Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Big Breasts & Wide Hips

Big Breasts & Wide Hips by Mo Yan was one I had been waiting for a while on library loan. Mo Yan won the Nobel last year and seemed to be the talk of the town and I hadn't read anything by him. This book is huge, and kind of intimidating, but trust me it reads a lot easier than something like War & Peace. It takes some doing to read this book in the office break room without getting weird looks. But the pay off is worth it for me, I could have read another 400 pages.

"In the brief history of Northeast Gaomi Township, six women have been transformed into Fox, Hedgehog, Weasel, White Snake, Badger, and Bat Fairies, all result of love denied or a bad marriage; each lived a life of mystery, earning the fearful respect of others. Now a Bird Fairy had appeared in my house, which both terrified and disgusted Mother."

Big Breasts & Wide Hips is the story of a family, primarily the women of the family. Mother is the main character I would say, as opposed to the narrator, her one and only boy-child Jintong. Mother grew up in the 1900's in a rural Chinese village where her feet were bound and tradition revered. Then the revolution turned things upside down and Mother married the butcher's boy. She has eight daughters, all by different men, and finally, finally has a boy. Mother is abused by her in-laws, raped often, and endures crushing poverty to try to keep her family together. Tons of horrible, horrible things happen to a lot of people in this book, so if violence is not your thing, be warned.

Jintong grows up with the biggest breast-fascination ever and does not eat solid food until he is well in his teens. Every woman's breasts hold his attention and he even gropes a few of his sisters at times. Because he is the boy, and thus the important one of the family, he is babied by all of them and grows up to be useless.

"Mother was rooted to the spot like a pine tree and I was a knot on the trunk of that tree."

We see the family adapt to the times, the girls grow and rebel and marry. War, occupation, peace, none bring lasting happiness to the family. Time passes all the way through to the post-Mao period in China, but to me the history was a bit confusing at times. Granted, I take that as my fault as I know very, very little about Chinese history.

What the book is about is a family, the same way that 100 Years of Solitude is about a family. While reading Big Breast & Wide Hips I kept noting how much it felt like 100 Years. The magical elements of telling a rich and detailed story about all of the people who affected the story of your family.

"Are women really wonderful things? Maybe they are. Yes, women definitely are wonderful things but when all is said and done, they aren't really 'things'."

This is one is the best book I have read yet this year.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The First Sex

Alright so, I found this book for a quarter and couldn't really find a reason not to buy it. A 70's feminist book about how women use to run the world written by a librarian  And boobs on the cover? Sign me up.

The First Sex by Elizabeth Gould Davis raised a lot of interesting thoughts, but you could really, really tell you were reading something written in the 1970's. Gould Davis often referred to the "American black" as below white people and seems to be a poster child for the Man-Hating-Feminist. She paints people and society in unbelievably broad strokes, and her message is that women are peaceful and wonderful rulers and men are basically shit-covered animals.

But, if you can get around that with a roll of your eyes and continue, she has more to say. Using a lot of references that I am certain are out-of-date, she posits that well before any record of our history, there was a society of highly evolved people and had already developed sea-faring ships and made scientific advances that would be forgotten from the world until our Galileo came around. This society was peaceful, environmentally friendly, and mostly vegetarian. It was pretty perfect, and all run by women. But those pesky men, dragging their knuckles outside of society came in and ruined everything and has, ever since, been doing his best to punish women for it.

Almost instantly I knew I could not take this book seriously. While I thought was she was saying was an interesting theory, and her reasoning seemed intriguing, I do not think that anything she says stands up on her account. I felt like she didn't fully explain her research a lot, not mentioning dates or just making blanket statements.

"It was brought law and order into a chaotic world by curbing and taming the beast in man and thus making civilization possible.'

The most interesting parts to me where were Gould Davis would get into evolution of the mythology and religion of the world. I was raised reading the Bible and I personally look at it as an interesting book that people wrote to make sense of the time they lived in, so my feelings were not hurt when Gould Davis tells us that Christianity was made up by women-haters. She expands on pagan mythology and how so many things line up with modern Christianity that for me was the best  part of the book.

The overall message I got from this book was that humanity doesn't seem to know even a fraction of anything, even about ourselves. There is so much out there we will never know, such as the mystery behind the Piri Reis map. The map is a very, very accurate coastline of Antarctic  that was copied from older maps. The problem with this is that parts of that coast line were suppose to be buried under ice sheets. How did those people make a map like that?What kind of ruins might be buried under the Antarctica soil? I've never even thought about Antarctica having soil under all of that ice, in my mind it was just one big ice cube and the Fortress of Solitude. Seriously though, it would be fascinating to know what those ruins (if they existed) could tell us. But that is just a small point in this very large book. And I do not really trust Davis Gould as a source on the matter.

If you are interested in reading about feminism's roots, as I clearly am, then read this one just so you can endeavor to never, ever sound like this. If not, then skip it.

Side note - it took me about half-way through the book to realize that the title must have been a response to Simone de Beauvoir's book, The Second Sex.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Awakening and Selected Stories

Book number two for 2013 is The Awakening and Selected Stories by Kate Chopin. I came to Chopin the way most people do, by reading "The Story of an Hour" multiple times in school. A professor of mine who taught the short story went on a bit of a rant about how much he did not think The Awakening was worth reading and so I avoided it for a long time. But it is a classic, and is one of the first big feminist novels, so I dove in. Plus it had been denounced at publication for being too erotic so that also pulled me in.

Edna Pontellier is a young woman, not very satisfied with her marriage or motherhood. She spends her summer at a large resort off the Gulf of Mexico with other well-to-do families and there begins to realize that there is a world outside of her marriage. She is determined to take her life into her own hands, and goes about arranging her life as she pleases. The consequences of her actions bear down upon her heavily, but once her eyes are open to a new way of living she cannot go back.

"She had all her life long been accustomed to harbor thoughts and emotions which never voiced themselves. They had never taken the form of struggles. They belonged to her and were her own, and she entertained the conviction that she had a right to them and that they concerned no one but herself."

The writing is beautiful, evoking ghost stories and paralleled to Jesus Christ even, which is explained in the introduction by Sandra M. Gilbert of this edition. Instead of betrayal by a friend, it is society that betrays Edna, and she rises above it, called on by a higher power. Gilbert posits that Edna's story is the retelling of Aphrodite/Venus, set in contrast to the Jesus Christ story.

I've seen this book get a lot of flak because Edna basically leaves her kids behind (at their loving grandmother's) to forward her own life. Frankly I think that is a shame. Edna is laid out as "not a mother-woman." She tries to keep up the emotions that society expects her to have of her children, and she does love them in her way, but she cannot be one of the women "who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels." Not all of us women are born to be mothers, and Edna did not have any choice in the matter. She did the best she could but she did not have to sacrifice her spirit just because she had children.

I have to say  that I don't quite understand my English Professor's dislike of this book. But then again, he really liked Moby Dick. For me, The Awakening was a wonderful read, and should be taught just as much in schools.

The selected works were also very good, but frankly I was reading for The Awakening. "The Story of an Hour" remains one of my all time favorite short stories, just under three pages and perfect.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Dare Me

Dare Me by Megan Abbott did not seem like the kind of book I would normally pick up. High school cheerleaders running wild until they get a new coach just doesn't pull me in. Normally. At least that's what I told myself when I picked this one up from the library.

Beth is the top girl while Addy, our narrator, is her loyal second in command. When their new coach comes in and whips the girls into a race for perfection, Addy is torn between pleasing the coach and staying on Beth's good side. After a local suicide, the team is confronted by the cops and Addy has to quickly decided who she stands with.

I was not on a sports team in high school, so the world Abbot paints is not super familiar to me. I was a wayward youth who would jump up from deep slumber at the sound of a text message much like these young ladies. What I noticed most was how much the book made me feel like an angsty high school girl again. Not exactly how I want to feel but I was enthralled with the book. Dare Me hardly left my hands once I started.

Abbott really impressed me. She conjures up images of the cheerleaders working themselves into a rabid frenzy before a game,whooping like banshees, shrieking veelas tearing apart a locker room flinging their bodies into the air before the crowd.

What I loved most about Dare Me is that for a novel about teen girls, all of the male characters (of which there are few) are pushed to the very edges of the story. As for parents, they are even further out, left to stray notes and small, unimportant memories.This book is all about the relationships between Addy, Beth, and Coach Colette French (are you kidding me with that name?).

I'm really glad I picked this book up. I tend to get stuck in older fiction and it is great to read something new this engaging. First book of the year!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Gigi and The Cat

As I am sure you can tell I am a huge Colette fan and picked up Gigi and the Cat while I was on holiday in Texas.

Gigi is one of Colette's best known pieces, what with that movie that won 9 Oscars and all. I haven't seen the movie but I clearly I need to. Gigi is a beautiful short story of a young woman (emphasis on young) who is brought up by her two aunts to be a woman of the world. She learns how to become a desirable mistress to a rich man. But Gigi decides to play by her own rules when it comes to the dashing Gaston Lachaille.

The Cat had my full attention in a way that Gigi did not. The title character in this piece is Saha, a Russian Blue cat that has a creepy soul-connection with her own Alain. Alain's new wife has grown jealous over the cat, while Alain wonders who his heart really belongs to. All three are living in a 9th floor apartment while their new home in renovated and the close quarters lead to dramatic outbursts.

"But at the age when he might have coveted a car, a journey abroad, a rare binding, a pair of skis, Alain nevertheless remained the young-man-who-has-bought-a-little-cat."

I think what detached me from Gigi was the lack of insight into Gigi's motives. Colette is at her best when she is in a character's mind, which she does well with Alain in the Cat. But all and all this book was lovely read that finished off my 2012 year of reading.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


From what I can tell, Caitlin Moran is the loudest feminist from the UK writing at the moment. She writes for The Times and tweets constantly. Her first book, How to be a Woman, was a New York Times Bestseller. It was also much loved by me.

So for Christmas I was thrilled to open Moranthology up. A collection of Moran's articles from The Times about all sorts of things, from the importance of libraries, the awkwardness of growing up poor, the absence of women writers featured in the news media, and two pieces about Downton Abbey. Hitting all of my buttons there, Moran.

I tore through the book in less than twenty-four hours. The pieces are all short and pithy and very often made me almost pee from laughing. I think this would be a great book for anyone to read. It's very current in that I  feel weird reading a book uses the word Tumblr and discusses events like Micheal Jackson's funeral and the latest royal wedding.

Moran is the kind of woman I want to be. She's funny, smart, stupid, dorky, and has great hair. And, because I too was a chunky poor kid who spent a lot of time at libraries, I think we'd get on pretty well over a bottle of wine.

"I think that, at the time, I thought that if I looked at people - particularly boys - long enough, I would somehow work "it" out. That I had no idea what "it"was, of course, is one of the hallmarks of adolescence. If I'd been forced to put money on what "it"might be, it sadly would not have been, "Whether my life would be immeasurably improved if I stopped wearing a bathrobe, tried to be normal, and bought a cost, instead." I was, as you can see, quite hopeless."

There is a lot of drama over Moran in the internet world. She seems to talk fast and loose about her view of the world and has a huge following of people who pick over what she says. And sometimes she says things very poorly or even just wrong. But she seems like a normal person in that she (usually) knows when this happens and does her best to make amends. Most of my knowledge of any of this comes from Helen Lewis.

This book would be a great gift for any mom, sister, friend, or stranger with an interest in pop culture and a sense of humor.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Wide Sargasso Sea

I love re-tellings of classic stories, especially when they have a different point of view than the original. Jane Eyre is one of my favorite books and spoiler alert - crazy Bertha Rochester really needed her story told. Wide Sargasso Sea is told mostly through Anoinette's point of view, growing up in the Caribbean in the years before Rochester comes and sweeps her right up into his attic.

She lives in Jamaica, where she and her family do not fit in with anyone. Her mother's husband is dead and leaves Anoinette , her mother, and her infant brother alone in a mansion. The freed slaves do not respect her family and the white colonials avoid them. Eventually, after another marriage, the house is burnt to the ground and the little brother dies. The mother, who always favored the son over Anoinette, is driven into grief and locked away from society. CAN YOU TASTE THE FORESHADOWING?

"(My father, visitors, horses, feeling safe in bed - all belonged to the past.)"

Antoinette is under constant fear and relentless stress in her young life and is given a brief respite in a convent until her family arranges a marriage for her. We switch to some point of view from Rochester himself, that dreamy hunk of a man. He marries Antoinette because as a second (poor) son, he needs to marry someone with money. However, this is not a great match as we know. Rochester finds out about Antoinette's mental illness background and turns into a giant drunken jerk who for no real explained reason, starts calling his new wife "Bertha". Antoinette, who is so deeply connected to her homeland is dragged away to England and shut out from the world by a man who outright hates her.

"Above all I hated her for she belonged to the magic and the loveliness  She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before."

I'd go crazy too.

I found the book a bit confusing at times with the switching of the point of view and was left wanting more from Antoinette and less of Rochester. But the writing style is lovely and I am interested to read some of Rhys other works.

Side note - HAPPY NEW YEAR! Has anyone set any reading goals for this year? I plan on trying for 105 this year. One down and 104 to go! Wheeee!