Cults, existentialists, and Sci-fi… oh my!

A brief introduction to what we’ve been reading this summer:

Marnie

To be honest, this summer most of what I’ve been reading is fanfiction. I wasn’t super into fanfiction as a teen, but I’m so glad it exists because where else can I find an epic fantasy series about good versus evil and love and redemption, that also has queer characters? Or just a short romantic comedy book where the characters are casually queer? Or one where there is a whole friend group of queer people, as actually happens all the time IRL, and there aren’t any homophobic characters at all? Do you know where I can find these books? Are you writing one of these books? I will read it!! Tell me where it is!!! I’d love some books that reflect my reality, but possibly featuring dragons.

Books Marnie read:

The Girls by Emma Cline

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You’ve probably seen this book around your local bookstores recently. The Girls has gotten a lot of hype since it came out, and I’m always spotting it in New Releases and Bestsellers, but hey you guys! That does not mean this is a vapid fluff book. It is part thriller about a young girl, Evie, spending time with a local cult in the months leading up to a grisly murder, but it is also a story about a teen girl trying to explore her identity and sexuality, and find her own power. It feels out the insecurity of being a young woman in a way that feels very honest and not gimmicky. It explores an intense friendship between Evie and cult member Suzanne, and the line teen girl friendships can straddle between platonic love and romantic and sexual attraction. The Girls takes place in 1969 but still feels relevant.

The book is also interwoven with scenes of adult Evie meeting another teen girl and witnessing the same insecurity and need for approval that she experienced. These sections are much quieter, but I liked how they seem to subtly suggest that very little has changed for teen girls. You all should read this book so I have someone else to talk about it with!

Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende

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This was my first book by Allende and I could not put it down. Island Beneath the Sea is a historical epic that spans the French and Haitian revolutions and the purchase of Louisiana by the United States through the eyes of a plantation owner, Toulouse Valmorain, Zarite, a woman who was born into slavery, and the cast of characters that come in and out of their lives. It is packed with magical realism and is alternately beautiful and brutal, joyful and tragic. It is a book about humanity; the limits of human resilience, and the cruelties that people are capable of.

As an American I feel like most of the stories about the history of slavery are very U.S. centric, so it was a very different perspective to read about how French citizens living in Haiti dealt with changing legislation regarding abolition and citizenship for black and mixed race individuals. I think Western Europe’s history with slavery and racism is often erased, and this book really laid bare some of the attitudes and cruelties inflicted by the French, as well as the culture divide between France and it’s colonies.

Xenogenesis Series by Octavia Butler

 

These books were weird, but as a scifi nerd I loved it. The series takes place after a nuclear war that has made Earth inhospitable for humans. However, humanity has been saved by the alien species, the Ooankali, who will save humanity — but for a price! The first book follows Lilith, a woman who has been chosen by the Ooankali to awaken other humans who have been saved, and help them adapt to coexisting with the alien species on and Earth that will no longer sustain machinery. The following two books follow the pursuits of her children, as they create a new species- part alien, part human. There is a lot of commentary about gender in these books, which is different in the Ooankali than it is in humans. However, most of the plots revolve around breeding and there is some homophobic text that dates these books. I was also a bit uncomfortable with some of the ableism that came across in the alien’s attempt to “improve humanity.” Despite all of that, I did enjoy the series, and especially how it made visceral the grotesqueness that the humans in the book feel in reaction to the utterly alien Ooankali. It felt like a good commentary on how people respond to difference.

Funny note: I got these from the library and the weird 80s covers were SO FUNNY and so infuriating.

Lilith is explicitly a woman of color, and yet the cover looks like some weird lead in to a pulp novel about white lesbians. Also there is just a vagina with a woman’s face coming out of a hill. What is the deal with this???

In the Country We Love by Diane Guerrero

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I had to take a break from Orange is the New Black back in June, but luckily I was able to fill that space with this lovely memoir by cast member Diane Guerrero!

In the Country We Love has the easy to read tone that you’ve come to expect from celebrity memoirs but DAMN is it honest. Guerrero is upfront and personal about the struggle she faced as the daughter of undocumented immigrants, who were deported when she was just 14, leaving her to figure how to live without them in the United States. She discusses her struggles with depression and self harm, as well as the estrangement she felt living 4,000 miles away from her parents. She also talks about her relationships, as well as her love of performing. The book is targeted at a young adult audience, so the writing is not always the most complex, but it is compelling throughout, both a tell-all and a call to action. She describes meeting President Obama, and what compelled her to be honest about her parents immigration status, after hiding her situation all her life.

Diane grew up in Boston, so I enjoyed a few twinges of joy when she mentioned being in places that I am so familiar with, while also gaining a new perspective on the heartbrekaing realities that families face so close to my home.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling

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My sweetie bought be the new Illustrated version of HPSS and we’ve been reading it aloud this summer. Somehow I didn’t notice how incredibly melancholy this book is throughout when I was a child?? And it’s even sadder with some of the beautiful illustrations drawn by Jim Kay (although of course Tumblr has converted me to black Hermione and mixed race Harry, so it’s not quite the dream).

What is sadder than child Harry Potter who has been neglected all his life being surprised when people actually like him? Or Harry seeing his parents in the Mirror of Erised and not recognizing him because his abusive guardians never even showed him a picture of his parents. 

Come on JK. That’s just rude.

Hannah

If you’ve ever talked to me about my reading habits you probably know that I like to choose a “theme” each summer around which to plan my book list, or to choose an author and read his/her entire oeuvre. The summer after third grade I decided to read every piece of Holocaust-related historical fiction that I could get my hands on. The summer after eighth grade I decided to read up on the genocide in Sudan. The summer before I started college I discovered Virginia Woolf. The next summer was In Search of Lost Time… you get the point. My idea of a good summer is to basically find the most depressing and/or most long-winded novels possible, and to read them in my backyard with a cup of hot tea in the hot sun. Is there such a thing as literary masochism? I think I have that.

Books Hannah read (anyone who can guess the theme gets a prize):

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others by Sarah Bakewell

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What better way to celebrate a cheery summer day than to ponder being, nothingness, and the utter meaninglessness of human life? Answer: well, lots of ways. But this is the way I chose. For a subject that may seem frightening and inaccessible to many, Sarah Bakewell offers her readers effortless prose that are not only clear, concise, and down-to-earth, but also just plain thrilling! Alright, I know that most of you probably wouldn’t use the word “thrilling” to describe a twentieth-century philosophical movement that basically asks the question: what is the point of life? and answers: there is no point!, but let me tell you, it’s this leftist atheist lesbian’s idea of a good time. What happened in Paris in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, in the aftermath of one of humanity’s darkest moments, was an energetic intellectual exchange between public intellectuals that helped define modern notions of humanity, ethics, and civic responsibility. In a world where God with a capital G no longer seemed to promise peace, understanding, or a way out, the philosophers of the “existential café” sought to create a roadmap for living an ethical life. If this isn’t a good enough reason to read Bakewell’s book, then let me also just remind you that one of the leading figures in the existentialist movement was none other than SIMONE DE FREAKING BEAUVOIR, one of my personal heroes and the author of one of the most important feminist treatises ever written:

The Second Sex (Le Deuxième sexe) by Simone de Beauvoir

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Originally published in 1949, and translated into English in 1953, The Second Sex became a foundational text of the French second-wave. When Simone’s book hit the shelves, French women like herself were still getting used to the fact that they could finally vote. That’s right, France didn’t give women the right to vote until 1944 ! Considering the fact that first-wave feminism had focused much of its intellectual and activist energy on the fight for suffrage, the question now became: what next? Using the philosophical foundations of existentialist theory to build her argument, Simone de Beauvoir not only explored instances of gender inequality in contemporary French society, but conceived of a daring theory of human development: one in which humankind’s most shameful acts could be traced back to the oppression and exploitation of women. Using biology, psychology, human history, anthropology, and even autobiography as her tools of analysis, Simone made it clear that women were considered “the second sex” not because of biological destiny or God-ordained inferiority, but because of the intentional and systematic oppression of women carried out by men over the course of centuries (THE PATRIARCHY).

I’m still working my way through this mammoth text (in the original French), but I promise that this won’t be my last word on the subject.

P.S. If you’re planning on picking up a copy in English, make sure to get the most recent edition, translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. The original edition was translated, of course, by a man. And of course, he fucked it up. So just get the newest version, okay?

Mémoire de Fille by Annie Ernaux

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I feel like a little bit of an asshole adding this one to the list, because it has yet to be published in English translation. But rest assured, Annie Ernaux’s works have been translated in the past, and I have no doubt that her most recent novel will soon join the list. Mémoire de fille, like all of Ernaux’s novels, is a work of memoir. In order to express the subjective distance that Ernaux feels with her past, she writes about her younger self in the third person. In this case, she is describing her first sexual experience at the age of 18, during her first summer away from home (1958). What I love about Ernaux’s writing is that she chooses a life event, something that made an impact on her psyche, and instead of telling a chronological version of said event, she circles around it, until finally landing in a place that feels unresolved, but yet somehow complete. While admitting to the pitfalls of subjectivity and the fickleness of her own memory, Ernaux also does what few women authors of her time (and ours) were allowed to do: to see her life as valid subject matter for serious literary exploration. In the process, Ernaux reveals shocking truths about being a woman in her time – and ours. For a little teaser, here’s my own translation of the first paragraph:

“There are some people who are submerged in the reality of others, their manner of speaking, crossing their legs, lighting a cigarette. Enmeshed in the presence of others. One day, or maybe one night, they are swept away by the desire and the willpower of one particular Other. The person they thought they were vanishes. They dissolve, watching their reflection act, obey, carried away by the unknown current of things. They are always one step behind the will of the Other. He always has a head start. They will never catch up.”

We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement by Andi Zeisler

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I’ve spent the last year of my life steeped in stories of the second-wave, and I’ll probably spend the next five years becoming even more steeped, which is exactly why the title of this book caught my attention. Isn’t there something so seductively radical about the bra-burning energy of the 1970s? Do you ever ask yourself: what happened to all of that energy? Andi Zeisler, cofounder of Bitch Media, takes readers through the aftermath of the second-wave, revealing the ways that the children of our bra-burning foremothers carried the torch, let it burn out, and at times, doused it in the cool waters of capitalism. Though the first part of the book, dedicated mostly to media representations of feminism, has plenty to offer to pop-culture savvy readers, I found that Zeisler’s writing really took off about halfway through the book, when she starts exploring the complicated intersections of popular feminism and capitalism. The book is thought-provoking and entertaining, and particularly relevant as #feminism surges into the mainstream.

August is a Wicked Month by Edna O’Brian

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So yeah, I pretty much decided to reread this book for two reasons: the badass cover, and the fact that it was August. I had found this novel on one of those lists of books to read before you die, purchased a tattered used copy (apparently it’s out of print), and read it at the age of fifteen or sixteen, much too young to have any idea what was going on. I’m glad I gave it a second chance, because O’Brian’s writing is stunning, and the portrait she paints of being an Irish woman in the 1960s is, well, devastating. I can best describe it like this: take The Great Gatsby, change the author to an Irish novelist writing in the 1960s, and change the main character to a young divorcé and mother named Ellen, and that is August is a Wicked Month. After her ex-husband takes their son to the countryside for a week of camping, Ellen decides to catch a plane to the South of France, where her only plans are to sleep with as many men as possible, and buy a nice white dress. I wish I could say that things turn out as planned, but then, it wouldn’t be the novel that it is. Just read it, okay?

And finally, because every good themed list needs a book that makes you ask the question: which one is not like the other?…

The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac

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I was back in Colorado for the week, and my parents and I were going camping. Somehow, Simone de Beauvoir and friends just didn’t seem quite right for the woods, so I decided to bring Ol’ Jack along. Jack and I go way back. I saw the original scroll of On the Road at the Denver Public Library back in 2007, ended up reading it during my sophomore year of high school, and continued picking away at his collected works throughout my teenage years. Fast forward to senior year of college, when my feminist conscience is really starting to rev up. I make a pact with myself that I will no longer purchase any book written by a straight white male author, and that I will try my best not to read any books by SWM, purchased or borrowed, if I can help it. I also decide that Jack Kerouac is on my long list of misogynistic assholes whose work does not deserve the attention it has received. Eventually I realized that this was a difficult way to approach life (and literature). I still stand by my book-buying pact, because I can easily borrow those books from the library and spend my money on authors whose voices I feel more urgently deserve to be supported by my dollars. But I recently had a change of heart where Kerouac is concerned.

This summer, the Centre Pompidou in Paris put on an absolutely stunning exhibit called “The Beat Generation.” Almost a decade after I originally saw it, I was faced once again with Kerouac’s famous scroll. There were video screens hanging above it, playing footage of Western landscapes seen from the windows of passing cars. Woodie Guthrie songs were playing on the speakers. I wept and wept and wept for the landscapes of my home. As I walked through the exhibit, I remembered how utterly entranced I had been when I first encountered the works of the Beat Generation. Their womanizing and appropriating of other cultural traditions was flagrant and is still completely upsetting. But/and they also created work that had a serious impact on American culture. Long story short, if you’ve never read Kerouac, and especially if you have any sentimental ties to the American West, you should give Dharma Bums a try. Kerouac is (mostly) celibate throughout the novel, so it’s a little easier to swallow than some of his other, less restrained literary escapades.

 

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