been born. Still, I'm pretty glad I've gotten to experience this life I've had, which I wouldn't have done if my parents had only had two children.

Back when I was in my mid-twenties, I had a roommate who only had one sister. She told me that her parents had firmly believed in the "replace ourselves" theory of having children: one child for each parent (very forward-thinking of them. She's my age. We were born before the first Earth Day, back when this subject was even more taboo than it is today). My roommate told me she would follow suit, and at the time, I remember thinking, "Only two kids?" In fact, when I first met Bob, I had pretty much the same reaction to his telling me that he has one brother, and that's it. "Only one sibling? Wasn't that lonely growing up? How did you play games like 'Clue' that require three or more players?"

I've learned a lot since those days, though. I've become much more concerned about environmental issues. I've attended environmental summits. I'm aware of how, as with almost everything else in the world, those who are poor are actually affected more severely by environmental hazards than those who aren't, and so I'm even more concerned than ever about the environment. I've read that some scientists believe we wouldn't have any environmental problems if it weren't for overpopulation, like one notes in a brief article here.

I never talk about one of the reasons that Bob and I decided not to have children, which is overpopulation. No, neither one of us was particularly dying to have children of our own, so that was one reason, but the more we read about overpopulation, the more we realized that those of us who weren't dying to have children shouldn't. If there were more of us choosing to be childless, then there'd be more room for those who want to have 3 (or even 4) children. Maybe if childless couples were celebrated for giving others this opportunity instead of being seen as defective, somehow, or being pitied, more people would choose to be childless. Maybe if we stopped trying to convince those who say they don't want kids with arguments like, "Oh, but it's so different when they're your own," and instead said, "Good for you for not bringing unwanted children into this word," we could start reducing the population.

Still, I'm not comfortable telling people that one reason Bob and I don't have kids is that I'm worried about overpopulation. Why? Well, how does that make us look, especially to friends who have 4 kids? It's like saying, "We care about the Earth, and you don't."

I'd like to solve this problem, but I'm not comfortable with the most obvious solution to it. I mean, I am all about the right to choose. That means the right to choose to have children (as many children as you'd like) as well as the right to choose not to have them. Also, I may be pro-choice, but I am (at heart) anti-abortion. Unwanted pregnancies, in my book, should be avoided at all costs, and abortions should be reserved for truly unwanted children, those who would enter this world on uneven ground from the get-go. I would hate to tell a woman who is beaming with the announcement that she's expecting her third child that she ought to have an abortion. I, of all people, having grown up in one, understand the desire to have a large, happy family -- station wagons (yes, station wagons. They're coming back, you know) packed with kids singing silly songs on long road trips, a backyard full of kids running around playing kick ball or catching fireflies, a tent in the backyard full of kids "camping out." The more the merrier.

I also understand that sometimes people make a mistake. They marry the wrong person at a young age. They have 2 kids and wind up divorced. Soon, they meet someone who is the true love of their lives. They want to have children with this person, and why shouldn't they? And who am I (or anyone) to say, "Sorry, you already had your two. You can't have anymore?"

I will say, though, that there is a point at which I have to admit I find myself thinking, "How selfish and irresponsible can you be?" I'm not talking about those who have three or four or even five kids. I'm talking about those who belong to the quiverfull movement, who turn to Biblical passages to justify having huge families, Biblical passages written back in the days when it made sense to have as many children as possible, because people were far less likely to make it to adulthood, and when they did, they lived much shorter lives. The human population could easily have died out in ancient times if everyone had decided only to have 2 children. There is absolutely no need, whatsoever, in 21st-century America to have upwards of 6 children. None. And I'm afraid I'm no good at all when it comes to that other little Biblical passage about "judging not" when I hear about people choosing to do so (when I was first told about the quiverfull movement, a couple of years ago, I'm quite sure I bruised my jaw, it hit the floor so hard).

I also wonder about the woman I know who had two lovely, lovely pre-teen daughters and decided she must have another child. She had another little girl, who, of course, was way too young to play with her sisters, both of whom were growing out of imaginary play and becoming interested in soccer, softball, and horseback riding. The woman decided to have a fourth child, so her third child "would have somebody," which means that, just when her two older daughters hit their teen years, a time when daughters really need their mothers, she was way too busy with a toddler and an infant to pay much attention to them. Is it any wonder that the older daughters, who'd shown such promise when they were younger, got in with the "wrong crowd," that one ended up being arrested for shoplifting, and that both (despite being extremely bright) decided college wasn't for them? I know I'm being horribly judgmental, but I can't help wondering why she felt that need to have those two other children when she already had two fantastic, healthy, and smart children? How might their lives have been different if she hadn't had those younger two kids? Or, if the need to have a larger family was so strong, how might their lives have been different if she and her husband had adopted some other children who were closer in age to her oldest daughters?

I don't understand why more people don't choose to adopt. If you've had a child and want more kids, why do those "more" necessarily have to be brought into this world by you? There are so many children all around the world who could benefit greatly by being adopted into a large, loving family. Parents who adopt kids are doing two goods: 1) giving a family to a child who has none and 2) helping to keep the population from growing.

No, I'm not comfortable telling people not to have more than two children. I would hate to see anyone try to enforce laws in this country, like the one-child policy in China, pertaining to such a personal choice. I do, however, think that people should be better educated about the devastating effects of overpopulation; that when it comes to family planning, environmental concerns ought to be taken into account; and that we need to put a new, much more positive spin on adoption as a choice, instead of continuing to enforce old, negative stereotypes. It also wouldn't hurt to applaud those who decide only to have one child, instead of running around asking them when they're going to have another (I think parents of only-children often have it even worse than those of us who are childless when it comes to insensitive questioning).

That's what I think. What do you think?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

7 x 7 Link Award Meme

My goodness. Litlove tagged me for this one way back in April. I'm certainly falling down on my job as The Queen o' Memes when it takes me this long to respond to a tag. Anyway, this is the "7 x 7 Link Award" meme. It could also be called the "Trip Down Memory Lane" meme, or the "Get People to Read Blog Posts of Mine They Might Never Have Read" meme. These are the rules:

1: Tell everyone something about yourself that nobody else knows.
2: Link to a post you think fits the following categories: The Most Beautiful Piece, Most Helpful Piece, Most Popular Piece, Most Controversial Piece, Most Surprisingly Successful Piece, Most Underrated Piece, Most Pride-worthy Piece.
3: Pass this on to 7 fellow bloggers.
1. Haven't I already done this so many times in the past six years that there can't possibly be anything about me that nobody else knows at this point? Let me think really hard. Nope, I just really can't think of anything that nobody knows about me. Here's something that a lot of people don't know about me, though: I read magazines cover-to-cover like books, never skipping any articles (although some I skim rather than read real carefully).
2. The Most Beautiful Piece: During the first year I was blogging, someone started the fantastic "I Am From" meme, which triggered some of the most beautiful writing out in the blogosphere at the time. Litlove chose her version of this for her most beautiful piece, and I'm following suit with my own version
Most Helpful Piece: Has there been anything I've written that has been all that helpful? I suppose if you've been called for Federal Jury Duty in Philadelphia, you might consider some of the information in this post helpful. Does anyone else remember my writing anything that was particularly helpful? If so, please share. I'd love to know.
Most Popular Piece: I find it hilarious that my most popular piece (and it has held this position basically since the day I wrote it) is a post that evolved from another meme. Anyone who is at all familiar with this blog has heard me say time and again that I am movie illiterate. Nonetheless, my take on the "100 Modern Classic Movies" meme gets more attention than anything else I've written here.
Most Controversial Piece: I haven't a clue. No matter what I write, no one ever seems to vehemently disagree with me. Maybe I need to start writing about more controversial topics. Here's one that I thought might be controversial, but it wasn't at all. In fact, it led to a number of us bloggers inventing the short-lived blog "What She Said." Again, anyone else ever remember my writing about anything that got any hackles up?
Most Surprisingly Successful Piece: I had no idea how many book sluts there were in the world until I wrote this post.
Most Underrated Piece: This one. I loved the book, and I love the way I used my photos from Maine in the post. Then again, maybe it's just because the whole thing reminds me of Maine.
Most Pride-Worthy Piece: I'm still amazed that I managed to pull off this "imitation as sincerest form of flattery" post. 
3. I'm not going to choose 7. If you're reading this and haven't already done it, consider yourself tagged by me (and let me know when you've done it. I want to read your answers and reminisce with you!).

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

For My Female Readers (And Brave Male Readers) Only

(Any male readers I might have, you are forewarned. This post is all about things men typically don't want to discuss.)

I'm 48 years old, and I had my last period in July 2010. That's nearly 2 years ago. Once a woman hasn't had her period for one year, she is considered to be menopausal. I've been busy thinking, "Man, was I lucky" when it comes to what I've always considered to be one of the worst parts of being a woman, because I didn't get my first period until I was 13 1/2 (I hear some poor kids are getting it as early as age 10 these days), and I wasn't even 50 when it ended.  Sorry. I know there are those who celebrate that special time of the month, and more power to you. I wish I could have been one of those lucky ones who felt exhilarated and creative once a month, but no. That wasn't my fate, and when you are someone who frequently suffered from PMS-induced depression and migraines to be followed by debilitating cramps that made her wish she had a morphine drip by her bed, well, you might understand why I consider myself lucky to be rid of such a nuisance, terribly lucky to have found herself on the lower end of the age-range for the onset of menopause.

The funny thing is I expected, based on all the information that surrounds menopause in our society, that it was going to be something awful -- the worst PMS I ever experienced threefold. I had visions of suddenly becoming suicidal over the fact that I could no longer bear children and had never had a child, or of losing all interest in sex, or of doing something crazy like leaving Bob and selling everything I own to go live in a commune. I thought I'd be cranking up the air conditioning even in the dead of winter, suffering from constant hot flashes that left me miserable. I thought I'd be so tired I'd sleep 15 hours a day or that my insomnia would be worse than ever, and I'd only sleep 3. I will admit that some of this has happened to some degree or other, but, really, I will take menopause over PMS and periods any day. In fact. my worst symptoms have been hot flashes and achy joints, which, once I read the terrific book What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Menopause by John R. Lee and Virginia Hopkins and discovered natural progesterone (not to be confused with any sort of progesterone prescription) have all but disappeared.

My own experience with menopause has led me to question why this period in a woman's life has gotten such a bad reputation. I can only surmise that it's jealousy on the part of the men who rule a patriarchal society. I mean, what could any man want more than to reach an age at which he can have all the sex he wants without ever having to worry about 2 a.m. feedings at the age of 67, say, or paying child support at age 82? Forget Freud's so misguided theories of penis envy (only a man could think up the idea that women wished they had penises. What women have always envied are the rights and privileges men have over women in almost all societies. We couldn't give a damn about having penises of our own. I'm sure I'm not the only woman in the world who much prefers having her sexual organs hidden, thank you), I'm convinced men suffer from menopause envy. Because of that, the male scientists and doctors who ruled those professions for so long (and who still do, really, although women continue to make great strides when it comes to breaking into these fields), have convinced women that menopause is much worse than it actually is.

At my last physical, when my doctor and I were discussing menopause, he (who is a great guy who always likes to joke around with Bob and me) said to me, "Funny how I never hear woman complain about no longer having their periods." I mean, why have we come to think of menopause as a bad thing? Those of us who have always suffered with our periods are finally relieved of them. On top of that, we never have to worry about miscalculating the date in any given month and winding up at some special event sans tampons only to discover that we desperately need them. And as far as that goes, I was, just last week. thinking, "Maybe I ought, finally, to get rid of all that once-a-month underwear." I hope you women know what I mean -- that old underwear you keep around for once-a-month because you don't care if it gets "ruined." If you are so inclined (and I most definitely am), you can go out and splurge on all kinds of lovely things at your nearest lingerie shop and never have to put them away for 5-7 days a month, or worry that you might accidentally wear and ruin them at the wrong time. And need I mention the biggest plus of all? You can have sex without having to worry about contraception (and I promise you, especially if you use natural progesterone and read certain books and watch certain movies, your interest doesn't vanish). Please, though, don't tell me about your grandmother who had her only child at age 54, certain by then she didn't need any contraception. I don't want to hear it (and, yes, someone actually did once tell me about such a grandmother).

Speaking of that grandmother who thought she was menopausal and suddenly had a child, I have to tell you about my WTF experience. Here I've been thinking, "No period for a year. I'm safe!" I'm busy buying all kinds of lovely underwear. Never a thought about contraception (something that might be needed when you buy nice, new underwear, which husbands notice in a way they never seem to notice, say, nice, new shoes). Three days ago, I wake up, go to the bathroom, and find myself saying, "Ohmigod, What's that?" as I look at the toilet paper I used to wipe myself. It's an oh-so-familiar sight, and yet I've become so unused to seeing it, I couldn't believe it. Further investigation proved that, yes, I definitely had my period. After nearly two years? Damn! Damn! Damn! Did I even remember how to put in a tampon (from the reserve I kindly keep around the house in case I have any visiting friends who unexpectedly get a visitor of their own)? Yes (it's like riding a bicycle).

That, my friends, is the one great downside of menopause. It's a fickle friend. You never, apparently, do know exactly when you're safe. You can go nearly two years without a period and then suddenly have one. Be careful. My skepticism (so very strong when I was 27) when it comes to menopausal pregnancies is waning. My even bigger question: when can I finally get rid of that once-a-month underwear?