Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Books of the Year: My Feminist Reawakening

Happy Christmas and a joyous new year to you all! I am shocked that yet another year has gone by; it's hard to say if the world is any closer to turning after 2012. Still we wait for the fires of justice, for the tears to be wiped away, for the kings to beware, for the tyrants to be struck from thrones. Watching Syria and Egypt's hopes of freedom crumble has been tragic; closer to home, seeing Occupy Wall Street's last sparks extinguished (at least in terms of semi-permanent encampments) has been sad. I personally have found out that the least bit of revolutionary expression will be met with immediate repression, which I am not good at dealing with. That is to say, many of us found out this year that freedom of assembly is a right that Americans no longer have. Surely some unfortunate experiences there have dampened my passion for blogging.

However, if this was not necessarily a good year for human liberation of the common people, it was a fantastic year for the imaginative powers of filmmakers and authors. Unlike in years past, every time my dear husband and I wanted to go to a movie, we had to choose between several appealing options. Moonrise Kingdom, Cloud Atlas, Casa de mi Padre, Prometheus and Skyfall were my favorite movies of the year so far, but there are literally dozens of other movies that came out that I am still waiting see (including Django Unchained, to be seen in the immediate future, Looper, Seven Psychopaths, a documentary about Detroit whose name escapes me now, John Carter, and a couple of appetizing Shakespeare adaptations). I have reviewed several of these films on this website, and all of them are a good way to spend a couple of hours over Christmas break.

Excellence in filmmaking aside, I enjoyed a busy year reading. In 2012 I rediscovered the joys of feminist prose; for the first time in many years the majority of books that occupied my time were women's writing. After years of wallowing in male discourse, no matter how excellent, it's comforting to return to protagonists that I can relate to, books where I am a primary member of the audience and not on the outside peeking in.

Probably my favorite new-to-me author of 2012 was Jeanette Winterson. Her gripping memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, came out this year. It's a beautiful follow up to her autobiographical novel Oranges are not the Only Fruit; she narrates her experiences of living lesbian, poor, and book-loving while in the grip of a severe fundamentalist sect. Her books restored my faith in the power of the novel and of claiming one's own experience. I also read her novel Sexing the Cherry, a gender-shifting romp among 18th century royalists and giantesses in London. She writes firmly into the tradition of British novels, with a strong appreciation for the literary giants and a concurrent fascination with fairy tales and the Bible. Her novels are so fiercely intelligent and inventive and true. I hope to read the rest of her oeuvre in 2013!

In a similar vein, Kansas writer Kelly Barth wrote a terrific memoir this year, My Almost Certainly Real Imaginary Jesus. She, too, writes of living lesbian, poor, and book-loving, but her writing focuses more on her experiences within the Church as she continues to live in communion with the body of Christ. Her story is especially relevant to all pastors and others who strive to recreate the church as space that welcomes all and loves all with Christ's abandon and acceptance. True story: she and I were traumatized by the very same end-times films from the 70s, which promised beheading to all who do not accept the mark of the Beast! Now she runs a great bookstore in Lawrence, KS, and her memoir is also great.

Another Lawrence writer, R.L. Naquin, published her delightful urban fantasy Monster in My Closet this year. Her enticing heroine Zoey is a wedding planner beset by her ability to feel empathy for everyone, including monsters! While this debut novel is a little lighter and more humorous than most of my reading list (motto: if I'm not weeping and ready to start the revolution at the end of the book, why bother?), it's enormously fun. I also note that Zoey is a feminist heroine. She is a woman who takes her career seriously. Her job also involves a lot of communication between women at different stages of life, a very real facet of women's experience that is often overlooked in "mainstream" fiction. And I think many of us in traditional "women's work" can relate to the draining sensation of offering up our empathy as part of our daily labor.

I have started reading science fiction by women again. This year's Among Others, by Jo Walton, was the most memorable of the lot--a tale of a book-loving girl, existing on the corners of society, with the witching hours also just along the edges. She has a complicated relationship with her mom and a love-love relationship with science fiction. The book is a little like Harry Potter in the tradition of boarding school fiction, although of course with more direct literary allusions and an adult audience in mind.

When I look at my list, it reminds me that no writer who works with women in mind ever went broke overestimating the complexity and ambiguity of our relationships with our mothers. These are all about the mothers.

My favorite single novel that I read this year certainly carried through that theme, although it is not science fiction, nor written this year. Ruth Ozeki's All Over Creation combined seed saving, roving anarchist bands, family politics, and potatoes with a stunning indictment of Monsanto-style business. My dear friend M. recommended to me, because if there is anything I like more than a hearty mix of potatoes and anarchism I don't know what it might be. If you enjoy good prose and important well-spun tales, and if you suspect that GMO companies are up to no good, you should read this book. If you don't suspect that GMO companies are up to no good, you should start suspecting that, and then read this book.

And, finally, one of these books is not like the others: David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years is neither fiction nor woman-authored nor particularly about relationships with mothers. It is the best non-fiction work of the year, though, and will dramatically alter the way any readers think about money. It offers little clarity but lots of information on the ways we conceptualize debt and morality, and by extension all money and the transactional economy. Graeber is an entertaining writer, especially for an academic, but for a change this revolutionary book is optimistic; when we fall into fiscal cliffs and debt crises every two or three months, it's terribly reassuring to remember that debt is a unfortunate fiction and not a tangible thing that must destroy us.

I look forward to reading many other people's analysis of top books of the year, and welcome recommendations in the comments. I also add that most of the books on this list were recommended to me by feminist friends, and reflecting on this year of reading in community brings me strength and warmth on this cold night. Adieu!