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Monthly Archives: May 2013

Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity

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Man Made

 

Joel Stein is a pussy.

He says it over and over in his lighthearted memoir of modern manliness Man Made:  A Stupid Quest for Masculinity.

Joel had an easy childhood, which he says led to his becoming a squishy adult who is a man solely by virtue of a penis. Upon the arrival of his son, he decides his weenieness is a problem and does what all intellectual heads-on-a-stick do: He researches the problem and sets out to fix it.  He feels he’s not manly enough to be a good father to his son, so he learns how to be a man.

Unlike the product of so much of the research and development done by well-educated people over the age of thirty-five, this book is interesting. I want to read it more than once. I want my husband to read it. I want my son to read it so he can learn that it’s okay that his parents are both basically weenies and that for all manly purposes, he probably is too.

And that’s okay, as long as he doesn’t spend his life whining about it, and should he one day decide he’s not manly enough, to shut up and do something about it. Joel did something about it, and then instead of shutting up, wrote a hilarious and insightful memoir about the process and results. He gives credit where it is due and shows reverence for the men he meets without getting worshipful.

Among the tasks he sets for himself in a quest to do and be all things he’s put into the category of MANLINESS are learning baseball with a former professional baseball player, home repair with this father-in-law, a few days of boot camp and firing a tank with the US armed forces, camping with the Boy Scouts, spending a few days with fire fighters, and gambling an enormous amount of someone else’s money on stocks. The descriptions of his adventures are clear and hilarious, and the insights he gleans from them are well-put without being preachy or dry.

The conclusion isn’t as cheesy as I’d feared: He discovers that his ideas of manliness are shallow and that he’s already a great deal like the manly men he so wants to be for his son. The difference is that where Joel thinks about things and how he’s afraid of them, these guys get out and do it. They shut up, man up, and take the challenge. For Joel, it’s about getting over his definitions of manliness and of himself. It’s a quest for identity: “I didn’t want to go hunting because then I would no longer be the urban intellectual who could say he never hunted.” He hadn’t tried things not just because he was afraid of the things themselves, but because he was afraid of being confused about who he is.

An unexpected avenue of discovery for him was where he found great leaders and what qualities they possess that made him feel confident in their ideas and safe in their command. The first of these is a pubescent Boy Scout and the biggest is a drill sergeant. They serve but do not expect to be served. They are satisfied in themselves without being self-satisfied. “It’s humility. It’s not needing to express everything you feel immediately, because you’re not the most important person.”  He discovers great manly men are great leaders.

The book’s greatest shortcoming is its almost complete lack of women. While the character of his wife Cassandra is developed enough not to feel as flat as women often do in men’s humor writing, she’s not enough to stave off criticism that women are left out. If the book weren’t funny and didn’t have such a clear and narrowly defined mission, it could easily become yet another treatise on the differences between men and women today. Instead, it speaks to the wide spectrum of men today and is already long enough without bringing women into it. So I’ll forgive him the absence of women.

Any somewhat-educated woman or righteous blowhard could go on and on about reinforcing and forcing conventional gender roles and stereotypes, but that misses the point. It’s not that Joel feels the need to conform himself to a mold and force that on his son; it’s that Joel has probably always nursed these insecurities and imminent fatherhood highlights them while bringing about an impetus to confront what he perceives to be his shortcomings. As much as it’s a book about a person becoming a man, it is a book about a person becoming who that person has always wanted to be.

He’s hilarious, self-deprecating, sophomoric, smart, sensitive, and kind. Most of his jokes involve sex and penis and are light and hilarious. They’re the sort of jokes the guys you knew in high school told.   Somehow his little nuggets of loving insight blend smoothly with the sex jokes and vivid descriptions of his failures.

If you love Dave Barry, you’ll love Joel Stein. If either of them writes another book, I’ll definitely read it.

 

Joel has collected some other (positive) reviews of his book, including one he wrote himself, on his web site at The Joel Stein.

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Love, InshAllah

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love, inshallah

love, inshallah

For the brief period before the inevitable early Spring Minnesota re-freeze, while it was still nearly fifty degrees out, I walked down to the library to 1) see adults, and 2) pick up a book or two written by and for adults.

The most recent to catch my attention and ring some bells as something I’d hoarded away on my Goodreads “Hopefully Someday I’ll Have Time To Read It” list was Love, InshAllah: The Secret Lives of American Muslim Women, edited by Nura Maznavi and Ayesha Mattu.

The book is twenty-five essays broken into five categories, all about women and their experiences with love as Muslims in America. The essays are written by a diverse group of women whose common thread is a strong Muslim and American identity. Some of them were born in America to Muslim families, some are immigrants, others are converts, and many are any combination of any of the above. Ultimately, no matter how their path, they all identify as Muslim and American and have dealt with the challenges that combination can pose, both in terms of conservative Islam versus liberal mainstream America and their peaceful, productive version of Islam versus America’s general “understanding” of Islam as necessarily violent and extremist.

Many of the writers were born into Islam and maintain strong family and social ties to the religion and familial Middle Eastern roots, but several are converts who came to it in adulthood after much thought, debate, and soul-searching. The purpose of including this second group of women in the book seems to be to show that women can choose Islam and the cultural and religious challenges, rules, and difficulties that go with it. These women show that the conservative nature of the Muslim courtship is not necessarily a male-centered burden shoved on women, but something that can be fulfilling and voluntary.

It was fascinating to discover throughout my reading how many assumptions and ignorant ideas about the culture had seeped into my thoughts about Muslim women. I was startled to discover that I was startled by the women’s stories of sneaking out to see boys, engaging in premarital sex, dating men of other cultures (but not surprised by the struggle with a woman of one club has with dating a man from another), divorcing and remarrying, and their uncertainty or certainty of marrying a man they barely knew (in some of the cases). My shock betrayed my ignorance. Each story showed how much these women’s experiences are similar because they’re all interpreted through the lens of the same religion, and how much they’re different because that lens is more individualized than popular portrayals of Islam generally allow.

The most irritating part of this book, for me, was the refrain by many of the contributors that “Muslims can…” or “Muslims don’t…” or something else along those same lines that suggests Islam (or any religion) is a mere set of hard-line rules to be followed by members of a club, rather than a set of ideas that helps shape the behavior and narrative of a human life. This approach to religion more often than not serves to absolve the adherent from responsibility for their own actions, and, more than that, from thinking. The line replaces critical thought and deep introspection with a simple look to a rule book and a statement that “it says this here, so this is what people of this club do,” rather than “here is this book and group of people who have input on my behavior and thought, and I can take into serious consideration their input while keeping in mind my own circumstances.”

It also takes away the reality that the adherent is a person with a set of ideas based on personal experience that happen to be similar to the ideas of others, and that all those people happen to use the same label. The truth is not that a person is a member of a club and therefor has these ideas; the truth is that a person has these ideas and is therefor a member of this club. The distinction is significant, and seems to have been made by most, if not all, of these contributors. For many of them, it seems they find their peace and happiness when they stop trying to be members of a club and realize that they are individuals who belong to the club because it supports them in developing ideas that make their lives fulfilling. They can be good daughters, wives, mothers, and Muslims while leading lives of thought and choice.

Love, InshAllah is enlightening and though-provoking, which I think are its primary goals. The reader needs to set aside previously held ideas about Muslim women and open themselves up to learning about it from real women’s experiences, which are clearly demonstrated by the articulate, engaging women who contributed. The stories are organized in a way that holds the reader’s attention and develops the idea of the independent Muslim woman who still needs her family, religion, and culture to create the fulfilling life she desires

The Casual Vacancy

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The Casual Vacancy

The Casual Vacancy

J.K. Rowling’s new(ish) book, The Casual Vacancy, is about what happens when one small cog in a small town is abruptly and unexpectedly removed. In this case, a councilman, Barry Fairbrother, dies suddenly, which leads to over five hundred pages of fallout, culminating in dishonor, job loss, and death, among other tragedies.

This book moves more slowly than the famous Harry Potter series, but I think that’s because it’s geared toward a different audience: The Harry Potter books were written for children and young adults, who require frequent action scenes, regular reiteration of the story to remind the reader of what’s happening (essentially dragging the reader through the story so they understand it), and quick movement from one thing to the next.  The Casual Vacancy moves back and forth and around in circles from one storyline to the next and back again, each time including something from other stories to keep the characters and their actions connected.

It works and it’s not condescending. I didn’t feel like a children’s author was attempting to write for adults. She proved, to me at least, that while she can write children’s and young adult well enough to make a mint, she can also do grisly adult writing and storytelling. I don’t know, though, whether, if this had been her first attempt to publish, if it would have been as successful as it has. It’s good, but it needed the Harry Potter springboard to put her in the reading public’s mind as a writer worth reading (and reading and reading for hundreds of pages).

There were times, however, that it felt a little like she was trying too hard. The potty mouth, as the Harry Potter audience would call it, sometimes felt forced, like she was trying to remind the reader that this is an adult story, that it is most certainly NOT Harry Potter (it is definitely NOT Harry Potter). The content is also sometimes a bit much. Rowling discusses things that don’t even seem to exist in Potterland, such as sex, drugs, murder, hate, cuckolding, local budgets, rich-vs-poor battles, self-righteousness, and other decidedly adult attributes of life, but sometimes it feels forced, like she’s trying to get out everything now that she wasn’t allowed to do for over ten years with Potter.

If that’s its mission, even in small part, it succeeds. While Rowling’s voice is clear and is unquestionably the same voice that told the adventures of Harry, Ron, and Hermione, Vacancy is decidedly different. It’s sharper, more to the point, and assumes the reader is adult.

What the novel does best is call out and clearly articulate those things in us, those unspoken (even in our own heads) motives and thoughts that pop up especially in small town social and legislative politics. It made me uncomfortable to read in this book from halfway around the world those things that have gone through my own mind, but which I have not articulated, and of which I am ashamed: Who knew what first, who told whom first, who was there and feels special for having been there, knowledge of the personal lives of others gained (at least somewhat) dishonestly, and general nagging fear that your community knows all of this about you. Rowling has drawn a brilliant, accurate (though overly concentrated and distilled, as opposed to reality, but done so for the purposes of tighter storytelling) picture of what happens in a small community in the wake of tragedy and change.

The Casual Vacancy is worth reading for fans of Rowling’s Harry Potter books, and for those who aren’t as familiar with her previous series. However, I don’t know that I would read sequels to this one, or if I would read another of her adult-themed books. I’d like to see her tackle something else now, because I’m sure she can do it.

Here are some links to other thoughts on the book:

New York Times

Huffington Post (a collection of reviews)

The Guardian

The Los Angeles Review of Books

The Chicago Sun-Times