Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #49: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

So, you know what’s creepy? Treating women as empty vessels. Vessels whose sole purpose is to become pregnant to continue on a specific race or religious group’s existence. You know what else is creepy? When the ritual surrounding getting those women pregnant involves a handmaid laying on a wives torso while the husband ejaculates inside of her.

Spoiler alert: this isn’t a happy book. It’s not full of hope, it’s not one woman fighting against a horrific, patriarchal society that only values her if she can produce a child. It’s not the Hunger Games, and Offred (the name, so disturbing) is not Katniss. This is a book that details the dullness of the life of the handmaid, that special class of women who were schooled together to become wombs for the elite. These women are not being allowed to read. They must accept being penetrated by the head of the house monthly. They go on daily chores covered head to toe, with literal side blinders on. They eat their meals in their rooms, alone.

When particularly draconian reproductive rights cuts are put into law, you’ll sometimes hear this book mentioned, and with good reason. The book may outline an extreme society, but disturbingly enough, it’s not so extreme as to be unimaginable. I don’t see the U.S. becoming Gilead as it does in the book, but I see the thinking that permeates that fictional society underlying so many of the anti-choice laws being proposed and passed these days. As I type this, the city of Albuquerque is voting on whether some reproductive rights should be taken away from the women who live there.

The writing in this book is heavy, but it didn’t take long to read. I think it’s a good book to read, although I can’t say I enjoyed it. It’s one of those books that is important, and I think should be added to the reading list of anyone who cares about our rights being slowly chipped away.

Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #47: Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards

As I close in on the full Cannonball, I’m trying to wrap up a lot of books that I’ve put down over the course of the year. There’s a science book, one of the Song of Ice and Fire series, another etiquette book, and one on goddesses (seriously). And then there’s this one, which I started way back in January. Why the ten month break between starting and finishing it? Well … I just did not like it.

Manifesta is on a lot of ‘must read’ feminism book lists, but I found it to be mediocre. The writing isn’t bad – it’s not like Cinderella’s Lost Diary or whatever that unfortunate book was that Cannonballers were offered for free earlier this year. My problem is that it’s not actually what it claims to be – a feminism manifesto. It’s more like a thrown-together anthology of white feminism, with some ‘picture this’ writing thrown in. The chapters feel disjointed, and I’m not entirely clear what the authors sought to do with this book. Were they trying to say what the ‘third wave’ feminists are contributing to feminism as a whole? Were they trying to explore what previous feminists did (and how that was and was not successful)? Trying to outline what we should be doing going forward? I think a book could be successful in doing all three, but that’s not this book.

In addition to the book feeling disjointed and unfocused, there were so many areas where they missed opportunities to really explore feminism – warts and all. There was even one point where I wanted to just throw the book out the window, but was nearly 200 pages in so I just stuck it out. That moment was during a discussion of toys for young girls, and the issues with Barbie, and the attempts to push Mattel to sell Barbies that look more like all girls – so not just blond, white Barbies. The authors passed that off as “PC,” and they meant that as an insult. Any book that uses the concept of “Politically Correct” as though it is derogatory just isn’t a good book in my opinion. Saying something is ‘politically correct’ means that it’s showing some empathy to people, and recognizing that straight, white, cis people aren’t all who matter.

That very specific issue is one example of the larger problem with this book – it’s so, very, very white. Yes, the authors mention contributions from women of color (usually in passing), but they don’t acknowledge any of the larger issues with mainstream white feminism. They buy into the “women fought to join the workforce and stay there after the war” story, for example, but don’t acknowledge that many women of color had already been working for decades. They don’t recognize the complexity of race, gender and sexuality – it’s a lot of Gloria Steinem and one reference to bell hooks.

Going forward, I’ll be avoiding these generic overviews of feminism, whether targeting and young women or not. I’m more interested in learning about the full history of feminism, and womanism, and reading books that look at the bigger issues of intersectionality that mainstream feminism keeps ignoring.

Sophia’s #CBR5 Review #44: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

Lean InI think when I first heard about Lean In (2013) by Sheryl Sandberg, all I knew was that it had something to do with feminism, and that it might be controversial. I learned that Sandberg was high up in the business world. Now that I’ve just changed careers and turned my back on the business world, I wondered what Sandberg could say that would relate to me. Discussions of corporations bore me to death, and I have no interest in working in an office environment. But I’m a sucker for well-known, controversial books because I like to make up my own mind about things and the only way to do that is to read it myself.

So, I read it, enjoyed it, and didn’t see much of anything to be upset about. Sandberg discusses where women stand in the world in terms of leadership positions and financial compensation. She discusses factors that have kept women from real equality. She also includes a lot of anecdotes from her own experience, which were interesting because she’s held so many high-power positions. I thought Sandberg gave practical, inclusive advice that was much more useful to me than I would have imagined. She came across as honest and straight forward. I especially liked the many studies she cites to illustrate some of the challenges women face that we might not even think about.
For instance:
-Studies have shown that women often judge their own performance as worse than it actually is, while men judge their own performance as better than it actually is. (29)

…for more, click here.

Sophia’s #CBR5 Review #40: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood was one of those books that I’ve heard a lot about: one that’s often banned, feminist, a classic, but one that I never got around to reading until now. I knew that it was about a world where women were forced to be “breeders” of children, but that’s about it. I was a little unsure before I started. I figured it could be one of those classics that might be well written but was a slog to read, or if it would be one I would really appreciate. I was not disappointed.

Click here to see why.


sonk’s #CBR5 Review #19: Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

Isadora Wing is bored. She’s on her second husband, a rather stuffy psychiatrist, and she’s looking for someone to shake things up in her now-predictable life. When she accompanies her husband to Austria for a conference, she meets Adrian Goodlove, and begins to explore and understand what it is she really wants, both emotionally and sexually.

Read the rest of my review here.

narfna’s #CBR5 Reviews #41-44: Protector of the Small by Tamora Pierce

153823First Test, 1999

It’s been ten years since Alanna the Lioness disguised herself as a boy in order to became the first lady knight in the realm of Tortall, ten years since the king decreed it lawful for women to train to be knights without having to resort to trickery. And Keladry of Mindelan wants to be the first to do so. Ten year old Kel was raised abroad, the child of a diplomat, and has a very different way of looking at the world as a result. Trained in the ways of the Yamani warriors since the age of 6, to her it seems only a natural leap upon returning home to Tortall with her family, that the next step for her is to train as a knight. Unfortunately, since she is the first girl to want to train as a knight since Alanna, the path to knighthood proves to be more stressful than she had imagined. On top of dealing with the rigorous training young pages all must go through, she also has to deal with the scorn that comes with being ‘a woman out of her place,’ as one character so deftly puts it.

This is the third series by Tamora Pierce that I’ve read, after Song of the Lioness and The Immortals. So far, I like this better than Immortals, and it is a more polished text than Alanna as Pierce had been writing for years at this point in her career. The hook in Song of the Lioness was that Alanna was pretending to be a boy and doing something no girl had ever done. Here, everyone knows Kel is a girl, and her biggest challenges come from dealing with the expectations placed upon her by the men in her chosen field: her fellow pages, the older boys (including some bullies), and her training master, just to name a few. I enjoyed Kel as a character, even if she is a bit humorless. She overcomes all the obstacles thrown at her with stubborn integrity, and manages to piece together a loyal group of friends in the process. Continue reading

Sophia’s #CBR5 Review #22: The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls by Joan Jacobs Brumberg

The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls (1997) by Cornell University Professor Joan The Body ProjectJacobs Brumberg is one of the books that popped up as recommended for me on Amazon one day. It looked pretty interesting, so I put it on my wish list, thinking I’d get around to it eventually. I finally did, and it was not what I expected. In fact, I found it to be a fairly tedious and frustrating reading experience–although the last couple of chapters picked up a bit. To be fair, this book was published in 1997, over fifteen years ago. Even giving allowance for the passage of time, however, most of Brumberg’s conclusions were not supported. Her argument was hard to follow because she wrote vaguely about sexual ethics and identity without specificity or definition. Instead of finding and writing about information that could make a practical difference, it felt like Brumberg took her various topics of research and shoehorned them into a book.

I was intrigued by Brumberg’s introduction. She used young women’s diaries throughout history to explain that back in the 1890’s women didn’t write in their diaries about how they wanted to improve their bodies, but instead how they wanted to improve their character: “In 1892, the personal agenda of an adolescent diarist read: ‘Resolved, not to talk about myself or feelings. To think before speaking. To work seriously. To be self restrained in conversation and actions. Not to let my thoughts wander. To be dignified. Interest myself more in others.'” While today girls are worried about their looks, their clothes, their weight, etc. Adolescent girls deal with a significant drop in self esteem as they try to figure out who they are with numerous pressures from peers and advertising. Brumberg argued that this is made worse because girls get their periods earlier, are sexualized earlier, and have less protections than in the past.

Click here for the rest of my review.

Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #18: I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales From a Happy Life Without Kids by Jen Kirkman

Full disclosure: when I first heard about this book I got annoyed for two reasons. The first was jealousy – “Oh man why did she get to write this book? I so could have written this book. Damn it.” The second was annoyance at the title – saying “I Can Barely Take Care of Myself” seems to play right into the stereotypes so many of those with children have about us childfree folks. I can take care of myself just fine and I STILL don’t want children. But as the author so kindly reminded me herself on twitter when I made such a comment, you really shouldn’t judge a book by its title.

Well, I’m no longer annoyed by the fact that she wrote this book before I could – because is it GOOD. Ms. Kirkman (a writer for Chelsea Lately) did a much better job with this material than I could have done. The book feels honest, self-aware and not obnoxious. Of course I’m probably her target audience (happily committed to the childfree life) and I’m not sure what the Eileens of the world (Chapter 11 – man I’ve met many of them) will think of it. But screw that – who cares? It’s nice to read a book that doesn’t assume that every woman in her 30s without kids is just waiting to get pregnant.

I’m still annoyed at the title a bit to be honest, just because even though she spends a lot of time explaining why she really wouldn’t be the best parent, and even though this is (cringe) her truth, it’s still sort of frustrating that such an awesome book’s first impression is “No, you’re totally right, people who don’t want children are a little broken and just recognize that we aren’t as good at life as you parents are.” But that won’t keep me from recommending the content to all my friends (the ones with kids and the ones without).

The book gives us some of Ms. Kirkman’s background, although it doesn’t feel like a full-on memoir. I bought the book on Thursday and read about 40 pages. I wasn’t able to pick it up again until today (Sunday), and I basically read through the last 160 pages in one sitting. While the early chapters were interesting, she really gets into the meat of the different ways childfree folks find themselves in uncomfortable situations. So many people say (sometimes in the comments of articles Ms. Kirkman herself has written) ‘why do you non-reproducers feel the need to talk about your choice?’ We really, really don’t. But because (some, many, a lot of) people won’t accept no for an answer, we’re repeatedly ‘defending’ a position that is really only our (and our partner’s, if relevant) business. Sometimes it’s easier to just preemptively strike.

I don’t want to take away from the joy of any potential readers by spoiling too many of the great insights Ms. Kirkman shares, but here’s one of my favorites. She spends the better part of one chapter talking through this idea that having a child somehow makes someone selfless (the opposite of us selfish childfree folks) and this whole “I really didn’t know the meaning of life until I had a child” concept. I can’t do it justice here but she basically points out that all of these parents making those claims are essentially suggesting that they had no moral compass until they reproduced, which – huh. Interesting thing to admit. She also points out that many childfree folks are contributing to society in a selfless and meaningful way, such as contributing to charity and doing all sorts of things that people with young children may not have the time to do.

She also takes on such fun responses to “I’m not having children” as “But you’d be such a good mother!” and “It’s all worth it!” while addressing how amazingly insulting it is for some people to just assume they know someone better than they know themselves (the “you just think you don’t want kids” condescension). The liberties people take when they hear ‘no’ in response to ‘are you having children’ is mind-boggling, and Ms. Kirkman does a pretty great job in the Eileen chapter of pointing out how horrible and violated it can make us childfree folks feel. We actually DON’T owe anyone an explanation, and yet somehow we always end up having to defend our choices to people at cocktail parties and weddings even if we really would rather be talking about literally anything else. We also really don’t like being forced to essentially lie to try to make small talk easier for the person with the child who cannot understand.

She does veer a little into a sort of ‘huh’ realm with what I think might be an ill-advised analogy in the last chapter but I do get what she’s aiming for. And it doesn’t take away from the rest of this well-written book. If you’re interested in hearing her perspective before committing to buying the book, check her out on the April 18 episode of Citizen Radio – it’s what convinced me that I really needed to read this book.

One last quote I’ll be keeping in my back pocket in case I find myself facing boorish folks at a cocktail party thinking I just rolled out of bed at noon: “I get up at seven on weekends because I love my free time. Not every childfree person sleeps late and parties all the time. I am still a grown-up.” Preach it.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #28: When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

Even more than with her debut novel Mudbound, Jordan has a powerful story to tell in When She Woke, and a moral (or two) she clearly wants to impart to her reader. Jordan has a highly creative imagination and a strong feminist streak, and her story—loosely modeled on Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and drawing inspiration from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale—packs a punch. All that said, I think Jordan was a little too busy trying to get her point across to notice that her story was morphing from sci-fi to romance to action thriller to political tirade, and getting weaker all along the way. And it’s a pity, because the conceit of the book is fascinating.

Hannah lives in the near-future, where nuclear war has ravaged some American cities, where right-wing religious zealots have taken over the U.S. government, and where crimes are punished by “chroming” the skin color of the criminal—yellow, blue, green or red. Hannah wakes up in a cell, bright red all over after she is convicted at trial for murder. Brought up properly in a Christian family, Hannah had nonetheless been seduced into a love affair with a widely-loved and respected—and married–evangelical preacher, and upon discovering her pregnancy, chose to abort it rather than endanger her lover’s reputation and marriage. Abortion is illegal and she is caught, tried, and punished with an indelible scarlet, all the while refusing to name names.

Thus begins the story, but it rapidly escalates as Hannah is released into a half-way house with other “Chromes” who are being “re-educated” under the dominance of uber-religious sadists disguised as teachers. When she and her friend Kayla abandon the facility, they face the uncertainty of survival on the streets—not only is the general populace violently hostile to Chromes, but there is an association of vigilantes called “The Fist” which hunts and kills Chromes. Fortunately for Hannah and her friend, there is also an active “pro-choice” underground movement which plucks the women off the streets in the nick of time and funnels them towards Canada, where abortion is legal and where they can be “de-Chromed.” So far, so good, even if we get the distinct feeling we are reading a cross between Hawthorne’s “Letter” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

And that’s where the action stumbles, the plot crumbles, and the book loses a few stars in my view:  Hannah faces a rather creepy kidnapping, a brief side-trip into red slavery, a steamy divergence into lesbian action, a philosophical tete-a-tete with a female priest, and a final inexplicable and doomed reunion with her former lover, the evangelical celebrity now promoted to head the government’s Ministry of Faith. No matter how Jordan chooses to end her story at this point, the creative momentum is lost in a swirl of melodrama and political harangue.

Sophia’s #CBR5 Review #16: How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran

I first discovered How To Be A Woman (2011) by Caitlin Moran back when it wasn’t really available in the United States. I wanted to read it right away, but  I waited until it was available How To Be A Womanat my library. Now that I’ve finally gotten around to reading it, it seems to be one of the most read books on Cannonball. I guess that makes my review easier. Since everyone’s already read and reviewed it, I don’t have much to add.

According to Wikipedia, Caitlin Moran is a British broadcaster, TV critic, and columnist at The Times. I had never heard of her before reading How To Be A Woman, but this book is more about what Moran has to say than her public figure. Moran discusses growing up poor and unpopular in Wolverhampton, England as she opines on feminism and other issues often faced by women, such as: high heels, Brazilians, handbags, pornography, strippers, and abortion. Moran has strong, clear, well-thought out opinions, and she comes at each of her topics with enough humor that even if I disagreed with her, I could still understand her point.

Read the rest of my review here.