Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Reality TV Lexicon

Some of you may not know that I am an enthusiastic, nay, even avid, consumer of a careful selection of reality TV shows. Each week, I watch Project Runway (in all of its variations), Top Chef, and -- never have I been happier to write under a pseudonym -- The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

Since you, my gentle readers, are all in fact readers, I'm guessing few of you ever watch reality television in all its bleeped-out, hair-pulling glory, but it has a lot to offer the student of sociology or someone who simply finds stupid people funny. It's also well-nigh incomprehensible to the casual viewer.

To help those of my readers who'd like to occasionally climb down from the lofty heights of criticism and mingle with the media hoi polloi, I've compiled a partial lexicon of the most commonly misused and abused words in reality TV, hoping that you can benefit from my hard-won experience.

actual meaning: lacking in knowledge; unlearned
meaning on TV: holding a different opinion from the person who hurls this epithet; unsympathetic
usage: "She thinks it's wrong that I had sex with her boyfriend and stole her clothes? She's just ignorant."
explanation: This word is a shortcut for "You don't like me for some perfectly rational reason related to my own behavior or character. As I'm incapable of backing up my point of view in a reasonable, logical manner, and am in fact ignorant myself of the rules of debate and grammar, I am going to pretend that you just aren't aware of some salient fact and that I am obviously in the right, thus fallaciously implying that there is only one right-thinking way to approach this matter." For further examples of usage, please see any mainstream media outlet (cf. bigoted).

actual meaning: experiencing human feeling; not being a robot
meaning on TV: upset
usage: "My mom would be so proud of me for finishing second to last in the competition, because she spent her whole life dreaming of a better life for me while she crawled uphill both ways to her job in the cyanide factory in Cuba. I'm so emotional right now."
explanation: We can only assume that these people experience only one emotion. Subtext: the person experiencing emotion is clearly more sensitive than other people, and therefore superior.

actual meaning: reflexive first-person pronoun
meaning on TV: any first-person pronoun
usage: "We went to the strip club to audition, but that ignorant [bleep] didn't hire Bambi or myself. I'm so emotional right now."
explanation: As myself has two syllables, and thus contains one more than the majority of words known by the typical reality-TV speaker, it functions as the linguistic equivalent of drinking Alizé because it has a French-sounding name. The insertion of myself into a sentence nicely distinguishes the user from the low-class types who prefer to use the common I, or even worse, the utterly pedestrian me. This tactic works just about as well as every other self-announcement of high social status does (cf. bling).

actual meaning: the only, sole example
meaning on TV: high-class; expensive
usage: "I'm a very unique person, and that's why I drink Alizé. Anyone who thinks that makes myself a whore is just ignorant."
explanation: Ignorance. In general, the word unique will be prefaced with a varying number of verys. If something is high-class enough to be unique, then that quality will be communicated far more clearly by calling it very, very unique.

actual meaning: a vivid or striking series of events; literature meant to be produced on stage
meaning on TV: fighting over a man who's sleeping, or suspected of sleeping, with at least two women
usage: "I told that ignorant [bleep] not to start any drama with myself and stay away from my husband! I'm sorry, I can't talk about this any more. I'm so emotional right now."
explanation: As Sophocles, perhaps one of history's greatest dramatists, once said: "Only an ignorant whore believes that a man who has once cheated will remain faithful in the future. Oh great Zeus, I'm so emotional right now."

Monday, January 14, 2013

Monday Classic: Mansfield Park

Author: Jane Austen
Genre: General Fiction
Original Pub. Date: 1814

In one of the more twee passages (and that's saying a lot) from one of the many Anne of Green Gables books, I recall Anne maundering on about how different books made her want to eat foods that seemed to match the content. Since this stuck with me, I guess I have to admit I agree; bread and cheese with Robert Louis Stevenson books, wine and cake with The Hobbit, maybe sushi with Moby-Dick?

Since whatever food goes with Saturday's Kushiel's Dart would probably taste like the back room of an adult bookstore smells, I'm going to get those images out of my head and cleanse my literary palate with a piece of chocolate, a nice fresh cup of hot tea, and some bitching about my least favorite Jane Austen novel: Mansfield Park.

For whatever reason, Sense and Sensibility (my second least favorite*) gets read quite a bit in universities. I think it's because S & S is possibly the drabbest of Austen's books, and academics don't feel like they're doing their jobs if they write criticism of books it's possible they, or anyone else, might enjoy.** Hence, we have extensive criticism of The Great Gatsby, but not so much of, say, P.G. Wodehouse's Carry On, Jeevesboth of which were published in 1925 and feature upper-class characters who drink too much involved in awkward romantic entanglements.

Mansfield Park, on the other hand, inhabits a miserable literary no man's land: it's both slightly too lively for most English professors to want to teach and far too dull for most people to want to read. I have no proof of this, but I'm betting it's the least-known of any of Austen's six major works as a result.

For any readers who have not read this book and are actually going to read my rant about it anyway, here's a quick summary from Wikipedia, because I see no reason to write it all over again myself.

And now we can summarize the summary. Henry Crawford, a rich, handsome, charming, funny, intelligent young man, is in love with Fanny, our dull heroine, and wants to marry her. She refuses him. Why? She doubts his morality, because he flirted with both of her girl cousins, one of whom was engaged. How very shocking! Let us all take a moment to imagine what an unattached young man who thinks himself too good to flirt with a pretty girl would be like. Hopefully, anyone with some slight grasp of normal human nature has pictured an unbearably self-righteous bore who probably hero-worships Fanny Burney's douchey Edgar Mandlebert.

That bore? Personified by the hero of Mansfield Park, Fanny's cousin Edmund, who's in love with Henry's sister Mary throughout most of the book. I realize attraction isn't, by its nature, logical. But really, by the middle of Mansfield Park, I lost all patience with Fanny. What could be less appealing than a guy who's always going on and on about some other woman's beauty? A guy who moans all the time about how that beautiful woman isn't good enough for him, that's what. And yet Fanny continues to mope around, longing for Edmund, despite his sullen, entitled Madonna/whore obsession with another girl.

In the end, Fanny finally convinces Henry to leave her alone, much to the disgust of her relatives, who think she's completely insane. (At this point, I was right there with them.) Henry, in a fit of pique, toddles off to London and runs away with Fanny's now-married cousin Maria. Any hopes I had that Fanny would come around and marry him were now dashed; even I, whose morality would make Fanny faint dead away, wouldn't want a novel's heroine to marry her bitchy cousin's ex-lover. For a moment, the reader is left to think that perhaps Fanny will end her days a sad spinster.

But no! What luck! Mary fails to utterly condemn her brother as a useless, worthless, demonic sub-human who deserves to die. Edmund, sent into hysterics by her semi-realistic view of the world, flees home to whine, yet again, to poor long-suffering Fanny (that idiot) about how miserable he is, now that the beautiful girl he loves is proven to be even less worthy of his perfect, perfect self.

I know what Austen was trying to do with the end of Mansfield Park. The idea, of course, is that Edmund realizes that the perfect girl was right there all along; he sees that his love for Fanny is pure and true; his parents finally understand that virtue in a cottage is so much more valuable than a worldly marriage for money, passion, excitement, good conversation, and other horridly vulgar things; and everyone lives happily ever after.

Here's what I saw happen at the end of Mansfield Park: Edmund realizes that he's too boring and uptight to attract a really desirable woman. He sees that Fanny's love for him is pure and true, and that if he marries her, he'll have someone fussing over his meals and selflessly mending his shirts until she goes blind for the rest of his life. His parents understand that if they want to have two people with nothing better to do than run their errands for the rest of their lives, sticking their sanctimonious son and his goody two-shoes wife in a vicarage down the road will work out really well. Everyone lives happily ever after.

This book just makes me so spitting mad every time I read it. It still gets three and a half stars, because it's a good novel in many ways, but the better Austens would each get five.

* Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey (yes, Mom, I know Emma is technically better than both of my first picks), Emma, Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park.

** This also applies to high school reading lists, as I've discussed previously.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Kushiel's Dart

Author: Jacqueline Carey
Genre: Fantasy/Erotica
Original Pub. Date: 2001

Today's bad fantasy fun comes straight from the smallest box of books in my house: the reject box headed for resale. Kushiel's Dart is a 901-page* excuse for a generally unimaginative series of S&M sex scenes, scattered throughout far, far too many words purporting to comprise a complex spy thriller/royal court plot. To put it more simply: you get ten pages of people getting tied up naked for every hundred pages of dull, melodramatic misunderstanding of Renaissance politics.

And all those hundreds of pages, let me hasten to emphasize, really only exist so that Kushiel's Dart and its many overwrought sequels can be shelved under science fiction/fantasy rather than erotica.

The heroine of these books is a high-class prostitute in a country (loosely based on France, if France were an even wussier place than it really is -- do try to imagine that if you possibly can) whose entire ethos comes from the fatuous pronouncement of a legendary angel: "Love as thou wilt." Wow, man, like, that's so deep, let's all just come together, shall we? Literally or figuratively, your choice.

If that's not already enough to make you vomit, this same heroine is also perfectly beautiful and lovable and delicate, yet strong yet honorable yet fragile, and yet, because of a magical curse/blessing that causes a little red dot in the white of her eye, she can also only really enjoy sex when she's playing the submissive to someone's violent dom. That's about it as far as character development goes: Disney princess meets Vivid Video up-and-comer. So to speak.

Because of some stuff that really doesn't matter involving a queen and some spies -- or something -- our virtuous yet vixenish femme fatale finds herself at the mercy of an aristocrat who's a devotee of the patron angel of sadistic sex (this fantasy world just gets more and more appealing, doesn't it?). She also picks up with several other lovers, at least two of them messed-up young men who actually, sexy angels help them, fall in love with her. Then there's her capture by a barbarian obsessed with a sword-and-sorcery version of Cosmopolitan's Book of Awesome Sex Positions, which really adds the dash of sophistication Kushiel's Dart was missing.

Much as I try to resist sinking into a quagmire of feminist academic criticism, this is one occasion on which, sexy angels now please help us all, it's almost impossible. Here we have a female protagonist whose entire worth  to society and to her friends is predicated on her inability not to orgasm when she's raped, humiliated, and degraded. It's not her fault, please keep in mind! This was ordained by a sexy angel of masochism, and so of course she's going to enjoy it.

And because this is just the way she is, she's excused from having any moral agency. The guy who's willing to fight to the death for her, whom she claims to love in return . . . weeeeel, you know, she may have cheated on him with eight guys with whips. But that's fine, you see, because she's just a stupid woman chosen by a sexy angel, which means she doesn't actually have any free will outside of her hormones.

Sadly, I think the author was probably trying to make a point about sexual liberation, and how women can be worthy of love without being virginal and/or prudish. I agree. They can. However, that point of view depends on women having a choice about they way they express their sexuality, or don't. According to what I think Carey believes about the world, the patriarchy has historically taken away women's sexual agency and made them pawns in men's sexual games. Now, in this much-improved fantasy world, angels take away women's sexual agency so that they can be used as pawns in men's sexual games. Oh. Okay. Despite the bondage trappings, Kushiel's Dart has the same general ethos as a Harlequin Presents novel circa 1975.**

On top of this old-school romance-novel view of women's value, Carey has added an entirely contemporary problem: defining everyone, male or female, primarily by their sexuality. The heroine of Kushiel's Dart is a submissive royalist courtesan; her favorite boyfriend is sworn to celibacy, and also good with knives. The main villain is a dominatrix who's plotting to take over the world. And so on. The first, and in many cases the only, traits of the characters in this book are sexual. You have certainly, dear readers, met people who define themselves as "bisexual progressives" or "gay Republicans" or "lesbian Hispanic-Americans." In addition to being a cocktail-party bore of the first water, anyone whose first personal descriptor involves something he likes to do in bed is a tedious protagonist.

The result is a book so shallow, so lacking in any interest beyond the prurient, that it really ought to be shelved next to the works of the Marquis de Sade. His books, while equally dull, contain just slightly more rape.

Although it's really redundant, Kushiel's Dart has one more glaring weakness. Unlike the good Marquis, Carey uses a mismatched mish-mash of Christian, Jewish, and mythological linguistic references in an attempt to apply a patina of moral and literary legitimacy to the whole mess. The only "character development" that takes place does so through sex; the celibate fellow becomes less celibate, for example. And the author seems to be trying to convince the reader that having lots and lots of deviant sex with lots of people is actually an expression of these characters' spirituality, such as it is. Angels made them do it, if you know what I mean, which makes the doing of it somehow meaningful.

If an angel made a tree fall in the forest and kill a French prostitute, after which the tree was chopped up into pulp and made into a Jacqueline Carey novel, would that make the death of the tree a martyrdom? Ponder that at length, if you please, while I give this book a well-deserved one and a half stars and then fling it back into the discard box.

* In this paperback edition.

** If anyone would like further explication of this point, an email to me will elicit the full text of my college thesis, "Rereading the Romance: Masculinity in Transition." I strongly advise against sending such an email.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

No Reviews Here

I've realized, since starting this blog, that there's no way I'll ever review all the books I read. Even the Two-Haiku Reviews can only get me so far through the backlog. What are the chances, for example, that I will ever review Rosamond Marshall's 1946 erotic romp Duchess Hotspur, which features decorated pubic hair, a lusty newspaper man, and an array of charmingly Cockneyesque servants, all mingling in (as I recall) 18th century London? Or some of my beloved Rafael Sabatini's lesser-known works, such as the massively underrated Dumas rip-off Saint Martin's Summer? Or any one of the many Harlequin Presents romance novels I used to write my college thesis, like The Italian's Rags-to-Riches Wife, or Possessed by the Sheik?

In the spirit of Christmas, then, since I don't have my bulging bookshelves on hand (holiday travel, folks, sorry), and to help me give you the gift that keeps on giving -- angry reviews of crappy books no one can understand why I would read in the first place -- I present you with a short list of recommendations. I may or may not ever trouble to review these books, and some of you (Hi, Mom!!) almost never like the books I recommend in the first place. This, then, is for the other two of you.

Hopefully, the list includes a few obscure enough books to offer something new for everyone. I've placed asterisks and the occasional 1/2 star by each title; they represent the rough star rating I'd give to each. I haven't reviewed any of these, and they're presented in no particular order within the categories.


Lyonesse, The Green Pearl, and Madouc, by Jack Vance *****

The Temeraire series, by Naomi Novik *** (This is particularly for Mr. Fan; I think Mrs. Fan might also enjoy having parts of this series read aloud over coffee. She'll like the dragons.)

The Briar King (and its three sequels), by Greg Keyes ***

Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon ***1/2 (This could also go under romance or historical fiction; just a warning for any readers who may fear girl-cooties.)

Five Children and It, by E. Nesbit ****

The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch ***1/2 (WARNING: this is a series, and there is no guarantee it will ever be finished. There are only two books so far. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.)

Science Fiction:

The Demon Princes (five books in one collection), by Jack Vance *****

The Purple Cloud, by M.P. Shiel ****

The Caves of Steel (and its sequels, The Naked Sun and The Robots of Dawn), by Isaac Asimov ***1/2

The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick ****

Historical Fiction (this includes Romance):

My Dearest Enemy, by Connie Brockway *** (more on the romance side)

Scaramouche and Scaramouche the Kingmaker, by Rafael Sabatini ***** (more on the kick-ass side)

The Adventures of Brigadier Gerard (there are various collections of these stories under different names), by Arthur Conan Doyle *****

Faro's Daughter, by Georgette Heyer ***1/2 (Regency romance)

The Black Arrow, by Robert Louis Stevenson ****1/2

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (and its many sequels), by C.S. Forester ***** (Do not, under any circumstances whatever, including a gun to your head, a promise of instant relief from crippling heartburn, or simple insanity, pick up Patrick O'Brien's knockoff series beginning with the hideously overrated Master and Commander instead. Just don't. Unless you like suspiciously frequent and unveiled references to buggery embedded in what those of us who read crappy genre fiction like to call workmanlike prose, that is, in which case, carry on. Look for a Literary Showdown post about this one of these days.)

General Fiction:

The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield ***

The Virginian, by Owen Wister ****

The Petty Demon, by Fyodor Sologub ****

The Charioteer, by Mary Renault ****1/2

Happy reading! And to entertain you while Amazon processes your credit card or Project Gutenberg supplies you with a free download, here's a Devo video. I can't so much as think about Asimov's The Caves of Steel without getting this stuck in my head for two days. Now you can too. You're welcome!