Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sunday Salon: Women's Extreme Adventure Stories

Part Two: Thoughts on Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books by Maureen Corrigan

Chapter One
- Ain't No Mountain High Enough: Women's Extreme Adventure Stories

We read literature for a lot of reasons, but two of the most compelling ones are to get out of ourselves and our own life stories and--equally important--to find ourselves by understanding our own life stories more clearly in the context of others'. [pg 34]
When I read a book, the gender of the main character(s) fades into the background. I am able to immerse myself in the story and the lives of those in the novel, regardless of sex. The best authors are able to make me forget who I am for the short while I am lost in a book.

Still, I do find myself gravitating towards books that feature women often times, whether their stories are full of real life hardships or fantastical adventures. I am drawn to strong female characters. I look for myself in these women and occasionally draw on their strength and experiences.

In the first chapter of Maureen Corrigan's Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading, the author opens with a discussion about those strong female characters. Men have long held the mantle for extreme-adventure stories. Jon Krakauer, author of Into the Wild and Into Thin Air being a prime example.
The traditional extreme-adventure story is a one-shot testosterone expenditure of physical courage that pits man against nature/man/himself, with man (the narrator usually) left standing, bloody but unbowed, amidst the wreckage of his fancy sporting gear. [pg 6]
Less focus is given to the women who also risked much to do many of the same things. Corrigan earns another point from me for naming Nellie Bly as a true life extreme adventurer. She was an investigative journalist in a time when women were expected to stay in their place. She challenged powerful people, went undercover, and traveled around the world. She was not content writing puff pieces like so many women writers at the time were encouraged to do. She sought social changes for both women and the rest of humanity. Like Corrigan, I first came across Nellie Bly's name when I was a child, researching a school paper. She remains one of my favorite historical figures today.

There have been a number of real life women who have stepped outside of the traditional mold to stand up for what they believed throughout history. But what about in fiction? Maureen Corrigan takes a look at literature and genre fiction and examines its history as well.

She points out that, early on, women extreme-adventure tales were more likely to be found in young adult literature where it was more acceptable for a girl to be a tomboy. Take Nancy Drew as an example, or Pippi Longstockings. Detective fiction featuring female leads or out-of-the-box female characters also proved an effective method for pushing the boundaries of the set gender roles. It was more acceptable in those cases for a woman to be independent and think for herself. In the end, however, they often reverted back to a more traditional role in the end.

In today's genre fiction, it is more acceptable for women to be actively outspoken, bold and curious. Sara Paresky and Sue Grafton's characters attest to that. Where once such female leads stood out and went against the societal norm, today they have worked their way into our culture and influenced our ideas of ourselves as women. That isn't to say all of the old beliefs have been thrown out the window. Traditional values and ideas still exist and can be found in every facet of literature. Each time I hear or read someone say how cliche a strong and gutsy female P.I. is, I smile to myself and think of how far we have come.

In her search for female extreme-adventure stories, Corrigan turned to a few unlikely places. The author points to Penelope from Homer's Ulysses as the first female extreme-adventurer and moves down the line to include Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and Anna Quindlen's Fran Benedetto from Black and Blue, which is about a woman who flees from an abusive relationship, rebuilding her life with her son. These are all strong women who have endured much in their lifetimes--"without having to become male impersonators." [pg 10] These stories may not seem like extreme-adventure stories on the surface, Corrigan acknowledges, but in their own way, at the heart of each story, she argues that they are in fact just that. Female extreme-adventure stories tend to be more internal, Corrigan writes, ". . .men usually gamble with their lives; lots of women, too, face physical risks, but more typically the emphasis in their stories is on the threatened loss of their sanity and their sense of self. The struggles described in literature are often internal and psychological, rather than life-and-death contests in Technicolor." [pg 18]

Maureen Corrigan also touches on the story of her and her husband's struggle with infertility and the adoption of their daughter, an example of her own extreme-adventure story, including the isolation, hardship, sense of loss and realization of a dream. Hers is not as extreme as those she mentions in her book, and she is the first to admit it, but it is her own story, one that mirrors some of the more generalized struggles of the women she has read about over the years.

Corrigan writes that she could have taken any number of books more suited for the moment when she traveled to China to meet her daughter for the first time. She ended up reading a true crime novel about a murderer. What she needed most in that moment was a book that would take her away from the tension, nerves and excitement of what was happening in her own reality.
Perhaps there are some life experiences that are simply beyond books. By that I mean not that those experiences are quintessentially "unique" but that they're so intensely personal, so crucial, that reading other people's literary approximations of them is frustrating, even painful, rather than helpful. [pg 45]
I have found this to be true for myself too. This is one of the reasons I refuse to read John Grogan's Marley and Me. And yet there are times I seek out books that have a direct link to what is going on in my life at any given moment. It all comes down to where I am in that particular moment and what I need most from the book I choose to read.

This first chapter in Maureen Corrigan's book turned out to be slightly more academic than I anticipated, but it was enjoyable just the same. She offered me a perspective on books that I hadn't quite considered before, broadening my definition of what an adventure is.

I have the urge to reread Jane Eyre again and perhaps even give Villete another try. They'll have to wait, however. I have other books on my plate to get to at the moment. Right now, I hope to return to India where Sivakami's story continues to unfold in The Toss of a Lemon, a book I am sure Corrigan would consider a woman's extreme-adventure story in its own right.

Part One: Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading!

Book lovers always have to touch books. [pg 58]


  1. Great post! I love losing myself in an enthralling storyline, too.

    Beth Fehlbaum, author
    Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse
    Chapter 1 is online!

  2. This seems like a wonderful book. I wanna read it!

    Do check out my Sunday Salon posts :D

    SS 1: Review of The Dark Child

    SS 2: Musings about books

  3. Thank you for this. It's not a book I've come across, but I love reading about reading and this is definitely one for the tbr pile.

  4. I also relish the books whether fiction or non-fiction reading about strong heroines who step outside the box so to speak. This book sounds like I'll have to add it to my TBR pile.

    I'm glad you are also reading The Toss of a Lemon, talk about the role of women and inner strength. I just want to get lost in this book today and think of nothing else.

  5. I agree that some experiences are too painful to read other people's literary approximations. In such circumstances I prefer to read something completely outside what is going on in my life.

    This book sounds a good one to read. Thanks for the review.

  6. It does sound like an excellent read. I do tend to gravitate towards stories that feature strong women too. One book I love is Wally Lamb's 'She's Come Undone'

    Great post!

  7. Great post, Wendy! I love fiction with strong female characters too...and I love reading real-life adventure, especially when it involves women (Jane Goodall comes to mind...I've read most of her books, but my favorite was her first book which inspired me greatly as a young woman). Thanks for this post!

  8. Beth - It's such a great feeling, isn't it? Thank you for stopping by!

    Gautami - It is an interesting one. I look forward to reading more of it.

    Ann - I enjoy reading books about reading too. The author made several interesting points and I can't wait to see what else she has to say.

    Wisteria - What you say is so true about The Toss of a Lemon. Sivakami is an amazing character. I hope to read more of the book today myself.

    Margaret - I agree completely. Sometimes finding escape or stepping outside of our own reality for awhile is the best therapy.

    Naida - I really liked Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone also. That's a great example of what Corrigan was talking about in her book.

    Wendy - Thank you! I've heard a lot about Jane Goodall and her work, but I have yet to read any of her books. I should remedy that. :-)

  9. Excellent post! I loved reading this! Have a great week.

  10. I find that I do tend to be drawn more to fiction with women as protagonists and/or authors - but not necessarily traditional "women's fiction" like romances, which have never appealed to me much.

    I'm enjoying your reflections on reading about reading, and looking forward to the next installment!

  11. I enjoyed reading this post, Wendy! I love reading about strong female characters too. I find them so inspiring.

    Can't wait to read your review on The Toss of a Lemon. BTW, I love the title. ;)

  12. Yvonne - That is so kind of you to say! Thank you. I hope you have a great week as well.

    Florinda - Traditional romances do not always appeal to me either. Occasionally one might slip in that I do enjoy.

    Melody - They really are inspiring, aren't they?

  13. I seem to be drawn to books with strong female characters, too. But that wasn't always the case. Maybe something about getting older? Great post - definitely makes me want to take a look at Corrigan's book.

  14. I left that book wanting to give Villete another try, too! :) I really did enjoy Maureen's book. I enjoyed your recap as well. Thanks!

  15. This is an interesting book, Wendy. I'm glad you shared your views. I think that's also part of the reason why I enjoyed Karen E. Olson's books featuring the kick-butt police-reporter. LOL. Ah yes, I remember Nancy Drew... :D

  16. Joy - I have noticed a shift in my thinking over the years as well. My image of women as well as men has evolved in some respects.

    Jennifer - I tried reading Villete a few years ago and couldn't get into it. I think it was just not the right time. I do want to try again one of these days. Corrigan certainly whet my appetite.

    Alice - Yes, that certainly was one of the draws for me to Annie, Karen's main character. :-)

  17. You are such a good writer! This is an interesting and thought-provoking post.

  18. Hmmmm...this is interesting and I'm not sure if I have thought about it to this degree. I have to say a character will make or break a story for me. I think it's because I focus on the psychological aspects of the character. The character never fades into the background, but has to be carefully blended into the story along with the remaining characters.

  19. Oh yay, I can comment again! That was driving me crazy.

    I can lose myself in a story regardless of the gender/race/era of the story. And the trash talking female PI is a cliche now and what's worse, she's just a 50's man. Gah.

    Corrigan's book sounds like an interesting read.

  20. Ok, I'm going to have to stop reading your Sunday Salon posts and just get this book! It sounds really good--even if a bit academic (I think there's good academic and bad--hopefully this isn't the dry as dirt type). I love the quote at the end--about book lovers touching books. It's true!

  21. I hadn't heard of this one before but it does sound interesting. Of course I had to smile at that last quote: "Book lovers always have to touch books" - so true! :)

  22. What a great post Wendy. I used to have this book but I think I gave it away... Now I regret it!

    And, yes I think Sivakami might qualify for an extreme-adventure! How far along are you in the book? I'm just at page 150ish.

  23. Linda - Thank you so much!

    J. Kaye - I know I hadn't given it much thought before reading Corrigan's book. Character development is very important to me too.

    Carrie - There were a couple of you who were having problems, and so I decided to switch back.

    Trish - Haha! No, Corrigan's book is definitely not dry. :-)

    Nat - That quote made me smile too. :-)

    Iliana - Thank you!

    I am really enjoying The Toss of a Lemon. I'm about half way through now. I'm taking a little break to try and get some other reading done and then will come back to it. I am enjoying it quite a bit though.

  24. This is a great post. I love reading books about books and how people interact with them. It's something very personal, yet universal.


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