Friday, July 28, 2017

Fear of Dying by Erica Jong


There was a time when there was nowhere you could go without seeing a copy of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying on a bookshelf.  Feminists embraced it for its celebration of a woman’s sexuality.  Frankly, I’ve never read it but when I was offered a chance to read Fear of Dying I was intrigued.  In a telephone conversation, I even mentioned it to my mother who immediately grunted dismissively.  I figured it was because Jong is known for writing about sex, something my mother doesn’t especially enjoy.  I proceeded to read the book with some curiosity.

Chalk this one up to yet another beach read.  In some ways, this novel serves as a sequel to Jong’s previous bestseller although the protagonist is not Isadora Wing but her best friend Vanessa Wonderman who is fighting her age even as she is surrounded by death and loss.  She turns to the “zipless fuck” in spite of her supposedly being happily married.  And why wouldn’t she be happy?  Yes, her parents are slowly dying but they have lived long lives and age is simply not a state-of-mind.  Her husband, who loves her and with whom she still has a sexually active life, loves her without looking away from her flaws.  And bonus:  He’s wealthy!  Her only daughter is expecting a child.  It’s all there.  Every reason for her to be happy.

Which is why her selfish narcissism is all the more distasteful.  At no point did I sympathize with Vanessa, and I felt as though I should because I am old enough to appreciate many of the frustrations that come with aging.  The novel is described as searingly funny, but I found it overly hetero-normative and judgmental of sexuality.

How can a book from an author who is praised for her sexual liberation be so sexually regressive?  The men who respond to her online anonymous-sex search happen to be interested in “deviant” sexual practices making the men seem like perverts rather than sexually different from the protagonist.  Clearly, in the author’s mind, the only acceptable forms of sex are traditional but not necessarily monogamous. 

More distasteful to me is how banal Vanessa’s and even Isadora’s sexuality seem to be.  The novel is told in the first person and here I quote Vanessa:
Erection—how we all seek it!  The hard cock standing up and validating our existence.  Men think like this—straight men and gay men both.  And women too—at least when hunger drives us.  (227)
Wow.  Really?  I guess the author never noticed that women get erections too!  Oh, and I believe there’s a fairly large number of women who absolutely do not seek it so, no, Vanessa/Erica, we do not “all seek it.”  In fact, and this will clearly come as a shock to the author, there are some people who have no sexual interest in clit or cock or anything else.

Remember that grunt my mother gave?  I’m right there with her.  Ugh.  Nope.  Not recommending this novel.  Now that it’s read and reviewed, I shall happily rid myself of it. 

Best things about it:  It’s short and there are some good quotes sprinkled within. 

Oh, and there’s a HUGE spoiler for Collette’s Chéri and Last of Chéri so proceed with caution if you haven’t read them.  Better still, don’t bother reading this novel and read Collette instead.  Seriously. 

Monday, June 26, 2017

Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession by Alison Weir

I’ve been a bit Tudor obsessed since I was a young girl.  And by young I mean 8 or 9 and by bit I mean a lot, really.  Whenever I need a Tudor fix, I always turn to Alison Weir.  I made the mistake of reading a highly popular novel about Anne Boleyn and hated it.    The author made Anne aggressively power hungry and went so far as to “confirm” the worst rumors about her.  And what her enemies said about her is blatantly hateful.  I enjoyed The Tudors, even though they didn’t explore the lovely early part of Henry VIII’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon and took liberties with facts.  All things considered, however, they could have easily made the story more sensational by letting each and every rumor fill the screen.

So glad the writers and producers didn’t go there.

I was fairly confident going into this novel.  Unlike most Tudor novelists, Alison Weir is a Tudor historian.  So rather than just knowing a few historical facts, Weir has dug deep into the documents.  She’s brave enough to change her opinion about previously held facts when more research suggests another interpretation because of new documents.   

Weir manages to make her biographies highly readable, knowing how to tell a story without sensationalizing reality.  Which is why Anne Boleyn:  A King’s Obsession works so well.  There is no compromising of facts.  Rumors about the Boleyn family are often overshadowed with sensationalized rumors.  Unfortunately, these rumors have found a home in too many contemporary novels so I’m grateful to Weir for not wasting this reader’s time.

This is not to suggest that she writes a romanticized version of the truth, either.  In this novel, Anne is not an innocent child manipulated by the greedy patriarchy.  Neither is she manipulating King Henry VIII to her overpowering will.  Weir follows a young Anne to the Netherlands and France where she witnesses the power men have over women.  Her experiences in these countries undergird the choices she makes when she returns to England. 

Every page of this novel breathes life into the characters, although most of the male characters are two-dimensional.  The real challenge, of course, is to keep the reader turning the page when the inevitable outcome is set in stone.  We know how Anne’s reign ends and yet the urge to keep reading is there.  I wanted to devour this book, and likely would have had I not been busy with other things.  Now I need to go back and read the first book in what will obviously be a six book series,  Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen.  It looks like the books will be coming out annually, in May, so next year I’ll be sure to jump into Jane Seymour’s story as soon as it is released.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

My mother gave me her copy of Still Alice by Lisa Genova and I avoided reading it for a while.  When I eventually started reading I found traces of her left behind.  A couple of bits of napkin used to mark moments in the book—one a memory trick the protagonist uses early on to help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s and another where she’s thinking about her religious upbringing.  I also found traces of frosting caked in the crease between a couple of pages. 

For as long as I can remember, my mother has been afraid of dementia.  It doesn’t help that she is innately forgetful.  It’s hard for her to trust that her forgetfulness is not a sign of something more dire.  I am the opposite.  I look at my forgetfulness as natural, an inevitable result of my being less mindful than I could be.  And of course, my age and menopause. I wanted to read this book the first time I heard about it.  So very glad I did!

The titular Alice is a fifty year old linguistic professor working at Harvard when she begins to have forgetful moments but it isn’t until a more alarming incident causes her to take seriously her menopausal forgetfulness that she seeks out a medical opinion.  Told in the third person limited, the reader lives inside of Alice’s head as her memory slowly shrinks.   Because we are inside Alice’s mind through most of the novel, the harrowing effects of the disease are

While this is obviously a fictional account of one woman’s experience, the author researched the disease and its progression, shared her manuscript with an Alzheimer’s organization, and they approved of the story and how it presented the experience of having Alzheimer’s.  And the experience is frightening. Watching the progression of this disease through Alice is harrowing.  I often found myself reading through tears in my eyes.

As soon as I finished the book, I reached for the movie. I love Julianne Moore and trusted she could carry the weight of this role beautifully. Alec Baldwin cast as the husband worked as well because I didn’t especially like her husband and I don’t like Baldwin much at all. The movie is good and I can see why it received good reviews and why Moore, in particular, received the accolades of awards.  It is not, however, has emotionally exhausting as the book itself. 

A good movie. A better book. But isn’t that usually how these things go?

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown


Lately I feel a resistance in my life—who I was and who I am and who I am becoming—in conflict with one another. 

Who I was:  someone who openly shared herself online until she was cyber-bullied and even stalked, more than once, and even by people I knew in real life culminating in my words/experiences being used to attack my loved ones.  

Who I am:  someone who is scared of being online, who defines this past experience as traumatizing, and who balked when her husband handed her a stack of college ruled notebooks and said “You can write until your hand falls off or you run out of ink, whichever comes first” because she stopped writing years ago. 

Who I am becoming:  a woman who has a story and wants to share it, if not with the world, at least with her granddaughter. 

Who I am becoming would have to be vulnerable enough to release the trauma (and I am not using this word lightly) of the past.   This, and listening to my mother talk about herself in hurtful and hateful ways, led me to ask the people I know online if they know of any resources I could share.  One author’s name came up more than once and I would have started with her, immediately, but her book was unavailable at my public library and I had to wait to read it so I read another book in the meantime.

The Gifts of Imperfection:  Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown is not a self-help, per se.  The author is a researcher who has, in the past, focused on shame and how it informs our lives, creating disconnections within our true selves and our communities.  This book builds on that research to explore how we can create those connections that shame breaks.

The author provides stories from her own life, while also exploring the results of the many stories she used to create her theory of how to live a wholehearted life.  (At the end of the book, she explains her methodology-Grounded Theory.)   From her own experience, balanced with the data she gathered to support her theories, she invites the reader to be vulnerable and then offers ten “Guideposts” without simplifying things into a checklist.  You won’t close this book and tick off items and be done done done.  No “do this” and you’ll be happy.  Instead, she suggests that these Guideposts are not goals but practices. 

How?  Well, this is where the reader will have to find their own way to practice the deceptively simple concepts of living authentically, having self-compassion, developing a resilient spirit, etc.  Now, she does come from a position of our being body/mind/spirit so there are allusions to a spiritual component to some of these things but she doesn’t define this spirituality specifically, although she herself clearly believes in God.  Nor does she get overly New Age feel good warm-fuzzy.  (In fact she suggests at one point that she dislikes how some spiritual teaches are dismissive of painful experiences.) 

This is a book that I would love to read along with others.  I found myself thinking about people with whom I would like to share this book—friends and family.  In fact, my whole reason for wanting to read this book is that I wanted to find a resource I could share with my mother, who is not kind to herself.  I wanted to find a resource I could share with her because I don’t want to carry this self-abuse into my own life.  This book comes close to what I wanted to find.  Is it a perfect fit?  Is there a perfect fit?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that I want to read more books by Brené Brown because her message resonates with me.  I copied quite a few quotes that I will share in my personal and professional life.   

Pet Peeve Alert:  The author erroneously shares a Mark Twain quote that is clearly not a quote from Twain.  Anyone who has read Twain would recognize that the tone of the quote is simply not right.  I know this seems petty (and no doubt other readers have confronted her with this already) but I find it annoying when writers and their editors and their publishers do not take the time to do a simple google search to verify a quote before sharing it. 

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Art of Imperfection by Véronique Vienne


The Art of Imperfection:  Simple Ways to Make Peace with Yourself by Véronique Vienne is a very short book that encourages the reader to embrace the imperfections of life.  Meant to be inspiring, I found it rather banal.  At times, I couldn’t even agree with the advice.  When the author advises the reader to not pay off credit card debt if there’s ever a jackpot win at Las Vegas.  

I get it.  The idea is to encourage the reader to not always be responsible.  Okay fine. Don’t pay off all of your debt when/if you get a fiscal windfall because there should be room for a little self-indulgence and fun, especially when you've lived most of your life always being careful.  But she occasionally suggests other ideas that are more silly than inspired.  And yes, I agree with the author that there is room for silliness in our lives, which explains why there’s a whole chapter to silliness I suppose.  It's that her idea of what to celebrate and how to live life fully while embracing the imperfections that surround us is just . . . well, mostly silly.

Throughout the book, the author alludes to research but there are no sources cited so it’s hard to even take her advice that’s rooted in scientific evidence seriously.  It all just read like so much fluff, although I did find some quotes that could lead to more interesting ideas.  It’s easy to write about deep ideas, water them down, and then end up with a few sound bites. (After all, isn’t this the foundation of politics and the news media? But I digress.)

I wanted to like this book more; it just never felt like it elevated its ideas beyond superficial fluff.  The photographs by Erica Lennard throughout the book are lovely.  In fact, I think I would have found more inspiration from simply seeing a collection of the photographer’s work without the text.  But I suspect some people find this book inspiring even without the photos.  I obviously did not.
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