Reading Railroad: April’s Reading

Everything I read in April! 6 books total.

Novels

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. Published in 2012. A childless couple, Mable and Jack, move to Alaska after a terrible heartache, hoping to make a new life for themselves. On one wintry evening they build a snow child, and the next day a real child appears. Is this the daughter they’ve longed for? The Snow Child is a lovely fairytale retelling, and an amazing first novel. There are many variations of this fairy tale, which you can read here. I especially like the first one. Ivey writes lyrical, simple prose that sets exactly the right tone for the novel. “November was here, and it frightened her because she knew what it brought — cold upon the valley like a coming death, glacial wind through the cracks between cabin logs. But most of all, darkness. Darkness so complete even the pale-lit hours would be choked.” Shiver. Though set in the 1920s, the writing style is modern. There’s only a little bit of magic thrown in off and on, but despite that, the novel feels perfectly magical. 4.5/5

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Published in 2016. This book, I assume, hardly needs a summary at this point. It was next on my stack when it won the Pulitzer Prize. In case you don’t know, The Underground Railroad traces the path of escaped slave Cora as she flees across the South. Each state has unique ways of treating blacks — from Georgia’s cotton-picking violence to South Carolina’s weird eugenics to North Carolina’s lynching to Tennessee’s remnants of the Trail of Tears to Indiana’s supposed utopia. And yes, Cora uses the underground railroad, but in this novel, it’s literally a railroad. Whitehead weaves hints of magical realism and absurdist horror into Cora’s narrative, and also gives other stories between each of Cora’s sections: Ridgeway, a runaway slave hunter; Ethel, a white woman with a hypocritical ‘savior’ complex; and many others. What makes this novel unique compared to other fiction about slavery is the use of the horror genre and bits of magical realism. He doesn’t go over the top with either; it’s very subtle. I had a weird reading comprehension issue with it. A ton of character names begin with C or R. I found myself struggling to keep track of all the characters, which did improve the last third of the novel. Also, sometimes the characters were introduced in weird ways, so it would take me a while to realize ‘that person’ or ‘someone’ was a named character in the next paragraph. I would then have to reread the first few pages. Keeping track of characters isn’t something I normally struggle with. It’s also more emotionally distant than I expected, but I think that was on purpose. Even as I was disgusted by some of the events unfolding in the novel, it was more an intellectual disgust versus a physical one. It’s almost like a list is being ticked off of all the horrific ways the US has treated black Americans, though if that were true the novel would be much longer. It’s definitely worth reading. 4/5

Nonfiction

The Rise of the New Woman: The Women’s Movement in America, 1875-1930 by Jean Matthews. Published in 2004. I’m continuing my research of the suffrage movement for a writing in progress. This book gives a broad introduction to the movement. I appreciate Jean Matthew’s attention to the disenfranchisement of black women in the movement while also highlighting important black women figures. The scope of the book is much broader than that and covers the entire movement, but every chapter highlighted black women to some extent, and in a movement that was often racist, addressing the accomplishments of POC was refreshing. It’s also very readable. 4/5

 

Myth Collections

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. Published February 7th, 2017. In Norse Mythology, Gaiman collects a selection of Norse myths, adding a modern tone and some of his sense of humor to the dialogue. These are not fictionalized variations of the tales. Do not read this expecting American Gods or Odd and the Frost Giants. It’s more along the lines of Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version selected by Philip Pullman. I like Myths of the Norsemen: From the Eddas and Sagas a bit better, but Gaiman’s collection would still make a good entry point into Norse myths. Ultimately, I’m just not a fan of Thor and Loki. They seem like college frat boys in a bad comedy movie. Who also like to kill things. It’s probably not fair to judge an entire mythology on two characters. Eventually, I need to read The Prose Edda so I have a better idea of the mythology. I do really love the tree Yggdrasil, though. 3/5

Short Story Collections

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. Published in 2002. The movie Arrival is based on the title story, “Story of Your Life,” which is the best piece in this collection. Better than the movie. In most of these short stories, Ted Chiang combines hard science with complicated, questing characters. Not questing in the usual fantasy sense, but questing as in lonely souls trying to find meaning in the world while struggling with a scientific concept that changes everything. The stories are weakest when they rely too heavily on a scientific concept and lack the character and plot building to support the story. But there were only a few of those. Most were complex and interesting. Oh, and Ted Chiang describes his writing process for each story at the end. I wish every author included these in their short story collections! You can read my review of each story on Goodreads. 3.5/5

Uncanny Magazine Issue 15: March/April 2017 edited by Lynn M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas. A wide range of stories. My favorite by far is “And Then There Were (N – One)” by Sarah Pinsker, in which Sarah Pinsker goes to a multidimensional conference of Sarah Pinskers, and then there’s a murder to solve. Very fun. All of the essays are quite good, and for the most part concern surviving and resisting in an oppressive political climate. Very timely. My individual reviews of each story, poem, and essay can be found here. 3.5/5

Several of these reviews originally appeared on Book Riot, on my Inbox/Outbox Post.

Reading Railroad: March’s Reading

Everything I read in March! 7 books total.

Novels

Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson. Published in 2000. A Caribbean, carnival, multi-dimensional space travel science fiction novel that deals with abuse, rape, marginalization, colonization, and othering. Seem like a lot? It really is. A young Tan-Tan pretends she’s the Robber Queen — a carnival rogue — on a planet colonized by Caribbean immigrants. But when her father, the mayor, is arrested, both of them are forced into exile on a multidimensional ship that takes them to a place very different than the one Tan-Tan knows. I love the dialect and Caribbean culture, and I thoroughly enjoyed the last third or fourth of the novel. But it takes forever for the plot to get going. The first chunk could’ve been half as long. I did really like the end, though. This is my first Nalo Hopkinson, and despite the 3 stars, I will try more of her novels. I haven’t read anything like it before, and that’s reason enough to try out another. 3/5

Speak by Louisa Hall. Published in 2015. Multiple narrative threads rotate around contemplations of memory, love, loss, and the need for human communication and contact. Stephen Chinn writes a memoir about falling in love and building a true AI doll. Transcripts between Gaby and Mary3, an AI, are presented at Stephen’s trial. Ruth and Carl Dettman write letters to one another about memory and Carl’s computer Mary, without ever sending the letters. Ruth reads the diary of Mary, a 17th century US settler, to Mary the computer. Alan Turing writes to his dead best friend Chris’ mother as he struggles with Chris’ death and his own spirituality. Speak is a meditative novel, not one that gives closure to any of the characters. I liked that about it, but I also wanted to delve deeper into each character. Still, I would recommend it to people who enjoy AI and/or science-based novels. 3.5/5

The Wanderers by Meg Howrey. Published March 14th, 2017.  Another science-based novel, this one dealing with space travel. It’s also quite introspective, though I liked this one more than Speak, primarily because it reached a depth of character development I tend to really enjoy. Read my full review here! Definitely recommend. 4/5

 

 

 

Nonfiction

Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay. Published in 2014. A friend and I attempted to read this together, but she kept losing her book, so I read ahead. I just couldn’t leave it unfinished any longer! Obviously, I’m a bad feminist friend. 🙂 We did have a couple of meetups before she lost the book, and you can read our discussions on my Goodreads review. I finished the book mostly thinking about how much I like Roxane Gay. She seems like an awesome person to know, and I would love to be in one of her classes. I don’t always connect with all her pop culture examples (my pop culture knowledge tends to be exclusively SF based), but I love her meandering approach and the things she said even if I didn’t fully understand the context. I could easily apply her thoughts to my own experiences. Definitely a must-read for feminists, or anyone unsure if they’re a feminist. 4/5

Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States by Eleanor Flexner. First published in 1959. Century of Struggle chronicles the woman’s suffrage movement in the US from pre-Seneca Falls to when women finally won the vote, more than 70 years after the first woman’s suffrage convention at Seneca Falls. Just to illustrate why books like this need to be read, I mentioned Seneca Falls to three or four people who had asked what I was reading, and they had no idea why Seneca Falls was significant. They’d never heard of it. And it’s no surprise. I’ve spent twenty years in the education system and minored in history, but I don’t recall the woman’s suffrage movement being discussed in a single class. While I did know about Seneca Falls before reading this (I learned about it on my own), there was so much about the movement I didn’t know, far more than what I did. I mean, I learned A LOT. The history of how women won the vote in the US is fraught with struggle and amazing women. It’s absolutely fascinating, and people need to know this history! 5/5

Poetry

Black Zodiac: Poems by Charles Wright. Published in 1998. Continuing my poetry reading from February. As with Chickamauga: Poems (the only other collection by him I’ve read), Charles Wright explores connections between spirituality, landscape, and art. He’s a master at the long line; his poems sprawl across the page, full of ellipses and dashes, beginning left and then right, utilizing the entire page. I kind of have to work at his poems, which is a good thing. 4/5

 

 

Short Story Collections

Uncanny Magazine Issue 14. Published in January 2017. I feel like with every issue of Uncanny I begin my review with — Another strong issue — but here it is again: another strong issue. The story that stands out the most is Maria Dahvana Headley’s novelette The Thule Stowaway, a chronicle of the last days of Edgar Allen Poe as told by Mrs. McFarlane, who has a creature trapped in her body. It’s very atmospheric, and there’s also a fantastic interview with the author. The essays also stand out as being quite good, with my favorite being an analysis of the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. You can read my review of all the stories on Goodreads. 4/5

Individual Short Stories

I did read 2 short stories this month — part of Tor.com’s Nevertheless She Persisted series — but I’m going to wait until I’ve read all of them before I give a review. So stay tuned to April’s Reading Railroad!

What did you read in March?

Suffrage History: The Triangle Shirtwaist Strike and Fire



For my current writing in progress, I’m researching the women’s suffrage movement, a movement I knew little about despite having taken at least half a dozen U.S. history classes. (Why is discussion of this movement left out of classrooms?) In my research, I came across the triangle shirtwaist strike and fire. I’d heard of it before, but never delved too deeply into it. It’s a horrifying story.

Women pledging to join the strike in November, 1909

In September 1909, the women workers of two factories went on strike: Leiserson & Company and The Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Most of these women were between the ages of 16-23. They objected to:

  • unsanitary working conditions
  • fire hazards (which would later prove all too relevant)
  • the endless fines for talking, laughing, singing, stitches being crooked, etc
  • long working hours, often until 10 at night, with only 1 break for eating
  • low wages (around $6 a week, men made $12 a week for the same work in 1907)
  • the inappropriate behavior (aka, sexual) of their bosses.
Clara Lemlich — teenage heroine — taken in 1909.

Obviously the women had good reason to strike. However, after only a few weeks, it looked like the strike might disintegrate. But at a meeting in November, Claire Lemlich, a teenage factory worker and well known striker (having taken many police beatings fighting for better conditions in factories) rallied the women together: “I am a working girl,” she said, “and one of those who are on strike against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms. What we are here for is to decide whether or not we shall strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared — now!” And with those words the women fully committed to the cause.

This strike became the first general strike of its kind, and proved that women could hold out for the long haul. Previously, women’s labor unions and suffrage organizations struggled with mass organization, but this strike proved that large numbers of women could be organized into an effective protest. Though it’s unknown exactly how many women workers across New York and Philadelphia participated in the strike, the estimates are between 10,000 and 30,000. Women picketed the factories every day, carrying signs that said “We are Striking for Human Treatments” and “We Strike for Justice,” while police rounded them up for beatings. The history of police brutality against peaceful protests is a story for another day.

The strikers, 1909.

With no pay, the strikers endeavored to survive during a harsh winter. Several labor unions organized to help the strikers financially, especially The Women’s Trade Union League, and the suffragettes also donated to the cause, trying to help workers pay for rent, medical expenses, food, and the basics of living. The courts did not rally to the strikers’ cause. According to one magistrate, “You are on strike against God and Nature, whose prime law it is that man shall earn his bread in the sweat of his brow. You are on strike against God” — to which George Bernard Shaw chimed in: “Delightful. Medieval America always in intimate personal confidence of the Almighty.”

Shaw’s biting remarks did not help the strikers. The strike was called off February 15th, 1910, with only limited material gains. The women could not hold out any longer without pay. However, it did become easier for labor unions to organize.

Firefighters struggle to put the fire out.

Unfortunately, it took a tragedy for the strikers’ demands to become realized. On March 25th, 1911, a fire broke out on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The doors had been locked so no one could escape, a common practice among factory owners to prevent their workers from going home ‘early’ or taking breaks. Locked inside the burning building, some women threw themselves from the windows, only to die on the pavement below. Others died crammed into the stairwells, desperately trying to push against the locked doors. Onlookers watched from the street, horrified, unable to help. Even once the fire department arrived, their hoses only reached the 7th floor. 146 people died, mostly women.

Charges were brought against the owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris. One was acquitted, and the other charged $20 — about three week’s pay for a single worker.

Workers forced to jump to their deaths to escape the flames.

This tragedy did bring about change. The fire was one of the most dramatic and mourned events of the year, and a huge funeral procession followed, honoring the women who’d died. More strikes occurred with better success. Public outcry led to the formation of The New York State Factory Investigating Commission, and eventual legislation that forced factories to have safer and more sanitary working conditions. Shocked suffragists rallied more forcefully as women flocked to their cause, the tragedy showing that working women needed to be able to vote, needed to have a say in their own welfare. As Mary Ware, member of The National American Woman Suffrage Association, wrote on April 1st, less than a week after the fire, in the Woman’s Journal:

“Over and over again we suffragists insist that women are citizens and should be equally responsible with men, but a frightful shock like this makes us know it as we never knew it before. It is enough to silence forever the selfish addle-headed drivel of the anti-suffragists who recently said at a legislative hearing that working women can safely trust their welfare to their “natural protectors.” We might perhaps be willing to consign such women to the sort of protection, care and chivalry that is indicated by the men who allow 700 women to sit back to back, wedged in such close rows between machines that quick exit is impossible; a ten-story building with no outside fire escapes, and only one rickety inside fire escape, with a jump of 25 feet at the bottom of it; with iron gates shutting off the staircase, and cigarette-smoking allowed in the midst of flammable material.

But we are not willing to consign unwilling women or helpless young girls to any such tender mercies. And we claim in no uncertain voice that the time has come when women should have the one efficient tool with which to make for themselves decent and safe working conditions — the ballot.”

The strike that began in 1909 only became successful once this horrific tragedy aroused public sentiment. This became a common theme in the suffragette movement (and in U.S. history in general). During the almost 10 years it took to finally win the vote after the fire, suffragettes tried to garner public sympathy with images and stories of forced feedings and police brutality, of the terrible living and working conditions of many women. It did work, though it shouldn’t have taken so long. Why does tragedy have to occur before people acknowledge basic human rights?

This is one story among many in the fight for women’s vote. I’ll post more as I research.

Sources:

6 Feminist Reads for Trump’s Term


I took the image above in Nashville, TN during the Women’s March Saturday, January 21st.

As always, when something bothers me, I read. And write. So here are 6 recommendations for feminist books to read during Trump’s term. Read, talk, argue, and be heard!

1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

A dystopian novel where the U.S. reverts to rigid patriarchy and women’s reproductive rights are taken away. Sound a little too plausible right now? Many people agree. Trump’s term has been compared to the novel many times, and several signs during the Women’s March on Washington referred to the novel (including mine). If you haven’t read this before, now’s the time to do it. Hulu has adapted it into a TV series and it airs April 26th. Here’s the trailer.

2. Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay

“The world changes faster than we can fathom in ways that are complicated,” Gay opens. “These bewildering changes often leave us raw. The cultural climate is shifting, particularly for women as we contend with the retrenchment of reproductive freedom, the persistence of rape culture, and the flawed if not damaging representations of women we’re consuming in music, movies, and literature.” Bad Feminist is the most approachable nonfiction feminist text I’ve read. It combines commentary on pop culture, politics, academics, and the personal in essays that seemingly meander, yet always reconnect to some main point. As the title suggests, feminists can’t be perfect, and we shouldn’t even be trying to. I’m currently co-reading this with a friend, and may post our combined thoughts when we finish. You can also listen to Gay’s TED talk.

3. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Another dystopia. I notice a lot classic dystopians are selling well on Amazon lately, and this is one that needs to be read. It was also one of my top reads of last year. Why I think this particular dystopia is currently relevant is because it deals with race, religion, and gender, and how those intersect. Also, the apocalypse is brought on by the refusal of politicians to acknowledge climate change, and that eventually leads to economic, political, and social collapse. The main character is a black teenage girl who founds her own religion. In book 2, Parable of the Talents, the white supremacist presidential campaign is “Make America Great Again.” I cannot tell you how shocked I was when I read that last year!

4. Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics by bell hooks

This one’s cheating because I haven’t read it yet, but it is on my TBR list for this year. I have read bell hooks before, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, and I know she’s considered a must read contemporary feminist. She’s also the best-selling feminist author at the bookstore I work at. I will give my review on this blog when I’ve read it!

5. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft

“I do not wish [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.” Okay, if you’re a feminist, then you have to read this. Yes, it’s written in the 18th century. It’s not an easy read. But it is one of the earliest feminist texts (written before the term feminism was coined), and essential in understanding the history of feminism. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman defends women’s right to speak, and calls for equal rights in education between the sexes. It’s in conversation with male philosophers of the time — mainly Edmund Burke, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau — but you don’t need to know their arguments to read this. It stands well on its own. And fun fact, Mary Wollstonecraft was Mary Shelley’s mother, the author of Frankenstein, though Wollstonecraft died shortly after giving birth. Actually, that’s not really fun.

6. The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection by Judith Butler

Key to grappling with feminism is understanding how patriarchy and authoritarianism subjugates and creates subjects, and our own complicity in that process, whether we desire to be complicit or not. “But if the very production of the subject and the formation of that will are the consequences of a primary subordination,” Judith Butler argues, “then the vulnerability of the subject to a power not of its own making is unavoidable. That vulnerability qualifies the subject as an exploitable kind of being. If one is to oppose the abuses of power (which is not the same as opposing power itself), it seems wise to consider in what our vulnerability to that abuse consists.” (bold my own.) This seems obviously relevant to our political climate. As a warning, this is no easy reading. Judith Butler is super smart; I never feel like I understand everything she’s trying to say. However, I always feel a bit smarter after reading her, and she definitely makes me look at the world differently.

What feminist texts do you recommend reading?