Tag Archives: gender

Dietland by @QueSaraiSera #BookReview

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Dietland by @QueSaraiSera #BookReview

Dietland by Sarai Walker

published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co. (2015)


*This book is part of my 2017 search to find positive representations of fat women in fiction or nonfiction, and that positive representation will not hinge on weight loss and falling in love. Thus, books will either meet or not meet my criteria, which will factor overall into my recommendations. I purposely use the word “fat” because it is not a bad word. Using plump, curvy, plus-sized, fluffy, big-boned, shapely, voluptuous, or any other term suggests that fat is bad and thus needs a euphemism.


Dietland is a book unlike any I’ve read before. When I read the end acknowledgements, I wasn’t surprised that Walker claimed Fight Club was an inspiration to her. The novel begins with Plum, a fat woman who can’t say “fat” who works as a ghostwriter for a huge media corporation. Plum’s job is to respond to emails sent by teen girls who write in to the magazine Daisy Chain with their various teen girl issues. The woman who runs the column, the gorgeous Kitty, hired Plum to write back to thousands of messages that don’t make it to the pages of the magazine. Plum is told to work from home (it’s suggested her “look” doesn’t fit in the media world). People laugh at and make fun of Plum, but she ignores them. Every day she heads to a cafe to sit and respond to emails. She does nothing else.

Until one day she notices a girl in colorful tights is following her. And everything goes insane. The girl points her to a feminist organization run by Verena Baptist.

Verena’s mother, Eulayla Baptist, had been a powerhouse in the diet industry (perhaps like Jenny Craig). Plum had been on The Baptist Plan when she was a teen. It was her dream to be thin, and Eulayla was the dream weaver. When Eulayla died, though, daughter Verena wrote a tell-all memoir about how awful dieting was for Eulayla: the fridge was padlocked, a cook was hired so she wouldn’t see food, she stopped going to restaurants and church and seeing friends. Eventually, she had her stomach stapled to save her diet industry.

Yet, Eulayla gave fat women thin promises packed in tiny low-calorie dinners and shakes that tasted like cardboard. And Verena shut down the diet industry her mother had created, leaving women and girls like Plum pissed.

This part of the book is interesting. It shows how women like Plum and millions of others put their faith in a diet and a spokeswoman who promise thinness, which means happiness. The employees who run the meet-ups and weigh-ins make promises and keep the dream alive. Where Verena crushes the dream, women feel out of control of their lives. The feel like they’ll never be happy. Author Sarai Walker captures both sides of the dieting industry. I understand and relate to Plum’s dreams. I understand and relate to Verena’s work to expose the horrors of dieting industries. It’s also worth nothing that several real-life diet companies are not-so-subtly hinted at: Weight Watchers, Nutri-System, Slim Fast.

When Plum meets Verena in the present, about 15 years later, she’s still mad at Verena. Plum has bariatric surgery scheduled in a few months, but Verena says she’ll give Plum $20,000 to do the new Baptist Plan, which will change her life and mind about the surgery. Verena sets up difficult, sometimes humiliating tasks for Plum to teach her (sort of like V for Vendetta).

Unlike other books with fat women, readers know Plum weighs 304lbs. Bravo, I say. Authors claim they don’t give their characters a specific weight so readers can imagine themselves as the main character, but not every reader is a fat woman, nor should only fat women read books about fat women. Plus, we have this tendency to say:

I’m fat, but I’m not THAT fat.

Having an idea of what is “too fat” is basically setting up a cut-off mark for how acceptably fat a person can be. Some women say 200lbs. I used to say 400lbs, back before I thought more about weight and society. We’re saying we accept fat, but “Day-um! Not that much fat!” Don’t do that.

Dietland gets you thinking, a lot. At first, I didn’t like that Verena is thin and always has been. What does she have to say to fat women that is valid? But all women are attacked by a patriarchy. Things start happening around the globe; rapists are dropped from a plane, abusers are thrown off bridges, the media changes pictures of nude women to nude men in the same poses after family members are held hostage. The attacks seem in response to forcing women to be “fuckable,” either through sexual assault or images that perpetuate “fuckability.”

motorcycle

 

Verena thinks locally: she doesn’t help Plum see that fat is fine, she helps Plum see that all women are under attack. When Verena shows Plum how to be “fuckable” because that’s what Plum thought she wanted, Plum learns that being “fuckable” is exhausting: waxing, make-up, clothes shopping, tummy tucking underwear, push-up bras, hair and nail appointments, etc. When I read the pages in which Plum was getting made over, I was exhausted myself! Women can’t only be thin, the must behave, be sexy, be agreeable. Plum learns that thin women aren’t better off:

Because I’m fat I know how horrible everyone is. If I looked like a normal woman…then I’d never know how cruel and shallow people are. I see a different side of humanity. Those guys I went on blind dates with treated me like I was subhuman. If I were thin and pretty, they would have shown me a different side, a fake one, but since I look like this, I know what they’re truly like.

While the story is told from Plum’s point of view, the story isn’t totally about her. What she does is a larger message that ties into these feminist/terrorist acts around the globe. For instance, clothes. Plum had been buying small clothes for her post-bariatric surgery body. Fat is temporary, she thinks, and that’s why fat women keep old clothes they used to fit into and won’t buy new clothes. Eventually, she buys bright clothes and doesn’t apologize (fat women are told to wear black).

Most of us struggle with clothes. Why? Is it because we’re trying to look like someone else in the mirror? We worry about the number on the size tag? The message is your body is not on its way to Thin Town and this is a temporary stop in Fatville. You’re life is now; the body you have is the one you live in now.

Dietland reads like a feminist fat-activist companion novel to Fight Club and gets you thinking. Truth be told, I quit wearing make-up after reading Dietland when I confessed to myself it takes time to put on and runs in my eyes by mid-afternoon.

Maxie Mainwaring #LGBT #ownvoices

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Maxie Mainwaring #LGBT #ownvoices

Maxie Mainwaring, Lesbian Dilettante by Monica Nolan is the 3rd book in the pulpy Lesbian Career Girls series. While I maintained that Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary (LCG #1) and Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher (LCG #2) could each be read as stand alone novels, Maxie’s story is depending upon you knowing the characters from Lois’s story.

In Lois Lenz, we hear little about Maxie Mainwaring other that she has an allowance that she gets from her rich family. Happy to loan small town girl Lois some fancy clothes for her secretary job, Maxie appears to be a generous friend.

Yet, Maxie’s own story tells otherwise! In Maxie Mainwaring, she frequently cheats on longtime girlfriend Pamela with the excuse that she can’t be tied down. While her friends on the 5th floor of her apartment, the Magdalena Arms, count their pennies and hold down careers, Maxie spends indiscriminately and runs up tabs everywhere she goes. That is, until her mother sees her kissing another girl in the power room during a socialite gathering! Maxie is cut off and forced to find employment and learn to balance a budget. The girls at “the Arms” help Maxie out by loaning her work-appropriate clothes, teaching her basic finance skills, and encouraging her to hold down a job.

maxie

Maxie on the right and “the beautiful butch” Lon on the left.

I appreciated Nolan’s attention to women’s relationship to money, especially in this 1960s setting. It wasn’t until 1974 when the Equal Credit Opportunity Act passed in the U.S., allowing women to get a loan without a co-sign from a male relative. Maxie’s notices that she had “always made affectionate fun of the earnest ideologue [Phyllis, a statistician]; now she felt a new respect for her friend, who knew how to stretch a dollar until it screamed.”

But a dilettante by definition doesn’t typically “do” a career. Like it says on the cover, “She had experience in everything…except employment!” My guess was the plot of Maxie Mainwaring, Lesbian Dilettante would be the eponymous young woman struggling with job after job and failing in hilarious ways; it’s right in the title! However, Maxie has two actual jobs in the entire book: one is hilarious like I expected, the other is a highly-coveted position with a magazine, as if readers are to believe someone with no resume could jump into such work. To be fair, Maxie tries to freelance writing gigs, but neither play a big role in the book. Mostly, you’ll get mobs, FBI, tailing people, and girlfriends fighting. So little about employment! How disappointing!

If you’re wondering why I’m writing with so many exclamation points, it’s because Nolan uses this under appreciated punctuation mark to really amp up the camp, so to speak. The tone of the Lesbian Career Girl novels is always fun and dramatic. The book is full of puns:

“That’s government property. I know all about you and your madcap ways, Maxie Mainwaring — I’ve read your file. But this time, you’re playing with fire!”

“I’m a Campfire Girl from way back,” Maxie assured her. “I know how to stoke the flames and put them out.”

Although I enjoyed meeting new characters in the previous Lesbian Career Girl books, Maxie Mainwaring, Lesbian Dilettante overwhelmed me with names and occupations to remember. During a very brief stint writing for a volunteer-run magazine, Maxie is introduced half a dozen new women, though only one comes back later. I wished the book were shorter. By chapter 7, only 24 hours had passed! By chapter 13, I was having trouble remembering who did what and was related to whom.

Bursting at the seams, full of characters who come and go without consequence, Maxie Mainwaring, Lesbian Dilettante should be passed up in favor of the more cohesive Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher.

Anne’s House of Dreams #20BooksofSummer #YAlit #Canada #AnneofGreenGables

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Anne’s House of Dreams #20BooksofSummer #YAlit #Canada #AnneofGreenGables

Anne’s House of Dreams by L.M. Montgomery, published in 1922

Book #5 in the Anne of Green Gables series

Please be sure to first read my reviews of Anne of Green Gables (Book #1), Anne of Avonlea (Book #2), Anne of the Island (Book #3), and Anne of Windy Poplars (Book #4).


Things are finally going in the direction readers have wanted since Gilbert Blythe called Anne Shirley “carrots” and then slid her a candy heart as an apology: they got married. Some things are left static: Marilla and Mrs. Lynde remain unchanged. Apparently, there’s not enough room for the plot to express how they’ve aged, especially Marilla’s worrisome headaches. Diana’s family is practically forgotten, though Diana always comments on how fat she’s getting. Yet, some things are different: there are finally phones in Avonlea homes, which Mr. Harrison calls “modern inconveniences.” The twins are in their middle teens. The biggest change is Anne no longer teaches — women at the time worked until they were married and then stopped, even after having put years into their schooling. Instead, she and Gilbert move to a harbor, “half way between Glen St. Mary and Four Winds Point,” where Gilbert will establish himself as a doctor and Anne will be wife and, we hope, mother. Of course, a new setting provides the opportunity to meet new characters!

House of Dreams

I appreciated that LMM didn’t mess around. Within 20 pages, Anne and Gilbert are married. However, the author has a tendency to describe nature and beautiful women/girls, but not so much emotions. I wasn’t sure how anyone felt during the wedding; LMM tells us, briefly, that there was a wedding. Immediately, the newlyweds head to their new home — Anne’s House of Dreams — to honeymoon there. No sojourn in Europe or the States (again, I appreciate not dragging it out). Because we’re now set at a harbor, LMM has no shortage of descriptions: the mist is emerald, the mist is purple, the mist is moonlit like curls of ribbons, there’s a misty rain. What’s with all the mist?! I may not have lived on a harbor, but I do know that mist is mist, no matter how you spin it. Other descriptions are so flowery that I had trouble focusing. At one point, the sky is described as a jeweled cup that fell over to spill ink on the sky. I kept thinking, The ink spill is gorgeous, but what makes the cup jeweled? I felt like Miss Stacey, who, back when Anne was in the one-room school house, tightened Anne’s language to make her a stronger writer.

To make up for the descriptions that caused my eyes to glaze over, LMM provides new characters who are more complex than previous Anne books. Instead of overwhelming us with mini stories, like she did in Anne of Windy Poplars, LMM creates a few new people with whom Anne engages. Her house of dreams is located far enough from everyone else that she only has a select number of neighbors to befriend.

There’s Miss Cornelia, whose main trait is that she hates men. She even claims that she doesn’t want to have the right to vote because women would get it, vote, and then men would blame all the problems in the country on women! (“That’s their scheme,” she says). Miss Cornelia rags on men on both sides of the harbor. For instance, she tells Anne:

“Mrs. Roderick was a Milgrave, and the Milgraves never had much sense. Her nephew, Ebenezer Milgrave, used to be insane for years. He believed he was dead and used to rage at his wife because she wouldn’t bury him. I‘d a-done it.”

Miss Cornelia looked so grimly determined that Anne could almost see a spade in her hand.

But what I remember most is that Miss Cornelia isn’t all thorns, evidenced by the fact that she is constantly sewing for unwanted babies born around the harbor, babies whose parents already have too many children:

“I s’pose I’m a fool, to be putting hand embroidery on this dress for an eighth baby. But, Lord, Mrs. Blythe, dearie, it isn’t to blame for being the eighth, and I kind of wished it to have one real pretty dress, just as if it was wanted. Nobody’s wanting the poor mite — so I put some extra fuss on its little things just on that account.”

For all of Miss Cornelia’s grumpiness about men, this moment stuck with me through the whole book. I kept thinking about families I know that have more babies than that can afford, and instead of wondering what their parents are thinking, I started thinking good thoughts for the poor babies.

Then there’s Captain Jim, a man in his 70s who used to sail the seas, but now is the lighthouse keeper. When he and Miss Cornelia get in the same room, the conversations are more akin to watching fencing! Captain Jim has countless yarns, but he’s also a reader. Again, we have a character that doesn’t quite match expectations. He shares with Anne and Gilbert his latest read:

“It’s called A Mad Love. ‘Tisn’t my favorite brand of fiction, but I’m reading it jest to see how long she can spin it out. It’s at the sixty-second chapter now, and the wedding ain’t any nearer than when it begun, far’s I can see.”

Is it possible that LMM is making fun of herself just a bit? She did prolong the Blythe wedding for 5 books!

you got me

The most complex new character is Leslie, Anne and Gilbert’s closest neighbor. Extremely beautiful and about the Blythe’s age, Anne is thrilled. But Leslie vacillates from cold to warm, and Anne is frustrated because she’s never failed to win someone as a friend. But Leslie has problems at home, including a marriage at 16 that she was practically forced into, and a husband who causes a range of problems over 12 years. Leslie’s story creates mystery, ethical questions, and challenges for Anne. It’s not often Anne has sorrow, but in Book #5, she does throughout. It makes Book #5 more real and gripping than in the previous books. I guessed what would happen to Leslie, and was wrong.

LMM brings back some traits of Anne and Gilbert that made me love them. Gilbert still studies; he’s never stopped, which causes other doctors to become complacent. Anne’s temper flares up, too. After the Blythes get a second opinion from Captain Jim about an important decision, Anne is mad that the captain sided with Gilbert: “At least, Captain Jim’s tea and conversation calmed Anne’s mind to such an extent that she did not make Gilbert suffer so acutely on the way home as she had deliberately intended to do.” Doesn’t that sound like old Anne, who punished Gilbert for years for calling her “carrots”? I like that LMM includes bits of their personalities from the early books, as opposed to constantly having the characters recall things they did as youths.

Finally, I want to touch on my expectations of characters. In my Book #3 review, many of you pointed out that I could not hold LMM’s characters to contemporary standards when I noted that there were two scenes in which animals are killed (or almost killed) simply because the characters did not want those animals. In Book #5, Captain Jim notes that it is horribly cruel for people to let animals die. The harbor is a summer vacation place, so people take on pets and then abandon them behind when they leave. Because Captain Jim was able to identify a dead cat curled around her living kittens, he went to the owner the next summer when she came back and tore her a new one. Now, you might be thinking, “Come on, Melanie, those cats starved to death. Anne and her friends were going to straight-up kill their cat. It’s not the same — letting animals starve is cruel.” I’ll say it again: in both cases, people did not want cats. In both cases, no one tried to re-home the cats. Since Book #3, LMM has made cats a staple of her stories, and they are frequently re-homed, which means it’s something people do.

Early in Book #5, though, Anne mentions that foreign missionaries encounter cannibals. This, I did not mind. Think about it: Avonlea just got phones. Anne’s never left Canada. Her sources are print books, local newspapers, and what she’s heard. For instance, Heart of Darkness was published in 1899 and based on Joseph Conrad’s own experiences. He writes that there are cannibals in the Congo. For someone without Wi-Fi, whose never traveled, Anne only has the information about Africa that is provided to her, whether or not it’s accurate.

Book #5 was a great read, and I thoroughly convinced LMM writes a hit every other book in the series.

20booksfinal

#20BooksofSummer

This book was read as part of Cathy 746’s challenge to read 20 books between June 1st and September 5th. Here’s the roster:

  1. Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
  2. On Air by Robin Stratton
  3. Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
  4. Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz
  5. Retelling by Tsipi Keller
  6. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  8. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
  9. Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol
  10. Terror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper
  11. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  12. Anne of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  13. Anne of the Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  14. Anne of Windy Poplars by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  15. Anne’s House of Dreams by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  16. Anne of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  17. Rainbow Valley by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  18. Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  19. Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher by Monica Nolan
  20. Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings by Christopher Moore

#AnneofGreenGables #20BooksofSummer #readwomen

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#AnneofGreenGables #20BooksofSummer #readwomen

When I reviewed Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, I was under the assumption that most of my readers had read it and thus included spoilers. Turns out, I was wrong! Anne of Green Gables (1908) by L.M. Montgomery is the beloved classic that has sold over 50 million copies world wide. Despite it’s success, I’ve decided to not include any spoilers — I’ve learned from my mistake! I want to add that I’ve seen the made-for-TV miniseries of this book many times; therefore, I knew the plot.

Green Gables is a farmstead located in Avonlea on Prince Edward Island in Canada. Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert are a brother and sister (a fact not blatantly stated until the very end) who never married or had children of their own, and thus they live together. They’re getting old, though — Matthew is 60 and has a bad heart — so they tell a friend who tells a relative who is going to an orphanage to pass along the message that the Cuthbert’s want to adopt a boy of about 11 to help on their farm. Not exactly a realistic way to initiate an adoption!

Terribly shy Matthew sets off in his buggy to pick up the orphan boy at the train station only to find a girl — a redheaded, skinny, freckled, highly-talkative girl! Will Marilla consent to keep her, when they don’t have any use for some girl? Based on the title of the book, you can assume yes, they do, but the delight of the novel is getting to know Anne and her strong personality, and seeing how people react to her.

Much like in the first chapter of Rebecca, there are numerous descriptions of foliage. Should a person not like Rebecca, it’s thanks to all those plants! The novel smooths out, though, and focuses mostly on rhododendrons and azaleas, which were easy enough to Google. But Anne of Green Gables has all the plant life — flowers, trees, and ferns alike — and it gets overwhelming if you’re like me and can name/recognize almost no plants. Thanks to the TV miniseries, I could picture Avonlea, though plant-lovers would rejoice in the words alone.

Many reviewers talk about Anne’s imagination (it’s huge) and her temper (it’s bad). I want to look a bit deeper at this book to give you food for thought. For instance, how we render children culpable unfairly. Notice that when Anne does something foolish, she is humiliated and must repent. Yet, many of the foolish things she does are the result of an adult’s misdoing. Example: Anne bakes a cake for the new minister and his wife, and she wants to do her very best! Despite a little cold, she bakes the cake with all the love she can muster. But it’s a disaster, and the cake tastes awful. Marilla scolds Anne to pieces, but it’s Marilla who filled an old vanilla jar with anodyne liniment (which, according to the National Museum of American History is not used for cake baking). Anne couldn’t smell the difference due to her cold, and label said vanilla! Other such blunders are Marilla’s fault, but Anne is repeatedly described as impractical, flighty, and sometimes bad. In the end, readers laugh at Anne’s mistakes, but the book also got me thinking about the way we treat children.

bad cake

Most everyone befriends Anne and finds her unique and delightful. While we’re told that she has very little formal schooling due to her orphan days, she’s very smart, creative, and uses a large vocabulary. Although I was totally enjoying Anne, I was also wondering if this book hurts the reality of orphans. Is everyone expecting the children they adopt to be the next Anne? I’m sure many children moved from home to home have deep emotional issues, mainly lack of trust and education (moving from home to home prevents regular schooling). It’s a romanticized novel for sure — why is Anne so smart without school or a stable home? — though when you are in the throes of Green Gables, it’s hard to care about reality.

In fact, you really need to let go of reality. Anne is friends with adults and children alike, and she has a “bosom friend,” the best friend ever, with whom she never ever fights or becomes jealous of.

bosom friends.gif

This disastrous 2016 combined with Anne of Green Gables made me on-again/off-again bitter. If only I moved to Canada, I thought, I could be happy and live a simple life. But that’s just silliness on my part. Avonlea (and Prince Edward Island) is so tiny that there is no diversity in Anne’s world. There are no people of color, LGBT characters, or families from anywhere beyond Avonlea (there are disparaging remarks about Arabs, French, people from U.S., Italians, even those from Nova Scotia). If people in Avonlea are fighting, it’s over small things, like whether or not they should say whatever comes to their minds, or be more tactful.

It doesn’t seem like I’ve said much nice about Anne of Green Gables. I think the magic of this book is that it’s escapism at its best, and it’s funny and endearing. I raced through the pages, sometimes letting my eyes go faster than my brain, requiring me to go back and re-read sentences. I was hungry to go faster because the book is so good.

Take for instance the characters. Two main characters are so stern that Anne’s creativity is sure to rile them up. There’s Mrs. Rachel Lynde:

“…for not even a brook could run past Mrs. Rachel Lynde’s door without due regard for decency and decorum; it probably was conscious that Mrs. Rachel was sitting at her window, keeping a sharp eye on everything that passed….”

rachel.gif

And then there’s Marilla:

“Here sat Marilla Cuthbert, when she sat at all, always slightly distrustful of sunshine, which seemed to her too dancing and irresponsible a thing for a world which was meant to be taken seriously.”

marilla

Compare these two stiff women to Anne:

“You’re not eating anything,” said Marilla sharply, eying her as if it were a serious shortcoming.

Anne sighed.

“I can’t. I’m in the depths of despair. Can you eat when you are in the depths of despair?”

“I’ve never been in the depths of despair, so I can’t say,” responded Marilla.

“Weren’t you? Well, did you ever try to imagine you were in the depths of despair?”

“No, I didn’t.”

depths of despair.gif

The shenanigans that ensue from the intermingling of these three personalities is worth the read alone! Anne of Green Gables is also very funny. When Anne falls off of a roof after being dared to walk it’s peak, bosom buddy Diana runs up:

“Anne, are you killed?” shrieked Diana, throwing herself on her knees beside her friend. “Oh, Anne, dear Anne, speak just one word to me and tell me if you’re killed.”

As if the dead can tell you they’re dead! Ha!

As Anne grows and matures and does her best in school and at home, she is recognized for her efforts. Mrs. Rachel Lynde says, “You’re a credit to your friends, Anne, that’s what, and we’re all proud of you.” And isn’t that a great feeling? I can’t remember a time in my life when doing good meant I reflected well on my friends. Competition to be the best is a selfish, angry beast, one we’ve cultivated to the extreme. For me, in high school, it was getting 1st chair violin, regardless of how well the orchestra did. In grad school, it was who wrote the best stories and published the most, despite writing not being a competitive activity. Even while blogging, I’m aware that we’re all working to have the most likes and comments and shares. I want to be a credit to my friends and community. And that’s the beauty of Anne of Green Gables. It’s an unrealistic world, but you want to emulate it to be a better person.

My copy is part of an eight-book box set released from Bantam Books in 1998. There is a map of Prince Edward Island and a brief biography of L.M. Montgomery in the back.

20booksfinal

#20BooksofSummer

This book was read as part of Cathy 746‘s challenge to read 20 books between June 1st and September 5th. Here’s the roster:

  1. Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
  2. On Air by Robin Stratton
  3. Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
  4. Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz
  5. Retelling by Tsipi Keller
  6. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  8. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
  9. Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol
  10. Terror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper
  11. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  12. Anne of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  13. Anne of the Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  14. Anne of Windy Poplars by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  15. Anne’s House of Dreams by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  16. Anne of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  17. Rainbow Valley by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  18. Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  19. Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher by Monica Nolan
  20. Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings by Christopher Moore

The Diverse Books Tag #diversebookbloggers

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The Diverse Books Tag #diversebookbloggers

Naz over at Read Diverse Books has challenged everyone to read more diversely. If you have read a book that fits into the category, share it! If you haven’t, go find a book that fits into the category with the goal of reading it. Here we go:

The-DiverseBooks-Tag

Find a Book Starring a Lesbian Character:

I’ve got this one in spades. Books with lesbians come to me easily — or perhaps I seek them out? — but mostly, I look for excellent stories, and I never shy away from those stories if the protagonist is a lesbian. In fact, in some instances, the leading lady being a lesbian is what drew me in!

Checking out the following:

Find a Book with a Muslim Protagonist:

Okay, my reading is not as great in this area. There is one book that I have read probably half a dozen times and taught each semester for several years now: The Autobiography of Malcolm X with Alex Haley. This book surprises my students because Malcolm is a Muslim minister for the Nation of Islam, which is a different branch of Islam than what you would encounter in the Middle East. After Malcolm did his pilgrimage to Mecca, he disavowed the N.O.I. and went Orthodox.

Looking at Goodreads, I would like to check out Ms. Marvel, a new comic book series. I also want to read Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah, which I saw in Barnes & Noble.

Find a Book Set in Latin America:

This is another category with which I have more experience. I’ve also seen Junot Diaz twice; the dude has stood two feet away from me (he likes to wander auditoriums when he talks). And my god, does he swear a lot (I love it). The last time I saw him, he asked where the Latino/as in the audience were. Then he asked where his Africans were. Very few people raised their hands, and he said that wasn’t his fault, but the college’s (we were at the University of Notre Dame). Here is my list:

  • Ayiti by Roxane Gay (Haiti)
  • Unaccompanied Minors by Alden Jones (Costa Rica)
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Dominican Republic)
  • Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War by Deb Olin Unferth (Nicaragua)
  • Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros (Mexico)
  • Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work by Edwidge Danticat (Haiti)

I have a number of books I’ve read by Latino/a authors who live in the U.S., such as Lolita Hernandez, Salvador Plascencia, and Desiree Zamorano. I’d like to read The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Che Guevara (Mexico).

Find a Book About a Person with a Disability:

This is a tough one because I feel awkward reading a book about a person with a disability written by someone without a disability. I’ve noticed that most of the books with people who have disabilities I encounter are on the mental health spectrum as opposed to a physical disability, so I’ll keep my eyes open for more books with people who have disabilities.

  • Half Life by Shelly Jackson (conjoined twins)
  • American Genius by Lynn Tillman (mental illness)
  • Bogeywoman by Jaimy Gordon (self-harm, anxiety)
  • Sweethearts by Melanie Rae Thon (deaf)
  • Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulemia by Marya Hornbacher (mental illness)
  • Madness: A Bipolar Life by Marya Hornbacher (mental illness)
  • Annie’s Ghost by Steven Luxenberg (disabled legs and mental illness)
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (mentally disabled)
  • Lily of the Valley: Chateau of Flowers by Margaret Rome (blind)

Find a Science Fiction or Fantasy Book with a POC Protagonist:

I don’t read a ton of sci-fi or fantasy, but when I do, it tends to have POC in it. Perhaps because I find that when an author who is a POC writes sci-fi or fantasy, he or she includes deeper messages of race and gender than a white writer may.

  • Soul Resin by Charles W. Cannon
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
  • Bald New World by Peter Tieryas
  • The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

I have Kindred by Octavia Butler on my list. She wrote so many sci-fi/fantasy novels with POC; she is ultra prolific.

Find a Book Set In or About An African Country:

Find a Book Written by an Indigenous/Native Author:

  • Ledfeather by Stephen Graham Jones (Blackfeet)
  • Demon Theory by Stephen Graham Jones
  • It Came From Del Rio by Stephen Graham Jones
  • The Last Final Girl by Stephen Graham Jones
  • After the People Lights Have Gone Off by Stephen Graham Jones
  • The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie (grew up on Spokane reservation, but has heritage with several tribes)

Okay, so I’ve read a lot of Stephen Graham Jones. Technically, he would fit really well into sci-fi and fantasy starring a POC because he writes lots of mind-bending horror with time warps and craziness. I’ve read essays by Leslie Marmon Silko and Joy Harjo, and I would like to read Louise Erdrich soon. I’d also like to read Ojibwe authors, as I grew up on the Saginaw Chippewa reservation.

Find a Book Set in South Asia:

  • Palestine by Joe Sacco (Israel-ish, depending on your viewpoint regarding what to call this territory)
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (Iran)
  • Love in a Dead Language by Lee A. Siegel (India)
  • The Question of Bruno by Aleksander Hemon (Sarajevo)
  • Currency by Zoe Zolbrod (Thailand)
  • The Girl on the Fridge by Etgar Keret (Isreal)
  • Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (India) I incorrectly remembered which book this was! It is mostly set in the United States and focuses on Indian-American families. My mistake 🙂
  • Of Marriageable Age by Sharon Maas (India, British Guyana)
  • Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (India)
  • Dragonfish by Vu Tran (Vietnam) This book is half set in Vietnam and half in Las Vegas.

Find a Book with a Biracial Protagonist:

  • Sweethearts by Melanie Rae Thon (Crow/white)
  • The Family Nobody Wanted by Helen Doss (almost every person in the book is biracial)
  • Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evens (black/white)
  • Quicksand and Passing by Nella Larsen (black/white)

Find a Book About a Transgender Character or that is about Transgender Issues:

  • Cloud 9 by Carol Churchill
  • Woman’s World by Graham Rawle
  • Drawing Blood by Poppy Z. Brite

I also have Janet Mock’s memoir on my to-read list, of course!

The-DiverseBooks-Tag

Harley & Me #bookreview #readwomen #harleydavidson #20BooksofSummer

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Harley & Me #bookreview #readwomen #harleydavidson #20BooksofSummer

Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy

published by Counterpoint Press, May 2016

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Harley and Me is a memoir about what it means to take risks. For Murphy, her risk-taking most noticeably began when she was a skateboarder in California. But a teen pregnancy followed by her baby’s adoption led Murphy into the arms of safety: marriage at 22 to a stable guy, 3 kids, house, university job, and what she calls a blanket of estrogen that kept her from doing anything too risky. But at 48 and contemplating divorce, Bernadette Murphy feels something unusual — something she wouldn’t image over the past 25 years of wife and mother — she wants to be fully alive, fully present, and not risk averse. Furthermore, she doesn’t want to do a “song and dance” to please men anymore.

I’ve been a passenger on motorcycles for 26 years. My parents have been riding my whole life. Before that, it was my paternal grandparents. You could say it’s a family thing! Go through my thousands of family photos and you’ll find dozens of motorcycle pictures from through the years, including strangers’ motorcycles (hey, if a bike looks good, you never want to forget it).

Far left: me leaning on my brother’s motorcycle circa 2004. Going to the right is my dad, brother, and granny on their newest rides circa 2016.

But Harley and Me is about a middle-aged woman getting a motorcycle, which isn’t terribly common — unless you’re my mom. Which is why I felt a great desire to read Murphy’s book when it popped up in my Twitter feed. I wanted to see how other women with nearly grown children felt about driving a “death machine,” as some paranoid people call them (as if we don’t die in cars).

Left: my sweet ma as passenger in the early 80s. Right: 4 motorcycles and 120,000+ miles later, my sweet ma today with her own award-winning motorcycle. I love the skeleton hands on the mirror!

Murphy really captures what it means to start riding a motorcycle. Her good friend Rebecca inherited a Harley dealership, which is how Murphy is lured into signing up for her motorcycle license. First, she must attend a week-long class. While most people have down the “look” of a biker (and I see this all the time — people who don’t own a motorcycle but do own an entire closet of leather and Harley-Davidson T-shirts), Murphy feels she does not. She shows up to class:

In baggy men’s Levi 501s, a stained T-shirt, gardening gloves, and hiking boots. I look more like a hired hand than a biker chick. At this moment, I’d love a pair of killer motorcycle boots.

Because I get what Murphy is saying about “the look,” I really enjoyed her descriptions and comparisons. Even when she dumps her bike the first time, she makes the scene come off the page:

I sit on the curb in front of the gas station’s convenience store. My hands shake. My mouth is dry. It feels as if all my blood has been exchanged for electricity. I am awash in shame. I don’t look like the badass biker chick I’m trying to become, but some kind of poseur who can’t control this machine, a pathetic girl trying to do something beyond her ability.

Here, I really felt for Murphy. Though pretty much everyone dumps their bike at one time or another, a woman doing so with witnesses serves as evidence that motorcycles are just “too much” for women. It’s scary to face those people shaking their heads, Murphy notes, wondering if she’s gone crazy and this is her mid-life crisis. A year later, she is divorced,and people wonder if the “crisis” caused Murphy to give up stability and comfort. The ability to take a chance, change her life, and try something brave had me nearly in tears for how safe and squishy I want to make my own life — truthfully, I felt like a wuss.

harley-and-me-front-cover-v3 copy

Harley and Me provides plenty of commentary on feminism. Sometimes a whole book on feminism can be great, but when it’s woven into a personal narrative, the author can accomplish connections that might otherwise seemed forced. For instance, Murphy shares her love of Fonzie. Later, when talking to a male biker, he says he wishes he were the Fonz, and Murphy says she wanted to date the Fonz. But as the conversation changes direction, Murphy boldly confesses:

Actually, I take that back….I wanted to be Fonzie, too.

If Fonzie is cool, powerful, and slick, is he only a role model for men? Murphy proves no, and again I related to her inner complications about assigned gender roles. I often wished I had the power and energy and chaos that the men in my favorite rock bands, like the guys in Metallica, or Chris Cornell, or Tom Morello. Don’t we all wish to be seen and in control? For women, being seen is harder than men might think. We’re either invisible or on display like a prize cow.

Murphy breaks down stereotypes of women on bikes and how she doesn’t fit:

Just to get on a bike is to break prescribed gender roles even in this postfeminist age. By taking it one step further, refusing to be constricted by the typecast of the sexy biker mama or the hard-ass butch rider, is to accept one’s true sense of self. I like my motorcycle simply because I like to ride.

Her examination of stereotypes comes up again and again when she notes that her friend drives a pink motorcycle with Barbies attached to the sides, so everyone pays attention to her (and wants pictures). At biker events, women are almost always on the back (known as the “bitch seat” in biker culture) and are sure to have lots of skin showing, riding along in ridiculous spiked heels. After her divorce and bonding experience with her motorcycle, Murphy realizes she has a strong libido, and that to embrace it is not promiscuous or doing men a “favor,” but has to do with sex in biker culture.

There is a lot of useful information in Harley and Me, but this isn’t a book about discovering the love of riding. It’s about risk-taking. Murphy shares many (perhaps too many) articles and studies on the effects of taking risks on brain chemistry, how we strive our whole lives to create safety, but when safety is assured, our brains grown sluggish. We lack the brain chemistry that comes from risks, like learning a new language, taking up an instrument, sky diving, competing in a sport, getting a new job, dating, changing homes — or riding a motorcycle. I felt less wuss-like when I learned that “risk” isn’t defined by the activities from the X-Games; it’s what we personally consider risky.

I appreciated all the research Murphy did, but it really slowed down the memoir. Chapter 8 was terribly slow when she explained risk taking in a scientific sense, because she keeps explaining it. Basically, once we do something that makes us anxious because we took a risk, we get a hit of feel-good chemicals and want to do it again. This concept is restated at least a dozen times over the next 150 pages.

Part of reinforcing the theory that taking risks has made Murphy a dopamine fiend comes from personal evidence. There are many scenes in the 3rd part of the book: Murphy living in French Polynesia for three months, Murphy running a marathon there, scuba diving in the ocean, paddle boating, rock climbing, ice climbing. Each example comes with its own descriptions of how afraid she was, how she knows she can conquer fear, and how taking the risk will make her take new risks because she received those feel-good chemicals. Science was scattered throughout this section, too, and the book got so repetitive that I was forgetting the focus was Murphy’s relationship with her Harley-Davidson. I felt impatient and spacey.

The book ends with Murphy reiterating all the risks she’d experienced (though I’d just read them!) and taking a blood test to see if riding a motorcycle increases oxytocin. It was more science to prove that riding a motorcycle changed her life because it changed her chemistry, but I didn’t need it. I wanted more personal insights, more intense description that came earlier in the book, both when she described her current life and childhood. Including the numerous typos I spotted, I felt a stronger editor could have culled the best parts and made this into an educational, inspiring, feminist memoir.

I want to thank Bernadette Murphy and her publicist at Counterpoint Press for sending me a reviewer’s copy in exchange for an honest review. To learn more about Murphy’s writing, please check out her Meet the Writer feature!

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#20BooksofSummer

This book was read as part of Cathy 746‘s challenge to read 20 books between June 1st and September 5th. Here’s the roster:

  1. Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
  2. On Air by Robin Stratton
  3. Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz
  4. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (*might change ranking due to when book club meets)
  5. Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
  6. Of Zen and Men by Robin Stratton
  7. Retelling by Tsipi Keller
  8. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  9. The Thirteenth Earl by Evelyn Pryce
  10. Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody
  11. Terror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper (*might change ranking due to when book club meets)
  12. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  13. Anne of Avonlea
  14. Anne of the Island
  15. Anne of Windy Poplars
  16. Anne’s House of Dreams
  17. Anne of Ingleside
  18. Rainbow Valley
  19. Rilla of Ingleside
  20. The Brothers Karamzov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

 

Only Ever Yours #bookreview #readwomen #YAlit

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Only Ever Yours #bookreview #readwomen #YAlit

Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

published by Quercus in 2015

procured from the library

At a chunky 406 pages, Only Ever Yours is longer than I usually like to read for Grab the Lapels. However, in a search for friendship, I found a book club in my area advertised online. I was in luck; their next meeting would be 9 days later, and many of the books they had read, such as Furiously Happy and Between the World and Me, I had read too. The library, I discovered, kept O’Neill in the Teen section, which is when it dawned on me that Only Ever Yours is a young adult book. What’s the big beef, you might ask? While I don’t condemn young adult literature, I find that most of it takes societal problems and makes the issue so obvious that the book feels like a JUST SAY NO campaign. Why read YA when I can get my hands on the more nuanced adult versions? I know that YA is often an issue of sellers labeling a book a certain way, but when there are billions of book choices, I’m not really willing to take the chance.

Basically, without my new book club, I would not have picked up Louise O’Neill’s novel.

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This was the cover of my library copy

Only Ever Yours is a dystopian book about women and girls (called eves). They are genetically modified and hatched in a school for the use of men and boys (called Inheritants). These girls are brainwashed through propaganda for 16 years to follow mantras, like “I am pretty. I am a good girl. I always do as I am told” and “I am happy-go-lucky” and “I am appealing to others. I am always agreeable.” Whether they become a wife who bears sons, a concubine, or an unsexed teacher in the girls’ training school, they are told to be grateful that they weren’t naturally born and conceived, because girl babies are thrown in graves. Girls and women are property, totally at the disposal of a man’s desire to procreate or get off. The unsexed school teachers are not necessary, we’re told, but they’re important because they dispense the training to be wives and concubines. Their 16th year of life, the eves are told which role they will play. Whatever a girl’s role, it is expected for boys to get married and have a lot of sex with various women.

There are rules for eves:

All eves are created to be perfect, but over time they seem to develop flaws. Comparing yourself to your sisters is a useful way of identifying these flaws, but you must then take the necessary steps to improve yourself. There is always room for improvement. — Audio Guide to the Rules for Proper female Behavior, the Original Father

The focus on Only Ever Yours is the girls about to graduate school, at age 16.  To maintain the perfect weight (about 118 lbs) they all have eating disorders aided by pills. The main character is freida, #630. Each week, she and the other eves are ranked by how attractive they are. The top ten eves are most likely to secure a wife role. While eves have zero choices, because choices mean being burned on a pyre or experimented on —  Inheritants don’t have to compete for anything, so they are spoiled, fat, greedy, and demand sex. I kept thinking this whole society is driven by the throbbing penis.

The characters in Only Ever Yours are terribly familiar. If you’ve ever been a devoted fan of the Sweet Valley Twins books like I was, you’ll remember the cast: Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, perfect size sixes, matching golden blond hair, blue-green eyes. No one can tell the twins apart, except their family and dearest friends. Only Ever Yours has Liz and Jessie, “exact replicas” with “golden-blond hair” and “aqua-colored eyes.” If you’re thinking, the eves are genetically modified…how did they get twins? then I would say, I know, right?! The only explanation seems to be that the parallel between the two books was what Louise O’Neill was going for.

Just like in Sweet Valley, Only Ever Yours has a “bossy bitch,” a girl who wants to better than everyone else. In Sweet Valley, we’re talking about Lila Fowler. In O’Neill’s novel, it’s megan. Such girls give compliments like, “You’re so brave for wearing any old thing! I admire that!”

The eves in this book are painfully annoying because all they focus on is what they look like. This is how they’ve been trained their whole lives. They’re ranked by appearance. There are mirrors everywhere. They are weighed. One person hit 125 lbs, the FATTEST anyone’s ever been!! Then, I think back to Sweet Valley. The first book, Double Love, opens with this paragraph:

“Oh, Lizzie, do you believe how horrendous I look today!” Jessica Wakefield groaned as she stepped in front of her sister, Elizabeth, and stared at herself in the bedroom mirror. “I’m so gross! Just look at me! Everything is totally wrong. To begin with, I’m disgustingly fat….” With that, she spun around to show off a stunning figure without an extra ounce visible anywhere.

double love

Double Love, September 1984

And the eves in Only Ever Yours are exactly the same way. There’s the teeter-totter of competition for prettiest, but the recognition that both concubines and wives are part of society and please men.

Honestly, I can’t tell the eves apart. freida says the eves are “almost interchangeable.” The diversity, she points out, is in “skin tone and hair color.” freida is brown, but her color is only mentioned about 4 times. At one point, frieda’s skin is compared to that of an Inheritant named Mahatma. Perhaps she’s Indian, I thought, but remembered the eves all look exactly the same. There’s no ethnicity.

But as frieda takes more and more drugs to help her sleep, she feels that she looks terrible. Is that true? I’m not sure. Like Jessica Wakefield, most eves think they look terrible (except megan). freida is our biased, brainwashed narrator. One way O’Neill tells us eves are different is by their clothes — so. many. clothes. But I don’t know kitty heels and sweetheart necklines, so it didn’t mean much. And do clothes matter on identical perfect bodies?

Half of the book is backstabbing, manipulating, and alliances created between eves. It’s catty. It’s Sweet Valley Twins galore. Girls record any tiny wrongdoing a fellow eve may commit and immediately post it on social media. I kept telling myself the author is doing this on purpose. Just go with it. It’s a brilliant choice the author made to showcase contemporary jealousy and female objectification. But, ew.

Eves are told how NOT to feel: no crying, no loving boys, no persuading boys. Eves don’t even see Inheritants until a couple of months before the big ceremony. At the ceremony 16-year-old dudes just choose 16-year-old girls to be wives based on their smokin’ hot bodies. O’Neill suggests, this just means give birth to sons and feeling superior to the concubines, who were not ranked top ten. The arrival of the boys is actually where the story gets interesting because there is less focus on hotness rankings.

The author effectively plays with the reader’s feelings. We know who the top-ten hottest eves are. But after the boys show up, eves aren’t ranked anymore. They aren’t allowed to tell the boys how they were ranked. Why? Competition kept them fit and working hard to please, perhaps? Enter Darwin: he’s the only handsome Inheritant, and the son of a judge. He’s the Bruce Patman (if you’re still following my Sweet Valley Twin comparison). Darwin shows interest in our scrappy freida — it’s like there’s some Todd Wilkins mixed in there! Hooray, I thought! Darwin can save freida! Things can turn out okay! HE’S NICE.

bruce patmantodd wilkins

Bruce Patman VS. Todd Wilkins — same person?

Um, hello? Hey, self? Yeah…since when are we interested in a boy saving a girl? And ultimately, isn’t he going to use her body to have sons while having porno relations with concubines? And isn’t he going to set her on fire when she turns 40?? And isn’t she trained to be okay with all of this??? I actually rooted for Darwin and freida for ages before my brain caught up with me. The eves are so emotionally and sexually abused (and they don’t know it) that I thought a good old-fashioned romance between teenagers was the answer. The ending of Only Ever Yours was unpredictable. It kept changing directions, which kept me interested.

If I wanted the grown-up version of this book, I could have read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. But that’s not what book club picked. Despite the aspects that annoyed me — and let’s be fair; they were necessary for the story — I would recommend Only Ever Yours.

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman #readwomen #bookreview @thelindywest

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Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman #readwomen #bookreview @thelindywest

*Author photo from The Guardian.

Shrill (May 2016, Hachette Books) is a collection of 19 essays from comedian/journalist Lindy West, who writes for The Guardian and has pieces at many websites, such as JezebelNew York TimesGQ, and The Stranger. I heard through a Tweet that her collection was being published, and I was instantly drawn to what I learned: West is smart, precise, funny — and fat. As a fat lady myself, I wanted to know more. Rarely do fat female role models appear in the United States (um, or elsewhere), so I put a hold on a copy at the library.

After I got into the book, I realized that I’ve read some of West’s articles in the above mentioned publications. I don’t often remember a writer’s name when I read an online article, but the piece she wrote that I remembered clearly describes the time a troll created an e-mail address and Twitter account using West’s recently deceased father’s name to humiliate and torment her. And then he later came out and apologized to her, which never, ever happens. The main themes of Shrill are fat shaming, rape culture, comedy, abortion, and trolls, and they’re all examined through a feminist lens.

Anytime I read about feminism, I instantly compare the work to Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. Gay is probably the most notable feminist of our generation. After reading Bad Feminist, I didn’t feel great. I was mostly confused and disappointed. It seemed like she was either telling personal stories, talking about how she likes things that most feminists feel oppress women (like Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”), and listing what she likes and hates (movies, books, etc.). I felt like Bad Feminist started as a listicle and ended up a book. Thesis statements? Not really. Organization? More like meandering. A call to action? I have no idea what Gay thinks feminists can do to move forward. I do not write to demean Gay’s book. But I do know that many other readers, according to Goodreads, found the same issues and are perhaps seeking a different contemporary feminist voice.

bad feminist

Yes, West is a white woman and Roxane Gay is Haitian-American, but both women talk about intersectional feminism, so West is a good alternative if you are also an intersectional feminist. Both women included personal essays that appeared to have little to do with feminism. Both are hugely into pop culture (especially Twitter). But I felt West’s writing was clearer, more rhetorically sound, and presented solutions to problems feminists encounter.

Some examples of West’s intersection feminism include the socioeconomic. She talks openly about her abortion (and created #shoutyourabortion to de-stigmatize abortion rights) and how she discovered, “It didn’t occur to me, at the time, that there was anything complicated about obtaining an abortion. This is a trapping of privilege: I grew up middle-class and white in Seattle, I had always had insurance, and, besides, abortion was legal.” Later in the essay, West states what privilege is, referring to the abortion clinic making her promise to pay her bill instead of charging her up front like they’re supposed to: “Privilege means that it’s easy for white women to do each other favors. Privilege means that those of us who need it the least often get the most help.”

West again touches on intersectional feminism when she discusses fat-shaming, which makes fat women feel like they don’t deserve anything. She argues, “Denying people access to value is an incredibly insidious form of emotional violence, one that our culture wields aggressively and liberally to keep marginalized groups small and quiet.” Throughout Shrill, West considers feminism that benefit her more than women of color, with disabilities, etc.

shirll

The best part of Shirll is that West helped me “figure out” my own feminism. While I feel that rape jokes are never, ever funny, I would not have an answer that appeased the folks who shout about freedom of speech, say “you’re just not funny,” or call you “too sensitive” for your claims. But West breaks it down. When she was younger, West constantly went to comedy clubs and saw rising stars (who are now super famous), like Patton Oswalt, Mitch Hedberg, Marc Maron, and Maria Bamford.

One night, a comedian was telling a joke about herpes, and everyone was laughing. Except West. She analyzes why she didn’t laugh. Because the comic wasn’t making fun of his herpes, the joke was designed to shame people who have herpes. Statistically, West points out, many people in the room have herpes. So why are they laughing? They laugh, she argues, because if they don’t, they will be outed for having herpes. The joke works “brilliantly”because there is no chance that people won’t laugh, essentially, because the comic was lazy enough to embarrass everyone into laughing. Those who don’t have herpes are now vindicated in their feelings that people with herpes are gross. This moment changed the way West felt about comedy, which led her into arguing publicly that rape jokes are not funny.

Rape jokes are not funny, West points out, because they come from a person of power profiting on the traumas of people with no power. She compares it to the CEO of a company getting up at the Christmas party and roasting the janitor for barely making enough money to feed his family. Similarly, a white man will most likely never be raped, nor will he fear being raped, nor does he have a game plan for how to avoid being raped and what to do if raped (women like me know these plans in detail). Therefore, the joke is funny to men. West was invited to debate Jim Norton on a TV show over the issue. If you know Norton, you know he’s a bit if a dark comic, and I’m not surprised he’s pro-rape jokes.

west norton.png

What’s interesting is that West’s rhetoric was sound, but she didn’t change Norton’s mind. Off camera, he said he agreed that it’s wrong to take advantage of victims, but he was more concerned about free speech for comics. Norton felt that comedy didn’t translate into real life — that people who believe rape jokes are funny won’t go rape people. West disagreed, and then something happened…

Jim Norton fans bombarded West’s Twitter feed, e-mail, the comment section sof her articles — all over the internet. They wrote things about raping her, thinking she’s too fat to rape, cutting her up with an electric saw, etc. Norton had to admit that his fans were being aggressive and translating the “right” to tell rape jokes into real-life rape threats. He even wrote an article asking his fans to cool it. This was in 2010. West notes that since then, the comedy scene has changed; comedians are changing their tune. Thinking about how speaking up helped, and how using the rape threats to make a point helped, changed the way I thought about treading the internet, and about the maxim “Don’t Feed the Trolls,” with which West disagrees. Why should women be silent?

West also argues that fat is a feminist issue. She notes, “You have to swallow, every day, that you are a secondary being whose worth is measured by an arbitrary, impossible standard, administered by men.” West also describes how as a fat child, she was so ashamed of her body that it kept her silent. Women, both online and in life, are silenced constantly. Heartbreakingly, West explains that as a child, “[she] got good at being early on — socially, if not physically. In public, until [she] was eight, [she] would speak only to [her] mother, and even then, only in whispers, pressing [her] face into her [mother’s] leg.” West doesn’t have these earth-shattering traumas to report (if I compare her to Jessica Valenti, for example, whose new memoir catalogs all the sexual trauma she’s experienced). Yet, she is affected for most of her life by fat-shaming and the way it shuts her down as a woman, helping me to think more about my own silences — and the voices we’re missing from other fat people. There’s no need to compare traumas (sexual, emotional, physical) and decide whose is worse by some made-up standard. Traumas that shut women down are all appalling.

No matter what she’s writing about, West is ridiculously funny. She starts Shrill by describing all the fat female role models from her childhood, a list that included Auntie Shrew, Lady Cluck, The Trunchbull, and Ursula the Sea Witch. There are almost none, is the point. But did you ever wonder why King Triton is so ripped? West writes, “History is written by the victors, so forgive me if I don’t trust some P90X sea king’s smear campaign against the radical fatty in the next grotto.” Oh, man! I almost died!


auntie shrew      lady kluck3      the trunchbull      ursula2


In a nutrition class West signs up for, back when she felt like she needed to lose weight to be somebody, the teacher tells the students that if they get hungry after breakfast at 7Am and before lunch at 1PM, they should have 6 almonds. If they’ve gone over their “almond allotment, try an apple. So crisp. So filling.” West remembers, “Then everyone in nutrition class would nod about how fresh and satisfying it is to just eat an apple.” Lindy West labels this scene…wait for it… “the Apple Appreciation Circle-Jerk Jamboree.” I laughed so hard about this I called my mom and read her the scene! My mom, too had experienced such a class years ago.

Here’s one more great line: West compares her first experience in first-class flying and compares her seat to the ones in coach: “It has succeeded at being a chair instead of a flying social experiment about the limits of human endurance.” I read this passage at work and started cackling, despite the dead silence of the building.

Sometimes I wondered if I found Shrill so terribly funny and relevant because I am a fat woman. I tried reading passages to my husband, who didn’t laugh as much as I did, but he’s also a thoughtful person who may dismiss the humor and feel bad, wondering instead if I’m feeling bad for having read about fat-shaming and rape. My verdict is you must read this book. Lindy West is a feminist who’s doing something; she fought –with results — the fat-shaming that became acceptable around 2005, rape jokes in 2010, and internet trolls who make the internet unsafe for women.

Explosion

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Explosion

Explosion by Zarina Zabrisky

published by Epic Rites Press, October 2015

“Russians do not surrender…we suffer and survive.”

I can’t even remember how I was introduced to Zarina Zabrisky’s work, but we’ve been in contact for so long now that I consider her a friend whom I would love to meet some day. Zabrisky is a Russian-American woman living in California. Her work is art meets the political, a mashup of filth and beauty. I commented on the horror in her short collection, Iron. American decadence contrasts the difficulties of navigating government institutions in Russia in the novella, A Cute Tombstone. Later, Zabrisky asked me to put together a virtual book tour for A Cute Tombstone, and I learned more about funeral portraits in Russia and the band Pussy Riot. Zabrisky later asked me to put together another virtual book tour for her first novel, We, Monsters. The banner my husband created for the tour, made from two images, is so beautiful:

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Back when I had a Weebly address!

Explosion is more like Zabrisky’s earlier short collection. There are 14 short stories (some several pages, others very short) in Explosion, and all are from the point of view of a Russian. Sometimes the setting is California, but it’s almost always Russia.zabrisky explosion

Right away I notice all the drug use; there is so much heroin. “Why?” I ask. Truthfully, my knowledge of Russia is as deep as a puddle, so I made use of my college’s database and started hunting around for articles. Hours and hours later, I felt mad but a bit enlightened. John M. Kramer, author of the article “Drug Abuse in Russia,” notes that a study from 2010 found”Russia has almost as many heroin users (1.5 million) as all other European countries combined (1.6 million)” (31).

While most of Zabrisky’s stories have characters addicted to heroin, the story with the clever name “Heroines” stands out. The narrator speaks to the reader, explaining that she wants to tell us about her friends. She says, “I have a lot of friends. I’m Russian and my girlfriends are Russian.” Next is a list of tragic stories: Alina, dead from a heroin overdose; Marina with Hep C (“We all got Hep C together”); Anna, whose husband abandoned her and their daughter, forcing her to marry again (“In Russia, if you don’t have a man, you’re a waste”); Lana the mail order bride. In many of the 14 stories, women must attach themselves to men to survive. While most of the stories aren’t about drugs, it’s always there, always present, and Zabrisky captures the essence of the setting because so many Russians are actually addicted. 

Disease, like Marina’s Hep-C, is a massive problem. According to Gregory Gilderman, author of the article “Death by Indifference,” a study conducted in 2009 found that somewhere “between 840,000 and 1.2 million are HIV-positive” in Russia, which has a population of around 143,000,000 (44). A lot of the spread of HIV has to do with dirty needles. While some countries like the U.S. have needle exchange programs to slow the spread of people contracting HIV or hepatitis, “nongovernmental organizations [in Russia] that advocate harm reduction strategies—needle exchanges, providing condoms to sex workers—face police harassment and criminal penalties” (Gilderman 45, emphasis mine). Zabrisky’s collection of stories points out the dark times of the Soviet Union resulting from the leadership, without being an in-your-face condemnation that comes off as “preachy.” Truthfully, based on the articles I read, Russia today and the Soviet Union aren’t really that different.

If you’re using or dealing drugs, mum’s the word. But in Explosion, if you’re thinking anything you shouldn’t, you must be silent, too. A girl in 1986 writes in her diary, “Be silent, hide and keep secret your feelings and thoughts. … The thought spoken is a lie.” When the girl starts asking her father, a scientist, questions, he praises her, but the mother scolds them both for saying things that are not acceptable in the Soviet Union, including questions about God. The mother also warns, “And you better only discuss such things like [God] at home, not at school.” More research reminded me that the Soviet Union declared the nation atheist, so God talk was forbidden.

Silence, silence everywhere. In another story, a woman won’t phone the police at the request of a foreign man because she believes the police and the bad guys are the same thing. He asks, “Are you refusing to call?” and she thinks, “I’m refusing to die.” Zabrisky, ever the supporter of Pussy Riot, also fits the story of the band recording their punk prayer into one of her stories. “For the government, men with voice are more dangerous than drug pushers,” she writes, “And women with voice — even more so.” Sometimes, Zabrisky’s voice is more forceful, such as the reference to Pussy Riot, which stands out as being obvious protest in literature, but the subtle undercurrent of silencing remind me again of 1984 and the Thought Police. Such moments are as quite as the citizens, creating a parallel in content and the message.

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Explosion creates an array of women surviving the Russia that Pussy Riot protests. “You have big boobs and speak English,” one woman is told. She could work as a prostitute and get intel from foreigners. “The just under one million sex workers in Russia, for instance, live at the whim equally of pimps and the police, and have no practical recourse if they are raped or assaulted,” Gilderman writes (48). The other option is to marry foreigners. “What’s love?” one woman asks her sister, “I’ll find you a husband. I’ll get you out of here.” Women have no autonomy in Zabrisky’s collection, not even when they move away. “Unfortunately, for many adolescent boys and even adult men, the shaping of their male identity involves the debasement and suppression of girls,” (61) adds T.A. Gurko, author of “Underage Females’ Experiences Of Sexual Relations, Motherhood, And Married Life.”

Women are often seduced by the promise of marriage because they are “whores” and “sluts” and compromise Russia’s traditional values when they are single. One character is in love with a drug dealer, who promises to marry her. She feels no concern when she discovers she’s pregnant, but T.A. Gurko notes, “As the men [in the survey] put it, ‘promising her you will marry her does not mean you will.’ At best he may offer to get her an abortion; at worst he will do everything he can to cut off the relationship” (67). I don’t mean to imply that I’m fact-checking Zabrisky’s work; men abandon women in all countries. But the situations present in her collection, because they reoccur so much, made me want to learn more. Very few books encourage me to be more knowledgeable. In this case, gaining information made me sympathetic for the plight of women in Russia — they didn’t even have tampons, one character points out.

Poverty is a big factor in survival, especially for women and their children, who are almost always abandoned in these stories. Poverty can be conveyed in simple descriptions, and Zabrisky always picks just the right images: “watery mud covered everything in view: a playground with iron bars and broken swings, homeless dogs, and a skinny cow by the broken fence, chewing on a plastic bag.” That bag may not mean much to you (except concern for what it will do to the cow’s intestines), but check this out:

If Russia represents poverty, America is wealth. A young girl covets a plastic bag a schoolmate has — I know, right? — and finally trades a great deal for it. She is so happy:

I took the bag and sniffed it. It definitely didn’t smell of all-purpose Russian soap … the smell of grease, dirt, and poverty. … This bag smelled like chewing gum, like a dream: foreign, delicious, the aroma of unknown tropical countries, coconuts and pineapples I have never tried, of exotic sea ports. … Weakly, vaguely, the bright plastic smelled of America.

Zabrisky mentions good teeth and iPhones as symbols of doing well in America, choosing examples that are subtle, but easy for this American reader to compare.

Again, the theme is subtly in each story, but over 14 stories it adds up to a strong, unmistakable picture of an oppressive, anti-female Russia. There isn’t a single quote that can capture the feel of the whole collection, but when it adds up, you start to get a gross feeling in your stomach — a totally appropriate response to the massive injustices, poverty, starvation, dismissed lives, and deaths that could have been prevented. Though it is an unpleasant feeling, imagine the people who are living it and remember that literature is meant to teach us about those unlike ourselves, to open our worldview and do something about it.

I want to thank Zarina Zabrisky for a copy of Explosion in exchange for an honest review. Click HERE to read an interview I conducted with Zabrisky about her newest collection!

SOURCES:

Gilderman, Gregory. “Death By Indifference.” World Affairs 175.5 (2013): 44-50. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 11 May 2016.

Gurko, T.A. “Underage Females’ Experiences Of Sexual Relations, Motherhood, And Married Life.” Russian Social Science Review 45.3 (2004): 58-77. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 11 May 2016.

Kramer, John M. “Drug Abuse In Russia.” Problems Of Post-Communism 58.1 (2011): 31. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 13 May 2016.

 

Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary

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Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary

Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary by Monica Nolan

published by Kensington Books, 2007

I picked up this book on a recommendation from Chance Lee, one of my Goodreads buddies whose reviews are funny and insightful. I couldn’t get over the title and so further looked into Monica Nolan’s work. After Lois Lenz comes Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym TeacherMaxie Mainwaring, Lesbian Dilettante; and Dolly Dingle, Lesbian Landlandy. There’s also the superbly titled The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories. According to her Goodreads profile, she “has experience in three out of the four careers she’s written about.” Please, please, let Monica Nolan be an ex-gym teacher! I bought all four of the lesbian lady novels.

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Monica Nolan

Monica Nolan’s whole “Lesbian Career Girl” series borrows from the old pulp novels, from the writing style (lots of shocked characters yelling with exclamation points) to the cover. According to the NewYorker, Robert de Graff started Pocket Books in 1939 and switched to cheap paper — pulp — to make them affordable and mass-marketable (the first press to do so in America). Finally, feeling that it wasn’t enough to have Americans ordering their books from catalogs because there were so few bookstores (only about 2,800), he decided to cash in on the “more than seven thousand newsstands, eighteen thousand cigar stores, fifty-eight thousand drugstores, and sixty-two thousand lunch counters — not to mention train and bus stations.” According to the author of the article, “People who didn’t have a local bookstore, and even people who would never have ventured into a bookstore, could now browse the racks while filling a prescription or waiting for a train and buy a book on impulse.” (Fun Fact: de Graff felt books should never cost more than a pack of cigarettes).

Suddenly, books with titles like Hitch-Hike Hussy and The Daughter of Fu Manchu were available, along with “whodunit?” novels, hard-boiled detective fiction, and romances. Pulp novels are especially famous for their covers:

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Image from pulpcovers.com

 

 

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Image from pulpcovers.com. Can you image reading this on your commute to work??

Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary follows in the tradition of having an eye-catch pulp cover (though I must add the quality of paper is very good):

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The novel, I’m pretty sure, is set in the 1950s, when women are starting to do things out of the house, but it’s looked down on as selfish. Lois and her best friend, Faye, are about to graduate high school in Walnut Grove, home of the Nutshells. The plan is for them to go to a junior college together, marry their high school sweethearts, live next door to each other, and have babies!

But something happens when the guidance counselor, a strong women (possibly a lesbian), tells Lois her grades in filing and typing are fantastic and that she should consider going to live in the “big city” to get a job as a secretary. It’s interesting to watch an 18-year-old girl get so excited about being a secretary. Faye is mad and Lois’s mom scoffs, but the guidance counselor says she has a job and a supervised boarding house — the Magdalena Arms — lined up for Lois. Lois is going to miss all the practice kissing she does with Faye, but her boyfriend is no big deal (it turns out he’s using Lois as a cover to date an African American girl…I mean, it’s like having a “beard,” but for race). Lois bucks tradition and goes…to the hot, stinky city to find the Magdalena Arms is pretty dumpy. Her room on the 5th floor is shabby, too.

At lot happens the first night in the Magdalena Arms when the friendly girls of the 5th floor have some drinks in one of the rooms. This book is full of puns. When Lois is asked if she likes girls, the author uses the verb “queried” Get it? Queer-ied? The Magdalena Arms is described as “quite a special atmosphere — so gay, so liberal, yet closely supervised and cared for all the same.” After Lois discovers an older girl, Pamela, who was on her cheerleading squad in Walnut Grove, visiting the Magdalena Arms, the whole 5th floor does a toast to old friends:

“To the Nutshells,” everyone echoed, and drank.

“Pamela had the highest kick in the state!” Lois told them proudly.

“I’m not surprised,” drawled Maxie. “Pamela’s always been very limber.”

Predictably, Lois very quickly gets drunk, for she is not used to alcohol, and Netta puts her to bed. Lois slurs, “You’re not a white slaver, are you?” and Netta — sweet Netta with her hair in a bun and glasses — replies, “No, I’m a school teacher.”

The next morning, Lois goes to her first day on the job. It turns out she will not be working in the typing pool as she thought she would; she’s going to be the personal secretary to the boss, Mrs. Pierson — whose nicknamed the hyena. When she gets home, Lois tells a 5th floor girl, Dolly, about it: “A promotion practically before you started…You’re going straight to the top, kid, straight to the top — even if you have to ride the hyena to get there!” These kinds of sexual puns are everywhere, and they make the story that saucy kind of light-hearted fun you want every so often.

Most of Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary is clear to the reader — namely that Lois is a lesbian, and so is almost every other female in the book. Lois doesn’t recognize what’s going on, so she’s often confused. There are also twists and misleading clues, such as why no one can go in the filing room at work, what happened to a girl who used to live on the 5th floor, where a sexy photo came from, why there was a break in at the Magdalena Arms, and who is a communist.

Yes, Lois is paranoid about communists. Her mother read in the newspaper about communists and “white slavers” in the big city and warned Lois not to take the secretary job. But when the girls of the 5th floor all go out to dinner, they make fun of Lois’s mother for her paranoia. But then things get more serious:

“But honestly, that attitude has ruined thousands of innocent lives,” said Phyllis earnestly, pushing her classes back up on her nose.

“Yes, it is sad,” agreed Netta, twirling her spaghetti expertly around her fork. “One of my professors at Teacher’s College in Minnesota was forced to resign, just because he’d signed some petition about the Scottsboro Boys!”

Lois spoke up. “But Netta, if they asked your professor to leave his position, he was probably much more deeply involved than just signing a petition. Why, he might have been a sleeper agent, teaching you Communist doctrine without you even realizing it!” Lois had read selected chapters from J. Edgar Hoover’s masterly Masters of Deceit her sophomore year and had been vigilant about the Communist conspiracy ever since.

“It was a class called ‘Math Methods for Junior Learners,'”said Netta dryly. “If he could squeeze any Communist doctrine into that, he deserved a prize.”

Lois is so quick to believe anything that she would have been an ideal party member in 1984. Her paranoia, though, is pretty funny. She even believes smoking some weed will land you in the hospital addicted to heroin.

The author doesn’t shy away from Lois getting intimate with many women (while still not realizing she’s a lesbian). The scenes are mostly described as kissing and biting and touching breasts; nothing overly graphic is described in detail. Serious intimacy is loving and sensual. The less serious intimate situations are funny; women try to be super sexy by asking Lois about typing or filing as foreplay. Lois loves secretarial duties more than anyone you’ve ever met; she even files when she’s upset!

Finally, the book does something that caused me to be incapable of putting down any R.L. Stein book ever: it has cliffhanger chapters. Something is always suspicious or surprising in the last line, which made me feel like I was right back to when I was younger and snuggled into books like they were bean bag chairs.

I’m excited to read the next three books in the Lesbian Career Girl series. Both Dolly Dingle and Maxie Mainwaring are characters in Lois Lenz that I liked who will get their own books.

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