Tag Archives: justice

Review/Comparison of #HiddenFigures film and book

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Review/Comparison of #HiddenFigures film and book

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

published by William Marrow, 2016

and also

Hidden Figures directed by Theodore Melfi

released by 20th Century Fox, 2016


hidden-figures

If you’re from the United States, you know someone who has seen Hidden Figures and raved over the performances of leads Octavia Butler, Taraji P. Henson, and Janelle Monáe. The movie was based on a nonfiction work of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly. No one seems to be reading the book. The film follows the lives of three black female mathematicians at NASA in 1961-1962.

The book, however, looks at decades of scientists and mathematicians at NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) with the three women from the film tenuously holding the book together to create some “story.” There are dozens of employees at NACA who are featured, and it’s difficult to know who to remember and who’s just “passing through.” I kept highlighting the names of folks who never appeared on the pages again.

While the film is delightful, honors the lives of three black female mathematicians, and clearly has an agenda, the book is scattered, confusing, and wants to be both science and narrative.

The first thing I noticed is the writing is unclear at times. Shetterly’s words come in an awkward order at times:

As Dorothy learned — the West Area Computers received many assignments from the lab’s Flight Research Division — it was not good enough to say that a plane flew well or badly….”

A simple rewrite would make the sentence clearer: The West Area Computers received many assignments from the lab’s Flight Research Division, and Dorothy learned that it was not good enough to say that a plane flew well or badly….

I had trouble staying engaged while I was reading. Long passages about various scientists and mathematicians make my eyes play a game of Where’s Waldo, except instead of searching for a little man in a stripped shirt, I was looking for the stories of the three main characters I had seen in the film: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson. These women are few and far between, and the book rarely demonstrates a clear connection between them. Basically Dorothy is older, so she got to NACA first, thus opened the door for women like Jackson and Johnson. However, they don’t work together (to be fair, Johnson works for Vaughan for 2-3 weeks before she’s relocated).

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Left to Right: Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monae), and Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer)

While the film would suggest Vaughan, Jackson, and Johnson were best friends and rode to work everyday, the truth is they had other best friends, both black and white women. Many women are removed from the film, to consolidate characters I would image. Kirstin Dunst’s character (not in the book) comes out looking like a grumpy “my hands are tied” passive racist. At one point she says “Ya’ll should be thankful you even have jobs at all.” However, in Shetterly’s book, NACA heavily recruited from black colleges; these women were wanted and needed.

Furthermore, Shetterly emphasizes that Mary Jackson’s “treasured friend,” Gloria Champine, was a white woman, and their relationship was “one of the most poignant of all the stories” Shetterly heard during her research. They two worked together to help all women in the workplace advance, get hired, and gain independence from men.

One of the biggest climaxes of the film, featured proudly in the trailer for Hidden Figures, meant to highlight racial tension was Kevin Costner’s character bapping down a “Colored Girls” sign from above a restroom door. He did so because Katherine Johnson was gone from her desk too long, having to make the mile trip from her desk in one building to the “Colored Girls’ restroom on the other side of the NACA campus.

I was surprised to learn that Johnson never experienced problems with the bathroom; she was light-skinned enough that she “passed.” While author Shetterly doesn’t suggest Johnson lied about her race, she does write that Johnson happily avoided racism in her workplace, and even ate and played card games with her white male co-workers at lunch. Costner’s big dramatic moment was highly unnecessary — the focus tries to be on Johnson’s humiliation at having to run for a restroom, but the focus is wobbly at best. His character, though, was necessary, as he represented a mishmash of several white men working at NACA. When I watched the film, I appreciated that he spent most of his screen time pacing behind a glass window so as to stay out of the spotlight, but based on the book, Johnson interacted positively with her white colleagues frequently.

Instead, it was Mary Jackson who, on one occasion, had white women laugh at her because she asked where the “Colored Girls” restroom could be found — they giggled because their opinion was, “why should we know?” No one tore down the “Colored Girls” sign; it was simply gone one day. According to the Shetterly, racism existed in NACA as a result of what amounts to complacency. When Christine Darden, another woman left out of the film, couldn’t understand sexism at NACA, she asked her “boss’s boss’s boss”:

“Why is it that men get placed into engineering groups while women are sent to the computing pools?” Christine asked him. “Well, nobody’s ever complained,” he answered. “The women seem to be happy doing that. so that’s just what they do.”

Now, if you feel like I’m diminishing the struggles of black women (and men) in the space race, please try to understand. I’m simply pointing out that the film added a whole lot that didn’t happen and consolidated many people into one character. It suggested NACA was very “us vs. them,” and Shetterly doesn’t suggest that in her book at all. Whether the film or author is portraying the history incorrectly is not known to me. I do know that Shetterly writes in generalities instead of citing specific examples.

Of course there was racism in 1940s-1060s Virginia. What struck me was the vicious racism that happened around NACA in town that never made it to the film. When schools legally had to desegregate, one governor took all the money from a district that tried to comply with the law and shut down all the schools — for five years. Some white mothers screamed that they would rather have their kids out of school than sitting next to “a Negro.”

To me, this seemed way more important than a dramatic bathroom sign scene. If there’s anything Vaughan, Jackson, and Johnson stood for, it was a solid education. In their own state, a whole generation of children missed a large portion of their education (50% or more).

Both versions of Hidden Figures have value, but the audience for each is not the same. The nonfiction work is geared more toward history buffs with a solid grasp of science and math who care less about the people (there are a lot to keep track of) and more about the history of the science. The movie can be enjoyed by audiences from all walks who are looking for a powerful narrative the likes of which rarely appear in white-washing Hollywood. Then again, the film creates dualism that doesn’t exist in the book.

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. When 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.

Faith: Hollywood and Vine @ValiantComics #superhero #comicbook

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Faith: Hollywood and Vine @ValiantComics #superhero #comicbook

Faith: Volume #1 Hollywood and Vine

Writer: Jody Houser

Artist: Francis Portela

Fantasy Sequence Artist: Marguerite Sauvage

Cover Artist: Jelena Kevic-Djurdjevic

Color Artist: Andrew Dalhouse (occasionally with assistance)

Letterer: Dave Sharpe

Published by Valiant, 2016

faith-cover

*procured at the local library


*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.


You may be wondering why I included all of the key players for the Faith comic book in the credits above. Typically, people don’t. However, there’s something magical about Faith — the work is done almost exclusively by women. Men add the color and the letters, but that’s it. And from what I’ve read, this makes a big difference to the world of Faith Herbert, a fat woman/superhero/writer at a pop culture blog. Faith isn’t new; she’s appeared in other comic books in which she’s ridiculed for her weight or only says ditzy quips. But Faith got a big makeover.

Faith, for the first time in the hands of a female writer and artist, is smart, funny, nerdy, and conscientious. And much like the movie Spy starring Melissa McCarthy, there isn’t one mention of fat in the entire volume. THIS is what I’m searching for in my quest for fat fiction: a woman who happens to be fat but isn’t reduced to her fatness. Her life is full, complicated, wonderful, messy, and awesome, and her size has nothing to do with it.

Thus, the Faith comic book meets all of my criteria for a positive representation of a fat women. But let’s talk about the story and images.

My biggest problem with superhero comic books is that they assume readers know something about the world and characters, which is why I don’t read them. I love other types of comic books and graphic novels — don’t get me wrong — but superhero stories that have taken place for decades are too big to just jump in. Think about it: the first Batman comic came out in 1939 . . . and his story is still going! He’s experienced things and changed and developed, and readers need to know how and why and have lots and lots of context.

faith-flying

Superhero capes get an updated look that I like!

Faith, however, is relatively new. I quickly caught on that later in life she discovered her “psiot powers” (comic book speak for super powers?) and that she used to be on a superhero team called the Renegades and dated one of the guys in the group . Her name is Faith Herbert, but when she works at the pop culture blog, she’s Summer Smith, and when she’s in superhero gear, she’s Zephyr. It’s a bit Superman, except Faith is really normal. She makes Back to the Future and Lord of the Rings references, watches and squees about a sci-fi TV show, and she has a few stuffed animals in her apartment. She face chats with friends and sends text messages. Such details made Faith highly relatable and a joy to read.

Faith still gets a bit of celebrity treatment. When she’s seen flying over the city, news reports it. Her ex, Torque, has a reality TV show. He was part of the Renegades, so people know he dated Zephyr. It’s funny when she’s required to write about his show for work because no one knows Faith’s true identity or her relationship to Torque. I liked the Torque story line because he is clearly a handsome, built guy — but she dumped him because she didn’t want to be on a reality TV show. There’s no weirdness about how a fat girl can’t get love or should be thankful someone so “above” her on a hotness scale gave her a second glance.

torque

Faith asks her ex, Torque, to help her save the world. He looks like a jerk here, but he’s defensive because the Renegades saved the world and one of their teammates died.

The plot was a bit wonky. Teenagers who are just discovering their “psiot powers” are being kidnapped and, we later learn, experimented on. Whenever Faith grabs someone involved and tries to question him, the guy spontaneously combusts. The reason the bad guys are kidnapping teens seemed simplistic and confusing at the same time. I wondered if there was a background story I didn’t know.

The images have the comic book quality that make me laugh, like how mouths never seem to be in a normal shape. But Faith is drawn respectfully, and her look changes depending on the context: nerdy at work, pajama-cutsie at home, prepared for action in her superhero costume. I especially like the cape update. It’s not around her neck, but down by her waist.

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An example of a weird mouth. Perhaps an homage to The Joker?

Then there are scenes that are meant to be Faith’s fantasy. It took me a few times to realize a pink hue indicated “not real,” but just as soon as I caught on, some of the fantasies dropped the pink overlay, and I was left guessing as whether I was in Faith’s head or watching her real life. Sometimes the fantasy scenes are more anime than faith comic book. A separate artist was responsible for the fantasy scenes, so perhaps so better communication was needed.

Faith: Volume 1 Hollywood and Vines is a big step toward making comic books more accessible to a wider audience. In an industry that largely shuts everyone who isn’t a straight white male, Faith tries to kick the door open.

*I want to thank Bina at WOCreads for recommending this book to help me in my question to find positive representations of fat women in fiction and nonfiction.

Living with a Wild God #BookReview #Journalism #Memoir

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Living with a Wild God #BookReview #Journalism #Memoir

Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything

by Barbara Ehrenreich

published by Hachette Book Group, 2014


Based on the title, I made some assumptions about Ehrenreich’s book, namely that it would be written by an atheist who wanted to investigate perhaps where religion comes from, how it influences us today, or why we still need religion in an age of mass technology. I use the word “investigate” because Barbara Ehrenreich is known most famously as a journalist. You’ve probably read all, or at least an excerpt, of Nickel and Dimed if you live in the United States. But I’m not sure what Living with a Wild God is. It’s not journalism. It’s not a memoir. It’s not fiction. It’s a hot mess.

Ehrenreich explains that when she lived in the Florida Keys she was asked by a library to donate her papers so they wouldn’t succumb to the mold so ubiquitous in that swampy area. The one thing she didn’t hand over, however, was a diary she wrote mainly from 1956-1959, when she was 14-17 years old. In the Forward, Ehrenreich explains that something “cataclysmic” happened to her, and she never wrote nor spoke about it to anyone lest they think her crazy. Like a good journalist, Ehrenreich makes some admissions:

It is true, I should further admit, that the narrative as I have reconstructed it lends itself quite readily to psychiatric explanation, or explanations: the tense and sometimes hazardous family life, the secret childhood quest for cosmic knowledge, the eerie lapses into a kind of “second sight,” the spectacular breakdown in my late teens.

Okay, so Ehrenreich admits there there are some psychological reasons that could explain this “cataclysmic” thing that happened to her (no details are yet provided)… but the entire book looks elsewhere for answers. Not a very useful admission if the author won’t explore it. However, we do get a background on this “hazardous family life.”

Ehrenreich’s first chapter, “The Situation,” describes her alcoholic parents and her original home in Butte, Montana. Ehrenreich’s father was a miner who crawled up the class ladder to become a white collar scientist after studying metallurgy. But it’s an uncle who really influences the author in this chapter: he explains that we’re all going to die, that it is a “great death march” we’re all doing. After the long Forward about the “cataclysmic” event, I figured “The Situation” would be about what happened. It’s not; the situation is that death lingers. Thus, the chapter felt dishonest.

living-with-a-wild-god

Chapter 2, “Typing Practice,” isn’t really about typing. Ehrenreich learns that when she writes, she thinks, and thus her diary begins. The author questions everything, such as why she learns about imaginary numbers in math class. Ehrenreich figures, “If you accept imaginary numbers without raising a question, you’ll swallow any goddamn thing they decide to stuff down your throat.” Chapter 2 also wanders: the parents are drunk, her mother believes Ehrenreich has some Oedipal yearnings for her father, the family is all atheists, she digs into science, and Ehrenreich tries a church. She writes in her diary — again, she’s 14:

Modern Protestantism…is a social organization, providing basketball, badminton, bowling, dancing and a Sunday fashion show. The most incongruous thing I ever saw in “our” church was a girl praying. I was startled, really.

This second chapter isn’t really about church or family. It wanders along with 14-year-old Barbara. The book you hold in your hands is middle-aged Barbara putting together who she was when she was a teen. In many places, I had to force myself to keep reading with the expectation that Living with a Wild God would be as organized and thoughtful as her previous books. Pretty much every moment while reading I wanted to stop.

Finally, in Chapter 3, readers learn what the “cataclysmic” event was:

So from a scientific perspective, what happened to me was that every now and then I simply stopped doing the work of perception and refused to transform the hail of incoming photons into named and familiar objects. There was plenty of input still pouring in in the form of sounds and color and lights, but it wasn’t getting sorted and categorized.

For a writer, Ehrenreich is being terribly vague. How does she experience whatever these …events… are? What does it look or feel like? By the end of the book, she mentions fire on one occasion, but the image is still unclear. Very briefly the author discusses “dissociative disorder,” but not to the extent that it clarifies what happens to her when she thinks she having some sort of religious experience as an atheist. Eventually, Ehrenreich is able to spit out that she feels “menaced by hazy sunlight.”

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Ehrenreich age 18, one year after she saw invisible angels.

After the biggest event to occur, though, the author is able to ask if she should tell anyone about her religious-type experience: “what would I have said? That I had been savaged by a flock of invisible angles — lifted up in a glorious flutter of iridescent feathers, then mauled, emptied of all intent and purpose, and pretty much left for dead?” Whoa! This quote is from page 163. That’s 163 pages into the book before the author is able to say in some clear language what her experiences are like — which is what the whole book is supposed to be about — and it’s so far-fetched and unreal that I don’t trust Ehrenreich anymore. What is the purpose of this book, I started asking. I’m not learning about religion, and I don’t understand Ehrenreich’s “experiences.”

And who is the audience for this book? The text suggests you must have prior engagement with Ehrenreich’s work, a firm grasp of science terminology, and be well-read enough to understand all the big words she uses: coterminous, apparatchiks, concatenation, sororal. I made the same complaint about vocabulary in my review of Bright-sided, but to heap on her personal history and physics, chemistry, and biology is too much. To whom would this book appeal other than Ehrenreich herself?

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Ehrenreich today, no less confused by angels and light and whatever else is “cataclysmic.”

Every chapter wanders around, from the author’s obsession with all things science to her inability to recognize that other humans have consciousness. Yes, as a teenager Barbara Ehrenreich didn’t realize that other people had thoughts and made choices. Her philosophical questions torment her until she’s like a poor Edgar Allen Poe character. Eventually, around 17, she quit eating and was putting cigarettes out on her hand. She believed she had “developed new powers.” At this point in the book, I’m worried for teen-aged Barbara and adult Barbara Ehrenreich. The girl is not convinced she should be alive or that other people are really there. She fantasizes about life in an apocalypse. The author, about 40 years later, can’t add insight or reason to her youthful self’s narrative — no motives, no probing into her behaviors, which is why I said that the author’s admissions in the Forward were useless.

The last couple of chapters read like a 10 minute lecture on what nonreligious types call Other or Others (something god-like that isn’t monotheistic). Using more sources and careful drafting, these two chapters, expanded into a book, is what Living with a Wild God should have been. Sadly, Ehrenreich thanks her editor in the acknowledgements for encouraging her to explore her old diary instead of focusing on a history of religion. Yeesh. Absolutely skip this disorganized mess and check out Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America or Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America instead. No one else in my book club came even close to finishing Living with a Wild God.

Terror in Taffeta #bookreview #mystery #wedding #20BooksofSummer #ReadWomen @kindacozy

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Terror in Taffeta #bookreview #mystery #wedding #20BooksofSummer #ReadWomen @kindacozy

This is book #10 in my #20BooksofSummer challenge. Please note that I read Fire in The Ashes by Jonathan Kozol immediately after I read Nickel and Dimed. The books pair well together, but since Grab the Lapels is #NoBoysAllowed, you can find my review on Goodreads.

Terror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper

published by Minotaur Books, March 2016

The premise: at a destination wedding in Mexico, unlikable bridesmaid Dana falls over dead in the middle of the ceremony. The bride’s demanding mother insists that wedding planner Kelsey figure out whodunit — especially since the police have said no one can leave the city. There are many suspects Kelsey uncovers and interrogates, giving the book several twists as she works toward finding the murderer.

Terror in Taffeta is the first book of its kind that I can remember reading. I think this is what readers call a “cozy mystery,” but I’m not sure. There is no violence or sex, and Cooper gives the story over to first-person narrator Kelsey, who navigates police, the bride and groom, the rude mother, an ex-boyfriend, and a best buddy who just can’t quit her. Quickly, the police take the bride’s sister into custody, claiming they have undeniable proof that she’s the murderer.

terror in taffeta

The book does have some seriously funny moments. When Dana collapses in the first few pages, Kelsey knows she needs to tell the bride, but she runs into the bride’s mother, first. Mrs. Abernathy, a wealthy white woman, insists Kelsey not ruin her daughter’s special day with bad news. Kelsey asks her friend Brody (whom she hired as the wedding photographer) what she should do. Brody asks, “What would Emily Post do?” Emily Post, of course, is the mother of the etiquette book — if you’re ever unsure what to do in a given situation, turn to Ms. Post.

Another great scene that had me in stitches was when Kelsey was trapped at the funeral of a man she didn’t know. She thinks, “I did the only appropriate thing there was to do: I pretended to pray.” In another example, the bridal party must move from their current luxury hotel. They’d planned a week-long visit, but the death of Dana expanded it to two weeks, and people with hotel reservations were about to show up. Kelsey worries about sticking Mrs. Abernathy in a shoddy hotel with “a room with a bed that vibrated if you inserted a couple of pesos.”

Kelsey isn’t just funny; she avoids the stereotype of the wedding planner who spends so much time planning weddings that she’s single and lonely. Instead, Kelsey uses an analogy:

People always assume that when you’re a wedding planner you want to get married really badly, when actually, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s like if you worked at an ice cream shop. For the first month, you’d eat ice cream every day and think, Wow, I’m super lucky; I can have ice cream whenever I want. Then you’d start gaining weight and getting bored with the ice cream. You’d eat it less often, and after a few months, you’d find that you preferred salty snacks.

Kelsey’s ex-boyfriend does play a role in the book, but he’s not what you’d think, and Cooper avoids the sticky-sweet love stuff.

Yet, there were a two big things that drove me insane in Terror in Taffeta, things I couldn’t get over that really spoiled the story for me. First, Mrs. Abernathy: she’s so contrary in every single situation that she felt unrealistic and under-developed. She’s classic racist white lady: “No live-o here-o” she tells Mexican police. And she’s obviously one of those moms who think only her birth children are “real” family.

“You think I’d let a murderer on the guest list? I approved every last person myself….But if it was one of the guests, it’d have to be one of his,” she said, jerking her thumb toward the groom.

What does Mrs. Abernathy have against her new son-in-law? Nothing readers have been told. However, I’ve met parents who don’t consider spouses “real” family. They indoctrinate their children with the notion that spouses come and go, but blood is forever. Ew, creepy, cultish.

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How I picture Mrs. Abernathy — photo from AVclub.com

Mrs. Abernathy isn’t above a bit of aggression, either. She’ll jab Kelsey in the ribs to get her attention. Rib jabbing is common in books, but have you ever allowed someone to assault you in real life? I hated the way Mrs. Abernathy was a cliche.

Much worse than a cliched character was the premise stretched to nearly breaking: why is a wedding planner playing detective? Well, she doesn’t want Mrs. Abernathy to cancel her final payment. I kept mulling over the logistics: if you hire someone to do a job, you can’t cancel payment because they refuse to meddle in police affairs.

Kelsey does have the good (realistic) sense to call the police when a room has been ransacked and to turn over physical evidence. But then she demands the police do something with the evidence to release the bride’s sister.

“I don’t know why you have this vendetta against [the bride’s sister], but you can’t prove she did this. You know why? Because she didn’t. So why don’t you stop acting like Barney Fife and start doing your job — pronto!”

barney fife

photo from tumblr

Who demands the police do things — and for a person she doesn’t really know? Well, in books people do, which makes the police look like they don’t care. I was so frustrated that Kelsey was playing detective in Mexico when the police have told her she’s in the way, but I was also frustrated that they weren’t doing things with the evidence she gave them.

So, I talked to an actual police officer (thanks, Brad!). He said that the police don’t determine someone’s guilt or innocence, which is what Kelsey is demanding, but rely on the court system to present the evidence and come to a verdict. I see readers ask why police always seem so stupid in books; I’m pretty sure it’s because writers give “the mic” to characters running around trying to save the day for no good reason.

In the end, the nagging question — Why the hell is a wedding planner risking her life and career in a foreign country on solving a mystery without giving readers any real reason for doing so? — wouldn’t go away, and I was happy to be done with the book. That’s not to say plenty of readers didn’t love Terror in Taffeta. I read this book on recommendation from crime/mystery writer Margot Kinberg, the book has blurbs from excellent sources, and most ratings on Goodreads are five stars. Perhaps the genre wasn’t for me, so you’ll have to decide! Are you able to suspend disbelief when a realistic character makes unrealistic choices repeatedly?

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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. 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

Nickel & Dimed #20BooksofSummer #journalism #nonfiction

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Nickel & Dimed #20BooksofSummer #journalism #nonfiction

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich

published by Holt Paperbacks, 2008 (originally published in 2001)

Nickel and Dimed was written by a famous essayist, so right away she has credibility. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote 14 books of nonfiction before Nickel and Dimed, and she has a PhD in biology (though many of her books are not about science). Nickel and Dimed started out as a simple question during a fancy lunch: why doesn’t someone do one of those old-fashioned investigative journalism pieces on the working poor? Basically, she accidentally nominated herself.

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Ehrenreich sets up parameters for her inside scoop:

  1. No using skills learned from her work as an essayist or her college education.
  2. Accept only the highest paying job, stick to it to the best of her ability, and no complaining.
  3. Live in the least expensive place possible, but stay safe.

She also decides to limit the discomfort she could have with some advantages:

  1. She always had a car, which was not paid for with her low-wage earnings (except gas).
  2. She would never be homeless — “no shelters or sleeping in cars for me.”
  3. She wouldn’t skip a meal, “cheating” if necessary to eat.

Ehrenreich acknowledges that being a single white woman in excellent health with no kids is not how the working poor exist. There’s not much she can do though, because no one’s going to loan her a kid, and she can’t take back years of health insurance and The Stair Master to make her fifty-something body reflect the deteriorating health of the working poor. I didn’t think it fair for her to have reliable transportation, but she claims that no one wants to read nonfiction about waiting for the bus.

Actually, I had the audacity to challenge what I thought of as Ehrenreich’s “wimpiness.” Would sleeping in her car one night kill her? Is one missed meal really a big deal? Then I remembered, oh yeah, it’s actually pretty dangerous to sleep cars due to criminals and police. And yes, Ehrenreich is working so hard at her low-wage jobs that missing one meal actually might cause her to pass out instead of suffer a rumbly tumbly. That was the biggest problem with this book, to me: I wanted her to really, really live like the working poor, but it’s impossible. Therefore, I wish Ehrenreich had further interviewed her co-workers once she completed her time at each job. Why not let them speak for themselves?

Nickel and Dimed is broken into three sections: “Serving in Florida,” “Scrubbing in Maine,” and “Selling in Minnesota.” The goal was to make it through a month and have enough money to make rent a second month. I found the most illuminating part of Ehrenreich’s story to be the housing issue. First, the working poor don’t have enough money to pay a deposit on an apartment, the first month’s rent, and that annoying application fee. Thus, they’re all living in pricey yet sordid motels that rent by the week in which people double and triple up in single rooms. Secondly, weekly motel rooms should have some sort of kitchen area because it’s serving as home. Most don’t. As a result, the working poor eat fast food or convenience store junk that doesn’t require refrigeration or cooking. People wonder why the poor are so fat; Ehrenreich’s book makes it easy to see why. If you think you know about being poor (and haven’t been poor yourself), Ehrenreich’s book still has something to offer.

Ehrenreich’s language is a lot harsher than I would expect from a journalist. I read Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America a while back and remember a clear, unbiased voice through the whole thing. Not true in Nickel and Dimed. This may be that Bright-Sided was not investigative journalism, which requires the writer to get out there, get dirty, and take some big risks. Here is a passage from Ehrenreich’s time as a maid in Maine:

The first time I encountered a shit-stained toilet as a maid, I was shocked by the sense of unwanted intimacy. A few hours ago, some well-fed butt was straining away on this toilet seat, and now here I am wiping up after it. For those who have never cleaned a really dirty toilet, I should explain that there are three kinds of shit stains. There are remnants of landslides running down the inside of toilet bowls. There are the splash-back remains on the underside of toilet seats. And, perhaps most repulsively, there’s sometimes a crust of brown on the rim of a toilet seat, where a turd happened to collide on its dive into the water.

How are my composition students, to whom I’m assigning this book, going to take this passage this coming fall? And at a Catholic college, no less. Sure, it’s unprofessional. It lacks all pretense of an unbiased attitude. But Ehrenreich’s passion creates an honesty that’s meant to make you angry for her — and the millions of other maids who do this job day in and out in the United States — and realize how dehumanizing low-wage jobs are.

The odd thing is that when Ehrenreich isn’t using angry language, her vocabulary can be complex. She often chooses a more complicated word over the simpler one. Is this her education showing? Should she have chosen more simplistic language and think of the low-wage earners as her audience? Then again, they already know what their lives are like… Essentially, the audience for Nickel and Dimed is the upper-middle class.

Another thing Bright-Sided led me to expect was sources — a lot of sources. Nickel and Dimed relies quite a bit on The New York Times (which I can already hear my students calling “that liberal media”) and a book about Sam Walton, the creator of Wal-Mart. Other sources include local newspapers from the three cities in which she worked, the National Coalition for the Homeless, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There are a few books about maids mentioned, which emphasize that the services the big maid companies provide are to make your house look clean; almost no disinfecting happens. Therefore, readers must really rely on Ehrenreich’s experiences to be described fairly and honestly. Photos also would have increased Ehrenreich’s credibility, especially of those motel rooms that she describes.

My copy of Nickel and Dimed has an afterword in which Ehrenreich recounts some of the individual responses to her book. Many middle class people were surprised; the working poor felt like they finally had a voice. While the book’s 2001 publication doesn’t make it outdated, I’ve spent my entire adult life surviving a recession. And here are some fun facts:

  • I’ve had four low-wage jobs of note:
    • direct care worker, meaning I took care of mentally disabled adults
    • front desk clerk at a campground, which means checking in campers and selling day passes
    • pushing carts and bagging groceries at a grocery store
    • front desk worker at a college, which literally requires just sitting at a desk
  • Three of these jobs required me to show up 10-15 minutes early to work (unpaid). This can amount to a few hours of free labor per two-week pay period.
  • Three of these jobs provided zero paid breaks. I simply used the restroom or ate food whenever I wanted (which was allowed for 5 minutes at a time), but if someone needed help, I would be scolded  by management, customers, or fellow employees for having been unavailable immediately.
  • My husband had a part-time low-wage job at Best Buy  on the Geek Squad that gave him very few hours each week. Instead, they would randomly call and ask him to come in immediately, which meant we never left our home for fear of being too far away for him to get to work — otherwise, he would lose those hours.
  • I was once yelled at for clocking in at my grocery store job before putting my purse in a locker. I cost the company 30 seconds and thus was reprimanded.
  • My boss in direct care work would purposely pull employees aside and tell them lies about the other employees so none of us would trust each other. For an entire summer, my co-workers thought I was a spy for the owner of the company, whom I had never met.
  • The grocery store (and many low-wage job employers) only provided the schedule two weeks at a time, so you couldn’t plan anything.

When the majority of your adult life is lived post-9/11, poverty doesn’t surprise you, nor does low-wage work (if you can get it). While Ehrenreich’s jobs didn’t surprise me, I have a feeling her book will still shock my students this fall. I don’t know if there are more contemporary investigative journalism books on the working poor, but Nickel and Dimed is the cornerstone, and a must read.

Note* Thanks to this book, I intent to read Wal-Mart: The Bully of Bentonville (How the High Cost of Low Prices is Hurting America) by Anthony Bianco, which looks at employee treatment. There are numerous books on Wal-Mart, many dealing with economy, environment, and history, but I want more about the workers in particular.

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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. 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

Rebecca #20BooksofSummer #bookreview #readwomen

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Rebecca #20BooksofSummer #bookreview #readwomen

Welcome to my review of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier! Since this is an older book, published in 1938, I’m going to have lots of spoilers. I don’t feel bad about this, as many of you have mentioned how much you love Rebecca already. I’m also going to share images from the film, as images are awesome and the book and film follow each other fairly closely. But this is the book review.

My introduction to Rebecca came only recently. It all started with my immense hatred of the horrible movies coming out these days, which led me to my local library, where I began checking out old black-and-white movies like a crazy person. I skipped social events to watch them in the dark (you can’t watch black-and-white movies with the lights on. Everything looks wrong). And then I got to Alfred Hitchcok’s Rebecca, a gorgeous film with the indescribably expressive Joan Fontaine and the handsome (I can easily describe why) Laurence Olivier. I told my husband Rebecca is a ghost story with no ghost.

Rebecca

The novel begins with a narrator describing Manderley and how “we” can never go back. The wilds of nature have taken it over. To my knowledge, readers aren’t told who “we” is at this point. Then she explains how “we” sit in boring hotels and talk about boring subjects for the sake of their nerves, which are shattered at any memories of Manderley. Then, the narrator remembers how it all happened. Nice hook, du Maurier!

A young woman (our narrator), who is a twenty-one-year-old paid companion, travels to Monte Carlo with her employer, Mrs. Van Hopper, a gossipy, fat lady (my fellow fatties, please forgive me). There, the narrator meets Maxim de Winter, the forty-two-year-old owner of the renowned Manderley, an estate so grand it’s all anyone talks about. After Mrs. Van Hopper is laid up sick, the narrator is asked by Maxim to spend time with him. Over the course of a fortnight (that’s two weeks, folks), the narrator falls in love with him, and Maxim asks her to marry him (though he expresses no love). Should we be suspicious? Is this a shotgun wedding? Snoopy Mrs. Van Hopper certainly wants to know!

the naughty

As Mr. de Winter explains to Mrs. Van Hopper that she’s out  a paid companion, the narrator holds a book Maxim had loaned her earlier. It’s signed “Max from Rebecca.” Yes, that Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife who tragically drowned at sea ten months ago! The narrator, in an odd moment of defiance, tears the page out, rips it up, and lights it on fire. And now we’re done with Rebecca, right? Wrong.

She’s everywhere at Maderley. The servants tell the narrator how “Mrs. de Winter” did things (I put it in quotes because the narrator is also Mrs. de Winter). The woman who runs the house is the skeleton-like Mrs. Danvers, a villain in this novel, who mechanically obeys the de Winters but also schemes to get the narrator out of Manderley, even encouraging her to commit suicide! Maxim is distant, possibly because he’s twice the narrator’s age; the housekeeper is a sabotaging nutbar; and it’s always Rebecca, Rebecca, Rebecca. If only Maxim could stop loving Rebecca and love our poor narrator!

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Rebecca gets to be the title, and a woman, bur the current wife doesn’t even get a name, she’s so insignificant to Manderley. At twenty-one, she’s constantly referred to as “the child” because she’s half everyone else’s ages.

When they first met, the narrator expresses her love like that of a child:

“There’s a cold wind this morning, you had better put on my coat.”

I remember that, for I was young enough to win happiness in the wearing of his clothes, playing the schoolboy again who carries his hero’s sweater and ties it about his throat choking with pride, and this borrowing of his coat, wearing it around my shoulders for even a few minutes at at time, was a triumph in itself, and made a glow about my morning.

This scene was so familiar to me and recalled how important it was in high school to lay claims on your boyfriend’s sweatshirt, one that said his name so everyone would know you were involved. You felt like a superhero all day long in that sweatshirt.

Near the end, a sailing boat is discovered at the bottom of the sea near Manderley…and Rebecca’s corpse is in the bottom. Someone’s jabbed holes in the boat and the seacocks were opened, which you never open while afloat because the water pours in. Rebecca was an expert sailor. Was it foul play? Did she kill herself? Was she really just careless for one moment and the sea ate her up?

The pacing of the plot of Rebecca is, for the most part, spot on. Daphne du Maurier knows just when to summarize an event for us, like much of the time Maxim and the narrator spend together when they first meet. She knows when to let the plot linger. Maxim is convinced to have a fancy dress ball at Manderley, just like he and Rebecca used to do all the time, and the narrator decides her costume will be a surprise. Problem is, she can’t think of what to dress as! Mrs. Danvers suggests she copy one of the family portraits hanging on the wall, and the narrator thanks Mrs. Danvers for her kindness.

the costume

Unfortunately, as she descends the stairs on the day of the party in her costume, Maxim, his sister, and brother-and-law are shocked and appalled! It’s the same costume Rebecca wore to the last fancy dress ball! Dammit, Mrs. Danvers and your shenanigans! The narrator spends the whole night standing near Maxim, not talking to him and responding the same way to everyone who thanks her for hosting the party: “I’m so glad.” This “I’m so glad” scene goes on for several pages, lingering in this horrible moment during which Maxim is distraught and won’t comfort his poor, deceived young wife.

The ending, however, gets a little slow, and I wondered if I felt this way because in the movie so many things are squished together to make the ending speedy. Maxim reveals he shot Rebecca and stuck her in the boat, there’s an inquest, Rebecca’s death is ruled suicide, Rebecca’s favorite cousin calls foul play, the police get involved, they track down a mentally disabled witness, they play with the telephone a lot, they track down a key witness, wait a day, go to the key witness, talk to him, drive home, stop at a gas station….it was so long compared to the quick dashing around in the film, in which everything is resolved in one day.

Many of the pages of Rebecca are devoted to setting. It’s not hard to picture Manderley. The rose garden out the east wing, the angry sea at the west wing, the morning room, the library with the China cupid, the brazen rhododendrons up the driveway, Happy Valley and the azaleas, the shingle beach. In many books, so much description would seem extraneous to me, but in Rebecca, the appearance of Manderley is important, not only because everyone loves it so, but because it’s appearance is all due to Rebecca’s demands: where things were placed, which flowers grew, what to hang on the walls. It’s lovely, indeed, but our narrator doesn’t care for much of it, and the decorations only remind everyone of Rebecca, emphasizing the focus of the book — REBECCA.

Now we’ve come to my two favorite aspects of the novel: the characters, and the imagining. All of the characters are memorable, distinct, and unique. Bravo! Mrs. Van Hopper is the first memorable character. She’s a gossipy fake, whose “one pastime, which was notorious by now in Monte Carlo, was to claim visitors of distinction as her friends had she but seen them once at the other end of the post-office.” Our poor narrator is embarrassed by Mrs. Van Hopper, but “there was nothing for it but to sit in [her] usual place beside Mrs. Van Hopper while she, like a large, complacent spider, spun her wide net of tedium about the stranger’s person.” I almost lost it when I read “net of tedium.” What a funny way to think of someone! When Mrs. Van Hopper is saying something especially stupid, the narrator thinks, “…she ran on like a clumsy goat, trampling and trespassing on land that was preserved…”

Maxim’s older sister, Beatrice, is my favorite after the narrator. She says any and everything she’s thinking, and she’s antagonistic to her brother, like all siblings. After meeting the narrator the first time, Beatrice ends the visit with “Come and see us if you feel like it….I always expect people to ask themselves. Life is too short to send out invitations.” When the narrator and Beatrice travel (Bee driving at break-neck speeds), the narrator feels a bit down. Beatrice wonders if she’s been experiencing morning sickness, and the narrator tells her no. Beatrice continues:

Oh, well — of course it doesn’t it always follow. I never turned a hair when Roger was born. Felt as fit as a fiddle the whole nine months. I played golf the day before he arrived. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about in the facts of nature, you know. If you have any suspicions you had better tell me.”

And in that moment, thanks to her matter-of-fact personality, I loved Beatrice and her shame-free talk with her new sister-in-law.

Jack Favell, who is Rebecca’s favorite cousin and her lover, is a slinky, memorable guy, but also a “bounder” (thanks for that word, British friends!). When Favell explains to Maxim why he’s not embarrassed to admit he was sleeping with a married woman, his sexist nature rears it’s ugly head:

All married men with lovely wives are jealous, aren’t they? And some of ’em just can’t help playing Othello. They’re made that way. I don’t blame them. I’m sorry for them. I’m a bit of a socialist in my way, you know, and I can’t think why fellows can’t share their women instead of killing them. What difference does it make? You can get your fun the same. A lovely woman isn’t like a motor tyre, she doesn’t wear out. The more you use her the better she goes.

Even the way Favell drinks is unique to me: “Favell drank it greedily, like an animal. There was something sensual and horrible about the way he put his mouth to the glass. His lips folded upon the glass in a peculiar way.”

Jack Favell.gif

I’m not surprised the actor who played Favell also voiced Shere Khan in Disney’s The Jungle Book.

Have I ever told you that my imagination once almost killed me?

Yes, I was riding my bicycle up and down our long dirt drive way, which led to a dirt road. Up and down I went, and I began to imagine, though I don’t remember what. Suddenly, I found myself underwater, looking up into the sun beams shimmering through. (If you think I’m making this up, I have two witnesses). What happened: I was so deep in my imagination that I never made the turn at the end of the driveway and instead went right across the road, into the deep ditch full of water, and lay at the bottom with my eyes open (to think this is the only time I’ve had my eyes open under water). I didn’t breathe in water, I wasn’t destroyed by a car.

Long story short, I absolutely deeply relate to the narrator of Rebecca.

She’s constantly so lost in her imagination that whole mini-scenes play out. Frequently, she refers to how things would have happened in a book, but more often she imagines the scene. When she’s changing out of her costume — after the big humiliation of wearing what Rebecca had — into a new dress for the ball, she overhears the workers on the lawn who are checking bulbs on the party lights. She imagines the man’s continued narrative:

Later in the evening he would stand with his friend in the drive and watch the cars drive up to the house, his hands in his pockets, his cap on the back of his head. He would stand in a crowd with the other people from the estate, and then drink cider at the long table arranged for them in one corner of the terrace. “Like the old days, isn’t it?” he would say. But his friend would shake his head, puffing on his pipe. “The new one’s not like our Mrs. de Winter, she’s different altogether.” And a woman next to them in the crowd would agree, other people too, all saying, “That’s right,” and nodding their heads.

“Where is she to-night? She’s not been on the terrace once.”

“Mrs. de Winter used to be here, there and everywhere.”

“Aye, that’s right.”

And the woman would turn to her neighbors, nodding mysteriously….

“Of course I have heard before the marriage is not a wild success.”

“Oh, really?”

“H’m. Several people have said so. They say he’s beginning to realize he’s made a big mistake. She’s nothing to look at you know.”

And this scene continues a page and a half. The imagined voices stir up the narrator, she confirming her own worst fears: that she’s not good enough, that she’ll never be the real Mrs. de Winter, that everyone is judging her like “a prized cow.” If the narrator were real, we’d both have Xanax.

Rebecca is absolutely a must-read book. It’s funny, mysterious, vivid, tragic, and well written. I don’t often look for books to relate to me, but this one really did. However, the fears and anxieties of this curious younger person will relate to any number of people, regardless of their unique identities. My only hesitation is that if you decide to buy a copy, the Avon mass-market paperback edition has a dozen or more typos.

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 Taffetaby 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 Normal State of Mind

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The Normal State of Mind

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The Normal State of Mind by Susmita Bhattacharya

published by Parthian Books in May 2015

250 pages

I want to thank Ms. Bhattacharya for partaking in my Meet the Writer feature. Her interesting answers about her book prompted me to request a copy of The Normal State of Mind from her publisher. Thank you to Susie Wild at Parthian Books for sending me this ARC.

The Normal State of Mind is a novel set in mostly in Mumbai and Calcutta. The chapters alternate between the stories of two women, Dipali and Moushumi. One is a traditional Indian bride, and the other is a lesbian. Both women suffer shame due family members and society trying to humiliate them, but Dipali and Moushumi count on their friendship to keep them emotionally stable when everyone else appears to present a threat. The story begins in 1990 and takes place over 8-10 years.

As she lays next to her new husband in bed after their wedding, Dipali expresses nervousness about consummating their marriage. New husband, Sunil, is understanding, and readers quickly learn he is not a traditional Indian man. Dipali works up the courage to take a shower, wash off all the cosmetics from their ceremony, and then get back into bed ready to make love (7). She’s known this man three months, meeting him after her brother found Sunil’s advertisement in the matrimony column of the newspaper (3). It’s a sweet beginning that made me excited to see what would happen next.

Sunil is kind and wants his wife to be happy. Granted, many studies show that during this time women suffer acid attacks, rape, domestic violence, and sexual harassment. I wondered, Why is Sunil so different from what I’ve read and seen in the media? Did his family raise him differently? If so, why? Perhaps Bhattacharya wanted to write a sweeter story to show that there is happiness in India, too. It’s a weird comparison, but Ice Cube wrote Boyz N The Hood and then responded with Friday to show both the struggles and the good times in Compton. It’s possible this is what Bhattacharya was doing, too. It’s beautiful to watch Sunil and Dipali support each other. For instance, Dipali’s brother, Ashish, wonders why Dipali gets to sit at the table at eat with the men. He says:

“This is our family tradition. Ma and Dipali never once ate a morsel until Baba and I had eaten, did you Ma? Even Shikha [Ashish’s wife] insists on serving me before she can start. Maybe because then she gets the horse’s share,” Ashish laughed between munching on a poppadam. He eyed his wife’s big body and pointed at her. “Look at the advantages of serving the husband first. Doesn’t Dipali do the same?” (20)

I couldn’t help but think of Ashish as a piggish stereotype: he treats women like servants, humiliates them, and later tries to bully his sister and mother into destitution. Sunil is the perfect foil to Ashish, and I couldn’t wait to see the men interact more in the future. However, it was about this point that I got on Goodreads and saw the spoiler: Sunil dies in one of the 1993 bombings of Mumbai. After I read that, I didn’t feel very invested in Dipali’s story. It felt like a door slammed in my face.

Moushumi’s tale begins more perversely: she’s hiding in the bushes and watching a woman undress and wash her clothes. The narrator says Moushumi feels “stupid, child-like” (8), but Mushumi is a grown woman. Never are readers asked to ponder Moushumi’s criminal behavior, which suggests invading a neighbor’s privacy is just a normal part of a lesbian discovering her sexuality. I was uncomfortable with this implication.

The rest of The Normal State of Mind was very predictable. If you’ve ever seen or read a story similar to Bridget Jones’s Diary, you know where everything is going. It doesn’t help that many of the characters are stereotypes, like Ashish. For exmple, during the time Dipali enjoys her brief marriage, Moushumi meets a wealthy woman named Jasmine, and they begin an affair. But Jasmine’s husband is so rich and important that he doesn’t notice. Jasmine is a stereotype. Anything “poor people” offends her (58-59), she loves to shop (75), she has temper tantrums (74), and she’s all kissy-kissy with her rich friends (11) — she even utters the sentence “You have my number. Call me if you have the guts. I will show you how to live” (15). It’s an overused concept –a stereotype– to have a rich person show a poor person how to really “live.” Falling back onto stereotypes doesn’t help the reader. Instead, I had more questions: How did Moushumi insert herself into a rich woman’s world? Well, Moushumi, who lives in a “mediocre” neighborhood (59), shows up in a posh art gallery. Later, we learn she’s friends with artists. This part of her life doesn’t make sense and is not explored by the author. What do Moushumi and Jasmine have in common? I thought maybe it was the sex that Jasmine enjoyed so much, but there are no love making scenes in this book — none that you can read anyway.

Where are the descriptions in The Normal State of Mind? There’s food aplenty, and I applaud the author for always making the food come to life. But still. There’s plenty of opportunity for descriptions when widow Dipali goes on a date with the photographer, Gandharv. Dipali is a very sensuous woman who wants physical intimacy, but has denied herself even masturbation since Sunil died (113). Now, she’s willing to try. Gandharv has asked his friends where to take Dipali on a date, and they recommended Bandstand. Dipali is confused when they get there; the place is known for couples making out and having sex in their cars. Though she had never been there, her teenage friends always wanted to go (228-229). Gandharv apologizes for the situation, but asks if they should “Do as the Romans do” (229). Dipali decides they should:

“I want this, Gandharv,” she whispered and pressed her lips to his. “Like you said, do in Rome—”

They fumbled clumsily as they tried to embrace each other within the constricted space [of the car]. They ignored the kulfi-wala asking if they’d like a kulfi to cool down.

‘Oh, stop, stop,’ she gasped, pulling away from him. They both faced each other, breathing hard. He put his head on the steering wheel and tried to calm down. She pulled down her kurta and began to ease out the creases. She had to hug herself tightly so that her hands didn’t automatically reach out to claim him again. (230-231)

When I read this scene, I assumed Dipali changed her mind and stopped Gandharv mid-kiss. However, when Gandharv drops her off at home, brother Ashish storms out the door and asks her where she’s been. He accuses her of being a whore (232). Dipali thinks, “Was having a night out whoring? Was making love to Gandharv a sin? No, it didn’t feel like whoring to her” (232). Here is the confirmation that Dipali did have sex with Gandharv. So why is the scene in the car so unclear? If not in the car, did she have sex with him at a previous time? If she did, I can’t confirm it. Many scenes are blurry enough to make me uncertain as to what’s happening.

I kept reading on, hoping for more from Moushumi and Dipali, who are not stereotypes. Yet, they aren’t balanced in a way that helps the reader understand them. After that date, Dipali is in a panic: she tells Gandharv she will be in trouble. Gandharv tells he she is an adult and can’t get in trouble (231). And yet, Dipali flip-flops. She’s brave, yet in trouble. She’s weak, yet wants her old-school traditional mother to take a stand against Ashish (257). Simply put, Dipali isn’t consistent, and I don’t know why.

Moushumi isn’t consistent, either. She goes from peeping tom, to wealthy woman’s mistress, to the shame of her family, to a face for the gay rights movement in Calcutta. At first I thought this represented growth; however, there is a scene in which Moushumi is so different I no longer cared about her. A theater is playing an Indian film in which a woman is always in distress and nearly getting her sari pulled off, breasts almost bared. A group of women protest; they call the people who watch the film rapists, pornographers, and perverts. Here is Moushumi’s reaction to the crowd of women fighting for their rights (and with good reason; remember what I said about rape, domestic violence, child brides, etc?):

Moushumi watched, at first with amusement and then with growing concern. She didn’t know with whom to side. The women, who self-righteously claimed that the film was degrading women. Or should she side with the film, which, by being a means of release for these men, possibly prevented them from committing sexual crimes in reality. They probably jerked off in the cinema, giving vent to their sexual frustrations. She was in a quandary. (174)

This passage is highly problematic. First, why would Moushumi laugh at the struggle of other women when she was fighting for gay rights? Next, where did she get the idea that films with breasts prevent sexual assault? Third, I’m not sure how it’s a smart idea to suggest that sexual frustration leads to sexual crimes. “Frustration” and criminal acts are not the same thing, though Moushumi is the woman who hides in bushes and watches women undress, so perhaps this is the “frustration” she means. Finally, what is Moushumi’s “quandary”? She’s not going to take action; she’s weighing the sides as if she’s trying to figure out which shoes would work best with an outfit. Really, I’m not sure what the author wanted readers to take away from this scene other than Moushumi is unreliable, ignorant, and a bit cruel.

With so many problems throughout the novel picking at me like a thorny bush, I was never really moved to block out everything else and be in the novel. I was constantly aware that I was reading a book. For instance, Dipali thinks about how she likes the new teacher, Moushumi, because she isn’t like the other teachers (123). In what way? What is Dipali’s impression? Another writing tool frequently used is the question: instead of thinking out ideas, characters asks themselves long lists of questions. When Dipali learns that Gandharv kissed Moushumi to help her confirm she won’t be straight if she just gives it a try, Dipali wonders, “How dare she? Why use him? How could he? Could he do that to anyone without feeling for that person?” (187). All of these fairly polite questions — instead of thoughts –feel like the writer is asking readers to help her. I can imagine what Dipali is thinking about Moushumi and Gandharv, but it’s not my job to fill in descriptions.

In the end, I wanted more care put into the writing style and more substance from the characters. It would be easy to do. Dipali and Moushumi are both teachers. Yet, they never discuss teaching, students, or colleagues. The story is consumed with finding a boyfriend/girlfriend, and so if you’ve read that kind of story before, you won’t be surprised by what you read here.

Blood of a Stone

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Blood of a StoneTitle: Blood of a Stone

Author: Jeanne Lyet Gassman (previously interviewed at Grab The Lapels)

Publisher: Tuscany Press, January 2015

Blood of a Stone is a novel set during the “Jesus movement,” or the rise of Jesus as a prophet. Yet, the novel is told from the point of view of a Gentile named Demetrios, who was sold into slavery when he was 18. After killing his master, Demetrios and fellow slave Elazar pretend to be regular guys and set out to start a business with money they’ve stolen from their dead master. But when Demetrios’s secret past as a slave and murderer is threatened, he will travel all over Palestine to murder the one who could expose him: Jesus. Although I experienced some confusion about how much time passed and there was a lack of suspense in some plot points, Blood of a Stone is a highly descriptive novel that can change your vision of violence.

Many of Lyet Gassman’s descriptions are fierce, inciting shivers and repulsion. Demetrios is forced to kill his master, Marcus, because he is being whipped to death:

“How many times did Marcus strike him? Twenty? Thirty? Demetrios lost count. Blood blisters burst into streams. Strips of cloth and raw skin caught in the leather strap; a faint red mist clouded the air.”

I’ve seen people whipped in movies, so I’m always getting a fictitious version, of course, but it seems like being whipped causes little red lines. Here, though, Lyet Gassman gives me more heady images to hang onto: blood blisters, red mist, and skin actually being caught in the whip. Such images are not ones I’ve fathomed before, leaving me speechless in the face of extreme violence.

After Demetrios has decided he must stop Jesus from exposing his secrets, Demetrios follows the prophet with the plan to murder Jesus as soon as the man is alone. Instead, Demetrios sees a woman–a leper–appear just as’s about to attack with a dagger. She, too, has followed Jesus, but with the request to be healed. Again, Lyet Gassman crafts descriptions that are strong enough to cause a physical reaction in the reader:

“Oblivious to her deformity, Jesus never even glanced at her stumps, but reached out instead for the veil that shrouded her features….Tragically, her face, too, had been ravaged. Her skin was pitted and marked by former scars, like a sloping pasture eroded by rainfall. Her lips, disfigured by a missing flap of flesh, were twisted into a perpetual snarl. When she attempted to smile, she exposed decaying teeth set in putrid, infected gums.”

One visceral fear of my own is the possibility of losing a limb, and this lady is falling apart, so I had quite a strong reaction. Even that word–“flap”–disturbed me.

It becomes obvious that things are pretty dangerous, and the hope of excellent medical treatment isn’t even an option. After an attack by bandits leaves one character near death, Lyet Gassman gives those vivid, horrifying descriptions again:

“When Demetrios leaned close, he noticed the pupil was dilated; the eye focused on a place high above Demetrios’s shoulder. Demetrious waved the flies away from [name omitted]’s face. A large purple bruise swelled across [name omitted]’s right cheek. Clots of dried blood blackened the flesh around his nose….The back of [name omitted]’s skull was soft, pulpy and [the] blood soaked through Demetrios’s clothes.”

That word, “pulpy,” stuck with me as I continued to read. I kept thinking of orange juice, and the soft squishy matter we find in the bottom of our glasses. “Pulpy” indicates that nothing is going to be okay for this dying person, and should Demetrios cradle this person’s head too tightly, I imagine it would crumple into a bloody mess.

One aspect of Blood of a Stone that I didn’t find as compelling was the sense of suspense Lyet Gassman tries to, but doesn’t quite, create. Elazar, the other slave in Marcus’s home, is a Jew, while Demetrios is a Gentile. This doesn’t bother them, but when Elazar hears the King of the Jews has finally come, he decides to part ways with Demetrios. Feeling abandoned, Demetrios tries to retrieve his friend and convince him that following Jesus and abandoning their business as caravan drivers is absurd. During one meeting, though, Demetrios learns some terrible news: Elazar has told Jesus of their crime, that Demetrios killed Marcus and Elazar helped hide the body. Now Demetrios feels threatened. Should Jesus tell the Roman authorities, Demetrios could be killed for his crime. Later, Demetrios discovers that Jesus has raised a man from the dead. Panic sets in: what if Jesus decides to raise Marcus from the dead to seek revenge on his murderer? This is when Demetrios decides: he must kill Jesus. Although I knew this was meant to be an intense moment in the book (and a turning point that will cause Demetrios’s narrative direction to alter), I felt no eagerness to read forward at a speedy pace. I know what’s going to happen: Jesus will be crucified. There was a moment when I wondered if Lyet Gassman would change the story, but quickly dismissed the thought.

There are several attempts to kill Jesus. First, Demetrios follows him to a river where Jesus is speaking to people. The descriptions are good: “Demetrios pressed his palm against his breast to quiet the rapid beating. Again, he touched the hilt of his knife. It, too, vibrated beneath his fingertips. A sting of death waiting to come to life.” Yet, I did not feel a sense of suspense. I patiently waited for something to prevent Demetrios from murdering Jesus, and something did. A second attempt is made later, but Demetrios is interrupted by the leper woman. Once he sees Jesus perform a miracle, Demetrios cannot kill Jesus, for he truly appears to be a prophet.

Palestine in time of jesus

Lyet Gassman includes a man like this in the beginning of the book so you can follow along with the characters’ travels. Demetrios is a slave in Gerasa. He tries to kill Jesus in Jericho. Jews are led from Demetrios’s home in Tiberias to Jerusalem in a caravan. Elazar leaves Demetrios to follow Jesus in Capernaum. Jesus, of course, is from Nazareth.

However, Lyet Gassman does effectively create a suspenseful plot point when Demetrios, having held and watched [name omitted] die due to that pulpy skill, he gets the idea that Jesus can come and bring [name omitted] back from the dead! Here, I got pretty excited. I didn’t like when [name omitted] died and felt pretty bummed, and having Jesus resurrect this person would not too dramatically alter the story of Jesus that we all know.

Another concern I had was with the timeline of Blood of a Stone; I never knew exactly how much time had passed. We’re told that Demetrios is 18 when he becomes a slave, but the novel is so long. I was always cognizant of how slow travel is without cars (and there’s a lot of travel) and how much time would need to pass for Demetrios and Elazar to set up a business. Then, there’s the rise and death of Jesus. By the end of the novel, I had no clue how old Demetrios was, which always bothered me to a small extent.

With many harrowing, bloody scenes that brought to life the violence, Blood of a Stone is a novel that may make you turn away in horror. You may not feel drawn in in a way that has you turning pages at break-neck speed to find out what happens next, but some surprises are in store for the reader. And, I imagine that any Christian would find this novel a fascinating read thanks to its atypical perspective and themes of guilt and forgiveness.

Bitch Planet

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Bitch Planet

“Are you non-compliant? Do you fit in your box?

Are you too fat

too thin

too loud

too shy

too religious

too secular

too prudish

too sexual

too queer

too black

too brown

too whatever-it-is-they’ll-judge-you-for?

You may just belong on…

BITCH PLANET”

Bitch Planet Vol 1

Bitch Planet, Vol. 1: Extraordinary Machine (Oct 2015, Image Comics) is the trade paperback version of the series by writer Kelly Sue Deconnick. The first book of the graphic novel came out in December of 2014, so this is a relatively new series. The first five books are included in Extraordinary Machine. You’ll get from the beginning of the series to problems that occur before the big upcoming fight.

Bitch Planet is the nickname for a prison that houses “non-compliant” women. Offenses can be anything (see the list above), making this story an obvious look at feminism and the patriarchal system that controls them every day. What is referred to as “The Feed” (a strange-looking pink computer woman) legally must appear on all TV screens on Earth, encouraging women to stop with their gluttony, pride, and wickedness—basically, the biblical stuff.

The Feed

She’s so creepy, like a pink demon.

The men on earth decide who goes to Bitch Planet, and the leaders are called “Father” (also very biblical). Bitch Planet actually is another planet, though, so women have no hope of escape.

One notable prisoner is Penny, a very large black woman in her early twenties, known for fighting in prison. We see she has a tattoo that says, “Born Big.” It seems like a symbol of pride in her size, but we later learn that it was the name of Penny’s bakery on Earth. She grew up with a loving grandmother who taught her how to bake, but was taken away when men show up at the house and her grandma instructs her to “run.” We don’t know what the grandmother’s crimes are (or if the men are coming for young Penny?), but “non-compliance” can mean almost anything. Men decide, women are punished.

Penny’s character is interesting; she represents race, size, and gender issues in contemporary culture. When the guards hook Penny up to a machine that will reveal what Penny actually thinks her ideal self looks like, the guards are surprised. They expected the image to be a “desirable” woman—most likely thinner, lighter, and well-behaved. But Penny’s image comes up looking exactly like her.

Ideal Penny IS Penny

Ideal Penny IS Penny

People tried to fix Penny along the way, before she was put in prison. A white woman attempts to “tame” Penny’s black hair, saying, “You need to learn to see yourself through the Fathers’ eyes. And I will teaching, Penny. I will teach you if it kills us both.” Author Deconnick is obviously packing in as much feminist discourse as she can into this one story.

Then there’s Kam, another black prisoner, who fights in a style that seems very ninja (the images remind me of Riley and Huey in The Boondocks). Because she fights to save the life of another prisoner, the guards view her as “a star,” and she is charged with putting together a team to fight in the Megaton games, which as far as I can tell is a sport for guards vs. prisoners. But prisoners fighting in games has been done many times, from Death Race to The Longest Yard. Megaton seems different, though, because the prisoners are not told they will win their freedom. In fact, Kam is warned that someone will kill her on the field. At first, Kam doesn’t want to lead a team, but it seems like everyone on Bitch Planet has to behave because the Fathers have human collateral. In Kam’s case, there is a sister somewhere.

Bitch Planet Kam

Karate Kam

In each individual book the author includes a page of old-school ads that you would see in magazines or comic books. All of the ads are ironic in a way, such as a “Missed Connection” that has a fact about domestic violence, or a big ad selling parasites that says, “STOP BEING SO FAT AND GROSS YOU BIG FATTY!” Other ads tell you they’re selling bullshit and are disappointed in you for buying it. For example, “MONEY BACK GUARANTEE. If you try to order a diet parasite from us, we will donate your money to the Girls Leadership Institute in the hopes that tomorrow’s generation fares better. And we will be sad for you. GUARANTEED.” Sometimes the ads seem over the top. Yes, I get it—women buy a lot of dumb stuff to adhere to society’s standards of beauty. But, if I really get it, then why do I buy things to help me follow the norm? Just because women understand what’s happening to them doesn’t mean they fully see the asinine nature of their decisions, which Deconnick captures in her ads.

Spicy Cinnamon Taco scented douche

Spicy Cinnamon Taco scented douche

Back on Earth, Roberto Solanza, an “Off-World Overseer” from the “Bureau of Compliancy and Corrections,” is working with one of the Fathers to organize the forthcoming Megaton game. Together, they hire a gentleman who goes by “Mack” to create the arena. Mack, though, has a motive for building an area in an impossible time frame: for a chance to see a specific prisoner. Deconnick suggests, wisely, that though this is a story about woman’s plight, men are caught up in what happens to the female population. The women who “behave” (and have white skin) also serve as enemies to the “non-compliants” on Bitch Planet by serving as representations of “good women.” As a result, the story seems less man vs. woman (though there is plenty of that) and more power structure vs. people being abused by that power. Deconnick can thus appeal to a wider audience, as I am sure Bitch Planet will be labeled a diatribe for “those” feminists.

Since I already closely follow the current feminist movement, Bitch Planet didn’t have quite the effect on me that it will surely have on younger women, perhaps college-aged. It has a positive reception thus far, and I even saw a images of young women with  tattoos of the “NC” (for non-compliant) logo. I was impressed that the message was delivered through a graphic novel medium, which isn’t exactly female-friendly. According to The Atlantic, comic books are still read mostly by men, which is not surprising considering graphic novels are a genre written by, for, and about men, but the numbers for women are rising.

Non-Compliant tattoos

Non-Compliant tattoos