I love reading books about music because I can put my headphones in, call up Spotify, and get a soundtrack. I can hear what the writer is talking about. You get one level from listening to the music itself, you get another from reading about it, but the two together? It’s like combining peanut butter and chocolate: a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
In The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, Jessica Hopper has largely chosen essays about bands with women in them, or are about women in the music industry. (I did not listen to R Kelley during her essay on the sexual abuse allegations against him.) And so my Spotify recommendations and “on repeat” list is now full of female artists I either didn’t know before (see: Cat Power) or hadn’t listened to in years (see: early Fiona Apple and late Sleater-Kinney).
But it’s more than just the music. She writes beautifully and evocatively. The oral history of Rolling Stone, “It was us against those guys”, is a great history of the women who made Rolling Stone into a professional organization and the shit they had to put up with along the way. Those women are still helping each other in their careers today – because to make it as a woman in the music industry is hard and soul-killing and if you don’t help each other, you’re all fucked.
Yes, read The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, read about the Chicago punk scene of the early 2000’s, learn more about your favorite female musicians, learn about female musicians you’ve never heard about before, learn about how having to put up with sexist shit day in and day out kills your soul (if that’s an experience you haven’t already had to put up with). It’s worth it.
Becky Chambers is an optimist. A Psalm for the Wild-Built is a lovely little novel (slightly less than 150 pages) that takes place in a world where humans have figured out that, in order to have a healthy world to live in, they have to restrict themselves to certain comfort levels and spaces in the world – you can’t just go everywhere and do everything. These restrictions are shown as a benevolent anarchism – there doesn’t seem to be any particular person in charge and people get to make their own decisions. Those decisions are respected.
The book is a quest: a monk, Sibling Dex, wants to hear crickets. That’s their overarching goal. But there aren’t any crickets where they are, so they head off into the hills, onto a road that isn’t maintained anymore. They run into a robot.
Robots, in this world, used to work in factories, but gained sentience. The humans let them decide what they wanted to do, and the robots chose to move out into the wilderness. Humans and robots are completely separate. Except that, in Sibling Dex’s trek through the wilderness, they meet one, named Mosscap.
And so Sibling Dex’s quest to hear crickets up in the mountains becomes so much more than that.
A Psalm for the Wild-Built is about love and understanding and acceptance and it is a much needed thing right now. Definitely recommended.
Men get hero’s journey stories all the time. George Lucas admits that without Joseph Campbell he never would have written Star Wars. And Joseph Campbell thought that self-actualization was something written for men. Women were only good as figures to support the men. (Insert eye roll here.)
Maria Tatar finds this all as ridiculous as I do. Of COURSE women are people with inner lives and goals of their own and things they want to do. And of COURSE women have to function in a patriarchal society that would like to deny them both their personhood and the ability to pursue their own goals. So how do we write independent women into their own stories? Where has that happened in the past and how is it happening now?
In short: how do women tell their own stories?
- Fighting Silence. So many stories, especially old ones, are about women who have their tongues cut out after they’ve been raped so they can’t say who did it. Or, like Cassandra, just aren’t believed. Women who are heroes are the ones who figure out other ways to tell their stories in ways that they’ll be believed.
- Discovering the joy of writing. Both Jo and Amy in Little Women discover the joy of expressing themselves; Anne Frank writes to entertain herself and because she enjoys it; Carrie Bradshaw is a hero and a writer. Not everyone gets to tell their stories.
- By Surviving. Scheherazade is the prototypical example here, but there are many fairy tales that are also about women figuring out how to simply stay alive in a world that seems destined to break or end them. But also: whisper networks (aka gossip) keep you alive and unhurt.
- Investigating. Nancy Drew, anyone? Miss Marple? Women see things that are going wrong, either in their lives or in their communities and want to know what’s going on. So they investigate. In the best scenarios, they fix whatever the problem is. It can be social justice (think The Hate U Give) – making things better for everyone, not just themselves.
Because women don’t have power, they’re often forced into a trickster, or trickster-like role, like Penelope unweaving the cloak so she doesn’t have to marry one of the suitors before Odysseus comes home. Or the schemes Lisbet Salander has to put into place to stay independent and safe.
Women are heroic when they are telling their own stories; those stories are often about compassion and care and justice. They are operating not as lone wolves, but as part of community, and are working to make that community better.
In short, if you are a reader or a feminist or both, I would suggest reading The Heroine with 1,001 Faces. It’s so illuminating.
The Heir Affair was my plane book on a recent trip, and I think that was the perfect scenario for it. A few hours of focused, uninterrupted reading for a fun story about: what if a normal person married into the British royal family?
It’s a sequel to The Royal We, which asked the question: what if a normal person fell in love with the heir to the British throne? This is about the aftermath of their disaster of a wedding: they run away for a little while, but then they go back, and what happens next? And a LOT happens next. It covers a few years.
A lot happens. The authors use their knowledge of royal scandals to craft one of the plot threads about the current queen and her sister. There’s also a plot thread about IVF and infertility – it feels very drawn from real life. I did have a “how long is this going to go on?” moment about 75% of the way through the book. But it ended strong.
Overall, I enjoyed it, and if you’re looking for something fun in a similar situation, I’d recommend it!
A Thousand Ships is the end of the Trojan war, told from the perspectives of the women involved in it. The slaves. The women who were captured and became slaves. The women who were raped. The women who were killed in battle. The women who were sacrificed. The women who were left behind. The women who lost daughters. The angry and scared women. There is so much anger and so much of it deserved. The book is many short stories, with a couple of longer ones interwoven throughout and a framework given by Calliope, the muse of epic poetry.
Cassandra was the character I found myself most drawn to. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to always speak the truth and never be believed. How does that work? Why don’t people believe her? I looked forward to her chapters despite, because of, her madness. Her madness was the only thing that made sense in the falling-apart world of war and destruction and anger and death. How else are you supposed to react?
A Thousand Ships: Recommended, especially if you find yourself full of anger that needs to be directed somewhere. May I suggest the foundational literature of Western Civilization?
For awhile now, I have been looking for a book about utopias. Or a maybe a book about a utopia. One that didn’t go bad for whatever reason – usually because it turned into a cult or maybe it ran out of oxygen. You can make an argument that dystopia is a utopia that has gone wrong somehow. And god knows the last few years in America have felt like a dystopia that there’s no escape from.
I don’t know that Matrix set out to create a utopia; it’s a story about a competent woman who gets to a convent in the 1100s and starts running it well. She puts people who are good at things in charge of those things. She invests in making sure the nuns have enough food to eat and that the people in the community around them are taken care of. And it works! She does it! The women take care of themselves and others and do a good job of it. They fight off men who think they must be up to something nefarious. They navigate political waters. The main character fights off potential usurpers.
What does it say about me that a well-run organization looks like a utopia? Or about the society I live in that a place where everyone is fed and housed and clothed and gets some time to themselves every day feels like an unreachable utopia?
Whatever. I needed Matrix in my life right now. You may enjoy it for its mystical Christian content – it is a book about Marie de France after all – or you may enjoy it because it is Lauren Groff writing incredibly well. I, personally, needed a story that was about someone making things work and work well and that basically told men to go away.
Matrix was great. Recommended to anyone who likes to read about competent people being competent.
Inseparable is a novella – 128 pages – about love. Andrée’s story is told from Sylvie’s perspective. Andrée and Sylvie are two middle-school-ish aged girls when they meet in WWII Paris. (The war itself is incidental, and the story covers their lives until they are through university.) Sylvie falls in love with Andrée, but it’s a girl crush kind of love, or maybe puppy love would be the best way to describe it. Andrée doesn’t realize the depth of Sylvie’s feelings, in part because she is so enmeshed into her family and mother. They will always come first for Andrée.
When they are older – in university – Sylvie meets Pascal, with whom she is great friends. Sylvie introduces Pascal to Andrée, and the two of them fall in love. (Sylvie is not outrightly jealous of this, but it’s deeply unclear to me if that’s really the case. She does seem to be genuinely happy for them.) At the end of university, things get complicated. Andrée’s family comes first, right? But they’re very bourgeois and Catholic and straight-laced. Andrée had had to fight to even go to university in the first place. Marriages were arranged by families and had nothing to do with love. Pascal’s family was not in Andrée’s family’s social circle, and romantic relationships outside of marriage are unheard of. Andrée’s family gives her an ultimatum: she can stay in Paris and become engaged to Pascal (a thing he does not want) or she can continue her studies in Cambridge (a place she very much does not want to go). It doesn’t end well.
Because this is de Beauvoir and she is concerned with existentialism, thinking about Inseparable even a little bit raises all kinds of questions about the nature of love. One half of a couple always seems to be more in love than the other – what does that mean for relationships? Was Sylvie in romantic love with Andrée? (Yes.) Did that matter? (Not really.) What is the boundary between friendship and romance? Is Andrée really in love with Pascal or does she just see him as an escape from her strict family (whom she loves but she does not fit in with)? Is Pascal a heel? How desperate is Andrée?
I really liked Inseparable and would recommend it to anyone.
A friend read Mexican Gothic, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s previous book, and complained that, while it was good, she wanted more Mexican culture. Not necessarily less gothic, just more of what the country feels like.
Well, Velvet was the Night has that. But it’s not the tourist-friendly Mexico. It’s the 1970s CIA-funded anti-communist groups fighting the student radicals who are protesting government corruption. The CIA is implicated from the top of the book. It’s clear that the situation is ugly and it’s the Americans’ fault.
This is the background to a classic thriller – there is undeveloped film that everyone is after. We’re following two of them: Elvis, a low-level agent known as a Hawk, one of the CIA funded groups, and Maite, a legal secretary who has been asked to take care of a neighbor’s cat and ends up mixed up with the student radicals when the neighbor doesn’t return. These two are wonderfully drawn characters. Elvis has a heart of gold and loves old movies and music. Maite is lonely and loves romance novels and records. You want to know what happens to them, from the beginning.
The plot is a little slower to get started. But the story takes off once everyone is pursuing the neighbor and her photos, which everyone seems to think will blow the roof off the current government. Will Elvis find the film? Will Maite ever get to give up taking care of the cat? Where is the neighbor anyway? You want to know what happens in the story, and more importantly, you want to know what happens to Elvis and Maite.
Velvet was the Night is a wonderful book, all noir and thriller, without ever being cold-hearted.
Kant’s Little Prussian Head & Other Reasons Why I Write is Claire Messud’s answer to who am I?
It starts with personal essays about her family, her childhood, and her life now. You learn about her Mediterranean origins (her father was a pied-noir from Algeria, and he studied the Turks and Ottoman Empire), her childhood that ranged from Toronto to Australia to France, her aunt, her dogs, and more. This section was the most compelling for me, personally. It’s a glimpse into her life and how she was formed.
The second part is essays about books. She has post-graduate degrees and her career has been both writing and teaching creative writing. What I’m trying to say: she has many intelligent thoughts about books, and the first three essays are about Camus and the pied-noir experience in Algeria. It’s a graceful segue from her personal essays to her literary ones.
The third and final section was the one I found least compelling, which is art criticism. This may be a personal issue: I haven’t read a lot of art criticism, so I find it harder to read. I don’t know its form and how it works; I also find it difficult to read about something visual without the actual visual art in front of me. I kept interrupting my reading to search for the artists and paintings she was talking about.
But the who-am-I-ness of it is undercut by a passage in one of the early essays: anything that gets written about necessarily gets flattened from something complex into something digestible and comprehensible. (For example, Kant, instead of being the complicated philosopher full of complicated ideas, becomes a Prussian who liked to think about stuff.) So how much of Claire Messud’s story is a flattening of who she really is and how she really thinks?
So does Kant’s Little Prussian Head tell you who Claire Messud is? To a degree. I know more now than I did before I read it – but it’s a good reminder of how difficult it is to ever really know anyone else. Maybe especially if they’re telling you.
I get the impression that John Green had a very intense few years. He became well-known by YA readers after The Fault in our Stars was published in 2012 (it became a movie in 2014). He has said that he felt a lot of pressure whilst writing Turtles all the Way Down, his next book. Once that book was out, he stopped being able to write.
So he turned back to reviewing; he started his writing career by reviewing books for Booklist, and this was a return to that, sort of. The Anthropocene Reviewed reflects on various aspects of the human-centered world, ranking them on a 5-star scale. The short essays cover everything from the Lascaux Cave Paintings to The Plague to Diet Dr Pepper. It’s quite random.
The project started as a podcast in 2018 – I would download the episodes, make a cup of tea, and go sit on my front porch while listening to him ponder whatever he was pondering that week. Time passed, and it became 2020 and then mid-March 2020 and beyond, his thoughtfulness about the world and the pandemic and the things changed by it helped me. He talked about only being able to write if he sat next to a local creek, so he would bring a camp chair with his laptop and sit and type away, and I felt that same bizarre anxiety. We all came up with our own ways of getting through: why not a camp chair and a laptop in the middle of nowhere?
The essays included in the book are mostly from the podcast. There may be slight tweaks to them, but by and large they’re the same. Most don’t mention the pandemic, but some do, and it’s jarring to realize that we’ve come so far from the unknowingness of spring 2020 while still not being wholly out of it. I wasn’t sure I was ready to read about how I was feeling last year yet, but I read those essays anyway.
John Green’s earnestness and sincerity and thoughtfulness about everything he writes about makes this book moving and worth focusing on. It’s like a good meditation session or maybe a good sermon, one that moves you and isn’t so long your mind wanders. He communicates what he thinks and why he cares and you start to think that maybe you should too.
I give The Anthropocene Reviewed four and a half stars.