Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Seven Ages by Louise Gück

I was disappointed by The Seven Ages by Louise Glück. The winner of the Bollinger Prize in 2001, The Seven Ages was very good, but, to be honest, I was expecting something better. I had a preconceived notion that I would absolutely love Gl¨ck's poetry, but I didn't. That isn't to say that it wasn't good. I particularly enjoyed Radium, From A Journal, Balcony, and Unpainted Door. But reading The Seven Ages just wasn't the life-changing event I though it would be; perhaps I should not have had such high expectations, but I did.


Sunday, April 18, 2010

Genesis by Bernard Beckett

In the post-apocalyptic world of Bernard Beckett's Genesis Anaximander is taking an exam to enter the Academy. Anaximander lives in a society modeled after Plato's Republic. But all is not what it seems. This society, intended to be just and good, is in many ways dark and cruel. Against this dark background, Anaximander's exam, in the Beckett's hands, turns into a philosophical riff on consciousness. A plot twist at the end leaves the reader wondering about the same tricky issues touched on during Anaximander's exam.

Despite it's deeply philosophical theme, Genesis was a fairly quick read that left me thinking about some serious issues. If you enjoy philosophy or science fiction, I think you should give Genesis a look.


Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Almond by Nedjma

Written anonymously through the use of a pseudonym, The Almond is the fictional tale of the sexual awakening of a Muslim woman from a small Moroccan village. She is married off to a cruel husband, who brutalizes her on her wedding night. Badra swears from that night on her husband will make love to a corpse. It is not until she flees her horrible marriage for the house of her aunt in Tangiers that life for Badra changes. She is introduced to Driss, a rich cardiologist. Badra becomes his mistress and Driss shows her the pleasures of sex. Badra's life becomes a fairy tale as the rich Driss keeps her in good style, despite living in a strict Muslim society. But Driss's libertine lifestyle soon stokes jealousy and Badra's love for him turns to hatred. But the hate eventually cools; Driss and Badra are reconciled after many years of separation.

I really enjoyed reading The Almond. The prose and story are erotic and, at times, terrible. Some, however, might find the frank sexual language offensive. While there is some question about the veracity of the story, I found it an enjoyable read that, even if not entirely accurate, makes me sympathetic to the plight of women in bad marriages, arranged or not.


Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata

Thousand Cranes is the third Kawabata novel that I have read and by far the best. It is the story of a man haunted by the mistresses of his father. Kikuji is invited to a tea ceremony by one of his father's former mistresses, Chikako. She invites him in order to arrange Kikuji's marriage to Yukiko. But another of his father's mistresses, Mrs. Ota, also attends the tea ceremony, accompanied by her daughter. Kawabata weaves a sad and romantic tale from Kikuji's relationships with all four women.

I have described Kawabata's prose before as spare. In Thousand Cranes, he does a magnificent job of using this spare prose to touch the reader's heart with this romantic tale. For the first time I see why Kawabata deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he won in 1968, shortly before his tragic suicide in 1972. Thousand Cranes certainly makes up for the last Kawabata novel I read, House of the Sleeping Beauties, which was awful. If you are looking to read some Kawabata, Thousand Cranes would be a good place to start.


Ballistics by Billy Collins

Ballistics by Billy Collins, a former U. S. Poet Laureate, is full of the poetry of everyday life. For example, Old Man Eating Alone in a Chinese Restaurant is about aging and, perhaps, loneliness. Brightly Colored Boats Upturned on the Banks of the Charles about a tableau of boats that Collins must once have seen. Other poems are about the stray thoughts that Collins has; little fantasies like Hippos on Holiday or The Golden Years. Some are deeper, more ominous, like Looking Forward, a poem about death. Ballistics is full of poetry that is simple, full of the unadorned beauty of everyday life.


Saturday, April 03, 2010

The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti

Jessica Valenti's The Purity Myth is about the abstinence movement championed by fundamentalist Christians. She justly questions the way this movement fetishizes feminine virginity. This fetishization of virginity constructs a social reality where virgins are seen as pure and good and non-virgins are seen as corrupt and bad. It reduces women's value to their sexuality alone, completely discarding the whole of their behavior in favor of a single item by which to measure their morality.

Valenti also questions the wisdom of abstinence-only sex education, which is clearly ineffective and dangerous. Statistics show that abstinence-only education programs do not reduce the likelihood of sexual activity but do reduce the likelihood of condom or other contraception use. Too often abstinence-only education efforts are riddled with mistaken information, at best, but more likely outright lies.

One of the more disturbing components of the abstinence movement is the purity pledge. A purity pledge is undertaken when a young woman, a girl really, pledges to her father that she will remain a virgin until she is married. The father pledges in turn to "cover" his daughter, providing a moral "shield" to protect his daughter, her virginity above all, from the immorality of the world. These pledges, which often take place at "purity balls" are eerily reminiscent of wedding ceremonies. These ceremonies seem to me, and Valenti's father, to have an almost incestuous overtone.

Valenti's book is an interesting contrast to Kathryn Joyce's Quiverfull. Both books are about the ideals of patriarchal Christianity. Unlike Joyce, Valenti makes no attempt to be respectful to the other side. The Purity Myth is, at times, a feminist rant, albeit quite justified. I agree with all of Valenti's criticisms of the Christian obsession with sexual purity, and I am strongly opposed to abstinence-only education. I liked this book, but found it less enjoyable than Quiverfull.


Quiverfull by Kathryn Joyce

In Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement Kathryn Joyce covers three distinct but related pieces within the growing patriarchy movement in fundamental Christianity.

Once piece concerns the complete surrender of a wife to the "headship" of her husband. Called Titus 2 after the scriptural justification of this surrender.

That they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children,

To be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed.

Titus 2:4-5

Titus 2 wives do not work outside the home. Instead they engage in homemaking activities, which the Titus 2, or complementarian, philosophy sees as the more naturally female endeavors. These women are to be unquestionably obedient to their husbands. Titus 2 wives must also be sexually available to their husbands at all times.

This sexual availability supports the second piece of the patriarchy movement. Quiverfull families eschew any kind of contraception, surrendering to God the question of conception.

Lo, children are an heritage of the LORD: and the fruit of the womb is his reward.

As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth.

Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate.

Psalm 127:3-5

Quiverfull families have and raise as many Christian children as God sees fit for them to have. Many see their large families as growing armies in a cosmic war between Christians and non-Christians.

The final piece of the Christian patriarchy movement, discussed only briefly by Joyce, is the surrender of daughters to the "headship" of their father as well. This surrender is seen as a kind of preparation for the daughters immanent surrender to her future husband.

Kathryn Joyce does a wonderful job of covering the Titus 2 and Quiverfull movements, but the third part about daughters seemed to be a late and hasty addition to the book. Joyce's opinion of the Christian patriarchy movement is clear from the beginning, but she shows a great deal of respect for the men and women adhere to what the author thinks are mistaken ideals. If you have any interest in the Christian patriarchy movement, or just in fundamentalist Christianity, you would do well to read this book.

As both an atheist and stay-at-home-dad, I find these patriarchal ideals to be fascinating but anathema. The idea that women are unable or unfit to work outside the home; that only men without any masculinity can be nurturing and do housework, is ludicrous. I admire the convictions of the Titus 2 and Quiverfull families that can follow these ideals without harm. But it seems to me that these ideals can be dangerous. One only has to read about the spousal abuse and abject poverty suffered some by some of the families in Joyce's book to see the danger.