Books: The “Read 50 Books By or About Women” Challenge, 2014

I like best to have one book in my hand, and a stack of others on the floor beside me, so as to know the supply of poppy and mandragora will not run out before the small hours.

Dorothy Parker

After 2 hours I spent figuring out the online loaning system for ebooks - Success!

After 2 hours I spent figuring out the online loaning system for ebooks – Success!

I realize that 2014 began a while ago.

And I realize that it’s hard to read 50 books (that’s like a book a week, with two weeks vacation!).

But, this is something I think is important.

Over the last few weeks, my Facebook feed and blogs I read have been filled with various Book Publishers’ ads that challenge you to read 50 books this year. Now, let’s not get into why this is a very self-serving thing to do on Publishers’ parts, I mean, they are publishing some of the books you’ll read – and get into the real spirit of the challenge! Or at least, what I think it is … asides from profits for book publishers … and on that note – join your local library!

Moving on …

I have been reading since I was a child.

I have been read to since before I had a concept for words. My Mother has always been a reader. I remember the basement of our old bungelow in North Toronto, stuffed on one side with this cheap cream-coloured display cases that, over the years, became less about vases and decorative plates, and more about romance novels, horror novels and mysteries. My Mom always had a book on her night stand – a Kathleen Woodewiss with dog eared pages, or a Sidney Sheldon with the sparkles on the hardback cover, or even a well worn Dean Koontz. She would, after getting us all into bed, cleaning up the kitchen and slathering lotion all over herself, replace her contacts with glasses, climb into bed where my Dad was either sleepily watching the news (or MacGyver) or asleep as the news (or MacGyver) blared on, and read a book.

I obviously inherited those traits (except for the cleaning bug – I always forget to empty the dishwasher) and every night I get into bed with a good book. Or several good books.

For me, reading 50 books in a year is easily done – I read print books and ebooks (I have had my kobo for 5 or so years now) or listen to them in the car. My record number of book a year was somewhere in the 110 region, though it was a good ten years ago, and I can’t recall the exact number. I read a little fast, but with gutso – I don’t like skipping boring sections, but I will abandon one book for a little while to concentrate on another if the former book was getting too technical or too political or, as is way too bloody common, has violence of some kind in it. I need to process as much as anybody. I just don’t stop reading in order to do it.

I say all this because I want to establish that when I say “You ought to read books!” I mean it. I walk the talk or however else it’s said, and I honestly believe that reading is a gateway to other worlds – or more importantly, it’s a gateway into looking at and understanding our world better, because it’s a different perspective.

My best Friend gave me a bookcase ... I stuffed it full.

My best Friend gave me a bookcase … I stuffed it full.

Read to live another life, even if only for a chapter.

Jordan Urtso

A reader lives a thousand lives before her dies. The man who never reads lives only one.

George R. R. Martin

Books allow us to experience, if just for a moment, the life of another person. They delve deep into humanity to bring out the emotions of a person that we can connect with through time and space in order to better ourselves through our understanding of another person.

Here’s an example: I will never be a midwife from a poor town in Atlantic Canada, but I read The Birth House by Ami McKay – a book about a poor girl who naviagtes her way through to find her own happiness at the turn of the twenteth century in Nova Scotia. Through the main character, Dora’s, perspective I see how the struggle for identity and control over your own body was a constant in women’s lives, pock marked with demanding husbands, deep family secrets and communities that found ways to shun a person that didn’t fit in. I will never be a midwife in the early twentieth century Nova Scotian village, but I understand that time and place a little better now and I have a character, Dora Rare, that I identify with based on her humanity.

In this time and age, it is too easy to fall into the tropes of media: the magazine that tell you that only white people can be rich and successful, the movies that tell you to be a man means to be physically strong, imposing and emotionally distant, or even the nightly news with its perfectly quaffed announcers melting in front of the HD cameras. It’s too easy to buy the narrative most commonly sent our way – That Africa is an awful place without rule or logic, that the middle east is rife with Terrorist training camps gunning for the west, that Russians are still as they were in Cold War caricatures and that people who live on tropical islands are calm and lazy. Way too easy.

The media is an invasive force, it takes a life of its own almost, pushing into our lives and shaping the way we view the world.

And then we begin to believe it.

And that’s where the danger lies.

I have mentioned Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche before – she wrote some amazing books and tends to give talks and speeches and interviews that renew my faith in humanity. She is a well spoken, deep thinking woman of the world and I think she made the best argument for reading stories with this:

Stories are necessary in order to better understand the world. If we are bereft of other stories, if we fall into the rut of having only one narrative, the world becomes a less wonderful place to us – a place that is so one-dimensional, only fed through our own views, without proper consideration of the perspectives of others. It’s so easy to fall into. So easy to tell yourself that you’re in the right, and that’s what matters.

But the world is more nuanced than that – the world is full of multiple perspectives – a myriad of views that colour even the smallest thing. No two people have the same views on everything – no two people read the same book, watch the same movies, etc.

I think it really hits me whenever I watch a “Mainstream” movie with friends. Take “American Hustle” from this past Christmas. I walked out of the theater annoyed – the two female characters were played by outrageously good actresses, but the parts were so … trivial. They lacked any sort of real initiative, the drive for each of them was male-focused, and their bathroom-confrontation scene made me cringe in all the ways. Not to mention that the whole movie rewarded the con artists and screwed over the Fed – for doing his job. Something I just can’t compute. My Love thought it was great. He thought the Bradley Cooper character deserved what he got because he was a jerk, acted like a jerk, and tried to have it all. I may still think that the treatment of Bradley Cooper’s character was strange and unwarranted, but I understand now, because I listened to the Boy, that it may not be that way for everyone.

While this is not earth shattering – it is interesting. It opened me up to a different perspective and allowed me to educate myself on something new – a different way of thinking. And no, the Boy has not come up with any good justification for the two female characters. He just ducks his head and tries not to engage me on that  ….

And that was a movie – something that offers a very quick 1 to 3 hour story that is meant to be the tip of the iceberg. A book, on the other hand, is the whole lot of the iceberg smashed into its pages. To make books into movies, scriptwriters must grapple with all that’s in the text to find the “filmable” parts – take out the flashbacks of history, the backstories of characters, or at least reduce them so they don’t stop the flow of the main story (btw – this is the reason I believe all books-to-movies ought to be books-to-miniseries, but I regress). When you read the book itself all the nuances come to play – the little biases the author allowed to show in his or her character, the feel and smell of the world they inhabit, the little intricacies of custom and habit – like the way hobbits celebrate birthdays, something I found intriguing in The Fellowship of the Ring that would never have made it to the movie version because it really wasn’t all that relevant to the plot. It’s a richness that the book brings to the table – a richness that you can take with you after you read, and see the world a little differently from then on.

Okay, so books give good perspective – they allow you to experience the world in a way not native to you – but why books by and about women in specific, Ammy?

Well …

The Benj even loved books!

The Benj even loved books!

Most books on witchcraft will tell you that witches work naked. This is because most books on witchcraft were written by men.

Neil Gaiman

The problem I have been coming to, over and over again, the more I read “literary books” is that – for the most part, they’re men’s stories. They’re written overwhelmingly about men, and they’re written about men. All those books you read in highschool – Heart of Darkness, The Great Gatsby, Catch-22, A Brave New World, 1984, A Clockwork Orange – all the Shakespeare plays, the Robert Frost poems and the George Bernard Shaw adaptations – they were men, writing for men, about men.

We got a hundred coming-of-age stories for boys – navigating that space between child and adolescent by finding a dead body, or being a rebel in a heat-soaked summer or watching the first spaceship land on the moon. But not so much for girls – the books I did read as a kid about girls were never read in school. The Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself or The Lives of Girls and Women were not on our reading lists. We grew up discussing the merits of boys’ stories without ever reaching the precipice of the same stories for girls. It was as if, for girls, there was no transition – you were a girl, your breasts sprouted out of your chest by magic one night, and then you were a woman, with all that entailed, which if you read your homework throughout highschool meant your only problem was a man, your only salvation was a man, and you could expect to be the thing that hindered or furthered his story depending on your role as “seductress” “femme fatale” “mother” “sweet girlfriend” selfish girlfriend”, etc.

In the tenth grade I decided I did not want to discuss Heart of Darkness.

My heart (ha ha) was not in it. I was sick to death of boys – especially after Lord of the Flies – and I couldn’t bare another long discussion on the motivation of men or male characters, I wanted to throw it out of the ancient Abbey windows and be done with it.

So I wen to my teacher, Mrs. Harper, a sharp eyed woman with a short haircut and “No one f*cks with me” look she wore as she rode the Bathurst bus to school and asked her why the heck we were stuck reading male stories all the time and why the hell didn’t we ever get to read something about a woman. She just blinked at me in her “hm how best to address the crazy fifteen year old” way and told me that it was a good question that basically came down to what the curriculum – mandated by the fat cats in government – allowed to be taught. Then she decided to just have us all pick a story to book report on, by a woman. I could have cheered – I might have cheered.

I chose Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. It was dark, unapologetic and murky. It was a book that made me feel like someone understood the fears inside of me.

I am not sure if Mrs. Harper still does that, I know my Goddaughter, who is now in grade 9 at the same school I was in, just finished Of Mice and Men and is moving onto Lord of the Flies, so I suppose overall, nothing’s much changed, and this is why I feel the need to make it a challenge.

It’s a lonely world out there for girls – the stories about girls have fallen through the cracks, been described as “lewd” or worse – “boring” – and then not allowed into curriculum or bookshelves. They have been banned because of a fear of female sexuality, and they have been dismissed because of course – that couldn’t possibly be true, since men have never experienced that particular thing, whatever it is – from begin catcalled in an alleyway to being overlooked because your have pointy breasts unlike your male classmates.

Reading female books – books written by females is a solace, a way to find that voice that says “Yes! Your experiences are shared! And it’s totally okay to feel x, y or even z!”. They’re a way to connect girls over issues of race, class, belief system and indoctrination. They’re a way for boys to look at their female classmates as people – not objects. And they are a way of bringing another set of perspectives on the world to the table.

They’re important.

I read everything.

I read everything.

Maybe reading was just a way to make her feel less alone, to keep her company. When you read something you are stopped, the moment is stayed, you can sometimes be there more fully than you can in your real life.

Helen Humphreys

So here it is, the long and short of it:

In 2014 I plan on reading and reviewing 50 books by female authors. They will be varied – romance novels to biographies to science-based non-fiction to those lovely covers in the Literary section at Barnes and Noble. I am not going to be biased as so many have been by denouncing one genre over the other because [insert baseless reasons here that just amount to “it makes me uncomfortable”]. I will put up a page on the blog to collect the titles of those books I read and link to the reviews I plan to write about those books, so that anyone who wants to join in can link up and share.

And my only question is: Will you join me?

I sincerely hope you will 🙂


Helen Humphreys, Coventry


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