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Archive for February 2011

Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life, by Stephanie Staal

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I got an advance reading copy of this book sent to me by Public Affairs (my first ARC, very exciting!) because of my involvement with the Feminist Classics Project. My co-hosts and I will be conducting a give-away of this book and an interview with the author later this week, so click on over there and stay tuned!


Stephanie Staal, an optimistic and committed student of feminism at New York City’s Barnard college in the ’90’s, found herself one decade later a mother, a wife, and a successful writer; a woman quite different from the one she’d expected to become. Though each piece of her identity seemed to be both a struggle and a strength, she felt some sort of unidentified discontinuity running through them, preventing them from fitting comfortably together. Somewhere along the line, she had lost contact with the defiantly optimistic girl she used to be, and was deeply lost without her. So she returned to her alma mater and re-took the “Fem Texts” class that had so inspired her as a younger woman, and found worlds of new meaning in them that would help her to make sense of her changed older self.

Ten years later, Staal has wildly different reactions to the works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Simone de Beauvoir, and Judith Butler–among many others–than she did upon her first reading of them. Interestingly, she sometimes has wildly different interpretations than do the younger women in her class, as well. This inter-generational exchange of interpretations was one of my favorite parts of the book, and I loved how the conversational tone allowed for so many different perceptions to get their due. Many times, in fact, I was tempted to take a break from reading and talk back to Staal and the girls in her class! But not all of the book is classroom centered. Staal always refocuses on how the things she’s learning from the “great books of feminism” impact her relationships with her friends, family, and everyone else.

Staal is an incredibly endearing writer. She is witty, quick, and most importantly, she is completely honest about some of her most personal feelings and experiences. I imagine that it’s very difficult to write so openly about ones’ marital issues and parenting doubts since there’s still a lot of stigma around speaking anything-less-than-totally-positively about either role, but the book was stronger for her openness and made me all the more sympathetic to her journey. And I can’t speak to this myself, since I am unmarried, without kids, and closer in age to college-Staal than current-Staal, but I imagine that her concerns are widely relatable among married working mothers of a similar class background.

This was a really enjoyable and thought-provoking read. I admit to being slightly irked at times when it seemed that her experience wasn’t lining up all the way with her organizational planning for the book, yet she opted stubbornly to make it fit rather than re-work her very neat plot outline. Meaning, sometimes it felt like she was really stretching to demonstrate ways in which her reading was changing the way she thought about herself and her life, whereas I’d rather she just admit that, for example, Judith Butler just didn’t have that much to say to her, in particular. Similarly, though Staal’s monumental growth as an individual was obvious and rewarding upon reaching the book’s end, I think the title’s claim that her experience “changed her life” was a bit exaggerated. Made her life a whole heckuva lot better, I’m sure, but I was left a little confused about the exact nature of this radical transformation.

But these are small quibbles, really. I was very pleased with the book and would recommend it to anyone interested in “the classics” of feminism who’s looking for something light but intelligent.

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Written by Emily Jane

February 22, 2011 at 9:00 am

A Short History of Women, by Kate Walbert

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My mom sent me this book a few months ago, which is entirely appropriate given that it follows multiple generations of mother-daughter relationships. Of course, my initial reaction was to be mildly grossed out at the sappiness and overt sentimentality of the gesture. The second reaction was to roll my eyes, stick it on the shelf, and forget about it for a while. Slightly cruel, I know*. But it’s sort of like a tradition, for us. My mom trying to convince me to bond with her over books about moms and daughters, and me not wanting to. Of course, as anyone who follows this blog knows, I love to read about moms, daughters, and all sorts of women, but something about my mom trying to convince me to do it reeks of some sort of forced bonding exercise that still sometimes pushes my big red rebellion button. This can’t be an uncommon phenomenon, right? In any case, I think I’m growing out of it.

This book was a lot better than I expected to be. Not that I set out to read a bad book, but as you can see I wasn’t particularly excited about this one and was merely looking for something easy that I could finish in a relaxed afternoon or two. It was perfect for my mood. I got sucked right in and finished it in one or two sittings.

In 1914, Dorothy Trevor Townsend starved herself for suffrage. The succeeding four generations of women in Dorothy’s family struggle somewhere between her legacy, their own desires, and their own hang-ups. They are all very different women with a shared problem, the same kind of “woman problem” dealt with by Betty Friedan in the Feminine Mystique. It’s somehow inescapable, this problem, and not just for the Townsend family, Walbert seems to say, but for all of women throughout time and space. Gloomy, indeed. Certainly had me feeling badly about the prospects of aging! Not something I’d recommend for any one with any kind of existential anxiety. But, the subject matter was dealt with so tenderly, so evocatively, so freshly, that I ended up feeling positively, at least, about the book itself. And I was really impressed by Walbert’s writing. She’s got talent!

Of course, it wasn’t perfect. Any book this short (barely 200 pages) dealing with five whole generations of women is going to have to leave a lot out. There was no room for character development, so most of them aren’t all that memorable. And the story moves backward and forward so frequently, and among people with such similar names, no less, that it’s easy to get lost. In fact, if I hadn’t read the book so quickly, I’m sure I would have had to rely much more strongly on the fictional family tree provided at the beginning of the book. I do love a good fictional family tree, don’t get me wrong, but dependence on it has the potential to get very annoying very quickly.

It had it’s problems. But ultimately I had a lot of fun with it. A great book for ladies and their moms 🙂

*Sorry, mom. I love it more than anything when you send me books, and I will, eventually, get to reading them all!

Written by Emily Jane

February 21, 2011 at 7:13 am

Dubliners, by James Joyce

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Dubliners, a collection of short stories, reads more like a series of photographs: each one is still and neatly framed, depicting someone in a limited, static situation from which escape from their constricted circumstances seems unlikely, if possible at all. Through each close-up we get a glimpse of “dear dirty Dublin” at the turn of the twentieth century; it’s narrow streets, it’s dimly lit pubs, it’s struggling population trying to make better lives for themselves through marriage, through travel, through religion, through drink…

Joyce’s writing matches perfectly the scenes he’s dealing with. He uses very dense, hyper realistic language that is evocative and a bit tense. As with the nature of his characters, there is much restrained emotion held teasingly beyond the reach of the reader. At times, though, I felt a little stuck in the thickness of his writing, and the very slim collection took me quite some time to finish.

I appreciate the impression of Dublin that I got from this book, but ultimately, none of the stories really stuck out to me. They are definitely meant to be read together, so I don’t really mind that, in this instance, since that was part of the point–to construct a bigger picture out of parts. However, my lack of real identification any of the stories made reading the next one kind of a chore and I lost quite a bit of reading momentum towards the end of the collection.

Overall, my first experience with Joyce was a good one. But I can only imagine the ways in which the density of his writing, coupled with the stream of consciousness style of his longer works, might make them extremely difficult and tiring to read. I would still like to try Ulysses at some point, but I must admit to being a little wary of it now and am not in a huge rush to do so.

Written by Emily Jane

February 12, 2011 at 1:15 am

Posted in Short Stories

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So Long a Letter, by Mariama Ba

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So Long a Letter was the second January pick for the Year of Feminist Classics Project, and at just 95 pages of lovely prose, it was one I was very grateful for following my struggle with Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft.

But don’t let that fool you: there is a lot of complicated material, emotion, and power to tease out of this slim novella.

Following the death of her husband, Ramatoulaye writes a letter to her friend Aissitou in which she tells her all about her husband’s decision years earlier to take a younger, second wife and her difficult decision, as a mother of twelve, to endure the imposition rather than break up her family. She is left with nothing of her own, and what happens to her is largely out of her control. Aissatou’s life has also been disrupted by her husband’s decision to take another wife but has, in contrast to Ramatoulaye, left her husband and taken her children to the U.S. where she has done very well on her own. Ba compares the two women’s experiences skillfully, so that neither seems “right” or “wrong” for reacting the way they have, which is one of the book’s major strengths. Through the meanderings of Ramatoulaye’s letter, Ba also expands her scope to encompass Senegalese politics and culture more broadly so that the reader is presented with a clearer picture of some of the reasons for, and results of, a system which leaves women vulnerable to this kind of expendability.

But, whereas the book tackles the unfortunate disadvantages for women within polygamist society, it is not without hope. What was most interesting to me was the contrast between what Ramatoulaye and Aissatou seemed to experience as an age-old problem with the excitement of Senegalese independence from France (1960) and what they imagine that does, or should, mean for women. Though women are sadly underrepresented in Senegal’s new government, they are not unaware of the momentous gains of women’s movements around the world. Of course, though Ramatoulaye desperately wants progress, the effects of modernization leave society “shaken to its very foundations, torn between the attraction of imported vices and the fierce resistance of old virtues” (p. 76). When she sees these effects take root in her own children, she finds that “progress” can be complicated to define, and more difficult to embrace than she had previously imagined.

I really was impressed with Ba’s ability to say so much with so few words. For example, the short bit about Ramatoulaye’s ventures to the movies by herself, and her hesitancy–then courage–in the face of disapproving or confused looks, says worlds, I think, about the everyday challenges she faces as a discarded wife (um, for lack of a better phrase?) while also reflecting her strength and development as a character.

As I’m sure is clear, I quite enjoyed this book and think it made a really great contribution to the Year of Feminist Classics project. I look forward to jumping into February’s read, The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor (though you probably won’t see her credited many places for her contribution, Grr!) Feel free to join us at any time, for as long as you’d like, if you haven’t already 🙂

Written by Emily Jane

February 3, 2011 at 12:15 am