Banned Books and Women

Banned Books weeks is happening right now and as I was browsing all your posts and Tweets, I realized that there is a close connection between banned books, feminism and women, and after Emma Watson’s speech (‘If not me, who? If not now, when?’) I realized it was high time I wrote about it. Because I cannot even imagine what it is to be banned from reading books, or getting an education or reading stories about women who transgressed social rules, defying what was expected of them and being banned by society.

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So, to start, let’s look at what banned books are. It certainly sounds like something from the past, right? As with gender equality, it is still an issue even though some people choose to think otherwise. The Banned Books Week Website explains the origins of the week and goes on to challenge the supposed freedom we enjoy nowadays regarding books and narratives:

Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information. Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community –- librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types –- in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.

Banned Books Week was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. More than 11,300 books have been challenged since 1982 according to the American Library Association. There were 307 challenges reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom in 2013, and many more go unreported.

So, are almost 12,000 banned books in the last 32 years enough to make us question our freedom as readers and writers? And what did women have to do with all this? The Banned Books Website also lists the 10 most challenged titles of 2013, four of which were written by women: Toni Morrison, Suzanne Collins. E.L. James and Tanya Lee Stone. Not a bad percentage, but quite high when compared to the number of women writers reviewed in some newspapers I would rather not name. So, why is this?

Mary Wollstonecraft paid special attention to women's education in 'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman' (1792).

Mary Wollstonecraft paid special attention to women’s education in ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ (1792), since women were banned from getting an education.

Women have historically been linked to restrictions. For centuries, women were subjected to the patriarchal system embodied mainly – but not exclusively – by their male relatives, the church and the state. This resulted in women being banned from accessing the knowledge that would stop limiting them to their roles as wives and mothers. I am not a historian, so I cannot dwell on how women were restricted and banned from accessing knowledge in depth. However, Gerda Lerner’s The Creation of Patriarchy (1986) is a marvellous example of this, a must-read to understand why and how women have been subjected to the system of patriarchy. Need one example? Lerner explores how female sexuality has been constructed so as to subject women and ban them from the public sphere: “For women, sexual exploitation marked the very definition of enslavement, as it did not for men” […] women has been the very mark of women’s class oppression” [Chapter IV].

But, women’s exclusion from knowledge has been overt and it has also been pseudo-scientifically proved. The University of Cambridge allowed women to access higher education for the first time in 1869, however, these women were not taught the same subjects as their male counterparts. Such an old and conservative institution only started to accept women in the very same degrees men were getting in the second half of the 20th century, which is probably the same period when many of you were born (and so was I). The University of Oxford is proud to dedicate three paragraphs to the question ‘Who was the first woman graduate?’. They admit they cannot answer this question, because before 1920 women were allowed to attend lectures but were not given any kind of degree. After 1920, women were admitted. However, all this information begs the question: What kind of women were able to enjoy this? The quick, easy answer is upper-class women belonging to liberal families, since studying was even thought to dry up the ovaries – because all the blood went to the brain – and leave them useless, that is, useless as wives and mothers. If you are interested in this period of women’s history and the role British sufragettes played,  Lyndsey Jenkins is your woman. To include someone from my home country, Spanish writer Concepción Arenal disobeyed her parents and entered law lessons  as an unregistered student at the Complutense University of Madrid in 1841. She will later on become a specialist in law, a writer and an activist for women’s right to education. For a long time, it was rumored she dressed up as a man in order to be allowed into law lessons. However, this idea has been challenged and questioned in the last years.

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Spanish writer, lawyer and activist Concepción Arenal.

So, what about banned books by women? Well, I would say there are two categories of banned books by women. Can you name a female mathematician? Or a more than three female philosophers? And what about a female scientist that is not Marie Curie? As you can see, women and their works have been banned from entering the field of knowledge. Of course, they were first banned to learn, so the number of female thinkers is not the same as the number of male thinkers, but there were still many and they are famous for not being included on education curricula. The following are some examples that have stuck with me:

  • Hildergard of Bingen (1098 – 1179) was a German composer, philosopher and abbess, and the author of some very progressive medicinal and scientific writings.
  • Katharina Von-Bora (1499 – 1552), Luther’s wife, played a key role on her husband’s religious enterprise.
  • Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia (1596 -1662) exchanged letters with philosopher Descartes and he wrote Passions of the Soul (1649) as a consequence of their dialogue.
  • Émilie du Châtelet (1706 – 1749) was a French physicist and mathematician who introduced Newton’s ideas in France.

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I chose these four examples because I think they are the most relevant, meaning they were women close to very important historical moments and/or people, yet their names are quite difficult to find. Luckily, as women were allowed to access higher education, they were able to see their works being influential, even though this happened little by little.

The second category of banned books by women is, as the name literally indicates, those works that were written by women and banned when they were written. The reasons were many and varied, but most of them appealed to the general’s public sanity and morals. These women writers were seen as corrupters of the established order and they were criminalized. Obviously, the reason their texts were banned are directly linked to the ideas the text contained, so that was easier for an extreme liberal woman to see her work banned when published. Two favourites of mine have been banned and I can see why. Sylvia Plath published The Bell Jar under the pseudonym ‘Victoria Lucas’ in 1963 (why she needed to use a pseudonym is already a clue) and the book has been banned several times ever since. For the Love of Words has a great post about the book and why it has been banned. I can only add that Esther’s doubts regarding which path to take on her life – motherhood or a professional career – easily resonate with modern readers. Her suicidal attempts when feeling the suffocation of the patriarchy, telling her to stay at home and become a mother and a wife, and her own desire to break free were certainly key motives for the book to be banned in the most conservative historical periods following its publication.

But, my personal favourite is Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) which you can find free at Project Gutenberg.

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This book was banned right after being published and, later on, censored. Chopin’s main character, Edna Pontellier, is a complex and realistic female character. She belongs to the upper-middle class of Louisiana and sees herself trapped in a marriage where she is not happy and with so many children that she feels suffocated. She later on feels a sexual attraction to a local and younger man, the starting point of Edna’s fall into disgrace in the conservative Southern society. She even leaves her husband and children to live alone while trying to live out the life she could have had as a single, childless woman. However, society bans her behavior and Edna’s only way out – as it was custom for this women – was suicide. This ending was applauded by conservative audiences, but it did a lot to portray the socially cul-de-sac women were forced to live in as wives and mothers. I read this book when I was only 21, but it changed my life because it showed me that life as a wife and as a mother is not everyone’s dream, and that was fine. The Awakening is not a book on the horrors of being a mother and a wife, but more an experiment on the possibility of choosing whether to get married and have children or not. For Kate Chopin’s contemporaries, this possibility was still a dream and Chopin chose to use literature to both experiment a what if and to inscribe women’s silenced sexuality and lack of options in life.

So, women have long been related to banned books and banned knowledge. However, as time goes by and gender equality starts to resonate with everyone – see Emma Watson’s speech at the United Nations if you have not – I hope that this connection disappears. Meanwhile, it is important to keep in mind that by not reviewing women’s books, they are being banned. By talking about ‘chick-lit’ or ‘women’s books’ we are being banned from entering the so-called ‘general literature’ world. If you are interested in joining the talk about banned books, here are some resources:

Banned Books Shortlist 2013 – 2014

Frequently Challenged Books of the 21st century

Worried about your library? Check this Challenges to Library to make sure you are not being censored.

Join the #ReadWomen2014 campaign to make sure women authors get the attention and praise they deserve.

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Emma Watson is a Feminist (and so should you)

I am sure you have already seen this, but if not, here is Emma Watson – UN Women’s Goodwill Ambassador – calling out to stop feminism being the f-word. Defining herself as a feminist, and spreading the word about what feminism really means, for both men and women. I love that she highlights the importance of feminism which means nothing more and nothing less than fighting for a gender equality that is till not accomplished. She has launched the campaign #HeforShe to make people aware that men also need feminism to fight against the rigid gender definitions that still constrain their lives and their identities. Oh, and did I tell you that she acknowledges her lucky position and even refers to herself as ‘this Harry Potter girl’? And that she has decided to take advantage of it and fight for equality? I’m in love.

Summer is Finally Over

Even though I decided to start working on my PhD on the 1st of September, I gave summertime 15 more days to fade away. The reason is that I believe in smooth transitions, so 15 days have been more than enough to say goodbye to the summer and create a new, working-at-home routine. But, I will tell you about how excited I am to be back to work again in another post. Let’s review the best of Summer 2014.

  • In mid-June I posted about the books I wanted to read this summer, knowing that I am not good at planned reading and that I was giving myself freedom enough to drop out of the list any time I wanted. I read for of the books on the list, which gave me quite a satisfaction but also let me room to discover and enjoy unplanned and new readings.
  • You all adored a Top Ten Tuesday post on underrated crime fiction works. I am very glad you did and I hope that if you read any of those books you come back so we can have a little chat.
  • I read two crime fiction classics that I had to read, because otherwise I did not want to call myself a crime fiction fan. The Murder of Roger Acrkoyd by Agatha Christie and Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers.
  • I had the pleasure to host Sarah Hilary once again talking about feminism and crime fiction.
  • I discovered and fell head over hells in love with Elementary. Because Lucy Liu plays Watson.
  • I fell out of my imaginary love for Meg Wollitzer when I read The Interestings. I really wanted to like the book, it just didn’t happen.
  • I was right. It was going to be a long, hot summer.
  • Books & Reviews reached more than 800 followers. THANK YOU :)

And you all, are you all back to work again? What did you do this summer?

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Reading The Silkworm

Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers

I have spent the last two weeks reading Murder by the Book by Sally Munt, a book published in the 90’s exploring feminist crime fiction. As you can imagine, there are constant references to classics, so I saw myself stopping my study routine to read two wonderful crime fiction classics that had been on my to-be-read list for quite a long time: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie and Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers.

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From Goodreads:

Mystery novelist Harriet Vane knew all about poisons, and when her fiancé died in the manner prescribed in one of her books, a jury of her peers had a hangman’s noose in mind. But Lord Peter Wimsey was determined to find her innocent as determined as he was to make her his wife.

I have to say, Strong Polson (1930) made me use my e-reader again and this time I did not dread the reading process. Sayers’ mastery of plot and narrative is so excellent that I did not notice I was reading on my device, something that I am still struggling with. Also, Strong Poison is the fifth in the Lord Peter Wimsey series, but I had no problem getting acquainted with the characters in any way, which pretty much tells of Sayers’ ability to create great characters.

As a crime fiction reader, there is nothing that I like most than a meta narrative, and Sayers produces the reader with the perfect story here: a female crime fiction writer that is accused of killing her partner with whom she was illicitly living. I loved reading about a woman crime fiction writer in the 1930’s and all the connotations that it implied. Harriet Vane’s literature is regarded as unimportant and unsuccessful even though she makes a living as a writer and her works were much more well-known that those of her partner, who by the way, wrote better literature, or so the rest of the characters say. It was also very interesting to read about the prejudices that such a woman had to face, one of them being that she was angry at her partner for not wanting to marry her, when it was actually the other way round. Murder by the Book describes Harriet Vane as the first example of a sexually active and independent woman in crime fiction and I cannot but agree. I have to admit I was shocked at how Harriet very much set the tone for the relationship and was the main bread-winner in the family.

As for Lord Peter Wimsey and his family, I fell in love immediately with them. I even pictured his mother as Maggie Smith in her role in Downton Abbey as the dowager. They seemed quite an unusual family for the 1930’s, so I really want to learn more about them. But, Wimsey as a detective was one of a kind. He is an aristocrat, but he is funny and quirky and I loved how direct he was when he confessed Harriet he wanted to marry her. I could not but think of these ladies portrayed in TV shows as crazy for wanting to marry serial killers! At first I was shocked that he would bring up the marriage issue so quickly, but Sayers makes Harriet an independent woman when she lets her ponder her answer. Also, the conversation he and Harriet had about their previous sexual encounters was very sincere and I think Sayers did a great job at making them equals and setting the tone for – I hope – a future relationship based on equality and respect.

Sayers’ books are often accused of being racist and classist. I could see the classist prejudices in the same way I could see them in Christie’s: the servants appear as rough and uncultured. There is also a lack of racial diversity, but taking into account Lord Peter’s social status, this is no surprise. So, as you can see I am actually more willing to let certain things pass in Sayers’ stories that I am not in Christie’s. This only shows how much I loved Strong Poison and I really plan on reading the following installments.

So, I would recommend this crime fiction classic to everyone. As a product of the crime fiction Golden Age, there are not shocking scenes, too many corpses or forensic details. Strong Poison is what I would call a cozy crime novel, and a very good one.

Want another opinion? Keishon from ‘Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog’ also loved Strong Poison. Click here to read her review.

It also made it to Marina Sofia’s post on the best Sayers works at Crime Fiction Lover. Click here to read the post.

Guest Post: Karixia on Barataria by Juan López Bauzá

Please give all a warm welcome to my good friend Karixia, who came to Books & Reviews to talk about the latest literary sensation on her native Puerto Rico: the novel Barataria by Juan López Bauza. I talked to her some time ago about writing this piece for the blog after the wonderful Diversify Your Shelves project. Could you name a Puerto Rican author? I couldn’t before I met her, but Karixia introduced me to this amazing postmodern novel that has captivated her native country:

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The author does not deny it, he reconfirms it*. His novel is based on the great literature piece  ‘Don Quixote de la Mancha’. The Puerto Rican author Juan López Bauzá delights us with this piece that takes us to a Puerto Rico of timeless stories but, above all, as real as life itself. The stories lead the reader to experience from disgust and revulsion for the constant and inevitably crude and painful violence of any nature, to the most profound laughter provoked by the self-reflection of the surrealist experience in the Puerto Rican daily life. In the two volumes of Barataria, the stories and adventures of the two main characters are always intertwined: the veteran, amateur archaeologist and faithful believer of Puerto Rico state 51, Chiquitín Campala; and his travel companion, Margaro Velásquez, who rescues the Puerto Rican popular proverb with particularity. Both characters lead us to explore the contemporary reality of Puerto Rico, where everything and nothing happens at the same time. We walk through an island where the safest thing is the political, social and cultural instability that leads everything to a drift.

However, Barataria invites us to ponder the various discourses of nationalism, politics, culture, and society… it is an exposition of the island without condition. Against the backdrop of the warm south of the island, both characters, mounted on their bicycle “Anacaona,” make us question the origins of the discourses that make up a place and its inhabitants: from the indigenous, native, and origin notions of Puerto Rico, to the most current debates on the future of the island. It is certain that not everything is solved, and that everyone, within their madness or sanity, has a particular way of living, defending and seeing the life that develops in a certain time, place and space.

In my opinion, Barataria, by Juan López Bauzá, becomes an essential book that critically revisits our Puerto Rican history, culture, politics, and society, so as to extrapolate to other realities worldwide. It also invites us to act upon the imagery that portrays as a mirror we cannot stop looking at.

·      * El Nuevo Día, 31 de julio de 2013 http://www.elnuevodia.com/Xstatic/endi/template/imprimir.aspx?id=1562435&t=3

** “Barataria” is nominated for the Real Academia Española Award for Creation in 2014.

Top Ten Underrated Books in Crime Fiction

This Top Ten Tuesday is very special, because it has allowed me to rescue those titles that I have reviewed since I started this blog back in 2011 and that I think, crime fiction fans should read, but that for unknown reasons were not as popular or as well-known as they should. So, let’s begin the crime fiction archeology!

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Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created here at The Broke and the Bookish. This feature was created because we are particularly fond of lists here at The Broke and the Bookish. We’d love to share our lists with other bookish folks and would LOVE to see your top ten lists!

1. The Dinosaur Feather by Sisel-Jo Gazan.- This Danish crime novel takes place in a university and a PhD candidate in paleontology sees herself involved in the solving of a crime. Not your usual setting or your usual main character, but a very interesting book. Review here.

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2. Case Histories by Kate Aktinson.- The first in the Jackson Brodie series, it presents ex-military man turned-detective Jackson Brodie. Since there is an arc in the character development in the series, I think this is the perfect place to start reading Atkinson’s crime fiction. Review here.

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3. One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson.- The second in the Jackson Brodie series, this novel explores what doing good and doing bad means and how, although we have a choice in live, past events dictate how and what we will choose. Review here.

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4. Unwanted by Christina Olsson.- This Swedish crime novel presents the reader with a very dark and twisted case (beware!), but Olsson explores human psychology in-depth and presents us with a young female detective. Review here.

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5. Keep Your Friends Close by Paula Daly.- I promise to stop raving about this book one day, but not until it becomes a best-seller. Daly takes domestic crime fiction to nowadays England and explores how a mother, wife and working woman does her best to detect. Review here.

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6. Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives (ed. Sarah Weinman).- Did you know that there are crime fiction short stories? And did you know that Gillian Flynn did not invent domestic crime fiction with Gone Girl? And that they are ace? Sarah Weinman compiles the best short stories from the mid-20th century. A must-read. Review here.

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7. Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell.- The first in the Kay Scarpetta series, published in 1990 and currently quite out-of-fashion. There was a time DNA in crime solving was a dream. And there were no mobile phones, or IP addresses. And they still solved crimes in a modern setting. Review here.

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8. Chilled to the Bone by Quentin Bates.- I discovered Bates’ detective series last May and I fell in love with its main character, Gunna Gisladottir. It is no longer for a detective to be troubled, depressed, an alcoholic or a freak. Gunna is a working woman, mother and wife that tries to juggle it all together. Review here.

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9. Linda, as in the Linda Murder by Leif G.W Persson.- A victim that was being trained to be a policewoman and a misogynist, middle-age policeman that investigates the crime. But what does ‘investigate’ mean apart from tearing the victim’s life apart, not always leaving gender and social class prejudices behind? Review here.

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10 Little Lies by Liane Moriarty.- This is already a best-seller, but I insist on seeing behind the school and domestic setting and the three female characters. This is a great crime fiction novel, do not let yourself be told otherwise. Review here.

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The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

Last week I started reading for my PhD and one of the books mentioned and explored Agatha Christie’s classic The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Now, I have to confess I am not a big Golden Age fan regarding crime fiction, so, no, I had never read Roger Ackroyd, but I knew I had to. It is usually referred to as Christie’s most surprising work. I have to say, not so much. The following review contains spoilers.

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From Goodreads:

In the village of King’s Abbot, a widow’s sudden suicide sparks rumors that she murdered her first husband, was being blackmailed, and was carrying on a secret affair with the wealthy Roger Ackroyd. The following evening, Ackroyd is murdered in his locked study–but not before receiving a letter identifying the widow’s blackmailer. King’s Abbot is crawling with suspects, including a nervous butler, Ackroyd’s wayward stepson, and his sister-in-law, Mrs. Cecil Ackroyd, who has taken up residence in the victim’s home. It’s now up to the famous detective Hercule Poirot, who has retired to King’s Abbot to garden, to solve the case of who killed Roger Ackroyd–a task in which he is aided by the village doctor and narrator, James Sheppard, and by Sheppard’s ingenious sister, Caroline.

There are two things that keep me from reading Golden Age detective stories: one is the clear division between good and evil (and how endings are always correct, so that there is no room for negotiation of moral values) and another one is women’s representation. While reading The Murder of Roger Ackroyd I encountered both: the narrator – James Sheppard – is a petulant and self-centered middle age man who thinks himself better than his sister, Caroline. All throughout the novel there are constant references to Caroline’s gossip and constant domestic worries, because she is a middle aged woman who has never married and, as a consequence, a ‘spinster’. Her brother, however, is a doctor, a ‘man of science’ whose life and everything that he says, are more valid just because he is both a man and of science. However, Caroline was proved to be a much better detective and have much better intuition and social skills than the narrator. I wonder why Christie planned the story this way, but taking into account the ending, I also wonder whether Caroline’s lifestyle is eventually preferred and considered better than James’. There are also social class and racial issues, but these are not as directly targeted as women’s representation. For example, when talking about a poison, it is suggested to come from South America, so that it is something exotic, something secret and hidden that modern, Western science cannot detect because it is foreign. The servants are also presented as rough people, mere tools for their masters. I have learned, however, that this is typical of Golden Age detectives and one has to leave modern concerns behind to enjoy the story.

Regarding the crime, I still believe the line separating good and evil is too clear for my taste, but I was really happy to see that Christie played with something that would not come into literature studies until the second half of the 20th century as part of the postmodern movement: silences. While Poirot investigates, he questions everyone’s alibis and motives except the narrator. Why is that? Why do readers do not stop and ask themselves about it? It is because we are used to reliable narrators. This silence, however, becomes more and more obvious and it is very easy to figure out who the killer is in the last 60 pages or so. I was shocked at the ending taking into account how suicide is constructed as something illegal and immoral, but it was ‘the right’ and politically correct ending for James after everything blackmailing and killing Roger Ackroyd.

So, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a classic in detective fiction and I am happy that I read it. However, it was not the kind of story that appeals to me. The day I finished it I started Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers – another classic – and that I did enjoy. There is still hope this reader will become a Golden Age fan.