Women Unbound wrap-up!

11 December, 2010

Women Unbound

The Women Unbound challenge was a thought-provoking challenge which gave an extra dimension to my reading this year. Plus I got to search for and pick up some interesting books:)

I read the following books:

Graceling by Kristin Cashore
The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki
The Women’s Century by Mary Turner
Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiawan
To Live and To Write: Selections by Japanese Women Writers 1913-1938 edited by Yukiko Tanaka
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

Hmm. I’m not entirely happy about my selection here as I had rather grand plans for this challenge. Although I’ve read 6 books with 2 being non-fiction for the Bluestocking level, I was aiming to read a lot more non-fiction books. I’ve still got a stack of books that I’ve kept aside for Women Unbound and which I am still planning on reading in the coming year.

I enjoyed reading all the books and recommend them if you haven’t tried them already, especially The Makioka Sisters (some other great reviews here and here) and To Live and to Write. Probably the most surprising was A Room of One’s Own which I had expected to be difficult and rather dry but which was surprisingly accessible and showed what a fine writer Woolf is.

Although I ended up participating in one too many challenges this year, I wouldn’t have given up participating in this one as it’s something my friends and I are always questioning and coming up against in our lives. It’s also something I focus on in everything I read, so thank you Aarti, Care and Eva for creating this inspiring challenge!

When Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides was first published in paperback in 2003, I rushed out to buy it together with a copy of Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend. I read Tartt’s book but Middlesex stayed firmly unopened on my shelf. Then I moved house and it stayed unopened in one of the boxes of books I kept at my sister’s. Where it still hides, somewhere. I kept meaning to read it because of all the wonderful reviews floating around, but somehow it always seemed a little difficult: the subject matter, the writing, the thickness of the book. I gave a little whoop of delight when I realised this was to be the choice of my book group this month only to realise I no longer knew where my pristine copy lay, so I reserved one from my local library just in time to take on my little flying visit to Munich a few weekends ago. But oh, how I wish I had opened the first few pages and plunged in all those years ago, because it’s a beautiful book.

In Middlesex, Eugenides has really written the Great American Novel. It’s been compared to Franzen’s The Corrections, but I much prefer this one. It’s less gritty, amoral and depressing but there is a grand sweep of history, destiny and the cycle of life. No wonder it won the Pulitzer Prize for 2003. Eugenides tackles American, Greek and Turkish history, immigrant life, genetics, sexual theory and hermaphroditism in a way that increases your knowledge without overwhelming you. His prose is warm and sumptious and you can just sit back and let him work the magic because you feel like you’ve met these people and they live their lives for you. In the hands of a writer less talented, less rigorous, this book could have become too serious, too tragic, even boring. But it was a delight to read and kept me nose-in-book for hours and I finished this in three sittings. Pretty good going for literary fiction.

Middlesex is the story of Calliope Stephanides and her family and how the recessive gene that culminated in her hermaphroditism travelled through her bloodline from Greek occupied Turkey to Detroit. How she grew up as a beautiful girl named Calliope to become a man named Cal. It’s not just about her, it’s about the people around her, her parents, her grandparents and all her cousins, her friends and lovers. It’s about growing up and the search for the self, trying to fit in, questioning. In no way did I find Eugenides’ treatment of Calliope’s story to be too dramatic or exploitative because everything in the book, especially her family, was one big drama. Yet it’s not all perfect either. The scenes with Cal as an adult didn’t feel as complete as those when she was growing up or about her family. And sometimes it confused me a little when Eugenides cuts from the present to the past (which he does frequently.) But these are tiny grains of sand in the shoe because it’s a beautifully realised book. And Calliope is probably one the most sympathetic, thoughtful and strong characters I’ve ever come across.

I’m a big fan of Sophia Coppola’s film interpretation of Eugenides’ first novel, The Virgin Suicides. But you know what, I’m going to go back and read the book. Because Middlesex is probably one of the best books I’ve read this year, and Eugenides has fast become one of my favourite authors.

This would have been a great book for the Women Unbound Challenge because it not only addresses the issues of gender and feminism in different societies and times but it’s a book about women. It’s really opened the scope beyond thinking about gender in a purely female/male dialogue to show that there is a whole area that hasn’t been addressed much in mainstream fiction. And I like the way Eugenides writes about women: gentle, funny and strong.

BBAW: Unexpected treasures

15 September, 2010

Book blogs are wonderful sources of books and there are many titles I have come across that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. Today’s topic for BBAW is a book or genre that we wouldn’t have tried without our interest being piqued by another blog. As I’ve been reading books for many, many years, I’ve found that certain genres work for me and others not so much although I’m pretty open to trying. I normally read books that are mysteries, fantasy, historical fiction, especially those set in the medieval or interwar years and contemporary literary fiction plus a few classics and non-fiction thrown in.

Although I’m interested in women’s fiction, I haven’t really read many books in that genre (although I’m a bit ambivalent to the term ‘women’s fiction’ as a genre as it seems to denote something separate from normal fiction which I take issue with), it was only through the book blogging world that I came across the books published by Persephone Books. I’m sure everyone’s familiar with the green-spined Virago Modern Classics but Persephone Books was something new for me (even though they’ve been around for 10 years. It’s a wonderful publishing house that has re-discovered neglected works by female authors, what some would term ‘domestic fiction’ that chronicles the lives of women in a domestic setting. Persephone Reading Week is hosted in May by Paperback Reader and The B Files.

So far I’ve only completed one book Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The War time stories of Mollie Panter-Downes for this year’s Persephone Reading Week but am in the middle of Nicola Beauman’s A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel 1914-1939 which I’m enjoying very slowly. Beauman is the founder of Persephone Books and A Very Great Profession is a treasure trove of titles which isn’t very healthy for my TBR pile. I would recommend anyone interested in the social history of the early twentieth century and the interwar years to give it a try.

I also came across the Women Unbound Challenge co-hosted by Aarti of Booklust, Care of Care’s Online Book Club and Eva of A Striped Armchair. All three have wonderfully well thought out blogs where they really get to grips with lots of interesting issues raised by the books they read and I recommend that you check them all out. The challenge really made me think about issues that women face and the state of feminism in the 21st century. It also made me finally take up the books that I’ve been meaning to read for years but never actually got around to, both fiction and non-fiction, such as To Live and to Write: Selections by Japanese Women Writers 1913-1938 edited by Yukiko Tanaka and Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

So although I’ve still got some way to go before completing the challenge, I’d say that both the Women Unbound Challenge and the Persephone Reading Week have made me focus a lot more on issues of feminism and the role of women in literature.

And I just have to sneak in The Samurai by Shusaku Endo which I really enjoyed and was impressed with despite me thinking it would be a rather dry and difficult read. Endo’s most famous book Silence delighted many bloggers participating in Dolce Bellezza‘s Japanese Literature Challenge and also by Tanabata who blogs at In Spring It Is The Dawn and although I didn’t manage to get my hands on it, I found The Samurai instead. Most of the Japanese books I read are contemporary or set in the early 20th century but Endo’s book about a 17th century samurai struggling with his heritage and the encroachment of Christianity is historical fiction at its best: passionate, thoughtful and full of soul.

These are just a handful of books I’ve discovered which have enriched my reading experience. What about you?

OK, so we’re halfway through the year and the question is, am I halfway through all of my challenges? Let’s see, I’ve put my name down for a lot of challenges this year and at one point I thought my brain was going to spontaneously combust. However, on noting down what I’ve read, it seems I’m on track. Sort of.

Suspense and Thriller 2010 Challenge: 6/12
Flashback Challenge: 1/3
Terry Pratchett 2010 Challenge: 1/5 – I missed seeing Going Postal so will wait for the DVD
South Asia Authors Challenge: 6/5 – but I’m planning to read more
TBR Challenge: 1/12 – not very impressive
Women Unbound Challenge: 4/5
Once Upon A Time IV Challenge: 1/1
1930s Reading Challenge: 0/1

Not as bad as I thought, although my TBR pile needs some serious seeing to.

I’ve also decided that I will allow myself to buy one book with every three books I read from my TBR pile (unless I really need to, of course!) Just to keep the ball rolling.

Anyway, to end on a cheerful note, I received the following in the post:

The Killer of Pilgrims by Susanna Gregory – from the lovely people at Little Brown. Matthew Bartholomew and Brother Michael are two of my favourite medieval sleuths.

24 Hours Paris by Marsha Moore – which I won from Me and My Big Mouth. My whole family loves Paris and it’s got some great ideas about what to do there hour by hour.

The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag by Alan Bradley – from the lovely people at Orion Books. I have belatedly discovered the delightful Flavia de Luce in the first volume The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and can’t wait to tuck into this one.

And I found this at my library:

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde – I need a bit of Fforde fiction to tide me over until proper summer is here. I mean it, proper summer. You’re on your way, aren’t you??

It’s taken me ages to finish this, not because it was difficult or boring, but simply because I was also reading a handful of other books. I’m not sure whether it’s better to just stick with one book at a time or not. In the end you can only concentrate on the book in hand. But I’ve finished it and I want more! The title is taken from a quotation attributed to Hayashi Fumiko

‘to eat and to write are the two reasons for living’

To Live and to Write: Selections by Japanese Women Writers, 1913-1938 edited by Tanaka Yukiko, is a brilliant collection of biographical essays and short stories featuring nine Japanese women writers of the early 20th century. Even though most of the stories were published between 1913 and 1938, I was struck by how immediate the struggles and conflicts the women characters face. The historical setting and material descriptions place the stories in a different era but the realisations and the self-awareness are things which women today still experience. Reading the stories made me ponder deeply about what I myself want to do with my life. And these stories, so varied and unique, left a deep impression on me long after I finished them.

I didn’t sympathise or like all the heroines, and I certainly didn’t warm to the men they fell in love with, but each story and struggle was dynamic and heartbreaking, most happening internally. I was struck time and again by the searingly honest portrayal of the women’s inner struggles as they tried to juggle family life, financial security, love and their work. Their methods in obtaining money and work may not be acceptable to some, but when poverty grinds you down, you can only do what needs to be done to survive. The resilience and the strength portrayed by these characters, who at the same time hurt and were hurt by the people around them, was humbling.

Because of the period in history in which most of these stories were written, there is a strong emphasis on Communism and the harsh experiences these activists underwent at the hand of the authorities. What was also interesting to note was how the women were also let down by the Communist party which they joined in the belief that it would provide equality between men and women but which in reality only mirrored the social structure in wider society. Tanaka Yukiko, who edited this volume, does an admirable job in placing these novelists within their historical and literary context, and her essays shed a light upon their work as a whole. What was interesting was how autobiographical most of the fictional work were in how they mirrored the struggles of the characters and authors.

Although I had only heard of a few of these novelists, mainly Uno Chiyo and Hayashi Fumiko, I finished the volume deeply impressed and wanting to read more stories by all the writers: Tamura Toshiko, Miyamoto Yuriko, Hirabayashi Taiko, Hayashi Fumiko, Nakamoto Takako, Nogami Yaeko, Sata Ineko, Uno Chiyo and Okamoto Kanoko. An interesting aside is that many of these writers wrote for a literary magazine titled Seitō (or ‘bluestocking’). Many were well-read in Japanese and Western literature and were aware of the political and social changes occurring outside Japan.

Tanaka Yukiko has edited a couple of other anthologies which I would love to read: Women Writers of Meiji and Taisho Japan: Their Lives, Works and Critical Reception 1868-1926 and This Kind of Woman: Ten Stories by Japanese Women Writers 1960-1976 edited together with Elizabeth Hanson and Mona Nagai.

I read this for the Women Unbound Challenge.

Uno Chiyo © Minato City 2006

I’m not here today

15 April, 2010

but I am here guest-posting on Aarti’s blog Booklust for her series With Reverent Hands which highlights books that may not normally be in the spotlight.

Aarti is one of the hosts (together with Care and Eva) of the incredible Women Unbound Challenge where we get to explore through books what it means to be a woman living in the 21st century and what we can learn from those who have struggled to find a place in this world before us. I really enjoy reading Aarti’s posts which always give me a lot to think about. So check it out!

Currently I’m in the middle of To Live and To Write: Selections by Japanese Women Writers 1913-1938 edited by Yukiko Tanaka which I’m reading for the Women Unbound Challenge which is a collection of biographies and short stories by Japanese women in the early 20th century. It’s proving to be a very thought-provoking and inspiring read.

I thought I’d celebrate International Women’s Day today by posting this review!

The Women’s Century by Mary Turner is a wonderful introduction to feminism and the role of women in 20th century Britain. Although coming in at just under 200 pages, it covers all aspects from the home, education, employment, politics, the war and marriage and had a good section on suffragettes and their struggle for the women’s vote.

Although I’ve been dipping into books on feminisim for many years, I haven’t really done any concentrated reading on the subject for a while now (since reading Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs at university and Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy a few years back – all of which I recommend). And I confess I haven’t read any Germaine Greer either…bad me.

So what better way to get into the Women Unbound Challenge by reading a gentle introduction to the subject. But it wasn’t. Turner does a great job in dropping you straight into the women’s struggle for emancipation. It didn’t surprise me that compared to the 19th century, women in the 20th century have it so much better. But I didn’t realise by how much. We don’t have to worry about being penniless (with absolutely no recourse to money if you aren’t married, have private wealth or are allowed to work – everything belongs either to your father or your husband), we are entitled to an education that opens all sorts of possibilities and that we are entitled to protection from violence.

But it wasn’t just that. The most shocking thing is that although we have it so much better, we still have to struggle with society’s perceptions and expectations of a woman’s place. Yes, we can get an education and a job. We can earn money which gives us freedom. But we are still bound by the same worries that plague the women who came before us. It just struck me that things haven’t changed much since the 1930s. We are still expected to get married by a certain age (regardless of our academic qualifications). It’s still the woman’s job to look after the house and kids (when we can now work and possibly earn as much or more than our husbands). We are still expected to dress in a way that will enhance our femininity and wear ridiculous heels (which are nice to look at but impossible to walk in). It’s so strange to think that we have come so far but are still so far away from being on an equal footing with men.

This book has certainly fired me to go and get on with my feminist reading. Especially the section about the suffragettes and what they had to go through in order for us to get the vote. It still shocks me to read that in the early 20th century, some politicians didn’t even consider women to have the brain capacity to vote. Consider this quotation:

Another controversial view came from Asquith, the suffragettes’ most powerful opponent. Acording to a letter from George Bernard Shaw to The Times, quoted in The Virago Book of Suffragettes, Asquith argued against giving women the vote ‘on the ground that woman is not the female of the human species but a distinct and inferior species.’ Asquith also said that a woman was no more qualified to vote than a rabbit. His view that women were not fully human goes a long way to explain why the suffragettes were so harshly treated both when sentenced and when they were imprisoned. (p.23, 2006 edn, The National Archives: London)

H.H. Asquith was Prime Minister of Britain from 1908-1916 (and incidentally great-grandfather of Helena Bonham-Carter – go HBC, you are an inspiration to us all!) He was succeeded by David Lloyd George who was sympathetic to the suffragette cause and granted women over 30 the vote in 1918. The age bar was lowered to 21 (the same as for men) ten years later.

The Women’s Century is a wonderful and pretty hard-hitting book dotted with some incredible pictures that make the history come a little more alive. There are so many things it makes you think about such as the marriage bar, the Government’s selective dissemination of information to women as a form of social control (especially with regard to contraception) and the rights of women in marriage and divorce, but I’ve still got a lot more reading to do and will rant about them in future posts.

I was expecting Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters to be a challenging read. Tanizaki, after all, is one of Japan’s most famous writers and the book is a good 530 pages of small print. After reading Naomi which impressed me considerably, I finally took The Makioka Sisters off my TRB shelf after it lay there languishing for too many years. And it was a revelation.

Naomi took as its main character a young woman in Tokyo who falls into a degenerate and modern lifestyle as opposed to the traditional Japanese lifestyle that was slowly vanishing. The Makioka Sisters, on the other hand, tells the story of four sisters belonging to an old and venerable merchant family in Osaka who are clinging to the traditional way of life amidst the onset of war and financial hardship.

Tsuruko and Sachiko are the two elder sisters who have been married for over ten years to Tatsuo and Teinosuke who have both taken the Makioka name, Tsuruko’s husband Tatsuo becoming the head of the Makioka family after their father’s death. The story follows their attempts at getting the third sister Yukiko married. Until she does, the youngest sister Taeko (or Koi-san as she is known) is unable to get married herself. The search for a suitable husband proves to be full of obstacles not least of which is an old scandal involving Taeko and the youngest son of a rich Osaka family. Compared to Yukiko who is passive and non-commital, Taeko is full of life, wanting to try new things and making a living for herself (which is frowned upon as unsuitable for her social station by her brother-in-laws). As the years go by, with Japan’s military intrusion into world affairs and the rise of war in the West, the Makiokas themselves begin to feel that what is acceptable behaviour in society is slowly beginning to change.

Tanizaki portrays each sister with different characteristics, but because it is Sachiko, the second sister, who narrates most of the novel, it is a little difficult to discern the thoughts of Yukiko and Taeko about whom she worries so much. In fact, I found Yukiko’s passivity and Taeko’s rebelliousness baffling at times because we are unable to understand their motives. In a society where marriage is equal to social status, being unmarried was a stigma not only for that person but for the whole extended family. Even though this was so, Yukiko who is in her early thirties seemed unbothered by her single status. Taeko on the other hand is eager to get away and start a life of her own. Although the Makioka family is far more lenient than would be expected during this period (both Yukiko and Taeko are allowed to stay with Sachiko instead of Tsuruko and still keep their allowance) and although their family fortune has dwindled since their father’s death, their life is still one of luxury and leisure.

Tanizaki does not focus on eroticism and degeneracy as in some of his other work, but there is still a hint of it with Taeko’s involvement with the unsuitable men in her life. It would seem that by the time Tanizaki came to write The Makioka Sisters (or Sasameyuki, it’s Japanese title), he had fallen out of love with everything modern and Western and had moved away from Tokyo towards Osaka and Kobe where most of this novel is set. Even so, Tanizaki cannot help including snippets of detail such as the cafe Juccheim’s in Kobe (which still exists) and the Leica with which the Makioka sisters take photographs of the weeping cherry trees in Kyoto. They are always eating out at European restaurants and seem to have a fondness of everything German including German beer and medicine. In a sense I found that Tanizaki was caught between his love for the modern and Western and the traditional and Japanese. He also highlights the difference between the people of Osaka and Tokyo in their manner and their use of language which still exist today.

Tanizaki’s treatment of the Makioka sisters portrays the confusion in the changing social milieu and mirrors the theme of modern vs. traditional which runs through the novel. But it is not a simple delineation between the two as all four sisters portray both aspects from switching between kimonos and dresses to drinking sake and wine, smoking and even preferring European food. Ultimately the sisters are brought back into the traditional fold through marriage and it is only Taeko who becomes more modern, and therefore degenerate, who pays the price for her choice. I don’t know whether this was intended but it seemed a little harsh that Taeko who strived to do things her way and make her own life was ultimately punished for refusing to think of the consequences of her actions for the people around her.

The Makioka Sisters felt as though it was a very modern novel, albeit one set in the late 1930s. Considering Tanizaki’s main characters were mostly women in this novel, I thought he was fair in their portrayal, although veering slightly towards the extreme in the case of Yukiko and Taeko. But his portrayal of Sachiko and her marriage was beautiful and sympathetic and you can see his fascination with women and their struggles. As much as it is a novel of the four sisters, it is also a novel of the men in their lives, the husbands, the brother-in-laws and the suitors. Together you can build a picture of a society struggling towards modernity but constantly being held back by convention.

I didn’t expect to enjoy The Makioka Sisters so much. And I appreciated it more as I read along. It’s a book to savour and enjoy and this may be due to its origins as a serial novel. I only wish it was a little longer because I wanted to know how the sisters fared. Did they find their own happiness in the end? How was the family affected by war? I was surprised at how much I cared about the gentle Makiokas and how much they made me think about life as a woman and the choices we are given.

Following on from Naomi, The Makioka Sisters has whetted my appetite for Tanizaki’s writing and I will definitely seek out more books by Tanizaki to read.

I am counting this book for both the Japanese Literature Challenge 3 and the Women Unbound Challenge.

Wow, what a surprise. Can I just say, I loved, loved, loved this book. Graceling has been prominent in a lot of sff blogs and review sites for a while now and has garnered lavish praise. But it didn’t really tickle my fancy until I saw it at my local library and decided, why not? Let’s give it a try. And boy am I glad I did. From the first sentence to the last, Graceling hooked me by its beautiful sentences and incredible story. Kristin Cashore is an amazing writer, and the world she has created is inspired. The world of the Seven Kingdoms itself may be familiar to readers of fantasy, but the graces which bless/inflict some of the characters is a really interesting concept. This is a clever twist on superhero powers and Cashore uses this to explore feelings of alienation, belonging, power, greed and love.

The strength of Graceling lies in the characters, especially the two main protagonists who you will fall in love with as the story progresses. Katsa and Po first meet in a dramatic rescue of Po’s grandfather who was kidnapped by an unknown enemy. What makes this encounter special is that both Katsa and Po are graced with eyes of two different colours and very special gifts. But these graces are not always welcome: Katsa’s grace is killing and she has been working for her uncle, King Randa, as his personal enforcer, dishing out pain and punishment to keep his law. She is ashamed of who she is and wishes somehow that she could change. Po is graced with fighting but has a secret to keep even from his own family. And in a world where peace is an ever fragile thing, there is one person who is drunk on power and wants its all. Katso and Po must find who tried to kidnap his grandfather and prevent the world falling into the hands of their enemy.

Cashore’s novel is deliciously twisted and she strikes a fine balance between good and evil. I liked Katsa who is a feisty, strong and yet vulnerable young woman who knows what she does and doesn’t want and who understands the pain of alienation. She lives in a man’s world and the only reason she can move about it freely is her royal stature and her strength. Cashore has created a heroine who is a better fighter than the men around her, yet I found her extremely feminine and compassionate. However she doesn’t use her femininity to fight, she fights the men on their terms. Katsa knows who she is and doesn’t try to be anyone else. She struggles with her identity and comes out of this struggle stronger and more self assured. And in the process, she finds love and is able to open herself to another person. This is something that all of us go through and Cashore writes about it beautifully.

I, for one, cannot wait to read Cashore’s next book Fire which has just been published this year.

This is my first offering for the Women Unbound Challenge.

Discussing Feminism

25 November, 2009

I meant to put up a link to Book Snob‘s post a week ago but have been busy catching up on Nano, watching New Moon (don’t judge me!) and contemplating turning 36 (how did this happen?), so naturally I forgot… But I’m glad I did because this is such a great discussion on feminism and what feminism means to women today, and in the interim there have been so many more incredible comments which have been added to this post.

It’s quite topical as I have joined the year-long Women Unbound Challenge which started this month and have been thinking about feminism and what it means to be a woman in today’s society a lot more in the past month. Currently I’m reading Kristin Cashore’s Graceling in which there is an intriguing female protagonist which I think qualifies for this challenge.

So what are you waiting for? Go and check it out! Now!