Friday, June 24, 2011

Inventing Memory... but not much else.

I just finished reading a book called _Inventing Memory: A Novel of Mothers and Daughters_ by Erica Jong. I have a lot to say about it, but I'd only give it about two stars (which, according to the rating system, translates into "it was okay").

I am kind of a huge sucker for family sagas that span several generations. I loved _Middlesex_ by Jeffrey Eugenides and _White Teeth_ by Zadie Smith. So when I came across this at the library the other day, I thought I'd like it. From the dust jacket:

Spanning a hundred years, _Inventing Memory_ brilliantly interweaves the lives of four generations of unforgettable women, from the turn of the last century to the early years of the twenty-first century. Propelled out of 1905 Russia by a pogrom in which she loses her first child, her twin brother, and her father, Sarah Solomon arrives in an America of bowler hats, Irish cops, elevated subway cars, Jewish and Italian anarchists, and labor ferment. Establishing herself as an artist, Sarah lives with and loves two very different men: a landsman, Lev Levitsky, and Sim Coppley, a proper New York WASP who is in love with all things Jewish, including her. While Sarah and Lev embark on an artistic life together that will take them west to a newly established Hollywood, their wild, flapper daughter and avant-garde writer, Salome, cavorts in 1929 Paris with the likes of Henry Miller, Anais Nin, and Gertrude Stein, until she learns a shocking secret that compels her to search for her WASP roots. Salome's daughter, Sally, destined to become one of the 1960s' most famous folksingers, is struck like lightning by fame, and with it the ravages of a counterculture that wreaked havoc upon the lives of so many young artists.

We meet Sally--and all of these women--through her daughter, Sara. Born in 1978, trained as a historian and in the process of researching her family history at the prestigious Council on Jewish History in New York, Sara finds herself drawn into the tumultuous lives of her ancestors via a sepia-tone photograph of her great-grandmother Sarah, for whom she was named. A single mother with a young daughter, Sara absorbs all she can of the strength of her great-grandmother and grandmother, and tries to make peace with the ghost of her own neglectful mother; she comes to understand the paradoxical, subjective nature of memory, and the way we invent, reinvent, and assimilate our ancestors.

Right off the bat, one thing in particular seemed odd to me: At just 300 pages (with decent-sized print to boot), it seemed hardly long enough to contain such a colorful set of characters and complicated storyline.

And my major issue with the book, in the end, was a lack of character development. All four of the protagonists had the potential to be interesting and colorful and completely engaging. But because Jong did not take the time to explain their motivations, they all fell flat.

There's no background on Sarah Solomon, for example. What was her personality like when she was living in Russia? Without that bit of insight, it's hard to understand why she comes to the US without knowing any English and all of a sudden out of the blue starts worshiping Emma Goldman. During that whole part of the novel I kept thinking to myself, "That's fucking awesome, but I don't understand why Sarah is such a die-hard anarchist."

And that question was never answered. Neither were most others.

Sarah's daughter Salome is an even bigger mess of a character. At seventeen, she goes to Paris to write a novel and hangs out with all the cool people who were writing in Paris at that time. Then, she comes back to the US, and there's this twenty-year lapse and all of a sudden it's the 1950s and she's all tangled up in McCarthyism. Also, she marries this guy named Aaron who has what sounds like PTSD; he witnessed a lot of terrible shit during World War 2 in Europe and made several suicide attempts. His emotional instability is what causes his daughter Sally to spend the 1960s in a marijuana fog, writing folk songs about deadbeat dads.

Around this point in the book, I started to get the impression that Jong took all of the important events of the twentieth century and deliberately placed her characters in the middle of them. I think that she should have researched things more, gotten a bit of dirt on a few of the celebrities she mentioned, and then cut out the rest. I started making notes to myself every time a celebrity was mentioned, but I soon got bored of it. Between Sarah, an artist living in the early twentieth century; Salome, a writer in Paris in the 1920s; and Sally, a folksinger in the 1960s, there were a lot, and in my opinion, too many for any of the references to be meaningful to the story.

One of my favorite books of all time is _Blonde_ by Joyce Carol Oates. It's an account of Marilyn Monroe's life, from birth to death, in novel form. It reads a lot like a biography, but it's largely fictional. Oates did tons and tons of research on Monroe's life, and then because she's a very brave badass, she took a lot of liberties and created this brilliant beast of a novel about one of the biggest pop culture icons of the twentieth century.

That book could have been a giant disappointment. What is there left to say about Marilyn Monroe that hasn't already been said? But Oates found lots to say: nearly 800 pages' worth, in fact.

This is where Jong fell short. Her protagonists interacted with many historical figures. But I gained no insight on those people from what I read.

For example, at one point in the novel, Salome's hanging out with a bunch of famous writers in Paris:

They were all there... Miss Stein to Sam Beckett, Val Miller to James Joyce.

How the great ones avoid each other! Still, there was a moment when Beckett, Joyce, and Miller all pulled up chairs near each other, but they were accosted by their sycophants and admirers before they could speak a word.

To Miss Stein, however, the very fact of the chairs being pulled up connotes conspiracy.

"A chair is a chair is a chair is a chair is a chair is a chair," she says.

Like, really? You have the opportunity to write a scene wherein your protagonist interacts with Gertrude Stein--who was one hell of an interesting person--and all you can come up with is the most overused Gertrude Stein reference ever?

After about a million scenes like that (Sally the 1960s folk singer does too many drugs, dies, and Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell all turn up at the funeral), I began to find it all ridiculously hilarious. But that's just because after a while, I decided to read it that way in order to make the book more enjoyable.

I don't know. This book contains a lot of great insights, but none of them struck me as profound, because due to lack of character/plot development, the book wasn't set against a very believable backdrop. And that's sort of ironic, given that it brings back to life many people who actually existed at one point, and contributed to the political/artistic landscape that this novel is trying to revive for this generation.

So apparently, Planned Parenthood "preys on women."


I cracked open a beer and turned on the TV after work this evening and that's what a woman quoted for this news story was saying. If you watch the accompanying video, you can hear it for yourself, but in case you don't feel like sitting through the commercial they'll make you watch before the video starts, here it is: "We are also very near colleges, universities, and high schools, where the women they will prey upon are not fully understanding what's happening here at this site."

Her name is Brenda Savage, and she's a spokesperson for Right to Life, so maybe I should expect as much from someone like her. But even the story itself was biased; Savage's comment was untrue, offensive, and should have been edited out.

As for the issue at hand: Really, Comfort Suites? You sell your building to Planned Parenthood of all organizations and then get pissed off when you realize that the facility will be used to provide abortions? Isn't it kind of common knowledge that abortion is one of the many services provided by Planned Parenthood?

Please let me be frank for a second: I'm really fucking sick of this shit. I'm pro-choice, proud of it, and do not understand why an organization that helps women as much as Planned Parenthood has been forced to put up with so much anti-choice whining since the last election.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Just a thought.

Today I went to get my teeth cleaned. And the hygienist tried to make small talk with me. (I say "tried to" because I don't understand why these people think it's a good idea to talk to anyone whose mouth is obviously too busy hosting the War on Tartar to engage in conversation.) But anyway.

The hygienist (whose name is Jan) asked me what I'd like to do with my life.

Without really thinking about it, I bullshitted my way through an answer about working as an editor. If you know me, you know that that's the last thing I want to do. Been there, done that. But that's just the thing. I know it, because I've done it. I can talk intelligently about editing all day long, and those who listen to me can walk away without any doubt in their minds that I am a twenty-something has a head on her shoulders, and one hell of a future ahead of her.

But reality looks like this: While I'm not lying when I say that I'm an English major, I am omitting a major fact: I'm also a women's studies major. And the latter is where my interests lie. At this point, I'm really only an English major because when I transferred to Wayne State last year, the people who looked over my transcripts were like, "Holy shit, you have a zillion English credits. Don't drop that major. It'd be a huge waste." And they weren't kidding; I spent my first year at Wayne enrolled in a bunch of 5000-level English classes in order to finish up that aspect of my degree.

So, sorry Jan, but I lied. I want to be a feminist activist. There are a lot of issues that I care about, but anyone who knows me should be aware by now that one of my biggest passions is reproductive justice. (See that Planned Parenthood badge over there on the right side of this page? Or the NARAL badge? Yeah.) And although I won't get into the details now, suffice it to say for the moment that I've been actively pursuing a career in that field.

I want to tell people about that instead. But I don't, because you can't just make small talk about it at the dentist's office.

And it's not the inevitable "But you'll make no money!" lecture that I'm afraid of. I started out as a creative writing major, so I'm quite used to that. My problem with the way people react is that too often, they flinch. Because apparently, equality is controversial.

Let that sink in for a second. What kind of bullshit world do we live in where those who are putting their energy toward just causes have to keep their mouths shut for fear of offending people who will, in the end, benefit from these efforts?

Really, if the idea of promoting equality is too controversial to be talked about (much less acted upon), then that's solid reasoning right there for me to pursue it. Because clearly we've got a lot of work to do.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Letter to my sixteen-year-old self

So, I was reading Feministing today, and came across a letter that Chloe Angyal wrote to the sixteen-year-old version of herself.

Like a lot of the people who commented on her post, I was inspired to write one, too, even though I've already posted a list of things I wish I could tell my sixteen-year-old self.

At sixteen, I was between my sophomore and junior years of high school. That summer, I attended a week-long writing seminar that completely blew my nerdy, lonely mind. And then I spent the time before school started up again hiding in my basement, moping because I missed it.

I lacked political views back then, but that's not because I was apathetic. I was just raised by immigrants who couldn't vote anyway and therefore, didn't bother paying attention to what was going on around them. I was curious about things, though, and tried to form an opinion based on what felt right to me. But because I hadn't been raised in a politically-conscious household, I didn't trust myself too much, so kept my mouth shut. (It's hard to picture that version of me now, isn't it?)

A few things have remained the same: I loved salmon, Tracy Chapman, and The Golden Girls. I wouldn't go near red meat. My favorite color was green. And even though I hadn't discovered Margaret Atwood yet, I still had quite good taste in books (that's the year I read _The Color Purple_).

So anyway, the letter:

Dear 16-year-old Amelia/Amy,

Even though TV is generally pretty lame, I'm really glad that you spend so much time watching Daria; she's a good role model to have. But please, please, please do me (and Mom!) a favor and stop talking like her. Monotone doesn't suit you.

I start with that because holy shit, you have a lot of energy. Use it to do and make good things. Keep writing, singing, and playing the piano. Learn how to play the guitar, too; that's one thing I wish I had gotten around to doing.

Be nice to people. (You're very kind to animals, but I don't think you've got people down quite yet.) That's probably because you spend a lot of time alone. And I don't blame you--six years in the future, you'll still lack the desire to interact with most of the people in Grosse Pointe. But know that there's a world beyond the GP city limit; you're about to meet some of the most incredible people ever--at the Controlled Burn Seminar for Young Writers.

Don't let your classmates make you feel shitty about not having a driver's license yet. Their opinions don't matter, because in six years, you won't be in touch with most of them anyway. You will pass your road test eventually, but that won't change your feelings on driving too much. I walk/ride my bike as much as possible these days, and because gas is so fucking expensive now, people tend not to give me a hard time about it.

Nail-biting is gross, but I'm not going to tell you to stop doing it, because I haven't kicked the habit yet. And besides, I don't think you feel the way you do just because you're a teenager. Instead, your anxiety has a lot more to do with just being human, and alive and aware of things. Trust yourself. You wouldn't have such ambitious, brilliant friends if they didn't see a little bit of that in you, too.

Keep your eyes and heart open. Things will really suck sometimes. People you love and trust will hurt and abandon you. But know that the things that bring out the worst in some will bring out the best in others. Keep them around.

Also, it's okay to be an atheist. You believe in all kinds of good things. God doesn't have to be one of them.

Pet Wylee and give her a dog treat for me--I miss her. And please give Mac some catnip for me--he's kind of old and boring and sleeps a lot these days.

22-year-old Amelia/Amy (who is still referred to as Amelia by some and Amy by others)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Change and bravery

Today I'm blogging for LGBT families.


Last night I was babysitting. And Josephine, who is seven, said to me, "You're old. You're a teenager."

"No, actually," I replied. "I'm twenty-two, which means that I'm not a teenager anymore."

"Wait, so you're an adult?" she asked incredulously.

I nodded.

"But you're a babysitter, not a mom," she argued. "You're still in college. And you live with your parents."

Every time I talk to kids, I'm reminded of how they're conditioned to accept life as some sort of clearly defined progression rather than the colorful mesh of experiences it actually is. To them, everyone
  • gets a driver's license at 16,
  • finishes high school by 18, moves out, then
  • gets a college degree by the age 22, and shortly thereafter,
  • gets married (to a member of the opposite sex), and
  • has kids
Etc, etc. And what gets me is that kids believe this even when their own experience doesn't match it. Josephine, for example, is being raised by a single mother who doesn't have a college degree.

I open with this story because the problem, to me, isn't necessarily exclusive to LGBT people. It's about the freedom to lead your life however you damn well please without being judged for it. And I don't think that can happen until this idea of a "fairy tale future" is seen as equal to all other futures that children may grow up to have.

I came across a blog post recently that's actually more than four years old now. But its author makes an interesting point: "Being gay used to mean a little bit of fabulous, a little bit of edginess, a little bit of fight and a little bit of fun. It was about standing out, not blending in. And somehow we lost some of that. Our fight now is not for protecting our right to be gay, but fighting for our right to act straight. And that truly saddens me."

I don't think it saddens me, exactly. I personally cannot picture myself ever getting married or having kids. But I will still fight for marriage equality and the rights of LGBT parents, because I want everyone to be able to do whatever suits them best.

And I don't think that this problem can be fixed until kids are taught to accept futures other than the ones outlined above. I want to live in a world where nobody's situation--be it a personal decision or a matter of unavoidable circumstance--is stigmatized.

Mitch Albom recently wrote a pretty obnoxious piece about parents in Toronto who are keeping the sex of their child a secret. What he said really pissed me off, namely "The Toronto couple believe they are giving their child a 'choice' -- even though that choice was made by nature and was evident in the first pee-pee" and "If the child... one day asks a doctor to mangle its private parts in an effort to be something else, it still will be unable to deny that it was born one way."

Holy whoa, transphobic!

Now, I do have my own mixed feelings about the couple's decision to let their child choose his or her own gender. But my concerns have nothing to do with biology. My problem with it, as you may have guessed by reading what I wrote above, is that life will be made harder for the child by the constraints imposed by society. And as we can see from what Albom wrote, that's already happening. And the kid hasn't even left the womb yet.

But because I believe that challenging those norms is what's ultimately going to change the climate for LGBT people, I support the Toronto couple's decision to keep the sex of their child a secret.

My own coming out experience has been, for the most part, very positive. My parents and most of my extended family members found out last fall that I'm a lesbian, and overall, it went pretty well. So I encourage LGBT people to come out; it's important. At the same time, however, I acknowledge how hard it is. It's still hard for me, even now. As anyone who has experienced it knows, coming out is a process that really never ends. A neighbor, for example, was telling me recently about how she got married at the age of nineteen. Then she realized that I'm older than nineteen, and asked me why I'm not married yet. "Never mind marriage," she said, "Girl, you're way behind. You don't even have a boyfriend."

I could have been honest and said, "Well, besides being happily single, it's not exactly legal for lesbians to marry in the state of Michigan."

But because of her tone, I didn't feel comfortable saying that. Nor was I up to defending LGBT rights to someone who may not have been open to such an argument. (Coming out to my parents, by the way, was one of the most exhausting things I've ever done. It went well, but even so, I felt drained for days afterward. That thought keeps me from speaking my mind a lot of of the time.)

I've witnessed a lot of bravery on the part of LGBT people. Living honestly in an inhospitable environment isn't easy. I've made a few brave moves myself. And that bravery has done me a world of good, which is why I think that it's time for the rest of society to be brave, too.