Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

I've mostly gotten into romance novels and nonfiction lately, so I don't read as much literary fiction as I used to - which is a damn shame, but it is what it is. That is what book clubs are for! To force you to read those Important Novels that you know you should read for cultural reasons, but feel more like work than pleasure every time you try to slog through the pages.

When my book club picked THE SYMPATHIZER for our August read, I was excited because this book won the Pulitzer Prize and it's about a time period I don't know much about (Vietnam War). I took U.S. History, like other students, but I seem to recall the curriculum ending during the 1950s...probably to skip all that "controversial" stuff like hippies, the Civil Rights era and the Vietnam War. Maybe that's changed since I was in school, but back in the day, I remember that our textbooks halted in the 1980s

Anyway, this book. It's difficult to summarize because it goes all over the place, plot-wise, but basically it's about this Vietnamese guy who's also half-French. After the fall of Saigon, he's sent to the America to report back to his fellow Vietnamese agents while also living with a group of refugees. While here, however, he gets immersed in U.S. culture, and encounters many hypocrisies and cruel double-standards in both cultures, which he comments on with dry, darkly amused wit that wouldn't be out of place in Joseph Heller's CATCH-22.

How to describe the writing? I have a pretty big vocabulary, but I learned several new words in this book, like glabrous, errata, froideur, and temerate (I kept a list because I wanted to look them up so I could use them myself later - I already managed to work glabrous in somewhere, which I feel very proud of). This is a dude who thinks nothing of using chiaroscuro and palimpsest in the same paragraph (and those were two of the words that I already knew, because I am a huge nerd).


I swear, this guy, Jose Saramago, and Cormac McCarthy are all running around somewhere cackling gleefully while swinging around a giant sack of unused quotation marks and cheers-ing themselves for their artistry with the frustrated tears of their readers.

How to describe the story? It's a weird war story that's too dark to be funny but too funny to be dark, so it sits in some weird limbo of you reading this and feeling increasingly awkward and uncomfortable, like you're not sure whether to laugh or run screaming into the night. Highlights include necrophiliac reverse-tentacle hentai (read: he has sex with a dead squid); a pickled two headed baby in a jar; and an ass-hat director who's making an exploitative film about Vietnam.

Did I like this book? Eh. It was really difficult to read. I liked parts of it, and it has many quotable passages, but overall it felt too much like work and I felt the tone was really imbalanced. Also, the lack of quotation marks make it really difficult to follow who is talking, especially since sometimes there will be multiple dialogues going on within a single paragraph. I was glad to get a new, fresh perspective on a war I didn't know much about, but overall was left feeling pretty disappointed.

2 out of 5 stars

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin

Is this a feminist book?

I just read this book called YOU PLAY THE GIRL, a book of essays about pop culture written through a feminist lens, and one of the essays was about Stepford Wives - I seem to recall the author juxtaposed it against the Desperate Housewives and writing a good deal about what it means to be a "housewife," whether you're a good one or a dysfunctional one. I really liked what the author had to say, and it actually motivated me to go dig out my old copy of STEPFORD WIVES for a belated reread.


Disclaimer: I'm a feminist, so obviously I'm a little biased, but in my opinion, STEPFORD WIVES is a feminist book in the same vein as THE HANDMAID'S TALES. STEPFORD is set in the middle of the civil rights era, where Betty Friedan is giving her talks and NOW chapters are rallying for equal rights for women. Men, for the first time, are suddenly expected to share in the housework, and women are being empowered to seek out their own jobs and goals independent of marriage and children, becoming sexually and fiscally autonomous.

One of the biggest issues that women continue to face is objectification. You see this a lot when sexist dudes talk about women, reducing them to their parts ("grab some p*ssy," "Tits or GTFO"), or talking about them as if they are trophies to be won for their accomplishments ("I'm such a nice guy, so why don't I have a girlfriend?"). It's gotten better, but not nearly as much as it should have, and one of the more chilling aspects for me is how modern STEPFORD WIVES feels, despite being published in 1972. I don't know about you, but it doesn't speak very highly towards our society that we're still being plagued by the same exact issues almost fifty years later. Especially since the chilling climax of this book is objectification in the ultimate sense: taking living, breathing women and replacing them with actual objects: in this case, robots.

I've read this book several times over the course of my life, and with every reread I take something new from the text. I feel like I was able to appreciate it more this time because I've been reading more books about history and feminism, so I have a better appreciation for the zeitgeist of the time of this book's publication, and what the broader historical context behind it was. In fact, I would say STEPFORD WIVES actually improves with subsequent reads, because there are all these sinister hints that you pick up on while reading between the lines that make it even more terrifying.


When Joanna first finds out about the Men's Association, she is against it. She expects her husband, who claims to be a feminist, will be, too, but he joins because "the only way to change it is from the inside" (6). The irony here is that the only changes being made on "the inside" are occurring within the context of her marriage: Walter sabotages Joanna so slowly that by the time she finally feels the noose tightening, it's already too late.

After one of his Men's Association meetings, Walter comes home late and masturbates furiously in their bed, but acts ashamed when she catches him: His eye-whites looked at her and turned instantly away; all of him turned from her, and the tenting of the blanket at his groin was gone as she saw it, replaced by the shape of his hip (15). They have sex at her insistence, which ends up being "one of their best times ever - for her, at least" and she says, "What did they you dirty movies or something?" (16). This is one of those moments where, in subsequent rereads, the reader wonders: did the members of the Men's Association indoctrinate Walter by showing him what they do to their wives, and did the possibilities of that excite him instead of horrifying him?

Towards the end, after Bobbie, a friend to Walter and Joanna, "changes", Walter hesitates when it's time to say goodbye: Bobbie moved to Walter at the door and offered her cheek. He hesitated - Joanna wondered why - and pecked it (77). I took this to mean that Walter is thinking of his own wife's pending transformation and feeling guilt and uncertainty. Should he go through with it? When Joanna is worried about her friend, Walter has this to say: "There's nothing in the water, there's nothing in the air....They changed for exactly the reasons they told you: because they realized they'd been lazy and negligent. If Bobbie's taking an interest in her appearance, it's about time. It wouldn't hurt YOU to look in a mirror once in a while" (86). He goes on to say: "You're a very pretty woman and you don't do a damn thing with yourself any more unless there's a party or something" (86). That's when I felt like it became too late for Joanna. In the midst of her mental breakdown, she let herself - and the house - go, and Walter decided he didn't want to deal with that, any of it, anymore. Why settle for a flawed woman when you could have a perfect one?

When Joanna tries to run away from the women and the men from the Men's Association corner her, they hunt her down like an animal and mock her fear. I took this to mean that the objectification was complete: they no longer saw her as human - they knew she was about to become a robot, and so to them, she was just a thing. What makes this even more ironic is when they say, "[W]e don't want ROBOTS for wives. We want real women" (114). Because I've heard so many men say similar things - that they want smart, clever, beautiful women...but there's always a qualifier. As long as they don't try too hard, as long as they aren't more successful than me, as long as they aren't shrill or know-it-all.

The Men of Stepford want "real" women...but they also don't want flawed, forgetful women who sometimes let themselves go and don't want to do all the housework. They want the women of their fantasies made real: they want Pygmalion.

"Suppose one of these women you think is a robot - suppose she was to cut herself on the finger, and bleed. Would THAT convince you she was a real person? Or would you say we made robots with blood under the skin?" (114)

The ending of this book is depressing AF. I'm not sure what the message is, exactly, either - is it saying that men are inherently sexist and unwilling to move towards equality? Or is it a warning of the reductio ad absurdum variety of what objectification can lead to if left unchecked? And what of the children: are they going to groom their daughters to become robots when they come of age as well, marrying themselves off to the highest bidder? The story becomes even bleaker if you consider the possibilities. I took it as a warning, and a criticism of the patriarchy, but STEPFORD is open to so many possible interpretations, and I think that's what makes it such an interesting and lasting book.

3.5 out of 5 stars

You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks, & Other Mixed Messages by Carina Chocano

This author's name sounded familiar to me, which was odd - because as far as I knew, I hadn't read any of her works. Netgalley strikes again! As it turns out, Carina Chocano had published an essay in another feminist book I read recently, called NASTY WOMEN. The essay, titled "We Have a Heroine Problem" was about the Madonna/whore lens with which we view women in the public eye, except it's more like the paragon/demon complex (my name, BTW). Basically, women in the public eye are either put on pedestals or villanized depending on how well (or how poorly) they conform to society's gender norms.

YOU PLAY THE GIRL is a collection of essays about women in pop culture, and some of the confusing or even downright negative messages that these female representatives send to the populace. Chocano spans an impressive range of material. Just a few of the topics she hits on: Playboy Bunnies, sex dolls, Stepford Wives, Amy Schumer's Trainwreck, the Ghostbusters reboot, Flashdance, Pretty Woman, Katharine Hepburn, Mad Men, Maleficent, and the Desperate Housewives, just to name a few.

Sometimes these pop-cultural essays make me side-eye the author a little because two bad things can happen (apart from the book just being generically bad for purely technical reasons): 1) the essays are tone-deaf and either miss the point, or spend far too much time circling around it, or 2) the essays are unoriginal and make points that you could find on any blogspot or wordpress-type blog *cough*.


In YOU PLAY THE GIRL, Chocano writes with vivid freshness, delivering new insights to books and movies you may have seen or watched dozens of times and never really thought deeply about. She talks about feminism, she talks about sexism, she talks about motherhood, adolescence, sexuality. There is so much ground covered in here, and I spent several nights last week getting only about 4 hours of sleep, tops, due in part to my inability to put this book down.

I really recommend this if you're a feminist or a pop culture enthusiastic. This author is just fantastic and has such an amazing way of writing in clear and concise terms. If she published another collection of essays like this, I think I'd buy it in a heartbeat.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Hidden Jewel by V.C. Andrews

"V.C. Andrews" as we knew and loved her died in 1986. Subsequent titles are published by a ghostwriter hired by the estate, Andrew Neiderman. The first Neiderman/Andrews book I read was one of the later titles published in the mid-2000s, when I guess he decided that he gave no f*cks and was going to write whatever, because it was about a creepy school and not a Gothic family drama - what. It actually put me off Andrews books for a while, because it was so bad.

One of my friends intervened and told me that what I had read was V.C. Andrews in the same way that New Coke is Coke - AKA, not. So I went back and read MY SWEET AUDRINA and FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC and was blown away at the difference; V.C. Andrews is not high literature, but she writes trash with glitz and glam and rhinestones the hell out of those old musty newspapers, so even though you know that you're reading garbage, you're reading sparkly garbage (which is better).

With that in mind, I decided to go back and revisit "V.C. Andrews" (as done by Neiderman), thinking that the early books - the ones written when he actually still gave f*cks - might be better.

To my surprise...they were!

HIDDEN JEWEL is actually the fourth book in the Landry series, about Ruby's daughter, Pearl, but I decided to treat it as a standalone and just dove in and man is it insane. Pearl is a socialite with a popular boyfriend and a graduation party coming up, and she wants to be a doctor. Her boyfriend dumps her for an evil slutty type on the day of her party since she doesn't put out. After that, every male character tries to sexually molest Pearl, including her father (well, sort of - he just disrobes, thinking she's her mom, and pulls some "Paint me like your French girls"-type Titanic BS which, understandably freaks Pearl out), an interning doctor (aka, Dr. Bad Touch) who invites her to study only to lecture her about vaginismus and dyspareunia and then attempts to determine whether or not she's frigid (the leading cause of vaginismus, according to him) by undressing her and telling her she has "wonderfully healthy skin" (86), a creepy swamp dude who tries to pull some Craster-type BS by abducting her and forcing her to be his shed-wife via a chain and some beatings, and then the actual patriarchal-type love interest who's supposed to be a good guy but comes across as a not-so-smooth-talking-creep circa 1959.

It's got all sorts of wacky hijinks, like family curses, voodoo (Pearl's grandmother is a traiteur), deaths, alcoholism, and sex, all set against the backdrop of Louisiana, with some half-hearted attempts to imbue it with some Cajun culture. I fully expected to despise this book like the other "V.C. Andrews" book I read, so you could color me surprised when I actually found myself enjoying this trashy dreck. Neiderman is trying so hard and it's actually endearing, because he is almost successful at capturing that elusive V.C. Andrews Classic style and there are some genuinely beautiful descriptions in here, mostly of the food and the nature variety.

The sex? Not so much.

We exploded against each other. I bit down on his ear so hard I thought I tasted blood (279) was a long, flowing stream of passion that climbed higher and higher until it burst in a waterfall, pounding rocks below again and again and again, each time punctuated with a bigger, happier Yes.

Obligatory visual interlude:

I would read the other books in this series, and maybe also the Cutler & Casteel series, too. I'm digging this early Neiderman vibe. It's not as good as the original, but at least it's trying.

Stepback pic from the die-cut Pocket Books edition:


I'm not sure who the creepy dude in blue is, but I think it's supposed to be Dr. Bad Touch(?).

3 out of 5 stars

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Countess by Catherine Coulter

The only Catherine Coulter books I've read prior to THE COUNTESS were two of her bodice rippers. One of them was okay (it was the "extensively rewritten" edition of one of her bodice ripper classics). The other was annoying and I hated it. This, averaged out, did not seem particularly reassuring and I told myself that if I picked up THE COUNTESS and hated it that I would simply chuck all of her books into the donation bin unread. To my surprise, however, I actually enjoyed THE COUNTESS quite a bit!

Andrea "Andy" Jameson is a headstrong heiress who has been indulged by her grandfather and has serious issues with her actual father. She falls for a young man named John who seems to like her dog almost as much as he likes her, but finds herself afraid of him (for reasons that will be explained later). She ends up marrying herself off to a much safer option - an older man who promises that he won't touch her. Unfortunately, this older man is the uncle to John. Oops.

Awkwardness abounds as Andy lives in the same house as both John and Lawrence (the uncle) as well as John's brother, Thomas, his wife Amelia, and the daughter of Lawrence's previous wife, who allegedly committed suicide by jumping out from one of the windows of the rooms adjoining Andy's. The relationships between these various family members are complex and fraught with rivalries. Plus, there's a creepy mystery surrounding Lawrence's previous wife's death. Especially since several attempts are made on Andy's own life in increasingly bolder attempts.

Andy is a great heroine. She's headstrong and brave without being an idiot (the previous heroines written by this author were both idiots). I see that this book was also published as THE AUTUMN COUNTESS and, like the bodice ripper I read, is also "extensively rewritten." I'm not sure what the author changed, but it actually works here. The plot is spooky, the heroine is brave, the hero is dashing and manly, and the supporting characters are all interesting and serve as more than just hapless plot points to pepper the story with mystery and red herrings.

Also, the villain is creepy AF:

"I have decided to take you, Andrea, as a man takes a woman. You are a virgin. I have not enjoyed a virgin in a great number of years. It will be exciting. I won't mind you fighting me, but not all that much. Just a bit to give excitement to the taming. Since you (spoiler), you must obey me. Ah, to have your virgin's blood on me, to feel my seed deep inside you. I will enjoy that. I will be the only man ever to have you" (319).


P.S. Since I noticed nobody else has posted it yet, here's the stepback to the 1999 edition:

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Happy Mail by Eunice and Sabrina Moyle

I'm going to tell you a secret: one of the things I miss most about being a kid is receiving snail mail from my friends. I grew up in a time when not everybody had internet, so if you wanted to invite someone to your birthday party you didn't send out a group text or create a Facebook event - you sent out birthday invitations and then asked people to call back and RSVP.

As an adult, there is something so incredibly nostalgic about putting pen to paper and writing to someone the old-fashioned way. I'm fascinated with Happy Mail and follow the ardent practitioners of this glorious craft with enthusiasm on Instagram. I have a hoard of unused washi tape and other craft supplies, and have been dying to use them. Maybe this book, I thought, will be the impetus to finally get me to get up the courage and try this elusive but oh-so-compelling Happy Mail project.

Unfortunately, this not very good. There are three crucial steps, you see.

Step 1: Have perfect handwriting.
Step 2: Be an amazing artist.
Step 3: Copy these step-by-step templates instead of embracing your creativity.

Look, maybe it's my fault. I was hoping for a style guide that gives you ideas on how to use printed washi tape, glitter, rhinestones, and other things. Kind of like Pinterest, but in book form and only for Happy Mail. Instead this book gives you a set amount of designs and fonts to copy and send out. The back even features pre-made and pre-illustrated cards that you can punch out and send. What blasphemy is this! Pre-made? That defeats the purpose of Happy Mail, doesn't it?

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

2 out of 5 stars

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump's America by Samhita Mukhopadhyay

The last presidential election made me very upset. Like many Americans, I asked myself, "How did this man get elected?" But also, "Why were so many people willing to overlook all the terrible things he said? Why did 53% of women vote for him, despite the remarks he made about women of all kinds?" And, most terrifyingly of all: "How did we become so willing to turn a blind eye to, or, worse, actively participate in or encourage acts of aggression and hate towards those who are different?"

NASTY WOMEN is a collection of essays from various feminist writers about Hillary's campaign, Trump's victory, and what they believe the aftermath of the election means for women - and for Americans, more broadly.

Some of the essays are filled with anger, some with sadness, some with hope. Some of the essays are written by queer women and women of color. Some of the essays are written by women who were born here, and some from women who came here as immigrants. There is a lot of diversity in these essays, which really added depth to this collection and made it complex and multi-faceted.

I've included a break-down of all the essays in my status updates for this book on Goodreads (all 47 of them), but here is a collection of what I see as this book's "greatest hits."

"Are Women Persons?" by Kate Harding discusses the flaws of some of the pioneering feminists, like Susan B. Anthony, who was definitely a product of her times in that she could be racist as f*ck. It cautions that historically, feminism was a white upper-class women's issue; and while these women helped paved the road for where we are now and their frustration at being held back by condescending men still resonates for many, we must not make their mistakes by throwing people of color under the bus or failing to include them when advancing feminist issues.

"Trump, The Global Gag Rule, and the Terror of Misinformation" by Jill Filipovic goes into Trump's extremely cruel expansion of the gag rule, which basically penalizes foreign groups from discussing or providing abortions and birth control to foreign countries. It's heart-breaking, but powerful.

"Is There Ever a Right Time to Talk to Your Children About Fascism?" by Kera Bolonik is written by the granddaughter of holocaust survivors and discusses how many of Trump's supporters and campaign tactics mirror that of fascist Germany during WWII.

"Permission to Vote for a Monster: Ivanka Trump and Faux Feminism" by Jessica Valenti turned out to be one of my favorites. It's a discussion of the women conservatives champion - women who are content to play by the rules set by men and who don't want to make waves, and condemns conservative women who co-opt "feminism" to push their own agendas. It helps explain the mentality of the white women who voted for Trump.

"X Cuntry: A Muslim-American Woman's Journey" by Randa Jarrar was so weird and so unlike any of the other more traditionally formatted essays in this book that it ended up being totally memorable. It's a series of dream-like diary entries written by a Palestinian immigrant discussing her encounters with racism in the toxic sociopolitical climate leading up to Trump's election.

"Trust Black Women" by Zerlina Maxwell gives the reasons black women overwhelmingly (94%) voted for Hillary Clinton. It's a good essay. There were several other similar essays in this collection, but I felt like this one was the best. Maybe because it ends on a note of hope & I'm a hopeless fool.

"All American" by Nicole Chung ends this book on a strong, resonant note. Chung is the adopted daughter of two white people (she's Korean-American). She talks about how the aftermath of the election has affected her, and her fear for her children because of their ethnicity and also because one of them has autism. She discusses the countless microaggressions she encounters from people who are so ignorant that they don't even realize they're being offensive, and the tense discussions with her conservative parents who voted for Trump and regard anyone different as suspicious.

This really is a fantastic collection from a varied and talented group of essayists. I would honestly recommend this book to anyone who was #WithHer and is feeling angry, scared, hopeless, or sad. The editors went out of their way to include a diverse array of women with many different views when it comes to the dual but related subjects of liberalism and feminism. I heartily recommend it!

Bonus pictures from the SF Women's March:


 Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars