Sunday, June 28, 2009

Dahlia Cassidy

by Anne Cameron (Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2004)

This book is highly unusual, and the picture on the cover (left) has absolutely nothing to do with its content.
There's not one word about lipstick in the book. It's actually all about work. I imagine the heroine, Dahlia Cassidy, as looking a lot like the author, Anne Cameron (right) only really tall and strapping, as she would have to be to do so much, so much, so much work.

For one thing, Dahlia is a single mother of a vast brood of bastards (they use the term themselves) by various fathers, plus she's the primary support at least part of the time for some of her sisters' kids as well. As best I could count them, there were 9 children living in her house by the end of the story.

When we first meet Dahlia, she's just had a pretty horrendous sexual experience with a "Frenchman" and more or less decides to just give up on sex and concentrate on making a living for everybody. She plays music in a bar, but also does "fungus plucking" (wild mushroom harvesting) and tree-planting, each in their season. Luckily she has a childless, child-loving sister who stays home with the kids while Dahlia goes out for weeks and maybe months of tree-planting under the most grueling conditions of labour and weather. Later in the story, the family ends up on a farm, and ex-farm-girl Dahlia gets to show her chops doing a remarkable roster of grueling chores including cleaning out a cow barn and a chicken shed and harvesting hay (2 crops per year) on a miserably uncomfortable tractor, and in the off-season has a job clearing brush. I'm reminded of a saying the old folks used to use: "It's a great life if you don't weaken."

Reading all these descriptions of how hard and rather painfully but pretty much uncomplainingly Dahlia works to support her family was really interesting, but it left me feeling very uncomfortable about myself and my capacity for lying around reading books. The very gratification I felt reading about the work felt vaguely like reading pornography, my body living vicariously through the descriptions.
The work descriptions were longer and more realistic than the descriptions of the child-rearing. Maybe because the children grow up quite a few years' worth in just 264 pages, their personalities, while distinct from one another, are pretty much sketched in. Their behaviour problems are also almost nonexistent, and that was to me the part that was hardest to believe. Nevertheless, tales about large families are enjoyable. I did find the book hard to put down.

Anne Cameron has written lots of books - you can find a list of them on Wikipedia. Her most famous was apparently Daughters of Copper Woman (1981), which according to her current publisher has sold over 200,000 copies. Harbour Publishing's website also gives this generic author description:
Anne Cameron was born in Nanaimo, BC. She began writing at an early age, starting with theatre scripts and screenplays. In 1979, her film Dreamspeaker, directed by Claude Jutra, won seven Canadian Film Awards, including best script. After being published as a novel, Dreamspeaker went on to win the Gibson Award for Literature. She has published more than 30 books, including the underground classic Daughters of Copper Woman, its sequel, Dzelarhons, novels, stories, poems and legends - for adults and children. Her most recent novels are Family Resemblances, Hardscratch Row, and a new, revised edition of Daughters of Copper Woman. She lives in Tahsis, BC

I didn't mention yet that Anne Cameron is a lesbian. In Dahlia Cassidy, there is some lesbian interest, but it's really rather slight; as mentioned, it's the work - low-paying intensely physical labour - and the very successful fulfillment of family responsibilities - that occupies most of the space.

One final note about publishers. Harbour Publishing is "an award-winning independent book publisher owned and operated by Howard and Mary White. The company was established in 1974 and is based on British Columbia's Sunshine Coast." They are not the original publisher of all Anne Cameron's works, although they seem to be trying to get all her books under one roof now. Daughters of Copper Woman was originally published by the feminist-operated Press Gang in Vancouver - a press that survived in various conformations until 2003.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Feminist Agendas and Democracy in Latin America

by Jane S.Jaquette (Editor, Contributor), Marcela Ríos Tobar (Contributor), Jutta Marx (Contributor), Jutta Borner (Contributor), Mariana Caminotti (Contributor), Gioconda Espina (Contributor), Beatriz Kohen (Contributor), Flávia Piovesan (Contributor), Julissa Mantilla Falcón (Contributor), Virginia Vargas (Contributor), Teresa Valdés (Contributor), Alina Donoso (Contributor), Gabriela Montoya (Contributor)

This book is coming out July 1. Maria Suarez forwarded the link to advance ordering on - I find it very interesting that Amazon tends not to list the publishers of books it is selling. Perhaps this is to keep you from ordering directly from the publisher? By googling, I was able to discover it's from Duke University Press.

Here's the blurb from the Duke catalog

Latin American women’s movements played important roles in the democratic transitions in South America during the 1980s and in Central America during the 1990s. However, very little has been written on what has become of these movements and their agendas since the return to democracy. This timely collection examines how women’s movements have responded to the dramatic political, economic, and social changes of the last twenty years. In these essays, leading scholar-activists focus on the various strategies women’s movements have adopted and assess their successes and failures.

The book is organized around three broad topics. The first, women’s access to political power at the national level, is addressed by essays on the election of Michelle Bachelet in Chile, gender quotas in Argentina and Brazil, and the responses of the women’s movement to the “Bolivarian revolution” in Venezuela. The second topic, the use of legal strategies, is taken up in essays on women’s rights across the board in Argentina, violence against women in Brazil, and gender in the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Peru. Finally, the international impact of Latin American feminists is explored through an account of their participation in the World Social Forum, an assessment of a Chilean-led project carried out by women’s organizations in several countries to hold governments to the promises they made at international conferences in Cairo and Beijing, and an account of cross-border organizing to address femicides and domestic abuse in the Juárez-El Paso border region. Jane S. Jaquette provides the historical and political context of women’s movement activism in her introduction, and concludes the volume by engaging contemporary debates about feminism, civil society, and democracy.

Contributors. Jutta Borner, Mariana Caminotti, Alina Donoso, Gioconda Espina, Jane S. Jaquette, Beatriz Kohen, Julissa Mantilla Falcón, Jutta Marx, Gabriela L. Montoya, Flávia Piovesan, Marcela Ríos Tobar, Kathleen Staudt, Teresa Valdés, Virginia Vargas

“This is an important, timely, and fascinating examination of women, feminism, and democratization in Latin America. It is also a terrific read and another major contribution by Jane S. Jaquette, who has brought together a first-rate team of authors with extensive knowledge of the countries about which they write.”—Valentine M. Moghadam, author of Globalizing Women: Transnational Feminist Networks

“Feminist Agendas and Democracy in Latin America gives one a sense of the dynamism of feminist thinking in Latin America. The essays address national and regional women’s movements’ significant yet partial successes over the past twenty years as well as the ways that the movements have more recently confronted urgent political strategy choices such as whether to rely on judicial solutions or to engage with the World Social Forum.”—Cynthia Enloe, author of The Curious Feminist: Searching for Women in a New Age of Empire

“Feminist Agendas and Democracy in Latin America is a timely intervention in debates that should matter to feminists everywhere. Using freshly collected data, the authors evaluate questions like the impact of gender quotas on politics, the relationship between global feminism and national policies, and the impact of neoliberal restructuring and democratic transition on specific women’s movements. Engaging and clear, the essays offer new insights into issues that demand our attention.”—Gay W. Seidman, author of Beyond the Boycott: Labor Rights, Human Rights, and Transnational Activism

Jane S. Jaquette is Bertha Harton Orr Professor in the Liberal Arts and Professor of Politics, Emerita at Occidental College in Los Angeles. A past president of both the Association for Women and Development and the Latin American Studies Association, she is the editor of Women and Gender Equity in Development Theory and Practice (also published by Duke University Press), Women and Democracy: Latin America and Central and Eastern Europe (with Sharon Wolchik), and The Women’s Movement in Latin America: Feminism and the Transition to Democracy

Monday, June 22, 2009

I Feel Bad About My Neck and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman

by Nora Ephron (NY: Knopf, 2006)

Nora Ephron may be a very good writer, but this is not a very good book. Luckily, I was given it for free by my sister Dina, because if I had paid Canadian $26.95 I would have been really mad. The text is so relaxed and shallow, it would be even slightly sub-par if it were a blog one could read for free. Nevertheless, as I was stuck with only this to read on a 9-hour bus ride followed by a cross-country flight, I finished the whole thing.

There were three interesting points at which I turned down the page, and in order to save you $26.95 (less 30% off because it's remaindered), I'll just tell you what they are.

1. The chapter Parenting in Three Stages. Actually, now that I look at it, it wasn't that good - maybe I turned down the corner to mark my place when I fell asleep.

2. On page 119, Ephron writes that after college she read Doris Lessing's novel The Golden Notebook and it changed her life, giving her "epiphany after epiphany." This is really interesting, because typically Betty Friedan gets the credit for kicking off the US feminist movement in 1963 with her nonfiction book The Feminine Mystique, but The Golden Notebook was published a year earlier, in 1962. Ephron writes "just before the second stage of the women's movement burst into being, I was electrified by Lessing's heroine, Anna, and her struggle to become a free woman. Work, friendship, love, sex, politics, psychoanalysis, writing - all the things that preoccupied me were Lessing's subjects, and I can remember how many times I put the book down, reeling from its brilliance and insights."

This passage shed light for me on Lessing's denial of being a feminist. Not only was she sick of isms after her stint with Communism, but she had arrived at the feminist insights without the feminist movement and could take credit for having published them first. It reminds me of my refusal to join the National Organization for Women when it arrived in Austin, Texas, and found its home at the already existing Women's Center I'd helped to create. No, I'm not joining you, I insisted, you are joining me.

3. Two pages farther on, the last turned-down corner. I think it was because Ephron touted Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White as "probably the first great work of mystery fiction ever written." I couldn't remember if I'd read it or just tried to read it, and was thinking I would check my perception. Or maybe it was because at the end of the page Ephron compares coming to the surface from dipping into a great novel to "the rapture of the deep." I myself use the term "the rapture of the deep" to refer to what happens to poets at poetry readings when they can't stop themselves and they lose sight of what the audience is thinking about their work or how long they've gone on. I know for a fact this is not a new phenomenon, because I remember seeing an 18th-century drawing on the wall at the Robert Burns museum in Scotland. It showed a poet reading to an audience, half of which was comatose and the other half yawning.

Maybe putting an audience to sleep is not such a bad thing. My reading of I Feel Bad About My Neck didn't even make me feel bad about my own neck, which is both wrinkled and double-chinned now even though I'm a bit younger than Nora Ephron; it just made me sleepy enough to go back and back to my airplane nap - which, while not as relaxing as an actual lying-down nap, has at least being oblivious to boredom to recommend it.

--Frieda Werden

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Locust and the Bird: My Mother's Story

by Hanan al-Shaykh (London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC; NY: Random House, 2009)

Judith Weiss sent a link to this US review of a book released in the US yesterday.

It was also released in the UK June 1 - a British review is here:

Al-Shaykh, who is from Lebanon, was estranged from her mother as a child, when the mother divorced her elderly husband from an arranged marriage and married a man she loved. Having no leverage, she had to give up her two daughters to be raised by the husband's family. Years later, the mother followed the daughter's career as a writer, and eventually challenged her to write a book based on the life of a woman who did not have privilege or many choices - herself.

I have not read this book, which was only released in the US two days ago, and probably isn't even available yet in Canada. However, it has been warmly reviewed and should be of great interest.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

397 Ways to Save Money

by Kerry Taylor (HarperCollins Canada, 2009).

I haven't read this book yet, but Leah McLaren gave it a plug in the Jun 6 2009 Globe & Mail (yes, in the dreaded Style section, which has only McLaren and the horoscopes to make it worth opening at all). Apparently, saving money is now stylish. For poor people, this means all those rich and formerly rich people have started competing with us for the most economical stuff. And that makes all the economical stuff go up in price faster than the expensive stuff. In 2007, the Canadian government admitted there was about a 2% cost of living increase; however, the price of the cheapest lunch on campus had risen from $4 to $5 - a 25% increase!

Anyway, here's a link to more about Taylor's book: