Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Women's Lives

I had a hard time deciding what type of book we should choose for our next selection. Should we get back to the classics? Should we try something contemporary (post WWII lit)? In the end I went to my trusty copy of 500 Great Books by Women (edited by Erica Bauermeister). The last two books we read have been by male authors, so I thought I'd offer some selections by female authors. I hope you will find something appealing here:

The Convert by Elizabeth Robins. Although Elizabeth Robins was American by birth, she spent a good portion of her life in England as an actress and feminist activist. The Convert is about the British Suffrage movement, which the author knew well. Part witty and scathing commentary on the upper classes, part political rhetoric quoted directly from open-air meetings, and part muck-raking realism, The Convert moves back and forth between the personal and the political until the two can no longer be distinguished. The Convert uses as its frame the political "conversion" of Vida Levering, a beautiful, upper middle-class woman. We follow Vida's growing discontent with "country weekend" society and her increasing awareness of the common lot of women. Forthright and direct, Elizabeth Robins discusses issues that must have been shocking in 1907: unwed motherhood, the effects of the inequality of women, and the essential disrespect that underlies chivalry. Reminiscent of Jane Austen and foreshadowing the work of Virginia Woolf, The Convert is a fascinating novel. It provides us with a sense of history and a feeling of pride in what women could and did accomplish. It is also disturbing because far too many of the issues are still relevant.

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields. This fictionalized autobiography of Daisy Goodwill Flett, captured in Daisy's vivacious yet reflective voice, has been winning over readers since its publication in 1995, when it won the Pulitzer Prize. After a youth marked by sudden death and loss, Daisy escapes into conventionality as a middle-class wife and mother. Years later she becomes a successful garden columnist and experiences the kind of awakening that thousands of her contemporaries in mid-century yearned for but missed in alcoholism, marital infidelity and bridge clubs. The events of Daisy's life, however, are less compelling than her rich, vividly described inner life--from her memories of her adoptive mother to her awareness of impending death. Shields' sensuous prose and her deft characterizations make this, her sixth novel, her most successful yet.

Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker. With an arid "dry-land" wheat farm as both its geographic and metaphoric center, Winter Wheat tells the story of eighteen-year-old Ellen Webb. Her Vermont-born father and Russian-born mother, married during the first World War, have come as homesteaders to Barton, Montana - a grain-elevator and general store. It is 1940, the year Ellen will start college if the wheat harvest is good; it is September, "like a quiet day after a whole week of wind. I mean that wind that blows dirt into your eyes and hair and between your teeth and roars in your ears after you've gone inside." The harvest pays and Ellen goes off to college, where she immediately falls in love: "I hadn't meant to fall in love so soon, but there's nothing you can do about it. It's like planning to seed in April and then having it come off so warm in March that the earth is ready." Ellen and Gil plan their marriage for after the summer harvest. But Gil arrives and doesn't find Montana or the life of dry-land wheat farmers beautiful. Ellen begins to see everything, including her parents, with new and critical eyes in this unsparing and poignant examination of love and life.

Passing by Nella Larsen. Several years ago, beautiful, ambitious Clare Kendry, tired of accepting the narrow lot of black life when she looks white, chose to pass for white and cut herself off from all past relationships. Her childhood friend, Irene Redfield, can also pass, but has chosen not to, and is now married to a black man and has two sons. Each woman faces a dilemma: how much of her heritage can she keep or ignore without destroying her life? Clare, married to a white bigot who does not know about her black blood, desperately misses her old ties and traditions. Irene, living in New York with her successful doctor/husband, wants to ignore the negative parts of her heritage: she refuses to let her husband explain about lynching to their boys and rejects his desire to move to Brazil where he hopes to escape the racism he has seen in the United States. A chance encounter brings Clare and Irene together once again. As elegant, hypnotic, relentless Clare moves increasingly into Irene's life, Irene senses the danger Clare poses to her own safe existence. Although on the surface a story of passing, hypocrisy and adultery, Passing is far more complex than it might first appear, and compels us to ask ourselves where we draw our own lines.

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence. The Stone Angel is a compelling journey seen through the eyes of a woman nearing the end of her life. At ninety, Hagar Shipley speaks movingly of the perils of growing old and reflects with bitterness, humor, and a painful awareness of her own frailties on the life she has led. From her childhood as the daughter of a respected merchant, to her rebellious marriage, Hagar has fought a long and sometimes misguided battle for independence and respect. In the course of examining and trying to understand the shape her life has taken, her divided feelings about her husband, her passionate attachment to one son and her neglect of another, she is sometimes regretful, but rarely penitent. Asking forgiveness from neither God nor those around her, she must still wrestle with her own nature: "Pride was my wilderness, and the demon that led me there was fear." She has been afraid of being unrespectable, afraid of needing too much, afraid of giving too much, and her pride is both disturbing and inspiring.

Hopefully all titles should be available here in the US, in Canada and the UK. The most problematic might be the book by Elizabeth Robins, though there are lots of used copies out there. I checked in Bookmooch and there appear to be moochable copies of Winter Wheat, Passing, The Stone Angel and lots of The Stone Diaries. I also checked my own library system locally and found all titles available--so hopefully you will also find that to be the case as well if you prefer to borrow the book rather than buy.

Please vote in the comments area of this post. Of course anyone is welcome to join in and read and discuss the book. I will tally votes on Monday December 17 and announce the next selection. Shall we plan on discussing the book on Friday February 29?

11 comments:

Imani said...

Squeeeeeeeeeeeeee! The Stone Angel is one of my top favourite novels in the world. I'd love to reread it but, you know, I don't want people taking my word for it, choosing it, then hating it, because it would crush my soul.

So I vote for Winter Wheat. Feb 29 sounds great.

Harriet said...

I'm really wanting to join in if you'll have me. I love the sound of Passing so that's my vote.

Danielle said...

Imani--I've been wanting to read Margaret Laurence for a while now and mooched the book whether we choose it or not. I'm always a little apprehensive, too, about nominating a particularly favored book of mine in fear everyone will dislike it. I think it looks good personally. They all sound really good to me...
Harriet--You are most welcome to join in! You can join this blog, too, but I think Quillhill will need to send you an invite, so you can post here.

J.C. Montgomery said...

Hullo. Newbie lurker here aka The Biblio Brat. Luv what I see so far, and would like to participate. My vote is for the Stone Angel - it sounds very intriguing. As I am blessed to have a used bookstore nearby that can work magic, I do not forsee any issue in regards to whichever book is finally selected. I look forward to Dec 17.

Dorothy W. said...

Thanks for choosing these Danielle! They all look great. I've read The Stone Diaries, so I won't choose that. Instead, I'll vote for Passing -- a book I've been meaning to read for a while.

Stefanie said...

They all look so interesting! I cast my vote for Passing.

Kate S. said...

I love The Stone Angel too and I would love to reread it in the august company of the Slaves of Golconda. I'd be happy with any of the other choices as well though.

patternings said...

These all look interesting and 'The Stones Diaries' was the first book I ever bought as a hardback because having read the reviews I knew I couldn't wait for either a library copy or the paperback version. I wouldn't mind reading that again, but for a new read I think I'll go with 'Passing'.

Bookgirl's Nightstand said...

These all sound really good. I've read The Stone Diaries and loved it.
Hmm, it's hard to choose but I think I'll go with Stone Angel.

SFP said...

I've read the Shields and just placed an order for a used copy of the Robins. I'd be happy to read either Passing or The Stone Angel, but I'm voting for The Stone Angel. Somebody else will have to be tiebreaker!

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful choice! I have to go for The Stone Angel and promise I will be very careful not to crush imani's soul. It sounds fantastic, in any case.

Litlove