Mini-Review: Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn (2012)

Friday, October 17th, 2014

Couldn’t put it down!

five out of five stars

(Caution: minor spoilers in the second paragraph.)

On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s clever and beautiful wife disappears. Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but passages from Amy’s diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media—as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents—the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter—but is he really a killer?

This is a story about two shitty people, trapped in a shitty marriage, and their mostly shitty parents and occasionally shitty friends. In spite of (or perhaps because of) the dearth of likable characters and the absence of a clear hero to root for, Gone Girl is a remarkably enjoyable read: witty, darkly humorous, wickedly fun. Even though I knew that there would be a major plot twist – and had a good guess as to its nature – Flynn still managed to surprise me, with multiple smaller twists beyond the first biggie. The overall structure of the book (Boy Loses Girl; Boy Meets Girl; Boy Gets Girl Back) serves the story well, and Flynn’s writing style is both entertaining and trenchant, and keeps the plot moving forward at a steady pace. GONE GIRL is a longish novel that feels lengthy – but in the best way possible. There’s so much action and observation crammed into these 400+ pages that I never got bored with it.

Gone Girl is ripe for deeper analysis: of the dynamics of interpersonal violence; rape culture; media sensationalism; the recession and erosion of the American middle class; sexism and misogyny; and gender roles and shifting expectations (Amy’s infamous “Cool Girl” rant comes to mind). For example, Amy’s false rape accusations are deeply troubling and play into rape apologist talking points (women lie about rape for their own benefit). Then again, she’s a sociopath! She hides jars of her own vomit inside frozen Brussels sprouts bags, and steals her pregnant neighbor’s urine. None of her actions really translate to an IRL setting. Which is why I (mostly) powered my thinking cap down for this one, and enjoyed it for what it was: crazy, crazy fun.

(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: Not much. Betsy Bolt – defense attorney Tanner Bolt’s wife – is a 6′ tall, stunningly beautiful (and highly intelligent) black woman, which catches Nick off guard – he expected a WASP like her husband.

 

Book Review: The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan, Jenny Nordberg (2014)

Friday, October 10th, 2014

Engaging, Informative, Interrogative; Intersectional Gender Studies At Its Best

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through Goodreads’ First Reads program.)

The bacha posh […] is a human phenomenon, and exists throughout our history, in vastly different places, with different religions and in many languages. Posing as someone, or something, else is the story of every woman and every man who has experienced repression and made a bid for freedom. It is the story of a gay U.S. Marine who had to pretend he was straight. It is the story of a Jewish family in Nazi Germany posing as Protestants. It is the story of a black South African who tried to make his skin lighter under apartheid. Disguising oneself as a member of the recognized and approved group is at the same time a subversive act of infiltration and a concession to an impossible racist, sexist, or otherwise segregating system.

Investigative journalist Jenny Nordberg was researching a larger story about Afghan women when she stumbled upon the practice of bacha posh (“dressed up like a boy” in Dari). During a visit with Azita Rafaat, one of the few women* to be elected to Afghanistan’s newly formed Parliament, one of Azita’s four children let the family’s loosely guarded secret slip: “Our brother is really a girl.” And so begins The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan.

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Book Review: Fault Line, C. Desir (2013)

Monday, August 25th, 2014

Well-Intentioned, but Sometimes Problematic

three out of five stars

(Trigger warning for rape.)

Just a few days before the start of his senior year, Ben meets her: Ani Taylor, the new kid in town. A California transplant, Ani is everything Ben wants in a girl: Direct. Outspoken. Ballsy. Artistic with just a hint of hippie chick optimism. Gorgeous, with legs that just won’t quit. And the best part? She’s totally into him, too.

All this changes when four or more young men gang-rape Ani during a house party. (While the book’s synopsis implies doubt about what exactly transpired at the party, Desir establishes that Ani was either a) drugged or b) intoxicated, either of which makes what happened rape.) As if being violently assaulted isn’t bad enough, first thing Monday morning the rumors start to fly. Before long, Ani’s known as the girl who fucked a lighter for an audience of strangers. Between the rape and subsequent bullying (“Firecrotch,” “Cum Dumpster,” and “The Manhole” are just a few of the nicknames devised by her classmates), Ani spirals into depression, shuts down emotionally, and begins acting out sexually. Meanwhile, Ben tries desperately to put the pieces of Ani – “his” Ani – back together again.

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Book Review: Take Back the Skies, Lucy Saxon (2014)

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

Warning: epilogue may cause cursing, stabbiness, and bouts of patriarchy blaming.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review from the publisher. Also, the second half of the review contains clearly marked spoilers.)

Oh, Take Back the Skies. I really wanted to fall in love with you: deeply, madly, passionately. You had so much going for you: Space travel by way of grand, masted skyships. Steampunk elements in the form of clockwork mechas. Human experimentation resulting in human-robot hybrid killing machines. A plucky young heroine who crossdresses as a boy so that she can more easily navigate the confines of her patriarchal society. An equally young and plucky author – who cosplays, no less! and has a name right out of the Doctor Who ‘verse! – who wrote you as part of NaNoWriMo at the tender age of sixteen.

Your story begins on a promising note. To outsiders, Catherine Hunter is living a charmed life. Born into wealth and privilege, Catherine has it all: a closet brimming with expensive clothes, an extravagant mansion to call home, all the food she can eat (no small luxury in this wartime rationing), and immunity from the Collections (in which the government steals all but the eldest child in a family to power its war machine). But when her physically abusive father promises to betroth her to a boy she can hardly stand – let alone hope to love – Catherine runs away from home…with the blessing of her dying mother, herself the victim of a loveless political marriage.

Dressed in trousers, sporting newly shorn locks, and passing as a commoner boy named “Cat,” Catherine slips away to the shipyard, where she boards the best-looking skyship in the joint: the Stormdancer. Luckily, she finds a friendly crew on board; while they ostensibly trade in furs, Harry, Alice, Matt, Ben, and Fox also smuggle goods and sometimes even children evading the Collections. Even when they discover Cat’s ruse, they’re happy to let her stay; after all, they don’t buy into Anglyan aristocracy’s sexist notions that boys are “more useful” than girls. So far, so good.

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Book Review: The One I Was, Eliza Graham (2014)

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

All the world’s a stage.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Member Giveaways program.)

Germany, December 1938. Only weeks after Kristallnacht (“The Night of Broken Glass,” an orgy of organized violence against Jews in Germany and Austria), eleven-year-old Benjamin Goldman boards a Kindertransport train for England. Carrying just his school satchel and his cherished leather football, Benny is traveling light; with his father long since imprisoned by the Nazis, and a mother who lay dying of diphtheria, Benny has no one to see him off, and is eager to put his life in Germany behind him.

Once in England, Benny is “adopted” by Lord Sidney Dorner and his young wife Harriet. The wealthy couple pledged to sponsor twenty Jewish refugees; the best and brightest six boys are to stay at their Fairfleet estate, where they’ll receive a top-notch education from university professor Dr. Dawes. For the next six and a half years, Benny tries his best to assimilate into his new, adopted country. Having always felt an outsider, he’s determined to shed his German roots and become a “proper” Englishman. From day one at Fairfleet, Benny struggles to speak in English rather than German, even outside of the classroom. He excels in his studies and forms tentative friendships with his dorm mates.

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Book Review: Burning Girls: A Tor.Com Original, Veronica Schanoes (2013)

Friday, April 4th, 2014

Beautifully Conceived and Written

five out of five stars

(Caution: minor spoilers below!)

Born in Bialystok, Poland at the turn of the century, Deborah is possessed of the power like her bubbe. Deborah is a witch, and spends her summers in training with grandmother Hannah: learning to assist in childbirth, cure common ailments, terminate unwanted pregnancies, craft blessings and talismans, and drive away demons. But Deborah’s magic is little help against the growing tide of antisemitism sweeping through Europe; and when the Cossacks lay waste to Hannah’s village, killing Deborah’s beloved grandmother and mentor, it becomes clear to her family that they must escape to America. America, where “they don’t let you burn.”

While the family – mother, father, and sister Shayna – work overtime to save enough money for the trip, Deborah discovers a horrifying secret. There, among grandmother’s sparse belongings, is a mysterious contract: “The ink seemed to be made of blood and vomit. A stench like cowshit rose off the page. My stomach churned every time I unfolded the paper.” When a demon tries to steal her newborn brother Yeshua, Deborah realizes that her grandmother did the unthinkable: traded her daughter’s next child in exchange for the family’s safe passage to America. Though Deborah succeeds in destroying the contract, it’s at great personal cost; and while Deborah and Shayna eventually make it to the New World, they’re ultimately unable to escape the lilit’s clutches.

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Book Review: The Evolution of Reptilian Handbags and Other Stories, Melanie Lamaga (2014)

Monday, March 24th, 2014

A Bewitching Collection of Short Stories

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review at the publisher’s invitation. Also, spoiler alert for the story-by-story summaries and trigger warning for rape and racism.)

If The Evolution of Reptilian Handbags and Other Stories isn’t my favorite book of 2014, it’s definitely my favorite collection of short stories. When Metaphysical Circus Press asked me to review a copy, I wasn’t sure what to expect. (Especially given the title. I’m a vegan, yo!) To say that Melanie Lamaga’s debut is a pleasant surprise is a gross understatement. The ten stories in this book are a lovely and imaginative blend of magical realism, supernatural fantasy, dystopian science fiction, and reimagined fairy tales – all with a distinctly feminist bent.

* begin spoiler alert! *

What Kind Are You? – “Names are important […] You let people call you the wrong one, you end up living somebody else’s life.” Shortly after her twenty-first birthday, Angel’s mom skips town. Runs out on her family, without explanation or warning. Shortly after that, the people closest to her start dropping dead – and Angel discovers what her mother already knew, that her name is more of a cruel irony than a term of endearment.

The Evolution of Reptilian Handbags – In which the world ends in a “tsunami of trash” (exemplified by the titular over-sized reptilian handbags all the rage) – and the mayor’s wife Winnie runs off with their maid Esmeralda, only to become a mayor’s wife once again.

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Book Review: The Edible Woman, Margaret Atwood (1969)

Monday, March 17th, 2014

A Perfectly Atwoodian Anti-Romance

five out of five stars

Ever since her engagement to Peter Wollander, Marian McAlpin has been unable to eat. Not for lack of desire, mind you; rather, her body simply refuses to ingest certain foods under threat of regurgitation. It started with the meats: beef (cows), pork (pigs), poultry (chickens), lambs, and finally seafood (fishes and oysters). Next came eggs, then fruits and vegetables, until even toast and OJ are off-limits. The nearer the date of her wedding, the more ferocious the rebellion brewing in her belly.

By all accounts, her soon-to-be husband is a fine specimen: handsome, educated, well-dressed with impeccable manners, a real up-and-coming lawyer. Any woman should be thrilled with such a catch. So why does Marian find herself drawn to Duncan, a sullen and self-absorbed grad student who professes not to care for her – almost as vociferously as she claims her own disinterest in him?

The Edible Woman is a sort of anti-romance, written in Atwood’s distinctive style. (There’s no shortage of dry humor here.) It’s obvious that Marian and Peter are ill-matched from the start; and when the two become engaged (during an especially alarming fight/flight), their relationship continues to unravel. For Marian, anyway; her fiance couldn’t be more content with the retro arrangement. (The Edible Woman was originally published in 1969, and it shows in the archaic attitudes towards gender roles and marriage. Attitudes that persist today: for example, did you know that 50% of Americans think it should be illegal for a woman to keep her last name after marriage? I guess lesbians are just supposed to swap last names then?)

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Book Review: Not a Drop to Drink, Mindy McGinnis (2013)

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

A stunning debut!

five out of five stars

Caution: minor spoilers ahead. Also, trigger warning for discussions of rape.

Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

More than just two lines dreamed up by a long-dead poet, this mantra rules sixteen-year-old Lynn’s life. Born into a world in which fresh, potable water is a scarcity, Lynn and Mother (less commonly known as “Lauren”) guard their pond as though their lives depend on it – because they do. Daily tasks revolve around gathering water, purifying water, storing water, and guarding water from threats both real and imagined. Anyone, human or non, who ventures too close to the pond is shot on sight. If they’re lucky, they get a warning shot first. When not performing daily chores, Lynn and Mother while away their time on the roof, a strategic vantage point from which to spot and discourage intruders.

For more than a decade and a half, Lynn’s life is confined to this small universe: the pond, the roof, and the basement. Mother is her only companion, and aside from the one time their neighbor Stebbs nearly lost a foot in a bear trap and sought Lauren’s help, Lynns hasn’t spoken to another soul. That is, until the fateful fall day when Mother is killed by a pack of especially bold coyotes. Though she attempts to carry on the way Mother taught her, Lynn finds herself sucked into local affairs by Stebbs. Stebbs has something Mother could never afford – a conscience – and he enlists Lynn’s assistance in helping the “Streamers,” a group of expats from the city of Entargo who set up camp upstream from Lynn and Stebbs.

A dearth of fresh water is only one of their problems, as the group will soon discover; more dangerous than the threat of cholera are the men to the south, who make due by looting abandoned houses, stealing from fellow survivors, and kidnapping, enslaving, and raping/prostituting women. They run a trading post in the nearby city of South Bloomfield, where a gallon of gas will get you a half hour with one of their sex slaves, and women can barter their bodies for milk with which to feed their starving children (stolen from the exploited body of a dairy cow, whose own child remains conspicuously absent). When the group attempted to raid Lynn’s house, she and Mother shot several of them dead. Now that Mother is gone, it’s up to Lynn to solve the Southie problem for good.

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Book Review: Suicide Girls, Vol. 1, Brea Grant et al. (2011)

Monday, January 27th, 2014

Worth every penny!*

three out of five stars

So I was clicking through Steve Niles’s Amazon page, trying to decide whether I should give his 30 Days of Night series a try, when I happened upon this gem. The summary sucked me in from the first (“Caught in a near-future defined by its rigid conformity and persecution of women, the SuicideGirls are the last hope for freedom. Can they take down the techno-religious cult, Way*of*Life, or will they die trying?”), and with used copies going for as little as one cent, I just couldn’t resist.

Now, I’m not really what you’d call a fan of the Suicide Girls franchise – get rid of the rainbow-colored hair and body mods, and SG adheres to the same stifling beauty standards as any mainstream, male gaze-catering brand of pornography – but outside of my vegan-feminist critiques of PETA’s partnership with SG, I don’t really pay the Suicide Girls much mind. Point is, I wasn’t expecting too much from this particular graphic novel. Three stars is several more than I expected to give Suicide Girls, Vol. 1.

The story is interesting, if not especially well fleshed out. In the near future, a fundamentalist Christian group called Way*of*Life (minor gripe – the asterisks in the group’s name proved distracting at best) has bribed its way into the United States government, criminalizing all that it deems “sinful” and imprisoning lawbreakers in its own private prisons/reform camps (“Rehabilitation in the Lord’s name!”). In addition to gays, atheists, and the like, Way*of*Life targets women – specifically, uppity women who don’t know their God-given place.

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Book Review: The First Days: As the World Dies, Rhiannon Frater (2011)

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

Don’t Mess With — BRAAAAAAAAINS!!!

three out of five stars

The Zombocalypse has arrived, and survival is as much a matter of dumb luck as it is skill and cunning – a fact quickly established in the first few pages of The First Days. Texas prosecutor Katie is on her way to work when the traffic procession in which she’s stuck is swarmed by a group of the undead. Katie barely manages to escape with her life, thanks to an older gent in a pickup who sacrifices his meat suit for hers. Katie races home, only to find her beloved wife Lydia eviscerating the mailman. She takes off in confused horror, and serendipitously crosses paths with Jenni, a long-suffering housewife whose abusive husband Lloyd has just made a meal of their children. In a very Thelma & Louise moment, the two women embark on a road trip, traversing the rural Texas countryside in search of Jenni’s surviving stepson, Jason, and a safe place to call home.

The First Days: As the World Dies is a solid enough zombie story that, for whatever reason, stopped just short of sucking me in. The story – a kind of cross between The Walking Dead, The Zombie Survival Guide, and every Romero movie ever made – primarily focuses on the tenuous task of rebuilding while swarms of zombies continue to beat down your door. The logistical planning – of which there’s more than a little – didn’t interest me so much, but I loved the many pop culture references. Frater’s obviously a huge fan of the genre. Originally self-published, the Tor reprint maintains some of that indie feel (and not in a bad way). Puzzling, though, are the many punctuation errors that managed to make it into the new version: missing periods, spaces both before and after periods, etc.

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Book Review: Witch Hunts: A Graphic History of the Burning Times, Rocky Wood et al. (2012)

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

Season of the Witch

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: The publisher sent me a free copy of this book for review at my request.)

“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” – Exodus 22:18

While the term “witch hunts” often conjures up images of the Salem Witch Trials, the truth is that those American colonists persecuted for witchcraft were but a drop in the bucket. From the mid-1300s through the 1700s, tens of thousands of people were imprisoned, tortured, and executed across Europe for the crime of heresy, including practicing witchcraft. In Witch Hunts: A Graphic History of the Burning Times, Rocky Wood, Lisa Morton, and Greg Chapman offer a succinct yet chilling account of the witch trials in graphic novel format.

Driven by fear, superstition, greed, and misogyny, religious and “secular” authorities alike found new and inventive ways to interrogate and kill these hapless victims, whose property was routinely confiscated and redistributed among the nobility, offering a powerful motive to accuse the innocent of consorting with the devil. In more extreme cases, this strategy backfired (or rather, progressed to its natural conclusion): entire towns were laid to waste as citizens were murdered en masse and others fled: “Finally, in 1593, the executions in Trier ended only when the city and its people were too impoverished to continue, the population had too much diminished, and food became scarce because farmers had been among those burned at the stakes.” (page 86)

Likewise, misogyny was a driving force as well; a majority of those tried and executed for witchcraft were women – including Joan of Arc, who was convicted of heresy for wearing men’s clothes. (After the first offense, she was imprisoned for life, as only repeat offenders could receive a death sentence. She resumed dressing as a man after an English Lord tried to rape her, in what was likely a trap devised by her enemies. Yet another piece of history I don’t remember hearing about in high school!) The authors recount the life’s work of one Henricus Institoris, also known as Kramer, the Dominican priest who co-authored the witch hunting bible Malleus Maleficarum, i.e., “The Hammer of Witches.” Kramer ordered that women accused of sorcery – overwhelmingly young and “buxom” – be stripped naked prior to their interrogations, which he frequently performed himself, alone behind closed doors. As the authors so charitably note, “The Inquisitor clearly had a passion for helpless, unclothed victims.” Had Karmer been born in different time and place, he might have become another Ted Bundy or Arthur Shawcross. Kramer proved so extreme that he was formally denounced by the Inquisition in 1490.

The illustrations by Greg Chapman are stark and often grotesque – appropriate for the subject matter, in other words. While Witch Hunts: A Graphic History of the Burning Times might prove useful in introducing high school readers to this shameful chapter in human history (one of many), I suspect that parents and teachers might object to the nudity. (The subjects of which are primarily attractive young women. It’s difficult at time to tell whether this accurately reflects history – see, e.g. the previous paragraph – or is just in keeping with current cultural norms. Some of the panels are oddly reminiscent of a 90s S&M scene.)

The authors also take care to note that, while the mass hysteria that swept Europe during the height of the witch trials may be long past, women and men are still being condemned to death for witchcraft to this day. Saudi Arabia, for example, still classifies witchcraft as a crime punishable by death; 74% of those charged are women.

(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: Bleating Hearts: The Hidden World of Animal Suffering, Mark Hawthorne (2013)

Monday, December 2nd, 2013

They Shoot Narwhals, Don’t They?

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review at the author’s invitation. Also, trigger warning for discussions of violence, including that of a sexual nature.)

“Hierarchies feed oppression because it allows for valuation: those at the top are more valued than those at the bottom. Oppressors like hierarchies that keep animals at the bottom because then you can do to humans what you do to animals if you say that the humans are like the animals. So it feeds oppression to have animal objectification.” – Carol J. Adams (page 492)

“Change is hard, but not changing is just as hard.” – Carol J. Adams (page 487)

“Now I can look at you in peace; I don’t eat you any more.” – Franz Kafka (quoted on page 490)

In Bleating Hearts: The Hidden World of Animal Suffering, author-activist and longtime vegan Mark Hawthorne examines some of the effects of these human hierarchies, which universally place nonhuman animals – an estimated three to thirty million species, comprised of trillions upon trillions of individuals – at the bottom of the proverbial shit pile. (That such categories even exist – human animals, and all the “others” – is itself a testament to the self-centeredness of the human species.)

While I was expecting an encyclopedic, A-to-Z look at animal suffering, Bleating Hearts is something much different; Hawthorne shines a light on practices that, for whatever reason, don’t garner as much attention in animal activist circles: Balut eggs, an Asian delicacy that involves boiling developing duck embryos alive. The plight of the ever-popular slow lorises (please don’t forward those YouTube videos, people, no matter how cute they seem!). Dolphin-assisted therapy (cruel, and a scam). Horse fighting (which often ends in the serial rape of a mare, positioned in the ring to induce the stallions to compete). Rogue taxidermy. If you think you know all there is to know about animal exploitation, think again. Even the most seasoned activist will discover something new within these pages.

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Book Review: The Girl Who Would Be King, Kelly Thompson (2012)

Monday, October 28th, 2013

The Novel that Reads Like a Comic Book!

four out of five stars

Bonnie Braverman and Lola LaFever are two young women, both orphans, standing on the threshold of adulthood. Though they don’t know it yet, they are two halves of the same whole: an ancient and powerful force, passed on down though the matrilineal line, which bestows upon its possessor (or possessed, as it were) god-like powers. The descendants of one blood line are driven to save, protect, and nurture; the other, to kill, destroy, and dominate. Their opposing existence ensures that there is balance in the world. But this equilibrium comes at great cost to those destined to maintain it.

The Girl Who Would Be King is an enjoyable story, and unique inasmuch as it’s a piece of prose that reads quite like a comic book. The battle scenes in particular call to mind images of black and white comic book panels; at times I could almost picture Bonnie shooting up into the atmosphere, an unconscious Lola in tow, or Lola ramming Bonnie through the walls of an office building. Reportedly author Kelly Thompson had trouble finding a publisher, since The Girl Who Would Be King was deemed “too violent” for the YA genre. But the violence contained within these pages is cartoonish and over-the-top; more disturbing is Lola’s rapid descent into madness. The language and sex are also rather tame, in keeping with the conventions of the genre.

The story’s greatest strength is in its characters, the bulk of which are women. Men are mostly absent and defined by their relationships to the protagonists – brother, boyfriend, roommate – in a happy inversion of conventional gender roles and representation. Women and their relationships with one another take center stage; as Bonnie and Lola attempt to navigate their social worlds, we get a glimpse of both nurturing and destructive female relationships. Whereas Bonnie mourns her mother, dead some twelve years at story’s outset, our first introduction to Lola is when she’s in the middle of murdering her own mother, Delia, in order to steal her power. Shy and riddled with guilt, Bonnie is just emerging from a decade of self-imposed muteness when she moves to New York City and forms a tentative friendship with coworker Liesel; Lola, on the other hand, kidnaps therapist Liz and coerces her into becoming her criminal advisor and “BFF.” Bonnie and Lola are mirror images of one another, reflections distorted and warped through a cruel and inflexible lens, and their opposing natures are further reflected in their connections with the women in their lives.

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Book Review: Women of the American Circus, 1880-1940, Katherine H. Adams & Michael L. Keene (2012)

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

Challenging Gender Roles from inside the Big Top

three out of five stars

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

From 1880 through 1940, the circus was the main form of entertainment in America, and the most common live form of entertainment. The circus brought the exotic and transgressive to big cities and small towns alike, exposing Americans to the strange, unusual, and death-defying: trapeze artists and tightrope walkers, equestrians and lion tamers, clowns and magicians, strong men and tattoo artists – and scores of women who challenged gender roles on multiple fronts. Sometimes these subversive acts proved as simple as displaying one’s “freakish” body in public; other times they involved highly skilled and dangerous stunts which required years of training to perfect.

Bearded women, tall women, fat ladies, and other “born freaks” challenged traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity, while daredevil performers such as female equestrians, sharpshooters, animal trainers, hot rod tricksters, and human cannonballs claimed masculine realms as their own. Likewise, skeletal and short men – particularly when paired with their feminine opposites – also toyed with viewers’ perceptions of masculinity. “Manly” women were sometimes presented as the logical conclusion of feminism (i.e., women with facial hair are the next step in the evolution of the New Woman).

As women began to make up more and more of the circus audience after the Civil War, their roles in the circus changed, becoming more frequent, visible, and varied. Unlike actors, circus performers lived their roles; it was who they were. Women often got to “play the hero” – a role not usually open to them in the larger world. In many ways, a life in the circus afforded women greater independence and more opportunities for self-expression than women could find in the outside world. By 1910, women made up 1/3 to 1/2 of circus acts; as early as 1880, female aerialists earned more on average than men. Many of these were family affairs, with family acts immigrating to the U.S. to join more prestigious outfits. In this way, the circus was truly a microcosm of the “American Dream.”

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Book Review: Christian Nation: A Novel, Frederic C. Rich (2013)

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

I really wanted to like this book…

two out of five stars

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

I really wanted to like this book. I really did. I mean, it’s right up my alley: Speculative fiction. The rise of an American theocracy. The erosion of civil liberties and rights. The misuse of technology by the government to spy on its citizens and force them into submission. Misogyny taken to its logical extremes. When I first read the description on the book jacket, it brought to mind some of my favorite dystopian classics: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is an obvious one, as is George Orwell’s 1984. While these books do share some similarities, what sets Christian Nation: A Novel apart is that it’s surprisingly boring.

Caution: Minor spoilers ahead!

What might have happened had John McCain and Sarah Palin won the 2008 election? In Frederic C. Rich’s vision of one possible America, a McCain/Palin victory is the first step on the path to an American theocracy. Not long after his inauguration, President McCain drops dead of a cerebral aneurism while giving a speech in Moscow. In a nightmare scenario, the ill-prepared Sarah Palin is swiftly sworn in. During her presidency – which lasts two terms, thanks to a series of especially brutal and conveniently-timed terrorist attacks on American soil – Palin begins to lay the groundwork for what will become the unraveling of American democracy. Among other things, Palin declares martial law, and with her leadership, Congress passes previously unthinkable pieces of legislation, including the Houses of Worship Act, the Constitution Restoration Act, and the Defense of Freedom Act – most of the provisions of which are upheld by a Supreme Court now dominated by conservatives.

Palin is succeeded by her mostly-invisible adviser, Steve Jordan, under whose leadership America undergoes a radical transformation. On July 4th, 2017, he introduces a series of fifty proposed rules organized around ten assertions. Based on an evangelical Christian reading of the Bible and collectively called The Blessing, these are to act as each citizen’s covenant with God, as well as the basis for more concrete state and federal laws. The Blessing is a sort of conservative Christian wishlist: among other things, it establishes “God’s law” as the law of the land; restricts judgeships to born again Christians; expels the UN from US soil and nullifies existing international treaties; solidifies marriage as between one man and one woman; outlaws abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, adultery, pornography, and “sexual perversion”; eradicates hate crimes legislation; establishes abstinence-only education as the only legal form of sexual education; and demands that wives must obey their husbands and children, their fathers. While Jordon doesn’t unilaterally enact The Blessing – it comes up for a vote in Congress, much like any other piece of legislation – it easily passes in a House and Senate dominated by conservative Christians (many of whom were swept into power with the help of politically active churches, thanks to Palin’s Houses of Worship Act).

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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: We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ (1975)

Friday, July 12th, 2013

Womb Raider

five out of five stars

Caution: minor spoilers ahead. Also, trigger warning for rape and violence.

The year’s 2120 (roughly), and an unlucky group of space travelers find themselves stranded on an barren alien planet devoid of animal life. Hurled there by a multi-dimensional explosion, they have little hope of being rescued, the nature of space travel being what it is: in essence, the folding of spacetime. Do it wrong and you can end up “God knows where, maybe entirely out of [y]our galaxy, which is that dust you see in the sky on clear nights when you’re away from cities.” (page1)

Though the planet is “tagged” – meaning that, at some time in the distant past, a team of scientists surveyed a square mile of the planet’s surface and found nothing in the atmosphere that’s immediately lethal to humans – it’s far from hospitable; the narrator variously describes it as the Sahara, a tundra, the Mojave desert. They have few supplies – a water filter, enough dried food to last six months, a pharmacopeia of drugs stashed on the narrator’s person, and the ship itself – none of which present a solution to their precarious situation, the book’s futuristic sci-fi setting notwithstanding. With no way to call for rescue (assuming that rescuers could even reach them during their natural lives!) the survivors are left to their own devices. They are five women and three men.

Most of the group resolves not just to survive, but thrive: almost immediately, they set about colonizing the planet. Within days this new society devolves into an Upper Paleolithic patriarchy, the women of which are reduced to little more than baby makers, walking wombs. With the middle-aged Mrs. Graham luckily excused from service, and her daughter Lori a few years too young to bear children, that leaves three women: Nathalie, a young adult who was on her way to begin military training when the ship crashed; Cassie, a thirty-something ex-waitress; and the narrator, a 42-year-old musicologist with medical issues. Whereas Nathalie and Cassie somewhat reluctantly agree to “do their duty,” the narrator (cynically but realistically) scoffs at their plans. In an especially amusing exchange, one of the men insists that it’s their responsibility to rebuild civilization. “But civilization still exists,” the narrator points out. “We just aren’t a part of it anymore.” (I paraphrase, but you get the gist.) Humans, always the center of their own little worlds!

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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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