Sunday, May 7, 2017

17 More Works by Women Writers, (Some Inspiring), III

NOTE: I'm not going to claim all these writers and their works as "inspiring" because that sounds too much like full-on glowing endorsement, and some of these are problematic (looking at you, Margaret Mitchell), but I would never say that means they should be banned--race, class and sex get all mixed up, sometimes in ugly ways, but trying to attain ideological purity in reading or writing (or anywhere!) just breeds more monsters.

1. Lynda Barry, anything by this cartoonist, including her more recent books on making art

A favorite author who gets the anarchic and vulnerable state of childhood, especially girlhood, right with her character Marlys in Ernie Pook's Comeek
Here's the author and Marlys in 2007. I relate strongly to this.
2. Pema Chodron, The Places That Scare You, etc.

 an American Buddhist whose wry search for "don't-kid-yourself" awareness has been an important guide to me.

3. Beatrix Potter, The Tailor of Gloucester
Mice rescue a kind tailor from disaster by finishing sewing the details on an important waistcoat (for a powerful client) when he is ill. Huh. Another story about powerless creators---both the mice and the tailor--achieving an under-the-radar victory.

4. S. E. Hinton, The Outsiders
"Stay gold, Pony Boy!" I didn't know this is a thing until I saw this scene (on youtube) in Ben Stiller's movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which I liked a lot.

5. Molly Ivins!
I miss her all the time in this era of the Insane #45

6. Janet Frame
More her as depicted in the movie Angel at My Table (1990, New Zealand, dir. Jane Campion) which I recommend, than her actual writings, though I did read her autobiography the movie's based on--about her life as a writer against crazy odds--and I also like the kindness of the writer who let her come live in his shed... (I forget his name--ah, just looked it up: Frank Sargeson).
Not this camper, but this is Janet Frame (adult)
7. Sheenah Pugh, the poem "Sometimes" (sometimes things don't go from bad to worse!), and The Democratic Genre: Fan Fiction in a Literary Context --writing as a writer about fanfic as writing, not a social or psychological phenomenon (or aberation)--an inspiration for my fandom book, in fact.

8. Buchi Emecheta
I think I read every novel by this Nigerian-born English writer that was out back in the '90s, because 
#1 they are good stories
and, #2, being about the experience of African women in England, they are also interesting stories, which, while told without a political agenda, become political simply by being honest.
She just died this year (2017) and I read this quote from her in her obit in the Guardian:
“Apart from telling stories, I don’t have a particular mission. I like to tell the world our part of the story while using the voices of women.”

And, from "Ama Ata Aidoo, one of the few African women to have been writing internationally since the 1960s, and who taught Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood in a course on African women’s literature, said: 'Buchi Emecheta was expert at cutting through mush.'"

9. Rose Macaulay, Towers of Trebizond (1956)< Re-released with this great cover 

For personal reasons: 
it's about a English woman pondering Catholic (or was it Anglican?) theology and her love affair with a married man while she travels around Turkey with her eccentric Aunt Dot--who delivers the famous first line,
"'Take my camel dear
,' said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass."
--personal because given to me by the married English man I was having a love affair with (the professor for whom I wrote a paper on the Holy Trinity), after I got baptized and went to Turkey in 1998---I encountered no camels, but otherwise this book weirdly fit my life---very meta! 
(So weirdly.)
But also, it's a good, odd, (and in parts v. flawed) read, as I recall, although, full disclosure: I haven't read it since.

10. Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness
About finding her spiritual and intellectual life in being a scholar, after leaving the convent she had entered as a teenager. Sometimes we take a dead end, for a horribly long time, and have to back up and try again...

11. Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes (1926)
Like Fludd, another novel that asks if making a deal with the devil might not be a better deal for a woman than Fitting In.

From Helen Macdonald's mention in "By the Book" (New York Times): (H.M. wrote H Is for Hawk, which many people but not me loved):
“[The book] I’ll be pressing into people’s hands forever is “Lolly Willowes,” the 1926 novel by Sylvia Townsend Warner. It tells the story of a woman who rejects the life that society has fixed for her in favor of freedom and the most unexpected of alliances. It completely blindsided me: Starting as a straightforward, albeit beautifully written family saga, it tips suddenly into extraordinary, lucid wildness.” 

12. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie books

 Not my favorite books as a child--they were my sister's--but I read them several times growing up (sometimes when I had to stay home sick), and if nothing else, they were good for showing what life on the frontier was like for white folk (and the concept that "the frontier" used to be Wisconsin!)--stuff like how they made their own soap, and an orange was an exciting Christmas present---
and most especially I would recommend The Long Winter, which scared the bejeezus out of me, depicting how they all almost froze and starved to death one bad winter when they ran out of food and fuel and had to resort to grinding the seed corn in their coffee grinder and twisting straw into tight bundles so it would burn longer.

13. Carol Ryrie Brink, Caddie Woodlawn (1935)
Also about a tomboy girl growing up in Wisconsin, I liked this much better than Little House books but, not having read it since I was a kid, I don't remember it very well---and it's far less well-known. Why? (Not made into a TV show? Problematic depictions of Native Americans?) I should re read this and see.

14. Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire (1976)

Heh. Before there was Twilight, there was this---I loved this erotic, slashy novel when I was in high school. Tried to read it again a few years ago and couldn't get past page 1, but I include it here as one of my teenage loves.

15. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Also a favorite childhood book. While I now find this disturbing in its benevolent, paternalistic form of racism:
noble white man helps grateful black folk, who get shot and killed by the police, anyway, but the white readers like me who identify with Atticus, get to feel we're Good white folk who get off the hook. (The Dances with Wolves phenomenon--if you cried at the  end, you aren't racist. As if it were that simple.)] 

I loved the book and the movie as a girl and would credit it with being a ... sort of bridge in my life toward realizing racism is a lot more complex than that.
* * * And also, the movie version of Scout is one of the best girls in all of film history, and for that alone I still love and owe it.

16. Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind
Another weird, very problematic one---unlike with Mockingbird, even as a kid I saw GWTW's disgusting racism: Scarlett basically says, "Slavery isn't bad--we were always nice to ours," like if you treat people like you'd treat pets or valuable livestoc, well, heck, what's the problem? 
(Though actually, I have some problem with the system of pet and livestock ownership too.)

I do credit this book with inadvertently showing me something crucial about history though: it has waaay more than one side. 
Growing up as a Northerner, I never heard (and still never hear) any other narrative about the Civil War other than we were The Good Guys, and the white South was Bad, All Bad.

While Trump is insane, and his recent pronouncements about Andrew Jackson are icky, icky, icky (the current president of the United States worshiping at the grave of a genocidal leader is disturbing)---for his own bad reasons, he also inadvertently poses a real question: 
could the Civil War have been handled differently?

Also, again, like Mockingbird, a good character (not morally good--I mean, Scarlett is well written as complex, alive, and Vivien Leigh portrays her amazingly in the movie) is wrapped in racism, like cantaloupe in bacon. (gross)
Scarlett is a rare depiction of a complicated woman who is trying (because circumstances force her) to be strong and independent (though in Scarlett's case, that means she resorts to evil), without being able to rely on men. 

17. Jane Gardam, Crusoe's Daughter (and all the others)

Gardam is one of my favorite authors, only discovered a couple years ago. Like so many novels I love, (I'm seeing in writing these lists of inspiring books), this is another one about a woman trying to live an authentic life---to become the Author of Her Own Life, like David Copperfield does--with few resources and even less social support than he has. 

I mean, David has to overcome impossible odds of poverty and cruelty, yes, and he has to shape himself into being a writer, and I love him for all that, but once he does that, he has the social supports of being an English gentleman and as an adult, he doesn't have to overcome even more social impediments.
Unlike his sort-of twin in childhood, Little Emily---whose life is indeed "little" in so many ways, and mirrors his--where he triumphs, she is destroyed. (Though she's partially redeemed in the deus ex machina of the novel's ending---Dickens whisks all the problematic Good characters off to Australia, where they flourish... Yeah. Whatever.)

When I re-read Copperfield recently, I saw that this childhood love of David's, Emily, as the orphan child of fisher folk, stands NO chance of becoming a lady, which she had told boy-David is her dream--and she wants to be a lady partly so she can take care of the uncle who raised her and replace their fishy old boat-house with a fine house.

But the social reality is that the best she, a bright, ambitious, beautiful girl, can do--and which, with a disgustingly patronizing attitude, David thinks she SHOULD do-- is to settle for marrying her rather simple-minded but devoted cousin, Ham, who she grew up with, and stay smelling like fish all her life:
(besides the claustrophobia-- physical, social, and psychological-- of this marriage, it also feels disturbingly incestuous to this modern reader). 

Instead she makes the tragic mistake of trusting and falling for the charming narcissist, Steerforth, who David introduces her to--David having made the same mistake of loving Steerforth and being unable to see how untrustworthy S. is--Emily is sort of David's sexual alter ego?---but he doesn't pay the ultimate price: Emily and her family do that. And that whole thing is one of the only honest psychological portraits in the otherwise rather smarmily simplistic book.

Emily's fate makes me appreciate Scarlett O'Hara for saying, "Oh, hell no! If the system is going to screw me, I'll screw it more."  

Was I clear about Gone with the Wind and how it had an impact on 13-year-old me?
I fear I was not.

What I meant was, when
some dozen years ago I read George Lakoff* on "Framing",  [youtube talk], I recognized his ideas about framing ideas & political discourse from reading GWTW:
people don't live in facts, we live in STORIES.

And the stories we tell ourselves (and one another) frame events---
its like, if you put a huge gold frame around a wedding photo and put it up over the mantle, you have dignified it;
and if you just shove that same photo in a lift-up-the-plastic-sheeting photo album and stick it in the closet, you have demoted it, even if it's exactly the Same Event, it now has a different story, and therefore it is different.

Ditto race and the Civil War and everything else.

Those who control the FRAME, control the story (at least in part), which controls... well, lots of everything (feelings, upon which we base actions, etc.).

My point is, I, me, a Northerner, learned from reading GWTW that some Southern whites live in an entirely different story, one in which they fought a tragic, losing, unwanted war for a genteel way of life...

It is almost pointless to debate facts or statistics or anything else with folks when/if they are just as attached to their 3D, holodeck, surround-sound story as I usually am to mine, unless we're willing and able to open some wedge of objective perspective.

That's the thing with cognitive biases, or frames, or assumptions:
you don't know you have them---to you, they feel like reality.

"They're learned very early and you don't know that you've learned them." --Lakoff

And for the realization that other people are living in different realities, and therefore the realization that I am living in my very own version of a story too, I thank GWTW.

Welcome to the club, Scarlett. (But congratulations for realizing it!)

*"Exactly what it means to 'frame' issues seems to depend on [who] you are talking to, but everyone agrees that it has to do with choosing the language to define a debate and, more important, with fitting individual issues into the contexts of broader story lines. "
--"The Framing Wars", 2005 NYT 

Lakoff on Trump (on youtube)

1 comment:

Bink said...

What a fantastic list, and commentary! Next time I head to the library I'll have to remember to consult your blog.