March 27th, 2013

The Real Housewives of History

Being a housewife has never come easily to the women in my family. Whether it’s an issue with the soil or some undiscovered mutation, our family tree seems to propagate only non-conformist women. From my flapper great-grandmother who came north to work in the factories, leaving her husband and son behind, to my farm wife grandmother who never milked a cow, but taught school instead, our genetic disposition might kindly be called strong willed, but at other times obstinate and “unwomanly.”

Nowadays, thanks to “The Real Housewives of (Fill in the Blank),” my headstrong, sometimes shrewish self, could easily be camouflaged in sequins and heels, continue to do no housework and still be considered a model of femininity. Somehow I think the real housewives of history, revealed in the books below, would be appalled.

womens history books bar

The Aviator’s Wife—Melanie Benjamin
Anne Morrow, the first female glider pilot to be licensed in the U.S., marries the overbearing aviator Charles Lindbergh and finds herself at odds with his beliefs and her inability to assert her independence.

Eight Girls Taking Pictures—Whitney Otto
Is it possible to balance ambition and the needs of a husband and children? For many of the pioneering women photographers in this novel, self-sacrifice proves their undoing.

The Raven’s Bride—Lenore Hart
Engaged at thirteen, Sally Clemm puts aside her dreams of being a singer to support and ultimately inspire her self-destructive fiancé, Edgar Allan Poe.

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb—Melanie Benjamin
With ambitions that outsize her height, “Vinnie” Bump joins P.T. Barnum’s “freak” revue, finds love and fame and inspires Victorian women to new heights.

Claude and Camille—Stephanie Cowell
Troubled by poverty, her husband’s affairs and loneliness, the first wife of Claude Monet appeared to have suffered greatly for love, but, in reality, harbored secrets of her own.

Wintering—Kate Moses
Was Sylvia Plath’s suicide caused by bitterness over her husband’s betrayal or the inability to balance being a muse, mother and creative poet in her own right?

I also find housewifely duties uninspiring. Oh, I do what needs to be done and thoroughly enjoy the company of my children, but the joys of cooking, gardening, sewing, baking and so on are lost on me.  I fear the day one of my sons brings home a wife. Will it be a Martha Stewart clone chosen to make up for my past deficiencies or an equally opinionated woman? I better figure out how that biting your tongue thing works…

Who’s your favorite headstrong woman from the past?

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February 22nd, 2013

Imported Novels: Germany’s New Grim

Since my son may read this, I’ll just say “acute parental anxiety” ensued when, at seventeen, he decided to skip college and accept a brewing apprenticeship in Germany.  My anxiety stemmed not so much from his career choice as a beer artisan, which I see as a growth industry, but for his inability to speak fluent German.  I was pretty sure that Germany had never figured in an episode of Locked Up Abroad, but I knew it to be a country where ice cubes are extinct, no hot food is ever served before noon and t-shirts with cute sayings are universally banned. How would my son ever survive?

Then a spate of novels imported from Germany showed warm soda might be the least of his worries. These gritty page-turners reinvent the Grimm fairy tales – there’s nothing light and cheery here. Instead, Germany is depicted as a land where:snowwhite

Insular little villages hide pockets of gossipy, vengeful murderers -
Snow White Must Die by Nele Neuhaus

Having a tattoo can get you burned at the stake or worse -
The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Potzsch

Conspiracies involving the bodies of dead foreigners occur in hospitals -
The Russian Donation by Christoph Spielberg

Coroners solve crimes via chatty post-autopsy ghosts -broken glass park
Morgue Drawer Four by Jutta Profijt

Bearing an uncanny resemblance to someone who then offers you money to impersonate them can result in terrifying consequences -
The Lie by Petra Hammesfahr

Teenage immigrants live in housing projects and write essays entitled “The Story of an Idiotic, Redheaded Woman Who Would Still Be Alive if Only She Had Listened to Her Smart, Oldest Daughter” -
Broken Glass Park by Alina Bronsky


My anxiety was forever put to rest by a timely visit over the May Day holiday. Who can dislike a country where flavorful, smoked beer is placed in a little red wagon and pulled from one small village to another by groups of friends celebrating with a moving picnic? Just wish they’d believe in keeping the beverages cold…

Check out my Pinterest board for more reasons to break out of your cultural box.

What country has your favorite authors?

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