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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Book Review: Fembodyverse: An Inner-Stellar Adventure into Womanhood, Michele Elizabeth (2012)

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013

Innerspace meets Our Bodies, Ourselves – in another dimension!

three 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 rape.)

“You’re on a mission, Estelle: to know yourself, to become whole, to mature and be who and what you truly are in the external world.”

Seventeen-year-old Estelle Rinoux is on a quest to become a woman – a “real” woman. To Estelle and her peers, this means losing her virginity: in her case, to steady boyfriend Robert Pierson, who is as handsome as he is chauvinist. Unsurprisingly, Estelle’s first time isn’t as nearly as magical as she hoped it would be, and leaves her feeling less connected with both Robert and her own body than she’d been before.

Enter Pudi. An “emufté,” Pudi serves as Estelle’s own personal guide through her inner feminine universe – her “fembodyverse,” if you will. From the tips of her toes up through the top of her head, Pudi introduces Estelle to the “divine cosmos” within. A magical place which exists in the “feeling dimension” (hence the lack of organs and tissue), Estelle’s fembodyverse is comprised of such varied phenomenon as smart skin, the directors, the wisdom center, Mama Party, lost girls, and the Oracle – all of which make up the Body Goddess. In turn, the Body Goddess is connected to Grandmother Gaia, from which she draws strength and power. With Pudi’s assistance, Estelle comes to accept her inner goddess, and to understand that true self-worth comes from within. When women measure their value through external cues – wealth, beauty, social acceptance – they are playing a losing game, one constructed by the patriarchy.

Written in beautifully poetic prose (to wit: “Estelle knelt down upon the toe’s floor, her celestial hair waving like a slow-motion flag.”), Fembodyverse: An Inner-Stellar Adventure into Womanhood has a vaguely ecofeminist feel to it. (That said, I couldn’t help but laugh when Estelle fumed about Robert’s “[bug- and frog-] slaughtering shithead” friend Nathan – all while chowing down on a tuna salad sammie. Oh the disconnect!) Unfortunately, the story also shares in some of ecofeminism’s flaws, such as gendering nature (“Mother Nature,” “Grandmother Gaia”) – nature is no more female than it is male. The idea that women are inherently connected to the land and its nonhuman inhabitants has long been employed as a justification for their oppression (and male dominance). Likewise, equating the mind/rational thought with masculinity – and the body/nature with femininity – does a disservice to those of all genders. (Not to mention, the mind and body are essentially one.) And compassion is a wonderful thing, but it’s a role that women are socialized – not born – into.

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Book Review: Stung, Bethany Wiggins (2013)

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

“Sleeping Beauty” Meets “28 Days Later”

three out of five stars

Trigger alert for discussions of rape; also, minor spoilers ahead!

In an ill-fated attempt to save the world’s endangered bee populations – and prevent the inevitable global famine which would surely follow – the scientists in Bethany Wiggins’s Stung design a new, genetically modified species of “super bees.” Immune to the effects of existing pesticides and fatally aggressive toward their less high-tech honeybee cousins, humanity’s so-called solution causes more problems than it solves: finishing the grim task begun by people, the Frankenbees drive naturally occurring bee species over the brink of extinction. They also turn on their human creators, spreading a deadly “bee flu” that’s ultimately responsible for thousands – if not millions – of human deaths.

After a promising vaccine fails – those given the antivenin develop superhuman strength and go mad – the government falls back on its “last resort”: a new pesticide, specially formulated for use against the GenMod bees. The only downside? It kills pretty much everything in its path: plants, (nonhuman) animals, even some humans.

In the wake of this destruction, the United States dissolves into a collection of city-states. In Denver, Colorado, there is safety behind “the wall” – but only for those citizens privileged enough to buy their way in with money (honey is the prevailing currency) or essential skills. At the age of 15, boys must join the militia, where they are tasked with defending the wall from “beasts” (those who received the vaccine and subsequently turned), “fecs” (refugees living in the sewers, many of them recipients of the vaccine who have yet to turn), and “raiders” (uninfected outlaws who traffic in women and beasts). Girls inside the wall are expected to marry young and have children.

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Book Review: Full Dark, No Stars, Stephen King (2010)

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

The Horrors of Misogyny

five out of five stars

* Trigger alert for physical and sexual violence. *

“The stories in this book are harsh. You may have found them hard to hear in places. If so, be assured that I found them equally hard to write in places.”

Ostensibly, the novellas contained within these pages – 1922, Big Driver, Fair Extension, and A Good Marriage (the paperback edition contains a fifth title, Under the Weather; but seeing as I “read” the audio version, I’m out of luck there) – revolve around the theme of revenge: a murdered wife haunts her husband/killer from the afterlife; a rape victim left for dead slays her rapist and his accomplices; a man wishes ill on his undeservedly lucky best friend; and, upon discovering that her husband is a serial killer, a woman attempts to find justice for his victims (past and future) without destroying her own family in the process. And while retribution is indeed a common thread, it takes a backseat to the more toxic and visceral theme of misogyny.

The men in these stories hate women: those they know, those they don’t know, those they wish they knew. Even mild-mannered Harry Streeter, the protagonist of Fair Extension, exhibits the classic trappings of a Nice Guy ™ when reminiscing about his first love Norma, “stolen” from him by his supposed best friend Tom. Physical and sexual violence are prevalent, and seen from a variety of perspectives: the perpetrator, the victim, and the perpetrator’s wife. In the strongest of these tales, the women on who war is waged fight back, attaining justice for themselves and others.

1922 – Nebraska, 1922. Wilfred Leland James’s wife Arlette recently inherited 100 acres of farmland from her father upon his passing. Whereas Wilf would like to incorporate this into his own 80-acre homestead, Arlette would rather sell all 180 acres and move to the bubbling metropolis of Omaha. The most obvious solution to the couples’ acrimonious, months-long standstill is divorce (however unlikely that might have been circa 1922), with the couple doing as they choose with their respective parcels of land. Complicating matters is that the most likely buyer for Arlette’s property – located upstream of Wilf’s – is the Farrington Company, an early factory farmer of pigs, which would pollute the air with the sounds of dying hogs and fill the river with their discarded blood and guts. An unabashed consumer of animal products (including pork), Wilf is the ultimate “not in my backyard” carnist. His consternation is understandable, yet hardly worthy of sympathy.

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Book Review: Lilith’s Brood, Octavia Butler (2000)

Monday, May 6th, 2013

I’ll never look at an octopus the same way again.

five out of five stars

Lilith’s Brood is one of those books that’s so amazing and epic that I can’t even. As in, I can’t even form a complete sentence, let alone maintain a coherent flow between paragraphs and ideas. And so this is where I break out the bullet points.

* Warning: major spoilers ahead! Also, trigger warning for discussions of rape and violence. *

  • The books in Lilith’s BroodDawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago – were originally published as the Xenogenesis trilogy. Definitely pick up a copy of Lilith’s Brood – it’s easier and less expensive than buying the books individually, and you’ll be hooked after the first installment anyway!
  • The basic premise is this: some time in the unspecified future, earth is decimated by nuclear war. Though it primarily involves northern, industrialized nations, the fallout results in massive casualties and renders the planet uninhabitable. As humanity lingers on the brink of extinction, the few remaining survivors are “rescued” by an alien species. The Oankali transport the human refugees to their ancient ship, where they’re kept in a state of suspended animation as the Oankali work to repair their wounds and rejuvenate earth. A century and a half later, the Oankali begin “awakening” humans so that they can prepare for their homecoming. Among them is Lilith Iyapo, an anthropology student from New Mexico. She was in vacationing in the Andes, grieving the loss of her husband and young son to a drunk driver, when the war started. (Many of the survivors are from the southern hemisphere – South America and Africa – resulting in great racial and ethnic diversity among the characters. Lilith, who has dark skin and curly, “cloud-like” black hair, is African American.) Lilith becomes a sort of “pioneer,” choosing, awakening, and teaching survival skills to multiple groups of humans before she’s allowed to return to earth herself.
  • Though vaguely humanoid (at least in their current form), the humans still find the Oankali dreadfully – repulsively – alien. (So much so that they must be acclimated to their rescuers slowly over time, usually with multiple awakenings and the use of drugs to dull the sense of revulsion.) Bipedal with two arms, two legs, a torso and a head, the Oankali are hairless; their earth-toned skin (in colors of gray, brown, and mossy green) is covered in hundreds of slug-like appendages called “sensory tentacles.” Through these, the Oankali are able to communicate with one another on a neurochemical level, sharing thoughts, pictures, feelings, memories, and even genetic information almost instantaneously, and with one or more people simultaneously. While they’re also capable of verbal communication – they can speak, and are proficient in countless human languages – the Oankali prefer to “hook in” to one another’s nervous systems. This is also how they control the ship, a living, organic creature created especially for intergalactic travel by the Oankali.

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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!



    A family “Team Free Will” portrait.
    Left to right: Castiel, Sam, Ellen, Dean, Jo, and Bobby.

    (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: Z for Zachariah, Robert C. O’Brien (1976)

    Monday, April 15th, 2013

    Creepy and Horrifying

    five out of five stars

    Trigger alerts for attempted rape, violence, misogyny, and speciesism.

    It’s been one year since the bombs fell like raindrops across the earth. One year since Ann Burden’s remaining human family – father, mother, brother, cousin, and two elderly neighbors – set off in search of survivors, never to return. One by one, the radio broadcasts went silent. Nestled in her protected valley home – fortuitously equipped with a small working farm and a well-stocked general store, and fed by a fresh, uncontaminated underground spring – Ann thought she was the last person in the world. That is, until she spots the thin column of campfire smoke rising from beyond the ridge. Day by day, it slowly draws nearer her valley home, leaving 15-year-old Ann in a hopeful panic.

    Ann’s idyllic – but oftentimes painfully lonely and monotonous – existence is shattered with the arrival of this mysterious stranger. A chemist from Ithaca, Mr. Loomis helped develop the only known anti-radiation suit in existence. In a world ravaged by nuclear war, it represents the only safe way out of the valley; their only lifeline to the rest of the world.

    * Warning: minor spoilers follow! *

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    Book Review: Sever, Lauren DeStefano (2013)

    Saturday, April 13th, 2013

    Cicely saves the day!

    four out of five stars

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

    Having managed to escape Vaughn’s mansion for the second time in as many books – this time, through a botched, drug-fueled suicide attempt – Sever finds Rhine Ellery recovering in a Florida hospital room, surrounded by her (soon-to-be ex-) husband Linden, sister (-wife) Cicely, and their young son Bowen. Though Linden’s feelings for his estranged wife are complicated and oftentimes contentious, he refuses to relinquish Rhine for use in his father’s experiments. Instead, Linden “gives” Rhine her freedom and agrees to help her in her quest to find her missing twin brother, Rowan, now a pro-naturalist “anarchist” who’s taken to bombing research labs. (Scare quotes because the term “anarchist” is bandied about without further explanation.) Along the way, Rhine and her companions discover more than they bargained for, including answers to many of the questions raised in The Chemical Garden trilogy. In the face of unthinkable tragedy – and not insignificant triumphs – the survivors also find home, family, and hope amongst one another.

    I hesitate to say much more about the plot, since it’s filled with unexpected twists, turns, and intersections (some of them admittedly improbable). Suffice it to say that those who enjoyed the previous two books in the trilogy – Wither and Fever – will not be disappointed. In fact, if you thought of Fever as mere “filler,” most likely Sever will prove a pleasant surprise. Fast-paced and full of suspense, Sever will have you glued to the couch (Kindle?). DeStefano’s prose is, as always, lovely, poetic, and brimming with detail. A number of old favorites – including those you just love to hate – reappear: Vaughn, Madame Soleski, Jared, Lilac, and (yes) Gabriel (though his face time is blessedly limited). We also meet Linden’s uncle Reed, an eccentric and delightful recluse who was banished from the mansion after Vaughn’s experiments nearly killed Linden in childhood, and travel to Hawaii which, contrary to the American government’s claims, does indeed still exist.

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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: Fray, Joss Whedon et al. (2003)

    Monday, April 1st, 2013

    Girls & Monsters & Flying Cars

    five out of five stars

    In a world long without magicks and demons, what’s a Slayer to do?

    If you’re 19-year-old Melaka Fray, you put your superhuman strength, dexterity, and resilience to use as a professional thief. Or “grabber,” in future slang. That it just so happens to frustrate your estranged big sister, who was recently promoted to sergeant in “the laws,” to no end? Icing on the cake!

    Set in New York City hundreds of years in the future, Fray introduces us to a world (mostly) free of vampires. Locked away in another dimension by an unnamed 21st century Slayer, they’ve gradually and inexplicably been resurfacing in Mel’s neighborhood. Seemingly harmless and commonly mistaken for drug addicts or human mutants (which all too common given the regrettable state of the environment), few have paid these “lurkers” any mind. That is, until they begin to plot to open a gate to hell – and the next Slayer is called. Unfortunately, all the Watchers have since been bored into madness, and Mel’s hapless Watcher sets himself on fire at their first meeting. Standing in as Mel’s trainer and mentor is Urkonn, a goat-like demon with a mean punch and a shady agenda.

    Though firmly rooted in the Buffyverse, Fray easily stands on its own. (One need not have prior experience with Buffy or Angel to enjoy Fray – though it’s highly recommended!) While the story is familiar – girl meets vampire, girl kills vampire – here it gets a futuristic makeover. Witty like a certain blonde we all know and love, Mel is nonetheless her own Slayer: brash, short-tempered, sticky-fingered, always willing to throw a punch for a friend or fellow “freak.” Juxtaposed with a dreary, dilapidated city landscape, Mel practically jumps off the page in her vivid blues, purples, and greens. The artwork contained within these pages is simply stunning.

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    Book Review: Wither, Lauren DeStefano (2011)

    Tuesday, March 26th, 2013

    This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time. (*)

    four out of five stars

    Trigger warning for rape and violence.

    At the tender age of sixteen, Rhine Ellery is already well past middle age. Genetic experimentation meant to rid the world of disease and extend the human lifespan has instead had the opposite effect: all women can expect to die in their twentieth year, and men only live to see twenty-five. In a world mostly absent of adults, the streets of New York City are overrun with orphans who beg and steal to get by. Children are sold as guinea pigs, experimented on in hopes of finding an antidote to the unnamed sickness that strikes down young people before their lives have even begun. “Gatherers” in gray coats and dark vans roam the streets, kidnapping girls and young women to sell into sexual slavery or as child brides. Girls deemed “unsellable” are murdered, their bodies discarded along the side of the road like sacks of garbage.

    Though their lives are far from ideal, Rhine and her twin brother Rowan are better off than most. They are orphans – but, unlike most orphans, they were lucky enough to know their parents. Members of the “first generation” of genetically modified humans, Mr. and Mrs. Ellery lived long and healthy lives, the sickness that kills young adults only manifesting in their children and grandchildren (and so on down the line). In fact, they probably would have outlived Rhine and Rowan, had they not been murdered by “pro-naturalists” who bombed the lab in which they were employed as geneticists. Rhine and Rowan are relatively well-educated and, while they were forced into the workplace at the age of twelve, they’re lucky enough to have a roof over their heads and food to eat. A meager existence, but one far better than freezing to death on a stranger’s porch, as Rhine finds a homeless girl one winter morning.

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    Book Review: Divergent, Veronica Roth (2012)

    Wednesday, March 13th, 2013

    Starts With One

    fiveout of five stars

    Not so much a review as a random collection of thoughts (so many feelings!), but you get the idea.

  • The plot, in brief: Set in Chicago sometime in the unspecified future, the hallmark of Divergent is its unusual method of social organization. The population is divided into five factions, each of which embraces a different virtue: Abnegation (selflessness), Candor (honesty), Erudite (knowledge), Amity (peacefulness), and Dauntless(ness) (bravery). Purportedly the faction system arose after the last major war; people blamed the conflict on different flaws fundamental to humanity, and adopted the opposing traits as a means of preventing future violence. Amity, for example, signaled out human aggression and adopted a position of non-aggression coupled with forgiveness and understanding.

    A person’s life is all but dictated by her faction membership: faction housing is segregated, and different factions assume responsibility for those jobs appropriate to their skills (Amity is involved in agriculture; Erudite produces the city’s scientists and innovators; and, owing to their unrelenting selflessness, Abnegation is entrusted to run the government). Aside from political leaders, members from different factions rarely interact, and inter-faction marriages are unheard of.

    Those who find themselves without a faction – because they failed their chosen faction’s initiation, or later left or were cast out – compromise the city’s homeless, who rely on Abnegation charity and menial labor to get by. To be factionless is considered by many a fate worse than death.

    At the age of 16, children – who are raised (read: indoctrinated) in their parents’ faction – armed with the results of aptitude tests administered to determine which faction best suits them, can either choose to stay in their current faction or join a different one. “Transfers” are rare: those who leave their faction may never return, as the choice is a lifelong one. Since members of different factions have little occasion to interact, this often means saying goodbye to one’s family of origin. In more extreme cases, a transfer may be shunned as a traitor. Few adolescents even consider leaving, since they’ve been trained from birth to share in the hive mind of their own faction; different ways of thinking are foreign, even terrifying.

    Of course, not all of Chicago’s citizens can so easily be categorized and classified: unbeknownst to most, there’s a sixth “faction” (the factionless not being considered belonging to a faction, though we’ll see in Insurgent that this is far from the truth), that of Divergent: those rare individuals who demonstrate a flexibility of thinking and aptitude for two or more factions. Young Beatrice Prior is Divergent, in a time when it’s dangerous to be so.

    We meet Tris – as she’s later christened – as she’s on the cusp of choosing her faction. Told from her point of view in first-person narrative, Divergent follows Tris through the process: high-tech aptitude tests, choosing ceremony, and initiation. While her brother Caleb decides to leave Abnegation for Erudite, Tris chooses the daredevils of Dauntless, and the freedom they represent. In just a month, she must learn how to be Dauntless; among the skills she will need to master are weaponry, hand-to-hand combat, and strategy. She must also learn how to conquer her own most primal fears through a computer simulation known as the fear landscape. The initiates aren’t just working against themselves, but are pitted against one another as well: only the top ten initiates make the cut. The rest are cast out into the factionless.

    As if this isn’t enough for Tris, her initiation comes at a time when the gears of war have again been set into motion: led by the Erudite, several factions are on the brink of war, with both the Abnegation and the Dauntless – Tris’s home and chosen factions – caught in the middle.

    Oh, and she’s also got the hots for her instructor. Talk about yer teen angst!

    (More below the fold…)

  • Book Review: Approaching the Hunger Games Trilogy: A Literary and Cultural Analysis, Tom Henthorne (2012)

    Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

    Fresh Insights into THE HUNGER GAMES Trilogy

    fiveout of five stars

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

    An enthusiastic fan of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, I was super-excited to win a copy of Tom Henthorne’s Approaching the Hunger Games Trilogy: A Literary and Cultural Analysis through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program. When it finally arrived some three months later (seriously, McFarland, why so slow? it’s almost like you’re trying to tease us!), I didn’t waste any time digging in, and devoured it in all of two sittings.

    Henthorne prides himself on producing an academic volume that’s accessible to scholars and lay fans alike. Take, for example, this blurb from the back cover: “Analytical rather than evaluative, this work dispenses with extended theoretical discussions, academic jargon and even footnotes.” In this he’s most certainly succeeded: engaging and informative, Approaching the Hunger Games Trilogy provides fresh, original insights into The Hunger Games, particularly when it comes to issues of gender, war, reality television, and the series’ literary standing – no small feat when you consider the number of books already written on the topic.

    In fact, this is the fifth THG guide I’ve read in about as many months, the others being the Girl Who Was on Fire, edited by Leah Wilson; Of Bread, Blood and The Hunger Games, edited by Mary F. Pharr and Leisa A. Clark; Katniss the Cattail by Valerie Estelle Frankel; and V. Arrow’s The Panem Companion – not to mention the many articles I’ve poured over online – and yet I still found myself surprised by many of Henthorne’s observations. (Gotta love those aha! moments.)

    The book is indeed light on jargon, and the author is careful to provide brief, 101-style introductions to the various academic approaches he employs in his analyses. For example, the chapter on gender begins with a short background on the difference between sex and gender, including the social construction of gender and its political implications.

    Depending on the topic of discussion, Henthorne – a professor of English and women’s and gender studies at Pace University – “draws from literary studies, gender studies, history, psychology, and cultural studies as well as social sciences.”

    – Chapter One considers whether The Hunger Games qualifies as a literary text, taking into account the series’ genre (a delightfully messy blend of science fiction, dystopia, war stories, YA romance, survivor stories, and Bildungsroman); the structure of the novels (three acts, each with an unresolved ending); the first-person narrative mode (as difficult as it is to maintain consistently); Collins’ use of deictic markers to create a feeling of immediacy; and her use of verbal patterning to augment major ideas and themes. This chapter in particular gave me a greater appreciation of the series’ complexity and sophistication.

    – Chapter Two – the charmingly titled “The Importance of Being Katniss” – examines issues of sexuality, gender, and identity. Henthorne argues that the Capitol is a patriarchy, and uses gender (among other things) to create divisions between its citizens. This sexism is evident in the Hunger Games: the Career Tributes excepted, the boys usually arrive at the Games better-prepared than their female counterparts due to their gendered socialization. (Peeta, for instance, was afforded the opportunity to practice wrestling in school.) Likewise, the Tributes are all but forced to perform their genders during the pre-Game spectacles; whereas the boys put on an aggressive show, the girls are styled as objects of desire. It’s only by operating outside the law that Katniss has acquired the skills needed to survive and triumph. In many cases, Katniss provides a foil to the Capitol’s sexism and heteronormatovity: with her masculine dress and behavior, she subverts gender stereotypes, and in her refusal to choose between Peeta and Gale as romantic partners she rejects the idea that women must subvert themselves to men through marriage.

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    Book Review: Thumped, Megan McCafferty (2012)

    Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

    The Sexual Revolution of the Future

    four out of five stars

    It’s 2036 and the world’s population is in crisis. The Human Progressive Sterility Virus has shortened men’s and women’s reproductive years dramatically; starting around the age of 18, fertility swiftly drops off and disappears altogether. Whereas it once was taboo, teen pregnancy is humanity’s only chance for survival. Teens are encouraged to “bump” – either professionally, for profit or as amateurs, for fun and slightly less profit – and give their “deliveries” (never “babies”) up for adoption.

    You might think that these “liberal” attitudes toward sex and childbirth would result in greater freedom and increased options for young women – but you’d be wrong. Teenage girls face unrelenting pressure to have at least one or two children before sterility sets in: propaganda masquerading as curriculum permeates the schools; parents take out loans against their daughters’ future reproductive potential; Surrogettes are treated like celebrities; and having babies is packaged as a form of patriotism. Likewise, women aren’t just compelled to have children, but to give them away – even if this goes against their wishes. Moms-to-be are dosed with drugs to suppress maternal feelings towards the fetus, and surrogate contracts heavily favor the rights of the adoptive parents. “Deliveries” are whisked away before the birth mothers can recover from their drug-induced stupors, let alone catch a glimpse of the human beings they carried and nurtured in their wombs for nine long months.

    During their teenage years, girls are treated like baby-making machines – and, as lucrative a “career” as this might be, even the most valuable object is still just that: an object.

    In Bumped, we meet two young women who are trying to navigate this precarious world. Long-lost twin sisters, Melody and Harmony are alike in appearance only. Raised in the gated religious community of Goodside, at 16 years of age Harmony has already been married off, and to a man she hardly knows. (But hey, at least they’re roughly the same age; this is a step up from so many fundamentalist religious groups.) Now she’s expected to fulfill her wifely duties, which chiefly include subservience to the menfolk and child rearing.

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    Book Review: Sorceress, Celia Rees (2009)

    Monday, February 25th, 2013

    A satisfying conclusion to WITCH CHILD.

    four out of five stars

    Sorceress continues the story of Mary Nuttall/Newbury, a young Englishwoman who immigrated to the “New World” in 1659. Forced from her village after her grandmother is executed for practicing witchcraft, Mary’s mother sends her to America in the hopes that she’ll be safe from persecution. Stuck in the isolated settlement of Beulah, surrounded by Puritans so intractable in their beliefs that they proved unwelcome even in Salem, Mary’s existence grows increasingly perilous. Try as hard as she might to fit in, Mary is an outsider – and a young, intelligent, and independent female, at that – and when things start to go sideways, she proves the most convenient of scapegoats.

    The story finds Mary where Witch Child left off: slowly dying of hypothermia and starvation in the forest surrounding Beulah, after having narrowly escaped the town’s religious authorities. A she-wolf comes to her in the middle of an especially harsh snowstorm, caring for Mary until the morning, when her friend Jaybird and his grandfather White Eagle come to her rescue. Thus begins a rather epic journey, beginning at The Cave of the Ancestors and ending many decades later, in Canada. Mary marries (Jaybird, in a terribly bittersweet romance) and gives birth to and adopts several children, one of whom she buries much too early; becomes a pupil to White Eagle and, in time, a respected healer in her own right; establishes a secret medicine society, still in existence to this day; and travels ever northward, trying in vain to stay ahead of the escalating tensions between indigenous peoples and the French and English settlers.

    Unsurprisingly, it’s the colonialists she encounters who prove most threatening to Mary’s well-being: terrified of her skills and offended that she’d rather live with “savages” than her “own kind,” Mary is kidnapped not once, but twice. Whereas the French pirate Le Grand drugs, rapes, and threatens to sell or enslave her, the Mohawk warriors who seize her and her children adopt them into a village decimated by disease. Likewise, the English Captain Peterson attempts to “rescue” her from her Pennacook kin – by force.

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    Book Review: Witch Child, Celia Rees (2000)

    Monday, February 4th, 2013

    “Words have power. These are mine.”

    four out of five stars

    Mary Nuttall was just sixteen years old when her grandmother Eliza – the only family she’d ever known – was murdered. Accused of practicing witchcraft, the old woman was tortured, stripped naked, bound, and “floated” – tossed into a river to sink or swim. Her buoyancy taken as a sure sign of guilt, Eliza was pulled from the water only so that she could be hanged in public. Once trusted to heal their loved ones, Eliza’s friends and neighbors in this rural English town proved eager witnesses to her execution.

    Rescued from similar persecution by her long-lost mother, Mary is sent away to the “New World” in search of a better life. She’s to travel with a group of Puritans bound for Salem, where they’ll join their brethren and pastor. Upon arrival, the group is dismayed to discover that their kin have moved on, to the isolated town of Beulah. After much deliberation they decide to follow, forging ahead into the wilderness with two Natives – of the Pennacook tribe – acting as their guides.

    Unsurprisingly, Beulah couldn’t be further from the safe haven Mary’s mother envisioned for her child. Ruled by a Puritan preacher so strict and demanding that he proved unwelcome in Salem, Mary is in constant danger, just by virtue of being a newcomer to the community. Though she tries hard to stay under the radar, her “transgressions,” real and imagined – which include befriending members of the opposite sex; spending time alone in the forest to gather food and herbs; harboring anything more than uncharitable thoughts about the “heathen” natives; and proficiency in transcription – don’t escape the notice of Reverend Johnson. When items suggestive of witchcraft are discovered in the forest and several of the town’s teenage girls start exhibiting strange behavior, Mary’s worst fears are realized.

    All of this we learn from Mary’s journal, which spans roughly a year from 1659-1660. Urged to burn it by her protector/surrogate mother Martha – its opening sentences (“I am Mary. I am a witch.”) alone being sure proof of guilt – Mary instead hides its pages inside a quilt. Discovered more than three hundred years later by one “Alison Ellman” (one of Mary’s descendents, perhaps), Mary’s journal stands testament to the horrors she and her kind endured.

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    Book Review: Bumped, Megan McCafferty (2011)

    Friday, February 1st, 2013

    The SyFy Channel Does “Teen Mom”

    four out of five stars

    The year is 2036 and a viral epidemic is threatening the world’s population. Those infected with the HSPV – Human Progressive Sterility Virus – enjoy just a few precious years of fertility; starting around the age of 18, one’s ability to procreate dwindles and then fails altogether. What was once taboo – babies having babies – is now necessary to human survival.

    Consequently, teen pregnancy isn’t just commonplace, but encouraged – patriotic, even: in America, chain stores like Babiez R U market faux baby bumps to young girls, complete with matching stretchy tees that sport catchy, pro-repro slogans like “Do the Deed, Born to Breed”; the local high school openly hosts a “Pro/Am” club (professional “preggers” – i.e., hired surrogates – and amateurs, or those girls who partner with whom they choose and then auction off their offspring to the highest bidder – coming together to make “pregging” sexy!); and especially “desirable” teens are represented by cutthroat agents called ReproReps, who strive to earn them top dollar for their “deliveries” (never “babies”). And, oh yeah, condoms are illegal (presumably along with other forms of birth control).

    Whereas sex for reproduction (“bumping”) is practically mandatory, recreational sex is frowned upon for the high school set. Whether through carefully negotiated contracts or masSex parties, many young women strive to deliver at least one or two (or ten, in Zora Harding’s case) babies before their “fertilicious” years pass them by.

    Against this backdrop, protagonists Melody and Harmony are two young women whose divergent experiences with female objectification demonstrate the many ways misogyny can manifest itself. Adopted into separate homes shortly after birth, the twin sisters were raised in two very different cultures. Mel’s parents Ash and Ty are former economists who predicted the rise of the surrogate market and groomed their daughter to supply this demand from childhood. Meanwhile, Harmony became a ward of “The Church,” a fundamentalist Christian community that isolates itself from the outside world (“Otherside”) in a suburban gated community filled with abandoned McMansions (“Goodside”).

    It’s not until their sixteenth year that the two meet – Harmony, having just entered into an arranged marriage with fellow “unteachable soul” Ram; and Melody, on the cusp of “bumping” with famous “cock jockey” Jondoe, thus fulfilling her contract with the Jaydens – and, through a case of mistaken identity/fraud, both girls’ lives are changed forever. (I won’t reveal any plot details beyond this, since there are a number of twists – some of them expected, others less so – and I don’t want to spoil it for would-be readers.)

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    Book Review: The Panem Companion, V. Arrow (2012)

    Monday, January 28th, 2013

    V. Arrow is the Fangirl on Fire!

    five out of five stars

    Witty, insightful, passionate, engaging, highly readable and with keen attention to detail: V. Arrow’s The Panem Companion is all of this and more. I usually enjoy the stuff that Smart Pop puts out, but they’ve really outdone themselves this time! Arrow approaches The Hunger Games trilogy with the unabashed enthusiasm of a true fan and the critical eye of an academic, resulting in a guide that’s everything I wanted – and more.

    In fifteen chapters, Arrow covers a wide range of topics – from gender roles to race and class to culpability for war crimes, not to mention all sorts of wacky fan theories:

    1 – Mapping Panem – Drawing on canon, textual clues, and scientific predictions about the effects of climate change, Arrow (with a little help from “geek friend” Meg) posits a likely map of Panem. The maps are printed on glossy, full-color paper, which I appreciate – but owing to the small size of the paperback, it’s also a bit difficult to make out the details. This was the only chapter that didn’t fully hold my attention, but I suspect that’s because I’m not a very visual thinker and had trouble picturing the geographic changes. Still, the map is integral to some of the later discussions (such as race, class, and immigration), so don’t skip it!

    2 – How Panem Came to Be – Using modern history as a guide, Arrow considers how the dystopian society of Panem might have risen from the post-apocalyptic ashes of Canada, the United States, and Mexico.

    3 – Race, Ethnicity, and Culture in Panem – This is the discussion that THG fans – rightfully upset over the whitewashing of the film(s) – have been waiting for! Arrow presents a cohesive, convincing argument that Katniss (and her fellow Seam residents) are, if not persons of color as we understand the term, then most definitely “not white”; “other” – at least on Panem’s terms. Taking care to distinguish between race and ethnicity, Arrow examines how race and class intersect to create a society divided into multiple levels of “haves” and “have nots.” She also addresses the fan theory that Katniss has Native American or Melungeon roots.

    4 – The Socioeconomics of Tesserae – In a chapter that can be seen as an extension of “Race, Ethnicity, and Culture in Panem,” Arrow examines the ways in which the tesserae system – which disproportionately affects the poorest of Panem’s citizens – deepens race, class, and culture divisions. In addition to providing an awesome show of the Capitol’s power and brutality, The Hunger Games also help to quash rebellious leanings by pitting members of the working class against the merchants.

    5 – The Curious Case of Primrose “Everdeen” – Is Prim really Mr. Mellark’s daughter? Probably not, but Arrow has fun entertaining this fan theory anyway!

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    Book Review: Saints Astray, Jacqueline Carey (2011)

    Friday, December 21st, 2012

    Lacks the urgency of Santa Olivia.

    two out of five stars

    * Warning: minor spoilers follow! Also, trigger warning for discussions of sexual harassment and assault. *

    The follow-up to 2009’s Santa Olivia picks up almost exactly where its predecessor left off. Saints Astray finds Loup and Pilar fleeing into Mexico. Behind them is Outpost 12, known to its residents as Santa Olivia – an occupied military “buffer zone” in Texas that’s long been isolated from the rest of the world; ahead of them: freedom.

    After Loup’s escape from a military prison – with the help of John Johnson, a fellow genetically modified organism (GMO), as well as an extended family of GMO cousins living free in Mexico – Loup receives a hero’s welcome in Mexico City. Already overwhelmed by the relative luxury and vastness of their new surroundings, Loup and Pilar are pampered, treated to shopping sprees and rich meals at five-star restaurants. The two women take meetings with Mexican officials; network with Timothy Ballantine, a United States Senator who’s trying to start an inquest into the US Outposts and the military’s conduct there; and receive a job offer from Magnus Lindberg of Global Security, an international firm providing security for obscenely wealthy clients.

    With these formalities out of the way, Loup and Pilar travel to Huatulco, Mexico, to (finally) meet her kin. Here Loup finds true freedom. Because of the questionable status of “GMOs” in the United States (not to mention Santa Olivia’s own precarious existence), Loup was forced to hide her powers – superhuman strength, agility, and speed – for most of her life. That is, until the fateful boxing match that ended in Loup’s bittersweet victory – and her subsequent imprisonment and torture. But in Mexico, the existence of GMOs is an open secret, and in the tourist town of Huatulco her “wild” cousins (all boys – curious, that) are allowed open displays of their powers. Her relatives welcome her with open arms; in Loup’s words, her days in Huatulco are “idyllic.”

    Happy as she is in Mexico, Loup cannot – will not – let herself be lulled into complacency. Haunted by thoughts of her fellow Santa Olivians – still eking out a meager existence in the shackles of poverty and oppression – Loup vows to make her second chance count. Somewhat reluctantly, she and Pilar accept Lindberg’s proposal. He can offer them fake passports, a steady income, connections, and – perhaps best of all – a hands-on education. The two are whisked away to Scotland, where they’re trained in self-defense, firearms, surveillance, security, research, even manners and poise. A natural (or man-made, if you prefer) fighter, Loup excels at the physical challenges, while Pilar’s social skills lend themselves well to her role as a personal assistant. They work a variety of jobs: concerts, birthday parties, weddings – and are in high demand, owing both to their abilities as well the “novelty” and “prestige” that come with Loup’s GMO status.

    Eventually their contract is sold to Kate, an English pop rock trio that hopes to capitalize on Loup’s image. After Loup makes several on-stage appearances to remove unruly fans, she becomes known as the “Mystery Girl”; fan videos of her go viral, and soon concertgoers begin rushing the stage just for the privilege of being manhandled by Loup. Lead singer Randall, who’s trying to push the band’s sound in an edgier, more mature direction, finds inspiration in Loup and Pilar’s life stories. Of course, this only helps to further cultivate interest in Kate’s seemingly superhuman bouncer.

    As Loup and Pilar’s careers heat up, so too do the congressional hearings in the United States. Miguel Garza, who received his promised ticket out of Outpost 12 after all, is called to testify – and then is kidnapped and held for ransom by a casino owner. When the US government fails to secure his release, Loup does the unthinkable: she returns to the United States (where she’s considered a fugitive, and possibly not even a human one at that) to rescue him. With a little help from Pilar and Kate, of course.

    – end spoiler alert! –

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    Book Review: Of Bread, Blood and The Hunger Games, Mary F. Pharr and Leisa A. Clark, eds. (2012)

    Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

    A must read for academics and fans alike!

    four out of five stars

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

    In anticipation of the 2012 release of the film, a number of books about The Hunger Games trilogy hit the market – much to my geeky joy. As far as academic volumes go, Smart Pop’s most excellent The Girl Who Was on Fire was one of the early releases (later updated to include several chapters on the film), followed by The Hunger Games and Philosophy: A Critique of Pure Treason from The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series; Of Bread, Blood and the Hunger Games: Critical Essays on the Suzanne Collins Trilogy (part of the Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy series); Approaching the Hunger Games Trilogy by Tom Henthorne; and finally The Panem Companion, written by fan/academic V. Arrow. I was lucky enough to win a copy each of Of Bread, Blood and the Hunger Games and Approaching the Hunger Games Trilogy from Library Thing (and still hope to snag a copy of The Panem Companion on its blog tour!).

    Though written by academics – not a few of whom use papers previously presented at academic conferences as jumping off points – Of Bread, Blood and The Hunger Games: Critical Essays on the Suzanne Collins Trilogy can be enjoyed by everyday fans and serious scholars alike. Whereas academic pop culture anthologies run the risk of coming across as dry and even a bit tedious, Of Bread, Blood and The Hunger Games is neither. With few exceptions, the authors are engaging and insightful. Where jargon appears, it’s thankfully kept to a minimum.

    In contrast to many similarly-sized academic anthologies – which usually feature twelve or so essays – Of Bread, Blood and The Hunger Games contains a whopping twenty-one essays! As a result, each piece weighs in at just eight to ten pages. Though I was often left wanting more, this is far better than the alternative – namely, nodding off in the last few pages of the piece, even as you wish for the author to get to the point and wrap it up already! Perhaps the individual essays’ short lengths is what helps to keep Of Bread, Blood and The Hunger Games feeling so fresh, concise, and to the point.

    The twenty-one essays in Of Bread, Blood and The Hunger Games cover a range of topics, from crisis economics to food as a cultural metaphor and the shifting boundaries of human and “other.” Reality television rears its oft-ugly head, and art, fashion, and propaganda also make for common topics of discussion.

    While an existing knowledge of The Hunger Games trilogy is assumed, when the texts are discussed in relation to other works – The Running Man, the Harry Potter series, Twilight, Battle Royale, Ender’s Game, and William Shakespeare’s Henriad all make appearances – the authors do a good job of explaining the pertinent details (that is, at least given the space allotted).

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of my favorite pieces examine gender in the trilogy. In her contribution, “Of Queer Necessity: Panem’s Hunger Games as Gender Games,” Jennifer Mitchell makes the argument that Katniss – who is able to transition between masculine and feminine gender roles with relative ease, sometimes exhibiting “male” and “female” characteristics simultaneously – is at her core a genderqueer protagonist. Likewise, Ellyn Lem and Holly Hassel (“‘Killer’ Katniss and ‘Lover Boy’ Peeta: Suzanne Collins’s Defiance of Gender-Genred Reading”) see the trilogy’s blended genres (romance vs. war story) as a way to “bridge the gap” between young adult literature that, traditionally, has been stratified along gender lines. Peeta, the gentle, caring, and peaceful baker, exists opposite the “male-identified” Katniss, holding her morally accountable for actions. This mixing and flipping of gender roles provides a much-needed contrast to traditional YA fiction (the history of which Lem and Hassel summarize neatly for the reader, in a highly enjoyable and informative intro).

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