Let’s Discuss — Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

From my birth when they went undetected, to my baptism where they upstaged the priest, to my troubled adolescence when they didn’t do much of anything and then did everything at once, my genitals have been the most significant thing that ever happened to me. Some people inherit houses; others paintings…or a famous name. I got a recessive gene on my fifth chromosome and some very rare family jewels indeed (401)

With Middlesex Eugenides offers a historical and psychological narrative through which circular, personal, candid and humorous storytelling combine to create a mythological account of a uniquely American experience: how a teenage girl named Calliope Stephanides became a man named Cal.

I say this book tells a uniquely American experience–how is that? One conventional explanation would be Cal’s family history. His grandparents are Grecian Turks; immigrants who came to America via Ellis Island in the early 20th century. Cal’s grandparent’s are transplanted into Detroit to assimilate to and enrich American culture, to seek the traditional American Dream; freedom, job, house, car, wealth, family…children–and this is where things also get “unique”. Cal’s grandparent’s children would technically be considered sister and brother and first cousins. That’s right. First cousins. See…Cal’s grandparent’s have a secret–they are husband and wife, and brother and sister (the book goes into detail about how this came to pass) On top of that, Cal’s father/uncle, Milton, is married to his cousin, Tessie (Cal’s mother/aunt/second cousin?) Following? Drawing a diagram helps.

Against a black background they swim, a long white silken thread spinning itself out. The thread began on a day two hundred fifty years ago, when the biology gods, for their own amusement, monkeyed with a gene on a baby’s fifth chromosome […] Hitching a ride, the gene descended a mountain and left a village behind…Crossing the ocean, it faked a romance, circled a ship’s deck, and made love in a lifeboat…It took a train to Detroit […] And then the gene moved on again, into new bodies…it took an entrance exam…it dated a future priest and broke off an engagement…always moving ahead, rushing along, only a few more curves left in the track now, Annapolis and a submarine chaser…until the biology gods knew this was their time, this was what they’d been waiting for…my destiny fell into place (210)

So sometimes when in-breeding occurs genetics can get a little tricky, or as I’m calling it unique. In a way, Cal’s genes are uniquely the same, too much of the same. Her grandparent’s secret eventually leads to a daughter/niece named Calliope, who will tell readers the story of her beginning, and other life experiences from the viewpoint of her much older self, a man named Cal. At times it was as if Calliope’s growing pains mirrored America’s. Through this generational epic the reader glimpses at wars, immigration, race riots, white flight, cultural revolution, etc.

This story is intriguing to me because it delves into a subject I have very little knowledge of–hermaphroditism. I know about gene mutations, but haven’t explored that particular mutation on the fifth chromosome; the one that manifests as a gateway to intersexual ambiguity. I think it’s fairly accurate to say hermaphrodites, while having always existed, are still taboo in most hyper-sexualized, western cultures. And so by tackling a taboo subject so elegantly, I feel like Eugenides wrote something that really challenges the notion of normality…

And so strange a new possibility is rising. Compromised, indefinite, sketchy, but not entirely obliterated: free will is making a comeback. Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind (479)

Reading about Calliope’s self-discovery about her body, family, gender, sexuality, love and acceptance was refreshing and–you guessed it–unique.

Let’s Discuss — Icy Sparks by Gwyn Hyman Rubio

No, Miss Emily had not a clue as to what ailed me. She could stop herself from eating. I, on the other hand, couldn’t help what I did. My urges controlled me. Nevertheless, in Miss Emily’s eyes, we were the same. She was the orphan of Ginseng; I was the orphan of Poplar Holler. If she had her way, she’d used our strangeness to unite us (38)

Icy Sparks is a serious yet playful story of a young girl named, Icy Sparks, whose adolescence is marred by tics and outbursts she cannot control. Icy learns the value of the truth from a young age. She knows how her parents died and how their dispositions may have affected her own. She knows she’s different and feels her difference should be kept a secret. But the longer Icy keeps her secrets, the longer the pressure builds and the greater the outburst. These outbursts drastically affect Icy and her relationship with everyone in the small rural Kentucky community.

Icy is a great character. I can’t decide if she’s rudely honest or honestly rude. Either way it’s charming. I think the author is successful at spotlighting a seriously misunderstood topic in a very humorous and relatable way. The narrative is sprinkled with bits like this:

I stared at Wilma’s stomach, which was puffing out more than usual, and at her mustache, which had become thicker and hardier in the past few weeks, and gagged at her being pregnant and even harder at the thought of her being the Virgin Mary. “Poor baby Jesus,” I whispered. (169)

There are similar interactions between Icy and her best friend and teacher, Emily. Icy spares no feelings about her friend’s obesity. They’re an interesting duo. I’m conflicted because I know Miss Emily loves Icy and wants to elevate her, but I don’t know by how much. I wasn’t always convinced she wanted Icy to do better—they’re outcasts together after all. I’m mostly referring to conversation they had over being ‘touched’. And by ‘touched’, I do mean intimately. It’s one of the more awkward sections of the book, yet completely necessary. Emily’s relationship with Icy works because there are good and bad parts to each person. Everyone has their own demons.

Icy’s resolution, her epiphany at the Revival left me perplexed. The atmosphere is so unlike the rest of the book and admittedly, it threw me off. I think Icy’s character is very likeable, interesting and believable, but to toss God in there when she wasn’t particularly religious was somewhat odd. At the same time, it makes sense because Icy could care less if she attended a Catholic, Baptist, or Methodist church. She really needed that feeling of community and acceptance. Icy was able to jump headfirst into something with no fear or threat of rejection. By singing with several church choirs, she can finally be part of the community that had estranged her since childhood.

Let’s Discuss — Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin

But he dropped his eyes, suspecting a flaw in his argument. ‘I just don’t want him beating on me all the time,’ he said at last. ‘I ain’t no dog.’ She sighed, and turned slightly away, looking out of the window. ‘Your Daddy beats you,’ she said, ‘because he loves you.’ (21)

One cannot read this book and overlook the concept of the father. In this story, paternal influence, more specifically, fatherly love is crucial to the process of self-discovery. The absence of that particular kind of love damages every single character. Yes, the father; protection, guidance, love. And when said influence is scarce or non-existent, it is sometimes replaced with a different source; a different paternal institution, a different Father. The Lord.

But this paternal connection does not work for everyone. It’s a source of conflict for the fatherless and loveless. Central character John is the best example. John cannot love the Lord because his father loves the Lord, yet the father does not love his son, John. It doesn’t make sense to John. Because of his confusion he refuses to be part of anything his father is devoted to…What’s the reason? Why can’t a father love his son?


John’s father, Gabriel, cannot accept what John represents. John is the embodiment of Gabriel’s sin. A younger Gabriel, impregnated a young woman, and out of fear and shame sent her away. She died young, as did her son—his son. To make up for his sin and to seek redemption, he decides to raise John as his own. You see, Gabriel believes he has been forgiven, that God knows his life, but Gabriel cannot forget. His hate of his former sins, emerges as hate for his sons.

And he felt his father behind him. And he felt the March wind rise, striking through his damp clothes, against his salty body. He turned to face his father—he found himself smiling, but his father did not smile (291)

When John finally accepts the Lord, he accepts his father. He accepts their dynamic, his fate and ultimately himself. And this is very interesting because it is exactly what his father did–accepted the Lord, but somehow continued to live in denial.