CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY by Karen Cushman

In college, I ended up taking a class on Medieval women’s literature by accident. The class was simply called something like “special topics in women’s literature,” and I signed up because it was taught by a professor I loved. I’m not sure what I would have expected from the class if I had known what the “special topic” would be, but I loved it so much that I ended up writing a thesis about Joan of Arc and gender (with the same professor!). I’ve become completely fascinated by the lives and writing of Medieval women, who (to condense a thesis-worth of thoughts) were much more transgressive of gender boundaries than our Renaissance-fair stereotypes would lead us to believe. Pop culture contains myriad representations of this subject, and my professor recommended the children’s book Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman as an interesting, nuanced example. I’m so glad I finally took her up on it.

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Catherine, Called Birdy is a children’s novel written as a fictional diary of the titular character, a young noble girl living in England in 1290. The story progresses mostly as an account of her day-to-day life, but the closest thing to a central conflict is Catherine’s resistance towards her expectations as a proper lady, including an impending marriage over which she has little control. It’s pretty surprising that I hadn’t already read this book as a kid. As a subgenre, “fictional diaries of children in different historical periods” was right in my wheelhouse (I consumed The Royal Diaries series voraciously), and I was (no shock) particularly interested in heroines who fought against their gender expectations. I feel pretty confident that child Haley would have adored this book; modern-day Haley certainly enjoyed it a lot.

My favorite part of this book is how fully-formed the character of Catherine is. In so many of the girl-power stories of my childhood, the protagonists were a bit one-dimensional. Catherine, instead, is a constant paradox. She resents the pressures and responsibilities put on her, but she is also not a cardboard-cutout tomboy character. She is wild and ill-tempered, but she is also incredibly compassionate towards animals. She has no desire to be married, but she does have crushes on some of the boys in her life. She wants adventure, but she changes her mind about exactly which adventure daily. She likes stories about saints and plays about terrifying demons. She is complex, and therefore, felt much more alive. As Catherine herself writes of her behavior in front of a potential suitor: “I had no forewarning of danger so I acted like myself, some good and some bad, like always.”

Catherine, Called Birdy would do interesting work in teaching kids more about the Middle Ages. The cast of characters in Catherine’s life represent a variety of lifestyles and professions, including for women. These characters are made real by Catherine’s unfiltered opinions of them, which shift and evolve realistically. Often, Catherine laments her restrictions as a noble woman compared to the women of the village, especially in choosing who they wanted to marry. Catherine sees the good and bad in all of her options though, ultimately deciding to live in the role she was given as authentically as she can. This book doesn’t end quite like an adventure story might, but the quiet observations feel real to life.

Catherine’s voice is also so funny and smart. It doesn’t surprise me that Lena Dunham plans to make a movie around this lively character. Even though the book is now over 20 years old, it seems to move towards a female protagonist we still don’t see enough of, one who is messy and layered and genuine. I really enjoyed this book, and I wish I had read it a long time ago.

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SLANT SIX by Erin Belieu

A few months ago, I was lucky enough to hear Erin Belieu speak at the OSU Alumni Writers Extravaganza. She was funny, intelligent, and honest, and I eagerly picked up a copy of her latest book of poetry, Slant Six. While that weekend introduced me to the sharpness and sensibility of Belieu’s voice, this book has completely cemented my fandom. I adored this volume of poetry so much that I didn’t even procrastinate in writing this review after I finished reading; as I write this, the last poem in the book is only moments old in my head. I’m that excited to tell you about it.

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The poems in Slant Six are funny, moving, and so well-observed. That may sound like a strange compliment, but it was the most succinct way I could think of to describe encountering some of the phrases Belieu crafts. Images and feelings appeared before me that, as soon as I saw them, I knew to be so true, but had never felt them articulated so sharply. You know that feeling you get when you’ve finally thought of the word that’s been on your tongue, and it’s like “Yes! That’s it!“? That feeling happened to me again and again while reading this volume, an almost guttural recognition of life’s experiences.

It’s hard to pick a favorite poem; I liked so many of them for so many reasons. Some lean more towards social and political commentary, while others describe human relationships with such original accuracy and truth. The poem “Love Is Not An Emergency” (which was originally published and still available on Slate’s website) felt particularly pointed, placed before me with intention and necessity. Some poems helped me look toward the future, and others reminded me of home and childhood. One that really surprised me was “Field;” it started as, what seemed to me, a lovely but honest look at the way humans and nature can interact, and both the acceptance and indifference of nature towards the human character. But then, suddenly, in a way that almost had me gasp as I read, it became something else. I don’t even want to write it here to spoil it; you can click on the link if you’d like and see what it ends up meaning to you.

I think this book can speak to you whether you’re a fan of poetry or whether poetry intimidates you. The poems are accessible and clear, which is not to say that they’re easy or simple. In fact, at times Belieu seems to be engaging with the stereotype of poetry that seems to use language to obfuscate rather than clarify (add poetry itself to the list of what gets satirized in this book). Belieu’s poems, instead, are endlessly clarifying. At times they taught me something, and at times they equipped me with words for something I feel I’ve always known. I’m sure I will be revisiting this book many, many times.

 

THE PARTLY CLOUDY PATRIOT by Sarah Vowell

After being a fan of her stories on NPR’s “This American Life” (and her voice work as Violet in Pixar’s The Incredibles), I’ve finally read Sarah Vowell. The Partly Cloudy Patriot is one of Vowell’s collections of humorous essays; this book is themed around her experiences with quintessential American symbols, from Lincoln to Thanksgiving to elections. The essays are a blend of information and Vowell’s personal history, leaning more towards the personal. They are funny and sharp, but also, in their ways, idealistic and sweet. In the current political climate, I find myself feeling a wide variety of things about my American identity, and this book is exactly what I needed.

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Vowell’s voice is both hilarious and wonderfully intelligent. The thing that I found the most impressive in these essays, though, is her balance between cynicism and pure, cheesy, familial love for her country. Even as she mocks, not so gently when need be, no one could accuse Vowell of hating America. This is evidenced partly by the store of knowledge she clearly has about it; at times, these essays read like history lessons as much as anything. But beyond the facts, Vowell is able to speak loftily about her admiration of this country in a lovingly idealistic, Sorkin-esque way. If, like me, you’ve surprised yourself by getting choked up during a West Wing monologue (especially one about the space program–god, I love a good Sorkin monologue about the space program), you’ll find something touching and familiar about Vowell’s perspective.

At times, her love expresses itself in the form of gentle ribbing (“goofing off is one of the central obligations of American citizenship”), but my favorite essay was one entitled “Dear Dead Congressman.” The essay takes the form of a letter to the late Congressman Mike Synar, for whom Vowell campaigned when she was a child. The essay turns into Vowell’s examination of what the act of voting means to her. This sentiment combines with the earnestness with which Vowell addresses the Congressman, who died of a brain tumor when he was 45, to make for a really touching piece.

Vowell’s essays are fairly short, making this book the perfect companion for breaks between work, but their brevity speaks nothing to what you’ll get from them. I laughed out loud several times, learned a lot, and felt a little more connected to the place I’ve called home my whole life. It’s no wonder Vowell has a bit of a cult following (I was actually reading this book in a Noodles & Company when someone came to my table to discuss how much he loved her, as well). I can’t wait to read more of her work, and if you’re a slightly cynical, but secretly sentimental, history-loving dork like me, I think you’ll like her, too.