Saturday, July 13, 2013

Love will tear us apart

If Eleanor and Park is anything to go by, it appears I am not over my y.a. malaise. This book, by Rainbow Rowell pressed all my buttons. Too angsty, too faux-dramatic, too TMI, too ... teen-y. It's best that I return to my cave and continue to read material published for grownups.

But I can (try to) be fair. "Big" girl Eleanor -- new to school mid-fall-semester 1986 -- needs to find a seat on the bus. All the bus riders have long claimed seats according to school-bus hierarchy and Eleanor with her out-of-control red curls and odd wardrobe seems too weird to know. Park -- half-Korean and able to manage the bus's power crowd, but not really a part of it -- finally scootches over and gives her half the seat. This becomes Eleanor's permanent spot. As Park senses her reading his comic books over his shoulder, he sends her home with a copy; as she strains to hear the music playing on his Walkman, he makes her a mix tape. Over bus-ride-long conversations about books and music, they become friends. And once Park defends her from one of the delinquents ruling the back of the bus, they become a couple.

But Eleanor's got a horrible home life -- sharing a small house with her four siblings, her mother and her terrifying stepfather. Eleanor knows that she's got to keep Park a secret, but she also finds herself spending more and more time at Park's house, shyly enjoying his fractious yet loving family.

The novel nearly finishes out the school year and there are tears and kisses and humiliation (in a onesie gymsuit no less ... oh the horror) and misunderstandings and goings-on in the backseat of an Impala. Its ending is hopeful but not resolved. There are lots of references to music I only know in passing (I've talked about my musical failings here before) and this is the 1980s ... my peak music-listening years! The protagonists go on and on about their miraculous love for each other, and I was quite tired of their mooniness long before the end of the book, so I've got to remind myself that this isn't written for me. It's written for those who truly believe that they are the only ones who have ever fallen in love this way, god love 'em.

The third-person narration switches between Eleanor and Park, and thankfully there are two narrators: Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhotra. They are both very good, mining the emotional material of these two lovestruck teenagers. There are many, many words devoted to the tender wonder of their discoveries about each other and the narrators treat these with seriousness. They do a nice job of reproducing their counterparts' voices when they are reading dialogue. (Does that make sense? Lowman reads Park's dialogue with the rhythm and delivery that Malhotra creates and vice versa.)

Malhotra has a deep, resonant voice that sounds too old for a skinny 16-year-old, but I never doubted the authenticity of emotions that he brings to his reading. I found his characterization of Park's Korean-born mother a little too "flied lice" accent-wise. Surely, after nearly 20 years living in the US, she would not sound so fresh-off-the-boat. And Lowman portrays Richie as so purely evil that I could metaphorically hear the mustache being twirled. But he's written that way, so she couldn't do much.

I clearly am still cranky about reading books for teenagers.  The last realistic teen fiction I listened to was this one five months ago, and I can't remember the last print one I read. I must make an attitude adjustment before trying again.

[The first song on the mix tape that Park makes for Eleanor is Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" (completely unknown to me). Joy Division's lead singer, Ian Curtis, committed suicide in 1980 and this is the memorial stone no longer at the Macclesfield Cemetery (it was stolen in 2008). This photograph was taken by jayneandd and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. Rainbow Rowell says this would be the tagline for her book, if it had one.]

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
Narrated by Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhotra
Listening Library, 2013.  8:56

Her infinite variety

You've seen that bumper sticker: "Well-behaved women seldom make history?" It seems tailor-made for Cleopatra VII of Egypt (although it wasn't). Cleopatra made a lot of history, but in Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra: A Life, she makes the argument that much of that history was made up by men. By men who didn't like her very much. By men who needed to recreate her as a seductress and a power-hungry harridan because they needed to justify their destruction of her and their occupation of her country. In another famous quotation (whose authorship is somewhat in doubt): "History is written by the victors." Ultimately, Cleopatra was a loser.

Schiff tries to peel away the hype from Octavius (Augustus) Caesar's Roman Empire and find out who Cleopatra really was. Her source material is negligible (mostly written by those guys like Cicero who needed to demonize her), but Schiff does a fine historian's job of portraying the world around Cleopatra  and then extrapolating what Cleopatra may have been like. Raised to be a queen (as a Ptolemy, she could claim a direct line from Alexander the Great), she skillfully played politics as she attempted to ally with the powerful Romans in a way that would protect Egypt, whose wealth and natural resources Rome had its eye on. Rome was in an uproar at the time as first Pompey, then Julius Caesar, then Mark Antony and finally Augustus jockeyed for power. And if she had to sleep with one or two of them (which she did), according to Schiff this didn't make her promiscuous, just politically savvy. And maybe she was in love. Of course, ultimately she didn't stand a chance against the Roman Empire, but it's not because she was a woman.

(If you occasionally do, like me, get your history from fiction and film, the mini-series Rome -- once you overlook the boobs and the bull's blood -- does give an entertaining overview of this period. The marvelous I, Claudius then picks up the story after Augustus consolidates his power.)

I enjoyed this bit of history (about which I knew next to nothing), but occasionally it felt like Schiff was really stretching her role as biographer into post-feminist speculation rather than sticking to the facts available to her. But I appreciated learning that Cleopatra was a prodigious politician whose first loyalty was to her country, and that her motives and actions were impugned in a way that belittled her and made her just one thing: a woman of devious sexuality, i.e. not a Roman woman. I want to see Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra again armed now with Schiff's jaundiced eye. (Post title is part of Shakespeare's description of her [Act II, Scene II, Line 237 in the Pelican Shakespeare].)

The audiobook is read by Robin Miles, who doesn't sensationalize the biography with character portrayals or drama. She reads it clearly and matter-of-factly, yet I also got a sense of quiet desperation as Cleopatra approached her inevitable doom. This being a work of nonfiction, there are footnotes; these are incorporated into the text at the appropriate spot (not piled on at the end), and Miles goes back and forth from narrative to footnote to narrative with ease and confidence.

Also available to download from the book on CD was an informative short PDF full of well-captioned images, offering visuals of Alexandria -- perhaps the most cosmopolitan of the cities of the period -- as well as contemporary depictions of the major players.  In this case, a posthumous bust of Caesar at 56 looks more attractive than the pugnacious Mark Antony, but a wiry Octavius trumps them both. The images of Cleopatra are fascinating, though, as she is not a conventional beauty. There must have been something else there.  And why did the book's publishers put that sappy photograph on the cover when they could have used the real thing? Would we not open the book if the subject isn't depicted with her va-va-va-voom?

[One of the images from the audiobook's bonus material is this 80-drachma coin minted during Cleopatra's lifetime. It lives at the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow and was retrieved from the museum's website.]

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
Narrated by Robin Miles
Hachette Audio, 2010.  14:16