Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress by Susan Jane Gilman

My mom passed this book down to me after she finished reading it.

She said it was cute and I might enjoy it.

It was and I did.

It's interesting, yet perhaps predictable, that my expectations tend to be lower for books which I chance upon in this manner.

Expectations, while unavoidable, are dangerous. It's too bad that we can't experience every new book, movie, musician, TV show, etc. with a clean slate.

But that's not what I'm talking about here.

Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress is a memoir of a woman growing up in New York City in the 70s.

This book was enjoyable and mildly amusing. Through most of it, it was a quiet smile or a slight chuckle, although I have to admit that I laughed out loud several times as she was discussing her experiences as a new ex-pat in Geneva.

Gilman self-effacingly describes her foibles as a misfit in a way that makes it hard not to relate to her, even if your experiences do not mirror hers.

Monday, December 17, 2007


Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides is an interesting read, a very interesting one, but I think flawed read. It’s a novel about Calliope who’s of Greek ancestry and born a hermaphrodite. His or her gender is ambiguous and while she appears to the distracted physician at her birth to be a girl, s/he’s really in between. She’s raised a girl and through this story we learn of her discovering her true gender.
Parts were fascinating like what one gender specialist and one co-worker at a sex club impart about gender identification and how it’s not so clear cut and how in some societies people with gender identification issues or gender ambiguity are treated and respected.

Yet I found some of the structure poorly done. I felt the family history dragged and could have been more concise. The lengthy saga, even with the incestuous grandparents to spice things up, dragged. It was like so many other “coming to America from the old country” tales. Also there were many places where I wanted to know something, like how Callie or Cal was figuring out which public restroom to use when s/he first learned of her condition. Eugenides made me wait for that and other information, but not due to a plan in the plot. Rather it seemed that he just didn’t anticipate what I as a reader wanted to know. He did that a lot more than most novelists.

Another problem is the narrator, Cal at age 42 or so. He is privy to details that only an omniscient narrator would know. For example, he knows way too much about the father’s attempt to save Cal/lie when he wasn’t there and no living person would have re-counted the story to Cal. A lot of the details of his grandparents lives would not have made it to Callie in such detail. The author knows this and tries to explain it away, but I couldn’t buy it.

The years from Callie/Cal at age 15 to age 42 something are a blur. I bet they could have made a great story, better than some of the immigrant chapters. Yet they’re revealed in broad, unsatisfying strokes.

I didn’t buy the ending, when the father falls for a fake kidnapping plot. It all seemed contrived to ratchet up the excitement level, which wasn’t necessary. All the gender is-sues were fascinating in and of themselves. I didn’t need the ransom and kidnapping to keep me turning the pages.

Yes, this won the Pulitzer, but I’m not ashamed of being a demanding reader. I think Middlesex could be better.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

In the world of thumbs up, thumbs down, this gets a thumbs up.

Elizabeth Gilbert writes of her quest in the aftermath of a difficult divorce to find the balance between devotion and pleasure by traveling through Italy, India and Indonesia for a year.

It wasn't so much that I wanted to thoroughly explore the countries themselves; this had been done. It was more that I wanted to thoroughly explore one aspect of myself set against the backdrop of each country, in a place that has traditionally done that one thing very well. I wanted to explore the art of pleasure in Italy, the art of devotion in India and, in Indonesia, the art of balancing the two.

While I found the author annoyingly self-indulgent at times and while I couldn't really relate to her whole spiritual quest, I did find her voice candid and her observations witty. For the most part, I enjoyed tagging along with her on her journey as she explored her chosen environs and herself.

I did relate to what she had to say about happiness:

Happiness is a consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it, you must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it. If you don't, you will leak away your innate contentment.

Gilbert's willingness to forthrightly share her quest with the reader (the price of admission for her remarkable year abroad) results in an engaging tome.