Thursday, February 28, 2008

By a Bookworm, for a Bookworm

Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading: Losing and Finding Myself in Books by Maureen Corrigan

Where to start? Well, even though I should probably start by discussing the book, Corrigan made one comment that I feel ties perfectly into my previous discussion of The Pillars of the Earth and my short note about Oprah. While discussing a certain style of memoirs, Corrigan states that despite their flaws, they are "infinitely preferable to [her] than the victimhood that's displayed in so many autobiographies today, or the widespread sense of entitlement our culture fosters" (170). I feel like this sums up so well what I was trying to say about a certain part (though not all) of the novels and books that make up Oprah's Book Club. It just seems like quite a few of them are about that "poor, victimized" woman (or man, but woman is more common). I think they also celebrate uplift and community, but there is still that initial idea of victimization. There is a book by Eva Illouz that discusses the Oprah culture called Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery - I think the title pretty much says everything.

I have to admit, the title alone got me (discussing Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading Now, although Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery is also catchy). Described as a memoir in books, the book is definitely heavy on the book and light on the memoir part. Not to say that she doesn't share anecdotes of her life, or give a basic outline, but her focus is much more on talking about how books affected her life and her relationships than her life. She draws similarities between her life, her friends' lives and books but not in a minute way - rather she focuses on the larger themes that prevail in both, for example the idea of waiting which occurs a lot in women's lives and novels, especially before the second women's movement. She discusses her love of detective novels while writing about work, stating that these are some of the few novels to actually be about work itself.

Reading this basically felt like having a discussion about books with a friend. She closes the book with a list of her favorites. While I doubt I'll look into any of the detective novels, some of the others look interesting. I also saw a few that I'd read and liked quite a bit on her list. As far as the detective novels are concerned, I'm not looking down on them (as she says, they're often seen as beach reading); rather I have my own genres that I read despite the occasional thought that maybe they aren't quite as intellectual or literary as what I should be reading - my genres tend to be historical fiction with a random fantasy novel or even piece of chick lit thrown in.

A Dash of Everything: Cathedrals, Sex and Oprah

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

Due to the release of Ken Follett's new novel World Without End, I decided to reread his bestselling The Pillars of the Earth. I realize that the sequel has little to do with the original other than the setting since they take place more than a hundred years apart but I still thought it would be a nice opportunity to revisit Kingsbridge and all its characters. I first read this novel in 5th or 6th grade, and finished it in one weekend. I may have reread it shortly after, and then once we moved to the States, I decided I needed to read it in English as well. So this is at least the third, and probably fourth, time that I've read this book.

Does it hold up? Mostly. It's still an entertaining and engaging read. Since I remembered it rather well, I didn't have a driving need to see what was going to happen next so it took me more than a weekend to read it. It is rather sprawling, and Follett does make sure to tie up all, and I do mean all, loose ends: for example, a character from the beginning chapters of the novel reappears in the last part. It spans more than a fifty year time span and, historically, deals with the period following King Henry's death, the war for succession and, finally, Henry II's reign. Towards the end, while still entertained, I was ready for it to end: the antagonists just kept finding ways to come back and plague everyone's lives but as I said, this is also my fourth time reading it.

I think it may have been more violent than I remembered - I was always disturbed by the bear fight scene, and there are quite a few brutal rape scenes. They serve to illustrate just what type of person William Hamleigh is, and yet, at what point do these types of descriptions become gratuitous? Follett doesn't reach that level, but I had a problem with one of his consensual sex scenes (when I was an eleven year old reading Follett's novels, I always thought they were kind of racy - at 23, I'd say they contain about the normal amount of sex that tends to be found in novels, although possibly a bit more descriptive).

In one scene, Aliena who hasn't had sex in over five years has sex with Jack. Follett inserts one sentence about how it hurt at first and then she was fine. Please. Unless they had lubricants in the 12th century (which definitely weren't mentioned in this chapter), I seriously doubt that it wouldn't have been slightly painful the whole time. That's a pretty long dry spell. While it might be easy to write it off as "he's a man," I've noticed that even women writers tend to take any complications out of sex. No matter how experienced or inexperienced either partner is, it (orgasm) happens just like that. Actually, this kind of reminds me of a Sex and the City episode (I've probably just lost most of my credibility) - Miranda was sleeping with a guy who couldn't make her come, so she was faking it. As she explained to her friends, in porn and other media outlets, the women just immediately start moaning, so it is no surprise that men (and women) would get the impression that it's very easy to make a woman come. Then when a woman doesn't come, the man thinks it's her fault, and some women may also wonder if there is something wrong with them since it doesn't come more easily. Of course, any other episode of Sex and the City perpetuates the same myth as porn - while there are episodes where the women might talk about the fact that they don't always orgasm, for the most part, they start moaning just as quickly as the porn stars.

Since I'm discussing The Pillars of the Earth, I should probably also briefly acknowledge the fact that this book is now part of Oprah's Book Club. I honestly don't know why - while a good book, it's pretty straight-forward and basic historical fiction. It's doesn't fit in with her theme of self-help or discovering oneself and boosting one's self esteem, nor is it a classic novel since I know she occasionally incorporates those as well (which is why my mom has an unread copy of Anna Karenina on her bookshelf). It also isn't about race relations or anything like that. Despite the way I like to look down on Oprah's Book Club, I have to admit the woman does have good taste - otherwise, how would some of my childhood/teen favorites such as East of Eden and Anna Karenina have ended up on her list? Or other books, that I discovered later without knowing about their Oprah connection or liking despite of, such as Middlesex and all of Toni Morrison just to name a few? And yet, The Pillars of the Earth doesn't seem like an Oprah selection - I wonder if it was a business deal to help boost sales of the sequel. Also, due to its book club status, it's kind of interesting what happens when typing in The Pillars of the Earth on Amazon - naturally, it shows up as part of the search results followed by novels such as Eat, Pray, Love and Love in the Time of Cholera. These appear in the list before Follett's other novels, all of which are more on the thriller/suspense side.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Daddy Issues/Mommy Issues

Psychoanalysis and Black Novels: Desire and the Protocols of Race by Claudia Tate


This book has been on my wishlist for a while.  I'd heard of Tate's other book Domestic Allegories of Political Desire first, probably in relation to discussions of Pauline Hopkins, but a professor recommended this one specifically due to a paper topic I was considering but then abandoned (or perhaps I just chose the other book she recommended because they had it at the book store - I'm not really sure anymore since I can't remember how broad of a topic I was originally looking at and the book I bought also involved race).  This was part of the large Amazon order that I've been waiting on that they ended up dividing into three packages - so far this is the only part I've received.  Actually, a friend of mine also bought me a copy for Valentine's Day (the only time I remember ever mentioning it is when I told him I'd ordered it, but I guess he missed that part; also, since I've on occasion hijacked his computer, Amazon recommended it to him because I'd been browsing on his account).  Eventually, I'll probably buy Domestic Allegories as well, but even I find it hard to justify spending $50 on a book.


Tate's discussion revolves around five novels by black authors that have largely been neglected and ignored with the exception of Quicksand.  The other four do not quite fit into the ideas of what a African-American novel should be, and as a result, have been seen as anomalies.  Some of the problems include, for example, the plots and the protagonists: in three of the novels, the heros are white, others seemed too focused on romance etc.  Tate argues that these novels have to be approached in a different manner to see what lies underneath, or the desire that drives the novel.  Additionally, while Quicksand is part of the "cannon," it too is restricted by the critical treatment it has received so far.  As Tate argues, psychoanalysis can help illuminate and explain all of these novels and add a new perspective to the discussion.  However, it will help not only with these novels, but all novels: she simply chose these "because they exaggerate the process of performing unconscious desire" (180).


Tate begins her book by asking what exactly it takes to be a "black literary text in the United States" (3).  Throughout her analysis, she discusses the idea that the approach can be reductive and restrictive - in many cases, a black text is expected to address racial oppression and black lives, and this idea tends to marginalize novels by black authors with white characters because they don't fit in with expectations.  Tate says it is necessary to move beyond racial oppression because it prevents other issues in the text being analyzed.  For example, Quicksand has been analyzed by black feminist theorists who focus on race, gender and class issues but as Tate demonstrates, there is even more going on that gets overlooked as a result.  In other cases, such as Richard Wright's work, critics have noticed the extreme, almost gratuituos violence, and even hint that "racial violence may be masking sexual content" (95) in Wright's work, but then just as quickly drop the subject and talk about racism.


Most of the chapters make use of oedipal conflicts, and point to an underlying desire for a parental figure, or how the authors use their novels to work these conflicts out.  The first chapter, for example, illustrates how in Emma Kelley's Megda, Meg's best friend Ethel serves as the mother figure, whom Meg at first emulates and adores.  When she falls for Ethel's fiance, she reads her jealousy as spiritual longing, but with Ethel's death, she takes her place, and thus Meg resolves her oedipal stage.  Since in this first chapter, Tate deals primarily with the text, I was surprised when she extended her reading of W.E.B DuBois's Dark Princess  to slightly analyze DuBois in the second chapter.  She also used some autobiographical evidence in her analysis of the remaining three novels.  Of course, DuBois, Wright and Hurston all wrote autobiographical works and several other texts, so she included these sources to support and strengthen her analysis.  For DuBois and Wright, especially, their neglected novels illustrate themes that occur in all their literature, but are more obvious in these examples.  As mentioned above, Wright's critics usually focused on the racial protest of his novels, but since he chose to use white characters in Savage Holiday, it shifts the focus to misogynist/oedipal issues that have been in all his novels.  DuBois intended his novel as a protest novel, but the romance takes over, so that it, too, reveals an underlying desire for the lost mother much more clearly.


The whole book was an interesting and engaging take.  I am usually ambivalent about Freud - it's definitely a different way to look at things but his theories were obviously flawed; also, I'm not a big fan of readings of Hamlet which claim that Hamlet was experiencing an oedipal conflict, and was in love with his mother.  I think this is also the reason it took me a bit to adjust to the DuBois chapter.  I liked the Wright chapter the best  (I have no clue why, because I've never read anything by him - perhaps it helped not to have any preconceived notions), and also really enjoyed the Hurston chapter (I love Their Eyes Were Watching God, so I liked reading about another of her novels).  It's really about time I read Quicksand - just need that one package to get here . . .

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Book: The Boleyn Inheritance

The Boleyn Inheritance by Philippa Gregory


My last Amazon order got slightly held up due to an item that wasn't currently available (should be here any day now).  Since I was worried I might run out of books to read, I picked up The Boleyn Inheritance while I was in the PX.  They don't have a large variety of books, so given the choices between Dean Koontz, Danielle Steele and James Patterson/Dan Brown type stuff, I figured this would probably be the best they had to offer.


My mom's read a few of Philippa Gregory's novels, so I had read one of them before (The Queen's Fool) but I hadn't liked it that much (I think it had more to do with the fact that I disagreed with the way she chose to portray Queen Elizabeth).  I was surprised to find that I liked this one enough to actually consider ordering The Other Boleyn Girl (yep, there's another movie tie-in, of course).  The novel focused on a three year period spanning from the betrothal of Anne of Cleves to King Henry to Katherine Howard's execution for adultery.  It switched back and forth between Anne, Katherine and Jane Boleyn, sister-in-law of Anne Boleyn.  While it was historical fiction, there were a few things the novel pointed out that I hadn't quite been aware of: Katherine Howard's extreme youth (she was between 15 and 19 when she married almost 50 year old Henry, and died before she turned 21 - I double checked on Wikipedia - another very reliable source, I know), as well as all the intrigue surrounding Anne of Cleves and Henry's annulment.  The other books/novels I've read that address this topic treat it as a quick episode but Gregory referred to some plots that could have potentially accused Anne of Cleves of witchcraft and led to her beheading as well if the annulment hadn't come through. 


I read The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George a long time ago (I used to read a lot of historical fiction), and her portray of Henry was generally sympathetic.  Gregory sees him as a tyrannical monster, and throughout the novel, the women refer to him as death to his wives.  Of course, he executed "only" two of them, but the characters in Gregory's novel also blame him for Katherine of Aragon's death (due to the conditions of where she was banished to) as well as Jane Seymour (improper postnatal care).  In addition to their views of Henry, the portrayal of Katherine Howard between the novels is rather different.  She wasn't much of a character in George's novel, but she seemed more calculating.  Gregory portrays her as a young, greedy, shallow girl that becomes the pawn of her family to help them gain power.


As far as historical fiction is concerned, this book was pretty decent.  It wasn't a master piece, but it was engaging, and it might inspire people to do further reading on the topic to find out the real facts vs. fiction.  It's been a long time since I've actually read anything about the time period but I remember Antonia Fraser's The Wives of Henry VIII being rather accessible.

Book: The Jane Austen Book Club

Yet another book that I decided to pick up because of a movie.  I'm thinking maybe I should start waiting to see the movie before reading the book - seems like I'm just asking for disappointment.  Although, I am not even one of those people that insists on complete accuracy when translating a book to the screen as long as they don't completely change the characters - I enjoyed the new Pride and Prejudice, for example.  It seems like the main problem with film adaptations is that the movies often just miss the point of certain novels.  I also preferred the LOTR movies to the novels, but that isn't saying much - those books, especially The Two Towers were incredibly dry, and even the movies went on way too long (especially the last one - how many times can a movie set up an ending, go to black screen and then keep going?!)  Also, they changed one of the characters and portrayed him in a negative light which was completely unneccessary for the movie (Boromir's brother Faramir - he was much nicer and nobler in the novel).


Anyway, after over 600 pages of critical analysis I needed something light, so it seemed like the perfect time to pick this up - also, it sort of relates to The Madwoman in the Attic - Gilbert and Gubar talked about Austen as a 19th century woman author (yes, I know I'm stretching it).


As expected, the novel was an entertaining, light read. It didn't provide great insights, but it was a fun read about book lovers, even poking fun at certain types of readers and Austenites (such as the people that think Austen is infallible and her choices can't be critiqued).  The Jane Austen book club is made up of six different people, five women and one man.  In the first few pages, Fowler discusses their different perspectives of Austen.  One person sees them as romances, another as a critique of the women's economic position, another focuses on the comedy.  Personally, I probably focus more on the social critique and satire.


Following that introduction, each chapter revolves around one of the books, or meetings.  Each person in the group is in charge of one of the novels, and in their chapters, Fowler loosely links the plot or theme of their selected novel to the discussion leader's life.  I enjoyed the way she had them relate to each other, without forcing them to exactly parallel.  For example, Joyce leads the first discussion on Emma, and at one point says, "the Emma plot, the humbling of a pretty, self-satisfied girl is the most popular plot of all time" (15).  This then leads to the story of Joyce's own "humbling," and similar to Emma, Joyce is a failed match maker.


I liked Fowler's idea of weaving six people and Austen's plots together, and it worked well.  While she centers the novel around the book club and her characters' love of Austen, she doesn't overdo the discussions or spend too much time focusing on Austen, so her characters seem well-developed rather than simply copies of Austen. 

Book: The Madwoman in the Attic

The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar


This so-called classic of feminist literary criticism has been sitting on my shelf for a while now (I actually started it on the plane to London but of course was way too busy to do any reading for the rest of the trip; after that I was trying to spend time with people before deploying).  I figured now was as a good time as any to give it another shot.  Even though the book was very accessibly written, the idea of reading over six hundred pages of literary criticism still seemed slightly daunting.


The book works best when analyzing individual works.  In Part I, Gilbert and Gubar discuss the idea of authorship and literary tradition and how women have been excluded from it.  They address the internal conflict women authors must have felt writing in a society where women were supposed to be submissive, and how the very act of writing was a challenge to their gender roles.  As a result, many of these women felt a certain type of anger that is hidden within their work and behind their declarations that theirs is but a lowly attempt at the pen, and shouldn't be considered a real work of art.  This section also contains an interesting discussion of the fairy tale "Snow White."  At some points, they seem to go overboard: they discuss the use of caves in women's work, and it's almost as if they find every single reference to a cave in any woman's work to prove their point.  Of course, this was one of the earliest works of feminist literary criticism, so they may have felt they had more to prove, and therefore went above and beyond to argue the existence of a woman's literary tradition.  Due to this, it occasionally felt like they were trying too hard to make everything fit (every time a cave appears, it means this etc.) but it is an understandable flaw given the book's background and timing.


The next five parts of the book deal with different topics and authors.  I enjoyed the discussion of Austen a lot, but I wouldn't have had a problem if they had expanded it some.  They devoted two chapters to Austen while each of Charlotte Brontë's novel had a chapter of its own.  Granted, Austen's novels deal with the same themes in similar ways, but they still could have talked about them more.  Considering that the book gets it title from Jane Eyre, it is only fitting that Gilbert and Gubar would spend the largest amount of time discussing Brontë's work.  Other chapters focus on the works of Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, George Eliot and Emily Dickinson.


One of the interesting topics that repeats itself throughout the chapters is the use of doubles.  They are especially prominent in C. Brontë's fiction, but many of the chapter discuss how the authors used different characters to portray different options as well as how in some cases, one character acts out the secret desires and rage of the proper heroine (such as Jane Eyre and Bertha Rochester).  I enjoyed the discussion of Shelley's Frankenstein a lot, and I hadn't realized the influence that Paradise Lost had had on it (I've never read Frankenstein, and only sections of Milton - should probably change that soon).


Based in the biographical description of Eliot, it seemed like she was the most conflicted of all the authors.  At least from what Gilbert and Gubar write, she appears to have most wanted to fit into the mold of the good, proper woman, and had the strongest need for male approval (another theme discussed throughout the book - daughters as their father's helpers in emulation of Milton and his daughters), and yet her life (other than Mary Shelley) fit into that idea the least.  She spent a good part of her life involved with a married man, after all, while Austen and Dickinson were both spinsters (Dickinson was obviously the more eccentric of the two), and the Brontës died rather young with little scandal outside of the plots of their novels.  I'm kind of curious about one thing: the Brontës all wrote under an alias and yet when we speak of their novels, we speak of the Brontë sisters, and their actual names.  However, whenever Middlemarch and her other works are discussed, we still refer to them as George Eliot's, which was a pseudonym for Marian Evans, instead of her real name.  Why is that?  Is it part of Eliot's own conflict and desire to be a proper woman that continues to keep her work separate from Marian Evans?


While Gilbert and Gubar are arguing for a cross-Atlantic woman's tradition of writing, they focus mainly on British authors with the exception of Emily Dickinson.  Still, they use American women writers throughout the different chapters to show similarities and parallels and to add to their discussions.  It was kind of interesting to hear about writings by Harriet Beecher Stowe that weren't Uncle Tom's Cabin (I hated that book).  There was one comment in their discussion of Uncle Tom's Cabin that bugged me, though: "the black woman dressed in white also illustrates the bond between all women who are enslaved by what Stowe has depicted as an overwhelmingly patriarchal slave economy" (534).  I just have a problem with the statement about how all women shared some type of bond within the slave system because as several books since have argued, there is no universal female experience.  White women in the slave system and black women in the slave system were not united in their misery, and in fact, white women participated in the system of oppression, directly and indirectly.  Obviously, white women didn't have much power compared to white men, but they had power over black men and women so the idea of a bond is a romantic and false idea of sisterhood.


I have a few other minor problems with the book.  As mentioned above, it could be more concise and still make the same point.  In some cases, Gilbert and Gubar assume too much of a familiarity on the part of the readers with 19th century literature.  For example, at one point they were referring to a few characters in passing, and I had no clue who they were talking to or what novel they came from, such as Lucy Gray and Geraldine (I was wondering if they were talking about a Charlotte Smith novel, but it didn't quite fit into the context).  Sometimes, these questions are cleared up in later chapters when they say Wordsworth's Lucy, and Coleridge's Geraldine, so part of the problem may also be that they didn't write the chapters in chronological order, and therefore didn't realize that they hadn't actually mentioned that text or character before.  Also, when they discussed Austen, I couldn't quite remember which minor character went with which novel when they were all quickly listed.  Other than that, my only other real issue is that there is no bibliography.  They have quite a few footnotes, but I still would have liked to see a complete bibliography in addition to the footnotes to see exactly what texts they used without having to search through all their notes.


After completing this book, I'm kind of thinking I need to give both the Brontës another shot because I've never been a big fan of either. I already ordered Villette so we'll see if that helps me share the love that Gilbert and Gubar obviously feel for Charlotte Brontë's work.

Future Home and Living

I saw this linked on the blog 50 Books and all I can say is, "I want." (Does it reveal just how nerdy I am that my goal in life is to have a library in my house/apartment? Not the apartment I have now though; I realize the need for a guest room. And maybe a bar - that would be pretty nice, too.)

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Book: Half of a Yellow Sun

I picked this up at the airport in London last summer as part of a "3-for" deal.  I'd never heard of the author before but both of her novels sounded interesting.  I picked this one because the description of the other one talked about family secrets, and I felt like I'd read a lot of those types of stories recently, and figured I should switch it up.  As it turns out, I should have picked up both of them even though I didn't know the author and skipped out on A Spot of Bother (I just couldn't get into it - might have been the environment I was reading it in, too).


The novel takes place in '60s Nigeria - it is broken down into four basic parts that alternate between the early '60s and the late '60s. The second time Adichie returns to the early '60s she fills in a few gaps about how everyone's lives developed, and there are a few minor surprises given the hints and circumstances that she described in her first section occurring in the late '60s.  It is told from the perspective of three characters, Ugwu, Olanna and Richard.  I enjoyed the parts focusing on Ugwu, a village boy that becomes the house servant of a professor, and Olanna, the professor's lover who comes from a privileged background.  I found Richard, the white man who comes to Nigeria and stays the most boring of the characters, though still well developed.  He is in love with Olanna's twin sister, but despite their relationship and his love for Nigeria, he is always aware of his status as an outsider.  Compared to the other whites in the novel, he is much more genuine and interested in the culture of Nigeria, but he still accidentally makes statements that are easily misunderstood.  I guess the reason I liked him the least is that I felt like I'd seen his type of character before in other novels about other countries - the white, British guy who assimilates to a post-colonial country, and even though this is a different country, his problems and attitudes were basically the same as in other novels.  I didn't dislike him, but I guess he seemed the most derivative.  Not that the other characters were exactly original, either, but they worked for me more, for some reason.
Adichie describes the ethnic violence and tensions that followed two different military coups.  Olanna, Ugwu and their families are Igbos against whom much of the violence was directed.  As a result of the tension, the eastern part of Nigeria, which was predominantly Igbo, seceded and became the independent country Biafra, though after an unsuccessful war, the east returned to Nigeria.  Adichie talks about the effect the war had on the day to day life of her characters, the fear, the deprivation, and life as a refugee/displaced person.  As she notes in the afterword, some of her family members had fought for Biafra so she grew up with their stories.


The novel was very well plotted, and showed me just how little I know of African history.  For some reason I thought that Nigeria had one of the calmer histories of the different African countries but this obviously proved me wrong.  I really need to start paying more attention to contemporary history and the news.

Blues Legacies and Black Feminism

Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday by Angela Davis

I picked this up because I liked Angela Davis's Women, Race and Class, and though I don't actually listen to blues or jazz, the whole culture behind the music sounds appealing (after all, Billie Holiday and other musicians have become cultural icons; also, I used to watch VH1 Behind the Music marathons, usually leading me to buy classic rock CDs that I didn't listen to). Davis focuses on Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday as representatives of the blues tradition. While Holiday sang jazz rather than blues, Davis argues that Holiday's musical tradition sprang and resulted from blues. This is not a work of biography by any means, but some of Davis's brief references to the artists' lives certainly seem like a biography of these women would be worth reading as well. Davis at no point tries to prove or state that these women were feminists but instead she analyzes their work, looking at the lyrics themselves as well as listening to the delivery. This works best for Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. While there are cases where she refers to the tone of voice and sarcasm in these two womens' songs, for the most part, the lyrics themselves support Davis's arguments. When it comes to Billie Holiday, however, Davis argues that her lyrics are not important since most of her songs were cookie cutter songs that others chose for her, and Holiday then used her own interpretation to subvert their meaning. The argument itself is sound and convincing, but I am not very familiar with Holiday's work, so I can't judge how accurate it is because I haven't heard the songs. That was my major problem with the Holiday section - due to my own unfamiliarity with the source material, I had to take Davis's word with a grain of salt.

I actually felt that this book was a good follow up to Reconstructing Womanhood. While Carby dealt with the African-American woman novelist, and the more middle class perspective, the blues tradition was the working class side of things. Even though Carby ends her analysis with the Harlem Renaissance, and Davis basically focuses on the '20s and '30s, they still complimented each other rather well. For example, Davis talks about how many of the leading middle class blacks of the Harlem Renaissance preferred the more European sounding Ethel Waters to Bessie Smith (Carby also referred to issue that blacks were copying whites to an extent while simultaneously creating their own culture in her book), and in fact, Bessie Smith couldn't even get a record deal with a newly created black label. This also relates to another argument that Davis refutes in her book: many previous critiques have stated that Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were not very politically conscious. As Davis argues, there are in fact anecdotes about their shows in which these women do speak out against racism, and that the existing records are not necessarily representative of their body of work as a whole. After all, these were black women being released by a white label dominated by men - of course, that is going to limit what they actually put on record vs. what they perform at their live shows. Additionally, Davis points to two protest songs in Smith's collection, and also says that her audience may very well have seen different meanings in them than the white label owners (in other words, her black audience would have seen the reference to the white men keeping her down without her having to say "white men"), something that had been occurring even in slave music when the white owners thought their slaves were singing "nonsense" songs because they were happy when in fact these songs could be rather subversive.

Additionally, these blues women sung of domestic violence in their songs, and were among the first to speak out against it publicly rather than treating it as a private matter. Many of the heroes of their songs acted on their own behalf and displayed agency, and even though many of the songs were about love and men, the women weren't pining away. The blues women's mobile and active lives also served as an example to their audiences. While Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith may not have been feminists themselves, their actions showed women as agents of their own destinies. Another important point that Davis saw in the blues was women's sexual agency. While the middle class novelist were trying to prove that black women were just as pure as white women to the point of taking away all their sexual agency (and Davis argues that this, too, was important in its way), in blues, women spoke of their sexual desires and wants. I noticed that Davis seemed to use certain songs quite a bit to prove some of her different points, but for the most part, she made sure to use a variety of songs for her arguments and this showed that her conclusions and ideas applied to the body of these artists' works, and not just a few anomalies.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Starting Out in the Evening (the novel)

While reading one of Pajiba's discussions of films of 2007, they referenced Lauren Ambrose's performance in the movie Starting Out in the Evening. Lauren Ambrose portrayed Claire in Six Feet Under, so I figured that she would probably pick an interesting, character-driven film rather than a big blockbuster. As a result, I decided to give the book a try (I didn't actually see a review of the film online, so I'm not sure how recent it is).

The novel revolves around three characters. A young grad student, Heather (this is who Ambrose plays in the film) wants to write her thesis about an out-of-print author whose books she discovered as a teenager. She tracks Schiller, now an old man, down, and convinces him to talk to her, partially appealing to his vanity because Heather hopes that her thesis can be turned into a book, and eventually lead to a reprinting of his novels. Heather hopes to begin her career with this while Schiller dreams, though he knows how unlikely, that maybe he won't be forgotten. The third character is Schiller's daughter Ariel, who is nearing forty, and desperately wants to have a child. Her relationship with her father is the most stable and supportive one in her life, and while she worries about his health, he serves as her emotional rock, having already suffered through two breakdowns.

I loved all the name dropping in the book - Heather and Schiller both are avid readers, though I'm not a particular fan of either of their favorites (Henry James and D.H. Lawrence). Through Heather and Schiller, the author explores different literary worlds - the old professors whose heyday was in the '50s, and their careful analysis and reading (this is the category Schiller most fits into), book editors and their oh-so-hip but impersonal bookshelves, and the literary critics and editors of magazines which Heather considers joining.

The character interactions are interesting - Schiller and Ariel have a loving relationship, but they also have little in common with each other. Schiller is an intellectual, whose apartment is filled with bookshelves, while Ariel hasn't even read all of her father's books, and is more of a movie person. They both accept each other's differences, but Ariel notices the connection Heather and Schiller share due to their shared interests, and feels a little disconnected and critical of their relationship. Morton devotes different chapters to all three of these characters as well as one of Ariel's boyfriends later in the novel. I liked all the characters; obviously I understood Heather and Schiller's love of books well, and agree with Heather's assessment that "part of the joy of reading was talking about what you'd read" (118). I would say that Heather is much more ambitious and forceful than I am, though, so I didn't exactly see myself in her or anything. Ariel caused the most conflict in me: I liked and understood where she was coming from in her chapters but the way others described her made her seem different.

Of all the characters, there seemed to be the largest discrepancy between Ariel's view of herself and others view of her. It's not even that her perception of herself was that different; it's just that others focused on certain things that Ariel didn't always. Heather, for example, is rather critical of Ariel's appearance and dress, and honestly, when reading the descriptions, I, too, found myself asking, why would anyone in their right mind wear that? Her boyfriend thinks of her as a "child-woman," innocent and trusting. Her goal in life is to have a child, but she and those around her know that she wouldn't be able to handle single parenthood. When she moves back to New York to look after her father after his heart attack, she thinks taking care of him will be a good distraction though he ends up taking care of her. Ariel is aware of her weaknesses (except when it comes to fashion), but others description of her make her seem even simpler than she is - though these characters think of it as a good thing (her ability to enjoy the simple things in life). She also has perhaps the most difficult decision left to make by the end of the novel, though the novel ends before she actually makes herself face it - since having a child has been one of her driving goals, she needs to determine whether to continue to look for a man who can give her that, though it may never happen, or give up that dream. Since I don't want children, the choice seems obvious to me, especially given the character's unwillingness to be a single mother, but that's me.

I'm kind of curious to see what the movie adaptation is like but given where I am, I'll probably have to wait another year (at least that gives me time to forget the minor details, and therefore not be too disappointed when they cut scenes or parts).

Reconstructing Womanhood

Like Angela Davis's Women, Race and Class, Reconstructing Womanhood was originally part of an assigment in a college class. In the beginning, Hazel Carby discusses white feminist critics' ignoral of texts by black women. She also argues that in many cases half the discussion is always missing when analyzing black women characters or authors because the feminist critics make everything about gender, while the African-American Studies scholars focused on race rather than discussing how the two interact and how both of those aspects affect the work, and the characters within the work (the book was originally published in 1987, so since Carby wrote this, some of the novels she uses have gained more attention, and people have spent more time on the interaction of race and gender rather than just one or the other).

Carby discusses a series of black women novelist beginning from the pre-Civil War era through to the Harlem Renassaince. One of the reasons she chose this topic is because many important activists felt that the novel and fiction were the best ways to reach and influence people (Frances Harper and Pauline Hopkins being two of these). Carby has a few chapters that focus more specifically on the authors and their narratives, but she also intersperses chapters that explain the more general historical and political influences. She also includes a bibliography of works by African American women writers, and between her discussion/allusion to some works and this bibliography, I added a few more books to my wishlist.

I enjoyed re-reading the chapters on Pauline Hopkins (I didn't remember much of the chapters from before, but I still remembered the major plot points of the three novels I had read). I also really liked the discussion of Nella Larsen's Quicksand. I've read Passing but unfortunately, my college bookstore hadn't had the edition with both novellas in it, so I never read the other one. I think that might change now. As Carby describes it, the protagonist feels conflicted almost the whole time due to her race, her gender and her class. Quicksand's main character was critical of the black middle class, and felt that while critical of whites, they were also copying them. This critique of the Harlem Renasaince has been made elsewhere as well. Carby felt that "contemporary feminist historiography" needed to take a more critical look at "the different ways in which racist ideologies have been constructed and made operative under different historical conditions" (18). She succeeds in doing this herself in her book by looking at a variety of texts, some of which were more overlooked, and analyzing the different ways in which African American women confronted the dominant ideology of true womanhood and race.


I tend to stick to slightly more recent novels, but every once and a while, I'll venture into the classics. I usually like them, but I also prefer reading them in class because it helps to have teachers explain the historical context. For example, I didn't like Richardson's Pamela for a variety of reasons but if I had read it on my own, I probably would have just given up. Since I read it for class, our professor helped to point out certain things about the text, and actually made the experience better (it's definitely one of those novels I love to bitch about).

Anyway, we also read Aphra Behn and Eliza Haywood in that same class as well as Jane Austen (it was 18th century literature) but though I'd heard the name, we didn't read anything by Frances Burney. I recently finished Evelina, and I enjoyed it a lot. She didn't have the same obsession with sexual purity as Richardson, though certain scenes in the novel show that it still had a very important role in determining women's behavior. When I was looking at Burney on Amazon, I noticed many of the reviewers made comments like "if you like Jane Austen, . . ." while others felt that Austen was clearly superior. I think it's interesting that given that there were several other authors at the time, the immediate focus is to compare the two female novelists who weren't even quite contemporaries (of course, I wrote a paper arguing for a distinct genre of women's literature for that 18th century lit class so I shouldn't comment) - Burney was only twenty years or so before Austen, but that can still be a difference in literary movements - after all, would anyone really compare the Beats and Hemingway? Obviously, Hemingway was still a productive writer then, but he does tend to get grouped in with the expatriates. In fact, Burney is cited as an influence on Austen yet Austen is the much more famous and well-known of the two. Of course, it probably helps that Austen has some shorter novels - Evelina was about the same length as your average Austen, but the other ones I was looking at on Amazon last night were about twice the length.

I have to admit, Burney does fit in well between Behn, Haywood and Austen, though. Behn and Haywood both were more involved with the theater, and while Burney had an interest in theater, and even wrote a few plays, she stuck to the slightly more respectable genre of the novel. Her writing style reflects this because it seems like it would be rather easy to transition many of her scenes to the stage, while Austen has more pages with little action. Similar to Austen, she uses her literature to critique certain traditions, people and attitudes. She combines the theatrics of Behn and Haywood with the developed characters and social criticism of Austen, so it makes sense that she would be in the middle of these authors, especially looking at it purely from a history of woman novelists (not to say that Behn and Haywood didn't critique their society). To be honest, I find the few novels I've read by men of that time rather boring - Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, Joseph Andrews so I guess I fall into the same trap as other Amazon users mentioned above.

As far as the actual novel, I made sure to buy the Oxford World Classic's edition, since I like their footnotes, and I think they usually pick informative, accessible introductary essays. Evelina is the story of a young woman from the country who is the illegimate daughter of a rich baronet. At the outset of the novel, she has never met her father or been acknowledged by him, but some rich friends of her patron decide to take her to London for the first time. Burney uses Evelina to introduce different settings and social circles in London as well as discuss different types of high and low culture. In some cases, Evelina seems rather snobbish, especially towards her cousins who are middle class, and don't share the same types of social sensiblities and sensitivites as Evelina. However, their behavior is rather overbearing as is her grandmother's so it is mostly understandable. As the heroine, Evelina is of course beautiful and intelligent, but there were about five different guys after her throughout the novel so that was a bit over the top. Of course, her suitors presented several social and economic classes so it allowed Burney to critique and poke fun at a variety of mindsets. As in most 18th and even 19th century literature, when seen through a 21st century lense, some of the things that were so important then seem rather repressive and minor, but Burney appears have had a similar opinion. I liked Burney's style, and her satirical and critical view of the events, as well as the fact that she didn't get too sentimental or spend the whole time worrying about her characters purity and the sexual dangers she faced (Pamela!). In fact, I enjoyed the novel enough to give Burney another go, and ordered another of her novels last night (in addition to about nine other books, so we'll see when I actually get around to her).