Review: Writing a Woman’s Life

Writing a Woman's Life
Writing a Woman’s Life by Carolyn G. Heilbrun

Though published nearly 30 years ago, Writing A Woman’s Life is a compelling feminist argument that still has value today. Heilbrun argues that there are far fewer narratives of women’s lives available to us than there are narratives of men’s lives. Why does this matter?

“We live our lives through texts. They may be read, or chanted, or experienced electronically, or come to us, like the murmurings of our mothers, telling us what conventions demand. Whatever their form or medium, these stories have formed us all; they are what we must use to make new fictions, new narratives.”

We make sense of our lives through narratives, and we make decisions about what is possible in the context of whatever stories are available to us. In this sense, narratives of women’s lives– biographies, autobiographies, memoirs– serve as road maps, showing us what kind of lives can be lived. They can open up the world or close it down.

One of the most interesting distinctions Heilbrun makes is between romance stories (often ending in marriage) and quest stories. This is a useful distinction, because it calls attention to the patterns of difference between women’s and men’s lives. Quest stories are exciting. They emphasize self-determination and agency. Men on quests pursue their passions and strike out on their own. In contrast, women’s romance stories are closed loops. They operate all in the service of finding a man to dissolve into, the goal being to lose oneself, as opposed to constructing oneself, becoming a whole person. Obviously, much has changed since this book was written, and a major shift occurred when the writing of working-class women and women of color became more widely accessible. But it is still worth considering to what degree this argument is still applicable today.

“We must stop reinscribing male words, and rewrite our ideas about what Nancy Miller calls a female impulse to power, as opposed to the erotic impulse which alone is supposed to impel women. We know we are without a text, and must discover one.”

This is the kind of book that I crave– a strong feminist voice that asserts women’s right to personhood, to leading a full life and developing to one’s greatest potential. It chips apart commonplace assumptions about what kind of lives women and men are allowed to live, and for that, I’m definitely grateful for this book.

Review: A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt–And Why They Shouldn’t

A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt--And Why They Shouldn't
A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt–And Why They Shouldn’t by William B. Irvine

Honestly, I picked up this book for advice on handling those moments of being verbally knocked down and walked over (which seem to be happening all too often in my life recently– thank you, food service work!). The first part of the book is mostly just entertaining– amusing historical examples of people who knew how to sling some nasty comebacks at the drop of a hat. Most interesting to me though is Irvine’s discussion of the social uses of insults, how they establish or reinforce hierarchies, but also help us bond with each other through good-natured teasing.

I can’t help but think about this dual nature of insults in relation to microagressions. An insult can be interpreted differently by those involved, and the insulter might think they are doing nothing more than harmless teasing, making a joke that might even draw people together. In this way, the insulter doesn’t have to face the implications of their words and how those words might reinforce systems of oppression. Then, this dynamic makes the person who has been insulted doubt themselves and the validity of their interpretation. Derald Wing Sue talks about the pain of this doubt in Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation (which should be required reading for every human). The psychological and emotional strain of seemingly small, everyday slights can profoundly shape a person’s experience, and ultimately, their life chances. This is also part of the everyday, lived experience that contributes to a sense of double consciousness.

Irvine breaks down the many possible responses one can give when insulted, outlining the pros and cons of each approach. Ultimately, he takes cues from the Stoics, who sought a sort of inner equanimity that could not be swayed by insults (or praise). While reading this book, I had a strange sense of coming across this argument before. And yes, as it turns out, I was actually remembering another book by Irvine I had read several years ago, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.

I see so much overlap here with Buddhism. One of the major goals of my own practice is to become mindful of (and able to deal with) the pull of sense perceptions. The mind is like grass blowing in the wind, pulled whatever direction perceptions and emotions take it. If we become solid, like the unmoving log, we are not thrown around so easily and suffering is lessened. The same principle is true of maintaining both inner and outer composure when insulted. The takeaway: when in doubt, just say “Thanks!” and move on with your day. Useful advice indeed.

View all my reviews

Review: A Philosophy of Walking

A Philosophy of Walking
A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros brings together biography and an exploration of the history and meanings of the simple act of taking a walk. Gros pulls together an interesting selection of philosophers, writers, and leaders who all used walking to stimulate ideas and some even to push for social change.

On a personal level, I really do love taking walks through different cities, and that is what drew me to this book to begin with. Being able to spend the entire day just exploring, crossing bridges over a river, or stumbling upon a neighborhood I didn’t even know about… These are all experiences that allow me to clear my head and feel like I fully inhabit a place. Also, as a runner, I find that going out and doing this repetitive, sometimes monotonous and exhausting activity, allows the chatter in my mind to quiet down and a clearer perspective to emerge. Ideas often strike when I am up and out, moving around, engaged and really seeing the world. Going for a walk can be the best way to get out of whatever mental rut you find yourself in.

I suppose the most glaring omission for me is the sociological side of this story. How do power and inequality shape the movement of people through public space? How does race, class, and gender influence a person’s access to public spaces, to a sense of safety, to reaping all the benefits of being able to just go out and take a stroll? This would of course be my interest, but these aren’t Gros’s questions here and that’s a different book altogether.

One of the most intriguing parts of the book is a discussion of the history of pilgrimages and the spiritual aspects of walking. On some level, fatigue from walking can be purifying. Gros writes about how walking strips away our social roles. When I am out walking by myself, I am not my occupation or my relationship to others. These roles fall away and I am that more basic, fundamental self, that core of me that just exists and does not need to justify or defend or impress. I think this is an important aspect of spiritual life, or as Diane Ackerman calls it, “deep play.” I am really intrigued by those moments when we are engaged in whatever activity it may be that pulls us closer to…. whatever you want to call it. It could be “Buddha nature” or “God” or something else that doesn’t quite get at it either. Anyway, this is a good reminder of the importance of contemplation and solitude and walking, and overall, an enjoyable and quick read.

View all my reviews

J.K. Rowling’s Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination

Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of ImaginationJ.K. Rowling’s Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination is a transcript of a graduation speech she gave at Harvard in 2008 in a charmingly illustrated, tiny book form. I picked it up mostly because of the tagline. Why of course I could use some advice about failure and imagination! Thanks, J.K.

And I actually found it to be better than expected! There are moments in life when it is really, really helpful to have the upsides of failure pointed out to you. It is comforting to be reminded that other people have been in similarly lowly situations, and to see how they have, as Rowling puts it, used rock bottom as the solid foundation on which they’ve rebuilt their lives. Cute imagery there.

But what I was surprised to find out is that sales from the book have benefited Lumos, an organization Rowling founded to end childhood institutionalization. I am not totally versed in what this organization does, and honestly, I didn’t buy the book and don’t have a whole lot of desire to know more about J.K. Rowling’s activism. But, as imperfect as I’m sure this organization’s work is, I was happy to find out that her intent with the book was greater than just cashing in on some individualistic tale of overcoming adversity. I am OK with that.

View all my reviews

Fall 2015 Reading Recap

612siddharthaWell, I’ve taken a few months away from blogging, but find myself back here as 2015 is coming to an end. I wanted to write a bit of a recap to catch up on some of the books I’ve been reading. I’ve found myself diving head first into a variety of works on spirituality and Buddhism in particular. Living through a difficult year personally, this reading has helped me a great deal.

 

Of course, I am wary of accepting philosophies wholesale; I am grappling with these ideas and picking them apart. But so far, the reading I’m doing and the meditation practice that I’ve started have helped me shift my focus towards gratitude and generosity and to find a measure of peace in this messy life. I am admittedly in the earliest phase of this whole new turn in my thinking, and I don’t necessarily espouse any of this to anybody! It’s interesting to know about nonetheless. Here’s some of the highlights:

  • Essential Spirituality: The 7 Central Practices to Awaken Heart and Mind by Roger Walsh – Excellent introduction to the topic. Walsh does a great job boiling down the world religions to their core ideas and practices. I am especially interested in the psychology inherent in spirituality. In my own experience, it’s been extremely difficult to “control” my mind– or at least learn to grapple with the way it can run off the rails– if I don’t also have my heart in the process. This aspect of heart is an essential lesson that Walsh and others bring to the fore.
  • A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life by Jack Kornfield – The more I read and listen to Jack Kornfield (his podcasts are great, too), the more I seriously love him. He’s the most gentle and thoughtful guy. Reading a book like this is different from reading a novel or some interesting nonfiction. It’s something you work with, jump to the most relevant chapters, come back to certain parts as life keeps moving forward and new challenges arise. It’s a process rather than a discrete reading. This is new for me, but I love the experience of coming back to something I’ve read previously, but for whatever reason, whatever new situation I’ve encountered since the first reading, I will just “get” a particular point in a way that I didn’t at first glance.
  • Opening the Lotus: A Woman’s Guide to Buddhism by Sandy Boucher –  One of the more difficult aspects of starting to study Buddhism has been parsing out the political implications. Does an emphasis on acceptance require me to accept things I would not normally accept? How does one go about balancing compassion for others and compassion for oneself? What are the implications of these ideas for social change and resistance? Opening the Lotus is a good introduction to the ways in which gender has been relevant through the history of the religion and how it operates today in various settings, especially in Western Buddhist circles. Some of the most interesting parts are those about Buddhist goddesses like Kwan Yin and Tara, who I had no idea about.

This reading, along with Ram Dass and Sharon Salzberg podcasts, has shaped the way I am thinking these days. I can’t say I will always be this caught up in these particular ideas, but they seem to be right there when I need them at this moment. Life keeps moving, and we all keep changing, continually. I look forward to investigating this more, though, and especially being able to relate it back to my interests in feminism, psychology, and social theory.

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen, Reviewed

Nguyen’s writing immerses readers in a richly detailed world of traditional Vietnamese dishes, American junk food, and tamales. With food as a starting point, she explores issues of belonging, marginalization, class, and girlhood. This is the kind of book you can just get lost in. You fall in love with the characters. You root for them and take pleasure in their successes, no matter how small or seemingly trivial. (Like the terrific scene where school-age Nguyen and her sister triumphantly make a mess of the perfect, pretty white girl’s bedroom! So much joy in this moment– and a little bit of the brashness of youth.)

I love the author’s descriptions of the books she read growing up, with a focus on everything food-related in classics like Little House on the Prairie and Little Women. She tells her stories with a sharp attention to class and race, to plenitude and deprivation, to all the meanings that food takes on.

I couldn’t believe when she mentioned Harriet the Spy‘s tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches! I distinctly remember wanting to eat those because of that character, too. The difference of course being that I was the privileged white kid whose mom was there to make the sandwich, to pack all the “right” things in my lunch, and have pork chops ready for dinner. I don’t know what to say besides the fact that books like this are really important. Being in a privileged position allows you to take a lot of things for granted, to let them to go completely unexamined. This book calls out, puts a name to, the assumptions, the little cultural building blocks of white supremacy. But racial and class hierarchies play out in what’s for dinner, in how comfortable a kid feels at another kid’s house, in how teachers and other adults might praise a student (or write them off). Those things stick to you, and make you who you are.

Nguyen does an amazing job picking those complex experiences apart. This is highly recommended reading for anyone interested in this race-class-gender-food nexus. Not to mention family, immigration, American consumer culture, school, friendship, and so on. In short, there is a lot of good, important stuff going on in this book!

Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton, Reviewed

May Sarton with catThere is something really sweet about someone handing you their journal to read. Being let in to the rhythms of another person’s daily life is also a comfort.

I am not sure about Sarton’s religious ideas, but in a lot of other ways, she drew me in.

The journal of this one year in her life shows a passionate, loving person, who takes in and turns over the astounding and amazing parts of being alive, however simple they may be. A day working in the garden, flowers on the table, a bird, a poem, a friend. At one point, she writes about how it’s the job of the artist to filter experiences through themselves, and to do so, one must be honest and unashamed. So here is a journal.

She tries to balance her need to be with others and her need to be alone. And let’s be honest, that can be really difficult sometimes. But throughout the book, what comes through is that she truly enjoys the creative process, and in some ways, that is when she is at her best. When the annoyances fade away, and she can WRITE.

Dworkin’s Heartbreak, Reviewed

I am reading Dworkin out of order, starting with these personal essays. I have been on an essay and memoir kick recently, and I just can’t pass up a book titled Heartbreak (so good!). A lot of people hate Dworkin, and I suppose this has something to do with her uncompromising stance towards some controversial issues (and saying a bunch of things people don’t want to hear in an impolite way). Some things she wrote were construed as pro-incest, but having read Heartbreak, I am highly skeptical that that was her point. So why does she get a bad rap? People’s disdain and disgust for radical feminists that persists to this day draws me to them so strongly. I’m just starting to piece together the legacy of radical feminism and have a lot of reading and thinking to do, but the stuff gets my heart pumping. And I loved these essays.

Dworkin has a do-or-die commitment to women. She cares deeply for those who have been abused and coerced by men. And she is dedicated to listening to what women have to say.

I do not know why so many women trusted me enough to speak to me, but underneath anything I write one can hear the percussive sound of their heartbeats. If one has to pick one kind of pedagogy over all others, I pick listening.

Through the course of these essays, she shows a tireless impulse to have an open heart towards other people’s pain. She feels the harm that men cause in the world so acutely. This ability to connect one’s experiences to others’, to listen to other women who have basically been through the shit, and then to act on that in a positive way, to set out to make sure that those abuses don’t happen anymore… it’s some of the best things a human can do in the face of this messed up world, and I love Dworkin for it.

The other thing that I am drawn to in her writing (and her life) is her refusal to compromise. In one chapter, she writes about people trying to make her sing “Silent Night,” and how she had never and would never sing it. She calls things as she sees them without mincing words. I mean, I can work to cultivate an appreciation for ambiguity as much as the next person, but there are also situations where a person needs to see through the mud people try to fill your head with. Dworkin sees through this bullshit, she is critical of all the lying adults she encounters, and she resists all the ways that people try to break her spirit.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin, Reviewed

Kate Chopin portraitNext stop on my mission to finally read some of the feminist works I haven’t gotten around to: Chopin’s The Awakening. It seems like most people read this one in high school, and I’m glad I didn’t actually. I am fairly confident that I would have hated it then and dismissed it completely. Reading it now, at 29 (same age as the main character for the latter part of the story), I could appreciate it. Reviewing this book without giving away major plot points is impossible, so be warned that what follows is full of spoilers!

The story revolves around Edna Pontellier, who is married to a wealthy businessman and has two small children. The book begins in Grand Isle, where the family is vacationing in the Gulf. We see that Edna’s marriage is stifling and mothering doesn’t interest her all that much. As the summer goes on, Edna develops feelings for another man, Robert Lebrun. But he sets off for Mexico unexpectedly. Back in New Orleans, Edna’s passionate awakening is now in full swing. She starts to follow her own desires instead of trying to fit into the restrictive life that has been set out for her– she pursues her interest in art, starts to come and go whenever she pleases, and finally takes up residence in a smaller house around the corner from the family mansion. When Robert returns to New Orleans, the desire Edna’s been harboring for him doesn’t quite work out. After some passionate kissing and caressing, Robert decides to leave in order to protect Edna and himself from the fallout that would likely occur if they followed their desire to be together.

In some ways, this is the perfect first-wave feminist work of literature. It seems obvious to point out that Edna is white and extremely privileged, but it’s important. The womanhood that she struggles against (with its emphasis on submissiveness, chasteness, purity) is constructed in contrast to the supposed easy sensuality of a number of women of color who we see mostly coming in and out of the background of the book. There is Mariequita, the “Spanish girl” in Grand Isle, with her dirty feet, and the general category of seductive “Mexican women” the characters refer to. Edna’s world is one where “the quadroon” looks after her children (though Edna always has a comment about her ineptitude), nameless “black girls” sweep and do laundry, and Edna has a relaxing weekend watching the “darkies” do fieldwork at her parents’ estate. I point these things out, not because they are aspects of Edna’s world that are so jarring to me 2015, but because it is vital to understand how white, middle-class womanhood is racially constructed (still to this day).

In this context, Edna’s attempts to feel passionately, to become awakened, fall flat for me. Though there are some poignant scenes towards the beginning, my empathy for her peters out. Edna’s obviously not shaking off some great chains of oppression in her situation, and the way she takes people for granted bugs me. I can’t help but draw comparisons between her and Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which I also read recently and definitely enjoyed more. Same kind of privileged white woman, but at least in Nora’s case, she is upfront with her husband about why she needs to break free from him. Nora decides to leave to go become an independent person, and she walks out the door. Edna, in contrast, is a little bit sneaky while her husband is away on business and seems to be waiting for somebody, ideally Robert, to rescue her from the monotony of her life. In the end, no one can rescue her. The other dude, Arobin, is a creep, and Robert is just as beholden to the rules of the era as her husband is.

I suppose what annoys me about it all is that Edna’s struggle to find passion and become a real, independent person comes off as shallow (and maybe this is just because it’s 2015 now and I have more options for how to live than Edna did). Passion can definitely awaken you to life, but you have to go somewhere from there. Love is a more nourishing, sustaining action, and I don’t think Edna ever allows herself to get there. Of course it’s going to end badly if you just substitute one man for the next! But she’s got her artwork and her new attitude towards the world and a model of what it’s like to be a female artist living on your own (the pianist, Mademoiselle Reisz). Why not move forward and explore the possibilities of what life could be like, as Nora does? For me, that would have made a much more powerful, feminist statement.

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, Reviewed

I finally sat down with Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and am really glad I did. Le Guin gets pigeonholed as just a sci-fi writer (she talks about it here), and this has definitely steered me away from her work. What is it about science fiction that makes me feel ambivalent at best? I’m sure this is an unfair generalization, but sci-fi always seemed to me like a world that adolescent boys and young, nerdy men can dive into to forget about their worries and to find strong, reassuring male heroes. But what appeal could that have for me? I don’t want to read novels to escape to a dressed up version of the status quo (or to force myself to wade through really complex “hard” science that I’m not all that interested in). Dystopian novels always made a lot of sense to me though. They have that uncanny ability to reveal familiar facets of power and oppression in the strangest, most foreign worlds (recently, I loved On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee). And I have tried with some sci-fi lately. 2312 didn’t capture me and was impossible to trudge through.

The Dispossessed isn’t like that. Yes, it’s science fiction. And once in a while, I felt like I was watching a cheesy episode of Star Trek from the 1970s. But there are a lot of great things about this book.

What does freedom look like and how can it be cultivated? So many people have written about Le Guin’s choice to make the anarchist society of Anarres imperfect. While it is ostensibly a free society, power still operates in a more insidious way. A group of Anarresti begin to recognize the ways in which they are unfree, how they are compelled to obey work placements and compromise their values and scientific or artistic endeavors. Le Guin’s imperfect Anarres illustrates that people can’t just arrive at this noble goal– a society built on anarchist “principles”– and then live there happily-ever-after. Freedom is something that people must strive for continually. (Just as hierarchies must be continually maintained by those in power.) For me, this is actually a hopeful insight. We don’t just fail and call it quits, saying oh people will never be free, the powerful are just too powerful. The struggle for freedom is a constant, it’s a way of being in the world.

I have also been thinking more specifically about gender in this book. Online, people tend to point to Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness to discuss her gender politics, but I think The Dispossessed is interesting in its own right. First of all, why a male protagonist? If Anarres is such an egalitarian society, why don’t we have a female physicist driving the story? I was wondering this throughout the book, especially when we get to learn more about Takver, Shevek’s female partner. According to one site, Le Guin has defended her decision by explaining that she is drawn to entering alien minds. So writing from a male point of view is an interesting challenge, and I can buy this reasoning. I also think just logistically, it allows her to create a character that is going to be at least relatively accepted on Urras, enough that we can see how that very oppressive world operates.

The Anarresti aren’t hung up about the differences between men and women. They don’t emphasize them to institute a hierarchy of the sexes. They also do a lot to remove class distinctions. Essentially, class societies are those where certain groups of people do the dirty work while others don’t have to. But the Anarresti take work placements every so often to do whatever work needs to get done. This is pretty intriguing stuff!

I am looking forward to reading more of Le Guin’s work, as well as more specifically feminist science fiction. There is something really powerful and captivating in being able to re-imagine the world, the whole of it, the way society is fundamentally organized, and the kinds of relationships that form the foundation of that.