08
Mar
15

International Women’s Day Link Post

If you’ve been here before, you know I read a lot. I guess I average about a book a week, give or take, so that’s about a post here a week.

In the past I’ve done a pretty lousy job on being diverse on here, but in the past couple years, I’ve made an effort to include more, well, anything that isn’t written by a middle-aged white dude. I’d like to think there’s been some success on that front.

Since today is International Women’s Day, I thought I’d dig through the archives here and share some books by female authors I enjoyed and hope you do as well! Consider it part two of a post I did a while ago with a bunch of stuff that wasn’t on this blog (which you can read here).

Half-Blood Blues – Esi Edugyan
Part detective story and part historical novel, dabbling into seedy Berlin nightclubs and wartime Paris, with a cameo from Louis Armstrong, it’s also an extended mediation on the nature of music and art. Where does talent come from? Can it ever really vanish? And how far is too far in going to make sure it doesn’t slip away? 

The Penelopiad – Margaret Atwood
Atwood deftly takes apart Homer’s The Odyssey and refashions it as a story told from Penelope’s lonely point of view… In Atwood’s telling, Penelope is smart, tricky and witty. She’s dealt a poor hand, but makes what she can of it. Her father doesn’t care for her and tries to toss her into the ocean, while her Naiad mother is more interested in “playing tricks on clams.”

Cleopatra: A Life – Stacy Schiff
While some might object to the lengths Schiff goes to in calling out ancient sources and the leaps of faith she makes (there are a lot of holes in Cleopatra’s life, let alone her motivations), it helps cut through the noise and lets one of the most remarkable personalities of the ancient world come through. 

The Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor
These stories are powerful: when they hit, they hit you hard. Since I finished reading some of them earlier this summer, I’ve been thinking about them: the grandmother in The Life You Save Might Be Your Own; Tanner in Judgement Day; the Bible salesman in Good Country People. They’re all flawed people, sometimes racist, sometimes corrupt or vain and shallow. They’re southern grotesque, but not in the cartoonish way of Louis Nordan… And they all feel more real than anyone in, say, a David Foster Wallace story, where he telegraphs how he wants you to feel about his characters in a way that feels judging and arrogant.

Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self – Claire Tomalin
There’s a lot we don’t know about people of a much more recent vintage and I think it’s a testament to Tomalin’s researching abilities to form a narrative out of this spotty record. And she does a good job at pointing out the foibles of the man: he had his flaws, including a couple that’d probably land him in jail today.

White Girls: Lynn Lauber
It’s easy to compare this to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio because it takes a similar look at another Ohio town… But this book goes a little further into the thoughts and judgements of it’s citizens than Winesburg ever did. There’s the forgotten old women, complaining to anyone who’ll listen in a department store bathroom; the bar near the bowling alley where lonely people meet; the racism of the main character’s family, which is never especially overt but is always there just out of reach. Late in the book, Loretta’s brother starts talking about what calls a conservative view of race relations; he’s another casualty of the small-mindedness of this town.

Nevada – Imogen Binnie
It follows Maria Griffiths, a young trans woman living in New York. She has a crappy job at a bookstore, rides her bike everywhere and lives by a punker ethos; it’s no shocker she sings along to her Fugazi CDs. She’s carefully crafted a life for herself she thinks works, but finds herself almost going through the motions, like she’s playing a role. When she gets dumped and loses her job in quick succession, she goes on a journey across the US to try and figure shit out… It’s a funny novel, sure, but it’s also one with a sadness, too. Little lines here and there show the darkness lurking just behind Maria’s punker façade: parents who never want to see her again, a litany of messed up relationships, a miserable childhood and heavy substance abuse.

The American Way of Death – Jessica Mitford
Back in the 60s, Mitford wrote a book about the rise of the funeral industry and it’s many shady practices. They ranged from salespeople exploiting grieving families by price gouging to unnecessary practices like embalming or specialized clothing for the deceased. Her book caused an outpouring of letters and support – “it touched a sensitive nerve,” she writes here – but caused spasms of outrage from the community of funeral salespeople.

For Keeps – Pauline Kael
Similarly, taking her essays all in order lets you see how her judgment evolved, changed and focused over the years. For example, when she rips into “Full Metal Jacket,” it isn’t just a broadside against the movie, but a part of a long-running antagonistic relationship with Kubrick, who she feels lost himself when he moved to England and started taking himself too seriously. Or her long-running dislike for Clint Eastwood, where her arguments about violence in movies – particularly in how it rationalizes the violence viewers are supposed to embrace – sound as fresh as anything you’d read on AV Club, Grantland or New Yorker.

Complete Stories – Dorothy Parker
There is a certain sadness at work here, but it’s usually presented in a way that seems strangely modern: missed messages and mixed signals. Parker wrote in a time of rough phone connections and telegrams. People misunderstand a message on a bad connection or pretend they aren’t home – in a manner that echoes a broken relationship. I can’t say with certainly what Parker would’ve thought of Snapchat, Group DMs or subtweeting, but I imagine it would’ve been a lot like what she wrote nearly 90 years ago.

 

Appendix: Some translations of ancient writers by female scholars: 

The Song of Roland – Dorothy Sayers
Livy: The Rise of Rome – Betty Radice

 

 

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