A Spark of Light, by Jodi Picoult*****

ASparkofLightIf there is a prize for courageous literature, Picoult deserves to win it. I have grown frustrated over the years as I have watched countless novelists dodge and weave to avoid the mere mention of abortion as a means to deal with an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy, and I wanted to do cartwheels when I read the teaser for this book.  I thank Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy, and the author and publisher for having the integrity to go there. This book is for sale now.

That said, this isn’t a fun read, and it in no way resembles the character based escapist fiction that is the hallmark of many of Picoult’s other novels. This one is about social justice, and fiction is an approachable medium with which to discuss it. Those seeking to avoid tension and who don’t want to think critically should read something else.

The story opens at a women’s clinic in the Deep South, and a shooter has just killed the owner of the clinic and taken others hostage.  Our main characters are the shooter, George Goddard; Hugh McElroy, the hostage negotiator; Wren, Hugh’s daughter, who has come to the clinic without her father’s knowledge to procure contraception; and Louis, the clinic’s doctor. There are a host of second string characters, and they include clinic workers, clinic protesters, patients, and a spy that has wormed her way inside the clinic in search of the damning proof that fetal tissue is being sold illegally.

Because we start with the shooting and then work our way backward in time, with the narrative unspooling the background and viewpoint of each of about a dozen people, the first third of the book is agonizing. I am not usually one to peek at the ending of a novel, but frankly I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t read the fine details until I knew who was going to make it out alive and who wasn’t. I suspect that some of the negative reviews I am seeing are because of this aspect of it. It’s a tribute to how effectively Picoult is able to create tension within a story, but she may have overshot the mark a wee bit.

The first half of the book examines the various reasons why some people are opposed to abortion, and it does it in painstaking detail. I began to feel as if she was doing the work of the Right-to-Lifers for them.  More than anything, though, we see inside the troubled mind of the shooter himself. Goddard may be the best developed of the characters present here (though the story is primarily plot based in any case).

We also see the reasons why women choose to have an abortion, and we see the ambivalence and sometimes the regret of those that do so. In fact, my one real issue with this story is that there isn’t a single woman here that is having the procedure, not because she’s been raped or because she’s impoverished or abused, but because her contraception failed and she doesn’t want to be pregnant. These women exist; I know them. In fact, I have been one of them. Not every woman that seeks to terminate a pregnancy is traumatized, and apart from one character that passes in and out of the plot inside of a brief paragraph, these women are not represented here. But this is a relatively minor concern, and my rating reflects this.

Appropriately enough, the empirical voice of reason belongs to Louie Ward, the doctor.  He’s seen a lot:

“Indeed, when the pro-lifers came to him to terminate a pregnancy and told him that they did not believe in abortion, Louie Ward said only one thing: Scoot down.”   Louie respects the women that come to him, and during the conference the state requires him to have with those that have signed on for the procedure,

 

“He looked into the eyes of each of the women. Warriors, every one of them…They were stronger than any men he’d ever known. For sure, they were stronger than the male politicians who were so terrified of them that they designed laws specifically to keep women down…If he had learned anything during his years as an abortion doctor, it was this:  there was nothing on God’s green earth that would stop a woman who didn’t want to be pregnant.”

 

I like the ending.

Picoult has done her homework here, observing abortions conducted at various stages of pregnancy and interviewing over one hundred women that have done this. Her end notes show the level of research on which this story is based. Few fiction writers go to such lengths, and I doff my metaphorical hat to her.

Highly recommended to feminists everywhere, as well as to the tiny sliver of the population that isn’t firmly planted in one camp or the other where the topic is concerned.

Doc Doc Zeus, by Thomas Keech***

DocDocZeusThank you to Net Galley, the author, and Real Nice Books for the DRC, which I read free and early in exchange for this honest review. This novel was published earlier this month and is for sale now.

Doc Doc Zeus is a tough one to review. There are strengths that drew me at the outset and I thought I was going to love it; unfortunately, the literary aspects and a blind spot or two regarding women and rape have kept me from cheering and promoting the way I expected.

Conceptually, it’s innovative and gutsy. We have Diane, who at 14 has been manipulated by a conservative Christian group and agrees to carry a baby rather than have an abortion.

Diane’s physician is Dr. Zeus, and he is being paid by the church that is housing Diane. Diane is thrilled because she is made to feel heroic, special, for deciding not to end the pregnancy. At age 14, she is right in the throes of the all-about-me stage of adolescence, and this is the strongest part of Diane’s development as a character. Of course, once the baby is born and sent off to live with adoptive parents, Diane is no longer being spoiled and petted, and so she is in a vulnerable place. Her parents are not as available as they might be, so she is isolated, and makes an excellent target for a guy like Zeus.

Zeus is pond scum, a serial rapist, a liar and a thief. He conspires to direct his hospital’s lab business through an intermediary company he owns for no purpose other than to drive up costs and line his own wallet. The guy is so toxic and free of any redeeming qualities that I couldn’t read this story for very long at a time; there are other reasons, too. I’ll get to them in a minute.

Our third main character is Dave, who works for the state’s medical board. Dave is frustrated by the lack of interest on the part of the state in pursuing Zeus legally. Why is this guy allowed to practice? There’s plenty of documentation to show that he should not only be stripped of his license, but be behind bars. Why can’t this happen?

The best part of the book is the opening, not to mention the quirky, engaging title. When we begin, the narratives by Diane and by Zeus make me alternately laugh out loud and groan. It’s dry humor, savagely funny. I want it to stay that way.

Sadly, by the thirty percent mark, I am starting to wonder whether a high profile editor might be needed to assist with the literary aspects of this thing. The last time I saw this sort of problem was also with an author that had a lot of technical expertise and a lengthy, successful career in an area that dovetailed with his novel; Keech is retired from a state attorney general’s office. He has plenty of knowledge regarding state bureaucracy as it applies to physicians, but the elements a novel requires—character development and above all a story arc, with the action and urgency rising around the 75 or 80 percent mark and then falling back toward a conclusion, are simply not present. Our hero, Dave, is trying valiantly to shut Zeus down, but readers won’t engage with the amount of bureaucratic detail here. This area needs to be condensed, and Dave needs development as a character. The setting is nearly absent.

The other problem here is a certain tone-deafness regarding the book’s audience. Potentially, this story could be a rallying cry for women that have experienced rape and for anyone that has been molested as a child or when they were vulnerable. There are so many out there.

But for these readers, this is a hot-stove issue. Less is more. This reviewer has not even been there, and yet the level of detailed sexual predation in this book is painful to me, and unnecessarily so. Chapter after chapter; page after page. Most people that would otherwise champion a novel like this one, won’t finish it because it’s too hard to read. The crime itself should wink in briefly, decisively and memorably, and then the story should be built around it.

I would also change the ending.

To be sure, I am convinced that Keech is on the side of the angels, and I would bet my last dollar that he has seen or heard of a situation similar to the one in this story. I suspect that he’s a good man who is transitioning from his career in state government to a career as a novelist, and trying to use fiction to make a difference. For this reason also, I wanted to be able to promote this book and send out a Twitter storm telling people to read it. I avoided writing this review, because it isn’t the one I had hoped to write.

With a great deal of TLC, this story could be rewritten in a way that would work. The idea is strong, but the execution is lacking. A high profile editor might be very useful here, and if that happens and a rewrite significantly improves this work, I would be willing to reread and review again. But as it stands, I cannot recommend it.

Notorious RBG, by Irin Carmon****

notoriousrbgIf I were to review the subject of this memoir rather than the book itself, it would be a slam-dunk five star rating. As it is, I can still recommend Carmon’s brief but potent biography as the best that has been published about this fascinating, passionate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. I have no doubt many more will follow, and it’s possible I will read every one of them. As it stands, this is a rare instance in which I turned my back on my pile of free galleys long enough to ferret this gem out at the Seattle Public Library, because I just had to read it. You should too.

I’m an old school feminist from the seventies, but Ginsberg is one from the fifties. How is that even possible? Imagine the courage it would take to step forward at a time when no women’s movement even existed! She sued Rutgers University for equal pay and won. Later, she was the first female law professor at Columbia University, and she sued them for equal pay too. She volunteered as an attorney for the New Jersey American Civil Liberties Union, represented custodians in a class action suit, and later, when the Free Speech Movement on campuses in the 1960s began to warm up, she was already red hot and ready to go.

The best parts of Carmon’s memoir are the primary documents, because we get to see RBG’s own words. Ginsburg was made a federal appeals judge by President Jimmy Carter and moved to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton. She’s issued a number of tremendously eloquent decisions, and has chosen to read her dissent aloud, a thing not usually done, a record-breaking five times at the time this book was written. The lacy-looking necklace that fans out on all sides of her neck is her dissent collar, and so those that hear the Court deliver its decision can see exactly where Justice Ginsberg stands as soon as they see what she is wearing.

At times such as these, in which a woman in Indiana was recently sentenced to 20 years in prison for having an abortion [reference mine], it gives women hope to know that there is a fighter on the Supreme Court who’s looking out for our interests. It doesn’t mean that women can step away from this political battle, but it’s a thing that encourages us and lends us fortitude.

In January, it is rumored that Ginsberg will release her own memoir, one that relies heavily on her court decisions. Likely this will be an even better memoir than this one. For now though, this uplifting, funny, well-documented memoir is as good as it gets. Go get it.

What Women Want, by Deborah L. Rhode *****

What Women Want

Yes, thank you, I am a feminist. And in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision around the Hobby Lobby’s so-called “right” to deny its female employees the contraception of their choice via their health insurance, Rhode’s manifesto could not be more timely. The book is not only right on the money politically, but it is scholarly, accessible, and written by a woman whose credentials cannot be questioned. Rhode is a Stanford law professor who clerked for Thurgood Marshall. She founded the school’s course on gender, but still sees plenty of room for improvement…everywhere. She’s right. Thanks to Net Galley for promoting this important book.

Rhode points out that in spite of the all-too-common mistaken perception that gender bias is a thing of the past, women constitute less than one half percent of the content in the average history textbook. Furthermore:

In virtually every major dimension of social status, financial

well-being, and physical safety, women still fare worse than

men. Sexual violence remains common, and reproductive

rights are by no means secure.

Women are still primarily responsible for child care, and they are still penalized for this on the job. Abortion providers are rare due to local laws and increased insurance premiums, courtesy of virtually unfettered terrorism against women’s health clinics. Wealthy women will always be able to terminate an unwanted pregnancy because they can travel, but the poor, who often have the most urgent need to exercise this choice, are stuck if they can’t get to a county or state where the service is available, and pay for attendant travel costs associated with other red-tape hurdles such as waiting periods.

The USA has the second-highest rate of reported rape in the world, and a quarter of all women experience violence from their intimate partner; a fifth are raped or experience attempted rape.

Are you listening?

Rhode carefully delineates every problem faced by women in the USA today, and she argues, blow by blow, citation by citation, what is needed. Women should be organizing. We aren’t, at least not in the numbers that we need to in order to bring about social change. In fact, this reviewer would suggest that we are losing ground, and it is because so many of us don’t show up to carry a sign, wear an armband, or carry a bullhorn.

The only weak place in Rhode’s release, if there is one, has to do with women of color. Her analysis there is shallow. However, the other sections apply to all women, regardless of color or ethnicity. We all need respect in the workplace and parity with our male coworkers or colleagues in pay and advancement. We all need affordable–if not free–childcare. We all need reproductive freedom that is between ourselves and our doctors. And we all need to be able to speak up and be perceived as “assertive” rather than “aggressive”. We are not there yet.

This reviewer has twice marched in Washington DC for women’s right to reproductive freedom, and cannot believe that the Equal Rights Amendment is dead. What’s that about?

If you are female or care about someone who is, you should get this book. Rhode is crystal clear and absolutely correct; if women cannot be equal now, then when?