10 Reading Suggestions for the Twenty-Something Woman Thursday, Sep 27 2012 

Thanks to Twitter, today I came across this list of books every girl in her 20s should read. While it includes two novels I love (Pride and Prejudice and The Joy Luck Club), I was taken aback, as a woman in my 20s, at how many self-help books and “chick-lit” novels about shopping it included. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with reading such books, but I couldn’t help thinking that many reading women my age might be looking for something more substantial, which is why I was glad to find this list via Twitter soon afterward. Inspired, I decided to come up with my own list of books I think many twenty-something women would appreciate.

A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor

Despite the title, this is no dating self-help manual. Flannery O’Connor’s first collection of short stories explores a wide variety of uncomfortable themes, including violence, racism, greed, and religious faith. Even if you don’t agree with all of O’Connor’s conclusions, it’s impossible to ignore the difficult questions raised in her sparse yet powerful prose. She was a woman unafraid to write about the same disturbing characters, settings, and themes as men; A Good Man is Hard to Find and her other works demonstrate a talent that has frequently been overlooked in favor of male 20th century writers.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Set in the not-so-distant future, The Handmaid’s Tale is a frightening cautionary tale about what will happen if political freedom and women’s rights are lost to totalitarianism. Offred, once a woman with a job and a family to love, is separated from all she’s ever known and earned after an extreme group of theocrats overthrows the U.S. government. This is a call to action for women of all ages, but especially the young, to take seriously their safety, health, and freedom. You can read my recent review of this book here.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Set in late 20th and early 21st century Afghanistan, A Thousand Splendid Suns is the story of Mariam and Laila, two very different women eventually married to the same abusive husband. Though unsure of each other at first, Mariam and Laila form a strong bond, setting in motion a heartbreaking but beautiful story of love, family, and sacrifice in the face of their society’s never-ending challenges. Beautifully written and strikingly relevant, this novel presents what is easily one of the most powerful friendships in contemporary literature.

Washington Square by Henry James

In 19th century New York City, rich but unsophisticated Catherine Sloper leads a lonely life under the thumb of a father who constantly berates her. She falls hopelessly in love with Morris Townsend, failing to see that he only wants to marry her for her family’s fortune. It’s not one of the most exciting novels you’ll ever read, but there is something very satisfying about Catherine’s journey away from insecurity and a need for male approval and toward a more independent life. Also be sure to check out The Heiress, the excellent 1949 film adaptation of the play based on Washington Square. It’s one of those rare cases where the movie is even better than the book.

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

In the Old Testament, much is said about Jacob’s many sons, but there is only a brief and violent passage about Dinah, his only daughter. In The Red Tent, Anita Diamant crafts a story of Dinah’s life and gives voice to other women largely ignored in the Book of Genesis. These women form their own society within the one dominated by the men of their family, where they support one another through difficult times and defy many of the beliefs of their husbands, fathers, and brothers. This is a gorgeous and moving novel that brings a forgotten character to life and questions the restricted, simplistic view of women in the Bible.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

After marrying the wealthy widower Maxim de Winter following a brief courtship, the unnamed narrator returns with him to Manderley, his country estate. There, she immediately finds herself living in the shadow of Maxim’s first wife, the charming and beautiful Rebecca. Soon, the second Mrs. de Winter is also caught up in the mysteries and secrets of Manderley—and of what really happened to Rebecca. The romantic suspense is the main draw here, but Rebecca is also an exploration of the challenges a woman faces when married to a much more powerful man, as well as of the frustration of being compared to other women in beauty and sophistication.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Chances are you already read this classic in high school or perhaps college, but if it’s been a while, I encourage you to give it another read. I read it three times between eighth grade and college graduation and found something new and deeper in it every time. Jane herself is a sympathetic but flawed heroine, torn between her love for the brooding Mr. Rochester and the possibilities of a freer life away from him. Her life story is not only a legendary romantic melodrama, but also a powerful commentary on the place of women, orphans, and the poor in the early Victorian era. Whether you’re a student of literature or simply enjoy a great story, this one is worth a second, third, or even fourth look. (Bonus: read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys for a postcolonial take on Jane Eyre and a look at the shortcomings of the book’s 19th century feminism.)

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

The lesser known of two novels by the least known Brontë sister, this book was considered coarse and controversial when it was first published in 1848. A feminist work in a time when feminism didn’t have a name, it tells the story of Helen, a woman abused by her alcoholic husband but strong enough to fight back for her own sake and for the well-being of her child. Though its questioning of Victorian social mores and English law horrified some critics at the time, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was revolutionary in its brutal honesty about marital abuse, and it remains relevant for women today.

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

In Renaissance Florence, Alessandra Cecchi is fascinated with art and shows a talent for drawing. Unfortunately, her family disapproves of this interest and discourages her from pursuing it, eventually forcing her into an arranged marriage with a much older man. Despite this marriage and the turbulence in her city, Alessandra finds ways to explore her love of art and her attraction to a gifted painter employed by her family. It’s a lighter read than most on this list, but historical fiction fans will undoubtedly enjoy the incredible Renaissance detail, and it certainly provides an interesting story of a woman finding her place in a world where she’s told she doesn’t belong.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I’ll be the first to agree that this classic love story never gets old, but it’s not about getting your “happily ever after” through “sass and perseverance.” It’s about questioning the typical standards for women and marriage during Austen’s time, and about finding love through personal growth, forgiveness, and learning to be less judgmental. And please, when you’re finished with the book, skip the good-but-nothing-special 2005 film adaptation and go for the 1995 miniseries instead; it’s much longer but also much better and more faithful to the book. You can find more of my thoughts on Pride and Prejudice here.

Feel free to share some of your own reading suggestions below.

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Arcadia by Lauren Groff Tuesday, Sep 25 2012 

In the early 1970s, a small, idealistic group forms a commune on the land surrounding an abandoned mansion in rural New York State. They call the commune Arcadia, and here they plan to live off the land and free themselves of the greed, inequality, and complexities of the outside world. Ridley Sorrel “Bit” Stone is the first child born in the commune, and it is through his eyes that we see Arcadia. Bit is a quiet child always considered small for his age, but from early on he is smart and observant. No detail of the world of Arcadia escapes his notice, including his mother Hannah’s depression and his father Abe’s disagreements with Handy, the commune’s charismatic leader. Despite its flaws and failing ideals, Bit loves this world in which he grew up and can’t imagine ever living outside it.

When Bit is a teenager, however, conflict and tragedy tear Arcadia apart, and he is thrust into the outside world for the first time. The rest of the novel is about Bit’s adulthood in a world completely unlike the one of his childhood. He certainly adjusts to urban life as best he can, but for better or worse, Bit is never completely free of the influence of Arcadia—and especially not the influence of Helle, Handy’s charming but unstable daughter.

Arcadia is a short yet somewhat slow novel, though Lauren Groff wisely highlights important periods of Bit’s life rather than detailing every single year and event. While the measured pace might make you anxious for something more to be happening, it makes a lot of sense. This is a novel about seeing and appreciating the world around you and keeping your connections to loved ones strong, and in order to do these things, you often need to slow down everything else in your life. It is meditative and driven much more by characters and themes than by plot. While the plot occasionally stretched my suspension of disbelief, I never stopped enjoying the vivid details of the Arcadia, its inhabitants, and its aftermath. I found Bit Stone to be an insightful and sympathetic protagonist and liked the big cast of characters, though they did sometimes become difficult to keep straight in my mind.

I think what pleased me most about Arcadia and what says the most about Lauren Groff’s writing is that while there is certainly a somewhat whimsical tone to the book, I never found it overdone. While I criticized Vaclav & Lena last year for being too “cute” and self-consciously quirky even as its plot became more serious, Lauren Groff manages to avoid that trap in Arcadia. She consistently writes in the present-tense and uses very descriptive language from beginning to end, but she also knows when to employ a more fanciful voice and when to use a more realistic one. As a result, she is able to keep a magical, otherworldly atmosphere in the novel without sacrificing believable characters and relationships.

Arcadia never comes to a definite conclusion as to whether one should choose a life in the country communing with nature or a city life more connected to the “real world.” Such a conclusion is unnecessary, though, and would take away from the point of the book. Bit’s lives in the country and the city both have their problems; neither one is free of arguments or disappointments. What his story demonstrates is that life can be difficult no matter where you live, but it can also be beautiful, whether you’re a hippie on a rural commune or a resident of the nation’s biggest city. There will always be fascinating details to discover, new people to meet, and relationships to build and rebuild. It’s a lovely message from an equally lovely novel.

 

The Great American Novel: Is There Such A Thing? Wednesday, Sep 19 2012 

The idea of the Great American Novel dates back to 1868, when John William DeForest discussed the concept in an essay for The Nation (you can read part of the essay here).  DeForest defined the Great American Novel as “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence.” After dismissing the novels of Nathaniel Hawthorne as potential candidates, he named Harriet Beecher Stowe’s controversial 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin as the “nearest approach to the desired phenomenon,” but seemed discontent with that choice as well.

Over 140 years after DeForest’s essay, there is still no consensus on the Great American Novel, and new books enter the debate every decade. The potential Great American Novels I probably hear cited most often are Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, but the list of contenders is quite possibly endless. Cases have been made for The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and Beloved by Toni Morrison, among many others. Ask anyone of a literary mindset what they consider to be the Great American Novel, and they will most likely answer with the one they learned the most from, the one that they believe changed their lives, or even the one they simply enjoyed the most.

This brings me to the first issue I have with the Great American Novel: like every other art form, literature is subjective. All readers approach a book with differing points of view about genre, character, writing style, and what literature is generally meant to accomplish. What one reader sees as a beautifully written, insightful novel, another sees as a boring tome with irritating characters. I do not believe it is possible to name any piece of literature definitively as “the greatest” and transcendent of nearly all literary biases and arguments.

Even the concept itself could be considered subjective. Should the Great American Novel extol the virtues of the nation or expose its flaws? Should it celebrate or criticize the American Dream? Does such a novel have to define the American spirit and experience throughout the entirety of U.S. history, or does it just have to capture the atmosphere and issues of the time in which it was written?

These questions lead, finally, to the main reason I do not believe in the Great American Novel. America has changed a great deal since DeForest wrote his essay, but even in the 1860s, it was hardly a homogeneous society. Experience of America has always depended a great deal on race, gender, class, and where one lived. As the nation has become larger and more diverse, this has continued to be true. The contenders for the Great American Novel (at least the ones I have read) capture some aspect of U.S. history and the American experience very well. I found The Great Gatsby a brilliant portrait of the excesses of the 1920s and the frequent failure of wealth to bring true happiness, while The Grapes of Wrath offers heartbreaking insights into the financial and emotional strain of the Great Depression. Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird both explore racial themes and realities about growing up. These are all important novels, but not one can completely define America or its people by itself.

In a 2010 article for The Daily Beast, author Malcolm Jones wrote, “The authors who have caught America on paper best did it incrementally, not all at once. It’s the sum of Twain and Wharton and Faulkner that delivers their versions of America, not any single book.” This quote and the article make an excellent point; any writers who too self-consciously attempts to write the Great American Novel could ruin their own productivity, not to mention end up with a novel too bogged down with themes, characters, and plotlines to be coherent or meaningful to readers. Besides, America is such a diverse and complex place that its story has be told in increments by an equally diverse group of writers. No author and no book can say everything there is to say about America as a whole, or even about American in a particular time and place. Like literature itself, America is very subjective.

For as long as there is a United States of America and for as long as there are novels, I am sure the debate over the Great American Novel will continue. I am also sure that authors will continue to attempt writing it. Those aren’t necessarily bad things; the discussion is still interesting, and as an aspiring writer myself, I can understand an author wanting to take on that challenge. All that being said, I think there are so many great American novels (with plenty more to come) that we don’t really need one Great American Novel. Why single out one novel when there are so many important and incredible American stories to tell?

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood Thursday, Sep 13 2012 

It is the near future, and the United States no longer exists. The country is now the Republic of Gilead, and the democratically elected government has been overthrown and replaced with a totalitarian theocracy. First Amendment freedoms no longer exist, and anyone considered “undesirable” is banished to the outskirts of civilization, where they are certain to die within a few years—if the leadership of Gilead doesn’t execute them first.

One of Gilead’s most prominent characteristics is its subjugation of women, and that is the focus of The Handmaid’s Tale. Offred, the story’s narrator, was once a woman with a husband, a daughter, and a job in a library. Now, she is separated from everyone she cares about and is no longer allowed to use her real name, have her own money, or even read. In the strict, highly stratified society of Gilead, Offred is a Handmaid, one of a class of women whose sole purpose is to have babies for the Commanders of the Faithful and their wives. Once every month, Offred is subjected to “The Ceremony” that she must hope will result in a pregnancy; every month that she does not get pregnant brings her another month closer to life being over, literally and figuratively. In between these ceremonies, Offred copes with a world where women cannot pursue knowledge, where sex is no longer about pleasure or love, and where spies and secret police may overhear anything a person says. Like the other Handmaids, Offred is no longer an individual, but a piece of property deemed interchangeable with any other woman of her rank.

The Handmaid’s Tale is not a fun read (which you probably already concluded from that plot introduction), but it is riveting and terrifyingly relevant. Atwood’s prose is beautiful and descriptive, but never flowery. There is a sparse, dispassionate quality to it that makes Offred’s world seem all the more frightening and full of despair. Atwood writes in the voice of a miserable woman unable to express her misery openly or do anything to change it.

Even though it was published in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale feels very timely now. It serves as a grim reminder that the progress made for women’s rights over the last century cannot and must not be taken for granted; the same is true for the freedoms of speech and religion guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. The dystopia in this novel is not an outrageous speculation that could never happen; it is what reality might look like if some of the more extreme views in our society were able to take hold and become the law of the land. For women especially, it is an important cautionary tale. In her earlier life in the United States, Offred was often indifferent to or even uncomfortable with the feminist activism of her mother, and she took her freedoms as a given, a guarantee that would always be there. Now, in Gilead, her body and mind are no longer her own to control, and she remains complacent because she fears retaliation, both against herself and against her lost family. She misses that former life, even the most mundane and unpleasant things about it; she had never taken the time to appreciate them before. At the same time, however, it is suggested that some of the more extreme feminist attitudes of the pre-Gilead era may have helped the religious right gain a foothold and to manipulate women into thinking that theocratic rule would protect them and improve their lives. Nevertheless, Atwood’s main criticism is of the right-wing extremists who took away women’s rights, and her warning is that the freedoms women have gained must continue to be appreciated and fought for every single day.

Brilliant and engrossing as it is, this is definitely a depressing novel. What makes it so disheartening is that it is not a story of democracy triumphing over totalitarianism or feminism overcoming patriarchy. Instead, it is a story that demonstrates how people become complacent under an oppressive regime and questions whether resistance would be at all successful. Danger and uncertainty are constants, especially for Handmaids like Offred, making her reluctant to join the small group of risk-takers who hope to take Gilead down.

The sharp social critique and beautifully haunting prose of The Handmaid’s Tale make it a modern classic and one of the most important novels of our time. Its harsh message and unhappy tone make it difficult to stomach sometimes, but I consider it essential reading for young women like myself—and maybe even for everyone else. It is a novel of a world we do not want but could possibly see, and a reminder that we must embrace our freedoms and fight back when anyone tries to take them away.

1876 by Gore Vidal Wednesday, Sep 5 2012 

Before beginning my discussion of 1876, I very strongly recommend that you read Burr—also by Gore Vidal—before you read this novel. Not only is Burr a great read, but it also features the same protagonist, Charles Schuyler. Many of the references made in 1876 will make much more sense if you have already read Burr. With that suggestion out of the way, here’s my review.

1876 is the journal of Charles Schuyler, a renowned writer returning to his native United States after living in Europe for over thirty years. Accompanying him on the journey is his beautiful daughter Emma, a widowed European princess.  As Schuyler takes in the many changes in his hometown of New York and the U.S. at large, he is determined to secure a new marriage for his daughter and rebuild at least some of the fortune he lost in the Panic of 1873. While Emma charms American high society, Schuyler keeps busy as a newspaper writer, covering American politics, the Centennial Exposition celebrating the country’s 100th year, and his impressions of America as a returning expatriate. Soon, he finds himself caught up in the political intrigue and corruption of the era, culminating in one of the most controversial presidential elections in U.S. history. As usual, Gore Vidal places his fictional central characters right alongside real-life figures, including Mrs. William Astor, President Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain, rival Republican senators Roscoe Conkling and James G. Blaine,  Democratic presidential nominee Samuel J. Tilden, and more. (Be prepared for an irreverent perspective on some of these historical figures, especially Grant and Twain.)

For history buffs and political enthusiasts, this is an especially great novel to read during an election year. It brilliantly details the chaos of the 1876 presidential race and the corrupt practices that were the norm for both major parties, from the stealing of public funds to civil service patronage to the buying of elected office. One thing that really stands out in 1876 is just how much has changed in the political process since that time. Unlike today, political parties’ conventions were about selecting a presidential nominee, not just officially nominating one, so the events were often extremely unpredictable and competitive. Campaigns were often just as vicious, if not more so, and shocking rumors about the candidates were common (this novel includes one about Republican nominee Rutherford B. Hayes having once shot his own mother). And even the contested 2000 presidential election cannot compare to the one in 1876, which involved questionable returns in numerous states and went unresolved for months. You may find yourself wondering if today’s political scene is as bad as you thought.

For less politically minded readers, 1876 still offers plenty of great material. I always enjoy reading about historical New York City, and it is especially amusing to think that Fifth Avenue was once a newly stylish place to live and that building a mansion near Central Park was considered a strange idea. The most fun, though, comes from the viciously witty commentary on America’s 19th century high society, especially in New York. Through the narration of Charles Schuyler, Vidal not so gently mocks the conventions and pretensions of the era and the rivalry between the “old money” and the “nouveau riche.” I often found myself laughing at Schuyler’s thoughts about the wealthy families and their friends, especially Mrs. William Astor and her overly devoted, social climbing companion Ward McAllister.

Reading 1876 feels a lot like reading delicious political and societal gossip from another era, all while remaining historically accurate and informative. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did.