#FridayReads: The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis

cover for The Female of the SpeciesI don’t read a ton of YA, but for whatever reason I found myself craving a good young adult novel at the beginning of the year. I’d seen all the buzz for The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis, so I checked it out from my local library. Boy, what a ride.

This book tackles the difficult subjects of sexual violence and justice. Alex, the central character, seeks justice for her sister, who was kidnapped, tortured, raped and ultimately murdered and dismembered. Lacking enough evidence for a conviction, Anna’s killer goes free. So Alex digs in deep to the dark parts of herself and takes matters into her own hands.

Alex is prepared to spend the rest of her life in isolation, hiding from society. But then she makes friends, and then she falls in love. Alex begins to think she can be normal, maybe, when a group of junkies tries to rape her friend. Soon it becomes clear that she cannot keep the violence within her silent, not with sexual predators targeting the people she cares about.

The Female of the Species is a sort of tragic superhero novel, one where the hero treads the line between serving justice and taking revenge, one where there can’t be any happy endings.

The ending is certainly not happy, but it is satisfying. McGinnis doesn’t treat her characters or subject matter like a black and white canvas where right and wrong are clearly delineated. Her characters, and not just Alex, cross lines. They transgress. They do stupid teenage stuff and have to pay the consequences. But what McGinnis does make clear, again and again, is that no matter how stupid or out of line someone is, they do not deserve to be raped. They do not deserve to be assaulted.

Alex’s greatest strength is that she understands this simple fact. She sticks up for her friends, but she also sticks up for the girl trying to steal her boyfriend. In a way, Alex sacrifices her own humanity so that the other girls in her hometown don’t have to live in a world haunted by violation and fear.

The Female of the Species isn’t an easy book to read, in a lot of ways, but it’s an important one. You won’t regret picking it up.

 

Their Eyes Were Watching God and meta-storytelling with a frame narrative

Some critics have said Zora Neale Hurston’s novel about love and loss is not “good” because the narration slips between Janie’s dialect and the narrator’s voice.

I think Edwidge Danticat’s words in the introduction to Their Eyes Were Watching God say it best, though: “Hurston herself also becomes Janie’s echo by picking up the narrative thread in intervals, places where in real life, or real time, Janie may have simply grown tired of talking.”

The novel makes use of a frame.  We start at the end of the story, when Janie is returning home after burying her lover Teacake.  Hurston generates interest immediately when we hear the villagers gossiping about Janie and where she’s been.  We find out a lot about her character when she ignores all of them and decides to tell her story to her friend Phoebe only, who can then do as she wants with it.

So, Danticat’s explanation makes sense because Janie is telling her story to her friend Phoebe “in real time.”  It also sets up the narrator as a fly on the wall in Janie’s life, someone who is telling the story of Janie telling her story.

If we look at the way Janie tells her story, she is always frank and honest, and does not sugarcoat the truth, although there are some ugly ones in there.  But, more importantly, she tells the story in her own voice–and a strong voice it is.

Although writing in dialect has gone out of vogue and is generally considered disrespectful and crass, I think it’s integral to this narrative.  Perhaps Hurston could have conveyed the same dialect and inflection without “misspelling” words, but then we would read the story in our own voices, with our own pronunciation.

By using dialect in this way, Hurston forces us to read in Janie’s voice, and in the voices of the other characters.  We have to become them, if only for a moment, to experience their stories.  That makes the narrative immersive.

Despite the frame narrative and the fact that this is a novel about a woman telling her friend a story, I have difficulty calling it metafiction, because of how immersive it is, and how wonderfully it draws the reader in without calling particular attention to anything but the story itself.

Yes, the astute reader is going to think about the way Janie tells the story and the frame narrative and what it means, but a casual reader will probably not.  After all, who hasn’t sat down after a particularly difficult experience and told the story to a close friend or family member?

I also have difficulty not calling it metafiction, or meta-storytelling at the very least, because the book does proclaim—rather loudly—that this is Janie’s story, and Janie is telling it her way, and she is not making any apologies.  Not to her neighbors, and not to the reader.  And that is a proclamation that should make us think about the structure, characters, and why we tell stories to each other.

A version of this post first appeared on my now-defunct blog about metafiction, The Narrative in the Blog, on September 7, 2010.

Friday night at the bookstore

Barnes and Noble

Some people like to spend their weekends bar hopping, or going out to the movies, or shopping for new clothes. I like to go to the bookstore. I don’t necessarily go to buy anything, though it’s hard to resist the pull of a new book, the weight of it in my hands, the smell of paper and ink and glue.

I go, especially when things get stressful, because this is my happy place. It’s true that I spend most of my days surrounded by books in the public library where I work, but therein lies the problem. I’m working. At bookstores, I can relax. I don’t have to force a smile if I don’t feel happy. I don’t have to grit my teeth and explain to the same person for the millionth time that no, I am not going to fill out their job application for them. I am beholden to no one but myself and the books.

Growing up, my favorite bookstore was the Chester County Book and Music Company, a massive store in West Chester, PA. A solid half of my Star Wars book collection came from that store. I always had to beg my parents to take me, because they knew once they got me there it was going to be hours before I was ready to leave. That store is closed now, but I can still tell you exactly which books I bought there.

Now I’m somewhat embarrassed to say I spend most of my bookstore time in Barnes & Noble. This is more out of habit and routine than anything else. In high school a new development in a wealthier part of town brought in a Barnes & Noble, which was perhaps one of the most exciting events of my young life (this is not because my life wasn’t exciting; that just goes to show you how much I love bookstores). My best friend and I would spend entire afternoons there, giggling at trashy romance books and eyeing up new editions of Lord of the Rings. I accompanied friends to midnight releases for Harry Potter books, mostly because I wanted to be in a bookstore at midnight.

I generally follow a routine for my weekend BN visits. First, I look at the journals. Then, if I’m in the mood, I’ll stop in the cafe and get something to drink. Next comes the bargain section. From there I visit the science fiction books, first checking out what’s new and then finding my favorite authors on the shelf. Even if I have all of an author’s books, I’m not immune to the draw of a new edition. Plus, stopping by Neil Gaiman’s and Ursula Le Guin’s sections feels a lot like visiting old friends.

After sci-fi I peruse the manga and comics and contemplate whether or not I should buy the next volume in whatever series I’m working on (currently the omnibus editions of Fruits Basket and Elf Quest). Then I head over to the reference section to visit the writing books. I don’t buy many writing books, but I will borrow them from the library and buy the ones I really love.

This routine, the familiarity of it, the faint smell of books permeating the air, the warm drink in my hand, lets me relax. It gives me time and space to think, to figure things out and work through whatever problem I’m stuck on. In many ways, my bookstore visits are a kind of meditation. Sometimes I even say “I’m going to church” when I’m headed to a bookstore, and it isn’t a joke. There’s truth in that. To me, bookstores are a sacred space. They hold knowledge and mystery, power and wisdom. And that’s what keeps me coming back, week after week.