Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Beginner's Guide to Feminism

28. Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks

As part of my attempt to fill in the gaps of my education and become a better and better-informed person, I asked a friend to recommend me some books on feminism. She kindly lent me this book and recommended it as the best introductory guide to feminism that she knew of. While I consider myself a feminist in that I support equal rights for women, I admit to knowing next to nothing about the historical and present feminist movement, and I want that to change. I found hooks' book to be a helpful starting point as well as a trigger for starting to change the ways that I think.

hooks defines feminism as "a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression." This is not a definition I had heard before, though it certainly makes sense to me. This definition forms the core of the book and what hooks believes feminism is and should be. She focuses on feminist movement to end sexism in education of males and females, in the workplace, in the home, in the world and especially within ourselves. I agree with her thesis that a paradigm of patriarchy, in her words "white supremacist capitalist patriarchy," persists in our society and I agree with her assertion that it is responsible for domestic violence, including that of women against children, eating disorders and female obsession with appearance, violence on our streets, and various other social ills. To be clear, I do not consider myself an enemy of capitalism, although I assume that hooks does and although she does not explicitly state it, from her views in the book, I gather that she is socialist.

I found this book helpful because it covers the most important issues of feminism (reproductive rights, education, class divisions, race divisions, parenting, women at work, violence) and provides a historical perspective and visionary ideal. While I enjoyed most of hooks' proposed ideal feminist solutions to problems (and she does not have solutions for every problem nor complete solutions for any, as is only reasonable), I was not sure whether to attribute these ideas to hooks or to a platform that the majority of feminists, or those whom hooks considers feminists, have agreed to. Since this is supposed to be an introductory guide, it might be safe to assume the latter, but I intend to do more research into the topic in any case. hooks by no means exhausts any of these topics nor does she cover them in extensive detail, but again this makes sense, as it is intended to be a beginner's guide.

hooks does repeatedly malign those whom she calls "reformist" feminists in favor of "revolutionary" feminists, among whom she counts herself, and she also criticizes women who are sexist and in particular class-privileged white women who call themselves feminists, but do not think or act in ways that hooks considers feminist. While I think that hooks makes an excellent case for "revolutionary" feminists being preferable, I tend to think that excluding or chastising women who do consider themselves feminists is counterproductive. However, this is because I myself am probably more "reformist" in nature, in that I tend to want to be inclusive and work within the system. I fear that hooks would not consider me a feminist, as I have never been active in the movement.

hooks posits feminism as the end to all world ills. I disagree that feminism is the end-all and be-all that hooks thinks, but certainly it could be. I just think that there could be many routes to the same ideal solution, a world where men, women, and children do not exist in a paradigm that is focused on power and domination, but instead one focused on mutual learning and benefits. Ending sexism will come when world hunger ends, when the economic and political systems are perfected, when people are willing and motivated to work together and help each other. hooks' feminism is one framework that works toward that goal.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Trip to the Library

I took a trip to the library today and took out a few books. I was in a non-fiction, self-improvement mood, but I didn't want to be too ambitious either, so my selections may seem a little incongruous:

The Origin of Species is on my "Reading to Continue Learning" list, and I hope to continue through more recent research, but I wanted to start with the basics.

Jonathan Safran Foer is one of my favorite authors, so I was bitterly disappointed when I learned that his new book was non-fiction. I've already read Fast Food Nation, so I figured this would be redundant, but I was thumbing through in the library and it captured my interest.

Gay Gavriel Kay is another one of my favorite authors, and I thought I deserved a nice fictional break after the more didactic tomes above!

I restricted myself to just three, so hopefully I'll read these quickly and let you know what I think. Happy Memorial Day weekend!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

27. The Believers by Zoe Heller

The Believers has been on my TBR list since I read this detailed review. To be honest, I'm not really sure how I feel about it, after looking forward to it for so long.

The novel tells the story of a Socialist family in New York after the famous lawyer father, Joel Litvinoff has a stroke. I especially enjoyed the mother Audrey, who is, as Myers says, "perhaps the most memorable and perfectly realized bitch in fiction." She's cruel, unyielding, tactless-and familiar. This particular breed of cruelty reminds me of matriarchal figures both from fiction and real life, women whose survival strategy is to insist on having everything on their own terms, screw everyone else, especially their children. We get glimpses into her humanity when her oldest daughter Karla remembers her mother once showing her a picture of herself as a fat child and confessing that Karla got her tendency toward obesity from her. Audrey continually harps on Karla's weight, but Karla realizes that only her mother notices, because only her mother cares. The novel follows Audrey, Karla, and the next daughter Rosa. There is also an adopted son, Lenny.

Rosa is in the midst of a religious experience, she walked into an Orthodox synagogue, and after years of religious Leftism, felt a spark. The story feels an oddly backwards one for this day and age, someone escaping the folds of organized religion might seem more timely. In any case, Rosa's transformation is distinctly not overnight. I found Heller's portrayal of her reactions to Orthodoxy, feelings of isolation in a new environment and feminist rage at the laws of the mikveh, realistic. As Rosa is urged by her new friends to accept and to act without understanding, I was brought back to lessons from my own (Jewish) religious education and began wondering again. Heller does not make her Believers simple or naive or unsympathetic. Audrey, for example, is a Socialist fanatic, but it's amazing to watch her confidence in her own opinion. As the novel attests, she is not incapable of change either.

One of my favorite characters was a non PoV character, Audrey's friend Jean. Jean is described as tall and mannish, she's wealthier than Audrey and of more moderate political opinions. While Audrey attempts to woo favors from her (employing her druggie son), blows up at her, accuses her of undermining her, Jean puts up with her friend's behavior calmly, gives her good advice, continues to invite her out. I found myself identifying with Jean, I have often been in her position, and I also have friends who have held Jean's position for me. I can see why Audrey is fun to have around, and while she may be too much for me in person, I enjoyed Jean's ability to handle her.

I didn't find The Believers particularly ironic or satirical nor a sharp social commentary. For me, it was an exploration of how families interact and the thought process of people who believe in causes and higher purposes. But reactions to a book can be very personal and I suspect mine only penetrated a part of this one, as I'm just not seeing here what others have.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

26. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick is another one of those SFF authors that I've been meaning to get to for a while. My boyfriend read this one first, and would not deviate from his one-word description of it as "weird." It was recommended to us by a man at the information desk at our local Barnes&Noble when we had a Groupon and asked him to suggest SFF classics. The Man in the High Castle is better classed as alternative history, but I don't doubt it's a classic and it is a winner of the Hugo award.

Germany and Japan won World War II. A terrifying prospect, as is a book written entirely without articles. I am not sure if this is completely true, but it is at least lacking articles most of the time. As a former (and possibly future) ESL tutor, primarily for Japanese and Korean clients, lack of articles is not as scary or baffling to me as it might be for some people. I think Dick makes an interesting statement by having English re-written essentially in terms of Japanese. When he writes from the viewpoint of the main Japanese character, Mr. Tagomi, also my favorite character in the book, he creates a whole new language through writing in English as I have heard educated Japanese speak it, showing off an extensive vocabulary, inverting and adapting word meanings, and creating new, oddly appropriate phrases. He illustrates how even language bows to the political, how who is in power shapes the fabric of the world.

The Germans and Japanese have divided the world between them; Europe, Russia, and the East Coast belonging to the Germans, Asia, the Pacific Islands, and the West Coast belonging to the Japanese. In between, the Rocky Mountain States hold on to a hazy American way of life, but also serve as a buffer zone between the Germans and Japanese. In German territory, Jews and other undesirables including blacks are gassed, and society is stratified according to ethnicity. Genocide is committed against virtually all of Africa. The Japanese society is also stratified according to ethnicity and class, but there are no concentration camps. Most of the book takes place in San Francisco, where the Japanese are the dominant ruling class. Naturally, Germany schemes to overthrow Japan and at last complete domination of the world, though they are thrown into chaos upon the death of their leader Herr Bormann, until Dr. Goebbels emerges on top. Our protagonists are Mr. Tagomi ("a high official on the Trade Commission of the Pacific Coast"), Frank Frink (a hidden Jew living in SF), Juliana Frink (Frank's estranged wife, living in the Rocky Mountain States), Mr. Baynes (the alias of a member of the German Resistance, the Abwehr), and Mr. Childan (owner of American Handcrafts Inc., dealer in historical Americana, a collectors' hobby among wealthy Japanese). The eponymous Man in the High Castle is Hawthorne Abendsen, author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a novel about what would have happened if the Allies had won the war.

There are a number of clever elements to this book, I've already mentioned the language, but also clearly the device of creating a parallel for the author and the book, that interestingly enough, does not correspond to our history. There's a quote on the back from Ursula K. Le Guin that names Dick "our own homegrown Borges." Without going quite that far, I can see the connection. Like Borges, Dick comments on the nature of fiction and reality, all possibilities are simultaneous, all our selves and our histories could be written a million different ways. Dick also seems to suggest that certain occurrences are simply a result of human nature, as long as we continue, so will conflict and hope and change and deviation.

So, do I think this book was weird? Yes, if you're not used to reading this type of book. Do I think it's worth reading? Yes. Do I think it's an absolute, will-change-your-life must read? Maybe, maybe not. It wasn't for me, but I would definitely be willing to read more Philip K. Dick based on this book.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Historical or Fictional Protagonists

Yesterday, I wrote in my review of Gloriana's Torch, "I think fictional protagonists are one of the more successful strategies for grounding a novel in a historical period."

I would like to expound on why I have found this to be so.

1) The reader has no expectations for the fictional character. Therefore, the author is free to characterize him or her as he or he chooses, without falling into the snare of contradicting the personalities of historical characters or running up against readers' preconceived notions of them.

2) The author can place a fictional character in any life situation or historical event that is convenient for the author's purposes and there is no historical contradiction.

3) A fictional character can have more in common and more appeal to the modern reader than a historical character might. For example, a fictional character could have anachronistic opinions about women's rights or minority rights without causing contradiction with a historical character (if the author is careful not to be TOO anachronistic)and therefore be more in tune with the average modern reader's sympathies.

What do you think? Do you prefer historical or fictional protagonists for historical fiction? A mix of both?

Monday, May 23, 2011

25. Gloriana's Torch by Patricia Finney

If ever there were a title and cover calculated to catch my eye, this was it. A close-up variation on the Armada Portrait and the title in a large font jumped out at me from the shelves of the library in the small town where I'm staying. As it turns out, this is the third book of a series set in Elizabethan England, a series breaking the genre barrier between mainstream historical fiction and the alternative history that's generally classed with SFF.

Finney's protagonists, David Becket and Simon Ames/Anriques, spies for Walsingham, and Merula, an African woman who I believe appears first in this novel, are fictional. I think fictional protagonists are one of the more successful strategies for grounding a novel in a historical period, and Finney uses it to advantage. She also portrays historical figures like Walsingham, Burghley, Leicester, Raleigh, Robert Cecil, and Elizabeth I. However, it is the unique viewpoint of her fictional characters, from their varied positions in life, that make the historical characters come alive. Who was Elizabeth in relation to those who worked for her? How might a woman from a completely different culture perceive her? There are the angles Finney explores, avenues that we can't follow historically, that might not even have occurred in history, but shed light still on ideas we have about who these people were.

The arrival of the Spanish Armada in England is imminent, but no one knows exactly when or where it will arrive. Rumors have come in about a "Miracle of Beauty," a secret plan or weapon that will bring the English to their knees. Simon Anriques, also known as Ames, and his wife Rebecca embark on a slaving ship to Africa and then New Spain, to exchange slaves for a sweeter cargo, sugar. All this is a cover for Simon's attempt to get in touch with his brother, who poses as a Spanish clerk, and decipher the message that the royal court eagerly awaits. Instead, Simon is apprehended and subjected to the Inquisition, ultimately convicted as a Jew. Rebecca escapes, along with their new African slave Merula, who has a mission of her own, to find her son. Simon winds up a galley slave in the new Armada, along with Merula's son Snake. Meanwhile, David Becket, Simon's colleague and friend, is assigned a dangerous mission that will lead him to Spain to try to find out what Simon was captured doing and rescue Simon if he can. He is followed by Rebecca and Merula, both determined to find their men.

Becket also has dream sequences, some as himself and some as the Queen, where he envisions a post-Spanish invasion England, where London burns and Walter Raleigh marries his Warrior Queen. I found myself wishing there were more of these sequences, and while I admire Finney's embedding them into the story, I almost wished those were the story instead. But the duality of the historical events unfolding along with the alternative history allows the reader to experience viscerally how different history could have been and reflect that, in the fictional realm, both series of events are equally valid. This book is truly a feat of imagination, Finney admits in her Author's Note that she had to invent many of the details of the life of a galley slave, which by the way feel horrifyingly realistic. She imagines cross-cultural interactions that may or may not have occurred, with Merula who is immersed in a strange spirit-oriented African culture, and a one-time POV character, Suleiman, a captured Turk turned galley slavemaster, but bring weird and wonderful perspectives to Anglo-Saxon Elizabethan England.

Finney's message is overtly modern, though rooted in a historical period, it speaks of clashing cultures and religions, human curiosity about the other, and the strange permutations of human love. This book is written in a style more common to fantasy and science fiction, with multiple viewpoints and meta-commentary, but it's also somehow the most appropriate, wide-ranging, and original tableau of the sixteenth century that I've read in recent memory. Warmly recommended to fans of historical fiction, science fiction, and yes, literature.

Monday, May 16, 2011

24. The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory

For a long while, I considered myself an avid Philippa Gregory fan. The Other Boleyn Girl is one of my favorite books and I also loved The Queen's Fool and The Virgin's Lover, both of which I analyzed for a thesis-type project my senior year in high school on portrayals of Elizabeth I in fiction. Then I read The Boleyn Inheritance. The concept was very interesting, a novel told from three points of view; those of Jane Boleyn or Lady Rochford, Anne of Cleves, and Katherine Howard. Somehow, this structure didn't do it for me, the characters seemed more stereotypical and less realistic, I didn't like the constant skipping between views, and I just didn't feel that it provided much insight into these three women, except for maybe Katherine Howard. That turned me off Gregory for a long time, until now.

I originally planned to read this book as part of my directed study on early modern women writers and the portrayal of early modern women in later fiction. I picked this book because it looks at two important early modern women; Mary Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick, during the early years of Mary's imprisonment in England, when Bess and her husband George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, served as her guardians. While Elizabeth I is not a point of view character, we hear the other characters' opinions of her and we do see conversations between her and the Earl of Shrewsbury. Since this book was organized like The Boleyn Inheritance, told from the points of view of Bess, George, and Mary,I was nervous how I would feel about that. Especially at the beginning, the brevity of each section and the repetition of characters' thoughts to establish their stereotypes grated on me.I did feel that this structure was more useful to this book, because each character was privy to different information and had different past and present experiences that came together to present a more nuanced portrait of what life was actually like during this time period in England and particularly in the Talbot household.

I do think Gregory did a good job of getting into the mindset of the period and particularly creating a sense of urgency around events that are already determined for the reader. Gregory reminds us that the Norfolk rebellion was by no means a small threat and could easily have changed the entire course of history. She also states in her Author's Note that the "principal difference between [Mary] and her successful cousin Elizabeth was good advisors and good luck, not-as the traditional history suggests-one woman who ruled with her head and the other who was dominated by her heart." In this, I think Gregory succeeds and her Mary is clever and calculating, far from a slave to her passions, she uses men's attraction to her to achieve her own ends, not that differently than Elizabeth, actually. This is a difference from other portrayals I have seen of Mary, Schilller's Mary, for example, is intellectual, but motivated by her desires and her faith. Gregory's Mary is motivated by a sense of entitlement, her proper place in the world, that the Catholic Church supports.

One of Gregory's sources is Alison Weir's Mary Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley , which comes to some hard conclusions that do not go hand in hand with the romantic fictions around Mary. I am very intrigued by Gregory's choices in this regard, as she seems to reach a sort of middle ground between the romance and Weir's hard facts that, in my opinion, has some psychological truth to it. Weir concludes that Bothwell did kidnap and rape Mary against her will, and she agreed to cover it up in marriage due to pregnancy. Gregory extends that into a desire to maintain the mythos of the queen's sacred person, with which her fictional Mary is very concerned, and also creates a complicated reliance of Mary on Bothwell. She continually writes to him for help, though she implies to others that he raped her and their marriage is not valid. She seems to have developed a dependence on and respect for him, while recognizing that he is a criminal. Gregory also has Bothwell give Mary the bond where the lords signed the agreement to Darnley's murder, asserted by Weir as a historical probability. While Weir told us what happened, Gregory brings in the human element, and delightfully complicates it more than my imagination did.

The portrayal of George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, I also really appreciated. It would have been easy to present him as a fool, as indeed his wife Bess comes to think of him. But in including George's perspective, Gregory adds, besides various scenes at court and trial that the women could never have witnessed, a portrayal of a truly honorable man who is nevertheless not lacking in sense or feeling. While George behaves naively in the beginning, he makes realizations on his own and we come to see his perspective as an "old lord" as legitimate and we can sympathize with him as both Bess and Mary betray him to save themselves. I don't think the Earl of Shrewsbury has been shown in quite this light before, and I am very grateful for it, because the historical perspective of him as an old fool and yet valued advisor to Elizabeth I do not quite mesh.

I had issues with this novel in terms of language. Obviously, it is written in the modern vernacular and I don't have a problem with that per se, except when it comes to specific phrases or word usages that jump out at me as not being current to the time period, such as "stuff". Also, I felt that some character aspects, particularly in Bess, were glossed over. Gregory makes a big deal about Bess' emotional and psychological investment in her homes and properties, certainly realistic, but the last section is from Bess' PoV and includes only one sentence on the loss of the house she has cared so much for throughout the book. She does detail her new house in Hardwick though. It's just a big jump in time and I suppose it's hard to show how a character changes or stays the same over that period, but Bess' sudden forgiveness of George and Mary and lack of concern over that house didn't seem entirely consistent with her character.

I definitely plan on using and comparing analyses of The Other Queen for my ongoing academic interest in early modern women.

What Do You Do With a BA in English?

I am a college graduate!

I felt proud to hold my degree in my hands and I barely want to let it out of my sight.

That said, I've been a college graduate for over a week now and am officially unemployed. In the meantime, I'm applying to jobs and studying for the GREs (in case I want to go to grad school, haven't decided yet but leaning in that direction) and contemplating some changes to the blog. I'll probably be changing things around soon, and hopefully things will get more interesting and generate more traffic.

Stay tuned!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Eddings Mania

22. Guardians of the West by David Eddings
23. Polgara the Sorceress by David and Leigh Eddings

I decided to extend my Eddings kick and raided my university library accordingly. I graduate in a few days, so it feels like my last chance to get the most out of the library resources. In reality, I will still be able to check out books after graduation, though using a more cumbersome system, but my access to certain subscriptions (notably JSTOR) will cease, which will make me very sad.

In any case, Guardians of the West is the first book of the Malloreon, and I was at first pleasantly surprised to discover that it simply takes up where the Belgariad left off. In retrospect, this may not have been the best idea. The first three quarters of the book or so are basically recountings of events that happen over a number of years, so it misses the immediacy of the earlier books. It's great to see what happens to the characters, and the best part about it is the banter between characters that we already know and love, but the book begins to feel like an epilogue that's overstayed its welcome. Of course, these seemingly beside-the-point events do come together to form a plot in the last quarter of the book. We see the beginning of a new quest and our beloved characters get back into action once more. If I had been reading this together with subsequent books following after, I might not have noticed the length of the build-up as much. Since the rest of the series was unfortunately not in the library, I had to read this book on its own merits. I still look forward to the rest of the series, when I can get my hands on it, and I'm sure the payoff will be great.

I had different expectations for Polgara the Sorceress as it is literally the backstory of one character. I expected it to be a description of events over a number of years (Polgara the Sorceress lives for millenia), and in this case, Eddings actually had more plot and action than I anticipated. The series of events that occur the reader already knows as legends from earlier books, but here we see it fleshed out, from Polgara's point of view. Finally, the hinted-at stories of her time in Vo Wacune, Arendia, how she became the Duchess of Erat, and why she allowed herself to be sold as a Nadrak woman. We see how her prejudices, opinions, and habits are shaped over time, how she deals with the great secret that her mother is still alive and keeps it from her father for thousands of years, and her little jarring asides at the characters we know in "the present time," sometimes as she mocks their ancestors. Eddings made all these events and the woman who shaped and was shaped by them incredibly realistic, we feel her pains, her anger, and constant sense of duty as well as her capricious and flirtatious side. Since this is one of the last books Eddings, or, I should say, the Eddings, wrote, there were some spoilers for the books that I haven't read yet, but it's not like they weren't things I hadn't guessed, the true pleasure of these books is in the details.