“Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie” by Barbara Goldsmith

“Today’s ceremony is a deliberate outreach on our part from the Pantheon to the first lady of our honored history. It is another symbol that captures the attention of our nation and the exemplary struggle of a woman who decided to impose her abilities in a society where abilities, intellectual exploration, and public responsibility were reserved for men.”

– Francois Mitterrand, April 20, 1995

Marie Curie is one of the most famous female scientists and51syouo8y5l-_sx333_bo1204203200_ perhaps one of the most famous women in the western world. I intentionally say famous and not well-known, because Curie was and remains a bit of an enigma. A lifelong sufferer from depression, “[t]he only way she was able to cope was by screening out the world and focusing obsessively on a subject, thus holding at bay her feeling of desolation.” An extremely private, introverted woman, Curie’s successes were hard-fought, often under-appreciated, and later mythologized.

Barbara Goldsmith nobly and ably tackles her subject, creating a biography that is well-researched and yet eminently readable. Goldsmith tells briefly of Marie Curie’s childhood and her education, spending most of the book focused on the adult Marie’s trials and triumphs. Curie was a woman of firsts, many of which are richly described in Goldsmith’s book.

“In 1893, Marie Curie became the first woman to secure a degree in physics at the Sorbonne. The following year she received a second degree, in mathematics. She was the first woman to be appointed a professor at the Sorbonne, and the first woman to receive not only one but two Nobel Prizes…. She was the first woman to be elected to the 224-year-old French Academy of Medicine. In addition to having a spectacular career, Marie raised two daughters largely as a single mother and saw that they were well educated, physically strong, and independent.” 

I feel compelled to point out that the glass ceilings Madame Curie cracked are still far from shattered. As of 2015, 48 of 870 individuals who have received a Nobel Prize in any category have been women. I wonder if Curie would be impressed or dismayed at the progress we’ve made?

Barbara Goldsmith’s biography is a fine explication of an enigmatic woman. The task she has set herself is a difficult one, given records in multiple languages, the passage of a significant amount of time, and the privacy of her subject. I suspect that writing about such an exceptional character may stymie a writer’s freedom and creativity; in my experience, biographies are rarely exceptional for their writing, but for their dealing with exceptional subject matter. Such is the case with “Obsessive Genius.” Goldsmith’s prose is balanced, if not inspired; her information broad and factual, if not emotionally deep. Still in all, “Obsessive Genius” was thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening, and I am grateful for Barbara Goldsmith for sharing Marie Curie’s luminescence.


Below is an excerpt from Eve Curie’s biography of Marie, which was included in Goldsmith’s work. Admittedly this may be an unfair comparison, as this passage was written by Curie’s daughter, which suggests a greater access to and emotional connection to her source material. The writing, however, in just a few short strokes, evokes feeling and life that I find thoroughly engaging.

“‘Marie Curie did not change from a happy young wife to an inconsolable widow. The metamorphosis was less simple and more serious. The interior tumult that lacerated Marie, the nameless horror of her wandering ideas, were too virulent to be expressed in complaints or confidences. From the moment when those three worlds, ‘Pierre is dead,’ reached her consciousness, a cape of solitude and secrecy fell upon her shoulders forever. Madame Curie, on that day in April, became not only a widow, but at the same time a pitiful and incurably lonely woman.'”

“The Round House” by Louise Erdrich

lo_res_bks_photo_louise_erdrich_-_the_round_house_hcOn a dusty reservation in North Dakota, 13 year-old Joe Coutts and his father Bazil are upended when their mother/wife Geraldine is absent, first literally and later psychically, because of a heinous crime.

“Women don’t realize how much store men set on the regularity of their habits. We absorb their comings and goings into our bodies, their rhythms into our bones. Our pulse is set to theirs, and as always on a weekend afternoon we were waiting for my mother to start us ticking away on the evening. And so, you see, her absence stopped time.”

Young Joe is coming of age in the smallest of communities, where traditions are the rule of the day and where, even in good circumstances, hardship and struggle are all too familiar. Joe’s father, Bazil, is a respected judge and community leader, in whose quiet shadow Joe wrestles over who he will become.

“I resented the fact that I didn’t have a brand-new name to distinguish me from the tedious Coutts line – responsible, upright, even offhandedly heroic men who drank quietly, smoked an occasional cigar, drove a sensible car, and only showed their mettle by marrying smarter women.”

Initially, Joe and Bazil acknowledge that they are reliant on one another to get through their present trauma. As they work side by side to try to figure out who has victimized Geraldine, Joe begins to feel and be treated like the adult he yearns to become.

“I understood that I was going to help. My father was treating me as his assistant. He knew, of course, about my surreptitious reading. …He nodded again, raised his eyebrows a fraction, and lip-pointed at the stack near my elbow. We began to read. And it was then that I began to understand who my father was, what he did every day, and what had been his life.”

Like many folks touched deeply by trauma and impassioned about an issue, Joe gradually forms his own view of the situation. For this young man, he finds himself slowly pulling away from his father and veering perilously towards vigilantism.

This is 1988, and it is painfully clear that the twisted morass of laws, jurisdictions, and age-old prejudices which cloud life on the reservation stymie any attempts at justice. Heartbreakingly, Erdrich reminds her readers in the afterword that though this particular narrative is based in the recent past, the situation remains largely unimproved. Crimes, particularly those like the one central to this story, often go unpunished because of jurisdictional arguments and the complications of who can and should prosecute each case.

Though Erdrich has chosen to tell this story through the voice of a young man, it is a staunchly feminist narrative. Perhaps Erdrich’s choice to populate her story with men is in some ways a boon; reading about the impact on and struggles with feminism from the male perspective may resonate with a wider audience. After all feminism isn’t just for women. As the cliched definition says, feminism is the radical notion that women are people.

“The Round House” is all about the centrality of female strength, a gravitational force which holds many families together and keeps their engines clicking. Louise Erdrich, as always, has brilliant insight into women’s roles and life, politics, and prejudice among and about Native Americans. Erdrich writes with a steady hand, sharing her thoughts quietly and plainly, often with an imagined twinkle in her eye. In “The Round House” Erdrich’s message was painful, her telling of it superb.


“There are Indian grandmas who get too much church and Indian grandmas where the church doesn’t take, and who are let loose in their old age to shock the young. Zack had one of those last sort. Grandma Ignatia Thunder. She had been to Catholic boarding school but it just hardened her, she said, the way it hardened the priests. She spoke Indian and talked about the men’s secrets. When she and Mooshum got together to reminisce about the old days, my father said they talked so dirty the air round them turned blue.” 

 

 

“In America” by Susan Sontag

“In Poland, you were allowed some practice of the arts of self-indulgence, but you were expected to be sincere and also to have high ideals – people respected you for that. In America, you were expected to exhibit the confusions of inner vehemence, to express opinions no one need take seriously, and have eccentric foibles and extravagant needs, which exhibited the force of your will, your appetitiveness, the spread of your self-regard – all excellent things.”

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In Susan Sontag’s National Book Award winning novel, “In America”, we find another story of immigration, of nineteenth century America, and, most pervasively, a story of female strength and character in a staunchly chauvinistic time and place.

Polish celebrity-couple Maryna Zalezowska and Bogdan Dembowski have decided to emigrate to America. This is not, however, the ‘typical’ poor immigrant, boot-strap story. Maryna Zalezowska is one of Poland’s best-loved actresses and her husband Bogdan is Polish aristocracy. Maryna and Bogdan come to America with financial resources, a veritable village of supporters, and a confidence in their inevitable success. They are determined to make America their own and, though she initially intends to step away from acting and the public eye, Maryna soon can no longer ignore her need for the stage and the limelight.

“In America” takes a deep and developing look at what it means to be one’s self, to discover who we truly are. As a lifelong actress, Maryna is constantly balancing and striving to discriminate among her public persona, the many roles she embodies, and her ‘true’ self.

“If I knew how to hate, perhaps hatred would bring me relief. I ought to have a steel brow and a heart of stone – but what true artist possesses such armor? Only one who feels can produce feeling, only one who loves can inspire love. And would I suffer less if I appeared cold and haughty? No, no, I should just be acting! Yes, a public life is not suited to a woman. Home is the proper place for her. There she reigns – inaccessible, inviolable! But a woman who has dared to raise her head above the others, who has extended her eager hand for laurels, who has not hesitated to expose to the crowds all that her soul contains of enthusiasm and despair – that woman has given everyone the right to rummage in the most secret recesses of her life.”

It is nearly impossible, given the past weeks’ political catastrophe, to ignore the parallels between Maryna, a nineteenth century Polish actor, and the public mishegas surrounding a female candidate for president of the United States in the twenty-first century. Maryna notes to one of her ardent admirers:

“‘It is harder for a woman to want a life different from the one decreed for her. You men have it much easier. You are commended for recklessness, for boldness, for striking out, for being adventurous. A woman has so many inner voices telling her to behave prudently, amiably, timorously. And there is much to be afraid of, I know that. Don’t assume, dear friend, that I have lost all sense of reality. Each time I am brave, I am acting. But that is all that’s needed to be brave, don’t you agree? The appearance of bravery. The performance of it. Since I know I am not brave, not at all this spurs me on to act as if I were.'”

Sigh.

Susan Sontag is a strong, outspoken, much-admired, and often-maligned American woman. Her writing is, as the Washington Post once said, “brave and beautiful”. Though “In America” is set more than 150 years ago, Sontag has made her story relevant and resonant for today. She has also, not incidentally, created a delightful escape. “Losing oneself in a book is a great consolation”, thinks one of the book’s characters, and Sontag’s book was a consolation desperately  needed by me these  days.

acknowledging the proverbial elephant

More than ever, this post is a personal letter from me (and maybe TO me) to anyone out there. It is time that I acknowledge the elephant in the room. These past two weeks have been, for this progressive feminist American woman, nearly unbearable. Though my darkest fears had me saying for more than a year that this election could turn out exactly as it did, the rationalist, the humanist, and maybe even the tiny shred of optimist in me refused to believe it. And yet..

Half of the voting public – nearly 60 million people – voted for a man who actively promotes hate speech, who openly disdains, demeans, and disregards the rights of women, people of color, immigrants, people with disabilities, those with differing sexual orientation, and those who have the audacity to live in poverty. A man who deplores everything I hold dear and what I have to believe this experiment called America is supposed to represent. 60 million people either endorsed this misogynistic, bigoted, jingoistic, xenophobic person or just didn’t care that this was what he represented.

Either way, I am shaken to my core. I feel at sea and unwell, unsure how to move forward. And so, I have been unable to write thoughtful book reviews. Hell, I have struggled to form a thought or read a book these past weeks.

Elephant acknowledged. Now I carry on. My personal mission to continue to seek out the voices too often shouted down remains. More than ever, I feel a sense of purpose in focusing on, elevating, and sharing the voices of women and people of color in particular. I will do my best to calm my anxiety, soften my despair, and return to the reading and writing that lifts my spirits and feeds my mind. I hope you’ll stick around.

 

“The City in Crimson Cloak” by Asli Erdogan (translated by Amy Spangler)

“Why on earth did I ever choose this city that is so viciously cruel to me? This Rio de Janeiro, which conceals its sharp, pointy teeth behind its carnival masks, and envelops my very self in its crimson cloak, woven fiber for fiber of human pain…? There is only one thing for which we abandon safe waters and cut off our roots. Only one thing, for which Adam rejected immortality: THE UNKNOWN.”

51i2bn0yuklAsli Erdogan, a Turkish writer, has created a seemingly autobiographical portrait of a young Turkish writer caught in the demonic undertow that is Rio de Janeiro. Özgür has come to Rio to write, intending to stay for a summer but instead staying for years. Her relationship with Rio – a city of constant danger and interminable darkness – is much like a junkie in the throes of addiction. Özgür is starving and unhinged; she vacillates between isolating herself in her slum apartment and brazenly inserting herself in perilous situations.

“Here I am in this semi-savage land, all alone, an unfamiliar feeling of being both free and besieged brewing within me. (Lonely, alone, derelict, vagrant, orphaned…I can list any number of adjectives, but I cannot build a bridge between words and reality.) The absolute, impeccable, infernal freedom of having not a single person who needs me, or anyone looking after me…I can brandish the lies of my choice, fabricate the past that I long for, pursue the most sinful of fantasies.”

Throughout this infernal novel, the story alternates between a day in the dystopian life of Özgür and excerpts from Özgür’s unfinished novel, also called “The City in Crimson Cloak.” The stories are deeply synchronous and intertwined, a fascinating execution of the ‘Droste effect’ of picture within picture, narrative within narrative.

The Rio of “The City in Crimson Cloak” is savage, brutal, and damned. Özgür sees Rio clearly:

“A sentry every fifty meters. Commando Vermelho’s rankless soldiers, Hades’ pubescent guards…The sharp eyes of a huge bird of prey always at their back…They wear fat gold chains and watches; on their feet are sneakers the size of babies’ tombs; their Bob Marley t-shirts conceal their pistols, the keys that open up all the doors that the world has slammed in their faces. They dress like rap stars, they strut like Hollywood gangsters, and they die like flies.”

Her knowing and seeing, however, do nothing to protect her from the city’s insidious charm. Unable and seemingly uninterested in extracting herself, Özgür is circling the drain while the reader looks on in fascinated horror.

Erdogan’s is a novel about being an outsider, about life in a foreign land, and about the irresistible draw of danger. Her writing is lyrical and hyperbolic, her characters and scenes hellish and irredeemable. No other-worldly demons and haunts are necessary; the depths to which humanity can sink are enough to keep one up at night. “The City in Crimson Cloak” is, in the truest sense, a masterpiece of modern horror.

 

“Daughter of Fortune” by Isabel Allende

Set between 1843 and 1853 and driven by the feverish clamor of the gold rush, “Daughter of Fortune” is an historical novel full of hardship and hard-headedness. Born in obscurity and left in a bin in the garden, Eliza is taken in by siblings Rose and 16527Jeremy Sommers, English expatriates in Valparaiso, Chile. While Jeremy is the distant patriarch of this unusual family, Rose vacillates between acting the mother figure and unreliable mentor to young Eliza. Yet Eliza grows up to be more like the true Rose than anyone ever suspects.

Rose, though self-quarantined and a confirmed “spinster” (what an awful term), is at heart a feminist and no shrinking violet.

“She herself could not see the advantages of marriage; a wife was the husband’s property, with fewer rights than those of a servant or child; on the other hand, a woman alone and without a fortune was at the mercy of the worst abuses. A married woman, if she was clever, could at least manage her husband, and with a bit of luck could even be widowed young.”

Though she preaches restraint, Rose is often unable to hold her tongue, as happens when Rose gets into a delightful and all-too-brief sparring match at one of her infamous afternoon gatherings when her gentlemen guests blithely espouse misogyny.

“‘I understand that in England [chloroform] is sometimes employed in obstetric practice. Did not Queen Victoria use it?’ Todd added, merely to have something to say, since he knew nothing about the subject.

‘Here we encounter major opposition on the part of the Catholics. The biblical curse on women is that they bring forth children with pain, Mr. Todd.’

‘Does that not seem unjust, gentlemen? Man’s curse is to toil with the sweat of his brow, but the men in this room – without having to go any farther – earn their living from the sweat of others’ brows,’ Miss Rose rejoined, turning red as a beet.”

Rose’s ingenue Eliza, though quietly biding her time in childhood, internalizes Rose’s vitality and strength. As a teenager Eliza believes she is rebelling against Miss Rose when in truth she is living out Rose’s long-abandoned dreams.

“Everyone is born with some special talent, and Eliza Sommers discovered early on that she had two: a good sense of smell and a good memory. She used the first to earn a living and the second to recall her life – if not in precise detail, at least with an astrologer’s poetic vagueness. The things we forget may as well never have happened, but she had many memories, both real and illusory, and that was like living twice.”

Guided by her memories and her sense of smell, Eliza forges an unusual path for herself. She spends years in disguise as a man, simultaneously free in a masculine world while bound by her secret. Just like Rose, Eliza Sommers is a woman whose femininity is under wraps while her feminine strength is a force to be reckoned with.

Isabel Allende is a heavyweight prize-fighter in the arena of literary fiction and feminist story-telling. In “Daughter of Fortune” Allende carves with bold and daring strokes, shaping a protagonist who is statuesque in her solidity, strength, and three-dimensionality. A great read from an undisputed master.

“Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik

“‘Sex, like race, is a visible, immutable characteristic bearing no necessary relationship to ability.'”

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Shana Knizhnik created an homage Tumblr account to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that became an international phenomenon. Thus was born “Notorious RBG” and the premise for this new book about this extraordinary woman and her impact on American culture and law.

Since the early 1970s Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been paving the way for women in this country through civil liberties fights and groundbreaking cases. In her first brief to the Supreme Court in Reed v. Reed, RBG set the stage with words that, despite momentous progress, still resonate in America today.

“The distance to equal opportunity for women in the United States remains considerable in face of the pervasive social, cultural and legal roots of sex-based discrimination. As other groups that have been assisted toward full equality before the law via the ‘suspect classification’ doctrine, women are sparsely represented in legislative and policy-making chambers and lack political power to remedy the discriminatory treatment they are accorded in the law and in society generally. Absent firm constitutional foundation for equal treatment of men and women by the law, women seeking to be judged on their individual merits will continue to encounter law-sanctioned obstacles.” 

Shana Knizhnik has curated delightful pop culture images – from tribute t-shirts to iconic political cartoons – which bring levity and life to “Notorious RBG”, while Irin Carmon provides anecdotes and excerpts that shed light on RBGs life’s work. The overall balance of irreverence with admiration throughout the book is delightful and certainly my cup of tea. However, while I enjoyed the tone and loved the content, I did feel that the writing was a little flat and perfunctory. The book shone for enabling the reader to get to know RBG, but the portions worth excerpting were those written by RBG herself.

As an advocate, a trial lawyer, a law school professor, and a Supreme Court Justice, RBG has had an unmatched hand in advancing the cause of equality for women and is looked to as an idol and model by many. RBG once said, “The pedestal upon which women have been placed has all too often, upon closer inspection, been revealed as a cage.” Let us hope that the pedestal upon which many of us have placed her is far from constricting.