Sunday, April 25, 2021

Review: My Brilliant Friend & the rest of the Neopolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante

I almost gave up on the first book of the series about ten percent of the way in. It starts slow: character sketches of Neapolitans. This man was a fascist, was feared by the neighbourhood, and made his money on the black market. This woman loved a married man and went crazy when he left her. The stories were all so disconnected, and I didn't get the sense that I "got" the characters. The language was simple. The story-telling was straightforward and yet so incredibly detailed. Sometimes I wondered why they mattered at all. How could this exegesis on a single elementary school exam possibly be so important that the narrator dedicates this many pages to it? I continued reading only because I had the audiobook, and the meditative cadence suited my mood on a late-night run.

I'm so glad I finished the first book. I'd intended this review to be a review of only the first instalment, My Brilliant Friend, but I devoured the next three novels over just a few weeks, and when I tried to type up my thoughts, I realized it didn't make sense to review My Brilliant Friend as a standalone novel. The series is very much one single story - indeed the first and second book both end on the very same days their sequels start. 

In a way, I felt like this story makes many other tales about the inheritance of trauma obsolete. Through Elena Grecco's own experience as a novelist, we learn that if you haven't done the work to understand people, and the way their environment and their choices influence their lives, it's just exploitative or navel gazy or moralizing or posturing as worldly. Formative experiences can't be captured in a few flashback scenes - how people recover or respond to their hurt, and how they come to understand the ways they've been hurt, is often as impactful for how a character is shaped.

The story was a perfect character study of the two women. On the one hand I feel like I have never read a novel that so perfectly captures what it feels like to be me before. Elena's thought patterns, particularly her self criticizing, her admiration of her role models, and her introspection, were so like my own. It felt almost intrusive. I've felt the same complicated pull of wanting to leave home and explore the world, then, having left, wanting to return. I've also felt dazzled by a room full of smart people talking about enticing politics ideas. I've felt the same type of love for a friend - admiration, but also competition. I felt uncomfortably betrayed when Lenu began her affair with Nino; he was so obviously a jerk and not worth her affections, and I would never do this. At one point, Lenu asks herself if she was just another woman to him, and would be strung along (or something to that affect) and I, in my frustrating screamed exasperatedly "yes!!" - this elicited a surprised look from the person I passed on my run.

On the other hand, I feel like there's a paradoxical sort of lesson here: that it is impossible to adequately portray the fullness of a human being using words on a page. Lila is painted through Lenu's eyes, somehow so real, and yet also unknowable. 

I loved the political threads. The union-building plot at Lila's sausage factory was a stand out arc. I particularly loved that politics was woven throughout, a constant backdrop in conversations and decisions and relationships. It felt very real. I wondered a little what the author's persuasions are - socialist/communist I think, but she plays a little coy about how she envisions it fitting into the world outside of a disapproval of guerrilla violence and assassination, I think.

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

It's impressive that a book written fifty years ago (1969) still seems to have fresh ideas to examine about gender identity and gender dynamics. Gender and sexuality was a key theme of a lot of media I grew up on: Friends (1994-2004), Sex and the City (1998-2004), How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014). These shows are hard to watch now; it is cringe-inducing how many jokes in Friends have the punchline of "a man did something stereotypically feminine." Even in more recent media that discuss gender identity, such as Orange is the New Black (2013-2019), the conversation starts premised on the idea that the social construct of gender exists and will always exist.

In The Left Hand of Darkness, we explore a world where the very concept of gender is literally alien. In Gethen, the humans are ambisexual, sometimes taking the male role in reproduction and sometimes taking the female role. Genly Ai, the alien envoy to Gethen from the rest of the human race, is a man who grew up steeped in the sometimes toxic social constructs of gender dynamics, and isn't able to recognize the bias he brings to his ambassadorial attempts. The people of Gethen call him a 'pervert' because he is always fertile and always in a male form, but even this term doesn't have quite the same amount of negativity as it would in our world. They're suspicious of him from a political view, but overall quite accepting of his physical differences. The people of Gethen make social mistakes - but they are in assuming that he has the same concept of honor and shame as their own.

I loved this exploration of a gender-free society, and the implications this has for social organization. If anything, I wish we saw a little more of it. Fewer political dinners, more Genly hanging out with the common folk, particularly with Gethenians in stereotypically womenly positions. I found the choice to use male pronouns for all the Gethenians to be a little odd; it isn't simply Genly imposing male identities, Estraven uses these too. (Although, I suppose, it is Genly translating Estraven's diary; perhaps there is a reasonable in-world explanation for this.)

Woven in with the commentary on gender, there are also meditations on nationalism and loyalty, and on "first contact" and how to approach it thoughtfully. (For example, a single envoy is sent, which Genly realizes is not just because a single person is nonthreatening, but because if an envoy is sent with colleagues, there is always an "us" and a "them." When a person is sent alone, they must to some sense integrate into the social organization of the new world, and allow it to change them along the way.

I was lukewarm on the story itself until Estraven and Genly began their trek across the wild from the labour camp to Karhide. The story of the two people, both exiles and aliens in a sense, learning about each other and forming a friendship was beautifully told. Their intimate conversations in the tent about their experience of gender reminded me of similar conversations I've had with guy friends. I was a little heartbroken at Estraven's death. I was surprised that at the end Genly hadn't fully shed his own notions of gender norms. For example, he sees a young child that hes describes as looking feminine but remarks that no girl would be so untalkative. Perhaps the commentary here is that your social training is hard, if not impossible, to unlearn.

This is not to say the book aged perfectly. There was a line about how sex drive is necessary to be human (although it was the flawed Genly who posited this, I think). The use of male pronouns also seems a bit dated or odd. But overall, I thought it was an excellent read.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Review: Dead Astronauts by Jeff Vandermeer

It's been a long time since I have been so disappointed by a book. I thought about writing a long fiery screed ripping this book to shreds, but I actually don't hate the book. The problem is precisely that I could not care less about this book. Although I was brought close to tears by Vandermeer's Borne and Strange Bird, I felt no emotional investment in any creature (or plant....) in Dead Astronauts. Despite the inordinate amount of suffering portrayed in the book, it all felt flat. There were no stakes - everything was just consistently terrible and hopeless in the world. The plot and the chronology was confusing and mysterious, but not in an enticing way where I wanted to reflect on it, to untangle it. The themes were... somehow the most straightforward thing about the entire book. Humans aren't the only creatures that can feel pain, consider research ethics, watch out for monopolies, protect the environment, trauma is passed down through generations.

The strangest thing about the book is that you could flip to a random paragraph, and it would have intriguing and beautiful sentences woven together. And somehow, those fascinating paragraphs combine to become something much less than the sum of their parts.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Review: Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

About halfway through the book, I realized I couldn't quite tell if Anne Brontë was writing Agnes Grey to be an unreliable narrator or a self-insert character - which is a rare predicament for a reader. Agnes (like Brontë) is the daughter of a poor church pastor, who upon turning eighteen years old, stubbornly and bravely decides to become a governess despite very little experience with children or education. She fails rather abysmally in her first job, but absolves herself of all responsibility since the parents refuse to allow her to discipline the children in any way. Her next position is largely the same; the children are inconsiderate and unruly, the parents are superficial. Agnes is unable to teach the children much of anything, but she is so passive, in an ever-suffering martyr sort of way, and so convinced in the correctness of her own rigid way of thinking, that this is hardly surprising.

For example, in the following passages, Agnes relates her first impressions of the Murrays.

Master Charles was his mother’s peculiar darling. He was little more than a year younger than John, but much smaller, paler, and less active and robust; a pettish, cowardly, capricious, selfish little fellow, only active in doing mischief, and only clever in inventing falsehoods: not simply to hide his faults, but, in mere malicious wantonness, to bring odium upon others. In fact, Master Charles was a very great nuisance to me: it was a trial of patience to live with him peaceably; to watch over him was worse; and to teach him, or pretend to teach him, was inconceivable. At ten years old, he could not read correctly the easiest line in the simplest book; and as, according to his mother’s principle, he was to be told every word, before he had time to hesitate or examine its orthography, and never even to be informed, as a stimulant to exertion, that other boys were more forward than he, it is not surprising that he made but little progress during the two years I had charge of his education.


If some of my pupils chose to walk [to church] and take me with them, it was well for me; for otherwise my position in the carriage was to be crushed into the corner farthest from the open window, and with my back to the horses: a position which invariably made me sick; and if I were not actually obliged to leave the church in the middle of the service, my devotions were disturbed with a feeling of languor and sickliness, and the tormenting fear of its becoming worse: and a depressing headache was generally my companion throughout the day, which would otherwise have been one of welcome rest, and holy, calm enjoyment.

“It’s very odd, Miss Grey, that the carriage should always make you sick: it never makes me,” remarked Miss Matilda,

“Nor me either,” said her sister; “but I dare say it would, if I sat where she does—such a nasty, horrid place, Miss Grey; I wonder how you can bear it!”

“I am obliged to bear it, since no choice is left me,”—I might have answered; but in tenderness for their feelings I only replied,—“Oh! it is but a short way, and if I am not sick in church, I don’t mind it.”


But, with time and patience, matters began to be slightly ameliorated: slowly, it is true, and almost imperceptibly; but I got rid of my male pupils (that was no trifling advantage), and the girls, as I intimated before concerning one of them, became a little less insolent, and began to show some symptoms of esteem.

Passages like these had me nearly convinced that Agnes Grey was a genius character study about a naïve, judgemental, self-conscious young woman completely lacking in spine or introspection, who thought she was giving accurate and unbiased character studies of her pupils. However, for this to be the case, the story would have needed to become about Agnes, and her journey in how she perceives the world.

The novel instead was really about Rosalie Murray, a cruel coquette so cartoonishly evil that the author needed to lampshade the ridiculousness of the character:

Had I seen [her conduct] depicted in a novel, I should have thought it unnatural; had I heard it described by others, I should have deemed it a mistake or an exaggeration; but when I saw it with my own eyes, and suffered from it too, I could only conclude that excessive vanity, like drunkenness, hardens the heart, enslaves the faculties, and perverts the feelings; and that dogs are not the only creatures which, when gorged to the throat, will yet gloat over what they cannot devour, and grudge the smallest morsel to a starving brother.

The main plot tension arises from Rosalie attempting to make Agnes' crush fall in love with herself instead, her main source of recreation before she marries the wealthy but unpleasant Mr. Ashby. Despite Rosalie cruelly inventing work for Agnes to perform to keep her away from Mr. Weston and other forms of exploitation and emotional torture, Agnes strives to convince Rosalie not to rush into marriage and to instead consider marrying for love and mutual admiration of character. The plot essentially resolves with Rosalie being unhappy in her marriage and regretfully confiding to Agnes that she should have heeded Agnes' advice. Agnes marries Mr. Weston and undergoes no character growth, having never made any mistakes or admitted to any character flaws.

And this is why, having now finished the novel, I feel instead Agnes is a self-insert character -- a way for Brontë to put forth her opinion on the mistreatment of governesses, the moral depravity of the aristocracy, and the flaws of society more broadly. 

The book was not without a few well-put social critiques. For example, I liked this reflection on how we view beauty:

A little girl loves her bird—Why? Because it lives and feels; because it is helpless and harmless? A toad, likewise, lives and feels, and is equally helpless and harmless; but though she would not hurt a toad, she cannot love it like the bird, with its graceful form, soft feathers, and bright, speaking eyes. If a woman is fair and amiable, she is praised for both qualities, but especially the former, by the bulk of mankind: if, on the other hand, she is disagreeable in person and character, her plainness is commonly inveighed against as her greatest crime, because, to common observers, it gives the greatest offence; while, if she is plain and good, provided she is a person of retired manners and secluded life, no one ever knows of her goodness, except her immediate connections. Others, on the contrary, are disposed to form unfavourable opinions of her mind, and disposition, if it be but to excuse themselves for their instinctive dislike of one so unfavoured by nature; and vice versâ with her whose angel form conceals a vicious heart, or sheds a false, deceitful charm over defects and foibles that would not be tolerated in another.

But I found it rather pales in comparison to Jane Austen's similar social critiques. Where Austen is just as pointed in her critiques of the aristocracy, I get the sense that she can love people while poking fun at their flaws. Austen's Emma is somewhat like Rosalie in viewing romance as a game, and marriage as a strategy. Although Austen describes Emma as "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like," she crafts a layered, sympathetic but flawed character. In contrast, Brontë, or at the very least Agnes, appears to allow for two camps of people: the unlovable and irredeemable morally depraved, and the admirable and unchanging piously perfect. Perhaps more than any other Austen heroine, Agnes is like Mansfield Park's Fanny Price. But even Fanny earns her happy ending by standing up to authority, whereas Agnes stumbles upon her happy ending by passively yet piously floating through life, writing in her diary about how some people are just awful, and taking a well-timed walk on a beach.

Austen's dialogue is crafted beautifully with layers of subtext. Brontë doesn't seem to trust her readers to pick up on nuance and narrates character dynamics plainly:

After a short pause in the conversation, Mr. Weston made some remark addressed particularly to me, as referring to something we had been talking of before; but before I could answer, Miss Murray replied to the observation and enlarged upon it: he rejoined; and, from thence to the close of the interview, she engrossed him entirely to herself. 

The most interesting part about Agnes Grey is the central role than animals play - unusual, I think, for books of this time. Brontë discusses briefly the right animals have to being treated humanely, and characters are explored through the way they treat animals. For example, Tom Bloomsfield excitedly details his plan to roast birds alive. Agnes takes pity on these birds and kills them mercifully, but is chided for it by Mrs Bloomfield:

“I am sorry, Miss Grey, you should think it necessary to interfere with Master Bloomfield’s amusements; he was very much distressed about your destroying the birds.”

“When Master Bloomfield’s amusements consist in injuring sentient creatures,” I answered, “I think it my duty to interfere.”

“You seemed to have forgotten,” said she, calmly, “that the creatures were all created for our convenience.”

I thought that doctrine admitted some doubt, but merely replied—“If they were, we have no right to torment them for our amusement.”

“I think,” said she, “a child’s amusement is scarcely to be weighed against the welfare of a soulless brute.”

“But, for the child’s own sake, it ought not to be encouraged to have such amusements,” answered I, as meekly as I could, to make up for such unusual pertinacity. “‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.’”

“Oh! of course; but that refers to our conduct towards each other.”

“‘The merciful man shows mercy to his beast,’” I ventured to add.

“I think you have not shown much mercy,” replied she, with a short, bitter laugh; “killing the poor birds by wholesale in that shocking manner, and putting the dear boy to such misery for a mere whim.”

Rosalie adopts a puppy, but neglects it when it turns out to be more work than expected. Mr Weston and Agnes are, of course, perfect dog owners and much beloved by their dog Snap.

Overall, however, I think Agnes Grey is moralizing and dated and not really worth reading in the twenty-first century.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Review: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

 Rating: 3/5

There is almost a way to read Jane Eyre in which you interpret our heroine Jane as an unreliable narrator who refuses to recognize her relationship with Mr. Rochester is emotionally abusive. I say almost - I think simply rewriting the last two-thirds of the final chapter, the one that famously starts with "Reader, I married him," would get you most of the way there. Indeed, the chapter, in which Jane happily announces her marriage to her friends and they each react in turn, starts promising enough. House servant Mary could possibly be restraining herself from communicating her severe misgivings.

"Mary, I have been married to Mr. Rochester this morning." The housekeeper and her husband were both of that decent phlegmatic order of people, to whom one may at any time safely communicate a remarkable piece of news without incurring the danger of having one's ears pierced by some shrill ejaculation, and subsequently stunned by a torrent of wordy wonderment. Mary did look up, and she did stare at me: the ladle with which she was basting a pair of chickens roasting at the fire, did for some three minutes hang suspended in air; and for the same space of time John's knives also had rest from the polishing process: but Mary, bending again over the roast, said only —

"Have you, Miss? Well, for sure!"

A short time after she pursued — "I seed you go out with the master, but I didn't know you were gone to church to be wed;" and she basted away.

But it all quickly goes downhill from there. Mary's husband John reacts by "grinning from ear to ear" (one could argue that, having watched Mr. Rochester  grow up from a boy, John is unable to see Mr. Rochester as the abusive spouse he is). Cousins Diana and Mary "approved the step unreservedly." Even spurned lover St. John largely ignores the matter, saying only that he hopes Jane is "happy, and trusts [she is] not of those who live without God in the world, and only mind[s] earthly things." Adele doesn't have an opinion at all and speaks only of her own happiness - but that is Adele for you. 

Jane next extols the wholesomeness and intimacy of their love:

I hold myself supremely blest — blest beyond what language can express; because I am my husband's life as fully as he is mine. No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. I know no weariness of my Edward's society: he knows none of mine, any more than we each do of the pulsation of the heart that beats in our separate bosoms; consequently, we are ever together. To be together is for us to be at once as free as in solitude, as gay as in company. We talk, I believe, all day long: to talk to each other is but a more animated and an audible thinking. All my confidence is bestowed on him, all his confidence is devoted to me; we are precisely suited in character — perfect concord is the result.

Finally, Jane's patience and love of Mr Rochester is rewarded - an act the characters attribute to divine benevolence. Struck blind during the fire set by his abused first wife, after two years of marriage to Jane, he regains his vision. 

It is a wholly unsatisfying ending, because I find it impossible to read Jane's relationship with Mr. Rochester as anything but creepy and unhealthy (even if setting aside the fact that he locked up his wife in the attic with no concern for her comfort or happiness and refers to her almost exclusively with terms like "monster" and "wild beast!").

Mr. Rochester, cognizant of Jane's attachment to him, dangles Ms Ingram in front of her. ("Well, I feigned courtship of Miss Ingram, because I wished to render you as madly in love with me as I was with you; and I knew jealousy would be the best ally I could call in for the furtherance of that end.") When that fails to provoke sufficient response, he threatens to send her to Ireland.

[Rochester] “You’ll like Ireland, I think: they’re such warm-hearted people there, they say.”

[Eyre] “It is a long way off, sir.”

“No matter—a girl of your sense will not object to the voyage or the distance.”

“Not the voyage, but the distance: and then the sea is a barrier—”

“From what, Jane?”

“From England and from Thornfield: and—”


“From you, sir.”

I said this almost involuntarily, and, with as little sanction of free will, my tears gushed out. I did not cry so as to be heard, however; I avoided sobbing. The thought of Mrs. O’Gall and Bitternutt Lodge struck cold to my heart; and colder the thought of all the brine and foam, destined, as it seemed, to rush between me and the master at whose side I now walked, and coldest the remembrance of the wider ocean—wealth, caste, custom intervened between me and what I naturally and inevitably loved.

 When she asks for time off to visit her dying aunt, he becomes irritated and clingy.

“Promise me only to stay a week—”

“I had better not pass my word: I might be obliged to break it.”

“At all events you will come back: you will not be induced under any pretext to take up a permanent residence with her?”

He gaslights Jane repeatedly regarding her encounters with Grace Poole with his wife.

"The creature of an over-stimulated brain; that is certain. I must be careful of you, my treasure: nerves like yours were not made for rough handling."

His demonstrations of love show no understanding of who Jane is - her character, her dreams and her desires. For example, for their wedding, he wishes to drape her in jewels and finery:

"This morning I wrote to my banker in London to send me certain jewels he has in his keeping,—heirlooms for the ladies of Thornfield. In a day or two I hope to pour them into your lap: for every privilege, every attention shall be yours that I would accord a peer’s daughter, if about to marry her.”

“Oh, sir!—never rain jewels! I don’t like to hear them spoken of.  Jewels for Jane Eyre sounds unnatural and strange: I would rather not have them.”

“I will myself put the diamond chain round your neck, and the circlet on your forehead,—which it will become: for nature, at least, has stamped her patent of nobility on this brow, Jane; and I will clasp the bracelets on these fine wrists, and load these fairy-like fingers with rings.”

This makes Jane incredibly miserable, which he seems not to recognize at all.

Glad was I to get him out of the silk warehouse, and then out of a jeweller’s shop: the more he bought me, the more my cheek burned with a sense of annoyance and degradation. As we re-entered the carriage, and I sat back feverish and fagged, I remembered what, in the hurry of events, dark and bright, I had wholly forgotten—the letter of my uncle, John Eyre, to Mrs. Reed: his intention to adopt me and make me his legatee. “It would, indeed, be a relief,” I thought, “if I had ever so small an independency; I never can bear being dressed like a doll by Mr. Rochester, or sitting like a second Danae with the golden shower falling daily round me."

When she protests these displays of wealth, Mr. Rochester's reaction is to laugh at her patronizingly.

He chuckled; he rubbed his hands. “Oh, it is rich to see and hear her!” he exclaimed. “Is she original? Is she piquant? I would not exchange this one little English girl for the Grand Turk’s whole seraglio, gazelle-eyes, houri forms, and all!”

This is the height of their romance! The honeymoon before she discovers he is already married! At the wedding altar, he reacts this way in response to the accusations that he is not legally able to marry Jane:

Without speaking, without smiling, without seeming to recognise in me a human being, he only twined my waist with his arm and riveted me to his side. 

This abusive nature seems to be highlighted specifically by Bronte in the carriage scene where Adele joins Jane and Mr. Rochester on a shopping trip. Mr Rochester muses that he shall whisk Jane away and live with her alone on the moon. Adele reacts with horror and confusion, eventually concluding “She is far better as she is. Besides, she would get tired of living with only you in the moon. If I were mademoiselle, I would never consent to go with you.”

 Perhaps all this could be somewhat mitigated, given the right redemption scene. Instead, Jane hears of his injuries, and of his wife being dead, and rushes to him at once, eagerly agreeing to marry him. It is only after this point that Mr. Rochester acknowledges his failings in his treatment of her and understanding of her sense of morality. ("I did wrong: I would have sullied my innocent flower—breathed guilt on its purity: the Omnipotent snatched it from me.") His physical injury alone appears to be enough justice.

 And this is frustrating to me because I love Jane so dearly. She is fiercely independent, smart, introspective, and brave in following her convictions. Her narration is dramatic and vivid. She sees the world so imaginatively, often finding both beauty and destruction or power and peace within the same sight. I love these contrasts!

I discovered, too, that a great pleasure, an enjoyment which the horizon only bounded, lay all outside the high and spike-guarded walls of our garden: this pleasure consisted in prospect of noble summits girdling a great hill-hollow, rich in verdure and shadow; in a bright beck, full of dark stones and sparkling eddies. How different had this scene looked when I viewed it laid out beneath the iron sky of winter, stiffened in frost, shrouded with snow!—when mists as chill as death wandered to the impulse of east winds along those purple peaks, and rolled down ing and holm till they blended with the frozen fog of the beck! That beck itself was then a torrent, turbid and curbless: it tore asunder the wood, and sent a raving sound through the air, often thickened with wild rain or whirling sleet; and for the forest on its banks, that showed only ranks of skeletons.

Have I not described a pleasant site for a dwelling, when I speak of it as bosomed in hill and wood, and rising from the verge of a stream? Assuredly, pleasant enough: but whether healthy or not is another question.

That forest-dell, where Lowood lay, was the cradle of fog and fog-bred pestilence; which, quickening with the quickening spring, crept into the Orphan Asylum, breathed typhus through its crowded schoolroom and dormitory, and, ere May arrived, transformed the seminary into an hospital.

Were it not for this unfortunate relationship I would read this book over and over again!

So, how would I remedy the ending? The most parsimonious approach would be as I suggested earlier. Re-write just the last part of the final chapter, in which Jane reacts defensively that all her friends were horrified at her elopement, deluding herself, and coming up with excuses about how no one understands their love. The challenge would be to make it obvious enough that the reader is clear the author believes the romance to be a twisted evil thing, while still remaining faithful to Jane's character voice. A particularly modern flair would be to end the novel with a sort of Handmaiden's Tale-style epilogue, describing how this account is entered into evidence as to why Mr. Rochester should not be able to take some poor hapless lass as his third wife. I can't imagine a happy ending for Jane without script-doctoring in at least another five or six chapters. And then it becomes really quite another tale.

So where does that leave me? Frustrated, heartbroken, unsatisfied. Oh Jane, I want so much better for you.


Saturday, January 23, 2021

Review: Ain't I A Woman by bell hooks

 Rating: 5/5 stars

In my review of Blackshirts and Reds, I wrote "There are things that I have spent so much time thinking about, that I can speak or write of them in an impassioned and organized way whenever prompted. This book read like that to me." Ain't I A Woman reads with the same cadence. Hooks has identified a very real problem, and presents it clearly, and passionately.

I've commented before that it can be tricky to review foundational books. Ain't I A Woman is forty years old. I've read a lot of feminist theory, and a lot of intersectional feminist theory. The core thesis of the book was not new to me. But I never felt that I was wasting my time revisiting the same old thing.  The focus of this book was, I felt, very much on the internal rationalizations of every-day people, rather than the public speeches of the movers and shakers of a particular time. For this reason, although there was a considerable amount of overlap with Race, Women and Class by Angela Davis, which indeed hooks cites, I view them more as good companion novels, rather than one being a replacement for the other. 

Nor did I feel like society has really changed so much in the intervening four decades that hooks' observations no longer ring true. The following passage, if it were written in 2021, would be just as searingly true as it was when first written:

When feminists acknowledge in one breath that black women are victimized and in the same breath emphasize their strength, they imply that though black women are oppressed they manage to circumvent the damaging impact of oppression by being strong—and that is simply not the case. Usually, when people talk about the “strength” of black women they are referring to the way in which they perceive black women coping with oppression. They ignore the reality that to be strong in the face of oppression is not the same as overcoming oppression, that endurance is not to be confused with transformation.

Still, I found myself wishing for a follow-up essay - where have we come since?

I wish I'd read this book earlier - perhaps as a chaser to The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I really struggled with Malcolm X's misogynist depictions of women (even women he claimed he admired and respected), and hooks' analysis of his position towards women, and the role of women more broadly in the Black Power movement, gave me a sense of closure and healing.

My most recent non-fiction, non-autobiography read was Stamped From The Beginning,  and Ain't I A Woman was a much-appreciated follow-up to that. Ain't I A Woman made it all the more starkly clear the limitations of focusing solely on the writings of academics and politicians and other people of power when trying to understand the experience of those oppressed by colonialism and patriarchy. Stamped From The Beginning also falls victim to its chronological organization gimmick. hooks is far better able to trace the history of racist thinking by following one idea from its roots in slavery to modern reincarnations of the concept, then move on to another idea.

There was one line that made me laugh out loud - "No other group in America has used black people as metaphors as extensively as white women involved in the women’s movement." I thought immediately of Kate Manne's Down Girl and its questionable use of the murder of Michael Brown to discuss victim blaming of rape survivors.

I liked that hooks did not remove herself from her writing. Academic writing encourages this practice - and I think it is a shame! Research is not carried out in a vacuum from which all subjectivity can be removed. Nor are academics just brains on sticks. When women and/or people of color encounter philosophy that erases them or minimizes their experiences, it hurts. I appreciated hooks relating her reaction to reading and researching these topics.

The writing was approachable, and ideas were presented in intuitive ways. The thesis of intersectionality should be obvious to everyone, but frustratingly (often intentionally, as hooks demonstrates) isn't. Go read it.


Review: Blackshirts and Reds by Michael Parenti

Rating: 5/5 stars

There are things that I have spent so much time thinking about, that I can speak or write of them in an impassioned and organized way whenever prompted. This book read like that to me - that Parenti has spent so much time thinking of this topic that this work just flowed straight out of his pen.

This fluidity made it a joy to read. However, it was also not quite what I expected. I picked this book up in part because I enjoyed The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People's History of Ancient Rome so much, and I was expecting a similarly focused and well-cited exegesis. Instead it was a broad overview of the many facets of anti-communist and pro-capitalist propaganda and foreign policy in the 20th century. In some ways, it functions perhaps more so as an "introduction" chapter to the rest of Parenti's work - which I will probably read.

It took me a while to read; although flowing, it is dense with fantastic ways of framing or phrasing an issue that I think deserve a moment of contemplation.

I thought back a little to my review of Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, where I complained that the illustrative examples of manufactured consent were all quite dated and unfamiliar to me, and were not fully explained, instead presuming the reader was already quite familiar with at least the mainstream media narrative of Pol Pot or Duarte or whoever (which I wasn't). Although the examples Parenti uses in this book are similarly old, more of the necessary background to understand them was presented.