30 May 2010

"But in the end it wasn't up to me. The big things never are."

#19 Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Wow, I loved this book. It's a hearty 520 pages, but I wish it would keep going. I wish I could hear more of Callie/Cal's story.

Callie/Cal? Indeed. A baby girl is born in Detroit in 1960. In the summer of 1974, that girl becomes a man due to a genetic disorder. In order to trace how his genetic disorder came to be, Cal, now 41 and working for the US State Department, reveals his family history.

He begins with his grandparents living in Greece in 1922. They decide to leave their country as the Turks come to invade and experience the Great Fire of Smyrna first hand. Lefty and Desdemona end up in Detroit, where they raise their family and witness their grandchildren grow up. However, they are hiding a secret, a secret which will eventually affect Cal.

Fast forward to 1960. Calliope Stephanides is born. Her doctor doesn't notice a slight abnormality on little Callie's body. No one does, despite all the diaper changes and doctor visits. As she gets older, however, she notices she's more attracted to girls than boys, but doesn't think much of it because she ends up attending a private girls' school where feelings like that are normal. Once Callie hits puberty she's no longer the little Greek girl with long eyelashes and gorgeous hair; her features turn masculine. Her voice drops. She feels pain in her lower stomach, and no, it's not her period. She stays flat as a washboard. Upon meeting a specialist in New York City, Callie decides she can no longer live as a female. She becomes Cal.

While that merely summarizes Callie's story, there's so much more to the book. The family's personalities and interactions. I loved every anecdote that Cal provided, no matter which generation of the Stephanides clan he was talking about. The history of Detroit. There's so much to analyze and take from this book, I feel like it would be perfect for an English class. The writing is beautiful and if I wasn't trying to finish the book in a week (or less) I would have gladly maimed it with a highlighter and pen.

One of the things I loved most about the book was Eugenides' ability to interweave the family's history with real historical events. I would venture to say that it gave the Stephanides' family a greater purpose and stresses the sense of destiny that Cal speaks of regarding his condition. In Cal's perspective, he believes that was his fate for the genetic disorder to rear its head on him. I particularly loved an excerpt where Cal traces back to the moments when his mother becomes pregnant with him and his brother. That particular moment, that egg. They decided what Cal would become.

Eugenides is talking about gender identity and family secrets. And while some of these secrets would typically make one disgusted, Eugenides' descriptions made me empathize with the characters and their situations. Hermaphroditism isn't the easiest subject to discuss, nor is it a subject I would say people are particularly compassionate about. Honestly, how many jokes about transvestites have you heard (and laughed at)?

Loved loved loved this book.

25 May 2010

I'm the Slow Dying Flower in the Frost Killing Hour

#18 The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

In my review for Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, I said that it was something I needed to read at this point in my life. It acted almost as a catharsis for some things I was going through and I could relate wholeheartedly with Rob Fleming. It was good.

Well, The Bell Jar had pretty much the opposite effect on me. Don't get me wrong, I really loved this book. As a young woman, it's something I needed to read. But damn, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't questioning my own sanity by the time I got to the middle of the book.

Esther Greenwood comes from a small suburban town outside of Boston. She's always been a straight-A student and school is her thing. While in college, she is given an internship at a women's magazine in New York City with several other successful college girls. She isn't used to the privileged and glamorous life nor does she really care for it. She's not as awestruck as one might expect her to be. It's clear early on that Esther is merely going through the motions. Despite this enormous opportunity, Esther seems very neutral. She follows her friends around and does what they feel like doing. When she meets men, she doesn't use her real name. When her internship is over, Esther's world comes to a halt when she discovers some news regarding a summer college class. To be cliche, she goes off the deep end. The second half of the book shows how completely apart Esther becomes. How even though she was intelligent and showed plenty of potential, that wasn't enough.

I am someone who's life has always revolved around school. I made sure I did well in high school to get myself into a great college. I worked my ass off in college to make sure I could stay there. And then I graduated. What was I going to do after that? I didn't want to go to graduate school (not yet at least) and the US economy made sure I couldn't find a job. I felt lost. I felt like Esther Greenwood. She always relied on her intelligence to get her by. And then her intelligence and ability were put in doubt and she no longer felt worthy of living. Definitely not something I should have read when I was working part-time in a minimum wage job and hoping hoping hoping that something good might happen soon. Just to make myself clear, I didn't feel like downing a bottle of sleeping pills, but I certainly felt like, "Hmm, Esther and I have a little much in common. What does that say about me?"

Similar to when I read The Awakening a couple months back, The Bell Jar was written in the 1960s but it's still applicable to present day. If I can relate to a female college student from the 1960s when some universities didn't even allow women to study at that time (see UVA 1971), then we may have a problem.

Our Hell is the Good Life

#17 The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

Bruno is a 9 year old boy living in Berlin during WWII. His father is a high ranking commander in the Reich and their family is sent to Auschwitz as part of his father's promotion.

Bruno is absolutely clueless to the goings on at Auschwitz, which is something I found hard to believe as I read the book. I'm pretty sure that if his father was a high ranking Nazi official, Bruno would be a member of the Hitler Youth and waving his little flag around. But Boyne decides to take the optimistic route in believing that a boy of Bruno's age would be completely oblivious to the hatred against Jews. A noble, but ignorant route. From the window in his new house at Auschwitz, Bruno can see the camp and is jealous that the children there are able to play with each other, yet he is all alone and left only with his bratty older sister as a companion. He's also curious as to why they're all wearing the same striped "pajamas."

Other officers are constantly going in and out of his house and Bruno realizes that they aren't nice people.

And so one day, Bruno decides to go on an adventure. He walks along the fencing of the concentration camp and eventually meets a boy the same exact age he is (they even share the same birthday), named Schmuel. Schmuel is (understandably) sad and scared and starving. Bruno can't grasp why Schmuel would be hungry and sad. Bruno continues to visit Schmuel. For Bruno, visiting Schmuel is a reprieve from his boredom. He tries to bring Schmuel food, but sometimes gets hungry on the way to visiting him and eats all the food.

I could only shake my head as I continued to read the book. The situation didn't seem plausible to me. I understand that the book is meant for "young adult" readers as a way to educate them on the Holocaust and provide a young boy's point of view, but... no. I just couldn't imagine Bruno as a Nazi officer's son who was neutral to the Jews. Solely from his social standing, I pictured Bruno as the little shithead who would point his finger at his Jewish classmates and start trouble against them.

I couldn't feel an ounce of remorse for Bruno when I knew that outside of his window were thousands of starving Jews who were being dehumanized and denigrated. He complained and complained and I wanted to slap him.

The book wasn't poorly or well written. It's just a book meant more to educate than wow the reader with its prose. Quick read, wouldn't particularly recommend. Read Anne Frank or Elie Wiesel instead if you want an account of WWII/the Holocaust.

02 May 2010

Big Girls Don't Cry... ha, yeah right.

I know I said that I was going back to my reading and reviewing ways, but apparently I'm a big fat liar. Now that things are no longer speculation, but truths, I'm okay with talking about what's going on and why I've been a shitty CBR kid.

I'm moving to Germany tomorrow for (at least) 6 months to work. I found out a little more than 3 weeks ago, so life has been super hectic. I've had time to read, don't get me wrong, but my mind just can't stay in a book right now.

I have about 10 books I'm bringing with me (including the April CBR Book Club pick, The Blind Assassin) and I've already looked at amazon.de for books in English, so I know I can keep doing this. I just have to get my head back in the game.

With that said, I've decided to make a personal blog to keep my friends updated on my travels and the like. Nothing is up yet - I'm far too emotional to write anything without a river of tears coming down my face, but yeah, here it is: