Books I Read By Women

I'm interested in books by men, too. But first I have to get through all these bad-ass books by women.

Sir by HR Hegnauer

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Sir is a quiet book that says a lot. It moved me in a terribly visceral way. I mean, I cried. And, of course: it’s a book about the speaker’s grandfather (Sir) and his death, the speaker’s grandmother (Mrs. Alice) and her dementia, the seventy-year relationship between the two grandparents. The speaker emails with her grandfather as he adorably tries to figure out emails. The speaker shares the worst news with her grandmother, not even halfway into the book, but you, the reader, are already gripped by this loss. You already care so much, associate this pain with your own grief and fears. It’s such a heart-wrenching moment:

Mrs. Alice, I have some sad news to share with you. There was a very long pause. Mrs. Alice, Sir’s been sick, and he had to go back into the hospital again… Well, let’s go visit him… Well, that’s the thing, we can’t… Well, did he die?… I do not know how Mrs. Alice knew this, and it felt like my mouth was now somehow broken. Yes… Sir has died?! My Sir has died? My Sir? My Sir? Has died? Died? Dead?… In this exact second, I knew that Mrs. Alice knew this, but I felt like I was watching this scene from outside of my body, and it just continued to unfold in these elongated seconds that I was no longer directly a part of anymore. Yes. But then in less than a minute, it had gone entirely. I had never seen anyone take on such concentrated grief and then, in the same moment, lose it.” (23)

All the while, woven in is the speaker’s own struggle with her gender, sexuality, and relationships: 

"I like when people call me ma’am because it gives me hope that genders might be fluid. It becomes a special occasion for me, and I celebrate it by marking it on my calendar. But more often I’m called sir, and if I’m feeling extra confident, I like to respond, I am not a sir!” (21)

"What does it mean to be a human alongside another human? That was the original question of this project. Sir, I wanted to interview you and Mrs. Alice and just ask this question repetitively (There is no such thing as repetition. Only insistence.), but now you’re dead, and Mrs. Alice can’t carry a conversation.

I feel like a hypocrite writing this project because Danielle said she wanted to be on her own now. I mean, what the hell do I know about being a human alongside another human? Clearly not very much.” (60)

The speaker’s relationship with her grandparents is extremely close, emotional. Nothing feels sentimental; the writing, like the subject matter, is tender and straightforward.

Something about the meditative tone of the book— or was it the structure, with short prose poems, one per page, which could also be read as a drawn out essay— reminds me a lot of Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. For example:

"The house that I’m now living in has a television, which is the first time I’ve lived with a television since I was in high school and lived at home. I’ve now learned from Oprah what forgiveness means. She said that to forgive someone means that you’ve realized you do not wish you were any different than you are right now. This does not mean that you must love what is to be forgiven… Or it went something like this… There were no colors. This never happened.

I understand now that this is what happens when a human tries to become an and: the language won’t let us.” (37)

Ultimately, despite the book’s concern with grief, loss, relationships, and love, there is an overall questioning of language: how language, or poetry, serves us and fails us. In the second half of the book, the speaker writes letters to her deceased grandfather:

"Dear Sir,

Where are you in your migration? Is there a language there, and can you read my letters? You’ve stopped responding. (70)

Dear Sir,

I can’t remember how to go into the place where words exist as sentences. How do you say noun then verb and have it sound right? I just want it all to sound right again. Noun verb. Noun verb. Noun verb. No, no. That’s backwards, isn’t it? How’s it go again? Is it verb noun now in this language? Yes, yes. I think that’s right. Sir, please hear me. I am calling to you from this place of and. I can’t find the nouns and verbs.” (71)

When Hengauer writes: “All I want to do is say, I and you in the way where and is a verb, like I do this. I love you. I and you. Do you understand what I am saying now?” (76) there is no way you cannot understand, or feel, what is moving beneath, inside, and in between those fallible, struggling words.

I Love Dick by Chris Kraus

                                                   

There is nothing to do with this amazing book other than just quote from it. Here is a list of the quotations that moved me the most. You will find your own. I realize this blog is just me fawning over books but what else is there, what else is there to do with books so thrilling and intellectual and embodied and well-written?

It begins with an intro by Eileen Myles (of course), reflecting on her early experiences as a young girl: 

"I just knew in a quiet way I was ruined. If I agreed to be female. There was so much evidence on the screen and in books. I read Doris Lessing in literature class and that depressed the shit out of me too. I just hated reading work by women or about women because it always added up the same. Loss of self, endless self-abnegation even as the female was trying to be an artist, she wound up pregnant, desperate, waiting on some man."

So that sets the stage. And then Chris Kraus follows the fish hook of romance, desire, obsession, right to the very end of it, into the grotesque stomach of the thing, and back out again. This is a spoiler: she survives. She doesn’t end up waiting on the man, or ruined. She lives on, her self intact, or even more so, because of what she goes through, the whole drippy emotional mess of it, in her desire for this one man.

She writers herself through it. 

“As soon a sex takes places, we fall,” she wrote, thinking, knowing from experience, that sex short circuits all imaginative exchange. The two together get too scary. So she wrote more about Henry James. Although she really wanted both. “Is there a way,” she wrote in closing, “to dignify sex, make it as complicated as we are, to make it not grotesque?” (51)

Writing herself through it—and writing often directly to him, the desired male object—she meditates on marriage, possession, feminist art, female desire, the act of writing itself:

"Sylvère keeps socializing what I’m going through with you. Labeling it through other people’s eyes—Adultery in Academe, John Updike meets Marivaux… Faculty Wife Throws Herself At Husband’s Colleague. This presumes that there’s something inherently grotesque, unspeakable, about femaleness, desire. But what I’m going through with you is real and happening for the first time." (138)

"Shame is what you feel after letting someone take you someplace past control—then feeling torn up three days later between desire, paranoia, etiquette wondering if they’ll call." (170)

On love, Kraus (the character?) writes letters to Dick (the character!): 

"Dear Dick,

            No woman is an island-ess. We fall in love in hope of anchoring ourselves to someone else, to keep from falling.” (257)

"This incident congealed into a philosophy: Art supercedes what’s personal. It’s a philosophy that serves patriarchy well and I followed it more or less for 20 years.

            That is: until I met you.” (230)

On feminist art:

"I’m wondering why every act that narrated female lived experience in the 70s has been read only as “collaborative” and “feminist.” The Zurich Dadaists worked together too but they were geniuses and they had names." (150)

"WHO GETS TO SPEAK AND WHY?, I wrote last week, IS THE ONLY QUESTION." (191)

"Why is female vulnerability still only acceptable when it’s neuroticized and personal; when it feeds back on itself? Why do people still not get it when we handle vulnerability like philosophy, at some remove?" (207)

“Dear Dick,” I wrote in one of my many letters, “what happens between women now is the most interesting thing in the world because it’s lease described.” (208)

The meditation on feminism bleeds into her ars poetica:

"And why’s Janis Joplin’s life read as a downward spiral into self-destruction? Everything she did is filtered through her death. Roger Gilbert-Lecomte, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, River Phoenix all suicide too but we see their deaths as aftermaths of lives that went too far. But let a girl choose death—Janis Joplin, Simone Weil—and death becomes her definition, the outcome of her “problem.” To be female still means being trapped within the purely psychological. No matter how dispassionate or large a vision of the world a woman formulates, whenever it includes her own experience and emotion, the telescope’s turned back on her. Because emotion’s just so terrifying the world refuses to believe that it can be pursued as discipline, as form. Dear Dick, I wanted to make the world more interesting than my problems. Therefore, I have to make my problems social." (196)

And the absolute ultimate quotation, already shared often on Tumblr, another ars poetica, the one that I connect to most:

"Because I’m moved in writing to be irrepressible. Writing to you seems like some holy cause, cause there’s not enough female irrepressibility written down. I’ve fused my silence and repression with the entire female gender’s silence and repression. I think the sheer fact of women talking, being, paradoxical, inexplicable, flip, self-destructive but above all else public is the most revolutionary thing in the world. I could be 20 years too late but epiphanies don’t always synchronize with style.” (210)

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The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

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There’s not much to say about this classic book from 1991 other than that everyone should read it. And although I can’t believe I waited this long to read it, I’m glad I read it the year I turned 30 as a single woman in the Bible-Belt South of Tennessee. It was the ideal birthday gift to myself, this book. 

The basic premise of the Beauty Myth is:

"When the restless, isolated, bored, and insecure housewife fled the Feminine Mystique for the workplace, advertisers faced the loss of their primary consumer. How to make sure that the busy, stimulated working women would keep consuming at the levels they had done when they had all day to do so and little else of interest to occupy them? … To paraphrase Friedan, why is it never said that the really crucial function that women serve as aspiring beauties is to buy more things for the body? Somehow, somewhere, someone must have figured out that they will buy more things if they are kept in the self-hating, ever-failing, hungry, and sexually insecure state of being aspiring “beauties” (66).

"Female thinness and youth are not in themselves next to godliness in this culture. Society really doesn’t care about women’s appearance per se. What genuinely matters is that women remain willing to let others tell them what they can and cannot have. Women are watched, in other words, not to make sure that they will "be good" but to make sure that they will know they are being watched" (99).

Wolf is, of course, brilliant in her analysis of the beauty industry, which she describes as a type of religion for women:

"The "supportive" rhetoric of the diet industry masks the obvious: The last thing it wants is for women to get thin once and for all. … The same holds for the antiage industry, which a truly effective product (or universal female self-esteem) would destroy. Fortunately for the industry, even surgery patients continue to age at the rate of 100 percent" (102).

Furthermore, on dieting and hunger:

"The ideology of semistarvation undoes feminism; what happens to women’s bodies happens to our minds. If women’s bodies are and have always been wrong whereas men’s are right, then women are wrong and men are right. Where feminism taught women to put a higher value on ourselves, hunger teaches us to erode our self-esteem. … The more financially independent, in control of events, educated, and sexually autonomous women become in the world, the more impoverished, out of control, foolish, and sexually insecure we are asked to feel in our bodies" (197).

I connected especially with Wolf’s discussion of female sexuality within the context of the Beauty Myth. There are about four whole pages I would just copy down here, if I could. But instead, here’s a jumble of what I found to be the most poignant excerpts:

"The cultural inversion of female sexuality starts early, beginning with the masturbation taboo. Sexual integrity grows out of the sublime selfishness of childhood, from which sexual giving emerges as generosity rather than submissiveness. But female masturbation is also culturally censored. … Women’s bodies are portrayed as attractive packaging around an empty box. … Each woman has to learn for herself, from nowhere how to feel sexual (though she learns constantly how to look sexual). 

What little girls learn is not the desire for the other, but the desire to be desired. Girls learn to watch their sex along with the boys; that takes up the space that should be devoted to finding out about what they are wanting, and reading and writing about it, seeking it and getting it. 

This outside-in perspective on their own sexuality leads to the confusion that is at the heart of the myth. Women come to confuse sexual looking with being looked at sexually… many confuse sexually feeling with being sexually felt… many confuse desiring with being desirable. 

Could it be then that women’s famous slowness of arousal relative to men’s, complex fantasy life, the lack of pleasure many experience in intercourse, is related to this cultural negation of sexual imagery that affirms the female point of view, the cultural prohibition against seeing men’s bodies as instruments of pleasure? Could it relate to the taboo against representing intercourse as an opportunity for a straight woman actively to pursue, grasp, savor, and consume the male body for her satisfaction, as much as she is pursued, grasped, savored, and consumed for his?”  (156-159)

Wolf ties her discussion of sexuality in to cultural artifacts like literature, poetry, paintings, and film. She talks about how boys see their sexuality, from an early age, in pop culture, depicted always through their own male perspective. Girls, however, don’t get to see their sexuality from a female point of view at all. This creates what Wolf calls the inversion of female sexuality, where women are taught to see their sexuality only from the male perspective. Which brings me to literature, and this blog, and my desire to pursue a PhD in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies— because I am particularly interested in how women are increasingly able to write their sexuality, how these books are being distributed, how we might connect young women with the books that will help them see their sexuality in a new light: not porn, not as objects, not bodies selling something or providing pleasure for males. I also think Wolf’s “inversion of female sexuality” is at the heart of the “slut” dilemma— that a promiscuous guy is a “lauded” player and a promiscuous girl is a “slut” (a term causing some girls great depression and even, horrifyingly, suicide).

If we saw more sexuality authored/depicted from the female perspective in our society… could that possibly allow women to be in control of their own sexuality? To own their sexual desires and choices? I would like to think so. And this is why movements like #ReadWomen2014 are so awesome and important. I’d add that we need to read not only books by women, but books by women that highlight their sexuality, their coming-of-ages. Books like Maidenhead, Dark Spring, The Mirror in the Well. Poetry by Ariana Reines. Anything by Dodie Bellamy, Chris Kraus, Kate Zambreno. These books will, perhaps, help save our younger generations of girls.

And finally, I’ll end on this quotation, from Wolf’s conclusion, which strikes a particular chord in me, personally and politically:

"The beauty myth posited to women a false choice: Which will I be, sexual or serious? We must reject that false and forced dilemma. Men’s sexuality is taken to be enhanced by their seriousness; to be at the same time a serious person and a sexual being is to be fully human. Let’s turn on those who offer this devil’s bargain and refuse to believe that in choosing one aspect of the self we must thereby forfeit the other. In a world in which women have real choices, the choices we make about our appearance will be taken at last for what they really are: no big deal" (273).