Welcome to the second portion of this edition of Mad’s Book Club. The first portion, in which we (i.e. I) discussed highbrow literature is here. In this portion we shall be discussing literary offerings of a more modest type, i.e. the type you wouldn’t brag about reading (but I do).

Psycho-killer books

Technically, this should be psycho-killer book, since I only read one of this genre during the March-April period. I know, right? What the heck happened in March-April? Well, mostly I was reading Don Quixote, but I discussed that in part one. Let’s just move along, shall we?

Blood Defense by Marcia Clark
Part of me knew that Marcia Clark had become a novelist, but I didn’t have any particular interest in reading her stuff. Probably this can be chalked up to mere envy on my part. Seriously, it’s not enough to have one successful career (successful, you know, despite that one magnificent failure)? Now you have to be a famous novelist too? Whatevs. Anyway, Blood Defense was a Kindle First offering in either March or April, and heck, it was free, so why wouldn’t I? Okay, I also read somewhere that Marcia Clark was a pretty good writer. Which, it turns out, she is. Not like Ray Bradbury good, but as far as psycho-killer books go, pretty darn good. Her tone is conversational and humorous, and there’s not a lot of extemporaneous info. I like that in a writer of any genre. Apparently her previous books were all about a lady prosecutor. (Go figure.)

In Blood Defense, the protagonist is a lady defense attorney, who manages to be both cynical and idealistic at the same time. Samantha Brinkman knows all her clients are guilty, but everyone deserves a robust defense, and plus, prosecutors and cops can be pretty scummy. So imagine her surprise when a cop accused of murder asks her to defend him. She’s not sure she wants to, even though it is a high-profile case that could make her career (also, he can pay her–score!), because a) she’s not so fond of cops and b) there’s something fishy going on here. Indeed there is something fishy. Suffice it to say, it’s personal. AND it makes the matter of her client’s guilt or innocence that much more consequential (to her, personally). There is a twist ending, and then there is another twist. Part of me was like, “Seriously, Marcia Clark?” And the other part of me was like, “That was pretty awesome, Marcia Clark.” I will definitely read more of Clark’s books. 4/5 stars

Romance

The Reluctant Widow by Georgette Heyer
This is the first Georgette Heyer regency romance I have not loved. It is not bad, really. Heyer always writes very witty dialogue, and there is witty dialogue in this book. The story is kind of silly, but that’s neither here nor there. The main problem I had was with the main character, a young woman who has chosen to become a governess rather than live in genteel poverty, and by a wacky Three’s Company-worthy misunderstanding, she winds up in the wrong house with the wrong prospective employer, a gentleman who doesn’t want her to be a governess but to marry his dissolute cousin, who (he’s convinced) is bound to kill himself with drink or some other debauchery any day now. The deal is that she marries the awful cousin and once the awful cousin has kicked the bucket, she gets all his stuff and becomes an independent woman. Why would this gentleman (whom we shall call Carlyon because that is his name) need or want someone to marry his odious cousin? Gosh, I’d tell you, but it seems like a lot of trouble to go to for a mere book review, so let’s just say it’s as good a reason as you’re likely to find in any madcap regency romance. Anyway, The heroine (whom we shall call Elinor, also her name) does not want to marry the odious cousin because, hello, that’s nuts, and not at all the done thing, but somehow she ends up marrying the cousin on his (conveniently timed) deathbed anyway, thereby becoming his heir.

What happens from there is not terribly important. Suffice it to say there is some intrigue involving Napoleon and whatnot, but Elinor really got on my nerves because she kept blaming Carlyon for forcing her into marriage with his odious (now dead) cousin, when the truth was that she was just too taken aback and indecisive not to go along with everything. And anyway, she only had to be married to him for, like, two seconds, and what’s the point of going on and on about it now? I mean, now that I write it down, it seems like she had a right to be upset, but at the time she was just whiny and annoying. Not always, but occasionally. As usual, though, the hero was perfect. 3/5 stars (but there are so many better Heyers to choose from)

Because of Miss Bridgerton by Julia Quinn
Julia Quinn is probably single-handedly responsible for my obsession with Regency romance. Her eight-book Bridgerton series (featuring a family with eight children, each of whom finds love, hence, eight books) was my gateway drug. This book is not technically part of that series; this Miss Bridgerton is the Bridgerton patriarch’s elder sister, whom we have never met before, but Julia Quinn likes all her books to be in the same world (and also to capitalize on the Bridgerton name, probably–not that there’s anything wrong with that). Miss Billie Bridgerton has grown up with the Rokesby brothers as her neighbors and considers them her dearest friends–except for the eldest Rokesby brother, George, the heir to the earldom. She thinks he is stuffy and judgmental, and he thinks she is a hoyden, which, technically, she is–always running wild with his younger brothers, getting into scrapes and whatnot–NOT AT ALL WHAT A PROSPECTIVE COUNTESS SHOULD BE. Foreshadowing! I know you know where this headed. By a strange twist of fate (and also an ankle), Billie and George get to know each other better and, quelle horreur, start to develop inconvenient feelings for one another (though of course they don’t admit this to each other because that would be too sensible, which love seldom is). This is typically delightful Quinn fare, humorous and sweet, and a worthy successor to the Bridgerton series. I look forward to reading the rest of the Rokesby clan’s stories. (Content warning: there is sex.) 4/5 stars

A Novella Collection by Courtney Milan
Courtney Milan is hit or miss for me. When she hits, she’s fantastic. When she misses, meh. (It’s not awful, just not my bag.) The first two novellas in this collection are quite good. They are both part of the Brothers Sinister series, which you don’t need to have read to appreciate these stories. The other two were just okay. All stories are set in nineteenth century England. Milan doesn’t use a lot of humor, but she writes good characters (who don’t want for wit, even if they aren’t comedians), and she tends to eschew the usual artifices of romances (namely, characters acting like crazy people in order to keep the plot going). Content warning: There is sex. 3/5 stars

Just One of the Guys by Kristan Higgins
As I said in the last edition of Mad’s Book Club (January-February), Kristan Higgins pretty much has one book that she writes over and over again, but she writes it so well that I don’t mind. The last book of hers I reviewed was something of a departure. This is more her usual book, about a girl hung up on a dude she fell in love with a long time ago but who doesn’t feel the same way about her OR SO SHE THINKS. This girl is tall, sporty, and the only daughter in a family chock full of sons; as the title might have already informed you, she has difficulty getting men to see her as a potential romantic partner. In fact, our story opens on her getting dumped by yet another dude who can’t handle dating a woman who can pick him up (literally). But soon she meets a dude–a doctor, yet–who finds her robust athleticism irresistible. But wait! What about the dude she’s been hung up on forever? Can she bring herself to move on? Can she??? The story is actually more entertaining than it sounds, although I do wonder about the life choices of some of these people. Fortunately, I don’t have to live with them. I will say that although this is pretty much Kristan Higgins’ usual book, it does have a somewhat different ending. I enjoyed it. 3.5/4 stars

Heir to the Duke by Jane Ashford
This is an arranged-marriage historical romance. The wedding takes place early in the story. Nathaniel Gresham, aka heir to the duke, is good-natured but duty-bound control freak. He thinks his marriage to the very proper Violet Devere satisfactory and sensible. What he doesn’t know is that Violet has been repressing her adventurous spirit for years because her grandmother what raised her kept her on such a short leash, but now that she is married, she is ready to let her freak flag fly. Don’t be alarmed–it’s not that kind of freak flag. She just wants to wear fashionable clothes and go to the theatre and junk. But then she learns a deep, dark secret about herself, and she’s afraid that if she tells her good-natured but very proper husband, he will be DISGUSTED. Don’t worry–it’s not that kind of deep, dark secret. Suffice it to say, Nathaniel learns how to relax and have a good time, secrets are revealed, and really, not all that much happens, but it’s a light-hearted romp, fun while it lasts. Content warning: I think there is sex, although I don’t really remember. It seems like it wasn’t terribly explicit, though. YMMV. 3/5 stars

A Duke of Her Own by Lorraine Heath
Here is another story about a gently-bred lady (sister to an earl, in fact) facing genteel poverty who decides to strike out on her own by hiring herself out as a chaperone for American heiresses in London. What she’s really doing is less chaperoning and more husband-vetting. Her brother and his pals–all of them broke and needing wealthy wives–want her to set them up with some American sugar mamas, but she is too conscientious to recommend these dissolute rakes to her charges. Unfortunately, the Duke of Hawkhurst, her brother’s BFF, whom she has always held in disdain despite him being really hot, is determined to win the hand of this season’s loveliest and richest American girl, no matter what it takes, because only a vast influx of cash will allow him to restore his estates and bring out his illegitimate half-sister into society. So he’s ruthless, but for noble reasons. And unfortunately, as Lady Louisa comes to realize this, she finds she is no longer immune to his hotness. ALSO unfortunate: the duke is not nearly as attracted to the rich American beauty as he is to her most provoking chaperone. HIGHJINKS ENSUE.

Actually, this is quite a well-done story. Often in these must-marry-for-money tales, someone turns out to be a secret millionaire or something. In this case there is no deus ex machine. The hero and heroine really are facing genteel poverty. The stakes are high. No one acts like only a crazy person would (well, except when they’re addled by lust, but that’s to be expected). BUT DOES LOVE PREVAIL? You must read to find out. (Or, you know, you could guess.) Content warning: There is sex. (I remember that much.) 3.5/5 stars

I meant to make this a monthly thing, but I keep going with the bimonthly thing. Maybe next month.

Once again, we shall divide and conquer by genre, starting with the highbrow books.

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
Can you believe I had never read The Martian Chronicles before? Not even one chronicle had I read of it. I’m afraid I am a late-adopting Ray Bradbury reader. I read that one story of his about Picasso–at least I think that was Ray Bradbury. I’m pretty sure. That was in college, and I always meant to read more Ray Bradbury after that, but, well, you know me. Anyway, I read The Illustrated Man last year–that was awesome, by the way–and I quite enjoyed these Martian Chronicles. I don’t know what else to say except that Ray Bradbury is an awesome writer, which you probably already knew because who else besides me would wait 44 years to read The Martian Chronicles? And if, by some chance, you haven’t read Ray Bradbury yet–say, maybe you’re only eleven years old and just stumbled onto this blog by chance and have read this far only because you are filled with ennui and nothing really matters anymore, so why not read about what some middle-aged housewife is reading–you must go read some Ray Bradbury today. I promise your ennui will be significantly diminished, if not wiped out entirely, like some Martians I know. (NOT A SPOILER.) 5/5 stars

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
This is one of Princess Zurg’s favorite movies–she thinks Howl is hot (you know, for an animated character)–but I have never seen the movie. I’ve been meaning to watch the movie, but when I saw that it was a book, I felt obligated to read the book first because that is how I am. For those of you who have neither read the book nor seen the movie, it’s about this young woman, Sophie, who gets cursed by a witch and turns into an old woman (because that’s the curse), but never one to be kept down, she takes control of her own destiny and sets out to get the curse removed, and that’s how she meets the wizard named Howl–who is legendary for stealing young girls, who are never heard from again, and he lives in a moving castle. That last part is pretty hard to explain. Suffice it to say, it’s pretty wild. Sophie ingratiates herself with Howl’s household and gradually grows attached to Howl himself (in the metaphorical sense–just saying, because you never know with these magical books), and I can see why PZ is attracted to Howl because a) he’s a young, attractive wizard and b) he has Secrets and A Past and is Conflicted and Emotionally Unavailable, and what woman can resist that? This is a delightful fairy tale of a book and pretty weird. You can see why the Japanese would make a movie out of it. 5/5 stars

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
Generally speaking, I am not such a fan of epistolary novels. I don’t even like the idea of epistolary novels. But the description of this book said it put the “pissed” in “epistolary,” so naturally that piqued my interest. It is indeed a novel about a middle-aged professor of English who spends an inordinate amount of time writing letters of recommendation for various students and also pretty much anyone else who asks them. He also writes letters of complaint (quelle surprise). He is pissed because he has been disappointed in his professional life–not only as an undervalued English professor, but mainly as a writer–and also in love, but he’s mainly pissed about being frustrated professionally and feeling like no one listens to or cares about him.

I have to say, his story may have hit a little too close to home–which bothered me mainly because this character is kind of a douchebag, and I thought his protégé (on whose behalf he wrote the most letters) was probably a douchebag too, which makes one (i.e. me) wonder, “Am I a douchebag?” How much you enjoy this book will depend on how much you enjoy reading a bunch of sardonic letters. I found them very funny. (The story does get more serious as it goes on.) I also found myself wishing I could see this story from some other character’s point of view–but that’s the problem Professor Douchebag knows all too well: no one writes letters anymore. 3.5/5 stars

Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes
I read a very lengthy excerpt from Don Quixote when I was in college. I don’t remember what I thought of it then. Much of college is a blur, to tell you the truth. I can tell you that I always meant to revisit Don Quixote and read the whole thing, but, well, do you know how long the whole thing of Don Quixote is? It’s over 1,000 pages–which oughtn’t to be such a big deal, but not all 1,000 pages are created equal. I quite enjoyed much of Don Quixote, even the parts that seemed pointless. There were times, however, when I felt like this story would just never end. Like, ever. Don Quixote is an old man who’s gone crazy and thinks he’s a knight like in those old tales of knights errant who fight monsters and evil-doers and defend ladies. (If you’ve seen Man of La Mancha, you know the basic premise. If you haven’t seen Man of La Mancha, I recommend it, but only on the stage; the movie is terrible.) So some of the novel is the adventures of Don Quixote, but some of it is just an excuse for Miguel Cervantes to tell an amusing story that has nothing to do with Don Quixote but it may as well go here as anywhere because that is how tales of knight errantry go.

DQ was originally published in two volumes, ten years apart. Some people prefer Part One to Part Two. Some prefer Part Two to Part One. I don’t know which group is bigger, or what the critical or academic consensus is, but for my part, I felt like I had gotten my fill with Part One, and Part Two was like a second helping I didn’t particularly need. It wasn’t that it was inferior in quality. I mean, I couldn’t tell you if it was or not because at a certain point I was just done. It’s like when you eat too much of a good thing–does the food really become less delicious, or do you just not want it anymore? That was Don Quixote for me. I enjoyed the majority of it, and would I say it was worth the effort it took? Yes. But I was also so, so relieved when I was finished. 4/5 stars

A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman
This book has the distinction of being the only novel with a Scandinavian setting that I have not found utterly depressing. (I don’t know what it is about those countries, but their books just make me feel empty inside.) Ove is a grumpy old man, recently widowed, whose neighbors are constantly imposing on him. He is not given to warmth. He is, however, a man of principles and integrity, often to the point of being exasperating to those around him. He doesn’t want anything to do with other people, but he keeps getting involved in their lives against his will, and in the process–you can see where this is headed, yes? He forges meaningful relationships! The story is told half in flashback, half in the present. It is funny and heartbreaking and wonderful. (I did think the ending was a little on the neat side–just the tiniest bit, but totally forgivable because the story is so well told, with both humor and restraint.) This is typical Oprah’s Book Club-style fangirling, but I just loved this book. I would give it six out of five stars, but Ove wouldn’t approve. 5/5 stars

The Trial by Franz Kafka
This is another book I had always meant to read and never got around to, despite the fact that people kept making references to it and I always thought, “I should read that so I know what they’re talking about.” Well! Now I know. I have to say, I found it a bit frustrating at one point. It was like reading someone’s really weird dream. I kind of like reading people’s weird dreams. Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled is like that, and I loved that book. Sometimes, though, dreams can be a little tiresome, and one wonders, “Is this profound, or is the author just trying to be difficult?” I’m not one to give an author a pass on being difficult just because he’s a genius or whatever. So I went back and forth between thinking, “This is cool,” and “This is just effing weird.” It is an unfinished novel, and it reads like an unfinished novel–a bit unrefined.  I had to read all of it before I really knew how I felt about it. (Despite being unfinished, it does have an ending.)

Once I’d digested the whole thing, I found it compelling. In case you’ve never read anything about Kafka’s The Trial, it’s about a dude (Josef K.) who wakes up one morning to find he’s been arrested, but he doesn’t know why or what crime he’s supposedly committed, and no one will tell him anything, and no one seems to know who’s in charge, either. SOUND FAMILIAR? (This is what they mean by “Kafkaesque”!) Things only get more confusing from there. The only thing that’s clear is that Josef K. is powerless. Yet he continues to fight in his own defense because, you know, that’s what we humans do. It is a weird, disturbing book, and significantly shorter than Don Quixote (by about 600 pages). 4/5 stars

Thus endeth the highbrow portion of this edition of Mad’s Book Club. Stay tuned for Part Deux, when we discuss the lowbrow portion. (I know you can hardly wait!)

 

I was going to call this “Vote Trump or Baby Jesus kills this puppy,” but I didn’t think the post could possibly live up to that title.

So I’ve been pretty bummed since the Indiana primary. I didn’t realize I was entertaining any vestiges of optimism in my soul prior to the point when Ted Cruz dropped out of the presidential race. Ted Cruz was the source of my optimism, ladies and gentlemen. What has this world come to?

Of course, John Kasich is out now too, but whatever. Do you know, 2016 was supposed to be the first presidential election where there was going to be more than one candidate left standing by the time Oregon’s primary rolled around, and I was actually going to have a choice between (or among) two (or more) candidates? Now all my dreams are officially dead.

Just kidding. Most of my dreams died ages ago, but I’m sure I still have one or two lurking in the old subconscious. Of course, I won’t know what they are until someone or something finally kills them, but they must be there, because if this election has taught me anything, it’s that things can always get worse.

Back in September or October, Mona Charen said something on her podcast like, “If the United States chooses Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as their nominees for president, we’ll have proved that we’re not a serious country and are probably unfit for self-government.” And I thought, surely it will not come to that. Well, that’s what Mona Charen herself thought, and look where we are now. I know a lot of you gentle readers are Hillary fans. Some of my best friends are Hillary fans. Some of you may even be my best friends. I will acknowledge that Hillary has government experience where Trump has none. I will also acknowledge that she appears to be, for the most part, mentally stable. I mean, as far as I can tell, which is more than I can say for some presidential candidates I know. I won’t pretend those two things aren’t assets in her favor. But good Lord, what a pretty pass we’ve come to when millions of Americans are voting for someone strictly on the basis of her not being demonstrably insane.

It’s not that I dislike Hillary on a personal level. It might be pure contrariness on my part, but I never got why people hated her so much–except for the obvious reason, of course. I have to admire her moxie. Not to mention her chutzpah. And I don’t find her voice shrill or her laugh annoying. I would much rather spend an hour shooting the breeze with Hillary Clinton than with Barbara Boxer or Harry Reid. (I don’t have strong feelings about Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer.) Unfortunately, she’s thoroughly corrupt and a congenital liar. I don’t think she murdered Vince Foster (or anyone else), but there’s not much else I’d put past her. As I’ve said before, probably in this very e-space, I’d feel like the veriest chump voting for her. But I still feel less sick to my stomach about her winning this race than the alternative.

Of course, the likelihood of Donald Trump winning the general election is so small that it’s hardly worth considering. But that isn’t stopping many Republicans from hitching their wagon to him, on the off chance that they can prevent a Hillary Clinton presidency–as though a Hillary Clinton presidency were the worst possible thing that could happen to this country. In my opinion, would Hillary Clinton be a bad president? Yes. Would she be worse than Barack Obama? I don’t know. Possibly, possibly not. As Hillary might say, what difference at this point does it make? When the alternative is Donald Trump, who is a) an emotionally unstable, volatile, unprincipled bully and b) not remotely qualified to hold any governmental office, let alone be leader of the free world, Hillary Clinton looks less like Satan’s very own begotten and more like a necessary evil. Or maybe just an inevitable evil. (I don’t mean “evil” in the Satanic sense, but just the generic, it’s-an-expression sense.) Say what you will about Hillary, but you can’t argue that she’s less qualified to be president than Donald Trump. You might think she’s a worse person with worse ideas, but you can’t say she’s less qualified. (Personally, I don’t see how one can argue that she has worse ideas, since who really knows what Trump’s “ideas” are?)

But as I said before, Trump isn’t going to win this election, even if he had every single Republican on his side (which he won’t, because he won’t have me). Elections aren’t decided by loyal Republicans. They’re decided by the kind of people who thought Mitt Romney was too mean to be president. Not to mention that Donald Trump seems to be the one person in America voters dislike more than Hillary Clinton. I never thought I’d see the day when anyone would take that honor, but here we are, and congratulations to him. I guess.

I’ve heard some Trump supporters say that they don’t even actually want him to be president; they just want Republican party leaders and/or “the people in Washington” to know that they are angry and fed up with business as usual. To which I can only say, what are you, twelve? By this logic I should start a write-in campaign for Hitler, so people will know I’m REALLY upset. Because I am. I really am.

In fairness, I’m not convinced Trump himself wants to be president. I believe he’d like to be elected president, but as for doing the actual job, no, I don’t think he’s interested. I would not be surprised to learn that he plans to pick someone competent as a running mate, and then on the off (very off)-chance that he is elected, he will come up with some excuse to resign and let the non-crazy person take over. But I don’t care who his running mate is. I don’t care if Abe Lincoln or Ronald Reagan himself resurrected from the grave and agreed to be Donald Trump’s running mate. Any Republican politician who endorses Trump is dead to me. Chris Christie–dead to me. Marco Rubio–dead to me. Nikki Haley–dead to me. Abe Lincoln and Ronald Reagan–already dead, but in theory, extra dead to me. (I should not imply that Lincoln or Reagan would necessarily endorse Donald Trump, but who knows these days? Calvin Coolidge, I’m sure, would not endorse Donald Trump. But they don’t make them like Calvin Coolidge anymore.)

Ben Carson (never officially alive but now quite officially dead to me) has said that even if Trump turns out not to be a good president, “it’s only four years.” (That should go down in political endorsement history.) Interestingly enough, that’s how I think of a Hillary presidency now. It’s only four years. I mean, probably. It could be eight, but whatever. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Rephrase: What’s the worst thing that could happen that we can be sure wouldn’t happen on Trump’s watch? The question is unanswerable.

The time to pick a side is over. Better to get your affairs in order and hold your loved ones close.

 

 

I have followed the BYU Title IX fiasco, i.e. story, with interest. That’s about the most neutral way I can put it.

I should probably make two things clear from the outset. The first thing is that I’m not a fan of using Title IX to adjudicate sexual assault cases on college campuses. There’s a reason rape is a crime, and there’s also a reason criminals have rights. Does this mean that rapists sometimes go unpunished? Yes. Burglars, muggers, drug dealers, and even murderers also sometimes go unpunished. Unfortunately, that’s what happens when citizens have rights and governments have the burden of proving that you committed a crime before they throw you in prison or otherwise ruin your life. Private institutions can do what they like, of course—but Title IX isn’t a private institution. It’s the law. That’s worth remembering. I believe that sexual assault cases should be handled by the criminal justice system. But I also believe that BYU has moral obligations to its students who are victims of sexual assault. If its failure to fulfill these obligations happens to violate Title IX, that is one thing. We could argue all day about Title IX. But that’s not on my list of things to do today.

The second thing I’m going to admit is that I’m not a fan of BYU’s Honor Code. It’s not that I think the standards are too high. To be sure, I think some of them—e.g. the prohibition on beards and the micromanagement of students’ sartorial choices—are too silly, but BYU is a private institution and can do what it likes. (I’m a big fan of private institutions being allowed to do what they like.) My argument is not with the standards themselves but with the perverse incentives and disincentives that strict enforcement of the Honor Code creates. If you need an ecclesiastical endorsement signed by your bishop to remain in school, it can discourage you from seeking pastoral care when you may need it most. And if you’ve been sexually assaulted and the story of your sexual assault involves an Honor Code violation on your part (even tangentially), or if a violation may be inferred from the circumstances (even without evidence), it can put you in the position of choosing to press charges against your rapist or to stay in school. That’s not a position anyone should have to be in. It’s reasonable to argue that a student signs a contract and should be expected to live up to the contract. I can’t argue with that. My argument is with the terms of the contract itself.

I agree that a lot of the discussion around this topic has been unproductive, due to people’s visceral instincts to slam BYU (and by extension the church) or to defend BYU (and by extension the church). And as many feelings and thoughts as I have on this issue, I’ve not been eager to talk about it publicly because I don’t have any desire to contribute to unproductive discussions. (Lately, I mean.) I understand the reluctance to alter BYU’s Honor Code, which appears to have served BYU and most of its students just fine for decades, and specifically reluctance to make exceptions, even for alleged victims. But there are two arguments against making such exceptions that need to be addressed.

It is interesting how many people argue that the Honor Code dramatically reduces a BYU student’s risk of being raped. (A representative example can be found here.) It is true that there are some high-risk situations that a person following the Honor Code would be unlikely to find themselves in. I’m the first person to advise young women—or anyone, really—against deliberately intoxicating themselves. You cannot argue that remaining sober does not put you at a distinct advantage in life; you are at far lower risk of being a victim of anything if you aren’t unconscious or similarly impaired. As victim-blamey as some people think that is, I will say that all day long and not apologize for it. (If that sounds familiar, I learned from the best.) However, no one should be under the illusion that refraining from alcohol or other mind-altering substances—or following any aspect of the Honor Code whatsoever–keeps you “safe” from sexual assault. Plenty of people are raped while sober, in their own apartments, in the middle of the day, in places and at times and under circumstances where they “should” have been perfectly safe. The Honor Code is in no way a protection against being raped, nor is it intended to be. The Honor Code is designed to discourage you from doing x, y, z (and probably a-k and m, p, t & w) and to cultivate a wholesome environment and image for BYU. Period. That is a fine goal in and of itself. But it was not intended nor designed to protect anyone from sexual assault—and it won’t.

What is really interesting is that many of the same people who argue that the Honor Code makes BYU students safe(r) from rape also argue that giving rape victims Honor Code immunity will encourage people to make false accusations of rape in order to avoid punishment for consensual sex. Unlike the risk of being raped—which isn’t particularly affected by the Honor Code—the risk of being falsely accused of rape actually is significantly reduced by following the Honor Code. If you never have consensual sex with someone, it is highly unlikely someone will claim that your non-existent consensual sex was rape in order to avoid getting punished for something that never happened. But what are people worried about, if rape victims receive Honor Code immunity? False accusations against students who engaged in consensual sex. So what happened to the ”safety” of the Honor Code? It is hard not to infer that rape prevention is meant to be primarily a burden on women.

Rape, of course, is not explicitly mentioned in the Honor Code. But people take what is mentioned in the Honor Code and apply it exclusively in terms of a woman’s responsibility to avoid her own rape. Imagine if the well-intentioned advice about preventing rape went like this:

Don’t drink alcohol. Alcohol consumption is highly correlated with sexual assault. You are more likely to rape someone if your judgment has been impaired by alcohol. Your inhibitions will be lowered, and you may not be able to tell if your partner is fully willing or not.

Don’t be alone with a woman. Whether in your own apartment or hers, or in the back of a car in a secluded location, it is never safe to be alone with a member of the opposite sex. You are much more likely to rape someone when there aren’t any witnesses.

Be aware of the signals you are sending. Are you communicating clearly with your partner that you intend to have sex with her, regardless of what her personal wishes are? Or are you giving her the impression, even inadvertently, that you care about her feelings and that she can trust you? Be clear about your expectations. Don’t act like you’re not going to rape her and then change your mind halfway through.

If you’re thinking, “This is ridiculous. Rapists aren’t going to pay any attention to this advice,” you’re beginning to see my point, even if you don’t know it yet.

The Honor Code shouldn’t be seen as a “safety” issue at all. Whether or not it was “smart” or “showed good judgment” to drink or do drugs has no bearing on whether or not someone was in fact raped. I would advise everyone I know to do what they can to stay out of prison, as there’s no question that staying out of prison significantly reduces your chances of being sexually assaulted. However, being raped isn’t something that you should just “expect” to happen when you are incarcerated because hey, don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. I don’t care what you’re in prison for, or whether you’re guilty or innocent: other people don’t get to rape you because you’re in prison. Rape is a crime, and it’s evil. It is not a “natural consequence” of your own poor choices, even if your “poor choices” include felonies. Your risk of sexual assault is directly related not to your compliance with the Honor Code but your proximity to someone who is willing to rape you. People should always be safe from sexual assault because sexual assault should never happen.

But of course it does. Not because victims do something wrong or stupid or inadvisable, but because rapists do something wrong, i.e. they rape people. In a perfect world, people should be able to go anywhere or do anything without fear of being assaulted, robbed, murdered, or harmed in any way, but that is not the world we live in. So does it make sense to take precautions in an imperfect world? Yes. Please do take precautions, by all means. Don’t tattoo your Social Security number on your forehead. Don’t give your credit card numbers to Nigerian royalty. Keep your drink in sight at all times. Avoid driving at night after the bars close. Never follow a hippie to a second location. But negotiating risk—deciding for oneself which risks one is willing to take under what circumstances–is not the same as being responsible for creating risk. People have the right to walk alone at night, even in a bad part of town, without being assaulted. That is a right because assault is a crime. We think differently about rape than we do about other crimes because of the emotions and vulnerabilities associated with sex. In some ways this is proper; rape is an especially heinous crime because of the emotions and vulnerabilities associated with sex. However, we must not let our treatment of rape victims be influenced by cultural attitudes and beliefs about sex that may be false, unhealthy, or otherwise harmful. Unfortunately, women are more likely to be victims both of rape and of harmful cultural attitudes about sex. And that is especially bad news for Mormon women at BYU.

So about two years ago I thought I would jump-start my mostly-dead blog by answering The 36 Questions That Lead to Love. Not for any reasons related to love, but because I needed writing prompts, and usually I enjoy answering questions about myself. Unfortunately, I have not enjoyed many of the Questions That Lead to Love. This may explain why I have historically had difficulty getting people to fall in love with me. It’s okay because I really only needed one person to fall in love with me, and he did it without me having to answer any of these pesky questions, but now I’m getting off topic. Where was I? Oh, yes. I felt like jump-starting the blog again–really, this is getting ridiculous, but I’m slowly making peace with the fact that I’m a ridiculous person–so I looked up where I left off on the 36 Questions, and I’m on #15:

What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?

Of all the questions I have hated, I may hate this question the most. Actually, the question I hate the most is “What’s for dinner?” Something about that question just sends me into a rage spiral. I can’t explain it. Why does anyone need to know what’s for dinner? Why can’t we treat it like Christmas or your birthday? Why spoil the surprise? Do you have alternate plans? Have you received other offers? But I’m getting off topic again. Aside from “What’s for dinner?” the question I hate the most is “What is your greatest accomplishment?” Is it really fair to ask this question before one is on one’s death bed? Do I really have to contemplate at the tender age of almost-45 how puny and pathetic my accomplishments thusfar have been?

I think it’s not so bad to have to answer this question at, say, 25 (or almost-25). A 25-year-old isn’t expected to have too many accomplishments. You could say, “I graduated college” or “I got a job,” and that’d be fine. You’re just starting out in life, after all. You have plenty of time to look forward to greater accomplishments. At almost-45, your life is, let’s face it, probably more than half over. (Obviously, your life could be more than half over at any age, since death is usually unpredictable, but for the sake of argument, let’s just assume most of us will live until 70- or 80-something, at the most.) (Of course, I may well live to be 90-something. It seems to be how the ladies in my family tree roll, with the obvious exception of my mother, who only made it to 52 1/2. If I’m not destined to put up more years than my mother, I’m certainly on my last legs here, but just this once we’ll go with a more optimistic estimate.) (Someday I will tire of parenthetical asides, but today is not that day!) This is not the best time to do an assessment. It is both too early and too late. Too early to say, “Oh, well, I did my best,” and too late to say, “Dude, I really need to get going on those accomplishments!” because at 45 (or almost), you are busy with a lot of stuff that doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, and far too busy to re-think your grand scheme strategy.

At church, the ladies’ auxiliary has been doing a weekly spotlight on individual ladies, to help us get to know each other better, and one of the questions, regrettably, is “What is your greatest accomplishment?” Almost everyone says, “My children” or “my family.” I think that there is nothing wrong with that answer. It just isn’t the right answer for me. For one thing, I don’t feel that I have “accomplished” my family. I mean, I gave birth to four people. That’s a thing. I don’t disparage that thing. On the other hand, pregnancies have a natural tendency to end in birth, requiring no special skills on my part. But more to the point, aside from giving birth to them and taking care of them, which is not a small thing–I don’t mean to suggest that it is small–a) they’re not finished yet, and b) even if they were, I can’t take credit for what they are. I mean, I refuse to take credit for it. (Especially since I don’t even know what they’ll end up being yet. You can’t pin this thing on me! I won’t have it!) So I can’t say that my family is my greatest accomplishment. That doesn’t mean anything to me. To say my family is my greatest joy is something different. I could say that, probably, without laughing. (Not sure I could say it without my family laughing at me, but that’s a separate issue.) Greatest “accomplishment,” no.

But what have I accomplished? In 45 years of living, what have I accomplished? I graduated from college. I got a job (that was in no way related to my college education). I gave birth to four people. I learned to tap dance. Learning to tap dance may have been my greatest accomplishment. I’m not sure what that says about me, considering that I’m not a great tap dancer. I mean, I’m fine. I’m as good as one can expect to be when one takes up tap dancing at 33 and also isn’t terribly coordinated. I enjoy my ability to tap dance. What does it mean to me that I’ve learned to tap dance? What does it mean that I’ve learned to tap dance and yet it isn’t enough?

I guess this question just seems especially cruel after Question #14: “Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?” I answered that question in November. The answer hasn’t gotten less depressing. I give some version of this answer every time someone asks me if I’m “still writing.” Really, that question ought to be right up there with “Are you still married?” If you don’t know, don’t ask! It just brings up painful feelings!

It’s mainly that I had great hopes for my accomplishments, back when I was 15, 25, 35, and even as late as 40 or 41. It’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve thought I should probably make a new game plan for accomplishing stuff. I should go back to college, but this time major in something useful, and get a job that will be useful and that I will be good at. I’m not about to waste tens of thousands of dollars more on educating myself, though, until I know what it is that I would be good at that would also be useful. So far I’ve got nothing. I really have a very limited skill set. For one thing, my people skills are terrible. You’d be surprised at how many careers this eliminates right off the bat. And yes, it is too late for me to become a doctor.

I spent far too many years expecting my greatest accomplishments to be in the writing arena, but it turns out I’m not nearly as good at writing as I am at reading. I tell myself that I would be better at writing if I read less and wrote more, but I can’t bring myself to do it. Do you know how many hours I spent reading Don Quixote last month? I didn’t even enjoy it all that much (although I have an intellectual appreciation for it). The only reason I read Don Quixote instead of writing was that I knew that if I kept reading, I would eventually finish Don Quixote. I know how to keep reading. I don’t know how to keep writing, and I haven’t finished writing anything apart from posts on this blog for about five years. (I think. I don’t know. It depresses me to count. Although I know how to count. I’m just afraid to keep counting.)

At this point I am waiting for someone to say, “Don’t you see, Mad? Your greatest accomplishment is this blog!” Followed immediately by “WHICH YOU ALLOWED TO DIE!!!”

Just remember, I said it first.

 

We’ve covered the non-fiction and the high-brow fiction. Now it’s time to talk about the kind of books I mostly read.

Psycho-killer

A genre devoted to solving crimes committed by psychos.

Rage against the Dying by Becky Masterman
Brigid Quinn is a retired FBI agent who has worked hard to leave her former life of psycho-crime-fighting behind. More than anything, she’s afraid of it infecting the peaceful, happy life she’s found with her new husband, the gentle professor, who knows that she’s former FBI but thinks that she investigated fraud, not psycho-killing. Alas, fate has other plans for Brigid because a body turns up, and it looks just like the work of the Psycho Killer Who Got Away–a case that led to the death of Brigid’s young protégé and effectively ended Brigid’s career. Brigid doesn’t want anything to do with it–except of course she has to have something to do with it because it looks like this psycho will now be targeting Brigid, and she’s got to protect the people around her. Man oh man oh man, did I ever enjoy this book. Mainly because Brigid is awesome. Also because I like books about people catching the psychos and BRINGING THEM TO JUSTICE. This was a very exciting book (although content warning: rape and other horrible things), and I look forward to reading the further adventures of Brigid Quinn, sixty-year-old-lady badass. 5/5 stars

Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter
I pretty much read all of the Karin Slaughter books. There is only one Karin Slaughter book I have not read, and will not read, because it contains the death of a character I was not and probably never will be ready to watch die. (I have, however, read subsequent books where the deadness of aforementioned character is a sad fact of life, but that is okay. I accept that it happened. I just can’t watch it happening. It’s too sad. This from a woman who reads serial-killer books for diversion. I never said my brain made sense.) This book is a stand-alone (not part of her Grant County or Will Trent series, although a new Will Trent is set to come out later this year AND I AM SO THERE), and as I said on Goodreads, I thought it was remarkably good–an intriguing mystery and a poignant portrait of grief–up until about the 60% mark, where there’s this crazy, crazy plot twist–CRAZY plot twist. Like Gone Girl crazy, only much, much crazier. Jason springing out of the lake crazy. The kind that makes you go, “What? WHAT? Oh, come ON!” I kept reading, because a) I can’t help myself and b) there was still a psycho-killer to catch and bring to justice and ONE CANNOT REST, but I confess that I grumbled a little while I was reading. “This is all very exciting, but are you freaking kidding me?” Eventually, though, I just decided to go with it. And it did make for a very exciting third act. Also, a very satisfying bringing-to-justice. (Content warning: rape and torture of women. What kind of sick human being am I?) 4/5 stars

Gone, Baby, Gone by Dennis Lehane
Apparently this is the fourth book featuring the main characters, two ex-cops (a man and a woman) who are private investigators. Like, you know, a team. A private investigation team, I guess you would say. Anyway, I haven’t read the other books, but I would say this stands alone just fine. Previous events are alluded to, but you understand all you need to know from context. On the other hand, if you’re planning to read the other three books at some point, this book would contain spoilers. On the other hand, if you’re like me, by the time you get around to reading the other books, you’ll forget everything you learned about them from this book, and it’ll be just like starting with a clean slate. Anyway, enough small talk. The story of this book is a child abduction. A four-year-old girl is taken from her immature, irresponsible, and occasionally-drug-using mother’s home one night (while the mother is out doing whatever), and the girl’s concerned aunt asks Kenzie and Gennaro (aforementioned private eyes) to take on the case because she thinks the police aren’t doing enough. K & G are reluctant, but soon become intrigued by all the weird things they uncover (in the course of convincing the aunt and themselves that their services are not really required) and end up fully entangled in a case that is much more than simple abduction (if abduction is ever simple). Drug dealers! Blackmail! Police corruption! Meanwhile, there’s still a kid missing and time is running out. Stuff happens, K & G have to decide who they can trust and whatnot–it’s an interesting story, and it raises some interesting questions about what constitutes justice. (Content warning: violence, gross crime scenes and some mentions of crimes against children, although aforementioned mentions are isolated and not graphic in nature.) 4/5 stars

Romance

Because a life without love is…something.

The Nonesuch by Georgette Heyer
If there was a TV channel that showed nothing but BBC adaptations of Georgette Heyer novels, that is where I would be every day of my life. I don’t know that BBC has ever done an adaptation of any Georgette Heyer novel, but they ought to. They ought to do all of them! Georgette Heyer is like Jane Austen, if Jane Austen were sillier. The dialogue is always very witty, and there are many eccentric characters to provide actors with ample opportunities to chew the scenery (if they were so inclined). This is a comic romance about Sir Waldo, a much-admired Corinthian (the “Nonesuch”) who travels to a village in Yorkshire to inspect the ramshackle property he has just inherited, which leads to much gossip among the villagers as to his intentions (regarding both the estate and the eligible females neighboring it). Sir Waldo is accompanied by his nephew, a charming, fun-loving young man who becomes infatuated with the most beautiful girl in town (who is unfortunately a spoiled brat who ought to be punched in the face, but I don’t want to give away the whole plot). Meanwhile Sir Waldo takes up a flirtation with the girl’s lovely (and much more sensible) companion, a gently bred spinster (you know, about 24 years old) who has been forced by circumstances to take this paid position (because no one would do it for free). This isn’t my favorite Heyer, but it was still very enjoyable. The hero is pretty much perfect, which ought to be boring, but at least he has a sense of humor about it, which is what matters. Besides, if we can’t have perfection in our fictional heroes, where can we have it? 4/5 stars

Silk Is for Seduction by Loretta Chase
Marcelline Noirot is a gently-bred lady who has been forced by circumstances to go into trade as a dressmaker. She works with her two sisters, each of whom has a special talent that is essential to the success of this family business. Marcelline is the designer, and she’s pretty much a fashion genius. She is determined to get the business of the finest (and wealthiest) members of the ton, and her latest strategy is to convince the Duke of Clevedon that she must provide his (intended) fiancée’s wardrobe. Clevedon could not care less about dresses; he just wants to sleep with this gorgeous and provoking woman (as one does). It’s kind of complicated, i.e. too complex to bother explaining, but Marcelline ends up getting the commission for the dresses but also finds herself becoming enchanted by the handsome and provoking duke, blah blah, whatever. This was a fine enough story as this type of thing goes, but I have to say I loved Marcelline as a character. She’s smart and determined and self-confident and doesn’t have hang-ups that need to be solved by a hot aristocrat’s sex-skillz. That alone placed this book above the average romance novel. (I guess–it’s the only reason I can remember for the rating I gave it.) (Content warning: There is sex. Performed with skillz.) 4/5 stars

If You Only Knew by Kristan Higgins
I’ve read quite a few Kristan Higgins books (mostly her Blue Heron series), and heretofore they have all been more or less the same. Which is not to say that they were not enjoyable. I am generally not a fan of contemporary romance, as the stakes tend to be lower than in historical romance and the heroines more neurotic (which is actually rarely loveable–it’s like everyone wants to be the next Bridget Jones, but I didn’t really like Bridget Jones). I do like Higgins’ books, even though the heroines do tend to be neurotic (as we know all modern women are), because her writing is clever and her characters are interesting, even when she’s writing the same plot over and over again. (Modern neurotic woman who has been hung up on a guy who broke her heart or didn’t return her interest for years finally meets a new dude, who has issues, but is exactly right for her–but wait! the dude she loved for years suddenly decides she’s the one for him and misunderstandings ensue. I don’t think I’m giving anything away, even though I’ve told you everything but the resolution, which I’m sure you can guess. It’s a tried-and-true formula: it’s all about the journey.) This book is slightly different in that it’s more chick lit than romance (although there is romance, so I’m including it here because I don’t want to make a separate chick lit category for one book). It tells the stories of two sisters–one who is divorced and looking for someone to settle down and have kids with (but is unfortunately attracted to the unsuitable dude who lives in the apartment beneath hers), and one who has the perfect marriage and family that includes a set of triplets and everything. Only wait! Is everything really as perfect as it seems?? SPOILER ALERT: No. Also, there are deep, dark secrets about their parents’ marriage, which one of them knows but the other doesn’t. Deep, dark secrets abound, really. But there is also humor, so it’s not that dark. It is a book about marriage but also about families. I think this is Higgins’ best book (of the ones I’ve read), hands down. (Content warning: Not really a lot of sex, mainly allusions to sex, but a frank discussion thereof at times.) 4/5 stars

Act Like It by Lucy Parker
This is a Kindle exclusive, and I got it on the cheap (even cheaper than its regular cheap price), so that may have influenced my feelings about it considerably–I do love a bargain–but I am prone to hate things I read for $1.99 as much as things I read for $11.99 and for free, so I will just go ahead and say that I thought this romance was pretty darn good for what it was. Another contemporary, set in the London theatre world. Elaine is an up-and-coming actress working in a play that needs to do well at the box office (for the same reason all plays need to do well), but ticket sales are flagging because the star of the show, an arrogant (but talented) diva named Richard Troy, is acting like a jerk in public and getting bad press all over town. The play’s producer and the theatre manager and Richard’s agent all conspire to persuade Elaine, England’s sweetheart (insofar as the theatre world is concerned), into faking a romantic relationship with Richard in the hopes that some of her good press will rub off on him. It sounds ridiculous, and it is, but that’s the premise. Take it or leave it. Elaine agrees to the charade because the producer also promises to give x percentage of ticket sales to Elaine’s favorite charity, which is important to her for personal reasons. It’s a common romance trope–two, actually: fake relationship and enemies-to-lovers. Here’s what I liked about the book: Richard really is a jerk. He really is arrogant, and he is often rude. He is not a loveable guy. He does not undergo a radical personality change over the course of the book (although he changes a little–for the better! because that is what romance heroes do, unless they’re Georgette Heyer heroes, who are perfect to begin with). But like Shrek and all ogres, he has layers. As you get to know him, you start to see his good qualities and how Elaine could fall in love with him without getting a lobotomy first. It’s not Shakespeare (ha ha, see what I did there), but it’s clever and more imaginative than the average. I also liked that the characters acted like grown-ups (most of the time), rather than adults who were psychologically still in high school (or whatever they call it in England). I was diverted. (Content warning: There is sex. Not oodles, but some. Can’t really recall the level of detail. Sorry.) 4/5 stars

Before We Kiss by Susan Mallery
I don’t know why I read so many contemporaries during February. It’s most unusual for me. I also don’t know why I picked up another Susan Mallery, when the last Susan Mallery I read was decidedly meh. I think that once upon a time I must have read a Susan Mallery I liked and have assumed there must be another one out there I would also like. Well. This wasn’t it. Sam  is an ex-NFL player who has a business with some NFL buddies of his–I forget what the business is, but it’s thriving but they also need to have an EVENT because that’s what successful businesses like theirs do, and Sam is in charge of the event, so he needs to hire the services of an event planner. Unfortunately, the only event planner in town (it’s a small town, which nevertheless has many thriving business–it’s like a 27 book series where everyone in town finds love and professional fulfillment) is Dellina, a woman he had a one-night stand with and freaked out on when he stumbled into a spare room where she was storing a bunch of wedding dresses for a friend (who also has a thriving business in this very small town, but not a lot of extra storage space). Because a woman who keeps a dozen wedding dresses in her spare room is clearly PSYCHO. Well, Dellina’s not actually psycho (as I explained), and Sam gets that NOW, but it’s still kind of awkward now that they have to work together on this event thing, especially since they’re still very attracted to each other. Shall I go on? No, I should not. I should have stopped reading long before this, but I actually finished the whole thing (sort of–I skimmed a lot). This book sort of exemplifies everything I don’t like about contemporaries: the stakes are low and the details are mundane. Will the event go as planned? WHO CARES? Will Sam learn to trust women again (I forgot to mention he has trust issues)? WHO CARES? How does the story end? I DON’T REMEMBER. There are a few funny bits here and there, mostly involving Sam’s mother, who is a sex therapist and has never met a personal boundary she didn’t want to cross, but that’s neither here nor there. As a whole it was more tedious than diverting, and that’s not okay. I don’t like books that make me feel like I’ve really wasted my time as opposed to only sort of wasting my time. (Content warning: IT’S BORING.) 2/5 stars

Scandalous by Jenna Petersen
Well, here we have a historical romance, which is more my speed. Miss Katherine Fleming, who was orphaned as a young woman and subsequently made the ward of some awful family, is engaged to be married to a widowed nobleman of some consequence. She isn’t in love with him; she’s a practical sort, and she’s determined to make a pleasant but practical marriage. Uno problemo: Turns out aforementioned nobleman’s dead wife is not so dead after all. It happens. Unfortunately, this is the olden days, when you couldn’t just say, “Oopsy, turns out my fiancé is still married to a live woman,” and everyone would just understand. No, this will be a huge scandal that will ruin Katherine unless she agrees to marry the un-widower’s black sheep of a brother, whose name I think is Dominic. Yes, Dominic. Dominic is technically, from a biological point of view, the un-widower’s half-brother, being the product of an affair his mother had back in the day. Nobody outside the family knows this, but within the family things have been awkward, which is why Dominic has been off making his fortune and only come home to try to talk his half-bro into selling him one of the family properties for reasons which are very important to him personally, i.e. he knows Mom was residing there when he was conceived and therefore believes the house holds some clue as to his true parentage, of which he is ignorant because Mom refuses to say. It is so important to him that he agrees to marry Katherine in exchange for the property, and did I forget to mention that the reason the Un-widower is so concerned about saving Katherine from scandal by marrying her off to his brother is that he’s already spent her dowry. Oopsy again! Katherine, meanwhile, knows nothing of these family intrigues and believes Dominic is marrying her because he has nothing better to do just now. Honestly, I don’t remember why she thought he might be so willing to marry a woman he just met unless it was because he found her sexually exciting. Because that’s what’s really troubling Katherine–not that her fiancé has an undead wife and that she will now be marrying a complete stranger, but that the complete stranger MAKES HER FEEL THINGS SHE DOES NOT WANT TO FEEL. I told you that she was a practical sort. She wants a comfortable marriage to someone she likes, not someone she could fall in love with, because TO FALL IN LOVE WOULD BE DISASTER.

Okay. Yes, this blurb has to be longer than one paragraph, because I, like Katherine, have feelings. Okay, so far, so good. I mean, this is a pretty typical premise for a romance novel. People getting thrown together with people they’re sexually attracted to but not wanting to RISK THEIR HEARTS. I don’t know how often it happens in real life, but in the romance genre it happens all the time. It is also very common in romance novels for characters to have Deep, Dark Secrets that they are afraid to reveal to their beloved because aforementioned beloved Might Not Understand. This is often pure stupidity on the part of the characters, but you know, people are imperfect. They don’t always act in their best interests. Dominic’s secret is known to the reader from the outset: he’s of questionable parentage and he’s just made a gross deal to marry his (half!) brother’s fiancée in exchange for a freaking house. Of course Katherine Might Not Understand, so even though he knows he ought to tell her–especially since he’s FALLING IN LOVE WITH HER–he procrastinates. Katherine’s motivations, on the other hand, are not at all clear to the reader. You know that she is afraid to fall in love with Dominic, but you don’t really get why. Hers must be a TRULY Deep, Dark Secret, if not even the reader gets to know it. This is the thing, though, about romance authors keeping Deep, Dark Secrets from their readers: if you’re going to hold off on the reveal until the book is practically over, that secret had better be pretty damned deep and dark, or someone’s going to be pissed. And by “someone,” I mean me. When Katherine reveals why she cannot possibly live with a husband she loves but whom she believes does not (TRULY!) love her in return, even though she’s a woman in the nineteenth century with no money or social position and wouldn’t last a freaking second without the advantages of marriage, it turns out the reason is a) neither deep nor dark, and b) pretty damn stupid, actually. Then she commits the cardinal sin of romance heroines everywhere, which I find always annoying but basically unforgiveable when my eyes are already rolled so far back in my head from the Deep, Dark Secret That Wasn’t, and she does something THAT ONLY A CRAZY PERSON WOULD DO. And by “crazy person,” I mean someone ENTIRELY WITHOUT WITS OR REASON. This from a character who has heretofore shown every indication that she has intelligence and mental wellness. It angered me so much that I couldn’t get past it and focus on the fact that the love story itself was actually rather compelling. DO NOT ANGER ME WITH YOUR CRAZY-ASS NONSENSE, ROMANCE AUTHORS, or you too will find your book receiving 2.5/5 stars.

***********

Well, that does it for the January-February edition of Mad’s Book Club, which is good because we’re almost all the way through March. That means that the next time we meet, we shall be discussing the books I read in March, which will probably not be nearly so many because a) I’m reading Don Quixote, and it’s freaking long, and b) other reasons I don’t care to get into just now, but don’t worry–it’s not a Deep, Dark Secret! I’ve just way-overstayed my welcome on this post. Gentle readers, adieu.

 

 

I’m not actually excited to be on spring break, although I do enjoy not having to wake up and make lunches and drive people to school. That’s always cool.

What would be cooler is if I were no longer on this low-carb diet. I’ve sort of gotten used to it, in a way. Except for the part where I am always full and never satisfied. Who knew that bread was so important to me? Well, I did, actually. I did know that bread was very important to me. Hence my instinctive recoil when my husband first suggested this low-carb diet. But I guess some things just have to be experienced despite the fact that we don’t need to learn our lesson. What’s the lesson here, really? That high protein and low carbs make me hate everyone? Apparently so.

It’s not as bad as when I was recovering from the jaw surgery and I was always hungry yet had lost the will to eat. That was incredibly depressing. This is less depressing (although still depressing) and more…I don’t know. It’s just this pervasive sense of discontent. I am irritable. And lonely. I mean, I was lonely before, but before, I at least had peanut butter sandwiches to keep me company. I haven’t had a peanut butter sandwich since February. It’s like being in Japan, only with much less rice.

Today, in my ongoing quest to eschew carbs, I ate tofu spaghetti for dinner. It’s not as bad as it sounds. Well, the texture is revolting (albeit very Japanese). But mind over matter, the taste is not bad. It’s not much of anything, really. It’s like eating rice noodles, only with a crap-ton of protein and no carbs. It’s like 15 calories a serving or something. The amusing thing is that on the packaging it says that the noodles have a “mild, earthy aroma” that goes away after you rinse them. Indeed. Well, I didn’t notice, frankly (although I did rinse them, of course). I was less concerned about that than the possibility that they would touch my tongue and my gag reflex would kick in. And I’ll have you know that I like tofu. I just like actual pasta that much more. But whatever. As I said, it wasn’t bad. Plus, there were meatballs.

There has been a lot of meat on this diet. I downloaded a calorie counting app mainly for the purpose of making sure that I would actually lose weight on this diet–and also so that I would know how much wiggle room I had in the event that I snapped and found myself eating a cheeseburger out of pure instinct. The calorie counting app is both very useful and very annoying. It tells me that in order to meet my weight loss goal, I need to take in no more than 1,400 net calories per day, and also that 20% of the calories should be from protein, 30% from fats, and 50% from carbs. Well, if 50% of my calories were from carbs, I would be hungry all day long. I exceed my protein goal every single day. I also exceed my fat goal (pretty much) every day. And my sodium goal. All of those things are off the charts. I’ve never thought of myself as a high-sodium-diet type of gal, but apparently sodium lurks in the most unexpected places. The calorie app will pick the oddest moments to chastise me. Like, I eat a banana and it tells me to watch my sodium intake. I don’t know if bananas actually have sodium in them, but I can’t remember the exact (fresh, unadulterated) fruit or vegetable I was eating when it reminded me of my goal to stay under (some obnoxiously low number) grams of sodium.

Conversely, when I record eating a snack food that is obviously a substitute for something more unhealthy (because no one in their right mind would eat it for fun), it extolls said diet food for being rich in niacin or whatever. (I’m just picking nutrients at random. As long as the calorie app is full of crap, I feel like I can be too.) This is another part of being on a diet that is affecting my lifestyle. I find myself spending an inordinate amount of time in grocery stores looking for low-carb snacks that will distract me from my actual cravings. Needless to say, this is time spent in vain.

The one pleasant discovery I have made is that Dannon’s Triple Zero yogurt is both low in carbs and totally worth eating. In fact, I prefer it to regular yogurt because regular yogurt is really too sweet for my taste. I will continue to eat Triple Zero yogurt even after I’ve given up on not (eventually) becoming fat because I like it. Either I have forgotten what real food tastes like, or it is a miracle of science. Another possibility: it is secretly giving me cancer. But it’s the only thing making this diet bearable, so I don’t really care at this point.

I’ve had a couple days where the calorie app tells me I’m not eating enough, and it’s not going to cooperate with me until I stop making like I have an eating disorder. The trouble is that it’s so easy to go from 999 calories to 1,700. Really, all you have to do is eat a slice of pizza and a couple wings. That’s what’s so aggravating about calories. They’re so easy to consume and so difficult to burn. I could do 60 minutes of high-impact aerobics and only burn the equivalent of, like, 10 french fries. It’s not remotely just or right. Mother Nature really is a bitch.

I’ve never believed the old slogan “nothing tastes as good as thin feels.” I can think of 1,000 things off the top of my head that taste infinitely better than thin feels. Now, I imagine that nothing tastes as good as not having heart disease feels, or as good as being able to tie your own shoes feels, but merely being thin does not actually feel that good. I’ve been thin. I mean, I would describe my figure now as “relatively slender” (everything being relative, of course), but I am not currently what I would call objectively “thin.” I have been thin before, though–it was right after I weaned Mister Bubby and before I got pregnant with Elvis. It was the thinnest I had been since before puberty, probably, but a) I didn’t look good, and b) I did not feel good. Well, I might have looked good in clothes, but when I stepped out of the shower and saw myself in the mirror, I would think, “Ugh. That’s not okay.” And it was during a time of my life when I was very unhappy, so I have no fond memories of being thin. I have fond memories of when I was 24 and my breasts were still firm, but that is another story. All I can tell you is that a whole lot of things taste better than being thin feels. And I would love to be eating any of them right now.

The good news (I guess) is that the diet has worked. In the sense that I have met my weight loss goal. I would take more satisfaction in that if a) most of the weight hadn’t come from my (already small) bosom, and b) I didn’t know that I am destined to gain it all back as soon as I start eating peanut butter sandwiches again. I mean, I’m 45 years old. (Very close to it, anyway.) Menopause grows ever closer. I will never be able to eat like a pro wrestler with impunity again. And I really don’t want to spend what’s left of my life never having the super nachos. (Especially if this delicious low carb yogurt is giving me cancer.) So yes, I think it is just a matter of time before I gain it all back. And probably not a matter of all that much time.

The other good news is that this summer we’ll be in Japan for four weeks, and I will probably be able to lose it all over again. But that’s another blog post for another day. Gentle readers, adieu.

So now it’s time to move on to fiction. Since most of what I read is fiction, and I read a lot, I’m going to organize it (sort of) by genre. This edition will feature all the fiction that isn’t mystery/suspense or romance. Some titles are more highbrow than others, of course, but this is just what I’m doing. Try to roll with it.

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
This is a book of short stories, all about Indian immigrants and their children in the United States. (At least I think they’re all in the United States. Well, one is in England. They’re not in India, that much I can tell you.) I really don’t have that much to say about it except that the writing is beautiful and the stories are interesting. (Not all beautifully written stories are interesting.) If you enjoyed Lahiri’s The Namesake (which I did), you will enjoy these stories too. 5/5 stars

The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman
I think one reviewer called this book The Crimson Petal and the White meets Fight Club. Actually, that’s what it says on Amazon. I knew I’d seen it somewhere. Anyway, they had me at “nineteenth century lady pugilist.” The story begins with young Ruth, who is plucked from the obscurity of her mother’s brothel to enter the glamorous world of professional boxing. The story is narrated by several characters, who seem only tangentially related to each other at first, but over the course of the book, their stories all come together. I found this book very difficult to put down, and I loved the two main female characters. The fight scenes and the brothel scenes got a little gnarly, but if that sort of thing doesn’t bother you, I highly recommend this one. 5/5 stars

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
I was not particularly interested in this Pulitzer Prize winner until I learned the story behind it, which intrigued me. Toole died young and unpublished; his mother found this manuscript, written out longhand, among his effects, and asked a publisher friend (Walker Percy, actually) to look at it. Percy reluctantly agreed, but was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a brilliant novel. So it got published and eventually won the Pulitzer Prize. How crazy is that? So I read it, and I agree that the author’s mom did the right thing. The main character is not loveable. He’s a pompous, gluttonous, inconsiderate, slothful guy in his thirties who lives with his mother and is forced by life’s circumstances to finally seek employment. As he goes from one job to the next, he meets a number of unsavory and/or crazy characters. It’s an absurd story, but a hilarious one. 5/5 stars

The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
I saw The Exorcist, years ago, and I have to say that at the time, my reaction was “meh.” I realize it should not have been “meh,” that The Exorcist is a film classic and super freaky and whatnot, but nevertheless, that was how I felt about it. Maybe I’d been jaded by too many horror films. I don’t know. With the book, I think, I got a better sense of the themes of evil and faith and the nature thereof. It’s kind of slow-paced, as I remember the movie being, but not in a bad way. It definitely held my interest. But in case you’ve never seen the movie, I’ll warn you: it gets absolutely revolting. In case you have seen the movie but haven’t read the book, I’ll warn you: it’s even worse than the movie. I think Blatty overdid it in that department, frankly, but it’s still a good story. Not one to be read over breakfast, though. 4/5 stars

Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie
This is another Pulitzer Prize-winner, though I probably would never have picked it up if it hadn’t been on sale for $1.99 on the Kindle. It’s about two American professors, a woman (Vinnie) and a man (Fred) from the same university who each take a sabbatical to England to work on their scholarly pursuits and end up having love affairs. (Affairs, separately, not an affair together. Despite being colleagues, they don’t know each other well, and though their paths seldom cross during the story, the rare crossing thereof is consequential to the story.) Its Pulitzer-Prizeness notwithstanding, this book is fairly understated. I don’t imagine it will change anyone’s life, but I enjoyed it quite a lot. There was humor, but also pathos. I found Vinnie’s story more compelling than Fred’s, but Fred’s was sort of a necessary contrast. The ending is poignant. 4/5 stars

After Dark by Wilkie Collins
I’d read Collins’ The Woman in White and also Basil, both of which I greatly enjoyed, so I expected somewhat more from this book of stories, some of which were interesting and entertaining, and some of which were “meh.” I read the free Kindle edition, and I’m pretty sure that the first story was missing a few pages in the middle–like the part where something happens to somebody. Kind of important. That story might have been awesome, for all I know, but heavily abridged as it was, it was worse than “meh.” So if you decide to read this one, spring for the non-free edition, as I assume it probably has all the words. 3/5 stars

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carole Rifka Brunt
Fourteen-year-old June, who is mourning the passing of favorite uncle (possibly her only uncle, but nevertheless, her favorite) from AIDS, strikes up an unlikely friendship with the uncle’s surviving boyfriend, who had heretofore been kept a secret. Not that the uncle’s gayness was secret, but the boyfriend’s existence was hidden from June because June’s mother, sister of the aforementioned uncle, hated him (the boyfriend) and would only let her brother see her daughters on the condition that they never, ever meet the boyfriend. But June does meet him and embarks on a secret friendship with him. It has to be a secret because June’s mother would freak out if she knew. So–intrigue. It sounds like something of an after-school special, the way I describe it, but it’s much better than that. (More of an Oprah’s Book Club type book, only also better than that. Actually, it looks like it was an Oprah selection. Well, so were Song of Solomon and A Prayer for Owen Meany. Not that this is necessarily in that category. NOT THAT IT’S NOT. I’m just saying.) It’s a coming of age story for June, but it’s also about her relationship with her family, particularly her sister (who is going through her own crap). I liked it mucho. 4/5 stars

Native Son by Richard Wright
So I’d never read Native Son before this (obvs, or I wouldn’t be including it in my January-February 2016 edition), nor Black Boy. No Richard Wright whatsoever, as far as I know. I probably would not have gotten around to it, except that–wait for it–it was $1.99 on the Kindle. Still, I was sort of putting off reading it because last year I went through a period where I was reading The Souls of Black Folk, Up from Slavery, and Invisible Man, all in maybe a two week period, and I sort of overdosed on black oppression. I know, that’s quite a confession for a middle-aged white woman from the suburbs to make, but there it is. (All three of the aforementioned books are quite good, incidentally, though Invisible Man is long and sort of an acquired taste. I think it helps to have read T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.) Anyway, I enjoyed Native Son much more than I expected to. If you don’t know the story, it’s about a young black man who accidentally kills a young white woman (the daughter of his new employer, as it happens–long story), and let’s just say it gets more complicated from there. The main character is not especially sympathetic. In fact, he’s kind of a brute. Despite that, his story is very compelling (I had a hard time putting the book down, actually–I know I say that a lot, but it happens to me a lot, okay?), and in the end I did end up sympathizing with him, despite everything. A very thought-provoking book. (High praise from a middle-aged white woman from the suburbs. I’m sure Richard Wright is posthumously flattered.) 5/5 stars

And that wraps it up for the highbrow portion of Mad’s Book Club: Multi-Episodic Edition. Next time: genre novels, including some fairly trashy ones. Stay tuned!

I know I promise fiction tomorrow (which is today, so in other words, I promised fiction today), but two days ago I said I’d talk about my stupid low-carb diet and that’s what I’m in the mood to talk about today, so that’s what I’m doing.

I know I said, after my restrictive jaw surgery recovery diet was finally over, that I would never go on another diet again as long as I lived, that I would rather be fat, but I changed my mind. Not that I’m fat (yet). That’s the problem. It’s not that I’m fat (unless you’re looking for a runway model, in which case, sure, I’m a whale); it’s that I have a fear of becoming fat. Which sounds very fat-shaming, now that I actually type it out loud. I don’t think I have unrealistic expectations for how my body should look. I know I’m 45 years old and I will never have tight abs (or any abs) and my butt will always be big. I know I’m not going to be 130 lbs. again in this lifetime, and that’s okay. I had four kids, my husband still finds me attractive, and I’m not planning to have a second career in Hollywood. But I have put on about ten pounds in the last year (which is my net gain–not my Bridget Jones losing-and-gaining-back gain), which is not a big deal, except that the last time I weighed this much, I was pregnant (which was ten years ago), and I don’t want to gain ten pounds every year. That means if I live another 20 years, I will gain 200 more pounds, which will put me at a weight I’ve never been, even while pregnant. Unacceptable!

I think you are probably starting to see now what I’m about. It isn’t rational to fear that because one is four pounds over the most she said she would ever allow herself to weigh, one must necessarily be on track to gain 200 pounds in 20 years. In fact, my metabolism is probably overdue for slowing down. Aforementioned metabolism was pretty darn awesome for the first 35 years of life, which encouraged some unfortunate dietary habits, which have continued unabated even as the metabolism has decided that it’s had enough of the rat race and will now retire to a beach in Tahiti where it will lie in the sun and drink the drinks with the little umbrellas in them, now and forever. If only my body could enjoy my metabolism’s retirement, which sounds pretty dreamy, if you like the beach, but also very fattening. My metabolism doesn’t have to buy new clothes, because it’s not literally an anthropomorphic entity literally residing on a beach, which is probably clothing-optional anyway because why not? The metaphor itself is probably what needs to be retired at this point.

So, yes, it is normal to put on weight at my age, and I am not obese, despite what the BMI charts expect me to believe. I have eyes; I can see I am not obese. I can also see that there are lots of women out there who weigh at least as much as I do and look just fine, feel just fine, and lead happy and productive lives. Perhaps if I led a happy and productive life, I would not feel the need to weigh less than a particular number. I can still wear most of my clothes. The only clothes I can’t wear anymore are clothes I’ve had since my early twenties, and yes, I probably should just get rid of them, but I have a sentimental attachment to my plaid skirt and cannot face the possibility–strikeout–reality that I will never wear it again. Especially since I’ve never seen another plaid skirt of its kind in my size. Maybe when I do, I will let go of the dream and allow some other, thinner person at the Goodwill to know the joy of this particular garment. I can see Marie Kondo shaking her head and rolling her eyes at me, but you know what? Until Marie Kondo figures out a way I can get everyone else in my household to toss the items that don’t spark my joy, I am keeping my too-small-but-fabulous plaid skirt and she can kiss my big toe. (A humorous reference to my considerable butt was too obvious.)

Have I spent all this time trying to justify going on a diet or trying to justify going off my diet? This is only day 5 of the diet, mind you. I’m not starving. It’s not a stupid diet. It’s a very reasonable diet and will probably make me healthier. I want to be healthier because that is the main reason I don’t want to get fat. I am not a fit person. I’ve been tap dancing and clogging for more than a decade, and I still can’t run up the stairs inside my own house without my legs screaming at me afterwards. I can’t run on level ground for more than probably 30 seconds without stopping to catch my breath–and then I can’t start again. I’m old and everything hurts, and all I can think is that the more I weigh, the harder it will be to do all the things I really shouldn’t have this much trouble doing. I hurt my back in December and finally went to the doctor a couple weeks ago. She sent me to the physical therapist, who has assigned me some simple, very low-impact core-strengthening exercises. I used to joke that my abdominal muscles just disappeared with my last pregnancy, but I’m beginning to think that is actually what happened because these simple, very low-impact core-strengthening exercises are murdering me. I feel like I should get an x-ray or something and see if the abdominal muscles are really still there and make sure they haven’t become empty husks or something. I can still suck in my gut, so in theory I must have some abdominal muscles, yes? I just don’t get it.

I just want a peanut butter sandwich. I want a peanut butter sandwich because I’m sad and I’m more sad that I can’t have a peanut butter sandwich. I wouldn’t even need jelly, just peanut butter. I wouldn’t even need two slices of bread, just one. And a glass of milk. Not skim milk, real milk. But that would be one-third of my allotted calories for the day and the calorie-counting app I downloaded for my phone would scold me in red letters about my fat intake. It just isn’t worth it. (I hate being scolded, especially in red letters! It’s a pretty useful app otherwise, if you like that sort of thing.) And I need to get off my butt and exercise now if I want to be in the black at the end of the day, so I will quit typing now, as typing doesn’t burn calories (unfortunately).

You know what else ought to burn calories but doesn’t? Making salads. What a time suck. But I digress. Gentle readers, adieu.

I stopped doing book reviews a long time ago because a) I find them very time-consuming (mainly because I feel obligated to provide links to every book I review–it seems only right) and b) I read a lot of books, and I’d rather read than write book reviews, even short ones. Even blurbs. But I happen to be in the mood today, so here goes.

These are all the books I’ve read so far this year. I’ve decided to divide them by genres, just for the sake of showing off how organized I can be.

Non-fiction

Non-fiction comes first because the first book I read this year was a non-fiction book.

Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators by Jay Nordlinger
I have often wondered about the families of individuals who do evil things. I remember the Jonesboro school shooting, which happened when Princess Zurg was just a baby. My first thought was about the parents–not of the victims, but of the shooters, who were only 11 or 12 years old. Specifically, my thought was, How horrifying to learn that your baby is a monster. Whenever I hear about some horrible thing like a school shooting or other mass murder, my heart goes out to the victims’ families, obviously, but I can’t help thinking about the people who have to live with what their son or brother or husband did. These were the people who knew the monsters as something other than monsters. In the case of this book, it’s all about the children, of course. Some of the stories are more interesting than others, but Jay Nordlinger could probably write a new edition of the phone book and I would enjoy reading it, so there’s that. 4/5 stars

What’s Wrong with the World by G.K. Chesterton
I got this on a whim because it was free. Never read G.K. Chesterton before. This is a series of essays on social problems. He was very anti-feminist, and I disagree with him strongly on that front, but his writing is consistently entertaining, and I felt edified by his perspective. Humorous and thought-provoking (if occasionally full of crap–it was a hundred years ago). 4/5 stars

A Train of Powder by Rebecca West
This book contains the series of long New Yorker articles she did about the Nuremberg Trials, which were interesting–the articles, that is–but I was actually more fascinated by the shorter pieces on other, less notorious trials (all murder cases, as I recall). She tells a story from all different points of view. One piece focuses a lot on a fisherman who discovered the victim’s body, and how the experience affected him. Interesting ruminations on crime and justice. 4/5 stars

Home: A Memoir of My Early Years by Julie Andrews
Generally, I’m not big on celebrity memoirs. I’m just not interested in most celebrities’ lives, even the ones I like. (Two exceptions: I couldn’t help picking up Alison Arngrim’s Confessions of a Prairie Bitch–because come on, Nellie Olsen–and Neil Patrick Harris’s Choose Your Own Autobiography–because Choose-Your-Own-Autobiography. Both very good if you don’t absolutely hate memoirs and refuse to read them on principle–although I’m usually in that category myself.) I wouldn’t have read this book–even though I like Julie Andrews very much–except that it was chosen for a book group I’m in. I actually didn’t end up attending that meeting, which makes me wonder if it was truly worth reading this book–but I can’t say it was a bad memoir. If Julie Andrews interests you, it’s a very good memoir. She talks about her life growing up–her mother was a hot mess–and the beginning of her career, and the chapters tend to be on the short side, so it’s easy to pick up and put down. If Julie Andrews doesn’t interest you, there’s nothing here to make you think she’s more interesting than you thought she was. 3/5 stars

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai  
Another memoir I read for the same book group mentioned above. (That meeting hasn’t taken place yet, but I requested the book from the library early, thinking I might have a lengthy wait, which turned out not to be the case. I know it’s kind of an old book at this point, but this was the digital edition we’re talking about, and I’ve waited months for books older than this one.) Malala’s story is very compelling, and I was fascinated by her parents, particularly her father. Not to give all the attention to the man in the story, but Malala couldn’t have become the remarkable and courageous young woman she is without the influence and support of her father, who was equally courageous and perhaps even more remarkable, considering that he didn’t have a similar role model of his own and that he was raised in an extremely patriarchal society. But Malala is, of course, awesome. She is also ordinary, which is charming. (She likes Justin Bieber, which just goes to show that it takes all kinds to change the world.) That said, the book is sort of uneven in quality–but, you know, she is a teenage girl. I’m 45 years old and still haven’t written a book, and also haven’t gotten shot for trying to learn (or for any reason), so I can probably just go to hell. 3.5/5 stars

That’s all I’ve got time for today. We’ll move on to fiction tomorrow. Or, you know, whenever I get around to it.

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