ASK Musings

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Monthly Archive: January 2013



January 2013



The Purity Myth

Written by , Posted in Feminism, Reviews


This is a nearly impossible review to write, as this book is amazing, infuriating, and endlessly quotable. I like to write in my books (I know, the horror), underlining passages, commenting on paragraphs, dropping the occasional “the FUCK” in the margins, and fiendishly circling page numbers so I know which ones REALLY need to be remembered. In the case of this book, nearly every page has at least one passage underlined. And I was being conservative with my pen.

Jessica Valenti is a feminist who has spent much of her life spreading the (shockingly controversial) idea that women deserve social, political and economic equality. This doesn’t just mean that she supports the basics like, say, equal pay for equal work; it means she explores the real issues that affect women on a regular basis. She examines the systemic issues, the roots of discriminatory treatment, and makes connections that initially seem obtuse but, given her thorough research and excellent ability to connect the dots, become clear and obvious to anyone willing to think critically.

I read her book Full Frontal Feminism this fall, and plan to read Why Have Kids at some point this year. But this book has caused my blood pressure to rise so much that I think I need a palate cleanser to clear my mind of the absurdity of the anti-feminist movement.

As the subtitle of The Purity Myth suggests, Valenti’s book explores “how America’s obsession with virginity is hurting young women.” The overall thesis can be summed up pretty well with this quote:

“For the record: I think virginity is fine, just as I think having sex is fine. I don’t really care what women do sexually, and neither should you. In fact, that’s the point. I believe that a young woman’s decision to have sex, or not, shouldn’t impact how she’s seen as a moral actor.”

There is so much good in this book that I clearly won’t be able to do it justice. But I’m going to try to point out some of the things that make it so great. Valenti doesn’t (as some of her more ignorant critics claim) propose women go out and have a lot of sex. She doesn’t propose that women not have sex, either. Instead, she chooses to frame the discussion around why women are judged based on *not* having sex, while men are judged on other things. As she puts it in the first paragraph: “It’s time to teach our daughters that their ability to be good people depends on their being good people, not on whether or not they’re sexually active.”

Anyone who has attended high school in America can probably almost immediately bring to mind the image of a classmate who was a ‘slut,’ and, as such, not a ‘good’ person. I find it embarrassing to think back to how sexual activity was used as a proxy for determining the (negative) value of an entire human. It wasn’t always the case; not having had sex (at least at my high school) didn’t peg someone as good or bad, but there were definitely some people who were talked about.

Valenti focuses on all the different ways this idea of purity hurts women of all ages. Many of you are probably familiar with the Madonna / Whore dichotomy (possibly thanks to a scene from Sex and the City featuring Charlotte talking to Trey about her sexual needs); Valenti looks at the way it is reinforced on a regular basis through all sorts of different venues, and how that hurts all women. And if you think about it, it makes perfect sense: if my value is tied up in whether or not I still have an intact hymen, that implicitly means that nothing else I do matters. If all that I am good for is staying ‘pure’ for my future husband then there’s no need for me to access any other opportunities, like, say, a solid education or a career.

The first chapter in the book – and the one that disturbed the heck out of me – focuses on Purity Balls and virginity worship. These FEDERALLY FUNDED displays of paternal ownership reek of creepy incestuous relationships, but operate under the guise of helping young women to ‘save’ themselves, with their fathers promising to protect their virtue. Again, as though a girl’s virtue can be found between her legs and not in her brain.

From here, Valenti discusses many more related topics in fascinating and disgusting detail, including: the dangers of abstinence-only education; the racial and economic implications of the fact that some women are already seen as ‘spoiled’ by virtue of the way they look or the community in which they live; the misinformation spread by anti-feminist organizations; the way that purity is sexualized, contributing directly to the objectification of young women; and myriad other interconnected topics. From an exploration of how society has decided only certain women can be raped, to how this traditional understanding of purity leaves out many people from the get go (where do lesbians fit in, for example?), Valenti hits each topic directly, using straightforward language backed up by solid research and a whole lot of facts.

Some of the best writing is in the area of sexual assault. I dare you to read chapter five without either throwing the book at a wall or at least going to the liquor cabinet for a stiff drink because it is BLEAK.

But it is so important. I plan to gift this book (along with Full Frontal Feminism) to my nieces and nephews when they are old enough, because the information is important, and it isn’t just up to women to change these bizarre notions of a woman’s worth. While some readers may have tuned out at my first mention of feminism, consider picking it up – whether you are a woman or a man, this book will open your eyes and hopefully motivate you to action.



January 2013



Silver Linings Playbook

Written by , Posted in Reviews


I tend to gravitate towards non-fiction books. Reading literature in school involved so much analysis; I got to a point after my last literature class where I felt I didn’t know how to read fiction on my own, without a guide or a discussion around it to try to find the ‘deeper’ meaning. What’s the point of picking up a classic if I’m going to miss all of the nuance?

On occasion, however, a work of fiction sounds interesting and I’m willing to give it a whirl. Generally speaking I’ve been lucky with my picks – and “Silver Linings Playbook” continues that lucky streak. If you’ve not yet read it, and can get past the idea of picturing the dude from “The Hangover” and Katniss Everdeen in the main roles, I think you’ll find you’re in for a quick but satisfying read.  I read it in three days and found I was disappointed not in the ending, but in the fact that it was done. This is a book that had me thinking about it when I wasn’t reading it, and wanting to get back to it when I was doing other things.

We meet the protagonist Pat briefly in a psychiatric facility. His perspective is the one we experience throughout the novel; it’s a first person narrative that usually works. Pat consistently refers to the facility as the ‘bad place,’ which is one of the turns of phrase author Matthew Quick uses to lead us to think that there’s something a little off about Pat. That phrase, along with Pat insisting on referring to his separation from his wife as ‘apart time,’ were really the only things about the book that consistently bothered me. I think I get what Quick was going for, but the phrases really just pulled me out of the story. Thankfully, I was able to get past that and enjoy the writing, but I do wish Quick had found another way to demonstrate the developmental pause the character seems to have taken.

Pat has been sprung from the mental health facility by his mother, who has arranged for Pat to live back home with her and her inattentive, Eagles football-obsessed husband. Pat is focused on staying in amazing physical shape and acting kindly so that he can win back his wife Nikki. Clearly we get the sense that something is wrong with his assumption that he has any chance getting back with Nikki; he even repeatedly admits to himself that he treated her poorly. However, it’s clear that there’s more to that story, and over the course of the novel we find out, for the most part, what’s really going on.

To try to help bring Pat back into the outside world, Pat’ friend Robbie reintroduces him to Tiffany, who is working through her own mental health issues. She’s a young widow who rarely speaks but, when she does, chooses the fewest words necessary to get her point across. She’s blunt, a little socially awkward, and possibly interested in Pat. Pat wants nothing to do with her but, due to some clever work on her part, is pulled into a mutually beneficial relationship.

Given their respective circumstances, it could have been so easy for the author to lead us to pity them. And perhaps some readers will feel that emotion as they get to know their stories. For me, I felt more empathy and a little bit of hope as the novel progressed. Quick does a great job of showing honest emotions without begging the reader to cry or just feel so darned sorry for them. The characters are flawed, but from my perspective they are flawed in realistic ways. They could be our friends, and that helps make the connection to their plights more real.

Finally, the book has a resolution that is incomplete, although not frustratingly so. I’m warning you now: not every storyline is wrapped up at the end. The author doesn’t end it all with a knock on a door followed by a fade to black what-will-happen-next scene (I’m looking at you, ‘Sideways,’), but he doesn’t give us an epilogue or address every relationship that has formed or broken throughout the story. I enjoy that – I don’t need a totally messy ending, but I do like one in which it is expected that the characters will still go on and have struggles to face and issues to resolve.

I’m only on book five, but so far this year this is my favorite. If I can keep finding novels like this one, I just might have to put some of the non-fiction books on my reading list on hold.



January 2013



Champagne: A Global History

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If a wine menu has a glass of sparkling anything on it, that’s probably what I will order. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s dinner in a nice restaurant or brunch at a diner showing the Seahawks’ game. I like sparkly wine to the exclusion of nearly all still varieties.

I’m sure that’s what my sister had in mind when my birthday rolled around this year, as she gifted me this cute book on the history of Champagne, part of the Edible Series of books. Written in a very straightforward manner, it traces the history of the fizzy delight from its origins in the region of France that gives it its name through some of the more familiar stories (Dom Perignon was a real guy!), following it during the ups and downs of popularity and availability.

Champagne has a pretty interesting history – traceable, like many other libations, to monks with access to crops and the desire to turn them into something interesting. You may be familiar with some of the stories that dot its past, like the traditional cup or ‘coupe’ based on the shape of French noblewoman’s breast, but I’m willing to bet that some of it will be new to you.

And it isn’t just the inclusion of this trivia that make this a cute, quick read and something I’d recommend as a gift. The history seems very well-researched, and the discussion of the political implications of the trade, while not deep or groundbreaking, does remind the reader that labor issues and the creation of limited supply has a broader impact than just which bottle to choose on New Year’s Eve. The grape growers are often not the champagne houses, and the power lies with the big names, not the French farmer. I’m sure there are more in-depth books on Champagne and its association with extravagance and luxury, but this is a good start.

As a bonus, the book doesn’t just focus on Champagne – it spends time on other sparkling wines that are produced around the world, and the tension between the French beverage and the other sparkling choices is a bit fascinating.

This book is a quick read and fun break from some of the more intense non-fiction and literature out there. Bottom line: if you have someone in your life who enjoys bubbly, trivia, and would enjoy learning more about Champagne than a simple Wikipedia article has to offer, check it out.



January 2013



Paris, I love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down

Written by , Posted in Reviews

I want to live abroad someday. I’ve done it before, spending a year in London in 2009-2010. It was interesting, although I had a different perspective than Mr. Baldwin when he wrote Paris, I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down. I was in school, wasn’t worried about my visa, and had housing booked before I arrived.


Mr. Baldwin, on the other hand, had to navigate a lot of the new world of being an ex-pat on his own, with minimal assistance from his entertaining (and somewhat broadly written) coworkers. In this memoir of the realities of living in the City of Light, the author shares a seemingly endless (and at times seemingly pointless) stream of somewhat-connected, usually clever, anecdotes about the life he and his wife built when he was working at an advertising agency in Paris. The characters, while ostensibly based on real people, seem straight out of central casting (I have a very vivid picture of who could play the loud, friendly, somewhat useless landlord in the film version).

I can appreciate the idea of a book that doesn’t sugar coat the realities of life abroad. Some days you’re spending an entire afternoon looking at great works of art, eating divine sweets from the most adorable patisserie; the next you’re crying because you don’t know where to go to buy printer paper. Mr. Baldwin does an excellent job of painting a vivid picture that is not highly romanticized (a difficult task, since we’re talking about PARIS), but the book left me wanting more. There was a thread, loosely tying the numerous anecdotes together: he’s writing a novel while his wife is also pursuing her own creative work. But it felt disjointed, as though the author kept a journal, realized he has a few good comments to make and tried to turn it into a book.

That’s not to say it wasn’t enjoyable to read; I definitely found myself laughing out loud a few times. And he clearly has a gift for language, which makes me think that I’d really enjoy his novel You Lost Me There, the writing of which he also chronicles during his Paris stay. I just felt that this particular book wasn’t fully formed when it went to the publisher.

If you have aspirations to live abroad, it can’t hurt to check this book out. It’s good to have a little reality with the dreams of spending lazy weekends on the banks of the Seine, reading Sartre and contemplating the future of democracy while drinking actual champagne. It’s also not bad for a little light reading even if you aren’t interested in trading in your house for a visa any time soon.



January 2013



The Feminine Mystique

Written by , Posted in Feminism, Reviews


I am a feminist. I don’t think that’s a groundbreaking title to claim, although if you listen to some of my more famous peers (Katy Perry, I’m looking at you), it’s a dirty word. But whether you claim the title loudly and proudly, or claim everything the title represents but annoyingly shun the term itself, it’s good to understand its roots.

Enter The Feminine Mystique, written by Betty Friedan, founder of the National Organization for Women. Dense but accessible, the book focuses on the malaise that struck (straight, affluent, white – we’ll get to that in a minute) women in the 50s and 60s. Ms. Friedan put a name to “the problem that has no name,” exploring why women who seemingly have it all – or at least everything society thinks they should want to have – are unfulfilled, depressed, and even suicidal. She backs up her discussion with facts, referencing studies ranging from Kinsey’s research to polls from Mademoiselle magazine. She pretty neatly takes down the ridiculousness of Freudian theory as applied to women in the United States, and points to evidence that supports the idea that women who access higher education (whether before marriage or during) and pursue careers find themselves happier (and with better sex lives, natch) than their counterparts.

Much of the book is filled with important information and suggestions for how to achieve equality.  While it took me awhile to get into it, I found that by breaking it down into chapters I was able to really process what I was reading. It was frustrating to read lines that could have been written today, describing how people view the ‘role of women’ in the home, that the most important thing that women can do is bear and raise children. As a childfree woman myself, I’m also well aware of the weird dichotomy that exists in the United States today: this worship of the idea of motherhood, but the disdain for mothers (e.g. no mandated paid maternity leave, shock at seeing a nipple in public to feed an infant, the judgment women cast upon each other over life choices).

BUT. And this is a big but, and one that I only discovered by reading the book – Ms. Friedan was apparently homophobic. It’s distressing to learn that she views that “Male homosexuals … are Peter Pans, forever childlike” who have a “fear of adult responsibility.” Say what now? While one can raise all the arguments they want about a book being ‘of its time’ (published in 1966), the fact remains that even in her later years of activism Ms. Friedan was at times guilty of expressing disdain for gay men and lesbians.

The other GIANT issue with this book is that, while focusing on what I would argue was (and to a degree still is) a real issue for women, she presented her arguments as though they applied to all women. I don’t think every book needs to examine all sides of every issue, but she certainly spent no time on the intersectionality of gender with race and class, and she also spent no time (at least that I saw, and I read it pretty closely) focused on why this is the group that needs the attention.

Still, I’d say this is a book to read for everyone who wants to understand better the history of feminism and be reminded not so much of ‘how far we’ve come’ but really of how far we haven’t come.