Thursday, June 30, 2016

Race, Gender, BDSM, and Office Politics

by Annabeth Leong

As usual, what I’m reading is an odd hodgepodge of things that have struck my recent fancy. Like Giselle, I’ve read some books that weren’t good but pulled me in for mysterious reasons. I don’t like to post publicly about stuff I don’t like, though, so I’ll give you a selection of stuff I’d recommend.

Delusions of Gender: the Real Science Behind Sex Differences
By Cordelia Fine


This is the sort of book that makes me want to buy extra copies and carry them around in my purse so that the next time I run into someone who wants to talk to me about how evolutionary psychology explains why women prefer to be “traditionally feminine” and do all the housework, I can just shove the book into their hands and make a quick escape. It is the sort of book that makes you irritate all your family and friends because you’re constantly trying to read things from it out loud to them. It is the sort of book that puts the world into shocking, clear perspective.

This book methodically, meticulously debunks junk science around supposedly inborn gender differences, but it also offers no easy answers for what gender is. Think of this more as a deconstruction, as an expose of how pervasively we are steered toward “proper” gendered behavior.

Lately, I’ve been exploding my brain by thinking a lot about gender, and this book was a valuable addition to that process. My only complaint is that it doesn’t go much into trans and genderqueer experience, which I think could really shed light on questions about what gender is, what it is to be “masculine” or “feminine,” and so on.

Like Twin Stars: Bisexual Erotic Stories
Edited by Cecilia Tan and Kelly Clark


This is really short, but it’s a real treat. It has an early story by N.K. Jemisin, who’s one of the most interesting speculative fiction writers working today. It also has a story by our own Giselle! I didn’t recognize the name of the third writer, Neil Hudson, but his story, which poignantly portrays the agony of a bisexual person who is asked to “choose” is quite moving as well.

I was impressed by how well Circlet’s commitment to speculative erotic fiction served the book’s theme. In Jemisin’s story, for example, the invented fantasy culture provides a positive, supportive space for the main character’s bisexuality that I have never experienced for myself in this world.

I was a bit sad that this book didn’t include any female viewpoint characters. I would have liked reading about some bisexual women. Maybe that’s an excuse for a sequel.

The Room
By Jonas Karlsson


I feel like I am always looking for this sort of book, but rarely find it. It is weird and fascinating, a fast read that stay with you, deceptively simple, strange but still satisfying at the end. The narrator of this book is an unlikeable jerk, and yet I want to know what he has to say.

The plot hinges around a mysterious room that the narrator finds in the office where he works. The room represents beauty, order, and tradition. It’s the only place he can concentrate, and he produces incredible work when he goes in there. The room also seems like it doesn’t exist.

I read this with urgency, though I don’t directly relate to it. I love its spare, clean style. I love the way the reader’s perception of the narrator shifts as the book progresses. I want to know who Jonas Karlsson is (a famous Swedish actor, apparently) and how he came up with this.

The Marketplace
By Laura Antoniou


I’ve met Laura Antoniou at a number of events, and have heard her read (she is hilarious!). The Killer Wore Leather is one of my favorite books ever. So I’ve felt weird for a while that I’d never read The Marketplace, which is definitely the work she’s best known for.

I had reasons for not reading it. Over the years, I’ve started to get weird feelings about power exchange. I like SM, but a lot of dominance and submission makes me uncomfortable. Master/slave relationships particularly bring up a lot of issues. The idea of a series all about BDSM all in the context of consensual slavery did not really appeal to me.

Well, I’m happy to report that I’ve now read The Marketplace, and I thought it was just as incredible as I’d always heard. Reading it was a delightful experience, and it was interesting to think about exactly how Antoniou managed that.

First and foremost, in my mind, is that her story is compelling and fascinating. I’ve been thinking a lot about what erotica would look like if we could get it back from always being coupled with romance. The Marketplace offers one very cool possibility. I would describe it as a classic school story, along the lines of Harry Potter. People have to make it through a training process, and the narrative is compelling because the reader is wondering who will succeed and who will fail, and how.

Because the story was so compelling, I never even cared whether the sex was arousing. (Though it often was.) Every sex scene was integral to the plot, entertaining on many axes, arousal being only one of them.

One of the main things I loved about this book was that it was so consistently funny. At other times, however, it brought me to tears.

Also, the characters! Each person is so distinct and well drawn that I think Antoniou could teach a master class in writing, for example, dialogue specific to individuals.

The book was long and took me a while, and I’m resistant to series. Still, I think I’ll eventually get through this one, even though Antoniou seems to be making each book longer as the series goes on. I’m taking a bit of a break, but I expect to dive into the next book, The Slave, within the next couple of months. If the books continue to be this good, I’ll even feel relief that there’s so much more to come.

Black Man in a White Coat: a Doctor’s Reflections on Race and Medicine
By Damon Tweedy


I picked this up expecting a straight memoir, but got something much more interesting. Dr. Tweedy does talk about his own life, but he is the sort of person who takes his experiences into larger philosophical and societal explorations. So a chapter about his experiences treating patients with HIV becomes a chapter that also investigates how stigma around HIV may be encouraging its spread, and a chapter that explores racial disparities in HIV detection and treatment at the societal level.

The voice of the book is so humane and ethical at all times that it gave me a new respect for the medical profession. I can only hope that lots of doctors are asking questions as deeply as Dr. Tweedy, and coming from a place of such genuine desire for self-examination and altruism. Whenever something happens that disturbs him, his instinct seems to be to ask, “Is it my responsibility to change this for the better?” It is heartening to spend time in the company of such a decent man, especially when there is so much ugliness in the world.

I found Dr. Tweedy’s meditations on race particularly valuable because they don’t come to neat conclusions. He embraces uncertainties, exposes complexities, and eschews easy answers. He often made me uncomfortable—for example, a story about his ability to find common ground with a family of white supremacists made me feel queasy on his behalf rather than inspired by the resolution, as I believe the narrative intended. I think, however, that if a discussion of race doesn’t feel uncomfortable, it probably hasn’t gone deep enough.

There was a lot of talk about weight loss, which concerned me because I’ve read a lot about the dubious health benefits of trying to force people to lose weight (interventions often do more harm than whatever good comes from weight loss, and there’s little evidence that any weight loss program is lasting for anything more than a tiny minority of people—for more on this, see, for example, Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon). The weight loss stuff seems endemic to the medical profession, though, so I don’t fault this book too much for focusing on it.

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That’s it for now! I’m about to go out of town for a long trip, so I might be scarce in the comment section. See you all soon! :)

12 comments:

  1. This is the sort of book that makes me want to buy extra copies and carry them around in my purse so that the next time I run into someone who wants to talk to me about how evolutionary psychology explains why women prefer to be “traditionally feminine” and do all the housework, I can just shove the book into their hands and make a quick escape.

    [Applauds]

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    1. :D I enjoyed writing that sentence, too!

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  2. Delusions of Gender sounds like a must-read!

    I know and respect Laura Antoniou and her writing, and I've tried to get into a couple of her books, but I haven't been able to click with the characters. I supported her most recent book on Kickstarter or whichever outfit it was, so I have the e-book of The Inheritor (I think that's it) but I haven't got past a knee-jerk reaction of "Why are these people doing this?" I can actually get into, and occasionally write, Dominance/submission short stories, and I know some people quite well who are deeply into it, so maybe it's just a matter of needing to focus on one or two characters rather than a whole long book of them that's my problem.

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  3. I haven't read "The Inheritor," but I've read all the other Marketplace novels. What I like about them is the big view: the interaction of various characters of different genders, sexual orientations and shades of B, D, S and M. The series is amazing, and I remember describing it as a very adult version of the Harry Potter series years ago: all the characters are 3-dimenstional and changing, and there is a large, international community that is nonetheless invisible to the "muggles," who could cause trouble if they found out. IMO, there is no other series like this. My big, big problem with the original novels (published by Mystic Rose Press) was that they were riddled with grammatical mistakes and typos that have finally been edited out in the Circlet Press editions. Considering that precision and attention to detail are important in "Marketplace" training, I couldn't believe that Chris Parker (the transgender slave AND trainer), who seems to be the viewpoint character or invisible narrator, would express himself in a sloppy way. For me, the glitches damaged the illusion.

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    1. Chris Parker is transgender? Is that revealed in the first book of the series? Did I somehow miss that???

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    2. OMG, Lisabet. I'm sorry if that was a spoiler for you. There are endless hints about Chris Parker's ambiguous gender in The Marketplace, The Slave, The Trainer, etc. I'm not sure now where The Truth is revealed. :)

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  4. Another decadently rich post from you, Annabeth... rich in ideas, insights and passions.

    Of all the books you mention, The Marketplace is the only one I've read, fairly recently (in the Circlet edition). It makes most BDSM novels seem trivial and shallow, doesn't it?

    I've never met Laura, but I'd love to. I was astonished when she accepted my very vanilla story for the edition of BLE she edited.

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    1. Ha! Lisabet, I felt the same way when she accepted a story from me for the same volume. Mine was somewhat gritty (IMO), about a friends-to-lovers relationship, but no BDSM in it.

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    2. And mine in the same anthology is one of my relatively rare BDSM stories. Go figure.

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  5. I'm sorry for highjacking the thread, Annabeth! All the books you've read recently sound intriguing. I might have read a review of Delusions of Gender (or at least a parallel book) in the Times Literary Supplement, to which I subscribe. Since my knowledge of biology is sketchy at best, I'm always interested in biologically-based approaches to social categories that we've all been taught to consider completely separate (gender-based, race-based and age-based categories, even "normal" vs. "abnormal").

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  6. I do love the play on words with the title of Delusions of Gender. Definitely must get that one.

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  7. Heading out to my library to get Delusions of Gender. If they don't have it, I may get an e-copy, because I must read this book! Thanks for the recommendation. Since I've already read and reread Desmond Morris' books a lot, I'm ripe for something non-fiction and new.

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