Category Archives: Book Reviews

“The Purity Myth” by Jessica Valenti

Title: The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women
Author: Jessica Valenti
ISBN: 9781580052535
Pages: 300
Release Date: March 2009
Publisher: Seal Press
Genre: Nonfiction; women’s studies; sexuality studies
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Rating: 3 out of 5

Summary

Jessica Valenti argues in The Purity Myth that the United States is obsessed with virginity. She asserts that those associated with the abstinence movement are perpetuating the virgin/whore dichotomy, which sets up only two kinds of women: one to be admired and emulated and the other to be disgraced and shunned. Valenti opposes the idea that a sexually active woman is “tainted” or “impure” and thereby unworthy, and she protests against the movement’s emphasis on chastity, marriage, and parenthood.

She comments, “In this mess of chastity expectations, objectification, and control of women, we have lost a very fundamental truth: Sex is amazing, and there’s nothing wrong or dirty or shameful or sinful about it.”

In particular, she takes to task:

The abstinence teacher who tells her students that they’ll go to jail if they have premarital sex. The well-funded organization that tells girls on college campuses that they should be looking for a husband, not taking women’s studies classes. The judge who rules against a rape survivor because she didn’t meet whatever standard for a victim he had in mind. The legislator who pushes a bill to limit young women’s access to abortion because he doesn’t think they are smart enough to make their own decisions. These are the people who are making the world a worse place—and a more dangerous one, at that—for girls and women.

Analysis

If you already believe that the abstinence movement is harming young women, you will like this book. If you don’t, you’re not likely to change your mind.

There were many parts of this book that I enjoyed. However, I came to it hoping for a clear-eyed, well-argued account of the effects of the movement toward abstinence and virginity. I wanted to recommend the book to my friends who remain on the fence about the issues that Valenti discusses.

This book instead only reinforces the dichotomy between supporters and detractors of abstinence. Much of her prose reads like, well, a pugilistic and snarky blog entry, dominated by her strong opinions. She openly derides those who support the virginity movement, and suggests that her side is the only one to see the finer nuances of the point:

“[F]or those who buy into the virginity movement, the only alternative to being a virgin is being a whore. There’s no in-between for them; there are no shades of gray when it comes to sexuality. . .”

Rather than seeking to build a bridge to the other side, Valenti sets up a fort on her side of the chasm.

That being said, there were many points made in the book that bear repeating.

Valenti begins by exploring how society has put youth on a pedestal. The increasing sexualization of young girls, she explains, cuts both ways—childlike innocence is valued in women of all ages. She observes, “Young women are being trained to be not autonomous adults, but perpetual children whose sexuality is strictly defined and owned, like that of traditional wives-in-training.”

One of the more powerful chapters of the book is devoted to abstinence-only education. More than just teaching children to say “no,” Valenti writes, “abstinence-only curricula . . . are built on outdated notions of gender norms and sexist stereotypes about sexuality and relationships, and ultimately seek a return to traditional gender norms.” Valenti argues that the abstinence movement is not supported very broadly within U.S. society, despite the federal funding it receives. She supports her statements with solid research:

According to a study published in Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 82 percent of Americans support programs that teach contraception as well as abstinence, and half of all Americans oppose abstinence-only education altogether. Even among those who describe themselves as conservatives, 70 percent support comprehensive sex education.

Valenti’s professional experience includes working at the National Organization for Women’s legal defense fund, and she has a good handle on legislative issues. Valenti proposes that men—still predominant in politics and policymaking—are making the laws about women’s bodies, seeking legislation ranging from blocking minors’ access to the over-the-counter “morning after” pill, to requiring the father’s note of approval before a woman can have an abortion, to requesting that women report miscarriages within 12 hours for fear of facing murder charges. In Valenti’s opinion, a push toward laws such as these signifies that women aren’t trusted to make their own decisions.

Valenti cites disturbing cases of violence against women, such as that of a young woman who was drinking late at a bar and was kidnapped, tortured, raped, murdered, and dumped beside the road. Another appalling case involved a woman in the Air Force who was raped and, when she reported the crime, was charged with “indecent acts”—essentially being punished for her own rape. In cases such as these, women are often criticized for making poor decisions when they “know better,” but Valenti takes umbrage at the blatant victim-blaming attitude of the media and authorities by stating unequivocally, “Women do not get raped because they weren’t careful enough. Women get raped because someone raped them.”

While I appreciate her in-depth criticism of violence against women (and how it is handled in the media), the mention of violence against men was virtually nil. The only time she even mentions the rape of men is while criticizing an Axe body spray advertisement featuring women harassing and sexually assaulting the men who use Axe. In interpreting the ad as solely making “light of actual violence against women,” Valenti herself trivializes very real sexual violence against men.

The author does touch upon the often-overlooked issue of hypermasculinity, though. She comments:

As much as the virginity movement is based upon the idea that a woman’s worth is dependent upon her sexuality, it’s also mired in the belief that traditional masculinity is superior and its preservation is necessary.

Valenti discusses the harmful effects of masculine ideals upon both men and women; men are supposed to be strong, insensitive, and, above all, NOT womanlike. Not only does this ideology create inequality between the sexes, but it also humiliates  men who reveal a sensitive or passive personality, often questioning their sexuality and “manliness” and therefore their very worth.

Which brings me to another one of Valenti’s points: queer sexuality is completely overlooked in an abstinence movement that “seeks to create a world where everyone is straight, women are relegated to the home, the only appropriate family is a nuclear one, reproductive choices are negated, and the only sex people have is for procreation.” I’m not surprised; many of the conservative and often religious forces behind the abstinence movement are also anti-gay.

While Valenti has some interesting comments to make about the abstinence movement and its effects upon women’s empowerment, her points are occasionally weakened by her bias. However, I did enjoy many parts of the book, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the abstinence movement and feminism.

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“Fingerprints” by Joel Church

Title: Fingerprints
Author: Joel Church
ISBN: 9781449528751
Pages: 226
Release Date: February 2010
Publisher: Createspace
Genre: Flash fiction
Format: Paperback
Source: Author
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Summary

In this crazy world of novels composed on cell phones and short stories posted on Twitter, flash fiction is all the rage. When done well, flash fiction can offer refreshing glimpses into a story, insights that seem all the more precious for their conciseness. When done poorly, however, the story seems unfinished and empty, almost lazy, with merely the promise of plot.

Fingerprints, Joel Church’s first collection of flash fiction, captures both the enticing and the mundane. Set against the backdrop of Washington, D.C., Church’s characters explore topics ranging from sexuality and drug abuse to childhood and loss. These stories extend from two to ten pages long, and their brevity makes them an excellent read on the metro…

The rest of the review is posted to Inner Loop Lit, my collection of all things literary and D.C.-related. Stop by and check it out!

“To Have and Have Not” by Ernest Hemingway

Title: To Have and Have Not
Author: Ernest Hemingway
ISBN: 9780684818986
Pages: 272
Release Date: 1937
Publisher: Charles Scribner’s Sons
Genre: Fiction
Format: Paperback
Source: Personal collection
Rating: 3 out of 5

Summary

Harry Morgan is a policeman-turned-fisherman down on his luck like so many others in the Depression-struck Florida Keys. To make ends meet, Harry begins engaging in increasingly dangerous illegal activities in the waters between the Keys and Cuba.

The book opens on Harry and several Cuban revolutionaries who want to pay Harry an exorbitant fee to transport them to the United States. Harry refuses, preferring to use his boat for legal activities, and as the revolutionaries leave, they are gunned down in the street.

However, after being tricked by a customer who charters the boat for three weeks and then vanishes without settling his account, Harry agrees to smuggle Chinese immigrants from Cuba to the mainland. Next, Harry begins running alcohol between the two countries, and a confrontation with Cuban customs lost Harry his arm and his boat. Undeterred, he signs to the next scheme he runs across: stealing a boat and ferrying Cubans involved in a bank robbery back to their homeland.

As he descends ever-deeper into desperation, Harry meets old friends and new faces. He has little patience for those who have not remained as resilient to the times as himself, and he has no patience for outsiders. Tensions mount between this hardscrabble jack-of-all-trades and several tourists who frequent his local bars.

One pair of tourists take special prominence in the book: Arthur, an unexceptional writer, and his beautiful, unhappy wife. When Arthur comes home one day after sleeping with yet another woman, his wife decides to leave him for another man, an alcoholic who has been seen sloshing around the bars as well.

Meanwhile, you are given a peek into the intimate details of Harry’s relationship with his wife, Marie. The quiet desperation with which they cling to each other is meant as a justification for Harry’s illegal maritime activity. Unfortunately, Harry does not return home after his trip with the Cuban bank-robbers, and Marie becomes yet another Depression-era woman left wringing her apron in desperation and rage.

Analysis

I’ll be the first to admit that I have a bit of a Hemingway obsession. One of my literary goals is to read all of his books, and I’m not too far from the finish line. However, To Have and Have Not is my least favorite Hemingway book so far. Though Hemingway attempts to dissect grand social issues, such as troubled economic times and the relationship that exists between husband and wife, the entangled sub-plots and the erratic activities of the characters serve to distract from whatever statement Hemingway is trying to make.

The unexpected changes in viewpoints are disorienting, and the stories of other characters either stop abruptly or trail off seemingly without resolution. Harry remains the driving force of the novel, if there is one, even when the narrative meanders through the viewpoints of those who interact with him. Though his motivations inspire pity, his actions encourage judgment. Ultimately, I felt indifference toward him.

One aspect of the novel that I did enjoy, however, was the marine setting. I liked the descriptions of Harry’s boat and the protective feelings that he felt for her. However, if you want good writing by Hemingway about the nautical life, read The Old Man and the Sea. In fact, skip this book and read Old Man anyway.

“The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien

Title: The Hobbit, or There and Back Again
Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
ISBN: 9780618002214
Pages: 288
Release Date: September 1937 (revised in 1951 and 1966)
Publisher: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd. (republished by Mariner Books)
Genre: Children’s literature; fantasy; fiction
Format: Paperback
Source: Personal collection
Rating: 5 out of 5

Summary

Bilbo Baggins is comfortable in his snug, happy hobbit-hole in the side of a hill where he has lived all his life. One morning after a hearty breakfast, the wizard Gandalf arrives, and that’s when the trouble begins. Gandalf ends up inviting a flummoxing total of twelve dwarves over for tea the next day. The dwarves are on a mission to reclaim the glory and riches once held by their forefathers, but they need a “burglar” to help, and hobbits are small, stealthy creatures.

Bilbo joins their party on a whim after being teased by the dwarves and praised by Gandalf for his yet-unknown abilities. He soon regrets his decision when the rolling fields past his home turn into a dark, foreign country, and he doubts that he has what it takes to carry out an adventure of this magnitude.

As Bilbo meets (and is captured by) trolls, goblins, wolves, spiders, and wood-elves, he begins to use his practicality to his advantage; when engaged in riddles with Gollum under the mountain, for instance, his wit saves him from a very unfortunate end. And he puts his riddling skill to use with Smaug the Dragon as well, using their conversation as a chance to scope out the dragon’s weakness.

Happy scenes are interspersed throughout the tale to keep Bilbo from despairing entirely: they rest at the Last Homely House as the guest of a friendly elf; the noble eagles of the mountain come to their rescue more than once; they find a faithful friend in Beorn, who is usually gruff and wary of visitors; and the men of Lake-town herald their arrival to oust Smaug the Dragon from the dwarves’ ancestral mountain.

But more often than not—and certainly more than he would like!—it is small, hearth-loving Bilbo who ends up saving the day, when he and his friends are faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges. Bilbo grows from a homebody to a hero with “a little wisdom and a little courage and considerable good luck.”

Analysis

The Hobbit is one of the best books I’ve read all year.

I know. I know! People have told me all my life that I need to read The Hobbit. But I always protested, claiming that I didn’t like fantasy because there wasn’t enough reality in it to “connect” to. Where I got this idea, I don’t know—possibly from my brothers’ fantastical explanations of Tolkien’s books, which sounded far too removed from me to be interesting.

As it turns out, The Hobbit is so widely regarded by readers of all stripes because of its humanity, its down-to-earth humor, and its realism. Who would’ve thought? (Everyone but me, I suppose.)

As Michael D.C. Drout explains in The Modern Scholar: Rings, Swords, and Monsters: Exploring Fantasy Literature, applying Marxist theory to the story helps to understand its appeal: Bilbo represents the bourgeoisie, the trolls are members of the Cockney-accented working class, and Smaug the Dragon is the ruling class, literally rolling in riches. Tolkien himself was certainly no stranger to literature and theory; his resume boasts of Anglo-Saxon literary and mythological study and translation. He incorporates themes common to Middle Age conquests while also sprinkling the book with a healthy dose of modern-day humor.

Bilbo is an unexpected hero, the everyman who saves the day more than once. Though often he seems primarily occupied with eating breakfast, maintaining a tidy appearance, and yearning for his soft bed far from these dangerous adventures, he keeps a cool head when he and the dwarves seemed faced with certain doom. In fact, Bilbo’s practical considerations are often what save them; while the dwarves stubbornly refuse to tell the Elf-King the purpose of their quest, which leads to their imprisonment, Bilbo cleverly rescues them, though his unorthodox methods produce more than a few grumbles among the dwarves.

Bilbo is an incredibly likeable character with whom I can closely identify; who doesn’t love a second breakfast? On a deeper level, Bilbo’s moral ambiguity makes him a realistic hero; when he is bargaining with the men and the elves that are preparing to battle against the dwarves, who have become offensively greedy, he begins by complaining that the entire matter has made him uncomfortable and cranky, and he offers goods stolen from the dwarves to appease the other side.

Photo by proyectolkien (Flickr user)

The Hobbit originated as a story Tolkien told his children, and the excellent narrative style and the thrilling twists and turns took me back to the days when my parents would read me bedtime stories. I felt like running from the hulking, humped figures of the goblins, and I shivered at the enormous hairy spiders of Milkwood Forest.

Because of its intensely imaginative plot and Tolkien’s masterful literary execution, The Hobbit is one of those few books that are equally attractive to kids and adults alike. But you probably already knew that!

“Tender Is the Night” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Title: Tender Is the Night
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
ISBN: 9780684801544
Pages: 320
Release Date: January–April 1934 (four issues)
Publisher: Scribner’s Magazine
Genre: Fiction
Format: Paperback
Source: Library
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Summary

Rosemary Hoyt, a young American actress, is vacationing in the French Riviera with her mother. She instantly befriends Dick and Nicole Diver, a glamorous American couple who have created a rich life for their family in Europe. As Rosemary becomes more attached to Nicole, she also becomes infatuated with Dick.

The Divers’ history begins to leak out into Rosemary’s view, and suddenly the entire story floods into the narrative, though at that point Rosemary has temporarily left the story. The book begins to revolve around Dick and Nicole and becomes more interesting. Their relationship is a study of the strength one person gains from the weakness of another.

Analysis

It was slow going at first, with beautiful but self-conscious prose. Though I admired Fitzgerald’s writing style, I found it difficult to connect with any of the characters, and I had trouble getting into the story. I only kept going because I heard it would pick up in Book 2—and I was not disappointed.

The characters truly come alive in Book 2, and suddenly I found myself deeply involved in the story. The characters’ histories and motivations are finely wrought, and they are endearing despite their flaws.

At the risk of over-analyzing the connection between the author’s life and his work, it seems to me that the best parts of the book were the ones that came from his personal experience, particularly in regard to loving someone with mental illness.

The setting is also worth mentioning. The tale moves from the brilliant sun of the South of France, to the parties and society of Paris, to the fresh snow of Switzerland. My favorite thing about reading is learning new things, particularly about places I’ve never been, and Tender Is the Night offers a vivid image of some of the most opulent vacation spots of its time.

I found the story well-written and enjoyable, in spite of its slow parts. Fitzgerald showcases his storytelling talent with his many-layered characters, and his scene descriptions and dialogue are superb.

“The Souls of Black Folk” by W. E. B. Du Bois

Title: The Souls of Black Folk
Author: W. E. B. Du Bois
ISBN: 9780486280417
Pages: 176
Release Date: 1903
Publisher: A.C. McClurg & Co.
Genre: African-American literature; sociology
Format: Audiobook
Source: Personal collection (Lit2Go download)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

It is impossible to rate The Souls of Black Folk too highly. It is a worthwhile read solely for the impact that it has had upon American society, both in its time and in the decades since its 1903 publication. The Souls of Black Folk was a major contribution to the African-American literary tradition, and it is also a cornerstone of the literature on sociology. Beyond its historical and educational value, though, I highly recommend this book to everyone for the piercing glimpses Du Bois offers into the souls of all men and women.

W. E. B. Du Bois first came under the spotlight by opposing Booker T. Washington, a prominent member of the African-American community who emphasized the importance of accommodating the policies of race separation prevalent in a Jim Crow society.

Du Bois believed that in order to attain suffrage, political representation, and civil rights, American society had to acknowledge the wrongs done to African-Americans and strive to integrate them fully into U.S. society. His book documented the conditions of post-slavery America while simultaneously arguing for improvements in the unequal black and white communities.

Du Bois was an impassioned advocate for higher education. While Washington focused on educating blacks for the trades and manual labor, Du Bois insisted that blacks should have access to intellectual education rivaling that available to whites. As Manning Marable states in Living Black History,

Few books make history, and fewer still become foundational texts for the movements and struggles of an entire people. The Souls of Black Folk occupies this rare position. It helped to create the intellectual argument for the black freedom struggle in the twentieth century. (96)

However, more than simply a revealing microcosm of post–Civil War and Jim Crow society, The Souls of Black Folk offers brilliant glimpses into mankind as a whole, regardless of color. Du Bois discusses religion, politics, history, education, money, morality, music, and mortality. His chapter on death of his young son, his first child, is some of the most impressive, tender, and passionate prose I have ever read.

It is easy—at least, it was for me—to pigeonhole Du Bois as a figure who did much for his community in the Jim Crow era, but whose work is outdated and useful only as a historical account. However, this view does Du Bois, and yourself for that matter, a disservice. I found his insight profound and his opinions valuable even after more than a century, and I learned a lot about the nature of people.

The salience of The Souls of Black Folk attests to Du Bois’s insistence on the importance of an intellectual tradition, both among black thinkers and, on a grander scale, in the then-emerging field of sociology.

Though at times the book seems to be a rather disparate collection of essays loosely centered on African-American (and cultural) identity, that connection serves, in fact, to emphasize that topic’s importance by displaying the ways in which racism was affecting all areas of African-American life.

I have one piece of advice for enjoying this book: I listened to it on audiobook, and I’ve discovered that I tend to pay better attention to stories than intellectual discourse in audiobook format. If you’re anything like me, you may want to read a paperback or e-book. You’ll want to highlight dozens of passages anyway!