Last Week’s Reading: January 22-28


January 22-28, 2017: A sci-fi classic, a new feminist classic, vignettes in verse,  a much-awarded novel worth the hype, and thirty-year-old poetry that’s still fresh.

We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie: The perfect primer on feminism, eloquent and brief. This would make an excellent gift for high school students in need of a brief introduction to the concept and will rally, I think, those who hesitate to call themselves feminists.

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin: I’ve had this 1969 sci-fi classic  on my shelves for twenty years, but I’m rather glad I didn’t read it at twelve. Though short—my mass-market paperback is 300 pages—it’s dense, complicated, and incredibly intelligent. Genly Ai is an envoy from a group of planets (think the Federation, but more abstract) assigned to persuade the inhabitants of the planet Gethen (translated, it means Winter–it’s essentially a populated Hoth) to join the Ekumen. Gethenians have a complicated system of etiquette and honor called shifgrethor, but even more confounding for Ai is their lacked of fixed sexuality; they are neither male nor female (all characters are called “he,” a convention Ann Leckie reverses in the excellent Ancillary Justice). The world-building is sublime, the pace of revelation superb–we struggle to understand this culture as Genly does, and in the process Ms. Le Guin asks us to think deeply about exploration, friendship, and patriotism. Highly recommended.

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, by David Rakoff: The world lost a funny, sad voice when David Rakoff died in 2012 at the age of 47. If you loved his essay collection Fraud (I did), you’ll find this book quite different–it’s a short novel made of vignettes in verse. It’s grim and witty at the same time, a catalogue of cruelties and kindnesses and most of all, I think, our vulnerabilities. Those looking for an unusual reading experience should pick it up.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz: Deserves every accolade it’s received, and then some. I put off reading this novel because I have limited patience for the male bildungsroman, but my expectations were confounded. Oscar is lovable and tragic, but the story doesn’t belong to him alone; Mr. Díaz takes long excursions into the backgrounds of his mother and sister, giving the book a roundedness and depth I didn’t anticipate. Yunior, the narrator and sometime authorial-alter-ego, is a fantastic narrator, steeped in nerd culture, frenetic, profane and and so full of life that it seems he’s physically propelling words across the page (even in the footnotes). I loved, loved, loved this novel.

To The Quick, by Heather McHugh: Heather McHugh’s wordplay (see “Etymological Dirge”) is fantastic, almost dizzying. This 1987 collection is beautiful and smart and tough. These poems will cut you to the quick. Need proof? Just read “The Amenities.” 

What to Read While You Wait for the Magic Mike XXL Blu-ray: Dietland, by Sarai Walker

I’ll admit it: I did not believe the feminist hype about Magic Mike XXL that I kept reading on Twitter.

But then I went to see it.

There is a magic place where you can still see a movie after 6 p.m. for under 10 bucks. That magic place is Rhode Island.

There is a magic place where you can still see a movie after 6 p.m. for under 10 bucks. That magic place is Rhode Island.

In a tiny theater on a Tuesday night, my husband (the only man present, but let me tell you, men should see this movie) and I sat with about a dozen women, and all of us laughed and clapped and practically cheered. It was the most positive, enthusiastic, demonstrative crowd I’ve seen at the movies, bar none (this from a woman who saw the Lord of the Rings movies at 12:01a.m. on opening day, mind you).

Why, you ask?

Well, it’s not just the good looking guys dancing around, though that’s fun (for the record, I don’t find Channing Tatum particularly attractive. No offense, Channing—you seem like a nice guy and I’d be happy to chat with you over a beer, but let’s keep it to just friends, m’kay?). You can see the same kind of thing in the first Magic Mike movie, which was a Steven Soderbergh take on the guy-trying-to-get-a-break-and-start-new-life-gets-pulled-into-old-life story. It was a good enough movie, but it didn’t leave me with a grin on my face like this one did.

Nor was it the jokes, which were pretty good, but not Anchorman quality, if you know what I mean.

I think what made me (and the audience) so happy was that (1) this is a movie about men who are out to make women happy. Are they interested in sleeping with women? Sure. Does that drive the plot? No. It’s unbelievably refreshing.

And (2), in this movie, women don’t have to be afraid. No woman is killed, raped, beaten, harassed, pressured for sex, humiliated, called names, or treated as a passive object. Not one. Not a single one. It’s like an alternative fantasy world in which women are safe around men, period.

And (3) I’m talking about women of all colors and all sizes. The fat (which I am not using in a pejorative sense) women in this movie are happy and beautiful and sexy—and being treated that way by extremely (conventionally) attractive men. And those men rely on women—including a woman of color—for help of all sorts.

To see depictions like these in a mainstream movie is like some kind of feminist fever dream. Naturally, I loved it.

Which brings me, at last, to the book you should read while you wait to watch the movie at home.

Magic Mike XXL is a movie fantasy that’s explicitly about men trying to make women happy. Dietland*, by Sarai Walker, is a fantasy in book form about women making themselves happy.

IMG_4255Plum Kettle is convinced that her real life will start once she has weight-loss surgery and becomes thin. Then she’ll be Alicia, her true self—the self who won’t be stared at, or mocked, or judged simply for moving through the world. In the meantime, Plum works for a teen magazine, answering the agonized emails of teenage girls in the vapid persona of the magazine’s editor.

Then one day, she realizes she’s being followed by girl in combat boots and bright tights, and eventually she’s drawn into the orbit of Calliope House, which is a quasi-radical feminist collective funded by Verena, a diet guru’s daughter who completely rejects her mother’s work. Plum gets to know the women who filter in and out of Calliope House (artists, activists, the occasional spy at a beauty magazine) and finds her eyes opened to what’s expected of all women, fat and thin, in the culture around her: that they make themselves attractive, by any means necessary, for men. Diets, waxing, shapewear, contouring, lingerie ads, high heels, porn: all part of the world that normalizes and encourages the objectification of women.

As Plum undertakes a difficult challenge (to live as she thinks Alicia would before she has the surgery) something darker is afoot. It’s a literal feminist conspiracy, if you will: A mysterious vigilante group called Jennifer starts to fight back, worldwide, against male oppression. Rapists are dropped onto freeways. A male editor is kidnapped and forced to replace topless female models on page 3 with nude male models. People who make hard-core porn that glorifies rape are killed. Athletes and film directors who got away with rape (thinly-veiled analogues for real people), along with a revenge-porn website founder, and several other despicable men, are kidnapped.

And then other women start to fight back. Women at a “prestigious Connecticut university” (ahem) destroy the fraternity house of a group of men who walked around campus shouting an abhorrent slogan—when “in previous years, this type of misbehavior would have been handled by a tweedy disciplinary committee in a conference room” (231). Men start to think twice about what they do or say.

Now, would you believe me if I told you this novel is hilarious? It is.

While these two plots aren’t always perfectly woven together, reading a book in which genre tropes are turned on their heads and in which every ridiculous thing women are asked to do to be beautiful is laid out and subjected to scrutiny is so rare, so exciting, that I turned pages with glee. Plum is a wonderful character with a rich interior life; she feels real, and she holds this cri-de-couer of a novel together.

Think of every rom-com you’ve watched in which the happy ending depends on the woman becoming pretty and getting the man. When was the last time you saw a mainstream movie in which a fat woman was happy, sexy, confident, and treated as such (see, there’s Magic Mike XXL, standing  in not very much company)? Think of every diet ad you’ve ever seen. How many were marketed to men?  How much time out of our lives do women spend thinking and talking about what will make us thinner, or what will make us look thinner? Think of all the professional women you know—how much harder do they have to work to get ready in the morning than their male counterparts, not because they want to, but because their company and coworkers silently expect them to?

There’s a difference between getting gussied up because it makes you feel fabulous, exercising because you dig the endorphins, or eating food that makes you feel good—and working to change your appearance because if you don’t you’ll be embarrassed or shamed. Dietland lays out those differences in technicolor.

Dietland makes the point that if we didn’t have to waste our time on the expectations a male-dominated (and often women-enforced) culture has for us, we could not only grant ourselves more time and space to be happy (to read a book, play with our kids, visit with friends, watch a Channing Tatum movie, whatever) but also tackle the really big problems without needing Jennifer’s approach, problems like violence against women, human trafficking, and suffering in its myriad forms.

Now that’s a feminist fantasy.

P.S. Speaking of which, I also highly recommend Feminist Ryan Gosling to while away the hours. Hilarious.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

If Roxane Gay is a Bad Feminist, Sign Me Up

photo 1 (20)The first time I saw the name Roxane Gay was on Facebook (see? It’s not altogether terrible). I’d just seen a trailer for The Help, and thought to myself: “Um, doesn’t that movie seem racist to anyone else?” A friend linked to a piece by Roxane Gay detailing her dismay over the film’s depictions of race in the 1960s south, which are, to say it in academic-speak, problematic. The essay was very, very good, and you can read it here.

Three summers later, it’s the year of Roxane Gay (or, at least that’s what I’m calling it). Her novel An Untamed State (review here) was published to critical acclaim this spring, and Bad Feminist* is available tomorrow. It’s a collection of Ms. Gay’s essays (most, if not all, previously published elsewhere), and you shouldn’t miss it.

Ms. Gay’s essays are short, intense views of a lively mind at work. They vary widely in tone, ranging from the hilarious (the world of competitive Scrabble) to the horrific (Ms. Gay’s traumatic experience of sexual assault as a girl). Her essay on rape culture, “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence,” in which she takes the New York Times to task (among others), ought to be required reading in high school (and, apparently, newsrooms).

Many of Bad Feminist‘s essays consider books, movies, and TV shows from the perspective of race or gender — Ms. Gay’s takes on The Hunger Games, Girls, and Django Unchained are a pleasure to read — showcasing Ms. Gay’s considerable prowess as a cultural critic. She is equally comfortable talking about “high” literary culture and Lifetime movies; this is the perfect book for anyone who’s a pop culture aficionado.

Here’s one of my favorite passages, on Quentin Tarantino:

But Django Unchained isn’t even really a movie about slavery. Django Unchained is a spaghetti western set during the 1800s. Slavery is a convenient, easily exploited backdrop. As with Inglorious Basterds using World War II, Tarantino once again managed to find a traumatic cultural experience of a marginalized people that has little to do with his own history, and used that cultural experience to exercise his hubris for making farcically violent, vaguely funny movies that set to right historical wrongs from a very limited, privileged position. (222)

Yes, yes, yes. Thank you.

Despite what the book’s title suggests, Ms. Gay is a wonderful feminist: engaged, interested and interesting, funny, respectful of others’ differing views. My politics overlap Ms. Gay’s, but not completely; even when we fundamentally disagree, I found much to consider in her arguments. Ms. Gay doesn’t espouse one right way of being feminist, and that’s a message we could all stand to remember. Bad Feminist is a book for feminists and for those who won’t call themselves feminists; it’s a book for everybody. Highly recommended.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

Recommended Reading: Helen Oyeyemi’s Marvelous Boy, Snow, Bird

photo (63)Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird* deserves all the attention it’s attracting; it’s a beautiful, lyrical novel, thrumming with life and grappling with difficult issues of love, aesthetics, race, trauma, and identity.

Boy Novak flees both home (New York City) and her abusive father for life in small-town Massachusetts. Drifting from job to job, and occasionally frightened by her own strangeness (“It wasn’t that I didn’t want to speak; it just seemed smarter not to. All of a sudden it felt as if I had far too many teeth, more teeth than it was decent to show” [45.]), Boy eventually settles down with a former professor (now jeweler) Arturo Whitman and his beautiful, enchanting daughter, Snow. However, when Boy’s daughter, Bird, is born, a secret is revealed that leads Boy to send Snow away when “Snow’s daintiness grew day by day, to menacing proportions” (142). Boy becomes a wicked stepmother in absentia.

Time passes, however, and Snow and Bird prove themselves determined to reunite, to find out the whole truth (Bird is a budding journalist) — because there’s another woman missing from their story.

I loved Boy, Snow, Bird. The characters’ voices are distinct, witty, and smart, and the reworking of the Snow White fairytale surprised me at nearly every turn. While it deploys the same tactic that makes C.S. Lewis’s Til We Have Faces so brutally brilliant — that is, telling an established myth from the point of view of the “evil” character — Boy, Snow, Bird is even more expertly layered. The veneer of magic both conceals and reveals our own preoccupations with perception and the practice of looking.

Reviewers and readers have, justifiably, focused on the novel’s engagement with race (Ron Charles in the Washington Post has a particularly good paragraph about it, which you can read here). I’d also like to point out that the novel consistently reminds us of what it’s like to be a woman, and therefore constantly looked at (by others and by yourself). One of Boy’s teenage friends from the bookstore where Boy works, a girl named Sidonie, is catcalled every day on her way home from school (disturbingly, street harassment hasn’t changed much from the book’s 1953 setting); one of the ways that Snow is initially marked as “young for her age” is that “she hadn’t yet learned to smile even when she didn’t feel like it” (71). She hasn’t learned, in other words, the right face to show the world that’s looking at her.

And then there’s the lead up to a terrifying episode of abuse that Boy’s father, a rat catcher, perpetrates. Two weeks before her escape, Boy walks home with her boyfriend of sorts. Boy’s father greets them at the door: “‘I’ve seen the way you look at my daughter. You think she’s pretty, don’t you?'” Then:

They both turned to me and went on a looking spree. I left them to it and wished I could sail over their heads and into the acid blue sky. They didn’t look for long, it was more a practiced series of glances; they knew what they were looking for and seemed to find it. It was a wonder there was anything left by the time they were through looking. (120)

After the rat catcher (as Boy thinks of him) threatens to mar Boy’s beauty, to scar her badly enough that only a “true love” could accept her, Boy comes to the conclusion that “no matter what anybody else said or did my father saw something revolting in me, and sooner or later he meant to make everyone else agree with him” (123). Is it any wonder that Boy fears the face that looks back at her from the mirror, the face that sometimes isn’t hers?

It’s in articulating the tension between the fear of beauty and the craving for it that Ms. Oyeyemi truly shines.

Tomorrow: An interview with Helen Oyeyemi, author of Boy, Snow, Bird

*My thanks to the Riverhead Books for sending me a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.


Recommended Reading: To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf

To the LighthouseAttempting to write a review of To The Lighthouse makes me feel rather like Lily Briscoe about to take up her brushes:

Where to begin?–that was the question, at what point to make the first mark? One line placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions. All that in idea seemed simple became in practice immediately complex; as the waves shape themselves symmetrically from the cliff top, but to the swimmer among them are divided by steep gulfs, and foaming crests. Still, the risk must be run; the mark made. (157)

It’s been about ten years since I read To The Lighthouse, and I’m glad it’s found me again just now. I’m a devotee of Mrs. Dalloway to such an extent that I know the page numbers of certain passages in my copy (I’ve taught it three times at least), and there’s a family joke that the correct answer to any question is probably Mrs. Dalloway.  I want that kind of familiarity with To the Lighthouse.

I read Persuasion while I was reading To the Lighthouse, and what struck me as I read was the startling interiority of Persuasion, and the way it almost leads up to Woolf’s style “Stream of consciousness” doesn’t do Woolf’s writing justice because she creates and chooses such fascinating characters whose consciousnesses to follow. Woolf in this novel is primarily concerned with women’s perceptions, making visible the unseen and silent struggles of women’s everyday interactions.

The first section of the novel often floats in the currents of Mrs. Ramsay’s thoughts. If Mrs. Dalloway is the perfect hostess, Mrs. Ramsay is, outwardly, the model of the Victorian “angel in the house” (an ideal Woolf satirized in an essay) — she’s a wife, mother, mistress of servants, and anticipator of others’ needs. But Woolf shows us the turmoil under her deferential demeanor. Here’s Mrs. Ramsay after her husband dismisses the notion of a trip to the lighthouse the following day, ruining their six-year-old son’s hopes:

To pursue truth with such astonishing lack of consideration for other people’s feelings, to rend the thin veils of civilisation so wantonly, so brutally, was to her so horrible an outrage of human decency that, without replying, dazed and blinded, she bent her head as if to let the pelt of jagged hail, the drench of dirty water, bespatter her unrebuked. There was nothing to be said. (32)

So she doesn’t say anything, and seethes.

Though she is a doting mother, kind and sensitive to the needs of her eight (!) children of varying ages, Mrs. Ramsay recognizes the need for her own time. My friend Katie wrote a funny (and spot-on) post recently about how difficult it is to find portrayals of life with small children in fiction. I think this passage, though, captures what it’s like for parents, especially at-home parents, to sit down at the end of a long day:

No, she thought, putting together some of the pictures he had cut out–a refrigerator, a mowing machine, a gentleman in evening dress–children never forget. For this reason, it was so important what one said, and what one did, and it was a relief when they went to bed. For now she need not think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of–to think; well, not ever to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others. Although she continued to knit, and sat upright, it was thus that she felt herself; and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures. When life sank down for a moment, the range of experience seemed limitless. (62)

“The range of experience seemed limitless” — that’s a good way to describe this book. The novel is broken in three sections: “The Window,” “Time Passes,” and “The Lighthouse” — but it’s difficult to convey the plot. A family and visitors gather at the family summer home before the First World War. After that last summer, some people drift away, some die (including a major character, in one sentence at the end of a paragraph), and the war happens. Ten years later, a few of the guests and a few of the family gather again at the house. I haven’t made it sound like much, but somehow, the novel is about art and life, men and women, children and parents, love and death, and above all, change. It’s brilliant and beautiful and never, ever sentimental.

Lily, as the artist, solitary and devoted to her work, seems to stand in for the author at times. In this passage, which I’ll leave you with, her description of life itself could describe To the Lighthouse:

And, what was even more exciting, she felt, too, as she saw Mr. Ramsay bearing down and retreating, and Mrs. Ramsay sitting with James in the window and the cloud moving and the tree bending, how life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach. (47)

Dragon Bound, Part the Second: I have a theory.

When we left off last week, Pia and Dragos were about to be dragged into a goblin fortress, and I was seething with feminist (personist?) rage. dragonboundreadalongbutton-01

The rage is back, folks, but luckily for you, and Thea Harrison, I’m on my way back from my brother’s wedding in Cleveland, so this will be brief.

This section of the book brings Pia into Dragos’s world/demesne (yes, they escaped from the goblins. I was shocked.). We get to meet Dragos’s lieutenants, who, the interweb tells me, will get their own books eventually, as well as a fairy named Tricks, who seems to me like a magical Kristen Chenoweth in a business suit.

Sidebar: why is it that women in these books only drink white wine?

Dragos has his own skyscraper and ruthless lawyers (oh, did I mention that the book’s epigraph is attributed to Donald Trump?), and gosh, does the poor dragon man have a lot on his mind! Here’s a credit card, Pia! Have a latte and hit the gym, but don’t forget lunch with the girls! Oh, I don’t like your clothes, so please wear this expensive robe so that none of my hulking gorgeous male friends will get a look at your (no doubt quivering) thighs.

And then there’s the sex. The always-agressive (though with consent, this time), heteronormative, vanilla sex (I mean, he’s not a dragon at the time, right?).

Yes, it seems that once you hit the 1/3 mark, your main characters get to quit holding at second and thirdish base and run for home. A lot. The sex scenes are just as awful as you would think, with Pia feeling so affected by Dragos “wrecking” her that she feels she needs to go sit in a dark room and sort out her feelings.

I have a theory about all this “wrecking.” You know how A-list actors (for the most part) will only do graphic sex scenes if the scenes are integral to the plot of the movies? I’m thinking of Diane Lane in Unfaithful, Joseph Fiennes & Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love, Gael García Bernal (yes, I know he wasn’t famous yet) in the last scene in Y Tu Mamá También, for starters.

[Sidebar 2: I prefer sex in movies to be implied — see the curtains stirring in the breeze in The Maltese Falcon? Yeah, that’s Humphrey Bogart having sex.]

Well, I think Ms. Harrison is trying to confer an air of legitimacy on Dragon Bound‘s sex scenes with these claims that Pia’s whole self is changed when she has sex with Dragos (“He took her so far and deep outside of herself, she came back changed in fundamental ways she didn’t understand” [176].). It’s as if she’s saying, “Look! The book needs the sex! It’s part of the characters’ arcs!”

At least Dragos willingly performs cunnilingus.

As I said in my first post, I think there are some interesting dynamics at work in the book — the interaction between human and non-human societies in particular. And I get a kick out of Elves enforcing trade embargoes. Would someone with influence suggest to Ms. Harrison that she try her hand at less sex-centered mass market paranormal fiction?

Next week: Will Dragos learn to love? Will he accidentally-on-purpose kill his second in command? Will Pia reveal her Wyr-self? Stay tuned . . .

Check out the other readers-along:

Dragon Bound, Part the First: Let’s Talk about Sex Consent

My reading of Thea Harrison’s Dragon Bound did not begin auspiciously. In the very first sentence, we have an unnecessary adverb, and I don’t mind those in blog posts, but when one has an editor? Tut, tut. I should probably tell you my least favorite line up front, too: “the sight of his bare chest had stolen every digit of her IQ” (93). GAG.


N.B.: Spoilers, spoilers, spoilers.

After that start, though, the book grew on me. For a while.

Pia is a resourceful heroine with some serious baggage, which makes her more complex and interesting than the blushing rose I was expecting from a romance novel. Bonus: she swears and actually has sexual experience.. I was going to be all kinds of annoyed if the first person she sleeps with were to be a dragon-person. I mean, Wyr. Anyway, when we see her, she’s just stolen something from Dragos (more on him in a sec), and is on the run.

I think Ms. Harrison’s world-building is pretty interesting, and clearly borrows from Tolkien, and probably from other, more modern fantasy writers that I haven’t gotten around to reading. The basic idea is that in this world, humans co-exist with Elves, Fae (like fairies and trolls, I guess, both Dark and Light), and Wyrkind (think ‘were-kind’). The Wyrkind folks can turn into all sorts of animals, apparently. Pia is half-human, half-Wyrkind. I suspect that the revelation of her kind of Wyr will be a major plot point.

Pia knows who Dragos is before they meet, which saves us some conversational exposition. Combine that with what we learn in this first section and we have a list of pretty snazzy qualifications: He’s super-sexy (to Pia), incredibly rich and politically connected, all kinds of powerful (magic-wise), a telepath, and a huge dragon as old as the earth itself. Oh, and he likes to get his own way, apparently. I do think the description of his size leaves something to be desired, though: “Dragos Cuelebre exploded into the sky with long thrusts from a wingspan approaching that of an eight-seater Cessna jet” (9). Yes, that’s a “thrust” on page nine, folks. But my real problem is the Cessna thing. First of all, everyone knows what a 747 is. But a Cessna? A Cessna 8-seater? Um, no. Why can’t he just be as big as a jet? Or a helicopter or something?

So, for 42 pages, ok. No sex, some magical intrigue, reference to a harpy (!), some interesting ideas about an integrated human-magic world (including Department of Energy contracts, which seems pretty brainy for a romance novel). Also use of the word ‘demesne,’ which I enjoy. And a cool, older, possibly half-Elven friend named Quentin for Pia. Quentin is crushworthy. I would totally hang out with him and I’m pretty sad that he seems to drop from the novel completely after just a few pages.

But . . .

There’s this dream-ish thing.

Before Dragos can decide not to rip Pia into itty bitty pieces because he thinks she’s super cute, he needs to find her, and for that, he needs to know her name. So he does his magic thing and reaches out to her in a dream.  To be more accurate, he sends her a dream/beguilement, or maybe implants it into her subconscious while she’s sleeping (it’s magic, and I’m not an expert, so cut me some slack, ok?).

This undertone of incursion/violation/assault/drugging was such a turn-off that it was difficult for me to read about the hot almost-sex the dream/beguilement versions of Pia and Dragos have.

[Sidebar: Dragos is constantly referred to as “a male,” instead of “a man.” I get that this is technically accurate because he’s a dragon and all, but I find the construction distracting, like someone’s talking about a lab rat.]

So in the dream/magic incursion into Pia’s consciousness, Dragos’s Power (capital P) turns Pia on. He uses his magic voice on her, and before she knows it, she rushes toward him, and immediately “He took hold of her arms, dragged her across his body and slammed her into the mattress as he rolled on top of her. Pinning her down with his heavy body, he locked his hands around her glowing wrists and yanked them over her head. The corded strength in his fingers make [sic] the flesh and bone they shackled feel slender and fragile” (45).

Um, what now? Here are some words that are problems for me here: dragged, slammed, pinning, locked, yanked, shackled.

Call me a capital-F Feminist, but I like my sex with a heaping side of consent. The “juncture between her thighs” (OUCH) may “[grow] slick,” but is Pia really in a position to give informed consent? She certainly didn’t consent to this mind-violation. How do we know that Pia’s engagement with Dragos in the dream isn’t the result of the drugging-magic thing Dragos has going on?

I get that this is a romance novel, and that in the pages that follow Pia and Dragos will have lots of mutually-desired sex. Great. Pia wants to be dominated? Have fun, Pia. She’s an adult, and adults should be free to do whatever they like in their bedrooms (or kitchens or whatever) with other consenting adults. What I don’t like is that the novel’s first sexual encounter has very negative overtones of non-consent.

Sure, Pia seems to be into the encounter, but the important word here is seems. She didn’t want the dream/encounter to happen in the first place: “Pia dreamed of a dark, whispering voice. She tossed and turned, fighting to ignore it. Exhaustion was a concrete shackle. All she wanted to do was sleep. But the voice insinuated into her head and sank velvet claws deep” (43).

See what I mean?

At least they have a talk later (87-88) about how she was beguiled and how her choices are now her own, which makes me feel a little better. A very little. Until Dragos started spouting nonsense about how Pia “belongs” to him. GROSS. Pia does correct him before they indulge in some pretty hot over-the-clothes action, and when she tells him to stop he stops. Thank goodness.

Man, I really hoped this was going to be funny. I just don’t get it — why can’t a novel geared toward women, in which we know the characters are going to fall for each other, feature clear consent at all times?

The rest of this first-third is a pretty good time. Dragos catches Pia and tells her that her ex is dead (boo hoo), and then pulls a Mr. Rochester when she almost faints, getting her a blanket and a drink. Pia reveals that she’s got a cool trick—locks can’t hold her— and then proceeds to use some political wiles and an order of steak to get Dragos shot with some sort of elf dart (why are elves always archers?), but then finds him so irresistible that she stays by his side to nurse him. Aw. I think the message is pretty loud and clear: Pia is attracted to the huge, dangerous,  good-looking dragon.

Now I’ve written more than a thousand words about this treasure, so let’s cut to the end. Someone has been very naughty and betrayed Dragos, which means that he and Pia are captured by goblins and dragged into an “Other” land, some sort of rip in the space-time continuum where mechanical weapons don’t work (like the Terminator’s time bubble). Dragos is apparently too incapacitated to launch more than one fireball (using his eyes — like a cross between Cyclops and Gandalf). Pia’s really freaked out about bleeding (can I get a Freudian in here, please?), and when Chapter 7 ends, the goblins are about to take Pia and Dragos into their fortress. Because what would a romance novel be with a dungeon?

See? It’s my first one, and I’m learning already!

By the way, who else wants to turn the metaphors of consuming and devouring into a publishable paper?

Stay tuned for next week’s installment, and check out the other readers-along:

“velvet between the tiles”

I came to Adrienne Rich  (1929-2012) through her book Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, which I leafed through while I was researching my (still, predictably, unfinished) dissertation. Her sharp, sometimes angry voice snared me, and I’m happy to be hooked.

This week I’m learning “She” from Rich’s An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991. “She” is dated 1988. It’s a poem about barriers, collection, cleaning, about the dirtiness and dust that accumulates around us and in us. I like that the poem asks the reader to bring the title (she) back into the poem when a new sentence begins; to me, it feels as if Rich is asking the reader to be, in a small way, a co-writer of the poem, to realize it fully in the reading.

You can purchase the collection here.