Category Archives: violence

Reading: Dietland by Sarai Walker

27th July 2015

dietland*I requested this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Once upon a time, when a young picky girl was working on her graduate degree, she immersed herself in feminist theory and literature – as any good twenty-something English graduate student should. She wrote of women who killed – specifically, women who killed their children, and why and how literature treats them afterward.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman played quite a role in that young woman’s thesis, but Herland was one of the texts that stuck out in her mind, though it wasn’t all that good. What an odd concept – a world without men.

When I picked up Dietland, that much older novel didn’t register. I anticipated a funny, wry look at society and the emphasis we place on weight, particularly women’s weight. Women’s space – how much we take up of it and how much we may lay claim to – is a fascinating conversation. Plum Kettle understands that deeply. At 300 pounds, Plum has lived her entire life completely aware of her size. Others make sure she knows just how large she is.

But Plum has a secret. Working from home for a teen girls’ magazine and stockpiling clothes many sizes too small for her, Plum is waiting for the day she will go under the knife and be able to drop pounds upon pounds and become who she was intended to be.

Except that a mysterious woman seems to be following her. When the woman slips her a copy of a book written about the lie of a particular weight loss program she endured as a young woman, Plum’s life is altered.

At the same time, men around the world are being threatened, hunted, and killed for any number of offenses – rape, institutional sexism, porn (the creation of it, specifically).

Only when she encounters an enclave of women who extract from her a promise to follow a series of steps prior to her surgery does Plum understand what it means to “come into her own.”

Whereas Herland is an exploration of a world without men and what happens when men tread on such a space, Dietland is a harsh, in-your-face look at our society and the ugliness of a world where women’s bodies are public.

Dietland is not an enjoyable book. I’ve read some reviews that describe it as “funny,” but frankly, that’s not a word I would use to describe it. The guerrilla group “Jennifer” methodically threatens, maims, and/or kills those who perpetrate crimes against women as well as those who support or fund such crimes. That’s not a feminism I’m at all familiar with, and it’s certainly not something I support.

Dietland is fiction, yes. I also understand that describing our society’s ills in such gross excess and punishing it accordingly may make some sort of point, but again, it’s not at all comforting/comfortable to read.

You may argue that is exactly the point, and I know it is. Dietland, in many ways, seemed a response to Herland – a look at what happens if men are allowed to infiltrate and influence a society of women, a cautionary tale at best; a horror story at worst.

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What Is the Fourth of July?

2nd July 2015

Teaching American Literature has, in some ways, shown me how deeply patriotic I can be. In years past, I’ve touched on some of the reasons why. There are moments, in teaching my class, that I have to pause because the utter beauty of our nation’s hopes and ideals is so touching. Yet my consistent, analytical look at the important writings of our country also deeply saddens me, as I watch the ways in which previous generations and my own generation use them to their/our own ends.

The reality in our country right now is that many, many people glance briefly at words that we’ve fought over since our country’s inception (see my friend Ryan’s great post at The Signal Watch for a great look) and use them to oppress others and to justify injustice.

This Independence Day, while I will of course still be floating in a pool and drinking various frozen drinks and taking breaks for all-American foods like barbecue and apple pie (I’m only human, and Texas is hot), I’m also conflicted. In recent years, after too many incidents to count, of injustice and hate against our African-American citizens, we take blatant racism and still try to turn it away. We perpetuate violence against this community and then expect them not to react or to react only in ways which we decree acceptable, when, as Anne Braden, activist, said, “The battle is and always has been a battle for the hearts and minds of White people in this country. The fight against racism is our issue. It’s not something that we’re called on to help People of Color with. We need to become involved with it as if our lives depended on it because really, in truth, they do.

On July 5, 1852, a man named Frederick Douglass stepped in front of an audience and spoke these words in his much-anthologized speech, later published in pamphlets as “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July”, and in doing so validated Braden’s idea nearly a century before by asking:

Fellow Citizens – Pardon me, and allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits, and express devout gratitude for the blessing, resulting from your independence to us?

and later:

I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessing in which you this day rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not me…This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.

and last:

What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

I love this country of mine dearly. I’m proud, for so many reasons, to be an American, but I’m not inured to the racial injustices either. In a year when race-based violence has exploded, when a man can walk into a church and tell men and women he is there to kill them based on their race, when black churches receive threats and then burn to the ground, and we still deny race as an issue, we are ensuring that a vast majority of our population is still excluded from our celebration of liberty. When we value and fight tooth and nail to fly a flag that flew in our nation’s darkest hours instead of mourning for lives lost? We guarantee that we will remain segregated and fearful of one another.

I say all of this, not knowing what the answer is, not knowing how to help. But I say it because it must be acknowledged. Because to not acknowledge it is to be a silent supporter of the institutionalized racism so many of us fail or refuse to see.

Happy Independence Day. My hope is that we can come to love America and its ideals enough to tear away that thin veil and recognize our crimes, to realize that no nation is perfect, that our forefathers were conflicted, imperfect men as well, and that each generation makes a choice to fully embrace the love of freedom our country has come to signify.

As Douglass also points out, “Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it.”


Further reading:

  • From 1995’s “America’s Long History of Black Churches Burning” – “It is worth observing that the absence of any organized conspiracy may make the phenomenon of church burning more, rather than less, disturbing. Far easier to abide the idea of a tight-knit group of racist fanatics than to accept the alternative that we live in a time when a substantial number of individuals, unconnected with one another or with organized white supremacist groups, regard burning black churches as a plausible act, worthy of emulation.”
  • From “Why Racists Target Black Churches”…during slavery, these churches provided more than just spiritual solace. They facilitated an explosion of black literacy in the South”
  • From “Why Racists Use Rape to Defend Racist Violence” – “It’s tempting to treat Dylann Storm Roof as a Southern problem, the violent collision of neo-Confederate ideology and a permissive gun culture. The truth, however, is that his fear – of black power and of black sexuality – belongs to America as much as it does the South.”
  • From “Thugs and Terrorists Have Attacked Black Churches for Generations” – “But today, as the nation mourns the victims of Charleston and awaits details about the perpetrator of the attack, black Americans will be most awake to the reality that there are bigots who want to see them dead. What they’re owed by their fellow Americans is vocal solidarity, so that they’re as awake to the depth and breadth of the belief that black lives matter.”
  • From “The Recent, Hateful History of Attacks on Black Churches” – “Churches have long been hubs of organizing and advocacy in the black community, which was one reason they were so often attacked during the civil rights movement. But the violence didn’t end there—attacks and threats against black churches and institutions still take place at a greater frequency than you might think.”
  • From “Black Churches Are Burning Again in America” – “Churches are burning again in the United States, and the symbolism of that is powerful. Even though many instances of arson have happened at white churches, the crime is often association with racial violence: a highly visible attack on a core institution of the black community, often done at night, and often motivated by hate.”

UPDATE: As I was searching for related articles, I see Slate’s James West Davidson had similar thoughts: “The Best Fourth of July Speech in American History”

Review: The Girls of Murder City by Douglas Perry

1st January 2014

pg1*I purchased this book.

The subtitle of Douglas Perry’s The Girls of Murder City tells it all: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago. Though I’ve long loved the music of Chicago (my mother is especially – and disturbingly – fond of the line, He ran into my knife ten times!), I never realized it was based on the true story of a spate of murders in Chicago in the early 20s. 

In 1924, the Cook County Jail was full of women killers. Perry briefly discusses the phenomenon, citing the new found freedom of women in Chicago in the Jazz Age as a possible reason for the higher female crime rate. If you were pretty, you got off. If you weren’t, or worse, were a foreigner, then the jury was a bit harsher. Disturbed by the indulgent treatment of these female killers in the media, young journalist Maurine Watkins decided to lend her hand to the court of public opinion. With all-men juries showing leniency to the attractive inmates, Chicago’s female inmates began to learn a nice dress and a new hairdo worked wonders for their trials, and Maurine was determined to document the ridiculousness of it all.

Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan were the worst offenders in Maurine’s opinion – both having killed lovers without much remorse. But even though both women were accused of lewd behavior and illegal drinking, they became the darlings of the Chicago papers and later, the juries. Anxious to attempt redress for the injustice, Maurine writes her play, Chicago, what New York Times reporter Brooks Atkinson said was “a satirical comedy on the administration of justice through the fetid channels of newspaper publicity – of photographers, ‘sob sisters,’ feature stunts, standardized prevarication and generalized vulgarity.”*

Though the end of the book drops off a bit as it discusses Maurine’s subsequent failures as a writer, The Girls of Murder City is a fascinating – and sometimes amusing – look at a true phenomenon of Chicago in the Jazz Age. I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in feminism, true crime, the musical Chicago, and more specifically, as a great intro to someone looking to read more nonfiction.

Add this to your Goodreads shelf.

*This is a nice reminder that the “good old days” of journalism never really existed…

Review: Stella Bain by Anita Shreve

12th November 2013

pg1*This book was sent to me by the publisher Little, Brown in exchange for an honest review.

A woman wakes in a French battlefield hospital with no recollection of who she is, where she is, or how she may have gotten there. But she does remember how to assist the doctors and how to drive an ambulance, a difficult skill. From all accounts, she’s American, though it’s only 1916, and American hasn’t yet entered the war. On leave, she attempts to make her way to the Admiralty in London. She isn’t sure why she needs to go there, but the place holds significance for her, and she’s hopeful someone can identify her there.

But on the way, she takes ill, and Dr. August Bridge and his wife take her in. Dr. Bridge is a cranial surgeon, unfit for war because of scoliosis and bad eyesight, and he begins working with Stella in an attempt to regain her memory, as there are moments of clarity for Stella in which she only feels emotion. She sketches disturbing images she sees but cannot determine whether they are true or a figment of her imagination. But the story turns in an instant when Stella remembers her old life.

***

So, you should know that when I was in college, I devoured Anita Shreve books. In my estimation, they are similar to what the Jodi Picoult books are now. Pretty covers. Intriguing stories, but with a depth I usually enjoy more than some other women’s fiction.

Stella Bain was initially enthralling. Watching as she struggles to place herself and recall her reason for being in France is fascinating. I felt as though much of the book would be spent with her and Dr. Bridge working to restore her memory. However, when her amnesia disappears – rather quickly in the scope of the novel – the story becomes something different altogether. Stella begins to tell what brought her from America to the battlefields of France, another different but intriguing narrative. Yet after the reader understands what has brought her to war and what caused her amnesia, the novel begins to wane.

Still a good read, Stella Bain suffers from what many novels in the past several years have – a promising introduction but a less-than-stellar fulfillment of its early potential.

Recommended for fans of Anita Shreve and those interested in World War I.

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Review: Goat Mountain by David Vann

9th September 2013

pg1*This book was sent to me by the publisher Harper Books in exchange for an honest review.

A man recalls his 11th year in 1978, the year in which he makes his first kill. Family tradition has his father, his grandfather, and his father’s best friend Tom setting out across their land – Goat Mountain. The terrain is rough, but these men are rougher, as is evidenced when they set out for the three-day trip, spotting a poacher and sighting him in the scopes of their guns. When the boy takes his turn, coolly and without thought, he pulls the trigger.

What you want to read, what you want to see is the boy’s remorse. You want to understand that it was a mistake, that it didn’t happen, couldn’t have happened on purpose. But what the boy’s father, grandfather, and Tom see is a boy so little affected by the act that he readies himself to go on with the hunt immediately. Appalled, the three grown men are forced to deal with the aftermath and the effects of the death and the boy’s nonchalance, each wanting reparation but unable to do what it takes to make that happen.

It is evident that a man is remembering these events in moments when he examines what the men must have thought and ties his own actions to Biblical stories, yet the purpose of the recollection isn’t at all evident. Grim and horrific at times as he describes the dead man’s body and the manner of its disposal as well as his later kill – a buck, this time – the book waxes on about the human condition, sometimes eloquently; other times in excess:

The great flood. Think of how many lost. Drowned like rats, no burials, no apologies, no reparations….Imagine that wall of water coming over a hill, the sheep scattering, and you feel the cold breath of it, a thrill in that dry heat, the sudden change, and the sun is underwater, pale shafts of light reaching through the blue, and that can only be beautiful, the moments right before annihilation can never be anything less than the very best moments, held suspended.

The narrator dissects the Bible but in such a way as to divorce God from it, to explain our natures differently:

The Bible has nothing to do with god. The Bible is an account of our waking up, an atavistically dreamed recovery of how we first learned shame in the garden and first considered ourselves different from animals, and Cain was the first to discover that part of us will never wake up.

And in this exploration, he also examines family ties between him, his father, and his grandfather, and his inability to know them, especially during the hunt. At times, they understand one another’s intentions or gestures without at all understanding the person.

The book is disturbing, and I cannot say it was a pleasure to read, though there were moments of beautiful writing. However, for those who enjoy Cormac McCarthy or, going back further, Frank Norris or Stephen Crane, I’d recommend it. The depiction of the land and of those tied to it is stark and brutal but with good reason.

Add this to your Goodreads shelf.