Must-reads for all womankind

Review of Jane and the Dragon

by Lindsay Patton

Four years ago, a CGI animated series called “Jane and the Dragon” debuted. It featured a frizzy-haired girl who was training to be a knight.

16 years before the kids’ show debuted, a six-year-old had read a book of the same name, and the moral of the story kept with her ever since.

That six-year-old was me, and the book was bought for me by my mom. In my family, reading was always encouraged, if not preferred. When books were bought for my brother and me, they were interesting, artistic, humorous, and always had an important lesson to teach. Jane and the Dragon, which was written and illustrated by Martin Baynton, was one of those books.

The protagonist of the story is Jane (obviously, as the title implies). Her mother is a lady-in-waiting to the queen, and insists Jane follow suit. Jane tries her hand at needlepoint, but pricks her fingers. She dons fancy dresses and hairstyles, but would rather go without them and let her red curls go wild.  Instead if indulging in femininity, she stares out the castle window, watching knight training, wishing she were there.

Her best friend in the castle is the court jester. He is a loyal friend, and when her family forbids her from doing anything other than being a lady, he’s the one to have her back. He lends her his suit of armor, and offers up his afternoons to help Jane train – with the knowledge the two gained from watching the knights train in the courtyard.

Jane gets her chance to prove herself when the prince is taken by a dragon, and you can probably guess the outcome – she proves to be more than a lady-in-waiting.

At six years, I admired Jane. At nearly 26 years, I admire the writer for creating Jane. Growing up, I loved the book for its female empowerment, as I was the girl on the playground who would rather play Ninja Turtles than house. Now that I’m grown, I admire the book even more for blurring gender roles.

Yes, there are feminist themes in the book, but there’s also an egalitarianism theme in it as well. The court jester didn’t want to be a hero; he wanted to be a good friend. He tried his hand at being a knight, but realized it wasn’t for him. The story shows that there are macho men and feminine women, and that’s OK, but those aren’t the only options out there.

As for me, well, I became a nice mix of Jane and the jester.

More Than Just a Plain Jane (Eyre) by Lindsay Ray

I should preface this piece by saying I love books. I love stories and their enduring qualities. I was that kid that could read and walk at the same time (nerd alert!). I often found myself admiring and identifying with the heroines. I love Lizzie Bennett’s wit and independent spirit. I admired Jo March for pursuing her own dreams and career goals (even if she did turn down Laurie). I felt like pieces of my life were captured on the page when I read the Anne of Green Gables series and found her to be a “kindred spirit.” But one heroine stands above the rest for not only capturing my emotions but also for challenging my intellect (and informing a vast part of my academic career).

I first read Jane Eyre when I was 12 years old simply because my aunt said I would like it. I have since read JE more times than I can count and own a few different editions (including a nifty illustrated copy). Some people might disregard JE because they think it’s stodgy and outdated, but this isn’t your grandma’s Victorian novel. In fact, Victorian society was shocked by its sexuality, coarseness and deviation from female societal norms.

JE is like the gateway drug into the Brontës’ world. It’s a Bildungsroman (yes, I just threw a fancy literary term at you; knowing it will make you seem smarter) of a young girl who escapes the neglect of her family to forge her own path as a governess. And although being a governess doesn’t seem like a glamorous position (and by no mean is Jane herself a glamorous narrator), Jane does everything on her own terms. But what makes this novel stand out as more than a sentimental coming-of-age tale is the nuances to the text. Double standards within Victorian society are subtly put on display. Inner beauty and independence are championed over conventional society standards. The link between madness and women (a common thread throughout literature) also acts out its dramatic theme on this stage. The roles women play as wives, mothers and sisters are explored and weighed against patriarchal oppression. What ties the novel together is what critic Sandra Gilbert calls “its rebellious feminism.” In other words, Jane dares to choose her own destiny.

Choosing to go beyond your social destiny might not seem like as radical an idea for women now as it did in the 1840s, but JE laid the foundation for so many great novels to come. Furthermore, JE is an integral part of the Brontë mythos itself. Charlotte Brontë first published under the androgynous pseudonym, Currer Bell. She and her sisters dared to enter what was traditionally considered a man’s realm by publishing novels about strong female characters written by women. These novels have spawned numerous film adaptations, and there’s even a Jane Eyre musical. The lives of the Brontës themselves have been both studied and fictionalized. Jane Eyre has given birth to more modern interpretations, such as Rebecca and Wide Sargasso Sea, which explores the social tropes of the times from the viewpoint of another female character of the novel. Perhaps one of my favorites, Jasper Fforde’s literary whirlwind of wit The Eyre Affair, re-imagines JE with a very different ending and the effect that would have on readers.

In short, Dear Reader, I love Jane Eyre because it is more than just Victorian Gothic romance novel (although you can read it as such if you want), instead its message has resonated across time and genre. I love JE because I can find myself in Jane, that plain Jane everywoman struggling to define her sense of self in a world that has already labeled her.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler shows what feminism in the future looks like

by Sam Howard

Before I begin pushing this book on you, allow me to push all of Octavia Butler’s work on you. Try this on for size: Octavia Butler is one of the only internationally acclaimed science fiction writers who was an African American female, and her works have markedly feminist themes across. Compare that to your average science fiction writer.

But as far as Parable of the Sower goes, hold onto your hats ladies and gents, we’re going into a bit of a time warp. Or something. This book takes place in America in the 2020s, and all of the problems our society faces today are wildly exacerbated by time and lack of acknowledge. And in the middle of it all sits our young heroine, Lauren. Faced with extreme societal issues most could not imagine taking place on American soil, Lauren also deals with her race, her very religious family, drugged criminals who start rampant fires, and an illness called hyperempathy syndrome. This syndrome causes her to feel all of the pain that she sees in animals and humans. In this dangerous time while the fabric of her world falls apart around her, she must feel all of the pain that she sees.

Let me read your mind. You’re thinking, How is a girl who feels too much feminist? Emotions/feelings are stereotypically feminine traits. Well, it seems that Butler might be implying that you might need to feel the pain to start a revolution. And Lauren’s way of starting a revolution? Forgoing the religion she grew up with and beginning her own.

Sure there’s a lot going on here, but it all comes across cleanly in an almost-postapolcalytic America Butler presents her readers with a lot of uncomfortable situations without passing judgement herself. The characters will pass varying judgements, but Butler seems to leave herself out of it: leaving the reader to evaluate your opinions of relationship dynamics, gender bending, religion, and your own ideas of gender/social justice.

Review of Middlesex, by Ivy Ashe

Nobody tells a multi-generational saga quite like the Greeks, and Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Pulitzer-Prize-winning story of a young Greek-American hermaphrodite, merits a place alongside the Hellenic classics.

This is a book that makes you think, and, in the mark of a truly good read, you might not even realize you’re thinking until after you finally turn the last page and have to say goodbye to Calliope/Callie/Cal, the narrator and protagonist (Calliope, for those Greek nerds among us, was also the Muse of heroic poetry). Or you might be like me, and have to stop reading every couple chapters to process everything that’s going on (John Irving’s books also tend to have this effect). Middlesex is an ode to everything that is normally overlooked, pushed aside, and denied a voice—even the historical events Eugenides seamlessly weaves into his narrative are not standard 20th-century milestones. Incorporating all of these new voices into the chorus in your head is like going to a buffet, trying only things you’ve never eaten, and discovering you love them all.

In spite of the unconventionality of his novel’s subject matter, Eugenides doesn’t break any of “the rules” in Middlesex; instead, he simply and subtly challenges how those rules came about in the first place, particularly rules governing identity. Particularly of note, as many other reviewers before me have observed, is how well Eugenides is able to write his characters, particularly the female ones (Publishers Weekly describes the book as “effortlessly transcending the stereotypes of gender,” which is about as apt a description as I can think of). Much of the novel’s strengths draw from this power of voice.

There are some blips in the otherwise compelling storyline—I didn’t care much for Cal’s time spent in San Francisco—but they are minor, and certainly not enough to ruin the overall appeal of the book. Definitely give it a read.

So much more than marriage: Review of Marriage, a History by Tara Cavanaugh

You may have noticed that I’ve written about this book already; it was the first post that christened this site. But I’m including it again here, as one of the books I think all women ought to read, because it is that good.

It doesn’t intend to be a book that offers women any particular help or guidance. Its premise is a purely academic one: to understand the true history of marriage and how it has evolved in American and Western European culture.
But don’t let that academic speak scare you off: This book is an easy, fun read, and it’s totally relevant to all women today.

Today we look at marriage as the ultimate form of love and self-fulfillment. We are supposed to find a partner who satisfies our every emotional, physical, and social need. We are supposed to find someone who we can love for the rest of our lives. It’s a tall order.

Coontz describes how this view has really only been around for about fifty years. She also says it’s a radical shift in how marriage has worked for hundreds of years. Marriage never used to be about love or personal fulfillment. It was more about merging resources, and strengthening your connection with a community.

So while our emphasis on love can make marriage more fulfilling than ever before, it can also make it incredibly volatile, and it’s probably the reason for our high divorce rate.

I’ve never really been a fan of reading about history. But this book is fascinating, honest, and hilarious (you won’t believe some of the stuff husbands and wives did back then). While it is in no way a self-help book, it made me feel a lot less anxious about ever getting married—for a while, I said I never would. I now realize that the one I love doesn’t have to be everything to me—and there’s no reason I should expect anyone to be.

Feminism or BUST! by Tara Cavanaugh

Remember Clippy? He was the little paper clip cartoon that greeted you every time you started a Microsoft Word document. He was a chipper, nosy little sonofabitch that offered unsolicited advice on everything you were doing. He never seemed to run out of acrobatic tricks—or the energy to annoy.

I bring up Clippy because most women’s magazines remind me of him. Really. Magazines cultivate a voice, a personality, and they run that tone through all of their content. The voice of popular women’s magazines is that of a trusted friend who knows everything about beauty and fashion. And the friendly guides to which nail color you MUST wear NOW and How to Please Your Man get as repetitive and false as Clippy. Because after all, Clippy is just a computer program. And most magazines survive largely off of advertising sales, so the “voice of a trusted friend” telling you what nail color you NEED to get this season was very likely a paid advertisement. That voice is as calculated as a computer program, but with some flips and visual tricks for creative delivery: pretty designs, font, and models.

But BUST magazine isn’t a singular voice. BUST presents many women’s voices, talking rationally, comically, and quizzically about everything from fashion to motherhood to sex.

Fashion-wise, BUST explores the creative ways women play with personal style. For example, women’s fashion magazines always dedicate their September issue to previewing what styles are must-buys for fall, with skeletal models clad in thousand-dollar designer labels. BUST, on the other hand, showed popular fashion bloggers modeling their favorite choices for fall: real young women modeling their creative visions.

The magazine also has some regular features on news commentary related to women, a hilarious column from a mother of two, and crafty advice (make your own pillows/sunglasses/gifts/etc.).

Beyond these regulars, the magazine dedicates longer articles to stories about women’s experiences. The most recent issue had stories about a woman who was faced with some serious sexism when she taught English in Thailand and another woman’s account of being on a reality TV show.

This is also a great magazine to pick up if you’re into books, music and movies. BUST dedicates some serious space on a regular basis to up and coming artists, actresses and writers who are strong, thoughtful women with a feminist bent.

And it’s probably the best thing that will grace your eyes with glossy pages.

–By Tara Cavanaugh

2 thoughts on “Must-reads for all womankind

  1. Pingback: Let’s not get all Lifetime, now. « FemThreads

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