February Book Review Club: Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free by Linda Kay Klein

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Linda Kay Klein was raised within the evangelical culture during the purity movement. When she found herself too attracted to her high school boyfriend, she convinced herself that God wanted her to break up with him to show her devotion, as that was an easier concept to understand rather than that sexual attraction is normal and healthy. Just out of high school, she learned that her youth pastor had been a pedophile and a young girl in her youth group had been his victim, and Klein first begins to question purity culture. In early adulthood, she still finds herself bound to it. When she begins some sexual experimentation with her boyfriend, she obsessively takes pregnancy tests, even though she is still a virgin. Ultimately, her questioning led her to graduate studies where she wrote her thesis on white American evangelicalism’s gender and sexuality messaging for girls. It also led her to conduct interviews with women raised in purity culture about their experiences. Those interviews, coupled with her own experiences, became the book that is Pure. The interviewed women ranged in age from the early twenties to the early forties, and all are white evangelical females unless otherwise noted.

Pure is part of a greater backlash against purity culture that has been underway among current and former evangelicals. Even Josh Harris, author of the infamous I Kissed Dating Goodbye and golden boy of ‘90s evangelical circles, decided against continuing publication of his own defining book, which told an entire generation of evangelicals how to approach romance, marriage, and sex, even though he was a homeschooled 21-year-old when he wrote it. While Klein is not the first to point out the ill effects of the purity movement, she has possibly done it best by giving voice to many women and by explaining the psychological effects of the purity movement.

Klein explores the inconsistencies of purity culture, how girls are told if they just keep themselves pure and sexless before marriage, they will instantly enjoy a fulfilling sex life upon marrying, as that is God’s blessing upon upright young couples. One woman Klein interviews married very young, as she and her husband were eager to go to bed together. Having a strong sense of purity, they waited until they were at the altar to have their first kiss, a mortifying and very public experience that involved clanking teeth, only to find their total ignorance of sex kept them from having a satisfying sex life for several years. That is quite possibly the most extreme story in the book, but it is likely not uncommon among evangelical circles, given that even thinking about sex before marriage can be frowned upon, as thoughts are considered to be a reflection of the soul. With that type of expectation, for a “pure” couple to successfully have great sex on their wedding night, they would need to be a pair of prodigies.

Many of the stories are those you would expect to find in a book like this: One woman was raped by her brother, only to have her parents blame her for “enticing” her brother. There is a lot said of women being “stumbling blocks,” the classic cliche of the evangelical world, where women are blamed for the lustful thoughts of men. Klein points out this is a misinterpretation of scripture, as only one Biblical reference to stumbling blocks refers to sexual desire, and in that reference, it is the lustful eye that is described as the stumbling block, not the object of desire.

As someone who grew up in a fundamentalist church, I related to this book. Lately, I have been thinking of how my early religious upbringing has formed me. The best of me can easily be credited to my childhood church and to my parents. That is where I learned about service, community, and what it means to live selflessly. There are other things–critical thinking and social justice, for instance–I have had to learn for myself as an adult because they were notably not taught at church or at home. There is also damage. All of the trauma and sexual anxiety that Klein describes I recognize in my own life. There was also a spiritual trauma completely separate from the purity culture. As someone who is prone to doubt and genetically prone to anxiety, growing up in a church that regularly liked to share the bad news about hellfire was probably not the best for my mental health.

I do strongly recommend Pure. The obvious audience is those who have grown up in evangelical or fundamentalist homes, but I think this is relevant outside that subculture. Purity culture can be seen in gender-specific school dress codes. The belief that women are “stumbling blocks” to men is at the root of the Me Too “anxiety” that men can’t mentor women in the workplace because women are too distractingly sexy or because they are Eves who might falsely accuse them of sexual harassment.

FCC Notice: I bought my own copy.

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February Book Review Club: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (nonfiction)

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Bryan Stevenson is the founder of Equal Justice Initiative and an attorney who represents those who have been wrongly accused of crimes and those who have been given sentences that far exceed their crimes. While Just Mercy spans Stevenson’s entire career in law, the primary focus is on Walter McMillian, a man who was put on death row for a murder he did not commit.

Walter McMillian was found guilty of murder in the same Alabama county where Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. McMillian was an African-American man who was accused of the murder of a white woman. His accuser was a white man who was trying to strike a deal with local law enforcement to escape punishment for his own crimes by “solving” a recent murder that outraged the small town. To the man’s surprise and eventual alarm, local law enforcement immediately latched on to his story about McMillian, even though Walter McMillian had dozens of alibis on the day of the murder. The story grew more fantastical and more “witnesses” were pulled into the scam, aided by local law enforcement who knew they had the wrong man, but wished to be seen by the public as being “tough on crime.”

When Stevenson became involved in the McMillian case, Walter was already on death row. Stevenson was shocked at the flimsiness of the evidence he had been convicted on, as well as by the evidence that had been suppressed. In Monroe County, he learned that those most proud of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird were those quickest to deny that Walter McMillian was their town’s black scapegoat. Stevenson sought to reveal the cover ups and corruption that defined the case, and before long, he was receiving bomb threats at the office.

I loved this book, though it is definitely not an easy read. I connected with Stevenson and his clients and the reading experience was very emotional for me. This was a book that was surprising and not surprising all at the same time. Going in, I knew the death sentence often reflects the prisoner’s ability to afford decent legal counsel more than it affects the seriousness of the crime. I knew that people executed for crimes are sometimes discovered to be innocent when it is too late. I knew the link between race and severity of sentencing. I knew women prisoners are vulnerable to rape by prison guards and that many have given birth while chained to prison beds.

What this book did was make that all personal with stories rather than statistics. And it did at times shock me. I was surprised at the severity of punishment for child offenders. I was surprised by the stories of poor women wrongly accused of murder after delivering stillborn babies. I shouldn’t have been surprised at how recently courts were able to exclude all minorities from juries, but I was surprised.

This is an eye-opening book, and I do recommend it. What I do not recommend is reading it in public. This is not a restaurant book, a Starbucks book, an airplane book, or a train book. Because it will make you cry. And when you cry, it will weird out the person stuck in the middle seat of your airplane row. Consider yourself warned.

FCC Notice: I bought my copy.

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September Book Review Club: Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker

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Bianca Bosker was a technology editor with an average knowledge of wine when she first encountered the world of sommeliers. She related to their drive and passion, having an obsessive personality of her own, and she envied how sensory their world was, compared to her own experiences writing about technology. Soon after, Bosker quit her job at the Huffington Post to learn about wine full time, starting humbly as a “cellar rat” in a Manhattan restaurant, then befriending restaurant owners and master sommelier students and gaining entrance to prestigious wine events.

The best way I can describe Cork Dork is to say imagine Hermione Granger was a slightly hipsterish millennial aspiring to be a sommelier and then she wrote a memoir about it.  It’s about a woman developing new passions and seeking new challenges, but it’s also very nerdy and encyclopedic.  When Bosker learns about wine, she does what the sommeliers do and joins tasting groups; creates endless flashcards; develops her sense of smell by sniffing chives and lavender; and gives up salt, coffee, and mouthwash. But she doesn’t stop there because she wants to know everything about wine.  She learns the history of sommeliers, she meets with scientists researching taste and smell, learns how science has engineered wine to be of consistent quality from year to year, and questions whether we can truly know what it is that makes a wine “good.”

While Cork Dork is nerdy, it’s never boring. Bosker’s enthusiasm is contagious and charming.  It was a book that made me want to drink more wine and generally focus more on my senses. It did not make me want to follow in her footsteps and become a sommelier. She correctly portrays the sommelier’s world as disciplined and grueling, and I knew from the earliest chapters that wine would never be more than a hobby for me. I enjoyed reading her journey and I loved the glimpses into the more exclusive corners of the wine world, but I have no desire to give up coffee or drink wine in the morning. For me, that would lessen rather than increase my joy of wine.

I do recommend Cork Dork for wine lovers and foodies or for people who enjoy memoirs.

FCC Notice: I bought my own copy.

 

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April Book Review Club:  Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi (memoir)

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I have been thinking a lot about reading these days: reading as escape, reading for information, reading as an act of resistance. It’s my interest in reading as resistance that led me to this book. I have picked this book up in bookstores at least a dozen times over the last decade, only to put it back down.  Which I am now grateful that I did because I needed to read this book –and read it as a first time reader– right now.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is the story of Professor Azar Nafisi’s book club, where she invited seven of her female former university students to join a weekly reading group at her house where they would discuss forbidden works of Western literature.  There are four sections to this memoir:  Lolita, Gatsby, James, and Austen.  Lolita and Austen serve as bookends and tell the story of the book club, while the Gatsby and James sections go into Nafisi’s academic career and how her students responded to Western literature in different political climates. Reading Lolita in Tehran praises how literature teaches empathy, which the author would likely say has more value than any moral lessons embedded in the text, and emphasizes the importance of imagination.

In addition to being about literature and personal liberty, Reading Lolita in Tehran is about the lives of women and about female friendships.  The young women in the class range in age from the late teens to early thirties. Some are liberal, while others are more religious and traditional.  Some have had multiple marriages while others have never had a boyfriend.  Some of them have been imprisoned.  All of them are well-educated, and each is independent in her own way.  They are alike in their love of literature and in that all of them are restricted by the laws and culture of Iran.

As I read this, I kept thinking of current events.  On some level, this is not quite fair to what the people of Iran went through in the eighties and nineties.  Nafisi had friends and family who were executed during this time, and she kept a nightly vigil outside her small children’s bedrooms while bombs fell on Tehran.  Nafisi had to make choices between her career and her personal liberty.  Meanwhile I am irritated by the people who are currently in power and concerned about what will happen to the rights of women and minorities over the next few years.  So I am not suggesting the two situations are the same, especially on the level of severity, but I think lessons can be learned from Iran in how political climates can change so dramatically and how everyday people both contribute to this and are victimized by it.

I hope that in ten years time, I will look back at my current blog posts lamenting certain current events and find my posts to be melodramatic and ridiculous.  I hope the current national environment is nothing more than a normal step backyard that will soon be remedied by moving two steps forward.  I hope the checks and balances are more effective than I think and the American people less apathetic.  But it may not be.  Reading Lolita in Tehran does show that progressive changes can be reversed.  Nafisi writes of being young in a progressive environment, only to have her daughter be born into an environment where women’s rights had moved back to what they had been in her grandmother’s youth when girls could be brides at age nine and courts ruled in favor of domestic abusers.

It could have been a depressing book, but it is not.  It is a celebration of life, love, friendship, and literature.  This book left me grateful to be a reader and grateful to Professor Nafisi for sharing her stories and her life with us readers.  I wanted to be part of her book club, eating oranges and pastries and drinking tea out of beautiful glassware, while talking about literature and life with these women.  And I am left with an urge to read and/or re-read the books mentioned in this memoir, looking at them with a new perspective.

FCC Notice:  I read a library copy.

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