Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity

Monday, August 22, 2016

Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity
Julia Serano, 2007, 2016 (new edition)

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a book by or about a person that identifies as transgender

Premise: Scholarship and personal perspective on the interrelationship between attitudes around femininity and discrimination against trans women.

I borrowed this book from the library and got only a few chapters in before I decided that I had to buy my own copy so I could highlight all the best passages.

I’ve been looking for a book like this, one that articulates so clearly the need to empower femininity. In feminist and liberal spaces, we already question the idea that women can be equal to men only if they act like men (but not too much like men). Yet somehow many of us tend to miss that so much of this attitude can be connected to dismissing girls, along with denigrating traditionally feminine attitudes, interests, and practices.

Getting a fantastic analysis of issues facing the transgender population is just icing on the feminism cake. Serano uses her personal experiences, her conversations with others in the trans, queer, and lesbian communities, and extensive scholarship to explore the many facets of gender and types of sexism.

This book was originally written in 2007, so some of the terminology she uses is not what is most common today, and some of the issues are already changing. These elements are acknowledged in the preface to the 2016 edition.

Some of the most enlightening chapters for me explored the sexism inherent in most media representation of trans women and the double-bind in terms of gender expression that faced (and may still face) those seeking to transition.

Serano’s personal account explores the nuanced possibilities surrounding how much our gender expressions and sexual selves are shaped by hormones, intrinsic inclinations, and/or socialization. Overall her book is impressive in stating a firm, strong position for holding a nuanced, subtle view of gender and sex.

The only criticism I have is that a few of the chapters late in the book are jarringly different in tone. They aren’t bad, just different than the rest.

The book begins and ends with the call to empower femininity and for those who consider themselves feminists to dismantle attitudes which damage all feminine people - whether those feminine people consider themselves male or female or other.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

Every Heart a Doorway

Monday, August 15, 2016

Every Heart a Doorway
Seanan McGuire, 2016

Premise: Nancy found the place she belonged. The place she loved more than anything. But she isn’t there anymore, and her parents have sent her to this school, because they don’t believe her when she tells them where she’s been.

This fantasy-horror novella is lovely, both heartbreaking and uplifting. The story is about outsiders and belonging, about ideas of good and bad, about compassion and fanaticism. All in under 200 pages.

Eleanor West runs a school for children who have returned from journeying in other realms. These latter-day kin to Alice and Dorothy don’t want to adjust to “real” life, they want to go back to the fairylands and underworlds.

Each character is intriguing; they each have a reason they went traveling and were changed by their experiences. The ideas and abilities that followed them back to Earth are only part of what makes them different. Nancy can go still as a statue and subsist on little food due to her travels, but she was out of place in the world before she ever left it.

We mainly follow those students who came through darker, more dangerous worlds, although every glimpse we get of any of the kids’ experiences is fascinating. The inciting plot is violent and gruesome, hence why these kids are the best-suited to handle it.

I’ve been dancing around it, but I would feel remiss if I didn’t mention that Every Heart a Doorway features LGBTQA representation in a delightfully matter-of-fact style.

It’s overall a wonderful read, and while it’s the right length for this story, I would love more in this world.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

The Goblin Emperor

Monday, August 8, 2016

The Goblin Emperor
Katherine Addison, 2014

Premise: There’s been a terrible accident. Maia has never lived at court and hasn’t seen his father since the death of his mother a decade ago. And now they expect him to be emperor.

The Goblin Emperor was a runner-up for the Hugo and on more than a few best-of-the-year lists. So it went onto my TBR pile, and there it sat, even months after I picked up a copy on sale last December.

I finally read it, and it was marvelous - just a joy to read start to end.

I think this is going to be a book I return to, to savor the little details and enjoy subtleties that escaped me on the first read.

I adore Maia; he’s an honestly good person muddling through a difficult situation. I love the cast surrounding him, each feels like a real person with a complicated history and motivation.

The book deals in highly complicated naming conventions, which would normally drive me up the walls. However, in this case I feel that they fit tonally with the overwhelming situation Maia is up against.

I loved that while there is some mystery and some danger, this is fundamentally a book about politics and society. It’s the magic and the elves and goblins that make it a fantasy world, not the plot. There’s no epic fate or dragon to defeat; riding herd over the fractious nobles of the Elflands is enough trouble.

It’s an old-fashioned society quietly moving toward transformation. [Minor characters include lady scholars, progressive inventors, and LGBT folks.] While nothing is changing quickly, it’s a book full of hope.

If a half-goblin can rule the elven empire, after all, what else could happen?

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

The Feminine Mystique

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Feminine Mystique
Betty Friedan, 1963

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a nonfiction book about feminism or dealing with feminist themes

I don’t make it easy on myself sometimes. This isn’t a perfect book, but it’s important and it’s fascinating.

If you only know a little about The Feminine Mystique, you might know that it was a big catalyst for aspects of the female liberation movement in the 60s and 70s. You might know that it’s about the unhappiness of housewives: the “problem with no name.” If you haven’t read it, you might not know that it’s less a polemic than it is a dissertation.

That’s not to say that it isn’t passionate and full of the anger at the forces in society that convinced a generation of women that they could only be fulfilled as a wife and mother. It’s just a balanced, banked anger that I wasn’t expecting. Friedan wasn’t sure how many people would be on her side; she backs up her points with extensive quotes and cited sources.

Parts of it are definitely dated. She spends a chapter taking apart the gendered assumptions created by the then-popular acceptance of Freudian theory, then later uses pieces of Freud to support some odd declarations about parenting. And trust me, it’s better if you just skip everything related to homosexuality. Yes, it’s mostly concerned with the problems of middle-class white women.

That all said, parts of it are not dated at all. The conviction that no matter what you choose it’s wrong, especially when it comes to parenting. The call for a balance between motherhood, career, love and purpose. Most of the section on homosexuality is cringeworthy, but she makes the connection between homophobia and misogyny.

She questions claims for biological instincts related to gender roles and makes a case that to be human is to have a purpose beyond oneself, and to reach one’s full intellectual capacity.

The most interesting parts for me were the parts that really clarified how society has both changed and not changed since the book was written. Some trends have reversed (some more than others) and some have merely metamorphosed. One great chapter was full of quotes from sales consultants about their strategies to convince women to be, not just housewives, but exceptional housewives, so they could sell them ever-more-time-consuming THINGS.

Some of the quoted language around why some people believe women don’t need x (where x is the vote, schooling, jobs, self-determination…) wouldn’t be out of place in the “reverse sexism” claims among certain people in the men’s rights movement of today.

The idea that if you care too much about ideas or your career, that you’ll never get married? That idea hasn’t fully left us.

Overall I found this book dry/academic and inspiring by turns. Although my favorite part may have been the afterwords. I have the 50th anniversary edition, and it includes both a heartfelt afterword by journalist Anna Quindlen and a reflection by Friedan from 1997. This final word from her recounts how her life changed after the book and shares her account of the foundation of NOW and the women’s strike of 1970. It chronicles how far she thinks we’ve come, how far we have to go, and what the next great hurdle would be.

She was right again, because we’re still facing that hurdle today: it’s breaking down the masculine mystique so that rather than growing ever more frustrated at the loss of power, men can work toward authenticity and self-determination alongside women as equal partners in humanity.

4 Stars - Not perfect, but important.

Also! Friedan noted that part of why women in her time were vulnerable to these messages and cultural constructs was that women forgot what their mothers and grandmothers had fought for (the vote, etc.). It’s easy to take the past for granted. I highly HIGHLY recommend the recent documentary, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, for first-hand accounts of the feminist movement in the 60s and 70s. Available on DVD and streaming.

The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book
Rudyard Kipling, 1894, 1895
Disney’s The Jungle Book, 2016

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 – Read a book that was adapted into a movie, then watch the movie. Debate which is better

Okay, I may have done the challenge slightly backward, in that I saw the new live-action movie and then wanted to re-read the book. I have read the book before, but it’s been a few years. Of course, years before I read the books the first time, I saw the Disney animated movie, and the Chuck Jones specials (Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, The White Seal). But I read the Just So Stories before that... does that count? I guess the timeline is sort of a wash.

Anyhow, none of that is the point. The point is that I adore these books, nearly unreservedly.

I say nearly, because a few of the short stories contain slightly awkward, outdated phrasing or attitudes, but VERY few, considering when these were written.

I don’t know what to cover. I guess first we should talk about Mowgli.

Mowgli is the central character of eight of the fifteen stories that make up the two volumes. (I’m not counting the fifteen connected poems at the moment.) Taken over these stories, his arc is complex and intriguing, and very little of it ends up in either Disney movie. The main points of the first three stories are the only aspects touched on: Mowgli’s adoption, his kidnapping by the monkey tribes, and his (first) fight with Sher Khan.

You think you know this story, about the man-cub raised by wolves, but do you know that he grows up to rule? He is the master of the jungle, and one with nearly all the peoples there, but never truly belonging. He himself uses the bat, caught between rodent and bird, as a metaphor for how he is neither animal nor man.

He receives guidance from wise mentors, but none of them can teach him to be human, only help him along the way and tell him that eventually he will leave. The kid in the new movie does a great job with the story he’s given, but it’s not a complicated story.

I should mention – in case you didn’t know, the new live action movie is an adaptation of the Disney animated movie from 1967. The new film is more nuanced than the animated movie, incorporating more elements from the books, but it’s still missing a lot of what I would want out of a true adaptation.

Let’s discuss a few of the other characters who show up in the movie.

Bagheera, the fierce, protective panther, is the closest to the version in the text, although a key point of his character is omitted - he understands Mowgli’s essential internal tension because he was born in captivity but knew he belonged in the jungle.

King Louie, who is a lot of fun in the new movie, was invented for the original Disney animated film. In the book, the Bandar-log (the monkey people) have no leader, and are scorned for their foolish behavior by most of the jungle peoples. They are part of a pattern - in many of the stories the most foolish or destructive animals are described as behaving like humans.

Sher Khan is fierce and frightening in the film, and murders other animals. In the book, he is dangerous to Mowgli, and he’s a predator, but he is more sneaky and nasty than dangerous to most of the larger creatures. I like that most of his villainy is accomplished not through blunt force, but through manipulating others and exploiting convention.

Kaa and Baloo are both entertaining and interesting characters in the new movie. I personally far prefer their original versions.

In the book, Kaa is not an enemy to Mowgli. The great snake’s wisdom and ferocity save Mowgli many times, even as his hypnotic powers make him a dangerous ally.

Baloo is much less funny in the books. He takes his job (teaching the young wolves the ways of life in the jungle) seriously, and tries to take advantage of Mowgli’s intelligence to teach him everything he can absorb, whether the boy wants it or not.

That’s a major thematic difference from the new film: in the movie, most of the animals object to Mowgli using his human intellect or ability to make tools. In the books, this is not an issue. If it helps, great, whatever it is. There are rules around pack behavior, and not spoiling the hunt for other hunters, but there are no rules against using whatever advantages you have. Bagheera even tells Mowgli to use fire, because it is the weapon of Man.

I want to be clear, I liked the movie. I liked it quite a bit, but in emotional impact, violence, environmental commentary, character complexity, and sheer visceral impression, I find the movie a pale shadow of the book.

And I haven’t even touched on Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and how amazing that story is, or many of the other stories. The White Seal could be studied in the same breath with Watership Down. The Miracle of Purun Bhagat is a subtle, beautiful tale. What the stories have in common is a deep respect for the animal world and the diversity of life and a poetry that speaks directly to my soul.

5 Stars – A Personal Favorite

Paper Girls

Monday, July 18, 2016

Paper Girls
Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang, et.al., 2016

Premise: Erin delivers the paper in the early morning, but the morning after Halloween isn’t a good time to be out on the streets. There’s teenagers causing mischief, cops looking for teens to bust, and… monsters from another time? Four paper girls team up in this comic that’s part horror, part adventure, and totally 80s. Collects Paper Girls #1-5

I was really intrigued by an excerpt from this book, and of course I’ve enjoyed Vaughan’s work before, so I snapped this up in trade.

I really like how firmly set in its time period it is. The fashions, the (offensive) language, the technology, everything is right. The plot is surreal, mysterious, and potentially really screwed up - so basically what I expected. The dialogue of some of the antagonists is very cleverly written.

Erin, KJ, Tiffany, and Mackenzie are an appropriately diverse group for a piece written today and loosely inspired by the boys-adventure movies of the 80s. Their characters are sketched out quickly but well, and the art style is a perfect match for the writing.

I’ve appreciated Chang’s art before, but I loved it here. The color pallette works perfectly to build the tone, and all the little details are right to build the world.

Overall I enjoyed this quite a bit, I felt it hit the important emotional beats and made me curious to what will happen next. However, there is nothing resolved by the end of Issue 5, just more questions. For all that I did like it, I’ll probably wait for reviews to help me decide whether the story is worth it to keep reading.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Christmas vs. the Fourth of July

Monday, July 11, 2016

Christmas vs. the Fourth of July
Asenath Carver Coolidge, 1908

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a book under 100 pages
Another bonus review on Mainlining Christmas! This week, read about a weird little book from the early 1900s.