Photo: Nathan O'Nions

Women We Read This Week

Amanda Filipacchi’s “How to Pose Like a Man” in The New York Times

Much has been said about how women’s writing is packaged and marketed in distinctly gendered ways, leading to de facto relegation as “Women’s Fiction” (or “chick lit” or “beach reads”), scores of headless women gracing our book jackets, and many other consequences. When I interviewed Cheryl Strayed for Bitch magazine a few years ago about her bestselling memoir Wild, she told me: “The cover was really important. I wanted men to be able to read it on the subway.”

But I’ll admit I hadn’t much considered how author photos figure into this discussion until reading about Amanda Filipacchi’s efforts to “counteract” the feminine imagery of her cover by posing like a man.

The men looked simpler, more straightforward. The women looked dreamy, often gazing off into the distance. Their limbs were sometimes intertwined, like vines.

Arguing that books don’t speak entirely for themselves and that there is an “unconscious prejudice against women…in the literary world,” she ultimately settles on an author photo both her photographer and a friend find discomforting.

As I read her piece, I couldn’t help but think of my first author photo: there I am in my mid-twenties, hair curled and makeup professionally done, with a “dreamy” look and limbs indeed “intertwined.” I’ve long fantasized about what I’d do differently—and now Filipacchi has given me plenty more to consider when the time comes.


Blair Braverman’s “Welcome to Dog World” in The Atavist

This essay is heartbreaking because the story so familiar to me. It is about Alaska and glaciers and tourists, but more than anything it is about consent. Her first summer working on the glacier, Braverman meets a guy who woos her by writing her sweet notes. He becomes her boyfriend and, later, as she describes:

A few weeks after our first time together, though, Dan slipped into my tent while I was alone, promising that he just wanted to hold me. Before long he was tugging my long underwear off my hips, kissing me even as I pressed my mouth shut. Tensing his arm when I tried to push his hand away. Pulling a condom from his pocket, rolling it on. As soon as I saw it, my heart sank: He had come here for this. I told him I didn’t want to, and he told me yes, I did, he could tell. When I clenched my knees together he shoved them apart. “Shh,” he whispered as I squirmed, no place to pull away between his body and the tent wall. “We don’t want everyone to hear us.”

The problem with most discussions about rape come down to this – it is often the people we trust and love the most who, in intimate moments, betray us, and then, because we thought we were in love, we wonder if such a thing could be rape. The brave Emma Sulkowicz, who, after being raped by a fellow student at Columbia University, carried around a mattress every day until her graduation, was criticized when friendly Facebook messages she had written to her rapist surfaced. And I understand Sulkowicz like I understand Braverman, because it seems to be a rite of passage for women’s voices to be ignored, for their agency to be stolen from them as if they never had any right to it in the first place.


Rachel Monroe’s “Have You Ever Thought About Killing Someone?” in Matter

This is one of the stranger crime stories I’ve ever read. It’s about Doc, an odd, 40-something med student who fantasizes about being murdered, and the crew of teenage partiers he surrounds himself with in the time leading up to his death. I don’t want to give away too much, because even though the reader knows from the beginning where the story is going – Monroe opens with the discovery of a body in the desert – there’s a grim, morbid suspense running through the whole thing. The deeply reported narrative is fascinating, unexpected, and at the same time, its end feels inevitable. Read it.

Susie Cagle’s “After Water” in Longreads

This is the story of a town gone dry: East Porterville, in California’s Central Valley, an unincorporated and impoverished community without a municipal water system, where many household wells have nothing left to offer but sand. It’s beautifully written and illustrated by Susie Cagle, and it is, above all, a very scary read.

This is life after water. And no one knows how long it might last.

After water, there are a thousand new considerations: Is it better to cook with expensive, precious bottled water or eat fast food every night? Does this soap have animal fat in it that will stick to your skin and be harder to scrub off? Whose truck can you borrow to pick up the water you need from the fire station to bathe your babies? How dirty does it have to be for you not to drink it on a 110 degree day? How long can you live like this?


​Beth Cranwell Aplin’s “How to Make More Room” in The Rumpus

Cranwell Aplin is a gifted storyteller, adept at detail, scene and pacing, and you can read and enjoy this essay for the gripping story that unfolds. But beneath that story of mothering a child with life-threatening medical issues is a subtext about women and mothers–no matter how much they do or how well and how selflessly they do it, in their own minds it’s never enough. They are their own worst critics.

Cranwell Aplin has clearly mastered her mom role, becoming an expert on her daughter’s hydronephrosis and all the resulting surgeries.

I knew which vein in which arm was the best for her blood draws; I could tell by the smell of her urine if she had an infection.

But this mastery has come at the price of a postponed career, one the narrator mistakenly thinks she will take up again, as soon as her daughter starts school.

…I am amazed by my former self’s blend of optimism and delusion. I wonder how I got the idea that kindergarten was some magical threshold where children and parents smoothly separate.

There’s a plan for a well-earned weekend away with girlfriends. There’s a bus ride where the narrator “marvel[s] at the ease of one body, one backpack, one seat.” There’s a phone call, an emergency, an EpiPen, an ambulance, a tall Bourbon with a Xanax chaser. The happenings of this essay are grave. But Cranwell Aplin’s honesty and self-deprecating humor let the reader inside, make you feel as if you are one of the girlfriends on that weekend escape.

This is a mom who is downright heroic in her diligence and devotion to her daughter, yet at every turn, she sees herself coming up short. Failing at something.

My daughter gets better, but I can’t seem to make my life any bigger.

The life she’s talking about looks large and epic and lovely to me.


Helen Garner’s “The Insults of Age” in The Monthly

Helen Garner’s robust prose is always all the more exciting for being applied directly to quotidian life. While her novels often deal with the criminal and the tragic, Garner is just as powerful in her discussion of the ordinary, the recognizably everyday.

In this essay Garner talks about what it is to be a woman in her 70s. It is not the loss of the erotic gaze which Garner mourns, but the beginning of a certain condescension. “Mourns” is perhaps the wrong word, though, since in this piece Garner is hardly a passive griever. The essay is full of action and humor, packed with tales of Garner’s active assaults against an ageist world. Her vigor and poise are resplendent:

“After these trivial but bracing exchanges, my pulse rate was normal, my cheeks were not red, I was not trembling. I hadn’t thought direct action would be so much fun. Habits of a lifetime peeled away. The world bristled with opportunities for a woman in her 70s to take a stand. I shouted on planes. I fought for my place in queues. I talked to myself out loud in public. I walked along the street singing a little song under my breath: “Back off. How dare you? Make my day.” I wouldn’t say I was on a hair-trigger. I was just primed for action.”

It’s an invigorating piece to read, no matter your age.


Michelle García’s “The War of Forgetting” in Guernica

Some art is guided by what we remember, the details we hold onto and search for inspiration, but the intersections, parallels, and the differences between memory and forgetting often ignite the late Eduardo Galeano’s writing. As he said at a lecture García attended one spring, “they didn’t bring proof of a clean record…To imagine a possible world as it might be is to reimagine the past.”

This lack of tidiness in “the war of forgetting” is the launching place for García’s piece, woven together with both vivid detail and thoughtfully discarded chronology on her time in the Western Sahara and El Salvador. She uses her own personal grappling with her father’s death, time, and memory to explore how, for the nomadic tribes of the Sahara and people of post-war El Salvador, forgetting the past remains a part of understanding home after years of occupations and wars:

Everywhere I look I find glimpses of a quiet war, the one that stays in the heart, the war of forgetting. I see it one April afternoon when I listen to Vilma, a young reporter born in the refugee camps in Honduras during the war, talking with a girl whom she discovers also lived in the camps. The girl tells Vilma that she lost her name in the war. Soldiers burned down their village and the church that contained the birth records, which documented their existence. I see it at night, when César, my friend and guide, leans against his car, pulls out a cigarette, and searches the sky for the lost souls from the war. He only smoked when he remembered.

I was first introduced to and fell in love with Galeano’s writing this spring when reading Century of the Wind, a portrait of connected moments, people, and places in the twentieth century. It’s a likely truth that history repeats itself, that the past informs our present and future, but Galeano challenges the chronology of those regimented connections. And in García’s thought-provoking reflection on Galeano’s work, she shows us how, in the act of remembering, we can also choose to shift and redefine those old truths:

After an interview with the Polisario president, our driver stopped somewhere in the desert and left my guide Malainin and me to wait for another driver. We waited. The sun was going down and I said quietly and without thinking, What are we doing here in the middle of nowhere.

“We are not in the middle of nowhere,” yelled an indignant Malainin. “We are here because we choose to be here.”



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