Sunday, October 23, 2005

autobiography of a blue-eyed devil: my life and times in a racist, imperialist society

by inga muscio (Emeryville CA: Seal Press, 2005)

Usually when I read books of personal essays, I don't start at the beginning and work straight through to the end, I skip around in them and dig out things I like. I did that with Inga Muscio's previous book, Cunt; but this book pulled me straight through very fast from beginning to end. It's well-written, fresh, full of different tales and varied approaches to telling the stories; yet there's a logic that builds from chapter to chapter and becomes very convincing. The theme is that a young woman from a not-terribly-privileged white background who is open to others and desires social change learns from both her experiences and her research, not only that there is racism in her society and that it is much deeper and more serious than she imagined, but also how it has put its tentacles into her own mind and behaviour. To me, this is a book about working to overthrow colonization of racist ideas in a person's own brain. Yet it's never too heavy, always giving you that breath of poetry or narration or whatever it takes to keep you hanging in. Very interesting and valuable and refreshing book.

Strike Sparks: Selected Poems, 1980-2002

by Sharon Olds (NY: Knopf, 2004)

I was in a big argument once (it was 1985) with Saul Sosnowsky, a scholar of Latin American literature. He was chairing a panel of consultants deciding which authors should be included in a projected 13-part series profiling Latin American writers for radio; I was writing the grant. I proposed including Gabriela Mistral, whom I knew had won a Nobel Prize for literature. In refusing her, the professor accused that Mistral didn't write about "literary subjects. She just writes about things like motherhood." Everyone at the table, including him, flashed on the deeply sexist scholarly prejudice he had just pronounced.

Sharon Olds is such a good poet that I buy her books new even though I don't personally know her. This collection omits some of my favourite poems of hers but it includes wonderfully meaty poems about motherhood. I use meaty advisedly -- physical selves and bodily acts are very vivid in her work, and the physicality gives tremendous support to the emotional and imaginative aspects.

Olds writes so avidly about her enjoyment of heterosexual marriage and sex in marriage that it rehabilitates my image of that condition. And she managed to arrive at that pleasing state despite a sexually active and activist youth in a time when "sex was a crime." The poem about trying to insert a diaphragm that keeps springing and landing on the floor in a seedy hotel bathroom is so vivid and stunningly original it brings tears to my eyes, especially because of the way at the end she claims the power of this young self who was so determined to control her own life.

What drew me to this book most while I was considering it in the store were the poems about the aging and death of her father, and especially the one about a rat and a cockroach who appear to her after her father's death. Something similar happened to me.

If you don't read anything else in this book, find it in the store and turn to the short poem "The Pope's Penis." The patriarchy really does have no clothes.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Number Ten

by Sue Townsend (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2002)

This is a bit of silly fiction with a few good laughs and tidbits of gratifying political fantasy. The premise is that the Prime Minister of England (Labour Party, but the leadership is looking for another name) skips out of Number Ten and goes about the countryside disguised as a woman, getting in touch with some repressed emotions and feminine parts his personality, while failing miserably in picking up on the political lessons he might have learned. Traveling with him is a policeman who has had to leave his elderly mother in not the best hands. One could wish there was a bit more substance to this story, but its political heart seems to be in the right place, there are occasional good insights, and any sort of laugh is awfully hard to find now, int it? Suzette checked this one out of the Vancouver Public Library. Townsend is also the author of the acclaimed Adrian Mole books, which I have not yet read.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Desert Blood: The Juarez Murders

by Alicia Gaspar de Alba (Houston: Arte Publico Press, 2005)

When I pick up a book from a small press I confess I often have doubts about how good it will be. All doubts were definitely allayed in this case.

Gaspar, who is an associate professor of Chicana/o Studies and English at UCLA, spent years doing research on and even holding a major conference about the large and horrifying number of vicious sex murders of women that continue to be perpetrated in and around Juarez, Mexico, the city across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. The extensive acknowlegements section at the end gives some insights into that work.

But to go from research to a good work of fiction is not very easy. Most fiction "based on a true story" tends toward the wooden. I don't want to overpraise because discovering that you continue to like a book as it goes along is part of the suspense. But this holds up very well against all the genres it participates in: "true crime" as mentioned, the feminist mystery novel, the lesbian novel, and the bilingual chicana/o novel.

Things I like about this book include: The number of well-drawn and highly original characters; the tight and credible dialogue; the descriptions that carry their weight and don't go on for too long; the terse incorporation of information and ideas through the use of different characters' perspectives. I especially liked that Gaspar didn't try to perfect or apologize for any of her characters' behaviour or thinking or morals.

I found this book in a feminist bookstore (Bookwoman, in Austin, Texas ). I'm sure you can order it from them if you don't find it where you usually shop.

The G-String Murders

by Gypsy Rose Lee, afterword by Rachel Shteir (NY: The Feminist Press, 2005).

This is part of a new series The Feminist Press is issuing called Femmes Fatales, reprinting popular pulp fiction written by women in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. The Publisher's Foreword makes a great defense of the importance of these writers, who were read by many more people than more literary types (say, Proust) were.

The G-String Murders is not all that well plotted (a few weeks after reading it I can no longer even remember whodunnit), but it is interesting in its depiction of the burlesque industry, a sort of transitional form between Vaudeville and the strip clubs of today. The book is full of particulars about costuming, dressing rooms, toilets, food and drink, stage cues, regulations and the violations of them, police raids, and the slang of the period (the book was first published in 1941, but probably written in the '30s).

The afterword with biographical and publishing details added a lot. As a special treat, there is GRL's correspondence with her publisher (or, perhaps a pseudo-correspondence written for publicity purposes). The point is made that Lee was a woman who was proud of her intellect and vocabulary, and enjoyed freaking people out by being an intellectual and a stripper at the same time.

It's One O'Clock and Here Is Mary Margaret McBride: A radio biography

By Susan Ware (NY: NYU Press, 2005). Mary Margaret McBride is sometimes called the creator of the radio talk show. In the 1940s and 1950s she "regularly attracted six to eight million listeners." As a radio woman myself, I loved the descriptions of how she ran her program, getting into deep conversations with people and just throwing in the advertising endorsements when she could fit them into the conversations. She only endorsed products she herself approved of -- often foods. MMM was a great eater, as her pictures in the book definitely show. Ware says the secret of McBride's interviewing success was that she really and warmly listened to people. She also was very generous with her listeners and always wrote back and often mentioned them in her shows. Another secret of McBride's success was her longstanding relationship (likely lesbian at some point, and involving shared housing) with her manager and publicist Stella Karn. Stella is a great character and I wish there were even more of her in this book. Because Stella was in her youth an advance publicist for a circus, I have formed an hypothesis that Djuna Barnes may have known or known about Stella before she created the character in Nightwood known as Robin Vote. Barnes and Karn were not of the same generation, but they did overlap in their tenure in Greenwich Village.


I started this blog so my friends can see my thoughts about books I've been reading.