Archive for the ‘ Feminism ’ Category

REVIEW: “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel

Fun Home

Alison Bechdel
Houghton Miffin, 2006

CHALLENGE(S): Graphic Novels Challenge, GLBT Challenge (mini)

Finished 18 April 2010

When I saw that this book had finally come in at the library, I actually did a little dance of readerly joy. I enjoyed Essential Dykes to Watch Out For so much that I was delighted to have the chance to read Bechdel’s graphic novel/memoir. I already had a deep fondness for her artistic style and knew she had a brilliant sense of humour, so I was pretty much guaranteed to enjoy this even before I turned the first page.

From the Goodreads summary:

Meet Alison’s father, a historic preservation expert and obsessive restorer of the family’s Victorian house, a third-generation funeral home director, a high school English teacher, an icily distant parent, and a closeted homosexual who, as it turns out, is involved with male students and a family babysitter. Through narrative that is alternately heartbreaking and fiercely funny, we are drawn into a daughter’s complex yearning for her father. And yet, apart from assigned stints dusting caskets at the family-owned “fun home,” as Alison and her brothers call it, the relationship achieves its most intimate expression through the shared code of books. When Alison comes out as homosexual herself in late adolescence, the denouement is swift . . . graphic . . . and redemptive.

I remember once discussing characters in a TV show with my mother. I felt particularly empathetic towards one of the male characters, and said so, remarking that I saw a lot of myself in him (sadly, I forget which show we were watching now). She stared at me for a moment, and said something which more or less boiled down to: “I’d never have thought of relating to a character that was not female.” Cue astonishment. She wasn’t exactly being judgmental, but her declaration brought me up short. Why did I connect with this character so much, when he was a guy (which, at that age, was pretty much akin to saying “another species”)? Did it matter that he was a guy? Eventually, I came to the conclusion that humanity is something so basic that it transcends those constructs like gender that we attach to it; something which had apparently sunk into my subconscious well before it actually filtered through to my conscious brain.

Reading Fun Home was like going through a similar experience, only this time from Bechdel’s point of view. Her discoveries about her father and his sexuality, running parallel to the acknowledgement of her own, were well told and conveyed significant emotional punch. The story was obviously centered on the father-daughter relationship, but it also spoke more generally about the parent-child bond and that moment when you realize, to your astonishment (and sometimes horror), that your parents are not demi-gods but human beings, with their own thoughts, feelings and secrets that you are not always privy to. It was also the story of Bechdel’s coming to terms with who her father was and who he wasn’t; accepting both his successes and his failures as a real, live human being rather than solely in his role as ‘her father.’

What particularly appealed to me was Bechdel’s manner of approach: level-headed, objective and analytical, with a dash of sardonic humour. There was no attempt to form arbitrary moral judgments or direct the reader’s opinion, just an open exploration of facts and feelings. I particularly appreciated her ability to relate her emotions without becoming cloying or cliche – she may be a tad cynical at times, but her unflinching honesty is as refreshing as it is entertaining.

Quite frankly, there is very little I can say against this book. Bechdel has an uncanny knack for cutting right to the heart of the matter, and her illustrations were wonderful (as always). The insightful literary analysis in the commentary and the deft intermingling of Bechdel’s own coming-out story was just the icing on the cake.

A book that challenges intellectually and emotionally, while still managing to make you laugh aloud. Definitely recommended.

RATING:

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REVIEW: “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker

The Color Purple

[WINNER OF THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD (among others), 1983]

Alice Walker
Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2007

CHALLENGE(S): Banned Books Challenge, Book Awards Challenge, GLBT Challenge (mini), Read the Movie Challenge, Social Justice Challenge, Women Unbound Challenge, Year of the Historical Challenge

Finished 16 April 2010

I got an amazing amount of mileage out of this book. It won an Award (Book Awards Challenge), it is frequently banned (Banned Books Challenge), it features a lesbian relationship (GLBT Challenge) and domestic violence (Social Justice Challenge), was made into a movie (Books and Movies Challenge), it is deeply feminist (Women Unbound Challenge) and it’s set in the early 20th century (Year of the Historical Challenge). Whew!

On top of that, it is also a wonderful book that I highly recommend.

The story is told in epistolary style, as a series of letters from the main character – Celie – to God. When the book begins, Celie is being abused by her father, by whom she eventually has two children. Her mother is dead and the only person she can really rely on is her younger sister, Nettie, who is cleverer and prettier and her best friend in the world. When a man she refers to only as Mister ——- proposes to Nettie, however, Celie’s life takes a turn for the worse. Her father refuses to allow Nettie to leave, and offers Celie in her place; to their horror, Mister ——- agrees. Separated from her sister, Celie’s only consolation is her developing relationship with Shug Avery, a beautiful singer who is the mother of Mister’s children.

The storyline gets more complicated as the novel goes on, but I don’t want to spoil it for you so I’ll leave the synopsis there. I will say, however, that there is a lot of musing about God and the nature of love throughout the novel, which I very much enjoyed. It did tend to get a little philosophical towards the end of the book, which kind of jolted you out of the story a bit, and I agree with many other reviewers that the ending was just a little too neat for me to believe completely. However, these flaws aside, some of my favourite parts of the novel were when the characters started discussing the nature of God. For example:

God love all them feelings. That’s some of the best stuff God did. And when you know God loves ’em you enjoys ’em a lot more. You can just relax, go with everything that’s going, and praise God by liking what you like.

God don’t think it dirty? I ast.

Naw, she say. God made it. Listen, God love everything you love – and a mess of stuff you don’t. But more than anything else, God love admiration.

You saying God vain? I ast.

Naw, she say. Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.

What it do when it pissed off? I ast.

Oh, make something else. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.

Yeah? I say.

Yeah, she say. It always making little surprises and springing them on us when us least expect.

— pp.176-177.

I really enjoyed the way the characters’ shifting affections and developing natures were used as a sounding board to illustrate the fluidity of love and its connection to God. I may not believe in God, but I did appreciate the warmth and strength with which Walker imbued the narrative, and her fantastic ability to give her characters a unique voice. Celie came across strongly throughout, as did her sister Nettie when we read some of her letters to her sister later in the novel. Even the secondary characters, from whom we do not hear directly, have a vibrant inner life that makes them leap off the page and into your imagination.

The book is also profoundly feminist. Its main theme is essentially humanity, both human beings and the quality of benevolence they show so infrequently towards one another, but it focuses particularly on the strength and resilience of the female characters, how they face the obstacles life places before them and deal with abuse from the men around them. That is not to say it is intrinsically “anti-male”, however; one of the most moving parts of the book, for me, is how Mister ——- and his son change and are changed by the strong women in their lives, eventually coming to see their true worth and nature beyond sex and domestic slavery. It is an optimistic book, at heart: it postulates that both sexes can, given time, come to a place of equality and respect, and love each other for who they are rather than who the world would have them be.

A deserving classic, and nowhere near as intimidating as I had originally imagined. If you haven’t read it yet, then I highly recommend that you do!

RATING:

REVIEW: “Essential Dykes to Watch Out For” by Alison Bechdel

The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For

Alison Bechdel
Houghton Mifflin, 2008

CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge (mini)

Finished 28 Mar 2010

I decided to give this a review all on its own rather than amongst others, in part because I haven’t read any more yet, but mostly because it is such a stand-out book that it deserves a post dedicated solely to how great it is.

I really enjoyed reading this collection, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the sense of humour. Bechdel has a marvelous eye for the satirical and she’s not afraid to make fun of herself as well as others. Always a plus, in my opinion! She also has a keen eye for political detail, so that interwoven throughout the more personal stories of the protagonists there is a wider picture of both the gay rights movement and the country as a whole. It was very much like a history of the past 15 years, albeit a history told through unconventional eyes and means, and one which never sought to preach at the reader (which is more than many authors can say for their historical works).

Secondly, I absolutely loved the characters. They were so alive, so vibrant, I almost felt like they must be real people running around somewhere. My favourite was Lo(u)is, whose exercises in “testing the elasticity of gender” (as a friend of mine might say) were only a sideline to the actual plot but which managed to be both funny and poignant and (in my opinion) frequently stole the show. Not to mention Lo(u)is herself, who was just plain awesome. But there is truly a grand cast, to be honest, and they’re all a delight to read about as they develop and grow.

There were a few issues I had, largely towards the latter part of the strip. I know a few were removed for length, and that they were chosen carefully so as not to interrupt the story flow, but there were a few places where I was taken by surprise by the direction the narrative took, and I felt the lack of connection most keenly. I’m not sure whether that was because there were actually strips missing or because of the narrative itself, but either way it was a bit disappointing. I also began to get the sense that the author was not altogether happy with her life towards the end of the strip’s life – the storylines become more jaded, and the humour loses its edge and slides towards bitterness. Much as I would have liked to read more about her wonderful characters, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that Bechdel put the strip on hiatus when she did.

Overall, highly recommended and a really great read. One minor warning: Bechdel doesn’t pull her punches, and her staunch honesty includes depictions of sex scenes and occasional nudity. Just in case you were thinking of reading the book at work!

RATING:

REVIEW: “In Love and Trouble” by Alice Walker

In Love and Trouble

Alice Walker
Harcourt Inc., 2001

CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge (mini)

Finished 27 Feb 2010.

Because this is a book of short stories rather than a novel itself, I thought I’d take notes as I read and give a little mini-review of each story. While there were a few I disliked or was confused by, for the most part I really enjoyed Walker’s writing and will look forward to reading some more books by her in the future.

Roselily

I love the way Walker inter-spliced the wedding vows with the narrative on this one; it added an interesting level of meaning to the story. However, I found it a little confusing at first, as it doesn’t seem to take place in a present, as such; it’s more like an internal monologue, which I wasn’t expecting. 3/5

Really, Doesn’t Crime Pay?

Okay, while Roselily may not have struck me with any force, this story definitely did. Perhaps, because the main character is also a writer, I felt for her as I didn’t for Roselily – I don’t know. I loved the way this was set out, with the time being measured both in years and in page count, and I loved the voice of the narrator. In particular, these sections particularly moved me (note: not safe for work):

“After that, a miracle happened. Under Mordecai’s fingers my body opened like a flower and carefully bloomed. And it was stange as well as wonderful. For I don’t think love had anything to do with this at all.” (p.17)

“Last night while Ruel snored on his side of the bed I washed the prints of his hands off my body. Then I plugged in one of his chain saws and tried to slice off his head. This failed because of the noise. Ruel woke up right in the nick of time.” (p.21)

What strikes me is the gentle rhythm of the writing style, and the way each character has a clear, distinct voice; it is both vivid and lyrical. Plus that second quote is a wonderful mixture of humour and tragedy that’s really tricky to pull off. Great stuff. 5/5

Her Sweet Jerome

Oh my. This one was dark; I both hated and felt sorry for the protagonist at the same time. I’m not sure that I can exactly say I enjoyed it, but it certainly caught at my emotions. 3/5

The Child Who Favoured Daughter

Another dark one. I didn’t fully understand it; the writing seemed to slip back and forth without quite saying anything. There were some interesting similes and metaphors, but it was the first one I actually didn’t like. 2/5

Everyday Use

This was a very powerful story; at first glance it doesn’t seem like much, but it draws you into a world on the edge of things, a point where new and old conflict with each other in subtle ways. 5/5

The Welcome Table

I love this one – the use of the quote at the beginning is very apt and the story itself well-written. 4/5

Strong Horse Tea

Very sad story. I really liked the way Walker told the story from two contrasting points of view, and was horrified by the attitude of the mailman even as I understood the reasons for it. I did think the woman’s change of heart was a little too quick though. 3/5

Entertaining God

I found this one disturbing, I’m not entirely sure why. It was whimsical and strange and sad, and frequently a bit confusing, but I loved the part about the gorilla at the beginning. 4/5

The Diary of an African Nun

Absolutely loved this one; the evocative descriptions of the landscape, the nun’s view of sex and sexuality, the way it was all tied in together around dancing was very well done. I also loved the way that Walker built the character without ever really referring to her personally. A powerful story. 5/5

The Flowers

Very short, so there’s not that much to say about it, except that it was extremely eerie, the transition from beautiful summer day to tragedy. Effective ending, lovely descriptions. 4/5

We Drink the Wine in France

Oh. That was very sweet, and again, sad. I want to know more about the characters and find myself wishing for a happy ending for them. I think what I love best about Walker’s prose is the richness of her descriptions. For example:

“She is down low. Her neck strains backward, bringing her face up to his. She is a small, round-bosomed girl with tumbly hair pulled severely back except for bangs. Her eyes are like the lens of a camera. Now they click shut. Now they open and drink in the light. Something, a kind of light, comes from them and shines on the professor of French.” (p.121)

Lovely. 5/5

To Hell With Dying

The perfect end to the book, I have to say. I could vividly see Mr. Sweet and loved the idea of the kids bringing him back to life. A beautiful story. 5/5

OVERALL RATING:

REVIEW: “The Purity Myth” by Jessica Valenti

The Purity Myth

Jessica Valenti
Seal Press, 2009

CHALLENGE(S): Women Unbound Challenge

Finished 25 Jan 2010

This is a book which combines three topics I am very passionate about – feminism, sexuality and religion – so as soon as I heard about it I knew I had to read it. From the front flap:

“The United States is obsessed with virginity – from the media to schools to government agencies. The Purity Myth is an important and timely critique about why this is so, and why it’s problematic for girls and women. Analyzing cultural stereotypes and media messages, Jessica Valenti reveals the overt and hidden ways our society links a young woman’s worth to her sexuality rather than to values like honesty, kindness and altruism.

Valenti takes on issues ranging from abstinence-only education to pornography, and exposes the legal and social punishments that women who dare to have sex endure. Importantly, she also offers solutions that pave the way for a future without a damaging emphasis on virginity, including a call to rethink male sexuality and reframe the idea of “losing it.””

I wasn’t aware at first that this was written by the author of the Feministing.com blog, which I’ve been following on and off for some time now – I was recommended it through a livejournal community and was pleasantly surprised when I found out. The book is characteristically direct, and certainly pulls no punches. It is quite refreshing, actually, to find an author so willing to speak candidly about female sexuality and to attack head on the damaging social customs that affect women and girls in that respect. In particular, something she wrote about rape has stayed with me:

“Now, should we treat  women as independent agents, responsible for themselves? Of course. But being responsible has nothing to do with being raped. Women don’t get raped because they were drinking or took drugs. Women do not get raped because they weren’t careful enough. Women get raped because someone raped them.” (p.151)

This quote is basically characteristic of the whole book: it exposes implicit assumptions in both the media and in society about women and their sexuality (in this case, that women are in some way responsible if they get raped) and blows them right out of the water. It was like a punch right between the eyes for me, because I have never thought of things on quite those terms before. As far as rape is concerned, I would never blame the victim – but how often have I said, in correlation, that she shouldn’t have been there, or should have taken better care of herself? “It wasn’t her fault, of course, but…”? I do think that, on some level, given that rapes do occur people (especially women) should try to avoid those behaviours which make them most vulnerable; this seems like common sense. But when it comes down to it, no matter what someone was doing, if she gets raped, it’s because someone raped her. You may or may not have heard about a case recently where a woman’s rapists were acquitted because she had expressed gang rape fantasies online, regardless of the fact that in this case she did not give consent (full story here). This is the sort of thing Valenti is talking about. The blame is being placed on the woman in question, not where it really belongs: on the people who forced her to have sex against her will.

Of course, the book isn’t solely about rape – not even primarily, actually. The main focus is the so-called virgin/whore dichotomy that labels and values women according to their sexual history, and especially the religious influences on the “purity” ideal. Valenti explains clearly how the idea that women should be “pure” (i.e. virgins until marriage) is both incorrect and damaging. For the most part, I already agreed with what she was saying; when I was a teenager, I found a website (now lost to the ether of cyber-space, unfortunately) that detailed the way virginity was actually non-existent except as a social standard. I was a very confused and sheltered teen at that point, only gradually coming to accept and understand myself as a sexual entity, and a lot of my anxiety revolved around the idea of a “virgin,” what one was, how one could tell, and so on. As Valenti argues, in point of fact “virginity” is an empty word, a term that is virtually meaningless. There is no physical way of determining whether a woman is a virgin (and yes, it’s almost always a woman whose sexuality is under the microscope in this way). The hymen, which has historically been used as a measure of this exalted state, is unreliable at best – many women are born without them, lose them through non-sexual activity early in life, and can even grow them back. Without physical evidence, Valenti argues, virginity is reduced to the wishy-washy, “someone who has not had sex.” At which point, you’re left with the question of what constitutes sex in the first place.

Overall, I found the book to be an enjoyable read and I have to admit much of the content made me rage at the sheer stupidity of human society. However. Valenti gives us hope for the future and also helps to illuminate the way forward for women’s rights advocates, which was a much-needed antidote to such things as purity balls and the like. She also addressed the way these issues are damaging to men as well, which I thought was particularly worth reading, as it is an angle often missing in feminist work.

To be honest, I was rather too emotionally invested in the topic to give this one an objective review. I do however believe it is a very interesting, eye-opening book and well worth a read.

RATING:

REVIEW: “A Dangerous Vine” by Barbara Ewing

A Dangerous Vine

Barbara Ewing
Virago Press Ltd., 2000

CHALLENGE(S): Year of the Historical Challenge

Finished 22 Jan 2010

I’ve been wanting to read this book for a few months now. I’m not sure quite what it was that intrigued me about it – I do have an idea for a novel of my own that is very similar, but I think it was more my fascination with this particular period of my country’s history that drew me to the story.

It’s set in New Zealand during the 1950’s, centering around the social exploits of one Margaret Rose Bennett, who has just turned eighteen. She has just started university and a new job at the Ministry, and is struggling to find herself in a family and society that is unwilling to allow her to be anything except a dutiful daughter, and eventual wife and mother. Margaret’s first rebellion begins with learning Maori, a “dying” language that is denigrated because it is only spoken by the Maori people. It is here that she begins to learn about love and it’s many different forms and it is here that she meets her eventual lover, a young Maori lawyer who is himself struggling to find his place between the Pakeha (European) and Maori worlds. The novel explores not only the social constraints placed on women during the period but also the attitude of both Maori and European to the land and each other.

This is the sort of book it takes a while to warm up to; it starts off slowly, setting the scene, and consequently a certain distance is felt between the reader and the characters. Gradually this is eroded, however, as bit by bit the narrative reveals more about their emotional and material struggles in a time that is not so distant from our own. Building upon the initial landscape, the stories of several different individuals are skillfully woven together until they reach an explosive climax at the end. Although the writing is somewhat simplistic in places, and the author occasionally relies on cliches where something original would have served the story better, it is masterfully timed and tightly plotted, keeping you enthralled from the beginning. A new and unexpected favourite that I feel quite proud of, in an odd sort of way. It is so seldom that writing from my own country speaks to me in such a way.

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