The Wife, Meg Wolitzer
OMG this. This is how you write a feminist novel. The feminist thesis here is that women’s work is often unrecognised, and sometimes basically stolen. The idea of the wife as slave. But with enough personality there to become enthralled in the story.
Nick of Time – Elizabeth Grosz on Nietzsche
This is the second part of the Grosz’s book on space and time. I realised that I’m not that interested in space and time. Heh. At one time I wanted to make these two concepts the frame of my PhD thesis and maybe it would have been cool if I had except that I resisted because I felt that it would be pandering to the desire to use concepts that male philosophers take seriously. Instead I landed up with tired old tradition/modernity but at least that was a natural fit.
Anyway, some interesting points in this book:
a. Nietszche’s view of history and it’s usefulness of feminist protect – that the past is important but must not overwhelm, that one must take from the past what is useful and move on – to “remember what one needs in order to move on”.
b. The “will to power” is not just one, but many competing wills, it is the synergy of different wills that makes something happen
c. The eternal return: Given the infinity of time and the finite nature of matter and possible combinations, there will be repetitions. “In the long run, probability become necessity” Grosz says.
Normal People, Sally Rooney
I had the same problem with this book as I did with Conversation with Friends, only with the latter I got over it and the book won me over overall, and that didn’t happen in this case.
With Conversations with Friends, I started out skeptical but by the end of it, there was enough complexity there.
What irritated me was the rather juvenile game-playing and lack of communication between the central couple, and this became acute in Normal People. Here, I loved the initial section of the book, but after the second section gets under the constant misunderstandings and breaking up and (not quite) making up just felt silly to me.
Maybe they would resonate with a twenty-something but I guess I am too much of an old lady to have much patience with it. Not that I am over game-playing but please, people with this much intelligence should also be clear-eyed about what they are doing.
I was also uncomfortable with the presentation of masochism. Not that I’m an expert on S&M, but I don’t think it’s supposed to be a person who has low self-esteem in her life asks to be manhandled in the bedroom. Rather, the opposite, I would think. Instead, a woman who seemed to be fairly rebellious in the beginning is basically turned into a craven mess by the end. And we are supposed to be charmed.
However, this book was almost universally loved by critics. I don’t get it. Tell me, what am I missing?
The Woman at the Window, A.J. Finn
I’m turning into a grumpy old woman but I really didn’t get into this. I guessed about the protagonist’s husband and child do it wasn’t really a surprise. I found her irritating – I know, I know, she had a disorder, but there is only so much of a person saying how much they drank and (inexplicably) how many times her robe fell down. The surprise was a bit of a surprise but I didn’t really care.
Funeral Games, Mary Renault
This is the final part of the Renault’s Alexander trilogy. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to read it, because I didn’t really see what the point was to reading further after the central character died in the previous book.
However, it was strangely engaging. Not just the wrangling over the throne, but also characters like Euridike who married Alexander’s half brother with intellectual disabilities. I liked it so much, I went on to another historical fiction novel.
Helen of Troy, Margaret George
This was a super read in general, though Madeline Miller remains my favourite in this genre. George invents a character Gelanor, a wizard, who follows Helen to Troy and remains one of her friends from her hometown there. I’m quite sure what the point of him was and it stretched credibility that a queen would be allowed to go off here and there with this man.
There are some episodes that I found less convincing, but I could see why George did them as she did. For example, one ambiguity in the myth of Helen is the love between her and Paris. George attributes Helen’s abrupt attraction to Paris as Aphrodite’s revenge on her for a slight – for not praying to her for her blessing on her marriage to Menelaus.
Also, George shows Helen as seeing Menelaus with a slave girl, thus mitigating her decision to run off with Paris, but really given the age in which those events were taking place, a king’s dalliance with a slave girl, especially given that Helen was supposedly off Menelaus by then, would not really be seen as in any way equivalent to the queen running off with a prince from another state.
The part where the travel to Troy is super boring and generally I wanted to slap them both, but I guess that is often how the moony-in-love come across to others. The relationship I found more interesting was Helen and Menelaus’. She chose him, although she was not 100 per cent sure of her choice, there was attraction there. And then after it all, she lived with him.
I remember a reviewer noting how George emphasises that Agamemnon is simply looking for an excuse to attack Troy in order to use his weapons and also to annex a profitable land , and that this might be a commentary on the present-day US. This strikes me as apt, though I’m not sure her intention was that specific.
In contrast to Miller’s unforgettable portrayal, Achilles here is a sullen, almost deranged man-child.
The book dragged on a bit, but the tragedy of the war is really well drawn. I cried at certain deaths – Troilus’ sticks out.
In the end, George gives Helen back her daughter Hermione, which is not a small consolation
You think it, I’ll say it, Curtis Sittenfeld
A measure of how much I love this writer that I would read a collection of short stories. Ironically, my copy didn’t include The Nominee, the story I downloaded this book for. Nevertheless, I enjoyed all the stories in the book, though I cannot actually recall even one of them now. That’s the thing with short stories, I think. They are so fleeting, like dreams. They will come back to me, again like dreams.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Jane Sherron de Haart
I did not think I was fangirl enough to read a massive tome on the US Supreme Court judge, but I learnt a lot from this book. For example:
1. Her nickname was/is Kiki
2. She studied English literature under Nabokov at Cornell
3. There were quotas for women – only about 5% were allowed in, and all the Jewish girls were assigned one part of the dorm.
4. She married as an undergraduate and her in-laws were very supportive. Harvard retracted her scholarship when she married (the logic being that her father-in-law was wealthy so she wasn’t a needy student anymore) so her father-in-law paid her tuition. Her mother-in-law offered to look after her baby so she could study further.
5. The dean of Harvard law school asked the nine women in her class why they were taking a seat away from a man. The periodicals library could only be accessed by men
6. Her husband Marty shared the shopping and cooking and chores while they was at Harvard law school. Then he got cancer and she arranged for his classmates to lend him their notes which she would spend all night typing up.
7. They moved to new York and she transferred to Columbia because he got a job. The reason she couldn’t stay back was because she was scared of losing her husband to illness. But why couldn’t he have stayed back? Yet she did leave him later to write a book on Sweden’s legal system
8. Tied top of her class and edited both the Columbia and Harvard review but didn’t get a job offer when she graduated. A former teacher had to lean heavily on a judge to get her a clerkship and she overcompensated by working harder than anyone else.
9. Was paid less than men in her first teaching job at Rutgers
10. Got back to work a month after giving birth to her second child
11. Surprisingly, she started her career in acacdemia, teaching and then running the first women and the law course at Columbia.
12. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was her aha moment on feminism
13. Her first test first test case was sexual discrimination – against a man. Her second test case – a woman who wanted to give birth but was dismissed by military in case she had an abortion. Both test cases were the opposite of what one would expect a feminist activist to pick – a man’s right, a woman’s right not to have an abortion. She was being strategic, showing judges that even men suffered under sex discrimination
14. Her friendship with conservative justice Antonin “Nino” Scalia – when her husband died, she remained stoic but he cried during the Court tribute
15. The case of the strip-searched 13-year-old making her feel the need for another woman on the court
16. A run through of some of the sensitive cases of our time – gay marriage, abortion rights, the Florida election of George Bush, the rights of Muslims detained without trial after 9/12.
Ginsburg joined the court when Clarence Thomas had already been appointed. She now witnessed the appointment of Brett Kavannaugh (not in the book). I wonder how she feels serving with these men. (Edit: just read this) So much changes, so much remains the same.