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Book Review: The Pleasure Plan by Laura Zam

My review for the Washington Independent Review of Books.

This honest account of a quest for pain-free intimacy pulls no punches.

With its pink-purse cover and self-help-conjuring title, Laura Zam’s The Pleasure Plan has the auspices of yet another treatise on the elusive art of sexual-spark kindling. And while there can never be enough books written on the topic, this one has a slightly different audience in mind — namely, those of us too “broken” for a conventional sex book and for whom there is nothing normal or conventional about intercourse.

Not to mention that this book is more a quest to avoid pain than to find pleasure in the face of dyspareunia, vaginismus, or sexual aversion disorder. As the author puts it, “I have every hooha hangup in the DSM.” Though the condition affects between 10 and 20 percent of women, the author herself didn’t know it had a name — or names — until she was in her 40s.

Lest you’re inclined to think that incredibly painful intercourse is no big deal, people with disorders like vaginismus often cannot even wear tampons. Psychologically, they experience during sex something akin to PTSD. Intercourse is “like being a virgin every single time. Madonna, this is not sexy,” the author explains. And since sex is the lingua franca of our society, you can surmise what a death knell this can be for relationships.

The book — which grew, in part, out of the author’s “Modern Love” essay in the New York Times — starts on a happy note: Zam has met and married her husband, Kurt, but hasn’t told him about her “hooha hangups.”

Insert screeching-halt noise here.

You might be wondering how someone could not know his partner isn’t only not having a particularly good time in bed but is enduring lightning-bolt levels of pain. You might also wonder why the author hasn’t revealed this fact to the love of her life.

This dynamic is less a commentary on Zam’s particular relationship than an indictment of the social norms that drive women to literally grin and bare it. These norms also discourage women from admitting to anything other than a perfect sex life. As Zam puts it, “Privacy has stolen my life force.”

But tell her partner she does, and she goes a step further, undertaking the Sisyphean task of trying to remedy her problem. Like a lot of us “broken” ones, however, as a survivor of childhood trauma, she first must untangle how much of the issue is psychological, how much is physical, and how much is both — a case of “my mind is telling me yes, but my body is screaming a hell no.”

Zam begins a tortuous tour of 15 specialists, exploring EFT (emotional freedom techniques), hypnosis, tantra, trauma therapy, group couples’ workshops, pelvic-floor physical therapy, vaginal weights, and dilators. Unfortunately, vaginismus is poorly understood and difficult to treat, and the situation isn’t helped by various medical professionals’ dismissive stances.

For example, a hypnotist asked Zam pointedly, “You do want to stay married, right?” before doling out the several-hundred-dollar advice to “Just do it.” A sex therapist refuses to see Zam before sending her to a physical therapist first because “she doesn’t deal with vaginal pain.”

(Please, dear reader, don’t start in about how patient Kurt must be for going through this with her. Enough about others. Let’s talk about us, not the long-suffering partners we have a really hard time finding in the first place.)

While Zam’s book is filled with levity — which I interpret as “laughing to keep from crying” — there’s nothing funny about being in so much pain that every attempt at intimacy feels like something to be endured. “Do I love Kurt in these moments? I don’t know. I am too far away to notice,” writes the author. “I strap down my animal sadness so I don’t saturate the bed with the wrong kind of moisture.”

Zam interweaves into The Pleasure Plan stories of her family and growing up as a commentary on trauma and resilience. It makes for engrossing reading and, likely, some vigorous nodding in agreement from people who identify as female and who, like the author, laugh to keep from crying.

Although the clinical term of “vaginismus brought on by fear of penetration” is one way to describe the Hydra she is fighting, “I don’t want anything inside me” captures it more aptly. In its face, Zam perseveres long after most would have given up. At times, the methods of the “healers” she consults are downright hilarious, such as the cringe-worthy approach of “repeating vapid, lascivious language while in a pseudotrance.” (No, it doesn’t work.)

The response to Zam’s book has been overwhelmingly positive, and she has been praised for her bravery in writing it. Of course, a subset of critics harps on Kurt’s patience and understanding. But forget him for a moment. This is about her pain, remember?

The Pleasure Plan isn’t a quest for pleasure. It is an attempt to contend with physical and social pain — the pain of being rejected as a weirdo too broken to repair. Sex is enormously important in our society. If one can’t function sexually, is one doomed to a lifetime of loneliness?

The book is full of questions and exercises to help readers develop their own plan and asks, “Where are you stuck in your sexual healing?” Alas, this presupposes that we all want to become unstuck, when many of us have simply dropped out of the, er, marketplace altogether. Maybe in her next book, Zam could address some alternate forms of relationships where intimacy is not expressed through intercourse alone, open relationships, or even asexuality.

Despite this small cavil, The Pleasure Plan is a must-read not just for people affected by dyspareunia, but for anyone interested in learning more about a complicated condition foreign to most. The book will move you and keep you reading no matter your gender or “hooha hangups” — or lack thereof.

The Call: Inside the Global Saudi Religious Project Book Review

My review  for the Washington Independent Review of Books

An in-depth look at the export of conservative Islamic teachings from the Arabian Peninsula.

The term “soft power” is ubiquitous enough that it has long left the international relations arena behind and moved into public discourse. It seems intuitive that changing hearts and minds is a much less costly and subtle route to hegemony. But what sort of work is soft power and what sort of an export is ideology?

Krithika Varagur’s The Call: Inside the Global Saudi Religious Project is an incisive, salient, and comprehensive exploration of the sort of philanthropy that comes with a heaping side of religious proselytizing. Varagur brilliantly captures the complexities and contradictions of Saudi Arabia’s export (intentional or incidental) of Salafism and portrays soft power for what it really is — messy, highly unpredictable, and a far cry from the puppet-master-like characterization it has recently received.

The author offers three case studies on three continents: Indonesia (where she lived for several years); Nigeria and the rise of Boko Haram; and Kosovo, which has the dubious honor of having “contributed more foreign fighters per capita to ISIS than any other country in Europe.”

It would be wrong to characterize this book as a “follow the money” exposé, all the more so because that trail has been cold for decades. Money is no longer flowing as it once did; Mohammed bin Salman, the new Saudi prince, seems especially uninterested in the grand dawa pursuits of his predecessors. Instead, Varagur’s journalistic acumen shines in her interviews with imams, government leaders, students, and the media, and in her own observations.

Dawa refers to the call or invitation to Islam, akin to mission work. The State Department estimates that as much as $10 billion has gone to charitable organizations as part of the Saudi dawa. Saudi Arabia’s Dawa Ministry has a staff of over 9,500 people, a $1.86 billion budget, and is responsible for dawa, as well as the maintenance of mosques inside the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia’s dawa project reached apotheosis following the 1973 oil embargo, which made the kingdom flush with petrol wealth. The Islamic University of Medina, built by King Faisal in the 1960s, brought its students into the Wahhabi fold. The oil money went toward such large projects in Indonesia as, for example, a university, a large Saudi embassy, and the presence of a “religious attaché.”

“Wahhabism is a movement within Sunni Islam named after Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, an eighteenth-century preacher who sought to purify his faith of the idolatrous and blasphemous practices that he thought corrupted the austere monotheism at the heart of Islam,” writes Varagur. Wahhabism lent the Saud family the religious legitimacy necessary to entrench the monarchy and shelter it from more global influences, like that of Pan-Arabism or socialism.

Varagur presents both the dim view of Salafism and its appeal (Wahhabism is a Saudi-specific term; its outside counterpart is called Salafism). Its obsession with minutiae — like how to pray, what music (if any) to listen to, and whether to take pictures with cats — speaks to its conservatism.

The flipside of what Varagur calls its small-mindedness is its austere simplicity and, she astutely points out, its accessibility: Doctrinal knowledge comes directly from texts, which are nowadays available online and simple enough to not require a mediator.

Although Saudi dawa has waned in influence and investment, The Call demonstrates how ideological ecosystems take on a life of their own. The influence of Salafism is much more apparent now, perhaps because the problematic link between charitable aid and religious indoctrination is equally so.

For example, Saudi dawa helped rebuild the Ache and other regions of Indonesia devastated by the 2004 tsunami, gaining a foothold for its puritanical brand of Islam. Indonesia, a modern and tolerant Islamic society, now has an anti-Shia league, and Ahmadiyya Muslims have been driven into refugee camps.

Perhaps one small shortcoming of The Call is Varagur’s failure to draw parallels between Christian development organizations and the rise of intolerant Christianity abroad (Nigeria comes to mind). She remains steadfastly focused on Salafism, when situating her argument into a larger context might have served it.

Ultimately, Varagur argues, the intersection between political Islam and the public sphere is complicated. But three consequences, in all of her case studies, are that an educated class of Salafi scholars, who then shape the local religious landscapes, emerged; there is rancorous intolerance against Shia and Sufi Muslims; and there is greater popular consumption of Salafi books and media worldwide. A turn toward fundamentalism breeds an environment of intolerance and strife.

“The Saudi project,” she writes, “can be chaotic and full of contradictions.” So has been the response of the rest of the world to it. In the past, the West was all too happy about the way in which conservative Islam served as a counterweight to leftism and communism and stabilized the monarchy’s control of the region. But the West has also mistakenly attributed myriad conflicts in the region to historical theological differences, which are actually fairly modern and political in their origin.

Krithika Varagur writes with the precision and nuance of a seasoned journalist. The Call is a must-read for anyone wanting to understand the complicated history of the Saudi state and its religious missions. The book also raises questions about the uneasy and problematic connection between aid and proselytizing.

Verge: Stories by Lidia Yuknavich Book Review

My review for the Washington Independent Review of Books:

A breathtaking series of insights into people who are “becoming.”

Lidia Yuknavitch’s debut short-story collection, Verge: Stories, is an incandescent testimonial about lives spent on the margins, on the cusp, on the edge, on the periphery, on the frontier, on the birthing place…of something.

Or everything. Or nothing at all.

Yuknavitch’s writing is visceral and unsettling, the metaphors eloquent and moving. “Who amongst us can see a self,” she asks, and responds with singular characters sketched in stark detail, their burdens strange yet familiar. Her descriptions are terse, as though built on picked-clean skeletons, but the flesh emerges from the pages, raw and refusing to be contained.

“The Pull” is set on a capsizing raft of refugees in the Aegean Sea — the people “a wave of other leavers.” Those left behind “never swim another lap toward their futures.” Two children who had been on the swim team back home (and, as the author so pointedly writes, are from a reality that has neither a future nor a past) tie the raft to their feet and swim toward shore: “This story has no ending. We put children into the ocean.”

This is exactly the kind of parsimony that marks Yuknavitch’s writing — the pathos is in the pith-os, I would like to think.

“The Organ Runner,” a story about an 8-year-old who literally runs organs between seemingly disparate yet intimately sewn-together bodies in dark streets, is equally relentless in its quiet condemnation of us:

“Whatever money — that thing more valuable than a body, or a people, or a nation — had changed hands was worth more than the life of one homeless creature in this newsless, powerless, invisible country.”

The author is neither political nor polemic, but her witness-bearing will disquiet readers. The simile “he held one arm against his body like a broken wing” is a trenchant commentary on dehumanizing others in a literal and figurative sense. And again, the author makes clear the damning, if not always apparent, connections tying the globalized world together: “Kiril would die but not by her hand. Or he would die by all of our hands.”

“Second Language” takes this tacit condemnation to a crescendo; the story will hold you hostage long after you finish it. The protagonist is a nameless, sex-trafficked child locked in a house near a freeway (anything but free to her) and “delivered like a card-board box from a UPS truck, sifted through by rummaging hands like recycling,” along with other “girl popsicles.”

To the outside world, she is a ghost, barely even noticed by the “disaffected latte pity” gaze. Her “bodyworth” is the only thing concrete about her — that, and a story in a foreign language. A fairytale, told in a grim and otherworldly tongue, which lulls the popsicle girls to sleep: “Girls are growing from guts, enough for a body and a language all the way out of this world.”

Speaking of language, the author is a masterful writer of towering genius. Her comparisons are so intricate, yet heavy, they often require a reread. A drug addiction is “four long years of youth sliding cold silver glint into waiting blue.” “He builds the fire like a new faith for all the white (snow) against them.” “She aches to summer over into a different life.” “The streets are clean and cured and uncultured — no, that’s not what I meant. Uncluttered, I meant.”

Yuknavitch is also eloquent in her depiction of women. The female protagonists are on the run, gnashing and trashing and aching to tell their stories in their own language. She compares a “street walker” to Mary: “When I see an image of Christ, I picture Mary so drawn and gaunt and tired and angry and spent to the point of emaciation that she can barely wear her own face.” But she is no saint, just an “ordinary woman eaten alive by her own heart, her own veins, her own cunt.” Another character is “on the edge like Ophelia, rewriting her ending.”

Verge is enthralling and should garner Yuknavitch much-deserved acclaim. It is the author’s answer to the question, “Does it hurt more to keep the secrets or to tell them?” While her characters may be on the edge of the storyline, in the dark corners of the nightly news, residing in a forgotten, misshapen geography, speaking in tongues, the book reminds you that you know these people; that you are bound to these people; that you are these people.

Pain Studies Book Review

My review for the Washington Independent Review of Books

If you think poets shouldn’t dabble in nonfiction, Lisa Olstein’s Pain Studies will do nothing to convince you otherwise. The book has moments so contrived that the reader might wryly observe the title as apropos.

Olstein, a poet, writes this book as a rumination on the nature of pain, riffing on her experience with migraines that she describes as “a headache that lasted three months acute-chronic, chronic-acute.”

When the author leans on her poetic skill, the outcome is beautiful, captivating prose that bleeds and thrums: “Left brow like a pressed bruise, an overripe peach you accidentally stuck your finger into.”

But when she waxes more philosophical, the reader is left baffled at best and groaning at worst. For example, there is an entire chapter on the color of pain. And navel-gazing moments like this one: “Drowning, live pain, has a way of flooding you with the present.”

When Olstein stops taking herself so seriously, she makes insightful (and incisive) observations about what we mean when we talk about pain. Her deadpan lines — “We’re notoriously bad at talking about it, even literally, as in, do you have it, how much, what kind” — will leave readers nodding enthusiastically.

Her accounts of dealing with various healers are equally wry and amusing. She uses an example of good medicine as someone who asks her whether she has found anything that increases the pain, rather than decreasing it. And we can all relate to the humor behind well-meaning advice that fails to deliver: “She’s visibly disappointed I report back miracleless.”

Some of the choices that Olstein makes, however, will confound more than cheer. She dedicates no less than two chapters to Joan of Arc. Why? Because “Joan’s refusal to translate her experience into acceptable terms” is apparently analogous to the trials of pain sufferers, and because “she was a woman surrounded by prying, know-it-all men who pelted her with questions.”

Readers may be willing to hang their coats on such flimsy pegs, but Olstein doesn’t stop there. Exploring the work of obscure philosophers like Antiphon the Sophist will, again, do no favors for those wanting to deny the characterization of poetry as affected and decadent.

Then, we have a whole chapter on the TV show “House.” While the program’s exploration of pain makes this rumination salient, in today’s rapidly moving pop-culture zeitgeist, it feels quite dated to discuss a show that ended in 2012.

Eyebrow-raising choices aside, however, the book is incredibly creative in its style, seamlessly suturing together poetry, journal entries, and discourse analysis. Olstein’s strength as a poet imbues her prose, too, even when it manifests in lists: “Opium poppy, ordeals, orthopedist, Ovid.”

The poems included in Pain Studies are vivid and enthralling. And Olstein’s portraits of how others respond to her pain are compelling and relatable. But could this unconventional meditation have benefited from ditching the obscure references and morose gravitas? A resounding yes.

Homewreckers Book Review

My review of Aaron Glantz’ book Homewreckers: How a Gang of Wall Street Kingpins, Hedge Fund Magnates, Crooked Banks, and Vulture Capitalists Suckered Millions Out of Their Homes and Demolished the American Dream

Washington Independent Review of Books

December 5, 2019
This exploration of the housing crisis evokes anger but comes off as a sloppy polemic in places.

The cover of Aaron Glantz’s Homewreckers depicts Donald Trump holding wads of cash, Steve Mnuchin riding a wrecking ball, and Wilbur Ross pulling money out of a house. It is a rather apt summary of the book’s main argument, along with the somewhat-hyperbolic characterization of the destruction of the “American dream” the title hints at.

While many books have been written about the 2008 Great Recession, including The Big Short and The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown, few have explored who benefited from the bank bailouts and what happened to all of those foreclosed homes. Homewreckers tells that story — the story of what the author cleverly dubs “vulture capitalists” profiting off the very disaster they orchestrated.

But Glantz spends an unwarranted part of the book drawing detailed biographical sketches of people in Trump’s inner circle, including Mnuchin, Thomas Barrack Jr., Stephen Schwarzman, Sean Hannity, and Trump’s father, Fred Trump. While the investigative zeal with which he goes after these figureheads is keen and captivating, ultimately, it detracts — or, better put, distracts — from the strength of his argument.

Glantz points to the fact that U.S. homeownership rates began declining in 2012 to the present, reaching some of their lowest levels in history. He argues that this is at least partly due to buyers not being able to snatch up the foreclosed homes because banks were not interested in issuing post-meltdown mortgages, and the government preferred to sell to Wall Street:

“In March 2010, the U.S. Treasury estimated that 6 million home loans were at least 60 days delinquent but the federal government reported that only 230,801 Americans had renegotiated their loans with the help of the Making Homes Affordable program, the part of the bank bailout that was supposed to help homeowners stave off foreclosure.”

The most incisive condemnation of “business as usual” is the story of shadowy (and shady) banks hiding behind shell companies with sci-fi-esque names like ColFin AI-CA5 LLC that purchased foreclosed homes in bulk, only to flip them into rental properties with exorbitant rents and minimal maintenance costs. Between 2012 and 2014, for example, Schwarzman’s Blackstone Group spent $7.8 billion to buy 41,000 foreclosures and turn them into rentals.

The most bitter of ironies is that some of the owners who had lost their homes to foreclosure stayed on as tenants who now paid rent to these faceless, absentee landlords. But Homewreckers fails to convince the reader that rent-seeking alone is lucrative enough for these investors; Glantz hints at the creation of mutant mortgage-backed securities but offers no evidence to support it.

In other words, renting out 80,000 homes seems like small potatoes for these billionaire robber barons. Glantz doesn’t make a strong case for why we, the readers, should be outraged and not simply see this as sound capitalism (buying low and selling high is Investing 101).

He veers off track in exploring reverse mortgages, as well. These mortgages have been in place since before the meltdown. Are they predatory? Yes. But what they have to do with the 2008 debacle is not made explicit. Still, the story of Sandy Jolley, who lost her family home to a reverse mortgage and then sued the bank for constructive fraud and financial elder abuse is eloquently and poignantly narrated.

This is where Glantz’s journalistic prose shines, compelling and trenchant. Yet, he struggles to connect the story to his general argument. He details how Mnuchin’s OneWest Bank (which purchased failed IndyMac) foreclosed on thousands of reverse mortgages across Southern California, but again, there was nothing illegal about doing that even though no one will dispute the pernicious nature of reverse mortgages.

Glantz makes a stronger argument for the way in which a small cadre of billionaires took advantage of the government’s fire sale on lending banks that had crafted their own demise. He cogently traces the way in which American taxpayers ultimately footed the bill for the bank bailouts without reaping any of the benefits.

In that sense, Homewreckers is a captivating read, almost thriller-like in its way. But Glantz could have benefited from avoiding some of the rather petty and irrelevant asides, such as what fur coat Melania Trump wore and how “flipping wives went hand in hand with flipping houses.”mp wore and how “flipping wives went hand in hand with flipping houses.”