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Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England, by Sharon Marcus

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I first became interested in this book when I saw Sharon Marcus speak at a conference last year on “The Body and The State” (or something like that). As soon as she started speaking, I knew I had to read this book. She said that it was written “in conversation” with Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, which was published in the ’80’s and is also on my wish list. It was the perfect follow-up to The Invention of Heterosexuality by Jonathan Ned Katz as it can almost serve as a case study in support of his larger thesis.

Marcus, whose academic background is primarily in literature, expertly weaves together analyses of novels, life-writings, fashion plates, and more to get at the heart of women’s relationships, both sexual and asexual, in Victorian England. Marcus distinguishes between the erotic and the sexual (locating the sexual within the wider context of eroticism) and argues that because the specific binary heterosexual/homosexual understanding of sexuality we rely on now did not exist as such in Victorian England, homoeroticism among women was widely accepted as constitutive of normative femininity and did not in itself signify “deviance”. “Precisely because Victorians saw lesbian sex almost nowhere,” she writes, “they could embrace erotic desire between women almost everywhere” (p. 113). It was, in fact, encouraged, as the virtues that were understood to flourish within close female friendships, like sympathy and charity, were thought to aid women in fulfilling their duties as devoted wives and mothers. Close friendships were of central importance to women, both married and unmarried, and were expected to strengthen traditional gender roles.

One of Marcus’s most striking observations was about the Victorian marriage plot. Rather than merely the vehicle through which heterosexual marriage is achieved, female relationships are often central to Victorian courtship narratives. Marcus argues that contemporary readings of these stories may be skewed too far in favor of the heterosexual outcome, obscuring the ways in which women sought to become closer to one another through helping to secure husbands–and happiness–for their friends. She looks at Shirley by Charlotte Bronte and Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barret Browning, for example, and finds that the marriages that take place at the end of each novel are both the “cause and effect” of female friendship. Conversely, and by no coincidence, the protagonist of Charlotte Bronte’s Villete, Lucy Snowe, is disdainful of women’s company and remains both friendless and unmarried at the end of the novel. These ideas really changed the way I think about the Victorian literature I’ve read, and will definitely influence my reading of such novels in the future!

Female friendship also gave women outlets for expressing themselves in ways they couldn’t with men; for example, through competition and appreciation of feminine beauty. Marcus looks at fashion plates–which were like early fashion advertisements–and determines that Victorian women were great consumers and objectifiers of femininity. Fashion plates were popular collectible items amongst women who eagerly devoured imagery of all things feminine. This is a case in which women employed a “female gaze” to look upon and obtain visual pleasure from each other. Many of the images themselves, which are re-produced in the book, are overtly sensual and suggestive of desire. I was reminded a lot of women’s magazines today, which I think often serve a similar visual function even if all the textual focus is on men.

Marcus even extends her understanding of eroticism to the family, which made me vaguely uncomfortable, though apparently she’s not the first to do so (she cites Foucault). She discusses the ways in which women exerted power over one another and uses mother-dauther relationships as an example. Corporal punishment was a hot topic of the day, and women debated endlessly about how to discipline their daughters. There was a lot of focus on dressing and undressing them, with the infliction of humiliation as a central concern. Many women expressed pleasure in the ability to exert force on their daughters and, interestingly, the details that came out in these widely held conversations were also popular themes of that era’s pornography. At the same time girls, too, were seen to enact the same dominating urges on their dolls that they experienced from their mothers. Dolls, like fashion plates, became intensely popular items of commodified femininity desired and consumed by women and girls.

At the same time, though, Marcus argues against the “lesbian continuum” theory that all female relationships reside on a spectrum of sexual ambiguity. Female couples, and even marriages, were largely known and mostly accepted. Of course, there is always some degree of impossibility in determining whether or not specific relationships were ever engaged sexually or not; in general, though, Victorians were quite able to distinguish between women who were friends and women who were lovers. Female couples behaved around others as male-female couples did: instead of lavishing affection on one another as friends would, they kept a polite physical distance. If living together in marriage, they signified the status of their relationship by buying and sharing pets. They constructed “ad hoc legal structures” which allowed them to share material resources and helped influence the feminist idea of marriage as a social, contractual agreement which could be modified and rescinded, giving women more agency within marriage. She cites many well-known couples who lived this way in what look a lot like domestic partnerships do now, and were met with general respect.

This book was very academic. While reading the introduction, I was worried that a lot of it would go right over my head. It got easier to follow, though, and I think that reading The Invention of Heterosexuality right before this provided the right conceptual tools with which to tackle this book. Marcus is an impressive thinker, and I really appreciated the wide variety of resources she was able to incorporate. The question of women’s relationships in Victorian England is huge and complex, but Marcus is very thorough, so whatever generalizations appear in this post are likely mine. Her close readings of female relationships that drive Great Expectations and other novels will probably be the most interesting to fellow book bloggers and I can almost guarantee they will change the way you read these books, but the whole thing is really fascinating and highly recommended!

Written by Emily Jane

November 6, 2011 at 6:55 am

Posted in Non-fiction

Tagged with ,

The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices, by Xinran

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The “opening up” of China in the late ’80’s allowed Xinran, who worked for the state radio system before pursuing a career as a journalist in the U.K., to air a call-in radio show for women called “Words On the Night Breeze”. Nothing like this had existed in China before, and the popularity of the show was unprecedented. Women of all ages at the end of China’s Cultural Revolution, it seemed, were desperate to tell their stories and to listen to each other. This is an assemblage of the stories which most moved Xinran…or most haunted her.

This book was both riveting and harrowing from the beginning. It’s impossible to say anything more about it without noting that it should come stamped with a big, bold, trigger warning for rape, incest, sexual and other graphic abuses of all kinds. As should, maybe, the rest of this post. A girl who hurts herself so that she can stay in the hospital away from her rapist father, who keeps a fly as a pet; a mother who tries for over a week to console her injured daughter, trapped between two walls after an earthquake; sisters so impoverished that they must take turns leaving their cave in the one outfit they share while the others remain naked in the dark: these are the shocking, tearful tales that make up the modern China that Xinran came to know intimately.

Rape. There is SO MUCH rape in these stories, and it’s gruesomely detailed. My stomach did flip-flops as I read, and I thought I might actually make myself sick by finishing this book. There’s no doubt that it’s well-written and entirely gripping, but everyone’s got their limits when it comes to this kind of thing and these stories pushed me a little too far. I realize, of course, that it’s a painful reality that deserves both illumination and confrontation…but these incidents were recreated almost voyeuristically, at times, which made me feel I was committing a further degradation by reading about them. This is an entirely personal reaction, and I don’t feel entirely capable of teasing out what is my own discomfort and what ¬†might be inherent to Xinran’s style, but there you have it.

All of these stories, while fascinating in many respects, were cries of silent suffering. Despite the inclusion of stories about women from different class backgrounds, from different regions of China, with different experiences of sexuality and everything else, the presentation of Chinese womanhood that I got from this book was one of pain and horror and not much else at all. It’s possible that I’m being naive: I know little about China or the women who live there. I know these tales of misery and terror are true (though they do read like fiction at times–or am I only trying to comfort myself?) and I’m glad that these voices are no longer hidden–but I kept hoping for counter-examples of happy women, confident women, contented women, even just conflicted women. Surely Xinran must have encountered just a few such women, right?!

A much smaller quibble I had was that I wanted to know much more about Xinran herself. Her story is revealed gradually throughout the telling of others, but it would have been helpful to know more about her from the beginning, so that her own questions and reactions to other women might be put into some sort of context.

So, I don’t know. I started out loving this book, and was really excited about it. A quick look through the book’s reviews on Goodreads suggests that for most readers, that initial mood held them through the end. But it took a heavy toll on me–and I’m sensitive, but not THAT sensitive. Slowly but surely, my estimation of the book sunk. I want to learn more about the condition of women from around the world, even when it’s entirely depressing, disgusting, and disturbing, as it all too often is. But I want to learn more than that stuff, too. In fact, I need to, to get through all the ugliness. I think we all do.

Written by Emily Jane

February 2, 2012 at 6:09 am

Posted in Non-fiction

Tagged with ,

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 ūüôā

*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

2011 Favorites and Wrap-Up

with 12 comments

This year I read significantly less than last, which was both my first year blogging and keeping track. I gave very few 5-star ratings on Goodreads, maybe because I took more chances by straying from the “classics” and breaching new-to-me topics. I guess those risks didn’t quite pay off this year, though I will continue to take them in the future. Here’s the small list of books that got 5 stars from me this year:

Fiction:

Half of A Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins

The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters

Honorable mentions:

The Group, by Mary McCarthy

Wish Her Safe at Home, by Stephen Benatar

Novellas:

So Long a Letter, by Mariama Ba

Non-Fiction:

Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England, by Sharon Marcus

The Invention of Heterosexuality, by Jonathan Ned Katz

Honorable mentions:

Nymphomania: A History, by Carole Groneman

Biography:

The Sound of Wings: The Story of Amelia Earhart, by Mary S. Lovell

Essays:

Flat-Footed Truths: Telling Black Women’s Lives, by Patricia Bell-Scott and Juanita Johnson-Bailey

Honorable mentions:

Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class, edited by Michelle Tea 

I bet you can spot a few of my favorite themes, particularly in my non-fiction reading ūüôā

And there you have it! As for 2012, The Year of Feminist Classics project that Amy, Ana, Iris and I hosted this year will be continued. We’re adding more hosts so that we will be better able to cover for each other when we’re busy (which is a lot, these days) and will be making the announcement about this year’s reading list soon.

So far I haven’t joined any challenges. I’m more interested in challenges this year than I was last, but honestly, I haven’t across any yet that particularly grab me. I might sign up for a few a little later down the road, but for now I’m still pretty happy leaving my reading plans wide open.

Thank you to everyone who’s commented here or inspired me to comment at your place. I’m so grateful for all the bloggy friends I’ve made and kept this year, and can’t wait to keep talking books with you all in 2012! Happy New Year’s Eve!!!


Written by Emily Jane

December 31, 2011 at 8:55 pm

Posted in Misc., Uncategorized

Books Read

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Here’s a list of all the books I’ve written about here at Booked All Week or other blogs at which I’m hosting projects or read-a-longs, alphabetized by author’s last name, with a link to the post in which they were featured or mentioned.

A

Abramsky, Sasha–American Furies: Crime, Punishment, and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment LINK

Ackerman, Diane–A Natural History of the Senses ¬†LINK

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi–Half of a Yellow Sun LINK

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi–The Thing Around Your Neck ¬†LINK

Ahmed, Leila–A Border Passage: From Cairo to America–A Woman’s Journey¬† LINK

Alexie, Sherman–War Dances LINK

Anaya, Rudolfo–Bless Me, Ultima¬† LINK

Angier, Natalie–Woman: An Intimate Geography LINK

Antonio de Alarcon, Pedro–The Three-Cornered Hat¬† LINK

Atwood, Margaret–Cat’s Eye LINK

Atwood, Margaret–Alias Grace LINK

Atwood, Margaret–Wilderness Tips LINK

Austen, Jane–Pride and Prejudice LINK

Austen, Jane–Emma LINK

Austen, Jane–Persuasion¬† LINK

B

B., David–Epileptic ¬†LINK

Ba, Mariama–So Long a Letter LINK

Baldwin, James–Go Tell it on The Mountain LINK

Barker, Pat–Regeneration LINK

de Beauvoir, Simone–The Second Sex¬† LINK

Bechdel, Alison–The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For LINK

Bell-Scott, Patricia, with Juanita Johnson-Bailey–Flat-Footed Truths: Telling Black Women’s Lives¬† LINK

Benatar, Stephen–Wish Her Safe at Home¬† LINK

Bergman, Megan Mayhew–Birds of a Lesser Paradise: Stories ¬†LINK

Blackburn, Julia–Old Man Goya¬† LINK

Burge, James–Heloise and Abelard: A New Biography LINK

C

Cable, Mary–Black Odyssey: The Case of the Slave Ship Amistad¬† LINK

Castillo, Ana–So Far From God ¬†LINK

Cather, Willa–Death Comes for the Archbishop LINK

de Cervantes, Miguel–Don Quixote LINK

Chabon, Michael–The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay LINK

Chang, Iris–The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotton Holocaust of World War II¬† LINK

Christie, Agatha–Three Act Tragedy¬† LINK

Cisneros, Sandra–Caramelo ¬†LINK

Coetzee, J.M.–Disgrace¬† LINK

Collins, Wilkie–The Woman in White LINK

Collins, Wilkie–The Moonstone ¬†LINK

Crosley, Sloane–I Was Told There’d Be Cake LINK

Crummey, Michael–Galore ¬†LINK

D

Daneshvar, Simin–A Persian Requiem ¬†LINK

Darko, Amma–The Housemaid ¬†LINK

Davies, Robertson–Fifth Business LINK

Davies, Robertson–The Manticore LINK

Davies, Robertson–World of Wonders¬† LINK

Dazai, Osamu–Schoolgirl¬† LINK

Dickens, Charles–A Tale of Two Cities¬†LINK

Didion, Joan–The Year of Magical Thinking¬† LINK

Doctorow, E.L.–The Waterworks¬† LINK

Douglass, Frederick–Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave LINK

Duras, Marguerite–The Lover¬† LINK

E

Eisenberg, Robert–Boychiks in the Hood: Travels in the Hasidic Underground LINK

Elkins, Caroline–Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya ¬†LINK

F

Fessler, Ann–The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades¬† Before Roe v. Wade¬† LINK

Flaubert, Gustave–Madame Bovary LINK

Forster, E.M.–A Room With a View LINK

G

Gaskell, Elizabeth–North and South ¬†LINK

Gibson, William–Neuromancer ¬†LINK

Goldsmith, Barbara–Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull ¬†LINK

Gregorio, Renee; Logghe, Joan; and Sagan, Miriam–Love and Death: Greatest Hits¬† LINK

Groneman, Carol–Nymphomania: A History¬† LINK

H

Hardy, Thomas–Jude the Obscure LINK

Hernandez, Jaime–Locas: A Love & Rockets Book: The Maggie and Hopey Stories LINK

hooks, bell–Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics ¬†LINK

Horwtiz, Tony–Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches From the Unfinished Civil War ¬†LINK

Hulme, Keri–The Bone People ¬†LINK

I

Ibsen, Henrik–A Doll’s House LINK, LINK, LINK

Ivey, Eowyn–The Snow Child ¬†LINK

J

Jacobs, Harriet–Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl LINK

Jansson, Tove–The True Deceiver LINK

Joyce, James–Dubliners LINK

K

Katz, Jonathan Ned–The Invention of Heterosexuality¬† LINK

Kingston, Maxine Hong–The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts¬† LINK, LINK

Kosinski, Jerzy–The Painted Bird LINK

L

Lawrence, D.H.–Lady Chatterley’s Lover LINK

Levy, Andrea–Small Island LINK

Li, Yiyun–The Vagrants LINK

Lorde, Audre–Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches ¬†LINK, LINK

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

Lovell, Mary S.–Amelia Earhart: The Sound of Wings¬† LINK

M

Maier-Katkin, Daniel–Stranger From Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness LINK

Manguel, Alberto–The Library at Night LINK

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

Marcus, Sharon–Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England¬† LINK

Marshall, Paule–Brown Girl, Brownstones¬†¬†LINK

du Maurier, Daphne–Rebecca¬†¬†LINK

McCarthy, Mary–The Group¬†¬†LINK

McFarland, Philip–Mark Twain and the Colonel: Samuel L. Clemens, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Arrival of a ¬†New Century ¬†LINK

Melville, Herman–Benito Cereno/Bartleby the Scrivener/The Encantadas/Billy Budd, Foretopman ¬†LINK

Menchu, Rigoberta–I, Rigoberta: An Indian Woman in Guatemala LINK

Meriwether, Louise–Daddy Was a Number Runner LINK

Mill, John Stuart–The Subjection of Women LINK

Min, Anchee–Red Azalea LINK

Mistry, Rohinton–A Fine Balance¬† LINK

Momaday, M. Scott–House Made of Dawn¬† LINK

Morrison, Toni (ed. by)–Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality LINK

Morrison, Toni–Beloved¬† LINK

Murdoch, Iris–Under the Net ¬†LINK

N

Naylor, Gloria–The Women of Brewster Place LINK

O

Ogola, Margaret–The River and the Source ¬†LINK

Okri, Ben–The Famished Road ¬†LINK

Oyono, Ferdinand–Houseboy LINK

P

de Pizan, Christine–The Book of the City of Ladies ¬†LINK

Pollitt, Katha–Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture¬† LINK

Potok, Chaim–My Name is Asher Lev LINK

Potok, Chaim–Davita’s Harp ¬†LINK

Q

R

Robinson, Marilynne–Housekeeping LINK

Rose, Alex–The Musical Illusionist and Other Tales¬† LINK

Roy, Arundhati–Power Politics ¬†LINK

S

el Saadawi, Nawal–God Dies By the Nile¬† LINK

Scahill, Jeremy–Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army LINK

Skloot, Rebecca–The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks LINK

Smith, Patti–Just Kids LINK

Smith, Zadie–NW ¬†LINK

Sobel, Dava–Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love ¬†LINK

Spark, Muriel–The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie LINK

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

T

Tea, Michelle (ed. by)–Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class¬† LINK

wa Thiong’o, Ngugi–Wizard of the Crow ¬†LINK

Thomas, Dylan–Quite Early One Morning LINK

Tolstoy, Leo–The Death of Ivan Ilyich¬† LINK

Toole, John Kennedy–A Confederacy of Dunces LINK

Trollope, Anthony–The Warden ¬†LINK

Turgenev, Ivan–Fathers and Sons LINK

U

V

W

Walbert, Kate–A Short History of Women LINK

Waters, Sarah–The Little Stranger¬† LINK

Waters, Sarah–Affinity ¬†LINK

Weisberg, Barbara–Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism¬† LINK

Weller, Sheila–Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon–and the Journey of a Generation¬† LINK

Wharton, Edith–Ethan Frome LINK

Wharton, Edith–The House of Mirth LINK

Wilder, Thornton–The Bridge of San Luis Rey LINK

Winchester, Simon–The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary¬† LINK

Wollstonecraft, Mary–A Vindication of the Rights of Woman LINK

Wood, Gaby–Edison’s Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life¬† LINK

Woolf, Virginia–A Room of One’s Own LINK

Wright, William–Harvard’s Secret Court: The Savage 1920 Purge of Campus Homosexuals ¬†LINK

Wyld, Evie–After the Fire, A Still Small Voice LINK

X

Xinran–The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices ¬†LINK

Y

Yoshimoto, Banana–Kitchen LINK

Z

Zola, Emile–Germinal LINK

Written by Emily Jane

May 31, 2010 at 6:17 am

Posted in

Caramelo, Rebecca, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, The Snow Child, Galore

with 8 comments

Caramelo_novel

Caramelo¬†is a multi-generational family saga that revolves around Celaya, a.k.a. Lala, the only daughter in a family of sons. Her childhood is spent in Mexico, Chicago, and Texas, transversing cultures, languages, and fragmented identities. She’s a bit of a tomboy: tough, funny, but a little unsure of herself all the same. It’s only in piecing together her family’s tumultuous history that she is able to situate herself and put roots to her own experiences. I loved the way that Cisneros incorporates both English and Spanish into her prose, the way she references real historical/political events (most apparent in the narrative of The Little Grandfather’s experience in the Mexican Army), and most of all I appreciated the in-text dialogue that Lala has with The Awful Grandmother, who keeps interrupting her narrative to question her framing of things, her omitting of certain details and her emphasis of others. This is a story about how stories get told, and why, as much as it is about a particular individual, family, and community of migrants. A wonderful, thoughtful, rambling novel, full of contradictory characters, intense infatuations, and unpredictable unravellings. Fantastic!

rebecca-by-daphne-du-maurier1

Oh, Rebecca. Rebecca is just as perfect as everyone who’s ever told you to read it has promised it would be. Mrs. de Winter is the paid companion of a rich, boring socialite when she meets Maxim on vacation in Italy. In him she finds romance as well as financial stability and a way out of her dead-end present. But when she comes to Maxim’s estate, Manderley, a new bride after a rushed marriage and a short honeymoon, she feels…unsettled. She is intimidated by the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who seems immediately to dislike her, and she is uncomfortable in her new role as lady of the house. She has big shoes to fill, she knows, for Maxim has been married before. And his previous wife was everything that the current Mrs. de Winter is not: confined and composed, a dark, classic beauty, the perfect hostess. In every corner of the unfamiliar house, the new Mrs. de Winter catches hints of Rebecca, and her lingering presence taunts her. Rebecca builds slowly, creepily, avoiding cliche and indulging in the most lovely descriptions, reveling in archetype.¬†Read it on a rainy, snowy, or otherwise foreboding night.

birds-of-lesser

The stories in Birds of a Lesser Paradise¬†populated with women who are struggling with loss, family, and questions about personal evolution and “biological destiny”. They are animal hoarders, bird watchers, veterinarians or married to veterinarians, each working to define their relationships to nature through their relationships with other animals. Bergman uses animals both captive and wild to play around with what might be parallels to her characters’ subjectivity as women working toward and against bonds of domesticity and freedom. In “Housewifely Arts”, a woman takes her son on a search for a parrot capable of mimicking her dead mother’s voice, and in another favorite of mine, “The Artificial Heart”, a woman wonders about the moral implications of life-extending technology that keeps her father alive in a semi-apocalyptic world. Some of Bergman’s characters were repetitious, while others felt more satirical than real (I’m thinking of the anti-population growth activist/husband in “Yesterday’s Whales”). Regardless, each story in this collection arced gracefully and gave me something lasting and multi-layered to think about. I thoroughly enjoyed these stories and eagerly await future releases from Bergman!

Ivey_TheSnowChildmoon

Though a very different reading experience,¬†The Snow Child¬† in some way fits thematically with¬†Birds of a Lesser Paradise.¬†Craving a change of scenery following a terrible, personal tragedy, Mabel and Jack become early settlers of the Alaskan frontier. They fight against the cold, the brutality of the land and their surroundings, and growing emotional distance. One blistery night in the middle of winter, they build themselves a child out of snow, and shortly thereafter begin to see a young girl alone in the woods. Familiar with¬†the Russian fairy tale, Mabel convinces herself that the child is theirs, that she was borne of hope and snow.¬†But, however mysterious,¬†the Snow Child does have a very real history of her own, and is as untamable and foreign as the Alaskan wilderness itself. The story is tense and moving, as the reader must come to wish for the best possible outcome for Jack and Mabel, yet can’t shake the worry that there isn’t something to the warnings inherent in that fairy tale, after all. This book was strange, entrancing, and masterfully told. A new favorite!

9781590514344

Unfortunately, Galore broke my winning streak. It had so much potential, too. An interesting departure…a pale man found alive in the belly of a whale beached upon the coast of newly settled Newfoundland, whose mute presence has inexplicable effects the people who find him…an intriguingly convoluted family tree and feud that survives multiple generations…and complex mythological undertones drawn from folklore and Methodism. While the idea behind this book was magnificent, and I was really looking forward to it, I found Crummey’s writing dry and his recounting of events tedious. I felt that the constant reference to the relationships between successive generations of the townspeople drew my attention away from what I found magical about the world he’d constructed. All the pieces were there; I wished he’d spent more time on plot, on playing around within the world he’d created, than reinforcing it’s boundaries and contents. I loved the dark mystery that pervaded the novel. I did not love the energy I had to expend on keeping names and eras in place and, personally, I would have liked the second half to have been more concise, with clearer intent. Oh, well.

Wizard of the Crow, by Ngugi wa Thiong’o

with 12 comments

Oh. My. Gosh. LIFE SOMETIMES, RIGHT?! A few months ago I warned you that I would likely be very busy with my last semester of undergrad, and other things, and that posting would be slow. Little did you (or I!) know, I was actually about to disappear from this blog for months. MONTHS.

I guess the good news about not having been able to do hardly any just-for-fun reading lately is that there’s not very much to catch up on. :/ On the other hand, it’s been really difficult to revitalize my drive to read, which makes me sad. It’s all over now, but I am intellectually exhausted and want to do nothing but watch X-Files (good thing it’s streaming on Netflix!). So, I’m working on that. In the meantime, though, I will try to remember what I can about the last book I did finish, which also happened to be GREAT and will surely remain one of my favorites this year.

Wizard of the Crow¬†takes place in the fictional country of Aburiria, a totalitarian state in which the people suffer under a dictator who squanders all the nation’s resources on a modern Tower of Babel, a structure tall enough to unite The Ruler with the ultimate power and omniscience of God. But he is challenged by a growing number of subversives lead by the unlikely pair of the elusive mystic Kamiti and the practical, confrontational Nyawira. Posing together as The Wizard of the Crow, they begin to diagnose the corrupt government officials and businessmen that seek their help in secrecy with internalized racism and destructive envy of white male power. Finally their reputation leads them straight to The Ruler himself, who is yet to identify them as the source of the political humiliation he is beginning to suffer at the hands of unruly queuing peasants and, worst of all, non-submissive women, in front of his Global Bank acquaintances and the international community at large.

Though the book deals with heavy themes, it is written with a strong sense of humor and never felt anything but lively despite its great length (though I will admit the last hundred pages–of about seven hundred–were a bit pedantic!). I loved his use of magical realism, his dialogue, and especially his female characters. I especially love that they led the resistance by exaggeratedly fulfilling their traditional roles and, later, by establishing an all female people’s court to try and punish perpetrators of domestic violence, revealing links between “the personal and the political”. This kind of satire may seem familiar, but this book feels far from tired.

Though I know little of Kenya’s history, I think it’s fair to read what I do know into this novel. But having just finished a course on the DRC and Rwanda, it seems equally possible to read a bit of post-colonial Africa in general into it. Towards the end, Thiong’o plays explicitly with pan-Africanism, which I think validates that reading. I look forward to learning more about Kenya’a specific past with this book in mind.

Inventive, ranging, and assertive…this chunkster comes highly recommended.

This book counts toward both The Africa Challenge and my own private Kenya project, on which I have fallen far, far behind. Ditto A Year of Feminist Classics, which I plan to catch up on in good time. 

Written by Emily Jane

May 18, 2012 at 9:56 pm

House Made of Dawn, by M. Scott Momaday

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After fighting in World War Two, Abel returns home to the Indian reservation drunk and detached. His experience with war and the rapid unfolding of the twentieth century seem to have rendered his traditional worldview obsolete and far away. Though his grandfather is there to remind Abel of his former life and the life of his people, there is something deep within Abel which keeps him out of reach. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Abel murders Juan Reyes–an albino Indian known as “the white man”.

The story is told non-chronologically from the perspective of multiple changing narrators who, together, reveal what happened to Abel before, during, and after the murder. Through them we learn about Angela, the white woman visiting the mineral baths near the reservation with whom Abel had an affair; his failure to fully integrate into working society after a six year stay in a California jail; his relationship with Milly, a white social worker and, finally, the death of his grandfather.

Abel is a man torn between two worlds and cultures that could not bear the influence of the other. His spontaneous killing of a “white man”, though grisly and of course wildly unjust, makes it’s own kind of terrible sense in this context. It also made me wonder about the implications of his predilection for white women…

Momaday writes the beauty of the southwestern landscape into perfect being. His descriptions of red canyon walls, waving yellow-graying plains, and the farthest stretching skies are second only to Willa Cather’s, in my opinion, and were my favorite part of the book which, all in all, I was disappointed by. The changing narration felt disjointed and I was often confused and, too often, I felt that Momaday’s poetic language, though lovely, obscured the narrative. Though it’s easier to put together now having finished, it felt while reading that there simply wasn’t enough story. I see why the book’s themes alone warrant the book’s reputation as a “classic” of Native American literature, but the execution didn’t do it for me.

Have you read it? Did it do it for you?

Written by Emily Jane

September 25, 2011 at 3:42 pm

Posted in Novels

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Catching Up, Part 3

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I’m back! Here’s what I read while I was out of town:

Beginning with a wedding and ending with a funeral, The Group follows the lives of eight women who graduate from Vassar in 1933 through the next ten years of their lives. These privileged women strongly identify themselves as part of a set based on their shared school experience and their educational status, which reads as a bit outdated. However, their experiences with, and conversations about sexuality, birth control, family problems, and workplace discrimination kept the book relevant and engaging. It was this, and a focus on long-lasting but malleable friendships, which drew me in. McCarthy writes in a meandering way and moves so easily from one character to another that the shift between them is almost imperceptible, and that didn’t hurt either. Her style reminded me a bit of Virginia Woolf’s in Mrs. Dalloway which–of course–is a high compliment.

Full disclosure: I know Miriam Sagan personally, and thank her very much for sending me a copy of this book. I don’t plan to let that sway my “review” at all, but thought it right to mention it. I don’t read a lot of poetry–I should read more though, because often when I do I end up enjoying it more than expected. This collection brings together the poetry of three friends sharing their experiences of love and loss, some of which overlap, and all of which are fairly accessible to non (or rare) poetry types like me. The natural overlap of experience is perhaps the most interesting outcome of this project since it allows for a plurality of perspectives toward singular events. My favorite part, though, was the evocative imagery of my first home, the Southwest, which is a near-constant setting for these poems. I also liked how, through their poetry, you could feel the real-life bonds that exist between the authors and see how the major events of their individual lives have informed their friendships. I hadn’t realized it before, but this book shares much of what I enjoyed most about The Group! A cathartic read.

In 1939, the French ship La Amistad sailed from Havana toward Puerto Principe, Cuba, with 56 African slaves on board. The slaves freed themselves from their restraints, mutinied, and were captured off the coast of Long Island. Questions about rightful ownership of both the ship and the people onboard fed a long-winded Supreme Court case, the resolution of which had a crucial impact on both international politics and the institution of slavery in the United States. For many New Englanders, this was their first interaction with Africans unmediated by the institution of slavery. It took them lengthy investigations and more than one translator to determine exactly where in Africa they had come from, and to hear their telling of the events aboard the Amistad, but immediately they were of widespread interest; people would come from afar to gawk at them in prison, where they were held until their freedom was finally granted in 1841, and abolitionists were quick to adopt their case. These events were widely publicized at the time, and are still quite fascinating. Unfortunately, this book was pretty boring. It’s brevity is one of the few things it has going for it. Intriguing history, but mediocre book. Too bad.

Set in early nineteenth century Andalucia, this short novel is a warning against the corruption of authority represented by the corregidor (insufficiently translated as administrator, or mayor) and symbolized by his three-cornered hat. This figure takes an interest in the local beauty, Frasquita, who is married to the miller don Eugenio. Frasquita and her husband decide to play a prank on the corregidor, but when don Eugenio begins to suspect his wife of running too far with the joke and succumbing to the corregidor’s sexual advances, he tries to one-up them by impersonating el corregidor and bedding his wife. The persistent idea that political corruption/and or gain, or “manliness”, or whatever,¬† comes at the expense of women “belonging” to other men is annoying to me, and totally at play here. But I couldn’t help enjoying the humorous aspects of the story, which were many. And in the end, though each wife is fooled by the silly behavior of their husbands, they are not made fools of in the way their husbands are. In fact, they gain the benefit of each other’s friendship–so I guess that evens things out. This tale would not be out of place as one of those stories within a story that happen in Don Quixote, and so I liked it.

Bless Me, Ultima tells the story of Antonio Marez, a young boy from Guadelupe, New Mexico, whose life is forever altered when the curandera (healer) Ultima comes to live with his family during the second world war. He feels pulled toward two conflicting futures; one in which he honors his mother and her side of his family by becoming a priest and a settled farmer, and one in which he follows the wild, nomadic footsteps of his father’s restless dreams. He also struggles to reconcile his religious beliefs with the injustice he sees around him, and his existential struggles are made much more difficult when Ultima is accused of witchcraft by others in his community and people around him start dying. Though he learns wonderful things from Ultima, in the end only he can unlock the secrets to his destiny and forge his own spiritual path. Anaya is a masterful storyteller. This book was required reading for me in middle school, clouded by fond but vague, disjointed memory. It more than stood the test of time and was only improved by a second, more seasoned reading, and highly recommend it. I’ve just found out that Bless Me, Ultima is acutally part of a trilogy, and can’t wait to track down the other two books in the series.

And that’s that! Finally, I can get back to writing about books immediately (er, or at least shortly) after completing them. Welcome to summer, everyone.

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 ūüôā

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 ūüôā I hope all your summers are off to a great start, and I’ll read y’all soon!