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Conundrum

3.89  ·  Rating details ·  1,117 ratings  ·  146 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 3.89  · 
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 ·  1,117 ratings  ·  146 reviews


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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 al ...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
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 man´s 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 wi ...more
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. ...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.
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. Tha
...more
Bionic Jean
An amazing book, which I first read in 1974, when it was published to a surprised world, and then again four years later, as this paperback.

It deserves a review, but this is a temporary note as Jan Morris has just died today, 20.11.20, aged 94.

RIP Jan Morris.
Julie
Sep 21, 2019 rated it liked it
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 briefly. I don
...more
Elysia Ponzetta
Jun 14, 2020 rated it really liked it
Beautifully written story of the journey of a male to female transsexual as they come to terms with their discomfort of being in the wrong body, and the long but rewarding process of becoming a woman. The writing style is so pretty. Only complaint is that some phrases came across as a bit pretentious. Morris' views on the role of gender were also quite outdated. She professed that she lost the ability to do simple tasks as a woman and enjoyed having everything done for her, that made me a bit an ...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
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 lo
...more
Bellish
I had quite a few issues with this book, but a lot of those will have to be excused as it being "of its time". It can't be denied that the writing is beautiful, and it is a valuable memoir. ...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 wr ...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 havi
...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 muscular ...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 wh
...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. ...more
Daniel Sevitt
Mar 14, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: auto-biography
Astonishing memoir from 1974. Ms Morris calmly and with candor presents the conundrum of her life growing up as James, becoming a chorister, joining the army, running up and down Everest as the official Times correspondent for Hillary’s ascent, marriage, fatherhood and transition.

It’s a wonderful book in the true sense that it is filled with wonder. Morris is a delightful writer. This is a lovely book.
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 hype
...more
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 se
...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.
Maria João
One more star was given to this book because I believe the Portuguese translator did an amazing job with it.
Read my full review (in Portuguese) here: https://booknerdreviews.home.blog/202...
...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. Under ...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. ...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 d
...more
rosamund
Sep 04, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir, lgbt
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
Anthony
Jan 23, 2021 rated it really liked it
Many reviews here seem to be focused on the last part of the book and hold it against the rest of it, faulting the post-operation section, which seems not to have aged well. But everything up to and through the operation, which are the first 144 pages, or 82% of the book, is quite remarkable, beautifully rendered and shamelessly alive. It pulses with what the author refers to as the Welsh "hwyl." The author writes about her struggles, inner conflicts, and "conundrum" of her life with such vivid ...more
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NYRB Classics: Conundrum, by Jan Morris 1 10 Oct 22, 2013 11:29AM  

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Jan Morris was 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, Tries ...more

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“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.” 17 likes
“I never did think that my own conundrum was a matter either of science or of social convention. I thought it was a matter of the spirit, a kind of divine allegory, and that explanations of it were not very important anyway. What was important was the liberty of us all to live as we wished to live, to love however we wanted to love, and to know ourselves, however peculiar, disconcerting or unclassifiable, at one with the gods and angels.” 2 likes
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