Books: Memoir

The Women I Think About at Night by Mia Kankamäki: Review

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The Women I Think About at Night by Mia Kankamäki

Mia Kankamäki subtitles her book The Women I Think About at Night “Traveling the Paths of My Heroes.” Her formula: Obsess at night over women she admires from history, read all she can about them, then strategically recreate some of their journeys.

In the book’s first, longest, and best section, the “night woman,” as she calls her subjects, is Karen Blixen, aka Isak Dineson. Kankamäki makes her way to Tanzania to see as much as she can through Blixen’s eyes, and her journey and time living with a Tanzanian family is a joy to read.

She follows that up with accounts of various women explorers, nearly all of them—Isabella Bird, Ida Pfeiffer for two—new names to me. (I did read about Nellie Bly in high school and never forgot her.) The accounts are shorter than the Blixen one, the corresponding journey much smaller in scope and less integrated into the narrative. While she set up the premise early on that she’d be following similar paths, she doesn’t, cramming all the women into one unwieldy trunk (forgive me) for a trip to Japan that is not nearly as interesting as the one to Africa.

She next pivots with even less subtlety to female artists, mostly from the Renaissance and Baroque era, though she leaps to Yoyoi Kusama for her final portrait. After each subject, she has a page of “night women’s advice,” which I discuss more in the “In Depth” section below.

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Why Writers May Want to Read The Women I Think About at Night

The book’s approach to travel is fun, and Kankamäki’s biographical sketches are breezily written yet also serious and pack a lot of information into small digestible bits. Her selection of subjects reveals women way ahead of their time who dared to live fascinating lives; I could see terrific narratives being constructed around many of them. The author’s jazzy, riffy style will not be for everyone. However, as someone working on a memoir, I appreciate her distinctive voice; sometimes my response was positive, sometimes less so. I liked digging down a little in myself to say, ok, why did this work but not this?

The Women I Think About at Night In Depth

Kicking off her book with a bang, Kankamäki wrestles with her own situation—she’s 40, single, childless, and between books—with the inherent contradictions in Blixen’s character, who appears to have been loved and hated in equal measure. Not having seen the movie, I can’t imagine Meryl Streep was affected by siphyllis to nearly the degree that Blixen was, or that her complicated relationship with the locals and wild animals got the un-sugared treatment it deserves.

Kankamäki frequently writers to her subjects, and the letters, which begin with Blixen, were for me the first tinny note in my reading experience. She’s on a first name basis, which may strike you as just right and which I found a little grating. And the “night women’s advice” mentioned above begins decently enough, with things like “Be brave. Play the cards you’re dealt” woven into the Blixen narrative. But once the author moves into one chapter per explorer, the concluding advice at the end of each sketch feels templated and often more bland than a T-shirt: “If you know what you want to do, do it,” for Artemesia Gentelleschi. Her other advice inspired by the same woman is better: “Imbibe the spirit of Caesar and hold it close.” Where was the editor who would say, honey, the first one says nothing, the second is gold?

At one point, Kankamäki admits that she has tremendous difficulty whittling her prose down to 500 pages, which is perhaps a cry for help. The passion, innovation and scholarship of this book deserves a more rigorous editor, and cut by a hundred pages—for the published version she managed to get it down to 400—it would sing.

I recommend The Women I Think About at Night for its enthusiasm, the scope of the premise, and the chance to learn about intriguing women adventurers.

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