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Women Unbound x 5

December 22, 2009

Last month, I read four other books for the Women Unbound Challenge, and this month I’ve added one more (which brings my total books read for the challenge to nine, so I’m officially a suffragette!). I’ve been meaning to do a group review for a couple of weeks, but since my blogging became a bit sporadic for awhile, I’m just getting around to it!

First, even though I didn’t enjoy Persepolis Vol. One all that much, I wanted to give Marjane Satrapi another chance. So I picked up Embroideries and loved it! This is another nonfiction graphic book with a memoir-ish feel, but rather than being centered around Satrapi herself, it’s centered around her female relatives. They’re all together for tea and gossip (did you know that Iranians have a samovar? just like Russians!), and they take turns telling stories that have a bit of a ribald feel to it. ;) This is a slim book, and I wish it had been double the length, because I really loved the whole ‘multi-generational women chat’ feel, and the stories were fascinating in their window to another culture! I can’t say much more about it, or speak intelligently of why I loved it, but I’d highly recommend this. I also enjoyed Satrapi’s art style (which impressed me in Persepolis too), which is a bonus in graphic books!

Once Upon a Quinceanera by Julia Alvarez was simply fascinating. It begins as more of an investigative type of nonfiction book, with Alvarez interviewing various girls preparing for their ‘quinces,’ as well as adults who are involved in the industry. On the surface, Alvarez explores why the US Latin@ culture has embraced such widespread consumerism towards quinces (average price tag? $5-10K) and how that might reflect the immigrant experience and individual families. But Alvarez is also very concerned with the deeper power of the parties; do quinces help young Latina girls come of age? Do they empower the girls or force them into gender stereotypes? I loved how Alvarez worked hard not to judge quinces, and she interviewed people with a wide variety of opinions (and motivations), which helped the book feel thorough, and that she lets the reader make up their own mind, rather than ramming any opinions down your throat. Towards the last third of the book, Alvarez reflects increasingly on her own immigrant experience (she didn’t have a quince), and the book transitions to more of a memoir feel. Fortunately, Alvarez is a marvelous writer, so I happily went along with the change! I honestly found every page of this book interesting, and while I couldn’t wait to pick it up again, at the same time I tried to spread it out as far as possible. Another one I highly recommend!

I’m going to sound like a broken record during this post, but I’d highly recommend Born in the Big Rains by Somalian Fadumo Korn. Korn was born into a nomadic family, and the early chapters detailing her childhood wandering around Somalia were my very favourite. Her life was SO different from anything I could imagine, and she brought it to life and explained it so well, I felt like I was with her! However, it turns out that Korn’s family were more than nomads; they had connections to Somalia’s ruling elite, and after her ‘female genital cutting’ (i.e.: her clitoris and labia are cut off and her vaginal opening is sewn up, leaving only a tiny whole for urine and mentrual blood…I don’t think there’s a phrase for me that encompasses the horror of this) leaves her ill, she’s sent to live with relatives in Mogadishu. I found this phase of her life interesting as well; her aunt is a progressive, and it provided a nice counterpoint to her earlier nomadic traditional life. Eventually, Korn goes off to Europe, and then the best chapters to me were the ones when she’s dealing, after her marriage to a German, with the after effects of that ‘cutting.’ I loved how empowered and optimistic Korn remains in telling her story, even during the darker bits, and I loved her willingness to share her life with me. The ‘cutting’ is by no means the emphasis of the book (for those who worry about reading stuff like that; it’s not even what I would call explicit); however, it did change Korn’s life completely, which shows in the narrative. She’s a powerful writer, and if you’re at all curious about different cultures, I think you should pick this up!

I read my first Karen Armstrong book (A Short History of Myth) earlier this year, and it very much impressed me. She’s written a crazy amount of books, so it was difficult to decide which one I should read next, but I thought her memoir about being a nun would be a great Women Unbound choice. So I grabbed Through the Narrow Gate! I don’t think this was a perfect memoir; the writing itself felt a bit soporific at times. But it was an honest memoir about a fascinating topic, and so while I can’t say I loved it, I did really, really like it. When Armstrong finished school, she decided to go straight into a convent, before Vatican II. After a couple of chapters about her family background and pre-convent life (which I found difficult to get into), she begins detailing her training. That first year receives the most detail (probably because there’s less ‘secret’ stuff…I’m trying to find a better word than secret since I don’t mean to imply that convents are cults, so just know that I say that with respect), and I simply found it fascinating! I think most people who are raised Catholic imagine being a nun/monk/priest at some point in their childhoods (at least, me and all my Catholic friends did…and we weren’t particularly devout…but there’s something fascinating about the idea of cutting yourself off from the mundane world and devoting your life to God), and so in a way I felt like I was living through Armstrong! After she becomes a nun, the memoir becomes a bit more scattered, but there’s a wonderful figure in an older nun. And then Armstrong is sent to Oxford by her order (to read English in preparation for teaching later). Throughout this latter half of the book, the writing becomes more confused which perfectly mirrors Armstrong’s own inner state. She’s become physically and mentally ill, and after a couple awful experiences at Oxford (not the school itself, but the order house that she lives in), she ends up deciding not to be a nun anymore. I think Armstrong wonderfully captures her mental processes throughout, to the extent that I found it painful to read several of the chapters. But the final chapter, in which a terrified Armstrong shows up in an Oxford dorm and tells her classmates that she’s no longer a nun, and their generous, wonderful response and immediate desire to give her a makeover and bring her back into their world, is so beautiful and so full of the love and generosity between young women that it made me cry. In fact, I’m tearing up just thinking about it. I feel like this hasn’t been much of a review, but I’ll definitely be reading more Armstrong in the future, if that helps you decide whether or not to pick this up. :)

The final book I read is also my least favourite by a wide margin: Full Frontal Feminism by Jessica Valenti. Depite the fact that I’m a young-ish woman (23) and a proud feminist, this simply didn’t work for me at all. Valenti makes a lot of claims (usually during a rant) without much documentary support, which is guaranteed to drive me crazy in nonfiction. She’s also really, really, really far to the left, and I couldn’t help imagine moderate or conservative young women reading this book (I was a conservative in high school, and though now I’m definitely a liberal, I don’t think just because because someone is a Republican means they’re the devil). They’d be automatically alienated, and it upsets me to think that these young women might decide that they’re not feminists because they don’t want to wear a “Never f*ck a Republican” tee shirt. Seriously. Throughout, Valenti shows an inability to sympathise with anyone who doesn’t agree with her that frustrated me, and I can’t imagine this book being at effective unless the reader is already a super liberal feminist! I don’t think Valenti is a bad person, or a bad feminist, but I think this book was marketed to the wrong audience. I was really expecting to love this one-I even had to ILL it-but in the end: meh.

58 Comments leave one →
  1. December 22, 2009 1:57 pm

    embroideries is my fave satrapi book. i’ve read all of hers (also love chicken and plums, but it’s very sad) and embroideries was so wonderful. glad you enjoyed it!

    • December 22, 2009 11:58 pm

      I’m hesitant over Chicken and Plums, since I’ve heard before that it’s sad. :(

  2. December 22, 2009 2:08 pm

    I am confused! What is a ‘quince’ then? Is it some kind of coming of age debutante ball? I have never heard of it, but I am totally fascinated. I want to read more.

    Born in the Big Rains sounded fascinating until you mentioned the female genital cutting. Uggh!! Would probably still read it.

    I haven’t joined the Women’s Unbound challenge yet, but now with such a wonderful choice of books I might just join it.

    • December 22, 2009 11:59 pm

      I’m sorry! I forget not everyone went to high school in south Texas! A quince is the 15th birthday party for a Latina girl and it marks her ‘becoming a woman.’ If there’s a party, she dresses in a bridal-like gown and has a court of attendants, rather like a wedding.

  3. December 22, 2009 2:12 pm

    The Quinceneara book, Born in the Big Rains, and Through the Narrow Gate are all on my TBR list now, and Embroideries would be if I hadn’t read it already! This Women Unbound challenge has resulted in a lot of really interesting book reviews, thanks for sharing your reading!

    • December 23, 2009 12:00 am

      Awesome! I totally agree-I want to read almost all of the books Women Unbound participants have reviewed!

  4. December 22, 2009 2:39 pm

    I’d love to read the book about Quinceaneras! I can still remember going to friend Carmen’s Quince when we were in high school. She was dressed like a bride and had all of the attendants! It was just like a wedding reception and I remember being so in awe of it all.

    • December 23, 2009 12:00 am

      I know-I went to high school in San Antonio, so I had several friends who had quinces. It’s crazy!

  5. December 22, 2009 2:52 pm

    Born in the Big Rains sounds really interesting! I have read Through the Narrow Gate many years ago & liked it a lot. Armstrong continued her autobiography with Beginning the World.


    • December 23, 2009 12:02 am

      I knew she’d written more memoirs, but isn’t one of them like super-long? lol I’m still a bit hesitant about memoirs in general!

  6. December 22, 2009 2:54 pm

    I really want to read Embroideries. You are really rockin’ this challenge.

    • December 23, 2009 12:03 am

      Thanks! You could read Embroideries during a lunch hour, since it’s so short and a graphic book. :)

  7. December 22, 2009 3:18 pm

    Ooh, I think the Somalian one sounds really interesting. As does the quinceanera one. I really like the coming-of-age ceremonies that take place around the world in different cultures. I remember when I first “became a woman,” my parents told EVERYONE and threw me a massive party and had a Hindu priest come and do this big ceremony for me.

    It is a truly mortifying experience, but it happened for every (south) Indian girl I know, and resulted in many gifts. And we all need a mortifying experience once in a while, don’t we?

    Ok, that’s enough information on MY childhood!

    • December 23, 2009 12:04 am

      WOW: I can imagine that would be mortifying! Yay for presents though. ;) I wish we had more coming-of-age traditions…mine were all via Catholicism rather than culture.

  8. December 22, 2009 3:53 pm

    I’m so glad you enjoyed Embroderies! Satrapi is my favorite graphic novelist and like you, my only complaint with this book is that it was too short.

    • December 23, 2009 12:04 am

      Wouldn’t it be wonderful for her to write another one?!

  9. December 22, 2009 4:52 pm

    I definitely need to go out and find Embroideries as soon as possible!

  10. December 22, 2009 5:11 pm

    Again, you’ve got a wonderful collection of books here. I’ve noted Born in the Big Rains and hope to read it someday. Re the Karen Armstrong book … I guess I’d call the “secret” stuff sacred. I’ve always loved that word — sacred. I know what you mean; these things are not so much secret as they are “set apart” and not casually discussed.

    • December 23, 2009 12:06 am

      Sacred! That’s the word I was looking for! Can you tell I was a bit ditsy when I was writing this post earlier?!

  11. December 22, 2009 5:58 pm

    It’s interesting to me how many feminist books are memoirs, or contain elements of memoir in them – I mean, it makes sense, in teh same way that many of the first abolitionist books were thinks like Autobiog of Frederick Douglass, or Life of a Slave Girl, but it just kind of creates an interesting dialogue around feminism in a lot of ways. I didn’t even GROW UP Catholic, and I wondered what it would be like to be a monk, btw! :D

    • December 23, 2009 12:06 am

      I find that interesting too, since even last year I avoided memoirs as much as I could. And somehow it doesn’t surprise me that you imagined being a monk! ;)

  12. December 22, 2009 6:52 pm

    I’m glad to hear you liked Embroideries. I enjoyed it more than Persepolis as well.

    That Quincinera book looks marvelous.

    • December 23, 2009 12:06 am

      I think you’d really enjoy it. SA pops up a couple time!

  13. December 22, 2009 7:16 pm

    Julia Alvarez’ book has been on my list for a while after reading Estrella’s Quincenera. I saw a “coming out/cottilion” ball in San Francisco this past weekend and thought about quinceneras.

    • December 23, 2009 12:07 am

      I think you’d definitely enjoy it! :)

  14. December 22, 2009 9:07 pm

    They all sound interesting — well, except the last one.

    • December 23, 2009 12:07 am

      lol! I know you’re not a big memoir person, but these were good ones. :D

  15. December 22, 2009 10:33 pm

    Wow! What a list of fantastic reads!

    • December 23, 2009 12:07 am

      Thanks! :) This challenge has been wonderful for my nonfic reading!

  16. December 22, 2009 10:47 pm

    I went to a quincenara when I was an ESL teacher in the US. It was interesting.

    This looks like a tasty pile of books. I’ve had my eye on the Armstrong book for a while, but for some reason, I’m intimidated by her.

    • December 23, 2009 12:10 am

      I went to several when I was in high school, and I think ‘interesting’ is a good word. ;) I was intimated by Armstrong before I started reading her!

  17. December 22, 2009 11:45 pm

    All these books sound really good now, even the feminist one that you didn’t like. I’m gonna write down these titles and put them on my library list, thanks! But seriously, a memoir of being a nun? Bound to be interesting and filled with religious controversy.

    • December 23, 2009 12:10 am

      LOL It’s not as full of controversy as you might expect! But it’s really thoughtful. :)

  18. December 23, 2009 7:03 am

    I loved reading Embroideries too. It was a one of my 2009 best reads. Alvarez book is something I have on my radar , with a review like this I will read it very soon.

    • December 24, 2009 11:59 pm

      I hope you enjoy the Alvarez when you get to it! :)

  19. December 23, 2009 7:23 am

    You are such a rock star – damn, I feel like I haven’t read anything lately! :P Thanks for the warning about the Valenti, I was just on the verge of ILLing it myself!

    • December 24, 2009 11:59 pm

      lol @ the rock star thing! That made me feel great! ;) Maybe read an excerpt of FFF online to see if the style appeals to you.

  20. December 23, 2009 8:23 am

    Wow, all these books sound awesome! I especially would like to read the Karen Armstrong book because one of my best friends became a nun just over a year ago. She’s a cloistered nun, so unfortunately I will never see her again for the rest of my life, unless she changes her mind of course, which is incredibly sad. I’d like to read a little about what the experience is like since I don’t exactly have the opportunity to talk with my friend about it.

    I’m sorry you didn’t like Full Frontal Feminism. :( I adore Jessica Valenti personally, I think she’s super smart and does this in-your-face type of feminism which I admire but could never do myself. But I can totally agree that her methods are not for everyone, and I can see how she can alienate people with the extreme liberal-ness of her thinking. I happen to agree with a lot of things she says (except for the anti-Republican stuff – I’m married to a sometimes-Republican so I am not so partisan like that), so I think someone with my mindset is probably the target audience for this book. I did find her book, The Purity Myth, to be a bit more factual and more thought-provoking, but if you don’t like her at all, then maybe skip that one too.

    Do you read at all? She’s a contributor to that site, and actually reading the site made me like her more. Not that I’m saying you should, since her book gave you such a bad impression, but I know you’re interested in feminist stuff so maybe you can take a glance and see what you think?

    • December 25, 2009 12:02 am

      Armstrong was a cloistered nun too, although her order doesn’t sound quite as extreme as the Poor Clares. But I think you’d definitely appreciate the book.

      I was nervous to review FFF knowing how you feel about it! I think she’s very smart too, and I pretty much agreed with all the feminist arguments she was making in the book. I just disagreed with her method. ;) Perhaps I’ll read The Purity Myth to give her another shot; I didn’t like Natalie Angier or Mary Roach at all the first time I read them, and I loved the second books I read by them. :) I don’t read, but I’ll check it out! Thanks for the link. :D

  21. December 23, 2009 12:47 pm

    Hey you commented on my vampire challenge post on my blog… I was wondering that too, about Wicked Lovely? It’s a faerie book, for gosh’s sakes! Someone made a teensy mistake… I’ve only read Wicked Lovely, but I’m looking forward to reading The Ink Exchange once I can get my hands on it.

    • December 25, 2009 12:02 am

      I thought Ink Exchange totally lived up to Wicked Lovely! I’m going to dive into Fragile Eternity soon, and I can’t wait. :D

  22. December 24, 2009 12:24 am

    now you have me wanting to pick up the book on quinceaneras. it sounds fascinating! i’m disappointed by your review of Full Frontal Feminism, though. i have that on my women unbound list and was looking forward to reading it, but i will probably find it the same as you. i definitely consider myself a liberal and a feminist but i do not find the two mutually exclusive. i don’t really like to read rants either. i will probably still read it, but i consider myself warned.

    • December 25, 2009 12:03 am

      I might have been in a cranky mood when I was reading FFF; I know other awesome bloggers who really liked it. So I hope you do still give it a chance! :)

  23. December 25, 2009 7:41 pm

    Glad you liked Embroideries!!!! I loved it myself. The chatty feeling was very nicely done, and the stories were so funny and candid.

    Once Upon a Quinceanera sounds amazing! I’m sort of fascinated by them anyhow, and Alvarez is a good read from my limited experience.

  24. December 26, 2009 1:51 pm


    I’ve read a few books either about FGM or the mutilation was part of the story. I had a friend who suffered consequences from the practice, too. Definitely going to pick up Korn’s book.

    Well, I have Republican friends and they don’t mind my very liberal behind and it strikes me as very immature for Valenti to rip on conservatives with such a broad, negative stroke. I was thinking about Full Frontal but maybe not now.

  25. December 26, 2009 4:43 pm

    Okay, you’re the new detriment to my wallet when it comes to book buying, lol! Embroideries and Born In the Big Rains sound like great reads for me. I’ve seen Embroideries and Persepolis and was skeptical but your review has me more interested in Embroideries.

  26. December 27, 2009 5:22 pm

    I’m just putting together my review of PERSEPOLIS. I enjoyed that the format made the subject accessible to more readers (a more palatable way to read about tough subjects), but was put off by her self-centeredness (even as a child). I’ll look at EMBROIDERIES for my own Unbound reading list.

  27. December 28, 2009 4:20 pm

    You are rocking through books for the Women Unbound Challenge. Meanwhile, I still need to create my challenge post and finish up a few reviews before the end of the year!

  28. January 4, 2010 1:58 pm

    You’re killing me with your reviews. Have just read several of your posts and added at least 6 books to my TBR list. Sigh. Thanks for the great reviews. Such an interesting selection of books..

  29. candletea permalink
    March 3, 2010 7:36 am

    I read Armstrong’s Through the Narrow Gate for a class on Psychology of Religion and I remember that it made a huge impact when I read it. Especially since I come from a Catholic family (even though my parents are now atheïst and I was raised an agnostic, I still think it somehow has an influence on you). I remember thinking about the sister of my grandmother who is a nun and wondering if she actually lived through some of the things Armstrong describes.

    I did feel Armstrong got a little preachy towards the end of the book, when she kept on repeating her view on religion that there’s something beautiful in every religion and you should combine it in your own way. I personally like this message, but it felt like she was overdoing it a bit. The book did make such an impact that I currently have two other books by her waiting to be read on my bookshelves and I can’t wait to find and read more of her books.


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