Saturday, June 4, 2011

Summer Book Club

I've finished my first summer book club book!  Admittedly, I picked it for my first book because it's super short: more of a novella than a novel (~140 pages/20K words).  I read Bone and Jewel Creatures, by Elizabeth Bear.  I've never read anything by Bear before, but I read occasionally, which often has single book reviews and combined reviews of books with queer characters, strong feminist leanings, and other features of sff that don't get talked about enough.  Bear is a contributing writer over at Tor, and her books pop up frequently over there, so she's been on my radar for a while.

Anyway, the book at hand:  short and awesome.  It's not short and sweet because, well, it's not sweet.  It's pretty unsettling, but not in a horror-genre way.

Despite being very short, the characterization is both detailed and subtle.  The narrative sort of dumps us at the end of what could have been an epic multi-book fantasy series, full of court intrigue, political maneuvering, love and backstabbing, but without being about those.  It's more about what those people do with their lives once the epic change is accomplished, and what legacy they leave in the lives of those around them.  

The story centers on a very old woman and her relationship with a grown apprentice and a small child, in a way that is nurturing but not exactly mothering.  The main character's central power is to create life from death, which, when you think about it, is pretty metaphorical.  It's unusual to see older women in sff, or other fiction, and it's a book about self-determination and sacrifice without being about the idealization of sacrifice for women.

The main character is both strong and frail, and she is both strong and frail as a woman without the book centralizing her femininity.  For example, the plot centers around a long-past love triangle, and the betrayal and hurt that it caused, but her character hinges more on her friendship with another woman.  Her accomplishments and strengths are not exactly gender neutral, but they are more about the pursuit of intellectual accomplishment and teaching, rather than being about mothering.

(I guess in this case I would classify nurturing as more of teaching and supporting, while mothering is a more sentimental, emotional nurturing.  Not a perfect distinction, and not to say that there's something better about non-mothering nurturing than mothering, but it's not common to see older women in fiction in non-mothering roles).

I once had a conversation with one of my committee members, who is A Very Big Deal in women's history, who asked me what I thought feminist history ought to look like, if it necessarily had to be about women, and if you could have a feminist history that was not necessarily about women.  After a while of going around about what feminist history might look like, we arrived at this: while feminist history could be explicitly feminist and say that up front, it could also be only implicitly feminist in its presentation and interpretation, like a secret feminist handshake.  Bone and Jewel Creatures has a pretty firm handshake.

1 comment:

  1. This definitely sounds like a book worth checking out. Thank you for taking the time to write a review!