The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Reading The Paying Guests is like tpgwalking into Season 3 of Downton Abbey, minus whatever posh is left. Or… maybe it’s more like a first-person female view from within The Great Gatsby (again, minus the posh). It’s not exactly beach reading, despite all of the scandal it contains; it passes for literature – in fact, it’s arguably made of much higher quality writing than Gatsby.

Set in 1922 post-war London, the opening scenes denote threadbare respectability in the houshold of a young woman named Frances, who is keeping a house for her mother after the deaths of her father and both brothers. Funds are tight, bills are piling, and to make ends meet Frances decides that they should take in paying guests. She has the upstairs of their home converted into an apartment, with the only shared area to be the water closet.

On finding a suitable young couple (Len and Lilian Barber) to let out the upstairs apartment, mother and daughter attempt to establish the proper level of familiarity – in small instances, neither of them is quite certain what the appropriate level of distance is between them and the strangers in such close proximity to them. They all see one another in passing, they all hear one another through walls and ceilings. Inevitably, a friendship soon springs up between Frances and the young Lilian Barber, and their small intimacies soon lead to larger ones, resulting in some very elegantly written sensual scenes between the two of them. At one point in the book, Frances tells Lilian, “Some things are so frightful that a bit of madness is the only sane response.”

There’s a lot of beauty admidst the squalor in this book, and I struggled – as I suspect readers are meant to – with balancing the moral aspects of Frances and Lilian’s affair. I have no qualms about same-sex coupling, but I do strongly dislike the dishonesty involved in their relationship. There are countless small deceits between Frances and her mother, Lilian and her husband, Lilian and Frances. After their first interlude, Lilian says “It didn’t seem strange, it didn’t seem wrong. I didn’t think of Len, [her husband] not for a moment. I know it’s wicked of me, but I didn’t. It doesn’t seem anything to do with him. It doesn’t seem anything to do with anyone but us, does it?”

Deceit may be the largest theme of the book, as it underlies every element of the plot throughout. The small deceits finally crescendo about halfway through the book and a tragic episode leaves Frances, detectives, and the reader trying to untangle them to reach the true meaning of it all.

All in all, I’d recommend this book to anyone able to tolerate a morally questionable protagonist for sake of probing deeper questions of meaning – or, for sake of a well-crafted story. I can’t say that I was left satisfied with the ending, but maybe you will be.

As always, all of the books I write about are purchased for my own gratification and I receive no compensation for my reviews. If you do decide to read The Paying Guests, I’d be thrilled if you would purchase it through my link as I will receive an infinitesimal commission if you do.


Gone Girl

Do you ever leave books on your to-read list for so long that they make a movie out of it before you read the book? That’s what happened with Gone Girl. When I was scoping out movies to see, I saw the trailer:

I wanted to see the movie, so I had to hurry up and read the book.

Bottom line up front: the movie is better. I realize how that sounds. Bear with me, here.

First off, both are disappointing. I’d tell you why, but… spoilers. So here’s the gist, without the spoil.

Gillian Flynn is more of a TV/movie person than a book person. She refers to herself as a “movie geek with a journalism degree.” Her writing style is very tabloid readable, and clearly shaped by her time at Entertainment Weekly. (Check out this TV-style promo site.) She acknowledges that her characters are generally “difficult to like,” and she refers to Gone Girl as a “twisty, noirish thriller.”

There’s nothing wrong with her writing itself, but there is something drastically wrong with her content.

You probably already know the basis of the plot, but just in case, here’s a brief synopsis: Amy Dunne goes missing on her 5th wedding anniversary, and her husband Nick is the primary suspect in her disappearance, not only because the husband is always a suspect, but because she left behind a journal detailing their ‘Amazing Amy’ relationship, her devotion to him, and finally her fear of him.

SPOILER ALERT: The first part of the book is Amy’s journal. The second part of the book is a first-person narrative from the POV of the agonized husband, worried about his wife, stunned that the general public seems to think that he has killed her, and then finally realizing the truth of the situation he is in. Finally, it shifts back to Amy herself… Yes, that’s right. Amy. The POV goes back to first person AMY. Who’s biding her time doing useful things like telling us “One should never marry a man who doesn’t own a decent set of scissors. That would be my advice. It leads to bad things.” Who’s framed her innocent husband for her murder to punish him for not understanding/fulfilling her enough (and for having an affair after she’s pushed him away), taken off with a wad of cash and an intent to kill herself only the better to frame him, gets robbed of her cash and calls up an obsessed but equally innocent ex-lover to help her out, and frames and kills him when she decides that she misses her husband and that “My greedy, stupid, irresponsible parents can finally pay back my trust fund. With interest,” so it’s time to go home. In the end of both versions of the story, her actions are rewarded – in the movie, her husband’s attorney finally tells him to thank her for the increase in business he’ll get when Lifetime picks up her story. In both accounts, she has managed a pregnancy with a frozen sperm sample he’d long forgotten about, and though he despises her, between the media attention and the soon-to-be-baby, he can’t leave. They’re back to being the perfect couple. Except… she’s completely psycho. In real life, he should have been able to prove her crimes and prosecute her, escape to seek treatment for the abuse she inflicted on him, and moved on happily in life with someone else if he so chose. This book is beyond an homage to dysfunction: it’s an endorsement of gender-specific abuse.

Why is the movie better than the book? Gillian Flynn’s ideas lend themselves better to film than print. And at the end of the day, it moves faster, so it’s less of a waste of time. I’m sure that the reason both book and movie are so popular is their shock value, but Gillian Flynn – talented author – has given wings to the “psycho bitch” phrase that angry men utter at women around the world. For that alone, I can’t like either book or movie regardless of their entertainment value.

“No one wants to think that they’ve raised anything but the perfect child.” - Gillian Flynn


The Thing About the World…

So, I haven’t been writing. And I’ve been super happy. And then, suddenly, I’m not. I think it’s the drastic pressure of yet another impending court date with my ex, and the knowledge that he does things like mining my Facebook and my blogs for anything he can use against me (and if I write the wrong thing here this very minute, he will file it in evidence), and just the general disagreeableness of his demeanor and the fact that we can’t really actively coparent but I still have to make attempts, and the knowledge that no matter how much I try, I can’t make things in this situation okay. What do you even do with a thing like that? You grin and make the best of it, and just try. But it’s exhausting. I’m starting to wonder if I’m going to be in court with this guy every year because he doesn’t seem to have anything better to do. If someone is just really determined to disagree with you or dislike you, what’s the appropriate response to that? I am really, really tired of this, and of the underlying pretense that he’s trying. He’s quite clearly not trying to coparent; he’s just out for a fight. I feel like WWII Poland dealing with a very determined Nazi Germany. And I don’t even know what Poland could have done differently. The futility is exhausting. The lack of change is exhausting. And trying to counterbalance all of that with the almost perfect new life with Danny is confuddling, to say the least. The contrast makes me appreciate him so much more – and it also probably stinks for him to have to deal with the aftermath of my ex, and my ex’s constant presence in my life. But it very definitely stinks for me, and I’m totally sure the way my ex and I relate stinks for our son. And I don’t think there’s any fixing it. In a normal situation, people that don’t get along or want to stay married can part ways, and if they share children, they can communicate about things that affect those children; we can’t do that, for reasons I’ll never fully comprehend. There is a fundamental problem with the way that the legal precedents are set for domestic violence and abuse situations: people that are mentally and emotionally ill enough to be abusers often end up using their children as pawns in their sick games of control. My child is more than a way for his father to torment me.


The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists

bookcoversmLast year, a good friend of mine talked me into buying a copy of The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists.  Oz isn’t a hard sell, but the idea of Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is. The question I asked myself was, is being a jerk really a disorder? The answer, apparently, is yes.

From Wikipedia:

Symptoms of this disorder, as defined by the DSM-IV-TR include:[1]

  • Expects to be recognized as superior and special, without superior accomplishments
  • Expects constant attention, admiration and positive reinforcement from others
  • Envies others and believes others envy him/her
  • Is preoccupied with thoughts and fantasies of great success, enormous attractiveness, power, intelligence
  • Lacks the ability to empathize with the feelings or desires of others
  • Is arrogant in attitudes and behavior
  • Has expectations of special treatment that are unrealistic

As it turns out, I know a couple of people that fit this description and then some, so the book’s many suggestions for relating to, being in a relationship with, or remaining family with someone with NPD were helpful to me.

From the book:
“Your unfounded guilt can be your worst enemy, causing you to try one more time to make him happy.” “On the codependent side of the coin, many individuals in England and America were similarly blinded by their righteous attachment to their “pacifist” ideologies- to such a point that they could not recognize the inevitable danger to their own free society. Like the entrenched codependent with the NPD individual, these groups regularly called for soul searching and an ever-increasing intention to reason with Hitler, to prevent conflict.” Get your copy here.   Get your copy here.

oz


Who is Danny Birt?

Excuse me while I fangirl for a minute. I was going through old blog drafts, and I ran across this one from February 7th, which is the first time I really actually hung out with this Danny Birt guy mentioned in the title of this post. I don’t actually really read fantasy novels (unless you count the year-long ordeal that was me suffering through Eragon), I’d never heard of “filking” (it’s not as dirty as it sounds), and I had just gone to my first even Fan convention: MarsCon. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a geek. I’m probably too cool to even be a proper nerd (I can’t hear you, Peanut Gallery). But I was bored, I knew people that were going, and the theme was Twisted Fairy Tales. If there’s any theme I can get down with, it’s that one. Into the Woods, anyone? 3

So a really nifty (kinda nerdy) guy (not Danny) asked me to go, and I went. (Ladies, he is one of the good ones, and I’d be happy to pass your info along to him if you’re in the market.)

There were all kinds of amazing costumes, including one young couple dressed as Jareth and Sarah from the Labyrinth. I got sorted into Ravenclaw. There was at least one Dalek. And there were lots and lots of writery workshops and panels to attend.

One of the panels featuring Elizabeth Brooks was somewhat interactive: a table full of writers had to rewrite fairy tales with audience-imposed elements or limitations. On a timer. All of the authors were talented, but one of them was very, very funny. His tale was the only one that was completely finished in the allotted time, and it was by far (in my opinion) the most entertaining. He rewrote Goldilocks to include a dragon. Immediately, I had the sense that he was a person that I should know. But I didn’t know him. So I went on about my business.

Then, I went to hear some music – and lo and behold, he was there, singing hysterically funny song parodies. And I thought, I should probably get to know this person (and possibly marry him and have his babies). Instead, I left without saying a word to him, knowing that he’d be returning to his home in another state after the convention was over. Three weeks later, I looked him up on Facebook and sent him a message letting him know I was ‘stalking’ him. Turns out, he hadn’t left the state, and was still staying in my city. I asked him if we could meet for lunch, and when we met he was completely oblivious of my interest and expressed curiosity as to why I’d wanted to see him. So I interviewed him. I mean, what else is a girl supposed to do?

Here’s the interview as it went:

Who is Danny Birt?

After spending a couple of hours with him, I’m absolutely positive that I don’t know the answer to that question. What I do know is that he is funny.

He’s a writer:

RocBirt
A pianist, and a filker (which isn’t nearly as naughty as it sounds):
OtterDanny
And a licensed music therapist. And he’s a pretty interesting person.

Which authors have influenced you most?
Tolkein, Stephen Hawking, Terry Pratchett and Patrick Rothfuss – Name of the Wind was the best fanatasy book that I have read in the last decade. Once I was done reading it, I couldn’t write for a few days because I’ve never been so blown away… It was just just so fresh.

Influential musicians include:
Beethoven, Sigur Ros, Paul van Dyk.

Favorite movies:
Amadeus, Memoirs of a Geisha, Shawshank Redepmtion, Lilo & Stitch

What kind of socks are you wearing? Goldtoe
What color? black

If you seal anything in the world, what would you steal?
Nothing?

Okay if you could acquire anything you don’t already have?
I would acquire sufficient money that I would be able to take care of my needs and the needs of those close to me that I could move forward for the rest of my life. Or, I would steal a better answer to this question.

How do you feel about trench coats?
They can be very warm.

Do you have anything to add?
Look up the singer/songwriter ‘Power Salad’ and his song ‘My Cat is Afraid of the Vaccuum Cleaner’. And if you think you’re able to judge me correctly by this blog, you’re probably wrong.

What happened after the ‘interview’? “I want to write stuff with you,” I breathed. And so we collaboratively wrote a flash fic ending with the line, “The inexplicable smile on the corpse of Martini helped, too.” And then a lot of other things happened, and then more things after that, eventually resulting in him becoming my boyfriend and me even reading some fantasy stuff he wrote. I have pretty high hopes for a Happily Ever After with Danny Birt; after all, I found him in a Fairy Tale.
More after the jump:
db2

I’m completely biased, but I think everything Danny has ever written/played/created is brilliant and you should check it all out. You can (and should) find Danny’s newest book Beginning a Beginning here, his children’s/young adult book about a Dragon raised by a family of birds here, and his awesome new sylph story (my favorite) in Bad-Ass Faeries: It’s Elemental here. He also has five albums out, and you can check all of them out at The Scribbling Lion.

UPDATE: I realize that a lot of you also have interest in stalking Danny now (I’m a trendsetter like that) and the easiest way to stalk him is through his website. Easy-peasy.


Truth # 3 – “Yes, I know what you think of me. You never shut up.”

Alright, World. We all know you think we’re pretty. Or not. We know what you think of our appearance because we hear a constant stream of feedback (or a lack thereof, which is an equally clear message) from the time we’re tiny tots, and we know what it means; we’ve already absorbed it.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this lately. Your image is your personal brand, sure. Attractive people have an easier time at life, apparently: they have an easier time finding jobs (and even have their own job site), they supposedly make more money, everyone wants to talk to them, and studies have been done that prove good looking people are considered more trustworthy. But, to be blunt, being pretty is a huge pain in the ass.

Please do not think that I’m bragging when I say this, because this has nothing to do with me and everything to do with society as a whole: I hear I’m pretty every time I leave the house. Every. Single. Time. Even when I go to the 711 in my Muppet pajamas with uncombed hair and glasses, I get hit on.  And it doesn’t say a damn thing about me. I’m not a supermodel. I don’t dress like one. I’m not asking for your attention or for your constant commentary on my appearance. In fact, odds are good that I don’t give a fig what you think of how I look. And if you lead into a conversation with anything about my appearance, you are definitely not getting my number. Please, for the love of all the gods of the multiverse, stop being this guy:
“Damn. DAMN! OH DAMN! Ok, ok, ok… Uh, yeah, I just wanna let you know the back of your head is  RIDICULOUS!”

The other night I met an acquaintance for a drink and some live music, and our conversation was like riding a merry-go-round. He ran the usual conversational circuit that consists of “tell me about yourself, why are you single, would you go out with me” questions. He made an awkward compliment, and I laughed at him, so he explained that he has a tough time complimenting girls and started talking about this one time he failed on complimenting a girl’s hair. Sensing an opportunity to make a difference in the world, I smiled broadly and said, “You know, we all hear we’re pretty ALL THE TIME; most girls would much rather have you say something about their intellect, or the conversation.”

What I’d said was apparently gibberish to him, because his response was, “So… you, personally… Would you rather have someone compliment you on your sweet personality, or something?”

The perplexed, evaluative look on his poor muddled face was a bookend to the frustrated one on mine as I repeated myself: “Or, you know, my INTELLECT OR CONVERSATION.”

He nodded, scrunched up his nose like he was taking bad medicine, and said, “I was just going to tell you that I really enjoyed your conversation.”

I have a lot of conversations like that one, and I have a lot of one-sided conversations where I talk about literature or feminism or religion and the person that I’m talking to responds with something about my appearance. That isn’t complimentary; it makes me feel like I wasn’t heard. If you respond to a statement I make with something about my appearance, you’re probably: a) not listening, b) think it’s just so cute that the pretty but stupid girl is using big words. Neither of those things makes me feel connected to you.

My friend Courtney posted a revolutionary quote on her Facebook page a couple of days ago:

“You don’t have to be pretty. You don’t owe prettiness to anyone. Not to your boyfriend/spouse/partner, not to your co-workers, especially not to random men on the street. You don’t owe it to your mother, you don’t owe it to your children, you don’t owe it to civilization in general. Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked ‘female’.”


This comes from Dress a Day, and the full post is fantastic. Go read it. Right now. I’ll wait.

Most women do go out of their way to be pretty. We wax our eyebrows, paint our nails, pierce our ears, wear shoes that make absolutely no sense whatsoever. And it’s fun. But we don’t do it for you. We do it for us (and maybe that one guy we like). The rest of you can stop admitting you notice any time now, and save us the trouble of making a lame response.

“Know then that the body is merely a garment.
Go seek the wearer, not the cloak.”

~ Rumi


Truth # 2 – The Devil

“A tale that begins with a beet must end with the devil,” Tom Robbins tells us in the beginning of Jitterbug Perfume (one of the best books ever written in the English language). “The beet is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious. Slavic peoples get their physical characteristics from potatoes, their smoldering inquietude from radishes, their seriousness from beets. The beet is the melancholy vegetable, the one most willing to suffer. You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip… The beet is the murderer returned to the scene of the crime. The beet is what happens when the cherry finishes with the carrot. The beet is the ancient ancestor of the autumn moon, bearded, buried, all but fossilized; the dark green sails of the grounded moon-boat stitched with veins of primordial plasma; the kite string that once connected the moon to the Earth now a muddy whisker drilling desperately for rubies… A tale that begins with a beet must end with the devil.”  

jitterbug_perfume

The truth is, I’ve kissed a few devils, and in my experience they do seem to share some similarities with beets.  A beet appears ordinary at a glance, but beneath the surface lies something that can stain anything it touches. Beets are often served in their own cloyingly sweet cooked syrup , and true to life the more popularly palatable way to serve them diminishes their beneficial qualities. Finally, beets have their selling points: apart from their obvious intensity, they’re also good for us on some levels

 

339546_2382223511392_630146848_o

While I could go on comparing the natures of various devils, it seems to me that there are greater evils that lurk in our relationships with beings of all kinds: comparison and expectation.

“Comparison is the thief of joy,” we hear again and again. It’s true.  Comparison is closely related to expectation; we categorize both produce and people so that we know what we’re likely to see from them. Comparisons are useful in many ways – there’s a reason they happen – but they’re also very limiting. Expecting someone you’ve just met to behave like someone you’ve met before means that odds are good you’re not seeing them for who they really are: themselves.

My resolution for 2014 is to learn to see people as individuals instead of holding them up to others and trying to anticipate their next move. Less forest, more trees. The twin to this resolution is to decrease the amount of insight I expect others to have on any comparative basis (which is to say, pretty much all of it). This will free me up to believe in people a little bit more – to give people the benefit of the doubt – to hope for great things from them. Here’s to 2014.

wonderful

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