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*Project Recap: For one year, I will read one book per month that I know nothing about that was recommended to me by a stranger; friend; family member, or co-worker; and I will write about that experience.  God help us all.

The Forest Lover by Susan VreelandForest Lover
Book #3, read during January, 2015

Susan Vreeland is one of those authors in the library world where you know of her popularity from the vast amount of books on the shelf, much like your everyday Lee Child, James Patterson, or Louise Penny.  I could decipher the genre from a glance–historical fiction–and Caucasian women seem to be the main protagonist.  The Forest Lover is what I typically refer to as a “book club book,” meaning that I would recommend for a general audience, probably women, and it has a lot of elements that would make up a good discussion: Native Americans, Native American women, a white, middle-class woman’s role in the early 20th century, artistic freedom, et al.  It’s not particularly controversial, it’s well-written, and there’s no sex or direct violence–it’s a nice book.

Written as historical fiction, where one creates a story using sprinkles of fact, TFL is about an artist in the early 1900s in Canada who chooses to stay single and childless, eschews religion, loves animals, painting nature, and hangs out with Native Americans at at time when whites were in full-swing Christian colonization mode (yes, nothing much has changed; just wait, there’s more).  At first, I wondered if reading a novel written in that time period instead of reading a modern-day interpretation would be more effective, such as books by women who lived what Vreeland writes about, such as Kate Chopin or Virgina Woolfe.  However as I delved deeper into the impetus for the creation of the novel, I read that this book’s main character, Emily Carr, was indeed an actual artist and that the book is loosely based on her actual life.

Vreeland creates Emily Carr’s world by weaving social and personal (to Carr, and probably Vreeland as well) threads that reveal the complexities of social injustice concerning gender and race.  Throughout the book, and Emily’s real life, she frequently receives the underhanded compliment, “You’ll be a fine woman painter” or that she’s a “woman artist”; woman being the operative word here.  This reminds me of a Twitter entanglement in 2014 when musician Neko Case was called a “woman in music” by Playboy Magazine, striking back, “Am I? IM NOT A FUCKING ‘WOMAN IN MUSIC’, IM A FUCKING MUSICIAN IN MUSIC!”  Though this book takes place in the early 1900s when Carr lived, was written in 2004, you’ll be delighted to know that zero has changed in over 100 years concerning the gendered nature of art–men are the norm and women are the outsiders.

Another curious discrepancy that stood out as I read TFL, especially after reading Vellum by Hal Duncan as my last Stranger by the Book: A Year of Unknown Reading selection was the difference in the description of sex scenes written by men and women.  From my own empirical reading observations, there are some marked differences between a man’s description of sex from what I’ve read from Hal Duncan, Joe Hill, Stephen King, and John Updike to name just a few.   From what I’ve read, they use basic physical language, “my penis feels and looks like this and this is what I did with it, and this what I saw,” and these authors, like many other male authors, just love to use the word “cunt” in their sex scenes.  To me, it seems like showing off; feeling like rebels, using a word that seems “naughty.”  In others that I’ve read, including feminist and lesbian erotica, the sex scene is very different in this story, describing Carr’s emotional well-being and psychological process mixed with issues from her past.  She ties in unsettling memories from childhood and here, I feel like Vreeland has a unique handle on how the complexities of the past can impede on a woman’s growth as a healthy–sexual or otherwise–adult.

To contextualize my reading experience a bit more, it’s written from the point of view of someone who reads horror, sci-fi, independent fiction, books where it’s necessary to extend your belief, science and biographies, and therefore mainstream NY Times best sellers are typically off my radar.  This being said, I appreciated this type of general reader, thoroughly fleshed out and full of good “issues” to talk and think about book.  Unless recommended, I probably wouldn’t have read this, labeling it too much of a Lifetime Television flick in book form.  Thankfully, Vreeland gives the reader enough historical fact to keep us slightly appalled and friendships to emotional invest us.

 

The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace

Lynn Povich (2012)

Solid; enlightening; infuriating; we still have a lot to do.

Good Girls REvolt

Exploring Feminisms is five years old today!

Thank you to everyone who has read and contributed to the conversation!

suffragettes-celebrating

*Project Recap: For one year, I will read one book per month that I know nothing about that was recommended to me by a stranger; friend; family member, or co-worker; and I will write about that experience.  God help us all.

Vellum: The Book of All Hours by Hal DuncanVellum
Book #2, read during December, 2014

Before I began Vellum, it was recommended to me with the warning, “most people don’t like it, but I loved it.”  When I Tweeted the author that pages 1-2 were great thus far (haha), his response was, “Hopefully it’ll hold up for you. I’ll admit it’s bit of a love-it-or-hate-it book. (Most seem to know which by pg. ~50.).”  Obviously, my interest was piqued and I broke my own rule by looking up reviews about the book before I read it, having sworn that I would read each book with no previous knowledge.  This book is the epitome of divisive–half of all of the reviews I read were written by people who just hated it, and half were from people who completely loved it.  I have to say, the drama made it all the more intriguing, and scary because I didn’t want to be one of the ones who hated it because a) I would still have to read it and b) I wanted to be someone who “got” the difficult book.

From the get-go, I can understand why the casual reader may have been put off; it jumps around throughout the entire novel from this place in time to that, from this angel to that creature, and to archaic names that I had to repeatedly look up.  Needless to say, the book keeps you on your toes.  The structure is consistently non-linear and its story (or really, stories) are steeped in mythology, demons, angels, and world religions, while exploring issues of romantic relationships (homo/hetero), trust, deception, faith, and war, and that’s just a sprinkling.  It’s not a beach read, but one that requires attention, time and interest.  At times, the constant jumping from time, space and character, as the story is told from varying points of view was slightly confusing, but as you read on, the threads begin to connect.  And though this book may not be for every reader because of its experimental nature, its structure is really a mastery of writing, and its obvious its construction was a labor of love.

Oh yeah, what is the story about?  It’s about a book call the vellum, which contains all hours of all time, and people can hide in it, in this parallel universe.  There are angels, humans, and beings in-between that are hiding from demons and angels who require that they take a side.  Within the larger story, there is a group of friends that you meet in the beginning, and we follow the friends and other connected characters throughout unspecified periods throughout time, and as varied incarnations.  Here, the style and content reinforce one another; as the writing structure jumps around, it mirrors the larger and individual stories as they morph into an array of time and place.  The actual book that you are reading is written in a way that reflects the vellum.

Aside from the content of the novel, I listened to it on audiobook, narrated by Bernard Clark and it was excellent.  Thankfully, he didn’t try to mimic women’s voices, which so often fall short and are unnecessary, and his angel, British and Scottish voices were manifold.

As a librarian, I really do believe that every book has its reader, and this book has its reader; one that doesn’t shy away from a challenge, and is excited and intrigued by the unconventional.

Happy Holidays from Wilma and Exploring Feminisms!

Wilma Christmas

And happy birthday celebration to that guy Jesus, the ultimate feminist.

*Project Recap: For one year, I will read one book per month that I know nothing about that was recommended to me by a stranger; friend; family member, or co-worker; and I will write about that experience.  God help us all.

A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhova
Book #1, read during November, 2014

When I began A Mountain of Crumbs, I gleaned from the summary that it was a memoir about a Mountain of Crumbswoman living in Russia.  I’ll admit, the stupid American part of me knew the following about Russia: Putin; homophobia; I once worked with a Russian woman that I couldn’t stand, and I once worked with a Russian woman that I liked; it’s cold; and Sarah Palin can see it from her house (it never gets old!).

The book is indeed a memoir about the author’s childhood through early adulthood in post-Stalin Russia, and is a fascinating first-hand glimpse into an era and country so different from my own as a 30-something American who came of age in the late 20th century.  The author begins by laying the groundwork of her grandmother and mother’s lives in communist Russia under Stalin’s rule. Many writers often fall down the rabbit hold when describing a person’s history by delving out too much detail, which can disillusion the reader, but Gorokhova gives you just enough details to keep you interested.  You are introduced to strong women during WWII who scraped lice from wounds on the front and existed among such extreme poverty, whilst being trained as doctors and physicists.  Reading this seemed shockingly progressive for the status of women in the world in the early 1900s when women in America could barely vote, and this glaring discrepancy between capitalism and communism reflects Gorokhova’s own questioning of right and wrong throughout the book.  Growing up in a communist country filled Gorokhova’s youth with stories of war, extreme nationalism, and duty to country.  Her history lessons in grade school consisted of cautionary tales against hoarding food from your fellow comrade, sacrificing friend and family alike for the cause.  At first, I felt a sense of oppression on the author’s behalf that their thoughts and actions were so controlled by their government.  However, on further examination, the U.S. is in many ways not so dissimilar from that “other” country and time; for example, we still recite the Pledge of Allegiance where we reaffirm our devotion to the U.S. as children on a daily basis, which is not altogether different from the allegiances made in communist-Russia.

Adding to the content of the author’s life is how she expresses her experiences; though in first person, she writes with the voice of whatever age she is throughout any given period in the book.  When she’s a young child, she writes about her father and with only a young girl’s admiration, describes him as an invincible, larger than life character.  As she enters puberty, she romanticizes relationships with boys in her class with flowery fantasies bordering on the melodramatic that I could immediately pinpoint as the thoughts of a girl just entering her teenage years, mainly because my childhood was filled with those inclinations as well.  Concerning writing style, I found myself attracted to the way that Gorokhova uses restraint, dabbled with bits of the most sobering realities of early to mid 20th century Russian life, enveloped in an overall softness that lets you know that you’re in good hands with a narrator that is just trying to figure things out, as most of us are.

The experience of reading this book was (thankfully) pleasurable.  My life of what I know about Russia has expanded far beyond my opening paragraph, and I understand why it was recommended to me with such gusto.  Once my spouse told me that the reason he loves movies so much is that they let you experience other cultures and times, and this book does just that.  It also is a bridge of a book; it enables you to make connections between the then and now, and reduces the oh so tempting tendency to other people of disparate times and places.

Spotlight on Five Feminist-Minded Short Stories with Elements of Horror  

Joyce Carol Oates once so perfectly wrote, “One criterion for horror fiction is that we are compelled to read it swiftly, with a rising sense of dread, and so total a suspension of ordinary skepticism, we inhabit the material without question and virtually as its protagonist: we can see no way out except to go forward.”  It is this very reason that I so love the horror genre; it transports its reader to another world where one can observe, and be an entirely new entity, whether person, monster, witch, or troll.  When you combine horror with the feminist short story, you enter a whole new realm that’s even more terrifying than any Pinhead from Hellraiser or Damien from the Omen.  The horror delves into reality, where much can be hidden beneath the facade of such vanities as a life of wealth, the perfect marriage, or an idyllic community.

The tales below are a sampling of five feminist short stories that do indeed leave us with a “rising sense of dread” because sometimes, the horror is too personal.

The Giant WistariaCPG
Charlotte Perkins Gilman

It’s shocking once you’ve finished The Giant Wistaria to realize that it was published in 1891, when it seems as if it were written not so long ago.  The story takes place during two time periods, the 1700s and the 1800s.  The former century begins with an English family and we’re dropped into the middle of the most scandalous of family dramas–their daughter has just given birth out of wedlock, and the parents are fleeing to England to escape any disgrace to their family name.

Fast toward to the late 1800s; the house from whence they fled is now decrepit and has been virtually swallowed by a gigantic wistaria vine.  A wealthy young couple and their friends happen by, completely enchanted by what they interpret as rustic charm, they assume that it must be haunted and rent it immediately.  As the three couples drink, eat and laugh, they describe the prospect of an eventful summer chock-full of ghosts that hopefully inhabit the house.  After the first evening, their fantasies come to fruition as half of the group awakens to find that they’ve had the same dream of a young woman with a mysterious bundle in her arms and a red cross around her neck.  They soon find that their collective dreams were more than a mere case of indigestion (to quote A Christmas Carol).

The Giant Wistaria is chilling for several reasons.  First off, the punch that is delivered is done so in only a few pages; not only is CPG a feminist, but she’s also a powerful storyteller and is able to intertwine the two seamlessly.  Another sobering facet of the story is the juxtaposition of the two time periods, the people who exist in each one, and finally, the full-circle of tragic events.  CPG was a master of collective human emotions and is able to make you feel guilty and sickened by indirectly referencing class and gender inequality.

A Good Man is Hard to Find
Flannery O’Connor

Good Man is Hard to FindI knew very little about Flannery O’Connor when this collection of short stories was recommended to me.  I knew that O’Connor was Irish Catholic, and that the stories were written in the mid-20th century.  Needless to say, as I finished the first story, which is also the namesake for my particular edition, I was completely taken aback.  “The person who suggested that I read this should have warned me!” I thought.  Like so many of the other stories in this article, it’s thrilling to read a gem so subversive that it still shocks nearly 70 years later.

As the story begins, we meet a family comprised of three young children, their mother and father, and the paternal grandmother.  Like many of O’Connor’s other writings, A Good Man is Hard to Find is set in the South, and as the family embarks on a road trip to Florida we learn that a murderer is on the loose by the nickname, “The Misfit.”   From start to finish, the grandmother is a pill.  She believes the past was best, children should be quiet, women should always be ladies, and her opinion is always right.  Basically, she’s the southern queen of unsolicited advice.  O’Connor is a master at tapping in on a personality type that annoys most people because they are in everyone’s lives in some form.  Because of that, we as readers are extended participants in this very long road trip.  In addition to being an expert character study, O’Connor takes us on a trip through 1940s/50s Georgia in the summer.  It’s hot and dusty with a killer on the loose.  They are alone on the road in a deserted part of the state where gas stations come only intermittently, setting a tone that leaves us unsure of our surroundings and insecure about the future.  As the trip goes on, the grandmother sends the family on a wild goose chase, seeking out physical proof of a misplaced memory.  This dirt detour sends the family into a downward spiral that puts them face to face with what the grandmother hoped to avoid from the outset–the Misfit.

At first read, A Good Man… could seem like nothing more than a story about an incredibly annoying grandmother and a gang of psychos.  However, this is one of those great stories that unfolds a multitude of onion-like layers that encompasses race, religion, class and poverty, region, crime, place in history, Civil Rights, and gender roles, amongst others.  However you choose to read this story, as one of good old fashioned murder, or a story of murder inextricably bound with issues of class, race and religion, you are left with comparable sense of dread, and maybe just a hint of schadenfreude as the grandmother finally gets her lips zipped.

The Joy of FuneralsAlix Strauss
Alix Strauss

The Joy of Funerals differs from the other titles in this round-up because it is a collection of short stories that end up connecting in the end, which also packs a great ah-ha as the tales come into the final braid.  Similar to Strauss’ most current book, Based Upon Availability, each story is unique in its own right, and the culmination of all the interlaced stories is an extra cherry on top.

Each story is about how women, whether individually or in a group, deal with the grief they experience over the loss of a loved one in New York.  Strauss plunks us down smack dab into their lives by crafting mournful imagery and offering variety of well fleshed out characters.  Each character, in only a few pages, is described in such thorough detail that you feel like you not only really know them, but can completely empathize with what they are experiencing through their grief.  In one story, a woman burns a photograph of her husband and eats it on her breakfast cereal, and while reading it, you are eating the ashes with her–you can smell it, taste it and feel the loss as if you’ve been punched in the belly.  In another story, a woman’s behavior is so deceitful that it leaves the reader with a personal sense of betrayal, but also left me to unfortunately identify with the character’s insecurities.  To me, only a true master of art can make you identify with the flawed characters, al la the films Spring Breakers and Happiness.  Full disclosure, I found myself crying throughout the majority of the book because the stories are crafted in such a way that they strike the core of shared human experience with concern to love and loss.

Barbara GowdyWe So Seldom Look on Love
Barbara Gowdy

The short story collection, We So Seldom Look on Love is truly a forgotten treasure.  Reading it nearly seventeen years ago, it has remained implanted in my mind, and the physical book has stayed with me through every move of my life because of it.  The short story that I’d like to hopefully introduce you to, which is also the title for the book, is the reason why banned and challenged books are so important for the youth.  Decades ago, this creepy, gross and arguably offensive story exhilarated this gal as a fifteen-year-old and helped to make her the liberal bitch that she is today.

The story is told from the point-of-view of the main character as she reflects on her childhood as a blossoming necrophiliac and fast forwards to current day when she is publicly disgraced as her sexual proclivity becomes mainstream knowledge.  As a child, she realizes that her infatuation with dead animal corpses: the smell, the blood, their energy, et al, will prevent her from attracting and sustaining any form of friendship.  As she gets older, she accepts her sexual attraction to male corpses, admitting that she is unable to fall in love with any living man, and that plenty of corpses have broken her heart.  Naturally, she enters medical school as a means of gaining access to these potential and cadaverous love interests.  Though the idea of engaging in oral sex with dead tissue may seem unattractive to most of us, I give kudos to Gowdy for her character’s unflinching acceptance of her sexuality at so young of an age.  Teenage girls, and really, most women, have mixed emotions regarding their sexual bodies, and it’s refreshing to read about a young woman who doesn’t deny herself those inclinations.

The White CatJCOates
Joyce Carol Oates

The White Cat is one of those great stories where the plot may not be as it seems, and its interpretation can be fluid depending on its reader.  Ostensibly, we’re reading a tale about a WASP of a man, his younger wife, and their evil Persian cat, Miranda.  As we delve deeper into the mind of Julius Muir and his family life, the storyline thickens as we are fed bits of information that make Julius’ home life seem less than perfect, though he would have you think no other way.

It can be argued that the story is a portrait of the building and collapse, aka psychological break-down of the main character, Julius, and since much of it is from his point of view, it’s not exactly clear where the truth lies.  We are to believe that Miranda the cat is evil because of said evidence: “…as the cat grew older and more spoiled…it became evident that she did not…chose him.”  His subsequent reaction contains a crumb of hilarity as he reconciles that he will handle this situation by killing the cat because her ambivalence of him is an affront to this man who “knows who he is.”  Because Mr. Muir purchased the cat for his wife, he believes himself to be her sole master and therefore has the right to end her life since he brought her into being (at least into this own house).

As we read on, the facts become murky.  We wonder, what has happened for the past ten years?  There is no indication that their contemptuous relationship has built over the decade of co-habitation, and seems to be a relatively recent occurrence.  An occurrence that has also surfaced with the advent of his wife making more decisions independent of Julius, perhaps.  Is the quirky Persian evil, living to cause Mr. Muir a life of anguish?  Is he simply ignoring characteristics are inherent in the sometimes fickle feline species?  Or, is he attributing his wife’s human characteristics to his cat instead of facing up to his own troubled family life; a life that is seemingly so perfect in every way?

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