Perhaps by chance, perhaps as some sort of subliminal political backlash, I’ve read a handful of books with fabulous female perspectives lately. Let me tell you about them.
DIETLAND, BY SARAI WALKER
Plum Kettle is fat. She spends her days answering emails for a teen magazine and her nights fantasizing about the life her skinny self (post-surgery) will lead, a life full of love and friendship and stylish dresses. That is, until a girl in tights starts following her, and Plum suddenly finds herself at the center of an amazing lady collective. Just as a guerilla group that goes by the name Jennifer starts making demands in the name of feminism.
Sarai Walker’s debut has a distinct Chuck Palahniuk flavor, a macabre sense of satire that pushes the limits of what we’re willing to satirize upon (e.g. domestic terrorism). So it’s no surprise that Walker dedicates a chunk of her acknowledgments page to shouting out Fight Club. “I would like to think that Dietland would exist even if Fight Club hadn’t provided that initial spark of idea,” she writes, “but I’ll never know.” Fortunately for everyone, Dietland is made all the more enjoyable, and ironic, for having such an intensely male spark. [3 PAPERCUTS]
SWING TIME, BY ZADIE SMITH
Two girls grow up in the same housing project in London, both with dreams of being dancers. One does, briefly, become a dancer, and the other finds herself the assistant to a socially conscious but selfish and fickle celebrity (“Aimee,” overtly modeled on Madonna). Their paths divert and converge over the years, as fictional friendship paths are wont to do.
When you write a book like White Teeth—and another like On Beauty—it’s hard not to have a reputation for expounding eloquently on race. Smith deserves that reputation, and for all intents and purposes it does play a role in Swing Time (Aimee becoming at one point obsessed with starting a school in West Africa, a whim that sends the book and its characters off in that direction). But Smith’s latest novel feels less like a treatise on race than a treatise on womanhood, identity, and female friendship. Yes, there are a lot of racial themes to unpack—Aimee alone is an overflowing font of stereotype and idiosyncrasy—but it would be a mistake to judge Swing Time by that yardstick alone. This isn’t Smith’s finest, but when you’ve written books like White Teeth and On Beauty… it’s hard to top yourself. [3 PAPERCUTS]
OREO, BY FRAN ROSS
Christine Clark, a.k.a. Oreo, is the daughter of a black mother (absconded, with infrequent visits) and a Jewish father (also absconded, no visits). She is raised in Philadelphia by her maternal grandparents, until a note with clues to her father’s whereabouts sends her on a journey to New York City in search of her roots… at least half of them.
Fran Ross’ only novel, Oreo was released in 1974 to little fanfare. Which is ironic considering the book it most reminds me of, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, won the Man Booker last year. On its face, Oreo is a modern retelling of the odyssey of Theseus—Aegeus, Medea, minotaur, etc—a journey that takes Oreo to various places to meet various people in the midst of various hijinks. As if that weren’t ambitious enough, Ross also employs a mixture of English, ebonics, and Yiddish to explore feminism, race, culture, and society with aplomb: Rarely does a book manage to play on words in three different vernaculars. Fran Ross was a badass, and way ahead of her time. [3 PAPERCUTS]