Just as in 2016, in 2017 I participated again in the feminist bookclub Our Shared Shelf that Emma Watson started. This year we read a book every two month and it was a very diverse reading list. I did not like every book, but that’s exactly what I want from a book club: to help me read outside of my comfort zone. These are the books we read this year:
The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler
I was so glad when Emma announced that we were gonna read this book. It’s such a classic work but I don’t think I would have picked it up easily myself (this is why book clubs exist). It didn’t let me down. Although it was a real different text than I’m used to (it’s really more of a performative text), that didn’t make it less comprehensible.
Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés
This was a book I had a lot of trouble with. In the end, I couldn’t even finish it. One of my main points of critique is on its feminism. Pinkola Estés makes a very essentialist statement based on a large body of legends and mythology, and I just have a big problem with essentialism. She keeps claiming that I’ll be a better, healthier woman if I embrace this archetype, and I think I’m doing pretty well without it.
Her essentialism brings me to my next point: she constantly makes this bold (often spiritual) statements for which she has no argumentation at all. For example: “Babies are born wizened with instinct. They know in their bones what is right and what to do about it” (33). Obviously, Pinkola Estés had never tried putting a baby to sleep that really needs to sleep, but somehow decides that it does not want to.
Last, her writing style seems… arrogant? She references a lot to other cultures (which is good), but she keeps using words in the original language (which, half of the time, is not necessary), and she keeps explaining them (which becomes very annoying). For example, she keeps using the word criatura, and then always followed by the translation of the word: “…criatura, creature…”. First of all, there is no added value of not just using the English word in your English text, and if there is, then you can just stop giving us the translation of such a simple word after you’ve introduced it the first time! She’s constantly doing this, with all kinds of different words and it comes across as if she just wants to seem interesting with her multicultural background. The way she uses it has no added value to the text and only makes it unreadable.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
I read this book years ago but I was very glad Emma put this book on the reading list as well. It’s really a feminist classic. I love Atwood’s work in general, and last year I even considered her a good candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. She’s been a wonderful, productive writer for years and with the TV-adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale and the whole shebang around the #metoo-movement she seemed to have momentum.
However, I do want to take this moment to point out some other works by Atwood. The Handmaid’s Tale is really the book everybody keeps talking about, but Atwood is a more diverse writer than that. Being dystopian, The Handmaid’s Tale is quite straightforward in its feminism, which is nice, but I love Atwood’s other works for her subtlety. She’s a wonderful poet, and I’m currently reading her book of short stories Moral Disorder. Her characters are… I want to say strong women but that’s not the right word. They are also insecure, dealing with a lot of shit, but they are intelligent and just… never defined by their femininity. They are always so much more than just women.
The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
This book made a huge impact on me. I’m still recovering from it. I don’t agree with everything Wolf claims, some statements really seemed to bold too me, but many of her analyses were very strong. One way it changed me is how it made me look at my own consumerism. I have this habit of shopping when I feel down, or when I want to reward myself for something, and I actually always do that with products that are influenced by the beauty myth: clothes, jewellery, cosmetics. I like the boost in confidence that stuff gives me. I’m trying to be more aware of this, because I realize that too much of my confidence depends on my looks, while I can be very insecure about my other qualities. So I’ve put a stop on my shopping, at least for stuff I don’t need, and I decided to not wear heels for the next month. I think of myself as being short (I guess I’m short for Dutch standards, but not very), and many days I need to wear heels to feel comfortable with my appearance. Why do I feel the need to conform to this beauty standard, why can’t I just be happy with my own length? So I guess this book has made a pretty concrete impact on how I think about the beauty industry in my own life.
Hunger by Roxane Gay
This book was really an exercise in checking my own privilege. I had no idea about the extent of harassment, both personal and institutional, that fat people receive on a daily basis. However, I did feel like Gay could have elaborated a bit more. The book remained very fragmentary, very anecdotal, and I think it could have benefitted from some more in depth analyses.
The Power by Naomi Alderman
From a feminist point of view, I really did not like this book. It’s been broadly celebrated by the movement, but I just don’t get it. The point of the fans seems to be that it’s a good thing that the reversal in power positions shows the absurdity of the current oppression of women. Well, I don’t really need this reversal to know that things are bad right now.
My problem with this book is that its main premise seems to be: whenever a group is able to physically overpower another group, that first group will misuse its power. And as a feminist I am not able to believe this, because it will mean my struggle will never be resolved. I believe we as humans can be better, that we can learn from the mistakes we made in the past. I am not a physically strong woman. According to Alderman’s premise, I will always be at the mercy of other people, and I refuse to live that way.