Kathryn Harrison's Exposure came at just the right time for me. I'm currently in the middle of writing a novel about photography, abuse within the arts community, and the fine line between female sexual empowerment and potential exploitation. Harrison's novel touches on so many of the same themes.
Ann Rogers, a seemingly successful and talented wedding photographer/videographer living in New York City, finds her life slowly deteriorating when the Museum of Modern Art decides to showcase a retrospective of her late father's work. The controversial portraits feature Ann as a child and early teen, her prepubescent body often nude or in various states of undress, with some of the photographs bordering on sexually explicit. While feminist groups around the city gather to protest the approach of the upcoming exhibition, claiming that the images are abusive and exploitative, others in the art community deem Edgar's Rogers work to be genius. Caught in a self-destructive cycle of drug use and shoplifting from high-end department stores such as Bergdorf Goodman's, Ann begins to question her own hazy memories of her father and the years she spent as a young girl in Texas. Did her father intentionally hurt her with his secretive and revealing photographs? Who was the true muse behind his haunting portraits?
Exposure is a relatively quick read at only 213 pages. It takes the form of a traditional 3rd person narrative as well as a collection of primary documents such as diary entries, newspaper articles, and court records that help piece the puzzle together. Alternating between a past and present storyline, the novel gives an in-depth look at Ann's crumbling psyche as her painful and increasingly troubling history is revealed. This is a story of trauma but also of strength and eventual survival. It's definitely worth a read!
I received Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things to Me a couple of years ago as a birthday gift, and it sat on my shelf for a long time before I finally picked it up to read this fall. It's such a small book that, at first, I assumed it wouldn't have a lot of substance. I didn't know anything about Rebecca Solnit (though I'd heard her name several times in passing), and after two back-to-back nonfiction workshops (and struggles with my own work) I was reluctant to crack open another essay collection. After reading through all of Men Explain Things to Me in one sitting however (and going back through a second time to annotate each essay), I can confidently say that I was wrong to ever hesitate.
Men Explain Things to Me is a collection of essays that have all been previously published in one form or another in the Financial Times, Zyzzva Magazine, and at TomDispatch. Each piece explores an aspect of women's issues with several overlapping themes: marriage inequality, violence against women, global injustice, the state of feminism, and the erasure of women throughout history. The essays are meticulously researched and deftly written, all of the concepts and themes seamlessly interwoven. I read "The Longest War" twice to myself and then once aloud to my partner, not only because the piece was so powerful in its message, but also because the essay articulated so much of what's been left unsaid in our culture over the past several years—about masculinity's inherent tie to violence, about the level of entitlement necessary to inflict suffering and even death on fellow humans, about the fact that Elliot Rodger and the Dylann Roof and the Robert Lewis Dear have never been isolated events. I highly recommend reading Men Explain Things to Me and then reading it again. You should also check out Solnit's latest essay/cultural criticism "The Case of The Missing Perpetrator."
The Faraway Nearby is much harder for me to explain. The connected essay collection blends memoir, literary criticism, and researched nonfiction to form a beautiful, labyrinth-like text. Each piece winds and meanders through a metaphorically connected narrative—from the apricots Solnit gathers during her mother's battle with Alzheimer's, to the tales told in One Thousand and One Nights, to Mary Shelley's wandering monster in Frankenstein, to Che Guevara's work with a leper colony. The connections are often concrete but, at other points, are rather nebulous, and from time to time I did found myself getting a little lost in the text. This is a book I would definitely read again in hopes of gaining an even deeper understanding of Solnit's metaphors and themes.
I've been excited to read Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own ever since I came across Kate Bolick's "All the Single Ladies" in The Atlantic. I assigned the article to a group of my introductory composition students this fall and many of the boys in my class were none to happy to hear that men are actually falling behind women in the work force and education. They were certain that Bolick's careful research and artful use of statistics were part of some devious feminist conspiracy meant to undermine the gender that should rightly be on top: men.
It's not fair! my boys said. How dare women try to make men feel bad about themselves by pulling ahead! This, they wrote, was exactly what the GOP was talking about when they said there'd been a collapse of the American family system. It was a direct undermining of all of the traditional morals and values our society had been built on since the time of the constitution!
But I teach at a large university in the South, so I digress.
Overall, I found Spinster a pleasure. The nonfiction book is a mix of memoir, journalism, and historical research/biography, with Bolick spending a fair amount of time exploring the lives of the women she considers "her great awakeners:" Maeve Brennan, Neith Boyce, Eda St. Vincent Millay, Edith Wharton, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. We learn about Bolick's personal struggles with dating, her mother's death, and her career alongside the stories of her great awakeners, though at times I longed for a more confessional or emotional tone (something Bolick admits to intentionally resisting in her writing). By the end of the book, the word "spinster" has been successfully reclaimed as something to long for and celebrate. Much like her article "All the Single Ladies," Bolick flips the idea of marriage on its head, showing how remaining single has not only been conducive to her career but also integral to the person she has become.
Margaret Atwood's The Edible Woman was originally published in 1969 but reads like a novel that could have been put out today. It also attacks the idea of marriage and the metaphorical disintegration/absorption of women by their husbands. Marian begins to slowly lose control of her body (reflected in Atwood's switch from 1st to 3rd person narration) when she agrees to marry Peter, her longterm boyfriend. She finds that she can longer eat: first meat and other substances that resemble animals, and then fruits, vegetables, and even cake. There are subplots with her roommate Ainsley (who tricks one of Marian's philandering friends into getting her pregnant) and Duncan, an English graduate student who seems to mysteriously pop into and out of Marian's life at all the right moments. Marian's literal inability to eat reads fabulist to me. This was definitely a great read!
Lately, I've been checking out a lot of photography books and photographer memoirs/biographies from the library: Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, The Family of Man, and of course, work by Mary Ellen Mark and Sally Mann. I started out with Linda Gordon's Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits because I was interested in learning more about Lange and the "golden age" of documentary photography. The art form (like many) has lost most of its more lucrative sources of funding over the last 20 years with the collapse of human-interest pieces in places such as LIFE magazine and the rise of celebrity-focused stories and photography. 80 years ago, Dorothea Lange was hired by the Farm Security Administration to travel the country and take pictures of living conditions during the Great Depression (though her salary was by no means big). Now, documentary photography is rarely financially supported outside of the academy, a few coveted fellowships and grants, and the art museum, though the medium does persist: Where Syrian Children Sleep, Project 562: Portraits of Native Americans.
Even knowing the depressing state of funding for the arts today, there's so much inspiration to be gained from reading about Dorothea Lange's start as a photographer (how she boldly fled from home only to get stranded out in California) or Mary Ellen Mark's four month stint in Bombay photographing and getting to know the prostitutes working on Falkland Road. In Sally Mann's book Hold Still: A Memoir in Photographs (which I definitely recommend), she discusses her own journey as an artist—from inheriting her family's farmhouse in Lexington, VA where she took the controversial nudes of her family, to traveling the south to take portraits of haunted landscapes, to photographing decaying bodies at the University of Tennessee's Body Farm.
Even though I consider myself, first and foremost, a writer, the stories of these photographers really speak to me. Sally Mann, Dorothea Lange, and Mary Ellen Mark all come across as strong and fearless women. To me, their lives seem almost magical, ones dedicated to capturing some higher truth or beauty while also confronting the sacrifices inherent in dedicating oneself so completely to art.
I bought this memoir from Subtext Books last spring when I was in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area for AWP. The weird thing is that I actually used to work in a building right across from this independent bookstore during the two years I lived in Minnesota. I would get lunch at Nina's Coffee Cafe—usually an overpriced turkey sandwich that took far too long for the server to make—but I rarely ventured downstairs to browse through Subtext's selection. It took two and a half years away (and a thousand mile drive across the country) for me to finally make my first purchase, and Girl in the Dark was definitely worth it.
The memoir tracks the story of Anna Lyndsey (not her real name, she uses a pseudonym) as she navigates a sudden and completely confounding medical condition: a painful sensitivity to light. In her search for answers, Anna experiences innumerable frustrating doctor visits, misdiagnoses, and bureaucratic dead ends. She is forced to take her condition into her own hands, learning how to black out her windows, successfully cover up her skin, and even travel by car while hidden beneath a heavy curtain. She struggles to keep her mind occupied while surviving in her dark apartment for months on end, listening to books on tape and creating an array of riddles and word games.
The book is arranged in short lyrical sections, with titles like "Games to Play in the Dark 3: Mind Mastermind," "Autonomy," and "The Smell of the World." The prose is simple but beautiful, capable of aptly conveying Anna's innermost feelings as well as her constantly changing psychological state. Through all of the disparate bits and pieces, one gets the sense that they are seeing a somehow truer picture—one that a traditional continuous narrative could only begin to achieve. This is a story of depression, redemption, survival, and ultimately, strong will.
At first, it might seem strange that I've grouped these two books together: one a memoir and the other a work of fiction. When I found out that Cheryl Strayed and Lidia Yuknavitch were in the same writing group, however, I knew it was the right choice for presenting these reviews. Both women live in Oregon and write unabashedly (not to mention beautifully) about sex, love, and the female body. Torch also borders on memoir (many have called it autobiographical fiction) and The Chronology of Water is disjointed enough to feel like a hybrid fiction text. So... yes.
Torch is Strayed's first book and features a lot of the same themes that appear in her acclaimed memoir Wild. The novel is told from four different perspectives and follows the story of Claire, her brother Joshua, and their step father Bruce as each character comes to terms with the cancer diagnosis and eventual death of Teresa, the much beloved matriarch of the family. Bonds are tested and torn apart as the characters choose to deal with the fallout in their own (largely) self-destructive ways: from sex with a married man, to selling drugs, to jumping into a hurtful new romantic relationship. Time works in interesting ways throughout the novel, skipping large chunks from chapter to chapter as we rotate between the main cast of characters. Overall, it was a beautiful read—favoring gritty reality over neat literary metaphors in its exploration of grief, family dynamics, and healing.
The Chronology of Water is much harder for me to sum up succinctly. The memoir deals so much with the body: with sex and stillbirth and abuse and healing. The centralizing theme is Yuknavitch's connection to water, a thread that starts with swimming as a child and carries all the way to releasing her daughter's ashes into the sea. The narrative is told out of order and holds an almost ethereal quality. It is frank while remaining poetic, feeling complete and fulfilling despite the fact that the truths it reveals are often amorphous and blurry. Buy it. Read it. Consume It. Be baptized by it.
I bought a gently used copy of The Gravity of Birds by Tracey Guzeman at Longfellow Books in Portland, ME. The novel alternates between a cast of main characters and jumps back and forth in time to tell the story of the Kessler sisters and their complex (and at times, hard to stomach) relationship with famed painted Thomas Bayber.
Overshadowed by her beautiful and headstrong older sister Natalie, Alice (who is shy and bookish) develops a childhood crush on Thomas when her family vacations at a cabin near his summer residence. Their relationship grows complicated, however, when she begins to suspect Thomas of secretly sleeping with her older sister. Years later, when Alice runs into the painter again, fate intervenes to throw her, Natalie, and Thomas onto a permanent path of heartache and collision. The bulk of the novel's plot centers on the mystery of what occurred so long ago between Thomas and the Kessler sisters, with Finch, an art history professor, and Stephen, an art authenticator, racing time to uncover the answers.
The Gravity of Birds is written in the third person and switches between following Alice, Stephen, and Finch. While the mystery was enough to keep me reading, I found myself disappointed by the complicated yet too-neatly-wrapped-up reveal/ending. The mirrored metaphors felt heavy-handed to me and much too "soap-opera chic" for a book that started out so promisingly with it's exploration of taboo love and sibling rivalry.
I picked up both of these novels at White Birch Books while I was staying up in North Conway, NH. I've been trying to do more of my book shopping at independent stores and White Birch Books is the perfect size for easy browsing (not too big, not too small, but just right). The employees hand-select recommended titles and thirty minutes of perusing the shelves left me with a handful of books I wouldn't have found on the front page of Amazon.
Crooked River is Valerie Geary's debut novel. The plot centers around two sisters, Sam and Ollie, who are forced to move out to rural Oregon to live with their estranged father after their mother's sudden death. When they discover a dead body floating in the river that runs near their father's tepee, Sam makes it her business to uncover the murderer (even after all signs start pointing toward her father). There's young romance and mystery and even a fabulist edge reminiscent of Karen Russell's original short story collection St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (Ollie sees ghosts). The chapters alternate between Sam and Ollie's first-person POV, though Sam gets much more real estate than her younger sister. The ending felt rushed and, at times, the mystery bordered on being over the top/completely unrealistic, but the book was an overall pleasant read.
Off Course by Michelle Huneven originally interested me because the plot seemed to share some similarities with the novel I'm currently writing. Cressida, a PhD candidate, moves to her parents' remote cabin in the Sierras in order to have the time and space to finish her dissertation. Once there, she finds herself distracted by two different romantic affairs: one with the owner of a local lodge and the other with Quinn Morrow, a married contractor. Far from finishing her dissertation, Cressida becomes obsessed with her self-destructive on-again-off-again relationship with Quinn. While I was excited to find a novel that openly explores female desire and sexuality, I found myself questioning Cressida's motives and feelings. At times, the third person narration felt isolating and almost unfulfilling. The book moved through a lot of time very quickly (years and years pass over the course of 300 pages) and I wonder if the novel wouldn't have been better served by a shorter time frame and a more thorough exploration of Cressida's character.
I wanted to love this collection. I really did. When I taught Intro Creative Writing last semester, I assigned Lauren Groff's short story "Delicate Edible Birds" because, nearly five years after reading it in Best American Short Stories, I still remembered the plot and characters so vividly. My students responded well to the beautiful prose of the harrowing WWII-era story. They spent most of our class period debating issues of rape and the stigma surrounding female sexuality. Rereading the piece convinced me that I needed to pick up the rest of Groff's collection which I hoped would be just as polished and hard-hitting as "Delicate Edible Birds." Unfortunately, many of Groff's other stories left me wanting.
I immediately recognized "L. DeBard and Aliette" from an another version of Best American Short Stories I read back in college. The tale is both a beautiful and grotesque love story between a crippled young girl (struck by polio) and a professional swimmer back in the era of the Spanish Influenza. L. DeBard is hired on as Aliette's swim instructor but is soon pulled into a sexual relationship with her. A budding adolescent, Aliette hovers between the sweet, innocent daughter and the sexual seductress. This conflict (and, to many in our society, conundrum) is one that Groff continually does well, imbuing her female characters with all the confusion and contradictions that society casts on young women.
The overall arc of the story, however—like many in this collection—doesn't quite work for me. At times, Groff seems to want to focus on too large of a timeline (in many cases, the main character's entire life) for the individual stories in this collection to feel thematically contained or succinct. From my understanding, every piece in the book is inspired by the life of a real woman, so the cast of characters is certainly worthy of investigation. I wonder, however, if some of the real-life details or events didn't constrain or otherwise overwhelm these thoughtfully crafted stories.
This group (two memoirs and a collection of academic essays) speaks to me regarding a personal research interest: female sexual dysfunction and, on a more general level, the complicated nature of how female sexuality is viewed in contemporary American culture.
Susanna Kaysen's The Camera My Mother Gave Me is a quick and fascinating read. In its 158 pages, the memoir chronicles her struggle with an indefinable (and, at the time, undiagnosable) vaginal condition that causes sex, and any other vaginal contact, to be excruciatingly painful. In her quest to figure out what is wrong, she bounces around from gynecologists to general practitioners to attempts with alternative medicines. The prose is simple yet biting in its commentary on how the American medical system (and American culture) treat and medicate women's conditions. Kaysen is also the author of the critically acclaimed and best-selling memoir Girl, Interrupted, a fact that makes me wonder why The Camera My Mother Gave Me didn't get more press and attention.
Joyce Maynard's At Home in the World covers much of her adolescence and young adulthood but focuses mainly on the affair she had (beginning at the age of 18) with J. D. Salinger (then 53). While vaginal problems aren't the main issue here, Maynard does deal with vaginismus, a condition that prevents her and J. D. Salinger from consummating their affair. Her case seems to stem from the very nature of their relationship, with Salinger portrayed as an emotionally abusive, controlling partner. Maynard struggles throughout the narrative to come to terms with how their relationship began and ended, going so far as to confront Salinger years later at his New Hampshire home. This memoir starts off slow at the beginning but is a must read. It's useful for thinking not only about our own romantic relationships but also for considering how we deal with (and remember) highly-problematic male figures in the literary community.
Leonore Tiefer's Sex is Not a Natural Act is a series of various articles and essays considering one main question/theme: how we have been taught (wrongly) as a society to think that sex is essential, natural, and all-or-nothing. Tiefer explores the medicalization of sex along with men and women's bodies, moving from the Viagra Boom to the current-day search for medicines to help/aid with women's arousal. Orgasm Inc. can be viewed as a companion piece.