feminism

a conditional recommendation

Okay, so I reviewed a recent Nobel laureate and one of the other authors in the running. It’s only fair that I review another.

Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood. Some of her other books have been reviewed here before.

This book is reminiscent of The Bell Jar, in that it is a seemingly semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story of a young artist. But it is, in fact, not a memoir, which makes it remarkable.

Elaine Risley is a middle-aged artist who travels to her home town of Toronto for a retrospective of her work. The trip triggers memories of her younger years, and she starts to reminisce. The novel is set up as a series of flashbacks in parallel with the present day. Elaine thinks about how various incidents in her life shaped her, and analyzes her present self critically- her appearance, career and parenting. The stream of consciousness style, with frequent time shifts, is not as complicated as it could be and feels natural. Elaine is brutally honest to the point of being rough.

The plot isn’t particularly eventful, but it is relatable. Elaine struggles with bullying in school, because of her unusual childhood. She has love affairs, healthy and unhealthy. She admires her brother and finds the ways women mysterious. An overarching theme is her relationship with a “frenemy” of her youth, whose rise and fall is the mirror image of her own. Atwood is adept in depicting the interactions of the playground, and I found myself remembering the odd group dynamics of my school’s social circles.

What I look for in literary fiction these days is a deliberate injection of beauty/romance into everyday life and observations. Murakami does this a lot- who else can describe a young man making a sandwich in a more meaningful way?- and that’s part of why I keep turning back to his work. Cat’s Eye was brilliant in that respect. Some gems:

(On the adulting Impostor Syndrome) “Another belief of mine: that everyone else my age is an adult, whereas I am merely in disguise.”

(On being supported by her spouse) “I could live without it, I have before. But I like it all the same.”

Another thing I liked was the unintentional feminism of the book. It’s feminist simply by virtue of being a book with a female protagonist that mentions her goals and opinions apart from romance and relationships. Ironically, Elaine’s art is labelled feminist despite not being deliberately so. The second quote illustrated what I mean: Elaine can, and does, get by as a single woman and single mother. But she is also happy as a stay-at-home mother to her daughter when in a relationship.

So, as promised:

I highly recommend this book, IF (and only if):

  1. You are female
  2. You are extremely pretentious
  3. You are okay with being a little bored
  4. You appreciate ‘good prose’ (see 2&3 above)

5/5 from me, since I check off all the points on the above list.

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The Idiot Box, for pseudo-intellectuals

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately watching television series. The advent of streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and what-have-you means that a much larger variety of programmes are being released, and some of them are real gems. Plus, they’re now released one season at a time, which makes patience-deficient people like me very happy. This post will review Parks and Recreation, A Young Doctor’s Notebook, and Anne With An E. I’m not sure whether to attribute credit to the directors or producers or actors, so I’ll just say that these shows are all available on Netflix.

Anne With An E

This is an adaptation of Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery, which has always been a favourite of mine.

It’s the story of a cheerful young woman who is accidentally sent from her orphanage to be adopted by an elderly brother and sister, who wanted a boy to help them on the farm. They’re too kind-hearted to send her back, so she grows up on the beautiful Prince Edward Island in Canada. Despite being a bit of an airhead, Anne is bright and makes Marilla and Matthew proud. I like this book because it’s full of escapism- Anne avoids her problems or embellishes them with the Power of Imagination. She’s ambitious and despite getting into many scrapes always manages to endear herself to the people around her. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be a charmingly clumsy, intelligent successful girl with a fairytale romance and a ‘genius for friendship’?

But then Netflix happened. Today’s television is about gritty realism, and realistically, a young girl who’s been abused as much as Anne was is bound to have problems. Her imagination is a symptom of PTSD, Marilla is a feminist, and Mathew is NOT Mathew. It’s a completely new take on a much-loved story (especially in Japan) and fans will either love it or hate it. I, for one, couldn’t bring myself to watch more than a couple of episodes.

Watch this if you’re a fan of the original series and are interested in seeing a very new take on it.

Parks and Recreation

This show is adorable. I fully acknowledge that it is girly and derivative, but it is undeniably a feel-good show, and sometimes after a long day at work that’s just what you need.

It’s a mockumentary (much like The Office) about the employees of the Parks and Recreation department of Pawnee, a small town in the American Midwest. The government employees are exactly what you would expect- disinterested, disillusioned, incompetent (totally mucked up the alliteration there, oops). With the exception of Leslie Knope, a geeky woman with a mission to improve Pawnee’s parks- and become president.

The show really changes its dynamic after the second season and I’d recommend you start there if you don’t like the first episode or two. Watch and laugh as Leslie fights the patriarchy and bullies everyone around her into finding happiness. Seven seasons of pure cheese.

A Young Doctor’s Notebook

This show is the polar opposite of Parks and Rec. Where P&R is all about sunshine and nature and friendship and success, AYDC is about snow and wrong intentions and gangrene.

Nika is a newly-minted doctor who has earned 15 fives in his Moscow University exams. It’s unclear what the significance of those fives are, but he seems pleased with himself. Unfortunately, his book learning proves insufficient when he is assigned to a small rural hospital in Middle-of-Nowhere, Russia, during a revolution.

This is a black comedy that takes things almost too far. Be prepared for gratuitous gore… and syphilis. My biggest issue with this show is that it’s so frustratingly short- there are currently a total of 9 episodes over 2 series, and each episode is only 20 minutes long. Otherwise, it’s a very enjoyable show, if a little too brutal.

Now, back to the book reviews…

The Color Purple

This is a review of The Color Purple, for which Alice Walker won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983. It’s a novel that is best known for its narrative style, for its depiction of discrimination in its most normal, and thus cruel, form, and for its breathtaking message.

The narrative style takes the cake. It’s written in the form of letters, a possibility that I had never considered for an entire novel. Another pleasant suprise to me was the fact that one’s English needn’t be perfect to write a masterpiece (to an English speaking audience). The language used in the book is not a refined or grammatically correct English, but one that is more familiar, a more natural human language. This book is proof that it is far more appealing to write on behalf of the character, than to write perfectly.

The book begins with letters from Celie to God, to whom she writes because she has no one else to write to. From Celie’s letters we learn that she is a poor and uneducated girl, whose stepfather beats and rapes her when she’s 14. He impregnates her twice and abducts her children. Celie is then married away to “Mr. _____”, who dearly needs someone to take care of his children. At Mister’s place, Celie lives a life of a sub-human (which is not too different from the life she lived in her father’s house). Celie accepts this treatment, for a while, without complaint:

“He beat me like he beat the children. Cept he don’t never hardly beat them. He say, Celie, get the belt… It all I can do not to cry. I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie, you a tree. That’s how come I know trees fear men.”

In the meantime, Nettie, Celie’s young sister, escapes her father’s house and comes to live with Celie. But when Mister makes sexual advances to her, Celie advices Nettie to seek help from a well dressed woman she saw in the marketplace. Celie only wants Nettie to escape the life that she has resigned herself to.

After Nettie escapes, Celie meets another remarkable woman. Mr. ____’s son, Harpo, marries a ‘wayward’ woman, an assertive woman, Sofia; and they live in a cottage by the house. Sofia is rebellious and audacious, and will not take being battered as normal. She even beats up Harpo when he beats her to assert his manhood.

You ever hit her? Mr. ____ ast.

Harpo look down at his hands. Naw suh, he say low, embarrass.

Well how you spect to make her ind? Wives is like children. You have to let ’em know who got the upper hand. Nothing can do that better than a good sound beating.

Celie’s life begins to change when Mr._____ brings home his sick mistress, Shug Avery. Shug is a glamorous jazz and blues performer. She is everything that Celie is fascinated by. She has a mind of her own, she seems to have Mister’s full attention, and she seems to be gloriously independent.

Shug and Celie become intimate friends. Celie tells Shug all about Nettie, her little sister. Shug is her protection against Mr. ____’s battering, and Celie is one of Shug’s best friends. It doesn’t take long for Shug and Celie to discover that Mr. ____ had been hiding the letters sent by Nettie, for over thirty years.

Nettie writes about her life with a missionary couple, who also incidentally adopted Celie’s biological children. The letters speak of their time in Africa, about how they struggle to keep themselves afloat, alive, with disbelief and hope, while they live with a tribal group. Nettie’s letters are written in a more literate hand, speaking of African history, and what not, while Celie’s are rough at the edges, but written in a warmer tone. Nettie speaks of a world alien to Celie, and shows her powerlessness as she watches oppression meted out against the natives in Africa. Celie understands, in a way, as she herself is oppressed by Mr. ____, for being a woman, a wife. However, Shug’s conviction that Celie’s life is not hopeless changes Celie’s life, starting with how Mr. ____ treats her.

Throughout most of the book, Celie’s emotions are leashed. She’s almost afraid to speak her feelings – about her father, Mr. ____, Shug. She could be described as stoic, but I think she was numbed by fear. But, by the end of the book, she’s a revelation, like a person who seems to have noticed the purple flowers. Just what happens to Celie, Shug, Nettie, Sofia (what happens to her is slightly amusing, but also awful), Harpo, Mr. ____, and the others (that I haven’t mentioned in the review), is left to you to find out! Do Celie and Nettie ever meet?

The book explores themes such as sexism, feminism, racism, among others. If any of this matters to you, you will connect with its strong, vulnerable, incredibly courageous characters. The awful circumstances that define Celie shows us how much courage it takes to break free of those binds. This book begins to help us understand what we might need, to find ourselves, to not merely exist, but to be alive; to look at the purple flowers. The Color Purple is a lesson in audacity and about the importance of equality of people, irrespective of gender, sexuality, race. My only quibble, if at all, is that there is hardly a good man in the book.

4.5/5

The book’s title comes from what Shug says, about what it means, or takes, to be alive. She says,

“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back”.

Lean In (or be pushed in)

This is my review of Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg.

I ought to start with a disclaimer- I have a whopping 14 months of experience in a full-time job, so it’s entirely possible that my youthful optimism (ha!) is influencing my opinions on this book.

I’ll start with the good:

  1. Sheryl Sandberg is unquestionably a very successful woman. She has proved her worth in more than one leadership position. Any kind of advice she gives is definitely invaluable to anyone looking to climb the corporate ladder.
  2. She is open about her flaws and the compromises she has made to get ahead of her career- how many mothers would admit that their kids are more attached to their nannies than their parents?

Now for the criticism:

  1. Most Several of the obstacles she describes facing are, quite honestly, first world problems. She describes being late for a morning meeting when pregnant because of the long, slow walk from her car to the office. She then walked into the CEO’s office and demanded that special parking spaces be assigned to pregnant women- a request that was immediately addressed. Maybe it’s my third world mentality, but this does not really seem like a problem- it was an inconvenience that was removed promptly, without any sexism involved. Most women in the world face much bigger struggles, ones that cannot be so easily overcome.
  2. She is frequently condescending. She wants her mentees to be like a patch of sunshine in a busy day- think about how that would sound coming from a middle aged man. Creepy, no? Yes, being mentored by someone as successful as Sandberg would be an amazing opportunity, and she is definitely not obligated to spend time guiding clueless 22-year-olds. But if she does, it seems wrong to expect anything but gratitude in return.
  3. She expects everyone to make the same sacrifices as she has. I have no sources for this apart from my own observations, but there are lots of women out there who have different family structures. Their husbands may have demanding careers. They may have lower earning potential than their partners. They may be single moms. They may need two incomes just to make ends meet. They may not want to miss out on their children’s formative years. There are dozens of very valid reasons why a woman might want to ‘Lean Out’ or make different choices, but still she urges all women to put their careers first.
  4. While women have their share of societal pressure and constraints to deal with, men aren’t exempt. It is less ‘acceptable’ for them to seek a work-life balance or take time off to bond with family. They are inherently expected to shoulder financial responsibility. They are under-represented in certain careers like nursing and teaching. The list goes on. Women cannot always play the victim card.

All in all, this is a good mix of anecdotes and statistical analyses of gender bias and the Glass Ceiling. It also provides some insight into how the people at the top get there- and what they are forced to give up. As someone just starting out in a tech career, I think this was a worthwhile read. As an Indian woman, it was frustrating to read about the privileges some people take for granted. We’ll get there…

2/5

Pretentious Literary Review

Anyone who has studied a second or third language in school is likely to be familiar with amateur literary reviews. The literature section of the syllabus usually consisted of short stories in a variety of different settings. Watered down stories about child marriage in South India, unemployment in the USA during the Great Depression and Norse mythology provided nuggets of insight into different cultures. Also, the stories invariably had hidden, ‘inner’ meanings that were beyond my limited imagination. And linguistic skills, probably.

After years of writing half-hearted analyses of how lamp light is a metaphor for wisdom and how the cutting of one’s hair symbolizes an escape from social norms (or a loss of social status, depending on the context- why can’t these things be consistent?!), I was glad to embrace a career in engineering. Unambiguity is essential in computer languages, a fact that provides me with much reassurance. I remain firmly convinced that all literary devices- similes, metaphors, personification and whatnot- are concepts cooked up by language teachers to harass gullible students. Don’t try to convince me otherwise.

But once in a while, one comes across a piece of work that works clearly and flawlessly on multiple levels.

The other day I came across The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman on someone’s to-read list, tagged as a literary classic. A Google search told me it was a psychological thriller in 6000 words, so I abandoned my buggy code for a while and read it then and there.

On the surface it is a commonplace story of a young mother’s descent into madness during a ‘rest cure’ for what is diagnosed as nerves- post partum depression, maybe. Her description of the unpleasant yellow wall paper in her bedroom serves as an indicator of her weakening grip on reality. It begins with a mild irritation with the vivid colour, and ends with hallucinations of a woman trapped behind the garish patterns on the wall.

So why is this review accompanied by a rant about literary analysis? This story has a real life context that gives it a whole new dimension. Its author, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, suffered from depression for several years. A renowned physician, Dr S Weir Mitchell, prescribed what was then known as a rest cure- an extended period of time without any intellectual or physical stimulation. After a couple of months of this, Gilman felt herself sinking further into mental illness and began to work on her writing once more. She intended this story to be a warning to Dr Mitchell and other patients.

Gilman was of the belief that the concept of the rest cure stemmed from the patriarchal structure of society at the time. Men were unwilling to allow women to do anything that might eventually allow them to carve an identity for themselves, so they were actively discouraged from writing and painting. Portraying women as having delicate nerves or fragile mental health was an indirect way of subjugating them.

Whether you view the story as a feminist work, or a public service announcement, or merely a psychological thriller is up to you. It works well at any level and makes a good short read, despite the obvious datedness of the language and setting. It is available in the public domain (legally, for a change) at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1952. It’s worth a shot. 3.5/5

India’s Daughter/Sister/Mother

Like every other amateur feminist, I watched India’s Daughter, the BBC documentary on a 2012 Delhi gang rape. It hit close to home, and left me shaken. Frankly, I watched the documentary only because of the controversial court order by the Indian government that required YouTube to pull down the video in India. I wanted to see for myself what the government deemed so slanderous.

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