pyrajane’s review #30: Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey Into Manhood and Back Again by Norah Vincent

Self-Made Man

I’ve sat down and edited this review several times and almost threw the entire thing out to rewrite it to try and keep it short.  I have accepted that  I have a lot of things to say.

I first read Self-Made Man in 2008 and loved it.  I’ve thought about it a lot since then and have become more and more uncomfortable with it.  After several easy book club discussions where we all liked the book, I chose this one for our August meeting (yes, this is how far behind I am in writing reviews) because I knew it would be a lively conversation and would possibly involve angry punches.  Not at each other of course…  Just, you know, in general angry punches at the world.

It could not have gone any better.  Is it weird that I’m really happy I pissed off my entire group?

Norah Vincent decided to spend over a year and a half as a man named Ned, although not 24/7.  She wanted to see firsthand what the male experience was like and chose several male specific situations to infiltrate for her research.  She spent eight months on an all male bowling team.  She went to strip clubs.  She went on dates.  She worked in the testosterone fueled cold-call sales world.  She spent a few weeks in a monastery living with monks.  She joined a men’s movement group and traveled with them on their weekend retreat.  As a lesbian woman, she wanted to experience the male life.

The idea came from an evening out when she was younger.  She dressed as a man, although she never would have passed if anyone had looked closely, and was shocked at how different it was.  Living in NYC, she never felt invisible.  Men constantly look at you, either to leer or harass or just acknowledge that you are female.  As a man, however, no one paid any attention to her.  ”It was astounding, the difference, the respect [the men in her neighborhood] showed me by not looking at me, by purposely not staring.”  That sentence is what hooked me in when I flipped through the book the first time.  I was fascinated by this idea of experiencing the familiar as a man to see how things change.  I wanted to know if this would be a study in sexism and bias or if it would show acceptance and understanding.  I thought Vincent would interact with people first as Ned and then as Nora, or the other way around, to see how she was treated differently.

But that’s not how this book works.

Vincent came to this project with very clear intentions and overwhelming assumptions and bias.  She decided before changing her body and clothes that all the men she interacts with are going to be disgusting caveman pigs.  She is astounded when men show feelings.  My book club wondered if she had any male friends or if she had interacted with any males for any long periods of time.  Two members of my club in particular hated her so much that they had physical reactions.  Since I had loved the book when I first read it (I gave it five stars and labeled it “favorite” on GoodReads), I found myself wanting to defend Vincent, but the more I reread and the more passages I highlighted, the angrier and sadder I got.

I still recommend that people read this because it is fascinating to see her journey, but do know that this isn’t a controlled psychological or scientific study.  This is one woman’s experience and she went into it without examining her own feelings ahead of time or coming up with any sort of thesis.  Really bad things happen, morally and ethically.

At the end she checks herself into a mental institution.

I wrote a lot more over on my blog.  If you’re curious, clicky click and read on.

I have no clue how many stars to give this.  It’s both fascinating and infuriating.  On one page it’s a five star.  The next chapter is a zero star.

So many feelings!

Advertisements

pyrajane’s review #29: Canada by Richard Ford

CanadaI don’t know what I just read.  I didn’t hate it.  I just sort of… read it.

I finished the book and thought to myself “Why did he tell this story?”  It wasn’t like he was guilty and wanted to get this secret out.  He already told his wife.  He wasn’t trying to blame his parents.  He didn’t seem to want to explain anything.  It was like he was saying “I was driving home yesterday and saw a guy walking two big dogs.”

I don’t get it.

Maybe something went over my head.  Maybe this isn’t my kind of writing.  Maybe I’m completely missing something.  I just don’t understand this book.  It wasn’t a coming of age story because Dell never has that big revelation.  There’s no personality shift.  He’s a static character throughout.

I wrote a lot more about the plot and my bewilderment over on my blog.  If you read this book and liked it, please share what worked for you, because I did not see it.

pyrajane’s review #28: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders

It’s 1666 and the plague has come to a Anna Frith’s village.  Until now, Anna’s life has been on a set path.  She grew up with a drunk and abusive father, then became the wife of a miner, then became a widow with two small children.  Had the plague not come, perhaps she would have remarried and had more children.  No surprises, no changes, nothing outside of the norm.

But when the plague does come, Anna finds herself having and wanting to change her life.  Working as a housemaid for the rector and his wife, she sees firsthand the spread of the plague and watches as more and more of the villagers die.  Soon her own house is touched and both her babies die.  No longer having anything to live for, perhaps she would have gone mad or let herself sink until the plague took her as well.  But serving Rector Mompellion and his wife Elinor, her help is needed to tend the villagers in this time of death.

Mr. Mompellion turns to the pulpit, leading his congregation in prayer, trying to find strength in God to see them through the early stages of sickness.  When it becomes impossible to ignore that this is the plague, he again calls up the power of God and tells his people that they can serve as a beacon and example to all men by secluding themselves from outsiders and stopping the spread of the disease to save their neighbors.  While they suffer losses, they will save lives.  The rich escape before the decision is made but those left behind grab on to the ideal that there is a greater good.  Plans are made for supplies to be left at a safe distance so no one will have to leave the boundaries of the village and neighboring areas are happy to keep them fed if it means their own people will be safe.

No one could know how long this self imposed isolation could last, how many people the plague would take, and what would happen to the minds of the survivors.

Read more over on my blog…

pyrajane’s review #27: Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father by Alysia Abbott

FairylandThe title of this caught my eye because I thought it was about fairy tale faeries.  Then I learned it was about THE GAYS!!! and read the blurb and decided it sounded interesting.  I didn’t know anything about Alysia Abbott or her father Steve and was interested to learn more about growing up in the heart of the gay scene in San Francisco in the 70s and 80s.  I like memoirs because it’s interesting to see what you have in common with a person and how you relate to them even if their story is completely different than yours.

Alysia Abbott’s story is extra completely different than mine, but of course  I still found lots to relate with.  After her father died, she read through his massive  collection of journals and created a beautiful work.  This is her story, but she has her father’s words to fill in parts she doesn’t remember, as well as being able to get his side of the story for what she does remember.  It feels like the two of them are writing the book together, and it’s beautiful.

Alysia’s parents (Steve and Barbara) met in 1968 at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.  Steve told Barbara he was bisexual and she thought it was great.  The two of them moved in together and later decided to get married so they could furnish the apartment with wedding gifts and get cash from her parents.  They continued their open relationship and Steve found that he was empowered by having a wife.  He could be openly gay and people were sort of OK with it because clearly he liked women enough to marry and have sex with one.  And Barbara wasn’t bothered by the boyfriends, even if friends thought she was crazy.

Barbara gets pregnant with Alysia and wants the baby while Steve is panicked and doesn’t think it’s a good idea.  By this time in their relationship Barbara was jealous of Steve’s younger boyfriend and was going to have the baby with or without him around.  She does, and by the time Alysia is three, Barbara is in a relationship with a drug addict named Wolf.  She begins using heavily and Steve slowly finds himself as the only safe caretaker for his daughter.  Wolf is arrested out of state, Barbara goes to bail him out and on the way home she is killed in a car accident.

Steve is suddenly completely alone with a toddler.  He doesn’t fit in with his in-laws and his boyfriend has left him, unable to deal with the seriousness of the situation.  Less than a year after Barbara’s death, Steve packs the car and drives to San Francisco to build a life for himself and his daughter.

Once he gets to San Francisco, he is fully out as a gay man.  He already did come out while in Atlanta, but now he felt fully free to be who he was and to be able to work creatively in his own world.  He was part of the gay art scene and in places created it.  He was a writer and an artist and he surrounded himself with creative people.  The Castro was coming into power and Harvey Milk was starting his campaigns.  It was where Steve needed to be.

But he also needed to be a father and he struggled with this constantly.  He wanted to be a better person, to be healthy and clean and calm so he could be the best father for Alysia, but he was also lonely and wanted someone to love him.  It’s heartbreaking to read the longing in his own words, wanting desperately for someone to share his life with him and Alysia.  He seems to be constantly falling in love, but over and over he picks young men who aren’t interested in relationships, and especially aren’t interested in becoming a father.  He seems himself as a mentor to these young men and surrounds himself with other artists, hoping to guide them and help them find their own voices.  As an editor and creator of his own magazine, he does help them.  He goes on to run workshops and weekend retreats and poetry readings and much more with other artists, many of them gay, but the whole time he’s searching and longing for a partner.  I wanted him to find someone his own age who maybe had similar experiences, but that wasn’t the scene in the Castro District.  He was surrounded by young men, even referring to them as boys sometimes.  These were who he was falling in love with, and it wasn’t going to work, no matter how hard he tried.

Read much more over on my blog.  I’m really glad I read this.

pyrajane’s review #26: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

A NOTE FROM GREG GAINES, AUTHOR OF THIS BOOK

I have no idea how to write this stupid book.

Can I just be honest with you for one second?  This is the literal truth.  When I first started writing this book, I tried to start it with the sentence “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”  I genuinely thought that I could start this book that way.  I just figured, it’s a classic book-starting sentence.  But then I couldn’t even figure out how you were supposed to follow that up.  I started at the computer for an hour and it was all I could do not to have a colossal freak-out.  In desperation I tried messing with the punctuation and italicization like:

It was the best of times?  And it was the worst of times?!!

What the hell does that even mean?  Why would you even think to do that?  You wouldn’t, unless you had a fungus eating your brain, which I guess I probably have.

Me Earl and the Dying Girl

This is how long it took me to realize I was going to have to force myself not to stay up all night and read this book in one go.  I mean, come on.  This voice?  I didn’t even know who Greg was, but I was in.  Honestly, I was probably in at “I have no idea how to write this stupid book.”  So many questions!  Why is he writing it then?  Is he being forced to?  What happened that was so important or awesome or scary or whatever that he decided to sit down in front of a computer and force himself to think of words while at the same time acknowledging that he might have a brain fungus?

And then I got to page 2.

I do actually want to say one other thing before we get started with this horrifyingly inane book.  You may have already figured out that it’s about  girl who had cancer.  So there’s a chance you’re thinking “Awesome!  This is going to be a wise and insightful story about love and death and growing up.  It’s probably going to make me cry literally the entire time.  I am so fired up right now.”  If that is an accurate representation of your thoughts, you should probably try to smush this book into a garbage disposal and then run away.  Because here’s the thing: I learned absolutely nothing from Rachel’s leukemia.  In fact, I probably became stupider about life because of the whole thing.

Again, I don’t know who Greg is, but I’m in.

Read more about how awesome this book is over on my blog.  It’s one of my favorites this year.

pyrajane’s review #25: Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies: On Myths, Morons, Free Speech, Football, and Assorted Absurdities by Chris Kluwe

Beautifully Unique SparkleponiesI didn’t know who Chris Kluwe was until his wrote his amazing piece for Deadspin that many know as Lustful Cockmonsters.  Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr. wrote an open letter to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti asking him to force his players to shut up about civil rights.  Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo spoke out in favor of gay marriage and Burns decided he should use his position to try and silence free speech.  It was disgusting.

Kluwe’s response was beautiful.  Click that title up there and read it if you haven’t.  I respect a man who uses “Holy fucking shitballs” when making an informed argument.

As his response exploded all over the internet, I found his twitter account (@ChrisWarcraft) and found out he was in a band AND was a gamer.  Holy shit, this guy was awesome.  NFL punter AND a nerd?  Fuck yeah.

When I found out he was writing a book I was super excited.  Here’s a guy who is smart, loves to read, plays games, and has a realistic understanding of how an NFL career works.  I heard him on a few podcasts and he’s really funny and clearly does his research about things that are important to him.  I especially like his attitude about the NFL and how it doesn’t last forever and you better have backup plans.

I really wanted to love this book, but it was just a solid OK.  He chose a few pieces that had already been published and I agreed with those choices.  For a few of them he added commentary or quick notes about things that have changed since the original publication.

Read more about what I liked but why I was mostly sad over on my blog.

pyrajane’s review #24: I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales from a Happy Life Without Kids by Jen Kirkman

I Can Barely Take Care of MyselfJen Kirkman and I don’t want kids.

Happily for me, that’s pretty much all I ever have to say about this fact.  Kirkman, on the other hand, has enough experience with being told that she’s going to change her mind that she was able to write an entire book about it.  I don’t understand how she hasn’t slapped anyone.

I became a fan of Kirkman from watching Chelsea Lately.  My husband got into her stand up after hearing her phone calls with Paul F. Tompkins on The Pod F. Tompkast.  I then saw her episodes of Drunk History and decided that yeah, she’s really fantastic.  She was so sincere and wanted to be sure that Oney Judge is honored and that she was wearing pants when talking about Frederick Douglass.  What’s not to love?

Her book is her memoir, based on the theme of not wanting kids and how there are a lot of people in this world that just cannot comprehend this.

I’m lucky that I don’t have to deal with this same pressure.  My mom and mother-in-law aren’t baby crazy and are fine not having grandchildren.  A lot of my friends don’t have kids, so it’s not a big deal.  I’ve never been in a situation where I felt like I was being attacked because my husband and I aren’t having kids.  It’s just not a thing.

Read the rest of my short review over on my blog…