Book Review: Women in Clothes

Posted on September 10, 2016 under Books

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I first heard about Women in Clothes, a compilation text with a whopping 642 contributors, when it released in the fall of 2014. I was immediately interested in it; as I’ve established on my blog, I’m very interested in exploring the importance of everyday things in people’s lives, especially if they’re considered banal. But the price tag put me off it, as did the fact that I was living in Scotland at the time and didn’t want a 500-page book to transport back to Canada in the spring.

This past fall, I mentioned to my mom that I was interested in the book. I was truly surprised to find it under the Christmas tree! For years I’ve just told my parents what I want for Christmas and am not surprised, but my mom usually manages to sneak something in. I was delighted by this surprise, and, of course, promptly let the book sit on my shelf for nine months. (It’s big, I was in school, you know the drill.)

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I finally got around to reading it and I finally have some thoughts to share! Firstly, it’s undeniably a beautiful book. I love the cover design, the thick paper, the typography, and the visual components. It’s truly an aesthetically-pleasing book, which makes sense given its subject matter.

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I was expecting the book to essentially to be a whole lot of surveys, one after the other. And while the survey questions the authors concocted made up the meat of the book, its form is actually much more haphazard than that. For example, opening it up randomly to page 120, I find a visual component, followed by a personal essay (“What I Wore To Fall in Love”), a mini compilation of quick responses to a single survey question, another visual component, an interview between a woman and her adult son… and so on. The book also contains poems, one-off visual projects (such as a series of photographs of six women wearing each other’s signature outfits), and charts. This structure really worked for me, as it kept the book fresh, always interesting, and very readable. I’d expected to read a few pages of this in between other books, finishing it over the course of a month or so, but I read it all in two days.

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I liked that there were women of different cultural backgrounds and ages surveyed. There were immigrant (or first generation American/Canadian) stories and even a few features on garment factory workers. There were a few trans women featured, a fashion designer, a woman who wears the same dress every day. The book is fairly geocentric; the authors are from New York and Toronto, and obviously they recruited from within their circles, so the Northeastern US and Montreal/Toronto demographics are arguably over-represented. There were a few women interviewed who live in other countries (Poland, Egypt), but most were North American. Many of the survey respondents were also writers or other creative-types. I understand this, on the one hand – it’s easy to believe that creatives are more likely to care about self-presentation, and the writers had very lucid and lovely words about their clothes and styles. But I can’t help but think that it would have been more fascinating to have a bit more representation from the everyday woman to complement the very unusual women who were featured. (And, yes, it did seem like the women skewed upper middle class at least; designer brands were name-dropped quite frequently.)

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I will say that although there were a fair amount of cultural backgrounds represented, the book did skew quite white overall. Sometimes it was a bit tone-deaf. A Guardian review points out that “there is an entire section about what women say when they get their hair braided, featuring nine photographs of white women in various stages of hair-braided repose. This might have been a good place to include a woman from a different race – say, a black woman, for whom a relationship with braided hair is deeply intrinsic, and actually interesting.”

(Also, not related to race, but Lena Dunham saying that she likes to dress as a “new lesbian” made me roll my eyes, but everything Lena Dunham does has that effect on me, so.)

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Although I’d say that the book had a fairly Western liberal feminist perspective overall, I appreciate the inclusion of “outsider” voices. One of my favourite pieces was “I Do Care About Your Party” by Umm Adam, a Muslim woman who argues that “We don’t need to do anything to our body to make it look beautiful.” I don’t fully agree with her entire essay, but it’s a thought-provoking piece, especially her conclusion that “I feel a sense of freedom that I do not have that burden on me, of making myself attractive to others all the time.”

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This is not necessarily a book for someone looking to develop a sense of style, although you may find inspiration in how others approach getting dressed. More than anything, it’s an almost sociological text (though definitely not at an academic level, obviously). And I just really appreciate intelligent, thoughtful approaches to “women’s interest”-type things, that treat them as worthy of investigation and conversation. Women’s appearances are such a fraught area, and I like that there are texts coming out that approach this topic compassionately and intelligently. As I said, I do think that this is a pretty liberal feminist perspective (in that most of the women spoke of clothes in terms of empowerment and personal identity, and there was very little time spent on the disempowerment of women through emphasizing and policing appearance), but I really like how eloquently a “frivolous” topic was presented. It made me think about my own (practically nonexistent) style and how I’d answer some of the survey questions, which I liked.

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Some of the pieces are better than others. Some of this is just personal preference: not everything will speak to everyone, and that’s why it’s cool that so many women were featured. Some of the pieces seemed only marginally related to fashion (“What I Wore To Fall In Love”, mentioned earlier, is, not shockingly, more of a romantic story than one about clothes.)

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Some of my favourite features:

  • Mothers as Others, in which women present photos of their mothers from before they had children and talk about their lives and styles.
  • Maybe A Lot Of People Don’t Do This, an essay by Ly Ky Tran, whose Vietnamese immigrant family created clothing out of their NYC apartment for low wages.
  • A Map Of My Floor, in which the authors map out clothing items they’ve tried on and discarded for a specific event.
  • The Surfer Is Nothing Without The Wave, an interview with an art historian which is one of the most cerebral pieces in the book. It veers on pretentious, but I can’t help but love the phrase “May I quote Gilles Deleuze, pretentiously?” and wish that my peers in my film classes had asked that before quoting Deleuze, pretentiously and usually irrelevantly.
  • The Pink Purse, an essay by Emily Gould. She recounts saving up to buy a pink Marc Jacobs purse, which she donated six years later because it was impractical and hadn’t held up well. It’s a story of excitement followed by buyer’s remorse which I think anyone can relate to – though luckily the objects of my remorse have never been quite so expensive.
  • Clothes on the Ground, a series of fascinating profiles of garment workers in Cambodia, their working conditions, and the clothing they buy and wear.
  • This Person Is A Robot, in which one of the authors goes with a scent scientist to a coat check in New York and smell people’s coats. It’s funny and silly and a good representation of the weird one-off features that I like in this book.
  • What I Spent, a six-month diary of what a magazine employee spent on clothes (including many returns and regrets). It’s actually quite interesting and well-written.
  • Put On A Tux And Go, a feature on dance costumes and how they’re chosen.
  • A French Girl Hoeing, an interview with a farmer who’s interested in fashion. Unexpected and totally fascinating!

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I think this is one of those books that either appeals or doesn’t appeal to each individual. I’ve read some negative reviews of it and I understand why people wouldn’t like it. Some of the pieces are not that interesting or compelling and some approach or fully descend into pretentious navel-gazing territory. But the overall mission and impact of the book is one that certainly appeals to me.

Books read, April-June 2016

Posted on June 30, 2016 under Books

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I am pretty embarrassed to say that I fell down on the job of reading this quarter. I blame it on two things. First, most of April was eaten up by the end of my undergraduate career, when I barely had free time to breathe, let alone to read entire books. Then, no sooner had I finished my degree than I started back at work. I find it hard to get into a routine with shift work, and often I feel so tired by the end of eight hours on my feet that I want to do less intellectually-stimulating things than read. But June brought a renewed interest in reading, and I’m hoping that going forward I’ll be able to build in more time for it. Here’s what I’ve read over the past three months:

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz

I had very high hopes for this book, but I just didn’t love it. It’s a quick read (I read it in one sitting on the Megabus back to Toronto), and the writing is nice, but the stories themselves were very forgettable to me. None of the characters were at all likeable, a fact which doesn’t always prevent me from enjoying a book, but which really got in the way this time. The main character is just so terrible. The female characters are all extremely shallow. Some parts of the book were very moving, and some stories were better than others, but overall I felt disappointed and strangely unmoved.

(I donated this book to Valu Village awhile ago, so it’s not pictured above.)

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I bought The Goldfinch in August and finally read it in mid-June. It’s certainly a long one, but I was never bored by it unlike a lot of people I know. I loved the writing, the story, the characters. It is a bit slow, but I enjoy a meandering story when it’s done right. I’m glad I saved this book until I had the time to read it slowly and appreciate it.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Sharp Objects is, to me, the most disturbing of Flynn’s three novels, and it is not for the faint of heart. I enjoyed her writing (as always) and the trademark Gillian Flynn twist at the end. This is my least favourite of her novels, but I still really liked it. This is an example to me of a novel where unlikeable, bizarre characters actually enhanced my enjoyment. The ending wasn’t too great, but I always find Flynn’s conclusions a bit anti-climactic.

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

I probably haven’t mentioned this on my blog before, but I’m a big Vonnegut fan. I read Slaughterhouse-Five my senior year of high school and since then have been picking up his books whenever I can. (That’s not that often, because bookstores always seem to stock the most popular titles, all of which I already own!) The Sirens of Titan is definitely one of my favourites – I loved the usual dry, satirical exploration of truth, luck, religion, and the meaning of life, and the revelation at the end is hilarious and comes together so well. Definitely up there with Bluebeard and Slaughterhouse-Five in my own personal Vonnegut ranking!

I currently have four unread books sitting on my shelf (Convergence Culture by Henry Jenkins; Women in Clothes by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton; Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; The Little Friend by Donna Tartt), so I’ll be working through those next. Plus I have a huge list of books I’m interested in, so, you know, I should be able to scrape together a slightly larger selection at the end of next quarter. I’ve read 12 books this year so far, so I’m pretty much on pace for my 25 book goal in 2016. Now that I’m back in the swing of things I’m hoping to do a bit better than that, even.

Books read, January-March 2016

Posted on March 31, 2016 under Books

Note: I’ve used affiliate links in this post.

I thought I’d start doing quarterly posts about the books I’ve read in my attempt to reach my goal of 25 for the year. Although this semester has been incredibly busy for me, so far I do remain on track, having finished 8 books so far this year. I’m hoping to pick up my pace over the summer – I’m really doing all I can at the moment; I keep telling people who ask me if I’ve seen the latest episode of a television show or a newly-released movie that I don’t have time for fun at the moment. I’m coming down the home stretch, though: in less than 3 weeks, I will be finished my degree.

Onto the books! These will be presented in order of when I finished them. This does not include any short stories, though I have probably read about ten this year so far.

Face Paint: The Story of Makeup by Lisa Eldridge

This is more of a survey course with 250 students and two TAs type book than an in depth seminar of 20 students book, but it is fantastic for what it is: well-researched, beautifully-presented, and absolutely brimming with Lisa Eldridge’s passion for makeup. I reviewed it in full in January.

Marx for Beginners by Rius

This is a graphic novel all about Marxism! I had to read it for my Marxist Cultural Theory class. Having already been through for years of high school and three and a half years of a liberal arts degree, I don’t know that I would categorize myself as a “beginner” when it comes to Marxism – though the book was highly readable and easily understood, so it would probably be an appropriate primer for a true beginner.

Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac

Honestly, when faced with the task of reading an 1835 French realist novel, I was not very enthused. And while it isn’t one that I’m likely to revisit, it was much more enjoyable than I expected. The plot wasn’t quite enough to balance out the often tediously lengthy description, but this was much less of a struggle to get through than I anticipated. Which doesn’t really sound like high praise, now that I think about it…

Whylah Falls by George Elliot Clarke

Really gorgeous narrative poetry about a Black family living in mid-20th century Atlantic Canada. I’m not normally a poetry person, but perhaps narrative poetry is the way to my heart. The story was as compelling – and heartbreaking – as the poetry itself.

Diamond Grill by Fred Wah

Another one that I really enjoyed! This is a literary/poetic autobiography, focusing on Fred Wah, Jr.’s father’s Chinese restaurant in Western Canada as well as his own hybrid Chinese-Scottish-Swedish identity. Peppered with recipes and mouth-watering descriptions of food – two of my classmates actually cooked from a recipe in the book, and it was pretty good! I loved the use of language and overall found this book very moving and evocative.

What We All Long For by Dionne Brand

While this book was made up of interweaving narratives, a device which I usually enjoy, and while it was set it in my home city of Toronto, it fell very flat for me. The characters really lacked meaningful interiority, which was a shame, because their situations rendered differently could have been hugely emotionally affecting. Emotional connection with characters is almost always the number one factor in my enjoyment of a book! Really too bad, because the descriptive passages were great and the plot could have been awesome.

Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Pop Music, From Bill Haley to Beyoncé by Bob Stanley

This is a 550-page history of the past 70 years of pop music, which is certainly an ambitious task. Overall, I do think that the task was in good hands. Although the text suffered sometimes from over-editorializing (which at various points lead to sexist condescension), it was lucidly- and engagingly-written, packing in a massive amount of information without being dry or confusing. This isn’t a page-turner: it took me nearly 3 months to get through, and I normally finish books inside of half a week, even if they’re quite long.

Foe by J.M. Coetzee

Foe is a retelling of Daniel Defoe’s classic castaway tale Robinson Crusoe. This time, Cruso (as he is called in this novel) is joined on his island by Susan Barton, a British woman who has just spent two years searching for her lost daughter in Brazil. In Coetzee’s adaptation, Cruso’s “manservant” (aka slave) Friday is not indigenous to the Americas; rather, he is an African slave whose tongue has been cut out, supposedly by slavers – though Susan does question several times whether it was Cruso who cut his tongue out. It’s an interesting postcolonial (and to a lesser degree feminist-aligned) adaptation of the original novel, and while the writing is great, it fell short for me. Above all, it’s an exploration of authorship and whose story gets to be told, and it seems that Friday is the loser here. The novel can be read as an allegory for Apartheid (it was written in 1986 by a white South African), but it just didn’t push far enough for me. I do believe that Susan’s insistence on speaking for Friday and justifying why she kept him as a “servant” was meant to be rather damning of her character, but there is no narrative closure for Friday and he ends up being denied a voice. (I mean, literally, he has no tongue.)

Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler

(Can you tell from this list that I’m taking a class on Canadian lit? Probably only if you’re Canadian or particularly into CanLit.)

I must be a bad Canadian, because it’s taken me this long to read any of Mordecai Richler’s adult novels. (And I’m not entirely sure that I even read any Jacob Two-Two as a kid.) Being assigned a nearly 600-page novel in the last three weeks of my degree did not agree with me, but I actually ended up really enjoying the book. It’s part adventure story, part genealogy of the dysfunctional and sprawling Gursky family, and part rather apt picture of the Montreal of the 20th century. It’s told non-chronologically, spans many decades, and is made up of multiple narratives, which is right up my alley. And it makes heavy (fictionalized) use of the Franklin Expedition, which was an object of my obsession when I was about 11 or 12. I also loved the writing style – it’s very Montreal. All in all, a very rewarding read.

I was, like a nerd, going to include a list of some of the academic texts I’ve enjoyed over the past semester, but this post is already long enough, so I’ll leave you hanging.

I’m happy with the amount I’ve read this year so far: at this rate, I’m on pace to read 32 this year, which is 7 ahead of my goal of 25. (I have no doubt I’ll slow down in the fall, but a girl can dream.) As for my goal to read more by marginalized people: I’m not sure if I’m quite hitting my target of 75%, but this is a pretty diverse list. More women and more LGBTQ+ people in the next few months, though! My one true disappointment is that only two of these books were read simply for the fun of it: everything else was for school. Obviously, over the summer I will not have school dictating what to read, so I will be able to dive into the small stack that has been accumulating on top of my bookshelf. Meet you back here in 3 months and hopefully I’ll have another 8 books to share with you!