Vivian Apple Needs a Miracle by Katie Coyle

Available for purchase here.

I promised myself I wouldn’t read any more books by the same author, since I’m two weeks from my deadline and still trying to eke out a solid 100 books that I was hoping to make as diverse as possible, but I was tempted by a friend who dangled the sequel to Katie Coyle’s excellent YA debut Vivian Apple at the End of the World in front of my face, and…I’m weak.

To be clear, this is not literary escapism. Vivian Apple living in an America that seems to be fairly gunning for an apocalyptic event (see: all of 2016), and she has, due to her own tenacity and ill luck, become a lynchpin to unleash the revolution. She and her friend Harp, the teenage girl we all pretended we were but few of us had the chops to pull off, are the victims of a smear campaign by the still powerful Church of America. They’ve lost their most precious asset in anonymity, and are now pursued by law enforcement, as well as the Church’s own lethal forces.

Vivian and Harp are taken in by Vivian’s sister Winnie, previously long-lost and currently one of the driving forces of the revolution. Both girls are pulled in over their heads, being symbols for what proves to be a militia almost as extreme as the Church they so vehemently oppose.

Reading this with the election looming is the equivalent of watching a horror movie alone on a dark stormy night in a cabin in the middle of the woods. I know whom I support in this election, and truthfully, the name of this blog should be a giveaway, but eruptions of ugly behavior coming from both groups of supporters indicate that the results of the election will not cool the ardor of hate in this country, where we are so deeply concerned with being right we are losing sight of what is actually right.

Vivian and her allies seek a third option as they try to ease the tension and terror that has gripped the society, and without giving away too much of the plot, the adage that violence only begets more violence bears out. This is not me being a bleeding heart who advocates for handholding during wartime, this is the reality that war does not buy peace, and hopefully more people will realize that before we reach a breaking point.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

 

Available for purchase here.

There’s really not a bad time, per se, to read Shirley Jackson (although when you take four different literature classes in college and they all insist on reading The Lottery one really must wonder if the English department is involved in some mass conspiracy, but I digress). However, October is the perfect time to read Ms. Jackson, notable for her running theme of humanity as the real monsters.

It’s easy, now that every book, movie, and mid-level TV show has co-opted the plot twist as a storytelling gimmick, to forget that a twist was once the hallmark of a master storyteller. Even if you manage to read We Have Always Lived in the Castle completely unspoiled, a seasoned fan of psychological thrillers can pick out the true villain of the piece. I won’t be the one to point out the wizard behind the curtain, except to point out that all the really important key players are women, wherever they fall on the spectrum between “good” and “bad”.

One of the fascinating (and demoralizing) tropes in storytelling is the frequency with which a female antagonist’s villainy is tied to her sexuality–she’s either the whore to the heroine’s Madonna or she’s aging past the point of fuckability, possibly both. See the stepmothers of the Disney villain catalogue, the femme fatales who imperiled James Bond, Batman, and other enigmatic heros, the hags who manipulate the the events of Macbeth. And those are only the ones that popped up in my mind as I was typing. Small wonder Washington is trying to police the sex lives of women–they’ve been raised to associate sexuality with sadism.

Shirley Jackson is a revolution, not only for her talent, but for peeling back the layers of women’s complex emotional histories. Her villains and victims are grandiose, petty, vengeful, sociopathic, meek, a full, glorious gamut of motivations and perspectives that aren’t tied to their hormones. In short, she treated her female characters like men.

Now that we are at the most glorious time of year, where everything is just a little bit spooky and every corner holds the promise of another worldly thrill, Jackson’s very human villains is a reminder that the darkness in all our myths and legends originated in our own minds. It’s a darkly delicious meditation on our own psyches AND an exploration of the feminist narrative.

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad

Available for purchase here.

Wow, was this book ever brutal to get through. It reads more like a memoir to the teenage years I’d rather forget, the days when unsolicited sexual attention, both in real life and the burgeoning, hazy scape of cyberspace, was something I responded to positively, both because I thought I should be grateful for it because I was big and awkward (Barb from Stranger Things spoke to me on a spiritual level), and because sexuality was something I was still acclimatizing myself to owning.

Now, my teenage years are not something I think about on the day to day. My current friends, habits, hobbies, and work are far richer and more prescient–although my paycheck is disturbingly similar. But within pages of Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, those feelings came rushing back, and I felt seventeen again, not in the good way like when I listen to Green Day, but in the frail, insecure way that made me wonder if anyone would ever find me worthy of taking notice of.

Lizzie, the protagonist, has the story of her teen years and early to middle womanhood told in thirteen vignettes, some from her perspective, some from friends, family, and lovers. Her actual weight is never mentioned–one entire chapter is from the perspective of a drunk wannabe rock star with Nick Cave ambitions and a lack of equivalent talent who refers to her as “The Fat Girl”–but it’s somehow the most important thing about her. She lives in the suburbs, her job is uninspiring, her ambition is to be thin.

The closer she gets to thinness, the less of a person she becomes. Food becomes less of a source of pleasure, the things that once gave her joy are secondary to her regiment of eating and exercising. No matter what though, she’s defined by her weight, either its presence or the threat of its return. Any western woman between ages 16 and 60 would be hard-pressed to not find a sliver of herself within Lizzie’s story.

The story ends with neither hope nor condemnation. Lizzie is not here to shame or inspire, she’s simply existing within her own purview, and the whole world feels the need to weigh in. It’s a mirror to how we perceive both ourselves and each other, and it’s not a pretty sight.

The Grownup by Gillian Flynn

Available for purchase here.

If stories were food for the body instead of the soul, Gillian Flynn would be a world-class pretzel maker. Regardless of length, she packs in so many twists and turns that it’s nigh impossible to tell exactly where her protagonists end up, but it’s always a trippy ride, full of characters always a shade too clever for the well-being of their compatriots.

The dark side of Flynn’s work, including The Grownup (and yes, I acknowledge the absurdity of highlighting the dark side in books rife with murder and manipulation) is that her stories are the frightening logical extreme of a society which pits women against each other from girlhood. Not one of Flynn’s stories could sustain its narrative if her female protagonists had so much as a baseline level of trust or camaraderie with her fellow women. Instead there’s suspicion, envy, and steaming piles of judgment–could anyone so much as scroll through their Facebook feed when Gone Girl was released without seeing twelve different think pieces on Amy’s “Cool Girl” riff?

It’s not to say that Flynn isn’t a feminist or she isn’t producing feminist work–only she can answer the former, while the latter will be debated in academic circles long after this blog has passed into obscurity. But she is holding up a mirror to the ways women are taught to both embrace and reject their femininity, offering a glimpse of the not-so-funhouse distortion of our prolonged cultural obsession with the Madonna/whore dichotomy, where hookers are neither mindless vamps nor hard-luck beauties with hearts of gold. They’re human, and they have foibles not defined by their jobs, and they end up embroiled in bizarre murder schemes with weird little teen prodigies, because Flynn is imaginative, and also, a little scary.

 

The Marriage Pact by MJ Pullen

Available for purchase here.

“Strong women don’t need validation from anyone.”–I may not actually be a strong woman. To be clear, that’s a commonly repeated quote I see bouncing around on the interwebs, not something culled from the book itself. And at thirty, my life looks markedly different from how little me imagined it. It costs way more than I anticipated, for instance, I don’t have seven children (and don’t even want one) and I’m not married to Taylor Hanson (don’t judge, don’t even pretend you didn’t love him back in the day). Instead, I live paycheck to paycheck, have no kids (although that’s less a lament than a blessing), and am trying to figure out how one goes from being single to not without enduring the horror of dating. Seriously, dating is the worst.

In essence, I have a lot in common with Marci Thompson, protagonist of The Marriage Pact. She’s at an age where conventional wisdom dictates she should have her shit together, but all she really has to show for her life is a crappy apartment and an affair with her married boss.

Of course, Marci ends the novel having got the guy (the handsome childhood friend with whom she made the titular marriage pact), sloughed off the rough edges of her miserable life, and with a lot to look forward to. I don’t anticipate such neat, tidy resolutions for my own woes, because this is chick lit, a predetermined happy ending lurking on the last page of every book of its breed. And this isn’t a scree against chick lit, although a post in defense of it is forthcoming, just a note that some books inspire and some are for escape. This is very much the latter.

Less than ten years ago, most of the chick lit I was reading featured protagonists who had locked down their dream jobs, dream real estate, dream squad goals (or whatever we referred to as squad goals in those halcyon days before hashtagging. What was that? It was friendship? Sounds a little precious, but ok.)

The implied theme was clear–love was the penultimate piece you got in the puzzle of life, preceding only children as you assembled the whole picture. And it was a very linear and locked in sort of thinking that cropped up time and time again, so the fact that Pullen allows her protagonist to be messy and frayed, and maybe even a little bit of a bitch before she ends up with the rich guy–it is a fantasy, after all–is a comforting message. You’re allowed to fall in love, and still be a mess, and to maybe not love or even like yourself very much some days, or have a terrible job, and not have your goals accomplished by 27, and still be the type of dynamic, interesting, worthy person that ends up a character in a book about wish fulfillment.

The Big Rewind by Libby Cudmore

Available for purchase here.

There’s a lot to mock about hipsters. They (we) are aggressively ironic, nostalgic, and pretentious in their (our) passions. They (we) are overly precious about their (our) art and politics. Also, I promise to stop pretending not to be a hipster now.

Yes, I prefer the funky coffeehouse in my small town with its floral accented lattés and local artist displays to Starbucks. Not everybody has heard of my favorite band (although shame on them if they haven’t, because they are missing out). And music really does sound better on vinyl.

Hipsterdom is, in part, a reaction to the fact that my generation has been essentially priced out of the previous generation’s glossy, lavish lifestyle (see, Sex and the City) that was held up as the gold standard of success. So we took the leftovers and made them funky, cool, desirable. And Cudmore’s The Big Rewind is a love letter to the ethos of Brooklyn’s art and music scene.

In essence, Cudmore’s book is actually a murder mystery, with her hero Jett Bennett being embroiled in searching the history of her neighbor KitKat after she receives a cassette in the mail meant for the latter, and discovers KitKat dead in her kitchen.

The mixtape, as it turns out to be, not only provides clues to KitKat’s mystery-shrouded personal life but triggers a trip down romance lane for Jett. Every song is linked to epoch of KitKat’s past and a man from Jett’s. When she’s spurred to seek out her old flames, Jett learns more about herself and her past–and her needs–all while trying to exonerate KitKat’s boyfriend, the police’s prime suspect.

Some of the great feminist points in the novel are when Jett calls out a catty misogynist for using feminism as a front for her cruelty, a stripper being fully fleshed out and presented as a real human character, Jett’s friend Sid being set up to fall into a Nice Guy trap but swerving into genuine nice guy territory, the implied incarceration of KitKat’s boyfriend due to his race,  and Jett herself learning to leave the past behind.

Her personal past. Not vinyl. Vinyl rules.

Sex Object by Jessica Valenti

Available for purchase here.

Jessica Valenti is one of the most prominent voices in modern feminism. Her earlier work, Full Frontal Feminism, was the book that propelled me from passively considering myself a feminist to making it an active part of my life, my writing, and my worldview. She’s also the co-founder of Feministing, a political and pop culture blog that features analysis and alternative perspectives.

Her memoir takes a step back from the lens of global and social feminism to address her personal experiences with being sexualized from an age so young she barely understood what was happening to her, the double edged sword of being used for sex while shamed for her appearance, her experiences with abortion, and a pregnancy that nearly killed her, being a young mother to a daughter with health issues, the stresses of her marriage and her mental health.

If someone else had written this story, a tale of being masturbated to on the subway, a drug habit that veered dangerously close to addiction, the struggles of having a premature baby, the constant questions of how to best guide her daughter through the difficulty of selective mutism, if someone else had typed this manuscript and presented it to Valenti, or even just told her this story in person, Valenti, so sisterly seeming in her public persona, so proudly and unabashedly feminist, would’ve been supportive and comforting.

In her own story, her words are tinged with self-doubt. It is a particular characteristic of sexual violence–no other crime demands shame from its victims. She recounts her stories not only as they happened, but how she felt in the moment. Where shame is absent, normalcy is abundant. Valenti is among the same generation of women as I am, where it was expected that there would be a certain amount of leering and harassment, as much a part of growing up as other unpleasantries like root canals and menstrual cramps.

I found myself nodding along with many of her youthful experiences. We’re not the same: she’s a gregarious city girl and I grew up an introverted suburbanite, so many of her dealings with men lurking in subways were foreign to me until I was much older than she. But the sum is more important than the parts–we are just two drops in the bucket, sharing the same snippets of our past and present.

I was reading Sex Object on the train one evening, on my way to a magazine launch. When I arrived at my stop, my Uber app stalled, and men lounging on the street corner took the opportunity to get too close, give me “compliments” better left unrepeated, and ask to join me wherever I was going. In my head I was a feminist warrior, articulate and prideful, putting these men in their place and sending them home, cowering and repentant.

In reality, I ducked into the nearest cab, shaken and trying to shrug off my mantle of discomfort so my evening wouldn’t be ruined. (And it wasn’t, primarily because Apiary, the magazine hosting the party, was a hotbed of Black Lives Matter and feminist voices, the perfect antidote to feeling weak and worthless. If you’re in the Philly area, please check them out.) I didn’t engage those men in a torrent of modern feminist rage for one simple reason: there were three of them, each stronger than me. I didn’t want to win, I wanted to escape. I craved safety in a situation that I’d grown up internalizing as “normal”.

But hopefully, for my nieces, my students, my patients, for Valenti’s daughter and her peers, it won’t be.

Bitch Planet (Vol. 1) by Kelly Sue DeConnick

Available for purchase here.

1984 was written as a warning, but between social media check ins, public surveillance, and the digital trail we leave whenever we do something as innocuous as buy a coffee or share a ride, we’ve used it as a map to guide us in the sixty-eight years since it was written, making the Newspeak and thought police a reality.

Someday in the not distant future, I fear someone, or more likely, a collective of someones, with too much power and too little intelligence, will read DeConnick’s Bitch Planet and see not a scathing indictment of patriarchal oppression but a blueprint to maintain social order.

We are already using shame as a public tool to codify behavior. We de-humanize people for their weight, their color, their sexual and gender identities. We demand beauty but use it as a way to discredit intelligence, depth, creativity, humor, etc. We purport to live in the land of the free, but terms and conditions apply to anyone who falls outside the archetypes that have been forced upon them, usually at birth.

Even though Bitch Planet, a space station prison for women who upend their submissive patriarchal role, provides the setting, the women who landed there by virtue of non-conformity are the characters and the heroes. None are more intriguing and alluring than Penny Rolle, who landed there for the crimes of being outspoken, fat, and black. An entire issue/chapter is devoted to her backstory and deprogramming at the hands of the misogynist women who assume charge, only for her to triumph over conditioning and look to her real, current self as her own ideal.

When proponents of kyriarchy read Bitch Planet and see the absurd logical conclusion that oppression dictates, feminists will read it and see a call to arms to fight back. As the series continues, I have a feeling we’ll win.

Reality Bites Back by Jennifer Pozner

Available for purchase here.

Ever since streaming platforms like Netflix started offering original programming, pop culture aficionados have been calling our current timeframe a golden age of television. Shows are getting more daring, scripts are getting edgier, the faces (and bodies) on our screens are becoming more diverse. So it’s hard to remember that when Pozner wrote her scree cutting away the curtains that shroud the many fictions of “reality TV”, each season was boasting a fresh crop of so-called reality programming that let us view the horrible behavior of brides, models, and man-hungry women.

It’s well-documented that the producers of reality TV splice footage and stage their drama, but Pozner’s research show how thoroughly reality shows reinforce the very worst stereotypes–and there is a definite slant towards making women look bad.

Between product placement and low production values, television executives realized they could create a conceit for a reality show at far less than the cost of scripted programming. No one was demanding a sneak peek into the not-so-rarefied world of wedding planning or modeling gigs, but when networks were airing multiple episodes, people watched because that was what was available. Ratings were up, and that was all the powers that be required to greenlight more and more “documentary” programming.

Producers took advantage of the hours of footage and interview portions filmed months after the initial run to reinforce the worst stereotypes of women: We are mean, shallow, catty, image-obsessed shrews. Never mind that this was the personality type demanded by casting. Never mind that women auditioning for the shows were encouraged to amp up the bad behavior up to eleven. The women were the sole recipients of blame in the court of public opinion, and the negative ideas in the cultural consciousness were exacerbated.

Pozner takes whole chapters devoted to women of color and the unique ways reality TV worked to further marginalize them–makeover shows were offered to white women to make them “prettier”, but to women of color to make them “whiter”. Procedures like rhinoplasty, hair relaxing, and skin bleaching were de rigeur for shows like Extreme Makeover and The Swan.

It is by consistently showcasing the lowest common denominator of humanity, then giving it the misleading name of reality, inflating the numbers and then insisting they were just giving the people what they wanted, producers have been riding their reinforced stereotypes all the way to the bank and back. At the end of her book, Pozner rallies readers to be mindful of their viewing habits. In the six years since its publication, the turn back to nuanced writing and layered characters could possibly be partially attributed to Pozner, although part could be the general ennui viewers felt with the shallow, stereotyped behaviors of reality stars. We are by no means perfect, but we’re better than we were.

S is for Sex Workers

My last job was one of the most degrading I’ve ever held. My coworkers and I were responsible for all the non-medical needs of our patients, but often had minimum staff when we were at maximum capacity. I frequently worked with the kids while I had a full bladder and an empty stomach, while wiping asses, dodging punches, being bitten and cursed at while trying to teach social skills and fine motor concepts, for 8 to 16 hours at a time, frequently without a break, and all for the big bucks that evened out to less than $15/hour. Anyone who has ever had a job like that can agree it’s inherently degrading.

We have a high respect, and deservedly so, for healthcare workers. But when we talk about sex workers, we take up the mantle of the angry, disgruntled patients. We criminalize their livelihood, invalidate their existence, and heap verbal vitriol and physical violence on them with impunity.

It’s hard to say why we have such scorn for the practitioners of the world’s oldest profession–we damn sure want what they’re selling. Regardless if it’s stripping, prostitution, or porn, we want our flesh peddled to our exact tastes, but relegate the ones who fulfill that need to the bottom rung of society, and give the most violent in society implicit permission to victimize them. Prostitutes can’t report crimes without implicating themselves in the process, and even if they muster the fortitude to do so, they aren’t given the same level of aid.

We make so many assumptions about people who use sex as a transaction, puzzle about what might have happened to them to drive them to such a profession, despite the fact that two of the things any of us want or need at any given time are sex and money. There are damaged sex workers, to be sure, but there are damaged kindergarten teachers, lawyers, janitors, and psychiatrists too.

Our disdain for sex workers is seemingly self-loathing–we want sex, but hate ourselves for wanting it, so we push that disgust onto the people offering us what we’re seeking. It’s a hallmark of our puritanical heritage.

This same disgust blinds us to the fact that sex workers are a diverse group, all of whom are worthy of respect. It keeps us from allying ourselves with them in the same fashion we do any other marginalized group. It allows those who would harm them to remain in a position of power over their intended victims. And worst of all, our refusal to be compassionate and pragmatic towards sex work prevents us from sussing out those who choose their profession from those who are trafficked into it–we lump everyone together and treat them all like criminals.

Overwhelmingly, sex workers are women, which makes it easy for us to assign a Madonna/whore classification and disregard either side. Women (and men) who are simply pursuing a trade deserve all the same protections that any other worker does, including protection from coercion. Protection we cannot offer when we treat them like a plague instead of people.

See The Sex Workers’ Project for suggestions on how to ally and advocate for sex workers and human trafficking victims.

Suggested Reading: A Piece of Cake by Cupcake Brown, Sex Work: The Story of a Life by Frédérique Delacoste, Whores and Other Feminists by Jill Nagle