“The Yellow Wallpaper” and Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Read: 25 March, 2018

I originally tried to read these stories when they were assigned in High School, but I was a thoroughly uninterested student – bordering on lethargic. And, as is true in most cases, I think I got a lot more out of it now than I would have at the time.

The stories are very short, and they don’t have the satisfying arcs that I like in stories – “The Yellow Wallpaper” worked the best as far as story structure goes. Mostly, though, these were little vignettes that each tackle some feminist issue.

I quite enjoyed the writing style, which was very concise (particularly for the time period) and readable. I do wish that there were more narrative structure, so that the pieces could stand on their own even without the political message.

Overall, though, I did enjoy every one of these stories. Some, like “The Yellow Wallpaper”, I enjoyed both as stories and for their political message. Some, like “Making a Change”, I mostly only liked for their political message. And some, like “The Cottagette”, were just enjoyable wish-fulfilment.

“The Yellow Wallpaper”

This story was legitimately creepy. The visuals were great, and I would definitely watch a horror movie adaptation. The feminism was spot on with its critique of the White Knight who just wants to “protect” women by treating them like china dolls. While the ending was a little weak, it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the story.

“Three Thanksgivings”

This is feminism from the other perspective – that of a woman who has independence and freedom, and who wants to keep it. Of course, she is greatly helped by owning a large house, and it is the house that enables her to make money in the way she does. So let’s call this the feminism of the wealthy. Still, I appreciated that the main character was given a selection of options (all perfectly attractive and ‘suitable’ for a woman of her age), and rejects them all in favour of work and independence.

“The Cottagette”

I enjoyed this little wish-fulfilment piece. A woman stifles her artistic self to attract a husband with evidence of her domesticity. But, twist of twists, he loves her as an artist, and will only marry her on condition that she stay out of the kitchen. It’s an excellent commentary on the toll domestic chores can take on a woman, and on her ability to do the kind of work that she finds fulfilling.

“Turned”

A wife finds out that her husband has gotten their maid pregnant. While she initially lashes out against the maid, she quickly realises the power imbalance, and how impossible it must have been for the girl to reject her boss – a fact of which her husband would have been well aware. The story ends with the husband finally finding his wife, who is now living independently with the maid and their baby and making a fine little family together, and they have absolutely no interest in whatever he’s there to sell them.

I absolutely loved the message of this piece. The solidarity, and the recognition of power imbalance, and the creation of a new family built on mutual support and affection… it really couldn’t have been more up my alley.

“Making a Change”

This one pairs well with “Turned”, returning to that theme of women supporting women. We begin with a small family comprised of a wife, her husband, their newborn, and her mother-in-law. The mother-in-law has always been good with babies, but the wife feels that it’s her role, and she guards it jealously, but it just isn’t working out for her. Deprived of sleep, deprived of her music, and feeling like a profound failure, she tries to commit suicide. But when her mother-in-law finds her, the two realise that something has to change.

And so, without the husband even noticing, the wife goes back to teaching music, the mother-in-law takes over the childcare and opens up a nursery for all the neighbourhood babies, and they use their extra wages to hire a good housekeeper who can deal with all the domestic stuff that neither of them likes to do.

The tension comes in when, after months pass in this blissful arrangement, the husband finds out that his wife and mother are both working. He is humiliated, and tries to make things go back as they were. But we quickly comes to realise that everyone is so much happier with this arrangement, and he drops the subject.

I really liked the message of this piece – households are so much happier if everyone gets to do the things that they find fulfilling. Trying to contort ourselves into unnatural shapes just because it’s How It’s Done will lead to unhappiness – not just for ourselves, but for everyone in the family.

“If I Were a Man”

A woman gets to experience what it’s like to be a man, when she suddenly finds herself in his body. The science is a bit underdeveloped in this one, as it isn’t clear just how much of his personality remains in his body (she does seem to have access to his perceptions and memories), and we never do see what happens to her own body (did they trade places?).

And while this was perhaps the least narratively developed, it’s worth a read just for the part where she discovers pockets.

“Mr. Peebles’ Heart”

This is the only story centred squarely on a man. Mr Peebles has always supported the women in his life, catering to their every want and need so that they are never challenged. This has not only left him unhappy, it’s also left his wife unhappy, as she is afraid to travel (even to visit her daughters) and has no real interests of her own.

Then along comes her sister – a “lady doctor”/fairy godmother who solves everything by prescribing him a year-long trip to Europe. The two of them are separated while he explores himself, and she is forced to discover who she is without him. In the end, they are both happily travelling together.

I found this to be the weakest story in the collection.

Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Read: 17 March, 2018

I enjoyed this quite a bit more than We Should All Be Feminists. Perhaps because the context is more personal, so it justifies the more personal tone. As with We Should All Be Feminists, this isn’t about building a case or proving a point or trying together statistics to form a broader picture. But unlike We Should All Be Feminists, this book is explicitly preaching to the choir.

That was the problem with the other book – its function would be to convince readers to care. But without a well-crafted argument, without proof that there is a problem in the first place, it falls short. Here, however, Adichie is addressing herself to a friend who has just had a baby and who wants to know how to apply her already-existing feminism to her parenting. She’s already on board with the ideals, but she wants practical advice (and, perhaps, a little cheerleading).

The advice itself is more of the high concept variety. This isn’t, after all, a parenting book with sample scripts. But it serves well as a reminder of all the sneaky little cultural baggage that we bring into our parenting without even realising it.

A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka by Lev Golinkin

Read: 24 February, 2018

My mother loaned me this book because my spouse, though not Jewish, also fled from Russia at around Golinkin’s age. Though he was an emigrant, rather than a refugee, the experiences were surprisingly familiar – particularly in the ways both families responded to the trauma of having lived in the USSR.

I love that this book paints a complex picture. Recipients of charity aren’t always grateful, threat and trauma can lead even the most sober people to make careless decisions, and acts of kindness are sometimes done for entirely selfish reasons.

I also enjoyed the humour of the book. A lot of it is a distinctively Russian humour, that fatalistic “everything is terrible, isn’t if funny?” brand of deadpan humour that I enjoy so much.

Mostly, though, I love the message of hope. In the course of its story, A Backpack presents thousands, millions, of small acts – a donation here, a smile there – that, together, build up to something so meaningful. As Canada discusses its obligations toward refugees, this was a powerful book to read.

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Read: 20 February, 2018

At 48 pages, this is a very short book – really more of an essay. Because of the vast discrepancy between the size of the topic and the size of the book, this is obviously going to be a very superficial treatment. Even so, the essay is very conversational, and skips from topic to topic without much focus. Ultimately, it doesn’t really answer the title question, so much as simply mull over ways in which sexism have affected the author.

To the extent that Adichie makes statements of position, I often found myself disagreeing with her. Mostly, it has to do with the gender binary, which she clearly accepts even as she doesn’t think it should should be prescriptive.

I did enjoy the particular African perspective of the book – when I read about feminism, it’s almost always from a North American context. In particular, there are a few parts in the book where she talks specifically about African (and Nigerian) culture.

Apart from the cultural perspective, Adichie doesn’t bring much new to the table. This is a casual, personal book, without much history or facts. But it is worth reading, given the short length.

The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell by W. Kamau Bell

Read: 4 February, 2018

I happened on this book while searching for north African recipe books, and I’m still debating whether that’s a search algorithm win or a search algorithm fail. In any case, I knew as soon as I saw it that I had to read it, and promptly put it on hold at my library.

The book is a collection of memoir essays. They are a bit disconnected (although all come back, in some way, to themes of social justice), but I didn’t mind this time. It felt natural, like a conversation with a good friend that goes all over the place.

I really enjoyed the way Bell breaks down concepts – even when I still understood what he was getting at, I enjoyed the journey of the explanation. I never felt talked down to or excluded, even when he was explaining 101 concepts, even when he was clearly addressing readers who’ve shared his perspective and experiences.

This isn’t as hard-hitting as, for example, Between the World and Me or The New Jim Crow, while still expressing many of the same ideas. This would be a perfect starter book for that white friend who kinda gets it but doesn’t get it get it, but who wouldn’t want “all the negativity” of Michelle Alexander.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Read: 9 October, 2017

In this book, Alexander describes the ‘New Jim Crow’, in which blackness is linked with criminality, and criminality with inhumanity – giving the perfect ‘colourblind’ cover for policies that disenfranchise huge numbers of African Americans.

Alexander’s writing style is very readable – which is great, because the subject matter is so relentlessly depressing. If it were a slog to read through as well, I don’t know that I would have been able to finish it. As it was, I slipped my way through the whole book, wide-eyed and feeling rather ill, in just a few days.

On a simple style level, this is also one of the best written non-fiction books I’ve read in a while. Every point is brought up exactly where it needs to be, and every question that occurred to me was anticipated and answered. Each chapter serve a purpose and builds to form a strong whole. I’m always complaining that non-fiction books often lack a targeted focus, seeming to blunder through a variety of somewhat related points with no clear focus on a thesis. The New Jim Crow is the opposite – for such a huge, systemic issue, Alexander strictly trims the tangents and focuses with laser-like precision.

It’s an interesting experience to be reading this book – which is all about ‘post-racist society’ and ‘colourblindness’ – in Trump’s America. I woke up this morning with a few pages left and headlines in the news about a follow-up neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville. Alexander spends so much time trying to explain that the racism is still there, merely disguised as colourblindness, and I can’t help but wonder what the book would look like if it were written today.

I highly recommend this one. In fact, I wish it were required high school reading. It’s well written, well researched, and thoroughly heartbreaking.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Read: 8 March, 2017

This is a difficult book to review because, of course, it wasn’t written for me. What I get out of it, what I think of it, is fairly beside the point. And there are many other reviews of far far more value than whatever I could say.

As I was reading, I tried to think of this book’s use as a primer for, say, white teenagers. It’s a bit fast paced, with references and allusions coming from every direction. This book was not written to be some white kid’s 101, so the points aren’t argued, the references aren’t explained. The intended audience is passed all that already. But, still, even though a lot would fly over a white kid’s head, there’s a lot there that should stick.

It’s a beautiful, powerful, brutal book. And it is so, so timely.

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Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin

Read: February 26, 2017

A young Russian dreams of flight, but everything crashes and burns in the familiar Soviet style.

This novel has a lot going for it. I enjoyed the absurdist imagery of the criticism – the sham within a sham that so perfectly captures Soviet Russia. A few of these images (such as the one in which Kissinger kills the bear) are haunting, and will probably stay with me.

Overall, though, I can’t say that I enjoyed the book much. I’m not sure if I’ve just been tired lately and haven’t had the concentration to read it properly, or if the translation fell short, or if the writing itself is flawed… or maybe it’s a combination of all three. But I found the narrative to be a bit disjointed. Sometimes things would be happening and it would take me a while to figure out what and why.

I also never connected with the main character. Despite the fact that we’re in his head, his voice just isn’t that strong. We’re told the story of his life, but with a remove that prevents the emotional weight from really making itself felt. Even when his mind circles around particular images, and I could sense the significance (the little trapped pilot, the bear), I never knew why these images were significant to Omon. From my bird’s eye perspective, I know that the trapped pilot is foreshadowing, and I know that the bear represents the common people in the USSR, but Omon doesn’t seem to draw these conclusions. So why does he keep the pilot? Why does he think of the bear? It’s that lack of distinction between what the reader knows and what the character knows that made it difficult to connect with Omon’s humanity.

It’s a fine book, an interesting read, another example of absurdist social commentary. The “sham within a sham” aspect was particularly biting. But, overall, this one just didn’t do it for me.

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Read: 5 December, 2016

Immortal Life is a fantastic book about the HeLa cell line – immortal cells that kick started many fields of modern medical science.

But the story goes beyond the clinical, exploring the life of Henrietta herself, her husband, her children, her many descendants. Much of the story focuses on Deborah, Henrietta’s youngest daughter, and her search to learn about the mother she couldn’t remember.

It’s a heartbreakingly human tale of horrific medical abuse, crushing poverty, child abuse, Old Timey medical research ethics. It personalizes what have for so long been thought of as nothing more than a collection of cells in a test tube.

The issues raised about ethical medical research are important ones, and Skloot gives us few easy answers. But they are things that we all should know about and consider.

Even more important is the history of medical abuses towards black patients and those with mental illnesses. So much of the modern medical science we depend on today was developed through horrific experimentation on vulnerable populations. For that alone, this book should be required reading for all teens.

I was aware of most of the issues brought up in the book, but getting to know Deborah and the Lacks family made it all so much more viscerally real.

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The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Read: 16 November, 2016

Casual Vacancy was a big depart from Harry Potter. Aside from being geared toward an adult readership, it’s a completely different genre – “slice of life” rather than fantasy. It tells the story of Pagford, a small town in the English countryside, in the wake of a city council member’s death. All stories come back, in one way or another, to that empty council seat and what it means to the lives of the town’s residents – from its wealthier members right down to the poorest.

A big part of the magic of Harry Potter was the way in which Rowling created a world of stereotype characters – easily grasped and understood at a glance – then remained in their space until they started to come alive. And yet, strangely, they remained stereotypes, just stereotypes that we came to know and to care for.

In Casual Vacancy, she does the same thing. We have the lower class girl with the turbulent home life, and we have the teen obsessed with living “authentically”, the over-achieving “tiger mom” immigrant who had a sort of arranged marriage, the social worker struggling with professional boundaries, the bored housewife fantasising about a singer in her daughter’s favourite boy band, etc.

Each of these characters is and remains a stock. Rarely do they have traits that are not perfectly in keeping with their “type.” And, yet, we stay with them, we watch them, and over 500 pages, sheer time and care fills them out and makes them whole.

It’s a remarkable process.

Harry Potter had its horror and tragedy, but Casual Vacancy lacks its hope. The characters are petty and locked into their own experiences. They are hurt, and they respond by lashing out in a great web of misery. Worse, there is little resolution. Most characters end in the same position – or worse – as they started, or have only just set a course for possible change that is well beyond the scope of this book. It doesn’t revel in the pain, and it does have its moments of levity, but it’s easy to see how this might be a difficult read for some.

One similarity between the two works that interested me is how both Harry Potter and Casual Vacancy work as representations of tyrants and how people deal with/react to them. In Harry Potter, the theme is placed in a fantasy setting, and the tyrant is defeated through valiance and friendship. In Casual Vacancy, however, things are a little bleaker. (SPOILER: And while the tyrant is eventually defeated, it is through the failure of his own body – a realistic fluke that offers that dim ray of hope to the town.)

I doubt that I would have picked up this book if not for the author, and it’s easy to see why so many people were disappointed with it. It’s clearly Rowling’s writing, but this is something completely different, and marketing the book as “by the author of Harry Potter” does it a disservice. That said, it’s a solid piece of writing. Rowling did a great job showing us the complex web of small town life, and navigating between such a large cast of characters in a way that kept it interesting (in the sense that adult “slice of life” fiction is interesting – obviously not a genre for everyone!).

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