Review: Over the Plain Houses by Julia Franks

Over the Plain Houses by Julia Franks (May 1, 2016 / Hub City Press)

It’s 1939, and the federal government has sent USDA agent Virginia Furman into the North Carolina mountains to instruct families on modernizing their homes and farms. There she meets farm wife Irenie Lambey, who is immediately drawn to the lady agent’s self-possession. Already, cracks are emerging in Irenie’s fragile marriage to Brodis, an ex-logger turned fundamentalist preacher: She has taken to night ramblings through the woods to escape her husband’s bed, storing strange keepsakes in a mountain cavern. To Brodis, these are all the signs that Irenie—tiptoeing through the dark in her billowing white nightshirt—is practicing black magic.

When Irenie slips back into bed with a kind of supernatural stealth, Brodis senses that a certain evil has entered his life, linked to the lady agent, or perhaps to other, more sinister forces.
Working in the stylistic terrain of Amy Greene and Bonnie Jo Campbell, this mesmerizing and award-winning debut by Julia Franks is the story of a woman intrigued by the possibility of change, escape, and reproductive choice—stalked by a Bible-haunted man who fears his government and stakes his integrity upon an older way of life. As Brodis chases his demons, he brings about a final act of violence that shakes the entire valley. In this spellbinding Southern story, Franks bares the myths and mysteries that modernity can’t quite dispel.

My Review: 
This novel initially attracted my attention with its black magic/witchcraft theme, but it sat on on my Kindle until the author won the Townsend Prize last month. That sparked me into action and I moved it up on my list. Once I started reading this story, I had a difficult time with it and honestly considered quitting it several times...but I stuck with it. The problem for me was that Julia Frank's writing style is not modern and I found myself rereading several sentences to get the flow. My note to anyone who is going to read this is that you need to be aware of this, but stick with your reading and you will be greatly rewarded. 

When you think of religious fundamentalism and gender oppression, you probably don't think about the mountains of North Carolina in 1939, but Julia Franks blends the Salem witch trials with modern evangelicalism to produce a wonderful work of fiercely feminist historical fiction. 

Review:: Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean

Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion  (April 4, 2018 / Grove Press)

The ten brilliant women who are the focus of Sharp came from different backgrounds and had vastly divergent political and artistic opinions. But they all made a significant contribution to the cultural and intellectual history of America and ultimately changed the course of the twentieth century, in spite of the men who often undervalued or dismissed their work.

These ten women—Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm—are united by what Dean calls “sharpness,” the ability to cut to the quick with precision of thought and wit. Sharp is a vibrant depiction of the intellectual beau monde of twentieth-century New York, where gossip-filled parties at night gave out to literary slugging-matches in the pages of the Partisan Review or the New York Review of Books. It is also a passionate portrayal of how these women asserted themselves through their writing in a climate where women were treated with extreme condescension by the male-dominated cultural establishment.

Mixing biography, literary criticism, and cultural history, Sharp is a celebration of this group of extraordinary women, an engaging introduction to their works, and a testament to how anyone who feels powerless can claim the mantle of writer, and, perhaps, change the world.

My Review: 
A great compilation of admirable and witty women! Each of the book's chapters focus on one of 10 sharp women (listed above) and the chapters build on one another through the women's relationships to each other--almost a "six degrees of separation" type of setup.  I felt like I got 10 mini-biographies in one with this book. Author Michelle Dean takes care to focus on both the support these women did and did not receive from society, their male and female peers, and the public. She also dispelled some myths while also providing new information about each woman. I would recommend this to anyone looking for a non-fiction read divided into easily digestible chapters. This would make a great gift for the sharp female graduates on your list. 

Review: Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood

Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood

The Bell Jar meets Mean Girls.
This was a slow burn of a book. There are so many undercurrents and big issues smashed into small settings and occasions. As a matter of fact, one tiny occasion really stuck with me: Cordelia's family dinners and how much they differ when it is only her, her mother, and her older sisters versus the evenings when their father joins them. The event is so small it only garners a few sentences but so much is packed into the clothing, manners, and expectations.

The Handmaid's Tale is one of my favorite books of all time, so it's no wonder that I would dive further into the Atwood canon after achieving that high (low?). I've found that I absolutely LOVE the Maddadam trilogy but was deeply disappointed with The Blind Assassin. Moving on to Cat's Eye, I found a middle ground...or building stone. Long before the gift of Tina Fey's Mean Girls, Atwood put her finger on the festering blister of female bullying--it starts slow, embeds itself, and never lets up. Only when women step outside of the situation do they realize the contained chaos in which they were/are living in.

Published in 1988, Cat's Eye embodies the rise, fall, and continuance of female "friendships". The juxtaposition Atwood provides with her main character, Elaine Risley's youth and her subsequent artistic achievement are abrasive, hurtful, and vengeful. As a controversial painter who returns to Toronto for a retrospective of her art, Elaine is overwhelmed with emotions and images of her past, including "a trio of girls who initiated her into the fierce politics of childhood and its secret world of friendship, longing, and betrayal." During the course of the novel, which almost reads like a diary, Elaine "must come to terms with her own identity as a daughter, a lover, and artist, and woman - but above all she must seek release from her haunting memories."

A definite read for anyone interested in mid-century suburban feminism, female-to-female bullying, women entering the art world, and a recommended read for any Atwood fan.