Book Review: The Female Persuasion

the female persuasionThe Female Persuasion
by Meg Wolitzer
Contemporary Fiction
454 pages
Published April 2018

So this book came to my attention through an ad on Facebook for Barnes & Noble’s first official book club meeting. I tossed around the idea of going – I haven’t had good experiences with book clubs (nor bad ones, just – ambivalent experiences) – but we wound up at a Barnes & Noble on Sunday, because we were bored, so I decided to snag the book and read it. And then I went to Book Club on Wednesday! We had a small turnout at my Barnes & Noble – only four of us, including the employee leading the discussion. But after seeing a couple photos of larger turnouts, I’m glad for it – I wasn’t afraid to speak up in the small group. I’m a pretty shy introvert, a bigger group would have led to me being pretty quiet.

I feel like I was more intrigued by our book club members than the book! S., who led the group, was a natural at it, and really got us talking. I.R. opened the meeting with “I want you guys to change my mind about this book” but wouldn’t tell us her original opinion of it! And T, who was the oldest of us, brought a completely different viewpoint to the discussion, which was invaluable. (I’m pretty sure IR and S, like me, are millennials.) At the end of the discussion, T revealed she has a Ph.D. in Sociology, specialized in Gender and Sexuality, and she’s writing a book! We all agreed we wish the Book Club was monthly instead of quarterly, so S. is going to talk to her bosses and see if we can’t do a monthly book club at our location, which would be AWESOME. She also said Barnes & Noble was hiring and encouraged us to apply, and – not gonna lie – that was tempting. It’s a bus ride and a short walk away, though, and while my health and energy levels are improving drastically, I’m not sure they’re quite up to holding down a job yet. Not and get anything done around the house.

Anyway. On to the book! The Female Persuasion was billed as a feminist novel, and in some ways it is, but we all agreed it’s not REALLY about feminism. The main character, Greer, works for a feminist foundation, but you could have changed what the foundation’s purpose was, or made her work for a corporation, and the essence of the book would have been exactly the same. It was only tangentially about feminism. It was about women supporting each other, though, and the mentor relationship between an older woman and a younger woman, so in some ways, yes. If I was asked to make a list of books about feminism, though, it certainly wouldn’t make the cut.

All of the characters have some major flaws. Greer is selfish, and doesn’t understand when things don’t go according to plan. Cory’s life gets entirely derailed by a tragedy he couldn’t prevent, but in some ways he lets the derailment happen. If he’d really wanted what he said he wanted (and perhaps he didn’t) he could have fixed his trajectory. Zee is a little brash and headstrong, but the most likable character in the book. Faith – oh, Faith. Faith is the older feminist mentor who turns out to be far more jaded than expected.

I have lots of conflicts about Faith. She is one of those feminists who doesn’t seem to care for individual women – she can’t even remember most of the women who credit her with changing their lives – but she keeps her eyes on the big picture. And as I brought up in book club, the movement does need people who see the big picture. Those people are important – but they still need certain principles that I think Faith lacks.

IR mentioned that Cory was a good foil to all the female characters in the book, and he needed his flaws, because otherwise he would be the perfect feminist boyfriend. And no one is perfect.

We were all a little disappointed with the ending; it felt like Wolitzer skipped a whole section of the story. How did Greer get from point A to point B? (Well, really, it’s more like the book covers Points A, B, C, and E. And skips D.)

I think one of my favorite quotes from the book (I misattributed it to Faith at the book club, it turns out it came from Greer) was the one about being given permission:

“I think that’s what the people who change our lives always do. They give us permission to be the person we secretly really long to be but maybe don’t feel we’re allowed to be. Many of you here in this room…..had someone like that, didn’t you? Someone who gave you permission. Someone who saw you and heard you. Heard your voice.”

I think that really sums up mentorship, in some ways. Women are often still socialized to not trust their own instincts, to lean on outside opinions for validation. (I know I was.) To be given permission and encouragement to trust yourself can be a life-changing event.

I really enjoyed this book. I saw bits of myself in all four characters – Faith’s practicality, Greer’s impressionability, Zee’s idealism, and even a little of Cory’s foggy despair and lack of ambition. I wouldn’t call it a feminist classic. But it was a good book.

From the cover of The Female Persuasion

Sometimes the person you admire most recognizes something unusual in you and draws it out, opening a door to a bigger, electrifying world.

Greer Kadetsky is a college freshman when she meets the woman who will change her life. Faith Frank, dazzlingly persuasive and elegant at sixty-three, has been a pillar of the women’s movement for decades, a figure who inspires others. Hearing Faith speak for the first time, in a crowded campus chapel, Greer feels her inner world light up. She and Cory, her high school boyfriend, have both been hardworking and ambitious, jokingly referred to as “twin rocket ships,” headed up and up and up. Yet for so long Greer has been full of longing, in search of a purpose she can’t quite name. And then, astonishingly, Faith invites her to make something out of her new sense of awakening. Over time, Faith leads Greer along the most exciting and rewarding path of her life, as it winds toward and away from her meant-to-be love story with Cory, and the future she’d always imagined. As Cory’s path, too, is altered in ways that feel beyond his control, both of them are asked to reckon with what they really want. What does it mean to be powerful? How do people measure their impact upon the world, and upon one another? Does all of this look different for men than it does for women?

With humor, wisdom, and profound intelligence, Meg Wolitzer weaves insights about power and influence, ego and loyalty, womanhood and ambition into a moving story that looks at the romantic ideals we pursue deep into adulthood: ideals relating not just to whom we want to be with, but who we want to be.

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Book Review: The Invention of Wings

Sue Monk Kidd The Invention of WingsThe Invention of Wings
Sue Monk Kidd
Historical Fiction
369 pages
Published 2014

The Invention of Wings is one of my PopSugar Reading Challenge books, for the prompt “A Book from a Celebrity Book Club.” It was Oprah’s 3rd pick for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. Oprah interviewed Sue Monk Kidd in the January 2014 issue of O Magazine.

I can definitely see why Oprah was so affected by this book; the two main characters are Sarah Grimké, an early abolitionist and women’s rights activist, and Hetty Handful, the slave gifted to her by her mother when she turned 11. In an afterword, Kidd explains that she did try to stay mostly historically accurate, and Handful was gifted to Sarah when she was 11, though she apparently died not long after. In Kidd’s book, however, Handful survives. Sarah and her younger sister, Angelina, were real people, and really did most of what is ascribed to them in the book, though Kidd passes a couple of their deeds from one sister to the other. The Grimkés were from Charleston, South Carolina, and born into an aristocratic, slave-owning family headed by a prestigious judge. Their abolitionist actions get them exiled from Charleston and from their church. Meanwhile, Hetty, her ownership having returned to Sarah’s mother, dreams of freedom and plots rebellions of her own.

I was a little wary going into this book; I’ve read a couple of Oprah’s picks before, and generally found them dry and uninteresting. This one, though, was very well written. The voices of both women came through clearly, as did some of the brutality of slavery. Kidd also wrote The Secret Life of Bees, which got a lot of attention. If it’s anything like this, I might have to finally read that as well.

(I know the author is white, but I thought, being about slavery and abolition, it would still qualify for Black History Month.)

From the cover of The Invention of Wings:

A triumphant story about the quest for freedom and empowerment, Sue Monk Kidd’s third novel presents the extraordinary journeys of two unforgettable women: Hetty “Handful” Grimké, an urban slave in early-nineteenth century Charleston, and Sarah, the Grimkés’ idealistic daughter. 

Inspired in part by the historic figure of abolitionist and suffragette Sarah Grimké, Kidd’s novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten-year-old Handful. The Invention of Wings follows these two women over the next thirty-five years as both strive for lives of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement, and the uneasy ways of love.

 

Book Review: The Power

thepowerThe Power
Naomi Alderman
Dystopia
416 pages
Published October 2017

Holy shit. I sat and stared at my Kindle for several minutes after finishing this book. The Power belongs on the same shelf as The Handmaid’s Tale and American War. It’s just amazing. The book begins in our world – but then takes a twist sideways. Teenage girls start manifesting an electrical power. They can zap people, with varying degrees of strength. It can be a pleasing, arousing tingle, or a warning jolt, or a breath-stealing, heart-stopping (literally) bolt. They soon discover that older women can also manifest the ability, but it has to be kick-started by a jolt from someone who already has it. (Even later in the book it’s revealed that there’s actually a muscle – they call it the skein – that controls the electricity, and women have, in the last twenty years or so, evolved to have that muscle.)

The book revolves between the points of view of a few different women and one man. The man is a journalist reporting on the emergence of the new power, while the women are prominent figures in the new world order that is emerging. Allie – Eve – becomes the leader of a new religion, Roxy is the daughter of a crime syndicate boss, and Margot is a mayor climbing the political ranks. Margot’s daughter also gets a few chapters.

It’s been pointed out that perhaps men are afraid of women having equal rights because they can’t picture a world in which powerful women don’t treat men the way powerful men have always treated women. They can only imagine men and women interacting as oppressors and oppressed, not as equals. Whereas feminism wants a world where we are truly equals. The Power imagines a world where women do become the oppressors, and men are forced into the feminine role. This is enforced by the framework the novel is told in – the novel itself is bracketed by letters between the “author,” presenting his historical novel, and a woman supposedly editing his work. Through the letters, you discover the novel is a slightly embellished history of their world, with about five thousand years between the events of the novel and the time of the letters. In the tone of the letters, you see the stereotypes switched – the man is apologetic and unsure while the woman is authoritative, patronizing, and a little bit sexist. “Oh, you silly boy, imagining a world where men were dominant! What a naughty idea! Don’t you think men as soldiers is preposterous? Men are homemakers, women are the aggressive ones!” I think, if feminism achieves its goals through legislation, we will find true equality. If something like this were to happen – a drastic change, giving women a physical way to dominate suddenly, the outcome might indeed be more like the novel. Enough women have been traumatized that they’ll want – need – to avenge themselves, and violent upheaval will result.

By the last third of the novel, we see powerful women and societies acting just the same as powerful men always have – I’d like to think we’d have learned from the men’s mistakes, but humans are only human. Perhaps this is more realistic.

The book is NOT for the faint of heart. There are graphic rape, abuse, and violence scenes. They’re not gratuitous – they serve the author’s point – but they are still disturbing, as those scenes should be.

I’ll be thinking about this book for a while. It’s excellent, and I highly recommend it, if you can handle the dark themes.

From the cover of The Power:

In THE POWER, the world is a recognizable place: there’s a rich Nigerian boy who lounges around the family pool; a foster kid whose religious parents hide their true nature; an ambitious American politician; a tough London girl from a tricky family. But then a vital new force takes root and flourishes, causing their lives to converge with devastating effect. Teenage girls now have immense physical power–they can cause agonizing pain and even death. And, with this small twist of nature, the world drastically resets.

From award-winning author Naomi Alderman, THE POWER is speculative fiction at its most ambitious and provocative, at once taking us on a thrilling journey to an alternate reality, and exposing our own world in bold and surprising ways.

I’m on the Mend!

I am finally on the mend. It’s a long slog back to what passes for healthy for me, though. Staying awake long enough to read anything has been a challenge, and books are coming due at the library before I’ve even been able to start them. I’m particularly sad about Naomi Klein’s No Is Not Enough – it’s due today, someone else has a hold on it, and I’ve only managed to read the first 20 or so pages. Enough to know I REALLY want to read the entire thing. I am trying to resist the temptation to buy my own copy.

IMG_20171011_180750.jpgI received my copy of Femme Magnifique in the mail this week! FM is a feminist graphic novel made through Kickstarter – the tagline is “A comic book anthology salute to 50 magnificent women who take names, crack ceilings and change the game in pop, politics, art & science.” There are 50 different comics, by different artists, about pioneering women. It’s a fantastic book, and I will take some pictures and put up a full review as soon as I can. My copy, unfortunately, arrived with some damage to the spine, but the group behind it had already sent out an e-mail saying their shipper had used the wrong packaging for the first wave of books, and to contact them if your book arrived damaged. So I’ve done that, and they’re figuring out how to replace copies.

I finally got around to reading Six of Crows as I was getting sick, before I got truly ill. It was fantastic, and I have the sequel, Crooked Kingdom, which I’ll be reading very soon. I’ll put up a joint review of the two books when I’m done.

I also bought a novel, because my library doesn’t have it, about a couple opening up their relationship. Next Year, For Sure is by a Canadian author, as well, so that’s another for my Read Canadian Challenge.

I’m hoping to get back to two reviews a week as soon as I finish kicking this lung/ear/throat crap to the curb. I miss blogging, and more than that, I miss reading!

Book Review: This Common Secret

commonsecThis Common Secret
Susan Wicklund with Alan Kesselheim
Memoir
268 pages
Published 2007

Let me begin by saying I am a feminist. I am pro-choice. This was a difficult read because it talks about the lengths people will go to infringe on the rights of women like me to make that choice. Dr. Wicklund goes into detail about the dangers she personally has faced as an abortion provider – from stalking, to assault, to arson and death threats. The murders of Dr. Hill and Dr. Britton are mentioned, and the attempted murder of Dr. Tiller. (An attempt on Dr. Tiller’s life was successful two years after the publication of the book.) She resorted to wildly varying routines, different methods of transportation, elaborate disguises, as well as hiring private security guards, none of it really alleviating her fear that she could be next.

Running throughout the entire book is Dr. Wicklund’s concern for her patients. She is a dedicated, compassionate woman who wants nothing but the best for the women in her care. In many cases, that’s not actually abortion. One of the things that makes her an excellent doctor is ferreting out what is really in her patients’ best interests.

The book is mercifully short; I have no doubt she had many more stories she could have told, but the topic is brutal and hard to read, and keeping it concise and on-message was well done. I still had to set it down and play some mindless video games when I was done, as it was a little overwhelming.

In the ten years since the book was published, nothing has really changed. The New York Times has a short read on the major acts of violence against abortion clinics and providers. The National Abortion Federation has a longer database on all acts of violence against clinics. Their summary is eye-opening – all statistics below are from 1977 to present. (They have it broken down further by decade and year on a downloadable pdf.)

Murders – 11
Attempted Murders – 26
Bombing – 42
Arson – 186
Attempted Bombing/Arson – 98
Invasion – 411
Vandalism – 1643
Trespassing – 2925
Acid Attacks – 100
Anthrax/Bioterrorism Threats – 663
Assault & Battery – 239
Death Threats – 545
Kidnapping – 4
Burglary – 255
Stalking – 583

That doesn’t include the pure amounts of hate mail, picketers, hate mail, and blockades. This is what providers persevere through to give us health care. To provide a LEGAL PROCEDURE so women don’t die from performing it on themselves in an unsafe manner.

This Common Secret also touches on why people keep it a secret. Why people don’t talk about their abortion. And why people should. If more people realize that the women that get abortions are your neighbor, your sister, your grandmother – not just that “whore that slept around” – although she, too, deserves an abortion if that is the right choice for her. Maybe they would rethink their opposition to it.

I’m honestly probably not giving this book justice – it’s a decade old, but could have been written yesterday. And I am infuriated by anti-choice assholes.

From the cover of This Common Secret:

Susan Wicklund was twenty-two-years old and juggling three jobs in Portland, Oregon when she endured a difficult abortion. Partly in response to that experience, she later embarked on an improbable life journey devoted to women’s reproductive health, attending both undergraduate and medical school as a single mother. It was not until she became a doctor that she realized how many women share the ordeal of unwanted pregnancies – and how hidden this common experience remains.

Here is an emotional and dramatic story covering twenty years on the front lines of the abortion war. For years Wicklund commuted between clinics in different states and disguised herself from protesters – often wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a .38 caliber revolver. Her daughter, Sonja, experienced seeing wanted posters with her mother’s face on them and riding to school in police cars to get through the human blockades at the end of their driveway.

Wicklund also tells the stories of the women she serves, women whose options are increasingly limited: counseling sessions in which women confide that they had used combinations of herbs – or worse – to attempt a miscarriage; or patients who have been protesters, but then find themselves bearing an unwanted pregnancy; and women who claim to want an abortion, but nothing they say or do convinces Wicklund that the decision is whole-hearted.

This Common Secret brims with the compassion and urgency of a woman who has witnessed the struggles of real patients. It also offers an honest portrait of the clinics that anti-abortion activists portray as little more than slaughterhouses for the unborn. As we enter the most fevered political fight over abortion that America has ever seen, Wicklund’s raw and revealing memoir shows us what is at stake.