Monthly Archives: May 2006

One more post on Ann Tyler

I finished Digging to America last night and have just a couple more things I want to say about it. If you’re planning on reading this book, you might want to skip the post, although I’ll warn you when I’m about to give something big away about the plot.

First of all, for those of you who are planning on reading this book, notice the “binky party” that happens near the end. Please, please, under no circumstances, ever hold a binky party for your child.

I liked this line from another part of the book:

Maryam stood in the kitchen doorway with a salad bowl in her hands and wondered if every decision she had ever made had been geared toward preserving her outsiderness.

As someone who can think of herself as an “outsider” and who likes to stand outside of things, I was touched by this character and by her realization. Maryam’s way of negotiating this dilemma of insider- and outsiderness is central to the book, and it makes sense to me that it takes her a while to understand that she may have been reinforcing her outsider status without fully realizing it.

But I was uncertain what to think about a couple of things Maryam contemplates (and stop reading here if you don’t like to know much about a book before you read it). She says at one point:

Oh, the agonizing back-and-forth of romance! The advances and retreats, the secret wounds, the strategic withdrawals!

Wasn’t the real culture clash the one between the two sexes?

Later, when she is thinking about relationships, she says:

Sometimes lately she felt as if she had emigrated all over again. Once more she had left her past self behind, moved to an alien land, and lost any hope of returning.

Now, I’m not sure I buy this equation of relationships with emigration and with culture clashes. On the one hand, it’s a cool metaphor for what it’s like to enter a relationship with someone — it’s about leaving behind one’s old world and entering a new, about adapting one’s life — one’s culture — to enter into someone else’s, about having an experience with alienness and otherness.

But these lines, and the events that happen right at the end of the book, seem to me to collapse love with immigration/culture clashes in a way that overly simplifies what it means for a person to take on a new culture and nationality. I don’t think the real culture clash is the clash between the sexes. This seems to me to privilege the experience of gender above other kinds. At the very end of the book, Maryam makes a decision to engage with the Americans who have entered her life instead of blocking them out, and it becomes a question of whether she will stay in her relationship with Dave, who seems to her to be the quintessence of Americanness. And so she resolves her questions about culture and national identity by deciding to keep the relationship going. This seems like an interesting way of solving the problem — what could be a more decisive way of changing and adapting than falling in love with an American? — and yet something bothers me about this narrative solution. Can cultural clashes get solved solely through personal relationships?

I’m definitely not being clear here. I guess, to a degree, problems of immigration and cultural differences can work themselves out, for individuals, in the context of family and love, but the novel’s ending seems to imply that this is the best and maybe only available context. This seems to me to be untrue to the rest of the book, which did a good job of showing how politics and family interweave without collapsing the two areas into one another. The personal is political, yes, but are all politics personal?

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More on Ann Tyler

I’m about 50 pages from the end of Tyler’s latest novel Digging to America, and one of the things I am liking about the book is how politics of various types are an important part of the novel, but are in the background in a way that strikes me as realistic — at least realistic for some. Tyler shows how politics shapes people’s lives — both specific historical events and the more nebulous “identity politics,” but she does it in a muted kind of way. Politics and history are sometimes topics of conversation, but more often, political forces lie behind the thoughts and actions of the characters and the reader is left to figure out how the characters are affected by them.

The most direct entrance of politics into the novel concerns events in Iran. One of the main characters, Maryam, the grandmother of one of the two adopted babies at the center of the novel, thinks about how the Iranian community in America was divided by their different opinions of the Shah — she was friends with many other Iranians until the question of whether one is loyal to the Shah or not began to rip the group apart. From this point on, she lives even more isolated from her past.

September 11th happens during the timeframe of the novel, but it doesn’t get a description — it surfaces mainly as a matter of increased airport security and the annoyances this causes. One of the Iranian characters describes the fear other people manifest in the presence of anyone of middle-eastern descent. Dave, another grandparent, gives an emotional speech to Maryam about how he doesn’t like being grouped with other “ugly Americans” — how he’s affected by the stereotype — and Maryam retorts, “Whereas we Iranians, on the other hand … are invariably perceived as our unique and separate selves.” This is Dave experiencing both the discomfort of being a victim of stereotyping, and the realization that, as angry as this makes him, he can’t expect everyone else to feel his outrage.

Everyone in the novel is affected in some way by this kind of racial and ethnic stereotyping. Maryam is invested in the idea of herself as a “foreigner,” and because of this she has trouble opening up to her American friends. She is naturally introverted, but this status as “foreigner” feeds into and exaggerates that characteristic. Bitsy tries hard to teach Jin-Ho, her adopted daughter, Korean customs to help her learn about her birth country, but she finds this is more complicated than she expects, and when Jin-Ho grows up a bit, she resists this training. Sami was born and raised in America and he refuses to speak Farsi, although he can understand it, but at the same time he takes great pleasure in mocking Americans as though he weren’t one himself, to the amusement of the Iranians present. All of Tyler’s main characters are involved in some kind of effort to figure out their identity and to negotiate the various elements that go into it: nationality, gender, class, personal history. It is in describing these negotiations that Tyler excels.

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Funny tan lines: a cycling update

This is one of the major problems of being a cyclist — that you spend the whole summer with very sharp tan lines right where your cycling clothes end. I’ve already got a dark line on my upper arm, a series of dark lines above my knees, at the places my cycling shorts of varying lengths end, and a dark line above my ankle where my socks end. A large percentage of the time I spend outside I spend on my bike, so I’m stuck. I have this problem where I’ll apply sunscreen, and apply it when I have my cycling clothes on, so I get it right, but then as I ride, the shorts will ride up a bit and the short sleeves on the jersey will pull up a little bit, and I’ll have missed a section of skin and will end up with this sunburnt patch of an inch or so on my arm and thigh.

The funniest tan lines, though, are the ones on my wrist and hand, where my cycling gloves end. I have a super-sharp line on the thumb side of my wrist, since I ride mostly with my hands in a sideways position, with the thumb facing up. And then as summer gets going, I’ll develop lines on my fingers, since the gloves end just before they reach the first knuckle. And, depending on the kind of gloves I have, I sometimes get a little dot on the back of my hand where the velcro strap doesn’t quite cover the skin fully. I’m already developing this dot on my left hand, although for some reason I don’t have one on my right. I guess my gloves aren’t quite the same. If you have gloves with mesh on the back, you will end up with a whole series of dots across the back of your hand. Some cyclists will develop a line across their forehead where their helmet goes, and maybe lines across the neck where the helmet straps cover.

Sigh — the sacrifices I make for my bike. So today is devoted to fixing this situation — sitting outside in the hopes that my hands and ankles will get some sun.

Yesterday I went on a 50-mile ride, my longest of the season by far; I’m working my way up to being able to do a 100-mile ride by late August. I like to ride centuries — organized rides with set routes and food and water supplied along the way — of (logically) 100 miles, although there are always shorter options for those not wanting to ride the 6 or 7 or 8 hours it takes to do the full thing. The longest 1-day ride I’ve ever done is 130 miles, about 1 1/2 years ago, a ride that taught me a thing or two about endurance and pain. For some reason, the pain doesn’t keep me away — I suppose it’s the sense of accomplishment and the feeling of strength that keeps me doing it again and again.

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On Pamela

Before I put away my novel history book, Licensing Entertainment, there is one more thing I want to say about it. In his chapter on Samuel Richardson, William Warner makes some big claims for the importance of his novel Pamela. He describes the fight over Pamela: critics and readers argued heatedly over whether she was as virtuous as she claimed to be. Warner says that Pamela and this critical conflict was partly responsible for our way of reading character:

It is at this point that English readers start engaging in the sort of sympathetic identification with and critical judgment of fictional characters that will lie at the center of novel reading from Richardson, Fielding, and Frances Burney through Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Henry James … The following are some of the interrelated elements of this new practice of reading: Pamela’s readers “read through” the words and ideas of the novel’s eponymous heroine in order to assess her character to discover whether Pamela is what the text’s subtitle declares her to be – a personification of virtue – or its reverse, a mere sham. By conferring on a character in a novel some of the free-standing qualities of a real person, and insisting that judgments of literary character reflect as much light on those who judge as they do on the judged, both sides in the Pamela wars confer an unprecedented moral seriousness upon the evaluation of fictional characters. The strife around Pamela draws readers into particular practices of detailed reading: selecting what to read so as to emphasize one thing instead of another; being provoked by incomplete descriptions; filling out the picture to one’s own taste; using one’s imagination to read between the lines; discerning the supposedly “real” intention of the author; and, finally, distinguishing the “proper” from the “improper” in a text, in order to judge whether a text is “readable” or “unreadable.”

Isn’t it surprising, if you buy Warner’s theory (and I see no reason not to), that our way of reading characters – seeing them as real people and judging them on realistic and moral grounds comes out of the eighteenth century and particularly from Pamela? From a story about a young girl resisting rape? Isn’t the history of the novel fascinating? Don’t you want to go read some eighteenth-century novels now?

I’ve said this before, but I very much like the idea that our ideas about reading that seem so natural – that we want to identify with a character, for example, and that we talk about characters as though we might meet them in person – have a history that isn’t so very long. If you buy Warner’s theory, that is.

It comes down to the question of whether Pamela is really as innocent as she makes herself out to be. For the other side of the story, read Henry Fielding’s Shamela, which is quite funny. I read Pamela twice, for two different graduate school classes, and I can’t say the book follows any of the “rules” of good fiction that we might come up with today – the structure of the thing is terrible – but that’s judging by contemporary standards which didn’t exist at the time. Pamela the character can be infuriating and the book can get boring, especially at the end, but as far as a book that is culturally significant and that can teach you something about eighteenth-century culture, you can’t go wrong with it.

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Book groups

I’m completely new to book groups, and now I am participating in two of them! One of them is the Slaves of Golconda, an online book group, for which I’ll be reading Muriel Spark soon, and the other is a brand new group — what should I call it — in-person? face-to-face? the regular, old-fashioned kind? the kind where you meet in someone’s house and have coffee and dessert? We’re starting small with my husband and me and one other couple, and if it goes well, we might expand it later. The idea is to keep things low-key and without any showing-off or intellectual posturing. For that reason, we’re being careful about whom to ask — we want it to be fun, and one person with the wrong attitude could throw the discussion off.

So our first book is Anne Tyler’s new novel Digging to America. I’m about 100 pages into it right now, and it’s a good read. Tyler is so very skilled at capturing family dynamics — the “little” interactions that aren’t little at all, but are the things that make up much of the substance of our lives. So far, the narrative has been a series of parties to celebrate the two little Korean babies two families — both American but one white and the other of Iranian descent — have adopted.

Now that I think about it, this structure is remarkably similar to Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Line of Beauty (which I posted on here), in a funny kind of way, since the novels are in most cases very, very different. But Hollinghurst’s novel, too, was basically a series of parties one after the other, which offers an author a chance to bring a whole bunch of characters together and have them interact in ways that reveal who the characters are and move the plot along. And both novels chart the intersections between politics and family life. Tyler so far hasn’t given nearly as much political detail as Hollinghurst did, but it’s there for both of them — in Hollinghurst’s case, it’s Thatcherite Britain, and for Tyler, it’s the political and religious upheaval in Iran. And both novelists give exquisite detail about tone of voice, significant looks, hurt feelings, “friendly” competition and aggression, unexpected alliances.

And a bit of satire too — Tyler’s novel is funny in places, especially about Bitsy and Brad, the “all-American” couple, Bitsy a hippy type with very strong opinions about how children should be raised and no fear about sharing them. In an early scene Bitsy and Brad have a “raking party” where they invite the other family over to help them rake the lawn. Hmmm. Should I start holding “housecleaning parties”? Yeah, friends, come on over and help scrub the kitchen floor! If you’re lucky, you’ll get to clean the toilet! It’ll be great fun!!

Anyway, more on Tyler later.

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Colette’s hair

I finished Colette’s My Mother’s House and Sido last night; if you aren’t familiar with it, the short chapters in My Mother’s House were published serially first and then collected in book form in 1922, and Sido was published seven years later. Sido is made up of three sections, one each about Colette’s mother, father, and siblings.

I enjoyed the book very much and recommend it — I do think it should be read slowly. I read it a bit fast and sometimes felt like it was rushing past me and I was missing things. The writing was beautifully lyrical, which is a phrase that would turn me off if I read it in someone else’s review, but in this case the writing worked for me. The short chapters are like prose poems, each capturing a story or a character or a mood. They got me interested in reading a biography of Colette; there are things hinted at in this book that I’d like to know more about — Colette’s conflicted feelings about femininity and sexuality, in particular.

Here is Colette writing about her hair:

I was twelve years old, with the manners and vocabulary of an intelligent, rather uncouth boy, but my gait was not boyish because my figure already showed signs of development, and above all because I wore my hair in two long plaits that swished through the air around me like whips. These I used indiscriminately as ropes from which to hang the picnic basket, as brushes to be dipped in ink or in paint, as whips for a recalcitrant dog or as ribbons to make the cat play. My mother wailed to see me maltreat these two golden brown thongs for whose sake I was daily condemned to get up half an hour earlier than my school-fellows. At seven o’clock on dark winter mornings I would fall asleep again, sitting before the wood fire, while my mother brushed and combed my nodding head. From those mornings I date my invincible hatred of long hair.

As someone who would head out in sub-zero weather with wet hair rather than wake up ten minutes earlier to use the blow-dryer, I sympathize. I love her impulse to think of her hair as a whip before she thinks of it as an object of beauty or a source of attention. She ends the paragraph this way:

Long hairs would be discovered tangled in the lower branches of the trees in the garden, long hairs attached to the cross-beam from which hung the trapeze and the swing. A pullet in the barnyard was supposed to be lame from birth, until we ascertained that a long hair, covered with pimply skin was bound tightly round one of its feet and atrophying it.

Could she be clearer about seeing the conventions of femininity as crippling? However, the next paragraph takes another turn:

There is just one moment, in the evening, when the pins are withdrawn and the shy face shines out for an instant from between the tangled waves; and there is a similar moment in the early morning. And because of those two moments everything that I have just written against long hair counts for nothing at all.

Colette both loves and hates her hair, she feels it holds her captive, but she is also captivated when it’s let loose. It can cover and hide her face, but the moment of her face “shining” through the dangling hair somehow compensates for everything. She is oddly removed from this passage; it’s not “my shy face” but “the shy face” that shines through, as though she can appreciate her own beauty only if she pretends it is someone else’s.

Colette’s chapter called “Maternity” is similarly conflicted. Her sister makes an unfortunate marriage and is estranged from the rest of the family; when they find out she is pregnant, here is Colette’s response:

I had ceased to think about her, nor did I attach any special significance to the fact that just at that time my mother began to have attacks of nervous faintness, nausea and palpitations. I only remember that the sight of my sister, distorted and grown heavy, filled me with still more embarrassment and disgust.

When her sister is giving birth, her mother, kept from her side because of the family feud, goes over to the sister’s house and lingers outside, listening for sounds that would tell her what is happening. Colette writes this remarkable passage:

A second cry, pitched on the same note, almost like the opening of a melody, floated towards us, and a third …. Then I saw my mother grip her own loins with desperate hands, spin round and stamp on the ground as she began to assist and share, by her low groans, by the rocking of her tormented body, by the clasping of her unwanted arms, and by all her maternal anguish and strength, the anguish and strength of the ungrateful daughter who, so near to her and yet so far away, was bringing a child into the world.

Colette is shocked and embarrassed by this physical spectacle, and yet she is fascinated by her mother as well, seeing the horror of her mother’s anguish and her tremendous strength at the same time. She knows, as a woman, she is a part of this process — the writer Colette has given birth to a daughter by this time — and she agonizes and at the same time she can’t keep herself away.

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Women and athleticism

So on Tuesday I posted about my experiences with yoga and cycling and feelings of competitiveness, and I got some interesting comments about “mean girls” and women’s lack of confidence. Well, yesterday on my way to work I heard an NPR segment by sports commentator Frank Deford, called “Some women athletes follow a sordid path.” If you are interested, you can listen to it here. The story was about how some women college athletes are beginning to do some of the things some male college athletes are notorious for: nasty hazing and sexually explicit taunting, in particular, and then putting disturbing pictures of these things online. I don’t know if enough of this is going on to constitute a “trend,” although that’s the way Deford’s segment portrayed it.

This sort of thing is definitely a problem, and it shows how much we need models for how to be athletes and how to be competitive without being jerks — how much the sports culture needs changing. I think men and women both need this. Specifically for women, part of the trouble, it seems to me, comes from having the long, long tradition of women trained not to be competitive or athletic, so that when the opportunity arises to be those things, it’s hard to figure out how.

But what really bothered me about the Deford segment was the way he ended it. He closed with the grand statement, “Sports has won; womanhood has lost.” This statement puts me in a funny situation, because on the one hand, I don’t like it that women athletes are acting like jerks. But, on the other, I don’t like the implication that women exist on a higher moral plane than men and that “womanhood” as a whole is suffering when women act badly. Women are capable of acting just as badly as men, and to assume otherwise is to do a disservice to women.

In a strange way, to assert women’s equal ability to act badly becomes a kind of feminist statement. To assume that women when they enter the sports world (or any world, for that matter — this is true of politics as well) will raise the level of ideas and behavior is to hold women to a higher standard that can be just as limiting and unfair as holding them to a lower one. Now, I DO think it’s a good idea to have more women in the sports world and the political world and every other world out there, and I think women entering these places can change things, but not by improving everyone’s behavior. Their presence brings in new voices and new perspectives, and maybe simply the chance to change things further because change has begun to happen already with their presence. But please don’t start talking about “womanhood.” To me, this erases the individuality of women athletes by making who they are mostly about what gender category they belong to.

I suppose there’s something similar going on with the “mean girls” idea — we are particularly shocked when girls are nasty to each other because we have higher expectations of their behavior than we do for boys.

Instead of implying that these women-athletes-behaving-badly are betraying “womanhood,” Deford should have talked about how we need to change the sports culture itself, and how that culture can hurt both men and women. Of course when women enter a sports culture that’s messed up, they are going to respond in messed-up ways, particularly when we are talking about young college-age women. What else would you expect? Actually, I generally like Deford’s commentaries, and I know he DOES talk intelligently about how to change the sports culture. I think this particular commentary was an unfortunate slip-up, however.

Update: immediately after posting this, I came across this great post by Aunt B. on how feminism is not a moral position. Go check it out.

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