Named after a fictional girls' etiquette handbook, Elissa Schappell's 2011 short story collection, Blueprints for Building Better Girls, offers a multi-perspectival, intergenerational portrait of American womanhood. Told with impressive care and patience, the eight stories of the collection inspire a familiar uncertainty at odds with the trite didactic moral lessons the title promises.
The protagonists of the stories are involved in an intricate web of acquaintance. Characters mentioned in passing in one story appear later as main subjects, all the while coping with the shattered illusion of safety that so often pushes people toward adulthood before their time. The collection is bookended with the stories of Heather, the "school slut" whom we see first as a teenager and later as a concerned mother. The six stories in between jump forward and backward in time, examining the characters' set expecations for their own lives versus the realities they face.
Of course one doesn't have to go finding autism in popular fiction—it's the subject of intense cultural fascination right now, so it's just there, everywhere. In novels like Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and Jodi Picoult's House Rules; in films like Mercury Rising, Mozart and the Whale, Adam, and of course Rain Man; and in television shows like Parenthood and Alphas. But I do believe that, in my latest post, I exhausted my personal list of autistic characters whom I—as an autistic consumer of fiction—enjoy and whose stories I find compelling. Someone in my position might just have to go looking for autism to find more autistic characters with whom to relate.
I do not mean nor wish to suggest that, for a person to relate to a character, said character must be like the reader or viewer in every way. Of course one could identify with characters who are very unlike oneself. But fiction is a very powerful force. It influences the way we see the world and ourselves. When there is a glaring lack of characters with certain traits, or existing representations fall into harmful tropes, it hurts.
Great artists don't just have to exist in galleries. Books have given us some really inspirational pre- or post-feminist characters that are good at art, and this liberates them either emotionally or physically. What unites them is their independent thinking, as they are determined to go against the grain and not end up like their peers, bitter or vacuous. Some examples here are from classic novels, such as Jane Eyre, where art is a form of escapism for our heroine, whereas in Andrew Davidson's modern novel The Gargoyle we find a sculptress whose work is so consuming that it leaves her exhausted. Whatever the situation, it is clear that these women take their art seriously—it's not just a hobby to keep them occupied before they're whisked off by Prince Charming. This is so much better than a fairytale.
Young adult literature features a number of depictions of mentally ill characters, from authors who both bother to do their homework and take the time to present their work well and authors who don't seem to feel that research and sensitivity are necessary. In YA especially, depictions of mental illness are critical because some readers may be struggling with emotions and experiences they do not understand, or don't have words for; some mental illnesses start to manifest during young adulthood, and can be overwhelming and alarming as people start to realize that something about their adolescence is different from that of their peers. Reading about people like them can be a reminder that no, they are not abnormal or freakish, and their experiences are not unusual.
Books that use food as a gateway to emotion can be pretty unbearable (hi again, Eat, Pray, Love). Thankfully, Aimee Bender's new novel is more like one of the fairy tale rewrites I wrote about a few weeks ago than one of those self-indulgent food memoirs.
The story follows Rose Edelstein, who discovers on her ninth birthday that she can taste feelings. When Rose takes a bite of food, it tastes like all the emotions of whoever made it. And not just "happy" and "sad": as she ages and her palate develops, she can sense desires, regrets, hesitations, and many other subtleties hidden inside everything she eats. She knows where every ingredient came from: she can taste the metallic coldness of factories and the specific locations of farms.
The following is the first installment of a semi-regular blog highlighting books in Bitch Media's new Community Lending Library.
Lillian Hellman was a handful. She was the first female playwright on Broadway, one of the first women screenwriters in Hollywood, a controversial memoirist, a boozehound and a socialite, a Leftist sympathizer who gained fame and was subsequently blacklisted for her refusal to testify against her friends during the McCarthy hearings (she famously responded to a subpoena with, "I refuse to cut my conscience to fit the fashion of the times"), and an all-around tough cookie. This collection of plays showcases Hellman's best talent: hard-nosed storytelling full of wit and style.
Anyone out there have summer reading suggestions for our on-line readers? Non-fiction and fiction....? graphic novels? essays? bring it all on.
My gal, my son and I are heading out on a roadtrip this Sunday to a little cabin in Montana for a week of reading and relaxing and I would love to take a stack of reader suggested books with me, as I am sure many of us would. Then maybe we could write reviews and post them to this post as comments?
Keep those book ideas coming. Everyone should have (and have access to) a good book on their nightstand.