Entry 11: In the Name of Reading

Books! So many books! If I was offered a job which consisted solely of reading and reviewing books – fiction or nonfiction – I'd take it in a heartbeat. In fact, while I was on holiday I found the latest BBC list of the 100 greatest British Novels, as selected by 82 book critics from around the world. Inspired by this list, I have decided it would be a worthy long-term goal to attempt to read all 100 novels/series over the course of the next 3-4 years (after my thesis is finished of course!). I even created a special Goodreads list for this exact purpose! I could even blog about it - it would be a sort of creative nonfiction exercise...

But that is all beside the point at the moment (and a tad distracting), so without further ado here are my latest readings and ratings:

1.  The Dovekeepers (2011) by Alice Hoffman

Applicability Rating: 8/10

Relevant Themes: Interplay of masculine/feminine traits – ‘doing’ gender, challenging gender roles, leadership in crisis, relationships between women, divine feminine (celebration of the feminine)

Key Thoughts: Love, love, love this book! Although, since I read it over Christmas, it almost ruined my tenuous grasp on the ‘spirit of Christmas joy.’ The story was incredibly sad and, as it is based on true events, disturbingly tragic (I shed more than a few tears near the end).

Set in 70 AD just after the fall of Jerusalem, The Dovekeepers retells the tragic story of Masada, a small Jewish stronghold on a mountain outside the Judean desert. Nine hundred Jews held out for several months against the Romans, but by the end of the siege, only two women and five children had survived. The tale is told from the perspective of four extraordinary women whose lives become inextricably intertwined when they become dovekeepers at Masada – Yael, the unwanted daughter of an assassin, Revka, a baker’s wife who has witnessed unspeakable brutality, Aziza, the daughter of a warrior, and Shirah, a wise and powerful woman who some suspect is a witch.

Not only is the story compelling, but it also explores the leader-follower relationship from the position of the female follower. Yael is particularly observant of the charismatic appeal found in the ‘leader’ figure: “No one wanted to think about Masada without a leader, a body without a spirit” (p. 98), yet she is also somewhat critical of the godlike and masculine appeal of Ben Ya’ir, a man who “shone because others followed, because they adored him and deferred to him and trusted him…there was a light inside him,” and why they followed him “to this remote and dangerous place” (p. 99). 

In Aziza’s section, Hoffman investigates the tensions between traditional gender binaries and what happens/doesn't happen when they are transgressed. Aziza has lived an unconventional life; although born female, to help her survive in the harsh desert as part of a mountain Moabite tribe, her mother brings her up as a boy. But before she arrives at Masada she reverts back to her female ‘identity.’ However, as the Romans begin their siege, Aziza once again transforms herself into a ‘man.’ Compared to her sister Nahara who joins the Essene people and lives “as if she was nothing more than a passive and beautiful ewe” (p. 284), Aziza is a force to be reckoned with. The gender interplay alone provides plenty of material for discussion about the ‘nature’ of masculine and feminine traits, and the ways in which masculinity and femininity are perceived and the expectations they create.

I loved the sense of 'humanity' in this novel and the way it celebrated the feminine. By allowing some characters to move beyond gender boundaries and enact and play with both the masculine and the feminine, the agentic and the communal, Hoffman has created a story which transcends time boundaries.

 

2.  Flow Down Like Silver: Hypatia of Alexandria, a novel (2009) by Ki Longfellow

Applicability Rating: 7/10

Relevant Themes: Female leadership in male-dominated societies, women’s achievements, perceptions & expectations

Key Thoughts: “Hypatia? Who is she?” I felt I should know, so by the end of the first chapter I was desperately wracking my brain searching for a reference point, some long ago cataloged fact. “Nothing…wait, a movie…Yes! Got it, Agora.”

It’s rather disappointing when all you can remember about such a remarkable woman is that she was killed by a Christian mob sometime in 400 AD, and this from a rather poorly executed movie (as my hubby would claim – the best form of historical (mis)information). Longfellow no doubt thought it was disappointing too, which is why she wrote Flow Down Like Silver, a novel which celebrates Hypatia’s sublime genius in a time period when it was almost completely and exclusively a ‘man’s world.’ Not only was Hypatia of Alexandria a leading Greek mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher in the 5th century, she was also head of the Neoplatonic school at Alexandria where she taught philosophy and astronomy to men – ‘pagans,’ Christians, and Jews alike – during a time of political and cultural upheaval.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and the depth with which Longfellow explores Hypatia’s philosophical inclinations (she even has Hypatia debating with Augustine) and bravery in the face of stringent opposition from the leading religious powers. There is no doubt Hypatia deserved to work in the public sphere and male-dominated education system. 

However, I feel there could be problems with workability. The narrative switches haphazardly between protagonists. Personally I would have preferred if the story had followed only Hypatia, or at least Hypatia and Minkah. There is a LOT of philosophy/abstract reasoning sprinkled throughout the text, I love that kind of thing, but it could be a bit tiresome for those wanting a quick, easy read (one of the keys I think is having a story or novel which someone could read in one weekend – books like The Lifeboat and The Dovekeepers are much harder to put down due to the compelling nature of their plots. Saying that, Badaracco still includes more challenging reads like Antigone by Sophocles in his selection).

 

3.  In the Name of Friendship (2005) by Marilyn French

Applicability Rating: 7/10

Relevant Themes: Third-wave Feminism (in contrast to second-wave), friendship, middleclass women’s careers, changing expectations

Key Thoughts: In the Name of Friendship is a sort of pseudo-sequel to The Women’s Room (originally published in 1977). French obviously realised the need to re-visit the status of the ‘gentler sex’ and relook at the opportunities for (predominantly) white women in the West, and I’m glad she did! I found this novel to be much more relatable (no surprises there!) and in line with the experiences of my own and my mother’s generation.

Set in a small Berkshire town in Massachusetts, the novel opens with the formidable, yet kind-hearted seventy-six-year-old Maddy Gold stating matter-of-factly: “Things are entirely different for women today.” It is on this premise which French bases her updated exploration into the ‘truth’ behind women’s lives (and to a lesser extent, men’s lives) at the turn of the century. The story brings together four unlikely friends of differing ages and with completely different life experiences, and it seems that what French is really wanting to celebrate is the beauty and necessity of multigenerational female friendships. Although there is not much in the way of plot or action (it reads quite similarly to other French novels – a type of thoughtful, but disjointed narrative filled with gems of insight and wisdom; ‘real-life’ in all its mundane, everyday glory), as Stephanie Genty notes in her afterword: for readers who are searching for a feminist messages in novels, In the Name of Friendship offers a clear one: “at the beginning of the twenty-first century, more than forty years after the start of the women’s movement, at least privileged women can choose to experience ‘more life’” (p. 389). So it is, of course, focused on “female experience in the widest and deepest sense: woman in relation to significant others, in relation to her body and sexuality, in relation to work and creative experience, and in relation to society as a whole” (Genty, 2005, p. 391).

Does it examine or say anything interesting about women’s leadership? Not overtly. However, it does explore the double-bind women face when it comes to work and family, along with discussing subtle misogyny and sexism in the workplace (there’s an excellent scene where Alicia’s husband, with Alicia’s gentle prompting, comes to the realisation that he has biased perceptions of his female colleagues). As a preliminary text (and by preliminary I mean the type of novel you’d use to kick off the whole discussion of gender and work, an ‘awareness raising’ type of text) it could be useful. 


4.  The Gracekeepers (2015) by Kirsty Logan

Applicability Rating: 5/10

Relevant Themes: Gender play, feminist science fiction

Key Thoughts: I didn’t like this book as much as I thought I would. I now feel I have a love-hate relationship with the (feminist) science fiction genre. But since this is only Logan’s first novel, maybe I can find it in me to get over my disappointment (or maybe as the fallible reader it was I who failed to pick up on the subtly of Logan’s brilliance??). But opinions count for something, so in my opinion, while The Gracekeepers was poignantly elegant, ethereal and magical in some places, overall it lacked the complexity, depth and artistic genius of Le Guin.

The story is supposed to follow the lives of two unusual girls, North and Callanish. They live in a familiar yet mysterious world where the sea has flooded the earth and living on land is a privilege for only the lucky few. North, the circus bear girl, and Callanish, the unwanted gracekeeper, both have secrets which could destroy their lives, and it is because of these secrets that they are drawn to one another. There is a lot of gender play in this book, particularly in terms of androgyny, as well as in a critique of organised religion which is interesting but…there was too much of everything in this short book, too many themes explored, too many characters trying to find a place in the narrative, too many random plot details, and so on. And since the book is only 280 pages long (the font is larger than normal and the margins are wide), the ending seemed rushed and forced.  

 

5.   Remarkable Creatures (2009) by Tracy Chevalier

Applicability Rating: 7.5/10

Relevant Themes: The ‘space between’ leaders & followers (moments between Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot), psychology of prejudice, female friendship

Key Thoughts: Remarkable Creatures retells the true and fascinating story of Mary Anning, a young working class girl in 19th century Britain with a talent for finding fossils (or ‘curies’ as the locals call them) along the English coastline. To say the least, I learnt a lot about fossils – ammonites in particular, but also Mary’s biggest discovery, a huge ancient marine reptile called an ichthyosaurus. This discovery, and more like it, shook the scientific community, but Mary was barely acknowledged for her significant and difficult work (not only finding and dislodging the delicate fossils from the rock, but also cleaning and piecing the creatures together).

Mary’s story intersects with that of another fossil hunter, Miss Elizabeth Philpot, a prickly middle-aged London spinster who has been banished to the small town of Lyme Regis with her two unmarried sisters. Elizabeth and Mary form an unlikely friendship which crosses class boundaries, sharing a unique passion (and at times, rivalry) for finding fossils. Between them they share many ‘moments’ of leadership as they struggle for recognition in the male-dominated scientific community. It's a charming novel, but underpinned with a kind of haunting sadness or disappointment over the unfair way Mary is treated – if only she had been given the same opportunities as men, what more she could have been and done. As Elizabeth observes, as the 'outcasts' of society (female, working class, spinsters) they are only allowed one or two small adventures in an otherwise unadventurous life.


6.  Almost Famous Women (2015) by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Applicability Rating: 4/10

Relevant Themes: Women’s lives, real women, missed opportunities

Key Thoughts: I had really high hopes for this book of short stories, and while it is very well-written and demonstrates the enviable versatility of Megan Mayhew Bergman’s writing style, I felt like something (‘essence’? depth?) was missing. The purpose of the collection is to give ‘life’ and attention to a set of unlikely heroines who were born in proximity to the spotlight but, for a variety of reasons, struggled to distinguish themselves or were unjustly relegated to the footnotes of history. Most of the stories are very sad – about unfulfilled potential, reckless decisions and, subsequently, loneliness and bitterness. And while Mayhew Bergman is superb at characterisation, the women she describes are more atypical anomalies than relatable or inspiring examples. 

 

Lists & Classifications

This table [see online here] is a basic ‘representation’ of women’s literature that I have begun ‘grouping’ into themes/categories (it looks a bit messy because it had to fit the dimensions of this humble blog!). 

The criteria for selection emerged as follows:

·       At least one female protagonist/heroine who guides or is subject to the majority of action in the story

·       Written after 1970 or 1960 by a female author

·       Well-reviewed and/or award-winning literature (I've tried to stay away from 'chick lit' as much as possible)

·       Interesting/provocative story line

·       Universal appeal (suitable for a ‘general’ audience)

·       Possible 'leadership' themes

Undoubtedly I've missed some suitable books in my search, so the list will hopefully increase to about 50 odd books by the end of February. At the moment I think it stands at 39 novels/plays/short story collections by 32 authors.

The next round of selection will be concerned with identifying what ‘types’ of women’s stories are appropriate for the study of and deconstruction of women’s leadership. I imagine in this section I will investigate three key criteria for long listing suitable literature. These include, Badaracco’s test of ‘careful reading,’ the ‘Bechdel Test,’ and the presence of identifiable ‘moments’ of leadership within the narrative. Suitable women’s literature should move beyond the actions of a single, heroic leader figure, to encompass complex relationships between followers, purpose and context in the narrative.

From there I should easily be able to long list 8-10 suitable titles, followed by a short list of 3-4 pieces of women's literature which work together to create a unified study on the issues facing female leaders. At the moment, the four interlinked conceptual themes I would like to work with include:

·       The impact of gender on leadership (an exploration into social constructionism, gender & leadership)

·       Reinterpreting the hierarchy - destabilising grand narratives

·       Deconstructing popular stereotypes and expectations

·       Leadership as process (women & post-heroic models of leadership)

I will leave it at that for now. The plan is to finish up the women and leadership section by mid-February, go on holiday for a week, come back and write-up the women's literature classification and selection by the beginning of March.