Non-Binary Lives by Jos Twist, et al (Non-Fiction)

An interesting collection of essays by and about non-binary persons. From wikipedia:  Non-binary is a spectrum of gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine — ‌identities that are outside the gender binary.

Most of the authors are living and working in the UK, though a few were from other countries. My impression is that most are therapists and / or gender study students or professional academics.

While a few of the essays proved to be overly jargonistic or borderline offensive (one railed against the “ableist, capitalist, patriarchal, white supremist, cisgenderist dominant society” and another kept mentioning “toxic gender binary notions”), most were well-written and explored aspects of the non-binary gender concept that were new to me. Many examined the intersectionality of being non-binary within different cultures or religions as experienced by (for example) a Vietnamese Confucianist, a Jewish feminist, a Quaker, and an Hispanic. One essay explored the effect of motherhood (via the traditional biological pathway) on someone who self-identified as non-binary.

I was naively surprised by the references to infighting between differently gendered groups. Said one author: “…the phenomenon of self-identified transsexual folk who are vehemently opposed to non-binary as a concept as they feel it undermines the realness of their own identities. The vitriol they express is nearly as bad as the right-wing opponents of ‘gender ideology’ who are freaking out about the end of gender and gender roles.” Another bemoaned the fact that as a non-binary person, they were no longer able to benefit from the many women-only groups and privileges they had been enjoying. They had been happy to be part of women’s theater companies who were “dedicated to presenting lesser-told stories” as compared to the more “mainstream” companies, “dedicated to working their way through the safe Western dramatic canon of plays by dead cishet white dudes,” and were now unhappy to be automatically lumped in with the outsiders.

I’ve been fascinated with the concept of gender and gender fluidity ever since reading Gender Mosaic by Daphna Joel and Luba Vikhanski, and I enjoyed many of the essays in this book. They forced me to examine my own perceptions and actions: Why do I care what gender a person is? Or whom they prefer as a sexual partner? And yet I notice that if I can’t tell at a glance, I spend time trying to figure it out. For some reason I feel I need to know. Does this mean I treat people differently based on gender or simply that I have a great need to keep things categorized in my head? I have no idea!

I do know that I am greatly in favor of more inclusion in society, but not at the expense of other groups. Let’s hear more stories and give more opportunities to previously unrepresented groups — but why is it necessary to exclude people simply because some perceive them to have been part of a “privileged” group? Today’s white, cishet, men should not have to suffer because in the past *some* white, cishet, men benefited at the expense of other groups. And why on Earth would we want to belittle the great works of the past simply because their creators were white men when there were others at the time who did not have the same opportunities? Shakespeare’s plays are still amazing as are the works of Mozart, Rembrandt, and Sir Isaac Newton. Let’s work on making the world a place where we can have more greatness, not less.

I hate identity politics, and I’m happy to say that most of this book was focused more on individual experiences and perceptions than on politics. Worth a read if you’re curious about the concept.

Thank you to Jessica Kingsley Publishers and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 21st, 2020.

All Adults Here by Emma Straub (Fiction)

Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4/5 Writing: 4/5
Engaging novel about the complex family dynamics of three generations of Stricks: Astrid (a 68-year old widow and newly woke bi-sexual), her three adult children, and her teenage granddaughter Cecelia — all in various stages of “growing up.” Evolving relationships between couples, parents and children, siblings, friends, and ex-lovers pepper the plot. Featuring lesbians, bi-sexuals, single mothers, and trans teens, there are strong themes around gender norms, roles and expectations and the impact they have on our lives.

The characters are all well-drawn and interesting, the writing insightful and clean, the story interesting. My only complaint is the (mostly) subtle anti-man feeling permeating the text. All the male characters are stunted, shallow, or dead with the exception of one delightful teen boy … who actually turns out to be a girl in boy-skin (trans). There were even a couple of quotes which were meant to be light and funny, but really are pretty awful:

“It seemed so easy, to cut out the creeps and sexual predators, just by cutting out all the men.”

“It’s always white men, you know, nine times out of ten. It’s white men who turn to violence against their families, against strangers, against the world.”

This kind of thinking is a big problem. Even if it’s true that most violence is done by men (and reducing the set with “white” is actually completely incorrect), it does not at all follow that most men are violent. This is the kind of sloppy thinking and gross over-generalization that brings out hate all over the place. I wish authors would be more careful about popularizing this kind of thought.

That aside, I did enjoy the book. Some very good lines:

“Astrid’s greatest strength, as a person, had always been her iron tear ducts.”

“Any perks were vastly outweighed by the crushing feeling of apocalyptic failure and profound injustice.”

“So much of becoming an adult was distancing yourself from your childhood experiences and pretending they didn’t matter, then growing to realize they were all that mattered and composed 90 percent of your entire being.”

“No one laughed at gorgeous white men. It was a design flaw in the universe.”

“Nicky made marriage look like an art project, and Elliot made it look like prison.”

“Cecelia wanted the Hollywood version of her own life — fast-forward, with wrinkles made out of papier-mache. It was too hard to wait and see.”

“All love settled. Not settling for something less than you deserved, just settled down, the way breath settles in a sleeping body, not doing more than necessary.”

“That was the problem with being part of a family: Everyone could mean well and it could still be a disaster. Love didn’t cure all, not in terms of missed communication and hurt feelings during an otherwise uneventful dinner conversation.”

“The downside of Buddhism, as Cecelia understood it, and also of years of therapy, was that no one ever seemed to think anything was their fault. Everything was always open to everyone else’s feelings, or the ultimate balance of the universe. If the point of life was to let things go, then you never had to be sorry about anything.”

Thank you to Riverhead Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 5th, 2020.

 

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

A compelling story combining a fictionalized history of Sarah Grimke — one the first female abolition agents and among the earliest major American feminist thinkers — and a “thickly imagined” story about Hetty — the slave girl given to Sarah on her 11th birthday.

The interwoven stories are told in alternating chapters by the two first person narrators. The time period: 1804 – 1838. Sarah’s story takes us from the North Carolina plantation to Quaker country to public abolition speaking tours around the country. She and her sister, Nina, were the authors (along with Nina’s husband, the famous abolitionist Theodore Weld) of the pamphlet American Slavery as It Is which influenced Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Hetty’s story — created from the barest of historical documents — tells a story full of the horrors of slavery, including a potential slave revolt (and harsh retribution) populated by figures drawn from historical rumor. Woven through the stories are the interactions between the two women. I loved this summary from Hetty when the two were around 18 and had a kind of friendship:

“People say love gets fouled by a difference big as ours. I didn’t know for sure whether Miss Sarah’s feelings came from love or guilt. I didn’t know whether mine came from love or a need to be safe. She loved me and pitied me. And I loved her and used her. It never was a simple thing. That day, our hearts were pure as they ever would get.”

In all honesty, I didn’t love this book. The writing is good and the story compelling, but I didn’t find any new insights. Hetty’s story smacked of modern sensibilities applied to a horrible situation that has already been described (and often better) many, many times. The Grimke story was more interesting as it was new to me — and the emotional tone was probably pretty accurate given the times and the lack of opportunity for women — but it took a long time and a lot of hand-wringing before anything could really happen.

I want to read books that have new insights or teach me about a period of history or new (to me) cultures. I’d like to move away from noxious concepts such as slavery and the idea that women are incapable of contributing outside the domestic sphere — these concepts are old (and well-documented) news.

Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear (SF)

World building: 4/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4/5 Writing: good but too long for me…

Space opera with an emphasis on how society has evolved across the millenia. A small salvage operation finds aeons old technology and evidence of a terrible crime at the outer edges of the galaxy and have to battle space pirates and corrupt outpost bureaucrats to see justice done. A well-developed, quirky crew: our narrator Haimey — an engineer escaped from the human female isolationist Clade which simultaneously gave one a sense of belonging and an utter inability to disagree; Connla the pilot — born and bred on Spartacus where everyone seems to look and behave like Kirk Douglas; Singer — the endlessly curious ship mind (easily my favorite character); and a couple of cats who … behave just as you’d expect cats acclimated to space to behave!

The best part for me was the many discussions about the interplay between society, government and the individual — freedom vs social controls, right-minding vs brainwashing, human control of AIs vs slave intelligences, etc.  I loved the ability (and sometime reluctance to use) the crew had to tune their own chemistry on the fly and the ensuing discussion about what made a person who they were and how personality was formed.

For me the book was way too long — I liked the world building, the ethics discussions, and the character development, but I got tired of all the science / engineering talk and the action. Which means that if you’re a hard science fiction fan you’ll like this book a lot more than I did. I would say the book breaks down into 25% action, 35% science / engineering / surviving by your wits and tools, 20% discussions about right, wrong, and how to live, and 20% character development. I like her writing style — plenty of insight, good banter, clear descriptions — there was just too much repetition, and I realize that I have simply gotten bored with action! Chase scenes, battles, blah, blah, blah — give me a good discussion on what makes us human any day over that 🙂

Great for fans of The Martian!

Some good quotes:
“The thing picked out in iridescence on my skin looked like renderings of the intergalactic structure of dark gravity.”

“Bureaucracy is the supermassive black hole at the center of the Synarche that makes the whole galaxy revolve.”

“In the face of the unthinkable, there wasn’t much else to do except think about it obsessively.”

“He gazed at me with the sort of interest one reserves for reprieves from the guillotine and similarly refocusing events”

“But where’s the line between right-minding and brainwashing? Or, in the case of an AI, programming for adequate social controls versus creating slave intelligences.”

“If they could, cats would invent full-time full-sensorium VR for all humans everywhere so they could sleep on our immobile bodies eternally. And probably eat our extremities , too.”

“…I got a string of programming jargon that was so far beyond me it might as well have been one of those twelve-tone semi-ultrasonic methane-breather languages that shatter ice crystals and sound like a glass harmonica having a bad dia at work.”

“Maybe I was a nice, safe little puppet of the Synarche, or Justice. Or maybe I was a person who valued community and well-being of the mass of sentient life over the individual right to be selfish.”

“Total freedom for the ones who can enforce it, until somebody comes along and murders them to take their stuff. Slavery for everybody else. Pretty typical warlord behavior in any society, and one of the reasons we have societies in the first place.”

“I was floating near a viewport with my screen and Jane Eyre. It’s kind of horrifying to think of an era when people were so constrained to and by gender, in which the externals you were born with were something you would be stuck with your whole life, could never alter, and it would determine your entire social role and your potential for emotional fulfillment and intellectual achievement.”

Meg and Jo by Virginia Kantra (Fiction)

Book 2 in my happy and light series!

A warm-hearted, feel-good novel about family and relationships. It both modernizes and fills in the gaps of Alcott’s beloved Little Women. A kind of fictionalized fiction as it were. Focused primarily on the two older sisters — the titular Meg and Jo — the book delves into what is happening behind the scenes: What is Meg’s marriage like? How can the fiercely independent Jo learn to remain true to herself and still give herself in love to another human being? And what is the mostly absent Mr. March really like as a father? By the way — spoiler alert — in this version Beth is not dead (nor sick, nor recovered). The author just skipped over that realistic for the time but now unnecessary part of the story. Great!! Never particular liked that part anyway!

Easy to read, great insight into the characters, and seamless modernization that maintains the integrity of the key messages but is totally believable for today’s world. Plenty of life lessons for a variety of personalities and situations.

Thank you to Berkley Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on December 3rd, 2020.

Tweet Cute by Emma Lord (YA)

These days I’m in great need of light, happy, books.  This is a great one for that!

Pepper is a Nashville transplant, tagging along with her mom — the founder of the very successful “Big League Burger” franchise. Jack is the secret genius behind Weazel, the social platform with anonymous interactions which “pop” with your pal’s identity after significant chatting (pop-goes-the-weasel, get it?) and heir-apparent of his family’s deli — Girl Cheesing. Both attend the elite Stone Hall Academy, have a keen sense of snark, and are devoted to their family businesses. Both are also engaged in a Twitter war over competing grilled cheese product — and it’s gone viral.

Funny, as “cute” as advertised, well-written, and far more surprising than I expected. A fun read.

Quotes:

“Just the infinite, suffocating void of trying to navigate the world without my phone in my pocket.”
“Jack is the kind of person who fills silences. The kind of person who doesn’t necessarily command attention, but always seems to sneak it from you.”
“… wondering how someone can be so aggressively seventeen and seventy-five at the same time…”
“I’m competing for Ivy League admissions with legacies who probably descended down from the original Yale bulldog.”
“I know she went to high school in the nineties, but that does not excuse this fundamental misunderstanding of how teenage social interaction works.”
“There’s nothing quite as awkward as living in a shadow that is quite literally the same shape as yours.”

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 21st, 2020.

Strangers in their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild (Non-fiction)

Published on the eve of Trump’s election, this book represents Hochschild’s attempt to “scale the empathy wall” and understand the “deep story” of those in the Tea Party — pretty much the antithesis of her own Berkeley, California cohort. She uses the environment as what she calls a “keyhole issue” — Louisiana has one of the most polluted environments in the country, and yet the very people suffering the ill effects of the pollution are those favoring the deregulation strategies of the Republican party. Pointing out that partyism now beats race as source of divisive prejudice, her goal is to encourage democracy with the book: “A healthy democracy depends on a collective capacity to hash things out.”

Her research is mostly anecdotal — she talks in depth to individuals and draws out the “deep story” of what matters to them, how they make decisions, and what “the emotion that underlies politics” is for them. Her thesis is that people act to serve their best emotional interest, rather than their best economic interest. The deep story that emerged from her Tea Party enthusiasts was one I could understand and even identify with: a strong work ethic, adaptability to circumstances without complaint, the importance of community, and wanting to able to be proud of what they were without someone telling them they were wrong to feel that way (see quotes below). There was a deep distrust of government and a hatred for the taxes which they felt was their money “running through a liberal sympathy sieve you don’t control or agree with.” She did a brilliant job at contrasting the deep stories of the right and the left making it clear (to me) how the same set of “facts” could be interpreted so very differently.

Hochschild is clearly a liberal herself, and this leaks through in the way she interprets data and maintains certain liberal assumptions (my favorite is her assertion that tax breaks are equivalent to welfare-style handouts — I just had a long argument with a close friend on this one, but IMHO the government taking less of your money in taxes is not equivalent to taking your money and distributing it in a way over which you have no control) but she did an excellent job of beating through the stereotypes to really understand how people on the other side of that empathy wall work.

I learned a lot from this book and find myself still mulling it over weeks later. I’m including a lot of quotes that I feel show the different perspectives, many of which (from my firm, California, mostly liberal perch) were new to me. In particular, I don’t think I realized how strong (and nasty) the left’s stereotype of the right is. And — like most stereotypes — how incorrect as a description of the entire group.

Quotes:
“To many on the left, the Republican Party and Fox News seemed intent on dismantling much of the federal government, cutting help to the poor, and increasing the power and money of an already powerful and rich top 1 percent. To many on the right, that government itself was a power-amassing elite, creating bogus causes to increase its control and handing out easy money in return for loyal Democratic votes”

“We, on both sides, wrongly imagine that empathy with the “other” side brings an end to clearheaded analysis when, in truth, it’s on the other side of that bridge that the most important analysis can begin.”

“At play are “feeling rules,” left ones and right ones. The right seeks release from liberal notions of what they should feel — happy for the gay newlywed, sad at the plight of Syrian refugee, unresentful about paying taxes. The left sees prejudice. Such rules challenge the emotional core of right-wing belief.”

“Oh, liberals think that Bible-believing Southerners are ignorant, backward, rednecks, losers. They think we’re racist, sexist, homophobic, and maybe fat.”

“What image of the government was at play? Was it a nosy big brother (the Coast Guard had checked for safely vests)? Was it a mind-controlling big brother (a federal instead of state Department of Education)? A bad parent playing favorites (affirmative action)? An insistent beggar at the door (taxes)?”

“A lot of liberal commentators look down on people like me. We can’t say the ’N’ word. We wouldn’t want to — it’s demeaning. So why do liberal commentators feel so free to use the ‘R’ word [redneck]?”

“A deep story is a feels-as-if story — it’s the story feelings tell, in the language of symbols. It removes judgement. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel. Such a story permits those on both sides of the political spectrum to stand back and explore the subjective prism through which the party on the other side sees the world.”

“You turn to your workplace for respect — but wages are flat and jobs insecure. So you look to other sources of honor. You get no extra points for your race. You look to gender, but if you’re a man, you get no extra points for that either. If you are straight you are proud to be a married, heterosexual male, but that pride is now seen as a potential sign of homophobia — a source of dishonor. Regional honor? Not that either. You are often disparaged for the place you call home.”

“If unfairness in Occupy is expressed in the moral vocabulary of a “fair share” of resources and a properly proportioned society, unfairness in the right’s deep story is found in the language of “makers” and “takers.” For the left, the flashpoint is up the class ladder (between the very top and the rest); for the right, it is down between the middle class and the poor.” For the left, the flashpoint is centered in the private sector; for the right, in the public sector. Ironically, both call for an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.”

“In that story, strangers step ahead of you in line, making you anxious, resentful and afraid. A president allies with the line cutters, making you feel distrustful, betrayed. A person ahead of you in line insults you as an ignorant redneck, making you feel humiliated and mad. Economically, culturally, demographically, politically, you are suddenly a stranger in your own land.”

“Whatever their family’s view of their own, however much sympathy they may have personally felt for blacks at the time, the public narrative was that the North had come to the South, as it had with soldiers in the 1860s and during Reconstruction in the 1870s, to tell Southern whites to change their way of life. History was on the side of the civil rights movement. the nation honored its leaders. Southern whites bore the mark of shame, again, even though, as one man told me, “We didn’t do those bad things.“

“Over time, new groups were added to older ones, and political and therapeutic cultures merged. Identity politics was born. Identities based on surviving cancer, rape, childhood sexual abuse, addiction to alcohol, drugs, sex work — these and more came to the media’s attention. It became a race “for the crown of thorns”…

“If a person said he or she was white, as a way of describing themselves in the manner of the Native American or black, they risked being seen as racist soldiers of the Aryan Nation. If they stood up to declare themselves proud to be male — unless they were part of a men’s group trying to unlearn traditional ways — they risked being seen as male chauvinists. If they called for recognition for their lifetime of experience, their age, they risked seeming like old fools in a culture focused on youth.”