The Lives of Girls and Women
In December 2014 I found myself thinking about the books I’d been reading recently. I wasn’t satisfied with how much I’d read that year, and it felt like I’d only encountered one or two books that were worth a damn.
I realized that the vast majority of books I read were written by men, and that almost all of the books I’d loved in the previous two years had been written by women.
I had no idea why that was the case, but it gave me an idea:
I would spend 2015 exclusively reading books written by women.
Also, for the first time, I decided to keep track of the books I read, as well as some brief thoughts about them. I did this in order to better understand my reactions, as well as ensure I was reading a decent variety of books.
Here are the books I ended up reading in 2015:
Boy Snow Bird (Helen Oyeyemi)
Could very well end up being one of my favourite books. No-one should be this talented.
The Accidental (Ali Smith)
Smith is apparently one of Oyeyemi’s favourite authors. Alienating, bizarrely formatted, yet ultimately satisfying.
Yes Please (Amy Poehler)
I didn’t expect to like this as much as I did. Disorganized- maybe idiosyncratic is a better word?- but perceptive, thoughtful, and humanistic.
Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel)
Deeply moving, absorbing, beautifully written, and soulful. I read it in three days.
Postscript: It has literally haunted my dreams; I’ve had two related dreams in the month since I finished reading it.
Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted (Jennifer Keishin Armstrong)
Satisfying and informative. I appreciated the necessary feminist angle. My only complaint is the sometimes muddled chronology.
This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Ann Patchett)
Wise, profound, enjoyable. Because it was a collection of essays, I frequently lost momentum while reading it, even though I liked it so much. There’s a lot of good advice here.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (J.K. Rowling)
Still has a lot of impact. It’s interesting: in terms of storytelling, characterization and narrative, Rowling has an unparalleled gift. But in terms of actual writing ability she has several noticeable, wearying gaps. Her flagrant use of adverbs is particularly obnoxious. But God, it’s readable. The pages fly by.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (J.K. Rowling)
I read this in about a week. I read 250 pages in one day. Compulsively unputdownable, even though I’d read it at least three times before.
Too Much Happiness (Alice Munro)
Took a long time to read, but I was reading it off and on. Started December 2013. The stories were all excellent- except the last one, which I didn’t finish- but there was no momentum to keep going, which is why it took so long.
What Was Lost (Catherine O’Flynn)
I read it in three days. Melancholy and thoughtful. It should’ve ended sooner than it did; O’Flynn felt the unnecessary need to spell everything out.
The Age of Miracles (Karen Thompson Walker)
Beautiful, dreamy, sad but not depressing. Surprisingly enjoyable for an apocalyptic novel. I loved the focus on feelings and characters.
Vincent (Barbara Stok)
Lyrical, brief graphic novel. A pleasure to read. I finished it in only an hour or so.
The Impostor’s Daughter (Laurie Sandell)
Compulsively readable, entertaining. The sketchy, childlike drawings took some getting used to, but I understand why she did that.
The Icarus Girl (Helen Oyeyemi)
The ending is confusing, but most of the book is very good- entertaining, strange, and a page-turner. There are definitely some moments that are incoherent though, and these moments increase toward the end. I’m not quite sure what Oyeyemi was going for, but most of the time it didn’t matter, and I understood enough to enjoy it.
Tomboy (Liz Prince)
A satisfying, easy read. It started off pretty simplistic, but evolved into something much more interesting and nuanced.
Lucky (Gabrielle Bell)
Usually it would only take me two or three days to finish a graphic novel, but this took me almost a week. I always enjoyed it while I read it, but there was no flow. There wasn’t supposed to be; it’s a series of vignettes. It reminded me of Kochalka’s work, actually, but in his work all the little details and insignificant things gain cumulative power and become profound. That’s a hard thing to do, and Bell doesn’t manage.
A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L’Engle)
Loopy as hell, imaginative, not quite like anything else I’ve read. Really delightful, surprisingly progressive, and so weird. I read most of it on the train from Ottawa to Toronto.
I was pleased with the amount and quality of books I read in 2015. Usually in a given year I might find one or two books that really blow me away, but last year I discovered four: Boy Snow Bird, Station Eleven, The Age of Miracles, and A Wrinkle in Time.
I hypothesized at the beginning of 2015 that reading books exclusively written by women would provide me with some kind of epiphany.
About halfway through the year I realized that I had not yet come across a poorly written female character. That was something I’d gotten used to, because a lot of male writers use female characters as tools to move the plot forward, or to get a male character where he needs to be. These women don’t seem to be characters in their own right.
It happens so often that I stopped noticing it until- all of a sudden- these mechanical women were gone, replaced by female characters who were fully-realized and complicated.
It might not be surprising that women write women well, but the authors I read were equally adept at writing fleshed-out male characters.
This led me to wonder whether women are better writers than men, or at least whether they have some kind of advantage.
I think it comes down to how women and men are socialized. Girls are taught from an early age to be sensitive, emotionally aware, empathetic, and to make other people happy. Boys are taught to just do whatever the hell they want, and don’t worry, they’ll be great at it.
All the garbage that girls are brainwashed into believing- everything they’re taught that’s meant to hold them down- has accidentally equipped them with all the tools they need to be gifted writers.
Boys are given the keys to the kingdom, and then hobbled.
A mixed blessing, I suppose, and unfair to everyone.
Unfortunately, while I’m accustomed to spending a lot of time thinking about gender, I tend to be much more oblivious about race. The authors I read were all white, with the exception of Oyeyemi. That wasn’t something I did deliberately, and in the last few months of the year I made an effort to seek out writers of colour.
But that was during a time in which I wasn’t reading as much- I was too busy, too tired- so the year ended up being disappointingly white.
I decided to correct that this year by expanding my project outward. Right now I’m reading books written by everyone except white men.
I still find myself reading mostly female writers; I think something shifted permanently in my brain last year. I tried to read a collection of stories by Haruki Murakami and quickly encountered that rusty dynamic of female characters designed explicitly for men to react to. I had better luck with a collection of short stories by Sherman Alexie. In one of his short stories he eloquently wrote about how white people treat indigenous people as stereotypes or archetypes rather than fully-formed individuals. Alexie seems to view gender through the same lens. I suspect his compassion toward women has been influenced or deepened by his experiences being racially marginalized. I’m curious to see whether this is a trend among racialized male writers.
I haven’t encountered anything as astonishingly good as the best of what I read last year, but I have a long list of books I’m interested in reading, and high hopes for the remaining seven months. I’m looking forward to seeing where this leads me.