Middlesex: Neither one nor the other but in between and both

June 11, 2008

My book club picked Jeffrey Eugenides’ 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Middlesex for our June meeting.  I had read it before, but it had been 5 years, so it was good to re-read it. 

Middlesex tells the story of Calliope Stephanides who discovers at age 14 that she is a hermaphrodite or intersexed (I believe this is the preferred term).  When she was born, she appeared to be a girl, and through a series of missed opportunities, her condition remained hidden for years.  Thus, she was raised as a girl.  Once she enters puberty, however, she is perplexed to discover that she is not only NOT developing like other girls but also having romantic feelings for girls.  An accident leads to a trip to the emergency room where her condition is finally revealed.  Genetic testing indicates that Callie is in fact genetically a boy.  The doctor urges Callie to continue living as a girl, believing that nurture has overpowered nature.  Callie realizes that this is false, and Callie becomes Cal. 

It may seem that I just gave away the plot of the book but dear reader, I assure you that I haven’t.  You know from the beginning that Calliope is a hermaphrodite and in a way, Calliope’s story isn’t really the main story.  The main story could be the experience of his/her Greek grandparents in Turkey and their immigration to the United States in the 20s.  It could be the story of her parents growing up in the 30s and 40s, their developing relationship and subsequent life together.  It could be the story of Detroit over a 60-year period.  It’s a story about family.  It’s a story about genetics and what we inherit.  It’s a story about fate or destiny vs. free will.  It’s a story about geography as place.  It’s a story about women’s roles, cultural identity and what we hide and what we reveal. In short, there is so much going on in this book that it would be impossible to neatly summarize all the plot elements.

I don’t think I enjoyed this book when I read it 5 years ago, but I really enjoyed it the second time around.  I wonder how much of that is due to being 5 years older and having a different perspective than I did as a 25-year-old.  This book is especially well-suited for a book club because it is so deep and rich that it benefits from discussion, and I liked it even more after my book club met to discuss it.  I’m still turning bits of it around in my head days later.

 Callie’s hermaphroditism (is that a word?) is the result of a recessive genetic mutation on the 5th chromosome.  Each of her parents provided the gene, so the theme of genetic fate is prominent.  The way Cal presents his history starting with his grandparents, it is clear that he believes he was fated to be a hermaphrodite.  But I wonder if this is Cal’s opinion revisiting his life and trying to make some sense, some reason for why he was born this way.  He appears to view his intersexuality as neither good nor bad but something that just is.  It’s just how he was born and how the genetic cards were dealt (gambling and games of chance are another big theme).  It’s interesting because from all that I’ve seen on the Discovery Channel (an authoritative source!), many intersexed individuals pick their gender and will undergo surgery in order to become physically the gender they most identify with.  Cal remains in a sort of limbo.  He identifies as a man, but he also still retains feminine traits.  He is lonely, yet he knows that his status dooms many relationships.  It’s like he purposely chooses to remain middlesexed.  It perplexes me a bit.  One theory proposed by my book club was that he doesn’t want to lose the feminine perspective.

It is interesting to ponder what makes us a man or a woman.  Is it our genes or is it how we are raised?  I suspect it’s more nature than nurture. But it’s also cultural.  We seem to have a need as humans for defined genders.  I’m a woman or I’m a man, and being unable to categorize someone so neatly results in cognitive dissonance.  But who hasn’t felt other than their defined gender at times?  I suspect that gender identity is more fluid than we might think.  I was not a tomboy as a child.  I wore dresses, played with dolls and fantasized about getting married and having babies.  But it’s funny because I often feel less feminine, less like a girl than my friends seem to be.  I often feel very masculine at work and believe that I am perceived as not very feminine.  However, I have a boss who can make me feel like a girl.  He and I don’t communicate well sometimes, and when I talk to him about it, I find that I am suddenly talking about feelings and girly things.  

Some of the history about Detroit in the book surprised me, and I’m going to need to do a little research.  Is it possible that the Detroit Riots were a sort of second American Revolution?  Unfortunately, we never reached that part of the 20th century in American history class in high school.     

I highly recommend this novel.  It is an American classic.

Also recommended:

  • One Hundred years of Solitude (Garcia Marquez).  It has a similar mythic feel as Middlesex, and happily, it is our next book club read as well. 

A Thousand Splendid Suns: Not so splendid for some

May 22, 2008

It’s taken me a long time to write about this book.  Some if it is due to scheduling issues (I’ve been busy), but I suspect that more of it is due to the fact that I’ve needed more time to mull over my impressions of the book.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, recounts the recent history of Afghanistan through its impact on the lives of two women.  Mariam, the illegitimate child of a wealthy man, grows up in a rural hovel with her bitter mother.  She idolizes her father, not comprehending why she can’t live with him and what her status is in Afghani society.  After her mother’s horrific, spiteful death, she is married off to Rasheed, a much older, brutal, misogynistic man.  In contrast, the beautiful Laila, about 20 years younger than Mariam, grows up in a (mostly) loving family and is pushed to learn by her father.  Her family’s life is tragically touched by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the tribal warfare that follows.  At 15 Laila becomes Rasheed’s (Mariam’s husband) second wife when her parents’ death leaves her with few options for survival.   In a time when law gives men absolute tyranny and domination over women and women have no value other than the sons they produce, Laila and Mariam become allies and each other’s saviour.      

I approached this book with some dread because:

  1. I had to buy it at full price from Barnes & Noble because I was a slacker and didn’t check it out from the library ahead of time and there were no copies available for weeks and weeks, and I very rarely buy brand new books anymore due to the cost and how fast I read 
  2. I’m not especially interested in Afghanistan or Iraq.  I don’t read articles about them.  I don’t watch movies about them.  It’s a topic I want to avoid.
  3. Sometimes you have a sense that the events in a book are going to be so horrific that you really don’t want to read about them.  When I opened the book, the phrase, “it will end up badly” flitted through my head.  

But the book was for book club, so I needed to read it.  First of all, it was a technically easy read.  It kept my attention, and I was able to read it in a few evenings.  That was good. The book is overwhelming.  I cannot imagine what it would be like to live in a society like theirs and live through events that Mariam and Laila did.  Both women were so strong.  Afghanistan seems truly like another world compared to my comfy life in NC.  I’m glad that Hossein wrote a novel about the experience of the Afghani women.  I had heard about life in Afghanistan, but the book really brings home the degradation and deprivation in which women live.   Hossein’s descriptions of Afghanistan were surprising…I’ve never thought of the country as a very lush, green place, but it is or at least it was. 

Nobility and honor are revered in Afghani society.  The men profess that their edicts are tied to those concepts, but their actions bely that.  How can it be honorable to treat women like dirt under the guise of “protecting” and honoring them? How can it be honorable to value sons so much but send women off to squalid hospitals to give birth without proper care or medicine (especially anesthesia!)?  Instead it is the women who exhibit true nobility and honor.  Even after everything Rasheed has done to her and Laila, Mariam still honors him as the head of their household and father of Laila’s children.  In similar circumstances, I don’t know if I could do that.  I’m not saying she should have, but in many ways she is a far better and stronger person than I am.

This novel was painful.  Mariam’s miscarriages really affected me.  Her whole life got to me.  I preferred her to Laila…maybe because she wasn’t pretty and didn’t have the advantages that Laila had…a loving family, first love, children, a future.  Now that I think about it, the only part of the book that I didn’t like was the difference between Mariam and Laila.  Everything bad happened to Mariam.  Ok, yeah, bad stuff obviously happened to Laila too but it seemed like more bad stuff happened to Mariam.  Her life was just a series of bad events.  It was unrelenting.  I envied Laila the good things that happened to her (few that there were) and wished some of them had been doled out to Mariam.  Talk about being born under an unlucky star!  It’s as if she was cursed at conception…as if her illegitimacy was a stain she couldn’t escape.  Mariam’s fate is complicated.  I won’t ruin it, but it’s powerful.  I can’t believe it unfolded the way it did, but I understand how for the one and only time in her life, she had taken control of her life and chosen her own destiny, and for that, I salute her.

Also recommended:  One Thousand White Women:  The Journals of May Dodd (Fergus) Another book for which I had the feeling of “it will end up badly.”

Eat, Pray, Love: A Skeptic Converted

February 12, 2008

When you read a lot, you quickly discover that most of the books out there are simply not very good.  I don’t think that I have unrealistic expectations or standards that are too high (perhaps wanting a coherent plot and decent character development is asking too much?), but books that are truly great (in my opinion) are few and far between.  Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I read two books in the last week that I would classify as great.

The first and subject of this post is Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.  I had resisted reading this book because I have a perverse aversion to books that everyone is reading.  I also roll my eyes at the proliferation of memoirs…apparently everyone’s mundane life is worth writing about.  Yeah, yeah, yeah…pot, meet kettle.  After all, I apparently believe that my mundane book reading is worth writing and reading about!  Let’s just say that memoirs aren’t a genre I read much of. 

Eat, Pray, Love details how the author, Elizabeth “Liz” Gilbert, saves herself by finding herself.  She supposedly has the perfect life…big, beautiful house and wonderful husband, yet after many dark nights of the soul sobbing on her bathroom floor, she realizes that her life is not what she wants.   After a horrible, ugly divorce that drags on for years, Liz is finally free, yet shattered, and she decides to break completely with her old life by traveling for a year.  She spends four months in Italy (eat), 4 months in India (pray) and 4 months in Indonesia/Bali (love), and the book recounts her experiences and epiphanies during that time.

Gentle Reader, I confess that I am a convert.  This book was amazing.  First of all, Gilbert is a phenomenal writer and born storyteller.  I marveled at how she constructed her sentences and the perfect metaphors she used.  She made her story come alive.  I had wondered what I could possibly get out of a book about a rather privileged, divorced woman, but her story was relatable…not the divorce part necessarily…but her struggles.  Her struggle to know herself, heal herself and ultimately love herself after her personal tragedy was very relevant to me.  Like Liz, I too seek some connection to the divine, and I was fascinated by her time in India and what she learned there.  I hadn’t expected the book to be so spiritual.  I don’t think she intended her book to be a self-help book, but I learned many things from it that I plan to use in my own life.  I also appreciated that Liz put it all out there.  She was brutally honest and didn’t hold back.  She told the good and the bad about herself and her experiences. 

Wow.  Just wow.  I feel like Eat, Pray, Love is a book that I will read again and need to read again–maybe many times–in order to catch everything.  My only criticism of the book is that I didn’t think that the “Love” section in Bali was as good as the other two sections.  It fell a little flat and seemd to end rather abruptly.  That’s ok, though.  There are 108 chapters in the book, and it’s divided into three parts.  Whenever I notice that a book has 100 chapters or more, I always wonder about a connection to Dante’s Divine Comedy…another book with three sections and 100 chapters.  It’s probably a stretch, but it was an interesting thought with which to amuse myself.

So, I highly recommend this book.  In fact, I give it my highest praise:  I’m going to buy a copy.  I borrowed a copy from a coworker, but I think I’ll buy my own.  It is definitely a book I want to reread.