movie: Anita (2014)

At my father’s encouragement, I spent several nights in the van watching this documentary in small pieces, as wifi connections and laptop batteries permitted. This was the right way to watch it for me, anyway, because I continue to find this difficult content. Like so many millions of women, I had a hard time seeing Dr. Christine Blasey Ford give testimony against a man who is now a Supreme Court justice, just last year. I have a hard time watching Dr. Anita Hill do the same. I have a hard time with the continuity of this story.

I’ve written about Anita’s story before, when watching Confirmation and reading Speaking Truth to Power (in two parts). Looking back at those reviews, I guess I’m feeling the way I did with that first of two book reviews: discouraged, traumatized. Of course, looking back at the email in which my father recommended I watch this, I see he saw this coming: “You could skip roughly the first half of the 77-minute film – it recounts the hearings with too many excerpts for us who have seen too much of it already.” Strangely, I guess that’s me, even though I didn’t watch the hearings in 1991.

For my father, the point of the film was was redemptive. (He saw it at a local documentary festival event.)

Once it shifts to Hill’s update on her aftermath, it becomes uplifting and fulfilling as it recounts the huge community of support that has buoyed her life, and catalyzed social change (such as it is). (I did not know anything about her move to Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where she has clearly blossomed as activist & educator.) By the end, there is emphasis on younger generations of women in particular.

The years since 2013 have not been as good, and the audience discussion with (filmmaker) Mock and two local women attorneys (one from local Western Washington University) was attentive to that and the Kavanaugh hearings. But I found the film personally necessary, because it counters the sad-end-narrative for Hill herself, which I had stuck in my head after her book, the recent reenactment film, and Kavanaugh. I’m sure Hill was knocked askew by Kavanaugh too, but now I know what a strong place she was in when that debacle arrived, and trust she is weathering it along with us all.

And those points are well taken, although I guess I needed reminding of that. I viewed the film’s final minutes – that spotlighting of the inspiring younger women saddling up – as positive but also disheartening again, especially because I watch this in 2019 and know what these young women, filmed in 2011-12, don’t know about the immediate future. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s hard for me to stay positive in the face of this ongoing story, but I don’t argue that that’s the right perspective. Hope is better. I’m trying.

To Anita Hill, for the 500th time, I take my hat off and thank you. As far as this film, I think Pops has it right: the footage from the hearings is essential stuff, but if you’re already well-versed, there’s nothing especially new there (and it’s hard to see them press her about pubic hairs and big-breasted women over and over again. Not as hard as it was for her to be pressed, though). The later stuff in the movie is new, even for those of us who have already worked through Hill’s excellent memoir and the very good movie Confirmation. And Pops is correct, it’s good to see how well she’s doing, and that’s she still doing the work.

The story is essential. Pick your version, for starters. You would not do badly if you chose to start here.


Rating: 7 times they made her repeat herself.

On Being 40(ish) ed. by Lindsey Mead

These collected essays about the milestone 4-0 remind readers to laugh, cry and hope.

In On Being 40(ish), 15 women muse on what being 40 years old–give or take–means in their lives. This anthology, edited by freelance writer Lindsey Mead, offers diverse viewpoints and concerns but as a whole aims to inspire. As Mead writes in her introduction, “These are not reflections on the dying of the light, but rather a full-throated celebration of what it means to be an adult woman at this moment in history.”

The contents are varied, including celebrations, uncertainties and elegies. Some writers mourn losses, some rejoice at new beginnings; some are concerned with the existential, some more lightheartedly concerned with changing appearances. Lee Woodruff writes about her mother’s 40th birthday, her own and what she hopes to pass down to her own daughters. Taffy Brodesser-Akner writes about time, which “happens no matter what you’re doing with it.” The quickness with which years pass is a theme across these essays, as is the victory involved in aging: “by forty, we know who we are,” Jill Kargman writes. “When we are young, we are diluted versions of ourselves. We become balsamic reductions as we age–our very best parts distilled and clarified.”

Allison Winn Scotch writes about accepting the unexpected when a devastating injury interrupts plans for a trip to Mexico. She closes: “I worried that my injury would upend everything. It turns out that it did.” And that’s a happy ending.

On Being 40(ish) is mostly about happy endings; or the ongoingness of life–its not ending at all, not yet. This is an anthology for women of all ages and all perspectives.


This review originally ran in the March 19, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 rainbow suspenders.

Midnight: Three Women at the Hour of Reckoning by Victoria Shorr

Well-researched, perceptive writing results in a gripping triptych of the inner lives of Jane Austen, Mary Shelley and Joan of Arc.

In Midnight: Three Women at the Hour of Reckoning, Victoria Shorr’s (Backlands) remarkable literary voice illuminates the lives of three famous women. Jane Austen, Mary Shelley and Joan of Arc are each seen standing at respective thresholds in these well-researched fictionalizations, their extraordinary lives given immediacy and power and even–despite what we already know–suspense.

At 27, Jane Austen is practically an old maid by her society’s standards. Along with her unmarried sister and parents (who have given up home and livelihood for one of their sons), Jane travels from one relative’s home to another, essentially homeless, and without hope of the one salvation expected for a woman of her class: marriage. Her witty writings have entertained only her immediate family. And then, a near miracle: the younger brother of dear friends proposes. Jane agonizes through the night, but decides she cannot marry for less than love, like the best of her heroines. Instead she carries on a life of privation, quiet embarrassments and the masterful writing of the classics we love her for today.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was 16 when she met Percy Bysshe Shelley on a street corner at 4 a.m., to run away to a life of adventure and art and pain. We meet her on a beach at 24, after the deaths of two children, pacing the shore where Shelley has sailed away. He was due back days ago, and now Mary reviews her choices. Might she have been happy if she’d never met Shelley?

Readers find Joan of Arc on the platform beneath the stake where she is to be burned, in the moment when terror strikes her and she renounces her saints and her cause, hoping to avoid death. Over the next week in prison, she relives her triumphs and her faith, then dies at the stake after all. It is a brief interlude in her life, but an enormous one for the reader, who feels in this extended flashback all the intensity she’s lived. Would her life have been better if she had stayed home to mind her sheep in Lorraine? If she’d turned back from Reims, and not pushed, prideful, for Paris? Shorr sets up an interesting interplay between Joan of Arc, the confident hero, and Girl X, as the woman who renounced her beliefs on the platform thinks of herself. The dialogue between the two carries on until the end, when Joan burns.

Each of these women faces a choice early in her narrative; then the consequences unfold. Shorr’s prose is incisive, thoughtful and personal, deeply exploring the interior lives of her characters. Fans of Austen, Shelley and Joan, as well as fans of rich inner lives in historical fiction, will be riveted.


This review originally ran in the February 1, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 spurs to action.

Women Warriors: An Unexpected History by Pamela D. Toler

This entertaining and informative history of women warriors briskly covers huge swathes of time and place, arguing for the significance of a phenomenon as old as warfare itself.

With Women Warriors: An Unexpected History, Pamela Toler (The Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War) reveals a history many readers will meet with surprise as well as fascination. By the end of this brisk accounting of just some of the many women warriors Toler found in her research, she makes it clear that while little known, this phenomenon is neither new nor unusual.

Women Warriors is a broad examination that spans history from the second millennium BCE through the present, and across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Toler details dozens of examples, from the better-known (Matilda of Tuscany, Njinga, Begum Sahib and, of course, Joan of Arc) to the obscure (Ani Pachen, Mawiyya, Bouboulina), in two- or three-page summaries. She notes primary sources in each case and questions “facts” where appropriate (for example, numbers of troops are notoriously dubious), often presenting a fact in the main body and then questioning it in a footnote. Chapters organize women warriors into mothers, daughters, queens, widows; besieged defenders and leaders of attacks; women disguised as men and women undisguised.

Plentiful footnotes serve an important role, especially evidencing a certain wry humor, as when Toler repeatedly and impatiently points out the tendency to compliment women as behaving like men and to denigrate men as behaving like women (a habit consistent throughout history and common to women as well as men). Double standards are likewise emphasized, as in the way historians and archeologists have examined evidence. For example, the grave known as the “Birka man,” from 834 CE, had long been considered that of a male because of the martial burial items found with him. In 2014, a bioarcheologist determined that the bones were actually that of a female. Despite follow-up DNA testing, scholars, archeologists and historians continue to argue about the identification of the Birka woman. As Toler points out, the scholarly contortions now employed to deny her status as warrior were never mentioned while her skeleton was assumed to be that of a male.

With such copious content, Toler has been careful to keep her book a manageable length: at just over 200 pages, Women Warriors is an easy entry to an expansive topic. Toler found thousands of examples of women warriors in her research–many more than are contained in these pages–and argues that this proliferation deserves to be treated as more than a series of freak anomalies. In conclusion, answering an earlier historian’s claim that women in warfare are “the most insignificant exceptions,” Toler sums up: “Exceptions within the context of their time and place? Yes. Exceptions over the scope of human history? Not so much. Insignificant? Hell, no!”


This review originally ran in the January 17, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 naginata.

movie: Confirmation (2016)

I only found out that this movie existed thanks to my current favorite podcast, Another Round, so thanks to Heben and Tracy for that! And so timely now.

I read Anita Hill’s memoir, Speaking Truth to Power, more than five years ago. It was a powerful experience: she did a beautiful job telling her story, and it’s a hell of a story to begin with. I was nine years old when Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings took place. I don’t remember them as something I directly experienced; my knowledge of these events comes from hearing other people (like my parents) talk about them, and from reading her book.

This movie is an excellent follow-up as well. If you’re looking for an education about what happened, I suggest Hill’s book for its level of detail. But if you’re looking to grasp the feeling, the emotional truth of this time period, the movie does a good job. Hill, Thomas, and Joe Biden are all played by actors who come remarkably close to their roles not only in physical appearance but in movements, speech patterns, and mannerisms. The feelings (on one side) of shock and concern and ill-boding about what will come of all this, and (on the other side) of indignation and impatience and real threat unlooked for, are well captured. Again, as someone who doesn’t remember viewing the confirmation hearings when they happened, I spent some time pausing this movie to pull up old video from the real events, comparing both the wording and the delivery. It’s pretty spot on.

All of which means it was hard to watch. I guess there may be people out there who question the truth of Hill’s allegations, but I can hardly imagine who they might be. Not women, for one thing, because all of us women who have lived and worked in the world know that these things happen, and we know well why a woman might not speak up when it happens, as Hill’s critics kept harping on about. It should go without saying, but: I am horrified that we are seeing these events play out again twenty-freaking-seven years later with Brett Kavanaugh. Horrified.

You can read Anita Hill’s own words on this subject in an article for the New York Times: “How to Get the Kavanaugh Hearings Right.”

Weirdly, though, I found the movie less difficult to watch than Anita Hill’s book was to read. You’d think the movie would be more visceral because of its visual and aural elements. But Hill’s writing admirably matches her speaking: calm, measured tone, far from devoid of emotion but thoughtful and thorough. Like the lawyer she is, she is careful with fact and clear about where she speculates. She relies on the strengths of her arguments and the truth. I found this careful telling even more moving than the movie.

In a nutshell? A recommendation for this movie, and an even stronger one for Hill’s book. And a sound shame-on-you for our country still struggling to treat women with respect, like as if we were real human beings, and for punishing and not believing us when we speak up. I hope someday the cases of Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford will cause history students to gasp in disbelief, rather than nodding their heads in recognition of the same old story.


Rating: 8 cases.

Object Lessons by Eavan Boland

I recall studying a poem in high school by Eavan Boland titled “The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me.” As I approached this semester’s critical essay, one of the talented faculty in my program, Diane Gilliam, recommended this work of prose, for my topic on objects. Diane’s words, to the best of my memory, were, “Every woman artist needs to read this book.” I’m so glad I did; especially when I got to page 231, where “The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me” makes an appearance, as the only poem of her own that Boland chooses to feature. Synchronicity.

Object Lessons is an examination of the conflict Boland has experienced between her self as poet and her self as woman, with the overlay of Irishness on it all. She leaves Ireland at age five, to a London that largely rejects her kind, to return to her home country in her teens and to study poetry at Trinity in Dublin, a charged literary atmosphere. It takes some time for this young person, still discovering herself as a woman, a sexual creature, and a person of a nation, not to mention as a poet, to see the holes in the legacy she has inherited: there is no place for her in this history. “It was not exactly or even chiefly that the recurrences of my world–a child’s face, the dial of a washing machine–were absent from the tradition [of the poet’s life], although they were. It was not even so much that I was a woman. It was that being a woman, I had entered into a life for which poetry has no name.” Names are important. “Every art is inscribed with them. Every life depends on them.” Further, about the poet-versus-woman tension: “For anyone who is drawn into either of these lives, the pressure is there to betray the other: to disown or simplify, to resolve an inherent tension by making a false design from the ethical capabilities of one life or the visionary possibilities of the other.”

Over the course of this book, she lays out the problems she found and her own best efforts at solving them, a job she acknowledges is unfinished. But she hopes that a book like this helps future women poets, by giving them a starting point, something else to point to. Heartbreakingly, by contrast, she relates that the first woman poet she knew of as a young woman was Sylvia Plath, and that name she knew first as a suicide, not a poet at all.

I was also very interested in the way this memoir started: with the missing, imagined, scantily sketched biography of her grandmother. The narrator explores the history, the meager records of the woman; she imagines; and she travels to view a grave and a hospital. It’s a lovely study, the story of someone absent, and a consideration of what we get from an ancestor we can’t really know.

Boland has plenty of good thoughts about place, sense of place, and nation as aspect of our selves and our writing selves. She makes much of the Irish poetic tradition to conflate the feminine and the national. Her musings can get pretty cerebral and abstract, so this memoir took some slow, thoughtful reading; but I think it’s worth the time. Also, I am very interested in Boland’s assertion that she structured the book like a poem: “in turnings and returnings.” I have more thinking to do.


Rating: 7 high heels tipped with steel.

reread: She Got Up Off the Couch by Havel Kimmel

You’ll recall that I really loved this book when I read it in 2013. (First review here.) I reread it recently as part of my first semester reading list (see new tag here, many entries to come!). Students’ reading lists are individual, created by the student and faculty advisor together, so Katie Fallon and I came up with my list as a team.

couchI loved this book again. Havel Kimmel’s mother is far from perfect; she struggles to hold herself together and care for her children and family in a way that her society deems correct; she appears ill-kempt. But in the course of this book, in Kimmel’s youth, she also learns how to drive a car (and buys herself one), enrolls in college and goes on to graduate school, gets a job as a teacher, and goes through a divorce. She struggles, but she keeps it together, accomplishes these large goals, and as this book’s existence shows, her youngest daughter loves her very much through it all. In other words, she’s our favorite kind of hero: challenged, imperfect, but eventually victorious against long odds.

So, a great story. But more than a great story, because Kimmel also presents it cleverly, with enormous humor (even when terrible things happen, like fifth-grade Kimmel’s double compound fracture with shattered bone extruding through the skin) and the kind of detail that makes the whole thing alive to her readers without ever feeling overloaded with descriptions. How does she do it? This is what I’m here to learn on this read. Because my stories are only as great as they are – I can’t control that part – but I can control how I tell them.

I’m still learning this kind of reading, how to read for the craft, to take it apart and see how it works. But here are some things I see:

  • Kimmel’s book is about her mother. The title and Preface make that clear. But many chapters hardly mention her, or don’t mention her at all. Much of Kimmel’s story characterizes mom Delonda without even touching on her. Who she married, what her children and family do when she’s not around, where she isn’t – all these things serve the development of Delonda, which I think is really cool.
  • Kimmel is hilarious. (Here, I don’t have much hope for myself; I’m afraid I’m missing that funny bone…) In the incident I mentioned above, the double compound fracture etc., she uses a totally hilarious doctor to add much of the humor in that scene. Was her doctor really that hilarious? I don’t know. Maybe she was gifted a comic doctor; or maybe she knew how to write his dialog to play that up.
  • Her POV rarely departs from that of the child she was in each scene. She stays in the past tense, but her conclusions, what she sees and what it means to her, stay in character. This often yields humor, because her audience knows more than her narrator does. It can yield poignancy in a way that is just honest without being precious. And it plays up the few moments when adult Kimmel comments on her past: these are rare enough that we pay extra attention.
  • A few chapters take unusual formats. There are lists; a transcript of an audio recording; rules of a game she plays with her friends. This kind of formal play (that is, playing with form) can be dangerous – it can distract, or call attention to itself, as in ‘look how clever I am’ – but I think it serves her well here. For one thing, it’s used sparingly. For another, the formats really do feel like they contribute to the narrative she wants to tell. I think a transcript of an audio recording is a great idea, because it’s in the moment. It’s real.
  • I spent some time focusing on the short chapter “Brother” that biographies her much older, and therefore mostly absent brother Dan. It’s a little bit of a departure from the rest of the book, in tone as well as subject, and I found it a charming encapsulated profile.

This is just the beginning of what I have to learn from Kimmel. Exciting, right? If you haven’t read her work yet, you obviously have my recommendation. I love everything she’s written, in fact, as you can see here.

Stay tuned for more reading-list musings to come.


Rating: still 9 lines to be close-read.
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