Monthly Archives: March 2015

Best Of – International Women’s Day 2015

In addition to Sarah Marcus’ Girls to the Front which I posted here on Thursday, there are a number of other fantastic books I read this year written by great women. In the spirit of International Women’s Day, I wanted to share my favourite female-penned books that I reviewed on the blog this year.

Margaret Atwood – Alias Grace (1996)

AliasGraceLooking at the notorious 1843 murder of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery, Atwood imagines the events surrounding the crime by focusing in on the culprit, Grace Marks. She twists the story and even though Grace is the protagonist, the reader never gets full image of who she is. Through her writing, Atwood seeks to give Grace a voice and a point of view and does so in such an interesting way.

Jung Chang – While Swans (1991)        

wild_swans

It’s the true story of three generations of Chinese women living in China from the fall of Imperial rule to the death of Mao Ze Dong. The story is beautifully written with elements of both humour and tragedy as Chang recounts her own life growing up with Communist rule in China. It’s about China, but also about mothers and daughters and the enduring bonds that women share.

Gillian Flynn – Gone Girl (2012)

GoneGirlFlynn’s phycological thriller got people talking this year, especially with the release of the movie just this past fall. Flynn is a good writer, not great, but she does have this understanding of the “cool girl” syndrome, something I think all women and girls are familiar with. That men always want the “cool girl,” the effortlessly hot woman who doesn’t care if he all he does is drink beer and hang out with his friends. That ideal however doesn’t exist, and sometimes, that “cool girl” can end up being a psychopath. It’s a good book that will play with your head and test your assumptions about gender and relationships.

Caitlin Moran – How to be a Woman (2011)

Caitlin MoranIt’s hard to love Caitlin Moran, she tells it like it is and makes no apologies. She writes openly and honestly about her abortion, something that I don’t think many women would do. She is smart, funny, and quick in her writing providing readers with sound advice and hilarious anecdotes about what it means to be a woman.

Azar Nafisi – Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003)

ReadingLolitainTehranIn this literary memoir, Azar Nafisi writes about her experience, as a teacher of classical English literature living in Post-Revolutionary Iran. She and a select few of her student start a “forbidden” book club which moves from being place for scholarly discussion, to one where these young women can share their deepest hopes, dreams, and fears about the future. It’s about books bringing women together at a time and place when circumstance is threatening to tare them apart. It’s a poignant and charming read about the lasting bonds of female friendship.

So there you have it, what are some of your favourite books about what it means to be a woman?

Sara Marcus – Girls to the Front (2010)

GirlstotheFrontWhile I am a bit too young to remember the Riot Grrrl Movement, I am a huge fan of women using music to empower themselves. A former Riot Grrrl herself, Sarah Marcus provides this pretty definitive account of the Riot Grrrl movement of the early 90s. She begins by talking about the pervasive idea at the time that “Generation X” was alienated and disenfranchised and how the Riot Grrrls challenged this by becoming feminist revolutionaries.

Change however, even radical change, is normally achieved through electoral means. What is the point of a feminist movement based on electing senators for 16 and 17 year olds not eligible to vote. Thus the Riot Grrrl movement was born; a way for older teenage girls to take control of their lives and inspire change through meetings and producing zines and music.

Marcus includes the stories of the punk bands that defined the movement including Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Huggy Bear, as well as the personalities involved. As Sarah Marcus is a former Riot Grrrl herself she is clearly passionate in her loyalty to the movement. This however does not stop her from seeing its flaws, including fights with the media, issues over race, class, and white privilege, and the catfights and infighting that often took place. After all, this was a movement being driven by teenage girls; there was bound to be a little drama. No movement is perfect, but in the end Riot Grrrl ended up being a “Cruel Revolution,” as Marcus calls it, alienating a number of girls instead of bringing the closer together.

Even though the movement lost its momentum, it is still an important chapter in feminist history. Feminist movements have traditionally been driven by intellectuals, and while there were still issues surrounding race and class with Riot Grrrl (many of the girls involved were white and came from middle class families) the fact that the movement was driven by a group of girls who were at the time, teenagers, makes it something different, and therefore something worth reading about.

Adam Hochschild – To End All Wars (2011)

“This was a war that would change the world for the worse.”

ToEndAllWarsHochschild’s book is as much a history of class in Turn-of-the-Century-Britain, as it is a history of the First World War. His book is the story of the First World War as told from the perspective of the Wars biggest supporters, and opponents in Britain.

It’s a different take on the First World War than I am used to but Hochschild uses a familiar formula, picking a cast of characters to follow from the start of the war to its end. His characters include members of the upper classes who saw war as just a continuation of “the hunt” or as sport, and the lower classes or socialist supporters who began, and remained starkly anti-war throughout the years. He also devotes a great deal of time to discussing the suffrage movement and how many upper class women, such as Emmeline Pankhurst, compromised their pacifist ideals to further the cause for voting rights.

Sometime Hochschild does let his feelings about the war get in the way. While the conviction that the First World War was foolish and mad is not a new one, and Hochschild is certainly not the first scholar to feel this way, his language is often very charged and quite moving. While personally I liked this aspect of his writing, I could see this work being very polarizing for those who hold strong opinions.

Another problem is with the facts themselves. Through the horrific slaughter that took place between the years of 1914-1918, instances of loyalty to the crown and cause remain more numerous than the occasions of dissent. While conscious objectors did show a tremendous deal of courage (a point Horschild drives home by detailing the experiences in prison) but they did not necessarily “divide Britain” the way Hochschild would have it seem.

Hochschild has definitely done a great deal of research and it pays off in his work. It provides a different take on the First World War telling a history of dissent, an account of pacifist movements, and conscientious objectors who created more trouble for Britain than many are often led to believe.