Books, Thoughts

Off the Shelf: Native Tongue

Native TongueNative Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A dystopia where women are legally inferior to men & the formally educated are useful scapegoats that advance Earth’s territory as interpretors & bargainers. Native Tongue follows the various women of “The Lines” as they attempt to navigate a society that devalues them but still relies heavily on their fertility & their usefulness as housekeepers.

Originally published in the 80s, this book is definitely a sci-fi classic worth revisiting. Not only is the world-building captivating, many of the class & gender fears Haden Elgin outlines are still worryingly real. While the story is not as severe as something like The Handmaid’s Tale, there are plenty of unexpected dark & sad moments. For example, something as innocuous as a crush becomes a lesson in verbal humiliation & degradation. Definitely worth picking up if you come across it.

P.S.: This is totally associative, but the last scene of the book reminds me of the chorus to Matthew Good’s “Fated.

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Books, Thoughts

Off the Shelf: Refuge

Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and PlaceRefuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sometimes there seems to be a certain magic in how a book comes to you. While I was reading Williams’s words on land use, transformation, & the bonds between land & families, the armed standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Preserve (a site mentioned briefly in the book) played out, giving the conflict in Refuge a new urgency as I read it. Williams’s story: the Great Salt Lake is rising, threatening man-made development & forcing the birds of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge to seek out other nesting sites. Paralleling the conflict between nature & man is the insidious blight of cancer slowly affecting the women in Williams’s family & community. The book focuses on her efforts to navigate these crumbling environments in search of hope & regeneration.

While I do feel that this book came to me at a charmed moment, I do wonder if I should have read this before When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice. While Birds was certainly strong enough to stand on its own, Refuge felt like the missing piece that was eluding me when I read the previous book. I also mentioned that the standoff at Malheur lent a certain angle to my reading–I also think that I would not have synced up so well with Williams’s environmental concerns if I had not been more aware of Virginia’s own wetlands endangered by the rising sea & the efforts of the waterside community to negotiate with the changing conditions. I don’t mention this to suggest that readers must have some prerequisite interest in environmental activism. I’m just trying to convey the sort of awareness & wakefulness that Williams’s writing inspire in me as a reader. Her attempts to encompass multiple levels of experience & seek out the connections in direct, honest way keeps me coming back to her work.

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Off the Shelf: Into the Forest

Into the ForestInto the Forest by Jean Hegland

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Eva & Nell are two sisters trying to survive in their moldering house in the Northern California woods after a series of apocalyptic events. Civilization has collapsed due to epidemics, resource shortages, territorial conflicts & a lack of leadership. Both their parents are dead and together the two sisters try to relearn the basics of survival from the ruins of their former modern conveniences. After many disagreements & reconciliations on how best to continue living, they leave behind their home & embrace a new life living in the forest. Think No Book but the World crossed with Island of the Blue Dolphins.

I picked this book up along with Daughters of the North & compared to the other novel, this story has some more spark to it. The sisters’ relationship is given primary focus & the outside characters they meet put the changing dynamic between the two in well-defined contrast. The story also takes the Rousseau-ean idea that the world teaches us what we need to know to a specific conclusion. (Or at least when we have plenty of reference books to replace the natural history of previous generations who lived in concert with the land.)

While there are apocalyptic elements to Hegland’s story I suspect she had a specific goal of reaching a hopeful future through feminine nurturing. On one hand, I appreciate seeing the story move from dytopia to utopia & the approach is an interesting contrast to something like The Road. But on the other hand, the threat of the outside world & how its various social problems might disrupt the sisters’ isolation is often vague and not an effective factor.

In general, “Forest” is elegaic but becomes predictable–there is so much emphasis on separation & reconciliation that it soon became clear that any problem between the sisters would be fixed, lowering the stakes. While there are problems that the sisters must overcome, like food shortage, by the halfway point of the novel there are never any true fatal consequences as the pair try to puzzle out their solutions. A fair read & a nice enough work of speculative fiction, but not something that readers must immediately pick up.

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Off the Shelf: Daughters of the North

Daughters of the NorthDaughters of the North by Sarah Hall

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

2.5 instead of 3. An unnamed woman recounts her journey from the post-apocalyptic British town of Rith to the isolated, Female-dominated farm of Carhullan. “Sister” first seeks shelter & occupation, hoping that her country life will be more fulfilling than her proscribed existence of town wife & quasi-public property. But she soon becomes a devoted follower of Jackie, the head of Carhullan, who is conflicted about the continued purpose of the farm: self-sufficient female utopiaor haven for Amazons & rebels. Sides are chosen & soon Jackie prepares her supporters to advance on the towns.

A competently written story that lacks heart. While Sister’s story is grim & reaches 1984-levels of poverty & despair, neither my sympathy nor my emotional investment were caught by her tale. Her recounting is more of a rote summary than a heartfelt expression & I think this is where the presentation of the narrative is in conflict with its actual story. This is the supposed transcript of a police statement given by a woman whose been instructed to stay “on message” by her leader.

Important events like the disintegration of order on the farm lacks impact because the stakes aren’t entirely clear. Readers will understand the point that Hall is trying to make about the similarities between Sister’s life in Rith & Jackie’s increased dictatorship at Carhullan. But Jackie’s arguments to engage first & not wait for government intervention hangs together and it’s difficult to support any doubt because of the large number of unknown variables. The women’s “training through torture” doesn’t seem at all silly when there are plenty of real & fictional stories that would indicate that their “enemies” would treat them in such a cruel fashion just because human order has degraded to such a state. There are no strong viewpoints outside of Jackie’s & Sister does seem to have much investment in others. This lack of knowing what the real threat is ends up extending to readers as well.

Overall, a fair read but not as compelling as it could be. Might pair as an interesting companion to another dystopic book.

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Books, Thoughts

Off the Shelf: When Women Were Birds

When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on VoiceWhen Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A powerful, restrained series of essays on finding and articulating one’s voice. The topics cover a number of intensely personal experiences in Williams’s adult life: uncovering the meaning of her mother’s blank journals found after her death, Williams’s experiences as a teacher and activist, & her struggles to reconcile her life’s choices with what is expected of her. Despite the individual nature of these events, Williams is focused on what all good writers try to define, which is how to survive and prosper amid the messy circumstances of life.

Much of what I could cobble together of a plot summary would come more in the form of a list but would not convey the power of Williams’s writing or the depth of her thoughts. Or perhaps I simply use this as an excuse not to discuss how much this book moved me. Williams’s ability to make substantive connections between her perspective and the environment that has shaped it is poignant and something special to be experienced by readers. As an aspiring writer myself, this book is now among those I venerate with prose that is vital, aware and knowledgeable of it’s own borders. Recommended to all nonfiction writers as well as readers interested in meditations on aging, living an unconventional life, or women’s activism.

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