Category Archives: review – nonfiction

White Girls, by Hilton Als

First, some housekeeping:

First post in almost exactly (neato) two years; see revamped About page for info.


Basically: A collection of super-smart essays exploring often unconventionally-defined “white girls,” analyzing their respective emotional landscapes & cultural significance, all from a queer/black/critical perspective.


More: Well, this book educated me in ways i didn’t even know i wanted to be educated. Like, take this:

Our recourse in reinventing the love affair with no love, or a surfeit of it, the memory misremembered or tossed altogether, is learning how to write our name—in blood or whatever—on that clean and wide and high wall which only learning to admit oneself to one’s home, recumbent with memory, can destroy.

Or, like, this:

“But aren’t we born of her? Didn’t we queer her body being born?”

Not to mention in terms of the premise itself! Als selects fascinating, complicated figures from both his own life and American culture at large and weaves them into rich critiques which engage pop culture, history, critical analyses of race/gender/sexuality, his personal perspectives & history, & etc. In the cast of his examined, of particular interest to me were Flannery O’Connor, Eminem, Richard Pryor (as well as Pryor’s fictional older sister, in a brilliant re-take of Woolf’s Judith Shakespeare), Michael Jackson, Vivian Leigh, Louise Little (mother of Malcolm X) & the one and only Truman (too perfect!).

The book is smart, and sexy because it’s smart, and also too-smart-for-me-feeling at times because it is relentlessly inventive and intensely intertextual. But moments of lostness didn’t really bother me because i was otherwise so trusting of Als’ wisdom and design—that is, willing to surrender the need for immediate and total comprehension. Usually that gamble paid off by the end of each piece. Parts will probably offend some people. You will have to read some parts 2-3 times to understand them (which is i guess what you make of it).

I was continually impressed by the dual complication and humanity Als lent his figures of inquiry, whether he was writing about them or as them—and the incredible fluidity of perspective demonstrated in that process.

Take aways: General cultural literacy has skyrocketed! As has interest in Richard Pryor and essay-writing. Leaves me with contemplations of twinship, desire as raced and as we learn it from our parent(s), the negative space of the (colored) mother, distinction between “emotional” and “actual” truth—and an exciting, gendered reading of Truman’s career: In Cold Blood as Tru’s first attempt to write not as a “white girl,” but as a (white) Man? Answered Prayers (his last, unfinished, destruction-inducing book) as his first and sadly only attempt at writing as himself?? Tell me more!

Cool quote from Salon’s interview with Als:

Life is short and art is long.

And i love that Als is critiquing both lives and art, past and present, from his particular and at times intimidatingly well-considered perspective.

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Black, White, and Jewish, Rebecca Walker

I flirted with Rebecca Walker a bit during spring quarter at K, where a few of her essays showed up in my Intro to Women’s Studies class. And I knew she was mixed (Like Me! ) and that her mother was Alice Walker, and that she started Third Wave Foundation, a nifty-sounding third-wave feminist organization. And I’d wanted to read her autobiography for a while, but didn’t get around to it until now, as neither K College’s nor the Kalamazoo public library had it.

Throughout reading, I discussed Black, White, and Jewish at length with Avery, and now am a bit at loss for words. It’s a deep, impactful book, one I related to on many levels, given my similar biracial background. I know well what Rebecca means about the necessity to navigate between what feels like two different poles of oneself and one’s loved ones. And what it feels like to be called black when you do not feel totally black—indeed, are not—, or what it feels like to be accused, implicitly or explicitly, of “acting white.” What it feels like to be aware of friction between the two sides of your family, and wanting to stand for something great, even if you’re just a kid, and even if your racial identity is total chance, nothing you signed up for in particular.

I was also struck by how Walker was obligated to grow up before her time. After her parents’ divorce, it is determined that Rebecca will spend two years with each parent, alternating until her graduation. When she is living with her mother in San Francisco especially, she is expected to conduct herself like an adult from age twelve, doing laundry, caring for herself, not being required to check in with her mother, being left by her mom for days at a time so that she (Alice Walker) could write. As such, Rebecca gets into certain things, such as drugs, alcohol, and sex, earlier than would be deemed appropriate by many. And if she ever questions this arrangement—this essential lack of parenting—she is told that she is mature enough to handle things, and that her job is take care of herself as much as possible so that her mother may work.

If Rebecca feels uncared for (if independent and adult) when she is with her mother, she feels stifled and out of place with her Jewish father, especially after he remarries and moves to Larchmont, a small, largely white, largely wealthy New York small town, going so far as to express hate for her father and stepmother during her second two-year stay in Larchmont.

Much to my surprise, the way in which Rebecca was raised almost overshadows her racial identity, at least in my reading—of course, they each feed into one another: how her father choses, eventually, a white, Jewish, provincial, upwardly-mobile life, and her mother, a bohemian, artistic existence filled with the community of other women, especially women of color. And Rebecca is caught in the middle, toeing each line, calling her father’s new white wife “mom” and feeling that she has betrayed her biological, black mama; sleeping with a black boy who, as Rebecca develops strong interests in art and yearns to expand her boundaries, accuses her of turning into a white girl; being ignored completely by her Jewish great-grandmother as a little girl; cutting off contact with her black and Dominican friends from the Bronx after she moves to Larchmont.

Rebecca’s life isn’t easy, and it isn’t clear, but it is fascinating, filled with varied characters whom she befriends, insightful yet engaging analysis of family dynamics, contextual and personal discussion of race and sexuality. And Walker is deeply transparent, offering the reader everything, unashamed and poetic all at once. By the middle of the book, I felt close to her, in tune with her life, and, upon finishing, found that I missed her, that I could have kept reading—the book ends with her high school graduation and, in many cases, eighteen years’ worth of autobiography is sufficient to me, but in this case, I longed to know more, about where her life took her after high school, about how she continued to craft her identity outside of either of her parents homes. I guess I’ll have to tackle the rest of her vast body of work for that.

Note: Those interested in reading about the aftermath of this extremely tell-all biography that does not present Alice Walker in the best light can read about it here.

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Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, Sara Marcus

When i was in tenth grade, my friend Sandrina gave me a copy of a mix CD she’d made to introduce others to the wide world of punk—a genre of music (and an attitude) that i had no experience with at the time. Because the CD included a variety of bands and subgenera, Sandrina encouraged me to listen to the whole thing a few times, then let her know which artists were my favorites, so she could give me more of their work and begin to hone in on what type(s) of punk i liked.

Settling in with the “Up Tha Punx” playlist queued up on my iPod, i felt distinctly badass, but also a little daunted. I’d long loved music—my father sang professionally and i’d whiled away large chunks of my childhood teaching myself different instruments. But, all things considered, my musical taste was fairly limited: basically i liked 60s folk rock, Regina Spektor, and Damien Rice. And Cher. And showtunes. All of which i still like. But i sure as hell didn’t listen to anything loud. And i sure as hell wasn’t a punk. I was known best by my shyness, after all. I wasn’t like Sandrina, who wore combat boots and did whatever she wanted. I didn’t expected to like the music.

But i did. Some artists more than others, as Sandrina had predicted. I particularly liked a track called “Alien She” by some band called Bikini Kill. “She wants me to go to the mall/She wants me to her pretty/her pretty pretty pretty pretty lipstick on!” sang the lead singer (some chick or other, i didn’t know or care much at that point). I was intrigued; the second song by Bikini Kill, “Don’t Need You,” sealed the deal: “Does it scare you, boy,” the singer shouted, “prettiness” thrown to the wind in favor of intensity, “that we don’t need you?”

It would be wrong to call my tenth grade self a budding feminist, as i’d long been concerned with women’s issues and equality. (I remember, once, in fourth grade, going on a rant about how women were obliged to divulge their martial status in their title (Mrs. or Miss), while men’s had one, neutral option. “I’m always going to go by Ms.!” i’d insisted.) But i was green in that i’d only recently become fully aware of feminism as an organized movement and begun identifying as one. So it was deeply exciting for me to discover these feminist songs.

The next time i saw Sandrina, i told her i wanted more Bikini Kill. “You would,” she teased. But, like so many wonderful things, it didn’t happen when i wanted it to. Amidst all the other important goings-on in our young lives, my request got lost in the shuffle. Even i would forget about it—that is, until i would be listening to music and happen upon either track. So, it was a while before i heard any more Bikini Kill, a while before i researched the band and discovered the existence of riot grrrl, its motives, methods, and associated musical acts. But i eventually did, and here we are today, with me writing about a lovely book called Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus.

If you don’t know what riot grrrl is, as i didn’t not especially long ago, it was/is a movement within punk rock that, yes, pushed girls to the front. Historically, punk was a very male endeavor; female punks were expected to stand passively on the sidelines during shows while their boyfriends moshed. And they almost never were up on stage playing. Of course, there are exceptions, but by and large, punk bands comprised of men exclusively, or of men instrumentalists and a female singer who was often treated as more of a mascot than a musician.

Riot grrrl set out to prove that this was wrong by encouraging the formation of girl bands, the publication of girl zines (independent, political publications distributed for a dollar containing pieces by girls about feminist issues and music), and the general questioning of the status quo of gender. Girls to the Front traces the movement’s history, from its roots with the formation of the bands Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, to the proliferation of girl-produced zines and the budding of Riot Grrrl chapters across the country, to the media blitz and subsequent commercialization of the revolution, to its eventual (alleged) decline.

Now, one of the most amazing things about this book is the immense amount of research Marcus undertook to write it. This isn’t some overview of the movement and its players, or a strictly musical survey. It is an impressively complete analysis of the movement’s origins, its movers and shakers, its interpersonal relationships, its emotions, its writing, its music, the media on it, the effects it had on the grrrls and on the public. The book is imbued with quotes from Bikini Kill and Bratmobile frontrunners as well as other key players in the movement; quotes from zines; song lyrics; complete descriptions of certain iconic performances; various viewpoints on scandals and controversies. And Marcus leaves no stone unturned, writing of even less savory parts of riot grrrl, such as how women of color often felt excluded from the movement, or about the drama and splintering within the group itself.
And despite the sheer breadth of the book, Marcus is able to present her mass of information in a clear, organized manner—and render it in such a way that it feels very real and close, including details that give the narrative texture and character, such as the pasta and nutritional yeast one group of grrrls would eat in their run-down apartment to save money, or methods grrrls would employ to produce zines as cheaply as possible.

Now, this book took me longer to read than i’d expected. It’s creative non-fic and not hard to comprehend, but it’s about four years of intense creativity and political action boiled down to one tome. So if you wanna read this, don’t expect to breeze through it.

But do expect to feel inspired. At least, i was. So much, in fact, that i have teamed up with a former Intro to Women’s Studies classmate of mine to create a zine called RESIST PSYCHIC DEATH, after a Bikini Kill song, in honor of the band and its lead singer and riot grrrl legend, Kathleen Hanna. And i won’t plug too much, but you can like it here, and soon, fingers crossed, i’ll have scanned the pages of our prototypical issue and posted them…somewhere. Riot grrrl wasn’t/isn’t perfect (what is, after all?) but even so, i find a group of young women loudly proclaiming that enough is enough endlessly inspiring. With the zine, Clara and i hope to honor riot grrrl’s unapologetic, ruthless passion while actively extending its boundaries to include women who aren’t white, who aren’t straight, who aren’t middle class, who aren’t American, who aren’t even punk—so that any girl can be a riot grrrl. And we would love support. Keep checking the Facebook page for details.

Okay. That’s my plug.

And that’s my post.

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The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities, Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt

Note: Throughout, i use the term “slut” in the way that the authors of The Ethical Slut do; that is, as “a person of any gender who has the courage to lead life according to the radical proposition that sex is nice and pleasure is good for you” (4).

In an attempt to more fully understand the complexities of human relationships, as well as open my mind to ideologies with which i am unfamiliar, i’ve found myself pondering polyamory.  Sure, shows like TLC’s Sister Wives (which i admittedly watched eagerly before the husband of the bunch was brought up on charges of polygyny) portray polyamory as a strange sensation to be gawked at from the comfort of our living rooms.  But it’s also true that people other than the heretically religious participate in polyamory (if not polygamy).  I wanted to know how it worked out.

Well, The Ethical Slut certainly learned me in the ways of functional polyamory.  And i’d be lying if i said that as i read, i was nodding along with total lack of judgment, at least initially.  In reading Slut, i’ve discovered that i am not personally drawn to the idea of having multiple romantic partners.  Even so, Slut has very much altered my mindset on relationships and society’s construction of monogamy, if not my personal romantic preferences.  As a queer feminist, i think it’s important to question society’s views on gender, sexuality, standards of beauty, etc.  As a current Women’s Studies student, i am eagerly learning to extend this questioning to matters of race, physical/mental (dis)ability, class, and other divisors, especially as they affect women.  I have learned that social constructs such as racism, sexism, and heterosexism are so socially ingrained so as to become imperceptible to those who are not oppressed by them—and even occasionally to those who are.  These constructs become just another part of society, and are rarely questioned.  Such is the case with monogamy.

Slut has opened my eyes to the reality that monogamy is not the only relationship model available to human beings, nor is it the ideal one for all human beings.  Indeed, just as heterosexuality is the assumed “norm” for all people, so is monogamy, and those who have the desire to deviate from it are considered perverted, sex-addicted, or just plain wrong, just like queer folks.  Though i personally wouldn’t go as far as to categorize sluts with victims of racism, classism, ableism, etc., it has become evident to me that our society caters quite voraciously to the idea of (heterosexual) monogamy: it is glamorized, romanticized, idealized, and anyone who does not feel drawn to this fate is left out in the cold.  As the authors state in Slut, “We believe that monogamy will continue to thrive as it always has, a perfectly valid choice for those who choose it.  We don’t think it’s much of a choice when you are forbidden to choose anything else” (267).

Similarly, Slut has made me realize just how sex-negative our society is—which sounds strange, given the abundance of sexual content in American television, film, video games, magazines, advertisements, etc.  Sure, we are lovers of watching “beautiful” people, whether celebrities, models, or porn stars, have sex or act in a sexual manner.  But when it comes to real average Jo(e)s, sex becomes taboo.  It’s fine to joke about sex with your friends, but strange if you actually want to discuss it (at least if you’re female).  It’s acceptable to want to have sex with a partner, but odd or unsexy if you want to discuss agreements, restrictions, or histories beforehand.  It’s considered normal for men to masturbate, but women who admit to doing so are pervy anomalies.  And, of course, the ultimate source of discrimination against sluts, which takes root in America’s puritanism: Sex is pleasurable, and therefore should not be overly indulged in or overly discussed—especially among women.  Because sluts are unashamed about their sexual desires and create a lifestyle that satisfies them, they are thought of as indecent, depraved, decadent, you name it.

One final stereotype associated with the non-monogamous is that they are irresponsible, insensitive; however, Easton and Liszt prove that if one is intentional about one’s sluttiness, there is far more thought put into boundaries, limits, agreements, and emotions than is expected of most monogamous relationships.  As any relationship can be difficult and requires communication, a relationship that involves more than two people will require that much more attention.  Accordingly, three to four chapters of Slut are devoted to negotiation and communication skills, banishing any thought i had of polyamorous folks being irresponsible (assuming, of course, that the polyamory is consensual and honest).

So, although i have little intention of assuming a polyamorous lifestyle after reading Slut, i have learned a substantial amount about said lifestyle and am on the fast track to losing my judgmental attitude toward it—always a good thing in my book, when it comes to things that are harmful to no one, even if they are not things I would choose.  It has also instilled in me a further sense of sex-positivity.  On that note, i’ll leave you with some lyrics from riot grrrl band Bikini Kill: “I believe in the radical possibilities of pleasure, babe./I do. I do. I do.”

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College Girls: Bluestockings, Sex Kittens, and Co-eds, Then and Now, by Lynn Peril

Despite being a first-generation college student, college has always been on my radar, a privilege and goal taken totally for granted.  It never seriously occurred to me that 250 years ago, a female college student was a real anomaly; that one hundred years ago, adult female college students were kept under stricter rules than kindergartners; that fifty years ago, the view of college as a sort of waiting room preceding marriage was a laudable, common one (and one that, i know, still exists today, but i haven’t personally encountered it, thankfully).  When I first picked up College Girls, i was quite unaware of these truths, but i didn’t think it could hurt to read a history of American women and their relationship to higher education as to perhaps appreciate the bravery of my foremothers more fully.

Indeed, after reading College Girls, i have a much better idea of the significance of my taking my role as a student for granted, especially as a woman of color.  That i’ve never questioned my right to be a student is a gift from women of the past to women of the present—a gift fought for, ardently in many cases, through innovation, action, and leadership.

I’m interested in the history of American collegiate culture in general—all the secret societies and legacies and such seem so intriguing!—but it’s also odd to think of college in the past, as I see college as a perfect snapshot of the contemporary.  I guess it’s the high concentration of youths, many of whom holding very current views and leading very modern lives.  So, the thorough but readable history College Girls provides proved fascinating to me, full of tidbits about how everyday life was at this-or-that campus in whatever year, information gleaned from novels written about college girls, interviews with students themselves, or first-hand diaries or essays.  Drawing from this rich variety of sources, Peril presents the reader with images of college as contemporary students would never recognize it.  I, for one, couldn’t imagine attending an institution where not only curfew, but total lights out, was enforced by 10PM.  Or where one was only allowed to leave campus to visit home or elsewhere every six weeks.  Or where daily chapel attendance was mandatory, and if one was caught canoodling with a beau (or (even worse) belle), one could be severely punished, even suspended or expelled.

On the less punitive side, collegiate women of the past were, in general, worked harder than many modern students.  Syllabi they could not deviate from often included Greek, Latin, high sciences and mathematics, French, literature, and music all in one term.  I don’t mean to suggest that modern education is inadequate, but it seems that certain women’s colleges of the past wanted to ensure that the vast majority–if not totality—of students’ time was spent in study, while modern colleges seem more open to allowing time for socializing, extracurriculars, and down time.

Aside from offering vivid reconstructions of the college experiences of women past, Peril also explores the College Girl as an icon, with its various connotations, as outlined in the subtitle of the work.  First, there was the bluestocking, an image first popularized in the late 1800s, around when college girls first became a semi-regular fixture in American culture.  The bluestocking was a girl educated to a fault: she was so learned that she cared for nothing more than studying—settling down to have a family was, damnably, far from her mind.  The bluestocking was considered both physically and mentally unattractive, for what man would want a woman even equally intelligent as him?  The spirit of this attitude linger in modern times in the occasionally encountered idea that there is nothing wrong with a woman being educated, but there is a definite point where she becomes “too” educated, and therefore undesirable—not to mention, of course, the ubiquitous dichotomy between the homely smart girl and the brainless babe.

In a bit of a 180, around the 1920s, the college girl began to be portrayed as the sex kitten, the frisky, sexually adventurous young girl who snuck boys into her dorm room and perhaps even slept with her professors.  (Smutty novels and pulp fictions concerning the latter situation became quite popular in the twenties, as well.)  Surely, there is a kernel of truth to this stereotype—in the twenties and today, college is a time when many young women (and men) explore their sexualities in a hopefully constructive and conscious way.  Assuming that proper emotional and physical precautions are taken, i don’t see a problem with this; however, i do find a problem in the reduction of the College Girl to an empty sexual object.

Though, granted, pretty much any given group of people could or already has been fetishized by someone out there, Peril has a theory as to why the college girl fetish is so widespread: “Portraying the college girl as an eroticized playmate defused the threatening image of a man-hating intellectual harpy by reducing her to a sexually submissive pussycat”—if she was nothing more than a sex object, her purported intelligence could scarcely be considered a threat to the idea of the omniscient male and intellectually limited female that was generally supported by both men and women of the time.

(As a side note, I found an interesting parallel between the stereotypes of collegiate women and those of queer women: either they are unattractive, overly educated dissidents who uniformly abhor the idea of forming a family, or they are sexual objects, perhaps only pretending to be what they claim for the sake of titillation.)

The final item in the subtitular list, co-eds, of course refers to the gradual disestablishment of single-sex education in America (today, only a handful of all-female colleges exist, and even fewer all-men’s).  Peril discusses this shift at length, and it’s easy to understand why: the transition from a world where female students could be severely punished for even talking with a man after hours, to one where men and women could not only socialize at will, but sometimes lived in the very same dormitory, was far from smooth.  Indeed, during some campuses’ early days of coeducation, male and female students were flat-out held to different standards: men had no enforced curfew, while women had a strict one; men were allowed to smoke in the dorms, sometimes even in their rooms, while women were not allowed to smoke at all.  Such rules were a response to women’s supposed general inability to protect themselves; school administrators reasoned that vulnerable female scholars needed the college to act in loco parentis—that is, at least until she returned to her real parents or, more favorably, got married.  Today, such flagrant sexism is difficult to fathom; also today, thankfully, sex is at least not a formal consideration in the formulation of most mainstream college’s rules.

Ever since i was little, i’ve enjoyed history, but i often have a difficult time imagining what the lives of people of the past were really like, because such imagining encompasses so many details: diction, slang, fashion, popular decorating schemes, social norms, technology, pop culture…So, i’ve always found it edifying to watch a movie set in historical situations that i am interested in.  Point being, my finishing College Girls coincided quite neatly with watching Mona Lisa Smile with my girlfriend on Friday night.

Set in 1950s Wellesley College (one of the most established women’s colleges in the U.S. to this date), Smile was a fun way to tie together pieces of women’s collegiate history i’d learned from reading Peril’s book, even if it wasn’t entirely accurate (as, granted, few historical films are).  Interestingly, included in College Girls is an interview with a bonafide Wellesley alumna, who sneers at the movie’s essentialist attitude of bohemian Californian professor vs. stuffy, traditional New Englanders.  But Smile still captures many of the points Peril explores: The restrictiveness of college rules at the time.  The rigor of the curriculum.  The inclusion of traditional “women’s work” in said in curriculum (in the movie, this takes the form of an etiquette class).  And, of course, the difficult choice scads of women had to face: Should I make use of this degree, perhaps even continue onto grad school, or leave well enough alone and start a family?

In short, College Girls was an excellent summary of women’s history in the world of upper class education.  Whether or not you’re generally into nonfiction, i’d recommend it, as Peril’s flair for personalizing potentially dry first-hand quotes and overall familiar, appropriately humorous style make it a fun read.

(And, i must add, i just returned from spring break to my own college.  Cheesy though it may be, Peril’s work has inspired me to try to get the very most out of my last quarter as a first-year.)

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Cunt: A Declaration of Independence

First book, woohoo!  And a very appropriate one at that.

What can i say about Cunt?  I happened upon it by accident.  On a strange day here in Kalamazoo, when the power on my college’s campus was almost entirely distinguished due to ice storms, i ventured out with a group of classmates to eat brunch. (I guess not really brunch, because by the time we got there, it was around 3.  So whatever meal you’d call that.)  We ended up in a musty, second-hand bookstore.  I was scanning the self entitled, simply, “Women,” when my friend Jordan tapped my shoulder.

“Look at this one,” she said, handing me a ratty yellow book with a pink flower in the center of the cover.

Charmed by the boldness of the title, i purchased it without really flipping through it.  The bookstore clerk and i had an interesting conversation about the title, and i told him that i once read that “cunt” is the second-most offensive word in America, according to some poll.  (Since then, i’ve discovered that neither my phone nor my computer even recognizes it as a word.  Interesting.)

Anyway, the book lived on the floor of my dorm room for several weeks before i decided, on a whim, to pick it up.  I wasn’t expecting so much power to be packed into such a small, bedraggled tome.

And though i’ve sung it’s praises to anyone who will listen, i continue to find it difficult to summarize exactly what about it captivates me—indeed, it’s kind of hard for me to even describe what it’s about, period.  But i’ll try.

Cunt is about feminism, unsurprisingly.  Specifically, it is about women relating to themselves and each other in a happy, healthy way.  It is about what it means to be a woman, the specialness of it, some of the amazing things women’s bodies can do.  It’s about the power women have as a community, despite having a long history of being subjugated, and the reclamation of the word “cunt.”  It’s about how to protect oneself as a woman and cultivate personal power, and the importance of women expressing themselves, especially artistically.

And, of course, Cunt is the inspiration for this blog, as well as (i hope) several other positive changes in my life.

So i think that’s about all i can say about it at the moment.  I think a reread would behoove me, but suffice it to say that I think everyone should read it.  In the future, I plan on reading more of Inga Muscio, whose website I just linked too for the second time in my nascent little blog, just because i think she’s so neat.

So how was that?  Interesting?  Boring?  I beg you for welcome feedback.

=)

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