Ren reviews Great by Sara Benincasa

Great by Sara Benincasa cover

TW: Suicide

Every summer, Naomi Rye leaves her home in Chicago to spend her holidays with her mother in East Hampton; a condition of her parents’ messy divorce. Her ambitious mother Anne built a multi-million-dollar cupcake empire from nothing, and now Anne climbs the ranks of the social elite with the same drive. Anne also believes that the easiest way to secure a powerful place in the inner circle of the Senator’s wife, is through their children. From a young age, Naomi is forced into playdates, dinners, charity events and everything in between, with the senator’s daughter Delilah. The summer Naomi turns seventeen, Jacinta – the mysterious summer tenant next door – throws a lavish party. She invites Naomi in the hopes that their new friendship will bring Delilah into her life in turn. Sound familiar?

This modern twist on The Great Gatsby was a delight, through and through. I may have a bit of a bias; I read Gatsby for the first time at the age of thirteen, and it has held a very special place in my heart ever since. It was the first book I read in which I hated every character, and still came through moved by the power of the prose. Gatsby taught me that a writer could fill pages with selfish, ugly people, and still create something beautiful.

Once Great came to my attention, I couldn’t not read it. However, there was some initial concern that without the prose, I would just be left with a bunch of rich people whining and making bad decisions. I mean, honestly, guys, I didn’t even make it past the first season of Gossip Girl. But man oh man, did Sara Benincasa pull it off. Her attention to detail is marvelous, and she keeps the tale from becoming stagnant with a small – but key – number of original side characters. Naomi’s parents and her hometown best friend Skags are not given large roles, but they keep things fresh and interesting.

 In that it’s a book fashioned after one known for its vapid, superficial characters, there are a few icky things to note; number one being the ‘positive’ speech about pursuing thinness and envy of people surpassing “even LA thin.” Anyone with body image-related issues or disorders may want to proceed with caution. There is also a heavy dose of homophobia from the rich folk, and Naomi herself plays the Poor Straight White Girl card on occasion – though her butch best friend is quick to call her out on the behaviour.

All in all, Great is a wonderful, true to form take on The Great Gatsby. It’s short and dark and perfectly suited for an afternoon of wallowing on the couch. Just keep in mind that it isn’t the sort of book one goes for when looking for a fluffy pick-me-up.

Ren reviews We Were Witches by Ariel Gore

We Were Witches by Ariel Gore cover

TW: self harm, violence against women, sexual assault

‘Beautiful’ does not even begin to encompass the captive, rhythmic style Ariel Gore possesses. I found it difficult to read quickly despite it being a relatively short work; every few pages there would be a line simple in structure but devastating in truth. I would be left raw, and was often forced to take a few minutes of sitting quietly before I could pick it up again. Reading this book was not always comfortable, but it was always very real. Her revelations discomfit, the view of an unkind world is gutting, and I am so glad to have found and read it. This will not be the last time.

It begins with Ariel at age 19, delivering Maia in a hospital in Italy. The following chapters delve into her confusion and uncertainty as she returns home for the first time in a long time, and she slowly finds her footing in a world that is not good to her. It becomes an anthem for all that is endured silently for the betterment of privileged fragile men. Reading this book, I was angry, and I was heartbroken.

Poor little male violence
You can climb my hair.

The book is made of rage. And writing when you have rage is important (as is reading about rage when it’s so similar to your own) because more often than not, that rage is turned inward. Because suffering as one’s own island is what women have been groomed to do. There are endless layers and contrasts to Ariel’s explorations as she grows from teen to young adult, and she pulls no punches in her descriptions of suffering (and betrayal after betrayal). Nothing is easy. There is prejudice and rigidity even in the broader spaces in which she tries to make a home.

Ariel goes to college, baby in tow. She studies the witch trials extensively. Outlines the trends in accusing poor, unmarried women of witchcraft and executing them. Paints a picture of women who mattered so little, the only way to find their stories is by the court records of their trials.

Very few people in power really care about other people’s sexuality. They care about money. But shaming sexuality is easier because that realm is so vulnerable. And of course if you control sexuality, that’s power that can be transmuted into more money.… my public shaming is not merely designed for my own benefit, but rather serves as a sermon and a warning to other girls and other women who may hope to escape the confines of a system designed to support and enable the white-supremacist capitalist war machine.

Different is dangerous. Different needs to be leashed.

College teaches Ariel lessons in taking up space. She makes a few key friends. Finds some cute girls to make out with. Her Women’s Studies professor encourages her to explore feminism, and Ariel’s automatic rejection is, ‘feminists just get abortions’. I was taken aback, but equally appreciative of Gore’s ability to be honest about her growth. Because we aren’t born good feminists, and it is hard to accept a label often thrown like an accusation when you are too young to know it should be worn like a badge of honour.

She gains confidence in her desire to be a writer because here, at this women’s college, people do not laugh at her dreams. But she also learns that the people in her new home carry their own flaws. Her intro to (White Girl) Feminism gives her creative freedom and embraces her talent, but it does not account for poverty. It advocates for queer rights, but does not care for butch representation. Ariel’s employer stages a gay wedding between two femme white girls (one hetero, the other with no interest in marriage) – rejecting a butch couple actually looking to get married – because the butch couple are too gay for the kind of press this ‘feminist magazine’ is hoping to garner.

Ariel learns that feminists can be terrible too, when they are not willing to change. When their idea of Feminism is the only Feminism.

Also, honourable mention goes to Ariel’s crush on her Women’s Studies professor. Been there, Girl.

We Were Witches reads like a novel and you want it to be a novel, because in a novel, when the writing is this good, the ending always satisfies. But when my Kindle told me I was 70% through and things were still getting worse, I wanted to cry.

Ariel gives birth to a daughter, and the doctor mutilates her without thought.

The only alive the doctor knows is crying.

She goes home to a mother who will not let her forget the ‘shame’ of being a teenage mother. She takes Maia and branches out on her own and tries to finish college, only she needs welfare assistance to do so. And the woman she tries to befriend throws her to the wolves (the wolf being the woman’s asshole husband who shouts welfare/single mother-shaming abuses at Ariel, then escalates to threats, prompting her to pack her things and leave the city). She moves to a new college. A queer friendly, women’s college.

It does not get better.

Her ex-boyfriend punches through the glass window in her door to break inside. She phones the police. The police show up and Lance charms them, painting Ariel as hysterical. She tries to file a restraining order. But ‘children need their fathers’ and suddenly the choices are share custody with Lance, or have Maia taken away.

As the book progresses, a very clear picture begins to take shape. Here, we explore the pieces:

The police refusing to believe Ariel and Lance aren’t married. Refusing to believe that Lance broke down the door and was ready to hurt her.

Passing as straight for the courts because queer mothers have their children taken away from them.

Ariel’s friend raped – at 14, by a police officer – and told her rapist has visitation rights.

A childhood friend of Ariel’s, raped during her first year of college: her push against the college for laws of consent to be clear and mandatory are made into jokes on the radio.

The witch trials have not ended. And this is as bleak a reality as it is an important one to remember. Fighting when you’re tired, when you’re exhausted – because you’re fighting your fight and the fight of queer/poor/unmarried/underrepresented people before you, even preceding the witch trials, and you were brought into this world fighting – is important. The alternative is death. This book is about intersectional feminism, motherhood, male privilege, violence, the burden of emotional labour, and the one hundred other aggressions dealt with daily to varying degrees by anyone who is not a cis-white male. Everyone needs it.

One final note, and then I promise I will stop hyping it up. I’m a sucker for reimagined fairy tales; there are some brief retellings throughout the book, but the Rapunzel retelling wrecked me. I won’t spoil it, but it wrecked me. Do not read this book until you are in a place where you are okay feeling every feeling. But please read this book.

Ren reviews Caged by Destiny Hawkins

TW: PTSD, mental abuse, physical abuse, domestic abuse, gun violence, and mentions of sexual assault.

At the beginning of the story, main character Rose is eight years old and recently abducted. Our antagonist Arnold runs a child fighting ring, and Rose makes him money.

The details involving the collapse of the fighting racket, the rescue of the (many) kidnapped children, and Arnold’s arrest are all very vague, but the majority of the novel takes place many years later. Rose (now a high school senior) has recently moved to Ohio following an ‘incident’ at her old school in California. The novel is written entirely from Rose’s first person POV, and in the initial chapters her narration is a little world-wise for an eight-year-old, but it’s spot on for the part of the brooding teenager.

Rose attempts to forge a new life for herself; from her very first day, she’s drawn to Abigale and Lorena. Abigale is an easy-going girl who falls into a natural rhythm with Rose, and Lorena is the instant crush who leaves Rose tongue-tied. Abigale’s friend Cameron is on the wrestling team; when Rose expresses an interest in joining, the wrestling coach forces her to have a private pre-tryout tryout match against Cameron… because there is concern for her safety. Because wrestling is dangerous (for ladies), of course.

The idea is insulting, but Cameron doesn’t stoop to defensive posturing when he loses.  He’s quick to give Rose the credit she deserves for a good fight, and they become fast friends. Life is good for a short time, but Rose soon finds herself spiraling as she tries to move forward without ever really dealing with everything that has happened in her past.

There is a lot to this book that doesn’t make sense: Rose’s parents are killed prior to her rescue, and so she is placed in the care of her aunt. We learn through Rose that Aunt Shannon physically and mentally abused her for years, but Ohio!Shannon has sudden regrets and is committed to being an attentive guardian.

Arnold never actually goes to jail because ‘someone went in his place,’ and no further explanation is given. (Note that this is not a matter of having another human convicted in Arnold’s place; Arnold is sent to jail, and through some wild series of events to which the reader is not privy, it goes unnoticed that he is not in fact the one who arrives at the jail to serve the sentence.)

The California ‘incident’ at the old high school involved Rose accidentally killing someone, but the act is pardoned because of her special circumstances.

The plot is rushed along through coincidence and half the student body is tied to the fighting ring in some obscure manner by the end. But there is beauty to be found in the racial diversity. Rose is black, Lorena is mixed, and many of the characters are pretty pointedly not white.

There is a humorous moment early on in which Rose tries to figure out Lorena’s background; being mixed myself, I have been on the receiving end of the “what are you” question from so many white people, I am entirely unfazed by it. But Rose’s manner of venturing a few reasonable guesses caused a familiar tug of appreciation for People of Colour and their ability to ask the same question in a way that comes across as curious and not rude as fuck.

“Are you Guyanese?” “Which one of your parents is Indian?”

These are assuming questions, but at least there’s a degree of recognition; it doesn’t sound like you’re asking someone about their rescue dog.

Additional Pros:

Rose knows her strengths, and she is unapologetically confident.

The queer content is light, but there is bi and lesbian representation.

Additional Cons:

One of the wrestling team bros is dating Lorena in the earlier chapters, and he regularly abuses her. Because of a ‘lack of proof’, Cameron very problematically extends the benefit of a doubt to Abusive Wrestling Douchebag.

Aunt Shannon makes a dismissive comment regarding her relief that Rose is ‘at least interested in somebody’ after she begins spending more time with Lorena.

Rose dresses Lorena up ‘like a tomboy’ after a sleepover to ensure that Cameron won’t hit on her.

The plot is not particularly well executed, but it shows immense imagination.