Women Unbound x 5
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.