I realized, when I looked at my nightstand stack of books last night, that I’m moving into a male-heavy reading load. And not that it’s a bad thing, but all the books I want to work on are either written by or about men. The exceptions were two books I finished last night and this morning and one book that’s been slowly shuffled to the bottom of the stack (The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, which I’m excited to read at some point when I’m in the mood for learning about probable reasons why I’m kind of a wreck). Because both books I just added to the list of successful completions deal with women, I figured they’d fit well together in a post. And so…
LAST NIGHT: What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons
So this is a book that I’m happy to give five stars to. It’s short (only about 200 pages) and filled with more snippets than chapters of a young woman’s life. In this case, the narrator is Thandi, who struggles to find a place between black and white, American and not. Her mother is from South Africa, and the family ties there are strong and history-full. Not only does Thandi try to navigate the liminal spaces of race and ethnicity, but she also faces changes in relationships with friends, lovers, and parents.
Honestly, there’s not much plot, per se, but I think that’s one of the great strengths of Clemmons’ novel. Thandi experiences lots of plot points, but it’s not as though there’s an epic journey across the planet, nor does she find herself to be some universe-saving heroine. Instead, Thandi’s story is a discovery of herself as a woman who exists between two planes and searches for a space all her own. The exploration of Thandi’s relationships is well-crafted, but especially poignant in the mother-daughter relationship that influences every other aspect of Thandi’s life.
The greatest strength of What We Lose is Clemmons’ writing. Some of the blurbs for this book say that it’s “arresting and unsettling prose,” but I think it’s only unsettling because it feels real. It’s written by a young woman writing in the style of a young woman searching for something beyond what she has.
While I’m not sure I want to go out and buy a copy of the hardcover, that’s mostly because I have an ARC from work and it’s the kind of book that I want to lend out, that I want to be passed on for others to enjoy. It’s beautifully written and especially worth trying because it is the debut novel. Clemmons will certainly be an author to watch.
(And I’m a little biased because she was at the conference we went to last weekend and she was completely sweet, despite the fact that the ARCs hadn’t arrived for her to give out. Based on the rep’s picks and our brief conversation, I wanted to read it and I’m so glad I did. You go, Zinzi!)
THIS MORNING: Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés
Lord have mercy, I finally finished this book. This was the March/April pick for Emma Watson’s book club (Our Shared Shelf), and since I’ve only missed one book so far in the required list (The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson – sorry, Maggie) I wanted to make sure I got through this. IT’S 500+ PAGES. So nearly half the length of Ron Chernow’s Washington (which is on the long list of books I’m going to finish, dammit).
Here’s my issue: it’s like reading a book by Dr. Frasier Crane about the female mind, except instead of Frasier’s Freudian approach, it’s Jungian. (Wasn’t Niles a Jungian? I’m pretty sure he was…) Knowing very little of Jungian psychology, I didn’t mind explanations of how the myths and tales fit into the archetypes, etc., but I mind very much when there’s a whole lot of author blah blah blah bits instead of real analysis.
The idea of this book (which was first published in 1992) is to help women reconnect with their “wild” side, to learn how to be her Self in spite of society’s pressures put on most of the female population. In order to explain the pressures and how women can avoid falling into the traps, Estés chooses stories she can analyze to get her points across.
I am a literature major. In both my undergraduate BA program and in my MA program. The trouble I had with the book is largely because of her analysis of the stories. It’s not that I don’t agree with some of her points, but it’s more that I find the lack of analysis to be frustrating. Often, Estés repeats a summary of the story she literally transcribed two pages ago and then argues her point without delving too deep into the meaning. Either that or she goes on and on and on and on about something that I really can’t believe because I don’t see evidence of her argument.
To spend 500+ pages expecting to read some of the classic fairy tales or common myths as seen by a Jungian psychoanalyst and explore the critique of such tales, only to be informed that the 500+ pages are mostly the author going on and on about her experience as a psychoanalyst, it’s kind of disappointing. And hey, call me crazy, but I’m not 100% onboard with any sort of “psychoanalysis.” I’m not saying it’s a bunk field — I believe psychology in general is pretty extraordinary and can be incredibly helpful — but the way Estés talks about her work with women and discovering the unconscious thoughts the women have… I’m skeptical at best. I think there can be a lot of good work those in the psychology-related careers can do because we should care for our mental health as much as our physical. I just don’t know that delving into the “unconscious” is a really reliable way to sell your ideas, especially because it seems that the unconscious can be manipulated.
So if you’re like me and you pick up a “bestselling” book that has accolades from about a thousand people (and probably dating to its initial publication in the 1990s) hoping that you’ll get a lot out of intense psychological analysis of the fairy tales you know and love and want to see read in a seriously feminist light, you’re going to be disappointed. There were also a lot of parts that seemed like Estés was arguing the differences between male and female psychology that we’ve now pretty much (dis)proven with modern science. Not that it’s really wrong, but it’s hard to take some of her arguments seriously when we have all sorts of brain studies or scientific research that makes the argument seem dated or incorrect.
Would I recommend this? Maybe. If you’re the kind of person who likes Jungian theory, or the kind of person who wants to read about women’s psychology, or the kind of person who finds 1990s “calls to the wild” books attractive, sure. If you’re a woman who wants to learn to connect to her wild self, you could try it. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll seek out the wild in this book and find yourself skimming a hell of a lot of pages trying to get to the good stuff.
This one was for you, Emma Watson. Glad I finished it. Now, on to my giant stack of manly man* books…
*Manly man books currently include: Electric Light by Seamus Heaney, Cricket Explained by Robert Eastaway, Indian Creek Chronicles by Pete Fromm, Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy by Nicholas Reynolds, Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow — I swear I’ll finish it someday — , A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, and Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. I think I should get double manly man points for Good Omens, since it’s written by two men, and, like, triple for Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy because it’s by a man about Ernest Hemingway and his secret spy career. How much manlier can you get?