Dark Places by Gillian Flynn: A Review

>A patriarchal system invests men with the duty to talk and think about serious issues, while women are expected to dedicate their lives to trivialities. We can still see this set of expectations at work on a daily basis. During parties, men talk about politics, philosophy, and the meaning of life, while women are huddled together on the other side of the room, swapping muffin recipes. In class, female students rarely dare to offer their opinions on big-picture questions. They leave such questions to men and dedicate themselves to answering questions  that are detail-oriented. I always know that when I ask “Is Hugo Chavez good for Venezuela?”, I will get no female responses. But if I ask “When did Chavez come to power?”, many female students will offer an answer. This doesn’t happen because women are less capable of or less interested in analyzing serious issues. For the longest time, any woman who attempted to leave the realm of muffin-baking and affirm herself in the public sphere was castigated. This is why it is still difficult for women to believe that the sphere of great endeavors and important issues is just as much theirs as men’s.

The saddest thing to observe is when this happens in the realm of creative activities. Often, incredibly talented women seem not to dare to enter the world of art and assert themselves there. They prefer to limit themselves to secondary genres and pretty much waste their creative gift on producing works of art that manage to entertain but are never taken seriously.

Gillian Flynn is a perfect example of such a female writer. From the first paragraphs of her novel  Dark Places, it is obvious that she is an extremely talented author. Flynn writes with incredible poignancy about life on a small Kansas farm nearing bankruptcy, about the tragedy of being a teenager in rural America, about the horrible burden of childhood trauma, about the damage caused by the purity movement. Her mastery of the English language is breathtaking. Dark Places: A Novel could be a great work of literature but for one thing.

As many other female writers, Flynn unfortunately shies away from creating art. She follows in the footsteps of such talented writers as Ruth Rendell and PD James and confines herself to the realm of mystery novel. She takes what could have been a great novel and adds some mystery genre devices that are boring, conventional, and that feel completely alien to the main body of  Dark Places: A Novel. She still doesn’t manage to kill the novel completely. Everything but the last couple of chapters is truly fantastic. I would even recommend stopping reading the book 20-25 pages before it ends to avoid spoiling your experience of the novel.

Flynn is a great writer in the making. I truly hope that she will lose her fear of competing in the big leagues and will allow her creative gift to unfold without being fettered by these conventional limitations that plague so meny female writers.

>Another Disappointment from Barbara Ehrenreich: A Review of "Bright-sided", Part II

>I also believe that all of my health problems (not anybody else’s, just mine) are psychosomatic in nature. I don’t impose my beliefs on anybody and don’t think anybody is stupid for taking care of their health in a different way. Ehrenreich’s argument that one’s state of mind doesn’t influence one’s health doesn’t convince me not because I have been brainwashed by anybody (as Ehrenreich suggests), but simply because that is what my entire life experience has taught me. When I was finishing my dissertation and looking for a job, for example, I was constantly sick. I kept falling from one disease into another all the time. I had the weirdest, completely unexplainable symptoms. And then I found a job and all those health problems went away as if by magic. I don’t really care whether there are enough studies proving the causation because nobody will be able to convince me that living in a state of constant terror of unemployment had nothing to do with my health issues.
Ehrenreich’s argument that the current economic crisis was caused by the “gullibility and optimism of ordinary individuals” is at best uninsightful and at worst represents a nasty instance of victim-blaming. We all know, however, that the real problem didn’t lie with the middle-class or aspiring middle-class Americans. The bunch of Bush’s cronies received a free pass on robbing us all blind and that’s exactly what they did. It is also kind of disturbing that Ehrenreich would talk about the people duped by the Wall Street crooks as “ordinary.” Evidently, you have to work for Goldman Sachs (and not as a janitor) for this author to consider you extraordinary.

The author’s hatred of motivational speakers is so profound that she is even willing to present the most notorious Wall Street criminals as poor unwitting victims of the “positive thinking” movement. According to Ehrenreich, Joe Gregory, the former president of Lehman’s Brothers, is not really guilty of his company’s collapse. It’s the bad, mean, positive-thinking ideology that makes people believe they can achieve anything they want that is to blame for his actions and the company’s demise. It is very surprising to see a hard-core liberal like Ehrenreich giving an absolution to a bunch of greedy individuals like Gregory, but there it is.

It seems that Ehrenreich read too many self-help books in the process of doing research for Bright-sided and couldn’t help but borrow some of their tricks. She decides to end her book with a piece of advice on how we should conduct our lives: “The alternative to both [positive thinking and depression] is to try to get outside of ourselves and see things ‘as they are,’ or as uncolored as possible by our own feelings and fantasies.” At least, Ehrenreich has the good sense of putting “as they are” in quotation marks. This demonstrates that the author herself is a little ashamed of her childishly naive way of offering advice to people whose worldview might be a little bit more complicated than her reductive materialism.

To summarize: the book is boring, uninsightful, poorly constructed, unconvincing, and intellectually barren.

>Another Disappointment from Barbara Ehrenreich: A Review of "Bright-sided", Part I

>For some unfathomable reason, I keep hoping that Barbara Ehrenreich will finally produce an insightful analysis of something. This never happens, however, and the only thing I take away from her books is a sense of disappointment. Ehrenreich’s latest subject seemed so promising that I bought her book http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=clasblo-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&m=amazon&f=ifr&md=10FE9736YVPPT7A0FBG2&asins=0805087494. She takes on the perennial cheerfulness, perkiness, and optimism that characterizes (to use Terry Eagleton’s beautiful phrase) “the genetically upbeat Americans.”

Positive thinking, says Ehrenreich, is “beginning to be an obligation imposed on all American adults.” Ehrenreich describes the constant efforts to promote positive thinking within companies that, according to her, are now seeping into the academic world. I don’t know much about the corporate world and whether the cheery mood is obligatory there. I do know, however, that Ehrenreich is completely wrong when she says that cheerfulness and positive thinking are becoming popular in academia. Academics are the whiniest bunch of people you will ever meet. We love bitching, complaining, moaning, and sighing. Recently, I have been feeling simply ecstatic about my new job, but I can see that even the people who gave me the job in question are being repelled by my enthusiasm. Everybody expects me to complain and when I don’t my fellow academics seem a little disoriented.

Ehrenreich believes that human beings are nothing more than tiny little objects at the mercy of blind forces beyond our comprehension. She is a fierce materialist who believes that our circumstances are the only thing that defines our lives. She is consequently very annoyed by any worldview that believes in the possible victory of spirit over matter. In her opinion, thinking that you can achieve anything you want if you work really hard at it and want it really badly is wrong because it obscures reality. Apparently, she cannot accept that everybody’s version of reality is very different and that some people might be justified in shaping their own reality.

Ehrenreich’s one-dimensional materialism seems boring and overly aggressive. She insists that your happiness depends on your income, an idea that is profoundly alien to me. I accept her right to be an atheist and a materialist. I don’t think that any one deserves scorn and ridicule for possessing this worldview. It would be nice to see Ehrenreich respond in kind to people who are religious and/or seek other explanations than the purely materialistic type that she promotes. I, for one, do believe that human beings have a lot more agency in the world that Ehrenreich allows for (I mean, I have a lot more agency. If Ehrenreich doesn’t want this agency, then she definitely shouldn’t try to exercise it.) I believe that my financial problems (mine only, I am not extrapolating this on anybody else) are caused exclusively by my profound need for them.

>Spanish Newspapers Finally Available on Kindle

>I lost all hope of ever reading any newspapers from Spain on my Kindle a long time ago, so I haven’t even been checking whether Amazon added this possibility or not. It is completely by chance that I discovered that the following newspapers are now available either for subscription or for a purchase of a single issue whenever you feel like it:
http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=clasblo-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&m=amazon&f=ifr&md=10FE9736YVPPT7A0FBG2&asins=B002EEP3RU, http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=clasblo-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&m=amazon&f=ifr&md=10FE9736YVPPT7A0FBG2&asins=B001KOTUJM, http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=clasblo-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&m=amazon&f=ifr&md=10FE9736YVPPT7A0FBG2&asins=B001JP5GZE, http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=clasblo-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&m=amazon&f=ifr&md=10FE9736YVPPT7A0FBG2&asins=B002GP62K4and http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=clasblo-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&m=amazon&f=ifr&md=10FE9736YVPPT7A0FBG2&asins=B002JVXCI0

I do not have words to explain what it means to a Hispanist to be able to read “El Pais” or “El Mundo” with my morning coffee the very day the issue comes out. Now, of course, I have the painful dilemma of which of these papers to choose to subscribe. Any suggestions are welcome in the next 14 days (while I explore my free trial possibilities.)

P.S. Turns out there is also the Mexican http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=clasblo-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&m=amazon&f=ifr&md=10FE9736YVPPT7A0FBG2&asins=B002JIO4Z8and the Brazilian http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=clasblo-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&m=amazon&f=ifr&md=10FE9736YVPPT7A0FBG2&asins=B002IT5JMK

>You’ve Come a Long Way, Maybe by Leslie Sanchez: A Review, Part I

>Leslie Sanchez, the author of a recently published You’ve Come a Long Way, Maybe: Sarah, Michelle, Hillary, and the Shaping of the New American Woman is a CNN journalist, a Republican, and a former adviser to President George W. Bush. Based on these qualifications, I was sure I would hate her book on the coverage that Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Michelle Obama received during the 2008 election campaign. So when I received the book I settled down nicely with it preparing to revel in anger and disgust at yet another incoherent, silly and badly written text coming from a Conservative. This, however, did not happen.

Sanchez represents that rare breed of Republicans who can write a book that would be of interest even to hard-core liberals such as this blogger. The main point she is trying to bring across in her book is that our society is still so profoundly sexist that a woman who aspires to political office has her chances severely limited by her gender. I couldn’t agree more and the main question I have to ask is why Sanchez would want to belong to a party that is dedicated to promoting sexism on all levels. Being in the same room with woman-haters like Ross Douthat, Rush Limbaugh, George W. Bush and others is offensive to any woman, let alone actually belonging to the same party with them.

The part of Sanchez’s book that I didn’t like too much was, of course, the chapter dedicated to Sarah Palin. Sanchez believes that Palin was a valid candidate who was derailed by sexism which is still prevalent in our society. As much as I hate sexism, I do not believe that it is to blame for this particular poltical disaster.

What Sanchez fails to notice is that after having a very similar kind of person in power for eight years, people were weary of electing yet another uneducated, semi-literate, unintelligent, incoherent religious fanatic to one of the top ofiices in the country. Sarah Palin is simply a female version of Bush, Jr., and we have all seen where his policies have brought us. Without a doubt, Palin has suffered from sexism just as much as any woman trying to get elected has. But she can hardly complain since nobody promotes sexism in America more vigorously than the fundamentalist voter base that she embodies and represents. You cannot be a woman-hater (which anybody who supports the ban on abortion while advocating against sex ed in schools undoubtedly is) and complain that woman-haters have damaged your career. There is a kind of poetic justice in the fact that Palin’s profound hypocrisy of being a career woman and promoting an ideology that dreams of seeing all women barefoot and in the kitchen backfired and put an end to her political ambitions.

Sanchez blames the media portrayal of Palin for her political failure. However, I can say that I personally do not remember watching any coverage on Palin. (Things were going on in my life that left me with no time to waste on anybody’s commentary. I only watched the debates and the candidates’ speeches, nothing else.) I haven’t watched a second of SNL parodies or Jay Leno’s jokes about Palin that Sanchez describes in her book. Why would I if Palin herself was the comedian of the year? Nobody told me to consider her ridiculous. I arrived at that conclusion completely unassisted simply because she is. 

Sanchez poses an important question: why was Palin so demonised by so many people? Her answer is sexism. I think that might be part of the answer. However, the most important reason for people’s hatred of Palin is that for many of us she represented a version of George W. Bush, who by that time had become extremely unpopular. The very idea of yet another version of Bush in power for several years more drove many of us crazy. And for me personally (and probably for many other feminists) the very idea that a woman would promote such anti-women ideology was perceived as a major betrayal of women everywhere. An African-American who supports the Klan might be hated even more than a white Klan member. Sanchez is outraged that women weren’t upset enough about sexist attacks against Palin to vote her into office. However, voting for someone whose central goal is to destroy women’s lives in order to spite sexists would be kind of self-defeating.

I agree with Sanchez completely that the questions about whether Palin is a good mother and whether having many children would prevent her from doing her job as a Vice President were completely sexist and wrong. However, Palin herself is partly to blame for putting her motherhood at the center of the discussion. You can’t keep repeating ad nauseam that being a  mother is what qualifies you for a job and then be upset that people start analyzing your claims. Palin’s greatest problem, in my opinion, was that she strove to present herself as ‘an average hockey mom’ in a country where voters have finally come to realize that mediocrity does not represent a valid claim to a high elected office. We don’t need an average anything in power any more because we have all seen where that brings us. We need outstanding, better-than-average, excellent, unique.

Sadly, as Sanchez convincingly demonstrates, when we get that, we still allow our sexism to cloud our judgment. Sanchez’s analysis of Hillary Clinton’s treatment by the media and many voters during her campaign proves that brilliantly. Talking about the incident where two men told Senator Clinton to iron their shirts, Sanchez asks the following question: “What if, during one of Michael Steele’s speeches, these two young men had stood up and started waving signs and shouting at him the slogan “Shine my shoes!“?” I have to agree with Sanchez’s answer: “My bet is that, if “Shine my shoes!” had been the slogan of the day, it would have galvanized us as a community and fomented  protests in a way that just didn’t happen when Clinton was aked to iron shirts. In a way, that couldn’t happen because she is a woman and, as a culture, we don’t yet take sexism nearly to heart the way we do racism and other forms of prejudice.” Sadly, sexism is so prevalent that we often fail to notice it when it occurs right in front of us.

I absolutely agree with Sanchez that Hillary Clinton’s decision to talk about gender as little as possible during her campaign was a grave mistake. She tried to please male voters so much by her constant attempts to prove that she is as tough as members of the old-boys-club that she ended up repelling many female voters. I kept waiting for her to come in strong on gender issues but, sadly, that moment never came. For me, it signalled Clinton’s reluctance to be a strong champion for women. As a result, I saw no reason at all to continue supporting her.

>Gender and Housework

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So as we can see from this table, even when both partners are employed full-time, women still do a lot more housework than men. Why does that happen?

I’ve been thinking about it a lot and according to my observations, women themselves are often to blame for this state of affairs. In my experience, most if not all men are more than willing and capable of cooking their own meals, doing the laundry, cleaning their place of abode, etc. Granted, I haven’t spent much time with fundamentalist freaks, so I’m mostly talking about normal, educated men who do not believe actively that women are inferior by nature.

What I often observe is that women go to great lengths to do everything they can and more around the house and stifle any attempts that men make at doing their share of housework. Often, when I visit a couple I know I observe the following scene: when we finish eating, the male partner gets up to remove the dirty dishes and the woman immediately jumps up and almost screams: “Don’t! I’ll do it myself!” Usually, these are very progressively-minded, feminist women.

The myth that you have to be a good housewife to be loved and appreciated is too deeply ingrained in our minds. It’s often difficult to get rid of the feeling that a sink full of dirty dishes is somehow your problem just because of your gender. As much as we might advocate for gender equality, we often end up doing everything we can to infantilize men and prevent them from learning to fulfill their household obligations. In a way, it makes sense. If a man feels completely useless around the house, it makes a woman feel more indispensable.

What we have to do is learn to give up on this fake feeling of indispensability and remember that we are valuable not for the amount of household work we perform. We shouldn’t strive to be useful and convenient to the detriment of our equality. Contrary to what the title of the above-quoted table says, men do not need looking after. They are perfectly capable of doing that for themselves.

>Wildlife in Southern Illinois

>One thing I can’t get used to here in Southern Illinois is the wildlife. First, there was a fox (ar at least that’s who I think it was) that lived in our trash can. It seemed to be very unhappy there and I kept worrying about it until some nice neighbor found a way to help the fox get out of the trash can. Then, I was waiting for a bus next to a corn field and a deer ran out of it. It passed right next to me and ran in the direction of financial institutions that are located next to the corn field. I really identified with the deer because it must have forgotten to withdraw its money the night before and had to run to the bank in the morning.

Then last night I went to take out the garbage and I saw this really ugly and scary animal which I later identified as an opossum (with the help of a student). It has a very nasty, pointy face and it leered at me. It scared me so much that I had nightmares all night long. I dreamt that I had to go on a date with Gorbachov and I had no nice shoes. And the store where I went in my dream only sold very ugly shoes. In the morning, I felt completely exhausted. That’s what the stupid opossum did to me.

When I lived in New Haven, CT, I got used to seeing police chasing criminals, pimps dressing down their workers, or armed criminal running around. So that doesn’t really bother me any more. Seeing all these animals, however, will take a lot of getting used to.

>Mondays in the Sun

>Mondays in the Sun is my favorite movie in the entire world. I watched it a dozen  http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=clasblo-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&m=amazon&f=ifr&md=10FE9736YVPPT7A0FBG2&asins=B001DN0UY4 times already and still want to watch it again and again. It starts the incredibly gifted Javier Bardem before he sold out to Hollywood and became the silly Penelope Cruz’s plaything of the month.
This film is not the typical Hollywood-style face-in-a-cake happy-ending fare. Mondays in the Sun is a very profound and realistic portrayal of the lives of laid-off shipyard workers in Spain and the ways in which unemployment damages their male identity. This amazing film is a reminder that movies don’t have to be just one more brainless and tasteless kind of mass entertainment. It is still possible to make films that are works of art.

Every actor in this film plays beautifully and poignantly. The economy of artistic means is impressive. There are no stupid special effects, no excessive sentimentality that kills most Hollywood productions. Altogether, this is simply an incredibly well-made work of cinematographic art.

>Christina Stead: The Man Who Loved Children

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I have no idea why Christina Stead’s amazing novel The Man Who Loved Children: A Novel
(1940) is so unknown and rarely read or discussed. Without setting this as a  goal, Stead’s novel is a feminist manifesto of an incomparable and breathtaking power. This book could be handed out to students instead of an entire course on the history of gender relations. No amount of numbers, figures and historical data could give a fuller understanding of the tragedy of female existence before reliable birth control.

Samuel Pollit, the main male character of the novel, is obssessed with the idea of having children. He baselessly believes himself to possess valuable intellectual and personal characteristics that he wants to pass on to posterity at any cost. He professes to love his 7 children but doesn’t invest much effort into feeding or clothing them. These burdens fall on the shoulders of his wife Henrietta (or Henny, as everybody knows her).

Henny hates her husband. She hates her life and she hates her body that keeps producing children, the children that chain her forever to the man she despises. There is a suggestion that in the early days of Henny’s and Sam’s married life Sam raped his wife to achieve the central goal of his existence: making her pregnant.

The contrast between the lives led by Henny and Sam is striking. Having seven children doesn’t prevent Sam from travelling the world, participating in scientific expeditions, pursuing hiis social and intellectual interests, etc. The children adore him because their father isn’t burdened with much work and can spend a lot of time playing with them and making up stories and adventures for them. Henny, however, has none of these things to brighten her life. She has to worry constantly about putting the food on the table and keeping the whole family out of financial ruin. She is miserable, angry, loud, and unkempt. She beats the children and they hate and fear her.

Henny experiences her own body as a prison, as a dark force that keeps her subjugated to the man she hates: “Look at me! My back’s bent in two with the fruit of my womb; aren’t you sorry to see what happened to me because of his lust? . . Didn’t he fix me up, pin me down, make sure no man would look at me while he was gallivanting with his fine ladies? . . What do I care, Jinny? You’re a mother yourself. Haven’t you done the horrible thing three times yourself for a man?” As you can see, Stead’s novel is brutally honest. There is no mellifluous bleating about the joys of motherhood. For a woman who has absolutely no control over her reproduction, childbearing is “the horrible thing” that pins her down and locks her forever in the prison of  her physiology.

I cannot recommend this beautiful novel highly enough. It’s a heartbreaking, cruel, painful and messy text. And you will never be sorry you read it.

P.S. Here I want to add a very pertinent quote from a discussion at Hugo Schwyzer’s blog (thank you, Anonymous reader, for bringing it to my attention): “Whatever the exact figures, childbirth has probably killed more women than any other single cause in human history. Until very recently (a miracle two millenia ago in Palestine notwithstanding), the only possible cause for pregnancy was heterosexual intercourse. So if childbirth kills women, and sex causes pregnancy, then by the logical transitive property, heterosexual intercourse has been, not so indirectly, the most lethal of all human activities for one-half of the population. To put it even more bluntly, men have killed far more women by ejaculating inside of them than they have by any other method.” You can go here for the rest of this insightful post.

>What’s Feminist about Steel Magnolias?

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Yesterday I felt absolutely exhasuted after all my classes and meetings. So I felt like spending the evening watching some good old feminist classic by way of relaxation. http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=clasblo-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&m=amazon&f=ifr&md=10FE9736YVPPT7A0FBG2&asins=B00004TJKK
was on, so I decided to watch it because I always heard people refer to it as a profoundly feminist film. It is also a perennial staple of “Feminist Film” courses.

Boy, was I in for a disappointment! This poorly made, boring flick is nothing if not profoundly patriarchal. The main story line revolves around a young woman who is willing to risk her life and die (which happens in the end) in order to produce a baby. Because the central goal of a woman’s life is to make babies. Unless you can fulfill this goal, you are incomplete. So of course, the only reasonable thing to do is for a woman literally to kill herself in an attempt to produce a baby.

There are many other female characters who are mainly dedicated to endless hen-like clucking around the protagonist’s attempts to have a baby, as well as interminable conversations about hair-styles, weddings, husbands, etc.

Since the movie was excruciatingly boring, I started investigating the reasons for why some people see this patriarchal piece of rubbish as a feminist film par excellence. The only reason offered by the scholarly articles I encountered on the subject is that the movie “celebrates female camaraderie.” This is a very weird understanding of feminism. Female friendships are great but the film is obviously not about that. In Steel Magnolias, we see women of all generations inhabiting a world of their own. It’s a world of babies, beauty, and homemaking. It’s a world of things that the patriarchal societies always mark as exclusively female. Men are supposed to be detached from these “womanly” interests and concerns, while women have no interest in the pursuits of men. The view of genders as profoundly divided by an unbridgeable chasm of difference is patriarchal. There is nothing feminist about it. Just as there is nothing feminist about this silly movie.