Self-discovery

Let’s Discuss — Self-Inflicted Wounds by Aisha Tyler

self-inflicted wound (n): a spectacularly humiliating, and often hilarious, incident entirely of one’s own making.
see also: you did it to yourself.

Let me preface this discussion by saying I don’t read very much non-fiction. Well…I haven’t since college wherein most of what I read for four years was non-fiction stuff. Often dry, very boring, comprehensive and lengthy things sometimes related to my academic and/or professional interests–many times not. But I still think it’s important to ground yourself from whatever cloud your fiction books might place you upon and read something a little different…or at least in theory that’s how I feel. I do read a lot of news and policy magazines for fun …anyways, like I was saying, I haven’t read a lot of non-fiction of any reputable length or of any serious topic in quite a while*. So to ease back into it, I thought I would start with something light and entertaining: Aisha Tyler’s Self-Inflicted Wounds: Heartwarming Tales of Epic Humiliation.

I can admit, I have a mild obsession with Aisha Tyler. Nothing crazy. I admire her success and I feel we have a lot in common (not the success per se, but gender, height, melanin content) Also she’s a gamer and doesn’t take herself too seriously and she seems pretty cool. So I figure hey, why not read her book. In a nutshell, Tyler has compiled a variety of thirty or so very embarrassing and humiliating short stories from her childhood to adulthood; and from what I understand are actually real incidents, give or take a few name changes and vague details. Honestly, some of them are very embarrassing and funny. Others are kind of blah, but that’s to be expected. Not every story is going to possess the same shock value. Some stories are relatable. For example, The Time I Cut Myself In Half, The Time I Almost Set Myself on Fire or The Bunny Fiasco. I can relate in some twisted way to all three–Do you know how many baby birds I tried to save from the circle of life as a child? And I too have a scar that oddly splits my chest in half. I’ve pondered its’ origins for years and still don’t know why it’s there–Tyler’s story poses a good possibility, haha. Or like that one time I decided to place my entire left hand on the face of an iron, which I knew could very well be hotter than Hades…I was nine (that’s my excuse) Good thing I’m right-handed. And yes my lovely mother made me go to school, burns and all. Lesson learned. And that’s kind of the point of all Tyler’s outrageous tales. They all point to a lesson**, or lead to an inspirational “dust yourself off and try again” message.

But even for the stories I didn’t relate to as much, like The Time I Killed a Hobo or The Time I Created My First Sketch Character , I never for a second doubted her sincerity. As a reader I had to accept there are some stories that no matter how many times or ways you tell them, you just had to be there. And sometimes it’s damn near impossible to get into the author’s head. like withThe Time I Fell Asleep on the Patio Furniture at a Birthday Party.  I’m still blank-faced at that one.

Life is short, and no one gives a shit about your problems. Get up, get out there, and as the kids say, get to grinding. Do that hundredth set, and then do the hundred-and first. And then do one hundred more. You’re just getting started (159)

Self-Inflicted Wounds is a super fun and quick read. Here are some things to consider while reading it:

  • Aisha Tyler writes exactly how she speaks. Exactly. No ghost writing here.
  • Don’t feel obligated to read every single footnote. Sometimes it ruins the flow of already short stories. If you read something funny or even not that funny, then think something very childish or dirty about it, and see a superscript–Tyler beat you to it. No need to read the footnote.
  • Don’t read more than four or five stories per sitting. They will probably lose their essence if you read more. Although everyone’s different.
  • Don’t go into this thinking you’ll be on the floor, in tears laughing, spitting your coffee on your lap, cackling out loud. Just don’t. Way to set yourself up for a disappointment.
  • Enjoy each tongue-in-cheek story with a half a grain of salt.
  • Allow yourself to make connections to her stories–think about all the stupid things you’ve done, or embarrassing things that have happened and laugh. Smiling is okay too. I smiled a lot while reading this.

* Last non-fiction I read was The Devil in the White City. Before that–The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

** Debatable. There’s the occasional disconnect between the buildup in the story and then the takeaway for the reader and resolution posed by Tyler.

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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 — The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula LeGuin

The Earth is beautiful, and bright and kindly, but that is not all. The Earth is also terrible, and dark, and cruel. The rabbit shrieks dying in the green meadows. The mountains clench their great hands full of hidden fire. There are sharks in the sea, and there is cruelty in men’s eyes. And where men worship these things and abase themselves before them, there evil breeds… (118)

The majority of this short book is dedicated to introducing the character, Arha, the High Priestess of The Nameless Ones in the Place of Tombs. She is a living artifact of a somewhat forgotten religion that is less relevant to the kingdom of the Godking that rules. Ged/Sparrowhawk, the protagonist from A Wizard of Earthsea, enters the book much later.

The worship at the Place of Tombs is very dark in nature. It involves frequent human sacrifice and trips into a labyrinth of tombs and treasure, where no light is permitted. Arha learns how religion means different things for different people. For some it is a pathway to power. For others it’s a way of life. And for many it’s something to do because there is nothing else to do. Gradually, Arha forms opinions on the hierarchy she participates in, and one by one divides friend from foe.

Arha inadvertently discovers Ged in the tombs one day. Ged is an outsider, a nonbeliever and heathen wizard. His presence defies everything Arha has been taught–he lights the darkness. Ged shows her there’s more in the world than what’s suppressed in the dark labyrinth.

I didn’t enjoy The Tombs of Atuan as much as A Wizard of Earthsea. I found Ged’s origin story to be more compelling than Arha’s…she comes across very self-righteous, condescending and self-centered. But this is a side-effect of her upbringing. As The Eaten One, she is placed on a pedestal and told the darkness is her domain. Sequestered at the Place, she only knows what the other priestesses have taught her. Yet she is just a girl, young and dumb, with no grasp on how vast and different the world is.

So by the end, Arha still has much to learn about herself, whereas, Ged had matured substantially by the end of his origin story. However, Ged also had the freedom to go on a journey of self-discovery. Thanks to Ged, Arha is just now finding this freedom and perhaps in the third book of the Earthsea Cycle, Arha will experience something more.