Friday, November 6, 2009

(My) Top 15 Novels by Women (10 wasn't enough!)

Margaret Atwood, Cat's Eye
I get up off the duvet, feeling as if I haven't slept. I riffle through the herbal tea bags in the kitchenette, Lemon Mist, Morning Thunder, and bypass them in favor of some thick, jolting, poisonous coffee. I find myself standing in the middle of the main room, not knowing exactly how I got in here from the kitchenette. A little time jump, a little static on the screen, probably jet lag: up too late at night, drugged in the morning. Early Alzheimer's.

I sit at the window, drinking my coffee, biting my fingers, looking down the five stories. From this angle the pedestrians appear squashed from above, like deformed children. All around are flat-roofed, boxy warehouse buildings, and beyond them the flat railroad lands where the trains used to shunt back and forth, once the only entertainment available here on Sundays. Beyond that is flat Lake Ontario, a zero at the beginning and a zero at the end, slate-gray and brimming with venoms. Even the rain from it is carcinogenic.

I wash in Jon's tiny, greasy bathroom, resisting the medicine cabinet. The bathroom is smeared with fingerprints and painted dingy white, not the most flattering light. Jon wouldn't feel like an artist without a certain amount of dinge around. I squint into the mirror, preparing my face: with my contact lenses in I'm too close to the mirror, without them I'm too far away. I've taken to doing these mirror things with one lens in my mouth, glassy and thin like the tag end of a lemon drop. I could choke on it by mistake, an undignified way to die. I should get bifocals. But then I'd look like an old biddy.
[This excerpt is from over at The Sheila Variations]
Margaret Atwood, Lady Oracle
The lady who ran the pack was known as Brown Owl; owls, we were told, meant wisdom. I always remembered what she looked like: the dried-apple face, the silvery gray hair, the snapping blue eyes, quick to stop a patch of tarnish on the brass fairy pin or a dirty fingernail or a poorly tied shoelace. Unlike my mother, she was impartial and kind, and she gave points for good intentions. I was entranced by her. It was hard to believe that an adult, older than my mother even, would actually squat on the floor and say things like, "Tu-whit, Tu-whoo" and "When Brownies make their fairy ring, They can magic everything!" Brown Owl acted as though she believed all this, and thought that we did too. This was the novelty: someone even more gullible than I was. Occasionally I felt sorry for her, because I knew how much pinching, shoving and mudging went on during Thinking Time and who made faces behind Brown Owl's back when we were saying, "I promise to do my duty to God and the King and to help others every day, especially those at home." Brown Owl had a younger sidekick known as Tawny Owl. Like vice-principals everywhere, she was less deceivable and less beloved.

The three girls with whom I crossed the ravine each Brownie day were called Elizabeth, Marlene and Lynne. They were ten, and almost ready to join the Girl Guides; "flying up" it was called if you had obtained your Golden Wings. Otherwise you had to walk up. Elizabeth was going to fly, no doubt about it: she was plastered with badges like a diplomat's suitcase. Marlene probably would, and Lynne probably wouldn't. Elizabeth was a Sixer and had two stripes on her arm to prove it. Marlene was a Pixie and I can't remember what Lynne was. I admired Elizabeth and feared the other two, who competed for her attention in more or less sinister ways.
[yet another excerpt swiped from The Sheila Variations]
Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Mists of Avalon
The Mists of Avalon is a different kind of novel for Mrs. Bradley, creator of the Darkover series of fantasies. What she has done here is reinvent the underlying mythology of the Arthurian legends. It is an impressive achievement. Greek, Egyptian, Roman, Celtic and Orphic stories are all swirled into a massive narrative that is rich in events placed in landscapes no less real for often being magical. Nor is it a surprise to find at this time a rewriting of the ''matter of Britain'' from the female perspective, as Jean M. Auel's Children of Earth series has begun to rewrite prehistory the same way. Looking at the Arthurian legend from the other side, as in one of Morgaine's magic weavings, we see all the interconnecting threads, not merely the artful pattern. It makes one eager to hear that tale of another weaver, Penelope, from her point of view. ''Was it any wonder that one of the visions of the Goddess was a woman spinning? ... From the time a man comes into the world we spin his baby clothes, till we at last spin a shroud.''

In Mrs. Bradley's version, Morgaine finally learns that she is herself the Goddess, herself the Fairy Queen. In this recognition, ''The Mists of Avalon'' harks back to the 14-century ''Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,'' one of the first and perhaps the most perfect Arthurian poem in English; only at its end do we discover that the scheme to test Gawain's chastity and temper the pride of Arthur's court, which is the central story of the poem, has been Morgan's. Suddenly to bring in Morgan has often seemed to scholars a cheat in an otherwise flawless poem. The Mists of Avalon rewrites Arthur's story so that we realize it has always also been the story of his sister, the Fairy Queen.
[from the NYT review]
Gillian Bradshaw, The Beacon at Alexandria
This is a book set at a time when the Roman Empire had been in existence for centuries and from within and without it looked as essential and unnoticeable as oxygen. The battle of Adrianople which comes at the end of the novel marks the beginning of the end of that Empire, in the West. The characters of course do not know this, but Bradshaw is achingly aware of it, as almost any reader must be. I don’t know how the naive reader who’s learning history randomly from fiction would find it, I was never that reader for this book. I always read it with the full awareness of the historical context. Bradshaw makes the period very real, the ways in which it is similar to the present and the ways in which it is vastly different. She doesn’t make it nicer than it was, the corruption and bribery of the officials, the horrible position of women, the casual acceptance of slavery, and torture of slaves for information. Yet:
One takes things for granted, assuming that something is a natural state when really it is a hard won privilege. It had never seemed odd to me that only soldiers bore weapons, that the laws were the same everywhere, that people could live by their professions, independently of any local lord, that one could buy goods from places thousands of miles away. But all of that was dependent on the Empire, which supports the structure of the world as Atlas was said to support the sky. All of it was alien to the Goths. I had hated the imperial authorities at times, for their corruption, their brutality, their greedy claim on all power in the world. But now that there was a challenge to the imperial government of Thrace, I found myself wholly a Roman.
This despite the Goths allowing women doctors. Bradshaw is quite fair to the Goths—giving them the virtues of their flaws, culturally, and individually. But it’s the corrupt civilization of the Empire that she loves, and that I love too. Most of Bradshaw’s work has been set there—the Arthurian books and Island of Ghosts in Britain, Cleopatra’s Heir in Egypt, Render Unto Caesar in Rome, The Sand Reckoner in Sicily. She writes about it from inside and outside, in many different periods, from its beginnings to its endings, but almost always the Roman Empire, flawed, imperfect, but representing peace and civilization. The “beacon” at Alexandria is the lighthouse, but it’s also the library, learning, the shining possibility of education.
[Excerpted from a review by Jo Walton over at the website.]
Suzette Haden Elgin, Native Tongue
I suppose every single one of us that comes here, knowing that his work will mean contact with extraterrestrials, thinks that he will be an exception, that he'll find a way to make friends with at least some of them. You figure you'll get the Lingoe to teach you a few words ... "Hello! How are you? Nice whatsit you've got there!" That kind of thing. You think, we can't just go on forevermore being strangers, right? But when the time comes, and you get close to an Alien, you understand what the scientists are talking about when they say it isn't possible. There's a feeling that comes over you. It's not just fear, and it's not just prejudice. It's something you never felt before, and something you'll never forget when you've felt it once.

You know how you can find things under rocks that will just about go crazy digging in and curling up, trying to get away from the light? That's how you feel, when you're close to an Alien, or even when you're in contact with one by comset for more than a minute or two. You wish you had something to burrow into. Everything goes on red alert, and everything you've got to feel with is screaming ALIEN! ALIEN! You're glad then, let me tell you, you're very glad then, that you're not expected to be friendly. Just polite, that's all, even after all the training they give you here. Just polite.

(U.S. State Department liason staffer, in an interview with Elderwild Barnes of Spacetime)
[Excerpt found at]
Suzette Haden Elgin, Judas Rose
She cut straight through the common room in the main house, to make up some of the time she’d lost, her mind occupied with memories and the grim set of her mouth demonstrating that they were not pleasant. A foolhardy young man stood up at the sight of her and took one step in her direction, presumably intending to exercise his rights and demand that she explain her presence there; behind him, someone murmured quietly that if he wanted to be a perfect ass that was okay, but please wait till a larger audience could be brought in for the occasion, and he sat down and let her pass. With an elaborate air of not having noticed that she was there at all, of course. Nazareth ignored him, because she was in a hurry, and because she was reasonably sure that as soon as she was out of earshot his peers would explain to him about demanding house passes from women who’d been coming and going on Household business for ninety years.

When she got to the parlor, much out of breath, she found the other women seated in their rockers, their fingers moving sedately to the rhythms of needlework they’d been doing so long that it was fully on automatic, with carefully composed faces. Chatting. They were talking about daylilies? Yes ... daylilies. And Nazareth realized that she’d forgotten her needlework bag, which would have hurt the feelings of the nephews who’d given it to her, but they were all off at negotiations and would never know. And it didn’t matter, because she was always prepared. She reached into a deep pocket and pulled out a quarter-skein of yarn and a crochet hook. Her emergency kit. Lavender yarn, suitable for one’s nineties.
[Another excerpt from]

Dion Fortune, The Sea Priestess

Dion Fortune regarded this novel as her proudest achievement: she described it as

"a literary Melchizedek. It is a book with an undercurrent; upon the surface a romance; underneath a thesis upon the theme; 'All women are Isis and Isis is all women.'"

The archetypal woman in this novel Vivien Le Fay Morgan, who like the female characters in Fortune's earlier novels is a reincarnation: in this case, of the Sea Priestess, a mysterious Initiate who came from Atlantis to ancient Britain to save the land from rising sea-levels, in a ceremony that involved a lot of human sacrifice. But Morgan is unlike Fortune's previous female leads: she is already a powerful adept, in control of her magical abilities, exotically beautiful, and described in such a mysterious manner that one gets the idea that she is not merely a reincarnation, but she actually is the Sea Priestess, who has survived, immortal, throughout the past thousands of years.

The narrator of the novel is Wilfred, estate agent and fairly well-off, but struck down by asthma as he undergoes a mid-life crisis. Then he encounters Morgan - and he is quite literally enchanted. Significantly, he first meets her after he has been under the influence of the Moon - remember that Isis is a moon-Goddess, after all. In Morgan's presence Wilfred discovers his own past-life memories: as the last of the Sea Priestess' sacrificial victims. Wilfred has a vision that, while making love to the Sea Priestess, he has a mystical revelation:

"And in those hours while the tide rose there were delivered to me things whereof but few have dreamed and fewer still have known, and I learnt why Troy was burnt for a woman. For this woman was not one woman, but all women; and I who mated with her, was not one man, but all men; but these things were part of the lore of the priesthood, and it is not lawful to speak of them."

Because Morgan's character is the Archetypal woman, Isis' very own avatar in other words, she is used as the standard by which other female characters in the book are judged. Molly, the girl whom Wilfred eventually marries, is nice enough, but she does not have "It" - feminine sex appeal. On the other hand, a girl who works in a sweet shop has no pretensions to breeding or learning, but has "It" certainly.

Morgan, however, disappears three-quarters of the way through the novel, leaving Wilfred in a quandary. In stark contrast to the adventure and excitement of his time with Morgan, he wanders into an unexciting marriage, desperately aware that he is in need of healing, but at a loss of how to achieve it: Molly eventually learns to emulate Morgan, invoking the Goddess and healing both herself and Wilfred in the process.

This book does indeed show Dion Fortune at the summit of her art as a novelist. She takes as much care with the prose as if it were poetry, often incorporating meter and rhythm into sentence structure. This is most noticeable in passages which Fortune wants to emphasise - those which we feel represent her underlying message.

It is the high quality of the prose which breathes fresh life into what are clearly concepts she has treated in earlier books. Like The Winged Bull and The Goat Foot God, we have a male lead in need of sexual healing. Like The Winged Bull, we have in Molly a woman herself in need of healing through the power of magic. Like The Demon Lover and Goat Foot God, the man is redeemed by the innate femininity of a woman: and like pretty much all of them we are introduced to powerful karmic forces at work across time.

Yet in the former novels, these ideas are used within the structure of what seem to be conventional romances or adventures: with The Sea Priestess the plot is not supported by the occult element, the occult element is the plot. Fortune had not done this in a fictional work since The Secrets of Doctor Taverner, but in that book the reader is often forced to accept a pat explanation from a character who does not reveal the full intricacies of the occult processes in operation.

I have only two real criticisms of The Sea Priestess. Firstly, Molly's character is badly underdeveloped - she is only introduced after Morgan has disappeared. This is far too late to flesh out someone who, after all, plays such an important role in the ending.

Secondly, Wilfred first becomes aware of the psychic influences which play such a large part in the plot when he is dosed up to his eyeballs on heroin. Remember that the novel is set before the days of the Ventolin inhaler: diamorphine hydrochloride was used to relieve such conditions, as one of its properties is to suppress the cough reflex, and relieve the muscle spasm which forms the basis of an asthma attack. Obviously this is a plot device, to make sure Wilfred gets into the action quickly, but I really feel it is sending out the wrong kind of message to those who are new to magic.
[From Alex Summer's article The Novels of Dion Fortune, in the Journal of the Western Mystery Traditions]
Dion Fortune, Moon Magic

Fortune's last novel, published posthumously, was found amongst her papers at her death. It is a sequel to The Sea Priestess, and in it we find out where Morgan disappeared to - to London, to set up a temple in which she could practice the "Greater Mysteries". Morgan, now calling herself Lillith, takes the lease of a deconsecrated church off the Albert Embankment, which she sets about converting. As to where her money comes from, she invokes for it - exactly how is left unsaid, as this is one magical operation that is not described in the story.

The plot features yet another emotionally stunted man, in need of magical salvation - this time in the form of Dr. Rupert A. Malcolm, a brilliant neurologist and endocrinologist. Trapped in a sterile marriage for 20 years to an invalid, and having no particular social life, he is a complete workaholic, with no emotional side to his character of which to speak. His reputation for efficiency is matched by his unlikeability - a medical student sums him up:

"Nobody likes him … but we jolly well trust him."

It is upon this most unpromising of prima materia that Lillith, over the course of time, works a veritable Alchemy. After first discovering his existence by unconscious telepathy on his part, she involves him in a series of magical workings which break down his old personality, causing him to rediscover his emotional nature, and ultimately the "Stone of the Wise", when he learns to become "god" to her "goddess".

But this transformation is not just for Malcolm's benefit: for it is also the vehicle by which Lillith intends to perform a greater task - it is here that we can read some of Fortune's own philosophy. By Lillith assuming the role of goddess, and Malcolm that of god, they are in fact acting on behalf of all those that their respective roles represent. Hence Lillith is "all-women", and Malcolm is "all-men" and as such, each of them is magically at one with them. Therefore, the "Alchemy", a kind of spiritual sex-magick (strictly right-hand path, as it happens), which they practice in fact benefits the whole human race.

Although it is called a sequel, Moon Magic is a book in its own right. Fortune deliberately adopts a different style of writing: the beginning and ending is written from Malcolm's point of view, but the middle (and main) section is a first-person narrative by Lillith. Whereas The Sea Priestess was really Wilfred's story, Moon Magic is the story of both priestess and priest.

A curious fact can be observed here: in later life, it was apparently Dion's habit to stroll about London wearing a cloak and a wide-brimmed hat, so that she almost looked like the character from the advert for "Sandeman's Port"[3]. It so happens that when Malcolm first sees Lillith, she is wearing just such a cloak and hat. It doesn't take a genius to deduce that Dion identified herself with the character of Lillith / Morgan when writing both The Sea Priestess and Moon Magic: or that when, in the latter, Lillith narrates in the first person, Dion is actually talking to us direct.

Despite the attractive theme, there are some indications within the novel that only a first draft was found in Dion Fortune's papers. Because of the change of narrative viewpoint during the novel, the prose only rises to the lyrical quality of its predecessor during the passages describing the actual magical operations. However, if we assume that this is deliberate, light is shed on the character of Wilfred in the Sea Priestess.

For a start, in Moon Magic, Lillith is not so mysterious as she was in the former novel. In opening up about herself though, she reveals that the her history is equally fantastic: a cosmic adept who has discovered the elixir of life (she is apparently 120 years old - over 80 years older than how she looks). She is at once assured of her magical expertise, and a witty, modern metropolitan woman. Yet she makes no pretension to be the reincarnation of "the Sea Priestess": in this respect it would appear that the character in that novel was a projection from Wilfred's mind, a theory which fits in with the mysterious way she disappears three-quarters of the way through.

On another point, the ending appears to be rather abrupt. Malcolm finds what he has been looking for, which is tantamount to a mystical understanding of the meaning of initiation - and there it stops. The fact that the story ends at the high-point of the final ritual at least means that there is no danger of anti-climax: but neither is there any real discussion about how this success affects his life, or Lillith's for that matter, thereafter.
[Also from Alex Summer's article in JWMT]
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed
There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb, it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an, idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.

Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.

Looked at from one side, the wall enclosed a barren sixty-acre field called the Port of Anarres. On the field there were a couple of large gantry cranes, a rocket pad, three warehouses, a truck garage, and a dormitory. The dormitory looked durable, grimy, and mournful; it had nogardens, no children; plainly nobody lived there or was even meant to stay there long. It was in fact a quarantine. The wall shut in not only the landing field but also the ships that came down out of space, and the men that came on the ships, and the worlds they came from, and the rest of the universe. It enclosed the universe, leaving Anarres outside, free.

Looked at from the other side, the wall enclosed Anarres: the whole planet was inside it, a great prison camp, cut off from other worlds and other men, in quarantine.

[excerpt from harper collins website]
Doris Lessing, Briefing for a Descent into Hell
Doris Lessing's new novel - which she defines as inner space fiction - is an incomparably exciting voyage into the marvellous, terrifying, unexplored, yet sometimes glimpsed territory of the inner man.

Professor Charles Watkins (Classics), doomed to spin endlessly in the currents of the Atlantic, makes a landfall at last on a tropical shore. He discovers a reined stone city, participates - moon-dazed - in bloody rituals in the paradisiacal forest, witnesses the savage war of the Rat-dogs and is borne on the back of the lordly White Bird across the sea of the dead. Finally, the Crystal claims him, whirling him out into space on a breathtaking cosmic journey.

Yet this most exotic of trips is as firmly rooted in the reality of a mental breakdown as De Quinceys fantasies were in the chemistry of opium. Watkins is a patient of Central Intake Hospital, an enigma to the doctors who try with ever more powerful drugs to subdue his minds adventure, a candidate for electric shock treatment. In a series of extraordinary letters - brilliantly illuminating both the writers and their subject - Watkins is reconstructed by those who have known him: the forgotten women who have loved him, or been awakened by him; the pendant, incensed by his intellectual anarchy; the wartime colleague around whose exploits with the Yugoslav partisans Watkins builds an astonishing fantasy.

[from the book jacket]
Joanna Russ, The Female Man
In my humble opinion Joanna Russ is simply one of the most important writers who has written in the United States in the last fifty years. This is a writer who has produced works on the level of Willa Cather, James Joyce and William Gass. She writes, among other things, sentences that are absolutely spectacular. A description of a spaceship which I quote endlessly to my writing students at Temple University, where she's describing a star-liner: "The big one was the platonic idea of a pebble turned inside out, born of a computer and aspiring to the condition of mechanical opera." That is such a luscious sentence I don't think I will ever be the same.

Also there's a range and intensity of concern for the problems of women. Feminism works for Joanna Russ the way Marxism works for the great German writer Bertolt Brecht. It is something innate to the concerns, not something that can be dismissed. It already is of course an incredibly important aspect of the world — possibly one of the most important aspects of the world — but she foregrounds that importance, makes us understand it in terms of the social portraits that she creates in her work. Her first story, "Nor Custom Stale," appeared in F&SF in 1959 I believe, and she went on to produce many other wonderful stories: "My Dear Emily," "I Thought She Was Afeared Till She Stroked My Beard" (such a wonderful title that it had to be changed to "…I Gave Her Sack and Sherry"), Adventures of Alyx (which Joanna calls pre-feminist and I call a spectacular story), We Who Are About To (one of my personal favorites), and more, [including] the novels The Two of Them and On Strike Against God.

So Joanna, what are some of the things you've been thinking about lately?
[from Samuel R. Delany's interview with Joanna Russ over at]
Jody Scott, I, Vampire
I had all the arrogance, all the wild humor, the enormous vitality and scornful cruelty of my race; and the servants adored me for it. Or so they had, up to now. Now they thought me eerie. Now I was despised and rejected. But my eye flashed fire, and in a minute came a rattle of locks and squeak of hinges and out rushed Papa and Mama who both looked all puffed and haggard, as if they had slept in separate beds, unwilling to face each other.

I made a courtly bow and said: "Let me stay, and I thank you from my heart. Send me away and the pain of separation will kill me. Either way I bear no malice; indeed, I will love you forever.

It was the absolute truth.

Then...I still don't know how I pulled it off. Papa had been a knight in the last Crusade and was tough and ruthless, but with that sales pitch I had worked out so sincerely in the barn, and which would be called "hard sell" in today's jargon, I convinced him that:

1. The man who said I put him to sleep and sucked his neck was lying. Or partly lying.

2. He was a parish priest, so what? Priests have been known to lie. This one exaggerated my crime. Why? I could only guess it was because of my fine complexion, well-built body, and the certain something I possessed which charmed everyone (including Papa).

3. It was the Priest's word against mine. Would they take the word of a baseborn ruffian against an O'Blivion of noble blood?

4. See for yourself, that confessor was alive and kicking. He was fit enough to bring false witness against the innocent. So what was all the screaming about?

The upshot was they let me back in; they were under the wonderful impression that a vampire drains every drop of blood and therefore I couldn't be one. Illogical, but I did not argue.

After that I learned to be sneaky enough not to get caught in the act for a whole year; although I did "it" every chance I got, being hungry--O! so ravenous--in those wild, wonderful, windy young years. And I scanned the night skies constantly from my small window under the eaves.

[Excerpt taken from Jody Scott's website]

[To Be Continued .... ]