Elizabeth Abbott – The History of Celibacy (1999)

51W7SE0QGHLIn today’s world where we spend a majority of our time being exposed to sex whether through popular culture, advertising, or online dating apps, it’s easy to think of celibacy as something restricted to the past or the very religious. In her book however, Abbott traces the fascinating history of celibacy from biblical times through to the present day looking at the way that abstaining from sex has been used to both control and empower people.

She follows a rather traditional trajectory, looking at celibacy from the earliest days of human memory through its embracing by Christianity up to the present day. The first half of the book was a bit tedious for me, but only because I never found myself that interested in early modernity. For me the most interesting discussions were surrounding the 19th century modes of respectability for both men and women. Women were supposed to be chaste, but men also had to embody “masculine Christianity” balancing masculine impulses with Victorian respectability. She also discusses the 19th century movements in America started by Sylvester Graham and John Kellogg who used food to try and control (and diminish) libido.

She definitely spends more time exploratory chastity from a feminine perspective which is understandable given the way that history has played out, but I would have loved a bit more of a discussion on the masculine dimensions. After seeing Spotlight I was looking for more of a discussion of clerical celibacy, which took up only a small portion of the overall work.

The history of celibacy is a broad and very dense topic to attempt to explore in a single book. Each chapter of Abbot’s could have been a volume of work unto itself. This is a good overview and jumping off point for those looking to learn more about celibacy and the way it has been prevalent through history.

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The Problem With Anne

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This Post Contains Spoilers for the Netflix Series Anne With an E

Much has been written about the joint CBC-Netflix show Anne with an E, with many reviewers feeling as though the series has ruined the magic of the book. (Magic that was in contrast, encapsulated by the 1985 movie). Like many young girls growing up in Canada, Anne holds a special place in my heart and I was sceptical about the iteration of her story. (I did not watch the American version starring Martin Sheen or the BBC Version). This deep-seeded love of the free-spirited Anne is the reason there was so much backlash against the grittier story Director Niki Caro decided to bring us. I however, don’t mind a darker Anne.

From the opening credits set to The Tragically Hip’s Ahead by a Century I had tears in my eyes. This was going to be a Canadian-driven production and it would be true to the story. I fell in love with Amybeth McNulty and the casting of R.H. Thompson and Geraldine James as Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert respectively was likewise on point. The sweeping picturesque scenes filled me with a warm appreciation for my country and I was totally engrossed in the story. Even Anne’s flashbacks, which signal a dramatic departure from the original tone of the book and 1985 movie, moved me. It’s realistic for Anne to have suffered from PTSD as being an orphan in the Maritimes at the dawn of the century would not have been easy. I was willing to accept this artistic choice, but then they changed some fundamental things.

My one main problem with the new series is that the creators lack a full understanding (as I see it) of what made Anne so inspiring. As a young girl I wasn’t outright bullied with name calling or threatened with physical violence, but I was a social outcast. I knew I was different from the other girls in my class because I loved to read and I loved to learn. I was an awkward looking girl with little interest in boys, or at least they had little interest in me. For me, my sense of who I was came, and still does come, from my academic achievements. Characters like Anne, Matilda, and Hermione got me through my rougher years in grade school and taught me that things get better; smart girls can rule the world.

In the new series, Anne isn’t the brightly shining student she is in previous incarnations. Yes, she loves to read, but when it comes to math she seems to fall behind. She even drops out of school for a while due to unrelenting bullying, something unheard of for the Anne Shirley I know and love. I understand trying to make Anne a more sympathetic character, someone other kids being bullied can identify with, but this series weakens her, especially in her relationship with Gilbert Blythe.

In the book, and 1985 movie, the entire relationship between Anne and Gilbert is founded on an intense academic rivalry. He is a charming blowhard who Anne has no romantic interest in until much later on in their lives. In the Netflix series, Gilbert initially meets Anne in a forest after he rescues her from a bully threatening to harm her. The series rewrites their relationship turning Gilbert into an sensitive brooding boy who can bond with Anne over their shared orphan-ness. The series turns Anne into a damsel in distress which is an interesting choice, given that the rest of the time the series seems hell-bent on convincing the viewer she is a feminist icon.

The thing is, Anne already was a feminist icon. Not because she is inspired to “be her own woman” by Aunt Josephine, or because she bests a bully telling her to literally “get back in the kitchen.” She was a feminist icon because she took school seriously at a time when women weren’t supposed too. The need to “better than the boys,” that innate feeling, is one that will resonate with many young girls whether is be competing with men at school, with sports, or at work. I could write at length about how hard it is for women and girls in higher education and the workplace because young girls are taught to be nice while boys are taught to be brave but I won’t do that here. (Reshma Saujani did an amazing TED Talk on this subject).

The competition appears mid-way through the series but doesn’t feel authentic to me. It’s forced and is simply a means to the end: The two are a romantic pair from the start and Gilbert is later removed entirely from this academic setting. The two trade barbs but do so cautiously in a way that highlights a different connection between the two, one based on an emotions rather than on one of intellect.

Previous versions of Anne never let anything hold her back, she knew she was smart and went for it even though she was constantly having to prove herself as a woman. She’s a feminist icon because she’s a fighter. She fights to stay at Green Gables; she fights for herself in school and repeatedly ends up at the top of her class gaining a scholarship and attending university despite all the societal pressures working against her. When she ultimately ends up with Gilbert it is only after years of academic rivalry out of which grew a deep mutual respect for one another.

The series overall isn’t bad. It’s worth it for the artistic shots of Ontario and PEI alone, and puffed sleeves and raspberry cordial still play prominent roles. For anyone watching for the first time however, I urge you to go back and either read the books or watch the 1985 film version. I am interested to see if they do another season and if any of these aspects of Anne are reclaimed. I recognize that this is my own personal bias but she was an idol for me, someone I looked up to and wanted to be. Girls, and boys, being introduced to Anne today deserve to have her as their role model too. To ignore Anne’s intelligence is to do her a complete and total injustice.

Eddie Huang – Fresh Off The Boat (2013)

Fresh_Off_the_Boat_-_A_Memoir_(book_cover).jpgI came across a recommendation for this book as I was looking for more food writing to read. I knew absolutely nothing about Eddie Huang except that he started BaoHaus in New York. Huang turned out to be super interesting and I sped through this book.

First, not only is Huang a chef, but he also studied Law before deciding to open a restaurant. He writes extensively about his experiences growing up, his tumultuous relationships with both his parents and struggling with his identity as an Asian-American. As a teenager Huang caused all kind of trouble ending up in fights and getting arrested at one point in time before deciding to turn his life around. Even still Huang never fit the mold of the stereotypical Asian-American and complains about all the advocacy groups he encountered on campus who refused to try and break through the “Bamboo Ceiling.”

Huang’s writing style is also great, it’s conversational and flows so well, which is unsurprising as he is a huge fan of R&B and hip-hop, which is reflected in his writing. Huang is also so educated and it was hilarious reading about his experiences in school. One second the dude is praising Kanye and talking smack about specific basketball players and then in the next line he’s dropping quotes from The English Patient, and going on about how Jonathan Swift changed his life.

I loved this book, it’s more Anthony Bourdain than Anthony Bourdain’s own writing. I so badly want to go to Baohaus (Because I loved this book, as well as a good Bao). Because this book is about Huang’s growing up, it’s not exclusively about food and can appeal to a wide audience. I haven’t seen any of the show yet, but I’m definitely planning on starting.

Anton DiSclafani – Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls (2013)

yonahlosseeSet in the Southern United States at the height of the Great Depression, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls follows Thea Atwell, a teenage girl sent away from her family to attend the prestigious Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls for reasons that don’t become clear until the end of the novel. This mix of young adult fiction and historical romance work.

The book opens with Thea Atwell being taken to the Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls after causing her family to fall apart through unknown actions. Despite the fact that Thea is an avid rider and Yonahlossee is a prestigious place, she knows that this is a punishment. The story alternated between Thea’s life at Yonahlossee and flashbacks to her life in Florida where details are gradually revealed. It’s a compelling story and DiSclafani is a vivid and beautiful writer. There were also small parts of the book that were unexpected given the portrayal of Thea but which only served to make her more complex and layered.

The only problem with telling the story this was is that you fall into the same trap that Sarah Water’s did with The Paying Guests. The story is so compelling up to a point. It gets very predictable and it’s hard to keep the reader engaged after providing them with all the details, It feels like DiSclafani struggled a bit with how to end this in a satisfying way and played it safe with Thea. There was so much build up and I loved reading this so much, but sometimes the follow through just isn’t there.

Hunter S. Thompson – The Rum Diary (1998)

TheRumDiaryHaving previously read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as well as Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, I came into this book familiar with Hunter S. Thompson. I liked this book way more than the previous ones.

I don’t even really know why; it’s similar to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but the Caribbean setting just makes it better for some reason, and I found I liked all the characters better too. This book is exactly what you’d expect from Hunter S. Thompson, a semi-autobiographical rum-soaked account of working as a journalist in the Puerto Rico. The story is about the journalists who work at a ill-fated magazine and their tangled love triangles, jealousy, and drunken shenanigans and violent outbursts.

While it feels like it was written by a older man reminiscing, Thompson was only 22 when he penned this narrative, something I did not know until doing a bit of research. It’s surreal in a way, the experience that 22 year old Thompson had in Puerto Rico. It’s a fun read and a great introduction to Hunter S. Thompson for those unfamiliar with his hilarity, absurdity, and genius.

Mary Doria Russell – The Sparrow (1996)

51tOtm+GblLGrowing up in a Catholic household, I was raised, especially by my Grandmother, to believe that the Jesuits could do no wrong. Obviously as I grew up and became disillusioned with the Church I turned more cynical and didn’t necessarily subscribe to her views. Still, in Catholic School, and then University, learning about the Jesuits always fascinated me because of their predisposition towards exploration. Reading and translating the Jesuit Diaries for an undergraduate class was an amazing experience, and despite how problematic the diaries are, I loved reading them.

In her novel, Mary Doria Russell imagines what it would be like if Jesuits were the first group of people to make contact with an alien species. I’ve heard a lot of amazing things about this book, and while I liked it, it didn’t blow me away. There is no denying that it is beautifully written, but I had a hard time visualizing things at time. Russell jumps back and forth in time starting with introducing us to Emilio Sandoz, the lone survivor of the mission who has returned to earth physically and mentally damaged. Throughout the novel you learn more about Sandoz and the other cast of characters who end up involved in the mission. You find out how they made contact, and finally what went wrong.

The novel is much more of a character study than it is a work of science fiction in its classic sense, which was fine with me. The characters are all compelling in their own sense especially as they grapple with issues of religion and faith. There just wasn’t a moment in the book that completely wowed me, but maybe I had my expectation driven up too high by all the things I’ve heard about the book. It was still a great concept and a good read, especially for those who enjoy character driven stories.

Alice Hoffman – Museum of Extraordinary Things (2014)

MuseumofExtraordinaryThingsI’d heard of Alice Hoffman, author of The Dovekeepers, but never took the time to read anything she’d written. I fell in love with this book quite fast, and not only because it deals with some of my favourite subjects, (freakshows, immigrants living on the Lower East Side, The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire), but because Alice Hoffman is an incredibly talented and beautiful writer.

Through her novel Hoffman traces the stories of two characters, Coralie, a young girl who spends her days serving her cruel father, Professor Sardie, and serving as one of his living wonders at The Museum of Extraordinary things, and Eddie Cohen, a Jewish boy who turned his back on his faith and makes a living as a photographer. The two lives intersect in various ways as they both attempt to help the other escape.

Hoffman is such an amazing writer, telling a story in such vivid detail. It’s been a while since I found myself completely lost within a book, but it was quite easy to do with this one. The characters are flawed and relatable and there is the perfect mix of intrigue and whimsy. Set against the backdrop of the Coney Island boardwalk and the Lower East Side Tenements, this book was a fantastic snapshot of New York City at a particular moment in time.