Tag Archives: Feminism

Tom Robbins – Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1976)

evencowgirlsgetthebluesProbably the most absurd book I’ve read in a while, which speaks volumes about the time that it was written (1976).

The novel follows the life of Sissy Hankshaw, a white trash woman born with enormously large thumbs who considers her mutation to be a gift as it aids with her hitchhiking, her preferred mode of travel. Living as a hitchhiker, Sissy soon becomes a model for The Countess, a male homosexual tycoon of feminine hygiene products. The Countess also owns a ranch, operated by sexually open and promiscuous cowgirls. Through her travels Sissy meets the cowgirls and many other interesting characters including “The Chink,” an escapee from a Japanese internment camp who becomes hailed as a hermetic mystic. Through her travels Sissy explores her own sexuality through her interactions with various characters.

This is definitely a “hippie” novel exploring themes such as free love, drug use, political rebellion, animal rights, feminism, and religion, in a strange yet wonderful way. The chapters are short and are often filled with philosophical diatribes and short quips in which Robbins inserts himself as a character. It’s not really the type of book that I normally enjoy reading, but I had a good time. The movie was considered to be an overwhelming failure, but I think I’d still like to watch it, the trailer looks just as insane as the book was to read.

Lena Dunham – Not That Kind of Girl (2014)

NotThatKindofGirlI respect Lena Dunham, I admire her work, but unfortunately I just don’t relate to her. In most memoirs that I read I can find some chapter, or passage, or even the most passing reference that I can relate to. This was not the case. Lena Dunham has led such a different life and has experience so many different and unfamiliar things that I just couldn’t relate to anything she wrote about.

That being said, Lena is a fantastic writer; her book is written with an eloquence and grace that I was not quite expecting. She writes about traumatic experiences from her childhood with humour that can only be possessed by someone with the benefit od hindsight While I could not personally relate to her experiences with OCD, sleep disorders, therapy, and loneliness, they were written in a way that inspires understanding.

While Dunham does not write explicitly about her TV show Girls, one of the more fascinating parts of her book was seeing where the inspiration for certain story arcs and characters come from. Lena Dunham’s parents are both artists so she grew up with the New York art scene that Marnie is so separately trying to break in to. She spends one chapter writing about the antics that her and her two best friends caused while working at an upscale children’s boutique, Peaches and Babke. Her scenes translate directly to the episode(s) in Girls, which feature Jessa working as a sales clerk in an upscale children’s boutique, avoiding work at all costs. There are many other allusions to the show throughout her book and it was interesting to see where Lena has drawn her inspiration.

While I didn’t find Lena Dunham relatable, she writes with her own voice, in a very elegant and inspired way. There were certain parts of the book that I didn’t like, but overall Not that Kind of Girl, left a good impression.

Amy Poehler – Yes Please (2014)

YesPleaseFirst, I love Amy Poehler, I cannot stress that fact enough. I love her so much, and I wanted to love this book so much but I just couldn’t. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good book; funny and well-written, but it was just missing that certain something that makes a book like this amazing. Her stories and anecdotes fell flat for me, and there were times where I knew she was trying to be funny, but I just didn’t find it funny.

She spends a majority of her book complaining about how hard it is to write a book, or mentioning her divorce. Still, there are some shining moments and the stories she tells about being in drugs (Amy Poehler smoked a lot of weed), about Parks and Rec, and about her children were simply wonderful.

I was talking to some friends about my mixed feelings towards this book, and they all mentioned hearing that the audio book got rave reviews. I was intrigued, and even though I know Amy Poehler and Tina Fey are both immensely talented in everything they do; in my head Tina strikes me as more of a writer and Amy a performer. So I bought my first ever audio book with an itunes gift card from three Christmases ago.

The audiobook does make the story come alive. You get Amy, as well as a host of guest stars reading her book and getting off track with other conversations. I would highly recommend the audiobook for Amy I would highly recommend the audiobook for Yes Please, but also be warned that you do miss out on the pictures/doodles/art that are included within the pages of the physical book.

Roxane Gay – Bad Feminist (2014)

BadFeministI have very mixed feelings about this book. I really admire Roxanne Gay, her writing and her ability to speak so passionately about important issues. Gay provides commentary on a number of subjects ranging from reproductive right to her thought on The Hunger Games. Throughout her writing Gay also remains very aware of her own privilege; She is a woman of colour, but acknowledges that she grew up in a middle class household and was afforded her certain opportunities.

Privilege is something that I am also keenly aware of. Throughout my undergraduate work studying the effects of slavery and free Blacks in Antebellum America caused me to examine my own privilege; was there any way I could possibly understand the lingering effects of slavery? In grad school, studying the Black experience in Upper Canada, I was also constantly reminded of my own privilege, especially from my Grad supervisor. While I am aware of my own privilege I do not think that believing The Help and Twelve Years a Slave to be good movies makes me a terrible person.

The portrayal of Black suffering in film is something that really angers Gay. While I found myself totally agreeing with her in her beliefs about feminism, and was moved when Gay described her own experience with sexual abuse, this is where she lost me. I liked The Help. Is it totally self-congratulatory towards white people? Absolutely. But Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis both stood out to me with their Oscar worthy performances. Gay is also critical of 12 Years a Slave, and I share some of her gripes, most notably the use of Lupita Nyong’o’s character (and body) to move along the story of Soloman Northup, a male. Still the movie is the first representation of the Black experience, as written by a Black man, and the movie deserved the accolades it received from The Academy.

Gay complains that there needs to be a different presentation of the Black experience; one that does not focus on suffering. I understand this, and I whole-heartedly agree. Other ethnic groups face the same issue. Almost every single movie to deal with the Jewish experience nominated for an Oscar, has dealt with the Holocaust. (Sophie’s Choice, Schindler’s List, The Pianist, and even the Italian language film Life is Beautiful.) While there definitely needs to be more examples of the Black experience in popular culture that move away from one of suffering, these movies are historical (although The Help takes great liberties) and the fact that they portray Black suffering in a historical sense is accurate and should not diminish the quality of these films.

Gay made me feel a number of things with her collection of essays. I agreed, I disagreed, I was moved, and I was outraged. For me, the mark of a good book is that it makes to feel something, and so with that said, I think Roxanne Gay did a good job.

Rating: 3.5/5

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.

Elizabeth Wurtzel – Bitch in Praise of Difficult Women (1998)

Bitch

If you can work through the fact that this is essentially a diatribe full of huge contradictions, confusing digressions and more pop culture references than and episode of Gilmore Girls, you’ll find that Wurtzel’s book is actually quite an honest and insightful look at women who have traditionally been seen as a “pain in the ass”

The book is a celebration of “improper women”; those who are too selfish, vulgar, violent, or even too beautiful. Wurtzel has no time or place for the traits of the “good girl” – submissive, selfless, and the dreaded “nice” – and insists that to be a “bad girl” means to be completely liberated. Unfortunately society has made life difficult for the bad girls of history and most have led pretty miserable lives (an homage to Sylvia Plath)

This seems to be the root or Wurtzel’s argument but I’m not sure if I’ve even gotten to the bottom of what she’s trying to say. There are points where I had moments of clarity and thought I was following only to have her completely contradict herself in the next chapter. (She hates traditional good girls but saves her greatest praise for the subtle, serene detachment of Grace Kelley and Audrey Hepburn) I guess in a way it made a bit of sense, nothing is as black and white as the “good-girl/bad-girl” or even better “virgin/whore” dichotomy. Being a woman is complicated and many do not fit into these incredibly narrow definitions. It’s a bit unfortunate that Wrutzel could not find her driving point, but I guess on some level it works. This is a difficult read and not for the fait of heart.