Today’s post is brought to you by the fact that I am finally diving back into my The Americans binge-watch, circa Season 3. I have been shouting for weeks at everyone I know to just GET ON THIS SHOW [which just wrapped up after 6 seasons, which I think is the ideal length for a show to be] so that I have someone to flail with. Soviet super-spies in the 80s camouflaging themselves as a simple married couple who runs a travel agency is not a plot I *thought* I’d be into at this particular moment in time, but here we are. The acting is suPERB and the plot specializes in putting the characters into more and more impossible situations and seeing how they respond to those pressures. Content warning: the very first episode of the show includes a sexual assault, which in my opinion the show would not have opened with if it was premiering now, post-dozens of thinkpieces about the gratuity of Game of Thrones’ sexual assault scenes. The rest of this show (at least up to where I am) is much more nuanced in its discussions about sexual violence.
Anyway, as I was putting together this week’s post, I realized that there’s kind of an espionage bent in the books for this week?? Which of course made me a little paranoid, because WHO IS PULLING THE STRINGS OF MY READING SCHEDULE?? [if it’s Kerri Russell, I won’t be mad, tbh] Even though there are only three books in here, this post got a little long, because I just had SO MANY THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS about all three of them, but that’s okay because there won’t actually be a post next week. [see bottom of post for more deets]
Keep calm and spy on!
The Woman in the Window – A.J. Finn
The narrator/main character is more likable than I was expecting, but in an unobtrusive way. Likable is probably the wrong word, actually, because it comes loaded with all of these often gendered expectations of why you should like a character. However, in these noir-y suspense novels, I tend to run into a lot of callous, numb characters that you’re supposed to care about because they’re the main character — like the author has leaned so far away from expectations of likability that they’ve created someone you feel obligated to care about. The main character here — Anna — is complex and interesting, largely because she actually has interests, but she’s full of the peaks and valleys that make real people interesting.
Anyway, on the back of the book there’s a whole bunch of endorsements from impressive people and the endorsement from Stephen King says “Totally original,” which I found very funny because…its whole premise is that it’s completely not? And that doesn’t mean it’s not “good” [whatever that even MEANS]; I definitely believe there’s value in executing genre and genre tropes really really well [see: Veronica Mars, season 1; see: Killing Eve] which this book does. I’m just entertained by best-selling author Stephen King reaching for a descriptor and landing on “original” for this particular book. I’m sure he has a lot of endorsements he has to do! I’m sure they’re a lot of effort! Still a bonkers choice!
There are no “spies” here in the Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings sense of the word, but the whole book’s action happens because one of Anna’s biggest hobbies is spying on her neighbors, which I completely respect and would definitely do if I lived just across “the park” from very wealthy people. There are what I would deem 3 significant turning points in the book, and I was completely surprised by 2 of them, which is a pretty good record in my opinion. (There’s always, of course, debate about whether saying there’s a twist is a “spoiler,” because if you know there’s a twist you’re always LOOKING for the twist and are less likely to be surprised by it, but come on: look at that cover. YOU KNOW THERE’S A TWIST.) (Also for me personally, hearing there’s a twist is almost always going to make me want to read/watch the thing in question because I always want to know if I can predict it.) (I usually can’t.)
[Ed. Feb 2019: ANOTHER TWIST: the author (actual name Daniel Mallory) (NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH MY FAVE, Daniel Mallory Ortberg) was profiled today in the New Yorker and…it’s really something. like “oh this person is…not okay” type of something: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/02/11/a-suspense-novelists-trail-of-deceptions%5D
The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James
I’ve been reading this book since, I believe, January, and I am honestly in kind of A Place about having finished it. This book did things to me on a similar level to Villette, and I spent the whole time highly shooketh. This is kind of a weird situation because this book matters a lot to me, but I don’t know if I could ever tell anyone else “You should definitely read this!!” except for my students if I ever reach professordom, because it is my entire dream to have a job in which I am paid to force 20-year-olds to listen to me rant about Henry James.
In all seriousness, though, this book came to me when I was experiencing a lot of doubt about whether I should be pursuing this grad school/professorhood route, and the ways in which it sparked so many thoughts in me about how I’d want to teach it and how exciting 19th century literature is to me were almost as meaningful as the content of the book itself. It also came to me when I was in the midst of learning a lot about who I am as a person, and, as [again] with Villette, I often felt that this book was reading me as much as I was reading it.
As I mentioned when shouting about The Turn of the Screw, James’ prose is challenging but rewarding. And this book is much, much longer than Turn of the Screw (though in my opinion, usually a bit more legible). As I mentioned in the first paragraph, it’s taken me a long time to read this book, partly because of the thoughts it stirred up in me and partly because of just how dense it was. However, I really wanted to take my time with it. There was a depth to the characters — most of whom I adored with all my heart — that was both instantly apparent and a joy to sink into. Also this book confirmed my suspicion that the person I will always stan most for in a literary classic is going to be the slightly-nosy late-middle-aged woman.
Exhibit A: Lady Russell, Persuasion
Exhibit A: Madame Khoklakov, Brothers Karamazov
Exhibit B: Madame Beck, Villette
Exhibit D: Mrs. Touchett, THIS BOOK
The espionage in this book is mostly just sneaky people being sneaky to each other in a 19th century way, but there’s so much in here about straight-up deception, self-deception, and the possibility of deceiving people by…not deceiving them? [It makes sense in the book, I PROMISE.]
In keeping with the inadvertent spy theme…some nonfiction! This book about the women who made it their mission in pre-Roe v. Wade Chicago to help people get abortions — first through referrals, then through using one trusted practitioner, and finally by performing the abortions themselves — was fascinating, even in the ways in which it didn’t feel quite…complete.
For those unfamiliar with the Jane Collective (which included me until a couple of months ago), they were a group of women who were radically committed to helping people get abortions from 1969-1973 (when Roe v. Wade was decided), risking legal and personal consequences for the sake of helping pregnant people take control of their bodies and lives. They were committed to an ethic that insisted that the pregnant person should be the only deciding vote in whether or not they received an abortion and that the hierarchies common in mainstream medical practice were more rooted in power grabs than medical necessity.
I think it’s important to note what this book isn’t, because it took me some time to pin down what I felt I was missing, and whether that interfered with the goals of the book. It isn’t a nuanced exploration of the accomplishments and challenges of Jane. In the introduction, the author refers to the work as a “collective memoir” — she herself was a member of Jane, and a great deal of the book is based on the memories of other participants. One of the challenges of creating this book, Kaplan acknowledges, is that because of the hyper-secrecy necessary to protect the group and those who used the group, there wasn’t much kept in the way of documentation, which makes historical analysis mighty tricky. You’re relying mostly on memory, and any analysis applied in hindsight is going to rely on the analysis of the people who were involved and their own histories since then.
In particular, I have some mixed feelings on how this book handled racial dynamics — both how they played out within the group and the group’s work, and how they affect the reproductive rights conversation. The book acknowledges the basics: the double bind that black women face as being subjected to both sexism and racism, as well as the fact that reproductive rights have often looked different for women of color than they have for white women. While white women have historically centered the reproductive rights conversation around the right not to conceive and/or give birth, women of color have been subjected to unwanted abortions, hysterectomies, and having their children taken away (*ahem*…timely).
The book also acknowledges the complexity of the fact that Jane was mostly made up of middle-class white women, and the people receiving abortions were mostly poor and black. While their privilege allowed them the time and resources to do this work (and the ability to do it with relatively little police interference), it also meant that most of them would never fully understand the circumstances of those they were counseling, which creates a space where white savior complexes could become a real problem. There were a few times that I felt the author skated over the complexities a bit; she usually acknowledged them, and included a brief description of Jane’s attempts to navigate them, but I often found myself feeling like there was more to it than that and wondering what it was that I still didn’t know. I’d like to read a book about race and the reproductive rights movement, so if you know of a good one, feel free to point me to it!
I absolutely do think this book is worth reading if you’re interested in the fight for reproductive rights — it’s highly readable and quite fascinating. I was blown away to discover that at the same time that Jane was operating, there was also a Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion that helped women get abortions and was LEAD BY BAPTISTS. [This Atlantic article has more information about them, although it *ahem* does not mention Jane at all, despite the fact that CCS leadership met regularly with Jane leadership for check-ins and resource sharing.] For those who grew up in conservative Christian environments, there was a lot of misinformation we got about both abortion itself and its history, and one of the things I was for sure taught was that Christians AS A WHOLE have ALWAYS been against ABORTION, ALWAYS FOREVER, which is just…not the case.
A note: next week I will be traveling, which means there won’t be a new blog post. The Wednesday after that is the Fourth of July, so I’ll probably schedule that post for either Tuesday or Thursday. I know, I know, unreliable af. All 10 of you reading this will just have to deal.
That being said, if you are reading or have read any of the books I’ve shouted about on my recommendation, please do let me know, because it truly warms my heart and right now my dear friend Sarah is planning on reading both Rosemary’s Baby AND Rebecca because of this blog [shoutings here and here, respectively] so literally IT WAS ALL WORTH IT.