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Archive for January 2011

Brown Girl, Brownstones, by Paule Marshall

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Brown Girl, Brownstones is a coming of age story about Selina Boyce, daughter of two warring Barbadian immigrants in Brooklyn circa WW2. She is boisterous and lively, wanting nothing better than to spend long summer days in Prospect Park running, skinning her knees and laughing with her best friend. But she is not altogether carefree. When her father learns that he has inherited land back in Barbados, and her mother learns that he would rather save up to build a house there on the island and move back rather than pay off the mortgage on the house in Brooklyn so that they can be property owners like their most prosperous neighbors, all hell breaks loose–and Selina’s loyalty to each of them is severely tested. She sympathizes more with her kind but irresponsible father, yet she may have more in common with her difficult, volatile mother than she cares to admit.

As Selina grows older and, she thinks, more estranged from her family–including her sister who, in her opinion and unlike herself, is the model of a good, proper Barbadian girl who will settle down early with an upwardly mobile man to raise a family and perhaps move one day to Crown Heights–she struggles to find her niche in her community and in U.S. culture at large. Her mother’s materialistic obsession with becoming a property owner disgusts her and her cultural assimilation feels to Selina like a betrayal of both her own identity and of her father. There is a conceptual rift here between house and home, and for Selina the two can not ever be reconciled by the purchase of a Brooklyn brownstone. But when Selina finally sets herself on a truth-seeking path of her own design, she finds unexpected support. And when she does, she begins to understand, if not agree with, the import and appeal of the values and aspirations that her community shares.

There are some really interesting scenes here of Selina sitting in on a meeting of the Association of Barbadian Homeowners, a group with which her mother is very active, and also a sermon by Father Peace in Harlem that she goes to with her father. The contrast is illustrative of her emotionally conflicted family life; both experiences are disillusioning for her, and both are settings I wasn’t expecting and found really fascinating in and of themselves.

There were a few moments toward the end of the book where I was bothered, though, by homophobic jeering and gender policing on the part of both Selina and her lover, Clive. Selina makes fun of the “fairy” youth leader at the Association of Barbadian Homeowners she attended, and Clive warns her about falling in with Bohemian circles in which women “act like men” and such, as if to say: your critique of your mother’s way of life is cool and all, just don’t, ya know, take your radicalism that far. Like those people do. Or something. I’m not really sure, but it didn’t seem to add anything to the narrative and it didn’t sit with me very well in any case.

I was also bothered sometimes by hasty transitions in Marshall’s writing. Sometimes things just seemed to happen out of nowhere, and not always with reason. It was confusing at times, and a bit disruptive. It lead to me feeling lost more than a few times.

Marshall deals with a lot of interesting themes in this book, and I’m glad I read it for that reason. For other reasons previously mentioned, though, it was mostly a so-so read.

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Written by Emily Jane

January 28, 2011 at 12:38 am

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft

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I’ve been debating about whether or not I want to write a personal post about each book I read for the Year of Feminist Classics project that I’m taking part in, or just link to the discussion so as not to be redundant. Of course, I’ve decided to do both; though it may be annoying for those of you following both blogs (sorry!), it makes me feel more organized to have my thoughts recorded here in addition to there, in comments.

My reactions to Vindication were very similar to those of some of the other readers, particularly those of Nymeth, Emily, and Iris, whose posts were written long before mine (I’m still a bit behind in my blogging). I urge you to read them, as I fear that at this point I’ll mostly be regurgitating things that they said better and in more depth than I’ll be able to. Lest I give the wrong impression, though, there was quite a difference in opinion about this book expressed in comments that was really interesting and totally valid, so I really recommend reading the thread on the group blog. So go, read those first, if you haven’t already, and then come back!

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Vindication was a difficult read. Wollstonecraft rambles, and I got lost a great number of times while reading. It wasn’t always clear where she was going with her arguments, or why, and that was frustrating. At times, reading Vindication became a chore. But, ultimately, I found it worthwhile.

Wollstonecraft was writing in response to, and against, famous rationalist intellectuals of the time, her main point being that women only act like useless, silly creatures because they are taught to act that way, and that if they were to be educated in the same manner as men, they would become more virtuous, influential members of society, which would be of benefit to everyone. She recognized that the biggest differences between men and women were the results of socialization, which remains a central focal point within feminism today. That alone made it a good project-starter, in my opinion. May seem obvious now, but hey, someone had to be among the first to say it–and it was not a common opinion at the time that she did. Hard to imagine, really. She attacks the idea that women exist primarily to please men, an idea that has not entirely been completely removed from public consciousness, and writes angrily of condescension toward women, i.e. male chivalry. These parts were my favorite, and the ones I think are still the most relevant.

Mostly, though, I do find her outdated. She was a radical in her time, no doubt: but she’d never fit the bill today. She remains a staunch gender essentialist who thinks that physical and intellectual exercise for women will lessen the inequality between the sexes but that men will remain just a little bit superior no matter what, that women’s biggest priority in life should necessarily motherhood, and that both these things are so because God has deemed them the way of nature. For example. More examples: she considers only the middle class, regularly bashes on Islam and atheism, and–true to the context in which she was living and arguing, but deeply troubling to me nonetheless–she emphasizes reason over human emotion and passion in every circumstance. Of course, she argues for logic passionately and, as it has been pointed out a number of times at the group blog, she herself did not live according to her own strict proclamations as to reasonable conduct. I’m not really bothered by that last point so much, truth be told, but it was an interesting part of the discussion at the group blog. Actually, I think I’d be more interested in reading biographical material about Wollstonecraft than I was in reading Vindication! I think she’s a very interesting character, though there’s lots to disagree with her about.

So, I found Vindication interesting as a historical artifact, located in a very specific place of time, more than as a text that spoke strongly to me about our current state of affairs. Which is sort of how I expected to feel about it. I was surprised at the number of parts that DID resonate with me now, as a matter of fact. So while it wasn’t always a fun read, and was, indeed, positively annoying at times, I thought it a good place to start our project–not because it was very radical (though it WAS, at the time), but because it effectively put into motion the train of thought–however thin it might seem to us now–that would continue to inspire the development of different strains of Western feminism that I suspect we will continue see in our readings for this year.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the reading this month and helped me to formulate my ideas about this complicated book! Reading everyone’s comments has been awesome and really informed my reading 🙂

Written by Emily Jane

January 20, 2011 at 8:11 pm

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Another excellent read. This one had me staying up into the wee hours of morning, determined to finish just a few…more…pages… before extinguishing my book light (which I love, mom, thanks again for the gift!).

In Half of Yellow Sun, Adichie tells the story of the Nigerian-Biafran war of 1967-1970 through the eyes of three very different sets of related characters: Olanna and her intellectual “revolutionary lover” Odenigbo, their houseboy Ugwu, and Richard, a British writer and expatriate in love with Olanna’s twin sister Kainene. The book follows them and their turbulent relationships throughout the whole of the sixties, before and after the start of the war. When Nigeria gained independence from Britain in 1960, the country was populated by many diverse peoples whose ethnic, religious, and class tensions had been strained to the breaking point through the process of British colonialism. The conflict erupted after the mostly Christian Igbo attempted a coup de’tat and then the mostly Muslim Hausa majority in the north massacred the Igbo there and forced them south, after which the Igbo then seceded and formed the the independent nation of Biafra. The violence did not end there, as is painfully illustrated in Adichie’s heartbreaking and beautiful novel.

I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that I knew practically nothing about this history before reading this book, and was amazed at how much history and political knowledge I gained while absorbed in the story. I’m afraid this makes it sound a little dry, or something, but it was anything but. I found every character interesting and irresistably relatable, and immediately felt personally involved with them. I marveled at their strength and worried for their futures. They were all complex, well-developed, and changed according to varying circumstances throughout time. I cared about them, and even got teary towards the end of the book. And I never get teary while reading!

I had seen a few interviews and things with Adichie, but this was my first time reading her. I was impressed, as others have assured me I would be, and I look forward to enjoying more of her work in the future.

Written by Emily Jane

January 15, 2011 at 9:29 pm

The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins

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As I mentioned briefly in my last post, The Woman in White is one of my new all-time favorite books! Mysteries and thrillers aren’t usually my thing, but I’m a total sucker for anything written in the Victorian era, so in that context I was willing to give one a try. And I couldn’t be happier that I did.

It’s hard to say much about the plot without giving anything away, so I’ll have to keep the synopsis pretty short and vague. Mr. Hartwright, a drawing instructor, is on his way to Limmeridge House where he is to spend the next few months teaching the young ladies of the house, when he encounters a strange woman–yes, in white–who asks him for directions and then is off before he can find out her name, or what she’s doing by herself at night on a secluded road, or why she’s in such a hurry. He confides in Marian Halcombe, one of the sisters of Limmeridge, and together they begin to discover that the reappearing, elusive, mysterious woman in white is connected with the history of the sisters’ family in some way, and she has a secret which they must uncover from her–indeed, their lives may depend on knowing it–and quickly, lest the malevolent forces which had kept her silent so long come first to silence them!

I know it’s not much, but I hope it’s enough to inspire your curiosity if you haven’t read it before. It was truly a fun, suspenseful read, and it was difficult to make myself take breaks. I don’t usually like it that much when a story is told from multiple perspectives and the narrator changes, but in this case it really added to the story. It also allowed me to get to know Marian Halcombe, my favorite protagonist of the book. Though she has a general dislike for other members of her own sex, she is an intelligent, active, and courageous heroine who makes no apologies for her brazen wit and opinions. She’s fantastic. Collins writes a whole host of interesting characters into this book, but Marian definitely stole the show. Thank you, Mr. Collins, for writing her into existence.

The characters, the plot, the writing–it all came together in this one perfectly. Needless to say, I’ll be reading more Wilkie Collins in the future.

Written by Emily Jane

January 12, 2011 at 12:24 am

Posted in Novels

Tagged with ,

Catching Up: The Women of Brewster Place, War Dances, and The Manticore

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I’m going to do a few quick write-ups of the last few books I read in 2010. I’m eager to get them out of the way so that I can write about one of my new favorite books, and the first completed in the new year: The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins! An excellent start to the reading year, for sure. But, first, a quick look back…

We’ll start with The Women of Brewster Place, by Gloria Naylor. The Women of Brewster Place is a collection of related short stories, all of which center one or two of the women living in Brewster Place, a low-income housing complex in the city. Many of them have come from the south, and struggle with poverty, relationships, violence, love, and family. I found the stories compelling, and I liked the way that some characters would appear and re-appear in others’ stories. The community felt very real to me, and it was interesting to see how each of the women interacted with it and with each other. But the themes of pain and loss were intense, and by the time they culminated in the final story–which was really disturbing–I felt a bit bogged down by it all. These stories did a good job, I thought, of highlighting issues that disproportionally affect African American women. Unfortunately, the tone of each was very similar, and the lack of differentiation left me feeling lukewarm about the book.

Next up is War Dances, by Sherman Alexie. I took a course in Native American Lit for a semester in high school, where I remember reading The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, and liking it immensely. War Dances, though, didn’t do it for me. Throughout the short stories and poems in this collection, most of which deal with father-son relationships, I caught glimpses of the kinds of insights I’d been expecting from Alexie about Indian identity and masculinity, and some about US pop culture that I hadn’t been expecting but found funny. But, though I liked aspects of many of the pieces in War Dances, I found that I didn’t really like any of the stories or poems all that much as a whole, and even less as a collection. Something about them felt a little trite and unfinished. I’m more than willing to give Alexie another chance, based on the first collection I read and his good reputation, but certainly not on the merit of this book alone.

Finally, we get to The Manticore, by Robertson Davies, one of my new favorite authors! The Manticore is the second book in the Deptford Trilogy, following Fifth Business. In this book, Davey Staunton is seeking therapy after the mysterious death of his father. Throughout the course of his treatment, he must not only come to terms with the true nature of his relationship with his father, but he must also gain a better understanding of the roles played by other key friends and family members in the course of his life’s narrative. It is only once he discovers these characters’ almost philosophical reason for being in his life, or the impact they’ve had on his subconscious, that he may come to feel he has any control over what happens to him. The story is told almost completely through his therapy sessions with Jungian psychoanalyst Joanna Von Haller. Though the book itself might “work” without having read the first in the trilogy, the strange format really only makes sense as the second in a series, I think. I didn’t find Davey nearly as interesting as Dunstan Ramsay, the protagonist of Fifth Business, and was much more interested in his doctor, Joanna. Sadly, we don’t learn much about her or her story in The Manticore. However, Davies has this uncanny ability to write about the most mundane events as if they are the world’s most complex mysteries which, in a way, perhaps they are. The Manticore definitely held my interest in the series, and I’m eager to get to the final book in the trilogy, World of Wonders!

And that about wraps it up, I think. Whew!

Favorites of 2010 and Plans for 2011!

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So, I’m a bit behind in my blogging. I’ve been reading more rapidly than posting lately due to inconsistent internet access during the holidays but, like almost all the rest of you bloggers out there, I want to commemorate this last year of reading somehow before rushing more reviews. I’ve been considering the best way to do this, and greatly admiring other bloggers’ charts and stats and lists! I’m going to keep it simple, though, and just list my favorite reads of the year (rated 5 stars on Goodreads), in no particular order but categorized by graphic novels/serialized comics, fiction, autobiography, and non-fiction. I’ve read more genres than that this year, but all my favorite reads happen to fall into one of the four. I read a few of these before I started the blog in April, so in some cases there is no review to link to, but I will supply a link where possible.

Graphic novels/serialized comics:

Locas: The Maggie and Hopey Stories, by Jaime Hernandez

The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, by Alison Bechdel

Fiction:

My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok

Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

Emma, by Jane Austen

Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies

Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood

Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark

Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather

Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton

Autobiography:

Black Boy, by Richard Wright

Non-fiction:

Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, by Dorothy Roberts

The Library at Night, by Alberto Manguel

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, by Sara Marcus

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

Mostly I’ve been reading and collecting books from second hand or thrift stores exclusively, because I like to own (ahem, hoard) my books and it’s an inexpensive way for me to sustain the habit. Plus, I love the foraging itself. Since I live in New York City, my cheap book store options are pretty great, but what I see is what I get so I still end up with mostly Western authors, and mostly “classics” which, actually, seem underrepresented in this favorites list considering I’ve really enjoyed most of what I’ve read this year! I’m not going to change my main method of book acquisition too much, but I do plan to more actively seek out books from a more diverse number of countries in 2011. I’m not making many new years reading resolutions because I like to read at whim, but I am VERY excited about the Feminist Classics project I’ll be co-hosting this year with Amy, Ana, and Irisstarting tomorrow!!! This month we’re reading A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft, and So Long a Letter, by Mariama Ba. I haven’t signed up for any other challenges or anything yet, but I might reconsider joining a few at a later date.

I’m so glad I joined the blogosphere this year, it’s been such a blast connecting with you all, and I’ve found out about so many amazing books I hadn’t heard of before! Here’s to you, the new year, and all the wonderful books to come. Happy reading in 2011! 🙂

Written by Emily Jane

January 1, 2011 at 12:29 am

Posted in Misc.