Sunday, December 30, 2012

Mistake by Meredith Stricker

Mistake: a series of ritual actions, expiations, griefs, Orphics, overprints sieving, sowing
by Meredith Stricker

To better understand this collection of poems, I read Mistake twice. After the second time, I got a better handle on it, and my respect for what Meredith Stricker has accomplished grew, but I preface this review by saying that if you are looking for a good, critical eye for this book, I won't be the most thorough. My poetry vocabulary is limited, but I will do my best to talk about this particular reading experience.

And it is an experience.

Divided into seven sections, the poems are inspired by Freudian slips, mislaid type, Darwin's "tangled bank" metaphor, Orphic Hymns, and the Zen forgiveness ceremony of ryaku fusatsu — which pays "attention to accidents, overprints, flaws, the discarded, the unwanted, the cast-off." Mistake is a swirling examination of loss, choice, and inevitability. The words often overlap or have otherwise unusual spacing, and one has to be very present in order to read it. There's no drifting off and thinking of other things here, otherwise the meaning is lost without beginning again. Though it's not a very long book, nor does it take a lot of time to read, it is still not "easy."

Sometimes a soul does not know it is a book when living, whose pages can never be completed in a final, perfect, finished sense, but are continually translating themselves just as leaves fall and translate the forest, chaparral, grassland in succession and no street adheres to its past self, just as leaves fall and leaves love us and traffic is humanity surging out of the boundaries of its skin

There are allusions to the recent Japanese tsunami and irradiated damage left from a nuclear power plant, though this is not exactly what I would call an environment-themed book (even if everything is an environment of some sort). I loved lines like, "if death is the stain we cannot live / without," and "I will not be smoothed out / fur, roughened," even if sometimes I felt like I was only grasping 3/4ths of what I read.

In the very last section, "There was a wilderness," it ends with my favorite part of the entire book:

I'd recognize you anywhere across crowded


the ink not yet dry on your fingers

both of us now

belong completely to our

distance, taste of salt

on our lips

Without scanning pages, I cannot do justice to the layout of the pages, the way text often repeats or is crossed out. It very much mimics the chaos of a noisy brain attempting to process some major life event. Mistake is a volume I will likely reread once more, as now I feel compelled to better understand. Even flipping through for the purpose of this review, after my two full-reads, I already notice more about what is happening on the page. I wouldn't say I loved Mistake, but I liked the challenge, and anything that makes me want to revisit it is probably a good thing. Students of poetry, I would certainly recommend doing the same.

Full Disclosure: Caketrain Press sent me this book at my request. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Beautiful Anthology edited by Elizabeth Collins

The Beautiful Anthology
edited by Elizabeth Collins

Although beauty is subjective, sometimes our culture seems to decide, collectively, what we "should" consider beautiful. Is it straight teeth? The right outfit? A certain weight? Time period and geography change the ideal, but The Beautiful Anthology considers a more personal definition, beyond the "shoulds" of the world. Twenty-seven writers contribute to this collection with essays, stories, and poems all aiming at expanding what it means to be beautiful.

Each entry has an accompanying image. Most are photographs, but a few drawings are also present. The images, even if pulled from old films that stand apart, are interesting in their own way, even without the words. I'm particularly fond of the more contemporary fine art photos, with the subjects' expressions appearing to contain entire universes unto themselves. Laying out the book in this way is a nice touch, as when we first think of beauty, we often think of it in a visual way.

[T]he French term belle-laide keeps coming to mind. Literally translated as "beautiful-ugly," it is an adjective usually given to a woman or girl whose looks are beautiful to some, ugly to others. In short, it denotes a hard-to-pin-down, hard-to-describe woman.

Many people don't understand this term because it seems self-negating, but I think it is a very interesting and appropriate idiom, encapsulating in its way all the dichotomies and debatable areas of life: how one person's beauty, or what one finds beautiful, is not always appreciated by others.
  • Elizabeth Collins, from the Foreword

Perhaps the greatest example of something under-appreciated is Steve Sparshott's essay, "Fin," about urinal dividers. "You probably wouldn't notice as you're suffocating in the stench," he writes, "but they're incredibly elegant, simple, sculptural things." His essay is short (I mean, how long can one go on about urinal dividers? Well, probably longer than I think), but it's also very funny, and it's one of my favorites in the book.

There are contributions from more well-known authors like Gina Frangello, Greg Olear, and Jessica Anya Blau, but some of my other favorites came from writers I'd never encountered, to my memory. Nora Burkey's "The Politics of Beauty" is excellent, an essay about working at an all-girls school in Cambodia. All these Western people swoop in with their money and act as though they should be the white saviors to an "illogical" country.

At the dormitory, a different American woman, this one younger and agreeable to everything [the school's director] Paul said, asked if I'd be willing to show the girls how to wash their hands better. She said this is something they often neglected because they didn't really know how. Their "backward" parents had never taught them. She also complained of them not wearing deodorant. They were teenagers, after all, and should have been concerned about the smell of their underarms.

I declined her offer. It was not the students duty to be beautiful like me, clean like me. Was it fair to ask them to be cleaner when they showered with a cold hose they shared with twenty-nine others and lived off ten dollars of spending money a month? Thirty teenage girls with no toilet paper or tampons, who would do anything for the chance to go to school, could keep their hands dirty if they wanted, I thought. Who was I to call this backward? Time doesn't go that way.

These are people who more or less live outside, in a hot climate. There are different expectations and it is a different reality. And a bottle of Pantene Pro-V still costs $4.25 in a country where most people live on less than a dollar a day. Burkey is much more circumspect than I would be writing about these school employees — I'd be more like, "Fuck them for thinking it's just a matter of deciding to be the Western-version of clean."

Another essay I really loved was J.E. Fishman's "Spinning." It's about tennis and the most perfect serve he ever hit, but it's also about the tennis pro named Rob, who was teaching lessons while coming back from a shoulder injury. Tennis is about the only sport I watch on TV, and so perhaps that increased my enjoyment, but I think anyone will see the beauty in what happens here. I won't pull quote it — you'll just have to read it.

Other highlights include Ronlyn Domingue's essay, "Milkweed and Metamorphosis," Catherine Tufariello's poem, "Meditation in Middle Age," and the essay "Crazy Beautiful" by Melissa Febos. Most everything in the book is quite good. I wasn't wild about Tyler Stoddard Smith's "Truth and Booty," as it seemed to be trying a little too hard to be clever, but nothing is outwardly bad in this anthology. It's wonderful, thought-provoking, and worth passing along to anyone else who might be grappling with their own definition of "beautiful."

(This review now also appears on Persephone Magazine.)

Friday, December 28, 2012

With My Body by Nikki Gemmell

With My Body
by Nikki Gemmell

I know, I know, this is the year where a million reviewers say, "Don't read Fifty Shades of Grey, read this!" I'd like to think that it's because that novel's popularity is only exceeded by its awfulness, not to mention the number of people who hate-read it. But seriously, if you want lots of sex in a novel that isn't necessarily "erotica," then With My Body is certainly a better option.

It's not that With My Body is a perfect book, but it is certainly compelling and a bit unusual for the narrative devices it uses. (Does it seem like I just said that in a review? Well, yes, but...) For one thing, our female protagonist is never named, and everything is written in a space somewhere between first and second-person. Sentences sound like this: "You feel too much, think too much; the intensity of the fantasies, every night before sleep." She is writing to herself, about herself, remembering a time during her teenage years.

With the story set primarily in Woondala, Australia — though also bookended by an adult existence in England — the protagonist feels dissatisfied with the person she's let herself become. She's nervous, prone to anger and detachment, and wishes she was a better parent. She and her husband could have a better marriage, but she's unsure of what to do, that is, until she starts writing down the story of her past.

Once, long ago, you were made tall and strong by the shock of someone who cherished women and was not afraid of them, who revered their bodies. Men like that are extremely rare and when a woman finds one she recognizes profoundly the difference in the lovemaking and is forever changed; that man becomes a paragon by which all others are measured and you are lucky, so lucky, to have found it, once.

Each chapter is instead a "lesson" and begins with a short bit of advice, followed by the story itself. The advice is from an old book she discovers, A Woman's Thoughts About Women, on the shelves of the man she meets at nearly seventeen. The author is anonymous, but she is drawn in by the woman's easy voice, "a certainty you've rarely known." In this way, With My Body is meant to mirror this reading material.

Everything leads up to or stems from her relationship with a writer named Tol, a man who has kept himself in a semi-secluded house in order to get some work done. He lives near the home her father and step-mother share, and she only discovers him during one of her many school break bike-rides that intentionally limit her time with the step-mother.

He looks up when he is done as though he is looking for approval and his lashes are so dark and you can see the little boy, suddenly, the child he would have been, the vulnerability he rarely shows; that you want to hold in the cup of your hands, here, now; that you want to bow down to and murmur on with your lips.

It is easy to forget how young she is while reading because even before this meeting, she already seems older and observant of the world. She hungers for affection, yearns to absorb all the good she can because it all seems so fleeting. There is a lot of truth to her thoughts, however limited by experience that they are, and though, yes, she is underage and he is not, it never comes across as creepy. Others might disagree, especially those who have never felt this way at any age, but when one takes into account the intensity of teenage emotion, especially when it comes to first love, a mutual love... Yes, it is easy to forget her age. This "paragon" becomes quite the person for which all of her future unknowingly strives. No wonder she is disappointed by everything that came after when, once, she had the complete, solitary attention of a man. And he, the solitary attention of her.

His eyes shine as he looks at you, his funny little scrap of a bush thing; his voice cracks and veers into something else. 'From love. And with that comes the best kind of sex. Because it's tinged with a … a reverence. It's almost like a holiness fluttering in you both.'

While With My Body is a story of romance and of awakening, it is also a story of damage. Every character punishes themselves in some way, and they often have huge blind spots when it comes to their personal mental health. So many of them do not know how to express their desires — not just the sexual ones — and their shame is often a problem. There's a lot going on here beyond an illicit affair.

Some of Gemmell's writing can get repetitive — "bush thing" and "rangy" appear countless times as descriptors — and occasionally, the sentence fragments lose their art and just lie there as unsatisfying pieces. For the most part though, I really did enjoy this book. I found a great deal of beauty in the relationship, even with its mysterious disappointments. Tol and the girl are studying one another as they enjoy themselves — they want to learn how to be treated well. I understood her yearning and the transformative power of the right kind of love, at exactly the right time. We should all be so lucky.

Full Disclosure: This book was sent to me by Harper Perennial. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

(This review now also appears at Persephone Magazine.)

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

My Top 5 Underrated Books of 2012

Yes, everyone is doing some sort of year-end list, but we all know how I feel about good lists in general. I already covered the five favorite books I read this year, whether they came out in 2012 or not. Now, I'd like to point your attention to five other reads that perhaps received less attention, but are no less worthy. Here they are, in no particular order:

Echolocation by Myfanwy Collins

(from the review:)
"I will admit that the first fifty or so pages of the book were tough for me to read, not because of their quality, but because of the depressing subject matter. Lost limbs, neglectful mothers, discussions on whether or not they should shoot the feral cats living out back — all of it is heavy, especially when I read it at a time of my own dubious mental clarity. However, that should not dissuade anyone, as those are my problems and not the book's. I wanted to keep reading; I cared about these women despite the urge to look away from the reminder that people like this do exist in the world. Everything in this slim book serves a purpose, even the scene regarding the cats, and that purpose sneaks up at the end in such a way that I have to admire Collins' skills. The details are at once circular, woven, and carved like puzzle-pieces, everything straddling the line between inevitability and choice."

The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov by Paul Russell

(from the review:)
"Paul Russell is a lovely, immersive writer, and while the story was such that made me carry on reading at an anticipatory clip, occasionally I would stop and marvel at the skill of his sentences. Now, I don't know enough about Vladimir Nabokov's writing to know if Russell's style pays homage at all, but he is subtle about the way he presents everything. The over-the-top characters like Cocteau or the ballet enthusiasts feel natural – By that, I mean that at no point does the writing sound like, “Look at me! Look at me writing these characters oh-so-dramatically!” And given the unassuming, shy nature of Sergey, it makes sense that his narration would be that way as well. He reports what happens and how he felt, but he is not about to call any extra attention upon himself. To be paid attention means scrutiny, and scrutiny leads to judgment, and the times he has been judged, the results are rarely in his favor. Still, Sergey has an incredible mind attuned to beauty, and Russell's fictionalized version of him makes me wonder what writing this “other” Nabokov could have accomplished, had he lived longer and been encouraged to explore it."

The Boys of Summer by Ciarán West

(from the review:)
"The story, its pacing and content, is absolutely enthralling. [...] [West] wants to make you uncomfortable, yet you want to press forward. The narrative speeds along breathlessly, all culminating in an ending that's simultaneously inevitable and unbelievable.

If this book were published by Harper or some other big publisher, I am confident that it would get scores of attention. As a small release, I've seen it well-received, and I hope that my review directs at least a few more readers its way. Yes, I know the author, but I do pride myself in being fair. The Boys of Summer is worth your time and money."

The Detour by Andromeda Romano-Lax

(from the review:)
"What an impressive, thought-provoking novel this is. Set in 1938 Germany and Italy, The Detourpresents a man who must weigh his love against his duty, all while existing in the broader picture of pre-WWII. We know what is ahead, and this purgatorial state stirs up all sorts of questions about idealism, loss, connection, art, and the perils of authoritarian states. I hadn't heard of any Andromeda Romano-Lax's work before receiving this book, so this was a fantastic surprise.

The writing in this is just... Well, I know I overuse the word "lovely," but that's what it is. Lovely. Full of love for the Italian surroundings, the people swept up in this crazy shift, and none of it comes across as heavy-handed, which might be something of a feat when discussing Nazi Germany."

Companion to an Untold Story by Marcia Aldrich

(from the review:)
"How unspeakably sad it must be to lose a close friend to suicide. How can we find the words or the understanding for their state of mind? Marcia Aldrich and her husband Richard lost their friend Joel in this way. Because it is not as though she can conduct an exit interview, she can only speculate about the moments that led to his death, how one point informed another. But rather than write a biography or a typical memoir, the examination is conducted as though it were a reference book on Joel's life. It's an indirect approach to processing her grief.

Not every writer would be able to pull off a book like this, and I don't know how much attention Aldrich has received for her effort — apart from winning the AWP Award for Creative Nonfiction — but I suspect that it isn't what it deserves."

That's four novels and one memoir, all of it excellent. Do hit up your favorite (indie) bookseller or perhaps your library (make a request, if they don't have it!) and give them a go. You won't be sorry.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Internal News: 12-22-12

Greetings, all. We're headed into Christmas, and should you need some reading material, here's what I've written lately in places that weren't here:

Persephone Magazine:

Notes From Elsewhere at Word Riot:

  • 12-4-12: among other things, lots of Word Riot author updates, thoughts from both Anthony Bourdain and Warren Ellis, and the Bibliomat!
  • 12-7-12: free ebooks, Spokane represents on the NYT Notable list, bad sex writing
  • 12-22-12: featuring lots of good "Best of" Lists, including one from a hedgehog, plus a great poem, and calling out some classist shit.

Finally, Pajiba recently published my review of Caitlin Moran's How to Be a Woman. Cannonball Read 5 will be upon us soon, friends.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Thing About Thugs by Tabish Khair

Because I checked out this book from the library and have already had to return it, this is more of a mini-review than my usual more full-on attention. Since I really enjoyed Tabish Khair's The Thing About Thugs, however, I didn't want it to go unnoticed here.

Set in Victorian London, Khair's novel offers multiple points of view at a time where someone is decapitating members of the underclass. Many suspect Amir Ali, a man hired by Captain William T. Meadows to speak at his phrenological society because of his supposed "thug" background and interestingly-shaped skull. Readers know who the killer is, and it's interesting to see all these different sections of society woven together into one story. Perhaps most notably, we also get to see how Khair himself was inspired to write the book. The way he inserts himself into the story is a bit unusual for most novels, unless those novels are of the more whimsical Lemony Snicket variety, and though it takes some acclimating to get a handle on everyone, I quite liked this narrative method.

In some ways, the darker elements and seeing the killer's point-of-view reminded me of Patricia Highsmith's work, though she did not set any of her stories (that I know of) in Victorian times. The methodical way everyone justifies their bad behavior, killer or not, is also very much like her. The difference is that Khair doesn't write with underlying disdain for society. There is still an element of magic, though not the fantastical kind. It's magic in the form of hope, the willful suspension of disbelief, and the transforming power of a good story. I certainly recommend tracking down this book.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Companion to an Untold Story by Marcia Aldrich

Companion to an Untold Story
by Marcia Aldrich

How unspeakably sad it must be to lose a close friend to suicide. How can we find the words or the understanding for their state of mind? Marcia Aldrich and her husband Richard lost their friend Joel in this way. Because it is not as though she can conduct an exit interview, she can only speculate about the moments that led to his death, how one point informed another. But rather than write a biography or a typical memoir, the examination is conducted as though it were a reference book on Joel's life. It's an indirect approach to processing her grief.

Aldrich, Marcia. I myself, friend, spouse, and secretary, reader, sorter, scrivener of my past, mortographer and augur, maker of lists, reciter of lines, inspector-reluctant of things the dead leave behind.
If I have been chosen, let me choose. If I have been called to speak, let me speak with unreluctance about an unknown man, as he appears before me, looking on with inhuman eyes, as he was in the last visit, and before and after, the pivot between friendship and the aftermath, now freed from his torn and tired life, and feel that the words are his by right, with the strength and order of letters' law.

The academic approach works, with its footnotes and references to other entries, since everyone's life overlaps and backtracks in this way. If I may make a reference to another endeavor, our lives are a ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff**, and so the "companion" model does not feel gimmicky. A straight-up memoir could have fallen into more saccharine, overwrought territory. Instead, Aldrich is matter-of-fact, yet still deeply feels the loss:

Of course we had reached the wrong conclusion about the package and the answering machine. I later asked myself, when my emotions had quieted: Where did we miscalculate? Had we misjudged Joel's wish to vanish without a trace? Did he believe his last words to me were too obscure to interpret? Only much later did I understand: The post office was too efficient, and Joel expected me to receive his last things when he was already dead.

There are letters, bits of other documents, conversations with family and friends — all of it comes together to form a more complete vision of Joel and his unrelenting depression, from Age at death. (46) to "Zen Suicide" (a poem by Richard from 1979, sixteen years before Joel's death). Though of course there's not a typical plot, I found myself rather invested in this peacemaking process, for it can apply, in some ways more tangential than others, to other deaths, both little and life-ending. Companion to an Untold Story is an excavation of trauma, and we do not have to know Joel, nor Aldrich and her husband, to know the gravity of their loss.

Plan. We did not see the subtext beneath Joel's extraordinary behavior, but I ask myself what we would have done if we had. What if we had confronted his impending suicide? If I see that the last fawn is dragging its legs, what am I going to do about it?

The somewhat disturbing part of reading Companion, and I'm not sure what percentage of readers will also feel this way, is that I recognize how Joel saw no other way to deal with the blackness he felt inside himself at all times. Though I've not been seriously suicidal, I know the monster that is depression, and in Joel's desolation, there is familiarity. Some readers might find themselves wondering, What separates him from me? How have I chosen to keep on living? Perhaps some will find this comparison tough to take.

Still, I also see the kindness in Joel's method. If suicide was going to remain inevitable, he carried it out in a way that would be the least damaging to those he left to hear the news. I won't spoil the details in this book of details, but again, I recognize the flickering urge to not make oneself a burden.

Not every writer would be able to pull off a book like this, and I don't know how much attention Aldrich has received for her effort — apart from winning the AWP Award for Creative Nonfiction — but I suspect that it isn't what it deserves. Yet, Companion to an Untold Story is not a project that set out wishing for accolades. (Let's be honest, writers, we won't turn down praising-recognition of our work.) Though I can only infer her intentions, it seems to me that Aldrich wanted this book to be the best way she could memorialize her friend, and in that, find some acceptance. That others may identify and find value in it, I imagine, is but a wonderful gift.

Full Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy from University of Georgia Press. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

How to Be a Woman
by Caitlin Moran

According to some corners of the lady-blogosphere, I'm supposed to be annoyed with Caitlin Moran for not being the "right" kind of feminist. As though our desiring equality is also supposed to be synonymous with with uniformity. Not long ago, Moran was asked, through Twitter, if she, during her interview with Lena Dunham had asked about "the complete and utter lack of people of colour in [G]irls."

Moran, though she later said in this Salon interview that she should have been less "brusque," replied to the tweet, "Nope. I literally couldn't give a shit about it."

I broke my own first rule: Be Polite. But I was frankly offended that this woman thought me and Lena Dunham were somehow conspiring in some undefined racist plot, simply by telling our stories about slightly overweight spotty girls just trying to get on in the world, and tell a few jokes about our thighs. I’m not going to wank on about the ethnic mix of my friends and, indeed, family, but I found that first tweet presumptuous, rude, and about the worst thing you could accuse anyone of. I’m bemused by the notion that there should be rules in story-telling that mean you should have to tell everyone’s story, all the time. Clearly that’s not the case. No one’s ever done it, and no one ever will. I wrote ‘How to Be A Woman,’ not ‘How to Be ALL Women.’ I would never presume to speak for 3.3 billion women. There is no ‘one voice of feminism.’ There is no ‘one voice’ of anything.

Yes, How to Be a Woman is promoted as a type of feminist manifesto, but it's really more of a memoir. Moran talks about her experience of growing up in Wolverhampton, England during the 1980s and early '90s, home-schooled and a bit overweight, crammed into her house with her parents and eventually seven siblings. She wants to talk about how she came into feminism, a feminism outside the the Women's Studies World.

Again and again over the last few years, I turned to modern feminism to answer questions that I had, but found that what had once been the one of most exciting, incendiary, and effective revolutions of all time had somehow shrunk down into a couple of increasingly small arguments, carried out among a couple of dozen feminist academics, in books that only feminist academics would read, and discussed at 11 P.M. on BBC4. Here's my beef with this:

  1. Feminism is too important to be discussed only by academics. And more pertinently:
  2. I'm not a feminist academic, but, by God, feminism is so serious, momentous and urgent that now is really the time for it to be championed by a lighthearted broadsheet columnist and part-time TV critic with appalling spelling. If something is thrilling and fun, I want to join in — not watch from the sidelines. I have stuff to say! Camille Paglia has Lady Gaga ALL WRONG! The feminist organization Object is nuts when it comes to pornography! Germaine Greer, my heroine, is crackers on the subject of transgender issues. And no one is tackling OK! Magazine, £600 handbags, Brazilians, stupid bachelorette parties, or Katie Price.

And they have to be tackled. They have to be tackled, rugby-style, face down in the mud, with lots of shouting.

Moran's feminism is a populist feminism that concerns itself with the everyday shit women have to endure. She's not saying that bigger issues like pay inequity and abortion are unimportant, nor is she saying that no one should be an academic, but rather that women need to decide how they feel about the things they encounter in their own lives. If you are an academic, a politician or activist, those bigger issues could very well be your everyday fight. But me, for example? My battles remain more in the realm of how can I feel good about what I'm doing, especially while raising my children. How can I direct my kids into being more compassionate, unprejudiced humans?

This isn't just a "We need to teach our daughters to be strong" matter — it's also about teaching our sons not to be the assholes who came before. And perhaps more importantly, I'm hoping that they will not fear or hate anyone who is different than they are. They will be imperfect, as we all are, and sometimes they will be contradictory in their worldview. No one is immune to this, but I figure it is better to make the effort, however incrementally, to improve. We don't have to be one with the universe, but if we dislike, say, waxing our tender bits, then we should feel free to ignore whatever pressure we feel to do so.

Yet, when we meet a lady who does wax, who genuine feels better by doing so, or maybe she just isn't over that particular insecurity hurdle? Well, she's not instantly "anti-feminist" for doing so.

So, no, Caitlin Moran isn't flawless, and she isn't pretending to be either. She's the first one to admit that it's actually her husband who is a "better" feminist than she is. On a small scale, despite saying we need "lots of shouting," on the very next page she says that we don't need shouting to fight "patriarchal bullshit," but we need to laugh at it instead. Does this make her inconsistent? Maybe, but I don't view it as a fireable offense. There are days to be mad, and days to laugh while saying, "Are you for real with this ridiculousness?"

Besides, Moran is someone for whom humor comes easily — of course she'd rather make jokes. Making jokes does not inherently mean she does not take the subject seriously.

That's not to say I'm with her on every point. For instance, her stance on strip clubs seems a bit short-sighted. She says they "let everyone down," and that at them, "no one's having fun."

Now, it is true that a large percentage of strip clubs do not treat their dancers right, and that there are customers who do not treat them right, but I doubt that is 100% the case (as, again, there's no "one way" of anything).

But what are strip clubs and lap-dancing clubs if not "light entertainment" versions of the entire history of misogyny?

Any argument in their favor is fallacious. Recently, it has behooved modish magazines to print interviews with young women who explain that their career as strippers is paying their way through university. This is thought to pretty much end any objections against strip clubs on the basis that — look! — clever girls are doing it, in order to become middle-class professionals with degrees! Ipso facto Girl Power!

If women are having to strip to get an education — in a way that male teenagers are really notably not — then that's a gigantic political issue, not a reason to keep strip clubs going.
She's right in that it is a political issue that we do not have the same culture that would allow women to openly express pleasure at seeing a naked male form, in the same way that men have the opportunity to do so, but it is not a reason to get rid of strip clubs. The underlying misogynistic culture at some strip clubs should be changed, yes, but "change" does not mean the absence of dancing women. There are problems to be dealt with, but condemning (what I see as) a public form of sexuality isn't the answer.

A couple of pages later, Moran says:

Just as pornography isn't inherently wrong — it's just some fucking — so pole-dancing, or lap-dancing or stripping, isn't inherently wrong — it's just some dancing. So long as women are doing it for fun — because they want to and they are in a place where they won't be misunderstood, and because it seems ridiculous and amusing […]

Right. Because the other ways in which people make a living are all for fun, and there's never any misunderstandings about who those workers are as people. Yep. Oh, and are you saying that pornography doesn't have the same misogynistic problems in some venues?

No, she's not saying that pornography is an exploitation-free zone, but if she's generally okay with porn, I guess I don't see why she should be so hostile towards the existence of strip clubs. Also, as far as the generalization that "gay men wouldn't be seen dead" in your average strip club, but will support burlesque shows instead — Well, for one thing, your average strip club is mainly about getting aroused by women, an activity I'd venture that most gay men aren't so interested in. It's fine if you prefer the artistry behind a burlesque production, but that doesn't mean everyone has to prefer it.

Work to change the problems within the venue, but don't burn the place down and salt the earth.

There are other contradictory viewpoints that Moran holds, but you know what? I still really enjoyed this book. The stories that are specific to her life, particularly her relationship with her sister Caz, are great and often hilarious. I wholeheartedly respect that Moran remains unapologetic in her writing, and I think that just because How to Be a Woman exists does not mean she won't one day change her mind or better articulate her thoughts on certain subjects. As we all do.

Some cranky writers have dismissed her work as "Feminism 101," to which I'd ask, "Oh, you never had to take a 101 class? My, look at you! Sprung into this world so fully-formed and serious!"

Ladies and gentlemen, we all have to start somewhere.

Full Disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book as a review copy. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

ETA: This review now also appears on Pajiba.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Internal News: 12-1-12

Oh, hey. Kinda forgot to update you all on what I've been doing lately. I've also got another book review cooking that will be up here within the next day or so. First off, let's check-in with the P-Mag updates:

In other news...
I think that's it. I'm overdue for a new Notes From Elsewhere, but one will be up soon.