Book Review: Self-Made Man by Norah Vincent

This will probably top my list as the most bizarre book I’ll read this year (and the first month’s not even over).

Self Made Man coverSome background: About a year ago, while sitting in a hotel dining room, I saw Norah Vincent being interviewed on TV. She had just written this book about disguising herself as a man (“Ned”) for a year and a half in order to do investigative-style reporting on what men are really like. (Because, of course, they can never tell us.) The idea intrigued me, but when Norah said that she was a bra-burning lesbian feminist with a degree in philosophy, I got very suspicious. I figured she would say “everything that I’ve always hated about men has been reinforced ten times over.” But as she kept talking, I was surprised to find that her experience as a man made her very sympathetic to men. She even said that there was a time during her experiment that she began hating women because they were so hostile to and yet so demanding of men.

Ah ha… a sympathetic ear from the feminist crowd. This book’s going on my wishlist.

Last Saturday I was sick and couldn’t get out of bed so I read this book through cover to cover. I guess I hadn’t really thought through what I was expecting from it, but let me just say this book has a lot of objectionable elements. She spent a lot of time being “one of the guys” and these guys were not Mormon missionaries. She swore, told nasty jokes, went to strip clubs… the whole nine yards.

I was a bit wary about the chapter on sex (read: strip clubs). Norah decided (since she couldn’t really pull off her experiment by having actual sex) that she would visit strip clubs. And the experience seemed to be so revolting to her that I think she must have thrown up several times while writing the chapter. I felt like I needed to while reading it. If you’ve ever been tempted to visit a strip club, maybe you should read this chapter. Or not. I’m not sure how it will affect you. But the disgust and the shame and the anger that soaked those places made it into the book:

…this wasn’t fantasyland.

I’d been inside a part of the male world that most women and even a lot of men never see, and I’d seen it as just another one of the boys. In those places male sexuality felt like something you weren’t supposed to feel but did, like something heavy you were carrying around and had nowhere to unload except in the lap of some damaged stranger, and then only for five minutes. Five minutes of mutual abuse that didn’t make you feel any better.

One thing was certain, though. Everybody got his hands dirty and, politically speaking, nobody really came out ahead. It wasn’t nearly so simple as men objectifying women and staying clean or empowered in the process. Nobody won, and when it came down to it, nobody was more or less victimized than anyone else. The girls got money. The men got an approximation of sex and flirtation. But in the end everyone was equally debased by the experience…

From Norah’s interview, I remember that she said the number one word that summed up strip clubs was “pain.” The dancers were in pain because they hated what they were doing and they hated the men watching them. The men were in pain because they hated themselves for being there and (for most of them) for knowing they would lie to their wives about where they had spent the evening. Until you see the people in strip clubs like the piles of bodies dead and dying in the old Chinese opium dens, you haven’t really seen what’s going on. Everyone’s addicted and dying. It’s sick and it’s ugly and it’s nothing like what you see on TV.

Another of Norah’s chapters is about dating, where I smiled at her getting the cold shoulder by woman after woman. I relished it because I’ve always hated it myself and it was a complete shock to Norah that women were so uncivil to men who were going so far out on a limb to talk to them. Norah Vincent and her alter ego NedAt one point, she was trying to engage a group of four women in conversation but they wouldn’t even turn around. They just threw comments back over their shoulders. She got so angry that she finally said “Okay! Fine! I’m a woman! No, really! I’m a woman! I’m doing an investigative report and I’m just dressed up like a man.” Suddenly all the women Continue reading

Book Review: Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet, by Elaine Feinstein

Will gave me this book this past Christmas I think in the hopes that it would revive my interest in writing poetry. See, when I was in 11th grade and becoming interested in writing poetry, I went down to the Greenville Library and picked up some books of modern poets. Ted HughesYou know, the ones with names I’d never heard of… John Ashberry, Thom Gunn, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney. In retrospect, I’m amazed I had such great (random) taste. But it was Ted Hughes whose poetry broke into my world like a sudden sunrise. I’d never read poetry like his. It wasn’t just gritty and modern. Ginsberg had done that sloppily enough. Hughes’ poetry had a use of verbal rhythms and phonetic clustering that completely enchanted me. I read poems like “Second Glance at a Jaguar” or “Heptonstall” over and over, then wrote my own poems trying to conjure some of the magical sounds that Hughes did. I read Hughes for years, collecting every book on him I could find.* I privately imagined that if I could write well enough, do well enough at school to attend a school in England, maybe… maybe then I’d get to meet Ted Hughes. Maybe he’d be able to read what I wrote and let me know what he thought.

Well, I still remember the day in 1998, sitting in a literature class with Dr. Mary Krause, when I mentioned that I might want to do a paper on Ted Hughes’ poem “Out”. She said in her mousy little Wisconsin accent “Oh! Ted Hughes! I just heard on the radio that he died today.” I was completely deflated. That wasn’t a good year for deaths… my dad had died in August, Dr. Bob, Jr. in November, then my maternal grandfather died the same month as Hughes.

There was hostility among some of the teachers at school to Ted Hughes, most notably Dr. Silvester (I spent the entire semester in Modern Poetry waiting to get to Ted Hughes and she never even went over him). It all seemed to center around Sylvia Plath, whom I, naïf that I was, discovered was Ted’s first wife. Sylvia was a brilliant poet in her own right but chose to kill herself a few months after learning that Ted was having an affair with Assia Wevill. Later Assia, when Ted was having affairs with two other women, committed suicide herself, adding the terrible deed of killing her and Ted’s daughter in the same stroke. I began to see a side to Hughes that I didn’t like. And when my own poetry, I felt, got too inner, too visceral and morbid, I put Hughes away. All the commentaries, poetry books, translations, critical works, children’s books, prose selections… everything.

Ted Hughes The Life of a Poet book coverBut I do think this book has allowed me to reexamine Hughes. When a man seems to leave a trail of abandoned women and dead wives behind him, you start to loathe him, despite his phonetical clustering. But reading Feinstein’s book, another picture emerges: that Hughes was a very disciplined, caring person, very generous, especially in his relationship with Sylvia Plath. I’d always heard that Sylvia was a little crazy, but I never realized quite how much. Hughes sacrificed a lot for her, but it never seemed quite enough. She was a chihuahua: a person who has to be handled with extreme care or they go crazy or get sick or shoot up a school. In Sylvia’s case, she became extremely controlling and jealous over nothing only to have that jealousy “drive” Hughes to adultery (note: I’m not making excuses for Ted, just realizing that he wasn’t quite the heartless philanderer I’d come to believe).

One of the most depressing things about Hughes life, though, was that for all his dedication to writing, to his children, to helping youth and young poets especially, to trying to protect Sylvia’s legacy as a great poet (even at his own great expense), to his gentle manner and quietness, was that he never seemed quite able to connect his continual interest in other women with something that was destroying the women he cared about. He was often quite open about it, living with several different women during the week while still married. Ted Hughes and Sylvia PlathHe seemed to be a perfect gentleman on every point but that one. And he never quite seemed to be able to wrap his head around the “puritanical” (as Feinstein, and probably Hughes himself, describes it) idea that sex was only to be between a man and his wife. Feinstein calls it puritanical, but there’s no attempt to reconcile the role that adultery plays tearing people up like it did with Sylvia, Assia, and even Ted. It’s an incredible oversight on Ted’s part: one which he goes at lengths in Birthday Letters to explain in a variety of different fatalistic ways, but never as a simple admission that he did not remain faithful and his choice affected more than he wanted it to.

In some ways it’s a shame Ted Hughes is now so inexorably tied up with Sylvia Plath because everyone (in the U.S., at least) sees him as Plath’s killer and no longer as a great poet. I’m very, very glad that I first read and enjoyed Hughes before ever hearing about his personal life, which probably would have biased me against checking his book out in the library.

Well, here’s my added treat: a poem by Ted Hughes, read by Ted Hughes. Enjoy the rich resonances and the visceral imagery of a caged jaguar in a zoo… corraled for onlookers, yet still a thing of fierce, untamed power.


* In college, I emailed Ann Skea, a well-known Hughes scholar who knew Ted to ask her if I could buy her book directly from her since it wasn’t available in the U.S. and she graciously sent me an order form. Several months later, I got an email from her asking me if I would be kind enough to review a paper she’d written on Ted Hughes and the Caballa. I got so scared that I never wrote back, which I’m still embarassed by. But I was, in my mind, just a stupid kid and had nothing to offer her.

Book Review: Bound for Canaan, by Fergus M. Bordewich

I finished this book Christmas day and it quickly became one of my tops reads for 2006. I bought the book from the History Book Club as part of my membership deal and wasn’t expecting it to be so earth-shattering.

Well, maybe earth-shattering would be an exaggeration, but it was a marvelous read. First of all, it’s on a subject which I know next to nothing about, so all of the information was new and interesting. Secondly, the writing moves along very rapidly, so, after the first 50 pages, you feel like you’ve been spirited along through enough material to fill an entire book. And the book is over 500 pages long. There were a lot of stories of hair-breadth escapes (and, sadly, hair-breadth captures) and wily Quaker abolitionists. (My favorite story, in fact, was when the Quaker Isaac Hopper had a fugitive slave at his house one evening. He also had a free black man from the town over for dinner that same night when the fugitive’s owner rode up with a posse of men. Isaac sent the free black man out the front door screaming and hollering and the posse grabbed him and tied him up, thinking he was their catch. Isaac quietly let the fugitive slave out the back door. The next day, he had the slave owner and his posse arrested for assault on the free black man.)

cover of Bound for CanaanThe Quakers, though, were probably the biggest surprise of the book. Maybe I was sleeping during history class, but I never knew that the Quakers were ardent abolitionists as early as the mid 1700s. They were the first station masters on the Underground Railroad and, for over 70 years, were the example of non-violent resistance to inhumanity and injustice. The Quakers, in many ways, were more effective than even other abolitionist groups like the Vigilance Committees, which simply helped slaves escape, gave them some money, and sent them on their way. (There was the story of one girl who escaped, and the Vigilance Committee gave her money and a place to stay. But after a few months she was pregnant and working as a prostitute.) The Quakers would often not only feed and clothe fugitives, but would also teach them to read (most importantly, the Bible), write, and do basic math. They tried to teach the fugitives what they would need to know in order to survive on their own, since most slaves had been deprived of any kind of education whatsoever.

Which leads me to some other startling realizations… I’ve heard a lot about how the Civil War was the war about states’ rights… that southern slave owners were usually good to their slaves and that slavery would have died out if it had been allowed to run its course. First of all, The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was the most blatant violation of states’ rights ever perpetrated. And it was the South that pushed the act through. It basically said that all fugitive slaves were required to be caught and returned to their masters, regardless of which state they were in and regardless of that state’s laws. It also provided that any able-bodied man could be conscripted by a posse of slave catchers to help them hunt down fugitives. Northern States were outraged, of course, which is why they started electing new leaders (electing Republicans instead of Democrats, by the way—another thing you don’t hear much about).

Also, the idea that slave owners were usually good to their slaves apparently means that they didn’t kill too many of them or maim them so much that they couldn’t work. The very fact that they denied, by law, any educating of slaves, shows that they meant to keep them as children or animals. One Southern Methodist pastor preached a sermon about how it is no more painful for slaves to be sold away from their families than it is to separate a litter of pigs. Most atrociously, the Virginia House of Delegates adopted an incredible resolution in 1832, stating:

We have, as far as possible, closed every avenue by which light can enter… [the slaves’] minds. If we could extinguish the capacity to see the light, our work would be completed; they would then be on a level with the beasts of the field, and we should be safe.

This sickening resolution was declared after the Nat Turner slave rebellion in which 60 whites were killed. In reciprocity, over 200 blacks were executed, almost all of whom had nothing to do with the rebellion. Laws were then enacted across the South that made even the previous slavery laws seem tame by comparison. All blacks (free or not), were denied the right to trial by jury. In North Carolina, all free blacks were placed under arrest. If any were found guilty of any crime, no matter how small, they were sold back into slavery. Blacks were publicly beaten or killed for being seen talking to each other. I’m just not seeing a pattern of nice treatment of blacks here… And we wonder why the South is STILL in the grip of bad race relations.

This brings up my third point, that “slavery would have died out if it had been allowed to run its course.” From my reading of this book, that’s complete nonsense and shows no understanding of what was actually happening. Slavery did seem to be losing popularity in the late 1700s (thanks partially to the seriously conflicted Thomas Jefferson, who hated blacks but thought they shouldn’t be slaves although he himself owned many slaves, one of which he kept as a mistress). But once the new territories from the Louisiana Purchase began to open up, slavery came back en force, which sent slave prices skyrocketing, making the kidnapping of free blacks for sale as slaves extremely profitable. Southerners pushed to get slavery extended to the new territories, crying “secession” whenever Congress threatened to tell them no. Secession, far from being a last-resort of a beleaguered group of states, was the bullying tactic they used in Congress for over 50 years. It was like a 50-year filibuster that kept any debate from happening until the nation was so galvanized against the South that they elected people (like Abraham Lincoln) who wouldn’t put up with the I’m-taking-my-ball-(and-your-bat)-and-going-home routine. The fact was, the pro-slavery crowd was incredibly vocal, intractable, and had the law on their side. Anti-slavery groups, however, were required by law to help hunt down slaves and arrested if they helped them. When Kansas was opened up as a “let the state decide if they want slavery” state, thousands of southerners crossed into Kansas to vote for slavery. One Kansas town of around 200 registered over 1,000 votes for slavery. At many Kansas towns, armed guards stood at the polling place door denying entrance to anyone who was suspected of being anti-slavery. Slavery wasn’t like some old dog, ready to die any day. It was a very live, very young, very rabid beast that was killing everyone around it. The Civil War was inevitable.

Well, no, I take that back. If the South had been willing to change, to use farming machinery and processes developed in the industrial North, then that might have weaned them of their dependence on slaves. But many Northerners, on visiting the South, remarked how backward everything was. Slaves did everything, even when there were machines that cost less than a slave and could do the work of ten slaves. It seems like the South had a “push me and I’ll just push back” mentality.

Well, this is already extremely long, and I would love to take more time to tell about the Quakers, especially the ones in North Carolina who were driven out of the South. Or about Josiah Henson and his conversion. Or about the pivotal event in Levi Coffin’s life. Or the Rankin family and their house on the hill.

But I would just recommend you buy the book and read all that wonderful stuff for yourself. (After all, it’s only $5.00 on Amazon and Emily’s currently reading my copy.)



The One Who Showed Mercy by Christopher Koelle

For the past month and a half, my brother Tim has been working on a new business selling high-quality Christian artwork on archival paper, using a giglée printing process. The prints are very, very nice (there’s a room full of the tests he was running right across the hall) and, best of all, these prints make good Christian art available to the world. Anyone else here tired of Lifeway-style Christian-topia art mush?

Visit the site.

“Rice Baby”

ultrasound of our babyWell, on a scare of an ectopic pregnancy, Emily went and got an ultrasound today. It turns out that everything is fine, as Em explains on her blog. But the ultrasound technician was very pleasantly surprised to find she’d actually gotten a picture of a six week old baby. That’s apparently very difficult to do. The baby is currently about the size of a cooked piece of rice, so we’ve taken to calling it our “Rice Baby.” Don’t hurt yourself straining to see him in the scan (look for the little arrow).

Oh. And the “Hi Mom!” at the bottom was apparently what little Rice Baby said. At that size, though, Rice Baby has a very high-pitched voice that’s impossible to hear with human ears. (Why do you think they call it an ultrasound?) Emily and I are just very thankful that our baby speaks english.

Change of Plans

Well, I had planned to write something mundane and normal this evening, but when I dandled my laptop on my knee and noted the RSS posts feeding in, I noticed a particular topic that Emily had just labored through that induced me to change my mind.

We’re parents. Yep. And our as yet androgynous* little bundle of joy is about one month old. The due date is some time around early September. From doing research online, our baby’s little blobby body definitely resembles its father.

Emily and I have been telling everyone (the millions that have asked) that we’ll have a child whenever the Lord gives us one. And in His perfect timing, our baby will be coming after we’re settled into our new house and Emily will be on summer break during her third trimester. I don’t think things could have worked out better. Except maybe if everyone else on both sides of the family didn’t have birthdays in September. What is it about December, anyway? Maybe it’s all the Bing Crosby and Johnny Mathis

* This seems somewhat analagous to modern physics… the particle doesn’t have a speed or a position until I observe it… the child has no gender until I observe it.

Okay. I’ll shut up.