Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Love Your Body

Here I am, sitting with the Nana Charlotte, in Hanover, Germany.
This Archetypal Everywoman is the creation of French artist
Niki de Saint Phalle (1930 - 2002)

Perfect Madness: Motherhood In An Age of Anxiety by Judith Warner: Last fall, in the months preceding the presidential election, I read a number of very good articles by Warner (before she went a little crazy) and was intrigued enough to buy and read her entire book in a couple of days. I think the subtitle just about says it all. It is easily the best book I've ever read concerning the politics of motherhood. No, I don't share every single one of her views, but for the most part, I just wish I'd written this book! It was so accurate about so many things in my life. She points out that unfortunately the early feminist movement distanced itself from traditional wife & motherhood to the point of not supporting women in those roles. Thus choosing kids & home life is now considered inferior to pursuing revenue - generating work.

Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy. An excellent expose of all the mixed messages that girls and women are given today by the media and the popular culture, disturbing, enlightening, and sad. A good book for men and teenage boys to read, at least certain parts, to help them understand how hard it can be for women, especially young women, to make rational choices about their way of being in the world, in light of all the misogyny and greed and nastiness that we are bombarded with every passing moment. Levy analyzes the plague of distorted body image that continues to poison American culture and skew the way that girls and woman see themselves. Why is it that so much of a girl's coming of age is learning to dislike her sexuality and perceive her appearance as inadequate?

Her Blood Is Gold: Celebrating the Power of Menstruation by Lara Owen. This is a book I've been meaning to read ever since Sam was born and finally got around to it last year -- that's how long a book can stay in the "hopeful" stack beside my bed -- haha! But see, there really is hope, if you don't mind waiting for over a decade. Anyway it's also very meaningful menopause reading, so the delay doesn't matter all that much and is, in fact, rather timely. Here's what Owen says about PMS & feeling depressed:

"My breasts are tender and so is my heart. Everything hurts more -- I watch a movie on the television and weep, I cry myself to sleep, I worry about the world. I feel colder than normal, and vulnerable in a raw and aching seemingly never - ending way. I have felt this feeling so many times in my life -- and yet here I am, warm and dry, with food in my kitchen, clothes on my back, in a better situation for survival than most people on this planet. Yet nonetheless . . . I am weak and anxious . . . I find myself in more self - doubt at this time. Am I making a great big mess of my life" (140 - 41).

During these low, unhappy times, she tries to reason with herself and move on with her life. Her period comes, and she "goes easy on herself," knowing that this is a temporary hormonal depression that will go away when the hormones shift gears once again. Menopause can also be a huge hormonal shift that causes these same feelings, but the problem is that menopause lasts a lot longer than PMS or a menstrual period.

I was so excited about this book that I had to keep updating my family (all boys except for me, oh well) about it, chapter by chapter. During one of these conversations, my son said, "Mom how many times do you have to say menstrual cycle; can't you just say it? I just laughed and said, "No, in fact, that's the whole point of the book." Of all the things that do bother me in this life, saying menstrual is not one of them. Luckily my husband joined me in this little consciousness raising exercise. "Mom is right," he said,"those are just words to describe a fact of life."

In The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler makes the same point about the word vagina: "What are we saying about our bodies if we can't say vagina?" (150). One of the women interviewed in the book reports that she "said VAGINA at least a dozen times a day for two months" until she was able at last "to reclaim it as a word" (159).

Ensler points out that if our culture could normalize and fully accept female sexuality, then there would be so much less violence toward women. Likewise, in Her Blood is Gold Owen says: "Ignoring or despising menstruation is one of the ways that misogyny manifests itself" (159). She suggests that instead of being turned off by a woman's period, men should "bow to it from every cell, with deep feeling" (130). Over and over, she says, just imagine how different the world would be if this were so. How long oh Lord, oh Goddess, oh Nana?

Giant Goddess! Nana Sophie [and Kitti, 2006]

Sophie & Charlotte (above) are two of three "Nanas" created in 1974
for permanent outdoor display near the town hall in Hanover, Germany
by French artist Niki de Saint Phalle (1930 - 2002)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


In 2008, I added two more titles to my growing list of favorites by the irresistible Bill Bryson:

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE THUNDERBOLT KID: A MEMOIR (2006). This is Bryson's hilarious account of growing up in Iowa, in the 50's and 60's, a very touching walk down Memory Lane.

SHAKESPEARE: THE WORLD AS A STAGE (2007). Bryson says in his introduction that the world doesn't really neeed another book on Shakespeare, but I say that the world can always use Bryson's unforgettable version of any story there is to tell. Full of information and truth.

Over the years, I have worked my way through every single one of Bryson's highly entertaining, lovable, memorable books. He is one of the very few authors, living or dead, of whom I can say: I've read them all!

Small Island; Liverpool, England:
NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND AN AFFECTIONATE PORTRAIT OF BRITAIN (1995). This was my first Bryson book, read appropriately enough when I was in England for Christmas 1996. Bryson begins:

"There are certain idiosyncratic notions that you quietly come to accept when you live for a long time in Britain. One is that British summers used to be longer and sunnier. Another is that the England soccer team shouldn't have any trouble with Norway. A third is the idea that Britain is a big place."

Just to make good his point, as I was reading this book, my British mother - in - law looked over my shoulder at the title and said, "What small island?" Of course, she's thinking Majorca, Minorca, Ibiza, maybe the Isle of Man -- certainly not Enlgand! I had to laugh at Bryson's accuracy and, yes, his infectious affection for the Small Island.

I was so smitten with this book that I did something I rarely do anymore -- I read it again! Now that life has begun to feel so short, re-reading seems like such a luxury, but this study of the once and future island, with its quaint towns and charming place names, is worth it. The second time through, I kept the British road atlas handy and mapped out Bryson's entire journey chapter by chapter. That was fun! Immediately after finishing it, I picked up his previous travelogues, all new to me, and read them in quick succession:



Lost Continent, Colorado:
Although I am clearly a devoted Bryson fan, I must issue just two words of warning: testosterone poisoning. The raunchy frat boy humor gets old fast, but I tolerate it in his case because he is just so darn smart and funny (kind of the way I can overlook Erica Jong's soft - core porn because otherwise she's telling such a good story; she can be over the top at times but always very wise).

In LOST CONTINENT, for example, you might relish his descriptions of the Midwest, admire his wit, and then feel like giving him a good slap for making crass sexist remarks. E.g.,

"Above all Iowans are friendly. You go into a strange diner in the South and everything goes quiet, and you realize all the other customers are looking at you as if they are sizing up the risk involved in murdering you for your wallet and leaving your body in a shallow grave somewhere out in the swamps. In Iowa you are the center of attention, the most interesting thing to hit town since a tornado carried off old Frank Sprinkel and his tractor last May. Everybody you meet acts like he would gladly give you his last beer and let you sleep with his sister. Everyone is happy and friendly and strangely serene."

Why doesn't his editor just cross those sexist lines out when Bill's not looking? They add nothing to the value of his writing, but he just can't seem to resist. Still and all, he's such a funny guy that somehow I always find it in my heart to forgive his crass remarks. I was living in Philadelphia when I read LOST CONTINENT, and unfortunately, parts of town were just as bad as Bryson's descriptions: there were plenty of poorly kempt citizens idling on the streets, the local government was corrupt (though not our man, Rendell), and the sorry MOVE incident was still haunting the city. But also, as Bryson points out, it was fun there, Fairmont Park is lovely (in parts) and the city is full of cool historical stuff and great residential neighborhoods. Plus, there has been some recent urban beautification: while Rendell was Mayor, there was a lot of public building done in the arts & theatre area, and our subsequent Mayor John Street removed all abandoned cars and towed them to the junk yard. Still, property taxes were off the charts and ever on the rise, a constant drain on the spirit (not to mention the pocketbook!).
Lost Continent, Philadelphia:

I loved the part when he goes to visit his old friends Hal & Lucia Herndon and looks in all their closets! Lucia was one of our favorite Philly columnists, and after reading that she was an old Iowa friend of Bryson's, I harbored a little fantasy that one day I would meet Lucia, she would invite us all over for a picnic or something up in Mt. Airy, and the Brysons would just happen to be in town and they'd stop by also! Too bad we moved away before that happened!


MADE IN AMERICA: AN INFORMAL HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE IN THE UNITED STATES(1994): American English. And good honest American history, no whitewashing. Should be used, along with Steve Tally and Sarah Vowell, in every U.S. History Class.

A WALK IN THE WOODS: REDISCOVERING AMERICA ON THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL (1998). In 2000, I sent this one as a present to all three of my brothers, hoping to turn them into Bryson fans. It worked! One of them wrote back: "The guy from Dartmouth writes in the style of 'Dave Barry meets Academia.' And that's a good thing."

In one memorable scene, he encounters a big harmless moose all alone, getting a drink in the woods and decries the seasonal practice of moose hunting: "there is just something deeply and unquestionably wrong about killing an animal that is so sweetly and dopily unassuming as a moose. I could have slain this one with a slingshot, with a rock or stick--with a folded newspaper, I'd almost bet--and all it wanted was a drink of water" (242).

Descriptions like that show me that Bryson is such a genuinely decent human who shares so many of my values, despite the occasional obnoxious sexual innuendo. In all of his books, Bryson is taking a walk somewhere--a value I definitely share--and he never fails to lament the pedestrian - unfriendly nature of current residential and retail development--a sorry state of affairs that I too wonder about every time I try to run an errand on foot rather than by car.

I'M A STRANGER HERE MYSELF (1999) After 20 years in England, in 1995, Bryson brought his family to live in New Hampshire. This book describes his process of relocation and repatriation. My brother David, after reading WALK IN THE WOODS (see above), went immediately to his local library and checked out every Bill Bryson book available; he says: "In the first chapter or two of STRANGER Bryson has already hit on many of the things that I also experienced upon my return to America [after living 20years in Germany]. He went to the hardware store looking for yawl pins and got anchors. I went looking for duebels and got anchors. Fun in a disorienting sort of way. . . . Bryson's wit is acerbic as well as very observant. . . . making amusing and trenchant observations and being paid for it strikes me as a true dream job . . . very cool indeed."

IN A SUNBURNED COUNTRY (2000) & BILL BRYSON'S AFRICAN DIARY (2002), completing his travels across the globe.

BRYSON'S DICTIONARY OF TROUBLESOME WORDS (2002): A very strict little rulebook indeed!

SHORT HISTORY OF PRACTICALLY EVERYTHING (2003): I think the title pretty much says it all. After traveling around the world, Bryson sets out for infinity and beyond. Fascinating, as usual, but even moreso. Magnificent is more like it! A short history it may be, but NOT a quick read! It took me all of January, February & March 2005 to read this amazing celebration of human life as a tiny speck in the vast, vast cosmos of possibility. Certainly puts things in perspective!

As my friend Diane said, after listening to the book on tape: "Enthralling. While listening to him, I look around me simply amAZed that we're even here, walking around, you know?" Exactly! How much more incredible do we need life to be?

" . . . you are alive. For the tiniest moment in the span of eternity you have the miraculous privilege to exist. . . . That you are able to sit here right now in this one never-to-be repeated moment, reading this book, eating bonbons . . . [here I omit testosterone poisoned passage]. . . doing whatever you are doing--just EXISTING--is really wondrous beyond belief."

This cosmic insight could easily be a paragraph right out of SHORT HISTORY, but in fact it's out of NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND (120 - 21) and captures perfectly the joie de vivre that enlivens every book Bill Bryson writes. As my brother David explains so succintly: "Bryson really notices the small things that make the big things big."