Plain Bad Heroines by Emily Danforth

I think I’ve already mentioned that Jane Eyre is one of my favorite books. The strong female lead, the fairly unconventional take on romance, the theme of independence all really resonate with me as a reader. I’ve also mentioned that I was trying this fall to read more spooky books to get into the spirit of the season. One such book I read was Plain Bad Heroines by Emily Danforth. I discovered it by chance on the homepage of the library catalog as one of the new books being ordered for the collection, and after reading the synopsis I was hooked. It has similar themes: lots of female characters, unusual and unconventional romances, and a strong theme of struggling for independence.

The book is told in alternating perspectives: first, in 1902, you hear the story of a girls’ boarding school as it’s rocked by a series of grisly deaths, all revolving around a mysterious and inflammatory book. Then, you’re transported to the early 2000s as Hollywood discovers the story of the cursed boarding school and starts to make a movie about it. The movie seeks to capture the horror of the original 1902 events, but succeeds too well as bizarre and frightening events start to happen on set. Caught in the middle are a number of fascinating characters – in 1902, the headmistress Libbie and her lover Alex strive to understand and overcome the boarding school’s sinister atmosphere, and they fail to protect several of their students including Flo and Clara, a bold pair of lovers, and ghostly Eleanor Faderman, who idolizes them. In the modern story, wunderkind writer Merritt, lesbian star Harper, and Audrey, daughter of an iconic scream queen, find themselves thrown together both in fear and mutual attraction as they work on the film.

The appeal of the book is partly its strong characters, complicated and fairly relatable, and partly its wry writing style. Like Jane Eyre, the narrator addresses the reader directly to tell the story (“Reader, I married him”, etc.), and the author really leans into the style, adding lots of footnotes and asides during the narrative. While it’s a fairly thick volume, with lots of story to tell at both points in history, I found that I kept reading without fatigue because of the tense atmosphere and slow-burn action. Typical of horror-style stories, you’re filled with an increasing sense of dread that something awful is going to happen. However (spoiler alert), I was surprised and a bit disappointed that while the 1902 story was full of horrible things happening, and its ending was decently grim, the modern story had a more ambivalent ending, neither grim nor hopeful. I was left with a sense of lingering questions and an uncertain future. As far as I was concerned, the last page could have read The End? (spoiler alert: it didn’t.)

Here’s my theory as to why that is: the underlying theme of both stories is resistance to oppressive norms, expressed particularly in the form of lesbian relationships. This book and its characters are entirely, staggeringly, defiantly sapphic, which comes with certain realities. My guess is the 1902 story had to end grimly, because the outlook for independent women and lesbian love at that time was decently grim. In the modern era, however, things aren’t so final. There’s more freedom and acceptance, but sexism and homophobia still exist, making for an uncertain, cloudy outlook. Therefore, the modern characters couldn’t be said to have completely defeated the curse, but they stand stronger against it. Of course, there’s a lot more going on in the book, especially as the characters struggled for independence in various ways. Some wanted to be independent of everyone, some wanted to be independent from their parents or their past, some wanted to be independent from society’s rules, and some wanted to be independent from their fame. (Their success at achieving independence predictably varied.) Altogether, I thought this was a thought-provoking, engaging book with lots of thrills and chills.

If you like historical fiction, horror fiction, dramedies, or feminist histories, I recommend you try this book. (Although, if you’re afraid of wasps, bees, and yellow jackets, you might want to think twice. They’re EVERYWHERE.)

The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One by Amanda Lovelace

The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One … love this title … and come on … that title pretty much says it all. A bit of misandry wherein I prefer feminism (equality of the sexes) but this is a quick powerful read for that witch in all of us both male and female. Seems to be written at the height of the 2016 election and the women’s marches thereafter. Here’s an excerpt from page 127:

forget

being ladylike

(whatever

the hell that means)

& allow

yourself to

show

the world

just how

unapologetically

angry

this

inequity

makes you.

let it all

go.

-throw flames like a girl.

Thought provoking, anger provoking, female power provoking read. Very short and quick. Check it out to give yourself a bit of a punch of always needed fire.

The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Writings by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

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)

Unterzakhn by Leela Corman

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.