Saturday, January 5, 2019

#1 [2019/CBR11] "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Lee Harper

I vaguely remember reading To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee in school, but I'm glad I decided to reread it when I saw it on my 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40 List. I can't remember how old I was when I first picked it up, but as I reread this book I realized that I'd forgotten many of the details of the story. In addition, my perspective has changed dramatically. When I first read the book, I wholly identified with Scout. There also must have been some parts of the story that went over my head. Now that I'm an adult with some legal training and much more awareness of race and injustice, I both appreciated this book more and had some quiet problems with it.

To Kill a Mockingbird is an undeniable classic. It won a Pulitzer Prize, is on all kinds of lists, and is widely read by schoolchildren and adults alike. I was impressed by the impact of both the writing and the story.

The book begins when the precocious, tomboy Jean Louise "Scout" Finch is only six years old. An adult Jean Louise is looking back at the events that led up to the summer when her brother Jem broke his arm. Jem is four years older than Scout, and the book covers the two summers leading up to Jem's injury. Jem and Scout live with their widowed father, Atticus, and their housekeeper/nanny Calpurnia. Jem and Scout are content to spend their summer days carousing the neighborhood with their friend, Dill. They are a little obsessed with their mysterious neighbor, Boo Radley, who has not left his house since he was a young man, and they get into some trouble trying to discover him.

It takes a little while for the news to filter down to Scout, and even longer for her to understand, that her father was appointed to defend Tom Robinson, a local "negro" on the charges of rape of a poor, young woman, Mayella Ewell. Tom Robinson is assumed guilty and Atticus and his kids are judged for his defense of him. Atticus feels that Tom Robinson deserves a solid defense even though he has little to no chance of being found innocent. In a small, Southern town characterized by incredible systemic racism and before black men (or women) could even be on juries, Atticus's defense of Tom Robinson was isolating, dangerous, and brave. When Robinson is transferred to the local jail for the trial, Atticus takes it upon himself to ensure his safety from a possible lynch mob.

Scout is a unique and memorable character. Her description of school and her resistance to conform to what was expected of her as a lady was fun to read. In addition, seeing the drama of lynch mobs, trials, and injustice from the eyes of a child is a different and affecting way to tell this story. I think it has a lot of good things to say about injustice and treating people equally and with kindness. Atticus Finch is almost too perfect and honorable to be true. He is always patient, wise, and never afraid. He stands up for what is right no matter the consequences. However, since we are seeing him through Scout's eyes, it's very possible she misses some of his inner turmoil.

Reading this book as an adult, I realized that I focused more on Tom Robinson than Scout--after all his story is the most tragic and unjust. I've read a number of books about racism and oppression as seen through the eyes of white people (The Power of One, The Help) and this one is very similar. The white person is the hero, and the book is all about how the racism affects them. The injustice of Tom Robinson's story is enraging and heartbreaking, and it seems too easily put away in the end with Ewell's death. I would like a writer (a really, really good writer who wouldn't ruin it) to tell this story from Tom Robinson's point of view.

As the only person in town willing and brave enough to defend a black man, Atticus is a hero. But something still rubbed me the wrong way. Atticus knows that everything he's doing will not make any difference. Although Atticus says that he is hopeful that the conviction will be overturned on appeal, he never says what those grounds might be. There are questions of fact, which are for the jury to decide. The jury heard conflicting testimony and decided they believed the Ewell family. I don't see how the appellate court, even if they are sympathetic to a young, black man in Alabama in the 1930's (unlikely) could possibly overturn the conviction. So Atticus has become a willing participant in a charade of justice. I realize he is doing everything he can and certainly going above and beyond, but I was so angry at what was happening that I was angry at Atticus for even being involved. What good is he actually doing? Realistically, I don't know what else Atticus could have done, and it is a testament to the book that the story makes me feel so strongly.

A Quick Look Back at 2018

I like to collect some stats at the end of the year to take a look at what I've been reading. Here are the numbers and some of my favorites for 2018:

Total Books: 60
Fiction: 45
Non-Fiction: 15

Women Authors: 54
Men Authors: 6

Romance Novels: 16
Books from my 50 Books Every Woman Should Read List: 23

It looks like my only repeat authors this year were some favorite romance authors, including Alexis Daria and Sarina Bowen.

Favorite Fiction:
The Power by Naomi Alderman
A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang
Brooklynaire by Sarina Bowen

Favorite Non-Fiction:
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
Daring to Drive by Manal al-Sharif

Saturday, December 29, 2018

#60 [2018/CBR10] "The Feminine Mystique" by Betty Friedan

The Feminine Mystique (1963) by Betty Friedan has been on my radar for years as a classic feminist tome that I should probably read. However, I was always intimidated by the length. I was also afraid that it would be dated and difficult to read. It wasn't until I saw it on my 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40 List that I had the motivation I needed to pick it up. It's easy for me to take the opportunities I have today for granted. Books like The Feminine Mystique remind me of a very different society where the limits and expectations put on women were much more restrictive. I was impressed by Friedan's writing, and I found large sections of the book to be fascinating and eyeopening. Even though other sections felt a little repetitive and dated, I am glad I read it.

I had heard the story in history class that women had stepped up to work in the factories during WWII but then returned to the home when the soldiers returned and displaced them. What I did not learn about was the incredible pressure put on women to fulfill the "feminine" role of wife and mother. I'd always thought of women's progression as relatively linear throughout history, but Friedan compares the decades before the war with the decades after and reveals a giant step backwards for women.

Friedan states in her book that forcing smart, educated women into such a limited role as "housewife" makes them unhappy, hinders their development, and also makes their families unhappy. Women were forced to stifle their ambition and goals. They were going directly from being wholly dependent on their fathers to wholly dependent on their husbands. Their only goals were to get married and have babies. In this way, they could not fully mature and grow into adulthood. So women invested their lives into that of their husbands and children, overly involving themselves in both. And when their children grew up, the women had nothing left. In the years after WWII, women were marrying earlier and having more children than before the war. After gaining educational opportunities, women were dropping out or refusing opportunities in further education because it would make it more difficult to find a husband.

One of the influences on the feminine mystique that I found fascinating were the articles in women's magazines. Before the war, there were stories of women working, flying planes, and finding their own destinies. If men were involved at all, they were not the central point. After the war, almost all the stories involved women looking for men and married women trying to make their relationships better. Friedan used to write for these magazines and she said the male editors would refuse any content that did not directly relate to homemaking. Thus, there were no articles about the rest of the world.

Another influence that specifically surprised me was education. Institutions of higher education were under some pressure because education was being blamed for making women unfeminine and unsuitable housewives. Some colleges instituted required "Homemaker" courses for female students. These courses often hammered the opinion that women could be a celibate scholar or a happy mother with a home but certainly not both.

Friedan spends one whole chapter on advertising and how the feminine mystique was purposefully manipulated to sell products to housewives by pretending that these products would give women's lives more meaning. With some insider memos regarding advertising strategy, it is clear how advertisers viewed and used women.

In addition to these pressures, women who were unhappy or simply wanted more were accused by doctors and psychologists of being unfeminine or neurotic. Real, feminine women were wholly fulfilled by their roles as mothers and wives.

Friedan is a good writer with a strong and meaningful message, and I liked most of her book. However, it is certainly not perfect. Her chapters on psychoanalysis and therapists felt dated and hard to read. I realize that Friedan was fighting against a storm of "professional opinions" on the value of the feminine mystique, but all her talk of Freud as well as housewives causing Schizophrenia and homosexuality was a little much. Although I found Friedan convincing, I often wished for more statistics and less anecdotal evidence. In addition, Friedan has been fairly criticized in the past for ignoring poor and minority women. There is no doubt that this book is a personal discussion of herself and her contemporaries. Although many women can probably relate to it, it was not written for all women.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

#59 [2018/CBR10] "Six Wakes" by Mur Lafferty

My book club is comprised of approximately six to ten women, almost all of them lawyers (or ex-lawyers) and one electrical engineer. There is almost always a wide range of opinions on the books we read, but the lone engineer is often on her own. She is also the primary motivator in forcing us to occasionally read science fiction. We read Ancillary Justice four years ago on her recommendation, and most recently we read Six Wakes (2017) by Mur Lafferty. Again, this is not a book I'd heard of or would have picked up on my own. I've read a couple of really good science-fiction novels that I've loved, but for the most part it's not my genre.

Six Wakes is a story about a crew of six that is running a large transport ship on its way to Artemis, a promising new Earth-like planet, where they are planning on creating a colony. The trip will take several lifetimes, and the cargo hold is filled with thousands of people held in a frozen hibernation state. In this world, cloning has become both scientifically feasible and relatively commonplace. Internationally negotiated codicils govern the ethics surrounding cloning. The entire crew is made up of clones, with plans on creating new bodies when their old ones inevitably die during the long trip.

The book begins with Maria Arena waking up in a cloning vat, blood and gore floating in the air around her, and her dead body across the room. She quickly realizes that the rest of the crew is around her, waking up in their own cloning vats, with their dead bodies nearby. It seems from their aged bodies that they've been in space for about twenty-five years, but they have no memory of any of that time. No one has any idea what's happened, but they know that one or more of them must have been the killer. To complicate things, the ship is not in good working order. The gravity is not working, their mindmaps (backups of the clones' brains so the new bodies know what's happened in the past) have been deleted, the cloning bay cannot make any more bodies, the ship is slowing down, and most records have been purged.

The rest of the crew includes: Katrina de la Cruz, the no-nonsense, ex-military, Captain of the ship; Joanna Glass, a doctor and former Senator; Wolfgang, the lunar-born security; Hiro (Akihiro Sato), the pilot and navigator; and, Paul Seurat, the programmer and engineer.

This was a very promising beginning to the novel, and I started reading with high hopes. Unfortunately, I was almost immediately frustrated. The characters felt two dimensional, and I couldn't understand their motivations at all. In addition, the world did not feel fleshed out in a realistic way. Instead of falling into a creative, alternate reality, I was constantly asking myself why things were happening. It didn't help that the writing was often unclear or awkward. There was--or what I think was supposed to be--some witty, quirky badinage between Maria and Hiro, but it came off as stilted and odd.

Another early scene that took me out of the book was when the crew hadn't eaten for twenty-four hours after being cloned. They were desperate for food, but Wolfgang and Paul decided to go to the gym where Wolfgang showed off his fitness in a bullying way. Then Joanna accused Wolfgang of being the killer. "You could have lost your temper and pushed us all to perform for you in the gym, and gotten mad and killed us all." What? Perform for you in the gym? When has that been a valid motivation for murder? Also, why are they going to the gym when they're hungry and there's so much else to do? Why did Paul even agree to go?

Unfortunately, I found the end disappointing as well, although it explained a lot of the problems I had throughout the book. For example, why would you put a crew of six criminals in charge of thousands of people? In fact, why would you have a crew at all when you have a computer capable of imitating an entire ecosystem within the ship--including tiny, robotic bees--and is, in fact, in charge as a safeguard. The crew is superfluous and their primary jobs are to take care of each other. If they weren't there, they wouldn't be needed. Maria makes food for the six of them, Wolfgang keeps them in check, Katrina leads them, and Joanna doctors them.

In the end, it turns out that a powerful and vindictive woman, Sallie Mignon, came up with the whole thing as a kind of convoluted plot for revenge. She decided that in the world of cloning, simple murder is not the satisfying revenge that she wants. Instead, she wants to "take away their hope." So, she loads up a spaceship with all of her enemies (not clear how she got her enemies and no one else on there), then sets it up with a crew of criminals that is almost certain to self destruct. The crew slowly figures out that they all have some kind of connection with her and were set up. Apparently Mignon is counting on the crew to kill each other in space and ruin the hopes of everyone aboard? But if she had been successful, the ship would have turned around and come back to Earth. In fact, it almost happened within a year of their departure. Even if the ship had somehow become stranded, how would all the cryo people sleeping on board even know what happened, let alone "lose hope."

Mignon went to an awful lot of work for a very questionable payoff that might occur in a very long time. If she wanted to punish her enemies, she could torture them, make their bodies disappear, threaten their families, or do what she did to Maria--use her and reclone her without her most recent memories of what she'd done. (This section was the most interesting part of the book for me). In fact, why would hired killers even become a thing in a world where death did not mean anything? Kidnapping would be so much more effective because new clones cannot be made without proof of a dead body.

Paul was the secret weapon sent in with the rest of the crew. He was not a clone and was actually vehemently opposed to clones. I think he had a vague plan of killing all the clones once he was on board the ship--although I don't know how he could justify putting the thousands of humans in cryo at risk. In fact, Paul had an especially vehement, secret hatred of Maria because during the clone riots, Maria had gone into a building looking to save Sallie Mignon. But as soon as she found her, the building collapsed and everyone died--including the police and firefighters who'd followed Maria to try to get her out of the building. Apparently, these firefighters and police were old relations of Paul and he blames Maria for their deaths. First of all, I don't know why Maria would even have the memory of going into the burning building and its collapse because she certainly did not have a mindmap made in the seconds before her death. Secondly, police and fire would not simply allow, and then follow, a woman into a dangerous, burning building. They would simply grab her and keep her out of the building. I know Paul's hatred is not exactly rational, but it's ridiculous to blame Maria for all the deaths that occurred during the clone riots.


I certainly found this book memorable and easy to write about, but most of this review stems from frustration. Lafferty started with such an interesting premise. I wish she had spent more time creating a world that I could really believe and characters I really cared about. With real motivations and real consequences, I could have really enjoyed this book.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

#58 [2018/CBR10] "The Joy Luck Club" by Amy Tan

I think I remember reading The Joy Luck Club (1989) by Amy Tan when I was a kid. My mother must have bought it, and I picked it up because I would read anything and everything I could get my hands on--even when I was too young to really understand it. So when I saw it on my list of 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40, I wasn't sure I needed to read it again. In the end, I figured it was worth the reread since I didn't remember anything about it.

The Joy Luck Club tells the story of four women who'd emigrated from China to the United States after WWII, and their relationship with their four American-born daughters. The book begins from the perspective of Jing-mei "June" Woo. Her mother has recently died and she has been invited to take the place of her mother at "The Joy Luck Club" mah jong table. The original Joy Luck Club began in China during the war when there was little joy or luck, but it was renewed when the four mothers all met and became friends at a church in the United States. June finds out at this gathering that her mother had left behind two children, two young girls in China that she had feared were dead. June has suddenly become a sister and now her mother's friends want her to go to China, meet her sisters, and tell them about their now-deceased mother.

The thing about The Joy Luck Club is that it does not follow a traditional narrative format. I was ready to read about June struggling to get her mind wrapped around having sisters and her journey to China to meet them. Instead the book jumps to another isolated story about another one of the Chinese mothers. One of the most challenging aspects of this structure was that I had a very hard time keeping everyone and their stories straight. The stories were always told in first person, so besides the beginning of the chapter, you almost never saw the woman's name while reading.

In addition, none of their stories had any obvious continuation from mother to daughter. I took notes on the basics and checked back regularly to keep everyone straight, but it was a challenge. It almost felt like reading a number of short stories and it was up to me to link them together. Most of the time, I did not see a connection between the mothers' stories and their attitudes towards their daughters. Instead, Tan did something more subtle and realistic, showing quiet tensions and misunderstandings that stemmed from their different perspectives.

This book was well written. I learned some things about living in China and then the continuing challenges of raising "American" daughters. Some of the stories were haunting. However, I often have a problem connecting with these kinds of books. I like details and I like to delve deeply into a small number of characters' lives. There were not enough details in any of the stories for me to get a clear picture of anyone's life, so my recollection--even though I just finished the book--remains murky. It was hard for me to feel connected to the book--except, perhaps, for the crab dinner at the end. It is no wonder that I don't remember anything from when I read it as a child.

In an attempt to remember some details of this book, I'm going to record the basics of each woman's story below. This is primarily for my own recollection and not really part of the review. Spoilers, though.

Suyan Woo - recently died. Her first husband in China was in the army, and when Suyan was fleeing, she had to leave her twin daughters on the side of the road
June Woo - learns that she has two sisters in China and she didn't know her mother at all
An-mei Hsu - her mother left her to become the fourth concubine of a rich man in a town far away; it turns out her mother was raped by the rich man and forced to join him. In the end, her mother kills herself to force the rich man to care for An-mei
Rose Hsu Jordan - her brother drowned in the ocean when she was a child; she is terrified of making any decisions; her husband, Ted, is in the process of getting a divorce and she doesn't know what she wants
Lindo Jong - promised to marry an asshole when she was two years old, but she is able to eventually finagle her way out of the marriage and get to the United States
Waverly Jong - was a champion chess player until she has a fight with her mother and stops playing; daughter Shoshana; Waverly is now engaged to marry her second husband, but is afraid her mother won't approve
Ying Ying St. Clair - fell off a boat, almost drowned, and got lost when she is only 4 years old; on the edge of mental illness after her son dies in childbirth
Lena St. Clair - architect with an odd relationship with her architect husband. Her mother doesn't understand why they share the bills and buy or make expensive things that are weak or won't last

Monday, December 10, 2018

#57 [2018/CBR10] "A Room of One's Own" by Virginia Woolf

A Room of One's Own (1929) by Virginia Woolf is a short, classic, feminist treatise, and it was on my list of 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40. I know very little about Virginia Woolf. I vaguely remember having to read Mrs. Dalloway in school, but I think I was too young to really appreciate it. I never even saw The Hours with Nicole Kidman. So, I wasn't really sure what to expect when I began reading this book.

A Room of One's Own is an extended essay based on two speeches that Woolf gave at women's colleges at the University of Cambridge. Her basic premise is that women must have money, independence, and a room of their own in order to be able to write fiction. It is smart, pithy, and still relatable. I did feel like I was reading an assignment for school, and I probably could have gotten a lot out of some extended class discussion, but I still found it easy to read. One surprise was that Woolf was a lot funnier than I was expecting. She has a dry wit, and some of her snide comments were immensely appealing.

The book begins with Woolf attending a luncheon at a men's college, enjoying the luxurious meal and furnishings. From there she is denied entrance to the library because she is a woman. When she travels back to the female quarters for dinner she notes how sparse the food and options are for the women compared to the men. But she is not surprised when she thinks of the last couple hundred years when men were seeking money and power and women were getting married and having babies. Since women could not even control their own wealth, they had very little interest in making any. So when it came to donations for the women's colleges, the women's colleges had much fewer resources than the men.

Woolf also explains why there have been no classic, famous women writers. She gives Shakespeare a fictional sister as an example, and gifts her with the same genius as her famous brother. Woolf explains how impossible it would be for Shakespeare's sister to get any kind of education or have any time to foster her talents. And she could not run off and join a theater company as her brother did because women were not allowed. Instead, Woolf prophesied darkly, Shakespeare's sister would end up pregnant, and desperate, and kill herself.

I imagined being a college student in 1928, and listening to Virginia Woolf deliver this lecture in person. What an experience. Would it have been shocking? An inspiration? I'm glad I read this book. I have a better understanding and appreciation of Virginia Woolf, and I'm now open to reading more of her in the future. I ended up highlighting a fair number of lines as I read, so I'm just going to include those now instead of trying to sum up Woolf with my own words.

"a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." (2)

"If truth is not to be found on the shelves of the British Museum, where, I asked myself, picking up a  notebook and a pencil, is truth?" (27)

"men who have no apparent qualification save that they are not women." (28)

"One does not like to be told that one is naturally inferior of a little man." (34)

"With the exception of the fog he seemed to control everything." (36) [pointing out that when reading contemporary newspaper stories, men were obviously in control of the world.]

"Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size." (38)

"how impossible it is for her to say to them this book is bad, this picture is feeble, or whatever it may be, without giving far more pain and rousing far more anger than a man would do who gave the same criticism." (38)

"She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history." (47)

"was in her case not indifference but hostility." (57) [Artists are challenged because they face an indifferent world, but Woolf states that women artists have a much harder time.]

"The history of men's opposition to women's emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself." (60)

"the value that men set upon women's chastity and its effect upon their education." (69)

"This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room." (80)

"It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen's day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex." (90)

"unless indeed he chose to 'hate women,' which meant more often than not that he was unattractive to them." (91)

"that five hundred a year stands for the power to contemplate, that a lock on the door means the power to think for oneself." (117)

"Still, you may object, why do you attach so much importance to this writing of books by women when, according to you, it requires so much effort, leads perhaps to the murder of one's aunts, will make one almost certainly late for luncheon, and may bring one into very grave disputes with certain very good fellows?"
-"Lately my diet has become a trifle monotonous." (119)

Sunday, December 9, 2018

#56 [2018/CBR10] "The Kiss Quotient" by Helen Hoang

It was Amazon that recommended The Kiss Quotient (2018) by Helen Hoang to me. I'm a sucker for romance novels, but then I saw Roxanne Gay's blurb: "This is such a fun read and its also quite original and sexy and sensitive." I was sold. The long wait list at the library also showed how popular it was, so I read it almost as soon as it became available.

In many ways, The Kiss Quotient is a normal romance novel. The plot and story are all about the two main characters getting over their fears and inhibitions and finding true love at last. What makes this novel stand out (besides the fact that the main characters are Asian, which I think is still notable despite Crazy Rich Asians) is that Stella is high-functioning autistic and Michael is a prostitute. You might wonder how Hoang can make this story relatable, but she really does. This story was fun, sweet, interesting, and original. It's not perfect, but I enjoyed it and would recommend it to others.

Stella Lane is thirty years old and under pressure from her demanding mother for grandchildren. The problem is that Stella has issues with intimacy stemming from her autism. She is very successful at her job as an econometrician, which fits her personality to a T, but interpersonal skills have always been much harder for her. The few times that she's slept with men have proven disastrous. An offhand comment by a coworker has Stella thinking that--like with her other interpersonal skills--what she needs is more practice. And the perfect way to get practice is to hire a professional.

Enter, Michael Phan, a reluctant male prostitute with the requisite heart of gold. His patience and sexiness help a lot with getting past Stella's defenses. She wants to learn more from him, and so they begin a "pretend dating" relationship for Stella to learn how to act in a relationship. Of course the two start to love each other, but Stella doesn't want to push Michael for more than their deal and Michael has his own self-esteem problems.

I was surprised at how well Hoang was able to make a romance work between these characters and under these circumstances, but she really did. ***SPOILER*** For the most part, I rolled my eyes when the stalkerish ex-customer of Michael's turns out to be Stella's co-worker's mother. That whole banquet didn't really work for me. I was also a little uncomfortable with their PDA, some of it very close to his family, but the rest of the story makes up for those minor issues. ***END SPOILER***

Also, I realized that I know very little about autism. It turns out that the author discovered as an adult that she was high-functioning autistic, and it explained a lot for her. She said autism varies a lot, but that Stella was so easy to write because Stella reacted as she would have. As I was reading, I could so relate to Stella that I started wondering about myself. Just like Stella, I don't like loud music, crowds, strong smells, or interacting with strangers. But I don't fit in other ways, so I think I'm just your typical introvert.