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Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
I had to read this book of essays because I’d seen Gay’s TED Talk in which she discusses how publishing the book led to her being called The bad feminist. I am of the generation of women who were told that we had to have it all, achieve it all, if we were to lift women into the atmosphere where men resided. Mostly, my quest to have it all was really just a quest to do it all, that is, a quest destined to failure and exhaustion.
I always felt that it wasn’t fair that to be a feminist one had to be a perfect feminist. So when Roxane Gay finally came out and publicly decried this judgment of women, I was relieved–the public image of a feminist was changing.
Like me, Gay says she’s a bad feminist because she doesn’t meet that marker of perfection. But because she is a member of a younger generation than I am, her ‘failures’ take a different form–she listens to woman-hating rap music (the beat is so catchy!), reads mind-junk fashion magazines like Vogue that portray unrealistic women as the ideal, devours lousy movies with stereotypes, and more. And yet Gay has it right–whatever a woman does, she is a man’s equal, deserving equal pay, equal rights, and equal consideration.
Most of Gay’s essays had me cheering. Much of this book is funny; the pieces on Scrabble fanatics are hilarious. This wasn’t so much true of her movie reviews. Not that she was wrong; it was just that the movies she discussed were usually not any more significant than Vogue magazine is in terms of elevating the conversation of gender and race because their entire purpose is entertainment. I did think for awhile on her scorn of The Help. That book was OK, the movie less so because the end was too tidy. It does position itself to discuss gender and race, and so the wide criticism of it is deserved. But I think of books (and movies) like it–all the way back to Uncle Tom’s Cabin–and ask whether they do achieve anything beneficial albeit in an uncomfortably paternalistic way. (Think of the apocryphal story of Abraham Lincoln telling Harriet Beecher Stowe that she was ‘the little lady who started the big war’ with the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.) As a literary piece, the book is a failure. And the African American characters are cringeworthy with their over-the-top piety and submissiveness. But it does seem to have done the trick; Was it a sort of necessary transitional piece into something better? How large are the leaps that consumers of entertainment and ideas can manage at any one time (particularly if their goal is to be entertained and not to be enlightened)?
High school housekeeping: Sadly, although my high school students should be better informed and more open to gender equality than my generation, it is much more likely for me to hear girls say with disdain, “I’m not a feminist.” They might as well add the word ‘yuck.’ This is because they still have that stereotype of feminists that, in her TED Talk, Gay describes as ”hairy, angry, man-hating, sex-hating women.” So I bought Bad Feminist for my library. And I will talk into reading it as many students as I can.
Scars by Cheryl Rainfield
It’s clear from the cover of Scars that the novel is about a girl who cus herself. It isn’t the first book I’ve read about cutting, but what pulled me into this one was the story of why Kendra is cutting and how she understands that she is in danger from the outside as well as from within.
Kendra knows that she has been sexually molested over a period of years, but she has erased from her memory the face of the man who had continually raped her as a child. As she speaks to her therapist in the opening chapter, a little note that has been placed in her backpack confirms Kendra’s suspicions. Her rapist is now following her, leaving threats that if she remembers him and tells anyone, he will kill her.
This is a quick-paced, heart pounding setup. As the reader becomes involved in Kendra’s story, she realizes that there are many possible suspects–Kendra’s art mentor and her mom’s BFF, Sandy; Kendra’s math teacher, who is also a friend of the family; and others. Though Kendra would like to confide in those who ask her what is bothering her, she never knows if that very man is the one who raped her. And she knows that telling is dangerous. So–she’s stuck. Ironically, she feels that while cutting is hurting her, it is also helping her to get through this terrible period of her life. So that, too, remains a secret.
Finally there is someone Kendra can talk to, Meghan has her own set of serious problems with her alcoholic and physically abusive mom. She sleeps with guys to numb herself. Both girls can see how their behavior is hurting themselves, even if it does comfort them in some weird way. The best release that Kendra has is her dark, disturbing art, which her mother criticizes as unsellable.
The chase is on–can Kendra stop her cutting? Will her rapist catch her and follow through on murder? If she figures out who he is, how will she protect herself from him?
High school housekeeping: Scars is a quick read, one that will have wide appeal for teens,and that includes reluctant readers. The tension that drives Kendra to cut and the scenes of the cutting itself are very realistically portrayed. What is deeply unrealistic is the melodramatic, over-the-top ending. It put me off, but to be honest, I think a lot of teens will really like it–so thumbs up on this one. Have fun with the fear.
The book includes a very nice, pretty thorough resource guide for help with cutting, ritual abuse, and rape recovery.
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
The wonderful thing about reading a book of nonfiction written by Elizabeth Gilbert is that you feel like you are sitting in a room with her, conversing about your heart’s desires. This was true of her wildly successful Eat, Pray, Love, but I’ve also felt the same thing with Committed and her latest book, Big Magic.
Gilbert is good at telling us the things we know–at least deep down–the things we’d rather not recognize. But as we read and confess to ourselves that she is right (that we are right if we’d only listen to ourselves), we also get a good dose of the positive part of this reality. Creativity is more important than passion, and if you don’t attend to your creative self, you are pretty much wrecking your life. At the same time, Gilbert warns the reader not to quit her day job. She makes a good point that creativity shouldn’t have to pay the bills for you–you need to pay the bills so that you can continue to freely practice the thing you love without worrying about where your next meal is coming from. If you put that kind of pressure on your creativity, it may desert you.
In discussing creative ideas as ‘big magic,’ Gilbert insists that ideas are, if not living beings, at least animate. They roam the universe looking for a body to inhabit, someone who will bring them to life. Sometimes, if the chosen person doesn’t get this done quickly enough, the idea will flee, looking for a better person to get the job done. She has a wild story about this happening in her own life. She had a great idea for a novel, but because of unforeseen circumstances, she couldn’t get it done. As I read this, I thought, ‘Oh, I know where that idea went!’ because I had read a very similar novel. And then, a few paragraphs later, Gilbert mentions that very novel and explains how the idea left her and inhabited the other novelist–in a kiss between them. This sounds crazy, but when you see how closely related the two novels are, you have to ask yourself: what’s a better explanation? And you have none. So–big magic.
Apparently, Gilbert has been tweeting some wonderfully inspirational quotes from Big Magic. My favorite inspirational passage is too long to be tweeted. An important idea of the book is that you can never be fearless (unless you are a sociopath), but that you have to be driven by your creativity rather than your fear. Gilbert uses the metaphor of a road trip–you, creativity and fear are all together for the ride. Fear can yammer away, but it has to sit in the back seat while you and creativity are making the decisions. In no case is fear allowed to drive.
If you haven’t have the pleasure of sitting down for this conversation with Gilbert, do it now.
High school housekeeping: Although I thoroughly enjoyed Gilbert’s previous two works of nonfiction, I wasn’t sure about the appeal for teens. I did review Eat, Pray, Love because it addresses choosing the right life for oneself. I didn’t review Committed because I didn’t think teens were at a place in their lives to get what she’s talking about. But in Big Magic, Gilbert is addressing something vital for teens, something that matters right now. Choosing not to allow fear to be the driving force in one’s life is essential not just to the moments of happiness, but to a general sense of contentment. The earlier someone understands and acts on this, the better the life that s/he will lead. So you, too, should read the book now.
The Half has Never been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism
by Edward E. Baptist
I was fascinated by Baptist’s argument that an important foundation of American capitalism, and an essential element in the economic success of the country, was slavery. Every modern American understands that slavery is evil (although not perhaps how evil, as Baptist points out). But many contemporary students of economics believe that slavery in the Southern United States was the foundation of a system that was not only destined to fail, but to do so soon. They submit that it is even possible to think that the Civil War was unnecessary because slavery was about to dissolve. As an economic system it was outdated and pre-industrial. The mechanized North was doing quite well without it. Why sacrifice so many lives in war to fight a system that was on the verge of crashing?
Baptist turns this argument on its head. In a well-researched book filled with moving stories of individual slaves, he convincingly argues that America has its slaves to thank for the success of its economy. If the North was doing well with its textile mills, this was only because of the increasingly large crop of Southern cotton that was yearly harvested. Should anyone believe that slaves who picked cotton couldn’t be made to work faster and meet ever growing demand, Baptist gives the proof of how slave productivity increased four hundred percent over eighty years–through torture. So there were innovations in the system, but they were all innovations of violence–in the types, levels, and frequency of use. Enslaved African Americans were the most efficient producers of cotton in the world, driving other countries out of the market. Whenever it became more profitable to grow cotton in another state (“Alabama fever”), slaves were torn from home and family to start over on new, distant plantations. Southern credit schemes made it possible for white people with little land or money to work the system and become slave owners and cotton producers. Slavery had a deep influence on politics and elections. All this added up to lower real prices of cotton, which helped American workers (non-slaves) and consumers of cotton clothing.
Baptist’s proofs are compelling. He uses many primary sources including plantation records and news articles. The most wrenching are the slave narratives about the lives of those who picked cotton. (The Depression era Works Progress Administration interviewed many former slaves and Baptist uses these records.) He ventures into related topics, arguing that a Haitian-style rebellion couldn’t have worked in the U.S. He details the effect of outlawing Black preachers and literacy for slaves. He discusses ‘fancy maids,’ pretty slave women who were forced into sexual slavery. He details the rise of the abolition movement in the thirty years before the Civil War. His narrative is all the more moving as he labels the chapters to coincide with human body parts–to break down the slave into useful pieces the way that slave owners saw them. As a reader, I found the most compelling of these discussions was on the use of the word ‘hand’ to represent a whole person, and how enslavers used ‘right-handed’–or complete–power to control other human beings.
High school housekeeping: The Half has Never Been Told is such a compelling book, equally for its argument, its basis in research, and for exploring the human side of a tragic part of American history. I wish all our students would read it. Yet, it’s not an easy book. It’s long (almost 500 pages, but the last 75 are research notes and the index, so 425 pages of reading). If you have any interest in American history or in economics, please take on this book. And don’t fret over the beginning–it’s a few pages of very dry overview and not at all like the tone of the remainder of the book, which will pull you forward with its tales of injustice and greed. It will also make you consider learning more about some of the topics that are mentioned–Andrew Jackson, banks of the period, the removal of American Indians.
When I think of this book and another vast work that I recently tackled (Capital in the Twenty-First Century), I realize that a significant part of what made America great in the form of a dominant world power with fabulous economic success was that the country had vast natural resources to fuel it; its land was gotten for free or nearly so as it was stolen from American Indians; and a large part of its workforce was enslaved, providing free labor. With free resources, free land, and free labor, it’s not such a mystery why America became the world power it has become. We should at least acknowledge this and show a debt of gratitude for those on whose backs this country rose.
We bought all new copies of the Naruto graphic novel series through volume 30. Come check them out!