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.

 

BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS

BTBF Flat

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death & Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
by Katherine Boo

Well, it’s official. I will not be asked to serve on the National Book Award committee anytime soon. I know you’ve been wondering. In fact, when it comes to Behind the Beautiful Forevers, not only am I in disagreement with the National Book Award judges, but I’m also in disagreement with just about every literary award committee on the planet, not to mention every reputable publication that bothers to put out a Best Books of the Year list.

By now you’re probably braced for what I’m about to say: I did not enjoy this book. Now I know I’m a little late to the party on this one, given that it came out a couple years ago and all the hoopla has moved on to other titles. And perhaps the fact that I didn’t rush out to read it right away was an indication, but when Supportive Husband procured a discounted copy a while back, I was more than happy to add it to the pile.

I’ve written previously about the conundrum of deciding when to put a book down and generally speaking, I’ve gotten a lot better about acknowledging when I’m not enjoying something. Yet I still found myself plowing my way through this one even though it wasn’t speaking to me.

I think there were two main reasons for this: 1) the overwhelming acclaim the book and its author have received and 2) the subject matter. Regarding the acclaim, I like to think that by this stage in my increasingly long life I’ve managed to develop a decent amount of critical thinking and feel confident enough in my own judgment that I am free to like or dislike things, regardless of others’ opinions. It looks like I might still have a cool kids complex. The cool kids just so happen to be The National Book Award, The New York Times, The Guardian and other snooty literary bodies. As for the subject matter, I don’t know a lot about India and I definitely know less than that about the slums of Mumbai, so Boo’s book seemed like a good educational opportunity.

And besides, isn’t there something politically incorrect about not liking a critically exalted piece of journalism about people living in a level of poverty that is almost beyond my ability to comprehend? In other words, by rejecting the book, am I rejecting the people it depicts or the issues it raises? The obvious answer is no. What I rejected was the storytelling. It simply didn’t compel me. I wasn’t invested in the people or situations being described because of how the author described them.

But think about it. Are you ever swayed to forge ahead with a book you’re not really enjoying because a lot of smart people liked it and you figure maybe you’re just not getting it? Do you ever read things because it feels like the “right thing to do?” Or because you feel a little bit guilty about everything you have and perhaps reading about those with less somehow relieves that burden? Do you ever feel a certain socio-political pressure in your reading choices? Or perhaps you avoid unpleasant topics altogether when it comes to your reading/leisure time – I can respect that.

(For an amazing piece of journalism that touches on similar themes of poverty and opportunity but had me riveted throughout, check out Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family.)

 

AN UNNECESSARY WOMAN

UnnecessaryAn Unnecessary Woman
by Rabih Alameddine

Some time ago, a kind, bookish friend sent me a copy of An Unnecessary Woman. When someone is thoughtful enough to send a book my way, particularly one that is so well suited to me, I usually prioritize the read. But for a variety of logistical reasons too mundane to list here, it’s taken me a long time to get to this one, a fact I would rue if the timing of this read–as my last book of 2014—hadn’t turned out to be a perfect little bow to tie up the year.

Living in a society that doesn’t always protect its women and a city that’s been devastated by decades of war, Aaliyah Saleh is a 72-year old Beiruti woman who has created a fortress out of literature. For 50 years Aaliyah ran a bookstore and in her spare time, she translates works of significant, difficult and sometimes obscure fiction into Arabic.

Though she has good reason to be guarded and reclusive, Aaliyah has taken this whole “life lived through literature” thing a step too far. (And if I’m calling her out on that, you know it’s bad.) You see, Aaliyah lacks connection to others, depriving her of not only the basic human need for contact and engagement, but by buttressing herself from the world, she’s also deprived others of the gifts she has to give through her life’s work: her translations. Good old Aaliyah has held on tight to her grumpy assertions and holier-than-thou attitudes, but fortunately for her and us, that finally changes.

So while this is a book about many things: literature, religion, gender roles, war, Islam, the Middle East, the history of Beirut, and a lot more, when I closed the book’s back cover and set it down, I decided this is also a book about letting go.* In its lovely and cathartic ending, we see how even the most immoveable among us can liberate herself from old ways and notions. And by doing so, she can enjoy freedom and possibilities of which she was never even aware.

What a perfect message for the year’s end. And if that wasn’t serendipitous enough, for Christmas I received the absolute most perfect read to begin a new year: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. Maybe you’ve heard of it, or perhaps even read it; the super-cute Marie Kondo is a force of nature, radicalizing the way her Japanese counterparts organize their homes (and thus their lives) and she’s sold over two million copies of her book internationally. Even a quick glance at the section headings (“Sorting papers: rule of thumb – discard everything” and “Unread books: ‘sometime’ means ‘never’) had me giggling with glee and revisiting my family tree to see how Marie and I might be distant relations. This resolution-worthy selection comes to us thanks to Supportive Brother-in-Law, who knows me too well. More on tidying up soon …

*Disclaimer: This book may have nothing to do with letting go and I have simply not yet deprogrammed after my Frozen-themed Christmas holiday.

 

THE LIGHTS OF BERKELEY

BHS I

BHS II

Images courtesy of Juan Carlos Guerrero

All images courtesy of Juan Carlos Guerrero

All the Light We Cannot See
by Anthony Doerr

One evening last week, I cracked open the World War II novel All the Light We Cannot See and began reading the opening scene, in which American bombardiers fly over the French town of Saint-Malo, liberating it from German occupation. As I sat in my cozy living room in Berkeley, the sound of (I kid you not) helicopters began to fill the space. It was a dramatic coincidence but I remained reasonably certain that the Bay Area wasn’t being bombed. We were several days in to nightly protests over police violence and the helicopters belonged to law enforcement and the media.

I’d been feeling ambivalent about whether or not I should join the protests, demonstrations that were intended to be peaceful but were turning dangerous due to a small group of people who were using them as an excuse to antagonize the police and damage property, which had led to aggressive police tactics in response. Each evening the protests continued and every morning I saw another boarded up storefront. I remained ambivalent about what was being achieved.

Then last Wednesday, I learned that the students at Berkeley High had walked out of their last class of the day in an organized march that led them through downtown Berkeley and onto the university’s historic Sproul Plaza, site of many a student protest. They chanted, “UC Berkeley join us now, you’re the ones that showed us how.” They walked peacefully through campus and ended at the bell tower, where they staged a die-in with Black students lying on the ground while their White peers stood in a circle around them, paying witness before joining them. At one point a few onlookers began heckling the crowd and the scene could have turned ugly. But how did the BHS kids respond? They began yelling “We love you” to the hecklers and they diffused the conflict.

Some of these kids are my clients, others I work with on a volunteer basis – and I couldn’t have been prouder or more moved to learn that they had managed to accomplish what their adult counterparts couldn’t. They demonstrated exactly what I most appreciate about teenagers: their innocent spirits and ancient souls. They have the ability to recognize injustice and they’re optimistic enough to try to do something about it. It’s why we put so much hope in the generations that succeed us.

“That’s great T,” you may be saying, “but what the heck does any of this have to do with All the Light We Cannot See? I mean, I heard it was one of the best books of 2014 and everyone I talk to raves about it. Couldn’t you spare a few words for this modern masterpiece 10 years in the making?”

Folks, everything you’ve heard about the book is true. It is wonderful and I highly recommend it and it just so happens to have two teenage protagonists. And although the story takes place 70 years ago, it feels very timely. In fact, I couldn’t help but take note of the following passage, which describes the senseless shooting of a civilian woman and child.

“Werner waits for the child to blink. Blink, he thinks, blink blink blink. Already Volkheimer is closing the closet door, though it won’t close all the way because the girl’s foot is sticking out of it, and Bernd is covering the woman on the bed with a blanket, and how could Neumann Two not have known, but of course he didn’t, because that is how things are with Neumann Two, with everybody in this unit, in this army, in this world, they do as they’re told, they get scared, they move about with only themselves in mind.”

all-the-lightI can’t think of a better way to articulate the root of so many of the problems we have today.