Thursday, December 1, 2016

Girls Will be Girls-Emer O'Toole

Girls Will Be Girls-Emer O'Toole

the facts
satisfaction: side/up
pages: 277
gender: F
nationality: Ireland
year: 2015
non fiction-gender studies

Emer O'Toole engages with feminist theory about the performance of gender.


I will begin with the fact that I was likely not actually the target. My academically gender studies credentials are advanced-born from a women's college education, trans-activism, and a long time interest which had me reading Butler as a teenager...the same time O'Toole is just beginning to "experiment" with what costumes she could change. Thus, I already have a series of critiques I can level against the performance of gender (for instance, this was an entirely cis-centric tome with an inadequate consideration of transgender persons). I shall put them aside for this review since this book is likely meant for people who are on the fence about feminism or people who have not read any of the actual theory.

O'Toole covers most of the accustomed bases of feminist theory and makes an entertainingly convincing argument for examining your own life. Why do you, as a woman, do the things you do to be a woman? We, women, are all of us aware of the differences in our lives from those of men. Men shave their faces but nothing else, women may shave everything else. Men don't wear makeup, women may wear 'too much' or 'too little'. What O'Toole does best is asking the reader to think about why. She does so by connecting the dense theory, the abstract and often labyrinth ideas, to her own life. And so we learn of her upbringing in an Irish Catholic family with a strong emphasis on a binary view of life. I enjoyed her exploration of the home-a contentious sphere for feminists- which juxtapositions the teaching of the equal sexes with a practice that highlights inequality. O'Toole writes accessibly-this barely feels non-fiction- and with wry humor. I found myself smiling at her jokes.

What I, however, cannot forgive O'Toole for is her discussion of sexuality. She completely dismisses bisexuality essentially because she doesn't believe in it since it's only a societal construct. There's no real warning before this dismissal-she just kind of launches into it and heavily implies that bisexuality is a performance in of itself. There's a sort of contradiction going on in her thinking-we're free to define ourselves as feminists but in the sphere of sexuality, it's the other person who defines what you are. She has more thinking, more growing to do I guess, which is the theme of the book in a way. After all, she has gone through all these experiments and costumes, talks about her discomfort, but there is still some dissonance going on here. She never really discusses how she learned to feel comfortable in her own skin. Has she? This is kind of what I feel the limits of the performance of gender theory are. If gender is performance, what does that mean for your default performance? Sure it's a societal construct but where is the comfort in that? Can we live our lives without that basic comfort?

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

All the Missing Girls-Megan Miranda

All the Missing Girls-Megan Miranda

the facts
satisfaction: side/down
pages: 384
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2016
novel

Nic returns to her hometown that she had left behind after her friend disappeared. Her father is unwell and a new disappearance of another girl who had been connected to Nic's family throws her into a tizzy.

Listen, this book could be a causality of my trope-to-kinda-hate of the moment: dangerous white teenage girls but I didn't really enjoy this book. I want to start with the observation that Miranda writes her narrator very credibly. As a character, she is following a clearly established logic and value system. But for the reader, Nic is incredibly frustrating. She's so off putting that it kind of boggles my mind. The structure of the book doesn't particularly help her case as Miranda hides so much from the reader that you essentially are treated to pages and pages of hysterical hypocrisy. Nic is nosy and self-involved-a combination that is common enough but when you add in the hypocrisy of her actions, makes for a potent cocktail of unpleasantness. "TELL ME WHAT YOU KNOW" she cries over and over again while stampeding through people's lives, hiding her own knowledge, and tampering with evidence in an open investigation. That last bit particularly irked me because, I'm sorry, you either tamper with evidence and redirect the investigation away from what you know to be true OR demand they investigate and find out what you know to be true. You can't have it both ways Nic!
I was particularly frustrated because with a different sort of narrator this could have been such a different book with some very interesting points to make. Instead Miranda's points are buried underneath Nic's hysteria. But see, Miranda made me think and care about her character anyway.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Wolf in the Attic-Paul Kearney

The Wolf in the Attic-Paul Kearney

the facts
satisfaction: side/up
pages: 320
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2016
novel

Anna is stranded in strange cold England with her father, both refugees from the Greco-Turkish population exchange chaos. She has only her doll for company but then she meets Luca, a strange amber eyed boy. She later finds him in her attic and her whole life changes.

I am ambivalent about this book. On the one hand, I really really enjoyed it. The way Kearney uses myths and twists them about into a fascinating blend was what kept me reading it. I enjoyed reading this rather strange account of the utterly lonely Anna. It is evocatively written and the pacing is quick and decisive.
Then I put my reviewer's hat on and my goodness, there's a lot to say that sounds so negative. But I enjoyed this book! Ok, so to start, there's a fair bit that seems almost unnecessary (like the short-lived Tolkien/Lewis plotline) but that's excusable-it did set the scene and time. The ending is both pat and obscure-on the one hand, it's a happy ending but also what on earth happened?! But I guess what I liked least were the more ethnic aspects. When Kearney stuck to the more British folklore and myths, that's when this story shone. His use of the British landscape and the vagueness of his sources kept me going along and enjoying myself.  But I think it's endlessly lazy to  paint the Roma as exotic manipulative villains. Really now. And then there was the very heavy dose of Anti-Turkish sentiment in Anna's (a Pontian Greek) backstory. In my experience, knowing many Pontic Greeks and reading dry historical accounts, the stories told about this (horrific episode in history) tend to be different in tone-a strange-to-convey balance of love for their land, the betrayal of their neighbors but also their own culpability in a way. Children in particular tend to express such pasts in a different way so Kearney's approach was a little too heavy handed and a bit too "adult". I do wonder that were I not so familiar with the situation, would this have been a problem? Probably not but it did destroy my suspension of belief especially along with the manipulative charismatic Roma.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Kaminsky Cure-Christopher New

The Kaminsky Cure-Christopher New

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 320
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2016
novel

A novel about a family of a Lutheran Reverend classified as half Jewish in Nazi Austria.


This was a deceptively hilarious account of being 'other' in Nazi Austria. The title refers to the tactic of holding a mouthful of water in order to stop from saying what you will regret. The converted-to-Christianity-Jew in this novel, Gabi, is forced to frequently employ this tactic. This is a tragicomedy. It shouldn't be funny but it is with the utter surrealities and ironies of life delivered with perfect timing. And like any good improv sketch, there are call-backs and repetitions that make it even funnier. But New is never taking his subject lightly. It is hard and difficult to be a half-Jew born to a Lutheran true party believer during the World Wars in Austria. The family characters are well developed from the thoroughly unpalatable Reverand Willibald to the ill-in-the-body Jewish Gabi fighting to educate her ungrateful half-Jewish family any way she can to the self-hatred of Ilse and the heartrendingly sad Sara who grows up too fast. Martin is the least developed, leaving him as a kid blind to the fact that he is not the best nor could he ever be a fighter in the German army. The child's viewpoint actually works here (part of the surrealism comes from the child's vantage) and matures accordingly to his age and circumstances-a rarity when done without jumps in time. A rewarding read-entertaining but never shying away from the horrors of the fight for humanity.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning-Alan Sillitoe

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning-Alan Sillitoe

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 192
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 1951
novel (rerelease)

Arthur is a lathe worker who has little care for authority all day and spends his nights drinking in the moment.


I lived in Sheffield for a number of years and though I knew mostly educated non-steelworkers, the industry and its people were a very proud legacy. Though Sillitoe is writing about Birmingham, I feel like this working class experience was shared across the industrial Northern cities as it tied together so much of the facts of the industry of the 19-20th centuries with the folk bravado remaining in the songs and drinking habits and gave it a human face. Our Arthur is surprisingly likable despite his self-centeredness and really not giving a flying f--- about other people. He is the typical young industrial worker-binge drinking his paycheck away and out to cheat the world before it cheats him. But Arthur is not dull or an idiot, he is simply a young man of his time. He muses on his father (a rather sad figure), the future that awaits him and says nope, and lives as much in the present as possible with whoever he can. Yet there's also an inevitability, he knows the future will catch up to him, he'll find the girl to settle down with and marry and maybe it'll be alright anyway. Much of his anger seems to stem from the inevitability of his life. He's proud of his work and good at it but keeps himself down because it's not like his paycheck will be better or he'll be able to rise through the ranks. He spends his paycheck on drinking because who knows if saving it would actually mean he could buy what he wants/needs. He uses people because he's used all week anyway. This is angry young (white) man lit for sure with a proto-punk unconsciousness but Sillitoe writes it well. The voice of Arthur is enjoyable and the pacing suits the novel. Perhaps not much actually happens but Arthur is a different person anyway.
I heartily recommend it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

High Mountains of Portugal-Yann Martel

The High Mountains of Portugal-Yann Martel

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 332
gender: M
nationality: Spain
year: 2016
novel

Tomás goes into the High Mountains on his few days off in search of a strange artifact to be found in a tiny village. Years later, his story intersects with a pathologist who is visited by an inhabitant of that village. Many years later, a Canadian senator seeks refuge in that same village, bringing a chimpanzee as his companion.

This is an inventive and compelling novel about grief. That´s what the three disparate plotlines are really about. I'm aware that is likely to be labeled as magical realism since the setting is mostly reality with a few "magical" or unexplainable aspects (all related to faith I might point out) and it's a favored label for Luso-Hispanic texts but I find myself wondering whether it's actual magic or simply the things grief does to our sense of reality. All of the magical elements are related, in part, to faith-the acceptance of the irrational. Things that are presented as one thing become something different all the time in this novel and sometimes it's overtly implied that it's simply a manifestation of the narrator's grief but when it is one of the threads linking the three main characters together, Martel just lets them go. Grief, the village setting, and the artifact all link the three main characters so I really don't think the magic must be real and it is actually a much more interesting novel if you consider the cultural notions that would manifest similar grief symptoms. Martel even has some of those overtly in this novel, the oldest story becomes almost a myth, a legend and aspects that were a singular experience morph into tradition without an origin story. These are all the almost subconscious collective memory of culture that underpin some of the more irrational seeming aspects of lives. Martel is a skilled storyteller and handles the various connecting threads well giving both overt and subtle links between the three stories. At times, he veers into too much detail which makes some parts feel repetitive (I'm looking at you, 3 instances of starting up the automobile on 2 pages!) but overall, this is a gentle novel to read.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Wild Ones-Jon Mooallem

Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America-Jon Mooallem

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 334
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2013
non fiction

Jon Mooallem travels in the world of animal conservation groups after realizing how many fake animals we surround our children with and asking what are we doing about the real ones?

That subtitle says it all, doesn't it? This book really delivers on its long promise. I was indeed, sometimes dismayed, often reassured despite myself by the stories Mooallem shares. Mooallem writes in a charming and self-conscious manner about what his journey talking to various kinds of animal conservationists. There are many references as to why he was doing this and those reasons changed along the way. His choice of the central stories were well done. There's the super trendy and controversial polar bear. The 'sexy' image of conservation campaigns. The stories sometimes took on surreal aspects (Martha Stewart shows up) as Mooallem discusses the disconnect between the under-researched public's demands versus what the scientists think would be the right thing to do. The polar bear also demonstrates a central issue-our emotional reactions to the plight of animals. His second was the unknown and more endangered Lange's metalmark butterfly whose survival depends on the constant maintenance of its last known habitat which has been so studied that the studies themselves endangered what they were studying. This is a great demonstration of the issues of what is "natural" and "saving" as well as a great historical lesson on the well-meaning actions of the past which time has shown to be so harmful. Finally, the book goes onto the discussion of Whooping Cranes. This is also an often not-funny but also funny journey into the people teaching the cranes to migrate. The disconnect between what the people want (the cranes to be like the historical cranes) and what the cranes actually do is an excellent depiction of when reality clashes with romanticism and how we really can't control what the animals we "conserve" do. It is also heart warming in that these people really give up a lot in order to do something with so little overt reward-shepherding for 6 months or so, a flock of willful giant birds while simultaneously doing everything they can to minimize the cranes' identification of them as human.
Mooallem really won my heart as he never gives into moralizing nor does he romanticize the "wild" but rather presents these stories as three case studies of what it means to be in a broken world and what we can do, what we try to do, and the indignities people endure in order to attempt to make it a little less broken. I'm left not with a sense of animal conservationist groups are unilaterally amazing nor with a sense of critiquing the efforts of various groups but rather with a deeper understanding of the immensity of the problem and a deeper appreciation for what people are out there attempting to do. I'm simultaneously a little more depressed and a little more hopeful and also still fascinated.

Oh, by the way, if you doubt this book's relevance or interest for non-USians, this book was literally handed to me by a British lady and a German man who had bought each other a copy as presents for Christmas.