Give Me Your Hand

IMG_7924Give Me Your Hand

by Megan Abbott

Set in the competitive world of STEM, Give Me Your Hand has been my favorite Megan Abbott book so far. Kit, the narrator, and Diane, first meet in high school where Diane inspires Kit to work harder and expand her ambitions. Kit helps Diane, who transferred in as a senior, feel less isolated. Their friendship elevates them both until, haunted by the words of Hamlet, Diane confesses an unforgivable secret to Kit. Burdened–infected–by her new knowledge, Kit withdraws from Diane, believing she will never see her again after graduation. But secrets don’t die so easily.

Twelve years later, Kit works as a postdoc in Dr. Severin’s biochemistry lab. She’s known as the hardest worker, the first to arrive every morning. And when Dr. Severin receives a prestigious NIH grant to study premenstrual dysphoric disorder, Kit believes her dedication, and, as the only female postdoc, maybe even her gender, will earn her one of the two spots available for researchers on the team. She even begins to feel a surge of confidence until Dr. Severin announces an addition to the laboratory–Diane Fleming. Diane’s arrival undercuts Kit’s self-assurance and dredges up past anguish. As the two compete for the coveted research spots, Kit wonders how far Diane would go to sabotage her, securing her a spot on the grant and ensuring her secret remains hidden.

At first, I feared the book would be based on the unfurling of Diane’s secret, with clues and red herrings doled out. Instead, the narrative focuses much more on why people keep secrets (if indeed they can) and what happens if they do. The book is well-written, expertly layered, and though-provoking. I found following the motifs and symbols through the book (blood, the color green, mirrors, Hamlet’s Ophelia) very fun and rewarding. And in an era where every psychological thriller or mysteries promises an unbelievable twist, the plot in Give Me Your Hand genuinely surprised me at times.

The novel highlights the challenges for women in male-dominated academic environments, and the sacrifices they must make, especially when the competition is so fierce no one can be trusted. I found it spoke to the need for providing quality education to all regardless of socio-economic status and demonstrated the additional burdens faced by poor students, from a lack of opportunity to a lack of equipment. The book also raised interesting questions about how we explain and justify our behavior.

You should read Give Me Your Hand if you like psychological thrillers, contemporary fiction, and writing about women. I’m sure you fall into one of those categories, so put the book on your reading list!

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Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls

Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls - Jes Baker (1)Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls: A Handbook for Unapologetic Living

by Jes Baker

Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls was a surprisingly difficult book for me. I’ve been thoroughly brainwashed by society’s messages about fat bodies. Fat people are gross, lazy, undeserving, shouldn’t do this/shouldn’t do that… and I speak as a person in that category! Consequently, I am probably the perfect audience for this book. As I intellectually understood and accepted Baker’s arguments, a voice in the back of my head still kept saying, You still need to lose weight. So, I have work to do, and this book is an excellent place to begin.

The style of the book probably is familiar to readers of Jes Baker’s blog, The Militant Baker, but I’d never read it before. Baker takes an irreverent, humorous approach–though never a belittling one–to the subject matter. Words in all caps, exclamation marks, and asides populate the book. In some contexts, I would not like the style, but here is it fitting. It feels intimate and personal.

In the book, Baker discusses the concept and need for body love and argues that embracing body love can positively impact the individual as well as society at large because it promotes empathy, acceptance, and compassion. So often, overweight people, especially women, have a litany of dreams they will accomplish–when they lose weight that is. As a result, we are often in a limbo of inaction. Baker urges readers starting to live now to not wait, even if that means becoming vulnerable. Baker traces the history of cultural meaning attached to fatness–in the past, and currently in some cultures, being fat is idolized–and explains the historical context that created the feminine mystique, the beauty myth, and today’s focus on health and wellness. She’s quick to explain that health isn’t the problem–an obsessive approach that stifles activity in other areas of life is an issue.

One of the most revealing chapters discussed the relationship between obesity and health. I’d always thought that fatness was related to diabetes, high cholesterol, stroke, and high blood pressure. I thought of an old commercial for Jenny Craig where a husband and son approach the mother–they want her to lose weight because they care about her, they want her to have a long life. It sounds reasonable. What I didn’t know was those health problems–those are more likely to be caused by yo-yo dieting than obesity. Fat and thin people can be healthy, just as fat and thin people can be unhealthy. I also really enjoyed the chapter on body currency which postulated that the vitriol from trolls against happy, visible fat women comes in part due to sexism but also because of the idea that most people have bought into society’s standards about weight and have invested in them. Women who flout those beauty standards have in effect “cut in line”–they’ve achieved happiness without the investment. Of course, they are probably not very happy themselves.

So what to do? Baker has several suggestions: takes selfies both to increase your self-esteem and to expand representation of diverse bodies. She promotes affirmations based on neuroplasticity, the science that indicates brains can be “rewired.” Her chapter on mental health has valuable information for people of all sizes and orientations. A chapter on fashion encourages readers to wear whatever the fuck they want, and it’s particularly fun because it recounts her offensive against Abercrombie and Fitch and her response to Lane Bryant’s #IMNOANGEL advertising campaign.

Baker realizes her position of privilege as a white woman who is overweight but still has the desired hourglass figure. She acknowledges and invites diverse readers to voice their experiences, and she embraces this in the book by including a number of brief guest essays from women of color, trans men, fat men, and experts in medicine and sex including Sonya Renee Taylor of the Body is Not an Apology.

My quibbles with the book are few. One thought I had was that the chapter on the history that villainized being fat could have been better documented, though given the constraints of the book, what Baker wrote–a high level introduction–isn’t unreasonable and invites further research. I also wished the book included pictures. Baker references cartoons and images, such as those she created in response to Abercrombie and Fitch’s CEO Mike Jeffries, who was unapologetic when criticized for not offering larger women’s sizes. Admittedly, the relevant images aren’t too difficult to find online, but I thought that including reproductions would have enhanced the book.

I think anyone and everyone who has ever felt insecure about their bodies (and who hasn’t?) should read this book and use it as a springboard for further thinking and investigation as well as inspiration to take up space, be loud, and love your body.

The Cassandra

The Cassandra by Sharma ShieldsThe Cassandra

by Sharma Shields

In 1944, Mildred Groves, Star Pupil (of six) at the Omak Secretarial School, becomes a secretary for Dr. Phillip Hall at the top-secret World War II facility Hanford in South Central Washington state. Her new job represents not just a chance to contribute to the war effort but also a way to escape her domineering mother and sister. But Mildred is not just an excellent employee–she possesses an unusual gift. She receives visions that foretell the future. As a child, her visions earned her the moniker “Mad Mildred,” and she learned to be silent and keep her premonitions secret. But with production of “the product” speeding up, Mildred has renewed visions of overwhelming death and destruction. She is no longer able to remain silent, yet no one believes her prognostications. Again, people see her as “Mad Mildred.” Still, her visions gain strength until she must act to stop them to save herself if not the world.

Unusual in its combination of historical fiction and fantasy, The Cassandra has a number of strengths. Before reading this book, I didn’t know about the Hartford facility, and here, it is realistically depicted, including the intensive secrecy, the racial segregation, the divisions based on gender, and the devastation to the community and the environment. The Cassandra also offers a rich palette of symbolism, using the wind, rivers, birds, and animals to convey messages of fear, punishment, and overwhelming emotion. Mildred in particular struggles against the expectations of gender and the power and violence embodied by men, at times resistant, at times embracing it.

An interesting character, Mildred begins the novel with wide-eyed, naive optimism, but as she learns more about the “product” and experiences more visions and the accompanying dismissal of them, she becomes cynical and isolated, mistrustful of even her closest friends. Her language takes on a harsher tone, and her lost innocence is reflective in her coarse words, including the integration of such terms as fuck, shit, and asshole. Her withdrawal becomes accentuated when she falls victim to violence and then perpetuates that violence on others and herself. Some of the other characters are more one-dimensional, especially the villains in the story, and I wish they’d have been developed more realistically, although others reveal unexpected depth and compassion.

When Mildred experiences her visions, she encounters shape-shifters and tricksters, and the language of the novel slides to metaphorical. At times, this works, but at times, the combination of historical fiction and fantasy have an uneasy alliance, and the book I think struggles to integrate them. Still, the visions are haunting, and in one in particular, from the point of view of a young girl, readers see them impact of the atomic bombs on the hibakusha, the Japanese survivors affected by radiation poisoning, in a harrowing way that will remain with me for a long time.

The Cassandra questions how women or disenfranchised can make a difference when their wisdom is ignored and challenges a particularly masculine relationship with the world. While it doesn’t provide answers, it offers a rich tapestry to consider. Fans of The Future Home of a Living God and Woman on the Edge of Time will be particularly pleased with this book as will readers of feminist fiction.

Thank you to Netgalley and Henry Holt & Company for an advance reader’s copy in exchange for an honest review.

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Vox by Christina Dalcher

VoxIn the not-too-distant future, Sam Meyers, advised by the fanatical Reverend Carl Corbin (leader of the Pure Movement), becomes President. Just a year into the Administration, they had systematically disenfranchised women. Women were no longer allowed to work, their passports were invalidated, premarital and extramarital sex were illegal, LGBT and other undesirables were put into labor camps–and women were fitted with word counters. These counters monitored women’s speech, and if a woman uttered more than 100 words in a day, she was shocked with an electric current that increased with the number of infractions.

Dr. Jean McClellan, previously a preeminent neurolinguist, was lured into the President’s service when his brother and key adviser, Bobby Meyers, suffered a skiing accident and developed aphasia. While Jean worked on a cure, she–and her daughter Sonia–were exempt from wearing the word counters. In a state-of-the-art lab, reunited with her previous team, Jean wrestles with the implications of her work and the fact that when it concludes, she’ll be subjected to the word counter again. Her estranged best friend from graduate school, Jackie Juarez, previously active politically but now assumed to be in a labor camp, became the voice of Jean’s conscious asking Jean what she would do for her freedom. Jean pushes herself to the limits of what she will do not just for her own freedom, but for that of all women in the United States.

The book has an interesting premise and draws from the likes of The Handmaid’s Tale and Future Home of a Living God. In flashbacks, Jean considers how the government laid the foundation for such widespread oppression–for one by requiring a religious class in high schools that taught the “proper” realms of men and women–and how she was complicit for failing to become involved politically. She also traces how men respond to their new power, often through reflections on her husband, Patrick, who doesn’t believe in the Pure Movement but who is willing to keep Jean’s books locked up and prevent her from using the computer, so far as telling her that things aren’t that bad. How a class of people might react to newfound power is an interesting component of the book. Jean’s son, Steven, becomes a true believer in the Pure Movement, and it is revealing how she struggles in her relationship with him.

The society under Meyers is harrowing, and, like many of these dystopian novels, not impossible to imagine. Especially in the last half of the book, I was compelled to read to find out what would happen. Diminishing my enjoyment of the novel, though, were frequent plot holes, unconvincing twists of logic, or simply confusing passages. I also didn’t like the writing style which to me was too conversational and casual. That said, I do think readers who are fans of this genre will enjoy Dalcher’s addition.

Thank you to Netgalley and Berkley Publishing for an advance reader’s copy in exchange for an honest review.

Grass

Grass by Sheri TepperGrass by Sheri S. Tepper

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

According to the dominant, ruling religion, Sanctity, the plague doesn’t exist. Yet, people on every planet are dying from a virulent virus. Every planet, that is, except one, Grass, notoriously suspicious of anything or anyone coming from “elsewhere.” Desperate, the Hierarch sends his nephew Roderigo “Rigo” Yrarier and his family, Marjorie Westriding, Anthony, and Stella–even though they are Old Catholics–to learn what makes Grass different in the hopes of finding a vaccine or cure. As avid horse people, Sanctity believes, the Yrariers have the best chance possible of bonding with the bons, the Grass aristocracy, since the bons are obsessed with riding and hunting. They begin training with a riding master at a young age until they are ready to join the hunt.

As Rigo becomes ensnared in the local mania for the hunt, Marjorie, intuitive, wise, yet remote, seeks out answers that will save the universe. She befriends bon Sylvan bon Damfels, commoner, master carver Persun Pollut, and Sanctity penitents Brothers Mainoa and Lourai as she navigates the closed and secretive society of the bons. What she learns could save humanity–or hasten its demise.

Although the book started out slowly for me, and I worried about reading a book where a ritualized hunt was so dominant, I found that once Marjorie’s character was introduced, I became engrossed in the narrative. Underneath the compelling mystery of curing the plague lies a number of themes, many of which are echoed in Tepper’s other works. On Terra (earth), at least, governments are dominated by religious rule, certainly not to the benefit of women or lower socioeconomic classes, and the book challenges theocracy. Religion is also a means of reproducing patriarchy. As Father Sandoval councils Marjorie when she complains of Rigo’s infidelity, a wife’s obedience will solve problems in a marriage. Sanctity was completely devoid of women except as reproductive vessels. Brother Mainoa minces no words: “The shitheads are wrong…Not just a little bit wrong, but irremediably, absolutely, and endemically wrong.” While Grass is largely secular, tradition demands male dominance. In the book, men are driven to demonstrate their masculinity, as is evidenced by Rigo’s seduction to Hunt, but the costs are high. The book also criticizes those who endlessly debate ethical positions while failing to act and questions the limits of duty and mercy.

While some passages were slightly heavy-handed and the science was confusing (at least to me), I enjoyed reading the book once I got over my initial resistance. It’s definitely a must for those interested in feminist science fiction.

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When She Woke

When She WokeWhen She Woke by Hillary Jordan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Roe v. Wade had been overturned. Only the most violent criminals sat in prison. The rest were infected with a virus that turns their skin the color associated with their crime–yellow for misdemeanors, green for crimes like arson, blue for child abuse, and red for murder, including abortion–and called Chromes. After Hannah had an illegal abortion, she was caught by the authorities. She refused to name the father or give any details about the doctor who performed the abortion, and she was sentenced to thirty days in the Chrome ward (broadcast to an eager public) and sixteen years as a Red.

After her arrest, her mother disowned her, so her father found Hannah a place at a halfway house, the Straight Path Center, ostensibly run by Reverend Henley but in practice controlled by his sadistic and cruel wife. There, Hannah met Kayla, Red for shooting her step-dad after he molested her younger sister. Each woman left the center, Kayla to find her boyfriend, and Hannah, repelled by their tactics. Outside, on the run, the women encounter the Novemberists, a pro-abortion group who promises passage to Canada and reversal of the melachroming–but was their price too much to pay?

As the women begin their journey from Texas to Canada, they confront betrayal and threats of violence from the Fist of Christ, a Christian vigilante group, as well as men who might take advantage of Chromes, women who have few rights. Hannah confronts the father of her aborted child and admits to desires previously unthinkable to her as a dedicated member of the ruling Trinity Party and a staunch Christian.

I devoured When She Woke because the story captured my attention. The characters were interesting enough, if slightly one dimensional, but I thought Hannah’s personality may have changed too much, too unrealistically during her journey. I expected one ending to the novel and was surprised (and pleased) when my expectations were thwarted. What stayed with me most about the novel, though, is how seamlessly society moved from our lived experience of today to a theocracy where women, gays, and anyone not fitting the proper mold are oppressed. As such, it’s a cautionary tale.

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