2011: Explore My Literary Feminisms!

At the beginning of 2011, I set a goal to read 24 books before the year was through in the attempt to trump my 17 from 2010.  If I didn’t reach it, no biggie, the point is quality, not quantity.  I did feel though, that a good amount of my time was melting into endless nights of watching the uber-dramatic and the really important issues of wives from Beverly Hills and the Mob.  Maybe a portion of my time would be better spent on what I sometimes forget that I really love?

My choices were not preplanned at the beginning of the year and I tried to tackle a range of books resulting in some feminist, most not, and a surprising few dabbled in Library Science, which I saw as more bang for my buck in the end.

My reading plan for this year not only differed from last year in goal (from 17 to 25), but also price.  Besides one or two that were bought for me, I checked all of the books out from the library.  Like many library types, a good amount of us buy our books.  Shocking, I know.  A lot of us are collectors of books and pride ourselves on showing off our giant libraries.  Think of it as battle scars.  However, being on a fairly strict budget for much of 2011, I decided to put my money, or rather, no money, where my mouth is (I think this also had a direct impact on my increased number of books).  Once I remembered that I had free access to an endless amount of books, I found it difficult not to fill my arms with mass amounts of fiction and non-fiction with the  voracious appetite of a brain eating zombie who had just encountered fresh prey!

Top 10

The Night Eternal
by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan (2011)

The third and final book in the Strain Trilogy about vampires taking over the earth.  The trilogy was amazing and each book led me on an emotional roller coaster.  Needless to say, I cried when I closed the last book.

With GDT himself and yes, I am holding the first book of the Strain Trilogy

Neverwhere
by Neil Gaiman (1996)

This year I discovered Gaiman, as you will see as you read further.  I read most of his adult fiction this year, and Neverwhere was my favorite Gaiman novel, and second favorite overall this year.  It had a happy ending, a very likable protagonist, and it sucked me in within the first few pages.  I also recommend this on audiobook because Gaiman himself reads the text and because of this, the audiobook expresses exactly what the writer was thinking when he was writing it.

Gunn’s Golden Rules
by Tim Gunn (2007)

This book is my Bible, or the closest thing I’ve ever read to a guide on how I want to live my life.  Gunn gives practical advice on how to act like a normal human being, encompassing good manners, the importance of treating yourself with respect and of course, making everything work.  I will definitely be reading this on a yearly basis and I recommend buying this one.

An Object of Beauty
by Steve Martin (2010)

If you like artwork, New York, fashion, Steve Martin, coming of age stories, color pictures in books or any combination thereof, then this book is for you.

Herland
by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)

Three men crash land into an all-female utopia where the women actually function just fine!  Go figure!  Plus, it’s a classic by a classic woman.  If you haven’t read CPG yet, I recommend starting with her short story the Yellow Wallpaper.

American Gods
by Neil Gaiman (2001)

Gods living on earth in human forms.  What more could you want?  This piece of fiction is epic and like Neverwhere, grabs you right away.  At times, this book tackles some tough life and death issues but not so much that you feel like you’re reading a Russian novel.

Bossypants
by Tina Fey (2011)

Fey is a feminist and Fey is funny.  And I also want her to be my best friend.  Recommended for women and men who aren’t scared of childbirth, rotten breath or pubic hair that resembles vermicelli noodles.

The Fellowship of the Ring
by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954)

This year I thought that I’d take on the book since I love the movies so much.  It really reinforced that books and film are two totally different mediums and therefore are difficult to compare.  The book fills in gaps in the movie that I didn’t even know there were.  Plus, I was surprised by what an easy read it ended up being.

Based Upon Availability
by Alix Strauss (2010)

Short stories about women who are interconnected by their association with the Four Seasons Hotel.  Like her last fiction novel, Joy of Funerals, Strauss is really great at writing from varied female points of view.

Men Are Stupid and They Like Big Boobs
by Joan Rivers (2008)

What can I say?  It’s Joan Rivers and she rocks.  She’s a bipartisan powerhouse with a voice and an opinion.

Runners Up

The Anansai Brothers
by Neil Gaiman (2005)

The story of two reunited brothers who are the sons of an African God.  Very Gaimanesque: death; life; Gods; whimsy; a somewhat awkward central character who comes into his own; and as always, he presents us with magic and superstitions and makes it so easy to want to be part of that world.

Oh No She Didn’t: The Top 100 Style Mistakes Women Make and How to Avoid Them
by Clinton Kelly (2010)

Kelly’s guide makes you reflect on  your own wardrobe, laugh out loud on the bus and then look around to judge everyone near you.  However, I think his critique on eyebrows is totally incorrect.

Locke and Key
by Joe Hill (2008)

I am going to say it, Stephen King can’t hold a candle to his son’s writing.  Having never been a real graphic novel fan (besides being made to read Maus and Persepolis in undergrad), Hill’s graphic novel has prompted me to want to read the next three in the series.  A little bloody, a little disturbing and totally enthralling.  (May I also recommend Hill’s fiction: Heart Shaped Box and Horns.)

The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman (2008)

The story of a baby who is adopted by ghosts in a graveyard after his parents are murdered.  Though technically a teen novel, I thoroughly enjoyed this coming of age story.

Carrion Comfort
by Dan Simmons (1989)

If you liked the Strain Trilogy, I’d recommend this novel as well.  Vampires living on earth unbeknownst to humans, a group of rag-tags on the hunt and characters that you fall in love with.  The end gets a little murky and I wouldn’t hold it against you if you speed read the last 1/4 of the book.

Tim Gunn’s Guide to Quality, Taste and Style
by Tim Gunn (2007)

Like Joan Rivers, I like everything that Gunn writes so naturally he’d make it to my runners up group.  Though not one that I’d stress that you buy, he does give good, solid advice on fashion and style, though through a somewhat more conservative lens.  Maybe it’s a New York high fashion thing.

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter
by Seth Graham-Smith (2010)

Sometimes we need something to read where we don’t have to think, right?  Well this is it.  Lincoln was actually a vampire hunter and guess what, slave owners were usually vampires.  It’s real!  Seriously!

Wigfield
by Paul Dinello, Amy Sedaris and Stephen Colbert (2003)

Yet another book where you can just laugh and not have to think much, though be prepared to accept the utter silliness and absurdity of the whole piece.  I’d recommend this on audiobook because Paul Dinello, Stephen Colbert and Amy Sedaris perform the voices for several of the characters.

Mister B. Gone
by Clive Barker (2007)

The concept for this book is really unique–a first person, or rather demon, point of view.  Demon Jakabok Botch is trapped within the pages of the book that you are reading, at that very moment, and he warns and implores you throughout the book to stop reading or else be damned!

The Vegetarian Low-Carb Diet
by Rose Elliot (2006)

Okay, so I am listing this as a runner up because I lost ten pounds in two months.  I was a vegetarian already but the low-carb thing really works.  I wouldn’t take this book as word, but it’s easy to use it as a general guide and make it your own.

Summer of Night
by Dan Simmons (1991)

This book is a prequel to another Simmons book, Winter Haunting and describes a group of boys over the course of one summer.  It entails possession, ghosts, baseball and creepy teachers.  It’s an easy, mindless read and I would recommend it if you have nothing better to read.

The Terror
by Dan Simmons (2007)

I keep reading Simmons because I feel like a lot of the time he almost gets there, but not quite.  This book falls in the typical Simmons style, much like Carrion Comfort.  Most of this book is great–the story of an arctic expedition, Eskimos with special powers, and a large killer spirit who kills off a ship of 19th century English explorers.  The first 3/4 of this book keeps your interest piqued, and then the last 1/4 goes a little off course.  If you can stretch your imagination and suspend belief for a few dozen pages, then you’ll be fine.

Eh.

Holidays on Ice
by David Sedaris (1997)

I realize that by saying this I may be pegged with eggs on the street by strangers, but this book is not great.  The stories are disjointed and the book doesn’t seem to have much focus.  I think it could have been a lot better it if were just stories about his normal [holiday] anecdotes, but it pulls in some strange tales, such as a young Asian girl moving in with an American family and the mother killing her grandchild.  While this story is totally acceptable and somewhat entertaining, it seemed like it would be better in another book.

Salem’s Lot
by Stephen King (1975)

The more I read Stephen King, the more disappointed I am, and the more I read.  Stephen King is known as the king (pun intended) of horror, but I think that his novels are just okay.  I’m not drawn in, scared or excited by his stories and this novel was no exception.  There were a lot of gaps in the story and I was missing the meat of a great vampire tale.  The idea behind it was great, a vampire comes to a small town, but it lacked the follow-through.

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
by Steven King (1999)

A little girl gets lost in the woods and is accompanied by a battery operated radio with the voice of commentators reporting on baseball player Tom Gordon.  I did like how King describes being perpetually wet and stung by mosquitoes, because we can all relate to this.  However, I felt myself becoming bored at times because like Salem’s Lot, I felt like the meat of the story was lacking.

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Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Post-Modern Mess or Feminist Icon?

The documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, whose previous joint work includes documentaries on fascism in America and racial injustice.  Though their previous work is heavily steeped in more serious matters of the human condition, this documentary is not so off the beaten path.  It follows Rivers’ life over the span of one year as she turns 75.  We as an audience learn in the extra features footage from the Sundance Film Festival that the hours of filming capture much of Rivers’ life and do not only span from 9 to 5 because Joan’s life/career is not 9 to 5.  Basically, little is left out short of what she does in the bathroom. And what we see in that year is something sitting elbow to elbow with amazing.  When you think of 75, the senior citizen discount, dinner at 5:00 and penny candy may come to mind, which is completely laughable when you are allowed to sit in on Rivers’ life; it gave me a completely new perspective on the possibilities of the 70’s age.  She is fanatical about her work and her main drive is to keep her calendar brimming at the seams with book signings, stand-up comedy acts, her QVC appearances promoting her jewelry line (and yes, I have two pieces from it already), cruise bookings, and the list goes on.  Work is her crack and at times it seems to trump even her family.  In the documentary, Joan’s daughter, Melissa Rivers, describes her mother’s career as another member of the family called, “the career.”  This is the main focus of the documentary, but it is punctuated with so much of Joan’s life that we just don’t know about, such as what she looks like without makeup, the close relationship with her grandson, the shaky relationship she has with her manager, and how much she loves feeding bacon to her animals.

Before Rivers, the presence of female comedians on television was virtually nonexistent with the exception of Phyllis Diller.  She began her public career in the 1960s, appearing on TV while performing her stand-up, followed by her appearance in 1965 when she was 28 and first appeared on NBC’s Late Show with Johnny Carson.  There, she became a nightly staple before leaving the show and moved to Fox to host her own show, followed by famously being shunned by both Carson and NBC to this very day (she has since made an appearance where she spread dear departed Edgar’s ashes on the stage).  During her early TV appearances, she closed her stand-up act on television by saying, “I put out” and Rivers recounts the silent reaction from the audience.  She was also the first man or woman to address abortion in front of a live television audience.  Because of talking about sex, abortion and topics of the like that were considered off-limits for women, she was told that she was “going places that a woman shouldn’t go.”  Eschewing this “well-meant” advice, she continued to brand herself with her no holds barred form of comedy.

Now when you think of Joan Rivers, what comes to mind?  If you are the casual or seasoned observer, you probably think of plastic surgery, and it’s difficult not to.  Though it may seem redundant to comment on this, especially since her name, and really her face, are synonymous with plastic surgery, we need to address it.  In this documentary, we are given a golden ticket into Joan’s life and therefore, this documentary cannot be discussed without the surgery’s intimate relationship with age, career, femininity, and the struggle to stay, or at least appear, relevant to the public.

Despite Rivers’ strides in comedy, paving the way for such comedians as Kathy Griffin, Chelsea Handler, Sommore and even less known but equally noteworthy comedians Elvira Kurt and Poppy Champlin, the real issue that piques the public’s interest is Joan’s plastic surgery. In the Comedy Central Roast of Joan Rivers, the brunt of the jokes throughout the evening are at the expense of Joan’s face.  I also recently saw an episode of VH1’s TV show, Mob Wives, where one of the cast members comments on another woman’s chemical peel and compares her to looking like Rivers.  From ages 28 to 75, Joan has worked in show business.  She promotes herself,  writes her own jokes, is constantly on the move and literally never turns down work (she even comically offers to do a diaper commercial).  To what end?  All of these efforts are glossed over and the spotlight is shone on her surgeries.  She doesn’t want to retire because she loves this public life and she knows that she needs to make money in order to live the lifestyle that she chooses.  So what is she fighting against?  The main obstacle that she faces, as she puts it, is “it’s a youth [obsessed] society and nobody wants you.”  She’s caught in a catch-22–look young so that the public will still find you attractive and therefore hire-able/get plastic surgery in order to look young and society “[sees you] as a plastic surgery freak.”  She gets plastic surgery so that she will seem relevant, and then she is ostracized for what is expected of her because the public does not want to look at an old woman.

One side of the plastic surgery argument is that what Joan has transformed herself into is detrimental to women and that her decision to have plastic surgery is one big post-modern mess; she can change herself into whoever or whatever she wants.  She has changed herself, as much as she can, into the idealization of the Westernized woman with perfected Westernized features: skinny, blonde and straight hair, full lips, young-looking, thin nose, smooth and flawless skin.  Joan hangs onto the facade of youth, and the cosmetically altered younger version of herself is one that conforms to the epitome of what every woman in the world hopes to achieve.  The act of transforming yourself through surgery into an idealization of “perfect” could be seen as damaging and also a setback for women.  Plastic surgery is being used to make women look the same, and this “same” is a perpetuation of what is viewed as normative, and any woman who looks different from this is, whether by choice or otherwise, is “other.”

On the other hand, getting plastic surgery makes Rivers feel good, and this is where it comes down to the topic of choice.  Joan is pro-choice; she chooses plastic surgery.  Whether or not you are pro or anti-plastic surgery is not the issue here.  We can again definitely argue post-modern feminist theory here, but I offer another idea.  Please allow a tangent and let’s take the topic that first put Rivers on the forefront of subversiveness-abortion.  No one is pro-abortion and having worked an abortion clinic for two years, I feel that I can say that with some modicum of authority.  And I know, this debate has been beat up, teased, slapped down and pushed around, but if you are pro-choice, it means that you are pro the decision for a woman to have authority over her own body.  If you are an anti-choice man or woman, then you think that other women aren’t smart enough to make informed decisions about their own bodies.  It’s really quite simple.  So let’s apply this theory to plastic surgery.  It is a choice, and whether or not you approve of going under the Botox Cosmetic needle, the backbone of many feminisms is to support autonomy and let women do whatever the hell they want to do with their bodies.  Still with me?

I wonder if it is the plastic surgery that causes people to criticize Joan, or if criticism of her choices is really a front for what she’s been dealing with from day one?  She is loud, vulgar, considers no topic off limits, and doesn’t rely on a husband to financially support her.  These are all threats to the patriarchal dynamic of show business, which Rivers still claims is very much a boys’ club.  I cringe slightly at constantly comparing men and women, but in the media, men can be crude, unattractive, overweight, and even pass gas on screen, but We (with a big “W”) accept it and further, support its perpetuation.  To support my case, look at John Candy. He was overweight and one could even say less than attractive and yet he was always the love interest in his films (Uncle Buck, Delirious).  Let’s insert a woman here; when have you recently seen an unattractive or overweight women portrayed as a sex symbol (by unattractive and overweight I mean larger than a size 0-2 and has a nose that is wider than a number 2 pencil)?  Seriously, think about it.  Look at Kathy Bates in About Schmidt. When I saw it in the theatre, the audience gasped and whispered, “gross” and laughed at seeing her large and sagging breasts.  Now don’t get me wrong, I love John Candy, but this type of double-standard is indicative of what women must choose to either conform to or fight against, with the possibility of stunting their careers.  Rivers acknowledges this dynamic and chooses to participate in by looking the part, and yet at the same time by being a woman of power, she subverts her feminine look with her career and her voice.

It’s safe to say that anyone can deduce what my argument is regarding Rivers; I do think she is a feminist icon and she’s at the top of my list.  I also think it is safe to say that the issues of plastic surgery, masculinity and femininity in comedy, gender roles, youth, and aging are fluid subjects of which I have barely scratched the surface.  Whether you consider yourself a feminist and hate plastic surgery, would never call yourself a feminist and think John Candy is hot, or aren’t sure but think Joan Rivers is hot, your argument is valid and needs to be brought into the dialogue.  Joan began teaching us this in the early sixties and plastic surgery or not, we still need to give her props and assert our own choices through whatever vehicle we deem fit.