BDSM and Money, Monkeys and Doves, Feminism in the Islands, and Dying Too Young

Dear Reader:

Another trip to Mexico and another catch-up post…

510) Fifty Shades of Grey: Book One of the Fifty Shades Trilogy by E.L. James (kindle) #45

Hmmmm. Should I lead with this?

OK. The book a lot of people are talking about. Including this VERY hilarious Saturday Night Live “Mothers Day ad.” (Warning: NSFW and may offend some – hints at female “self-pleasuring”)

Anastasia Steele is about to graduate from college when she meets “billionaire” Christian Grey. He is a gorgeous, very controlling man who flies his own helicopter and loves to soar (fly a glider). But, of course, the aspect that has gotten all the attention is the fact that he is into bondage, domination, and sado-masochism.

The book tells the story of their first month or so together. Their attraction is immediate and powerful. Anastasia is very innocent sexually, but also smart, determined, and self-possessed. They struggle to figure out where to take their relationship – Christian worries about hurting her and about getting too attached, Anastasia worries about being hurt and out of control.

I’ve been fascinated by this book (and actually, it is the first in the series of three books) as it has had its moment in the sun – rocketing to the top of the charts, being discussed in every media outlet high and low (see here and here), and warranting its own SNL skit. When I was in airport bookstores traveling to Mexico last week, I saw huge piles of copies in all bookstores.

I’m interested in it because, from the beginning, it has been discussed as a sex book – particularly, an S and M sex book for women. As a 50 year old, I’ve seen the cultural sense of women’s sexuality change over the course of my lifetime. To my mind, the cultural permission for women to be sexually open, even promiscuous, preceded the cultural permission for women to experience sexual pleasure.

The presence of the clitoris was not discussed in my many, very explicit, years of New York State-required biology and health education which discussed every aspect of birth control and reproduction. The idea of female masturbation, in particular, has been a huge taboo that I’ve been fascinated to see broken fairly regularly in recent years on network television. During the seventies, when I was a teenager, the only place to encounter these concepts was in Our Bodies, Ourselves – my mother had an early edition. I could read about male-centered sex lots of places – heterosexual female-centered sex? Nowhere.

So, while it has been implicitly acknowledged that a lot of women were reading “bodice rippers” for the “explicit romance” (read: sex) for many years, to my knowledge, Fifty Shades is the first media-splash book I can think of where it is clearly for women and about lots of detailed sex. It is being called “mommy porn.” I think this is a bit of a breakthrough. And so, I was particularly fascinated by the very funny SNL ad which merges the book with Amazon with the kindle (which is arguably a primary reason for its popularity – you can buy and read it without anyone knowing) with female masturbation – I think this is the most explicit that SNL has gotten about the topic.

Note that, with the increasing power of female SNL writers and actors, particularly female humor has been added. I remember Tina Fey talking about doing their very funny bit about the horror of huge, visibly obvious maxi pads – how she proposed it as a skit and the men on the show didn’t understand the humor. Obviously, none of them grew up as women in the sixties and seventies who had to walk around wearing those awful things and while sure that they announced to all the boys that we were on our periods. She talked about it in an interview and then again in Smarty Pants as an important example of how writing changed when women began to become powerful on the show. And thus, I see the Mother’s Day ad as another example of this.

OK, back to the book. So, everything I’d read suggested that this book was non-stop sex and that it was extraordinarily explicit and arcane (the BDSM) part. It doesn’t seem like anyone is really talking about the writing and the story. But the book surprised me. First, while there are definitely sex scenes (maybe around 10) I don’t think there are necessarily that many more than in an Erica Jong or Danielle Steel novel, much less Peyton Place from the sixties and seventies. Yes, several scenes involve bondage and spanking, including some arcane information about the practices that was new to me. But I’ve read lots of stuff that was more explicit and/or violent and/or deviant. After awhile, I started skimming the sexual scenes – they ceased to be all that interesting.

The thing that surprised me was how much I enjoyed the story of Ana’s and Christian’s relationship. They are both quite likeable. Yes, Christian is into BDSM, but the book explains why. Yes, Ana is foolish to trust this man – but you also understand why and appreciate her ability to stand up to him. The book really does treat them as equals. And I want to be very clear about one thing – Christian knows exactly how to participate in sex that is VERY pleasurable for a woman. This is discussed in great detail.

I’m not a romance reader, but any stretch of the imagination – I don’t enjoy most rom-com movies (they are almost always dumb and trite). But I actually very much liked this book and not for the sex scenes. Obviously, the US movie industry is surely falling all over each other to option these books – shall we take a bet on how fast this book gets turned into a movie? How long did it take Hunger Games? I’m betting within a year we’ll see our first Fifty movie. It is ready-made for film. I’m actually going to be really interested to see who plays Christian.

So, I recommend the book for the relationship. Will I buy the next two? Certainly not right away, if ever, just because there is a lot of better stuff out there and in my existing library. But, if I really wanted a good, easy, compelling read and didn’t feel anything I already had fit the bill, yes, I would – but only on my kindle :-).

509) A Million Shades of Green: The Real Story behind Fifty Shades of Grey by Sean Black (kindle) #44
OK, so I thought it would be interesting to read something more about the book. The gist of this book is that the “Fifty” books started out as fan fiction take-offs of the Twilight books. Yawn. Not worth the couple of bucks I paid.

518) Unlikely Friendships: 47 Remarkable Stories from the Animal Kingdom by Jennifer S. Holland (hard copy) #51

When I was in one of those aforementioned bookstores, I saw this book which I’d encountered online.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m prepping a new Animals and Society course about human relationships to animals. But watching my 17 year old cat develop very social and physical relationships with my dogs has interested me in how animals befriend each other across species lines. I’ve read that this mostly happens with dogs and cats and other species – perhaps because we’ve selected dogs and cats for ability and desire to attach to humans.

But this book shows you photos of the relationships between not just different mammalian species, but between fish and mammals, birds and mammals, even a reptiles and mammals (no insects and anybody else, though). It also includes the stories of the friendship.

You can see the above picture and story of a golden retriever and a fish. I really enjoyed this quick read. I’m not one to love cutesy animal stuff – I don’t call my pets children or family – I’m not their “mommy.” I don’t like books that are narrated by animals. But this book was really cool – not cute, but poignant. Granted, most of these stories about about animals in captivity, behaving differently than they would in the wild, and depending upon other species often because we’ve removed them from interaction with their own species. But the portrayals of attachment are compelling.

You only have to watch my cat, Fred, spending a few moments sleeping with or grooming one of my dogs or my golden, Gus, begging Fred to groom him to realize that they are capable of more than we expect. And note that as I was writing that sentence, Fred went over to Gus and started to groom him and settled down to sleep next to him (at least partly because Gus is sleeping in the sun) – see the below picture. I enjoyed this book a lot – highly recommended.

Hello, hello, hello, is there anybody in there?

519) Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (had copy) #52

This is the second in May’s Feminist Classics readings. It was paired with Jane Eyre which I discussed here. I talked about my sense that Jane Eyre was a surprisingly feminist text. Nymeth (the person who is moderating discussion of the books) asked us to also consider these questions: “Do you think Wide Sargasso Sea can be read as a feminist text independently from Jane Eyre? Is it even possible to read the two books separate from each other?”

So, if you have not read both or either – Wide Sargasso Sea asks – why was Rochester’s wife mad? And then tells her (ostensible) story. If I had not read Jane Eyre, I don’t think I would have seen Wide Sargasso Sea (hereafter, WSS) as feminist. It tells the story of a woman growing up with a mother who has been continually let down by men. Antoinette is beautiful and independent. As she and Rochester come to know each other, things veer in a bad direction.

Feminist? Hmmm, that doesn’t jump out at me. I see the book as more about class, race, and prejudice and fear related to mental illness than about men and women per se. For me, the books don’t mesh well. I loved Jane Eyre, but WSS didn’t involve any likeable characters. It involved nightmares, racism, colonialism, classism… It reminds me of Aracoeli by Elsa Morante that I discussed earlier and didn’t enjoy much. I put it in the category of books I’m glad I read, but didn’t like.

511) Black Seconds (An Inspector Sejer Mystery) by Karin Fossum Translated by Charlotte Barslund (kindle) #46

This is an early Inspector Sejer mystery. His Leonberger, Kollberg, is with him but slowing down (if you don’t know the breed they are a giant breed probably average 120-150 lbs). And beautiful little Ida Joner has gone missing. Her mother Helga awaits her return from the story – a few seconds after her expected return, she fears the worst – it is what she has feared all of Ida’s life.

We watch Sejer and his colleagues unpack Ida’s village, trying to learn what happen. Ida’s family, including her aunt and cousins, play a major role and also Emil, a near-mute, and his mother. Throughout, we guess who did it, perhaps figuring early what happened, but not knowing how, exactly.

Fossum remains one of my favorite mystery writers. Sejer is a good detective and we aren’t sidetracked with drinking, romance, or family problems. He is incisive, sympathetic, and smart. And Fossum expects us to be the same. I have one more Fossum -Bad Intentions – her most recent to be translated. I’m very much looking forward to it.

Happy Reading, Ruby

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