A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult (2018)

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“He looked into the eyes of each of the women. Warriors, every one of them. Every day he was reminded of their grit, their courage in the face of obstacles, the quiet grace with which they shouldered their troubles. They were stronger than any man he’d ever known. For sure, they were stronger then the male politicians who were so terrified of them that they had designed laws specifically to keep women down.” 325

A mentally unstable, religious fanatic enters a women’s health center — the last center in the state of Mississippi that offers abortions — with a gun and opens fire. What follows is a blood bath, for certain, but also the author’s exploration of the private lives some of many, many women (and men) who visit, work at, and rely on women’s health centers across the country.

Going a step further, Picoult also attempts to explore the rationale behind the pro-life protestors who work tirelessly (outside the clinic and in the Mississippi state legislator) to block access to abortions; the mindset of the loved ones of the women who visit the Center; and even the women who cannot get care at places such as the Center and the dire choices that they face due to lack of access.

“[The doctor] imagined what it felt like for them — to have made a decision that came at a colossal emotional and financial cost — and then to have that decision called into question. Not to mention the implication that they were not capable of managing their own healthcare…Those white men with their signs and slogans were not really there for the unborn, but there for the women who carried them. They couldn’t control women’s sexual independence. This the next best thing.” 58

When George Goddard drives hours from his home in rural Mississippi to the Center in Jackson, he has only divine vengeance on his mind. His reasoning: the people in the clinic end lives and, as a punishment, God has ordained him to end theirs. He has no real understanding of what happens in the clinic — despite his pastor’s attempts to convince George that is is a factory in which women are unwillingly forced to have gruesome and nearly fatal abortions — and so the situation he finds inside the Center is confusing for him.

“[George] had pictured himself like an avenging angel, swollen to comic-book-hero proportions, bursting through the doors of the clinic and leaving destruction in his wake. Revenge, in theory, throbbed with adrenaline and was clean with conviction. In reality, it was rushing into a house on fire and forgetting to map out your exit.” 103

He does not find a torture chamber, staffed with evil doctors; but instead a small women’s clinic, staffed when nurses, social workers, doctors. The Center is being visited not by those imagined “loose and immoral women,” but regular women. Some of those women are there for abortions, but George cannot make sense of the others– some very young, some much older than he expected — who are there for other types of care. This confusion does not stop George from firing into the clinic: killing many, leaving some wounded, and taking the rest of the people hostage. He is not there to try to understand the other side of the issue, he is there to play God.

As readers get to know the people inside and outside of the Center, Picoult begins to introduce some of the many, many paths that have led them there on this fatal, terrible afternoon. There is the doctor, who performs abortions in the hope that he will spare women the terrible fate that befell his own mother, who bled to death trying to end a pregnancy that could have led to her being lynched. Or the elderly cancer patient, who is seeking care from a old friend, a women who just happens to be a nurse at the Center. There is a young girl, trying to do the right thing and get on birth control before becoming sexually active and her caring Aunt who brought her. There is a woman there to have an abortion to preserve her dreams of finishing school and building a future; and even a pro-life activist who thought to expose the Center as illegal, who instead finds herself inside a totally unexpected nightmare.

The story is told in reverse, with the final moments of the stand-off opening the story and the author, slowly, slowly reversing time, revealing to readers what led George and the hostages to be in the Center that day.

Picoult is attempting to humanize the extremely complicated issues surrounding abortion; to move the dialogue from “right versus wrong” and try to show readers that reasons for abortion are are diverse as the women who seek them. She also attempts to show that women’s health centers — like the Center in the book — are often closed or so highly regulated that life-saving healthcare for poor or rural women is eliminated. Her characters diversity are an effort to show that there is no “one kind” of woman who seeks to end a pregnancy; nor is abortion the only reason that women seek out services at places that offer them.

Notably almost all the characters in the book — even those who are pro-choice — seem in their hearts slightly conflicted about whether terminating their pregnancies is the right thing to do. I feel that this oversight eliminates the point of view of the millions of women who aren’t the least bit conflicted about abortions: the women who have them without regret, for whom the only emotion they feel afterward is relief. If the picture is to be complete, then we must extend all women’s points of view into the dialogue in order to prevent readers from assuming that it is always — at least a little bit — the wrong decision.

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She-ology by Dr. Sherry Ross (2017)

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Dr. Sherry Ross, an OB-GYN practicing for twenty-five years in Los Angeles, has written a comprehensive and super-accessible book for women about all of the wild, weird, and (at times) miserable changes their bodies will go through. Starting with puberty and stretching through menopause and beyond, She-ology covers topics related to the sexual, reproductive, and emotional well-being of women.

The manual is divided into eighteen “V’s,” that is sections that deal with different stages a woman and her vagina might go through. Chapters include: the “Tween-Teen V” for young women and their parents to read and consider what modern girls will face as they begin menstruating and the become sexually active young women; The “Mama V” for pregnant, post-partum women and for those struggling with infertility; “The Pink V” which covers vaginal health for women post-cancer; and the “Mature V” which discussed menopause, divorce, and other issues older women face. Especially noteworthy, in my opinion, was her “Rainbow V” chapter she discusses the sexual, reproductive, and emotional health of lesbian, transgender, and bi-sexual women.

Overall it was an insightful book filled with information that was straight-forward, kind, and often very funny. I was reminded while reading She-ology, that as women our bodies never stop changing and therefore it is our job to never stop learning about ourselves and our vaginas!

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich (2017)

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“Everything that I am seeing is all physically balanced on the cusp between the now of things and the big, incomprehensible change to come. If it is true that every living particle that I can see and not see, and all that is living and perhaps unliving too, is trimming its sails and coming about and heading back to port, what does that mean? Where are we bound? Is it any different, in fact, from where we were going in the first place?” 13

Louise Erdrich’s stunning new novel, Future Home of the Living God, is an ecstatic, psychedelic, feminist masterpiece: one that tells stories about the raw power of women, of mothers, of the continuance of life against all odds: and it is about the inevitable, horrific ways that men in power will dirty and corrupt change in an effort to control the uncontrollable.

A series of huge and irreversible environmental disasters have set into motion massive global changes; whether or not human-kind can survive those changes is unknown. Everything that is known, or even guessed, about the origins of life on planet Earth are being called into question and no one — neither scientist, politician, nor religious leader — can predict what will happen to those left on earth. The question that emerges as even more urgent to answer is: what will happen to those who are about to arrive on earth?

As governments crumble and people devolve into violence and chaos, the call to round up all pregnant women and detain them against their will is is growing louder. Cedar Hawk Songmaker, a young Ojibwe woman living in Minneapolis, sees the world crumbling and is unsure where to turn: towards her white, adoptive parents or to her biological Native parents on their reservation in Norther Minnesota? Who can best protect her during these uncertain times, and who can best protect her unborn baby from a government that wants to take it for their own experimentation?

” I know this: there is nothing one human being will not due to another. We need a god who sides with the wretched. One willing to share misery.” 153

The dystopic story that follows is riveting and horrifying, but expertly written by Erdrich. The author blends Native story-telling, Catholicism, New-Age spirituality, evolutionary biology, and her own unique visions of the future to tell Cedar’s tale. What will become of women, she asks, when men in power decided that they will seize complete control of human reproduction?  The answer, nothing good.

The future of the world is not a devastating and dramatic end but a complete reversal. Things begin to move backward, time reverses, and humans shed their civility in response. Women, as always, are simultaneously the key to the Future and  extraordinarily vulnerable to the ill-intent of science, religion, and men who want to claim their power to create life for their own.

This book is, I say again, a masterpiece of science fiction — of fiction! — and should not be missed.

“That my body is capable of building a container for the human spirit has inspired in me the will to survive. It has also shown me truths. Someone has been tortured on my behalf. Someone has been tortured on your behalf. Some in this world will always be suffering for your behalf. If it comes your time to suffer, just remember. Someone suffered for you. That is what taking on the cloak of human flesh is all about, the willingness to hurt for another human being.” 205

 

The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer (2010)

The women of Stellar Plains, New Jersey are preoccupied with sex: how much they are having, who they are having it with, whether they are enjoying it, and what to do to get more. From teenage girls who are just beginning their sexual lives to long-married women for whom sex is a distant memory; it is on the minds of the women of the entire town this December. (To be fair, sex is on the minds of the men in town too, but given that this is true most of the time, the thoughts the male residents of the town have about sex are less important in this story.)

The intimate lives of the women in town are heading for a shake-up, although in the opening pages of the book none of the female characters in The Uncoupling suspect what they are in for.  It is only when the high school drama teacher selects the Greek play, Lysistrata, that a cold wind begins to blow into the bedrooms of every woman in the story.

In the play, the women of ancient Greece are sick of the decades-long war that has stolen their husbands away, some forever, and decide they only have one weapon left: sex. They will withhold sex from all men until the war is brought to an end. In The Uncoupling, it is as if the ideas from the play begin to cast a spell one woman after another, causing each to inexplicably and irrevocably refuse to have sex.

It becomes clear that each woman’s refusal of sex has a deeply different cause from that of her neighbors. For sixteen year-old Willa, it is as if she is suddenly doubting whether love is real and whether she has let sex have too much power of her relationship. For Ruth, a mother of two toddlers and a newborn, the respite from her husband’s lackluster nightly sex sessions allows her time to set some guidelines for self-care which include stopping sex until her husband makes it worth her while. For Leanne, pausing all three sexual relationships she is in forces her to take a hard look at whether causal sex is really all she wants as she approaches 30. For forty-year-old Dory, it is the first time is more than 20-years of marriage that sex has not been at the center of her marriage and her sudden refusal shines a light on what the rest of her relationship with her husband brings to her life. For Bev, whose recent weight gain has led to conflict in the bedroom, the refusal to have sex is a demand to her husband: love me as I am (not as I was) or get out.

Wolitzer tells her tale with laugh-out loud humor as well as deep insight into the social forces that influence who a woman sleeps with and why. The book sheds a light on the various paths to sexual fulfillment women follow and attempts to remove the shame women feel about their bodies and their sexual appetites. A wonderful book that I highly recommend, even if you have found Wolitzer’s other works to be difficult to read.

Younger by Sara Gottfried, M.D. (2017)

Younger: A Breakthrough Program to Reset your Genes, Reverse Aging, and Turn Back the Clock 10 Years

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For the record, I rarely read self-help health books. While I am happy to consider all other aspects of self-improvement, I find books that tout one specific approach to “healthy” living to be gimmicky and overly specific. However, after hearing Dr. Gottfried’s interview on a podcast (http://happierinhollywood.com/episode19/ ) I was sufficiently intrigued by her promises for easing the downsides of aging and — lets be real — her ideas for how to look better with little effort.

The reality of the book is, of course, far less simple than its author (or book jacket) profess. Grounded in very specific information about genetics, medical jargon, and peppered with studies that support her claims, Gottfried lays out what she calls her “protocol” to slow aging and restore a more youthful appearance. At its core, the book encourages readers to adopt the mainstays of improved health: more sleep, less stress, healthy eating, more exercise, and basic self-care. Those recommendations are presented in a clear and straight-forward ways: with plenty of research for those (do you exist?) who still need to be convinced that these changes are vital to good health.

When the book begins to divert from that core message, things get complicated…and expensive. To support your good health efforts, Gottfried offers a long, long, long list of practices to adopt to “turn back the clock.” During your waking hours (which in this protocol is specified as approximately 6AM to 10PM), readers are asked to spend almost every single moment taking action to slow the aging process. Among these activities that the doctor recommendations: swallowing dozens upon dozens of supplements; drinking collagen smoothies; fasting; drinking low-mold coffee or “chain amino-acid” teas; meditating, eating two or more pounds of vegetables a day; eliminating gluten, dairy, and sugar; and — all the while — increasing the amount time you exercise, meditate, and sleep.

In addition to those activities, which I agree all seem largely beneficial, there are even more things readers are encouraged to adopt — although when they are to find time for even more activities than the core “protocol” encourages, I’m not sure — a list that grows each and every chapter. A few samples of extra ideas to work into your “restore youth” regimen: sesame oil tooth-pulling, making bone broth, wearing “amber tinted glasses” after dark, sitting in from of a light therapy box, taking yoga several times a week, spending 20-40 minutes a day in a sauna, and many more.

Even more unsettling this (mind-boggling) long list, it the cost of this “protocol” is bordering on outrageous. Hundreds of dollars of supplements, powders, genetic testing, organic foods and cosmetics, special light-bulbs, light boxes, toxin-removal treatments, electric toothbrushes, bio-dynamic wine, home mold-removal/water filtration systems, and installing a sauna! And that is the short list! To incorporate even some of her suggestions would be a huge financial commitment and at times it seems that this book is for wealthy women, since there are very few inexpensive options (other than sleeping more and walking) offered in lieu of the more costly ones. I would love to see her write a companion book for Younger that is aimed at low or fixed-income women living in rentals that they cannot modify; women who cannot afford gym memberships or Whole Foods groceries, not to mention $200+ per month supplement fees or sauna installations.

Gottfried is no-doubt passionate about promoting good health, but her rules are many, complex, and costly (and, to be real, a bit ridiculous at times). I am sure that should you adopt her protocol, the reader would see improved health and younger looks but I fear for the woman who tried to undertake all of her suggestions…it would be a full-time job!

On a side note, I found myself intrigued by her brief mention of the company Hairprint: an all-natural, food-grade hair treatment system that uses break-through science to naturally reprogram gray hair to its original color. Check it out at: https://www.myhairprint.com/products/true-color-restorer-for-women