Criticism, Dorian Gray in Theory, Essay, Literary Theory, Non-Fiction, Oscar Wilde

Dorian Gray, In Theory (Part 1)

Original artist unknown.

“Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital” (Wilde 4). One of my favorite novels is Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. It was thrust into the critical pool upon its first release in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890, and it has remained in that pool, wading through theoretical waters, ever since. The novel has been critiqued by hundreds of scholars, from all schools of theory and research. But what makes Dorian Gray such a compelling research topic? What can the different theories bring to light about the novel? How do we read Dorian Gray and get what we “should” from the work? Is it important that Oscar Wilde may have written the novel as an autobiography?

To answer these questions, I would like to consider how this novel has been treated by five different theoretical perspectives, which I will divide into a five-part series, as follows: First, a Formalist approach to Dorian Gray, discussing the idea that the best artists put nothing of their own personality into their product; second, the reader-response theory and its implications on The Picture of Dorian Gray over time, such as how cultural shifts and experiences change the way we view the novel; third, the post-structural ideas of “play” and “remedy vs drug”; fourth, the text as a historical product, as informed by Raymond William and Marxism; and fifth, the feminist view, or lack thereof, on Wilde’s work.

This is a source-informed but somewhat recreational attempt to examine, in non-linear fashion, a variety of ways in which Dorian Gray has been treated in literary theory and criticism. I was intrigued by Wilde’s assertion that diversity of opinion about an artwork essentially keeps that artwork alive. Since diverse opinions continue to surround Dorian Gray after nearly 130-years in print, it seems fair to say that this work of art is still very much alive. 

Formalism

T.S. Eliot writes, “no artist produces great art by a deliberate attempt to express his personality” and that a “poet has, not a personality to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality” (qtd. in Leitch 1096). To argue or to agree with Eliot and the Formalists, one must first do two things: define “great art” and decide what favor or disfavor has been done by an artist attempting to express himself in his work. The first of these two things seems, to me, an impossibility. There can be no definition for great art, any more than there can be definition for art in general (how often has this conversation come up?). So, for my purposes, I reject the need to classify art as good or bad, and instead focus on whether Oscar Wilde is autobiographical in Dorian Gray; if so, are the Formalists correct in their argument that a writer’s biography and personality must be kept separate from an artist’s work in order for the work to be, shall we say, effective?

According to one researcher, The Picture of Dorian Gray is all about Wilde. In his essay, “Oscar Wilde and the Devil’s Advocate,” Nethercot writes that one of Wilde’s methods of self-revelation “was his habit of introducing details from his own life and character into his descriptions of people he was writing about” (Nethercot 835). He goes on to argue that the narrator’s review of the “curious stories [becoming] current” about Dorian Gray in his twenty-fifth year is, in fact, Wilde’s own review of himself: “Wilde was twenty-five in 1879, and by that time the mask which he had at first endeavored to set up before his face in his daily activities and conversation had begun to slip” (841). Even Dorian’s “confession” monologue near the end of the novel can be viewed as an internal-struggle Wilde was having, himself unsure of how much of his personal life to make public, though he had been “confessing in public all along” (842). The mystery is, then, was Oscar Wilde consciously using his own life experiences and personalities in his writing and, if so, did he approve of that practice in general? Should we?

A wide reading suggests Wilde does put much of himself into his writing, and perhaps Dorian Gray was a type of public, yet veiled, “coming out” for the author. However, it is likely that Oscar Wilde knew the danger in which he placed himself by putting so much of his own personality into the pages of his text. Houston A. Baker writes that Wilde’s own view on the artist is that he “must have a strong personality, but he cannot simply thrust upon the world his own raw emotions in the work of art” (Baker 352). This opinion also seems to be made clear in the pages of Dorian Gray when Basil Hallward admits that he cannot exhibit his own work because he has “shown in it the secret of [his] own soul” (Wilde 8). Perhaps, then, The Picture of Dorian Gray is answering two of Wilde’s needs: to present himself honestly to the public and to publicly admonish himself for it. If this is the case, then Wilde confounds the Formalists not only by inserting himself into his fictional work, but by admitting he has done so and using the same work to reprimand himself (ultimately a kind of meta-insertion).

I’m uncomfortable with the Formalist’s approach to literary criticism. The suggestion is that one can (or must) study a work for structural purposes only, rejecting any other context or outside influence that might have helped to create that text. While I see the benefits of this type of consideration in terms of critiquing the success or failure of plot structure, for example (or pacing, or narrative time, etc.), as a single method for evaluating the text it is too limited because it necessarily omits a number of important elements that influenced and allowed for the creation of the work in the first place. To me, a piece of literature (or art) should not be dissected from its context, be that social, economic, or cultural. 

Come back soon for my thoughts on Dorian Gray and Reader-Response theory!

Works Cited and Consulted

  • Baker, Houston A. “A Tragedy of the Artist: The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 24.3 (1969): 349-55.
  • Leitch, Vincent B ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001. 
  • Nethercot, Arthur H.  “Oscar Wilde and the Devil’s Advocate.” PMLA 59.3 (1944): 833-50.
  • Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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2018 TBR Pile Challenge, American Lit, Classics, Contemporary, Creative Non-Fiction, Essay, Joan Didion, Non-Fiction

“Joansing” for Didion

While Halloween has always held a coveted spot in my heart and imagination, the truth is, I used to get almost as excited for the 4thof July. It was like the summertime version of my favorite autumn day, where the rules were bent and the pure joy of living was the day’s entire purpose. I distinctly remember people from my childhood commenting about my love for this holiday, and about how patriotic I must have been. But that was never the reality.

What I loved were the barbecues and the being outside with friends all day, playing kickball and having water balloon fights, and getting so bloated on hot dogs and ice cream that I thought I’d burst before the big city fireworks show. I loved the morning parade, being in it as a Boy Scout and, when Boy Scout days were over, arising early to save the family seats along the sidewalk, close enough to grab candy and other goodies from the parade participants.

And I can still hear the sound of the ice cream truck, softly in the distance. I can see my friends’ faces as they heard it too; we’d look at each other at just the right moment, realizing it was time to pause the game, rush home to beg for a dollar, and then get back out into the street in time to stop the truck as he came tinkling down the road. But more than anything, it was the fireworks.

Reading Joan Didion is like reading the 4th of July. It is fireworks in my brain and sitting down with an old friend to chat about and think about everything and nothing, and leaving exhausted by the pure and exhilarating experience of being together again. There’s no special magic to fireworks, once you learn they’re little more than powder, a match, and some cleverly timed fuses. In the same way, one can “figure out” the technical and creative style of Didion in order to explain just how she does what she does, and why it is so compelling. But even now, that knowledge, about fireworks and Didion, remains subliminal, and I continue to be, above all, caught up in the spectacle, in the color and rhythm and choreography of it all.

The White Album is a collection of essays written in the “aftermaths of the 1960s.” Her subject matter ranges from personalities like Doris Lessing to events like the Manson murders. What holds it all together is the skeptical and, in hindsight, sobering but accurate perspective of an often-mistaken view about the United States’ “greatest decade.” Didion takes an unflinching look at the optimism of the 1960s, the supposed freedoms, and the many breakdowns and reckonings of that idealism, the unmasking, as it were, of one decade by its disillusioned successor, the 1970s.

In the first essay, from which the collection takes its title, Didion writes, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live . . . we look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” In other words, the writer’s work at this time was to try to make sense of the senseless, and the 1970s more than any other time revealed that, sometimes, the narrative is simply wrong.

In later essays, she writes about architecture, like governors’ mansions and museums, as signifiers of our culture’s shaken and superficial, even misleading, view of our own past. In “The Getty,” for example, she writes, “the Getty tells us that the past was perhaps different from the way we like to perceive it.” If the collection has one unifying theme, it is this critique on what we Americans think we know about our own past, and how quickly truth and reality seem to slip through our fingers. To read this collection now, in 2018, is a particularly painful and humbling experience.

One of the most under-rated essays in the collection is its last, “Quiet Days in Malibu.” In a way, this piece, written between 1976-1978, is the logical concluding piece not just because it comes near the end chronologically, but because Didion writes about the personal experience of living in Malibu in order to reveal that it, too—the reality of her hometown—is different from how it is perceived by those who live outside of it. Malibu, California has an aura about it that relates to nothing real, according to Didion, just as the 1970s exposed the truth of the 1960s, puncturing its aura forever. Aptly, and somewhat ironically, at the center of her experience in this essay is an immigrant who runs a local flower shop for decades. His are some of the most expensive, sought-after plants in the world and, like everything else, their position is precarious. Danger and uncertainty, instability and tragedy, are always lurking. And yet, so is hope—inexplicable, untraceable, blind hope.

I adore Didion’s writing, so beware my bias. That said, this is perhaps her most tightly themed collection. Despite an essay or two with which I had some intellectual or emotional disagreement (there is one titled “The Women’s Movement” that left me feeling more than conflicted), I felt a fierce and powerful sense of grounded awe while reading these essays and after finishing the collection. This is what I’ve come to expect, personally, from my time with Joan Didion.

The rocket’s red glare. The bombs bursting in air.


This was the fifth book read for my TBR Pile Challenge.


All work found on roofbeamreader.com is copyright of the original author and cannot be borrowed, quoted, or reused in any fashion without the express, written permission of the author.


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Book Review, Classics, E.H. Gombrich, Fiction, Historical Fiction, History, Mario Puzo, Non-Fiction, Potpour-reads, S.E. Hinton, Young Adult

The Outsiders, The Godfather, and A Little History

In this fourth “potpour-reads” post, I put together some thoughts on three classics, including two works of fiction and one of non-fiction. The first fiction classic is classified by Penguin as a “modern classic” and is sometimes categorized further into “young adult,” although I don’t think that is necessary. The second fiction classic is notoriously known for being simultaneously the author’s least successful stylistically but also the most successful commercially. Finally, the non-fiction classic is an adult adaptation of a history book that was originally written for children, then updated many years later. Each of these books was read in June, 2018, and the covers shown are for the editions that I read.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

This is a book that I have had on my “TBR” shelf for probably 20+ years. I honestly have no idea what took me so long to read it, especially considering how many people love it. Perhaps that was part of my apprehension, actually, because who wants to be “that guy” who hates a book everyone else finds so amazing? Fortunately, that turned out not to be the case. The story takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1965. At the heart of the story is its narrator, Ponyboy Curtis (yes, that’s his real name) whose parents have died and left him and his elder brother Sodapop in the care of their eldest brother, Darry. The three teenagers are members of the lower-working class and belong to a type of gang called “Greasers.” Their rivals are the wealthy gang from the better part of town, called the “Socs” (short for “Socials”). One of the more gripping elements of the novel is the intimate look at family and friendship, and especially the way that young men take care of each other when they have no parents or guardians willing or able to do the job. The boys often refer to each other with terms of endearment usually restricted to romantic partners, which provides insight into how close they are and how much they would be willing to risk for one another. They are “boys,” though, and masculine stereotypes abound: duty, honor, manhood, etc. These “values” get the young men into plenty of trouble, from gang fights to murder, to a questionable suicide. What makes the almost clichéd nature of it all (a girl named “Cherry”?) worth it is the complexity of character that so many of the Greasers have, especially the sensitivity of the poet and the artist, Ponyboy and Johnny. By the end, almost without realizing it, I had begun to root for these kids, just as many of the townspeople do. This is a book that has certainly “stayed gold” after all these years. (I’m killing myself after learning that Hinton wrote the book when she was in high school and published it when she was 18 – my god!)

The Godfather by Mario Puzo

This is another book I have been meaning to read for years, ever since I discovered that it was a book and not just a movie. The Godfather trilogy is my favorite film series of all-time; so, much like The Outsiders, I suppose I was subconsciously reluctant to read it because I wondered if it would withstand my close scrutiny. I mean, I basically grew up on this movie! Unlike The Outsiders, though, Mario Puzo’s book was just “okay,” for me. It is one of those rare instances where the film really outdoes the original material, and I think a lot of that is thanks to the genius of Francis Ford Coppola and the many incredible actors hired for the film(s). The novel itself is interesting and I did enjoy it, and probably would have even if I weren’t already so familiar with the story. Some of the positives, in fact, include the detailed sub-plots that did not make it into any of the movies, such as the storyline for Johnny Fontaine. At first, I wondered why he was getting so much page time since his character was so insignificant in the film, but the book does more than make it work. I also enjoyed reading this as an American immigrant story. Even though Vito Corleone’s back story does not get nearly as much attention as is provided in The Godfather II, there are enough recognizable bits of it. I was reminded, while reading, that this is one of the few books in college I was assigned to read but never did. The point was to read it as an immigrant novel, and I think having done so (in an academic setting) would have been interesting. Instead, I focused on other things while relying on my knowledge of the film to get me through discussions. Whoops! I did find that the book was fairly well written, though not the kind of evocative prose or description I was expecting. Puzo himself expressed that he wrote this book for money and in desperation, so I’m confident that he would agree with me that this isn’t a stellar work. Still, it’s a good one and it lent itself perfectly for the franchise it would birth.

A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich

This book is, well, how can I put it other than to say, it is darling. Who knew a history book could be precious? As it turns out, Gombrich originally wrote the book in German and for children, and it was a wild success, until World War II happened and the Nazis banned it. Many years later, he rewrote and expanded the book for adults and translated it himself into English for a bigger market audience. One can tell by much of the phrasing that it was originally written for children, but I did not find this a distraction. The history is accurate and thorough enough (though very concise) for an adult reader to appreciate it, and yet there is a strong sense of wonder and awe in the prose and style. Gombrich invites the reader to engage with multiple historical events as they happen concurrently, which has always been my favorite way to approach the study of history (otherwise I can never remember what was happening at the same time as whatever else). In this way, it is one of the favorite pieces of popular history I have ever read. That said, it is clear that Gombrich studied art (his doctorate was earned in art history), because he spends a lot of time focusing on the artistic elements of each event and looking at what was happening in history through an artistic lens. Many of his analogies have to do with art or music. This style might not work for everyone, but it was fine for me. I also appreciated two important features: first, Gombrich writes about the many religions with equal respect and detail. This is really uncommon in many popular histories, and even academic ones, so call it a pleasant surprise! He also treats religion as the historical feature it is, within the context of each culture, yes, but also in relation (drawing the lines between Christ and Mohammed, for example.) I found this beyond helpful, and so fascinating! The second important feature is that he corrected information in previous editions. Where he had made an error, he explicitly pointed it out and amended that information for the new edition. In both ways, he demonstrated a trustworthy ethos–always important, but even more so these days. This is a book that will remain on my shelf permanently.

 

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Book Review, Christopher Phillips, Death and Dying, Fiction, George Saunders, Grief/Recovery, Historical Fiction, LGBT, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Philosophy, Potpour-reads, Will Walton, Young Adult

Lincoln, Socrates, and A Funeral

In this third “potpour-reads” post, I share some quick thoughts on three recent reads, all of which were completed in June. Somehow, none of these books are ones from any of my challenge lists. Go figure. I read Lincoln in the Bardo because it is getting a lot of attention and because it sounded interesting. I read Socrates Café because I have been pivoting toward philosophy and history pretty heavily in the last couple of months (since January, really, when I began my focused study of Stoicism); and I read I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain largely based on the recommendation of the incomparable Andrew Smith, who has not steered me wrong, yet.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo is unlike anything I have ever read. It is a contemporary postmodernism married with black humor and historical fiction. As a first novel, it seems a stunning achievement, though this is the first Saunders work I have read at all, so I do not know how it compares to his short stories. (I’ve had Tenth of December sitting on my shelf for years, having purchased it only a few weeks after it was published; it is safe to say I plan to get to it sooner rather than later, now.) Essentially, Saunders combines historical accounts of Lincoln’s life and presidency with fictional ones that he creates, and then interweaves in almost testimonial fashion between the narrative portion, which is told by a trio of bizarre ghosts who meet one of Lincoln’s sons and, through him, the President himself. I’ve read a number of reviews that found the humor in this book to be off-putting and even inappropriate. I can understand their point, as some of the bawdy comedy does seem to come out of left-field. And yet, I can’t help thinking about what I’ve learned about Lincoln’s sense of humor over the years. It seems to me that he would actually appreciate the irreverent take on his life and legacy, particularly as it highlights the elements of human nature that Saunders explores, here, including fear, sexuality, death, mental health, and loneliness. It is safe to say that I did not know what to expect of Lincoln in the Bardo, even after reading the description and other reviews. Then, when reading the book, it somehow managed to be even more different than I thought it would be. In this way, I think, it deserves all the praise it has received as a contemporary masterpiece and a novel approach to, well, the novel. I was also thrilled that Saunders explored a lot of contemporary issues that are actually historical, yet would have been “taboo” for discussion in Lincoln’s time

Socrates Café by Christopher Phillips

I have been reading much more non-fiction, lately, including history and philosophy. I stumbled upon Christopher Phillips’s Socrates Café while perusing the philosophy section of Barnes & Noble for contemporary overviews (I’ve been in a kind of “self-help” exploratory approach to the history of philosophy, I guess.) Despite reading the blurb, this is another book that caught me slightly off-guard and was not what I had expected. It is in many ways a reference guide to creating your own Socrates Café, something I had never considered and yet left the book feeling, “well, why the hell not?” I loved Phillips passion, though I did sometimes feel like the examples he gave from his own cafes around the country seemed a little far-fetched. Maybe they did happen, I don’t know, but he himself says that most of this was reconstructed after the fact, so I can’t help thinking he added a bit more flair and impressive insight than might have occurred originally. (So many of his café participants seemed to know so much about philosophy, for example, and could quote a range of philosophers from memory.) In this way, I found the book might be setting false expectations for people who are using it as a guide to beginning their own Socrates Cafe. That said, as a generally interested reader, one who is on his own journey to learn more about ancient philosophies andto think more thoughtfully about the current world, this book does an excellent job of putting the two together. In the end, it did make me want to get out there and engage with other thoughtful people, to ask big and small questions without expecting concrete answers, and to wonder gleefully about all manner of things. I think, then, Phillips does what he set out to do: make philosophy exciting again.

I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain by Will Walton

Like Lincoln in the Bardo, Will Walton’s young adult novel about grief and loss, I Felt A Funeral, In My Brain, is a creative approach to narrative (and verse) fiction. It was also not what I expected from the blurb and from reading other reviews, and yet somehow ended up being much more satisfying, much more curious, than I imagined it would be. I’ve been let down by “hype” on too many occasions, as I think we all have, but in this case, I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain lives up to the hype without necessarily living up to expectations. I’m not sure how to clarify that except to say, even though the book did not meet my expectations, I ended up appreciating it and what it does in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. This is mostly due to its construction and to the fact that, somehow, Walton manages to create that sense of grief in his text, the confusion, the sense of drowning, the psychological wandering we do when we have lost someone important to us. There are a lot of books about grief and loss, some of them are beautiful in the way they treat the subject or in the language they use to explore it. Walton’s is beautiful because, inexplicably, it simply reads like the experience of grief. I think back to a time when I most felt a terrible loss and can easily connect those feelings to the way this narrative is told and the way it unfolds, in choppy segments, in distant characterization, and in the interplay of concrete prose and transcendent verse. My only personal critique was that I felt, sometimes, like some of the segments read as if they were creative prompts inserted for the sake of it, and not as if they developed along the course of this particular story. That said, I Felt A Funeral, In My Brain, is a special book that explores a difficult topic in a unique way. It is unlike anything else on the market this year.

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2018 TBR Pile Challenge, Amy Tan, astrophysics, Book Review, Education, Fiction, Non-Fiction, Parker J. Palmer, physics, Potpour-reads, Stephen Hawking, Teaching

Teaching, Physics, and The Joy Luck Club

Potpour-reads: Palmer, Hawking, and Tan

For a variety of reasons, from end of semester madness to poor time management and general laziness, I find I’ve fallen behind on SIX book reviews. Despite the loftiest of plans, I’ve decided that, no, I’m not going to sit here and write full-length reviews for each of these. Instead, I’m separating the books into two “potpour-reads” posts, each with brief thoughts on three books. That should get me caught up in time to finish The Outsiders and, perhaps, write a good old-fashioned review for that one. (Or perhaps not? Who knows, anymore!?) Anyway, I’m calling these “potpour-reads” because these six books span a variety of topics and genres, without rhyme or reason, and I have no intention of trying to make them “fit” any particular perspective. So, let’s grab-bag it, shall we? Thanks, Jeopardy, for the idea!

The Courage to Teach by Parker J. Palmer

This one was selected as a group read among some fellow faculty members at the college where I teach. I was apparently somewhat over-eager in reading the entire book right away, not realizing that we were going to take it in very small bits and pieces (we chose the book last October and have, so far, only discussed the introduction – but I read the entire book in February, I think. Maybe it was March? I could look it up, but I’m not going to). This one was also on my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge list because I knew we would be reading it as a group, so it should have been a pretty easy “win” for me. And it was, except that I waited months to sit down and write out any thoughts on it, and at this point I’ve pretty much forgotten most of it. On the bright side, given the way my colleagues are tackling the book, I’ll definitely be able to go back and read it chapter-by-chapter, as they are, for discussion. This will allow me to more thoughtfully digest and discuss it. My first impressions of the book were moderate, to be honest. I found a lot of what Palmer says to be quite relevant to what I do in my profession, especially in considering the ups-and-downs of any classroom. That said, much of the book’s points seemed repetitive to me, and there is a kind of forced optimism about it. I am one of those bizarre educators who think that teaching is a calling, not a career, and that is the kind of audience this book hopes to reach. Still, given the kind of semester I was having while reading the book, I couldn’t help but pick apart every pie-in-the-sky suggestion or anecdote. The chapters were also very long and not diverse enough in theme. I did appreciate how each chapter begins with a kind of philosophical thought about education, from profound thinkers of the past. It certainly added to my reading list, if nothing else. I wish I could remember more about the book so as to give it a richer review (and it probably deserves one), but it has all simply fallen out of my head. Verdict: 3.0 out of 5.0.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

I first read this book in high school and understood about 10% of it at the time. I re-read the book after Hawking’s passing because I knew I hadn’t understood much of it that first time and because I felt the need to sit with Stephen Hawking now that he has passed on from our world. Ironic how that always seems to happen, with those we know personally and those we don’t. I would like to say I understood a good part of the book this time around, but if I’m being honest, I think I can allow myself a generous, oh, 44%. I certainly understood more of the words this time around, and some of the concepts, but much like Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, this book tends to go over one’s head, especially if one’s background in science ended with college general education requirements more than a decade ago. Still, I have always enjoyed Stephen Hawking’s narrative voice and his sense of humor. He does make one want to learn, and that is more than I can say of a lot of science writers. A Brief History of Time does an extraordinary job of awakening the awe in its reader, of making even a jaded adult reader feel that childlike wonder again, which I think is part of why Hawking wrote the book in the first place. Because it is a feeling he never lost, despite how much he knew about quarks and black holes and all that. Interestingly, what I did not remember about this book is how wide-open Hawking leaves the door. He explains a lot of what we know for sure, yes, but he also delights in everything we do not know, which far outweighs the thing we do know. This is a book I will probably return to time and again, although I think my next step will be to read the supposedly even more accessible, A Briefer History of Time, which Hawking wrote after realizing that almost nobody understood this first one. Verdict: 4.0 out of 5.0. 

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

I read this one for my Classics Club challenge. It is book 13 of 50 completed for that list, and I’m glad to have read it, finally. Here’s what I can remember about the book (and this is the kind of review I’m destined to write when I try reading during difficult and busy semesters, and without taking any notes. What was I thinking?). Anyhow, again, what I remember: I enjoyed the book. Yahoo! My first impression was that it felt a bit cold, but ultimately, I think that is part of the point. The story covers the relationship between mothers and daughters, all of whom are connected in the narrative’s present-day San Francisco Chinatown. The mothers are all immigrants and they try to navigate lives of split-identities, part of them still in their hometowns in China, part of them here in the United States. Their daughters often struggle to understand, and the daughters and mothers each fail to communicate those differences effectively. There’s a kind of gulf that seems both impossible to bridge and yet deeply, psychologically understood. An ancient “knowing” still exists in the daughters, one that helps them to understand and appreciate their mothers, all the while existing in a society that doesn’t quite belong to them, and even less so to their parents. As more and more of the mothers’ histories becomes clear, the daughters find themselves even more intricately and confusingly interconnected. I found The Joy Luck Club to be interesting in its exploration of the immigrant experience, and I especially appreciated that the four mothers’ experiences in China were so wholly different; these different backgrounds opened up new worlds to me, one who is admittedly rather ignorant of Chinese culture and history. There is a sensitive treatment of mythology (superstition?) as well, though I know some readers have taken issue with how the mothers’ beliefs seem stereotypical and perhaps offensive. To be honest, I cannot speak to this debate because I simply don’t know enough about it. If the debate has merit, though, then perhaps one concession might be that it made this reader, at least, want to know more about these people, and their cultures and histories and stories. Verdict: 4.5 out of 5.0. 

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Book Review, History, Non-Fiction, Politics

On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder

Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century is an interesting and frightening review of some of the most troubling moments in world history. What makes it especially disturbing is that Snyder connects each of these moments with a current event or situation, articulating the similarities in clear detail and noting why we should all be concerned about what is happening in the United States, Europe, Russia, and China. Ultimately, each lesson is a rule for how to resist tyranny, and these rules come together to create a kind of resistance ethos. The historical moments connected to current events make the problems clear, and Snyder’s lessons remind us that, in the end, power rests with the people, even when all seems lost.

The twenty “rules” laid out in this book are as follows:

  1. Do not obey in advance.
  2. Defend institutions.
  3. Beware the one-party state.
  4. Take responsibility for the face of the world.
  5. Remember professional ethics.
  6. Be wary of paramilitaries.
  7. Be reflective if you must be armed.
  8. Stand out.
  9. Be kind to our language.
  10. Believe in truth.
  11. Investigate.
  12. Make eye contact and small talk.
  13. Practice corporeal politics.
  14. Establish a private life.
  15. Contribute to good causes.
  16. Learn from peers in other countries.
  17. Listen for dangerous words.
  18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
  19. Be a patriot.
  20. Be as courageous as you can.

Even a cursory look at this list gives one an idea of how to go about the process of resisting authoritarianism, as well as subtle reminders of when and how fascism has manifested itself in the past. Of these rules and reminders, all of which are crucial, a few stood out to me.

First, “do not obey in advance.” Snyder recounts an experiment that was conducted to determine how willing individuals would be in causing pain to others if an authority figured (like a doctor) deemed it safe and necessary. The results were not encouraging, to say the least. Snyder reminds us to trust our own instincts and morals, and to put them into deep consideration against the instructions of any authority figure. Just because someone says “temporary pain is necessary for” whatever, doesn’t make it true. Should we ever inflict pain or hardship on anyone else? Really?

Another remarkable moment for me, in reading this short guide, is the call-to-action for defending democratic institutions. “We need paper ballots,” Snyder writes, and he is right. After what Russia did in the most recent election cycles, including in France and the United States, we must rise up at the local and state levels and demand that our representatives ensure the integrity of our electoral process. That probably means eliminating electronic polling machines, at this point, and returning to the paper process. It might take longer, but isn’t the effort and patience worth it, if it means rebuilding confidence in our process?

Snyder also asks us to “be kind to our language,” by which he means, don’t succumb to hyperbole and double-speak. Read books. Learn history (real history), and avoid the twenty-four-hour news cycle that treats everything like “breaking news” and conditions us to be always on the lookout for the next tragedy or event. This particular presidential administration seems masterful in its use of “breaking news” as devices of distraction. I hope that what we are seeing out of the Parkland students’ reactions is the beginning of a new mode of thinking, one which encourages long-term engagement and attentiveness.

“Believe in truth” is a particularly powerful idea right now. A long-feared problem has manifested itself in these last few years, one which has been predicted for a half-century by luminaries such as Isaac Asimov and George Orwell: the destruction of truth and fact; the creation of an environment wherein everything is true and false at the same time, and where opinions are treated as equally valid to fact. This has caused quite the nightmare for those of us who do deal in truth, but I think is even more damaging to those who haven’t yet recognized what is happening. We have to vocally and vehemently re-assert our right to truth and speak up in support of it whenever possible. Truth does exist. Not all opinions are valid. At some point, this is more important than hurting someone’s feelings.

Finally, taking personal action in the form of making friends, creating a private life where you surround yourself with like-minded people, and looking people in the eye, your neighbors and colleagues, is another important reminder. When tyranny rises, as it did in Nazi Germany and as it did during the “Red Scare” in the United States, it becomes only too easy for people to turn on their friends, co-workers, and neighbors. But we can make it harder by getting to know the people around us and building trust with them. There’s no easier prey for the state than a person with no friends or support. This also means, get active in one’s community and support the causes that one believes in. Chances are, when you are there for others, others may be more likely to show up for you, if and when you really need them.

These are just a few reactions to the twenty very important lessons Snyder details in his short but powerful book. I think fans of history and politics will enjoy this one for its blend of past and present, and the clear parallels Snyder draws between “then” and “now.” But I also think it’s a must-read for anyone who cares about the survival of democracy and the rule of law over the rise of tyranny and authoritarianism that encroaches more and more each day.

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Culture, Essay, Gender Studies, Non-Fiction

We Should All Be Feminists

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a powerful and articulate essay that was adapted from the author’s December 2012 TEDx Talk. It serves as both a personal investigation and interpretation of what it means to be a woman today, but also a call to action for men and women around the world, all of whom, in Adichie’s opinion, should favor and support feminism.

The essay revolves around a single question: “What does feminism mean today?” It is developed out of an earlier TEDx talk titled “The Dangers of a Single Story,” which recounts the risks of succumbing to or perpetuating stereotypes. The expansion is logical because, as Adichie suggests, the word “feminism” has been damagingly stereotyped over many years and by many groups, some of whom simply respond to the word without knowing what it means and others of whom are fully aware, and know better, but attack the idea because it is an assault against their own privileged place in society.

What I found truly compelling about this reflection on feminism is that it is steeped in the culture and society of Nigeria, a country that still rigidly clings to the concepts of “gender roles.” Adichie provides a number of anecdotes that illustrate just how deeply rooted are these stereotypes and prejudices, such as the fact that restaurant hosts and servers will refuse to acknowledge a female customer if a man is with her, even if she is paying, because women are not supposed to have money and if they do, it must have been provided by the male (and never mind the idea that a woman might go out to a bar or club without a male chaperone). These examples might ring hyperbolic in the United States, but the reality is that this was our cultural response to gender not very long ago, as it was in Europe. The evidence that many countries are still oppressed by such stereotypes is a prescient reminder that our own society’s rules are new and thus relatively insecure, but also that we too still have far to go in seeking gender equity right here.

An interesting point that Adichie makes throughout the essay is that the “word feminist is so heavy with baggage, negative baggage” (11). She explains how pervasively peoples’ negative attitudes about feminism (or feminists) have spread, so much so that those prejudices often dominate the conversation and deny us room for reasoned discussion. How can we have a conversation about gender equality with someone who “turns off” at the first mention of just one word? It might be helpful to come up with a new phrase to help jumpstart and re-appropriate the conversation, bringing it back to a simple discussion about equity rather than the deafening, emotionally fueled debates about “man hating” and “angry women,” sort of like turning the conversation from “global warming” to “climate change” when it became clear that people easily conflated “warming” with weather and thus misunderstood the complexity of the systems involved and because it became apparent that people who wanted to mislead others about the topic could undermine the facts of the argument by making the word/situation seem ridiculous (“Oh, look at all that snow, we could sure use some global warming!”).

But feminism is what it is: a belief that men and women should be treated equally in all elements of society, economics, politics, etc. When taken this way, as Adichie suggests, few people think of this as a radical concept. So, how do we move past the word? Adichie believes that it has to start with all of us:

“I would like today to ask that we should begin to dream about and plan for a different world. A fairer world. A world of happier men and happier women who are truer to themselves. And this is how to start: we must raise our daughters differently. We must also raise our sons differently” (25).  

In other words, we need to take responsibility for the way that we see the world and perpetuate its injustices; we need to teach our children the benefit of seeing and being and creating a world that is better.

Adichie is clear that this means men and women must be equal partners in creating change, and that is in large part because anti-feminism hurts men, too. It oppresses men by prescribing their roles, too. Men cannot be free to be themselves, to truly think, act, and respond the way that they want to, if they are being conditioned to respond, always, in the “masculine role.” If a man is sad, why shouldn’t he cry? And why is that considered “un-masculine”? If a man loves his spouse or children or pets, why shouldn’t he express it? And why is doing so often considered “un-manly”? If a man finds relaxation in cooking or cleaning, why shouldn’t he do these things?

And the same goes for women. Feminism does not tell women not to enjoy cleaning the house, sewing clothes, or making crafts. It simply tells men and women to be who they are, regardless. Imagine the stress and anxiety that would be relieved and the freedom that would come to all of us if we weren’t being forced into predetermined roles that supposedly guide our every single response and our every single interest or ability.

“We teach girls shame,” Adichie writes. “We make them feel as though by being born female, they are already guilty of something” (33). Likewise, we teach boys to be in control and to crave competition, but we teach girls to be conciliatory and to apologize for having opinions. But “what if . . . we focus on ability instead of gender? What if we focus on interest instead of gender” (36). For Adichie, it is clear that this is all feminism asks of us: allow a person to be him/herself. Teach everything we can, so that our children can learn and try everything they want, and then let them decide what to do and how to act from all available knowledge, opportunity, and experience. Personally, I think that’s a world worth building.

Ultimately, I found Why We Should All Be Feminists thoughtful, relevant, and relatable. Although it is based on an oral lecture, it reads well as a written piece. Despite repeating some of the typical supportive arguments about feminism, Adichie adds crucial context by relaying her personal experiences as a woman and a Nigerian. I read this one in close succession to Reni Eddo-Lode’s Why I’m No Longer Talking (to White People) About Race, which also deals with issues of intersectional feminism (as well as structural racism) but in the United Kingdom. I think the fact that these conversations about race and gender are happening on such a large scale, and happening all over the world, is promising.

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