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Archive for November 2010

Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence

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I started this book with curiosity, knowing that it had been extremely controversial–and banned, in places–in it’s time (the late 1920’s) due to Lawrence’s explicit descriptions of sex. After the first 50 pages, I almost put it down. My interest was spiked with the introduction of, ahem, Lady Chatterley’s lover, but not by much, and after finishing it, I still kind of wish I had just put it down.

After a short honeymoon, Clifford Chatterley goes off to fight in WW1 and comes home shortly thereafter paralyzed from the waist down. This is, of course, terribly depressing. He and his wife Connie make do for a while, living in intellectual and domestic intimacy and relative solitude. But over time, Connie gets tired of the “life of the mind”, of her husbands’ musings about industry and impersonal philosophy. She comes to crave something new, something carnal, something she can’t quite verbalize…and starts sleeping with the gamekeeper. Here, I thought, we were starting to get somewhere. But no! The affair was no less depressing to me than the suffocating life Connie led before it started!

So here was my biggest problem with the book: the whole thing is about sex, but the sex that Connie has with Mellors, the gamekeeper, is so unsexy. I mean, to me, anyway. Obviously I can only speak for myself here. But really, she practically sleeps through their entire first encounter. She “resigns” herself to him, because she is so tired and sad, and only seems to enjoy herself like, less than half the time, and cries a lot. It seems like the only sex they have is missionary-position intercourse in which she just lies there not moving, until Mellors “comes to crisis”. She doesn’t want to keep him going afterward, because of a previous jerky lover who complained about having to do it. Mellors is perfectly happy with this arrangement, and about halfway through the book even says out loud that he doesn’t like having sex with women who orgasm before he does, or after, either. His ideal woman would orgasm exactly at the same time as he does, and that’s that, which begs the question of why he bothers sleeping with women at all.

Of course, I know that such sexist and limiting sexual attitudes and practices were standard when this was written, and arguably still are to a large extent. But isn’t this book supposed to be about a sexual awakening? Aren’t sexual awakenings supposed to be fulfilling? I know that Connie does suddenly feel wonderful about the sex they have toward the end of the book, but I don’t really understand why or how she came to feel that way, as nothing really seemed to change between her and Mellors. Maybe all of this could have remained interesting had there been some other sort of chemistry between the two of them, but I wasn’t attuned to any. Their attraction seemed like a mild distraction from everyday life built up completely in their minds at best, but certainly not passionate or real in the way I think it was supposed to be. It didn’t have a whiff of romance to me at all, and it wasn’t enough for me that it was supposed to be huge improvement for Connie just because it wasn’t her life with Clifford. Their relationship was so unappealing! And, again, this was the ENTIRE BOOK. So you can see why it didn’t work for me.

I guess it might be a worthwhile read just to see what it was that could stir up such a fuss back in the day, if that’s your interest. The theme of industrialization and intellectualism vs. emotion and physicality was interesting, and I liked the way it was touched upon throughout the story. There were also some interesting implications about class, since the Chatterley’s are wealthy aristocrats and Mellors is a “commoner”, but my interest in these things was obscured by my upset over all the bad sex.

Has any one else read this? What did you think of it?

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Written by Emily Jane

November 29, 2010 at 5:48 am

FRT–Sheila Take a Bow

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First ten songs on iTunes shuffle, plus a video:

1. Rigo Star and Josky Kiambukuta–Bon Payeur

2. Candy Claws–Sunbeam Show

3. John Coltrane–Untitled Original 90320

4. Etta James–My Dearest Darling

5. Johnny Cash–Frankie’s Man, Johnny

6. Stereolab–Tone Burst

7. Conflict–Bullshit Broadcast/Vietnam/Blood Morons

8. Ray Charles–Baby Don’t You Cry

9. The Smiths–Sheila Take a Bow

10. Shahs–Medicine Girls

The Smiths performing “Sheila Take a Bow”

What’s on your player? 🙂


Written by Emily Jane

November 26, 2010 at 5:05 pm

Posted in Friday Random Ten

The Sisters: Saga of the Mitford Family, by Mary S. Lovell

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Let me just start with this:

I HAD SO MUCH FUN READING THIS BOOK. MITFORD SISTERS=MY NEWEST MICRO-OBSESSION. I can not get enough.

Okay. Backing up. I didn’t really know anything at all about the Mitford sisters before reading this, save that one of them wrote The American Way of Death critiquing the funeral industry, which I read from for a class on Death and Mourning a few years ago. All I knew was that in the few instances I heard them brought up in conversation in academic circles or amongst older people, they always kind of chuckled nervously and said something like “ahhh those wild Mitfords…” and then declined to say more, as though it would take too long to explain. Now I sort of understand their reaction! But I have the opposite one, and want to talk about them ALL THE TIME.

The six Mitford sisters (and their brother, who figures much less prominently in this book) were born to aristocratic parents in England and came of age during the interwar years. They lived in a haunted house and invented their own language as children which they selectively continued to speak to each other in through their old age. Enough to get you hooked on them right there, isn’t it? But what made them so notorious–indeed, what would most frequently make newspaper headlines–was the way their family was affected by the competing ideologies of fascism and communism.

Nancy, the eldest sister, was a socialist but not quite as involved in politics as her sisters. She was closely associated with the Bright Young People scene out of Oxford, and authored such well-known books as The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate.

Diana married Oswald Mosley, head of the British Union of Fascists, and was a personal friend of Hitler’s. She was at first a very popular and respected socialite in London, but when British public opinion turned away from fascism she and her husband were separated from their children and jailed for something like three or four years.

Unity–oh, where to begin with Unity?–was, in a cruel twist of fate, conceived in a place called Swastika, Canada, named Unity Valkyrie of all things and, perhaps inevitably with a name like that, became obsessed with Hitler and Nazism. Sort of the way many of us became obsessed with our favorite musicians or movie stars when we were younger. But in this case, she actually moved to Germany as a teenager and started stalking him, hanging around his favorite restaurants trying to catch his eye. And after doing this for months, maybe years, she succeeded, and over the years they became extremely close. It seems that their relationship was never sexual, but nevertheless, it was obvious to everyone that Unity was entirely devoted and in love with him. She made it her personal mission to make sure that Britain and Germany were allied when a second world war became inevitable. When Britain declared war on Germany, she shot herself in the head. And lived. For a while…though she was never the same.

Jessica, A.K.A. Decca, ran off and eloped with her “red cousin” Esmond, Winston Churchill’s nephew by marriage, when she was sixteen (I think?) to Spain to fight on the front lines, but didn’t end up doing quite that. She later moved to the U.S. where she became a journalist, civil rights activist, and member of the communist party (she wrote the aforementioned The American Way of Death, among other things).

Deborah, or “Debo”, married Lord Andrew Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire, and became duchess.

And Pam, well…Pam became a mostly non-political but severely anti-semitic farmer, by far the least conspicuous of the sisters. Their brother Tom was also fascist, but argued with Unity over the anti-semitism of Nazism, and died fighting in Japan. Their parents became increasingly divided as well, as their mother Sydney tended to support her fascist daughters and Hitler and their father was anti-German.

The Mitford sisters were all very famous in their day for their rash behavior and absolute enthusiasm for their disparate causes. Many of them were published authors, too, and aired public grievances against each other on a regular basis. Some of them, in various, ever-changing combinations, would remain “not on speakers” with each other for decades. When they were “on speakers” they wrote each other often, and Lovell utilizes their letters to each other wonderfully throughout the book. I had never read a group biography before and was a bit dubious about it’s being pulled off, but Lovell did an excellent job, I thought, of spending just the right amount of time on each family member and moving between them with ease. It was a totally infectious read, not only because of the secret marriages! and imprisonments! and teenage runaways! and public betrayals of kin!–though those things were wonderful to read about of course–but because of the Mitfords’ strong, passionate personalities. Every one of them was so fierce and unstoppable, somehow, a quality both admirable and terrifying, given the politics that most of them shared! Also, they knew all the famous literary and political figures of their day and it’s always an interesting surprise when one enters the fray. It’s just amazing the way the history of their family is simultaneously the history of so many 20th century socio-political forces.

Ugh. What do you think? Have I managed to communicate what I find so intriguing about this family? Did you know much about them before? Would be great material for a movie, I say…

I see also that Lovell has written a biography of Amelia Earhart, which is SO going on my wishlist!

Written by Emily Jane

November 24, 2010 at 4:48 am

Emma, by Jane Austen

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Emma is the third Jane Austen book I’ve read this year, and I enjoyed it just as much, if not more, than both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. So far, I’d say Emma and Sense and Sensibility are vying for favorite status. Sorry, P&P backers, but I think my dislike of Darcy puts it just a bit behind the others in the fave race!

Anyway, maybe it was that I’ve become more accustomed to Austen’s style or maybe it was really something about the book, but I found this to be the quickest read of them all so far–and not because of length (it isn’t shorter). It just feels lighter, somehow. It’s not so heavily laden with lingering glances and quiet suffering, though surely those things exist in this story.

Emma is the most spontaneous and impulsive of Austen’s heroines I think, save Marianne Dashwood, in that she doesn’t really take the time to think through the likely repercussions of her actions. She gets a hunch and goes with it. And since match-making is her preferred hobby, when she makes mistakes they are rather large and painful to all those involved. She is vain and overly confident, and befriends Harriet, a girl much “below” her in class and elegance. She does her best to provide proper influence for Harriet, so that she’ll turn out more like herself, and find her a suitable match. Harriet is grateful for the attention of the widely admired Ms. Emma Woodhouse, so takes her advice and turns down her first suitor, with whom she is rather in love, in favor of pursuing  “better” prospects. But things become confusing and unpleasant for Emma when Harriet begins to resemble herself a little too much and encroaches on the male attention that Emma finds she wants for herself.

Emma is selfish and misguided, sure, but I still found her remarkably endearing. She is not as consistent or self-aware as Austen’s other protagonists seem to be, but she does come to realize the parts of her character that she needs to work on and begins to come to terms with them toward the end.

Given the fact that all of Austen’s novels end with marriages (or so I’ve heard, and found to be true so far), I find it really interesting that Emma initially, and throughout most of the book, is very vocal about her desire to remain unmarried. She would much rather see all her friends and acquaintances settled down than engage in courtship herself, is somewhat ambivalent about falling in love, and feels she has all the stability in life that she needs. Even more interesting is her father’s complete disregard for the institution of marriage altogether which, to him, is a malignant force that draws his daughters out of his house and away from him, who loves and needs them. Without giving away too much about the ending (stop here if you really don’t want to know and can’t guess), I was pleased that though Emma does end up married, their arrangement is a bit untraditional and healthy compromises are made that would have been unusual at the time, but benefits all parties equally.

So many more characters from this book stick out to me, too, in comparison to S&S and P&P. The snobby Mrs. Elton, the annoying Mrs. Bates–she can talk, that lady, can’t she!–the too-smooth Frank Churchill, and Mr. Knightly, perhaps the first of Austen’s male love interests I’ve found at all appealing.

Clearly, I enjoyed Emma quite a lot and would recommend it to anyone who has yet to try Jane Austen. Of course, if you have, you’re probably already hooked and don’t need the recommendation. Right? 🙂

Written by Emily Jane

November 18, 2010 at 10:58 pm

Posted in Novels

Tagged with ,

2011: A Year of Feminist Classics!

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I’ve committed to my first year-long reading project, starting this January: A Year of Feminist Classics. I’ll be co-hosting with Amy of Amy Reads, Iris of Iris on Books, and Ana of Things Mean a Lot. A bunch of the books we’ll be reading and discussing have been on my back burner for quite some time, so I’m really pleased to finally be making time for them (The Second Sex, ahem). And Amy, Iris, and Ana are three of my favorite bloggers, so I’m honored to be included!

Visit our new group blog and check out our reading list. Note, though, that it is subject to change a bit as we’re currently working to include some non-Western feminist classics. Have some suggestions? Let us know! Still think we’re lacking and must include X, for whatever reason? You’re undoubtedly right–maybe you’d be interested in writing a guest post for us! Surely there are thousands more unmissable feminist texts the four of us can’t cover in a year 🙂

Of course, we’d love you to participate in any way you’d like. This could mean joining us for just one book, or all of them. Or just leaving your thoughts in comments every once in a while.

We’re all very excited about this project, so do check it out and let us know what you think!

Written by Emily Jane

November 12, 2010 at 3:21 pm

Daddy Was a Number Runner, by Louise Meriwether

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Another book set in Harlem in the first half of the twentieth century, this one at the time of the Great Depression. This novel was assigned reading from school and was a very welcome break from dense non-fiction assignments.

Francie Coffin, 11 or 12 at the beginning of the book, at first looks upon her surroundings with the wonder and playfulness of a child that only partially reflects the grim realities of her daily life, though her perceptions do change dramatically and quickly. Her father, as the title suggests, is a number runner–he collects money that is betted upon randomly drawn numbers in a sort of proto-lottery. No one ever wins much, but every once in a while someone wins just enough to give the rest of the community hope that they will be able to better their circumstances through the game, and perhaps even move out of Harlem. Until then, though, they’ve got to contend with poverty, racial discrimination, and the violence borne of desperation.

Francie’s mother, after bouts of argument, becomes a domestic worker and applies for relief despite her husband’s disapproval and feelings of emasculation in order to feed and clothe Francie and her two older brothers. But financial security is unattainable and, as the story progresses, so is familial security. Francie’s eldest brother becomes mixed up with a bad crowd and is arrested, along with the rest of his gang, for the mugging and murder of a white man. Sterling, her other brother, was supposed to be the first in the family to finish high school but, convinced that he would do better to begin working straightaway instead of struggling to become a professional in a time and society in which even white men had trouble finding jobs as janitors, drops out. Her father starts to follow his wandering eye. Francie herself does the best she can to help her family stay together while navigating early adolescence, even if it means tolerating the clumsy groping of merchants in exchange for an extra bread roll or soup bone. She is a courageous, lively girl who is a pleasure of a character to get to know.

Harlem in this period is populated by increasingly diverse groups of people: African American, Puerto Rican, Jewish, West Indian, and more, most of whom find it almost impossible to leave as the neighborhood becomes uncomfortably crowded and economic conditions worsen. Francie is fascinated by the different people she encounters, and through her eyes we see the complicated ways in which these multiple communities intermingle and become one. We also see, through Francie, the ways in which people come together under strenuous circumstances to support each other and give each other hope, even if it is so misplaced as in a game of randomly chosen numbers.

Though clearly geared for a high-school aged audience (which at first made this a bit of a surprising college assignment), this was a powerful, multi-layered coming-of-age tale about a particularly fascinating neighborhood and period of time which I greatly appreciated and heartily recommend.

Written by Emily Jane

November 11, 2010 at 11:08 pm

Go Tell it on the Mountain, by James Baldwin

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I read an essay by James Baldwin years ago. Unfortunately I can’t remember which one it was, but it left me with a lingering sense of Baldwin’s mastery and eye for detail that was revived by my reading of his semi-autobiographical first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain.

The book follows a family in Harlem through the course of one day in the 1930’s, but throughout that day a multi-generational saga of real depth and complexity is slowly drawn to the surface of its pages. The church is central to the family’s lives, community, stuggle, and identity, and it is through each character’s prayers that we learn their stories. Gabriel, the hypocritical, abusive father and preacher; Florence, Gabriel’s sister, the first to leave the South (and her ailing mother) behind, only to find more difficulty and disappointment in New York; Elizabeth, Gabriel’s second wife, who suffered the unjust loss of her first husband and with a baby on the way, and John: the young narrator, timid and lost. All are very real and dutifully captured. There is lots of pain in this book– rape, false arrests, untimely deaths. But it is beautifully written, and tells a larger story about U.S. racism, family, and faith that is both interesting and moving.

Basically, all the best you probably already know and/or expect from James Baldwin (and if you haven’t read him yet, you should really get on that!). The book is pretty short, and I recommend reading this one with as few interruptions as possible for maximum impact (not the way I read it, over a period of a few weeks. Still great, but I imagine the experience could have been even better).

Written by Emily Jane

November 3, 2010 at 12:01 am