Boys don’t read Girl Books and other lies my Society Told Me

“It’s a cliché but mostly true that while teenage girls will read books about boys, teenage boys will rarely read books with predominately female characters.” (Robert Lipsyte, “Boys and Reading: Is there Any Hope?“)

Toph GIF Avatar: The Last Airbender

Oh, Fuck, not this bullshit again.

(I hear you, Toph)

****
I like giving my younger brother (R) books. Correction: I really like giving my younger brother books. And he loves reading, so we’re quite compatible. Well played, universe!

Anyway. The last time I took R on a book-buying expedition, it took us three hours to narrow down the choices. By the end, we were down to two options: Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw, which I described as “Jane Austen if all of Jane Austen’s characters were dragons! Tea time meets DRAGONS” and Malinda Lo’s Huntress, which I described as “Adventure! Fairies! Hunting! Lesbian romance! More adventure! HORSES!”

(My eloquence: admire it)

At some point in R’s difficult decision, I swooped in with big-sister wisdom: “You know, I’m worried you won’t enjoy Tooth and Claw as much. Don’t get me wrong – I love it. But it’s not really an adventure story. It’s basically a family story, and about people’s relationships and marriages. Except with dragons.”

My younger brother gave me a Look: “No, but that’s what I like.”

Me: “Whazit?”

Brother: “Those are my favorite kinds of books! I like reading about families, and about how people relate to each other.”

This would be the moment I massively facepalmed.

Zuko GIF angst Avatar the last airbender

AAAARGH

I’m a feminist. I think about idiotic gender roles a lot. I try to avoid perpetuating sexism as much as I can. I especially try to avoid perpetuating stupid gender roles around my brother. And I have always believed that there is no such thing as a “girl” book and a “boy” book.

Yet I assumed my brother would like an adventure book more than he would a family-drama book.

Because he’s a thirteen-year-old-boy.

Massive.

Facepalm.

Aang GIF Avatar headdesk

Me, to brother: “… just ignore me, I’m an idiot.”

Conclusion of the story: I ended up buying R. both books, because I am the best sister on the planet

(Yes! yes I am aware of how awesome I am! But more accolades are always welcome!).

He loved Huntress, like I thought he would. But he loved Tooth and Claw even more. He sent me an email from his vacation where he told me it was now “one of his favorite books.” And when I saw him again, he asked me if I could lend him my Jane Austen novels.

Because Tooth and Claw had inspired him to read Jane Austen.

BOOM, BABY.

Emperor's New Groove Boom Baby

(I really love Jane Austen, okay?)

***

This post is not about how gender stereotypes are incredibly difficult to unlearn – although it could be, since that is a true and important topic. Gender stereotypes are incredibly difficult to unlearn! Even for feminists! Tell your friends.

It is, as all my favorite posts are, about my brother. My brother read a lot. And as it happens, a fair number of the books he reads either a) are written by women b) have female protagonists, or c) center on “girl” issues like “family” and “relationships.”

This fact makes him the Miracle Boy Foretold By the Prophecy. Because boys can’t read girl books. Didn’t you get the memo?

[Note: In this post, I will use the term "girl" books to designate books that are USUALLY ASSOCIATED with women, either because they were written by women, have female protagonists, or tackle subjects that are coded as feminine (gossip! pink!). I don't mean to imply that there are actual "girl" books and "boy" books. Books are for everyone! I promise! They don't have cooties!]

***

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young boy who desires to read must be in want of a “boy” book. However little known the feelings or views of such a boy may be on his first entering  a bookstore, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding adults that he is carefully kept away from any book with the slightest whiff of the feminine about it.”

Okay, that’s not the first line of Pride and Prejudice, BUT IT COULD BE.

One of the most frustrating myths floating around the world of reading is the “boys aren’t reading because there are too many girly books, and boys can’t read girly books because EVERYONE KNOWS boys can’t read girly books.”

Cat and bath

How Boys Feel About “Girl” Books.

And sadly, this narrative just keeps popping up out of the fertile internet ground every thirty seconds. Like zombies! Or DAISIES. or ZOMBIE DAISIES.

Robert Lipsyte’s self-congratulatory and entirely unimaginative article for The New York Times deplores the explosion of YA aimed towards girls because “while teenage girls will read books about boys, teenage boys will rarely read books with predominately female characters.” Meanwhile, YA author A. E. Rought called female protagonists a “trope” they hoped the publishing industry would get over. Then Sarah Mesle wrote an article for the LA Review of Books where she expresses concern at the proper lack of “male roles” for boys.

Hell, just yesterday, I was treated to an article that deplored the lack of male protagonists, because the author was sick of girls who only cared about gossip and instead wanted a boy protagonist who just wanted to put gas in his car.

Apaa Flying Bison Avatar GIF

Think about your life, anonymous author. Think about your choices.

Urgh.

SO MANY ZOMBIE DAISIES.

Okay, first off, I want to make sure our facts are straight. Because it is provably not true that there are no YA books “for boys.” In fact, there are still more male protagonists than female ones in YA. There are just about as many male authors as there are female ones. THESE ARE THE FACTS, PEOPLE (here is one study, among many). And it is depressing as hell that people look at women achieving parity in one field – ONE FIELD – and interpret it as men being blotted out.

Toph Earthbending Avatar The Last Airbender GIF

ON POINT

Let’s get to the important part.
Now that you’ve read all this “evidence” about how boys can’t read “girl” books and it’s a HUGE CATASTROPHE, OH NOES, let me remind you that my brother regularly reads lots of “girl” books.
BUT BOYS CAN’T READ BOOKS ABOUT GIRLS!  HOW COULD THIS POSSIBLY HAPPEN?
The answer, my friends, is the Great Feminist Experiment:
Azula GIF Avatar the Last Airbender

THE GREAT FEMINIST EXPERIMENT. Scared yet?

Ahem. So. The Great Feminist Experiment.
I have known about this whole “boys can’t read “girl” books” since I was… oh, eight or so? It’s been around for at least that long. I vividly remember reading an interview of Eoin Colfer where he claimed he specifically chose a male protagonist for the Artemis Fowl series because it would attract more male readers – and female readers would just pick up the book anyway. I also remember JK Rowling explaining that she used her initials (instead of her first name, Joanne) to avoid scaring off male readers.
I knew what was up.
And when I acquired a baby brother, I decided he would be an ideal Test Subject for a Great Feminist Experiment.

By the time I was ten, I had a plan. I would make it a point to give him books with female protagonists. On his birthday, on Christmas, at random occasions – I would give him books with girls. I would give him books about girls. I would give him books by women. I would give him books about “girly” topics like family and gossip and clothes.

Not to mention books with kickass women being kickass!

Katara GIF waterbending Avatar: THe Last Airbender Waterbending

Example Chosen at Total Random (I <3 you Katara!)

I wouldn’t force him to read them. And I wouldn’t deprive him of books with male protagonists either. I would simply make sure he had lots of access to “girl” books.

It was a deviously simple plan.

And it worked.

Tiny Fey Amy Poehler SNL GIF Bitches Get Stuff Done

Of the books my brother reads, I’d say somewhere near 50-60% have female protagonists. The first chapter book my brother ever read was Roald Dahl’s Mathilda.  His stuffed hedgehog is named “Wizard Howl” after Dianne Wynne Jones’ novel Howl’s Moving Castle. He loves Lyra from The Golden Compass. He reads Tamora Pierce and Libba Bray and Meg Cabot and Diane Duane. He will talk for hours about Robin Mckinley and the Blue Sword novels. His stuffed hedgehog is named “Wizard Howl.” Right now, his favorite authors include NK Jemisin, Jo Walton, Octavia Butler and Mira Grant.

Don’t get me wrong, the brother reads a lot of “boy” books too (one of his other favorite authors is China Mielville, and his favorite novel is Chris Crutcher’s Whale Talk). But R. has never complained about a book with a female protagonist. To him, they’re just as normal as books with male protagonists. And it would never occur to him not to pick up a book because the author was female.

And now he’s even recommending books by female authors TO ME. It was my brother who first discovered Mira Grant, and who pestered me until I read her (and I never looked back).

THE GREAT FEMINIST EXPERIMENT WORKED!

Azula Avatar the last Airbender GIF madness

MUAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

YES I AM THE EVIL FEMINIST ALL YOUR FRIENDS WARNED YOU ABOUT.

I can’t stress how easy this “experiment” was. I mean, it was easy because I started early, before all the societal sexism could sink in. But it’s not like my brother’s Y chromosome was allergic to “girl” cooties. So whenever I read a Robert Lipsyte, say, spouting the old ” teenage girls will read books about boys, teenage boys will rarely read books with predominately female characters” line, I roll my eyes pretty hard.

You know what? I’ve got a teenage boy in my life, and he reads “girl” stuff just fine. My outlandish theory is that if boys aren’t belittled for reading books about girls, if they’re not taught that girls are lesser, if they’re not teased about cooties, if we don’t teach them to fear the feminine… they’d probably like more “girl” stuff.

Boys don’t read “girl” books because they’re taught, in a thousand small, subtle, insidious ways, that they’re not supposed to.

What if boys weren’t ashamed to read books that were coded “girly” because they didn’t think it was shameful to be a girl? (thanks, Iggy Pop!)

What if we taught them something else?

Iggy Pop

Think about it.

***

Quick story to wrap things up!

So, obviously I’m a feminist. And I read lots of feminist fiction. And since my brother steals all my books, he ends up reading quite a bit of feminist fiction himself.
On the other hand, I’ve never told my brother he *should* be a feminist, or that he needs to combat sexism or anything. Because I don’t want to tell him what to think.

Anyway!

One night at dinner a few years ago, my stepbrother started teasing my stepmother about the muscles in her arms. My father said: “Stepbrother! It’s rude to discuss women’s arm muscles.”

And I, the random feminist, replied: “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with discussing women’s arm muscles, since there’s nothing wrong with women having arm muscles. But teasing people about their appearance isn’t okay.”

My brother: “Yeah, Dad. Because you know what me and Suzanne are into? FEMINIST SCIENCE FICTION. So if you say sexist stuff, we’re going to get super-mad!”

After I finished dying of laughter, I knew that giving my brother “girl” books to read had been worth it. MY EVIL FEMINIST PLANS HAD ALL COME TO FRUITION.

Avatar GIF Avatar the Last Airbender

THE FEMINIST BORG HAD ASSIMILATED HIM.

[No, but in all seriousness, I was super-proud of him. I mean, once I stopped laughing]

Azula Avatar: The Last Airbender

Scary Feminist Out!

Notes:

1. I should note that as I got older and more aware, I also made a conscious effort to steer my brother toward books with protagonists of color and queer protagonists. Which worked out quite well!

2. I want to be clear that just because this “experiment” (such as is) worked for me, it doesn’t mean it would work for everyone. There was a whole lot of privilege and luck that went into it! Like the fact that I started when the brother was super-young. And that he turned out to love reading. And that both he and I had lots of time and opportunities to read, and were both encouraged to do so. This is not supposed to be a how-to for how to get boys to read more. Nor is it meant to be a critique of people who can’t get the boys in their life to read more. If that doesn’t comes across, let me know, and I will fix it!

3. My brother has been fully aware of the “experiment” since he was seven or eight. I promise, I’m not manipulating him behind his back. We’ve had conversations about it, where I ask whether he’s okay if I keep giving him books by women/with female protagonists and he’s like “So… you’re asking if I’m okay with you giving me books? Is this some kind of evil trick?”

4. Hey, notice all the Avatar: The Last Airbender GIFs? The Feminist Philosopher introduced me to the show, and I just finished watching it. IT IS AWESOME, and full of awesome male and female characters AND YOU SHOULD ALL GO WATCH IT. NO, SERIOUSLY, DROP EVERYTHING YOU’RE DOING AND GO WATCH THE SHOW.

Katar waterbending Avatar The Last Airbender GIF

Stop Everything and GO WATCH.

Thank you, Feminist Philosopher. I will forever blame you when I tear up at GIFs of Zuko and Uncle Iroh hugging.

Further reading: 

The Book Smugglers: The Airing of the Grievances 
The Problem is Not the Books
Gender Balance in YA awards

Mitt Romney: Runaway Jane Austen Character

Did you fear I would never address the Obama/Romney election on this blog? Fear no more! The day of reckoning is here, and my ranting powers are at their full potential.

After all, it’s election time in the USA! Will we manage to survive yet another racist-ass, anti-woman, queerphobic disaster of a Republican Candidate (Mitt Romney) and elect a moderately conservative dude instead (Barack Obama)? Only time will tell!

Is Mitt Romney as horrible a slimeball as he appears? … YES!

Now, I know you don’t need me to tell you that Romney is a slimeball. And I know you don’t need me to tell you that he’s a racist, queerphobic, classist misogynist with big entitlement issues. Those things are pretty damn obvious.

kurt chris colfer duh gif

But there IS something I have to tell you. Hell, I put my entire blog schedule on hold for this huge insight into the character of Mitt Romney. It’s GAME CHANGING.

You should probably hold onto something.

Or sit down.

Mitt Romney…

Is a runaway Jane Austen character.

Mr. Collins waving GIF

Remember Mr. Collins?

MIND.

BLOWN.

RIGHT?

Oh yeah, I just brought in Jane Austen.

I… I think I just lost half my readership there. SORRY GUYS! I LOVE YOU! I PROMISE I’LL STOP TALKING ABOUT REGENCY  LITERATURE IN MY NEXT POST. I’LL STOP MAKING VERY BIZARRE SPECULATIONS! COME BAAAAACK.

Then again, the three literature/poli-sci geeks in the room just started fist-pumping. “Austen – Romney FTW!”

And as I am a literature/poli-sci geek… well.

So. Random fact:  I am totally obsessed with Jane Austen. I became an English literature student because of Jane Austen. I’ve read every novel Jane Austen ever published. I’ve read Jane Austen’s juvenilia. I’ve taken classes on Jane Austen. I’ve planned book-length projects on Jane Austen. I think about Jane Austen a LOT.

Jane Austen Cassandra Austen sketch

Jane Austen, on the other hand, does not think about me at all. *sigh*

And a couple weeks ago, I was walking to the library, thinking about Jane Austen (as you do), and how interesting it is that her marriage plot, which appears so stuffy to modern readers, was actually radical and revolutionary, because she gave her female characters the right to say “No” to marriage proposals. And isn’t it interesting how this “no” always shocked male suitors? The entire thing really exposes the way the clueless male suitors felt so damn entitled to getting women… wait… you know who else seems to have that massive sense of entitlement to getting people’s support?

Mitt Romney.

And I was all “OH MY GOD, I’VE GOT IT.”

Mitt Romney is the clueless suitor.

I immediately raced to twitter. “Romney,” I said. “Is like every boorish male suitor in Austen’s novels – Mr. Elton, Mr. Collins, Henry Crawford. The suitor asks the protagonist to marry him, and is shocked she could say “no, because, after all, they have MONEY. Just like Mitt Romney runs for president, and is shocked that people won’t vote for him, because after all, he has MONEY.”

I spent the rest of the day tweeting about this. People needed to know. They needed to know that Mitt Romney is a runaway Jane Austen character.

Now, I imagine you aren’t convinced by my brilliant thesis yet. Neither was I, at first. But the evidence kept piling up.

Let’s have a checklist!

1. The Longing Gaze

Jane Austen’s clueless suitors are known for gazing longingly at their object of their affection. In fact, Mr. Darcy’s longing stares at  Elizabeth Bennet are so epic, they’ve given rise to the term “Firthing” (longing, silent stares) in honor of Colin Firth, the actor who portrayed Mr. Darcy in the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice.

Mr. Darcy, Colin Firth, Firthing.

“Firthing”: I will gaze creepily at you while never bothering to talk to you.

And Mr. Mittens Romney, Clueless Presidential Suitor?

ALSO known for his (vaguely disturbing) longing stares!

Mitt Romney longing gaze John McCain

“Oh, John McCain… will you ever return my affections?’

2. Sense of Entitlement

Austen’s Clueless Suitors are always shocked that the objects of their affection actually expect them to behave WELL. Notable in the Mr. Collins proposal scene, where Mr. Collins is all “what are you talking about with your “no thank you”? I have everything a woman needs!” Or, in Mansfield Park, Henry Crawford’s total confusion at the fact that Fanny doesn’t love him: “Sure, I behaved like a total manipulative douchebag for the past two hundred pages. But I’m hot! And thus entitled to your affections!”

Or the Mr. Darcy proposal scene, where Mr. Darcy finds it incredible that Elizabeth Bennet expects him not to act like an asshole. Yo, I’m already asking you to marry me, Lady. And now you want me to act like a decent human being?

Mr. Darcy proposal GIF OMG I can't Even

“I asked you to marry me, aren’t you just supposed to say “YES?”

Next thing you know, these pesky women will expect you to treat them like human beings!

The suitors, in other words, are very entitled.

And Mitt Romney has a very similar sense of douchebag entitlement.

“What, you mean campaigns involve work? And scrutiny? and QUESTIONS? Yo, I’m being nice enough to run, let’s not raise expectations too high, okay?”

Mitt ROmney confused

“Wait, I specifically told you not to ask me what my political positions are. That’s BASIC COURTESY, MEDIA.”

The poor man gets increasingly annoyed every time voters or the media dare to presume to ask basic questions, like “where are your tax returns?” or “can we get a press conference over here?” or “would you mind clarifying your position, please?” He seems to expect that we should just go along with his whole “don’t look at my record! Don’t look at my business record! Just look at the parts I want you to look at, and only as long as I want you to look at them!” schtick.

Note Ann Romney’s infamous quote on the subject of Mitt Romney’s invisible tax returns:

“We’ve given you people all you need to know!”

Ann Romney We've given you people all you need to know

Entitlement?

Check!

3. Hating Poor People

Jane Austen’s clueless suitors tend to also be giant snobs who highly dislike anyone in a lower class.

Example: Mr. Darcy, to Elizabeth Bennet, the woman he’s proposing marriage to: “Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections? To congratulate myself on the hope of relations, whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?”

Mr. Darcy snob OMG so many peasants
And then we have the fabulous Mr. Mittens Romney! Mr. Romney, do tell us how you feel about poor people in the United States!

“There are 47 percent [of Americans] who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. (…) My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Mitt Romney mother jones video personal responsibility 47%

… I can’t even.

Or, translated into Austen speech:

Mr. Romney, courting the American vote: “”Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of 47% of the country? To congratulate myself on the entitlement of Americans, whose conditions in life are so decidedly beneath my own?”

SEE THE SIMILARITIES?

Mitt ROmney I'm not concerned about the very poor

Check!

4. Acting like people are lucky to be able to vote for/marry them?

Going along with the “sense of entitlement” thing: Austenian suitors usually act like the women they propose to are LUCKY to have someone so handsome/rich/competent asking for their hand in marriage.

Mr. Collins to Elizabeth Bennet, asking her to marry him:  “It does not appear to me that my hand is unworthy your acceptance, or that the establishment I can offer would be any other than highly desirable. My situation in life, my connections with the family of De Bourgh, and my relationship to your own, are circumstances highly in its favor; and you should take it into farther consideration that in spite of your manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you.”

mr. Collins pride and prejudice proposal scene movie

TL;DR: You are SOOOO lucky I want to marry you.

And Mr. Mitt Romney? Does he ever show any of this “you people are so lucky I want to be President” attitude?

Surely not! That would be too ridiculous! And entitled and…

Ann Romney: “It is time for all Americans to realize how significant this election is and how lucky we are to have someone with Mitt’s qualifications and experience and know-how to be able to have the opportunity to run this country.”

Mulan matchmaker GIF

… wow.

WOW.

(uh, HUGE CHECK) 3

5. Last, but not least: Super Awkward!

Indeed, Jane Austen’s clueless suitors tend to be catastrophically awkward and stiff (which makes them all the more hilarious).

Mr. Collins, as unstudied an air as possible.

SUPER AWKWARD!

Mr. Collins waving GIF

Mr. Romney, what sayeth you to this? Are you stiff and awkward?

Well, he loves laughter. So much.

And he’s so genuine.

… Your honor, I rest my case.

Legally Blonde courtroom scene

I REST. MY CASE.

… I’m telling you. It shocked me too, but it is TRUE. Mitt Romney is a clueless suitor. He has escaped from one of Austen’s novels to our world, and is now plotting his evil evil ways.

As Dani Alexis (@danialexis) reminded me on twitter: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a Presidency.”

Romney angry speech

Romney: “In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My desire to be President will not be repressed.” (credit for quote: @danialexis)

HIS DESIRE TO BE PRESIDENT WILL NOT BE REPRESSED!

… quite a scary concept, actually.

You know what else? If Mitt Romney is actually a Jane Austen character (which I believe I’ve thoroughly proved by this point), it also explains why Mitt Romney has so many problems with women!

Yes, indeed! For, as Mr. Collins tells us: “As I must therefore conclude that you are not serious in your rejection of me, I shall chuse to attribute it to your wish of increasing my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females.”

You see, women don’t have a problem with Mitt Romney because he’s from a party of giant misogynists who want to take us back to the stone ages. No! We’re just PRETENDING we’ve not going to vote for him, in order to increase his love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females.

I JUST EXPLAINED THE GENDER GAP EVERYONE!

Cher clueless pushing guy EW

ELEGANT! FEMALE!

[She really loves him, she's just increasing his suspense]

So basically, we need Mittens Romney to ask women to vote for him a few more times, and we’ll totally change our minds!

Clueless Cher GIF Alicia Silverstone

… yeah, no.

I mean, I don’t want to make assumptions about anyone else’s political decisions, but… let’s just say I don’t think Mr. Romney’s “courtship” of my vote is going to end any better for him than Mr. Collins’ courtship of Lizzie Bennet’s hand.

Hey, Mittens, sorry, but I’m sending my absentee ballot off to the states just as soon as I find an American witness to… witness me voting.

And the name I checked?

Not Yours.

But hey, good luck with your attempt to court all us elegant females!

And all you elegant females? And males? Be forewarned! Mitt Romney’s desire to be President will not be suppressed! He’s going to be courting you pretty hard!

And as a runaway Jane Austen character, I think there’s a good chance he’ll start organizing formal balls.

Be.

Prepared.

Mr. Collins dancing GIF

Mr. Collins Style!

Mitt Romney Style!

*Many many thanks to Dani Alexis (@danialexis) and Celeloriel (@celeloriel) on twitter for putting up with my Austen/Romney ramblings, and for playing along and generally being awesome and brilliant.

** Before you ask, yes, I am aware that Mitt Romney is PROBABLY not a Jane Austen character. It’s a joke! I know it’s a joke! Moving on.


Frantically, Florally February: Monthly Reading Roundup

I go through a lot of books –  most years, I read at least a hundred and twenty novels. Last year, I hit 162 books, which was a record for me.

Before you ask: of course, I count! I’m so competitive that I can’t help but compete with myself (can I read more than 160 books this year? Or will last-year me win? NEVER). It’s pathetic. But hey, it gets me to read.

Since I consume so many books, there’s no way I can ever review all of them on this blog – or even most of them. Thus, I’m planning on doing a monthly roundup, which will allow me to discuss most of them briefly. And then I can stop feeling guilty that I’m not reviewing all my favorites.

I’m also doing these roundups because I’m a narcissistic, self-obsessed literature student who likes to obsessively document all the books she reads. But we don’t need to go there.

I’m starting with February books, even though it’s March. March isn’t over yet; it’s not too late to talk about February. At least, that’s what I tell myself (allow me my delusions).

The reviews follow the list:

(note: any book that is starred (*) and in italics is one I enjoyed enough to recommend)

1. Dawn by Octavia Butler **
2. Groundings for the Metaphysics of Morals by Kant
3. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen **
4. The Studhorse Man by Robert Kroescht
5. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins **
6. Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware
7. The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton **
8. Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton **
9. Green Grass and Running Water by Thomas King **
10. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen **
11. Genealogy of Morals by Nietzsche **
12. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons  **
13. Asterios Polyp by David Mazzochelli **
14. The Day of the Locust by Nathaneal West
15. Mechanique by Genevieve Valentine **
16. The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaage
17. I Never Liked You by Chester Brown
18. Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey **

Given how busy a month February was, I’m retrospectively shocked by how much I managed to read. Eighteen books? Really?

But most of them are books I read for school – twelve out of eighteen, in fact. If I didn’t have to read for class, this would be quite a sparse list. It’s hard to be a vigilante literature reader… I need some kind of structure.

February was a bit of a low month in terms of quality. I only liked twelve out of the eighteen, which sounds decent, but is far below my personal averages. And a lot of the books I didn’t like, I really didn’t like – The Studhorse Man, for example, was a complete trainwreck for me.

That said, there were a few standouts. Other than the Austens, which are always a treat, I thoroughly enjoyed Genevieve Valentine’s Mechanique (nominated for a Nebula in 2012), Jacqueline Carey’s Santa Oliva, David Mazzochelli’s Asterios Polyp and Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water.

My two favorites this month were Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm and Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw. Both are genre-defying, hilarity-inducing mashups with lots and lots of knotty thematic stuff for me to sink my metaphorical teeth into (I assure you, I do not chew books, except when they’re made out of candy).
Stella Gibbons Cold Comfort Farm is a mashup of the highest order. In the book, it’s as if Emma Woodhouse from Jane Austen’s Emma suddenly showed up on the set of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and proceeded to put everyone’s life in order.

With no-nonsense vigor and an arch sense of humor, Flora Post (the Emma Woodhouse lookalike) sends the brooding, woman-hating man of mystery (*cough* HEATHCLIFF *cough* ) off to become a Hollywood movie star. She transforms the imp-like but beautiful young woman (*cough* Catherine Linton *cough*) into a desirable mate for the local aristocrat. She teaches the overly fertile maid the importance of contraception. She deals with Aunt Doom (yes, her name is Aunt Doom), the owner of Cold Comfort Farm, and a woman who has refused to come out of her room for some sixty years, because she saw “something in the woodshed” as a girl.

We all know Healthcliff just wants Fame...

The book also presents some subtle discussions of feminism and the treatment of female authorship. When Flora meets an aspiring author (Mr. Meyerberg), he tries to convince her that the Bronte sister’s entire oeuvre was written by Branwen (their brother).** Mr. Meyerberg pursues Flora romantically, and blames her indifference on sexual frigidity.

The whole story is funny as hell, in a mischievous, high-wire sort of way. I’d be fascinated to read the scholarship on the piece, because there’s so much rich, tangled intertextuality to work through.

Jo Waltons’ Tooth and Claw, meanwhile, is another 19th century parody (what can I say? I love the 19th century. I love parodies). Walton writes a typical Victorian comedy of manners: everyone tries to get married and find their vicarage and display proper conduct all while keeping their clothes in perfec order. But the “everyone” she writes about aren’t humans. They’re dragons.
Yes, you read that right. Every character in the novel is a dragon, from blushing maiden to overbearing aristocrat.

All he needs to be perfectly respectable is a vicarage and a nice cup of tea.

It shouldn’t work, but it does, in large part because of how Walton uses the biological realities of being a dragon to explain the bizarre traditions of Victorian society. For example, we finally understand why victorian girls weren’t allowed around men. When men get too close to virgin dragons, the virgin’s scales “blush” red, and everyone knows they’ve been near a man, bringing on scandal.

Walton explains the perpetual survival of the aristocracy in a similar way.  Aristocratic dragons are allowed the first bite of any dead dragon. They, for example, get to eat the stunted children of their tenants. Dragons grow big depending on the amount of dragon-flesh they eat – and since the size of a dragon determines their ability to survive a fight, aristocrats will always have a physical advantage over their tenants.

In these, and many other examples, Walton cleverly reworks the tropes of two genres (dragon stories and Victorian comedy of manners). It was a fantastic, funny, flaming (sometimes literally) read. And I hold out hope that there might be a sequel someday.

** Cue obligatory Joanna Russ reference. As Russ points out in her non-fiction masterpiece How to Suppress Women’s Writing,  the easiest way to marginalize womens’ writing is to yell “SHE DIDN’T WRITE IT!

Mr. Meyerburg, Joanna is Judging You.


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