21 April 2015

Dark Sparkler by Amber Tamblyn

Summary from Goodreads:
The lives of more than twenty-five actresses lost before their time—from Marilyn Monroe to Brittany Murphy—explored in haunting, provocative new work by an acclaimed poet and actress

Amber Tamblyn is both an award-winning film and television actress and an acclaimed poet. As such she is deeply fascinated-and intimately familiar—with the toll exacted from young women whose lives are offered in sacrifice as starlets. The stories of these actresses, both famous and obscure-tragic stories of suicide, murder, obscurity, and other forms of death—inspired this empathic and emotionally charged collection of new poetic work.

Featuring subjects from Marilyn Monroe and Frances Farmer to Dana Plato and Brittany Murphy—and paired with original artwork commissioned for the book by luminaries including David Lynch, Adrian Tome, Marilyn Manson, and Marcel Dzama—Dark Sparkler is a surprising and provocative collection from a young artist of wide-ranging talent, culminating in an extended, confessional epilogue of astonishing candor and poetic command.

Actresses featured in Dark Sparkler include:

Marilyn Monroe
Brittany Murphy
Dana Plato
Jayne Mansfield
Jean Harlow
Dominique Dunne
Sharon Tate
Heather O’Rourke
Bridgette Andersen
Shannon Michelle Wilsey
Judith Barsi
Peg Entwistle
Carole Landis
Anissa Jones
Susan Peters
Barbara La Marr
Lucy Gordon
Sirkka Sari
Li Tobler
Thelma Todd
Samantha Smith
Lupe Valez
Taruni Sachdev
Rebecca Shaeffer

My working knowledge of contemporary poetry is not good. So color me surprised to find out that not only does actress Amber Tamblyn have a book of poetry coming out from HarperPerennial it isn't her first collection.  Huh.  But I was really intrigued by her subject matter for the new collection, Dark Sparkler: the lives and deaths of women in the entertainment history.

I won't lie, there are no happy poems here.  This is a sad and intriguing collection of poems distilled from the tragic lives of actresses, some quite obscure (I had trouble finding them with Google - and there is an 8 page list of search terms consisting of actress' names and deaths, many of whom died young and holy dude will that take a bit to go through and reconcile with those poems based on actresses I couldn't find initially).  There is no consistent form or style; it is pure feeling.

Included in and around these poems based on real women are anxieties that Tamblyn herself must share with these women - the pressure to perform, to conform, to be on display, to be perfect, and to be the object of obsession. The collection reminds me that actresses are judged far more for their appearance and behavior than their acting ability and that pressure causes so many women to harm themselves or turn to substance abuse. One particular poem is chilling in that it is blank, wordless, as if it is waiting for its subject's final move before filling in (I won't spoil that one by telling you who it is).  There are lessons here and a lot of things to think about.

Dear FTC: I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.

17 April 2015

Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own by Kate Bolick

Summary from Goodreads:
“Whom to marry, and when will it happen—these two questions define every woman’s existence.” So begins Spinster, a revelatory and slyly erudite look at the pleasures and possibilities of remaining single. Using her own experiences as a starting point, journalist and cultural critic Kate Bolick invites us into her carefully considered, passionately lived life, weaving together the past and present to examine why­ she—along with over 100 million American women, whose ranks keep growing—remains unmarried.

This unprecedented demographic shift, Bolick explains, is the logical outcome of hundreds of years of change that has neither been fully understood, nor appreciated. Spinster introduces a cast of pioneering women from the last century whose genius, tenacity, and flair for drama have emboldened Bolick to fashion her life on her own terms: columnist Neith Boyce, essayist Maeve Brennan, social visionary Charlotte Perkins Gilman, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, and novelist Edith Wharton. By animating their unconventional ideas and choices, Bolick shows us that contemporary debates about settling down, and having it all, are timeless—the crucible upon which all thoughtful women have tried for centuries to forge a good life.

Intellectually substantial and deeply personal, Spinster is both an unreservedly inquisitive memoir and a broader cultural exploration that asks us to acknowledge the opportunities within ourselves to live authentically. Bolick offers us a way back into our own lives—a chance to see those splendid years when we were young and unencumbered, or middle-aged and finally left to our own devices, for what they really are: unbounded and our own to savor.

As a single woman approaching middle-age, there are two things you can do: loathe your single state or work to accept the single life you have. I opt for the second. Loathing one's self because one lacks a socially acceptable relationship construct takes too much time. I have things to do. Yes, it sucks that there's no one to come home to at night (cats do not count) but there's a bit of pride that it's all mine, from the weedy yard to the dripping sink to the bed I do not have to share.

Kate Bolick has been coupled and uncoupled, but never married.  As her friends married and had children, she wondered why she wasn't doing the same.  She had a great life - she was an editor with Domino magazine at one point - and loved it.  She loved her apartment.  So....was she normal?  Bolick began to notice a pattern in her reading: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edith Wharton and others were women who held good jobs and houses and social lives independent of a marital bond.  She explores the lives and intersecting themes of these women and her own life in Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own.

I thought this was a very interesting, thoughtful look at women's lives in the last 100-150 years through the lens of Bolick's five female predecessors.  And, yes, several of them married later in life or were married early then divorced/widowed, but the major point is that their most productive periods - and possibly happiest periods - coincided with periods of their lives when they were single.  I liked the balance between personal memoir and group biography.  A definite recommend.

Dear FTC: I received a digital advance copy from the publisher via Edelweiss.

15 April 2015

When Your Genre Kryptonite Has Its Own Kryptonite

One of my “genre kryptonites” – i.e. the genre of book guaranteed to part me from my money – are books about books, specifically of the memoir variety.

Read a book a day for a year (Nina Sankovitch’s Tolstoy and the Purple Chair)? Sure.

Your dad reads to you every night from grade school until college (Alice Ozma’s The Reading Promise)? Yep.

Examine all your childhood heroines and how they are helpful or problematic (Rebecca Ellis’s How to Be a Heroine)? Yes!

Decide to “better” yourself by reading 50 specific books (Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously)? Yes, HarperPerennial, you know me well.

Examine how your relationship to a specific work of literature has changed as you age (Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch)? Yep, yep, yep.

And (my personal, current favorite), read one book from EVERY country in the world in ONE YEAR (Ann Morgan’s The World Between Two Covers (US)/Reading the World (UK))? HELLZ YES.

Gimmie. I will take them all. Hand them over.

Until I can barely force myself to read the blurb of a particular book.

On the first Sunday of December 2011, I was working at the bookstore. It was the holidays, there were more customers than would seem to fit into the aisles, then my brother called. He told me to get off the sales floor and go to the back – he wouldn’t tell me why. When I did, he told me he was at the emergency room, with my parents, and my mother had been diagnosed with a brain tumor.

My manager told me to go to the ER to be with my family. Immediately. Once there, I convinced the doctor to show me the CT scan. The tumor looked like a small golf ball lodged in the back of her right ventricle. Over the next week Mom underwent brain surgery, rehab to make sure she was regaining her balance and strength, and the critical meeting with her oncologist and radiation specialists.

My mother was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, grade IV. A tumor that is perhaps two percent of brain cancers which are only two percent of all cancers diagnosed in one year. Aggressive, very aggressive. Insidious, hard to get “margin” surgically. The best clinical trial evidence said that half of all patients are still alive eighteen months after diagnosis. We were lucky in that my parents live near one of the best teaching hospitals in the country and that my day job is there as well, working in research for the hospital epidemiologist. I knew Mom’s surgeon was the best we could hope for, my boss is neighbors with her oncologist. She was in good hands. We counted off the days of radiation treatments, watched her white cell counts, bought her books (and a Nook – Mom had a noticeable decrease in her field of vision so it was easier for a while to read “one page” at a time with larger print on a tablet than navigate the pages of a paper book), counted out chemotherapy pills, and we waited to see what would happen.

That fall, a book was published that should have been in my wheelhouse, The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe. When his mother was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer, they began to read and discuss the same books. All sorts of books, up until her death two years later.

When I had to stock the store display with shiny new hardcovers of The End of Your Life Book Club I could barely open the packing case. Ordinarily, I’d have been all over a book like this, happily reading a personal account of books read. I would likely cry over what would probably be a beautiful rendering of a mother-son relationship. Instead, reading the first paragraph of the blurb made me feel nauseated. I couldn't read a memoir about a mom-who-liked-to-read dying of cancer. I couldn't – in a rational world, I could, but my irrational mind was worried that it might jinx my own mother’s treatment.

My genre kryptonite had developed its own kryptonite: my mother.

Three years later, Mom is doing better than anyone could have predicted. She wasn't able to go back to work as a parish administrator, but she has started playing the organ for church again (on occasion, it’s still too much to prepare for two services every week). She helps my nieces practice their piano lessons. Her balance isn't, and will never be, back to normal but as long as we make sure the kids don’t leave toys in her path it’s fine. She’s still my mom. All these extra months and years are a gift.

The End of Your Life Book Club is now out in paperback, it’s been included in promotional sales, and a few copies of the hardcover have popped up in the bargain bin. And I still won’t read it. Not even the first paragraph. I wish Schwalbe all the best, but I will probably never read his book.

There will be other books about books to make me weak-at-the-knees. And that is just fine.

04 April 2015

I Am Not a Slut! Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet by Leora Tanenbaum

Summary from Goodreads:

The author of the groundbreaking work Slut! explores the phenomenon of slut-shaming in the age of sexting, tweeting, and “liking.” She shows that the sexual double standard is more dangerous than ever before and offers advice to—and offers wisdom and strategies for alleviating its destructive effects on young women’s lives

Young women are encouraged to express themselves sexually. Yet when they do, they are derided as “sluts.” Caught in a double bind of mixed sexual messages, young women are confused. To fulfill the contradictory roles of being sexy but not slutty, they create an “experienced” identity on social media-even if they are not sexually active—while ironically referring to themselves and their friends as “sluts.”

But this strategy can become a weapon used against young women in the hands of peers who circulate rumors and innuendo—elevating age-old slut-shaming to deadly levels, with suicide among bullied teenage girls becoming increasingly common. Now, Leora Tanenbaum revisits her influential work on sexual stereotyping to offer fresh insight into the digital and face-to-face worlds contemporary young women inhabit. She shares her new research, involving interviews with a wide range of teenage girls and young women from a variety of backgrounds as well as parents, educators, and academics. Tanenbaum analyzes the coping mechanisms young women currently use and points them in a new direction to eradicate slut-shaming for good.

"Sticks and stones will break my bones but words can never hurt me."

I was teased a lot as a child (by one specific individual mostly) and repeated that phrase to myself for comfort.  But that old saw is wrong - words have the power to cut a life down, particularly the word "slut" and it's linguistic extension "ho" and in the viral culture of the 21st-century's social media those words can easily become lethal rather than a phrase to shrug away.  That is the point of Leora Tanenbaum's new book, I Am Not a Slut! Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet.

Through a societal sexual double-standard, young women are expected to cultivate a sexually experienced image but not to actually engage their own wants or desires in demanding agency in their own sexual experience.  How often are there hand-wringing articles about pre-teens "dressing provocatively" or about how "young women place themselves in bad situations" or about the vicious, vicious slut-shaming and victim-blaming that has cropped up online around cases like the Stubenville rape case? How often?  The shaming and blaming doesn't come exclusively from men; some of the worst accusations come from other women.  

What Tanenbaum does is back up and ask us to examine the societal pressure that would cause a girl to send a naked selfie to a boy (who is praised for amassing a collection of naked pictures from multiple girls while the girl is shamed, and possibly prosecuted, if that one photo is circulated).  Ask us to examine why other girls and women are so often the ones to throw the first stone and blame the "slut" for everything that happens to her.  Ask us to examine why young women turn to substance abuse in social situations.  Ask us to examine why "nonconsensual sex" is now a term used instead of "rape" when a woman who cannot actually give her willing consent to sexual intercourse has a forcible sexual encounter.

While I have a few quibbles and bones to pick with a few of Tanenbaum's points (first among them: her prescriptive advice to "not dress in a provocative manner" because the girl can't control the way boys view her as a sexual object), those quibbles I'm sure would touch off a really good discussion.  This whole book is something necessary to open up discussion.  The frank and very open discussion we need to have with teen girls and teen boys about media, social/peer pressure, good sexual relationships, and why it is so important to have agency in expressing sexual desire.

When offered a review copy of I Am Not a Slut! by HarperPerennial, I had to back up and read Tanenbaum's previous book, Slut! Growing Up Female With a Bad Reputation, because it had missed me when it first published.  I was in my junior/senior years of undergrad (in a pre-med track) when it published so if it wasn't a biochemistry textbook or MCAT study guide or a work of escapist fiction completely removed from pre-medicine it just wasn't on my radar.  But in reading Slut! now, I recognized a lot of things that had happened when I was in junior high and high school.  And remembered a few others.  That I had, at the request of a friend, called a girl a "ho-bag slut" because the rumor-mill had it that she had "done" my friend's crush; in retrospect, it's likely that she hadn't done a single thing with said boy and if she had I was clearly out of line.  I remember the peculiar schadenfreude (a term I didn't know then) I felt when reading bathroom graffiti about another girl and was crushed when bathroom graffiti was written about me (over 20 years later, it is laughable that someone thought the need to write that when it was clear I had no time or opportunity to do those things).  I remember being so terrified by the excessive drinking and associated activities at the only "traditional" high school party I attended that I sat outside on the stoop in the middle of February because I hadn't driven there and couldn't even have called my father to come get me since we were out in the country and I had no idea where we were; as it happened, I was the only sober one at the end of the night and had to drive a stick-shift, without a permit/license, at something like 2am to get everyone back to the one girl's house where we were staying the night and the entire way back I worried that something had happened to one of the girls and didn't know how to ask her about it. I stuck to parties with the drama crowd where the craziest thing that ever happened was that we had too many Pez and put Time Warp on repeat.

Both Tanenbaum's books work through a combination of research and interviews with young women (and in the case of Slut! with older women who came of age in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s).  The personal histories, including Tanenbaum's, cut deeply into the ways that being labelled a "slut" or "ho" (or "whore" depending on the age of the woman) has caused serious damage to how these women view themselves as whole people.  The first book lays down the history of slut-shaming or slut-bashing.  The second is one-quarter new edition with updated (horrifying) statistics and three-quarters new information due to the advent of social media and the anonymity conferred by some social media sites.  Both are worth reading.

The situations presented in Tanenbaum's books weigh on my mind because I have nieces who are very rapidly approaching the "tween" stage.  I don't have children, and am unlikely at this point in my life to have any of my own, so my nieces and nephew are getting a third parent.  My older nieces are wonderful, beautiful, creative and fabulously eccentric in the way that only grade school-age girls are, yet....their parents have had to deal with a little boy who repeatedly tried to kiss one of my nieces - and it wasn't just a peck on the cheek.  Only a few days ago the other one asked her mom why all the pretty boys were so rude.  These are children.  What will we have to contend with as everyone starts going through puberty?  My nieces are lucky in that they have a good system of parents and uncles and aunts and grandparents who love them unconditionally and will be in their corner to matter what.  But many children are not so lucky.

Apologies, this review has wandered a bit.  We need books like Tanenbaum's to begin the discussion about sexuality, sexual agency, empathy, and social pressures.  We need to end the sexual double-standard that privileges one gender (male) over the other (female) (and I haven't even touched on the differences in the use of "slut" and like words and how those words are viewed/used differently among racial or non-heteronormative groups).  We need change.  Starting with our words.

Dear FTC: I received an advance copy of I Am Not a Slut! from the publisher; I borrowed Slut! from the library.