Review: Unmentionable

Unmentionable, Therese OneillIf you’ve always thought that a clean, simple frock is better than low-rise jeans, that you would enjoy living in the time of Charlotte Bronte, or that the centuries before ours were simpler and better…this book is not for you.

Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners will disabuse you of the laughable notion that the 19th century would be a fun place to spend any time.

Not only is there arsenic in pretty much anything you put on your face, there’s also no refrigeration, no talking to a man who’s not your husband or father, and definitely no talking about s-e-x. There’s also an astonishing array of crotchless clothing, and fat-shaming is totally a thing.

Therese Oneill’s book is an awesome examination of the horror show that was the 19th century. Let’s check out the revolting details, shall we?

Hello, slattern

I figured any book that starts with these words is probably going to be amazing. And I was right! Unmentionable is a sassy, snarky look at an era many people tend to romanticize.

Oneill starts you off with getting dressed (hide those ankles, ladies), and shares makeup tips (you know what’ll take care of those freckles? Acid!). Then it’s on to discussing periods (no matter how you manage them, it’s not the right way) and how to land a husband (by never speaking to him, apparently).

Next up we’ve got the typical “Your womb is a wandering monstrosity that makes you crazy” garbage, followed by quotes from old white dudes who thought birth control, masturbation, and visiting museums was going to lead to humanity’s downfall.

And it’s all written in the best tone ever. For example, in a section called, “Give Him NOTHING”:

You are a prize to be won. He must work to capture your affections and approval. Only the stupid and slutty trout leap out of the water to gain the fisherman’s attention. The virtuous trout simply allows the sun to gleam briefly on her shining scales and then dives back to the shadowy depths. Only a skilled man with the finest of fake bugs can ream a metal hook through her mouth. You are that trout, and the metal hook you are about to be impaled on is holy matrimony.

Unmentionable had me chortling and reading sections aloud to my husband. He didn’t think it was as funny. Maybe I let a bum fisherman catch me? Oh well. I shall comfort myself by reading this book again and thanking my lucky stars I wasn’t born in the Victorian era!

Quickie Reviews: Personal Stories

My 2017 reading started off slow, but I’ve kicked things into high gear in the last few weeks. So of course I have a review backlog. Let’s hit the high (and low) points, shall we?

Work Rules!

Work Rules! Laszlo BockThe subtitle on this is a mouthful: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead. It’s got some good ideas on transforming company culture, but most of it seems pretty “pie in the sky” and a little bit “We’re Google and we’re awesome.” I’ve had some good conversations about it with co-workers, though.

The Princess Diarist

The Princess Diarist, Carrie FisherCarrie Fisher’s last book before her death in December 2016. She was a fascinating, complicated woman, and I want to learn more about her. Unfortunately I don’t think this was the right book for that. The Princess Diarist is a bit disjointed, and focuses mostly on her fling with Harrison Ford during Star Wars filming. It just not as interesting as I hoped it would be. But she’s got a great writing voice, and fortunately wrote several other books that promise to tell more about her life.

The Portable Dorothy Parker

The Portable Dorothy ParkerThis one’s been sitting on my shelf for years, and is part of my 2017 Off the Shelf Reading Challenge. I’ve gone all the way through it, but probably read only about half. I love Parker’s poetry and letters, but have trouble with her short stories (anybody’s short stories, really — I don’t often like them). She was always better at short form writing than long form. And those quips! “It is true that he is so hard-boiled you could roll him on the White House lawn.”

Review: The Scarlet Sisters

The Scarlet Sisters, Myra MacPhersonVictoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claftin were two of the children of a backwater snake oil salesman. The sisters spent their childhoods telling fortunes and handing out quack cures. They were not destined for great things.

But the Gilded Age had a habit of propelling the least likely people to unimaginable heights. In a time when women were still considered property, Victoria and Tennessee did the unthinkable: they fought for women’s fiscal, political, and sexual independence.

Ahead of their time

These ladies were badasses.

They were friends with Cornelius Vanderbilt, Susan B. Anthony, and Karl Marx; they went toe-to-toe with Anthony Comstock, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the famous preacher Henry Ward Beecher.

They were the first women to open a brokerage firm (the second woman-owned firm opened almost 100 years later), as well as the first female publishers of a radical weekly newspaper. In 1870, 50 years before women could vote, Victoria Woodhull announced her candidacy for President of the United States; a year later, Tennessee ran for Congress.

I’ve read so much about American history and all of these people; how the hell have I not heard of Victoria and Tennessee?

Fact vs. fiction

According to author Myra MacPherson, historians and biographers sometimes take the saying, “Never let the facts stand in the way of a good feature story” a little too seriously.

But it’s not all their fault. The sisters — perhaps embarrassed by their upbringing and interested in being fascinating figures — changed and embellished and ignored aspects of their lives when it suited. Newspapers were interested in sales, not facts, and sensationalized everything the sisters did.

The Scarlet Sisters is the result of MacPherson’s deep research into Victoria and Tennessee’s lives, including thousands of pages of books, letters, newspaper articles, and court records. It chronicles their sudden rise to fame, their involvement with the suffrage movement, and the scandal that eventually, if temporarily, ruined them.

In like lions, out like lambs

Victoria and Tennessee were popular, but they were also vilified. Rumors and scandal followed them wherever they went, and their radical views (particularly around “free love”) made them pariahs to the same movements they were trying to help.

I think at the end of the day, they were just tired. Tired of hiding and reinventing their histories, of being sued and jailed, of being eviscerated in the papers, of constantly having to defend their legitimacy as human beings.

Like many famous people of the Gilded Age, the sisters faded into obscurity in their later years. They moderated their radical beliefs, and in many ways became like the women they once seemed to pity and despise.

Did they truly believe all the things they said in speeches, their newspaper, and in court? Or was it merely another attempt to reinvent themselves, to escape from a dismal childhood and become fabulously wealthy and famous in the process?

We’ll probably never know the whole truth. But that doesn’t make Victoria and Tennessee any less worthy of mention in the history books. They were intelligent, courageous women far ahead of their time, and I think everyone should know more about them.

Review: Love, InshAllah

Love, InshAllah, Ayesha Mattu and Nura MaznaviFinding love is hard, no matter who you are. But it might be a bit harder for American Muslim women.

The 25 women who contributed essays to Love, InshAllah are planted between two worlds that seem very different on the surface. They are independent American women with careers and ambitions; they are also Muslim women who want to follow the rules of their faith. At times these two things seem incompatible.

These writers lead very different lives than most Americans, but dig a little deeper and you’ll see that we all want the same thing: happiness.

Interesting and challenging

For more than a decade, most Americans have not been encouraged to think well of the Muslim faith, or Muslim people. The religious and cultural divide seems too big.

But this book’s writers and editors aren’t interested in excuses. They want readers to understand that we all face the same challenges. How do we find love? How do we reconcile our faith and our culture? What do we do when love disappoints us? Where do we find the courage to stick with — or break — religious and family traditions?

This book was not a comfortable read for me. At first I thought it was because the writers are Muslim, and there are aspects of the religion with which I disagree. But then I realized I’d be just as uncomfortable reading stories like this written by Catholics, Baptists, or Jewish people.

Whether I’m right or not, I think most religions are too oppressive. Islam may have a reputation as being the “most” oppressive, but I know women of other religions who experience just as much pressure to stay pure until marriage, marry young, have children, and practice their faith perfectly.

I didn’t like much of what I read. These women have so many expectations placed upon them, and feel unworthy and unlovable — or face ostracism from their families — if they don’t do things “right.” That’s not something I can understand, regardless of what religion they practice.

The stories I enjoyed most were the ones in which the author took control of her own destiny, and synthesized what she believed are the best pieces of being American with the best pieces of being Muslim. There was the girl who met a man online and asked her parents to arrange a marriage with, and the woman who joined a polygynous marriage after her divorce.

The creators of Love, InshAllah shared their stories because they wanted to poke holes in the stereotypes they see playing out in the media and pop culture. The book gave me some interesting insights into the logistics of Islam — how conversion works, how divorce works, how arranged marriages work, etc. — but in the end I think it ended up reaffirming my dislike of religion in general.

Like the authors of these stories, I want to find my own way through life.

(I read this book as part of the Monthly Motif Challenge. January’s challenge was to read a book with a character — or written by an author — of a race, religion, or sexual orientation other than my own.)

Review: Working

Working, Studs TerkelWhat is work? Is it just something that gets us a paycheck, or does it give our lives meaning? Is some work better or more valuable than others?

In 1974 the historian and radio broadcaster Studs Terkel published Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. The book contains dozens of transcribed interviews with miners, sex workers, waitresses, caregivers, executives, paperboys, and housewives.

Each interview is a peek into a different life, a snapshot of each person’s experiences and hardships and joys and fears and worries.

At the heart of each interview is the idea that life is difficult, and that finding meaning in your work is what makes that life worthwhile.

The dawn of a new era

Working was published at an interesting time in America’s history. Mechanization and computerization had just begun its takeover, unions were experiencing a resurgence, and the entire country was finally coming to terms with the Civil Rights Movement.

The interviewees’ stories reflect these unique feelings and experiences. But they also feature themes that have always existed: the importance of finding meaning in your work, the challenges of being a small wheel in a big machine, and the inevitable “young people these days aren’t interested in hard work” complaint.

In their own words

The book is divided into nine big chunks, each focused on something like “Working the Land,” “Communications,” and “Reflections on Idleness and Retirement.”

For me, the most interesting interviews happen near the middle of the book. Terkel interviewed several activists, and their words ring as true today as they did in 1974.

The white-collar guy is scared he may be replaced by the computer. The schoolteacher is asked not to teach but to babysit. God help you if you teach. The minister is trapped by the congregation that’s out of touch with him. He spends his life violating the credo that led him into the ministry. The policeman has no relationship to the people he’s supposed to protect. So he oppresses. The fireman who wants to fight fires ends up fighting a war. People become afraid of each other. They’re convinced there’s not a damn thing they can do.

And this:

The problem with history is that it’s written by college professors about great men. That’s not what history is. History’s a hell of a lot of little people getting together and deciding they want a better life for themselves and their kids.

Most of the interviewees do not have jobs that we consider glamorous or engaging or even particularly valuable. But many of them are so passionate about what they do, and get the greatest joy from what others might consider the smallest things. Like Babe, a grocery store checker:

I use my three fingers [on the register keys] — my thumb, my index finger, and my middle finger. The right hand. And my left hand is on the groceries. They put down their groceries. I got my hips pushin’ on the button and it rolls around on the counter. When I feel I have enough groceries in front of me, I let go of my hip. I’m just movin’ — the hips, the hand, and the register, the hips, the hand, and the register…You just keep goin’, one, two, one, two. If you’ve got that rhythm, you’re a fast checker. Your feet are flat on the floor and you’re turning your head back and forth.

And Dolores, a waitress:

Some don’t care. When the plate is down you hear the sound. I try not to have that sound. I want my hands to be right when I serve. I pick up a glass, I want it to be just right. I get to be almost Oriental in the serving. I like it to look nice all the way. To be a waitress, it’s an art. I feel like a ballerina, too. I have to go between those tables, between those chairs…It is a certain way I can go through a chair like no one else can do. I do it with an air. If I drop a fork, there’s a certain way I pick it up. I know they can see how delicately I do it. I’m on stage.

Neither of these women feels demeaned by their works — in fact, they have some choice words for those who see them as “just” a checker or “just” a waitress.

Looking back…and forward

Many of the interviewees compare the past to the present; some make predictions about the future of work and their industries. I see some of those predictions coming true.

Some people are hopeful about the future, others aren’t. But they all wanted readers to know that what they do matters. I don’t think that desire will disappear anytime soon.

(I read this book as part of the Monthly Motif Challenge. November’s challenge was to read non-fiction book.)