Not just a memoir, The Woman Warrior combines fiction and biographical elements too. Hong Kingston writes partly of her childhood in America; she’s never been to China; partly of her mother’s childhood in China and later years in America, and partly of fables her mother shared while they were growing up. It is utterly un-nostalgic. She writes honestly of the myriad griefs of growing up too American for Chinese parents, and too Chinese for the surrounding American culture. And writes honestly of her own failings in some disturbing accounts of bullying her schoolmates – the classmate who refused to speak, the boy with mental disabilities who spent his spare time sitting silently at her family’s laundry while they steamed and washed and pressed in tropics-like conditions. She is not exactly remorseful. Nor is remorse evident in the first chapter, No Name Woman, which recounts a mob raiding and trashing the house of Hong Kingston’s aunt. Animals are slaughtered and stores strewn into the mud as punishment for the aunt’s adulterous pregnancy, her husband having gone overseas years ago to make money during a time of extended scarcity. The aunt is expelled from her family and her name is deliberately forgotten. She dies soon after. She doesn’t name the man who impregnated her. He doesn’t come forward and remains unpunished. It’s a dark way to start off a book even if it is followed by a fictionalized tale of the author leaving home in her youth and training in marital arts for 15 years with an elderly couple living alone on a mountain. She returns to her family, raises an army, and sets about avenging the wrongs done to her village by wealthy barons and a government concerned only with its own wealth, eventually putting a new emperor on the throne. She is hailed as a hero everywhere. Valued and powerful. And a cutting, polar opposite to the rest of the book. To her real life.
The unhappy ending to every story ever written. Because this time we are talking about the women who’ve been refrigerated, a term coined by Gail Simone to refer to the trope of destroying a female comic book character to further the plot-line of the male protagonist; which started a discussion about how when “bad things” happen to male superheros they are frequently returned to their original status but female superheroes are not, and about how women characters are being used as plot devices for male protagonists instead of fully-rounded characters in their own right. Valente has created a book where we finally hear these women telling their own stories. She weaves all of these tropes, all of these classic deaths, into new tales and has the woman tell her own story, about her dreams and aspirations and wants and rage over being demoted from the protagonist in her own story to the supporting cast in someone else’s. At being “food for a super hero.” (144)
Comes with the a milder dose of the standard selection of comic book violence: murders, mentions of rape, abuse, and assault, and the death of a child.
When nineteen year old Charlie St. Clair finds herself momentarily unattended by her mother as they dock for an overnight stay in England on their way to a clinic in Switzerland at the end of World War II, she seizes the moment and her freedom and boards a taxi for 10 Hampson Street, Pimlico, London. It’s the address of one Evelyn Gardiner, the last person to have information on the whereabouts of Charlie’s beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared while in France during the Second World War. Eve was part of a network of female spies embedded in German occupied France during the first world war, feeding tidbits of information to British brass and trying their best to turn the tide of the war. Now she lives alone in London, trying to drown her nightmares and bitterness in alcohol. Charlie succeeds in persuading Eve to help find Rose and the two of them set off for France. Quinn alternates chapters; one narrated by Charlie and set in 1947 will be followed by one narrated by Eve and set in 1915. It’s very well constructed and not difficult to keep track of the plot despite bouncing around in both time and space. There won’t be time for you to forget what happened in the previous chapter, because you won’t want to put this book down until you’ve turned the very last page. Quinn has crafted an enthralling, fictionalized account of the real-world, women-run spy network that existed during World War I, with just enough romance and intrigue stirred in to lighten the darkness of the wartime passages. It’s a great book.
Sensitive readers should be aware that there are instances of violence, torture, mentions of rape and coercive sex, slut shaming, abortion, drug use, and gun violence.
The perfect book to cap off February and move into March with, Hidden Figures reveals the little known story of the black women mathematicians who worked with NASA to help the United States win the space race and set the first man on the moon. Let me say that again for the people in the back: in the 30’s there were black women mathematicians working for NASA. And Shetterly introduces you to almost all of them. These women are brilliant. Determined. Ambitious. They leave their steady, if drastically underpaid teaching jobs when NASA puts out the call in WWII for more “computers” to hand calculate pages of complex equations about aerodynamics for the engineers and physicists – careers often denied to the black female computers regardless of their qualifications – to fine tune the performance of the new planes NASA – at that time the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA – was inventing. Shetterly does a beautiful job integrating the personal lives of these women with the changes in American society, and world history from the 1930s to the end of the space race. Hidden Figures is a science-packed read and a great story.
An incredible book. Walker has crafted a heart-breaking, heart-filling story that captivates you from first page to last. Despite assaults and abuse from parents and husband, Celie stands “bloody, but unbowed” throughout her childhood, unwanted marriage, and finally sees the slow growth of her own heart from a forgotten seed into a magnificent tree. Despite this being a story built around child abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault, and the millions of everyday griefs that filled a black woman’s life in the early 1900’s, Walker has presented us with a work is not just uplifting, but redemptive. If you are in a place where you are able to read books that deal with the content warnings I’ve listed, then I can not recommend The Color Purple strongly enough.
Angelou’s famous autobiography reveals a childhood that is at once both classic and heart-crushing. She and her brother Bailey are sent to live with their paternal grandmother for large parts of their youths and spend their days playing outside in the Depression era south, when they aren’t helping at the family store or faithfully pursuing their studies or attending the local church. At one point the inseparable duo are sent to live with their mother and father in St. Louis and it is there that Maya is attacked. While justice for her attacker is reasonably swift, some of the circumstances surrounding it only exacerbate the confusion and conflict her young mind is swamped by; the damage and mental trauma she endures linger on long after the physical wounds have healed. Despite this and other jaw-dropping incidents, Angelou grows into a warm-hearted, courageous woman. Her ability to see into the deep motivations of not just the people around her but her own heart makes this book an enduring classic and a movie-clear portrait of life as a black child in the pre-World War II era southern states.
Complete madness. You think you are embarking on your typical Victorian era romance á la Brontë’s Wuthering Heights or Byatt’s Possession, full of bleak seascape vistas, rich green fecundity, cruel winds, and thwarted love. It opens with an engaged couple, Charles Smithson and Ernestina Freeman, walking along the seashore one blustery day when they realize the motionless, sea-gazing figure before them is not some brooding fisherman, but is in fact a brooding female. One Sarah Woodruff, known through town as the French Lieutenant’s Woman due to her double misfortune in developing an attraction to the aforementioned military man when he was convalescing at her mistress’ house post shipwreck and his jilting of her at the end of such convalescence. Religion being what it is in the 1860’s, her bad luck is immediately punished with ostracization and poverty until Charles takes an interest in her. That interest develops along the lines you would expect…but then the author shows up. Fowles starts talking about his characters and their motivations. He makes visits of increasing frequency as the book progresses. He then adds insult to injury by thrusting in chapters which are revealed only too late to be from an alternate universe! You have emotionally committed yourself to this new direction the plot has taken and Fowles unceremoniously flings you back on your butt the next page; nothing of what you read has actually – in the fictional world of this novel – occurred. It is simultaneously a wonderful and infuriating novel, brilliantly upending the conventions of the “fallen woman,” while waving your expectation of those conventions in your face. After hardly being capable of putting it down all day, after finally finishing it, I can’t decide whether I want to fling it across the room or immediately start re-reading it. I look forward with trepidation and excitement to reading his other famous novels.
What an incredible piece of writing this book is. Noah has filled Born a Crime with stories which are almost surreal (to a white first-worlder). As if that wasn’t enough, he lards his writing with insightful observations on racism, poverty, classism, sexism, and human nature. As if it wasn’t enough of a miracle that he exists, he rises above the circumstances of his poverty-stricken childhood to become an intelligent, well-known, and (hopefully) wealthy television personality. He stomped that cycle into the ground.
Noah gives credit where credit is due, however. He didn’t achieve all this by his own will. His mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, is a powerhouse of a woman who refuses to let anything stop her from achieving what she wants. She molds Trevor into a decent human being out of willpower and…well, beatings. Noah explains and excuses it, and has a wonderful relationship with his mother, but child abuse is a thing in this story. As is spousal abuse, gun violence, sexism, and the consistent abuse of power by the police. Apartheid is so much more horrifying than I could have guessed, and it left a legacy that influenced every person in the country. Noah keeps the book upbeat even while relating stories of being arrested, hustling pirated CDs, and navigating the discriminatory culture he was being raised in. Until the end of the book. The third segment gets progressively darker, chronicling his time in jail and his stepfather’s abuse of Noah’s mother, until it will be a wonder if you are not in tears. There’s a happy ending, but trust me when I say you’ve got to walk across some hot coals to get to it. In my humble opinion, it was worth it. I’m glad I read this book.
Sometimes it seems like all of my book reviews start off this way, but The Left Hand of Darkness was not what I was expecting. It begins with political intrigue swirling around a clueless ambassador, and slugglishly morphs into a polar expedition that would make Shackleton proud. Emphasis on slugglishly. I didn’t get really drawn in to the plot until after the first 100 pages. This edition is only 300 pages long. That’s a lot of slogging for not a lot of payoff. Even if this book is practically legendary now. The world of Gethen and its nuanced cultures, religions, and governments certainly merits praise. Though I wish things were more fleshed out. There’s a lot of vocabulary to puzzle through and not quite enough contextual clues to easily unpuzzle it. I’d speculate that what really made this story famous are the Gethenians themselves. This is the first story I’ve ever read where the characters are ambi-sexual. It’s fascinatingly done. Like human women, the Gethenians have a monthly hormonal/sexual/reproductive cycle. Unlike humans, during the reproductive portion of each cycle a Gethenian may become either male or female. And perhaps the opposite during the next cycle. One may father children, then mother children. There are no rigid sexual roles. They may vow fidelity or not, as they please, and neither choice is praised or denigrated. For a book published in the 1960s, The Left Hand of Darkness is ground breaking. With so much flexibility in genders, it’s a little difficult to determine if this book passes the Bechdel test. Anyone not actively female is referred to as “he.” There are no homosexual relationships. There’s mentions of incest, but only from the perspective of equal consenting adults. Minimal violence. Almost no gore. As befits a tale of political intrigue, Le Guin has written in forcible confinement and drugging too. It’s quite the package, and if the beginning hadn’t been so boring I would have given this book five stars. Should you be bored and bookless one day, consider The Left Hand of Darkness.
Coyote grew up in Yukon Territory through the 1970s and 1980s, in a small, unnamed town. Their survival guide is full of intriguing diagrams wherein the parts are labelled but the machines are not, and it occurred to me perhaps these mysterious items are allegories for Coyote and other transgender individuals, for how this book describes their lives. To anyone who already knows what these machines are, everything in the diagrams is obvious. What it is. What it does. But because the machines aren’t always named, you can study the picture and learn all the names for the components and still not know what the item itself is supposed to do. You can learn everything there is to know about someone, about a transgender individual; read all the little labels telling you all the little details, and still not understand what their lives are like because you haven’t walked around in their skin and lived it, and how well can we ever really know another person?
But maybe I’m reading too much in to it. Maybe a diagram is just a diagram. Maybe they’re just there because this is a book for tomboys, and equipment is a manly man thing.
Tomboy Survival Guide balances tales of growing up in a rural Northern community with a more cosmopolitan adulthood, and splits both of those with the hardship of being transgender. There are original song lyrics (with chords; I didn’t try playing anything), poems, copies of letters they receive from people all over the continent asking how they can bring themselves to write about these personal, painful memories and how do the writers relate to their transgender relative and how do the writers survive their very un-trans-friendly high school? Coyote writes back. Eventually. Sometimes it takes a few months to come up with the right words to say. They are as helpful and hopeful as possible, but frequently the letters are sad. And Coyote’s own stories are often painful. There’s discrimination, hatred, ignorance, the endless bathroom debate (can we just have gender neutral bathrooms already? Like we do in houses? Or for families? Or for disabled people?), rampant sexism, threats, and sexual assault. There are many happy stories too. I actually wanted more memories and fewer poems and songs. The personal anecdotes are engaging, hilarious, and eye opening. Whereas I found the poems and other tidbits didn’t resonate with anywhere near the same intensity. I even liked the equipment diagrams better. But the songs did serve to break up reminiscences from disparate time periods and add some levity between bleaker stories, so I can see why they may have been included. And hey, if you want more of Coyote’s stories, they’ve got more books.
*edited to reflect Coyote’s use of they/their pronouns, with thanks to the individual who corrected me.