Book Review: GOOD AND MAD will make you good and mad

Traister, Rebecca - Good and Mad (1)Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger
Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister contextualizes female rage from abolitionists and suffragists to the participants in the March for Women and those in the #metoo movement. She explains how women have been socialized to tamp down anger but in reality, that very anger can, and in the past has, led to momentous social change.

Good and Mad explains how existing cultural and social institutions, built by white men, maintain their power, and perpetuate it by dividing the interests of groups that might unite to topple it, such as men of color and women. She also explicates how white women become implicated in the extant system, and her interpretation of why a majority of white women voted for Trump is the only one that has made any sense to me (as stomach churning as it is).

Traister writes for white women, some of whom might be feeling rage for the first time after Trump and the revelations of #metoo. She is careful, though, to remind readers of the vital and often overlooked contribution of black women. Black women brought the first sexual harassment cases to court in the 1970s and a black woman started #metoo in the mid-2000s. Rightly so, black women have been angry for a very long time–and while white women showing anger violates cultural expectations, when black women show anger, they suffer even more, diminished to the “Angry Black Woman” stereotype. The sections on how women need to work together going forward were among my favorite in the book, yet I also craved more stories about women of color in the book.

Of course, a fear behind this anger is that the anger will diminish without leading to any real change. The final section of the book offers both strategies and a message of cautious hopefulness.

It’s perhaps not too surprising that as I read the book and learned more, I became even angrier than I had been (though Traister would say that’s not necessarily a bad thing and might even be a good thing). The book is meticulously researched and contains ample evidence to support her arguments along with personal insight. And, while the topic is serious, the book contains moments of levity that made me actually laugh.

As I mentioned, I might have liked additional stories from women of color or a sense that they were part of the audience for the book. Additionally, at times, I didn’t enjoy Traister’s writing style. Some of her sentences were like roller coasters, endlessly long with excessive elliptical clauses and descriptive phrases that were unnecessarily difficult. Overall, however, I thought this was an excellent and important volume, one that both taught me new information and helped me make sense of the current cultural landscape. I recommend Good and Mad for any angry woman or man or any man wanting to understand and angry woman.

Book Review: A SPARK OF LIGHT, held hostage in an abortion clinic

Picoult, Jodi - A Spark of LightA Spark of Light
Jodi Picoult

People come to the Center, a women’s reproductive health clinic and Mississippi’s only abortion provider, for myriad reasons. Some seek birth control, some are there for gynecological exams, some are working, some are protesting, some are friends and family of patients, and some, but by no means all, are there to have abortions.

George Goddard, though, has come to the Center for revenge, and after initially shooting five and killing three, he corrals the survivors into the clinic’s waiting room as he has a tense standoff with the police. Hugh McElroy, the police negotiator, has a vested interest in the case. His fifteen-year-old daughter, Wren, is inside, but he hides that information from his superior and coworkers since he knows he’ll be removed from active duty if his connection is revealed.

Meanwhile, the survivors, none of whom would have come together otherwise, develop bonds that buoy them as they support each other and try to outwit George, but are also tested as they all consider the reasons they’ve each arrived at the clinic on that particular day.

A second strand of the novel features Beth, a young girl who self-administered a medical abortion with drugs she ordered from China. When she hemorrhaged and was taken to the emergency room, a nurse called the police. Seventeen-year-old Beth, still recovering, was arrested for murder. Beth tried so hard to obtain an abortion legally, but she was too young, she was too far along, she didn’t have her father’s permission. . . I ache for Beth.

The novel is told backwards, starting from the end of the day, at 5:00 p.m., and retracing it hour-by-hour through 8:00 a.m. For me, this structure didn’t work in this particular novel. It required the introduction of information before context which made it confusion. Then, when the context was provided, the information was restated. To add to the repetition, some themes were simply repeated. At two different times, George considered how his actions didn’t corresponds with movies as he thought they would.

Given that the novel is set in a single day, it’s unreasonable to expect that every question will be resolved, but the novel itself highlights two questions that get abandoned: the relationship of Hugh and Wren to Annabelle, Wren’s mother plus the insidious nature of secrets. One character, in particular, seems to resolve to reveal her secrets after the clinic ordeal, but a hint of the future indicates that they are still buried.

I also found the writing at times to be problematic in a way that’s hard to describe, maybe didactic, maybe trite, maybe too overdone. One character thinks, “Who was going to rescue her now?” I’d expect to see such a sentiment in a romance novel.

What I did like about this book was the presentation of both sides of the abortion debate. I think it was more sympathetic to the pro-choice characters, though that may be my personal bias, but it certainly was empathetic to the pro-life protesters (except George, who was really not part of the anti-abortion movement but acting out of a personal narrative).

Picoult reveals how choice is an illusion when the lack of facilities, the presence of bureaucratic hurdles, and the shortage of resources present obstacle upon obstacle for women seeking abortions, particularly minors. She shows how the characters in Mississippi have to undergo a two-day process if they want an abortion: a day for counseling, in which the provider is required to provide a litany of information, much medically false, and a second day for the procedure. I thought I knew what it was like to seek an abortion in a southern state. I DID NOT.

Also perceptive is the link between anti-abortion campaigns and race and the fact that most pro-life protesters are middle-aged white men. The movement is about controlling women’s bodies, not protecting babies. As many have mentioned, if it were about babies, the same pro-life advocates would also be marching for social services to protect those babies after they are born.

So, then, I am decidedly mixed about A Spark of Light. I appreciated the depth of Picoult’s research and was moved and informed by the themes of the novel, but I didn’t care for the structure or writing.

Book Review: SAVE ME FROM DANGEROUS MEN, inaugural book in new series with tough private eye, Nikki Griffin

Lelchuk, SA - Save Me from Dangerous Men CoverSave Me from Dangerous Men
SA Lelchuk

In Save Me from Dangerous Men, tough and independent Nikki Griffin owns The Brimstone Magpie, a used bookstore in Berkeley, where she’s created a community around the books that give her comfort and reassurance. Nikki is also a private investigator. Determined to protect victims of domestic abuse, Nikki’s unpaid specialty is extracting women from these relationships and ensuring the abusers know the costs of contacting the women again.

Her paid jobs require her to follow cheating husbands or track down missing people–until Greggory Gunn enters her office. CEO of Care4, an up-and-coming tech firm producing cutting edge baby monitors, he suspects Karen Li, an employee, of corporate espionage and needs Nikki’s help learning who she is working for. Although some of Gunn’s story sounded slightly off, the $20,000 cash retainer he offered convinced her to accept the case.

Distracted by her heroin-addicted brother and wanting to help Zoe, an abused woman who entered her orbit, Nikki began surveillance of Karen Li. She saw Karen meet two giant, intimidating men, and was sure that Karen looked not just nervous but terrified. Next, Nikki followed Karen to Mendocino, and saw her meet with the same two men on the beach. When one of them pushed her to the edge of the nearby cliff, she broke cover to intervene. Later, she initiated contact with Karen who told Nikki she had no idea what she’d waded into, but if Karen wasn’t successful, people were going to die.

Now, Nikki counted Karen among the women she had to protect, but that put her and her loved ones in mortal danger. Nikki didn’t know who her enemies were or who would die if she couldn’t stop what seemed to be an irrevocable chain of events.

The plot was fast-paced as Nikki seemed to leap from one dangerous situation to another. Her wild sideline was grounded with trips to the bookstore where she bantered with the ZEBRAS (the Zealous East Bay Ratiocinating Amateur Sleuths) and always was able to recommend the perfect book to customers. Save Me from Dangerous Me included a bevy of literary references, but for the most part they were simple mentions instead of integrated into the plot or described, and that might have been overdone a bit.

Although I figured out some elements of the mystery early on, other parts were a surprise to me. Nikki’s backstory and motivation for her work unspooled throughout the book. Nikki herself had some stereotypical elements: she was beautiful, wounded, had difficulty connecting with men, was intelligent and determined. She had an almost preternatural way of anticipating the behavior of others. All this was a tad unrealistic, as was her ability to continue her vigilante work without any consequences. And the book contains several fighting scenes and descriptions of violence which may trouble some readers.

That said, Save Me from Dangerous Men is a high-octane ride, analogous to an action movie where certain rules of reality can be suspended. As much as I was troubled by Nikki’s methods, there was a part of me that was rooting for her and pleased when she achieved vengeance. This is expected to be the first book in a series with Nikki Griffin. I expect I’ll return to read more about her adventures.

Thank you to NetGalley and Flatiron Books for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: OKSANA, BEHAVE! a self-destructive protagonist from Kiev growing up in the U.S.

Kuznetsova, Maria - Oksana, Behave coverOksana, Behave!
Maria Kuznetsova

Oksana Konnikova moved to the United States from Kiev with her parents when she was a child. Although her father was a Math Olympics champion in Russia, while working as a physicist in Gainesville, Florida, he had to deliver pizza to make ends meet. Her mother, struggling to find work as an accountant, often fell into depression. And she shared a room with her sassy grandmother who enjoyed the catcalls she received while walking down Prostitute Street. They affectionately call Oksana “fool” or “idiot” but it speaks to a distance between her and her family, perhaps most sadly illustrated when her parents and grandmother go out to dinner to celebrate but leave her behind in the apartment, alone.

Each chapter is written almost as if a self-contained short story and jumps forward in time with only the characters in common. The structure was interesting, and I got a kick out of seeing the brief mentions of Oksana’s high school friend, Lily, and her changing careers, throughout the book. At the same time, the quality and impact of the chapters was uneven. It also offers a less intimate view of the characters since we see them in bits over many time periods.

Oksana certainly is badly behaved. As a child, testing if the police will really come if she calls 911, she reports that her grandmother is trying to kill her. When a tween, she severely injures a bully when protecting a younger child from his abuses. As she ages, her behavior becomes both more selfish and more self-destructive, leaving a swath of cruel destruction in its wake. Even at the end of the novel, when her life has changed dramatically, her choices have not, and it isn’t clear she’s learned anything from the pain she’s caused.

I had also expected much more mediation on the immigrant experience. Her name and other people’s difficulty pronouncing it, her family’s food preferences, and her travel to the Ukraine are embedded in the story, but I’m not sure if we are to take Oksana’s bad behavior as a manifestation of her immigrant experience, her personality, or the result of her upbringing.

Also, I’d hoped for more information on her grandmother’s experiences in the war. From the description, I thought this would play more of a role. Certainly, this history was important to Oksana, but it wasn’t included in the novel but for a paragraph or two.

Maria Kuznetsova does have some wonderful passages and heartrending dialogue, but I found myself empathizing much more with Oksana’s victims than with her. I hoped she would develop and change over the course of the novel, but she never seemed to learn to behave. Maybe, though, the end was just the beginning.

Thank you to NetGalley and Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: THE NIGHT TIGER, a story imbued with legends unfolding in colonial Malaya

Choo, Yangsze - The Night Tiger (4)The Night Tiger
Yangsze Choo

On his deathbed, Dr. MacFarlane, who had only four fingers on one hand made his young houseboy, Ren, promise to find his missing finger and bury it with his body within forty-nine days of his death. Meanwhile, independent Ji Lin, a dressmaker’s apprentice who is secretly working as a “dance instructor” at a dance hall to pay off her mother’s mahjong gambling debts, steals a vial from a client–and inside is a finger preserved in salt.

Dr. MacFarlane sends Ren to Batu Gajah to work for William Acton, the surgeon who removed his finger to save him from infection. Meanwhile, Ji Lin learns that the client from whom she stole the finger suddenly died, and his funeral was being held in a town near Falin, where she grew up. Back in Falin, she was surprised to see her stepbrother, Shin, who had been studying medicine in Singapore. Although Ji Lin had always been the better student, her stepfather refused to further her education. Though Shin and Ji Lin were born the same day and were close as twins during childhood, they grew apart. Ji Lin had jealousy that he was living her dream of going to medical school, but also other, confusing feelings of attraction. Shin was home for the summer working as an orderly at the Batu Gajah District Hospital, where William Acton worked as a surgeon. Ultimately, with no one else to trust, she confided in Shin about the finger.

Though Ji Lin was desperate to rid herself of the finger, it kept appearing in her possession as a precocious and strange young Chinese boy circled her dreams. Meanwhile, young local women were being killed, ostensibly by a tiger–some feared a weretiger–though pathologist Dr. Rawlings thought that it was more likely they were murdered before tigers mauled their bodies. Ren’s deadline was fast approaching, and Ji Lin seemed to be his solution, but it seemed like they might never meet. And Ji Lin’s possession of the finger placed her in unexpected danger. At the same time, the deaths of the women might reveal terrible secrets William Acton has tried to hide.

I liked a lot about The Night Tiger, particularly the setting–colonial Malaya, its flora, fauna, and weather, and learning about the legends of the area–regarding weretigers and beliefs about Chinese numbers. Although Choo critiques the gender hierarchy, in my opinion she does miss an opportunity to criticize British rule, though the description of how the British lived might be censure enough.

Ji Lin offered an ostensibly layered character. Because of her intelligence and experience at the dance hall, she was savvy and blunt, but still proper. However, at critical junctures she made outlandish assumptions or was silent when she needed to be confrontational.

While Shin, her stepbrother / object of her affections was supportive, he was also prone to possessiveness and rage, a shade lighter than his father who was physically abusive to Ji Lin’s stepmother. Not only is it rather creepy to have her stepbrother as a love interest, it seems again that supposedly wise Ji Lin ignores obvious warning signs.

Ren, though quick to learn and conscientious, has a single-minded determination to fulfill MacFarlane’s mission, and even very sage advice and tragedy don’t slow him down or make him think twice about his journey, though at eleven, that might be understandable.

A lot of attention is given to the five Confucian virtues and how they are a set. In the book, certain characters represent the virtues and they, too, are supposed to represent a set, but why they are connected and what this means is never very clear. (Many of them don’t meet each other.)

Finally, although the novel did have some “mature themes,” many times it read like a young adult novel to me. If it were a movie, it would definitely have been produced under the Hays Code.

I think there are a lot of readers who would enjoy this book, and I certainly did find the depiction of the surroundings interesting, but the The Night Tiger didn’t live up to my (possibly too high) expectations.