A Year of Reading Books by Women

My rekindled feminism, brought to a blaze in my disgust over Trump’s election, hit my Kindle reader right away. I resolved to read only books by women in 2017. I read 14 books in all, 13 by women, one book by a man and some short stories by women and men.

I started the year by rereading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I read it first in high school (25 years ago, but who’s counting), so I wondered if it would pack the same punch. It did, even more so as I imagined how many of our right wing lunatic political leaders would love a United States where the rule of law is gone and instead the government runs on biblical bullshit.

After that, I needed some escapism, so I read books 6, 7 and 8 the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. These books are, frankly, not that good. I got into them last year because of the TV series, and I got in to the TV series because of the fabulous period costuming by Terry Dresbach. The first three books are good, the fourth is OK, and then they go downhill – recycled plots, little character development, way too many inconsequential actions. I stuck with them because I expected a big payoff in Book 8 and it was only “meh.” It kept me a little entertained during my 15-hour flights to India, anyway.

I needed reality after that fantasy binge, so I read “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron.  Diana Gabaldon’s experience writing the Outlander books also fueled this interest. I have always wanted to write fiction but I have not succeeded for various reasons (here and here if you want to know more).

Then I read another series a friend had recommended, The Giver books by Lois Lowry. The dystopias Lowry created are similar to Atwood’s in some respects – in one society, a group of young women is judged by its ability to have babies. These are young-adult novels and not really my speed either, but I feel that I learned something from them about how our desires to protect ourselves from pain and harm may leave us feeling nothing, which is worse. They were good summer reads anyway.

At this point, I was reminded of some short stories I read by Alice Munro, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013. I reread a few of them that had influenced me as a young woman. I never felt that I wanted to have children, yet all women I knew except for one great-aunt had children. Her stories confirmed for me that it was OK to have a childless life.

My next book was “Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage and Manners”  by Therese Oneill. A blogger I like had recommended it. It was very laugh-out-loud funny in places and pretty gross in other places. I later read a female historian’s account of all the ways the book is wrong. Entertaining – both points of view.

My last summer read was “The Woman Upstairs” by Claire Messaud. This was my favorite fiction book of the year. It followed on the themes from The Artist’s Way – the protagonist is a frustrated artist who finds her muse, only to be betrayed. Messaud is a hell of a gifted writer and I am planning to read more from her in 2018.

I realized at some point that I’d read only books by white women so far in 2017 and I had wanted to continue my efforts to read more African American women, so I read “Strategize to Win” by Carla Harris. She’s a high-ranking banking executive who’s made a name for herself not just for thriving in a white man’s industry, but also for giving solid career advice. I wish I’d read this book 15 years ago. It was instrumental in my decision to enroll in graduate school, classes starting in January 2018.

I reread “H Is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald, just because it’s beautiful.

My final female-authored book for 2017 was Emily Wilson’s translation of “The Odyssey.” I read about it in a profile in The New Yorker and I was captivated by her direct, insightful language in translating the Greek classic. It was very good, maybe missing a bit of the poetry of other translations, but doing a great job of making you care about the characters and better understand the ways the ancient Greeks lived.

I read three things my men. In October, to get the spirit for a trip to Baltimore, I read and reread some short stories and poems by Edgar Allen Poe. We visited his house and grave in Baltimore on Friday the 13th and got into the Halloween spirit. I was reminded of what a genius he was – the stories are well worth reading if you haven’t touched them since high school. I also read some short stories by Haruki Murakami on and off this fall. They were not that good. Long-form fiction is more his style.

Finally, I am reading “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire” by Kurt Anderson. This is my #1 nonfiction book for the year. If you want to understand how Trump could get elected president, read this. Anderson’s premise is that there is something in American culture, from its earliest days, that promotes and encourages magical thinking. Maybe it was the wide open spaces of the New World, or the religious nutjobs who first colonized the land, or maybe its the American embrace of new technologies, be it printing press or Internet, but our Constitutional freedoms have curdled into something dangerous for the future of American society.

For 2018, I will be starting out with college textbooks, I guess. I’d like to read more from African Americans and other cultures. And I will probably read one more series over the summer, just for fun.

Why I’m Not Doing NaNoWriMo This Year

I flirted with but ultimately rejected the idea of doing the National Novel-Writing Month challenge again. NaNoWriMo (as it’s very geekily called) is a challenge to write a 50,000-word novel during November. That’s about 1,670 words a day, or about 5 to 7 pages, depending on how you write.

I completed the challenge, writing 50,000 or more words, in November 2013, 2014 and 2015. Each of those years, I followed professional writing disciplines, such as outlining the plot and completing character studies. In 2014, I volunteered as my region’s coordinator for the program, so I gave pep talks, set up “write-ins” at area libraries, fielded questions, held hands, and organized parties for the kick-off and the completion celebration.

I ended up with three very rough first drafts of novels, since 50,000 words is really more novella length – not enough for the complexity of my stories. I tried writing mainstream fiction, each based on a “big” concept or theme, such as sovereignty over one’s body, or technology’s tendency to disenfranchise people who don’t get it. Yeah, pretty heady concepts, and pretty pretentious, looking back on it.

I gave myself a break last year because of work pressures, and told myself I would instead work on revising the most promising of the three novels. Rereading the manuscripts, I was by turns delighted and horrified by what I’d written. I couldn’t really make headway on the best of the lot, so I set the whole thing aside for another day.

I have since tried “The Artist’s Way” to reconnect with my desire to write, but a roadblock proves immovable so far.

The work pressure is off this year, but I find myself unenthusiastic about trying again:

  • I don’t need a fourth unfinished half-assed novel in my life. I am afraid of failure and always driven to achieve things. Getting the “yay” moment at 50,000 words is nice, but it’s not enough for me anymore.
  • I’d rather spend my time doing other things, such as sewing, taking care of my health, and building my career.
  • The effort is not that great for me, since I can write very quickly and my long commute affords plenty of time. But the project took me away from my husband a lot in November; he resented it, and I felt guilty.
  • I never connected well with anyone in my community like I thought I would. I was hoping to make friends, or at least a colleague I could bounce things off of, but that didn’t happen. This sounds awful, but the people I met were all weird and I didn’t want to spend time with them. They probably regarded me as some entitled snob, which is true enough.
  • The NaNo crowd skews heavily toward genre fiction. I’m not putting genre fiction down, it’s just hard to relate to someone who’s writing what they hope is the next Twilight or Star Trek series while you’re exploring more down-to-earth themes.
  • My new job is more challenging than my old job, where I had lots of time to screw around. Many a time when I was supposed to be working at my old job, I’d be writing my novels instead. A couple times in 2015 I wrote during my lunch break on my personal laptop, but it was a weird thing to do in my office environment and it made me uncomfortable.
  • Part of me feels I need to get over this silly dream and just focus on my career anyway. I’m 47, for chrissakes.

I sometimes miss writing (but hey, I have this blog for that). I toyed with “pantsing” it, that is, writing a novel by the seat of my pants – no outline, no characters, no theme. But my control-freak mind would be most unhappy. I also toyed with the idea of doing something goofy, like fan fiction, just to do it – try something different, get out of the ol’ comfort zone.

Part of me feels sorry that I am passing this by. I really do want to write and to publish one good book in my lifetime. That may not happen for a variety of reasons, but if I don’t do the work in the first place, that will always be reason #1. Corny motivational sayings such as “winners are losers who gave it one more try” and “it’s never too late” are all true. Also, there is never a perfect time, let alone a good time, to do the work. You do it because you need to. You make the time for it. You sacrifice and scrimp and sow resentment if you have to.

There’s nothing magical about National Novel-writing Month. It’s just a month, just a goal, just a structured community to participate. I can do it any time. So why don’t I?