This novel hit me hard. It hooked me early on and then I read the last half of it in one compulsive, I-can't-put-this-down-don't-bother-me-children!-c...moreThis novel hit me hard. It hooked me early on and then I read the last half of it in one compulsive, I-can't-put-this-down-don't-bother-me-children!-can't-you-see-I'm-reading? spree last night. When I finished at 10pm, I felt like I'd been knocked flat. I couldn't stop thinking about it and I was feeling edgy and anxious and I sat down next to my husband -- who was trying to watch TV -- and forced him to listen to an extended description of the plot and why it affected me so much.
And the funny thing is that I don't see myself in these characters. I don't have fertility problems. I have the most easy, uncomplicated marriage ever. I'm not particularly neurotic or OCD. I finished my PhD a while ago, but even when I was working on it, I wasn't anxious and competitive about it like the characters in this book.
So why did this book hit me so hard? I guess because it rings so true, like an alternate universe that's shifted just a couple of degrees away from mine, a universe where every neurotic tendency or competitive feeling or worry about procreation or anxiety about career success that I've ever had is just slightly magnified and twisted, just a little bit distorted, just enough so that it reminds you of all those tendencies and feelings that you suppress, and makes you look around yourself anxiously and wonder, geez, is that what it's like for other people? Is that what it's like for *me*?
By that measure it's an astonishing literary accomplishment, to make me feel those things that I usually don't feel, to suck me in so deeply that I couldn't think of anything else after I finished reading.
The book description here on Goodreads is quite accurate, though when I read it, I was totally confused and didn't find it so compelling. But once I started reading, I got to know and identify with the 3 main characters quite quickly (warning: minor spoilers below):
There's Elise, the 35-year old neurotic NYC editor and wife of a Princeton PhD student who impulsively quits her job to pursue IVF to have a baby. She's not producing good eggs, and she blames this, irrationally, on a long-ago incident in college when she was drugged and had sex with a stranger -- an event that she refuses to call rape, even though it clearly has had a long-term traumatic effect on her, and it led to her volunteer work at a rape crisis centre (where, ironically, she didn't come to terms with her own experience because she was confronted with stories of much more violent rapes). Her feminist mother always encouraged her to never live off of a man, but she's a little too used to luxuries to be able to resist the temptation of drawing on her husband's trust fun so that she can shop at Dean and Deluccas and pay for the "high-quality" genes of a Princeton undergraduate egg donor. She approaches shopping for her egg donor the way she shops for gourmet food, and though ostensibly she's looking for "good genes," she also scrutinises potential donors for things that have nothing to do with genetics, like writing skills and a history of Evangelical church attendance (as if afraid she might accidentally bear a child with a genetic predisposition to charismatic Christianity). In one particularly funny scene, she makes her potential egg donor do a word association test, and celebrates their similarities, when in fact she's interpreted the donor's answers wrong. (For "Hemingway" the egg donor writes "dad," and Elise thinks it's a literary reference to "Papa Hemingway," when for Celia, the donor, it's actually a reference to her dad making her take a sleazy waitressing job one summer in the Florida Keys in a diner/bait shop that had supposedly been patronised by Hemingway.)
Elise's husband, Peter, is in Princeton's Near Eastern Studies Department (and the description of the professors, grad students, and undergraduates in the department ring strikingly true -- the author did her PhD in anthropology at Princeton but clearly she knew this department well, and at least some of the characters are thinly disguised real-life Princeton characters, including the guy who famously denied the Armenian genocide and was later revealed to have received millions in funding from the Turkish government). He's OCD in his obsessive adherence to a dissertation-writing schedule, but the writing isn't really going very well -- meanwhile his family keeps wondering when he's going to finish the damn thing, and he keeps fantasising about being a monk and brewing monastic beer. He also fantasises about getting an academic job in some picturesque New England university, even as he is hopelessly aware of how hard it is to get an academic job and watches the desperate, dehumanising, cattle call-like "Job Market" (he thinks of it always in capital letters) interviews at academic conferences. Peter is attracted to (and writing about) the history of Sufism, an apolitical, esoteric, mystical approach to Islam, but he is constantly being dragged into contemporary political debates by an undergraduate student who writes essays for the Arabic class Peter is teaching about how Israel is the only civilised country in the region, then puts Peter's name on the Campus Watch list (a real-life McCarthyist black list of academics who aren't sufficiently Zionist) and files a formal complaint with the department when Peter gives him a bad grade on the essay. He's trying to write a dissertation with a feminist approach, even as he wishes his wife would cook him dinner every night.
Both Elise and Peter are driven to want what they can't have: for Elise, it's the baby. She isn't particularly maternal, but once she realises she can't have kids, she quits her successful job to try to get pregnant. She also believes that having a baby will salvage her unravelling marriage. For Peter, what he couldn't have was originally Elise. When she seemed distant and ethereal and out of reach, he put enormous energy into wooing her. Now that he's got her, he spends most of his time in his tiny little carrell in the basement of Firestone library and hardly ever goes home. He's unnerved by the way she's transformed from this high-powered successful New York editor to this strange creature obsessed with procreation.
The third main character is Celia, the egg donor. She's at Princeton on scholarship and doesn't really fit in, which is as much about temperament as it is about privilege. She watches everyone around her at a distance, vaguely wishing to one day be a writer. She aspires to having interesting life experiences that she can write about, but doesn't recognise any of her own background (the depressed Southern mill town that she's from, her alcoholic father, the gay ex-boyfriend whose parents are trying to convert him to heterosexuality via the Baptist church) as anything to write about, except when other people prod her to think of it as material. "She longed to be conflicted about something," and she experiments with seeing herself as the victim in this egg donation scheme, and cruelly plays on Elise's anxieties to squeeze her for more money, while she makes a pass one night at Peter when they accidentally meet up at a party. She can never really decide if she's living her life or watching herself live her life, if she's doing things because she wants to do them or because she thinks she should want to do them, to give her experiences to write about.
I don't want to post spoilers so I'll just say that the end surprised me. There's nothing at all predictable about the plot, and yet everything rings true.
Every page has some little quirky observation that made me laugh out loud (e.g. Elise's eyes widening when Celia describes her ethnic identity as "pure Carolina cracker"). The Princeton arcana will entertain anyone who has ever spent time in that weird little town (McCaffrey's and Triumph and Small World and the Annex and the Dbar and the ceiling mural at the post office). Each character is simultaneously sympathetic and pathetic. There's no hero, no villain, and no cliched stereotype -- even as you can find in every character a bit of some stereotype, enough to recognise why it persists and yet see that it's awfully incomplete. The author does a particularly good and subtle job of dealing with class (and anxieties around class) at Princeton. For example, Celia recognises the way certain words have power, like the little comments that her friend Nicole drops that reveal her class privilege: Wellesley, Italy, artist.
Should be mandatory reading for anyone thinking about doing a PhD, or considering gamete donation and the peculiar ways that that "gift" is commodified and gendered. Will be of particular interest to people with an interest in Princeton, the politics of Middle East studies, or the publishing world. But I hate to pigeonhole the book in that way. The themes are much broader: desire, the complicated nature of marriage, the subtle ways that we sabotage ourselves.
Full disclosure: I did my PhD at Princeton in the Anthropology Department, and I've met the author a couple of times (though she started several years after me and was in Princeton when I was doing fieldwork in Egypt, so we never got to know each other at Princeton). But I swear I would say all the same things about this book even if I had never met her.(less)
Ugh. I love the Jack Reacher novels but this one was hard to stomach. Too much time spent in the mind of a really sick man who likes to torture people...moreUgh. I love the Jack Reacher novels but this one was hard to stomach. Too much time spent in the mind of a really sick man who likes to torture people. Too many people getting tortured and killed. I read this series because I like to be in Jack Reacher's mind, not in the mind of some revolting psychopath. Def. not my favorite of the series. I could barely stand to finish the book.(less)
In this book, Laleh Khalili, a political scientist at SOAS, "critically engage[s] with the assertions of today's counterinsurgent theorists and practi...moreIn this book, Laleh Khalili, a political scientist at SOAS, "critically engage[s] with the assertions of today's counterinsurgent theorists and practitioners," including Petraeus, Kilcullen, and Nagl, "that counterinsurgency is about 'securing' and 'protecting' the population" (p.5). She demonstrates the irony of modern liberal democracies which deny the violence they commit, pushing it into the shadows and/or calling it more "humane," thus making it more likely to occur.
Counterinsurgencies and confinement in places like Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the CIA proxy-run prisons were created as a response to liberal objections to mass colonial slaughter in previous wars. Thus the rule of law and humanitarian ideals are paradoxically responsible for generating the hidden violence of expanding states, embodied in new mechanisms of containment which are envisioned as opportunities for "socially engineering the people and places they conquered" (p.3). This book examines extensively the "micropractices of coercion" (p.7) and shows that these are not accidents or exceptions committed by violent fringe elements in a nation's military but rather central components of a liberal order when states expand beyond their borders.
Brilliant and comprehensive in scope. Highly recommended.(less)