You MAY have been thinking, “ah, Valentine’s Day week! maybe this will be romance edition, pt. 2,” but you would be WRONG.
Not because I have particular antipathy towards ol’ Val itself, but I am generally deeply annoyed by seasonal episodes of anything (exceptions: the Galentine’s Day Parks and Rec episode, the Thanksgiving episode of Gilmore Girls, and every Brooklyn-99 Halloween Heist). I resisted on Halloween, and I resist now!!
Howards End – E.M. Forster
Starting off on a highly un-romantic foot…the Gilded Age! Now if you’ve heard of this book but not read it, or seen promotionals around for the Starz adaptation that came out a couple years ago, you may be thinking, “but isn’t this one of those books where everyone has a few small roadblocks and then they end up married and it’s all good?”
WRONG AGAIN. Allow me to quote myself:
Like we went back to the 19th century a couple weeks ago with Frankenstein, this week we get to go to the Gilded Age and the glorious wit of E.M. Forster. I’m not going to spend too much time here, because if Gilded Age lit is your jam that’s probably something you already know about yourself. If you’re not sure if it is, I wouldn’t recommend this as a starter. I liked it a lot, and as has often been the case when reading books from this period, felt startlingly seen by many of the characters. Forster’s humor and social commentary is delightful, but there’s a level of ambivalence and frustration in this story that’s less buoyant than A Room With a View, one of his other most well-known books.
I entered this book with interest but trepidation; “women’s health” is a topic that’s both interesting and important to me, but the topic is often framed in ways that are both trans-exclusionary and white-centric so I knew there was a possibly that I’d spend a lot of this book “and/or/but”-ing a lot of what I found. The good news is that I turned out having to do that less than I thought. Norman’s author’s note at the beginning addresses these issues and how her positioning as a white cis woman has affected her access to care and the space she’s afforded in these conversations. She’s clear from the start that her purpose was not to write a definitive text on the topics she delves into, but to “put my own experience in context” and my experience of the book was that within her purposefully limited scope she did pretty well at inclusivity. (But again–as a white cis woman myself, even one trying to read critically, my reading of the book isn’t universal and may have missed things.)
The book tries to be simultaneously memoir and research-based. When Norman was 19 she was diagnosed with endometriosis, and since then much of her life has revolved around trying to get doctors to take her and her pain seriously. She also backtracks to talk about her childhood, a difficult and traumatic time that left her without a stable support system. The narrative follows Norman through about 8 years of chronic illness (currently ongoing) and her efforts to dig into the history of medical professionals dismissing the pain of assigned female bodies, especially in regards to endometriosis and other maladies that primarily affect the reproductive system.
I wanted to be more into the memoir/research blend than I ultimately was; a balance like that takes a deft hand and careful editing, and though it was clear that the different sections informed each other in necessary ways, something in the flow was lacking. I think I was expecting more from the research sections (for example, even a not-terribly-long book on the issue needs more than a passing nod to the fact that black women are ignored and dismissed by medical professionals at much higher rates or that much of our modern knowledge about gynecology comes from forced experimentation on enslaved women), but even if there were equal page counts, it was overshadowed by the tonal intensity* of the memoir sections.
I don’t regret reading this–there was a lot of useful information (and reminders that the U.S. healthcare system is incredibly awful), and I can see it being helpful to others who have suffered from endometriosis or similar chronic issues. My hope is that it makes room for more books about these issues, particularly from a wider range of experiences.
*tw: sexual abuse/assault, eating disorders, attempted suicide
America Is Not the Heart – Elaine Castillo
THIS BOOK. THIS BOOK IS SO GOOD. GO BUY OR CHECK IT OUT RIGHT NOW.
It’s bonkers that this is Castillo’s debut novel, because the narrative is so perfectly crafted that it reads as fluid and organic, like it simply grew there on the page out of someone’s heart. The story is grounded in a particular year in the life of Hero de Vera, a woman who has just left the Philippines to live with relatives in California after 10 years with the New People’s Army and a few years after that of imprisonment and torture for her involvement, but the story skillfully moves between periods in her life, as well as the lives of the people close to her. It’s an immigration story and a love story and a story about family, born, chosen, and cultural.
The writing is incredibly alive; Castillo can deliver a laugh-out-loud clever observation and an emotional gut punch within the same SENTENCE, and they all contribute naturally to this gorgeous book. There were so many character descriptions or reflections or turns of phrase when I just thought “well fuck me right up” and had to close my eyes for a second. I get how noting punctuation might seem like a reach to say something nice, but truly Castillo uses punctuation in a way that’s unique and feels so, so true, particularly when it comes to the dialogue between characters. I already know this will be one of the best books I read this year, and I’m excited to read more from Elaine Castillo in the future.
I’ll close with a recommendation for a TV show that, if you’re on Twitter, may have noticed is becoming a phenomenon. Russian Doll!! This is the first show in awhile that I’ve been compelled to bingewatch in just a couple of days (though weather closures at my workplace helped out…) and I just want everyone to watch it and talk about it forever. (Hannah and I have already decided to feature it in March’s newsletter, so get on that subscription!!) The gist of it is that the main character, Nadia, keeps accidentally dying on or around her 36th birthday…and coming back to the same moment. The show hits a perfect balance between expertly plotted, hilariously clever, and emotionally thoughtful, and it’s only 8 half-hour episodes!! (tw: attempted suicide) If you’ve already watched it (or if you watch it as quickly as I did) and need holding over, I really enjoyed this piece by Bim Adewunmi and this one by Kathryn VanArendonk.
Okay, now go have some candy!