Showing posts with label nonfiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label nonfiction. Show all posts

Sunday, February 17, 2019

I am an uneducated feminist | Thoughts on Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex

I don't think I quite expected to be confronted by my ignorance to such a stark degree while reading The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir's classic of feminist literature. I am currently reading the version translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, slowly immersing myself in this book I had heard so much about in references, but had never actually read myself. I kept telling myself there would be no reason for me to actually read this "original", second-wave text; after all, I have read so much literature from future generations of the feminist movement. Right?

I'm not a new feminist, nor do I consider myself to be a young feminist. I have followed feminist discourse since my early teen years and I have even actively engaged in it through the women in translation project. Feminism is a key part of my identity and I have long made sure that I read plenty of essays and discussions about feminism. I have often found myself enlightened by online feminists, but almost as often exasperated or frustrated. At times, I've even been angry with mainstream, popular feminist writers and their writing. But I certainly never considered myself uneducated, nor did I think that they were uneducated.

It's hard to come away from reading The Second Sex and not wonder if perhaps many more of us are ignorant than I previously believed: ignorant of the history of feminism, of the literature, and of our own inflated sense of self-importance.

Early in The Second Sex, de Beauvoir writes about the ways in which being a woman is not the only determining factor in political views or approach: "women as a sex lack solidarity: they are linked to their classes first; bourgeois and proletarian interests do not intersect". The use of the word "intersect" immediately caught my attention. While the translation is modern, it seemed unlikely that the choice of this word was necessarily modern. In essence, it struck me that I was reading a clear reference to intersectional feminism, years before it was canonized as a term by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. de Beauvoir actually has several discussions that are surprisingly parallel to modern intersectional theory, specifically in reference to the complex status that racial/ethnic minorities have in society (i.e. black people in the US, Jewish people in Europe).

I was surprised by these references, though I'm not sure why. Crenshaw is certainly the figure in truly establishing intersectionalism as a concept within the feminist movement, and her status as such should not be diminished. Rather, I use this example to point toward my own recurring ignorance of how prevalent certain ideas have been in feminist discourse long before they appeared on the internet in filtered, shallow versions. Furthermore, my own interest in this specific example emphasized that while I've seen Crenshaw - like de Beauvoir - referenced time and time again in online pieces or essay collections, I had never actually read any of her works or writing on the topic. It suddenly occurred to me that I had been reading watered down versions or reworkings of feminist theory, rather than the original.

There are a lot of things in The Second Sex that are outdated (and not just funny things, like references to Queen Elizabeth... singular, since in 1949 there had only been one). It's understandable that certain norms and psychological understandings would have changed over 70 years. The clearest example of de Beauvoir being a product of her time probably comes from her now-conservative interpretations of gender/gender roles and sexuality. Specifically, her writing would place her on the border of the modern definition of "transphobic", with a sort of closed-mindedness to the fluidity of gender identity that most modern feminists of her ilk have forsaken. The adherence to Freudian psychology similarly feels rather old, and certainly some of the studies are no longer relevant or have been disproven since de Beauvoir's time. She also has a bizarre tendency to over-cite male authors writing about women, as though these are more accurate than women's own accounts. These all make some degree of sense when taken as a product of de Beauvoir's time (and if we view her work as truly revolutionary), though it is still worth pointing out. Even as de Beauvoir goes out of her way to emphasize extremely progressive-for-her-times interpretations of gender roles or sexuality, there are still gaps or interpretations that have simply proven to be false. These, if anything, emphasize the ways in which feminist discourse has changed... and the ways in which it hasn't.

Because ultimately The Second Sex remains shockingly relevant to the modern reader. More than that, it often reads like a more critical, in-depth version of a feminist blog. Topic after topic strike me as those which I still see being discussed today, even if the specific references and studies cited have changed (thankfully). Which makes me wonder... why are there so many feminist blogs of this sort, if it's already been written and analyzed? Some parts even left me embarrassed that I've tried to write about the same topics myself, yet it now becomes obvious that I was missing so much necessary context and history.

What strikes me while reading The Second Sex is that many pop-feminists are just as uneducated as I am. The uncomfortable truth is, for all my "feminist stripes", I've actually never engaged with the canon before this. Yes, I've read plenty of the fictional feminist canon (e.g. The Handmaid's Tale, The Bell Jar), and I've even read Bad Feminist (though some of you may recall what my opinion on the book was...), but I've actually read very little of the canon. Most of what I read of feminist literature is actually regurgitated online pop-feminism, and while this has benefits of a sort, I was thoroughly misled to believe that it was ever enough.

What do I mean by this? Take discussions of "intersectionality". Most online posts that discuss the importance of intersectionality (and I include my own blog here!) do so from a vague, hand-wavy perspective. We can all cite Crenshaw as the originator of the idea because just about every blog post has ever referenced her (almost furiously), but we rarely discuss what it actually means. I've seen countless arguments that center around the idea that intersectionality (or, indeed, intersections) can only refer to the intersection between race and another marginalization: namely, that since it was initially used to describe the intersection between race (specifically, being black) and gender (female). This is an odd claim when it is evident that the concept of intersectionality existed long before the phrase became popularized by Crenshaw. Again, this is not to take away from the importance of Crenshaw's writing (especially since her work focused on the black experience specifically, which is still too often ignored!), but it does remind me how easy it is to reference existing work that you (I) have never actually read or studied and moreover to reference it without any of the work that actually went into the original research/theory.

This is far from the only example. In her chapter on motherhood, de Beauvoir dedicates a great deal of time and words to describing the hypocrisy of contemporary abortion policy. It is almost identical to something that we might read today, with the only major difference being that abortion is somewhat more freely available today (somewhat). Yet her descriptions of the limitations placed on it and the moralistic arguments against it could just as easily have been posted to The Guardian last week. I've always felt vaguely uncomfortable with the way that many feminist columns or blog posts feel similar to each other; many popular feminist writers will want to place their own stamp on a certain topic and will write about it, even when it has been explored by other writers. This is not inherently wrong (since personal experience can obviously shape interpretation, and more feminist writing means more exposure to feminist thought!), but it leaves me feeling as though many writers are only constantly rehashing existing ideas rather than exploring new concepts. The Second Sex has made me feel that even more strongly, with the sense that when we have these discussions, we're forgetting for how many years feminists have already been writing about these same concepts (and often with far more depth).

I'm not quite done with The Second Sex yet and I still hope to write a review of it more fully. This, after all, is not a review. I'm not even sure it's a fair assessment of modern feminism, rather than disappointment in my own ignorance. To be perfectly honest, I'm suddenly wondering whether I even have the stripes to be able to comment on pop-feminism - is that even a thing? Have I simply misunderstood what most of the feminist writers I've been reading for years have been trying to tell me?

Here's the bottom line: I like how extensive The Second Sex is, but it's not the compiled nature of the book that makes it important. If a feminist were to focus an entire book on a topic that de Beauvoir covers in only one chapter, it would not make it a lesser work simply because it is shorter/covers fewer topics. Rather, it occurs to me that it's the pseudo-academic style that de Beauvoir utilizes that has been missing from most of the works I've read. While I often disagree with the literal sources that de Beauvoir cites (and occasionally thinks she cherry-picks anecdotes without acknowledging contradictory experience), she is still casting a wide net. She references literature, memoirs, and scientific studies. de Beauvoir is not simply reworking existing ideas through the lens of their existing context, she is compiling a comprehensive study of a wide range of topics as though from scratch. (And do I really know whether this was from scratch? Clearly many of these topics had already been widely discussed...)

It took me a long time to read The Second Sex in large part because I mistakenly assumed that I didn't need to read it. There are few topics that de Beauvoir has covered so far with which I have not already been familiar. Most of the ideas that she cites that I didn't know are ones that are clearly outdated. But that just isn't what makes the book important. At the end of the day, this is a bit like the sciences: I might read a review of a topic in order to generally learn about it and the most recent updates in the field, but if I really care about it, I'm going to have to read the source papers that the review cites.

It's time for me to read the sources.

Friday, January 25, 2019

An open letter to Elena Ferrante | Frantumaglia

Dear Elena Ferrante,

It's a little odd for me to be writing this post in the form of an open letter. I could, after all, just write a real letter, I suppose, but it feels so unlikely that it would ever reach you (and thus, anyone) that I find myself more inclined towards simply writing an open letter, sending it out into the void known as the internet, and hoping that maybe (maybe!) you'll see this letter someday and find it interesting or worthy of your time.

I've finished reading the collection of letters and fragments published in English as Frantumaglia: A Writer's Journey (translated by Ann Goldstein and a few others). It was, I have to admit, a bit of an odd, at times unsettling read for me. The first section was perhaps the least interesting, to a certain degree, because I have yet to read Troubling Love. I know, I know, what sort of fan am I? (I also haven't read The Lost Daughter, and I've had that on my shelf for almost four years! I am soundly ashamed...) I definitely want to read it now, but it complicated my ability to read Frantumaglia, since I tried to skim through the early section and had to skip entire portions. I suddenly feel as though I'm missing a whole lot of necessary context to understand and engage with your writing, but there you have it.

The unsettling part for me, though, wasn't so much in the content. I've thought a lot about narratives over the past year or so, specifically the degree to which modern journalism is built around the idea of building narratives from nothing and then perpetuating them by giving them more and more airtime. So it becomes easy to craft a narrative about, say, a certain politician. Or about a certain demographic. Or even craft a narrative about a complex conflict or disagreement. It's enough to suggest that there is a narrative, and then build a whole story around that suggestion.

And as I read your repeated, almost exhausting (frustrated?) responses to journalists and readers persistently questioning you about your "identity", I grew angry. Truly, I grew angry for your sake. I realize, rationally, that these journalists weren't coming from my perspective of reading your interviews/letters/responses one after the other and could thus see with cold clarity the degree to which you have explained your stance over the course of almost thirty years, but it seems to me honestly shocking how persistent they are in disregarding your obvious wishes. Why every interviewer felt the need to re-ask the same questions that they knew (and cited!) from previous interviews about information they felt they deserved to know... I'm sorry, I truly am.

I was struck by your response and how it ties into this question of narrative that I've been obsessing over for so long. You say it exactly right - the story comes from the fact that the media wants there to be a story. After all, many writers don't engage in much publicity of their works. There's nothing too shocking about wanting to stay out of the limelight or writing under a pen name. Would anyone have even noticed if you'd used a fake jacket photo and written a bland blurb about living in a fake town with your fake children and your fake dog? I'd offer my photo, but seeing as I was barely alive when your first novel was published, I don't think it'll fly.

I wish I could undo the nonsense that others have asked you. I wish I could remove the question from our lexicon. And yet you see, even without me asking the questions (because, frankly, I don't think it's necessary; my curiosity is secondary to my respect for an individual's privacy and I steadfastly refuse to read or acknowledge attempts to dismantle it), I have to address it. It's become a necessary part of the story of your works. How exceedingly disappointing and frustrating. Here's to hoping the narrative will truly die down, and with that I will leave the matter behind.

There are so many interesting points raised within the pages of Frantumaglia that it's a little overwhelming to try to address them all. I honestly don't think I can, and as I write these words it occurs to me that perhaps I also shouldn't. I'm not nearly clever enough to be able to adequately address so much of what you have written about your own works, and I'm the sort of reader who doesn't retain very much in the way of plots or individual lines from a text, rather holds on to the emotions I felt while reading, which means that I can hardly be viewed as an expert on any book I haven't reread at least a dozen times. (And I have only read each of your works once, alas. This will change soon.)

I think the biggest point of contention I have with you is about feminism. While not as ubiquitous as the Big Question That Shall Not Be Named, it's a topic that cropped up again and again in many of your interviews. The evolution of your response to the question was actually fascinating to me, particularly the way you seemed almost cautious to use the label in the 1990s, and then more confidently embrace the term (and adjacent phrases such as "the patriarchy"!) by the early 2000s. I found some of your comments disappointing, though. I'm not going to argue how you view your feminism, particularly when your writing has inspired so many women readers (young and old) from a deeply feminist perspective. Death of the author and all that. But I find your characterization of young feminists to be somewhat concerning.

Are there young feminists today who don't fully appreciate what battles feminism won in the past? I'm sure! I also have no doubt that you have encountered modern feminists who perform a sanitized, stripped down version of feminism that feels as though it is little more than a game. I certainly have! But the vast majority of young women that I know who identify as feminists are nothing like what you write. I am nothing like what you write. And I am not quite "militant" myself (though I think I wouldn't feel as uncomfortable with the term as you seem to be). I feel you have engaged in a rather serious act of oversimplification, viewing the young generation as lazy and substandard simply because you are unfamiliar with what our causes actually are. I'd also argue that the degree to which so many of my feminist friends adore your novels is an indication that we probably speak a much more similar language than you realize.

It's an odd experience, reading a book that feels so intimate while being thoroughly repetitive. I'm not saying that to be cruel, it's obvious to me why themes repeat and recur. When journalists constantly pose the same questions, it seems inevitable. Unfortunately, it does complicate matters from my own critical perspective; I can't quite say that I loved the book when I glossed over so much of it. Some of your conversations are so detailed that they also felt like an infringement upon my own interpretations of the text. As interesting as it is to read, it's not necessarily something I want to adopt. Does that make sense?

I'm glad I read Frantumaglia, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to have spent this time with you. I like your writing and I like what you have to say about it, even if we don't always agree. I feel that you approach the world in an interesting way, which probably explains why I like your novels - they seem to capture a perspective that I connect with, even when I have nothing in common with the characters or the narrative. It was an honor to get a glimpse of some of the thought process behind your writing.

Sincerely yours,
Meytal (aka Biblibio)

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

WITMonth Day 21 | Lieutenant Nun by Catalina de Erauso

Listen up, Hollywood. Here is your next major blockbuster adventure film or miniseries. Are you listening? Catalina de Erauso's Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World is your next summer hit, I promise, just don't mess up the casting. This story (translated by Michele Stepto and Gabriel Stepto) is so utterly wild, it's impossible not to appreciate it (even if you're likely to spend half your time reading scratching your head and raising your eyebrows).

There are a few things I should point out right off the bat. First, yes, the title is a little... bad. The term "transvestite" rather clearly displays this edition's age (and it has not aged particularly well). Second is the questionable approach (in general) taken in attempt to contextualizing the author's gender/identity within (not so) modern definitions, that ultimately left me feeling somewhat uncomfortable. The introduction (and again the title) attempts to define who Catalina de Erauso was, but I'm not certain that the conclusions are entirely apt (I'll get to this in a moment). This is certainly a shame, but that should not erase the content within the book itself. Which, again, absolutely ridiculous.

Because Lieutenant Nun is a memoir of sorts, but it's the sort of memoir that leaves you wondering whether the author is just having a good laugh. The story is chock-full of unbelievable coincidences, recurring characters (since when does that actually happen in real life...?), absurd adventures, suave romances, gender-bending apathy, and constant drama. Was the author really pretty much the coolest Spaniard roaming around Latin America in the 17th century? Or is this a case of epic trolling?

Of course I did not know any of this before I picked up the book. I purchased Lieutenant Nun (for a nice $1 at a used bookstore) precisely because of the gender question posed by my edition; I was intrigued by the contrast between the nun and the soldier. As I learned more about Erauso, I found myself drawn into scholarly debates about gender and sexual identity (a taste of this is available on Wikipedia, surprisingly!). This debate is, of course, heavily influenced by current cultural interpretations of gender and sexuality, and I personally have often been uncomfortable with attempts to define historical figures by modern categories of gender/sexuality. Even so, reading Lieutenant Nun, exploring Erauso's own casual dismissal of femininity (at times) and flirtations with women (frequent) and alternating identification, I think the characterization of Erauso as genderqueer or gender nonbinary is ultimately the most descriptive (especially since Erauso used both masculine and feminine pronouns).

Erauso begins the memoir by detailing the childhood of a young girl, destined for the convent. This is where the adventure begins, with Erauso quickly leaving the confines of cloistered life behind and embarking on a series of terrible exploits that ultimately lead to their arrival in the New World. Here, Erauso ends up involved in an almost endless stream of complications, ranging from "I basically made all the pretty noble girls fall in love with me" to "I lost a ton of money" to "I shot and killed my brother" to "I got out of murder charges six more times in a variety of ways". In a rather dry, thin style, Erauso tells of each adventure as though it's all perfectly normal. As I read their account, I couldn't help laughing aloud. It's all so ridiculous... yet so entertaining. Made for film, I tell you.

It's surprisingly difficult to actually summarize or review Lieutenant Nun. There's the narrative itself, of course, with the intense and dramatic adventures that is pretty much impossible to describe without doing its absurdity injustice. But then there's also the meta-commentary, the modern interpretation of Erauso's gender (and why is it that we're so obsessed with their gender/sexuality anyways...?) and the extensive discussions surrounding it. I'm not particularly qualified to get into that, nor into the more historical analyses of the veracity of Erauso's various stories. But they cast an interesting light on this short book, adding depth to a swashbuckling maybe-totally-trolling brief memoir. Even without getting into the meta conversations though, the book is definitely worth reading just for the wild ride you'll end up on... and again, Hollywood, your next hit is calling!

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

WITMonth Day 7 | 10 Recommended Nonfiction Books


Typically when we talk about women in translation, we focus on fiction. For me, this mostly stems from the fact that Three Percent database on which I base my statistics is fiction/poetry focused (and thus these are most of the titles to which I'm exposed!), and that I typically personally prefer reading fiction to nonfiction. That being said, nonfiction is a fascinating slice of literature and should not be forgotten! Women writers are often underrepresented in nonfiction writing overall (particularly when it comes to history, science, and politics), and certainly when combined with the women in translation gap, it's worth promoting a few nonfiction books by women in translation!

  1. The Second Sex - Simone de Beauvoir, tr. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier: A classic of feminist literature that is often regarded as one of the foremost critical texts of the 20th century.
  2. Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets - Svetlana Alexievich, tr. Bela Shayevich: Not a Nobel Prize winner for nothing, Alexievich has long been praised for her oral histories, bringing in individual voices as parts of a breathing tapestry of living history.
  3. Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy - Ece Temelkuran, tr. Zeynep Beler: A fascinating modern history of Turkey, its political turmoils, and hope for its future.
  4. Cockroaches - Scholastique Mukasonga, tr. Jordan Stump: A brutal, beautiful, and unforgettable account of the Rwandan genocide.
  5. Now and the at the Hour of Our Death - Susana Moreira Marques, tr. Julia Sanches: A unique account of end of life care, and the end of life.
  6. Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions - Valeria Luiselli, tr. Lizzie Davis and Valeria Luiselli: Written across both English and Spanish, translated and retranslated, this extraordinarily timely account of undocumented children in the U.S. facing deportation looks to the heart of a problem too often dehumanized.
  7. What Are the Blind Men Dreaming? - Noemi Jaffe, tr. Julia Sanches and Ellen Elias-Bursać: Mother, daughter, and granddaughter each grappled - in her own words and language - with the memory of surviving the Holocaust, moving on and staying behind.
  8. In Other Words - Jhumpa Lahiri, tr. Ann Goldstein: The acclaimed U.S. author switches languages for a book-length meditation on language, translation, identity, and love itself. 
  9. In Praise of Black Women - Simone Schwarz-Bart, tr. Rose-Myriam Rejouis, Val Vinokurov, and Stephanie K. Daval: An encyclopedia of black women throughout history, spanning prehistoric queens through modern world leaders across several volumes.
  10. Translation as Transhumance - Mireille Gansel, tr. Ros Schwartz: Further meditations on translations as they relate to humanity, culture, and history.
Those are just a few nonfiction titles! As you might have seen, this list is incomplete - where, after all, are the women in translation writing about the sciences? Writers from Asia? From South America? No list will ever be truly encompassing, so help fill in the blanks! What are your favorite nonfiction titles by women writers in translation?

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Gaps in history | The Rest is Noise | Review

I used to read a lot more nonfiction and history-focused books. As a kid, I loved reading books that dove into a specific topic and described them from top to bottom, getting into all the small details. And I don't even mean kid-lit history books; by the age of eleven, I was reading thick, dark tomes about the rise of white racism in the US, the history of Korea, Russian military tactics, British royal succession, and so on. Just as soon as I was capable of physically holding heavy books (thanks Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire!), I was reading them, enaging with a broad range of topics but ultimately always falling back on history. I loved history, you see.

But at some point, my interests shifted, and there were many years in which I read very little nonfiction at all. Yes, there would be a few books a year, but they'd either be memoirs or contemporary texts (often feminist in nature). In recent years, with the WIT project, I've started reading a lot more historical feminist texts; still not quite history.

It was in those many years of nonfiction non-existence that The Rest is Noise languished on my shelves. And I do mean many years, as I bought the book back in 2012. When I purchased it, I was so certain that I would read it immediately. A history of 20th century classical music! Highly acclaimed! Fat and bursting with historical goodness!

So yes, it would take me six years to get around to reading The Rest is Noise. Interestingly, I ended up reading the book in one of the least musical periods of my life (or at least, least classical-music periods). If I used to listen to classical music for at least eight hours a week, these days I might listen to two hours a month. Times have changed (and also my workmates really hate classical music...). This meant that there were little references or musical cues that I found myself simply... not remembering. Since I read the book over Shabbat, I also couldn't check for them. It created this fascinating experience, in which I was reading all about music and couldn't actually engage with it. Probably the exact opposite effect of what Alex Ross was going for.

The problem with The Rest is Noise is ultimately that it proved incapable of fulfilling its own mission. The book's subtitle "Listening to the Twentieth Century" makes a very clear promise - to listen to the 20th century... - yet the book heavily focuses on the first half. You might reasonably argue that classical music has been on a decline in recent decades, but the fact is that a lot of unique and powerful classical music has emerged since 1960, and much of it goes unmentioned by Ross. His focus on the canonic composers means that readers can't even be exposed to something new; the book prefers to focus on that which is already known.

It also fails in regards to its treatment of women. You see, women almost don't exist in The Rest is Noise, and if they do, they're typically wives or muses or Alma Mahler, okay it's almost all Alma Mahler. There are only a handful (literally!) of women composers name-dropped throughout the entire book, only one prior to 1960, and the rest in a fairly rushed manner at the end. 

Now, you might again attempt to argue: "Sure, there are a few women composers, but none of them are famous! None of these women are particularly well known!" To which I say... you're right! But shouldn't a book that styles itself a history of 20th century at least attempt to rectify this awareness gap? To his credit, Ross does basically this with regards to black composers, devoting a chapter to the topic. It's a shallow recognition of the fact that yes, black composers have also always existed, but at least it's there. Women are largely left behind.

There are other odd gaps. Ross frequently points to the Jewishness of many of the 20th century's greatest composers, yet at no point tries to connect between this fact and Jewish culture. More often than not, a composer's Jewishness is used as a reminder that they had to flee Europe and that a chapter on WWII-classical music is coming up. It felt like an odd omission. Jewish culture is deeply musical, moreover it is a culture that strongly promotes education and intense work in order to best study. Of course a culture of this sort, when partially (or wholly) secularized, would become a dominant force in composing! (See also: 20th century Jewish scientists.)

What's frustrating is that I could very clearly see how Ross (and other readers, presumably) viewed his book. Here is a man, writing passionately about the topic that he loves most. Which is great! I'm glad that he was able to write this book. But the blunt truth is that this is not the book that I wanted to read. There was plenty here that I found fascinating, oh yes, and it made me crave a similar sort of text summarizing jazz's history, but it also made me grateful that I already own Anna Beer's Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music. Because while Ross is comfortable overlooking a lot of pieces of history, I'm not really interested in reading it. A book doesn't have to be bad to be a disappointment, or at least not what I'm looking for. A lot has changed since 2012.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

WITMonth Day 23 | Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy by Ece Temelkuran

Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed that I mentioned three titles in my post about nonfiction a few days ago, and that two of those books have already been reviewed this WITMonth. Well, it's now time to review the third: Ece Temelkuran's Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy (tr. Zeynep Beler).

Turkey... Turkey was something a bit different. Unlike Cockroaches which is a phenomenal book, period, I can't claim that Turkey is a great book overall. It's definitely very good, don't get me wrong, but it drags in parts and rambles in others and sometimes seems to lose its own way a bit. It's also, importantly, not a memoir. Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy seeks to introduce readers to a broadly sketched Turkey. For me - a reader who has read only two or so Turkish books, and all novels - Temelkuran's sharp approach felt revelatory. It was a true learning experience, especially in portions where Temelkuran was clearly speaking to the non-Turkish reader.

It was also (like with The Queue) a remarkably familiar narrative. As I fell deeper into contemporary Turkish political drama, I found myself shuddering with the realization that these exact same things were being repeated elsewhere in the world (specifically Israel, but portions felt reminiscent of the US as well). The book was thus also more than just an education on modern Turkish politics, it was also an eye-opening warning about how easily totalitarianism can take over. Especially since I was reading the book shortly after Erdoğan's referendum on presidential power passed, and I could see how Temelkuran - who obviously did not know of this referendum while writing the book, since it was a few years in the future - anticipated it.

Reading books like Turkey can be chilling, uncomfortable experiences. It's not exactly enjoyable, nor is the educational aspect as fulfilling as a strictly historical text might be. Yet this type of nonfiction serves an important purpose in providing readers with a context for contemporary events. In this regard, Turkey is doubly unique, as it is not written in the form of isolated essays. It's a cohesive book, even if imperfect at times in its pacing.

Turkey is mainly two things, though: It's sharp, and it's thoughtful. My edition's cover has a single blurb "Engrossing and intimate", and honestly it's both of those things. Its politics - its clarity in its politics - is certainly sharp and engrossing, to-the-point while hardly skimping on information. Meanwhile, Temelkuran's personal anecdotes and loving portrayal of her flawed homeland (a tone I could 100% relate to, for the record) provide a thoughtful and intimate environment. Temelkuran makes sure that her messy Turkey becomes our fascinating, timely, and eye-opening Turkey.

Monday, August 21, 2017

WITMonth Day 21 | Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga

It's time to talk about what is probably the best book I've read in the past year: Cockroaches.

I haven't gotten around to reviewing Scholastique Mukasonga's novel Our Lady of the Nile yet, but in a sentence: I liked it enough that I bought Cockroaches (translated by Jordan Stump) soon after it came out. Our Lady of the Nile was the first book I'd ever read specifically about Rwanda, and I finished it feeling like I had learned a lot. It's a book that shrinks the Rwandan genocide down to a small scale, displaces it, and blurs it somewhat. It was an insightful, powerful novel. How wrong I was to think I understood anything.

Cockroaches.

I grimaced at the title. I loathe cockroaches. Silly as it sounds, I felt like the book was warning me somehow. Bad content here. Stay away. A warning that had little to do, it turns out, with cockroaches, and significantly more to do with the strikingly clean descriptions of utterly horrific events. This isn't surprising, of course. Cockroaches isn't about the bugs, it's about the humans that other humans deem lower than the lowest creature - simply cockroaches. It's about how humans strip other humans of their humanity and how they use this to justify genocide.

Prior to Cockroaches, the only other story I had ever encountered about Rwanda and the Rwandan genocide was Mukasonga's previously published Our Lady of the Nile. That's it. I had heard stories from family members who had been to Rwanda; one described the memorial museum as "a Holocaust museum, but with Tutsis instead of Jews". I kept thinking of that while reading Cockroaches. Pieces of the memoir felt so familiar, reminders of every Holocaust story I'd encountered in my childhood (and adulthood...), yet this is also very clearly the story of a completely different genocide.

Or rather, I should note, this isn't quite the story of the Rwandan genocide itself as much as it's the story of how Rwanda became a country in which the 1994 genocide could even occur. Mukasonga makes clear from the very first page of the memoir that her survival is the exception: The book opens with a painful dedication to all those who lost their lives and their families, and to "the few who have the sorrow of surviving". In my view, this is the line that captures the essence of Cockroaches. This is a beautifully written book that uses simple, clear writing while conveying a terrible, painful, and gut-wrenching reality.

There's more to it, of course. Mukasonga gives voice to her lost family, but she also builds an entire world around them. Mukasonga never lets the reader forget that the genocide - which technically occurred in 1994 - begins much earlier, with a series of smaller events and horrors. Genocide never occurs in a day. What begins as forced relocation turns into total extermination. First certain individuals. Later, everyone. The elderly. Children. Babies.

Cockroaches is not an easy book. It's short, yes, and Mukasonga writes simply. It's the sort of book you can read through within a few hours, but this is far from a quick, breezy read. This is a book that enters your soul. It feels like a cockroach has crawled under your skin, itching and burning as it burrows into you. It's personal, but not manipulative in its emotions. Mukasonga's survival sorrow rings powerfully, such that I cannot imagine a reader leaving this book unmoved. For this granddaughter of Holocaust survivors (and great-granddaughter, -niece, -cousin, etc. of Holocaust victims), the book felt like a necessary awakening to learn more about those horrors that I haven't been exposed to as much. It felt like an education. And it felt like a painful reminder of how absolutely easy it is for humanity to fail, and fail again.

To quote Mukasonga: "I wish I could write this page with my tears."

Sunday, August 20, 2017

WITMonth Day 20 | The importance of nonfiction

I've always loved nonfiction, though it's been sidelined in my reading for several years. As a kid, I used to devour heavy historical tomes or manuscripts. I loved reading political commentary, biographies, essays, and scientific texts. I used to read a lot more nonfiction than I do today (excluding the mass of scientific papers I read for work, which would add up to more than all literature I currently read if counted...).

Certainly, I can't say I've read all that much work by women in translation.

Now as an important disclaimer, I'll note that I've read very little nonfiction by men in translation either. But I can't pretend that I'm not painfully aware of how little nonfictional works by women in translation are translated. One need only glance over university press catalogs such as Columbia University Press (in which only one of seven recently released titles in translation is by a woman) or Harvard University Press (in which two out of fifteen titles in the Spring/Summer 2017 catalog were by women writers) to realize that an even more extreme gap between men and women in translation exists in the academic world of nonfiction texts than in fiction (and I'll note that the single title by a woman in translation from CUP is actually a novel; books by men are divided).

I've previously talked about why I find university presses to be important gatekeepers, but those stats specifically referred to fiction. When it comes to nonfiction, with an even wider gap, I find myself increasingly frustrated. Translated nonfiction is already such a minor subset. It can span basically whatever topics and fields you want, since nobody really has any expectation that you translate certain books above others (because let's be real - nonfiction published by university presses has a very specific target audience in mind). There is no real motivation to publish a new-new-new-new translation of those most masculine Greek classics, nor to specifically publish that one guy's treatise on European fascism. Yet somehow the strong bias in favor of men writers exists.

Nonfiction is important. Academic texts are important. Not simply as just "another" parameter, but also because nonfiction covers a huge spectrum of the human experience. Take, for example, the three nonfiction titles by women in translation I have read thus far in 2017: Scholastique Mukasonga's powerful memoir Cockroaches, Ece Temelkuran's thoughtful and politically sharp Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy, and Ève Curie's unique biography of her mother Marie. Each book covers a different piece of the nonfiction spectrum, though all three are certainly more on the literary side of things (than the academic). And I'm still in the midst of reading Svetlana Alexievich's Voices from Chernobyl, an utterly unique oral history of that horrific event.

Yet alongside these titles, I've come across so many books in the past year by early feminist scholars that have never been translated. Books by queer Latin American feminist analyzing their identities. Books by historians, scientists, researchers, and academics. Books that crop up when you sift through Wikipedia, author by author, but have yet to find a home in English (or many other languages, for that matter). Instead, nonfiction in translation (itself too tiny a field) remains steadfastly male, and predominantly European. This should change.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

WITMonth Day 15 | Madame Curie by Ève Curie

When I found Madame Curie in a used bookstore, it felt like a sign. Not only was this a beautifully bound biography of one of the greatest scientists in history, it was written by her daughter Ève Curie in French (tr. Vincent Sheean). Marie Curie, a woman in translation. Quite appropriate.

Even so, it took me a long time to get around to reading this biography. In general, I find that I need more time and focus for most biographies (for most nonfiction overall, honestly), something that often clashes with my work demands and limited reading time. I love nonfiction, but I find myself reading less and less of it in recent years (for entertainment, that is; I read plenty for work...). Once I started Madame Curie, however, it took two focused sittings and I was done with the book. Enthralled by the life of this woman I have read so much about, yet ultimately know so little of.

Because yes, most of us know that Marie Curie was Polish. But how did she get to France? How did she fall in love with the sciences? What guided her to the places she reached, where she would eventually become infamous?

Curiously - or perhaps not, given that the biography was written by Curie's publicly adoring younger daughter - Madame Curie does not linger much on the traditional puzzle pieces or complexities one would expect from a biography. Most of the book details her personal life, rather than the professional aspect. Ève raises the sexism that Marie faced as a rare woman in her field, but doesn't really focus on it. I found this fascinating, since modern biographical pieces on Marie Curie (such as those found in almost every "Great Women in Science" or whatever types of collections) tend to emphasize this point, from an explicitly modern perspective. Ève doesn't do that. Yes, she acknowledges some of what Marie experienced, but she offers few interpretations of her own.

Overall, Ève Curie proves to be an interesting biographer, since she is also a character within the book. It is fairly odd to read a book in which the author alternates between referring to herself in the third person and a few paragraphs later, recounting the object of her book (in this case, her mother) through a personal anecdote. It creates a weird dissonance that I didn't always like.

However, I think it sort of goes without saying that Madame Curie is the sort of book you read with little regard for the technical writing. Not that it's bad, but I honestly wouldn't rank this as an especially good biography. It's a great piece of history, it's a great emotional assessment of a woman frequently reduced only to her science, and it's a lovely exploration of Marie Curie's life. There's something very warm about the way Ève writes of her mother, even if it at times feels like she's whitewashing her own history a little.

And of course... there's the content. I can't help but love this book for its content. I have admired Marie Curie for years, of course, not simply as a woman in the sciences, but also as a clear example of a woman who didn't let anything stand in her way. Yet the image I had in my mind seems to have been far from who Marie Curie really was. Rather than  the wunderkind I'd always imagined, a woman who did everything in her youth and spent years afterwards simply fighting the system, Marie Curie who got a Master's at 26 (like I expect to!) and married the great love of her life at 27 (what was once considered old!) and achieved her doctorate over several years. Instead of the mythical all-capable goddess of my imagination, Marie Curie instead appears as a totally brilliant human. A human like me, perhaps. With its focus on Marie Curie as a person and not just a scientist, Madame Curie gave me the hope that perhaps I too can someday be this sort of scientist. In this regard, I cannot overstate how emotional Madame Curie left me, feeling as though I had been given a small gift.

As I said, this isn't the most technically brilliant of books. But Madame Curie is nonetheless important. Ève's perspective is unique and at-times significant, besides which there are few full-length biographies of Curie from which to choose. Madame Curie is a lovely, if oddly informal (and non-academic) biography of an incredible woman. And it meant so very much to me.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

WITMonth Day 24 | Christine de Pizan | Thoughts

One of my personal victories from WTMonth is discovering Christine de Pizan. You might argue that it's more a sign of my earlier flaws as a reader (that I didn't know of her existence until two years ago...), but I choose to view it more positively. Here was a woman writing of feminist ideas before feminism even existed, exploring gender dynamics and topics of utmost importance to women (even today!) in 1405! And I found her!

I began with The Book of the City of Ladies, which was, in fact, better than I had expected. I came prepared to be somewhat bored, to find the text exhausting in its casual sexism and racism, reductionist and absurd all at once, while intriguing in its concept. Yet while it's obviously an old text and the cultural context is very different from our current one, Christine's writing felt shockingly modern. In fact, parts felt like they could have just as easily been written by a modern feminist blogger today.

The Treasure of the City of Ladies continued along a similar vein. The two books are very different in their message (and thus their morality...), but both had this undercurrent vibe of: You're raising the exact same issues modern feminists raise today, but you're reaching completely different conclusions. Christine's morality is inherently tied to Christianity (and a very specific type of Christianity at that), further influenced by general cultural norms of the time. That means it's lacking much of the inclusive warmth modern feminism has rightly adopted (and intersectionality as a notion is pretty much limited to Christine pointing out that women of lower social classes are not meaningless, though she spends little time arguing the point...), and there is a rigid expectation of conduct that makes little sense in today's world.

This can make for uncomfortable reading in parts, though I found it fascinating. Take, for instance, Christine's advice on how women ought to treat their husbands. On the one hand, she advocates for wives to be docile and adhere to their husbands rule (even when those husbands may be cruel or abusive). But beneath that seemingly anti-feminist message lurks another odd little piece of advice: Wives, be wise enough in the workings of your estate and your husband's work to be able to advise him. While clearly sticking to the existing tradition by which wives must serve their husbands (and suffer in silence), Christine also pointedly fights for women to have basic (and not so basic) education. Don't be passive, she argues. Don't be ignorant. Don't...

Don't let men take advantage of you when you're widowed. Because that's what it appears happened to Christine upon her husband's death. In her memoirs, she writes almost dispassionately about the various men who saw an opportunity to swindle a young widow and about the legal woes she was forced into as a result. It makes you wonder, though, how much of the advice Christine gives in The Treasure is borne of bitterness. She so often dwells on how a wife must be kind and accommodating to her husband's friends, but what happened to her? Was she taken advantage of by friends, or rather did those kinder men help her? Is the advice ironic, through clenched teeth, or is Christine again recognizing a world which would hurt women in every possible way and one tiny way which might help them?

It was the moments of pure feminism, though, that fascinated me most. Imagine the audacity of a 15th century woman writing pointedly that no woman has ever encouraged rape or sought it out. Or discussing - flatly, furiously, ferociously - that women are not inherently less intelligent than men, nor less virtuous, nor more frivilous, nor incapable of learning, nor lesser beings. The Book of the City of Ladies is a treasure-trove of passionate arguments against claims that are still depressingly prevalent, with immediate retorts to things like "women's vanity" (Christine coolly points to the prevalence of deeply vain men in the French court), rape (she was asking for it has apparently been the argument for hundreds of years, but feminists weren't having it then and they won't have it now), women's intelligence (including Christine smugly referencing her own intelligence, in a rather gratifying bit of self-glorification) or education (for which Christine strongly advocates). These are the sorts of topics I still find fascinating today.

And I also loved the way things weren't the same. I loved seeing the differences between Christine's demands for basic rights as compared to modern feminist theory. I loved seeing the way Christine almost predicts the sorts of questions women will be asking 600 years later, or the problems they might face (even if her suggestions seem hilariously outdated). I loved having to put on my 15th-century glasses in order to try to rebuild Christine's truest meaning. I loved her observations, her sharpness, her breadth, her passion and her insistence. Here was a woman who recognized the important role she played. Yes, that is radical.

I've now read 2.5 books of Christine de Pizan's writing (multiple translators and editions); I hope to read everything of hers that has been translated into English. While representing only one perspective (I would love, for instance, to read contemporary texts from other parts of the world!), Christine is a sharp, witty, intelligent writer with a lot to say and her works are well worth reading. Not just her pre-feminist texts either, but also her poetry, her stories, her criticism...

Then I wonder... Why isn't Christine de Pizan on the list of the greats? Why is she not more frequently discussed as a pre-feminist, an important stepping stone to equal rights long before the feminist movement even existed? Or is she actually that prevalent... and only I was unaware...?



*** I also find myself wondering why the academic consensus seems to be to refer to her as "Christine" (and nothing further); if it's just an overly-familiar sexist thing or for some other reason...?

Monday, August 10, 2015

WITMonth Day 10 - Classics Challenge - Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was one of the first authors I was introduced to when I started to search for classic women writers in translation, and one of the easiest to track down in terms of actual printed works (thank you, Penguin Classics and translator Margaret Sayers Peden). It sat on my shelf quietly for most of the past year. WITMonth seemed like the most appropriate time to read her works: Poems, Protest, and a Dream.

I haven't read the entire collection yet (frankly the poetry gets a bit... rambly), but I've read and reread the "Protest" (encouragement to let women be educated and study), and find myself continuously in awe of its contradictory and revolutionary nature. Sor Juana is at times nothing less than a radical feminist, but she also repeatedly calls for the status quo and frankly supports many patriarchal misconceptions about both women and men. It makes for a wondrously complex and fascinating feminist text, if only through that lens. Unsurprisingly, the piece also incorporates many religious concepts (only a specific some of which I feel qualified to comment on...).

Sor Juana is blunt in her belief that women can - and should - be educated. Her effective rant in which she lists biblical women, classical figures and important women of history is a relevant reminder for our world today, since it is sadly not yet a universal fact that women are expected to learn in the same way as men and since many women are sadly still prohibited from any form of education. Sor Juana's list of women - some mythological, others distinctly real - is an inspiring reminder that women have always existed. Have always written, have always contributed to culture, have always inspired and have always sought to learn.

However in discussing women's right to learn, Sor Juana reveals herself to be quite classist: "[N]ot only women, who are held to be so inept, but also men, who merely for being men believe they are wise, should be prohibited from interpreting the Sacred Word if they are not learned and virtuous and of gentle and well-inclined natures." While her message is a positive one (citing sectarian violence and indeed violence in general as the result of improper reading of religious texts... goodness, does this sound familiar?) and while I adore her for pointing out what women have always known about men consistently thinking they're automatically wiser by virtue of being men (see: mansplaining), her cold approach to broad education is something I cannot believe she would believe in today. This separation is so anathema to modern feminism it almost hurts to read, but it's also an important reminder of how feminism - and the fight for equality of all kinds - has been waged through time: slowly, and largely for a privileged class within the oppressed group.

This is a book I'm glad to own. Glad to be reading. Glad that it exists and holds a fairly prominent place in the canon (that is, it has been moderately recognized as belonging there). While I don't think this is necessarily the best book for every reader (specifically, it's probably not so good for mostly fiction readers), I can certainly recommend it to readers interested in unraveling the notion of feminism. I personally found it enlightening.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Nun & Sky Burial | Two minireviews

The Nun - Simonetta Agnello Hornby
This is a weird novel to review. Simonetta Agnello Hornby's The Nun (tr. Antony Shugaar) is an odd, somewhat imbalanced, generally entertaining novel that disappointed me somewhat in its ending and in little failures throughout. The writing was solid and the main character Agata was extraordinarily alive, but there was something... off about the book.

First of all, I'll note that in terms of basic readability, The Nun passes: the moment Agata is so sympathetic (despite... not actually being a sympathetic) is the moment the reader remains hooked. Because The Nun is a novel that very much tells of Agata's growth (or lack thereof), her rebellion and struggles and traumas and dreams. Agata is interesting largely because she's complex: her initial dreams are sweetly young, but there's a bitter aftertaste of her persistent stubbornness, even in areas where she could have perhaps acted differently (especially later in the book, where her motives dissolve into a strange mess of "why is this happening?").

The Nun is all about Agata: forced into a convent by her mother in a bizarre game of politics and personal spite. Both of these factors come into play throughout the book: Agata is constantly seeking approval from her mother (despite recognizing her spite), and constantly stumbling through the political mechanics of the period. The politics frame the story interestingly, but never quite pan out, and I often found myself baffled by the lightness with which Agnello Hornby treated many of these issues (that is: she did not develop them nearly enough).

Finally, the book has a series of love stories at its heart. Truthfully, none of these stories particularly worked for me, and I would have been happier with a technically "colder" book, but with the same sharpness of mind that Agata was given. Oh well.

Sky Burial - Xinran
So... Sky Burial (tr. Julia Lovell) is just a weird book. There's a level on which I absolutely understand the mass appeal (touching story, foreigner's view of a different culture, sparse language), but I also could not (could not) reconcile the genres. Was the nonfiction? Fiction? Fictionalized reality? Something else entirely?!

The story is ostensibly that of a young Chinese woman who goes to find her husband, presumed dead in Tibet. What follows is her journey through Tibet as she searches for him, getting lost multiple times and finding home with different nomads. As befits this premise, the ending is uplifting (sort of?), inspiring (ish) and meant to convey a powerful statement about love (yeah, actually).

If I sound deeply cynical, it's because I am. The story reminded me of a lot of survival stories I read as a child (specifically, Julie of the Wolves, and I'll explain further in a moment), with the same sort of saccharine appreciation of the exotic culture our narrator is suddenly cast into. As a novel of Tibet, I found myself less enlightened than confused, often wishing I had a more direct (and firsthand) narration of the experience. Xinran is writing for our narrator, who is elderly and I seriously doubt was able to remember so many extremely specific details (hence my skepticism as regards the definition of this as "fiction" versus "non"), and herself relaying a lot of secondhand information. My head hurt from all the retellings.

So why the cynicism? Ultimately, Tibetan culture is expounded upon just as much as wolf behavior was in Julie of the Wolves. Our narrator is still "The Human" and has a purpose in life that is completely separate from the "Other" nomadic group "The Human" is traveling with. It felt... wrong. Less believable, less representative.

I should point out that the book is still very interesting and informative, even if largely through native Chinese eyes. It's a fairly quick read, and probably a fair starting point for literature about Tibet (I hesitate to call it "Tibetan literature" for the obvious reasons). It's not exactly a bad book, but its memory faded somewhat unpleasantly in mind in the weeks after reading it.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

If Roxane Gay is a "Bad Feminist", what am I? | Thoughts

I am a feminist.

This is not news to anyone who reads this blog. At least, it shouldn't be. I talk about feminism all the time. Feminism is important! Many people are feminists, even if they don't realize it, just because the word "feminism" carries with it so much baggage.

Roxane Gay seems aware of this. In the introduction to Bad Feminist, she discusses the unfair standard to which we hold feminism, writing: "When feminism falls short of our expectations, we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement." With this sentence (so early in the book), I was hooked. "Roxane Gay gets me," I said aloud. I read the quote to those sitting around me. I started to read more quickly, more excitedly.

And then... everything started to come apart.

So many readers recommended Bad Feminist so convincingly. I knew ahead of time that Gay's writing was supposed to be conversational and casual, that her feminism is modern, accepting and scattered. The publisher blurb (which is not actually found anywhere on the book, because why) has a quote in which Gay describes how she likes pink, so of course that makes her a "bad feminist". I was supposed to be all over this book (even though I really should have known otherwise, because why should liking pink make you a bad feminist?). This, after all, is a book by the woman who writes in the introduction that she's a bad feminist because she never wanted to be on the "Feminist Pedestal", a sentiment I not only agree with wholeheartedly, but have never found the words for. This is the writer who wrote succinctly: "I disavowed feminism because when I was called a feminist, the label felt like an insult. In fact, it was generally intended as such." All of this in the introduction.

Alas, it turns out that the Roxane Gay who wrote the introduction and the Roxane Gay who wrote the rest of the essays in this collection are two different women, with contradictory takes on feminism and some pretty awful pieces.

So I'll start by being as blunt as possible: I hated much of Bad Feminist. Not disliked, not "didn't enjoy", not just "was disappointed by". No. I hated a good chunk of this collection. To start with, it's a bad collection: these essays are largely disconnected, unrelated and have no flow, coming almost verbatim from whatever website they were originally posted to in 2013. Bad Feminist doesn't actually have a strong central thesis, making the whole book feel a little worthless - why not just track down the original posts? The essays themselves are often out of place as well - much as I enjoy a good story about Scrabble (and I actually did like that anecdote quite a bit), it doesn't belong in a feminist text. Whoops, sorry, no.

Some essays, it's true, flow into each other remarkably well. Altogether, a few paint an important portrait of Gay herself. There were moments where this became powerfully central, like in "The Careless Language of Sexual Violence". Gay has references to her own life and experiences in surrounding essays that give further meaning to her discussion of sexual violence. Moments like those made Bad Feminist feel like a legitimate whole, with a quiet continuity and consistency. Had the whole book been like this, the review you're reading now may have been very, very different.

Yet "The Careless Language of Sexual Violence" also exemplifies all too well another aspect of the book that I seriously did not like: a total lack of citations. Gay at some point criticizes another feminist critic for referencing bad sources and statistics. That's a good, worthwhile point that is demolished by the fact that Bad Feminist contains zero sources, citations, references or even link suggestions of any kind. When Gay discusses gang rape in "The Careless Language of Sexual Violence", I have no doubt that someone has researched the fact that the victim's "reproductive system is often damaged" and that they have "a higher chance of miscarrying a pregnancy". These are almost certainly true facts. However, Gay loses credibility by not citing the research. Writing something loosely like this may be good enough for a blog post (and even then, I'm realizing that it's always better to link to sources than assume your readers are familiar with the research), but it's not good enough for a wide-release book publication.

This hope for a more critical approach is likely a problem in my own expectations than a flaw in Gay's writing, however I cannot pretend that it didn't disappoint me. Gay is a critic, yet she seems to utterly avoid any chance for real, hard-hitting criticism. Most of the essays provide little more than entry-level understanding of the subject. Many readers have praised Bad Feminist to the sky for this trait, but I find myself thoroughly unimpressed: there's a way to write critically about pop culture, and Roxane Gay just isn't doing it.

The topics frustrated me as well. Beyond the fact that there was little here I wasn't familiar with (again, Gay rarely goes beyond surface level exploration), Gay and I seem to have opposing views on many, many issues. Her essay on weight (and how to write about being overweight) actually disgusted me, not simply because of how sloppily written it is. The essay skips between legitimate criticism, personal storytelling and a discussion of how modern culture looks at fat people. Gay simultaneously talks about how it's bad to judge, while judging every aspect of the author and the character of the book she's referencing, referring to the fact that "no one who shops at Lake Bryant or the Avenues or Catherines is going to feel empathy for someone who is thirty pounds overweight". The entire essay is extraordinarily reductive, and I actually wanted to punch the book while reading it.

There's also the little issue of spoilers. I'm a fair believer in spoiler alerts, mostly because it's unfair to expect everyone to have been exposed to the exact same pop culture as other people. I also do not object to people discussing plot points at length when properly pointed out (hey, it's part of criticism!). Yet Gay opts for the mix - she spoils endings and character development and everything about certain books, without ever considering that what she's doing might be, oh, wrong. It was extremely frustrating, and it's just sloppy. Again, this might be good enough for a Jezebel blog post, but it's not good enough for a print-and-bound book that I paid $16 for.

It boils down to two main concepts: One is of the content, writing and editing - the technical matters which I felt had issues (and content, of course, includes personal disagreements - this is a feminist text, after all). The other is of how the book was presented. Truthfully, I am not so impressed by the mere fact that Gay is tackling pop culture in her criticism. Not because I feel that there's something inherent about "lowbrow" culture that excludes it from criticism, but rather the exact opposite. I have never believed in the sort of highbrow/lowbrow dichotomy that Gay perpetuates in these essays. She repeatedly points out how lowbrow X is a guilty pleasure, but that doesn't stop her from being a good literary critic (something which, again, I'm not convinced of after reading this collection). Gay flaunts herself as a rule-breaker (her publishers seem to agree), but she sticks very closely to the original definitions of low/highbrow and doesn't challenge them in any meaningful way. To be perfectly blunt, I've read lowbrow criticism on Tumblr that's at least 50 times better than the ostensibly intellectual approach Gay takes (which is actually extremely shallow and, dare I say it, timid).

I really, really disliked Bad Feminist, and it has taken me many months to come out and say this. I respect that readers will have different opinions, and I am well aware that Roxane Gay is considered one of the foremost feminist critics at the moment. The point of this review is simply to say that I disagree with Gay on too many points to be able to call Bad Feminist a remotely worthwhile text. I have read other essays of hers that angered me as much as Bad Feminist did (most noteworthy was her recent Guardian essay about who should be allowed to advocate for feminism, an article which not only made my blood boil, but made me wonder if Gay even recognizes how utterly contrary to feminism much of her "criticism" is), and I have simply concluded that while Gay and I agree on the basic ideas of feminism - namely that it should exist, that there should be a greater discussion of issues such as equal rights (whether in gender, race, sexuality, etc.), that women's "issues" need to be treated with the same gravitas we treat men's, etc etc etc - we fundamentally disagree on the details of these issues, and on many other topics that surround feminism. Gay furthermore writes from a purely American perspective of the world, a narrowing that I simply will not accept from a movement that should be defined by its global-ness.

So here it is. The review that took over a month to write, in which I cannot go into as much detail as I'd like about what angered me so much (without writing a feminist manifesto myself), in which I mostly am trying to explain why I feel that Gay is a mediocre literary critic (at best), in which I recognize that many readers I respect and admire will so violently disagree with me that we may never speak again. Goodness knows I've received some harsh feedback on my negative reviews in the past, but I don't recall ever coming this close to criticizing the writer - this is the main problem with reviewing nonfiction, unfortunately. But I feel it's important to share my thoughts on Bad Feminist. I'm curious to know what other readers feel about my disagreements with Gay, and how they interpreted the book. I doubt that I will ever come to love this collection, but I may be more forgiving of its flaws and focus on the handful of worthwhile moments, far and few between as they may be.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

WITMonth Day 5 - A Very Easy Death | Review

How much does Simone de Beauvoir's memoir-like account of her mother's death truly belong in a month devoted to literature by women in translation? Is A Very Easy Death fiction? Is it a memoir? Is it something in between? Whatever it may be, A Very Easy Death is a woefully underrated little book that does a fantastic job of blurring the fact-fiction line and ultimately telling a story that is both powerful and utterly engaging.

"Utterly engaging" is one of those reviewer cliches - what does it mean for a book like this? To be perfectly frank, it means what it sounds like - A Very Easy Death is not a passive book, which once read no longer impacts the reader. Rather, this short text plunges the reader straight into the heart of death and family. It forces the reader to contemplate, to struggle, to ache and ultimately to feel. For a book that is so inherently personal, somehow A Very Easy Death manages to be extremely relevant to just about every possible reader.

Over the course of about 100 pages, Beauvoir lays out her mother's final days. There's a touch of fiction to the whole story, a sort of glossing-over that makes both prose and story feel like they've been sharpened somewhat (hence my hesitation to call it outright nonfiction). Regardless, in these few pages is a universal truth that will likely reach every reader. Beauvoir looks at old age, illness and ultimately death with a sort of clarity I don't think I've ever encountered in literature. In asking questions about end of life - touching on issues like whether to prolong days of illness, or have a quick death - she is probing matters that apply to every single person in the world.

The attitude towards an ailing parent, meanwhile, is likely equally relevant to most readers today. Even younger readers such as myself (who are hopefully not yet remotely near imaging their parents in such a position...) can relate, whether in regards to grandparents or their own future. Throughout most of the book, I found myself thinking about my grandmother's last months - her fight to prolong her life as much as possible, and whatever further pain that may have caused her. I thought about my living grandparents, and what they might go through in the years to come. It's these sorts of thoughts that lead me to label A Very Easy Death as "engaging" - it engaged me to apply its ideas to my own world, and to think... differently.

A Very Easy Death is more than a simple story about dying. It's also - more broadly - about family. Beauvoir describes a relationship with her mother that is, like most relationships, complicated. In one particularly moving scene, Beauvoir contemplates her different reactions to her mother's body over time: openness as a child, revulsion as a teenager, and now a sort of uncomfortable openness late in life. Her discomfort at staying in the hospital, her fears of leaving her mother, her fears of staying by her mother... these help paint a strikingly clear portrait of family ties. Beauvoir discusses her mother's response to her father's death as well: a woman who essentially reinvented herself later in life. And though neither relationship is itself given the primary focus of the book, Beauvoir's relationship with her sister also provides structure to the main-stage story.

But death - the process - really is the point here. What is the dignity of dying? Or of old age at all? How should the dying elderly be treated - coddled and protected, or told the truth every step of the way? What of the physicality of it all? Beauvoir doesn't offer answers to all these questions. I don't believe there are any. What she offers, however, is better - a perspective. And it's certainly a worthwhile one at that.

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* I read this book in the Hebrew translation and was unable to track down the name of the translator into English.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

How to Suppress Women's Writing | Review

I have a hard time reviewing nonfiction books most of the time because I feel distinctly not qualified. How to Suppress Women's Writing by Joanna Russ is no exception. In fact, as a clearly feminist text, I find myself even less qualified than usual to discuss it, having very little understanding of what we generally call feminism. Yet I found myself recognizing so much of How to Suppress Women's Writing and grimly understanding where it comes from, so that I'm going to try to write about it anyways.

The core thesis of How to Suppress Women's Writing is not actually included in the book itself, but rather stems from the cover:
She didn't write it. (But if it's clear she did the deed...) She wrote it, but she shouldn't have. (It's political, sexual, masculine, feminist.) She wrote it, but look what she wrote about. (The bedroom, the kitchen, her family. Other women!) She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it. ("Jane Eyre. Poor dear, that's all she ever...") She wrote it, but she isn't really an artist, and it isn't really art. (It's a thriller, a romance, a children's book. Sci fi!) She wrote it, but she had help. (Robert Browning. Branwell Brontë. Her own masculine side.) She wrote it, but she's an anomaly. (Woolf. With Leonard's help...)
She wrote it BUT...
This text - in large, bold letters - graces the cover of How to Suppress Women's Writing. Here is the unofficial outline from which Russ builds her argument, that essentially no matter what women do, they will always be sidelined using one excuse after another. In truth, by the end of the book I couldn't help but feel that this was much less about the suppression of women's writing as it was about the dismissal of existing works, shoving them into obscurity or doggedly refusing to acknowledge their influence on the literary canon.

Russ presents the reality of the late 1970s, early 1980s when it comes to literary feminism and the clear struggles women had in gaining representation and the respect they deserved. This is a darkly determined book in that regard, as Russ presents anecdotes from the then-present alongside anecdotes from times past that show the persistent sexism women writers faced. And while she follows the outline detailed above, she doesn't stick to it 100%, and occasionally a general critique of a sexist society slips in (one anecdote describes a man trying on a woman's pants and being baffled by the lack of pockets).

Russ's criticism of the "modern" suppressing of women's writing is perhaps the most outdated aspect of the book - today, women write in mass amounts, dominating many fields and genres (particularly the growing YA field). Women are not told that writing is a man's business, women are not discouraged from writing in the same way that they were only a few decades ago. In this regard, the literary landscape is much friendlier to women today. Fantastic, right?

Well, the problems begin once you realize just about everything else about the book is still pathetically relevant. Women are still underrepresented in awards shortlists (though the past couple of years have made a jaw-jutted effort to fix that). Women are still underrepresented in the official "canon", where certain male writers get multiple slots and authors like Charlotte Brontë get nothing*. Where women writers are lucky to get one of their books on the list, even if they have multiple that surely deserve a place in the canon (George Eliot!).

There are still well-respected male authors who claim that women just "aren't as good at writing" as men**. There are still professors who refuse to teach women writers for similar made-up reasons***. Still review outlets which overwhelmingly prefer male writers (and reviewers) over female****. Still publishers who consistently translate more books by men than they do books by women*****.

And ultimately, still readers who are subtly taught to read according to gender, who are taught that books by women are less serious, less high-brow, less intelligent and overall less important than books by men.

How do I know that last line is true? Because up until a couple years ago, I thought those things.

The more I read and grow, the more I set aside my teenage prejudices and misunderstandings, the more I'm able to understand that Jane Eyre wasn't just a good, "pleasant" book. It's a good book, period. I'm able to understand that by presenting Jane Austen's books as sweet romances, we're forgetting the clear social commentary that comes alongside it. Middlemarch is simply "the greatest English novel", J. K. Rowling is not merely a "popular" writer but a groundbreaking one, indeed an important writer, and Alice Munro's recent Nobel prize was not won in spite of her small, "home-centered" stories, but rather because of her superbly clean writing and sharp eye.

Big picture, How to Suppress Women's Writing didn't really tell me anything I didn't already know. It's not a groundbreaking book with new feminist ideas (not only because it's more than thirty years old). What it does is organize the many issues with the representation of women in literature, touching on everything from availability (in large part influencing my last post) to sexism in academia (presumably less serious today, but still apparent) to the glossing-over of women's achievements when building and presenting the "canon". The anecdotes and stories build an unpleasantly familiar picture, and I found myself quite unhappy in regards to how much of the book is still entirely relevant today.

Read How to Suppress Women's Writing. Read it, discuss it, see what's changed, see what hasn't. Thirty years down the line and Russ' text is still important, still worth reading. So track it down, check it out, buy it. Read it.

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* The first result when searching for the 100 Best Books of All Time
** V. S. Naipaul's sexist rant from a few years ago
*** David Gilmour's sexism and racism
**** VIDA's statistics
***** My own series on Women in Translation

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Beautiful, inconsequential | An Armenian Sketchbook

An Armenian Sketchbook is a short book, almost an interlude. I first heard about it from Stefanie of So Many Books, and was so enamored by Vasily Grossman's writing style in the quotes Stefanie included that I decided I had to read this book. And I'm glad I did, even if by the end of it I was feeling a bit bored, a bit scattered, almost as if I myself had gone on a trip that had lasted just a bit too long.

The thing is that An Armenian Sketchbook is beautiful and incredible and powerful at times, but it also feels a bit inconsequential. Banal, even. The first half of the book is mostly comprised of Grossman making these lovely, carefully worded observations of this new land he has come upon, whether of the people or of the places. His fixation on stone, for example, is predictable but nonetheless remarkable - in these passages, Grossman contemplates civilization, history, the passage of time, architecture and so much more. It might be a bit pointless, but good god it's gorgeous.

The problem begins in the second half of this short book. Because here, Grossman shifts the focus a bit more towards himself and his experiences. Here Grossman muses about religion and faith. About culture differences. About Russia. About drinking. It's a turn inwards, and though aspects of it were again very nicely written and quite interesting, I found that it just wasn't holding my attention the same way the first parts had. It became less about the travel and more about the presence. Like I said - the trip lasted too long and I got bored.

There's also the fact that I felt as though it didn't really change anything. Travel books (or in general books about places) are supposed to change our point of view, give us something new and expand our horizons. An Armenian Sketchbook did a bit of that, but it's mostly in the title - "sketchbook". I learned a little about Armenian history and culture, but... it was only a little. Minor. I sort of hoped Grossman would delve a bit deeper, but his observations - even when sharp and utterly enchanting - still felt somewhat on the surface.

But it's a short book. Really short. There's no reason not to read it and there's no reason not to enjoy it. Grossman's writing is splendid even in the less interesting parts, and the translation is as natural as any I can imagine. This was a fine introduction to an author I've been meaning to get to for a long time - I'm now looking forward to tackling Life and Fate even more.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Czesław Miłosz's search for self-definition

I've blogged about Czesław Miłosz in the past: Miłosz has been one of my favorite poets since I first discovered him in the spring of 2006. His poetry has always resonated particularly strongly with me, and as the years go by, this power that his words hold over me has hardly diminished. Not long after I discovered him, I also learned that Miłosz was well-regarded for his essays and his novel The Issa Valley. After several weeks in which I debated which book of his I ought to read, I eventually bought Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition.

I would not read it for six more years.

Native Realm is anomalous for a number of reasons. Not only is it a remarkably strangely written autobiography of an undeniably fascinating writer, it is also a curious treatise on Eastern European development. Miłosz's search for self-definition is centered not around himself, but rather around his native Poland/Lithuania. Miłosz seeks more to define Eastern Europe as a whole than any kind of personal self-realization. This entails a lot of hard-core historical context, which he comfortably provides. Within this frame, readers can follow aspects of Miłosz's own life, but that doesn't feel like the main point of the book. 

Miłosz's focus on history means two things: firstly, the reader becomes acquainted with Eastern Europe's complex socio-political-religious situation in the early 20th century, and secondly, that Miłosz himself must acknowledge and tackle dark and disturbing periods in his homeland's history. In this regard, Miłosz provides one of the most powerful passages in the whole book:
As an eyewitness to the crime of genocide, and therefore deprived of the luxury of innocence, I am prone to agree with the accusations brought against myself and others. In reality, however, it is not so easy to judge, because the price of aiding the victims of terror was the death penalty. 
Native Realm loses some of its coherence as the book progresses. The chronological arrival of World War II shifts the focus from Eastern Europe in general to Miłosz's own wanderings. It is no less interesting, but the change was disconcerting, as I suspect the reality must have been as well. Native Realm was not at all what I expected (I must confess that I prefer Miłosz's poetry to his passive political descriptions), but it filled in several gaps in my understanding of the world. And even if it takes me another six years to read another book by Miłosz, at least I will have what to revisit and learn from.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Book title of the week

I love browsing through Gutenberg. Unlike standard booksellers, Gutenberg is a messy, delightfully unpredictable source of new reading material. Oh, and it's perfectly reasonably to find a book with the following title:
The Discovery of a World in the Moone
Or, A Discovrse Tending To Prove That 'Tis Probable There May Be Another Habitable World In That Planet
This find by John Wilkins was published in 1638 and has all the marks of a book from its era - spelling is random, sentence structure is bizarre, and every point seems to stretch on for eternity. For example, one of the "cautions" in the introduction:
That thou shouldst not here looke to find any exact, accurate Treatise, since this discourse was but the fruit of some lighter studies, and those too hudled up in a short time, being first thought of and finished in the space of some few weekes, and therefore you cannot in reason expect, that it should be so polished, as perhaps, the subject would require, or the leisure of the Author might have done it.
That is, based on my brief flip-through, the most easily comprehensible sentence in the entire book. Meanwhile, the ideas in the book are no less strange (and obviously hilariously outdated). Thank you, Gutenberg: this is going to be amazing.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A few words about political books

Though I have a long history with nonfiction, I tend to read mostly fiction these days. And certainly of the nonfiction I do read, it's unheard of for me to read a book blatantly political in nature, let alone two in the space of a month in a half. I wrote up a long response to the first book, but I couldn't organize my thoughts properly and therefore chose not to post it, but those thoughts and feelings have hardly gone away (much of that post served to write this one). Then I made the semi-mistake of reading another "current events" book, one that is significantly more political than the first. I was left with a similarly bitter taste - not because either book was bad, exactly, but something else. Something unique.

There are several problems with these political/current events books (which I have chosen to lump together despite several differences between the two):
  1. Their shelf life is severely limited - a political memoir meant to come out parallel to a major campaign is a short-lived book. Similarly, current events books reflect only a very narrow window in our worldview, thus maintaining relevancy only for a few months (a couple of years, at most).
  2. The nature of the internet has made these books somewhat redundant, in part because of my first point. A blogger (or even newspaper columnist, those that are left) can write an essay, and a few months later update that essay with new information and bring it life once more. A book is static in this regard, and with the political situation constantly changing and shifting it loses its power. In the age of the internet, a printed book is obsolete the moment it's printed. And in the growing age of eBooks, the convenience of having all of the author's thoughts and essays localized in print is much diminished.
  3. People don't really read political books in order to accept another opinion or to learn something new. For the most part, it seems as though we read political/social/religious nonfiction and "current events" books either to reassure ourselves of our own opinions, or to secretly bash the opposing side. In my experience, the opinion I bring with me to the book is the one I leave with, meaning my appreciation  is entirely based on my personal beliefs and opinions, not those actually expressed in the book. To me, this has always felt like a cheap reason to read, and so I avoid these books.
A frustrating manifesto
In my private rant about The Crisis of Zionism, I raged at the fact that Peter Beinart got to spend 200 pages telling me his thoughts (in what is ultimately revealed to be a manifesto...), while I could not respond. It seems cruelly unfair. It reminded me why I don't read political books in the first place. But then I went out and did something stupid - I read Bill Clinton's recent Back to Work, which can be boiled down to the former president making a list of things he'd do if he were still president. Fascinating, yes, but also remarkably frustrating and tedious. And, again pointless.

Why pointless? Well, Clinton nailed it himself: at one point, he casually remarks: "If there are any militant antitax folks still reading this book, I can hear the counterattack forming in your minds." From the very first moment, it's obvious he's not writing this book for those who disagree with him. So who is he writing for? Those who agree with him? Himself?

This is not a rhetorical question. It's the same problem at the heart of The Crisis of Zionism, and it's the same sick taste I get after reading any political book. The short shelf life, the dramatic overtones, the heightened political leanings - and the out-of-place audience. Both Clinton and Beinart write with the cool attitude of a writer confident that the reader will immediately agree with his/her claims. It's arrogant and annoying, and it's been a prevalent shadow hanging over almost every single political book (or even quasi-political book, like The Crisis of Zionism) I've read in my lifetime.

I'm a bad reader. When I read a political book, I'm silently applying its beliefs to my own and judging them, rather than the book itself. Because what is a political book, if not its politics? If it's truly objective, it isn't a political book... it's something else. Something I'd much rather read.