I was in the middle of writing a post on feminism, difference and women's leadership, but suddenly it all felt just a tad too deep and controversial for a rainy Friday afternoon! Plus, I've had rehearsals for the dance show I'm organising, and it's my second to last week at my current job and I'm tying up a million loose ends, so I feel I have a legitimate excuse not to be quite so 'academic' today...or tomorrow.
However, I didn't want to stop writing, so instead I have compiled mini reviews of my latest reading endeavours. Somehow I still managed 2000 words! So without further ado...
1. Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague (2004) by Geraldine Brooks
Applicability Rating: 7.5/10
Relevant Themes: Self-actualisation, gender roles, religion, courage in crisis
Key Thoughts: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks is a gripping storyteller, and even if I didn’t think Year of Wonders was applicable to my project, I would wholeheartedly recommend this novel. Her non-fiction book (which I read for a post-colonial literature), Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women (1995), is equally fascinating, so add that to your reading list.
This particular novel is told through the eyes of Anna, a young women living in a plague village in 17th century England. During the fateful year of 1666, she and her fellow villagers face the spread of this deadly disease and the burgeoning rise of superstition and witch hunts. Brooks doesn’t shy away from recounting every gory detail as she vividly explores Anna’s progression from a cautious, unremarkable wife and mother, to a strong, independent female character. As Anna struggles to survive, and one could even say ‘find herself and her place in the world,’ a year of tragedy becomes instead annus mirabilis, a "year of wonders."
Anna is not only engaging and likeable, but she also learns how to take action and, ultimately, determines her own fate, standing up for what is ‘right’ and making decisions despite the expectations and beliefs of those around her. She isn’t defined solely in relation to men and isn’t limited by them (whereas Le Guin’s Lavinia is largely complicit in her fate and, subsequently, never emerges as a person in her own right). In fact, a comparison/contrast between Anna and Lavinia could bring up some very interesting questions about gender roles, female leadership and self-actualisation. For example: As women in positions of marginal ‘power’ (Anna as a healer, Lavinia as a sage), what expectations are placed on them? What similarities exist? What differences, if any? What dangers do they face due to their ‘power’? (i.e. Anna fears being accused as a witch, Lavinia is afraid her son will be forcibly taken away from her).
2. Day After Night (2010) by Anita Diamant
Applicability Rating: 6/10
Relevant Themes: Friendship & solidarity, crisis situation, women's experiences
Key Thoughts: I really wish Diamant would write another novel with the same level of depth, scope and imaginative appeal as The Red Tent. I’ve now read two more of her most recent books, Day After Night and The Boston Girl, which, although well written and interesting, neither have the same complexity or narrative insight as Diamant’s dramatic re-telling of Dinah’s story. As I’ve noted previously, while the focus is on motherhood and the bonds between women as opposed to women's leadership, The Red Tent's ‘universal’ themes and linear narrative lends itself to discussion on the 'power of women' and the importance of female bonds. Dinah's grandmother Rebekah is an example of a strong, perhaps almost masculine leader (see pages 147 – 166) who has to make difficult decisions which are often criticised.
Day After Night, on the other hand, is specifically concerned with Jewish women’s trauma and displacement immediately following WWII. Held in Atlit, a camp for over 270 ‘illegal’ immigrants to Israel in 1945, four young women struggle to start-over in a new country without friends, family, or, seemingly, a future. Diamant is a compassionate storyteller, and manages to thoughtfully portray the psychological struggles the women face as they are gathered in this ‘waiting’ place. While not specifically concerned with leadership, one character, Shayndel, a Polish Zionist who fought the Germans with a band of partisans, does take up the ‘leader’ mantel during an escape from Atlit. I suppose the ‘escape’ could be analysed in terms of it being a leadership moment (clear context, purpose, leader, followers) but it would require reading the entire book to make any sense of it, and there just isn’t enough in terms of 'women’s leadership' for it to be very compelling or particularly relevant.
3. The Ten-Year Nap (2008) by Meg Wolitzer
Applicability Rating: 5/10
Relevant Themes: Working mothers vs. stay-at-home mothers, female ambition, disillusionment, money, motherhood
Key Thoughts: I was hoping that Wolitzer would be the contemporary version of Marilyn French or Mary McCarthy, especially since her bestselling novels are predominantly concerned with third-wave feminist issues. But unfortunately she lacks the finesse, insight and literary acumen to be considered their successor (I’m still waiting to find a modern female equivalent who writes like French or even, Byatt).
The Ten-Year Nap follows a group of highly educated mothers who have left the workforce for one reason or another (not entirely convincingly) to raise their children (or child) in modern-day New York City. There is so much potential within this broad topic – the double bind of careers and motherhood – but Wolitzer conducts only a superficial analysis of the 'un-triumphant female.' And while some characters are reasonably engaging, others are simply boring stereotypes. The ‘grand narratives’ of women’s work, motherhood, and stay-at-home-mums could have been deconstructed and resituated (and then celebrated) but, alas, this was not to be. All I was left with was a feeling of superficiality and an unresolved dilemma – what is Wolitzer’s point/message? What is she even trying to say about this topic? I'd hazard a guess that even she doesn't quite know. Furthermore, her characters are too tidy – or too much of a type, and the narrative veers incongruously between differing perspectives and irrelevant ‘moments’ from the lives of women throughout history. Perhaps as a book of short stories, linked by location or theme, this might have worked, but in novel form it is just so ‘meh,’ for lack of a better word! As Jill observes near the end of the novel: “This is the ending. It’s just not satisfying, that’s all.” How apt.
4. The Shadow of the Sun (1964) by A. S. Byatt
Applicability Rating: 5.5/10
Key Thoughts: Byatt is a marvellous writer! I can’t believe I’ve never read anything of hers in full before (summer reading list = Possession). It was a bit of a lucky dip selecting one of her books to read for this stuyd, but somehow I ended up with her very first novel, The Shadow of the Sun. Unconventional, beautifully composed, yet incredibly frustrating, are how I would describe this book in which Byatt tells the story of a troubled, (overly) sensitive seventeen-year-old. Anna Severell is the daughter of a renowned novelist, and it is her struggle to discover and develop her own personality and to be/come someone while under the shadow of her father (the metaphorical ‘sun’) which drives most of the action (or more accurately, it is Anna’s continued refusal to act which causes things to happen).
With regards to ‘women’s leadership,’ the topic is not explored in any great depth or detail. However, Anna does make a few succinct observations on what it means to be a man or a woman searching for his/her ‘place in the sun’ in a world of binary opposites and socially constructed expectations and ideas. For example, in a confrontation between Anna and her Father, Byatt writes:
Anna studied him with a gentleness that was not his, but Caroline’s. A sceptical female gentleness. She saw that he had been carried away by a picture of her, having inherited his power, advancing further along his path, and she was touched by a faith in her which she had never hoped to see. But she had thought more about it than he had, and was more aware than he was of the difference there was between his power, and whatever she had inherited from him. She feared that she lacked his bodily strength, that she was not his size, that she could not be prodigal of power as he was, but must husband her resources or be easily exhausted, even when she had found out how to use them. This was partly because she was a woman; also because she was a woman she was constantly tempted as he would never have been, to give up, to rest on someone else’s endeavour, to expend her energy ‘usefully’ at the kitchen sink. And this, she thought, made it harder to go on looking for ways to go forward, when one had to fight against the temptation – socially approved – to stay where one was. She thought, he doesn’t really know, with a certain scorn. (p. 200)
5. Top Girls (1982) by Caryl Churchill
Applicability Rating: 8/10
Relevant Themes: Women at work, masculinities, agentic leadership, capitalism
Key Thoughts: For reasons which make no sense to me now, I actually hated this play when I first read it. But after watching a screen version and re-reading the text, I've developed a new appreciation for Churchill’s witty, yet ultimately tragic insights into the modern (70s/80s) workplace.
The most striking feature of the play is that all the characters in it are women and no men appear on stage for its entire duration. Act I opens with Marlene, the newly appointed Managing Director of ‘Top Girls’ Employment Agency, formally celebrating her promotion with a group of 'friends.' But these aren’t just any friends, they are a curious mix of women from the past, both fictional and real. Marlene opens the evening cheerfully, saying: “We’ve all come a long way. To our courage and the way we changed our lives and our extraordinary achievements.” (They laugh and drink a toast). (p. 14). The interplay between all these diverse characters and personalities is both clever and entertaining, as each are given a chance (albeit while constantly being interrupted) to share their [his]story with the group.
However, their individual ‘successes’ are not necessarily worth celebrating. In describing the premise for the play, Churchill writes: “I wanted to set off, with all those historical women celebrating Marlene’s achievement, to look as if it were going to be celebration of women achieving things, and then to put other perspectives on it, it show that just to achieve the same things that men had achieved in capitalist society wouldn’t be a good object.” Churchill explores this contradiction as she moves into Act II set in the office of ‘Top Girls’ Employment Agency.
In his commentary on the play, Bill Naismith (2008) observes that “the office women have achieved relative success and independence within a system created essentially by men” (p. xxxv). Within this capitalist economy and blatantly hierarchical company, it is only the fittest who survive (seemingly irrespective of their gender). Marlene and her colleagues are largely dismissive of men (‘Men are awful bullshitters’ they contend), and they are certainly clever and capable, but they fail to challenge patriarchal authority and have themselves become agentic 'Queen Bees' (determined and ruthless) in order to succeed in a ‘man’s world.’ This is no more obvious than when Angie, Marlene’s ‘niece,’ shows up at her office and Marlene takes a recognizably 'masculine' (cold, distant) stance as she is unwilling to undermine her image or professionalism by giving Angie what she desperately needs - recognition, care, and a helping hand. However, Churchill is still sensitive to the intense difficulties and criticism women like Marlene face in entering top jobs in the workforce.
So yes, while we can celebrate instances the success and achievement of individual women in the workplace, Churchill asks, at what cost? If one still has to mould oneself to fit a patriarchal/masculine model to succeed, then we still desperately need to reform the system.
6. Calling Invisible Women (2012) by Jeanne Ray
Applicability Rating: 6.5/10
Relevant Themes: Collective action, middle-aged women, perceptions
Key Thoughts: This is a light-hearted, clever little book, easily read in one sitting. The premise is simple, but enduringly(?) relevant. Women who, after a certain age, are no longer valued for their beauty or intelligence, and have little real ‘power’ left beyond the private sphere, inevitably start to feel invisible. But what happens, Ray asks, when they actually become invisible?
While there are moments of 'leadership', such as when the protagonist, Clover, starts a collective movement to help invisible women become recognised, appreciated and, ultimately, cured of their invisibility, I would shy away from using this book as, at times, it does come across as a bit silly. The metaphor itself is powerful, but I would have preferred to see it used as the premise for a short story. Especially since in some of the chapters it felt like Ray was struggling to make up her word count and many of the characters were frustratingly one-dimensional (such as Clover’s daughter).
New on the Reading List:
I feel that I finally have the start of an adequate representation of novels, plays and short story collections, enough to provide a meaningful commentary on what could possibly work and what definitely won't. Almost large enough to begin ‘grouping’ into genres/themes/patterns. For example:
· Historical Literature – slavery, pre-1850, pre-1980
· Modern/Contemporary Fiction
· Feminist Fiction
· Short Stories
· Prize-winning Literature
· Dystopian + Science Fiction
I imagine that by the end of the Christmas break I'll have read (or skimmed in some cases) 40+ books (narrowed down from 100+). I do have some ideas on how I will utilise the myriad options in my thesis, but that's another post entirely!