Thursday, July 29, 2010

"Herland" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Summary: In this feminist utopian satire, three early 20th century men set out and "discover" Herland: an isolated land in existence for 2,000 years and comprised of only women.  Free of male and "traditional" societal influence, the society has flourished.  The three men--the narrator Van (a thoughtful sociologist), Terry (a misogynist unable to accept the women's strengths), and Jeff (who idolizes the women)--struggle to understand the perfect world the women have crafted and acknowledge the failures of their own society.

Musings: I first read this book for an amazing course I took at Duke University during a summer program for high school students.  The class was on "Island Utopian Literature" and focused on various authors' conceptions of an ideal world and the problematic aspects of crafting a perfect society.  Feeling a bit of resurgence in my feminism (not that it left, but perhaps became complacent), I decided to see what a reread would offer.

Gilman's work is a fascinating study, both for its critique of gender norms and for the insight it provides into early 20th-century feminism.  It's highly problematic from a modern perspective (particularly in its assumptions about sexuality), but wholly enjoyable.

Through a history I won't get into here (but the book provides), Herland became an isolated community of only women.  Instead of dying out, however, one woman developed philoprogenetiveness--the ability to self-produce a child.  In this way the society was able to continue throughout many generations.  Through communal work and effort, the women achieve a society that is free of poverty, disease, and violence.  Because Herland is founded on a "virgin" birth, it is a society centered around the deification of motherhood.  Again, from a contemporary perspective I find this problematic (Ann Lane, in the introduction, notes that "Gilman seems to assume that the desire for motherhood, thought not the ability to be a good mother, is inherent in the female condition" [xiii]).  Nevertheless, the way in which Gilman frames motherhood is progressive for its time.  Motherhood does not involve personal brooding and self-sacrifice for one's own child or carry associations of "staying at home with the kids" as opposed to completing other also fulfilling work.  Instead, in Herland, childrearing is shared and valued above all else, thus giving both responsibility and freedom to every woman.

It's easy to be pretty cynical about the perfection and lack of struggle the women have in the novel, and I think that continued pessimism while reading can be a distraction at times (it's hard to take everything in if you're constantly assuming it's impossible).  And I would probably agree with Terry, who argues unsuccessfully that "If there is no struggle, there is no life" (99).  After all, can you really experience joy without also experiencing grief?  However, one of the strengths of Gilman's text is the way in which Herland's perfection is used to expose the fallacies and weaknesses of the men's (our) society.  Gilman is especially adept as unmasking the illogical nature of our gendered assumptions.  Through Van's documentation of the questions the Herland women ask, Gilman breaks down the ideas that women are "weak" and "illogical" or that "male" institutions like war and poverty are inevitable.  She does this in a way that is often funny, which gives the book an unexpected lightness.

One of my strongest reactions against the book came in Gilman's depiction of sexuality.  As Lane notes in the introduction, Gilman operates from the idea that "sexual freedom led to another form of female subordination" (xvi).  Because of this, Gilman has completely removed female sexuality from Herland.  According to the novel, without men, women would have no "sex feeling"!  The women of Herland are completely asexual and, even when they marry the three men (for the purpose of bisexual mating), they are unable to see the purpose of sex beyond conception.  I loved that the women refused to consent to sex with the men when they truly did not understand the need or desire it, but the heteronormativity and the assumption that sexuality is solely a male domain are clearly problematic.

Herland is an excellent read, not as a solution for modern problems, but as a primary source case-study for early 20th century feminism and socialism.  It's also easy to see the kind of highly gendered-biased world Gilman was writing in and admire her strength to defy conventional roles and challenge dominant assumptions.

***This book qualifies for the Books of the Century Reading Challenge.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"East of Eden" by John Steinbeck

Summary: Brothers Adam and Charles Trask were always opposites--Adam the beloved "good" son destined by his father to be a soldier and Charles the son consumed by anger and darkness.  Cathy Ames was evil since birth, and when she enters the brothers' world, their lives are thrown into even more turmoil.  East of Eden follows the Trask brothers and Cathy's sons Cal and Aron as they attempt to move beyond the way in which their family has defined them.

Musings: This book was chosen by our sophomore English teachers as their assigned summer reading, so I decided to read it myself to try to counteract the inevitable complaining that will come from previous students at the start of the school year.  And the complaints will rest on one basic and valid point--the novel is 600 pages long.

As the sophomore English teachers pointed out to my students this past school year, East of Eden is a very readable book.  Despite some excess of scenery description in the beginning, the narrative moves quickly, focusing on events and characters' experiences.  The biblical myth of Cain and Abel loosely guides the story, and it's interesting to see the ways in which the brothers--first Charles and Adam and later Cal and Aron--struggle with their own self-imposed images of themselves as "good" or "bad."  But because of the biblical allusions, the characters sometimes felt one-dimensional, and I couldn't quite identify with their feelings.  Cathy Ames is probably the most interesting character, and I liked the ambiguity in the end of whether she is pure evil or not.

The dialogue is a bit stilted, being for the purpose more of philosophical musings than real human conversations.  Nonetheless, I loved the character of Lee, Adam's Chinese servant, as he serves as a moral compass for the Trask family.

I've been involved in an institute for school teachers on the history of religion in America this month, and so it was meaningful to me to also be reading a book that relies on understandings of religion.  Perhaps the book would be best understood in terms of a biblical study, which is something I didn't really set out to do.

I enjoyed the book, but, in the end, I think I'll quietly agree with the complaining students next year.  East of Eden is far too long for a summer read and far too philosophical (for the length) to hold the attention of fifteen-year-olds.  However, I'd certainly recommend it to fans of Steinbeck, strong narratives, or biblical allegories.

***This book qualifies for the Books of the Century Reading Challenge.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

"The Line" by Teri Hall

Summary: Since her father died, Rachel has lived near the Line--a border surrounding the U.S. (The Unified States) that separates it from the land beyond, the Away.  The Line is not just a border, but an force field that prohibits anyone from traveling between the U.S. and the Away.  Rachel has lived a quiet life with her mother and the cranky Ms. Moore, but one day Rachel receives a message from the Away asking for help, and she must decide whether to take the safe route or try to help.

Musings: The Line is a rather mild dystopian, and for being a book in a genre that is so popular right now, especially in young adult literature, it's not particularly unique.  The abuses of the U.S. government are pretty standard: restriction in free speech and travel, mandatory identification, the suppression of dissenters, and the pervasive fear of government power.  It's an extraordinarily simplified version of 1984, too general to have modern relevance and too vague to be affecting.

Rachel is a bland character who comes across quite young, even though I imagine she's supposed to be around 14 (though no specific age is given).  There's back story, but no real depth, to the relationships between Rachel, Vivian (Rachel's mother), or Ms. Moore.

The book is a short and quick read, but the pace still felt fairly plodding.  Some excitement does build towards the end, and there's a decent cliffhanger ending, but I don't think it'll be enough to have me picking up the sequel.

Friday, July 9, 2010

"In the Fullness of Time" by Vincent Nicolosi

Summary: In the days following President Kennedy’s assassination, Tristan Hamilton begins looking back on his life, particularly his involvement in President Warren G. Harding’s candidacy and presidency.  A lifelong resident of Marion, Ohio (Harding’s hometown), Hamilton spent much of his life furthering Harding’s career and, after Harding’s sudden death, commemorating the late president’s life through the construction of the giant Harding Memorial in Marion.  In recollecting his earlier years, Tristan also tries to come to terms with his relationship with Mitzy von Leuckel, one of the President’s mistresses.

Musings: In modern times, President Harding is not a particularly well-known president, and when he is mentioned, it’s typically to appear on “worst presidents” lists.  This novel, taking place in 1963, is in some ways Tristan’s attempt to “set the record straight” about Harding.

In the Fullness of Time moves back and forth in history, covering the present day, where Tristan in an old man, and his days as a youth and a middle-aged man.  Throughout the book, Tristan expresses contempt for all the people who have “gotten it wrong” through rumors spread by unscrupulous neighbors and dastardly historians.  But despite Tristan’s insistence that anyone thinking poorly of President Harding or “jumping to conclusions” has misunderstood, it’s not clear that Tristan is really in any better position to know or tell the truth.

In fact, I came to enjoy the novel more when I began to understand Tristan as a wholly unreliable narrator, although it’s not clear whether Nicolosi intended for him to be understood as such.  Tristan is a man who is convinced he has never behaved badly in his life; he repeatedly refers to his selflessness, upstanding moral character, and devotion to those around him.  In areas where he clearly has done wrong, he shows no remorse, arguing instead why there should be no blame for his actions.  He tries to hide his pompousness and arrogance toward others through the repeated insistence on his virtue and honor. 

He defends Harding, a man whom Tristan says he personally hates, in the same manner.  Harding is a man whose character has been damaged by the scandals of his presidency, and Tristan defends Harding as if he were defending his own self.  It’s never fully clear why Tristan is so devoted to the late president, going so far as to erect an obscene colossus of a monument in Marion, Ohio—a Greek-inspired rotunda more at home next to the great monuments of the great presidents in Washington, D.C.  But it did seem clear to me that in building the monument, Tristan insists on Harding’s positive legacy, and in doing so, defines his own positive purpose in life.  Tristan has spent so many years in service to President Harding’s memory that to admit wrongdoing, on his or Harding’s part, would mean to admit a worthlessness to his own life.

Nicolosi builds up a number of mysteries throughout the book, some specifically from the Harding presidency (did Harding really die of natural causes?) and some from Tristan’s life.  Because the story is not told linearly, but in pieces, and because Tristan refuses to talk about those aspects of his life that he is uncomfortable with—despite the fact that they are the most interesting—the mystery builds slowly but becomes more intriguing throughout the book.  However, by the end, most of these mysteries are left unexplained.  As a reader I found that a bit unfulfilling, although I suppose the lack of neat endings is in keeping with the historical nature of the novel.  After all, in real life, many things remain unknown.

Tristan’s age shows in his narration, as he frequently breaks in his telling to return to an earlier event (“Once, again, I’m getting ahead of myself…”) which then gets elaborated upon.  It’s like talking to an elderly relative who has difficulty staying on target, frequently straying to other thoughts and then coming back only to defend what he has said with such insistence that you can’t help but think it must not be true.

In the Fullness of Time provides a unique look at a largely overlooked presidency, and while, for me, it didn’t shed much light on Harding, it did offer a glimpse into the people whose lives are shaped by presidencies and damaged by secrets.

Disclosure: Provided to me by the publisher for my honest review.

Monday, July 5, 2010

"Little Brother" by Cory Doctorow

Summary: Marcus and his friends are cutting school when a terrorist attack on San Francisco occurs.  Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, Marcus and others are picked up by the Department of Homeland Security, detained, and subjected to psychological torture and physical stress.  When Marcus is finally released, under threat not to tell anyone what happened, he decides to wage war on the DHS.  Using his technological skills, he begins the XNet, a secure Internet system, and recruits others to bring back personal liberty and privacy by foiling the DHS in their "protection" of the city.

Musings: Little Brother is a book that, for me, is both wonderfully unique and empowering and flawed.  I was immediately drawn in by Marcus' voice.  The combination of Doctorow's writing and Kirby Heyborne's narration made me think of Marcus as a modern techno-geek version of Ferris Bueller.  Like Ferris, Marcus has absolute contempt for the authority figures and monitoring structures in place in his life--and understandably so, as he has developed multiple ways of beating the system.  Because of this, Marcus is supremely self-assured to the point of being arrogant, but nonetheless, people want to follow him.  Marcus is not traditionally popular like Ferris, but his charisma and enthusiasm make him a natural leader among those who are drawn into his message.

When Marcus is tortured and broken by the DHS, he responds with anger and action, and most of the book follows Marcus' efforts to destroy the DHS' attempts at surveillance.  One of the great things about Little Brother is that not only is Marcus smart, but Doctorow assumes his readers are too.  Marcus engages in highly complex technological manipulation, and Doctorow explains the processes and science/math behind it in a manner that assumes his readers can, and will, understand.

However, the time spent explaining is also one of the drawbacks of the book.  Doctorow fully explains every aspect of the novel, from political and social explanations for why monitoring and tracking does not keep us safe to the math behind cryptography.  It's often interesting stuff, but because of it, the narrative takes secondary importance and often lags in terms of action. 

The explanations are clearly a part of Doctorow's own political agenda, and the author makes no attempts to disguise this aspect of the novel.  I did not have a problem with the politicking in and of itself, but the preaching too gets in way of the narrative.  I was reminded of the structure of books like Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, in which the novel is solely a form by which an ideology is conveyed.

The constant lecturing also started to bother me after awhile.  Doctorow's politics are largely my own, and I agree with much of the criticism he makes.  However, there is absolutely no room for disagreement in the novel, and the characters who do disagree--even on minor points--are portrayed as villains or morons.  I almost felt myself getting defensive, playing devil's advocate on positions I didn't even agree with, just to acknowledge that issues are never completely black and white.

Nonetheless, there are a lot of great things about Little Brother.  The book shows teenagers understanding and taking charge of their own lives in a real way--and making change in the greater world because of it.  It assumes young people can and will be concerned with more than video games and texting.  The book also exposes readers to very contemporary issues taking place in the United States right now.  We'd like to think that the U.S. would never detain and torture its own citizens or that restrictions in liberty will result in increased security, but Doctorow effectively challenges both of these.  In some ways it's a dystopian book taking place in contemporary society, and that's very chilling.

There's a ton more I could say about the book--about it's politics, characterization, and structure--but I think it's better to just read it.  I can think of some students now who would really love this book and for whom the novel might help inspire more political awareness.  The novel may be best for that age group who, perhaps unlike my cynical adult self, is more open to unrestrained belief in the power of what's right.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

"Stardust" by Neil Gaiman

Summary: Tristan Thorn, a young man of eighteen, does not know that he is no normal boy, but was instead conceived by his father and a mysterious woman from the land beyond Wall--the land of Faerie.  Tristan is desperate for Victoria Forester's love, and when she agrees to give him whatever he desires if he brings her a falling star they saw land, Tristan sets off into Faerie to locate the star.  When Tristan meets the star--who is actually an injured young woman--they set off on a journey together back to Wall.

Musings: I had completely forgotten that Stardust was made into a movie, which I saw a few years back.  I didn't care much for the movie at the time, and I wish I hadn't seen the movie before reading the book.  I couldn't have remembered much of the film if you'd asked me, but once I started reading, the film's images popped up in my head, distracting me from being immersed in the book in its own right.  The movie follows the book almost exactly, so there wasn't much room for my imagination.  Funnily enough, I remembered someone else reviewing the book recently, and when I found that it was She's review, I saw that she had said much of the same thing.

I love Gaiman's ability to create a fantasy world with quirky characters, but Stardust fell a bit flat to me. Perhaps it's because so many characters and storylines are weaved into one short (just over 200-page) novel.  In addition to Tristan's and Yvaine's (the star's) stories, there are the stories of Tristan's mother and her enslaver, the witches seeking the star, and the lords of Stormhold, as well as multiple minor characters.  To squeeze all that in, the book becomes narrative rich and characterization poor.  Events happen so quickly and with so little development and reflection that I never settled in and committed.

The small moments of humor that characterize Gaiman's writings are still there (I adored the star's expletive upon falling to the ground), and someone looking for a quick and fun fantasy story won't be disappointed.  Just save the movie until afterwards.

On a side note, I noticed that my library clearly labeled and shelved Stardust as YA.  However, no less than three times within publisher's materials inside the book itself is it referred to as an adult title.  Interesting that a teenage protagonist (even though, at eighteen, Tristan's more or less an adult) and fantasy setting seem to guide the placement more than (what I presume to be) the author or publisher's wishes.