Jun 2, 2013

Tidbits: The Crane Wife, Eleanor & Park, The Geek Manifesto

Right, let’s give this whole putting-words-together-to-form-more-or-less-coherent-sentences thing another go:

The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness

The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness: My reaction to this book was complicated, to put it mildly. In the months since I read it, I’ve changed my LibraryThing rating at least three times: every time I thought I was done, I’d change my mind yet again and go back. This was, if nothing else, a good reminder of why I don’t use ratings to begin with, and also of why I often want to veer away from making “But how much did I like it?” the focus point of my discussion of a book.

It was only thanks to Amy that I managed to find a way to write the following paragraphs, and even then all I’m going to offer you is, to paraphrase Kerouac, my own confusion. This confusion isn’t really about The Crane Wife’s literary merits or lack thereof, but rather about me, and about the aspects of being a person in this muddled world that reading it caused me to confront. But this, too, is the stuff of literary discussion, and thus here we are.

The Crane Wife is about (in the very loose sense that a novel can be said to be “about” any single thing) loving other people generously; about not giving in to the temptation of being cruel and careless just because you’re afraid; about how hard it is not to retreat because you want to shield yourself from real or imagined hurts. The novel does a good job of showing how insidious this temptation can be, which was exactly what made me so defensive: what kind of a jerk, I thought, needs to be reminded of this in the first place? The answer, it turns out, is if not everybody then at least certainly me — this jerk right here needs reminding all the time.

The fact that learning is a process is pretty much a truism, but as much as we pay lip service to this idea we still tell stories — fictional ones or internal narratives about our lives — in which a lesson is learned in a single moment of radiant insight and then sticks with us for life. The Crane Wife is not one such story. It is, on the contrary, a story in which someone who thinks of themselves as nice, someone who knows better than to be mean or self-sabotaging, goes down a dangerous road anyway. This hit pretty close to home: hence my defensiveness.

Here’s something I know: over the course of my life I’m going to lose people I care about. People who really matter to me are going to die before I do, or we’re going to lose touch due to the force or circumstances, or we’ll drift apart for reasons we can’t explain, or — insert reasons here. Some of these situations will be preventable and some will not, but a certain amount of loss is part and parcel of being a human being who establishes meaningful ties to other human beings. Going off to live in a cave by myself is not really an option, so I have no choice but to accept loss.

When I was nineteen, after a year that was not exactly a walk in the park, I learned something important — or rather, I decided something important. I decided that never again would I be the cause of irreparable damage to a healthy1 relationship with someone who mattered to me. If there was anything I could do to make things better, I’d at least always try. This wouldn’t, I knew, shield me from experiencing loss ever again, but it would at least make sure I wasn’t the cause of it, and that alone would help me sleep at night.

Sometimes it seems to me that the whole world wants us to learn lessons about “having pride” and “being dignified”. We’re told it’s an ugly and pathetic thing (especially if you’re a girl or woman, but that’s a story for another time) to be viewed as the person who cares the most, as the person who’s willing to put in the effort when the other party is not, as the person who always reaches out. If we’re rejected, we’re not supposed to go “Okay. I care as much as I always have, but I respect your choice”. We’re supposed to inflict some damage, to reject back, to tell the other person we never really wanted them in the first place. Or better yet, we’re supposed to reject pre-emptively as the best way to avoid any sort of blemish. That’s how you win — only this is not a sort of victory I particularly crave. The above is the all-out asshole version of this supposedly valuable life lesson, but there are other, gentler forms that still amount to “be stingy with your love”. We’re supposed to have enough “self-respect” to stop caring about people who fail to make us feel 100% secure in our need to be cared for in return — only who feels secure all the time, and where do you draw the line?

It’s hard, so hard, to be the sort of person who always allows themselves to be vulnerable. It takes a kind of strength I don’t always have to be relentlessly open-hearted and giving and patient and ever-welcoming in the face of all the uncertainties that are part of interpersonal relationships. It takes bone-deep generosity to tell people, not only in words but in deeds, that you always want them to come find you whenever life allows it. I don’t suppose anyone manages not to retreat from a position of such openness 100% of the time, but even 40% is still better than zero. I learned a decade ago that I don’t ever want to be miserly with my affection just because I’m afraid, but hey, learning is a process, and to this day I still try and often fail to live up to this decision. It’s a struggle, and it just might be the greatest and most important struggle of my life.

So yeah. This, among other things, is what The Crane Wife is about. I feel close to it thematically, I feel defensive, and I still can’t stop thinking about it.

1Obviously none of this goes for situation where people care about someone who is toxic or abusive.

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell: Nope, I don’t know what possessed me not to review one of my favourite reads of 2013 either. Then again, it’s not like it hasn’t been getting a lot of buzz — at this point, nobody needs me to tell them they must read Eleanor & Park. But since I write about books for reasons that go beyond telling people whether or not they should read them (not that this aspect of it isn’t useful and fun), here are some thoughts anyway:

Eleanor & Park is a love story between two teenagers set in the 1980’s. Eleanor is a social misfit who has just returned to town after a year-long banishment (a backstory with present-day implications that are revealed as the novel progresses). She comes from a troubled family and a less than privileged background, and this has an impact on her social standing at school. Parker’s family is comparatively well-off, and unlike Eleanor he’s not unpopular — invisible is what he strives for and has more or less achieved. He’s also the son of a Korean mother and an American father, and race affects his own social standing in complicated ways.

When Eleanor and Park come together, a lot of unstated social rules and assumptions about race and class and gender roles are suddenly brought into light. Rowell does a wonderful job of illuminating how it’s possible to care about this — how, indeed, circumstances more or less demand that her protagonists care — even though you’re very much in love. Eleanor and Park are not helpless, but they do inhabit a very complicated social world in which to survive you need to at least learn the rules of the game. What does it mean for Eleanor to know that Parker’s friends and family don’t consider her a “nice” girl? How does race affect people’s perception of Parker’s gender presentation? What does each of them risk by associating with the other? How much can they afford to risk? And how do these two smart teens negotiate their awareness of these social boundaries and double standards and their desperate need for each other?

In short, the social commentary is great, and so is the love story. I’m in absolute awe of Rainbow Rowell’s ability to write moments of such emotional and erotic intensity. This is something a lot of writers strive for, but few actually manage, I find: how to you convey the electrifying power of the gentlest of touches — a power that comes not just from what it does physically, but from the fact that this person is touching you? I suspect you need to get readers really emotionally invested in the characters for such scenes to be so powerful, and this is what Eleanor & Park does best.

Also, Eleanor and Park initially connect through comic books and 80’s music, and as an eternal fan of connecting-with-others-through-media, this was yet another thing that delighted me. The specific comics and bands they share (Watchmen and The Smiths, just to give you a few examples) are important because they supply some of the subtext. Therefore I rather suspect that familiarity with them will enhance your reading experience — which, by the way, doesn’t mean that the novel is lacking but that it uses intertextuality intelligently and to excellent effect. Art gets to do this; dialogues across works and formats are a good thing.

Lastly — and because I’m forever drawn to narratives that deal with this — I want to return to the erotically charged scenes. Eleanor & Park is a novel where a teen girl’s desire takes centre stage, but where we also get to see how her experience of this desire is complicated by her environment. Slut-shaming affects mindsets as well as behaviour, and it takes Eleanor time to feel that there’s nothing dirty about her feelings for Park, no matter how cruelly she’s told otherwise. I wanted to hug her at times, even though I trusted that she’d be okay. But that’s the thing about living in a misogynist world that punishes and shames girls for being subjects rather than just objects: it gets inside your head like a poison, and cleansing yourself from it is not really a matter of individual strength — it’s a matter of being lucky enough to find strategies and forms of support that will enable you to remove yourself from toxic situations.

In the end, even the kids Eleanor didn’t get along with come through for her. This novel implies that in an environment where certain forms of violence are highly normalised, this is what you have to do: you watch each other’s backs in order to survive.

The Geek Manifesto by Mark Henderson

The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters by Mark Henderson: I feel like I told you most of what I had to say about this book back in November, when I posted my recap of the event with the author I attended. I hadn’t even read the book yet back then, but Henderson managed to communicate its central ideas extremely effectively — surely the sign of a great talk. The Geek Manifesto, then, held few surprises for me, but this isn’t to say it wasn’t a very good read. I’d like to once again highlight two of the central ideas I took away from it, just because I believe they’re worth spreading:

a) Henderson challenges the media’s “fetish for phoney balance” — the idea that it’s “fair” to give opposing ideas equal airtime regardless of how much empirical support there is for them. So, for example, in a debate about climate change reputable scientists and conspiracy theorists are given equal platforms, on the grounds that not doing so equals censoring the latter’s views. What this does is of course contribute to a lot of public confusion about how much debate there is about climate change within the scientific community, as well as about how legitimate denialists’ views really are. I’ve watched this happened in regards to more than just science, and I love the fact that Henderson points out that not all ideas are created equal. Denying wrong and harmful viewpoints a platform does not equal censorship or a refusal to engage in meaningful debate. On the contrary, it makes for better debates by getting them to move beyond the refutation of ideas that have been effectively refuted hundreds of times before.

b) Another point Henderson makes is that the trend to demand that all research be useful and to shame researchers who waste time and money with “silly projects” (through, for example, articles such as this) betrays a deep misunderstanding of how science even works. A lot of the time, discoveries that have a deep practical impact in how we live our lives come about as unexpected consequences of other research — they’re fortunate accidents that can only happen in an intellectual climate that rewards the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. It’s very difficult to tell beforehand which bits of research will have practical application and which ones won’t, or even to definite what “practical application” means in the first place — does a discovery that will enable another discovery fifty years down the road count? Attempting to do so will only stifle ingenuity and creativity, and lead to a much poorer scientific future.


That’s it for now. I’m about to entered week one of my brand new work schedule, which means I have more time to blog again — only as you surely can tell my writing muscles are rusty after all this time, and the process is proving hard, clumsy and slow-going. So I thought I’d resort to an old strategy: sharing a list of books I finished more or less recently and asking — nay, begging — that you leave me any questions you’d like me to answer. Anything at all would help me find an angle and be most helpful. The books are:
  • Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan (I’m about halfway through this series and will probably wait until I’m done to write a post, but it’s never too soon to start thinking about it.)
  • The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff
  • Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth
  • Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre
  • The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Like I said, anything you’ve got would be really helpful. Thanks in advance!


  1. I love this entire post with an intensity I cannot put into words. Period.

    As for questions about your reads, I'm not sure I have any specific ones, but I am dying to hear what you think of Y. Rich really loved the series, and I really want to read them. The premise is interesting, but it just seems soooooo much like the kind of story that could go so wrong. Does it go wrong? I'm hopeful because Renay liked the first volume(s?)...but for some reason I just want reassurance that I should even go there.

  2. Yes, THIS, to everything you said about Eleanor & Park. OMG that book. And your thoughts on The Crane Wife almost made me shed a tear. I so get it, everything you said. As a person who has moved hundreds of miles away from all my family and friends, it's become especially difficult to maintain the relationships that are so important to me. But you just reminded me of exactly why I need to always, always do my part to keep those bonds strong. Thank you.

  3. I know just what you mean about not liking a book if it "catches" you and exposes you! But now I *must* read it to see if I respond the same way! (And well, because it's Patrick Ness!) :--)

  4. I understand your reaction to The Crane Wife. I reacted similarly to Tender Morsels, I think. And Excellent Women. I don't know if I will ever read those books again. Actually, I was quite scared to try Barbara Pym again but did just recently and didn't have such a visceral reaction to her book. I haven't given it a go with Margo Lanagan again, though.

    I have been living under a blogging rock lately, barely reading and doing almost zero blog visits, so I hadn't heard about Eleanor & Park at all. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

  5. Thank you for what you wrote about The Crane Wife. I am just like you in this respect.

  6. You may feel yourself rusty, and that's legitimate (far be it from me to tell anyone how to feel about their own writing) but my word, I am in awe. Thank you. I am so grateful that you still wish to be here.

    Also, with Aarti on the not having Eleanor & Park on my radar, so thanks for that. It sounds beautiful.

  7. I already mentioned it on Twitter, but your thoughts on The Crane Wife were exactly something I needed to read.

    I feel like there's a lot of power play in relationships that I think is, you know, subconsciously done for a lot of people but that I tend to feel VERY aware of and it exhausts me. And it's not just that it's so hard to figure things out sometimes--the various social cues people are sending and the best and most considerate ways to react, or that I have to constantly tell myself to take what people say at face value because that's the only fair thing to do, but also like that post I linked to on tumblr ages ago, but society almost makes us feel ashamed for caring too much. And shame is a very uncomfortable feeling to battle and so it's easier to retreat or act aloof at times.

    Like you, though, I don't want to be that person. I would never want anyone to think I didn't care about them especially for the sake of my own self perceived self-preservation. There are probably a million ways I could accidentally send that message, why in the world would I ever choose to do it intentionally? These are things I have to battle through, though, because I guess it's just human nature to build walls and try to protect myself, because yes being vulnerable can really hurt. It's a pain I have to be willing to living with, though, I guess.

    It’s a struggle, and it just might be the greatest and most important struggle of my life.

    yes, I agree so much. Anyway, Ana, I can't thank you enough for writing this, it helped me feel a little less crazy and I've reread it several times today and got a bit teary each time. I don't think I can really share how grateful I was for it or how it came exactly when I needed it. I <3 u.

  8. This might be one of my favorite posts you've ever written, Ana. I was literally crying reading your review of The Crane Wife, partly because you write so beautifully and have this way of putting things into words that no one else can and partly because I can relate so much to a lot of what you said and for a million other reasons. But it really was an amazing discussion piece and thanks for writing it and sharing it with us.

    And thank you jesus for writing about Eleanor and Park because I've been waiting for you to write about it :p Yes, everyone has sung it's praises but YOU hadn't yet :p I had been dying to hear your thoughts on that book since I read it and it made my day to finally read them :) Wasn't it just amazing? I wanted to hug the HELL out of Rainbow Rowell for writing that book and creating the characters and the dialogue that she did with that book. And that scene where Eleanor listened to The Smiths for the first time literally gave me chills and melted my heart.

    As for the other books you want to review, I haven't even heard of any of them except for Y the Last Man so I'd love to hear about anything you'd like to share with us about them :p

  9. I think I need to read Eleanor & Park.

    Your comments on The Crane Wife were beautiful. If I read it, though, I wouldn't be able to The Decemberists' song out of my head! It would drive me crazy.

  10. Your thoughts on The Crane Wife are perfect. It makes me interested but also a little hesitant to read because yes, that is something difficult to be confronted with. And I recognise a lot in your struggle with trying to being an open and giving person, and not trying to protect yourself with refusal.

    Eleanor and Park sounds like I should read it now. It is on the top of my wishlist.

    And *sigh* your B point on the Geek Manifesto. I think I had better read that as well..

  11. Welcome back to blogging! You don't seem rusty to me at all. Everything you said about The Crane Wife? Damn. I second everyone who said they needed to hear this. I am SO BAD about this. I get really uncomfortable when I feel like a relationship is one-sided, with me doing all the "work," and then I pull back and get resentful and it's just a big cycle of awful. It's really hard to be vulnerable. I have the hardest time asking for help, or even asking a friend to listen to me when I'm going through a rough time. It's so much easier to shut out the world with a book and wait out the storm.

    BUT ENOUGH ABOUT ME--I'd love to hear how you liked Bitter Greens! I'm always curious about fairytale adaptations, and I don't think I've read any Rapunzel ones.

    And enjoy your new schedule!

  12. I am waiting for 'Eleanor and Park' to arrive - probably tomorrow. And so I was really excited to see it in your review, Ana. I will finish reading it and then come back and comment. Meanwhile, Happy reading!

  13. You've convinced me I need to read The Crane Wife. I learned long ago that it's usually worth it to sacrifice some of my (ample, like my figure) pride in order to save some piece of love or friendship, but even for someone as far over on the side of the "sacrifice all pride" scale as I believe myself to be, it's still occasionally a struggle. Sometimes I lose in my head but manage to at least keep quiet about it.
    Have you seen the film The Eagle? We thought it did a fairly nice job of conveying some of the book, which is an old favorite in my household.

  14. I loved Eleanor and Park. The social commentary was indeed great. I loved Park's mom, too - I think we've all known a mom like her.

  15. Tidbits my foot. You are such a cool lady -- what you call tidbits are such wonderful, thoughtful reflections on the books you've read.

    Here is my question for Y: The Last Man, a series I read last month or the month before but never got it together to review: What did you think about the Amazons? Anita Sarkeesian talks about them in her piece about Straw Feminists, and I tend to think that's an oversimplification of the story. And also how did you feel about the resolution of 355's storyline?

  16. I once read that you'll never be as hurt by being open as you have been by being closed. But I've never really been able to believe it, or at least not to live it. You're not alone in that struggle; I admire you for fighting for it.

  17. I was interested to read your thoughts on the themes of The Crane Wife. I have not read it, but I think such themes have universal resonance. Being afraid of love is, I think, one of the main ways in which I have kept myself away from things in the past. Some people I care about myself have never managed to move past this fear, and this is something that no amount of converation or willing can change. It is a life lesson that has to come from within, cliche though that sounds. This obviously doesn't even have to necessarily apply to romantic love, although fear of romantic love is often the last type of fear to be conquered. I think everyone has experience of this in some respect and after reading your entry, I would be interested to read the way that Ness deals with this. As you know, I have a bit of a complicated relationship with his stuff, but I am willing to be converted!

  18. So glad to hear you enjoyed Eleanor & Park. I've been reading lots of great reviews on that one and I'm waiting for it to come in via a library hold. Yay.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.