Feminist Book Club: Issue #1

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It is a truth universally acknowledged, that I love a good book. Ever since I was a kid books provided me with a window into another world, books introduced me to people that I would never have met in the real world — either because they were talking lions that didn’t actually exist (as much as I wished they would) or because growing up in the suburbs, I lived in a world that was mostly middle to upper class, mostly white, and pretty darn heteronormative. Books changed how I thought about the world.

I’m always on the hunt for new things to read, especially if they’re written by women and have a feminist slant. So I asked some folks in my life who love to read if they’d take part in what I’ve called “Feminist Book Club” (Check out their bios in the about page!). Now the title is a bit misleading: in a traditional book club you all read the same book and talk about it in a pretty informal way. Here what you’ll find is book reviews of different books that each of the contributors read this past month. I hope that you can use this monthly book club to help you figure out what book to pick up next! Enjoy! 

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

NK-Jemisin-Broken-Earth

The Fifth Season has become the book I lovingly press into the hands of any friend with an interest in genre fiction, or even the craft of writing in general. N. K. Jemisin seamlessly weaves the narrative threads in this apocalyptic tale of survival, all while giving her characters complex inner lives and motivations. They feel real in a breathtaking way. As a writer, I am humbled by her skill. As a reader, I feel thrilled to be in the hands of a master lorist.

But it isn’t just the plot or the worldbuilding. She uses the story to explore issues of gender, sexuality, race and power. She informs the social structures with the logic of how culture can survive the end of the world. The history, geology and science make the fantastical elements feel plausible, as you nod along to the oral history of the orogenes before realising that – in our world – they do not exist. But the philosophy embedded in the tale is very, very real. 

There is one moment in the series that sent chills down my spine, and continues to consume my thoughts long after I turn the final page: “No voting on who gets to be people.”

I swear on Tolkien’s grave Jemisin is one of the greatest sci fi/fantasy writers of our time. She has already won a Hugo award for The Fifth Season, and I hope her powerful work continues to be recognized. This book is a must read. – Rebecca Diem 

Pedal by Chelsea Rooney

pedalTo introduce Pedal is a content warning in itself. This book will take you on a bicycle trip across Canada in the company of a man who is handsome, sweet, and endearing – and also a pedophile. It will send you on a quest to find an abusive father, while making you question whether or not his actions were really abusive. It is an exploration of childhood sexuality, the consequences (or lack thereof) of molestation, and the ethics of pedophilia. It will shock you at first, but it’s worth it.

The protagonist, Julia, is a Master’s student in Psychology, writing her thesis on a taboo subject: is it possible for children and adults to have non-traumatic sexual encounters? The troubling part is that she desperately wants the answer to be “yes.” But the reader is not asked to agree with her, only to consider the question in depth. More broadly, Pedal wants us to think about whether all experiences, even the traumatic, might be productive in some way. Rooney makes a good case for thinking that this controversial claim is at least worth talking about, despite our discomfort: fear can only dissipate through discussion.

Pedal takes you into every corner of its subject matter, probing different answers, but never settling on one. The polarity between the characters makes this possible: Julia, a “victim” of childhood molestation, believes sex between children and adults is not morally wrong. But Smirks, the pedophile she befriends, believes that it is. Through these opposing voices, Pedal can deal with difficult issues head-on, sometimes bluntly, but avoid urging you one way or another. The reader is immersed in an open conversation that doesn’t try to make a point. The point is the conversation itself: the things we don’t want to talk about are the things we need to talk about most. – Jordan Weir 

Holding Still for as Long as Possible by Zoe Whittall

whittalHolding Still for as Long as Possible is a page turner that I couldn’t put down. While Zoe Whittall is currently making waves with her new book The Best Kind of People, it’s worth checking out her older writing. This novel is breathtaking in its poetic language, heartfelt in its emotional complexity, and urgent in its plot.

Switching narrative voices, the novel gives the reader pieces of the plot from different perspectives. Putting those pieces together is part of the pleasure of Holding Still for as Long as Possible. What unfolds is a complicated web of queer relationships, fraught and full of different kinds of love.

A bonus for those who live in or love the city of Toronto, Holding Still for as Long as Possible vividly depicts the city in ways which are beautiful and familiar. The book reads as a love letter to Toronto which makes it all the more endearing to me. – Clementine Morrigan 

Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward

ward2This is actually my second time reading Ward’s award-winning novel about a fourteen-year old girl named Esch, who finds out that she’s pregnant just before Hurrican Katrina hits. While critics have spent lots of time talking about Ward’s moving depiction of the effects of Katrina on a poor black family living in the backwoods of Mississippi, what I love about this book is Ward’s engagement with teen pregnancy and the story she tells of a young girl trying to figure out what motherhood looks like. 

Narratives of teen pregnancy are surprisingly hard to find in contemporary literature (YA fiction being a major exception to the rule). When you do find a story about a teenager who’s pregnant it usually falls into one of two camps: teen pregnancy as tragedy (see Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye or Push by Sapphire) or teen pregnancy as spectacle (see MTV hits Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant).

Ward refuses both of these stories and offers us something new: a story in which being pregnant is just one facet of the teen girl’s life; a story in which being a teen mom helps Esch reimagine kinship and family as including the non-human (her brother’s dog China and Hurricane Katrina), the mythic (Medea of Greek myth), and the dead (her mother, and all of those who have died due to slavery and the ongoing racism in the American south, but also in America writ large). Ward truly is one of the most important writers of our current moment and Salvage the Bones will move you, haunt you, and challenge you to interrogate your own ideas of what teen pregnancy makes impossible, but also what possibilities it can open up. – Margeaux Feldman 

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This post was written by Margeaux

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