Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

Available for purchase here.

If you’ve read the dedication for Luckiest Girl Alive, author Jessica Knoll’s recent essay about her real-life gang rape, horrifying in the act but uplifting in its honesty, bravery, and strength, is not surprising. She dedicates her book to the real life girls who share the experiences of her protagonist. She writes her main character TifAni FaNelli as a woman and a girl constantly watching her own six. Her life is clearly segmented into two parts: the girl who sticks out like a sore thumb in her blue blooded prep school and is desperate to fit in with her wealthy peers, and the woman who uses her education, money, job, connections, and any other such material displays of success as a shield around herself.

Knoll is smart enough, as both a writer and a survivor, to never make TifAni sweet, sympathetic, or virginal. She’s a Mean Girl, in aspiration if not quite execution, even if the first person narrative allows us to glimpse the insecurity that drives her barbs and bitchiness. She also writes TifAni’s rapists as affable if not nice, the kind of teenage boys whose every move is excused before they’ve even made it.

Rape is black and white: Anything other than a rousing, resounding “yes” is a “no”. Consent is not consent when it’s inebriation or coercion. There’s no such thing as consensual sex: Sex is sex, rape is rape, and the delineation is clear cut. But sometimes rape survivors aren’t nice people. Sometimes they are bitchy and bratty. Sometimes they don’t recognize what happens to them as rape. Sometimes they continue to associate and befriend their abusers. Rarely, if ever, do rapists look like what we think rapists should look like. They’re “nice boys”. They serve their community and come from good families. They’re handsome and can “get” any girl they want.

It’s. Still. Rape.

We have long held a culturally convoluted perspective on rape. Fourteen states still consider marital rape a different crime than non-marital rape. Bill Cosby has a new accuser seemingly every week, but still has supporters who believe he’s innocent, or even worse, believe that his crimes were so long ago that it’s effectively water under the bridge. Yet somehow we see rape as a special kind of evil–I was deemed old enough to understand the concept of murder before I was considered old enough to have rape defined for me when I overheard the word on the evening news as a child.

This dissonant dichotomy is part of our rape culture. We hate rape, and so must hate rapists. But since most rapists are likable, we have to define, redefine, and outright lie about what rape is in order to justify a fondness for those who commit this atrocity.

Luckiest Girl Alive is clearly a way for Knoll to work out her own complicated feelings associated with what happened to her, shrouding it in fiction so she can distance herself. It’s art therapy at it’s finest. But since books belong to their readers as much as their writers (if not moreso) ultimately she has written a work that could, with exposure, rewrite our perspective on rape. In a culture that understands rape, rape culture disintegrates.

The Things I Miss

Over Easter weekend I was a wreck. It started on Friday when I drove all over creation looking for culinary lavender buds so I could make this cake courtesy of Red Cottage Chronicles, and yes, it ultimately turned out to be very, very worth it. Saturday I spent the day cleaning and bemoaning the fact that I live like such a slob it’s necessary to deep clean when I have company over. Sunday, of course, was Easter, so I slow cooked a ham, roasted a chicken, and made two kinds of potatoes.

What I did not do this weekend, however, was dye Easter eggs. I didn’t watch the story of Peter Cottontail, or leave flour pawprints on the rug to mark where the Easter Bunny hid his eggs. I haven’t done those things since my youngest sister grew out of her belief, so it’s probably been about 15 years. Christmas and Easter are especially tied to the magic of pretend, and without kids around, they just aren’t as fun. I’m blissfully childfree and intend to remain so, so my childless holidays will remain so for the foreseeable future. I miss the creation of illusion even more than I miss being young enough to buy in.

I find myself now missing the men’s voices from my bookshelf. I reread Neil Gaiman’s short stories whenever I want to immerse myself in a particular brand of magic, and Smoke and Mirrors occupies a prominent place on my bookshelf, from where it’s currently taunting me. He has a new book out this spring, which I will be buying but judiciously avoiding reading until November. I skim the book reviews in Entertainment Weekly for the authors’ names so that I don’t get enchanted by a review for something I’m self-denying for most of the remainder of the year. There has been a notable shift in how I perceive the world without men’s literary voices echoing in my mind.

Not every loss is accompanied by a gain, but this one is. I’ve lost interest in what was once Must See TV–whether it’s a network, cable, or Netflix show, it can wait until morning while I lose myself in the simple pleasure of written words. Reading has become a mindful activity again, in ways it hasn’t been since I was young enough to make pages my only priority.

I’ll be posting a fresh review tomorrow. It’s been too long and I run the risk of falling behind. But if I’m not writing, I’m reading. It’s a good trade off.

Reclaimed Words

My mother hates the word cunt. Can’t stand to hear it, or see it in print, and she lectures me every time I use it. Personally,  I love it. It’s sharp, decisive, and to be honest I enjoy the reaction I get when I say it. People respond to cunt the way they don’t any other word in the English language.

As a woman, it’s my word to use. Other women have c-word privileges, which is their right to use whenever they wish, and to abstain from the same. Hearing a woman say cunt can be many things: empowering, funny, indifferent, distasteful, offensive, even ill-advised. Hearing a man say cunt when it’s in reference to a woman and not a body part is an unmitigated slur.

The internet exploded the other day when Laura Jane Grace, frontwoman of punk band Against Me! revealed the title of her upcoming memoir. It’s subtitled Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout, but the title itself is a slur against transgender people.

As a transwoman, it’s Grace’s right to reclaim the word as she wishes, even if her own community disagrees with her. Cisgender folk do not have that same right–even if we read the book. Even if we don’t mean it that way. Even if we have (a) trans friend(s). The subtitle is long enough to paper a room, so we can’t use the excuse that we’re just talking about the book. Just like men don’t have cunt privilege, we don’t have t-word privilege. Even as allies we can’t reclaim it–it has never belonged to us.

Infinite Home by Kathleen Alcott

Available for purchase here.

Alcott’s work about what is essentially a family of choice comprised primarily of poor, disabled, and disenfranchised doesn’t style itself as a feminist work. It’s a quietly moving novel about people who become each others’ support and the way they weather the hardships life can’t help but throw at them.

Edith owns a brownstone in Brooklyn that she rents out to people suffering various disabilities: Adeleine is agoraphobic, Paulie has a rare condition called Williams Syndrome, and Thomas is recovering from a stroke. Edward is a washed up comic who could be depressed, though it’s not outright stated. Edith herself is showing early signs of dementia, and between that, her missing daughter,  and her kind nature it’s hard to pinpoint the reason she hasn’t raised her rent in fourteen years. Her son is a thinly drawn caricature of the grown-up unfavorite, and acts as the villain of the piece. It’s sad to note that the various disabilities of the residents depend on what is essentially Edith’s deterioration in order to maintain the interdependent life they’ve built.

Paulie is one of the most interesting characters in the whole story. Williams Syndrome is characterized by being highly social, musical, and gifted at storytelling. His personality is so charming it leaps off the page and kisses the reader–his sister/primary caregiver clearly adores him, even saying at one point that someone who sings a song about how wonderful [you] are through the bathroom door while [you’re] taking the worst shit that’s ever been shat deserves the best in life. But the story doesn’t ignore the realities of Paulie’s care–seeing to his needs is ultimately a powder keg in her marriage to an ultimately selfish man.

The outsiders of the brownstone often seem monolithic and one-note. They are impassive to the suffering of the residents, and willing to let them suffer and scatter in the name of “legal rights”. Edith’s son Owen calls the shots, and the residents who take care of her in exchange for the space they take in the home they’ve created have no say in her life, despite being more sons and daughters to her than her son. It could be chalked up to poor characterization, but truly it’s a reflection of the social view of the elderly and disabled.

Anyone not perfectly abled is more often than not viewed only in the terms of their disability. Their talents are only ever noted in some way for abled people to draw insipid “inspiration” from, their desires, foibles, and needs are only ever viewed as something they must accommodate or sacrifice. If we don’t want to be one-note villains in stories about those with both visible and invisible conditions, perhaps we should stop acting like that in real life.

Winter and Stars Above by Marissa Meyer

Available for purchase here and here.

I have a somewhat embarrassing affinity for Young Adult Literature. I know I should read whatever I want, critics be damned, but I internalized  the idea that it was immature and frivolous reading. At my local bookstore, I rather shamefacedly had to ask for a copy of Winter because they were in a display, so  I also bought Carrie Brownstein’s memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl to re-establish my cred as a reader of depth (incidentally, check for Brownstein joining my list before summer).

That said, YA literature gets a bum rap for being insubstantial. Even when it’s not as complex as say, Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, YA lit still manages to make strides that more adult and literary fiction should strive for.

Winter is the final of a quartet of books that can best be described as futuristic adaptations of popular fairy tells with a heavy aesthetic from the Japanese anime Sailor Moon. Stars Above is a compendium of short stories that act as mini prologues and epilogues for the series, overall dubbed The Lunar Chronicles.

Each of the four novels focuses on a princess classic expy: Cinder is a cyborg and mechanic enslaved by her stepfamily (Cinderella), Scarlet is a farmer trying to lead a quiet life with her grandmother (Little Red Riding Hood), Cress is a hacker living in isolation in a satellite between Earth and the Moon (Rapunzel), and Winter is a princess with a cruel stepmother who struggles to protect her citizens (Snow White).

Throughout a series of events no less than political intrigue, fantastic racism, and space travel, the four seemingly unconnected young women form a band that aims to restore a throne, destroy a tyranny, and save a planet.

One of the most refreshing things about the series is that while all the female protagonists have love interests, they are A) fully fleshed characters in their own right, B) are motivated by circumstances and interests other than romance, and C) the series as a whole avoids the love triangle trope that so plagues most YA fantasy lit.

The series is also notable for having a diverse main cast–Cinder and Winter are both WOC, although some queer representation would’ve been even more of an intriguing modern twist. Throughout the series the heroines’ divergent personalities and occasionally conflicting goals lead to arguments and frustration, but Meyer respects her readers too much to devolve into “girls are petty”. There are also main characters Iko and Peony, who have stereotypically feminine traits, still considered strong, respected, even beloved characters.

In the same vein of other popular dystopic series, the end resolution ties together all the various storylines while simultaneously giving weight to the losses suffered. Some characters are lost, and some are changed beyond all recognition, and the happily ever after doesn’t gloss over the sacrifices that have been made.

The most important aspect of the series is the manipulation of the convention of damsel in distress. The “princesses” as we know them are not virtuously beautiful or helplessly fragile. Even though their fates have been largely predetermined by the roles society forced upon them at birth, they take on the mantles of their own destiny, and even do some of the rescuing.

One More Day by Kelly Simmons

Available for purchase here.

Carrie is a former stay at home mom in One More Day who is still reeling from her son’s kidnapping a year earlier. Her toddler is returned to her after a long day of volunteering, dirty and smiling, and having not aged a day. Her husband and the detectives on the case all bear witness to his return, yet when he disappears the men attempt to rationalize while Carrie succumbs to a fresh wave of grief. Soon, she discovers that the losses she’s suffered are not as permanent or concrete as she’s believed throughout her life.

One of the greatest points that One More Day makes is in the tempestuous field of stay at  home mothering. Carrie has a harder time adjusting to life without her son Ben than does her husband John, and the author illuminates the little observed fact that Ben isn’t just Carrie’s son, he’s her job. Whatever pain John feels he can channel into the minutiae of his office life, but Carrie has lost both her love and her purpose.

Carrie is also continually infantilized by the people in her life, most of whom are men. John has a distasteful habit of following Carrie and having her monitored when she’s away from home, and in grand celebratory fashion for feminists everywhere, even as the novel examines and explains his motivations, it doesn’t justify them. It’s even revealed that John even got in legal trouble when his stalking behavior frightened his high school girlfriend. It’s also revealed that at one point the stalking provided an aphrodisiac during Carrie and John’s college years, and it’s implied that consent makes all the difference–Carrie likes it when she knows about it and resents it when she doesn’t. The difference is in the choice.

Throughout the novel the people around Carrie are perplexed and then concerned as she begins to experience increasingly bizarre occurrences, and she reflects on the hypocrisy of her largely religious community. She and her neighbors are churchgoers, yet when she experiences something akin to transcendence both she and her loved ones worry that instead of godliness she is losing her grip on her sanity.

Carrie is a character grasping for agency. She’s unmoored from her life and possibly reality. She shines as a strong female character instead of a “strong female character”, and it makes her utterly fascinating.

My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me by Jennifer Teege

Available for purchase here.

Americans have an easy time relegating WWII to the annals of history. Pearl Harbor is the only spot on American soil where any battles were fought, and we are at least three generations removed from D-Day. My own paternal grandfather was too young to fight. Additionally, despite the horror of war, our national pride borders on nostalgia when we discuss or study the time period. The soldiers who fought are part of “The Greatest Generation”, we view ourselves as the Allies’ hero, our war memorials are iconic. We were, in short, the good guys, as far as national consideration is concerned.

We have a tendency to gloss over our own atrocities in regards to our own citizens in WWII. We don’t want to see the layers of good and evil and gray that surround a nation immersed in war and hopefully despite our tenuous political times we will never see the evidence of a nation complicit in genocide scattered around our landscape in memorial to the lives lost there.

It wasn’t until I read My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me that it occurred to me that Europeans live with the scars of WWII literally dotting the landscape in which they live their lives. And for German citizens, such sights can only be reminders that for some of them, beloved family members could be viewed, by them and by the world, as the enemy.

Jennifer Teege was fostered and then adopted by a German family, but she maintained a relationship with her biological mother and grandmother. One day, as an adult with children of her own, she happened upon a book with a photo of Amon Goeth with his mistress and daughter, and recognized her own family. Horrifying for anyone, it was doubly worse for Teege, Nigerian on her father’s side. Because she is biracial, there is no doubt that her biological grandfather would have wanted her dead.

Goeth operated the Plaszow concentration camp in Poland, where her grandmother enjoyed a luxurious life to the sound of gunshots and torture inflicted upon the Jewish prisoners by her lover and eventual father of her child. When Teege confronts her grandmother, she claims that Plaszow was a work camp, nothing more, despite testimony from female prisoners that they begged her for salvation and mercy during their imprisonment. She claims to have helped when she could, but the gradients of truth are lost to time, and all we have are the facts: Amon Goeth was an unrepentant murderer and butcher, and Teege’s grandmother lived and loved alongside him while he committed his atrocities.

Stories such as this are not uncommon among Germany’s remaining WWII generation. Even among those with known Nazi ties, there is always the claim of inculpability, of ignorance. It is easier to turn a blind eye to horror. There is no moral impetus to stop or change something you cannot see. And there is hopefully shame, a comprehension on the part of at least some that they allowed the Holocaust to happen, and their unwillingness to confirm it is due to their own loathing at their past inaction.

Most of Teege’s book deals with her personal journey of identity and surviving her subsequent depression when she unearthed her family’s secrets. She writes of an estrangement from her adoptive family, the reopening of old wounds growing up the only Black child in a white family, a sobering reminder that cultural racism did not begin and does not end at the borders of the U.S. However, the release of this book at this time in the U.S. feels like a warning. We know the effects of a blind eye turned to atrocities. We’ve seen how the Nazi party rose to power, and we know how men like Goeth, who in another life would have been a serial killer, are given freedom to wreak their havoc with literal captives, out in the open, and with no recourse for their victims.

If we are not active, if we do not proceed with both eyes open as our political sphere becomes more divisive, and more liberties are taken with our constitutional and inherent freedoms, we will see another Hitler’s Germany rise up in the United States. There are enough Jennifer Teeges in the world, suffering needlessly for the sins of generations past. We cannot add to their number.

How to be Single by Liz Tuccillo

Available for purchase here.

I haven’t seen the movie that is loosely based on this book, and after reading it, I’m quite sure I don’t want to. The premise is intriguing: how do women deal with being single in a world that prioritizes coupledom? What about polyamorous women, or women who are single by desire? How do queer women deal with dating when they lack a community?

If you seek an answer to any of these questions, you can’t find one here. To a woman, the five main characters of How to Be Single are white, heterosexual, and living in Manhattan, a city that offers more options for single women than anywhere else in the world. When they all find themselves single by reason of divorce, break up, bad luck, or choice, the main character, Julie, is inspired to trek the world looking for answers to the question of living with singledom.

The problem is, in virtually every country Julie visits (including France, Italy, Brazil, India, Bali, and others) she seeks out a scene very much like the one she left behind. She’s not interested in the single life of women in rural areas, women who are ill-suited to their relationships, women who want partnership but not necessarily in the form of a couple, she wants the well-educated, urbane woman who deals with singlehood while simultaneously trying to exit it.

Her results are depressing. Pretty much her universal discovery is that at some point between ages 30 and 40, dating becomes less a dance and more a game, where the men hold all the cards–pretty much the same message women have been hearing since the concept of dating was born. There’s also a healthy amount of body shaming–size six Julie is ashamed of her “big thighs”, and far from being treated as dysmorphic, her insecurity is presented by other characters as justified. Let me be clear–you cannot body shame a tiny woman in an attempt to find camaraderie with others. It’s the same concept as calling Kate Upton plus sized. All it does is reinforce in women with actual large thighs that they are right for being embarrassed by their bodies.

There are some things to recommend the novel that reinforces healthier outlooks. Serena, a chef to a celebrity couple, learns the importance of having a “tribe” when her wealthy boss dies suddenly of cancer. His movie star friends come to join him in his final days, both to spend time with him and offer their support to his wife and son. Serena, part of the tableau but outside it, reflects this is what people do, this is beyond culture, geography, and time itself–families band together in hard times. I wish there had been mention that for those of us without millionaire pockets to fall back on, the chance to see our loved ones often is relegated to a phone call.

Ruby, a woman who reacts to loss by isolating herself in her apartment for weeks on end, goes on my favorite story arc of the five friends. It has almost become normalized in pop culture to see a woman, post-breakup, secluded at home with only her sweatpants and ice cream for company, often listening to love songs from the previous generation. At one point near the end of the novel, she visits her mother and learns two important things: one, her mother wasn’t always a fan of motherhood, something Ruby herself is contemplating. Two, Ruby’s symptoms are clearly signs of depression, which she likely inherited from her mother, and her mom presents it in a simple, loving way: Ruby deserves to be happy, and she needs to talk to someone. At the end we discover Ruby is indeed on anti-depressants, and while she hasn’t really found happiness yet, she now finds bearable the things that used to render her near-catatonic.

How to Be Single has such a rich premise that I was disappointed in the execution. It’s just a little too glossy, a little to afraid of its own reality. Not entirely unexpected in a show from a Sex and the City writer, a show that was highly focused in selling the fairy tale. But since the princess never ends up alone in traditional fairy tales, I would’ve liked to see a similar break with tradition here.

The Lolita Effect by M. Gigi Durham

Available for purchase here.

Published eight years ago, The Lolita Effect is an examination of how widespread the sexuality of young girls has become, thanks in part to the normalization of hypersexual activity in increasingly younger girls. Ostensibly a feminist text, I agree with the general premise, but the author walks a fine line.

The paradigm conquers two of the problematic aspects of sexualization of young women–first, they are objectified, thrust into sexual situations before they have a concept of sexuality, and have sexual behavior normalized for them when they aren’t intending to be sexual. The other is the white supremacist notion of sexy and desirable being predominately the domain of blond, slender, blue-eyed, overtly white girls, and the idea that sex appeal breeds success in all aspects of life.

There’s effectively no mention of queer and trans women in this ode to the objectification of girls, even though being sexualized by society becomes tokenism and fetishization in their cases, which begs the question as to why the girls who will be the most profoundly affected by sexual objectification don’t merit so much as a mention.

Durham writes eloquently about the need to protect and preserve our young girls from objectification before they’re ready, but there is no consensus on when young women become ready to enter into the very adult world of sexual activity. She argues that we have accepted as fact that the flaunting of sexuality is somehow an empowering act, but that when we do so we teach them to equate male approval with achievement. She’s not wrong–when you are the object, not the subject, of your own sexual experience, you cannot derive either pleasure or power from the experience.

She also argues against the sexual toys, clothes, and dolls aggressively marketed to girls, but here I wonder if we are perhaps not ascribing something that is filtered though our sex-saturated perspectives. While a child sized stripper pole is a bizarre product that calls into question the ability of the designers, marketers, and purchasers of such a thing, Bratz dolls and short shorts are not inherently sexual.

If we look at a young girl wearing tiny shorts with her long legs exposed, and we perceive her as being sexually dressed, what are we actually saying about ourselves? Have we allowed our own perception, of female sexuality as a thing to be absorbed, to see a girl who enjoys the freedom and movement of tiny shorts and see sex? Do we ascribe the same to boys in tank tops whose bare chests are exposed by the gaps in the arm holes? Has the media warped our own sexualities to the point that we can’t help but see normal child behavior as being sexualized by our own marketed age?

There are, of course, no clear answers. This book is not the place to find answers of any kind. It’s the place that gets questions started.

Food Whore by Jessica Tom

Available for purchase here.

At the beginning of Food Whore we meet Tia Monroe, a smart, self-possessed young woman who knows exactly what she wants: an internship with Helen Lansky, famed food writer extraordinaire. Tia, a recent Yale graduate, plans to wow her idol with her Dacquoise Drops, a cookie of her own creation that combines her cooking prowess, her Senegalese background, and her memories with her grandfather. Tia is the character all young women aspire to be–interesting, upwardly mobile, and freshly arrived in New York.

Sadly within the first few pages, that all goes to pot. Tia starts out with a name and a voice, but her new life quickly overwhelms her and she is lost in a sea of bigger names–restaurants, celebrity chefs, designer swag, and most notably, famed critic Michael Saltz. Saltz has suffered the greatest tragedy for a foodie–he’s lost his sense of taste. Through a haphazard series of events, he begins using Tia as a ghostwriter for his industry defining reviews on the NY restaurant scene. In exchange for her anonymity and discretion, Tia gets a Bergdorf wardrobe, major industry connections, and the chance to eat at places she’s only dreamed of.

Throughout the novel, Tia deals with new relationships and old. Her boyfriend Elliot is also a Yalie recently moved to New York, but they discover that their relationship isn’t the same as it was in college. They live far away from each other, and no longer enjoy the seclusion of campus life. Tia quickly grows bored with Elliot, a botanist who doesn’t share her food obsession. She tries so hard not to admit that she wants the relationship to end, because, problematically, Elliot is a good guy. She invents reasons to dump him, such as him not taking the restaurant scene as seriously as she does (all the while oblivious to the fact that she takes even less of an interest in plants), never realizing that her desire to break up is reason enough to do so in and of itself.

Tia has two new roommates, girls who are interested in fashion and theater. Despite no overlap in their spheres of influence, Tia treats them as competition from the moment they meet–not at work, but in life. The more she loses herself in Michael Saltz’s world, the more she apes her roommates in an effort to find out who she is. In small ways, it helps her settle into her new role, but it’s only after she starts acting for herself that friendship actually starts to blossom. Even though Tia and Saltz’s arrangement is supposed to be clandestine, the city’s best restaurateurs have her made almost from the first bite. They send handsome waiters to flirt with her, and a celebrity chef even initiates a relationship for the sake of a good review. Once they learn the details, there’s absolutely no hesitancy or sense of irony in slut shaming her. Luckily, enough industry insiders see the relationship for what it is–the manipulation of a powerful man of a naive, ambitious young woman. Tia is by no means innocent, but every time she tries to walk away at the behest of her conscience, he dangles her prospective career over her head, a career he can make or break with a phone call. Luckily, her allies ensure that her career is salvageable, even if she can’t emerge unscathed.

While Tia begins and ends the novel a smart, admirable character, the way she founders for the bulk of the plot is reassuring. It’s a powerful reminder that the path to self-actualization is not a line, but a bumpy road with many detours. If Tia can grow from her experiences, we can become greater from our own failures.