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Book Review: Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola (Audiobook narrated by Sarah Hepola)

Book Review: Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola (Audiobook narrated by Sarah Hepola)Summary:
“It’s such a savage thing to lose your memory, but the crazy thing is, it doesn’t hurt one bit. A blackout doesn’t sting, or stab, or leave a scar when it robs you. Close your eyes and open them again. That’s what a blackout feels like.”

For years Sarah Hepola ignored her blackouts. She was a young woman with a successful writing career living in New York City. She was empowered, and part of embracing equality was drinking like one of the guys. But while littering her writing with references to drinking and laughing off her drunken escapades, she actually spent her daytimes cleaning up after her blackouts. Figuring out how she scraped up her knees or tracking down her purse. Eventually, she realized that drinking wasn’t making her the life of the party and one of the guys. It was stealing who she was, and it was time to get herself back.

Review:
I have a thing for addiction memoirs (and addiction documentaries….movies…tv shows…). But I have often found myself puzzled by the female drinking memoir. Often presented as a woman (usually a wife and mother) who appears to have it all and hides all of her drinking because women don’t drink. I’m sorry, but as a Millennial, that’s not the kind of drinking I’ve seen women in my generation partake in. Drinking was considered unladylike by generations even as recent as the one right before ours (that my brother is in). But in mine? What I often saw was women proving their coolness by keeping up with the guys. These women would never hide wine. They’d take shots and get praised for it. So when I saw this memoir talking about the impact on women of drinking like one of the guys; of how this equality of substance abuse is really impacting women, I had a sense it was going to be something good and insightful, and I was right.

Sarah Hepola shows the reader through a clear lens exactly how the different perceptions of women and alcohol impacted her drinking, and thus how they might impact other women. The book starts with some context of how young women are both encouraged by their peers to binge drink but then are also blamed by them when bad things happen to them when they are drunk. She then moves on to talking about her own childhood when she would steal sips of beer from open cans in the fridge, and how her parents never suspected she was sneaking beer because little girls wouldn’t do that. She then gradually brings us up through time and shows us how with drinking she was subconsciously trying to pursue both fitting in and equality. She drank to fit in and be cool in college. She drank with co-workers on her male-dominated first job to be one of the guys and get the same networking opportunities they got after work by going out for beers. She liked that it wasn’t necessarily feminine. She liked feeling strong and empowered.

By embracing something that is perceived of by the culture as hyper-masculine, like binge drinking, women are seeking to be taken seriously and viewed as equals. Women do this in other areas too. Just look at power suits or the short haircuts preferred by women in positions of power. Our culture devalues what is perceived of as feminine and elevates what is perceived of as masculine. There are many issues with this, which I can’t go into in a short book review, but what matters about this for women and alcohol is that women’s bodies just don’t biologically process alcohol the same way men’s bodies do. Sarah Hepola goes into this in quite some detail, but essentially, women get drunker faster on less alcohol than men do, which means women black out more easily, and blackouts are dangerous. They make anyone vulnerable, but they make women particularly vulnerable to things like date rape.

Sarah Hepola does a much more eloquent job in the book than I am doing here in the review of illuminating how gender and alcohol mix to make the modern alcoholic young woman. And the book doesn’t just detail the dramatics of her youthful drinking. She also goes into great detail about what it was like to stop. To find the empowerment of being completely in control again and not losing parts of herself and her life to blackouts. She talks about her sober life and how exciting it is, and she even talks about finding some spirituality. Most importantly to me, she discusses how women in western culture today are often told we are equal but are able to sense that things that are feminine are just not taken seriously. So they pursue the masculine to be taken more seriously and in some cases the masculine is simply not helpful. It is harmful. Sometimes, in cases like with binge drinking,  it’s even more dangerous for women than for men. I believe the book offers some hope when Hepola talks about finding strength in her sober living and in her accomplishments at facing life as a single woman.

Those listening to the audiobook will be entranced by Hepola’s own voice telling the story. I couldn’t stop listening and listened every second I could. One of the more haunting moments of the audiobook is when toward the end Hepola introduces a tape recording she made as a teenager discussing a sexual encounter she had while drunk with a much older boy. Hearing the incredibly young voice of a woman already being drawn into the harmful world of addiction was heartbreaking to listen to and made me want to fix things, even though I wasn’t totally sure how.

This book left me realizing that the reality of women and alcohol has changed, and the cultural narrative needs to catch up with it. Women aren’t drinking in closets to dull their feminine mystique pain anymore. They’re drinking loud and proud because they want to be empowered and taken seriously and yes, even perceived of as cool. While we can talk about finding more positive ways of empowerment, I think it’s also important that we as a culture strive to stop putting innate positive value on the masculine and negative on the feminine. Things should be valued based on their impact on the world and not on the gender norm of who does it. And young women will stop feeling pressured to act like a man when men and women are equally valued. All of these things I am saying play into male drinking as well. If you think zero young men are binge drinking to be seen of as more of a man, you’re very wrong. We just see less of the immediate negative impact of male binge drinking because women black out so much more easily.

Hepola wrote a brave book that illuminates the issue of binge drinking among young women today. It’s both personal and with an eye to the culture as a whole, thinking beyond just the author herself. Readers will be haunted both by the voice of the young Sarah and by the thought of young women seeking to empower themselves actually making themselves more vulnerable. A key read for anyone who works with or cares about these younger generations of women.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Counts For:
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Illness(es) featured: Addictive Disorders

Book Review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

Photograph-style image of snowy/icy peaks and flats.Summary:
On the planet Winter, everyone is born intersex, morphing into one sex or the other during their mating cycle.  The Ekumen of Known Worlds has sent a representative, Genly Ai, to make first contact.  The Known Worlds have discovered that they are all related with the same ancestors who colonized the planets years ago.  Genly Ai is at first horrified by the intersex nature of the Gethenians but slowly begins to adapt as he works the political situation on the planet to reach a state of belief in what this one man from his one ship is saying.  A state of belief that is necessary to bring this planet into the Ekumen.

Review:
I picked this up when I saw it on sale at a local brick and mortar bookstore for two reasons.  I’d never read an Ursula K. Le Guin book, which felt like sacrilege as a young feminist scifi author myself, so she was already on my radar.  But why this book?  Honestly, I liked the cover.  It’s such a pretty cover!  So many scifi/fantasy books seem to be set on a hot planet, but this is set on an icy one, and I really liked that.  So when I picked it up, I had no idea that it’s considered to be a gender theory scifi.  It’s presented as a book about a planet totally lacking in gender.  You’ll notice that in my own summary that is not how I present it.  Why not?  Frankly, a gender-free society is not what I found in this book, which was a big disappointment.

The Gethenians really are not a gender free society, and Le Guin also doesn’t present them that way.  It is definitely an intersex society, but it’s intersex people who predominantly present as male/masculine.  Now, in case you’ve never had it explained, gender is a construct and sex is your body parts.  So you could have an intersex gendered female society or an intersex gender neutral society or an intersex gender male society.  The last one is what we have in this book.  At first it seems that this might just be Genly Ai’s misperception (the off-world ethnologist).  He mentions that he can’t help seeing the Gethenians as male, although sometimes he sees more “feminine features” in them.  Perhaps.  But when the narration changes from Genly’s viewpoint to a Gethenian one, we get the exact same presentation of everyone as a gendered he.  There is no gender neutral pronoun used.  There is no perception by the Gethenians of being free of gender.  Indeed, instead of seeing themselves as gender-neutral or gender-queer, they see themselves as male until their mating cycle when some of them turn into women for a bit.  (They also stay female long enough to be pregnant).  Genly points out after a couple of years on this planet that he’s forgotten what it’s like to be around women.  Not what it’s like to be around gender constructs.  What it’s like to be around women.  This is, thus, not a gender neutral society.  It’s a society of male-identifying intersex persons who are free of sex-drive most of the time, and who sometimes grow vaginas/breasts for the purpose of reproduction but for nothing else. It is definitely interesting to see an exploration of this type of society, but it’s decidedly not an exploration of a gender-neutral society or really much gender theory at all.  It is much more an exploration of the sex drive and a world without female-identifying persons. Now I’m not saying this isn’t a valid exploration or that it’s not well-done.  I am saying that the presentation and marketing of this book gets it all wrong, which makes me wonder did Le Guin think she was exploring a gender neutral society and accidentally make an intersex male gendered one instead?  Or did the publishers completely misunderstand everything about gender and sexuality and mismarket her book as something it is not?  I have no idea, but the potential reader should know that they are not getting an exploration of gender and queerness from a famous scifi/fantasy author when they pick up this book.

Moving beyond the queer theory and mismarketing of it, how is the rest of the book?  Well, the imagining of the world is stunning and clearly presented.  The idea that planets were all settled by common ancestors and then forgotten about only to be rediscovered later (very Stargate SG1) is subtly introduced into the plot without an info-dump.  The world of Winter contains multiple cultures and peoples (something often left out in scifi).  The planet even has its own way to mark the passing of time and has evolved to handle the coldness of the planet without Le Guin just copying an Earth culture from a cold area, like the Inuit.  No, this is all a unique way of approaching the demands of the climate.  It’s also interesting to note that different skin colors are present on Winter, showing that a mixed-race group originally colonized the planet, although their bone structure and height has changed with time and evolution.  The world building is so complex that I’m having difficulty explaining just how awesomely complex it is to you, so that should say something I suppose.

The plot is very political.  Genly is here on Winter to get the planet as a whole to unify enough to become part of the Ekumen.  Thus there is typical political intrigue across a couple of nations and various amounts of striving for power.  There’s nothing incredibly unique about this element of the book but it is clearly done and is not completely predictable.

There is an interesting character development where Genly has a friendship that could take a turn for the romantic.  How that line is walked could be endlessly analyzed.  I will just say to keep it spoiler free that I appreciated what Le Guin did with the relationship, and it was a unique one to see in literature.

Overall, this is a richly imagined scifi world where the setting is much more the focus of the book than the more typical political intrigue/first contact plot.  Do not be misled by the marketing to think that this is a book exploring a world free of gender.  Rather it is a male-gendered intersex world.  Thus, it is a book that will appeal to scifi lovers who prefer world-building over plot but don’t go into it expecting a scifi exploration of gender theory.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Harvard Books

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Book Review: Y: The Last Man: Girl on Girl by Brian K. Vaughan (Series, #6) (Graphic Novel)

March 6, 2012 1 comment

Two women holding each other.Summary:
We catch up with Yorick, 355, and Dr. Mann on board a freighter headed for Australia by way of Japan.  They seem to have abandoned their hunt for Ampersand the monkey for now.  The captain of the ship is gorgeous and has the hots for Yorick, but trouble arrives in the form of an Australian submarine.  Is it the freighter or the submarine that is the pirates?

Review:
So the title is sort of a double entendre.  We do get an excellent lesbian sex scene (inter-racial no less!), but we also have the war between the submarine of women and the ship of women.  Haha, well played, Vaughan!

The great thing about this entry in the series is that by itself it has a lot of very cool elements, but it also moves the plot forward.  We find out some about what’s been happening on the other side of the globe since the men died, characters hook up, and we get some really good action.  It gets us places (specifically moving across the ocean), but it doesn’t feel like a filler book the way #4 did.

Plus, the Pacific Islander ship captain is really hot and badass.

Overall, this is an excellent entry in the series that is entertaining and moves the plot forward.  Fans will not be disappointed.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Public Library

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Previous Books in Series
Y: The Last Man: Unmanned (review)
Y: The Last Man: Cycles (review)
Y: The Last Man: One Small Step (review)
Y: The Last Man: Safeword (review)
Y: The Last Man: Ring of Truth (review)

Book Review: Y: The Last Man: Safeword by Brian K. Vaughan (Series, #4) (Graphic Novel)

Man floating in blue water.Summary:
Agent 355 and Dr. Mann drop Yorick off at another agent’s house while they bring the monkey, Ampersand, to an animal hospital to see after his cut.  The agent forces Yorick to confront his own inner demons.  Then the band continues on toward California, having to take a side-trip through Arizona where they run into a band of militant, anti-federal women.

Review:
The two plots contained in this entry in the series don’t flow together as well as other entries do.  Although the two plots are equally interesting, they feel odd being packaged together.

The first half features an…unconventional therapy method to get Yorick to confront his inner demons.  This section is excellently done and necessary to better understanding him.  So far, we’ve only seen him within the situations, but really have no idea what’s going on in his head.  That’s one of the interesting virtues of this particular graphic novel.  We see Yorick interacting and hear him speak, but we only rarely glimpse inside his mind.  Better understanding what is up with the, surprisingly abstinent, last man is key to continuing the plot.

The second half is far more humorous.  There’s something eloquent and smart about the Arizona state militia of women who even go so far as to call themselves “The Sons of Arizona.”  The strong reaction in the southwest to the plague with the idea that it was all arranged by the federal government is a very astute observation of the mentality of that area of the country.

So, although the two individual storylines were good, the plot just didn’t flow as smoothly this time around.  It feels like that classic in-between book syndrome.  It’s there to set things up for the next one.  We’ll see with the next entry if I’m right.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Public Library

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Previous Books in Series
Y: The Last Man: Unmanned (review)
Y: The Last Man: Cycles (review)
Y: The Last Man: One Small Step (review)

Book Review: Y: The Last Man: One Small Step by Brian K. Vaughan (Series, #3) (Graphic Novel)

December 28, 2011 1 comment

Skeleton in a space suitSummary:
Our trio of the doctor, Yorick, and 355 have resumed their attempt to reach the west coast, but get side-tracked when they stumble across the Russian woman looking for the spacemen.  Upon learning of the imminent arrival of the astronauts, they decide to join her in journeying to the landing location, which just happens to be nearby.  Meantime, the Israeli soldiers, unbeknownst to them, are hot on their tails.

Review:
Many different plot lines collide in this entry in the post-apocalyptic series.  We finally find out why the Israelis are following Yorick and meet the astronauts.  We get to know the Russian lady, as well as a couple of new scientists at the secret government location.

Most interesting in this book is Yorick’s growth as a character.  Although he, to a certain extent, has that slacker mentality that can be so difficult to change, it appears an apocalypse just might succeed in doing so.  He takes more assertive action and starts to doubt maintaining his loyalty to his girlfriend/fiancee on the other side of a world full of just women.  In a way the story feels like a coming of age one.  Yorick going from a boy to a man.  Which is kind of hilarious given the setting, but it also works.

The Israeli soldiers storyline question a lot of gender norms thinking.  I watched a lot of war movies in my childhood, and here we have soldiers doing basically the exact same thing, only they’re women.  Just seeing that impacts gender norm preconceptions of the reader.

Finally, we have the astronauts who have developed an interesting relationship in their extended time away from earth.  Their presence and the surprises they bring are the final kick that makes this the best entry in the series so far.

The art continues to be colorful and easy to decipher, plus the last chapter is a bit of a meta romp featuring primarily Yorick’s monkey that ends the book on a light note, but also moves the plot forward in a key way.

Overall, this is a well-drawn, creatively plotted entry in the series that manages to amuse and cause thought-provoking responses simultaneously.  Readers of the series will be instantly begging for more.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Public Library

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Previous Books in Series
Y: The Last Man: Unmanned (review)
Y: The Last Man: Cycles (review)

Book Review: The Burning Sky by Joseph Robert Lewis (Series, #1)

November 23, 2011 2 comments

African woman near gears and airships.Summary:
In an alternate vision of history, the Ice Age has lingered in Europe, slowing down Europeans’ rate of civilization and allowing Ifrica (Africa) to take the lead.  Add to this a disease in the New World that strikes down the invaders instead of vice versa, and suddenly global politics are entirely different.  In this world, steam power has risen as the power of choice, and women are more likely to be the breadwinners.  Taziri is an airship co-pilot whose airfield is attacked in an act of terrorism.  She suddenly finds herself flying investigating marshals and a foreign doctor summoned by the queen herself all over the country.  Soon the societal unrest allowing for a plot against the queen becomes abundantly clear.

Review:
Can I just say, finally someone wrote a steampunk book I actually like, and it’s a fellow indie kindle author to boot!  All of the possibilities innate in steampunk that no other book I’ve read has taken advantage of are used to their fullest possibilities by Lewis.

I love that Lewis used uncontrollable environmental factors to change the political dynamics of the world.  Anybody who has studied History for any length of time is aware how much of conquering and advancement is based on dumb luck.  (The guns, germs, and steel theory).  Lewis eloquently demonstrates how culture is created both by the people and their surroundings and opportunities.  For instance, whereas in reality the Native Americans had to rely on dogs for assistance and transportation against invaders on horseback, Lewis has given the Incans giant cats and eagles that they tame to fight invaders.  Similarly, in Europe the Europeans are constantly fighting a dangerous, cold environment and have dealt with this harsh landscape by becoming highly superstitious, religious people.  This alternate setting allows for Lewis to play with questions of colonization, race, and technology versus tradition in thought-provoking ways.

Women are in positions of power in this world, but instead of making them either perfect or horrible as is often the short-coming of imagined matriarchies, there are good and bad women.  Some of the women in power are brilliant and kind, while others are cruel.  This is as it should be because women are people just like men.  We’re not innately better or worse.  Of course, I couldn’t help but enjoy a story where a soldier is mentioned then a character addresses her as ma’am, without anyone feeling the need to point out that this is a woman soldier.  Her gender is just assumed.  That was fun.

Although Taziri does seem to be the main focus of this book, the story is told by switching around among a few main characters who find themselves swept together in the finale for the ultimate battle to save or assassinate the queen.  This strategy reminded me a bit of Michael Crichton’s Next where seemingly unrelated characters suddenly find how their destinies are all connected together.  Lewis does a good job with this, although personally I found the beginning a bit slow-moving.  It all comes together well in the end, though, with everything resulting in a surprising, yet logical, ending.

What kept me from completely loving the book is that I feel it needs to be slightly more tightly edited and paced.  Some sections were longer than they needed to be, which I can certainly understand, because Lewis has made a fun world to play around in, but as a reader reading what amounts to a thriller, I wanted things to move faster.

That said, I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the steampunk world Lewis has created after a couple of years of loving the fashions and possibilities but finding no steampunk books I liked.  If someone were to ask me where to start with steampunk, I would point them here since it demonstrates the possibilities for exploring race, colonization, and gender, showing that steampunk is more than just an extended Victorian era.

Overall this is a wonderful book, far better than the traditionally published steampunk I’ve read.  I highly recommend it to fans of alternate history, political intrigue, and steampunk alike.  Plus it’s only 99 cents on the kindle.  You can’t beat prices like that.

4 out of 5 stars

Source:  Won on LibraryThing from the author in exchange for my honest review

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Movie Review: Night of the Living Dead (1968)

February 1, 2011 5 comments

Black and white images of horror.Summary:
Dead bodies start inexplicably returning to life.  The horde slowly bears down on an old farmhouse full of a random group of survivors.  The night wears on, and eventually only one person is left.

Review:
George Romero’s classic is essentially what jump-started the cult fascination with zombies.  It established a lot of the unofficial rules for zombies–you have to destroy their brain to destroy them, they’re slow moving, etc…  I guess its status as a zombie classic left me with certain expectations.  Some were met; others were not.

It is filmed in black and white and makes excellent use of shadows.  The soundtrack is exactly what is to be expected from an old horror movie, and honestly some modern horror movies could learn a thing or two from it.  The collection of a bunch of strangers in one house to fight off the hoarde is now considered to be a trope, but it was interesting to see the collection of characters assembled by George Romero.  There’s the terrified woman, the cowardly man, the brave intelligent man, the brave man who’s a follower, and the person who’s been bitten.  The decade certainly shows in the characterization as none of the women are the kick-ass female character we’ve come to expect in modern times.  That was a bit disappointing.

I was completely shocked to see that the role of the last survivor went to a black actor.  This was incredibly progressive for the 1960s, and he was truly there as a man who just happened to be black, not the requisite black guy.  It was refreshing and pleasant to see, particularly in such an old movie.  ‘The zombies though, just didn’t look like zombies.  They were rather gaunt, but none of the decay or general zombie-look we’re used to in modern movies was present.  Also, when they say slow-moving, they mean slow-moving.  I’m pretty sure the actors were mostly moving in place for a lot of the shots.  That was a bit too slow-moving for my taste.  Another interesting factoid, the word “zombie” is never used once in the movie.  The dead.  The living dead.  The arisen dead.  But not zombie.

By far the most frightening scene and one that is repeated in zombie movies to this day is when the arms reach through the boarded windows at the people inside attempting to hold the boards on.  The clawing hands and moans of the undead sent shivers down my spine.  The movie is worth viewing for that scene alone.

Overall, viewing this classic it is understandable why it came to be one.  Although certain aspects of zombies have been improved upon with time, the ground-work is evident here.  I highly recommend this film to any fans of the horror genre or those interested in the presence of 1960s culture and mores in film.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netflix

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