Women in Libraries: Reviews

Winter 1997
Volume 26, Number 2

The last unspeakable topic

Randall, Margaret. The price you pay: the hidden cost of women's relationship to money. New York: Routledge,1996. Cloth, ISBN 0-415912-03-2, $59.95; paper, ISBN 0-415912-04-0, $16.95.

Margaret Randall, poet, committed socialist and activist, has written a book on money. In a recent talk at New Words Bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she described the book as a "poet's study rather than an academic study" of the relationship of women and money.

In her introductory section, she notes that the women's movement has created safe spaces for us to speak of formerly unspeakable things: rape, incest, child abuse, spousal abuse, our sexuality. We are, however, often conflicted when asked about our income, state of personal finances, or the monetary resources at our disposal. Throughout the book, she quotes heavily from responses to a survey she sent to 830 women from a wide variety of backgrounds varying in class, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and economic status. With a written response rate of about 11%, she followed up 37 of the responses with in-depth interviews. She was surprised by the number of friends and acquaintances who agreed verbally to respond to the survey, but who ultimately did not.

The book asks more questions than it answers. The issues raised are very intriguing and encourage us to examine the metaphors, myths, lies, and/or rules which surround money or financial concerns in our families of origin and the families we have created in adulthood.

She relates her discussions with women to our tendency to lie casually about money issues, e.g., raising or lowering our salary when asked to respond to cues from questioner, lowering it if we feel ashamed that we earn more than our friends or raising it because we equate our worth with the amount paid for our labor. She reveals, also, the power of our early socialization. Although she has spent most of her adult life in socialist Cuba or Nicaragua and thought she had escaped our own culture's deifying of money, she, too, acted in manipulative ways with her own children when it came to money--pretending to give money freely only to criticize the choice of where to spend it! In the last chapter, her daughter tells her story, and we glimpse the process we all need to go through to clear the demons surrounding money and its power from our psyches.

The book's primary value is in raising the issues--it goes way beyond the often-noted exclusion of women and girls from financial information and delves into how this exclusion affects our personal relationships with friends, lovers, and co-workers, and our political relationships in organizations and to our governments. It also gives us a peek at what feminist responses to financial organization can bring--beyond sliding scales of fees and voluntary fee setting.

Margaret Randall's other books include:

-- T. Tobin

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Freedom, passion, and poetry

Deming, Barbara; McDaniel, Judith, ed. I change, I change: poems by Barbara Deming. Norwich, VT: New Victoria, 1996. Cloth, ISBN 0-934678-72-3, $12.95.

The poems here follow a chronology that mirrors Barbara Deming's relationships; each chapter is named for a woman the author loved. The early poems are full of freedom and passion and, as Grace Paley notes in the preface, bear a resemblance to the work of e.e.cummings. The later works become more modulated, reserved, and polished, an indication of the author's maturation and her response to pain and trouble with discipline and vision. The change reflects a turn from inward to outward concerns, as Deming grew more active in various civil rights movements.

Deming, like Marie Claire Blais, Kate Millet, and others who grew up and eventually came out in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, continued to strive for a supportive community in a desire to combine the strength of the group with the strength of the individual in a way that would allow freedom and responsibility to coexist. She sought to reconcile the need to make art and to make a living, and to make a "right living." She became an activist and worked to make the world recognize the needs of women, the underprivileged, minorities, and eventually the gay and lesbian community. Most of the poems in this volume deal with love, with self-criticism, with passion and with nature, and with personal rather than political issues. Only some of the later poems comment on the political struggle, ridiculing the church for acting as if God the Father could suckle babies, for example, as if the traditionally patriarchal structure would nourish those outside the political pale.

As a poet and as the granddaughter of an Armenian immigrant who buried himself in assimilation to try to save his children and himself the pain of racism, I identify with and respect Deming. Her struggle for acceptance, for love, for the chance to do her work, and for spiritual strength in a world that would sometimes imply that she was not worthy of any of these things, and her persistence in spite of the difficulties, is exemplary. The introduction, preface, and epilogue add a great deal to the book as literary biography, although most of the poetry would stand alone. Deming wrote, after her last operation for cancer:

AND NOW MY SPIRIT GUIDES HAIL ME AND SMILE I'VE SUNG MYSELF BEYOND THIS LIFE'S PALE.

I would recommend this volume of poems for libraries with poetry collections, collections that lack women or lesbian authors, and as counterpoint to Prison Notes or some of her other political or autobiographical titles. -- N. Parker-Gibson

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Freedom, passion, and poetry

Carol, Ruth, ed. Standard and alternative treatments. Chicago: Third Side Press, 1994. Cloth, ISBN 1-879427-15-X, $30.95; paper, ISBN 1-879427-12-5, $12.95.

Carol's book begins with a definition of endometriosis, details forms of alternative treatment, and continues with autobiographical studies of women who pursued these alternatives instead of or along with standard medical treatment such as surgery or hormone therapy. It concludes with a list of references, a bibliography, and a list of referring agencies.

The most effective treatments involved diet, some physical treatment (i.e., acupuncture, acupressure, chiropractic, etc.) and medicinal herb treatment, particularly Chinese herbal medicines. Some women also had surgery, before or concurrently with the other treatments, to remove adhesions or endometrial material. There is a noticeable tendency for alternative practitioners to suggest an association of the disease with past or present mental or psychological traumas, and suggest counseling or relaxation and visualization techniques. The most successful treatments in the studies were of the "whole woman," at all levels--physical, mental and emotional. Carol mentions repeatedly that alternative therapies that work are adapted for the individual, in concert with her practitioners, and not adopted wholesale from any book. Certainly, patients should be aware of the fact that some herbs and other alternative medicines, if taken in the wrong concentrations or by some sensitive individuals, may be poisonous rather than beneficial. Acupuncture has just been approved for use by the FDA, but many insurance companies will not yet pay for alternative therapies.

The editor is past president of the Chicago chapter of the Endometriosis Association and writes professionally on health issues. Her book's accessible approach, illustrating the variety of treatments available for this chronic and painful condition, is heartening. It is pleasantly formatted, legible, using a larger than average font, and especially useful to those who might be put off by more difficult language, and for those who wish to focus their reading on this specific condition. Purchase, if appropriate; also consider Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom (Bantam, 1994), an overview of many women's health issues, for its broader coverage. -- N. Parker-Gibson

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One lesbian's outlook

Brownworth, Victoria A. Too queer: essays from a radical life. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books, 1996. Cloth, ISBN 1-56341-075-3, $26.95; paper, ISBN 1-56341-074-5, $13.95.

Victoria Brownworth, a lesbian journalist and Pulitzer Prize nominee, is anti-assimilationist in her view of the homosexual community, a view that undergirds this collection of essays ranging in topics from outing public figures as a political tool, through female genital mutilation and her fight against breast cancer to her love of gardens.

In her essay, "Lesbians, outing, and the politics of the closet," she describes the determination of certain journalists to expose famous gay men and women who have not announced their sexual orientation to the public, particularly those individuals who have been in a position to achieve political and cultural gains for the homosexual community. Women, Brownworth admits, have rarely been targeted by this radical method of activism, mostly because lesbians do not have the financial and political power of their gay counterparts. As for her own actions, she explains, "I have personally only outed two living people. One case was inadvertent. . . The other woman I outed was working for the FBI and turning in women and men who were queer; those people would then be fired for violating FBI security rules." She recounts the history of outing both in the tabloid and legitimate press, concluding that this political tool will have lost its leverage when society does not regard lesbianism as aberrant. The weakness in this essay is her failure to record the consequences to the individuals who have been outed; in an increasingly violent society, individuals who do not share her view are targets for homophobics, perhaps the most famous posing the largest marks.

Brownworth's personal ethics do not permit her to out individuals she feels are not actively harming the lesbian/gay community; others in her profession do not necessarily adhere to that standard. Few people would care to be politically martyred to a cause they do not believe in; in fact, the mainstream homosexual community has been outspoken in its opposition to outing.

In her exceptional essay, "A hundred million women," Brownworth paints a graphic mural of the precise horror of female genital mutilation. Her shock, as she watches a news report in London where she realizes young girls are being castrated a few blocks from her apartment, is transformed into twenty years of education on this issue. For a time she regarded this practice as a foreign problem, "a black cultural thing," as one of her professors named it. Continued research demonstrated that this procedure is not unknown in the United States. "According to the Centers for Disease Control, there have been Ôrandom' cases of botched excisions reported in New York, New Jersey, and California . . ." This practice is not against the law in the United States despite the efforts of Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder to pass legislation against it. The legislation never made it into committee. Brownworth succinctly portrays the world's indifference to the plight of the 3-4 million girls mutilated each year, "the sexual mutilation of one man (John Bobbitt) generated more publicity than the sexual mutilation of a hundred million women."

These essays cover a range of subjects about which Brownworth is passionate and outspoken. The issues are global, not primarily lesbian, though her analysis of the subjects are from a lesbian viewpoint. This volume is a wonderful educational tool for all thinking, concerned people. -- P. Crossland

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Must exile mean despair?

Yalfani, Mehri. Parastoo: stories and poems. Women's Press, 1995. Paper, ISBN 0-889612-11-0, $10.95.

In this collection of poems and short stories we encounter women who live in oppression in Iran and women who have emigrated from oppression in Iran to despair and helplessness in North America. These are tales of loss of culture, homeland, friends and family. The sentences are terse to the point of being monosyllabic, and the characters' names are symbolic in a manner that seems awkward in English. The writing lacks color in the same way the lives of the women do, both in their present surroundings and, one suspects, in the past environment they unanimously yearn for. They all seem to sense a perpetual threat, either concrete from the government or more intangible in the form of cultural solitude and lack of companionship, but either threat seems beyond their capacity to deal with. In order to cope with the hopelessness of their lives the women in the stories fall back on helplessness, surrendering to dependency on the men they are attached to, or to self-destruction or self-obliteration.

This is the author's first foray into English language publication. She composed in English, although the short biography indicates she normally writes in Farsi.

The jacket of Parastoo indicates the book "echoes with the sorrow of exile yet offers the tender promise of rejuvenation." If physical and/or emotional death is a form of rejuvenation, perhaps. This book can be recommended for extensive collections of Middle Eastern literature only. -- K. Thompson

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Life: learning to choose

Armstrong, Luanne. Bordering. Charlottetown, PEI, Canada: Gynergy-Ragweed, 1995. Paper, ISBN 0-921881-35-5, $10.95.

Luanne Armstrong's second novel, Bordering, is about Louise McDonald, who lives outside of a small town near the US border in Canada. Literally she is "bordering." She is also bordering on life, which is quickly passing her by. When we meet her, Louise is out of work, out of money, and nearing desperation. Her lover has left, and Louise feels she is unable to follow her. She is immobilized, mired in self-pity and a sense of failure.

When her best friend's daughter is accused of smuggling drugs across the border, Louise takes action. In doing so she uncovers a town secret and learns some surprising things about her ex-husband.

Armstrong's characters are well-developed and original. In fact, more interesting than the plot is getting to know Louise and the inner process she goes through during the course of the story. She realizes that she can indeed make responsible, independent choices, and in the end makes such a decision. Bordering is a quick and enjoyable read. -- B. Jedlicka

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Basic self-defense

Fein, Judith, Ph. D. How to fight back and win: the joy of self-defense. Sebastopol, CA: Torrance, 1996. Paper, ISBN 0-929523-28-8, $16.95.

Judith Fein presents her self-defense techniques as an adjunct aid for someone "actually taking a course in self-defense or studying at home--almost as if being present as one of my students." Basic skills such as stance and punch are described, then illustrated by black and white photographs of Fein modelling positions. Practice skills are outlined at the end of each chapter along with key points to remember.

In Lesson Ten, Fein stumbles over the problem of domestic violence. She dutifully lists statistics on assault, murder, weapons used, and so forth, and offers a list of characteristics to look for in a significant other that might signal abuse potential. Two short paragraphs are devoted to why women stay in abusive situations; Fein concludes that low self esteem is the problem that most often keeps women in this situation. To overcome low self esteem, she "strongly recommend[s] reading my book, Exploding the myth of self-defense: a survival guide for every woman. This book is a primer in the development of personal power." Fein's treatment of domestic violence is simplistic and does not address many of the realities women in these situations face--availability of spaces in shelters for themselves and their children, a legal system that does not always take abuse seriously, financial considerations, etc. As proud as she is of her previous work, it is debatable whether one can gain the self esteem necessary to escape a violent home situation merely from reading her book. It should be noted that Fein's advanced degree is in exercise physiology and physical education.

Later chapters explore home security devices and travel safety, as well as techniques to use when attacked by weapons. She does caution more rigorous practice before using these techniques.

As a supplement to her course in self defense, this book would probably have merit; as a self-help course it leaves much to be desired. -- P. Crossland

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Defeat fear; learn to protect yourself

Fein, Judith, Ph. D. Exploding the myth of self-defense: a survival guide for every woman. Sebastopol, CA: Torrance, 1993. Paper, ISBN 0-929523-01-6, $15.95.

Writing from her own experience with the patriarchal hierarchy of the military, Fein presents her position that women can be educated to protect themselves. She points out how societal controls, particularly the fear of rape, control women and condition them to view themselves as potential victims. Fein uses the techniques she's developed in her own self defense class and starts the book with an examination of the myths of self defense (women cannot defend themselves), the common enemy all women face (their social conditioning), and moves on to the psychology of empowerment. "Self defense begins with self empowerment, i.e. the belief in one's self. You must believe you are worth fighting for." Fein points out the anatomy of assault and how to break each point in that pattern. One chapter documents success stories submitted by women using her techniques and escaping harm.

Moving along to sexual harassment, Fein theorizes this is a tool of patriarchal oppression designed to keep women in the base of a pyramidal model (away from the finite number of power positions located in the apex of her model). She presents practical advice on dealing with sexual harassment, including as well thought out scenarios of the consequences of filing a complaint.

The chapter on physical self defense is based on the theory that it is not the size of the cat in the fight that matters; it is the size of the fight in the cat. Fein offers five examples of her own pets to back up this premise; one would have been more than enough to make a point that most readers would have grasped without further illustration. Describing physical interventions provides the reader with a limited amount of value if she is not involved with a defense course while reading the book. The book concludes with a comparison of the advantages and disadvantages of stun guns, alarms, and pepper sprays. -- P. Crossland

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Trials and joys in one's own place

Rizzo, Cindy, Jo Schneiderman, Lisa Schweig, Jan Shafer, Judith Stein, eds. Parenting and children in the lesbian and gay communities: a collection of short fiction. Norwich, VT: New Victoria, 1995. Cloth, ISBN 0-934678-68-5, $19.95; paper, ISBN 0-934678-65-0, $10.95.

All the ways home is a collection of stories about the trials and joys of being a part of lesbian and gay families. These narratives not only bring us home to the familiarities of family relationships, but also build a home unique to the homosexual community. Whether it's the lesbian couple wanting a baby, the daughter with two mothers, the father struggling to accept his gay son's new child, or the child dealing with a parent's "coming out," each author's story adds a new room of distinctive incidents, courage, fears, and perceptions. The editors have done an outstanding job in combining these stories to create a household of family experiences, allowing the reader to realize the challenges that face members of homosexual families. Although representing the "coming out" society, the stories in this book are really inviting the reader to "come in" to their homes and find that we are truly a world village. All the ways home would be essential to collections on family relationships, lesbi-gay communities, and short stories. -- L. Duda

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Listening to family stories

Kivi, Linda K. If home is a place.Vancouver, B.C.: Polestar Book Publishers, 1995. Paper, ISBN 1-896095-02-X, $16.95 Canada, $12.95 USA.

This heartfelt first novel traces one family's experience as World War II refugees from Estonia who ultimately settle in Canada. Author Kivi, a Canadian of Estonian heritage herself, focuses on three generations of women, attempting to show through them how our identity is shaped by the idea of home, and how the experience of exile, with its lack of homeplace, twists and disorients. The novel is structured as a multiple narrative, moving back and forth between past and present, intertwining the stories of matriarch Maria, daughters Sofi and Helgi, and Sofi's daughter Esther.

The historical sections, told by the three elder women, are wonderfully vivid, giving a fine impression of wartime hardships and uncertainties, and of the heroism of daily life. For them, home is a place left behind (sometimes more than once), and life literally a journey. For Esther, coming of age in Winnipeg's Estonian community as the dissolution of the Soviet Union redefines home once, the journey is more spiritual, a search for the homeplace within herself. Just as stories of the past sometimes seem more vibrant than the present, however, Esther's narrative is never so compelling as those of her mother, aunt, and grandmother. Her life seems smaller than theirs, less interesting and somehow less important. Even the older women become less interesting as they put the war and flight behind them. Though it might have been better, this is a worthwhile book. At its best, when recounting the past, the reader has the sense of sitting on a neighbor's porch listening to family stories, and that's a good feeling. -- H. Borck

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