Monday, June 06, 2005

Books! Books! Books!

The Number of Books I Own:

Jenn has a detailed spreadsheet, but suffice to say that by last count, we had a combined total of about 1500. Though Jenn continually has books arriving via mail from and I went to WisCon and spent too much money, so we're liking moving past that count real quick. If Jenn's SO moves in with us in August, we'll have over 2,000 books in the house.

That's so cool.

The Book I'm Currently Reading:

I'm reading a lot of books. The Labyrinth, Homicide in the Biblical World, The Hours (continually), Ahab's Wife, Collapse, The Koran, The Origin of Satan, Gloriana, Orlando, The Persian Boy, Shriek: An Afterword, The House of Blue Mangoes, Dreaming By the Book, Strike Sparks, etc. etc.

Someday, I might finish some of those. I better, because I keep opening up new ones.

Last Book I Bought:

I buy in batches. Neveryona, The Dialectic of Sex, Affinity, and The Labyrinth.

Last Book I Read:

Million Dollar Baby

Five Books That Have Meant a Lot to Me:

The Hours by Michael Cunngingham.

A nearly perfect book that seeks to understand the entirety of three lives by giving you one day in that person's life, and watching them touch each other. The final "connection" at the end was too much for me, but I've read the book at least a dozen times, and continually have it open. When I get to the end, I start over. I can recite some of it by heart.

What I enjoy(ed) about this book is that it feels so intimately true. He captures the experiences and thoughts of these women existing within the social confines of their particular eras, and their internal turmoils and everyday concerns and joys strike something within me every time. You feel like you're reading a book about your own life, about different versions of your life, a book that will get you through the hours and onto the next and the next.

The best sorts of books can tell you something about your life, the good and the bad, and this is one of those books.

Alanna: The First Adventure, by Tamora Pierce

I read this book when I was ten. I'd already been writing a number of short stories by that time, about runaways and mad scientists, and a couple about this scullery maid who was really a princess. True to tropes, she got saved a lot by the stable boy who was really a prince. They had adventures and everything, but she was small and frail and very fem and very pretty: just the sort of woman every dorky female writer would write about - you know, wish-fulfillment.

I hadn't yet struck upon the warrior-woman theme because it just didn't seem possible. After all, women were smaller and frailer than men, and the fact that I wasn't meant that I was just a freak, and should spend the rest of my life dieting to excess in order to be smaller and never quite standing up straight so I wouldn't seem so tall.

Then I read about this girl my own age who tricked her father and swapped places with her brother and went off cross-dressing and trained to be a knight. She was smaller than most of the boys, but she bested some of them at some things, and some of them bested her at other things: in other words, she was just another one of the gang, not overly great at everything, not overly bad at anything. She was training alongside them and holding her own.

As the series went on, she even got to have sex with multiple guys (though, alas, not all at once), though I wished more would have been said about contraception, as she never got pregnant. But hey, you can't be picky.

Looking back, this is the book that really got me thinking about how things could and were different than what I'd been socialized to believe about men's and women's places, and biology as destiny. In no small part, I think it probably helped me on some level to not be so self-conscious as I got taller and taller and continually outweighed most of the boys in my class right up until the 8th grade.

There are some books that can catch you early enough, and challenge you to change your view of everything. That was this book.

On Strike Against God by Joanna Russ

I had to pick a Joanna Russ book because she makes me weak at the knees. She's the best of the militant 70s feminist SF authors, and I own a great deal of what she's published, fiction and nonfiction. Everybody always makes a big deal about The Female Man, and yea, it's a good book, but I'd have to say the one that challenged me the most and got me to think about myself, about desire, was On Strike Against God. It's a semi-autobiographical books about Russ coming to grips with her sexuality through long therapy sessions with male therapists who told her she was frigid at best, unnatural at worst. It catalogues her long internal debate with herself about what her dreams about women "really" meant, how having crushes on women may really mean that yes, she was attracted to women, and goes through one awful hetero date after another without really finding any kind of fulfillment from it, and finally, at the ripe old age of nearly 40, she braces herself for a gay bar and ends up having an affair with a female friend during which the two of them declare that if god says what they're doing is wrong, well, fuck, they're "On Strike Against God," then.

This was the book that really made me come to grips with that whole, "You know, I think I'm sometimes attracted to women," thing. I was always very clear that I was attracted to men, so that wasn't an issue, but at sixteen and again at seventeen I had a couple of serious crushes on women that I spent the next seven or eight years trying to justify to myself as something other than actual sexual attraction. As I've gotten older, I've had a handful more crushes on women, and I'm old enough now to recognize them as just that. It's not that I want to be those women, or I'm jealous of them, or blah blah blah, no really, it's actual desire. And that's cool. That's part of me, and that's OK.

Reading about Russ trying to do the same sort of justification of her own desire, and reading about some of her earlier (though not her later experiences with men, as I've not had much trouble there) experiences with desire, I couldn't help but feel slapped in the face with things that were incredibly parallel to my own experiences. And when you're reading about something that's that close, there comes a point when you have to owe up to it.

Good stuff.

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

My mom sent me this book while I was living in Durban, because it was on my wishlist, and she happened to have a copy. I read it on the beach a couple of days after turning in my Master's thesis, the last days of a year and a half in a foreign country described by one friend as "The most dangerous place outside a war zone," where I'd spent most of my time living on peri-peri rice, cigarettes, red wine, and weekly binge sessions.

A third of those in the province were HIV/AIDS positive, the media was blaring about brutal violence, every gathering I went to, somebody knew somebody who'd been raped, stabbed, burglarized, carjacked or killed. I realize now that I was probably more hyper-paranoid than I should have been, but I was living on my own for the first time, going to grad school, living in a foreign country, and bat-shit crazy out of my mind. The thing with living alone with stories of all that death and violence around you, is that every day you're alive, you feel really lucky to be alive, and when you go out and get drunk, you get really, really drunk and you have a really good time because, hot damn! - you're alive.

And I sat on the beach in Durban, and I read this book, and I just started crying. It was the strangest thing. If I'd have read it two years before, I'd have shrugged and moved on, but instead, I drank and savored every word of it, and cried, because life was this beautiful, fragile thing, and it could all be over at any moment.

I go back to that book when I want to remember that, when I need to remember how lucky I am.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Poor Emma. Raised on romance novels with particular ideas about the way that love and marriage and life would be, and ending up sorely disappointed.

As a child who'd grown up on books and Disney movies, I good really relate to Emma, particularly at the time I was assigned to read this book in junior college. I'd broken up, badly, with my highschool boyfriend, had to deal with some post-breakup stalking, and was recovering from being evicted from my first apartment because I couldn't pay the rent.

It wasn't exactly the way the script was supposed to go.

When I turned thirteen, I remember looking out the window of my parents' room and thinking, "OK, I'm a teenager. I'm ready for my life to start. I'm ready for somebody to come along like they do in the books and notice me and see all of my talent and potential and show me this big, great life."

What I learned in the real world was that if you try and live your life by somebody else's ideals, by the way you think it "should" be, you're going to have a really unfulfilling life and eat rat poison.

And rat poison just never appealed to me.

What I learned from Emma was that I needed to live my own life, set my own path, and not wait for someone else to "save" me from my life. I needed to figure out not what the books and stories and other people thought I should do with this great cool life, but what I wanted to do. And it's a life that hasn't been easy, hasn't been predictable, and so far, hasn't ended in me eating rat poison.

I figure I'm doing pretty good.

4 comments so far. What are your thoughts?

Anonymous said...

Alanna had a contraception charm. For serious. It was only mentioned when she got it and in, like, maybe one other place. 

Posted by Olive

Anonymous said...

You know, as I was writing that, I was remembering a bit about her going to some shady "midwife" or something at some point, but for the life of me, I couldn't remember what the hell she'd done there/how she'd gotten hooked up.

The only contraceptive method I can really remember being employed and discussed in a period piece was in Kathryn Harrison's A Thousand Orange Trees, in which the daughter to a silk farmer has an affair with the local priest and goes and has a midwife put a stone up into her cervix (old-school IUD protection!). I remember it being a big issue for her, and a later plot point, of course, when it was expelled.

Not a lot of writers address that pesky contraception thing in any detail, though. The Jean Auel Clan of the Cave Bear books let her steep some tea (and this is, of course, plausible, as there did at one time exist a plant used in just this way that served as a fantastic contraceptive when taken by women, but went extinct because of overharvesting. And yes, we have some now, primarily abortificants, but they've got some crappy unwanted side-effects), but that was pretty much it.

No blood and pain and wild mood swings for fictional heroines, it seems.  

Posted by Kameron Hurley

Anonymous said...

Ditto on The Hours and Madame Bovary. And now I have to go out and buy Tamora Pierce and Joanna Russ, cause I don't have enough to read as it is. Have you read Russ' "How To Suppress Women's Writing"? Good stuff indeed 

Posted by Andygrrl

Anonymous said...

Have you read Russ' "How To Suppress Women's Writing"? 

Ohhh yea! Frickin' classic. I've got a copy right here... Russ kicks ass.  

Posted by Kameron Hurley