Review: The Best of Everything, Rona Jaffe

Not to be confused with The End of Everything! But read roughly around the same time. I know. I was really slow in reviewing this. I am just bad at reviews this years, you guys. I need to institute a system to make myself be more systematic.

Rachel (come visit soon, Rachel!) told me that she had to give me a book and for me to tell her what I thought about it, because she had loved it but it also made her really angry, and she wanted to know if my reaction would be the same. It was, except that I maybe did not love it quite as much, and it maybe did not make me quite as angry.

The Best of Everything is a book written in 1958 and dealing with four girls — women, I suppose — who live in New York and work, at least initially, in publishing. Caroline, coming off of a sudden break-up, wants to advance her career as an editor. April, who hails from flyover country (as vague as that is, I can’t even swear it’s accurate; maybe she’s from South Carolina, y’all, I don’t know), dreams of becoming an actress, while Gregg (a girl in spite of her weird dude name) actually becomes one. Barbara, a divorced single mother, tries to make ends meet. And find love. They’re all trying to find love. Love, incidentally, means marriage. JUST IN CASE YOU DID NOT KNOW.

Going in, I expected The Best of Everything to be quite like The Group, which I read earlier this year — and it was, in a way. It dealt with young professional women in New York (that’s what I am!) and made me massively glad that I live now instead of back in the day. But The Group also depressed the hell out of me from cover to cover, whereas The Best of Everything charmed me almost all the way through, then left me with a feeling of faint malaise at the end. I think The Group might be a better book altogether, but I’d be more likely to reread The Best of Everything. The thing about The Group is that the characters in it — while no less constrained by the norms of femininity in their time — kind of wanted different things.

Here we come to the crux of my (and Rachel’s) main problem with The Best of Everything, which is that all the characters wanted the same thing; i.e., love and marriage. And, look, I know that these were different times and that probably was what everyone really, really wanted, because of social norms etc. It just got depressing to see that although several of the characters were good at their jobs, and Caroline even sometimes made noises like her job was more important to her than Marriage, the main thing in their lives was whether the man they were sooooo in love with was going to propose. (They thought yes. Mostly the men thought no.) I liked the characters in exact proportion that they had other interests than Men, which is to say: Barbara, who had a kid; Caroline, who cared about her job; April, who liked shopping (look, I can sympathize); and in last place, Gregg, who I never didn’t want to slap.

In short, if you want to read The Group, but you can’t face the unrelenting misery (and it is p-r-etty unrelenting), read this instead. The writing is unexceptional but the story sails along at a nice clip so you never find yourself drifting away from the book and doing people-watching instead if you are reading on the subway.

They read it too:

Book Snob
Fleur Fisher in Her World
Curious Book Fans

Did I miss yours?

Review: Sisterhood Interrupted, Deborah Siegel

What is it about infighting that I find so enthralling? Siegel suggests that American culture has a fetish for girls (women) fighting, and that’s certainly true, but in my case I am just very interested in the distinctions people draw between the groups they belong to, and the nominally similar groups they insist they couldn’t be more different from. I am reminded of Lucas in Empire Records: “Some people say it doesn’t make a difference, but I say it’s the difference that makes it.” Lucas is talking about vinyl, but the principle is, I feel, a universal one.

Sisterhood Interrupted is about feminism, its different waves and iterations and the squabbles — well, you know, the ideological differences – between them, from first wave to post to post-post-feminism, Betty Friedan to Ariel Levy, Kate Millett to Katie Roiphe. (Deborah Siegal is very reasonable about Katie Roiphe, more than I think I would be. It’s not even her conclusions that infuriate me (though they are certainly irritating), it’s the shoddy methods she uses to arrive at them. “If one in four of my friends were being raped, wouldn’t I know about it?” is not an argument! The plural of anecdote is not data! #grumblegrumble)

As a self-avowed feminist (by which, incidentally, I do not mean that society doesn’t act like a poop to men as well as to women), it was fascinating to read this overview of the different movements and changes within feminism. Siegel plainly admires many of the figures in the feminist movement, but she doesn’t let that get in the way of her objectivity. She readily brings up the problems in the rhetoric and actions of the various groups of feminists, and explores the ways in which these problems translated into divisions and discord.

I nearly got this book for Indie Sister for Christmas — in fact, that’s why I checked it out at the library, to see if it would be a good Christmas gift. Then I found gifts for her at the Brooklyn Flea, work book sale, the Strand, and PaperbackSwap, which means I am giving her a bunch of stuff. The other problem is that Sisterhood Interrupted is so short. It’s only 168 pages plus notes and bibliography, and while it’s a fantastic overview for its length, it is just that: an overview. I feared that Indie Sister, who attends anarchist feminist meetings and reads Germaine Greer in the bathtub, would already know all of the knowledge contained within Sisterhood Interrupted. And would sneer at me for supposing that this book could teach her anything.

Overview seekers, this book is for you! Read it!

On this leisurely Saturday morning, I am virtuously linking links. Then it’s off back to the Strand to buy more books and gaze longingly at the Lyttelton-Hart Davis correspondence and Hyde’s Wilde: The Aftermath (seriously, they have a ridiculous number of Oscar Wilde books at the Strand, like three shelves of them, including some books I don’t even own).

Other reviews:

Book Addiction (thanks for the recommendation, Heather!)
The 3 Rs

Ha, that was easy. But tell me if I missed yours.

Review: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, E. Lockhart

Have y’all ever seen the film Serendipity? I mean it’s not that great. I’m fond of Kate Beckinsale and John Cusack, and I still recognize that this film just isn’t that great. The premise is, they meet once, they have a great date, but Kate Beckinsale wants to leave it to chance whether they meet again. Chance doesn’t work out for them. A few years later, John Cusack’s about to get married or something, and he goes on a mission to track down Kate Beckinsale because she’s the one that got away. He really wants to find her but they keep just missing each other and eventually they find each other and live happily ever after which is sort of a spoiler but not really because it’s a romantic comedy even if not a very good one.

I have known about Frankie Landau-Banks for a while, and I felt it would surely be the perfect book for me. But we just kept missing each other! Ana reviewed it and my library never had it in when I visited. My mother got it on PaperbackSwap (allegedly), yet I never saw it at our house when I was there. I got it for my aunt for her birthday, but because she’s not one of the people I feel okay about reading their presents before giving them to them, I didn’t read it first. For those of you following at home, I am John Cusack in this analogy, and The Disreputable History of Frankie-Landau Banks is Kate Beckinsale. Except that I am not about to spend the rest of my life with only one book and if I were, I wouldn’t blow whatever it was off for The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. It isn’t that good an analogy. I’m not really sure why I opened with that. Let’s move past it, shall we?

Frankie Landau-Banks is entering her sophomore year at college prep boarding school Alabaster. Over the summer she has come true all at once, with the curves and the hair and all the other things that make sophomore girls irresistible to senior guys. Senior Matthew Thornton duly notices her, and they start dating, which is great as far as Frankie’s concerned. But as much as she enjoys dating him, she cannot help noticing certain things about their relationship: that she hangs out with his friends, not he with hers; that she is not necessarily welcome to spend time with his friends independent of him; that he gently and affectionately teases and belittles her, and expects her to behave (as a girl) in a certain way. Most annoying of all is his habit of blowing her off to spend time with his friend Alpha — which, as Frankie gradually realizes, actually means spending time with the school’s secret, all-male society.

Determined to make her mark (to prove herself indelible), Frankie infiltrates the secret society and organizes secret acts of naughtiness around the school. Some of them are just for fun, and some are making genuine comments on the way the school is run. We know at the beginning of the book that Frankie will eventually be caught, so it’s all a question of — what kind of changes is she making to the school, and to her relationship, and to herself?

I liked it that Lockhart doesn’t let Frankie make any of the easy choices. Frankie decides that she is worthy of notice, and sets about proving it. She likes being part of a pair with Matthew Thornton, and wants to maintain that. She just wants them both to know that the two of them stand on equal footing, rather than being Matthew’s subsidiary on account of her age and gender. If this occasionally gets a bit heavy-handed, it’s more than okay with me because I enjoyed Frankie so much. I’ve read several reviews where people said they didn’t necessarily like her, but I really did! I thought she was great! I wish she could age a few years (oh my God, I got really depressed just now thinking of how many years she’d have to age), move to New York, and be my friend. Hooray!

Everyone on my blogroll (practically) has read this book, so I’ll just direct you, once more, to the Book Blogs Search Engine.

Gender bias

You know how sometimes you have really strong reactions to things that you never thought you cared that much about? Like this one time I was reading through course descriptions at various universities to see what their course-books were (I was craving nonfiction, and this is before I discovered book blogs), and I saw this course about the poetry of the Hugheses. As in, Ted and Sylvia. I’m not even that big a fan of Sylvia Plath: I love her poetry but I think she would have been maddening in real life. But I was gripped with this unbelievable visceral rage at the professor who wrote the course description and referred to her as half of “the Hugheses”.

Regarding gender-neutral language, I have always been more or less in support of it. In practice it is rather cumbersome but I approved of it on an intellectual. I think the use of “he” (“the average reader will find that he likes Fagles the best of any translator of epic poetry”) and “man” (“man has sought for centuries to invent a story as awesome as the Odyssey but cannot with any surety be said to have succeeded”) as representative of humanity more generally is (yet another) symptom of that really unpleasant thing of thinking of men as the default, and women as the other thing. On the other hand, I have never, while reading a book that employs gender-biased language, felt the sensation of being excluded. Plus I always suspected it would feel weird and affected if an author ever did the thing they sometimes recommend, of alternating the use of “his” and “her” when referring to a generic person.

Then on Thursday I was going through proof pages of this one book, and I read a sentence that said (something like) “The reader may find herself bogged down in blah blah blah very technical stuff about New Latin.” And you know those scenes you see in high school movies where the very popular girl invites the shy new girl to come hang out with her and her popular friends. You know, how the shy new girl wasn’t expecting it at all, and you can see the shock and joy all over her face? THIS WAS JUST LIKE THAT.

I don’t know how to describe how great it felt. I was suffused with this massive, exhilarating sense that I was being recognized. A lot of the books I read at this internship, they are very serious and important books. Even when they are interesting, engaging, and well-written, I feel like the authors are writing for an audience of loftier intelligence and learning than mine. The book whose proof pages I was inspecting was a translation of a Latin text, which I think had something to do with it, because Latin makes me happy like ice cream. When I read that sentence, “the reader may find herself,” I felt like the translator had written his book with me in mind. I am a her! I may find myself bogged down in technical stuff about New Latin! That may happen to me! (And indeed it did.)

It was amazing! I wanted to make a large banner that said “GENDER-NEUTRAL LANGUAGE IS MORE AWESOME THAN YOU MAY HAVE REALIZED” (I know, catchy, huh?) and go tromping up and down the streets alerting everyone to how great a feeling to have a book assume you as its readership. I know this sounds like a very lame and unconvincing attempt at personalizing a dull linguistic gender debate. But I can’t help it. That’s exactly how it went down. I think that I have never truly appreciated how inclusive inclusivity can be.

Have you ever had such a reaction? Do you have strong feelings one way or the other about gender-neutral language?

Review: Breath, Eyes, Memory, Edwidge Danticat

Note: Edwidge Danticat has the best name in all the land.  I shall say it as often as possible in this review because it is a superb name.  Edwidge Danticat.

Breath, Eyes, Memory is a goes-off-to-live-with book.  (Written by Edwidge Danticat.)  I love a goes-off-to-live-with book, although now that I am a grown-up, such books are increasingly likely to involve severe trauma at the original home or the place where the character goes off to live.  Sophie (the protagonist invented by Edwidge Danticat) has spent all of her twelve years with her Tante Atie, but suddenly she must leave her home in Haiti and go off to live with her mother in New York.  It’s a book about women and families and the heritage of trauma: “Nightmares,” she [but really it is Edwidge Danticat] writes, “are passed on through generations like heirlooms.”

Edwidge Danticat uses a structure that did not altogether thrill me, organizing her book in sections that jump ahead several years, so that with each section change I was distracted from the story and trying to piece together clues to figure out how much time had passed.  It’s a shame that this happened, as Sophie is an increasingly unreliable narrator, and I’d have preferred to spend that time and mental energy piecing together what was really going on in her life.

That said, this book deals with complex issues really well and in beautiful, spare prose.  Edwidge Danticat portrays Haiti and its traditional culture in an incredibly respectful way, while not giving the culture a pass for the trauma it inflicts upon its people.  Sophie’s mother tells Sophie how her own mother used to “test” her to see if she was still a virgin; until, that is, she was raped by a stranger and produced Sophie.  Both experiences have scarred Sophie’s mother, yet she in turn tests Sophie each night after she discovers that Sophie has a boyfriend.  It’s a very intriguing look at the role women play in creating a sexually repressive culture.  Hence I am counting it for the Women Unbound Challenge.

As much as I enjoyed this book, I kept thinking it might have been better as short stories.  Each section was so separate from the others that the book didn’t feel cohesive, particularly as there seemed no good reason to skip ahead those years, except that Edwidge Danticat had nothing else to say about Sophie’s present age and situation.  I’d like to read some of Edwidge Danticat’s short stories, because that Edwidge Danticat, I bet she could write really good short stories.  Edwidge Danticat.  I LOVE THAT NAME SO MUCH.  It is better really than Francisco X. Stork, the last name I professed to adore.

Other reviews:

things mean a lot (thanks for the recommendation!)
Musings of a Bookish Kitty

Tell me if I missed yours!

Review: Quiverfull, Kathryn Joyce

Eurgh.  Recommended by Stephanie of Open Mind, Insert Book, Quiverfull is all about the Christian patriarchy movement, where women embrace “complementarian” gender roles and submit to their husbands/fathers in everything.  Apparently it is very liberating not to have to bother about making decisions; unless, of course, the decision-maker for your household (your husband or father) has decided to hit you, in which case your spiritual community will assure you it is your fault that he’s behaving that way.

From my (strongly feminist, semi-lapsed Catholic) perspective, Joyce manages to steer clear of judgment calls about this to a remarkable degree, though she doesn’t provide a lot of historical and societal context for the movements.  She interviews a number of key figures in the Quiverfull movement and other, similarly-minded Christian movements; she attends several events intended to promote complementarian values; and it appears that she manages to avoid getting into quarrels.  Which is more than I would be able to do, and here, in a nutshell, is why:

Michael and Debi Pearl of the No Greater Joy ministry caution against women developing close friends with other women.  “There is a grave danger of becoming emotionally dependent on other women,” writes Debi.  “Too many times I have seen this lead to something abnormal and sick.  Your husband and God should be the ones to whom you turn for emotional support and intimacy.”

So it’s the kind of relationship where the woman should really be completely dependent on her husband for everything, and not have any interest in friends outside of her husband.  And also he’s in control of all decisions for the household.  I feel like I’ve heard that kind of relationship described another way, but I just can’t think where.  In short, I don’t like this.  I mean the book was fine, but the movement is disturbing, and after a while I got upset reading about women who opt out of exercising their moral choice.  I think I will find my book about the Christian youth movement far less disturbing and fringe-y.

Other reviews:

Open Mind, Insert Book
Peace of Brain

Tell me if I missed yours!

Review: Enlightened Sexism, Susan Douglas

You know what I never do, that I should do?  I never write down call numbers for the books I want at the library.  I look them up on the computers and then just hope they stick in my memory long enough for me to find the books I’m after.  I make them into little songs and sing them under my breath as I wend my way through New Nonfiction, Film, and Young Adults back to the regular nonfiction section.  This is fine as long as there are no books with exciting titles in New Nonfiction; as long as I don’t suddenly remember a Film I want to see; and as long as (this is the real peril) I do not make eye contact with the scary cardboard cut-outs of Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner that cast dour, dead-eyed stares at you as you walk through Young Adults.  All of these things distract me and make me forget my carefully memorized call numbers.

I got Enlightened Sexism off of the New Nonfiction shelf.  At first I thought it was promoting enlightened sexism (like, one of those books that says, Men’s brains are different to women’s!  They want sex all the time because of evolution!  Accept it!), so I trotted over to investigate and found that, on the contrary, it was condemning this new media thing that posits feminism as having succeeded completely and proceeds, from that basis, to promulgate harmful and sexist images of women.  Interesting, eh?  I had to go look up the call number for Quiverfull again, but it was worth it!

Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work Is Done is exactly what I wanted out of Female Chauvinist Pigs.  Douglas casts a critical eye on the gaps between media’s portrayal of women (the powerful, in-control women as well as the blonde bimbos) and the realities for women in American society.  She explores TV shows and films that provide positive (or “positive”) portrayals of powerful women, as well as those that reinforce stereotypes about gender roles.  Her tone is light and conversational, making this a quick, absorbing read, especially if you are like me and enjoy detailed analysis of gender roles in media.  In a particularly interesting chapter, she discusses the paucity of positive, layered portrayals of African American women in media these days.  I liked that one because oh, you just have no idea how much it makes me squirm to see yet another sassy black girl friend on an otherwise all-white TV show.

My only gripe is that Douglas has this unfortunate habit of making ironic use of slang.  “Feminism was, like, so yesterday – hostile to the fun of new girliness and unnecessary because equality had, like, so totally been achieved.”  “The deafening boom-boom dance-floor music was supposed to convey that, dude, we were in a totally cool zone, but I always felt like I was trapped in Godzilla’s left ventricle.”  If those were the only two examples, I would not be griping about it, but she does it a lot.  For a book that is generally very intelligent, it was kind of obnoxious.

Oo.  Did I say “my only gripe” just there?  I meant to say, my only gripe not predicated on my certainty that my perceptions are always correct.  Susan Douglas analyzed a bunch of different films and TV shows, and I feel like she got some of them wrong.  She kept saying they implied things I don’t think they implied.  For example, she said that male sexuality in Buffy is portrayed as a threat to women, and women’s sexual desires are also dangerous.  So not the message of Buffy.  I would argue this point into the ground, but it would be very boring if you don’t watch Buffy, so let me just say: I am right, and Susan Douglas is wrong.  Don’t you hate it when writers make critical but spurious claims about things you love?

This has been for the Women Unbound Challenge.  You should read it too!

Do you identify as a feminist?  Why or why not?

Other reviews:

Rantings of a Bookworm Couch Potato

Tell me if I missed yours!