Review: Bad Feminist

Title: Gay, Roxane. Bad Feminist. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.

Bad Feminist
Let’s all be bad feminists.

Keywords: Essays, feminism, intersectionality, non-fiction

Note: I wrestled with whether to categorize this as ‘Required Reading’ or as a ‘Review.’ I will stick with ‘Review’ for now but know that it was a difficult decision…

I finished Bad Feminist last week, and since then, I cannot stop thinking of this powerful, hilarious, and moving collection of essays. Gay is an astute cultural and literary analyst, and a professor at an unnamed college in a Midwest state in the United States. Her prose is especially well written: concise, unpretentious, and every word is there for a specific purpose. Her essays read as an effortless exercise in the art of analysis.

First things first: Gay writes that feminism is a movement created by people, and people are fallible, irrational, and can be assholes (my emphasis). This is true. So when she goes on to explore, dissect, and otherwise ruminate over myriad topics such as reality television programming or Scrabble championships or Daniel Tosh’s infamous rape joke, Gay proceeds to examine each subject in nuanced and careful ways. It’s not enough to simply analyze a topic. Instead, she also strives to identify how associated variables impact the topic at hand. I’m terribly impressed by this approach; this kind of analysis yields incredible rewards for the reader. As I read the text, I often had the sensation of luxuriating in these careful details.

As I read through her essays, two main themes resonated with me:

  • Feminism is not a catch-all movement. What I mean is that the movement doesn’t promise you that you can have it all, and the Kate Spade purse, too. What I found most memorable is Gay’s assertion that people, as a whole, should adjust their improbably high expectations of the feminist movement to something more… realistic. Feminism = Equal opportunity for all genders to have choices in matters economic / financial, digital, social, and cultural.
  • Feminism is contextual. Unfortunately, equality does not mean equity. Throughout several of her essays, Gay examines how the mainstream feminist movement does not equitably address the needs of any person who is not white, able-bodied, cisgender, and heterosexual. Historically, the feminist movement in the United States has barely acknowledged — let alone addressed — how the combined cultural legacies of racism, classism, ableism, heteronormativity, and rigid gender roles (and identities) impact people; how these cultural and systemic factors prevent equal access to the very opportunities ostensibly provided by the feminist movement. It is crucial to recognize such facts.

Gay is a champion at identifying each piece of the intersectionality puzzle in her essays. Incredibly (in my opinion), she makes the exercise look simple. Gay is rightfully discomforted that she exists in a system that fails to meet so many people’s needs, and she captures very well the persistent and disquieting despair that bleeds into a person once they realize this fact.

I enjoyed Gay’s work with a profound appreciation. So few writers can be thoughtful and authentic about such difficult topics, and I feel grateful that I get to read these essays. If you’re interested in learning more about Gay but cannot commit to Bad Feminist right now, I highly recommend Gay’s delightful TED Talk (available here). Her last line is as close to perfect as I can imagine on this topic: “I am a bad feminist. But I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”

Excitement Level: All the stars in this galaxy.

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.

Review: Passenger

passenger
The cover is pretty bitchin’ though

Details: Bracken, Alexandra. (2016). Passenger. Los Angeles: Hyperion.

Keywords: Young Adult, fantasy, time travel, romance

Review:

I heard mixed things about Passenger from many different sources. Some people loved it, and some were more meh about it. I decided to try it out because the premise sounded interesting and I’d heard good things about Alexandra Bracken’s other books series, starting with The Darkest Minds.

In a nutshell, the book follows Etta, a budding virtuoso violinist, after she is forced through a time passage back to the 1700’s, where she discovers she is a traveler, someone who can use these passages to jump through time. When she is blackmailed into finding a magic astrolabe, she is sent on a whirlwind journey through time, accompanied by sailor Nicholas Carter, who has an agenda of his own.

Mixed is about how I felt about the book. It was entertaining and well written, but nothing about it really stuck with me. I think a part of this was because of Etta. While I liked her as a character, I felt like she wasn’t as well rounded as she could have been. I wanted to know more about what motivated her besides the situations that she found herself in. I did like that she was no nonsense, and was able to handle herself in some pretty terrifying and confusing situations, and I thought that the theme of music in her life carried nicely through the book. I just wish that her characterization had been more robust.

I also had a hard time with the extreme insta-love between Etta and Nicholas. While I understand that they had an immediate connection, it was hard to believe the deep feelings they magically had for each other, to the point of making some fairly major sacrifices for each other. I know there was a timeline (hah!) that the author was working with, but I think their relationship would have been more believable had they developed feelings a little slower.

That being said, I really liked Nicholas. His background and upbringing was compelling and made many of his action understandable. His discomfort with himself and his unwillingness to let himself get involved with Etta at first were pretty heart breaking, and served the story well. I also like the discussion of race and race relations through different time periods, and how Etta especially has to come to understand how deeply affecting those kinds of social boundaries can have on a person.

I also enjoyed seeing the different time periods represented. It was enjoyable to see how Nicholas and Etta had to navigate through time periods that they might not fully understand or be prepared for, like the London Blitz. I think Bracken used these settings well to move the plot along in a well paced way.

If you are looking for a fun and action packed book, I would recommend Passenger, but my opinion is that it was not as memorable as I would have liked. I am interested to see how the sequel plays out though, so I suppose that says something about the quality of the writing.

Excitement Level: Three stars to starboard!

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.

Review: Control

Title: Kang, Lydia. (2015). Control. New York, NY: Speak.

Book cover with metallic background.
Mutated genotypes are so fun!

Keywords: Dystopian thriller, genetic mutations, orphans, unconventional families

Caution: Plot Points Ahead

I read Control in two weeknights. I tend to read fast but this book read very quickly. I did have difficulty engaging with the novel at first but once I met the supporting cast of characters (around Chapter Three), I finally settled in to finish the novel.

Control is a YA novel set in a dystopian future of the United States, where in 2150 AD federal law is in abeyance and the States have since coupled up to form regional entities (and identities). The main character, Zelia, describes this phenomenon in offhand asides, such as Inky (Indiana and Kentucky) and Neia (Nebraska and Iowa). Zelia is also quick to inform readers that manipulation of the human genome is legally prohibited, and those with diverse or mutated genotypes are destroyed. Thus, we have the ingredients for a dystopian futuristic thriller.

Teenaged Zelia has a beloved younger sister Dylia, and a mysterious, almost absentee physician father. Often left to their own devices, both sisters are directed to study a variety of disciplines by their father for unknown reasons. The family also moves around, never settling in one place for longer than ten months at a time. The sisters are orphaned early on in the novel, and then separated into different foster environments. At that time, Zelia meets new housemates and a new love interest — all of whom have unique genotypes (some of which are expressed in the character’s phenotype, too). It is then no surprise to the reader that Zelia, too, has an unusual genetic trait.

Lydia Kang, the author, is a practicing physician, a poet, and non-fiction writer. Her medical background clearly informs her choice in plot and characters, and the breakneck pacing and the accessible vocabulary made the pages fly by. I had one problem that, really, is not central to this novel: the cliffhanger ending which separates young lovers that I see so much of in the YA thriller genre. This means that the reader has to wait until the next novel to discover more. Personally, that particular plot device drives me mad. I like an ending that feels as though the character has resolved something. Furthermore, the brooding bad boy love interest felt textbook.

Excitement Level: I’ve got the next book on order at the library.

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.

Review: All the Rage

all the rage

Details: Summer, Courtney. (2015). All the Rage. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.

Keywords: Young Adult, Contemporary, Abuse

Review:

I have to start out this review with some major trigger warnings, that of rape and pretty extreme bullying. I know that doesn’t really bode well for the rest of the review but I want to make sure everyone knows what this book has in store if you decide to read it.

I knew what I was signing myself up for, having read the summaries and reviews. But I don’t think there is really any way to prepare for the emotional response you will have to a book like this, even if you haven’t gone through these things personally. It’s more than hard. It is devastating.

I am not going to spend so much time summarizing the story. As hinted at above, the main character, Romy, has been sexually abused by a classmate’s brother at the beginning of the book. She has had a falling out with her best friend and is chastised and mistreated not just by her classmates, but other members of her community, who think that Romy is lying. This is in part because her abuser is a “golden boy,” and the son of the sheriff.

The most compelling, and the hardest thing about this book is Romy’s inner life. She is not only scared and unhappy, but she is filled with understandable rage at what has happened to her. She has shut down in many ways but the more volatile feelings cause her to act in ways of self-preservation. It’s really hard to put all of this into words because my reactions to Romy’s experience were on a much more visceral level, but I guess what I am trying to say is that this was an incredibly realistic portrayal of trauma. Even when Romy is making choices that seem unwise or even unfair to others, based in what she has gone through, it makes sense. Courtney Summers does not shy away from the really grim realities of Romy’s life.

I think that books like this are extremely important on many levels. First, as mentioned above, just giving a voice to the victims of sexual assault, of what the experience actually is, rather than just becoming a statistic or a news item. It humanizes this experience in a way that while it is extremely unpleasant, is necessary to understand that this is a common place experience for many people, and, in my opinion, can bring more compassion to the experiences of others.

I also think that the actual themes that this book grapples with are vital, especially when you remember that this book is intended for a teen audience. Not only is the harming nature of toxic masculinity a major point in this book, but there is a lot of attention placed on what it means to be a girl in our society, how you are meant to act, who your body really belongs to, how you are treated. One of the repeating thoughts is that “there is more than one way to kill a girl,” which just about broke my heart. Because it’s so true. The myriad of ways that girls are mistreated and abused, even if it is not physically, is so important to get teenagers to understand. Maybe if they are aware, they can make the changes in their own lives.

On a lighter note, the writing in this book is brutal but beautiful. Summers does not use more than she needs to in her writing and it really serves the story. The flashbacks are done in an interesting way, in that while the story is written in first person, the past is almost dissociated from the main story, but intertwines with it. The characters were well developed, though my one criticism is that I wish there had been at least a few allies for Romy besides her mother. It seems like there would at least be one other person who believed her. But maybe that is just naive of me.

Read this book if you can. I won’t say it is enjoyable, but it is extremely well written and important in the themes it discusses.

Excitement Level: Five emotionally draining stars

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own impetus.

Review: Scarlett Undercover

Teenage girl in red hooded sweatshirt.
She’s more Veronica Mars than Nancy Drew…

Title: Latham, Jennifer. (2015). Scarlett Undercover. New York, NY: Little, Brown Books.

Keywords: Mystery, young adult, Muslim-American, thriller, suicide

Scarlett Undercover features a Muslim-American Veronica Mars who does not wear a hijab, or observe all haraam practices, in the fictional city of Las Almas. Jennifer Latham’s debut work adopts the gumshoe patter of the mystery genre, and sprinkles the novel with literary or historical allusions, such as the Baker Street Bridge (Sherlock Holmes) or the librarian named Melvin (likely a reference to the founder of the Dewey Decimal System, Melvil Dewey). Hired by a young child to investigate her brother’s strange behavior after his friend’s suicide, amateur detective Scarlett (a teenaged orphan who graduated high school early and lives with her medical resident sister Reem) probes the suicide and the brother’s behavior, and of course, discovers more than she bargained for.

Scarlett is tough, confident, smart, knows the martial art of Muy Thai, and is surrounded by a truly diverse cast of supporting characters. In addition to having a parental older sister and a detective friend on the local police force, she also has a (somewhat forced) romance with a hot Jewish love interest

Oy yeah.

At different moments throughout the novel, I discovered instances of “…too much______.” For example: Some of the dialogue was too pat; Scarlett was rendered too tough; and the surrounding environs too gentle for their purported level of scary. These instances broke my suspension of disbelief long enough to register the disruption. That being said, the story was engaging and sheer fun. I sped through it.

While this novel undoubtedly belongs in the YA genre, I wasn’t sure if the novel was a young adult mystery novel – or a young adult fantasy novel. I’d be fine with either, or both at the same time. But the introduction of jinn and demons halfway through the novel felt like a potential turn aside from what was promised to the reader at the outset. The fantastical elements were voided, in the end, by rational skepticism: “I remain unconvinced.” Furthermore, the novel (with its very rich backstory) felt like a second novel within a series rather than a debut. The pacing came across as though all of these characters had been established in a prior novel. While I do understand the purpose of in medias res, I would have appreciated exploring Scarlett’s origin story in more detail.

Scarlett Undercover, which features a Muslim-American teenager of Sudanese descent in a contemporary setting, is written by a white, middle-aged woman. Rather than get into the nuanced and complicated debate about whether white people should write characters of color (for which I do not have a satisfactory answer), I do want acknowledge that Latham obviously did her research on Islam and on the contemporary Muslim-American experience. Furthermore, in the afterword, Latham writes that she reached out to a friend and colleague with more knowledge than she to assess the novel for misrepresentations or inaccuracies. Whether it’s “right” or “wrong” for white authors to write characters of color, I appreciate the effort and the thoughtfulness she employed in ensuring that she wrote a nuanced and accurate character.

Excitement Level: Half a Maltese Falcon. Or, three solid stars.

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own impetus.