Three’s a charm

Complaining is my default mode, so I thought I’d challenge myself to comment on something unreservedly good on offer this fall season: thrilling books by women writers.

The trilogy by Jane Gardam, starting with Old Filth. Don’t be put off by the title.  Filth is the acronym that sums up the barrister and judge protagonist’s biography: Failed in London Try Hong Kong.
The trilogy―The Neapolitan Novels–by Elena Ferrante, starting with My Brilliant Friend. There are rumors of a fourth volume.
The third volume of Marilynne Robinson’s trilogy, Lila.
The first volume of a projected trilogy by Jane Smiley, Some Luck.

I have no idea why trilogies should be forthcoming from British, Italian, and American women writers this season―though most of the novels have been out and reviewed in the last few years (where have I been? immersed in memoir) and I haven’t caught up with all of them. But the Ferrante (pseudonym―her identity is something of a mystery, at least here) and the Gardam are ravishing. I mean: I was ravished, unable to stop reading, hopeful that the trend is contagious.

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October 9, 2014
11th anniversary of Carolyn Heilbrun’s suicide. Sad that she’s missed all these books. An ardent Anglophile, she would especially have loved Jane Gardam’s portrait of aging and England. The painting on the cover of Carolyn’s book is by Vanessa Bell, a painter she much admired. It’s called “The Conversation.” The women are talking to each other, wrapped in intimacy, and there are three of them.

Memoirs by Men, or why bother?

Of course, not. What editor worth his salt would choose to group reviews of memoirs written by men under that title? No one. But Memoirs by Women, now that makes a lot of sense. Memoirs are by definition by men, so Memoirs by Men would be redundant. Memoirs by women, on the other hand, are, well, memoirs by women. You know, we women have so much in common. And look, the reviewer is a woman! We belong to that group of writers who live, as Meg Wolitzer, showed convincingly, on the “second shelf.”

Sunday’s New York Times Book Review column “Chronicle” groups brief reviews of four Memoirs by Women. What do they have in common? Let’s see: Blue Plate Special (Kate Christensen) is “a paean to cooking and food”; Nine Years Under (Sheri Booker) is the story of a girl’s summer job working in “funeral home in a poor, urban setting”; Mother Daughter Me (Katie Hafner) is the account of a “yearlong experiment in mutigenerational living”; My Animals and Other Family (Clare Balding) is a book about the author’s “deep affection for the creatures…that populated her childhood.” Try as one might, it is difficult to perceive what connects these memoirs except that they have indeed been written by women, and therefore, apparently, deserve no more than one paragraph in an omnibus review. (Compared, say, to the full–if only half page–review of a memoir by a thirteen year-old autistic Japanese boy.)

shirinThe pointlessness of the grouping becomes more striking by contrast with the one book that is not so much reviewed as summarized, but accompanied by a stunning photograph by Shirin Neshat, a well-known Iranian photographer, videographer, and filmmaker.

She Who Tells A Story: Women Photographers From Iran and the Arab World, edited by Kristen Gresh. This is not a memoir by a woman, rather a collection of essays that accompany the images, images taken by women. To review this collection as by women would have had a certain political sense and interest. But that’s not what happened.

One can only guess at the editorial “reasoning” behind the grouping: here are four books no one will read so let’s give them a break by putting them together under the fabulous photograph taken by an Iranian artist?

But perhaps it’s a mistake to look for the reasons behind the second-shelf treatment women writers contend against. Literary misogyny does not require reasons. All it requires is continuing resistance.