The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer tackles the evolution of contemporary feminism through the experiences of fictional 20-something Greer and 60-something Faith Frank. It’s a riff on the old theme of A Star is Born where the veteran is overtaken by her protégé. We’re introduced to Greer as a young girl being raised by seemingly indifferent parents. Her neighbour Cory becomes her best friend, lover and hoped-for life partner. Both Greer and Cory are gifted students with great futures predicted for them both at high-end ivy-league universities. Cory successfully qualifies for a scholarship and attends Princeton while Greer grudgingly attends a lower echelon college because her parents couldn’t master the scholarship application forms.
During her first year of college, at the urging of a friend, Greer attends a presentation by a famous early feminist, Faith Frank. During a post-speech encounter in the ladies room, Greer scores a business card from empathetic and powerful Frank which Greer uses when she graduates to land a job at Faith Frank’s feminist foundation. In the meantime, after graduating from Princeton, boyfriend Cory’s career in business takes him to Manilla. During his overseas assignment, Cory receives devastating news that results in his returning home to take care of his mother. Complications naturally arise and the characters’ career trajectories are diverted. As Greer and Cory’s individual lives evolve, their personal relationship evaporates.
There are many reasons I looked forward to reading The Female Persuasion:
The plot focuses on the evolution of feminism, an issue of deep interest to me.
When I saw the author interviewed on The Social I was impressed with her intelligence and powers of observation.
The book is a New York Times best-seller and film rights have been optioned by Nicole Kidman.
However, just because all these criteria come together in The Female Persuasion it doesn’t necessarily mean I loved the book. I found the plot to be a tad cliché and the story didn’t keep me strongly engaged. It’s only because the book was a best-seller and I held out hope that it would get better that I kept going. Parts of it were crushingly boring and could have used further editing. I’d call it light reading and more about love and romance than feminism. I disagree with New York Times’ readers. I’d be interested in knowing what you think. Rating: 5 out of 10.
Best-seller Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly was not easy to read. At the same time, it was not easy to put down. It’s the compelling story of three women from three different countries during World War II and author Martha Kelly tells their individual stories in the first person so we feel intimately connected to each one. What makes this book particularly engaging is it’s based on the lives and diaries of real women; two of the names are real; one a pseudonym. Other characters are composites and some are fictional for the sake of the narrative. The lilacs referred to in the title form a common thread in various locations in the story.
Kasia is a young Polish high school student whose sister is a doctor. The family is horrified to witness the abuses inflicted by the Nazi Party. She naïvely chooses to help a school friend by engaging in underground activity which attracts the attention of local authorities. Despite being practising Catholics, the family members are deemed political enemies. Kasia, her sister and their mother are deported in 1941 to Ravensbrück concentration camp for women in Germany.
Dr. Herta Oberheuser practised the most evil sort of medicine at Ravensbrück and was the only female doctor at the camp. She was a true Nazi and even during her trial at Nuremberg and incarceration after the war she showed no remorse for the horrors she inflicted on the women who were known as “lapins” or experimental rabbits. The author created a speculative story about a real person. Along with dozens of other young women, Kasia and her sister Zuzanna are subjected to multiple medical experiments by Oberheuser and her associates. Camp doctors broke bones, removed flesh and otherwise mutilated the young women to replicate and test the effects of various battle injuries and treatments that could be used for German soldiers. Their wounds were deliberately infected with gangrene, shards of glass, dirt and various bacteria as part of the experiments.
Caroline Ferriday was an unmarried New York socialite and former Broadway actress who volunteered at the French consulate in the early years of the war. When the consulate was closed during the Nazi occupation of France her volunteerism went into high gear, assisted by her mother who was a long-time activist for worthy causes. The family also owned an apartment in Paris where prior to the war they had spent a great deal of time. Caroline took a particular interest in French orphans, raising money and collecting clothing and other items to be boxed and sent to France. With her network of influential friends and by selling many of her personal belongings, Ferriday was untiring in rallying support for victims of the war.
Many of the Ravensbrück women survived the war and formed a collective group sponsored and supported by Caroline Ferriday. With her elite connections, she was able to raise funds to bring many of the women to the United States for medical attention aimed at repairing the effects of the experiments they endured at Ravensbrück. The relationship between Ferriday and her group of women continued until her death in 1990. The book is the story of strength, endurance, persistence and compassion. And it’s a reminder that one person can make a difference. Rating: 9 out of 10.
Britain may have Dame Judi Dench as their national treasure but we have our own Boomer Broad Mary Walsh as our beacon of everything Canadian. Newfoundland-born Walsh is a writer, comedienne and actor whose decades-long career began in a local maritime comedy troupe and grew to become a regular on national television. Walsh has skewered Prime Ministers and business tycoons as activist Marg, Princess Warrior. She made us laugh as one of the Friday Night Girls on CODCO and later as a regular on CBC’s This Hour Has Twenty-Two Minutes.
Walsh’s new book Crying For The Moon is a good read. It’s the story of Maureen, a young girl growing up in St. John’s, Newfoundland. She fakes her way on to the school choir to score a trip to Expo ’67 in Montreal. That’s the beginning of the unfolding of a different kind of life for Maureen. With a difficult mother she calls ‘the Sarge’ and a distant father who prefers being out on the boats, Maureen experiences all the confusion and angst of growing into a woman without the support and guidance of secure, loving parents. She seeks love in meaningless sex and suffers the consequences of having her illegitimate baby taken from her.
Maureen functions under dark feelings of inadequacy and a lack of self-respect which inevitably lead her into trouble. Like so many teenage girls struggling under similar circumstances, she puts on a tough, defiant face and tries to make the best of her circumstances. Her risky behaviours lead her into an abusive relationship and ultimately she becomes the prime suspect in a murder.
Throughout the book I could hear Mary Walsh’s voice reading to me with her lyrical Newfoundland accent. She paints a vivid picture of Maureen’s environment and she clearly understands the nuances of being an abused woman. It’s a serious problem and for those who have never suffered at the hands of another person, not always understood. “She thought she deserved it. And then, because she was so beaten down, so crumbled into pieces, so beaten into bits that she didn’t know how to gather up all the crumbs of herself to do anything. Plus, she’d been afraid.”. Maureen’s lack of self-esteem and with no support from her family she’s trapped in an untenable domestic situation. Walsh relates Maureen’s dilemma with sensitivity and understanding as we watch her rationalize the horror and then retreat from her circle of friends. She uses drugs and alcohol to try and cope.
I don’t mean to suggest the book is totally harsh or depressing. Newfoundland humour abounds in the dialogue and in the scenes that play out in the narrative. We’re treated to lovely descriptions of downtown St. John’s in all its colour and idiosyncrasies. Walsh’s depiction of the burden and crush of Catholic dogma enforced on young minds by the teaching nuns is revealing and we sympathize with the feelings of shame and confusion that it generates in Maureen. “She’d stolen so much makeup from Woolworths, she knew that, even if she went to confession, she had no hope of absolution, because the priest would insist that she pay back the store for all the stuff she’d robbed. She would never have that much money, and so she would never get forgiveness.” There are many religious references responsible for Maureen’s feelings of inadequacy and failure.
Eventually Maureen finds a sympathetic friend in a quirky co-worker who helps bring sense to her misguided life. I wasn’t thrilled with the ending but I enjoyed the journey. The story is a snapshot of the life of a misguided young woman trying to make her way in life. It’s packaged in an easy-to-read murder mystery. I’ve always been a huge fan of Mary Walsh so whatever she turns her hand to, I’m there. We have to support other women and Canadian writers—like me, sort of, eh? I give it 7 out of 10.
What could be more enthralling than reading someone’s diary, especially someone who regularly rubs shoulders with the rich and famous? It feels forbidden, furtive, even a bit titillating. We’re discovering that person’s innermost thoughts, opinions and impressions in the context of their daily life. And when that life is one lived in the rarefied circles of Tina Brown, editor of Vanity Fair magazine from 1984 to 1992, it’s delicious beyond words. Which explains why I binge-read her book Vanity Fair Diaries in three or four-hour bursts until my eyes wouldn’t focus any longer. Brown is responsible for those avant-garde covers of a naked, pregnant Demi Moore and a moonwalking Michael Jackson.
Tina Brown is an upper middle-class British-born baby boomer, educated at Oxford University. At the age of twenty-five, she was hired to revitalize that famous British magazine, Tatler, which she did with skill and originality. Five years later she was bored and started looking for new opportunities. Across the Atlantic, Condé Nast in New York City was looking for someone to breathe new life into their ailing Vanity Fair magazine. After a six-month mating dance, Tina Brown was hired. Along with her husband Harry Evans, former editor of The Times of London they moved to New York, found an apartment, bought a weekend retreat on Long Island and began the dizzying life of news makers and reporters. She systematically dismantled the old VF staff and rebuilt on new foundations with creative people she knew could produce and deliver her vision.
Naturally, any shakeup in business involves casualties. The politics and behind-the-scenes psychological games required to get a successful magazine to print involve a mind-boggling complex skill set of business smarts, networking connections, branding, marketing, creativity and ego management. Any senior business manager will confirm that one of the most difficult aspects of the job is handling the personnel issues and this is particularly true when dealing with sensitive creative types. Toss ego, personal wealth and power into the mix and it’s a volatile brew.
The name-dropping in this book is unavoidable and reading her accounts of interactions with famous people over the years is fascinating. Her descriptions of daily events range from educational and informative to bitchy and salacious with wonderful and rather prophetic observations sprinkled throughout the book:
On observing the working women in the office of her real estate agent: “Looking at all these tense New York women, a little frayed, a little underpaid, enough to keep them hooked on their career path but not enough to finance escape. I felt they are the new prisoners of the American dream, always working harder than the guys and dealing and redealing the paperwork.”
On trophy wives: The perennial irony here is that men still have all the cards. “They can be driven bastards for years and ignore their kids. Then when they mellow out they can have a younger wife, a new family, and all the perks of a fresh start.”
On the pursuit of acquisition: “Without any market research he has crystallized the current longing for tradition and what he describes as the ‘lack of loveliness in the rootless, unbeautiful lives of the modern American woman who knows that deep down all the running is leading every day to a lesser life.”
On dealing with male entitlement: “On the Washington shuttle on the way to Kay Graham’s seventieth birthday party . . . I am sitting across from the Wall Street investor and CEO of CBS, Larry Tisch. He asked me to reach up to the overhead compartment to get down his jacket and I tipped it upside down so all his money and pens and credit cards rained down on his bald head, and he had to grovel around under the seat and retrieve them.”
On working mothers’ quality time with children: “Quality time is a myth. Babies want slow, wasted time together, not intense nose-to-nose ‘involvement’. There is no comparison.”
On (prophetically) reading Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal in September 1987: “It feels, when you have finished it, as if you’ve been nose to nose for four hours with an entertaining con man and I suspect the American public will like nothing better. . . Marie has been able to establish such a pattern of lying and loudmouthing in Trump that it’s incredible he still prospers and gets banks to loan him money. . . He’s like some monstrous id creation of his father, a cartoon assemblage of all his worst characteristics mixed with the particular excesses of the new media age. The revelation that he has a collection of Hitler’s speeches at the office is going to make a lot of news.”
On technology: January, 1990: “By the mid-nineties computer owners will be able to buy everything from their home offices and retail marketing will become a dinosaur.”
On the importance of political skills in business: “Having political instincts is always underestimated as a requisite for hiring. In fact, calling someone ‘political’ is usually pejorative, implying manipulation and distrust, but many jobs are impossible to succeed at without political skills.”
On being patronized by male superiors for “throwing money around” :” As if I am some ditzy girl run amok with the budget . . . instead of acknowledging our 63 percent rise in circulation and tripling of ad pages from 431 in 1985 to 1,193 today (April 1989). So fuck all the naysayers. I am so over being patronized by know-all guys.”
Brown is candid about money issues. She started working at Vanity Fair for a salary of $130,000.00. She’s forthcoming about her real estate costs, raises and salary negotiations. Like most women, she toiled for years earning less than men in her profession who oversaw magazines with smaller circulation, less ad revenue and generating less profit than VF. We’ve all been there, but Brown eventually made the smart decision to have a professional third-party negotiate her compensation package.
I’ve always envisioned being reborn in my next life as editor of national women’s magazine. Not the kind that gives you tips on how to cope with the crush of holiday entertaining or how to ensure your kids get into the best Montessori schools, but the other kind, like VF or MORE magazine, that beacon for ‘women of a certain age’ that was sadly discontinued a couple of years ago, first its Canadian edition and finally by its American publisher. MORE was an intelligent mix of business advice, fashion, current events and general interest pieces for mature women with interests beyond hearth and home—sort of a VF lite.
A few months ago I read The Price of Illusion by Joan Juliet Buck former editor of Paris Vogue and having just finished Vanity Fair Diaries by Tina Brown, I’m reconsidering my career ambitions for my next life. I must say, Vanity Fair Diaries is a guaranteed page-turner. It’s not a memoir reflecting on times past, but an actual diary written in real-time. It reads like a time capsule allowing us to compare how things and people turned out over time. While being editor of such a glamorous and relevant magazine may seem like a dream job, there’s a lot of hard work involved. The constant churn of political manoeuvring, business strategizing and networking is physically, mentally and emotionally stressful and the demands on personal time make home and family life challenging.
In the midst of all this, Brown had two babies, one with developmental challenges resulting from premature birth, and she still managed to maintain her love affair with her husband. She constantly struggled with the bilateral demands of trying to be the best mother she could be and the best magazine editor she could be. That’s a tall order for anyone. I must admit I might not be up to the task, much as I think I would like the job. Perhaps I’ll have to settle instead for living the life of editor of a national magazine vicariously through reading books by wonderful, talented women like Tina Brown and Joan Buck. In the meantime, I’ll just stick to blogging with my staff of one (me), my limited and precious readership (you) and no politics, ego or money involved. Well, maybe a bit of ego (mine) but that’s the joy and benefit of being your own boss.
The brilliance of David Sedaris’s writing is his ability to make it look so effortless. Having read most of his books over the past few years, I’m always amazed at how he can take the most seemingly ordinary situation and turn it into something hysterically funny. It’s a skill shared by Jerry Seinfeld—although Sedaris is raunchier. He’s a master of understatement and innocent observation. Growing up in a completely normal North Carolina family that included five siblings (one brother and four sisters) he’s versatile and wonderfully flawed. Sedaris has parlayed his weaknesses and ordinariness (is there such a word?) into a lucrative career as an author and humourist.
In his latest book, Theft By Finding Dairies 1977-2002, David Sedaris edits twenty-five years of entries from his personal diaries into manageable bite-sized excerpts. A large part of his material is drawn from his own experiences doing mundane jobs and his encounters with the peculiar people who pass through his daily life. With a history that includes drug and alcohol abuse, working at a variety of odd jobs including as a painter (not the artistic kind), Santa’s elf at Macy’s in New York, a teacher and part-time cleaning ‘lady’, Sedaris has lived a colourful and varied life. An aficionado of IHOP, he shares numerous stories from years of taking his meals at the famous pancake chain.
Eventually Sedaris met his partner Hugh, got his life together and now owns homes in London, Paris and New York thanks to his successful writing and speaking career. When Hugh bought him his first laptop, it required some adjustment to get used to the modern technology. “On a typewriter, when you run out of things to say, you get up and clean the bathtub. On a computer, you scroll down your list of fonts or make little boxes”. Who among us hasn’t wasted hours playing with useless functions on our laptop or personal devices. It’s those simple observations we can all relate to that make Sedaris’s writing so enjoyable. Fortunately he got the hang of his laptop and provides hours of reading for us to enjoy. I can’t say this is his best book, but it’s certainly fun to read. David Sedaris’s writing is not everyone’s taste but I read everything by him that I can get my hands on. He makes it look so easy and always puts a smile on my face. That’s good enough for me.
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It was a scramble to finish reading the book Alias Grace before the television series aired as I didn’t want to preempt any of the deliciousness of the story line. Written by Margaret Atwood more than twenty years ago, it took me a long time to get to the book because I’d been put off by her later writing, including The Handmaid’s Tale. I disliked The Handmaid’s Tale as I found it too dystopian and weird when I first read it in 1986. Times have changed; the world is becoming scarier and The Handmaid’s Tale is no longer as remote from reality as it once seemed. I’m loving the television series and can’t wait for the next season.
Alias Grace is historical fiction (my favourite reading genre) based on the true story of Grace Marks, a pretty, young Irish immigrant housemaid in Toronto in the mid-1800’s. Put out to work by her alcoholic, abusive father at a young age, Grace secured employment as domestic help in a well-to-do Toronto household where she made friends with Mary Whitney, another young employee of the household. Life was not easy for domestic servants and they were frequently exploited by their employers. When Mary Whitney dies from a botched abortion, Grace is tainted by virtue of her friendship with Mary and is forced to leave and accept a position further north in rural Richmond Hill working for a bachelor ‘gentleman’ Thomas Kinnear. His relationship with his existing housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery soon becomes evident and presents complications for the entire household. Nancy is mercurial, swinging from overly friendly to mean and jealous.
In July 1843, while Kinnear is away from home, Nancy informs Grace and the handyman James McDermott that their services are no longer required and she intends to dismiss them before Kinnear returns. Then the story gets muddy. Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery are murdered but no one is sure who did it; James? Grace? Or both? The resulting murder trial is a major scandal in nineteenth century Upper Canada. McDermott is condemned to death by hanging and because of Grace’s vague testimony that was highly manipulated by her pro-bono lawyer and her young age (she was only fifteen), she receives a life sentence in the harsh federal penitentiary in Kingston, Ontario.
During her incarceration, a number of well-meaning citizens and professionals attempt to extract the truth from Grace about the day of the murders but without success. Many people feel she is innocent and lobby for her release. Famous novelist Susanna Moodie even took a stab at getting to the truth (sorry for the bad pun) in her book Life in the Clearing but it was generally acknowledged that Moodie’s tendency to exaggeration and belief in spiritualism heavily coloured her account. After fifteen years of incarceration, Atwood introduces a character called Dr. Simon Jordan who specializes in studying mental health issues (such as they were at that time). He undertakes interviewing Grace over a period of months in an attempt to extract the truth once and for all. Although uneducated, Grace is obviously highly intelligent and articulate which makes it difficult to sort out fact from fiction.
Atwood’s story alternates time frames and narration. We’re often presented with the story in Grace’s own words as well as from the perspective of Dr. Jordan and a third party. I’ve never understood why some writers eschew quotation marks when employing dialogue some of the time but not all of the time. I suppose it’s a technical issue beyond my uneducated grasp but it does make for a bit of confusion at times sorting out conversations. Whoever said Canadian history is boring is just plain wrong. Just as I was wrong in discounting Margaret Atwood’s writing after The Edible Woman published in the mid-sixties and still my favourite Atwood novel. Alias Grace is a wonderful read. You’ll find plenty of touchstones you can relate to and the mystery surrounding the double murder will keep you engrossed in the book beyond the last page into the “Afterword” by Atwood. Millions of book buyers can’t be wrong.