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Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell

Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell

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by Katherine Angel

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One of O Magazine's Must-Read Books for June 2013

A provocative and personal meditation on sex, power, and female desire

Today's women, we're told, have more options in exercising their desire than ever before in history. And yet the way we talk about desire is virtually as constrained as it was for the


One of O Magazine's Must-Read Books for June 2013

A provocative and personal meditation on sex, power, and female desire

Today's women, we're told, have more options in exercising their desire than ever before in history. And yet the way we talk about desire is virtually as constrained as it was for the Victorians. There's an essential paradox at the heart of female sexuality: What we demand in our public lives is often in direct contrast to what we crave in our intimate lives.
In the tradition of Susan Sontag and Virginia Woolf, Katherine Angel has forged a path through cliché, convention, and secrecy, and the result is Unmastered, a searching and idiosyncratic account of her studies in sex as an academic and of her experiences of sex as a woman.
Unmastered isn't merely personal confession; it is also a powerful reckoning with our contradictory and deeply entrenched notions of sexuality. Angel embraces the highly charged oppositions—dominance versus submission, liberation versus dependence—and probes the porousness between masculine and feminine, thought and sensation, self and culture, power and pliancy, always reveling in the elusiveness of easy answers.
With remarkable candor, Angel reflects on the history of her encounters and beliefs, and shows how our lives are shaped by the words we use and the stories we tell. The result is a revelatory book that examines and then explodes our most deeply rooted assumptions. Lyrical, brave, and sometimes disarmingly funny, Unmastered will start a thousand debates.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this thinking woman’s meditation on sexual desire, Angel challenges readers to consider whether feminism has actually liberated women to lay claim to their own desire and satisfaction. Her intellectual touchstones include Susan Sontag, Virginia Woolf, and Michel Foucault, and Angel sprinkles quotations from their writings throughout the book to emphasize and illuminate her own ideas. The narrative—ghostly and poetic at its strongest—charts the course of Angel’s affair with an unnamed man. Her passion for him erupts onto the page, often in the form of a sentence or two separated from its neighbors by copious white space, an unconventional style that mirrors the dynamic nature of sexual tension and release. Meanwhile, she contemplates a variety of issues associated with her physical desire: she admits to an interest in pornography, but acknowledges that her definition of it might differ from someone else’s; she asks her lover to tie her up, but he only does so later when she hasn’t asked; flashing back to another affair in the book’s most moving section, she describes terminating an unplanned pregnancy. In the end, Angel doesn’t offer up any pat answers to her questions because she knows that none exist; desire, like liberation, is individual—not universal. Agent: Sarah Chalfant, the Wylie Agency. (June 4)
From the Publisher

“Offers an arresting mix of diaristic experiences with her lover . . . and heady reflections from feminist thinkers like Susan Sontag and Virginia Woolf. A genre-busting nonfiction account that reads like poetry, revels in ambiguity, and intentionally defies definition, the book explores the slippery emotions of sex in fiery, collage-like scenes intended to reconcile the contradictory ‘metaphors we love by.'” —O Magazine

“Unconventional, deeply personal . . . often poetic.” —The New Yorker Page Turner blog

“Angel embraces the impossibility of extricating fact from feeling.” —Julia Klein, The Boston Globe

“Poetic . . . Sharply truthful, musical, and beautifully patterned . . . An act of cultural resistance, and a book you immediately start to reread.” —Adam Foulds, author of The Quickening Maze

“Absorbing . . . [A] vigorous testament to a female libido undaunted by the cold shower of self-analysis.” —Talitha Stevenson, The Guardian

“Ghostly and poetic . . . [A] thinking woman's meditation on sexual desire.” —Publishers Weekly

“[A] provocative and profoundly personal investigation into female desire . . . It's hard to overestimate the riskiness of these passages, their courage and their exquisite sensuality . . . But the real joy lies in the artfulness with which [Angel] uses these intimate episodes as a way of unwrapping the larger issue of what it means to be a woman, both object and subject of desire . . . Unmastered is a giddily joyful book . . . Days after reading, its images linger in the mind . . . [An] elegant and uplifting journey through the labyrinth of female lust.” —Olivia Laing, The Observer

“Katherine Angel's Unmastered stayed in my head for weeks after I read it. It's brave, moving, and perfectly structured.” —Sam Byers, author of Idiopathy

Unmastered is an intriguing literary and cultural study . . . Erudite and personal . . . The strength of Ms. Angel's writing . . . makes the book seem both universal and intimate at once.” —The Economist

Unmastered is one of those totally out-of-the blue, impossible-to-classify, weird and new and wonderful fiction-ish nonfiction books, which happily come along every so often and make you go, ‘Whoa: this is what we need now' . . . A libidinous thrill all of its own.” —Stuart Hammond, Dazed & Confused magazine

Library Journal
A study of desire, particularly female desire, by a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for the History of Medicine at Warwick University in England, where Angel has already attained a Germaine Greer-like rep.
Kirkus Reviews
A revealing look at postmodern feminism and its role in female desire through one woman's personal anecdotes, meditations and professional research. Angel provides an intelligent examination of how today's women satiate their needs and desires. The author examines her own sexual experiences as both a writer and a lover, from her teen years to the present, in poetic yet fragmented theories revolving around the feminist icons Virginia Woolf and Susan Sontag. This is not to say that her philosophy leans toward the bias of these women; rather, she uses their thoughts as examples and builds on them to answer an important question that many women face in some form or another: "What is it to define, or even to know, our desires—to identify which are our own, and which result from a kind of porousness?" The definition of this identification of desire within oneself, the desire for women to be able to freely speak up about what they really want and how they want it is answered through Angel's own emotional bonding to the modern woman's intuitive feelings of shame, beauty, and confusion of sex or lust for love. Throughout the book, structured as a numbered series of vignettes, short paragraphs and even single sentences, the author struggles with her personal convictions regarding love and lust in and out of the bedroom. However, she staunchly maintains her theory with an empowering conclusion that begs for women to speak up above the commercialized version of sex and the woman's perceived notion of what it takes to fulfill their desires. "The desire to speak is a desire to burst through silence, to puncture," she writes. "As such, it is also erotic; it contains its own excitement. Speaking undoes the perceived straitjacketing. Unlaces the corset, winds down the hair." An unconventional and strikingly lyrical observation of women and their desire to speak regarding the fulfillment of their sexual and emotional needs.

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt





Nearly ten years ago, in that sweltering summer, that heat wave summer, when to walk just half a mile meant a sticky sheen of sweat, I developed a phobia of moths.

*   *   *

I had never liked them, my nervousness shaped no doubt by my mother’s fear of the things. Her brother used to breed huge African specimens in their East Anglia home; they would fly up at her, startled, out of her shoes, her bedclothes. And then there was a teenage summer spent in a Gothic pile in France, where hordes of angry bees rattled behind the chimney, and disconcerting noises-off unsettled the most rational of family and guests. Fat armies of sated flies and flotillas of dark, wide moths appeared every night in a bedroom in which my sister eventually refused to sleep.

*   *   *

When the stay was over—but only then—we speculated giddily about dead bodies under floorboards.

*   *   *

So far, so manageable. But when that heat wave brought fatter, more alien moths to a tiny university town where I was deeply in love, and caught in the headlights of a Ph.D., dislike burgeoned into something else: an all-consuming terror whenever one would flap and flutter into view. Its blurry agitation would have me darting across a room before I knew what I was doing. Once, I leapt out of a shower in panic as one frantically ricocheted around the folds of a curtain. Out like a shot, I stood dripping shampoo on the hall carpet. The worst prospect: a moth sticking itself to my wet skin. It might disintegrate. A wing would be detached from a body; several different bits of moth might be stuck to me.

*   *   *

Dead, dismembered moth.

*   *   *

I went to a friend’s next door to rinse my hair.

*   *   *

There was a phase of nervously checking, at arm’s length, the curtains in my bedroom before sleep, poised to sprint from the scene should one rise from the lurid floral pattern. The pleasure of open windows on summer evenings was fraught with danger: those awful things, drawn to the light. Static, embracing a wall, they were almost worse, for they would inevitably move, taking disorganized, fitful flight. And when they were immobile one could see, if one dared look, their dreadful texture, their vile components.

*   *   *

I dreamt, once, of one pinning me down on the stone slabs of a suburban garden. It settled softly on me, trapping me under its insect blanket.

*   *   *

The wings—warm and dark, flimsy but strong. The furry texture of the body.

*   *   *

Those fucking moths.


Copyright © 2012 by Katherine Angel

Meet the Author

Katherine Angel is a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for the History of Medicine at Warwick University. She has written on sexuality, pornography, and the relationship between culture and desire for The Independent, Prospect, and The Observer, among others. She lives in London.

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Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
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