Those of you who know my mother might be surprised to know that she is my primary supplier of kinky romance novels, but she is and don’t let her deny it. In point of fact, she nags me to read series that she has particularly enjoyed. Her latest campaign had been going on for well over a year before I finally caved and read the Shades of Grey trilogy that she bought for me and made John unwrap this Christmas in front of the entire family.
Warning: This post is a review of the Shades of Grey trilogy and it contains massive spoilers.
I’ve been avoiding it because I had heard (a) that it was Twilight fan fiction and (b) that it was a BDSM bodice ripper. I’ll defend Twilight to a degree, but as I was pretty sure that anyone crazy enough to write Twilight fan fiction was too nuts to write a decent book and BDSM isn’t my scene, the appeal was…lacking. Regarding point (a) … the fan fiction is how it started, not where it ended, and even though it was a pretty good indicator of the crap writing of the series, there is such a thing as crap writing that’s still worth reading. Regarding point (b) … I now have a better appreciation for how BDSM can serve as a lens for power dynamics in relationships.
When my mom insisted repeatedly that the reason for reading the books was to follow the relationship between the main characters, I snorted and rolled my eyes. Repeatedly. Having read the books, I will now concede that she’s correct, and while I would also say that you can’t really separate their relationship from the especially kinky stuff, I will recommend the series for a few specific reasons.
1. Consent is sexy.
There’s been a lot of talk coming to my attention lately about the problem of rape culture. One of the fundamental problems is that consent gets framed as “not saying no” instead of “saying yes.” There is a HUGE difference between the two, and it is a difference that the Shades of Grey series explores through the D/S side of their relationship. The characters aren’t perfect examples of when consent is working ideally, but they have an open and honest struggle with what good consent looks like in a relatively authentic way. And when the consent piece is working, it’s sexy.
2. Safe is sexy.
The main characters have a discussion about previous partners, blood transfusions, and test results for STIs before they have sex. Grey takes a very active (though arguably heavy-handed) role in the birth control discussion. When Steele isn’t on birth control, every single description of sex includes the use of a condom in a way that makes it seem exciting and sexy. These are awkward issues that are too easy to brush under the carpet, especially when you have an extreme imbalance of experience between partners. While there is eventually a failure of birth control that Grey is initially pissed about (seriously, I hate that she gets pregnant so quickly and that he reacts as he does), the overall message is that safety is not only important, but also sexy.
3. Women aren’t delicate flowers.
Don’t get me wrong–Grey does not start off demonstrating a belief in this sentiment. But Steele does, and she repeatedly chews him out for overprotectiveness (some of which is semi-merited because of extraordinary circumstances that rarely occur outside the love lives of the fictionally rich and famous). Steele defends herself successfully from a would-be rapist. She handles herself when confronted with a crazy, gun-wielding ex-lover of Grey’s. She saves Grey’s sister from being murdered. And though she does end up succumbing to the inevitability of marriage and babies sooner than she meant to (again, was this really necessary?), she still insists on continuing in the career work she loves and the implication is that she kicks some corporate butt. Romance novels have a way of horribly undermining the image of women as powerful: Shades of Grey isn’t perfect in this regard, but again, it presents an honest struggle and overall proclaims that women are equally as powerful as men in spite of men who refuse to acknowledge their strength.
Would I consider this series high art? Hell, no. Would I consider it even passable writing? Not remotely. The quality of the writing is rubbish, beginning to end. The author is, however, writing from a position that understands some important struggles in both sexuality and gender equality and strives to resolve those struggles in an enlightened and entertaining manner. However tempting it is to rag on her for all the times where the writing falls down, her writing stands up in ways that almost every other book I’ve ever read falls down, and that’s worth at least an internet high five and a few hours of reading time.
Our house is our new hobby, which is both great and awful. Great, because I like the house and love seeing the end result. Awful, because putting the work in is exhausting, painful, and takes me away from my writing and knitting on the weekends. Fortunately, I am married to a man who is completely in love with what we’re turning our place into, so when we politely ignore the subtext of each other’s statements in the context of house projects, it tends to shake out. For example:
What John said: “What projects should we do this weekend?”
What I heard: “What projects should [air quote] we [/air quote] do this weekend?”
What I said: “Let’s build the firepit!”
What I knew John would hear: “Let’s erect a monument of perfection that will withstand the test of time to remind those that came before us that WE WERE HERE.”
I have this lovely Pinterest board with all kinds of inspiring ideas for beautiful fireplaces, but let’s be perfectly honest. I had been assuming that when push came to shove, we’d just scrape away the grass and throw some rocks on the ground in a vaguely circular shape. And left to my own devices, that is exactly what would have happened. Landscaping is just not as interesting as burning things.
But I showed the Pinterest board to John, and unlike most of the things I force him to look at on Pinterest (such as this), the options really caught his interest. We finally got the planning to the point where we could go out to buy supplies on Friday. (There may or may not be multiple Sketch-up models of a ring of stones that may or may have not involved multiple trips to Home Depot in order to measure and calculate every angle of the building materials in question, but if there are, I had nothing to do with that.)
John woke up with far more energy and enthusiasm for life than I did today, which is an interesting flip, because I’m now getting a bit of a sense of how I tend to wear him out.
What I said: “Let’s take the sod we pull out and toss it onto the rabbit yard.” (We’re trying to grow new grass for the bunnies we’re getting in June.)
What John heard: “Let’s excavate the top level of soil on the rabbit yard so we can put the sod down properly.”
Honestly, the way grass grows in the vegetable garden, I’m pretty sure that if we just chucked the sod root-side down and jumped on it once or twice, it would have been fine. Probably…
John is, as I’m writing this, very carefully using a cleverly devised strategy for making sure not only that all of the bricks are level (in spite of the heinous lack of levelness in our yard), but ALSO that the bricks make a perfect circle. I promise I helped enough to make my arms sore, but if that’s not enough for those of you who know how pathetically little digging it takes to make my spaghetti noodles sore: I didn’t quit until he had me shovel the same wheelbarrow of sand that I had just shoveled out of the pit FOR THE THIRD TIME.
And tomorrow…”we” get to build some stairs. Homeownership is grand. :)
The problem with being a writer is that there are situations for which words run out. The essence of that which can amuse, comfort, and sustain just stops, looks at the assigned task and says, “Sorry, mate. I can’t help you with this one.”
Two lives and a hundred injuries or more aren’t much in the numbers game of who dies for what stupid reason in this life, but life and death isn’t really a numbers game, is it? And there’s no accounting for what cuts us down and takes our breath away.
I have no words for what happened in Boston today, but I’m feeling the need to take comfort from the familiar and I’m a writer. Words are familiar, therefore I’m going to write about something that is simultaneously brilliant and inane.
So…checklists. Checklists are my new favorite thing lately and the reason is simple: you can’t lose. Whether you finish everything or not, you’ve got this little piece of paper giving you something to be glad about.
If you finish everything on your list, of course, you’ve got a neat little column of checks that look like just the arms of a stick person pumping a victorious fist in the air. “Huzzah! You did ALL the things!” And then you can sit in front of the t.v. watching Dawson’s Creek reruns and painting your toenails and no one can say a single word to you because you DID ALL THE THINGS SO EVERYONE CAN SHUT UP ABOUT YOUR HORRIBLE TASTE IN TELEVISION ALREADY.
That’s the obvious upside of checklists, but if I’m being completely honest here, I don’t finish my lists. As noted recently, I have a bad habit of taking on too many projects at once. My checklists are tidy little testimonies to my problem with a case of overattempterosity that never quite graduates to overacheiverosity. Naturally, I’ve had to find a mental construct that takes those angrily folded and empty stick arms and turns them into a life philosophy.
I’ve done such a thorough job with this that I have started to deliberately put one or two things on my list that I have absolutely no intention of attempting that day. I hang on to those empty items when I go to bed and sleep on them because when I wake up, I put my feet on the morning-chilly floor with something to aspire to.
Waking up with a specific, defined aspiration for the day is a small change in my routine, but it’s the difference between sitting down to write before I have breakfast and sleeping in an extra hour. It’s a framework to hang onto when shit happens, a mental construction that lets me process and see a tragedy as that empty line, a counterargument to the Ecclesiastic sigh that there is nothing new under the sun, a reminder that there is still a need for the strong action of good people (though not with guns–those never help).
And, if nothing else, the empty line is most definitely a reason to not waste my precious hours painting my toenails and watching shitty teen dramas from ten years ago: there is just too much life to pour into these damn short breaths we’re given to breathe.
I’m trying to treasure this spring. It is the first of its kind for me and possibly unique. This is the first year John and I have lived in our house, but we’re only the most recent in a long line of caretakers for not just the building, but the little plot of land on which it sits.
We bought the house in the fall and didn’t have much of a chance to speak with the previous owners, so we don’t know much about what they planted where. It didn’t occur to us, in the cold of November, to ask them what the naked trees would show themselves to be come spring. I’m glad we didn’t.
We’re pretty sure that the plant that’s putting off an increasingly yellow aura is forsythia. It won’t be long before that early bloomer reveals itself. John’s loving that plant fiercely to make up for the disdain I shower upon it. I have little affection for the toxic yellow harbinger of allergen doom, I can’t lie.
As much as I’m rooting for the forsythia to turn out to be something completely different, I’m cheering for the hedge behind it that looks promisingly like lilac. I’m holding my breath to find out what color roses will bloom from the two scraggly bushes beside the house. I’m cat-killing curious to see what the hedge behind the house will turn out. I’m impatient for summer to tell which of the brambles on the edge of the woods will bear raspberries. I’m eager to find out if this is a blooming year in the life cycle of our little apple tree. And I’m slightly petrified of the purple alien tentacles that are peeking out of the soil on the sunny side of the house.
It’s possible that next year I will be just as kid-on-Christmas-Eve anxious to greet the new plants, buds, and leaves as spring crowns, but the anxiety will be different. I’ll know what I’m excited to meet. I’ll know what that mysterious bush at the top of the driveway will bear. I’ll know what bulbs I’ve planted in the rock-strewn flower bed. What I imagine for them will be dimmed by my knowledge of what they are.
And that’s okay. That’s life, that’s love. But for now, I am savoring the uncharted possibility of what could be.
A month or so ago, John and I were having drinks with some new awesome friends of ours and discussing our characters for the Pathfinder campaign we were preparing to do together. The conversation devolved into a bit of silliness, as all of the best conversations do, and we found ourselves imagining how you might create a market for casual LARPing tourism.
The next morning, one of my bosses sent me a link to an event that she and my other boss were going to: Portland, Maine Startup Weekend. She offered to sponsor me if I wanted to attend. The description was not of anything I would normally even consider going to, but the idea of writing story-based tours was still rattling around in my brain and I wondered what might come of pitching it. Lately I’ve been feeling a little, well, let’s say underwhelmed by the level of creativity I have the opportunity to use in the work clients pay for, so I did something that is rare for me and said, “Um, sure, I guess.”
About two-thirds of the crowd of maybe 70 folks delivered rapid-fire pitches which we voted on with little stickers. I only got four stickers, and three of those came from friends. I was going to take that as a sign that the idea didn’t have much potential, but when my boss-friends and I chatted about the projects that had made it to the second round of pitches, we agreed that they all sounded like (a) more work than fun given our interests/skillset or (b) too large a scope to create a solid minimally viable product in 48 hours.
The rules allowed us to build our own team, so my boss-friends decided it would be fun to work on my idea. Fortunately, Sarah is a born hustler. I think she must have sent half of the crowd over to me to listen to a more detailed explanation of the concept, and we managed to round up a solid and well-balanced team.
Saturday – The MVP
Saturday was where I felt the power of the weekend’s intent. We had decided early on to divide the labor in a way that would help us hit our goals of (a) having a viable business plan, (b) having a working prototype, and (c) winning, while letting us enjoy the less definable goals of learning something new and having fun. We had a pretty good check-in process, but for the most part, the work of creating our mvp was divided and we made the leap of faith to trust one another to get our individual jobs done.
It worked. It probably didn’t hurt that we were able to close the door on the conference since it was being held in the fantastic co-working space we rent our office in. And it was a definite bonus that one of the coaches adopted us for lack of sign-ups and kept us inspired with rum (it was thematically appropriate : ). But what blew my mind the most was how much we accomplished through delegation and trust.
Sunday – The Final Pitch
My in-laws, who are clinical counselors, recently exposed me to the term “ambivert,” which is someone who needs a fairly even balance of time alone and time with others to draw strength from, someone who’s in between and introvert and an extrovert. I have spent most of my life identifying as an introvert, and certainly Friday night when the anxiety of the upcoming event made it difficult for me to get in the car, I was feeling that tendency strongly. But the experience of the weekend also reinforced for me how much I am able to thrive from the energy of other people.
I would never have had the gumption and the sticktoitivity to do market research or tech development or branding or business plan development. The idea would have stagnated in my brain until it died, had not seven other people chosen to give their time, energy, and most breathtakingly of all, belief to the idea. Granted, the idea we committed to evolved quite a lot from the beginning (instead of guided LARPing, our platform is for self-guided, story-driven historical tours for smartphones), but it’s an idea I’m excited to work on.
We did struggle fiercely to get our pitch together on Sunday–if there was any point in the weekend we could have used a conflict resolution coach, that was it, but I was impressed by the way one team member stepped up to manage the conflict to help us get back to an energized, productive working environment. When we used the five-minute break from the final pitch session to throw the world’s fastest awesome birthday party, the cake and rum were a valid celebration of the fact that we did something amazing this weekend. It was really only the icing on the cake that the judges thought our plan was worthy of a prize too, though icing is arguably the tastiest part. :)
So…yeah. My life took a bit of a pivot this weekend. Our team is going to pursue the goal of bringing our business into the money-making world, and if we can accomplish a working prototype and a viable business plan in one long-ass weekend, I’m excited to see what our success looks like down the road.
Oh, and in case I wasn’t pushy enough on social media yesterday, you should:
I’ve been struggling lately with where to put my creative focus. It’s not a problem I should be complaining about, really–an overabundance of ideas is a good thing, not a bad thing. The trouble is that when you have too many things you’re excited about, it feels like gross neglect of all of your other projects when you sit down and focus on one.
For me, this leads to a lot of fairly paralyzed couch time where I stare at my knitting basket and my computer and ponder my options, which is in itself a problem because pondering what to do inevitably leads to “Why do it?” and that question is perhaps the most sadistic bastard occupying any artist’s subconscious.
John and I were discussing this last night–he also has a tendency to get hung up on the why. We agree that there’s a certain social pressure on art to be meaningful in a very specific way. That is, art isn’t art unless it comes from a really dark place. That doesn’t really work for me though, because my dark places aren’t all that dark. They’re more angry and commonplace, and dwelling on them to create doesn’t give me a lot of joy or peace of mind.
Whatever I may be as a writer, a Sylvia Plath I am not. Nor, let’s be brutally honest, would I want to be. I’d rather be content than have that experiential edge that would enable me to create the painful work that hold the high place of honor in our art. I see no reason for a bit of fluff and nonsense to not be capable of achieving that high art status, but not knowing how to bridge the gap between a feel-good YA fantasy and literature that will outlive me, I spend a lot of time in paralyzed thought.
Which pushes me into knitting…because there, at least, I suspect that a book on how to create your own style of seamless dragon will be met with the delight it’s meant to engender.
I’m working on sending out proposals for my book to agents, and I’ve run into something I should have expected but didn’t: many of them want a synopsis.
Since the point of a synopsis is to demonstrate your skill as a storyteller while communicating the broad strokes of the plot, I drafted out a synopsis as if Niamh (my main character) were writing a letter to the publisher herself, which seems like a clean way to demonstrate the voice of the book. I think it’s a non-standard approach, but then, as it’s been pointed out, so is the tense structure of my book.
I think that’s a good thing?
Anyway, the synopsis contains massive spoilers both for Autumn’s Daughter and the sequels, but if anyone either doesn’t care or has already read a version, I’d love feedback on the synopsis…
Our community is under attack. The very core of our foundation is threatened by an infiltration of mentally unstable culture whoarders posing as legitimate members of the geek world.
Imposters may be seen…
Mocking new and less-informed geeks.
Brutally quizzing a fellow geek to identify their knowledge status.
Displaying misogyny towards women with feminine qualities.
Complaining of the presence of “stupid n00bs.”
Why are these posers a threat?
1. The behavior of such individuals sends the wrong message to the rest of the world. What do people think of geeks as a whole because of those people?
A culture that values knowledge and access above all things is going to be a culture dedicated to hierarchy and to power—to defining who is in and who is out. Such defining involves, and is meant to involve, a good deal of antagonism, score-settling, back-biting, and cruelty. There’s not much point in defining yourself as the knower if you cannot define others as those who do not know. – Noah Berlatsky, The Atlantic
2. They create an environment where many individuals cannot feel safe, emotionally.
The feelings of being threatened, invalidated, and overlooked can happen to any one of us in this community–some psychologists argue that when the threats are ambiguous or subtle (like microaggressions), they can be more damaging because there is no certainty and the assault is denied or ignored. – Dr. Andrea Letamendi, The Mary Sue
3. They communicate to the world that it’s okay to sexually harass women.
“When one female cosplayer decried her experience with sexual harassment last week at New York Comic Con, she met with dead silence on the con floor.” – Aja Romano, The Daily Dot
“My boundaries were violated physically, verbally, and in terms of my right to feel personally secure. In addition, within minutes of meeting him, I was told to stop saying things, because it made him somehow unable to control his thoughts, which is bog-standard thought policing.” – Genevieve Valentine, GLValentine
How to respond to fake geeks:
For belittling the n00bishness of others, show the offender Ten Thousand.
For general rudeness, covertly put a sticky note on the offender’s back that says, “Please remind me to not be a dick.”
Amply praise those with awesome knowledge not for having it, but for sharing it with generosity of spirit.
I know I’m not alone in being saddened at the impact these individuals have on the geek community. I love geeks, and the reason I love them is because their fandom is infectious. Geeks have an optimistic enthusiasm for the ideas that excite them, and they love to share the details that make them so pleased with a world or set of ideas.
We are the champions of knowledge and access, not because we feel the need to create a power differential between ourselves and the unknowing, but because we want everyone to have access to knowledge. If you’re a new geek in some area and someone claiming to be a geek makes you feel like you don’t deserve to be part of our club, please walk away knowing that someone is a sad, lonely pop-culture whoarder who is missing out on the loving, idea-generating powerhouse I like to call Team Geek and come hang out with us instead.
After all, Team Geek has tons of room, and you would not believe the Easter egg I just found on the latest Doctor Who DVD…
True story: I HAVE been blogging lately. You just don’t know it, because it’s all come out too weird, preachy, and overly personal, so I spared you all from feeling obligated to read half of it before abandoning my blog forever. You’re welcome. But seriously, if I die suddenly and posterity is crying out for more insight into my brain, you can bully John into publishing the embarrassment of unpublished drafts on this blog…
On a more amusing note, I was listening to the radio on my drive home last night when this song came on:
I was listening to it and singing along (Yes, I like crappy pop music. Shut up.) and thinking, “Awww, what a romantic guy,” when my brain bitch-slapped me and said “Are you KIDDING me?”
Me: “What do you mean?”
Brain: “This song is the absolute embodiment of what men say that makes women crazy ALL THE TIME.”
Me: “Calm down. What are you talking about?”
Brain: “John tells you you look amazing all the time, How do you react?”
Me: “He tells me I look amazing when I’m sick and runny nosed and haven’t changed out of the same pair of pajamas for three days.”
Brain: “And that doesn’t strike you as sweet and romantic?”
Me: “I guess, but he says the exact same thing when I’m dressed out for a night on the town. So either he’s lying to be nice when I’m sick or there’s no point in dressing up because I am powerless to look nicer than I do when I’m down with a bad cold.”
Brain: “He just sees you with the eyes of love.”
Me: “Yeah, well, the eyes of love are not very helpful.”
It goes beyond just the eyes of love, though. This is a pattern with people in general, which is that they’ll take the time to offer helpful feedback on things they’re interested and invested in, but if they couldn’t care less about the process, they’ll just politely say, “That’s great!”
John, on ALL of my knitting: “Wow! You made that! That’s awesome!”
John, on ALL of my cooking: “Thanks for cooking. You’re awesome.”
And in contrast…
John, on the grocery flier: “Huh. Can you believe the choice of lighting? It’s obvious they were using lights with two different temperatures. It looks unnatural. And the cropping they used could have been done better by a six-year-old. That’s a stock photo–I’ve seen that one in at least three different stores…”
John, on Minecraft:
On second thought, nevermind. I’m too busy saying, “Wow, that’s cool…” to actually report anything specific about what he’s described to me in Minecraft, which brings me back to the point: it’s human nature to give effusive and generously uncritical praise to people we love regarding things we have exactly zero interest in.
When it comes to knitting and cooking, I’m fine with that. I have other people in my life to give me the critical feedback that helps me improve. When you’re talking about body image, however, it can be damn difficult to separate the “interest in me” from “interest in what I’m wearing.” Personal appearance doesn’t feel like a hobby to most women, I imagine–it feels like a critical component of our identity. This is bullshit, by the way, and completely unfair that most guys somehow get to grow up with the impression that they’re doing well on the personal appearance front if they brush their teeth once a day and shower two or three times a week, but it’s definitely at the heart of why women get pissed off when guys use the same language to praise their beauty whether they’re sick and gross or dressed to the nines.
So, for what it’s worth, this is my advice for couples regarding personal appearance…
No, scratch that. I just tried to distill this thought into actionable advice and realized that it’s an issue we’re all bound to lose on from time to time. It is what it is, but maybe thinking about the situation from the other person’s perspective will help prevent some of the fallout?
If you are one of the 2.3 people on the planet who doesn’t know the plot of Les Miserables and still hopes to enjoy either the book or movie or a stage production of the musical…don’t read this post.
Les Mis has been in my mind the past few weeks, and if you don’t know why, then this post will probably not be of much interest to you. It’s a story that’s resonated with me for a long time, but what I’ve cared about has changed significantly over the years. The first time I heard the musical I was in seventh grade, and I loved it. I went out and bought a copy of the book…which I failed to read until a friend loaned me an abridged version that got me through the basic plot and gave me a renewed interest in reading the book as a whole, which I last read sometime in high school. What I loved about the story back then was the love story between Marius and Cosette.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I went to see my high school’s production of the musical (which was amazingly well done) some years after I had graduated and realized that the love story I had cherished as a middle schooler was actually pretty insipid. The relationship between Marius and Cosette is, in the musical (and possibly the book, though I have to reread it before I would assert this with confidence) is the flattest and most ridiculously stupid relationship in the entire book and it feels like an authorial cop out that they get a happy ending when all the people with moral depth die.
Spoiler: Everybody dies.
I think I’ve finally gotten old enough and well-versed enough in storytelling to truly appreciate the central relationship of the story: that of Valjean and Javert. The reformed convict and the convicted reformer, one the spirit and the other the letter of justice. And in this round of ponderings, my mind has been wrestling the the suicide of Javert.
Oh, yeah. Spoiler: Javert kills himself.
Javert’s suicide has always bothered me a bit. He spends half his life pursuing Valjean for skipping parole. On a few occasions, they meet. At one point, Valjean definitively has the upper hand and has the chance to kill Javert, but he chooses instead to set his pursuer free. When next they meet, Valjean is trying to save the life of the boy his adopted daughter has fallen in love with, carrying his badly wounded body through the sewers to safety. Javert confronts Valjean with the intent of capturing him again, but instead chooses to let him go. This act of mercy on his own part is so contrary to everything he has lived and believed that he kills himself.
I have always thought, from a modern and human perspective, that Javert’s death was unnecessary and even cowardly, though the more I grasp just how difficult change can be, the more I think that his death, particularly in a world with entirely different mores from my own, is not entirely realistic. But even if it would be a waste of human life in reality, thinking about it in terms of literature and what the role literature plays, his death in the context of the story seems crucial. The death of Javert as a private individual isn’t the issue: what Hugo is killing off the the representation of a bad and broken Law. More importantly, he’s having the Law off itself because the Law holds the power and the friends of the ABC are on the wrong side of the power to impact change.
I’m sure that looking at Javert as a representation of an idea is no novel interpretation of the text, but it has got me thinking, as a writer, about this difference between what would be right for an action of a private individual in real life and what is right for the embodiment of a concept in a fictional life. Thoughts?