Wednesday, March 21, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: NO EXCUSES


By Gloria Feldt. Hardcover, 381 pages. Seal Press, 2010

Buy the book

This is truly a women's book. Its subtitle is 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. I was honored when Mrs. Feldt asked me to read it. I would love to see more women in positions of power; I think male and female leadership styles can balance each other out. This book is an instruction manual for women to claim their power. According to Feldt, the only thing stopping women from having more power is their reluctance to do so. Men have always taken power for granted, she argues. The time has come for women to do the same.

The book bears repeated reading, because it does so many things. It provides an outline of women's history. Feldt shares her personal history as an example of what can happen when a woman decides to take charge of her life. She critiques women's websites that purport to empower women by convincing them to buy things. She relays interviews with women who have founded companies, given money to charity, and brought about change.

The biggest lesson I took from this book is the difference between what Feldt calls power over and power to. Men in leadership roles typically have power over those under them. But women's power is the power to solve problems together. I prefer the latter, because power over always causes more problems than it solves. Since reading this book, I have tried to think and make decisions more like a woman, from a power to dynamic. This book is part of my training.

Although the book is meticulously researched, with an extensive bibliography, Feldt never lapses into dry academic language. Her voice is friendly, inviting women and men alike to question their assumptions. Reading this book has helped me understand women and their relationship with power a little better. I recommend it for women who want to improve their careers and relationships, as well as for men who are ready to redefine their gender roles.

Also, after reading this book, I am excited about the possibility of voting for Hilary Clinton in 2016. I hope she runs!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Book Review: Losing Clementine


By Ashley Ream. 306 pages, paperback. William Morrow, 2012.

Will she or won't she?

This question lies at the heart of many romantic comedies, and it usually has to do with sex. But for renowned, troubled artist Clementine Pritchard, answering that question is a matter of life and death. After years of mind-numbing medication, dubious psychiatric treatment, and the inability to form healthy attachments to other people, Clementine has decided to end her life. She tells us so in the first chapter, called "30 Days." Each following chapter moves us one day closer to Clementine's planned suicide.

Although she seems incapable of showing affection, there are people who care about Clementine. One is her assistant, Jenny. Jenny is an art school graduate who organizes Clementine's found art materials, cooks her meals, and tries to keep Clementine from self-destructing. She is not aware of Clementine's plans. Like everyone else, she thinks her employer has cancer. This is the lie Clementine spreads. Her ex-husband, Richard, reacts to the news by telling Clementine to fight. He accompanies her to Mexico, even though she will not tell him why they are going. They visit a funeral home, and in one darkly comedic scene, he tries to force her out of a coffin she decides to "test drive."

Clementine's last relationship, and the one that seems most damaging, is with her psychiatrist. Even as he violates every ethical rule by having sex with Clementine, he encourages her to talk about her feelings as if this will overcome the harm he causes her.

Ream does a good job of making us curious about Clementine. It would have been easy to portray her as self-pitying, selfish, and hysterical. She is certainly self-centered, but she did not ask for a mental illness. A subplot involves Clementine's efforts to find her father, who abandoned and traumatized her at an early age. She did not ask for that either, and Clementine deals with the fallout in the only ways she has ever learned.

Clementine's defining characteristic is her relentless pursuit of death. She makes a plan and follows it with almost no deviations. There is no sense that what she is doing is a cry for help; Clementine rejects help in subtle and blatant ways on nearly every page. Yet sensitive readers can empathize with her enough to hope she will, somehow, gather what she needs to go on living.

Will she or won't she? This question matters, but it is not nearly as important as learning how Clementine arrived at a place where taking herself out seemed the most sane and logical decision. Ream's exploration of that story is what will enthrall readers and make the book popular.

Friday, March 2, 2012

A POST FOR NATIONAL GRAMMAR DAY


Monday, March 4th is National Grammar Day. Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, invited me to write a post in honor of this special day.

As a Language Arts teacher, I am always on the lookout for real-world examples of good and bad writing that I can use in my classroom. One of my favorite bad examples is this photo, taken from an office door at the local supermarket. If you're having trouble reading it, it says "YOU DO I REPEAT DO NOT HAVE MAID SERVICE SO YOU WILL NEED TO CLEAN UP BEHIND YOURSELF!!!"

It's safe to assume a manager wrote and posted this notice. The door opens onto one of those narrow staircases leading up to a large office with a tinted window. This is where the store manager stands and watches everything going on in her realm. I think some of them rub their hands together and cackle with glee as they do this.

I doubt the store manager wrote this notice, though. She probably farmed it out to the Customer Service Manager or even the head cashier. In any case, this writer would receive an F in my class.

First of all, what part of a sentence is "I REPEAT DO NOT?" And why is "DO" underlined if the point is to say "DO NOT?" And isn't it redundant to tell people who are tasked with keeping the store clean that they do not have maid service? It would be more accurate to say "YOU ARE I REPEAT ARE THE MAID SERVICE!!!"

Secondly, I have never heard of anyone cleaning up "behind" her or himself. In the South, where I live and where this sign hangs, "behind" connotes a person's butt. So the public display of the phrase "clean up behind" creates an image with which I am not comfortable.

Lastly, Miss or Mr. Manager, let's talk about the tone of this sign. I know you wanted to show authority and perhaps frustration with people who do not always clean up after themselves. But was it really necessary to write in ALL CAPS? ALL THAT DOES IS MAKE YOU LOOK HOSTILE!!! AND THE EXCESSIVE USE OF EXCLAMATION POINTS!!! IS UNWARRANTED BECAUSE THIS IS NOT A COMIC BOOK!!!!! IT IS REAL LIFE, AND THE PEOPLE WHO WORK UNDER YOU HAVE REAL EMOTIONS!!!!

Perhaps you have forgotten what it was like when you got your first job as a younger person. You were inexperienced and maybe a little nervous. Everyone else had been there longer. They gave you all the crappy jobs they didn't want, like cleaning the bathroom or baling the cardboard.

First jobs are meant to show people how to be responsible employees. Whether you like it or not, Miss or Mr. Manager, a young person's work ethic is usually still under construction. Your job is to mold them- not belittle them and breed resentment.

Seriously, the manager who wrote this sign is just like a teacher who brags about getting kids suspended. A little compassion goes a long way. If I don't do my job, and you have to fire me, you can even do that with compassion.

On the other hand, a grocery store does need to be clean. This is my question for my readers: How would you rewrite this sign so it is both grammatically correct and non-confrontational? Leave your revised version in the comments, and I will share the best ones on twitter.

Friday, February 24, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: CRACKED

By K.M. Walton. Young Adult. Simon Pulse, 2012. 312 pages. Hardcover.


Buy the book on Amazon

K.M. Walton's debut novel is a fast-paced character study of a high school bully and his chief victim. William Mastrick, better know as Bull, beats, taunts, and terrorizes Victor Konig on a daily basis. In an early scene, Bull comes up behind Victor in the cafeteria and punches him so hard he spits out the chocolate milk he is drinking. The reaction from nearby teachers and lunchroom staff is very telling: nothing. Walton does not even mention them. After the recent spate of teen suicides in Minnesota's Anoka-Hennepin school district, brought on by a misguided policy of gay neutrality, it is hard to say Walton is being unrealistic. Those teachers were afraid of losing their jobs if they stood up for a troubled teen. Perhaps those in Victor and Bull's world have similar anxieties.

It is one of literature's jobs to help us face and perhaps overcome our anxieties. Victor and Bull are given ample opportunity to do just that. Bull fears his grandfather's drunken abuse. The old man blames Bull, loud and often, for his grandmother's death. Bull's mother, the old man's daughter, also drinks, neglects Bull, and once slaps him. Thoughtful readers can gain a whole new perspective on Bull, and kids like Bull. Of course teens are responsible for their own actions, but they are not to blame for adults in their lives who make sure they never develop any self-respect. Bull goes from being a mean-hearted sadist to being someone who might be able to change... if he ever gets the opportunity.

As for Victor, a note from his mother on page 93 tells us almost everything we need to know about his seemingly privileged home life. She and his father leave for an extended trip to France. Victor has to stay behind, under his elderly grandmother's care, because his score on the SAT was less than perfect. As the note explains, the parents leave early to get lattes en route to the airport. "We didn't want to wake you," mom writes. She leaves Victor a list of chores and tells him "I've made a drug counseling appointment for you," even though Victor has never touched drugs.

No "Dear Victor" or "love, mom", Victor says in response. I can't believe they didn't even say good-bye... Not even good-bye.

Soon afterwards, Victor and Bull find themselves together in a teenage psych ward for would-be suicides. Victor tried to kill himself, swallowing his mother's antianxiety pills after his beloved dog died. Bull, having found a handgun stashed in a closet, tried to shoot his grandfather. Bull winds up with a gunshot wound in his leg. It puts him in a wheelchair. In his only act of kindness, Bull's grandfather lies to police and says Bull tried to kill himself.

Being roommates does little to improve Victor and Bull's relationship. But they finally meet adults who care for them with no expectations of a reward. They also meet other teens who are just as troubled as they are: abandoned or humiliated by parents, teased and harassed for being obese, locked into private worlds nobody else can enter. Even though they cannot change their parents, the boys learn to change their own attitudes. They form meaningful relationships with peers. They stop hurting themselves; Bull stops harming others. They learn that feelings are not fatal, that circumstances are temporary, that they are capable or giving and receiving love. They grow up. While they are not fully healed from their trauma- this is not a fantasy book- they are equipped to weather any future setbacks with dignity.

This book is useful for teens, both high school and certain middle school students. It is also good for parents and teachers. When kids are traumatized, they act out. A responsible adult must look beyond the outer behavior. We might never know a kid's whole story, but we can still make ourselves a positive part of it.

BOOK REVIEW: THE PREGNANCY PROJECT

By Gaby Rodriguez with Jenna Glatzer. Simon and Schuster, 2012. 218 pages, hardcover.


Buy it on Amazon

By now there are probably few people who have not heard of this book or the Lifetime movie based on it. Gaby tells of being hounded by news crews almost as soon as she shared her project with her school. That attention leads to one of the book's many unanswered questions- how did Good Morning America get a 17-year-old girl's cell phone number? Gaby doesn't know, and neither do we.

What we do know is that Gaby grew frustrated with the negative attention surrounding her and her family, who live in the small town of Topenish, Washington. Her mother gave birth to her as a teen. Like too many teen moms, she had to raise Gaby mostly alone after Gaby's father took off. Unfortunately, Gaby's siblings also had children young, before they were emotionally and financially prepared. This was in spite of Gaby's mother's constant warnings and exhortations not to follow her path.

But Gaby heeded those warnings, and the unspoken one she saw every day in her mother's struggle to make ends meet. When offered the chance to do a senior project, Gaby decides to fake her own pregnancy. With her mother's help, she fashions a prosthetic baby bump to go under her clothes. She goes to a clinic and learns how pregnant women work- the weight gain, mood swings, sickness, erratic appetite, and pregnancy brain. Only her mother, her boyfriend Jorge, close friend Saita, and a handful of teachers and administrators know the truth.

By taking on this role, Gaby gains an empathy for teen mothers she might never have learned otherwise. Friends reject or gossip about her, thinking she cannot hear. Her older brothers, all former teen dads, threaten Jorge with physical harm. Gaby experiences real loneliness and depression. She comes to understand why so many teen dads do leave; they are given almost no positive messages or support. There are few role models, either- successful fathers who can mentor those whose paths they have walked.

Why is that? Nearly everyone agrees that it is a mistake for teenagers to have babies. Why are so few of us willing to help? It seems easier to stand on the sidelines and judge or deride people for their unfortunate choices, like so many of Gaby's classmates. But she teaches us how to do the hard things. Hopefully the attention surrounding this well-written, engaging book will encourage us to ask questions with no easy answers, and to change our thinking about some of our culture's most helpless members.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

GUEST POST: JANE AUSTEN

Thanks to Anne, aka the Lit Bitch, for this post. You can read Anne's views on classic and contemporary novels on her website.


Exploring the New Woman in Jane Austen’s Novels

Jane Austen began her literary career in a time when society just began to explore what is known as ‘the woman question’. The woman question most often refers to specific constraints imposed by society such as sexuality, gender roles, suffrage, and employment. By the early nineteenth century, society began exploring these issues in depth with the common avenue being the literary medium. Literature became a safe and popular way to subvert society’s traditional expectations of women and explore concepts which appealed to women readers. As female authorship increased, many embraced the new feminist views regarding the woman question. Through the novel, readers could live vicariously through the heroine allowing them to experience new situations and thought without threat. This growth and enthusiasm is most notably seen in works by Jane Austen. Austen’s legacy can be seen in her most popular heroines who all tend to follow the same pattern of new woman meets old world expectations.

Austen wrote about what she knew. Austen’s social class hovered just outside the gentry and most of her education was self-taught. Having never married, Austen had a unique outlook on marriage. She maintained that marriage should be about love--if not the deciding factor in the match--a radical concept in the early nineteenth century! Readers can see Austen’s views echoed across the pages of her novels and most notably in the heroines. All of Austen’s novels reflect the same type of heroine which follows both feminist and patriarchal models.

In Austen’s novels, the heroine typically desires improvement through marriage and in many cases the family encourages her to use marriage as a means for improving their position in society, demonstrating the patriarchal influence of the age. The new feminist approach is seen in the final decision. The deciding factor in all the matches of an Austen novel is always love-- wealthy was considered an added bonus. By doing this, Austen is both subverting social norms and maintaining acceptability. Critics of Austen note her early novels such as Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice depict a traditional idealized version of women while her later novels such as Emma and Persuasion present a ‘new woman’.

As ideal women all of Austen’s heroines are conventionally feminine with desirable traits such as modesty, delicacy, sweetness, and gentleness. Most agree Austen’s depictions of women in her early novels were the most socially acceptable; due largely to the basic representations of the heroines and plot. In Austen’s world, many felt literature should encourage proper values and model characters, however female novelists felt women’s writing should be based on the nature and experiences of women rather than society’s expectations or idealization of women.

One of Austen’s most famous critics was fellow author Emily Bronte who suggested she lacked the passion necessary to write successful love stories and the experience to create modern feminist heroines. While this might be true, Austen chooses not to completely challenge society’s expectations so that she could reach a wider audience. This was why it was necessary to follow a carefully prescribed formula which is what Austen did in her earlier novels with her later works such as Emma and Persuasion begin to embrace a new modern woman. Interestingly enough Austen’s most popular heroine is neither Emma Woodhouse nor Anne Elliot of the later novels but rather Elizabeth Bennett of the earlier Pride and Prejudice. Austen’s most well liked heroine, not only respects herself but she does not care if the man she marries has wealth as long as he loves her and is not prejudice against her class. She stands up for herself but is not afraid to admit when she is wrong.

From the famous opening line of Pride and Prejudice it is clear marriage and fortune will be dominant themes: “It is a universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”. Mr. and Mrs. Bennett have five daughters and no sons, meaning upon Mr. Bennett’s death all of his small fortune would be entailed to the next surviving male heir, Mr. Collins. For the Bennett daughters the only way salvage their family legacy would be to marry well or for one of them to marry Mr. Collin’s. Mrs. Bennett finds the latter a most agreeable option and encourages Elizabeth to consider it. Elizabeth refuses and explains to her mother she does not love Mr. Collins so she will not marry him. Mrs. Bennett is desperate for her daughters to find husbands who will insure the future of the family since there are no sons. Mrs. Bennett’s rational is aligned with traditional patriarchal thought that women can only find definition and security through marriage. While Elizabeth views marriage as a means of emotional fulfillment and enjoyment, demonstrating the new woman ideology.

When Elizabeth first meets Mr. Darcy she sees only a man who values money and is also required to marry well as a requirement of his status. When he asks her to marry him she adamantly refuses because he insults her family and financial position. Though she knows he is rich and would more than secure her future, she does not accept because he does not consider them an equal match. The idea of refusing a perfectly good marriage proposal from a gentleman would have been scandalous in the Regency period to say the least. Only when she is convinced of his love, commitment, and respect will she agree to enter into an understanding.

Elizabeth demonstrates a prototype for the new woman who is willing to stand up for herself placing importance on character rather than wealth. But Austen is careful to maintain within society’s comfort zone by emphasizing other story lines of other women characters--such as the indifference question between Jane and Bingley and the uber scandalous marriage between Wickham and Lydia. Many women readers were in positions such as Lydia and all the other Bennett women. Austen ends the novel with every implication that Darcy and Elizabeth will live ‘happily ever after’ in love--which suggests independence through love.

Austen knew what it was like to be a woman during the English Regency period, with no money, property, and position. Austen would have had to marry well if she hoped to be of any value to her family, which of course she did not. Austen, like Elizabeth Bennett had little money and was not part of the gentry, her only hope was marriage.

With the increasing amounts of female authors in Regency England, Austen’s heroines became the prototype for future generations to interpret and address the growing woman question. Through the novel readers live vicariously through the heroine allowing them to experience new situations and thought without threat. Unlike other popular genres of prose, Austen put heroines in positions of independence or control over their futures which drew attention to issues surrounding class, sexuality, and gender roles. Austen produced novels which incorporated patriarchal ideas while at the same time subverting tradition. Because Austen wrote about what she knew she was able to properly address the woman question while maintaining within societal expectations appropriate of the era.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Book Club Update

We have switched two books. We will be reading Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, in March to coincide with the movie. We will read Nina Revoyr's Wingshooters in December.

It is still not too late to get a free review copy of Michelle's book, These Days Are Ours, in time for the February twitter meetup. Contact Michelle on twitter @MichelleHaimoff.

February: These Days Are Ours- Michelle Haimoff

March: The Hunger Games- Suzanne Collins

April: Play It As It Lays- Joan Didion

May- The Age Of Innocence- Edith Wharton

June- Bad Behavior: Stories- Mary Gaitskill

July- People Are Unappealing: Even Me- Sara Barron

August- It Chooses You- Miranda July

September- The History of Love- Nicole Krauss

October- Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name- Audrey Lorde

November- Sarah's Key- Tatiana De Rosnay

December- Wingshooters- Nina Revoyr

Thursday, February 9, 2012

THESE DAYS ARE OURS: FIRST THOUGHTS


Pre-order from Amazon

This is Michelle Haimoff's first novel. Michelle is a freelance writer, a co-author of this blog, and a founding member of Women's Lit Book Club.

I am grateful to be one of the first people to read and write about this book. Michelle says in the Reader's Guide that it took her ten years to write. I believe people will be talking about this book for much longer than that.

The book follows Hailey, a 22-year old woman living in Manhattan just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. She and her friends are born members of the upper middle class. Hailey is the product of exclusive private schools and expensive universities. But her family's money does not protect her from trauma. Her parents are divorced. She and her friends are aimless, drifting from one party to another, seemingly unable to commit to a job or relationship. And then there are the attacks- reminders to all Americans that they are never safe, that the next tragedy could be just around the corner.

The mood, when the book opens, is of a group of people biding their time, caught between their school years and adult responsibility. They spend much of their lives trying to hide their fear of another attack. Just as palpable is their fear of growing up. Hailey seems to have it all together, but on the inside she is insecure. She tortures herself over a boy who might or might not commit to her. Hailey's internal monologue ties all the characters, settings, and conflicts together. She is not an unreliable narrator; we can rely on her to be indecisive.

Hailey is self-obsessed, filled with angst, and usually insincere in how she presents herself. In other words, she is just like any 22-year old from her cultural background. The magic is how Michelle makes Hailey appealing. The reader wants to know more about her, to find out if she ever grew up, to see if there was any closure with the boy. Handled just a little differently, Hailey would have been a caricature of a rich girl. Instead, she is our guide through a world that, after the World Trade Center fell, was in danger of ceasing to exist.

This book is helpful to me because it teaches that privileged people suffer too. Perhaps the nature of their suffering is different from a poor person's suffering. Perhaps, like Hailey, they appear to be happy and well-adjusted. Perhaps their access to money insulates them from certain problems like not having enough to eat, losing their homes, or being victims of endemic violence. But the truth is that nobody gets a free pass through life. Trauma can reach out and strike us all. With this knowledge, and with the understanding that this book's major conflict is appearance vs. reality, I am able to empathize with Hailey instead of judging her.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

LIFE LESSONS FROM A SHOPAHOLIC

Warning: Contains Spoilers

So Becky does wind up with Luke Brandon. I accept it; it's called drinking the chick lit Kool-Aid. I accept whatever happens in the works of Sophie Kinsella or any other author of the genre, because to not do so would keep me from taking pleasure in these stories.

I even accept that Becky appears on television once, becomes a local celebrity, and is able to fix her financial woes in a matter of days. And I am glad to see her recovery is not perfect. At the end of the last chapter, she is already ordering expensive, unnecessary designer sunglasses from TV. That kind of behavior is closer to real life. It also sets up the next book. Becky's story wouldn't be any fun if she didn't have an internal conflict.

There are a lot of scenes and passages that stand out in the book, but my favorite is this one, Becky's internal monologue from page 292. She has just come home after moving in with her parents and appearing on Morning Coffee. She greets her roommate, Suze, then finds a pile of collection letters:

"I pick up my letters and bills and begin slowly to leaf through them. Once upon a time, this lot would have sent me into a blind panic. In fact, they would have gone straight into the bin, unread. But you know what? Today I don't feel a flicker of fear. Honestly, how could I have been so silly about my financial affairs?... I'm going to sit down with my checkbook and my latest bank statements, and sort methodically through the whole mess."

After reading that, I realized that I, too, was making silly decisions. I called a certain person in a certain office who I'd been avoiding for at least two weeks. She seemed genuinely pleased to hear from me, but not as pleased as I am to know I am cleaning up an old mess.

So that's the lesson I took away from Confessions of a Shopaholic: Act like an adult, you'll feel better. Have you ever decided to do something because of a book you read? Has fiction helped you grow up? I'd love to hear your story.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

VIEW FROM THE (ALMOST) LAST PAGE

Confessions of a Shopaholic.

Sophie Kinsella, 2001.


WARNING: SPOILERS

1. If Becky winds up with Luke Brandon, I will be very disappointed. I will still read Sophie's books, because I am loyal like that, but I won't be happy.

2. Becky's behavior- overspending, telling lies, blowing off work- would keep me from liking her if she weren't so likable. Also, who among us has not done those things at one time or another?

3. Becky's compulsive shopping is an addiction. She uses things to change the way she feels. She describes the shops as magical places, where she can forget about her problems. Her bad habits hurt her and the people she loves. She hits bottom and is ready to give up when she can no longer safely shop, the same way an alcoholic does when the drink stops working. What Becky does is not meant to represent addiction; it is a serious addiction in its own right. Why, then, did the first book attempting to deal with this problem have to be a comedy?


4. It made me happy to see Becky blow her stack at Luke after the luggage incident. Even a shopaholic has limits.

5. When all Becky's charge cards are denied, I feel sad for her even though she is completely at fault in this situation. Of course, I know, this being a chick lit novel, that things will likely work out in the end. Nothing too terrible can happen in a book like this. The heroine can undergo trauma and a painful life change, but she can't die, go to prison, or become insane. It might be one of the genre's limitations, but it is also part of the reason we keep reading these books.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

MORE THAN ONE STORY

Never again will a single story be told as though it's the only one.
-John Berger, quoted by Arundhati Roy in The God of Small Things




It is possible for a critic or student to be so enamored with a text, so overwhelmed with its beauty and anger and ways of speaking, that she almost cannot write a meaningful response to it. She feels that nothing she says will do the work justice, that the author's voice has made hers unnecessary.

She accepts her own inadequacy. Yet she wants to share this book with other people, so it can overwhelm them too.

My natural response to learning something new is to teach it. For that reason, I will try to write a meaningful response. But if you have never read The God of Small Things, you have to. I have made it part of my personal canon. Its overall effect may be small, but I will always view the world differently than I did before I read this book. That is why we have literature,and it is the best praise I can give any writer.

The book taught me that it is not enough to say "there are two sides to every story." As the Berger quote and the Adichie video suggest, there is never just one story; we can never sum up all the sides. I can apply this knowledge right now, as an emerging middle school teacher.

Why do some kids flourish in school while others fail? Is it honest to say that all public schools do a good job of preparing kids for college? Should we choose the books our students read, or should they have some say? How much say? Should we even expect all our students to go to college? What are the other options?

These questions frame current teaching methodology. But there are endless questions to ask in any industry, for any vocation. No matter who you are, you can read The God of Small Things and take its lessons into your life. Never accept a single story.

Monday, January 23, 2012

First Twitter Book Club Meeting is January 31

@womensbooksonly and I - @michellehaimoff - are going to discuss Arundhati Roy's "The God of Small Things" on Twitter on January 31st. This will be the first meeting of our monthly book club, which will feature books by women authors only.

Like my Facebook page and write in the comment section if you want to participate in our February book club featuring my book, "These Days Are Ours." The first 20 readers to contact me will get an advanced copy. The book is also available on Amazon. We will discuss the book on February 28, 2012, which is the day that it launches!

If you live in Los Angeles or New York City, I would love to see you at a book event! The list of events can be found on the above mentioned Facebook page.

Can't wait to chat on January 31st!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

TWO BOOKS, TWO LOST GIRLS


Snow Apples. By Mary Razzell. Groundwood Books/House of Anansi press, 2006. Young Adult. 209 pages.


True Confessions of a Heartless Girl. By Martha Brooks. Groundwood Books, House of Anansi Press, 2002. Young Adult. 210 pages.

The main characters in both these novels are teenage girls who become pregnant. In Snow Apples, Sheila Brary lives on a remote island, coming of age in the days after World War II. Razzell uses Sheila's voice to tell her story. Sheila doubts herself, resenting her embittered mother while wishing for her wayward father's return home.

Sheila's greatest desire is to escape the domestic life her mother plans for her. Does Sheila's mother resent her own homebound fate, wishing to ensnare her daughter as a form of revenge? Or does she truly believe that marriage, babies, and an end to education are the best things for a young girl? Mrs. Brary's motivations are never quite clear. Life in a small town, with no opportunity to meet new people and hear new ideas, makes her unstable and insular. Mr. Brary's drinking and adultery do not help either.

It is against this straitjacketing of her life that Sheila seems to be rebelling. She challenges her mother's values by pushing for a spot in nursing school. She is stymied when her beloved older brother sides against her after a sexual assault by an older man. She befriends Helga, the town's outcast, who spends her days searching for the drowned bodies of her long-dead family. Sheila also babysits her drunken boyfriend before he impregnates and abandons her.

These experiences make Sheila feel powerless and resentful. They also ultimately help her build her own identity and become independent- as independent as any young woman could be in Canada during the late 1940's.

Noreen Stall, the 17-year-old heroine of Heartless Girl, has far less structure from which to escape. Her religious fanatic mother is little more than a shadow. Her stepfather's physical abuse gives her motivation to run away from home. So does her sister Gladys's marriage; Noreen sees it as a betrayal. Noreen runs first to Wesley, a sweet, gentle construction worker who loves her passionately. They are happy until he catches her in a lie. In an attempt to make things right, she decorates his apartment, stealing money from him to do so.

When Wesley confronts Noreen, she steals his truck and flees to Pembina Lake, a rural community that takes her in. Lynda, the owner of the town's cafe, lets her stay in a spare room. Dolores, the town's matriarch, nearly persuades Noreen to open up about her problems. By the time Noreen needs medical attention for her pregnancy, she has a support system in place.

But Noreen is reluctant to accept help. She has a history of harming others with her behavior. One of her first acts in Pembina Lake is to feed chicken bones to Lynda's 5-year old son's dog. The dog, Tessie, becomes seriously ill when the bones lodge in her intestines. Her life hangs in the balance, Noreen's actions come to light, and for a few chapters the reader wonders- did Noreen make a mistake, or was she trying to kill the dog?

The answer to that question turns out to be a huge theme in Heartless Girl. We are meant to learn some things about redemption, the definition of family, and the nature of choices.

Both Snow Apples and True Confessions of a Heartless Girl chronicle young women's attempts to define themselves, become independent, and establish rewarding relationships. Both authors treat teen pregnancy with empathy and compassion. On the one hand, they resist the easy trap of condemning adolescent sexuality. On the other hand, nothing they have written makes young motherhood seem alluring. In an era where shows like Teen Mom predominate and anxious fathers take their daughters to purity balls, teachers and parents should welcome books like these.

Monday, January 16, 2012

ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS


for The God Of Small Things

1. Do members of a marginalized culture build their identities differently from members of a dominant culture?

2. Who is the other in this book?

3. Who is the protagonist of this book?

4. When privileged people are exposed to trauma, is it less authentic than it is for the underprivileged?

5. What would it mean if people from all cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds agreed on a single definition of poverty?

6. Can a novel be a feminist text even if the characters have never heard of feminism?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Q&A WITH NINA MANOLSON

It is that time of the year again. We are officially back to work, back to school, and- if we are parents- back to the routine we have with our kids. The sheen of those New Year's resolutions might be wearing off in the light of our everyday lives.

Nina Manolson, MA, CHHC, is here to help with that. She is a busy mom who runs the website Smokin' Hot Mom. You can also follow her on twitter.

Nina is a certified Health Coach and Smokin’ Hot Mom Mentor. She coaches busy moms, who are great at taking care of everyone else but have neglected themselves. She teaches moms to prioritize themselves in a way that balances their whole life, makes them happier, healthier and turns them into smokin’ hot moms who love their life. Her clients find wellness from within, through nourishment on all levels – body, mind, and spirit. She also teaches conscientious moms how to feed her kids well in a world that doesn't and has a book coming out soon entitled: Feed Your Kids Well in A World That Doesn't.


I spoke with Nina about her mission, tips for staying motivated, and of course her Mandatory Reading for men.

1. What inspired you to start smokinhotmom?

The website was born out of my passion for helping moms feel fantastic.

I have been working with women, helping them reconnect to their body, feel good in their own skin, and listen to their own knowing for over 20 years. When I became a mom I realized that all those things I learned to feel my best, needed to be relearned or at least updated for my new busy mom life.

When women step into motherhood, we step into a new set of priorities. Family comes first, we focus on the big picture of our kid's future or the tiny moment of how do we get our kids to their after-school activity. Often moms step into a self-less phase of life. We have to-do lists a mile long, but we're not on it! This lack of self-care results in moms who feel like they've lost their energy, their joy, their pizzazz. Most moms get to a point where they realize they want their vitality, their body, their sexiness back. Basically, they want to be a smokin' hot moms!

It's not that mom's don't know they should eat right or take time for themselves. It's making it happen in the crazy-busy life moms lead that is the hard work.

Smokin' Hot Mom is my unique, easy and pleasurable way of helping moms make the journey from overwhelmed and exhausted to radiant and smokin' hot!

2. Can you describe your favorite self-help / self-improvement books?

The self-help books I love are those steeped in self-compassion. I love the books that are not about what the "right" thing is to do, or eat, or think. I love books that remind us that we are human-beings not human-doings.

In our fast paced, high-expectation society, I use books to be the voice of balance, loving-kindness, and slowing down.

Some of my current favorites are: Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff, The Slow-Down Diet by Marc David, The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown and Finding The Deep River Within by Abby Seixas.



3. What was the last book you read?

I'm a chronic read-many-books-at-once kind of gal. So, what I'm currently reading is: The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown, Anatomy of Spirit by Caroline Myss, You Can Create an Exceptional Life by Louise Hay and Cheryl Richardson, and there's always a ton of recipe books littered around as well.



4. If you had the power to make every man in the universe read a certain book, which one would you choose and why?

I get so into each book and each subject I'm reading, I tend to think everyone should read it. That's how I feel about right now about Kristin Neff's book on Self-Compassion. It's a message we all need to hear.



5. I have found that it is easy enough to start a self-improvement program, but hard to keep one up. How do you stay motivated?

The key to motivation is having clarity and support.

If you get really clear on why your self-improvement program is important to you, and what's in it for you at a deep level, you get past the "I should" and into the "I want" and "I need." "I want and need" has a whole lot more power than "I should."

Having the support to make change is crucial. Most of us tend to think we can do it all ourselves. But having support, someone to guide the way, to champion you in your quest for healthy change is what makes it do-able and what helps make the changes stick.


6. Do you have any literary guilty pleasures?

Currently I'm deep into reading Harry Potter aloud to my kids. It's bliss to cuddle up with them and share a great story.

Nina is currently offering a free teleclass for busy moms to reclaim their body and end the war with food: http://smokinhotmom.com/freecall/

For more information: Smokin'HotMom.com, HealthyYummyKids.com.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

CALL FOR CO-AUTHORS

Do you have an interest in books by women?

Do you enjoy writing about how women are portrayed in literature?

Do you want to learn more about feminism, especially feminist literary criticism? Or do you have something to teach us?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, and if you are able to read all or most of the books on our book club list, starting this month with The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, I would like to invite you to contribute to this blog. You can write about your response to our books, or about your own favorite women's books. There are no assigned topics here, but our focus will always be women's books and feminism. There is no schedule for writers, but we would like to see at least two contributions a month from our writers.

If you are interested, please email Stevie at swatso37@students.kennesaw.edu so I can send you an invitation. You will need a blogger account through Google. Please provide a paragraph about your background, your reasons for wanting to contribute, and a sample of your writing if you have one.

If you do not want to contribute, you can still follow one or both of this blog's co-editors on twitter:

Michelle Haimoff

Steven Watson (womensbooksonly)

You can also leave comments here without becoming a contributor. Join us at #wbo for a twitter conversation at the end of each month for that month's book.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Estha and Rahel

Happy New Year! The first book we will be reading this year is The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy. The book was published in 1997. It is Roy's first and so far her only novel.

It tells the story of an Indian family from the perspective of its two youngest members,Estha and Rahel. They are a brother and sister who are in their thirties when the story begins. Roy soon flashes back to their childhood. She spends the entire book shifting from one time period to another, recasting events through Rahel's eyes (though not in Rahel's voice).

The first thing we learn about Estha and Rahel is that they have had some kind of trauma in their lives. Estha never speaks and spends most of his time walking his neighborhood or doing household chores. He still lives at home with his English father. The father retires and has to send Estha back home to Ayemenem, the Indian town of his birth. The implication is that Estha cannot take care of himself, even though he is an adult.

Rahel comes home, too, leaving her job at an all-night gas station in the United States. We can tell from Roy's description of her that Rahel is intelligent and could be successful. She trained as an architect, just as Roy did. But she was often in trouble at school, and has ended up at a job where "drunks occasionally vomited into the till... pimps propositioned her with more lucrative job offers... she saw men being shot through their car windows. And once a man who had been stabbed, ejected from a moving car with a knife in his back" (p. 21)

It is not clear, in the first chapter, why Estha and Rahel act the way they do. There are some clues.

On page 12, we learn that Estha's parents were embarrassed when he began sweeping, mopping, washing laundry and buying groceries for the household. These are seen as women's tasks, and Estha seems to be pushing against the limitations placed on him. Rahel is expelled from three different schools for rules violations. First she assaults senior girls by hiding behind doors and running into them. She explains that she wants to find out if breasts hurt, as if she is rebelling against school norms that do not acknowledge or value women's bodies.

At her next school, Rahel is expelled for smoking. The last school expels her for setting fire to her Housemistress's wig. These incidents lead her teachers to say this about Rahel:

"It was, they whispered to each other, as though she didn't know how to be a girl" (p. 18).

Another clue to Estha and Rahel's behavior comes on page 7. The children attend a funeral, where they and their mother Ammu are ostracized and have to stand apart from the rest of the family. This incident takes place in another flashback, when Estha and Rahel are seven years old.

What happened to Estha and Rahel to ruin their lives? Why are they incapable of forming intimate relationships or finding fulfilling work? Have they made a conscious effort to refuse their gender roles, or is that just a by-product of their overall approach? These are some of the questions we will answer as we explore this complex and challenging book.