Sick in Santa Barbara Redux! “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?,” “Mudwoman” and other Recent NYT Book Reviews

Me in my stolen St. John twinset. Heartbreaking sartorial loss.

So much for a peaceful night of rest. I literally woke up every 10 minutes to sneeze. I couldn’t believe when it was only 2 AM, figuring that the light would soon begin to peer through the drapes. I would post the truly glorious view but some nut job might actually try to find my street and that would be unpleasant to say the least. Having some psycho try to bash the new windows to my apartment would not be good.

I’m still mourning the car robbery and lost suit, dress, and the yellow twinset pictured above.  I cannot begin to express how much I loved the St. John twinset, frequently wearing the tank alone or under a jacket or suit. It was second-hand and it was Mom’s but I looked so amazing it in–probably my post popular outfit on FB in forever (here it’s just the outer sweater with a T-shirt and ballet pants going for a manicure in Georgetown) and people would actually comment to me about it walking down the street in DC and NYC–she said I had to keep it.

After I write this blog, I will pop over to Cafe Stella for some breakfast as it is so beautiful out today and I love their coffee and omelets. I just do feel like death warmed over–and look it. I want to draft the letter to C Magazine this weekend and I have held onto the pitch letters a bit longer, hoping to find a forthcoming title of two which would work and I think the new Joyce Carol Oates about an Ivy League university president might be promising: Mudwoman. The school is not identified as such, just an elite New Jersey smallish college, whose president’s life begins to unravel. She is, unbeknownst to anyone around her, essentially isolated and friendless. (If there is one thing in life about which I can claim expertise, it’s the life of the hermit, all the intricacies of solitude, isolation, loneliness…)

Of course unlike me, an scholar-in-training with “no intimate friends,” she was not a failure. She was a renowned academic, this protagonist known as M.R. (Meredith Ruth Neukirchen) and on top of her solitude problem, she experiences professional tensions stemming both from politics and academic politics.

I tend to shy away from narratives about sexual abuse. Maybe it’s what turns me off about the great Southern writers as incest is a downer and all that Southern stuff is just so incredibly depressing and twisted and pathological, though I should admit my knowledge of Faulkner is limited to As I Lay Dying, a novel I hated in high school and felt, upon completion, that I had in fact experienced a resurrection of sorts.  Had I possessed the critical vocabulary at the time, I would have spoken of the sort of reader-response aspect, the immediacy of identification and so on. I felt like I was dying from the first page to the last! (A close second, I might add, to a horrible novel by Steinbeck I was forced to read over a summer at Westlake: The Grapes of Wrath. )

M.R. had experienced sadistic sexual abuse as a child, along with a “deranged religious-freak mother.” I have no ability to relate–not even the tiniest bit–to stories of verbal, emotional, physical or mental abuse linked to religious parents or families (where the issues are fundamentally linked to religious belief, rather than incidental to it).  It makes literally as much logical sense to me as quantum mechanics or computer science, which is to say none at all.

My parents are 100% secular, don’t believe in God, don’t care about religion, don’t think about it ever. So it’s always very challenging for me really to empathize at anything beyond the most superficial intellectual level with fucked up families where religion is part of how the abuse is perpetrated. I mean of course, a very Catholic family may have views about abortion and if a daughter goes and gets one, there’s a big fussing, as Dad would say. Or a young adult doesn’t want to go to church anymore and it’s Marian Evans (aka George Eliot) all over again, this time in America some 170 years later.

So sometimes a child’s deviation from the parents’ religious beliefs will cause a withholding of love, approval, money or all of the above.  The Jewish son marries a shiksa; the Catholic marries a Protestant; the parents don’t want to baptize their kids. This sort of thing happens all the time.  And makes very little sense to me. But the real hardcore dysfunction rooted in religion/God/salvation is just incomprehensible and irrational and therefore not something to which I can relate on any emotional level at all.

I have a very dear friend who grew up Pentecostal and she got out. Her husband got out also and she has posted on occasion a blog I think is called “Love, Joy, Feminism.” It’s a great blog but nothing I would read more than once as it’s pitched to helping people still trapped in a world which encourages self-hatred, denial of self, sexual confusion/repression, and total misery. She has a faith now which works for her, I take it, and writes about parenting, marriage and other social issues.

I remember when I met my Pentecostal-raised friend on FB some 18 months ago, over a shared love of Rescue Me. I remember sitting upstairs in J’s computer room in his two-story Goleta house and reading her first private message, which she began with an explanation of her family’s religious fundamentalism. Who knew that 18 months later, we would be thinking of a trip to England together?  I fear that financially, it’s just not feasible but you never know what 6 months might bring; my father shut down the Organo Gold coffee business at which my friend and his partner think I am a natural with my vivacious personality and Victorian Chick schtick, fearing–stupidly and incomprehensibly–liability risks based on what he knows of other similar business ventures.

Still, in spite of the ritual sexual abuse component, I think this would work for some kind of review. Usually LA Times won’t run a review of something NYT just did but a smaller or more regional review might do so, particularly an academic one as it’s a sort of “home-turf”  story. I’ll swing by Chaucer’s on the way back from Cafe Stella.

Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? garners a true rave on the cover of the March 25th Sunday review: “Mummy Dearest” is the title and no writer of an memoir could hope for more than Kathryn Harrison’s initial praise of the book as “unconventional and winning as the rollicking bildungsroman Winterson assembled from the less malignant aspects of her eccentric Pentecostal upbringing, a novel that instantly established her distinctive voice.” Harrison refers to a 1985 novel by Winterson, “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.” I don’t think this will work for me, either as a novel for pleasure (even a very depressing sort of aesthetic appreciation) or as topic for review.

I do, however, very much like Harrison’s writing and she has just published another novel, Enchantments, which I intend to look up. I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction (this is an understatement!) but I do read a lot of reviews which are a kind of sub-genre of their own.  The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion is written by a psychologist who wants to claim at bottom that decisions hint not on reason but moral intuition. I haven’t read it in full enough to know if either the writer of the book or the reviewer has any true understanding of philosophical ethics and what “moral intuition” really might mean. It’s a very long review, however, by William Saletan of Slate.

I think it’s time to head off to Cafe Stella. I’m so very tired from waking up every 10 minutes to sneeze. Happy Saturday!

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