Books by Women: Foxfire

303564Thank you, mh1430 for responding to my recent post on which books by women you’d like to see me review next. As per request, here is my review of FOXFIRE: Confessions of a Girl Gang by Joyce Carol Oates.

This was the first novel by Joyce Carol Oates I’ve read. Now I have been meaning to read more of her work because this novel was so beautifully put together. The novel focuses on a teenage girl gang in Upstate New York during the 1950s. The gang, FOXFIRE, targets misogynist men, sexual predators and racists.

What struck me the most about this novel was the narration, as it is both first person and third person and weaves between the two. Maddy Monkey looks back on her life as FOXFIRE scribe and narrates. She pulls together the notes she took on the gang’s exploits, where she refers to herself in the third person, as well as her reflection on the past events. The result is a narrator who is both distanced from herself and her past mistakes, as well as reliving them and far too present. The novel is raw from Maddy’s reflections.

Whoever’s reading this, if anyone is reading it: does it matter that our old selves are lost to us as surely as the past is lost, or is it enough to know yes we lived then, and we are living now, and the connection must be there? Like a river hundreds of miles long exists both at its source and at its mouth, simultaneously?–FOXFIRE, Joyce Carol Oates

And while Maddy is the narrator, she is not the protagonist. Legs Sadovsky is. Legs, the androgynous leader of Foxfire, the exquisite Marxist, the woman who defies her gender and defies the law and it is difficult not to fall under the cult-like quality of her words and the daring quality of her actions. Even at her most manipulative or insensitive, I wanted her to succeed at whatever her goal was. What I love the most that her gender and her sexuality are left undefined. If the novel were set in 2016, would Legs be trans? a lesbian? pansexual? polyamorous? We don’t know.

And it is that very not-knowing that guides the novel to perhaps the most perfect ending line I have ever read. Because for all the novel repeats that “FOXFIRE burns and burns,” the novel ends (no spoilers):

Like a flame is real enough, isn’t it, while it’s burning?-even if there’s a time it goes out?

Keep on reading and tell me which book you’d like me to review next.

 

 

Books by Women Updates

Though I am behind on reviewing, I have still been reading books by women. Since I last posted a review of my experience rereading The Red Tent, I have read:

In Fiction:

The Vampire Armand-Anne Rice

Somewhere Beneath These Waves (short stories) – Sarah Monette

Honor -Elif Şafak

Ten Thousand Saints – Eleanor Henderson

Lost Boi (check out a preview with my post on a quote from the novel) – Sassafras Lowrey

Foxfire– Joyce Carol Oates

Mothers, Tell Your Daughters (short stories) – Bonnie Jo Campbell

Boneshaker – Cherie Priest

Women Destroy Fantasy! (check out my review of this collection on upthestaircase quarterly)

Room (a literary magazine of Canadian female authors; check out my review on New Pages)

Avengers: Science Bros (a comic!) – Kelly Sue DeConnick

A Cappella Zoo: Queer and Familiar (a literary magazine of magical realism; check out my review on New Pages)

In Nonfiction:

Sweet Hell on Fire: A Memoir of the Prison I Worked In and the Prison I Lived In – Saranna DeWylde

Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence – Aliza Marcus

I will definitely get to reviewing all of these and in the mean time, let me know which titles you’ve read and which titles you want to read! Which book would you like a review on next? Otherwise, I’ll just keep plugging away in order.

Keep on reading!

Books By Women: The Red Tent

indexI read The Red Tent (1997) as a first year in high school and I didn’t understand any of it.

The novel by Anita Diamant is a feminist biblical retelling of the story of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob. In a male patriarchal narrative, all we know of Dinah is that she is raped and her brothers decide to welcome in her rapist’s family into their own tribe, circumcise them and then kill them.

We do not hear Dinah’s version of the story.

And then there is The Red Tent, first a novel and now a miniseries (2014).

In this novel, Dinah is the first person narrator. She tells not only her story, but begins even earlier: telling the stories of her mothers Leah (her birth mother), as well as Leah’s three  sisters, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah who all marry Jacob.

This is a novel celebrating and exploring the voices of women. As Dinah says in the first chapter of book:

If you want to know about any woman you must first ask about her mother and then listen carefully.

As a reader, you do listen. Diamant does a phenomenal job at taking biblical women and crafting real and complicated people. Leah and Rachel are so distinct and so beautifully flawed in their reality as women, I almost feel I could meet them today, despite the vast cultural divides that separate their world from ours.

The most interesting cultural element is the theme of the incoming patriarchy. The goddesses Dinah’s mothers worship are goddesses which value women and hold menstrual blood as sacred, not profane. To bleed is a woman’s entry into adulthood and it is a time of joy. The red tent is where women go when they are menstruating, where they relax and tell stories and live as women unencumbered by the lives and world of the men around them.

Reading the novel in 2015, there is a definite cis understanding of womanhood and I hope a new edition of the would include an introduction  by Diamant, welcoming transwomen into the fold of womanhood the novel creates. I can only hope.

My one other critique is that while the female characters are fleshed out and envisioned with subtleties and skill, the male characters, especially Dinah’s lovers, are flat and bland. Oddly enough for novel rich in cultural nuance, sexual love is almost fairy tale like with love-at-first-sight syndrome. And while I believe Dinah deserves happiness, I struggle to believe her love because of how uncomplicated it is.

Still, I would recommend this novel. I would also recommend having a basic background on the original biblical story so you do not read blind as I did entering this text as a fourteen-year-old. But with a bit of background and an open mind to believe in the power of women’s stories and hearing women’s stories, the novel is a great read.

Keep reading!

Books By Women: The Terrorists of Irustan

The Terrorists of Irustan has literally everything I’m interested in. It’s feminist science fiction. It has Middle Eastern influences. The central conflict questions the difference between terrorism and activism.

It was difficult to accept how this novel disappointed at every turn.Written in 1999, the novel can, at best, be described, as a knock-off version of The Handmaid’s Tale, but set in space. And unfortunately,, the novel simplifies Islamic and Arab culture.

577258On the planet Irustan, due to pervasive religious structures women cover themselves from head to toe and have no power or presence in the public space. Men cannot speak to them and they cannot speak to men. Our hero, Zara, is a doctor (on this planet, the profession of women) who begins to use her medicinal knowledge to poison men who harm women, specifically women she knows and loves. I was expecting nuance and cultural critique from this premise. I was expecting a massive underground uprising of female resistance fighters who pledged their lives to activism (or terrorism) to demand their rights.

Though the novel draws on Islamic culture, the author, Louise Marley, becomes entangled in the singular narrative that women who cover themselves are oppressed, look at how this other culture (read Islam, but in space) oppresses their women! Female characters who claim the veil as a symbol of their power do not have a voice in this story. The singular reading of women who cover themselves for religious reasons alienated me from any feminist message. It did not offer a plurality of voices in the text. Furthermore, I felt the structure of those women over there lifted the blame off Western misogyny and gave Western culture a free pass on our own sexism. If we’re not as sexist as these other guys, then we’re doing alright, no problems here. The one character who’s background offered push back, is a Chinese person working on Irustan, who describes the plight of future women in China, which was a fascinating cultural comparison and pretty well explored.

Yet, I wish this book were stronger and lived up to my expectations because it’s one of the few books I can think of where there are no (or almost no) white characters. Everyone is a person of color and regardless of any issues I have with the narrative, I have to give Marley credit for her diversity in this regard.

It’s a shame that the characters are pretty one–dimensional and the narrative does not grip you emotionally. I appreciate what Marley tried to do with this novel, and I know she’s won awards for her science fiction before, but for me, this novel fell pretty flat. If I decide to give another of her novels a try, I will let you know.

Books By Women: The New Jim Crow

For anyone interested in racial justice, this nonfiction book is a must read. Michelle Alexander writes an academic and accessible text on how the American prison system is the new form of racial segregation and control, targeting mainly black and brown men. She argues that the prison industrial complex is the new Jim Crow.

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I first read this book last December and with every page I was floored by own ignorance. Of course, I was vaguely aware of NYC’s “stop and frisk” laws and racial profiling, but from my privileged position as a white-passing young woman from suburban Connecticut, the experiences of those convicted as felons (often for petty drug crimes) was an alternate reality. The brutality of dystopian governments and police was happening in the neighborhood bordering mine, not just within the pages of fiction I read. That’s the thing about this book: it puts together the dots in a way that is instantly clear and leaves you wondering, How was I ever so blind? I know there is still so much more for to learn.

The second time I read this book, was in the past few months, reading the text with junior and seniors in high school. This is probably what makes Alexander’s text even more of a game changer in how we talk about race and racial justice: it’s accessible. She breaks down the complexities of the legal system without dumbing them down. She explains the history of SWAT teams, the War on Drugs and how police make their arrests and receive their funding. She digs into the root causes of the imprisonment of young men of color and you learn something with ever page. People who have a greater background in racial justice can still benefit from the clarity and precision of her argument.

I wish this book were written today. It would have been a very different book, or at least a book that included information on the murders of Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown and Sandra Bland to name a few. She might have included information on die-ins and Black Lives Matter. But maybe not. It may have been outside the scope of her research at the time. Hopefully in subsequent editions of the text, she will include a forward or an additional chapter.

One aspect of her work I appreciate the most is her acknowledgment of the areas she does not cover. She tells the reader right from the start that this book focuses on the incarceration of men of color, though she knows women of color are also suffering.

The book is (obviously) heavy material, but I would recommend it. It’s a necessary read for necessary conversations Americans need to start having about race, segregation and incarceration.

Keep reading. Even when it’s hard and even when you’re challenged and floored by ideas, keep reading. Next up The Terrorists of Irustan. 

Books By Women: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Instead of a blurb on the back of my copy of We Have Always Lived in the Castle  (originally published in 1962), Penguin Classics instead included the opening lines of the novel:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had […] I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

And because I have a soft spot for female protagonists, especially female protagonists who talk about the weird and the bizarre as if it were normal, I had to buy this book. Yet, it is probably one of the strangest novels I’ve ever read. It is at once a mystery novel (what exactly happened to Mary Katherine’s family?) as well as a study of a town, mob mentality and forgiveness.

It’s a Shirley Jackson novel.

That name didn’t mean anything to me either when I bought the book, but Johnathon Lethem explains in the introduction that most people have read Shirley Jackson and just don’t know it. Shirley Jackson wrote the short story “The Lottery.”

we_have_always_lived_in_the_castle_cover

We Have Always Lived in the Castle has the same fantastic use of a small town setting to create a world and a culture, and the same suspenseful build up, allowed to grow that much larger in a novel, than is possible in a short story.

Yet, I’m not sure if I enjoyed it. I would recommend it for its weirdness without expressly being speculative fiction and because Shirley Jackson is a brilliant writer who can write on similar themes across her work and still have them nuanced and fresh. But I’m not sure I enjoyed the novel. I would have to read it again and see if the characters struck me more intensely the second time, or if the plot holds a greater resonance than on the first read.

It’s definitely worth reading, but I’d be interested to know if you come away with the same odd longing for something more that you’re not quite sure how to describe.

Keep on reading! Up next: The New Jim Crow.

Books By Women: Memnoch the Devil

I know I promised that my next book post would be We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but I just finished Memnoch the Devil and I have a lot of critique I need to express.

download (2)Memnoch is the fifth book in Anne Rice‘s Vampire Chronicles Series (Interview with the Vampire, The Vampire Lestat, etc). I read the first four books my first year in college, one after the other after the other after the other and fell into Anne Rice’s characters with devotion I couldn’t begin to explain. I talked about the series for hours to my mother and pulled out quotes and passages I found devastating or hysterical or blindingly real and human, despite the characters being undead. There are still passages in The Vampire Lestat and Queen of the Damned (book three of the series) I can still quote from memory, though I haven’t reread the books in nearly five years. Anne Rice’s characters are nearly all pan-romantic and homo-erotic overtones shape her narratives. The first three books are a dream.

Without going into too much detail, I found the fourth book, Tale of the Body Thief, bland and overall unpleasant in any number of ways. I stopped reading the series there because I had been told by friends and numerous internet reviews that Memnoch the Devil was the worst of the entire series (now ten books total).

The premise is that the vampire Lestat, the narrator and hero of the past three books in the series, gets called upon by Memnoch the Devil to serve as the Devil’s Lieutenant in Hell. Throughout the book, the Devil takes Lestat through Creation, Heaven and Hell as well as throughout time. Lestat needs to decide if he’ll serve God or the Devil by the end of this journey.

I wasn’t expecting much but was somehow still deeply disappointed. The flowing descriptions that characterized Anne Rice’s historical settings in Paris and New Orleans became purple prose and were spent describing three things:

  1. Lestat’s clothing and appearance (even for a self-identified dandy of a character, it’s an incredibly odd and jarring choice because Lestat is the narrator)
  2. Dora’s beauty (the one Human female character Lestat is obsessed with)
  3. Lestat’s tears (you could play an intense drinking game for all the times Lestat cries in this book–for a bonus round, take a drink every! time! there’s! an! exclamation! point!)

But her writing style aside, what upset me the most was her treatment of her female characters and the way women are woven into (and not woven into) this alternative creation narrative. And while Anne Rice published Memnoch in 1995 and just declared on Facebook that she quit Christianity, saying “I refuse to be anti-feminist” I still find it important to discuss the ways this narrative remains a harmful portrayal of women, rape culture, and the erasure of female narratives within religion. Regardless of whether she continues to hold the views or opinions I gathered from this book, it is still important to discuss the issues.

The narrative is told from Lestat’s perspective, but there is no pushback against his misogyny. We, as readers, are expected to agree with him and be sympathetic to his views. So when Lestat’s narration reads:

[Dora’s] voice was small and typically feminine, that is, the pitch was without mistake feminine, but she spoke with terrific self-confidence now, and so her words seemed to have authority, rather like those of a man.

are we supposed to agree with him?

Dora is a saint, a televangelist saint, who is perfect in every way. She is not afraid of Lestat even he reveals that he killed her father or when she knows he’s a vampire. And at the end of the novel when Lestat returns from his journey with the Devil and is distraught and crazed, Dora kisses him and she’s on her period (which Lestat has noted every time they’re in the same scene together). Lestat’s response is:

I rolled her over gently […] and I pulled up her skirt and I lay my face against her hot naked thighs […] my tongue broke through the thin cotton of her panties, tearing the cloth back from the soft down of pubic hair, pushing aside the blood-stained pad she wore, and I lapped the at the blood just inside her young pink vaginal lips […] blood that brought no pain, no sacrifice, only her gentle forbearance with me, with my unspeakable act […] my tongue licking at the secret bloodstained place, taste and smell of her blood, her sweet blood, a place where blood flows free and no wound is made or ever needs to be made, the entrance to her blood open to me in her forgiveness.

um…well, it’s great to know the female body is there for a male character’s enjoyment and forgiveness. It’s even better to know that Dora’s response is to hold Lestat’s head as he cries, call him her darling and her angel, and then ask to sleep beside him when he goes to rest. Did I mention there are two other male vampires in the room and no one does anything to stop or question Lestat’s actions? I can’t remember the last time I was so angry or disgusted over the treatment of a female character.

The novel disregards women again through Anne Rice’s mythology of Angels and God. All the Angels are male. God is without a doubt male. This, despite the fact that Memnoch says Angels resemble females more than males yet Angels are without a doubt more male than female. And what angered me the most as a feminist was that rape culture and violence against women was explained as a natural part of humanity. When Memnoch goes to live among the humans, he chooses to become male. Lestat understands this decision, saying:

‘I would imagine you had seen enough of rape, childbirth, and helpless struggle to make the wiser choice. I know I would have.’

And right there, to be female is laid out as to be deficit and there is no challenge to this conversation. There is no alternative voice or speaker of authority to these two male character parading their superior maleness. There is no thought that women are not naturally victims of rape, that childbirth could be anything but horrific and painful, or that women do not naturally struggle.

Of course, I knew going into this book that not all female authors are feminists, but I was amazed by the breadth of the dismissal of the female sex. Although I’ve definitely read books since starting to read books by women I did not enjoy, this has been the first book I was angry about and would not recommend.

But, if nothing else, reading this book has made me more conscious of the fact that it’s not enough to be a female author writing speculative fiction. You have to consciously decide on feminism and equality.

Next up: We Have Always Lived in a Castle. Keep reading. Even the books you don’t like, just keep reading.

Books By Women: No One Belongs Here More than You

I want this book title tattooed on my arm.

No One Belongs Here More Than You

indexI want to remember Miranda July’s collection of short stories for the rest of my life because this was the book I needed to read. Every story is a testament to loneliness and the struggle toward self love. I found No One Belongs Here More Than You at a Barnes and Noble when I convinced myself, even after reading the first story, that I was not going to buy this book. I was not going to buy this book. I was moving to Chicago in two weeks. Why did I need one more book?

I should have bought the book, but it was an incredible accident that I found a copy at the local library and it was the last book I read while I was still in Georgia.

Nearly all the stories were narrated in the first person and most of them were narrated by female characters. These people are flawed, as deeply flawed in numerous and terrifying understandable ways. The woman who falls asleep while her neighbor has a seizure. The teenage lesbian runaway who works at a Peep Show. The woman asleep with her boyfriend who hears someone coming up the stairs.

Miranda July describes our world with such honesty that the weird and the off kilter I look for in speculative fiction was laid bare in the human mind and the normal progressions of our day to day lives.

This was the best book I have read all summer and I will keep you updated on if I get that tattoo. Because more than the literary merit of Miranda July’s work, the title speaks to an essential feminist concept: you belong in this space (and every space); you have value; your words have meaning. 

I can’t wait to see more from Miranda July who is talented not only as a fiction writer, but also as an artist, screenwriter and film maker. To get a sense of who she is as a person, check out the website for the book here.

Next on my list: We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson. Happy reading!

Books By Women: Dreaming in Cuban

After reading The Lady Matador’s HotelI knew I needed to explore more of Cristina Garcia’s work. Dreaming in Cuban (1992) was Garcia’s first novel, but you would never be able to tell by the flowing language, intricate pacing and point of view. The novel follows three generations of women exploring their relationship to each other, their Cuban identity and heritage, as well as the bias of perspective.

dreaming in cuban

This was a perfect choice to read during my year of Books by Women because most of the main characters are female and each experiences life, love and politics in a vastly different way than the other women of her family. Celia del Pino, the oldest of the women, supports the Cuban Revolution and is bound by her communist beliefs just as much as by her experience in a mental institution, away from her husband and daughter, Lourdes.

Lourdes hates Cuba and communism and moves to the United States with her husband to open a bakery. What I loved about Lourdes is that she is described as obese, but a beautiful and sexual being. Her weight holds no bearing on her sexuality or her sexual desires. As usual, Garcia writes female sexuality as natural, intimate and for the woman’s pleasure not the male gaze. There is a time in the novel where Lourdes loses weight through vigorous exercise and not eating for months and I felt awful for her, no matter how gorgeous she looked in her trim white suit for Thanksgiving. It felt like a character I loved for who she was withered away. When she finally starts eating again, she does so with such immense pleasure and might that I loved her more and more with each bite and each button that snapped from her suit. I loved the way Garcia rejected fat shaming and the novel is an excellent source of body positivity.

After Lourdes, Celia gives birth to Felicia. Through Felicia, Garcia takes a second look at the trope of women and madness through Felicia’s abusive relationship with her husband and the odd ways she loves her children.

The novel is told through third person present tense, but at times we see first person narration through the eyes of the youngest generation. As readers we learn Felicia’s story through third person and then through first person through the eyes of her twin daughters, and then again through the eyes of her son. This narrative switch comes into play throughout the novel, with first person narration by Lourdes’ daughter, Pilar, a punk artist. The switch in perspective happens only occasionally but is never jarring. Reading the novel as a writer, I marveled at Garcia’s use of perspective to tell a nuanced story of the lives of three generations of women: Celia, Lourdes and Felicia, and Pilar.

I would definitely recommend this novel, especially to readers interested in Latina authors and Cuban history. Because the novel is mainly historical fiction, Garcia fleshes out the story with historical details of Cuba during the Cold War and beautiful details of Cuban culture including foods and traditions. Dreaming in Cuban did not disappoint and her writing style foreshadows the incredibly work she would later do for The Lady Matador’s Hotel. 

Next up: No One Belongs Here More than You, by Miranda July. The summer’s almost over, but keep reading!

Books By Women: Love in a Torn Land Joanna of Kurdistan

A little over a year ago now I studied abroad in Istanbul, Turkey and current Turkish politics is my historical niche. My last semester in college I completed independent research on Turkey’s pro-Kurdish political parties and Turkey’s cultural genocide of the country’s Kurdish populations. Briefly summarized, Kurds are a Muslim ethnic group with a majority of Kurds located in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Kurds have been systematically discriminated against and outright killed based on their ethnicity, with Saddam Hussein bombarding Iraqi Kurdistan with chemical attacks in 1988 in the Anfal campaign. There is no separate state of Kurdistan. For extensive information on abuses against Kurds, please check out the Kurdish Human Rights Project.

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My research into pro-Kurdish political parties and the knowledge I’ve sought to join the movement for Kurdish rights globally has led me to begin a historical fiction novel set in Turkish Kurdistan in the 1990s and my research for this novel led me to the book: Love in a Torn Land: Joanna of Kurdistan: The True Story of a Freedom Fighter’s Escape from Iraqi Vengeance. joanna of Kurdistan

I’m not sure how to describe this book. On the one hand, it’s a biography, written by Jean Sasson, who lived and worked in Saudi Arabia and has written multiple books through interviews with Middle Eastern women. But the book is narrated in first person from Joanna’s perspective. The writing reads as if it were a transcript compiled from the various interviews with Joanna, but to be honest I’m not sure how it was written. I’ve contacted Sasson to ask and hope to hear from her soon.

The writing didn’t have a lot of details which would have drawn me into Joanna’s story of growing up in Baghdad, marrying a Peshmerga Kurdish freedom fighter and surviving the Anfal Campaign. Hers is a story of survival, but I had difficulty investing myself because the writing didn’t put me into the scene. I can’t blame either Sasson or Joanna for this. Sasson explains in an interview on her website, that while speaking with Joanna, Joanna was often too traumatized to provide details, making the writing process far more difficult.

The book provided me with some of the cultural and historical information I need for my own project and it’s a great start for readers interested in modern Middle Eastern history who may not have a strong background.  As you read, you learn about Kurds, Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, the Iran-Iraq war, and many details people living in the west don’t have access to or wouldn’t think to ask about. And even if you know some of the facts already as I did, having a human perspective is far more compelling and real than all the statistics and academic research you could ever compile.

I’ll keep you updated if I hear back from Sasson! In the mean time, keep reading.

Up next: Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia.