31. Simians, Cyborgs and Women, by Donna Haraway

29 Jul

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This dense academic work, written in the 1980s by a Marxist-feminist History of Consciousness professor at U Berkeley, was lurking on my shelf at #4 in the #20BooksofSummer challenge. It will definitely be the most challenging book on the list.

I was interested because it contains Haraway’s most famous essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto.” And I’m interested in cyborgs because, well, dear reader, you try to count people walking down the street in New York City, and see how long it takes before you see one who doesn’t have a smartphone in their hand. The phone is the last thing we touch before sleeping, the first thing we touch upon waking. It contains our lovers, our social lives, the photos of our children. We turn to it for entertainment or consolation in an awkward hour. We live in there often better than we do out here. And if you count drugs as molecular prostheses, well, the ship has sailed: We’re cyborgs. Whatever our value-judgements on that, it’s a profound human transformation that seems worth trying to catch a glimpse of as we speed through it.

Haraway was writing in the ’80s, before the emergent technologies had really emerged, so her sense of the cyborg is coming less out of our daily digital reality and more out of the traditions of cultural theory she’s been educated in. Cyborgs, she writes, are “creatures simultaneously animal and machine, who populate worlds ambiguously natural and crafted.” Their value, to her Marxist-feminist project, is metaphorical. If I can break this down much more baldly than I think she would (and perhaps inaccurately; I am no expert here, reader beware!), the cyborg as a half-natural, half-created thing is a powerful tool because it helps us understand that seemingly naturalized social categories, like “women” and “race” as not-so-all-natural after all.

This is the old-fashioned stuff of my Brown University education. The first essays in Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs and Women, well before we get to the cyborgs, are about how the academic branch of “social biology”—in particular in the ape studies of the 1950s—has created a story about human beings influenced by narratives of patriarchy and domination, and thus has falsely “proved” a natural order of patriarchy and domination.

If the scientist are all men, for example, and they believe that human societies are run by dominant males, they’ll find that ape societies are run by dominant males. In one influential study (which I remember reading about in college) male-led science teams did a test that removed the dominant male from an ape group, and discovered that chaos and fighting ensued. They concluded that dominant men kept social order. Haraway draws on later woman-headed studies to point out alternative conclusions. Maybe if they’d removed the weakest male, the chaos and fighting would have been worse. We don’t know since they didn’t check, testing instead for what they expected to see. Or maybe with removal of the dominant male, cooperation and negotiation increased and the ape society got more equal and better for all its members. “Negotiation” may have looked like disorder to the patriarch.

Haraway also critiques the language of this old-fashioned science, which suggested that female apes engage in “prostitution” and allegedly trade sex for “status.”  Again, she suggests there may be behavior outside the frame. Could the female ape be seeking pleasure? How does the researcher know her motivations? Summaries of later women-led studies on apes provide plentiful alternative conclusions to the view of human “nature” as being led by dominant males, with whom females trade their sexuality for safety, protection and status.

Again to go broad-strokes, I think that Haraway’s larger point is that proving this ape-study idea of the female false undermines the whole category of female. A “woman” is a moving target, depending on who is seeking her.

“‘Woman’ only exists as this kind of imaginary being, while women are the product of a social relation of appropriation, naturalized as sex. A feminist is one who fights for women as a class and for the disappearance of that class.”

I’m not a Marxist-feminist, so I find that kind of thinking to be going too far. Can we correct our biases and look again at men and women in nature, more carefully? Can we focus less on traits of females and more on activities that are female? (Like, carrying children, giving birth, breastfeeding; I know! I know! Un-PC of me to mention it).

I was also not convinced by the Cyborg Manifesto. Haraway’s contention is that embracing our cyborg reality will be liberating. For the reasons above, and for others, such as that the multi-nature of the cyborg is a good model for political movements that have to simultaneously represent many groups—women of different class and race statuses, for example. It’s a truism of this kind of Marxist-feminist philosophy that people with different experiences can’t be unified. Each experience matters; any movement must honor the particular without trying to universalize.

“Cyborg feminists have to argue that ‘we’ do not want any more natural matrix of unity and that no construction is whole.”

I suppose the cyborg-as-metaphor could be useful in those ways, but in 2016 metaphor seems to be the least of our worries: Let’s talk about the cyborg-as-reality. Who is producing the machine parts? Who is profiting from them? How are they controlling those of us who are ever more dependent on them for our fertility, our sex lives, our social lives, our happiness, our work? If the Marxist-feminist project is to create a society in which no group dominates any other, the cyborg does not, to me, seem like an ally.

The Manifesto ends with a tribute to the futures imagined by some excellent science fiction writers—Samuel R. Delaney, Octavia Butler, James Tiptree Jr. and Vonda McIntyre, among others.





30. The Rules of Inheritance, by Claire Bidwell Smith

11 Jul

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Oh, this book is lovely.

Claire Bidwell Smith’s story of losing her parents to cancer, a few years apart, in her late teens and early 20s is moving and beautiful, infused through its pages with what good, nice, wonderful people they all were. Despite the teenaged Claire’s tattoos and anger that her parents were sick, the book is rich with how much they loved each other. You don’t read much about happy families, you know? And Smith’s was unlikely. Her father was 55, with grown children, two divorces and a second career as a steel magnate when he met her mother, a Manhttan food stylist (years ago, before it was a rom-com staple!) in her late 30s, also twice-divorced, and in her turn convinced she’d never have children. Claire was adored. “Even at eighteen I already know that she poured all her energy into raising me,” she writes of her mother.

And oh, this book is so heartbreaking.

The Rules of Inheritance came out in 2012, and I bought it new in hard-cover but haven’t read it because I know the author. I had a brief, intense friendship with her during the period that the book covers, a friendship that was interrupted by her several moves and her career change. I think I’ve always been afraid of how painful it would be to read. I knew that though the book is a tribute to Smith’s mother and father, it’s also, mostly, about the terrible grief and loss that she lived with during the time I knew her, a shadow-life I never really saw. “Grief is like another country…. It’s a place,” she writes. In her grief, she drank too much and threw herself into bad relationships and lied to her friends and sometimes went home to hide in the footwell of her desk to sob. She had a car accident, and no one to call afterwards. In her own words, she “can’t shake the feeling that there should be someone else here… some adult, someone more qualified and responsible than me, should show up and take over. But there is no one.” She did dangerous, terrible things because in some magical way she imagined they would bring her mother back. She’s articulate and full-hearted and she brings the reader along in her sorrow.

Here’s a beautiful passage:

Finally I realized that twenty-eight was ten years since my mother died.

I realized that when I was eighteen, it wasn’t just my mother who died but a part of me as well. … It was like, without my mother I couldn’t possibly go on. I couldn’t grow up, become a woman, do things that she would never know about, go places she’d never been, think things I couldn’t tell her. So even right now, there is a part of me that refuses to believe that I am the woman I have become. Except every so often I catch a glimpse. I see it in a passing glance in the mirror, hear it in an accidental laugh. … Suddenly there are these two parts of me, then and now, staring back at each other, wondering where the other came from.

The Rules of Inheritance was such a difficult read, but I think it would be a wonderful book to give anyone confronting the death of a loved one. I also read it with interest as a mother because it was so revealing about the teenage daughter’s psychology in a crisis.

Despite Smith’s losses and her painful years dealing with them it’s always obvious to the reader—though not to her at the time—that she will rebuild herself, make a life, survive beautifully. And she does.

29. Rethinking Normal, by Katie Rain Hill

7 Jul

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The random books on my to-read shelf that I’m now being forced to read by the 20 Books of Summer Challenge turn out to be amazing! I should trust myself (or maybe not trust myself?) more often. Rethinking Normal by Katie Rain Hill was a book I received free at a charity event, in a bag with at least three other transgender memoirs and a lot of teen LGBTQ fiction. I’m not that into teen fiction. I tried a couple of the books from that haul and disliked them, and this one has been unexamined on the shelf ever since. I probably would have eventually given it away, and I’m so glad I didn’t.

Katie Rain Hill was the first openly transgender teen to graduate from high school in Oklahoma. She became a media star whose arc I now vaguely remember, since she had a transgender boyfriend, and the headline “transgender girl dates transgender boy” was of course irresistable. In Rethinking Normal she tells her story, from her happy pre-gender early childhood, through her increasing feelings of dysphoria, depression and despair—over a problem for which she had no name in the early 2000s—to finally her blissful discovery of transgenderism and eventual transition from male to female. There’s such a compelling natural arc to this material, and Hill and her co-author made a true page-turner out of it. Katie comes across as a reasonable, rational and generous narrator, who forgives people who shun her (when they come around), and credits even estranged family members for their best efforts. She’s likeable, and watching her become happy and healthy was really satisfying.

As a mother, I cried at the part where Luke (Katie’s pre-transition name) finally discovered transgenderism on the internet, and immediately went to get his mom to explain to her that this was what his problem was, and this was what he’d been wanting. The mother, poor woman, had been witless with helplessness and fear for years, unable to help her depressed, suicidal small child. (His first suicide attempt was at 8.) His mom was a religious woman in a conservative mileau, and had no affinity for trans issues but she (miraculously!) said, “Ok, if this will help, tell me what to do and I’ll do it. I’ll do anything to keep you alive. Make a list.” She admitted later she expected someone to firebomb their house, but she supported him anyway. As a mother, I completely understand that.

I also found this story uplifting for personal reasons. It was great to read a trans story that brought me back to the roots of why I think freedom of gender expression should be a human right. There are lots of people, like Katie, for whom the current categories really don’t fit well. Why shouldn’t it be up to her, or her family, to decide on her own identity? Making little kids like Katie less totally fucking miserable is a worthy goal in a humane society. To me, it’s worth some inconvenience to the majority.  I know trans activists think the bathroom issue is nonsense, but as a woman in her 40s, who has been at the receiving end of about 30 years of creepy behavior by men (not all men, but they’re out there, you know?), breaking down the gender wall in places like locker rooms and bathrooms is sort of a problem. And I don’t think it makes me a bigot to say so, though from the vituperation by trans activists, you’d think any reasonable woman who had her doubts was Satan incarnate. The bathroom issue is inconvenient. It will create scary situations for women. To deny that is ridiculous. I would find the activism a lot more compelling if people would just admit it, and say, “Let’s do it anyway, for kids like Katie.” Her story reminded me of that, for which I was grateful.

I could go on. I also am genuinely freaked out by all the people taking drugs and getting these surgeries because transgenderism is now trendy and considered to be radical…the types who think being trans is undermining the system, and who don’t compute that they’re directly enriching the drug companies, and are signing up to do that forever. The Man is laughing about that one all the way to the bank. But again, Rethinking Normal reminded me that being trans is a matter of life and death for some people, and they’re the ones who matter, not the politics, not the drug companies. Great book.









28. My Sister Life, by Maria Flook

6 Jul

My Sister LIfe

My Sister Life by Maria Flook is number one on my list in my 20 Books of Summer challenge, inspired by Cathy at 746 Books. I’ve been avoiding this one for a few reasons. One, it has a depressing subject matter: It’s a memoir about how the author’s sister’s disappearance as a young teenager. Two, it was a little unclear from the cover copy what kind of book it was, since it seemed that the sister’s story would also be told. I wasn’t sure if it was a true memoir or a fiction hybrid, which gave me an off-feeling about it. And Three, a shallow reason to not read something: I’ve been avoiding Amazon by getting used books through Powell’s, and this was a particularly yellowing and unattractive book. A fancy design conceit where there was a hole in the front cover to indicate the sister’s absence looked vandalized and disturbing.

But how wrong I was to hesitate! This book was enthralling from the get-go, when, in chapter two, I realized that this would be a bad-mother memoir. In her first scene, the mother is getting dressed for a cocktail party, trekking “back and forth from her bureau to the closet dressed only in her strapless bra and panties.” She applies her “French Jean Patou perfume, pinching the rubber bulb of a cut-crystal atomizer. Next, she stooped before the full-length mirror to adjust her seamed stockings,” which she does “with insulated palms” wearing her short, white-cotton gloves for church. These details add up, gorgeously, until Flook explains that:

“Families take pride in their piety or in their prosperity, rejoicing in a father-and-son business venture, in a gifted child’s scholarship or in a prized commission in the military. But in our household Veronica’s enterprising sexuality overwhelmed our individual goals and spilled into family matters. Her erotic aspect emerged in her every routine and came more naturally to her than maternal duty.”

Flook’s thesis is simple but powerful. This cold, narcissistic woman did not provide love to her daughters and prevented their spineless father from doing so, either. The oldest sister, Karen, became promiscuous and ran away at age fourteen, to become a child prostitute. She lived in a trailer park with an abusive older ‘boyfriend’ named James and his other girlfriend, a woman named Ruth, who also ran a whorehouse where Karen soon started working. Amazingly, Karen preferred life with Ruth and James to the one at home with her well-off but frigid and mentally abusive parents. She left the world of luxury cruises and European vacations for the trailer park and prostitution without regret. Pitifully, she responds to Ruth and James’s affection and interest in her. James helps her steal a winter coat. They go out for ice cream and let her keep some of her earnings from prostitution. It’s extremely sad, but in Flook’s hands feels psychologically plausible.

Maria, the youngest child, also became a juvenile delinquent though a slightly more functional one. Her sister’s disappearance and the years where the family didn’t know if Karen was alive or dead turned Maria into a writer. She becomes morbid and obsessed with accidents and death, which she describes as “just keeping my eyes open.”

The book is powerfully written, full of subtle, sneaky metaphors for loss, and startling images that the writer uses to try to understand her experience.In one place she writes:

When one child goes missing, the remaining child is left untethered. I have seen a dog pull free of its collar and in its sudden freedom shudder, as if any connection it had had to the world remained in the coil of leather.

In another passage she recalls a childhood moment with Karen (as she does frequently) when little Maria has half-blinded herself with chlorine and her sister gives her a lollipop.

“I stared at the sucker” she writes. “Its glassy red bauble twinkled, exaggerated in my half-blind state. The candy warped the light with a kaleidoscope effect and it was just too beautiful to eat. ‘Aren’t you going to taste that?’ Karen asked me. Karen’s eyes weren’t blurred by the chlorine and she didn’t see the miraculous gift she had given me.”

Karen’s loss is a curse but it endows Maria with unusual powers.

I’ve written recently about terrible-stories-about-girls books, and how they unsatisfyingly present the drugs, promiscuity, abortions, etc., without seeming to delve into why. Flook delves. She may lay too much blame on her parents—the section where she explains that her mother bought her a pony to get her to spend more time away from home feels a little self-serving. But at least she’s looking for answers, making a powerful and articulate case for how she understands the forces that formed herself and her sister.

The second half of the book when Karen reappears and the sisters have some opportunities to be reunited but never really reconnect was less satisfying, especially since it brought up the same questions that made me hesitate over reading My Sister Life in the first place. How much of Maria’s startlingly clear retelling of Karen’s experiences is real? Karen doesn’t seem like she’d trust her sister enough to entrust such detailed recollections. One of the most unusual aspects of the book is that it does delve into the details and emotions of Karen’s experience  as a child prostitute so tenderly—Flook is retelling from a distance, and she doesn’t have the flatness of affect, anger, or defensiveness that often clouds such material when the author has been through it. The central question that kept me reading became How does she know? How did Flook and her sister heal the breach between them well enough to create this book? Frustratingly, that question was not answered.


10 Books of Summer Challenge

3 Jul

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I have been a sucker for a book challenge ever since reading the entire summer reading list in the fifth grade (we were supposed to pick, like,  two books out of 25 classics, so being a dork I read them all). The most recent, I suppose, was this very blog—in which I challenge myself to review every book I read—but now I’ve become interested in this girl from 746 books’s “20 books of summer” challenge, despite that the challenge is no more than “make a list of 20 books you’d like to read and then read them.”

But in addition to being a dork, I am a contrarian, so I am going to use the challenge to read books I don’t want to read. Specifically, the items cluttering up my to-read shelf for months or years that somehow I’ve never gotten around to. Either I got them for free and felt bad throwing them out, or I worry they’ll be depressing—very literary of me, I know—or I’ve tried to get into them and failed but have the good intention to try again. I will force myself to read them in the order they were randomly sitting there when I walked over to the shelf. Happily, because my book shelf is disorganized, this random selection includes a couple of books I actually was hoping to read sometime soon. Unhappily, Hunger by Knut Hamsen was still on the shelf, and I had given up on that book as unquenchably repellent and was just wating to donate it.

Also unhappily for the Diverse Books movement, though most of these writers are women and one is a transwoman, I think every one of them is white. I am not the hugest supporter of identity politics, but I do make an effort to keep my blog from being all white. All I can say is I’m going to try to make up for it in the fall, maybe take some recommendations from this blogger’s list.

Ok! Here is what the rest of my summer looks like:

  1. My Sister Life, by Maria Flook

A memoir written by a woman whose sister disappeared as a young teen, and was later discovered to have become a child-prostitute. Pros: Recommended by a friend with good taste. Cons: Sounds depressing.

My Sister LIfe

2. Rethinking Normal, A Memoir in Transition by Katie Rain Hill

The story of a bullied teen’s decision to transition into being a woman. Cons: Got it for free at a Lambda event; don’t like teen fiction; probably very political in a rote, generic way. Pros: The author makes a cute girl; topic is inherently interesting.

Rethinking Normal

3. The Rules of Inheritance, by Claire Bidwell Smith

A memoir by a woman whose parents were both diagnosed with cancer when she was fourteen—and who have both died by the time she’s 25. Story of loss and coming of age. Pros: This book was written by a friend of mine and I have been meaning to read it for years! I bought it when it was new in hardcover! Cons: Worried it will be depressing.

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4. Simians, Cyborgs and Women, by Donna J. Haraway

Some mind-bending cultural theory by a History of Consciousness professor at U Berkeley on what feminists can learn from cyborgs, and how early primate research falsely created femininity. Pros: I am already in the middle of this, and am really looking forward to getting back to it! Cons: Hell of dense.

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5. Animal Sanctuary, by Sarah Faulkner

A quirky book from Starcherone press about an eccentric ’60s movie star who opens an animal sanctuary. Cons: Sounds annoying and not plot driven; I was talked into buying this by its publisher at AWP. Pros: I like the cover.

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6. Omon Ra, by Victor Pelevin

A satirical novel about the Soviet space program by a contemporary Russian writer of cult acclaim. Pros: I have liked past Pelevin books. Cons: Pelevin is kind of opaque and self indulgent. I must have picked this up for free off a slush shelf at work.

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7. Mermaid in Chelsea Creek, by Michelle Tea

A YA book about a mermaid by a McSweeney’s author. Cons: I hate YA and the premise sounds way too twee. This was a freebie that I never intended to read. Pros: It’s set in Boston and I have liked an earlier Michelle Tea book.

8. The Crooning Wind, Three Greenlandic Poets

Oh my God, why do I even own this this!?!!

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9. Woman Rebel, The Margaret Sanger Story, by Peter Bagge

A graphic novel about Margaret Sanger, an early crusader for reproductive rights. Cons: Didactic and neo-liberal. Hideous drawings. Pros: An interesting topic. Graphic novels are usually quick reads.

10. Hunger, by Knut Hamsun

Published in 1890 and hailed as the beginning of the modern psychological novel, Hunger is about a young writer slowly starving to death in a generic small European capital. Cons: Relentlessly creepy and unpleasant. Pros: It’s a classic! I can say I’ve read it!

11. I Love Dick, by Chris Kraus

I can’t figure out what this is about, exactly, but it’s a feminist classic novel from the ’90s, (or is it a text?). Pros: I’m looking forward to reading it. Cons: It will probably have no plot.

27. The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith

30 Jun

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Thriller writer Patricia Highsmith—of Talented Mr. Ripley fame—published this groundbreaking early lesbian classic anonymously in the 1950s and later reissued it under her own name, when that could be done without destroying her career. (How times have changed, right?). But, amazingly, the changing times matter very little in the reader’s enjoyment of The Price of Salt. The book is a nail-biting romantic thriller that functions just as well today as it did in the fifties, despite that its forbidden love is now out-and-proud.

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The vintage cover with Highsmith’s pseudonym

The story is about a shop-girl in Manhattan with dreams of making it as a set designer, who meets and falls for a married woman living in New Jersey. At first the erotic subtext of their relationship is repressed. The ‘falling for’ is something neither one of them can quite admit, the shop girl because she has a boyfriend and doesn’t quite know she’s gay, and the married woman, who has had lesbian affairs before, because she has a small child and is in the middle of a divorce. Or possibly because she’s manipulative and prefers to watch the shop girl want her than to let the shop girl have her.

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Beautiful young Highsmith.

The “salt” of the title is passion. Both women are to some extent capable of passing in the straight world. Both have huge incentives to do so. Both have to choose between eroticism, thrill, “salt” over almost everything else. For the married woman the price is so high it’s not easy to say that she should pay it. She faces terrible choices, and her response to the escalating stakes in both the affair and the divorce is half-rational at best. The shop girl, despite her naive passion is a cool customer; it’s wonderful to watch her discovering her own mind and sticking to her own desires, against massive pressure.  The complexity of these characters is why the story still works. I’ve read it’s what set the book apart from the other lesbian pulp of the ’50s.

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This last bit will be a spoiler, so STOP HERE IF YOU’RE GOING TO READ THIS BOOK!!

It’s my theory that the happy ending was forced by conventions of the genre. There’s a chapter that feels like a real, complex, ending (a chapter I wanted to be the end), and then a last chapter that feels like the kind of movie scene where people run through the airport to catch each other before the plane takes off. I am so curious what the author’s thinking was about those two choices.


26. Explosion, by Zarina Zabrisky

28 Jun

Zarina Zabrisky

I lived in Moscow in the 1990s in the heyday of a nightlife newspaper called The eXile, a skinny, obscene paper with a shocking pink X on the cover run by two American frat boys who wrote very good political coverage and spilled the rest of their ink celebrating the economic and cultural moment that, as they said, rendered any man with an American passport able to fuck any Russian girl he wanted to, for money, for gifts, for breakfast at the Starlight Diner in the morning. There was some self-awareness and humor in this stance, “In my country, I’m a total loser, but here I can get pretty chicks!” But it was a callow take on a noxious moment, too.

I always liked the paper for its honesty.

I was young and female and dating in Russia at the time, and the prostitution was a fact I had to deal with. Russian girls who were out at night in bars and restaurants were, mostly, selling sex. If not pro then “semi-pro” as the terminology went. There were prostitution nightclubs where all the other women were hookers. There were many, many bars with young and beautiful women sitting alone on the barstools, silently waiting for male clientele. Routinely, I was assumed to be one of them until I started speaking. (I am American and speak Russian with an accent). For me, it was a strange period of power inversion. I was used to men pursuing me, not an environment in which the women were the pursuers. I was used to being sexually interesting, but most men discovering that I was American and thus not available for the night suddenly found me asexual and pointless. I’d see the brightness leave their eyes, feel the sudden shift as they waited for their moment to get away. I became invisible as they looked over my shoulder for the next girl.

All this to say that it feels like I’ve read 1,000 Perestroika memoirs, but it wasn’t until reading Zarina Zabrisky’s Explosion that I realized I’d never read one from the perspective of one of the Russian girls who were selling sex at that cultural moment. And that now that it’s come, Explosion feels essential and obvious, and I am overjoyed to have discovered it. (Also, thanks to Melanie Page at Grab the Lapels for having recommended it!! See Melanie’s review of the book, and interview with the author.)

(Also, perhaps a note that needs to be added: There were lots of girls in Moscow who were not involved in the prostitution culture, and I knew them too. But they’re mostly not who Zabrisky’s book is about.)

Zabrisky’s stories cover a time span in Russian history from Chernobyl (harrowing story, with the reveal so well done it’s still giving me chills) through Perestroika and the wild ’90s, to eventual emigration to the United States and the present. The heroines (and one hero) inhabit different worlds—some urban intelligentsia, some daughters of alcoholics in the provinces, one successful emigre business guy. In the earlier years they concern mostly the prostitution culture, poverty, drugs. The later American stories reflect more on Russia as a country and a motherland, and ask what it means to lose it. They ask, having lost it, which Russia it is, exactly, that the emigres remember and want to love? They lament the state of the country’s current politics.

The details Zabrisky reveals about being a young woman in Russia at that time are excellent. In a story called “Honey Hued Eyes” the sixteen-year-old girl narrator has been having sex with a female friend with the titular honey-hued eyes, “all boys being away in the army.” (So funny! I knew lots of Russian girls with early teenage lesbian affairs, ostensibly for the same reason.) But then she decides to lose her virginity to a gross old guy who gives her a gypsy cab ride. Here’s how she explains it:

“One winter day, I got a ride from a gypsy cab. Gypsy cabs were illegal cabs. Plenty were available; men would give girls a ride for free “for a talk” and would ask for stuff, but if you said “no,” it was a “no”—usually. It was dangerous at night and girls got raped …but that was their own fault, right?”

On the day the story takes place, the narrator writes, “Then he asked me if I wanted to fuck. And, though normally I said no, I said yes.” They have sex. He offers her money, which she turns down. And then he offers her advice, which is to never give anything away for free. He says he works for the KGB and offers to set her up as a prostitute for foreigners in the fancy hotels. “We will pay you three thousand roubles a month and in five years will find you a nice Finnish or Swedish man and marry you off abroad. Deal?”

The story is only a few pages long. The narrator turns down the offer. We find out that she got pregnant young, moved to Finland and ended up married to a Finnish man anyway. Her honey-hued friend was not so lucky. The two girls’ twinned fates make the story a short, brutal revelation on the casual commodification of young womanhood and concurrent valueless-ness of young womanhood.  Maybe more obvious in Russia at that time, but true everywhere.

In the next story, the narrator’s sister is a prostitute for foreigners working in a fancy hotel.

The book sometimes got too melodramatic for me. I didn’t believe the teenage junkie in “Beast” would kill her boyfriend; the story about nostalgic drunk women lionizing Pussy Riot felt… about as complex as that sounds. But I always found them rescued by the details. (How does a girl manage baby diapers in a village without running water in her house! Awful, fascinating question. The friendship that young mother strikes up with another young mother at the local well feels, in its way, just like Brooklyn.)

I came to this book connecting with the parts about Russia, but left it connecting as a woman, which, oddly, is kind of my story with Russia itself. The magnified Russian femininity—the high heels and hookers and even the mothers and motherland—has always been a distorted mirror to hold up to my own, and to learn from.