Women We Read This Week

Quinn Norton’s “The Land That Never Has Been Yet” on Medium

In her most recent piece for Medium, writer Quinn Norton begins with:

It’s hard to write about your mom. She looms over you — at first literally — then over your life, like a mythic mountain laced with the river you drink from. And even as you travel away through time and she seems to get smaller, you know she never is, and you still drink from that same river.

What follows, after a brief intro, is an in-depth interview that Norton conducted with her mother over the course of several months. The interview focuses mostly on health insurance (or more like her mother’s lack of it), working in the health care sector. It details her mother’s struggles with her own health (depression, prescription drug side effects, a hysterectomy, just to name a few) and with holding on to money–and how the two are inextricably linked. It’s clear that Norton’s mother grew up in a different era–she doesn’t always see her own situation as abominable (such as being fired for being sick when she worked at a racetrack), because it’s what she knows. From her mother, Norton “learned how to be poor, and how to persevere. I learned about strength and endurance. I did not learn how to dream of better worlds from her, I did not learn indignation.”

And it’s true, maybe Norton’s mother’s experience isn’t drastically different from what many other Americans have experienced–low wages, employers who will not (or cannot) pay for health insurance, the sad irony of taking care of ill people when you yourself cannot rely on being taken care of. And that seems to be Norton’s point in sharing this–this isn’t just her mother’s story, rather “it is one of the uncountable stories of the American soul.” Through the interview Norton’s mother’s character shines through. “It shouldn’t be easy,” she says of life. And for the most part, she takes her difficulties in stride. “But,” she concedes, “it should not be this hard.”


Victoria Beale’s “Should Two Children Be Imprisoned For Plotting To Kill Their Classmates?” on Buzzfeed

In rural Washington state, two young boys – ages 10 and 11 – were caught at school with a loaded handgun and a knife. When questioned, they admitted that they had been planning to kill at least one, maybe more, of their classmates. Both boys came from troubled upbringings; one showed signs of potential mental illness. Victoria Beale’s chilling story outlines what happened next, and it left me unsettled and questioning. What is to be done with boys this young? How do we balance the rehabilitative potential of children against the danger they may pose to others? Will prison time guarantee their transformation into life-long criminals, or allow them to re-set?

Here’s a taste, from the court room:

The standard range for a conspiracy to murder charge for a juvenile is two years, but prosecutor Rasmussen was pushing for a sentence between five and six years, meaning until Adam is 16. His rationale was that by then there would be no question that Adam could be prosecuted for other crimes as an adult.

“Adam is dangerous because he doesn’t feel toward other people the way most boys do,” he argued. “There is something missing in him.” He spoke of the “evil” in Adam’s heart that day, and commented derisively on the parade of experts the court had seen: “All of these people concentrate on what Adam needs and what can be done for him to help him understand what he did was wrong. He already understands that it’s wrong to kill a person, he was just going to do it anyway.”

Finally it was Adam’s turn to speak for the first time. He was already crying as he stood: “Like my dad said, I’m sorry, and I’m also sorry because I know this is a bad thing that I’ve done,” he sobbed as his voice trailed off. “And, that this…is not a usual thing for a person my age to do…”

Note that the prosecutor’s pitch for sentencing was based on the virtual inevitability of Adam re-offending. The boys’ age is unusual, but the story raises questions that are more universal – about the mixture of guns and drugs and neglect and mental illness left untreated, and about what our justice system, at its heart, is for.


Leslie Jamison’s “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” in VQR

Jamison writes, “The pain of women turns them into kittens and rabbits and sunsets and sordid red satin goddesses, pales them and bloodies them and starves them, delivers them to death camps and sends locks of their hair to the stars.” This essay not only exposes these oscillations between the gorgeous and the pitiful, but explores our culture’s changing representations of and reactions to female pain.

Jamison turns over and over again the questions “How do we talk about these wounds without glamorizing them? Without corroborating an old mythos that turns female trauma into celestial constellations worthy of worship?” She traces women in pain from Dracula and Plath to Ani DiFranco and Girls. She looks at representations of cutting, eating disorders and abortions. And in the end, the core conundrum she reaches is both simple and deeply familiar:

I’m tired of female pain and also tired of people who are tired of it. I know the “hurting woman” is a cliché but I also know lots of women still hurt. I don’t like the proposition that female wounds have gotten old; I feel wounded by it.

What’s so interesting about this essay is not so much the issue of the glorifications of female pain, but that Jamison uses it to contextualize the contemporary backlash—what she calls “post-woundedness”—which might be just as painful, just as damaging. And it’s in the marriage of these two topics that Jamison arrives at something I haven’t seen in a long time: a representation of female pain that feels at once intellectually rigorous and honest.


Evgenia Peretz’s “It’s Tartt–But Is It Art?” in Vanity Fair

Evgenia Peretz’s title “It’s Tartt—But Is It Art?” says it all. Amidst the prizes, the movie and TV deals, the rave reviews, the mega sales, and the invitations to celebrity parties showered on Donna Tartt for The Goldfinch, Peretz homes in on one small thing: The negative reviews. The negative reviews are few, but they come from some of the most powerful people and venues in the literary world: James Wood at The New Yorker, Lorin Stein at The Paris Review, and Francine Prose at The New York Review of Books (not to mention a few in London). What’s going on? Peretz wonders. She skillfully evaluates the reviews, and finds they have one thing in common. They don’t consider Tartt’s novel “art.”

Like many people, I adored The Goldfinch. As the gushing reviews came in, I came to love the book even more, since reading what other people have to say about literature can sometimes be as pleasurable as the literature itself. I had a camaraderie with all those other readers who had imagined the world of Theo and his painting. Besides that, I felt a personal allegiance to Tartt. When I went through Bennington College’s MFA program, I took my daughter on a tour of the college to show her The Secret History’s setting. (Tartt was a student at Bennington twenty years earlier and the novel’s setting bears a close resemblance to the college. My daughter and I had read The Secret History together.) Furthermore, while I was at Bennington, James Wood and Lorin Stein were visitors. Both gave wonderfully insightful lectures about literature and the craft of writing. I was nonplussed, then, when I read their assessments of The Goldfinch.

Peretz’s “serious noticing” (to use a phrase from Wood) of the common thread in these negative reviews rings true for me. “The polarized responses to The Goldfinch lead to the long-debated questions: What makes a work literature, and who gets to decide?” she writes. Tartt’s negative reviews are written by people who see themselves as the arbiters of literary merit—“the last bastions of true discernment in a world where book sales are king and real book reviewing has all but vanished.” What’s important here is not the book’s status as “art.” After all, that will be decided by generations long after we’re gone. It’s that a whole lot of people are reading a serious novel right now and having conversations about what makes a book great literature.

D.J. Lee


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