I never could get into Frank Herbert’s modern classic sci-fi novel DUNE, though I sure tried. I find his writing to be overly-earnest and lacking a focused elegance that, say, J.R.R. Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy conveys. And Tolkien’s work often expresses a lyrical levity, balanced with all that narrative’s seriousness. Yes, LoTR, like DUNE, is indeed heterosexist but not then also grossly homophobic like Herbert’s novel and its sequels so endemically are. Regardless of this “apples vs. oranges” comparison some may feel I am unfairly making here, I have come to accept that it’s not a reflection on me somehow “missing something” over not being able to fully appreciate DUNE, including all of the movie and TV adaptations. It is simply a cumbersome, tedious writing style and universe with some sensibilities that are not at all simpatico with who I am, but, rather, actually crassly insult who I am.
Reading Kate Chopin’s THE AWAKENING (first published in 1899) was like sitting under a full oak tree with sunlight streaming through its leaves while one savors fine chocolate truffles and languidly pets the sleek, soft fur of a sleeping panther at one’s side. Her writing is at once intriguing and blissfully mellifluous.
Through the character of Mademoiselle Reisz, a cantankerous woman in her sixties (if I remember correctly), the story’s main message is relayed:
“The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.”
Much occurs in the narrative leading up to this foreshadowing quote and thereafter.
Edna Pontellier, aged twenty-eight and married to a respectable, social climbing Creole gentleman who works in high finance, is the story’s tragic heroine. She is a woman stifled by the conventions of her day, filled with a longing to have an independent, more self-led life, free of social and marital-familial obligations. Her meeting the attentive, amiable Robert Lebrun while summer vacationing at Grand Isle in the Gulf of Mexico, slowly awakens her repressed passions. The story unfolds from there.
Back at home in her fashionable house in 1890s New Orleans, Edna becomes absorbed in portrait painting as a way to express her passion and sensuality while inwardly feeling consumed with her friend and beloved Robert. There is some hopefulness for her future as Edna begins to sell some of her artwork along with setting up a plan to collect a small annuity inheritance from her deceased mother. These and visiting with local friends she had met on Grand Isle sustain her, since Robert had left to try his fortune in Mexico fairly early on in the book.
Ms. Chopin’s descriptions of people, places, and feeling states often enthralled me. Here are just a few of many exciting moments in the book:
“She felt somewhat like a woman who in a moment of passion is betrayed into an act of infidelity, and realizes the significance of the act without being wholly awakened from its glamour………He sometimes talked in a way that astonished her at first and brought the crimson into her face; in a way that pleased her at last, appealing to the animalism that stirred impatiently within her.”
And then a little further along:
“It was the first kiss of her life to which her nature had really responded. It was a flaming torch that kindled desire.”
These passages are all in reference to Edna responding to the vain attentions of Alcee Arobin, a handsome playboy whose presence is a flattering yet frustrating distraction from the main character’s unrequited love for Robert, a man who remains off-stage for most of the story.
A sumptuous dinner scene, put on by Edna as her farewell from high society before transitioning into a more simplified lifestyle, away from her husband and two children, read like a three dimensional moving painting. I felt like I was right there, watching and listening as Edna and her guests– all dressed as if for an extravagant ball– socialized. Eventually, the gathering culminates in a crescendo of imaginative intensity, when the youngest guest, Victor Lebrun, aged nineteen and brother of the older, ever-absent Robert, drunkenly embodies Bacchus/Dionysus:
“As if a magician’s wand had touched him, the garland of roses transformed him into a vision of Oriental beauty. His cheeks were the color of crushed grapes, and his dusky eyes glowed with a languishing fire.”
And, then, shortly, the hypnotic effect continues:
“The effect of the wine upon Victor was, to change his accustomed volubility into silence. He seemed to have abandoned himself to a reverie, and to be seeing pleasing visions in the amber bead.”
The spell is broken when this youth tauntingly sings a song that reminds Edna of his brother, which jars her and– by extension– the other guests back into present-day reality.
The spell was also largely broken for me the reader after this turning point scene, which was most certainly the author’s intention. The narrative proceeds to Edna leaving her old life of physical luxury and trying to make it on her own in the world while hoping to reconnect with her beloved Robert. Therein lies one of her main inner conflicts: on one hand Edna wishes to be self-sufficient and free while, on the other, she feels devoid of love and incomplete without her heart’s companion by her side.
Blatant yet beautiful symbolism abounds in this story. As a youth being introduced to literature, I would have puzzled over much of it, but I did not at this time in my life. The first part of the narrative has the recurring presence of two young lovers and a widowed woman in black often near them, clearly foreshadowing a grim outcome for Edna and her love for Robert. The sea itself surrounding Grand Isle is the subconscious and unconscious, sensuality and sexual desire, and the longing for and achieving a nurturing womb-like state (often briefly experienced during and after orgasm), all of which directly pertain to Edna’s psyche. These are but a handful of the symbols presented throughout the book. Some readers may find such abundance of this type of literary/plot device passé, uninteresting, over-the-top, and/or “overly” romantic, but I sure didn’t.
THE AWAKENING read like one long, exquisite build up of sexual and emotional tension, parallel to a symphony playing a classic piece of music crescendoing towards a grand finale of sorts. That said, I felt somehow punched– or splashed with a bucket of frigid water– when I reached the last page. My emotional and mental response was a complex one. Ms. Chopin was working within a time period in which she was both ahead of and a product of. So, while, days after finishing the novel, I continue to puzzle and even agonize a little over the ending, I also ultimately accept the author’s resolution to this overall deliciously-written joy of a book.
French author Marguerite Duras’ semi-autobiographical novel THE LOVER (L’AMANT) is a fascinating, sad, sometimes puzzling, short read about alienation, classism, colonialism, racism, sexism, and the human condition. Ms. Duras then shows how both lust and love serve as ephemeral ways around these socio-emotional and existential constraints.
I had to set my rigid thinking part of me aside while reading this book. Specifically, I am more comfortable with a clearly non-stop linear narrative, as many of us are. The author digresses at times, going off on tangents that do not always have an explicit link to the main story, which is about a French teenaged female (the periodic narrator) living in Indochina in the 1930s. She embarks on a passionate, doomed affair with a wealthy Chinese man, her senior by twelve years. I mention “periodic” narrator here because the point of view switches between first and third person. I soon realized that Ms. Duras was basically thinking aloud on the page and reflecting, whereby thoughts naturally jump around a bit before eventually returning to a certain main subject of focus. Clever and realistic. The human brain is more than linear, and certainly so when impacted by childhood trauma. The book’s impoverished young woman lives through the loss of her father and having a narcissistic, abusive older brother and a moody, depressed mother, all traumatic life disruptors to varying degrees. The main character resides largely in her mind and through her writing, exploring different perspectives partly out of habit, as survivors can often do, and partly out of a longing to integrate her challenging, rift-filled life, find meaning in it all.
The determination of the main character’s intent to rebel via experiencing repeated fulfillment of her sexual desire with a socially forbidden lover (older and non-white) is compelling and erotically charged. It has been a long time since I’ve read a novel so purely from a woman’s perspective that relays such believable immediacy of sexual longing. And while her lover is able to match this urgency with his own, it is her libido that is the central energy or– ahem– thrust of the story. The male lead is portrayed as sensitive, nervous, and love-struck, which I found refreshing and intriguing, whereby he is rendered just as vulnerable as she is if not more so. On an emotional, psychic level, the gender roles of male and female are somewhat mixed up between them, unclear, which is wonderfully human. On the surface, it seems that the man is the pursuer, per old convention, but she pursues him just as strongly, for experience and pleasure gratification, cutting off her emotions (many would say so “typically male”), per this being a protective pattern/defense for herself existing long before he came onto the scene.
The racism in THE LOVER saddened and angered me. The book was published in 1984 and the author still was blatantly, unreflectingly racist, per, for example, her occasional reference throughout the story to “coolies,” the natives to Indochina (Vietnam). Her guilt and despair over how her mother and brothers treat her Chinese lover, and the way she goes along with their awful behavior in their presence with him, is understandable. On one side, the young woman uses her lover and allows her family to do so as well. On the other, he also uses her sexually but with her full direct consent. She requests that he treat her “like you treat all your women.” This he does up to a point, but not completely, because he actually loves her. It is unclear that she reciprocates this love. Hence, like the land of Vietnam, colonized and exploited by the French, the Chinese man, also an exploiter of many Vietnamese, is in turn exploited, used. There is a chain of hierarchy in which the young woman is close to the top, with her older brother, a white male, placed above her. Then follows the rich, non-white lover, just below the narrator, and the colonized natives at the bottom. The book is written by a colonizer, even if the main character’s own economic situation was fairly grim. She operated from privilege, matching her lover’s access to money with her being white and not in love, or so she convinces herself of the latter during the affair.
Ms. Duras’ frequent references to death, including occasional thoughts of dying and committing violence on people she loves, were sometimes disturbing, at other times puzzling. Given the lack of emotional connection between she and her mother, her father’s death from some illness during her childhood, and her raging, destructive older brother, it is no wonder she was occupied with death. She suffered from depression brought on by both genetics, given her mother, who may have had an undiagnosed bipolar disorder, and painful circumstances. The narrator writes in dramatic, absolutist statements, referring to herself as “dead” after the death of her younger brother, who she did clearly love. The meaning behind such statements (among other ponderous passages in the book, such as musings about immortality) was not always clear to me. Perhaps this is what Ms. Duras intended, since life often involves discerning meaning where it is not always apparent.
I would be remiss if I did not at least briefly discuss the writer’s description of the story’s surroundings. The contrasts of city and countryside are stark and beautiful, such as how she describes light and shadow in each of these environments, or the uniqueness of the nights versus the sameness of the often brightly-lit days. She sets a mood through her descriptions very effectively, which includes an overall sense of claustrophobia and isolation that come with the oppressive tropical heat coupled with her inability to leave her mother and brothers and their toxic ways of relating. All that plus the repressive social norms she had to contend with as a young woman attending private, Western European-run schools during the first half of the twentieth century. It is no wonder the main character is so fraught and seeks constant distraction and release the way she does.
I am glad I checked THE LOVER out of the library and read it, a modern classic for sure. The one flaw I saw in it is a certain lack of awareness in the author’s writing of her own unresolved racism. Somehow, it is doubtful if it dissipated much more by 1996, the year Marguerite Duras died. For those readers with more of a literary education and background, I imagine other flaws about the writing come forth that I did not notice in this little gem of a book.
And, now, staying with little novels about precocious young women from another time and place, I have started on Kate Chopin’s THE AWAKENING.
Set in 5th century BC Persia and Greece, this historical novel follows the lives of Aspasia and Pericles. The former is a brilliant and beautiful hetaira (courtesan) who eventually meets and pairs up with the latter, the renowned general and elected leader of Athens for over thirty years, a time which saw the peak of that great city state’s flourishing.
I found both the characters and overall outlook and tone of the third person narrator to be deeply cynical, elitist, and often contemptuous. There was only one supporting character I could consistently sympathize with and like, that of a female physician friend and lover of Pericles’, who does the key transitional act of introducing him to Aspasia at a dinner party. Unfortunately, this supporting character’s name eludes me now. (I put the book down a few weeks ago.) This left me feeling like a distanced observer most of the time rather than an emotionally engrossed reader. Granted, some passages of sexual intrigue were entertaining, along with the many descriptions of pretty women and men in their ornate clothing, jewelry, perfumes, buildings, and gardens, including when they ate exotic, delectable foods. I can appreciate abundant detail, though it was excessive in places even for me in this often indulgent yarn.
The first several pages of the book were devoted to laying out how Aspasia is a brilliant, challenging student to her teachers. I think one brief classroom scene would have sufficed, instead of three or so extended scenarios, to relay the author’s point of how exceptional, gifted, and strong-willed this woman was. Parallel to Aspasia’s teachers’ anger with her know-it-all argumentativeness, I honestly felt exasperated with the writer’s diarrhea of the pen.
Then there is all the blatant sexism, classism, and racism. How one chooses to write about two inherently classist, sexist, misogynist cultures (Greek and Persian) in an ancient time period takes great thought and skill. I myself prefer the inclusion of a more informed, modern perspective that integrates understandings gleaned from discourses of feminism and anti-racism/egalitarianism, among others. Unfortunately, Ms. Caldwell’s avowed conservatism shows through in this tale. Bound by reductionist conventional thought along the lines of “men are from Mars, women are from Venus,” the author has all of her characters existing and operating from this tired old paradigm, with the partial exception of both Aspasia and Pericles’ physician and socialite friend. Aspasia’s courageous attempts to live and succeed in a man’s world, surely parallel to what the author was doing during her lifetime through most of the 20th century, come through as often admirable (while other times not) in the narrative, and for that I am appreciative. I admire and respect anyone who can succeed against great odds, so long as minimal harm is done to others along the way.
I looked forward to Ms. Caldwell’s descriptions of Athens and rendering of Pericles, a historical figure I’ve read about elsewhere with a mix of admiration and sadness. Well, Pericles is portrayed as an often quiet (i.e., “strong silent type”), arrogant ass, surrounded by elitist and petty people even worse than he. Clearly, the author did not like the actual concept of democracy and found every moment of digression in the story to criticize it as “feminine” and unreliable, preferring a more fixed laws republic. Hmmm, since human needs evolve somewhat over time as technology progresses, how can all laws remain completely unchanged? She never answers that question. Caldwell has her characters even pragmatically think and suggest that “benign” tyrants or dictators heading up governments are perhaps the best solution, albeit not a realistic one. Her contemptuous attitude about the “rabble,” i.e., the peasant/working class was distasteful to me. Caldwell did not believe in the possibility that a critical mass of people in a civilization could govern themselves and others fairly and effectively. And while that is a topic open to debate, I do think the author used this position as an excuse to portray most of humanity in her book as petty and unsympathetic. Sadly, Pericles comes across as cold, calculating, elitist, and cynical with– sure enough- contempt for the “plebeians” and “peasants,” who are all “less” than “superior” men. And while Pericles undoubtedly was likely largely this way in actuality within such a misogynist, classist culture and time in history, I found his actual humanity in this novel present but often lacking, certainly not enough to connect me, the reader, with him. The writer’s repeated description of Pericles as being like a statue did not help warm me to him in the least. He often seemed two dimensional and overly extreme.
Caldwell’s blatant touting of Christian monotheism in the book annoyed me to no end. She had Pericles agreeing with a few of his friends’ endorsement of the “Unknown God,” and largely reduced the Greek pantheon to being symbols of and for a corrupt, petty bureaucrat priesthood that was going out of style. Lovely. Granted, the author did allow for some beauty of the ancient and sacred to come through via some descriptions of picturesque scenery and the artful practices of courtesans. This was a nice reprieve here and there from her otherwise constant return to polemicizing against democracy, polytheism (via touting monotheism instead), and the working class “rabble.” She just could not help herself. This diverted away from the flow of the narrative of people and place. Personally, I do not read novels to be lectured at again and again about the writer’s political, spiritual, and philosophical views, even if I happen to agree with them. It’s like watching a movie on television interrupted with too many commercials, only perhaps even more bothersome.
By the time I got to the third and final section of the book, in which Pericles and Aspasia are together as a couple, I lost patience and interest. It starts out with an overview of Pericles’ narcissistic former stepson’s cruel and criminal acts, including his killing of two slaves, a child and an elderly woman. I briefly thought of Donald Trump as that character and started to shut down a bit, an indication that I really could not be aggravated further. Besides, now that the two main characters were together, after an admittedly intriguing and sexual-tension-filled scene (minus the author’s usual inserted- in polemics via conversations between the guests, including Socrates) towards the end of the novel’s second part, I no longer cared much about the story. Also, Pericles mother had long-since died, another somewhat sympathetic side character, albeit a very sad and often helpless one.
I hope this will be my only “semi” book review, as I do prefer to write about texts that I’ve actually finished from cover to cover. GLORY AND THE LIGHTNING had some beautiful, thought-provoking moments of description and human feeling here and there. But, I found the tale generally frustrating, unsatisfying, and alienating due to what felt like constant, long-winded interruptions of the author’s obnoxious personal views. These coarse interweaves into the narrative I could have done without. With them all removed, the novel would have been far shorter, faster moving, and more relatable.
After finishing Madeline Miller’s riveting new novel CIRCE, I promptly read her other, debut one THE SONG OF ACHILLES, first published in 2012. This story was a page-turner ’til the very end. I can’t ever remember growing so frequently verklempt while reading a tale of romance and intrigue as much as I did with this book. Two young men in love, the demigod warrior Achilles and the very human, tender-loving Patroclus, are the heart of the narrative in every sense of that word. These protagonists must negotiate a hostile world dominated by men thirsty for power, fortune, and glory no matter what the cost. This is effectively summed up in the Greeks brutishly going to war against Troy and its surrounding lands, realm of the Trojans, all instigated over the kidnapping of Helen, a Greek king’s wife, considered to be the most beautiful woman in the world.
Though initially a hard decision for him, it is the ultimate destiny of Achilles to choose immortality through the glory of conquest against Troy. Hence, it is his life mate Patroclus’ destiny to follow and support him into this violent way of life. Along the way, Patroclus becomes a healer to the Greek soldiers and an ever-grounding presence for the part-god Achilles. In short, Patroclus is the conscience of the story. The one who directly recognizes this in him, filling the equivalent of the crucial role of the chorus in every ancient Greek tragedy, is the rescued slave girl Briseis. Like us readers, Briseis loves Patroclus truly and deeply for the brave, unwavering caring person that he is. And through this understanding, we are reminded why the glamorous, larger-than-life Achilles keeps him by his side, with Briseis so nearby. Together, the two men and woman represent a full psyche: both divine and human.
Apparently, the renowned epic THE ILIAD, from which this book is based and carefully adhered to, intentionally portrayed the hero Achilles and his companion Patroclus as gay lovers, something which I had long read and heard about elsewhere. (And, yes, now I intend to read THE ILIAD forthwith.) I was heartened to see this Classics scholar go with this interpretation while filling in her often behind-the-scenes, first person (Patroclus’) narrative with beautiful, cleanly-written prose about two tragic male figures in ancient literature. Men as both young lovers and warriors make for a heady mixture. It is rare, I find, to come across compelling, believable romance on the written page, and a gay romance at that. Sexual tension and a range of emotion steadily unfolded via crisp, often poetic, and vivid descriptions. The author’s use of describing the feelings of her protagonists through referring to the natural surroundings in which they find themselves in creates an atmosphere of immediacy and relatability for the reader throughout. Such is the craft of a gifted storyteller.
My one critique of the book was how long Ms. Miller had Prince Achilles and the exiled (ex)Prince Patroclus– who meet each other at ten years of age and strike up a friendship in fairly short order– go before consummating their love. The author sets them up in close quarters and constant companionship a few years before puberty, yet they hold back until sixteen years of age, including with each one not clearly bothering to privately explore his own maturing, virile body. (Perhaps I missed some subtle hint or two in the writing that went right over my head?) Uh, yeah, right. This was one area in which I could not suspend my disbelief. However, the author is a woman and was not a parent, nor, undoubtedly even a close associate, of a male teenager when she wrote this story in her early and mid 30’s. I readily forgive her for not being fully inside the head and body of a pubescent male.
Ms. Miller’s inclusion of the foreboding sea nymph Thetis (Achilles’ mother) and Chiron, the wise centaur and teacher of many things, such as medicine, the arts, and hunting, renders just enough portrayal of the mythical and magical to keep the story moving along. Also, their presence enhances and validates the rare intensity and specialness of the bond between the two leading men, who remain very human throughout. Hence, the narrative is both colorful and relatable.
Madeline Miller’s ability to breathe fresh, contemporary-feeling life into such ancient, mythical characters leaves me eagerly wondering what she will write next.
Madeline Miller, a native of Boston, MA, is an author whose work I really dig. At the age of forty and deeply educated in the Classics, Ms. Miller has already written and published two fabulous, well-thought-out novels, which I highly recommend, particularly if you like Greek myths: THE SONG OF ACHILLES and CIRCE, published in 2012 and 2018 respectively.
For my birthday last month, a friend and colleague gave me a new copy of CIRCE, which I then read voraciously. The lone femme fatale witch and goddess figure has always been an archetype I’ve deeply resonated with since childhood. CIRCE delivered such a character portrayal and her story beautifully and hauntingly. At long last, a compelling reason behind why Circe turned Odysseus’ men into pigs is put forth.
I appreciated Miller’s crisp prose and very human portrayal of deities from the ancient Greek pantheon. The deep loneliness of Circe and her courageous acts to learn from and better tolerate this often existential state made for a touching narrative, told in first person. Additionally, Circe’s evolution into her own power and acceptance of the human condition becomes a perfect metaphor for a successful, complete development of not only a woman’s personality, but, ultimately, a human’s.
A daughter of the sun god Helios and nymph Perse, Circe grows up feeling different, even alien, from her family and peers. Her eventual exile by a scornful Helios onto the island of Aiaia comes with both relief and initial sadness for the heroine and “lesser” goddess. It is there that she gradually embraces her fate, tying up her skirt, walking about barefoot, and getting her hands dirty as she works the land. In so doing, she learns her craft of sorcery from out of herbs, other plants, and communing with animals, particularly lions, wolves, and pigs. Her shape-shifting abilities upon other beings become a means of protection, first for just herself but then for some others as well who enter her life on Aiaia.
Madeline Miller’s gift of drawing the intimate and immediate out of such ancient material of myths and legends is impressive and moving. For example, Circe’s relationship with Odysseus comes alive with emotion through dialogue and poetic, yet succinct, descriptions. It’s as if Ms. Miller fills in details only hinted at within sweeping passages from THE ODYSSEY and other Classic works, such as the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur. This retelling is informed by modern discourses, such as feminism, yet keeps to the overall integrity of the old source stories. Every once in a while in literature and art, an ancient story or set of deific images is brought forth into a newer age so that the original beauty of it feels once again vibrant, alive, fully accessible for the reader or viewer. CIRCE fits such an occurrence, and that’s what makes this novel truly great.
Author and poet Sharon Doubiago’s new book My Beard (published April 18, 2018 by Spuyten Duvyil, New York City) consists of twelve short stories about her life. The prose are often visceral and unabashedly sexual, always body-focused and poetic. My response to the stories was complex. On one hand, a part of me cringed inside at what often felt like raw, graphic openness, while my larger, observing perspective absorbed her narratives as simply beautiful, whole, uncensored, and refreshingly honest tellings from the heart. She frequently illustrated parallels and interrelationships to her own body and the earth. Hence, Ms. Doubiago’s direct mentionings of the Goddess were a crystal clear frame of reference. I enjoyed reading something so current in which the author is unashamedly attuned to and grounded in her flesh and Mother Earth. The Goddess lives!
The reader is immediately introduced to the author’s hippie, unconventional lifestyle. For extended periods of time, she lives out of her vehicle, first a large old car named “Roses” and then a van called “Psyche,” a gift from her parents. She alludes to some odd jobs for employment, including bartending, but largely makes a living through teaching writing classes, including in a men’s prison.
Sharon’s political progressivism comes through everywhere, such as in the piece “Our War,” in which she both interviews and dialogues with a woman from Sarajevo during the last year of the Bosnian War (1995). She conveys a balance of openness, humbleness, and erudition while conversing with someone who has witnessed the horrors of war first-hand. Like Ms. Doubiago, her interviewee/discussion partner is also a writer and someone with a history of involvement with independent, small press publishing. This story felt comparatively less imaginative and poetic than the other ones because much of it is from directly recorded dialogue and focused on a large-scale piece of history in the making. However, I appreciated the author’s journalistic skills and partial history lesson she provided me, the reader, about a war and area of Europe I hardly knew anything about.
Many of the stories are about Ms. Doubiago’s intimate relationships with men that are doomed to end, are ending, or come to an end within the narrative. Each lover clearly has intimacy issues, is emotionally unstable, and ends up leaving the author or, in one case, forcing Sharon to ultimately leave because of the man’s brittle mental health and extreme ambivalence over staying with her. She shares how all of her relationships were erotically rewarding to at least some degree, except for with her second (or third– admittedly unclear to me) husband due to his lack of sexual interest much of the time over their seven months of marriage. The dissolution of this union is powerfully described over three stories: “Stripper,” “Tsagalalah, She Who Watches,” and the last entry “My Beard.” He, a sculptor by trade, was having an affair with another woman since the day of their wedding. He coolly collected experiences with lovers like he acquired sculpting commissions, which mostly were bronze castings of naked women who posed for him in his studio while he plastered over their bodies. One day, while plastering an art subject, he flatly announced to Sharon that she was “no longer erotic” to him. “High art” objectification was happening here, but objectification nonetheless. I felt relief for Ms. Doubiago each time one of her fraught relationships came to an end. This is what it seems she wants us readers to understandably feel with and for her. She writes clearly with deep emotion yet keen observation honed both from hindsight and identifying as a lone outsider early on in her life.
I found myself particularly caught up in deep intrigue while reading “Psyche and the Vidyahara.” Here again was a bit of history lesson for me while learning about the behind-the-scenes corruption of the Tibetan Buddhist Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. As a child of well-educated hippie parents in 1970s Northern California, I often heard my folks and friends of theirs mention this place of higher learning, namely for creative writing and Buddhist practice. It took on a mystique for me, though never strong enough to travel and directly find out about it for myself. In her ninth story of this book, Ms. Doubiago comes across as a voice of reason and compassion as she describes the sexual and emotional abuses committed by Naropa’s leader Chogyam Trungpa and then by his anointed successor to the lineage Ozel Tendzin, a bisexual American man with AIDS who had unprotected sex with many of his uninformed followers.
Fast-forward from this sordid backstory to the author being invited to the Institute as a visiting professor for the summer session at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. (The pretentiousness of that name evoked a chuckle from me.) Courageously and caringly, Ms. Doubiago shares her concern aloud after an aggressive-toned reading about raping “white girls” by another visiting writer and professor Anne Waldman (who I met once when I was about seven and later enjoyed hearing her read a poem like a chant). She is soon roundly misunderstood and shamed, including by fellow poet and attendee Allen Ginsberg. Sharon is further scapegoated afterwards at a meeting set up for the purpose of doing this to her. The “wrong” committed? In her own nuanced way, Ms. Doubiago did not conform to the politically correct “format” of discourse everyone else was holding to in the name of combatting censorship, even though Sharon clearly had no use for censorship either. She was able to leave there with a sense of appreciating the bit of support she managed to glean from a situation of adversity where she’d reasonably hoped to find camaraderie with peers. My own remaining curiosity about the Naropa Institute felt quite fulfilled after finishing this tale.
At least two other stories touch upon the author’s nonconformist outsider status within the poetry and writing community, such as in the third installment “Fornography.” This largely takes place at a two week annual writer’s conference attended by the likes of Margaret Atwood and William Stafford. Sharon Doubiago effectively conveys here a sense of “group think” that whole factions of writers hold to, including on how to view and discuss (vs. how not to view and discuss) pornography. Elsewhere, towards the end of the final story “My Beard,” Ms. Doubiago is sitting on a panel of writers when she gets verbally threatened by none other than “superstar” (Sharon’s descriptor) author and poet James Dickey. The audience cheers him on. And while the reader is never told or shown exactly what she said that evoked such a hostile response, the content of the whole narrative of “My Beard” lays out her thought processes over many matters, including about “gender and the family,” the topic she and the other panelists had been assigned to give a presentation about.
In some places, the emotional depth and urgency of Sharon’s experiences are effectively elucidated through the visual power of her dreams. For example, the author dreams of a flopping fish following her down a mountain, nipping at her heels, this fish’s dogged determination a way of showing it loves her. It is very much like her then-dying father, a man who loved to fish and who constantly abused her. In a sense, he acted like this fish out of water, pursuing Sharon and committing actions not at all healthy or natural to do.
There are many recurring themes in this deeply thoughtful book, an overarching one that stands out being the ongoing healing the author engages in from surviving prolonged sexual abuse by her father, including an incident of raping her when she was seven years of age. He clearly sexualized Sharon, his oldest child of three, throughout her childhood. The mother’s jealousy and avoidance of protecting her only enabled the abuse to keep happening. Ms. Doubiago’s sense of self, including an often wavering confidence, and all of her intimate relationships were hugely affected by this tragic aspect of her upbringing. The final story “My Beard” brings it all home as the author gracefully weaves back and forth between childhood and the last months and days of her father’s life, coupled with the final memories of being with an unfaithful, self-absorbed, misogynistic husband, the parallels between he and Sharon’s father coming forth in waves. (As a visual reference/focal point, Sharon refers to the ocean and its waves in this story and a few others.) Admirably, Ms. Doubiago lovingly cares for her father on his deathbed, helping her elderly mother out as best she can, all while having to drive a long distance between her home and her parents’. And yet, she remains misunderstood and invalidated within even her own family of origin; her jealous sister, who never was sexually abused by the father, repeatedly denies that Sharon herself was ever abused. Sharon clearly became an outsider early on, mother and sister each jealous of her and the father using her for his own painfully unresolved needs.
What is additionally wonderful is that I knew Sharon Doubiago when I was a child. She was a family friend, slightly older than my father. This is why I sometimes referred to her by first name only in this review. I remember her as being soft-spoken and very striking with her large blue eyes, high cheekbones, and thick blonde hair. Now, I’m getting to know this amazing, talented woman better through her writing.
It’s affirming to read a series of stories that, taken together, comprise a memoir. Maybe that’s the form my own memoir will take if and when I end up writing it.