Lockdown Literature: Women And Crises

In between my tap rehearsals and making face masks (any excuse to not write, I sure know how to come up with them!) I have managed to read a fair bit. I have mentioned both books earlier, actually I just realised I’m stuck in a literary rut as of late and should maybe expand. On the other hand I’m a bit wary of ordering books online just now, not least because the delivery times have understandably stretched beyond regular. So I’ve been re-reading a lot of my favourites again. These two are new acquaintances, though.

Rebecca Solnit is actually not at all a new acquaintance, I’ve loved her books already for a long time. In case you have not yet finished reading everything on the internet like I have, she has written a beautiful long read for the Guardian about the current crisis and what it can teach us about hope, have a look. The thing with Solnit is that she is not preachy or complacent in her writing, which is rather rare these days.

Also, as feminist writing goes, Solnit is an easy-follow. What I mean by this is that she doesn’t get too entangled in theory. Many newcomers to feminist literature are understandably often a bit “Ok can you just maybe give one concrete example to illustrate your point?” and before you ask this question, Solnit is already there with something concrete.

She’s definitely one of the major Anglo-American thought leaders about societal change, feminism and also climate change. Her latest book Recollections of My Non-Existence is divided into several chapters that might be interconnected, might not. The book is about her personal journey of coming of age in San Francisco and making her way as a writer and feminist thinker and activist. It is classic feminist writing by Solnit, rich with real-life examples and soundbites and lingering sentences. It is also one of my favourite books about writing.

Her latest might well fall into the category of “books where nothing happens”. Actually a lot happens there, but through the eyes of a person who is planning to commission a next blockbuster movie, maybe very little, if nothing. And this is not an insignificant point.

There has been a surge of women’s auto-fiction recently. Understandably this can annoy many people, as is always the case when women take up any kind of space. “But it’s just them complaining about their lives and nothing happens“, goes the argument.

At this point I do, without a fail, bring up my Karl Ove Knausgård -offensive. A six-volume, 3500-page series of autobiographical books called My Struggle depicting nothing but his daily life, which, by the way, is still ongoing? (Full disclosure, I have not read all six volumes. I already struggled (pun) with the first and remembered life’s too short)

He is called the literary sensation of the 21st Century, because of course he is. Can we all take a short pause to fetch another chocolate egg while trying to come up with a woman who’s indulged in her daily life to that extent, all the while being lauded a global literary sensation? No, we cannot. Even Karen Blixen managed to squeeze her experiences of 17 years in an African coffee plantation and musings about colonial life under the British Empire into mere 417 pages of Out of Africa.

So. Women’s stories matter.
Also it’s the sign of middle age when we start reading biographies. Anyway.

I Who Have Never Known Men by the Belgian Jacqueline Harpman was quite the stunner, I finished it the other night. It is a literary cousin of the Handmaid’s Tale.
Harpman escaped Brussels from the Nazi-invasion to Morocco and started writing when she returned to Belgium. This novel was first published in French in 1995.

Now, if you are currently very angsty about the world and are not feeling any further kind of confinement-situations, even fictional, save this one for later. I already ruined my mental lockdown-health by kicking it off with a box-set of the Handmaid’s Tale, so one novel could do no harm anymore.

But this book is really good. There are similarities in a more contemporary, Australian version, The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood. It is also about a group of women who find themselves on an isolated desert. This is already interesting as such. (Group of women stuck in an undefined, unpopulated space seems to be a popular theme for feminist dystopias – see also Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland.)

Harpman’s novel is an account by the protagonist who grows up never knowing the world she was born into (she was abducted to the underground cage when she was a toddler, the other 39 women were already much older). She does not understand of woman’s biology until her cellmates explain it to her, she’s never met men, and she only learns to read and write well into her late teens, when the women escape the cage.

It is not a depressing book, it’s actually very hopeful about humanity, though it’s not much of a comfort-read, either. A beautiful dystopia with a stunningly told finale.

Then, I went a bit rogue today and visited all the neighbourhood shops I was allowed to! That’s to say, a supermarket, pharmacy and a newspaper kiosk. Felt good to look at things, point at them and have the pharmacist hand them over the counter without basically having exchanged a word. Which, come to think of it, does not really differ from how I usually go about shopping.
I was not allowed to touch anything, and also the pharmacist was transmitting a vibe from behind her mask that she was not quite in the mood to indulge my usual indecisiveness when buying absolutely trivial things. So, the selection process of a new sunscreen today was rather cursory.

The point being that I got my hands on some new-ish magazines during this carefree haul, and even if my reading recommendations sometimes veer towards the depressing, there were some edited reads in one of the magazines that specifically promised to bring joy. Ever the helpful, here you are:
(Disclaimer: I’m just the messenger, I have not read every one of these)

Marie Forleo: Everything is Figureoutable. Sounds joyful indeed, also sounds of self help. (no judgement)
Cheryl Strayed (of The Wild-fame): Tiny Beautiful Things.
Zadie Smith: Swing Time. This I have read and can recommend. Also if you’re into tap dancing, the movie Swing Time is excellent and stars Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.
Elizabeth Strout: Olive Kitteridge. (Her Anything is Possible and My Name is Lucy Barton are good as well. Haven’t read Kitteridge.)
Banana Yoshimoto: Kitchen. I liked this. It’s like comfort food, but in a book.
LM Montgomery: Anne of Green Gables. What time to re-read the childhood classics! I might actually.
Jilly Cooper: Octavia.

There we are.

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