Clothes matter

Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore was a delight. It was exactly what it promised to be: an examination of the standard uniform of various writers, mainly but not exclusively of the 20th century. Full of pictures and pithiness, clothes project an image of who the writers want you to think they are: rebels, an aloof outsider, cultured, whatever.

It should be said that clothes do matter; even if you claim not to care what you wear, you are still conforming (or not) to a standard. Grabbing the top t-shirt on the pile (and bragging about it) says so much about who you are and the position you have in society and the amount of respect you have for those around you (little, I would argue).

Clothes do not make the writer – dressing like Joan Didion will not make you write like her – but they are another way authors express themselves. And it  was fun to look at the photos and read what the various authors say about their fashion tics.

(PS I cannot imagine reading this book on a kindle/tablet. Get the hard-cover version and enjoy its design.)

Unexpectedly relevant

I read The Secret History about a million times in college. To this day, I’m not sure why I was so obsessed with it.

When the weather turned, it seemed like a good time for a re-read. The characters were much the same: so obsessed with finding some ancient Greek definition of beauty that they’d lost all their morality. Donna Tartt’s description of   the New England fall and winter were still lovely and haunting and they made me want to spend all my time at a small college in some tiny Eastern state.

What I wasn’t expecting though, was the parallels between Bunny, the tragi-comic character who drives much of the plot, and Donald Trump. They are both bumbling, in over their heads, cruel in a way that doesn’t realize its full consequences, utterly insistent that the world is the way he sees it, and charming (according to Maggie Haberman, Trump is captivating in a one-on-one setting in a way Obama never was). It made it kind of hard to read in spots, honestly.

That parallel made The Secret History surprisingly relevant – I got insight into our current president and the people around him in a way I was not expecting from a book published in 1992.

Recommended, and not just for nostalgia’s sake.

Sex and violence and feeling worthless

Difficult Women is easily the most literary of all the books I’ve read lately. Roxane Gay is an excellent author, able to express herself clearly and concisely and in a way that makes me appreciate just how good she is. Which is not to say that these stories are overly intellectual or anything. Just… she’s good.

All of the women in these stories have issues with sex, violence, feeling worthless, and the combination thereof. None of them are particularly likable. There is at least one thinly veiled story of Roxane Gay’s own gang rape at the age of 12. I cannot imagine – literally, I can’t.

Are these stories part of her working through that? Maybe? I mean, I suspect the therapy was long and involved and that’s not the kind of thing you can work through whilst writing even one book. Do I think this book of short stories would be completely different if that hadn’t happened? Absolutely, because she would have been a completely different person.

Difficult Women: worth your time.

Take power


I loved this book. Really and truly. Why? Because ultimately, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is about female power. It’s about how to stand up for yourself, and how to get what you want. Maybe it’s to get the hell out of the neighborhood you grew up in. Maybe it’s a career instead of a husband. Maybe it’s to be an editor instead of a writer. Maybe it’s to get out of a marriage. Maybe it’s a career when you’re being pushed aside because you’re getting “too old.” Maybe it’s the love of your life.

And it’s still relatively rare to find a book where a female main character exercises power and isn’t punished for it, where she doesn’t rely on someone else to help her or get it done for her. It’s alllll Evelyn Hugo.

I am here for it. Recommended.

When the patriarchy was even stronger

Agrippina by Anthony A Barrett

Agrippina, specifically Agrippina the Younger, was a kind of incredible woman who co-ruled the Roman Empire first with her husband Claudius and then with her son Nero. This book has a distinctly feminist take on her.

Agrippina has often been portrayed as a power-hungry woman who would do anything (e.g. setting up Claudius’ prior wife for political downfall, murdering Claudius so Nero would inherit over Claudius’ natural son, sleeping with Nero once he was on the throne to stay in his good graces) to rule Rome. Mr Barrett’s take on it is as follows:

  1. Look, she was a powerful woman in a deeply misogynistic society. She’s not going to be portrayed in anything like a positive light.
  2. She only shows up in the contemporary stories about the men whose lives she was in. We don’t have anything that focuses on her.
  3. Sex scandals were frequently used by the contemporary sources to explain why powerful people (both men and women) were suddenly not in power anymore.

So when she’s implicated in a sex scandal, it’s important to look around and see who benefits and who else is being taken down with her. That’s going to show you what’s really going on.

Here are the facts: she was raised by an extraordinarily determined mother and her dead father was worshipped by the military. When she was around Caligula (the emperor before Claudius and her brother), he wasn’t such a crazy asshole who tried to kill everyone. Claudius’ reign was much smoother when she was his wife than when he was married to his prior wife. Nero didn’t go off the rails until after she was banished (and then he had her killed to keep her from coming back). Shit worked when she was on the scene.

So maybe consider that the contemporary reports were written by gossipy people with a strong patriarchal bias and should be taken with a HUGE grain of salt.

I liked this one.

History-ish, not really science fiction

The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad was, as we all learned in history class, the network of people who helped slaves escape the American South. In Whitehead’s book, the railroad is a real thing, with tracks and trains running at irregular intervals to which people away to the next station.

Cora is a third-generation slave who decides to use the railroad to escape once it becomes clear that rape is in her immediate future. She runs from Georgia to the Carolinas, to Tennessee, to Indiana to show all of the different ways to be enslaved: plantation labor, in the city (the work program she’s in turns out to be part of a larger eugenics plan), hiding in a small nook in a hot summer attic for weeks on end.

She’s pursued by Ridgeway, a slave catcher by nature. He’s evil and wears a necklace of human ears to show that he’s also somewhat deranged.

There’s death all over this book. Cora kills a young man who is part of a search party that temporarily catches up with her and her two fellow escapees. Ridgeway kills so many people as he hunts Cora. The town where she hides in the attic regularly lynches anyone even suspected of helping blacks.

Slavery and racism are ugly, violent, brutal things. The Underground Railroad makes that clear. It makes me, the white reader, feel guilty and uncomfortable. And it should. Slavery is one of the foundational sins of America, something we have never fully atoned for. Listening to its stories, bearing witness to something I’ve been taught to look away from is a start. But only a start.

Clutch your pearls!

girls-and-sex

(The colors on the cover are not nearly that saturated. My image capturing process seems to need some help.)

Girls and Sex is largely about how high school and college aged girls form romantic and sexual relationships. What do girls get out of it? How about boys?* Should you, the parent, be clutching your pearls? Or worried?

Maybe? It explores how teenagers express their feelings, even if they don’t understand those feelings. It seems, to me anyway, that teenagers have a lot of ideas about what couples (or people who like each other) *should* do. Or maybe what they want to do without a lot of thought about the ramification of those actions.

My personal take as a parent is that my daughter should a) understand what she wants and be comfortable saying no, b) get the hell out if saying no doesn’t work, c) think, as much as she can, before she acts. Consent is hard, and drinking heavily isn’t responsible for a lot of reasons, but, in this case, consent gets complicated fast when one or the both of you isn’t making good decisions.

The book does end on a hopeful note, because it does talk about the fact that boys are often just as confused about girls about relationships. They’re given a different template of how to act, and that can cause its own problems.

Recommended if you have a teenaged child.

* Girls and Sex does have a chapter about same-sex romantic relationships and the further challenges of acceptance around those relationships as well. I don’t want to ignore that. But a lot of “how does he/she feel about me?” and “should I act on my feelings?” holds true no matter your partner’s gender.

 

Shakespeare, updated

vinegar girl

Vinegar Girl retells Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, which is always a tough proposition. Taming is sexist: here undomesticated woman, let me show you your proper place in the world. Which, what? No.

But Vinegar Girl does a decent job getting around it, making Kate an awkward  (not adorkable – straight up awkward, and not very likable) girl in an awkward family, marrying not someone who needs to put her in her place (or who teaches her to fall in love), but rather someone who needs a green card. Someone who is also awkward. The marriage knocks her out of an overly introverted life taking care of her father. The book even manages to hit on the overly proscriptive roles men are offered in society.

It turns a fairly not-feminist tale into something more feminist. And it left me wanting more of the story fleshed out: what was the deal with Kate’s mother? Why did Kate feel the need to withdraw from her friends? I want to explore this backstory.

Overall: recommended