Four Books I Wish I’d Read in Middle School

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë

Most feminist book lovers I’ve met can’t get through a top-five list without gushing about a Brontë, and I’m not going to be the one to change that stereotype. Having fallen in love with Charlotte the semester before, I started reading into the lesser-known sister and her two modest novels during year one of graduate school. Agnes Grey appealed to me, with its Anne Shirley–esque theme of the independent, working governess, but the moment I skimmed the back of a dusty copy of Tenant I fully recognized myself. The book is about a crappy, failed marriage to an oppressive A-hole and the heroine’s steps toward independence, new love, and even a budding art career—practically the story of my life after college. While there are some points of plot that are a little bit cringe worthy by modern standards—like the trope of the angelic, long-suffering wife who for moral reasons should not officially divorce her abusive, philandering husband—the novel holds so many questions that would have been crucial for me as a wee middle school girl about to walk right into the trappings of patriarchy, the cultural marriage mandate, and sub-par male-female relationships.

The Kitchen God’s Wife, by Amy Tan

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In a similar vein to Brontë’s novel, The Kitchen God’s Wife braids together a rich historical setting with a feminist narrative that can be an enriching place to start for teen girls. A few scholars I’ve read, including Karen Dodwell, talk about removing the feminist discussion to a faraway culture or time period to help newcomers to feminism understand and process it better without getting all tangled up in their own cultural scripts. (Think in terms of modern-day conservative students shying away from Shulamith Firestone but fully embracing Charlotte Brontë.) In pedagogy—or in my reading recommendations to my former teen self—this suggests potential for a historical Chinese diaspora novel like The Kitchen God’s Wife, which shows old and new, East and West, while bridging those gaps to illustrate the universality of the themes without reinforcing orientalism or cultural chauvinism. This book was an eye opener for me to pick up as an adult due to its domestic violence themes, especially on the emotional front, so a teenager could do much worse than to learn about good and bad relationships in the milieu of Japanese-occupied China during World War II, from one of the best modern American writers out there.

The Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler

I’ll just come out with it: I am a dystopia junkie. Dystopia, plus any other iteration of Foucault’s –topias, for that matter, from Thomas More’s Utopia or Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies, to heterotopias like Piper Kerman’s Orange Is the New Black, to downer dystopias like The Parable of the Sower. Octavia Butler’s novel about US societal collapse in the not-too-distant future is an engaging piece of ecofeminist thought that is age appropriate for teens. Unlike many teenage dystopias, Butler does not focus on the constructed totalitarian society but examines California life as it crumbles from unsustainable environmental, economical, and social practices. Aside from the mind-spark messages that would have been new to me as a middle schooler, the book is simply well written and engaging. A book like this one, if read early, would have opened the door for me to engage with ecofeminism as well as a canon of dystopia writers like Margaret Atwood, Cormack McCarthy, or Ursula K. LeGuin—some of my now favorites, who I didn't even know about until college—a little sooner in the coming-of-age process.

The Girls of Riyadh, by Rajaa Alsanea

This novel wasn’t around back when I was in middle school in the late-1990s, but I wish it had been, and I wish I’d had the foresight to pick it up. As it happened, I was 25 when I bought the bargain hardback, which I’d judged for its striking foil stamping and for the title’s proclamation that this was a novel about girls. I started reading it on a rainy day in my study and didn’t put it down until I’d turned over the final leaf. Unlike so many of the books I’d read so far, this book was not written from the Western perspective, and it served as my introduction (as a mostly Christian American from a tiny midwestern town), post-9/11, to what real Muslim women’s lives are like in a place like Saudi Arabia. This wasn’t a Westernized reactionary piece, out to “rescue” all Middle Eastern women, and it wasn’t an outright vindication of the godliness of Islam and the evils of the West. Because this book failed to fall into either stereotype of how Americans tend to see Islamic life, it affected my reach into world literature and global feminism in a deep way. In short, Rajaa Alsanea’s perspective on being young and educated and fashionable in an Islamic state helped elucidate for me the real feminist questions happening in the Islamic world, outside of the blurred contexts of Desert Storm, 9/11, and other East/West battlegrounds. The novel is written in the form of an e-mail publication, with teen-accessible language in the English translation. If this book had been in my hands in the late nineties, I would have been able to skip all the Western-born stereotypes about Islam and jump into something useful.

 

Pride and Prejudice: An Untimely Review

Pride and prejudiceWas I really the only ultra-prissy, doe-eyed girl to reach adulthood without picking up Jane Austen? It took me twenty-six years to take that plunge. I stalled, partly out of embarrassment for having missed out on a classic, and partly out of embarrassment for being the girl seen in public reading Jane Austen—you know, that girl. It wasn't until a roommate mistakenly left behind a copy of Pride and Prejudice that it occurred to me to quietly take to the shadows with my new book, read it carefully, and then spend the rest of my life pretending that I'd discovered it as a budding thirteen year old. Then I remembered I have a blog and no discipline for weaving labyrinthian lies about my literary past. So I decided to embrace both my childhood in front of the TV and my sudden, adult desire to see what I've been missing. I finished a week ago, and I still have a few months before twenty-seven rolls around. Not altogether shabby. Now, what I think... If I had access to a Mr. Fusion–based DeLorean time machine, I would set my time circuits to 1820 or so and give this book five stars. The writing is superb, and there's a reason why Austen's sparkling language has endured—though it's surprising that she wasn't more popular in her day. Lizzy Bennet is a vibrant thinker and independent woman who isn't afraid of many of the restrictions her society poses. She is quick to bear her opinions loudly, and she gradually becomes the type of person willing to admit when she's been a colossal idiot. She is juxtaposed against a variety of female archetypes manifest in the other players, and it's understood that Austen sees value in the heroine being someone apart from Jane Bennet, the angel in the house whose sole purpose is to appease and conform, and Lydia Bennet, the girl with the devil-may-care streak who preys on adventure at the expense of her family's reputation. Lizzy is something in between, neither demure nor guided by impulse. She is rounded and secure and remains one of my favorite ladies in literature. All of this is saying quite a bit for little, ole Lizzy, a heroine created in an age when women's suffrage was but a twinkle in John Stuart Mill's puerile eye.

What's more, the story is genuine. As I read about Lizzy and these nineteenth-century twentysomethings, I superimposed my friends and foes onto the characters with facility because the personalities and conflicts are so relatable. Take any event from the book, slap on skinny jeans and a hash tag, and you've got yourself a pretty modern story. That Bingley bitch could as easily have been a creation of Gossip Girl as old-timey literature.

That said, I regrettably do not have access to that stylish time machine I mentioned—not even one made out of an old alarm clock and a car battery—so I do have to disparage this book by two stars for its predictable marriage plot. Not that I was shocked—we've all seen that coming since we first crawled out from under a rock and heard about Bennet v. Darcy. Romance is all well and good, but as a third-waver, I experience a flash of white rage and some mild intestinal discomfort every time I read a story that wraps up conveniently into a silver-and-white package with a wedding cake on the front. I could be reading the most compelling book in the English language, but if you montage through the explosive first kiss ideal to a shot of the wedding, I check out. By the time an author finishes listing all the loose ends that a happy marriage has tied up—usually as an afterthought in a hasty, brief chapter, like a stinger in a Sousa march—I am miles away, plotting my revenge with a dive into Susan Faludi or worse . . . Andrea Dworkin.

So for the early nineteenth century, Pride and Prejudice is a great book with a lovely ending that bestows a sense of fulfillment to readers in a highly matrimonial world. And if you look at it from a literary and historical perspective, I would urge both impressionable tweens and hardscrabble feminists alike to soak in its glory with pleasure. The only thing is that in 2012, or whatever year it is now, it's hard to swallow such a neat ending. It's as if we don't need to know any more about the well sketched characters once they've passed through the marriage veil. It's tempting to imagine a Pride and Prejudice that ends on a cliffhanger, one that sees Lizzy off to a governess post to a pair of sly and inventive children in a faraway part of England, or off to America or India. On the other side, it's tempting to imagine a good ten more chapters post-marriage that detail the new social horizons that come as Lizzy faces sudden wealth and young domestic love. A lot of ink and pixels have been spilled over Pride and Prejudice fan fiction, sequels, and modern parables that might satisfy my curiosity, but I want to hear from Austen. We have come to admire her characters, maybe more than we do the truly real figures in our own lives, yet they leave us in a puff of glitter at the precise moment when things begin to get interesting.

Does humanity gravitate toward the marriage plot for want of closure and release—as this book provides—or do we go there because after all this time, we still see it as the natural order of things? And even if we want it, should we be satisfied with the implicit jab that nothing beyond that point in a woman's life is interesting enough to immortalize in literature? Should we expect more? I'm grateful I live in such a diverse literary age, and it's heartening to understand that the fictions of our deep past are alive and true two centuries later. But there's something about Happily Ever After that screams "cop out," and as much as it helps the reader to tie up the story, I much prefer a comparatively modern inventiveness and courage of plot to soft chiffon and a quiet slip out of history.