Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Firstly, I must disclose that I have absolutely been in love with Jeffrey Eugenides since I read Middlesex, a few years ago, so I may not be the most impartial of reviewers.  I eagerly awaited this new release of his and was happy when my name was up on the library's list.

In this novel, we literally follow a modern day Marriage Plot between three students at Brown University in Rhode Island.  They are on the eve of their graduation in 1982 - one is suffering from debilitating bi polar disorder (manic/depression), the second is Madeleine (who is brilliant and beautiful and sells herself short constantly) and the third is Mitchell, who is the journeyman and travels through Europe and India.  All three students are brilliant academics, with their own interests and academic strengths, but who often mistakenly follow their sex drives in directions that lead one to wonder : WTF? We follow Mitchell on his journeys, Madeline through her struggles in dealing with a lover that struggles with a debilitating mental illness and Leonard, who struggles himself with the mental illness. What I also loved is that Eugenides somehow manages to capture the tensions and feelings of a late teen/early 20-something involved in these sorts of emotional relationships.  It took me back to this period of my life; it was as if I had never left.

The novel itself was wordy, but I personally love that kind of novel. I love losing myself in the minute details of everyday (and the non-typical everyday living as, for instance, we see when we visit the psych wards or a laboratory colony on the Cape), so this didn't bother me all that much. In fact, I really enjoyed it. I wouldn't expect any miraculous revelations to come out of this novel; it doesn't expand the boundaries of what we know about love triangles, college or mental health issues.  And yet, I found it highly satisfying to read and complete. It's not as good as Middlesex, but most novels aren't.  This novel is definitely better than most and gives some insights.

Definitely take the time to read this one.

Her Husband: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes - a Marriage by Diane Middlebrook

Ever since reading The Bell Jar, I have been in love with Sylvia Plath.  I loved her writing and her strong, strong feelings. So I have been reading everything that I could about her and her life, from her journals, to her letters and her poems.  So when I saw this book at the library, I picked it up and brought it home with me, even though it's not solely about Plath, but about the often volatile relationship that she had with her husband, Ted Hughes.

Diane Middlebrook examines the relationship between the two poets from the moment that they meet while studying in England until after Sylvia dies, and beyond.  She begins with their meeting and courtship and ends with Hughes' passing.  She must have done an immense amount of research in writing this book, because her narrative was very detailed and very articulate.  It was a pleasure to read, in part because I could tell that she was truly striving to give us an unbiased account of their relationship and what, in her opinion, really led to Sylvia's death - depression and anxiety and not necessarily Ted Hughes himself (since Sylvia apparently struggled with intense depression even before she met Ted, including a suicide attempt that left her underneath her porch to be found by her brother and then sent to the State hospital for electroshock therapy).

The message that I got from this book is that their marriage was often very intense and was the muse for each of them, in the sense that it fueled her poetry as it did his. I felt that this book gave me insight into Plath, just as much as Hughes.  When they first met, I realized that she was like me in some senses: she wanted it all in the sense that she wanted a home and babies and a wonderful domestic life in addition to a satisfying career as a writer.  And she thought that Hughes could help her to have that. I also got some insight into Hughes that I hadn't had before - he really wasn't the jerk that we all thought he was and perhaps truly loved Plath or at the very least, felt badly about treating her the way that he did during their marriage.  For instance, after her death, Ted Hughes managed her work and got it published and re-published.  He memorializes their relationships and his feelings for her in Birthday Letters, which he published after Plath's death.

While I'm not sure that I agree with Middlebrook completely about Hughes (really what excuse does anyone have to be mean and/or abusive to their spouse), the book is a wonderfully researched and informative read.


Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Butterfly Mosque by G. Willow Wilson

I was browsing in the library and saw this book. When I read the inside flap, I thought it looked really intriguing so I picked it up. After 9/11, I've been really interested in Islam and Muslim conversions.  I also had a pretty big interest in women in Islam - their role, how they perceive their roles and what the Koran says about their roles. This particular book intrigued me more then other books about gender and Islam because G. Willow Wilson is a white, American woman that converted to Islam after studying Arabic and Islam extensively as a college student in Boston, living in the Middle East for some time and marrying an Arab man.

Before reading this memoir, I think it's safe to say that the readings I had done previously about women in Islam had been mostly negative: women were treated poorly and had to straggly mightily in order to gain some degree of recognition.  I think that this sort of portrayal leads the reader easily to believe that women that follow Islam are completely lacking in power or say at all in everything from their everyday life to who they marry and to the religious choices that they make. In this particular memoir, G. Willow Wilson narrates her journey from an atheist American to a Muslim woman who is getting married to an Arab, Muslim man. She attempts to explore the struggles that she faces in attempting to reconcile Western Cultural beliefs with Middle Eastern Cultural Religious beliefs and the religion that she is attempting to convert to. She explores the struggles that she had as a white, American woman attempting to convert and assimilate to the culture of the country that she was living in and she also attempts to describe the struggles that she had in surpassing the sometimes negative mindsets that she had with regards to Islam. In so doing, she presents a generally positive interaction and conversion.

This memoir was absolutely beautiful. I really enjoyed reading about Wilson's experiences in college and abroad.  I felt like she was completely honest and up front - she opened herself up in this memoir and her writing was fluid, accessible and beautiful.  Sometimes, I felt that I was standing right next to her as she was having an experience because I could smell what she smelt and feel what she felt on her skin or with her hands as she was feeling it.  It was astounding. Wilson was often brutally honest with us: she was particularly honest about her anxieties about converting and how her family would react. She was also nervous about how her background would impact her relationship with her now husband, Omar.  Wilson expressed a lot of anxiety about walking the line between asking questions to solve her ignorance and offending the people that she desperately wanted to accept her into their lives.

This was an honest and rich portrayal of an American woman's conversion to Islam and her take on women's roles in the Muslim world. I would highly recommend it. 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

As Nature Made Him by John Colapinto

This book tells the true and heartbreaking story of David Reimer. At the age of 8 months, he suffers a botched circumcision at the hands of apparently inept doctors, who then refer David's family to a sex specialist by the name of John Money. Dr. Money, to use the term lightly and loosely, recommended that David's parents have him physically reassigned as a female and then suggested that they raise him as such. Dr. Money firmly believed and convinced David's parents that if David was physically re-assigned as a girl and then raised as a girl, he would grow up firmly believing and feeling that he was a girl. So that's what they decided to do after consultation.

As the experiment progressed (because that is what it was essentially - this was the first time that this sort of thing had ever been attempted), Dr. Money reported that David was adjusting wonderfully to being a female, but this was less than accurate reporting to say the least.  David was depressed and acting out at school. He had to be held back at least once in school. As a result, it was decided that they would tell David that he was really born a male and, as a result, he ended up reverting to a male, taking hormones and  getting a mastectomy.

I found this book to be really very interesting and immensely readable. I found that there was a really nice balance between the oral history and individual perspectives of the family and person that was impacted.  Colapinto somehow managed to win the trust of David and his family and was able to empathetically and touchingly describe the angst and tragedy that this family underwent while at the same time describing the scientific theories, politics and sociological issues that were in play at the time that this "experiment" was occurring. It was a harrowing and aching tale to read about that was offensive on so many levels:  that Money thought that he could do this sort of experiment on a human child and that then, he completely lied about the results for purely selfish reasons, at the doctors who screwed up to begin with and then started backtracking to cover themselves, at society and doctors who think that they know everything about what our children are made of and demand that the physical body is what actually makes the person and only the physical. It was extraordinarily and thoroughly researched.

This was a really good book - one that should be read - and when you are done, make sure to read the Wiki entry for David - it will break your heart further. 

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

This novel is my favorite novel and is written by my favorite author of all time. And the fact that it was written in 1985 just blows my m...