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.

A Game of Thrones: Same old, same old.

How many frogs for a prince?

How many frogs to get a prince?

Gina Bellafante’s review of HBO’s Game of Thrones adaptation has stirred the ire of women fantasy readers given she termed it “boy fiction.” Worse, Bellafante asserts that perversions such as the incestuous plot-line seem to have been thrown in as an afterthought of the show to attract women.

Having picked up the first three volumes last summer, I enjoyed them to some extent. I would consider myself to be an avid fantasy reader and Martin is certainly a talented writer. At the same time, I couldn’t get past the rampant sexism and misogyny of his world. He threw us ladies some bones with a few strong women. Even then, he wrote about a heavily male dominated world in which belittling women is as commonplace as the long stretches of winter. Every other page registered a new slur or slight in the characters’ every day scorn and hatred of women.

Of course, fantasy literature set in a sexist world is nothing new. Sometimes authors are even smart about it. What boggles my mind is that a genre labeled “fantasy”, something that by its very nature aims to step outside of the bounds of “reality” so often hews to extreme gender roles. While the conception of a world with dragons or fantastic magic is no stretch of one’s imagination, authors often unthinkingly replicate and even grossly exaggerate patriarchal norms.

Martin failed to show me that the extreme sexism of his world had any sort of point in the first three volumes. While I bridle at the idea of labeling things “for boys” or “for girls”, I don’t think Martin’s intended audience ever included women readers. In the great majority of fantasy writing, male characters ascend and stand out in the face of all kinds of adversity. Isn’t it time we retired this one-dimensional trope of the token few women who manage to succeed despite (and according to how well they take on the mantle of) patriarchy?

The Women Men Don’t See*: James Tiptree Jr. aka, Dr. Alice B. Sheldon

Self Portrait in Snow

“I’d peeled myself down to the empty core. But then it seemed as though there was a little more of me after all. I found another onion.” – Dr. Alice B. Sheldon

“It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.” – Robert Silverberg

James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon

I had been lusting after James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon for awhile, and in ‘celebration’ of my decision to read more women’s biographies decided to finally grab a copy. I know, so counter-intuitive, you would think I would have done so after actually having read a few but I find all sorts of excuses to buy books….

So… onto this book in which all lavish adjectives of praise fall short. I picked it up the day it arrived to read “a page or two” and never put it down. From the very first page, Phillips successfully envelops one in Sheldon’s life. It was my “go-to” book until I had about 100 pages left. At that point I began rationing it every night “wanting to spend a little time with Alli.” A little nuts maybe, but this book is such a perfect synthesis of the words of Sheldon’s through letters and journals, the relationships she built with writers and fans of science fiction and Phillips’ narration of her life. Of particular interest are her exchanges with women sci-fi authors such as Ursula le Guin and Joanna Russ (both of whom I want to know more about now) and reading their own efforts at navigating the genre as women.

The terrible thing is, when I get a letter (or a reaction) like that – from a man – I tend not to grow 10′ teeth but to start crying. Which makes me feel muddled, humiliated, grateful, humiliated that I feel grateful, and most of all – recognized.

Joanna Russ on the cachet that praise from men has, despite being fully aware of the power dynamic at play.

I feel like I “know” Sheldon, and what a beautiful, complex, flawed person. I felt utterly captivated and my heart ached for her as the book drew to a close. While one is aware throughout the book that she ends up committing suicide, I still couldn’t help but mourn, the breath knocked out of me as I read about it, feeling sick inside by the loss of someone I had just “met.”

Alice B. Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr.

While there is the opportunity to think about gender and writing throughout much of the book, Phillips weaves in a pointed meditation about the subject in its final pages. It goes to show how one’s opinions of gender inform the way one reads or receives a work (I can call up a particularly long winded critique about this after seven years of working in the book world.) and to my ultimate chagrin, is a conversation that rarely seems to go beyond feminist circles. In addition, it truly saddens me that Sheldon had so much trouble acknowledging her incredible accomplishments as a woman. She seemed a vibrant, passionate and intensely curious person (Gardner Dozois: “one of the most fascinating conversationalists I’ve ever met, brilliant, theatrical, far-ranging, strikingly perceptive.”) and yet she believed she was nothing without the veneer of a male persona. While I am certainly not foolish enough to believe it would have vanquished all of her demons, I wonder how things would be different if she had been much younger when the feminist movement occurred. She was incredibly perceptive about the structure of society and the way things work and yet lacked the affirmation that while patriarchy does not deem it as such, HER activities carried just as much merit as a man’s. Two of the passages that were such striking examples of this are below:

Moreover I suspect that most of the organised world activities are male-structured (as well as male-dominated) so I can’t believe that simply filling in the personnel-slots with women means anything real. And I don’t think things would get much different unless women had a chance to build their own world… which ends up like Russ’ “When it changed” and not Beyond Equality at all (My note: Beyond Equality was a sci-fi anthology of stories imagining what the world would be like once equality between the sexes had been achieved that Tiptree and Russ had been asked to contribute to.). Everything else I try just ends up with Golda Meier running a space station, the Heinlein jocks-in-skirts thing. [...] I REFUSE to fancy some stereotype like Women-Have-ESP or Only-Women-can-understand-aliens etc. etc.

- James Tiptree Jr. in a letter to Vonda McIntyre.

The distasteful proof that my sexuality is bound up with masochistic fantasies of helplessness [...] depressed me profoundly. I am not a man, I am not the do-er, the penetrator. And Tiptree was “magical” manhood, his pen my prick. I had through him all the power and prestige of masculinity, I was – though an aging intellectual – of those who own the world. How I loathe being a woman. Wanting to be done to. [...]

Tiptree’s “death” has made me face – what I never really went into with Bob [Harper] (my note: Sheldon’s therapist) – my self-hate as a woman. And my view of the world as structured by raw power. [...] I want power. I want to be listened to. [...] And I’ll never have it. I’m stuck with this perverse, second-rate body; my life.

- Dr. Alice B. Sheldon

It frustrates me that she did not have the benefit of a therapist that could help her explore what it is to be a woman in patriarchy but rather a man who seemed to regard her as an oddity, completely uncomfortable with a woman expressing or being angry. There is also the question of her sexual orientation, and it couldn’t have helped to be at a loss as to what one was feeling in a society that was(is) simply intolerant and did not allow language for that expression. I also wonder truly if she suffered from agoraphobic anxiety. I feel like this brilliant woman was completely failed by the time she lived in, and it makes me so sad.

I hadn’t been interested in reading her work as James Tiptree Jr. before reading this book, but now I will be sure to pick it up. *The title of this entry is the name of one of Tiptree’s stories.

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.

Bibliophilia – 50 in 2011

50 in 2011


As an incessant collector of books and a bibliophile (Another might go with the much less delicate “hoarder.”) I often find I’m swimming in them – negotiating a constant mess of piles. I’ve decided that I want my reading to take a more goal oriented approach in an effort to make progress in reading books I own. For instance, I have an ever growing collection of biographies about women but most of them have gone unread. Same with fiction that doesn’t have a science/fantasy element to it. This could be a laughable endeavor given I seem to acquire a new stack of books weekly, but I like impossible challenges!

Methodology: I selected fifty books that I’d really love to get to this year from my collection. I’m not aiming to read them all so much as using them as a guide to prioritize what to pick up. I will probably keep the list at 50 throughout the year – once one is read on the list I will add another to replace it. I’m also not requiring that I read only what’s here, I know I’ll be reading many other things though they will probably be lighter reads.

Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
Middlemarch – George Eliot
Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
Lolita – Vladimir Nabakov
Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston
She – H. Rider Haggard
Ceremony – Leslie Marmon Silko
The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing
Dubliners – James Joyce

Vera: Mrs. Vladimir Nabakov – Stacey Schiff
Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi – Katherine Frank
Gellhorn: A Twentieth Century Life – Caroline Moorehead
The White Boned Demon: A Biography of Madame Mao Zedong – Terrill Ross
Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA – Brenda Maddox
Intertwined Lives: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Their Circle
Hermann Hesse: Pilgrim of Crisis – Ralph Freedman
A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII – Sarah Helms
Geisha: A Life – Mineko Iwasaki

Politics, Current Events and Economics
Anarchism: From Theory to Practice – Daniel Guerin
Man Made Language – Dale Spender
Women, Culture and Politics – Angela Davis
Flat Broke with Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform – Sharon Hays
Zapatista Reader – Tom Hayden
The Cost of Living – Arundhati Roy
Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace – Vandana Shiva
The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex
Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction and the Meaning of Liberty – Dorothy Roberts
Juki Girls, Good Girls: Gender and Cultural Politics in Sri Lanka’s Global Garment Industry
Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East
The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy – Raj Patel
Aiding Violence: The Development Enterprise in Rwanda – Peter Uvin
Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives – Cynthia Enloe
Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World – Mike Davis

Various Non-Fiction
A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present – Howard Zinn
An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales – Oliver Sacks
The Cosmic Serpent – Jeremy Narby
In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development – Carol Gilligan
Reading Lolita in Tehran – Azar Nafisi
The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog: The Landscape of Celtic Myth and Spirit
God is Red: A Native View of Religion – Vine Deloria Jr.
ADDED: The Frailty Myth – Colette Dowling

House of Leaves – Mark Danielewski
The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula LeGuin
Mistress of the Art of Death – Ariana Franklin
Petals of Blood – Ngugi wa Thiong’o
The City and the City – China Mieville
Surfacing – Margaret Atwood
The Glass Bead Game – Hermann Hesse
Still Waters in Niger – Kathleen Hill
A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
The Namesake – Jhumpa Lahiri