Women We Read This Week

Rachel Riederer’s “The Teaching Class” in Guernica

I read Riederer’s piece about a month ago, and though at first it didn’t stand out to me, I’ve found that my mind keeps wandering back to it. What first seemed another piece about the injustice of adjunct workers in higher education has become that article I’m repeatedly referring people to. I suppose that’s in part because of the clarity with which Riederer takes this on as an important labor issue, distilling it to fine points:

“Yes, college-level teachers should make more than cashiers at McDonald’s. Not because they hold advanced degrees…but because as a culture, we value the dissemination of knowledge more than the distribution of hamburgers. Or at least we say we do.”

But Riederer deftly expands the these issues beyond labor issues, discussing their broader impacts. She writes, “while I have been glad to see more attention being paid to the working conditions in higher education, I’ve been surprised that the issue is consistently framed as purely a workers’ rights problem. It is this, of course. But it is not only this.”

By compiling and analyzing stories of students, adjuncts, and administrators, she opens the conversation to students, a group that is largely ignorant of the injustices unfolding in their classrooms. I’ve found in my own conversations with students that they’re appalled and frustrated by the situations of adjuncts (once they are aware of them, of course). Still, I don’t know that I’ve ever addressed with them the impact adjunct exploitation has on the quality of the educations that will leave most of them tens of thousands of dollars in debt. This is where Reiderer’s essay quietly and importantly takes on new territory. After all, she writes, “Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions.”


Michelle Nijhuis’s “Stories are Waves” on Aeon

To reinvent stories, including volumes of great and abiding literature, “creates a modest but powerful path to a better world,” writes Michelle Nijhuis. A writer whom I’ve long admired for her science and environmental journalism, Nijhuis turns the narrative lens on herself this time. She shares the experience of reading The Hobbit to her daughter, who determines that Bilbo Baggins is, in fact, a girl. At first resistant (after all, aren’t most of us resistant to any messing with our favorite stories?), Nijhuis eventually decides to go along with her daughter’s determined gender-swapping of the protagonist, and reads “he” as “she,” “his” as “hers,” etc.

The result, she writes, is that Bilbo was, “no tacked-on Strong Female Character with little to do, but a true heroine with her very own quest and skills. For my daughter, Girl Bilbo was thrilling. For me, she was damn refreshing.”

This experience with her daughter initiates Nijhuis’s exploration into the history of appropriation and reinvention, from Shakespeare and Dickens on up through Fifty Shades of Grey. We have been “been telling and retelling stories for at least as long as we’ve had campfires,” she writes, and it’s not wrong, but necessary. It’s an argument that immediately reminded me of Jonathan Lethem’s “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism.” It also reminded me of a clip I heard just yesterday on NPR: In Marvel Comic’s brand new series, the God of Thunder, Thor, is to be a woman. “And this new Thor isn’t a temporary female substitute,” writes Marvel editor Wil Moss. “She’s now the one and only Thor, and she is worthy!”

Some long time Marvel fans will call this heresy, no doubt. But I call it damn refreshing.


Aimee Bender’s “What Writers Can Learn From ‘Goodnight Moon'” in The New York Times, The Opinion Pages, Draft

Who hasn’t read Goodnight Moon? I don’t have children of my own but I’ve read the book to nieces, nephews, God-kids and the many children of my friends. With a dance instructor at Prescott College, I co-mentored one of our students who turned Goodnight Moon into a performance piece for his senior project. Like Aimee Bender, we all could summarize from memory this children’s classic by Margaret Wise Brown, recalling its lovely illustrations by Clement Hurd. Bender says, after giving birth to twins, she received many books as gifts, but only one book multiple times: Goodnight Moon. As she sat down to read it to her babies, she expected it to be familiar, but found it entirely new. In this column from the NYT’s Draft series, Bender, the mom and the writer, analyzes the classic, not only as a complex literary work, but also as a lesson for writers:

‘Goodnight Moon’ does two things right away: It sets up a world and then it subverts its own rules even as it follows them.

What a surprise, then, that the story does not end with the old lady whispering ‘hush’ but goes out the window into the night. Most picture books would close with that old lady—that’s the balanced choice. But we see stars and feel the air—we’ve been sure we’re staying in but now we’re floating out.

The book, written in 1947 and translated into ten languages, pervades babyhood and childhood, and moves into adulthood with us. It’s impossible not to be calmed by the words, the old lady whispering hush, the bowl of mush, the finally diminishing light. This piece by Aimee Bender reminds us to reread, highlights the mastery of Margaret Wise Brown, and makes us aspire to her “confidence and daring,” to trusting instinct and impulse, to the “not fully resolved major chord.”


Marcia Aldrich’s “Autumn Sonata” on The Kenyon Review Online

Aldrich’s essay is full of dyads, starting with the title. Autumn Sonata is not just the title of her essay, but also the title of an Ingmar Bergman film. Both the essay and the film concern another pairing: mothers and daughters. And the essay itself is structurally split in two. The first part is a close reading of one scene in the film; the second part shows what happens after Aldrich turns it off.

The topic of mothers and daughters is massive in scope. It’s one of mythic proportions (Cinderella, Demeter and Persephone, Naomi and Ruth, etc.). Aldrich’s essay works so well because she views that complicated relationship through a single scene in Bergman’s film. Charlotte, the mother in the film, is a professional pianist. She stands at the instrument as Eva, her daughter, plays Chopin’s Prelude No. 2. Eva plays imperfectly, of course, while Charlotte’s face grimaces in disapproval. And then Charlotte takes over, upstaging her daughter, performing a dynamic with which they are both familiar. This inability to please one’s mother is the core of Aldrich’s inquiry because it is that very dynamic she attaches to her own mother. “Daughters,” she says, “have an interminable need for a mother’s approval and love, and go to any length to reach that illusive end.”

And yet, the end of Aldrich’s essay is anything but illusive. After she turns off the film on her DVD player, she cleans house. Starting with a shelf, she dusts bowls of shells and glass balls—gifts from her mother—and a sterling silver-framed photograph. The frame is perpetually tarnished, and her mother’s vibrant face stares out of it, a daily reminder to Aldrich of just how permeated her life is with that of her mother’s. “All I write is covered in her fingerprints,” she says. The essay is so delicate, so lyrical and precise, it is its own sonata.




  • Max says:

    This is a wonderful feature–one that guides me to worthwhile reading when I am easily overwhelmed. I am impressed by the insight and intelligence of whoever D.J. is who wrote about my essay “Autumn Sonata.” Well done.

  • Thanks, Marcia, so glad you like our column. You can read about D.J. by clicking on her name–it links to her bio. Cheers!

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