Books I read and loved in 2016

I know, it is certainly not 2016 anymore. And I know, my end-of-year roundup is usually Books By Women I Loved (in 2013, 2014, and 2015). You’ll see below that I still mostly read books by women. But I also set a goal two years in a row to make my reading list less white and less heterosexual, so this is an all-inclusive list of Books I Loved in 2016.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Charming, whimsical, melancholy. It’s one of the first books I read after I turned in my dissertation draft, and I blogged about its food scenes. I just recently watched the film adaptation with Romola Garai, Rose Byrne, and a young Henry Cavill–lovely.

Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm.  This novel was created in a lab for me. It’s a mystery–an art history mystery!–that centers on a Southern girl who moves up north to study art and then things get really complicated and she’s on the lam, hiding out in an antiques restoration shop. It’s suspenseful–I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop–but also makes some really smart observations about class differences and education.

The Marriage of Elinor by Margaret Oliphant. I read Miss Marjoribanks by the same author in 2015, but didn’t even mention it on my book roundup; it was pleasant but not love at first read. Now I think I underestimated Margaret Oliphant. A Scottish lady who was writing around the same time as my loves George Eliot and M. E. Braddon, Oliphant offers marriage plots that get turned on their heads. In The Marriage of Elinor, Elinor falls for a sexy but dishonorable man and marries him even though everyone tells her not to. She has some rough times with him, but neither party experiences untimely death or protracted horrors as you’d might expect from Victorian fiction. Nor are the trials of her marriage left unspoken, as with the ill-fated matches made by lesser characters in Jane Austen’s books. No, Elinor leaves her no-good husband and lives to tell the tale–to her cousin, who is in love with her but never marries her because she really doesn’t think of him that way. Elinor gave me new respect for Miss Marjoribanks, who spends her novel putting off marriage until the last possible page, since she likes her life just fine as the only daughter of a widower, mistress of the house, and thrower of the neighborhood’s best parties.

The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck. I’m not sure how it came to pass that I’d never read this book before; it’s frequently mentioned in literary studies of food, since the novel is very much preoccupied with growing, eating, and starving. It was a brutal read but actually helped me get through a chunk of dissertation revisions. Whenever I was dragging my feet on revisions, I would read a few chapters; when I felt overwhelmed by page after page of famine, I embraced my revisions with open arms. It’s a well-written and engrossing book, I was into it and I’m glad I read it, but it’s bleak.

Faithful Place, by Tana French. I’ve put off reading Tana French because way too many people told me I should, and I get prim and fussy about books that are loved by many. But this book was a highly enjoyable page-turner, gritty detective fiction set in Dublin and embellished with some needed nuance for the “pretty dead girl” trope.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien was every bit as masterfully crafted and moving as I had been told it would be.

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle,  which is a short and riveting revision of “The Horror of Red Hook” by H.P. Lovecraft. I never got too far reading Lovecraft, but I was deeply engrossed in LaValle’s version, which includes vivid description of Harlem in its Renaissance, some pretty convincing eldritch horrors, and an unmistakeable callout to police violence today. Bonus: I read the last half of the book in a coffee shop which happened to be playing “In the Hall of the Mountain King” as I approached the violent and horrifying climax. Awful things kept happening on the page and the music kept getting faster and faster. I don’t have a habit of listening to music while reading, but the background made this book even more memorable.

Fledgling, by Octavia Butler. This book was so unsettling and so deeply absorbing. Everyone knows that Butler is an incredible writer and world-builder but it’s kind of easy to take that for granted until you spend the length of a novel conveniently forgetting that the sensible, empathetic, charismatic, and sensual narrator is, to all human perceptions, a black girl child. It’s kind of messed up, because black girl children are continually hypersexualized and perceived as dangerous by our culture. But if anyone was going to make this protagonist work, it would be Butler. And although I’m not much of a vampire reader, I devoured this weird book quickly.

Emma and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper. I wasn’t sure I loved this book, but I am still thinking about it months later, so I think I do. It’s maybe a little precious, a term I have been taught to hate by male professors who prefer words like muscular or lean to describe prose. But this book is plenty lean, and its smalltown characters and their epic quests have left an indelible mark on me.

Dracula by Bram Stoker. One of those books you think you’ve read but have only read about, right? I was surprised by how much I enjoyed and became wrapped up in this book. Epistolary novels are not usually my jam.

The Winged Histories, by Sofia Samatar. I adore this book and I want everyone to read it.

My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante. I picked this up at a used book sale before the whole tempest about the author’s identity stirred up. Many of my fellow Toast commenters sang high praise of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, and it was easy for me to see why: the prose is masterfully crafted, packed with sensory detail but narrated at a fluid, natural pace that doesn’t get bogged down in description. I read it quickly and appreciated its craft, but I wasn’t sure that I loved it until toward the end. The main characters’ relationship is so fascinating and harrowing that it comes as a great relief when they start to be more kind than competitive, yet that shift takes place just as adulthood opens up a big can of hot mess on both. This novel, the first in a trilogy, ends on a cliffhanger that I found deliciously motivating rather than frustrating. I look forward to reading the next!

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. Another book I picked up from a used book sale. The book grabbed me by its intro, which mixes pop culture and scifi/fantasy references with historical details from the Dominican Republic and a little bit of magic and curses. How does that even work? How is it possible that the first chapters describe the life and times of a teenaged boy whose defining tragedy is an inability to get laid? How can a book be so well-written and finely imagined that it managed to sell me on the story I am least interested in hearing?  But Junot Diaz made Oscar’s story gripping, not pathetic. And I’m glad I stuck with him, because Oscar’s story gave way to stories about his mother, his sister, his grandmother, their lives together and apart, in the States and in the Dominican Republic, living in a political climate that I can’t even imagine but may soon have to, surviving unbelievable, almost supernatural events. I could not put this book down and I felt that I understood, in the end, how it all came together.

Honorable mentions:

The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen by Susan Bordo. I love Susan Bordo, and I will always have a weakness for Tudor history, and I very much enjoyed the first section of the book which traces some popular myths and interpretations of Anne back to their very dubious sources. The first book alone would qualify as a Book I Loved! But I was less in love with Bordo’s interpretations of popular TV and movie Annes, which tiptoed a little into “The thing about youth culture is I don’t understand it” territory.

At the same time I downloaded The Ballad of Black Tom, I also downloaded Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older and Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. Two imaginative, accessible fantasy fictions that only didn’t become Books I Loved because they were so short and fast. Honestly, though, if you’re a sci-fi/fantasy reader and looking to expand your horizons, you cannot go wrong by reading everything Nnedi Okorafor ever wrote.

The Role, by Richard Pearson.  I have a confession. I am a little mulish, sometimes, about reading my friends’ writing. I am not sure why; perhaps I’m defensive about about my book selection after years of required reading, or perhaps I am accustomed to books being books–I still feel surprised when books reveal their living human authors. But after being a bad friend for a year, I finally read my best friend’s first novel and adored it. It sounds just like him: funny and self-deprecating yet passionate and thoughtful. It takes you backstage during a new production and lord have mercy, if you’ve ever done an “experimental” play in college or beyond, you will find yourself in this story.

I can’t believe I managed to read so many wonderful books in the final year of my dissertation. I think that this year I’ll start posting monthly about books I’ve read. As pleasant as it is to effuse about books I love, I’m missing the chance to talk about books I only felt “meh” about, or books that I might have loved but felt betrayed by.

 

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On strong being the “new” pretty

I drafted this post months ago when the posts linked below were posted; just now got around to fleshing out the text I wanted to quote.

At The Daily Dot, Anne Thériault addressed the implications of hashtags like #StrongIsTheNewPretty and #StrongIsTheNewSkinny in the context of current media depictions of so-called Strong Female Characters (with a shout-out to this essay by Tasha Robinson which I loved). Thériault’s argument is that the new boss is pretty much the same as the old boss–same old racist, ablist, oppressive beauty norms dressed up as “inspiration” or “empowerment.”

….We don’t need updated standards for how women look or act—we need to scrap those standards altogether. We need characters and memes that reflect the diversity of women’s lives.

Melissa McEwan of Shakesville (where I first saw the above link) adds that this supposed celebration of strong women rings a bit hollow because when women exhibit strength and fortitude in ways that challenge oppressive norms, they are definitively not celebrated.

Never is that more clear than when a woman actually exhibits strength in her own defense. When she draws boundaries. When she physically harms a man who is trying to harm her. When she engages in self-care. When she categorically refuses to put up with splaining or harassment or catcalling or whatever other horseshit variation of misogyny to which some dude is trying to subject her. . . . That’s how the Strong Woman becomes the weak bitch, when a woman is strong for herself and for the pleasure of nobody else.

Both of these posts are brief but thoughtful and worth a quick read. To this, I wanted to add that not only is fitspo just another shade of thinspo, it’s not anywhere near a new shade. The athletic, fit, toned female body has been celebrated as the ideal female body for several decades. I’ll let Susan Bordo, author of Unbearable Weight, do the talking. My notes are from this edition: Bordo, Susan.  Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. For those of you following along at home, a .pdf of the relevant chapter, “Reading the Slender Body,” is currently hosted by Middlebury. This essay was first published in 1989; the 10th anniversary edition is largely unchanged, and yet its argument is still relevant to this conversation we are having in 2015.

The stated purpose of “Reading the Slender Body” is to explore how diet and exercise are encoded and normalized in culture, and to define the ideal of slenderness that dominates contemporary visual imagery of bodies (particularly women’s bodies). Bordo begins by discussing how bodies can function as symbols in two contrasting ways: body shape is sometimes interpreted to indicate the individual’s position in the social hierarchy, and sometimes it is read as an expression of the internal state of the individual (187). She gives a few historical examples to illustrate: in the early 19th century, successful tradesmen might flaunt a bulging stomach, considered by themselves and their peers to be an outward symbol of material wealth; in the same era, aristocrats favored a slender form that seemed distant and aloof from base hunger or bourgeois grasping. Eventually the bourgeois too came to embrace a genteel slenderness, and around that time excess weight gradually accrued the connotation of moral laxity. The late 19th century is when doctors and what I suppose you might call lifestyle experts started advocating weight loss to the general public, although this would go in and out of vogue over the next century. In a similar fashion, the symbolic function of muscular bodies has shifted: where visible muscles were once associated with manual labor, animality, and weak mental faculties, we now sometimes read muscularity as a sign of self-control and self-discipline (191,193).

Of course, the interpretation of the body is very dependent on other intersecting signifiers of race, class, gender, and so forth. To return to the example of muscles, it’s important to observe that lower class men and men of color with bulging muscles still risk being depicted or viewed as animalistic. And since muscles continue to be associated with masculinity, the muscles of women are expected to be sleek and toned, not bulging. Combined with the specific expectations of female physicality, the slender body is particularly “overdetermined” as the ideal for women, causing women to grapple with it to a greater degree than most men (187, 205).

So what is a “slender” body? One that is not only shed of excess weight, but has smooth lines and taut surfaces. “Until the 1980s, excess weight was the target of most ads for diet products,” Bordo writes; “today, one is much more likely to find the enemy constructed as bulge, fat, or flab” (189). A slender body can be visibly muscled, but not to the point of disrupting a sleek, spare silhouette. A slender female body may have prominent breasts or buttocks, but those attributes should only set off the contrast of a trim waistline and toned limbs. The slender ideal is not necessarily a small body but a “contained” body, with firm flesh that doesn’t wiggle. Bordo considers the slender ideal of the 1980s and the more waifish ideal of the 1960s as more alike than different:

This perspective helps illuminate an important continuity of meaning in our culture between compulsive dieting and body-building, and it reveals why it has been so easy for contemporary images of female attractiveness to oscillate between a spare, “minimalist” look and a solid, muscular, athletic look. . . The two ideas, thought superficially very different, are united in battle against a common enemy: the soft, the loose, unsolid, excess flesh. (191).

In other words, Bordo would almost certainly see “strong is the new pretty” as mere repackaging, another rotation of fashion’s wheel. Sometimes the “it” girl is a waif, sometimes a bombshell, sometimes a sporty Cool Girl, but in late capitalism she is always a fit girl.

Bordo cites one reason for this–and perhaps one key difference between weight loss obsession today versus the 19th century–from another theorist named Robert Crawford: contemporary capitalism puts two simultaneous and conflicting burdens on its constituents. We are supposed to be producers and providers in this economy, and so we must suppress our desires in order to be productive workers. We are also supposed to be consumers, and as consumers we are continually barraged with products meant to incite desire. “The regulation of desire thus becomes an ongoing problem, as we find ourselves continually besieged by temptation, while socially condemned for overindulgence” (199). The ideal of the slender body emerges out of that hostility toward uncontrolled indulgence, or perhaps the anxiety of our lack of control in general:

The firm, developed body has become a symbol of correct attitude; it means that one ‘cares’ about oneself and how one appears to others, suggesting willpower, energy, control over infantile impulse, the ability to “shape your life” (195).

On the flip side, if a body is not firm and contained, it may be read as undisciplined, uncontrolled, willful, careless—a bias that is has been shown again and again in studies of workplaces, medical services, or social relationships. (Here’s a recent one.) Weight bias demonstrates both of the symbolic functions of body shape: in a great deal of media, journalism, and social research, fat on a body is viewed as an outward symbol of inward lack of control. Not coincidentally, fat on a body is also frequently read as a lower-class indicator, or at the very least “absence of all those ‘managerial’ abilities that, according to the dominant ideology, confer upward mobility” (195). The ideology of the slender body feeds into existent biases against nonconforming, bulging, soft bodies. (Which is, after all, most bodies!)

Insert unfortunately necessary disclaimers here: this is not an essay against slenderness! There is nothing wrong with being fit or toned or what have you. Bordo’s essay is a criticism of the ideology of the slender body, a complicated system of ideas and images that elevate the status of slenderness at the expense of other body shapes. The ideology of the slender body is the violent, militaristic language of “targeting” bulges and “burning” fat; the near uniformity of slenderness in the world’s most visible women, who are nonetheless Photoshopped free of their creases and curves; the ubiquity of fat bias; and in a thousand other cultural artifacts.

And this is also not to say that it is wrong to enjoy or admire physical strength, to find one’s own strength empowering, or to work to become stronger. Being strong feels great! And as Bordo emphasizes throughout her chapters, women should not be thought of as “dupes” to certain ideologies of beauty; if women pursue the bodily ideal, it may well be because we desire the privileges that supposedly come with it. Or, perhaps for some, to reject the full-figured curviness of a Victorian or postwar ideal may be a way to embrace “liberation from a domestic, reproductive destiny” (206).

But the aim of “Reading the Slender Body” is to draw out some of the encoded meanings of this body type as it is depicted and reproduced in culture, and that includes shedding light on the ways it operates as a vehicle of oppression. Strength is a privilege enjoyed by the temporarily able-bodied, and being strong does not always correlate to appearing fit or strong; bodies that do not visually meet fitspo goals are not less valuable bodies. And I wish to tie Bordo’s essay back to the links that introduced this post, which remind us that the expressions of strength we value in women are still severely curtailed by cultural demands to be supportive, available, and accommodating. If anything, trying to squeeze “X” (strong, fit) into the framework of “Y” (pretty, skinny) only emphasizes that containment.

Elsewhere on the Internet: Representation in Games

I’ve been enjoying PBS Game/Show, a smart, engaging, and well-presented video series on gaming issues that was recommended to me by several clever friends. Perhaps I like the series particularly well because the presenter appears to share my politics on many issues–and he’s great at addressing or deflecting comments to keep the conversation inclusive and constructive.

So I was at first a little surprised when one of the recent videos called out games I like to play for the way they depict race in NPC characters. Specifically, the show called out BioWare for giving Dragon Age series background characters a diversity of complexions but not addressing human racial difference in a world where otherwise race (elves vs. dwarves vs. humans) matters a lot. Kill Screen (which was founded by the Game/Show host Jamin Warren) followed up with that idea in more detail, looking at the way DA: Inquisition party members deal with race (or not):

Yes, we recognize that Vivienne is human and Varric is a dwarf; we simultaneously recognize that she is black and he is white. Yet only one of those distinctions has any perceptible effect on these characters: each will readily offer up their experiences as a human or a dwarf, but Vivienne never comments on her blackness (at least not in my two playthroughs), nor will Varric offer any maunderings on his whiteness.

Both the video and the post made compelling arguments, but at first I was not inclined to agree. Having a game narrative explicitly address difference is one narrative decision, and certainly it can be rewarding one. For example, another DA:I character, Dorian, is often held up as an exemplary model of representation: Dorian is gay and can be romanced by male PCs, but his sexuality is also an important part of his backstory and his personal in-game quest. I haven’t played DA:I yet, but know some players see themselves in Dorian; others learn something new in getting to know him. That’s valuable.

But I’ve also longed to see oppression less represented in the games I play. In fact, that’s an element of many BioWare games that has long troubled me: despite a sort of lip service played to equality (by in-game lore or game reviews)  there is still evident discrimination against certain populations in the gameworld. In Dragon Age, Ferelden is supposedly a land where “men and women are generally equal,” yet a female Warden is met with incredulity at nearly every turn, and the country’s queen regnant is literally imprisoned in a castle by her father. Minor female characters mostly take on their usual roles in high fantasy–witches, washerwomen, noblewomen, prostitutes and brothel madams–and significantly fewer everyday roles like soldiers, messengers, shopkeepers, and crowd members. In Mass Effect, the asari are supposedly one of the most advanced races of the galaxy, yet they also just happen to be galaxy’s preferred sexual object; bars are almost exclusively staffed with svelte asari dancers. Most other alien races are depicted as predominantly male; some female aliens are introduced late in the series and weirdly designed, though there’s no reason that all these races have to be sexually dimorphic in the first place. This is high fantasy: we imagine magic and dragons, we imagine interstellar travel and aliens that live hundreds of years, so why can’t we imagine a world unburdened by the same oppressions that dog ours?

So that was my first reaction: isn’t it nice to have some diverse representation in a fantasy game without replicating racial oppression?

But I was wrong, and here is why.

First, neither Dragon Age nor any of the other games mentioned here and in the linked articles is actually racially diverse. Some games read that way, due to some cognitive bias that allows us to read “a handful of nonwhite characters” as “an equal distribution of white and nonwhite characters.” But Tanya D at BoingBoing’s newly relaunched Offworld does the count, and finds Thedas (and particularly the Free Marches) to be very white worlds indeed. How did I not notice? No doubt the usual culprit, privilege blindness, but also, like most folks, I just want to enjoy the entertainment I enjoy and I’ll voluntarily or involuntarily look past a lot of problems. Case in point: at the very same time I was reading Killscreen’s take on race in Dragon Age, I saw this piece at FemHype that examines the female characters in Skyrim. Now, Skyrim is about as close as I’ve gotten to that utopic gameworld in which femaleness is not a handicap or a special sexualized class: you can play as a woman and no NPCs give you flak for winning the game while female, and you’ll come across other female NPC adventurers who want to team up with you or kill you. But Jillian at FemHype points out how few female characters hold positions of power, the weird exceptionalism of the few fleshed-out female characters that play major roles in quests, and of course the sexual divisions of enemies. Even the rare female Draugr aren’t dressed for war.

So one issue is that you can’t really have a post-racial, post-feminist, post-anything fantasy world if the world’s population defaults to white and male. If you only have a handful of characters to represent other kinds of players who might like to see themselves in the game, then those few characters end up working overtime as tokens, burdened with representing ideas or whole populations instead of existing as unique characters in their own right. Case in point: Vivienne in DA:I. Vivienne seems like a great character: she’s powerful, beautiful, and gets a lot of the good lines. She is undeniably black, and as Game/Show’s rundown demonstrates, there aren’t too many black characters in contemporary games that aren’t nameless enemies or horrifying stereotypes. Vivienne is her own person; her story is that she is a BAMF. When I was first mulling over the argument set forth by Game/Show and KillScreeen, I thought that I’d be interested in a backstory about Vivienne becoming a BAMF despite structural racism, but I wouldn’t be interested in such a story done badly or lazily. (I mean, Bioshock Infinite is free this week on Xbox Live, so I’ve had my fill of lazy writing and white savior narrative.)

Instead what happens with Vivienne, according to N.K. Jemisin, is that she has very little story at all.

Vivienne is affiliated with many groups but few of them seem to have contributed anything to who she’s become. She’s the only playable black woman seen in the entire trilogy of games so far, and she is cultureless, rootless, and quintessentially raceless.

Jemisin’s argument–and y’all, this is my favorite argument I’ve read on this topic so far, although everything I’ve linked is well done–is not that we need more racism in our fantasy worlds, but that our fantasy worlds have erased people of color so completely for so long that it does no good to simply drop one or two people of color into the game with no context or acknowledgement. “It’s nigh-impossible to get fantasy readers just to acknowledge that people of color even existed in medieval Europe,” she writes. “The reality is, and has always been, diverse. Denial of this reality is the modern — racist — addition to the pot.” Rather than simulating racial diversity without approaching equality and without context, Jemisin would prefer to see Vivienne’s lived experience as a dark-skinned woman in an overwhelmingly white world given more depth and connection, even just with party banter details that fill in the holes of her backstory.

I’d still like to see a game one day in which racial diversity and gender parity is so much a given that the plot does not reenact the micro and major aggressions we live with in the real world. But in the meantime, why don’t we create stories and worlds that depict difference with the depth, range, and detail that have been missing in fantasy for so long?

 

Note: Many of these links came to my attention via Critical Distance, always a great resource for critical issues in gaming; others I saw on MedievalPOC, a great tumblr which catalogs art from the Middle Ages that depicts people of color just hanging out and being European, despite our modern day insistence on the implacable whiteness of medieval Europe as well as medievalish fantasy realms.

Books by women I read and loved in 2014

I’m going to go ahead and call it a year—with just a couple of weeks left in December and one looming writing deadline ahead of me before January, I don’t see myself wrapping up any more excellent books by women by the year’s end. (Although I’m looking forward to resuming Hilary Mantel’s voluminous and intricate A Place of Greater Safety for my long unplugged plane trips.)

As I’ve written before, I have long made conscious decisions to read and purchase books by women whenever possible. But this year has been particularly fun because of #readwomen2014 on Twitter: it was nice to see men and women alike gushing about books by women, to witness the surprise and delight new readers experienced when they discovered the hashtag late in the year, and to share my own recommendations (although I mostly let Booklikes do the talking for me).

What follows is a chronological list of the books by women that I read and loved in the calendar year 2014. The list obviously does not include books by men, although I did read a few, and it does not include any books by women which I did not love reading.

North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell. I needed something to fill the hole left by finishing Middlemarch a second time, and friends in the know enthusiastically recommended this book as well as the BBC adaptation. And they were right! This book is delicious fun. Imagine taking the social critique and interior characterization of George Eliot, making it a bit less subtle perhaps, but then seasoning it liberally with enough social snubbing and mild scandal for Jane Austen’s taste.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. Confession: Sometimes I feel anxious about recommending books if I am afraid they will seem frivolous or sentimental or otherwise Not Serious Enough. That is something to actively combat, of course, so here is this book which has all of the earmarks of exactly the kind of book I don’t want to read. It’s a story of two sisters, it’s a story about a gay uncle dying from AIDS, it’s a coming of age story set in the suburbs. And yet! I was completing absorbed by their story, which took some unexpected turns into the weird woods of familial love.

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead. I was not expecting to love this book. I can imagine few things less appealing to me as a reader than a narrative of someone else’s reading experience, so I only read it because I was not ready to let go of the regular Middlemarch book club chats at The Toast. But this book is lovely and thoughtfully written, unfolding the well-known and more obscure details of George Eliot’s rather interesting life, accompanied by interpretations and asides about the author’s own life with a deft and subtle hand.

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell. Why did nobody tell me about Cranford? It’s a cozy series of vignettes about life in a town full of spinsters and widows, and it starts with this gem:

In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women. If a married couple come to settle in the town, somehow the gentleman disappears; he is either fairly frightened to death by being the only man in the Cranford evening parties, or he is accounted for by being with his regiment, his ship, or closely engaged in business all the week in the great neighbouring commercial town of Drumble, distant only twenty miles on a railroad.  In short, whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not at Cranford.

And they are not missed. The gentle ladies of Cranford get on perfectly well without them.

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell. I don’t know what to tell you; obviously this was my Year of Elizabeth Gaskell. This book was unfinished at the author’s death and published posthumously, so it doesn’t quite end. Less sharp than North and South and less sentimental than Cranford, it reads at times like a case study for a 101 course in psychoanalytic readings of novels. (I wrote a little about this on my food blog.) Nonetheless, it is a pleasure to read.

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman. I picked this up because it was said to skewer the personality of a certain type of white male intellectual that I know all too well. And it does and that was enjoyable, but I didn’t expect to see so much of myself in the character of Nathanial Piven. This book is artful in that you really get to see what makes each character tick (and irritating if you already feel a little overexposed to white liberal privilege, fair warning).

The Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward. Please buy this book, and read it. If you’re a white person tweeting #BlackLivesMatter, well, good, but it is just as important—more so—for us to be listening to the truth as to be talking about it. This book tells the stories of five young black men that the author knew growing up, including her own little brother, who all died young. The book shows her struggle to make sense of these deaths in the context of a society that cares so little for their loss. It is difficult to read, obviously, though beautifully written. I read it on my commute because I don’t mind tearing up on the subway and because I could take it in short bursts.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. I picked up this one when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker, and devoured it. It’s a good read with a brisk pace, but it gestures at immense problems of how we define and study humanity. I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice it to say that I usually read exclusively on my commute in order to leave time for other pursuits in the evening, but I simply sat on my couch until I finished this.

I read quite a few more books that I can’t fullheartedly recommend but I’m more glad than not to have read them. It may surprise you that I don’t care for food memoirs as a genre, but if I have to read one, let it be Blood Butter Bone by Gabrielle Hamilton. I felt deeply disappointed by the ending of Boy Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi, but she certainly had me hooked until then. And one happy outing to a used bookstore turned up Freshwater, an odd little play Virginia Woolf wrote for her friends, which was later published and illustrated by Edward Gorey.

This list and my longer #readwomen2014 list reflect my primary concerns in bookbuying this year: thrift and comfort. I downloaded a great many free ebooks and allowed myself to soak in the familiar society of the 19thC English countryside. Books that depart from that trend mostly came to my attention by way of awards or rave reviews. This is a recipe for a very white #readwomen2014, which now seems glaringly obvious. For 2015, then, I will make the conscious buying decision to read and support nonwhite authors and queer authors.

More on this blog about reading books by women:

A note on #readingwomen–and other underrepresented authors

Elsewhere on the Internet: Women, art, and love

Books by women I’ve read in 2013

You should message me if: you read women’s fiction

Elsewhere on the Internet: Dames in Games

You’ve heard, probably, that 48% of gamers these days are female. (Source: the Entertainment Software Association. Also, every news source like this one that reposted the ESA’s stats, paying special attention to the fact that adult female gamers outnumber young male gamers.) You might also have noticed that the percentage of female playable characters in games is much, much smaller than that. In 2009, less than 10% of playable characters were female; hopefully that number has increased in the last five years, but obviously we’re nowhere near equity on that point.

But it’s been an exciting summer for the visibility of women’s issues in games. In June, when a representative from Ubisoft said that it would be too costly to include female playable characters in the next Assassin’s Creed, the internet fairly exploded with derision. Critical Distance, as always, has a good selection of links on the topic (June 15 and June 22); of them, I particularly liked this post from Hellmode talking about the female playable characters we had in games from the 90s and early aughts. The inference I make is that there is a bit of backlash in game development, a hyperfocus on hypermasculinity among some top-selling titles, but it hasn’t always been that way and it certainly won’t continue to be going forward. The gamer stats make it clear that the “majority male demographic” argument doesn’t hold water.

More recently, a new installment of Feminist Frequency’s Tropes vs. Women is now up: Women as Background Decoration Part 2. (Here is Part 1.) Anita Sarkeesian has gotten waves of hostile attention online (and, unfortunately, offline) since even before the first video in this series was up, but I’ve been intrigued to see a number of male voices in gaming media speak up in support of her critiques recently. I like this post from Kotaku that recaps her argument and then demonstrates some of the ways Sarkeesian and even the men who support her come under attack simply for suggesting that we could stand to break out of some boring habits of mangling female characters.

For what it’s worth, I think that this most recent installment of Tropes vs. Women is one of the most clear and cogent to date, and I’ve been a follower of Feminist Frequency for some time. One of the most effective tools of the series–for both her film and game critiques–is a visual representation of the astonishing ubiquity and repetition of certain representations of women. Parts 1 and 2 of “Women as Background” reveal horrifying homogenous landscape of casual cruelty toward women, used mainly as window dressing for a supposedly edgy, gritty universe, meant to be simultaneously shocking and appealing. Part 2 does a particular good job of demonstrating that the disposable female characters in numerous games exist for no other reason than to be sexualized and then assaulted, and that even when such scenes are not crucial to the plot, gameplay will frequently compel the player to observe or overhear gruesome treatment of women with no means of opting out. Likewise, Sarkeesian takes particular care to show how violence against disposable female characters is staged in a completely different (i.e. sexualized) way than that against disposable male characters. That’s two points I often see made by detractors–that violence against female characters is crucial to certain games or that it’s no different than violence against male characters–already refuted.

I also appreciated her stance (seconded by the Kotaku author) that using sexual violence as shorthand for evil or horror is straight-up lazy writing. Perhaps that’s one reason this episode really gelled for me: I’ve made this argument myself in reference to the (ahem) climax of The Magician King and I’ve heard it in reference to certain media that seem to exploit women’s bodies in this way–Game of Thrones is the obvious example.

AND YET. I’m always a little shocked when I see a game I love in the Feminist Frequency slideshows of shame. Surely that game is not like the rest of the games with disposal women! I hardly even remember that little rape joke in a game that is otherwise touted as a triumph for gender and sexual diversity! And I feel a bit hurt and defensive. So I get it, gamer bros. But of course that’s precisely her point: the objectification and violence toward women in games is so ubiquitous that one may well not notice, or unconsciously choose to overlook it because it’s still such a rare treat to enjoy interactive media with minimal violence or objectification toward women.

Tangent: I’ve been thinking about the way I can really lose myself in a good book or a good movie, giving a good story the kind of engagement where I might cancel plans just to immerse myself in a fictional world, the kind of commitment where I will look up everything I can find online in order to find threads of that experience elsewhere in the world. The books, films, and TV shows that lead me into this depth tend to be exceptional in craft: they are incredibly well-made, well-told, or well-thought-out stories in their genre. I favor stories that allow women and minorities to be well-drawn characters in part because that is a sign of craft. Sure it’s social justice, but it’s also style.

I can really lose myself in a video game, too, and become a voracious consumer and loyal customer. But the bar is much lower. Many of the games I love have severe lapses in narrative craft, from painful dialogue (Skyrim) to egregious treatment of women to gameplay that encourages players to act out oppression instead of against it (et tu, Bioware). And I lose myself in them anyway, because of the nature of interactive media: you have some influence over the outcome, you are explicitly complicit in the storytelling, and it doesn’t take much to become invested. Gaming is severely underestimated and underutilized as a narrative vehicle that way. Imagine what the experience of gaming could be like if games required the same level of narrative craft in building nuanced, diverse characters and worlds we’ve come to expect from good television, movies, and books!

On that note, this is not strictly a gaming link, but this essay is so good that I’ve been dying to link to it on this blog forever: We’re Losing All Our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome, by Tasha Robinson. Robinson laments the number of female characters that are brought into mainstream film and TV to kick ass, and who indeed get some extremely kickass representation of their strength and talent and complexity, but who in terms of plot have nothing to do. Who lose their nerve at the last minute to make room for a hero to come in and triumph, who are taken out of the action (often kidnapped or trapped by the villain) so that her strength and talents do not contribute to the plot resolution, whose primary contribution may in fact be as nurturer or sexual reward or other traditionally female role. She’s got some great examples and a delightfully scathing checklist:

 

  • Is a fundamental point of your plot that your Strong Female Character is the strongest, smartest, meanest, toughest, or most experienced character in the story—until the protagonist arrives?

  • …or worse, does he enter the story as a bumbling fuck-up, but spend the whole movie rapidly evolving past her, while she stays entirely static, and even cheers him on? Does your Strong Female Character exist primarily so the protagonist can impress her?

Now, this test is only for storytellers and developers who have graduated past 101: Are All Your Female Characters Sex Workers? but I look forward to what the extra credit might look like.

 

On not caring if you like it

This afternoon, I visited a building across campus for a lunchtime meeting. It’s not a familiar place, so I don’t have a sense of who comes and goes during the day, but just then the lobby was fairly deserted. Even the security guard was away from his desk; in fact, he’d taken the elevator to another floor just before I got there. I pushed the button and waited.

Behind me, I heard a man say “Hey. . . you’re beautiful.”

I turned my head very slightly to look out of the corner of my eye. There wasn’t anyone else nearby, just a man seated at his ease in the small lounge area.  “Thank you,” I said with a curt nod, and faced the elevator again.

A pause, and then the man laughed ingratiatingly and said he didn’t mean any harm by it.

I didn’t answer, but I was thinking I know. And also, I don’t care what you mean.

Let’s review. I walk into a strange place and hear a man possibly addressing me. I look very carefully but not overtly to see if he was addressing me, so that if he wasn’t looking directly at me he might not see my glance and decide to target me for attention or ridicule. I then answer him coolly but politely, a tone that in my experience corresponds with a low incidence of escalation (yelling, demanding my attention, following, that sort of thing). And in the few seconds it takes for me to make nice, I have time to size up the situation and decide that the man was not using an aggressive posture or tone. More importantly, I didn’t feel that he was a threat, and after a decade of living and walking alone in major cities, I trust my instincts.

So yeah, I felt reasonably secure that he didn’t mean any harm by it. But I still don’t fucking care what he thinks. And he could just have well have kept it to himself; my day would have been better without it.

On my old blogs, some time ago, I would frequently describe my encounters with strangers out in the world: the young man who followed me to show me cat pictures on his phone, the young man who followed me until I lied that I was meeting my boyfriend for dinner, the older man who followed me while asking questions about my ethnic heritage, and so on. Early on, I didn’t have the language to deconstruct why these episodes troubled me and what they implied about the world I moved around in as a woman, so the stories would come bubbling out part complaint and part humorous vignettes: ugh, men on the street, amirite? But telling the stories helped me find words for what I could feel was wrong–it wasn’t fair that an imaginary boyfriend’s feelings mattered more than mine, that I was supposed to feel flattered but I just felt scared and angry, that neither verbal or nonverbal cues could navigate those conversations the way I wanted them to go (away from me).

I don’t usually tell these stories anymore unless they are particularly funny. I understand more of the sticky social web that strings these behaviors together with others that target women. I don’t need the catharsis as much. And, to be frank, it happens less often as I get older, fatter, and more inked. (I was wearing a modest tattoo-concealing cardigan today; I suppose that was my mistake.)

I’ve had worse, lots of us have had worse, but I’m picking on this poor mild means-no-harm guy today because he presented a textbook illustration of two capital-T TRUTHS I’ve read recently.

One is from Shakesville, in which Melissa McEwan writes about her experience walking with her husband to their car, and all the things that she sees that her husband doesn’t see. She unpacks all of the involuntary mental work she does silently: noticing a man in the parking lot, guessing his trajectory and point of interception, intuiting what he wants and whether he’s likely to be violent. To paraphrase one of the commenters, Do you have any idea how much RAM it takes to run these processes all the time? I like that metaphor: some of us, through experience, develop a few programs that hum unobtrusively in the background whenever we are in public. I’ve sometimes observed that if I walk home when my judgement is impaired–when I’m very tired, or a little drunk–I feel hyper-aware, like all my senses are escalated. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that I’m just running these processes less elegantly, so they take over more of my perception.

The other was in the wake of some loser writing about how hot Sophia Vergara is at 42. (She is! I get it! Save it for your blog, paid writerman!) At New Republic, Rebecca Traister wrote about how sick and tired she is of male writers, male pundits, male everyone and women too weighing in on whether they think this woman or that woman is sexy. She quotes a story about Amy Poehler that Tina Fey tells in Bossypants:

Amy Poehler, then new to “Saturday Night Live,” was engaging in some loud and unladylike vulgarity in the writers’ room when the show’s then-star Jimmy Fallon jokingly told her to cut it out, saying, “It’s not cute! I don’t like it!” In Fey’s retelling, Poehler “went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him,” forcefully informing him: “I don’t fucking care if you like it.”

This anecdote stayed with me long after I read Bossypants, and I surely already possessed great barren fields of fucks to give, but it actually did help a great deal that I had this recent reminder. It’s an excellent mantra, and I recommend repeating it until it sticks to something, anything:

I don’t fucking care if you like it. Really, I don’t. Unless we’re dating, or good friends, or I’ve done something deliberate and spectacular to my physical appearance (fantastic makeup?) or with my physical appearance . . . perhaps this is a good time to relink to this classic Lindy West manual of when to compliment women?