Friday, December 9, 2011

Review: Reading Women by Stephanie Staal

Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life by Stephanie Staal

Reviewed by Ingrid

Published: 2011

It's about: 10 years after having graduated from Barnard University with a degree in Anthropology, Stephanie Staal finds herself married, mother of a baby girl, and working from home in the suburbs. Slightly uncomfortable with the way life had turned out for her, Staal decides to pick up Betty Friedan's feminist classic The Feminine Mystique. Surprised to find that she responds so differently to a text she studied and found rather boring in college, Staal decides to re-enroll in the Feminist Texts class she took as a sophomore. In this memoir, she outlines the books that affected her the most, and discusses how her reaction to these texts changed dramatically as she sees them from her new point of view.

I thought: This book got mixed reviews on Goodreads. A lot of readers seemed to be irritated that Staal didn't adequately include everything important about feminism in her dialogue, and they don't like that she comes from such a privelaged background. I think these readers are missing something very important - this is a memoir, not a textbook. You just can't critique a memoir the same way you could critique a general non-fiction book. However, I LOVED the personal point of view Stall brought to a topic that is all too often convoluted (ahem, Judith Butler.) I'm in a point of my life now when I am starting to confront these issues. I've been married for a year and a half, I'm still young, but pretty soon I'm going to have to face ... dun dun dun ... kids. I come from a very conservative background that encourages women to marry young, have kids as soon as possible and have a lot of them. I know I want kids, eventually, but I'm already starting to feel the pressure.

Because of this, I could relate to Staal in a lot of ways. I consider myself a feminist. I also consider myself quite a bit more liberal than most people of my background. But at the same time, I want a family. How can I live up to my full potential while also taking on all the time-consuming responsibility of raising kids? This is the same question Staal is facing, and it is with this specific conflict in mind that she approaches the classic books of feminism.

There were a few things that weren't perfect about this book. There are quite a few clich├ęd phrases, and at times it felt like Staal was stretching a little far to make everything fit together. But really, those things didn't bother me as much as they normally would because I was so engrossed in her thoughts and her story.

In a word, I loved this book. (Actually that's four words.)

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf.

Reading Recommendations: I would especially recommend this book to other women like me who have strong opinions about feminism but also find themselves trying to balance these opinions with the desire to be a wife and a mother.

Warnings: One very descriptive and graphic sex scene excerpted from Henry Miller's Sexus.

Favorite excerpts:
On Virginia Woolf -
"Her prose is frenetic, an exercise in the anarchic wanderings of the mind, thought stumbling over thought, facts and ideas contradicting each other. Woolf writes of a mind divided against itself, ever struggling to coalesce a sense of self from all the bits and pieces of thought, experience, emotion.
     Crowded into an urban apartment, working to regain my professional footing, keeping watch of a young child, I thought about Virginia Woolf's conditions for female creativity. If I had the money--five hundred pounds converted into U.S. currency and adjusted for inflation, of course--and a room of my own, which I sort of had here by the kitchen, was that really all it would take? My daughter pounded on the door of my home office. "Mommy? Mommy? Mommy?" I stopped typing. the words of the sentence I had been writing now scattered, the muse frightened away. I swung open the door in a motion of irritation. And there stood my daughter, holding out to me a piece of paper with a poem she had written, her expression serious and proud. "Mommy," she said, "I wrote this for you."

What I'm reading next: The Marbled Swarm by Dennis Cooper