Now that I'm well into the writing stage, I’ve pretty much finished reading novels, short stories, and plays (although I may manage to sneak in a couple more if I’m lucky!), but there were a few stragglers which didn’t get included in my last book review post. So, in this ‘finale’ book review blog, I have three books to appraise, a long list of ‘what-I-wish-I-could-read-if-I-had-time,' a short reflective vignette on how my reading experiences have evolved over the last 7-8 months, and ‘My Feminist Bookshelf’ recommendations. There is just so much great information in this post!
1. The Help (2009) by Kathryn Stockett
Applicability Rating: 8/10
Relevant Themes: Collaborative leadership, women’s stories & perspectives, intersectionality/racial issues, authentic leadership & engagement
Key Thoughts: I don’t usually make a habit of reading a book after I’ve watched the movie, but The Help is a real gem, even if you already have the inside scoop on all the best spoilers. Set in the deep-south in 1962, Stockett’s well-loved novel is narrated by three extraordinary women – twenty-two year old Skeeter, a privileged yet ambitious white girl, and two black maids, the wise and regal Aibileen and her best friend Minny, the sassiest maid in all of Jackson, Mississippi, but also the best cook. In terms of leadership, the whole story is concerned with addressing what Keith Grint would no doubt call a ‘wicked problem’ – the ill treatment of black maids, and more widely, racism in 1960s America.
While the novel could be examined holistically (as a ‘whole’ rather than ‘parts’), this framework can also be applied to more specific ‘moments’ within the story.
My infatuation with this book was subdued somewhat after I read an essay by Roxane Gay in Bad Feminist. As a black woman herself, Gay claims the book and movie both do a rather poor job of dealing with racial issues (there is a shorter version of this article online: 'Bad Movie, Worse Book'). She specifically takes issue with the typical stereotypes Stockett (who is white) adopts for her black characters – the selfless and loving nanny, the abusive black husband, the sassy, big-mouthed maid who’s always getting into trouble. And whereas Skeeter, the young white protagonist, gets to ‘follow her dreams’ as a result of publishing the book, Aibileen is fired from her job and her future hangs in the balance. It’s really tricky because I think the temptation here, for me at least, would be to use the story for its excellent examples of leadership but ignore race (and more specifically, black women's leadership experiences) since it complicates, and even overshadows, what could be termed the more useful ‘all-women’ or ‘universal’ lessons. I’ll add this book to my long list, but I think until I’m more up-to-the-play with racial issues, critical race theory and intersectional analysis I couldn’t do it real justice.
2. Base Ten (2009) by Maryann Lesert
Applicability Rating: 6.5/10
Relevant Themes: Work-life balance difficulties for women, navigating the double-bind, women in male-dominated fields, agentic vs. communal behaviours
Key Thoughts: I branched out a bit with this book as it’s definitely not on any bestseller or prize-winning lists. In fact, it seems to have flown largely under the radar and is not even available in New Zealand (I had to order it off Book Depository). Published by The Feminist Press in 2009, Base Ten deals with some very topical – though largely invisible – issues to do with women’s careers versus traditional family responsibilities. Although somewhat heavy on the details and perhaps 100 pages too long, I did find the story quite fascinating, particularly in the very human way it approached the double bind most women will face at some point in their lives: a highly rewarding and brilliant career or motherhood. For astrophysicist Jillian Greer who has always dreamed of going into space, the tensions between the real and all-encompassing (but equally frustrating) love she has for her children and the inevitable consequences motherhood has for her once brilliant career in the male-dominated realm of the sciences, is almost enough to drive her mad. She could have achieved so much and yet… While the novel is not so much about leadership as it is about self-discovery, it also interrogates the underlying social structures which govern how the workplace is currently organised - Why are women still a minority in some industries? Why are women still being confronted with having to make a ‘sacrificial choice’ between a fulfilling career and family? Why hasn’t society and the workplace adapted? What can be done?
However, I have mixed feelings about recommending this book. It's not overly gripping or exciting. Yes, it's clever and thoughtful, but realistically, as a book club recommendation, participants would struggle to get the whole way through. Sadly, I can see most people designating it to the category of tedious and onerous 'should reads.'
3. The Gate to Women’s Country (1988) by Sheri S. Tepper
Applicability Rating: 8.5/10
Relevant Themes: Matriarchal societies, women in power, male/female leadership differences, ethical & moral decision-making
Key Thoughts: This is one of those books that you either simply love or hate (or love to hate as the case may be). Personally, I was equally enthralled and horrified...I couldn't get it out of my head and I just had to keep reading in every spare moment until I'd made it to the unsettling and surprising end. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it! In summary, the novel is set in a post-apocalyptic dystopian world where only two extreme political alternatives exist: an oppressive, in-bred polygamist faction that subscribes to patriarchal religious fundamentalism which disconcertingly is not so far removed from some religious sects that could be found today, and a closely controlled matriarchal dictatorship known as Women’s Country. In an attempt to avoid another devastating world war, most of the men in Women’s Country are only allowed to live in closed military garrisons outside the cities. They provide protection from bandits, thieves and other garrisons. While men may leave the garrisons between the ages of 15 to 25 to become peace-loving ‘servitors,’ only a very few choose to do so. The women, on the other hand, manage the economy and are entirely responsible for the government, as well as agriculture, industry, learning and science. The ensuing story is narrated primarily from the perspective of Stavia, the devoted yet errant daughter of a leading councilwoman, as she comes to terms with her place, and the place of others, in Women’s Country.
Although Tepper seems to hold that male and female differences in temperament and nature are primarily biological, I think she leaves enough room for the reader to challenge her conceptions of gender. Women’s Country is by no means a utopian society even though women do hold most of the power, and there are vast consequences arising from such a rigid social system. A fact which is not lost on the leading Councilwomen, who call themselves the ‘Damned Few’ as a result. So with its thoughtful application of cultural feminism and a healthy dose of Greek mythology, this story can be labelled both provocative and memorable, raising manifold questions about the nature of male and female differences, both as leaders and followers, in a world completely at odds with itself.
4. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2015) by Becky Chambers
Applicability Rating: 5/10
Relevant Themes: Follower-leader dynamics, crisis situations, gender fluidity (play)
Key Thoughts: I picked this sci-fi novel up because it’s been longlisted for the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. And I also found it fascinating that Chambers financed this book (both the final writing stages and the self-publishing costs) by successfully campaigning through Kickstarter, a popular crowdfunding website. A fantastic idea, no?
I’m not overly familiar with the sci-fi genre, it seems that the label encompasses a wide variety of different styles and content. Whereas Le Guin’s sci-fi is serious, thoughtful and dystopian, Chambers’ style is much more comic, contemporary, and…teen fiction-y. Imagine a fictional galaxy something akin to Star Wars and you’re halfway there. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic era; the human race has escaped their dying planet (which has been devastated due to humanity’s propensity for rampant self-destruction – I’m looking at you America!) and resettled on Mars. But out in the galaxy there’s a whole plethora of different intelligent species and advanced civilizations (and it almost goes without saying, much more intelligent than humans). On a tunnelling ship captained by a human we meet at least five different varieties of these diverse galactic species. Chambers goes all-out explaining what these fantastical creatures look like – colourful feathers, boneless goo, shimmering scales…I couldn’t help but think of something akin to the cast of characters from Monsters, Inc. And after that funny unprompted mind-association, I completely lost my ability to take this novel too seriously.
While the story is entertaining and clever (Chambers has a vibrant and fun imagination), personally, I think she is trying to achieve too much in this novel. There’s some form of critique and/or message for literally EVERYTHING. Sustainability, the environment, climate change, war & peace, terrorism, racism, acceptance, corporate greed, LGQBT, the political system, colonialism, body modification, artificial intelligence, inter-species sex…that one weirded me out a little bit to be honest. Chambers appears set on trying to take on the entire world, or should I say, galaxy (except for feminism, oddly enough). And I’m not saying that these aren’t all important issues, but can a 300-odd page book really do them any sort of justice? While the key female character, Rosemary, is subject to a lot of the action, she fell short of my personal requirements for an interesting and engaging leader/follower. Furthermore, because of all the 'messages' Chambers is trying to get across and drill into her audience, the story/plot feels diluted; simply a vehicle for a political agenda. I really wanted to like this book, but I just couldn't. In one word: frustrating.
So why even bother reviewing this novel? I decided to include this review because it demonstrates how finding appropriate stories is always a matter of trial-and-error. I thought this would be a great choice as according to the summary and reviews I read it featured a decent female lead, controversial/topical issues, an interesting leadership setting, had been nominated for notable prizes...but it just goes to show, until you have a book in your hands and start reading, looking at reviews and summaries is always going to be a hit-and-miss process. In this way it hints at the sheer amount of time and effort it has taken to read and then reflect on almost 50 books and short story collections (as well as read reviews and summaries for well over 200+ books) in order to create a high quality and workable long list.
While I’m probably not going to get a chance to read them this time around, on my “if-I-didn’t-sleep-and-just-studied” list I have:
- The Stargazer’s Sister by Carrie Brown
- The Women's Pages by Debra Adelaide
- People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
- The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante
- Little Aunt Crane by Geling Yan
- Sister Noon by Karen Joy Fowler
- Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
- The Green Road by Anne Enright
- Starlight Peninsula by Charlotte Grimshaw
- Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
- Impossible Saints by Michèle Roberts
- Cleopatra’s Shadow by Emily Holleman
- Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
- Everything and anything by Alice Hoffman, Ursula Le Guin, and Charlotte Rogan
- More short story collections – like Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology (almost finished this one actually! A captivating, spine-tingling collection).
Also missing from my 'top 50' list are New Zealand authors. I hate to admit that apart from Patricia Grace, Eleanor Catton and Katherine Mansfield, I've read very few NZ women writers. But unless I set out on another reading mission, I'm not sure how to rectify this in the short term. It may be something I need to redress if I did a PhD (I could spend 2-3 months researching and reading 10-15 novels/stories by NZ women writers) and it will be a limitation for this study.
A Few Reflections on Reading
As my blog and thesis have developed, my ‘reviews’ have concurrently evolved from short, almost timid summaries, to (mostly) thoughtful critiques and detailed appraisals. As a point of comparison, consider my review for The Secret Life of Bees which I wrote back in August 2015:
A clear work environment (the honey business) where there is leadership and followership between women. August Boatwright exemplifies authentic leadership in its fullest sense, i.e. heart leadership, solid values, passionate engagement, self-discipline. Since the story is told from perspective of Lily, I could investigate how women respond to authentic leadership and female support.
This is still a good summary, it’s all extremely relevant information. But I can’t help but feel there was a certain reticence which marred my textual analysis when I first started this project. I also wasn't entirely sure of what I was looking for or how I should talk about the texts.
Turning my gaze back, I can identify changes in how I read and think about my selected stories. My critical thinking skills (for this subject at least) have improved, and I feel that I can more easily recognise leadership 'moments' and what is going on in the 'spaces between' people/characters. But it's not only a matter of practical skills-based improvements, reading fictional stories in tandem with leadership theory has provided me with so many deeply engaging and memorable examples and case studies of women's leadership in action. There are two particular 'case' examples I keep returning to again and again. Firstly, the story of Sarah Grimke in The Invention of Wings [my review says it all here]; I still feel that I can identify with Sarah (the 'reluctant leader') as her story is a 'real-to-me' case study. Secondly, I often find myself reflecting on The Lifeboat and the epic leadership 'crisis' and subsequent power struggle it portrayed (hmm, I might need to rethink my short list...).
In addition, as a young woman myself, reading well-written women's stories that feature complex and diverse characters has given me more confidence in my own leadership capabilities (personal agency), as well as greater awareness of the pitfalls and problems within the leadership 'labyrinth' (as Eagly and Carli would say) and how I might navigate them in the future. I have been my own experimental guinea pig!
The ‘Feminism’ Shelf
It’s one thing to say you’re a feminist, but another to know and understand what that really means beyond “Yes, I believe in gender equality” (not that that's wrong by any means!). ‘Feminism,’ as a concept/theory/ideology/method (etc!), is extremely multi-faceted. It’s something to struggle with and make sense of over a protracted period of time, maybe even your whole life. In fact, for me at least, learning about and engaging with feminism discourses and theories has been a transformative experience.
When I started my thesis I didn’t fully comprehend the definitive differences between cultural feminism and liberal feminism, let alone what the terms ‘gender binary’ or ‘intersectionality’ meant. And I was absolutely clueless where poststructuralist feminism was concerned. I thought I knew a little bit about first, second, and third-wave feminism, but post-feminism? Not really. And sociological perspectives on ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ – why on earth didn’t I take a sociology paper at undergrad level?! I’ve tried hard to improve my understanding and knowledge of feminism over the last 8 months (a ‘crash-course’ approach to learning), so I am by no means an expert, but as part of “That’s a Wrap!” I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to recommend a few feminist books I’ve found particularly enlightening, entertaining, and inspiring.
These books are easy to read and easily accessible from the public library. For me they made feminism more relatable and applicable to daily life experiences, without getting overly theoretical or contentious about it:
· We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
· Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay (oh wait, Gay is quite contentious!)
· The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages? By Deborah Cameron (Cameron’s blog, language:a feminist guide, is really interesting too!)
· Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism by Natasha Walters
· And I’m just about to start reading Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks
I tried to read Caitlan Moran’s very popular, part memoir, part manifesto – How to Be a Woman, but I found it to be too flippant. Similarly, while Full Frontal Feminism by Jessica Valenti had some good points, overall it lacked depth and made feminism seem overly simplistic (and she swears like a trooper…I mean there are only so many expletives you can handle in a non-fiction book before it becomes annoying). Both these books take a decidedly liberal feminist stance. For your coffee table: Jacky Fleming's The Trouble With Women. This clever and satirical illustrated book will be sure to get some good conversations/arguments started!
But for the more serious reader:
· Modern Misogyny: Anti-Feminist in a Post-Feminist Era by Kristin J. Anderson
This has got to be one of my all-time favourites! I won’t go into any detail here since I’ve already written about this book in an earlier post [check it out here]. But I will say, even if the title sounds negative, Anderson does an excellent job of exploring the current mainstream attitudes towards feminism. An eye-opening read!
I’ll admit it – I had trouble understanding everything in this book. It’s dense and filled with ‘science-speak,' and since I have little background in science, or more specifically, neuroscience and psychology, it was a tough read for me! Saying that, it’s still worth the effort. Fine is relentless in her close analysis of the current research on the brain, working hard to disprove or at least seriously bring into question claims that we have either a ‘male’ brain or a ‘female’ brain from which all behaviour in society eventuates. You know that argument – ‘Women are too intuitive for math, and men are too focused for housework.' For me this book is freeing - too often we come up with excuses for our behavior or other people’s behavior along the lines of 'oh well, she's a woman so..." or "you can't expect a guy to...because he just isn't wired that way." And sure, you can't throw out the baby with the bathwater, there are some small differences in biological brain make-up. BUT...as Fine points out, direct correlations between male/female brains and what would stereotypically be considered male and female behaviors aren't scientifically proven, and the experiments which have been done are full of holes. I mean really:
While this image makes the idea of female/male brains seem silly and ridiculous, I can recall multiple occasions when I've been complicit in reinforcing these stereotypes! It reminds me of what bell hooks has said about the need to constantly confront and critique our own internalised sexism, and then, only then, can we as women (and men) begin to change society.
Last but not least, I really enjoyed reading Michael Kimmel's comprehensive sociology textbook titled The Gendered Society, along with Transformations: Women, Gender, and Psychology by Mary Crawford.
And, at long last, we've finally made it to the end of this ridiculously long finale book review post! *applause*