Book Review: A Strange Piece of Paradise by Terri Jentz

Tai O Fishing Village

Tai O Fishing Village - Lantau Island, Hong Kong. My own strange piece of paradise.

(I did my best to try NOT to use passive voice here regarding the attack on Jentz and her friend, but my brain is too tired to do the verbal mathematics at the moment.)

I picked up A Strange Piece of Paradise not for the details of the axe attack that Terri Jentz experienced during her biking tour across the United States, but rather because I was interested in the symptoms that resulted from the experience and her process of healing. While one is not privy to the gritty details of PTSD or the various revelations she may have had about her psychological state during her investigative process, she makes it clear that her research of the details surrounding the attack played a big part in this process. While this was a truly interesting, gripping book I felt somewhat disappointed by the end that so little of this aspect was featured. Despite that, it’s stayed with me for the past few weeks and I keep coming back to a few points that I’ll touch on in a subsequent post.

At first, A Strange Piece of Paradise is very much along the lines of a true crime book, consisting of the background of Jentz and her biking companion and the memories Jentz has of the attack. As the book progresses and she gets further into her investigation, it becomes a much broader rumination on the impact of the crime on the surrounding community. The warmth and concern of the people who remember the attack is often tangible when she recounts her meetings with them.

Jentz also explores the psychology of violence against women on both the micro and macro level, as her main suspect is a repeat offender: how violent relationships are sustained and the attitude of communities that continually give well-known abusers a pass, from neighbors to the law enforcement and court systems. As she interviews each of the women who had been involved with her suspect, struck by the idea that these were not the “type” to put up with such abuse, she puts together a rough portrait of how such a person breaks down and isolates their victims in an increasingly vicious cycle.

One of the most salient critiques I read about the book is that it can get repetitive. At the same time, I found that the way she constantly comes up with the same details from different people can be quite fascinating in terms of how stories change and what impacts each person’s memory. Again and again the attack is remembered “as if yesterday”, allowing for a large number of people to talk with. In addition, it was a useful lens through which to view people – for instance, the man she interviewed who made her attack all about him and how his failure to be the hero “ruined” his life (And yet, his memory of the attack is grossly inaccurate and leads one to question if he was even there at the time it happened.). I also never got tired reading how each new individual she interviewed wanted to bond with her over this event that impacted her and the community so deeply.

To some extent there are more radical strains lurking under the surface here, and every time she touched on them I just wanted to nuuudge her a bit so that she would further develop and explore these thoughts. While she makes the connection between society’s entrenched misogyny and violence against women quite clear, she only touches on such things as community versus state sanctioned justice and the cult of individuality in America and its adverse impact on the cultivation of community.

By the end of the book the music of Twin Peaks was playing in the back of my head, foreboding shots of pine and fog looming. Jentz successfully ties the dark, moody landscape to wanton violence against women as her personal investigation increasingly turns up stories of murdered women having been dumped in the surrounding pine forests. I found myself feeling increasingly disturbed and unsettled (though one is anyway by the main subject of the book) despite the warm, welcoming community of people she encountered as she investigated her own near murder.

Overall a good book. I found myself liking Jentz more and more as I got to “know” her through her connection with people over her brutal experience, particularly the way she bonds with other women later on in the book. When I put it down I didn’t expect it to linger as it has, and a number of questions and thoughts have come up in the past few weeks that I’ve been exploring.

Book Review – The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability by Laura Kipnis

I can't decide if the shadows make for an interesting shot or if they're just plain distracting.

The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability by Laura Kipnis

As I read my way through the first chapter, I felt like I was reading a Cosmo or Glamour for feminists, a little trashy and a lot of fluff, but just enough to have some bite. Several times I almost put it down, but I’m glad I kept reading due to taking some perverse pleasure in it.

To some extent, it’s a frustrating read. It is just as dichotomous and contradictory as the subject Kipnis seeks to explain. Her sweeping statements about how great women have it “post-feminism” are irksome (Though she states from the beginning that she is speaking from a middle-upper class white woman’s perspective.). She hits upon some great insights but rarely has the analytical depth to take it further. Instead, the first chapter is replete with mocking swipes at feminists who invoke patriarchy to explain social behavior and the structure of society. To say that a woman’s behavior is influenced by patriarchy is not the same as denying her agency – though Kipnis seems to think so.

Sex and Dirt, the central chapters, are the strongest and quite captivating. An interesting mix of science, history and culture mixed in with her own theories on the subjects at hand. It’s this perfect synthesis, and resulted in one of my favorite quotes in the book regarding women and sex:

As if all that weren’t enough, factor in the whole tedious millenial saga of female virtue, modesty, shame, repression, male ineptitude…in short, a cruel combo of anatomical inheritance and sexual inhibition for the gal set; a nature-culture one-two punch, right to the female pleasure principle.

By the time I was through with them I was eager to read more and genuinely interested in hearing more of her theories.

Unfortunately, Vulnerability went downhill and I felt it was as weak as the first chapter. I thought her analysis of anti-porn feminists and the issue of rape to be way off, both for the same reason. Her discussion of prison rape misses the mark because she maintains that feminists put forth that rape is about violence. This is a glaring mistake, and I’m somewhat appalled that she wrote a whole rebuttal to feminist thought that hinges rape and violence. The feminist mantra about rape is that it’s NOT about violence but about power. Perhaps power and violence are synonymous to her, but when viewing all forms of rape through a lens of power, particularly with a focus on misogyny, the dynamic she scoffs at makes a lot more sense.

She also skewers feminists who have been affronted by the sexual advances of men in power as “female wounded bird syndrome.” Also thought this was way off – it isn’t about expressing delicacy and fragility and “refeminizing” oneself so much as it is about wanting to be seen as a person rather than a conquest. My question in the case she describes of a professor who invites a student to meet with him to “talk about her poetry” and instead makes sexual advances towards her – if the student had been a man, would her professor have taken her body of work seriously rather than blowing it off and using his position inappropriately? At times the last chapter had me pretty infuriated.

Despite my issues with the book, I’d recommend it. There were instances when I definitely felt challenged, and she gave me some things to think about. I genuinely enjoyed it and at times it was hilariously funny. It takes a lot for me to laugh out loud when reading a book, and she had me cracking up.