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Archive for the ‘Memoir’ Category

God Dies by the Nile, Edison’s Eve, Subject to Debate, The Year of Magical Thinking, and Old Man Goya

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Oh, my! WHAT HAPPENED TO THE MONTH OF JULY?! I completely missed it, somehow, and am a bit upset to see that I will now, for the first time, have one full month of archives left blank. Oh, well. Life: it takes over sometimes. Moving on, I guess!

I read this for the Feminist Classics project last month (ahem, a month late!) and it felt good to lighten that load with a short novel. God Dies by the Nile tells the story of a rural Egyptian village riddled with corrupt politicians and a family of peasant women who must be constantly on guard against predatory religious and government officials. The peasants are largely illiterate and uneducated, which leaves them with few routes to recourse in the face of social, economic, and sexual exploitation. This book did a good job of illustrating the ways in which very powerful men are able to manipulate religion and politics to their own personal benefit, and the ways in which most men are taught by other men to assert their masculinity through the violent domination of women. It also serves as an important reminder that, though their situations may appear utterly bleak, women and others denied social or political power are not wholly powerless; their victimization should not be furthered by the assumption that they are not capable of taking action against their oppressors, even if their choices are limited to those which make us uncomfortable or appear moral only in the throes of madness brought on by so much suffering. Saadawi’s prose is cyclic, like the turning of a water-wheel (an image often conjured in the text) but it was also a little hard to follow sometimes (translation issue, perhaps?). It wasn’t a favorite, but I’m glad to have read it.

Edison’s Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life caught my attention with its mysterious title and neat cover art. Happily, I found just as much within the book as outside of it to hold my interest. With Edison’s Eve, Gaby Wood is able to take a subject I never really thought I’d care about–the history of robots and other automatons, basically–and make me itch to learn more. Her premise is that the history of mechanical life is simultaneously a history of human anxiety over what it is exactly that makes us uniquely human, what it is specifically that differentiates the living and the inanimate. She explores this anxiety by focusing on particular stories and machines, like the chess playing “Turk” of the eighteenth century and the mechanical duck of the same era that appeared to digest and excrete its food. I liked her brief discussions of the strange ways in which ambivalent feelings or worries about gender played into the building of the “perfect woman” (an android) and the common doll. However, the last chapter about the Tiny Doll family of small human circus performers felt at least a little bit objectifying even while discussing the objectifying nature of their performance. A second off-putting factor was a notable lack of analysis. Wood provided just enough in the beginning to get across her point, but not enough to drive it home or tie together all of her research. A fascinating book and topic, but problematic execution.

Subject to Debate was the name of the column that Katha Pollitt wrote for The Nation throughout most of the 90’s and into the year 2000. Here, over eighty of them are neatly brought together and encapsulate a decades’ worth of eloquent social critique and political analysis on the subjects of feminism, welfare, school vouchers, the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, and more. Though many of Pollitt’s columns deal with issues that are undeniably dated, they engage with questions and conflicts that have persisted through American culture into today. Pollitt’s contentions remain relevant, her wit transcendent. I nodded my head eagerly in agreement with almost all of what I read in this book, and enjoyed just as much of it. Check it out!

The Year of Magical Thinking is a memoir about grief and the experience of grieving. It starts with the sudden death of Joan Didion’s huband Jim Dunne upon their return home from visiting their daughter who has been hospitalized and in a coma for weeks and traces the pained, sometimes deluded thought processes and the swirling emotions that Didion endures in the ensuing weeks of caring for her sick daughter. It is, of course, a very personal piece of writing and I imagine it must have been intensely therapeutic for the author. Luckily for me, though, and knock-on-wood(!), I have yet to experience the kind of loss that Didion writes about, and I had trouble relating to both her as a narrator and to the things she went through. Perhaps this was as much my fault as the reader as it was hers, but we just seemed unable to meet each other half way on this one. I felt a similar disconnect when I read Didion’s Play It As It Lays a few years ago. It’s weird: she’s one of those authors for me (and I’m sure all readers have a few) that I feel like I’m supposed to like, and there isn’t anything WRONG with their writing, but our chemistry’s all off or something and I just DON’T. Maybe next time. Didion fans, which of her books must I try before calling it quits?

Old Man Goya is both a semi-fictional biography of Goya and a memoir of the author, Julia Blackburn. There is a lot we don’t know about the enigmatic artist, and in this short book Blackburn tries to fill in some of those gaps. His missing years are delicately reconstructed in very subtle, believable ways, and Blackburn really delves into what she imagines he must have felt when he found himself suddenly deaf as the result of what would now be an easily curable illness, and the impact of his sense of isolation on his work. Much of what she imagines is informed by her experience with her dying mother, also a painter, and her childhood fascination with Goya. I usually don’t like to mix my history and fiction in reading, but Blackburn is such a beautifully enchanting writer that I’d do it ten times over. My only complaints are that I wished for more of her story so that it was more tightly integrated with her main narrative about Goya and, though she had her reasons for including only photographs of his etching plates, I would have loved so much to have been able to view photos of his finished drawings and paintings while reading. In any case, I found Goya a fascinating subject and will be on the lookout for both books about Goya and his artwork, and other works by Julia Blackburn!

I hope to be around more frequently from now on, but I can’t make any promises yet. I’ve got a bunch of other projects that I’m really focused on right now and that are doing well…perhaps soon I’ll write a non-book oriented post about what they are, and let y’all get to know me a little better…but for now, I’m going to keep pushing through The Second Sex for the Feminist Classics Project (which I’m loving, by the way) and will continue to catch up on all your blogs! Happy reading 🙂

Catching Up, Part 2

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In A Border Passage: From Cairo to America–A Woman’s Journey, Leila Ahmed, an Egyptian Islamic feminist scholar in America, details the events of her childhood shaped primarily by the events of the 1952 revolution and her academic experience at a British college. I learned a lot of valuable history from this memoir, which is especially interesting and pertinent given what’s happening in Egypt today. I was especially interested in Ahmed’s college experience and the dawning of her interest in colonialism and post-colonial theory and feminism. This memoir was incredibly insightful, but I didn’t feel I got to know its author in any personal sense and this put me off a bit. I’m keeping an eye out for Ahmed’s more straightforward non-fiction work, particularly Women and Gender in Islam, which I think I’ll get along with a little better.

World of Wonders concludes the Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies (here’s what I thought of the first two books in the series, Fifth Business and The Manticore). This trilogy is completely brilliant, and introduced me to one of my new favorite authors who, luckily for me, was fairly prolific. World of Wonders shines a spotlight on the most mysterious of the trilogy’s characters, Magnus Eisengrim (or Paul Dempster). Paul grew up in a religiously oppressive household with a “mad” mother and was abducted by a member of a traveling circus as a child. There, he learns some of life’s hardest lessons, and when he’s able to leave the circus and move into the world of theater, he learns to hone his skills of manipulation and becomes the world’s leading illusionist. This story is told through a series of conversations with Dunstan Ramsay and Liesl (both characters from the first two books) and a film crew which has hired Eisengrim to portray a famous, deceased magician in a documentary for the BBC. By asking him to provide “subtext” for the film, they are able to tease out the history of a very complex and secretive character who, in many ways, provides the key to understanding the events of the trilogy at large. In some ways, I admit, I might have liked Eisengrim’s past to remain a mystery, as I don’t think anything could have really matched what I’d imagined that history to be. But Davies presented the story with the same subtle but invigorating philosophical approach that I’ve come to expect from him, and did it beautifully. Though Fifth Business remains my favorite book of the three, World of Wonders made a fitting end to a very captivating and original series.

Flat-Footed Truths: Telling Black Women’s Lives is a collection of short stories, essays, poems, and photographs exploring the self-expression of African American women. I read this book in one sitting, and loved it. There’s a lot of good stuff in here about the importance of reclaiming black women’s history in the United States and the whitewashing of feminism. There’s also some really great writing about black women’s friendships, artist and activist communities, the radical act of love and the true meaning of solidarity. The image of woman, and black woman in particular, has long been tarnished with the worry and discomfort of an insecure and prejudiced society; for this reason, it is important that black women’s voices are not ignored, that their self-image and creativity is recognized and validated. And anyway, you really can’t go wrong with any collection that includes writing by both bell hooks and Audre Lorde 🙂

I had so much fun reading Nymphomania: A History. The history of nymphomania, I learned, is a history of western anxiety about women’s sexuality; the arbitrary meaning of the word nymphomania is flexible, and able to encompass the particular concerns of different generations with distinct ideas about women, sex, how much sex is too much for women, and what kinds of sex are appropriate for women to enjoy. It was horrifying to learn about how women’s sex drives were pathologized in the Victorian era, and…(UM, I THINK A TRIGGER WARNING MIGHT BE APPROPRIATE HERE)…”treated” with cauterization, bleedings of the uterus by leeches, and institutionalization. EEEEEK. It was interesting to see how women’s sexual behavior was, and is, deemed appropriate or not based on their class status and race, and how these ideas have been changed, but not been done away with, by the sexual revolutions of the twentieth century. I only wish that the book was a little longer. Each section felt brief, and I would have liked more detail. There were also some big chronological gaps between the different sections that could have been filled. Ultimately, though, I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.

I read both Diary of a Bad Year and Elizabeth Costello a few years ago, and kind of hated them both, mostly on account of plot events. I held out hope for Disgrace, based on the fact that it seems to be most people’s favorite Coetzee, but wasn’t much happier with it. Mostly because I had no sympathy for the disgraced protagonist, David Lurie, at all. He’s a South African college professor who has a terribly coercive “affair” with one of his students, refuses to “reform his character,” and is fired (good). He goes to live with his somewhat estranged daughter Lucy in the countryside, but their already tense relationship becomes even more strained when three men break into their home, beat him up, and rape Lucy. He is frustrated by how she deals with the emotional aftermath of the rape, and tries unsuccessfully to persuade her to change her life and move somewhere he considers safer. In so doing, a host of racial South African power dynamics come into play in Lucy’s community and each must deal with their “disgrace” in their own way. There’s an interesting story here, I know, but as I said…I really hated David Lurie and that completely influenced my reading of this book. There were moments when I was able to appreciate Coetzee’s writing style, but I was bothered by the content of the writing itself. I’m ready to say that J.M. Coetzee just isn’t for me.

And with that…I am leaving town for a few weeks tomorrow. This means I probably won’t be posting for a while, and when I get back, you can expect a few more catch up posts. I can’t wait to get back into posting and commenting on other people’s blogs regularly, but am equally excited for a little vacation 🙂 I hope all your summers are off to a great start, and I’ll read y’all soon!

Just Kids, by Patti Smith

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Just Kids by Patti Smith is not really the kind of book I’d pick out on my own, but since I do really admire Patti Smith and my mom sent it to me (thanks mom!) just as I was starting to feel a little bogged down by my current read, A Tale of Two Cities, I thought I’d give it a try. Ultimately, I’m glad I did. After some reluctance in the first fourth of the book to really invest, I became hooked and rushed right through it.

In Just Kids, Patti Smith remembers her complex and enduring relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe and their symbiotic blossoming as artists. Sometimes lovers and always friends, the story of how Pattie and Robert were able to share their artwork, inspire one another, and help each come into their own–through extreme poverty, sudden success, and fatal illness–was incredibly endearing. Even though it is known from the start that Robert Mapplethorpe will die in the book’s last pages, I still felt unprepared to let him go by the end!

Patti met Robert during the summer of ’67, when she moved to New York City with no money or real plan for survival. As Patti and Robert, who would come to share a seemingly indestructible bond that no family member, friend, or other lover could touch, wander the streets of old New York, I was incredibly pleased to realize that I have lived in the city long enough and moved around within it enough times that I’m able to identify with all places they went! Not only the obvious places that everyone in New York has been to, like Chelsea and the Lower East Side and St. Marks, or even MacDougal street, where both Patti and I (and Bob Dylan) have all lived at some point, but Hall Street! Clinton Ave! Basically my current Brooklyn neighborhood! Does getting really excited about this mean I’m an official New Yorker now?

Also fun was the constant barrage of cameos by all kinds of other very famous musicians, artists, writers, and all sorts of miscellaneous bohemian weirdos who are now very famous! Most of them, like Bob Dylan, the Warhol crowd, and some of the Beat poets, were not at all surprising, of course, but still fun. Some of them, though, like…Salvadore Dali? That one was pretty awesome.

I loved reading about all these interesting people and what their enthusiastic, youthful selves were doing, what they were wearing, where they were going…but my biggest complaint about the book is that I didn’t ever feel I got what I really wanted, which is to know: what were they all feeling? What were they thinking? Patti Smith tends to rely on facts and happenings while expressing minimal emotion about it all, maybe expecting the reader to just infer. Sometimes, with other books, I have really liked this style and found it effective. But with Just Kids, this didn’t work for me. Of the Hotel Allerton where Patti spent a night with Robert, who was suffering from lice, malnutrition, gonorrhea, impacted wisdom teeth, infected gums and delirious fever all at once, where the sheets were stained, there was no running water, and the whole place smelled like piss and was filled with “derelicts and junkies”, Patti says only that “These marked the lowest point in our life together…It was a terrible place, dark and neglected, with dusty windows…” (86) and “I thought he might die” (87). At this point, I thought: That’s it, Patti!? That’s it!? I thought he might die? show me some vulnerability! I found descriptions of their respective rises toward fame equally lacking.

I mean, her tough persona is a huge part of what appeals to me about Patti Smith, but in reading the book I was hoping to get to a deeper, more personal place with her. I almost felt as if she held the reader at arm’s length, wanting to tell Robert’s story but while still being incredibly protective of it as their own. As a fellow human, I get that. But as a reader, it’s frustrating. Towards the end of the book and the decline of Robert’s health, Patti’s prose does, appropriately, become more sentimentally revealing. But it was almost too little, too late. What I wanted out of the book was some insight into Patti’s and Robert’s personalities, both individually and together. I wanted to know more about what made their special bond so unique, not just read over and over that it was. I wanted to get to know them. But I really only got to know about them. Though I did finally come to really feel for them, it took quite a bit of work on my part.

In all, I had a lot of fun with this book, witnessing the “glamorous” days of New York when so many of the creative arts and revolutionary feelings were flourishing; being shocked into remembering that oh yeah, it wasn’t glamorous at all actually, but incredibly gritty and gross and difficult to live in all these neat places back then; observing various cultural icons and idols at work and play. But if I wasn’t already a fan of Patti Smith and cohorts, or if I wasn’t as intrigued by the picture painted of late ’60’s, early ’70’s New York, I’m sure I wouldn’t have been drawn into the book by Patti Smith’s storytelling alone.

Sort of a silly side note: I used the picture of Patti on page 147 as an aid in explaining to my hairstylist the cut that I wanted, and got, yesterday. 🙂

Written by Emily Jane

April 6, 2010 at 6:00 pm