Righteous Anger: Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jessica Valenti

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I’m a latecomer to the Overdrive party (here’s to free audio books that you can borrow and not have to buy!! How very civilised!) So the joys of Overdrive and the pressure of ‘borrowed’ books means that I knocked over Between the World and Me and Sex Object in the one day. And I was struck by just how similar in nature these two books are.

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Both are about the author’s need to live in a world where their body means they are treated in a particular way by (white, male) society.  Certain assumptions are made about who they are and how they are expected to behave given certain physical characteristics. Assumptions are also made about how they should react to a world that treats them as a sub-class.

One of these authors is receiving praise, while the other is receiving a stream of hate filled vitriol on social media.

Between the World and Me is a beautifully written essay addressed by Coates to his son, talking about his life experience as a black American male. The impact of being a black male in a society that accepts that black men are second class citizens and inherently dangerous. How this affected his home life, including the fear of his parents for his wellbeing and future.  What this has meant for him growing up, becoming educated, working and with the continuous threat of an early death hanging over him. I’m a stoic reader, but I had tears in my eyes a number of times listening to the fear and sorrow in this man’s story. The average Goodreads rating for this book at the moment is 4.39 (over 57,000 ratings).

Valenti’s story is a very different beast. Sex Object is a raw and angry treatise on what it was like to grow up as a girl in a society that both hates girls and wants to possess them. And then hates them even more if they happen to engage in sex. Valenti’s experiences are awful -from the abuse suffered by the matrilineal line of her family to the perverts she encountered in public as a young teen, to her string of arsehole boyfriends, and her own observations of her dissociated behaviour.

To me, this book is clearly a memoir of a young woman’s decent into anxiety and  mental illness due to strings of abuses which society writes off as ‘normal’. Because women are supposed to take this behaviour from men and, if not thrive , at least not be scarred. Being flashed is normal. The threat of being grabbed and abducted is normal. The threat of rape is normal. Being cat-called is normal. Being humiliated in public for the way you look is normal. Being expected to humour boys and men is normal. And reacting negatively to any of these behaviours can result in your injury or death.

Both Valenti and Coates talk about the ability of white men to take the lives of their victims with impunity. If only the victim had done “the right thing” there would not have been a problem.

The thing that bemuses me most are the reactions to Valenti’s book – the average  Goodreads rating is 3.79 (1200 reviews) with comments along the lines of ‘I’m not sure what her point is, so she saw some dicks on the subway’. (At 12, Valenti got off the subway to discover some filthy animal had ejaculated on her during her commute. Plus the other exposed dicks.)

One of Goodreads reviewer criticises Valenti for her hostility, but not being hostile or traumatised enough to not participate with her fans or attend book signings. (Excuse me?? The woman has to be too traumatised to make a living for her suffering to be valid?)

Sex Object makes me angry and also brought tears to my eyes for a very different reason to Between the World and Me. There is so much truth in it, and to me it seems that a number of reactions criticising it for it’s lack of scholarly direction are wilfully ignorant. This is the story of an abuse survivor – except her abusers are the general public, men who go home to their wives and families, but see no issue with harassing underage girls on the subway or on the street, or in the classroom. Valenti ends the book by reading a stream of comments on her articles and tweets. Trolls are the underbelly of the internet community – cowards who hide behind their keyboards. There should be a legal option to find and prosecute animals who threaten to do harm to anyone via this medium.

Both of these books are looking at the sub-category of what it means to be human. Of who is deserving of justice and a voice  and who is not.

Please read them.

Review: Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty

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This book came to my attention as Rebecca Schinsky from Book Riot described it “as feminist as fuck” on Litsy. (If you are not on Litsy, you need to ask yourself some serious questions about what you’re doing with your life. Please rectify immediately.)

Edgar and Fern are happily married with three children, living a life of comfort thanks to Fern’s moneyed parents. This grinds to a sudden stop when Fern is told that the money from her parent’s estate is gone. Someone is going to have to start working to keep the family in its lifestyle and, as was customary in the time (the 70’s) and the class (white and upper class) that someone should be Edgar.

Unfortunately Edgar is the worst socialist ever to walk the earth. He has high and mighty ideals about money and its role in the world, but manages to ignore the fact that his luxurious and rarefied lifestyle is thanks to the money earned by first his father, and then from his wife’s inheritance. Edgar throws a tantrum at his wife’s expectation which takes the form of him engaging in an affair and leaving on an adventure without telling Fern.

Fern is also tempted away on an adventure without telling Edgar. This leaves the three children finding themselves suddenly abandoned and fending for themselves, discovering that the childhood dream of having no parents around isn’t as great as the reality.

This book is beautifully and lyrically written, with plenty of examination of women’s roles as wife and mother and the expectations placed on them. Women of this class and era had no real choice but to be wives and  mothers – there was no market for any other role and to find yourself outside these roles was to be a scandal, which simply wasn’t done.

I particularly enjoyed the rendering of Fern’s mother, who chose her husband not because she loved him, but because he was the least likely to interfere in her life. Evelyn had her own things that she wanted to do, but as a woman, she was expected to not do them in favour of her wifely and motherly duties. She was not a good mother, or a good wife, and she knew this and made no apology for either.

Edgar on the other hand is a prize winning dick, and I could cheerfully have slapped him multiple times throughout the book. I’ve read a few reviews which indicate that he “redeems” himself at the end. I’m don’t think he does, although he does start to realise that he has been a dick, even though I think the reason for that realisation is for the wrong one.

The theme of this book is the good old “money can’t buy you happiness, and family is everything” with a coda of “unless your family sucks, in which case you’re screwed”.

This is a delightful, summery read with magic on every page.

5 out of 5 beach houses.