Book Review: Headscarves and Hymens

headscarves and hymensHeadscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs A Sexual Revolution
by Mona Eltahawy
Nonfiction – Women’s Rights/Feminism
240 pages
Published 2015

Headscarves and Hymens was the third book in Book Riot’s Persist: Feminist Book Club, which is what brought it to my attention. We’ve been reading roughly two chapters a week and talking about it via Instagram Live. It’s certainly not my favorite venue to use – for one, I can’t seem to find a setting to let me know when someone goes live on Instagram, so I have to set myself an alarm. (I missed one book club session because I just forgot.) I also can’t seem to watch the videos after they’re over, so I can’t catch up on what I missed. I much prefer the Twitter chat that YA_Pride does. I can go back through those, and still have conversations with other people that read the book (and follow them!) where I can’t do that easily with Persist.

But you’re here to hear about the book, not the club! HH is short, under 250 pages, with seven chapters and an epilogue. Each chapter is basically an essay on a topic, from driving (“Roads Through the Desert”) to veiling (“Black Veil, White Flag”) to purity and Female Genital Mutilation (“The God of Virginity”). Eltahawy is well-researched, mixing anecdotes and statistics to show us both the big picture of what is going on, as well as making it personal and hard-hitting.

I’m glad we read it in small chunks – some of the chapters are harder than others (the chapter on FGM and sexual “purity” was particularly rough). Spacing it out let the information really sink in before moving on to another topic. Additionally, we were reading it at the same time as the Kavanaugh hearings, and that was also….unsettling.

This is a really eye-opening book, but be sure you’re emotionally prepared to read it. It’s probably healthier to set it down and walk away for breaks, rather than to read it straight through.

From the cover of Headscarves and Hymens:

The journalist Mona Eltahawy is no stranger to controversy. Through her articles and actions she has fought for the autonomy, security, and dignity of Muslim women, drawing vocal supporters and detractors. Now, in her first book, Headscarves and Hymens, Eltahawy has prepared a definitive condemnation of the repressive forces – political, cultural, and religious – that reduce millions of women to second-class citizens.

Drawing on her years as a campaigner for and commentator on women’s issues in the Middle East, she explains that since the Arab Spring began in 2010, women in the Arab world have had two revolutions to undertake: one fought alongside men, against oppressive regimes, and another fought against an entire political and economic system that represses women in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and other nations.

Eltahawy has traveled across the Middle East and North Africa, meeting with women and listening to their stories. Her book is a plea for outrage and action on their behalf, confronting a “toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend.” A manifesto motivated by hope and fury in equal measure, Headscarves and Hymens is as illuminating as it is incendiary.

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Book Review: Bonk

bonkBonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex
by Mary Roach
Microhistory
319 pages
Published 2008

It’s not often a nonfiction book has me laughing out loud, but this one did it. This is the first of Roach’s books I’ve read, but her voice makes me want to read everything she’s ever written! Bonk is the story of sexual research – how scientists have made discoveries about a topic that is awkward at best, and taboo or even criminal at worst. Roach takes research seriously, volunteering as a research subject more than once (and convincing her husband to help, in at least one case!) Her wordplay is clever and her footnotes are HILARIOUS – this was a nonfiction book I kept having to pause and read to my husband between snickers.

Even her chapter titles are giggle-inducing – with titles like “The Princess and Her Pea – The Woman Who Moved Her Clitoris, and Other Ruminations on Intercourse Orgasms” and “Re-member Me – Transplants, Implants, and Other Penises Of Last Resort.”

Roach writes about some truly awkward sexual encounters in the name of science:

On the bed are a man and a woman. They are making the familiar movements made by millions of other couples on a bed that night, yet they look nothing like those couples. They have EKG wires leading from their thighs and arms, like a pair of lustful marionettes who managed to escape the puppet show and check into a cheap motel. Their mouths are covered by snorkel-type mouthpieces with valves. Trailing from each mouthpiece is a length of flexible tubing that runs through the wall to the room next door, where Bartlett is measuring their breathing rate. To ensure that they don’t breathe through their noses, the noses have been “lightly clamped.”

Another passage mentions two gymnasts who have sex in an MRI tube. (For science!) I’m impressed these people can perform under these conditions at all!

There’s only one passage that squicked me out a little bit – there’s a few paragraphs describing a urologist performing surgery on a penis and it’s…a little disturbing. That aside, though, this is a delightful book on an uncommon topic. It’s an easy read, which I don’t say about much nonfiction. It might be awkward to explain why you’re snickering over this book, though!

This is also my pick for the PopSugar prompt “Microhistory.”

From the cover of Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex:

The study of sexual physiology – what happens, and why, and how to make it happen better – has been a paying career or a diverting sideline for scientists as far-ranging as Leonardo da Vinci and James Watson. The research has taken place behind the closed doors of laboratories, brothels, MRI centers, pig farms, sex toy R&D labs, and Alfred Kinsey’s attic.

Mary Roach, “the funniest science writer in the country” (Burkhard Bilger of The New Yorker), devoted the past two years to stepping behind those doors. Can a person think herself to orgasm? Can a dead man get an erection? Is vaginal orgasm a myth? Why doesn’t Viagra help women – or, for that manner, pandas? In Bonk, Roach shows us how and why sexual arousal and orgasm – two of the most complex, delightful, and amazing scientific phenomena on earth – can be so hard to achieve and what science is doing to slowly make the bedroom a more satisfying place.

Book Review: Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud

too fat too slutty too loudToo Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman
by Anne Helen Petersen
Feminism Nonfiction
266 pages
Published 2017

This is the first book Book Riot chose for Persist, their Feminist Book Club. I only just learned about the book club, so I’m reading the first two books before diving into the third. (Second book is Eloquent Rage by Brittney Cooper, and the third book is Headscarves and Hymens by Mona Eltahawy.) I really wish I could have read this book with their book club, as it definitely would benefit from being able to discuss each chapter with other readers.

The book is divided into chapters focusing on individual women and what they are guilty of being too much of. So Too Strong – Serena Williams, or Too Shrill – Hillary Clinton, or Too Slutty – Nicki Minaj. Then it dives deeply into why people think the woman embodies that negative, and often, what the woman herself thinks of it. We get cultural background on the adjective; in Too Pregnant, Petersen examines how celebrity pregnancies have changed how we treat pregnant women – how pregnancy has changed from something to be hidden to something to be valued and publicized and adored. But when someone isn’t pregnant in the right way – Kim Kardashian, for instance, suffered from swollen feet and preeclampsia and general misery and “poor” fashion choices – we judge them for it.

Too Loud delves into the world of publishing and book reviewing, profiling Jennifer Weiner’s fight against sexism in publishing. The chapter educates us on how the genre of “chick lit” started, and how women authors and readers are too often relegated to “chick lit” when if the same story had been written by a man, about a man instead of a woman, it would just be “literature” and eligible for review by things like the The New York Times Book Review.

Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud was a highly educational look at pop culture and how women are judged much harsher than men are for showing the same traits. It is imminently readable – I only started to fall asleep once, and I think that’s more because I only slept four hours last night! I had a fiction book on the table beside me, ready to dive into when I needed a break from the nonfiction – it’s still there, untouched. This is a great book, but I’d definitely read it as part of a book club or a buddy read if you can. Get a friend to read it so you can discuss it!

From the cover of Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud:

You know the type: the woman who won’t shut up, who’s too brazen, too opinionated – too much. It’s not that she’s an outcast (she might even be your friend, or your wife, or your mother) so much as she’s a social variable. Sometimes, she’s the life of the party; others, she’s the center of gossip. She’s the unruly woman, and she’s one of the most provocative, powerful forms of womanhood today.

There have been unruly women for as long as there have been boundaries of what constitutes acceptable “feminine” behavior, but there’s evidence that she’s on the rise – more visible and less easily dismissed – than ever before. In Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud, Anne Helen Petersen uses the lens of “unruliness” to explore the ascension of eleven contemporary pop culture powerhouses: Serena Williams, Melissa McCarthy, Abbi Jacobson, Ilana Glazer, Nicki Minaj, Madonna, Kim Kardashian, Hillary Clinton, Caitlyn Jenner, Jennifer Weiner, and Lena Dunham. Petersen explores why the public loves to love (and hate) these controversial figures, each of whom has been conceived as “too” something: too queer, too strong, too honest, too old, too pregnant, too shrill, too much. With its brisk, incisive analysis, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud will be a conversation-starting book on what makes and breaks celebrity today.

Book Review: An American Family

americanfamilyAn American Family: A Memoir of Hope and Sacrifice
by Khizr Khan
Memoir
271 pages
Published 2017

Like many people, I was inspired by the Khizr Khan’s speech at the Democratic Convention last year, and appalled by Trump’s reaction. As a Marine wife, the family members left behind when a service member dies get my utmost sympathy and compassion. That was my biggest fear while my husband was in the Marines, and it’s still a very emotional memory to look back on. So when I heard that Khan was writing a book, I knew I HAD to read it. I put a hold request in at the library before the book was published, and I’m glad I did. The book is definitely one of my favorites of 2017. (One of my next posts will be a round up of my favorites from this year.)

An American Family follows the Khans’ journey from Pakistan, to Dubai, to Texas, Maryland, and finally Virginia. And it’s fascinating. He says in the beginning of the book that he wrote it to answer the question he’s constantly asked: why do you love America? Why are you a Patriot? He couldn’t answer it in a few short sentences. This book is his answer, and what an answer it is. It’s impossible to summarize this book – it must be read.

It’s a very easy read – it flows beautifully, and Khan tells a story well. It’s easy, at least, until you get to the point where their son dies in action. Perhaps it wouldn’t have such an emotional effect on someone else, but that, and its aftermath, was pretty hard for me to read about. The event is important, however. Its repercussions ripple out through the Khans’ lives and affect everything they touch.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Especially if you’re American, and no matter where on the political spectrum you fall, this book is important. It might give you a different view on immigrants.

From the cover of An American Family:

“I am an American patriot not because I was born here but because I was not. I embraced American freedoms, raised my children to cherish and revere them, and lost a son who swore an oath to defend them, because I come from a place where they do not exist.”

In fewer than three hundred words, Muslim American Gold Star father Khizr Khan electrified viewers around the world when he took the stage at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. And when he offered to lend Donald Trump his own much-read and dog-eared pocket Constitution, his gesture perfectly encapsulated the feelings of millions. But who was that man, standing beside his wife, extolling the promises and virtues of the U.S. Constitution?

In this urgent and timeless immigrant story, we learn that Khizr Khan has been many things. He was the oldest of ten children born to farmers in Pakistan, and a curious and thoughtful boy who listened rapt as his grandfather recited Rumi beneath the moonlight. He was a university student who read the Declaration of Independence and was awestruck by what might be possible in life. He was a hopeful suitor, awkwardly but earnestly trying to win the heart of a woman far out of his league. He was a brilliant and diligent young family man who worked tow jobs to save enough money to put himself through Harvard Law School. He was a loving father who, having instilled in his children the ideals that brought him and his wife to America – the sense of shared dignity and mutual responsibility – tragically lost his son, an Army captain killed while protecting his base camp in Iraq. He was and is a patriot, and a fierce advocate for the rights, dignities, and values enshrined in the American system.

An American Family shows us who Khizr Khan and millions of other American immigrants are, and why – especially in these tumultuous times – we must not be afraid to step forward for what we believe in when it matters most.

Book Review: Tears We Cannot Stop

tearsTears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America
by Michael Eric Dyson
Nonfiction
228 pages
Published 2017

I’m always trying to continue to educate myself on my white privilege, America’s racist history, and civil rights and activism in general. Tears We Cannot Stop fits neatly into that category, but it’s not an easy-to-read book. I mean, it is – in the sense that it’s well-written and flows very well. But it’s not easy to read because of what it says. Dyson is a black pastor, and he wrote this book as if he was preaching to the white people of America, trying to make them understand the plight of the minorities we oppress. Black people specifically.

It’s a short book, but a very powerful one. It’s separated into sections like a sermon would be, with a Call to Worship, Hymns of Praise, Scripture Reading, the Sermon, a Benediction, and more. He’s correlated these sections of a sermon with that of the book – The Offering Plate, for example, is a short little section talking about how one university – Georgetown – apologized for their past use of slavery, and established an institute to study slavery and its effects. Tried to make reparations, in a way. In the scripture reading he quotes a lot of Martin Luther King. In the Benediction he actually talks about a lot of other books to read about the subject of slavery, all of which I’ve added to my already extensive Goodreads shelf on the subject of civil rights and activism. (I’ll be attempting to read as many of those books as I can.)

Tears is a really good opening book to read on the topic, especially for white people. It’s eye-opening, and both invites and provides guidance for further investigation into just how big of a mess we’ve made of things in this country. I highly recommend it.

And, if you happen to be local to Baltimore, the author will be speaking at the Baltimore Book Festival this Friday, September 22nd! Unfortunately, I can’t make it on Friday, so I’m going on Sunday. Sunday I’m planning to catch Daniel Jose Older, the author of the Bone Street Rumba series and Shadowshaper, and Kevin Shird, the author of Uprising in the City, about the Baltimore Riots in 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray. I’m really excited about it, even if it is going to be the hottest day we’ve had in a couple of weeks. (Still only mid-80s, though, so it could be worse!)

From the cover of Tears We Cannot Stop:

As the country grapples with racial division at a level not seen since the 1960s, one man’s voice is heard above the rest. In his New York Times op-ed piece “Death in Black and White,” Michael Eric Dyson moved a nation. Now he continues to speak out in Tears We Cannot stop – a provocative and deeply personal call for change. Dyson argues that if we are to make real racial progress we must face difficult truths, including being honest about how black grievance has been ignored, dismissed, or discounted. In the tradition of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time – short, emotional, literary, powerful – this is the book that all Americans who care about the current and long-burning crisis in race relations will want to read.

Book Review: Angry Optimist – The Life and Times of Jon Stewart

angryoptAngry Optimist: The Life and Times of Jon Stewart
Lisa Rogak
Biography
225 pages
Published 2014

So I’m a little ambivalent about this book. Jon Stewart took over at The Daily Show the same year I graduated high school. I was 16 and only starting to pay attention to politics. I was also raised quite conservative Christian – the pundit we listened to the most was Rush Limbaugh. And here was a man saying things that were the total opposite of what I’d been taught – but also things that resonated a lot more with me. Many years later, when The Daily Show and Jon Stewart were labeled the most trusted voices in news media, I had no trouble at all believing it. He not only knew how to speak to my generation, he also spoke for us. All the things we were thinking, he was out there shouting. He was our window into this grown up, corrupted world of politics, and we loved him for it.

Not to say he’s perfect. I’d heard – and Angry Optimist mentions – that he can occasionally be a rage-filled asshole. That the staff of The Daily Show has a woman problem. (As in, not enough of them, and can’t keep them.) So while I do admire the man, I am not blind to his flaws.

The book is interesting – I learned more about his early life and career – but nothing really game-changing. And perhaps that says something about Stewart. There aren’t really any skeletons in his closet, or scandalous stories. He’s just an angry Jewish comedian.

Rogak’s style of writing is easily consumed; I read the entire book in about three hours. Perhaps part of why I find it so anticlimactic is that she ends it with this sense of not knowing what Stewart might be up to next, and whether, if he does decide to leave The Daily Show eventually, if the show will end with him – and we know those answers now, three years after the book was published. Stewart has retired (barring the occasional appearance on Colbert’s show) and Trevor Noah is doing an admirable job of holding down the fort after Stewart’s exit. (With less anger, and a little more befuddlement, which is a fun change.) I was also a little disappointed that she mentions Stewart’s friendship with Anthony Weiner – but doesn’t say anything about how he took the ribbing from Stewart over Weiner’s rather unglamorous exit from politics.

I have also heard that the audio book is not good – apparently the narrator is boring. So I’d recommend the print book over the audio, if you choose to read it.

From the cover of Angry Optimist

Since his arrival at The Daily Show in 1999, Jon Stewart has become one of the major players in comedy as well as one of the most significant liberal voices in the media. In Angry Optimist, biographer Lisa Rogak charts his unlikely rise to stardom. She follows him from his early days growing up in New Jersey, through his years as a struggling stand-up comic in New York, and on the short-lived but acclaimed The Jon Stewart Show. And she charts his humbling string of near-misses – passed over as a replacement for shows hosted by Conan O’Brien, Tom Snyder, and even the fictional Larry Sanders – before landing on a half-hour comedy show that at the time was still finding its footing amidst roiling internal drama. 

Once there, Stewart transformed The Daily Show into one of the most influential new programs on television today. Drawing on interviews with his current and former colleagues, Rogak reveals how things work – and sometimes don’t work – behind the scenes at The Daily Show, led by Jon Stewart, a comedian who has come to wield incredible power in American politics.