Category Archives: Women’s Lives

The books we’ve read

I subscribe to LitHub, which offers–in the way we read now–daily snippets of literary news and links to full articles. I scan the snippets and usually click through to one or two articles of moderate interest, but sometimes there’s a real winner and I keep that issue in my inbox because it’s too good to relegate to the trash. One recent keeper is a piece by Penelope Lively, one of my favorite novelists, about the books in her personal library. People who interview writers, often ask about what books the writer has on her nightstand or what books or authors are favorites. I must confess, that for the most part I’ve lost interest in the answers. The books on my nightstand are often pretty strange–the results of reviews that caught my eye–and often get returned to the library skimmed or unread. A large group of books I’ve bought with enthusiasm live under the nightstand in a sort of low priority limbo. Recently someone asked for the title of my favorite book and I froze, thinking that the only way I could answer that was to compile a list of all the books to which I’ve given 5 stars on Goodreads. I figure I’m not unique and writers answering those questions are not providing insightful information.

Then there’s Penelope Lively. Her article appeared in Granta and she titled it “Books Do Furnish a Room,” a nod to the 10th volume in Anthony Powell’s classic series A Dance to the Music of Time. Lively writes not about what’s on her nightstand, but about the books she’s bought and read over the years and that still live on her bookshelves. In her “mildly book-infested home…the shelves say something about the person who has stocked them.” What we read, of course, furnishes not just our rooms, but our minds. She writes about how the nonfiction shelves reflect her interest in Egypt, where she spent her childhood; English history and archaeology; and science among other subjects. Although her novels are set in contemporary times and plumb the depths of human relationships, they are literally and metaphorically informed by her wide-ranging reading in those areas.

My library doesn’t contain as many books as Lively’s. As a librarian I learned to weed vigorously. I do still have most of a shelf of Greek and Roman literature from college that I can’t part with as well as Pauline Kael’s complete reviews, but I tend to think of my local library as a convenient extension to my collection. And I do have a hand-written list of all the books I’ve read, going back to somewhere around ninth grade. That’s something I treasure as much as the books themselves. Here’s the link the Lively’s Granta article, worth reading for her lovely, graceful style. https://granta.com/books-do-furnish-a-room/

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Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life by Vivian Gornick (Yale Univ. Press)

Emma GoldmanI’ve read about Emma Goldman in passing and wanted to read more about this feisty anarchist, “Red Emma,” a woman reviled, jailed, and ultimately deported from the U.S. in 1919. Vivian Gornick’s compact biography, Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life, is part of the terrific Yale Univ. Press’s Jewish Lives Series.

Goldman was born in Lithuania in 1869 and came to Rochester, New York as a teenager to live with her older sister; the rest of the family joined her a year later. She was desperate to accomplish something, to change the world, and was galvanized by the Haymarket Affair, a workers’ protest in Chicago that was disrupted by an anarchist’s bomb. It was a defining moment in U.S. labor history and she wanted to be part of it.

Goldman, too volatile and rebellious for her family, left home with her sewing machine and a few dollars, headed for New York City’s Lower East Side, where she found radicals of every stripe meeting in the cafes. The very first day, she met her soulmate, Alexander Berkman, the first in a series of lovers, mentors, and partners. She became a fiery, riveting speaker, traveling around the country talking about worker injustice.

Gornick gives us the outline of the life Goldman led in service to the anarchist movement, but what’s so fascinating about this biography is the insight Gornick offers into Goldman’s motivations and personality. Unlike most biographers, Gornick is right there with the reader, commenting on Goldman’s behavior, adding asides, and digging, digging, digging into who Goldman was, why she acted as she did; all the messy contradictions of her life (and loves). The energy of Gornick’s writing is terrific; a great match for Goldman’s single-minded drive to change the world.

Fierce AttachmentsIn conjunction with Goldman’s bio, I read Gornick’s own memoir Fierce Attachments, probably for the third time. Each time I read it, I’m hooked again, drawn into her childhood world and tangled relationship with her mother. It’s a feminist classic for good reasons, but also a startling evocation of the conflicted, haunting relationships we have with our childhood influences.

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

This is part two of a trilogy, The Neapolitan Novels, and after I read the first book, My Brilliant Friend, I kept my eye out for The Story of a New Name. Ferrante writes with incredible energy and passion about two friends: Lila (sometimes called Lina) and Elena, growing up in a neighborhood of Naples. Ferrante’s psychological insights about the nature of friendship drive this riveting story.

The first novel starts in the 1950s, with the two girls in elementary school, where they are drawn together by their academic brilliance, but driven apart by the competition between them. The story is told by Elena, who often has difficulty understanding why her volatile, ambitious friend behaves the way she does. That often puts the reader in a knowing position, watching and waiting for the proverbial other shoe to fall. The two novels are filled with the details of life in their poor neighborhood; all Elena’s and Lila’s friends want to do better than their parents, but they are often stymied about how to make that happen. Opportunities are just opening up after recovery from World War II but for the women it’s still difficult to believe they have choices beyond marrying early and having kids. Elena wants more and fights for the chance for education and a career; Lila wants more as well, but takes a different, more traditional road. She can’t extricate herself from the old expectations and this has devastating consequences for everyone who comes in contact with her. She’s a force of nature and one of the most fascinating literary characters I’ve encountered.

Warning: book two has a cliffhanger ending that brings the reader up short. After spending time with these characters it’s hard to wait for the final volume. I’m haunted by both women–Elena’s choices, Lina’s increasingly desperate decisions.

Margaret Fuller: A New American Life by Megan Marshall

Margaret FullerI just read this biography for my nonfiction book club and we had such a great discussion—one of our most memorable. Only a few of us had known about Fuller beforehand and one of our burning questions at the end of the evening was why she isn’t better known.

Fuller was associated with the Transcendentalist movement and was closest with Emerson from that group, but also William Ellery Channing, Thoreau, and Hawthorne. Fuller’s father, a frustrated Intellectual if there ever was one, tutored her in Latin and Greek as a young child, and taught her how to think on her feet and express herself in well-reasoned arguments. Equipped with such an unusual education for a woman of the time, and craving intellectual companionship, she was fit only for the company of her equals, all of whom were male. They acknowledged that she was often the smartest person in the room, but didn’t know what to make of her—women in the 1840s just didn’t behave the way she did, full of confidence in her own abilities. She had an on-again-off-again intense friendship with Emerson–was he jealous of her abilities or was he just unable to sustain close relationships?

Margaret was often deeply unhappy with a life of such apparently limited opportunities but always came back to the belief that she was mistress of her own destiny and forged on. She was a terrific writer, often prescient about social and political issues in the U.S.; there were many quotes in the book that stopped us in our tracks for their timeliness. Horace Greeley (bless him!) hired her to write a cultural column in the New York Tribune; it ran on the front page and was often her sole source of income. She eventually traveled to Europe where she became good friends with Mazzini, who was spearheading the Italian independence movement; she married an Italian soldier and had a child. The end is sad—she died at an early age, along with her husband and child when their boat sank off Fire Island on their return voyage to the U.S.

What would her life have been like on her return? Her family and peers would certainly have felt that she married below her station—would they have accepted her barely literate Italian husband? The organizers of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention were eager to have her there to address the delegates; unfortunately her death prevented that, but they recognized her importance to the fledgling suffrage movement. Maybe she would have found acceptance and a new cause there. We’d like to think so; she deserves to be a heroine.

I’ve only scratched the surface here in describing this excellent biography. You may find the book a little slow at the beginning as Marshall describes Fuller’s early years, but that’s not to criticize the writing. We need the description of Fuller’s sad and lonely childhood to understand where she came from; once she’s out on her own, by her mid-teens, it’s a riveting narrative.