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.

We have to talkHave you ever thought it would be fun to be a fly on the wall during an interesting conversation? Reading the book We Have to Talk : Healing Dialogues Between Women and Men by Janet Surrey and Samuel Shem is like being a fly on the wall during couples therapy. I find it fascinating how our cultural differences are shaped by gender. Understanding between women and men is often lacking (sometimes comedically, sometimes painfully so). The authors of this book hope to change that.

Surrey and Shem are psychologists who are also married to one another. They have been conducting workshops for married men and women for over 30 years.  Their method, put simply, went like this: first, they invited couples to gather together for a weekend workshop. Fifteen people showed up to the first one: 9 women and 6 men. This included four couples and seven individuals whose partners chose to stay home. First, they gathered as a group to talk. Then, Samuel took the men to a different room while Janet stayed with the women. This is when things started to get real. The group participants shared the honest truth about their relationships among their same-sex peers, where they didn’t have to worry about hurting their partners’ feelings. Finally, they re-convened in the larger group.

What happened next was life-changing. The workshops led the psychologists and the participants to some valuable discoveries about themselves and each other.

They came to the conclusion that even though men and women generally want the same outcome from the relationship (connection), they tend to go about achieving it in vastly different ways. Not only that, but the way in which women prefer to connect (talking to their partners) has the exact opposite of the intended effect.

Women: have you ever been talking to a man and get the sense that he isn’t really listening? Men: have you ever found yourself at the mercy of a seemingly never-ending conversation, getting more and more anxious and trying to figure out some way to get out of it? The authors call this “male relational dread.” According to the authors, men often feel threatened and want out of a conversation with their partners about the relationship as quickly as possible. This often has the effect of leaving the woman feeling abandoned, then angry. Her male partner feels ashamed that his actions have upset his partner. When he tries to reconnect, his active attempts to do so (often in the form of physical touch) are received with- you guessed it- the opposite of the intended effect. The woman feels like she is being taken advantage of and wants out of the situation as quickly as possible.

How are couples to find a way to connect when their attempts to do so are by vastly different methods? Surrey and Shem attempt to answer that question. The key seems to be giving the relationship it’s own identity. It is almost like giving it an anthropomorphic quality. That is to say, whether or not the couple has children, it is helpful to think of the well-being of a third entity – the “we” – in the relationship.  When problems arise, approach it by asking the question “What does the “We” need right now?” rather than from a first-person perspective (“Here is what I need…”) The authors refer to this as “mutuality” and they have found it can make all the difference.

To learn more, check out We Have to Talk : Healing Dialogues Between Women and Men by Janet Surrey and Samuel Shem.

henriettaJust in time for Banned Books Week, a challenge has been filed in the Knox County (Tenn.) School District against the New York Times bestseller “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot.

Published in 2010, the book is medical biography that explores issues of medical ethics, race, poverty, and health care inequality. In 1951, 31-year-old Henrietta Lacks underwent treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins University. While she would die from the disease, her tissue samples – taken without her knowledge or consent – would be used to create HeLa, an “immortal” cell line. HeLa was sold around the world, and was critical to many medical developments from the polio vaccine to AIDS treatments. Despite this, Lacks’ family never learned of use of HeLa until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists began using her husband and children in research without informed consent.

The book intertwines Lacks’ life with larger issues of human medical experimentation, in particular on African-American patients, and the heartbreaking loss of a young mother of five. The book also addresses issues of violence and infidelity, the description of which a parent of a 15-year-old student assigned to read the book over summer break objected to. Also at issue was the description of Lacks’ intimate discovery of a lump on her cervix. Claiming that the book was inappropriate for teens, the parent stated, “I consider the book pornographic,” she said, adding that it was the wording used that was the most objectionable. “It could be told in a different way,” she said. “There’s so many ways to say things without being that graphic in nature, and that’s the problem I have with this book.” The author, Rebecca Skloot, who worked for 10 years on the book alongside Henrietta’s daughter, stated on her Facebook page:

“… A parent in Tennessee has confused gynecology with pornography … I hope the students of Knoxville will be able to continue to learn about Henrietta and the important lessons her story can teach them. Because my book is many things: It’s a story of race and medicine, bioethics, science illiteracy, the importance of education and equality and science and so much more. But it is not anything resembling pornography.”

The student, who had  been assigned the book as part of his school’s STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) program was given a different books to read. However, the parent is still pushing to have the book removed from the curriculum district-wide. Other parents have taken issue with the attempt to remove the book, saying that banning the book would deprive their children of the opportunity to learn about important science and social issues. Doug Harris, Knox County Schools Board of Education chair stated, “Always, good people can disagree,” Harris said, “and I think on this book that’s probably the case.”

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Flood, Alison. “Henrietta Lacks Biographer Rebecca Skloot Responds to US Parent over ‘porn’ Allegation.” The Guardian. 9 Sept. 2015. Web. 30 Sept. 2015.

Habegger, Becca. “Author Weighs in on Knoxville Mom’s Push to Ban Book from Schools.” WBIR.com. 9 Sept. 2015. Web. 30 Sept. 2015.

 

womanpoweredfarmMuch of the impetus to move back to the land, raise our own food, and connect with our agricultural past is being driven by women. They raise sheep for wool, harvest honey from their beehives, grow food for their families and sell their goods at farmers’ markets. What does a woman who wants to work the land need to do to follow her dream? First, she needs this book.

It may seem strange to suggest that women farmers need a different guide than male farmers, but women often have different strengths and goals, and different ways of achieving those goals. In Woman-Powered Farm, Audrey Levatino shares her experiences of running a farm and offers invaluable advice on how to get started, whether you have hundreds of acres or a simple lot for an urban community garden.

Filled with personal anecdotes and stories from other women farmers, from old hands to brand new ones, from agricultural icons like Temple Grandin, to her own sister, this book is a reassuring and inspirational guide that discusses: should you do an internship or jump right in? how to find a farm or how to handle one that you’ve inherited, best practices for selling at the farmer’s market and how to sell your goods locally, farmhouse chores and how to get them done right, how to handle large power tools, including a chainsaw, planning and growing an organic farm garden, incorporating animals as part of a farm ecosystem, where to get started if you want to farm-school your kids, tips for keeping your mind, body and spirit healthy while undertaking the demanding nature of farm work – it’s all here. (description from publisher)

crazy salad and scribble scribbleCrazy Salad & Scribble Scribble: Some Things about Women & Notes on the Media is a combination of two essay collections by Nora Ephron: Crazy Salad and Scribble Scribble.

Throughout her career, Ephron was known by many different titles: producer, director, and writer. She worked on such iconic movies as “Julie & Julia”, “Silkwood,”Heartburn” (both movie and book), “You’ve Got Mail”, “Sleepless in Seattle”, and “When Harry Met Sally”. Before she shot to fame, Ephron began writing a column about women for Esquire magazine in 1972. Crazy Salad & Scribble Scribble is a selected compilation of her essays all about women and the media that she wrote throughout her tenure at the magazine.

Ephron delights readers with her musings on how she got her first bra and her mom’s rather brash opinion on what she felt her daughter needed. Add in other opinionated, yet funny and witty, descriptions of issues that all women have faced, but not blatantly talked about, from what’s happening with our bodies, dealing with other people’s opinions about how women should live, and of course, the Pillsbury Bake-Off. Ephron ends this essay collection with Scribble Scribble, her various thoughts on multiple different people in the media and the platforms that they choose to show themselves.

Read these essays to gain better insight into just what made Nora Ephron, Nora Ephron.

hurricane sistersFilled with her trademark wit, sassy, heartwarming characters, and the steamy Southern atmosphere and beauty of her beloved Carolina Lowcountry, The Hurricane Sisters is Dorothea Benton Frank’s enchanting tale of the ties and lies between generations.

Frank once again takes us deep in the heart of the magical Lowcountry – a sultry land of ancient magic, glorious sunsets, and soothing coastal breezes, where three generations of strong women wrestle with the expectations of family while struggling to understand their complicated relationships with each other. Best friends since the first day of classes at The College of Charleston, Ashley Anne Waters and Mary Beth Smythe, now 23 years old, live in Ashley’s parents’ beach house rent free. Ashley is a gallery assistant who aspires to become an artist. Mary Beth, a gifted cook from Tennessee, works for a caterer while searching for a good teaching job. Though they both know what they want out of life, their parents barely support their dreams and worry for their precarious finances. While they don’t make much money, the girls do have a million-dollar view that comes with living in that fabulous house on Sullivans Island.

Sipping wine on the porch and watching a blood-red sunset, Ashley and Mary Beth hit on a brilliant and lucrative idea. With a new coat of paint, the first floor would be a perfect place for soireés for paying guests. Knowing her parents would be horrified at the idea of common strangers trampling through their home, Ashley won’t tell them. Besides, Clayton and Liz Waters have enough problems of their own. A successful investment banker, Clayton is too often found in his pied-à-terre in Manhattan-which Liz is sure he uses to have an affair. And when will Ashley and her brother, Ivy, a gay man with a very wealthy and very Asian life partner-ever grow up? Then there is Maisie, Liz’s mother, the family matriarch who has just turned eighty, who never lets Liz forget that she’s not her perfect dead sister, Juliet.

For these Lowcountry women, an emotional hurricane is about to blow through their lives, wreaking havoc that will test them in unexpected ways, ultimately transforming the bonds they share. (description from publisher)

This novel is everything good and everything bad about so-called “chick lit.” Bet Me is a contemporary romance that follows an actuary, Minerva Dobbs, who falls in love with a businessman, Cal Morrisey. All the great things about chick lit are here: a comforting happy ending, a heroine who struggles with her weight (how relatable!), a sizzling romantic connection, and the kind of supportive female friendship that anyone would wish to be part of. But all the cliche chick lit negatives are here too: love at first sight and rapid-fire courtships, a heroine with a negative body image (how typical!), Krispy Kreme donuts used as a tool of seduction, overbearing and critical moms, boring B-stories, way too many descriptions of shoes, a poorly realized setting (neglected no doubt to give more text to the developing romance, which doesn’t need it), absurd coincidences, and a ridiculously neat happy ending.

It’s a pretty sharp novel overall; the characters aren’t deep or unique, but they’re not hateful or wooden either. The dialog is crisp and cute and the whole book reads really quickly, so it’s a great choice for light reading. If you’re picky, be warned: there are quite a few breaks with reality. There are only about a dozen characters in this book and they all interact very intimately, whether they’re lovers, ex-lovers, old friends, family, or strangers – it reads very high school even though these are all supposedly career-oriented individuals in their thirties. The wedding subplot with Min’s sister as a bride is hopelessly unrealistic (at one point, Min has to take over catering the rehearsal dinner, which is for only 14 people AND it doesn’t include an actual wedding rehearsal. what?!). Min lets a feral cat into her house and feeds and sleeps with it without even giving it a bath or a once-over with a comb, let alone taking a trip to the vet. This is another classic problem of chick lit: authors tend to steamroll over realism to achieve the symbolism or plot developments that they have planned, and it’s just plain distracting. You can’t tell me that Min is a smart woman and then show me her sleeping with a mangy wild cat in her bed; one of those two things is a lie. If that kind of light touch doesn’t bother you, Bet Me is as scrumptious and sweet as a Krispy Kreme – but like the fabled donut, it’s mostly hot air.

There’s something very comforting about Erica Bauermeister’s books — they’re sort of  “stop and smell the roses”  reminder.   For me, when she describes the smell of freshly baked bread, I swear I’m going to master making it from scratch, even though my past attempts at bread -baking have often yielded less-than satisfying results.  Indeed, at times I’ve been too embarrassed to throw it out for the birds!  (I mean, really, what if even they didn’t eat it?) But enough about me.

As in her first book, The School of Essential Ingredients, each chapter focuses on a different character.  In her new one, Joy for Beginners,  the characters are all women and all friends, even though they are different ages and at various stages in their lives.  These women don’t live Pollyanna lives — loved ones still die, couples still divorce, some parent-child relationships stay strained — but through it all, their friendships remain strong and continue to provide the support and encouragement each of them needs.

The book opens with a potluck dinner party, celebrating Kate’s recent victory over breast cancer.  Kate agrees to try something she’s always feared– white-water rafting– but in return, each of them must also promise to do something they find difficult, though Kate  gets to pick their challenges.  In some cases, the task seems surprisingly simple, such as baking bread or discarding books left by an ex-husband.  Still, Kate seems to have an innate sense as to what her friends need most.

I really enjoyed this book.  It’s a perfect gift for a good friend — or for someone who wants to make bread from scratch!

Bossypants by Tina Fey was released on Tuesday, April 5th, and I started and finished it on that very day.  Enough said.

Granted, I’m a big fan of Tina Fey and her critically-acclaimed show 30 Rock, and I’ve been anxiously awaiting this book.  It’s part memoir, part humorous essay collection, and part how-to guide on being a woman in show business.  And it’s hilarious.  She talks about everything from the more unpleasant jobs she had over the years to finding acceptance in a summer theater group to what it was like to meet Sarah Palin after publicly (and frequently) making fun of her on Saturday Night Live.  There are one-liners and hilarious anecdote in such abundance that you’ll be embarrassed to read the book in public because you’ll be laughing so much.  She also talks about some serious things, like being slashed in the face by a stranger when she was five years old (the source of the trademark scar on her cheek) and how hard it is to balance being a mother and a very busy woman in the workforce, but she still manages to keep it lighthearted.  What I really enjoyed about the book was how clearly her comedic voice came through.  This isn’t one of those books “written” by a celebrity (aka written by a ghostwriter with the celebrity’s name thrown into the byline); Fey’s sharp wit comes through in every sentence so that you can practically hear her reading it as though she were reciting lines she wrote on 30 Rock.

I tried really hard to pick out a favorite excerpt to share here, just to give you a taste of what the book is like.  But every time I tried I just kept typing and typing and pretty soon it was going to border on copyright infringement.  So I’ll just tell you that Bossypants is hilarious and if you like humorous memoirs or are a fan of 30 Rock, then you should check it out.

Remember Kabul Beauty School, the memoir by Deborah Rodriguez?  Well, the author is back, this time with a fictional account which seems likely to have been based, at least in part, upon her own life experience as co-owner of a coffee house in Kabul.  At least that’s my bet, as the dialogue and place description both have an authentic feel to it.

I enjoyed A Cup of Friendship on several levels.  First of all, it’s just a good story.  It’s got solid characterization with some humor and some romance to help balance out the more tragic episodes.  It’s also a reflection about relationships and lasting friendships with women of different faiths and cultures.   Finally, I think it helps those of us living in the West to better understand Afghan culture.  We may not agree with the way women are treated there, but knowing some of the “why” behind it certainly helps.

As one might expect, being an American woman running a business in Kabul these days is not the easiest job in the world.   However, the main character, Sunny, runs her coffee shop amidst bombs going off nearby, and still manages to create a welcoming haven for many ex-patriots.  She also finds a way to do some good in her little corner of the world.  This is a “feel good” book!