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Posts Tagged ‘women’s issues’

Book Review: The Birth House by Ami McKay

June 28, 2011 2 comments

White bench against a blue wall.Summary:
Dora Rare is rare indeed.  She is the first female born to the Rare family Scots Bay, Canada in generations.  Her dark hair and brownish skin reflecting the family’s Micmac heritage make her stick out like a sore thumb in the area.  However, Scots Bay’s midwife, Miss B., has always taken a shining to Dorrie, and she trains her in the ways of midwifery.  The early 1900s are a tough time for midwives and women, though.  Soon the area is threatened by World War I and male obstetricians, not to mention all the obstacles rural women have always had to face from violent, drunk husbands to too many children.

Review:
This book was quite honestly painful to read, for it lays out so clearly what it is that makes being a woman difficult in society.  Although some things in modern day have improved, for instance we western women have the right to birth control, in other ways things have remained painfully the same.  There are still areas of the world where men have more control over women’s bodies than they do.  It is often still expected for women to be pure when men are not.  Women often feel that they must put up with the wrongdoings of their husband simply to keep the home and family life that they so desperately desire, and on and on.

The book itself is told as a mix of third person narrative and Dora’s journal with clippings from the various newspapers.  This style suits the story well, as we are allowed to see Dora from both outside and inside her own head.  The characters are fairly well-rounded, although the motivations of those who are not Dora are not always the clearest or the most sympathetic, but as most things are from her perspective, that is understandable.

Of particular interest to me, especially with my knowledge of psychology, was the portions of the book dealing with how women are often accused of being insane simply for reacting to the injustices foisted upon them.  I discussed this topic at length in multiple women’s studies and feminism classes.  The idea that the just rage of the trodden upon is often depicted by the rulers as insanity.  This is beautifully depicted in this book for Dora, struggling against many injustices and feeling rightfully irritated and angry, is informed by a male doctor that she is suffering from hysteria–a peculiarly female ailment resulting from female organs.  Her anger and fighting back is thus tagged with a name that let’s others dismiss it as an illness, rather than a just reaction.  McKay eloquently depicts this entire issue without being too heavy-handed.

I was also surprised and delighted to see a portion of the story take place in Boston during the women’s suffrage movement in the United States.  I’m assuming McKay must have visited my city, for she perfectly describes the North End from the buildings to the atmosphere of walking those streets.  This accuracy allowed me to travel back in time to a period of injustices in my own city, not to mention the molasses flood.  It was indeed a delight to read of Boston from a women’s rights perspective for once instead of always reading of the Irish mafia.

The main point of the book comes across throughout it in a gentle way.  The idea that we must continue to struggle and give but not give up or the oppressors will win.

Never let someone take what’s rightfully yours. You can give all you want in life, but don’t give up. (page 337)

It is simultaneously encouraging, uplifting, and depressing to realize that women throughout time have struggled with similar issues.  Yet things are gradually improving, and thus we must not give up for the sake of future generations of women.

This book beautifully depicts the history of women’s rights in the early 1900s.  It is a painfully beautiful read that I recommend all women, as well as men sympathetic to the cause, read.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: The Group by Mary McCarthy

April 14, 2011 2 comments

Black and white picture of a group of women.Summary:
A collection of women graduate from Vassar in the 1930s.  Their friendship is known collectively as “The Group,” and their distinctive Vassar education has given them a distinctly liberal view on the world.  How this changes with time as they repeatedly encounter societal expectations and relationship problems are told through a series of vignettes that focus in on moments in their lives over the seven years after graduation.

Review:
I am so glad that Nymeth’s review made me add this to my wishlist.  This piece of historical fiction told entirely through women’s lives looks at women’s issues in an oft-ignored time period–1930s America.  Particular issues that impact these women’s lives and dreams include birth control, gender norms, violence against women, and social justice.

Moving smoothly through the seven years but changing perspectives by spending a chapter or two on each woman in turn, we get a glimpse of their lives.  For instance, early in the book we see Kay’s life in detail, but later we only catch glimpses of it through her friends’ eyes.  This lends a greater sense of depth and mystery to these women’s lives.  What happened to change them?  How drastic of an impact did certain events have on their lives?  Are they truly happy now?  Much like real life, the reader can only speculate based on the limited information she has.

The style of looking at women’s issues in history through the lives of multiple women lends a depth to the story that would not be there if it was told in the traditional manner of focusing in on one single woman.  The, essentially, cluster-fuck of circumstances, expectations, and personality that come together to create the different lives they end up leading is endlessly fascinating to study and ponder.

This book humanizes women’s issues in the 1930s and brings them to light in an engrossing manner.  I highly recommend this book to anyone with a love of historic fiction or an interest in women’s issues.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist

Person in white hallway.Summary:
In the Sweden of the near future women who reach the age of 50 and men who reach the age of 60 without having successfully acquired a partner or had children are deemed “dispensable” and sent to live in “a unit.”  These units appear at first glance to be like a high-class retirement home, and indeed they have all the amenities.  The residents, however, are required both to participate in medical experiments and to donate various organs and body parts up until their “final donation” of their heart anywhere from a year or a few years after their arrival in the unit.  Dorrit arrives at the unit depressed, but accepting of her fate as the result of her independent nature, but when she falls in love, she starts to question everything.

Review:
The entire concept of this book intrigued me as it is clearly a dystopia whose focus is on the older generations instead of teenagers and young people.  The concept itself is of course frightening to any of us who have come to grips with the fact that some day we will be elderly too.  This dystopia is also unique though in that it examines the possible future movement of Swedish society, which is vastly different from American society.

The writing is entirely from the perspective of Dorrit.  Although it is clear she is writing from some point after the events occurred, Holmqvist eloquently allows her voice to change to reflect her changing ideas on society, her friends, her family, and her own life.  When Dorrit first arrives in the unit, she attempts to defend herself saying that women used to be raised to be independent instead of with such a high focus on producing children that will add product to the GNP.  It’s not as if she didn’t want a partner, she did, but it didn’t happen.  So why is that her fault?  Deeper issues are addressed too such as why does only a new family unit count and not siblings?  What about pets?  Don’t they need us?  The vast implications of such a focus on interpersonal relationships found in the traditional family unit are subtly addressed.  What type of people tend to be alone family-less by the age of 50 or 60?  One resident in the unit’s library, for instance, points out that

“People who read books…tend to be dispensable.  Extremely.” (Page 26)

Of course the setting of this dystopia also brings up other interesting issues that Holmqvist handles quite well.  The dystopian setting allows the author to address the perpetual loss of friends that the elderly face as well as seeing themselves and their friends sicken mentally and physically.  Placing it in a society in which this is exacerbated by science naturally gives it another level as well as a welcome distance for the elderly reader.  This of course is a large part of what makes this dystopia different from the typical YA version.  Instead of dramatizing the challenges young people typically face such as their world widening and new knowledge being imparted, this one shows how the world becomes smaller and acceptance that it’s too late to change the world becomes the norm.

Perhaps the most universally interesting issue this dystopia addresses is how much the individual should be willing to sacrifice for the greater good.  The residents in the unit are constantly being told that their discomfort in an experiment could improve the lives of hundreds of needed people.  Or that they should be perfectly fine with “donating” one of their corneas and going half-blind if it means that a nurse with three children can remain a contributing member of society.  While some of the residents grow resentful of this concept, referring to the unit as a free-range organ farm, Dorrit finds leaning on this perceived value helps her with her depression in the unit.

“Otherwise I would feel powerless, which I essentially am, but I can cope with that as long as it doesn’t feel that way too.” (Page 71)

Clearly this book makes one think not just about the issues the elderly face but also about how society as a whole treats them and makes them feel.  It also firmly addresses just how much individuality and choice it is justifiable to give up for the greater good.  The ending completely shocked me and has left me with even more to ponder than the points given above, but I want to leave those for the future reader to discover.

I am incredibly glad this work was translated into English, and I highly recommend it to everyone, but especially to dystopia and scifi lovers, as well as those interested in sociology and psychology.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: The Year of the Flood By Margaret Atwood

October 19, 2009 14 comments

covertheyearofthefloodSummary:
Toby, a spa-worker, and Ren, an exotic dancer and prostitute, have both survived the  waterless flood–a global pandemic that has killed almost all of humanity.  They also both used to live with The Gardeners, a vegetarian cult that constantly warned of the impending apocalypse.  A series of flashbacks tells how they survived the pandemic while the question of what to do now that the pandemic is mostly over looms large in their lives.

Review:
Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite authors.  I love dystopian books, and she has an incredible talent for taking the current worries and news items and turning them into a near-future dystopia.  Toby’s and Ren’s world prior to the waterless flood isn’t anything to be happy about.  Slums dominate.  Gangs run rampant.  The world is now run by a giant evil corporation (which is somehow worse than a giant evil government? *shrugs*).  It’s really the little things that makes this future world believable.  Kids wear bracelets that have live mini jellyfish in them.  Species have been spliced together to make new, more usable ones, such as the Mo’Hair–a sheep whose wool makes perfect fake hair for women.  The people who don’t live in slums live in corporation-run compounds where everything they do is monitored. What makes this dystopia wonderful is how plausible it all seems.

Really, though, all of these dystopian features are just a back-drop for the real stories.  Toby spends years hiding with The Gardeners and running because one man, Blanco, decided he owned her upon having slept with her.  When Toby defied him, he vowed to kill her.  He haunts her life for years on end.  Similarly, Ren falls in love with a boy in highschool who breaks her heart yet somehow keeps coming back into her life and repeating the damage.

This is a book about mistakes.  About how thinking we own the Earth and its creatures could cause our own demise.  About how sleeping with the wrong man just once can haunt you for years.  About how loving the wrong man can hurt you for years.

This is what I love about Atwood.  She has such wonderful insight into what it is to be a woman.  Insight into what haunts women’s dreams.  When women talk about what scares them, it isn’t nuclear war–it’s the man in the dark alley who will grab her and rape her and never leave her alone.  Toby’s Blanco is the embodiment of this fear.  She sees him around every corner.  She’s afraid to go visit a neighbor because he might find her on the street walking there.  Setting this fear in an other world makes it easier for female readers to take a step back and really see the situation for what it is.  Yes, he’s a strong, frightening man, but Toby let him disempower her by simply fearing him for years.  This is what Atwood does well.

The pandemic, however, is not done so well.  Too many questions are left.  Where did the pandemic come from?  Does it work quickly or slowly?  Some characters seem to explode blood immediately upon infection, whereas others wander around with just a fever infecting others.

Similarly, the reader is left with no clear idea as to how long it has been since the pandemic started.  On the one hand it seems like a month or two.  On the other hand, the stockpiles of food The Gardeners made run out quite early, and that just doesn’t mesh given how much attention they gave to them prior to the pandemic.

I also found the end of the book extremely dissatisfying.  It leaves the reader with way too many unanswered questions.  In fact, it feels completely abrupt.  Almost like Atwood was running out of time for her book deadline so just decided “ok, we’ll end there.”  I know dystopian novels like to leave a few unanswered questions, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to leave this many unanswered.

The Year of the Flood sets up a believable dystopia that sucks the reader in and has her reconsidering all of her life perceptions.  Unfortunately, the ending lets the reader down.  I think it’s still worth the read, because it is enjoyable for the majority of the book, and I am still pondering issues it raised days later.  If you’re into the environmental movement or women’s issues, you will enjoy this book–just don’t say I didn’t warn you when the ending leaves you throwing the book across the room. 😉

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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