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Archive for May 2011

Catching Up, Part 2

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In A Border Passage: From Cairo to America–A Woman’s Journey, Leila Ahmed, an Egyptian Islamic feminist scholar in America, details the events of her childhood shaped primarily by the events of the 1952 revolution and her academic experience at a British college. I learned a lot of valuable history from this memoir, which is especially interesting and pertinent given what’s happening in Egypt today. I was especially interested in Ahmed’s college experience and the dawning of her interest in colonialism and post-colonial theory and feminism. This memoir was incredibly insightful, but I didn’t feel I got to know its author in any personal sense and this put me off a bit. I’m keeping an eye out for Ahmed’s more straightforward non-fiction work, particularly Women and Gender in Islam, which I think I’ll get along with a little better.

World of Wonders concludes the Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies (here’s what I thought of the first two books in the series, Fifth Business and The Manticore). This trilogy is completely brilliant, and introduced me to one of my new favorite authors who, luckily for me, was fairly prolific. World of Wonders shines a spotlight on the most mysterious of the trilogy’s characters, Magnus Eisengrim (or Paul Dempster). Paul grew up in a religiously oppressive household with a “mad” mother and was abducted by a member of a traveling circus as a child. There, he learns some of life’s hardest lessons, and when he’s able to leave the circus and move into the world of theater, he learns to hone his skills of manipulation and becomes the world’s leading illusionist. This story is told through a series of conversations with Dunstan Ramsay and Liesl (both characters from the first two books) and a film crew which has hired Eisengrim to portray a famous, deceased magician in a documentary for the BBC. By asking him to provide “subtext” for the film, they are able to tease out the history of a very complex and secretive character who, in many ways, provides the key to understanding the events of the trilogy at large. In some ways, I admit, I might have liked Eisengrim’s past to remain a mystery, as I don’t think anything could have really matched what I’d imagined that history to be. But Davies presented the story with the same subtle but invigorating philosophical approach that I’ve come to expect from him, and did it beautifully. Though Fifth Business remains my favorite book of the three, World of Wonders made a fitting end to a very captivating and original series.

Flat-Footed Truths: Telling Black Women’s Lives is a collection of short stories, essays, poems, and photographs exploring the self-expression of African American women. I read this book in one sitting, and loved it. There’s a lot of good stuff in here about the importance of reclaiming black women’s history in the United States and the whitewashing of feminism. There’s also some really great writing about black women’s friendships, artist and activist communities, the radical act of love and the true meaning of solidarity. The image of woman, and black woman in particular, has long been tarnished with the worry and discomfort of an insecure and prejudiced society; for this reason, it is important that black women’s voices are not ignored, that their self-image and creativity is recognized and validated. And anyway, you really can’t go wrong with any collection that includes writing by both bell hooks and Audre Lorde 🙂

I had so much fun reading Nymphomania: A History. The history of nymphomania, I learned, is a history of western anxiety about women’s sexuality; the arbitrary meaning of the word nymphomania is flexible, and able to encompass the particular concerns of different generations with distinct ideas about women, sex, how much sex is too much for women, and what kinds of sex are appropriate for women to enjoy. It was horrifying to learn about how women’s sex drives were pathologized in the Victorian era, and…(UM, I THINK A TRIGGER WARNING MIGHT BE APPROPRIATE HERE)…”treated” with cauterization, bleedings of the uterus by leeches, and institutionalization. EEEEEK. It was interesting to see how women’s sexual behavior was, and is, deemed appropriate or not based on their class status and race, and how these ideas have been changed, but not been done away with, by the sexual revolutions of the twentieth century. I only wish that the book was a little longer. Each section felt brief, and I would have liked more detail. There were also some big chronological gaps between the different sections that could have been filled. Ultimately, though, I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.

I read both Diary of a Bad Year and Elizabeth Costello a few years ago, and kind of hated them both, mostly on account of plot events. I held out hope for Disgrace, based on the fact that it seems to be most people’s favorite Coetzee, but wasn’t much happier with it. Mostly because I had no sympathy for the disgraced protagonist, David Lurie, at all. He’s a South African college professor who has a terribly coercive “affair” with one of his students, refuses to “reform his character,” and is fired (good). He goes to live with his somewhat estranged daughter Lucy in the countryside, but their already tense relationship becomes even more strained when three men break into their home, beat him up, and rape Lucy. He is frustrated by how she deals with the emotional aftermath of the rape, and tries unsuccessfully to persuade her to change her life and move somewhere he considers safer. In so doing, a host of racial South African power dynamics come into play in Lucy’s community and each must deal with their “disgrace” in their own way. There’s an interesting story here, I know, but as I said…I really hated David Lurie and that completely influenced my reading of this book. There were moments when I was able to appreciate Coetzee’s writing style, but I was bothered by the content of the writing itself. I’m ready to say that J.M. Coetzee just isn’t for me.

And with that…I am leaving town for a few weeks tomorrow. This means I probably won’t be posting for a while, and when I get back, you can expect a few more catch up posts. I can’t wait to get back into posting and commenting on other people’s blogs regularly, but am equally excited for a little vacation 🙂 I hope all your summers are off to a great start, and I’ll read y’all soon!

Catching Up, Part 1

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So, life has been real chaotic these past few months, and unfortunately this has led to a bit of blog neglect. I got behind in my reviews last spring break and have only continued to fall farther behind. Now that this semester is finally over, it’s time to put what’s passed in the past with some mini-reviews.

Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class is a collection of stories/essays compiled by Michelle Tea, who writes in the introduction that she was fed up with reading about the working class from the upper-class perspective of popular journalists and the like. These first-hand accounts tell frightening, vindicating, difficult tales of what it’s like to grow up a poor girl in the United States. Inadequate access to healthcare, domestic violence, alienating educational institutions–these stories cover all that and so much more. The authors come from a wide range of backgrounds and give voice to a host of sexual and gender identities as well as callings; they are activists, mothers, poets, teachers, and many things besides. As is true of all collections, some of the stories/essays are better than others. But what I might consider the weakest in this collection sets the bar quite high. Haunting and powerful. Highly recommended to those interested in gender studies and social justice.

In fifth grade, I dressed as Amelia Earhart and gave a monologue to my classmates about my flying adventures to fulfill a project requirement. Like many others, I have remained fascinated with her into adulthood. Mary S. Lovell, who wrote the book about the Mitfords that I loved so much, is a skilled biographer and I was thrilled to find that she chose Earhart as one of her subjects. What she adds to the wealth of information about Earhart’s career in The Sound of Wings, she says, is an investigation into the role that her husband–publisher, writer, and one-man-media-machine–George Putnam played in making Amelia Earhart a household name. Earhart was courageous, stubborn, and determined as hell, but even her closest friends and biggest supporters readily admitted that she was not a “natural” flier in the way that many of her competitors were, both male and female (and there were a lot of women aviators at the time, I learned). She had the personality, but Putnam had the media in the palm of his hand. Together, they were an unstoppable force. I was a bit miffed at first that Putnam was getting so much credit for Earhart’s success, but eventually I was persuaded as to the impact of his work on her behalf. My only complaint, then, is that his name should have been included in the title. Without that inclusion, it did at first seem a little unfair to give so attention to him. I also wish that Lovell had spent more than half a page on Earhart’s friendship with fellow pilot Jackie Cochran, which seems to have consisted of psychic-seance type meetings in which they (correctly!!!) identified the locations of three crashed airplanes. Because, whoa. And yes, Jackie did make a detailed prediction about what happened to Amelia, and where…!

I owe the blogosphere a huge favor for this one, because I wouldn’t have tried it without a host of blogger recommendations. And I loved it. I’ve been on a scary movie kick for months now, but have always avoided scary stories in book form out of some misguided idea that scary stories in books are all hokey, or something (I know, I know…what a ridiculous prejudice for a book-lover to have!). Well, this book was downright creepy. It takes place in a crumbling post-war Mansion called Hundreds Hall in the English countryside (um, what more do you need to know?). The Ayres family is used to a bougeoise way of life which is becoming impossible as the make up of the country’s class structure starts to shift. They are haunted by their imcompetence to keep up the house without the aid of dozens of servants, and their past prestige…increasingly, though, it seems they must be haunted by something else, too. Something more sinister. I figured out what was going on about three-fourths of the way through the book and admit that I was expecting a bit more of a twist, or something, but I still had a great time racing straight through to the end of this one!

This book is incredibly hard to talk about. I’ve seen comparisons made between this book and works by Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges but as I haven’t actually read either of them, I can’t comment on that (I do have a huge collection of Borge’s works though which I really want to delve into this summer). This book is a Library of Tangents, and each “story” exhibits some marvelous thing, history, idea, or paradox that exists in the imaginative universe that Rose has created. It’s filled with small but detailed diagrams, charts, paintings, and maps that tell of all things from “Languages of Hidden Islands” to “Lost Horologies and Systems of Measures”. Sounds obscure, yes, and it is…but what’s so captivating about these fantastical tangents–whole societies incapable of forgetting anything, and who are therefore unable to reflect; isolated communities of people who see color on a spectrum only visible to them–is that they seem almost too strange and unlikely to be made up. Part of us wants to believe that they are true, that things we know to be real fill the void between fact and the imaginary. These bizarre fables, if you can call them that, are fun in that they challenge you to pick out the fact from the fiction, and a bit disconcerting in that you find you can’t always do it. A neat little book.

That’s it for now, but expect a second installment of catch-up reviews in the next few days 🙂

Written by Emily Jane

May 14, 2011 at 9:46 pm

Wish Her Safe at Home, by Stephen Benatar

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Rachel Waring, star of Wish Her Safe at Home, is a middle-aged woman with a fairly innocuous existence who inherits an old mansion from a great aunt in a city not her own. As soon as she sees it, she falls in love: with life, with art, with romance itself, and even with the imagined presence, of sorts, of a man who lived in the house years before her own birth. For the first time, she is incredibly happy. She buys herself nice clothes, splurges on gourmet foods, and gives her full attention to beauty in all of its forms.

Rachel’s enthusiasm and joy was contagious to this reader, who wanted nothing but for those feelings to grow and to remain hers forever. But, as Rachel’s spirits soar on, it becomes uncomfortably clear that something isn’t quite right. It becomes clear in the way that other characters interact with her, in the way that their motivations become increasingly suspect, and in the growing unpredictibility of her actions. Soon, we know, something terrible must either happen or come to light…and there is nothing for the reader to do but sweat, bite the inside of one’s cheeks, and brace for the inevitable crash that will end Rachel’s delusions, hoping she’ll survive the impact.

I was amazed by Benatar’s ability to create a character who is so easy to inhabit, and yet is so vulnerable to the scrutiny of outsiders’ rationality. This story has been compared with the real-life tale of the Beales of Grey Gardens, and the comparison is warranted. However, it also stands alone on the merit of Benatar’s writing and Rachel Waring herself, a character who is just as real as the Beales.

Discomforting to read, in the best of ways.

Written by Emily Jane

May 6, 2011 at 12:59 am