"Water for Elephants:" now I'm getting mean

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I really wanted to like this book, truly I did. I love circuses and I’m a sucker for a love story (in case you haven’t noticed already) but this one was trite from beginning to drawn-out end. The only interesting character was the “villain” and his complexity was written off as symptoms of mental illness. In the hands of another writer this may have been a romantic and gripping page-turner but sadly, Sara Gruen fails to make this story interesting regardless of its setting within a 1930s circus and its story of forbidden love.

What should have been a lush, detailed landscape of a crime-ridden, Prohibition and Great Depression-touched circus train becomes simply a list of characteristics in the inexpert hands of Gruen, who seems to have copied circus facts straight from a Wikipedia entry. The result is anything but bewitching. Instead of feeling entranced by an old, faded photograph, I felt like Gruen just thought the 1930s seemed nice and picked it arbitrarily for the setting of her novel. Nothing about the era, save for the obvious aspects of the Prohibition and Great Depression (speakeasies and beggars figure prominently), is relevant to the characters’ storylines or personalities.

Jacob Jankowski, the protagonist and narrator of the story, is a twenty-three-year-old son of Polish immigrants and a student of veterinary studies at Cornell University. When his parents die suddenly in a car crash (yes, it’s that mediocre) and his home is conveniently repossessed by the bank (it is the Depression, after all) Jacob decides to jump a train, and finds, upon his graceless arrival, that he has inadvertently joined the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a second-tier circus run by a heartless gangster. All of these aspects of the plot sound great in summary, but when reading, I found them flat and dull. Jankowski is a boring character. He has no depth and just wanders through the book while things happen to him, and readers are told what he is like. “He loves animals. He is a virgin. He is naïve. He must live up to his parents’ legacy,” is what the characterization reads like. Jacob is as flat as the paper upon which his character is written.

And Marlena is just as bad. She’s a beautiful circus performer married to a paranoid schizophrenic, and Jacob falls in love with her inexplicably, possibly because she’s just as boring as he is. The characters are utterly forgettable with the possible exception of August, the aforementioned paranoid schizophrenic who suffers from bouts of intense cruelty toward animals and humans alike. August’s actions, while interesting, form the only captivating episodes of the first two-hundred-odd pages, which ramble on like an encyclopedia of a 1930s circus. The circus setting and its details are explained to the reader in an annoying question-and-answer format, with one circus veteran invariably answering Jacob’s deadpan questions without pause. I think this novel could have benefited from a third-person close point of view rather than Jacob’s first-person; the intimacy with Jacob could have been preserved and the narrative would have been more elegant.

The 1930s storyline is punctuated by the ninety-year-old Jacob Jankowski’s emotional turmoil while living in a nursing home. These parts of the book are heartbreaking, as we watch Jankowski’s mind slowly deteriorate. His wife (spoiler alert: it’s Marlena) has died and his family (children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren) rarely visit. Despite the poignance of Jacob’s sad old age, the two stories are incongruous; whereas the circus story is full of hope and a sense of expectancy, the contemporary narrative just seems like a set-up for the ending of the novel, which is juvenile.

Everything just seemed obviously contrived. There were no risks. Readers learn early in the novel, from Jankowski’s contemporary narrative, that he had married Marlena, so the ending was effectively ruined, and the only obstacle to Jacob and Marlena’s union is her husband, and he is taken care of in the most boring way possible that requires no emotional or physical effort on the parts of either Jacob or Marlena, and is therefore completely without danger. The characters get away scot-free, and everyone lives happily ever after. I hated it.

Gruen created thinly drawn characters and plunked them down in the Thirties because she liked the idea of it. Actually, on second thought, the best character was Rosie the elephant. She was stubborn, brave, and tragic all at once, displaying a depth of feeling and complexity that the human characters conspicuously lacked.

For contrast I offer another contemporary circus-oriented novel, The Night Circus, which also features forbidden love and a turn-of-the-century circus but everything about that book engages your senses; you can smell the circus, see the striped tents, taste the popcorn and caramel apples, and hear the eerie music. Water for Elephants just reminded me how awful it is to get old and to never put my parents in a home.

References

Gruen, S. (2006) Water for Elephants. New York, NY: Workman Publishing.

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"The Marriage Plot" – Marry Me?

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Ah! Eugenius. Why do you do this to me? Let me preface this review by saying that this was my least favorite of Eugenides’ literary triumvirate, this book that I thought would be my favorite. That said, The Marriage Plot is only in last place because it rarely disappoints whereas The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex (favorite and second-favorite, respectively) never disappointed at all. Those are good statistics, and I’ll take a book like this any day of the week.

While reading this book I thought a lot about my opinions of the main characters and the structure of the plot and how I imagined the ending would play out. Now that I’ve finished, I find that I have something very different to say. This book changed so much from beginning, to middle, to end, that it seems like a different novel altogether from the one I began a week ago. Whereas seven days ago I was full of criticism and slightly disappointed in Eugenides, now I must willingly eat my words [thoughts]. Jeffrey Eugenius retains his title.

The Marriage Plot introduces three main characters: Madeleine Hanna, a Connecticut native with a wealthy family whose favorite authors include Austen, Eliot, and the Brontes; Mitchell Grammaticus, a religious-studies major struggling with his personal faith; and Leonard Bankhead, a fiercely intelligent, mentally ill man with a complexity that inspires love and hate from one paragraph to the next.

One of the reasons I was initially turned off to this book is one of the reasons it’s so relatable: the characters are starkly imperfect. Madeleine whines during the first one hundred pages about not being attractive to men despite the fact that every man she meets thinks she’s ravishingly beautiful, not feeling smart enough even though she’s brilliant and teachers tell her so, and generally being an insecure college student. Whether or not I found this trait exhausting because it’s familiar is too psychological for me to plumb. Nevertheless, I disliked her lack of confidence and dreaded reading about her.

Then came Mitchell Grammaticus, a thoroughly forgetful character in the first section, to the point when it became clear he was important to the plot, I couldn’t believe it. Third of the main characters is the initially dashing, problematically charming Leonard Bankhead, afflicted with manic-depressive disorder and Madeleine Hanna’s first love interest in the narrative. At first glance (even from reading the terrible back-cover description), this novel seems like a common love triangle, but if you say that at parties people will think you’re stupid, because this novel is about so, so much more.

It’s about modern relationships

The Marriage Plot is Eugenides’ most character-driven novel. It’s a novel about people. Not a suicide pact or an intersex’s memoir, just a novel about people and how they relate to each other. There are misunderstandings and emotional turmoil. There’s insecurity and unhappiness in relationships; there’s misogyny and misandry and familial discord. It’s complicated and it’s impossible to know exactly how each character is feeling at a given time because that’s how people feel—emotions are complex and Eugenides knows that.

It’s about religion

Mitchell Grammaticus, as a religious studies major and a deeply spiritual person, travels to Calcutta and volunteers for Mother Teresa. For three weeks he finds it almost unbearable to tend to the dying, finding their bodily fluids and functions revolting. As religious as he is, as moral as he is, Mitchell is not exempt from normal human weaknesses. Religion in this novel is inclusive and spiritual, spanning many cultures and many denominations, reminding us that religion is not about differences in belief but about the universality of faith and of the human condition.

It’s about mental illness

Leonard Bankhead suffers acutely from manic-depressive disorder. The manner in which his illness is portrayed in the novel makes it clear the prejudice still apparent in our culture regarding mental illness. At times, it seems as if his personality is inseparable from his illness, as if the “real” Leonard does not exist at all and he is simply a product of his manic and depressive episodes. This makes it somewhat permissible to excuse his more dubious (and at times, totally morally reprehensible) behavior as side effects of his disease, but is this interpretation fair? Do we excuse his behavior? Or do we condemn it knowing what we know about his struggle? This is the situation Madeleine is in along with the reader. We, along with her, are placed in a situation to either feel antagonism or sympathy for Leonard, which forces us to challenge our preconceptions and prejudices about mental illness.

It’s about love, in its simplest form

Not just romantic love, not just unrequited love, nor even epic love. This book is about the ability, the capacity that humans have to love and why we do it at all, as well as what to do when it ends.

It’s about self-awareness

The characters’ internal honesty sometimes had me reeling. They express the same worries and shameful desires we all have sometimes, and at points the bluntness of it made me flinch.

For example, Mitchell explores his feelings for Madeleine and discovers some selfish motivations:

How long had he been secretly hoping to marry Madeleine Hanna? And how much of his desire to marry Madeleine came from really and truly liking her as a person, and how much from the wish to possess her and, in so doing, gratify his ego? (160)

And:

It might not even be that great to marry your ideal. Probably, once you attained your ideal, you got bored and wanted another. (161)

These passages of Mitchell’s honest rumination reveals a selfish tendency that all humans possess in some amount. We are all egotistical and we all, at some point, fall in love more with the idea of something than learning and loving the thing itself, even when the thing is a person. And isn’t that the problem? We’re not objects and no one is perfect.

It’s about coming to terms with the truth, a form of inner bravery

All three characters experience a moment of anagnorisis (if anagnorisis may be allowed to be non-tragic) in which they suddenly realize some truth about themselves or their lives. These moments of clarity offer yet more psychological insight into the character and usually result in a cessation of suffering, or at least the amelioration of it. The characters, at one point, all display a huge amount of inner courage that makes them more complex and in some cases, their resultant decisions are redemptive.

About the title: “The marriage plot” refers to a form of novel common during the Regency and Victorian eras in which the plot revolves around a couple’s difficulties on their way to the altar, and ends with a marriage and a “happily ever after.” In the novel, Madeleine Hanna publishes a literary essay of the same name that takes a critical look at the marriage plot device in 19th century novels. At its essence, this novel explores contemporary relationships with all our contemporary complications: awkward or just plain bad sex, divorce, militant feminism, closeted homosexuality, and yes, marriage. But if you’re looking for a neat ending a la Jane Austen, let me leave you with this caveat: though emotionally satisfying, the ending is thoroughly un-Regency.

References

Eugenides, J. (2011) The Marriage Plot. New York, NY: Picador.

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My Favorite Books: "The Lover’s Dictionary"

the lover's dictionary

The Lover’s Dictionary is one of those books that instantly becomes yours when you’ve finished. It crawls into your heart and tickles your soul, until you feel like you could have written it yourself. It’s the book we all would write if we could find the words. Part of its universality stems from the fact that David Levithan wrote the book with no gender-specific personal pronouns: no “he”s or “she”s to determine the sex of the author’s significant other; it could be a heterosexual couple or a homosexual—the language makes it clear that it doesn’t matter. This literary technique may have to do with Levithan’s own sexuality, but author aside, the book was written with the reader in mind, with the human in mind. It deals with the one of the most common aspects of human existence: love.

The novel takes the form of individual “dictionary” entries that encompass the whole alphabet. From A to Z, there are several words of each letter “defined” by how the author associates them with his significant other. “Arduous” reminds the author of sex, while “livid” sends him into a spiral of despair remembering when he was cheated on. (20,135) Some words spark memories, others conjure old emotions. The author speaks in second person, involving the reader into the relationship directly, reminding us that these feelings, these situations, these memories, are often shared among all people who have loved, or who have been loved.

When I read this book, it took me a total of 98 heart-stopping minutes. For a little over an hour and a half I lay down and was drenched in the beauty and pain of this book. Part of its charm is how unspecific it is; there is no plot, little character, only raw emotion and truth on every page. Levithan’s simple, brilliant prose takes a single moment of life and captures it as if you’re looking at a detailed photograph or a specimen in a jar. At moments, you’ll feel humbled by the truth and power of his words. (And here I am, writing in third person, urging you, whoever you are, to read this book. You will be absolutely entranced.)

The most poignant, heartbreaking entry is, appropriately, the one for love:

love, n.

I’m not going to even try. (136)

Even though the author shies away from any simple explanation of love, the reader is left with the overwhelming feeling that love has been inexplicably defined within the 211 pages of this slim little gem.

References

Levithan, D. (2011) The Lover’s Dictionary. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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"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.

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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.

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New Blog

I’m Lisa and I’m an aspiring writer, struggling freelancer, college graduate, and shoe addict. I’ve tried many times to keep up a blog and this time it will stick. Here you’ll find interesting book reviews, photos of my thrift adventures, and all the things that inspire me every day. I love to write and I love having a forum to express myself.

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