Men Explain Things to Me: A book about a topic you love

#MenExplainThingsToMe #RebeccaSolnit #Bookstagram 📖📚✈️

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This was an amazing book of essays that I finished in one weekend during our President’s Day weekend babymoon to Toronto! (And then I made Rob read it.)

Samantha, Daughter

1/20

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Madam Secretary: A book that is more than 500 pages

It took a while to read it but I finished Madeleine Albright’s memoir 20 years, to the day, after Madeleine K. Albright was sworn in as the first female Secretary of State–what a day to finish this book! A great read for anyone interested in foreign affairs or #WomenWhoLead!

“Women have to be active listeners and interrupters – but when you interrupt, you have to know what you are talking about.”

“I was taught to strive not because there were any guarantees of success but because the act of striving is in itself the only way to keep faith with life.”

What an accomplished life and this is a woman who was a two time refugee! She is my hero. It makes me want to name my daughter Madeleine.

 

Samantha, Daughter

14/20

 

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: A book that was banned

I realized as I was looking a way to fit A Tree Grows in Brooklyn into the criteria that The Handmaid’s Tale was also a banned book. I almost thought I wouldn’t find a way to count The Handmaid’s Tale as one of these 20 books. Who knew so many books were banned?

Even after reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I’m not quite sure why it was banned. It was a great read and I wish I had read it as a child. It’s an excellent YA book. It is the story of Francie Nolan and growing up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn early in the 1900s. It is the story of every girl growing up everywhere at any time in history. Anna Quindlen echoed this in the foreword to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: “That rare and enduring thing, a book in which, no matter our backgrounds, we recognize ourselves.” I can’t imagine anything from my comfortable childhood in Cottlesville, Newfoundland during the nineties relating to the extreme poverty of childhood in the tenements of Williamsburg in the “tens.” But somehow her voice spoke directly into my own experience. Francie Nolan is every girl.

She is a strong heroine without any single feat marking her as a heroine. The novel has an understated feminism. Perhaps it’s because it was written before feminism existed in the way we know it today. Betty Smith‘s daughter wrote that she likes to think of her mother as a feminist back in the 1920s and ’30s. (This quote is from a supplemental essay from Nancy Pfeiffer, Things I Want to Say About My Mother, published with the 2001 edition from Harper’s Perennial Modern Classics) and I would say that this is true. There is an empowering but humble power to this book that makes me want it to become prerequisite reading for life. Everyone should read this. And I’m confident readers would later thank me for that decree if I could make it happen. As Francie knows, people are always telling you things you’ll allegedly be thankful for later.

(Reading at Kennedy Park, June 2015).

This is a book about life and it’s so full of life, real life, not life as it’s often written. Francie prays to be something every minute of every hour of her life. “Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry… have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere–be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.” She longs for a full life; full of the bad and the good. There’s a sincere maturity with a wish like that. I want to be friends with a character like Francie.

The end of the book fit just right (not too big, not too small, like it was made for Goldilocks!). In a retrospective look back that echoes the past and looks forward, Betty Smith doesn’t get overly sentimental or create a larger-than-life finale. It’s a beautiful conclusion that shows the subtle progression Francie has made in the 400 pages since we set out on this journey together.

“She was surprised at how tiny it seemed now. She supposed the school was just as big as it had ever been only her eyes had grown used to looking at bigger things.”

I had to read that passage twice. It was perfect. It shows how nothing changes even if it feels like everything is different. I tell my husband as his newfound running slowly gets easier that it doesn’t get easier, he’s getting better. This fitness mantra was first illustrated by Betty Smith in this passage, and in my life, and your life… Inanimate things mean a great deal to us but those meanings change, while the objects are static. It’s funny how life changes a character (or a reader) and the environment that changes them remains the same. There’s something beautiful about that. There’s something beautiful about a novel that is filled with pain and hardship, but leaves your heart feeling full.

As Francie whispers on the last page: “Good-bye, Francie.”

While I loved the ending and the book was long and full, I’m still sorry to close the window.

Samantha, Daughter

15/20

P.S. This was the perfect book for me to check out during my first card-holding library visit in New York. It’s a true “library book!”

The Handmaid’s Tale: A New York Times bestseller

To Pete, For all that is meant to be. xo Doris” — that is the inscription inside the cover of this book. I glazed over it when I started reading but once I finished it I was plagued by the meaning hidden-in-plain-sight in that simple inscription. Is Pete her Commander, a loveless pairing? Her Luke, her love that she was torn away from by circumstance? Was he her Nick? Did he sacrifice their relationship so that she might have a real life?

The inscription was as powerful as a mini-book club. I think I bought this book at a library book sale at Alderney Landing, so Doris of the Greater Halifax Area (or Pete, who got rid of the thoughtfully selected book), what did you mean? I need to know.

This book is my New York Times bestseller, but it was so, so much more. To name a few literary awards, this vintage Margaret Atwood received:

And it’s been challenged on high school reading lists from past to present. I don’t blame concerned parents in a way. It is very violent, sexually explicit, and the suicidal tendencies cannot be a positive influence. Nevertheless, exposing young readers to that kind of mind-widening perspective and challenging high schoolers to really think about society and gender inequality is a pretty powerful message.

The Atlantic wrote about this book in March 2015. Yes, 2015, roughly three decades after this novel debuted. The article marveled at how even now we’re not quite ready for such a radical work. Radical is a good word for it. It was mind-blowing to consider that dystopian reality. I don’t even like dystopian fiction and I was fascinated by The Handmaid’s Tale. When they were casting the movie in the late eighties they struggled to secure an actress for the main character, or so I read in the aforementioned Atlantic article, because “many actresses feared the stigma of being associated with such an explicitly feminist work” (The Atlantic, 2015)

Now, how in the world will I find this 1990 movie with it’s inappropriately racy cover? (Promising me that Atwood’s powerful message will be watered down to the very thing that’s keeping The Handmaid’s Tale out of schools.)

Samantha, Daughter

13/20

Flappers and Philosophers: A collection of short stories

A collection of short stories is not something I’ve ever desired to read but as per #18 I committed to it this year. I’m not going to lie, it took two tries before it would stick. I first tried to read Palo Alto by James Franco, which I thought would be fun and interesting if nothing else. It was not. It was initially shockingly dark, which wasn’t a bad thing. But about halfway through I got sick of the disgustingly offensive (racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic…) stories. So I had to call it quits. I couldn’t get through it and I wouldn’t advise anyone to try. I’m a little disappointed in Scribner’s for publishing such trash.

GoodReads, 2015).
(GoodReads, 2015).

Nonetheless, I gave Scribner’s a chance to redeem themselves with a throwback to that optimistic time when the acts of flappers were considered dastardly. Things that would now be considered quite vanilla. I was, all-in-all, quite pleased with my ultimate pick for #18: Flappers and Philosophers by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It was thematically a good read to follow The Paris Wife, in which Fitzgerald made a few appearances. Published by Scribner’s in 1920, this was Fitzgerald’s first published collection of short stories. This was published shortly after his first novel, This Side of Paradise, which I had been reading concurrently with Flappers and Philosophers. That is one benefit of the short story form, isn’t it? You can pick it up and put it down. You don’t have to stay up all night reading to figure out what happens to the characters. This is not intended as a slight to Dark Places, but I was pretty tired the morning after I finished that page-turner.

There were eight stories in Flappers and Philosophers and some were, obviously, better than others. Head and Shoulders and Cut Glass Bowl stood out as the best. I liked that Head and Shoulders ended up being grudgingly post-gender and vaguely feminist. Head and Shoulders ended perfectly, but Cut Glass Bowl had me the whole way through. I loved the vaguely surrealist all-compassing quality of that doomed bowl and the way it captured our protagonist and the whole of her failures. It was oddly mystical but in a realistic way that wasn’t too fantastical to lose sight of the complex human relationships at the heart of the story.

I like the homage Fitzgerald pays to his own life. The quasi-autobiographic details that plume up from the stories make it constantly apparent who has written them. I’ve read a great deal about his life and watched a BBC documentary on Fitzgerald while reading this book. It’s nice to have his life story poetically punctuated by his stories. If you’re at all interested in the Jazz Age of Fitzgerald as the unofficial author of the Jazz Age, I’d recommend this documentary, delivered on YouTube in four parts courtesy of BBC’s The Culture Show.

In the spirit of the awards season that just concluded, I have some awards for some flappers and some philosophers:

Best Character Development: Bernice Bobs Her Hair

From boring mousy girl to cutting her cousin’s hair as while she slept, Bernice really evolved!

Best Setting: The Offshore Pirate

I wouldn’t mind a tropical hideaway off the coast of Florida rather than the -30 temperatures here today.

Best Quote: The Ice Palace

“Well, I want to go places and see people. I want my mind to grow. I want to live where things happen on a big scale.” 

(That being said, Cut Glass Bowl was full of great quotes…)

Most Violence: Four Fists

Best Political Portrait: Dalyrimple Goes Wrong

Best Beginning: Bendiction

Best Ending: Head and Shoulders

Best Story: Cut Glass Bowl

4/20

Samantha, Daughter