Sometimes books aren’t what you want them to be

I added The Glass Universe to my Amazon wishlist in a fit of feminist fury after the 2016 election. I, I thought to myself, am only going to review books by and about women! I have not stuck to this – my interests are too wide ranging – but I find myself skewing more towards books by and about women.

Alas, I wish I liked this book better. I wanted it to be about the challenges that women interested in astronomy faced, or to take a step back and talk about the larger picture of how they fit into the whole field. Instead, it was a very dry “first this happened. then that happened.” Maybe the larger picture got addressed later in the book? I didn’t make it far enough to find out.

Not recommended.

Ignoring the feminine

Mary Beard is, of course, a well-know classicist, and it’s a personal life mission of mine to read all of her books. Even the dry academic ones – they’re quite interesting, if you’re curious about life in the Ancient Roman or Greek worlds. This is not one of those.

Women & Power is a very slight book – less than 100 pages – that is basically a transcript of two speeches she gave about just how deep silencing women goes in Western culture. Spoiler alert: the first example of silencing a woman in a written text is the Odyssey, which is possibly the oldest written text there is.

There are examples of powerful women in ancient texts, but these women are never portrayed as positive role models – think of Medea and Medusa – and even Athena is problematic. The feminine is secondary to the masculine by default.

This was a quick but illustrative read. Definitely recommended.

It’s fine I guess?

I’ve been putting off writing this review because I’m not sure what to say about Norse Mythology. It’s…. fine? I neither especially loved or hated it. Thor is more of an idiot than in the Marvel movies and Loki is just as chaotic but less deliberately evil/angry. It’s short stories, and they were probably told around a campfire whilst drinking back in the year 1000. You can’t get too long of a story in that circumstance.

It’s a sold three stars: enjoyable, but I’d be surprised if I’ll remember it in six months.

A meditation on depression

The best way I can think of to describe The Magicians trilogy is that it’s a meditation on depression: the feeling of apartness; the struggle and the desire to feel normal, like a part of the group; coping by constantly working (if I’m just a little smarter/better/faster I’ll be fine!); coping by not doing anything (why bother if I’ll never fit in/be the best/whatever); coping by drinking.

A couple of characters are allowed to find their way out of their depression, one by finding his purpose in life, one after a serious trauma where she spent time interrogating her emotions and feelings. Mainly, though, it’s about how to live with depression and acceptance that it is what it is. That there will be times everything will be fine and there will be times when it all sucks and both are ok. Magic doesn’t automatically make everything better.

Or maybe this is just my reading too much into things. The trilogy takes place over ten years and there is a magical university and a Narnia-like land that certain magicians can travel to. There are magical animals and quests and all kinds of things. You might be able to read it on that level.

Would I recommend it? Maaaaaybe? Look, most people want fun adventure and this has some of that. But to like these books, I suspect you have to have a certain tolerance for the less-happy things in life. They’re not for everyone.

Magical adventures!

One of my favorite things about traveling is going to bookstores in different cities. Why? Because they feature different books; different people like different things, and a people in a different city will read different stories. That was how I found A Darker Shade of Magic.

The deal is: there are three Londons, Grey (ours and Lila’s), Red (Kell’s), White (Holland’s), and Black (no one talks about Black London). Only Lila, Kell, and Holland can move between them. There’s magic and romance and pirates/privateers and a crazy coat. Of COURSE Black London comes into play.

I don’t want to say more because these are glorious adventure novels and you shouldn’t know what’s going to happen next. I bought the first one, A Darker Shade of Magic, on vacation and then went to my local bookstore on our first day back to buy the next two, A Gathering of Shadows and A Conjuring of Light.*

Recommended, especially if you like some fun fantasy. And bonus: it’s a complete trilogy, so you won’t have to wait to read the whole story.

* Note: A Gathering of Shadows ends with a cliffhanger. You’ll want A Conjuring of Light around when you finish it.

Lady detectives are feminist

I had, perhaps a bit densely, never really thought about mystery novels primarily as books about working until I read Hardboiled & High Heeled. Mysteries had always been books about solving problems, about putting the world in order. That is, until this book pointed out that mysteries were the first stories to show women, working. Not as the love interest, nor primarily looking for a romantic partner. A woman, at work, solving problems.

It focuses mainly on three characters: Clarice Starling from The Silence of the Lambs, Kinsey Millhone, and Kay Scarpetta. Each woman is competent, not interested in relationships (though interested in sex, as most people are), and the primary objective of each of these characters is solving the mystery in front of them before anyone else gets hurt.

Hardboiled & High Heeled is a bit academical, but still readable. If you’re interested in how women are portrayed when they want to read as competent and in charge, this is a good start.

*Remember* your first job out of school

Startup is Doree Shafrir’s inaugural novel. It was written before the Me Too movement made its way into the national consciousness, but it describes a myriad of the ways sexism influences women’s workplaces and lives. To wit:

  • Sabrina, a formerly stay-at-home mother, getting back into the workforce and getting little to no support from her husband, Dan.
  • Katya, who works for Dan, doesn’t realize that her boss is flirting with her because she’s so heads down working harder than any other person in the book.
  • Isabel, Sabrina’s boss and younger than her, had a casual affair with the founder of the startup they both work at. Once Isabel is over it and the founder isn’t, she gets fired.

I worked at Amazon when it was coming out of its start-up mode in the late 90s and I can tell you that a lot of the ridiculousnesses that are described in the book rang true to me. Work parties that border on the inappropriate? Poorly thought-through inter-office relationships? A blind spot when it comes to work-life balance? Work attempting to become your life? It was lovely to see all of these things satirized in a novel full of rich characters.

Startup isn’t a great novel – it is a first one – but it is a light-hearted one that takes on some serious issues. I look forward to her next book.

Recommended.

Doing what you have to to survive

Les Parisiennes tells the stories of women who lived in Paris during World War II. It is a complicated book, structurally, with far too many individual stories told to keep track of all of the people. There is a six page list of all of the women mentioned in the book, before the index, if you want to be a better person than me and actively try to keep them all in your head.

I didn’t worry about keeping everyone straight because that’s not really the point of the narrative. Les Parisiennes is arranged chronologically and that has the advantage of reminding you that Paris is a big city, full of different people who asked themselves “what do I need to do to survive?” and answered differently. There are the women who collaborated, those who resisted loudly, those who resisted quietly, and those who did what they had to in the gray area in between.

I learned about Drancy, the holding area for prisoners before they were sent to concentration camps. During the early 1944 chapters of the book, it does leave Paris for Ravensbrück, the women’s concentration camp. Because it’s a third-person account it’s less emotional than, say, Survival in Auschwitz, but it was still nightmare-inducing. I couldn’t read these chapters before bedtime.

The most light-hearted part of the book is, of course, about fashion. No one writes a book about Paris and without including the fashion industry. You learn about the codes embroidered onto hats and belts and about the rather insane turbans women would wear just to piss off the Nazis. There is one memorable photograph of a woman, keeping watch on the top of a building during the liberation of Paris in 1944, wearing a lovely flowered skirt and sling-back heels with a helmet, holding a machine gun.

The juxtaposition of the soft and the hard in that photograph is what makes it interesting and it’s the jumble of all these women’s stories told together that makes Les Parisiennes work.

Recommended.

When reading one book makes you want to read more

Sharp is a well-researched overview of a series of ten public intellectuals, all women, what they wrote, how other people reacted to it, and how they handled those reactions. What kind of personas did they get? Which of their pieces defined their public personas? How did they feel about that? Why?

The well-researched aspect of the book was the part that most resonated with me. I came away wanting to read all the books and articles by Kael, Didion, Parker, even Sontag, who I developed a disdain for in the 1990s for no particular reason. I want to add every entry in Sharp‘s bibliography to my own already too-long to read list. I am envious of Michelle Dean for having the time and purpose to have already done so.

Also, Nora Ephron, I’m sorry. I knew your persona as the person who wrote Meg Ryan movies. The same Meg Ryan movies that I got sick of in the 80s and 90s. I still don’t understand why/how Meg Ryan’s and Tom Hank’s characters fell in love without really meeting through the whole of Sleepless in Seattle. And Billy Crystal’s schtick was fine the first time I saw When Harry Met Sally, but it was grating upon re-watch. Eventually, the movies just felt like Meg Ryan being Meg Ryan – unfair to her and you, I can see now – and not like anything special or interesting. (And yes, I believe men and women can be friends without one wanting to sleep with the other.) I had no idea you had a whole pre-movie body of work. It’s time to go read that.

And maybe this is where I say something about how women get discounted in intellectual life, and where I cite a relevant quote from How to Suppress Women’s Writing. Instead I will say that I am glad Michelle Dean is taking these women seriously and inspiring other people to also take them seriously.

Recommended.

Don’t wait too long to read the books on your to-read list

Book Cover: 60 million frenchmen can't be wrong I first came across Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong in the early 2000s, when I was a stay-at-home mom and had a baby. You’d think that I’d’ve had plenty of time to read, but you’d be wrong.

Fast-forward to a couple of months ago, when I saw this book come through the donations at work. (One of the best perks about being a paid employee at a library’s friends organization is that you get to see all the donations.) I grabbed it almost immediately. And then I was disappointed by it.

Why? I’m still not sure: it’s full of cultural observations that made sense, but the last time it was published in the 2000s. A lot has happened in Europe and France and Paris since then – the financial crisis, the rise of social media, the re-rise of the National Front (if it ever really went away). The World War II generation is passing on, and with that, a lot of the things that defined how politics work. I couldn’t get over the feeling that it wasn’t as relevant as it would have been 13 years ago. Which is when I should have read it.

If I had read it then. I’d probably have enjoyed it more and learned more too. That’ll teach me to clear off my to-read list occasionally, and not just let it build up.