The Red Tent, Confessions of a Latter-day Virgin, The Mists of Avalon, and A Song for Arbonne

Yes, more book reviews! Here are a few incisive feminist retellings from the Bible, Arthurian legend, and the Age of Chivalry. As well as a funny and heart-wrenching memoir about being single in the Mormon Church.

The Red TentThe Red Tent by Anita Diamant

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The core of this book is one of those disturbing and troublesome stories in the Bible that we don’t tend to talk about much–like the time Judah’s widowed daughter-in-law got pregnant and he wanted to burn her alive, but then it turned out that he was the one who had impregnated her. Or the time Lot hospitably offered to give his virgin daughters to the mob of rapists outside his door. Or the time the nameless female actually is shoved outside to appease the mob of rapists, and ends up being raped to death and then dismembered.

Actually, none of the above stories appear in the Red Tent. It focuses on the story of Dinah, only daughter of Jacob. A Canaanite prince falls in love with her, sleeps with her, and asks her hand in marriage, offering Jacob any bride price he names. Jacob’s sons deceitfully tell the prince that if he and all his household are circumcised, he can marry Dinah. Then, as they are sore and recovering from circumcision, Simeon and Levi go in and slaughter them all, and carry Dinah away with them. One can only imagine what Dinah must have felt about the whole thing, since her point of view is, of course, not mentioned in the Bible, though it gives plenty of airtime to her brothers’ angry protestations about their honor.

Diamant does more than imagine what Dinah must have felt. She writes a novel about it, retelling the story of Jacob and his family from the point of view of the women who appear in it. The Red Tent of the title is the tent where they go to menstruate, to support each other as they give birth, and to pass on their stories to one another and their daughters. I know a lot of women for whom the idea of having a monthly girls-only slumber party and all this stuff about the bond of sisterhood really resonates. I’m not really one of them. I didn’t want a whole gaggle of women around me when I gave birth, singing me songs; I just wanted my husband, and silence.

In fact, this book gave me a lot of feelings, because let’s face it; the Old Testament is pretty horrifying if you read it from the point of view of the women. However, these women are strong and courageous, and do an amazing job of taking care of one another in a world that is extremely misogynist. There’s also some great stuff about the complex religious world the early Israelites inhabited, and especially about their worship of the Queen of Heaven. And it’s always interesting to read a familiar story from a different point of view. So yeah, worth a read if you have the fortitude. Kind of like the Old Testament, I guess.

Confessions of a Latter-day Virgin: A Memoir

Confessions of a Latter-day Virgin: A Memoir by Nicole Hardy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is everything a memoir should be–funny, poignant, and devastatingly, intensely personal. I enjoyed it on two very different levels. First of all, it’s a much-needed look at the big heartaches and little indignities of being single in a church that is very focused on marriage. I have many single Mormon (and formerly Mormon) friends who have told me stories very similar to the ones Nicole tells.

On another level, even as a happily married woman with two children, I related to Nicole’s search for identity in a church whose idea of female identity can feel so prescribed and constricting as to be almost suffocating. Her attempts to see (and live) beyond the paradigm she had grown up with ring very true to me. Most anyone who has ever struggled to live in a way that feels individually authentic will enjoy this book.

 

The Mists of Avalon (Avalon, #1)The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s brilliant re-imagining of the Arthurian legends is a seminal masterpiece. From a literary standpoint, I’m afraid it can’t quite match T.H. White’s inimitable The Once and Future King (and Arthurian purists will certainly take exception to her liberal rearrangements of the hallowed stories; Atlantis, anyone?). Still, for sheer originality I think it takes the cake. Bradley takes the familiar stories and turns them on their heads, casting Morgaine (Morgan le Fay) as the heroine rather than the villain, and telling everything from the point of view of the women.

The Mists of Avalon portrays an early medieval Britain still in love with its fading Roman past, and torn by the conflict between the traditional Pagan religion and its usurping Christian competitor.

It’s very long and very depressing (no happy endings here, but then, the gradual decay of everything we hold dear is fairly authentically Arthurian). But you will never see Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, or Morgan le Fay the same way again. Feminist in concept, this books is enough to make you long for the good old days of matriarchal, goddess-worshiping Britain–even if they never existed.

Do be aware that if Pagan sex rituals are a no-go for you, you might not like this book.

A Song for ArbonneA Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of my favorites of Guy Gavriel Kay’s books, which is saying a lot, since he’s one of my favorite fantasy authors. Arbonne is similar to his other works in its intricate plotting and character development, vivid scenery, and masterful re-imagining of a historical time-period (in this case, Provence in the time of the troubadours).

Religion is always an interesting theme in Kay’s novels, and this was no exception. One of the major themes of the book was the stark difference between a society that worshiped both a female and male divinity, and one that completely rejects the female divine.

Highly recommended.

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2 thoughts on “The Red Tent, Confessions of a Latter-day Virgin, The Mists of Avalon, and A Song for Arbonne

  • March 28, 2014 at 5:52 pm
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    Sadly, I own none of these books. My library had Latter-Day Virgin, though. They had Book of Mormon Girl, The Mormon People, Rough Stone Rolling, and No Man Knows My History too, at least through inter-library loan. Somebody influential at the library must be interested in Mormons.

    I’ve loved all of Guy Gavriel Kay’s books that I’ve read. His two newest novels are set in China, and they are incredible.

  • March 28, 2014 at 5:22 pm
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    Well I’ve read two of the four…and after your ratings perhaps I’ll have to add more to the list. Do you own Latter Day Virgin? (Since I’m guessing my library won’t have it?!) Might you be game for lending?! The last one I’ll have to check my library and maybe put it on the book club list.

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