The Female of the Species

img_2409When I started this blog around two years ago, I didn’t know what it might become, but I didn’t see it becoming a series of book reviews.  Then, last night, I finished a new book.  The Female of the Species, by Mindy McGinnis.  And I can’t forget about it.  And it’s the end of Banned Books Week 2016.  And while I know this new release will (hopefully) catch a lot of attention in the near—and distant—future, someone needs to be talking about this book, now.

So, here is my 5/5 star review of The Female of the Species, the book that should be absolutely next on your To Be Read (TBR) list.

Disclaimer: This review may contain some spoilers, but my intention is not to talk about the plot of the story so much as some of the content and conversations this book has started about change that should be occurring in our contemporary culture.

I had heard about this book from some of my former coworkers at Barnes & Noble.  As mentioned in my other blog post, I really enjoy getting recommendations from booksellers, so picking the book up was more about the people who suggested it to me than what the book itself was about.  I don’t always read the “backs” of the books I read, either, because I’ve become frustrated by summaries that give away too much of the plot—or not enough, in the case of the ones that only contain celebrity blurbs.  So, quite frankly, short of knowing I respected the opinions of the other people who had already read this book, I had no idea what I was getting in to.

While the plot of this story is spectacular—a real page-turner with a handful of powerful, gut-wrenching twists—I loved this book for its approach to extremely difficult content.  Actually, “love” may be a poor choice of words.  This book is hard to think of with positive emotions for the same reason that it’s a perfect fit for Banned Books Week; if it hasn’t been challenged yet, it will be.  McGinnis unabashedly captures rape culture in an upfront, inescapable way.  It’s not romanticized.  It’s not referred to only in metaphors.  Sexual assault is identified for the horror that it is, and it is given a response.  And other elements of high school culture are shown in a garish, truthful light as well.  In fact, it is so graphic that many parents may (no, excuse me, will) baulk at it, claiming the content is inappropriate for the targeted age group.  On some baser level, I wish they were right.  I wish high school students didn’t have to be aware of the dangers the world has prepared for them.  Unfortunately, because of the environment we have currently found ourselves in, I would argue that they have to know about this stuff.  As one of my coworkers said, this book should not only be read by high school students, but also this should be a required reading book.

The reality is that this book will be challenged for the wrong reasons.  There’s booze, and drugs, and sex, and language.  And it’s all very detailed.  It made even me, a 24-year-old who works with undergraduate college students, uncomfortable at times.  But McGinnis isn’t writing about this stuff to encourage its use or acceptance by teenagers.  Instead, teenagers who read it are exposed how real and present these elements of culture are, whether they are the “fun”-filled versions, or the violent and dangerous counterparts.  Quite frankly, most students are already aware of these elements anyway.  I love this book, not because of its content, which I find disturbing and discomforting; I love this book because its author was unafraid to show high school and rape culture for what it is—frightening and inarguably real.

The Female of the Species is not only relevant for Banned Books Week, but also is relevant for other national and cultural issues we have present in our country today.  This book was published only weeks after Brock Turner’s early release from prison.  His experience facing charges for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, as well as the language surrounding him, her, and the case, has revealed the scandalous treatment of sexual assault and rape cases across the country.  Several groups and individuals have subsequently chosen to speak out about rape culture on college campuses, which is growing harder to ignore (thank goodness!).

At the same time, Turner’s situation hasn’t been the only thing drawing rape culture conversations out of the woodwork; documentaries fill DVDs and Netflix detailing recent developments, situations, and uncalled-for responses to claims of sexual assault and rape.  Moreover, more individuals are speaking out against the language that suggests women are “solely” responsible for ensuring men will not want to rape them, whether it relates to “what they were wearing” or “how they were conducting themselves.”  And we are seeing small instances of retribution and correction coming about from these changes, such as judges being held responsible for language they used toward victims in the courtroom.  Moreover, conversations are now louder on college campuses as victims and their friends refuse to be silent.  Many people are having the right conversations about what needs to change, but change at the institutional level is still negligible.

While trying not to give too much away, I just want to say that McGinnis looks at all sides of this issue in her book—when sexual assault is recognized, when it is reported, when “institutions” try to create change, and when that change doesn’t keep everyone safe.  This is the real mastery of the book, because the issues presented by a culture that “allows” men* to “take” what they believe they are entitled to cannot be ignored.  These issues are made all the more real through the multiple first-person perspectives.  We see what happens through the victims’ eyes, and through the eyes of those who try to help.  Honestly, McGinnis is pointing out how this situation is nowhere near healing itself.

[*I do want to say, quickly, that I recognize women are not the only victims of sexual assault.  In many ways, this is hinted at in the plot of The Female of the Species.  However, I believe the story is supposed to focus on the situations women—or, rather, girls—find themselves in.  This does not downplay the significance of other types of sexual assault and rape, but rather concentrates on one element to more sufficiently reveal the intricacies of the damage and darkness surrounding this single perspective on rape culture.]

This book is good because the characters are real.  While these particular victims’ stories are fictional, they might as well be borrowed from the pages of real-life accounts.  It’s good because, just like in real life, no easy Band-Aid is placed over a gaping wound.  In fact (again, as I try to not give too much away), McGinnis gives us a decently fictionalized ending that offers at least a little closure (more on this in a minute).  Even with this small element of poetic license that gives the book the feeling of ending in a “good” place, the very obvious message is that nothing is fully resolved. In the end, The Female of the Species is good because it is honest.

Spoiler Warning: the most disappointing reality check this book provides is that 99% of us don’t have an Alex.  Of course, I think both she and McGinnis would argue that this is not necessarily a bad thing.  As Alex’s part of the story wraps up, her conversation with the reader makes it clear that she understands where her choices have brought her.  And while Peekay—and Branley, and Jack—may be forever grateful for those choices, their repercussions are ever-present and irreversible.

Yet, clearly, the change that occurs in situations of sexual violence, at least in the world of this small town, is all because there is an Alex.  It is what she does that draws to light the letters, and that changes the tone of the notes in the restrooms.  She shows you what happens when rape culture becomes personal as well as public.  In the world of the book, Alex is the integral component of the reactions to sexual violence, even as she is dependent on her relationships with Peekay and Jack to bring this out in her.

In the real world, victims are not “fortunate” enough to have a girl like Alex on their team.  But this. Should. Not. Stop. Us.

We need to have the courage and confidence to defend ourselves without someone stronger than us to support us.  I think that’s why Alex’s solutions aren’t presented as the be-all, end-all in the text.  McGinnis wants us to know that we don’t need to be—or have—an Alex to try for change in the way our communities perceive situations of sexual violence.  Peekay sees that in the end.  And she is encouraged to see others responding in the same way.  This book is so important, so key, because it says that something must be done to stop the current perception and response to sexual violence.  It also says that the response may not eliminate any or all threats, and each response has a time limit in its effectiveness.  But, finally, this book says that none of this should stop us from trying.

Related to the significance of Alex is the message this title alone carries.  The name of the book comes from the Rudyard Kipling poem of the same title, in which it is said, “for the female of the species is more deadly than the male.”  This line most directly represents Alex’s character, but it also helps to communicate the all-important truth that even girls can bring about change in contemporary environment and culture.  Their voices matter, because they have an in-born, natural strength that is recognized as powerful in defense of violent attacks.

I would never say that this book is beyond rebuke.  I’m a very picky reader, and I challenge myself to find things I “don’t like” in a text, even if I find myself appreciating the rest of it.  For instance, I think the ending of this story could have spent more time addressing the fact that victims with guilt should never be blamed for their responses to their attacks.  Peekay feels responsible for most of what happens in the second half of the story because she didn’t speak up.  And while I think McGinnis shows that time and understanding can begin to heal that wound, a more important message is that this guilt, while legitimate, is completely unfounded.  Yes, all situations on sexual violence should be reported; it is the best way to combat the current culture.  However, our focus on reporting should never be so strong as to make victims feel like they have contributed to the problem if they do not voice their experiences.  Communicating what happened to them is first and foremost personal; all resulting public outcry is secondary to their own healing.  If these two elements coincide, fantastic.  If they don’t, it is not the victim’s fault.

There are also moments in Jack’s part of the story that may be construed as contributing to the mindset that men and boys “cannot help themselves.”  His perception of sex gives an allusion to the common opinions that girls are asking for the attention they get.  Of course, in no instance does he act toward a girl who has told him “no.”  Similarly, I think he is an example of how boys can be victims of sexual harassment and abuse.  His years of exposure to a certain type of girl have left him both craving immediate sexual gratification and perhaps permanently separating emotion and sex from one another.  Do I think he is a small component of an overarching sexual violence culture? Absolutely.  Do I think it makes his role with Alex and Peekay any less authentic?   Absolutely not.  He may not be a perfect opposite to Ray, but his role does demonstrate that men who enjoy sex can still perceive rape culture as wrong.

Finally, I was a little uncomfortable with the way faith is handled in the story.  Of course this is purely on a personal level.  Out of all of the characters in this story, the only ones I find inauthentic are Peekay’s parents.  To me, it feels that a pseudo-rumspringa is used purely to allow Peekay to be present in all the situations the story creates—like being able to hang out with the same people after the first “incident.”  Also, as someone who theoretically shares the faith of Peekay’s parents, I want my response to situations of sexual violence to be more potent than what theirs are.  I understand that different Christians perceive the issue of rape culture in different ways, but I have issues placing this particular response in the mix.  It doesn’t detract from the overall story—and, as I said, it enables Peekay to be present where she’s needed for the movement of the plot.  I admit this is a personal dislike of an element of the story, even as it contributes to my perception of the book’s message.  If anything, other people of faith reading this should see that they are (a) not immune to sexual violence, and (b) as obligated to respond in appropriate ways as other members of the community and its institutions.

This review took me places I wasn’t expecting, but I feel that everything here had to be said.  In the end, The Female of the Species shares with us the all-important message: one person can become the courage others need to fight back against rape culture.

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Leaving Barnes & Noble

So, last week, I left my part-time job at Barnes & Noble Booksellers to take a full-time job at a university library.  Yes, I do in fact spend too much time with books.

A job at Barnes & Noble can seriously change your perspective on books.  I realized this as I began to make the transition from bookseller back to customer.  Even as a librarian, I know my role will be different than what it once was, and I feel the need to talk about some of those all-so-important and wonderful things I learned while selling books at a brick-and-mortar establishment.

 

Book People are the Best People

Seriously.  I am completely convinced that there is something about people who read and love books that makes them super special, amazing, and wonderful.  Having a conversation with someone who loves to read is so easy, and Barnes & Noble is full of those people.  They come in to find people who love books so they can talk about the books you love and the ones they love, and it’s absolutely fabulous.

Of course, you also get people who are not book people (i.e. The Summer Required Reading Reader, The I Need Something to Take to the Airport Book Buyer, and the Where are Your Movies DVD Browser).  And, quite frankly, they usually stand out.  I’m not saying they’re terrible people, by any means.  They are just different than book people—particularly because they do not actually like to talk about books.

Such a shame.

Anyway, one of my favorite lessons I learned while working at Barnes & Noble is that book people are the greatest.

 

Selling Books is Selling Products…

…but that can be okay.  Honestly, it was always hard for me to think about selling things.  I never really wanted to entrust my favorite books to complete strangers just to make a sale.  I felt like I was betraying my favorite authors and their wonderful characters by giving them away for a couple bucks.  But, really, selling books is not an awful way to spend your time.

First of all, refer to the first lesson I learned.  By and large, the majority of the people I interacted with at my job were trustworthy of taking home my precious favorite titles, and they would most likely love and treasure them an acceptable amount (because, let’s face it, there’s no way they would ever love them as much as me!).

Second of all, the books I love and loved to sell can stand on their own.  If the person who purchases them doesn’t end up enjoying them, who cares, really?  The words have reached another imagination, and so the characters are still immortalized.

On top of that, selling books to those people who came in was my way of sustaining a real-life bookstore, complete with a door on the front, seats inside, and books you can pick up and page through before you buy them.  While ordering online is ever so convenient, it will never be the same as walking in to an actual building to buy your next read.  Being a part of the effort that keeps this type of book shopping an option makes me feel like I’m making a better difference for the future. And that is pretty cool.

 

Booksellers are Great Book Recommend-ers…

By the time I finished my stint at B&N, I had read several books recommended to me by my coworkers.  Crazy thing?  Even if we have entirely different taste in genre, they have great taste in books!

Okay, so maybe that isn’t so much of a shocker.

But really, I had never considered what a wealth of suggestions booksellers might be!  It should have been obvious, because not only do these people want a job at a bookstore, they also have managed to keep said bookstore in business.  I ended up loving to ask others what they were reading and take those recommendations to read myself.  One of my favorite parts about their different tastes, too, was that dipping my toes into other genres wasn’t so difficult anymore.  If I wanted to try something in science fiction, I could ask for some ideas.  And I was more likely to actually appreciate and enjoy what was given to me.  In the end, I ended up with a greater genre palette than I began with.  And, of course, I got to share my favorite books and genres with my coworkers, too!

And now, I know that when I’m in Barnes & Noble in the future looking for something to read, I should ask the booksellers.

 

…And So Are Customers!

Again, this one probably should have been obvious, but I was still always delightfully surprised when a customer held up a title I had never heard of and said, “Have you read this one? No!? Oh, you have to read it!  It is so good.  I couldn’t put it down.”  Being able to swap favorite titles with pretty much everyone who came to the store was amazing.  My to-be-read list is absolutely gigantic!

Which leads me to my next lesson learned:

 

You Don’t Need to Buy Every Book, Ever

Let’s face, it; my bookshelves are already overflowing with new titles, editions, and copies.

The employee discount is fantastic, particularly at Barnes & Noble.  As a fan of used bookstores for the prices, I was always delighted to get a brand new book for the price of an old one.  But I learned, a little too late, that I had to pace myself.  I don’t think there were many days I left without buying at least one book, and now I have to try and catch up with reading them!

Ultimately, I learned to only pick the titles I most desperately wanted.  Usually, this meant waiting a week or so to purchase, thus maneuvering around the “Impulse Buy.”  I also tried to limit purchases of recommendations, rather buying the books I would have picked out for myself.  This helped cut down on what I was buying while also affirming what I enjoyed reading.  Again, I still have a ton of books that are going to keep me busy for several months, if not years.  But I certainly don’t now own every book, ever, or even every book someone told me I should buy.

 

There is a Different Between Readers and Bibliophiles, but Both are Book People

Working at Barnes & Noble, I think this was my favorite lesson that I learned.  You see, as much as I LOVE to read, I don’t always want to read.  Moreover, even though I sometimes want to OWN a book, I don’t necessarily want to READ that book at any point in the near future.  Plus, reading can be extremely hard for me.  I am a very slow reader, and it takes me a ridiculous amount of time to get through anything.  Overall, I’m a bad reader.

But I love books!  I love looking at books, shopping for books, buying books, shelving books, borrowing books, ordering books online… Most of my paychecks almost always go to books, even as I only slowly get through reading them.

For a long time, I felt very guilty about this.  How could someone who loved books so much not fit the reader model?!  It didn’t make sense.  And then I started at Barnes & Noble, where I was introduced to the other side of bookselling, and it changed my perspective in so many ways.  Because, for the first time in my life, I met people who were readers, and I met people who were bibliophiles, and they were almost never the same person.

Here is my moment of identification: I am a bibliophile. Here me roar!

In my role as a bookseller, I learned to love myself in relation to my books.  I was able to more fully accept that my TBR would always grow faster than my READ.  I could eagerly purchase new and unique copies of the same book over and over.  And I could look at readers with respect rather than jealousy.  If they are able to fly through several hundred books a year, and yet they dump them for donations in the end, I can admit that I am nothing like them.  And we are both okay.

 

Working at Barnes & Noble was an intense experience, one that I would not trade for the world.  It taught me a lot about myself, and books.  Even as I move to the next chapter, I’m happy to keep this collection of stories on my shelf.

Where is human nature so weak as in a bookstore?
–Henry Ward Beecher

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Hello, World! A Fresh Start

Hello, WordPress world!  It’s been far too long since I began this blog, and it’s time to revisit it.  I will be making a greater effort to post about reading, books, the world of libraries and the world of bookstores.  I’m excited to enter into this venture, and I can’t wait to see where it goes!  Thanks for checking in!

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So Many Books, So Little Time…But Seriously

Never in a million years would I have believed that I would face the dreaded quarter-life crisis.  I, the always-put-together, the collected, driven, intelligent agent of my own future would never succumb to such a base response to growing older–at least, that is, not until I am fifty and at the socially acceptable age to “freak out” about the approach of death.  Yet, here I sit, staring into the abyss that is not so deep, containing the “small handful” of days I have left on this earth, and I am panicked, for I have realized the darkest truth of all.

There is not enough time in my life for me to read every book I want to.

There is not enough time in my life for me to read every book I want to.

Several minutes of silent screaming immediately commenced.

Ever since my transition into high school and the ever-growing piles of required reading, I have become a half-hearted pleasure reader.  It’s not that the pleasure in reading what I want has diminished in any way; rather, it is that required reading has so often been a pleasurable read (yes, I am one of those nerds who actually liked the same books as the English teachers), I didn’t want to start a separate book of my own.  Then, of course, life always seems to get in the way of leisure time, and college taught me that it is often more important to get sleep than to read the next chapter in a book.  Besides that, what English major in her right mind has time to read half of Crime and Punishment, all of Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, and a handful of Didion essays in a given week, and then wants to pick up another title?

The result of this casual attitude toward reading has led to a very long Book Bucket List.  Whereas the titles on my list used to be carefully screened for those I would find most enjoyable, my experiences with delighting in genres outside my normal “cup of tea” led to titles being added willy nilly.  The beast that is my current list causes those who see it (when I show them) to balk and gasp, because it is, after all, very long.  And yet, despite its approach to tome-status, I continue my half-hearted engagement with what I am currently reading.

Reading, as a grown up, is hard work.

And then this thought hits, and I panic because I realize that time is going to run out, and if I keep reading at a casual trot, I’ll never finish even a portion of the list I have created.

I think what freaked me out the most about my discovery of this truth is that I, in the 80 or so years I will walk this earth, will not be able to read all of the books that I want to read.  This is not simply proving that I will never make it through the books I have no intention of reading. This is proving that there are books out there that I have been waiting to read that I will never get to finish!  There are words I will never devour, sentences I will never dissect, titles I will never cross off my list, even though I want to.

So, why have I ever wasted my good and precious, short-lived time on a title I did not want to read?!?

Believe you me, after this realization punched me, I began kicking myself for every book I ever picked up for personal pleasure because someone else told me I had to read it.  If I could go back to every book I groaned over, skimmed through, or read with painstaking slowness because I could not appreciate the words on the page, I would turn to the person closest to me and say, “Here.  I have better things to read.”

This is not necessarily in reference to all of the required reading I have finished to date.  I am more so referring to the recommendations made by people over the years for “really great books” that “changed people’s lives.”  They are the ones that people insisted I would enjoy, but when I got to the last page, I would respond, “that was it?”  For so many of these, I never felt that I had spent a good bit of my time enjoying something worthwhile.

And here, specifically, is where my quarter-life crisis has begun.  When our time to craft our palette is so short in the first place, why do we waste time trying to acclimate it to others’ preferences?  Why did I ever think it was necessary for me, as a reader, to indulge in titles that gave me no sense of self-discovery?  Beyond that, why did I ever think it was possible to read the entire library?!

I guess I always assumed I would be like Matilda, finishing out one section to take on the next.  In fact, when I was younger, I was sure that I would be exactly like Matilda–I would finish every children’s book in the library, then I would read every “adult” book after that.  And, in some ways, I don’t think I ever really shook that goal.  In fact, I can think of many titles I read over the last five years that felt as though I were dragging through them in order to say I had done it, having forgotten that the point of pleasure reading is in its name.

I do not want to name any titles that came to mind here, because I don’t think that is important.  What I have deemed as a waste of my time, I’m sure, has transformed someone else’s world and his/her perception of it.  I also don’t want to create a rumored list of books that should never be on anyone’s Book Bucket List, because I think we have to have the confidence to own what we enjoy the most, whatever that may be.

What I do want to focus on, however, is the fact that this realization has led to a rather deep existential consideration of the meaning of life and its brevity for me.  As humans, we have a tiny amount of time to spend here on earth.  We have to be vigilant about how we use the days and hours we have.  We should never compromise our time to try to please someone else, particularly in ways for which the person probably will never notice.  After all, do I think anyone who has recommended a book to me that I didn’t enjoy would stop being my friend if I had never read the title?  Most real friendships would never end over something so petty.

We also cannot live for the materialism of this planet.  Of course, I greatly struggle with calling books “material,” since only their bindings keep them finite.  Books are, after all, pieces of  souls captured in tiny symbols.  They carry with them the magic of community, shared uniquely within the human experience.  At the same time, in that sense, we must embrace them as souls; instead of trying to meet every character between every page, I have to recognize the value in dwelling within those texts that speak the most to me.  Huh, that even sounds a little bit like friendship to me.

Finally, I think bibliophiles have to remember why they fell in love with reading in the first place–books change us, often for the better.  We learn about ourselves, the world, and how each defines the other.  While we should, again, never race through every copy we can find, we should be ready to pursue the knowledge, wisdom, and truth we can find in written forms.

I’m still totally devastated that I will be unable to finish my Book Bucket List before I die.  However, I have a renewed commitment to evaluating what I will read next, and how thoroughly.  Besides, I am thankful for a reminder about how important it is to embrace the lives we have.

“I suppose it’s like the ticking crocodile, isn’t it?  Time is chasing after all of us, isn’t that right?”

Mrs. Snow, Finding Neverland

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