Set in 1940s wartime London, Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce tells the outlandishly quirky story of leading lady Emmeline Lake and the various mishaps that populate her daily life. Though cheeky on the surface, Emmy proves to be a dynamic character whose depth is revealed as her world becomes further structured by the war. As delightful as it is moving, Dear Mrs. Bird satisfies every emotional need of a reader while proving that the written word from a passionate source can make a profound impact.
Emmy is an aspiring young journalist who jumps at the opportunity to nudge her way into the field of war reporting through a job advertisement found in a local newspaper. Her career goals are sidelined, however, when she finds out she actually applied to type up letters received for a women’s magazine run by the incomparable (and somewhat terrifying) Henrietta Bird. Mrs. Bird shoves a long list of “Topics That Will Not Be Published Or Responded To By Mrs. Bird” under Emmy’s nose with the non-so-implicit consequence of termination should she broach said topics. But Emmy is none too keen to follow the rules, especially once she reads the letters of women pleading for her — or really anyone’s — help.
“Dear Mrs. Bird, I have been married for five years to a man I thought loved me.”
“Dear. Mrs. Bird, Me and my two friends are all in our late thirties and beginning to worry about The Change.”
“Dear Mrs. Bird, Please tell me what I should do.”
Emmy starts secretly writing back to these women in the hopes that she can still make a difference with her writing, even if it is one letter at a time.
Pearce gives voice to the women of this era bogged down by the pressure of a lady-like appearance and the expectation of reserved, topical-at-best commentary. Not often have I seen stories of war (especially in the 20th century) told by women. However, for all it’s triumph’s, this book is set in an age of intolerance and notably stuck within its time period. It is, in essence, a reflection of white feminism in the time of Rosie the Riveter, when the struggles of women of color were not discussed. But in 2018, can we afford not to call out the stories that have been told over again when so many have not been told at all?
Though the plot is at times predictable and lacking in consideration of diverse female experiences, Dear Mrs. Bird will make its readers laugh at the incredible wit of Emmy Lake and reflect on the impacts of wartime as seen through the eyes of women.
Though ‘West’ is in its title, the majority of the collected notes from Joan Didion’s travel journal are stories of the South in the early 1970s. Didion’s scribbled observations (though clearly edited) could surpass the highly meditated words of most writers, as her talent for articulating human behavior glistens on the pages of her book. She is somehow able to see the world for what it is and immediately ascribe an eloquent significance to it. Though Didion’s voice is clear throughout this book, it never overpowers the setting she describes or interviews she relays. Her analysis, poignant and nuanced, creates a space for readers to come to their own conclusions based on the information she provides. In ‘South and West,’ each lucky reader hitches a ride in Didion’s rental car as she follows her sharp, journalistic instincts through these highly disparate landscapes.
Didion first portrays the South as a place in amber, fossilizing remnants of a past of which it cannot let go. A man aims a shotgun at “pi-eagins” from the populated main street in a town called Meridian. Children wrap Confederate-flag beach towels around them after a day at the pool. Didion describes the South’s small-town residents sleep-walking through the boiling heat of each day and slowly allows herself to slip into their lazy Sunday church and brunch lifestyle. Things move glacially in the South, with train horns still denoting time passed, but Didion begins to pick up on small rumblings of change and novelty. She grows to view the South not so much as a dead-zone, but actually the catalyst to a future United States, “the psychic center” of the country — a descriptor usually placed upon California.
Back in the golden state, Didion faces stark realizations about the place she long called home that cause her to question California’s supposed prefiguration. She looks around and does not see the same conviction to maintain a place in history that is abundant in the South and wonders if California will ever be able to attain such unity. She sees that California is flawed.
As an aspiring writer and journalist, reading this work of Didion’s mind provides a seminal how-to in observing and communicating lived experiences. She manages to track down figures that provide depth to her observations, and her interviews highlight the ideologies of Southern community members that may direct the political and social forces of the U.S. Part of me would like to think Didion was wrong in predicting the South would pioneer our future, but another part of me looks at the results of the 2016 election and realizes just how right she was, though probably not in the way she anticipated.
Didion has built a prominent reputation in her career as a writer that allows readers to trust her account of these places and the people in them. It is this believability that makes even her journal desirable to read and becoming engrossed in her reality so easy. Additionally, she does not presume to be an expert in everything she writes; she inherently places some responsibility on the reader to, now almost 50 years later, note the things that have changed — and those that have not — since she drove through the Southern plains. It is jarring to read this novel and see how most things, to their core, remain the same.
Feminism was not even a word in my vocabulary until my freshman year of high school when I heard there was a feminist club run by one of our history teachers. I had no idea what it was, what it meant to be a feminist, or why it was necessary. Then in my sophomore year, I went to a few meetings and talked to some of my friends about what that scary word really meant and I realized that if I’m not a feminist…then what am I? So I read a lot and learned a lot, and now five years later I am a proud feminist and nasty woman (in training).
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, simplistically, is a basic “how-to” be an educated and decent person. This should be required reading for people of all genders and all ages. The collection of essays in this book taught me so much about feminism, racism, and society itself that I didn’t truly understand until Roxane finally explained things to me.
In talking about everything from Girls to The Help, Gay tells us that everyone is a bad feminist, but even more than that, she normalizes it. All of us have some internalized misogyny that has been engrained in our subconscious ever since we were little. No one is immune. For some it runs a lot deeper than others, but none of us can claim to be completely educated and without judgement. But we can all still learn. For those of us in positions of privilege (white privilege is real folks) we listen to those who have experienced what it means to be marginalized and do everything within our power to not perpetuate a culture that promotes racism. Men listen to women and recognize the validity of our fear when walking alone past a group of men on the street. We raise boys to respect women instead of raising girls to fear men. We listen to people talk about their views or religions or ethnicities or sexualities or genders and don’t make snap judgements about any of them.
To be a “bad feminist” is to be a good person. The state of always learning and never settling in the comfortable is what we should be constantly striving for — because learning can never cesse in a world that never stands still. I am a bad feminist. We should all be bad feminists.
Read the book and you’ll understand why.
I could think of no better novel with which to begin my series of reviews.
Pride and Prejudice, written by the one and only Jane Austen, was the first piece of classical literature that I actively enjoyed reading. We often read “the classics” because we’re told that they’re great, that they represent the pinnacle of masterful writing, and that they speak for a generation (most aptly described as books by dead, white males). Honestly, that is why I first picked up P&P, but I soon realized that this is a different kind of classic. I kept reading because I believe it is great.
I’ll begin with our leading lady, Elizabeth Bennet. She is most definitely the 17th century’s equivalent to a “nasty woman” and I love her for it. Her spirit and drive clash with the chaste, maritally-primed expectation for women at that time, making her a highly relatable character even centuries after she was written. She values her own freedom of choice and the company of her loving sisters over her mother’s incessant ringing of wedding bells. Elizabeth and her sisters (namely Jane) share a very close bond which allows Elizabeth to confide in and share her true feelings with people who can understand her. Mrs. Bennet, bless her heart, has the best of intentions but is only confounded by her second eldest daughter’s rejection of the life she has planned for her. Mr. Collins (a snobbish and frankly idiotic mismatch) in particular represents Mrs. Bennet’s ignorance regarding her daughter’s wishes. Even faced with so much opposition from the people who are supposed to be her greatest supporters, Elizabeth never wavers in her tenacity and strength.
Enter Darcy. A highly unlikable man that not even Elizabeth can stand (at first). He believes himself to be above everyone around him, but seems intrigued by Elizabeth’s ability to match his wits. She can challenge him in a way no one ever has and she does so unabashedly. His pride often gets the better of him and his true intentions and heart are masked by the stony exterior he builds up so well. But slowly we see that wall chip away as Darcy begins to fall for Elizabeth and she finally sees the truth behind her assumptions of him. He is not perfect, but he certainly respects Elizabeth far more than Mr. Collins ever did.
Last, but certainly not least, let’s talk about Austen’s uncanny ability to weave together a story. She uses highly elevated diction and syntactical style, as was commonplace in her era, but everything she writes is still filled with intention and real emotion. I’ll admit, her frequent use of the word ‘felicity’ does air on the pretentious side, but I’d argue pretension is a necessary evil in the world of literature. Austen would not have been read had her voice not come across intelligent and authoritative.
I rarely read a piece of fiction that is so artfully crafted as an Austen novel. Her characters all have so much life and whimsy which swirl off the pages of her books and wrap her readers up in the complications of their lives. In Pride and Prejudice, the Bennets and their interconnections within a comfort-adjacent world to which they so desperately cling can bring the reader to a place of reflection and examination of the way they live their own life. This story of a family and their struggles and two people who find unexpected love has lasted all this time because it is real. The raw essence of familial ties and the desire to break from societal norms represents a facet of humanity that has remained in tact even centuries after this book was written.