Constant Reader
WebBoardOrientationReading ListsHome WorksActivities

by Jeffrey Eugenides

Book Description
"I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of l974. . . My birth certificate lists my name as Calliope Helen Stephanides. My most recent driverís license...records my first name simply as Cal."

So begins the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus in Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City, and the race riots of l967, before they move out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan. To understand why Calliope is not like other girls, she has to uncover a guilty family secret and the astonishing genetic history that turns Callie into Cal, one of the most audacious and wondrous narrators in contemporary fiction. Lyrical and thrilling, Middlesex is an exhilarating reinvention of the American epic.

This book featured in an impromtu discussion during May, 2003, and will be discussed in full on the WebBoard beginning February 15th, 2004.

From: Barbara Moors Date: Sunday, February 15, 2004 08:54 PM That last third of this book interrupted my life. I've been fighting off bronchitis all week and channeled most of my non-work energies into reading, finishing it this morning. When I first read about this book, I had to take its worth on faith from all of those who loved it here. The subject seemed lurid and, possibly, exploitive. However, somehow, Eugenides managed to use the story of the hermaphrodite to explore not just our sexual roles and assumptions but a whole history of a people. My first thought was that Lefty and Desdemona started off quite a landslide of action. However, in some ways, it was the upheaval of their country that touched off the events that followed for the next 3 generations. Do you all think that they would have married each other if those events had not happened? Barb
From: Barbara Moors Date: Sunday, February 15, 2004 09:51 PM Question: is anybody else having trouble reading the previous discussion at the link? I'm sure there is a word for this, but it's not presenting itself within the confines of my screen. I have to move back and forth from left to right (about 2 or 3 times the width of my screen) to read each sentence. Barb
From: Sherry Keller Date: Monday, February 16, 2004 07:38 AM Mary, I'm going to copy your comments down here, so they'll all be together. "I finished reading this book on Friday. I enjoyed it very much though even though I thought the subject matter was unusual. i was surprised by the true humor he brought to the book. The humor of every day life for Callie and how it helped he/she deal with this situation. Barbara feels that Lefty and Desdemona may not have married if the Turks hadn't attacked and sent them on their way to America. If they had stayed in their village I don't think they would have married but I don't think they could have remained together without giving in to the feelings that existed before the fall of Smyrna. Smyrna and that area was unfamiliar to me although I remember a bit about Ataturk from history lessons. I interrupted my reading every so often to go online and look up Smyrna and Detroit auto history and the race riot in Detroit. I like the way he wove these historical events into the thread of Cal's story. I also looked the Intersex Society which actually exists and found out a good deal of information about hermaphrodites and related gender problems. There is an article in one of the newsletters about Eugenides Book and it was fairly positive, the feeling being that this story will give voice to a condition many consider a joke or freakish. This brings me back to the humor in the book. To my mind it was so well done, not exploitive or taking the cheap shot so to speak. I enjoyed this book for it's humor, the history and the people Eugenides created. Desdemona was my favorite character."--Mary Thomas
From: Sherry Keller Date: Monday, February 16, 2004 07:42 AM Barb, I don't have that problem on my Mac, but it does happen on the PC. I wonder if some setting is different. Tonya? Sherry
From: Ann Davey Date: Monday, February 16, 2004 09:00 AM This book was one of the best that I read in the last year. No, I don't think Desdemona and Lefty would ever have married if it had not been for the cataclysm in their country. That broke down all the normal social boundaries. BTW, I never really understood what had happened to their parents. Can anyone explain? Even without the political problems in Smyrna, the marriage pickings were pretty slim. I think that happened a lot in areas where so many of the young men had emigrated to America. To be honest, I enjoyed the first half of the novel much more than the second. I thought that Eugenides handled the hermaphrodite sections of the novel with sensitivity, but Cal's transformation from a teenage girl to a teenage boy went on way too long. I actually got kind of bored with the long segment about her involvement with her best friend, and sex doesn't usually have that effect on me. :) All and all, however, this was an excellent book. Does The Virgin Suicides compare? And do they really commit suicide? Ann
From: Ann Davey Date: Monday, February 16, 2004 09:04 AM ********WARNING - PLOT SPOILER***************** Certain of the more fantastical elements of this story - such as Zizmo's transformation into a Black Muslim and Milton's drive to destruction - reminded me of John Irving. Did anyone else have that reaction? Ann
From: R Bavetta Date: Monday, February 16, 2004 11:30 AM I read this book last year and have not reread so my memory is a bit fuzzed out. I must admit, when I first heard of this book, even tho people were talking favorably, I dug in my heels. I was NOT going to read a book capitalizing on something that sounded straight out of the National Enquirer. However, CR opinion prevailed and I read. And was much surprised at how good it was. Like Ann, tho, I enjoyed the earlier parts more than the latter. I don't think Lefty and Desdemona would have married if they'd stayed put. Leaving the village under the chaotic conditions they did gave them the freedom to reinvent themselves. R
From: Jane Niemeier Date: Monday, February 16, 2004 10:25 PM I have almost finished, and I have enjoyed the whole book. I love the early history of the family: Lefty and Desdemona, Tessie and Milton. And I love the story of Callie's teenage longings. She seems no different from any other girl at that point. More later. Jane
From: Jane Niemeier Date: Sunday, February 22, 2004 10:11 PM Wow,what happened to this thread? I was hoping to find some thought provoking questions waiting for me here, but I don't know if I have any to ask you. I thought that it was strange how Milton's death closely paralleled Jimmy's faked death. I wondered about Cal's running away from home. I didn't know if that was realistic that a 14 year old from a loving family would have the courage to do what Cal did. It was such a big step from Callie to Cal, and it seemed to happen quickly. I suppose that the weeks at the Object's summer home were supposed to help prepare us for the switch. Jane
From: Sherry Keller Date: Monday, February 23, 2004 07:14 AM I guess it's been too long since I read this to be able to talk about it properly. I think a few others are in the same boat. I should have done a re-read, but I didn't. Was the time Cal ran away when the doctor was going to cut? If so, I don't think s/he felt there was another choice. Sherry
From: Ann Davey Date: Monday, February 23, 2004 08:02 PM Jane, I was surprised Eugenides devoted so little space to Cal's psychological transformation into a male. He detailed the freak show horrors, maybe just to have a chance to cover some of the biological aspects of being a hermaphrodite, but that was pretty generic. Ann
From: Sherry Keller Date: Tuesday, February 24, 2004 07:06 AM I think that psychologically he was already male, so there didn't need to be so much transformation. Sherry
From: Ann Davey Date: Tuesday, February 24, 2004 10:16 PM But Sherry, hadn't he been a female psychologically almost his entire life? Ann
From: Edward Houghton Date: Wednesday, February 25, 2004 04:07 AM I'm a little surprised that no one has mentioned ARCADIO. Similar theme, different approach. edd
From: Sherry Keller Date: Wednesday, February 25, 2004 07:54 AM I'm not so sure, Ann. He certainly was raised female, but I think he felt "wrong" a lot of that time. His sexual leanings, his physical differences that became more and more apparent during puberty. All these make him question his inner workings as well as his outer ones. I'd be interested in hearing what other people think, though. Ed, it's been so long since I read Arcadio that I really can't remember a thing about it. And I know I really liked it when I read it, because I said I did in the old thread. Maybe re-reading that discussion will help me remember it. Sherry
From: Jane Niemeier Date: Wednesday, February 25, 2004 09:16 PM Sherry, I am like Ann, in that I thought that the switch was a bit too quick. Callie seemed to want to be a girl much of the time. She wanted breasts and to start menstruating, but maybe this was just peer pressure. And I am with you. I don't remember anything about ARCADIO. Jane
From: Pres Lancaster Date: Thursday, February 26, 2004 01:53 PM I am surprised that this discussion is, so far, just "skating on the surface". How am I going to get the real stuff on this book. pres, who is waiting (maybe) for the library to cough up.
From: R Bavetta Date: Thursday, February 26, 2004 03:26 PM trouble is, I read it last year and my memory is just skating on the surface. R
From: Sherry Keller Date: Thursday, February 26, 2004 05:15 PM Mine, too, Ruth. Sherry From: Beej Connor Date: Tuesday, May 20, 2003 11:07 PM This book is just plain and simply great. I almost passed it by because I really wasn't interested in reading about a hermaphrodite. The only reason I did read it was because it won the Pulitzer. Unlike most of you who have read it, I loved the beginning section, the story of Lefty and Desdemona. i would have been satisfied, or so I thought while reading it, had the entire book had been their story. But as I got to know Calliope, especially knowing what was in store for her, my sympathy bonded her to me and I rooted for her all the way. How could you not root for Callie? She was such a sweet and beloved child. And then as we follow her into the beginning of adolescence, knowing puberty was just around the corner for her, it becomes so easy to relate to her very normal feelings, all the while holding our breath because we know there really is nothing normal ahead for her. Callie knows there is something off kilter, but has no idea what that something is. She describes herself thusly: '"Imagine me then, at unlucky thirteen, as I entered the eighth grade. Five feet ten inches tall, weighing one hundred and thirty one pounds. Black hair hanging like drapes on either side of my nose. People knockling on the air in front of my face and calling out, "Anybody in there?" I was in there all right. Where else could I go??" At fourteen she discovers she's a hermaphrodite. Until puberty, she has all the normal feelings of a girl. But then things go crazy in her body and her emotions; she becomes attracted to females, she begins to grow facial hair. She has no breasts, her shoulders are widening and she does not begin to menstruate. Nurturing made her female, but she's hormonally male, with undescended testicles and a budding penis, which she thinks of as 'her' crocus. She thinks of herself and thinks 'FREAK.' She goes to the library to research data on hermaphrodites, and finds, in the dictionary, that the synonym is 'MONSTER.' Yet, after all that we (and Callie) discover, we can still relate to her/him. We hurt for Cal, we root for Cal. And I think its because, at that age particularly, we all felt a bit like a freak. I wonder about the names in this book, and I think Callie gave many of these characters pseudonyms, just as she did 'The Object'..Grandmother Desdemona might have been taken from Othello. Cassie, Cal's mother, might have been named after Cassandra, who tried to warn of the dangers of the Trojan Horse. and Chapter Eleven..I still haven't figured that one out. On the surface, this is a story of a Greek family, a history of life in the melting pot city of Detroit in the 60's and 70's, the saga of a young teen whose hormones go out of control in a BIG way. But under the surface, it's the story of each of our own personal adolescences, the trials, the hurts, the insecurities. Beej
From: R Bavetta Date: Wednesday, May 21, 2003 12:00 AM I tried to get this at the library last week, but it was out. I'll try again. On your vein of thinking about the names, could Callie be for Calliope? Ruth
From: Dale Short Date: Wednesday, May 21, 2003 12:06 AM Enjoyed your note, Beej. In reference to the brother nicknamed Chapter Eleven... Somewhere very near the end of the book, isn't there a sort of throw-away mention that the brother eventually took over the family hot-dog business and ran it hopelessly into debt? Thus, Chapter Eleven.{G} >>Dale in Ala.
From: Beej Connor Date: Friday, May 23, 2003 01:36 PM Ruth, as a matter of fact, Callie is short for Calliope. I had to look up 'Calliope'... Calliope (Calliopeia), the "Fair Voiced" and the eldest Muse, is the muse of epic poetry and is seen holding a writing tablet in hand, sometimes seen with a roll of paper or a book, and crowned in gold. Pretty appropriate, that! Also, Calliope's father is called Milton..and he definitely tried to create a Paradise for his family. and it definitely ended up a Paradise Lost, thanks to Chapter Eleven, who is Cal's brother..(Can't you picture Eugenides writing this very tongue in cheek?) Dale, I was trying to think of some psychological meaning in Cal's calling her/his brother Chapter Eleven, but I think it's enough to know (and see the wry humor in) that the brother drove the family business into the ground. Beej
From: Merry Rose Date: Friday, May 23, 2003 04:43 PM hihi BEEJ... i have been eagerly awaiting some more posts on i am more interested than before:-)) i found VIRGIN SUICIDES to be a LIFE INTERRUPTER!! hey dale.. didn't you tell me that EUGENIES received an award for the first paragraph or first chapter of this novel?? gail... dancing as fast as i can!
From: Dale Short Date: Friday, May 23, 2003 06:29 PM gail! Good to see you back. Speaking of SF, there's a one-paragraph description of your city in MIDDLESEX that blew me away. Have you come across it yet? Re: his first book, you've got a good memory. The Paris Review published the first chapter of Eugenides' THE VIRGIN SUICIDES just before the book came out, and the excerpt won the 1991 Aga Khan Fiction Prize. >>Dale in Ala.
From: Beej Connor Date: Friday, May 23, 2003 10:04 PM Hey gail! I may have to take a break from 'Don Quixote' to read 'The Virgin Suicides.' Be forewarned, 'Middlesex' is a hefty book with over 500 pages, but the book is so good that its length shouldn't be a deterrent. (plus, considering 'Don Quixote' has almost 1100 pages, Middlesex seems to have been a mere novella in comparison!) Sherry, I'm really looking forward to your impressions. Beej
From: Dottie Randall Date: Saturday, May 24, 2003 02:39 AM My own reading of Middlesex got waylaid when it turned out the one copy they'd had -- which I'd checked out the cover texts -- was GONE when I went back. I didn't order it -- that is a long process with this store and I have no time or patience for it. I will be at ABC Leuven in a week and checking the shelves and am pretty sure they will have more than one copy of this one! Dottie
From: Dale Short Date: Saturday, May 24, 2003 01:08 PM Dottie: I'm sure MIDDLESEX will be easier to find, next time you try. Strange, how those Pulitzer Prizes have a magical effect on a book's print run...{G} By the way, here's Eugenides' gorgeous passage about San Francisco that I mentioned in my note to gail... *** Every morning a great wall of fog descends upon the city of San Francisco. It begins far out at sea. It forms over the Farallons, covering the sea lions on their rocks, and then it sweeps onto Ocean Beach, filling the long green bowl of Golden Gate Park. The fog obscures the early morning joggers and the lone practitioners of tai chi. It mists up the windows of the Glass Pavilion. It creeps over the entire city, over the monuments and movie theaters, over the Panhandle dope dens and the flophouses in the Tenderloin. The fog covers the pastel Victorian mansions in Pacific Heights and shrouds the rainbow-colored houses in the Haight. It walks up and down the twisting streets of Chinatown; it boards the cable cars, making their clanging bells sound like buoys; it climbs to the top of Coit Tower until you can't see it anymore; it moves in on the Mission, where the mariachi players are still asleep; and it bothers the tourists. The fog of San Francisco, that cold, identity-cleansing mist that rolls over the city every day, explains better than anything else why that city is what it is. After the Second World War, San Francisco was the main point of reentry for sailors returning from the Pacific. Out at sea, many of these sailors had picked up amatory habits that were frowned upon back on dry land. So these sailors stayed in San Francisco, growing in number and attracting others, until the city became the gay capital, the homosexual Hauptstadt. (Further evidence of life's unpredictability: the Castro is a direct outcome of the military-industrial complex.) It was the fog that appealed to those sailors because it lent the city the shifting, anonymous feeling of the sea, and in such anonymity personal change was that much easier. Sometimes it was hard to tell whether the fog was rolling in over the city or whether the city was drifting out to meet it. Back in the 1940s, the fog hid what those sailors did from their fellow citizens. And the fog wasn't done. In the fifties it filled the heads of the Beats like the foam in their cappuccinos. In the sixties it clouded the minds of the hippies like the pot smoke rising in their bongs. And in the seventies, when Cal Stephanides arrived, the fog was hiding my new friends and me in the park... >>Dale in Ala.
From: Pres Lancaster Date: Saturday, May 24, 2003 01:35 PM Thanks, DALE. It rings true. pres
From: R Bavetta Date: Saturday, May 24, 2003 01:38 PM When I lived in the Sunset district I loved hearing the foghorn before I opened my eyes in the morning. R
From: Dottie Randall Date: Saturday, May 24, 2003 03:50 PM Checked for a copy today -- no luck -- will simply wait till next week at the ABC - I'm sure they will have more than one copy of this! The English language selection at Standaard went downhill when it moved up to the middle floor a couple years ago. But ABC -- American Book Center is just what it says. Dottie
From: R Bavetta Date: Saturday, May 24, 2003 06:08 PM Sigh. The copy at the library here has been due back for over a week. R
From: Sandy Langley Date: Saturday, May 24, 2003 07:59 PM In the last fiction issue, the New Yorker carried an excerpt of Middlesex. Enough to make me realize that this was not my book. Sandy
From: Jean Keating Date: Saturday, May 24, 2003 08:25 PM I read part of it and found it wasn't mine either Sandy. Jean K.
From: R Bavetta Date: Saturday, May 24, 2003 08:41 PM Gee, that must have slipped completely under my radar. R
From: Beej Connor Date: Saturday, May 24, 2003 09:56 PM I missed that, too. I'll have to go through my back copies of the NYer and see what section was exerpted. While reading 'Middlesex,' I did a little search to see what others thought of it. Most folks loved it..and I did too, for sure!..but there were some people who didn't care for it at all. It seems to be one of those books whose premise you either love or hate. For me, it was one of the best books I've read in a long time. (This kind of reminds me of when I finished Lamb's 'I Know This Much is True.' After reading that one, I told everyone who'd listen that they HAD to read this book, that they wouldn't be able to put it down. My sister ran and bought a copy..only to tell me, after she finished, how much she hated it and couldn't figure out why I raved about it. Everyone else who took me up on my referral loved it as much as I did, but the person whose opinion I most respected, wished she hadn't bothered with it. Oh well. It happens to all of us I suppose..I HATED 'The Lovely Bones.' ..just thought it was a dumb piece of worthless drivel. But I think I'm in the minority about that one.) Ruth and Dottie, I very much look forward to hearing what you both think, along with Sherry and, hopefully, gail. Beej
From: Sherry Keller Date: Sunday, May 25, 2003 08:25 AM Beej, I'm about 150 pages in and I love it. I thought his description of the repetitive jobs on an assembly-line at the Ford plant were mesmerizing. Sherry
From: Robert Armstrong Date: Sunday, May 25, 2003 09:26 AM Dale, Great quote. Robt
From: Beej Connor Date: Sunday, May 25, 2003 10:34 AM Bob, yes, I know I'm in the small minority who felt that way about "Lovely Bones.' I think most people really loved it. I mentioned my honest, personal impression of this book only to emphasize that even a well loved novel is not loved by everyone. I didn't mean to upset you. Sherry, I'm so glad you love this book! I think Ruth will too. Beej
From: R Bavetta Date: Sunday, May 25, 2003 10:52 AM I was lukewarm about Bones, Beej. And the longer I get away from the immediate read, the more I think it's Jonathan Livingston Seagull redux. Dumb masquerading as Meaningful. R
From: Beej Connor Date: Sunday, May 25, 2003 03:53 PM Sherry, 'Middlesex' is chock full of beautiful writing. I won't go into it now, but there's an important scene toward the end of the book,,involving Milton..that was absolutely breathtaking, no other word for it..for Dale and anyone else who has read's Milton's 'flight' scene...What a wowser that was! Beej
From: Pres Lancaster Date: Sunday, May 25, 2003 04:52 PM My goodness! But still the Vine her ancient Ruby yields, And still a Garden by the Water blows. pres
From: Beej Connor Date: Sunday, May 25, 2003 09:10 PM Sherry, there is so much to discuss about this book. I think it would be most worthwhile to get this discussion back on track. One thing I'd like to get into is why Desdemona and Lefty felt it was alright to marry. It just seems so bizarre to me that a brother and sister could feel that way about one another. I think Desdemona felt they were going to die anyway, so what did it matter. But Lefty didnt seem to have that fear. Beej
From: R Bavetta Date: Sunday, May 25, 2003 09:44 PM I've been gone all day, and just came back to all these posts. Hey, guys, I'm sorry. I could have been more politic in my criticism of Bones. Didn't mean to step on any toes, honestly. My quarrel is with the book alone. Not with any of you who loved it. Mea culpa. Rutyh
From: Beej Connor Date: Sunday, May 25, 2003 09:48 PM Those are my sentiments exactly Ruth. In fact my entire point was that even the most beloved book can be absolutely detested by someone or other. IOW, no book is exempt from that. It certainly was not my intention to offend. Beej
From: Dale Short Date: Sunday, May 25, 2003 10:51 PM Speaking of MIDDLESEX... Beej mentions Milton's "flight" scene toward the end. Absolutely stunning. What a way to "go"! I'll never again think of the classic{?} auto design of the AMC Gremlin without the ending of MIDDLESEX coming to mind. With so much of this one set in Motor City, I guess it's no surprise that cars play such starring roles. >>Dale in Ala.
From: Beej Connor Date: Wednesday, May 28, 2003 10:20 PM Dale and Sherry, what do you make of the narrator explaining things that happened long before her birth, as if she were witnessing them? Is it Calliope/Cal speaking? Or is it that latent mutated gene speaking? Or is that gene so tied in with Cal's self image that (s)he sees it as the largest part of her 'self?' Beej
From: Sherry Keller Date: Thursday, May 29, 2003 08:35 AM I really don't know, Beej, but I do know that telling her/his pre-story didn't bother me a whit. The voice always seems masculine to me, so when the narrator talks about himself as a little girl, I'm always a little startled. I'm not at all sure it's just me. I think that frisson of surprise is just what the author intended. Sherry
From: Beej Connor Date: Thursday, May 29, 2003 08:49 AM I agree, Sherry. I think that the fact we consider the narrator to be male, even when Cal was being raised as a female, was something Eugenides somehow intentionally manipulated. I think the nature/nurture debate is one of the biggest parts of this novel. Obviously, nature won out..those male hormones had the final say. But the female side of Cal, which totally developed through nurturing, never completely left. So I presume Eugenides is saying, tho nature is strong enough to always be dominant, nurture is a real close second, possibly a bigger influence than we would have thought it to be. Beej
From: Beej Connor Date: Thursday, May 29, 2003 10:27 AM Here's how Cal describes the melding of genders within himself..the inadvertent harmony of nature and nurture: 'When Calliope surfaces, she does so like a childhood speech impediment. Suddenly there she is again, doing a hair flip, or checking her nails. Itís a little like being possessed. Callie rises up inside me, wearing my skin like a loose robe. She sticks her little hands into the baggy sleeves of my arms. She inserts her chimpís feet through the trousers of my legs. On the sidewalk Iíll feel her girlish walk take over, and the movement brings back a kind of emotion, a desolate and gossipy sympathy for the girls I see coming home from school Ö. The sick fluid of adolescent despair that runs through her veins overflows again into mine. But then, just as suddenly, she is leaving, shrinking and melting away inside me, and when I turn to see my reflection in a window thereís this: a forty-one-year-old man with longish, wavy hair, a thin mustache, and a goatee. A kind of modern Musketeer.' Beej
From: Dale Short Date: Thursday, May 29, 2003 10:00 PM DYNAMITE passage, Beej. You've homed in on exactly the section that most lingers in my mind after reading MIDDLESEX... the "secondary sex characteristics" such as hair-flipping, gait, mannerisms, etc. Now I catch myself watching others (and myself) with a sort of analytical eye to which of those movements and habits are hard-wired into our brain/bodies and which ones are internalized into our nervous systems during the process of growing up, i.e. a boy learning to move in ways he won't be mistaken for a girl, and vice versa. Fascinating stuff. >>Dale in Ala.
From: Sherry Keller Date: Friday, May 30, 2003 07:04 AM I read past the half-way mark last night. I'm at the part where Calliope is in middle school and hiding herself in the locker room. What a scary time that is for just about everybody, but even more so for someone not developing "normally". I saw a fascinating show about hermaphrodites on the Discovery Health Channel about six months ago. It really made doctors look bad. One doctor pressured a family into having surgery on their baby because they said that there "might" be cancer. There was no cancer; it was for the child's own "good" to make it physically look more like a girl. Maybe Calliope was lucky the old doctor was such an un-thorough examiner. Sherry
From: Beej Connor Date: Friday, May 30, 2003 10:18 AM Sherry, yeah, I think most middle school aged kids feel abnormal in one way or another, but most go on to accept differences as simply that..differences.. and concentrate on accentuating the positive, instead. In Callie's case, her worst fears became validated, and while still at an impressionable, insecure age. I can't begin to imagine what a nightmare that would be. Cal surely came through it, at least emotionally, a lot better than I think I would have, had it been me! I found this interesting article:,3367,1441_A_827819_1_A,00.html This section came as no surprise to me. It's basically saying what I tried to say in an earlier post. From Eugenides: '"What I do is take something that might sound freaky at first and make it very normal," says Eugenides. "I think that if you read Middlesex, the idea of hermaphrodites will become much closer to your own experience. It's really symbolic of the change we all go through at puberty and the sexual confusion that we all have at adolescence. But all I can say is that the books I've written sound extreme but they're actually about experiences that, I think, everyone goes through." Eugenides admits a lot of the Stephanides' background is based on autobiographical material and is quick to point out that he is NOT a hermaphrodite..but, and I found it most amusing, he is even quicker to point out that his grandparents are definitely not siblings. (I wonder how many friends of Eugenides' grandparents raised a quick curious eyebrow about that part of the book!) Beej
From: Tonya Presley Date: Friday, May 30, 2003 04:08 PM Sherry, I got this yesterday, and passed the 20 page mark at lunch today. Obviously, I won't be much in this discussion. Tonya
From: R Bavetta Date: Friday, May 30, 2003 06:16 PM I picked it up today. Just finished the first chapter. Already I'm loving it. This guy can write. Ruth
From: Sherry Keller Date: Friday, May 30, 2003 08:05 PM I'm on the home stretch. I've covered over a hundred pages today, and I'll probably do a hundred more before I sleep. Off to read. Sherry
From: Beej Connor Date: Friday, May 30, 2003 08:39 PM Yay, Sherry! I know when I finished I thought to myself, "how will I ever be able to start another book after THIS one!" I can't wait to hear what you think! Tonya, it'll sneak up and grab you, you watch! Suddenly, you'll find yourself thinking about the characters while you're doing other things.. and then you won't want to put it down! At least, that's what happened to me. Ruth, isn't the writing just beautiful? And he makes it look so effortless! Beej
From: Tonya Presley Date: Friday, May 30, 2003 09:33 PM I'd love if it got a stranglehold on me, and I'd hate it. I'm behind on a lot of non-reading to-dos. Feel time pressing constantly, and with school out Margo is in near constant need of a gaming partner. Just read it has been chosen as June's discussion for the NYTimes reading group. Tonya
From: Sherry Keller Date: Saturday, May 31, 2003 08:54 AM Stayed up until almost midnight to finish. I ripped through those last 200 pages like butter. This is some book. One of the things that I think really worked here is the point of view. It's first person, but not your typical first person narrative. It seems like omniscient first person. Callie/Cal described things he couldn't have possibly been privy to, but no matter, it flowed seamlessly. The reader doesn't get a sense of "how could he know that?" The structure set up from the very beginning sets the tone. As Beej said earlier, it's almost told from the gene's point of view. MILD SPOILERS Beej, weren't you just so incensed at Dr. Lurie's "techniques?" Showing porn movies to a 14-year-old! Not wanting to tell him or his family about the XY chromosome configuration? (Do you think it's likely that a patient could see the file as easily as Cal did?) I think the doctor/patient relationship has really changed over the years, but it's still hard for me to fathom that a doctor would withhold information like that. I know it happened all the time, though. Sherry
From: Beej Connor Date: Saturday, May 31, 2003 12:33 PM Sherry, Dr. Lurie played God..something a lot of doctors seem to still do. But from that first visit to his office, there was a sleaziness about him, what with all the hidden visuals of copulation scattered throughout his office waiting room. What I wonder is this: if the doctor had been more up front with Callie's condition, and had given the involved parties the ability to make an informed choice, do you think Callie would have still 'become' a male? Beej
From: R Bavetta Date: Saturday, May 31, 2003 12:34 PM I'm plowing away. This is written so well it's an easy read. Is there ever an explanation of why the kid is called Chapter Eleven? R
From: Dale Short Date: Saturday, May 31, 2003 12:42 PM Ruth: The key to "Chapter Eleven" is unveiled (very off-handedly; I almost missed it) in the last chapter or so, as I recall. If you don't want to wait, I can clarify via e-mail...{G} >>Dale in Ala.
From: R Bavetta Date: Saturday, May 31, 2003 01:47 PM I'll wait, Dale. Tho it seems a long one. R
From: Beej Connor Date: Saturday, May 31, 2003 12:43 PM Yep. Dale explains it in an earlier post. I thought there'd be a deep, symbolic maybe he was bankrupt in an emotional way..but apparently it's just a little amusing, tongue-in-cheek, thingy.. Beej
From: Sherry Keller Date: Saturday, May 31, 2003 08:52 PM Beej, I think Cal/lie would have still opted for "male" since he was so attracted to The Obscure Object. Being male just explained so many things that seemed wrong to Callie. It took me a while to figure out that Chapter Eleven wasn't his real name (just like Obscure Object wasn't HER real name) and that it was a sort of long-range form of foreshadowing. Sherry
From: Beej Connor Date: Saturday, May 31, 2003 09:09 PM True..and she certainly wasn't happy as a female, especially once those hormones began to rage. I don't think any of the names were the real ones. Or I should say, I think they were all symbolic of something else. Beej
From: R Bavetta Date: Saturday, May 31, 2003 11:00 PM I've just come to the part where Desdemona has her tubes tied, and I can't resist the compulsion to insert an off-topic note. Her doctor most probably used the Pomeroy Procedure, sometimes known as the Pomeroy Technique, for tubal ligation. It was invented by my mother's uncle, Dr. Ralph Pomeroy (I have his Phi Beta Kappa key), sometime in the first quarter of the 20th century, and remains the most popular technique today. RP was a bit of a reformer, who felt strongly that women shouldn't have to keep having so many children. As you were. R
From: Beej Connor Date: Saturday, May 31, 2003 11:03 PM (God bless Dr. Pomeroy's soul.) Again, as you were.. Beej
From: Beej Connor Date: Sunday, June 01, 2003 09:42 AM Did anyone else think it ironic that the name 'Eugenides' is so similar to the word 'Eugenics,' which is a killing of those people who do not fit a certain standard? Beej
From: Sandy Langley Date: Sunday, June 01, 2003 10:02 AM On 6/1/2003 9:42:00 AM, Beej Connor wrote: >Did anyone else think it >ironic that the name >'Eugenides' is so similar to >the word 'Eugenics,' which is >a killing of those people who >do not fit a certain standard? > >Beej eugenics SYLLABICATION: eu∑gen∑ics PRONUNCIATION: y-jnks NOUN: (used with a sing. verb) The study of hereditary improvement of the human race by controlled selective breeding. I suppose that eugenics could include, killing, but it isn't what the word means. Sandy
From: Beej Connor Date: Sunday, June 01, 2003 10:15 AM Well, that fits even better, then, because that's what the book really is..a study. Thanks, Sandy, for clarifying the definition. Beej
From: R Bavetta Date: Tuesday, June 03, 2003 07:48 PM I finished this book last night. I enjoyed every syllable of the way to the end. When the parents are talking to Dr. Lurid about surgery, I cringed inside. "Run, Callie, run!" And she did. R
From: Sherry Keller Date: Wednesday, June 04, 2003 08:32 AM I just knew you would like this book, Ruth. I finally read the Salon interview with Eugenides. When I wrote my note about the "omniscient first-person narrator" I had never heard of it before. I thought I had coined a phrase! If any of you haven't read it, it's well worth your time. I had never thought of the struggle he must have gone through trying to figure out what pronouns to use before he settled on the POV. Sherry
From: Sherry Keller Date: Wednesday, June 04, 2003 09:01 AM If anyone is interested in reading the New York Time's discussion, here is a link. If you're not already a NYT registered reader, it may not work. Sherry
From: Beej Connor Date: Wednesday, June 04, 2003 09:53 AM Thanks, Sherry. I meant to get to that site before now and appreciated the link you posted. The use of the word 'destiny' in the NY Times grabbed me. Was Cal destined to be male, even though there were certain avenues that could have been chosen in order to allow Cal to function as a female? This book has really made me question what I had previously presumed, that nature is so much stronger than nurture. Not too long ago, scientists came upon the startling discovery that our human genetic code is comprised of around 30,000 genes, about twice that of a worm and only a few above a rat's. (If I remember correctly, it had been thought our genetic code consisted of around 300,000 genes.) From what I understand, this discovery of a lower human genetic structure, caused scientists to believe nature was not quite as strong a determining factor as they had previously believed, and that because of this, determined that nurture had a lot more influence than had been previously thought. So, what was Cal really destined to become? A male by nature but a female by nurture? Do you think Cal ever escaped from female emotions? I don't mean the day to day little things, like slipping shoes on in a feminine manner, or the habit of crossing legs at the ankle. I mean those EMOTIONAL female traits. (Are emotional tendencies hot wired into our genetic codes? I guess I'm presuming our emotional tendencies are a result of nurture.) Would nurture, obviously so much stronger an influence than had previously been presumed, be that easy to discard? Beej
From: Beej Connor Date: Wednesday, June 04, 2003 10:03 AM What is this business with the Eumenides that they mention in the Times discussion? How would it relate to Cal? (I'm not really familiar with the Eumenides.) Beej
From: Sherry Keller Date: Wednesday, June 04, 2003 12:55 PM I'm think that Eugenides' message is there is a continuum of male/female traits and why should one have to choose if you possess traits (or society's preconceived notion of sexual traits) from each sex. Wouldn't there be a way in which to live to be the true "middlesex"? Sherry
From: Dale Short Date: Wednesday, June 04, 2003 12:59 PM Sherry writes, Wouldn't there be a way in which to live to be the true "middlesex"? When that momentous day comes, Sherry, first thing I'm doing is making a beeline to the women's restrooms. Talk about a breath of fresh air.{G} >>Dale in Ala.
From: Beej Connor Date: Wednesday, June 04, 2003 01:10 PM Sherry, wasn't there something in the book about the era of unisex and how it just didn't seem to please much of anyone (except maybe the barber?) Dale, I hate to be the harbinger of bad news, but I have seen some pretty disgusting ladies bathrooms..tho there are some that are lovely and truly deserve their nomenclature of 'powder room.' Beej
From: Sherry Keller Date: Wednesday, June 04, 2003 01:13 PM I don't remember any talk about unisex in the book, but Eugenides did mention it in that Salon interview. I could just be forgetting it though. Sherry
From: Sandy Langley Date: Wednesday, June 04, 2003 01:05 PM The Eumenides are the Furies of ancient Greek mythology. The Eumenides is also the title of the third play of Aeschylus's trilogy, The Orestia. The Furies are awful to view; snake haired, with breath of corruption. They mete out a savage justice. When Orestes, upon orders from Apollo, murders his mother, Clytemnestra, the Furies pursue him. What this all has to do with Eugenides book may be obvious to one who has read it. Sandy
From: Beej Connor Date: Wednesday, June 04, 2003 01:23 PM Sherry, I believe there was something said in the section concerning the Doctor (tho I might be wrong about that) and also in a conversation with the barber. But it certainly would not be surprising if I did confuse the interview with parts of the book. Sandy, thank you! I've read the book, but don't see where that ties in with 'Middlessex,' so I have no idea what those fine erudite folks over at the Times are talking about. I think I remember something about the Furies of ancient Greek mythology having originated from blood droplets spilt across the earth after a god had been wounded, and I think the word 'furious' is connected with the Furies by means of their root, but what that, or The Eumenides, has to do with this book, I do not know. Beej
From: Beej Connor Date: Wednesday, June 04, 2003 01:32 PM 'I'm think that Eugenides' message is there is a continuum of male/female traits and why should one have to choose if you possess traits (or society's preconceived notion of sexual traits) from each sex.' Sherry, I keep re-reading those words of yours, and I think you're 100% right. And when I think of the novel in those terms, it really appalls me that this adolescent would even have it suggested to her ( suggestion..yuh right; it was shoved down her throat) that she should have such radical surgery. Actually, it would only be as a means for Callie to better be accepted by society. Like Ruth, I am sooo glad Cal ran. As an aside, I just picked up a copy of 'The Virgin Suicides' this afternoon and can hardly wait to get started on that one. Beej
From: Dale Short Date: Wednesday, June 04, 2003 01:44 PM Beej writes, Actually, it [the surgery] would only be as a means for Callie to better be accepted by society. Hear, hear, Beej. In fact, I would even go a step further and suggest that perhaps one reason MIDDLESEX so resonates for those of us with standard-issue genitalia is that on another level the surgery "solution" can be seen as a metaphor for the ways in which most people have aspects of their bodies and emotions that don't fit the collective illusion we have of normalcy, and thus those non-standard yearnings and imperatives receive the metaphorical scalpel during childhood and keep receiving it even later. Unless we run. >>Dale in Ala.
From: R Bavetta Date: Wednesday, June 04, 2003 02:02 PM Bravo, Dale. R
From: Beej Connor Date: Wednesday, June 04, 2003 08:37 PM Oh my, Dale! I had picked up on the metaphorical meaning behind Callie's feeling out of the loop as an adolescent, and that it's easy to relate to feeling that way at that age, but I never saw all the implications behind the surgery! I think you've hit it dead on. You and Sherry sure did open up a couple significant avenues to explore! Beej
From: Tonya Presley Date: Thursday, June 05, 2003 10:47 AM Dale's note is so true, but... (and maybe I shouldn't weigh in, having read just 200 or so pages and none of the interview) it seems the decision to run at the point he did necessitates a lifelong run. I've picked up already that Cal gets a new posting every few years. He would have to. The fight is between remaining the way he was born v. society's acceptance. Never underestimate the value of society's acceptance; we are all social creatures. It is something we need, and we make judgements about what we're willing to change to better achieve it-- from wearing the right shoes or haircut to whitening our teeth to plastic surgery. I think when one gets "buried in" the story, as is inescapable in a 500 page book, it is easy to lose the everyday perspective. Being true to yourself is so basic and noble, but it is such an alternative challenge for Cal. Keeping in mind I haven't finished yet, the question I get from what I have read and these notes is: can a life without intimate contact be worth that price? Tonya
From: Beej Connor Date: Thursday, June 05, 2003 10:56 AM Tonya, Cal addresses that question as the book goes on. I think the answer as to why Callie ran from the surgery is a really complex issue. And, without going into enough detail to spoil the story for anyone, I don't think it's just the surgery Cal runs from. I think Cal is also running from Calliope. Beej
From: Peggy Ramsey Date: Friday, June 06, 2003 02:28 PM I may have bailed on The Cave, but am gobbling this one up as fast as I can read it! Peggy Resident Peasant
From: Beej Connor Date: Friday, June 06, 2003 02:45 PM Isn't it great?! Have you read 'The Virgin Suicides' yet, Peggy? If not, I'm going to start that one as soon as I finish 'The Cave,' if you'd care to read and discuss it with me. I think I read somewhere that it took Eugenides nine years to write 'Middlesex.' My only regret is that it will probably be a long, long time before he turns out another novel. Beej
From: R Bavetta Date: Friday, June 06, 2003 04:59 PM I'm game for TVS, too, but I'll have to buy it, which means either a wait for $25 to collect in my Amazon cart, or a drive to the other side of Riverside. R
From: Beej Connor Date: Saturday, June 07, 2003 11:46 AM Ruth, 'The Cave' has taken a slow turn so I'll not finish it as soon as I thought I would..IOW, it might be a week or so before I even start 'The Virgin Suicides.' I noticed has the trade paperback on sale for under $11, btw. Beej
From: Tonya Presley Date: Saturday, June 07, 2003 11:51 AM Oh my! I don't remember THE CAVE ever slowing down for me; this could be a bad sign! Tonya
From: Beej Connor Date: Saturday, June 07, 2003 11:57 AM It might be due more to goings-on in my personal life than to the book tho, Tonya. It has rained here steadily for days and days, and with the kids off for summer break and stuck in the house, my concentration is constantly broken. Beej
From: Tonya Presley Date: Saturday, June 07, 2003 12:32 PM Ah well, that's good then! No, wait-- that is bad, bad. Rain and bored kids, I know something about that... Tonya
From: Beej Connor Date: Saturday, June 07, 2003 12:37 PM Ha!! Yes, I figured you could relate! Beej
From: Peggy Ramsey Date: Sunday, June 08, 2003 12:31 AM Wow. Wow and Wow. It's been a while since I've been so blown away by a novel, and it feels GOOD! I'm not sure how much I can add to the discussion here, but the thing that impressed me the most was how authentic Eugenides' voice was. Those characters lived and breathed for me -- even now, it's hard to believe I was reading fiction instead of a biography. And that's after taking into account some of the more fantastic elements (Milton's flight, for example). Amazing. I also just had an authentic Homeric D'oh! moment: the whole time I was reading this, I kept wondering why on earth these people named their son Chapter Eleven. Then I saw Dale's note at the top of the thread. D'oh! Peggy Resident Peasant, off to the library website to request The Virgin Suicides
From: R Bavetta Date: Sunday, June 08, 2003 01:14 AM I agree about Eugenides voice. I kept thinking it was biography, too. R
From: Sherry Keller Date: Sunday, June 08, 2003 07:53 AM Boy, you read it fast, Peggy. It's that kind of book for sure. I think all of us were wondering why he was named Chapter Eleven. It's funny. I accepted "The Obscure Object" as a name, because Cal/lie made some reference to calling her that. It didn't occur to me that Chapter Eleven had the same sort of "name" until the very end. Sherry
From: Tonya Presley Date: Sunday, June 08, 2003 11:15 AM Just after Callie's birth, and I've really s-l-o-w-e-d down. Didn't get to really read for a couple of days. Hope to get back on track today. Tonya
From: Beej Connor Date: Sunday, June 08, 2003 11:52 AM This book might seem biographical because it contains so much background material from Eugenides' own life. I think Eugenides says, in that article for which I posted a link in an earlier post, that he included tons of his own family history in order to give the book a more credible biographical 'feel.' It may be a work of fiction, but it's also a biography..a fictional biography, of sorts, since it's Cal's (and Callie's) life story. I think another reason this worked so well, is the way Eugenides blended the third person account with the first person narrative. I was amazed at just how smoothly he did that. Beej
From: Dale Short Date: Monday, June 09, 2003 10:33 AM The fight is between remaining the way he was born v. society's acceptance. Never underestimate the value of society's acceptance; we are all social creatures. Excellent point, Tonya. As my favorite philosopher, Don Henley of the Eagles, wrote, "Every form of refuge has its price," and Cal is paying a considerable one. (There's also the Joplin/Kristofferson line, "Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.") On the other hand, Cal's situation boils down to, at one level, a physical disability where sexual intimacy is concerned. Definitely would tend to put a damper on casual sex, I would think. But by the end of the book it seems he may have found a woman who's open-minded and understanding enough to share a life with him. Or am I overestimating the evidence this could happen? >>Dale in Ala.
From: Peggy Ramsey Date: Monday, June 09, 2003 11:40 AM I only have a minute, but wanted to jot this down before I forgot -- but aren't we being a little hard on the doctor? I'm not totally excusing his motives or his secrecy, but Callie did everything in her/his power to convince him that she was living life as a normal girl. I feel kinda bad blaming him for the decisions he made, when those decisions were based on Callie telling him what she thought would get her out of the appointments. Essentially, she was lying to him. Peggy Resident Peasant
From: Lee Beech Date: Thursday, March 11, 2004 05:03 PM I have been recommending this book to everyone who will listen for a few seconds, and in many ways I feel it is the book of the decade, if not of the century. First of all, I resisted reading a book about a hermaphrodite and incest. However, once I began, I could NOT resist, and stayed up most of a night to continue reading. I loved Cal's parents, and to my surprise, the incest not only did not disturb my prudery, but in some ways, I could sympathize with them. Their whole social and support system had collapsed, they had no one to turn to but each other, in the midst of the horror of the Turk/Greek struggle. I was amazed that any author could turn me around so skillfully. I loved the social background Eugenides provided for the novel, not intrusive but seriously supportive. Both the Greek/Turk struggles, the life of the immigrant, and the background of the industrial society were like the music in a film or the sky and surroundings in a painting. They supported and enhanced the main action without overwhleming it. I loved the settings which Eugenides developed, and felt that the enhancement of his action was immense. His transformation of Callie to Cal was done with such sensitivity and sheer genius that this reader developed a great deal of sympathy which she had not necessarily intended not thought possible for both this character and the condition in general. I had never actually had any particular prejudice either for or against hermaphrodites, I had just never really given the situation much thought, but Eugenides has certainly made me examine my attitudes and develop a sympathy and sensitivity which I would not have had without his treatment. My main criticism of the book is of his ending. In many ways, he is predicting a somewhat rosier future than I would anticipate for Cal. Given the nature of our understanding of others, I very much doubt that Cal would receive other than a lukewarm reception in his new state, and more likely would be viewed as a freak. It is unfortunate but true that many people view any deviation from their own norms as unacceptable, and certainly sexual deviance is viewed with great discomfort. I felt richer both intellectually and emotionally for reading this novel I admired it so much that I immediately bought a copy of his other work The Virgin Suicides. Although its theme was totally different and it was not the work of genius which Middlesex was, I admired his treatment of the topic, his character development, and his ability to carry me along in areas which are generally distasteful. I believe that Eugenides' writing is going to meet the test of time.
From: Barbara Moors Date: Thursday, March 11, 2004 06:17 PM Excellent synopsis, Lee. I agree with you about the artistry that Eugenides used in meshing the history with the story. It fit perfectly and you weren't aware of his efforts to combine them. It was all part and parcel of the story. And, I wasn't sure that Cal was going to have such a happy ending either. Sexuality is one area that often defies rational intellectual thought. It was hard for me to believe that Julie was actually going to develop a sexual realtionship with him. However, I might have been projecting my own feelings on to her. I haven't read Virgin Suicides. It was another case of not wanting to deal with the subject matter. You thought that one was good, but not as good as Middlesex? Barb
From: Sherry Keller Date: Friday, March 12, 2004 08:16 AM Lee, your reaction is much the same as mine was. It was the absolute best book I read in 2003, and maybe for a few years rolled together. I put in on the list of my in-person book club and it's coming up in April. It's nice to be able to share when you've found an extraordinary read. Sherry
From: Jane Niemeier Date: Friday, March 12, 2004 09:27 AM Lee, I enjoyed your review. Although I liked the book very much, I would not say that it is the best book that I have read during the past couple of years. I am sure that it will be in the top ten for this year, though. Jane
From: Lee Beech Date: Friday, March 12, 2004 09:47 AM I have not suggested Middlesex to the book club which I lead, as I feel rather protective of it, and if someone hated it, I would have to react! Actually, one of my friends read it and did not like it, so I am not just joking above. When she said she didn't think it was that good, I really felt betrayed for a few seconds. We discussed her reaction, and I explained how wrong she was, but she stuck to her opinion. We still speak, though. As to The Virgin Suicides, if it had been the only Eugenides that I had read, I would admire him, but not as much as I do. The whole of this other novel is truly off-the-wall. At times, it was disturbing, at times incredible, but he developed it in a way that carried this reader along, incredulous and yet involved. Since this is a phenomenon that does occur, although perhaps not quite as developed, I was hoping for some insights. I did achieve some, but not as I had hoped -- he did not give a simple cause of suicide as an epidemic, but left the reader to work out what was going on. Sometimes it is nice to have everything wrapped up and handed out by an author, but in such a complex set of circumstances, Eugenides handled the topic with sensitivity and insight, yet no pat answers. Worth reading, but not when you are in a down mood.
From: R Bavetta Date: Friday, March 12, 2004 11:26 AM I liked Middlesex a lot, but wouldn't put it on my list of all time bests. Virgin Suicides left me cool. R

Jeffrey Eugenides
Jeffrey Eugenides

In Association with