Thursday, June 28, 2007

something very dreadful

There's a great article on Salon entitled "I dream of Darcy" by Rebecca Traister. She writes about the renewed interest in Jane Austin - another spurt of movies (following the spurt from about ten years ago - Clueless, BBC's Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones's Diary, Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility, Emma...) and another set of books inspired by Austin. Traister lists Laurie Viera Rigler's Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, Alexandra Potter's Me and Mr. Darcy and Shannon Hale's Austenland, all of which involve contemporary women somehow being transported back two centuries and finding their own Mr. Darcy (or just the Colin Firth version).

The disturbing thing about these novels, and presumably about the women reading them (and an odd collection of tshirts, see left) is that they rely on the fantasy of finding that perfect man (namely, Mr. Darcy) to solve one's problems (The "problem"? Being Single.) I had a long talk recently with my oldest friend about the stigma she faces as a single woman. I can relate, 10 years married and in my thirties, people are always wondering when we're going to "start having kids." People get so ansty when one doesn't follow society's expectations. But, anyway, back to these books - it's so odd society is experiencing this sort of insane trend, whereby any women would would want to be transported to the 1800s, when marriage was more of a business proposal to desperately save oneself from abject poverty!

Traister writes:
In Regency England, the search for Mr. Right may have taken place at candle-lit balls and in well-appointed drawing rooms, but it was not a game. As Austen wrote, "Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor." Inheritance laws meant that women could not inherit from their fathers, and women lived in real fear of having their homes pulled out from under them if they did not secure a husband of means, who hopefully would not die overseas in the Army, a fate that Jane's sister Cassandra's fiancé suffered. Even if women did marry well, to a clergyman for instance, nothing was secure. Upon his retirement or death, his family would be turned out of their home, as happened to Austen's father when he gave up his Hampshire parish. These are the threats and fears that drive Austen's heroines.

I'm reading Howard's End right now, and wondering if after my Eliot and Forster experience, I dare return to Austin? But from what I understand, Austin is just as critical of accepted social norms as these other two estimable writers. When independent Margaret Schlegel tells her sister about her marriage proposal in Howard's End, the sister breaks down in tears. "Don't!" she cries (just what I was thinking) - don't make this decision out of desperation. But Margaret, called a girl by some and an aging woman by others, is having a crisis of property that could be solved by marriage.

Traister continues:
One of the great pleasures of female life in the 21st century, especially if you're of the class to which Austen belonged and into which she sunk her sharp teeth, is the possibility of earning your own living, of not having to land a man to survive financially, of no longer having to wear your need for a husband on your sleeve ... or tote bag or bumper.

She's not saying we shouldn't dream about Colin Firth, diving into the water, and better yet, walking out again (repeatedly even, like Bridget Jones) but to leave the fantasy at that, and appreciate our realities.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Tent

Margaret Atwood's The Tent was released in January 2006, just a few months after The Penelopiad. I'm a big fan of Atwood (although I do confess I found the Booker Prize-winning Blind Assassin impenetrable and didn't like Oryx and Crake) and read The Penelopiad right after it came out. It's excellent - a sort of re-telling of the Iliad from Penelope's point of view. It's told in classic Greek format, complete with a chorus. The Tent is a collection of poems and very short stories (nothing much longer than 4 pages), all previously published. It includes a few drawings by Atwood. Both books a beautifully bound and have wonderful graphic cover art.

My favorite Atwood book is The Handmaid's Tale, and I love anything that comes close to it, and almost all the little stories in The Tent fit the bill. Atwood addresses feminine identity, colonialism, nationalism, politics, disaster... As you might imagine, it can get pretty depressing - one story, "Take Charge" (the title is more of a warning than anything else) is the same 5 conversations between a leader and his underling throughout history. The underling explains that (the ship/the tank/the missile control system/the futuristic makorin/the post-apocalyptic cave) is under attack and the leader does some ineffectual shouting before they surely die.

But other stories are more uplifting - the hilarious "Encouraging the Young":
Here I am, happy to help! I'll pass round the encouragement, a cookie's worth for each. There you are, young! What a big, stupid, clumsy mess like the one you just made - let me rephrase that - what is an understandable human error, but a learning experience? Try again! Follow your dream! You can do it!

Most stories I greedily read two or three times, admiring her story-telling inventiveness and relishing Atwood's brilliant turns of phrase, like this one:
(And consider: It is loss to which everything flows, absence in which everything flowers. It is you, not we, who have always been the children of the gods.)

Here's an excerpt from one of my favorites: Life Stories.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Part of the beauty of Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union is how a mystery unravels, so I hate to reveal too much in this review. No review fails to mention that the story takes place in a fictitious Alaska, populated mostly by Jews and natives - inspired by the suggestion in 1939 by then Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, to make Alaska a Jewish state. Although it's hard to even begin describing the book without that bit of knowledge, I kept thinking how fun it would have been to discover that for myself.

Written like an old noir detective story, the Yiddish policeman is Landsman, who finds himself compelled to solve the death of a junkie chessplayer. He's drawn to the case because of an unfinished game of chess set up in his otherwise sparse room. Chabon employes many of the tricks of the genre, a la Dashiell Hammett, with chapters ending as guns go off, drinks being mixed, the detective being knocked unconscious and so on, all of which I found quite entertaining. Most other writers wouldn't have been able to pull it off, but Chabon's expansive yet poetic style makes it fresh. Check this out:

The place is as empty as an off-duty downtown bus and smells twice as bad. Somebody came through recently with a bucket of bleach to paint in some high notes over the Vorsht's steady bass line of sweat and urinals. The keen nose can also detect, above or beneath it all, the coat-lining smell of worn dollar bills.

Yow-za! It should also be understood that, unless otherwise indicated, all dialogue is spoken in Yiddish, and Chabon has peppered the book with more than a few Yiddish words and phrases. In fact, I had to read the book side by side with one of my favorite references, Hooray for Yiddish!: A Book about English by Leo Calvin Rosten. Ah, I love a book that sends me scurrying to the dictionary, but a specialized dictionary: I'm in heaven. If you don't have it, you're gonna need this:

Like all of Chabon's books, The Yiddish Policemen's Union is thematic, challenging, and deals with issues of belonging, sexuality, identity and place. I'm sure any fan of Chabon will enjoy it, especially if you have an interest in Jewish culture and study, like me.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Ch**k lit?

This morning I read Summer Reads on Salon in which the word "chick" was spelled "ch**k". That gave me a bit of a pause. Then, as I was reading my daily blog roll, I saw a link to Ghetto (Not) Fabulous by Erica Jong on HuffPo (via Feministing). Jong criticizes the (US) media and their consistent undervaluing of women writers. The term "chick lit" stands out as a specific way to trivialize novels by women. Jong writes:
Feminists used to say the personal is political. I think we need to consider that message again now. We will never give peace a chance until we start paying as much attention to women as to war. Unless we value the bonds of love as much as male territoriality, we are goners.

I would like to see the talented new breed of American women writers -- my daughter's generation -- protest their ghettoization. We need a new wave of feminism to set things right. But we'd better find a new name for it because like all words evoking women, the term feminism has been debased and discarded. Let's celebrate our femaleness rather than fear it. And let's mock the old-fashioned critics who dismiss us for thinking love matters. It does.

I've got a few issues with Jong's statements about needing a "new wave of feminism" - it's true that the term "feminism" gets a bad rap, but that's because of perception of feminism, not feminism itself. And while we're being sensitive about language, how about not using the word "ghetto" to describe, like, the worst place in the whole wide world?

But, yes, we do need to pay attention to women as much (more than!) war. Giving the work by women the diminutive title of "chick lit" implies that subjects important to (some) women writers are less important than those addressed by (some) males. I will not here imply that women and men's writings are diametrically opposed, nor will I pretend that I have no idea what specific type of literature is being referred to as "chick lit." But this goes deeper than the actual books, the words on the page - it has to do with how we value women.

After a recent trip to a bookstore, I met some friends for lunch. They asked me what books I got, and I happily produced them. My friend (a man), looked at all three and put them aside. "Oh, I know all about them. They're chick lit. Just girl stuff." He hadn't heard of the authors, he didn't know the books, but he saw they were written by women, and he dismissed them.

Hamlet said, "Words, words, words" as if they were meaningless, but I know they're not. People used to quote "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me" at me, but what could be more untrue? In essence, we are nothing but language, everything I am or think is expressed with words. So let's be careful what we say.