Colons, Thunder Dogs, Gender, and Sexuality: Helen R. Hull’s Labyrinth, Last September; Borowitz’s An Unexpected Twist; Hingson’s Thunder Dog

Dear Reader:

This will be another catch up post where I talk about a number of books and stories that I’ve read in the last couple weeks….

#413) An Unexpected Twist by Andy Borowitz (kindle single)
Kindle singles are long essays: somewhere between book and essay length, like a novella.  Amazon has issued 169 of them.  Some are fiction but most nonfiction.  A wide variety of authors have written them, from famous authors and essayists to the unknown with a good story.  There was a nice New York times piece about them here.  They seem to mostly cost $0.99-2.99.  I’d bought a couple when they first came out and the NYT piece pointed me to a few more that were particularly good.

An Unexpected Twist was one of those.  Andy Borowitz is a well-known humor writer.  I know I’ve encountered his work before, perhaps in the New Yorker and/or maybe on National Public Radio.  In this essay he describes experiencing bloating, lack of sexual desire, constipation, and increasing pain that ultimately takes him to the emergency room.  He is diagnosed with a twisted colon.

This is a critical situation where he must either undergo undesirable emergency surgery (undesirable because he hasn’t been properly prepped) or have his colon untwisted by hand, followed by surgery after proper prepping.  The doctor manages to untwist him and a few days later he goes for surgery that removes two feet of colon.  So far, so good, relatively speaking.

But within days he is not feeling well and is back in the emergency room with failing organs.  It turns out his surgical site has “sprung a leak.”  The massive contamination of his abdominal cavity has brought him to near death.  But he survives the surgery to correct it and awakens with a temporary colostomy bag.

My grandfather had colon cancer in the early 1970s.  I don’t know what the survival rate for the disease was at the time, but if it is anything like breast cancer, it was fairly low.  Grandpa was one of the lucky ones, surviving for another 30 years, at which point he died of congestive heart failure at about 90.  But the removal of his colon led to his permanent use of a colostomy bag.  I don’t remember him without it.  So, for nearly all of my life until he died, Grandpa’s house smelled at least faintly of colostomy bag.  The degree to which it smelled depended upon how close you were to his bathroom and how recently he’d removed and cleaned it.  I think he had two, one of which was always drying, the other of which he wore at all times.

I’m sure you’d expect the smell to be of regular human “poop.”  But something must happen in the colon that changes the smell.  Most of us have a very hard time dealing with the smell of other people’s poops and farts.  Although, as someone who spent three summers working with elderly in their homes and in a nursing home, I can tell you that in that context you do get used to it.  Probably parents of young children feel somewhat the same.  I know that I got much more tolerant of dog poop smells after I had dogs and, living in town, pick up an average of six bags of it daily.

But colostomy bags don’t smell like poop.  They smell more sulphurous – in some ways easier to take, in other ways, more penetrating and prevalent.  Because of my grandfather, all of us on that side of the family started early having regular colonoscopies.  And, as far as I know, all of us have had multiple polyps – some of which would likely have become cancerous if left alone.  And the reason I write this much about all of it (back to Borowitz in a moment) is because I eagerly seize every opportunity I can to urge everyone to get a colonoscopy when their doctor tells them to.  It isn’t that big of a deal and I’ve had three.  The thing I hate the most is the day before when you can’t eat anything solid.  The obvious thing to eat is jello, of which I’ve never been a fan, and three colonoscopies later, I hate with a passion.

So, Borowitz has to live with the bag for three months.  But he gets to live.  Which is something for which he is profoundly grateful.  I enjoyed this single a great deal.  Borowitz is funny and believable.  Having had a brush with the scary diagnostics that seem part of being over 50 this year, I empathize with how much even the possibility of serious illness rearranges your world.  Highly recommended.

#192) Thunder Dog: The True Story of a Blind Man, His Guide Dog, and the Triumph of Trust at Ground Zero by Michael Hingson (kindle)

This was on special in the Amazon store and, since I’d been wanting to read it, I jumped at buying it.  Michael is blind and has been since birth (he was premature and exposed to pure oxygen, a treatment which blinded thousands of preemies until it was moderated).  He has had service dogs since he was a teenager.  They have given him the ability to navigate the world on his own terms and he has been highly successful in his career.

On September 11th, 2001, he and his service dog Roselle, a yellow lab, were on the 78th floor of Tower One – the first to be hit by a plane just a few stories above them.  Of course, they didn’t know what happened when they heard the explosion and felt the building temporarily tilt, but it was clear that they needed to evacuate.

Michael tells the story of going down all those 78 stories, some of them through wet stairs, and many of them with the growing, awful smell of jet fuel that gave them the first inkling that a plane may have hit them.  But interspersed in the story of their evacuation is the story of his life, of service dogs, and other aspects of living with blindness in today’s society.

Roselle was a wonderful service dog (she is now retired and living with Michael and his wife) – steady and dependable, but also very fun when she was off the clock.  As they moved down the stairs, an increasing number of people were following them and as they got to some of the lower floors, emergency workers were going the other way.  Sometimes people panicked.  Occasionally, people rushed through with the injured.  Through it all, Michael remained calm because Roselle remained calm.  He knew that she would sense imminent danger and trusted her.  As a result, they were also able to keep the people around them calm.

I enjoyed this book, although truth be told, I did skim some of the sections about his life and technologies for the blind.  But I always love a good service dog story and this is definitely one of those.

#186) Labyrinth by Helen R. Hull (hard copy)

Pat, our resident Helen R. Hull expert, recommended this book of Hull’s and so, although I have a handful of her books waiting for me, I chose to start with this one.

It is the story of Catherine, Charles, and their three children: Letty, Marian, and Spencer and it takes place in the inter-war years – the early 1920s (it was published in 1923).  Charles is a successful academic (a common job in Hull’s books as she was a professor).  Catherine took an office job during World War I while Charles was a soldier and, as her first two children get older, and Letty moves toward her school years, Catherine aches to get back out into the work world.

And then an opportunity comes along to return and work on educational analysis projects.  The bulk of the book focuses on the back and forth between Catherine and Charles as he resents her desire to work outside the home and she copes with her deeply felt need to be more than a stay at home mom.

I’ve come to see that desperation in the face of familial pressures is a major theme in Hull’s work.  It is a theme that she executes brilliantly, as in Labyrinths.  I continue to be shocked at Hull’s progressivism.  Some of her work was published in mainstream women’s magazines and at least one of her books was a book of the month club selection.  Yet, she wrote about women’s rights, lesbianism, and other social issues that continue (90 years later) to be unresolved, although great progress has been made.  Surely there were few writers of her time writing about the claustrophobia of a woman unhappy with only working with her children inside her home and, I’ll hazard, none wrote about it so eloquently.

#187)Last Septemberby Helen R. Hull (hard copy – a very generous gift – thanks!)

This book of Hull’s short stories was edited by Pat Miller who did her dissertation on Hull and wrote the afterwards to the reissues of Quest and Islanders.  I am working my way through the stories slowly, one by one.

The Fire (1917)

So far, the stories all have a protagonist, Cynthia, who is a teenager or young girl – it isn’t always clear that it is the same person and the stories were mostly published in different places.  In this first story, Cynthia has been taking art lessons from Miss Egert, a single woman.  Like Catherine in Labyrinth, Cynthia yearns for something more than the oppressive atmosphere of her family life.  She loves the lessons and Miss Egert.  However, Cynthia’s mother has forbidden her from going to her house again arguing that Miss Egert is a bad influence – the mother hints at her being a lesbian, but her bohemianism is also a concern.  Cynthia sneaks away to see her one last time and they share a fall bonfire while roasting marshmallows.

Separation (1920)

In this story, Cynthia is a younger girl who has developed a crush on Mrs. Moore, a nearby neighbor newly moved to town.  She has written her extensive love letters to her hidden away in her room that her mother has found.  The story is a twist on The Fire with a different ending and theme.  The commonality is Cynthia’s desperate yearning for something more that her mother doesn’t want her to have… and her determination to get it.

Alley Ways (1918)

Cynthia has briefly taken a job in a dry goods store, working side by side with Queenie, a girl her age from the wrong side of the tracks.  They have become friends of a sort and Queenie confides her love for a married man.  Cynthia’s parents oppose her friendship with Queenie and her working in the store.  Meanwhile, her good friend Rachel is about to be married, a fate that doesn’t seem all that attractive to Cynthia.  Queenie’s and Cynthia’s fates become powerfully intertwined causing Cynthia to awaken to new possibilities and realities.

I’ve never read an author who conveys so powerfully the feeling of oppression from circumstances and family.  Catherine, Cynthia, and Queenie all yearn deeply for lives that their families and society doesn’t want them to have.  These stories are like little jewels, amazing and evocative.

Born in 1888, Hull must have realized she was gay at least as a young woman.  Early in her life, she partnered with Mabel L. Robinson, also a writer.  They remained together as long as Robinson lived.  The themes of young girls and forbidden sexualities are key in these stories.  And Hull must have been drawing from her own experiences or, at the very least, the experiences of the young women around her who were becoming aware of their sexuality, particularly women who self-identified as gay.

I found it surprising that girls of this era would have mothers who worried about them being “inappropriately” inclined toward women of the same gender.  I suppose I would have thought most mothers oblivious to young, gay daughters.  Perhaps most were and perhaps mothers’ understandings of their children can be so astute as to suspect even those things that weren’t widely talked about in this time period.  I recently heard Terry Gross interviewing the writer of J.Edgar, the recent movie about J. Edgar Hoover written by Dustin Lance Black.

I rented it a week or two ago, but got bored pretty quickly – now that I’ve listened to the interview, I realize that the movie is the story of Hoover’s loving, long-term relationship with his second in command, Clyde Tolson (now that I know it is about Hoover’s personal life I’ll give it another go, I assumed it was a traditional treatment of his crime fighting).  Dustin Lance Black said in the interview that, before writing the screenplay, he interviewed many men, now in their 80’s and 90’s, who worked in Washington during the Hoover Era.  Black said that he learned that homosexual couples were largely tolerated as long as they were “polite” which meant that they were never openly gay.

So, Hoover and Tolson could live together, work together, vacation together, and eat lunch and dinner together in the same restaurant every day, as long as they never openly showed or said they were gay (they justified their arrangement based on their need to work closely together as they ran the nascent FBI).  It is fascinating and heartbreaking to learn of the strictures they, Hull and Robinson, and so many of Hull’s characters faced.

Like many of you, as a hard core reader and intellectual growing up in the 1960s and 70s in a tiny rural village, it wasn’t easy to feel part of the world in which I lived.  Especially after going away for a couple of years to an elite college and dropping out (too many boys and parties and a general need to find myself) I felt painfully the need to be around other serious readers and intellectuals.  For much of my early life, I had to struggle to find those places where I felt at home.  It is this struggle and yearning that Hull conveys so amazingly in her stories and in Labyrinth.

#182) The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism by Nicola Humble (hard copy, library)

I wrote about this book earlier but now that I finished it I want to come back to it and complete my thoughts.  Humble analyzes the mostly interwar (between WWI and WWII), mostly British, mostly female writers focused upon women’s lives – as an American, Hull is not covered, but she would have fitted in beautifully.

In particular, she takes on the accusation that these authors wrote fluffy, lightweight novels and stories.  Humble argues that these authors wrote deeply important books of their times (and ours) that grappled with a wide variety of social change in gender, familial, sexual, and class roles.  Many of the authors that she discusses are favorites of a lot of the bloggers I read these days: Whipple, Bowen, Brittain, Delafield, Lehmann, etc.  As usually upper class women with bohemian tendencies, these women took on and reflected back the changes that were taking place in British society as the working classes moved into the middle classes, women went to work, and women became more in touch with their sexuality.

I loved this book!  It is pretty academic and might not be everybody’s cup of tea.  Not only did it give me new themes and concepts to appreciate in so many of the authors I have been reading, but it also helped me understand my own struggles with high-, middle-, and lowbrow novels.  She writes wonderfully about the assignment of anything readable to the trenches of low and middlebrow and anything difficult to highbrow.  More than any other book, this one helped me come to terms with my lack of taste for experimental novels (like all those open letter press books on my shelves) and gave me a deeper appreciation of all those female authors we’ve come to love.

Happy reading, Ruby



  1. Dear Readers I’m posting this comment for Pat:
    A few quick observations about Hull. First, one of the interesting things about Labyrinth is that Hull presents the relationship between Catherine’s sister Margaret and her female partner as the most successful marriage in the book. I’m especially drawn to work from the 20s, when there was still optimism (albeit often cautious) about possibilities for women, for men, and for society at large. Hull doesn’t offer any simple solutions, which I appreciate. But it’s encouraging that Catherine, when she’s given up her job in order to go off with her less-than-appealing husband, proclaims at the end that she’s not done yet. You can see the shift in Hull’s work between the 20s and 30s–what it was ok to write about or approve of, what became taboo. There’s a kind of energy in the 20s, especially the early 20s, that flattens off in the 30s, in large part, of course, because of the depression, but also because of a backlash against progressive political and social movements. For your next Hull, I’d suggest Islanders (1927), if you haven’t read it already. It gives a broader historical context, with the protagonist’s young niece at the end hoping things will get better. And it’s just a really good book.

    Anyway, thanks for posting about Labyrinth, and also about the Cynthia stories. The stories become the basis for Hull’s first novel, Quest (1922), which is highly autobiographical, and in which the Cynthia material is presented in a more coherent way. What strikes me most about the mothers’ (and yes, there seem to be a couple of Cynthias and mothers) reactions is the sheer jealousy–that the daughter could form a strong bond with an adult woman other than her mother. With Queenie, the mother’s reaction is largely a matter of class, of course. Part of what Hull does in her portrayals of family life is to show how damaging it is to allow women only the one sphere of activity–“her” family–for which she can develop such a strong sense of ownership that the dynamic becomes unhealthy for everybody involved. And you’re absolutely right that much of what’s going on here is fear of sexuality, especially homosexuality. But that’s another, really long story.


    • Hi Pat: Thanks for writing – it is interesting that Hull is arguing that families of origin can be so problematic, an excellent point! Ruby


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