sex

The Gallery of Vanished Husbands

The Gallery of Vanished Husbands (Natasha Solomons)

“Looking at the three abashed faces, Juliet felt more tired than cross. She supposed they all thought she was square because she didn’t talk about sex, sex, sex. Maybe she was frigid—it had been so long since George that perhaps she’d caught it through enforced celibacy. Celibate. Such an ugly smug word. Everybody else was busy doing it. The boys declared that they did it all the time, with girls, with boys, with themselves and had absolutely no qualms in discussing sex endlessly in her presence. And now the studio was absolutely chock-full of young people eyeing each other up, wondering who to pick to do it with later. Even the Chislehurst crowd did it from time to time. They might not talk about it, but she suspected that Mr and Mrs Nature found time between lokshen puddings to do it. After all everyone did it. Except her” (153).

In the spirit of gynoary (and because this book is worthy), let’s talk about The Gallery of Vanished Husbands!

Often these days (usually after encountering some or other clickbait thinkpiece), I worry about my powers of concentration. (Have smart phones ruined my brain? Am I locked in a cycle of Facebook-Tumblr-email-repeat? Will I ever form a coherent sentence again? Can I ever finish this blog post?) Novels like Gallery, though, soothe my troubled spirit: I didn’t move for four hours, reading it all, start to finish. This wonderful novel is a fantastic portrait of the life of Juliet Montague (yes), a young Jewish woman in London in 1958 who, on her thirtieth birthday, spends the money intended for a refrigerator to commission a portrait of herself. This impromptu decision sets the course for the rest of Juliet’s life, as over the years she befriends a group of young painters, opens her own gallery, raises her children alone, takes a lover (le gasp!), and slowly fills her home with portraits.

A lovely novel, through and through, but one scene (if I had to pick) does stand out (and is quoted at this top of this post): Impressed and mildly intimidated by the beautiful women of London’s art circles, and in an attempt to join their in-crowd, Juliet perms her hair. The result is a disaster, for “[t]he perm transformed women into chic sophisticates, but Juliet is one of them” (150). To avoid “sitting in the loo and succumbing to tears” (150), she goes to the gallery, seeking support from her friends, only to find that the boys have been holding life-drawing classes without her, afraid of shocking her sensibilities. Juliet’s embarrassment, her frustration that her friends think of her as a “maiden aunt” (152), are expertly drawn—A perfect rendition of the awkward sadness of the outsider.

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  • The Innocent Traveller (Ethel Wilson)

Friday Round-Up

The Friday Round-Up features quick reviews of recent reads. 

My Big Fat Manifesto by Susan Vaught

I talked about Vaught’s great novel earlier this week!

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I have read Miller’s novel several times before, but there’s no harm in reading it again! (In fact, I own multiple copies: In a fit of fannish enthusiasm, I gave a copy to a friend for their birthday. They promptly forgot it came from me, hated it, then gave it back to me in an attempt to get rid of it. Anyway: Ignore them, trust me!) Achilles also pops up on my Tumblr dashboard quite frequently, so it’s often on my mind.

This adaptation of the story of the Trojan War follows Patroclus, Achilles’s companion (and here, lover as well as best friend), from his youth to his death at Hector’s hands, and Miller’s beautiful writing and obvious knowledge of her source material are both something to savour. (While investigating Miller’s website, too, I discovered she has a piece in what looks to be a fabulous anthology, XO Orpheus. Time to put it on the reading list!)

 

 

My Big Fat Manifesto

My Big Fat Manifesto (Susan Vaught)

“NoNo’s not finished. ‘Do you really believe the things you write about?’ She leans forward and rests her chin on her knobby knees, all the while looking straight at me. ‘Because if you believe in your causes, sooner or later you have to take risks for them. You have to behave like you believe.'” (287-7).

Manifesto follows the teenaged Jamie Carcaterra through her senior year of high school, touching on all the burdens and delights of life just pre-graduation, including a major role in the annual drama production, a lead editorial job on the school newspaper, a football-playing boyfriend, and all the pomp-and-circumstance traditions (an entire day of photo shoots?) of the American secondary school experience. Jamie’s main project, though, is her editorial column “Fat Girl,” intended to document her everyday experiences of discrimination, shaming, and complications based on her size. (Vaught clearly demonstrates that while Jamie is, of course, a human being first, the culture around her pushes back—cruelly—at every opportunity: Where can she find clothes that fit? Where can she sit to write her ACTs? Does she have to bring her own clothing for her graduation photos? How can she deal with a doctor who refuses to take her seriously until she loses weight?). She intends her “Fat Girl” columns to form her portfolio for a major journalism scholarship, funding that marks her only way to college: The stakes are very high indeed.

Vaught’s characters are the heart of this novel, each one richly defined: Jamie owns her emotions as well as her decisions, both the ones that work out and the ones that fail, and it was enriching, for me, to follow a teen protagonist who not only sometimes makes foolish or cruel decisions, but also follows through to the clean-up, supported by her friends and family. Her emotional growth is gripping: She struggles to support her boyfriend, Burke, through his decision to undergo gastric bypass surgery (noting his increased risk of death as a black man*), even while horrified by the resulting bodily trauma and trying to decide if she would undergo such surgery herself. Significantly, Vaught’s novel never forgets that while the resulting emotional burden would be extreme for anyone in Jamie’s position, is exceptionally so for a young woman already under tremendous academic and extra-curricular pressure. (Can we also just say that the development of Burke’s sisters, who appear first as nameless meanies, but are then built into named, three-dimensional, and caring friends and sisters, is superb?)

Also, I think, particularly important is Vaught’s exploration of what it means to experience intense social pressure to be a particular way—In this case, thin. Jamie is proud of herself and her identity, building her “Fat Girl” persona to advocate for herself and others shame and harmed because of their weight; at the same time, she struggles to navigate the social pressure to be thin, wishing (for instance) to wear clothing from a store where the employees wouldn’t serve her and considering undergoing gastric bypass herself. She knows she is beautiful, valuable, smart, and important, but she still feels like she is not, and naming and exploring that disconnect is one of the novel’s most powerful features.

* Vaught does not capitalise “black” and I have followed suit. If I have made a mistake here, please let me know at specialgirlsbooks[@]gmail.com!

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City of Heavenly Fire

City of Heavenly Fire (Cassandra Clare)

City of Bones, the first installment of Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series (a whopping six books, nine if you include the prequel trilogy, The Infernal Devices, and ten if you also include the short story collection, The Bane Chronicles—all told I have read an estimated 4,864 pages), was published in 2007. The last (for now)—City of Heavenly Fire—was published earlier this summer. (If it interests you, I’ve talked about City of Bones before.)

The first three novels follow Clary and her friends as they struggle to thwart her father, Valentine Morgenstern, in his attempts to conquer the world. Highlights include determining that Clary and Jace are, in fact, not siblings, so that they may then snog with impunity. The next three novels, culminating in Fire, follow their struggle to thwart her actual brother, Sebastian, in his attempts to destroy the world. Highlights include side-characters Alec and Magnus making up and making out. (Respecting Alec Lightwood the Teenage Disaster and his cradle-robbing warlock boyfriend: They are the bright spots of this series, by far. There may be no other reason to read it unless you want to goggle at the scene in which Clary’s boyfriend reveals he packed condoms on their suicide mission to hell. Yeah—We’ll get to that in a minute.)

Ultimately, these novels can be a fun read—I did, after all, stick around for almost 5,000 pages—but they are, too, deeply problematic and poorly edited. Wildly successful, The Mortal Instruments hosts a large, active fanbase, and while I absolutely do not want to come between teenage girls and what they choose to read (I will always support teenage girls; Twilight, for example, is terrible, but the teenage girls that read Twilight are awesome and deserve our support), we need to take a much closer look at the kinds of messages—rape apologism; biology is destiny; the Friend Zone is real; men can’t control their tempers, actions, or sexual behaviour; women are obliged to act as sexual gatekeepers; “real” teenagers are always suave, sophisticated, and hyper-sexual—that Instruments perpetuates. Not to mention that there are simply better written novels out there, though I’ve certainly read my fair share of terrible books. Given, also, that Fire‘s tagline for the novel was “Who will survive?,” I expected a few more deaths. But, as Stephenie Meyer did in her series, Clare proves unwilling to raise the stakes: Fire is over-long, over-complicated, and thanks to some deus ex machina shenanigans, all of our heroes—inexplicably, considering the plot—survive.

Instead of this, check out:

Below the cut, I’m going to dig into some of the series’s particularly problematic elements. Follow me down the rabbit hole at your leisure!

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Fangirl

Fangirl (Rainbow Rowell)

For readers 13 years and up

“Professor Piper was always telling them to write about something close to their hearts, and there was nothing closer to Cath’s heart than Baz and Simon” (110).

I was delighted to discover Rainbow Rowell’s 2013 novel, Fangirl, which also offers two-for-the-price-of-one woman power: written by Rowell, it’s illustrated by Noelle Stevenson.) In Fangirl, identical twins Cath and Wren leave home for university, but while Wren is ready to dive into new experiences (a new roommate, new friends, parties, and more), Cath is far shyer, choosing to hide in her room with a jar of peanut butter rather than face the dining hall alone and spending her evenings working on a long piece of fanfiction. Faced with family issues (an estranged mother, a father living with mental illness, and a sister who is rapidly developing an alcohol problem), new relationships (her roommate, an older undergraduate, is extroverted, if not aggressive, and Cath also develops feelings for her roommate’s best friend, Levi), and fresh academic challenges (after being accepted into an upper-level creative writing course, she struggles to develop her own writing voice and to deal with idea-leeching classmate), Cath is an intriguing and multi-faceted protagonist.

And in terms of fandom and fangirls, Fangirl has a lot to offer. Cath, a university (college) freshman, is the popular author of a well-known piece of fanfiction (based on the fictional series, Simon Snow, clearly an homage to Harry Potter), and the novel never derides her for this. Instead, we see a young women with creativity, passion, and follow-through (one smart and capable enough to enter an upper-level course in her first semester), working on a major creative project, and instead of leading Cath to abandon fandom for “the real world,” the narrative recognises the validity and emotional significance of online communities. Rather than choose between online and offline, Cath opens her mind and her heart to welcome both into her life, slowly learning that the two are not mutually exclusive and that she does not have to abandon one love to allow another. Additionally, Cath’s—spoiler—eventual boyfriend, Levi, is a kind and believable character, as is—the admittedly less well-developed—Wren’s boyfriend, Jandro. (More on these guys in a moment!) On a structural note, Rowell punctuates Fangirl with excerpts from the fictional Simon Snow series as well as Cath’s fic, an interesting moves that works surprisingly well, offering snippets of stories that are engaging on their own.

This isn’t to say, though, that Rowell is impervious to critique. (Well, who is!?) To start, Rich in Colour and Angry Girl Comics both firmly outline racism in Rowell’s other young adult novel, Eleanor and Park, as does the Tumblr fandomshatewomen, which also offers instead-of recommendations.

Returning to Fangirl, while it is strong in its defence of fandom—particularly women fans, which is wonderful, given how they are subject to disproportionate amounts of hate—and in its crackdown on subtle, sexist exploitation in the classroom (Cath’s classmate, Nick, steals her ideas and creative labour under the guise of ‘working together’), it has some awkward and uncomfortable moments as well.

  • Cath’s roommate, Reagan, who eventually becomes one of her best friends, appears intended to be humorously biting—Instead, she often comes across as mean, asking Cath if she’s “‘one of those freaky eaters'” (38), dissing Cath’s writing because “‘It’s already hard enough to make eye contact with [her]'” (48), and encouraging her friend to steal Cath’s food. Near the end of the novel, Wren points out, “She’s so mean to you” (442), which Cath denies, arguing “‘That’s just her way. I think I’m her best girl friend”” (442). No, friends: Girls and women are not supposed to cut each other down this way!
  • Additionally, despite my interest in both of their characters and my belief in the development of their relationship (both behave badly in the beginning, but their behaviour is more attributable to awkwardness and social anxiety than anything else, and both are apologetic), I was uncomfortable, occasionally, with Cath’s treatment of Levi, who has a reading disability. Cath wonders whether she can happy be with someone who can’t read. Fair enough, but only because nasty thoughts like this are—alas—not uncommon: The truth of one’s character is in how we recognise and deal with them, and Cath—to me—didn’t address this thoughtfully enough. Instead, Rowell works overtime to convince us that Levi is still cool, smart, and desirable even though he can’t read well, instead of removing his disability from consideration in any assessment of his value as a person. (Do you see what I mean? A person is not a good person even though they are disabled; they are a good person—or not—and disabled.) (I welcome commentary or corrections in terminology from readers more knowledgeable in this area!)

In subtle, sneaky ways like this—sniping girl friendships, casual ableism, and casual rape culture, as when Levi insists on picking Cath up from the library each night, ostensibly to protect her though she doesn’t want him to—some problematic stuff sneaks into Fangirl. While I was genuinely into the plot and respected—and enjoyed—the novel’s loving and accurate portrayal of women in fandom, was intrigued by its portrait of life with a mentally ill parent (that’s something I can’t speak to!), and appreciated the relationship between Cath and her sister as well as the growth of attraction and love between Cath and Levi, I think it’s important to recognise these things as well. I wonder if Rowell has been asked about these things before!

 

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In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country

In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country (Kim Barnes)

For readers 14 years and up

“I saw that something had begun its slow possession. How could I be both healer and sinner?”

“She’s a beautiful girl, her light blue eyes brilliant against the smooth brown skin inherited from her Cherokee grandmother.”

Barnes’s memoir follows her family’s move into the logging communities of Idaho in the mid-20th century, but while the early parts of the book do discuss her early childhood in the logging camps, the meat of the memoir follows the sharp and severe emotional and physical changes undergone when her parents convert to conservative pentecostal Christianity. Not only does the family leave rural Idaho, but they also grow close to the exclusive and abusive family that runs their church, trapping the young Barnes between crushing religious guilt and impulses to rebel socially, religiously, and sexually as she tries to shape her own identity.

Barnes’s story is a compelling one and, for the most part, told well. While I would counsel readers to be aware of triggering content (sexual, physical, and religious abuse), I think this could be an important read for—particularly North American—women raised in conservative Christian settings, especially where those settings have been harmful (in whatever varying degrees). There is something powerful and reassuring in seeing one’s experiences shared with another person, and Barnes delicately tries to untangle—simply put—both her negative and positive thoughts about religion.

Unfortunately, though, Barnes’s content is hampered by repeated, lazy characterisation dependent on racist tropes. For example, consider the quote at the top—”the smooth brown skin inherited from her Cherokee grandmother”—or other descriptions, including “dark lashes gave her an exotic appearance” (46), “dinners of exotic dishes Lola [a missionary’s daughter] had learned to cook from one native tribe or another” (86), and “she possessed the kind of exotic appearance that made the town girls looked bleached and cause the farm boys to imagine spice on their tongues” (154). I wanted Barnes’s memoir to be a powerful peek into growing up as a woman in conservative Christian America, but unfortunately, this seems to often come at the expense of other women exoticised and sexualised.

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* Non-fiction/memoir

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (Angela Carter)

For readers 16 years and up

“The door did not open silently, as before, but with a doleful groaning of the hinges and, this time, on to perfect darkness. Beauty clicked her gold cigarette lighter; the tapers in the chandelier had drowned in their own wax and the prisms were wreathed with drifting arabesques of cobwebs. The flowers in the glass jars were dead, as if nobody had had the heart to replace them after she was gone. Dust, everywhere; and it was cold. There was an air of exhaustion, of despair in the house and, worse, a kind of physical disillusion, as if its glamour had been sustained by a cheap conjuring trick and now the conjurer, having failed to pull the crowds, had departed to try his luck elsewhere.

January was a month of fairy tale adaptations for me, from re-reading “The Seven Ravens” to watching Mirror, Mirror and Ever After. Just before I set off on a long train journey, a friend lent me Angela Carter’s collection, The Bloody Chamber, whose stories draw on fairy tales on folklore. (For instance, “The Courtship of Mr Lyon,” quoted above, draws on Jeanne Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s “Beauty and the Beast.”)  As Wikipedia tells us (…) Carter herself resisted the idea of her stories being “adaptations,” but instead said,

My intention was not to do ‘versions’ or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, ‘adult’ fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories.

But in any case, I am late to the Angela Carter party, and as far as I can tell, this excellence is common knowledge. If you are like me, fear not—And make tracks to your local library! (Or the link to the full-text above…)

For me, a particular highlight of the collection was its sense of being quite separate from us—magical, menacing, and in the past—while at the same time being quite contemporary, with trains, telephones, cars, bicycles, and the like, as well as an awareness of the 20th-century. “The Lady of the House of Love,” for instance, is the story of a vampire: She appears to be a young girl, but is very old, and her story of death and blood—will she kill the virginal young soldier who appears on her doorstep?—is set against the beginning of the First World War, which was, of course, a bloodbath. (The reversal of types to explore virginity in the context of a man character was also a treat!) Carter is also marvellous with tension and fear (and the macabre, take note!): In the titular story, which draws from “Bluebeard,”* the young wife’s panic grows as her options close—the servants leave, the phones are dead, her husband is coming. Wonderful, terrible tension!

*Carter also translated the fairytales of Charles Perrault, the recognised author of “Bluebeard” and “Cinderella,” among others.

Note: A warning of sexual violence in several stories. Though it is far from standard patriarchal fare (!), readers should be aware.

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