thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Hit the Books: The Best Feminist Reads of 2014

In books on January 6, 2015 at 9:04 am

Like a great white shark, you swim through the depths of a great book-ocean, hunting for prey. Already you have ambushed part one of Girls Like Giants’ best feminist reads of 2014. But your ravenous quest for cool things to download on your Kindle or check out from the library surges on unabated. You hunger for more.

We bow to your wishes, oh dinosaur of the sea! Here are five more books our contributors read and loved last year.

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

“What if we only wanted openings,” asks Rebecca Solnit, “the immortality of the unfinished, the uncut thread, the incomplete, the open door, and the open sea?” This push to embrace the possibility of openings wrestles with the drive to closure in her newest book, The Faraway Nearby. It’s not an idle question, as the book shows Solnit reconstructing her difficult relationship with her mother as her mother descends into dementia and then death, and as Solnit herself battles cancer. Yet these obvious themes of ending and death do not sum up the book, which ranges widely and includes musings on Iceland, Frankenstein, writing, and an excess of apricots, as well as a bonus essay running throughout the book like a newsfeed on the bottom of each page. In assessing what is, for the individual, the ultimate conclusion, Solnit also considers the counter-ambiguity of a lack of closure—the meaning of the messy middle, the potential of beginnings. The Faraway Nearby is a beautiful book, best suited to contemplative periods, meditative moods, and a willingness to sail along with Solnit on her self-consciously jumbled journey. — Sarah S.

Long Division by Kiese Laymon

Long Division is a novel about growing up black and male in America. Its plot connects past and present, reminding us time and again that the violence of the Jim Crow era is much closer than some white Americans choose to believe. I worry that any description of Long Division’s beautiful and complex plotting will be off-putting and clunky outside of Laymon’s deft prose, but bear with me for a moment as the book is well worth a read. Part coming of age, part fantasy novel, and part indictment of fantasies of a post-racial America, the novel follows two young men named City—one, a real live character in the novel’s plot, and the other, the hero of the eponymous novel-within-the-novel, Long Division. As City furiously reads the novel, the plot weaves in and out of both City’s lives, sometimes seamlessly—names stay the same, plots twist and turn out of past and present and fact and fiction. We watch one City follow love through time travel, while the other City grapples with his sexuality. But the novel is also about the power of reading. As City reads—experiencing his real life almost as if it is part of the book he reads—we too travel through time with him, connecting the violence of the past in rural Mississippi with present-day violence experienced by City. Long Division is by far one of the best books I’ve read this year, if not in the last ten years, and Laymon’s prose is simultaneously entrancing, difficult, and enveloping. I can’t recommend this book enough and soon I will be picking up his other book, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others America. — Phoebe B.

100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater by Sarah Ruhl

This lovely collection by playwright Sarah Ruhl (Eurydice and In the Next Room, or the vibrator play) is hard to put down and easy to return to. Ruhl admits early on, in between multiple interruptions from her hungry son, that she is unsure how to be a writer and mother of four, though she has little choice to give either up. The essays’ brief, epigrammatic forms capture this reality, while at the same time providing moving and honest insights into both worlds. Ruhl has some strong opinions about the proliferation of subtext and Aristotelian plots in American theater, and the challenges she lays out are clear invitations for a different kind of work. For instance, in answer to why we so often see mothers from their children’s perspective rather than their own, she writes: “The obvious explanation is that we don’t have many playwrights who have been mothers. The more creepy explanation is that . . . the experience is tellable, but no one wants to see it.” Ruhl’s writing is most resonant when she telescopes from an actual moment as a mother to greater reflections on the performance arts. Her daughter, watching the dance of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, wonders, “Mom, how can so many people move exactly at the same time?”  Ruhl answers, “They practice,” but then muses to herself: “Thousands of people moving at the same time, in vaguely martial fashion, could mean: We could kill you if we wanted to. But instead we are moving our arms and legs at the same time to express joy, friendliness, grace.” If the best essays render candor, vulnerability, idiosyncrasy, and truth, almost leading to what might otherwise, spoken, be a friendship, these can be counted among them.  — Paul Bindel

In her phenomenal treatise Pro, Katha Pollitt calls for a radical readjustment in how pro-choicers talk about abortion: Stop describing abortion as an unfortunate but necessary evil, and instead reframe the debate, casting abortion as a vital element of reproductive choice that empowers women to control their own destinies. Pollitt makes a series of intriguing arguments, retelling abortion’s history, detailing the absurdity (and hypocrisy) of “personhood” laws, considering the likely outcomes—horrifying, petty, or surreal—of making abortion illegal, and highlighting how much anti-abortion measures are designed to limit and control women (and not to actually protect children). My one critique of Pollitt’s approach is that she ignores the experience of women who do feel conflicted about their abortions. But she ultimately lays out an expansive argument in defense of those most hurt by restrictive abortion laws—poor women and women of color—and makes an empowering, unapologetic rallying cry for the feminism inherent in abortion rights. — Sarah S.

Related links:

Hit the Books: The Best Feminist Reads of 2014

Not That Kind of Review: Lena Dunham’s Uneven First Book

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