Category Archives: feminism

An Unnecessary Woman.

UWfinalcompAn Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine is the kind of novel that practices what it preaches, one where form matches function, and one where I felt ready to give up on it half way through when I couldn’t define a real plot line, but then began to see what Alameddine was up to with his protagonist.  Aaliyah Saleh, 72, has lived alone in her Beirut apartment ever since her husband of 4 years left in her early twenties. She spent her career working, and educating herself, in a bookshop and retired when the shop closed.  She translates a novel a year, using French and English versions to write an Arabic one, and yet she simply saves her work in a small back room of her apartment.  We meet her when she is pondering her next translation, and her thoughts take us through the Lebanese Civil War, as well her more personal battles.  By the end, it feels like we’ve not necessarily read a book with a clear plot, but instead got to know a woman and her city.

The most interesting part of this book for me the fact that while Aaliyah is virtually a recluse at this point of her life, she is also a brilliant literary theorist–and her theories were fascinating. Real literature, she asserts passionately and convincingly, exists to make palpable the mysteries of human existence, not explain them away.  This is what Alameddine did with his work, and why I think this book wasn’t written with the standard narrative plot. I think this book is brilliant, though difficult to recommend unless you comfortable stepping into Aaliyah’s world–and if you are reading from a privileged, Western perspective, being made to feel a bit uncomfortable.

Because her world is so intricate and complex, and because it took me the entire length of the book to fully appreciate its purpose (the “rising action” occurs in last 15 pages or so), I thought the best way to end this post is to share some of Aaliyah’s ideas–her reflection on the literature she reads and the Lebanese Civil War is extraordinary. The irony of the title is not lost on the reader, because though she is a childless, unmarried, reclusive woman, her voice is also absolutely necessary in a reader’s growing understanding of human existence.

None of us know how to deal with the aleatory nature of pain. (98)

One reason we desire explanations is that they separate us and make us feel safe. (99)

There should be a new literary resolution: no more epiphanies. Have pity on readers who reach the end of a real-life conflict in confusion and don’t experience a false sense of temporary enlightenment.  Dear contemporary writers, you make me feel inadequate because my life isn’t as clear and concise as your stories. (148)

No loss is felt more keenly than the loss of what might have been. No nostalgia hurts as much as nostalgia for things that never existed. (155)

To write is to know you are not home…It is that longing for a mystical homeland, not necessarily a physical one, that inspires art…I appreciate longing.  (195-196)

Passion, responsibility, feminism.

For some context as to where a lot of my recents books have come from, I come from a long line of readers–the kinds who are in years-long book clubs, who will place a book in your hands and tell you to read it right away, who will mail you a book so you don’t have to buy it yourself, passionate readers.  Lately, I’ve been making my way through some of the books my mom and her sisters have read, having packed six of them in my suitcase the last time I was home (including Beautiful Ruins and The Art of Hearing Heartbeats).

If you are looking for a legal mystery, try Defending Jacob about a District Attorney whose son is accused of murdering a classmate.  In keeping with the family reading ties, my brother borrowed it when he was last home, drove it to Louisville for Easter and I flew it back to Brooklyn. It’s the kind of book you can read really quickly but then you are left considering all of the ethical dilemmas long after the end of the story.  My summer reading list is being developed in part from a facebook conversation I’ve been having with a few of my cousins. There is something I love about literary lineage.  My summer reading list will be posted tomorrow, June 1!

The latest from my mom’s stack is called Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, based on a true story: Frank Lloyd Wright’s affair with a married woman, Mamah Cheney who he met while designing her home in Oak Park, Illinois.  It is told from Mamah’s perspective and hosts its own number of ethical dilemmas.  It reminded me a lot of The Paris Wife, only in this story, it is the woman who leaves her family to pursue personal, artistic growth.  Horan writes it as a story Mamah tells in a quest to process her decisions and perhaps feel understood: “It has always been on the written page that the world has come into focus for me. If I can piece all these bits of memory together with the diaries and letters and the scribbled thoughts that clutter my mind and bookshelves, then maybe I can explain what happened. Maybe the worlds I have inhabited for the past seven years will assume order and logic and wholeness on paper. Maybe I can tell my story in a way that is useful to someone else.”  

Throughout the book Mamah battled judgement from most, and to be honest, it was difficult to see past the fact that she abandoned her children–which was part of the tension I imagine Horan wanted to create.  What was interesting was the way the media was still at work in those days, publically scandalizing the affair in newspapers–and blaming Mamah for her corruption of Frank Lloyd-Wright.

I suppose one of the questions I was left thinking about was: what is enough? Mamah’s umarried sister who had an apartment in the Cheney house was left with child-rearing duties confronted her sister with this truth near the end of the book: “You had everything. You had a wonderful man who adored you, beautiful healthy children. Freedom. No money worries. A nanny and a housekeeper. You didn’t have to work, and Edwin never asked a thing of you. Do you realize what you gave up for Frank Wright? The kind of life most women– most feminists– dream of.” 

It is interesting to think about where dreams and responsibility intersect, regardless of gender. But, needless to say, I added this book to my list of books that help me process through and understand women’s history.  I wanted to end by sharing a list of other titles that have helped me think through that concept:

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Beloved by Toni Morrison

A Room of One’s Own (and every other title by Virginia Woolf)

An Unlikely Pairing: The Lost Generation & The 4th of July

Lately I’ve been on a Lost Generation reading spree.  It started with The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald with a student book club and giving them some introductory information about the era and then I happened to read The Paris Wife, which is a semi-fictional story narrated from the perspective of Hadley Richardson, the first wife of Ernest Hemingway.  Afterwards, I was fascinated by not only their relationship, but the ex-pat community in Paris, so I went on to read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which was a memoir of his time in Paris which he wrote not long before he died and published posthumously.  I was so entrenched in the era that I decided I wanted to read Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, which was on my summer reading list, right away.  Then of course I re-watched Midnight in Paris and noticed all the inconsistencies (though I still love it).

Just like Woody Allen’s Gil Pender, it is easy to get caught up in the romance of the ex-pat community in Paris–the incredible art, literature, salons.  Though it is impossible for me to not say that what this reading spree brought up in my thought life the most was how glad I am to be a woman today.  The culture of multiple mistresses and people openly accepting it, coupled with double standards for women and hypocritical expectations for wives in light of it all was truly grotesque.  Zelda Fitzgerald’s own artistic life was stunted by Scott having her publish under his name or forbidding her to pursue dance or publish her writing work at all, saying that he had claim to the ideas within it.

The concept that struck me the most while reading, though, was that of memory, which I’ve written about quite a bit over the years.  It’s the great invention of the mind in Rodman Philbrick’s Young Adult Freak the Mighty. In Evening, by Susan Minot, it colors the narrator’s entire existence.  In Man Walks into A Room, Nicole Krauss’s main character loses his memory of all things relational.  In The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai talks about some parts of our narrative are lost and some are purposely forgotten.

I am trying to decide where it fits for Hemingway.  Early in The Paris Wife, he takes Hadley on a trip to where he recovered from being injured in World War 1.  In his mind, the field was still desecrated with loss of life and the town where he was taken care of was pristine and quaint–but neither was the case when he arrived:

“When Ernest found the slope where he’d been wounded, it was green and unscarred and completely lovely.  Nothing felt honest.  Thousands of men had died here jut a few years earlier, Ernest himself had bled here, shot full of shrapnel, and yet everything was clean and shiny, as if the land itself had forgotten everything,” (103).
“For the whole visit, Ernest wrestled with memory.  Everything had changed and grown dingy in the four years since he’d been here,” (102).  
I suppose it is one of those mysteries of being human–how we can long so deeply for times that are past, even if those times were accompanied by struggle.  Perhaps in our minds, they remind us that we made it through, or perhaps the struggle has been slightly erased so that we don’t remember that part anymore.  Hemingway himself describes it in A Moveable Feast: “There are many sorts of hunger.  In the spring there are more. But that’s gone now. Memory is hunger,” (57).  
Elk Lake, 2011.  I only wish I had a
picture of the American flag boxers
my best friend and I *sewed ourselves*
for 4th of July 1996. 
Today, for me, memory is hunger.  On some levels the memories I’ve been escaping to this morning seem insignificant–but it happens every 4th of July that I am in New York City–a city I love with all my heart.  All I want right now is to be watching my hometown’s parade, wearing my running clothes from the annual 5K, thinking about swimming in somebody’s pool and going up to the high school for fireworks later.  Or, sitting at a simple lake house, eating off the grill, and watching a homemade fireworks display planned by friends I’ve known since the mid nineties.  I keep finding myself wanting to justify my nostalgic longing for these simple memories or the audacity I have for writing them in connection to Hemingway–but I’m not going to, because it’s what is true for me today (which is interesting, because the quotes I wanted to write about in this post have been sitting in my blog drafts for a month)

What I do think is worth considering, though, is when you begin to appreciate what is past.  Hemingway did not write of nostalgia until the end of his life.  A Moveable Feast, his memoir of his early years in Paris, was published after he took his own life and carries a tone much different from his earlier work.  In a painful-to-read confession he states that he wishes he had died before falling in love with anyone else.  I’m not sure that I believe him, completely.  Hadley asks him in The Paris Wife, not long after the visit to the town where he was shot and recovered: “When does it mean something? When everyone finally gets smashed to bits?” (145).  I think that is a fair read of Hemingway–and a terrifying way to live, but it pulls together my thoughts.  When he was with Hadley, he could only think of what might be next. The present didn’t take on any value until it was long gone.

This year I started talking with my students about the idea of being present where you are, whether it is in a class discussion, a book club, or with their friends.  I suppose that is what I wish the men of the Lost Generation understood (hoping that it wasn’t that restlessness that produced their drive and in turn art), and on a much smaller level, what I need to remember as I go over to the Brooklyn Bridge Park to celebrate Independence Day with dear friends later.  It is in view of the Statue of  Liberty, after all.

an aside, after my initial posting: I want to think later today about the implications of these American writers who chose to do so much of their writing elsewhere.  Looking at the title of this post, one might infer that my writing about it was a little more academic.  But alas.  It is a holiday, after all.

a short history of women.

The title of Kate Walbert’s A Short History of Women tells just that, depending on how you read the title.  The story is told non-linearly through narrators of 5 different generations of the Townsend family, beginning in England in 1898 and ending in New York in 2007.  As Walbert writes the story, the reader gets not only the family history, but also a window into some of the unique struggles of women over the last 110 years–which doesn’t seem so long at first glance, but really is, especially considering that there weren’t more than three generations alive at once in the story.  It was fascinating to see as the reader the connections these women shared 100 years apart and at the same time a bit heartbreaking that the characters weren’t able to see them the way a reader could.

I have a huge extended family on both sides, and for almost two decades we were able to see four generations of my dad’s family in the same room and on my mom’s side we are going on 12 or so.  When my grandma passed away last summer, my dad and one of my uncles were reminiscing and I heard so many stories that I had never heard before, which was surprising because I hail from a story telling family.  It was a bit surreal at her burial because we were also standing here in Brooklyn amidst Robbins headstones dating back to the 1800s.  Like usual, I felt a part of something bigger, but there was also a twinge of sadness that there are some stories that passed with my grandma.

The same thing happens when I hear the handful of stories I know about my great grandmother on my mom’s side.  Because I am the story lover nostalgic that I am, I often find myself wishing that I could go back and visit with her about when she moved to New York from Ireland.  I always wish I knew more about the threads of similarities that I share with the women in my family tree or that my aunts and cousins share.  While talking with one of my aunts this spring who is a retired teacher, I learned that she used to dedicate a day to celebrate the Super Bowl in her classroom, just like I do with the Ohio State/Michigan game.  My family is so big that sometimes it is easy to miss those kinds of connections.

All that to say, reading about the Townsend women in this book was really thought provoking, especially when some of the stories are placed side by side: the 1914 suffragette in England and the granddaughter she never met garnering strength from her memory, the mom in post 9/11 New York dealing with her panic and her own mother embarking on a new life at the end of it.  It makes me wish I could have a collection of the narratives of the women in my family.

{four generations of robbins: my grandma, one of my aunts, 2 of her daughters, another cousin and her daughter and I.  Oh, and FNL and The OC.}