a mother’s right to safety | 2019.10.12

This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff | Review

Wolff, Tobias_This Boy's Life

Original Publication: New York : Grove Press, [1989]

Genre: Memoir

Pages: 288

Formats: Paperback, Audiobook

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Searching online for what others have to say about this book, I found the National Endowment for the Arts’ proclamation that “Wolff may have invented the contemporary memoir.” The intersection of family and societal expectations which permeates Wolff’s retelling of his early childhood experiences has certainly become a very popular topic in the recent rush of the memoir craze.

Wolff spends a tremendous amount of time in this book recounting his memories of the very adult responsibilities that were repeatedly laid at his preteen feet. These responsibilities centered around his being tasked as the only male of his family to make decisions that had crushing ramifications for those he loved, primarily his mother, while he was not yet old enough to truly comprehend the existence of such consequences.

This might sound harsh, but from my reading of this book, most of the weight of these responsibilities seemed to come from Wolff’s mother and her inability to recognize her own need for safety in the shadow of her maternal longing to live up to society’s definition of what a proper life for herself and her young son should look like.

Specifically, Wolff uses his memoir to describe scene after scene where his mother asked him to choose what life situations might best save their twosome family from starvation and homelessness. More often than not, however, the decisions Wolff thought he was supposed to be making put his mother, not to mention himself, in harms way. These decisions sent them both crashing straight into the paths of manipulative, single-minded men whom Wolff’s mother felt forced to associated with. Later, she would join herself in marriage to an abusive and alcoholic husband after abdicating the decision of her matrimony to the young Wolff. At such a tender age, Wolff could only guess that a man with a job and a house would give himself and his mother the security of happiness and prosperity.

But, was the tendency of Wolff’s mother to give this type of decision-making responsibility to a small child truly a failing of her character? I hesitate to make such an accusatory conclusion. The social pressures put on women in the 1950s made for extremely constrictive options. Women often had to make decisions that ultimately silenced and endangered their personal wellbeing for the sake of meeting society’s then ridiculously narrow view of propriety.

Modern feminists might shudder at how Wolff’s mother constantly denied her own safety, and at times that of her son, so that she could secure father figures and male incomes to care for her tiny family. Highlighting the incongruities of the past, however, is one of the ultimate powers of memoir. Even though the truth of the past is more complex than our current attitudes might want to concede, Wolff makes a valuable point in his book about the importance of a woman’s right and need to speak up. He does this by showcasing the paradox of how the options available to women at the time of his youth were slim at best.

Here is a memoir all about the dangers of trying to fulfill culturally-mandated duties within a society that refuses room for independence or true safety. Here lies a story filled with the heartache and sacrifices that maternal longing can push to the forefront, often at the risk of a mother’s safety. The relatability of Wolff’s story and the story of his mother broke my heart in the end, as it reminded me that many aspects of our present-day society still have such a long way to go in remedying this type of systemic disease.

social deformities of the thumb | 2019.09.24

Even Cowgirls Get The Blues by Tom Robbins | Review

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues_Robbins, Tom

Original Publication: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt [1976]

Genre: Adventure Fiction

Pages: 365

Formats: Paperback, eBook, Audiobook

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This was my first exposure to Tom Robbins, and I found his writing to be absolutely hilarious in the best ways. Amidst all the ruckus character descriptions and philosophical debates about life, love, death, individualism, and religion interlaced with all that sloppy and explicit sex, sex, sex, I was struck mostly by this book’s apparent attempt to advocate for the feminist perspective. This surprised me, perhaps wrongly-so, because Robbins is (as far as I can tell) a male author. As a result, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop from the feminist foot (or the glove from the thumb . . . oh dear) that this book continuously seemed to push forward. Well, I guess I should perhaps give Robbins a hardy, although somewhat-still suspect, “Alrighty then, friend!”

The novel’s main character, Sissy Hankshaw, is a young, bisexual woman born with magnificently enormous thumbs. The nickname “Thumbelina” litters the pages now and again in a joking, and yet, somehow, complimentary way. The compliment of this nickname came across, from my perspective, in how the book’s plot again and again referenced Sissy’s personal love of her physical oddity even in the face of society’s repeated rejection of her thumbs as a deformity to be pitied, gawked at, and ultimately solved. The quandary this poses within Sissy’s internal dialogue is the first hint that something greater than just a funny, tall tale is going on in this book. (The overwhelming beauty of the rest of Sissy’s person is a troublesome point, however, and one which I’ll address later in this review. I appreciated what Dayna Troisi had to say about this aspect of the novel in her review.)

Sissy argues at one point, and pretty early in the novel at that, “we can live with nature’s experiments, and if they aren’t too vile, turn them to our advantage.” She accepts herself just as her mother’s cervix introduced her to the universe, without need for shame. Sissy continues in the aforementioned section of the text to comment also that she feels sorry for those who have to suffer the “deformities” imposed by society and its constant need for adherence to the norm, because “social deformity is sneaky and invisible,” making “people into monsters or mice.”

I loved this reference to Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, where the main character of that story is turned into a monster-murderer because society is baffled about how to return his embrace of deep and unrequited love. Instead, the society around him becomes bent on the only justice they know how to exact.

While Lennie Small didn’t have the advantage of anyone to teach him how to steer his powerful being toward more life-giving actions, Sissy is her own advocate, arguing stubbornly throughout Even Cowgirls that she is not disabled in any sense and that she, therefore, does not need to be “fixed.”

She wavers in her resolve on this topic toward the book’s climax, as we all do from time to time.

The climax of the novel runs concurrently with extensive descriptions of an almost-lost gaggle of whooping cranes. Whooping cranes? Really? What is happening here, Robbins?

The idea is this: The whooping cranes of the Western Hemisphere have mysteriously disappeared. The cranes’ absence has caused national distress, with conservationists and environmentalists spurring on the nation’s grief. Finally, the cranes are found, as the last of their species have settled quite contentedly at the cowgirl ranch that features a now-and-then center of the narrative’s stage. We learn that the cowgirls have unwittingly drugged the cranes into staying at the ranch so that they have abandoned their natural migratory patterns. If the cranes continue on at the ranch, they will die because they will miss their chance to escape the all-too-cold winters they are not built to inhabit long-term in that part of the United States.

Reading this portion of the novel, it hit me what (perhaps) Robbins was getting at. The cranes are a metaphor for Sissy’s thumbs, of course! And more-largely, their predicament represents society’s constant need to control everything in its maniacal reach. Suddenly, the cranes’ interjection into the novel’s larger story makes perfect sense when held up to our all-thumbs lady of wonder, Sissy Hankshaw. Her sudden waffling on the subject of whether she desperately needs to just fit in already, even if this means rejecting her natural and very unique state of being, takes on a new light.

For myself, fitting in at the expense of staying true to one’s personal reality and personal need is not worth that kind of ultimate sacrifice.

While Robbins does a good job of exemplifying this conundrum, I was sad to realize that the conclusion of Robbins’s novel gives itself over to putting Sissy in the tired and overly traditional position of a mother-eve characterization. It is even implied that she ultimately becomes subject to continuous impregnation by the males around her (suggestions of Robbins being included is this turned my head full ‘round in the last pages, to be sure). Despite Robbins’s predicating Sissy’s power on her being subjugated to the masculine seeds around her, I found Sissy’s ability to repopulate the world with large-thumbed peoples who taste sweetness where all the other philosophers of our species have tasted only bitterness and disgust to be an interesting idea.

My latching onto this aspect of the book is probably driven by my personal need for a change in what society categorizes as “objectively this or that.” I applaud Robbins’s attempt to elevate perspectives outside the norms of society in this novel, and so, in that respect, I found it to be a refreshing food-for-thought dish of words and storytelling.

Do I wish Sissy had been more relatable in all the other aspects of her physical being besides her thundering thumbs, those thumbs that exemplified the unique power of an individual existence? Well, sure! But this is because I think the pedestal that society continuously makes out of physical “womanly” beauty is not the measure women want to hang our very individual hats on. While physical blow-you-away beauty is not completely un-relatable to the condition of womanhood, most women still want value to be assigned beyond their physical appearance, thank you very fucking much. No matter the scale, the beauty-measure becomes in this way just another hindrance, a kind of disability all its own. Hence my hesitant “alrighty then, friend” initial reaction.

I would like to say, on the other hand (or thumb?) that this book has so many nuggets of introspection regarding religion and society’s herd instincts (strangled root to that one, I know). Truly, Robbins excelled most, I felt, in this book by his promotion of the idea that it takes true courage to see real-life beyond the mantras that are constantly bombarding our consciousness (the objective this and that, so to speak). His philosopher-character states boldly that it doesn’t take true courage to just follow societal masters blindly, but that “the brave and liberating thing to do is to embrace experience and tolerate the master” of societal group-think. And what could be more experiential than the true stories of the unique individual? All in all, I was satisfied to think that I’ll likely come back to this book to re-explore these ideas later in my life as I gather more of my own (hopefully) very unique and individual experiences.

overgrown anger | 2019.07.13

The Power by Naomi Alderman | Review

Alderman, Naomi_The Power

Publication: New York : Little, Brown and Company, [2017]

Genre: Science Fiction

Pages: 386

Formats: Hardcover, Paperback, eBook

Source: MCL

“Feminism is a science fiction enterprise.” Alderman stated during the PBS interview she gave in March of this year. She went on to say that, “female advancement comes from recognizing equality.” With this in mind, I dearly hope the true goals of feminism don’t get stuck forever in the realm of fiction and pure speculation.

Alderman’s book works hard to be a warning of what could happen if the power of existing in a male body while living in a male-dominated world was merely flipped on its head. (Opinions about the male versus female brain may bulk at this conjecture, but I’m still intrigued by this thought experiment, so . . . let’s suspend disbelief for a moment and go with this perhaps tenuous premise for the duration of this review, shall we?)

As you may have noticed from some of my recent posts (not that this hasn’t been a common thread since I began this book review website), I’ve been wrestling with ideas of feminism. How can feminism encourage true equality instead of simply generating a space for more violence, for more emulation of the bad behavior that women so often have to fight against in the midst of the patriarchal world we currently inhabit?

As part of my reading and thinking about Alderman’s book, I did a very quick preview of Merlin Stone’s When God Was A Woman. Interesting food for thought, especially as I’ve always been of the opinion that the history we ascribe to with regards to our currently male-dominated culture has its roots (or some of them at least) in the patriarchy of our religious perspectives. While Alderman utilizes the influences of religion in her novel, I’m going to take this book review in a different direction (mostly because I’m still chewing on this concept, so I’ll probably return at a later date). The concept of how power seems to inherently breed religious fervor is not lost on Alderman in her book’s narrative, for sure. Again, interesting food for thought.

Also while traveling through Alderman’s story, I reread several times Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay “About Anger” in which Le Guin talks about the anger and rage that first initiated the feminist movement. It’s true that to feel angry about an injustice has immense power. But then Le Guin also makes the genuinely beautiful, and terrifying, point that a rage exercised to the point of becoming a very powerful and effective weapon can quickly lose its effectiveness if those welding it do not know how or when to put that same weapon down when the initial need for indignant rage has begun to subside.

Both Alderman and Le Guin seem to be exploring a similar message about feminism here, that being “if feminism was the baby, she’s now grown past the stage where her only way to get attention to her needs and wrongs was anger, tantrums, acting out, kicking ass.” (This quote is from Le Guin’s essay mentioned and linked above. I didn’t find any online responses to Alderman’s book directly from Le Guin, but many articles push the two authors together for the themes they most obviously shared in their fiction.)

Throughout her novel, Alderman tempers the rage of women with the backlash of having that same rage, in its rawest form, run rampant, no matter the sex or gender of the person who is carrying forward into “the battle” that weapon of anger-infused indignation. She mentions in her interviews with both BBC and PBS that she didn’t want her book to be saying that women are intrinsically better than men or vice versa.

And Alderman is right, I believe, in presenting this idea, because whenever there is a winner, there will also always be a loser, and that is not equality. That is just a power structure being inverted so that all of the advantages of one portion of society become the disadvantages of another portion of society.

If feminism’s true goal is to fight against the injustices that women have been subjected to for far too long, then a complete eradication of those injustices, no matter who the inflicted or the initially powerful party may be, needs to be at the basis of any social justice action. By keeping this goal of true equality at the forefront of our minds, maybe we can continue to pull the empowerment of women out of the realm of SciFi and categorically “speculative” fiction.

expanding the perspective | 2019.05.19

Transgender History by Susan Stryker | Review

Stryker, Susan_Transgender History

Publication: New York, NY : Seal Press : An imprint of Perseus Books, LLC : A subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc, [2017]

Genre: History

Pages: 303

Formats: Hardcover, Paperback, Audiobook

Source: MCL

I read this book while trying to figure out what to say and how to say it in my review of Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race. The leap from race to gender topics may seem a bit wide, but really what drove me to Stryker’s book was my own dissatisfaction with the minimalist’s perspective society has given me with respect to intersectionality. I’ve been attempting to write several feminist-leaning short stories and have recently found myself leading a women’s book group, both of which have left me wondering whether I have enough information to speak intelligibly about these hard topics (and whether the world needs women’s-focused book groups and, if so, why). “I don’t know how to talk about these topics appropriately and in such a way as to encapsulate inclusivity,” was my seemingly eternal complaint. A friend told me once that if a person is worried about being too exclusive, they’re probably already on the path to inclusiveness.

But beyond developing a more inclusive mentality, we should be careful of the communicative categories we use. What do I or others mean when they use vocabulary words like “female”, “male”, “cisgender”, “transgender”, “transsexual”, “bisexual”, “asexual”, “woman”, or “man”? Basically, I was asking the age-old question: “What exactly are we talking about?”

In Stryker’s book, I found just what I was looking for in regards to groping my way toward understanding the multiplicity of some of the identities people hold most dear. Did all of it take? Do I now understand the difference between sex and gender, for example? Honestly, I’m not sure, but I’m still willing to give it a go, because mistakes made in the midst of honest effort is all I’ve got. So, I ask the gentle reader to judge just as gently please. (The LEAVE A REPLY button at the bottom of the page is ready and waiting for your wisdom.)

The most impactful portions of this book, for me, had to do with feminism. Specifically, my fear of how exclusive the mantras of feminism might be has been at the forefront of my mind for some time now. Stryker recaps the history of feminism (especially second-wave feminism) and its hesitancies to merge its goals with anyone who is not born-female who want to find acceptance within the feminist sphere. If you weren’t born with a vagina, do you have a voice in the feminist march toward equality?

For myself, feminism is about leveling the societal playing field between the two binary genders we call “men” and “women.” In that vein, feminism needs to encapsulate a voice toward equality for all who want to identify or who are immediately identified by society at large under the gender category we call “woman” when juxtaposed with all who want to identify or who are immediately identified by society at large under the gender category we call “man”. In other words, I’m looking for a way to free our cultural perception of each other from the pitfalls of gender normative prejudices.

While I was working my way through Stryker’s book, I couldn’t help but stop every few pages to look wistfully over at my partner and explain to him yet another new aspect of the gender equality discussion that had just dawned on me. These discussions led us pretty quickly to Nina Paley and her rejection of transgender identities as manifested through preferred pronouns. Now please understand, I’m all for Paley’s rejection of the cultural constraints instituted by copyright law. I applaud her work in the realm of copyright as well as her political stance on the topic from the perspective that artistic expression is and should be a shared endeavor (while still giving credit to those we borrow from along the way). However, I’m struggling with her idea that, “everyone is free to identify however they wish, but not to force me to identify them the same way.” My initial reaction to this is to ask where’s the respect aspect here? It seems to have been flushed straight down the toilet if we prescribe this type of mentality to our understanding of something like a person’s gender identity, just like it goes completely sideways and misses the point so absolutely if applied to rape or domestic violence.

Within her explanations of second-wave feminism, Stryker hits on the destruction this type of attitude can initiate in discussions of gender. But, I guess if I want a world where everyone’s perspective is given the respect its due, maybe I can’t condemn someone like Paley for holding to an opinion that I find condemning in and of itself. The flow of respect has to go both ways in order for constructive conversation to flow between the “camps” involved in the discussion. I guess what I’m hoping is to leave room to listen to Paley’s and other TERFs’ opinions to try and understand the starting point of their perspectives, even if I ultimately end up still disagreeing.

Here, I’m talking about boundaries, a topic every abuse survivor is, or should be, very familiar with, no matter the form that abuse has taken in their life. We create boundaries to keep ourselves and those around us safe. To be sure, those born into the female sex have taken a beating throughout the history of civilization going back to the discovery of agriculture (if you’re hearing the influence of Merlin Stone’s When God Was A Woman, then you should congratulate yourself as having sussed out my current reading list). So, the initial boundaries toward a safe space that the first and second waves of feminism created surely shouldn’t be dismissed. But, what happens when the reality of voiced societal norms shift? Can a male who identifies as a woman ever feel completely safe in the men’s world ascribed to her at birth, and how can she truly feel accepted in the women’s world she associates herself with unless others around her stop trying to put her in the men’s categorical box and begin to accept her as the her she wants to be seen as? To this point, does safety equate to acceptance and vice versa? If your boundaries are not ones I’m comfortable with, can I still accept your boundaries, and if I choose to do this, am I denying my own person safety? I think the answer probably lies within the topic the boundaries are encapsulating.

In an effort to continue this discussion of safety and acceptance, one of the transgender heroes that stood out most adamantly to me in Stryker’s book was Sandy Stone. The more I learn about her journey and her work, I can’t applaud her enough. It strikes me as incredibly brave that anyone born with all the cultural advantages of being born male would want to put themselves into the woman gender category or (perhaps more intensely) into the female body, with all the inherent disadvantages these realities are fraught with within our society.
For example, when I was a preteen and then a teenager, I found myself in the throes of what I thought was a very disturbing body transformation. This transformation was like the scariest magic act that disappeared the skinny, straight-lined, self-identified non-gendered kid, whose only love was for long walks alone in the sparse forests of my many home towns in search of the perfect reading or story-writing tree to claim as my own personal hideaway from all the aggression my mother’s husband brought into my childhood home, and replaced that young kid with a ridiculously curved, albeit, or perhaps consequently, awkward woman who didn’t understand the very real and very dangerous implications of having to carry such a body. Anyone who would willingly take on such a transformation is a giant of heroic stature in my book.

Yet Stryker explains that Stone was ostracized by the second-wave feminist groups of the 1970s and 1980s because she was not equipped at birth to fully comprehend the true feminist struggle. She was seen as an infiltrating force in the realm of feminism, as a result.

Earlier, I spoke about boundaries and how they are designed to keep us and others safe. In relation to the women’s book group I recently found myself leading, a woman I respect beyond words asked why our group of women needed such a “safe space” as we had been attempting to create in our little club. This brought me up short at first, but the more I’ve thought about it, I’ve begun to wonder if we simply wanted a space to “bitch” (excuse the phrase please) about the misogyny (however micro-aggressively expressed) inherent in many of the pieces of literature being chosen and discussed in the other coed book groups my posse of women had been frequenting. I think feminism is like this — it wants a safe space in which to express female concerns. But should these spaces of safety be for females only, especially in the context of our current societal shifts, keeping out all others? I guess I’m realizing that, for myself, the concerns of females are also the concerns of women, whatever sex they were born into.

To this end, I’m going back to the mentality mentioned in some of my more recent book reviews where I talk about the dangers boundaries can pose when they separate and keep out those who also need harboring. Because a boundary works simultaneously to keep some safe by categorically keeping others out. I don’t think I want this type of feminism. If the goal of feminism is to level the playing field, wouldn’t inclusivity (while still listening to all the perspectives, which maybe should go without saying) be paramount?

But I’ve waxed perhaps too philosophical. Maybe I’ll experiment with the book groups, as a way to get out of my own head on these topics. In any case, I can see why Stryker’s book is a common textbook for college courses on these topics nowadays, as it certainly provides a plethora of insight, history, and a bird’s eye view of the vocabulary we use to describe and understand issues of transgenderism.