Saturday, June 27, 2015

Bellweather Rhapsody, by Kate Racculia

I know a book and I are going to get along when it references The Shining three pages in. The story opens in 1982 when twelve-year-old Minnie Graves slips away from her sister's wedding and witnesses a horrifying crime that will leave her scarred into adulthood.

This book is my first introduction to Kate Racculia and I loved it. Her writing reminds me of Maggie Shipstead's in that throws a huge cast of characters at us and then proceeds to form them all into living, breathing people. Just when we think we've got someone figured out we're popped into their head and realize that we didn't really have a clue.

After the shocking start of the first chapter, we're rocketed fifteen years in the future for the remainder of the book, though we get to see the ways the past has affected every character. We see Minnie Graves again the first time she returns to the site of her trauma, the Bellweather Hotel. The anniversary of that day coincides with the Statewide festival for the best teenaged musicians and singers in New York. These include Alice and Rabbit Hatmaker in their senior year of high school. Alice is reeling from a break-up and terrified that all signs point to her twin brother choosing a different college from her. Rabbit is steeling himself to finally admit to Alice that he's gay. Their chaperone and teacher, Natalie Wilson, seems like a nasty piece of work, but we gradually learn her history of abuse and guilt and rage. She comes literally face-to-face with a demon from her past in the form of Viola Fabian, who's running the festival. We also get Viola's daughter Jill, whose dramatic disappearance sets an insane series of events in motion.

Let's be clear--there are some hijinks in this book. There are some wacky turns. There are lots and lots of Teachers Behaving Badly. There are some capital-C Coincidences. In the hands of a lesser writer, this book could have come off silly, ridiculous, even. But Racculia has so much compassion for her characters, you get the sense that she understands them so well, that even when they do things that seem frankly insane, she manages to show her work so the actions become understandable. (There is a notable exception; I can't quite decide how I feel about the villain of the book, who is so irredeemably evil as to feel out of place among so many characters who defy simple descriptors. This character could have been cartoonish or the type you love to hate, but her actions towards others did such real damage that she really was frightening.)

I don't want to get into too much detail about the plot because it unspools so gleefully, but I did want to say how much I appreciate what a questioning novel this is. It asks whether we can move on after trauma, and how. It asks how and if we can be forgiven for the damage we do to other people along the way. This is a story with lots of talented teenagers and it asks how they can ever possibly live up to all the potential they're supposed to have. How can the world ever live up to that early promise to them? Are they actually special, like they've been told, and if so, what does that even mean? For me, I find it's the questions a character grapples with that helps me identify with them the most, even when I first thought them unlikeable. I guess I'm such a questioner myself that any character who does the same feels like a kindred spirit. This isn't a book with a lot of answers, but it's still a hopeful one that I can tell I'll be thinking about for a long time.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Come As You Are, by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D.

Can we all agree that this book has a magnificent cover?

I wasn't really sure what to expect when I started this book. I tend to take claims like the surprising new science that will transform your sex life (exclamation points implied) with a couple grains of salt. It sounds a little-lot like a headline on an issue of Cosmo. (Maybe? Is that even still a magazine? Sorry I am behind on the times and also writing this at 5am.)

Anyway. I wound up really enjoying this book. I am continually annoyed, as an adult, by how fascinating science is. Why was this never conveyed to me in school, guys. It's not that most of the science Nagoski presents is actually all that shocking. But there was a sort of over-writing process going on in my head while I read. The goal of the text is not just to transform everyone's sex life; it's to prove that all our weird sexual idiosyncrasies are perfectly fine. She says repeatedly in the text: If you're experiencing pain, see a medical professional. If not, what you're experiencing is normal and healthy. It's a really comforting book in that way. How often do we hear that we are normal and healthy?

The book is divided into four sections. First up is The (Not-So-Basic) Basics, with anatomy lessons and an outline of the sexual response mechanism in the brain, along with how those mechanisms interact with the other systems in your brain and environment. Part Two is Sex in Context, because it turns out we don't have sex in a vacuum--our lives and body image and attitudes are all crucial to our sex lives. In part the third, Sex in Action, she writes about sexual response, and both the ways we think it is "supposed" to work, and how it actually works. There's vital information in this section dealing with sexual assault victims that needs to gain traction in how we look at this issue as a culture. Automatic biological response is not indicative of desire, okay. And then part four is cheerfully titled Ecstasy for Everyone (implied exclamation points again) and ties everything together in terms of how we might use the book to work its transformational magic on our own sex lives.

Throughout the book, Nagoski tells the stories of four women. They aren't actually real women, or rather each woman is an amalgamation of many real women she has known over her years working as a sex educator. These were some of my favorite parts of the book since they satisfied my desire for narrative in anything I read. I also thought there was a decent range of experience portrayed, and I imagine most if not all women could find a situation they could relate to.

The subject matter and the way it is presented--here's lots of information, and now here's how to make it help you--makes for a very personal reading experience. I found myself confronting biases I hadn't even realized I'd internalized, assumptions that make me beat myself up on a regular basis. One of these was how we as a culture deal with stress; or rather, how we don't deal with it. So often I tell myself to just relax, it'll all work out, overlooking the fact that stress is a natural biological response. But we used to have a simple means for completing the cycle of stress, like so: Look, a lion! Run!...whew, made it, what a relief! These days, lacking (mostly) a threat as obvious and immediate as a lion, we often get stuck at the fearful reaction, or in freeze or flight or fight, whatever our response to the stressor. And, shocker, this kind of anxiety and stress isn't great for many people's sex lives. Nagoski gives a few techniques for actually getting to the other side of stress, if only temporarily. Exercise is good. Crying is good. If you feel like having a little screaming fit, also good. (I read this chapter and thought about how nice it would be to just be able to go have a little cry and get it out of your system when you're feeling stressed. Must be nice, I scoffed, not being much of a crier myself. And then, lo and behold, twenty pages later and apropos of nothing I was reading at the time, I burst into tears. It was very...lucid crying, I guess. I was very aware that I wasn't actually sad and so it felt a little strange. But after? Totally felt better. Points to biology.)

I don't think you need to have a specific concern to get a lot out of this book; curiosity was enough for me. The science parts could have gone over my distinctly un-sciencey head but never did. Nagoski keeps things at a very human level that really worked for me. Recommended.