Bookstore Hopping: Boston and the Brookline Booksmith

Over the weekend I took a road trip to Boston with my best friend. It’s about a four-hour drive from New York, which isn’t terrible, and we stayed in the lovely Boston University area, in the South Campus. This is the Admissions Building all covered with changing leaves and climbing ivy. It was beautiful, but so cold! I had brought only a light jacket and immediately regretted it.

ImageImageImageOne afternoon we took a walk down to the river and what BU kids call “The BU Beach” because there’s a lawn a few feet from the water where kids do homework and lounge during the nice weather. It’s a cool urban quad.

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Though the weather was freezing, it was so beautiful near the water and the view was spectacular.

On our last day, our friend gave us a recommendation for a great indie bookstore in Brookline, in a neighborhood called Coolidge Corner. It’s called Brookline Booksmith.

Photo Nov 24, 1 50 27 PMThe store has two floors: the top floor reminded me a bit of the Strand crossed with Barnes & Noble; there were many other kinds of merchandise there from tote bags, greeting cards, maps, notebooks, and all your various paper-type merchandise but there were also hats, gloves, and scarves and a whole Kid’s Section that definitely reminded me of B&N. It’s an indie but it feels corporate…that is, until you get downstairs.

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The used book cellar, and more my kind of bookstore.

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It was quiet and had that library feel, as opposed to the hustle and bustle of the upstairs. My friend and I scored some cheap titles and spent a lovely half hour browsing drowsily.

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I loved these shelves! There’s something mysterious about stacking books this way, although I’m sure it has more to do with cataloging and keeping new arrivals out of the way than with aesthetics, but it has that mystery nonetheless.

ImageI bought four books:

IMG_20281. Mary and Maria/Matilda, by Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft

2. The Awakening and Selected Stories, by Kate Chopin

3. The Heptameron, by Marguerite de Navarre (who is one of my favorite historical figures. She was the Mother of the Renaissance, horribly overlooked and underrated, a contemporary of and a huge intellectual influence on Anne Boleyn)

4. My Antonia, by Willa Cather (I also offer for suggestion Dogfish Head’s My Antonia Pilsner, which I bought at Eataly simply because it had a literary name. I love beer, and this seemed like the perfect combination of two of my loves!)

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My friend and me. I had wrapped a scarf around my head to protect myself from the freezing wind! Tip: bring an actual coat to Boston in November–don’t repeat my foolish mistakes.

My Review of "Conversations with EVE"

I was recently given the opportunity to review a new feminist theory book, written by Barbara Cuthbertson. I enjoyed the book, even though I had several issues with it. The review is now featured on Gender-Focus.com, a website I’ve written for before. If you want to check out the review, here it is! If you do read the review or feel like reading the book, feel free to post your thoughts in the comments.

Since this is a short post, here’s a picture of a wet cat as a bonus:

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Cheers, everyone! Have a great weekend.

Fairy Tales Retold: "Sirena" and the Femme Fatale

I think YA literature can be a great thing. It’s gotten a bad rap in the past decade with the advent of Twilight and the phenomenon of the paranormal romance genre, but in general, YA introduces young readers to feminism, friendship, mythology, history, and most importantly, the power and beauty of the written word. All of the books I read when I was nine to sixteen years old informed my thinking and interests. From East I learned about Norse mythology. From A Great and Terrible Beauty came my passion for the Victorian era and my knowledge of the complicated nature of those sixty-odd years. Others taught me about pain and strength and courage, and all when I was quite young. My next subject for this spontaneous “Fairy Tales Retold” series follows the same lines of the others: I read this novel when I was about fifteen and it stirred in me an interest in Greek mythology and taught me about sacrifice, love, and the danger of the femme fatale trope.

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Now, Sirena by Donna Jo Napoli is not strictly based on a fairy tale. Rather, it takes place within that giant event of Greek mythology: the Trojan War. However, the main character and narrator is a mermaid (mermaid-siren combo) and given the ubiquity of mermaids in our culture due to the popularity of The Little Mermaid, and knowing details about the plot, I think it fair to say the Hans Christian Andersen tale influenced this novel in no small way.

The novel begins on the island of Anthemoëssa in the Aegean Sea, an island populated by sirens. These sirens are all sisters, the daughters of Eros and “Little Iris,” a fish–thus making this incarnation of sirens mermaids rather than the classic mythological siren who takes the form of half-woman, half-bird (though interpretations differ). The mermaid form is another reason I think pop culture influenced Napoli: mermaids are familiar and relatable in our culture, much more familiar than women who are half-bird. In whatever form, the sirens are both unable to procreate and have the potential for immortality. All they must do to live forever is win the [physical] love of a man. So they sing. They sing to lure sailors to their island and seduce them. Sound familiar?

Among the many siren sisters is the young naïve Sirena. Like her sisters, she adorns herself in seaweed and shells to make herself beautiful for any passing sailors. Her sisters’ one goal is immortality: to lure men to the island even though the sirens know that the island is uninhabitable by humans, and that their arrival means their certain death. Sirena, young and impressionable, does not question the inevitable outcome that the man who falls in love with her will die because of it. But she also does not relish it as her sisters do.

When her sisters manage to shipwreck a crew of men, the men grow mad and violent at their imminent death and in their rage, brutally murder one of Sirena’s sisters. The young mermaid is traumatized after this event and her worldview changes completely. She no longer wishes to be a siren, no longer wishes to enjoy the company of her sisters. She withdraws within herself. The stakes are raised when their de facto mother, Dora, wife of Nereus, tells her sirens about a war: “So mermaids, my ready maidens, the seas are full of Greek ships heading for Troy,” she says, after explaining about the apple of discord and how Paris “stole Helen away to Troy.” (30) Dora warns the mermaids:

You must not be stupid…You are of age, my beauties. This war is your best opportunity. One thousand ships…You must do it perfectly…If you win lovers, my seas can be graced with mermaids forever…Forever and ever. Immortality. (31)

Tempted by immortal life, Sirena nevertheless finds her sisters’ reactions to the news revolting and frankly, terrifying. Sirena implores her sister:

‘The men will die, Alma. They will die for lack of fresh water.’

‘We will sing continually. They will love us.’

‘Even if they love us, they will die.’

Alma, the sweetest of my sisters, now looks at me with hard eyes. ‘They will love us first.’ (35)

The siren’s chilling response and the behavior of the entire population weighs heavily on Sirena and she leaves her colony. She settles on the island of Lemnos, and soon meets Philoctetes, who has been marooned on the island because of a snakebite from one of Hera’s serpents (lifted directly from a legend). Sirena, who has vowed never to sing again, finds herself as a woman in relation to a man, rather than what she believed she was doomed to become: a monster.

The trope of the femme fatale has been around since the Trojan War was first conceived and earlier. Rooted in misogyny, the femme fatale trope is a symptom of the belief that a man’s lust and sexual frustration are a woman’s fault. Men want to be chaste and faithful, but women are snakes and they’re succubi and they can kill you. It’s awful and the worst part about the femme fatale image of women is its pervasion in our society, and not just by (some) men. “Femme Fatale” adorns t-shirts in women’s clothing stores and it’s perceived (by some) as something to be proud of. Femme fatale does not mean female sexuality. It means domination and control over another person, and it means being exploited and objectified because of your sex.

Sadly, “femme fatale” has become synonymous with a strong, sexy woman even though it literally means “deadly woman.” It also perpetuates this fetish-like image of a stony woman with no emotions and no weaknesses as the only desirable female type. We have come from idealizing an emotional, soft-hearted, bird-like woman to idealizing her opposite. The problem with the femme fatale archetype, and all types, is that they enforce the belief that there is a perfect kind of woman. Women, like men, should be allowed to have faults and vulnerabilities and complexity, like every normal human.

That’s the lesson Sirena learns by rejecting her role as femme fatale. It was literally laid out for her, by her “mother” and by her peers, and every single one of her sisters, even the supposedly kind ones, obeyed without question. Sirena alone knew that there was a humanity within her and a complexity she did not wish to suppress. That’s the wonderful part of reading novels like this when you’re young. That’s the power inherent in YA literature, and that’s why I have faith in it. Even when things like this happen.

Why You Should Read It:

For all the reasons mentioned already, but also for the mix of mythology and love. Napoli takes the canon myths and weaves her own story within the walls of the originals, without compromising the integrity or spirit of the myths. The result is an immersion within Greek mythology without feeling like you’re reading an encyclopedia. Characters like Thetis appear, and Oenone, and no explanation follows. Readers come to know them as characters rather than as actors on this great stage known as Greek myths. It’s also quite sophisticated. The Hercules of pop (Disney) culture becomes the Heracles of the original myth, homosexuality, immorality, and questionable birth included. Philoctetes appears as a well-rounded character before he earns his place in posterity for killing Paris. In the very first scene of the novel, the sirens attempt to lure a ship to their island but “the song of a lyre played by a master” smothers their seductive music: (4)

We sang, desperation making our songs keen, but our voices were drowned by that magnificent and terrible lyre. At one point the music stopped and we heard a shout: “Play on, Orpheus!” The music played on. No matter how much we sang, the men could no longer hear us. They passed us by. (4)

Little flashes of mythology like that appear throughout the narrative, as if Napoli is winking at those in the know, and for those less versed, she’s urging you to learn. 

The Good and the Bad:

Sirena’s voice and narration is simple and sometimes descends into juvenility. While her character and personality are complex and become more so during the arc of the novel, her voice remains stagnant. It’s a shame, because this story has a lot of potential. Another weakness of the novel is the first-person, present-tense point of view, which may be responsible for the dullness of the prose. Many of the sentences follow an “I do this” or an “I feel this” structure, which can get boring. It isn’t dynamic and it isn’t very gripping. The novel is worth a read however, and since it’s YA (intelligent YA, though it’s a shame I feel the need to use that disclaimer), it should not take long.

Read it for the pleasure of watching the Trojan War unfold through the eyes of a young siren. Read it for the pleasure of sinking headfirst into a mythological world. Read it to shift the focus on a story we’ve all read many times before, to see new perspectives, and discover new truths.

Okay, that’s it. I’m done. This was long. Please post your thoughts below if you’ve read this far.

References

Napoli, D.J. (1998) Sirena. New York, NY: Scholastic.

"The Creation of Anne Boleyn" and Third-Wave Feminism: Susan Bordo’s New Look

Hever Castle portrait of a young Anne Boleyn

Hever Castle portrait of a young Anne Boleyn

I am something of an Anne Boleyn aficionado. Ever since I was eleven years old and my mother bought me a gold-edged book about Elizabeth I, I’ve been fascinated by her raven-haired, ill-fated mother. Who isn’t nowadays? With the introduction of Natalie Dormer’s blue-eyed Anne in The Tudors and Philippa Gregory’s controversial portrayal, it seems like everyone and their mothers are jumping on the Anne bandwagon. This is both a blessing (to learn about history and influential historical figures) and a curse (those who do not care to research take badly presented television and film characters as historical truth). That is why I was so hesitant to read Susan Bordo’s new sociological study on the many manifestations of Anne Boleyn that have surfaced for the past 500 years: I was afraid of another Anne portrayed a la The Other Boleyn Girl: inherently evil, incestuous, ruthless, and altogether fabricated.

I needn’t have worried. Bordo is an interesting mix of Internet Anne fan and educated, intellectual force; her background and education, along with her love of Anne, makes this book a tribute to a strong, intellectual woman many of us have come to adore. The first section of the book deals largely with Anne’s contemporaries and the Imperial ambassador Chapuys’ venomous portrayal of Anne that seeped into every  portrayal of her for the past five hundred years. This was the part of the book I wanted to skip; having read Weir, Ives, et cetera, I was more than familiar with the conflict of fact and fiction, interpretation and politicization of Anne’s image, and I was glad when the book morphed into a sociological history of Anne. This is where Bordo sparkles.

By giving examples of how Anne Boleyn has been portrayed for the past 500 years, Bordo comes close, closer than many a biographer or historian, to dissecting what it is that makes Anne Boleyn such a magnetic, seductive personality. Henry VIII divorced his wife of twenty-four years to be with Anne, and split apart the Catholic Church to marry her. In contemporary culture, the figure of Anne Boleyn is polarizing: there are those who hate her and subscribe to the notion that she was ruthless and venomous; and there are those who love her, enshrining her in the robe of early feminism and idolizing her. But Anne Boleyn and feminism are a troubling combination, as are all the moments when contemporary ideals are placed in the minds of historical figures. Anne Boleyn was not a feminist. Yet is there some strength to be gleaned from thinking she was? What do Anne Boleyn and “third-wave” feminism have in common?

Bordo admits in the book that “we always write from our own time.” (259) Thus, Anne has become a bit of a feminist role model for women today, as Bordo mentions in her book. In one chapter, she interviews a group of twenty-something women on their perception and opinion of Anne and finds their responses quite telling. One calls Anne “the original feminist”—with Bordo’s caveat that this particular brand of feminism is of the “’third-wave’ variety—a woman of contradictions who cannot be ‘lassoed’ or ‘pigeonholed,’ who skillfully walks the line between sexuality and sluttiness, playfulness and power. So if Anne were alive today, she’d be ‘provocative but not slutty.’ At Oktoberfest, ‘she would be flirtatious, magnetic.’ But then she’d leave the guys dumbfounded by going home alone,” Bordo writes. (250) A majority of the interviewees took the same stance, refusing to characterize Anne in simple terms, and echoing contemporary feminist ideals that Anne, in her life, did live by.

If for no other reason, this is why Bordo’s book deserves a read. As an Anne admirer, I find her story one that is both tragic and inspiring, complicated and arresting. No, Anne was not a feminist and to say so would be anachronistic, but one may learn about modern feminism by studying her, rejecting The Tudors (in part) and The Other Boleyn Girl, among dozens of others, and learning about her actions, motivations, and weaknesses. Anne Boleyn is an example of that long-abhorred virgin/whore dichotomy; she has been vilifed as a slut and homewrecker or else championed because of her self-proclaimed virtue. What she has rarely been considered, however, is a human, except by those who have studied her. One interviewee stated, “It’s far too simplistic to define her as either an ‘angel’ or a ‘devil.’ (251) She was an intelligent, educated, highly sophisticated woman, who certainly possessed many flaws, significant among them being considerable arrogance, but who was far too complex to be dismissed as simply a ‘bad’ or ‘good’ character…” (251-52) This is the pull Anne has for me as well, a woman of contradictions and flaws, who is nevertheless empowering without requiring a rejection of femininity. It seems I am simply one of the many who have commandeered Anne Boleyn as a role model for feminism, and anachronistic or not, five hundred years later, she’s relevant to today’s young feminists.

References

Bordo, S. (2013) The Creation of Anne Boleyn. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

What "Middlesex" Taught Me About Gender Identity

Last week, I found myself re-reading that modern classic and Pulitzer-darling, Middlesex, and ruminating again on how much influence the novel had on my own gender identity. In this unforgettable novel, Eugenides weaves a complex, harrowing story of how a young girl, Calliope Stephanides, ended up with an intersex condition known as 5-alpha reductase deficiency. As a teenager in the 70s, Callie struggles immensely with both her sexuality and how she defines her gender. However, eleven years after the novel was first published, the last decade sheds more light on Callie’s story, and has served as a guidepost for the expression of my own gender identity.

At the end of the novel, when Callie has chosen to identify as Cal, he expresses a tempered joy that his father died before “missile shields and global warming and September 11 and the second president with only one vowel in his name.” (512) Yet now, eleven years after Middlesex was first published, we have had our first biracial president. We’ve had more terror scares, more threats of attack. And then there are the cultural aspects of contemporary American life: gay marriage is legal in fourteen states and is quickly gaining political supporters across America; rape culture is addressed and condemned with more virulence than ever before; and personal technology has changed the way people relate to each other and to themselves.

Technology has progressed to the point where nearly everyone has a smartphone and multiple social media accounts, and thus are quickly searchable, their identities outlined by Instagram photos of nights out, lunch preferences, and time lounging on the couch with a pet. Twitter feeds are the way we get to know people now. Blogs allow each person an audience and a forum to express him- or herself with few or no boundaries. So, keeping in mind this social atmosphere, where is Cal now? How would he have responded to this world? And more importantly, what would Eugenides have written had he published Middlesex in this decade instead of the last?

In my mind, I see Cal as a fiftysomething apolitical yet optimistic and outgoing man. Not an activist or a demonstrator, but perhaps he would have written an article or two for the Huffington Post. I like to think that in contemporary America, Cal would have been met with acceptance and understanding, rather than the inhibiting fear of rejection he exhibits with romantic (and to some extent, platonic) relationships in the novel. Rediscovering Middlesex has allowed me to ponder and plumb these questions about how the American social landscape has changed in the last ten years, and how the complexities of gender identity have permeated the consciousness of more people than ever before.

How? Gender dysphoria is no longer classified as a “disorder” by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, as of May 22, 2013. Previously known as “gender identity disorder,” the newly rechristening of GID represents a shift in the way we relate to and understand gender identity. Rather than as a dichotomy of male versus female, gender identity has evolved into a broader spectrum. Transgender individuals are seen less as anomalies and their experiences are more widely shared and understood. The complexities of gender identity affects us all; as Cal states, “We hermaphrodites are people like everybody else.” (106)

The most poignant part of the book, in my reading experience, was the point at which Cal[lie] decides he does not wish to undergo any kind of operation to become either anatomically male or female. His decision echoes an earlier statement made in the narrative by the forty-one year old Cal: “hermaphroditic genitals are not diseased.” (106) Cal does not wish to join either “team,” so to speak. He admits to not feeling fully integrated into the community of men (he doesn’t like them that much) and also states that he never felt out of place as a girl. Cal, apolitical throughout, admits that his decision to be a man hinged on his sexual preferences, not on a feeling of belonging to a preordained gender identity. He is, allow me the indulgence, a middlesex.

Whenever I read Middlesex, I identify so closely with Cal/lie. I don’t mean that as a cisgender female I know what it is like to be intersex; simply that the description of gender in the book got me thinking. It got me thinking about myself as a twenty-two year old female, somewhere between girlhood and womanhood, and all the ways in which I express gender identity internally and externally. I thought about my speech habits, the way I behave on dates, how I address men, how I carry on conversations, my wardrobe choices, my choice of friends, of jobs, even of bars. I realized how subtly my decisions were influenced by the female gender identity to which I belong, and it also allowed me to realize the many freedoms contemporary women enjoy, more than they ever did in Callie’s 1974.

As a fourteen-year-old patient to the sexologist Dr. Luce, Callie describes being interviewed by the doctor: “He watched my facial expressions; he noted my style of argument. Females tend to smile at their interlocutors more than males do. Females pause and look for signs of agreement before continuing. Males just look into the middle distance and hold forth. Women prefer the anecdotal, men the deductive.” Cal recognizes these as stereotypes, “limited but useful.” (417) Back in 1974, gender lines were much more distinctly drawn. These lines, though very much still intact, have grown fuzzier in the intervening decades between Callie’s adolescence and my own.

For example, I can pay the check on a first date, and happily. I can confidently express opinions without pausing to smile winningly, eager for acceptance. I can respond to an older man’s “honey”s or “sweetie”s or “gimme a smile, beauty”s with as much hostility as I deem appropriate. I don’t find it necessary to defer to a man’s perceived power, or allow my behavior to fall in line with a preconceived notion of femininity. I feel free to reject gender norms and, as much as possible, live with the knowledge of their influence and try to combat it.

Yes, there are still many obstacles to living free of the gender dichotomy, but, perhaps like Cal would have felt these days, I feel more optimistic about social change. Neither an activist or a demonstrator, I am, like Cal, a person, and a writer. Maybe we’re all a bit of a middlesex if we allow ourselves the freedom to choose neither, or both, to live as a person without succumbing to gendered expectations.

References

Eugenides, J. (2002). Middlesex. New York, NY: Picador.