Book Rec // ‘Miss Jane’ by Brad Watson

Today’s book review is of the unusual, poignant, unforgettable novel Miss Jane by Brad Watson. I picked up this book on my birthday of this year, when I was just browsing around Barnes & Noble looking for a gift to myself! Miss Jane jumped out at me because of its beautiful peacock cover. Yes—I judge books by their covers and I am proud of it. Miss Jane immediately appealed to me because of its subject matter: a young woman with a genital defect finds freedom in her condition, and it’s set primarily in 1920s-30s Mississippi.

miss jane

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2013 Book Round-Up

Many, many books were read this year. Here’s the list–the good, the bad, and the ugly.

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  1. AbaratI thought this light-hearted, richly illustrated YA fantasy book would be an interesting diversion from more serious fiction, but I hated the first one and didn’t read the sequels, then quickly sold my copy. Oh, well!
  2. Norwegian Wood: Another slight disappointment, you can read my full review here. I think I chose the wrong Murakami to start with, but I shall keep on keeping on.
  3. The Iliad: Who doesn’t love The Iliad? Had to re-read it for class, and thoroughly enjoyed new interpretations.
  4. Inkheart: This was one of my favorite books was I was a young teen, and I re-read the series this year for the sake of nostalgia, and it was wonderful.
  5. Inkspell: the sequel to Inkheart
  6. Inkdeath: the sequel to Inkspell
  7. The Hobbit: I read The Hobbit for the first time this year and found it delightful, although I did like Lord of the Rings better.
  8. The Lord of the Rings: This was actually my first time reading it, and I can see why Tolkien influenced nearly a hundred years of fantasy writers, and basically invented an entire genre. Still, in the past century, no one has surpassed Tolkien, or even come close. One of my absolute favorites.
  9. Paradise Lost: I cannot extol my love for this epic poem enough. It’s absurdly beautiful, and somewhat proto-feminist. And, in the words of my John Milton professor of senior year, “Adam is a total wank.” Read more…
  10. Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist: I read this when I was quite young, and re-read it this year. It’s fun and very teen-angsty, but in a good way.
  11. The Great Gatsby: re-read it in preparation for the movie, which I loved.
  12. Muse: Out of This World: The official “biography” of my favorite band; such an amazing read.
  13. This Side of Paradise: Fitzgerald’s first novel, heavily autobiographical and somewhat piecemeal, but it was a treat.
  14. 1984: The scariest book I have ever read, and the standard by which I now judge every single dystopian novel or film. No one does it better than Orwell.
  15. Cloud Atlas: Amazing! Full review here.
  16. The Cuckoo’s Calling: When the world found out JK Rowling had written a secret book, I was among the millions to immediately buy the book, and it kept me guessing throughout. I can’t wait for the next installment.
  17. Green Darkness: A sophisticated historical fiction novel from another era, before historical fiction turned into bodice-rippers (not that there’s anything inherently wrong with bodice-rippers!).
  18. Water for Elephants: This one tested my patience, and severely disappointed me, what with my love for circuses and psychosis.
  19. Middlesex: One of the best books I’ve read in a long time.
  20. The Marriage Plot: Though my least favorite Eugenides, this novel is still worth a read. A slim book, it shouldn’t take too much of your precious book-reading time.
  21. Conversations with EVE: I reviewed this new feminist theory book for Gender Focus. See it here.
  22. My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead: a collection of love stories written by Jeffrey Eugenides; not as good as I was hoping, though.
  23. The Fire Gospel: Michel Faber’s novella satirizing The Da Vinci Code, an interesting read.
  24. The Courage Consort: a collection of three novellas by Michel Faber. I enjoyed “The Fahrenheit Twins” the best.
  25. Some Rain Must Fall: my favorite work by Faber so far, apart from The Crimson Petal and the White. This collection of short stories is wonderful.
  26. By The River Piedra, I Sat Down and Wept: FIVE STARS WAY UP or something like that. This book blew me away.
  27. Madame Bovary: “Emma Bovary, c’est moi.” In the words of the immortal Summer Roberts from The OC: “It was kind of a bummer. I mean, I know Emma got her heart, like, totally broken, but why did she have to go and eat arsenic?”
  28. A Christmas Carol: my Christmas tradition, and always wonderful to read! This year I fell asleep in front of my tree while reading it and eating milk and cookies…it was ridiculous.

Only 28 books this year: such a disappointment. In my defense, I did begin a blog this year, a huge goal for me. Thanks all for visiting, commenting, and following. I promise more books and clothes in the near future. Happy New Year!

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.