File this post under blasts from the past(s). As my 10 years blogiversary approached last year, I was feeling nostalgic about my old, hand-coded website, so of course I looked it up on the Wayback Machine. I was braced for something really amazing, and instead I found a website with roughly ten book reviews and three recipes on it. Below you will find the un-edited book reviews from 2003 aka most of my website back then (spoiler alert: they’re kind of pretentious). I hope someone on the internet finds them useful someday.
The Rise of the New Woman by Jean V. Matthews
This book was released just recently (May or June 2003) and I picked it up while browsing the new releases in the library at school. I’m fairly good with early American feminist theory and this looked to be more of a historical book which is why it caught my eye. I was impressed pretty much right away, it’s a really easy read but at the same time it’s not dumb’d down or artificially zazzed. The book begins with the struggle to vote and ends in the first anti-feminist backlash after the vote was won, making it a really great cultural study of Feminism’s first wave.
The great thing about it was that even though it would be a perfect introduction for a new Feminist, it’s still great for people who know a little about theory because it really covers American culture in a more holistic, pop culture oriented kind of way. For example the implications of fashions trends at the turn of the century are closely analyzed, it’s easy to forget that at one time having a skirt you could walk in and a shirt you didn’t sew yourself was the trademark of a liberated woman. In other words: it includes the little things that you really miss if you only read theory or are completely ignored if you only read contemporary feminist texts. All of the major thinkers, movers and shakers in the movement are also in the book. They’re covered in a way that will familiarize newbies without boring seasoned Feminists like myself (snicker). Par example, did you know Charlotte Perkins Gilman thought that sex, as in the biological function, was completely undesirable? It’s true!
A lot of the antifeminist backlash post suffrage was because the next issue on the agenda was birth control. It ended up alienating most older feminist and almost all of the southern women who turned their efforts to the church or the KKK. It’s things like this that are left out of textbooks and are assumed in theory so I would definitely and absolutely recommend this book to any student of feminism no matter their skill level.
Review June 2003
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Reading Beloved was like being hypnotized. I read it all at once, every time I put it down I had to pick up back up again. I was assigned this book for my Honors American Literature Seminar class and wrote (or will write) my terminal paper in the class on it.
The setting of the book is rural Ohio, just a handful of years after reconstruction, and the main character is Sethe, a middle-aged woman who ran away from Sweet Home in Kentucky with her children. This book is amazingly rich in symbolism, especially numerology, which is somewhat less common. The plot is linear but the past is revealed, slowly, throughout the narrative by Sethe’s “rememberings,” stories she tells of being in slavery, escaping, and giving birth to her daughter Denver while crossing the Ohio River.
The other central characters are Paul D., the man with the tobacco tin for a heart, and Beloved, the ghost of Sethe’s daughter who she killed. Complex and beautifully written the plot is portioned out in tiny spoonfuls and the account of slavery, especially the way it effects women, is intimate without being voyeuristic. Men are not left out of the story all together, but they are not the focus by a long shot, and when juxtaposing this with Frederick Douglass’ slave narrative you really get a feel for the time in which he was writing more than slavery itself. There is also a lot of nature, shamanistic, and “female” power in this book which isn’t always found in slavery-related literature. When it is, I’ve found, it’s typically in passing. Yay for Beloved!
Read November 2003
Re-read it November 2004
Review November 2003
Sula by Toni Morrison
I must admit that Sula is actually a pretty amazing book. I went into it as an assignment for Literature by Women class but we were only assigned the first part and I decided to finish it. I thought it was going to be, well, something very different from what it was.
Sula follows the lives of two girls in Bottom, an all black community, from their childhood on. It’s in the form of a flash back, after everyone is long gone and Bottom is being turned into a golf course for whites. Sula and Nel are the two main characters and you get their life stories and some innocuous girlhood anecdotes. Then Sula twists really sharply into a story of the grotesque, and as Part One ends with Nel’s marriage, Sula leaves the town for college. Part two beings with Sula’s return and a plague of robins. In part two you get more information on the town’s members, the characterization is really great, and a falling out between Sula and Nel. Finally Sula dies and Nel struggles to reconcile herself to Sula’s memory.
Overall this is an amazing story of sisterhood (no, seriously, as in the sisterly relationship between women they rarely have with men they are dating/married to) and the grotesque. Sula is basically a character who was not meant for society, she is outside of it and utterly refuses to acknowledge its rules. Her foil in the book is Shadrack, a shell shocked veteran who introduces Suicide Day to Bottom. Overall Sula is a really good, short read, and I definitely recommend it.
Read March 2003
Review Updated November 2003
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
I first read this book as extra credit in High School and I remembered liking it but since it’s been five years I didn’t remember it very well. So I settled in and reread it and I was really impressed, it’s really deserves the hype. I know that The Bell Jar is one of those books that have legions of annoying loser fans who frequently steer otherwise open minded people away from reading them, but please don’t let the freakies deter you. If you have any interest in reading this book go ahead and do it, it’s short and it’s damn good.
Of course if you define “good” as “cheerful” or “uplifting” then it’s a horrible monster of a book. The Bell Jar is bleak, but I think that’s part of what makes it so grand. As you may all ready know, the novel follows a girl in her early twenties on the verge of graduation after just recieving a prize internship with a magazine. She begins to feel numb during the experience, which she realizes will probably define the lives of the girls around her, and she begins to wonder what is wrong with her. After the chaotic internship ends she returns home and things simply will not come together. She attempts suicide but is found in time and her family checks her into a mental hospital. Finally her author benefactress intervenes and puts her in the best hospital in the country. After a few final traumas the novel ends with her coming before a commitee and being approved for release from the hospital.
The thing about the novel is that there’s not a happy ending, The Bell Jar takes you inside the character without you even knowing it and at the end you’re not so sure she will ever be all right. Of course a lot of this is influenced by what even children now know of Sylvia Plath’s personal life, but I think she’s written herself pretty deeply into this character. The descriptions of depression are amazing and the characterization is really top shelf. I for one especially enjoy Plath’s style, the abrupt transitions and the way she strings unrelated events together without them seeming out of place. Here’s a quote:
“I guess I should have been excited the way most of the other girls were, but I couldn’t get myself to react. I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.”
If not for the legions of unfortunates deterred by unpleasant fan-addicts there would be no reason for me to write this little blurb at all, this is really a classic. So go read it … now!
Review Updated 04/03/04
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Wide Sargasso Sea is one of my favorite examples of revisionist fiction. Published in 1966 it is a prequel to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë written from the perspective of Bertha Antoinette Mason, the so-called “mad woman in the attic.” It takes place in Barbados (for the most part) and sets up Rochester as the abuser rather than the victim who, after being “bought” in marriage by Antoinette, is driven slightly mad by the jungle around him and tries to destroy her mentally. In Wide Sargasso Sea there are comments on power, sexuality, madness, voodoo, culture, class, race, politics, and gender. It’s a beautifully written book with light stream of consciousness and amazingly well developed characters.
Also it is important to note that Wide Sargasso Sea is very respectful of it’s predecessor, the novel ends at the exact point where Bertha enters Jane Eyre.
Review November 2003
Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut
I thought it would be devilishly clever if I were to take Labor Day (November 11th, Kurt Vonnegut’s birthday, as well as the day that Breakfast of Champions was written) to re-read B o’ Champions, however my very clever idea was foiled by me being a day late and not owning the book, a state which I was heretofore oblivious to. I picked up Timequake because I had read it back in the late 90s (it was written in 1996) and settled on re-reading it, because I honestly didn’t remember it that well. Happy coincidence, the introduction was written on November 12th, 1996. Lovely!
I never really know how to discuss Vonnegut, he’s very disarming, his style is so brilliantly intimate his books always end up feeling, to me, like personal correspondence to no one in particular. When I read the book the first time I decided to dog-ear the pages which contained passages that I thought were particularly inspired. Since my original plan had to be modified I figured a little experiment was still in order, you know, so I didn’t have to feel like I was compromising. I went through and used page points (see how far I’ve come?) to mark passages which I now find to be completely delightful, utterly witty, or in some way inspired. About half of the time I had no idea what I found so wonderful the first time through, the other half of the time I agreed heartily, plus I think I found a few little quotes that are completely new to my personal radar. My conclusion? I’m more refined now than I was in the late 90s!
My favorite passage from all of Timequake is, happliy enough, my favorite passage from all of Vonnegut’s works that I’ve read, which I assure you is no small number. It’s an anecdote (duh) about him going to the ballet and being the only person to laugh very loudly when someone falls down backstage and causes an insane racket in the process. My Dad and I both find this passage so funny that we need only remind each other about it and be laughing hysterically. I read it aloud to Michael; he acknowledged that it was funny in the abstract, but did not even crack a smile. The lesson? To find Timequake delightful you simply must all ready think Vonnegut is funny. Kurt Vonnegut is one of the rare people who have made me laugh out loud using only text. Kudos!
When I talk about Vonnegut books I always talk about them as being “first Vonnegut books” or not; this is not a first Vonnegut book. You’ll have no idea where his personal history is blending with the very loose but amusing premise, you’ll have no idea who Kilgore Trout is, no idea why Vonnegut (our narrator, presumably) is repeating himself, and no idea why characters are repeating themselves. It is possible for you to read the wrong Vonnegut book first, which will almost certainly turn you away from his writing permanently, and since I think he’s just brilliant I don’t want this to happen. Who knows why!
If you are all ready completely smitten with Vonnegut, as I am, and you haven’t read Timequake, then you really should pick it up; it’s very Vonnegut-ey or Vonnegutesque, if you want to look like a total tool, your choice.
Review November 2005