Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Exquisite Female Voice: My literary journey

Preparing to spend the next month exploring Greece and Turkey, I have put a variety of reading material on my Kindle including Mary Renault’s “The Bull from the Sea.”  As a young reader I was fascinated by the Ancient Mediterranean, the Minoans and the Greeks.  Renault’s fictionalized histories (there were eight of them) satisfied my craving. I’m going to again read her work for the fun of rediscovering that enchantment.
It crossed my mind that I’ve read many wonderful women writers over the past 50 years, starting with Renault and fantasy-science fiction writer, Andre Norton who I discovered on a dusty junior high book shelf. Norton’s “Beast Master,” sent me down an obsessive fantasy-sci-fi trail that lasted through high school.
Some historian (a woman no doubt) ultimately will summarize the 20th Century as an amazing moment when the female mind was unleashed to think and to write.
Let’s call it “When Women Found a Voice," or "The Exquisite Female Voice of the 20th Century," or "The Female Writer: American women take up the pen and build a literary legacy."
This fabulous female intellectual effort continues. Only in the past year did I finally read the enthralling true story, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," by Rebecca Skloot about a poor black woman’s unknowing contribution to modern medical research. Friends had been raving about “Henrietta” since it was first published in 2010. Skloot’s work over many years in sleuthing out the story impressed me for its doggedness and completeness as well as for the storytelling.
Soon after, I plunged into a marathon read of Donna Tartt's novel, "The Goldfinch," a modern masterpiece with twists and turns that had me crying for mercy. I’m convinced that Tartt will one day win the Nobel Prize for literature. She’s that good.
The two books are only the latest in my lifetime of reading female writers. Not that I had a plan for doing so. Reading female writers was more an accident. I didn’t think in terms of male or female but of good reads. I caught the reading bug early thanks to my fourth grade teacher who read aloud the Nancy Drew mystery stories by Mildred Benson.
By the seventh grade I was using a flashlight to read at night under the covers when my parents thought I was sleeping. I read in class instead of paying attention to teachers. It was so easy to lean the text book up on my desk to conceal my book of delicious fiction behind it. Reading became a way of keeping the world at bay while at the same time, learning about it. I could lose myself in the imaginary of fiction and take on the drama played out on the page.
Only later did I learn that Andre Norton was a woman, born in 1912 in Cleveland Ohio. That was something of a revelation for me as a girl growing up in a male-oriented world where being a tomboy was the closest that I could get to what I found interesting.
Maybe Norton’s stories resonated because they were tales of “alienated outsiders” on a personal journey of salvation.  Critics describe her characters as resourceful and capable…loners on a mission to overcome situations. That was just what I needed.
Oh I read plenty of books written by men from Robert Heinlein to Ian Fleming, from Ernest Hemingway to Arthur Conan Doyle.
I always had a book at hand as a defense against boredom, against depression or in case my mother got “lost” shopping.
Looking back I’d say that some of my greatest pleasure came from reading women writers. Those authors have fallen into several now obvious categories, the most important being history and fictionalized history.
Barbara Tuchman’s “The Guns of August,” along with her other huge works, “Proud Tower: Portrait of a World before the War,” “March of Folly,” and “A Distant Mirror” rocked my world for their readability and thorough treatment.
I was curious this week to read James Warren’s glowing reminder of how great Tuchman was in his article, “Barbara Tuchman’s ‘The Guns of August’ Is Still WWI’s Peerless Chronicle.”
Antonia Fraser can claim a separate but equal place on my bookshelf for her “Mary, Queen of Scots” and  “The Weaker Vessel,” which delves into the lives of 17th Century English women deemed unworthy of educating or teaching to read. Fraser followed up with “The Warrior Queens,” and “The Six Wives of Henry VIII.” I loved them all.
She wrote a series of detective novels with Jemima Shore as her main character.
I’ve just complete Joan Connelly’s “The Parthenon Enigma: A new understanding of the West’s most iconic building and the people who made it.” So well researched with annotations filling pages and pages at the back of the book.
“Wolf Hall,” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” by Hilary Mantel tell the fictionalized story of the rise and times of Thomas Cromwell, the man behind Henry VIII. She’s won the Booker Prize twice for this work. Her third installment is out next year.
I’ve read biographies of women written by women:
How about Stacy Schiff's, "Cleopatra: A Life."
“Marie Curie,” by Susan Quinn tells the story of a brilliant scientist who was discounted by male colleagues but won worldwide recognition for her work with x-rays. Never mind the personal tragedy of her husband’s untimely death or the public embarrassment for an affair. Nancy Matthews wrote a great biography of the American painter and printmaker, “Mary Cassatt,” who lived and worked in Paris in much the same time frame as Curie. Both are stories of women overcoming the obstacles of gender.
The biographies of interesting women writers come to mind: Zelda Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker. Among my favorite fiction writers and essayists:
Anne Tyler, who has written 19 novels focused on the American family…marriage, relationships, children and their attachments and conflicts. My favorite, “Breathing Lessons.” Tony Morrison’s, “Song of Solomon,” is among the many works that won her the Nobel Prize in 1993. Brilliant.
Annie Dillard’s “An American Childhood,” resonated with me as did “The Writing Life,” and “For the Time Being.”
In case you think that I’m sharing these authors and their work because I want to brag about what a great reader I’ve been, think again. I read for a living, I read for pleasure. I’m sure there are many people who read more constantly and with greater speed than I do. But I’ve loved reading books over my lifetime. This is just a moment of sharing. Books are like children to me….I loved reading them, love seeing them on my book shelves to remind me how much I loved reading them. Who knows when I or someone else will have to take my beloved books off the shelves, box them up and hand them over to Powell’s Book Store for recycling.
There was a time in the 1970s and 1980s when I found comfort in witty American women’s fiction: “Fear of Flying,” by Erica Jong, “Cracker Factory” by Joyce Rebeta-Burditt. and “Heartburn,” by Nora Ephron. (Never betray a woman who can write).
There was “A Map of the World,” by Jane Hamilton,Charing Cross Road,” by Helene Hanff and “Final Payments, by Mary Gordon. What about Harper Lee’s, “To Kill a Mockingbird” or Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club?”
I read Jean Plaidy’s historical novels about English royal families.
There was Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love.” I wish she hadn’t made quite so much money from dumping her poor boring husband but I did like her journey of self actualization.
I loved “The Shipping News,” by Annie Proulx.  Catherine Marshall’s “Beyond Our Selves: A woman’s pilgrimage in faith,” resonated. So did Gail Sheehy’s “Passages,” written in 1976 when working women began to ask a lot of questions about life, marriage and longevity. And thank you, Oprah, for creating your Book List that has brought attention to so many good writers who happen to be women.
Miscellaneous good reads:
Didn’t we love, “Eats, Shoots & Leaves,” by Lynne Truss? How about Anne Lamott’s “Traveling Mercies?” I personally benefitted from “The Journey from Abandonment to Healing, by Susan Anderson (no relation).  I far as I can tell she is the only person to expertly and clinically look into what abandonment can do to us as a terrible “gift” that keeps on giving.
Someone has got to notice what women writers have accomplished in the past 100 years starting with Rebecca West with her “Return of the Soldier,” “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941)” and “The Fountain Overflows” and Pearl Buck’s “The Good Earth.” (1931). There was Ayn Rand, “The Fountainhead” (1943) and “Atlas Shrugged.” (1957).
Isak Dinesen wrote “Out of Africa,” in 1937.
There’s a list of 100 Great 20th Century Works of Fiction by women at www.thebookescape.com. Who am I to argue with this list.
I haven’t read every woman writer. I haven’t read Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf or Dumaurier or Marilyn French or Katherine Ann Porter or Susan Sontag.
I’m not particularly interested in “feminist” writers as much as I’m interested in real lives, real stories told through a woman’s eyes and life experiences and through women’s interests. This is a remarkable age. May it continue.
Thanks for allowing me to indulge. - Julia

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