Saturday, April 2, 2016

Moving Joys and Two (Interestingly Related) Reviews: Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complex New Landscape (Orenstein) and Terrible Virtue (Feldman)

So, is it just me or does everyone label a box "Best Books" when they move?  We left Central PA and are now in Alexandria, VA, just outside DC.  Going from a three bedroom house with a large basement to a one bedroom apartment means most of my book collection (the only thing I hoard!) will live in storage for some time, but I can't fathom being book-less so I've got some of my favorites ready to be Virginians.  

Anyway, I've been a bit slower in my progress of late (hello, packing and unpacking!!) but have some reviews to share....

Orenstein's prior book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, a look at the "princess-ification" (my term) of girlhood, remains one of the most interesting book's I've had the opportunity to read in many years.   So, I was really excited to have the opportunity to read a pre-release version of her newest book courtesy of the folks at Harper Publishing.  Short version: It wasn't Cinderella, but it is still a revealing read and should make it onto the shelves of parents of teen and pre-teen girls (and, perhaps, boys as well).

Girls takes up where Cinderella left off and looks at the lives of young women from junior high through college, with a tight focus on intimacy and sexual activity.  There's a lot covered: The rise of the "hook-up culture;" Issues of consent, rape, and assault; Alcohol and it's relationship to sexual activity; Coming out and the LBTQ community; and more.  There is an overriding theme though involving the pressure to act and perform sexually, a pressure that weighs very differently on females than males.  It isn't necessarily groundbreaking, but the lack of reciprocity in sexual relationships (especially with respect to oral sex) is disturbing.  Orenstein's viewpoint and message can certainly be heard throughout the book, including the idea that we need to teach girls that sex can be and, critically, that they have a right to have it be fulfilling and enjoyable.  

I didn't feel like I learned as much as I did in Cinderella; much of the content didn't feel new but it was valuable nonetheless.  The stories she tells put "faces" on the trends many of us have heard about.  She also provides some "hope" with reference to what most will call "more liberal" sexual education and a climate that accepts sexuality as part of life and part of adolescence.  I'd pick Cinderella over Girls for a "must read" list, but this is still useful.   It would be particularly interesting to parents of teens and pre-teens, including parents of males, but it has value for all of us who in subtle ways take part in constructing the climate in which kids come of age.

Four stars.
Terrible Virtue (which I coincidentally read at the same time as I read Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complex New Landscape by Peggy Orenstein, both received free of charge in exchange for an honest review) is a fictionalized account of the life of Margaret Sanger, generally considered the founder of the birth control movement and a key player in making birth control available to women.  We meet Sanger in childhood where her mother is physically and mentally worn down by her brood of fourteen children (which doesn't include lost pregnancies).  This climate heavily influences her path which takes her through nursing school, passionate love affairs (perhaps trying to capture an intimacy lacking in her childhood), and a (often conflicted) role as a mother herself.  

Sanger works on the birth control movement from a philosophic, political, and practical vantage point.  She without doubt sacrifices a lot to the movement and women today owe her a debt.  Still, one can't say she's a perfect heroine and the novel leaves the reader a bit conflicted.  Sanger made important strides for women and society, but I can't say she's portrayed as likeable.  

I had high hopes for this story, but it never fully drew me in.  I can deal with a less-than-likeable protagonist, but I had trouble relating to Sanger and understanding her actions.  She is very polyamorous which doesn't necessarily bother me in principle but never felt very real.  It is an interesting read and I definitely learned about an important figure in women's history, but I can't really say I'd recommend the book wholeheartedly.  It may be an interesting starting point for people looking to learn more about Sanger (with the clear note that it is fictionalized), but I struggled to pay attention even with a relatively short length.

Three of five stars.