Ilivetolearn's Blog

November 30, 2010

the half books

Filed under: books/authors,gender — ilivetolearn @ 7:06 pm

A recent New York Times Book Review (or maybe an NPR story) got me interested in this book:

It’s a memoir by a novelist, who recounts how a car accident (he struck and killed a teenage girl on a bike; she was in a younger grade at his high school so he knew her only slightly) half his life ago has stayed with him and informed his emotional makeup in many ways. In the process of putting it on hold, I was beckoned in the virtual library catalogue by other titles that began with “Half-this” or “Half-that.” Including this one:

It came out in 2001 to generally good reviews. I am not tempted to read it–my one venture into the Naipaul oeuvre, a book of short stories, confirmed my suspicion that he travels to developing countries and writes about them in order to assert his superiority–but I found it interesting that publishers would use an identical title only nine years later.

Strauss’s Half a Life is moving and thought-provoking, but really only half a book (hence the half-cover?). Spare, cut-to-the-bone prose can be more eloquent than writing that hasn’t been so ruthlessly edited, but this blank-pages, one-paragraph-standing-alone volume just felt skimpy and stretched to me.

The online title list reminded me of this, recently read:

Jeanette Walls is a great memoirist (The Glass Castle is a gem of the genre) and this is the true story of her grandmother’s life, billed as a novel because Walls didn’t have enough actual documentation to publish it as non-fiction. Lily is a determined, hard-working woman overcoming poverty, bad education, disastrous marriage, wrathful acts of God (floods, tornadoes, droughts)–the type for whom the word indomitable was invented. It’s entertaining to read of her exploits, but also saddening, because readers of  The Glass Castle know the future: that Lily’s daughter (Walls’s mother) inherits the quirkiness bordering on insanity and misses out on the common sense and pluck. She’s the one for whom the word hapless was invented.

So here’s the most important “Half” book I’ve read. It’s been out over a year and I’m embarrassed that I just got to it:

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (his wife) have condensed years of journalism and activism into an unbelievably inspiring set of stories about oppressed women all over the world. They are not afraid to sound the alarm about women being tortured, isolated, raped, sold into slavery, denied medical care, and in myriad other ways misused–and to assign blame where it is due, even where it is not PC to do so. Is it religious intolerance to consider the Muslim world misogynistic? I don’t think so. Is it cultural imperialism to consider genital cutting as barbaric as foot binding? I don’t think so. The women and girls profiled in the book who have lived through the most horrific experiences and gone on to reclaim their own lives and help others are TRULY indomitable.

There is no halfway in my reaction to Half the Sky. I just ordered multiple copies to give to members of my book clubs, family members, the ladies I went trekking with last year at this time, and anyone else I can think of. I’m also giving generously to organizations Kristof and WuDunn list in an appendix and on their website:

(There are more half books…but I’ve already spent half the day on this post.)


March 2, 2010

“I’m a real f***ing knitter now”

Filed under: gender,knitting,random quotes — ilivetolearn @ 1:56 am

When I tell people I have taught all 4 of my kids to knit but only two took to it, they assume I mean the girls. Nope. The locution “on the distaff side” meaning anything to do with women (because they were the ones holding the spinning tools) would have to be rewritten for this family. The opposite, the “spear” or “sword” side (these were actual terms used to describe lines of inheritance in Anglo-Saxon parlance) would also not apply to us, as Margo has been known to wield the occasional foil.

My “menfolk,” as my antiquated writing teacher called them, are as likely to pick up a sewing sharp or a crochet hook as we females. They know what a swift is. They can operate the Husqvarna. And after years of raiding my knitting supplies (which are, after all, seemingly endless), Elliot went on eBay, bought two sets of interchangeable needles, and had one sent directly to Evan, who then called to thank ME. After I set him straight about the donor, he left the above voicemail on Elliot’s cell.

Here’s Elliot wearing the hat he knitted in order to attend an Argyle Party:

A real f***ing knitter, no?

June 20, 2007

anatomy is/is not destiny

Filed under: gender,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 6:44 pm

In general, women dress like women and men dress like men here…the androgynous look is not in. Walking with family members in the States, I used to play the “Quick—Male or Female?” game on city streets when we were approached by pedestrians with body-concealing clothing, ambiguous hairstyles, and random piercings.  Here, other than certain fashions worn by both sexes (espadrilles, pants that stop mid-calf), and certain hairstyles not seen in the US since the 80’s (mullets, for God’s sake), there’s no confusion.

I’ve certainly never seen a form in Spain that has three choices for gender (“male,” “female,” “undecided,”) as does the Bennington College application. The Sarah Lawrence version is: “I identify as a ___man ___woman.” As of this spring, Spaniards who were born as one but identify as the other can change their gender designation on their birth certificates and DNI’s, even before they have had surgery to reassign. They also have the right to compete in beauty contests—transsexual men-to-women for Miss Spain, and vice versa. This happened after a newly-crowned Miss Cantabria was briefly uncrowned when it came out that she had a son–and while the pageant organizers were changing the rules to admit mothers (fathers already were eligible to be Mr. Spain) they also said yes to transsexuals. “Of course,” said one official, “their morphology must match their civic status.”

So far, the only confusion among our many visitors has been with the labels on the bathrooms. “Am I an S or a C?” said one niece. Señoras y caballeros, the local equivalent of ladies and gentlemen, is more common than mujeres y hombres on restroom doors, but the most frequent signs are graphics. And since the females sport those obvious triangular skirts, we never have to play “Quick—Male or Female?” when facing lavatory decisions.

March 11, 2007

Zapatero the feminist

Filed under: gender,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 12:53 pm

The hostess of a recent party asked the guests how we were going to celebrate International Women’s Day…this drew a complete blank for me. Well, she said, you women in the United States already have such a high status you don’t need International Women’s Day! Hmm. Here in Spain the government observed it by announcing a new sexual-equality law: political parties must present candidate lists with at least 40% women (except in small towns), and companies must have the same percentage sitting on their boards or risk losing certain government supports. It also increases maternity leave for mothers with premature infants (it’s already 10 weeks, and they can share it with fathers), and introduces 15 days of paternity leave. This IS cause for celebration.

Granted, Spain needs this kind of mandate. The number of women we see on the police force, say, or in the ubiquitous construction crews, or driving the municipal buses, is minuscule. Unemployment among women is about 15%, twice that among men. And there is the intractable domestic violence problem, which is not responding to awareness campaigns and newly-trained professional intervention. The culture has a long way to go to get over entrenched machismo.

I do think it curious that Women’s Day, which began in the US in 1909 (thanks to the Socialists), is now a national holiday in 14 countries—most of which are former Soviet republics. Vietnam is the only Asian country to observe it officially; this is where Wanda (the hostess mentioned above) recently spent three years, and was given a rose each March 8 on her way to work. I’d like a seat on a Board of Directors, please.

October 30, 2006

opera buffa or in the buff

Filed under: gender,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 6:32 pm

One of the benefits of Elliot living here this semester is that he’s always willing to attend cultural events with us. At the Teatro Real opera house we have seen Prokofiev’s Love For Three Oranges (strange and surreal) and Strauss’s Ariadne Auf Naxos (good); next is Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman in December. Actually, “seen” is a relative term: the theater has the dubious design feature that 68% of its seats are classified as visibilidad reducida o nula (visibility reduced or zero). One of these performances we only listened to, while attempting to watch the action on large screens perpendicular to the proscenium while reading the Spanish supertitles above the stage.

When we heard that Madrid’s Festival del Otoño (autumn) featured some plays in English, including NYC’s Mabou Mines doing Dollhouse, we jumped to the virtual box office. The review in the IHT forewarned us that this was no traditional Ibsen production. All the female parts were played by actresses over 6’ tall and all the male parts by men of about 3.’ I was surprised to find first-row seats available. We entered the Teatro Español speculating that maybe Madrileños knew something we didn’t…like that our view would be obscured by the edge of the stage, allowing us to see the women but not the men. But no–the locals avoided the front row because they had to crane their necks to read the supertitles.

So the interpretation was bizarrely thought-provoking. It made you rethink the term “stature” to see all these little men lording it over the gigantic women, some of whom threw themselves into supplicating positions so often that they had to wear knee pads under their turn-of-the-century dresses. At the end Nora demonstrated her newfound independence by taking off all her clothes and singing an aria from one of the box seats. I prefer the Long Wharf version I saw years ago, where she simply walked out the door.

February 7, 2006

Agueda (Agatha), patron saint of married women

Filed under: gender,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 2:06 pm

Sunday we took the opportunity of having Norman and Madelyn here to revisit Segovia. This was the fifth time Bill and I have been there…and I have still not set foot into the cathedral, though not for lack of trying. Every time it is closed, or there is a service or wedding happening and tourists are not allowed in, or the girls are fussing about boring old churches, or some such thing.

But on this visit we were treated to the annual festival of Santa Agueda, an interesting mélange of religious, historical, and political folklore. The first thing we noticed was crowds of people, all wearing red and black, mostly in the form of long wool scarves. Then as we stood in Plaza de Azaguejo admiring the aqueduct, a troupe of female dancers in elaborate red and black costumes featuring lots of lace came in, accompanied by men playing oboe-like instruments and drums. They twirled around in a very stately manner (none of the dancers being under about 73) for a few numbers and then headed off for the Alcazar. Upon asking at the tourist office what this was about, I was told that women become the mayors for the day and are in charge of everything.

None of this made much sense, and even after internet research I can’t quite reconcile the strands of the story, but here goes. February 5th is St. Agatha’s Day…she was a virgin martyr, born in either Catania or Palermo, and painfully put to death in the year 250 or thereabouts after refusing to marry a Senator Quintianus. Every year on this day, women from Segovia (and nearby Zamarramala) lead a procession with her statue through the city to the Alcazar, where they dance to commemorate victory over the Moors in 1227. Apparently at that time, the women danced to entertain the Moors in the Alcazar while the men were busy elsewhere reconquering the fortress. The connection between Agatha, parades, dancing, distracting Moors, and being alcaldesas (female mayors) is loose at best.

The part we missed was the mass at the end of the observances, after which the Matahombres de Oro–the Golden Mankiller–a pin that women used to carry to protect themselves from sexual harassment (there’s the connection to Agatha and Quintianus), is awarded. I would have liked to see that. These days it is given to a person or agency that has fought for women’s rights. Maybe someday soon Segovia will have an actual alcaldesa and the Matahombres will be ceremonially awarded to her.

November 23, 2005


Filed under: gender,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 1:13 pm

Since Pozuelo is such a new suburb, and so carefully planned, the streets in most of the town are logically laid out and named. Driving around reading street signs is like a Spanish vocabulary lesson: there are clusters of streets named for countries (some of which have smaller streets named for their capitals running perpendicular), and a section named for gems and minerals (Esmeralda, Amatista, Diamante, Rubi, Zafiro, Turquesa), and of course our own part of town with names of planets (we are Urano, parallel to Jupiter and Mercurio) and heavenly bodies. Unfortunately the main thoroughfares are not as regular and tend to change names at random…Avenida de Juan XXIII, for example, turns into Avenida del Generalisimo. How can they have Pope John the 23rd and Franco sharing pavement? Doesn’t seem proper.

This is the 30th anniversary of Franco’s death (Nov. 20) and Juan Carlos’s official succession to the throne (Nov. 22). Each event was marked by ceremony, mostly quite civil, but with some protests and counter-protests happening. There are still supporters of Franco who gathered by the thousands at his tomb Sunday and shouted anti-homosexual and anti-immigrant slogans, but the general population of Spain seems confident that these remnant Fascists will die off and won’t be replaced one-for-one by the young skinheads. And something like 79% of Spaniards approve of the way the King has helped the country transition from dictatorship to constitutional monarchy. Now all they have to do is change the constitution to allow little Princess Leonor (born last month) to be in line for the throne after her father, the Crown Prince.

Create a free website or blog at