Book Review: Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color by Andrea Ritchie (2017)

Friday, August 25th, 2017

Read. This. Book. Today.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss, as well as a finished copy through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for violence against women and children, including sexual assault and rape, as well as racism, ableism, homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia.)

At the 2004 National Coalition on Police Accountability conference, a man who identified himself as a former member of the Black Panther Party approached me at the end of the workshop. He said that his sister had been raped by a police officer “back in the day,” but he had never understood what happened to her as police brutality until he had heard it framed that way in the workshop. I asked him how he and his sister had described her experience. He answered, somewhat bewildered, that it was “just something bad that happened.” He then thanked me for opening his eyes as to how his sister’s experience fit into the work he had been doing all his life to challenge state violence against Black people.

Chances are, when you hear the words “police brutality,” you picture a young black man – armed with only a bag of Skittles or a cell phone – killed in the streets, either by gunfire or a Taser or with an officer’s bare fists: Philando Castile. Eric Garner. Sean Bell. Mike Brown. Trayvon Martin. Tamir Rice. (Although, at just twelve years old, this last could hardly be described as a man, even a young one.) Yet black women and women of color – including disabled women, trans women, and lesbian and bisexual women – also suffer from racialized police violence, compounded by gender and other axes of oppression.

Black women activists and scholars – such as Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, the founders of #BlackLivesMatter – have begun to shift the conversation in recent years. From the #SayHerName hashtag – created in response to Sandra Bland’s death while in police custody – to the groundbreaking AAPF report “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected,” discussions of police violence are widening to include black women, people of color, people with physical and mental disabilities, LGBTQ and Two Spirit people, sex workers, children, and more.

Andrea Ritchie’s Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color is an invaluable contribution to the literature. She tackles a difficult and admittedly wide-ranging topic with passion, insight, and a boatload of receipts. Ritchie pinpoints seven sites in which black women and women of color are vulnerable to police violence:

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Book Review: A Cup of Water Under My Bed: A Memoir, Daisy Hernández (2015)

Friday, October 9th, 2015

The Personal is Political – and Also Poetic in Hernández’s Deft Hands

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for child abuse.)

Journalism: A fancy word to say that I spent days with my hands in other people’s stories, asking and telling, because nothing happens in isolation, especially when it has to do with language. Nothing is more vulnerable than the words in our mouths, because nothing has more power.

It will take years to understand that writing makes everything else possible. Writing is how I learn to love my father and where I come from. Writing is how I leave him and also how I take him with me.

It is a story as old as time, that we always find what we needed was right at home.

But, therein is the riddle: a child has to leave to return. My mother had to. She says it often. She only appreciated her mother, only understood her mother, after she had left home.

I had to leave, too. It was me, not my mother, who needed English, who needed the stories and feminist theories. Without them, I might never have come back to her.

Daisy Hernández is the coeditor of Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism, and a former editor of ColorLines magazine. A queer (she identifies as bisexual), second-generation Latina (her mother and father immigrated from Colombia and Cuba, respectively), she speaks and writes about feminism, race, and the media. Her memoir, A Cup of Water Under My Bed, began way way in 2000, when she was hired to pen a regular column in Ms. Magazine at the tender age of twenty-five.

A Cup of Water Under My Bed features eleven essays (which often have the feel of stories, so lyrical is Hernández’s writing) organized not by chronology, but loosely by topic: assimilation and language; sexual identity; and work and money. Whether she’s calling out the state of New Jersey for its switch to an automated telephone system to manage unemployment benefits in the ’90s (ostensibly for the convenience of its recipients, but really to hide the scope of the problems created by NAFTA), or writing about her aunties’ reactions to her romantic partners (rarely favorable, save for Alejandro – the trans man they all assumed was cisgender, on account of he was built like a linebacker), Hernández writes deftly and with both insight and wry humor.

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Book Review: The Weight of Feathers, Anna-Marie McLemore (2015)

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

A magical retelling of Romeo & Juliet – and with a much more satisfying ending, at that!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence, including domestic abuse, as well as rape.)

The rain on her dress and his shirt would stick them to each other, dissolve the skin between them, until their veins tangled like roots, and they breathed together, one scaled and dark-feathered thing.

Lace’s first encounter with Cluck is in the parking lot of a convenience store located on the outskirts of Almendro, California, a sleepy little town. Three of her cousins are attacking Cluck, pummeling him with their fists and feet, for no reason other than his perceived difference. Well-versed in the art of taking a beating – thanks to his older brother Dax – Cluck just lies there, taking it, hoping that his lack of participation will sap some of the fun out of their “game.” Lace chases his attackers away, and then offers Cluck ice cubes wrapped in her scarf to sooth his cuts and bruises. Both mistake the other for a local – when, in fact, they are members of two rival families of traveling performers.

The Palomas and Corbeaus travel all across North America, but always cross paths in Almendro; the crowd drawn there by the annual Blackberry Festival is just too good to pass up. For years, they were simply rivals, showpeople competing over the same sets of eyeballs. But one flooded lake and two dead performers – one from each family – turned them to enemies. Each blames the other for the “natural disaster,” with the stories and superstitions becoming more outlandish year after year. Each family can agree on one thing, however: the only acceptable way to touch a Paloma (or Corbeau) is in the pursuit of violence.

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Book Review: The Country of Ice Cream Star, Sandra Newman (2015)

Friday, April 3rd, 2015

You Reading. Is Bone.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Goodreads’s First Reads program. Major trigger warning for rape, human trafficking, forced abortion and sterilization, violence, and scenes of war.)

These be the Sengles in the time I speak of, when my trouble grown. Of baby children, be Bother Zero Tool, the Answer Zero Ka, Fine One Ndiaye, Bell Eyes One Ndiaye, and Lolina-tina One Diouf, Crow’s child with Mari’s Ghost. Be healthy screaming babies, they got grandy rolls of fat. These all got mothers living but the twins Bell Eyes and Fine.

Of littles, there be Dinty Moore Two Fall who cannot hear, Naomi Two Forgotten, Maple Two Diop who be a son of John of Christ, Mohammed Three Insulting, Story Four Duval that has got reddish hair, Problem Four Tool, Luvanna-Lana Five of Lowell, Best Creature Five Wang who is misname and be annoying, Mustapha Five Insulting, Dollar Saver Six Fall, a fine enchanting little who can sing, Baboucar Seven Grandpa, Jeep Cherokee Seven Skips and Foxen Seven Fall. The mother of all three Falls be alive but gone to Lowell, now name Lowell Second Plumber and got posies bad.

Of the eights and nines, there be my vally Keepers Eight Fofana, worth all other children, and her favorite hatred Mouse Eight Wang. Progresso Nine Wilson and My Sorrow Nine Wang been solo-animoses for some years, ain’t speak with never another child.

Then come Marlboro Ten Tete-Brisee and Kool Ten Tete-Brisee, twins, birdcatcher-age and lean. Shiny Eleven Angels be a prettieuse and flirtish girl that give bad sign of wisdom, for she dabbit after Crow. Shiny chosen her own name, this be the measure of her wits. Redbook Twelve Ba, Bowl Thirteen Tete-Brisee and Cat Fancy Thirteen Ba all go ridiculous in love with Driver. They tend the littles and tell reveries one to the other, all day long. Jonah Fourteen Feet the only weakly jones, and scary since his brother took to Lowell two years gone. Then come Jermaine Fourteen Uptown, Christing born and Christing seriose in gentleness. Jermaine be wisty for my love, and many Lowells also and some Christings sleeping hungry for my love.

Next be Tequila Fourteen Tool, Mari’s Ghost Fourteen Diouf, Hate You Fourteen Ka, and Asha Badmouth Fifteen Feet. Then come my place. Then come malicieuse Crow Sixteen Doe, and Villa Seventeen Insulting, fool infatuate for any male. When she ain’t bother males, she eat, that be the list of what she do. Last come my Driver, which make thirty-eight in Sengle town.

These been my Sengles in the year when Driver been our sergeant; time that kindly John been husband of the Christing fellowship; when the Lowells’ El Mayor been Sengle born and Sengle brave. Mamadou was NewKing of Mass Armies, savage like his people – yet the child have dignity and sense, best of the worst.

Fat luck been the story of this year. Snares ever struggling full, and every arrow find a turkey. Any a sleeper street we did maraud, that street give food. We war like twenty guns, but no one injure. Sling our hammocks in the crowns of sycamores like secret birds, and rest there, chattering and smoking, noses to the stars. Children forgot the taste of hunger and the touch of fear.

Yo when Driver sicken, this the happiness we lose.

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Book Review: My Year of Meats, Ruth Ozeki (1998)

Monday, October 27th, 2014

“Meat is the Message”

four out of five stars

(Trigger warning for violence against women and animals, including sexual assault and rape.)

When Jane Takagi-Little finally lands a job–producing a Japanese television show sponsored by BEEF-EX, an organization promoting the export of U.S. meats–she takes her crew on the road in search of all-American wives cooking all-American meat. Over the course of filming, though, Jane makes a few troubling discoveries about both. Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, in Japan, Akiko Ueno watches My American Wife! and diligently prepares Coca-Cola Roast and Panfried Prairie Oysters for her husband, John, (the ad-agency rep for the show’s sponsor). As Akiko fills out his questionnaires, rating each show on Authenticity, Wholesomeness, and Deliciousness of Meat, certain ominous questions about her own life–and the fact that after each meal she has to go to the bathroom and throw up–begin to surface. A tale of love, global media, and the extraordinary events in the lives of two ordinary women, counterpointed by Sei Shonagon’s vibrant commentary, this first novel by filmmaker Ruth L. Ozeki–as insightful and moving as the novels of Amy Tan, as original as Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. or John Irving–is a sparkling and original debut from a major new talent.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats. On impulse, I picked up a copy of the original hardcover edition at the dollar store. That was nearly a decade ago; in the intervening years I hemmed and hawed and wondered whether I really wanted to read a fictionalized account of a documentarian hired to promote meat – feed lots, kill floors, and all – after all. (I’m a vegan, and have devoured my fair share of nonfiction books about the animal agriculture industry already. Enough is enough.)

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Book Review: Ice Massacre, Tiana Warner (2014)

Friday, October 24th, 2014

Killer Mermaids and Warrior Women of Color!

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Member Giveaway program. Also, there are clearly marked spoilers towards the end of this review.)

Meela can’t remember a time when her people – the inhabitants of Eriana Kwai, a small island situated off the coast of Alaska – weren’t at war. For all of her eighteen years, The Massacre has been a yearly ritual: every May, twenty young men set sail for the Aleutian Islands, where their adversaries’ nest is believed to be located. Their objective? To slaughter as many “sea rats” as possible, in hopes of decimating their population and returning peace and prosperity to Eriana Kwai.

For the past several decades, an influx of mermaids has dominated the Pacific Ocean, consuming its sea life, attacking ships bound to and from Eriana Kwai, and occasionally even invading the island’s beaches. As a result, this formerly prosperous island has become increasingly dependent on handouts from the mainland. Its four thousand inhabitants are poor, starving, and desperate. With each year’s Massacre less successful than the last, Anyo the training master makes a bold suggestion: send young women to battle the mermaids. Unlike men, they aren’t susceptible to their supernatural charms.

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Book Review: Camp Utopia and The Forgiveness Diet, Jenny Ruden (2014)

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

“Beauty settles in the flaws.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through the Goodreads First Reads program.)

Fifteen-year-old Bethany Stern’s life is a mess. She’s not-so-secretly in love with her next-door neighbor and best friend, Toby Jacobson (TJ for short), who doesn’t feel the same. An aspiring magician two years her senior, TJ is on the cusp of graduation – after which time he’ll gladly blow town (which is Baltimore, Maryland) to audition for the talent show American Envy. Her older sister Jackie is stuck in unhappy relationship with a pothead named Doug, and their mom Ellen was forced to relocate the family to a poorer area of town after her husband Richard (or “Dick,” as they derisively refer to him) walked out on them twelve years ago. Now he’s got a new wife and twin boys, and he only contacts his daughters on birthdays and holidays…if that. Bethany’s even convinced that Richard Goodman spotted her at Chuck E. Cheese – at her half-brothers’ birthday party, to which she was not invited – and purposefully ignored her because he was ashamed of her weight.

Which brings us to the titular “Camp Utopia” and “The Forgiveness Diet.” Bethany’s tried all manner of diets, with varying success; while sucking on food (but not eating it!) helped her to lose a few lbs, her new look didn’t change TJ’s feelings towards her – so she gained it all back, and then some. When her mother books her a slot (to the tune of $5000) at a “fat camp” hosted on the campus of California University of the Pacific, she makes one last-ditch effort to slim down with the newest fad diet, The Forgiveness Diet. Just write down who you forgive and what for, slip it into the forgiveness jar (or, in Bethany’s case, a discarded fast food bucket), and watch the pounds melt away. Of course, this isn’t what happens; instead, Jackie and Doug accidentally find the notes, thus creating a meltdown of epic proportions on the road trip there.

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Mini-Review: “Wakulla Springs,” Andy Duncan & Ellen Klages (2013)

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

Not What I Expected!

four out of five stars

It’s said that the Wakulla Springs wilderness – including the fifteen miles of caves which cuts through the water’s depths – is home to a menagerie of creatures, both real and mythical: black panthers, rhesus macaques, the Clearwater Monster, the Skunk Ape, and a thousand-pound hammerhead known as Old Hitler. Yet “Wakulla Springs” is less a tale about monsters than it is the journey of one family (and, by extension, the evolution of social mores and attitudes). Beginning with matriarch Mayola, the story of the Williamses is inexorably linked to the Springs: by culture, tradition, and superstition – and a series of cheesy Tarzan movies shot on location in Wakulla County, Florida.

The plot’s surprisingly sparse, especially given the story’s length and description. (“Wakulla Springs” reads more like a novella than a short story.) Each of the four parts or chapters focuses on a different member of the Williams clan, and his or her experiences with Wakulla Springs and the exclusive, “whites only” resort situated on its banks. Cultural signposts indicate each segment’s particular timeline; while African-American Mayola tries to pursue her education in the Jim Crow south, by story’s end we meet her granddaughter, Dr. Anna Williams – a multiracial woman of African-American, white, and Cuban descent – visiting Wakulla Springs during sabbatical to study the encroachment of invasive species into the area.

It makes for an enjoyable and engaging read, even if most of the “monsters” we meet are of the human and institutional variety.

P.S.: Free Cheetah!

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes! The protagonists are pulled from several generations of the Williams clan, all of whom are connected to Wakulla Springs and the “whites only” resort located on its banks: African-American Mayola tries to pursue her education in the Jim Crow south, and by story’s end we meet her granddaughter, Dr. Anna Williams – a multiracial woman of African-American, white, and Cuban descent – visiting Wakulla Springs during sabbatical to study the encroachment of invasive species into the area.

 

Mini-Review: If You Could Be Mine: A Novel, Sara Farizan (2013)

Monday, August 4th, 2014

An Engaging Exploration of Sexuality & Gender Identity in Iran

four out of five stars

Sahar is seventeen and in love – with her best friend Nasrin. In Iran, homosexuality is a crime punishable by imprisonment, corporal punishment, and even execution, forcing the young women to keep their relationship – and sexuality – a secret. But when Nasrin’s family arranges a “suitable” marriage for her, each girl struggles to find a way to hold onto the other. Nasrin’s solution? An extramarital affair – which can also earn you the death penalty. Meanwhile Sahar, emboldened by a chance meeting with trans woman Parveen, hatches a misguided plan to undergo a sex change operation so that she can marry Nasrin herself.

Iran is home to more such surgeries than any country save for Thailand; typically they’re even funded in part by the state. Yet this development is far from positive, as the government views sex changes as a handy “cure” for homosexuality: a way to align one’s sexual orientation with one’s gender. Thus, many gay and lesbian Iranians are pressured to undergo such surgeries (including under threat of imprisonment); and, while arguably more acceptable than homosexuality, transgender Iranians are met with discrimination and oppression just the same. Meanwhile, gay and lesbian cissexuals who undergo coercive sex reassignment surgeries are trapped in a prison of a different kind; one possibly worse than any concrete and steel cell erected by a government: bodies which are not their own.

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Book Review: Saga, Volume 1, Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples (2012)

Monday, June 2nd, 2014

Fragile Things

four out of five stars

“Ideas are fragile things. Most don’t live long outside of the ether from which they were pulled, kicking and screaming. That’s why people create with someone else.”

Marko and Alana are two young soldiers fighting on opposite sides of an ancient and never-ending galactic war. No one remembers why the citizens of Landfall – the largest planet in its galaxy – and Wreath – its only satellite moon – don’t get along. All anyone knows is that the two rocks are mortal enemies, and they must choose sides. (You’re either with us, or you’re against us.) Since the planet and its moon can’t obliterate one without destroying the other, the conflict has long since been outsourced, until it engulfed every world in the galaxy. There’s no escaping it.

A soldier with the Wreath contingent, Marko surrendered to Coalition Forces on the planet of Cleave and swore off violence altogether. Once imprisoned, Alana was assigned to guard him. Instead, they fell in love and ran away together. Three months later, and with their pursuers hot on their trail, baby Hazel is born. All these lovers want to do is raise their young family in peace; but with Prince Robot IV and mercenary “The Will” on their trail, it’s likely that their subversive idea will be snuffed out before it’s able to take root and blossom.

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Book Review: Pointing With Lips, Dana Lone Hill (2014)

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

“Ain’t gotta lie to kick it.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free pdf copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Member Giveaway program. Also, trigger warning for discussions of rape, violence, and drug and alcohol use.)

Born and raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Dana Lone Hill offers us a glimpse inside “a week in the life of a rez chick” with her debut novel Pointing With Lips. We meet 32-year-old Sincere Strongheart – “Sis” for short – the titular “rez chick,” just as she’s trying to sell some of her jewelry to the tourists who have flocked to town for the annual Oglala Nation Fair and Rodeo. (“People from all over America and the world are fascinated with us, maybe because we are still here after all the bullshit America put us through.”)

During the course of the week, we follow Sis as she spends time partying with her best friends Boogie and Zona; evading brother George, a cop who’s constantly throwing his siblings in the drunk tank; quits/is fired from her dead-end job at the Great Sioux Shopping Center, the one and only grocery store on the rez; rescues her sister Frieda’s kids from one of her drug-fueled sex parties; and flirts with friend Ricky and border town white guy Mason. There’s also the town parade (Planned Parenthood was banned for life when it handed out condoms instead of the more standard, diabetes-inducing candy) and brother Misun’s going-away BBQ, complete with plenty of family drama.

Against this backdrop, we see Sis slowly slide from social drinking into the bottomless pit of alcoholism, which has claimed the hopes, dreams, and lives of so many of her friends and family.

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Book Review: March: Book One, John Lewis (2013)

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

“The Boy from Troy”

four out of five stars

The first in a planned trilogy, March: Book One follows the life of Congressman John Lewis (GA-5), one of the “Big Six” leaders in the civil rights movement and a former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Book One covers Lewis’s early years, where his love of education often conflicted with his duties on his family’s Alabama sharecropper’s farm. After high school, Lewis attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary and Fisk University (“the boy from Troy who wants to desegregate Troy State,” as MLK referred to him during their first meeting), where he became involved in non-violent protest and helped organize the Nashville sit-ins, which were successful in desegregating local lunch counters. The scenes of students rehearsing the demonstrations – and all the abuse it entailed – are especially harrowing. Along with dozens of fellow protestors, Lewis was arrested (the first in a long string of arrests; as of October 2013, when he was arrested for marching in favor of immigration reform, Lewis has been arrested some 45 times) and sentenced to a $50 fine or 30 days in the county workhouse. Lewis and his colleagues were ultimately released under the orders of Nashville Mayor Ben West.

Lewis recalls these events to a group of young visitors just hours before the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama, which he and his family are to attend, thus firmly connecting past and present. The artwork by Nate Powell is pleasing and certainly gets the job done, though part of me wishes that these scenes from the past had been rendered in color instead of black and white, making them come alive, so to speak.

Though it includes harsh language (understandable given the context), I think that March is suitable for middle school readers on up. The “n word” is dropped with some frequency, but it’s important for parents to discuss the hateful legacy of this (and other slurs) with their children. Additionally, March can be a useful tool for introducing the history of the civil rights movement to middle and high school students. While it is rather light on details – this is a graphic novel, after all! – March can help teachers meet students on their level and engage them with topics in which they might not otherwise take an interest. March shouldn’t be the beginning and end of the lesson, but rather a starting point. It certainly made me hungry to know more.

I found the early scenes of Lewis tending to his family’s chickens particularly touching and poignant. Lewis had an especial affinity for those birds destined for his dinner plate; he talked to them, named them, came to recognize and appreciate their distinct personalities, and even sermonized to and baptized them. When his parents killed one for meat – chopping his head off, or breaking her neck – Lewis remained angry with them for days, and made himself scarce during these meals. Thus it was no small disappointment to see him readily dismisses the ethical implications of exploiting sentient creatures for food – not to mention, devalue the fierce bonds he formed with these beings – with a clichéd line about the circle of life.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Teaching with Harry Potter: Essays on Classroom Wizardry from Elementary School to College, Valerie Estelle Frankel, ed. (2013)

Monday, July 29th, 2013

Something for Everyone!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review at the editor’s invitation.)

Since the debut of Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone in 1997, the Harry Potter franchise has generated a wealth of scholarly research. “Aca-fans” – “those who participate in academic fandom” (page 1) – scrutinize, interrogate, and critique Harry Potter creations both official and unauthorized: from J.K. Rowling’s novels to the film adaptations and supporting websites, to fan-made works such as fan and slash fiction – all is fair game. Such discussions often focus on themes as diverse as literature, philosophy, psychology, history, gender studies, and the law. However, Harry Potter’s place in education is a topic that has, until now, been all but neglected – as some of the writers (most notably Elisabeth C. Gumnior, who devotes an entire chapter to the subject) in Teaching with Harry Potter: Essays on Classroom Wizardry from Elementary School to College are quick to point out.

The eighteen authors who contributed to this unique collection come from a variety of backgrounds; they are parents, teachers of middle and high school students, college professors, academics, and fans. Consequently, there’s a little something for everyone here. Common to the essays is a shared enthusiasm for Harry Potter and his ability to help educate the next generation. Composition, literature, creative writing, romance languages, medieval studies, modern history, theology, science: with a little creativity and effort, the lessons found in Harry Potter – especially useful as a “global cultural reference” (page 152) – can be integrated into almost any classroom.

1 – “From Hogwarts Academy to the Hero’s Journey,” Lana A. Whited – The author compares and contrasts her experiences teaching Harry Potter to two very different audiences: 10- to 13-year-old children enrolled in Hogwarts Academy, a week-long summer enrichment class, and college sophomore literature students. An enjoyable start to this anthology, I found myself wishing I was young enough to attend Hogwarts myself, what with its Care of Magical Creatures and Defense of the Dark Arts lessons. The course sometimes even hosts a Snape impersonator in the form of Dr. Powell, a chemistry professor who brews up marshmallows and ice cream! Meanwhile, the older students examine Harry’s growth in the context of Otto Rank’s stages of the hero’s saga and Joseph Campbell’s monomyth of the hero’s journey. The author concludes that there are two ways of “knowing” literature – by the head and by the heart – and you can sometimes achieve the former by beginning with the latter.

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Book Review: New Zapata, Teri Hall (2013)

Monday, July 15th, 2013

A Timely Dystopia

four out of five stars

Trigger warning for rape.

Nineteen-year-old Rebecca Johnson – Becca for short – is a young woman who suddenly and unhappily finds herself pregnant – again. Though she loves her young son Luke, his birth almost killed her. Did kill her, in fact: her heart stopped beating for several minutes before doctors were able to revive her. Despite the doctors’ grave warnings that a second pregnancy would most likely kill her, Becca’s husband Chad continues to insist upon sex as his husbandly right. Though she tries to satisfy him in other ways, he rapes and impregnates her. The embryo growing inside her could very well claim her life or leave her permanently disabled, like her own mother Dee, who has spent all nineteen of Becca’s years in a persistent vegetative state. An abortion is her only chance at survival. Trouble is, Becca lives in the Republic of Texas circa 2052.

Shortly before Becca was born, Texas seceded from the United States and installed its own repressive theocracy. The first order of business: assume control of the means of reproduction – namely, women and their bodies. Naturally, abortion is prohibited, although – after an initial backlash – the powers that be begrudgingly allowed exceptions in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the (would-be) mother. These exemptions are rarely granted, and require a vote by an (all-male) council and, if the woman is married, the husband’s written permission. To make matters worse, nearly all forms of contraception are outlawed, the sole exception being vasectomies, which also require a health exemption. (Chad would qualify due to his wife’s condition, but he refuses Becca’s requests to have the procedure performed.) As a result of this mandatory fertility, the population of the R of T is growing at an alarming rate, while public assistance to families is need is dropping steadily. “Pro-life” at its finest!

Divorce is outlawed, though in larger, more “liberal” cities, aggrieved couples sometimes opt to live separately. (Becca lives in the border town of New Zapata, which is not so progressive.) While public schooling is available, children are fed a steady stream of propaganda, faith-based misinformation, and outright lies. Any books that counter the government’s official platform – like the seemingly innocuous Gray’s Anatomy – are banned, and their possession could land you a stiff jail sentence. Girls rarely receive more than a tenth-grade education because they’re expected to become mothers, usually at a young age – and mothers aren’t allowed to hold paying jobs. Pregnant women are made to leave their jobs in the third month of pregnancy, so as not to harm the “baby.” The government knows exactly when life begins, right down to individual cases: beginning at adolescence and continuing through menopause, girls and women must submit to monthly pregnancy tests (and boys, DNA screening). The country’s borders are sealed, with no one allowed out or in, so that those in need of employment or who don’t agree with the country’s policies don’t have the option of leaving in search of a better life elsewhere. The R of T is a virtual prison, with its residents held captive to the hatred and religious zealotry of its founding fathers.

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Book Review: The Many Faces of Katniss Everdeen, Valerie Estelle Frankel (2013)

Monday, July 8th, 2013

Team Katniss

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review at the author’s invitation.)

If you’re a voracious reader of THG criticism, you might already be familiar with the work of Valerie Estelle Frankel: in addition to a short guide to The Hunger Games (Katniss the Cattail: An Unauthorized Guide to Names and Symbols in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games), Frankel also contributed an essay to the 2012 anthology, Of Bread, Blood and the Hunger Games: Critical Essays on the Suzanne Collins Trilogy (“Reflection in a Plastic Mirror”). I had the pleasure of reviewing each of these, as well as a study of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as it relates to Joseph Campbell’s model of the Hero’s Journey (Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey: Vampire Slayer as Feminine Chosen One).

In this latest book, The Many Faces of Katniss Everdeen: Exploring the Heroine of the Hunger Games, Frankel revisits and expands upon many of the ideas introduced in her previous guides and essays. In particular, Chapters 4 (“Katniss Lives the Roman Histories”), 5 (“Katniss the Hungry: Food in the Hunger Games”), and 8 (“Katniss the Mockingjay: The Power of Story and Song”) are an extension of Katniss the cattail: a more in-depth look at the names (Katniss, Gale, Peeta, Prim, Claudius Templesmith, Plutarch Heavensbee, Presidents Snow and Coin, etc.) and symbols (bread, arrows, primroses, etc.) found in The Hunger Games trilogy. Likewise, Chapter 1 (“Katniss the Reality TV Star: Reflection in a Plastic Mirror”) is reprinted from Of Bread, Blood and the Hunger Games.

But far from a rehashing of old ideas, The Many Faces of Katniss Everdeen is a fresh and insightful discussion of the major themes of the trilogy, from its criticism of our current obsession with reality television (which, coupled with our war fatigue, is especially insidious – we enjoy watching the suffering of others, but turn our backs when it happens en mass) to the execution of the film adaptation:

1 – “Katniss the Reality Star: Reflection in a Plastic Mirror” – No less enjoyable the second time around, the opening essay in this collection compares Panem to the modern-day US; the Hunger Games are an exaggerated version of our own reality television – our own bread and circuses, if you will. In this way, The Hunger Games isn’t just a future dystopia – but a present one, as well.

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Book Review: No Safety In Numbers, Dayna Lorentz (2012)

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

Just another Day at the Mall

four out of five stars

Throngs of hysterical shoppers. Public bathrooms overflowing with human filth. Teenagers running wild and free. Yup, it’s just another day at the Westchester “CommerceDome” – until an unwitting teenager discovers a biological bomb strapped to the mall’s HVAC system.

Between Masque of the Red Death, The Uglies, the Tankborn trilogy, Mortal Instruments, and The Hybrid Chronicles (etc., etc., etc.), No Safety In Numbers wasn’t even on my YA radar – that is, until I won the follow-up, No Easy Way Out, through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program. At the time I requested it, I’d somehow managed to overlook the fact that it’s a sequel – and, not wanting to jump in mid-story, I decided to pick up No Safety In Numbers asap. I found myself pleasantly surprised: set in a rather mundane (even hated) locale (ugh, I shudder to think of the arduous task that was gift shopping, pre-Internet!), No Safety is un-put down-able.

Upon the discovery of the bioweapon, the mall’s immediately placed on lockdown; the occupants, quarantined indefinitely. The feds cut the land lines, jam the cell signals, and even block news channels inside the mall to keep everyone – both the captives within and concerned friends and family without – from communicating. The story follows four teens as they try to navigate this terrifying new world: exposing cover-ups, caring for the sick, and attempting escape. Stories told from alternating perspectives can sometimes take great effort to follow, but each teen and his or her voice is unique enough that they’re immediately distinguishable.

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Book Review: Confronting Animal Exploitation: Grassroots Essays on Liberation and Veganism, Kim Socha and Sarahjane Blum, eds. (2013)

Monday, June 17th, 2013

Abolitionist Vegan Voices from the Trenches of the Twin Cities

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: at my request, the publisher provided me with a free copy of this book for review.)

Born of a beautifully simple idea, Confronting Animal Exploitation: Grassroots Essays on Liberation and Veganism provides a platform for everyday, in-the-trenches animal activists to share their stories. More specifically, these author-activists all live in or around Minnesota’s Twin Cities and subscribe to the abolitionist vegan perspective (even if not all of the contributors label themselves as such). The result is a captivating, surprisingly diverse collection of essays that addresses myriad aspects of the animal liberation movement, from the obvious (welfare reform and “humane” meat; the problems with capitalist models of reform; the alienation of being a vegan in a non-vegan world) to connections seemingly obscure (animal-friendly themes in Stephen King’s oeuvre).

The essays in CAE are grouped into four themes: Theory for Praxis, Veganism in Action, Narratives of Change, and Moving Toward Revolution. Those already involved in the animal liberation movement will no doubt see a name or two that they recognize. Longtime activist Dallas Rising, for example, kicks off the anthology with an examination of why so many people actively choose to ignore the suffering of nonhuman animals (“Turning Our Heads: The ‘See No Evil’ Dilemma”). Perhaps the most frustrating roadblock encountered by activists, she attributes this willful ignorance to ethnocentrism, a fear of social ostracism, and the pain inherent in recognizing such traumas: we are at once perpetrators and victims of animal exploitation – an idea expertly grounded in Judith Herman’s classic text Trauma and Recovery. Rising’s second contribution – “Tales of an Animal Liberationist” – is at once inspiring and heartbreaking, and highlights the power of personal narratives in changing hearts and minds (and hopefully behavior as well).

In a community in which BBQ fundraisers and meat-based “Spay-ghetti and No Balls” dinners are the rule rather than the exception, vegans who work with companion animal rescue groups are no strangers to this disconnect. People who break their hearts and empty their bank accounts to save dogs and cats think nothing of selling the dead and dismembered bodies of cows and pigs to fund their efforts – and please their own palates. Melissa E. Masske makes a moving argument for sticking it out in such situations, both because animal rescue is a rewarding and effective form of direct action in and of itself – and to introduce “animal people” to the tenets of veganism (“Introducing Speciesism to the Rescue Community”).

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Mary & John & Ellen & Bobby

Saturday, May 4th, 2013

I initially published this on tumblr, in response to a question I got about misogyny in Supernatural. (I’d go back and find a link, but I forgot to tag the post, and tumblr doesn’t exactly make it easy to search a blog so NEVERMIND! tumblr, ugh.) Anyway, I’m crossposting here because I like to have my stuff all in one place and don’t exactly trust tumblr not to delete my blog willy-nilly and hope to do more pop culture blogging here anyway. So yeah reasons.

And if you’re into this sort of criticism, there’s this new blog I’m totally digging that you should check out called Feminist Supernatural. Submit an insightful comments, get a pie!

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A family “Team Free Will” portrait.
Left to right: Castiel, Sam, Ellen, Dean, Jo, and Bobby.
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(Ooops! When I was writing this for some reason I’d assumed that you were also a fan, so my answer is full of spoilers and specifics. To sum it up for non-fans: I wouldn’t say that Supernatural is super-misogynist – definitely not more so than most of the other stuff on tv – but it could definitely use some improvement, particularly when it comes to the representation of women (see #1). More roles, more screen time, more diversity of characters and fuller character development. Ditto for people of color and LGBTQ persons. SPN can be problematic – just based on my veganism alone, most all entertainment is problematic in some way – but I love it just the same.)

Hi! Yes! One could easily write an entire book about gender politics & SPN (someone write this book please!), so I’ll just stick to a few general examples.

1 – Representation. This is by and large a show about men and their relationships with each other. Women are mostly relegated to one of three roles (which aren’t always mutually exclusive): demons/witches/other baddies, damsels in distress, and love interests. (I actually think the show’s improved on this front in more recent seasons, Charlie and Chrissy being two notable exceptions.) If you’re a reasonably attractive damsel between the ages of 18 and 35, Dean will try to fuck you (and even if you’ve got more pressing things to deal with). If you’re unlucky enough to hook up with Sam, most likely you’ll die a brutal, gruesome death. (Hence the graphic to which I think you’re referring.) Granted, this is a show with a high body count, but on average I think the men tend to outlast the women, and get more screen time too. Many of the women significant to Sam and Dean mainly seem to function as vehicles to propel their stories forward (see e.g. Mary, Jess, Madison). I don’t think I’ve ever tried rating SPN using the Bechdel Test, but I bet that many episodes would fail.

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Book Review: Fever, Lauren DeStefano (2013)

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

Before the Fever Breaks

four out of five stars

Trigger alerts for discussion of rape, violence, and drug use.

In a two-star review of Wither, one Amazon reader commented, “I really just couldn’t stand Rhine at all. She kept saying she wanted to be free. But what point was there to being free. She was safe, and treated well, and it was terrible where she was.”

Freedom or comfort – this is the choice facing Rhine Ellery at the end of Wither. Within the walls of Vaughn’s estate, Rhine will never want for creature comforts; she has more food than she can eat, the latest in technological toys, and a “husband” and sister wives who love her. Somewhere (far, so far!) outside of the gates are her twin brother, Rowan; the Manhattan home they shared with their parents, now five years dead; and, perhaps most importantly, choice: the freedom to choose her own path in life, no matter how hard or short it might be.

If you know exactly how and when you’ll die, which would you choose?

* Warning: minor spoilers ahead! *

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Book Review: American Elsewhere, Robert Jackson Bennett (2013)

Wednesday, March 20th, 2013

One part each Supernatural & Stephen King, with a splash of Donnie Darko for that extra-trippy feeling.

fiveout of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free advanced review copy of this book through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

Welcome to Wink, where the sky meets the earth – and bumps up against the skies of infinite other worlds!

No matter how far or long her travels, Mona Bright has never felt as though she belonged; never felt at home, or even whole, deep down in the innermost reaches of her soul. Her chronically depressed, possibly schizophrenic mother committed suicide when Mona was just four years old; after Laura’s death, Mona and her alcoholic father Earl resumed their nomadic lifestyle, chasing odd jobs through the southwest and finding common ground only in hunting blinds and improvised shooting ranges. As soon as she turned 18, Mona left home, eventually settling down in Houston where she became a police officer. She met a guy, fell in love, became pregnant – only to have to her hopes of fresh starts and second chances destroyed in one tragic instant. With this, Mona resumed a life of drinking and wandering. Running, you might say.

The source of Mona’s malaise never required a supernatural explanation. That is, until she lands in Wink, New Mexico.

Upon her father’s death, Mona unexpectedly inherits a house that her mother, Laura Gutierrez Alvarez, purchased before her life with Earl and Mona. Set in the shadow of the Coburn National Laboratory and Observatory, the town of Wink was established in the ‘60s as a support for the government-funded research lab. Though Coburn is long deserted, the town remains – and in an idyllic state: despite its harsh desert climate, all the lawns in Wink are forever green and perfectly manicured. The sky is always a brilliant shade of blue, and at night an oddly pink moon shines down upon the residents. Divorce is unheard of, and all the television sets are tuned to the 1980s. Think: Leave It to Beaver meets Roswell.

With less than two weeks to spare, Mona speeds off to Wink to claim her inheritance – and hopefully learn more about the mother who is but a distant, painful memory.

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