Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Eight Great Books - by Women!

Once again, I got emails - of a far less welcome kind this time, but book-bloggers can't be choosers. Many of you wrote in response to my recent "Eight Great Books" post not to share my enthusiasm or to discuss my choices but rather to point out that the eight novels I picked were all written by men. My very first internal response to this was "Yes? So what? It's possible they were all written by right-handers or blue-eyes too." My second internal response was "No really - so what? I was rhapsodizing about how much the books in question moved and delighted me - it never occurred to me to check who was going to which bathroom."

It shouldn't have occurred to me, and it shouldn't have occurred to any of you either. It reminds me of all the worst reasons why I left academia.

I dislike almost everything about this kind of non-issue. I dislike the insinuations that can't help but come along with pointing out that everybody on my first list is a man - the foremost such insinuation being, of course, that I intentionally planned it that way and was hoping nobody would notice, the insinuation of wrongdoing. I dislike the reductivism of it all, the sense that readers today aren't actually reading anything anymore but rather just checking off boxes and prepping their outrages for when they find trumped-up reason to pounce. Of course personally I dislike the inattention of it all - a casual glance at Stevereads over the years reveals absolutely no gender-bias (and, on a not-unconnected point, a casual glance at the books I've personally given to many of you reveals no such imbalance either). In short, the implicit accusation/complaint isn't valid.

It prompts what I think is a natural - though entirely wrong - response on my part, which is to defend myself. To point out how many female authors I've championed over the years, to marshal a barrage of links back to the appropriate Stevereads postings, and maybe links elsewhere as well. But not only is that impulse entirely wrong, but it's deeply unpleasant to feel, even for a moment, even long enough to call it wrong. Just like it would be deeply unpleasant for, say, the female readers making this point to go back over their last year's reading and count up how much of it was by black people, or gay people. The instinctive response to go  back and count up is irritating because it's already complicit, even when no guilt can be assigned.

Still, I did say I disliked 'almost' everything about such a non-issue, right? There is, in fact, one part of it I like: it gives me a reason to concoct another book-list, and that's fine by me (I also, as some of you were canny enough to point out, can't resist a challenge). So here are eight really, really good modern novels written by women, even though that attribution is entirely irrelevant!

When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant (2000)

Grant's harsh and luminous novel about postwar British-administered Palestine stars strong-willed and intensely memorable Evelyn Sert, who opens things as forthrightly as she carries the whole book:
Scratch a Jew and you've got a story. If you don't like elaborate picaresques full of unlikely events and torturous explanations, steer clear of the Jews. If you want things to be straightforward, find someone else to listen to. You might even get to say something yourself. How do we begin a sentence? "Listen ..."

Twenty-year-old Evelyn journeys to the hot, mesmerizing international city of Tel Aviv (wonderfully evoked in these pages) and there finds every aspect of her relatively pampered and privileged life challenged by the no-nonsense women (and one sensuous but deceitful man) who are working to get a nation born:
I told her my Hebrew wasn't that good.

"Fine," she said. "I speak six languages. Pick one."

"English is all I know fluently."

"Then you are a fool."

When I Lived in Modern Times confounded a number of critics when it first appeared, and even now it holds the power to confuse in almost equal measure as it pleases. An apolitical novel about politics? A coming-of-age novel that seems at times almost disinterested in its heroine? And yet, re-reading it in 2011, I found it every bit as sharp and interesting as it was when it first appeared.

A Mercy by Toni Morrison (2008)

I haven't been a big fan of Morrison's writing over the years, usually finding it deceitfully arch and faux-oracular (whenever some young person tells me Beloved is their favorite novel, I always want to advise them to get out of the house more often). But this slim, almost mythic novella of a wild and disconsolate 17th century America reads like one long prose poem. At its heart is the question of ownership in the free world, and one of its main characters, Jacob Vaark, embodies all the contradictions of that question - he has slaves, servants, a mail-order bride, and is himself owned by his vanities. Morrison sets up the happy beginning of his married life to Rebekka so deftly you know it's all going to unravel horribly:

They settled into the long learning of one another; preferences, habits altered, others acquired; disagreement without bile; trust and that wordless conversation that years of companionship rest on. The weak religious tendencies that riled Rebekka's mother were of no interest to him. He was indifferent having himself withstood all pressure to join the village congregation but content to let her be persuaded if she chose. After some initial visits and Rebekka choosing not to continue, his satisfaction was plain. They leaned on each other root and crown. Needing no one outside their sufficiency. Or so they believed.

Morrison's handling of her human characters can be as arch and unconvincing as always, but there's a guiding spirit moving powerfully through this skinny book, elevating it from her usual stuff and repaying multiple re-readings.

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin (1971)

This novel also features prominently on every 'Top 50 Sci-Fi/Fantasy Novels of All Time' list I've made since it was first published (all the other 49 are by men, of course), and like most of the best Sci-Fi and Fantasy, it can be read and enjoyed by strangers to the genre. It's the story of George Orr, a hapless citizen of the near future who seeks medical help for all the disturbing dreams he's having. Unfortunately for him, he goes to Doctor Haber, a budding megalomaniac, who quickly realizes the unbelievable: George Orr's dreams change reality itself. Haber of course wants to harness this power - first to get George to 'fix' everything that's wrong with the world, and then eventually to simply transfer the power to himself, so he's no longer limited by this well-intentioned milquetoast. And passive George is more than happy to let him shoulder the burden, although with a warning:
"Everything dreams. The play of form, of being, is the dreaming of substance. Rocks have their dreams, and the earth changes ... But when the mind becomes conscious, when the rate of evolution speeds up, then you have to be careful. Careful of the world. You must learn the way. The must learn the skills, the art, the limits. A conscious mind must be part of the whole, intentionally and carefully - as the rock is part of the whole unconsciously. Do you see? Does it mean anything to you?"

Haber doesn't see, and in true Frankensteinian fashion, his power goes horribly awry - and reveals a layer to the book which Le Guin prepares carefully but which will still catch the reader deliciously off-guard. This author is a legend for other works - her beloved "Earthsea" series, and her two landmark science fiction novels, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, but this is her best book, as tense and elegant as a modern myth.

A Much Younger Man by Dianne Highbridge (1998)

This beautiful, wise novel has been a source of frequent irritation to me since the moment it was published, and the reason is the only thing it shares in common with the great World War Z: it's virtually impossible to force people's minds to remain open long enough to recommend it. I plugged World War Z way back at the very beginning of Stevereads, and I'm plugging Highbridge's book now, for all the good it'll do me - those of you who haven't already dismissed it because of its cover will certainly read no further than knowing that the book's plot is summarized in its title: mid-30s school teacher Aly falls in love with Tom, the teenage son of her best friend. There: the world faces a zombie plague. Sigh. Highbridge takes this very simple premise and treats it in a manner, as one critic put it at the time, "openly sexual but without a hint of lewdness or smirking." Aly falls in love with Tom (and he very much with her) despite every caution sounding in her right from the beginning:
"Did you wonder why I didn't play [his lute, for company] the other night?"

"No. I just assumed you didn't feel like it."

"I didn't. Not like that, on show." Then he says, with the barest pause: "I would've played for you."

A small alarm bell rings somewhere in her head. She looks quickly at him, half-afraid to see the tell-tale intensity of an incipient crush in his eyes. Not really a problem if so, but better if not. He's looking straight back at her. His eyes aren't almost blue, as she thought, they're grey and completely guileless. Somehow this is not reassuring. "I'd like to hear you some day, but I don't know much about that kind of music," she says.

"You don't have to. You'll see."

And Highbridge unfolds it all with a deeply respectful intelligence. The result is one of the most honestly affecting novels of love and society that you're likely to read in a full year - but Heaven and Earth couldn't move you to try it, because you're still staring at that cover. Sigh.

Told By An Idiot by Rose Macaulay (1923)

Macaulay is unknown today except for her quirky The Towers of Trebizond (those NYRB people again!), and I myself treasure her Personal Pleasures as I treasure few other books of occasional essays, but this book is her masterpiece, and it's a mystery to me why Told by an Idiot isn't both recognized as a masterpiece and taught as one (I can only assume it's because made the tactical mistake of being a woman). It's the story of the unforgettable Garden family - the clergyman father, his saintly wife, their vibrant, incredibly diverse children, whose stories unfold over decades and are chronicled by their sister Rome, the ultimate family-observer, who first goes through her own heartbreak, when the man she loves confesses that he's already married and gets a typically Garden-family rejection:
"Rome, you can't do it. Don't you know, now you're in my arms, that you can't, that it would be to deny the best in us?"

"What's the best, what's the worst? I don't know, and nor do you. I'm not an ethicist. All I know is that your wife, while she wants you, or thinks she wants you, has first claim ... It's a question of fairness and decent feeling ... or bring it down, if you like, to a question of taste. Perhaps that is the only basis there really is for decisions of this sort for people like us."

"Taste! That's a fine cry to mess up two lives by. I'd almost rather you were religious, and talked of the will of God. One could respect that, at least."

"I can't do that, as I happen not to be sure whether God exists. And it would make nothing simpler, really, since one would then have to discover what one believed the will of God to be. Don't do religious people the injustice of believing that anything is simpler or easier for them; it's more difficult, since life is more exacting ... But it comes to the same thing; all these processes of thought lead to the same result if applied by the same mind. It depends on the individual outlook. And this is mine ... Oh, don't make it so damnably difficult for us both, my dearest ..."

Miss Garden, who never swore and never wept, here collapsed into tears, all her urbane breeding broken at last. He consoled her so tenderly, so pitifully, so mournfully, that she wept the more for love of him.

The Virago Press reprinted this great book in the 1980s twice - once with a hideous cover and once with a good cover. I'd take a plain brown wrapper, if I could see it reprinted today.

Brightness Falls From the Air by James Tiptree (1985)

No, I'm not losing my nerve and desperately trying to work in a hated man onto our list! James Tiptree is of course the pen-name used by the late Alice Sheldon to write some of the best science fiction of the 20th century. Her novel Up the Walls of the World is a tour de force, and her short stories (such gems as "The Women Men Don't See" and "The Girl Who Was Plugged In," and "Painwise") likewise superb, but this novel - the last one she wrote before she killed her husband and herself - burns with a genius all its own, a genius I was at first slow to grant. The book tells the story of the planet Damien, where years ago the beautiful native species was horrifically tortured to produce a wildly valuable substance called Star Tears. In the present, a mixed group of tourists comes to visit the planet and threatens to re-awaken the tragedies of the past, since, as we're told, the darkness that bred those tragedies never went away:
"All over this Galaxy, for as long as you live, there will be big crooks and little crooks and lonesome weirdos, Human and otherwise, dreaming up ways to get their hands on Star Tears stuff. Too abhorrent? Don't you believe it. On the Black Worlds there are Human beasts who salivate over the prospect of torturing children. And passing in any crowd are secret people whose hidden response to beauty is the desire to tear it into bleeding meat."

This dark and almost hopeless note is struck throughout this novel (horrible to think of the suffering Tiptree must have been enduring herself, to tap into all this and then put it down so cleanly on the page), and yet, impossibly, hope looks to prevail. Even if you think you don't like science fiction (and surely you don't think that, right? Wouldn't want to be discriminatory, would we?), you'll like this book, one of the late classics of the genre.

The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt (2000)

Those of you who've known me personally for a while might recall that I've been fervently recommending this book for over a decade, despite the fact that I'm a well-known Internet misogynist; even before The Last Samurai achieved its current mind-boggling and entirely deserved status as both a cult classic (this is one of those books that makes you feel like it was written for you, personally) and a literary landmark, I was telling any open-minded reader I could find that this was a literary landmark destined to be a cult classic. It's one of the most dazzling literary debuts since This Side of Paradise - indeed, it raised the bar for dazzling literary debuts so high most first-time novelists can't stand to look at it. It's the story of a harried, hopeful young single mother named Sibylla and her odd, prodigiously gifted son Ludo, a monster autodidact whose intellectual appetites quickly outstrip even his mother's high expectations:
Early March, winter nearly over. Ludo still following scheme I do not understand: found him reading Metamorphoses the other day though he is only up to Odyssey 22. Seems to have slowed down on Odyssey, has only been reading 100 lines or so a day for the past few weeks. Too tired to think of new places to go, where is there besides National Gallery National Portrait Gallery Tate Whitechapel British Museum Wallace Collection that is free? Financially in fairly good position as have typed Advanced Angling 1969 - present, Mother and Child 1952-present, Horn & Hound 1920-1976, and am now making good progress with The Poodle Breeder, 1924-1982. Have made virtually no progress with Japanese.

The irony threaded through even that brief passage (with the texts Sibylla is typing for money silently commenting on her efforts to raise Ludo on her own) is choice, and it's on display throughout the whole of this novel, which delights and surprises and ultimately moves with its strangeness and stanzas of staggering virtuosity. If Open Letters Monthly had been around in 2000, this is exactly the kind of book I'd have hoped Sam Sacks or John Cotter would decide to review.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009)

If this last title seems familiar, it should: not only did I give it rapturous praise over at Open Letters Monthly, but I was the very first person anywhere in the world to pronounce it brilliant, long before its publication, long before it won its shelf of awards: when two bits of it were excerpted in the Penny Press, I confidently predicted it might well end up being the best Tudor novel ever written - and I did all that despite the fact that its author is a woman!

Very few of the novel's characters are - this is mostly a man's book (with the very notable exception of the odious Anne Boleyn), featuring one of the most brutishly masculine main characters in recent fiction: Thomas Cromwell, the mysterious street lawyer Henry VIII came more and more to rely upon to do his dirty work, a character virtually all Tudor fictionizers have almost automatically chosen to portray as a plain-and-simple villain. In Wolf Hall, we don't think of Cromwell that way, even though he's ruthless and dangerous. We see him being underestimated by every grandee in the land (except for one devastatingly sharp moment with the king, where Cromwell learns the unpleasant lesson that having a Tudor estimate you accurately is most definitely NOT a pleasant experience), even when, as with the old Duke of Norfolk, they know they're underestimating him while they do it:
"I spoke to the king for you and he is also content. You will take his instructions in the Commons. And mine."

"Will they be the same, my lord?"

The duke scowls. He paces; he rattles a little; at last he bursts out, "Damn it all, Cromwell, why are you such a ... person? It isn't as if you could afford to be."

He waits, smiling. He knows what the duke means. He is a person, he is a presence. He knows how to edge blackly into a room so that you don't see him; but perhaps those days are over.

"Smile away," says the duke. "Wolsey's household is a nest of vipers. Not that ..." he touches a medal, flinching. "God forbid I should ..."

Compare a prince of the church to a serpent. The duke wants the cardinal's money, and he wants the cardinal's place at the king's side: but then again, he doesn't want to burn in Hell. He walks across the room; he slaps his hands together; he rubs them; he turns. "The king is preparing to quarrel with you, master. Oh yes. He will favor you with an interview because he wishes to understand the cardinal's affairs, but he has, you will learn, a very long and exact memory, and what he remembers, master, is when you were a burgess of the Parliament before this, and how you spoke against his war."

"I hope he doesn't think still of invading France."

"God damn you! What Englishman does not! We own France. We have to take back our own." A muscle in his cheek jumps; he paces, agitated; he turns, he rubs his cheek; the twitch stops, and he says, in a voice perfectly matter-of-fact, "Mind you, you're right."

Like many people in this splendid, bottomlessly re-readable novel, Norfolk finds himself casting around searching for a reason to validate the visceral dislike he feels for Cromwell. In this case, the duke (whose spindly body Cromwell has already taken in with a glance) pounces on Cromwell's admission that he himself had once been a soldier:
"I was a soldier myself."

"Were you so? Not in any English army, I'll be bound. There, you see." The duke grins, quite without animosity. "I knew there was something about you. I knew I didn't like you, but I couldn't put my finger on it. Where were you?"



"The French."

The duke whistles. "Wrong side, lad."

"So I noticed."

The fast-paced bounce of this dialogue is maintained throughout the book, which is similar to The Lathe of Heaven in being a genre-buster, something you can hand to even the most adamantly anti-historical fiction reader, confident that the book will hook them. I've never known it to fail, which certainly hasn't been the case with any of Mantel's earlier books. This one is a bolt from the sky, it's so good.

And there you have it! Eight great novels - by women! The cosmic scales of justice are re-balanced, although how they could ever have been un-balanced I don't know. After all, the field of fiction is almost thoroughly dominated by women. Against our paltry Tolstoy, Thackeray, and Fielding, women have a dozen giants right off the tip of the bat - a preponderance so great it's only become seriously endangered since the late 20th century, when the proliferation of make-weight MFA programs with delusions of cultural oppression began graduating legions of utterly talentless female degree holders, thus muddying the waters almost opaque for genuinely promising young women like Tea Obreht.

But that's a worry for another day - for right now, the universe is restored to order, and with luck Stevereads is restored to the good graces of all those of you who wrote in giving me dirty looks! I whole-heartedly recommend each of these woman-authored books, and I could easily double the length of this post with additional names, many of whom I've also praised on Stevereads in their own right over the years. So now perhaps the issue of my raging misogyny can be tabled, and I can return my attention to higher literary matters ...


Rohan Maitzen said...

1. The guy has a freakishly thick neck, or else a freakishly small head. Just sayin'.

2. I really must read The Last Samurai. (I do have it, so that's a start, but for no particular reason it's one of those books I keep intending to read "next" but never actually picking up to read.)

Phil Christman said...

indeed, it [The Last Samurai] raised the bar for dazzling literary debuts so high most first-time novelists can’t stand to look at it.

Boy, is that ever the case.

Man Condemned to Write a First Novel That is Not THE LAST SAMURAI

Steve Donoghue said...

Rohan: I can only deduce, from the fact that you've never read "The Last Samurai," that you are a full-blown and life-long sexist. For shame!

Steve Donoghue said...

Paul: Don't despair! I have complete and unwavering faith in you!

Rohan Maitzen said...

Your logic is as impeccable as your taste in pin-ups!

Greg said...

He is an odd-looking fella. Does he grate cheese with that hair?