Literacy Rant: The Estrogen Version

Hollywood, California. Young woman standing on...

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There was a decidedly testosterone slant to Eric’s list of “must read” books, probably because it was intended for a young man, the one affectionately referred to as the Idiot.  But what if you were making a list for a young woman?  Not that any of his recommendations were specifically unsuited for the female psyche, but suppose this young woman only reads fashion magazines, and she’s never picked up a book for pleasure?  Perhaps she’s entering the work world, the one still dominated by those with a Y chromosome.  Maybe she’s searching for something more than surface-skimming, page turning best sellers that are forgotten as soon as the last page is read.  What would your reading recommendations be?

Well, here are mine.  None of them are considered high art, a couple might be classics, and at least two are definitely in the pulp fiction category.  A few mirrored the cultural shifts that affected women during a particular era, some even contributed to the changes.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has a wonderful opening about the Tree of Heaven that only grows in cement.  It’s a poignant coming of age story:  a smart, observant young girl struggles to make sense of life with an alcoholic father in a household forever battling poverty.  Getting an education was the underlying theme and that’s an especially vital message to women.

Gone with the Wind has the most memorable and well-known female character of the twentieth century, mostly because of the movie.  Reading the book, though, gave me a deeper appreciation for the tragic nature of Scarlett’s blind infatuation.  There was a brief, intimate scene that wasn’t in the movie.  It showed Scarlett’s vulnerability with Rhett and drove home the message that if you open your eyes, you might actually find you have something better than what you thought you wanted so desperately.  Or, maybe I recommended this one because I just love it and think any young woman who reads it will get hooked on reading.

Valley of the Dolls exposed the sick depravity behind the glamour of Hollywood and Broadway.  It made a splash in the ’60’s for its tell-all approach to sex, drugs, and the power struggle within all relationships — not just the ones between men and women, but also the ones women have with each other and with their own bodies.

Fear of Flying was a liberating soft porn novel that arrived in the early ’70’s.  Its legacy was the phrase “zipless f**k” which is how the author, Erica Jong, described a chance sexual encounter on a train with an anonymous stranger.  She tapped into the secret longing for sex without emotion or attachment that many women harbor.  But the book had a creepy, bleak view of life and that’s probably why her subsequent work never commanded the same level of excitement.  Without hope, it’s hard to pull off a second act.

The Group by Mary McCarthy was a disturbing portrait of eight Vassar women pursuing love and work after graduation in the early ’30’s.  The story reveals many of the traps that can destroy a promising future.  The characters were all bright, educated, upper income women, yet oddly, the underlying message was that while an education is important, it’s not a guarantee for success in real life.

The important questions in all these stories evolved from a woman’s relationship with the men in her life — drunken fathers, lost lovers, and disappointing husbands.  Every generation seems to grapple with the same universal questions about education, marriage, career, and motherhood.  Their choices may be nuanced by the time and place they were in, but essentially the questions are the same.  I think each of these novels offered a take on the contemporary feminine narrative of their day.   Sometimes it’s easier to see the potential consequences of our choices when we live it vicariously through a well told story and an engaging character.

Fiction can be for more than entertainment, it can be a thread that links one generation to the next, offering a nugget of insight into life.  And, it’s cheaper than therapy.

What great novel for a young woman do you think I missed?

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