The Vanishers is four-time novelist and Believer founding editor Heidi Julavits's new work, and it has a really, really bright cover. It's a good book, for the most part, and an interesting book, and I promise I'll talk about it in an interesting way for the rest of this post, but first I have to talk about the cover. Remember folks, never judge a book by its cover! Except I feel like this one, with its masses of blinding and hyperdetailed flowers crowding the dust jacket and threatening to take over the text of the title itself, captures pretty well what's going on between those pieces of cardboard, which is: a LOT.
Although she has some great comebacks for street harassers, our hero Aya is otherwise as problematic as your typical Disney heroine. Luckily, the graphic novel “Aya of Yopougon” is really about Aya’s lying, fighting, partying friends: Bintou and Adjoua. They’re not role models; they’re just teens in the Cote d’Ivoire, where virginity is paramount, but so is being “saved” by a man. A beautifully illustrated, happily skeptical story.
The House on Mango Street is all about voice. It’s about being heard. It’s about inventing new languages when the old ones don’t work. In the author's words, it's about “the ugliest subjects I could find. The most unpoetic.”
In real life, The House on Mango Street may not have been much to look at, but its story won the American Book Award and has become a required reading classic.
The freedom of being a librarian in the west during this time was unparalleled: women were trained to be respected and valued members of the community, trusted with the task of educating and exposing their neighbors to the literary lifestyle, and they had the option of seeking new work in a huge variety of locations. These "cultural crusaders" pioneered a profession that gave other women a chance to join in academic and educational pursuits as well as create a literary community wherever they went.
“Even Adorno, the great belittler of popular pleasures, can be aghast at the ease with which intellectuals shit on people who hold on to a dream” writes Lauren Berlant, who is not shitting on you or your dream. Her latest book, Cruel Optimism, is less brutal analysis than a dark, lush still-life of American fantasies and our Quixotic lunges toward them. An affective portrait of the 99%.
Although the Pentagon will soon ease restrictions on women in combat, a ban continues on women in infantry, keeping 200,000+ enlisted women out of promotions and leadership roles. So for all the ladies in the service: The Caine Mutiny, Herman Wouk’s bitter caricature of male authority, plus a heavy dose of comedy.
Blue Thread is a YA novel set in 1912 Portland, and follows the main character—sixteen-year old Miriam Josefsohn—in her discovery of, and growing involvement in, the women’s suffrage movement. This isn't just historical fiction though—along with fighting for women’s suffrage, Miriam travels through time using a prayer shawl handed down through the women in her family that contains blue thread from Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors to encourage the Daughters of Zelophehad to petition Moses for women’s right to inherit land in the absence of a male heir. It’s in the Torah! Well, kind of.
It was inevitable that I would come down pretty hard on these books, but in my frustration I left out an important point: These guides are not "disgusting" works of bigotry. They're unassuming parenting guides right off the "Children with Special Needs" shelf of a mainstream bookstore. They're meant to help parents of autistic adolescents guide their children through the transition into adulthood, and in that regard they're perfectly well-intentioned.
The problem is that a text doesn't have to be overtly bigoted or hateful to exclude and become complicit in the oppression of gender non-conforming and non-heterosexual people.
In this blog series I want to look into “required reading,” how it’s taught, and what we (should/could) get out of it. Which classics take up the most space in the collective memory? Is there something worth remembering from the dudecentric classics of high school book lists? (I’m looking about you: To Kill a Mockingbird, Hamlet, The Great Gatsby, Great Expectations, Huck Finn, and Lord of the Flies) What about from Mrs. Dalloway, Beloved, and Pride and Prejudice? What makes literature unforgettable and important to fledgling feminists? And what new works should become required reading?