Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Stories of Illness and Healing edited by Sayantani DasGupta and Marsha Hurst

Stories of Illness and Healing: Women Write Their Bodies edited by Sayantani DasGupta and Marsha Hurst is an anthology of stories, essays, and poems all exploring the ways we approach illness and use language to define the healing process, even when the “healing” ends in death.

The spectrum of illness and disease is as varied as are the voices of these collected stories.  From acute to chronic conditions, terminal and curable, physical, psychological, and beyond, the stories these women share are often touching and provocative, meant to inspire and draw attention to the unique condition of being a woman in a typically male dominated medical industry.  Not all of the stories are from patients and the editors make a brilliant decision to include stories by healthcare professionals, including on lone male voice whose own essay addresses the conflict women feel in turning over the ownership of the body to the care of another.  The confusion and frustrations of the caretaker are also addressed in the pages of the book.

No woman reading this book could possibly close it without seeing a variation of her own story somewhere within.  Whether it is the voice of a woman doctor who stands in judgment over her lower-income patient or the woman facing a surgery in another country or even the young woman running naked through her neighborhood during a manic episode, if we cannot identify with the details we are bound to recognize ourselves in the vulnerability of the voices.

I can’t think of anyone to whom I would not recommend this book.  Men should read it to better appreciate the socio-economic and gender driven dynamic of how women are treated within the medical community.  Women should read it to better appreciate that these feelings of vulnerability are not uncommon–and perhaps draw upon this sense of being vulnerable to find strength to be stronger.

Each piece stands powerfully on its own while complimenting the others.  This anthology is so tightly pulled together, with no single piece standing out as weaker or remarkably stronger than the other.  What DasGupta and Hurst have managed to do is nothing less than brilliant and this is a book I am going to eagerly share and recommend to everyone I know and love.  And even those I don’t know and don’t love.  It’s just that good!

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Long Goodbye by Meghan O'Rourke

The Long Goodbye: A Memoir by Meghan O’Rourke is about a daughter whose mother is diagnosed with cancer and does not survive.  It is about family and how we grieve.  It is about the process of bereavement and the months that lead up to her mother’s inevitable death and the even longer months that follow.

Not unlike Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking, O’Rourke’s memoir doesn’t try to make loss pretty or simple.  Rather, she shares the same raw and complicated implications of death, the way society has privatized mourning, and, if not as eloquently as Didion, O’Rourke manages to express her emotions without becoming maudlin or pandering her emotions to make them pretty.  Her narrative often cycles around to previously pondered thoughts, sometimes going more deeply, at other times coming at the same emotion, moment, or idea from a different perspective.

Like grief.  Grief, which is not linear but spirals in and out, ebbing and then flowing, unexpectedly surprising the bereaved with new ways of weeping.  O’Rourke, a reader and writer, tries to find meaning for her own loss and process through the texts of other writers.  She quotes from many of these sources and, at the end of the book, offers a reading list of many, but not all, of the texts she explores in the book.  Unfortunately, she also doesn’t specifically cite the quotes so when she doesn’t include an author she quotes in the reading list, the reader is left without a means to find the quote for themselves.  For instance, when offering a profound quote by Anne Carson, the reader is left without a book title, magazine publication, or any real hope of finding the specific text quoted.

There are other quoted writers who are not given due credit through proper citation.  If not for this oversight, I would have happily and easily given this book five stars because I found myself feeling so much as I read.  At one point, my heart began racing and my breath quickened as I fought back a dread bordering on personal panic.  More than once, I fought to read the page through tears.

This memoir is painfully evocative and beautifully written.  Highly and eagerly recommended.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block

Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block is a go-to book for me.  Recommended to me by a former friend, I read the first chapter in the bookstore and didn’t buy it.  Ha!  Thought I fell in love with it at first sight, didn’t you?  Well, I didn’t.

Block hits the ground running in the first chapter, introducing three characters, a dog, a car, a rubber chicken, all while describing fashion, food, and more.  The staccato force of the first chapter is a whirlwind of lyrical prose and I, frankly, didn’t get it.

But for some reason I came back and bought this tiny book.  It’s really more a novella, so short one can read it in an hour or so.  And by page 48 everyone is living happily ever after only you know, if a book has 113 happily ever after is going to fall apart.  In what I am estimating is about 20,000 words, Block carries her readers through divorce, existentialism, loss, love, sexual identity, and even addresses the issue of AIDS.

As I said, she hits the ground running and never slows down.  Although she’s published many other novels since Weetzie Bat, this is the book that initially made me fall in love with Block and keeps me from giving up on her even when I am less than thrilled with a more recent publication.  I know her writing is magic. And when I need a quick fix, this is the book to which I return time and time again.

What I don’t understand is why some indie film person hasn’t snatched it up and created a small but lovely movie that would assuredly become a cult classic among artistic young people?  After 20 years, one would think this would have been a done deal ages ago.  Then again, I don’t understand why someone hasn’t turned her Ecstasia and Primavera into graphic novels.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong

Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong is one of the fifteen books I chose to read this year as part of my annual attempt to read or get rid of books that have been sitting on my shelf for longer than necessary.  This book was added eagerly, not because I wanted to get rid of it but because I had read two really good books by Armstrong and was confident I would love this one.

I refuse to finish this book.

On page 18 she says the following.
Anti-semitism is a Christian vice.  Hatred of Jews became marked in the Muslim world only after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent loss o f Arab Palestine.
It is hard for me to even begin addressing myself to why this passage made me sick to my stomach.  For one thing, to suggest that any Arab is anti-Semitic is ridiculous.  Those who say this clearly don’t understand that the Semitic race includes not only Jews but Arabs as well.  What Armstrong clearly meant and should have said is that Arabs are anti-Zionist or anti-Jewish.

But she places the blame for this anti-Zionist sentiment squarely on British shoulders.  Clearly her research about Islam and the Arab nations didn’t extend to Iraq’s own history and the Farhud, an expulsion from Iraq of the Jewish citizens seven years before the Israeli nation was established.  The fact that Iraq cooperated with the Nazis during World War II was rooted in a history of long-standing anti-Jewish sentiment.

I found this article about the book interesting and wanted to share it here:

It doesn’t take long to discover a lot of articles, most of them by scholars on par with Armstrong’s reputation who criticize her profusely for this apologist perspective on Islamic history.  And I wouldn’t have even looked if I hadn’t read the passage I quoted above and wondered to myself if I was going to read more erroneous “truths” from an author I previously respected.  It's so damned stupid and so blatant that I can't help but assume, reading further, I would continue to find nonsense like this throughout the pages of her version of Islamic history.  No doubt, centuries, in the form of chapters, would go by before I wanted to throw the book across the room again but do I really want to read even a short history of Islam if I already don't trust the author's ability to be balanced, honest, and accurate?

Obviously not since I am not going to finish reading this book.  A huge disappointment.

Monday, March 21, 2011

You Can Beat the Odds

You Can Beat the Odds: Surprising Factors Behind Illness and Cancer: The 6-Week Breakthrough Program for Optimal Immunity by Brenda Stockdale is a treasure full of information, well-researched recommendations, and anecdotes.

In her workshops, Stockdale works with patients who have been diagnosed with a variety of conditions, many if not most are terminal.  And she has the courage to share stories that end in wonderful miracles but also a few that end as we all do–in death.  It is this balance of hope and honesty that makes Stockdale’s book superior to many that offer a panacea rather than reality.

Stockdale’s information is also deeply rooted in research and, after a quick skim of the footnotes, it is obvious that the resources she references are reliable, well-respected within the medical and psychological community.  Unlike some other books, she is not framing her promises in self-serving resources.  Instead, she is relentless in not only seeking out the best but putting it together in a manner that makes it meaningful.

Her website gives just a hint of how much information she compresses in these pages.  Different modalities are used to address different diagnoses.  Meditation, writing, music, and more are all offered as a way of looking at the reality of a situation and choosing to live with it while also reframing it.  Too often people are told that their thoughts or feelings are responsible for things and commanded to simply stop thinking certain ways, further victimizing those who are already facing often frightening and seemingly insurmountable challenges.  The author doesn’t ignore the truth that how we feel about things can affect recovery but she offers solid advice, practical and applicable, to lead the way to doing the utmost to heal.

Anyone who is living under the cloud of genetics, knowing that a parent has a condition that can be handed down to future generations, will find suggestions to help live above and beyond what may or may not be inevitable.  For those who are facing a diagnosis of a condition that is incurable and/or debilitating, the same ideas and principles can offer an improved quality of life.  At the end of the book, Stockdale shares a story in which her step-son suggested a new title for her book: Stop Living Like You’re Already Dead: The Inspiring 6-Week Program That Helps You Liven Up.

This is definitely a book that shouldn’t be judged by its title or cover or anything else because there is so much contained inside and no single image or title could possibly do it all justice.  I’m not even sure this review is adequate.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Sanditon and Other Stories by Jane Austen (Part Two)

Lady Susan by Jane Austen was written before her published novels but published posthumously. An epistolary novel, I couldn’t help feeling that it was somewhat influenced by Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses.  The titular character is a widow, a woman who is not unaware of her sexual charms and uses them to manipulate the emotions of those around her, especially the younger men who seem compelled to fall under her allure.

The novel is really more a novella, very short, and lacks much of Austen’s typical wit.  Her understanding of character motivation and human psychology is evident but little else seems to lend this story a recommendation.  It is more interesting to read than necessary, I suppose, in that it is interesting to see where her narrative skills began and how beautifully they eventually became in her maturity.  Probably only a “must read” for the die hard Janeite.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Art & Lies by Jeanette Winterson (with quotes)

Art & Lies by Jeanette Winterson is like reading an opera.  Three stories are told, refrains that echo from one voice to the other and metaphors are reformed in new contexts.  The three voices of the story are:  Handel, a Catholic priest and surgeon; Picasso, a woman and painter; and Sappho, a poet who transcends time.

I once heard someone say in response to Winterson’s writing, “I don’t want to think when I read.”  Never has one of Winterson’s novels invited me to think more, to follow the way her metaphors echo and move along the story and how the three narratives eventually and inevitably weave together, like the three voices in an aria, three melodies building separately and then coming together in crescendo.  Her stream-of-consciousness is so rarely attempted anymore and less rarely so well achieved.

But yes, a reader must be willing to think when reading Winterson’s writing because she isn’t just tossing words onto the page–she’s creating magic.  Poetic, artistic, and, above all else, unapologetic.  She need offer me no apologies.  I loved it all.

I offer the following quotes which I selected sometimes for what they said, other times for how Winterson says it.  Any grammatical errors are as they appeared in the text.  I didn't want to bother inserting a [sic] because I'm feeling lazy.  Spellings are British.  

Art & Lies

Isn’t it well known that nothing shocks us?  That photographs of wretchedness that thirty years ago would have made us protest in the streets, now flicker by our eye and we hardly see them?  More vivid, more graphic, more pornographic even, is the newsman’s brief.  He must make us feel, but like a body punched and punched again, we take the blows and do not even notice the damage they have done.  (14)

It is impossible for man to read and earn money at the same time, unless he is a reviewer. . . . [P]ray never to fall so low.  (29)

A minute can still alter a lifetime.  (45)

Is language sex?  Say my name and you say sex.  (66)

There’s no such thing as autobiography there’s only art and lies.  (69)

We don’t mind living next door to the harmless lady with her herb garden and decoction still, her black cat and red hair.  Once we would have tied her to the stake and burned her, but these days it’s just faggots that offend.  (107-108)
Progress is not one of those floating comparatives, so beloved of our friends in advertising, we need a context, a perspective.  What are we better than?  Who are we better than?  Examine this statement: Most people are better off.  Financially?  socially? Educationally? medically?  spiritually? 
I dare not ask you if you are happy? 
Are you happy?  (109)
Why sterilise death, hoping to make it clean and acceptable when it is what it has always been, furious, messy, full of doubt and anguish, but not hopeless, not pointless, it is an event in life.  (115)

[T]he priest adores the sin.  No sin no priest.  The doctor needs the wound. Fallen creatures thrive on gravity, that which pulls us down is the spur that raises us up.  (117-118)

‘Because he had not pity.’  The punishable sin is not lust, not even adultery, the sin is not to do with sex at all.  It is a failure of feeling.  Not an excess of passion but a lack of compassion.  (120)

Why do I fear what I love?  (122)

She prayed not out of self-pity nor regret but out of recognition.  (135)

[H]istory always repeats itself.  The past fitted in a new wedding shroud and married to the future.  (136)

Lie beside me and let the seeing be the healing.  No need to hide.  No need for either darkness or light.  Let me see you as you are.  (136)

In the modern world there was so much safety that safety had become the chief source of danger.  (153)

How shall I stretch out my hand to touch another when I am unable to touch myself?  (162)

There’s a legend . . . that Lucifer had no genitals until he rebelled against God, thereby grew the monstrous sacks and the thick pole of popular envy and fear.  Cut them off and a man never growls with the beasts.  Cut them off and a man sings with the angels again.  (174)

Very few Catholics are theologians.  It is our method to leave the thinking to some and the obeying to many.  (179)

That is why I left the Church, not the teachings of Christ but the dogmas of Man, and when I turn to the Church now, I know, God forgive me, that it is because I am too weak to turn to myself.  (186)

Monday, March 14, 2011

Some Personal Papers by JoAllen Bradham

Some Personal Papers by JoAllen Bradham left me with completely mixed feelings and I can’t properly express my concerns without giving away spoilers.  The story is about a social worker who, after working her way up to the director of Children’s Services in her community begins to ease the suffering and neglect that some of her children experience in an alarming manner.  The denouement was obvious, given the tone of the beginning, so the conclusion offered no genuine surprises.

But the voice and craft of this book are solid.  I can see why it won the Townsend Prize for Fiction.  The narrator’s story-telling rolls smoothly and her character is revealed as much through her memories and experiences as through her actions.

These actions, however, are the reason I found the story distasteful to the point of being offended by it.  I thought others would feel this way but apparently I am alone.  I can think of several groups of people that could easily take issue with this novel.  Or perhaps I am becoming overly sensitive in my old age, unable to appreciate a dark tale.  When I compare this story, however, with that of Perfume, another book whose protagonist is far from empathetic and hardly sympathetic, I can’t help but feel cheated by this novel.

And yet . . . I would consider reading another novel by the author because I honestly can’t find any flaws in the story.  I just didn’t like the story itself.

After the cover image, there are spoilers.  Read on at your own risk!

The protagonist, Eugenia Diane Putnam–“Miss Genie” to the children with whom she works–begins to incidentally euthanize some of her “clients.”

Although Miss Genie is herself an African-American, all of her victims are African-American (or biracial) males.  They are also all handicapped in some way.  One child is hydrocephalic, another is blind, another drug addicted, etc.  Her rationale for choosing these children is that she is setting them free.

When she happens upon a pair of girls, however, she does not see a need to “free” them but, instead, adopts them.  They are, by her assumption, of mixed heritage and they both show an ability to learn, with the older of the two girls also expressing a facility for art.  These are the reasons for her choosing to adopt the girls, I suppose.

So what is the message here?

If you’re a boy you should be considered for death?
Or is it just that those boys are not physically and/or mentally perfect?

The intelligence and even physical attractiveness of these two girls is emphasized and obviously plays a role in why Miss Genie doesn’t choose to murder them.  I’m surprised that nobody was offended by this, that no mother of a child with cerebral palsy didn’t cry out against the implied message or that some African-American reader didn’t protest how dispensable these children were to a clearly racially self-loathing protagonist.  Let's assume that a social worker would not read themselves into the narrator's character, I'm still surprised that a Christian hasn't screamed in outrage about how once again a born again Christian is being portrayed by the "liberal media" as a crackpot.

There is so much to dislike about the story and it is perhaps the disturbing quality of the novel that gives it some strength but I was left feeling so angry and offended that I didn’t want to even like it on a technical level.  I wanted to loathe it on every level.  And had it had even half the poetry of Perfume, I’d probably have grudgingly given it a third star.  As it is, I am not even sure I want to give it two stars.  It left me with such a foul taste in my mouth.  Because unlike Suskind's novel, I never felt compelled by Miss Eugenie's story because I knew from page one how it was going to end even if I didn't know the specific manner in which it would get there.  And, because she lacked the perversely intriguing qualities of Suskind's far more enigmatic serial killer, I don't honestly know why I bothered to read this book to the end knowing so well what I already did.

Friday, March 11, 2011


I have to agree and I've actually had the opportunity to read a poem at a reading where an ex happened to be in the audience. It was unplanned and the poem was a request by someone else in the audience. Needless to say, I was happy to oblige.

But this is not about me.  It's about Janice Erlbaum, whose celebrating five years of Girlbomb even as I type this.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Bella Abzug by Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom

Bella Abzug:  How One Tough Brod from the Bronx Fought Jim Crow, Pissed Off Jimmy Carter, Battled for the Rights of Women and Workers, Rallied Against War and for the Planet, and Shook Up Politics Along the Way an oral history by Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom is a book about a political dynamo who fought for changes that we see everywhere but did not realize were the result of her often strident voice.  For instance, did you know that the way curbsides are dipped down for easier wheelchair access is the result of legislation she pushed through Congress?  And that she was the first to demand President Nixon be impeached?  Known for her flamboyant hats and her very big personality, Bella Abzug is one of those leaders who simply would not be ignored.  She also would not back down and some of her positions created rifts within her own demographic so while she fought for Civil Rights for homosexuals, some feminists and minorities were offended and didn't agree with that gays and lesbians should be included.

I know a lot of people outside of New York probably haven't heard of Bella Abzug.  I grew up in her district, her face iconic in my childhood, and I distinctly recall stuffing envelopes for her in a storefront campaign office in the village.  No, I never met her but it seemed very mature and necessary for me, an eight-year-old child, to be sitting side-by-side with adults, doing something that really mattered.

Of course, I had no political awareness and couldn't have told you a thing about Abzug's politics.  I could assume she was against the Vietnam War because, as far as I knew, everyone knew that war, particularly that war, was wrong and we needed to bring our boys home.  And she was a woman so I probably surmised she was a feminist.  But it wasn't until reading this book that I understood how strident and divisive she truly was.  Wonderfully so because she had strong beliefs and a fearless inability to back down.

I love the way this book is organized.  There are very brief sections, few spanning more than a paragraph or two, written in a variety of voices.  Abzug's own words are italicized while those of others are preceded by their name and then they share their stories.  Everyone from family to employees, from political admirers and opponents are represented on the page.  This is not an homage to a remarkable woman so much as it is a faceted look at her impact on politics, feminism, and so much more.

Bella Abzug was born at the right time and had the internal drive and vision to have an effect.  Some of the observations make her human, like her dislike of dogs.  Others put her in a context that informs her adult personality, like when her father died and she insisted on saying Kaddish for him although, traditionally this would have been done only by the eldest son.  She is not easily defined and some of the stories shared reveal a complicated and complex woman, a woman who is conservative enough to not want to know about homosexuality but is willing to fight for homosexual rights and who wears an old fashioned girdle while standing up for equal rights for women.

Remember how after 9/11 there were changes made to the Freedom of Information Act which took away some of the American citizen's privacies?  Bella Abzug was one of the forces behind the more rigid rulings that protected the American citizen, a natural response to what the Nixon Administration had been doing.

There are also some stories shared that break the heart or frustrate altogether.  That anyone would be so vulgar as to call her "the Beast of Buchenwald" is so far beyond my comprehension that I had to close the book altogether for a few minutes to calm myself  (162).  She wasn't in politics to make friends but to create change and this is apparent as the editors have the good sense to share the darker and less kind opinions of some of the people who worked side-by-side with Abzug.  If she wasn't easy to get along with, she made few apologies (although there is a story shared of her approaching someone years after the fact and admitting that she was wrong).

The strength of this book lies in its lack of synthesis.  Rather than try to create a linear biography, the editors wisely, perhaps even brilliantly, chose to let the speakers speak for themselves so when Abzug writes about a particular moment in her italicized sections, these are immediately followed by one or more stories from others that either collaborate, elaborate, or even contradict what she said.  What a clever way to show how faceted she herself was, a tour de force in politics at a time when there was so much political foment.

I would highly, even urgently, recommend this book to any young feminist who wants a better understanding of the more contemporary political roots of the movement.  Abzug worked with Steinam and Friedan, with more or less cooperation.  Before her own political career, she campaigned for Robert Kennedy and, after Malcolm X was assassinated, sold her house to his widow and children so they would have a safe and integrated community in which to live.  Agree with her politics or don't, she was an interesting woman and this book makes her fascination understandable.

Normally, I share quotes, as you know, in the weekly quotes section of my other blog, but this book had so very many and I wanted to separate them from the usual quotes post.  The quotes that are not preceded by a name are Bella Abzug speaking.  The rest . . . well, there are a lot of quotes. 

I wrote a letter to the school saying, ‘I do not give permission for my children to duck under the desk.  It is psychologically maiming; it’s totally political; and I think it’s insane to do it.’ My kids used to say ‘But nobody else thinks that way, Mom.’ And I’d say, ‘They will.  Don’t worry.  They will.’  I was hard on my kids.  (41)

Geraldine Ferraro
Now let’s be honest about it.  She didn’t knock lightly on the door.  She didn’t even push it open or batter it down.  She took it off the hinges forever!  So that those of us who came after could walk through.  (55)

It’s okay to show your emotion and come in as a mother and as a woman to say that this is going to hurt my children, but it’s not good enough.  (61)

I have always enjoyed working with women because there are fewer boundaries and impediments and areas of potential conflict.  It is always easier to come to a confluence of opinion.  (69)

I copied down this quote because I hear, time and time again from women, that they hate working with women.  I always find this a shocking statement, one that hints at a certain amount of self-loathing.  I love working with women, genuine and strong women.  I love working with men, too.  If men and women are different, I suppose I appreciate those qualities that make each unique.  I honestly feel that more than male or female I look at people as individuals.  Some I like.  Some I don't.  But I don't lump those I like into a male/female dichotomy anymore than I would divide them by race or religion or anything else.  I wonder if the next time I hear a woman say "I hate working with women because . . ." I will have the courage of my conviction and say, "Now repeat what you just said but change 'women' into 'African Americans' or 'homosexuals' and ask yourself what you really mean when you say 'I hate working with women'."

Gloria Steinam
Bella and I ended up walking down Lexington together afterwards, talking.  Gradually I began to realize that my response to her was my problem, not hers.  If I was afraid to see Bella being a whole person, anger and all, that was because I was still afraid to be a whole person myself.  (70)

I actually found an opportunity to share this on a forum and the context, although different, was apropos.  So often we have a visceral response to someone we've just met and we immediately think it's them.  From my own experience, I have come to realize that usually, when someone has a strong reaction to me, it says more about them than it does about me.  I suppose much of this comes from my being always being friends with a variety of people, blurring the usual age/race/education/whatever lines.  If I don't feel I fit in a particular group or demographic then it isn't likely that I would surround myself with only people who are like me.  Besides, life is more interesting where there is diversity.  This is also probably why I often have friendships with attractive women and more often than not I have heard from these women how much my friendship has meant to them because, usually, they don't feel they can trust women.  I can understand that.  I've heard the hateful things some women say about beautiful women and it is appalling.  But it reveals more about the person who is speaking, and the ugliness they carry inside, than it does about the beautiful woman who is unknowingly being attacked.

Susan Brownmiller
She was utterly unself-unconscious, and probably just a bit of an exhibitionist.  (93)

If we are going to get anywhere, Congress has got to begin to reflect in its composition the great diversity of this country.  Although women represent 53 percent of the electorate, there are only thirteen of us in Congress (twelve in the House one in the Senate). The country has twenty-two million black citizens, and there are only a dozen black congressmen.  There are no artists, intellectuals, scientists, mathematicians, creative writers, architects, Vietnam veterans, musicians, and not even any leaders of the labor movement on Capitol Hill.  There are no young people.  The average of a congressman is 51.9 years, and a Senator, 56.  Two thirds of these people are lawyers, businessmen, or bankers.  No wonder Congress is such a smug, incestuous, stagnant institution!  It reeks of sameness. (126)

Of course, these statistics no longer apply.  Abzug was quoting the statistics at the time she was writing or speaking these words.  However, how much has truly changed?  Since she said these things, we've had a movie star in the White House and we currently have an African-American/biracial President, so I suppose some things have changed.  Still, the physical make-up, judging by census results, still does not reflect the actual demographic of our nation.  And what would politics be like if there were fewer lawyers, businessmen, and bankers and a few more artists, educators, or those damned intellectuals that I so often hear politicians say are trying to ruin our nation?  What would it be like, dare I ask, if Congress were broken down by income and there were only as many wealthy representatives as there are wealthy people in our nation and the rest of the seats were filled with the poor, the hungry, the huddled masses, and, of course, the middle class which is so quickly disappearing altogether?  

Eileen Shanahan
I am horrified at the degree to which today younger women, feminist women, do not know what an effective member of the House of Representatives [Bella] was.   . .  She did stand up and yell a bit and she could in fact be harsh on her staff and had a lot of high staff turnover.  Ed Koch . . . was in the House at the same time she was and had an equally high staff turnover and nobody ever wrote word one about it.  (150)

Not that this is anything new.  Women are often criticized and judged in a negative light for the same behavior as men.  

Geraldine Ferraro
With Bella, you either loved her or hated her.  (156)

The New York Post
Rep. Bella Abzug insists that she has no objection to poking fun at a political figure–so long as the satirist saves his jokes for the policies and not the figure.  (158)

This blew me away.  The rest of the article is about a political spoof at a venue that was traditionally misogynist, seating the women apart from the men.  But the quote stands powerfully on its own.  When I consider how comedians and political commentators insist upon attacking the person rather than the policies, that even drag in the children or family into the "humor" without regard of the real issues.  It's an amusing distraction, I suppose, but it is rather like critiquing an actor for how they live and saying the movie stinks.  It makes no sense.  And we shouldn't think it's funny.

To make an attack on a woman’s figure or physical appearance is to make an attack on all women .. .  None of the men were lampooned for the way they look.  Everybody else was satirized in terms of what they stand for and what they believe in.  But I as a woman was considered fair game to be ridiculed for what I look like.  (160)

Doug Ireland
She couldn't pull back and get perspective.  (190)

Margaret Mead
Men know a lot about dying but they don't know enough about living.  It has been women's biological and social and cultural task through history to live.  (207)

Eleanor Smeal (speaking in favor of the sexual-preference resolution)
This is a feminist issue, because discrimination against women begins at the basis of sexuality.  There are double standards:  one standard for males, another for females; one standard for heterosexuals, another for homosexuals.  And all these double standards in the issue of sexuality work to keep women in their place.  (212)

My reputation is that of an extremely independent woman, and I am.  But I was dependent, clearly, on Martin.  He would embrace me his furry chest and warm heart and protect me from the meanness one experiences in the kind of life I lead.  (245)

Shirley MacLaine
She said, 'Oh all you New Age fuckheads.  You never take a position.  You have no spine.'  (247)

Martha Baker
Everything was out, usually too much of it, too quickly, without any restraint.  (273)

Robin Morgan
She was amazingly open to learning things up to the very end.  Which is very unusual.  People usually close down.  (280)

Kofi Annan
She liked to say that since Noah we have done everything in pairs, except government.  (282)

Monday, March 7, 2011

Anne’s House of Dreams by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Anne’s House of Dreams by Lucy Maud Montgomery is the fifth book in the Anne of Green Gables series.  I can say with all due certainty that I have never read this novel before.  I suspect I started but never finished, assuming I started at all, the fourth novel because, towards the end, although the conclusion was oh-so predictable, I wasn’t quite sure it was familiar.

This novel has Anne all grown up.  She is no longer forgetting to put the cheese cloth over the hard sauce nor collapsing onto guest room beds startling old women.  She’s not acting in haste and repenting in leisure at all.  In fact, she’s somewhat boring.  I’m not saying she should be too frivolous or foolish but she seems to have lost some of her poetry in favor of pragmatism, something that comes out especially in a disagreement she has with Gilbert.

However, this novel has the strength that the previous one in the series lacked.  The characters are fewer and, therefore, more fully realized.  I recently read a quote that said Montgomery was called the “Jane Austen of Canada” and this novel is a testament to why something like this would be said about her novels.  There are more mature griefs to trouble Anne’s life as well and I don’t want to give anything away so I will say nothing further.

One thing I am noticing is that Gilbert, for all his presence in Anne’s ongoing story, is still a rather enigmatic character.  I can’t really say I know anything more about him except that he’s smart and handsome and he adores Anne.  While these qualities certainly recommend them they hardly sound like a well-written character.  He lacks any real depth or flaws.  At least Anne, as we all know, is a bit of a dreamer although that quality seems to have dimmed with her maturity.  I don’t know.  It just seems to me that Anne is definitely more dull than before and Gilbert, who never had a chance to shine, continues to be nothing more than Anne’s devoted idolater.

(On page 168 a surgical procedure is mentioned and I looked it up.  You can find out more about it here.)

Friday, March 4, 2011

Moving On by Sarah Ban Breathnach

Moving On:  Creating Your House of Belonging With Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach is a collection of short reflective essays, mostly memoir based, in which she endeavors to teach spiritual truths within the framework of a woman’s home.  In other words, how the individual’s personal environment reflects the individual’s essential self.  For Breathnach, celebrating women includes, almost to the exclusion of all else, a celebration of homemaking.

This book is weakest when it is more subjective than objective.  When Breathnach writes about life being full of transitions (change) and the foyer of the home being a part of how we transition from the world into our homes, the book is not too bad.  When she is reflecting on her own transitions and struggles with change, her choice to be less candid reveals the deepest flaw in the text.  Whether she has “dug deep” in her own life, she is ever cautious about revealing too much about herself and this same superficial quality to her truth distorts the rest of the content so that what could be profound occasionally comes off as mostly trite.

I can appreciate her choice to not be overly self-disclosing but then why bother sharing a personal story at all?  Is it necessary to allude to things without really expressing their relevance?  Throughout the book I felt as though she were telling me so much but showing me so very little.  Other self-help writers have managed to present profound truths with practical suggestions without telling their whole life’s story and in trying to compromise by sharing some of herself Breathnach weakens the overall effect of the book.

Still, it’s not a bad book.  Clearly written for the upper middle class woman who has some time on her hands and is perhaps in a transition of her own, Breathnach’s book is a pleasant resource.  She encourages the reader to read it through, cover-to-cover, to get the gist of the text and then reread it more slowly to put into practice her recommendations.  To be honest, one read was enough for me.  I like some of her suggestions and have already begun putting them into practice.  No doubt, if I read more self-help books, I’d see the same suggestions made elsewhere.  So I give this book a tepid recommendation.  For the right reader at the right time, it’s probably wonderful but, in the end, it’s mostly fluff with very little meat.

One final note
In the past I have been very vocal about criticizing books for the poor scholarship in not properly citing quotes.  Breathnach is so guilty of doing this that I often wanted to stop reading altogether.  She quotes prolifically but never gives a page number and rarely gives a title for the article, book, or whatever resource she used to find the quotation.  I am going to continue taking offense to this until, I suppose, I become benumbed by the laziness of published writers and their editors.  In the meantime, I am automatically deducting one star from this book so what might have been a 3 star review (good enough to recommend) to a 2 star review (not recommended).

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Memoir Monday: Q&A with the Fabulous Janice Erlbaum! « Dirty Secret: Writing Through the Mess

Memoir Monday: Q&A with the Fabulous Janice Erlbaum! « Dirty Secret: Writing Through the Mess

An interview with one of my favorite favoritests, Janice Erlbaum.  I simply had to share this link since I am not above prostituting my favorites as much as I can.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange

for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange is the poem/script for the titular stage production.  This “choreopoem,” for that is what the author called it, is a performance art piece, a choral poem spoken in several voices, each woman stepping out into a monologue at various points during the performance.

I wanted to reread this after watching the movie because I didn’t remember the text as being so dark, so melodramatic and painful to watch.  I realize now that my memory of the text had softened much of the hardness of it content. Brutal moments communicated it cutting verses, the text leaves the reader bleeding, raw, emotionally overwrought or desperately numb, depending on the innate visceral response.

The play has been criticized for being anti-male.  I’ve noticed that many texts that are labeled “feminist” are automatically accused of male bashing.  Is it necessary to say that if anything is “pro” something it is presumably “anti” something else?  Why is it that feminists must be immasculating as if being pro-woman immediately means being anti-man?  I do not see the correlation between the two.  But I can see where some people would read this text and find it heard to discover a man of integrity or worthy of appreciation.  They are all broken in their own ways, as are the women speaking the words.  They are all deeply flawed and human.

The men, however, are not given a voice.  How lovely would it be to have this play performed in three acts, two more acts to be written?  First, one act would be the woman’s perspective or perhaps the man’s.  Better yet, have the first two acts rotate so that on any given performance the audience wouldn’t know if the men or women would initiated the drama that would be performed that evening.  Then act three, the final act, could be about how men and women interact, allowing, of course, for the dysfunction of unhappy relationships but also giving room for empowering ones while including same-sex relationships as well.  The third act would be about humanity in general, about how the one-on-one relationship is, in some ways, a microcosm of society.  Let the voices remain solely African-American because the point is that we are all one and any Caucasian or Hispanic or Asian American who doesn’t recognize some aspect of themselves in this choreopoem in three acts is simply not paying atteniton.

But there is no such three act play.  So let Ntozake Shange’s vision stand beautifully alone.  Easy to read?  No.  And no doubt necessary reading.
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