a cat, a cause, commendable books; 6.26.19

Hey friends! I have some good news and some rough news, but let’s start with the good news, which is that I got a cat this last week!

She’s 10 months old, her name is Fisher, and I already worship her, as does pretty much everyone who’s met her so far.

The rough news is not personal to me, but you’re likely aware that we’ve been hearing more and more of the atrocities being inflicted upon families at the border. It’s easy to feel helpless in these situations, which is why I’ve been donating what I can to RAICES, a legal nonprofit that’s doing a lot right now to reunite families and get them out of ICE’s clutches. If you can’t donate, please keep calling your representatives, keeping your eyes out for protests, and pushing back in whatever ways you can. If you are able to donate and are on Twitter, there are several prominent authors and public figures who have been matching donations, and hopefully more will follow suit, so keep your eyes open there as well.

Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower – Brittney Cooper

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Oh my god, these essays!! They’re directly up my alley in terms of the balance between memoir/personal essay and research/theory. Cooper expertly weaves her experiences, sense of humor, and hopes and concerns about the future in with her academic analyses of race and gender.

Women’s anger has been a buzzy topic lately–who gets to express it and when, buried anger and its toll, its power and dangers. Cooper’s book, which came out over a year ago, holds rage as the core, noting that Black women in particular have good reason to feel rage and should be most closely paid attention to. She posits anger as useful, both for oneself and for creating a more just society. Her essays tackle a wide range of topics–including but not at all limited to misogynoir, police and state violence, sex and theology, and the double-edged sword of exceptionalism–and often skillfully pull several topics together. She’s open about the places where her own viewpoints are in conflict, elucidating complex topics without dulling their complexity while also not leaving the reader feeling lost. It’s a really fantastic book, unputdownable in a way that books at this level of analysis often aren’t.

[tw: police violence]

Iza’s Ballad – Magda Szabó

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So a couple months ago I read The Door, Szabó’s most well-known novel, and it absolutely bowled me over. I’m still not really over that book, and maybe that tinged my appreciation of this book, which was lovely in spots but didn’t have the same magic for me. Where The Door was tightly focused on the complex and tense relationship between two unconventionally connected women, Iza’s Ballad is a bit more sprawling [and you know how I feel about sprawling book-wise], even within a relatively short novel. 

The central tension in this book is also between an older and younger woman, although this time they are mother and daughter. Ettie, in her 70s, has just become a widow, and her only child Iza brings her to live in the city with her. Their different modes of life and expectations for life together drive Iza to distraction and Ettie to depression. Meanwhile, their background and characters are further drawn out through other characters, primarily Iza’s ex-husband. Szabó’s writing is still intimate and oddly comforting and her characters are rich and well-observed, but I wish the plot construction had been a bit tighter.

[tw: suicide]

The Joy Luck Club – Amy Tan

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Speaking of a tight plot construction…literary classic The Joy Luck Club! Set up as 16 connected short stories which form a novel’s whole, Tan’s first novel explores the relationships between 4 sets of Chinese-American mothers and daughters. They’re often fraught, often passionate, frustrated, disappointed, devoted, protective. All of the mothers are immigrants, and they and their daughters emotionally wrestle (both with each other and with themselves) over the balances in their past, present, and future. 

Obviously Tan is a literary legend, and while I’d read snippets and sections of her work before, it was a new and captivating experience to read these stories as a whole and see how they worked together, sometimes through contradictions between the characters. Each of the 8 main characters has two stories told from her point of view. There’s a beautiful essay on LitHub by Tan about her reflections on the book after 30 years (it’s also the preface to the newest edition of the book), which eloquently describes the tension she was trying to (and did) capture, the anxiety both parent and child frequently feel that they will not be understood by the other, and the extra layer in the immigrant parent/child relationship.

[tw: sexual assault]

That’s all for this week! If you’re a Pop Culture Pen Pals subscriber, the July preview is in your inbox, and if you’re not it’s in our archives!

how many times can I use the word ‘prescient’; 6.19.19

Hello good day I come to you from deep within a dedicated Superstore rewatch. This show very possibly takes the prize for “Sneaking Most Effectively Into My Heart.” I went from casually enjoying an underrated sitcom to being convinced this is one of the NUMBER ONE MOST IMPORTANT SHOWS ON TELEVISION TODAY, which, I realize, is something I have been known to say about more than one of my favorite shows, but THIS ONE REALLY IS, Y’ALL. It pulls off exploring the prescient and often grim realities of working class life in the US while also being cracklingly hilarious and brilliantly layering in character development and foreshadowing in ways I’m appreciating more and more as my rewatch goes on. Hannah and I are going to be talking about this show in July’s Pop Culture Pen Pals, but to tide you over, a couple of my favorite TV writers, Kathryn VanArendonk and Emily VanDerWerff have recently written about the show and I loved both of their pieces [VanArendonk’s has significant spoilers, Vanderwerff’s has light spoilers].

The show is available on Hulu and honestly, along with the upcoming Veronica Mars availability, is one of the biggest reasons I recently upgraded to no ads, so if you need me, I will pretty much exclusively be in my own home, eating ice cream sandwiches and marathoning through these rewatches.

Silas Marner – George Eliot

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“So, considering you just finished a Trollope, maybe you should…take a break from the 19th century?” ….is a thing that I should have said to myself, and which proves that perhaps I myself am in need of a governess, because this relatively short novel [novella!!] took me…so…long…to sludge through.

Now to be fair, not much actually happens in it to spur the reader on. Like my experience with New Year’s Day a couple months back, I just didn’t get enough of the author’s wit and cutting observations to really have a good time, but there were several individual sections that I found very moving. The bare bones of the story is that a grouchy hermit weaver loses his precious money, then adopts a child, and that’s…honestly…it. Like, there’s a bunch of background drama going on with the origins of the child, but the point of the story is Silas Marner’s redemption, which happens in a pretty lowkey way. Maybe if you’re wanting to get a taste of Eliot’s style before making the leap to Middlemarch this would be a good choice? It was fine! I’m glad to have checked it off my 19th century list! There was a section in the last quarter that felt EXTREMELY prescient, because it was basically about a dude being like, “I said sorry so I should get what I want now!!!!” and it was extremely satisfying [spoiler] to see him not get what he wanted.

Sister Outsider – Audre Lorde

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It’s frankly a bit embarrassing that it’s taken me this long to read any Audre Lorde. A prolific poet, essayist, and activist, Lorde’s work is foundational to any understanding of feminism, anti-racism, and their intersections, along with work and writing about LGBTQ rights and acceptance, anti-ageism, and anti-capitalism. This collection of essays, letters, and speeches demonstrates Lorde’s capacity to approach any topic with a complex range of perspectives, as well as a relationship to words and language deeply informed by her poetry. Though the content is often challenging thematically, the style is accessible in a way that it takes a very skilled writer to pull off. As I mentioned before, the pieces in the book are a mixture of formats, including a section in the middle that’s the transcript of a conversation between Lorde and fellow poet Adrienne Rich. I really enjoyed the variety, especially in a busy week when I was doing battle with the soul-crushing House of Leaves, and the extra layer of thinking about the differing goals and audiences for each section was a meaningful addition to an incredibly rich collection.

The collection was originally published in 1984, and the pieces in it range from the mid-70’s to the early 80’s, and 35+ years later it’s all still incredibly relevant. Particularly in the sections about how race and feminism, and white women’s failures to center or even meaningfully include Black women’s experiences and contributions, there were many times the book described and explored discussions and struggles that happen every day in 2019.

As often happens, I struggle to figure out how to talk about important books here. On the one hand, what is there for me to say about Audre Lorde other than “go read her now!” But on the other hand there’s something that feels profoundly Wrong about me spouting off about my disdain for House of Leaves for almost 400 words and writing significantly less about my positive reaction to Sister Outsider. In general it’s a balance I’m still trying to work out, because as much as I love to complain, I do want the tone of this blog to be in general a positive one, so I appreciate your patience as I continue to figure out the balance here!

House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski

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I’m pretty sure I have been punkd. Why the fuck did I read this book.

Okay so I read it because supposedly it’s a cult classic of horror, etc, also there’s an Overdue episode about it. [they were marginally more charitable than I am about to be, but only just, and would be a great listen if you felt A Sort Of Way about it.] So like, a of all…I did not find it scary? There were a couple of moments when I was like, “yeah this would be scary if it was in a different book but honestly I am too ANNOYED to be scared right now!!!” B of all, when describing the premise to my roommate [“it’s like…a book…within a book…about a supposed film…and there’s all these footnotes and appendices…”] she rightly commented, “Oh…this book was written by a dude, wasn’t it?” AND IT SURE WAS. IT’S ONE OF THE MOST DUDE-EST BOOKS I HAVE EVER FORCED MY EYEBALLS THROUGH.

So yeah the premise is that there’s this ~film~ that everyone in the book assumes to be fictional because it’s your typical “family moves into a big house and the big house is TERRIFYING” and if you’ve been around, y’all KNOW how much I want to love a “big terrifying house” story, and maybe I would have liked it if it had just been the story of that. BUT NOPE. The book is actually made up of a manuscript this now-dead-dude named Zampano has written about the film, which a dude named Johnny Truant has found and is annotating/publishing. There’s…a lot going on. It’s not a straightforward front-to-back read–you’re meant to bounce around between the appendices and footnotes, etc, and there are sections of the book where they do things with the layout to mirror the content of the text, which all sounds SO INTERESTING and made me SO UPSET. But you know what, some people love it and I guess that’s FINE but I intend on snarling like a feral cat whenever it’s brought up in proximity to me.

Some warnings: there are several references to sexual assault and suicide. The book also has relationships to disability, mental illness, and addiction that I was…not a fan of.

Okay everyone stay hydrated and I’ll see you next week!

Stop Sleeping on Connie Willis 2k19; 6.12.19

Okay so a couple of weeks ago I promised you an IMPASSIONED PSA and it’s finally here!!

My latest entry in the canon of “you MUST read this author!! you absolutely MUST!!!” is Connie Willis and I honestly feel quite salty that I’d never really heard of her until recently because now I just want to inject all of her books directly into my veins.

She’s most well-known for her sci-fi and sci-fi-adjacent works, which have earned her Hugos and Nebulas which are basically the OSCARS AND GOLDEN GLOBES OF THE SCI-FI WORLD. Her style and syntax is so straightforward, with a wry sense of humor, and I’m going to need all of you to STOP SLEEPING ON HER ASAP.

Bellwether – Connie Willis

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Despite the cover of this book, it’s actually much less sci-fi-y than Doomsday Book. The good folks of Bellwether Friends, a podcast I enjoy whose name comes from this book, describe as being more in the vein of a workplace romantic comedy. The main character, Sandra, is a “trends researcher” who works for a giant tech company that has corporate-speak team meetings, 40 page long incomprehensible funding requests, and an insolent interdepartmental assistant. Her attempt to discover what causes trends or fads takes on a new direction when a bizarre series of events brings her into contact with a chaos scientist named Bennett O’Reilly.

It’s very, very charming and a quick read [also according to Bellwether Friends the audiobook read by Kate Reading is also exceptionally good], managing to pull off a slightly judgmental narrator gloriously, and packing in lots of factoids about trends. While there’s a touch of the mysterious, it’s less “sci-fi” and more “what if the real world but MORE” and it’s very fun.

Doomsday Book – Connie Willis

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OKAY. This book is about TIME TRAVEL, but time travel like I’ve never read/seen it portrayed in media before. [it might be an extra good tonic for those who were left thinking “sorry…WHAT?” re:Avengers Endgame] It just seems so…sensible? Set in a near-future version of Oxford, everything is basically the same except there’s TIME TRAVEL, and a very academic version of time travel, used by historians to visit other time periods. Maybe later books get more into the nitty-gritty (there are three more in this loosely connected ‘series’: To Say Nothing of the Dog, Blackout, and All Clear), but this one does an exceptional job at giving you just enough information to make sense, but not so much that you’re bogged down by a series of logic problems.

For the first time, the history department is sending someone back to the Middle Ages, which has long been off-limits due its many dangers. You know, like the Plague. Also the fact that people living in England in the 14th century literally spoke an ENTIRELY DIFFERENT LANGUAGE than what we consider “English” today. But Kivrin, a graduate student, is not to be stopped, even by the trepidations of her advisor Professor Dunworthy. Obviously, things…do not go as planned.

Willis is such a meticulous writer and can so sweep you off your feet that every quick turn is accompanied by a “dammit OF COURSE!” The dialogue is realistically witty and though the book runs towards the longer side, she brilliantly maintains tension throughout.

The one thing I did not like is that there’s some fatphobia in the portrayal of a minor character, which really sucked.

Okay peace out friends! I’ll be hunting down more Connie Willis and most likely shoveling all of the Big Little Lies jokes into my brain.

appreciate ur sinuses; 6.5.19

Hello hello we’re gonna keep it nice and snappy today because as it turns out I am still living at war with my sinuses.

First of all though, I am happy to report that both Booksmart and Always Be My Maybe were absolute delights and you should definitely see them! ADDITIONALLY, there’s a show I’ve really been enjoying over the last couple months called The Other Two and it’s HILARIOUS and all of the episodes are free and easily accessible [in a non-shady way!] for the next two weeks here! The premise is basically “what if a 13 year old Justin Bieber had had two 30-something siblings” and it’s a fantastically good time.

Just a heads-up before we get into the books: both of the books this week deal with pretty heavy topics, including suicide and sexual assault so please take care of yourself as needed!

A Tale for the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki

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[TW: suicide, sexual assault]

The story is told in two narratives: a diary by a teenage Japanese girl named Nao [pun definitely intended by the author] and a Japanese-Canadian woman named Ruth who finds the diary when it washes up on a local beach about ten years later, along with a watch and some letters written in French. The reader follows both Nao’s writing and Ruth’s reading of the diary as they both grapple with the nature of time, connection, and narrative. I personally found the Ruth side of the narrative more interesting (even though it wouldn’t exist without Nao’s side)–I frequently find child and teenage characters written for adult audiences…grating? And I’m not sure why! Just something in the tone doesn’t quite click for me.

But that being said, the book is very well written and I enjoyed spending time with the questions about time and the relationship between reader and narrative. As I mentioned at the start, there’s a lot of focus in the book on suicide–Nao’s father repeatedly attempts and Nao considers it herself. There are also a few references to and a couple instances of sexual assault.

Women Talking – Miriam Toews

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[TW: sexual assault, suicidal ideation]

This has been ALL OVER Book Twitter and the general book world since before it came out, hailed as a “#MeToo novel,” and pretty universally praised for its lyrical imagery and characterization and thoughtful meditations on questions of trauma, power, and forgiveness. It’s speculative fiction based on real events–in a conservative Mennonite colony in Bolivia during the years 2005 and 2009 women and girls would frequently wake up in the morning after having been drugged and violated. The [male] leadership dismissed this as dreams, imagination, or spiritual punishment, until it was finally discovered that a group of men from the colony were the perpetrators. The men are arrested, but colony leadership is determined to post bail and bring them back to the community. Toews–who grew up Mennonite–imagines what a conversation between the women of the community might be like as they deliberate whether to do nothing, stay and fight, or leave the community altogether.

As you can probably tell, the content is pretty heavy, but Toews writing style takes a gentle touch, focusing primarily on the discussion between the women (and the one man they’ve allowed in to record their conversation). It’s also a fairly short book, focused on a close timeline and effectively building tension within that timeline. There were sections that felt a bit too abstract for me, especially the ones that took place mostly within the narrator’s head, but I know I’ll be ruminating on the arguments of this book for a long time.

Alright, peace out, appreciate your unclogged sinuses, and watch The Other Two! And remember that this month’s Pop Culture Pen Pals comes out this month so check your inboxes and spam filters.

motorized crumminess; 5.29.19

Hey hi hello! Today marks the first in a week that I’ve had coffee, due to spending the holiday weekend with a raging cold/flu bug, so I still feel kind of crummy, but in like…a motorized way? Anyway, I think it should be noted that anything I say about the following books should be taken with the consideration that I read them during a weekend in which I also fell asleep at one point thinking “the fever is all I hear!”

To my great chagrin, this also meant that I didn’t have the chance to see Booksmart this weekend, which I’ve been hearing INCREDIBLE things about and will definitely be featured in Pop Culture Pen Pals sometime soonish! ALSO the movie Always Be My Maybe comes to Netflix this Friday and I have watched the trailer oh I don’t know about 84 times. It looks so fun and I’m excited to watch it. I’ve heard it might be showing in some theaters, so if you have that option I would also encourage you to look into that!

The Well of Lost Plots: A Thursday Next Novel – Jasper Fforde

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I’ve spoken before about my abiding love for these literary detective novels and that love just keeps on growing! This is the third in a series about a special agent named Thursday who has a pet dodo named Pickwick, a husband who doesn’t technically exist, and also happens to spend a great deal of time solving mysteries and saving lives in BookWorld.

The series starts with The Eyre Affair and each one builds more into the world, deepening the mythology and logic of the alternative reality in a way that continues to impress and delight me. The characters are a hoot, the humor is both clever and gentle, and as a bonus there’s both a not-so-subtle anti-capitalist bent and a deep affection for the book Rebecca!

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup – John Carreyrou

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If you’ve been anywhere on the internet in the last six-ish months, you’ve probably heard about Theranos (which is not, as it took me wayyyyy too long to figure out, just a misspelling of ‘Thanos’). The crash and burn of the mysterious [shady] “we’re going to change the world!!!” healthcare startup is fascinating, and part of the fascination comes from the straightforward and engaging reporting in this book. [There’s also a podcast called The Drop Out and an HBO documentary called The Inventor…and a miniseries in development starring Kate McKinnon!]

Carreyrou tracks the Theranos story from the beginning, and the amount of red flags present at literally every step needs to make the rest of us feel much less bad about most decisions we regret because WOW. There’s quite a bit of biochemistry and financial jargon in here that I didn’t understand, but the book does a pretty good job of explaining in enough detail that you can get the gist if that’s all that matters to you or REALLY dig into understanding it if that’s what you’re into [I obviously took the first option, see above: fever]. As others have pointed out, a missing element to the book seems to be an examination of the underlying structures that allowed in particular the founder Elizabeth Holmes to get so far, but there have definitely been thinkpieces aplenty on the topic. I liked reading it and am definitely going to get into that podcast and documentary when I get the chance.

[TW: suicide (in the book, not the video)]

Also for anyone already familiar with Elizabeth Holmes, I found this Tavi Gevinson video hypnotizing and hilarious.

That’s all for this week folks! I did notice while I was linking back to the first time I talked about Thursday Next here that it was in a post in which I also mentioned my pal, Enneagram mob boss, Hannah Paasch, who recently published a whole goddamn book on the topic. It’s called Millenneagram [she also has a podcast!] and though I haven’t had time [emotional fortitude] to get into it quite yet, it’s sitting on my desk smiling encouragingly at me and I already wholeheartedly recommend it!

new and improved shouting; 5.22.19

Hey friends, welcome back! I don’t know if you noticed last week (and honestly I forgot to announce it) but your girl upgraded and we are now ad-free! Also I get live chat support for the next time a formatting issue on this website nearly drives me to tears!

Speaking of things nearly driving me to tears, many of you are probably aware of the recent extremely restrictive abortion bans in the process of being put through in Alabama, Georgia, and Ohio right now. If you’re interested in (and able to) supporting organizations committed to helping pregnant people get abortions, I’ve recently donated to the Yellowhammer Fund in Alabama, and Planned Parenthood Southeast is a relevant source as well.

Also, by specific request [from me], each topic in June’s Pop Culture Pen Pals runs for two hours or less, including Obvious Child, a deeply sweet and sharply funny romcom-adjacent movie about a very normal abortion. And it’s on Netflix!

Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century – Sam Kashner & Nancy Schoenberger

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I talked about this a couple weeks ago in my ‘heavy heart’ post, and I finished it off for this week. Partially due to reading The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo a few months ago [which by the way would be a FANTASTIC beach/pool read!], and partially due to just how INTERESTING it is, I’ve started dipping my toe into the world of Old Hollywood, and this book about two legends and their relationship with each other [a legend all its own!] was a great addition.

As I mentioned previously, this recommendation came from Rachel Syme’s twitter (a TREASURE TROVE of Old Hollywood info and recs). It seems odd to say a 400+ page book takes a “laser focus” on anything, but it really does zoom in on Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s relationship with each other. Kashner and Schoenberger expertly fill in other background info as-needed, and do a stellar job at keeping a quick pace and expecting the reader to keep up while also not treating the reader like an ignoramus if they’re not Old Hollywood experts. Also, I realize I keep saying ‘Old Hollywood,’ which is a period the Taylor-Burton relationship actually outlasted. Because it’s relevant to their relationship, the book also provides a fascinating micro-history of Hollywood’s transition between periods and provides a lot of context for how the movie industry as we know it today came to be.

In case it’s not already obvious, I really enjoyed this book and have a long list of relevant movies I now want to watch. It does need some trigger warnings for domestic violence, depression, alcoholism, and attempted suicide. Also, Taylor’s weight fluctuated significantly throughout her life and was a frequent point of scrutiny from the public, as well as from herself and her acquaintances. Occasionally in the book the authors note the effect this scrutiny and pressure had on her, and for their part they do an okay job at staying away from weight-shaming themselves, but there were a few comments I winced at and for some the topic itself might not be one they can engage with, which is valid!

The Marrow Thieves – Cherie Dimaline

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Engaging characters, indigeneity in dystopia, and chosen/found family in a fast-paced YA novel? Yes! Hello! Sign me up!

Set in a near-future world ravaged by climate change, French is on the run with a small group of other Native people who have joined together for protection. A mysterious side effect of the destruction to the environment is that Native people are now the only ones with the ability to dream, and so they’re hunted and imprisoned in “schools” that attempt to harvest their bone marrow. [If you’re familiar at all with Native history in North America, the word ‘schools’ probably gave you a heads up about the history that Dimaline is evoking, and if you’re not familiar, the phrase “Native boarding schools” would be a good thing to start googling.]

As French bonds with the others in his group, they share stories of pain, loss, community, and hope. Dimaline’s writing is beautiful and the characters and the bonds between them felt real and fleshed out. There were some ways in which the worldbuilding didn’t feel quite…built out? The mechanics of this dystopia were definitely not as important to Dimaline as the characters and imagery, which were done so excellently I almost forgot to care about those mechanics. There’s so much Dimaline is referencing and connecting thematically that the dystopian worldbuilding is almost beside the point, but I do think a sequel could be a bit stronger if it’s slightly more specific about a couple things.

[TW: depictions of violence, including sexual assault]

[p.s. I’m continuing to try to be more conscious of the amount and types of books I read written by BIPOC. In particular, as I survey the books I’ve read in the last year I’m noticing a specific lack of books written by Indigenous/First Nations authors, which I’m working on remedying and welcome your recommendations on!]

Parable of the Talents – Octavia E. Butler

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Okay so if you [I] thought Parable of the Sower was eerily prescient WHEW ARE WE IN FOR SOME SURPRISED AND CONCERNED YELPING.

This follow-up was originally designed as the 2nd in a trilogy, which Butler passed away before completing. Though they’re technically a series, I had a much different experience reading this one than I did the first. There’s definitely trauma in Sower, but it’s more often referenced and alluded to, whereas it’s viscerally present here. There’s a lot of sexual violence in this book, including childhood sexual assault and sex trafficking, along with torture, slavery, and suicide, and I found myself having to space out the reading of it much more than I did before.

The book is still primarily told through the journals of Lauren Oya Olamina, picking up a couple years after the events of Sower and presented as a collection occasionally commented on by writings of her daughter, Larkin/Asha. The book essentially has two timelines, Larkin/Asha’s taking place a few years after Lauren’s. Obviously, it’s neither new nor shocking that Octavia Butler Knew, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t startle me to read about a fear-mongering, xenophobic “Christian” politician who literally wants to “make American great again.” Lauren’s community and budding religion is viciously attacked by a faction of his supporters, and the book is a story of survival, pain, and change.

As always, Butler’s writing is poetic and thought-provoking and I’m sure will warrant many a reread across my life.

See ya next week, possibly for an impassioned PSA!

all aboard the action train; 5.16.19

Is this a day late? Yes! Am I currently accruing a BUNCH of library late fees? Certainly! But let’s ignore all that and instead let me bend your ears quick about something I can’t stop thinking about: the 2013 movie Snowpiercer! I watched it for the first time this weekend (on the recommendation of Overinvested podcast) and was immediately LIVID that I hadn’t seen it much much sooner. It was definitely marketed as your garden variety TRAIN ACTION MOVIE!! and while it is on a train and there is action there’s also SO MUCH MORE GOING ON. It’s about class revolution and how hot Chris Evans looks when he’s sad and grimy!! Also it’s on Netflix and please tell me IMMEDIATELY once you have watched it because we have things to discuss!!

[a note: it is an extremely violent and often disturbing movie. there was one scene about halfway through in which I realized what was about to happen and almost screamed “NOPE I HAVE TO QUIT.” for me it turned out to be definitely worth it, but use your best judgement.]

New Year’s Day – Edith Wharton

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Well!! I read this one…awhile ago. And quite frankly, I forgot about it! Which is sad, because I do love Edith Wharton (I’ve talked about both House of Mirth and Age of Innocence here). Also I didn’t realize until I picked this up from the library that New Year’s Day is the fourth novella in a set usually published together as Old New York. Maybe I would have liked it more if I had read the other novellas, but I honestly went through most of this one thinking, “is that…it?”

There was one excellent scene in which a clever woman scornfully explained to a man how she had duped him, but as for the rest there just wasn’t the density of sharp barbs at others’ expense mixed with lots and lots of longing that I really love in Wharton. It might also be that after heaving myself through The Way We Live Now I might need to take a break from the 19th century.

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir – Patrisse Khan-Cullors & asha bandele

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Okay so a of all, if you don’t know the names of the three Black women who founded Black Lives Matter, now is the time to learn: Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Khan-Cullors. This book by Khan-Cullors, along with her co-author asha bandele (lowercase purposeful), is subtitled “A Black Lives Matter memoir,” and dives deep into her life, explicating how her experiences and those of her community members formed her need to push for and create change.

There was a slight pacing imbalance, especially in the second half, likely due to Khan-Cullors and bandele trying to fit as much as possible into a short, accessible book. From reading other book reviews, it sounds like a lot of people were expecting this book to be more about the formation of the Black Lives Matter organization, which is probably an expectation I would have had if not for hearing a lot to the contrary ahead of time. The authors don’t actually get to that until closer to the end, focusing instead on Khan-Cullors’ life and how the various factors at work within it lead her to that.

It’s beautifully written while also being densely informative, in a way that’s clearly described and interconnected. I knew the prison, policing, and healthcare systems in this country were fcked, but…wow. They’re really fcked! And even more sobering to learn about is how they’re fcked mostly on purpose. They were specifically designed to keep marginalized folks powerless, and Khan-Cullors and bandele do an expert job at writing about trauma and pain with deep love, hope, and sensitivity.

[tw: police violence, sexual violence, references to suicide and suicidal ideation]

Choose Your Own Disaster – Dana Schwartz

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The subtitle felt too long to put in the heading, and also is probably pretty small on that cover picture, so I’m gonna block quote it here, because it is pretty important in terms of knowing what you’re going into:

A. a memoir
B. a personality quiz
C. a mostly true and completely honest look at one young woman’s attempt to find herself
D. all of the above

I guess the title itself was supposed to suggest that a “choose your own adventure”ish structure was also in there, which I honestly could have done without. Some of her themes throughout are reinventing oneself and the overwhelm of thinking about how one choice near the beginning of your life can branch out into an innumerable possibilities, so it worked thematically, but I personally found it stressful. She recounts dating disasters, travel misadventures, and career advances and fallbacks with a self-deprecating and pop-culture-reference-filled sense of humor, as well as a couple of more traumatic elements of her life.

I have a bit more to say, but I want to give the following trigger warnings for the book first: sexual assault, suicidal ideation, and eating disorders. I’m about to say a little more on how the parts focused on her eating disorder didn’t sit well with me, and if reading about that would be stressful or harmful for you right now please do feel free to skip it. Additionally, I welcome your feedback if I get something wrong and/or my take on this needs some re-evaluation.

Okay so first of all I want to leave space for the reality that recovery from eating disorders is an ongoing and often complicated process [which Schwartz does a good job of stressing]. I also want to acknowledge the impulse in memoir-writing to not want to put in a running commentary on the narrative itself, especially when that narrative is made up of your own experiences. That      being said, memoir itself is made up of hundreds of choices about how you shape and present a narrative, and those choices themselves are also commentary.

The sections about Schwartz’s eating disorder (which takes on a couple of different forms in the book) are potently and viscerally written, and deal explicitly with fatphobia specifically as it relates to her feelings about herself. That in itself is not necessarily a problem, but there were several instances (which the narrative as a whole supported) in which the framing and presentation of her experiences suggested that while an eating disorder is not right, fatphobia itself…might be kind of right? And while it’s true that there are many ways in which society treats fat/plus-sized people cruelly, I did not get the impression that Schwartz had truly grappled with the way her own perspectives and assumptions might be perpetuating that. The narrative was still shaped by an assumption that thin/straight-sized bodies are the norm, and everything else is a deviation, and I think this aspect of the story could have used some time to breathe and for the author to unpack and unlearn some things.

Okay that’s all for this week folks! Sorry for ending on kind of a bummer, so here! A picture of Chris Evans!

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