Sorry Ms Magazine, “We Are Water” is not a Feminist Read

via Ms Magazine Blog, where columnist  included We Are Water by Wally Lamb in a list of 25 feminist reads for the holidays.  Here is Little’s explanation:

“Male feminist Lamb’s novel is rooted in the upheaval of an already divided family after the matriarch, Annie Oh, decides to marry another woman, Viveca. Set in the first years of the Obama presidency, the book explores race and cultural inclusion as well as themes of family and childhood abuse.”

When I read this, I was in the middle of reading We Are Water for my book club.  In the comments of Little’s post, I wrote, “Wally Lamb might be a male feminist but so far I’m not seeing anything feminist about “We Are Water.” It’s also painfully bad to read. I’m half way through reading it for my book club and am going to have to force myself to read the rest of it.”

Since this was a book club selection, and I pride myself on finishing a book before our meetings I slogged through the rest of Lamb’s novel.   Now that I’m done, I can’t figure out why Little considers it a feminist read.  Maybe it’s because the main character Annie Oh leaves her husband for a woman.  However, this lesbian relationship isn’t feminist to me — Viveca is just as domineering and patronizing, if not more so, than Annie’s ex-husband. Their relationship seems based mostly on money (Viveca’s) and celebrity (Annie’s), not love or affection.

Or maybe it’s because Annie is an “angry woman” who uses art as her outlet.  But the descriptions in the book just sound like bad art, not feminist art.  For example, Annie had a meltdown while trying to decide between the dresses Viveca chose for her to wear to the wedding. Rather than deciding, Annie threw red wine all over the dresses and Viveca’s designer dress as well, then made up for this by calling it art.  Barf!

Perhaps it’s because Annie is a survivor of incest.  Yet her survival tactics include beating the crap out of her son.  That’s not feminist — it’s horrible.

So, in short, this not a feminist read in my opinion.  It’s not even a good read.  The characters are one-dimensional and only one (not Annie) is remotely likeable.  One of my fellow book clubbers likened it to a bad first draft by a mediocre writing student or aspiring author.  Lamb really phoned it in this time.

Our next book club selection — The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd — also made Little’s list.  Now, this is a feminist read!  (It’s hard for a book about the abolitionist Grimke sisters not to be).

Is the new film of “Jane Eyre” Feminist?

via Ms. Magazine blog, where Melissa Kort recalls, “When I was in college and graduate school, we were just discovering what it meant to read a novel–even a novel by a woman–from a feminist point of view. Then came, among other groundbreaking critical works, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic: the Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination (1979). The madwoman in the title appears in Charlotte Bronte’s evergreen 1847 novel Jane Eyre, becoming for Gilbert and Gubar a symbolic depiction of Victorian women as either uber-repressed angels or unseemly, passionate monsters. Madwoman, in turn, generated an industry of critiques, thus widening further the focus of feminist criticism.”

I just watched the new film version of Jane Eyre by director Cary Fukunaga and starring Mia Wasikowska as Jane, Michael Fassbender as Rochester, and Jamie Bell as St. John Rivers (I recognized Wasikowska from last year’s Kids are Alright but it took a visit to Internet Movie Database to remind me where I’d seen Fassbender (Lt. Archie Hicox in Inglorious Basterds) and Bell (the title character from Billie Elliot — blimey has it been that long since that film came out?!)

Back to Jane Eyre — I have never read the book and had not seen previous film versions either.  I was worried that the film would replicate the anachronisms of the most recent adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (which I refused to see because, like Bridget Jones, I consider Colin Firth to the be the best Mr. Darcy ever!)  So, I enjoyed the film on its own merits.  My complaint is that there wasn’t much chemistry between this Jane and Rochester.

So, is this Jane Eyre feminist?  If one considers the historical period of the film — the 1840s – then absolutely the answer is yes.  Jane defies the gender role expectations of the time and insists on a full life on her own terms — e.g. she refuses to marry St. John even though that’s what women are supposed to do.  Unlike Kort, who felt that film left out too many details about “complex social forces that engender” the madwoman in the attic, I found the minimalist approach of this version quite appealing.  This made for a leaner storyline but also a movie with a reasonable viewing length of two hours.  That and Wasikowska’s subdued yet luminous performance might just draw in a new generation of young women. Besides, if you want to learn more about the madwoman, from her perspective no less, read  Jean Rhys’ The Wide Sargasso Sea.

Book Club/Women’s Health Hero 2010

via Our Bodies, Our Blog.  Based on last year’s list they are looking for nominees who are still living.  So, I will have to think about whom to choose although I have some ideas.

Speaking of health heroines, and a long unsung one at that, meet Henrietta Lacks (image below), subject of a riveting new book by Rebecca Skloot that my book club discussed last night.

As a medical historian, this gripping and horrifying story of a black woman whose cells were used for medical research without her knowledge or consent (or that of her family) was no surprise.  There is a long history of using African-Americans and other marginalized people (orphans, immigrants, persons with disabilities, the poor) for the “advancement” of medical research. Henrietta’s cancer cells, known by medical researchers as the cell line HeLa, were the first “immortal” cell line to be successfully grown in vitro. HeLa cells were later used for a host of medical discoveries, including research on the polio vaccine.  The story of Henrietta and her family, though, reveals the huge disparities in the American health care system past and present. Henrietta was a poor tobacco farmer from Clover, Virginia who received medical care in the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital.  The virulent cervical cancer that led to her death was probably caused by a case of HPV given to her by her philandering husband (she had been treated for syphilis and gonorrhea).   It appears that the cancer treatment she received was pretty good for the day given the state of cancer research and therapy at this time.  Still, physicians’ refusal to listen to her complaints about a “knot on her womb” until it was too late reflect the paternalism and sexism of the medical establishment at this time.

The book also tells the story of Henrietta’s family, who only learned about the HeLa cells decades after her death when scientists began asking them for blood and tissue samples, and reporters from Ebony, Jet, and  Rolling Stone began interviewing them about their mother and the cell line derived from her cancer cells. The family’s horror at this revelation is nicely summed up by the statement by Henrietta’s daughter Deborah:

“I don’t know what they did [to my mother], “but it all sound like Jurassic Park to me.”

One of my fellow book clubbers plans to use this in her ethics class.  I plan to use it the next time I teach my graduate seminar on gender, health, and sexuality.  Meanwhile, I’m hoping to invite Skloot to come to CCSU as part of her totally insane book tour (which she organized largely through Facebook and Twitter — I’m stealing that idea!)

Our Bodies, Ourselves Author Coming to CCSU

Hey folks,

One of my women’s history heroines is coming to my campus.  Since this year’s theme is “Writing Women Back Into History,” it’s fitting that we have booked a noted woman author.  Here’s more information:

The Ruthe Boyea Women’s Center and the Committee on the Concerns of Women invites you to purchase your ticket to attend….

The 2010 Women’s History Month Luncheon

Keynote Speaker

Judy Norsigian

co-author of Our Bodies, Ourselves

“Women’s Health and the Media: Sorting Fact from Fiction”

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

12pm

Memorial Hall, Connecticut Room

Ticket Cost: $20.00. To purchase your ticket, contact CENTix at 860- 832-1989.

Meal choices: Beef Tenderloin Gratin, Pan Seared Salmon, Chicken Francais or Vegetarian Tart

__________________________________________________

2pm

Lecture, Free and Open to the Public

Memorial Hall, Constitution Room

Speaker: Judy Norsigian

The Women’s Health Movement: Accurate, Accessible Information on Health, Sexuality, and Reproduction”

Booksigning after lecture. Books can be purchased at the CCSU Bookstore or at the event.

___________________________

Judy Norsigian Bio: Co-founder of the BWHBC and co-author of all editions of Our Bodies, Ourselves, Judy is a graduate of Radcliffe College and an internationally renowned speaker and writer on a wide range of women’s health concerns.  Her interests include national health care reform, tobacco and women, midwifery advocacy, reproductive health, genetic technologies, and contraceptive research.  She has appeared on numerous television and radio programs including Oprah, Donahue, The Today Show, Good Morning America, and NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw.

Knitting Clio is Mad as Hell at Publisher’s Weekly

via She Writes, who tells us that Publishers Weekly included ZERO female authors in its list of best books of 2009.  The blog encourages us women writers to participate in  SHE WRITES DAY OF ACTION.  Here’s what they ask us to do, including my replies:

“By Friday, November 13th, please do three simple, but enormously powerful, things:

1) Post a blog on She Writes responding to the exclusion of women on PW’s list. Make your own list, as many of you have done already, or take this opportunity to reflect more broadly the ramifications of its women-cook-the-food-but-only-men-get-Michelin-stars message, and share your thoughts with us all. (More ideas on this to come.)”
Here is my contribution:
At my personal blog, Knitting Clio, I review the books I read with my book club. This year’s female authors and their books were:

A.S. Byatt, The Children’s Book

Gin Phillips, The Well and the Mine

Jennifer Scanlon, Bad Girls Go Everywhere

Lily Koppel, The Read Leather Diary

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half a Yellow Sun

Joyce Carol Oates, Wild Nights

Kate Walbert, A Short History of Women

All of these were excellent books, and Adichie’s was the best of all of them. Need I add she also won a prestigious MacArthur Award (aka the “genius” award)?

My book club has also read just about everything by Geraldine Brooks, and even got to hear give a fabulous lecture at a local synagogue earlier this fall.

I should also mention books published by my colleagues:

Mary Collins, American Idle: A Journey Through Our Sedentary Culture.

Karen Ritzenhoff and Katherine Hermes, Sex and Sexuality in a Feminist World.

Briann Greenfield, Out of the Attic: Inventing Antiques in Twentieth-Century New England.

Leah Glaser, Electrifying the Rural American West: Stories of Power, People, and Place.

“2) Buy a book written by a woman in 2009. Take a photo of yourself holding it. Post its cover on your page. Tell us what book you bought, and why.”
I just bought Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna because I love her work and can’t wait to read this latest novel.
“3) Invite five women writers you know to read your words and join us on She Writes.

Once you have posted your blog, send me the link at kamy@shewrites.com. We will send these links to entire community (5000+) on Saturday. We will send out a press release then too. If you are a well-known writer, you know how greatly we need your response, your leadership, and your help in spreading the word. If you aren’t, we greatly need your response and your leadership too. Use this platform as a platform of your own. What else is She Writes for?

Let’s make a statement that no one can ignore. Join us, BY FRIDAY, in our first-ever day of action, and we will do the rest. I’d like to see hundreds, if not thousands, of posts, and hundreds, if not thousands, of purchases. Vote with your voice and with your wallet. Push back. Make it good. Make it right.”

Book Club: The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips

Our August book club selection was The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips. It tells the story of the Moores, a Depression-era coal mining family in Alabama.  For them, the Depression is nothing new — they have been barely getting by all their lives.  But not to worry, this is not “The Waltons.”  Parents Leta and Albert are hard-working and loving, but they’re not  saints, and at times, they rail against the unfairness of the economic inequality. Albert after all is a union member trying to improve working conditions and wages for men working in the coal mines.

The action centers around a mystery —  Tess Moore, the middle daughter, sees a woman throw a baby down the family well on a hot summer evening in 1931. Tess and her older sister Virgie then set out to find who would do something so unspeakably violent.  Their quest leads them to various awkward encounters with women and families in even more desperate economic circumstances than the Moores.  The readers’ guide asks, were Tess and Virgie’s intentions pure.  I would say, not at first.  In fact, they seem bent on proving that poor women with lots of kids are  innately depraved enough to kill their children.  Eventually they come to have empathy for women who do the best with what they have.

Albert Moore is fortunate enough to own land, which allows the family to grow much of their own food and to even employ tenant farmers to harvest cotton for them. Although Tess, Virgie, and their younger brother Jack have to help out around the house and farm, they still have some time for play and social activities.  The children of the tenant family, the Talberts, are not so fortunate and must spend their days picking cotton.  Albert offers his kids the chance to earn some pocket money by helping with the harvest.  They are complete failures — the much younger Talbert children can outpick them, and don’t complain about pricking their fingers or sweating in the hot sun.

Like others in the pre-FDR years of the Depression, the Moores are just barely hanging on. They have no health insurance, and no safety net should something terrible happen to the key breadwinner. When Jack is injured in a hit and run accident, Albert chooses to work double shifts at the mine to pay the medical bills, rather than sue the brick company that owns the truck that hit his son.  For me, this was the least believable part of the novel.   Yes, people were less likely to file lawsuits then, but it’s just not convincing after Phillips descriptions of Albert’s concerns about justice for the working man.

More believable is Albert’s willingness to cross the color line and befriend his African-American co-worker Jonah.   There are limits to this friendship, though. Albert invites Jonah to have dinner at his house — Jonah refuses, fearing retribution from Albert’s racist colleagues and neighbors. Albert eventually backs down — but I think he does it more to save Jonah from harm than to protect Albert’s family.

Unlike some reviewers at Amazon, I had no problem with the shift between each family members’ point of view.  What didn’t work so well was Phillips’ choice to have Jack narrate as an adult.   I suppose she did this so she could tie up loose ends by telling what happened to the family after the summer of 1931, but I would have liked the story better had she left this open to the reader’s imagination.  Once the girls solve the mystery of the Well Woman,  the energy of the story dissipates.

Still, for the most part, this is a convincing and engaging first novel.  It’s a great example of the struggles that families had to endure to survive in the era before the social safety net created by FDR’s New Deal.

Next up: A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert.

Book Club: Bad Girls Go Everywhere

jennifer-scanlon-bad-girls-go-everywhereThis feature has been missing from my blog lately because in March, I missed the meeting but read the book (The Red Leather Diary by Lily Koppel).  This was a great read for women’s history month.  Koppel found the said diary in a dumpster outside her apartment and has created a very engaging reconstruction of the life of a young Jewish teenage girl in Manhattan during the 1920s.  Florence Wolfson’s life was way more glamorous than the typical teenager, and one wonders whether she embellishes on some of her escapades.   I was especially intrigued by Florence’s discussion of intense female friendships and even sexual relationships at her all-female high school — this was a time when sexologists were starting to actively discourage these relationships but her school seemed to be tolerant (at least the girls weren’t getting pregnant).  Wolfson’s infatuation with Eva La Gallienne was fascinating too.  As a young woman, Wolfson wrote “feminist tinged” articles for various women’s magazines. She even wrote an unpublished book in the 1930s called, “Are Husbands Necessary?” which if printed would have been a nice forerunner to Sex and the Single Girl.

The next meeting, in May, I  made the meeting but didn’t finish the book (When a Crocodile Eats the Sun by Peter Godwin).  So, since I didn’t finish it  I’ll skip a review.

The selection for June was Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown by Jennifer Scanlon, which was a nice complement to the Red Leather Diary.  Even though I picked the book, I was somewhat skeptical about whether I would enjoy reading about Brown because I had grown up thinking of Cosmopolitan as very background when it came to women’s issues. I didn’t know anything about Brown’s hardscrabble childhood in Arkansas (Scanlon compares her to the main character in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”) nor did I really appreciate the ways she broke ground for women in publishing during the early 1960s (basically the era covered by Mad Men).  Scanlon argues that Brown was a model of “pragmatic feminism” that was more appealing to working-class women than the elitist liberal feminism espoused by Betty Friedan.  I think Scanlon is a bit unfair to both Friedan and Gloria Steinem, though. I understand her need to defend her subject, and even Scanlon says Brown as a mass of contradictions (was pro choice but still focused on how women should use their sex appeal to get male economic support).  The book does get a bit repetitive towards the end. Still, I think Scanlon did a fine job of combining good scholarship and engaging writing — in other words, Cosmo girls who want to learn more about Brown won’t be bored with academic jargon.

My book club members’ reactions were even more fascinating. I’m the youngest in the group — most are in their 50s and 60s.  So, they have first hand knowledge of Friedan, Steinem, and Brown.  Two of the members were in the same consciousness-raising group in the 1970s and were strongly influenced by Friedan (these are women who were working in minimum wage jobs — so they were “working-class” by Scanlon’s definition). Another had been at Berkeley in the late 1960s, criticized feminism as too white and middle-class (although white herself), but eventually “got it.”

As the youngest member, my first memory of The Feminine Mystique comes from the “All in the Family” episode where Gloria discovers women’s lib and gives her mother, Edith a copy of the book (which Edith hides under the sofa when she hears Archie coming).   And then there’s Maude, the spin-off from that show.  I remember finding it funny but because I was in elementary school at the time, much of it went right over my head.

All these memories are well timed, since right now I’m working on my comments for the biennial conference for the Society for the History of Childhood and Youth at UC Berkeley next week.  One of the papers is one “Little Women’s Libbers” — I wish I had known there were others like me in the 1970s.