I may have spent the past couple of weeks traveling, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading, so here’s what I’d like to share with y’all today:
Two very different books — The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore, and The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisnero. The first is a thoroughly researched non-fiction book full of illustrations, footnotes, etc etc, and the second is a very short collection of vignettes that come together to create the semi-fictional neighborhood of Mango Street.
The Secret History of Wonder Woman is not a book for the faint of heart, — this is 400+ pages worth of serious scholarship. Lepore explores the origins of Wonder Woman by digging deep into feisty Amazon’s creator’s personal and professional life. There is such a wealth of information in this book that at times it’s downright overwhelming if you’re just reading the book out of general interest, not with specific questions in mind. However, I still found it a pleasure to read for the most part. William Moulton Marston’s life and ideas, as well as his (and his family’s) connections to the Suffragette and Birth Control Movements, all this makes for an interesting read.
Marston led a double, if not triple life — he wanted to be recognized as an inventor (he called himself the inventor of the lie detector), a scholar (for his theories of emotion), an authority. He was guided by the idea that women should — and would, in due time — rule the world. He developed Wonder Woman as a role model, an example of a woman who is all a woman should be: strong, independent, and capable of love. At the same time, he had a fascination (if not obsession) with showing her in bondage. He lived with three women, the youngest of whom was originally a student of his and later gave up on her dreams of graduate school and a career so that his (official) wife could continue with her own work right after giving birth. It seems that the entire time, it was the women in his household that brought in the money (and took care of house and children) while he devoted himself to his various projects.
Lepore also chronicles the changes Wonder Woman goes through in appearance and manners over the years, — changes due to different writers, different policies, etc — and the struggle comic of book publishers trying to avoid being blacklisted. The comics index at the end of the book, as well as Lepore’s detailed references / notes should be a useful resource for anyone interested in doing more reading or research, or simply in writing about the topic.
In contrast to Lepore’s book, Cisnero’s The House on Mango Street is a quick and easy read at just over 100 pages (with plenty of white space). The House on Mango Street is a set of vignettes that introduces us to a number of people who live on Mango Street, which is a poor Latino neighborhood somewhere in the United States. A lot of the characters are girls and women. Other than the framing vignettes — the first and the last in the book — the pieces can be read in any order, really. The ties between the pieces are quite loose.
While for the most part (imho) the language is pretty straight-forward and without bells and whistles, there are some moments in this book where the language becomes interesting, such as in “Hips” (49), where four girls talk about how their shapes will change when they grow up: “But most important, hips are scientific, I say […] They bloom like roses, I continue because it’s obvious I’m the only one who can speak with any authority; I have science on my side. The bones just one day open” (50). The same strength of voice happens in “Four Skinny Trees” (74): “They grow up and they grow down and grab the earth between their hairy toes and bite the sky with violent teeth and never quit their anger.”
The format of this book may (or may not) have influenced Justin Torres’ choices in putting together We The Animals, although Torres’ vignettes are longer and more intricately interwoven than Cisnero’s. Reading Mango Street I was also reminded of Janet Frame’s The Lagoon (1951), the New Zealand writer’s debut collection of short stories, though Mango Street lacks some of the weirdness that is part of what makes The Lagoon memorable. Still, this book would make for great on-the-beach / by-the-pool / on-the-porch / in-the-lawnchair-sunning reading, for sure. I enjoyed it.