Books I Read in January

I only read two books in January, and I’m a quarter of the way through another.

My first January read was A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.  It tells the story of a Russian aristocrat, Count Rostov, who is sentenced to house arrest by the Bolsheviks in 1922. But his house arrest happens to be inside Moscow’s finest hotel, Hotel Metropol, as he was already resident there when sentenced.

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A Gentleman in Moscow (hardback). Published September 6th 2016 by Viking

Over the course of 30 years in the hotel, the Count befriends several of the guests — some come and go while others remain part of the novel’s fabric. The concept of the novel is interesting: the hotel remains static, a stage on which characters enter and leave, but outside the world is changing.

The book begins in the 1920s, shortly after the Russian Revolution, and ends in the 1950s, in the midst of Soviet Russia. Although I was vaguely aware of external events (one character is sent to a gulag prison camp, while Rostov’s friend Mishka writes poetry which is censored), as readers, we are sheltered from all this. The hotel’s warmth and charm is an oasis away from the harsh political climate.

‘Warmth and charm’ sums up the whole book really. Beyond a passing mention here and there, Towles doesn’t elaborate on the brutalities of Russia’s history during the novel’s thirty-year span. It is historical fiction, of a kind, but it’s dressed up in finery and the historical details focus more on luxuries (orchestral music, Swiss Breguet timepieces, fine dining) than gritty reality.

“Does a banquet really need an asparagus server?” one of the characters asks. “Does an orchestra need a bassoon?” Rostov replies.

Although it has been given acclaimed reviews in the media, I thought it was just so-so: entertaining but not outstanding. I enjoyed it as an escapist read and it is well-written, but I’m not sure that it merits all the hype it is getting (rave reviews from NPR, The New York Times and The Washington Post, among others). A review I read on Goodreads classified it as ‘a fairy tale for adults’, which I think is very apt. It’s full of whimsy and charm, but lacks real substance. I’d rate it three stars out of five.

My next book in January was Sweet Caress by William Boyd. In this novel, Amory Clay is the central protagonist. Born in 1908, Amory develops an early interest in photography and aspires to make it her profession, at a time when it wasn’t considered an acceptable career for women.

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Sweet Caress (paperback). Published May 17th 2016 by Bloomsbury USA.

Boyd charts Amory’s progress through the early twentieth century as she becomes an intrepid photographer. Her work takes her to pre-war Berlin at first, where she takes secretive photos at an after-hours night club, and later to New York, London and Paris.

She specializes in photojournalism, documenting fascist marches in London, the aftermath of World War II and, later, the conflict in Vietnam. In a stint as a fashion photographer for American Mode, Amory finds that although she is good at it, she is bored by the predictable poses and glossy veneer of fashion photos, preferring instead to shoot photos from a less artificial angle.

A number of small black-and-white photos are dotted throughout the book, with captions that relate to Amory’s photos. They are anonymous and are all photos that Boyd has found in junk shops and yard sales.

Of course, the photos are all representations of fictional characters, but they make the people in the novel seem more vivid and real. Boyd uses one of these found photos (below) as a frontispiece, depicting Amory as a young woman in the 1920s.

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Photo: unknown. Found at a bus stop in Dulwich, London.

The novel is narrated from a first-person perspective, and I really felt that I got to ‘know’ Amory as a character. It’s a mark of an excellent novel when you turn the last page and feel just a little bereft, wishing you could spend more time with its characters.

In the acknowledgements at the end, there is a list of female names: the real-life trailblazing female photographers who inspired Boyd’s depiction of Amory. Sweet Caress left me wanting to research the fascinating lives of these twentieth-century women, most of whom are now unknown.

Currently reading: Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks.

What did you read in January? It doesn’t just have to be books — if you read a really great article online, share that too!

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Advice For Young Academics

#AdviceForYoungJournalists was trending on Twitter this morning and a spinoff hashtag, #AdviceForYoungAcademics, started. It reminded me that the idea for this post has been brewing in my brain for a while, but I haven’t found the time to blog since early January: a partial explanation for my hiatus is the beginning of the Spring term and the deluge of reading, writing and class-attending that it entailed. The other reason is that I spent two weeks in a coffee haze, writing a research proposal to apply for grant funding for my MA and Ph.D. On Friday, I heard that I have been officially accepted for a Master’s degree, to be followed by a Ph.D. This is very exciting! Now I have to wait a couple of months before I hear about whether I am awarded the funding. The grant is competitive and there is one place available. In the meantime, I don’t have much time to think/worry about it, because I have 9,000 words to write over the next few weeks.

Regular Cultural Life readers will know how much I am enamored by academia, which brings me to the point of this post. Before Christmas, I checked out Geek Chic: Smart Women in Popular Culture, edited by Sherrie A. Inness, from my university library. Although it isn’t related to my academic field of linguistics, the title attracted me because I have an interest in how smart women are portrayed. Also: yes, I read academic books for fun. I checked this book out during winter break, so I think that probably makes me a nerd by default.

Geek Chic is a collection of chapters about the portrayal of intelligent women in popular culture and the media. This includes fictional women, such as “Beauty and the Geek: Changing Gender Stereotypes on the Gilmore Girls” by Karin E. Westman, and real-life women, such as, “Heckling Hillary: Jokes, Late Night Television, and Hillary Rodham Clinton” by Jeannie Banks Thomas. I didn’t read the book from cover-to-cover, instead I picked out the chapters that were most interesting to me. That’s one of the great things about an academic anthology of different chapters: you can pick and choose the parts that are the most interesting and relevant.

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I particularly enjoyed the chapter by Leigh H. Edwards, entitled “Dangerous Minds: The Woman Professor on Television”. Edwards writes about how women in academic careers are portrayed on screen in the dramas Jack and Bobby and The Education of Max Bickford. Unsurprisingly, the dramas portray female academics who achieve success in their professional lives, but at the same time they are “condemned for how they depart from traditional gender roles in their private lives” (Edwards, 2007: 122). Edwards’s chapter highlights the “continuing structural inequities for women in higher education” and the fact that many female graduates “[jump] off their career track to be stay-at-home mothers”. Note that Edwards is not judging women who choose that path, she is highlighting the problems and issues that many women face in their careers. This is an ongoing issue, as posts on the excellent Tenure, She Wrote blog show.

I am surrounded by intelligent, academic women in my university department and I respect them greatly for their knowledge and enthusiasm. I am at the beginning of my academic career and I am fortunate in that sexism directed at smart women isn’t something that I have personally encountered, although I know it exists. Just yesterday I read a chapter by Louise Mullany entitled “Gendered Identities in the Professional workplace: Negotiating the Glass Ceiling”, which is about how language can be used to reinforce and spread gender stereotypes in the business world. Mullany (2010: 183-4) cites Kanter’s (1977) four categorizations of gender identities that are often imposed on women in business: the ‘mother role’ (i.e., “stereotypically feminine”), the ‘iron maiden’ (“characterised […] by the performance of masculine speech styles”), the ‘seductress’ and the ‘pet’. If a woman tries to fulfill both feminine and masculine roles, it can result in a “double bind” (ibid.). This, to me, speaks volumes about how the media widely portrays women as unable to fulfill dual roles: duality is frowned upon.

Judgments are commonplace – I have heard them even within my family – about women who decide to fulfill dual roles. It seems to me that women are subject to more judgments about their choices in their personal lives and the chapter by Edwards in Geek Chic describes how the dramas she discussed portray a “dynamic in which women must excel in their career but replicate the nurturer-caregiver role at home, part and parcel of an effort to ‘have it all'” (Edwards, 2010: 124). These shows, and popular culture in general, rarely show women who pursue a professional career and a private life, without resorting to drug use or having their marriages fall apart. Rather than depictions of ‘mommy wars’ and judgments designed to induce guilt in working mothers, I’d rather read about professional women who manage just fine. As a post from Tenure, She Wrote aptly says: Daycare is not a bad word!

Public domain images source:  Woman Studying and Baby Carriage clipart

Public domain images source: Woman Studying and Baby Carriage clipart

I am a young, aspiring academic; therefore, I guess I’m not best qualified to give advice. But I think it’s always good to reflect on your experiences, however old you are. A few of the things I’ve learned so far are:

1) Doing your own research and conducting fieldwork is a wonderful thing.

2) Hard work does pay off. When I look at my post in October, I was starting out on a project and felt somewhat downcast at the time. A few months later: I finished the project, which was very rewarding, and achieved an excellent grade.

3) Always be engaged. If something bores you, look at it from another angle and find what is interesting about it.

4) Prioritize! Start your most important papers/projects/essays etc. early. I like to start early and brainstorm, as it allows time for ideas to percolate.

5) Find your rhythm: when do you work best? For me, it’s the early morning, so I do more intellectually taxing work in those precious hours between 7 – 10 am.

6) Be determined! Everyone doubts themselves sometimes: it’s not a weakness.

Do you have advice for young academics? What do you think about the stereotypes and categorizations that are frequently imposed on professional women?

The references for the books which contain the chapters mentioned in my post are:

Inness, S. A. (2007). Geek Chic: Smart Women in Popular Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Llamas, C. and Watt, D. (2010). Language and Identities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Jane Austen and the importance of reputation

For Day 16 of Zero to Hero, the challenge is to write a personalized interpretation from today’s Daily Prompt. Technically speaking, it is now yesterday’s prompt because this post is a day late. But better late than never, right?

The prompt: Do you have a reputation? What is it, and where did it come from? Is it accurate? What do you think about it?

Because we can do anything we like with this prompt, essentially anything about the theme of reputation, I’m not going to talk about me. Instead, we’re going to time-travel a couple of hundred years to nineteenth century England. In a little village named Steventon nestled in the rolling hills of the southern county of Hampshire, one of the world’s best-loved authors lived and wrote. At that time, she wasn’t well-known and published her books under the pseudonym of “A Lady”. Today, millions have read her works. Her name is Jane Austen.

As readers, our own personal experiences influence our interpretations of what we read. Although that holds true whatever we read, when we read books set in other times and places I think it is very advantageous to have an idea of the context of time/place. Things which seem anachronistic or outlandish in the twenty-first century did not in the nineteenth, especially the rigid societal rules which governed a woman’s choices and reputation during the time in which Austen wrote.

Jane Austen, in a watercolor painted by her sister in 1804. (Photo credit: Wikipedia. This image is in the public domain).

Jane Austen, in a watercolor painted by her sister in 1804. (Photo credit: Wikipedia. This image is in the public domain).

For me, as a fan of Austen’s novels, one of the delights of reading classic literature is being able to look through a window into another era. Social etiquette was much more complex in Austen’s time than it is now and women were constrained by the expectations of a patriarchal society. As Anne Elliot succinctly says in Persuasion: “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands” (ch. 23).

Strict standards of decorum applied and if a woman seriously transgressed the boundaries, it was bad news for her reputation. Austen does not shy away from depicting improper behavior according to the standards of the age. In Sense and Sensibility, the spirited Marianne rebels against the social customs of the time. She “pointedly refuses to conform to false modesty in courtship” (Todd, 2007: 301) by traveling alone with her suitor and corresponding with him via letter. But in doing so, her reputation is put at risk.

Why does it matter? A good reputation was everything, especially in the close-knit social circles of the Georgian middle and upper classes. A woman would provoke gossip if she danced more than two consecutive dances with the same partner, unless she was engaged or married to him. Young unmarried women were not allowed to be alone with male company: they had to be chaperoned. Society placed so many restrictions on women during this time, in terms of manners, conduct, education, professions, clothing and pretty much everything else.

Costumes from Jane Austen film and television adaptations

Costumes from Jane Austen film and television adaptations – photo copyright Grace @ Cultural Life (2013)

Women were effectively competing in a marriage market and if they did not marry (Austen herself remained unmarried), the choices were limited and poverty was never far away. As Austen said in one of her letters, “Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor. Which is one very strong argument in favor of matrimony.

I enjoy Austen’s sparkling prose and her well-written characters and I love watching adaptations of her novels. It is very easy to look at her world through a rose-tinted view. The film and TV adaptations of Austen novels are always lovely to look at; everything is very pretty and perfect and there is always a happy ending. But realistically I wouldn’t want to live in her era and be compelled to follow the regulations of society with hardly any freedom to choose my own future.

Bibliography

Todd, J (Ed). (2007). Jane Austen in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The problem with feminist characters

During the past few days, I have read at least two or three separate articles on why Katniss Everdeen is such a great female role model. Katniss is the lead protagonist of The Hunger Games series of books and films. She is a very human character with flaws and vulnerabilities. She is also determined, strong and she does things on her own terms. In her fictional dystopian universe, a futuristic imagining of the United States, inequalities between social classes are a bigger problem than inequalities between gender.

The most recent movie, adapted from the book, focuses partly on revolutions and uprisings in the twelve districts which are controlled by the totalitarian regime of the Capitol. And Katniss’s refusal to define herself by relationships with men, unlike some other mainstream franchise characters (Bella Swan, I’m looking at you), has led to her character being acclaimed as a pop culture feminist role model.

Photo credit: © 2013 - Lionsgate Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013).

Photo credit: © 2013 – Lionsgate
Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013).

The issue of gender discrimination in film is nothing new. The Bechdel test was developed in 1985 and it scores movies and other works of fiction based on the criteria that “it has to have at least two [named] women in it who talk to each other about something besides a man” (Bechdel Test). Recently, a few independent Swedish cinemas have started rating the movies they show and giving them a grade based on whether they pass the Bechdel test. I think there are flaws with this: a movie can still be sexist or demonstrate gender inequalities even if it contains two female characters who talk about something other than relationships. But it does highlight the fact that a lot of movies are based on models of gender bias which do not fit the feminist ideology of equality. Perhaps needless to say, The Hunger Games passes the Bechdel Test with an A grade.

However, the fact that we need to make a point out of having strong female characters demonstrates that we have a problem. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is great to have feminist characters, especially in mainstream franchises. But I think the fact that we have to make such a big deal out of it is representative of a wider problem: of inequalities which still linger. It highlights the issue, at least in my eyes, that it is necessary to define characters by feminist and non-feminist. By all means, we still need to work towards equality but I hope that it will become standard for women to be represented in all forms of media without gender discrimination. Only then will we know that true and meaningful progress has been made.