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review SPOILER ALERT! 2020-03-13 20:12
A. S. Byatt's Possession - Great, but not perfect
Possession - A.S. Byatt

I first read this book around 20 years ago, and I loved it then.  Reading it now, and knowing the ending, I enjoyed it even more.


But . . . .


It wasn't as perfect this time around as the first.  The diminution of my enjoyment wasn't due to knowing the ending but rather to knowing more -- much more -- about late 20th century literary criticism, especially late 20th century feminist literary criticism.


My undergraduate degree is in Women's Studies.  I had just gone back to college in 1998, and bought this book in the fall of that year or the spring of 1999.  At that point, I knew only enough about fem lit crit to be dangerous, but not enough to understand a lot of the nuances in Possession.


The writing is magnificent, and the plot intriguing.    Major spoilers ahead.


Scholar Roland Michell discovers a hitherto unknown draft of a letter by [fictitious] Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash to an unknown woman.  Michell's research leads him to believe the letter was intended to go to another [fictitious] Victorian poet, Christabel LaMotte.  Roland enlists the aid of Maud Bailey, another scholar of Victorian poets whose specialty is LaMotte.  They embark on a quest to find out if Ash and LaMotte had any connection, literary or otherwise.


Their first major discovery is a cache of letters between the two Victorians, letters that establish a connection and hint very strongly at an affair.  But they have no conclusive evidence, so now the quest takes on another aspect.

(spoiler show)


Despite their best efforts at secrecy, they can't keep all their knowledge from the outside world, particularly the very close world of scholars whose specialties are Ash and LaMotte.


Mortimer Cropper is the very wealthy, very arrogant American who keeps buying up everything related to Ash he can get his hands on, legally or otherwise, to stash in his precious Stant Collection at [fictitious] Robert Dale Owen University in Harmony City, New Mexico.  (For some fun, see https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Trivia/Possession)


Leonora Stern is another American, flamboyant, blatantly sexual, but sincerely interested in Christabel LaMotte.  Stern is more or less friends with Maud Bailey.


Beatrice Nest is a kind of pathetic, put-upon, insecure creature, who jealously guards her speciality, which is the diary of Randolph Ash's wife, Ellen.  Nest has been editing the diary/diaries her entire academic career.  She's nowhere near done.


Fergus Wolff is the handsome, sexy scholar who is a kind of rival, kind of friend to Roland.  Wolff once had an affair with Maud Bailey; she withdrew emotionally afterward.


James Blackadder is Roland's boss.  Blackadder is a foremost authority on Randolph Henry Ash in England; he just wishes he had Cropper's money to acquire all the goodies and keep them on their native soil.


Val (I've forgotten her last name!) is Roland's long-time girlfriend, flatmate, fuck buddy, and financial support, since he doesn't make much as a part-time tutor and researcher.  They sort of love each other, but they sort of don't, but both of them have a sense of obligation to each other.


Those are the main characters, and there are a few others who play important roles.


Most authors can give their various characters distinctive voices and personalities, but Byatt has taken it one gigantic step further.  She has included scads and scads of [fictitious] source material: Ash's poetry, LaMotte's poetry, their letters, Ellen Ash's diary, Blanche Glover's suicide note, LaMotte's cousin's diary (though not in the original French), excerpts from Cropper's published works, excerpts from discarded drafts of Blackadder's academic work, and more.


As Roland and Maud make one discovery after another, taking protective possession of their new-found knowledge, this reader was usually half a step ahead of them, sometimes more. 


Once you know that Ash and LaMotte had an affair and broke it off suddely, then apparently never had any contact again for almost 30 years, and there's no obvious explanation, well, the obvious presumption is . . . obvious.  So the nystery of why LaMotte left England to spend approximately a year with cousins in Brittany is hardly a mystery:  She was pregnant.

(spoiler show)


Despite their best attempts at secrecy, Roland and Maud know that they and their discoveries going to be . . . discovered.  Sure enough, Mortimer Cropper is hot on their trail in his big black Mercedes and his fat wad of cash.


And that's where Possession lost its perfect rating.


There are references to a box that Ellen Ash buried with Randolph, a box that may contain documents relative to the "mystery" of Randolph and Christabel.  The box wasn't opened when Ellen herself was buried a few years later, but now Cropper wants to know what's in it.  He petitions to have the grave opened, but there are legal difficulties, so he arranges to dig up the grave, in a remote country churchyard, in dead (pun intended) of night and steal the box.  He utilizes Randolph Henry Ash's heir (via another branch of the family, as Randolph and Ellen had no children) to provide some dubious legal cover.


And that's what I meant by the resemblance to It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.  All these main characters, and a few minor ones, converge on the country churchyard.  Cropper is foiled, the box is recovered and opened, and a few more secrets are revealed.


But it seemed so silly.  It seemed there could have been a more believable method of obtaining the box than anyone thinking they could dig up an almost 100-year-old grave, remove the box, then put everything back the way it was and no one would notice.  It was just too eye-rollingly dumb.


There was another reason why I just can't give this book a perfect rating: Byatt too often broke the fourth wall and did it too clumsily.


It's one thing to have an omniscient third-person viewpoint.  It's another thing entirely for the third-person narrator to even indirectly address the reader.  "But So-and-so didn't know that yet and wouldn't learn the truth for some time to come."  That sort of thing.  There were only a couple instances, but they were a couple too many.  Byatt had created this almost flawless world of Victorian literature and culture and history as well as its 20th century scholars, then destroyed it with these odd little stage asides.


The worst, however, was



After most of the important revelations have been made, there's one more:  Ellen Ash's apparent abhorrence of sex.  This information is revealed only to the reader, not to any of the other characters.  Both Ash and his wife took this secret with them to their graves and left no evidence of it.  I'm not sure why Byatt included it; it added nothing substantive to the story.  If it was justification for Ash's physical affair with LaMotte, it didn't work, at least not for me.  He continued, even during and after the affair, to profess his love for his wife.  Did it matter that she was "frigid"?  Could not her failure to conceive have been sufficient motivation for him?  Could not just human longing and attraction have been enough?


I saw in Byatt's depiction of Ellen's revulsion a reflection of the John Ruskin and Euphemia Gray marriage, which ended somewhat differently, in that they had the marriage annulled and Effie went on to a happy and rewarding -- eight children -- marriage with John Everett Millais.  What I didn't see was the necessity for it.  Had the information been revealed to Maud and Roland, it would have made a big difference.  Keeping it only for the reader created a distance from the text that make me uncomfortable.


(spoiler show)

Possession is a terrific novel, definitely worthy of the 1990 Booker Prize.  But it's not an easy novel to fully appreciate.


According to Wikipedia --


A. S. Byatt, in part, wrote Possession in response to John Fowles' novel The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969). In an essay in Byatt's nonfiction book, On Histories and Stories, she wrote:

Fowles has said that the nineteenth-century narrator was assuming the omniscience of a god. I think rather the opposite is the case—this kind of fictive narrator can creep closer to the feelings and inner life of characters—as well as providing a Greek chorus—than any first-person mimicry. In 'Possession' I used this kind of narrator deliberately three times in the historical narrative—always to tell what the historians and biographers of my fiction never discovered, always to heighten the reader's imaginative entry into the world of the text.


While her intention may have been to heighten the reader's imaginative entry into the text, I found it just the opposite.  It reminded me even more firmly that I as a reader was completely outside the text, outside the action, outside the characters' whose stories were being told -- Randolph and Christabel, Roland and Maud.


Also for that reason, I took exception to the plot point that Ash never knew of Christabel's child.


Ellen knew -- because Christabel's companion and unconfirmed lover Blanche Glover had told her so.  And Christabel herself had given Ellen a letter to give to Ash with all the particulars, though Ellen never did so.  The one encounter between Ash and LaMotte after the affair and after the child's birth -- at a seance that Ash disrupted -- revealed to him that there had been a child, though not whether it still lived or not. 


The final scene of the book

is an encounter between Ash and the child herself, though supposedly he does not know who she is.  But he claims he knows her mother, and he knows very well where he is.  So he asks for a lock of her hair, which she then braids and gives him to put in his watch.  Her hair, like Christabel's and like Maud Bailey's, is distinctive, so distinctive that Ash must have known.

(spoiler show)


Though it's already been established that Maud Bailey is herself the descendant of that child, the assumption remains that Ash himself never knew.


I think he did.



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review 2019-07-07 22:48
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
We Should All Be Feminists - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Date Published: July 19, 2014

Format: Ebook

Source: Own Copy

Date Read: June 30, 2019

Read for COYER Summer 2019



With humor and levity, here Adichie offers readers a unique definition of feminism for the twenty-first century—one rooted in inclusion and awareness. She shines a light not only on blatant discrimination, but also the more insidious, institutional behaviors that marginalize women around the world, in order to help readers of all walks of life better understand the often masked realities of sexual politics. Throughout, she draws extensively on her own experiences—in the U.S., in her native Nigeria, and abroad—offering an artfully nuanced explanation of why the gender divide is harmful for women and men, alike.

Argued in the same observant, witty and clever prose that has made Adichie a bestselling novelist, here is one remarkable author’s exploration of what it means to be a woman today—and an of-the-moment rallying cry for why we should all be feminists.




I read this on the plane and enjoyed the speech for the content but not for the dryness of the writing. Before writing this review, I watched the Ted Talk and had a much better experience with the text. Ms. Adichie had nuanced and humor that didn't come across as well in text as it did in the video (https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_we_should_all_be_feminists?language=en). I think I also liked how the audience responded, giving the speech much more life. I am keeping the ebook/script so I can refer to it, but I recommend watching the video to get the full affect of this wonderful speech.


Oh, and I cheered mentally when she mentioned she tried to read "feminist classics" and was bored - same here Ms. Adichie.

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text 2019-03-31 22:43
A brief history lesson and a mild rant

I come from a very touchy feely huggy family.  It's second nature to me to offer hugs of condolence or gratitude without even thinking.  I'm sure there have been times when "without even thinking" has caused me to offend people who are less welcoming of being touched.  To all of them, I'm sorry.  I should have asked.  I probably wouldn't have, but I probably should have.


In my defense of the indefensible, there's something squicky and grotesquely insincere about saying to someone, "Oh, I'm so sorry your mother passed away unexpectedly.  Would it be all right if I give you a hug?  I don't want to infringe on your personal space, so feel free to say no."


Does this mean I think it's all right for men to touch, fondle, kiss, sniff, or otherwise behave inappropriately toward women without permission?  No, I don't.


I took a class at ASU in 1999 or 2000 titled "Gender and Sexuality."  I recently sorted through some of the papers from that class and contemplated tossing them but chose instead to scan them as PDFs.  I may never use them again, but they're no longer taking up any shelf space and someday I just might want them. 


On the first day of class, the professor asked us to explain the difference between a wink and a blink.  We were all juniors, seniors, and grad students majoring in some area of the social sciences, so this wasn't exactly a trick question.  Yet most of the students offered definitions based on the physical act of rapidly opening and closing one or both eyes.  In fact, however, the difference is in both the intent/purpose on the part of the blinker/winker and the perception of the person blinked/winked at.


Did Henry Gondorff ever actually wink in The Sting?









Or do we just remember a wink?  Can there be a wink without a blink?


Moving into someone's personal space is not a good thing.  Whether it's touching someone's hair or arm, patting someone's fanny, squeezing a person's shoulder, sitting too close to them on the subway, whatever it is it's not good.


But . . . .


In 1972, Avon Books published a paperback original novel by an unknown first-time author named Kathleen E. Woodiwiss.  The acquiring editor was Nancy Coffey.  The Flame and the Flower  hit newsstands and grocery stores and book stores and the publishing world was never the same.  The virginal heroine Heather is forcibly raped by the hero Brandon, but they later fall in love with each other and end up living Happily Ever After.


If hundreds of thousands of women readers hadn't bought copies of The Flame and the Flower, there would never have been The Wolf and the Dove or Devil's Desire or Sweet Savage Love or any of the other thousands of sexually explicit historical romances published by Avon and Ballantine, Warner and Playboy, New American Library and Pocket Books, Jove and Onyx and Charter and Ace and a few others I can't remember off the top of my head.


I still have my First Edition of Devil's Desire


Prior to 1972, virtually all women's romance fiction was devoid of graphic sex.  Harlequin/Mills & Boon dominated the paperback romance market, and Harlequin Romances were "clean."  The gothics of the 1960s were "clean." No explicit sex, and in many cases no sex at all.  Not off the page, not behind closed doors.  Nancy Coffey, Kathleen Woodiwiss, and Heather Simmons changed all that.  In 1973, Harlequin began its "Presents" line, turning up the heat in contemporary romances to tap into the market opened up by the sexy historicals.


Women bought and read these books because they liked them.  My contention has always been that while it's unquestionably rape in the context of the book, it isn't in the context of the act of reading, because the reader understands the conventions of the genre and knows that victim and rapist will fall in love and live Happily Ever After.  The reader provides the consent that's missing from the text.


Does this make rape okay?  Does it make "forced seduction" okay?  Does it make the stairway scene in Gone With the Wind okay?  No, not really, not quite, not in real life.


Not in real life, unless maybe he were the latest heartthrob from Game of Thrones or Aquaman or whatever pop culture phenomenon is at the top of the heap these days?  Would it matter then?  Would it matter less?


Helen Hazen, writing in 1983, responds in a rather expected manner as a reader to the notion of rape: "I would like to be raped, but I want it to happen to me exactly as it happened to Cressida in Vice Avenged" (8).

Hilton, Linda. Half Heaven, Half Heartache: Discovering the transformative potential in women's popular fiction .  . Kindle Edition.

Vice Avenged is a historical novel -- maybe a romance? -- by Lolah Burford, published in 1971, in which the virginal heroine is violently raped by the handsome, wealthy, powerful hero . . . and they all lived Happily Ever After.  So we have a book published a year before Woodiwiss, and an opinion written eleven years after!


How far would you actually allow that Sexiest Man on Earth to go if you found yourself seated next to him on a red-eye from SFO to LGA?  What if you both fell asleep and his head ended up on your shoulder or his hand on your knee?  What if he helped you get your carry-on down from the overhead bin and he brushed up against your backside and someone snapped a picture with their phone?


I'm not defending rapists or predators and won't.  There's a hard line there.


Nor am I blaming victims. 


Brandon Birmingham raped Heather Simmons, pure and simple.  Yes, it's fiction, but it's also fact.  It's not forced seduction; she fought him and did not even hint at consent.  Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, R. Kelly and all the rest used power and position to victimize.  They believed they could get away with it because . . . they got away with it.  It didn't have to be forcible sexual intercourse; we've broadened the definition of rape. 


We've also broadened the definition of sexual assault and sexual harassment.  What I accepted as normal behavior from a boss in the workplace in 1967 would mean potential jail time in 2019.  Was it wrong for my boss to expose his genitals to me and solicit oral sex while I was delivering the mail?  Of course it was.  But it was also . . . normal.  Normal in the sense that nothing would ever be done about it.  (I quit on the spot.) 


Times change.  People change.  Standards change.


We want to legalize marijuana and let all the pot smokers out of jail, because attitudes have changed.  We want to legalize sex work and even romanticize sex workers, because attitudes have changed.  We've legalized same-sex marriage because attitudes have changed. 


What we haven't legalized are apologies.


I despise the Patricia Gaffney romance To Have and To Hold.  There are few books I hate as much as I hate that one.  (Nothing will ever top The Thorn Birds for hatred.)  I despise it because the hero never apologizes for his treatment of the heroine.  He finds excuses for his behavior, and claims to have suffered for his behavior, but there is no process of redemption.  He doesn't suffer for the sins he commits against her.  He doesn't give up anything.  He doesn't sacrifice.


She does it all.  She sacrifices, she suffers, she relinquishes.  And he never offers her her freedom from it.  She is forever powerless, forever his victim.  And he has no remorse.


In a romance novel, it's all okay, especially if he's handsome and/or rich and/or powerful.  The reader forgives all.


In real life there is no forgiveness.  There is no room for apology.  There is no possibility of redemption.


How much have we, the female readers (and writers) of sexually explicit romance novels, internalized that romance novel trope?  How much do we permit in the real world because we've permitted it in the fictional world?  How afraid are we to speak up in the real world because the women in the books don't speak up?  How brutally do we punish the transgressors, the invaders of our personal space in real life because we don't punish them in the novels?


It's easy to laugh at the so-called bodice rippers of the 1970s and '80s, but there are still writers writing them today.  And there are still readers reading them and enjoying them and shelling out good money for them.  Is it dubious consent or forced seduction or flat-out rape? 


Lots of people read and love horror fiction; that doesn't mean they want to watch babies be eaten by giant crocodiles or see the world taken over by zombies.  I'm not suggesting readers can't tell the difference between fantasy and reality.  Some of us love to be scared to death; I can't read even a single Lovecraft short story without leaving the lights on at night.  Some of us find romance laughable and totally unreal.  We all have our preferences, and none are intrinsically wrong or right.


But I fear that a failure to understand the complexity and the history of sexually explicit romance fiction and its impact on -- as well as the way it's been impacted by -- popular culture and current social attitudes leaves us locked in yet another double standard.  Instead of young women being either virgins or sluts, we've now turned the spotlight on men, and made the distinction between virgins and sluts almost impossible to maintain.  At the same time that we decry slut-shaming in fiction, we condemn the friendly touch, the affectionate hug, the human need for connection.


When is that a blink and when is it a wink?  When is that touch on the shoulder a gesture of empathy or of shared laughter or even of encouragement?  When is it appropriate and when is it inappropriate?  And how do we tell the difference?





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text 2018-11-11 19:15
Not a formal status report, but . . . . .
The Tulip Tree - Howard Rigsby

I knew I wouldn't be able to stay up and read very long because I was really, really tired when I went to bed.  I did, however, want to start this book.


There's no question that this is a gothic romance.  The publisher put it right on the cover!  It's compared to Du Maurier's classic Rebecca. The artwork is almost typical gothic, with the spooky house and single lighted window.  The young woman, however, is in close-up portrait rather than full-length with windblown hair and gown.


And the author is male.


There are also quotes from a number of reviews published in real newspapers.  Hmmmmmm.  Gothic romances did not get reviewed in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner in the 1960s.


I only read 12 pages, not quite the first whole chapter, before I just couldn't keep my eyes open any longer, but that was enough to confirm my suspicions that I had read this book before, decades ago.  One small incident ticked my memory, something I would not have consciously remembered but that came back to me the instant I read it. 


There were only two ways I could have read this book in the 1960s.  It was either condensed by Reader's Digest, or it was a Doubleday Book Club selection.  My parents subscribed to both for a number of years at that time.  I read the condensed version of The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant by Douglas Wallop as well as his later novel, Ocean Front, though I don't know if that was book club or condensed.  I do remember the cover, however, so maybe it was a book club edition.  I also read two other book club offerings, The Daughter of the Pangaran and Summer Doctor.  I remember details of both those books, and they were published about the same time as The Tulip Tree, so I'm more comfortable guessing I read a book club edition.


So in 1963, a gothic romance written by a man would be published in hardcover by Doubleday and be reviewed numerous newspapers, be selected for their subscription book club, and later be republished in paperback.  No doubt Howard Rigsby earned a great deal more for his gothic romance novel than most of the women writing paperback gothics.

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review 2018-11-10 18:42
The Everyday World as Problematic . . . and a problem
The Everyday World As Problematic (Northeastern Series on Feminist Theory) - Dorothy E. Smith

This is a superb analysis of the intertwined issues of gender, gender roles, and power.


One of the most interesting graduate classes I took at ASU was "Sociology of Everyday Life," for which this was one of the texts. 


Sadly, much of our time in class was flat-out ruined by a trio of middle-school teachers who were more interested in chatting (loudly) than in listening to any discussion.  They became an informal example of how "ruling relations" affect our everyday lives: Accustomed to being in charge in a classroom, they transferred their sense of authority to our classroom.  The professor, being only an adjunct and therefore lacking in authority, hesitated to demand their attention or call them out for their disruptive behavior.


I had no such reticence.  I got sick and tired of it one evening (it was a night class) and told them to shut up.  They were sooooo insulted!  Who was I to tell them to shut up when the professor himself hadn't said anything?  Well damn it, I was paying for that class and I wanted to get something out of it beyond hearing their problems with their students.


We were treated to a special Saturday session for which Dorothy Smith and another sociologist were brought in.  One of the things I remembered most about her presentation was a diagram showing how texts -- meaning books, magazines, movies, advertisements, etc. -- are never static because they get interpreted by those who consume them.  Therefore it's virtually impossible to evaluate any text solely on its own merits without considering the context of both the producer of the text and the consumer.


Needless to say, this applies to the reviewing of books: Regardless what the author may have intended the book to be or to mean or to do, the reader's reaction is an independent and valid context.



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