I recently concluded after reading several articles by literary journalists that women have to be edgy to get attention. Do women write even more about pop culture now than they did in the days of the Women’s Page? In The Guardian, Elizabeth Edmondson, an author of historical novels and historical and contemporary romantic comedies, recently claimed it is nonsense to say Jane Austen wrote literary fiction. In the entertaining but also very literary Washington Post Book World, Sarah MacLean, a romance writer, picked the best romance novels for May. (Is this a Post first?) And Rebecca Mead, a New Yorker staff writer and author of My Life in Middlemarch, wrote a long feature in The New Yorker on Jennifer Weiner, an author of pop women’s fiction who has urged book review publications to review more fiction by women. (Weiner also wants her own books to be reviewed, but she is not a very good writer.)
Although I am edgier than some bloggers, I truly am not trying to be edgy here: I am not the only reader who believes it is a waste of time to write such articles let alone read them; is this the only way women can get published? (Probably.) Why should we waste time pretending Jane Austen is pop–is it so more will read her?–or give space to a long article about Jennifer Weiner instead of, say, Elizabeth Spencer?
Mind you, I used to be a pop culture writer, and I am all about taking chances. Yes, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss is brilliantly funny and even vulnerable as the vice president in Veep, especially in an episode that gently satirizes Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! program. (Turns out Selena hates fat people, and she might be pregnant.) I would rather watch Battlestar Galactica than go to Le Weekend, though I do like Jeff Goldblum, or The Railway Man (God, no, nothing to do with World War II, please), even though Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman doubtless are wonderful. Am I pop enough for ya? Sometimes pop and art overlap, I know.
There also appears to be a bit of a literary-pop overlap going on in book publishing. “Doesn’t this look good?” I’ll say about a book I picked up by chance, and then before I know it I’m curled up in chair reading TaraShea Nesbit’s debut, and 70 pages later wondering simply if I should bother to finish it.
I picked up Julia MacDonnell’s book because I am interested in reading about older heroines: Mimi, 67, has lost her job, and is now at home in the apartment all day, smoking. One of her daughters wants to put her in an assisted living facility, but Mimi, even though an MRI shows black spots in her brain, is humorous, sensible, and damned if she is going to let her six daughters take over her life.
Mimi has had a tough life–divorced after she lost her looks–and I love her observations about her hysterectomy.
All women lose their looks. Sooner or later. It’s inevitable, like sun in morning, moon at night. No female escapes, no matter how much time or money she’s got to spend on herself. Most women, though, lose their looks in bits and pieces, a wrinkle here, an extra pound or two there, then the drooping boobs, the sagging bottom, the thinning hair and thickening waist. But me, I lost them all at once–here today, gone tomorrow–the same way I once lost a good watch and then a pair of rosary beds Jack had given me, no clue about their worth until I realized they were gone for good.
Her six daughters are pretty much alienated from her, but when they get together with Mimi and her sisters, and explore their Irish-American past , they solve the problem of what happened to their sister, Fagan, who was sent away by their violent stepmother.
It brings them together. Mimi also gets a boyfriend. And they no longer try to pull them apart.
On the other hand, Tarashea Nesbit’s debut, The Wives of Los Alamos, is a big disappointment. I’m fascinated by the history of Los Alamos, the town where families had to be secretive about their location, and Nesbit tells the story of the wives of the scientists and engineers who developed the atom bomb. Nesbit writes from the first person plural perspective (“we” did this; “we” did that), but she certainly doesn’t do this as well as Joan Chase in During the Reign of the Queen of Persia. The first 70 pages of The Wives of Los Alamos are very moving, but then it becomes wildly uneven, and I never could keep the characters straight. There is not much text on the page, and a space between almost every very short paragraph, and there are lots of pedestrian, trying-to-be-poetic statements like:
Like many moving toward an unknown future, we clung to the beliefs that had carried us this far–about people, the world, our husbands, the war–until that strategy could no longer assuage our fears.”
Not very good poetry, and quite repetititive. This could be a book club selection, but would the average book club put up with first-person plural? We’ll see.