The Sister-Sister Book Club: Reading, Guidance, and Freedom

When I was young, I was a voracious and pretty mature reader. By mature, I mean I wanted to read above my reading level and, probably, my emotional level. My parents basically much let me read whatever I wanted. There was something so exhilarating about that. I felt free to explore, and when I read things that were too mature for me, which happened accidentally and often, it both helped me grow intellectually and emotionally, and felt like a scintillating secret. When I was 16, I had a job that required a half hour commute each way, so I started checking out audiobooks from the library. I popped in Lady Chatterly’s Lover and was surprised by all the information about the obscenity trial in the introduction. I had never heard of any of this scandal before and, for whatever reason, I was pretty shocked. I still vividly remember bringing it up at the dinner table. The response went something like this:

Mom: You know people had sex in the 1920s, right?

Dad: Should she be reading this?

Mom: It’s a bit late for that, Charly.

Mom was such a badass. I don’t know if she meant it that way, but it felt so good to have my mom allow for and accept my intellectual freedom. I felt like an adult. Lady Chatterly was both profoundly uncomfortable and beautiful for me. It’s still one of my most meaningful experiences with a book. Occasionally, there were teachers who were surprised by some of the texts I had already read and hinted at them being inappropriate for a younger reader. Mom felt kind of threatened by those reactions, but I always held firm that her letting me read what I wanted to was one of the most important experiences of my young life. I still think that. And I know that the background to that decision was that I could talk to her about anything that I wanted to.

Now, I have a little book club with my 10 year-old sister. 10 is a far cry from 16, but I’m starting to think more about what a commitment of trust and acceptance it takes to let someone read whatever they want. So far, Marissa and I have read three books together. The first was The Hunger Games. I was hesitant about the level of violence, but Mom said yes, so we read it. Marissa picked up on the themes about class and rebellion and had both great answers to my questions and pretty good questions herself. Part of our conversation focused on the difference between prejudice and oppression. As I explained oppression, Marissa’s face fell. Her eyes welled with tears. I felt like I was bursting some sort of bubble. I asked her what she was upset about and she responded, “I hate oppression!” and pounded her little fist on the kitchen island. I love this kid. Since then, we’ve read The Giver, and Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. Next up is Tallstar’s Revenge, a huge novel about cat warriors that I’m only reading out of love.

My sister is hitting pueberty and she has a lot of questions about her body, about the world, about getting older. Since to her I’m in a nebulous category between child and adult, a lot of those questions get directed to me. I don’t lie to her and I don’t deflect, but I’m aware that my answers have consequences for how she thinks about things and what she repeats to other kids. It feels like a lot of pressure sometimes. While we haven’t read anything all that mature yet, each time I pick a book I haven’t read, I have a moment when I hesitate, wondering what tough questions the book could raise and how I will answer them. It makes me really think about how much monitoring children’s reading material is about protecting them and how much is about protecting adults from uncomfortable questions.

So, thank you, Mom!

50 Excellent Novels by Female Writers Under 50 That Everyone Should Read

Originally posted on Flavorwire:

It’s pretty much been settled that everyone should read more books by women. But when looking for recommendations, it’s often all Woolf, Morrison, Lessing, Austen, Brontë. Of course, these are essential authors for a reason, and you should definitely read all of their books. That said, there’s something to catching a writer at the beginning of her career and following her for years that is supremely satisfying — not to mention the fact that young female writers need readers rather more than Jane Austen does. So in an effort to get you in on the ground floor (or at least, like, the third floor), after the jump you’ll find a compendium of 50 novels written by 50 female novelists under 50 that are worth your time. But these aren’t the only 50 books that fit this description! Read through and add on as you will in the comments.

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Book Review: The Bridesmaids (Birchbox Book Club)

I was a bridesmaid three times this summer. Because of the countless TV shows and movies I’ve watched that involved wedding disasters and bridezillas, I was exceptionally nervous when I realized that my brother and two of my best friends were all getting married during a four month stretch. Given the realities of my life as a grad student, I was convinced that I would end up like Annie in Bridesmaids–a stressed, jealous disaster.

In that vein, Eimear Lynch’s The Bridesmaids: True Tales of Love, Envy, Loyalty, and Terrible Dresses uses the experience of being a bridesmaid to reflect on friendship, sisterhood, and other relationships, as well as on cultural expectations about weddings, love, and femininity. I think what I enjoyed most about the book was how many of the stories, which range from 2-5 pages on average, spent much less time on the wedding and more time on how the wedding reflected the bride’s personality or the bridesmaid’s relationship with the bride. This is about experiences many women share, not the other trappings of the wedding industry. There were some pretty intense wedding stories, though. For example, one wedding was threatened by a tornado and another brought out borderline personality disorder in the bride.

When I saw that Birchbox was giving away copies to Birchbloggers to review for the Birchbox Book Club, I quickly tweeted about my multi-bridesmaid summer and won myself a copy. Yay! I really appreciated the way that the book balanced critique of the role of the bridesmaid with reflecting on how having bridesmaids or being one still holds meaning for modern women. For example, in her introduction Lynch notes, “It’s a treat to be able to spoil sisters or dear friends who mean a lot to you” (xv). The stories also bring out a variety of perspectives from “professional bridesmaids” to bridesmen, gay couples, and jilted exes. I particularly enjoyed two stories from nuns–one an ex-sister who detailed her and a fellow sister’s journeys from protesting as nuns during the sixties to being bridesmaids in each others’ non-traditional weddings. The other wrote about how all nuns are also sort of bridesmaids to each other when they take their religious vows.

Coming up soon, you can chat with the author on Twitter:

For me, reading The Bridesmaids  was a fun and relaxing way to reflect on my own experiences as a bridesmaid this summer. Although I was stressed going into wedding season–I wanted to do everything just-right for my friends and family–as usual, my worry ended up being for nothing. Each of the weddings was really beautiful and fun and it was a joy to be with the couples on their big days. There were some hiccups, naturally. I tripped once, forgot my dress and had to race home for it (then I almost left it in my mom’s car), my skin broke out, and I became The Bossy Bridesmaid. But, I also got to witness some really dear friends take their vows. As I read The Bridesmaids, it got me thinking about the moments of the wedding days that really stand out to me. Aside from the obvious big moments, my favorite parts were the little, intimate moments I got to share with the brides and grooms. For example, I found out I got my fellowship right before getting a manicure with my college friend Abby. I discretely showed her the email, got a side hug, and went on with her big weekend, but it was special that I got to share that with her. Later, in wedding pictures we posed like we were on ANTM, like we did on our European travels together. It was silly, but us. Abby, the groom Keaton, and I went to college together and it was such a joy to see such happy, creative people craft a wedding that so wonderfully spoke to who they are individually and together.

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Jessica Branstetter Photography

On my brother’s wedding day, it was wonderful seeing our families come together around a couple who we had all watched grow up together. It was also a lot of fun to drink champagne in a limo with my brother and his friends. I might have gotten into a conversation about critical race theory in the back of the limo, but I swear, I didn’t start that. It was really special going over my brother’s toast with him and to be there as he gave the toast to his new wife, Megan, who he had been with since they were 17. I was sobbing.

My best friend of 17 years got married last Saturday. I woke up so full of adrenaline that it was like Christmas morning. I went into the day reminding myself to be cool despite my giddies. I did get a little bossy because I wanted her day to be perfect and I was nervous. What meant a lot to me that day was how many small, fun moments I got to have with Emily. She was a fancy bride, but also my BFF. Because my car is so sad (here’s the only correlation to Annie from Bridesmaids), I got to ride with Emily around in her car and it made things feel normal even though it was an important day. She came to get me to dance for “Brown Eyed Girl.” I caught the bouquet! My dad, the DJ, had a comically stressed reaction to that. And then Emily and I took a baseball themed picture with it by the Fort Wayne Daisies exhibit at The History Center. The moment that stands out to me the most, however, is standing there watching her take her vows and thinking “Holy cow! We’re grown!” I think our friendship has largely been characterized by its elasticity. No matter what else was going on, when we were together we were always young. She always connected me to home and to being little girls. And here she was, a beautiful, gentle, fun woman getting married. It was one of those wow-perfect-omg moments that sticks to you.

Those moments that stick to you–for better or worse–are what so many of the stories in  The Bridesmaids capture.

Help me! I’ve never read Judy Blume.

http://outofprintclothing.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/judy-blume_book-combo.jpgI have a confession. I have never read a Judy Blume novel. As a woman who does girlhood studies, it feels embarrassing–like saying “I’ve never read Hamlet.” But, there it is. My BFF, Emily (who is getting married next weekend (!!!)) was an avid Judy Blume fan so, in my head, I can hear her scolding me. Or was it Beverly Cleary? See. This is the problem. In my young mind, Judy Blume mixed in with other books I should have been reading and wasn’t.

How could this happen? Well, aside from reading every Caroline B. Cooney book I could get my hands on and Harry Potter, I wasn’t much into young adult literature when I was a young adult. I was kind of a snob. I was very serious. In elementary school, I played a game called pick the biggest book I could find at the school library and read it. (It was Robin Hood and my best friend Amanda and I laughed over the frequent use of the word bosom and called ourselves bosom buddies.) In high school, I read Shakespeare’s complete plays, all of John Steinbeck’s novels, lots of Russian literature, Sylvia Plath, and Harry Potter. I looked down my nose at my friends who read romance novels in which the young protagonists always died of some sad, terminal disease.

Now, although I don’t primarily study children’s/young adult literature, my lack of knowledge about Judy Blume weighs on me. I feel guilty about it. This morning, I read a wonderful article about Judy Blume’s legacy in The Guardian and I decided to follow through on something I planned to do last summer. I am finally going to read some Judy Blume, dammit. So, dear readers and friends, where do I start? What is your favorite Judy Blume novel? Is there a particular book that would be good to read with a certain girl of 10 who is on the cusp of puberty? I’ve checked out Summer Sisters and Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself as a start, but I’d love to know your thoughts and memories about Judy Blume’s writing.

Emily and me as the wicked step-sisters, back in my book snob days.

 

Bring Back Our Girls and “the Politics of Pity”

http://blog.pixlee.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/BringBackOurGirls.jpgIn the early morning of April 16, 2014, over 270 schoolgirls were abducted from their school in Chibok, Nigeria by the Islamic militant group Boko Haram, whose name translates to “Western education is a sin” in the local language. The abduction was not the first time the group kidnapped girls and women, particularly for pursuing their educations. The scale of the abduction, however, as well as the passionate response of the girls’ parents and communities, captured worldwide media attention. At a rally following the abduction, the girls’ communities put pressure on the government to do more to find them, holding signs that read “Bring Back Our Girls.” The slogan was quickly picked up by international organizations, including Girl Rising and Girl Up, as a Twitter hashtag, #BringBackOurGirls, aiming to draw media attention to the story and put pressure on the United States government to help as well. Momentum quickly grew as over one-million tweets featured the hashtag and dozens of think pieces were written debating the efficacy of hashtag activism. I think the real issue, however, is the use of the word “our” and the implications of images of sad-eyed white women replacing the original image of Nigerian mothers demanding that the government bring back their girls. Although the campaign is incredibly effective at bringing attention to the abduction and to on-going issues around girls’ education globally, I worry about the longevity of this concern (i.e. was it just trendy?), as well as the neo-colonial implications of the media coverage. In short, while I think attention to these problems is a great thing, I also wonder if a lot of this attention didn’t serve to make privileged Westerners feel good about themselves rather than to actually address the underlying problems that allow such gendered violence to happen continually. I don’t want to criticize anyone specifically, so much as open a space to reconsider the implications of human rights campaigns such as #BringBackOurGirls and how unchecked privilege can undermine good intentions.

Some Feminist Theory Background

Let’s begin with some feminist theory. In Feminism Without Borders, Chandra Talpade Mohanty argues for a feminist solidarity as a political and ethical goal, rather than “vague assumptions of sisterhood or images of complete identification with the other” (3). She also likens transnational feminist communities to imagined communities, “‘imagined’ not because it is not ‘real’ but because it suggests potential alliances and collaborations across divisive boundaries, and ‘community’ because in spite of internal hierarchies within Third World contexts, it nevertheless suggests a significant, deep commitment to what Benedict Anderson, in referring to the nation, calls ‘horizontal comradeship.’” (46) In other words, rather than relying on reductionist or essentialist ideas of what constitutes a woman, solidarity in transnational feminism is derived from the members of the community imagining commonality amongst themselves and investing in the good of the community over and against actual political and economic inequalities that may exist between members of the community. Continue reading

My Girl: The Drinking Game

http://31.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_ltfw5yFnmQ1qaliojo1_500.gifIn 1991, My Girl, starring Anna Chlumsky, Dan Aykroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Macaulay Culkin, brought audiences precociousness, adorable coming of age tropes, some bizarre funeral home stuff, and so much crying. By the mid-90s it was playing every summer on TBS or TNT or whatever, just waiting for me to learn about becoming a woman from Vada and cry my eyes out. No story had made me cry so much since the death of Beth March. My Girl is now streaming on Netflix, waiting to be introduced to a new generation or for nostalgic viewings by adults. If you’re in that latter camp, I present to you The My Girl Drinking Game, a means of properly pacing your drinking for the more devastating and angst-ridden moments of the film. I treated myself to some Chardonnay and puppy snuggles to test the game out for you.

The My Girl Drinking Game

You’ll Need:

My Girl on DVD or a Netflix Account

A beverage of your choice. Can be adapted to a pint of ice cream if you prefer.

A box of tissues

Optional: girlfriends or sisters

A mood ring

The Rules:

The Cute and Strange. You must take a drink whenever:

  • Vada expresses hypochondriac symptoms. (Bonus: “I think it’s my prostate.”)
  •  Boys are dumb or gullible.
  • Motown or Vintage TV
  • Embalming, corpses, and such.
  • Grandmoo’s senility is ignored.
  • “I only surround myself with people I find intellectually stimulating.”
  • Hippies and Women’s Lib.
  • Mood ring
  • Seafood

The Angsty. Take two drinks whenever:

  • Child-sized coffin. Foreshadowing. It hurts.
  • Vada is hot for teacher.
  • Vada’s poetry reminds you of your own adolescent writings.
  • Mean girls.
  • “Do-wah-diddy…”
  • Grandmoo’s senility is discussed.
  • Vada’s mother is mentioned.
  • Bees. Run for your life.
  • Shelly acts as a maternal figure.
  • Vada has attitude about Dad dating.
  • Vada is hemorrhaging.

http://31.media.tumblr.com/15f0919e33f1eb64ba67a6e20410a99c/tumblr_mss7lhijFG1s04uboo1_250.gifThe Tears. Chug:

  • Thomas Jay dies.
  • Vada has a public meltdown.
  • Mr. Bixler is off the market.
  • Vada’s last poem

If at the end of the film, you are in tears, finish the glass.

Do you love My Girl? What’s your favorite or most moving part?

See Also:

Temporary Tomboys: Coming of Age in My Girl and Now and Then

Learning from Tami Taylor. Learning from Our Stories.

http://29.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lxm4nzVdg81r6r1abo1_500.jpgI was in a relationship with another person (I call him He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named) when the last few episodes of Friday Night Lights aired. I was gripped by the argument between Coach and Tami while he puttered about, not really understanding what I was so invested in, since he hadn’t watched the show before. If you haven’t seen the show, as the finale drew near, Coach and Tami ended up in a deadlock over their jobs. Coach was offered a big job coaching college football in Florida and turned it down to stay with his team. Texas forever. Tami, on the other hand, is offered a tremendous opportunity to chase her dreams working as the Dean of Admissions at a small liberal arts college in Philly. That’s a pretty big jump–from high school guidance counselor to Dean of Admissions–and a testament to how awesome she was in her interview. Coach won’t even entertain the notion that she’d take the job. The fight, between two characters I loved and whose marriage I admired, had me holding my breath.

I can’t remember exactly what he said, but HWSNBN agreed with Coach. Without knowing the story, without loving the characters, he simply agreed with Coach, who was–by all measures–being an asshole. I was depressed during most of the relationship, so I don’t remember many things from that period, but I remember this moment vividly. I was washing dishes, preparing for a road trip between my apartment and his. I always open my blinds first thing in the morning, but my schedule had been interrupted by a late night with friends the evening before. Light slanted in through the blinds, casting a shadow over the apartment, a mess of half-packed bags and dog toys, and we were behind schedule leaving. We were still love-drunk on the beginning of a relationship. It was, I think, the last time I will ever allow myself to enter that sort of temporary blindness in which desire clouds out all signs that the person you’re with is just wrong for you. I’m not kidding. When Julio and I decided to transition from friends to dating, I put him through an hours-long interrogation. Anyway, in the kitchen, as I splashed about with the dishes and tried to listen to the end of the episode, a doubt punctuated that love-bubble. It was just one of several pin-pricks, some of which I was already ignoring, but this man was using Friday Night Lights as a way to tell me about his career and its incompatibility with my own. He was in the armed services and planned to be for the next twenty years or so. That trajectory would make it hard–improbable, if not impossible–for me to have the tenure-track career I’d been training for. Although he said he liked strong women (what man actually ever comes out and says the opposite?), he was telling me, clearly, that his career would always come before mine.

http://s3-ec.buzzfed.com/static/2014-01/enhanced/webdr03/31/12/anigif_enhanced-2020-1391188671-3.gifI ignored it. It was one of many ways I made myself smaller during that time in my life. Now, I’m not saying that the situation would be a problem for all couples, but for me it was definitely a problem. I wasn’t spending what would amount to a decade of my life in higher education just to brush my ambitions aside, however dreamy people said dating a lieutenant-doctor sounded. Regardless of what else happened between us, on a fundamental level, our dreams and values were incompatible. We weren’t going to work. And I ignored it. He showed me who he was and I ignored it. The voice inside told me to end things and I ignored it.

I have watched and rewatched FNL a few times in the three years since that summer morning. Every time Coach and Tami have that fight, I look back and I remember, achingly, how I ignored my better instincts and my needs and how badly I got hurt. I feel some mixture of angry and sad and relieved. And I make a mental note not to ignore myself anymore.

http://s3-ec.buzzfed.com/static/enhanced/webdr01/2013/3/5/17/enhanced-buzz-31826-1362523813-7.jpgMy current partner, Julio, played high school football, so I recommended FNL to him. Not long after we started dating, he devoured the show on Netflix. For six months spanning our transition from friends to us, I would wake up every morning to a lengthy email he had composed during the time difference between bedtime in EST and bedtime in MST. In one of those emails, sent on the kind of dreary November night that gets you thinking about mortality (at least if you’re of our sort of temperament), he explained several components of Friday Night Lights that resonated with him, including why he thought the Taylors’ marriage was a good example. He walked through that conflict, and some of their more minor ones, reflecting on partnership, balance, and why Coach was wrong, but how it wasn’t really about who was right or wrong.

The point is not that he agreed with me. Rather, what I take away from the different experiences I had with two men and the same TV show is that 1) I take stories very seriously and 2) the way we respond to stories can say something about who we are that we might not be able to say otherwise. Obviously, I put a lot of value in narrative. I’m doing a Ph.D. in literature. To a certain degree, the woman I am is built on the belief that it matters a great deal that I love Jane Eyre. I try to teach my students that reading, loving, and interpreting literature is part of being a well-rounded thinker and can help them better understand the world around them and the world within them. I could wax poetic about these things ad nauseam. It matters. It matters.

I grew up in a family in which we talked about stories. My dad and I read books together and went to bad sci-fi movies together. My mom and I watched romantic comedies and TV shows and talked about song lyrics. I think, as an adult, these conversations have created a space for me to talk to people about stories and use them as a springboard for talking about relationships. I think a lot of us do this and it’s worth celebrating. Julio and I discuss Parenthood as a way to figure out how we approach tough life choices. It’s been really useful without being daunting. After a different breakup, one of my roommates had us huddled up on the couch watching the Sex and the City movie because she thought Carrie’s depression and subsequent laughter over Charlotte’s…accident would speak to me where I was. My lit major friends and I do this sort of thing all the time.

http://s3-ec.buzzfed.com/static/2014-01/enhanced/webdr02/30/16/anigif_enhanced-22874-1391115934-8.gifI think the harder part is accepting our own stories and learning from them. There’s a part of me that is still mad at myself for making myself small and for ignoring myself. A part of me feels like I’m still making things up to myself and those who love me. As Tami would say, “There’s no weakness in forgiveness.” Owning my story depends on forgiving myself. I put a lot of work into taking control of my story and into surrounding myself with people who made me feel loved and strong and like I didn’t have to shrink-to-fit. I want to read, watch, talk about more stories like that so that I can learn and negotiate this complicated business of loving others and loving myself well.

Related:

19 Pieces of Advice from Tami Taylor That Will Make You A Better Person

10 Times Tami Taylor Said Exactly What You Needed to Hear