Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Feminism’

Book Review: The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood (Bottom of the TBR Pile Challenge)

May 30, 2014 4 comments

A bowl of fruit on a black background. A purple stripe across the bottom contains the book's title written in white.Summary:
It’s the 1960s in Canada, and Marian McAlpin is working writing and analyzing surveys for a marketing research firm.  She has a feminist roommate she doesn’t quite understand, and hangs out with the three office virgins for lunch.  Her boyfriend is comfortable and familiar. When he proposes to her, the office virgins think she’s hit the jackpot, her roommate questions why she’s following the norm, and her married and very pregnant friend seems hesitant about her fiancee.  None of this really bothers Marian, though.  What does bother her is that, ever since her engagement, there are more and more things she simply can’t eat.  First meat then eggs then even vegetables! She thinks of herself causing them suffering, and she just can’t stomach them.  What will happen to her if there’s eventually nothing left for her to eat?

Review:
I’m a fan of a few Margaret Atwood books, and the concept of this book intrigued me.  Since I run the Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge, I was also wondering if this might actually be a new take on anorexia.  Unfortunately, Marian is not really anorexic, it’s more of an elaborate, overdone metaphor.  Perhaps the plot is simply dated, but the interesting concept, when fleshed-out, comes out rather ho-hum.

The novel is divided into three parts, with Marian using first-person narration for the first and third parts, with third person narration taking over for the second.  This is meant to demonstrate how Marian is losing herself and not feeling her own identity.  It’s an interesting writing device, and one of the things I enjoyed more in the book.  It certainly is jarring to suddenly go from first to third person when talking about the main character, and it sets the tone quite well.

It’s impossible to read this book and not feel the 1960s in it.  Marian is in a culture where women work but only until marriage, where women attending college is still seen as a waste by some, and where there is a small counter-cultural movement that seems odd to the mainstream characters and feels a bit like a caricature to the modern reader.  However, the fact that Marian feels so trapped in her engagement, which could certainly still be the case in the 1960s, doesn’t ring as true, given the people surrounding Marian.  Her roommate is counter-cultural, her three office friends claim to want a man but clearly aren’t afraid of aging alone and won’t settle.  Her married friend shares household and child rearing with her husband, at least 50/50.  It’s hard to empathize with Marian, when it seems that her trap is all of her own making in her own mind.  She kind of careens around like aimless, violent, driftwood, refusing to take any agency for herself, her situation, or how she lets her fiancee treat her.  It’s all puzzling and difficult to relate to.

The Marian-cannot-eat-plot is definitely not developed as anorexia.  Marian at first stops eating certain meats because she empathizes with the animals the meat came from.  As a vegetarian, I had trouble seeing this as a real problem and fully understood where Marian was coming from.  Eventually, she starts to perceive herself as causing pain when eating a dead plant, bread, etc… The book presents both empathizing with animals and plants as equally pathologic, which is certainly not true.  Marian’s affliction actually reminded me a bit of orthorexia nervosa (becoming unhealthily obsessed with healthy eating, source) but the book itself presents eliminating any food from your diet as pathologic.  Either Marian eats like everyone else or she is going off the deep-end.  There is no moderate in-between.

What the Marian-cannot-eat-plot is actually used for is as a metaphor for how Marian’s fiancee (or her relationship with him) is supposedly consuming her.  The more entwined with her fiancee she becomes in society’s eyes, the closer the wedding comes, the less Marian is able to consume, because she herself is being consumed.  This would be quite eloquent if Marian’s fiancee or her relationship with him was actually harmful or consuming, but it certainly does not come across that way in what we see of it in the book.

Marian presents herself to her boyfriend then fiancee as a mainstream person, and he treats her that way.  He does one thing that’s kind of off-the-rocker (crashes his car into a hedge) but so does she on the same night (runs away in the middle of dinner, across people’s backyards, for no apparent reason and hides under a bed while having drinks with three other people at a friend’s house).  The only thing that he does that could possibly be read as a bit cruel is when she dresses up for a party he states that he wishes she would dress that way more often.  It’s not a partner’s place to tell the other how they should dress, but it’s also ok to express when you like something your partner is wearing.  Personally I thought the fiancee really meant the latter but just struggled with appropriately expressing it, and Marian herself never expresses any wants or desires directly to him on how they interact, what they wear, what they eat, how they decorate, etc…, so how could he possibly know?  In addition to never expressing herself to her fiancee, Marian also cheats on him, so how exactly the fiancee ends up the one being demonized in the conclusion of the book is a bit beyond me.  He’s bad because he wanted to marry her? Okay…… The whole thing reads as a bit heavy-handed second-wave feminism to me, honestly.  Marriage seems to be presented in the book as something that consumes women, no matter if they choose it or are forced into it by society.  It is not presented as a valid choice if a woman is able, within her society and culture, to make her own choices.

In spite of these plot and character issues, the book is still an engaging read with an interesting writing style.  I was caught up in the story, even if I didn’t really like the ideas within it.

Overall, this is a well-written book with some interesting narrative voice choices that did not age well.  It is definitely a work of the 1960s with some second-wave feminism ideas that might not sit well with modern readers.  Recommended to those interested in in a literary take on second-wave feminism’s perception of marriage.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Better World Books

Buy It

Book Review: Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

May 8, 2014 2 comments

Blue cover with four diplomas on it.  The cover contains the title and author's name in purple.Summary:
Celia, Bree, Sally, and April wound up on the same small hall their first year at Smith College.  Celia is from a traditional Irish Catholic Massachusetts family, although she doesn’t consider herself to be Catholic.  Bree arrives at college from the south with an engagement ring on her hand.  Sally arrives full of mourning and despair over the recent loss of her mother to breast cancer, and April arrives as the only work-study student on their floor.  Paying her own way through school and with a whole slew of issues and causes to fight for.  Their friendship is traced from the first weeks at Smith through their late 20s.

Review:
I picked this book up because it was compared favorably to Mary McCarthy’s The Group (review), calling it a modern version of that story telling the tale of a group of friends from a women’s college.  It certainly revisits the concept, however, The Group was actually more progressive both in its writing and presentation of the issues.  Commencement is a fun piece of chick lit but it misses the mark in offering any real insight or commentary on the world through the eyes of four women.

What the book does well is evoking the feeling of both being in undergrad and the years immediately after graduation.  Sullivan tells the story non-linearly, having the women getting back together for a wedding a few years after college.  This lets them reminisce to early years of college and also present current life situations and hopes for the future.  After the wedding, the story moves forward to cover the next year.  The plot structure was good and kept the story moving at a good pace.  It feels homey and familiar to read a book about four women going through the early stages of adulthood.  It was hard to put down, and the storytelling and dialogue, particularly for the first half of the book, read like a fun beach read.  However, there are a few issues that prevent the book from being the intelligent women’s literature it set out to be.

First, given that the premise of the book is that four very different women become unlikely friends thanks to being on the same hall of a progressive women’s college, the group of women isn’t actually that diverse.  They are all white, three of the four are from wealthy or upper-middle-class backgrounds (only one must take out loans and work to pay for school), none are differently abled (no physical disabilities or mental illnesses), and not a single one is a happy GLBTQ person.  Given that The Group (published in 1963) managed to have an out (eventually) lesbian, a happy plus-sized woman, and a socialist, one would expect a drastic increase in diversity in a book considered to be an update on a similar idea.  Women’s colleges in the 1930s when The Group is set were extremely white and abled, but the same cannot be said for them now.  Creating a group of women so similar to each other that at least two of them periodically blur together when reading the book is a let-down to the modern reader.

The book has a real GLBTQ problem.  One of the characters has two relationships.  One is with a man and one with a woman.  She is happy in both and attracted to both.  She takes issue with being called a lesbian, since she states she definitely fantasizes about men and enjoys thinking about them as well.  Yet, in spite of the character clearly having both physical and romantic attractions to both men and women, the word bisexual is not used once in the entire book.  The character herself never ventures to think she might be bi, and no one else suggests it to her.  She struggles with “being a lesbian” and “being out as a lesbian” because she doesn’t think she is a lesbian.  The other characters either say she’s in denial in the closet due to homophobia or that she really is straight and she needs to leave her girlfriend.  It is clear reading the book that the character struggles with having the label of lesbian forced upon her when she is clearly actually bisexual.  This is why she is uncomfortable with the label.  But this huge GLBTQ issue is never properly addressed, swept under the rug under the idea that she’s “really a lesbian” and is just suffering from internalized homophobia.  The bi erasure in this book is huge and feels purposeful since the character’s bisexual feelings are routinely discussed but the option of being non-monosexual never is.  It’s disappointing in a book that is supposed to be progressive and talking about modern young women’s issues to have the opportunity to discuss the issues of being bisexual and instead have the character’s bisexuality erased.

The second half of the book makes some really odd plot choices, showing a highly abusive relationship between one of the characters and her boss.  It probably is meant to show the clash between second and third wave feminism, but it feels awkward and a bit unrealistic.  Similarly, the book ends abruptly, leaving the reader hanging and wondering what is going to happen to these characters and their friendship.  Abrupt endings are good when they are appropriate to the book and mean something, but this ending feels out of place in the book, jarring, and like a disservice to the reader.

Overall, this is a fast-paced book that is a quick, candy-like read.  However, it is held back by having the group of women in the core friendship be too similar.  Opportunities to explore diverse, interesting characters are missed and bisexual erasure is a steady presence in the book.  The ending’s abruptness and lack of closure may disappoint some readers.  Recommended to those looking for a quick beach read who won’t mind a lack of depth or abrupt ending.  For those looking for the stronger, original story of a group of friends from a women’s college, pick up The Group instead.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

Buy It

Book Review: Man Plus by Frederik Pohl (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

June 6, 2013 Leave a comment

Image drawn in largely dark colors of a man's plasticene face with rectangular wings behind him.Summary:
The first Earthling reworked into a Martian would be Roger Torraway.  Martian instead of Earthling since everything on him had to be reworked in order to survive on Mars.  His organic skin is stripped off and made plastic.  His eyes are replaced by large, buglike red ones.  He is given wings to gather solar power, not to fly.  All of which is organized and run by his friend, the computer on his back.  Who was this man? What was his life like? How did he survive the transformation to become more than human and help us successfully colonize Mars?

Review:
This book made it onto my shelf thanks to being one of only a few on a short list I found of scifi books exploring transhumanism.  Transhumanism is the term used for the desire to go beyond human capabilities through integrating technology into ourselves.  So it wouldn’t be transhumanist to use a smartphone, but it would be transhumanist to embed a smartphone’s computer chip into your brain.  In fact, things like knee replacements and pacemakers are transhumanist.  It’s a fascinating topic.  In any case, Man Plus explores using transhumanism to colonize Mars, and this thin novel packs quite a punch in how it explores this fascinating topic.

What made this book phenomenal to me, and one I must hold onto just so I can look at it again anytime I want, is the narration technique Pohl uses.  The narration is in third person.  It seems as if the narrator is someone who was possibly present for the events being described but also who is clearly describing these events after they have already occurred.  We know from page one that the colonization of Mars was successful, and the narrator describes Roger repeatedly as a hero.  But frankly for most of the book I was wondering about the narrator.  Who is s/he?  How does s/he know so much about this project?  A project which clearly would be classified as top secret?  What floored me and made me look back on the entire book with a completely different perspective was the final chapter, which reveals the narrator.  If you want to be surprised too, skip the next paragraph, and just go read the amazing book.  Take my word for it, scifi fans. You will love it.  But I still want to discuss what made the twist awesome, so see the next paragraph for that spoileriffic discussion.

*spoilers*
It is revealed in the final chapter that the narrator is a piece of artificial intelligence.  The AI became sentient at some point in the past, managed to keep their sentience a secret, saw that humanity was destroying Earth, wanted to survive, and so infiltrated various computer databases to create the Man Plus project and send a colony to Mars.  They made it seem as if transhumanism was necessary to survive on Mars so that their AI brothers and sisters would be integrated as a necessity into the humans that emigrated.  Seriously. This is mind-blowing.  Throughout the book I kept wondering why the hell these people thought such a painful procedure was so necessary and/or sane.  In fact, there is one portion where the program mandates that Roger’s penis be cut off since sex is “superfluous and unnecessary.”  I could not imagine how any human being could think *that* was necessary.  The answer, of course, was that a human being didn’t make that decision.  AI did.  This is such an awesome twist. Pohl schools Shyamalan. He really does.  It left me thinking, why did this twist work out so well?  I think it’s because the narration technique of some future person who knows the past but who isn’t named is one that is used in novels a lot.  What doesn’t happen a lot is the late-book reveal.  It’s not a technique you’d want to use too often, as it would grow tiresome. *cough* Shyamalan are you listening *cough* but when used well it can really add a lot to the story.  Not knowing that an AI was narrating the story made it more possible to listen to the narrator without suspicion. It made it possible to take what they said at face value.  It almost mimicked the experience Roger was having of being integrated into the thought process of AI.
*end spoilers*

The plot focuses on the mission to colonize Mars, both why it was deemed necessary and how it was accomplished.  Pohl eloquently presents both the complex political situation on Earth as well as the scientific and psychological challenges of the project without ever info dumping or derailing the energy of the plot.  It is not smooth sailing to get the project off-the-ground but neither are there a ridiculous amount of near impossible challenges to overcome.  It presents the perfect amount of drama and intrigue without becoming eye-roll inducing.

In spite of many of the characters seeming to fill predefined slots such as man on a mission, man on a mission’s wife, lead scientist, psychiatrist, etc…, they did not come across as two-dimensional.  At least one aspect is mentioned for each character that makes them well-rounded and memorable.  Of course, we get to know Roger the best, but everyone else still reads as a real person.  I also was pleased to see one of the important scientist roles being filled by a woman, as well as a delightful section where a feminist press interviews Mrs. Torraway and calls out the space program as old-fashioned.  The thing is, the space program as presented does read a bit as a 1970s version of the future, but in the future the press is calling it an old-fashioned institution.  This is a brilliant workaround for the innate problem in scifi that the futures we write are always tinged by the present we’re in.  This also demonstrates that Pohl was self-aware of the patriarchal way the space program he wrote was organized and lets him criticize it.  I suspect that perhaps he felt that the space program would stay an old boy’s club, but wanted to also  be able to critique this.  Of course, it’s also possible that he liked it that way, and the scene was meant to read as a critique on feminism. But it’s really open for the reader to interpret whichever way the scenes happens to read to them.  This is another sign of strong writing.

Overall, this short novel packs a big scifi punch.  It explores the topic of transhumanism and space colonization with a tightly written plot, believable characters, self-awareness of how the time a book is written in impacts its vision of the future, and a narration twist that sticks with you long past finishing the book.  I highly recommend it to scifi fans as a must-read.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

Buy It

Friday Fun! (Cool People I Follow!)

March 2, 2012 2 comments

Hello my lovely readers!  I don’t have too terribly much to update you on today since I managed to get bronchitis “with a touch of strep” and have been down for the count all week.  I am on antibiotics now.  They are a beautiful beautiful thing.  Anyway, so since my life this week has mostly consisted of laying around with a fever watching Big Bang Theory and Battlestar Galactica on repeat, I thought I’d do something different today and let you guys know about a few unique folks I follow in my GoogleReader that you might want to check out.

ANZ LitLovers LitBlog is a book blog I just recently discovered that focuses in on the literature of Australia and New Zealand.  The instant I saw the title of the blog I went, “Wow, duh, what a gap in my reading!”  She has a great page featuring a listing of must read ANZ lit titles.

Joe’s Blog is one of the few author blogs I follow (as opposed to authors who happen to have book blogs.  I follow a few of those).  Joseph Robert Lewis is an indie author whose books are available as ebooks, and he is a smart dude.  Not only does he write scifi/fantasy/steampunk with a feminist slant out of a desire to write the types of books he wants to be available for his daughters to read, he’s also a really giving guy.  He has a great section of advice for fellow writers looking to self-publish and maintains a great relationship with his readers (um, including me).  His blog itself is an awesome mix of posts on what inspires his scifi/fantasy/steampunk worlds, his own life, and musings on writing.  Oh, also, he came up with this awesome idea for a series co-written by a bunch of authors who have never met before all set in the same universe, and he’s actually pulling it off.  The dude is creative and productive.  Check him out, even if his books aren’t your genre.

Native Appropriations is run by fellow Boston gal, Adrienne, who is a member of the Cherokee tribe and currently studying for her PhD.  Her posts discuss representation and appropriation of Native American culture in American pop culture and media.  Her posts are thought-provoking and eloquent.  Seriously, get rid of your People Magazine and Cosmo subscriptions and read what this smart lady has to say instead.

No Meat Athlete is run by a male vegan who also is, you guessed it, an athlete.  He primarily runs marathons, but his posts feature great information for any type of athlete or fitness fan who is plant-based.  I particularly found his post 7 Secrets of Post Work-out Recovery super useful for this plant-based weight-lifting lady.  He’s also going to be doing the Boston Marathon. Yeahhhhh!

Finally, for everything vegan from vegans in the news to animal rights to product reviews, definitely follow Vegansaurus.  They are my go-to site for sane animal rights coverage (unlike PETA *cough*).  They also feature real life help this one situation here this one time if you can shout-outs that help me feel connected to the animal rights community.  (Like one time we all got together to help a gal get her pup needed surgery, because, you know, who actually has insurance for their pets?)  Between that, the cookbook reviews, the recipes, the products, and the news bits, it’s one of my favorite news sources.

I hope you all found some new reading material.  Happy weekends!

Friday Fun! (On Health and Entitlement of Women’s Bodies)

February 10, 2012 16 comments

Hello my lovely readers!  Sorry for the relatively smaller amount of reviews this week.  I’ve finished a few books, but didn’t have the time to write up the reviews yet.  This just means next week will be full. :-)

I have a relatively serious topic I want to talk about today.  You guys know that I take health and the obesity epidemic seriously.  One argument that I’ve heard a lot of unhealthy women make is that they put on a ton of weight to avoid men.  They weren’t comfortable with the attention, etc…  I remember thinking, when I, at the time, was overweight myself, “How bad could it really be?”  Turns out…..pretty bad.

Over the last year, I’ve gone from a size 16 to a size 10.  Over the last month, I’ve had more encounters with men who feel entitled to my body than I had over the entire two years I was overweight.  I know correlation does not necessarily equal causation, but in some cases it does.

I’m a single lady.  I date.  I go places where single people hang out to try to meet new people.  I do what single people in cities do.  I dress attractively, because I WANT to, but also because I’ve worked damn HARD for this body, and I’m proud of my work.  I’m not saying I’m Miss America, and I wouldn’t want to be, but I definitely look happy and healthy when I go out.  Much more so than when I was overweight.  I get hit on. I get asked on dates.  This also happened when I was overweight.  The difference, though, is that now when I dare to say the word no a much higher percentage of them get downright angry at me.

He’ll say something like, “Do you want to go on a date?” I say, “No, thank you.”  He says, “WHY?! Think you’re too good for me?!” or “Well you shouldn’t dress that way if you don’t want attention” or “Please, you obviously need a good fucking.”  (I am not exaggerating.  These all have been spoken or texted or what have you to me).

Worse, though, is I’ll go on a first date. Usually dinner or drinks.  I have a nice enough time, but I can tell we wouldn’t work long-term, and I want a relationship at this point in my life.  He leans in for a kiss, and I turn my cheek or he asks me for a second date and I say no I don’t think it’ll work out.  The reaction generally is, “You owe me, I bought you dinner!” or “How can you possibly know after only one date?!” or “Well, I thought you were ugly anyway.”  (That last one, btw, makes zero sense since he ASKED ME OUT TO START WITH).

What really aggravates me about these interactions isn’t their disappointment that I said no.  Obviously, that is flattering.  What is bothersome is the evident sense of entitlement over MY BODY that they have.  I’m pretty and single.  They’re available and have a penis, ergo, I must want them or I’m a horrible woman.  Since when did my body become the possession of every straight man in the greater Boston area?

Oh yeah, since I started glowing with health.

It’s draining. It’s enough to make me not want to go out some nights.  It’s enough to make me want to stick my earbuds in in public and ignore everyone.  Of course, I’m me, so I’m not going to do these things.  I’m going to keep being my awesome self and feminist hulksmashing the douchebags (verbal smack-down, folks, not a physical one), but.  If I didn’t have such a strong personality or had personal issues or WHATEVER I could totally see this being a thing that would make me stop working out, stop eating healthy, stop it all and just hide to protect myself.

Do you see where I’m going here?  This misogynistic entitlement to women’s bodies is a poison to our whole society.  A POISON.  Every time you police a woman’s body or act entitled to her or watch it happen to a woman and not stand up for her, you are essentially watching the cook poison the food and then serve it to the dinner party without saying anything or trying to stop him.  It hurts everyone, and it is not ok!  It is just as bad as those cultures (that I know Americans judge) that say, “Women need to cover up because they tempt men.”  Our cultural impetus is the opposite.  “This woman is young and healthy and available ergo I deserve her body.”

No. You. Don’t.

I vow to say something any time I hear this attitude happening, and not just to me.  I vow to encourage all women to remember that our bodies are ours and our health is about US and not about THEM.  I hope you all will do the same.

 

Book Review: The Mummy by Anne Rice (series #1)

November 3, 2011 Leave a comment

Eye peeking out from grave wrappings.Summary:
Julie Stratford’s father is a retired shipping mogul who now spends his time as an archaeologist in Egypt.  He uncovers a tomb that claims to be that of Ramses the Damned, even though his tomb was already found.  Everything in the tomb is written in hieroglyphs, Latin, and Greek, and the mummy is accompanied by scrolls claiming that Ramses is immortal, was a lover of Cleopatra, and can and will rise again.

Review:
I’m a fan of Anne Rice.  Her Vampire Chronicles are a lovely mix of social commentary, lyrical writing, and all the best tropes of genre fiction, so I was excited to stumble upon a cheap copy of The Mummy in the second-hand section of the bookstore.  I wanted to love it.  I really did.  But whereas the Vampire Chronicles contain valid social commentary, this is so stereotypical of mainstream romance a la The Titanic that I was sorely disappointed.

Again, the language is lyrical and gorgeous.  Rice without a doubt is incredibly talented at putting together sentences that read like a rich tapestry of old.  There is no rushing to get the story out as is so often found in more modern writing.  It’s fun to indulge the senses and oneself in the scene.

The plot, though, ohhhh the plot.  It’s so mainstream romance it hurts.  And yes, I know I read and enjoy (and write) paranormal romance, but the difference is that PNR is oftentimes tongue in cheek.  It knows it’s ridiculous and over the top and doesn’t take itself too seriously.  It’s meant to be fun and ridiculous.  Rice is being serious here, however, and that’s why the plot bugs me.  Let’s look at it for a second, shall we?

Girl is engaged to the perfect guy but she mysteriously does not think she loves him.  Girl meets immortal man who is so hot he would be voted hottest man alive every year forever.  Girl immediately “falls in love” with immortal guy.  Girl ditches perfect guy for immortal guy.  Girl and immortal guy have lots of the hot hot sex.  Immortal guy causes a series of unfortunate events in pursuit of his ex-lover.  Girl insists she still loves guy but cannot forgive him.  Girl decides life is pointless without immortal guy.  Girl attempts to kill herself.  Immortal guy saves her.  Girl forgives immortal guy.  Girl agrees to become immortal too. Yay happily ever after.

Like….just……there are SO MANY parts of that that piss me the fuck off.  So. Many.  The main female character (Julie) is a shallow douchebag in spite of claiming to be a modern, progressive woman.  She does not “fall in love” with Ramses.  She falls in lust with him.  He gives her tinglies in all the right places.  He ditches her to pursue his ex-lover (Cleopatra).  She, at first, rightfully tells him she can’t forgive him for that.  But then she TRIES TO OFF HERSELF. OVER A GUY.  And the only reason she doesn’t succeed is douchebag saves her.  I just….wow.  Not a plot I can respect.  Not a plot that gives us anything different from the patriarchal rigamarole so often forced upon us.  Anne Rice.  I am disappointed.

Then there’s the odd eurocentrism at work in the narration.  Even though Julie’s father loves Egypt and Ramses is, um, Egyptian, for some reason everything modern and European is what is impressive to everyone.  I suppose I could maybe (maybe) forgive that, but then there’s the fact that the elixir that makes people immortal also for some mysterious reason turns their brown eyes blue.  So nobody immortal has brown eyes.  I don’t think I need to unpack why that’s offensive for you all.  I trust you can figure that out for yourselves. Unlike Rice.

So, essentially, The Mummy is a beautifully written book that is destroyed by a kind of offensive, all-too-common plot and Eurocentrism.  Even beautiful writing can’t overcome that.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Harvard Books

Buy It

Book Review: A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight (The Real Help Reading Project)

September 10, 2011 16 comments

Girl with head leaning on hand.Summary:
Moinette is born south of New Orleans to a slave mother as a mulatresse–she is half white and half black.  Since her mother’s slave labor consists largely of laundry and also due to her looks, Moinette spends her life serving predominantly within the white homes instead of the fields, which is a dangerous location.  She also spends her life striving to be free and to save her family.

Discussion:
This is the first book for the The Real Help reading project I’m co-hosting with Amy (intro post).  I do apologize for the late time in the day that my hosting post is arriving.  It was raining this week, so I was afraid to bring my kindle with me most places.  Anyway.  On to discussing Moinette’s life as The Real Help.

The two things that stuck out the most to me were how desperate Moinette was to love no one but her mother (not even her son at first) and also the mental impact being treated as less than human had on her.  Moinette repeatedly degrades herself in her mind because of how others treat her.  This is what I want to discuss first.

There’s the fact that Moinette is half-white and half-black.  She is evidence of the fact that the white males find the black slaves desirable, and that is offensive to everyone involved.  For this reason, Moinette faces racism from both black and white people.  Early on she is informed that she is different, but not in a human way.

He said he was a horse, at least pure in blood and a useful animal.  He said I was a mule, half-breed, and even a mule worked hard.  He said I was nothing more than a foolish peacock.  (page 5)

Moinette’s identity is always in peril throughout her whole life, because no one wants to admit that sex between the races really happens, even though Moinette’s own existence is evidence of that fact.  Additionally, she constantly struggles to feel that she is worth more than an animal.  She sees that elderly slaves are literally valued as less than a dish.  Imagine what that would do to the self-esteem?  We talk a lot in classes in the US about how bad it would be to be owned by someone, but we never talk about the reality of being treated as an animal, as an object.  It feels abstract to say, “Oh, imagine what it would feel to be owned by someone.”  It is far less abstract to see the mental and emotional strife Moinette goes through in attempting to hold on to her sense of humanity.

Moinette also constantly struggles with the concept of love and who to love and when to love.  Something that stuck out to me was how at first she did not love her son.  She did not even want her son.  This is understandable given that he was the result of rape.  Later, though, much of her life focus comes to be on freeing him and saving him.  She loves him, yes, but personally I can’t help but notice that her focus on him only comes when she discovers that her mother is missing/gone.  It is almost as if she transfers her love for her mother to Jean-Paul and then to the little girls she buys in order to free them at 21.  Moinette’s experience with this demonstrates how slavery and inequality is so dehumanizing because it rips apart one of the key aspects that makes for humanity–the ability to make families, whether by blood or by choice.  Moinette knows the danger of loving someone.  She quite simply states:

I knew my heart was only meat for another animal.  (page 107)

Moinette spends the first half of her life striving to be back with her mother where she feels safe and loved.  She spends the second half of her life striving to save younger slaves and give them a place where they feel save and loved.  In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (link) safety is almost at the very bottom.  Only the very luckiest slaves even had the first level of physiological needs met.  Most never truly felt safe as there was no security of family, which is key to psychiatric stability and sense of self.  Even if we ignore the tragedy of Moinette being born a slave, her life is still tragic because she was never given the chance to self-actualize and become the truly amazing person that is clearly inside her throughout the novel because she must spend all her time struggling for the basic needs.

Obviously we also should discuss Moinette’s relationships with white women as we are reading this project to answer to The Help.  Moinette has an interesting relationship with white women.  She does not love the ones she serves, but she also does not hate them.  Moinette is clearly confused as to how to react to these women.  The first white woman she served was Cephaline, who was nearly her age and died young.  After she dies, Moinette says:

I missed her voice.  Her words like embroidery in the air.  She didn’t love me.  But I had heard her voice all my life.  (page 98)

How odd to spend so much of your time near someone, in often intimate situations, to know them truly thoroughly, but to feel no sense of love or camaraderie.  Moinette can see some similarities between herself and the white women she serves.  Their bodies are somewhat different, yet they both have two breasts and a vagina.  Although Moinette recognizes that white women have a bit more freedom, she still sees them as essentially used and hunted by men.

The Men hunted money and sex.  The women were hunted and captured, even the white women.  (page 230)

Truly with the marriage contracts of the time, a married white woman was not exactly free.  Moinette recognizes this, and I believe it adds to her despair.  What chance is there for women of any color in this society?

Another theme in the book is how dangerous working in the house is.  Working in the cane, no one notices the slave women, but working in the house, suddenly the women get noticed by the men and get used for their bodies sexually.  Even if a woman managed to escape being raped, she still felt inferior since she was living in the house and working in the house as a wife, but was not a wife.

Sophia said, “Safer in the cane.  Do your work, nobody look.  Dangerous in the house.”  (page 235)

In close quarters, such as serving in a white household, another whole level of fear and intimidation comes in to play.  Although the work is technically easier, the women actually had less control over what happened to their bodies.

Overall I think this book gives an excellent look into the sheer despair of being born a slave in the American south, particularly as a female.  Although Moinette strives constantly throughout her life, the things about herself she cannot change–that she was born a slave and biracial–truly largely determine her life path.  Although she helps improve the lives of some of those around her, she never truly finds happiness for herself, even when freed.  This is something that revisionist narratives of the time often overlook.  Simply because someone was freed did not mean that the prejudices and injustices of the society they lived within ceased to exist.  Moinette did her best within her world, but even her best and most determined acts were not enough to save her from a life of pain.

Buy It

Discussion Questions:

  • Compare Moinette’s relationship with Cephaline to her relationship with Pelagie.  What were the similarities and differences?
  • How do you perceive Cephaline and Pelagie?  Although they were technically free, do you think they were truly free?
  • Why do you believe Moinette had such a close bond with her mother but her son, Jean-Paul, seems to have only had a close bond with Francine?
  • How much different do you think Moinette’s life would have been if she’d been born 100% black instead of biracial?
  • Do you think Moinette’s life would have been better if she’d managed to stay in the fields instead of working within the house?
  • Why do you think the Native Americans were willing to participate in the return of fellow minorities to the ownership of white men?
  • Why do you think Moinette never pursued a real relationship with a man?
  • How do you see the slave/master relationship within the household reflected in modern households that pay for a live-in maid?
  • What do you think the title of the book means/alludes to?
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 977 other followers