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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781615730964
Publisher: HighBridge Company
Publication date: 04/28/2010
Edition description: Unabridged 8 hours on 7 CDs
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 5.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

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Hometown:

New York, New York, and Stony Creek, Connecticut

Place of Birth:

New York, New York

Education:

M.A. in English, New York University

Read an Excerpt

Dover, Delaware, 2003

The soldiers keep Dorothy in view. She carries the tripod, unsteadily, and an extra poncho for a bib. That they have let her come this far might be due to weather, or possibly the kinds of amusements of which she remains unaware. Still, she assumes that they watch, tracking her as she stomps along the fence and positions herself by the sign that clearly states: No Trespassing, Government Property, Photography Forbidden.

It has turned a wet September, everywhere raining so the leaves, black and slick, paste to the soles of her boots. Really, they are Caroline's, Wellingtons borrowed from the back of the hallway closet where earlier Dorothy rummaged as Charles watched, wondering where she could possibly be going in such weather.

She turned, boot in hand.

"It's raining," he repeated.

Deaf at most decibels, Charles refused to wear aids (vanity? fear?), preferring to cast his voice into silence, hoping for an echo or a nod.

"Nowhere," she had said, because this is nowhere, or anywhere, or somewhere not particularly known: an hour's drive north if you took the busy roads, and then country, mostly, the drizzle graying the already gray landscape. Ye olde etcetera — cornfields, silos, a ravaged billboard for Daniel's peas, fresh from California, though this is technically Delaware and the land of soybeans. Ducks, too, the fall season in full swing; the drizzle split by the crack crack crack of the hunters' guns.

She parks near the drainage ditch that edges the fence, chain link, as if for dogs, though there are no dogs here, only a guard tower, a landing field, and the soldiers who wait for the planes. But that isn't right, exactly. The place is vast, a city of a place, with barracks — are those called barracks? — and trucks and cul-de-sacs and no doubt children sleeping, army brats — or is this marines? — in the two-story housing labyrinth not so distant from where she gets out, near the drainage ditch, near the landing field, near the place where the plane will descend. This she knows. The rest — the presence of children, the numbers involved, the ranking, the hierarchy — she truthfully has no idea.

Dorothy skewers the tripod in the mud and adjusts the poncho to cover her. Today, she plans to fight back. She can almost taste it; see herself in her resistance: Dorothy Barrett, granddaughter to the suffragette, mother to three: Caroline, Liz, and the dead one, James; wife to Charles. She mounts the camera on the track and angles the lens toward where the plane will descend — they come from the East, she has learned, out of Mecca, the bodies mostly coffined, then wrapped in flags, but sometimes carried in a tiny box.

"Christ, Mother," Caroline said after the first arrest, the fine. "Get a life."

"Your great-grandmother starved to death on principle; she literally ate nothing."

"I know, I know. I've seen the postage stamp," Caroline said.

"I think it changed things then," Dorothy said. "To do something. She made up her mind; she took a stand — "

"And look what happened to your dad? Anyway, you said she might have been unbalanced. A bit insane, wasn't she? You've said that before. She might have been suffering from — "

"Hysteria?" Dorothy said, hearing her own tone of voice — hysterical. "The point is, she did something."

"It's illegal to take pictures there."

"This is a free country."

"Please," Caroline said.

The two sat at Caroline's kitchen table, Caroline in one of her suits meant for business, her cigarette burning in the ashtray a tenyear- old James had spun out of clay. Caroline's daughter, little Dorothy, is elsewhere, having reached the age of the disappeared — her voice shouting orders from behind the locked door of her bedroom or even standing present, her body a studded cast of her former self; if she is somewhere within it she is very, very deep.

"I should never have told you I voted for him," Caroline said.

"I would have guessed."

"Consider my client base," Caroline said.

"Please," Dorothy said.

"Anyway, the law has to do with respect," Caroline said. "Or something. They make the rules for a reason, I'm sure. It's none of our business. None of your business."

"Says who?" Dorothy said, to which Caroline had some sort of reply.

Dorothy listened for a while, and then she did not; she thought of other things, how she would like to have believed that not so long ago Caroline would have stood beside her at the fence, that she, former president of the student council and Future Leaders for Justice, might have carried a sign or at least shouted an obscenity. But this was before Caroline divorced and took that new job in the Financial District. The Dead Zone, she called it, but the money's good, she said. It's serious money.

"Mother?"

"I was listening," Dorothy said.

"Forget it," Caroline said. She tapped her nails, those nails, on the table, then the doorbell rang — pizza delivery — and the conversation ended.

"Dinnertime," she yelled in the direction of the door.

Crack. Crack. Crack.

The soldiers have had enough. They climb down from their tower to slog through duck country, technically Delaware, the first state, though most have trouble with the history; one can hear their boots, or is that frogs? The sucking. Soon enough they'll reach her. Dorothy records their magnified approach; records them unlocking the gate and stepping to the other side, records their blank expressions. The trouble is she can only pretend to hate them.

"Good morning, Mrs. Barrett." This from the one Dorothy calls Tweedledee.

She straightens up, adjusts the poncho.

"We'll remind you that you're trespassing. That taking photographs is forbidden."

"Today," she says, hand on tripod. "I plan to resist."

Their arms remain folded. Four pair, as usual; a pack; a team; a unit, perhaps, or would they be a regiment? No, a regiment is bigger, a regiment is many. She tries to remember from mornings James explained the exact order of things — sergeant to lieutenant to captain to king — his miniature warriors arranged throughout the house in oddly purposeful groupings. She would find them everywhere, assaulting a sock, scaling the Ping-Pong table, plastic, molded men with clearly defined weaponry and indistinct faces. When she banished them to his room, fearing someone would trip and break a bone, James had cried and cried.

"That would be more than your usual fine, Mrs. Barrett."

He is a horse's ass, but then again, a boy once James's age, who should be pitied.

"I plan to resist," she repeats. One of the Mute Ones has his and out as if to help her across the muddy plain. They are waiting, she knows, for Dorothy to do something. Collapse, she thinks, then does, more a buckle than a collapse, knowing full well the ridiculousness of it, how small she'll become. The big one bends down to help her. Now, she thinks, though it is not until it is done that she understands she has found the courage to do it, biting the soft part of that hand, the hammock of skin between thumb and forefinger.

Caroline sits next to Charles in the detention waiting room, no question who's the boss. That girl could split atoms, Charles had once said. We ought to lease her to GE.

Sorry, darling, Dorothy mouths to him. He looks at her with his doggy yellow eyes not hearing a thing; then Caroline leads them both out.

In the fresh sunshine they blink; "Look how the weather's changed!" Dorothy says, reflexively. "What a treat!"

Caroline has opened the car door.

"Get in," she says.

They sit in silence all the way home, the radio punched to static and static and static then punched off, again, then the familiar drive, the front door, the hallway, the kitchen. Caroline makes tea and calls a what-there-is-of-the-Family Meeting, Liz trapped in the city, attempting another pregnancy (busy, busy, busy!), and the hole in the place where James would have been. Dorothy steps into it and wanders around while Caroline speaks of Responsibility and Reputation and Appropriate Behavior, and yes, Patriotism, but mostly, mostly, mostly, Mother, Embarrassment.

"And what of history?" Dorothy says. "Lineage?"

"Mother," Caroline says. "I'm at wit's end."

Dorothy would like to cradle Caroline in her arms, Caroline sleepy and hatted and a bit jaundice yellow, but she cannot. Caroline has grown; she's taller than Dorothy and now divorced and a multimillionaire, she has confessed. Mill-ions, she said.

"Where are your friends, Mother?" Caroline asks.

Dorothy shrugs. She hasn't thought of friends recently, nor her standing Wednesday at Sheer Perfection; her hair's gone shaggy and her cuticles have grown over their moons.

"I'm sorry, darling," she says. "I'll stop."

Copyright © 2009 by Kate Walbert

What People are Saying About This

Ann Packer

“Luminous . . . A subtle and profound book, as thought provoking as it is moving.”
—Ann Packer

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for A Short History of Women includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Kate Walbert. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Introduction

Kate Walbert’s A Short History of Women chronicles the lives of five generations of women as they attempt to navigate turbulent times in the history of both Britain and the United States. From a European suffragist who starves herself for women’s rights in 1914 to her great-granddaughter in New York in 2007, Walbert’s work highlights the love, friendship, and regrets that each of these women experienced. Readers will be swept up in the tremulous times as these five women attempt to find their way in a society that needs an answer to “The Woman Question.”

Questions for Discussion

  1. Throughout the novel, Walbert consistently reveals future events before they occur – from Father Fairfield’s death to Dorothy Townsend (Barrett’s) impending divorce. Why do you think she chooses to do this? How does this change the pacing of the story?
  2. How is Evelyn’s release of the canary symbolic of her own desires? (p.15) Why do you think she gets so angry when the bird refuses to leave on its own? How does she feel once it is gone? How does this parallel the actions that Evelyn eventually takes?
  3. The novel opens with Evelyn Charlotte Townsend’s mother starving herself for her cause, a death “brought on by modern ideas, pride, a certain vanity or rather, unreasonable expectations.” (p. 76) How does her death spur on the next generation of this family? How do you think things would have been different if she had not died? Would Evelyn and subsequent Townsend generations have been as bold as they were? Why or why not?
  4. Discuss how all the women in the novel struggle between their rebellious ideals and trying to lead a “normal” life. Do you believe Dorothy when she says that she “didn’t sign on for this?” (p. 74)
  5. How did you feel when Evelyn lied to Stephen Pope about her family? Why do you think she says “I’ll start from nothing…I am now no one’s daughter.” (p. 90) Does she really reject her past or is she more like her mother than she wants to admit?
  6. Each of the women in the novel at one point or another rejects the life they are leading. The most notable instance is Dorothy Townsend’s (Barrett) radical change following her son’s death. Discuss how each of the women, like Dorothy Townsend, “shed a skin.” (p. 104)
  7. Discuss the theme of loss in A Short History of Women. What are the major losses that each character experiences? How does this affect the women they are and the women they become?
  8. Evie has a long standing relationship with Stephen Pope and has a love for him that she claims is “not what a woman’s love should be or look like, absent, as it is, a family, a husband.” (p. 173) Yet, they have a very solid and caring relationship. How does this compare to someone like Dorothy Townsend (Barrett) who has a husband she no longer loves?
  9. How does Fran’s question of “Did you ever ruin your life for a feeling?” (p. 191) reflect the struggles that each woman has experienced? What is Elizabeth’s response to Fran’s question? Do you think she believes her response? What do you think her response would be if asked the same question about her mother?
  10. Which of Dorothy’s descendants do you think best embodies her strength and will for the cause? Which do you think embodies it the least? Why?

Enhance Your Book Club

  1. Track your own ancestry – were there any rebellious relatives in your past? Find out and then share with your bookclub.
  2. Make your own “short history” – pick an important time period and then find a woman who played a pivotal role. See who you and the rest of your bookclub come up with.
  3. Women’s suffrage was a long time in the making. Research its history and then share an interesting fact you learned with your bookclub.


A Conversation with Kate Walbert
  1. What was your inspiration for writing A Short History of Women?


WALBERT: The novel began for me with the voice of Evelyn Charlotte Townsend. It is Evelyn’s mother, Dorothy Trevor Townsend, a British suffragette, who has starved herself, and it is Evelyn who announces her mother’s death in the opening sentence with a kind of nonchalance that I found oddly cold and compelling. I’m always listening for the secret in a line, and it seemed Evelyn might have a few secrets. Still, I was in unfamiliar territory—England, the suffrage movement—and yet Evelyn’s voice persisted, and from it branched the other voices, the other characters of the novel, each speaking as a witness to her particular moment in history: the British suffrage movement and the eve of WWI; the start of the Iraq war; V-J Day; the Seventies consciousness-raising period, and post 9/11 Manhattan.



  1. Your book covers over 100 years of history; what were some of the challenges associated with writing a book that covered so much time? What research did you have to do to write A Short History of Women?

WALBERT: Well, I’m not a historian nor am I a particularly good researcher so the challenges in writing a book that takes place over an entire century were great. I tried not to be overwhelmed by them. My real interest was in imagining the specific lives of my characters and the details of their worlds—worlds inevitably defined by the times in which they lived, whether it was the dawn of the internet or the years of the world wars. What eventually became clear to me, especially after finishing the chapter that takes place in Manhattan, 2007, was that regardless of the era all the women shared a kind of collective yearning, a desire to start anew, to break for freedom, to ram their heads against whatever seemed to stand in the way of their emancipation: from the most obvious barrier of not having the vote to the more oblique and insidious barrier of motherhood in the age of anxiety—what the writer Judith Warner has called, “perfect madness.”


  1. You are an accomplished writer who has received several impressive accolades, including being a National Book Award finalist for Our Kind and the winner of the Connecticut Book Award for Fiction in 2002. Did you always want to be a writer? What advice do you have for budding writers?

WALBERT: When I was a kid, I wanted to be a composer. I loved the piano and loved writing music. This evolved into composing stories early in high school, and I was lucky enough to have had one of those remarkable English teachers who encouraged me.

My advice to budding writers would be to do anything else if you’re good at anything else but if you want to write then persevere. There’s a lot of rejection and long terrible bouts of silence, but if you show up and do your work I believe that eventually your work will be rewarded by whatever the thing is that occasionally swoops down and makes writing feel easy—that alone is worth the years of effort.


  1. Who is your favorite character in the novel? Who was the most fun to write? Who was the hardest to write? Are any of the characters we encounter based on people you know?

WALBERT: Perhaps my favorite character—at this particular moment that I’m asked the question—is the one I call the original Dorothy, Dorothy Trevor Townsend. She remains an enigma to me because her decision to starve herself was one of both supreme selfishness and supreme selflessness and I’m intrigued by the impossibility of reconciling the two. In this way, she was the most difficult to write and the most fun, though fun in writing is definitely a relative term (see answer to question 3!). I also loved writing Richard Thorke, the lecturer who delivers the pompous talk to the gathering of women in the second chapter of the book, a lecture he entitles A Short History of Women: Some Comments on the Woman Question. I took much of the tone of his lecture from reading various scientists and historians from that era who were trying to puzzle out “the woman question,” namely, whether women should be emancipated and on what terms. There were numerous preposterous reasons, ardently defended, that women were inferior and must be judged as so, for instance this from The Popular Science Monthly, 1882: “the sum total of food converted into thought by women can never equal the sum total of food converted into thought by men. It follows, therefore, that men will always think more than women.”

Thorke’s lecture is a distillation of many of these theories delivered in a scatter shot, nonsensical address. I’ve no doubt that most of us have sat through lectures of this kind at some point in our lives, and it was interesting to me that while I was working on this chapter Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard University, delivered his now infamous comments at the meeting of the economic research bureau, speculating that innate differences in ability, or “differential ability of aptitude at the high end” might be the reason why so few women held leadership positions in the sciences and math. He reportedly used as anecdotal evidence the fact that his daughter, when given a toy truck, had turned it into a baby doll. When I read about the controversy it struck me anew that the progress of women’s history is not linear, and that with each successive generation we inevitably circle back to some variation of the “woman question.”


  1. You often reveal future events before they occur – from Father Fairfield’s death to Dorothy Townsend (Barrett’s) impending divorce. Why did you choose to do this?

WALBERT: This is not a conscious stylistic choice, nor any part of a grand plan on my part. In thinking about it, I remember something a playwriting teacher once told my class: a successful play is written in response to an action that has already occurred off-stage. It struck me at the time that this must be true, since, for better or worse, lives are often lived in response to what has happened before. So I guess I’m drawn to writing about the echoes and repercussions of the act rather than the act itself. For me the more interesting question to puzzle out is what’s left undone and unsaid given what has come before.


  1. What is the significance of the title A Short History of Women? Do you feel that these generations of women speak of the struggles that all women have encountered?

WALBERT: It was supposed to be ironic, since I thought this was going to be a really long book. I wrote pages and pages and pages, but I’m a glutton for revision and so I carved away more than half of what I wrote. I like to think of how painters often repeatedly cover a canvas, painting over one image with the next and the next. So maybe my big book is still there but in relief. I don’t presume that these women speak for all women—they only speak for themselves given the particular angle of my approach. My hope is that their stories resonate with the reader.


  1. You cover such a vast amount in history in this work. Which person from history do you most admire? Why?

WALBERT: I admire many persons from history—one of my favorites is Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to serve in U.S. Congress who voted against both world wars and over the course of her work for various peace movements rode the banana boats to India in pursuit of meeting Gandhi. I also admire many members of my own family whom I never got the chance to meet. I’m thinking of my paternal grandmother, Ruby Pearl Jewel. She was a tenant farmer and a poet and one famous (at least in our household) story of Ruby is of the day that she purchased from an estate sale with money she didn’t have an intricately carved, silk-covered Victorian sofa, and how the sofa was hoisted onto the back of their pickup truck to be driven to the farm. My father, a young boy at the time, remembers his mother sitting on that sofa on the back of the pickup truck as it was driven down the long dusty driveway, and how he stood up from where he’d been working in the fields and watched her go by. I admire her tremendously for that, for riding on the sofa and buying it regardless. I often wonder about her life and the limits of her life. She died at a young age, a result of worrying about her two oldest sons fighting in the Second World War.


  1. What comment do you hear most often from your readers? How do you respond?

WALBERT: One of the comments I often hear from readers, given my last three books, is that they’re surprised that I’m not older. I often write of the generation that came of age in the 1950s and early 1960s—my mother’s generation. Years ago, in graduate school, I had an index card taped over my desk that read, “What is imagined is real, and what is real is never strong.” I have no idea who said it; I think one of my teachers must have quoted it and I dutifully took it down without attributing it to anyone. But I will say that in my own experience of writing fiction I’ve found that the best has borne out just that way. I write to fill in the gaps of history that I could never fully know, to address the silences. And so because of this I tend to be drawn to times that I have not observed directly. I guess I need that distance, that forced imagining, to find my way to what feels true and vivid and, weirdly, real. If I’ve lived it myself then I’m too close, too pressed up against the glass to view anything from the proper perspective for fiction.


  1. What’s next? Are you currently working on any projects?

WALBERT: I’m working on a play and I have an image for another story or possibly novel and a few phrases I’d like to circle around. That’s about as good as it gets!

Introduction

This reading group guide for A Short History of Women includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Kate Walbert. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

Kate Walbert's A Short History of Women chronicles the lives of five generations of women as they attempt to navigate turbulent times in the history of both Britain and the United States. From a European suffragist who starves herself for women's rights in 1914 to her great-granddaughter in New York in 2007, Walbert's work highlights the love, friendship, and regrets that each of these women experienced. Readers will be swept up in the tremulous times as these five women attempt to find their way in a society that needs an answer to "The Woman Question."

Questions for Discussion

1. Throughout the novel, Walbert consistently reveals future events before they occur - from Father Fairfield's death to Dorothy Townsend (Barrett's) impending divorce. Why do you think she chooses to do this? How does this change the pacing of the story?

2. How is Evelyn's release of the canary symbolic of her own desires? (p.15) Why do you think she gets so angry when the bird refuses to leave on its own? How does she feel once it is gone? How does this parallel the actions that Evelyn eventually takes?

3. The novel opens with Evelyn Charlotte Townsend's mother starving herself for her cause, a death "brought on by modern ideas, pride, acertain vanity or rather, unreasonable expectations." (p. 76) How does her death spur on the next generation of this family? How do you think things would have been different if she had not died? Would Evelyn and subsequent Townsend generations have been as bold as they were? Why or why not?

4. Discuss how all the women in the novel struggle between their rebellious ideals and trying to lead a "normal" life. Do you believe Dorothy when she says that she "didn't sign on for this?" (p. 74)

5. How did you feel when Evelyn lied to Stephen Pope about her family? Why do you think she says "I'll start from nothing...I am now no one's daughter." (p. 90) Does she really reject her past or is she more like her mother than she wants to admit?

6. Each of the women in the novel at one point or another rejects the life they are leading. The most notable instance is Dorothy Townsend's (Barrett) radical change following her son's death. Discuss how each of the women, like Dorothy Townsend, "shed a skin." (p. 104)

7. Discuss the theme of loss in A Short History of Women. What are the major losses that each character experiences? How does this affect the women they are and the women they become?

8. Evie has a long standing relationship with Stephen Pope and has a love for him that she claims is "not what a woman's love should be or look like, absent, as it is, a family, a husband." (p. 173) Yet, they have a very solid and caring relationship. How does this compare to someone like Dorothy Townsend (Barrett) who has a husband she no longer loves?

9. How does Fran's question of "Did you ever ruin your life for a feeling?" (p. 191) reflect the struggles that each woman has experienced? What is Elizabeth's response to Fran's question? Do you think she believes her response? What do you think her response would be if asked the same question about her mother?

10. Which of Dorothy's descendants do you think best embodies her strength and will for the cause? Which do you think embodies it the least? Why?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Track your own ancestry - were there any rebellious relatives in your past? Find out and then share with your bookclub.

2. Make your own "short history" - pick an important time period and then find a woman who played a pivotal role. See who you and the rest of your bookclub come up with.

3. Women's suffrage was a long time in the making. Research its history and then share an interesting fact you learned with your bookclub.

A Conversation with Kate Walbert

1. What was your inspiration for writing A Short History of Women?

WALBERT: The novel began for me with the voice of Evelyn Charlotte Townsend. It is Evelyn's mother, Dorothy Trevor Townsend, a British suffragette, who has starved herself, and it is Evelyn who announces her mother's death in the opening sentence with a kind of nonchalance that I found oddly cold and compelling. I'm always listening for the secret in a line, and it seemed Evelyn might have a few secrets. Still, I was in unfamiliar territory — England, the suffrage movement — and yet Evelyn's voice persisted, and from it branched the other voices, the other characters of the novel, each speaking as a witness to her particular moment in history: the British suffrage movement and the eve of WWI; the start of the Iraq war; V-J Day; the Seventies consciousness-raising period, and post 9/11 Manhattan.

2. Your book covers over 100 years of history; what were some of the challenges associated with writing a book that covered so much time? What research did you have to do to write A Short History of Women?

WALBERT: Well, I'm not a historian nor am I a particularly good researcher so the challenges in writing a book that takes place over an entire century were great. I tried not to be overwhelmed by them. My real interest was in imagining the specific lives of my characters and the details of their worlds — worlds inevitably defined by the times in which they lived, whether it was the dawn of the internet or the years of the world wars. What eventually became clear to me, especially after finishing the chapter that takes place in Manhattan, 2007, was that regardless of the era all the women shared a kind of collective yearning, a desire to start anew, to break for freedom, to ram their heads against whatever seemed to stand in the way of their emancipation: from the most obvious barrier of not having the vote to the more oblique and insidious barrier of motherhood in the age of anxiety — what the writer Judith Warner has called, "perfect madness."

3. You are an accomplished writer who has received several impressive accolades, including being a National Book Award finalist for Our Kind and the winner of the Connecticut Book Award for Fiction in 2002. Did you always want to be a writer? What advice do you have for budding writers?

WALBERT: When I was a kid, I wanted to be a composer. I loved the piano and loved writing music. This evolved into composing stories early in high school, and I was lucky enough to have had one of those remarkable English teachers who encouraged me.

My advice to budding writers would be to do anything else if you're good at anything else but if you want to write then persevere. There's a lot of rejection and long terrible bouts of silence, but if you show up and do your work I believe that eventually your work will be rewarded by whatever the thing is that occasionally swoops down and makes writing feel easy — that alone is worth the years of effort.

4. Who is your favorite character in the novel? Who was the most fun to write? Who was the hardest to write? Are any of the characters we encounter based on people you know?

WALBERT: Perhaps my favorite character — at this particular moment that I'm asked the question — is the one I call the original Dorothy, Dorothy Trevor Townsend. She remains an enigma to me because her decision to starve herself was one of both supreme selfishness and supreme selflessness and I'm intrigued by the impossibility of reconciling the two. In this way, she was the most difficult to write and the most fun, though fun in writing is definitely a relative term (see answer to question 3!). I also loved writing Richard Thorke, the lecturer who delivers the pompous talk to the gathering of women in the second chapter of the book, a lecture he entitles A Short History of Women: Some Comments on the Woman Question. I took much of the tone of his lecture from reading various scientists and historians from that era who were trying to puzzle out "the woman question," namely, whether women should be emancipated and on what terms. There were numerous preposterous reasons, ardently defended, that women were inferior and must be judged as so, for instance this from The Popular Science Monthly, 1882: "the sum total of food converted into thought by women can never equal the sum total of food converted into thought by men. It follows, therefore, that men will always think more than women."

Thorke's lecture is a distillation of many of these theories delivered in a scatter shot, nonsensical address. I've no doubt that most of us have sat through lectures of this kind at some point in our lives, and it was interesting to me that while I was working on this chapter Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard University, delivered his now infamous comments at the meeting of the economic research bureau, speculating that innate differences in ability, or "differential ability of aptitude at the high end" might be the reason why so few women held leadership positions in the sciences and math. He reportedly used as anecdotal evidence the fact that his daughter, when given a toy truck, had turned it into a baby doll. When I read about the controversy it struck me anew that the progress of women's history is not linear, and that with each successive generation we inevitably circle back to some variation of the "woman question."

5. You often reveal future events before they occur - from Father Fairfield's death to Dorothy Townsend (Barrett's) impending divorce. Why did you choose to do this?

WALBERT: This is not a conscious stylistic choice, nor any part of a grand plan on my part. In thinking about it, I remember something a playwriting teacher once told my class: a successful play is written in response to an action that has already occurred off-stage. It struck me at the time that this must be true, since, for better or worse, lives are often lived in response to what has happened before. So I guess I'm drawn to writing about the echoes and repercussions of the act rather than the act itself. For me the more interesting question to puzzle out is what's left undone and unsaid given what has come before.

6. What is the significance of the title A Short History of Women? Do you feel that these generations of women speak of the struggles that all women have encountered?

WALBERT: It was supposed to be ironic, since I thought this was going to be a really long book. I wrote pages and pages and pages, but I'm a glutton for revision and so I carved away more than half of what I wrote. I like to think of how painters often repeatedly cover a canvas, painting over one image with the next and the next. So maybe my big book is still there but in relief. I don't presume that these women speak for all women — they only speak for themselves given the particular angle of my approach. My hope is that their stories resonate with the reader.

7. You cover such a vast amount in history in this work. Which person from history do you most admire? Why?

WALBERT: I admire many persons from history — one of my favorites is Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to serve in U.S. Congress who voted against both world wars and over the course of her work for various peace movements rode the banana boats to India in pursuit of meeting Gandhi. I also admire many members of my own family whom I never got the chance to meet. I'm thinking of my paternal grandmother, Ruby Pearl Jewel. She was a tenant farmer and a poet and one famous (at least in our household) story of Ruby is of the day that she purchased from an estate sale with money she didn't have an intricately carved, silk-covered Victorian sofa, and how the sofa was hoisted onto the back of their pickup truck to be driven to the farm. My father, a young boy at the time, remembers his mother sitting on that sofa on the back of the pickup truck as it was driven down the long dusty driveway, and how he stood up from where he'd been working in the fields and watched her go by. I admire her tremendously for that, for riding on the sofa and buying it regardless. I often wonder about her life and the limits of her life. She died at a young age, a result of worrying about her two oldest sons fighting in the Second World War.

8. What comment do you hear most often from your readers? How do you respond?

WALBERT: One of the comments I often hear from readers, given my last three books, is that they're surprised that I'm not older. I often write of the generation that came of age in the 1950s and early 1960s — my mother's generation. Years ago, in graduate school, I had an index card taped over my desk that read, "What is imagined is real, and what is real is never strong." I have no idea who said it; I think one of my teachers must have quoted it and I dutifully took it down without attributing it to anyone. But I will say that in my own experience of writing fiction I've found that the best has borne out just that way. I write to fill in the gaps of history that I could never fully know, to address the silences. And so because of this I tend to be drawn to times that I have not observed directly. I guess I need that distance, that forced imagining, to find my way to what feels true and vivid and, weirdly, real. If I've lived it myself then I'm too close, too pressed up against the glass to view anything from the proper perspective for fiction.

9. What's next? Are you currently working on any projects?

WALBERT: I'm working on a play and I have an image for another story or possibly novel and a few phrases I'd like to circle around. That's about as good as it gets!

Kate Walbert is the author of Where She Went, a New York Times Notable Book of 1998; The Gardens of Kyoto, winner of the Connecticut Book Award for fiction in 2002; and Our Kind, finalist for the National Book Award in 2004. Her short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and numerous other publications. She lives in New York City and Connecticut with her family.

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A Short History of Women 3.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 38 reviews.
justjb More than 1 year ago
A story of 4 generations of women in one family. Feels disjointed at times . Starvation of one character leads the story. The book lacks inspiration . I found it rambling at times and incomprehensible at other times just boring.
Art-historian More than 1 year ago
The title certainly sets up a major puzzle for the reader -- whose history of women is this history, how can the history of women be short, and is this really a novel. None of those questions are ultimately relevant as the reader is quickly drawn into the immediate, personal lives of the women. Although I'm generally not a fan of books in which each chapter is told from a different point of view, the voices of the women in this book are, in the end, the voices of one woman. I did find one character to be somewhat less convincing than the others but by the end of the book, I was completely absorbed in the sense of despair and perhaps failure of the act which generates the entire novel. I didn't really care about separating the characters -- I cared more about leaving with a sense that it was worth it for the women in the extended family of the book. Perhaps a more honest title would have been "a short history of the women in this family" -- but the title Walbert chose made me read the book and I didn't regret it.
KimLarae on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Beautifully written, a little slight, had much less interest in the more modern chapters. Still and all, lovely book
TerryWeyna on LibraryThing 5 months ago
A Short History of Women was one of the ten best books of the year, according to The New York Times. It¿s easy to see how this story of five generations of women, all dealing with quintessential ¿women¿s issues¿ through five generations of the same family, might impress with its postmodern techniques of jumping through time from 1914 to 2003 to 1898 back to 1914; changing viewpoint and even voice with each section; and reproducing blogs and Facebook pages. I, however, found the book cold and uninvolving, with characters about whom I cared not at all and no real plot. As a fictional treatise on the history of women, it has some merit, but as a novel I found it wanting.The book begins with the death of Dorothy Trevor Townsend, an Englishwoman who starves herself to promote the cause of women¿s suffrage. She leaves behind two young children, a girl and a boy, who are split up between relatives and never see one another again. Why this first Dorothy ¿ there are a few others as the years go by ¿ takes it into her head to abandon her family is never adequately explored, though we are told that she gave her body because she had nothing else to give. But no one seems to pay much attention to her sacrifice, and there is no evidence that it had any effect on Parliament¿s decision, finally, to grant women the right to vote.It certainly had an effect on her children, however ¿ and her grandchildren, it seems, and down through the ages. Her daughter, Evelyn, is the only character who is in the least likeable, and that is probably because she tells her story in the first person, the only character in the book to do so. Evelyn lives a life different in almost every way from what was expected of women in her era, probably another reason she is at all appealing. But she is the type of woman who holds others at arm¿s length, and her lack of close emotional attachments makes her life seem to pass too lightly. In fact, under the circumstances described in the book, she would have been a truly revolutionary figure, but we see little of that.The women in later generations are stereotypes of contemporary women of different ages. Dorothy Townsend Barrett is a member of the generation that gave rise to the Baby Boom, a woman who married just after the end of World War II and promptly had two children, just as she was supposed to according to the mores of the time. Somewhat later, a third child comes along unexpectedly, and Walbert writes of this woman in 2007 taking her daughter on a play date and winding up having a play date of her own with the other girl¿s mother. Walbert presents a picture of modern women as anxious, helicopter parents who have little emotional attachment to their children, but are eager to see that those children get the proper type of everything, from the right schools to the proper toys.A Short History of Women appears intended to hold up a mirror to who we are and where we came from. But if modern women are really as emotionally bereft as the women in this book, we are missing out on a great deal of life. Ultimately, I found this book to be deadening in its portrayal of women supposedly attempting to find their own voices and to make sense of their lives; nothing at all seems to make sense to them, or fundamentally to matter to them. There is no emotion expressed in any way except obliquely, impliedly, no love of mother for child or woman for man. Walbert seems to be saying that women cannot know who they are unless they abjure all connections to anyone but themselves. It makes for a grim, cold and depressing reading experience.
jennyarlene on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Given the rave reviews I'd seen, I think I was expecting something other than I found. The figures are interesting, and I particularly liked the immersion in the London suffragette movement, but the characterization didn't really allow much engagement or emotional involvement on my part.
mckait on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Soon, they'll put Evelyn's mum on a postage stamp. Dorothy Trevor Townsend died for the cause. Suffrage. She wanted to Do Something.Always took things too far, said Grandmother. Grandmother is dead now, Thomas, Evelyn's brother is living with friends in America. Evelyn was sent off to school to be safe from the war. The war is over, and her friends have mostly scattered.Gone home. Safe at home once again. Evelyn isn't sure what is next for her... Women did get the vote, and that is Something. Women can now attend college and become whatever they want, even doctors or professors. Dorothy Townsend Barret, Daughter of Thomas who went to America.She has three grown children, Caroline, Liz and James. James died. Hehad wondered what comes next. His mother told him nothing, nothing comes next. He hoped she was wrong. Dorothy wanted to Do Something. She protests that some places are off limits to the public, and she blogs. Her Lawyer daughter Caroline is at wits end. She reads her mothers blog and fumes. Caroline's daughter Dora is at college and calls herself a revolutionary. She reads Sylvia Plath. She admires her grandmother, who died in order to Do Something.Liz Anne Barrett. She and her family, Suzanne and the twins live uptown, and Liz spins clay.She pumps her breasts, and uses formula, or the nanny does. Liz is very modern. She schedules play dates and keeps an anxiety journal, or means to. She remains alert. These are women who Do Something. What they find hard to do is to connect with each other. A broken family, the glue missing.
AnneWK on LibraryThing 5 months ago
A really wonderful book, beautifully written, tells the story of family generations of women, beginning with a suffragette who starves herself for the cause. Less than 5 stars because it ended too soon.
Litfan on LibraryThing 5 months ago
"A Short History of Women" goes back and forth in time between the stories of five generations of women. Each woman's individual story is shaped by the life of Dorothy Townsend, a suffragist who starved herself to bring attention to her cause. The novel juxtaposes pieces of Dorothy's life with glimpses of her children's, their children's, etc. The result is a view of what it is to be a woman, from 1898 all the way through 2007.The first few chapters of the novel felt somewhat too intellectual and dense. However, after that, the novel became more and more compelling. It was particularly fascinating to learn about Dorothy's life in bits and pieces throughout the novel, and to see how her decision impacted generations of her family and the choices that they made. The characters were delightfully human, and the author's use of language is what makes the novel flow so beautifully. She is able to use words to elicit feelings of sadness as well as to achieve biting sarcasm. This is a book that will utterly absorb you until the final page; I was excited to see that the author has other books as I'd love to read more of her work.
mzonderm on LibraryThing 5 months ago
I think I would have liked this book better is I'd known what the message was supposed to be. That successive generations are bound by an ancestor's acts, either to repeat it or react against it? Or the opposite, as seems to be what happens here: just because your mother/grandmother/great-grandmother/great-great-grandmother (as we move through the generations) starved herself in the name of suffrage, that has absolutely no bearing on your own tendency toward activism. As vignettes of the lives of 5 individual women, these stories are good, compellingly written, and all that. As a thesis, this book doesn't quite hold together.
Jeanomario on LibraryThing 5 months ago
When I am engaged in a book, I come back to it whenever I can, whether I have an hour or ten minutes. This book became "take or leave." My main concern was that I would go for days and not even think of reading this book. When I read, I checked back to the family tree inside the front cover frequently. The characters seemed flat and gray, yet there were moments of lyric beauty in Walbert's writing. But the overall sporadic telling of the story and how five generations connected to the original suffragette remained unclear much of the time.
readaholic12 on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Kate Walbert's A Short History of Women took me a long time to finish. I enjoyed the first chapter and hit a wall in the second, a recurring problem throughout the book. The characters and their stories seemed compelling and interesting, but the writing style and uneven, often terse chapters alienated and frustrated me as I struggled to understand and connect with the story. Despite the genealogy chart and chapter dates, I still found it difficult to distinguish which woman's story I was reading. There were several moments of beauty and truth that I enjoyed in this novel, but there were many more that made me consider giving up. The author's writing style, particularly when a character is talking, is filled with hyphens, fragments, starts, stops and questions, leaving this reader wishing for a translator or cliff notes. In short, this promising novel did not work for me.
Copperskye on LibraryThing 5 months ago
When I requested A Short History of Women through LTER, it looked promising. Interesting subject, generational women¿s story, changing voice, social history - all right up my alley. I had tried to read one of Kate Walbert¿s earlier books, Our Kind, but couldn¿t get through it but that could¿ve been a fluke and maybe this book would lead me back there. Oh well. In looking through my notes, I¿m not even sure what to say about it. Uneven comes to mind. The story begins in 1914 England with a suffragette starving herself for the cause and continues through subsequent generations of female family members. The story moves back and forth through time and characters, explaining actions and reactions. Truly, I liked it and I didn¿t like it. There were chapters I loved and others I hated, where I just couldn¿t seem to catch the rhythm. Three quarters of the way through, I began to lose patience and just wanted to finish it and move on. I hate to be so wishy-washy, but I may have enjoyed this more at a different time. Sadly, somewhere lost in this book was a story I really would have enjoyed reading had the author not been trying quite so hard. Perhaps I just don¿t like her style. A more patient reader may find it to be more worthwhile.
bookgirl_Isaacson on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Oh, this is so bad of me. I received this through the Early Reviewer program. It sounded like something I would really like, but I've tried reading it three times and I guess I'm just not in the right mood or frame of mind for it right now. I feel bad for not finishing an Early Reviewer book. But I just couldn't get through it. Really no reflection on the book itself other than it didn't grasp me enough to pull me in. I'll give it some time and hopefully come back to it.
JudyKenn on LibraryThing 5 months ago
This isn't an easy read. The voices jump from generation to generation, character to character, back and forth. I kept getting confused and had to flip back to the generational chart at the beginning of the book to keep things straight. It is, however, an intriguing read. It poses several questions that would make good book club discussions. Do we ever really know the story behind our family stories? Do we ever really know our parents and grandparents? Can an act five generations old still have implications down the generational line? Did winning the vote really change anything for us, as women? This is a good book to open the floor for many spirited discussions about family, about legacies, about history.
bookworm12 on LibraryThing 5 months ago
"A Short History of Women" looks at five generations of women, starting in the late 1800s and ending in almost present day. The complex narrative uses multiple voices to tell the story of suffragist Dorothy Townsend and her subsequent generations. It's a look not only at the unending affect that one women, or person, can have on future generations, but also at the role women play in society and how that role has evolved over the years. The idea is great, but I found it hard to connect with the women. The writing and the plot have good intentions, but a book is at its best when the reader is concerned about what happens to the characters they are reading about and, for me, this book never reached that final plain. Still an interesting read.
AshMeinders on LibraryThing 5 months ago
This should be required reading for anyone with an interest in women¿s history/studies/literature. A Short History of Women follows five generations of women, the descendants of a fictional suffragette, Dorothy Townsend who starved herself to death for her cause. The novel traces how her legacy echoes in the lives of the future generations of women in her family despite their wide range of personal choices and experiences. Walbert is a master of powerful restraint. She is simultaneously subtle and direct, wry and heartbreaking, brave and tender. This allows her to reflect on topics that people have been discussing for ages (i.e. ¿The Woman Question¿, women¿s rights, women¿s voices, etc.) while avoiding the pitfalls of common clichés. I don¿t necessarily see Walbert bringing new ideas to the table, but she has touchingly shown that while (most) women¿s rights have been won and the women¿s movement has withered, women are still asking themselves ¿ and each other ¿ the same questions. ¿They were always waiting, waiting to hear, respectfully listening. Who are we? they wanted to know. Tell us, who? And what should we do next?¿I found one review by a man who read the book based on his wife¿s recommendation. He said he simply couldn¿t connect with the characters, didn¿t understand their experiences, and his wife said he just couldn¿t understand women¿s experience in a male-dominated society. I think that¿s a load of crap. Walbert expertly demonstrates that the collective experience of women that has transcended time and various realities is the search to fill some common void. These women are all trying to become this person they¿ve never met and couldn¿t possibly know, they have something to say but can¿t find the words, they just want to do something, but what? ¿What we want is something to do, something to live for.¿ Who can¿t relate to that?My favorite character was Dorothy¿s niece, who in her mid-70¿s rediscovers Florence Nightingale, creates a personal rebellion and starts searching for her own voice. And when she finds it, she speaks loudly: ¿Why Florence Nightingale? Because she was, first and foremost, BRAVE. She made a different life. She got blood on her hands. She did not accept what she could not abide. When she finally understood that her bonds were made of straw, she broke them, or bent them, or whatever you'd do to straw.¿ ¿ ¿And we have such a road ahead! It is only at the brink of death that we are truly present for our life. And isn't that an outrage?¿
ntempest on LibraryThing 5 months ago
This book follows several generations of the women in one family beginning at the start of the twentieth century and tracking to modern day. Each woman serves to reflect both the major political and social events of her time and the more quiet issues of the day, and in a very interesting way illustrates both how much has changed in the world--particularly for women--in the last century and a bit, and also how many things have stayed the same. We protest different things in the twenty-first century, at least on the surface--but how different are they really? And in many cases it seems as if people are listening even less than they used to. This is a thought provoking novel, and my first instinct is to say that I enjoyed it very much, despite a few detracting factors--one of which how very one-sided the point of view was. These women are upper or upper-middle class, white, educated, etc. Even in the middle of a war, they find the means to get to university. They are a product of the Western world. So while I enjoyed their story, I have to say that the title feels insufficiently general and implies a much broader scope than is actually presented in the book. That aside, however, I suspect I will continue to think about the ideas that are presented for quite a while to come.
ShortStoryLover on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Here's another book marketed as a novel that is actually a collection of linked stories or a novel in stories. The book addresses the struggles of women over the last century, and how conflicted and unsatisfied women are today despite the struggles of their mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers. Although Walbert's writing is impressive and I enjoyed the stories each on their own, the way in which they were linked fell flat. The stories jump back and forth between characters, setting and time in a confusing way.
TanyaTomato on LibraryThing 5 months ago
I confess I read it out of order so I wouldn't lose track of the character's lives, but enjoyed the interlinking of the women in this family. I've always thought it a shame that generations cannot relate with each other because of their differences in age.
JulieCarter on LibraryThing 5 months ago
There's just something about this author that doesn't quite connect with me. This is the second book of hers I've read after hearing absolute raves from other readers that I trust. And this book especially covers a topic that I love (women's suffrage). But unfortunately doesn't actually talk about that much, other than one of the characters being involved in it. With such similar names between characters, I kept having to go back to the family tree and figure out who I was reading about, so that was really confusing for me. The writing is really beautiful and well done, and I felt like the author knew her characters really well. However, I just didn't feel that she lets the reader know the characters as well as she does. There's just some kind of disconnect for me, and it may be just as much my fault as the authors (or more!!).
francesuzanne on LibraryThing 5 months ago
This book is way to literary and intellectual for me. I only got a few pages in and I was lost.
seaside45 on LibraryThing 5 months ago
I wanted to love this book and I was disappointed. The writing style is choppy. I had to keep going back to the family tree to figure out which character each chapter was about. I found none of these women very intriguing. I wish I were in a book group; I think a discussion might help me to appreciate this novel.
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