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Conundrum

3.84  ·  Rating details ·  858 ratings  ·  120 reviews
The great travel writer Jan Morris was born James Morris. James Morris distinguished himself in the British military, became a successful and physically daring reporter, climbed mountains, crossed deserts, and established a reputation as a historian of the British empire. He was happily married, with several children. To all appearances, he was not only a man, but a man’s ...more
Paperback, 176 pages
Published May 16th 2006 by NYRB Classics (first published 1974)
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Average rating 3.84  · 
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Red
Understanding my identity as a transwoman came about for me in the late 2000's, and thus most of what I read and learned from was on the internet and not set down in ink and binding. Of the trans memoirs I've held in my hands, this ties with Jamison Green's Becoming a Visible Man as my favorite. Whereas Mr. Green's is a more political, academic and recent work, and is imminently more suited as inspiration and fodder for the kinds of public speaking work I've been fortunate to engage in, it is ...more
Jordan
Dec 02, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: reviewed-books
I had to read this book for my Gay and Lesbian English Class, and it isn't a book that I would have naturally picked up. However I really was taken aback how much I enjoyed reading about the transition the writer made from James to Jane. How it felt to be a man in Wales for 45 years and the to appear back in same village that narrator grew up and was suddenly a woman. I was very much fascinated with the parallels between being a man in society, and that of being a woman in society.
It really is
...more
James Hartley
Sep 01, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Second reading and just as impressive, if not more so, the second time. Very relevant, too, in these times of debates on gender and sexuality. Jan Morris, born James, knew she was a female trapped in a mans body from the age of three. It took her half a life to make the physical change and this book is about that process. It is fascinating to read so talented a writer on such a fascinating subject: Jan has lived as both a man and a woman and here she describes how that feels, the differences ...more
Rachel
Nov 27, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
The book as a whole is primarily of interest for historical reasons, and the second half is largely a desperate attempt to reassure a patriarchal society that her transition was no threat to it.

That's an understandable response to the pressures Ms. Morris must have been under in her time and place, but her description of her life post-transition is by turns tedious and excruciating to read now, and it was poorly timed in its day — cisgender feminists spent the rest of the seventies quoting Ms.
...more
Tania
Dull, too much travel writing for me. Very dated in its discussions of women roles in society, and intriguingly but disappointingly something which Jan seems accepting of. Valuable from historical perspective.
Perkimom
Feb 18, 2010 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I found this a tedious read, more about the author's travels than in-depth thoughts and feelings about the issue of her transgender issues and life. I was expecting to be more educated and I wasn't even really entertained. Brave soul but not my favorite book by any means.
sevdah
Jan Morris is a very good writer and we're just lucky she decided to also write about her transition as a transgender woman. It's a deeply personal memoir of someone who ultimately fought for her right to be happy as herself, and carry on loving life on her own terms. Especially interesting here were the pages describing how people's attitudes changed with her gender - how she was thought to be a good professional when passing as a male, and then (in her 40s) started being a slightly silly "good ...more
Katie
Sep 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I knew Jan Morris was trans; what I did not know, until a lovely friend of mine lent me this book, was that she'd written about that experience. But this is indeed a memoir about her trans journey, and her life around that, and what it meant to her as a child of the 1930s and 40s. And it's really lovely.

Morris' prose always has this...I want to say delicate quality, but it's more robust than that. She doesn't mince words and she's not over effusive or purple. She is, however, very evocative.
...more
Hilary G
Dec 11, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Ex Bookworm group review:


Yesterday, I watched a documentary about Freddie Mercury, and it struck me how some people’s lives are so much more extraordinary than the lives of most of us. Such people do more, see more, say more, they make news, they are capable of influencing people in their thousands. This, I thought, is what makes celebrities (though, as a society, I think we have lost the plot about who is and is not a celebrity) so exciting that others want to know every detail of their lives.
...more
Heather
Feb 16, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, memoir
Near the end of Conundrum, Jan Morris writes about walking through Casablanca on the eve of her sex change operation as feeling like she was about to pay “a visit to a wizard,” like she was “a figure of fairy tale, about to be transformed” (119). And, as in some fairy tales, what she is to be transformed into is only what she has been all along: she writes, at the start of the book, that her earliest memory, from when she was three or four, was the realization that she “had been born into the ...more
Miguel
Aug 29, 2012 rated it really liked it
A couple years ago I read one of the best travel books I know: Venice, by Jan Morris, who is considered one of the best British writers of today, with a body of work that emphasizes the travelogues, but that includes fiction, history , memories and non-fiction in general.

Venice is a majestic book, which made me feel naturally curious about its author. At the time it was published in Portugal an article in a portuguese newspaper aroused my curiosity: I found out that Morris was a transsexual
...more
Hillary
Mar 29, 2017 rated it it was ok
"Psychologically I was distinctly less forceful. A neurotic condition common among women is penis envy, its victims supposing that there is inherent to the very fact of the male organs some potent energy of the spirit. There is something to this fancy. It is not merely the loss of androgens that has made me more retiring, more ready to be led, more passive: the removal of the organs themselves has contributed, for there was to the presence of the penis something positive, thrusting, and ...more
Christine
Apr 02, 2019 rated it it was ok
Shelves: adult, book-club, lgbt
2.5

I read this book for my book club but had a pre-existing interest in better understanding transgenderism. I found Morris’ style generally pleasant, but for me, the book was tainted by her classism, racism, even sexism, and her seeming lack of self-awareness in these areas (or maybe she is self-aware and intentionally condescending). I enjoyed reading about Morris’ marriage/relationship with her partner Elizabeth, whom she was forced to divorce after having sex reassignment surgery but with
...more
Angela
Oct 23, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A conundrum indeed. Early on Morris claims to "adhere to the belief ... that self analysis is often a mistake" yet the premise of this book pivots on self analysis. Alongside this Morris freely admits to bein selective in what included and what is not. The prose is precise and lyrical and seems to waft in from a bygone age. The author's expressions of how she perceives she is treated differently also seem somewhat dated.
Kate
Apr 29, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir
Jan Morris is an author and was a foreign correspondent, who was part of the famed boy's choir at Oxford and where he returned for his education. He served in the second world war, married, had children who he adored, and in 1970 he wrote about his life, as a man and transsexual who eventually crossed that boundary with surgery that allowed her to claim her gender.
This was written in 1970 when most people had little understanding of transsexuals. I am sure this book had far more impact in the
...more
Gold Dust
Oct 21, 2019 rated it really liked it
A poetically written trans memoir about a man named James who transitions to Jan.

Unlike the majority of LGBT allies who just take a person’s word for being LGBT, I analyze and question! So let’s dive in!

“Dutch scientists, after examining the autopsied brains of six trans-sexual men, discovered that in every case a particular region of the hypothalamus, at the floor of the brain, was abnormally small for a male, and in fact smaller than most females.” (2)
So does this mean that transwomen are
...more
Isaac R. Fellman
Jul 14, 2019 rated it liked it
Beautifully written, with some of the finest descriptions of dysphoria I’ve seen anywhere, but increasingly troubled in the second half by Morris’ racism and her shocking literary cruelty to other trans people.
Julie
I stumbled across this 1974 memoir when I was researching new travel writers to read. (The state of the world is so depressing these days that I am focusing less on negative, heavy nonfiction & more on lighter, soothing nonfiction like travel & humor). When the article mentioned in passing that Jan Morris had formerly been the journalist James Morris but had transitioned in 1972, I was intrigued. 1972?!

After checking the memoir out from the library, I perused the Goodreads reviews
...more
Stephanie
Very difficult. I very much enjoyed the writing style and reading about one individual’s experience (particularly a non-contemporary experience) but I found this very challenging to balance against the the upper (middle) class, imperialist and (on occasion) racist passages. I want to say that the writer is a product of her time and personal history (as are we all), that her generation was more steeped in the gender binary and traditional roles... And all this would be true. So, in that sense and ...more
Linda
Dec 01, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I have wanted to read this book since it came out in 1974. Morris, a journalist and travel writer of the kind that Chatwin and Theroux are known for, tells us about life as a transgender. Not only that but the book tells us about the traveling that he did while figuring out how to cope with this strangely crossed life. He, is now a she-- for many years now. Morris' family of children and former wife are still enfolded within the circle of her life and she writes on.
Aubrey
3.5/5
It had occurred to me that perhaps mine was a perfectly normal condition, and that every boy wished to become a girl. It seemed a logical enough aspiration, if Woman was so elevated and admirable a being as history, religion, and good manners combined to assure us.
In the United States, there was a ruling within the past year that allowed trans people to join the military. This dubious success characterizes this book completely: those who are transgender are welcomed with open arms so long
...more
ger
Feb 21, 2020 rated it liked it
I came to the book as I heard it was one of the best memoirs of a transsexual woman and I wanted to read a personal experience. I found the writing dated even for the 70's. It reminded me of the style of Lawrence Durrell in his travelogues but not in a good way. It just seemed old fashioned in places and attitude. It is however a fluid, honest and considered memoir .

Jan comes across as a bit of a snob, sexist, naive and of her time (Or his time as it happened to be before her operations). This
...more
rosamund
Sep 04, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: lgbt, memoir
This is the first piece of Jan Morris's writing that I have read, and based on prose style alone, I will seek out more of her work. Her style reminds me of books of the 20s and 30s -- it is clear, but she is not afraid to use long sentences or paragraphs, or to take her time to express a thought. I would give this book five-stars for prose, but the content at times is troubling. In her 2002 introduction, Jan Morris describes this book as a "period piece", something very much of the 1970s, and in ...more
Dorothy Bennett
Dec 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
For anyone wanting to understand what life is like for transsexuals, CONUNDRUM by Jan Morris is a must--along with the film THE DANISH GIRL and the book SHE'S NOT THERE: A LIFE IN TWO GENDERS by Jennifer Finney Boylan. CONUNDRUM is a classic, published in the early '70s, when articles, books, and movies about human beings with gender conflicts were not common nor widely available. Morris, who was successful in every sense of the word as James Morris, always felt that inside he was a woman. ...more
Tammam Aloudat
Jan 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I came accross this book accidentally while browsing a website and bought it immediately. I admit to having read very little LGBTQ written work and least of all on transsexual issues and struggles. This is written in 1974 and the world has hopefully become much more accepting and kinder to transsexual people at least in some places. They need not go to an off-the-map clinic in Morocco to have the sex change operation nor do they have to struggle most of their lives to get others to accept them. ...more
Tyler Jones
We like to think of ourselves as very woke these days when it comes to gender indentity. With our new found enlightenment we cast our eyes back in horror at those dark ages of a few decades ago with their rigid concepts of proper males and females. Thus we come to book such as this expecting to read about how society back in those days shunned Jan Morris as a freak and an abomination, but the most interesting thing I found is that she relates that to a very large degree those around her, from ...more
Sophy H
Oct 01, 2018 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this book. Understandably the writing about a woman's role in society feels quite outdated now, particularly for example when the author refers to physical pursuits such as climbing Everest or taking on physical challenges! It almost feels as if she is saying "oh you know how it is, women can't be bothered with that kind of thing, why would they, its pointless"!!! Bearing in mind the number of female ultra marathon runners, women peaking Everest without the aid of oxygen, women in ...more
Matt
Jul 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography, nonfiction
I've read and loved enough of Jan Morris' books that it seemed past time to put her life into perspective. This book seemed so personal that I actually chose to go with the audiobook, and I'm glad I did. I'll likely go back and read it in paper at some point in the next couple of years, but as a first experience listening to the story of Morris' experience emphasized the personal feel.

Morris' new introduction is quite open about the fact that a lot of her ideas and terminology are now outdated,
...more
J David
Sep 16, 2017 rated it really liked it
Conundrum by Jan Morris is a fascinating story of how James Morris became Jan Morris. James since he was four years old felt he was a girl yet he grew up as a male and served in the British Armed Services. He was a writer of note, married, had five children, looked male but knew that he was really female. At around age 45 he went to Casablanca for a sex change operation that was successful and lived successfully as a woman. It is interesting to see how she perceives the way she is treated ...more
Sarah
Oct 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
As others have noted, strangely contradictory - at times she describes gender as being some kind of nebulous indefinable continuum, with varying nuances of meaning, at others is very dichotomous and even stereotypical about the masculine and the feminine. But then it's a personal exploration, and not an objective essay, of a life's journey trying to understand one's identity as having the wrong external 'pointer' for one's own internal experience, so I suppose there's no reason why her train of ...more
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NYRB Classics: Conundrum, by Jan Morris 1 9 Oct 22, 2013 11:29AM  

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Jan Morris is a British historian, author and travel writer. Morris was educated at Lancing College, West Sussex, and Christ Church, Oxford, but is Welsh by heritage and adoption. Before 1970 Morris published under her assigned birth name, "James ", and is known particularly for the Pax Britannica trilogy, a history of the British Empire, and for portraits of cities, notably Oxford, Venice, ...more
“In a Kenya game park once I saw a family of wart-hogs waddling ungainly and in a tremendous hurry across the grass. Contemptuous though I am of those who find animals comic…still I could not help laughing at this quaint spectacle. My African companion rightly rebuked me. “You should not laugh at them,” he said. “They are beautiful to each other.” 14 likes
“I did not know exactly where it was—in my head, in my heart, in my loins, in my dreams. Nor did I know whether to be ashamed of it, proud of it, grateful for it, resentful of it. Sometimes I thought I would be happier without it, sometimes I felt it must be essential to my being. Perhaps one day, when I grew up, I would be as solid as other people appeared to be; but perhaps I was meant always to be a creature of wisp or spindrift, loitering in this inconsequential way almost as though I were intangible. I” 0 likes
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