Bookstore Hopping: Gulliver's Books in Fairbanks, AK

My recent trip to Alaska was wonderful in a myriad of ways. I explored a new landscape, had new experiences, and even managed to visit two indie bookstores in a five-day period. Yes, I am an addicted bookworm, thanks for asking. The indie bookstore Gulliver’s Books is located in the small-towny, scenic city of Fairbanks, Alaska, one of the most popular places in the US to see the northern lights (no, we didn’t see them). I stayed for a couple days and visited this shop, among a few others.

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Gulliver’s Books is located across from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks campus, but I was somewhat disappointed in this bookstore. Their fiction section was severely understocked; in fact, I don’t think I saw even a dozen titles of literary fiction on these shelves: they were heavy on genre fiction. Romance, sci-fi, and fantasy were over-represented, and I couldn’t find anything I liked. Genre fiction isn’t really my thing, unless it comes highly recommended. Call me a book snob.

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What I did like about this bookstore was the little cafe in back, and the travel/history section that boasted many history books about Fairbanks and Alaska in general. I love reading about the history of a place, especially when I’m visiting. It lends an aura, a mystique to the area when you know more about what happened here decades, sometimes centuries before. I took a peek in a few of those books and read more about the beautiful town of Fairbanks.

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I also quite liked the bottom floor better. They had a modest collection of “made in Alaska” cultural items like sculptures and souvenirs like tea sets and pottery. Plus this awesome giant polar bear 🙂

Wear Your Books

Inspired by my previous bookish look, I wanted to see if there were any fabulous book-related fashion items I could wear to flaunt my nerdy love for books. A Pinterest scour yielded many, many pretty results. Too many. I’d love any number of these items, but my favorites are that tutu made of pages from a book and that gorgeous skirt, which would make a great DIY project for a lazy Sunday. I’ve actually done the newspaper nails, as well, but mine did not come out that perfect! Screen Shot 2014-03-02 at 12.57.33 PM

The bib necklaces are unbelievably beautiful. The first one I especially love, since it is a quote from one of my favorite poems of all time, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:

“April is the cruellest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain.”

The Waste Land is mesmerizing and lush in its beauty and pain. The other quote is Virginia Woolf:

“I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse, perhaps, to be locked in.”

Another thing I loved when I saw it on Pinterest were these shoes covered with book pages:

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I’m not crazy about the papier-mâché texture of the shoes. If I do these, I want to find a way to make them flat and shiny instead. I’d also probably want to make the type white on a matte-black shoe, to make it more wearable. I swear, I can’t stop with these shoe DIYs! See more here, here, here, and here. Oh, my.

All images are from Pinterest, and the links may be found on my Polyvore page.

Possession and Women in "My Ántonia"

I have a confession to make: I started reading My Ántonia because of beer. I had the Dogfish Head brew named after the book at Eataly last year and loved it (it’s a “continuously hopped imperial pilsner” and marketed as a “lager for ale lovers,” so perfect for me; but enough about the beer) and then I thought, “well now I have to read the book,” because really, what other choice did I have? When I visited Boston in November, I found a pretty 1952 Houghton Mifflin Sentry Edition for 3 bucks, and the rest was history.

17201493I loved this book (the beer helped). It covers a period of American history I was never much interested in, with a setting I often overlook: rural Nebraska in the late nineteenth century, on a farm. Not exactly my favored topic of Regency England, or a dark moor of the same country, but I took to the setting immediately, and it might have had something to do with the “immigrant experience” so deftly wrought in this gorgeous novel.

At its heart, My Ántonia is about Ántonia, a Bohemian immigrant girl living in rural Nebraska with her family. Broadly, it’s about one man’s relationship to the land, to the woman, and to America. I think I especially related to it for two reasons: one, because both my parents are Italian immigrants, and so the topic of immigrant experience is always interesting to me; and two, because I love reading books about women. This book stands out because it is narrated by a man yet written by a woman about a woman, and the way Cather/the narrator describe Ántonia (and all the women characters) is very telling: she emerges as a strong woman, both physically and emotionally. She’s also attractive and irreverent, independent and funny, sensitive, loving, and unfailingly kind. It’s easy to see why the narrator becomes enamored with her, and calls her my Ántonia. This is his story as well as–perhaps more so than–hers.

Renoir's "La Bohemienne"

Renoir’s “La Bohemienne”

The title of the novel suggests possession, ownership, interpretation. Our protagonist is Jim Burden. He wrote the content of the novel for an old friend; when they meet on a train traveling across Iowa, Jim speaks to his friend about Ántonia, and what he remembers of her. A few months later, he gives his friend the manuscript, titling it “My Ántonia” after a few seconds’ deliberation. The title and Jim’s decision to prefix her name makes it clear that this is the version of Ántonia he sees, the version he loves. She’s a bedraggled Bohemian (Bohemia is the contemporary Czech Republic) when he first meets her, smart and hard-working. They grow up together on the Nebraska prairie, a place of stark beauty; bare, brutal winters, and sweltering summers characterize the prairie, which begins to take on a life of its own as the story progresses.

Naive, romantic Jim narrates as Ántonia grows from an impetuous and strong child to a teenager in a flourishing town, a jilted woman, and eventually to a mother of eleven, battered and toothless, but consistently strong and indomitable. When I read it, I grew to love Ántonia much like Jim does. I don’t know if I idolize her the same way though, or idealize her. Jim’s romantic nature and his unreliable narration lend a sense of mystique to Ántonia that she may not deserve. Nonetheless, Jim’s love makes the reader, myself included, appreciate Ántonia more. We appreciate her for her wildness, for her adaptability, for her passion and her perceived perfection. The image we get of Ántonia is just that: an image, a version of reality. Well, this is storytelling, isn’t it? Jim’s story is the only one we get, but it’s one I want to believe in.

Jim’s treatment of Ántonia subtly mirrors his treatment of the prairie. Descriptions of them both parallel each other; it’s clear that Jim idolizes them both, and in doing so, incorporates them into his base identity.

I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.

Jim’s sense of belonging to Nebraska, to the prairie, is intense. He literally feels as if his identity is being consumed by his surroundings, and by extension, by the people he loves, Ántonia especially. It is this theme of possession that runs throughout the novel, characterizing Jim’s relationship to those around him. Jim’s feelings have to do with wanting to own something beautiful, wanting to be a part of something breathtaking. Jim describes how Ántonia has become a part of him, how his opinions have changed based on hers, how she has shaped his life in indelible ways.

Do you know, Ántonia, since I’ve been away, I think of you more often than of anyone else in this part of the world. I’d have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister–anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don’t realize it. You really are a part of me.

First of all, I think it’s hysterical that Jim equates “sweetheart and wife” with “mother or sister,” as if a woman’s identity were reliant on her relationship with a man. The second thing that’s interesting is how much Jim incorporated Ántonia’s identity into his own: ironic, isn’t it? Which brings us to Cather’s–and Jim’s–treatment of women in the novel.

We meet Lena Lingard in town, a woman first presented as a flirt and a tease. She is shown encouraging married men’s advances and being far too sexual for safety. What a surprise it is when she shows an immense aptitude for business and a desire to be nothing more than a friend to any man: “Well, mainly because I don’t want a husband. Men are all right for friends, but as soon as you marry them they turn into cranky old fathers, even the wild ones. They begin to tell you what’s sensible and what’s foolish, and want you to stick at home all the time. I prefer to be foolish when I feel like it, and be accountable to nobody.” (291)

Preach it, sister. The novel is full of this kind of woman, bred strong on the prairie and ultimately independent of men. There’s another story of a woman who struck it rich when gold was discovered in Alaska, and ends up living in San Francisco with another woman from the prairie. Still, these women are treated by Jim’s narration as strange yet desirable, more desirable than girly girls raised to be wives and mothers, the kind of girl we would expect to learn about in this time period. The treatment of women in this novel is definitely interesting, filtered as it is through Jim’s skewed POV. There’s definitely a “type” of woman that is idealized, but it’s not the one we’d expect.

I think that’s all I have to say about this novel. Truly, I could go on for hours. There’s a lot of description of the hardships of the immigrant life and achingly beautiful descriptions of an otherwise unromantic part of America, the Nebraska plains. Cather manages to make me want to live on the prairie, which is no mean feat.

After I finished Ántonia I went on a Willa Cather buying spree. I love reading about strong women, and learning a bit more history about my country. This sounds cliche, but when I hear stories about my father and mother’s experiences as immigrants to America in the 60s and the 80s, when I learn how they acclimated, learned the language, worked menial jobs, and finally carved lives for themselves here, I feel proud to be American. Please don’t tease me. 😉

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1st Book of 2014: The Handmaid's Tale

I’ve started off 2014 with a bang with Margaret Atwood’s 1985 classic The Handmaid’s Tale. When I was reading the last hundred pages of the book, I frequently closed it and put it down and buried my face in my hands and said, “I can’t take it. The pressure is too much.” It’s frightening at times but unlike 1984 (my guidepost for all things dystopian), the frightening aspects are not tied to the plot exactly, but rather, the fear lies in the elements of the world itself: Atwood has created a world in which women are truly second-class citizens, in which they are valued (or not valued) for the ways in which they are used sexually by men.

handmaids-tale-reviewThere are the Wives, capital “W”, who are revered. There are the Daughters, clad all in white and kept completely separate from the world. There are the Unwomen, those who cannot produce children and who are shipped off to the Colonies to perform dangerous and menial tasks. And then there are the Handmaids, dressed all in red, like our protagonist, Offred.

Our setting is Gilead, a new nation instated after the President and Congress have been annihilated, after the Constitution is suspended, and after a theocracy has been established. The birth rate has plummeted and the Handmaids are those women who have been assigned to copulate with the high-ranking Commanders, to have the children the Wives cannot, and they only have three chances (three cycles of Commanders) to birth a child before they are deemed Unwomen and shipped off to Colonial hell. These women don’t even retain their names; Offred is called such because she is the handmaid “of Fred.” This is a world where a woman’s worth is tied to her purity and/or fertility, and she has no identity independent of her assigned Man.

The present narrative of Gilead is punctuated by Offred’s nostalgic recollections of a normal 1980s American existence. She fought with her feminist activist mother, debated with her outrageous best friend Moira, conducted an affair with a married man and when he divorced and married her, Offred can remember her five-year-old daughter, who was taken from her. She remembers being placed in the Red Center, where other future Handmaids were taught to think of themselves as empty vessels to be filled with babies. They were taught a strict Christian ideology, taught to be pure, that sex is not to be enjoyed, and that rape is their fault. Stripped of all natural human rights, of their previous lives and loved ones, controlled by fear, Offred’s tale is a haunting one full of truths of what would happen if contemporary abuses against women become not only the norm, but the law.

Mother, I think. Wherever you may be. Can you hear me? You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies. (127)

As a dystopian tale, the novel is lacking in several ways. The voice of the speaker, whose real name is never revealed, feels distant and somewhat unrelatable. The world she builds is also riddled with holes and feels allegorical. I tend to think these features are deliberate, however. I feel like Atwood used the dystopia trope to highlight more important issues, and her undeveloped world may be due to the narrative method: Offred, as a sheltered Handmaid, doesn’t know what is actually going on in Gilead. We see what she sees. We know only what she knows.

The Handmaid’s Tale feels more like a collection of all the ways women can be abused/controlled/exploited than a novel with a tight plot and exciting characters. It’s a cautionary tale more than anything else, but in this way it seriously delivers. I judge a dystopian tale by the terror it instills in me and the amount of despair it manages to elicit in the reader (I like depressing, soul-shattering reads, apparently). In the first respect, The Handmaid’s Tale receives top marks; in the second, thankfully, it sort of falls flat. Offred’s fate is left uncertain but there’s nothing like that one-two punch at the end of 1984 where the reader realizes that there is no escaping the strong arm of the government. I feel like an ending like that is powerful for a reason: it is much more effective in ramming the message down the reader’s throat that this world is possible, terrible, and must be actively warded against.

A Commander on the status of women in Gilead:

This way they all get a man, nobody’s left out. And then if they did marry, they could be left with a kid, two kids, the husband might just get fed up and take off, disappear, they’d have to go on welfare. Or else he’d stay around and beat them up. Or if they had a job, the children in daycare or left with some brutal ignorant woman, and they’d have to pay for that themselves, out of their wretched little paychecks. Money was the only measure of worth, for everyone, they got no respect as mothers. No wonder they were giving up on the whole business. This way they’re protected, they can fulfill their biological destinies in peace. With full support and encouragement. Now, tell me. You’re an intelligent person, I like to hear what you think. What did we overlook? (219-220)

What, indeed?

References

Atwood, M. (1985) The Handmaid’s Tale. Anchor Books.

Margaret George and Margaret Atwood Tackle Helen of Troy

The thing about historical fiction is that often it’s more fiction than historical. Nowhere is that better illustrated than in Margaret George’s Helen of Troy, a faux autobiographical novel narrated by Helen of Troy, who almost definitely didn’t actually exist. Margaret George is well known for her pseudo autobiographies: The Autobiography of Henry VIII was a bestseller, and her Memoirs of Cleopatra was a favorite of mine in high school. But by the time I read Helen of Troy, I felt too skeptical to truly accept Helen of Troy as a woman with twenty-first century motives and desires. Sure, it’s nice to read about her as a real person and not as a trophy wife or a shameful woman (a la The Iliad and literally every interpretation of her since antiquity) but I came away from reading the book feeling as if no light had been shed on the what Helen of Troy represents, only what she would have been like if Sparta were a city in contemporary America.

Helen of Troy reviewI won’t deny that the narrative and characterization are refreshing in terms of the immortal Helen of Troy: she’s an intelligent young lady who manages to take the reins in her seemingly predetermined princess’s life. When the time comes to select a husband, Helen asserts her independence and requests that she be allowed to choose the man she will marry, a departure from the canonical account and the historical Spartan tradition of a parent-arranged marriage. In her marriage to Menelaus, she cannot find happiness because he fails to please her sexually, a very modern notion. Helen also hates her beauty and wishes it away, deeming it an unnecessary burden upon her freedom and happiness. Most importantly, the decision to leave Troy with Paris is entirely hers; though the narrative incorporates Aphrodite cursing Helen with insatiable sexual desire for Paris, the goddess of love does not force Helen’s hand. Rather, Helen debates and despairs and ultimately decides her course of action.

What we’re left with is a portrayal of Helen of Troy as smart, capable, compassionate, and most importantly, a sympathetic character readers are meant to understand as a normal woman, albeit the most beautiful woman in the world. Helen of Troy’s first-person narration relates the events of the Trojan War in their entirety and manages to make clear her motives, desires, frustrations, and regrets, as well as the way she relates to and understands her beauty. What emerges is a complex, tangible Helen that perhaps does too much explaining. Because readers may be more inclined to assume her guilt, George goes to great lengths to mitigate Helen’s blame and emphasize her humanity. She’s an apologist in moments throughout the novel, cursing her beauty and her decisions, to the point where it becomes exhausting and makes Helen seem a bit whiny. George does well with responding to a historical tradition that deprives Helen of a voice and turns her into an ideal or an archetype. However, George’s Helen is modern one whose treatment of the “problematic” nature of beauty represents a contemporary society in which the significance of beauty takes a backseat to intelligence and competence. 

George wants to say: it’s okay that Helen was so dangerous and beautiful, because she was smart and independent, too. But what if she wasn’t? What does Helen’s dangerous beauty mean, really? Margaret Atwood thinks she has the answers.

If you haven’t read the poem “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing,” literally stop everything you’re doing and read it. I’ll wait 😉 It’ll change ya life.

In “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing,” Atwood creates a modern-day Helen with the same parentage and fearsome beauty her ancient counterpart possessed, but instead of a queen of Sparta she is an exotic dancer. Atwood’s Helen comes closest to highlighting the nature of beauty: that it is perceived as dangerous and therefore must be controlled or mitigated. This Helen is unabashed by her profession as a countertop-dancer, even though she is aware that using her sex appeal is disgusting to most women. Those women tell her she “should be ashamed” of herself, that she should “get some self-respect and a day job.”

This Helen knows she is being exploited by using her beauty, but she is also aware that denying her beauty is also exploitation. Atwood’s Helen believes that working as a cashier “selling gloves” is more demeaning than being a stripper, because at least as a dancer, she sells something powerful and “nebulous”—desire. Either way she is oppressed, so she’ll “take the money” anyway. Helen in this form is hyper-aware of her power over men and that the desire she arouses inspires just as much loathing: “Such hatred leaps in them, my beery worshippers! That, or a bleary hopeless love.” Most importantly, she understands that everyone who gazes upon her wishes to control her, or else define her so that they may diminish her power. Helen purrs, “the rest of them would like to watch me/and feel nothing. Reduce me to components/as in a clock factory or abattoir./Crush out the mystery./Wall me up alive/in my own body./They’d like to see through me.”

Yet she defies every effort to capture or cage her. At the close of the poem Helen declares her divinity: “Look—my feet don’t hit the marble!/Like breath or a balloon, I’m rising,/I hover six inches in the air/in my blazing swan-egg of light./You think I’m not a goddess?/Try me./This is a torch song./Touch me and you’ll burn.”

In the context of contemporary feminism, Helen is both fascinating and problematic. Third-wave feminism differs from its previous manifestations because it acknowledges, and in some cases embraces, the idea that beauty is powerful. Whether it should be used, or some would say abused, remains a controversial question. Verifying the power of female beauty is problematic because some perceive Helen’s seductive power as less congenial than the violent method of taking control her sister, Clytemnestra, exhibited by killing her philandering and murdering husband. Control through “femininity” treads dangerous ground by making a man’s gaze necessary to a woman’s power, and by dismissing her other strengths like intellect or self-dependence.

In this social environment, Helen of Troy has been abused. It is too easy to dismiss her as the self-hating woman, or exonerate her on the grounds of divine intervention in order to fit her into a neat, easily-understood package. Attempts in antiquity and recently have tried and failed to define her mystique, reducing Helen either to a face without a brain or a brain without a face. In Margaret George’s case, she tries to discount the power of Helen’s beauty by creating a character with agency who desperately wishes to look normal. Only in Atwood’s poem do readers see a complex analysis of precisely what makes Helen of Troy so seductive, complex, powerful, and ultimately immortal.

Plus, I want this:atwood1

 

Novel Nostalgia: The Two Princesses of Bamarre (and Disney's Frozen)

I have to admit: this post is entirely inspired by Frozen, my new favorite movie (I’m a sucker for Pixar movies and pretty girls). The Disney film reminded me of one of my favorite books when I was a child, Gail Carson Levine’s The Two Princesses of Bamarre. The story of Frozen and The Two Princesses of Bamarre are similar: two sisters, heirs to the throne–close friends but dissimilar in temperament. Meryl, the older, is “a concentration of focused energy, brave” while her younger sister Addie is “afraid of almost everything–from monsters to strangers to spiders.” Their kingdom of Bamarre is a land filled with dangers like dragons and gryphons; while Addie longs only for peace and tranquility, it is Meryl who itches for adventure. She wants to leave the palace’s walls and fight to save her land. She wants adventure for the sake of adventure, to prove her worth and her bravery.

The Two Princesses of BamarreEnter the Gray Death, a bubonic plague-like disease that haunts the denizens of Bamarre. It is a quick-acting disease and utterly incurable. Meryl has pledged from a young age that she will find the cure, but it is Meryl, not Addie, who contracts the terminal illness. Terrified for her sister and for herself, Addie finds the bravery within herself to set off on the quest Meryl always said she would take: the quest for the cure. With her ailing sister at home whose life is dwindling quickly, Addie doesn’t have time for fear, and must muster her courage in her search for the cure.

The Two Princesses of Bamarre is an interesting exploration of two kinds of bravery: Meryl’s bravery that seems on display (though no less genuine) and Addie’s bravery, driven by duty and a strong love for her sister. It’s the difference between slaying a sleeping dragon for the sake of it and defending your family against that same dragon’s attack. Sometimes the measure of bravery is in the details of the act, not the act itself. When extreme circumstances arose, Addie’s courage surpassed Meryl’s bravado (albeit her magnanimous bravado). While Meryl has mettle (ha) she also wants glory and honor; Addie just wants to save her sister and her people.

The dynamic between the two sisters and the way this novel explores female power and emotion reminds me of Frozen. There are also aesthetic similarities: Meryl, the fair and stronger, older sister, reminds me of the ice-blonde Elsa, powerful yet conflicted. And freckled Addie reminds me of the quirky and naive Anna, who finds herself in similar extreme circumstances, having to save her sister not only from external enemies but also from herself.

Elsa Frozen Let It Go

The character of Elsa was most interesting to me for several reasons. Born with the ability to create ice and snow from her touch, Elsa has had to hide her power her entire life to protect those around her. Her father taught her to “conceal it, don’t feel it,” a mantra she has held her entire life. When her powers finally bubble over, Elsa cannot hide her true self anymore and she flees into a mountain, and the song that accompanies is a declaration of independence.

She sings, “be the good girl you always have to be” before declaring that “that perfect girl is gone.” Before, she was buttoned up to the neck with her hair carefully twined into a modest knot; after she lets loose her powers and lets go of her fear, she transforms into a woman who explores her sexuality. She lets her hair down and creates a beautiful, sexy dress for herself–and this is most important–away from the male gaze. Elsa’s predicament–always having to hide her true self and her powers–is an allegory for constraints put on women. Either good girl or bad girl, there is always a right and wrong for women, but away from society, Elsa is free to be powerful and sexy. “No right, no wrong for me,” she sings. “I’m free.” She’s free to be herself and explore her power.

I have to commend Frozen for consciously debunking major fairy-tale tropes. Though not perfect, Frozen mocks several oft-used Disney concepts such as true love’s kiss and love at first sight. Though not earth-shattering, it’s subtly progressive (by Disney standards) and it’s lovely to know that young children will grow up admiring women such as Elsa and Anna, who break the molds. They manage to be strong yet feminine, a departure even from such recent Disney princesses as Merida, an obvious tomboy. It is possible to be feminine, beautiful, powerful, and independent. Princess stories are like that, too: beautiful yet powerful to youngsters, and if I’m any example, the good ones resound for many years to come.

Bookstore Hopping: Boston and the Brookline Booksmith

Over the weekend I took a road trip to Boston with my best friend. It’s about a four-hour drive from New York, which isn’t terrible, and we stayed in the lovely Boston University area, in the South Campus. This is the Admissions Building all covered with changing leaves and climbing ivy. It was beautiful, but so cold! I had brought only a light jacket and immediately regretted it.

ImageImageImageOne afternoon we took a walk down to the river and what BU kids call “The BU Beach” because there’s a lawn a few feet from the water where kids do homework and lounge during the nice weather. It’s a cool urban quad.

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Though the weather was freezing, it was so beautiful near the water and the view was spectacular.

On our last day, our friend gave us a recommendation for a great indie bookstore in Brookline, in a neighborhood called Coolidge Corner. It’s called Brookline Booksmith.

Photo Nov 24, 1 50 27 PMThe store has two floors: the top floor reminded me a bit of the Strand crossed with Barnes & Noble; there were many other kinds of merchandise there from tote bags, greeting cards, maps, notebooks, and all your various paper-type merchandise but there were also hats, gloves, and scarves and a whole Kid’s Section that definitely reminded me of B&N. It’s an indie but it feels corporate…that is, until you get downstairs.

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The used book cellar, and more my kind of bookstore.

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It was quiet and had that library feel, as opposed to the hustle and bustle of the upstairs. My friend and I scored some cheap titles and spent a lovely half hour browsing drowsily.

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I loved these shelves! There’s something mysterious about stacking books this way, although I’m sure it has more to do with cataloging and keeping new arrivals out of the way than with aesthetics, but it has that mystery nonetheless.

ImageI bought four books:

IMG_20281. Mary and Maria/Matilda, by Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft

2. The Awakening and Selected Stories, by Kate Chopin

3. The Heptameron, by Marguerite de Navarre (who is one of my favorite historical figures. She was the Mother of the Renaissance, horribly overlooked and underrated, a contemporary of and a huge intellectual influence on Anne Boleyn)

4. My Antonia, by Willa Cather (I also offer for suggestion Dogfish Head’s My Antonia Pilsner, which I bought at Eataly simply because it had a literary name. I love beer, and this seemed like the perfect combination of two of my loves!)

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My friend and me. I had wrapped a scarf around my head to protect myself from the freezing wind! Tip: bring an actual coat to Boston in November–don’t repeat my foolish mistakes.

My Review of "Conversations with EVE"

I was recently given the opportunity to review a new feminist theory book, written by Barbara Cuthbertson. I enjoyed the book, even though I had several issues with it. The review is now featured on Gender-Focus.com, a website I’ve written for before. If you want to check out the review, here it is! If you do read the review or feel like reading the book, feel free to post your thoughts in the comments.

Since this is a short post, here’s a picture of a wet cat as a bonus:

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Cheers, everyone! Have a great weekend.

Fairy Tales Retold: "Sirena" and the Femme Fatale

I think YA literature can be a great thing. It’s gotten a bad rap in the past decade with the advent of Twilight and the phenomenon of the paranormal romance genre, but in general, YA introduces young readers to feminism, friendship, mythology, history, and most importantly, the power and beauty of the written word. All of the books I read when I was nine to sixteen years old informed my thinking and interests. From East I learned about Norse mythology. From A Great and Terrible Beauty came my passion for the Victorian era and my knowledge of the complicated nature of those sixty-odd years. Others taught me about pain and strength and courage, and all when I was quite young. My next subject for this spontaneous “Fairy Tales Retold” series follows the same lines of the others: I read this novel when I was about fifteen and it stirred in me an interest in Greek mythology and taught me about sacrifice, love, and the danger of the femme fatale trope.

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Now, Sirena by Donna Jo Napoli is not strictly based on a fairy tale. Rather, it takes place within that giant event of Greek mythology: the Trojan War. However, the main character and narrator is a mermaid (mermaid-siren combo) and given the ubiquity of mermaids in our culture due to the popularity of The Little Mermaid, and knowing details about the plot, I think it fair to say the Hans Christian Andersen tale influenced this novel in no small way.

The novel begins on the island of Anthemoëssa in the Aegean Sea, an island populated by sirens. These sirens are all sisters, the daughters of Eros and “Little Iris,” a fish–thus making this incarnation of sirens mermaids rather than the classic mythological siren who takes the form of half-woman, half-bird (though interpretations differ). The mermaid form is another reason I think pop culture influenced Napoli: mermaids are familiar and relatable in our culture, much more familiar than women who are half-bird. In whatever form, the sirens are both unable to procreate and have the potential for immortality. All they must do to live forever is win the [physical] love of a man. So they sing. They sing to lure sailors to their island and seduce them. Sound familiar?

Among the many siren sisters is the young naïve Sirena. Like her sisters, she adorns herself in seaweed and shells to make herself beautiful for any passing sailors. Her sisters’ one goal is immortality: to lure men to the island even though the sirens know that the island is uninhabitable by humans, and that their arrival means their certain death. Sirena, young and impressionable, does not question the inevitable outcome that the man who falls in love with her will die because of it. But she also does not relish it as her sisters do.

When her sisters manage to shipwreck a crew of men, the men grow mad and violent at their imminent death and in their rage, brutally murder one of Sirena’s sisters. The young mermaid is traumatized after this event and her worldview changes completely. She no longer wishes to be a siren, no longer wishes to enjoy the company of her sisters. She withdraws within herself. The stakes are raised when their de facto mother, Dora, wife of Nereus, tells her sirens about a war: “So mermaids, my ready maidens, the seas are full of Greek ships heading for Troy,” she says, after explaining about the apple of discord and how Paris “stole Helen away to Troy.” (30) Dora warns the mermaids:

You must not be stupid…You are of age, my beauties. This war is your best opportunity. One thousand ships…You must do it perfectly…If you win lovers, my seas can be graced with mermaids forever…Forever and ever. Immortality. (31)

Tempted by immortal life, Sirena nevertheless finds her sisters’ reactions to the news revolting and frankly, terrifying. Sirena implores her sister:

‘The men will die, Alma. They will die for lack of fresh water.’

‘We will sing continually. They will love us.’

‘Even if they love us, they will die.’

Alma, the sweetest of my sisters, now looks at me with hard eyes. ‘They will love us first.’ (35)

The siren’s chilling response and the behavior of the entire population weighs heavily on Sirena and she leaves her colony. She settles on the island of Lemnos, and soon meets Philoctetes, who has been marooned on the island because of a snakebite from one of Hera’s serpents (lifted directly from a legend). Sirena, who has vowed never to sing again, finds herself as a woman in relation to a man, rather than what she believed she was doomed to become: a monster.

The trope of the femme fatale has been around since the Trojan War was first conceived and earlier. Rooted in misogyny, the femme fatale trope is a symptom of the belief that a man’s lust and sexual frustration are a woman’s fault. Men want to be chaste and faithful, but women are snakes and they’re succubi and they can kill you. It’s awful and the worst part about the femme fatale image of women is its pervasion in our society, and not just by (some) men. “Femme Fatale” adorns t-shirts in women’s clothing stores and it’s perceived (by some) as something to be proud of. Femme fatale does not mean female sexuality. It means domination and control over another person, and it means being exploited and objectified because of your sex.

Sadly, “femme fatale” has become synonymous with a strong, sexy woman even though it literally means “deadly woman.” It also perpetuates this fetish-like image of a stony woman with no emotions and no weaknesses as the only desirable female type. We have come from idealizing an emotional, soft-hearted, bird-like woman to idealizing her opposite. The problem with the femme fatale archetype, and all types, is that they enforce the belief that there is a perfect kind of woman. Women, like men, should be allowed to have faults and vulnerabilities and complexity, like every normal human.

That’s the lesson Sirena learns by rejecting her role as femme fatale. It was literally laid out for her, by her “mother” and by her peers, and every single one of her sisters, even the supposedly kind ones, obeyed without question. Sirena alone knew that there was a humanity within her and a complexity she did not wish to suppress. That’s the wonderful part of reading novels like this when you’re young. That’s the power inherent in YA literature, and that’s why I have faith in it. Even when things like this happen.

Why You Should Read It:

For all the reasons mentioned already, but also for the mix of mythology and love. Napoli takes the canon myths and weaves her own story within the walls of the originals, without compromising the integrity or spirit of the myths. The result is an immersion within Greek mythology without feeling like you’re reading an encyclopedia. Characters like Thetis appear, and Oenone, and no explanation follows. Readers come to know them as characters rather than as actors on this great stage known as Greek myths. It’s also quite sophisticated. The Hercules of pop (Disney) culture becomes the Heracles of the original myth, homosexuality, immorality, and questionable birth included. Philoctetes appears as a well-rounded character before he earns his place in posterity for killing Paris. In the very first scene of the novel, the sirens attempt to lure a ship to their island but “the song of a lyre played by a master” smothers their seductive music: (4)

We sang, desperation making our songs keen, but our voices were drowned by that magnificent and terrible lyre. At one point the music stopped and we heard a shout: “Play on, Orpheus!” The music played on. No matter how much we sang, the men could no longer hear us. They passed us by. (4)

Little flashes of mythology like that appear throughout the narrative, as if Napoli is winking at those in the know, and for those less versed, she’s urging you to learn. 

The Good and the Bad:

Sirena’s voice and narration is simple and sometimes descends into juvenility. While her character and personality are complex and become more so during the arc of the novel, her voice remains stagnant. It’s a shame, because this story has a lot of potential. Another weakness of the novel is the first-person, present-tense point of view, which may be responsible for the dullness of the prose. Many of the sentences follow an “I do this” or an “I feel this” structure, which can get boring. It isn’t dynamic and it isn’t very gripping. The novel is worth a read however, and since it’s YA (intelligent YA, though it’s a shame I feel the need to use that disclaimer), it should not take long.

Read it for the pleasure of watching the Trojan War unfold through the eyes of a young siren. Read it for the pleasure of sinking headfirst into a mythological world. Read it to shift the focus on a story we’ve all read many times before, to see new perspectives, and discover new truths.

Okay, that’s it. I’m done. This was long. Please post your thoughts below if you’ve read this far.

References

Napoli, D.J. (1998) Sirena. New York, NY: Scholastic.

"The Creation of Anne Boleyn" and Third-Wave Feminism: Susan Bordo’s New Look

Hever Castle portrait of a young Anne Boleyn

Hever Castle portrait of a young Anne Boleyn

I am something of an Anne Boleyn aficionado. Ever since I was eleven years old and my mother bought me a gold-edged book about Elizabeth I, I’ve been fascinated by her raven-haired, ill-fated mother. Who isn’t nowadays? With the introduction of Natalie Dormer’s blue-eyed Anne in The Tudors and Philippa Gregory’s controversial portrayal, it seems like everyone and their mothers are jumping on the Anne bandwagon. This is both a blessing (to learn about history and influential historical figures) and a curse (those who do not care to research take badly presented television and film characters as historical truth). That is why I was so hesitant to read Susan Bordo’s new sociological study on the many manifestations of Anne Boleyn that have surfaced for the past 500 years: I was afraid of another Anne portrayed a la The Other Boleyn Girl: inherently evil, incestuous, ruthless, and altogether fabricated.

I needn’t have worried. Bordo is an interesting mix of Internet Anne fan and educated, intellectual force; her background and education, along with her love of Anne, makes this book a tribute to a strong, intellectual woman many of us have come to adore. The first section of the book deals largely with Anne’s contemporaries and the Imperial ambassador Chapuys’ venomous portrayal of Anne that seeped into every  portrayal of her for the past five hundred years. This was the part of the book I wanted to skip; having read Weir, Ives, et cetera, I was more than familiar with the conflict of fact and fiction, interpretation and politicization of Anne’s image, and I was glad when the book morphed into a sociological history of Anne. This is where Bordo sparkles.

By giving examples of how Anne Boleyn has been portrayed for the past 500 years, Bordo comes close, closer than many a biographer or historian, to dissecting what it is that makes Anne Boleyn such a magnetic, seductive personality. Henry VIII divorced his wife of twenty-four years to be with Anne, and split apart the Catholic Church to marry her. In contemporary culture, the figure of Anne Boleyn is polarizing: there are those who hate her and subscribe to the notion that she was ruthless and venomous; and there are those who love her, enshrining her in the robe of early feminism and idolizing her. But Anne Boleyn and feminism are a troubling combination, as are all the moments when contemporary ideals are placed in the minds of historical figures. Anne Boleyn was not a feminist. Yet is there some strength to be gleaned from thinking she was? What do Anne Boleyn and “third-wave” feminism have in common?

Bordo admits in the book that “we always write from our own time.” (259) Thus, Anne has become a bit of a feminist role model for women today, as Bordo mentions in her book. In one chapter, she interviews a group of twenty-something women on their perception and opinion of Anne and finds their responses quite telling. One calls Anne “the original feminist”—with Bordo’s caveat that this particular brand of feminism is of the “’third-wave’ variety—a woman of contradictions who cannot be ‘lassoed’ or ‘pigeonholed,’ who skillfully walks the line between sexuality and sluttiness, playfulness and power. So if Anne were alive today, she’d be ‘provocative but not slutty.’ At Oktoberfest, ‘she would be flirtatious, magnetic.’ But then she’d leave the guys dumbfounded by going home alone,” Bordo writes. (250) A majority of the interviewees took the same stance, refusing to characterize Anne in simple terms, and echoing contemporary feminist ideals that Anne, in her life, did live by.

If for no other reason, this is why Bordo’s book deserves a read. As an Anne admirer, I find her story one that is both tragic and inspiring, complicated and arresting. No, Anne was not a feminist and to say so would be anachronistic, but one may learn about modern feminism by studying her, rejecting The Tudors (in part) and The Other Boleyn Girl, among dozens of others, and learning about her actions, motivations, and weaknesses. Anne Boleyn is an example of that long-abhorred virgin/whore dichotomy; she has been vilifed as a slut and homewrecker or else championed because of her self-proclaimed virtue. What she has rarely been considered, however, is a human, except by those who have studied her. One interviewee stated, “It’s far too simplistic to define her as either an ‘angel’ or a ‘devil.’ (251) She was an intelligent, educated, highly sophisticated woman, who certainly possessed many flaws, significant among them being considerable arrogance, but who was far too complex to be dismissed as simply a ‘bad’ or ‘good’ character…” (251-52) This is the pull Anne has for me as well, a woman of contradictions and flaws, who is nevertheless empowering without requiring a rejection of femininity. It seems I am simply one of the many who have commandeered Anne Boleyn as a role model for feminism, and anachronistic or not, five hundred years later, she’s relevant to today’s young feminists.

References

Bordo, S. (2013) The Creation of Anne Boleyn. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.