Monday, February 25, 2013

Thoughts | Books for boys, books for girls

I don't remember where I first read about The Monstrumologist, but I clearly remember the major critique the reviewer had against the book: its complete and total lack of female characters. The general details of the book faded from my memory, but that one notion that a book could have absolutely no relevant female characters intrigued me somewhat. And so I kept that idea in mind as I finally delved down to read the book as a sort of mind-wiping distraction.

It's a relatively good assessment of the book, and an accurate indicator of its target audience. The Monstrumologist is a boy's book through and through, whether because of its clear tendency towards all things gory, or because of its masculine approach to hunting monsters, or even simply because of that one factoid someone mentioned years ago: there is not a single female character throughout The Monstrumologist. No romantic interest, no token female... nothing. And it's not even that the cast of characters is necessarily so small. It's just that every single character happens to be male, and happens to behave in what we traditionally label as a masculine behavior.

Then I got to wondering: how much should this actually influence the book itself? Is the book necessarily weaker for the fact that it has no female characters? I think it isn't. The characters are all of a certain cut. There's the insane monster hunter, the out-of-touch doctor, the revenge-thirsty teenager, the skeptic policeman... The characters themselves are fairly routine, and truthfully, adjusting the gender of one of them would have been significantly worse than the fact that there were no women overall. True, this indicates some kind of weakness in Yancey's ability to write well-rounded characters as a whole, but there's nothing inherently sexist about it. I didn't get the vibe that Yancey didn't want to write about girls for some defined reason, rather that he had a specific "boy's tale" in mind. Is that so terribly wrong?

I'm split. On the one hand, I know that young men read significantly less than young women, and that books are very rarely marketed exclusively for guys. On the other hand... how can a book so completely lack characters of the opposite gender? But now I'm realizing that this isn't just in "boys books". Often, the only male characters in books for young women is the romantic interest. How is that better? When you start looking at it, young adult books are often split along gender lines. It's... strange. And extremely problematic.

I've had months to think about this, and really... I've reached no conclusions. It bothers me that a book could be so utterly limited in its characterizations, but if those are the characterizations that make the book better, I really can't fault the author. The Monstrumologist overall isn't much more than mediocre (for reasons well beyond gender imbalances), but its clear boy-focus is inherently tied to its story. Something else probably would have rang false. So... thoughts?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

And in conclusion... Three Strong Women

So I finally finished Three Strong Women by Marie Ndiaye and I've even had some time to absorb it and think about it a bit. It's an interesting book, but I find myself struggling to actually recommend it to readers. As seen through the rear-view mirror, Three Strong Women works much better than it did while I was actually reading it. Fit together, the three stories that make up this book suddenly seem clearer and more sharply tuned. But this does not detract from the book's flaws.

I mentioned in my last post that I was developing a theory about the title: Three Strong Women. Now, after having read all three stories I want to discuss it a bit more in depth because I think this is the strongest argument both in favor of reading the book, and possibly against it as well. This post will contain spoilers.

Okay. We have three women: Norah, Fanta and Khady. Norah and Khady give us their stories firsthand; Fanta's story is seen through the eyes of her husband. The three women face various struggles throughout their stories, mostly revolving around men in their lives. These are not romantic issues, though the dynamics of romantic love do come into play in each of the stories. These three women are supposed to be our "strong women". But truthfully, not one of the three is a strong woman by my definition, and this is in fact what makes the novel an interesting one.

Norah is technically the closest - she is independent, supports her daughter, her boyfriend, and her boyfriend's daughter, and is a successful lawyer despite whatever issues she may have had as a child. Yet she lives under her father's shadow, jumps when he says jump and in essence succumbs to his strength throughout her story.

Fanta is similarly submissive, but what are her character traits? We know she has had an affair (which her husband Rudy discovered), but stayed with her husband, despite all observations indicating her unhappiness with him and their general living situation. Is her strength found in the fact that she stays with a troubled husband, or is it found in the fact that she even followed him to France in the first place? Fanta is supposed to be a strong woman, but no textual evidence supports it. Seen through her husband's eyes, she is almost deliberately flattened.

And then Khady. Khady starts her story out completely submissive - indeed, admitting to having closed herself off. She then makes one pivotal decision, which she proudly views as her first shot at independence. But this strength and her independence lead her into a complex mess of issues that culminate in a rather heartbreaking ending. So what's the lesson here?

I've seen a lot of readers and reviewers call Three Strong Women conservative, and there's something about that word. When our "strong women" are not truly strong at all, it can seem as though Three Strong Women is actually conservative, restrained and old-fashioned. But I don't think that's the case. Ndiaye treats her characters with care, but there's a sense of irony behind everything she writes. Once I finished the book, the suspicion I'd had that Ndiaye was ironically referring to these women as "strong" intensified. I'm not one-hundred percent convinced, but... that's what it feels like.

Here's the thing: I will recommend Three Strong Women to certain readers. It's an interesting, thought-provoking book and even though Ndiaye's writing will probably not appeal to all readers, it didn't bother me too much. The very fact that I am still uncertain as to Ndiaye's true intentions leave me intrigued; I suspect these certain readers will be equally curious.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Three Strong Women, part two

It only seems fair that after posting about Three Strong Women's opening story, I should also post about the following novella. Attentive readers of this blog will notice the wide time-lapse between my last post mentioning the book and this one - indeed, it took me significantly longer to read the second story in the collection than the first.

The obvious reason - that the second story is fifty pages longer - is really not the main factor in why this took quite so long to read (and no, a busy life is not an excuse). The truth is that this second story is simply not as good. At least, it didn't get good until past the halfway mark, when suddenly my reading pace shot up from ten pages a week to fifty pages in one afternoon.

I saw a reader mention in some review (I unfortunately can't remember where) that the second story is not even about a "strong woman", but rather about a weak man. This is a pretty apt description. If Marie Ndiaye's collection was intended to showcase strong women, the central novella does a pretty bad job of it. The strong woman in question would be Fanta, but unlike the previous story's Norah, Fanta is nowhere near being the protagonist of the story. That honor goes, instead, to her husband, Rudy, who is perhaps one of the most miserable and down-in-the-dumps characters I've ever encountered. Fanta is instead viewed through Rudy's eyes, giving us what should be a one-sided impression (though, to credit Ndiaye's writing, Fanta feels surprisingly real).

Rudy is the heart of the second story, and truthfully, he is also what drags it down. His passive anger and general meh-ness throughout the first half of the story is powerful and relevant to the impressive culmination, but it goes on for too long. Here, Ndiaye's tendency towards questioning, one-sentence paragraphs grows a bit tedious. Rudy's thoughts repeat and loop in what is a very sharp description of a troubled mind, but this is not exactly enjoyable or smooth reading. The story doesn't really hit its stride until Rudy's outlook begins to change (and the tone of the story changes accordingly).

I've only just started the third story, but already its flow is significantly better than Rudy's story ever was. It'll be interesting to see how it fits into the collection thematically. I have some thoughts on this idea of the "strong women" so far, but I think I'll wait until after the final novella to see how it all plays out.