Book Review: Spinster by Kate Bolick

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Title: Spinster (Making a Life of One’s Own)

Author: Kate Bolick

Genre: Non-Fiction, Cultural Criticism, Feminist Literature, Social Commentary

First Published: 2015 (Crown Publishers)

Page Count: 297 pages

“Whom to marry and when will it happen? These two questions define every woman’s existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does or doesn’t practice… These dual contingencies govern her until they’re answered, even if the answers are nobody and never.”

And with that begins Kate Bolick’s highly informative, compelling, and entertaining defense against the dominating cultural viewpoint against single women (a.k.a. the spinsters). Her book Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own is one part autobiography and one part history lesson. Throughout the book, she details her own journey towards her brand of spinsterhood—a life lived mostly and happily in solitude or with like-minded individuals. Though not without romantic entanglements, it is a life that separates itself from the traditional notion of couplehood, which include cohabitation and marriage.

Aside from using initials in lieu of first names, Bolick recounts past relationships with unflinching honesty and sometimes, surprising alacrity. While in a long distance relationship with her college boyfriend W., she repeatedly writes about her ‘spinster wish’ in her journal. The spinster wish being Bolick’s secret code for living alone and the freedom it brings. Unsurprisingly, this wish had become the nail in the coffin for many of her long-term relationships.

Apart from disclosing the demise of her romantic commitments, she talks at length about the lives of her awakeners—a term borrowed from Edith Wharton. Bolick uses the term to denote the five women that had shaped her life. After her mother’s early death, the author had found herself needing conversation and guidance, and these she found in and through the works and lives of the poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, the columnist, Neith Boyce, the essayist, Maeve Brennan, the novelist, Edith Wharton, and the ‘social visionary,’ Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Now, before we go any further, let this humble and happily humbled reader disclose this: I had not known what to expect of the book. It had sat happily on the same row as The Feminine Mystique—seemingly out of place among more palpably “serious” works. Spinster had snippets of glowing reviews from the Times, The Pool, The Lady, and authors like Rebecca Mead, Joanna Rakoff, and Susan Cain. But the image of a gorgeous model sat on an ostentatious gold couch, ornate teacup in hand, seemed a stark conflict with the subject matter promised by the book. After all, the beautiful woman on the cover can’t possibly be a spinster, could she?

Imagine my surprise and mild embarrassment upon finding out that the model was none other than Kate Bolick herself. And that’s exactly what the book does. It challenges the negative cultural attitude society has about spinsters. When Bolick writes about being a young girl, crushing snails against rocks, the image is partially disturbing because it is a girl doing it. Of course, it’s greatly disturbing either way, because no snail or any other animal should be subjected to such treatment, but there’s no denying how if it were a boy doing this, there is still the age-old argument that ‘boys will be boys.’

This memory also serves to illustrate Bolick’s early, though unconscious yearning for spinsterhood. There’s no denying the surge of happiness she had felt standing alone in an isthmus—her own kingdom, her own life to do as she pleased.

“I built then, my kingdom according to my own laws, and when the sun beat down, it beat down only on me, and when my feet acclimated to freezing water, it was my resilience that made this so. My experience of being alone was total.”

Throughout the book, Bolick also uses historical events and statistics to back the idea that despite the growing number of single women around the world, they—particularly single women in their 30s onwards—still continue to be regarded as anomalies, as social aberrations. As Bolick puts it, “Culture tells us that a spinster is without future—no heirs to bear, nobody to remember her when she’s gone.” One only has to look at history to understand this sentiment, this historical resentment.

According to Bolick’s research, 75% of the women accused of being witches during the infamous Salem Witch Trials were single women over 50 with above average means. Whether they had amassed their fortunes post-widowhood or were never-marrieds with a semi-affluent upbringing didn’t matter. Women of independent wealth were regarded with suspicion and disdain.

 Even the word “spinster” itself has gone through a radical redefining. In the 15th century, the word simply referred to European girls who spun thread as part of the trade. By the 1600s, the word had shifted to simply mean a single woman. But when the word crossed ponds to land in Colonial America, spinster developed an older, more cringe-worthy sister—the thornback. Any unmarried woman at 26 became a thornback—a word describing a scaly type of ray. Cue Bridget Jones’s famous line when asked why there were “so many unmarried women in their thirties these days.” To which, she replied, “Suppose it doesn’t help that underneath our clothes our entire bodies are covered in scales.” Brilliant.

Historically, women have also struggled—and to a certain degree continue to struggle—to be treated equally in the workforce. Bolick discusses that in the mid- to late-19th century, when women became an integral part of both the factory and the office settings, as factory workers, budding journalists and later, stenographers, they were subject to lower wages compared to their male counterparts. This is despite the fact that women were churning out the same amount of work as men. Their employers came up with a completely shady reason to underpay female workers—Functional Periodicity. This being the wholly invalid belief that women suffered from physical and mental debilitation during their menses.

Today, we still find working girls struggling to find their identity and dignity in the work space. Many are still under the impression that to succeed in whatever field they set out to work in, they’ll need to either bank on their erotic capital or blatantly imitate the mannerisms and the ways of men. As if skill alone were not enough for the woman to haul herself rung by rung up the corporate/organizational ladder.

She also argues that despite the changing image of the spinster (from the 50s old lady with cats to Ally McBeal, Murphy Brown, the ladies of Sex and the City), the underlying cultural attitude toward spinsterhood remains greatly unchanged. A woman, particularly, a single woman of a ‘specific age’ is still bound by expectations of motherhood and marriage. And until this “attitude” changes, until this status becomes not just accepted (culturally) and recognized and respected, women are not free.

The truth is, despite the fact that this is the 21st century and ideally, we have gone leaps and bounds past such antiquated notions, single women continue to be stigmatized. With spinsterhood comes expectations, fears, and visions of a life of madness. Think about it. The bag lady, the old hag, the neighborhood loon that dies alone in a house full of cats (or dogs)—to be found much later in a horrid state of decomposition. The spinster has become a cautionary tale to young women across the globe.

Instead of being thought of as a valid choice or decision, spinsterhood is believed to be the outcome of poorly made choices, unfortunate circumstances, tragedy, and heartbreak. Where is the respect for this type of lifestyle? Where is the dignity of which it’s due?

These are the queries that one arrives at after reading Spinster. Beyond giving her readers a well-written autobiography and a succinct but effective history lesson, Bolick opens her readers’ eyes to the continued struggles of the modern-day spinsters. And she does so beautifully in both prose and action.

But just like the spinster’s tremulous footing in today’s society, the book, Spinster, also shows Bolick’s own struggles in toeing what she perceives to be Pink Ghetto journalism. She is hesitant to divulge so much about herself. In an entry about her mother’s death, she offers a clunky and somewhat awkward explanation for her decision:

“The literary critic in me resents her role (her mother) in this book the way I would a sentimental plot twist in a movie. We all have had mothers, few among us want to lose them; I wish my experience had transcended such an obvious bid for your sympathy, and I could have become a different writer. But I can’t erase the fact that the first day of my adult life was that morning in May my mother took her last breath.”

 Was the story of Bolick’s mother a pivotal part of the book? Yes. So why did the author feel the need to clarify, (and consequently complicate), an otherwise sound decision to include her mother’s life in her narrative? The answer lies in the author’s fear of falling into the trap of pink journalism. Apparently, most female journalists fear that by mining their personal experiences and writing about decidedly feminine topics—lifestyle, sex, and fashion—they’ll be caging themselves in. They fear that these topics will ultimately make it difficult for their work to be taken seriously.

Now, personally, I enjoy reading about these pink topics and don’t see the need to really segregate between ‘serious’ journalism and their pink ghetto cousin. Well-written and informative pieces, regardless of whether we’re talking war or the importance of breastfeeding, are well-worth the read. In this humble reader’s opinion anyways.

Another part of the book that gave me pause had to do with Bolick’s views on marriage and children. Although not straightforwardly stated, I felt that there were moments wherein Bolick saw marriage and family life to be impediments to a woman’s personal success. Particularly in Neith Boyce’s case. Bolick writes about Neith being stuck at home changing nappies while her husband, fellow writer, Hutchins Hapgood, was globetrotting and furthering his own career.

Spinster makes plenty of great points and the aim of the book is to defend the choice for spinsterhood—that I understand. But the danger lies in the perspective that women who choose marriage and children may be missing out on something—the joy of solitude and the productivity the lifestyle brings. This may not be what Bolick means, but I fear that some of her arguments unwittingly pit singles against the marrieds. And that’s one trope that’s been exhausted in films, books, and plays.

But I’ve always believed that a book is always a conversation between the author and the reader. And despite our minor disagreements, Spinster is a conversation with Kate Bolick that I greatly enjoy and will frequently revisit in the years to come.

Rating: A+

This is a must-read for women of all ages, whether they be single or married, or in the hazy or concrete footing of the in-between.

Book Review: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns), by Mindy Kaling

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me

Title: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns)

Author: Mindy Kaling

Genre: Fiction, Biography, Non-Fiction, Comedy

First Published: 2011

Pages: 219

“Mindy Kaling is my spirit animal.” These are words I’ve heard all too often when around good friends. While I wouldn’t go so far as to put Mindy at the top of my totem pole of spirituality—that spot’s currently occupied by Max Black (2 Broke Girls), though I’m also desperate to find a touch of Diane Lockhart (The Good Wife) in me somewhere—I will bow to the awesomeness of Ms. Kaling. Known for her roles as the quirky and ditzy Kelly Kapoor (The Office-US), and the equally fabulous Mindy Lahiri (The Mindy Project), it’s easy to see why there’s so much buzz surrounding the talented Emmy-nominated writer and actress.

Like any other Mindy fan, I jumped at the opportunity to read her book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns). And boy, was I glad I did. The book is every bit as witty and funny as Mindy is in every role she plays, including her cameo in the hilarious This is the End. I chuckled my way through the book, from her Introduction to her Goodbyes.

At the start of the book, Mindy Kaling answered a bunch of questions she felt readers may have regarding Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns)—FAQ style. One of her proposed questions was why the book wasn’t as funny as Tina Fey’s book. Now, I won’t pretend to have read Bossypants, though I would love to. So I can’t really verify if this book really isn’t as good as Tina Fey’s offering—but then again, let’s face it… It’s Tina Fey!  But I will reassure the reader that this book is every bit as good as Chelsea Handler’s Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang—albeit definitely PG compared to Handler’s R-rated work. Now, I’m one of those people who thoroughly enjoy a heavy dose of raunchiness, but what this book lacks in raunch, it makes up for in en-pointe humor designed for the every girl.

In Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns), Mindy candidly discusses her difficulties in losing weight and how she was bullied as a kid for it. The chapter Chubby for Life describes how she was made fun of for being on the heavy side, and how she fought hard to lose weight, only to be made fun of for having been fat before. In a bout of righteous indignation, Mindy declared: “The laws of bullying allow you to be cruel even when the victim had made strides for improvement? This is when I realized that bullies have no code of conduct.”

Another chapter in the book talks about a recent photoshoot Mindy had with close buddy and co-star Ellie Kemper. In this chapter, the comedian talks about the difficulties stylists seemed to have with her fuller figure. During the photoshoot, the stylist thought to bring dozens of gorgeous samples, all of which were a size zero, except for a shapeless navy shift. Feeling sorry for herself, she ducked into a bathroom, only to find words of wisdom offered by some angry student under a bit of poo smeared on the walls. Armed with a newfound take on her situation, Mindy marched up to the stylist and had one of the size zero gowns “fixed” so she could wear it for the shoot. I’ve seen the photos, and Mindy and Ellie look amazing!

Other chapters I loved in Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns) include I Love Irish Exits—where she has convinced me that an Irish Exit is, at least, more considerate than its French counterpart, Why Do Men Put On Their Shoes So Slowly—truth! Why do they take forever with their shoes?, Types of Women in Romantic Comedies Who are Not Real, and Roasts are Terrible.

While I share most of Mindy Kaling’s views, the last one in particular, was very compelling.  I love watching stand-up comedians. But I never really understood roasts, particularly the ones we have now. As Mindy puts it, “The self-proclaimed no-holds-barred atmosphere reminds me of signs for strip clubs on Hollywood Boulevard: ‘We have Crazy Girls. They Do Anything!’ We don’t have to do anything. Let’s bar some holds.”

All in all, I found Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns) an amusing and somewhat eye-opening read. Mindy Kaling has a knack for philosophizing the everyday and finding something witty to share with her readers/audience. While it isn’t exactly laugh-out-loud funny, at least not for this particular reader, it does elicit its fair share of chortles and snickers. And most of all, it’s very well-written.

The Verdict: A 

Now, as stated earlier, I’m a Mindy fan—and proud of it—and this book just solidified that fact.

Her Husband: Ted Hughes & Sylvia Plath, A Marriage. By Diane Middlebrook

Her Husband by Diane Middlebrook

 

Title: Her Husband

Author: Diane Middlebrook

Genre: Non-Fiction, Biography

First Published: 2003

Pages: 350 (with the bibliography but sans the index)

I feel somewhat obliged to inform the reader that this isn’t so much a book review as it is a raw reaction to work, which I consider greatly illuminating. It’s no secret that I’ve been a big fan of Sylvia Plath’s for years. I have such few passions, but the brightest flame that’s got me alit from the very marrow of my bones is Poetry.

And since that life-changing day in high school when my Creative Writing professor read Mirror in class, since I caught a glimpse of the White Goddess in the echoes of the person and works of Plath, I have looked up to the infamous poetess as a child looks up to its idealized mother. In her works, I’ve found the impossible benchmark to my writing.

What I love about “Her Husband” by Diane Middlebrook is that it shatters this extreme idolatry by, in a way, demythologizing Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. What Middlebrook does is she does away with the blame game, refusing to paint Hughes in any other light than what one can discern from both his and Plath’s memories and writings. Through extracting the very essence of the poets’ works and revealing memories from close friends and relatives, the author explains the nature of Plath’s and Hughes’s relationship. One learns that beyond the obvious erotic and magickal pull between these poets, you have this mutually beneficial writing relationship where one calls and the other answers through poetry and prose.

The book also reveals intimate details about Plath, Hughes, and their relationship. We learn about their quirks, personal interests, fears, insecurities, and even their pet names for each other. I guess those details were the most jarring of all. We always seek to unveil our champions, to get under their skin. Find out what makes them tick. I wonder, is it human nature to cringe at the sight of their humanity too? Perhaps cringe is a strong word, but the intimate baring of Plath and Hughes in this book had me feeling a bit ‘uncomfortable’ for a while. It felt as if I’ve waded in the sea of their memories, an unwelcome visitor scared to be treading such private waters. But what can one expect from a good biography? And this one is one of the best biographies I’ve read, after all.

One of the most surprising ‘reveals’ in the book was how Plath actually liked Wevill the first time they met. Wevill had even gone out of her way to get Plath a small gift after they met. Of course, this only served to make the entire thing even more tragic for Plath. It was particularly heartwrenching to read about the humiliation Plath must’ve felt immediately after the split. On the day Hughes packed up to leave their home, she interrogated him about his relationship with Wevill:

“Where had he been? Why had he tricked her? Did he mean to abandon his children? How much money had he spent? How good was sex with Assia? Unfortunately, he answered her questions—‘fed me the truth with leer after leer,’ she [Plath] told her mother. (p.183)

There were certain points in the book where one wondered how Hughes could stand to hurt Plath that way. Obviously, the attraction between Assia and Ted must have been immense for both to act so recklessly as to ruin their marriages. At times, it was easy to paint Hughes as the ‘bad guy.’ But Middlebrook handles this dilemma (this tendency for immediate bias) deftly. She does this by presenting Hughes’s side by quoting a letter Ted had written for his brother:

“The one factor that nobody but close friends can comprehend is Sylvia’s particular death-ray quality,” Hughes wrote to Gerald. “In many of the most important ways she’s the most gifted and capable and admirable woman I’ve ever met—but, finally, impossible for me to live married to.” (p.180)

Hughes had grown restless, the way he was restless before he met Plath. The man and the woman pulled away from each other as the writers in them continued to draw from their wellspring of shared experiences. Eventually they had to call it quits, though Hughes claims that weeks before Plath’s death, a reconciliation may have been in the works.

We all know about Plath’s final creative burst and her tragic death. But this book also talks about Hughes and how he dealt with both Plath’s and Wevill’s suicides. How, after being forced into the role of the ‘relic husband,’ Hughes finally came to terms with being Plath’s collaborator and conduit even after her death. I think it was this point when he began creating his most ‘honest’ and vulnerable works. I’ve always admired Hughes’s writings, but I’ve felt that his latter works were less cerebral, less swathed in obscurity, but more meaningful—more relatable. And that’s a big thing for me.

All in all, I think this is one of the most skillfully written, revealing, and unflinching biographies about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. It’s a great read if you love Plath, Hughes, or poetry (and its processes) in general.

Rating: A+