A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex and the Mind by Siri Hustvedt

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A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex and the Mind by Siri Hustvedt

Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Megan Kenny
Reviewed by Megan Kenny
Summary: A Women Looking at Men Looking at Women is a frank, often funny, feminist discussion about art, science and the need for unity rather than division. Siri Hustvedt has an obvious wealth of knowledge, interest and expertise and has deftly woven together a series of essays which touch on a wide range of topics. Her writing is engagingly lucid and it is easy to get lost in the often competing worlds of artistic expression and scientific discovery.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 576 Date: December 2016
Publisher: Sceptre
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1473638891

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I must confess that A Woman Looking spoke to me on a profound, intimate level. This is in part due to the apparent similarities between me and Siri Hustvedt- we are both feminists who love art and also love science in a world which emphasises that these two passions are mutually exclusive. What Hustvedt suggests in A Woman Looking is that it is the similarities between these two areas we should emphasise and that a cohesive, inclusive approach towards art and science could help fill the gaps in both disciplines. One of the unfortunate similarities shared by both art and science is a general inhospitality towards women. This critique is not new, it has been emphasised by women from Suffragettes to Guerrilla Girls and recent research has highlighted the difficulties faced by women in STEM careers, however the fact that this remains an ongoing concern only highlights that further discussion is necessary. Discussion is what Hustvedt provides, balanced yet concerned, coherent but also impassioned. This critique of entrenched sexism is a recurrent theme in each section of the book and is one of the most important elements of her work.

The first part of A Woman Looking focuses on art. This section of the book is a fascinating insight into Hustvedt's relationship with art and the artists who produce it. There is also a wealth of historical detail here and commentary from others in the field which gives a great sense of depth. Much of the focus is on male painters who often created art focused on, indeed obsessed by (often violently like Picasso, who liked cutting women up) women, but yet exist within a world which marginalises the voices and experiences of female artists. However, all my favourite women are here including Angela Carter and a whole essay dedicated to Louise Bourgeois. This essay is really a love letter to a woman who obviously inspired Hustvedt (as indeed she inspires me) with an in-depth dissection of her life, her fear of her own anger as exposed by psychoanalysis, and her continued efforts to create, explore and develop a world which wanted nothing to do with her for much of her career and only recognised her talents when she approached the twilight of her years.

The second part of A Woman Looking is an interesting journey into the chasm between mind and body and an attempt on Hustvedt's part to bridge this gap. Within the Delusions of Certainty, Hustvedt explored concepts of the self and consciousness as they have been understood through the ages. She also dissects the mind-body problem, exploring the potential differences between the mind and the brain and what this may have to do with the body. The motivations for these distinctions are examined with acute precision, as are the inborn psychological traits of masculinity, nature and nurture and the concept of 'brain wiring'. Hustvedt doesn't have all the answers, nor does she claim to, but the topics covered within this essay are examined and explored with an inquisitive, questioning eye which encourages the reader to examine their own thoughts and beliefs. This is the strength of Hustvedt's non-fiction work in my opinion: whilst she may raise more questions than she answers the journey to knowledge and expansion of understanding is always thrilling.

The final section of A Woman Looking focuses on lectures given by Hustvedt on topics related to who we are and how we perceive ourselves. What is clear in this section is that Hustvedt doesn't shy away from the complex or the controversial. She discusses biochemistry, neuroscience and suicide with ease and grace, providing a clear opinion informed by extensive research, but also acknowledges different points of view. Hustvedt also discussed philosophy, imagination and how this relates to brain function in a stimulating, thought-provoking narrative.

Some may say that this book could be shorter and indeed it is a weighty tome; however each chapter is a separate essay and so it is more than possible to dip in and out as you please. Hustvedt's writing style is lyrical, interesting and inclusive. She has an excellent ability to translate not only complex theories but also her own thoughts into accessible, engaging essays. In short, I loved it; it is clear that Hustvedt is a force to be reckoned with and in this book she makes her passions and obsessions clear to see; this is not a woman who will be defined by the boundaries of disciplines, rather she has shaped her own understanding of both art and science and produced a fabulous, creative and rigorous critique of both arenas. What is clear throughout A Woman Looking is that Hustvedt has a fervent, indeed almost zealous passion for learning, reading and thinking across the breadth of the arts, humanities, science and politics and has used her knowledge to great effect here.

For those interested in reading more by work by the author you could try Living, Thinking, Looking a collection of essays exploring what it means to be human. For fiction lovers you could try The Blazing World or The Summer Without Men.

Buy A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex and the Mind by Siri Hustvedt at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex and the Mind by Siri Hustvedt at Amazon.co.uk.

Buy A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex and the Mind by Siri Hustvedt at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex and the Mind by Siri Hustvedt at Amazon.com.


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