Reading Women Month: Spreading the Word About Women Writers

Dedicating a month to reading women writers both brings more attention to their terrific works and fulfills Reading Women’s mission to reclaim half the bookshelf.

In celebration of their first year podcasting, Reading Women debuted Reading Women Month to encourage everyone to read great books written by or about women throughout June.[*] As a member of the newly formed Women Writers Network, I love to see women’s writing being discussed and promoted. The latest VIDA count demonstrates that women writers still publish less than their male counterparts. Dedicating a month to reading women writers both brings more attention to their terrific works and fulfills Reading Women’s mission to reclaim half the bookshelf. You can show your support by using the hashtag #readingwomenmonth when you post about the books you’re reading on social media like Twitter and Instagram.[†]

If you need additional suggestions for your reading list, I’m recommending several books I’ve read:

Finally, check out these articles that list more amazing works by women writers:

Which women writers do you love to read? Share your favorites in the comment section below!

NOTES:

 

[*] The event includes both reading challenges and photo challenges, as well as giveaways. Details are here.

[†] Feel free to use the #women_writers and #readingwomen to increase exposure of your posts!

[‡] I discuss Hidden Figures here.

[§] You can read my review of Swing Time here.

Reading in Company: The Advantages of Audiobooks

Reading ranks highly among solitary activities because its immersive nature, by design, tends to work best solo. As a bonus, no one comments on how odd it is that you are doing it alone. Yet reading can has its social side, as both book clubs and public readings prove. And that socialization can be the whole point of reading with others.

Reading Side by Side

For me, reading with another person present ideally occurs when we quietly read our own texts, perhaps sharing the occasional bits that amuse or interest us. For many years now, that person has been my spouse, although my tot has begun joining me of late. These joint reading sessions become irksome with too many interruptions, but they generally work out well.

The scenario alters, however, when both parties want to read the same book. This happens infrequently, since my spouse and I are rarely on the same page[*] with reading material. When it does occur, it’s not exactly polite to mention items of interest when the other party hasn’t hit the same point in a book. Matters become more complicated when there’s only one copy of book and I need to wait ages to read a book so that we can finally discuss it. Or worse, so I can read it. But there are workarounds.

Reading in Tandem

During a recent car trip, my spouse played an audio copy of a nonfiction book we both wanted to read.[†] All the difficulties of reading together disappeared: The narrator provided the pacing, preventing me from getting too far ahead. The audiobook format allowed us to hit pause and discuss the portions of the book we found interesting or disliked. And we continued our listening once we returned home.

I don’t typically listen to audiobooks, possibly because I find auditory accompaniment unnecessary since I figured out that “reading in your head” thing. That, or read-along-books put me off the idea.[‡] In fact, the last time I listened to an audiobook was…in a car ride with my spouse a few years ago.[§] To be honest, I don’t see myself listening to many audiobooks on my own, unless I have a reason to do so.[**]

It occurred to me, though, my spouse and I should consider listening to more books together and not just on tedious car rides. There are other books we’ve both wanted to read that might make a good evening’s listening, taking a page from friends of ours (another couple) who refer to their audiobook sessions as their literary salon. It’d be interesting to see if this becomes our new reading habit.

And who knows? We might even let the kid pick a book or two.

Happy reading!

Do you like to listen to audiobooks? Share why in the comment section below. Also, sign-up to the Sequence’s newsletter and keep current with the latest posts.

NOTES:

[*] When the pun is too good to delete.

[†] The book in question is The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondō. Because stuff accumulates.

[‡] As children, one of my brothers and I couldn’t hit the fast forward button fast enough during the song portions of a certain read-a-long book based on a movie. During the movie, the songs were okay, but they dragged without the accompanying visual entertainment. And the narrator read the book so sloooooooooooooow.

[§] Nuture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.

[**] Say, a few weeks ago when post-LASIK eye strain really put a crimp in my reading plans.

Soul Searching in Swing Time: Identity and Friendship*

Throughout the novel’s course (spent shuttling between the narrator’s upbringing with Tracey and her later career), Smith’s characters act as foils for each other in ways that make us question identity.

In Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time, the unnamed narrator finds herself with time for self-reflection following a scandal that leads to public ignominy and unemployment. The scandal itself, however, is the least interesting part of this novel that travels between time and place while the narrator comes to terms with whom she is. Of course, much of whom the narrator might be depends on perspective, place, and the unevenness of memory. Smith’s novel, short on plot, delves into notions of identity, with emphasis on how class and race intertwine.

Family

Part of the narrator’s shifting identity stems from being the daughter of contrasting parents. Her mother, a black woman from Jamaica, is ambitious and intellectual, while her white, working class English father is the nurturer, determined to give his child a more stable, loving home than he had. The narrator wryly notes that her upbringing in the estates occurred “in the widening gap” between her parents who eventually divorce. She is neither parent’s child exactly, a sentiment that, in her father’s case, is exacerbated by meeting his white children from a previous relationship. To the narrator, they seem to be more genuinely his children than she is despite her father’s clear devotion. Smith gives her character unenviable insight: she could view this scenario from the opposite perspective but is unable to do so even as an adult. It’s this self-awareness and paralysis that make this character both frustrating and compelling.

Fiction and “Fitting In”

Throughout the novel’s course (spent shuttling between the narrator’s upbringing with Tracey and her later career), Smith’s characters act as foils for each other in ways that make us question identity. Shared skin color, for example, draws the narrator and Tracey (another biracial child) together when they meet in a dance class. Alike and different at once, both aspire to be dancers but only Tracey has the talent and drive for it. Yet Tracey longs for a loving father: she romanticizes her own abusive father’s absences—a tactic the narrator adopts when discussing her white siblings. Of course, such tactics and uncertain memory also complicate matters of identity. The epiphany that Smith’s narrator has about herself is inspired by watching Astaire’s performance in the movie Swing Time again. Yet, her realization (now wearing glasses and in good light) that she forgot Astaire performed in blackface disrupts this moment. And we are left to question: What is forgotten, what is untrue?

Laced with envy, the girls’ friendship is rocky. Sexuality, here, also affects identity and belonging. Although the narrator remains Tracey’s friend when the “nice” girls at school ostracize her for early sexual maturation, time spent together occurs only on Tracey’s terms. And Tracey sneers when the narrator socializes with the other girls, suggesting that the narrator’s presence among them is pretense. While playtime with nice girls like Lily Bingham offers the narrator relief from Tracey, it also invites alienation. Lily—white, middle class and “color blind”—is hurt when the narrator shows her a film scene featuring only black performers. The narrator doesn’t understand what Lily means by “we” when Lily claims “we” would be displeased if only black children were allowed to attend dance classes, both casually conferring and negating her friend’s black identity. This alienation is echoed in Africa. There, the black residents are impressed that “white women” like the narrator and her employer, Aimee (an actual white woman), can dance like black people do.

 

Book Review of Swing Time

 

Career: Celebrity and Erasure

Aimee, an Australian pop idol, is the least intriguing of the Smith’s characters, partly suffering from being too similar to a certain real-life pop idol and partly from her resemblance to a force of nature. To be fair, the latter also represents a comment on celebrity. Smith, however, permits Aimee to be personable, unafraid to cut through emotional morass, and more emotionally available to the narrator than her own mother. Possessing her mother’s social awareness, the narrator cannot ignore how her identity may be used to avoid charges of insensitivity when she raises concerns that Aimee’s “carnival” versions of  African dances could be interpreted as cultural appropriation. She’s ignored, of course: her work involves making Aimee’s life smoother, not disrupting it as she eventually does.

Cooperative or not, Smith narrator fails to inspire admiration the way other women in her life might. Overly apologetic, she lacks a dream to chase or a cause for which she fights, instead laboring in the shadows for others: her mother (recruited to participate in social marches), briefly Tracey (working as stagehand where she helps Tracey deal with costumes and love affairs), and Aimee, as her always on-call assistant. Over time, the narrator’s existence is at last subsumed: she cannot maintain her own social circle or romantic relationships while she services Aimee’s life. The resulting scandal, while not an attempt to quit, nonetheless betrays her discontent.

Shadows and Belonging

In the aftermath of the narrator’s scandal, watching Astaire’s dance with three shadows of himself causes the narrator to realize that she “experiences [herself] as a kind of shadow”. Dismissing these shadows, the question remains will she dance on as Astaire did? Swing Time is a thoughtful meditation on identity that meanders but never loses it way from this concern. Whatever path the narrator decides to take with the revelations about herself, however, lie with Tracey, her left-behind sister who happens to be the one person that evokes belonging.

Destination Reading: Plotting What to Read for Travel

Among the many pleasures of reading is the journeys we take to distant places, some which we may only see in our imagination.[*] For the locales that we do get an opportunity to see, there’s excitement associated with traveling to places we’ve read about. And then, there’s a third category: visiting a place whose literature we haven’t much (or any) acquaintance with. Although many places on my “To Visit” list earned their spot because of books I’ve read, I’ve been inspired to travel for many reasons, ranging from a friend’s invitation to browsing the Internet and finding an amazing destination. In the spirit of an upcoming adventure to a place with which I have little real or literary familiarity, though, I decided to explore reading for travel and perhaps choose a few books to prepare me for that trip.

Research Reading

For many, travel reading often involves trip research. Spontaneity has its charm, but obtaining information about travel arrangements (transport and accommodations), climate, attire, special equipment needed,[†] visas and so forth is critical when traveling to distant locales. As far as travel and reading go, this category leans more toward organization than adventure but nonetheless should be on the research radar if a trip necessitates it. Internet sites (tourism, travel blogs, government sites, etc.) and travel guides seem to be the go-to resources for planning travel.

But thinking about research made me wonder about what people read to begin the process of learning more about a place and its culture. Finding books for a prospective trip (theoretically) isn’t difficult. I was curious, however, about how people decided to approach reading for upcoming travel. Did they read before they visited? As they traveled? How did they choose books? After being reminded to select my Internet terms with greater care,[‡] I discovered countless lists of books about [insert destination]—as easy as expected. But while they suggested books, they didn’t provide much guidance for how or what to choose.

Destination Reading: Plotting What to Read for Travel by R. E. Gould
While selecting books before travel is often encouraged, reading whilst biking is not.

Reading Before You Go and on the Go: Advice

So, I resumed my research. Intriguingly, the first thing I found was a contrarian article advising against reading before travel. Most sites I’d investigated assumed that readers would read before their travels (or bring books along) and slapped down a list of titles. Rachel Mann, a reader who’d been inclined but unable to delve into a few novels prior to a seven-city trip, argues that literary works provide artistic impressions of cities, portraying them “both better and worse than reality”. She likened the experience to the disappointment produced by viewing a movie having first read the book on which it was based. Mann further observed that such novels often ignore or gloss over the everyday experiences that travelers treasure.[§] Surely perusing works of nonfiction, particularly travel guides and travel memoirs, might provide a more realistic snapshot of a locale than some fictional works would? I also don’t think I found the differences between my experiences of visiting, say, London (even famous literary haunts) or further afield dismaying as compared to my reading. Perhaps it’s the effect of reading numerous works, set in different periods and places, about a specific country that avoided this result. However, it is worth considering the validity Mann’s claim that “having someone else’s experience” in mind could direct a traveler away from finding their own adventures.

Nonetheless, I can’t say Mann persuaded me: sometimes, a reading experience makes taking a trip worthwhile. Matt Hershberger’s article asserts that he became a traveler because he was a reader first. However, he agreed that visiting literary sites can be disappointing (to an extent, echoing Mann’s claim) because they can be touristy.[**] For him, properly engaging with the literature of a place he visits involves discussing literature with locals, something that facilitates actual cultural engagement. His other suggestion, recreating fictional character’s adventures, I found less appealing as it might have some real limits. While he cautions against unwise activities (specifically illegal and/or dangerous ones), I still found it difficult to imagine myself wanting to replicate some literary scenarios. Both may prove difficult to impossible to try before traveling. Still, it might be fun to eat at a restaurant patronized by a favorite character, right?

Mary Ellen Dingley, however, suggests nine types of book for traveling, some which can be read before leaving.[††] Her ideas ranged from bringing books that comforted or encouraged (travel can be daunting) to checking out classics, recent best sellers, and poetry hailing from your destination, particularly when traveling abroad. One of her more intriguing ideas involves reading a favorite YA novel in translation, a tactic that lets you practice reading in the language of host country. While her article isn’t bogged down with selection criteria, there’s enough suggestions to give readers several directions to try before settling down with a reading list.

Destination Reading: Plotting What to Read for Travel by R. E. Gould
Packed and ready to read for travel.

Ready to Read and Roam

For my own part, I read numerous book lists. Goodreads (of course) was helpful, as were lists provided by local authors. I selected several books, mostly fiction (my reading preference), that appeared on multiple lists. I made sure that I had books by women writers (something many lists neglect still!), as well as books embracing different periods for some historical perspective. At present, I’m rather excited because the books I ordered through my library system’s online catalogue arrived, [‡‡] and I’m set to pick up a stack of books set in place where I plan to visit this summer. For me, it’s thrilling to begin my travels through the words of people who know where I’m going best. And perhaps that why I like to read before I go: I can’t wait to see where I’m headed.

Do you read before you travel? If so, what are your favorite literary adventures? Also, sign up for the Sequence newsletter to stay current with the latest posts!

NOTES:

[*] Or, when they’re actual places, on the Internet.

[†] My upcoming trips will alternate between city tours and outdoorsy adventures, meaning I need good walking shoes and hiking boots in my luggage.

[‡] “Travel reading” as a search term elicits articles suggesting books about traveling and/or traveling as self-discovery, travel memoirs, wanderlust, best travel guides, best books to take on vacation (with a heavy slant towards beach reading), etc. Reading (and writing) about travels of all kinds truly beguiles us.

[§] Like electric outlets. When I arrived in London, I knew I would encounter differences (spelling, pronunciation, crossing the street), but it was ordinary objects that worked similarly yet appeared so different that surprised and delighted me.

[**] The degree to which this may be acceptable varies from places and among individuals. In some places, crowds and/or a touch of cheesiness won’t turn meaningful sites awful, whereas other experiences suffer because they provide little value.

[††] Much like Hershberger, she suggests e-readers because they hold many books without incurring excess luggage fees. I tend to favor a real book, personally, because my beautiful intentions to read are often thwarted by actual desire to see and do—or the resulting sleepiness from having seen and done! One book will suffice in such cases. Had I longer trips with more planned leisure time, I’d consider the e-reader.

[‡‡] I’d still be excited if they weren’t about a vacation spot (because books) but the prospect of adventure still increases my excitement.

Read it Again, Sam*: Repeat Readers

Part of writing involves the creation of a reading experience.

Goodreads recently rolled out a new feature, one that allowed you to put a “read” book back into your “currently reading” queue, making it easier to acknowledge that you’ve read a work more than once.[†] As a site user and fan of revisiting favorite books, this new feature resonated with me—as well as made me consider re-reading from a writer’s viewpoint. I occasionally think my writing (whether it’s a blog post or poem) is a conversation that I’m having through the written word. And it’s rather exciting to think that someone may well choose to re-read something I penned because they enjoyed “conversing” with me. From this perspective, I became quite curious as to why other people revisit books, stories, and poems again.

Reasons We Re-Read

Arguably, necessity is among those reasons, such as reviewing work-related texts that vary from profession to profession, some of which bears re-reading outside work hours. My education also required me to re-read several books, plays, and poems, sometimes more than once. While I’d be happy to immerse myself in some of those works again, others not so much.[‡] Appearing on multiple teachers’ syllabi, however, suggests a certain greatness of a work—or at least that it’s representative of a style—something that makes it important enough that we’ll see it again.

Most respondents to my poll (hosted here and on Twitter), however, re-read because they enjoy doing so. Fellow writer Sandy Bennett-Haber is a “re-reader of novels” because she finds “comfort in the familiar” and “sometimes because it is just a great story.” Her response dovetails with my reasons for re-reading fiction. I primarily re-read because I enjoyed the story. At other times, re-reading feels very much like a comforting routine. When I read an Agatha Christie mystery again, I know what to expect (regardless if I recall whodunnit) and look forward to that experience. Another reader I informally surveyed indicated he re-read works when he particularly liked a character. The idea that a single character is so well-crafted as to merit a re-read, too, is a compelling reason, one that inspires me to think of ways to make my characters receive such attention.

When Re-Reading Once Isn’t Enough

My poll also revealed that re-readers tend to read a book more than once. I thought briefly about books I’ve re-read multiple times. I often re-read previous book(s) in a series so I can create a seamless reading transition for an upcoming release. Anticipation often colors these re-reading experiences. Yet, certain books draw me to them in a more thoughtful way, in part because their compassion impresses me. I re-read The Last Call (which I discussed here) because it revealed how many viewpoints led to an historical event, something which is helpful thing to recall in contentious times. Still other books reminded me of happy reading experiences. I’m reading favorite books from my childhood to my child: seeing his excitement adds to my pleasure in rereading these books. Now that I’m a more sophisticated reader, I found a few things I didn’t appreciate the first time reading through.[§] As a recent article by Maria Popova reminds us, this goes some way towards the argument that Tolkien and other writers forwarded that children’s literature is just literature. And who wouldn’t want to write something that appealed to wide audience of readers?

Part of writing involves the creation of a reading experience. Whether it’s Edgar Allan Poe’s[**] idea that a short story should produce a single effect on its readers (ie, a singular emotional response) or the multiple experiences that novels produce for us, a writer’s work involves those responses. And it’s those responses, I realize, that make readers truly want to return a text and read again. When I go forward and edit, I want to carry with me the idea that I need to keep this conversation going so that my readers will want to spend time with my writing again and again.

NOTES:

[*] Trivia: This line never was said in the movie Casablanca.

[†] Or twice or who’s counting, anyway? If you use this feature, Goodreads will.

[‡] Why is it always Romeo and Juliet for Shakespeare courses?

[§] I better appreciate the wordplay in Through the Looking Glass than I did when I was younger. I also have the difficulty of explaining it to the young one while sniggering.

[**] In his case, it’s usually horror.

Reading Out Loud: Books, Kids, and Their Partners

In some ways, it’s a natural impulse to become the reader—to share the books you love—particularly if you have a child in your life, whether said child is yours or not.

I first read to a child while I still could be counted among their numbers. As is often the case in such cases,[*] I was babysitting a younger child who asked me to read a book I hadn’t seen in some time—a Doctor Seuss book, if I recall correctly. The teens are a bit early for nostalgia, but it reminded me of how much I loved reading Hop on Pop and other beginning reader books. It was fun to revisit an old friend and gleefully recite silly rhymes.

Becoming the Reader

In some ways, it’s a natural impulse to become the reader—to share the books you love—particularly if you have a child in your life, whether said child is yours or not. From the bookworm parent’s perspective, it’s truly a highlight to share a treasured childhood book with your child and watch that book become one of their favorites. It’s also a great opportunity to meet new books as well as catch up on books you might have missed the first time ’round.[†]

The respondents[‡] I polled about reading to children also happened to be parents, who primarily read to their children around bedtime for about 15 minutes, though one respondent ran a bit longer. Usually, parent readers take turns or allow the children to select the books. I personally like to select books when it’s my turn to read, since it’s a good opportunity to introduce books I think he’ll like as well as broaden his horizons.[§] If he expresses a preference for another book, though, I typically go with it—unless we’re reading something short because bedtime is running late!

The Kids Are Alright…with Reading Aloud

Of course, this makes me curious about what it’s like being read to from a kid’s perspective. As I mentioned in another post, I loved the story hour at my local library when the children’s librarian would read various stories aimed at younger audiences: I still recollect her soft voice declaiming words slowly enough for her listeners to easily follow along, how she looked up from reading and smiled at the gathered children. There, too, were read-along-book sets and other recorded stories I enjoyed. And my mother introduced me to the pleasures of listening to an audiobook on a car ride.[**]

Since I don’t much remember bedtime reading, I conducted an informal Q&A session with my household’s resident child. My interview revealed that he likes being read to by me, the spouse, and a close family friend, although he’s generally happy to have anyone read to him. While he didn’t choose a favorite reader on the home front,[††] I’ve learned that I do the best voices and that my spouse adds a lot of funny bits. So far, he likes that I choose stories for him, even though my spouse and he takes turns selecting books. And neither of us can keep story time to 15 minutes. A certain someone is good at wheedling for a few extra pages. In fact, he enjoyed the Alice in Wonderland so much that he’s requested that we start reading it as soon as we’re home.

And he’s not the only one who can’t wait.[‡‡]

Share your favorite childhood stories and books in the section below—I might read them to my tot soon! Also, don’t forget to sign up for the Sequence’s newsletter to keep current with the latest posts.

NOTES:

[*] Reading to younger siblings also counts as another common avenue. Since I’m a youngest child, that’s right out for me.

[†] As I noted elsewhere, I read A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner for the first time in 2016!

[‡] Thank you very much again, respondents!

[§] Otherwise, it’d always be The Magic School Bus stories.

[**] I was a teenager, and the book was Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier.

[††] My child, the diplomat.

[‡‡] The timely completion of this post, of course, being interrupted by said child.

Public Reading: For the Love of Libraries

We were book lovers, so we went to the library as often as we could: After all, it felt like another home.

“I always knew from that moment, from the time I found myself at home in that little segregated library in the South…I always felt, in any town, if I can get to a library, I’ll be OK.” –Dr. Maya Angelou[*]

As a child, I inhabited my hometown’s library. I swept through the familiar stacks, seeking books I hadn’t yet read or favorites to re-read. In the background, I could overhear my mother discussing my reading level with the children’s librarian. The same librarian hosted the story hour. She’d sit nearly surrounded by a semi-circle of children, showing us the pages as she slowly read them aloud. Afterwards, I could check out as many books as I could carry—and I frequently needed to tuck the stack under my chin to avoid dropping them.[†] I finished roughly half of the books before my mother drove us home. We were book lovers, so we went to the library as often as we could: After all, it felt like another home.

Literary Libraries

Of course, I found echoes of myself in books featuring other bookworms and the libraries in which they lost themselves, the librarians which they befriended. My favorite part of Robin McKinley’s Beauty (her version of the Beauty and the Beast tale) involved reading. This YA novel features a bookish heroine who marvels at the books she finds in the Beast’s library, some of which have not yet been written. Considering how many times and how long I’ve waited for sequels to be published, I’m confident that this magical library is a bookworm’s dream. In the Discworld series, however, it’s not only possible to find books that have yet to be written but also to travel through time and to different places through L-space (that is, library space).[‡] In some way, I’ve always felt this to be true of reading. How often had I found myself lost in book only to surprised when I became aware again of my actual surroundings? And these novels also include the Librarian of the Unseen University, a formerly human wizard who found his transformation into an orangutan advantageous to his career.[§] His willingness to help researchers (albeit in his unique fashion) is entirely in keeping with what I know of librarians, all of whom work hard to serve the public.[**]

The Power of Real Libraries

If libraries mean the world to a someone whose childhood was reasonably comfortable, imagine the difference they make to children with different backgrounds. Dr. Maya Angelou spoke of her first library as a soothing balm, the kind that helped her find her words again and her vocation. For another young woman, libraries acted as an equalizer. Although she could not afford to buy books the way her friends did, her free public library card permitted to read nonetheless. Even coming from a family that collected books, I know there’s many books I would not have read without this free access. And libraries don’t just hold books. Poet/filmmaker Greta Bellamacina shared that libraries provided a quiet place to study that her home lacked. Libraries provide safe places.

For these reasons, I feel dismay whenever I read about efforts to defund public libraries. Since I’d personally prefer that Fahrenheit 451 remain a work of fiction, I urge readers to get out and support our community libraries and fund groups that protect libraries. I would like my child to continue reading all those books eagerly, after story hour, the way I did. I’d like all children to have that second home to visit.

Have a favorite librarian or library story? Share in the comments section. Better yet, support your local library with a donation.

NOTES:

[*] Library, The New York Public. “Interview: How Libraries Changed Maya Angelou’s Life.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2017. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/the-new-york-public-library/interview-how-libraries-c_b_775980.html>.

[†] This librarian also ran the summer reading program, which I read for the way some kids train for sports.

[‡] Pratchett, Terry. Guards! Guards! New York: HarperTorch, 2001.

[§] Particularly when it comes to obtaining books from the top shelves.

[**] Although, their approach involves less implied violence than the Unseen University Librarian’s does.

 

Updated 10 April 2018.

Love, Concealment, and Laura Chase: Review of The Blind Assassin

At the heart of Iris’s web is her regret that she failed those she loved.

The Blind AssassinThe Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Part of the pleasure in reading Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Blind Assassin, lies in tracing the various narrative threads throughout the book to see how they inform each other and how they reconcile. Newspaper clippings and excerpts from a novel written by Laura Chase (sister to Iris Chase Geffen, the narrator) are stitched together with Iris’s own story (both past and present). The juxtaposition here—the fictional (or at least fictionalized) romance of two clandestine lovers themselves weaving a pulp sci-fi tale contrasted with the more factual/official accounts of newsworthy events—add both intrigue and tension to a novel that dramatically opens with Iris learning that Laura committed suicide. This added tension is important, too, because the storytelling (darting among accounts) reflects Iris’s reluctance to reveal all that transpired, even as her own approaching death leaves the possibility that the truth will be silenced.

Blind Assassins and Their Mute Sacrificial Maidens

As Iris spins the tale of her youth at Avilion and her early adulthood in Toronto, certain themes emerge: blindness, silence, and sacrifice. Atwood employs the first two of these strands as physical traits of characters from Laura’s novel. The titular assassin and the mute sacrificial maiden represent the lower echelons of a cruel society where the wealthy force slave children to weave carpets until the children become blind, resigning most to a life of prostitution. The rich, unwilling to hear pleas for mercy, also sever the tongues of sacrificial maidens. Meant to appease the gods and thus keep the city safe, these sacrifices prove fruitless: an invading horde waits outside the gates and the assassin is likely to tell them how to breach the walls.

Class tensions, futile sacrifices, and overwhelming outside forces (World War I, the Great Depression) also shape life at Avilion, as do blindness and silence. Here, Atwood shifts from literal blindness to a failure to recognize or understand, just as sacrifice stems from more noble if misguided impulses. Iris’s father, Norval, generously retains his workers (many of whom were fellow veterans) but fails to see how keeping the factory running will jeopardize his own family’s financial security. Iris doesn’t despise sacrifice, but she cottons onto how it may be without merit. Implicit in her reflections about her father’s business mistakes (she recounts that he was a considered a “blind fool”) is the silent accusation that his prudence may have spared his daughters from a grim future. In this manner, the ever-wily Iris protests discreetly that blame does not lie solely with her. But she has a point: as female child then and a woman later, she always had less agency.

Most of the novel’s sacrificial maidens are women, though, motivated by love to endure. Liliana Chase suffers her husband’s post-war adultery and drinking binges in silence whilst attempting to bear him male heirs (Norval’s partial blindness, is a bit heavy handed here). She dies following a miscarriage. The girls pattern themselves after their mother’s sacrifice. Iris, who marries to save family fortune and factory at her father’s behest, finds such love burdensome. She is weighed down by her father’s love as well as the responsibility for the younger and too trusting Laura, a responsibility thrust upon her by parents and housekeeper Reenie. She shoulders the resentment of this duty into old age.

Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin. Review by R. GouldConcealment and Secrets

As Iris’s tightly held secrets begin to unravel, the effects of concealment—both blindness and silence—become apparent. Both girls learn how to hide their feelings to avoid mistreatment by their tutor Mr. Erksine, a stereotypical wicked instructor. And what could have been a close-knit relationship between two sisters begins to falter as a consequence of Erskine’s careful predation. Having not witnessed his actions, Iris is confounded by Laura’s unexpected and (to Iris’s mind) too calm account of wandering hands. She can’t imagine why a man would touch a child. However we might dislike it, her view is explicable given the historical context (children knew little of such abuse then). Then, as now, the notion of the “good victim” also plagues the abused and prevents justice. For Iris, concealment serves as a useful survival strategy in her dealings with the manipulative Geffen siblings, whereas silence places Laura at their mercy. Her choice to sacrifice herself for a loved one, concealing her suffering rather than trusting Iris to accept her story, is both tragic and understandable.

It’s concealment that ties Atwood’s novel together. The switches among the narratives styles permit us to question the notion of what represents the truth just as it lets Iris keep her secrets a little longer—even as she drops hints in hopes that she won’t have to outright admit her culpability. As she nears her confession, she finally has to embrace the terribleness of should: how she should have assured Laura that she believed her, when she should have said nothing, been kinder, or even lied. How she should have confessed to her daughter, Aimee, or rescued her granddaughter Sabrina. At the heart of Iris’s web is her regret that she failed those she loved. Whether readers guess at the big revelations in The Blind Assassin beforehand is immaterial. Atwood’s narrator is compelling enough to merit hearing out. And, Iris may earned some redemption by giving Sabrina the freedom to reinvent herself.

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Reading Past and Future

Ready to read in the new year

Generally speaking, I avoid the whole “new year, new me” resolutions that plague the early days of January. In my part of the world, January tends to be cold and grey with a chance of snow. After the merry and bright of the darkest nights of December, January already feels like the morning after the night before.[*] Why add the pressure of life-changing resolutions?

To be fair though, I have the bookworm’s long-standing goal to read more, regardless of which part of the year it is. It’s been a rather poignant plan at times, when I haven’t had enough free time to read deeply the way I wanted to do or the focus when I did have time. In 2016, however, I felt like I read many amazing books, although I always wish for more time to read more.[†] With that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of the notable books I’ve read (links are to posts that discuss these books).

Since I’m making lists, I thought I’d consider books for 2017 as well. Normally, I let my birthday and Christmas presents[‡] dictate the books that I plan to read for the upcoming year, and I find other books that interest me as the year progresses. I am, however, hoping to get a few suggestions from my readers. Please feel free to post your suggestions in the comment box!

2016 Notable Reads[§]

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne[**]

The House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This by Robin Black

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind by Anne Charnock

The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan*

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

2017 To-Read List

All the Living by C. E. Morgan

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Howard’s End by E. M. Forster

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo[††]

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Take Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing by Libbie Hawker

Read a good book lately? Share your reading recommendations in the comment section below! Also, sign up for the Sequence’s newsletter and keep current with the latest posts!

NOTES:

[*]For some of us, this might be literally true on New Year’s Day.

[†] Just like that guy in the Twilight Zone episode.

[‡] Nothing is sadder than when you DON’T get books for a present.

[§] I’ve read more books than are listed here, but these are the ones that truly stood out as I was putting this list together. Some of these books are also re-reads.

[**] I still can’t believe I’d not read either of these books as a kid.

[††] I’ve actually been trying to read Les Miserables for ages. The problem is it’s so long that I start losing the plot when I put it down. I’m working on finding time to read it uninterrupted so that I don’t lose where I am.

On Reading, Compassion and the Way Forward

Walter_Geikie_-_Drunken_Man_-_WGA8520.jpg
Drunken Man. Walter Geikie [Public domain], via Wikipedia Commons

When I read Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition,[*] I was on a semi-reading hiatus, although not necessarily by choice. My drunk-love affair with reading novels was temporarily on hold because I lacked the energy to immerse myself in these all-absorbing worlds.[†] While I felt a certain grief for this change (and still do), I re-routed my reading to shorter works of fiction, tried to carve out times when I could read novels, and contented myself with reading other writings ranging from the news and nonfiction.[‡]

Hence, I found the Last Call, a lengthy meditation on period of American history I never fully understood. How did religious and/or conservative groups manage to impinge on everyone else’s freedom to drink? Or ineffectively, considering the rumrunners and speakeasies that resulted.

How indeed.

Because nothing is so straightforward. The “drys” effectively represented what Okrent called “five distinct, if occasionally overlapping components made up this unspoken coalition: racists, progressives, suffragists, populists…and nativists” (42). Of these, the reasons many women had for supporting prohibition were all too sobering. Women often were the victim of husbands whom spent their paychecks on alcohol, frequented prostitutes—passing along diseases to their unknowing spouses—and abused their spouses and children. And so they protested, because it was the means to gain control of their lives (Okrent 12–19). It’s difficult to disparage teetotalism when faced with this suffering. Prejudice’s role against immigrants (characterized as drunken) was also tempered by the ideals of some progressives who wished to improve the life of immigrants—even if that meant repressing them. While I don’t condone the latter, I at least now appreciate that there were those who felt empathy for urban immigrants  (48–50).

It’s a powerful lesson, examining the underpinnings of a puzzling era. There was no monolithic group who demanded the end of drinking alcohol so much as a series of actors doing what they thought best.

I’ve often thought of this book a great deal recently, marveling how many disparate threads were woven to limit the rights of the United States’ citizens and the consequences. In a time where we might angrily denounce other people’s political choices after a highly contentious election, it’s tempting to forget that people wanted change and chose what they thought was the right way forward.

We might benefit from examining what we learned, lost, and gained from Prohibition and other contentious eras—how we might protest for positive change and compassionately help those who need our assistance without trampling their rights. During these difficult days, we might not anticipate how our lives will change but we can choose how we handle those changes.

How has reading helped you find compassion for others? Post your comments below. Also, sign-up to the Sequence’s newsletter to keep current with the latest posts.

NOTES:

[*] Okrent D. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York: Scribner, 2010.

[†] Results of the post-pregnancy period and raising of young tots vary among individuals. But prepare your reading time accordingly.

[‡] I remain uncertain as to why I was able to focus on nonfiction works versus fiction. The possibilities range being able to easily regain my spot in a narrative with which I had some familiarity (Prohibition) to the relevance of certain subjects (baby books). Either way, I’ve never read so slowly as I did then.