Saturday, August 17, 2013

Helen Ellis--Eating the Cheshire Cat (2000)

This novel was recommended by a lovely person I met at the Dickens Universe this summer, after she learned about my dissertation topic.  I had to get it through Inter-Library Loan--though now that I've read it, I'm quite surprised that I haven't heard more about it.  What a fantastic read!

It follows three young women in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, from summer camp to college.  Opening with a harrowing account of Sarina's mother attack on her in an attempt to fix her disfigured fingers, it follows her friendship with Nicole, who's mother is even more intent on her daughter's physical and social perfection, as well as the experiences of Bitty Jack, the daughter of the summer camp caretakers whose life continues to intersect with those of Sarina and Nicole.

Nicole's mother makes clear the connection between the South and rigid expectations of femininity in her succinct statement, "“…this is the South.  We roll our hair and we wear lip gloss” (66). 

One thing this novel emphasizes is that women who make the choice to be ugly do so from a position of privilege.  Little Jack's ugly physical appearance is linked to her lower socioeconomic status; she would certainly not choose it, if she could:  “She wondered if she would ever outgrow what her mama called her awkward stage.  Could she ever afford new glasses?  Could she dress better? Wear makeup so it looked right?  Would her acne ever clear?  Would her hair lose the oil, gain body, gain bounce?” (26).

Unlike Little Jack, those who choose to be ugly occupy a position of privilege; they choose ugliness as a form of rebellion, usually against insistent (or in this novel, draconian) mothers who are adamant about ensuring that their daughters will fit properly into the marriage economy.  In order to choose ugliness, young women must first have access to the system in order to choose to opt out of it.  For Nicole, making herself ugly is an attempt to connect to her friend Sarina.  Nicole's obsession with Sarina is both a way of rebelling against her mother (who doesn't approve of the friendship) as well as an expression of lesbian desire, which is strictly forbidden in this community: “With Sarina, Nicole made an effort to play down her beauty.  She didn’t powder her nose.  A zit was like a door prize that she’d never try to hide.  Who cared what her date thought?  Not Nicole—one single bit.  Her unfinished face put Sarina at ease.  When Sarina was at ease, she was more attentive to Nicole.  She accompanied her to the rest room, to get popcorn, refill their drinks.  Anytime Nicole could steal Sarina from her date” (66).  

In contrast to Sarina’s and Nicole’s mothers, whose insistence on their daughter’s beauty provokes rebellion, Bitty Jack’s mother sees beauty even in the freaks. Upon witnessing “Little Miss Hose and Pony,” she whispers, “She has such a pretty face” (89).  Though she does not consciously make herself ugly, like Nicole, Bitty Jack's appearance is, to a certain extent, also mutable, especially once she learns how context-dependent value judgments about appearances are.  When she gets a job in a freak show, hosing off Johnny Iguana, the “Freak Boss” says, “You’ll get along fine with him.  I can tell.  You wouldn’t be here unless you was an ugly duckling once yourself,” to which Bitty Jack replies, “I’m no swan” (81).  At the freak show, however, the Freak Boss tells Bitty, “You’re not chicken shit…around here, you’ll be the belle of the ball….What you got?  Glasses?  Skin that’ll clear up sooner or later.  Freckles.  You’re skinny, but you’re nothing to turn your nose up at” (81).  

The Freak Boss has a clear understanding of the benefits of ugliness.  Regaling Bitty Jack with the story of the 300 pound woman who fell into the Pick a Duck pool, who “was flailing around like a pig in shit….Poor ducks were stuck in every crevice of her body,” he goes on to say that “Someone got the whole ugly incident on camera.  Won ten grand on that goddamned embarrassing video show,” and he ultimately wonders whether she staged the whole thing (92-3).
 
At the fair, Bitty Jack's ugliness gets her access (and training) that allow her success—winning the big pig prize which eluded Stewart.  When we first see Stewart and Sarina at the fair, we’re tempted to believe them that the games are fixed, although Sarina’s response to the Pick a Duck game—“The ugly bitch behind the counter kept giving Stewart small prizes” (54) seems excessive.  When we later learn that the ugly bitch is, in fact, Bitty Jack, it illuminates the kind of unique power which ugliness grants Bitty Jack.

Bitty Jack’s account of the story includes her own self-appraisal: “Bitty knew she was no swan.  Her beauty wasn’t storybookish: no dragon returns to find Bitty’s face morphed into a pot of gold.  She still had to wear glasses.  The shower was a war zone against combination skin.  But she wasn’t the same girl she was at thirteen.  Bitty knew she had bettered.  She looked different, but not that different” (95).  The power she holds over the Pick a Duck game is to give the small prize—the plush snake—in exchange for every duck that Stewart picks, and to refuse to give a purple snake, Sarina’s requested prize if they can’t win the big prize of the plush pig.  As Stewart’s frustration mounts with each additional consolation prize snake, “Within minutes, Sarina stood like Medusa’s maid of honor.  A wilted bouquet of bold-colored snakes drooper from her grasp” (96).  

It is significant that she is Medusa’s maid of honor, and not Medusa herself.  In this scenario, Bitty does not grant Sarina the full power of Medusa.  Instead, Bitty Jack retains her power, and it is her silent stare which drives Sarina mad, making enough of a commotion that she is asked to leave the fair (96-97).

What this novel ultimately emphasizes is that ugliness in the South is synonymous with rebellion and dissent.  After Nicole’s bloody cutting experience at the Tri Delt house, and her attack on her mother at the Tri Delt Poker Party, the incident is referred to as an “ugly situation” (178)--an extreme version of the warning given by so many southern mothers to their children to not "be ugly."  What Eating the Cheshire Cat does is highlight how the imperative for southern women to fit into such narrow parameters of beauty results in a desire and drive to "be ugly"--both in appearance and in behavior.

Lucy Furman--The Quare Women: A Story of the Kentucky Mountains (1923)

I finally read all of this novel with the intriguing title.  The "Quare Women" of the title refers to the "passel of quare women come in from furrin parts," settlement workers who come to the remote mountain town of Troublesome to teach basic skills, cooking, hygiene, as well as arts and crafts.  The novel includes points of view of both the locals as well as the outsiders, though the "locals" are made distinct through their dialects.  (Surely, women from "level country" of Kentucky would have some sort of dialect as well.)

The novel is based on Furman's own experiences with the Hindman Settlement School in Knott County, Kentucky.  What I most appreciated about the novel was that it didn't blame the mountaineers troubles--violence and poor health being two of the primary ones--on some sort of innate character, but on its isolation and lack of education.  Uncle Ephraim, the town elder, gives a speech to that effect, explaining that when their ancestors settled there, they were educated people-but over time, as their isolation led to less and less education and contact with the progress of the outside world, the new generations were more prone to violence, to excess drinking, and to needless death from illness.  Though there is resistance at first, even the most adamantly opposed to the outside influences, such as Uncle Lot, for example.  Lot is sure that they're an example of the kind of "strange women" warned against in the Bible by Solomon: "The lips of a strange woman drop honey, and her mouth is smoother than butter; yea, the furrin woman is a norow pit, and they that are abhorred of the Lord shall fall therein'" (24).  Eventually, however, even Uncle Lot admits that theirs is a beneficial influence, as not only do they bring medicine to treat typhoid, but the activities they bring have such a good influence that they bring a truce to the long-running mountain feud.

Though they are "quare," these women are not unattractive.  In fact, part of what makes them "quare" is the fact that they are are so pretty and yet unmarried, some of them nearing thirty.  As most of the mountain women are married and procreating by the age of 15, to be unmarried and 28 is unheard of.  However, the mountain women who do marry young have difficult lives, which is reflected in their faces.  Cynthy, for example, looks older than her mother Ailsie: "Cynthy's face being so lined and drawn from the troubles she had had as Fighting Fult's wife and widow" (46).  People's visages reflect their home and geography.  As Isabel rides the train further and further into the mountains, she observes that, "The progressive change in the people who got into and off the train all along the way was as striking as the changing topography.  It was hard to believe that all could belong to the same state" (64).

It felt almost like cheating to read such a straight-ahead narrative as the novel from 1923. Part of the experience was simply the aesthetic experience of reading such a beautiful book:

I was expecting the quare women to be uglier, to reflect the southern idea that ugliness is a sign of intellectualness.  Instead, this book is more suitable for my chapter on ugliness as "history marked on the body."  A fun read, despite the dialect.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Monique Truong--Bitter in the Mouth (2010)

This is a beautiful novel.  Such gorgeous writing.  People's whose taste I admire were praising it on facebook, so I gave it a try.

It's the story of Linda, who grows up in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, in the 1970s and 1980s.  It jumps around in time, from high school, to elementary school, to law school at Yale and her life as a lawyer in New York City.  Linda has lexical-gustatory synesthesia, which means that she experiences many words as flavors.  Growing up, she has no explanation for her experiences, which she quickly learns to keep mostly to herself, after her mother forbids her from talking crazy.

Though Boiling Springs is a tiny, conservative, southern town, Linda's experiences reflect the changing South of the seventies and eighties, as changes in understandings of ethnicity, gender identity, sexual identity, and even psychological health unfold.  As her own understanding of reality has been mediated since birth by her synesthesia, Linda's observation of these changes (as well as her own understanding of them) is both beautiful and insightful.

I don't want to say too much about the plot, because even though plot is my least favorite part of a novel, there are important revelations along the way.  I totally plan on using this in my fall Introduction to Fiction Class--"The Many Souths"--because it does address a good job of addressing southern identity.  What does it mean to identify as southern?  What happens to those with a conflicted southern identity?

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Dorothy Allison--Two or Three Things I Know for Sure (1995)




Though I doubt I’ll be as thorough as my previous posts have been, I’ve decided to return to this blog periodically as I continue reading through my dissertation.  As satisfying as finishing my reading for exams was, after I passed them I made a list of even more titles that I hadn’t included on my exam lists that I had since realized were going to be important.  I’m writing as I’m reading—so far, I’ve sent two chapters to my chair, and have notes on two more chapters.  These two in progress, however, are two chapters that I think will require a lot more reading.
I just finished Dorothy Allison’s Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, a short collection of reflections on her family and how they informed her understanding of the world.  Chapter Three of my dissertation, on how ugliness can represent history marked on the body, is the one in which I expect to use Allison the most.  I’m also re-reading her to prepare for my trip to Durham this summer, where I’ve won a fellowship to do research in the archive of her papers there.  Two or Three Things, despite its brevity, is pretty key to my understanding of ugliness.  In it, Allison makes explicit the connection between ugliness and class status—even women in her family who begin beautiful are eventually worn down and made ugly by life.
After she moves away, Allison reaches a new understanding of beauty and ugliness through her own romantic relationships: “Beauty is a hard thing.  Beauty is a mean story.  Beauty is slender girls who die young, fine featured delicate creatures about whom men write poems.  Beauty, my first girlfriend said to me, is that inner quality often associated with great amounts of leisure time.  And I loved her for that.
“We were not beautiful.  We were hard and ugly and trying to be proud of it.  The poor are plain, virtuous if humble and hardworking, but mostly ugly.  Almost always ugly” (37).
I, too, am grateful for her girlfriend’s observation that beauty requires leisure.  If ugliness is history marked on the body—if bodies worn down become ugly, does beauty, too, record events?  Or does it signify an uneventful life?  Lack of wrinkles meaning lack of worry, but also lack of laughing, concentration, even exposure to the sun?  Beauty being fragile (slender girls who die young), protected (imprisoned?), who are objects of admiration rather than subjects of their own stories?

Monday, October 8, 2012

I passed!

My general exam defense was this morning--an hour and a half of answering questions about the essays and syllabi I submitted based on my reading lists.  It was a tough hour and a half, with challenging questions asking me to expand on and clarify my exams, but I got through it, and I passed!

And now to spend a few days reading some of the things I've been putting off--Neil Gaiman's Duran Duran book, Alison Bechdel's new book, the new grit lit anthology--and then I'll start thinking about my prospectus.  I plan to continue to post here as I think through my dissertation ideas, and of course I still have my Hegemonic Bulwark blog where I write about academic life in general.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Feminism in the Work of Neil Gaiman

I'm having the kind of day where I wish I could do twelve things at once.  One thing that has me pretty excited is receiving an email about Feminism in the Worlds of Neil Gaiman--I have chapter in the book on Who Killed Amanda Palmer?  It's scheduled to print in early October, and Amazon is now reporting that it will ship in November.  I'm so excited!  It's the first time I'll be in a book! And amazingly, it's a book I'd actually read even if I weren't in it.


Monday, September 24, 2012

Exams!!

I submitted my exam essays and syllabi this morning to my committee.  Two weeks from today, I defend! Stay tuned...