ONE IS NOT BORN A WOMAN

Brooklyn
by Colm Toibin

Photo courtesy of Time.

Cait, photo courtesy of Time

Nora Webster
by Colm Toibin

This past weekend, I was mulling over what I wanted to tell you guys about Brooklyn and Nora Webster, two gorgeous novels by Colm Toibin. You may be familiar with Brooklyn because it was turned into an Oscar-nominated movie this year. Both books are set in Enniscorthy, Ireland and share a few characters, but the stories are entirely independent of one another. In Brooklyn, set in in the early 1950s, a young woman must venture to the U.S. by herself for lack of job opportunities at home. In Nora Webster, set in the late 60s/early 70s, a middle-aged woman has to figure out what to do with herself after the sudden death of her husband.

Both stories are told beautifully, in a simple, melodrama-free style, but I knew there was more to them that I liked, I just couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was. Deep in concerted thought, I did what every serious thinker resorts to when attempting to solve a high-minded query. I flipped on the E! channel and started watching the Caitlyn Jenner docu-series, I Am Cait.

Yes, I was looking for mind candy, but I can’t tell you how pleasantly surprised and relieved I’ve been to see that someone involved in this show was smart enough to bring in some real academic heavyweights like Jenny Boylan and Kate Bornstein. And my mixed feelings about her aside, I give Caitlyn serious props for letting them chastise educate her on national TV so the rest of us can learn along with her. Despite the requisite Kardashian cameos (which tend to be pretty hysterical), any television program that has people quoting Simone de Beauvoir ain’t “Keeping Up With Cait.” Amidst sweeping Malibu vistas and Moschino dresses, there is some serious dialogue going on here. Including the aforementioned de Beauvoir quote from this week’s episode: “One is not born a woman, one becomes one.”

It was the brilliant Jenny Boylan who laid that one on the group during a discussion of gender roles and in her typically clueless manner, Cait responds with, “Where do you get this stuff?” You can see where this is both interesting and entertaining.

I perked up at the reference to this quote, as it is one of my favorites. I like it both for its simple lyricism (in its English translation) and for the various ways it can be interpreted. In its original context, de Beauvoir was saying that it is society that really shapes us as “male” or “female.” Given the crowd Simone hung with, some take a more existential reading of the quote (we aren’t “born anything,” we create who we are) and I’ve always liked thinking of it as an ode to maturation (we are born girls, we grow into women). All these interpretations are more or less streams that flow into the same river. Certainly the quote resonated with a group of transgender women who were not biologically born women.

We are all charged with finding our place in the world. For some, the journey may be easier than for others. Both of Colm Toibin’s main characters truly become women in the course of their stories and in depicting their journeys so eloquently, he reminds us that the process of becoming (whatever we may be) is one that is universal.

 

Kate Bornstein

Kate Bornstein, courtesy of Amazon (???)

Jennifer Finney Boylan, courtesy of her website.

Jennifer Finney Boylan, courtesy of her website

(By the way, I highly recommend Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides if you are interested in reading a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about gender identity.)

ONLY CONNECT

My Struggle, Book 3
by Karl Ove Knausgaard

The other day, I was standing on the train platform reading Book 3 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume series, My Struggle. Most of my fellow passengers consulted their phones or walked by me zombie-style, immersed in whatever was coming through their headphones; a few pushed bikes down the platform and a couple sat chatting with one another. While I stood reading, feet planted firmly on the ground in Berkeley, California, March 2016, I was, at the same time, in Karl Ove’s childhood bedroom in Tromoya, Norway circa 1978. A breeze rushed past me as a train left the station while Karl Ove sat on his bed and picked up a book by Ursula K. Le Guin. In that moment, I felt like I was on the tail end of a ricochet, knowing that Le Guin grew up in post-World War I Berkeley.

People like to say that we’re more connected today than we’ve ever been thanks to current technology. But writers and readers know that we’ve always been connected through our conversations on the page. And even my beloved Skype hasn’t figured out how to time travel yet.

My Struggle Book 3

Of course not every writer connects with every reader. And anyone who tells me that Karl Ove is too internal and plot-deficit for their taste gets my full support and understanding. Yet clearly I’m invested at this point, having read the first half of his 3,600-page opus. So what’s in it for me, besides some company while I’m waiting for my train?

I’ll put it this way. Why do we like strange, twisty, suspenseful plots? Because we feel like we’re actively navigating through the story, picking up the crumbs a writer leaves and using our minds to interpret the path on which we’ve been set. It’s satisfying to figure things out and to be surprised, especially when both happen at the same time.

Karl Ove doesn’t map out intricate plots (this is a memoir* after all) but instead he lays out in exceptional detail every last nook, cranny and conifer of both his external and internal worlds. Were I to be air-dropped into Tromoya Island, Norway in the year 1978, I feel confident I could make my way through the “… gardens and rocks, meadows and woods, up and down dale, around sharp bends, sometimes with trees on both sides, as if through a tunnel …” to Karl Ove’s newly developed neighborhood, where buddies Geir, Rolf and Dag Lothar would be waiting to play. And then I’d see Karl Ove’s sadistic, alcoholic father looming in the doorway and feel just as shaken as Karl Ove does.

A cynical person could say that enjoying the kind of intimacy and sharing Knausgaard offers is another form of today’s rampant voyeurism (see reality tv, celeb gossip and pretty much the whole Internet). On the contrary, I think he’s speaking to something older and more visceral and thus, the hubbub around this series.

Simply put, he’s connecting.

P.S., I seem to find myself on an unintended Norwegian kick these days. My library copy of One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway just came in and my buddy Anne recently got us into Occupied on Netflix. I guess it’s no wonder I found myself buying smoked salmon earlier today.

*KOK calls these books “a non-fiction novel”

 

LILA

LilaLila
by Marilynne Robinson

To describe the premise of the three novels comprising Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead series may not inspire you to spontaneously leap out of your seat and rush to (soapbox alert) the nearest local, independent bookstore — but it should. I’m not sure you’ll find three more deftly written meditations on what it means to be alive, with all the beauty and sorrow that the task entails.

In Gilead, the first of the series, an elderly minister named John Ames narrates the book via a letter he is writing to his six-year-old son. Diagnosed with a heart condition, Ames has been told he doesn’t have much time and he wants his little boy to know all the things he may not have a chance to tell him. It is the mid-1950s and Ames is the minister of tiny Gilead, Iowa, a place where he’s lived a simple but lonely existence for most of his life. Lila is the third book in the series and it could be considered a prequel, since it traces the backstory of Ames’ young wife, Lila, from her childhood through her marriage to “the old man,” as she calls him.

I refer to these books as meditations because that it exactly how I experienced them. Each time I read one, I felt as if I were in a trance. Gilead, in particular, read like a chant or a poem. This is not to say there’s anything lightweight about them. It is to say, however, that Robinson’s language takes these stories to a near-spiritual level, which befits the many theological discussions that abound. Can I say that I appreciated the full heft of each of these discussions? Most likely, no. But what I could appreciate was her characters desperate wish to understand the meaning of their existence and the gravity with which they took the job of being alive.

By the time we meet them, Ames and Lila and every one of Robinson’s characters have suffered their own losses and disappointments. It’s painful to witness how raw they’ve been rubbed by life. Yet in a way that only Midwesterners can, they persevere and work to bring meaning to their experiences. Ultimately I think it is the acute precariousness of the characters’ happiness that made the books both lovely and heartbreaking for me.

You may know that the Gilead series is the only work of fiction Robinson has written since her first novel Housekeeping, published in 1980. Like the Gilead books, Housekeeping received a ton of praise and since its publication has gone down in literary annals as a modern classic. The story is right up my alley: a couple of young girls growing up and making their way under unconventional conditions. Take this setup and couple it with my adoration for Robinson’s writing and you’d figure Housekeeping was one of my favorite books, right?

Well, like a lot of the awesome books I’ve read in my life, I first read Housekeeping when I was way too young to get anything out of it, other than the fact that it was supposed to be good. So I gave it another shot a few years ago. Still nothing. Apparently an elderly preacher in 1950s Iowa is more my speed. Maybe you should take everything I’ve said above with a grain of salt.

FAMILY LIFE

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Family Life
by Akhil Sharma

Around this time last year, when his semi-autobiographical novel Family Life was published, Akhil Sharma wrote an essay for The New Yorker about the 12 years and 7,000 pages he spent working on this book, a book that ended up being 218 pages. While I wasn’t planning to spend 12 years contemplating what to write about this book, I will say that my thoughts on this one haven’t flowed with the same ease as they often do here.

The word that keeps going around and around in my head is: sad. This is undoubtedly a sad story. The entire book revolves around the consequences of a diving accident experienced by the narrator’s older brother a couple years after their family immigrates to the US from India. The accident leaves the older son brain-damaged and with few resources to care for him, the entire family is thrown into turmoil. What makes the story even sadder is that it is based on Sharma’s own family, who experienced a similar tragedy when he was a child.

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Last weekend, a couple friends asked how I liked Family Life so far. I was about 2/3 of the way through the book and I commented on how very sad the story was, but that I felt I’d just reached a point where a glimmer of hope was starting to shine through. Wrong. It turns out that glimmer is quickly extinguished and the story continues on with more heartache. It probably sounds like I didn’t like the book. Sometimes “like” and “dislike” can be clumsy terms and neither really get to the heart of it. Here’s the more accurate synopsis: I was compelled. Despite the sadness.

When I hear someone say, “I don’t like sad stories,” my head explodes. It boggles my mind to ponder what kind of stories this person could possibly be reading that omit any references to disappointment, loss, heartache, or general tragedy. Without conflict, our stories wouldn’t be particularly interesting. Perhaps what these anti-sad story people mean is that they need their redemption and catharsis.

For those folks and some of you who may be on the fence over this sad issue, here’s a semi-spoiler alert: with the exception of the little glimmer of hope I mentioned about 2/3 of the way through, it is not until the very last line of Family Life that even the possibility of catharsis is presented. From a technical and structural standpoint, I found it deeply admirable that Sharma pulls this off so successfully. It’s definitely a “cool move” as one of my writing teachers used to say.

There’s no pandering here, there are no tidy little bows. It seems that working through 7,000 pages of material (man, I hope he can pull another book or two out of all that) left Sharma with a solid sense of integrity about how he was going to tell this story. And for that, credit is due. I can’t help but think, though, that perhaps for all his cool writerly moves, the result is something cold.

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THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE

TITSOAHMThis is the Story of a Happy Marriage
by Ann Patchett

Oh how I dread writing about the books I love. The task makes me wish I had just finished a book I only liked or felt okay about or disliked. These reads lend themselves to short, distilled blog posts much more obediently than the books I love. Because the books that really speak to me have so much to say and I can’t possibly do them justice in less than 600 words – a self-imposed word count that I feel committed to maintaining.

From its title, I had assumed this book was a set of memoir-ish essays about Patchett’s relationship with her husband. And while the eponymous essay in the collection covers that topic, the book as a whole is about the many different kinds of marriages that she has had in her life, it is about the things to which she’s committed herself and loved deeply: her husband ranks high on the list, but so does her reading and writing, her friendships and her dog Rose.

As a species, we tend to catalogue things, especially the things we like. It’s fun to think about what makes us happy and creating lists gives us a sense of order and accomplishment and—I’ll speak for myself here—it can help us remember. But such cataloging and collecting can turn us into people who only skim the surface, who are more consumers than thinkers. Patchett’s collection of essays, carefully culled from the mound of non-fiction she’s crafted over the last 20+ years, is an antidote to these types of superficial, fetishizing tendencies. While the common thread here is clearly that which she adores most, the theme emerged organically through her years of writing and only made itself known explicitly once she started to pull together different pieces that represented her non-fiction career. In other words, Patchett didn’t write “My Ten Faves” at the top of a piece of paper and then proceed to develop corresponding essays.

But I am not Ann Patchett. And (as is evident if you glance to your left) I am not above having lists of faves. So I’ll just go ahead and tell you that within this collection, my favorite essays lean toward the ones about the literary world, the ones describing life on a book tour, opening an independent bookstore and my most favorite of all, The Getaway Car, “A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life.” She also writes beautifully about her relationships—human and canine—like only a true introvert can, with great devotion and depth.

I could feel bitter and resentful that Patchett manages to write about the things she loves with such ease, but instead I can only feel camaraderie because I know that what appears easy for her is in fact the product of a lot of time and hard work. One of her many wonderful analogies in the book compares our ideas to a beautiful butterfly that flits about our heads until we have to kill and pin it in order to get those ideas onto paper. As she says, “The journey from the head to the hand is perilous and lined with bodies.”

Up Next: H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, recent winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize.