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: An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison

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Title: An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

Author: Kay Redfield Jamison

Genre: Non-Fiction, Autobiography, Psychology

First Published: 1995

 

Over the course of the last couple of decades, the medical world has made significant progress in finding effective diagnostic and treatment procedures for Bipolar Disorder, formerly known as Manic Depression. The onset of social media has also contributed greatly in disseminating information and dispelling biases against the disorder. And yet, while we are seeing change in the public’s attitude towards the illness, there are just a handful of autobiographical accounts that tackle both the personal and medical effects of the illness as brilliantly as Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness.

Written in the early 90s by Kay Redfield Jamison, a Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, An Unquiet Mind is an eye-opening memoir that effectively changes the way one views bipolar disorder. Now, one of the factors that make the book so compelling is how Jamison—one of the world’s foremost experts on the disorder—pulls from her own experiences as a manic depressive to provide a holistic view of the illness. Bear in mind that this was written during a period wherein an admission such as this could have major personal and professional repercussions for a medical practitioner. Despite the confession’s possible effects on her personal life and career, Jamison decided that to make a difference in the lives of other manic depressives, she needed to speak up. She was also tired of hiding and having to feel as if she had something to hide. In her words:

 

“One is what one is, and the dishonesty of hiding behind a degree, or a title, or any manner and collection of words is still exactly that, dishonest.”

It is with this fearless attitude that she lays bare her struggles against an illness that has brought some of the world’s brightest minds on or past the brink of suicide. In An Unquiet Mind, Jamison paints a vivid picture of a life shaped and distorted by moods and madness. As a child, she was optimistic, driven, but also plagued by a mercurial temperament. Her first manic depressive episode in her late teens meant weeks of flying high only to burn out so quickly that it left her incapable of finding pleasure in anything.

“I counted upon my mind’s acuity, interest, and loyalty as a matter of course. Now, all of a sudden, my mind turned on me; it mocked me for my vapid enthusiasms; it laughed at all of my foolish plans; it no longer found anything interesting or worthwhile.”

As Jamison grew older, her moods continued to worsen. Three months into her work as an assistant professor in the UCLA Department of Psychiatry, she had become a raving psychotic. Initially, her manic episodes conferred terrific advantages—the need for little sleep had coupled with amazing productivity. But at the tail end of those manic moments were long bouts of depression that had her frequently contemplating suicide. Eventually, the lines between the two states of mind became blurred. These episodes became even more pronounced during the time she was battling her way into the male-dominated world of clinical psychology.

After a terrible bout of depression, a colleague managed to convince her to see a psychiatrist. His diagnosis shook her to her very core.

“The endless questioning finally ended. My psychiatrist looked at me, there was no uncertainty in his voice. ‘Manic depressive illness.’ I admired his bluntness. I wished him locusts on his lands and a pox upon his house. Silent, unbelievable rage. I smiled pleasantly. He smiled back. The war had just begun.”

Indeed, the war wasn’t over for Jamison. She had been prescribed lithium—a life-saving drug that tempered her moods but also brought with it an unpleasant string of side effects. For a long time, she went on and off the drug intermittently. At one particularly bleak moment, she decided to kill herself. Her method of choice was overdosing on the drug that was meant to save her. She reveled in its irony. But help came on time, and over the years she realized that the pros of taking lithium greatly outweighed its admittedly many cons.

Ultimately, An Unquiet Mind is a lot more than just a ‘memoir of moods and madness.’ It is an illuminating piece that educates its readers about one of the most misunderstood mental disorders in the world. It’s also a success story, a light at the end of the tunnel for people struggling with bipolar disorder.

Written in incredibly magnetic and eloquent prose, this is a book that effectively pulls the reader in. At times, the emotions from the page became so palpable that it left me breathless. This is a book that has moved me to tears, the first, second, and third time I’ve read it. It has been an honor to have chanced upon this seminal work—and now it takes its place on my metaphorical shelf of literary greats.

Rating: A+++

Definitely a must-read and must-keep.

Book Review: The Stranger by Albert Camus

The Stranger by Albert Camus
The Stranger by Albert Camus

Title: L’Étranger (The Stranger)

Author: Albert Camus

Translated from French by: Matthew Ward

First Published: 1942, Libraire Galliimard

Pages: 123

*Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957

“Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.” Thus begins one of the most striking, complex, and widely read novels of the twentieth century. L’Étranger, translated as The Stranger, is arguably the most popular work of French novelist, author, and philosopher, Albert Camus.

The story follows the life of its main character, Mersault, as he goes from learning about his mother’s death to being tried for one of the most senseless murders in the history of literature. The novel unfolds through Mersault’s perspective, and is divided into two main parts—before he committed the crime, and after his arrest.

As a side note, let me start off by saying, translation matters.

Bear in mind that the Mersault I met was the byproduct of Matthew Ward’s translation. In reading this book under a different translator—whether it be Joseph Laredo or Sandra Smith—you may encounter a different version of Mersault—one that’s either more apathetic or sympathetic depending on who you’re reading. Though all roads lead to pointless murder and an equally ludicrous trial, these translations offer nuances that could shift your perception of the novel’s protagonist.

And on with the summary, we go…

The novel begins with Mersault’s acknowledgment of his mother’s death. It’s important to note his matter-of-fact tone, when he talks about needing to borrow a black tie and catch the two o’clock bus to Marengo, where the old people’s home was located. When he gets to the home, he refuses to see his mother for the last time, choosing to keep the casket closed. He doesn’t divulge what he feels about the matter, opting instead to offer a commentary about the wake and the long walk to the funeral. His indifferent behavior doesn’t escape the notice of the home’s director and caretaker.

The way he describes what ought to have been a tragic occurrence also speaks volumes of how his brain was wired. Mersault observes, “It occurred to me that anyway one more Sunday was over, that Maman was buried now, that I was going back to work, and that, really, nothing had changed.” (p.24)

Upon returning to the city, he immediately takes on a girlfriend, Marie, and makes friends with his neighbor, Raymond—a shady, woman-beater who is generally disliked in the neighborhood. With his help, Raymond manages to lure his mistress back into his apartment, where he proceeds to beat her up after suspecting her of carrying on an affair.

The young woman’s brother, an unnamed Arab, begins tailing Raymond. During a beach trip with Marie and Raymond, Mersault proceeds to kill the Arab. He shoots the Arab four times with such jarring apathy, with his only explanation being that he did it due to the intolerable heat. While the crime was not premeditated, his lack of motive only served as proof of his unacceptable character and his obvious guilt.

In the second part of the novel, we find Mersault incarcerated and the subject of a circus-of-a-trial. While his few friends and girlfriend testify to help clear his name, the fact that he doesn’t believe in God and doesn’t feel remorse for his crime only serves to land him a hasty “Guilty” verdict. In the midst of the trial, Mersault observes with annoyance that his fate was being determined without his participation. The reader also gets the feeling that the novel’s protagonist was being sent to the gallows for more than his crime—he was being condemned to death because of his behavior after his mother’s death. It was a trial against the protagonist’s character more than it was about his crime. As Camus puts it, “In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death…the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.”

The novel concludes with a breathtaking monologue that is equally true as it is tainted by choice. Faced with a chaplain attempting to salvage Mersault’s soul, our protagonist launches into an impassioned tirade about how nothing mattered, for everyone was privileged to live and be carried by the tides of fate, and everyone was equally condemned to face an end—whatever that end may be. With this statement we find Mersault taking command of his fate, for his death was merely the result of the choices he’s made. Choices that didn’t matter to the protagonist. It was simply the way his life unfolded.

Down to a personal review.

To be honest, I itch at the term ‘protagonist.’ For while it’s true that Mersault is the subject of the book, in many ways, his personality becomes the main deterrent against his freedom. But perhaps, that is the point of the whole novel. For if a man condemned to death feels that he is free, if he thinks that he is more free than the rest of the world which is shackled by societal norms and notions of convention, than are we in any position to deem him as limited, condemned, or even damned?

Here was one man who lived according to his terms, though his actions were deplorable, his thought processes, irrational. The point is that they were his, and no one else’s. With Mersault, remorse was an alien concept. He shunned introspection and worship (religion), simply because he had no time for them. To him, these were pointless activities, for what did it all matter in the end? How did such things figure into a man’s final moments?

Though I don’t subscribe to such a bleak outlook in life, I can respect Mersault’s views. I find the desire to be free, free as defined by the individual, to be completely human. Despite the character’s cold and detached nature, he was, purely and simply, a man exercising his right to exist as he saw fit.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in philosophy and existentialist and absurdist literature. Also, for a thinking piece, this one’s a surprisingly easy read that leaves you pondering the purpose of human existence.

As a parting note, here’s some trivia regarding Camus. Although he is now lauded as one of the most important existential writers, he actually rejected the idea of being thought of as an existentialist. He was very vocal about his criticism of this branch of philosophy. To Albert Camus, existentialists “deify what crushes them and find reason to hope in what impoverishes them. That forced hope is religious in all of them.

Verdict: A+

Featured Poem: Resumé by Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker

RESUMÉ

BY: DOROTHY PARKER

Razors pain you;

Rivers are damp;

Acids stain you;

And drugs cause cramp.

Guns aren’t lawful;

Nooses give;

Gas smells awful;

You might as well live.

ANALYSIS.

Unlike most poems that require extensive poring over and stringent analysis, Resumé, by the renowned critic, satirist, poet, and writer, Dorothy Parker, is written in a rather unflinching and straightforward manner. The work almost reads like a catchy anti-suicide ditty, detailing the cons of each potentially fatal method.

From the simplicity of its ABAB rhyming sequence, to its absolute brevity, Resumé is testament to Parker’s incomparable wit and mastery over words. The sparse nature of its lines, completely devoid of the shroud of metaphors, only adds to the impact of the poem.

You might as well live. Its abrupt conclusion speaks volumes of what the poem is about. While the message is positive in its attempt to dissuade the reader from offing himself/herself, it also has an undeniably sardonic edge to it. The actual message being “don’t bother committing suicide,” – as if staying alive was a sorry compensation for not succeeding in accomplishing the otherwise.

And then we have the title of the piece: Resumé—note the accent on the letter e. Remove the accent, and we have resume, which means to move on. That would make perfect sense. But resumé? A resumé, simply put, refers to a brief summary of a person’s qualifications, achievements, educational background, etc. It’s what you submit when you’re applying for a position in an organization—or when you want to reassure someone of your expertise on a particular topic or subject. So, why resumé?

I must admit, the first time I read this poem, which was back in college—eight or so, odd years ago—I had chosen to ignore the accent, thinking ‘resume’ made better sense. But upon closer study of Dorothy Parker’s life, it appeared that the title was just excellent wordplay from her end. Having survived four suicide attempts, Parker is more than qualified to discuss the merits and demerits of suicide and its various methods. The sense of disillusionment that cloaks the closing line also makes better sense upon discovering these details. In a way, this is a part of her resumé, giving us a brief glance of the chapters in her life that she’d had to live through.

Extras:

Tidbit#1: Dorothy Parker lived to the age of 73. She died of a fatal coronary on the 7th of June, 1967.

Tidbit#2: She suggested that her epitaph be, “Excuse my dust.” Another suggestion she had was, “This is on me.”

Tidbit#3: Throughout her life, Parker had been a strong believer in social justice. Having no heirs, she decided to leave her literary estate to Martin Luther King, Jr., who she had never met, but shared ideals with. When Dr. King was assassinated a year later, the estate was turned over to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Image from: Wikipedia

Book Review: Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf

Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf
My tattered copy of Virginia Woolf’s essays

Title: Three Guineas

Author: Virginia Woolf

Genre:  Essay

First Published:  1938

“Three years is a long time to leave a letter unanswered…” And thus begins Three Guineas–Virginia Woolf’s powerful essay on how the practices of the Victorian patriarchal system could be likened to the unarguable evils of tyranny and fascism. The essay is drafted as a response to the letter of an educated gentleman seeking Woolf’s opinions on how war could be prevented. Though many answers have suggested themselves to Woolf, the gentleman’s letter went unanswered for over three years.

Woolf clarifies that this is because none of these answers could be left without ample explanation. The differences in the psyche of the educated man and his sister had created a seemingly unbridgeable chasm that made immediate understanding of the reasonings of each sex near impossible. So, to answer the gentleman’s question, Woolf had to delve into the root of this ‘misunderstanding’ and find what unique and effective solutions could arise from it.

To illustrate the differences between the ways of thinking of the educated man and his sister, Woolf offers the reader the AEF or Arthur’s Education Fund. The AEF, as seen in the Pendennis, figures into household ledgers as the educational funds set aside for the sons in the family. This fund is designed to pay for more than man’s schooling, it also pays for all the other ‘essential parts’ of his education–including travel, leisure, lodging, and society. According to Woolf, the account has been in existence since the 13th century, and the educated man’s sister has paid her dues to the AEF for just as long. Though monetary contribution was out of the question–for the daughter of an educated man had no money of her own to contribute–she paid her dues through the sacrifices she was forced to make for her brother. For centuries, women were barred, not just from the professions but also the universities.

For a long time, Psychology became the only unpaid-for education available to women. This is, of course, going with the assumption that choosing a husband and making a marriage work are forms of practical Psychology within themselves. For a long time too, up until 1919 in fact, marriage was the only ‘profession’ open to women.  So you can understand how the social, physical, and educational limitations imposed on women during this period could affect her understanding of the necessity of war and violence. While a great majority of men saw war as either the ultimate manifestation of machismo or the natural expression of patriotism, out of their own shared experience under patriarchal rule, women were more inclined to question the need for war. Having been brought up to submit to fathers, brothers, and husbands, these women found no glory in violence. Faced with the possibility of war, they were more inclined to ask, “Why fight?”

Even the need for patriotism was questioned; for how has patriotism directly benefited the educated man’s daughter? During Woolf’s period, when a woman married a foreigner, she was asked to relinquish her citizenship and take on her husband’s. How then was she to form loyalties with a country that was not her own once she married outside of it? What did she owe a society that had caged her for as long as she could remember? But the possibility of war must be fought–as is made evident by the abundance of pictures laid out before Woolf. Images of homes torn asunder by bombs, the countless and faceless dead… But how to effectively prevent it?

While answering the gentleman’s letter, Woolf turns to two other documents that lie open on her desk. One is a request for funds to rebuild a women’s college, the other asks for financial support to help women gain a more secure footing within the professions. Woolf then uses these letters to illustrate how supporting these causes can, in fact, also be considered support for the anti-war movement. She addresses the gentleman:

“…But we have sworn that we will do all we can to help you to prevent war by using our influence–our earned money influence. And education is the obvious way. Since she is poor, since she is asking for money, and since the giver of money is entitled to dictate terms, let us risk it and draft a letter to her, laying down the terms upon which she shall have our money to help rebuild her college.”  – excerpt from Vintage Classic’s A Room of One’s Own & Three Guineas. p.129

And that is exactly what Virginia Woolf does. She imagines this experimental college founded on youth and poverty. This cheap college that focuses not on segregating and specializing, but a college that offers freedom from ‘the miserable distinctions of rich and poor, of clever and stupid…’ (p.133) It was, by all means, a college that did not breed vanity, competition, jealousy, and unreal loyalties. Instead, it was there to educate women, to help them earn their livings, and more importantly, to give them the freedom to have an opinion that is other than what is taught in the household, in church, or in whatever institution demands their blind loyalty…To the treasurer of the women’s college, Woolf relinquished her first guinea.

Then, it was time to look at the other letter. This one was from the honorary treasurer of a society designed to help women find employment in the professions. Here is where Woolf discusses the politics of economy as seen in the household. As Woolf puts it, ‘It seems that the person to whom the salary is actually paid is the person who has the actual right to decide how that salary should be spent…’ (p. 155) Marriage, by all descriptions, is just as noble as any other profession–but it is one that is unpaid. Woolf posits that without power over her own finances, a woman is robbed of the right to participate in such noble causes as that of the gentleman writer’s, if her husband disagrees with it. And so goes Woolf’s second guinea. As she puts it:

“…It was necessary to answer her letter and the letter from the honorary treasurer of the college rebuilding fund, and to send them both guineas before answering you letter, because unless they are helped, first to educate the daughters of educated men, and then to earn their living in the professions, those daughters cannot possess an independent and disinterested influence with which to help you to prevent war…” (p.182)

Finally, after much meandering–though it was justified meandering–Woolf addresses the gentleman fully. To his cause, she offers her third and last guinea. She explains that while she supports his anti-war effort, she cannot become a member of his society. For the fundamental differences between the male and female perspectives must remain for continued (mental, political, societal, cultural, et al.) progress to be attained.

The Verdict: A+.

Although Three Guineas was written almost 80 years ago, this supercharged polemic from Virginia Woolf is just as moving as it was back in the day. It certainly isn’t what you’d call a ‘quick read.’ In fact, if it took Woolf three years to draft this letter, it took me three months (and several shots of tequila) to write this review. Well, technically, I wrote this in one go, but the ideas have been simmering in the back burner for months.  So while it isn’t an easy read, it is one that is ‘necessary.’ There is much to glean from Woolf’s writings. That is why I’m putting this up as a ‘must-read’ for everyone. Believe me, it will do you a world of good.

Read my review of Virginia Woolf‘s “A Room of One’s Own.”

Book Review: The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

Sirens of Titan and Bob Dylan2

Title: The Sirens of Titan

Author: Kurt Vonnegut

Genre: Science Fiction

First Published: 1959

Grade: A++++++

 

The Sirens of Titan may be Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, but it’s also one of his most sure-footed and successful works. In this book, Vonnegut attempts to answer the ultimate question–”What is the purpose of man?” And this he does with copious amounts of dark humor and much aplomb. In true Vonnegut fashion, he introduces a wholly human character caught in the maelstrom of chance. Malachi Constant, our unfortunate protagonist, is both likable and unlikable. At the very least, he is strangely relatable. Despite being a billionaire, (the richest man in America), there is an emptiness that gnaws at Malachi, an existential dilemma he can’t shake. He waits to be given purpose by God or the Cosmos, or whoever it is at the end of that endless phone line that stretches through Space.

Purpose comes in the dubious form of Winston Niles Rumfoord, the only human being to have ever been chronosynclastically infundibulated. Rumfoord had ridden out to space with his faithful dog, Kazak, when his ship ran straight into a chronosynclastic infundibulum. This space phenomenon enables Rumfoord to see all things in the past and in the future. It offers Rumfoord a type of omniscience that would be god-like, had it meant that Rumfoord was exempt of whatever it was Fate had in store for him. The trade-off to gaining almighty knowledge is that Rumfoord and Kazak were spread thinly throughout time and space. They began to exist in a wave phenomena that enabled them to materialize on Earth, Mars, and Mercury in predictable intervals while staying properly stuck in Titan.

Rumfoord and Malachi’s paths cross when Rumfoord asks his wife, Beatrice, to invite the latter to one of his materializations. There, Rumfoord reveals Malachi’s fate to him. Malachi and Beatrice were set to be sent to Mars where they would fall in love, have a child, and grow old in the beautiful Saturn moon, Titan. Rebelling against this idyllic albeit forced setup, Malachi does what he can to make Beatrice hate him–and he succeeds for a time. It almost seems as if Beatrice and Malachi would never cross paths again,  but as is one of the greatest themes in The Sirens of Titan, there is no escaping fate. And true to Vonnegut’s style, Malachi and Beatrice both suffer tremendously before something too distorted, something too similar to resignation to actually be called a ‘happy ending,’ takes place.

The next time we see Malachi, we see him as Unk. A low-ranking infantry officer in Mars who has just had his memories erased for the nth time. This is an unusual case in Mars. Usually, you get your memories wiped clean once, get your antenna installed, and you’re obedient and thoughtless as sheep soon after. But in Unk’s case, he always manages to regain thoughts of Earth and past memories, sometimes with the help of his best friend, Stony Stevenson. He always seeks out his mate, Beatrice, and child, Chronos. He always imagines Earth to be a better place where he can be with his family at last. In Unk, Malachi has become the opposite of who he always thought he was. As Unk, Malachi could live without a penny to his name but with the dream of family and friendship to get him through whatever fix he was in.

Now, with such noble dreams, one would expect Unk/Malachi to get the happy ending he’s after. Maybe Malachi could escape to Earth with Bea and Chronos, grow some potatoes. Be a self-sustaining family with little contact with the outside world. But to end the book this way would equate to pussy-footing around life. Like most talented and sadistic writers, Kurt Vonnegut knows the value of a relatable hero. He knows the appeal of the long-suffering protagonist. He doesn’t waste the chance to play up the dark comedy called human existence.

At the start of the story, Malachi’s name is explained to the reader. Malachi means faithful messenger. This is the root of Malachi’s early existential drama. He awaits the message he’s meant to deliver, he waits for a higher purpose. Turns out, his purpose was to create Chronos with Bea. Chronos becomes the faithful messenger in the story. He delivers a piece of metal to Salo, a Tralfamadorian traveler marooned in Titan. Salo, himself, is a messenger–a machine designed by human-like creatures from the planet of Tralfamadore. Salo was sent into Space to travel billions of years in search of a specific alien civilization. The piece of metal (Chronos’ good luck piece) is the replacement part Salo needs to fix his ship. In the end, Malachi did find purpose, he did find his place in the great scheme of things. But did he really find purpose or was he only ‘a victim of a series of accidents.’ From the all-knowing and all-seeing perspective of God and any other chronosynclastically infundibulated being, is human life merely a straight line, or even a tiny, fixed point set against the vastness of the Cosmos? Is there no higher purpose? Or if there is, is it a purpose worth living for?

Like a seasoned pro, Vonnegut has his main character (and the reader) jumping through hoops, suffering burn after burn. And yet, on Unk goes. Against all odds, Unk goes–that you almost wish for a deus ex machina, for a red herring of sorts. You think ill of Rumfoord and shake your fist at his cruelty, only to realize that his life was the biggest joke in the book. There are a lot of emotions to be gone through in The Sirens of Titan. There are a lot of surprises too. And while the bleak nature of the book’s humor may make you want to let go of the book and seek some sunshine, you always go back to it, because quite frankly, it’s that good. It’s more than just a page-turner, it’s a thinking piece. It’s a fecking good piece of literature that thankfully sticks.

The Sirens of Titan is definitely one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years. Worth recommending to anyone interested in Science Fiction, Philosophy, and great literature, in general. If you loved Slaughterhouse Five, this would be right up your alley.

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+