March is Women’s History Month, so to celebrate I read only books written by women! I mixed it up by re-reading a few favorites, reading new-to-me books from favorite authors, and going into some entirely new territory. I picked out twice as many books as I actually read, so I’ll probably be spreading this celebration out for awhile longer.
Here are the books I read in March:
A Mercy (2008) Toni Morrison
In this beautifully poetic book, Morrison explores the impact of slavery and servitude on womanhood in 1680s America. The book centers around a community of characters without roots–Florens, a slave given up for a better life by her mother, Lina, a native American servant and the sole survivor of her tribe, Rebekkah, shipped to America to marry a man she’d never met, and other farm hands and indentured servants.
*I recommend listening to Toni herself talk about the novel.
I loved this novel and will probably read it again–more carefully–this year. Morrison has a way of dropping you into a story so that you don’t quite know what is going on for a few chapters, and then subtly moves the story forward. This book explores servitude suffered by women of different cultural and social backgrounds in early America: looking at slavery from a wide variety of angles.
I loved not only the story but also the way the book was written. The main character, Florens, speaks in the present tense and first person, while the chapters told from other characters’ perspectives are told in the third person. Morrison captures the minds of these characters so well; I was completely captivated.
The Turquoise Ledge: A Memoir (2010) Leslie Marmon Silko
Leslie Marmon Silko laces together stories of family (both human and animal), the natural world around her home in the desert near the Tucson Mountains, and her view of the spirit realm.
I picked this book up because Marmon Silko wrote one of my favorite books, Ceremony. I want to read more works from authors who have written amazing things.
I was surprised that I had trouble putting this book down: after describing an interesting and often heartbreaking mixed heritage family background, Silko spends much of the memoir writing about her home, the trails around it, and the rocks and the animals she shares the area with. However, her descriptions of the setting are so vivid that I felt transported every time I picked the book up. I’m an extremely pragmatic person, so I did struggle through some sections describing other worldly spirituality and the personification of nature, but I believe that challenging myself to read from perspectives that so vastly differ from mind and really listen in my mind rather than debate helps me to become a better and more understanding person.
Ordinary People (1976) Judith Guest
After experiencing a family tragedy, Conrad attempted suicide. He tries to resume an ordinary life with his affluent suburban family while working to resolve his issues with a psychiatrist.
I connected with this book as a teenager because it was the first thing I’d ever read that showed depression in a way that was familiar to me. This makes sense, because this was the author’s goal:
“I wanted to explore the anatomy of depression — how it works and why it happens to people; how you can go from being down but able to handle it, to being so down that you don’t even want to handle it, and then taking a radical step with your life — trying to commit suicide — and failing at that, coming back to the world and having to “act normal” when, in fact, you have been forever changed.” -Judith Guest
Even if I couldn’t relate to Conrad’s affluent family, the Jarretts, or the availability of psychiatric care, the struggle of acting normal–what is normal?–and integrating into an ordinary world is not often enough explored because of the stigma against mental illness. This book does it so well.
Blue Shoe (2002) Anne Lamott
Mattie Ryder adjusts to life with her children after divorce. Her life is falling apart around her: her house, her relationship with her mother and her children, her will power, and her finances are all failing. While Mattie tries to navigate depression and her real life, she finds a clue–a blue shoe–that serves as a key to unlocking her family’s past.
The author, Anne Lamott, wrote Bird by Bird, one of my favorite books about writing. I was excited to read a novel of hers for the first time and chose this book as a selection for an online book club with my friend Wendy. We haven’t met to talk about the book yet, but I’m looking forward to it.
I have mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, the plot lines were too varied and conflicting. They also weren’t spaced well, so many parts of the book are dragging while others are kind of a jumbled mess. The protagonist isn’t very likable, but I’m not sure she needs to be.
I do, however, feel like this book is a realistic portrayal of how people behave when they have been hurt: often irrationally and erratically, often in hurtful ways themselves. Understanding the motivations and justifications behind these actions can, I believe, help the reader be more empathetic to real life people who may very well act in a similar way.
White Oleander (1999) Janet Fitch
Astrid comes of age in a series of foster homes after her mother, a beautiful, narcissistic poet, is incarcerated for murder.
This book is one of my favorites. It is full of tragedy, as Astrid is shuffled through a series of terrible foster homes and horrible experiences. The novel handles Astrid’s journey towards her identity beautifully. She is pulled by her mother’s strong view of who she should be, the expectations of the many different environments she must live in, and her own inner voice. This is a book about mothers and daughters, as Astrid is brought up by so many different kinds of mothers who shape who she becomes, and challenges assumptions about motherhood and what it means to be a woman.
The Color Purple (1982) Alice Walker
Celie, a woman of color living in rural Georgia in the 1930s, writes letters, at first to God, that tell the story of her life over a 20 year span. Celie has been abused and neglected her whole life, and through her story and the stories of the people around her, we can see the consequences on the human spirit of the near powerless social status black women had in America.
It is difficult for me to even know what to write about a book this good. It has the power to reach the reader at a deeply emotional level through its descriptions of abuse and statements on the transformative power of love. Its power does not diminish no matter how many times I read it. It is one of the few books that really changed me, and I am thankful to Alice Walker for having written it.
I also started White Teeth by Zadie Smith in March.
Have you read any of these books? What did you think? Make sure to put a big SPOILERS warning in your comment to warn others if you have ‘em.
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