Thursday, July 12, 2012

Marilyn by Lois Banner

Marilyn:  The Passion and the Paradox by Lois Banner is another biography about the movie-star icon by a woman whose credentials promise a different perspective from what has been thrown out in publication before.  Banner is both an academic and a feminist, having cofounded Berkshire Conference of Women Historians and more.  On the heels of Gloria Steinam's Marilyn, with luscious photographs by George Barris, it is exciting to see women engaging with the meaning of Marilyn Monroe both as a person and as an icon.

I want to be gracious and say that this book doesn't live up to the promise but I'm fighting not to say that this biography is speculative and salacious, more tabloid than truth, as insulting ot the reader as it is to the memory of Marilyn Monroe herself.  In short, this biography is crap.

When she isn't self-aggrandizing, Banner belittles her reader's intelligence by bandying about heresay as possible truth.  Offering inconclusive evidence, she shares the most disgusting stories with "some say" and "may have" and "possible" to throw around the most vulgar suggestions about Monroe's life.  One story in particular was so disgusting that I wanted to throw the book away unfinished; unfortunately, I was so close to the end at this point that I didn't think it couldn't get any worse.

Interestingly, the author often cites sources but whenever she uses one of these qualifiers to share a story, there are no citations.  So if you want to know who "some" of the people are who "say" these things, you will not find an answer anywhere in this book.  Usually, the citations are dumped at the end of the paragraph either lending erroneuous credence to the final (often infallmatory) sentence of the paragraph although the citation actually refers back to some other part of the paragraph.  Not that it matters; most of her primary resources are such "reliable" ones as Kitty Kelley's sensationalistic unauthorized biographies and personal interviews which, of course, the average reader cannot merely verify for themselves.  Assuming most readers even bother to look at footnotes.

The author is also often redundant in her statements repeating things she has said either in a previous chapter or even just a page earlier.  I don't know how many times anyone needs to be told that Marilyn Monroe called Eli Wallach "Teacake" but apparently Banner thinks her readers are as dumb as Monroe was purported to be.

Have I explained well enough why I think this is an unfortunate biography which will likely get far more attention than it deserves?

Anyone who still thinks that Marilyn Monroe was a dumb blonde hasn't been paying attention to over 20 years of scholarship.  The only "revelations" the author makes are speculative, based on rumor or gossip or conspiracy theories.  It is common knowledge that Norma Jeane was abused as a child, maneuvered and manipulated, a natural survival instinct often seen in adult children who have been shuttled from foster home to foster home.  That she used her sexuality to get ahead in a patriarchal industry makes her both a shewd businesswoman and a victim of her socity.

But if you hoped to read about any of these things, if you thought that a feminist academic might have written a scholarly survey of one woman's life, offering some insight into both a personal psyche and a universal one, this book does not even come close to being that text.

In the end, you can learn more truth about the actress by reading Blonde, a novel (in other words fiction) written by Joyce Carol Oates.  I wanted to at least like this book if not love it.  Instead, I loathe it and would not only never recommend it to anyone, I will make every effort to avoid any text pulblished by this author.  And when I finished the book, I felt like I needed to take a shower.

Note:  I am not easily disgusted nor embarrassed by sex and sexuality.  However, some parts of this book were so vulgar--in particular that one that is close to the end of the book--I could not even tell my husband what the author claimed.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Beautiful Thing by Sonia Faleiro

Beautiful Thing:  Inside the Secret World of Bombay Dance Bars by Sonia Faleiro is both an intimate look into one dancer's life and a sociological look at a particular time in India.  Through the voice of Leela, a dancer in one of the many bars that were once common in some areas of India, the reader is taken on a relentless journey of desperate hope and a relentless pursuit of happiness.

Through Faleiro's narrative, Leela's story gradually unfolds, revealing a young woman who is impossible to like but manages to inspire a deep compassion.  Leela's life at first seems narcissistic and self-destructive but, as the story of her childhood begins to weave itself into her present choicse, it's impossible not to appreciate the simple truth:  Leela is a product of her environment and, whatever potential she might hagve realized in a different circumstance, will never be realized.  If she is manipulative, it is obviously rooted in a survival instinct forced upon her because of her childhood.  Her parents are pragmatic at the expense of Leela's purity and hvae no qualms in using and abusing her to their own ends.

The political environment defines Leela's life and morality from the start and when one politician blames the dance bars for being an immoral entity whitin an otherwise moral society.  Shutting down the bars results in leaving the dancers without much recourse, for they are uneducated and untrained to do anything but prostitute themselves.  And when a young girl is taught from childhood that her sole purpose is to serve as a sexual object the inevitability of her story's end is nonetheless heartbreaking.

Difficulat to read at times becuase it is so heartbreaking, Leela's story is beautifully and evocatively told by Faleiro.  The prose is sometimes poetic and her descriptions are vivid, so much so that they etch themselves on the heart.  She generously sprinkles the story with Hindu words, adding a flavor all their own without ever becoming obtrusive.  Every word, every story, Faleiro shares, and Leela's nightmarish childhood is not unique in the world of the dance bars, makes it impossible for the reader to judge Leela or any of the other dancers.

Even if one does not like Leela, she inspires a sympathy.  Her story is left unfinished but the reader knows how it will end, how it must end.  Leela's is a cautionary tale of what happens in a society where women and girls are not given the same but Leela herself wouldn't give a flip if the reader felt pity.  To do so, she would have to be vulnerable enough to feel the full horror of her childhood and noboy reading this novel could judge her for choosing not to do so.  After all, the reader can close the book at any time, walk away and forget what happened to Leela and continues to happy to children.  As painful and beautiful as this book is, it is easy to want to forget what it has to say.
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