Book Review: “Difficult Women” by Roxane Gay

Book Review: “Difficult Women” by Roxane Gay

If you asked me to name my top three favorite writers, Roxane Gay would be one of them. Probably number one. Actually, she would be number one. There is such an honesty in her writing that shines through no matter the style: fiction, essay, Twitter. So when I saw that Women and Children First bookstore would be hosting Gay in mid-March as part of her Difficult Women book tour, I bought the book (my ticket in) the moment it went on sale.

The week leading up to the event (on March 15) I read the entire short story collection. And I’ve got to say, it’s the best short story collection I’ve read. There was such a variety between the women Gay wrote about it, and so much depth. The women were written with depth, the kind that writers reserve for writing male characters. Gay said this at the beginning of the event to a large round of applause.

2017-02-17 15.03.54There are twenty-one short stories in this collection, and my favorites were “The Sacrifice of Darkness” and “Noble Things.” Both were toward the end of the collection, and when I finished both of them, I had to stop for a few moments to let them sink in.

“The Sacrifice of Darkness” is about what happened after Hiram Hightower flew an air machine into the sun and his darkness swallowed up the sun. His daughter-in-law is the narrator of the story, and she tells of what led to him flying into the sun, how she became friends and later married his son Joshua, and the hope their little family has for the sun eventually returning to the sky. It was a beautifully written story, and was more fantasy sci fi leaning than the previous pieces. The story reminded me of “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury, how the sun is only visible for one hour every seven years on Venus and how Margot didn’t get to see the sun because she was locked in the closet. “The Sacrifice of Darkness” showed how people can show animosity and place blame on one person. I began to wonder what life would be like without the sun. Would we survive?

The other piece I loved was “Noble Things,” which is set in an unknown year after the New Civil War. The South seceded once more, and this time, it was successful. There have been many times when this possibility has crossed my mind, but only for a second before I go about what I was doing before. And lately I’ve been wondering more and more, not necessarily about an impending Civil War but of what will come of the United States. This story held quite a few passages that sat with me for a time after I finished reading it, such as: “He had learned to live with the pain but lately, in a cold bed without a warm woman, the pain was too much, too fresh, a burden he was forced to carry because of the decisions of other men.” (223)

But none more striking than the final sentence:

“They tried to remember the before, when they were children and there was only one place to call home, one country, the flag billowing on windy days in front of homes up and down every street—bands of red and white, fifty stars, one nation, indivisible until it wasn’t, how quickly it all came apart.” (234)

At the event, Gay read “Open Marriage” and from “Difficult Women.” Both were short stories that I also enjoyed; they are toward the top if I were to order the short stories from favorite to “least” favorite. And when Britt Julious asked about the second short story—“Water, All Its Weight,” which is about a woman who is followed by water and decay—and how Gay came up with the idea, she told the audience about how all her stories are grounded in literal things, and then something more comes from that. For the second story, she was living in what used to be a laundromat and had noticed mold forming on one of the ceiling panels. “Water, All Its Weight” is rife with clues and meanings for reader to pull, meanings that Gay didn’t intend to write when she first noticed the mold on her ceiling: ”Sometimes as a writer, you nail it. And I nailed it.”

Seeing Gay for the second time (the first was with Gloria Steinem back in October 2015) was the bright spot in my week and quite possibly my month. The honesty that is in her writing is also something that comes through when she speaks. I wish the event could’ve been longer, or maybe a longer Q&A session. But she herself addressed honesty during that portion of the evening, and it is advice that I will keep with me:

“Honesty goes a long way. You never have to remember your lies. … Your truth is all that is needed. That is enough.”

Rating: 5/5


Book Review: “The Blind Assassin” by Margaret Atwood

Book Review: “The Blind Assassin” by Margaret Atwood

I’ve read a lot of books in the past twenty years or so. I’ve lost count. I’ve enjoyed narratives, characters, plot twists—you name it. But there are few times where I will read sentences, pause and reread sentences because I wonder just where the writer pulled that brilliance from. These passages, dare I say, amaze me, and make me think back over the pieces I’ve written knowing that I could never top the passages I just read.

I lost count how many times I did this while reading The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. This early twenty-first century novel combines elements of gothic drama, romantic suspense, and science fiction fantasy while using different narrative forms: novel within a novel, newspaper clippings, and a memoir-esque narrative. These alternate, blend together, to tell the story of the Chase family, particularly the two sisters, Iris and Laura.

Going into this book club pick, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew it would be good; Margaret Atwood wrote it, and it won the Booker Prize. And I loved this novel. My library copy has so many sticky notes marking passages that made me wonder, made me nod my head at its truthfulness, and made me rethink how to write descriptions. Some examples:

“But some people can’t tell where it hurts. They can’t calm down. They can’t ever stop howling.” (2)

“‘Underneath it all, your father loves you.’ … Now I think it was more complicated than that. It may have been a warning. It may also have been a burden. Even if love was underneath it all, there was a great deal piled on top, and what would you find when you dug down? Not a simple gift, pure gold and shining; instead something ancient and possibly baneful, like an iron charm rusting among old bones. A talisman of sorts, this love, but a heavy one; a heavy thing for me to carry around with me, slung on its iron chain around my neck.” (107)

“Not much of a nightmare, you’d say. Wait till you try it. I woke up desolate.
Why does the mind do such things? Turn on us, rend us, dig the claws in. If you get hungry enough, they say, you start eating your own heart.
Maybe it’s much the same. Nonsense. It’s all chemicals. I need to take steps, about these dreams. There must be a pill.” (329)

“The summer heat has come in earnest, settling down over the town like cream soup. Malarial weather, it would’ve been once; cholera weather. The trees I walk beneath are wilting umbrellas, the paper is damp under my fingers, the words I write feather at the edges like lipstick on an aging mouth. Just climbing the stairs I sprout a thin moustache of sweat.” (48)

As with “The Hundred Secret Senses,” I couldn’t tell which narrative I enjoyed reading more: the novel within a novel called The Blind Assassin, written by Laura Chase, or Iris’s narrative about her family history and her relationship with Laura. The first part of the book—which begins with Iris’s narrative and goes into a newspaper clipping about Laura’s death and then into the prologue of The Blind Assassin—is set up to put assumptions into the reader’s head. As you read through the novel, those assumptions (whatever they were) are broken down as more and more truths are revealed within the various forms. Though I wasn’t much interested in the newspaper clippings at parts, I realized that they left clues about either the narrative preceding it or the narrative that was to follow.

And you need to pay attention to the chapters from The Blind Assassin and the newspaper clippings because Iris would inevitably leave things out of her memoir narratives. She would tell you perhaps eight or nine-tenths of her story, and you had to assume the information that she was leaving out. It made me wonder why she was picking and choosing which information to share. If she was writing this down for her estranged granddaughter or even Reenie, shouldn’t she provide more context, and perhaps all of the answers since they wouldn’t be reading this until after she had died?

One of my biggest queries as I read through the book, and well after I finished, was how Atwood went about writing The Blind Assassin. Which narrative came to her first? Did the science fiction novel within a novel come first? Or did she write Iris’s chapters first, leaving the newspaper clipping for last?

There are so, so many things I wish to air out in this review but I don’t want to give away any spoilers. (Though one of the “plot twists” revealed toward the end of the book I managed to piece together well enough to not be surprised; sometimes I miss the clues and I get to be surprised, but not this time.) You’ll just have to take my word for it when I say put this on your to-read list.

Rating: 5/5

Book Review: “In Search of Islamic Feminism” by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea

Book Review: “In Search of Islamic Feminism” by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea

From the moment I pulled In Search of Islamic Feminism by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea from our bookshelf, I was hesitant. The title interested me the most when I was scanning the book spines for my next read. But the book was written by a white Christian American woman—not inherently bad but not quite the right perspective for writing about Islamic feminism. Fernea, or B.J. as she is known in the book, has written several books on Middle East (i.e., Guests of the Sheik), filmed several documentaries, was a professor of English and Middle Eastern Studies, and lived in Morocco, Egypt, and Iraq for periods of time. She was not going into this book project blind in any sense; I still hesitated before I continued reading the book anyway.

This was my longest read of 2017 so far, beating out Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse back in January. There was a lot of information packed into each chapter, which focused on a single country. Eight countries were represented—Uzbekistan, Morocco, Kuwait, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Israel/Palestine—nine if you count the United States, which was the final chapter. Many of the countries featured in the book I had a base knowledge of but not much more.

Most of the chapters were formatted as conversations she had with her friends and various people she interviewed in each country. I enjoyed hearing her interview subjects’ experiences from their own mouth; it made the information that Fernea was collecting feel more authentic, more personal. While the chapters featured these interviews, the narrative flow of the chapters could have used a lot of editing help. There wasn’t much narrative to begin with; it felt very scattered and would jump from one place to the next, and I couldn’t tell if she was retelling her visits and interviews chronologically or by most important. The chapters on Saudi Arabia and Israel/Palestine were the most succinct in how she presented the information. This is most likely because these were shorter visits, but the way these chapters were written could have informed the other country chapters.

There were many times when Fernea’s biases and assumptions would appear. What I did appreciate is that she addressed these biases a majority of the time. This happened most often when she was recounting interviews with certain subjects, when they would say something that contradicted what she had believed to be true. Fernea also acknowledged her shortcomings, especially in the Iraq chapter. It had been forty years since she had been in the country and much had changed, something she had to reconcile again and again.

Criticisms aside, I’m glad I read the book. It provided snapshots of women’s issues in those eight countries in the mid-1990s, and I would be interested in finding a similar book that was published more recently. A lot has changed since this book was published in 1998.

One thing I took away from this book is that there isn’t necessarily an Islamic feminism. Using that term, at least in my point of view, is akin to saying Christian feminism or Jewish feminism. One of the women Fernea interviewed in Kuwait, Lubna Abbas Muhammed, said it best: “I’m a Muslim. But I’m a feminist. Islamic feminist sounds like a made-up name, to pin labels on us again in the West. Why not just say I’m a feminist and I’m a Muslim. Is there some special brand of feminism that were supposed to have, according to Muslim rules, or something?” (192)

Many of the women Fernea interviewed said that “feminist” was heavily Westernized and thus many women avoided using that term to describe what they believed. I wonder if, twenty years later, there is still that feeling.

If you’re thinking of reading In Search of Islamic Feminism, I would recommend going one chapter/country at a time and don’t feel like you have to read the book from start to finish. This is definitely a book I would like to keep on hand as a reference.

Rating: 3/5

Book Review: “I Am Malala” by Malala Yousafzai

Book Review: “I Am Malala” by Malala Yousafzai

“Education is our right, I said. Just as it is our right to sing. Islam has given us this right and says that every girl and boy should go to school. The Quran says we should seek knowledge, study hard and learn the mysteries of our world.”

Much like many books that I’ll read this year, I Am Malala has been on my to read list since I heard about it. I just never got around to reading it until this year.

One of the reasons I made sure to read it was because I had just started reading In Search of Islamic Feminism by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea. Though I had made a commitment to read the book, I was hesitant because it was written by a white Christian woman; why should I read her findings on Islamic feminism when I could read about it by a Muslim author. Then I remembered that I Am Malala was on my ebook wish list. So I opened up the Chicago Public Library Overdrive website, and lo and behold, it was available.

When I opened the first chapter, I wasn’t sure what all the book would encompass. I knew the book was a memoir, and that was about it. But throughout the chapters, Malala not only wrote about her life, but about her father’s, her mother’s, and Pakistan’s. She provided glimpses of the Pakistan she knew and what Pakistan had become while she was living there.

I didn’t know much about Pakistan before I opened her memoir. I hadn’t read many fiction novels set in Pakistan either; just mostly Afghanistan (Khaled Hosseini’s books and The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis are the first that I think of). She provided beautiful descriptions of Swat and its history, none of which I remembered to copy down before I had to return the ebook.

There was a lot of wisdom in this memoir, wisdom that isn’t expected of teenage girls. I don’t know that I would’ve expected myself to have that sort of wisdom in my mid-teens. Then again, I didn’t experience what she experienced. I’ve always believed that education is the key, and that everyone should have access to it. But I found myself asking nearly every chapter: would I have done what Malala did? Would I have written an anonymous, daily journal about my experiences getting an education with the Taliban threatening to shut down my school? Would I have given interviews affirming the importance of girls education? I don’t know if I would’ve at Malala’s age.

“When someone takes away your pens, you realize quite how important education is.”

I Am Malala is a memoir that should be on everyone’s to read list, no matter what age. This would be a good reading group option for junior high English classes. This book not only offers a view of a Pakistan but also is written by someone their age. That should be a determining factor, especially for teen girls.

Rating: 5/5

Review: ‘Bad Feminist’ by Roxane Gay

bad feminist_coverThe books you need to read the most present themselves to you when you are ready. This happened to me with the Harry Potter series. I began reading the book shortly before my family moved to the Twin Cities in the middle of my grade school years. That series was what I needed, and some days still do in a security blanket kind of way (read: it’s a part of my DNA at this point).

Many of the books I’ve read so far this year were chosen at random. I either came across the title in one of the library branches or on the Chicago Public Library Overdrive. Some of them I saw in my roommate’s collection of books, so they were added to my to-read pile. Others had been on my radar and when they popped up, I didn’t hesitate to crack them open. All of the books I’ve read have been enjoyable, but not necessarily what the universe ordered.

The moment I cracked open Roxane Gay’s “Bad Feminist,” I knew this book of essays was exactly what I needed to read. In her introduction, she writes about how she used to disavow feminism. She writes that she is ashamed of her ignorance and that she worried that “feminism wouldn’t allow me to be the mess of a woman I knew myself to be” (xii). That struck a chord. There were times when I, too, disavowed feminism, or said I was a feminist but it was never said with 100 percent certainty. She goes on to write that feminism’s failings don’t mean we should discount feminism entirely: “People do terrible things all the time, but we don’t regularly disown our humanity. We disavow the terrible things. We should disavow the failures of feminism without disavowing its many successes and how far we have come” (xiii). This is something that I’ve slowly come to realize and seeing the words written on the page made it more clear to me.

“Bad Feminist” is an essay collection that I didn’t want to put down. I found myself at work, wishing I could reserve the conference room with the couch for two hours to read it. But I waited patiently until I was on the train to begin reading it again. While reading the essay about competitive Scrabble — titled “To Scratch, Claw or Grope Clumsily or Frantically” — I had to stop myself from laughing out loud on the train (though I should’ve laughed anyway). I searched the Internet to see if it was available somewhere online so I could send it to my mother, whom I will never win a game of Scrabble against.

There are so many nuggets of wisdom throughout the essays. Because I was reading a borrowed copy, I couldn’t underline any of my favorite passages. In “How We All Lose,” Gay writes about Hanna Rosin’s “The End of Men: And the Rise of Women” and how Rosin writes that the closer women get to power, the more they cling to thinking they are powerless in the paperback edition’s epilogue. Gay’s response at the end of that section: “Some women being empowered does not prove the patriarchy is dead. It proves that some of us are lucky” (101).

Back before Halloween, I got to see Roxane Gay along with Gloria Steinem at an event put on by the Women and Children First bookstore. Both women spoke for about an hour before signing their books. It’s probably the best book event that I’ve been to so far (sorry, Erik Larson). The day of the event, I bought my own copy of “Bad Feminist” for Gay to sign and I foresee a lot of underlined and highlighted passages when I reread sections once this book challenge is over.

“Bad Feminist” is the book everyone must read. It’ll make you laugh and open your mind to so many things you might not have thought about before. 

Review: ‘A Doll’s House’ by Henrik Ibsen

A Doll's House Henrik IbsenOut of all the material we read in English classes, I never liked reading the plays. A lot of it, for me, was that I needed more from the story than just dialogue. Sure, there were scene descriptions here and there, but they always felt lacking for me. It’s probably a good thing I never wanted to be an actor.

So I figured I should give plays another shot with “A Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen. The play, written in 1879, portrayed the hypocrisy of Victorian middle-class marriages when Nora rejects her marriage and social conformity. Ibsen’s biographer Halvdan Koh wrote that the play “exploded like a bomb into contemporary life.”

In the beginning of the play, you can tell there is something not quite right. Everything seems too perfect or too clichéd. The first sense that you get of Nora breaking from the mold is when she sneaks macaroons and lies to her husband about having eaten them. But other than that, Nora portrays the ditzy, silly wife whose only duties is to be a spendthrift and care for the children. As the play continues, you can see her layers begin to peel away. Whether it’s revealing to her friend Mrs. Linde that she took out a loan to bring her husband south to Italy to recover or fighting to keep Krogstad from revealing that she forged her father’s signature in order to take out the loan, you see that Nora isn’t the wife everyone believes her to be. In the end, she makes the decision to leave her marriage in order to lead her own life and become her own person.

NORA: I have other duties just as sacred.

TORVALD: That you have not. What duties could those be?

NORA: Duties to myself.

TORVALD: Before all else you are a wife and mother.

NORA: I don’t believe that any longer. I believe that before all else I am a reasonable human being just as you are — or, at all events, that I must try and become one. I know quite well, Torvald, that most people would think you right and that views of that kind are to be found in books; but I can no longer content myself with what most people say or with what is found in books. I must think over things for myself and get to understand them.

—Act III

Nora is quite possibly one of my favorite characters to have read this year.How many other women feel the same way? Though Ibsen wrote this play in the late 1800s, it is still relevant today. The definition of marriage has evolved and women have gained far more rights than they had back then (Nora taking out the loan was unheard of because women were not allowed to take out loans in their own name, hence the need to forge her father’s signature). But Nora’s scenario could be applied to many other situations because it’s all about deciding that you are going to do what’s best for you.

As for my former dislike of reading plays, reading “A Doll’s House” didn’t cure me of my dislike. But I definitely more open to read another — perhaps Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap.”

Review: ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

There was no day better than today to read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “We Should All Be Feminists.”

The essay is adapted from her December 2012 TED Talk, which was given in the United Kingdom at TEDxEuston in 2012. Many people know this talk, and subsequent essay, from Beyoncé’s “***Flawless,” which features part of the talk throughout the song.

Beyonce Flawless

This is an essay that everyone, no matter their gender, must read. For one thing, it is an essay and a short essay at that (the talk is about 30 minutes). It is easy to read — very conversational, seeing as it was originally a TED Talk — and Adichie uses personal examples to help frame her points.

Adichie’s words ring powerful and true. I have so many highlighted passages throughout this essay; I refrained from highlighting every other paragraph. After I finish writing this review, I’ll be copying them all down into a journal and onto sticky notes to serve as reminders to myself. Here are a few of my favorites:

[On calling herself, at one point, a Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men and Who Likes to Wear Lip Gloss and High Heels for Herself and Not For Men.]

“ … what it shows is how that word feminist is so heavy with baggage, negative baggage: You hate men, you hate bras, you hate African culture, you think women should always be in charge, you don’t wear makeup, you don’t shave, you’re always angry, you don’t have a sense of humor, you don’t use deodorant.”Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I don’t know how many times used to shy away from using the term feminist to describe myself. I stood for what feminism was, but I couldn’t bring myself to use the term. And if I did, it was only around certain people. Now, I do use feminist to describe myself and proudly. If someone comes back at me and asks why I don’t just use the term “humanist” or “equalist,” I can use Adichie’s words to help me:

“Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general — but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. … It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. That the problem was not about being human, but specifically about being a female human.”

And one last one:

“What is the point of culture? Culture functions ultimately to ensure the preservation and continuity of a people. … Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.”

So please, go read this essay. If you don’t want to buy it or your local library doesn’t have it, then go watch her TED Talk. Or both. Both is always good. If you need me, I’ll be creating a Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie quote board for my room.

Review — ‘My Bonny Light Horseman’ by L.A. Meyer

bonny light horseman_meyer_book coverDOUBLE REVIEW TIME.

Well, not quite a double review. But I did read two books for the price of one, I suppose.

When I was in junior high (or maybe sixth grade), I came across a wonderful series: the Bloody Jack Adventures by L.A. Meyer. The first book — “Bloody Jack: Being An Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary ‘Jacky’ Faber, Ship’s Boy” — follows Mary, an orphan living on the streets of 18th century London. To get off the streets, Mary becomes a sailor on the HMS Dolphin disguised as Jack. And that’s only the first adventure.

The series has 12 books, and I thought I had only read the first four. So I downloaded “Mississippi Jack” from the library and proceeded to read the first few chapters. Only I had the oddest feeling that I had read it before. With each new chapter, nothing about the plot or characters was new (but that didn’t stop me from falling deep into Jacky’s world again). So after finishing that book last Thursday, I immediately downloaded the sixth book: “My Bonny Light Horseman: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, in Love and War.” This one I was sure I hadn’t read before — and I hadn’t.

Though it’s been about seven years since I read “Mississippi Jack” the first time, I still thoroughly enjoyed reading about Jacky’s adventures. She had gone from a midshipman to a schoolgirl in Boston to being wrongly branded a pirate by the British to being captured by slavers to traveling down the Mississippi River. Quite the variety of adventures, wouldn’t you say? In book six, sixteen-year-old Jacky finds herself captured by a British warship, which is eventually captured by the French (it’s 1806). It’s in a French prison where British agents fake Jacky’s death — right after she’s reunited with Jaimy, her fiancé — and force her to become a spy, working to bring down Napoleon’s reign.

The scenarios Jacky finds herself shouldn’t surprise me anymore. After all, I’m halfway through the series. And I’m tempted to have the next six books in this challenge be the rest of the series.

Of all the books and series I read in my youth, the Bloody Jack Adventures were in my top three. If anything, it’s tied with Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series. Coincidentally, they both feature female protagonists who pretend to be boys in order to do what they want to do. What can I say? I’m a sucker for those storylines.

Jacky Faber is probably one of the best female protagonists in YA literature. Why? Because she has so many facets, so many strengths and weaknesses, so much wit and bravery — in short, she’s written like a person and not just your average manic pixie dream girl Mary Sue. Because I hadn’t read or thought much about Jacky Faber in past few years, I’d forgotten how amazing she was.

As I was reading both “Mississippi Jack” and “My Bonny Light Horseman,” I wondered if Meyer had given her too many talents. She’s a naval expert (still listed as an active naval lieutenant), plays the fiddle/violin and sings, paints/sketches beautifully, fluent in French and card shark. In “My Bonny Light Horseman,” she learns enough of ballet to become a dancer in Paris for her first spy assignment. There are so many things she can do and sometimes it feels like Jacky knows everything and can’t do anything wrong. But most of these talents she picked up in order to survive. Hell, if I had to go through what she went through, I’d probably be doing my best to amass as many of those talents as possible.

She is also constantly questioning the status quo and societal rules of the time. There’s always a moment every few chapters where Jacky says, “Men, I swear.

I am completely covered in my nightdress and mobcap. Is it the sight of my ankles and bare feet on the floor that makes him blush and stammer so? Men, I swear. (64)

In “Mississippi Jack,” she rightfully takes stance against slavery. She rescues Solomon, who is swimming across the river to escape, and ensures his freedom once they return to Boston at the end of the book. She is hesitant to let Yancy aboard the ship, afraid he might be a slaver.

Throughout each of the books, there are bits of wisdom and bits of narrative that make you stop and think, Aren’t I reading a YA book?. Here are a couple examples from “My Bonny Light Horseman”:

The next day I’m feeling a bit more cheery. We all feel better in the morning, don’t we? The dreads that come in the night are generally chased away by the rising sun, and, by and large, we get on with things the next day, come what may. (207)

‘You are right. The dead are dead and they do not care.’ [Randall Trevelyne] stands still for a while, his pistol pointed at the ground. ‘You know, Jacky, when I was at Napoléon’s headquarters today, I learned that we lost five thousand men and the Prussians lost twenty-five thousand.  Thirty thousand men … think of that … thirty thousand … (408-409)

In all of the books, Meyer does a wonderful job of portraying historical events alongside Jacky’s adventures. In “Mississippi Jack,” Crow Jane, Jacky’s cook aboard the Belle of the Golden West, meets up with her niece, who is heavily hinted at being Sacajawea. In “My Bonny Light Horseman,” Jacky delivers messages between Napoleon and Joachim Murat. At one point, she rides in Napoleon’s carriage after the battle of Jena-Auerstedt and he awards her with the first Legion of Honor medal for (unintentionally) leading the charge against the Prussians.

History? Adventure? Well-written female protagonist? It’s the recipe for the perfect YA book, in my mind. Also, the love story between Jacky and Jaimy — WILL THEY JUST GET TOGETHER ALREADY? Quit sending them on separate adventures across the world, Meyer.

Oh man. It’s going to be a struggle not to read the rest of the series before this year is over.

Review: ‘Herland’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

herland_cover01Imagine there is a country run by only women. There are no men. It’s a matriarchal society, isolated from the rest of the world.

Can you picture it?

This feminist utopia is what Charlotte Perkins Gilman (author of “The Yellow Wallpaper”)  explores in “Herland,” which was serialized in The Forerunner from 1909 to 1916 and published in book form in 1979. The story follows three male explorers — Vandyck Jennings, Terry O. Nicholson and Jeff Margrave — who stumble upon the country, hidden from the world somewhere in South America. They notice the advanced state of the civilization they’ve found and think to themselves, “there must be men.” Spoiler alert: There aren’t any men.

When I first picked this book off the shelf in our living room, I wasn’t exactly sure what was going to happen. Then I remembered that William Moulton Marston based part of Wonder Woman off of Gilman’s writing. I kept expecting a “Diana” to show up somewhere in the narrative after that.

I thought this book would be more of an “exciting” read, but it really wasn’t. The more I think about ways that Gilman could have “spiced up” the narrative, I stop myself. This isn’t a thrilling page turner like a lot of fiction books that many people enjoy. This is a book that makes you stop and think. There were many times when I was reading it when I closed the book to think about the way Gilman wrote certain sections. Or because I was getting angry with Terry O. Nicholson and wanted to punch him in the face (that happened a lot).

One thing that has stuck in my mind the past couple days since finishing the book is Terry’s comment from chapter one:

They would fight among themselves … Women always do. We mustn’t look to find any sort of order and organization. (7)

How many times had I thought similar things about girls? Especially in junior high. I don’t think that way now, but reading that passage brought those thoughts back. Why is it assumed so often that women are always catty among each other? This is so prevalent in various reality TV shows. I can’t count how many times there was some sort of “girl drama” on “America’s Next Top Model” — practically every episode.

But when the three men arrive in Herland and are there for months, no such thing is true. Terry’s assumption was wrong: “We had expected pettiness, and found a social consciousness beside which our nations looked like quarreling children — feebleminded ones at that. We had expected jealousy, and found a broad sisterly affection, a fair-minded intelligence, to which we could produce no parallel. We had expected hysteria, and found a standard of health and vigor, a calmness of temper, to which the habit of profanity, for instance was impossible to explain — we tried it.” (69)

Another passage I found interesting is when Terry, Jeff and Van marry women from Herland: Alima, Celis and Ellador. Van talks about the difficulties each of them had with their marriages, particularly because there haven’t been men in Herland for nearly two thousand years, which means there haven’t been marriages. Not like the men are expecting, anyway. Years after, Van comes to this realization:

We men have our own world, with only men in it; we get tired of our ultra-maleness and turn gladly to the ultra-femaleness. Also, in keeping our women as feminine as possible, we see to it that when we turn to them we find the thing we want always in evidence. (110)

But the women in Herland were not “ultra-feminine,” as the men assumed and/or wanted. Especially Terry.

At the beginning of the book when the men are telling their tutors more about American and the world outside Herland, they begin censoring certain information. As more questions are asked, they realize how much they have to censor to make sure their women (the ones not from Herland) seem just as good as the women in Herland. Toward the end, when the three of them had been living in Herland for more than a year, Van says, “I began to see both ways [living in America and living in Herland] more keenly than I had before; to see the painful defects of my own land, the marvelous gains of this … We were now well used to seeing women not as females but as people; people of all sorts, doing every kind of work” (116-117).

It is ridiculously sad that it takes well over a year of learning and living in Herland, not in their world, for them to recognize women as people. Herland was written 100 years ago, and there’s still a long way to go.

When I finished the last page, I just sat on my bed, wondering about what I had just read. I wondered why it had to be three men who stumbled across Herland? Sure, there are lessons for men to learn from a country of all women. But what would have happened if three women had stumbled upon such a society? What norms would they have to unlearn?

“Herland” is a book that everyone should read at some point, preferably earlier rather than later. While there are imperfections (as with many books), the writing, ideas and vision Gilman had really make you wonder.

What if there were a society where only women existed?

Review: ‘The Signature of All Things’ by Elizabeth Gilbert

the signature of all things_coverI’m still reeling from “The Signature of All Things.”

Of all the fiction books I’ve read so far this year, I can honestly say Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2013 novel is my favorite. No, it’s not explicitly because Alma, the protagonist, has red hair (though it is a huge factor — let’s be honest).

With about half of the book read, I sat on my bed to read a couple of chapters and didn’t move until I had finished the book three hours later. Since then, I can’t seem to get any of the characters out of my head. It’s been awhile since I’ve had a book coma last this long. Nearly two weeks later, I’m finally reviewing this book.

“The Signature of All Things” spans the 18th and 19th centuries and follows the Whittaker family, led by poor-born Englishman Henry who finds fortune in the South American quinine trade. His daughter, Alma, becomes a botanist in her own right. Her research takes her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, and she falls in love with Ambrose Pike, who makes incomparable paintings of orchids and draws her into spiritual realm.

Right from the first page, Gilbert maintained a narrative voice that harkened back to the writing styles of the 1800s. Now, I’m not talking extremely long-winded paragraphs (looking at you, Dickens). There were chapters devoted to character exposition, particularly Alma’s father Henry, and the use of language was almost Jane Austen-like. Given that most of the book takes place in the 1800s, this was the right narrative style. I don’t think it would have worked as well for her to have written in a modern voice.

Botany, exploration and science were at the heart of the narrative, and it reminded me of Andrea Barrett’s “Servants of the Map.” In the back of my mind, I’ve told myself that if I weren’t so invested in editing, I might’ve put more effort into more science and math courses (what my dad calls “real” classes). But one of the best things about being a writer (and a reader) is that you can explore so many areas, like botany, and weave it into the narrative.

But this novel was more than about Alma’s love of learning and botany. This book spanned her entire life, including a narrative on the life of her father, Henry. You read and grew with Alma as a person, from when her parents took Prudence in as a daughter to when she was the moss curator in Amsterdam. You learn that Dutch is the language of comfort for Alma, and since Prudence came to live with her family, she knew “she herself was not a pretty thing” (p. 75). Alma painfully struggled to connect with her adopted sister, and gave up many times throughout her life. It was only after Henry’s death that she was able to realize all her sister had done for her. Alma travels halfway across the world to Tahiti, chasing her grief and losing everything. Despite all of Alma’s shortcomings, you get to see her grow and overcome her weaknesses.

Lastly, she knew one other thing, and this was the most important realization of all: she knew that the world was plainly divided into those who fought an unrelenting battle to live, and those who surrendered and died. This was a simple fact. This fact was not merely true about the lives of human beings; it was also true of every living entity on the planet, from the largest creation down to the humblest. It was even true of mosses. This fact was the very mechanism of nature — the driving force behind all existence, behind all transmutation, behind all variation — and it was the explanation for the entire world. It was the explanation Alma had been seeking forever.

— p. 434

But as much as I love Alma, my biggest soft spot is for Ambrose. He is a wake-up call not only for Alma but also for the narrative. Alma, nearly 50, is a spinster running her father’s company while Henry grows older and weaker. Her friend received the most beautiful orchid impressions, and she endeavors to invite this Ambrose Pike to her home. Ambrose arrives to White Acre and breathes fresh air into Alma’s orderly life: “She had been sanguine. Contented. By all measures, it had been a good life. She could never return to that life now” (p. 225).

Ambrose brings out another side of Alma, a more open side. He tells her of the time he tried to be an angel, and that he had been inspired by Jakob Boehme’s writing to “swing into the fire.” Though she doubts Boehme and Ambrose’s spiritual beliefs, Alma opens herself up to Ambrose.

You bring me respite from my loneliness, as well,” Alma said. This was difficult for her to confess. She could not bear to look at him as she said it, but at least her voice did not waver.

— p. 234

They are a perfect couple. Alma and Ambrose. Even their names are alliterative. But it was not meant to be. They marry less than six months after Ambrose came to live at White Acre, but the marriage was not what Alma was expecting it to be. This was the second-most difficult section of the book for me to read (the most difficult part came later in the story and there were tears). Ambrose wanted a spiritual marriage without sex; Alma thought it would be the marriage she had always wanted and waited for.

I am not like other men, Alma. Can that honestly surprise you to learn, at this date?”

“What do you imagine you are, then, if not like other men?”

“It is not what I imagine I am, Alma — it is what I wish to be. Or rather, what I once was, and wish to be again.”

“Which is what, Ambrose?”

“An angel of God,” Ambrose said, in a voice of unspeakable sadness. “I had hoped we could be angels of God together. Such a thing would not be possible unless we were freed of the flesh, bound in celestial grace.”

— p. 278-279

This was when I full-heartedly stood behind Ambrose being asexual, though it is never outright stated. The reader is lead to assume for awhile that he might be gay, but I don’t think he is. Though I worry about what message this sends readers about asexuallity (if Gilbert were to confirm Ambrose is asexual). Just because someone isn’t sexually attracted to anyone and isn’t interested in sex doesn’t necessarily mean they make the leap to celestial being. That is a separate, Ambrose trait, not an asexual trait.

My heart ached when Alma banished him from White Acre, sending him to Tahiti. I wanted to jump inside the book and go with Ambrose, let him know that everything would be OK. Maybe I could prevent what would happen to him next. I imagined jumping into the book and confronting Alma, though I doubt she would listen to a word I had to say about Ambrose.

So for two weeks, I’ve had this book on my mind, and I doubt it will leave any time soon. Maybe the next few books I read will push it away temporarily. My roommate shared one of Gilbert’s Facebook statuses, which said that the book will be a PBS Masterpiece miniseries. At first, I was excited that this wonderful book would be adapted for the screen. But then I realized I didn’t want my vision of the characters and the book to be made into a series. Perhaps my mind will change once actors are cast and a trailer is released.

Whether I watch the miniseries or not, “The Signature of All Things” has been added to my list of books I must buy and read once a year, much like “Summers at Castle Auburn” by Sharon Shinn. Maybe I’ll write one or two essays about it and post them here. God knows I could at this point. It did take me two weeks to write this lengthy review. If you’re looking to read one of the books I’ve read so far this year, I’d start with this one.