February in Books

DSC00273

I Know I Am, But What Are You? by Samantha Bee

As it turned out, February was the perfect time to read Samantha Bee’s memoir because after the first episode of her new show aired, I was hungry for any extra morsel of Sam Bee hilarity I could get. This was as whacky and wild as anticipated, and maybe put me off getting a cat forever…

Rather than an autobiography, Bee’s book is more a collection of amusing anecdotes from her upbringing through to the early years of her career – including her days performing as Sailor Moon in a show she describes as “so vague and ridiculous that it could have been written by a basket of acorns that had fallen onto a laptop by accident.” Naturally, it was performing as Sailor Moon that led to meeting her husband, fellow former Daily Show correspondent, Jason Jones. (A story as surreal as it is sweet.) Basically, expect the unexpected. Most of Bee’s tales involve a calamitous sequence of events that were probably borderline traumatic to experience but, in retrospect and when retold by Samantha Bee, are so ridiculously amusing that reading in public is no longer an option. Also, an alarming number of them involve animals: cats, horses and even dolphins.

Writing a Woman’s Life by Carolyn G. Heilbrun

The perfect preparatory read for the Women’s Lives Club project (which I mentioned in more detail in January’s post), Carolyn G. Heilbrun’s Writing a Woman’s Life was fascinating, enlightening and all too short. In it, Heilbrun explores the specific pitfalls of female biography, the gendered documentation of history and, at least anecdotally, the stories of women lost to it. Wonderful, captivating stories. It feels like essential reading going into a yearlong reading project focusing on women’s stories, providing my analysis with a solid, structured foundation.

Heilbrun’s text is full of references to incredible women and my favourite of these were Vera Brittain and her soulmate-best-friend Winifred Holtby, who both seem astonishingly ahead of their time (bearing in mind their time was the 1930s). Heilbrun asserts that, “friendship between women has seldom been recounted” and introduces the pair as a rare, documented example. But I got so excited reading excerpts of their writing, most particularly this one, by Holtby, written in her book Women and a Changing Civilization (1934):

“I think that the real object behind our demand is not to reduce all men and women to the same dull pattern. It is rather to release their richness of variety. We still are greatly ignorant of our own natures. We do not know how much of what we usually describe as ‘feminine characteristics’ are really ‘masculine,’ and how much ‘masculinity’ is common to both sexes. Our hazards are often wildly off the mark. We do not even know – though we theorise and penalise with ferocious confidence – whether the ‘normal’ sexual relationship is homo- or bi- or hetero-sexual. We are content to make vast generalizations which quite often fit the facts enough to be tolerable, but which – also quite often – inflict indescribable because indefinable suffering on those individuals who cannot without pain conform to our rough-and-ready attempt to make all men [and women] good and happy.”

She wrote that in 1934. 1934.

To sum up, this was a dream read filled with similar excerpts, and had me yearning for my old Gender Studies days. I am always attempting to satiate that feeling through the recommendations of other likeminded, feminist readers and Writing a Woman’s Life really delivered, even if the enjoyment was disappointingly brief. If you’re participating in the Women’s Lives Club, even if you missed the first month, I would definitely recommend taking the time to pick up a copy of this.

(more…)

Advertisements

So, Biographies Are Wild

Let me start with this: I have never been a particularly avid reader of biographies. Prior to Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, I can’t recall the last one I read. But all of a sudden, my participation in the Women’s Lives Club’s year of women’s biographies means my bookshelf is raining life stories. (I think I’m going to need a bigger bookshelf.) As a newbie to the world of biographies, I thought I would share my somewhat disorganised thoughts on the topic. More specifically, I wanted to reflect on the immediate intrusiveness I’ve felt in this process. For reasons I’ll attempt to make clear, this sudden immersion into the worlds of other people, as told by different other people, has made me far more distrustful of the form than I ever expected.

To put it bluntly, it seems to involve the total invasion of a person’s existence. Imagine having your story appropriated by someone else. I’d never really considered how insidious that could be. To lose control of the narrative of your own life seems a frightening prospect.

As supplementary reading to the book club, our fearless leader Rachel Syme suggested Writing a Woman’s Life by Carolyn G. Heilbrun. In it, Heilbrun references Roland Barthes’ view of biography as offensive because it entails, as Barthes puts it, “a counterfeit integration of the subject.” Heilbrun concurs, suggesting that, “In choosing among biographers and biographies, we choose among counterfeit integrations.”

The biography I’m currently reading for the Women’s Lives Club, The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm, opens on an essay from Ted Hughes that was written as the foreword to The Journals of Sylvia Plath, and in it he says, “I never saw her show her real self to anybody– except, perhaps, in the last three months of her life”. Less than a page in and I was already thrown off-kilter by those words. “Her real self”. It made me think about my “real self”, the idea that anybody has a “real self”, one true identity from which any deviation is just that: a digression from the authentic person. Why can we not be understood as more than one thing? We are more than one “real self”, aren’t we? But can a biography account for that?

(more…)