Best Feminist Fiction 2018

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

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.

My Own Words, by Ruth Bader Ginsburg****

MyOwnWordsThis one is a crushing disappointment. I seldom buy books anymore, but I was so pumped about this collection that I went all out and got a hard copy, expecting to love it enough to keep it in my home library forever. Sadly, this isn’t what I expected.

Obviously, no U.S. Supreme Court justice is going to have enough time to sit down and write his or her memoirs, let alone an octogenarian justice, but I had hoped to find a collection of her meaty and sometimes even audacious opinions, particularly her dissents. Instead, this slender volume is packed with filler. There are two co-authors whose names are written on the cover in miniscule print, and it is they that write sometimes windy introductions to just about everything;  to make matters worse, they don’t tell us anything you cannot find in other biographies written about this feminist luminary.

And what of Ginsburg’s writing? I didn’t buy the book to see the precocious things she wrote as a child, as an adolescent, or in college. I just want to read her court opinions. That’s it. And that’s not what I got.

I can’t give anything that bears Ginsburg’s name a rating below four stars, but seriously, if your discretionary income forces you to buy books strategically, either skip this one or get it used. Surely at some point something more scholarly will be released, and then I’ll wish I still had the dollars that I spent here.

Girls Burn Brighter, by Shobha Rao***

GirlsBurnBrighterThanks go to Net Galley and Flatiron Books for the review copy, which I read free and early in exchange for this review.  This book is for sale to the public now.

This story is billed as one of matchless friendship, and it is that, but the misery and despair are so stark and ever present as to destroy all hope, and this ambivalence is the reason for my slowness and frankly reluctance to review.

Our story is set in India, and our two protagonists are Poornima, whose struggling father runs a small textile factory that makes saris, and Savitha, one of his workers. They become friends and uphold one another through the desperate struggle for survival. Poornima’s mother is gone, and the daughter is not considered beautiful, which makes her dowry an even more essential aspect of her marriage than it would otherwise be. She herself has no desire to marry, particularly not to someone she has never met and that only plans to marry her for the income generated by the union, but her father is genuinely eager to be rid of her—one more mouth to feed—and she is hustled through the ordeal despite her misgivings.

Savitha has vowed to protect and defend her friend, but she is banished and must make a run for it.

The entire story is bleak, stark, and horrible. For those that are unaware of the fate of some women in some Asian countries, this may be worth reading for enlightenment, but for many feminists this is not news. Stories of Indian women being fatally burned or badly disfigured by accidentally-on-purpose kitchen accidents by angry in-laws that expect more of a dowry price than is actually paid have circulated since the 1980s at least. I would have found the story more compelling and less difficult to read if there was some small twinkle of hope somewhere. At the seventy percent mark I decided I couldn’t stand it, but when I skipped to the end, I discovered that at least one protagonist was still alive, which is better than I expected, and so I went back and read the rest of it. It proved to be a small reward for a great deal of horror.

Don’t get me wrong; if there was a way that even one woman in India could somehow be spared because I had read this novel, I’d be all in. But to read news that is both old and terrible to no end—because if the US government were ever to actively assert the rights of women anywhere, which it hasn’t, it sure as hell won’t be under the current administration—seems like a lot of grinding sorrow to no good purpose.

Recommended to readers with strong stomachs that have no knowledge of how women in India are treated, with the caveats above.

Brass, by Xhenet Aliu*****

“I swear to Allah, you are the most beautiful girl I have ever seen.”

Brass Waterbury, Connecticut is the place to go for immigrants, the Brass Manufacturing Capital of the World; that’s true, anyway, until the plant closes. Elsie Kuzavinas waits tables at a Greek restaurant while her mother slaves over the assembly line at the Peter Paul Almond Joy Mounds factory nearby.

Elsie tells us that “My mother had warned me when I took the job to watch out for the Albanians that worked at the Ross, because she heard they treated their women like sacks and that their tempers ran hotter than the deep fryers in the kitchen.”  Nevertheless, she falls for the line cook, Bashkim hard and fast.  When he offers to take her home one night and then deliberately points his Pontiac Fiero the wrong way, she falls silently complicit, because even if he turns out to be a serial killer, she would be “happier to have died Bashkim’s victim than his nothing-at-all.”  Elsie knows that Bashkim had left a wife behind, but they don’t talk about it.

That’s just one of Bashkim’s rules. Nobody is allowed to talk about Bashkim’s wife.

In fact, Bashkim is a humdinger, and seeing Elsie’s slow transition from battered mistress to—not a crusader by any means, but a woman that has a bottom line involving basic safety and minimal security—is bound to make readers sit up straight and pay attention. And when an apologetic relative tells a bruised Elsie that Bashkim didn’t mean to hurt her, I want to cheer when Elsie says, “Of course he did. That’s what fists do.”

Elsie’s story is told alternately with that of the daughter she begets with Bashkim. Lulu is her mother’s daughter, a reckless girl who’s got little to lose. Their stories are presented in a bold, original second person narrative that is unforgettable.

By now I am supposed to have told you that I read this book free thanks to Net Galley and Random House in exchange for this honest review. But when a debut like this one comes along, the superlatives come first, the disclaimers second.  Aliu has positioned herself on the literary map, and I dare anyone to try to knock her aside.

Lulu didn’t get the college scholarship she had worked toward; all her hopes and dreams were riding on it. She needs more than an education, she needs to get out of the house. In desperation, Lulu sets out to meet her daddy, convinced that if he can actually see her, he will make everything right for her. Ahmet, a fickle, sweet boy that adores her, agrees to drive her to Texas. Lulu’s journeys, both outward and inward, kept me from thumbing off my reader when midnight came. The inward journey joining Lulu and Elsie is hypnotic.

This story is available to the public January 23, 2018. It’s badass working class fiction. Every feminist, every mother, every daughter, and everyone that loves excellent fiction should get a copy of this book and read it.

Because for all of us, it is better to be Aliu’s readers than her nothing-at-all.

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.

The Lauras, by Sara Taylor*****

Yo, happy release day! I read this over the winter and blogged it in June; if you missed it the first time, check it out.

Seattle Book Mama

TheLauras“It doesn’t do any good to just run away from something, you’ve got to be running to something.”

Alex’s mom has been hit one time too many by Alex’s dad, and she wakes Alex up and says to get a few things together and get in the car. They’re out of there. The rest of the story is an odyssey, both externally and internally, and within it, Alex comes of age. The story is beautifully crafted with gritty, nearly-tangible settings; however, it is the meticulous, absolutely believable characters that makes this story sing. It is the first outstanding work of fiction I’ve seen that features a transgender teen, and like so much great fiction, it provides an education to those of us that haven’t known anyone that claims this identity. In fact, this book may become the Rubyfruit Jungle for trans people and those that care about them. I read…

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The Lauras, by Sara Taylor*****

TheLauras“It doesn’t do any good to just run away from something, you’ve got to be running to something.”

 

Alex’s mom has been hit one time too many by Alex’s dad, and she wakes Alex up and says to get a few things together and get in the car. They’re out of there. The rest of the story is an odyssey, both externally and internally, and within it, Alex comes of age. The story is beautifully crafted with gritty, nearly-tangible settings; however, it is the meticulous, absolutely believable characters that makes this story sing. It is the first outstanding work of fiction I’ve seen that features a transgender teen, and like so much great fiction, it provides an education to those of us that haven’t known anyone that claims this identity. In fact, this book may become the Rubyfruit Jungle for trans people and those that care about them. I read this novel free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Crown Publishing; it’s available to the public August 1, 2017.

Feminists have to cheer for Alex’s mother, who Alex calls “Ma”. Ma has a car, she has maps, she has some food, and she has Alex. When a state trooper pulls her over because both she and her car have been reported missing by Alex’s father, Ma tells him point blank that the car is in her name, and that Alex is hers, not theirs. No, she doesn’t need to come with him. No, she doesn’t have to make a phone call. It wouldn’t always play out this way for everyone, of course, but just seeing it work once, right here, is satisfying and it’s credible. In fact, there’s never a hole in the plausibility of this story, even though the events that unfold here are far from ordinary.

This trip, one that initially has a destination but turns into a wandering trek all across North America, gives Alex the first real taste of learning who Ma is. Any parent that has raised a teenager and has had a car understands the value of car talk. Both driver and passenger look straight ahead, and then sometimes things just naturally fall out of their mouths that otherwise would remain unsaid. Not having the money to keep a smart phone alive facilitates this even more; when there’s nothing else to look at, the choices are talk; silence; and sleep.

And so Alex learns that Ma was raised largely in foster care, and the road trip provides a chance to trace back the string, to see the places life bounced her in and out of through adult eyes. Essentially, they are homeless much of the time, sleeping in the car, in the occasional down-at-the-heels motel, and every now and then alighting long enough to procure an apartment, though never the sort you’d want unless you were desperate. Sometimes she works; sometimes they steal; sometimes they are given a handout; still, they survive, and the trek goes on. And we see the disastrous failure of the public school system to accommodate a kid like Alex, who is expected to check either the male box on the enrollment form, or the female box, and whose refusal to do so is treated as a behavioral issue.

There are times in my notes when I find myself referring to Alex as “she”, and it shows how ingrained our social system is, particularly for those of us that are older and have to work harder to think flexibly. At times I feel the same urge as those obnoxious school children Alex encounters in the story that want to know exactly what reproductive organ is inside Alex’s pants, because when I was growing up, that was how we identified gender. But as I watched Alex’s character take form within Taylor’s deep, intimate prose, I found that knowing Alex as Alex was enough. We never learn what’s between Alex’s legs, and by the end of the book, it no longer matters. That’s an accomplishment in and of itself.

As for Alex’s future, it’s a conundrum. What Alex wants most is for Ma to point the car toward home, toward Dad. Oh, please please please. It’s the refrain of children the world over whose parents have split, children clinging to the illusion that if they are all reunited, everything will be fine. Oh, of course it will! And we know early in the story that this will never happen, and we don’t want Ma to go back there. But Alex wants Ma, and Alex wants Dad. And this is a quandary that many readers will recognize as their own childhood longing.

One last word here is directed at teachers and parents. The literacy level here will be accessible to high school age students; however, there are sexual situations—as well as a sexual assault—and a lot of very profane language. If you wonder whether you want to put it on your shelf at school or home, get a copy and read it yourself first. I would have chosen to offer it to my own children when they were teens—they are grown now—but every family is different, and schools also have such a wide range of standards that you’re better off using your own judgment.

That said, this pivotal novel is highly recommended.

It Happens All the Time, by Amy Hatvany***

ithappensallthetimeI was invited to read and review this title in advance by Net Galley and Atria Books; it is written by a rape survivor, who tells us bravely of her own experience in the introduction. I wanted to love this book and to scream it across the internet and from the top of the Space Needle, that everyone should get it and read it, but instead, I came away feeling ambivalent. The rape passage is resonant and horrifying, and it’s written in a courageous way, and I’ll go into that in a minute. The rest of the book, however, is flat, and so in some ways this proves to be an opportunity squandered. There are spoilers, so don’t proceed if you don’t want to know how the book ends. It is available for purchase today.

The premise is that Amber and Tyler are best friends. They dated when they were teenagers, but a lot of time has gone by, and they have agreed to be buddies, talking often. Amber does not know that Tyler’s torch is still burning for her, brighter than ever; he is waiting for her to come around. Meanwhile, she has become engaged to someone else.

Amber is also a recovering bulimic, and now she is a specialist in nutrition and fitness. The level of detail regarding Amber’s meals hijacks the narrative at times; I don’t care how many ounces of lean this, that, the other she is about to eat. If we’re going to write about diet and fitness, that should be another book, and otherwise it should stay in the background.

The rape itself is where the story shines, and of course, it is the central scene to the story. Hatvany wants us to recognize who rapists are, and who they aren’t:

 

“They’re not greasy-haired monsters who jump out from behind the bushes and tie up their victims in their basements.”

 

The story is told from alternating perspectives, so we hear from both Amber and Tyler. Amber is believable to a degree; a more richly developed character would be more convincing, but the story is one that countless girls and women have lived. It’s a date that goes badly wrong; sometimes the woman is one that expects that she will want sex, but then decides she doesn’t, and her date forces the issue. Is that rape? Unless she says yes to sex, it is. Sometimes it starts with kisses—drunken or otherwise—but when the man wants to go further, she decides she wants to keep her clothes on and not follow through. If she says stop, or wait, or fails to say she wants to do this, yes, it is rape. And so this part of the narrative is important, and once I have read it, I want more than ever to like the rest of the book so that I can promote it.

Tyler is just straight up badly written. I am sorry to say it, but I rolled my eyes when I read his portion of the narrative. The ending is way over the top, and it distracts us with morally questionable deeds done by Amber that we would never commit. If it was rendered brilliantly, it could perhaps come across heroically, like Thelma and Louise, but it isn’t, and it doesn’t.

What happens here, is that Amber kidnaps Tyler post-rape at gunpoint. She forces him to drive to her family’s vacation cabin, and she makes him say that he raped her. He won’t do it, so she shoots him. She refuses to take him to a hospital until he says what she wants him to say. Once all of this happens, he has a huge epiphany, and from then on, Tyler’s wails about what a bad thing he has done, and how he knows he deserves everything that will happen to him as a result.

Sure.

But in addition, I find myself squirming. At one point when Amber holds him hostage, Tyler points out to her that kidnapping is a felony. Having Amber muddy the waters morally by kidnapping and shooting her assailant is distracting and morally tenuous at best. He has to tell the truth; she doesn’t. He owes it to her to lose his job and career, and to serve his time; she never expresses any sort of remorse and never suffers the consequences of her actions. And whereas brilliant prose stylist could turn Amber into a vigilante folk hero, this isn’t that.

I know that the author intends to tell a story that is deeply moving and that will improve the social discourse regarding what rape is, and how we as a society deal with it, both institutionally and as individuals. Instead, the distractions and tired prose prevent this story from reaching its potential.

Infinite Tuesday, by Michael Nesmith****

infinitetues

Michael Nesmith is a veteran of the entertainment industry, but his name is most recognizable as the wool-beanie-wearing member of The Monkees. Nesmith has a treasure trove of experience and insight, and he’s very articulate. I really enjoyed this memoir, and if American musical and cultural history interest you, I recommend you get a copy when it comes out April 18, 2017. Thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Archetype for the DRC, which I received free of charge in exchange for this honest review.

Nesmith came of age in Texas, the child of a single hardworking mother, and was mentored by the profane elderly Uncle Chick, whose spoken cadence Nesmith would later find in his own sense of musical rhythm. Because Texas was the exclusive province, at the time, of country and gospel music, Michael and his pregnant girlfriend loaded themselves and Mike’s guitar into his mother’s car and took off for Los Angeles. It proved to be a good move.

Those that cannot remember the birth of rock and roll have no idea how polarizing it was. The cliché term “generation gap” represented a genuine source of friction and alienation in a lot of families; some parents decided that rock was not an art form but instead a type of devil worship. Some disowned their children over it and didn’t take them back later. I’m serious. And so when Nesmith credits his mother for her patience and forbearance—he actually didn’t ask if he could take her only car, for instance—he’s not just being gracious. Here, let him tell you:

 

It was unthinkable to everyone who had just fought World War II that the music…the whole cultural imperative of the victorious warriors would be torn down by their kids as if it were ugly curtains in the den.

 

Soon Nesmith would be chosen as a member of The Monkees, which catapulted four little-known young men to instant fame; Nesmith recalls that although seventeen to twenty-year-old Beatles fans were incensed by the TV imitation, the nine to twelve-year-old television kids—of which this reviewer was one—saw them as a fact:

What followed was what Nesmith calls “Celebrity Psychosis”, a sense of disproportion and entitlement caused by instant stardom, obsequious handlers, and bizarre social circumstances. He humorously recounts strange experiences, such as singing at a local school and being pursued by screaming adolescent girls, and being “sighted” shopping in a grocery store.

He recalls his experience as John Lennon’s house guest in London, and he cites Jimi Hendrix as the best rocker that ever lived. He also drops a rather nasty slam at Bob Dylan without any real explanation, and I confess that is part of the missing fifth star. What the hell?

Bette Nesmith, Michael’s late mother, invented Liquid Paper while he entered show business, and her fortune helped finance some of his creative products. Nesmith was a pioneer in the field of country rock as well as the music video. He produced movies and won a Grammy for “Elephant Parts”, an early music video:

 

He is also an ardent feminist, and his recollections show that he was one before it was cool. Thank you, Mr. Nesmith.

I have to admit that I find the first half of the memoir more interesting than the second half. The author goes on in the latter half of the book to speak at length about his spiritual experiences with Christian Science and the ways in which wealth distorts a person’s character, though he recognizes the latter doesn’t garner a lot of sympathy.  “Never complain about the air-conditioning a private jet.” He also does a lot of brow-beating about having stolen a friend’s wife, and attributes the failure of that marriage—his second, or his third maybe—to guilt.

Despite the aspects that I didn’t enjoy, I do recommend this memoir, because it eloquently describes a wide, enormously dynamic period in American film, music, and television. Nesmith unspools the last half of the 19th century with the wisdom of his experience, and it’s a perspective completely unlike any other I have seen.
Recommended for those with an interest in contemporary American cultural history, as well as to fans of Nesmith and The Monkees.