Yellow wallpaperIt isn’t a new book by any means, but I found the themes and the writing of the short stories in The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Writings so timeless that it could be.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote her stories about a hundred years ago. If you think of authors who lived at the turn of the 20th century to be stodgy, you may be as surprised as I was by Gilman’s candor and (sometimes) humor about gender identity, mental health and social norms. These themes are very much hot-button issues today.

“Herland” is the story that most made me want to check out the book, but I enjoyed all of them. In this utopian fantasy, a group of three male explorers set out to find a secret, all-female civilization rumored to exist in the seclusion of the forest. Their tantalizing visions of what they hope to encounter is not exactly what they actually find!

For a different -but no less interesting- take on the all-female society theme, you may want to check out the graphic novel Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan.

secret history of wonder womanA riveting work of historical detection revealing that the origin of one of the world’s most iconic superheroes hides within it a fascinating family story – and a crucial history of twentieth-century feminism.

Wonder Woman, created in 1941, is the most popular female superhero of all time. Aside from Superman and Batman, no superhero has lasted as long or commanded so vast and wildly passionate a following. Like every other superhero, Wonder Woman has a secret identity. Unlike every other superhero, she has also has a secret history. Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore has uncovered an astonishing trove of documents, including the never-before-seen private papers of William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman’s creator. Beginning in his undergraduate years at Harvard, Marston was influenced by early suffragists and feminists, starting with Emmeline Pankhurst, who was banned from speaking on campus in 1911, when Marston was a freshman. In the 1920s, Marston and his wife, Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, brought into their home Olive Byrne, the niece of Margaret Sanger, one of the most influential feminists of the twentieth century. The Marston family story is a tale of drama, intrigue, and irony. In the 1930s, Marston and Byrne wrote a regular column for Family Circle celebrating conventional family life, even as they themselves pursued lives of extraordinary nonconformity. Marston, internationally known as an expert on truth – he invented the lie detector test – lived a life of secrets, only to spill them on the pages of Wonder Woman.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman is a tour de force of intellectual and cultural history. Wonder Woman, Lepore argues, is the missing link in the history of the struggle for women’s rights – a chain of events that begins with the women’s suffrage campaigns of the early 1900s and ends with the troubled place of feminism a century later. (description from publisher)

unterzakhnUnterzakhn (yiddish for ‘underthings’) by Leela Corman tells the story of Jewish twin sisters at the start of the 20th century in New York City.  Esther and Fanya’s stories are told in graphic novel form, spanning more than a decade from childhood through adulthood, with black and white illustrations reminiscent of Russian folk art. The sisters make decidedly different decisions in their lives, but they both chose career paths outside of community and family expectations of them and drift apart from one another (forcefully in one scene).

Fanya starts this story when she finds a woman bleeding in the street and is instructed to go find the “lady doctor”.  This encounter brings her to Bronia, a feminist obstetrician who performs illegal abortions, and convinces Fanya’s mother to let Bronia teach Fanya to read.  Fanya then begins to apprentice for Bronia, and adapts to the strident expectations of her teacher.  While her sister is learning to work as an obstetrician, Esther begins working at the local burlesque theater and brothel — running errands and cleaning up.  As she grows toward adulthood, her work changes and she loses her family in the process.

This is a quick, but in no way a light read.  The writing and the illustrations show a lot of darkness and pain.  The sisters always seem better when they’re together, showing the quick wit and love that seems to be reserved for each other. I had a difficult time putting this book down, because Corman made it easy to care about Fanya and Esther.  This is a good read for fans of David Small’s Stitches or anything by Charles Burns.