The Tuesday List: Happy Election Day

Hahaha, gotcha.  No, well, actually yes it is election day in the U.S., but more importantly it’s my birthday!  So this week’s Tuesday list will be books that have really impacted me as a reader, or that I have loved, or that have stuck with me.

  1. Beguilement (The Sharing Knife, Vol. 1), Lois McMaster Bujold

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This novel (and series) is a good introduction to the the idea that in SFF, a female protagonist doesn’t have to be a Strong Female Character.  Fawn is young, inexperience, and running away from home because she’s done something really stupid–but for a good reason, well, not a good reason, but an understandable reason, which is that she’s young and immature and hasn’t been properly educated by the adults in her life.  She’s been let down, but instead of staying and giving in to the tides of culture and society that would force her into marriage with an asshole, she runs away, and learns a lot about herself, and has unexpected and terrifying experiences.  I mean, there’s a happy ending, but there’s a lot in the middle, too.

2. Sorcerer to the Crown (Sorcerer Royal, book 1), Zen Cho

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Besides being a wonderfully written novel about two young people from marginalized backgrounds who do extraordinary things, I just love the way this story tweaks the noses of everyone who’s ever made an ignorant comment about diversity for its own sake, or how anything not from the Anglo-centric canon is hard to understand and needs translation, or that women who are good at things are just MarySues.  Prunella Gentleman is capable and funny and doesn’t give a damn about others’ preconceived notions about what she can do or ought to be doing.  Add to that a page-turning plot about fairy kingdoms, intrigue, and secret dragons, and this is a fun, necessary read in the SFF canon.

3. A Stranger in Olondria, Sofia Samatar

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A lot of what I’ve seen written about this novel call it lyrical, and yes, it is, but the thing I like most about it is how multi-faceted it is.  It’s a dense read, and that’s a good thing, because there’s not only a huge history and unknown world built into the story, but also a lot of commentary about colonialism, about the privilege inherent in education and the ability to gather knowledge, about agency even unto extreme disability and even death.  One of the main characters is a young woman who has died, and yet she is still given the chance to tell her story, to be fragile and terrifying, to be smart and yet naive, to be, essentially, herself.  All of the characters in this novel are treated with such care that, once finished, it’s a hard world to wander your way out of.

4. Frog Music, Emma Donoghue

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The complete opposite of Stephen King, who creates a horrific setting that turns out to have some kind of supernatural cause, Emma Donoghue writes the kind of  scenarios that make you wish they had a supernatural cause, because the mundane, human reasons behind them are just too horrific.  (This may not be the case with all her books, but so far it stands up.)  Frog Music is the story of a murder, and it’s the story of two women who are about as different as they can be, and the ways in which the try to navigate a  world in which their bodies, their genders, their existence, can be criminalized.  Historical fiction buffs, this one’s for you.

5. Crime and Punishmen, Fyodr Dostoyevskii

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For a long time this was my avowed favorite novel, and it still holds a special place for me.  It was probably my first experience with an untidy narrative that lived so completely in a character’s head that all of reality seemed warped, unreal even.  It’s also fitting for this list, as today is the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, and Crime and Punishment is nothing if not an exploration of the author’s stormy relationship both with society and with ideas of revolution.

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Passive Females, Aggressive Bodies

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about abortion and the constant push by so-called “pro-life” individuals to limit the ability of those with birth-capable bodies to control their reproductive health.  Ok, let’s be honest, I think about this stuff all the time but I read an article not long ago, the second such in the past year or so, that talks about the biology of human reproduction and the ways in which the gestating parent’s body literally fights for control, and survival, with the growing fetus pretty much from the second the thing is implanted.

The article, published on aeon.co, essentially lays out the many ways in which human reproduction is anything but romantic, natural, or, especially, safe for those doing the gestating, and only instilled in me even further the idea that a fetus, until the person carrying it effectively gives it birth and, by so doing life, is nothing more than a parasite that will kill the person carrying it if it can, all in the name of its own survival.  Likely, this is largely–the article goes on to explain–due to evolution, which has caused these conditions to occur over many thousands of years in order to create humans with large brains, brains which require huge amounts of resources during the pregnancy stage in order to properly develop.

Further, the number of pregnancies successfully carried to implantation, and not even to term, is significantly lower than those which end up in the toilet every month, carried away by a menstrual cycle that is guarding the person’s health so rigidly it is literally safer for the person to bleed for 5-7 days than to carry a developing fetus anywhere other than (un)safely attached to the uterine lining where the parent’s body can keep a watchful eye on it.

This isn’t the miracle of life, it’s fucking war.

But the point I’m trying to make is that in a situation where the person’s body is actively trying to starve and stymie a fetus’ access to the parent’s resources, for so-called pro-life individuals to portray abortion as an act and allowing an unwanted fetus to gestate as simply allowing “nature” to take its course is not just hypocrisy but actually quite monstrous.  The act of gestating a child has become so dangerous to the human species that the parent’s body will fight tooth and nail to get rid of it because the alternative is being stripped of health and life one heartbeat at a time until the parent’s body is nothing more than an essenceless husk at the end of it.  I’m put in mind of the scene in Mad Max: Fury Road in which the lifeless fetus is cut out of Angharad’s dying body in order to take possession of a potential male offspring.  So-called pro-life individuals see only the poor dead fetus, so ripe with potential and life, while completely ignoring the life of the woman draining out on the dashboard, robbed of autonomy and made into just a vessel for someone else’s ambitions.

The passivity with which so-called pro-life individuals try to paint themselves is so aggressive, so demeaning to people with pregnancy-capable bodies.  It’s wrapped up in the false premise that pregnancy, the state of being pregnant, is a passive state, and any movement to change that state is an aggression, when, as the article referenced earlier ad nauseum shows, pregnancy is anything but a passive thing.  To end a pregnancy is less violent than the violence being enacted daily between parental body and fetus.  The article poses it as a sort of natural selection, that any embryo not strong enough, not fully implanted, must die in order to protect valuable resources, but when it comes to abortion, shouldn’t it be only the natural progression that the final say over the continued existence of a parasitic embryo lie with the one in whose body said embryo came to be?  And to take it further–because a lot of people are afraid of so-called late-stage abortion because suddenly the even-more-voracious parasite is bigger and has a face–shouldn’t the decision of whether to potentially sacrifice one’s own life in order to bring that squalling parasite into the world lie with the one, the only one, who will forced to give up their life for that to happen?

But this all plays into the idea that pregnancy-capable individuals–generally gendered female–be always passive, accepting of whatever comes to them, never taking what they want or in any way making demands on others, especially on cis males.  Besides being just wrong–not all pregnancy capable bodies are female–it feeds into cultural norms that are designed to privilege the cis male individual, which we can all identify as patriarchy.

In thinking about these juxtapositions of passivity/aggressivity, I’m minded of a novel I read recently (on audiobook, to be specific), by Emma Donoghue.  Her most recent novel, The Wonder portrays the experience of an English nurse, a Nightingale Nurse, to be specific, trained by the redoubtable pioneer of the profession herself, hired by a tiny Irish village to investigate the wondrous little girl in their midst who seems to subsist indefinitely without eating.  Now, this post is soon going to cross over both into the realm of Discussion of Actual Scenes in the Book (aka spoilers) and also pregnancy and sexuality specifically dealing with cis women.  I’ve done my best to keep this post as non-transphobic as I am capable till now, but as the subject matter of the novel specifically deals with cis-coded women, I will generally be talking about women and gendered cultural expectations around being women, so please just know that I’m not unaware of what’s happening, but to avoid complications I’ll use the gendered terms from the novel itself.  (I certainly understand that trans women and trans men are even more pressured to conform to cultural gender expectations and receive even more harassment.)  As to the spoilers, well, reader beware, I guess.  Or stop here and go read the book.

The Wonder deals with the parallel storylines of Lib Wright, a widowed nurse, and Anna O’Donnell, and eight-year-old girl who refuses to eat and has become a source of spiritual tourism for her community.  Lib has been hired to watch Anna and ascertain whether she is in fact eating from some hidden source, or to keep her from eating, or to prove she is a saint, depending on whom Lib meets during her two-week stay in the impoverished village.  Already this is ringing cultural bells–a little girl becomes famous for literally doing nothing, the only acceptable way for a female to gain notoriety.  Lib, on the other hand, is part of possibly the only profession remotely acceptable for a woman to have outside the home–taking care of others, mothering–even though to do it for money is a cultural indicator that Lib is used up, not good enough even to care for her own family, which the reader finds out is far too close to home for her.

Throughout her two-week stay in Ireland, Lib fights the opposing urges to nurture Anna and convince her to eat, and to conduct her watches as a strict experiment, reveling in the moment she foresees herself finding Anna out and proving that there is no such thing as manna from heaven upon which a little girl can sustain herself.  Lib wants science, not superstition, to be proven the authority–something all people who believe in reproductive autonomy can support–and yet for that to happen Lib must completely relegate Anna to the guardianship of people who have something to gain from her continued starvation, which runs completely counter to what Lib’s professional calling.  This internal conflict isn’t helped by the apparent inaction of Anna’s parents, who seem to revel in Anna’s wondrous behavior and treat her as though she were some sort of saint come to earth.  The aggressive passivity of Anna’s mother, in particular, is almost violent in its insistence that Lib, a representative of science and reason, is an enemy to be defeated through Mrs. O’Donnell’s faith alone.  Adding to all this is Lib’s own ignorance of Catholicism and treatment of the Irish she encounters; she looks at all of them as superstitious savages who continue in their poverty and malnutrition out of some perverse desire to follow their backwards religion, when in reality the post-Blight state of Ireland is anything but simple.

Lib’s ability to solve the mystery of Anna’s wonder is primarily the result, though, of her character arc as she meets various members of the community as well as an outsider–a newspaper reporter from Dublin who is both educated and intelligent–and comes to understand their position and why they act the way they do.  Lib grows as a character, is brought to see her own errors, and is then in a position to investigate the true mystery behind Anna’s situation.  Lib is that horror, the intelligent woman capable of thinking for herself and coming to logical conclusions, whom many of the so-called pro-life agenda seek to hobble, or in whom they don’t believe; they harbor such fear of those capable of pregnancy making their own choices about their bodies, and take the–un-asked-for–role of “my sister’s keeper,” seeking to take away choice before a choice can even be made, in case that choice runs counter to the aggressive and broken morality of those who value the unborn over the living.  Of course, as Lib learns, so does the reader.  The reader is exposed, through Lib’s interactions with Anna’s family, and eventually with Anna herself, that Anna’s wonder is a result of sexual abuse and the inaction of those who are supposed to care for her physical and emotional well-being–namely, her parents and her priest.  Anna is starving herself to get her brother into heaven, on the belief that reciting a particular prayer while fasting will release him from purgatory sooner.  The problem is that her dead brother is only in purgatory–or better, hell–because of the sins he committed against her.

Like Lib, Anna’s situation is a direct result of the actions of a male member of her family, but she has been blamed for it.  Nothing Anna could have done could have prevented her brother’s desire to rape her, just as nothing Lib could have done would have saved her newborn child and made it live, and thus her husband’s leaving her because, in his words, there was no reason to stay any longer.  Even when women are passive, they are forced to carry the blame for men’s actions.  Lib went to the Crimea and became a nurse, attempting to care for men injured in imperialist violence; Anna tried to starve herself.  Both were trying to atone for something they didn’t do, and for which they could never be redeemed in the eyes of their respective societies.

The events of The Wonder may not be identical to what happens today, in a modern society that still actively keeps women from exercising autonomy over their own bodies, but it is a stark illustration of the fact that women–and girls–will always be held responsible, will always be culpable for the actions of men, will always be expected to adhere to an enforced–and false–passivity, as long as women are considered second-class or not-the-default.  Being pregnant is not passive; to be and remain pregnant is the violent path, the way of force, the dangerous way to travel.  To end what can turn out to be the most perilous thing a person can do–is the path of least resistance.

Unless, that is, those who would prevent an abortion consider it a personal attack on themselves and their petty, interfering morality, just as Mrs. O’Donnell considered Lib’s attempts to find the cause of Anna’s starvation a personal attack on the righteousness of the entire family, on the Catholic church itself.  Lib only wanted Anna to do what was natural–to eat, to take care of herself, to find a way to live a good and normal life–just as every person capable of bearing a pregnancy should have the ability to make the natural choice about what is right for themselves and their bodies, independent of the self-righteous and holier-than-though guilt being heaped upon them by those who violently persist in confusing intrusiveness with saintliness.

Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue

            Frog Music captures San Francisco in all
the pandemonium of its youth, when the American West still represented freedom
and opportunity.  It is a place
where people can reinvent themselves, and Blanche Beunon has used that quality
to become the most famous and desired burlesque dancer in the city.  Though she and her lover Arthur live
what he calls a Bohemian lifestyle, Blanche has some very simple rules she has
lived by to get to the top, and resists anything that could change her
comfortable existence.

            And
then she runs into—quite literally—a woman named Jenny Bonnet, and everything
changes.  The novel begins with a
murder, from which Blanche is trying both to recover and which she is trying to
understand.  The novel flashes back
and forth between and her meeting with Jenny and the time leading up to the
murder, as the reader pieces together what has happened, and Blanche tries to
decide what to do next. 

            Frog Music takes its title both from the
use of “frog” as a slang term for a French person, and from Jenny’s vocation as
a frog catcher.  The music of the
era features prominently in the novel, is indeed skillfully pieced in to help
the reader understand characters better and to better place the story in its
setting.  Donoghue does an
admirable job replicating dialects and expressions of the time.  A very large part of characterization
is built through the ways that they express themselves and how they interact
with each other—the way they speak depending upon whom they are speaking to—and
I never experienced a point where I felt anyone did anything out of character.

            Frog Music takes on many issues relevant
both in 1870’s San Francisco, but also more universal themes that resonate even
today.  Blanche and Jenny both
experience gender-motivated crimes and have to navigate a world that strictly
enforces gender roles and expression. 
Throughout her journey between meeting Jenny and the murder, Blanche
questions both her own humanity and that of the people around her in an attempt
to understand how so much good and so much evil can exist side by side.  The novel features many instances of
prejudice and bigotry, and for the most part allows characters to react in a
way they would be expected to for their time, while coincidentally attempting
to subvert the stereotypes the characters rely upon.

            Blanche
Beunont is one of the most complex characters I’ve encountered in a long
while.  Despite being 24 years old
and considering herself very worldly and self-aware, she is called upon to
reevaluate everything she knows about herself and the people in her life.  The reader sees the story from her
point of view and it is her thoughts we are allowed to see throughout the
novel.  Donoghue allows Blanche to
really be honest, even when the truth is ugly, at least in her thoughts.  She makes calculated moves, has
regrets, and very little about her world is sugar-coated for the reader.  

            Readers
who are interested in late 19th century U.S. and world history.will
enjoy Frog Music and its vivid sense
of place and time, as well as the awareness Donoghue displays of world events
world consciousness.  Its heavy use
of period music and entertainment will be of interest, as will many of its
social themes including women’s rights, mental health and criminal justice in
the 19th century, immigration, and ideas of family and
motherhood.  Readers who enjoyed
television series like Deadwood or Mad Men but are looking for a more nuanced
social critique will enjoy the ways that Donoghue builds a compelling story
while still exploring social issues.