Book Review: Juliet Takes a Breath

juliet takes a breathJuliet Takes a Breath
by Gabby Rivera
Young Adult / LGBT / Contemporary Fiction / Feminist
264 pages
Published 2016

Ohhhhhh my. This is a short book, and a quick read, but MAN is it great. It tackles racism, microaggressions, white feminism, coming out, “it’s just a phase!”, polyamory, breaking up, trans-exclusive language…and so much more.

The plot revolves around Juliet’s summer internship with an author in Portland, Harlowe Brisbane. Many of the chapters begin with an excerpt from Brisbane’s fictional treatise on feminism, Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy by Empowering Your Mind. One of these excerpts in particular took my breath away:

Read everything you can push into your skull. Read your mother’s diary. Read Assata. Read everything Gloria Steinem and bell hooks write. Read all of the poems your friends leave in your locker. Read books about your body written by people who have bodies like yours. Read everything that supports your growth as a vibrant, rebel girl human. Read because you’re tired of secrets.

Juliet reminds me a lot of me when I was detaching myself from Christianity and the conservatism I grew up with. Devouring books, learning about historical figures that I should have known about and was stunned that I’d never heard of. So I totally understand her wonder and shock at an entirely new world opening up before her.

Through Harlowe and her primary partner, Maxine, Juliet learns about polyamory. It’s a remarkably good example; even though Harlowe and Maxine have their issues, their arguments are reasonably healthy, and despite disagreeing on some topics, they still love each other and say as much.

In Harlowe, we have an example of a white feminist who tries to be intersectional, at least a little, but can still be blind to a lot of her own microaggressions. Maxine, her partner, is a woman of color, as are most of the other characters in the book, so Juliet has lots of opportunities to see how white feminism can be ignorant of issues and blind to its own faults.

As a white feminist myself, I took this portrayal for the warning it really is. I do my best to lift up voices of color by reviewing books by and about minorities on this blog as often as I can. I try to be as intersectional as possible, but I know I will make missteps, and I can always be better. But this book, though it’s meant for the other side of the equation, is a reminder to feminists like me to keep trying to be better, and the costs to other people when we screw up.

From the cover of Juliet Takes a Breath:

Juliet Milagros Palante is leaving the Bronx and headed to Portland, Oregon. She just came out to her family and isn’t sure if her mom will ever speak to her again. But Juliet has a plan, sort of, one that’s going to help her figure out this whole “Puerto Rican lesbian” thing. She’s interning with the author of her favorite book: Harlowe Brisbane, the ultimate authority on feminism, women’s bodies, and other gay-sounding stuff. 

Will Juliet be able to figure out her life over the course of one magical summer? Is that even possible? Or is she running away from all the problems that seem too big to handle?

With more questions than answers, Juliet takes on Portland, Harlowe, and most importantly, herself.

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Book Review: Vox

voxVox
by Christina Dalcher
Dystopia
326 pages
Published August 2018

I felt like I was reading a horror novel instead of a dystopia. The first third of the book, specifically, was enraging. It’s the setup – the explanation of how the world is now, and how it came to be that way – that made me have to set the book down twice and walk away to calm down.

The book is the story of Dr. Jean McClellan, cognitive linguist. The forced silence is particularly painful for her, a former scientist who was working on a cure for people who had brain injuries or strokes affecting the Wernicke area of the brain, where we process language. She was about to start restoring language to people who had lost it, only to have it stolen from her and every other woman in the country.

The book opens on Dr. McClellan being asked to return to her work, because the President’s brother suffered a brain injury while skiing and can no longer understand language. As one of the most important advisors to the president, the government needs him. In return for the removal of both her bracelet and her daughter’s, she agrees, hoping to find some way to sabotage the work.

Vox sets out a sequence of events that seems far too feasible for comfort. The religious right extends its foothold from the Bible Belt to more and more of the country, pushing a return to “traditional family values” while methodically stripping freedoms from women and LGBT people. Women’s passports are surreptitiously cancelled, schools are split and classes on Christian theology introduced to the boys’ schools. Girls’ schools consist of very basic math (so they can continue to do the grocery shopping and cooking!) and a ton of home ec. Sewing, Cooking, Housekeeping. LGBT people are sent to prisons/camps unless they marry someone of the opposite sex and produce kids. Basically, it’s the right wing’s dream world.

It’s a horrifying scenario. Even given all the dystopia I’ve read, this book rocked me. It definitely belongs in the league of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Power. My only complaint is I wish the ending had been a little more drawn out, and explained the fallout in a bit more detail. Other than that, though, amazing book.

From the cover of Vox:

Set in a United States in which half the population has been silenced, Vox is the harrowing, unforgettable story of what one woman will do to protect herself and her daughter.

On the day the government decrees that women are no longer allowed more than one hundred words per day, Dr. Jean McClellan is in denial. This can’t happen here. Not in America. Not to her.

This is just the beginning . . . 

Soon women are not permitted to hold jobs. Girls are not taught to read or write. Females no longer have a voice. Before, the average person spoke sixteen thousand words each day, but now women have only one hundred to make themselves heard.

. . . not the end.

For herself, her daughter, and every woman silenced, Jean will reclaim her voice.

Book Review: Don’t Call Me Princess

don't call me princessDon’t Call Me Princess: Essays on Girls, Women, Sex, and Life
by Peggy Orenstein
Nonfiction/Essay Collection/Feminism
378 pages
Published February 2018

This is an interesting collection of essays because it’s drawn from the author’s previous work, so some of the essays are a little…dated. Each essay is preceded by a few paragraphs about it, though, talking about what was going on when Orenstein wrote the essay, or how the subject has changed since the essay was written, so instead of being out-of-touch, it’s more like a historical look back in time. Some of the essays even update other essays! In particular, one essay is about her first fight with breast cancer, and beating it, and a second essay is about when the cancer comes back years later. Similarly, there are essays about her issues with infertility and miscarriages, and later about being a mother.

I really enjoyed these articles, especially since I was reading the book while sick, and 3 or 4 page essays were about the limits of my attention span! I could sit down and read one (or two, if I was feeling particularly good) and actually absorb the contents. I tried to read a novel and wound up setting it aside because I couldn’t focus! I enjoy keeping anthologies and short story collections in my stack for that reason. Sometimes I just need something I can take in small bits, and this fit the bill nicely.

The essays ranged from profiles of remarkable women (Caitlin Moran, Gloria Steinem, Atsuko Chiba) to essays on the author’s personal life, to essays about our educational system, sexism in daily life, and intimate issues like cancer and infertility. It’s a wide range of topics, but all dealing with being a woman, and/or having a uterus. There are a couple of essays in the very back about masculinity, but it’s mostly a woman-centered book. That doesn’t mean men shouldn’t read it, quite the opposite! While the book isn’t quite as engrossing as some of the other feminist nonfiction I’ve been reading lately, it’s still quite good, and does deal with topics that I don’t see discussed often, like breast cancer and IVF, so it might be more interesting to people who have a personal connection to those topics. Well worth reading, though!

From the cover of Don’t Call Me Princess:

Named one of the “40 women who changed the media business in the last 40 years” by the Columbia Journalism Review, Peggy Orenstein is one of the most prominent, unflinching feminist voices of our time. Her writing has broken ground and broken silence on topics as wide-ranging as miscarriage, motherhood, breast cancer, princess culture, and the importance of girls’ sexual pleasure. Her unique blend of investigative reporting, personal revelation, and unexpected humor has made her books bestselling classics.

In Don’t Call Me Princess, Orenstein’s most resonant and important essays are available for the first time in collected form, updated with both an original introduction and personal reflections on each piece. Her takes on reproductive justice, the infertility industry, tensions between working and stay-at-home moms, pink ribbon fearmongering, and the complications of girl culture are not merely timeless – they have, like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, become more urgent in our contemporary political climate. Don’t Call Me Princess offers a crucial evaluation of where we stand today as women – in our work lives, sex lives, as mothers, as partners – illuminating both how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.

Book Review: Rage Becomes Her

Rage Becomes HerRage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger
by Soraya Chemaly
Nonfiction/Feminism/Civil Rights
392 pages
Published September 2018

This book goes in the same category as One Person, No Vote for me. I knew a lot of the general principles, but not the details, the statistics, the true scope of the problem. This book delves deeply into the statistics, but, like One Person, No Vote, is still very readable. I like nonfiction – when the author’s voice doesn’t bore me to tears. I’m slowly building up a list of nonfiction authors who I enjoy – Mary Roach, Soraya Chemaly, Carol Anderson – interesting that they’re all women.

Anyway.

Rage Becomes Her is about women’s relationship with anger. How we tamp it down for the men around us, because being angry makes you a target. Having an opinion online usually means getting harassed, stalked, threatened, swatted. We fear to provoke violence, so we don’t show our anger. And that’s fucked up.

Rage Becomes Her is also about why we are so angry. The rampant sexism and violence against women, the pressures put on us as women, the lopsided assignation of unpaid and underpaid labor.

Rage Becomes Her is about how boys and girls are socialized in regards to anger – it’s expected from boys, but girls are socialized not to show it, to be polite, to give way instead of saying NO. (I know I was brought up this way.)

Rage Becomes Her talks about the effect that anger has on our bodies. Did you know research shows that anger is “the single, most salient emotional contributor to pain”? Which leads into a very interesting passage:

Unaddressed anger affects our neurological, hormonal, adrenal, and vascular systems in ways that are still largely ignored in the treatment of pain. It’s hard to overstate what this means in terms of women’s health.

All over the world, women report much higher rates of both acute and chronic pain than men do. Of the more than one hundred million Americans who report living with daily pain, the vast majority are women. (A comprehensive study involving more than 85,000 respondents in seven developing and ten developed nations found that the prevalence of chronic pain conditions in men was 31 percent but in women it was 45 percent.) (Rage Becomes Her, p. 51)

Well that’s interesting. I’d never thought of my pain being connected to my anger. I certainly have plenty to be angry about currently, as a liberal woman. Interestingly, the book mentions that in the lead-up to Trump’s election, the angriest demographic was white women, especially conservative ones. It makes me wonder about the subconscious anger they must have felt while siding with white supremacy over their own gender. Internalized self-hatred is one hell of a drug. Chemaly delves into that, too. The myth of the “kind patriarch” and “benevolent sexism” and how women are often guilty of system justification, to their own detriment. If you gossip about a woman for showing her anger, it only reinforces that you won’t be able to show yours.

There is so much in this book that was eye-opening, like the fact that doctors are TWENTY-TWO MORE TIMES likely to recommend knee surgery to men with severe arthritis pain than to women, because women are expected to just suck it up and deal with being in pain. There were also unspoken rules spelled out, like when women swear, they tilt towards the “impure” in our social understanding of “purity” and hence, deserve punishment. Why is that a big deal? Numerous studies have shown that cursing numbs pain. Expletives alter our perceptions of pain, and if women aren’t allowed to use them, we’re saying women deserve to be in pain more than men do. (Also the point that women, using the same curse words men do, are considered more offensive.)

What I did find disappointing is there’s really only one chapter giving us any hint as to what to DO with all this information (and the anger it causes, ironically) – and it’s not all that extensive. I’ll be doing more reading on women’s anger; there’s several books out there right now, including Good and Mad: the Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, which is currently on hold at the library for me.

This is a book I’d like to go back to and reference in the future, so it’s going on my list of books to buy eventually. It really is excellent.

From the cover of Rage Becomes Her:

A TRANSFORMATIVE BOOK URGING TWENTY-FIRST-CENTURY WOMEN TO EMBRACE THEIR ANGER AND HARNESS IT FOR LASTING PERSONAL AND SOCIETAL CHANGE.

WOMEN ARE ANGRY, and we have every right to be.

We are underpaid and overworked. Too sensitive or not sensitive enough. Too dowdy or too flashy. Too big or too thin. Sluts or prudes. We are harassed, told we are asking for it, and asked if it would kill us to smile. (Yes, yes, it would.)

Contrary to the rhetoric of popular “self-help” and entire lifetimes of being told otherwise, our rage is one of the most important resources we have, our sharpest tool against both personal and political oppression. We’ve been urged for so long to bottle up our anger, letting it corrode our bodies and minds in ways we don’t even realize. Yet our anger is a vital instrument, a radar for injustice and a catalyst for change. On the flip side, the societal and cultural belittlement of our anger is a cunning way of limiting and controlling our power.

We are so often encouraged to resist our rage or punished for justifiably expressing it, yet how many remarkable achievements would never have gotten off the ground without the kernel of anger that fueled them? Rage Becomes Her makes the case that anger is not what gets in our way, it is our way, sparking a liberating new understanding of this core human emotion.

Following in the footsteps of manifestos like The Feminine Mystique and The Beauty Myth, Rage Becomes Her is an eye-opening, accessible credo, offering us the tools to examine our anger and use it to create lasting positive change.

Book Review: Toil & Trouble

toil & troubleToil & Trouble: 15 Tales of Women & Witchcraft
Edited by Jessica Spotswood and Tess Sharpe
YA Anthology/Fantasy
405 pages
Published August 2018

Toil & Trouble was a much-hyped anthology of YA stories, and I think it lived up to that hype. I really enjoyed almost every story in this book – only one or two of them were less than awesome. And they still weren’t bad! Anthologies like this keep introducing me to yet more authors that I want to read, and just keep growing my TBR list! Some of the authors in this book I was familiar with; while I hadn’t read her work yet, I met Zoraida Córdova at the Baltimore Book Festival, and she was amazing. I’m familiar with Brandy Colbert’s work, and have not yet read Anna-Marie McLemore but desperately want to, and her story in this work (Love Spell) only increases that need.

I read this book just before Halloween, and it was a perfect choice. I’m not a fan of actual horror novels, which seem to be what everyone else is reading this time of year. Give me my strong witchy women! The stories in this book are all young women – teens to early adulthood – learning to rely on themselves. They embrace what family traditions mean to them, or break free of them entirely if they’re the wrong path. They break social taboos and fall in love where they will. They FIGHT for what they want.

I think my favorite story in this book involved a woman whose powers had been bound by her coven until she was old enough to use them wisely, but had to watch her father die in an accident when she could have healed him if she’d had access to her magic. She went to an ancient place of power in the mountains and broke the binding, horrifying her coven. The story is actually about her defying them further in refusing her destined soul mate for the girl she’s been in love with since she was a child, and Fate’s punishment for that. The two girls fighting for each other and for their own magic was amazing. (The Heart in Her Hands, Tess Sharpe.) Unfortunately it doesn’t look like it’s part of a larger story, I was hoping for more in that world!

As far as I can tell, only one of the stories is part of something larger – I’m pretty sure Zoraida Córdova’s story is part of her Brooklyn Brujas world. Other than that, they all appear to be standalones, which is a little sad as I’d like to see more of many of these worlds!

Toil & Trouble is an outstanding anthology of magical women, and I loved it.

From the cover of Toil & Trouble:

SCORN THE WITCH.
FEAR THE WITCH.
BURN THE WITCH.

History is filled with stories of women accused of witchcraft, of fearsome girls with arcane knowledge. Toil & Trouble features fifteen stories of girls embracing their power, reclaiming their destinies and using their magic to create, to curse, to cure – and to kill.

A young witch uses social media to connect with her astrology clients – and with a NASA-loving girl as cute as she is skeptical. A priestess of death investigates a ritualized murder. A bruja who cures lovesickness might need the remedy herself when she falls in love with an altar boy. A theater production is turned upside down by a visiting churel. In Reconstruction-era Texas, a water witch uses her magic to survive the soldiers who have invaded her desert oasis. And in the near future, a group of girls accused of witchcraft must find their collective power in order to destroy their captors.

This collection reveals a universal truth: there’s nothing more powerful than a teenage girl who believes in herself.

Book Review: Feminasty

FeminastyFeminasty: The Complicated Woman’s Guide to Surviving the Patriarchy Without Drinking Herself to Death
by Erin Gibson
Comedic Memoir/Feminism
280 pages
Published September 2018

Comedic collection of essays about feminism? Yeah, I’m in. I was actually unaware of Erin Gibson prior to this book; she’s apparently pretty popular as one of the personalities on a podcast named Throwing Shade. But she’s got a way with words, and a sharp undercurrent of anger under the jokes, which happens to be just the way I like my political comedy.

That said, there wasn’t really anything new in this book. It’s the same ranting I’ve seen millions of times on Facebook and Twitter and online editorials. I really enjoyed her summary of the annual ob/gyn visit. I just didn’t find it all that original.

She’s got some amazing chapter titles – “THE TERRIFYING PROSPECT OF MIKE ‘VAGINAS ARE THE DEVIL’S MOUTH FLAPS’ PENCE” for example, or “EVERYONE HAS A CHOICE . . . UNLESS YOU’RE A WOMAN AND IT’S BEEN TAKEN AWAY FROM YOU.” She sums up a lot of topics that fledgling feminists might not know many details about, from abortion rights to sexist dress codes to teen abstinence pledges. But for the well-read, politically informed feminist that I try to be, I didn’t get much out of this book.

So – funny, yes. Sharp, angry wit, yes. Worth taking up space on my list when I have SO MANY other things to read? Not really.

From the cover of Feminasty:

Too bad I don’t give a f*ck about what the patriarchy wants.

Erin Gibson has a singular goal: to create a utopian future where women are recognized as humans. In Feminasty – titled after her nickname on the hit podcast Throwing Shade – she has written a collection of make-you-laugh-until-you-cry essays that expose the hidden rules that make life as a woman unnecessarily hard and deconstructs them in a way that’s bold, provocative, and hilarious.

Whether it’s about shaming women for having their periods, allowing them into STEM fields but never treating them like they truly belong, or dictating strict rules for how they should dress in every situation, Erin breaks down the organized chaos of old-fashioned sexism, intentional and otherwise, that systemically keeps women down.

Feminasty is Erin Gibson’s revolutionary handbook for dismantling the patriarchy, one pay gap joke at a time.