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.)

MAKING AMERICA GREAT AGAIN

Fuzzy HangHi guys, it’s been a while, so let’s just jump right in with this point of re-entry, from David Brooks’ February 9 Op-Ed column: “To hear Sanders or Trump, Cruz and Ben Carson campaign is to wallow in the pornography of pessimism, to conclude that this country is on the verge of complete collapse. That’s simply not true. We have problems, but they are less serious than those faced by just about any other nation on earth.”

Before you grow too baffled, rest assured that this blog is not being converted into a political forum. But given what I’ve been up to over the past seven months or so, I couldn’t help but feel a particular appreciation for Brooks calling out the fear/anger-mongering for the sake of mongering. Don’t get me wrong – questioning the status quo is an important and sacred part of a free society, but there’s a difference between intellectual discourse and baiting.

And you know who really resents the disingenuousness of the mongering? My 18-year-old clients. Regardless of their political persuasion, they don’t like to feel as though they’re getting played. Which brings me to: a) what I’ve been doing since we last spoke and b) what I’ve been reading. Hint: the answers to both questions are virtually the same and can be summed up in two words: college essays.

Both the beauty and the horror of 18-year olds is that (with some exceptions) they are innately optimistic. This isn’t to say they aren’t questioning everything that’s come before, but they tend to believe it will get better and they personally can be agents of change. Heck, one of my students wrote a whole essay about being an optimist and how such an outlook will serve him well as a scientist and entrepreneur.

Another of my kiddos described the moment when she knew she wanted to be a doctor. While lifeguarding at the local pool, one of her charges got a bloody nose and as my gal held a paper towel up to the little boy’s nose and tipped his head back, she realized the power of being able to use her hands to help someone.

Even the most mundane-seeming events in a young person’s life can be made meaningful through their sensitive and thoughtful perspective. Like my client who wrote about learning to make her often-grumpy Punjabi grandfather a cup of chai tea, a rite that wasn’t significant to her until she realized how much it meant to him.

And then there was an essay by one of my Chinese students that was so beautifully written, with a narrative voice so strong, I can’t do it justice trying to paraphrase it here. But I’ll just say this (as Senator Sanders often quips): at its heart, the essay was about his struggle to find his place somewhere between the two cultures he occupied as an international student in the U.S. Beyond his lovely writing, the part that slayed me was the raw vulnerability he displayed when describing the intense, to the point of agonizing, desire he initially felt to be American.

I work with a fair number of international students (and lots more who are their family’s first or second generation in the U.S.) and the essays that describe the agony and the ecstasy of this journey are a constant reminder that we’re doing something right over here. Even more encouraging is witnessing how so many of my students–regardless of their background–want to pay it forward. I can’t tell you how many kids want to develop renewable energy systems or businesses based in social entrepreneurship or organizations to address all those parts of the current system they don’t think are working. I’ve got young women who want to work with younger girls to encourage their love of math and science. I’ve even got someone brave enough to want to tackle big money in politics. Beyond their goals, the sheer magnitude of their energy is astounding. How could I possibly identify with the “pornography of pessimism” when this is my daily reading material? I think it’s pretty clear who is going to make America great again.

 

WE ARE NOT OURSELVES

we-are-not-ourselves

We Are Not Ourselves
by Matthew Thomas

Lately I’ve been writing about my skepticism toward some of the “Big Books” that are released each year by established authors with strong platforms. While I don’t think there’s an official definition for the term Big Book, I associate it with a book that its publisher is expecting will sell well and therefore received a large advance and a lot of subsequent buzz. Written by a debut author rather than an established name, We Are Not Ourselves is an interesting addition to the conversation.

I loved the beginning of this book. In fact, for the first 200 pages or so, I thought it might end up being one of my favorite books ever as I followed Eileen Tumulty, born in Woodside, Queens in 1941 to Irish immigrants, from age 10 to somewhere around 45. This part of the story is as close to my version of The Great American Novel as any I can recall. Through Eileen’s coming of age, Matthew Thomas creates a bigger narrative about the dreams, expectations and realities of post-war, middle-class, first-generation Americans moving through the 20th century.

If this is the kind of story that appeals to you as much as it appeals to me, you can probably imagine that the last thing on my mind was any concern about the book’s length (just north of 600 pages) or any sort of editing treatment it may or may not have received. But I wondered just where this was heading, with 400 pages to go and a 45-year-old protagonist.

It’s around this spot in the book that Something Happens. If you don’t already know what that something is, I don’t want to tell you. I find that it’s a much more powerful experience to be surprised by a story’s events rather than to be waiting for them and that was certainly what I found so gripping about the second 1/3 of this book. At this point, though, the book’s pace slows down significantly, matching the course of events, and I realized that the rest of the book would focus on this thing that happened (again, very much in keeping with how the characters are experiencing the events being described).

So while I still enjoyed the rest of the book—the characters are incredibly well drawn—the things that make it so good can also make it difficult to read. Thomas is portraying events that are, at times, upsetting and scary and are, at other times, arduous and mundane. He does so in a style that mirrors these experiences so that the reader is that much closer to the characters.

This all comes around to an issue of realism. One of the topics that came up in my post about My Very End of the Universe and my accompanying interview with Chris Bower was how the succinct nature of flash fiction can lend a story a sense of realism, particularly as it reflects memory. In We Are Not Ourselves, the opposite effect is at work. Many have called this book an epic saga and while I wouldn’t categorize it that way, I do think that Thomas needed every one of his many words to accurately reflect his characters’ experiences.

Phew. I need a break from fiction, folks. This last one nearly did me in with all my worrying about these poor characters. Up next is something self-helpy, for those of us gearing up for our New Year’s resolutions.

 

EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU

H Halloween

Z Halloween

Everything I Never Told You
by Celeste Ng

(Note: This book has nothing to do with Halloween, but accompanying pictures were too cute to ignore)

The surface story of Everything I Never Told You is a mystery. It is the spring of 1977 and sixteen-year old Lydia Lee has been found at the bottom of a lake in her small Ohio town. These tropes may sound familiar but I promise, this book is the farthest thing from formulaic. In fact, I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like this before.

At its core, this is a story about disappointment; the searing, haunting disappointment of having one’s dreams fade away unfulfilled. As a first-generation son of Chinese immigrants, Lydia’s father has never fit in among his white peers, even after marrying a Caucasian woman. Before they met, Lydia’s mother was a science whiz and planned to become a doctor. Neither of their lives has worked out in the ways they wanted, but even more tragic is the alienation they’ve experienced as a result, an alienation from themselves and each other. As the title implies, this is also a story about the tragedy of failing to communicate.

“Geez, T,” you might be thinking, “that sounds like a real buzz kill. I don’t like to read anything depressing.” So yes, this is a sad book; I’m not going to sugarcoat it for you. But it’s good sad. In fact, the small cast of characters is so well wrought and their emotions feel so genuine and true that I found myself whipping through the book, compelled by the tension of their emotional lives. Through gradual reveals that flash back to the characters’ individual histories, their inner tensions are woven into the story’s surface mystery.

Beyond doing a really fine job of telling a story about a family and its failings, Celeste Ng manages to tell a more universal story about the ramifications of institutionalized discrimination. What do people do with their frustrations? If they can’t talk about them, how do they deal? Do they end up expecting more from other people because they’re not satisfied with themselves? For some, they project their quashed hopes onto their children. They begin to conflate their sense of self with their child’s identity. But this desire to want for one’s children what you couldn’t have for yourself can be a dangerous, destructive force. Ng’s powerful depiction reminds us that systems of oppression don’t disappear in one or two generations’ time.

On that happy note …

Next Up: The much-anticipated new release of My Very End of the Universe by hometown hero and old friend, Mr. Chris Bower (and others). Look for an upcoming interview (a first for this blog) with Bower and some other new features in honor of his publication!

WE NEED NEW NAMES

Trying to relate to children

We Need New Names
by NoViolet Bulawayo

Ten-year old Darling lives in Zimbabwe, a country that’s been ravaged by 30 years of Robert Mugabe’s rule. In the book’s opening scene, Darling and her friends are playing games and trying to offset their hunger with a few stolen guavas, the same activities that fill most of their days now that all their teachers have left the country and there is no school to attend. The military police have bulldozed the children’s former homes, leaving them in a shantytown of tin shacks. The first half of the story takes place in the Zimbabwe of Darling’s childhood while the second half concerns her immigration to the United States as an adolescent.

Darling’s transition from Zimbabwe to America is the clear through line of the story and we watch as her survival skills adapt to her different environments. But by the book’s end, I just didn’t find myself all that connected to her as a character. It felt like the places she inhabited overshadowed and shaped her more than any internal dreams or characteristics.

My sense of distance from this character may have had to do with a couple of storytelling devices that tend not to resonate with me. First, I’m not a huge fan of adult stories told from the point of view of children (I know, this probably isn’t a huge shock to some of you). I’m sure if I really wracked my brain, I could come up with some examples that defy this generalization, but broadly speaking, I just find the child narrator irritating. Now in this case, Darling is definitely not irritating, but I found myself wanting more than what her 10-year-old perspective could give me.

And then there’s the issue of plot, or lack thereof. Speaking broadly again, I usually like a lot of plot – I want to be propelled forward wondering what happens next and why. I want to be surprised and manipulated by characters’ behavior and motivations. (Yes, I am currently catching up on Homeland, thanks for asking.) That doesn’t mean every story I read must be action-packed—some of the most interesting plots for me are interpersonal—but if the story’s events aren’t going to keep me flipping the pages, then I need something else, typically thoroughly-wrought characters whose tiniest choices will worry, please or surprise me.

Bulawayo’s writing style is more charcoal sketches than oil on canvas; she draws the outline and gives us the pertinent facts, but she allows the reader to flesh out the scenes and characters for themselves. This is a style that can be very effective but in this particular book, there was just a little too much left on the table for me.

We Need New Names was released last year around the same time as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, a novel to which it was often compared because they share some similar themes (although Americanah’s protagonist is from Nigeria). While they may share some surface similarities, the two books are told in very different ways and the style of Americanah suits me more. In fact, Americanah was one of my favorite books this year; it had all those thick, heavy brushstrokes and deep, rich textures that kept me up late flipping the pages and wondering what would happen next.

Speaking of next: David Mitchell’s latest, baby! Yes!