28 November 2020


First Women by Kate Andersen Brower;
Tough Enough 
by Deborah Nelson; 
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

Unearthing our old e-reader from 2010 was definitely a welcome highlight this quarantine. Cleaning out the master's bedroom (after the herculean task of organizing mine) made me find this: a classic Barnes & Noble Nook which my dad bought for me back in college. I don't know why I forgot about it, to be honest, and found it pretty dumb that I never thought about digging it up when I set out to read more early this year. Unfortunately, its battery was bloated when I found it, so I had to order a new one from Amazon. Thankfully, it worked, and now here we are, with many more e-books to add to my list.

These are the last few books I've just finished, and it only took me about a week and a half to go through all three. Maybe it was because of my eagerness to reward myself after two consecutive hearings, or maybe it was my bias towards books that concern strong women. The running theme seemed to be women orbiting close to power, but also, to painful realities. Riveting.

1 | "First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies" by Kate Andersen Brower

The first lady has no place in the Constitution; she has no official duties other than to be the President's wife. But it's certainly interesting how they carved their own paths separate from, although entwined with, their husband's and how differently they used the platform the presidency gave them. This book is one of the three nonfiction books by Brower detailing some of the most interesting aspects of the US Presidency aside from the Presidents themselves: the first wives, the vice presidents, and the White House. This book focused on the presidential wives starting from Mamie Eisenhower until Michelle.

Instead of providing a separate chapter for each woman, Brower interlaces their stories under specific themes. What surprised me the most was how much the modern first ladies figured in their husbands' politics. Some of the first ladies actively participated in Cabinet meetings, foreign policy discussions, and even stood as diplomatic envoys on behalf of the US. I will admit that before reading this, I was only familiar with Hillary (with whom I share the same birthday) and Jackie Kennedy (whose grief and compelling private life had been closely scrutinized over the years). But this book made me the most intrigued about Lady Bird Johnson, Rosalynn Carter (who founded the Carter Center and Habitat for Humanity), and Betty Ford (who championed mental health and support for alcoholics and cancer survivors by establishing the Betty Ford Center.) Their contributions to society are considered seminal now, but what role would they have played if they were not given the platform of their husband's office?

Another interesting aspect of the book was how older first ladies belonging to a different generation viewed the relatively younger, more ambitious ones. In particular, Hillary Clinton, who, unlike her predecessors, had goals of her own — aspirations outside and beyond her husband's presidency. Some of the older First Ladies — and I suppose, America in general — found this off-putting at the time. But, as the author surmised, it was probably because they recognized the privilege afforded to the women of the succeeding generation. The feminist movement of the 60s and 70s certainly allowed and provided more options for women in their chosen careers. The older first ladies such as Barbara Bush didn't have the same opportunities as, say, Ivy League-educated Hillary, as a circumstance of being born during her time. Perhaps it's not so much disdain, as it is a repressed kind of resentment that they were limited to just being the President's wives as a consequence of living in a different era. 

2 | "Rodham" by Curtis Sittenfeld

Which gives us a perfect segue to Rodham. To borrow from Jane Eyre, in this book, reader, she did not marry him. This novel envisions what Hillary's life would have been had she followed her head instead of her heart and turned down Bill's proposal. 

Full disclosure that I do not claim to know the entirety of Hillary's politics, nor that of Bill's. I just know that we were both born on October 26, so that's worth mentioning. (Another person born on that date? SC Justice Antonio Carpio. I am in great, powerful company.)

This is actually the first book I've read about Hillary. I initially wanted to dive into "Living History" first, her 2003 memoir, after reading Michelle Obama's "Becoming." But I just didn't feel like reading about all the issues that plagued the Clinton presidency, so I skipped it. According to the reviews I found on this book, it was pretty accurate of her life as a young Yale law student and fresh graduate anyway, so I was really interested in reading about how she was before Bill Clinton — and the rewritten history had she let him go.

I've always wanted to believe in multiple universes, in the possibility that out there are a multitude of lives running simultaneously along with this one, with varying degrees of discongruity. And given the huge losses that Hillary had to take in this lifetime, I couldn't help wishing that the fictional tale in the novel was the real one instead.

The novel felt like a realistic portrayal of who she was: strong-willed, stubborn, ambitious, driven. The book recounts the beginning of their romance but the story certainly takes off after their break-up. Walking away from an engagement with Bill Clinton saved her from a lot of bigger heartaches and moral pitfalls. But it was still rather sad to find out that even in that universe, some things would not have turned out that much differently. Her political life may have taken wilder, bigger turns, but people will still see her as cunning, evil, and aggressive — just because that's how society views women chasing dreams that do not solely prioritize motherhood or marriage. I liked how the novel creatively intersected events that actually happened in real life (in one part of the novel, the "Shut her up!" crowd still shows up, albeit from a different side, but pretty much for the same reasons), which kept the story grounded. It also helped that apparently a lot of scenes in the book mirrored things that Hillary herself wrote about in her previous memoirs or that official biographies narrated. It didn't really tackle her policies and politics though, which prevented the novel from being truly compelling.

In the end, despite it being a fictionalized version of Hillary's life, it gave a decent glimpse of who she is: detached but still sincere, honest about being ambitious but still someone worth empathizing with. In opening the door to an alternate universe, it allows us to envision a reality that does not judge her for her husband's actions. It simply allows us to view her as she could have been, on her own. She may have still made mistakes. But it still could have been different; and in this other reality, different was certainly, infinitely better. If only?

3 | "Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil" by Dorothy L. Nelson

This is the most insightful and my personal favorite among the three books. It is not a biography, rather a literary critique of the six women's works. 

These thinkers and artists had significant influence on their respective fields: philosophy, literature, photography. One major criticism when it comes to the scholarship on these fields is that there just aren't enough female voices, i.e. they lack emotion and depth. But interestingly enough, the impact of these women did not arise because of this. In fact, they were largely criticized for the absence of sentiment in their approach to their art. The six women discussed in Tough Enough have been, in varying severity, accused of the opposite: being too cold, too unfeeling. Too detached. In going through the trajectory of their careers and most seminal works, the book explores the ways in which a disavowal of sentimentality by female artists, who are most likely to be accused of it, translates to a powerful stance. Informally dubbed as the "school of the unsentimental," the book examines how human nature is better understood when pain and suffering are processed at an arm's length.

For a sentimental person like me, the impersonality espoused by the book is a kind of wish-fulfillment. I have long admired Joan Didion and Susan Sontag, and I understood the effortlessness of their works was what made them cool. I aspired to be like that. Because their voice seemed so uncaring and dismissive in their writing, they were able to crystallize the minutiae of life in more impressive detail. But I don't think I was fully able to grasp that until this book confirmed it for me.

I was most absorbed by Weil's philosophy of "attention" — attention that is stripped of sympathy and empathy. It is an absolute emptying of our selves, our egos, our feelings, our motivations. When one is "attentive," one renounces this active longing in order to receive what the world has to offer, without the interference of one's limited and biased perspective. For Weil, the problem of actively seeking is precisely that one is too eager to fill the void in our soul. As a result, one settles too hastily on something: a counterfeit, a falsity. It is thus crucial that attention be characterized by detachment. Also central to Weil’s ethics of attention is a certain level of disinterestedness, which is thus the only way we could act justly towards other people's suffering. When we are moved by sentiment, we keep putting ourselves in the narrative. This is not the way to act just; rather we must focus solely on the suffering — the affliction — of others objectively. Otherwise, we cannot truly know. And we cannot truly receive.

Nelson focuses on these women's works pertaining to tragedy and suffering: Arendt's use of irony and discussion of "the banality of evil" in Eichmann in Jerusalem, Susan Sontag's response to the September 11 attacks which did not call for unity but rather castigated the politics that led to the event, Mary McCarthy's rejection of empathy and solidarity in favor of confronting the pain of reality in The Company She Keeps, Diane Arbus's photographs of "the freaks" and the outcasts, Joan Didion's deep dive into grief after the deaths of her husband and daughter — these non-expressive, unemotional responses to reality all gave way to an aesthetic grounded in fact. To them, reality was the antiseptic to pain, and this antiseptic leads to true and actual catharsis. 

Tough Enough is an important book because it proposes that these six women's contributions to intellectual history challenges the modern insistence on empathy as a panacea to all our political and societal illnesses. Whether or not you agree with the case for "unsentimentality," these women's works were monumental in providing different considerations on how to face suffering. In dealing with suffering without trying to inhabit such a large emotional space, we are challenged to accept that empathy is not the only salve to our collective consciousness while still finding something meaningful in our objective collision with reality.


Peculiar, though: none of these books made me cry.1 And yet how fitting, especially considering the last book's appeal to pragmatism. While I wasn't consciously seeking for a theme when I picked up these books, one certainly emerged. To seek out the facts, to make an objective attempt at reality, and to desire the truth, is to create the potential for transformation and action. To be confined to the label of "woman" is certainly a societal flaw that all these women sought to correct. They are embodiments of the female desire to reassess how society views them. They can be many things — caring, detached, emotional, cold, ambitious, facile — all at the same time. It doesn't have to be either/or, and they do not have to be punished for it. 


1 That recognition belongs to "Promise Me, Dad" by Joe Biden, which I read during the height of typhoon Ulysses. By the time our power went back on, I was crying my eyes out on Beau Biden's passing.

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