Sunday, February 24, 2013

My History with "The Secret History"

I'm currently rereading Donna Tartt's The Secret History, something I tend to do every year or year and a half or so. It's one of my three favorite books (the other two being F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, a novel of terrible unfulfilled longing, and Robert R. McCammon's Boy's Life, a novel of wonder and sadness), and is the book I recommend most often to friends who ask for "a good book". I realized this morning that I most often get the urge to reread it during the winter, as it is fixed in my head as a winter book for two reasons: the first being that even though the book takes place over the course of a year, most of the important action happens during winter and a snowy spring, and the second being that the first time I read it was during winter break in my freshman year of college.

I was aware of "The Secret History" before reading it, because I'd read a review in "People" magazine that seemed interesting. (I don't know if "People" still does book reviews, but back in the 1990's they did.) I also heard about it here and there because for a while it seemed like everyone was reading this book; it wasn't the Fifty Shades of Grey of its day, but it might have been that fall's Gone Girl. I saw it in people's bags, noticed it in people's hands at the doctor's office or the dentist, but being that the internet was still a tiny baby in 1993 and I was not connected, I had no idea that people out in the wider world were talking about it in book groups and public libraries. I wasn't buying a lot of new books as a college freshman, since most of my disposable income was going toward going out on the weekends (and weekdays), comic books, and paying for the incidentals of college, but right before I left to go home for December break I noticed "The Secret History" on the new releases wall at the college library. Paging through, I recognized Donna Tartt's author photo from the "People" magazine review and vaguely remembered thinking that the review seemed interesting, and checked it out for the break.

I took it home, read it in the first two days of break, and upon finishing immediately began reading it again.

It's not hard to figure out what about this book connected with me. It's well written and engaging, but the real hook is that in my head Hampden College, the fictitious liberal arts college of less than 500 students in "The Secret History", became St. Lawrence University, the tiny liberal arts private school of less than 3,000 students that I wanted to attend but didn't. St. Lawrence was old and historical, like Hampden, and seemed filled with the kind of people that I wanted to be friends with: somewhat intelligent and casually wealthy, people who would recognize me as the special snowflake that I thought I was and embrace me as one of their own, people who seemed to my teenaged mind to just be a better class of people, one that I wanted to belong to. It would be several years before I realized that if I had gone to St. Lawrence I would have been in the same position as Richard, the narrator of "The Secret History", a middle class kid on financial aid trying to blend in with the privileged, wealthy elitists around him. Given that true life rarely works out as well as fiction, I doubt I would have been as readily embraced, and would probably have been somewhat miserable, stressed, and perpetually envious and resentful of my classmates. I was admitted to St. Lawrence and won a scholarship that would have covered $20,000 a year, but at the time attendance cost around $40,000 a year, and my parents wouldn't (and couldn't) pay the rest. Mom and dad, if you're reading, I'm not mad about this anymore.

My freshman year, though, when I picked up this book, I definitely still was. I hadn't settled into Cortland yet after only a semester, and was still resentful that I'd ended up having to go there instead of the snobbish expensive private school of my dreams, and here was a book whose snobbish expensive private school seemed to be exactly the one that I was missing out on: the wacky, entertaining characters in the book seemed better than the wacky, entertaining characters that I saw every day; the weekend parties seemed so much more interesting and glamorous than the weekend parties I went to; even the classrooms sounded better. This is, of course, because all of these things were fiction, but in my head they became the things that I was missing out on, and I embraced the book with bitter sadness, sure on some level that this was exactly the exciting life that I was deprived of by selfish parents. (Again, mom and dad, these were my feelings at the time. Please don't read this and then call me to talk this out. It's totally fine now.) Even the fact that the book's main plot revolves around the murder of a classmate and close friend of the main characters' seemed like the kind of exciting, sightly romantic adventure that I wasn't having at college. Nothing in "The Secret History" seemed wrong to me, but with age and (alleged) maturity I now read the book with more of a sense of the moral ambiguity. I can't ever decide now if Henry is evil or noble, and I'm no longer as sure that my own actions would mirror those of Richard, the narrator.

I did start eating, and do still eat, cream cheese and orange marmalade sandwiches because Charles did in the book. You should try it. They're delicious, especially on toast.

At any rate, this library copy was one of the four copies of the book that I've read over the years. When I felt like reading it again after that first December break I picked up a secondhand paperback copy at A Second Look Bookstore in Watertown, New York, with credit that I got from turning in some other books. At some point over the years this paperback copy, already a little banged up when I got it, wore out, and I replaced it with a hardcover. Oddly enough, I have no idea when or where I made this switch, but I know exactly when the copy that I'm reading now was purchased: I got it in Alexandria, Virginia, in June 2006 at a used bookstore just down the street from the restaurant where this truck with a horse statue and flag in the bed was parked:


I know the exact timing because I'd gone on a road trip to Washington, DC, with my friend Dana, and he had a specific purpose in going: he was going to meet up with friends at college on the steps of the Lincoln Monument at 6 PM on June 6, 2006. His car couldn't make the trip and I wanted to get out of town, so we took my car and stayed in Alexandria. The bookstore was between our stop on the Metro and our hotel, and I bought the book when I went into the bookstore by myself on our way back from dinner one of the nights that we were there. Dana didn't want to go into the bookstore with me (this happens to me a lot with friends and used bookstores; I can wander for hours looking for obscurities, and friends who have done it once often find excuses not to do it again) and went back to the hotel, and I picked up the hardcover for ten dollars when I saw it because I'd been unable to locate my copy that past winter when I'd wanted to read it. I assumed that I'd let someone borrow it and they hadn't returned it, and since I couldn't remember who I figured that it was gone and I needed a replacement.

On the way back from that trip I got the call to come interview for my current job in Tennessee, scheduling my travel in the passenger seat while Dana was driving my car, somewhere in Pennsylvania on the way back to New York. The trip was less productive for Dana: Our plan was that I would meet up with him and his friends at the Lincoln Monument at six and then we would all go to dinner, because I wanted to go tour the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, where you can watch money being printed but can't take photographs inside:


(and where the tour guides all say, over and over, "No, the tour doesn't include any samples," ending the statement with a bitter chuckle that tells you that this is a joke they've heard a thousand times before and now find rage-inducing), and Dana wanted to sit and contemplate life and write in his journal all day. I walked around Washington, something I'd done many times before, aimlessly wandering and taking photographs in beautiful summer sunshine:

jefferson monument

thumb sculpture

reflecting pool

was hit in the leg by a falling cherry:

cherry stain

as I passed beneath a tree:

death from above

and at six rushed to the Lincoln Monument:

pale, untanned legs

There I am, there's the Lincoln Monument, and there's Dana's journal on the step, but none of Dana's friends are in the picture because none of them came. Two of them called, but overall the trip was a bust for him. Dana and I took one more road trip before the end of summer, to Boston, where my car was totalled by a drunk driver:

remember when?

and then I moved to Tennessee and, in October, decided to alphabetize all of my books by author:

stupid alphabet

While doing so, I discovered that either my old copy of "The Secret History" hadn't been lost, or whoever had borrowed it had returned it before I moved, because I suddenly had two copies. I decided to take the copy from Alexandria (distinguishable by the price written inside the front cover, something my old copy didn't have) to McKay's, my local used bookstore, but somehow got the two copies switched. The next time I felt like rereading it, I discovered that I still had the Alexandria copy and had turned in the other.

Somehow this seems ok to me because the Alexandria copy, as I wrote above, has a secret history.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Valentine's Day Lois Lanesanity

People celebrate Valentine's Day in a number of different ways.

Some people have Single Awareness Day parties, and celebrate (or commiserate) being single. Some people do something romantic with a loved one. Some people drink alone and watch movies where Bette Davis runs down an innocent man in a stolen motorcar. Some people beat St. Valentine with clubs and then behead him. Some people don't consider it a holiday at all, and do nothing out of the ordinary. And some people blog.

Last year, I celebrated Valentine's Day by sharing a a heartwarming love story of a girl, a boy, supervillain, an incestuous cousin, a secret husband, amnesia, a love robot, deadly radiation, sleepwalking, more amnesia, and tragic death. I wasn't sure how to follow that up this year, and considered a number of stories: the time Lana Lang blackmailed Star Boy into being her boyfriend, the time the girls of the Legion of Superheroes decided to kill the boys (possibly as revenge for the time the girls all had crimson plague and the boys decided that they were unclean), or the time that Invisible Kid was revealed to be heterosexual and then immediately crushed to death by Validus, the time displaced and hideously mutated child of Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad. None of those stories seemed quite right, though, and then I remembered the perfect story for Valentine's Day, a story of unrequited love, sudden friendship, danger, mystery, and madness.

I give you:

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #52 001

"Lois Lane's Love Trap", from "Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #52.

Our story opens with Lois Lane and Clark Kent getting off the train in a logging town in no specific state or country:

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #52 002

It's been several years since I was involved with a newspaper, but I don't really see why they need gender-specific viewpoints about a bank robbery. Shouldn't that be a little more straigtforward? "Guy walks into a bank to rob it, gets caught by the cops, and goes to jail" doesn't really seem that multifaceted to me, but I guess I'm wrong, because the trial opens with a shocking twist:

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #52 003

There are two Lois Lanes.

Just get back on the train, Clark. Do it now. Save yourself.

Blonde Lois is, as she said, a nurse at the local hospital, a simple country nurse harboring a dark secret:

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #52 004

She's in love with the Brawny Paper Towel man, and she's so crazy in love that she's begging for help from the mascot and reigning poster girl for love-crazed women: Lois Lane. And even though she's never managed to actually land her man, Lois wants to help, and decides to share her experience for the greater good:

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #52 005

And, because she is crazy and always picks the least logical course of action in any given situation, Lois immediately puts Blonde Lois' life in mortal peril by pushing her into a pool of quicksand:

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #52 006

Faster than you can say, "Brawny absorbs twice as much liquid as the leading paper towel!" Rafe springs into action:

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #52 007

but loses an entire day of work:

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #52 008

Great work, Lois and Blonde Lois. He's sure to love you when he's broke and homeless from loss of employment.

Undeterred by this disaster, Lois spirals further into madness, just like she eventually does in every issue of "Lois Lane". Inspiration hits her:

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #52 009

and immediately turns homicidal:

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #52 010

No, Blonde Lois, no. This is not a good plan AT ALL.

You cannot win a man's heart by sending him into anaphalactic shock.

That doesn't stop Crazy and Blonde Crazy from trying:

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #52 011

and they succeed in sending Rafe into respiratory distress:

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #52 012

but there's a tiny problem:

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #52 013

No antidote.


Thank God they decided to take him to the hospital rather than give him a tracheotomy with that axe. Unfortunately, he regains consciousness a little too quickly:

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #52 014

and, now that he knows she tried to murder him into loving her, Rafe tells Blonde Lois that he'll never love her. Heartbroken, Blonde Lois returns to her room in the nurses' quarters and reveals to Lois that there's a reason why they get along so well:

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #52 016

She's as crazy as regular Lois.

There's a difference between having an album full of photos of Superman, a well known public figure and celebrity, and secretly following a lumberjack through the woods to take photos of him without his knowledge before you destroy his livelihood and then poison him. One is fan worship, and one is a felony. Possibly two or three felonies.

Blonde Lois is ready to give up, but Lois isn't, and decides that their last chance is to corner Rafe at the town's cowboy masquerade hoedown. This annual tradition in their town (and only their town; I've never heard of a masked cowboy hoedown before, ever, anywhere) is marked by a second tradition: the names of all the men in town are placed in one barrel and the names of all the women in town in another. Then, a name is drawn out of each by a man who may be wearing a raccoon skin cap or who may have the most awesomely dyed mullet and pony in history:

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #52 017

and those two must dance together, in this case potentially to the death. Terrified of letting this doomed relationship die, Lois takes matters into her own hands:

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #52 018

and for the first time since this merry-go-round of feminine insanity started to spin, something goes right:

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #52 020

except for one small problem:

Rafe isn't Rafe.

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #52 019

He's Clark.

Rafe decided that he loved Blonde Lois after all, but was (justifiably) afraid to dance with her after the ugly scene at the hospital, so Clark offers to help. We never find out why Clark was carrying around a fake beard, but really, did we expect things to make sense at this point in the story?


We know Lois, so we know better.

Once they sneak off to switch back, Rafe and Blonde Lois are together:

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #52 021

and Lois and Clark remain blissfully unaware of how close they came to accidentally ending up together:

"Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" #52 022

They'll never know the truth, but we will.

The truth is that sometimes love, or in this case felony stalking and attempted murder, really does conquer all.

Happy Valentine's Day.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

I Finally Read Harry Potter

When I mention to my friends that I've never read any of the Harry Potter books, their response is almost always shock. After all, I read a lot and I'm pop-culturally fluent most of the time, so it seems like a surprise that I somehow avoided this entire phenomenon. I only saw the first five movies, and barely remember the fifth one. I have no desire to go to that Harry Potter amusement park, I don't own any Harry Potter toys or merchandise, and I really didn't feel like I was missing anything.

Lately, though, the din among my friends became louder, and took on tones that were more critical than pitying.

"You've read all the Twilight books, but not Harry Potter?"

"You read so much. How have you not managed to squeeze those in?"

"You even read 50 Shades of Grey!"

Why yes, I do read a lot of crap. Are you equating "Harry Potter" with the other crap that I read? Because I notice no one is outraged that I've read the complete Sherlock Holmes while not reading this. My friends became slightly testy at the suggestion that "Harry Potter" might not be quite as awesome as it seems, so I decided to take action.

I spent the last two weeks reading all seven Harry Potter books.

And now I would like to talk about them. If you haven't read them and someday intend to, stop reading now, because I might be a little bit spoilery.

For starters, these are books written for young adults. Some of my friends tried to argue that, no, these are actually adult books that kids also enjoy, but as my friend Ilona put it, "those people have a very low reading level". The books do get longer as the series progresses, but they don't get harder. The vocabulary, reading level, and quality of writing do not change. That doesn't make them terrible, and it doesn't mean I automatically disliked them. I'll just go on the record now and say that I enjoyed reading this series. I don't plan to read it ever again, but it's been an entertaining two weeks.

That doesn't mean that I am without complaint, of course. In no particular order, here are my unanswered questions and minor annoyances:

Why doesn't Hagrid ever receive an official pardon from Hogwarts? We find out in the second book that Hagrid was expelled for opening the Chamber of Secrets and causing Myrtle's death, but then we find out later in the same book that he didn't do it. Hagrid's name is cleared and everyone is happy, but for some reason no one outside of Hogwarts is ever told this. In later books Lucius Malfoy and Dolores Umbridge both sneer about how Hagrid was expelled for being dangerous, and sure, they're only doing it to hurt him, but it's only hurtful because no one seems to know that he didn't actually do anything.

Why does it take so long to resolve Harry's summer situation into something tolerable? We find out in the fifth book that there is a valid reason why Harry has to go back to his muggle relatives once a year, but why doesn't anyone intercede with those relatives on Harry's behalf until the end of that book? Every summer he gets sent home to live under the stairs or be locked in his room and served food through a pet door, or to be starved to the point that he has to ask his friends to send food, and it takes five books for someone to say, "Hey, stop mistreating him." What the hell were they waiting for?

Snape is a jerk. Yes, he has a purpose and a mission and in the end is also a hero, but that doesn't change the fact that he's also an asshole. Sometimes assholes can still do good things, as Snape demonstrates, but for me his actions in the end don't make up for the fact that he's a dick to Harry for seven books. He's petty, demeaning, and deliberately hurtful when he doesn't have to be, because he's still mad at Harry's father. He could have focused instead on how much he loved Harry's mother, and to see all of her good qualities in Harry, but he chose to see only James Potter's bad qualities and acted accordingly. He's a dick.

While we're talking about that, I have something to say to the girl who left this note in the library's copy of the first book:

Harry Potter Note #1

You need to think about your life choices, and about the kinds of boys you're going to give your heart to.

(As a side note, I found two other notes in the books while reading. One was this inexplicable index card that fell out of a secondhand copy of the third book that I bought at McKay's:

Harry Potter Note #2

and a note that fell out of a copy of the seventh book that I borrowed from a friend. I cannot show you this note or speak of it because posting it on Facebook resulted in the friend calling me to complain, and I wish to avoid further calls of this nature.

Now, back to my nitpicking...)

Harry Potter is also a jerk. From the fifth book onward he is a moody little snot. It's suggested in book five that Voldemort is influencing Harry to make him moody, but that excuse only goes so far.

Why did the guards around Harry and continuous manhunts for Sirius Black stop after the third book? Black is a fugitive believed to have committed multiple murders. All of wizarding society is in panic and lockdown in the third book when he escapes from prison. During the course of the third book he exonerates himself to Harry, Dumbledore, Ron, and Hermione, but to the rest of wizarding society he is still a dangerous fugitive believed to have committed multiple murders, so why do they suddenly give up looking for him or guarding any of his anticipated targets? It's a slip in the internal logic of the books.

What does the extended "house elves are slaves" storyline add to the books? I'm not asking what house elves add to the books. They turn out to be very important. However, pages and pages of multiple books are spent on how awful they are treated, how terrible it is that they are slaves, and how Hermione wants to organize a society to free them, but at the end of the series the house elves are still slaves. There are uncomfortable shades of "Gone with the Wind"'s happy slaves, and for what purpose? To tell the readers that slavery is bad? The whole plotline doesn't seem to add anything to the story.

The "house elves are slaves" plotline isn't the only story element that needed some trimming. Why do we spend so much time on Hagrid's half brother, a character that overall adds very little to the plot? Why do we need to spend a chapter walking through Sirius Black's entire family tree? Rowling does a fantastic job of world-building in this series, but by the six hundredth page of the fifth book it feels kind of like the world could be a little less built, thanks. (This complaint is going to sound really odd in a couple of paragraphs, when I argue that something else should have been included.)

Why can't Harry see thestrals before the fifth book? Only those touched by death can see thestrals, and Harry can suddenly see them in book five after he's been touched by the terrible death of (the dreamy) Cedric Diggory. Why couldn't he see them all along? Was his mother's death, shielding him with her body, somehow not touching enough?

Why isn't Draco Malfoy in jail? In the epilogue, we see Draco Malfoy putting his kid on the train to Hogworts. As a willing Death Eater and follower of Voldemort, shouldn't he be in prison?

Why did Rowling wait until the series was finished to out Dumbledore as gay instead of just writing it in? There was plenty of room, and she had ample opportunity. Large parts of the seventh book were devoted to a "tell all" biography of Dumbledore, exploring his previously unseen family, his childhood friends, and his years as a student. As a person who has read a number of tell alls over the years, I can't fathom why romance would be left out. Especially scandalous gay romance. Why do we only find out through outside sources that Dumbledore was gay, rather than through the books themselves? There are some indications in the books, but nothing definitive, so the average reader will never realize this aspect of the character unless they research it on their own.

Like I said, these are mostly nitpicks. I enjoyed the books, and can understand why people love them even if my feeling is that they didn't quite live up to the hype.

Now I might go finish that "50 Shades of Grey" trilogy.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Of Bear Pits and Sadness

The other day, Kristin mentioned wanting to go outlet shopping in Pigeon Forge today and asked if I wanted to go, so I took the day off from work and made one request:

"Can we stop at the Three Bears General Store and see the bear pit? I'll pay for your ticket."

"OK." Pause. "What's a bear pit?"

Not a gay bar full of hair chubby guys, surprisingly enough, although I would be willing to bet ten American dollars that somewhere there is such a bar with that exact name.

Back to the bear pit, though, a few years ago I wondered why it was called the Three Bears General Store but only had two bears out front:

Jesus Saves

A little research revealed that the third bear (and four of his friends) was inside the gift shop, in the live bear habitat:

Three Bears General Store

I've wanted to see it ever since, but now I wish I hadn't. I've seen things in Pigeon Forge that I jokingly wish that I hadn't seen, like the anatomically correct pegasus with dragon wings' horse penis:


but this is the first time I really, truly wish that I didn't know something even existed.

Jesus saves, but he doesn't save bears.

I'm getting ahead of myself, though, and need to backtrack to our arrival. We walked through the entire two story gift extravaganza, which was full of candy, souvenirs, an arcade, and Rebel flag merchandise, and then spotted the bear habitat:

door to bear habitat

I eagerly bought our tickets, which are good for the whole day, and paid a little extra for a cup of "bear food" to feed to the bears, which should have been our first indication of a problem:

(alleged) bear food

I doubt bears in the wild survive on broken dog biscuits and wedged apples.

Anyway, Kristin carried our food, I readied the camera, and we flung open the door to the bear habitat observation area. The overwhelming sense of despair was immediate and palpable. As Kristin put it later in the car, "It was like we were om one of those Sarah McLachlan commercials, but the commercial was about bears!" Maybe the problem was Elvis Presley's "I Can't Help Falling in Love With You" blasting over the speakers, or maybe it was the immediate realization that the bear habitat is a cinderblock cave system in the middle of a parking lot, hastily tacked on to the back of the building:

bear habitat (1)

bear habitat (2)

but our first steps onto the bear habitat observation area filled us with sadness which only got worse when we saw the bears:

three of the bears

A fourth bear was down below those three, near some balls, the only visible source of stimulation or activity for the bears in the whole habitat:

bear habitat (3)

and the last bear was down in the bottom in a corner, rubbing its head back and forth against the stone wall of the habitat, clearly driven insane by captivity.

One of the bears lifted his head and slowly blinked at us, so I prompted Kristin to throw him some food but please don't hit him with it. She did, and the bear slowly trundled over to where the apple piece landed. Encouraged, we threw them all of our cup of food from the top level before realizing that there are pipes on the bottom level where you can drop the food much closer to them:

feeding tube

When we got down that close, we discovered that one bear had been pelted with food by previous visitors and now had a piece of apple stuck in his fur:

eating bear

but we could do nothing to help him.

After a few moments of watching the bears:

Kristin stares at bears

bear (1)

bear (2)

bears together

we headed back upstairs to the door, where we noticed that now that we were no longer throwing food the bears had all moved back to the exact same original positions in the habitat and were sitting, presumably waiting for the next group of visitors to throw dog biscuits and apples at them, and this was the last straw for me.

"I feel so bad that we spent money on this. Not because we got ripped off, but because I feel bad for supporting this."

Kristin agreed.

I'm not saying the bears are mistreated. They seem well fed (I assume that they are eating something besides what is thrown at them by visitors), but the overall feeling was despair, and it was immediate. We both felt it as soon as we stepped onto the observation deck, and it stuck with us for the next several hours. I'm not sure why this was sadder than seeing bears at the zoo, but there was something terribly depressing about this whole experience.

After many years of tacky mini golf stores, gift shoppes of all shapes and sizes, laser arcades, dinosaur boat rides, Titanic museums, old timey photos, wedding chapels, airbrushing stands, go-cart tracks, indoor skydiving, and pancake houses, Pigeon Forge has finally produced something that horrified even me.