Category Archives: books

The author my son and husband BOTH dislike

Image result for perdido street stationOne of my favorite fantasy series is China Mieville’s “New Crobuzon” trilogy: Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council.  This is the steampunk and magic laced world with a corrupt capitalist government, where social, racial and cultural differences are exploited for the political and fiscal gain of the corrupt upper echelons of the city (a familiar story).  The city of New Crobuzon itself is an alternate existence of London, dense with neighborhoods that spiral out over time from a central point on its Thames, the Gross Tar.  Each neighborhood has a history, each neighborhood has its races and cultures, each one is distinct.  New Crobuzon, as a world, is as much about urban history and urban geography and urban sociology as it is a fantasy realm.

I love cities.  I love the stories of cities, how they grow, how neighborhoods are built and change over time.  Therefore, I threw myself wholeheartedly into Perdido Street Station.  I saw, in my imagination, the descriptions of each neighborhood, from the scientific quarter of Brock Marsh, to the abandoned projects of Dog Fenn.  I understood the backstories of how neighborhoods came to be occupied by specific immigrant groups.  I especially loved reading about some neighborhoods went from mansions to slums and back again, keeping tenements as museums to past poverty in their midst (we have one of those!).  And I especially appreciated that, as in all great cities, New Crobuzon grew along its trains, its El, the trains the commuters still take each day, the million ordinary people of a fantasy world, traveling to and from work in a universe full of monsters and magic, between their version of the Outer Boroughs and their white-collar jobs.

Paul was not as much a fan of this concept.  He’s fine with world building – he has slugged through King’s Dark Tower series, which I don’t have patience for – but not an urban studies textbook disguised as a steampunk fantasy.   His response was that Mieville spent too much time city building and writing a Lonely Planet: New Crobuzon and not enough time actually developing characters or plot.  I pointed out that the character development is great in New Crobuzon, it’s just that each character also has to function as a representation of their class, race and culture almost as much as they are a separate being in their own right.  Each character has to also either exemplify their people, or illustrate their community through their outcast or outsider status.  Nothing tells us about a people and their culture like those they choose to exile among them.

Therefore, I should not have been surprised when Ben flat out refused to engage with the children’s version of New Crobuzon: Un Lun Dun.  We’re attempting to read this right now as the nightly bedtime story, and I’m just not getting anywhere with it. There’s a lot of eye rolling, especially when I have to explain the English language:

Image result for un lun dunME: Binja!  Get it?  Bin…ja?  They’re bin ninjas?
BEN: They’re garbage cans with legs and nunchuks
ME: English people call a trash can a bin.
BEN: *eye roll*

I also love Un Lun Dun.  It’s not the flip side of London that Kraken is, but it is a travelogue through a London’s dreams, a city built of London’s cast offs, both material and thought, a city of random buildings and people, traditions and creatures.  There’s ghosts and monsters, creatures of all  shapes and sizes.  There’s houses made from M.O.I.L. – Mildly Obsolete In London – which means typewriters and cassette tapes.  There’s even a November Tree, a tree made of solid light from Guy Fawkes fireworks.  And my favorite part of Un Lun Dun is how it flips the heroine’s journey around, changing how we think of destiny in these kind of children’s stories.  Perhaps it is time that the world gets saved by the “funny one”, not by the chosen one.


The ab-city, with its houses and dwellings made of everything, in every shape.

Ben, however, is not nearly as charmed and interested in visualizing the ab-city.  I therefore blame Paul for this.  My husband is less into world building that I am.  I want all my books to come with an expansive geography.  I own a copy of the Dictionary of Imaginary Places.  I love maps, I love places, I love cities,  and I love imaginary worlds that come complete with entire sociological histories..  Paul, however, would like his books to be less of an atlas of a mythological land and more of an actual plot and character driven tome.  I suspect our son has taken after his father because attempts to pull Ben into the fantasy books with the best, most memorable and detailed worlds have been met with resistance.  According to Ben, Narnia is boring.  Earthsea was really boring.  (Middle-Earth we are still working on).

I’ll keep working on this.  I want my son to have that sense of expansive imagination, to be able to imagine other worlds, with their own history and mythology, their own rules of physics and magic.  We’re going to flip into Neverwhere on audiobook over the  break.  I’ve got twenty-plus hours to fill with Gaiman and Tolkein and Lewis…and we are going to get through the rest of Un Lun Dun if it kills me.  I just have to figure out how to get my son excited about exploring these imaginary worlds with his mama.


the 2 things i got from “hungry heart”

I read Jennifer Weiner’s memoir, “Hungry Heart” this week.  It is a collection of essays, not an autobiography but more a series of autobiographical pieces.  And there are two key concepts I took out of the book:

  1. OMG SOMEONE ELSE FEELS THE SAME WAY I DO ABOUT JUDITH KRANTZ’S “SCRUPLES”.  I read the entire Judith Krantz oeuvre as a teenager, and strongly identified with her heroine from Scruples, Billy Winthrop Ikehorn Orsini.  For those of you whose mothers did not leave copies of Scruples lying around, we meet Billy Ikehorn as a rich beautiful widow, but she begins her life as a self described “fat freak”.  By the time she turns eighteen, she’s a five-ten, two hundred pound social outcast.  After a year in Paris, Billy loses the weight in an early version of the French Women Don’t Get Fat diet, and develops a stunning sense of chic through her boarding hostess, an impoverished French countess.  She then goes on to live in New York, where she has a lot of unapologetic sex in the Helen Gurley Brown model (social commentary!), and then marries an extremely wealthy man, who conveniently dies seven years later.  From there on, the book goes through her challenges running her own Beverly Hills fashion emporium, and her marriage to a movie producer…but that wasn’t a future I was interested in.  All I cared about was that there was a heroine in literature who looked like I did at sixteen, and who made herself into a beautiful, sophisticated woman of the world despite that.

    Jennifer Weiner also got this – she says that, to her, “Billy felt personal.”  This is the first time I’ve ever heard anyone recount their teenage appreciation for this 1973 work of fiction for this reason.  For Ms. Weiner, as for me, the appeal wasn’t just Billy’s social or financial outcast status, it was the height and her weight she entered adulthood with and the beauty and sophistication she achieved despite it.   I was also five ten by my twentieth birthday, and while I wasn’t two hundred pounds, I wasn’t far below it.  It was surprising to me that someone else who physically resembles me read this book and felt the same way at the same phase of life about this particular character and what she represented: the hope of becoming a beautiful, sophisticated woman despite teen years spent as a too-tall overweight freak.

  2. In more seriousness, the bigger concept I got is that women expend too much energy worrying and obsessing about their weight.  And when I read that, it became like a truth I couldn’t unsee.  How much time do we waste trying to be thinner and prettier that we could be putting into better uses?  Would Hillary have won if we’d all stopped fretting over calories and spin classes and really stared down the political situation?  Has our obsession with our weight distracted us so much that we cannot focus on things that are truly important?

It’s this second point that really frightens me.  I think about the amount of time I’ve spent dieting and obsessing about my weight and it makes me dizzy.  There was the constant calorie burning and calorie tracking.  There is the space in my head dedicated to an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of food macronutrients, which has led to an ability to play a version of The Price Is Right in guessing the caloric cost of everything I eat.  Most of all, there has been the insane amount of energy I have spent either anxious that I wasn’t doing enough, or berating myself because I wasn’t doing enough, and usually both at once.


We have also, by giving our weight such importance, made it a defining feature of success in a woman.  We have acknowledged that it is representative of the ability to achieve a goal to be able to meet a set of arbitrary physical standards.  If we do not meet that goal, we believe ourselves to be weak, undisciplined, unworthy of any sort of social rewards.  We either accept a lesser lot in life, or push ourselves through tremendous amounts of thought, energy and strength into losing weight.  And ultimately, we may choose to accept the worst of both options, expending time and energy and mental strength into a weight loss goal, and when it can’t be reached, accepting an inferior social status as the result.  When you believe you are too weak to lose ten pounds, how can you believe that you are strong enough to lean in?

So now we have created barriers of our own making.  We can’t level up our lives in other regards when are too afraid of being judged for our appearance.  We can’t put the time and energy into the things that should truly matter to us when we are pouring all this work into obsessing over food and exercise.  I’m not saying it’s a trap by THE MAN to keep us down, but it is a trap perpetuated by every man who judges us and deems us worthy of conversation based on our appearance, whether he says so or not.  And it’s one we perpetuate to each other, as we judge other women based on how hard we think they’re trying, how much work they’re doing: the last frontier of the America Puritan work ethic funhouse mirrored into judgement.

This is a scary thought, to realize how distracted we all are on this topic.  In “Lady Oracle”, Margaret Atwood’s character, Joan, realizes that there has been wars going on that she was barely aware of and wonders, “what else had been happening in the world while I was busy worrying about my weight?”  What if all women everywhere stopped worrying about our weight for a week and thought about the next thing down on the list: the fact that we have allowed our entire country to be hijacked by a man who continually reduces women only to the value of their looks.

What if we all put the kind of effort into reading the news that we do into trying to calculate a serving size?

What if we all stopped letting ourselves be distracted by our weight, and turned all that energy into asserting our equal status in Western society?

That is what I got out of reading Jennifer Weiner’s memoir: that physical size, both height and weight, color the entire life of a woman who falls outside of the socially accepted range for both.  And that’s kind of ridiculous.  And also that if Ms. Weiner has not read Lady Oracle she probably should.  As books in the subgenre of Fictional Women who Lose 100+lbs At Age 18 go, it’s a much better tome on the subject than Scruples.