He doesn’t have the sense of a billy goat

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe
by Fannie Flagg

This was a book club pick and I thought somehow that it would be light and fluffy and girly, possibly because that’s how I remember the film (though on rewatching the film this week I discovered it’s not really those things either). It’s certainly an easy, enjoyable read, but it covers a lot of issues without labouring the point and has some very interesting things to say.

In the 1980s middle-aged Alabama housewife Evelyn Couch is visiting a nursing home and gets talking to a resident there, Mrs Ninny Threadgoode. Ninny is old and a little forgetful but also charming and immediately launches into stories about her early life in a small town called Whistle Stop. At the heart of these stories are Idgie and Ruth, the two women who ran the Whistle Stop Cafe from 1929 until it closed. However, inbetween there are snippets about other characters from the town and their lives, all told with a wonderful sense of humour.

“This skinny little man, so black he was a deep royal blue, had caused a lot of trouble for the opposite sex. One gal drank a can of floor wax and topped it off with a cup of Clorox, trying to separate herself from the same world he was in. When she survived, claiming that the liquids had ruined her complexion for life, he became continually uneasy after dark, because she had snuck up behind him more than once and cracked him in the head with a purseful of rocks.”

And at that level it all sounds a bit twee. But this book covers racist violence, domestic abuse, homosexuality, prostitution, extreme poverty and death, which is some pretty dark stuff for a story that’s so nice and chirpy on the surface. I know some at book group felt that this meant none of the themes were really explored, but were just thrown in there, and certainly the only subjects really talked about are female empowerment and death.

But then one of the running themes in this book is not talking about important things. Idgie and Ruth are a couple, which you would think was a big no-no in a small southern US town in the 1930s, but the whole town seems to know and just accept the situation. I wondered if this was because they all consider Idgie an honorary man. She certainly not only joins in with but often takes lead in hunting, fishing, gambling, drinking and the other manly pursuits of the town. But she’s far from being the only strong woman in town.

“Cleo, Idgie’s brother, was concerned…
‘Idgie, I’m telling you, you don’t need to feed every [hobo] that shows up at your door. You’ve got a business to run here. Julian…says he thinks you’d let Ruth and the baby go without to feed those bums.’
…’What does Julian know? He’d starve to death himself if Opal didn’t have the beauty shop. What are you listening to him for? He doesn’t have the sense of a billy goat.’
Cleo couldn’t disagree with her on that point.”

Each chapter takes a different source or viewpoint, so there’s Evelyn’s daily life, Ninny’s reminiscences, the Whistle Stop newsletter and other newspaper articles, and occasionally a plain old omniscient narrator. There’s also lots of jumping back and forth in time, which was confusing at first because there seemed to be sections that were unrelated, but by the end it all ties together. And also, in the end there is no single character who knows everything that the reader does, which I quite liked.

Generally, I found what could have been a heavy-handed moral tale a much more subtle look at life in the southern US. The one unsubtle message was about strong women. Really, it’s Evelyn’s story, and she is discovering through Ninny’s stories how unhappy she is with her life, downtrodden and ignored by her husband.

“After the boy at the supermarket had called her those names, Evelyn Couch had felt violated. Raped by words. Stripped of everything. She had…always been terrified of displeasing men…She had spent her life tiptoeing around them like someone lifting her skirt stepping through a cow pasture.”

As someone at book club pointed out, at the novel’s heart is the power of storytelling. Ninny’s stories have to be good for us to believe they would have such a profound effect on Evelyn. And it is all a rollicking good yarn, with a running theme of tall tales.

I seem to be saying this of every other book at the moment, but I think I would get a lot out of re-reading this.

First published 1987 by Random House.

Crossing the Rubicon

Y: the Last Man
The complete series
by Brian K Vaughan and Pia Guerra

This is a series of comic books that Tim really really wanted me to read so I told him I would if he would help me write the review afterward. Here is our joint effort.

Y: the Last Man begins with all humans and animals with a Y chromosome dying at the same instant, apart from 20-something-year-old Yorick and his monkey Ampersand. Yorick suddenly goes from being just some ambitionless and jobless guy to having everyone after him, as the potential key to the whole situation. But do all women want or even need men to come back?

First, a quick taste of the dialogue:

“[You’ve] crossed the fucking Rubicon.”
“The what?”
“Shut up.”
“I’m serious. What is that? ‘Crossing the Rubicon’?”
“It’s just a saying, all right? Means you’ve passed the point of no return—that you’re fucked.”
“But why does it mean that? What’s a Rubicon?”
“Jesus Christ! You just executed a human being, and all you—”
“You don’t know, do you?”
“—”

Y: the Last Man

Kate: You really wanted me to read this series. Why in particular?

Tim: It’s a very well written, touching, non-superhero comic book based on a strong SF trope. I am still trying to be your guide in SF and comics. Plus, y’know, literature plays a large part. And I know you love literature. What did you think of the literary allusions?

K: You had told me there would be literary references so I think I was expecting more than there was. But it’s actually done well, quite subtly, and I think it’s very true that an ardent reader would place a lot of value on finding people he could talk to about books, even in the middle of global disaster.

T: Also, the art is beautiful, I love the graphical themes that tie the issues/books together.

K: For science fiction, there’s not much science. It’s mostly about the impact on society of a major humanity-changing event.

T: True. SF that doesn’t dwell too much on the “plumbing” of the event can be very good SF. The beauty of this one is the way that Brian K Vaughan toys with characters (and the reader) having different theories for what caused the plague, all in different levels of mysticism/science. I often like this in stories, and that kind of uncertainty can really lend itself to some great storytelling. Take Bladerunner, or Total Recall, or Forever War, or I Am Legend, or Gateway, or Drowned World or… okay, there are a lot of titles that use the uncertainty and not-explaining attitude to SF. Is uncertainty in the heart of a plot an SF thing, or a general good lit thing?

K: It’s not just SF. It’s also not always good (but it often is).

Although our main characters keep facing violence and aggression, the all-female society does pull itself together and get stuff working over time. A comment is made that if the situation were reversed men would have been way more warlike and disorganised in reaction. In fact, a lot of women react with hatred for men and determination that women are better off.

T: Yep. You know, every English teacher I ever had was a feminist.

Several women are shown or implied to have become lesbian or start self-identifying as male as a result of the plague. Is this a cis-hetero/masculine fantasy or an offensive assumption? It is important to note that many other women do NOT.

K: I don’t think it’s handled in a male-fantasy way, whatever that would be. I think it’s realistic that some women would be open to it immediately while others would gradually turn to it from a lack of the alternative and others would resolutely refuse. It could have been discussed more but that’s a BIG conversation.

T: And it’s interesting that the one woman in the book who was already lesbian becomes, basically, celibate.

K: The main character is a man. Is this actually quite a masculine book with an idealised view of women?

T: Do you mean masculine or male chauvinist? I think you need Yorick as a contrast to the assumed macho male, and to evoke reactions (to him being male) from all the other (female) characters they meet. It would have been very easy to have him exist in the story just as a foil or a mirror. What’s impressive is that he is a character with depth without being macho or heroic.

K: Agreed. If anything Yorick is happy when he sees communities figuring shit out and would prefer to blend into the background and let women get on with it.

Though it eventually opens out, a large part (indeed all of the early stuff) of the story is set in the US, with a classic cross-country road trip. Would it have been too conceptual to see more of the world from the start?

T: I don’t know. I think it was important to concentrate on one thread of plot to begin with, allowing some measure of claustrophobia. It’s important because with the death of half of society, communications failed. The point is that the characters we follow don’t know what’s happening in their own city (to start with), and it gradually opens out as communications and society open out. I thought it was a well used device.

K: One observation I made early on was that the cities were falling apart, essentially war zones, while small towns were making it work. Is that realism or idealism?

T: I think it’s realism. There’s a bunch of reasons for it, though. Firstly, you start off in the domesticated east coast, and head west, towards the frontier, “can do” spirit. But I think, more importantly, (as seen in Make Room, Make Room or Caves of Steel) cities don’t exist in a vacuum, they rely on technology – that in this case failed (the power plants blew up, etc) – and a constant stream of food and supplies into the city (transport also broke down). The people living in more rural areas were not only more self-sufficient and practical to start with, they already had handy generators and the ability to grow/catch food. Cities cannot exist without civilization (I checked. I tried playing a whole game of Civ without building a city and it didn’t get anywhere).

Thank you Tim for the discussion and indeed the original recommendation. It is an excellent series.

Originally published 2002–2008 by DC Comics.
Deluxe editions published 2008–2011 by Vertigo.

Future terrors

The Handmaid’s Tale
by Margaret Atwood

My immediate reaction on finishing this book was “Oh wow” (in fact, I think I tweeted exactly that). I am so grateful to my book club for getting me to read it and suspect it will be a book to come back to, time and again.

This is an amazing, intense, important story that is also gripping and immensely readable. Atwood cleverly dripfeeds information about what exactly is going on, which makes it a little difficult to describe without any plot spoilers, and because of this I’m extra glad I was able to have a book club discussion about it.

The book’s title and the Bible quote at the start of it (Genesis 30:1–3) make reasonably clear at least one element of the story, even if the details are only slowly filled in. The society in which this book is set, the Republic of Gilead, designates certain women as handmaids and their sole purpose is to bear children. A handmaid is assigned to a married couple who have been unable, for whatever reason, to have children themselves. The handmaid is stripped of her former name and must wear a uniform that immediately identifies her role and hides her body and face, as well as obscuring her view of the world. It is a curiously old-fashioned situation in what appears to be a near-future North American setting. But it is of course far more complicated than just this and has its reasons for being as it is.

One other thing that is clear from the start is that there is a great fear of the state, via hidden spies or cameras or just loyal citizens willing to speak up about any trangressions of the many rules. One of these rules is that handmaids may not read or write at all, a rule so strictly enforced that the heroine obsesses over one written word that she sees every day. This society places a lot of emphasis on role and status, with the privileged as well as the less so immediately marked out by their clothing. It is a terrifying vision of a totalitarian state (and not just because of the reading and writing thing) partly because as you trace the steps that were taken to create it, it is conceivable that it or something similar could happen. As the narrator says in a prayer:

“If they have to die, let it be fast. You might even provide a Heaven for them. We need You for that. Hell we can make for ourselves.”

But it’s not at all a difficult or even challenging read because its narrator is so engaging and real. The handmaid of the title never reveals her former name, but between documenting her life as a handmaid she reminisces about life before and through that we learn about the background of the current regime as well as about her. It is her job, as a handmaid, to be a vessel and no more and as a narrator she is also a vessel for revealing an exercise in science fiction, but she is also an ordinary, relatable human facing extraordinary circumstances (to us, anyway). She vacillates between embarrassment of and admiration for her mother. She is trying desperately to survive, no matter what it takes, and yet contemplates methods of suicide. She has a fondness for flowers and word games.

Though by no means a comedy, there is a certain wit to Atwood’s writing. Even in the loneliest moments when the world is cold, a small detail seen or heard or remembered will be warm, familiar even.

****Spoiler warning – you might want to skip this paragraph if you’ve not read the book ****

This book was first published in 1985 and to an extent it reveals the fears and preoccupations of its time. Gilead might be described as a fundamentalist state, making it a crime to follow any other than the state religion. The world has suffered as a result of chemicals in the water supply and nuclear reactor meltdowns. There has been an AIDS epidemic and there have been riots over abortion. The same book written now might choose slightly different background events than these, though they are all, of course, still relevant.

****End of spoiler****

At book club we discussed how this future vision is not only possible but could almost be said to be happening in certain strict Islamic states. Indeed, in the decade before this book’s publication Iran suddenly went from being a modern, egalitarian place to a totalitarian, fundamentalist country with women suddenly driven out of higher education and most jobs, suddenly forced to dress and behave differently.

“Women” really is the key word. Though not militantly so, this is a feminist text. It is the story of men either choosing to or being complicit in the subjugation of women. Because we see the world through the handmaid’s eyes, we never really learn much about the lives of men in the Republic of Gilead, but from what we do see their lives are not nearly so bad as for women.

This is not the first Atwood I have read but it is probably the best. It definitely makes me want to read more of her work, particularly any that fall into the speculative/science fiction category.

First published by McClelland and Stewart in 1985.
Winner of the 1985 Governor General’s Award and the 1987 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Nominated for the 1986 Nebula Award, the 1986 Booker Prize and the 1987 Prometheus Award.

See also: review by Connie at The Blue Bookcase.

Another vague drifty one

Saving Agnes
by Rachel Cusk

I picked this up while in the US on holiday. I had read and enjoyed Cusk’s second novel The Temporary, which it turns out has rather a lot in common with this title. Possibly too much.

Agnes Day (which is a great name for a heroine) is drifting. She doesn’t really care about her job, feels distant from her (somehow still active) love life and even her friends. She lives with two former schoolmates in a house that is on the brink of being condemned, thanks to a large crack in the wall. This crack acts as a literal (and slightly over-obvious) representation of Agnes’s inner life.

Agnes is one of those heroines who frets about everything, is convinced everyone else is normal while she is abnormal and reminisces fondly about her teenage years when she came close to suicide because at least she was more decisive back then. I did not warm to her. Which is perhaps odd because I’m an over-thinker myself, but I like to think I’m also practical and Agnes is certainly not that. She seems to expect some magical change to just happen to her life, rather than going out and making it happen. She’s also one of those annoying people who take up causes without really learning about them. Even when challenged about this she doesn’t recognise her own failure to engage. And she’s self-absorbed, taking some serious jolts to notice the people around her.

There is an art to creating such a vague, drifting character. For much of the novel Agnes talks about her current relationship and her previous one interchangeably, so that it can be unclear which one is the subject, though what does gradually becomes clear is that Agnes’s attitude to relationships is unorthodox.

Cusk is…wordy. Her prose is beautiful but obscured by long, convoluted sentences:

“Agnes lay in bed waiting for the telephone to ring, believing as she did that the former event would precipitate the latter. Her faith, though gritty, was, she knew, ill-founded, attempting as it did to harness the perversity of the universe and make consistency where there was essentially none. By taking upon herself the task of second-guessing ill-fortune, she was in fact violating the creed of her anti-faith, which, if its principles were to be understood, would presumably visit her only at her own inconvenience…” [This goes on for two full pages before we learn whether or not the phone rings.]

I remember liking The Temporary but with very similar reservations – it also is about a disaffected woman in her 20s drifting, hating London (there is no love for the setting here) and being generally self-absorbed. However, the writing is good and Agnes is completely realistic (lesser characters aren’t quite fully realised but this is actually a believable portrayal of Agnes’s picture of the world).

First published 1993 by Macmillan.
Winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award 1993.

The truth is buried in there somewhere

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
by Mary Wollstonecraft

I originally got this book for the Year of Feminist Classics project, but when they actually discussed it back in January I was only about 20 pages in. And then I put it aside for four months. The thing is, while being a hugely important and interesting work, this one is pretty tough to read. Or at least, I thought so.

First up, why was it hard to read? Well, it’s rambling and repetitive to such an extent that even my abridged Penguin Great Ideas edition of 132 pages felt too long. The language is as archaic as you might expect of 1792 and the society to which it refers is so long gone that it’s only recognisable from old novels. This also means that a lot of her arguments and the things she wishes to change have already changed, the fight has been won, so you could argue that it’s no longer relevant.

And yet, it is also eye-opening and indeed educational to be reminded how different society was, how unequal the sexes, and therefore how much progress has been made. Mary Wollstonecraft was arguing against the assumption that women are inherently weak, incapable, over-emotional beings with a natural love of dresses and pretty things; that men are inherently superior and women their slaves. This is not the view of one or two lone misogynists but that of most people in the western world at the time.

Wollstonecraft addresses herself to men and keeps all of her arguments abstract. She does not single out great women of history to look up to and indeed her comments about queens not being the equal of kings make me suspect that she did not subscribe to the now widely held view that Elizabeth I was a fine example of a woman proving herself in a man’s world. What Wollstonecraft does do is paint a series of caricatures of women who have been ruined by their upbringing or society or both.

This text does not set out any rules for women to follow to improve themselves, besides a brief attack on reading novels (which she distinguishes from literature). The primary point seems to be a plea to the powers that be – all male, of course – to at least try providing equal education for girls as for boys, so that women can prove by themselves that their silliness is a result of lack of education first and foremost.

Though education is her primary goal, there are also social changes to be made that are harder to resolve, and indeed Wollstonecraft does more describing how the current state of things is bad than suggesting how it can be changed. She appeals to what men might want in a woman – when sexual passion dries up, don’t they want an interesting, educated companion to share their life with? Don’t they want their children to spend their formative years with a strong, sensible, intelligent caregiver? Don’t they want to share some interests and hobbies with their life partner, to make marriage more enjoyable?

One point that Wollstonecraft makes is that while men have various hobbies and pastimes, women have only one – their appearance – which has a derogatory effect in numerous ways. And this really rang true for me because from what I remember, though it’s been a while, magazines for girls are about that one thing and basically nothing else – how to attract boys, what celebrities are wearing, how to pluck your eyebrows… How on earth this stuff can be regurgitated weekly astounds me but it was and probably still is. Yet lads mags, between the topless/bikini-clad ladies, have articles about cars, gadgets, films, sport. They’re still clichéd topics, sure, but at least there’s some variety, some looking outward to the world. It’s depressing how little has changed since 1792 when you look at details like that.

The passage that struck me the most was related to the above but not quite making the same point. Wollstonecraft argues that men who encourage women to be flirts who obsess over their appearance create women who are too physically unfit to be of any use in the bedroom or in childbirth. Now there’s a point I can agree with!

I’m glad I ploughed my way to the end and I can see why it’s considered important, but this was too poorly structured and hard to read for me to call it great.

First published 1792.

See also: reviews by Amy Reads and Emily of Evening All Afternoon. If you’re interested in Mary Wollstonecraft, it’s well worth taking a look at the excellent project A Vindication of the Rights of Mary.

What women writers want

A Room of One’s Own
by Virginia Woolf

I was inspired to finally pick up this book by Amy Reads and her part in the Year of Feminist Classics project. It turns out, now I look at the reading schedule, that they’re not discussing this title until May, but I’d been meaning to read it for years anyway, and I can always go back and discuss it with them in three months’ time!

I’m so glad I finally read this book. It is truly brilliant. I struggled a little with the Woolf books I had to read for my degree, but this is actually a reworking of two speeches she gave at women’s colleges in October 1928 and therefore has a rather different style from her fiction. For me it was much more accessible and approaches the topic of feminism from an angle that I am very interested in – women and fiction.

Of course, Woolf being Woolf, she doesn’t approach the subject in an entirely straightforward manner. Instead she begins with her answer to a question as yet unvoiced and then invents the character of a woman writer to illustrate how she arrived at this answer, including all of the research and ruminating along the way. But bizarre as that sounds, it’s a fascinating and intelligent study of its subject with so many quotable passages that my copy is now covered in bright yellow sticky notes.

The conclusion of this extended essay is so famous that it is not only the title but is also repeated in red text on the front cover of my edition: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write.” These days that may seem like an odd statement but it’s worth remembering, as Woolf ably illustrates, that at the time of writing there were very few colleges in the UK that accepted female students and almost no scholarships or bursaries for them; women were not allowed in Oxbridge libraries unaccompanied, even if they were students there; a woman’s property and wealth legally became her husband’s upon marriage; and even upper class women were very unlikely to have a study or sitting room of their own.

“The most transient visitor to this planet, I thought, who picked up [a newspaper] could not fail to be aware, even from this scattered testimony, that England is under the rule of a patriarchy.”

Woolf counts the four great women writers as Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë and George Eliot (which was interesting of itself to me, that 80 years ago the same names should have been considered “great” as now, or maybe we consider them great because we have been told they are for 80+ years) and looks carefully at how being a woman influenced each of them. In Jane Austen she sees the greatest influence of having had to write in a shared sitting room, as so much of Austen’s work is set in those very rooms, but she also bestows great praise on Austen for having such an honest, undeniably female voice. Charlotte Brontë, Woolf says, was a better wordsmith but also more given to expressing discontent with her lot in life, giving her heroines speeches about being held back from the world that jar with the rest of the novel.

Woolf finds women depicted by men, in fiction and non-fiction, wholly unsatisfactory, partly because men tend to depict women as hollow featureless objects but also because a lot of what they do show is unrealistic idealism. In truth, through most of history women have not been nearly as well educated or as wordly as men.

“A very queer composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history…some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband.”

Women depicting women, however, can actually do it properly, creating real personalities, likes, dislikes, good qualities and bad ones. Woolf describes her delight when reading, in a not particularly good book by a woman writer, about the friendship between two women – a subject she declares is at every woman’s heart and yet never depicted yet by any man. (She makes a few generalisations like this. I have to presume that, though reasonably well read, she had not read every book ever written and therefore an exception to this statement may well exist.)

In the face of such adversity, Woolf shows great admiration for those pre-20th-century women who did defy convention and write, even those who did it in secret, but especially those who published their work like Aphra Behn (another name I studied at university). She urges the women she is speaking to – women who have at least a little money, some education and most likely a room of their own – to continue this tradition, to find their own voice uninfluenced by men. She complains that her reading has become monotonous with so many men’s voices, so much male influence, and expresses a hope that the time will come when readers will think her rant out of date.

She closes with the sentiment that in “another century or so” women writers will have found their voice. I like to think that, while the gender equality fight is still very much on, in writing at least women have found an equal footing. I don’t know how the numbers compare of books published by men and women, or indeed books sold, or literary prizes won, and if they are even now it’s probably a very recent development, maybe even in the last ten years. But the world has changed drastically from the one Woolf knew and I like to think she would be proud of women today, especially women writers.

First published 1928.
I read the Penguin Great Ideas edition, published 2004.

UPDATE: If you’re interested, you can check out the Year of Feminist Classics discussions about this title here and here.

Words on women of the world

Feminine Gospels
by Carol Ann Duffy

A lot of the poems in this collection by our esteemed Poet Laureate read like little short stories, which made them pleasingly accessible for someone like me who doesn’t read a whole lot of poetry.

The subject matter, as you might guess from the title, is women – the women of myth, of urban legend, of old wives tales – and womanhood, what that means. The tone ranges from meditations on love, beauty, identity to everyday rhythms and humour.

There’s “The Map-Woman” about a woman whose skin is a map of the town, from head to toe. There’s “Work” about a woman taking on increasingly tough jobs as she has more children to support, until she has a billion children and can no longer cope. There’s “Beautiful”, about some of history’s most famous women, from Helen of Troy to Princess Diana, drawing the parallels between their lives and the way they were treated.

I usually like love poems best and there are some of those here, but I think my favourite in this collection is “A Dreaming Week”, which uses repetition and clearer rhythm and rhyme than most of Duffy’s poems to create something that sounds really good spoken aloud. Its story, if it can be said to have one, is quite simply a person daydreaming/dreaming a week away. There’s idle playing with words, there’s evocative descriptions of bed and night-time.

I think I prefer Duffy’s most recent book, Rapture, but this is an excellent window into multiple characters/perspectives/ideas about femininity.

Published 2002 by Picador.