Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Top Five Character Names I Love

Happy Top Ten Tuesday!

Top Five Character Names I Love

1. Christopher Carrion, Lord of Midnight from the Abarat books by Clive Barker

Doesn't it just roll off the tongue?

2. Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Besides the alliteration, "Raskolnikov" literally means schismatic, very appropriate for the character.

3. Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore from the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling

J.K. Rowling is a genius for names, but this is one of my favorites! (I think I'm noticing a trend...)

4. Dimple Lala from Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier

An unforgettable name!

5. Galadriel from the Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

The name is musical, light, and powerful all at once. Just saying it gives me a thrill.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Reformist vs. Revolutionary Feminism Revisited

28. Sexy Feminism by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong and Heather Wood Rudulph

A couple years ago, I wrote a post entitled Thoughts on Reformist vs. Revolutionary Feminism, based on bell hooks' Feminism Is for Everybody. Since then, it's been one of the most popular hits on the blog. It seems that a lot of people are wondering, what is the difference between reformist and revolutionary feminism?

I don't have all the answers or know all the history. But, in my understanding, "reformist feminism" aims to give women equal rights to men, as applied in Western democratic, capitalist societies. Reformist feminists are the advocates of equal pay and of more women in CEO positions and STEM fields. Sheryl Sandberg of Lean In and even Betty Friedan of The Feminine Mystique would be considered reformist feminists. these women are aiming to increase women's presence and power in the workforce, aiming to treat women exactly (or almost exactly, save the contentious motherhood issue) like men.

"Revolutionary feminists," as I understand it, have more radical aims. There are probably a wide variety of aims and not all revolutionary feminists (nor reformist feminists, for that matter) agree on what should be done or how. but the aims of revolutionary feminism include overturning current political and economic systems and instituting systems entirely free of hierarchy. The goal of revolutionary feminism is a world where everyone is truly treated as equals, even regardless of, say, willingness to work or raise families.

When I wrote that post two years ago, I considered myself more of a reformist. Now, I'm not so sure. I'm somewhere in between. Certainly, I don't advocate an immediate overthrow of the government. That would cause far too much chaos and bloodshed. Actually, any bloodshed is too much. But I've begun to think differently about the world since reading bell hooks' book.

That's a very long introduction to the place I was at when I picked up Sexy Feminism at the library. The book, which came out this year, is based on the authors' eponymous website, SexyFeminist.com. Judging from their book and the criteria above, I would classify Armstrong and Wood Rudulph as reformist feminists, but also people who are thinking carefully about what it means to live as a woman in our society.

Unlike hooks' book, which deals with issues from education to reproductive rights, Sexy Feminism tackles, for the most part, the small, everyday issues--waxing, makeup, dieting, and plastic surgery. To be honest, I didn't really relate to a lot of it, and I'm not sure if it's because I'm singularly unfocused on appearance or the authors' research is not as all-encompassing as they appear to think, but in any case, they presented a lot of interesting information on things that some women will do or feel they have to do, for the male gaze or for themselves. That, the authors seem to think, is the real feminist issue-are you doing it for men or doing it for yourself?

One part of the book I found valuable was their discussion of first, second, third, and fourth wave feminism. I didn't even know there was a fourth wave! Repeatedly, the issue of sex-positivism comes up, a sticky issue between second and third wavers. Second wavers, Gloria Steinem among them, think that all porn is anti-feminist, as is stripping and sex work. Third wavers believe in the right to "express their inner slut." Armstrong and Wood Rudulph take, I think, the thoughtful and logical position that, well, it depends.

You can't put on a micro-mini and fishnets and call it feminist. But it's not necessarily anti-feminist either. If that's what you want to wear, if you're doing it to assert your right to dress however you want, well and good. But if you're putting it on for a boyfriend and you don't really feel comfortable or if you think it's the only way you'll get hit on in the bar, well, stop, rethink. According to Sexy Feminism, women do all kinds of things from Brazilian waxes (described in graphic detail and they sound like torture, why would anyone do that, ever?) and nose jobs, because they think it's what men want.

I spoke with my friend about this and she and I agree, YOU DO NOT NEED TO DO ANYTHING SPECIAL TO FIND THE PARTNER THAT IS RIGHT FOR YOU. Armstrong and Wood Rudulph include a chapter on dating, and they compare two of the most influential dating books for women and for men, The Rules and The Game, respectively (I'm not linking because no one should read them). Their parody of the interaction between followers of both was pretty hilarious and telling; the two could never get together because neither would admit to liking each other nor would they agree to see each other at a time or place convenient for the other. The authors admit this, and I will too--these strategies can work. For tricking a man into dating or maybe even marrying you and for tricking a woman into bed. But guess what? These books assume that just anyone is good enough for you. You're better than that and you won't be happy for very long with someone that you don't really know or like, and who doesn't really know or like you. The best way to find a mate, if that's even what you're into? Find someone who likes your hobbies, who feels comfortable interacting at a level that you do. The girls who like to primp will end up with guys who appreciate it. The girls and guys who like to stay at home and watch movies will find each other. Feminist dating means breaking the rules. Armstrong and Wood Rudulph even progressively hint that you can have whatever kind of relationship is right for you, be it long-term monogamy or serial hook-ups. It's okay to go after what you want, but respect the other person enough to be upfront about it.

Armstrong and Wood Rudulph rely heavily on Gloria Steinem to speak for them, even to define feminism, which in her words is "the belief in the full social, economic, and political equality of women and men. I would just add 'and doing something about it.'" They take the last idea to heart in the last chapter, actually called an afterword, on activism and provide lists of activist opportunities. While useful, it's a relatively small portion of the book. They also refer frequently to Betty Friedan, who has been critiqued for identifying problems that were mostly only applicable to upper middle class white women. While Armstrong and Wood Rudulph, in fine twenty-first century fashion, give plenty of lip service support to homosexuality and transgender people, there's not a really full discussion of issues for them and some of the comments about dating "well, this doesn't really apply to lesbians" is frankly untrue. Hierarchical gender dynamics can still come into play in homosexual relationships (not that they do necessarily, but they can). Furthermore, there is very little mention of women of color and no discussion of particular issues or stereotypes they face. This is very much a book for straight, white, upper middle class women.

Then again, the book is not really anything less than it is trying to be. The authors admit to covering primarily appearance-related issues and to being straight, white suburban women themselves, so it is quite likely they know who their audience is. For information on the horrifying things that women will do for appearances and thought-provoking discussion of where feminism and sex positivism intersect, this is your book. Revolutionaries, look elsewhere.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Book Review: The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

27. The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

So with my two rather new jobs comes an awful lot of commuting. And what better way to pass the time than an audio book? Since I had such success with The Queen's Lover, I decided to pick up some more historical fiction, this time from an author I'm quite familiar with.

Philippa Gregory creates tension in the details. Most of her books deal with well-known events in British history, but she focuses in on minor characters and minor events that pack more unexpected dramatic punches. In The White Queen, the first person protagonist is Elizabeth Woodeville, a minor noblewoman who famously beguiled (some say bewitched) Edward IV into marrying her. What I didn't know was that Elizabeth was already widowed with two young sons when she married the king, making her conquest even more extraordinary. I know the broad outlines of the story, that Edward became king through conquest, and after some years of rule died, leaving behind two sons. Instead of his son inheriting the throne, his infamous brother Richard III usurped it. Richard III, of course, is most notorious for secretly killing the "princes in the tower," Edward and Elizabeth's two young sons. I expected this would form the central tragedy of the book, but then Gregory never makes the obvious choice in these cases.

I don't agree with all the choices that Gregory makes in her books or this one in particular, but I do respect her decision to focus on lesser known events, which prove more interesting for the reader (So interesting, in fact, that today I checked out Alison Weir's The Wars of the Roses, just to see how much of Gregory's story is fact vs. fiction). One of the choices Gregory makes in this book is to intermittently include the legend of Melassina, Elizabeth's supposed water goddess ancestress, who bequeaths "the Sight" to her female descendants. I don't know how I feel about this occult element blending into the historical. Witchcraft is viewed far too matter-of-factly among the characters. While it may be realistic that they would believe in witchcraft, it seems unrealistic that Elizabeth and her mother would practice so openly and her husband and his family be so unfazed. There are references to concerns that witches may be killed if found out, but these never come to serious fruition. The legend itself adds nothing to the story except an inept metaphor and the witchcraft just seems too easy an explanation for certain events, whereas it might have no effect on others. Plus the spells she, apparently successfully, performs make the protagonist appear quite cold-hearted, vindictive, and cruel.

Elizabeth Woodeville is not as endearing a protagonist as Mary Boleyn, Katherine of Aragon, or even Gregory's calculating portrayal of her great-granddaughter, Elizabeth I. Her character is uneven. At one moment, she likes her husband's brother Richard on sight, at another she cannot help but dislike him for no reason she can discern. She similarly takes immediate dislikes to Edward IV's closest friends and family, and turns them into her enemies even before they prove themselves so. Toward the end, her daughter Elizabeth, the future Elizabeth of York and mother of Henry VIII, accuses her of valuing the throne above the lives of her sons. According to Gregory, it's not an inaccurate portrait. The character is not unsympathetic, it's hard not to sympathize with a woman whose brothers and sons are killed or ripped away from her. But she is neither an easily relatable character nor a clearly defined one, and that is an unfortunate flaw in the book.

Gregory does much better with the minor characters in this novel though, and brings them to fascinating life. Elizabeth's brother Anthony is a "philosopher and a man of the world," and his advice and thoughts are some of the most thoughtful and valuable parts of the book. It may have benefited Gregory to use him as a second viewpoint character, which I think she needed in this book. She has Elizabeth frequently describe battles and scenes where she could never have been present, but Gregory feels they're essential, so in they go. Since Anthony was present at most of these events, he could have served as a second set of eyes.

I was also intrigued by Gregory's portrayal of Richard III. He is not a hunchback, merely smaller and darker than his brothers. His presence in scenes are curt and negligible for the majority of the book, but Gregory writes a compelling confrontation between him and Elizabeth toward the end of the book that left me wondering more about her interpretation of Richard. Who was he really and what were his real goals and feelings? And did he really murder those boys? Gregory comes out clearly on one side of the question, even though Elizabeth has room for doubt.

As usual, Gregory seizes on unlikely historical speculations and weaves them into her fiction as fact. Here, where there is so much incentive for a happy ending, I find it doesn't bother me as much. And then, Gregory lets history finish the book for her, ending before the decisive battle to which the later part of the book, or maybe the whole book, is leading up. That story is continued in The White Princess, though for now I've checked The Red Queen out as my next audio book.

Despite my issues with the book and the occasionally uneven narration, I would recommend this to anyone interested in the War of the Roses who would like an easy read. Gregory has a gift for bringing out the inherent sexiness of history.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Top Ten Books I Was "Forced" to Read

Happy Top Ten Tuesday!

Top Ten Books I Was "Forced" to Read

1. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

I must confess, it wasn't my idea to read these books; it was my dad's. He went on so much about how they were his favorite books as a kid and made such a point of telling me that he had his own copies available for me that I finally went ahead and read them. And now, his copies sit coolly on my shelves. For safekeeping.

2. The Source by James Michener

My grandfather took me to a bookstore once and told me I could have any book I wanted. Then he proceeded to steer me toward this one. He told me all about how much he had enjoyed it, and was so full of enthusiasm that I couldn't resist "choosing" it. I'm very glad I did, it remains one of the most interesting books I've ever read and I'm so glad I had the chance to talk with my grandfather about it.

3. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

My good friend got quite enthusiastic about this book and kept telling me to read it. Finally, she bought it for me for my birthday and I took the hint! Another one that I'm glad I read.

4. The Trixie Belden books

These books had belonged to my grandmother, and my mother hoped that I would enjoy them, as she did as a child. How could I refuse?

5. Dune by Frank Herbert

My friend at camp was reading this book and when she had finished, I was finished with all the books I could stuff into a sleeping bag (and still carry it), so we traded. I really have to thank her for starting me on this incredible journey, all thanks to the limited reading resources at our sleepaway camp!

6. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

I heard that Moby-Dick was the most boring book in the English language. That's a lie, from my perspective anyway. I was "forced" to read it for a twelfth grade English class, but I really ended up appreciating it and still think about it often.

7. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

So I was pretty terrified of Joyce, but I had to read this for class, and, thanks to my professor, I got through it all right!

8. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality by Sigmund Freud

I wasn't too fond of what I'd heard about Freud's work, it took a graduate level colloquium to get me to read him, and I'm glad I did. Whatever else, he is a remarkable thinker and writer.

Annnnd...that's all I can think of. The ones that went well, anyway.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Thief of War

Short Story # 7 Thief of War by Beth Bernobich
Publisher: Tor.com


Arbija, a daughter of the northern province Vesterlant, has traveled south in disguise, to steal the jewels of the king of the Erythandran Empire. Her family fears that the Empire seeks to conquer their lands, as they did to nearby provinces in earlier years. Our protagonist is part of a complicated scheme that involves enrolling in an ancient University and using magic to disguise her features, while pretending she is a novice in magical studies.

The scope and lore of this novella seem to extend far beyond its contents. The grand lineages, premise, and cast of characters, however, lead to an abrupt and disappointing end. I fervently hope this is only an excerpt from a novel, which I would line up to read! In the meantime, I hope Bernobich does not continue to disguise material of novel proportions in thin novellas!

Favorite Quotes:

"Beauty was one thing. Humor was far more seductive."