Lady Killers (CBR12 #28)

Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History

Here in the time of Covid Quarantine I find myself struggling to focus on reading most books. I need something that I can bounce in and out of and apparently books about serial killers are my jam right now. Hot on the heels I picked up Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History by Tori Telfer which I received as a Christmas gift (I am also officially out of dead tree format library books). I had been excited to read it when I received it and had pulled it into my “possible things to read during quarantine” pile that I’ve got going next to my reading chair.

When I reviewed my last book, Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five, I mentioned that it was not pop history even though it tried to hide out amongst its likes, probably to find a wider audience. This book definitely is pop history – and I’m not complaining. There have been women serial killers all along, and while the vast, vast majority covered in Lady Killers use the expected poison to get the job done, it’s important to look at how these stories are told, in much the same way the myth of all the women killed by Jack the Ripper were prostitutes. This book is well-researched and has end notes tracking the sources used, as well as copious thanks in the author’s note about the researchers who helped her gather the information presented in the book. Its in the tone that this one shines in the pop history department – Telfer isn’t afraid of a little gallows humor in her discussion, but it doesn’t cheapen the content.

Telfer attempted to tell a wide range of stories, from the 13th century to the 1950s and across several cultures. She also points out the places where she was limited in trying to discuss two additional female serial killers of color – this is more than just a quick trip through 19th and 20th century Europe. Telfer is much more interested in telling the stories of shared humanity, of how the instincts and behaviors on display in the various serial killers and those they interact with – victims and not – are shared by all of us although the particular mix needed to push each of these women to murder is thankfully missing from the vast majority of lives.

The Bloody Chamber & Other Stories (CBR11 #63)

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories

While I like to think of myself as generally well-read there are definite gaps in the more classic authors of certain genres. Authors I enjoy, including Neil Gaiman, have pointed to Angela Carter as an immense influence on their own work. Thankfully someone had gifted The Bloody Chamber & Other Stories to me a few years ago. The stories in the collection share a theme of being closely based upon fairytales or folk tales and Carter toys with Gothic fiction and gender, utilizing classic Gothic symbolism to push the narrative forward. These short stories emphasize terror and the gruesome, in order to build an atmosphere, while also working to flip certain gendered tropes on their heads. My quick assessment is: sometimes it worked too well and I didn’t care to continue.

A bit of digging around tells me that Carter’s fairy tale retellings are well known for being feminist. And I have to admit that while the stories didn’t always feel modern forty years after their initial publication, that doesn’t mean that Carter wasn’t doing important work that pushes us to work like Her Body & Other Parties. Carter’s feminism is tinged with wanting women to seize what they needed—power, freedom, sex—and seeing no fundamental difference between the sexes that could prevent that. In The Bloody Chamber & Other Stories Carter examines the traditional stories we tell through that lens, but it can mean that her female characters fall flat, or feel a bit one dimensional – she doesn’t allow her heroines much softness or weakness.

I find myself simultaneously running hot and cold with this collection. I appreciate the duality of Carter’s Beauty and the Beast retellings, “The Tiger’s Bride”  and “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon”, wherein she gives us the original ending where the beast transforms and also a reversal as the heroine transforms into a glorious tiger who is the proper mate to the Beast, who will from now on be true to his own nature and not disguise himself as a human. I can also trace the Gothic symbolism latent in “The Bloody Chamber,” as emphasis is placed on images of the ominous castle, the blood on the key, or a blood-red choker awarded the heroine as a wedding gift foreshadowing the story to come. However, I found the story itself dreadfully boring.

Carter doesn’t seem to have cared much about character development or plot, and instead focuses on emotion and creating images in the reader’s mind. Her technique and craft support her ability to do just that, leave sentences burned on the mind, so while this isn’t for me at the end of the day I was happy to pass it along to another friend whom I think might enjoy it much more.  

A Room of One’s Own (CBR9 #54)

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I think I keep doing Book Riot’s Read Harder challenges because they do force me to look through my epic list of books to read and get out of my own comfort zone and read with more variety. I have many startling gaps in my reading history, and Virginia Woolf’s entire oeuvre is one.

I have seen or read exactly one of Woolf’s works before reading A Room of One’s Own (Orlando at the Yale School of Drama about 8 years ago while a friend was there). Other than her ties to the Bloomsbury Group and the Dreadnought Hoax and that one play I knew very little. Along came the Read Harder challenge, which included a task to read a book published between 1900 and 1950 and I finally had my excuse to push the audiobook I already owned up the proverbial list.

A Room of One’s Own is a short work: its measurements range from 114 pages, to 40,000 words, to about 4 hours of audio recording by Juliet Stevenson. Nevertheless, it should not be judged by its slight measures, Woolf packs an appraisal on the patriarchal systems that have systematically held women down and back throughout history. I had an “oh shit” moment about half way through as I realized that Woolf has in essence kept the receipts on 300 years of patriarchy and was slamming it all on the table in front of packed auditoriums.

Suffice it to say, I was 100% more invested than I had previously been.

Structurally, Woolf made incredible use of the nature of speech making. Throughout the first sections she is consistently coming back to words and phrases, meant to allow the reader (or in my case, listener) to track her train of thought and build meaning. So many authors attempt to use the stream of consciousness mechanics, which Woolf demonstrates so facilely here but they miss this component – a reader will “hear” your words as if your characters were speaking. If your stream of consciousness does not conform to the rules of speech making the reader will have difficulty with it, as I so often do.

To the content of her speeches and later book, Woolf argues that women can never accomplish anything of their own, or of ‘value’ without the stability and space that “five hundred a year and a room of one’s own” provide. She then traces how very rare, and very recent such a thing was. Travelling mentally between the lack of reason for women to attempt to accumulate wealth before they were allowed to own it outright, the lesser education of girls compared to boys, the denial of access to halls of learning (of herself being turned away at the university library door) and you suddenly see both the world surrounding Woolf in 1928 and the world surrounding ourselves now.

How many of us would gnaw off our own left arm to be able to have space and security to follow our desires, to be able to create? That is the heart of this work.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it as we see fit (with a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

Wonder Woman and Break from the Usual

Mostly this blog space is dominated by my work for Cannonball Read. Over the years more and more of my free time and energy has been placed in that wonderful community and our goals.

Over there, many are comics aficionados. It was never something that worked for me as a reader. I did not grow up going to the comic book shop, I never read the stories of the legions of heroes.

I also spent my cartoon years in a Disney rabbit hole. Gummie Bears. The Rescuers. Darkwing Duck. What can I say, I’m a child of the early 80s. Batman: the Animated Series was just not on my radar even though by rights it should have been.

But as an adult I have found and crafted an interest in the mechanics of pop culture. I am endlessly fascinated with actor’s processes, the production web, black listed scripts, Hollywood history, media representation, and the comings and goings of each year’s movie offerings by major studios. I have probably consumed 6 hours of podcasts and many articles on Alien: Covenant and I have never watched a single Alien movie. But the process, the lore, and the production decisions interest me. I’m the gal having an in depth discussion about sequels v universe stories with friends and colleagues, regardless of whether I’ve watched the product in question. The theory is enough.

It also means that over the past decade (thanks Marvel Cinematic Universe) that I have educated myself in the worlds of comic characters. I am by no means a scholar on the subject, but I am conversant. My experience as an MCU fan though, has taught me that sometimes the theory isn’t always enough.

Marvel has its fair share of powerful female characters. Sometimes we even get to see them on screen. But in its 25 years of existence Marvel Studios (formerly Marvel Films) has never produced a female led property. Reasons are given, excuses are made, media forecasters have their opinions and we are left without even this much in representation.

I admit to being late to fully understanding the disparity in representation and its cornerstone in modern feminist movements. As a young person I had Leia. She already was. Many of the books I read as a young person (after being a late reader to begin with) were female focused and driven. My movie and television intake was relatively limited, but in all honesty the “token girl” in movies and television shows didn’t feel weird to me because I was so often the only girl hanging out with the boys in my neighborhood.

Then we moved and I went through puberty and I started to see the world through slightly different eyes. But in my immediate life I was more concerned with racial issues with my best friend being of a different race than me, and dealing with constant blow back in some cultural arenas (that friend and I – over the course of 26 years – have rarely NOT been separated in a crowd. People assume we aren’t together).

But now my focus has been brought to seeing women as we are, and as heroes. Jessica Chastain in the closing ceremonies at Cannes just railed against the way women are portrayed, still, in media. 

So I will be going to see Wonder Woman. Even though I have never seen the 1970s series or read a single word over her many stories.

It might feel small, like a pebble tossed into the ocean, and in some ways it is. But, it is also me using my limited consumer dollars to support something I believe in. The MCU has done its fans a disservice, and for that I will take my money to the competitor for the first time since the current model DC Cinematic Universe has been underway. I was going either way, but I am ecstatic that the reviews are so glowing. It will make those dollars even more sweetly used.

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We Should All Be Feminists (CBR8 #78)

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Raise your hand if you have been called a feminist as a derisive term.

Raise your hand if you have ever had to explain to someone that feminism is, in fact, not the hatred of men or the wishing to take something away from them but rather believing in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.

Raise both your hands if you’ve experienced that from someone younger than you.

My hands are raised.

I am, on the best of days, probably a lazy feminist. It has taken me a long time to reckon with the idea that the idea of equality, and not pressuring any gender into socialized expectations, is apparently radical. I just didn’t fully understand that I had to be out proselytizing the good word about feminism. That’s where my privilege shows.

Ms. Adichie, in her 50 page book-let, lays out for her audience (and it is a rather specific one, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t extrapolate out to a larger one) what this crazy feminism thing is, and how it’s for everyone. It’s both as simple and as beautiful as that. The patriarchy harms everyone, and feminism aims to heal through equality of options and choice.

Following the election results here in the United States I have realized that I need to be better educated about the causes I believe in, and willing to put some skin into the game. In that goal, there will be a lot more books in my CBR9 reviews about issues of social justice and feminism. Ms. Adichie’s book is a great place to start in order to give your brain some food. The Read Harder Challenge task I used this book to complete is “read a book aloud to someone” so I now have a recording of it in my own voice, to go along with her TEDxEuston talk.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. Registration for Cannonball Read 9 is open through January 13, 2017. You can sign up to read and review 13, 26, or 52 books for the year. Think of it as a personal challenge with the philanthropic side effect of saying “Fuck Cancer!”

All the Single Ladies (CBR8 #77)

Cannonball Read is the best for getting good books in front of your eyeballs.

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I read expandingbookshelf’s review of All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation this summer and added the book to my to read list on Goodreads. Then I read Lollygagger’s review early this fall and I put in my library hold. I hope some of you will do the same.

I am a single lady in my 30s. I have never been married. I am one of many data points that make up a new demographic in American society. For the first time since data has been kept on the subject (and possibly EVER), single women outnumber their married counterparts. A cursory view of my friend group supports this. In fact, my friend group supports most of the points that author Rebecca Traister makes throughout All the Single Ladies. We are educated, often career minded, and for a variety of reasons not with partners, except the quarter of us who are. We come from a variety of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Some of us want kids, some of us do not, some of us want partners, some of us do not.

From Goodreads: Today, only twenty percent of Americans are wed by age twenty-nine, compared to nearly sixty percent in 1960. The Population Reference Bureau calls it a “dramatic reversal.” All the Single Ladies is a remarkable portrait of contemporary American life and how we got here, through the lens of the single American woman. Covering class, race, sexual orientation, and filled with vivid anecdotes from fascinating contemporary and historical figures.

Rebecca Traister does a really interesting job of speaking to a variety of viewpoints in this book through ten chapters that explore different facets of being an unmarried woman in the U.S. My favorite sections were probably where Traister explores the role of single women throughout modern history – but that’s because I’m a history nerd. But the stories of women who didn’t marry, or married late so that they could be activists, leaders, and artists really interested me.

Moving into the contemporary era, Traister also interviewed 100 women of various education, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds to provide anecdotal evidence to go along with the studies she references as she examine the reasons for the increasing number of single women, as well as how the trend affects not just women – economically, socially, psychologically – but also men and society as a whole. It’s fascinating, well-researched, and broad. And that may be where the second half of the book suffers, just a bit.

But, there is one very important reason that I rounded this book back up to a 4 and not down to a three: Traister gets intersectional feminism and discusses the ways that different stimuli in different groups are creating the same overall effect. Is it perfect? No. Traister covers a variety of different viewpoints, but not always thoroughly. Specifically, those that would consider themselves Conservatives.

This book is a good introductory tome, but it is a bit overstuffed and a slow read. I took a break while reading The Count of Monte Cristo, but this was still at times a well-written slog.

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How to Be a Woman (CBR8 #30)

I have a feeling my review of Moran’s How to Be a Woman is going to be more a discussion about these types of Feminism 101 books and the backlash they can sometimes bring. Here’s my disclaimer… we all have to start somewhere. And memoirs are inherently going to be the story of a person. This book is that, one woman’s account of how she came to deal with becoming and being a woman in the world she inhabits, today. She writes it honestly, humorously, and with a great deal of heart. I enjoyed it, but I wasn’t expecting a masterwork of the next wave of feminism. I was expecting someone to tell me her story, and she did.

“At some point – scarred and exhausted – you either accept that you must become a woman – that you are a woman – or you die. This is the brutal, root truth of adolescence – that it is often a long, painful campaign of attrition.” (10)

So I’m pleased with the book. But, there’s always more to the story. Out there on the interwebs (which I define as anyplace outside of the safety net of CBR and CBR adjacent places) there has been a lot of backlash about this book. And a lot of one star ratings. I can see most of the complaints, but I can’t make myself downgrade my rating of this book.

I feel like this is also a place to mention that the title of this book is not How to Be a Feminist. While Moran’s feminism is front and center to her writing here, the book is not intended to be prescriptive. For every time Moran lays out a “we should do THIS” statement, she’s backtracking and coming at it from another angle just a few pages down the line. Also, it’s an important note that this is a populist feminism she is writing about that concerns itself with the everyday shit women have to endure. She’s not saying that bigger issues like pay inequity and abortion are unimportant, but rather that women need to decide how they feel about the things they encounter in their own lives and run it through a lens of “are the boys being made to put up with this shit?”.

It should also be noted that this book is now five years old. We have had a lot of movement forward in the past five years, but sometimes it feels like we’re still just uncovering the bits that still need to be sorted. Intersectionality? Oh yes, we can and should be doing better. Transgender rights? Well, what’s going on in certain states around the U.S. is definitely a sign of alarm, and we’ll have to continue reckoning with that civil rights issue as we have with the ones which came before. Just getting everyone to agree on the terminology we’re using? Still a battle, every day. (As a friendly reminder, if you believe in equal pay for equal work and an equal choice in what work you take on – you’re a feminist.)

In summary, if you like memoirs and those books which might be classified as Feminism 101, then this book might absolutely be for you. Otherwise, I’m sure you’ll find something which suits you better.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

 

Trade Me (CBR7 #74)

When I reviewed Anna and the French Kiss I mentioned that while I would consider that book New Adult, I still had a tough time being invested in the romantic life of high school seniors. College, fine, that works for me. So when I reviewed the Contemporary/New Adult The Year We Fell Down I had no trouble with the age of the characters or believing their life in college. Which is what I kept thinking about when I settled on a rating of three stars for Courtney Milan’s Trade Me – I just didn’t ever truly buy into their set up, and it kept me from truly enjoying the book.

Let’s start with what works (spoilers):

  • In a move that I appreciate from authors in the New Adult genre, our leading lady Tina is neither completely inexperienced or a prude. Tina has hang-ups about being intimate with Blake, but they are not about the physical, they are about the emotional. This I can relate to.
  • Like all Milan books this work highlights social issues with a deft hand, weaving them into the fabric of the story. Blake with his bajillionty (I’m going with my made up word) dollars is removed from ‘the real world’ but doesn’t want to be. Tina’s family is refugees from China, and the subplot with her mom and working with their friends and community on the immigration process was powerful stuff.
  • Our dashing hero does not fall into hero tropes, and is instead believable and with issues of his own that go beyond just his daddy/inheritance issues. Here Milan swims into deep water by having the male protagonist be dealing with an eating disorder based on control. In her author’s note (which I am an avowed fan of) Milan talks through how she came to write this plot and what she based it on. Important work as well.
  • Feminism.
  • No insta-love, no whiny angst.
  • The parent relationships. Seriously, I want a whole novella of just Blake and Mr. Chen hanging out on the couch. The banter between Tina and Adam is pretty great too.
  • I am thrilled that she is going to be the lead in the next book in the series and that Milan is going to be tackling issues of gender indentity and the transgender community. Let’s. Do. This.

So if so much was good, what didn’t float my boat?

  • Tina and Blake’s connection and chemistry suffered a case of tell not show. Milan has these characters TELL us how they feel, but they don’t show it that well.
  • Even though it was handled about as well as can be expected Blake’s bajillionty dollar life trade with Tina just never felt plausible or believable.
  • We got stuck in a feedback loop of “this is never going to work” by each character. Too long, the middle of the book dragged.
  • For a character super concerned with being able to keep up with her studies WE NEVER SEE TINA IN CLASS OR DOING SCHOOLWORK FOR THE FINAL TWO THIRDS OF THE NOVEL.
  • While I am accustomed to Milan’s style of writing good but not abundant smexy times, this book felt like a desert.
  • I need more explanation about Blake’s parentage, and that better be coming in later books. I thought for sure we were headed to a plot point where Blake finds out that his dad is actually gay, and that’s why he’s so broken up about the death of his partner is why he is being such a demanding mess and not noticing Blake’s issues. But, apparently, no.

Also, and I may be the only one who feels this way, the last 15% of the book when things went all kinds of crazy off the rails really worked for me. This all leaves me rating this book three stars, slightly better than Talk Sweetly to Me, but not much. I remain excited about Hold Me, which will be out later this year and will be working my way through the Worth Saga soon-ish.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

The Duchess War (CBR6 #37)

I’m writing this review without actually finishing the book. I know, it’s unorthodox, but stick with me here. Thanks to the lovely reviews of Courtney Milan’s Brothers Sinister series I have decided to make these books my summer/fall romance reads. Based solely on the reviews I purchased all of the available books and novellas for my Nook and have been sliding these books in amongst my other reading. The Duchess War is the first full novel, second story, in the series and I am in love with it.

There’s a lot to love about these books. Courtney Milan’s style is infectious, her word choice is crisp, her grasp of humor, and how to deploy it, are top notch. Then there are the characters. I love a well written, complex, but not unknowable character. I love them. I think it’s why time and again I am drawn back into the land of Romance novels. The stories are often dictated by known tropes, but the really good ones have some of the richest characterizations you’ll find in fewer than 300 pages. And then there’s the lovely times where your expectations of tropes are turned on their head and you have what makes a truly wonderful story.

In the case of The Duchess War the trope that is turned upside down is that our male lead, Robert, portrays many of the uncertainties one would expect from the female lead. Not that Minnie doesn’t have her own tale of woe, she does. She’s had to change her name to escape a disastrous past that is beyond the simple ‘ruined woman’ trope. But it’s Robert who is afraid of love, afraid of wanting it, and afraid of having it taken away.  And that primal fear in him, placed there by battling parents who treated him like a chess piece and not a son, is what truly moves the course of the novel, not the will they or won’t they, and certainly not the question of whether Minnie’s true identity will be revealed, and if it is, how much of her life will be ruined.

And let’s not forget to mention that it’s steamy, wonderfully steamy without being time period inappropriate. And we have not one but two historical protagonists masturbating in the same book. I may be reading the wrong things, but I have never come across that before, and I was pleasantly surprised by it. And when our leads get together, that ain’t bad either. Through that in with socially aware protagonists worried about people’s rights and some lovely supporting characters who are going to be a hoot along the way (looking at you, Sebastian) and this is a thoroughly well rounded novel.

I promise not to post this review until I have actually read those last chapters. But, I can happily recommend this book to you without knowing how we get to the ending, or what the ending looks like. This book is that well written.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Bossypants (CBR4 #31)

I’m having a little trouble with this one. But I think I’ve figured out why. I enjoyed Bossypants , it was a fun quick read but I didn’t have many of the laugh-out loud-moments that other readers experienced while reading Tina Fey’s book. Here’s the best reason I can come up with – it just didn’t sound like her to me and that was part of the reason I was not able to fully invest in the experience.

I should admit at this point that while I like Tina Fey a lot, I don’t watch 30 Rock. This may also be part of the problem.  

There are some chapters in this book to which I would pledge my undying loyalty. These are the chapters in which her comic timing and dead-pan delivery are at their best and she’s telling us something True. Yes, that capitalization was intentional. Here’s why: In several places in the book Tina tackles some universal truths about growing up and being a Gen X or Gen Y woman. Shows us how it went for her. These are the chapters I love, including All Girls Must Be Everything, Young Men’s Christian Association, Remembrances of Being Very Very Skinny, Remembrances of Being a Little Bit Fat. These chapters are all in or near the beginning of the book, generally when Fey is discussing the pre- or early SNL days.

I had trouble with the second half of the book. I think some of that is the aforementioned lack of 30 Rock watching but also the experience of being married with a kid. I am neither of those last two things, and while I do understand and have experienced the guilt that comes from a job which requires strange hours and can, at times, keep you from family and friends ; Fey’s chapters in regards to that phenomena didn’t strike a chord with me. What did strike a chord with me was when she describes knowing that an ally had arrived at work when Amy Poehler announced to Jimmy Fallon that she didn’t really care if he thought her jokes were appropriate. I have felt similar, although I don’t work with or even near comedians, when female coworkers walk in and assert themselves as a professional and demand to be treated on an equal playing field with men who will instinctively try to place them in safe boxes.

So, what am I saying here? I’m telling you I enjoyed the book, even though there were places where Fey inserted scripts/jokes from SNL and 30 Rock and that felt lazy of the writer. There’s no need to publish a 270 page book if you have to include lesser material or material that is available elsewhere. If, instead, Fey had inserted marked-up scripts that showed the editing and revising process and discussed that process I wouldn’t be complaining at all. Would I recommend this book? Yes, but would probably only to someone who is quite the Fey fan.