Staff Picks Category: Women

Girl Meets Boy: The Myth of Iphis by Ali Smith []

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In Ovid’s Metamorphosis, tucked away between stories about just how cruel gods & monsters & men can be, is a happy myth about a girl falling in love with another girl. In Girl Meets Boy, Ali Smith takes this myth of Iphis and Ianthe into the twenty-first century, and the result is a story that celebrates transformation, love, and civil disobedience.

In Inverness, dreamy twenty-something Anthea quits her corporate job, to the chagrin of her serious-minded older sister, Imogen, and promptly falls in love with a graffiti artist. Anthea and her modern-day Iphis joyfully thwart conventions of sex and gender in this decidedly queer retelling. Told from the perspectives of Anthea and Imogen, Girl Meets Boy is written in Smith’s signature (& humorous!) steam-of-conscious style. Her love of wordplay and ear for conversations make it perfect to be read aloud.

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Down the Nile: alone in a fisherman’s skiff by Rosemary Mahoney []

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I liked this independent, determined woman. In the late 1990s, Mahoney, an American writer and experienced recreational rower, got the idea of rowing herself down the Nile.  This is not allowed and virtually never done — tourists always travel on cruise boats or feluccas (small sailboats piloted by their owners). When she set out to buy a small rowboat in Egypt, she was met with disbelief.  Women, even western women, did not travel alone. To a fisherman, rowing was work, so why would she want to do it herself?  Felucca captains and boat owners assumed a woman couldn’t know how to row. Eventually she succeeds in her adventure, and it’s both more and less than expected but always fascinating.

Mahoney is empathetic and eloquent. She engages in conversations with Egyptian men and women she meets, learning a great deal about cultural differences, rampant poverty, and the restricted status of women. She quotes extensively from 19th-century European travelers, notably Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert, and gives a selective history of tourism in the region (including colonialism and theft of artifacts) which puts the present-day in context.  So much has changed and so much is the same.  In particular, her descriptions of the river and its natural environment — the wildlife, vegetation, water and sky — are poetic and timeless.

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple []

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A couple of creative, perceptive and witty misfits star in this novel.  Mother, wife and lapsed architect Bernadette lives in Seattle with her high-tech superstar husband and too-smart-for-social-success teenage daughter.  They live in a beyond weird old house and can’t cope with their perfectly privileged and PC neighbors or private school.  The format is as original as the characters: the story unfolds through letters, emails, diary entries and school documents.  Maria Semple wrote for TV’s Arrested Development, so you’d expect the dialogue and plot twists to be hilarious, and they are; there are scenes that would be fabulous onscreen.  There’s also sincerity and real character development in these quickly-turning pages.

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Birth House by Ami McKay []

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This book made me think about the births of my children as well as family tales I’ve heard from my mother and grandmother about their very different birth experiences. The clash between midwifery and “modern” medical care is at the center of this engaging story. The author does a great job of weaving in historical events and of setting the story during the nineteen-teens in a remote Nova Scotia village.

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Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag by Sigrid Nunez []

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This very short memoir of the association between Ingrid Nunez and Susan Sontag recounts their friendship/mentorship during the time that Sontag was writing “On Photography” and New York literary life in the 1970’s. Nunez was hired by Sontag to help sort out her correspondence. She then became involved with Sontag’s son, David Rieff, and for a period of time the three of them lived in the same apartment. There are many glimpses into Sontag’s writing life and habits which I found very interesting. Susan Sontag is often portrayed as a very difficult person and Nunez does show some instances of how that was true but she also rounds out the portrait with other details that showed Sontag as a complicated person with many aspects including vulnerability, conflicted and humorous and loving.

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A Book of Secrets by Michael Holroyd []

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A fascinating combined biography of a place, the Villa Cimbrone on a hill above the Italian village of Ravello, and the people connected to it throughout different time periods. The work of biographer Michael Holyrod reads like a detective story and features such characters as Alice Keppel, the mistress of both the second Lord Grimthorpe and the Prince of Wales; to Eve Fairfax, a muse of Auguste Rodin; to the novelist Violet Trefusis, the lover of Vita Sackville-West and daughter of Alice Keppel. Having read extensively about some of these people already because of my interest in Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group, this book was a wonderful way to fill in some of the missing gaps and to add to my interest of this subject.

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The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown []

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The first odd thing I noticed about this novel is that it’s told in the first person plural. It’s a clever and engaging device for sisters talking about themselves and each other, and kept me attentive to whose point of view I was reading as it shifted from the inside of a character’s head to one, two or three characters collectively observing another. The voice is opinionated, familiar, loyal, funny, and often jealous or spiteful as siblings are about each other. Not much happens (three adult sisters move home as their mother struggles with cancer; they find themselves to be more than they thought) but plot doesn’t much matter as the book is about personalities, family relationships, and how we evolve through involvement with others. A rich vein of Shakespeare runs through Weird Sisters in the naming of characters, the professor father’s constant quoting, and the cast of literary archetypes that inhabit these contemporary, believable women.

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