Catherine Hollis

In The Right to Sex, Amia Srinivasan, a professor of social and political theory at All Souls College at the University of Oxford, engages with some of the most complex hot-button cultural issues to emerge around sex and consent in the 21st century. With intelligence and clarity, Srinivasan unpacks the moral and philosophical underpinnings of such topics as false rape accusations, pornography and teacher-student relationships, making her book an invaluable companion for readers interested in nuanced analysis rather than hasty clickbait. 

The book emerged from Srinivasan’s 2018 essay “The Right to Sex,” which considered the case of Elliot Rodger, the killer whose deadly rampage at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2014 was supposedly motivated by his status as an “incel,” or involuntary celibate. Rodger’s assumption that he was somehow “owed” sex from women has proven to be a toxic influence on some social media platforms. In considering this case, Srinivasan moves her argument in unexpected directions to ask ever larger and harder philosophical questions: While there is no “right” to demand sex from other people, how should we think about desirability as a concept? Why are some bodies seen as desirable and others aren’t? How is desirability a political concept, shaped by popular culture?

In other essays, Srinivasan provides a helpful survey of the history of feminist responses to pornography, which range widely from the anti-porn feminism of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon in the 1970s and ’80s to the more pro-sex pleasure activists of the 1990s. Here, as elsewhere in the book, Srinivasan opens up these issues beyond their original contexts to engage with them in a contemporary setting. To this end, Srinivasan’s classroom of undergraduates at Oxford becomes a kind of testing ground for how young people think about pornography and the influence it has had on them as the first fully digital generation.

With articulate precision, Srinivasan’s timely book offers readers a lucid and compelling guide to thinking philosophically about sex and power.

Amia Srinivasan’s book about sex and consent is invaluable for readers interested in intelligent, clear and nuanced analysis rather than hasty clickbait.

This engrossing new history of American women’s fight to gain autonomy over their sexuality and reproductive choices has a somewhat misleading title: The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship, and Civil Liberties in the Gilded Age. While Anthony Comstock, the “anti-vice” crusader and U.S. postal inspector, was without a doubt a man who hated women, his story is ultimately less significant than those of the brave women who stood up to him at the dawn of the 20th century.

Comstock’s drive to root out and destroy materials that he considered pornographic led to the passing of the Comstock Act in 1873, which made it illegal to mail “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” materials through the U.S. Postal Service. In his role as postal inspector, and inspired by a mania for “purity,” he defined pamphlets and books about contraception and family planning as “obscene” and subsequently hounded, prosecuted and even drove to suicide people who disseminated such information.

Bestselling author Amy Sohn vividly brings to life the activists who opposed Comstock's efforts in The Man Who Hated Women. Suffragist Victoria C. Woodhull, free love advocate Angela Heywood, spiritualist Ida C. Craddock, abortionist Madame Restell, anarchist Emma Goldman and birth control defender Margaret Sanger are just a few who doggedly fought against the Comstock laws in order to bring information about sex and birth control to American women at the turn of the century.

Sohn has unearthed a wealth of vivid historic detail about these women’s resistance to Comstock’s censorship. Dr. Sara Chase, for example, not only sued Comstock for damaging her medical practice but named the vaginal syringe she sold to women for contraceptive douching the “Comstock syringe.” Craddock, who believed that sex was a deeply spiritual act, fought for the rights of Egyptian belly dancers to perform the “hoochie-coochie.”

Sohn places these mostly forgotten “sex radicals” at the center of the history of the women’s rights movement. That this battle continues in our own time makes The Man Who Hated Women all the more important and enlightening.

Amy Sohn vividly brings to life the activists who fought for American women’s right to information about sex and birth control at the dawn of the 20th century.

In West African Igbo mythology, an ogbanje spirit is a troublesome entity temporarily housed in a human body. Akwaeke Emezi’s stunning debut novel, Freshwater (2018), uses this element of “Igbo ontology” to tell a story of what it’s like to grow up ogbanje, death-haunted and multiple. Subsequently, Emezi has written about identifying as trans and as ogbanje themself—as something other than human.

Emezi’s brilliant Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir develops their ideas about identity and art through a sequence of letters to friends, lovers, students, writers and deities. This book tells of growing up in Aba, Nigeria, witnessing casual violence and injury, and of a childhood shaped by the works of literature brought home by Emezi’s parents. Emezi recounts writing Freshwater, having a breakdown during the ensuing book tour and pursuing surgeries that would free them from a gendered human body. These surgeries, which Emezi accepts as “mutilations,” are how the “spirit customiz[es] the vessel” and have as much to do with being ogbanje as being trans.

Perhaps Emezi’s greatest achievement with this memoir is their insistence on centering Igbo ontology within their story rather than reaching for tired Western metaphors about psychiatric conditions like trauma, PTSD or disassociation. Emezi’s work reminds us that these diagnoses are limiting boxes, shaped by colonialist, racist and sexist assumptions. Dear Senthuran explodes these human limitations by insisting on the imagination’s power to create worlds.

Each letter in Dear Senthuran is hypnotic and poetic, but the letters to Nonso, which read like letters to a student or a “baby writer,” are particularly powerful. These letters discuss “worldbending” with reference to Octavia Butler’s fiction. Writers make worlds exist from nothing—a godlike power available to anyone willing to “face their work.”

In Dear Senthuran, Emezi generously shares both their wounds and their wisdom, offering aspiring writers and artists fresh inspiration for creating new forms of making, loving and being.

In Dear Senthuran, Akwaeke Emezi explodes human limitations by insisting on the imagination’s power to create worlds.

White Magic is divine, incantatory, a riddle, an illusion. In Elissa Washuta’s hands, this collection becomes more than the sum of its parts. The subjects of these essays are parts of a bigger story—like a spell with the intention to make whole what has been wounded. Readers of Washuta’s two previous nonfiction books will recognize some of the same terrain, but this collection creates a new narrative, a reckoning with healing and with growing up.

White Magic begins with Washuta's urgent desire to decolonize witchcraft and other spiritual practices. For example, the Native American practice of smudging with white sage has been commodified so thoroughly that sage bundles were recently offered for sale at Sephora. Washuta, who is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, wishes for “a version of the occult that isn’t built on plunder,” although she doubts whether such a thing exists.

Tapping into her roots, Washuta explores the ecology of the Seattle region through Native mythology, as well as the history of the region’s colonization by white settlers. Multiple essays focus on the legacy of sexual violence against Native women, contextualized through Washuta’s own harrowing experiences. These essays move deftly between the personal, cultural and historical to create resonances across time.

Some of the best essays in White Magic are the most intimate, especially the ones that wrestle with the piercing sorrow of romantic attachment. Why do we love those who cannot love us back—or worse, who might kill us? Under Washuta’s dexterous touch, these questions gain symbolic weight through nuanced excursions into pop culture, from Stevie Nicks and “Twin Peaks” to the video game Red Dead Redemption 2. These subjects might sound disparate, but Washuta’s gift for weaving metaphorical strands across essays creates a strikingly harmonious narrative whole.

White Magic is divine, incantatory, a riddle, an illusion. In Washuta’s hands, this collection becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Jo Ann Beard’s prose is never more intensely vibrant than when describing death. Her celebrated essay “The Fourth State of Matter,” published in The New Yorker in 1996, depicts the decline of a beloved dog and the end of a marriage before segueing into the horror of a mass shooting at the University of Iowa. Beard’s new collection of essays, Festival Days, shimmers with a similar emotional intensity, especially when evoking the flashes of memory that come to those pausing on the threshold between life and death.

Beard is known as a nonfiction essayist, but her work often reads like suspenseful fiction. Her essay “Werner,” included in this volume, is about a man who jumps from a burning building in New York City. Beard’s narration so completely enters the subjective experience of Werner, clutching his cat under his arm as he contemplates the jump, it feels to the reader like a virtual reality experience. Similarly, Beard’s prose in the essay “Cheri” conforms intimately to the physical and mental experiences of a dying woman.

Allowing her work to exist beyond the labels of fiction or nonfiction, Beard’s metaphorical patterns evince the imaginative truths that underlie her writing. Festival Days is woven from these repeating symbols: the elderly dog, the husband’s betrayal, the friend dying of cancer. In three different essays in this collection, someone falls through a thin sheet of ice into a winter lake. Twice they are rescued; once they are not. These resonances across the essays suggest a greater unity, a story unfolding over a lifetime.

Beard’s literary powers are most evident in the long eponymous essay that concludes this collection. Here, Beard weaves metaphor and memory into a stunning portrait of lifelong friendship, of those relationships that hold us and ground us across the decades, that persist with love even to the final goodbye.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Festival Days is great on audiobook! Read our starred review.

Jo Ann Beard’s masterful essays shimmer with emotional intensity, especially when evoking the flashes of memory that come on the threshold between life and death.

Patricia Highsmith wrote about obsessive love, hate and murder in a series of psychologically disturbing crime novels. Her first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), was adapted into a film by Alfred Hitchcock, and her second novel, The Price of Salt (1952), written under a pseudonym, was more recently adapted by Todd Haynes into the award-winning film Carol (2015). The release of Highsmith’s diaries in 2021 will no doubt arouse more interest in her life and psychology—for Highsmith was, by all accounts, a deeply unpleasant person.

Richard Bradford’s Devils, Lusts, and Strange Desires is the third biography of Highsmith to emerge in recent years, and it is by far the most lurid. As is clear from the very first page, which stopped me in my tracks, this is a biography that relishes in the worst that Highsmith thought, said and did. What is unclear, and on this topic Bradford's analysis is very good, is to what extent the murderous impulses recorded in Highsmith’s diaries were “real” or an imaginative rehearsal for her novels. Bradford suggests that Highsmith embedded as many truths, lies and manipulative games in her diaries as she did in her novels, a strategy possibly designed to frustrate future biographers.

Bradford is primarily interested in drawing connections between Highsmith’s personal life and her psychopathic characters, especially the ones in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955). Unfortunately, the effect of this parallelism is that the mid-20th-century closeted world of lesbian relationships (of which Highsmith had many) is portrayed as something out of gay pulp fiction. Highsmith’s love life was a roller coaster of attraction, obsession, alcoholism and trauma, but a more nuanced biography would contextualize this toxic brew within the homophobia and misogyny of the time. This is not that biography. Nonetheless, readers looking to immerse themselves in stories of very bad behavior will enjoy this deadly cocktail.

Richard Bradford’s Devils, Lusts, and Strange Desires is the third biography of Highsmith to emerge in recent years, and it is by far the most lurid. As is clear from the very first page, this is a biography that relishes in the worst that Highsmith thought, said and did.

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!

Trending Features

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!