The Wrath and the Dawn

The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

The Wrath and the Dawn is the beginning of a trilogy retelling the story of Shahrzade. The language is good for a YA novel, if a bit breathless, with many paragraph breaks and emphatic sentence fragments. Shahrzade’s storytelling is less of a focus than romance and court intrigue. In this version of the story, the king who kills his wives is (spoiler alert!) compelled to do so by a curse, which does most of the work of turning him from a serial killer into a Byronic hero. However, in this novel, on his first night with Shahrzade, the king, Khalid, has very “perfunctory” sex with her. She submits, seething with hate. She notes that on the second night, she is getting good at dissociating during these encounters. They don’t have sex again until after they fall in love. But that is what I don’t get. How can she fall in love with a man who raped her?

On the other hand, maybe I’m just being prudish. Maybe it would be almost silly or unrealistic if they didn’t have sex. It makes sense that sex and marriages would work this way in this very patriarchal society, with sex a given. But there’s no way for this kind of sex to be anything but coerced at best, and coerced sex is rape. Khalid never apologizes to Shahrzade for it, although he does decide not to do it again until she consents fully. A question that’s left unanswered is whether or not Khalid slept with every one of the other murdered wives, and whether they consented. Were their final hours spent being violated? The book seems to lead me to answer, probably. Although it also seems possible that he simply stays away from the women, since he is so bad at emotional intimacy and didn’t seem to enjoy the impersonal sex he has with Shahrzade their first night anyway. Shahrzades’ honest gaze at their wedding ceremony is what intrigues him enough to visit her, but rather than asking her questions to begin with, he jumps right into bed, because he can and because he doesn’t have the skills or the guts to talk to her. He seems to begin their conversation with sex, because he doesn’t know what else to say–she says he seems to derive no real pleasure from it. His cowardice leads to her violation. And the narrative does not address this issue at all.

While the story does a great job of describing the couple’s physical attraction, it doesn’t sufficiently explain how Shahrzade deals with these rapes or makes sense of them in the context of their growing relationship. How does her attraction overcome her resentment? When they do finally make love, how do their previous coercive encounters color the act? Does Shahrzade continue to dissociate, even though she no longer needs to escape? Is Khalid still emotionally distant and perfunctory, because that is how he is used to behaving in bed, even though he is trying to express real love?

Ahdieh gives us no answers, but I guess these are my questions: In fiction, is rape a crime that puts a character beyond redemption? Or is there such a place as beyond redemption? What is necessary for that redemption? Can that redemption happen in the same relationship as the rape? Even if a rapist gets redeemed, can he ever deserve a true “happy ending”? Is it exploitative for an author to use this rape–>redemption narrative as a form of character development for a male character? Is it ok for a narrative to gloss over rape and its effects? In stories set in the past and in patriarchal societies, is it realistic to expect that characters act as we 21st century readers would wish them to, with regards to sex and consent? Or is setting irrelevant since all of this is imaginary anyway? I’m not sure what the answers are, and maybe that hesitation is a sign of some thinking I need to do on my own, but I suppose the fact that I felt uncomfortable and unsatisfied around this issue shows that The Wrath and the Dawn didn’t answer these questions sufficiently or convincingly.

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Shadowspell

Shadowspell by Jenna Black

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This is the second book in a YA fantasy series I began reading a long, long time ago, before this blog. I’m not sure I’ll pick up the next book in the series, although I must have liked the first one enough to put the second on my list. Maybe it’s a sign of my taste getting more refined, or the series not fulfilling its potential.

The story is about Dana, a Faeriewalker, a girl of mixed human and fairy heritage who has the power to bring fairies into our world and to bring technology into Fairie. In the first scene, she’s fighting her fairy boyfriend off her in a theater, in a way that’s presented as cute and hot rather than rapey and disrespectful. The bad guy is the Erkling, the sexy leader of the Wild Hunt, who abducts her boyfriend and gives Dana a nasty Scarpia Ultimatum, which, disappointingly, is also presented as hot and seductive rather than rapey and exploitative. Dana stupidly makes a bargain with the Erkling, when everybody knows there’s always a catch in deals with faeries.

The world that’s built here had the potential to be really cool, so it’s a shame what Black has done with it as far as those creepy rapey moments. Dana makes a kind of annoying narrator in a very materialistic, stereotypical, and exaggerated teen girl way. I’m curious about what comes next here, but I’m not sure whether I’m curious enough to get through another book like this.

The Jane Austen Book Club

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler

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I picked up this book because I recently read Fowler’s more recent book, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and because I love Jane Austen. However, despite loving Elizabeth Bennett more than chimps, I liked We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves more than this book. There’s something in Fowler’s style that’s kind of off-the-wall, and that’s especially well-suited for a narrator who was raised with a chimp and therefore is kind of uncertain about how human interaction works. Either that or Fowler’s just improved.

I didn’t find much in this book very surprising. It gave me no real new insight on Jane Austen. The characters seemed so different that it was hard to believe that they were friends and would be in a book club together. It was kind of predictable that the only man in the book club, who was of course single, would end up paired up with one of the ladies. (“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man attending a book club is in want of a wife.”) It’s not bad, but it’s not amazing either.

The Other Queen

The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory

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I always enjoy Philippa Gregory’s historical novels on the women of the British monarchy. She focuses on the women that the historical record usually neglects, and I always feel like I’ve learned something after reading her books. Her narrators have distinctive voices, and are melodramatic or humorous as the situation and their personalities permit.

The focus of this novel is on Mary, Queen of Scots, imprisoned and eventually executed by Elizabeth I. Mary was Elizabeth’s second cousin, heir to the English throne and a Catholic. She was married three times, and the subject of The novel switches among three points of view: Queen Mary, Bess of Hardwicke, and her husband George, the Earl of Shrewsbury. Bess and George are asked by Queen Elizabeth to keep Queen Mary at their estate, and the expense nearly bankrupts them. Queen Mary keeps scheming, writing secret letters to supporters to try to muster a rebellion to return her to her throne, and she nearly succeeds.

The relationships of the three narrators are fraught with drama and tension. The conflict is presented as between a younger woman and an older one, with the man caught between them. Bess is a businesswoman, mercenary and practical, delighting in her houses and lands. George is a romantic, charmed by Mary’s beauty and spirit, but a bit of a patronizing snob. Mary is concerned only with regaining her freedom, and is willing to exploit George’s feelings to achieve her goals. The couple’s loyalties are split between the two queens, while their resources are exhausted by paying to host Mary’s court. Their marriage ultimately ends, as much as was possible at the time. It’s kind of a happy ending, or at least a relief, for Bess when she is finally free of her husband’s debts and she has full control of her own lands again. Bess isn’t an especially appealing character, thanks to her materialism and her constant harping on money, but in some ways she achieves many feminist goals through freeing herself from a bad marriage and establishing herself independent of her husband. She recognizes the marriages of the period for what they are, and works within the legal framework to make sure that she can provide for herself and her children. At the end of the book, she calls herself a new kind of woman, and I think that’s true. The Elizabethan Age was an important time for proto-feminism.

I was slightly troubled by the presentation of Queen Mary’s relationship with Bothwell, her third husband, who never appears in person in this novel because he is also imprisoned, far away, but who is a strong presence in Mary’s mind. She speaks of him admiringly, worshipfully, as the only man strong enough to help her return to her throne. At one point, Mary says he raped her, and at another she says she enticed him. Perhaps some of this ambiguity comes from the historical record itself, and the fact that Gregory is interpreting and inventing a fictional relationship inspired by mere fragments and rumors of a real one. As if that weren’t confusing enough, Mary describes their lovemaking this way:

“No,” I say as his weight comes down on me. It is what I always say to him. It is the word which means desire to me, to us. It is the word which means yes: “No.”

I honestly didn’t know what to make of this. I think that in real life, consent always needs to be crystal clear. The idea of a woman who gives mixed messages on whether or not she was raped in the past and whether or not she’s consenting to a present sexual encounter has been used too many times to excuse or dismiss rape charges. In fact, Mary herself gives a startlingly progressive speech about rape culture and how victims are blamed. Is it possible that a complex literary character may express her dysfunctional attitudes about sexuality without promoting rape culture in the world outside of the book? I don’t know. I think it’s potentially dangerous, and problematic, and worth talking about. But that’s all I’ve got so far. I’m stumped.

The Girlfriend’s Guide to Pregnancy

The Girlfriend’s Guide to Pregnancy: Or, Everything Your Doctor Won’t Tell You by Vicki Iovine

I was very deliberate in choosing which books about pregnancy I wanted to read. I didn’t want to read anything that would make me feel bad in any way. I didn’t want something that would give me too many unnecessary details about rare birth defects or obscure things that cause miscarriages, because that would just make me paranoid for no reason. I don’t need to hear about scary things that only happen to one woman in a million. Second, I didn’t want anything too judgy, anything that would imply you’re a bad mother harming your unborn child if you don’t do X, Y, and Z. Both of these are criticisms that I had heard about the #1 pregnancy guide, What to Expect When You’re Expecting. I heard that the diet it recommends is ridiculous and impossible to follow, and that the book said expecting mothers should ask themselves if what they’re eating is good and healthy for their baby before every bite. I don’t think there are expletives enough in the English language to express how I feel about that idea.

So I looked around online for books on pregnancy that seemed sane, and The Girlfriend’s Guide to Pregnancy was a name that got mentioned. It was the first book I picked up to give me an overview of what was going to be happening to me. Some things I liked about it were the non-medical focus and the fact that it talked about things like maternity clothes and what to bring to the hospital. It was practical, giving an efficient overview of things I’ll need to know about and will encounter on this journey.

The thing I had the biggest problem with in this book is the body-shaming. It gives all sorts of information about how your body changes in pregnancy, and how it is forever different afterward. The information is useful. But Iovine conveys this information in a tone of horror, as if a mother’s body is disgusting. As if conventional beauty standards are completely correct to judge a non-flat stomach as cringeworthy. She gives advice to women on how to handle psychologically the fact that they no longer qualify as attractive based on these insane standards that our culture has, helping them set realistic expectations, and that is definitely something that pregnant and post-partum women deal with. For example, I’m glad to know that I should give myself 9 months to get back to my pre-baby weight; 9 months up, 9 months down is a solid, sane principle I’ll remember. But the book never once questions the standards of beauty or expresses any outrage that women are being judged in this way, when obviously their bodies have more important things to do than to be judged and ogled by men, things like making a baby. I know that this is a tension most women feel in their own lives: emotionally buying in to conventional beauty standards while knowing intellectually that they’re BS. But I just thought the horror-show descriptions of pregnant and post-partum bodies did more to feed the flames of body-hatred than to help women accept the changes in their bodies. It reinforced the idea that our bodies are disgusting, rather than celebrating the amazing life that our bodies are nurturing.

Another problematic thing was the way the guide talked about sex. I certainly appreciated that sex was a topic it discussed. It was good to hear about recommended positions for late pregnancy and how others dealt with changes in libido and their bodies. I just didn’t like the way that the book talked about husbands and their desire for sex. It was as if the husbands were insatiable sex monsters that the women could never turn down without horrible consequences. If that’s what your husband is like, I don’t know why you’re having his baby, unless it’s that you’re so abused you have no other option. Obviously, saying no to sex, even for several months, should not be a big deal in a healthy marriage, especially if it’s for a legitimate medical reason. A well-adjusted adult male should realize he does not have a right to have intercourse, even if he’s married, and should be able to handle a period of abstinence if he has to. The book even facetiously suggested that all women should conspire to tell all their husbands that their doctors recommend not having sex until 3 months after giving birth, rather than the 6 weeks they typically say. Encouraging dishonesty about sex in a marriage is never a good thing. Again, my main problem was that many of the book’s statements about sex were based on sexist assumptions, like the idea that men are always entitled to sex and wives should feel guilty when they aren’t up to it.

Iovine even combined her poor attitudes about pregnant bodies and sex to talk about how some husbands only have sex with the fat cows gestating their children out of pity or mercy, because the women are so disgustingly hideous that no man could ever be attracted to them. Because of course, men never want to have sex except out of pure animal lust, which they can only feel for young, thin women. They never do it to express caring or commitment or affection or even just to relieve boredom.

Iovine discourages exercise in pregnancy, mainly because she had a particularly traumatic experience herself, bleeding she believes was caused by her exercise and which made her fear a miscarriage. The decision not to exercise makes sense for her based on what happened to her. But since this wasn’t a medical book, I wasn’t told whether or not the medical research evidence is on her side, and that’s what should determine whether Iovine’s view on exercise in pregnancy is one that is worth promulgating. A couple of her reasons for this recommendation had a blame-the-victim, better-safe-than-sorry message that bothered me, and that I had picked up this book specifically to try to avoid. By Iovine’s logic, in order to avoid unending guilt and regret, pregnant women should all just stop living our lives and sit in one place for our entire pregnancy. Generally, this attitude went along with overly dramatic statements overvaluing motherhood and overstating its importance in a woman’s life. Here‘s a great article by Jessica Valenti (personal hero) about why being a mother should not be considered a woman’s most important job; she explains it better than I ever could.

I was also slightly annoyed by the weird capitalization of “Girlfriend” and the just-between-us-girls Sex-and-the-City-brunch tone. The cloying, syrupy word “precious” was used far too often to describe babies and fetuses. These were grating, sentence-level annoyances, much less serious than the anti-feminist assumptions. Overall, I would not recommend this book to another pregnant woman.

The Plains of Passage

The Plains of Passage by Jean M. Auel

I don’t know why I’m still reading this series. This book offered nothing terribly different from the previous installments: an overabundance of researched anthropological detail, a heroine without flaws who makes no mistakes, terrible, unneccessary sex scenes, and distinct, easily resolved episodes loosely strung together overlapping a glacially-paced main plot.

Ayla and Jondalar spend some time with a tribe run by a madwoman. This episode disturbed me because the description of the tribe seemed like a men’s rights activist’s caricature of what will happen if women get any power. The men are imprisoned, enslaved, and maimed. The women hunt incompetently, so the tribe is unlikely to survive the winter when Ayla and Jondalar show up. The leader is a true misandrist who of course was warped by the abuse she suffered at the hands of several men. Of course Ayla and Jondalar save the day, giving the tribe a civics lesson before going off into the sunset, to be mythologized into visiting gods.

Lots of rape in this book. Ayla helps a girl recover from a gang rape, then later stops the same gang from raping another woman. We learn that the primitive societies that in previous books seemed so progressive about premarital sex are really not all that sex-positive. Only women who have been ritually deflowered in a first rites ceremony are allowed to have sex without losing their reputation. This new cultural wrinkle seemed tacked on solely to increase the drama surrounding the rape episode. And it makes the culture much more creepy and nonsensical even than later cultures that insist on virgin brides. In this case, the rape victim didn’t lose her reputation because it was clear the men had violently forced her, but if it had been one of those “gray rape” situations, she would have been shunned.

This series in general seems to be using ancient people to explore contemporary issues of sexuality. That’s not a bad premise. It has potential, at least. One reason I keep having issues with the series is that it makes an implicit claim to know what our ancestors were like, and thus what true human sexuality is like, what we were like before civilization warped us. And that’s something that’s so hard to prove, so hard to make into a single story. The series is a novelization of evolutionary psychology, complete with all the issues that that field has. The series also seems to think it’s more progressive than it really is, but maybe it just seems that way because it’s dated, written in the 80’s and 90’s.

Various events endangered Ayla’s animals, her two horses and her pet wolf, so of course she had to whine incessantly about how the animals were like children to her, and she just couldn’t stand to lose one of them because she’d already lost her son and wah wah wah. I always find it annoying when people treat animals like they’re human beings, in books and in life.

In previous books I complained about how ridiculous it was that a few characters were responsible for all the important inventions that made civilization possible. In this book we witness the invention of soap, sledding, pottery and representational portrait sculpture.

This book marked a step toward communication between the clan and the various human tribes. Toward the end of the book, Ayla and Jondalar meet and help a clan man who is considering proposing that the clan begin trading with “the others,” and they consider making similar proposals to their people. They meet a man “of mixed spirits” (half clan and half human) who proposes marriage to Jondalar’s cousin. The series as a whole seems to be moving toward bringing the two societies together, for conflict or cooperation or both. The clan is ultimately doomed to die out, but they will be at least partially integrated into human society through intermarriages like the one in this book. The main reason I’m still reading is to see what will happen with this macro-level plotline. I especially want to see what’s been happening with the clan Ayla grew up in since she left.

Freedom

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

When this book first came out there was a stink about how much coverage it got. Jennifer Weiner, successful “chick lit” author, counted how many men and women get written up in the NYT book reviews and that statistics were really sad. Franzen and his hype got attached to this story with this quote: “Schadenfreude is taking pleasure in the pain in others. Franzenfreude is taking pain in the multiple and copious reviews being showered on Jonathan Franzen.” I agree with Weiner’s industry-level critique wholeheartedly, but that doesn’t keep me from liking Franzen’s book.

As far as themes and topics go, Weiner could have picked a target with more traditionally masculine concerns. Freedom is a domestic story, painting a detailed picture of a family over the course of a lifetime, and dealing with love, children, and marriage. It’s probably true that when an acclaimed male writer writes about these topics they are taken more seriously than when a female writer does, but it’s also important to note that I didn’t find anything particularly anti-feminist about the story itself. In fact, its discussion of a main character’s rape and the victim-blaming, culprit-protecting ways her parents dealt with the issue show how serious this miscarriage of justice can be, and the way it can reverberate throughout a lifetime. Franzen and the reader are completely on the victim’s side, indignant at the other characters’ treatment of her. That’s important.

The book is also concerned with politics. Two political diatribes serve as centerpieces. Environmental concerns are foregrounded, along with corruption. Though the characters are very political, the book never felt too preachy because the characters’ political beliefs are so idiosyncratic and offbeat, and because they are often unsuccessful in living their beliefs out, or their intellectually-motivated positions do not fit their emotions and deep desires, which leads them to rationalize pretty transparently. I didn’t get the sense that Franzen himself stood wholeheartedly behind the stance of any of the characters. This attention to public politics might be the most traditionally “masculine” aspect of the book. Perhaps this theme is one reason why critics reacted to the book the way that they did and gave it importance that they might not have given to a more completely domestic (“feminine”) novel.

The book had a stylistic innovation: a five-part structure using different forms and points of view. The first and last sections are a far-removed almost-omniscient point of view, telling the story of a neighborhood and the relationships between and among the neighbors. The second and fourth sections are an “auobiography” of one of the characters, written in third person. The middle section tells of events in three of the main characters lives from a close limited third person point of view. Events are spread over at least 10 years, maybe as many as 40 if you count flashbacks. This structure allowed Franzen to examine events from several points of view and uncover their deep roots in family history.

Franzen’s wry tone was enjoyable to me. He seems to like to show people at their worst, to dig into the ugliness inside of every character and lay it bare. I think each of the four main characters had a moment like that, if not several. He was merciless. The voices of the characters, the detail in descriptions, and the occasional unexpectedly perfect word all gave pleasure at the level of the sentence.

I was really fascinated by the way the generations mirrored each other subtly, reflecting each other and falling into recurring patterns. It felt both inevitable, like a Shakespearean tragedy, and realistic, because we all notice patterns like this in our own families. Franzen really cut deep and dissected these relationships. There were many long passages of summary analyzing them, and despite not really moving the plot forward much, they were not boring because of the strong sentences and the sharp insight expressed. I notice that I keep using metaphors of digging and cuttting to describe the book and the way it reveals the characters. That feels right to me because it’s such a long book, that puts such a strong magnifying glass on just a few characters; there’s nowhere to go but deeper inside those characters, pulling apart their layers and revealing what’s really going on underneath their pretensions and stated intentions.