Tag Archives: women’s liberation

Embraced and loved

The Girls from Ames: A Story of Women & a Forty-Year Friendship by Jeffrey Zaslow

“There were times…  when Kelly felt desperate, confused and shattered.   But she also felt embraced and loved.   And that sustained her.”

There are books that you read, and put down because they are not what you expected.   This is a book that you will read and occasionally put down for another reason – in order not to finish it too quickly.   It is a book to savor and embrace, whether you are female or male.

This is a nonfiction tribute to a 40-year-old friendship among the 10 surviving members of an 11-member high school clique.   They are a group of women who “reached maturity in the age when feminism was blooming.”   They grew up with the theme of empowerment resounding in the air.   Consider that on TV they watched not “I Love Lucy” or “Father Knows Best” but instead “Wonder Woman”, “Bionic Woman” and “Charlie’s Angels.”

The original group of 11 girls – Karla, Kelly, Marilyn, Jane, Jenny, Karen, Cathy, Angela, Sally, Diana and Sheila – grew up in the relatively small community of Ames, Iowa; a place where they were literally surrounded by corn fields.   The corn there grows so high that it can hide cars.

This is a telling of the lives of this group (a real-life version of the story told in the novel The Group) and their lives are touched with successes, tragedy, divorce, illness and death.   The outgoing Sheila was to die in her twenties under strange circumstances that have never fully been resolved.   In addition, the children of the group members have been affected by serious illness and two members of the remaining group have battled breast cancer.   On the flip side, a member of the group first became a mother at the age of 45.

“Having a close group of friends helps people sleep better, improve their immune systems, boost their self-esteem, stave off dementia, and actually live longer.   The Ames girls just feel the benefits in their guts.”

This book does its best in focusing on why it is vital for women “to nurture female friendships.”   We’re told, for example, “Research shows that women with advanced breast cancer have better survival rates if they have close friends.”   The matter of the peace and acceptance that accompanies aging is also well noted in The Girls from Ames.   “By their mid-forties, women know they’re at a crossroads.   They are still holding on to their younger selves, but they can also see their older selves pretty clearly.”

The one aspect of the book that may be slightly troubling is that males, particularly husbands and fathers, tend to come off as pale by comparison.   The men in the lives of these women are depicted as not being highly communicative, especially among other men (that is not how they get their needs met), and yet, they are generally well-loved.   At one point the women of the group are asked to rate their husbands/partners, and the average score came out to 8.2 on a 10-point scale.   All in all, a very good score!

One man was asked to consider reading this book and he declined sending this message via e-mail:  “Unfortunately, I do not have plans to read the book, but please convey to the girls from Ames that I think they are pretty hot.”   That was from Tom (60 years old) in Ohio.

The girls from Ames are now mothers and female role models in their own communities.   But most of all they remain the best of friends.   They are friends, survivors and a mutual support network.   They have all been battered a bit by life and, except for the still greatly missed Sheila, they have made it through.

This would be a great selection for almost any book club, even one that includes a male or two.   The very best news is that the story of the women from Ames will continue.   The 13 daughters of the 10 women are extremely good friends.   Bravo!

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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Clarissa Gets Her Wings

How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly by Connie May Fowler

“Life is too short, the ghost knew, for a woman to waste it on a man who did not know how to love.”

This is a very entertaining novel about personal liberation.   Our protagonist is the interestingly named Clarissa Burden, a novelist who is burdened by being married to “an amoral and dangerous man.”   Clarissa lives in an ancient home in south Florida that’s also inhabited by a family of ghosts (ghosts being the biggest trend in current fiction behind vampires) and thinking animals and insects.   Fowler makes quite clear that this story of one woman gaining freedom is meant to be symbolic of something far larger:  “Hers was not so much a private, primal scream as it was a release of all the vicissitudes that all women through all time had ever experienced.   Subservience wasn’t their game.”

This serio-comic novel is uplifting while also being quite a fun read.   Not only do we have human ghosts, we also have a ghost fly that’s in love with Clarissa – the woman who killed him – and we have circus dwarfs, mistakenly referred to by Clarissa as midgets.   As with Audrey Niffenegger, Fowler saves some of her best writing for the descriptions of the ghost of Olga Villada, the first owner of the home she lives in:  “Olga spun toward the middle of the room…  She began to whirl, faster and faster…”   Clarissa stood “in the shadow of a whirling ghost.”

Clarissa’s ancient home is “full of haunts” but this is less disturbing to her than her husband’s lusting after other women (primarily young ones) and her difficulty in resuming her previously successful writing career.   She no longer experiences “the same feeling she experienced in the old days when she was writing and writing well, when she knew the next word she typed would be not simply an okay word or a good word, but the only word in all the English language that would do.”

Clarissa leads a frustrated life of writer’s block and blocked emotions until she meets a young male writer, a prior acquaintance, who shows her the path to freedom.   However, don’t fear as this tale never gets too serious or too preachy…   In fact, it concludes with a hilarious shaggy-dog story-type ending involving the dwarfs’ circus and an adventurous dog that will make a perfect ending for a film version.

Reading How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly is like taking a nice cooling shower on a hot and muggy day in southern Florida.   Refreshing!

Highly recommended.

Reprinted courtesy of the New York Journal of Books.

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