book reviews

Repost of my review of Escape from Camp 14…

Here’s a repost of a book review I wrote for Epinions.com on July 12, 2012, and reposted on Blogspot version of this blog. It appears as/is.

From October 28, 2014:

I went through a phase a few years ago and read a bunch of books about North Korea.  This morning, I read an article on CNN written by Shin Dong-hyuk, the only known person to grow up in and escape a North Korean prison camp.  He has been labeled “human scum” by North Korea’s leaders.  They claim that his description of what life is like in a North Korean prison camp is a pack of lies. 

I found Escape from Camp 14, Shin Dong-hyuk’s book, extremely fascinating.  Aside from having an amazing story to tell, Shin Dong-hyuk is a talented artist.  You can see some of his drawings on the CNN article, though I must warn that they are basically artistic depictions of how prisoners are treated in North Korea.  Some people may find them disturbing.  I did find them a bit graphic, yet I also marveled at Shin Dong-hyuk’s talents and I’m glad he is now free to share them with the rest of the world. 

From 2012:

For the past few years, I’ve been fascinated with stories about North Korea, one of the world’s most opaque countries. That’s why I felt compelled to read journalist Blaine Harden’s new book, Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West(2012). This book is the true story of a young man named Shin Dong-hyuk, who was born and raised in Camp 14, an oppressive North Korean political prison and later managed to escape. Though I had a feeling that parts of Escape from Camp 14 would probably depress me, I figured that ultimately the story would end on a somewhat triumphant note. And again, I think oppressive regimes are oddly fascinating.

Who is Shin Dong-hyuk and why was he raised in prison?

Shin Dong-hyuk was born in 1982, the second son of parents who had somehow managed to be allowed to get married. Shin’s parents didn’t marry because they loved each other. They married because they were being rewarded for doing something good. Sex between inmates at Camp 14 was forbidden, except between married couples. After their wedding, the happy couple was allowed five nights together; then they were separated and Shin’s father was allowed to visit periodically. Shin’s older brother was born in 1974 and by the time Shin was old enough to remember much, he had already been sent to live in a boy’s dormitory. When Shin was still a very young boy, he too was sent to live in a dorm. It wasn’t too big of a deal, though, since Shin didn’t have much of a bond with his mother, anyway. They were too busy working to form a bond.

In North Korea, people who commit crimes against the state are severely punished. So are their families. A person who gets caught doing something illegal will go to prison and so will his or her parents, siblings, and any children. The whole family pays for one person’s actions; consequently, there’s a lot of peer pressure to be on one’s best behavior. Shin was born in the prison and never knew any other life, mainly because two uncles tried to escape North Korea back in 1951. Shin’s childhood was spent working, starving, and being beaten and indoctrinated. He spent those years fearing for his life; for the punishment for disobedience was being shot on the spot. When Shin accidentally broke a sewing machine, he paid for it by sacrificing part of a finger. 

When Shin was 13, his mother and brother attempted to escape Camp 14. Shin overheard their plans. Like any good North Korean prisoner, Shin felt compelled to alert the authorities. Not alerting the authorities of an escape attempt meant being shot. The guards were able to stop the escape attempt and Shin was rewarded by being tortured and interrogated. Then, he and his father were forced to watch as his mother and brother were executed. He was not sad to see them die. He thought they were selfish for putting him in the position to have to tell on them.

It took Shin months to recover from the injuries he suffered while he was being tortured. During that time, he met a man who told him about life outside of the camp. Shin was fascinated that there was a world beyond the electrified fence. But he also knew that the fence was deadly and would kill him if he tried to flee. And if he was caught even thinking about escaping, he would be shot. 

Years later, Shin met another man who told him more about the world outside the fence. Shin found himself obsessed with the notion of escaping. With his new friend’s help, Shin hatched an escape plan and successfully escaped the political prison in 2005. Harden relates Shin’s amazing story of breaking out of the North Korean camp and eventually making it to South Korea, then the United States.

My thoughts  

Whenever I start to feel badly about my own life, all I have to do is remember what Shin Dong-hyuk has already endured in his 30 years on the planet. He grew up starving, friendless, and without much of a family, imprisoned for crimes he had nothing to do with. Against all odds, he broke free to go to a new country that for most of his life, he had no idea even existed. Adjusting to that new life in rich, opulent South Korea was extremely difficult. And then when he went to the United States to tell other people about his life in Camp 14, he had a hard time adjusting… and relating to other people. 

Harden’s done a great job with Shin’s story, maintaining an objective yet compassionate tone as he describes the atrocities Shin and other prisoners endured. It makes any problems I face seem trivial. This book took a long time to read and was, at times, a bit depressing. It’s not pleasant to read about innocent people being starved, beaten, and brainwashed. However, I have to admire Shin’s courage for escaping, even as he experienced guilt knowing that his father would certainly be punished for his escape… and the man who came with him on his break for freedom ultimately ended up being killed by the electric fence. Shin used the man’s body to insulate him against the electricity– without that dead body, Shin never would have made it to freedom. He’s paid a price, though, through constant nagging guilt. At this writing, Shin Dong-hyuk is the only person known to have managed to escape prison and defect from North Korea.

At the end of this book, Harden includes drawings Shin did that depict the horrors of Camp 14. I found the crude drawings haunting and horrifying. There are also photos.

Overall

I would definitely recommend Escape from Camp 14 to anyone who is interested in North Korea or likes true stories about overcoming adversity. This is not a happy book, but I found it fascinating to read and I definitely rooted for Shin Dong-hyuk.

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book reviews, religion

Reposted review of I Sold My Soul on eBay: Viewing Faith through an Athiest’s Eyes

Here’s another reposted book review. It was written for Epinions.com on June 14, 2010, and appears here as/is. I’m still thinking about today’s fresh content.

eBay has changed the face of American commerce, making some rather unconventional methods of earning money available to people smart enough to come up with a clever gimmick. Hemant Mehta is one such clever guy. In January 2006, when he was 22 years old, Mehta came up with a very interesting moneymaking proposal. An atheist since he was 14 years old, Mehta held an auction to get eBayers to send him to church.

His proposal read as follows:

I’m a 22-year-old from Chicago. I stopped believing in God when I was 14. Currently, I am an active volunteer for a couple of different national, secular organizations. For one of them, I am the editor of a newsletter that reaches over 1,000 atheist/agnostic college students. I have written several Letters to the Editor to newspapers in and around Chicago, espousing my atheistic beliefs when Church/State issues arose. My point being that I don’t take my non-belief lightly. However, while I don’t believe in God, I firmly believe I would immediately change those views if presented with evidence to the contrary. And at age 22, this is possibly the best chance anyone has of changing me.

So here’s my proposal. Every time I come home, I pass this old Irish church. I promise to go into that church every day– for a certain number of days– for at least an hour each visit. For every $10 you bid, I will go to the Church for 1 day. For $50, you would have me going to mass every day for a week.
 (15)

Mehta continues by promising to go to church willingly and keep an open mind, yet not saying or doing anything inappropriate. He offers to volunteer with the church and interact with the people of the church and do his best to learn about the churchgoers’ beliefs. He also promises to maintain a diary, take photos, or secure any other type of proof the winning bidder desires in order to uphold his end of the bargain.

Proving that Americans love a good gimmick and are willing to pay for it, Mehta was successful in finding someone to pay him to attend church. The winning bidder of his auction was Jim Henderson, a minister from Seattle, Washington, who paid $504 to get Mehta to attend church. Mehta donated the money to the Secular Student Alliance, one of the organizations Mehta was involved with when he was a student.

Instead of just attending the old Irish church, however, Henderson opted to have Mehta try a variety of different churches and maintain his impressions on Henderson’s Web site, http://www.offthemap.com. And Mehta did make good on his end of the deal, visiting churches in four different states that ranged from mega-sized to small and intimate. Mehta’s eBay experiment led to his decision to write his 2007 book, I Sold My Soul on eBay: Viewing Faith through an Athiest’s Eyes.

My thoughts

This book wasn’t exactly what I thought it was going to be when I decided to buy it. I was under the impression that Mehta’s memoirs of an atheist sitting in church would be about just that… sitting in church. But it turns out I Sold My Soul on eBay is also about what makes an atheist tick. He offers some commentary on the atheist movement, as well as some insight as to why he gave up Jainism, the faith Mehta grew up in.

Mehta’s eBay experiment led him to attend some very well known megachurches, to include Ted Haggard’s New Life Church and Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church. Mehta offers his observations of what it was like for him as a non-believer. While I’m no atheist, I can understand where he was coming from, particularly when he writes of his experiences in the megachurches, a burgeoning American phenomenon that I personally find a big turn off. That being said, not all of Mehta’s observations are negative. He has good things to say about Joel Osteen, going as far as to quip “I may be an atheist, but I love Joel” (123). Based on Osteen’s constant presence on television over the past few years, so do a lot of other Americans.

Toward the end of the book, Mehta offers his thoughts on both what works and what’s wrong with typical Christian church services. I didn’t agree with all of Mehta’s insights; for example, he says he wishes there was less singing. I don’t attend church regularly anymore, but one of the one things I do enjoy about church services is the music. Mehta also complains that a lot of Christians have an intolerant attitude toward atheists.  I can agree with that statement.  On the other hand, Mehta also observes that a lot of churches offer valuable community outreach, which he claims to find commendable, and some of the pastors he met made sure their messages were very relevant.  The pastors who kept their messages useful to Mehta today stood the best chance of getting him to change his mind about religion and go back to church.

At the end of the book, Mehta writes an interesting chapter about what it would take to get him to convert. He writes that he still has unanswered questions about Christianity, though at this point, he’s still a devout atheist. As I was reading this chapter, I started to wonder why it should matter to most people whether or not Mehta chooses to believe in God. But then it occurred to me that for many devout Christians, it really does matter. And so, for those people, Mehta’s last words may be the most compelling in the book. I’m sure former teen heart-throb Kirk Cameron, who has famously become a devout Christian and even ambushed Mehta on a radio program, would want to know how to get him to believe and be “saved”.

This book includes a guide for discussion groups. I’m sure the guide is very useful for those who want to read this book as a group and toss around some ideas afterward. Mehta also offers some notes at the end of the book with clarifications and more resources, along with an invitation to join his personal blog, http://www.friendlyatheist.com.

Overall

I liked this book. I guess I would have enjoyed it more if it had been more focused on just the eBay auction and was written more like a story instead of a progress report, but I did find Mehta’s observations intriguing. Mehta has a friendly, honest, engaging voice; he’s intelligent and seems to have an open mind, and that’s very refreshing. One thing potential readers should know is that Mehta mostly confines his church attendance to Protestant denominations, which may or may not have affected his opinions.

I would recommend I Sold My Soul on eBay to those who are interested in learning more about Atheism, as well as those who find religion stimulating. I will warn, however, that this book takes a broader approach than I was expecting. It’s not as much as a memoir as I was thinking it would be, which may or may not be appealing to other readers.

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book reviews, true crime

Repost: My review of They Always Call Us Ladies by Jean Harris…

This will be the last repost of today, an as/is Epinions book review I wrote of They Always Call Us Ladies, by Jean Harris. It was written in October 2005. The paragraph immediately below is an introduction I wrote when I reposted this review on my original blog, on January 21, 2015.

Here’s yet another interesting review of a book written by a woman who committed murder.  In this case, the perpetrator was Jean Harris, former head of The Madeira School in McClean, Virginia.  She shot her lover, Dr. Herman Turnover, creator of the Scarsdale Diet, dead when she found out he was being unfaithful to her.  Well educated and well employed, Jean Harris was the last person anyone would have ever expected would end up behind bars.  In 1992, Harris was released from prison on compassionate grounds.  She died of natural causes in an assisted living center on December 23, 2012.  She was 89 years old.

A very unlikely voice from behind bars…

Jean Harris, author of the 1988 book They Always Call Us Ladies is probably the last person anyone would have ever guessed would have ever spent time in prison. Harris, who is a graduate of Smith College, had spent her whole life educating people, even working as the headmistress of the exclusive and very expensive Madeira School for girls in toney Great Falls, Virginia. But in March of 1980, the 15 year relationship she had with Dr. Herman Tarnower, creator of the Scarsdale Diet, came to an end. She fell into despair and decided to visit Dr. Tarnower in New York. Unfortunately, she brought a gun with her, allegedly planning to kill herself that night. She ended up killing her lover instead and wound up sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. 

Much has come to light about Jean Harris’s case. In fact, just last week, my husband Bill and I caught a special on Court TV about Jean Harris. She is now out of prison, having been released in 1993 after thirteen years behind bars. Her book, They Always Call Us Ladies, was written four years prior to her release from behind the walls of Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in Bedford Hills, New York. As I read this book, I got the feeling that Jean Harris was trying to make the best of her situation, as hard as it was for her. In many ways, They Always Call Us Ladies is an eye-opening book. In other ways, it leaves some questions unanswered.  

I don’t remember exactly when or where it was that I picked up Jean Harris’s book. I do remember that I got it at a second hand bookstore, probably about ten or eleven years ago. I was lured by the subtitle: Stories From Prison. I didn’t even have an idea who Jean Harris was when I purchased this book. I suppose I was looking for lurid details. At the time, I lacked an appreciation for books that weren’t long on action. I remember trying to read They Always Call Us Ladies and setting it aside after only a few pages or so. I was disappointed because I felt like I didn’t get what I had been looking for.  

I picked up Jean Harris’s book again last week after I saw the special about her on television. This time, when I started reading it, I was able to keep going. And now, I have a great deal of respect and admiration for Jean Harris, the convicted murderer.  They Always Call Us Ladies is a remarkable book that goes far beyond just “prison stories”. Jean Harris also tries to educate her audience about the history of her prison and the importance of prison reform. Clearly intelligent and articulate, Harris offers readers some valuable insight into what it’s like to be in prison and puts a human face on the ladies with whom she did time. She points out that no one is ever called a “girl” in her prison; instead, they are all called ladies. But despite the overtures of gentility, prison life is hard and Jean Harris effectively drives home that point. 

At the time Jean Harris wrote They Always Call Us Ladies, she was more than halfway to her first opportunity for parole. She focused a lot of time and energy toward helping the other inmates, especially those with children who were born in prison. The fact that she actively spent much of her time helping and getting to know her fellow inmates is clearly evident as she relates more stories about the “ladies” around her than herself. It’s not surprising that Harris is empathetic to the other ladies. She explains how and why some of the other prisoners ended up in prison and why a few of them came back again and again. They were simply unequipped for life on the outside of the prison’s walls. At the same time, Harris injects her own opinions about what she sees. Although she is sometimes disapproving toward the lifestyles of the ladies with whom she is serving time, she is always supportive of them as human beings. I got the feeling that she took a fond motherly or grandmotherly interest in the other prisoners and they, in return, took a similar interest in her. 

One thing that did strike me about They Always Call Us Ladies was that, although Harris makes it clear that her life was hard, I got the feeling that the prison she was in was very progressive. The prison had a children’s center, where new moms could keep their babies for a year. If the mother was going to be paroled within eighteen months of giving birth, officials would allow the mothers to keep the child until the mom got out. Harris explains that Bedford Hills was the only American prison that was allowing new mothers to keep their babies at all. She then points out that in Europe, prisons are much more accommodating. I got the feeling that she much preferred the European way of doing things. It’s not that I blame her for liking the European way better, but I did notice that Harris doesn’t really explain the differences between the European and American cultures. Just as some people view imprisonment as strictly punishment, other people see it as a chance for rehabilitation. I got the impression that Harris is more for rehabilitation than punishment and evidently that’s the way the Europeans feel about prisons, too. 

Another thing that stuck out at me as I read They Always Call Us Ladies is that it must have been a HUGE culture shock for Jean Harris to be in prison. She is nothing like the other ladies she writes about and, I suspect, that Jean Harris never had much of a criminal mind. In fact, I think it was a tragic turn of events that led her to prison in the first place. Because she is so much a fish out of water, she gives her readers a rare and different glimpse of life on the inside of a prison. She doesn’t seem like she belongs there.  

Jean Harris does include some examples of dialogs she heard in prison, even writing them in dialect. She explains the racism that she witnessed in prison, mostly directed at her fellow inmates. She comes across as almost detached. I had heard on a few occasions that homosexuality is rampant in prisons and Jean Harris doesn’t dispute this fact; in fact, she offers statistics on homosexuality in prisons. She also doesn’t give any indication as to whether or not she engaged in homosexual conduct. She seems especially detached from this issue as it personally pertains to her, even though she addresses it regarding other prisoners. 

Harris’s memoir does include some foul language, but it’s used in the context of quoting other people. She never uses it herself and doesn’t condone its use in other people. In fact, in one passage, she writes disapprovingly that those who must use the word “sh*t” in place of every noun have a serious deficiency in their vocabularies. As I read They Always Call Us Ladies, I was continually reminded that Jean Harris is first and foremost a teacher, not because she actually wrote those words, but because of her actions and her writing style. I do believe that Harris must have been a great asset to her students, despite the fact that she later wound up in prison. 

My comments on They Always Call Us Ladies so far have been overwhelmingly positive. For the most part, I did really enjoy reading this book, even though it’s been sitting on my shelf unread for years. Despite my positive comments, however, this is not a perfect book. For one thing, Harris writes a lot about legislation circa 1988. For an historical point of view, this is a good thing. I get the feeling, though, that Harris didn’t mean for her book to be read years down the line; she meant for it to be read when it was hot off the presses. Consequently, her references to “now” and 1988 drive home just how dated this book is. For another thing, anyone who is looking for information about what got Harris put in prison will be disappointed.  For that story, you’d have to read one of her other books. 

Because she doesn’t really discuss her crime, I almost got the feeling that she didn’t think she belonged in prison. I got the feeling that even though she was in prison, she wasn’t of it. And while at times her writing drifts very slightly into self pity, she never really gave me the impression that she felt like she deserved to be in prison, even though she did kill a man. Again, I don’t believe that Jean Harris initially set out to kill Tarnower. That doesn’t change the fact that she did kill him. Yet, there are times in this book that she seems to take a detached, almost superior position over the inmates about whom she writes. On the other hand, I have no idea what prison must have been like for Jean Harris. Maybe taking this position offers her a defense mechanism– a way to protect herself from the reality of her situation. The last, but not necessarily negative, comment I want to make is that this book is challenging reading. Even though I enjoyed reading They Always Call Us Ladies, I didn’t find it the kind of book that I could finish in a matter of hours.

They Always Call Us Ladies appears to be out of print. If my review has enticed you to seek it out, be warned that you may have some trouble finding it. Nevertheless, I will recommend it to a wide audience because I think it is an impressive and enlightening book. If you have any interest in prison reform or history and want to read an eloquent, true account from someone who’s seen prison firsthand, I definitely would encourage you to read this book if you get the chance.  

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book reviews, sex

Repost: A review of Forbidden Flowers, by Nancy Friday…

Here’s another reposted Epinions review. This one is of Forbidden Flowers, the sequel to My Secret Garden, by Nancy Friday. It appears as/is, and was originally written in May 2005.

The following review is likely to contain frank sexual content. If that sort of thing bothers you, please skip reading this review!

The year was 1973. I was a baby, having just been born in June of 1972. Author Nancy Friday was making waves with her best selling book, My Secret Garden: Women’s Sexual Fantasies. All around the world, men and women alike were reading and identifying with the women who had bared their souls writing about their favorite sexual fantasies. All around the world, many of those same people were saying to themselves, “Thank God I’m not alone.” My Secret Garden related the sexual fantasies of dozens of women and included an array of erotic subjects, from what might be considered an everyday rape fantasy to more exotic fantasies involving incest, young boys, and animals… just to name a few. One might think that with subject matter so explicit during the dark ages before the Internet, a lot of potential readers might be blushing too much to consider buying the book, let alone reading it. But My Secret Garden was a huge success, so much so that in 1975, Nancy Friday came out with a sequel: Forbidden Flowers: More Women’s Sexual Fantasies.

My first contact with both My Secret Garden and Forbidden Flowers was when I was a 17 year old senior in high school. It was 1990 and at the time, I was just starting to awaken to sex and being a woman. I have to confess that I practically devoured My Secret Garden and I was left hungry for more tales of women’s sexual fantasies. I had already purchased My Secret Garden twice– I lost the first copy, no doubt making some other teenager’s day– and somehow summoned up the courage to buy it a second time. And of course, when I later saw Forbidden Flowers on the shelf, I felt compelled to buy it. So I brought the book up to the cashier, trying to act naturally. I paid for it without incident. And now, almost sixteen years later, I still own my original copy of that book. The pages are yellowed, the cover is missing, and Forbidden Flowers is still a very intriguing book. But I have to admit that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I enjoyed My Secret Garden.

Forbidden Flowers is divided into two parts. The first part, which comes after an introduction written by Nancy Friday herself, is entitled Where Do Sexual Fantasies Come From?. The second part is entitled The Uses of Sexual Fantasy. Both parts are followed by several chapters with somewhat vague subjects. Friday includes the first names of each fantasy writer’s name. Nancy Friday introduces each chapter before she presents the fantasies, writing in a candid, matter-of-fact style. She succinctly explains her point of view, liberally citing studies done by well-known psychiatrists and psychologists.

Personally, I found Nancy Friday’s analysis quite perceptive; thirty years ago, I’m sure that to some people Friday’s thoughts might have even seemed revolutionary… or just merely repugnant. Consider this. On page 15, Friday briefly writes of a study done by Dr. Arnold Gesell, who was observing infant behavior. As paraphrased fron the book, Dr. Gesell placed a naked fifty-six week old boy in front of a mirror and found that the boy was excited by the sight of his own body. Dr. Gesell took a photograph of the naked boy, whose penis was erect. Friday concludes that since this little boy, who was barely a year old, could have an erotic experience, it’s only natural that little girls, who are supposedly more precocious than little boys are, can also have sexual experiences. Friday writes,

And yet the idead is still unacceptable to most people. Childhood is pictured as a time of ribbons, fairy tales, and lemonade. Adults notoriously forget that they were once children too; they close off their minds to early sexual memories– those embarrassing or shameful events connected perhaps with anxieties about masturbation. I am not suggesting that the sugar and spice of little girls’ childhoods are only a false facade. That aspect is real. But so is our sexuality (15-16).

I think Friday is right about adults being uncomfortable with the prospect that children might think about sex. After all, our society loathes the idea that a child’s innocence might be warped by a subject that as supposed to be as “adult” as sex is. Just reading that passage led me to think about the ugliness of pedophilia, even though what Friday wrote had nothing to do with child sexual abuse and everything to do with how natural the acts of sex and masturbation are– or should be, anyway. Plain and simple, the message that I got from Nancy Friday is that thinking about sex is healthy and natural, even for kids. But I still couldn’t help but be somewhat uncomfortable reading that passage.

Friday further explains that after she wrote My Secret Garden, she received over 2000 letters from other women who had sent her their sexual fantasies. She explains that the women who had written to her came from all walks of life– there were letters from educated and less educated women. As a result of reading the letters, Friday was left with the impression that sexual fantasies usually come from childhood memories.

Part One includes four chapters of fantasies written by women whose stories related specifically to their childhoods. The fantasies are presented simply with the original authors’ name and they are written in their original authors’ voices, complete with “colorful” language. I will offer a warning to those who have delicate sensibilities that the fantasies appear to have been included unedited for anything beyond punctuation and grammar. Most of the fantasies are quite explicit and provocative.

In My Secret Garden, Nancy Friday grouped the fantasies by subject matter, which made it easier for readers to skip sections that they might find objectionable. For example, if a reader didn’t want to read about women who had fantasized about having sex with virgins the person could easily skip that section because Friday had clearly marked it. Friday did not group the fantasies the same way in Forbidden Flowers, so it might be harder for readers to pick and choose what they read in her book.

When I was 17, I was more interested in reading the sexual fantasies. Now that I’m almost twice that age, I find Friday’s analysis more interesting than the fantasies. Friday seems genuinely interested in presenting an intellectual commentary on why women have certain fantasies. I suspect that some folks who read Forbidden Flowers will be reading it just for sake of titillation. For those readers who want to dig deeper, I would urge that they read Nancy Friday’s sections and consider what she has to say. Even if they don’t agree with the author’s point of view, the ideas that Friday presents are certainly food for thought.

Forbidden Flowers is definitely not a book that will appeal to everyone. I think that those who are interested in psychology, particularly if they are interested in pop psychology will enjoy Forbidden Flowers. Of course, I believe that this book will also appeal to many men… especially those who want to understand women better. Women who need reassurance that having sexual fantasies are normal may be comforted by Forbidden Flowers. I would not recommend this book if the subject of sex is an uncomfortable one for you. Also, understand that some of the subject matter within this book is not about your garden variety sex. Friday presents sexual fantasies of every flavor, no matter how distasteful they might be to the average reader. Read at your own risk!

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book reviews, sex

Partial repost: A review of My Secret Garden, by Nancy Friday

Here’s a book I originally wrote for Epinions and later reposted on my original blog. I have to do some editing on this post, since it also included some time sensitive and now irrelevant information. Other than that, it’s “as/is”.

My Secret Garden by Nancy Friday, written August 20, 2003

Nice girls think about sex too.

I remember the first time I read Nancy Friday’s 1973 book My Secret Garden. I was seventeen years old and a senior in high school, still quite virginal, and full of questions about sex. As the youngest daughter of two quite conservative (but tired) parents, I suppose I could have talked to one of my three sisters about sexuality. But they are a lot older than I am and none of them were living close by. Besides, it’s not the kind of topic that comes up easily, no matter how brazen and brash a person you might be.

How does one bring up sexual fantasies in a casual conversation anyway? It’s the type of thing one talks about at a slumber party or in a game of truth or dare, maybe. I wasn’t the kind of teenager who went to parties. So it was lucky that I happened upon My Secret Garden at Waldenbooks one day. Swallowing my embarrassment, I picked it up and took it to the counter, trying very hard not to look at the cashier as she rung up my purchase. Then I rushed out of the store and went home to read it. A few weeks later, I misplaced the book, but I was so engrossed by it, that I went out and bought another copy. I still own that copy and I’ve supplemented it with many of Friday’s other books. I’d have to say that of the five I’ve read, I enjoy this one and Men in Love, Friday’s book about men’s sexual fantasies the most.

The foreword is written by someone who calls herself “J”, who is the author of Sensuous Woman (whatever that is). The style is of her prose is matter-of-fact, complete with the “F-word”, as she describes how sexually liberated women feel about the act of having sex in the 70s and their reaction to Friday’s book about women’s sexual fantasies. She writes:

I suspect that women generally will be fascinated by the revelations in this book, but not surprised. Nor will these readers have trouble in acknowledging that they too fantasize. Those women, however, who consider sexual intercourse unpleasant and/or unsatisfying will be revolted by the explicit and enthusiastically carnal sexual daydreams of the women in this book and will reject and deny their own fantasies both to the world and to themselves. And how will the male react? The first man I gave My Secret Garden to was so turned on by the book that he went on a lovemaking marathon. (xiii).

In my experience “J” was right. I was fascinated by this book, but I wasn’t surprised by what I read. However, I found Friday’s 1981 book Men in Love, which contains men’s sexual fantasies, a huge turn on. I suppose we humans all like to know what makes the opposite gender tick sexually. Reading My Secret Garden was kind of like attending a big confessional full of horny women where everyone shared their deepest fantasies of what fanned their flames.

Friday’s writing style is like a documentary, but she only writes at the beginning of each chapter. The rest of the writing is done by the many, many women who sent her letters, detailing the gamut of their sexual fantasies. This book is divided into seven chapters. Within the seven chapters are subchapters that address certain themes.

The afterword is entitled “In Defense of Nancy Friday”, by Martin Shepard, M.D., Psychiatrist. Since this book obviously covers a controversial subject that is disturbing to some conservative people, not to mention sub-topics that will most definitely upset more liberal folks, Nancy Friday probably did need to be defended back in 1973. She might even need it now, thirty years later, for including a subchapter on young boys (even if it is just fantasy, including this section probably concerned a few people).

Even though some of the topics were not my cup of tea, I did find it interesting to read about what turns other women on just from a purely psychological standpoint, which is the way Friday endeavors to tackle the subject. I have to admit, though, that some of the reading was pretty entertaining and quite sexy. Besides, if people were really disgusted by this book, it wouldn’t still be around after thirty years.

If you compared this book to say, Kink: The Shocking Hidden Sex Lives of Americans, by Susan Crain Bakos, a ridiculous read if I ever met one, you’d immediately notice that My Secret Garden is a far superior book. You will also notice, however, that this book is quite dated. The slang used is 70s slang. If you’re in your 30s or 40s or older, you’ll recognize 70s pop cultural references sprinkled within the letters. Some might say that makes this book a classic, and some might say that makes this book dated.

Friday has come out with 1992’s Women on Top, another book about sexual fantasies and 1975’s Forbidden Flowers, her sequel to My Secret Garden to partially address the dated quality of her books. I don’t think either is as good as My Secret Garden. Read this book if you’re curious about what makes women tick and you have an open mind. If you’re easily offended, you might want to skip this book and keep wondering

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