Knowledge is power

Educated was not an easy read. It’s the memoir of a woman who was raised in a strict Mormon household, the kind that is convinced the government is after them. Her mother was a midwife at first, and then a healer later. Suffice it to say, there was no going to see doctors. There was no school. She didn’t even have a birth certificate until she was 9. The home environment was not healthy, to say the least.

But she ends up at BYU as a 16 or 17 year old (it wasn’t exactly clear from her writing), where she starts learning both about the world and how to learn. She ends up at Cambridge and then Harvard and estranged from her family and parents.

Educated was a powerful read – you feel her emotions, the highs and the lows. The desire to run away, the need to fit in, and all the therapy in between.

Highly recommended.

Don’t f*** with Circe

Madeline Miller collects the myths that mention Circe the nymph, gives her a backstory, and then puts it all into a very entertaining story.

If you remember Circe at all, it’s probably because you know her as one of the obstacles Odysseus had to face before he could get home (though, Calypso is the nymph with whom he dallies for seven years, not Circe). Circe is known for turning Odysseus’ men into pigs. In this telling, she still totally turns them into pigs – who knows what a bunch of hungry sailors are going to do to a woman living alone on an island. A woman has to defend herself, after all. But the story is more nuanced than that; she changes them back eventually and they use a hidden cove on her island to repair their ship over the winter, when it is usually too dangerous to sail anyway.

Overall, Circe is portrayed as a nymph who has been rather unjustly exiled to live on an island in the middle of the ocean, where she teaches herself magic from the herbs there. She makes friends with the animals – it’s very Cinderella in that way, now that I think about it. People and gods come to visit her over the years, and she’s even once allowed to leave the island for a particular task.

Circe is a woman who has been allowed to fully realize who she is and what she wants and figures out how to get it. It’s wonderful.


Having Feelings

I had so many conflicting thoughts while reading All The Single Ladies. I agree with her premise: that many women are marrying and having children later because that is how they get time to fully form who they are and what they want from life. We need to support women at all stages of their lives, from single hood, through partnership (if that’s what you want), through parenthood (again, if that’s in the cards), and beyond. All of this, and this is most of what she’s saying, is 100% correct, and we should celebrate all of the ways in which people, both men and women, realize their full potential.

Does my praise sound forced? It might. I do agree with what All The Single Ladies had to say, but at the same time, I felt vaguely attacked for my own life choices (married in my late 20s, having a child a year later). Did those decisions, negatively affect my career? Probably. Moving across the country twice didn’t help, though. I’ve always chosen a new adventure over building a career. It’s part of who I am.

And so: All The Single Ladies gave me Feelings. Feelings of “I didn’t do life right” except that I’ve done life right for me so far, and I hope to continue that. But that was a conclusion that took me some time to get to.

The later chapters also gave me feelings of “Yes, we absolutely need to make it easier for women to have both children and careers” and “female friendships are super important” and “society needs to realize how much money women have.”

So: recommended, but apparently I needed some psychoanalysis to get there.

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.

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.

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.


Tougher than you

Manhattan Beach is about New York City in World War II, and it’s about a young woman, Anna, who decides she wants to be a diver. Her father disappeared when she was a teenager; she both wants and doesn’t want to find him. She would like to know what happened to him and to build a life for herself.

I picked up Manhattan Beach because I read the first chapter in an issue of Elle magazine and was entranced by the story of eleven-year-old Anna tagging along with her father as he goes to meet a new business acquaintance. It’s both dreamy and practical. Anna impresses her father’s new business partner with her toughness about putting her bare feet into the cold ocean; the cold ocean and the house on the ocean is shot through gauze. Nothing bad could happen at a house like that.

But overall, I ended up being surprised at the story’s toughness. The rest of the book is not nearly so dreamy or romantic. Bad things happen, people are betrayed, sexism is prevalent. Anna moves through the world competently and with confidence. It’s a nice change from the uncertain way women often act in stories.


Wonder Woman in novel form

Smart, competent girls yay!

Honestly? Plot? A young woman, Alia, gets in a shipwreck. Diana saves her. It turns out there’s a conspiracy around her, blah blah blah, Diana saves the day. You know the plot – no wheels are being reinvented here.

So what’s the point? The point is: smart competent girls get it done despite incompetent and sometimes outright evil dudes. Warbringer is a fun read and will make you proud to have two X chromosomes. Recommended.

Be yourself

fear and clothing by Cintra Wilson

I really really really really really like Fear and Clothing. I like how it explores the different ways that Americans dress. I like that Cintra Wilson tries to reason out why people in different parts of the country dress differently. I like her feminism, I like her ideas of weaponized femininity, I like her respect for Valerie Steele, I like her attitude towards Iowans.

What I didn’t like was how the structure of the book sort of falls apart at the end – why are there so many photos of Seattle fashion if you’re not going to have a chapter on Seattle? Why couldn’t she have talked directly to more people who lived in each place she visited, who live with that fashion day in and day out? Did she have to be so mean towards Salt Lake City?

But mostly, I like her ideas that fashion is a way of expressing who *you* are and your fashion should be unique and different. Clothes really are fun and do communicate a lot about who you are (or who you want to be). You are unique. Why shouldn’t your clothes be?


How to be a woman

Too Fat Too Slutty Too Loud by Anne Helen Petersen

Society has a very definite idea of what makes someone an appropriate woman. Or, to quote yet still more Anne Helen Petersen, a good girl. You’re thin, wealthy, subordinate your own desires (of all kinds) to your husband’s, (of course you have a husband). Don’t swear, don’t look like you’re trying too hard, don’t have ambition, don’t yell, don’t age. And god forbid you have a bodily function.

Too Fat Too Slutty Too Loud celebrates women who break all these rules, and it is awesome. Serena Williams is the best in the world and if you can’t accept her ambition, mouth, and body type, that’s your problem, not hers. It’s the first chapter and it sets the appropriate tone for the whole book.

Caitlin Jenner is included, and Anne Helen Petersen talks about how she’s problematic for her book, because she wants to be the most stereotypical woman she can be – transnormative – and not unruly at all. But simply by being such a prominent trans woman, she breaks barriers. With her show, she brought more trans stories to light and explored different ways to be trans in the world, sometimes despite herself.

Personally, I wish the Madonna chapter had been more fleshed out. As I’m getting older myself, how women are allowed (and not) to age becomes more interesting to me. (Selfish, I know.) But the point of that chapter is that Madonna isn’t aging like other women (unruly), but she’s fighting age in a way that we’ve seen before, by trying to act and perform as young as possible. The big idea is that Madonna has always beenĀ new. She transforms herself to stay new; her fight against age isn’t new. We’ve seen it before by others. The chapter was unsatisfying.

The book overall though is a strong recommend. Maybe my favorite book of 2017.