March is Women’s History Month and the National Women’s History Project decided on the theme: Women of Character, Courage and Commitment. As I ponder the contributions of both noted and everyday women, I can’t help but reflect on the changes I’ve witnessed in just my lifetime. From my grandmothers who worked as seamstresses in fashion houses in NYC, to my mother, a stay-at-home mom to whom college was never an option, even though she rose to be valedictorian of her class. The Women’s Movement has had a huge effect on society and particularly on me. This sometimes caused my mother and I to be at odds, as she felt I was selfish choosing a career over family. Eventually she came to see that it was possible to do both and admitted her regrets over never having been afforded the same opportunities as I.
So this month we share books that reveal the power of women, be it in the kitchen, the bedroom, the boardroom, or the battlefield. Hail to our strength, our sensitivity, passion, and compassion. Right on, sisters!
Caryn’s Pick: STILL LIFE WITH BREAD CRUMBS by Anna Quindlen
New York Times bestselling author, Anna Quindlen recently released her newest novel, Still Life with Bread Crumbs. I’ve never read her and picked this up for two reasons: 1) I needed to leave the YA world for a bit and remind myself what writers of grown-up books were doing these days, and 2) the book critic on the Today Show recommended it with exceptional enthusiasm.
It’s the story of sixty-year-old Rebecca, once a renowned photographer, who’s come upon hard times. She leases out her upscale New York apartment and flees the city for a little ramshackle of a cabin in some small town in the middle of no where. There she discovers her true self, along with a tree stand and a roofer named Jim Bates.
Reading the reviews I ascertained that Ms. Quindlen is a star in the world of something call domestic fiction. Not sure domestic fiction tickles my fancy all that much. But it is well written and if you like a story with the message that it’s never too late to embrace life’s second chances, then this is for you. And in the spirit of this month’s theme, her protagonist suffers from many of the plights that keep women from becoming the best version of themselves.
It’s a quiet story, easy, introspective, sometimes redundant when it comes to the ex-husband, and very slow on action. Many called it a superb love story, but honestly, by my definition it was pretty tame, even boring. The Today Show reviewer highlighted how Rebecca remarks after the love scene that sex is like cake, and for the first time in her life, she was the cake.
The writing is poetic at times, which I found enchanting, but I didn’t find that I was emotionally invested in the characters. Although, I’d have to agree with one reviewer who likened Still Life with Bread Crumbs to a cup of hot tea on a cold day. If that’s what you enjoy then do partake. I liked it, but it really wasn’t my cup of tea.
Heather’s Pick: CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein
This book fits the theme “Women of Character, Courage and Commitment” to an absolute tee. It’s about two young women in World War II – one a pilot, the other a spy. Why did not one of my history teachers teach me about how women were involved in the war? Besides mentioning that they worked factory jobs while the men were fighting? I had no idea women flew planes and were spies! Though not a true story, this novel is based on factual history that is deftly explained (but not over-explained) in the book. Eye-opening history lesson aside, this novel is one of the most brilliant I’ve read in years. It has my three favorite things in a story: 1) mystery, 2) oh-my-god-what’s-going-to-happen suspense, and 3) female friendship. That third one is often forgotten in YA in favor of a romance, but in CODE NAME VERITY the most significant and powerful relationship in the book is the tight friendship between two young women. Their commitment to each other and the courage they display throughout this story is astounding. I can’t think of a more fitting book to read for Women’s History Month.
Jenn’s Pick: WOMEN WHO RUN WITH THE WOLVES BY Clarissa Pinkola Estés.
Women of Character, Courage and Commitment come into their own in WOMEN WHO RUN WITH THE WOLVES by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. This is a lyrical collection of myths, legends, fairy tales and commentary that celebrate the archetypal Wild Woman, an endangered aspect of ourselves that society has subverted and repressed. The Wild Woman, like the wolf, has been systematically misunderstood and preyed upon, despite her fierce loyalty and devotion to tribe, mate and cubs, her playful and affectionate nature and affinity with the earth. The wolf is metaphorical, (in some instances literal), representing the intuitive woman, filled with energy and wisdom rooted in natural instinct. Estés, a Jungian psychoanalyst, sets out to inspire contemporary women in our search for the authentic self, part of each of us that longs to reconnect with freedom and the wild. THE BONE WOMAN, for example, scavenges for and assembles wolf bones, which she keeps in a cave with the bones of other creatures. When the skeleton is complete, she sings to it until the sound of her voice adds flesh and fur. The wolf begins to run, and in the running, is transformed into a woman. Estés likens this to the work we need to do to recover and integrate all the parts of ourselves that are scattered and sometimes hidden in far corners of unforgiving landscapes. Other stories such as BLUEBEARD, THE UGLY DUCKLING, THE HANDLESS MAIDEN, and lots more, connect to different facets of character and soul: creativity, spirituality, emotion, and sexuality. Estés believes strongly in the power of storytelling, and her observations shed inspirational light on the essence of female experience: our relationships and notions of self. I’m a sucker for myths and fairy tales, but this is not a book to read in one sitting. Its value lies in picking it up from time to time for a spurt of creative energy, maybe a booster shot of intuition or insight. I keep it on my bedside table for those times when I forget how to be fierce.
Robin’s Pick: MARY REILLY by Valerie Martin
Although not an overly long book, just 256 pages, this is a slow read, well suited to a long winter night in a comfortable chair. This is the story of Mary, a maid working in the home of Dr. Jekyll. Yes, that Dr. Jekyll. It’s told exclusively with Mary’s journal entries, and features a large amount of detail on her daily workload. Washing floors, beating rugs, and polishing the silver. Mary is a quiet respectable girl of good character, born into a poor family, with an abusive father. Mary has no aspirations of moving up in life, or in finding a husband. She relishes her position in the Master’s house where she feels safe and enjoys a pleasant relationship with the other servants, if no close bonds. The book opens with the Master (Jekyll) showing an interest in Mary’s scars, (her father’s doing) and in her ability to read and write. He’s stunned to find a housemaid of her rare intellect and Mary, who seems a sad character, quickly becomes obsessed with her Master. The situation ignites an adolescent fantasy on Mary’s part, and she cast herself as Jekyll’s protector, especially against the disagreeable nature of his alter ego, his “assistant” Mr. Hyde.
What the book does well is complement the original story, so unless you’re well versed in that book you may miss the nuances. It also strikes a nice prose balance, we have enough of the archaic language for ambiance, but it’s still easily readable. The setting is evocative of the era, lots of fog shrouded streets, and the desperate discomforts of the poor and the working class. I like that the book never tries to repaint the era in a rose-colored glow. I think if you’re a fan of deep first person internal narratives and of period literature you will enjoy this thought provoking retelling of the Jekyll and Hyde story from a female perspective.