missroserose: (Kick Back & Read)
[personal profile] missroserose
What I've just finished reading

Last week was the big "finish all the things" push, so this week's been more about starting new books! Interestingly, I've started three, and despite being somewhat disparate in genre, they all have a similar issue:

What I'm currently reading

An Extraordinary Union, by Alyssa Cole. This book came highly recommended by the Smart Bitches, and I liked the premise - a black woman with an eidetic memory who works as a spy for the Union during the Civil War - but so far the execution is kind of meh. Some of it's probably stylistic - there's a certain amount of tell-don't-show happening, and the dialogue between the characters doesn't really mesh - but honestly, I think the biggest problem is that I just don't care about the protagonist. She's certainly smart and driven, but doesn't seem to have much actual personality past her work. That's really showing now that she's met the main character - their interactions to this point have been either neutral or hostile, but suddenly they're bantering, and I don't have any real sense of how her emotions got from point A to point B. Realizing you're both spies working on the same side might explain some of it, but all of her other feelings that we've seen have been curmudgeonly at best, so enh. I'll probably read a bit more and see if it picks up, but so far this is showing a high likelihood of DNF.

The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood. I picked this up off a library giveaway cart ages ago - I think I was nineteen or twenty at the time - and I couldn't get into it at all. At the time I didn't have the historical or sociopolitical knowledge to give it context; now that I'm perhaps somewhat painfully informed on those fronts, I thought I'd give it another go - especially since Audible has a nicely-produced special edition they've just released to promote/capitalize on the series. And...it's not bad. I definitely have a better appreciation now for the worldbuilding and the social commentary. But I'm not really grooving on this one, either. I think there might be some of the same issues going on - I'm about a third of the way through and so far, Offred hasn't really been a character in her own right so much as a means to view her world, which feels doubly strange given that we're clearly supposed to feel shock and horror at how this world treats her as a thing to be used. The craftsmanship is higher-level, though, so I'll probably keep listening - it helps that I can do housework or whatever at the same time.

Future Sex, by Emily Witt. This was an unintended purchase from the local feminist bookstore. (Brian, seeing me engrossed: "I was going to buy that for you but I would've sworn you already had it." Me: "I do not, would you buy it for me?" Brian: "Sure, but why don't you buy it?" Me: "Because I'm trying to stick to my moratorium on book-buying.") So far it appears to be half girl-dating-in-the-city memoir (a la I Don't Care About Your Band) and half history-and-analysis-of-nontraditional-relationship-options. She opens the book talking about how her expectation (like most women in our culture) had always been that she would date for a while before eventually meeting and marrying Mr. Right; this book is supposedly a chronicle of what happened when she turned 30 and, not having met him, decided to challenge the cultural narrative and try different models for meeting her sexual needs, from the relatively banal (Internet dating, webcams) to the more outré (polyamory, attending Burning Man) to the avant-garde (orgasmic meditation). And a lot of the analysis is solid; I particularly liked this passage, on both how much and how little has changed for women in this arena:

In theory, I could behave as I wished.  Without breaking any laws I could dress as a nun and get spanked by a person dressed as the pope.  I could watch a porn starlet hula-hoop on my computer while I had sex with a battery-operated prosthetic.  I could contact a stranger on the Internet, tell him to meet me at the north entrance of the Woolworth building, tell him I would make myself known only if he arrived carrying three Mylar balloons referencing Disney animated classics, and then, if he fulfilled my wishes, go to his place for sex.  I could do all these things without having to wear a scarlet letter, get thrown in jail, or be stoned in public.

I did not do any of these things.  My timidity not only concerned ideas of sexual "safety" (especially since most such ideas were ruses that gave women a false sense of control in an unpredictably violent world).  My avoidance of sex also had a lot to do with an equation, a relationship of exchange around which I organized my ideas.  {...}  Being sexually cautious meant I was looking for "something serious".  Having sex with more people meant I privileged the wims of the instant over transcendent higher-order commitments that developed over long stretches of time.  {...}  The arbitrary nature of these correlations had not occurred to me.

I appreciate her ability to articulate the cultural assumptions that so many of us never examine, and for that reason I'll likely keep reading.  However, I've noticed that she's somewhat less solid on examining her own reactions.  For an author who's supposedly interested in exploring alternative forms of sexual expression, she seems to come at them from an extremely judgmental standpoint.  I get that some of that is probably because she's operating outside of her comfort zone, but a lot of the time she comes off as perpetrating exactly the sort of social moralizing that she supposedly has rejected.

I wonder if part of the problem is that she doesn't seem to have differentiated between sexual needs and emotional needs.  She talks about them as separate, so clearly she understands that they're not the same thing, but in describing her experiences she often appears to conflate the two, expressing disappointment when an encounter (even one specifically acknowledged to be solely sexual in nature) leaves her emotionally unfulfilled.  It's a strange blind spot from an otherwise quite articulate writer.  

What I'm going to read next

Notes of a Native Son, by James Baldwin.  My paperback copy arrived and is staring at me sternly from the coffee table.  I'll get to you soon, Notes!  I promise!

Date: 2017-05-18 11:58 am (UTC)
asakiyume: (miroku)
From: [personal profile] asakiyume
Interesting to see how Handmaid's Tale is seeming to you now.

My problems with it when I read it were the worldbuilding on one hand and the particular focus of her dystopian fear on the other. Possibly if I read it now I'd have a different perspective... hmmmm.

Regarding the book about the woman's sexual exploration, I think the mental starting point of the search is wrongheaded: I don't think you can look at any relationship primarily in terms of satisfying your needs; if you do, you're treating other people as means to an end. That's not to say you don't consider your own needs--of course you do--just, you need to remember that the other party is a whole universe of needs and anxieties and desires and assumptions and so on, too.

Date: 2017-05-18 09:13 pm (UTC)
asakiyume: (aquaman is sad)
From: [personal profile] asakiyume
It's been years since I read it, but it seemed to me to be a peculiarly urban, middle-to-upper-middle-class, areligious, working white woman's pet fear: that she's going to have all her rights stripped and be forced to be a sexual surrogate and slave in a society of rabid wacko religionists who somehow have gained control of everything.

As I recall, part of the reason there even **are** these handmaids is that there's been a huge plunge in fertility--fewer women successfully having babies. And, well: that's just not a thing. Where birth rates have gone down, it's lifestyle choices, not inability to have babies. But okay; I guess people create disasters in dystopia stories all the time to be catalysts, I guess just... the world is full of women with hard, hard lives, struggling to feed large families, and somehow creating this made-up terror for well-off women who are afraid of having their freedoms trampled on just bugged me.

Plus, worldbuilding-wise, it seemed like a really complicated society to just inflict on a bunch of unwilling participants, and it seemed to make virtually no one happy--how was this going to continue? Again, I felt like I was being asked to accept a lot of stuff as given that I just couldn't. It reminds me of those questions where you're told you have to choose to sacrifice one person for the sake of everyone else, and you're not allowed to come up with any other alternative. NO, that's not how life WORKS.

Like I say, though, it's been ages. Maybe I'd be more tolerant now. I did like the details, like using butter for hand cream.

Date: 2017-05-19 02:57 am (UTC)
asakiyume: (miroku)
From: [personal profile] asakiyume
Normalization is definitely a survival mechanism. An omnipresent stimulus ceases to be startling; it *has* to. That doesn't mean you have to approve of the situation--definitely not: acknowledging a reality doesn't mean you approve of it. But you do have to acknowledge the reality; if you don't, depending on the situation, you might not survive long.

With you 100 percent on women being predated on even if/especially if they're theoretically being protected.

Date: 2017-05-19 03:18 am (UTC)
asakiyume: (miroku)
From: [personal profile] asakiyume
Well, I know there are sects that have all sorts of unpleasant practices, but no: it doesn't make me think a takeover of the whole country (or all of Canada) is likely. How extensive is Gilead supposed to be in the book? I can't remember.

Things like the Quiverfull ideology work best when they can cast themselves as in opposition to a corrupt larger society--they're not so great at **running** the larger society. The current US population is approximately 320 million people; Wikipedia estimates adherents of Quiverfull philosophy as in "the thousands to low tens of thousands." That makes them about equal to the number of Scientologists (25,000) in the United States.

I mean, things can happen! Marjan Satrapi's Persepolis shows how lots of people in Iran weren't expecting their cosmopolitan society to succumb to fundamentalism, and yet it did. So yeah, it's good to be vigilant . . . I just don't think it's an imminent threat.

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