A Year in Review [2016 version]

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  1. Biggest accomplishment – The book that made one of the biggest splashes in 2015 was Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. At a towering 720 pages, this book took me over four months to read. People often cite it as the most difficult and heart-breaking reading experience of their life. Atmospheric and haunting, it explores friendship, family, and trauma in ways that are unforgettable. Even when I abandoned it for weeks at time, I continued thinking about it. I’m proud I pushed through despite its nearly unbearable depiction of trauma and would recommend it to those in search of something heavy, unique, and soulful.
  2. Best fantasy – My winner for this category last year was Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses. I had been hearing about that book for months as she also writes the popular Throne of Glass series. I began reading its sequel, A Court of Mist and Fury, on a Sunday night and literally could not put it down. I think I stayed up until 4 a.m., brought it to work with me on Monday, and finished it on Monday night. At 626 pages, this is a pretty incredible testament to its readability, world-building, and conflict. I am hesitant to begin a series like this for many reasons: it’s slated to be 6 books long, an experience I’m not keen on; it features shape-shifters; its central conflict is a love triangle; and each book is long. However, this book was so damned exciting and unputdownable I know I’m in it for the long haul. I said this last year too, but the way she portrays female sexuality is pretty ground-breaking and unique for a YA author.
  3. Best middle grade – A lovely and popular quick read from the past few years is George by Alex Gino. It tells the story of young George whose greatest desire is to play Charlotte in her class’s fourth grade performance of Charlotte’s Web – a typically female role people feel is inappropriate given her label as a ‘boy’ at birth. I find myself recommending this to both teens and adults alike as it tells the story of a trans character in such an empathetic, tender, and authentic way. I think this is a great book to start if you want to read more diverse stories or if you find yourself struggling to understand the perspective of trans people as it is simple and very sweet.
  4. Best romance – A book I had seen popping up over and over again throughout the year was Sally Thorne’s The Hating Game. I was surprised at how popular it was given the basic enemies-to-lovers trope that I feel has been done over and over again in romance. However, this book was hysterically funny and had the sarcasm and slow-burning chemistry that I always appreciate in a good romance novel. It reminded me often of Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments, another sweet work-place slow burn.
  5. Most memorable – It seems as though it’s impossible to have a year-end reflection without featuring a book that has the word girl in the title. In my opinion, Emma Cline’s The Girls suffered greatly from being one of Random House’s big-budget acquisitions, signing Cline to a three-book deal (that included this novel) despite her status as a debut novelist and being only 25 years old. This book, perhaps to justify it’s $2 million price tag, was promoted religiously on every book platform I visit. I finally read it in September, four months after its release but having seen it being promoted for months prior to that. I was sick of its cover before I even picked it up. However, despite very mixed reviews, I absolutely adored this book. This is a story about Evie, a girl who becomes very desperately wrapped up in a cult inspired by the real-life one led by Charles Manson. This book was brutal, violent, and very notably feminist. Aside from leading me down a Wikipedia rabbit hole, I couldn’t put it down.
  6. Best debut – Every responsible elementary and middle school educates its students about the reprehensible history of the transatlantic slave trade. It’s rare that people might digest the implications of these abhorrent events and follow their impact throughout generations of Americans to today in one piece of work. An ambitious and successful project, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing does just this. Equal parts romance, tragedy, politics, and history, this book makes an excellent case for reparations that many historians and columnists have made–though very artfully in this work of fiction. It is impossible to read this book and not think differently about identity politics and people of color in America today. This epic text does not seem like the work of a debut author given its sophisticated timeline and masterclass on characterization.
  7. Best non-fiction The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation by Natalie Moore was my favorite non-fiction book of the year. Her personal history as a born and raised south-sider makes this book a captivating mixture of personal history and straight up facts about this area of Chicago. Moore does an exquisite job of never only blaming one group or person for the complicated state of the neighborhoods in the south side of the city. This is an incredible feat given the very clear repercussions of white people’s deplorable role in oppressing black folks. She questions the role that black people have in their communities too with sophisticated questions and interesting anecdotal tales. It’s clear from her mixture of fact and story that she is a WBEZ reporter, a type of storytelling that most find very digestible and interesting. Her chapters especially about black politicians and violence in Chicago were the most memorable to me.
  8. Best seriesThe Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante were such an unforgettable journey that very notably consumed a large segment of my reading life in 2016. Each book is an absorbing catalogue of events in main character Elena’s journey from childhood to late adulthood. This series primarily chronicles the turbulent and important friendship between Elena and her friend Lila. I often describe these books as brutally feminist as they explore the troubling violence and immense difficulty involved in womanhood throughout these characters’ lives. We watch as Elena faces colossal conflict with her family, neighborhood, lovers, children, career, and most importantly, herself. She is an imperfect and often unlikable character, and this fictional account feels so personal and real. These books were also connected to several interesting articles/events that I would recommend reading and learning about in conjunction with the texts themselves:
    1. The “Unmasking” of Elena Ferrante
    2. The Subtle Genius of Elena Ferrante’s Bad Book Covers

Other highlights from my year that I would strongly recommend: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead; The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson; Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Jack Thorne, John Tiffany, and J.K. Rowling; Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo; The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon; A Promise of Fire by Amanda Bouchet; A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro.

 

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Feminism is for everybody

I recently read two memoirs from well-known feminist journalists. I received Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West as my June selection from the Book of the Month Club, and I received Sex Object by Jessica Valenti as a birthday gift from a friend.

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I’m always hesitant to read memoirs because they often absolve people from telling stories in any way besides from their own perspective. For example, I would never consider reading a memoir from a celebrity embroiled in scandal or a politician who has cheated on his wife – I’m simply not interested in their “take,” regardless of how close-minded that appears. By calling it a memoir, you are giving the impression of non-fiction but allowing yourself the liberty to say anything, really, and claim it’s from your own perspective.

Valenti’s account, however, is a particularly self-effacing and brutal recounting of her past–she tells stories of habits and behaviors that most would judge as self-sabotaging or at the very least, incredibly unhealthy. She does it in such a way that isn’t hiding who she is or blaming any one person. Nonetheless, her trauma related to her woman-hood is what emerges most.

Given all that women are expected to live with–the leers that start when we’ve barely begun puberty, the harassment, the violence we survive or are constantly on guard for–I can’t help but wonder what it all has done to us. Not just to how women experience the world, but how we experience ourselves. I started to ask myself: Who would I be if I didn’t live in a world that hated women?

Lindy West explores the trauma she’s undergone from trolls and harassers on the Internet, a topic that Valenti showcases as well. West also goes in depth about her journey as a heavy woman in a world with very specific beauty standards. While Valenti’s was intensely personal, West discusses many of her professional experiences, including a public feud with Dan Savage and her willingness to take on male comics and their insistence on making rape jokes. Lindy West balances darkness with light, making her funny moments so poignant and her struggles really relatable.

Both women expose themselves as imperfect, vulnerable, and responsible for their own actions–yet also indict sexism and oppression in society. West’s account is also considerably intersectional as she addresses racism explicitly as well.

I still meet women who refuse the label of feminist because they don’t want to be ‘man-haters’ or aggressive. For some women, they may experience life never feeling scared or vulnerable because of their gender. For me, this has not been the case, and reading books about women who aren’t perfect, who are weak and strong, smart and making mistakes, I gain more courage to address the moments when I feel loads of self-doubt or insecurity.  It’s impossible to read books like this and not recognize the depraved misogyny that infiltrates our society; despite their status as ‘memoirs,’ there is so much that rings true in both of these books.

On how if you still don’t believe Black Lives Matter, you need to get your sh*t together ASAP and read some books

It is utterly baffling to me that in the year 2016, people still have to defend why Black Lives Matter is an incredibly urgent, important, and necessary movement. Then I remember that I operate in the world as a white person and have the privilege to feel just confused; black folks experience enough racism and/or microagressions on a daily basis and hear this movement devalued so regularly that it’s infuriating.

It is necessary that you and everyone you know attempt to understand the BLM movement and at the very least, support its intentions, because at the end of the day, it’s a very basic exercise in empathy. I have never been a black person and will never know what that’s like, but I can listen to black people when they talk, and I can read their stories. It’s no surprise that scientists have proven and discussed a lot lately about how people who read literary fiction are more empathetic people. This is not surprising–people who read beyond popular fiction (that is disproportionately about white people’s problems) will figuratively experience the lives of people different from them. It is white folks’ imperative responsibility to read harder, go beyond what’s comfortable, and figure out why their “oversensitive hippie liberal friends” post incessantly or bring up conversations frequently about the horrors and violence experienced by people of color on a daily basis.

Most people I know are liberal. A lot of them are white. Many of them also don’t read a lot of literary fiction – they read articles online and listen to the news, and this is sufficient for them to support BLM. But I would argue it’s important for them to work hard to find and read more stories from and about black folks too. Publishing is racist. Literary awards like the Pulitzer are disproportionately awarded to people who are white and male. And top 10 best-sellers very rarely include people of color. This means one must pay attention to read stories that are about something different from their own lived experience.

People at Book Riot talk about how their reading choices are their acts of social justice. By willingly choosing to read stories from people who are marginalized, oppressed, scorned, and discriminated against, one is choosing to take one small step closer to understanding that struggle. There is no shortage of lists to help you out. I’ve made intentional goals myself to make sure I am more inclusive with my choices. Start small if you feel overwhelmed–maybe you read 2-3 books by someone who is not white by the end of 2016. Reading more diversely is something everyone can do, especially when thinking about how urgent movements like BLM are. So go do it.

 

 

A Year in Review [2015 Version]

I’m proud of and satisfied by the reading I’ve done this year. Much of what I read is inexpensive, light-hearted romance or mystery that I find on Amazon – but I also legitimately try to challenge myself by reading harder and more diversely. I have my various book club memberships to thank for truly pushing me in new directions I wouldn’t go in otherwise. Here are some of my successes, failures, challenges, accomplishments, and disappointments from a year of my reading life.

  1. Biggest accomplishment – Each year, I try to challenge myself by beginning and sticking with something longer that I know I would normally give up on. Last year, that challenge (and my Girl Book Club) led to me reading The Goldfinch, which was long, as well as NW, which I found almost unbearable but stuck with. This year, the award-winner for this category was Jonathan Franzen’s Purity. I had never read any of Franzen’s books before, but I’ve read and talked about him ad nauseam prior to reading this. He is a polarizing writer–he crafts unlikable and sometimes TSTL characters that are self-obsessed and depraved. I found this book to be, just, plodding. The politics were so very boring, and the whole thing just felt entirely self-serving. All that being said, the last 25% was really great and interesting, and I’m relieved I stuck with it and feel most proud in particular of not giving up on this book.
  2. Best fantasy – This is a genre I dutifully avoid for no other reason than I can’t control my eye rolls. Shape-shifters? Faeries?  Paranormal? High Fantasy? Nope nope nope nope. However, I had heard about A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas from several different people and places well before it came out, which is always a pretty good sign. Not quite dystopia but also not in fantasy-land, this world-building was gradual and atmospheric. It reminded me at times of TA Barron’s Merlin series that I absolutely devoured as a kid. People critiqued the main character, Feyre, as a Katniss-wannabe, but you know what? If being a badass female warrior/hunter makes you wrong, then I don’t want to be right. Also, the romance was pretty ground-breaking for a YA book. Minimal, tasteful, but also pretty daring. Props to Ms. Maas on this one–I pre-ordered the second one already.
  3. Most unusual – For this category I chose Every Day by David Levithan. This is a book I’ve seen kids carrying around at school for years. It wasn’t until I met him at the Anderson’s YA Lit Conference that I actually bought and read it with my Kid Book Club. Its premise from Goodreads: “Every day a different body. Every day a different life. Every day in love with the same girl. There’s never any warning about where it will be or who it will be. A has made peace with that, even established guidelines by which to live: Never get too attached. Avoid being noticed. Do not interfere.” I can’t thank my awesome book club kids enough for pushing my thinking about this book far more than I would have if I read it independently. Not quite sci-fi and more like philosophical drama (a genre I just invented), this book challenged me to think about gender, sexuality, and identity in ways that were disorienting and uncomfortable. But I really liked it. I’ve never read a book like it.
  4. Best young adult – This is a tie between Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz and More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera. Both books were by and about men/teens that identify as gay and Latino, and both were so unlike anything I’d ever read. I’ve heard it said from several people that if books like this existed when they were young adults, they would be different people today. Both books handle the topic of being a young gay person discovering their sexuality so respectfully and interestingly. Aristotle and Dante is also poetic and beautiful, while More Happy Than Not is incredibly inventive, gritty, and unique. I loved both of these books so much. A close runner up in this category would be Kissing in America by Margo Robb, but I’ve already raved about that.
  5. Most life-changing – All the hype about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me is incredibly well-deserved. Mr. Coates is truly a craftsman. His words are art, and this book reads unlike anything that’s been written ever (or at least in a while). Sincere, angry, hopeful, truthful, and lyrical, this is honestly required reading. For everyone. Everywhere. It’s being described as “non-fiction,” but I would argue that this is more memoir. It’s about life and living and dying, and I think about this book almost daily.
  6. Biggest disappointment – Is it redundant to point out the ubiquitousness of John Green? I fell deeply in love with Gus and Hazel’s story several years ago–just like the rest of America. I am not immune to a well-written love story, no matter how overly saturated America was in it. That being said, I felt inclined to read his entire backlist to double check if there was another such gem in there, and the closest everyone promised me I would get is Looking for Alaska. The thing about John Green is that he is genuinely a really great writer. He is smart, funny, and poetic and not bland, offensive, or generic like many NYTime best sellers. Ultimately, though, this book was so silly and unrealistic–just desperate, really, to capture a whimsical but impossible young adult experience that I found myself sorely disappointed.
  7. Most over-hyped – At the risk of sounding like a philistine, I have to say that Girl on a Train by Paula Hawkins was underwhelming. People are saying it is single-handedly responsible for keeping physical book stores in business, so I mean, that’s super cool. And admittedly, I read it in two sittings. But it was just so… forgettable. Of course it’s going to be a movie featuring Justin Theroux and Emily Blunt, and of course it’s going to be a blockbuster. Whatever. Joining the canon of best-sellers with girl in the title makes me wonder why people are so drawn to these ultimately bland thrillers. I didn’t purchase this book and would be fine filing it away is “been there, done that, can’t remember it.”
  8. Most interesting – I’ve found my taste for non-fiction has evolved drastically since I began reading non-fiction for fun after college. I’ve become more picky. I no longer take authors at their word that their writing is “non-fiction” or true. Many non-fiction authors have also either admitted that they cut corners and didn’t fact check or gotten exposed in an ugly way when they took liberties with the truth. The main reason my standard for investigative non-fiction has been elevated is Columbine by Dave Cullen. So much of what we read and see on the news about current events is an immediate reaction to an event. This reaction is often devoid of important facts; indeed, it sensationalizes untruths and straight up reports things that aren’t at all accurate. This is the cost of 24/7 news channels and Internet reporting. Dave Cullen takes a tragic event and digs–so deeply–into it. Taking almost ten years of research to craft this 417-page book, one cannot help but marvel at the intensity of the investigation involved to write this. In this novel, he is debunking myths still believed today about this event and that are still haphazardly applied to all kinds of terrorist attacks and/or mass shootings. The implications for his discoveries are vast, but this doesn’t even touch upon the fact that he is an incredible storyteller. Recreating the events of the day, diving deeply into the psychology of a killer, and clarifying the implications of the event on a community and country all combined are an incredible task, and he does it so well and so truthfully. It is very uncommon for a non-fiction text to reflect this level of research, and that was what made this the most interesting read of 2015 for me.

Other highlights I might have (but not necessarily) covered already on here and would strongly recommend: In the Country by Mia Alvar, The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, The Ghost Network by Catie DiSabato, The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan, Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson

Books I didn’t get to (yet) and am disappointed about: Go Set a Watchmen by Harper Lee, Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, The Martin by Andy Weir (tried but abandoned), Mosquitoland by David Arnold, George by Alex Gino, Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, Negroland by Margo Jefferson, Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

It’s hard to say why so many readers talk about their reading lives on a year-by-year basis, but I can say for myself that I enjoy goal-setting this way and often remember books by the experience I had and place I was when I read them. 2015 was a great year for books – I can’t wait for what comes next.

Holiday Gift-Giving Book Recommendations [2015]

Giving a book is an incredible thing. It doesn’t have to be condescending (I read this book because I’m so well-read, so you should be more well-read too). In fact, it’s a great way to show you’re thinking deeply about someone else and care sincerely about his/her/their interests; it isn’t necessary that you’ve read the book yourself first. However, suggesting you both read it and then get together to talk about it is like a DOUBLE gift!

Also, before you read my list, read 10 Tips for Giving Book Gifts (so that you don’t make any egregious mistakes!).

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For people who love social justice

  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates – Coates’s rumination on being (and surviving as) a black man in America is required reading. For anyone interested in identity politics, this will both inspire and devastate you.
  • Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay – One of the best books of 2014, this book of essays provides page-turning critiques of pop culture and media from one of the most forward-thinking women alive today.
  • We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Adichie – A small text, this is something a person could read in one sitting. It’s the transcript from Adichie’s Ted Talk , and it’s an absolutely stunning little book. Plus, I wish we could all be as cool as Sweden.

For people who love dystopia

  • Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard – This book would be an excellent gift for the Hunger Games fan in your life. Beautiful world-building, it’s an interesting twist on Suzanne Collins’s trilogy from a few years back.
  • Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas – More fantasy than dystopia, this book explores nuanced and sophisticated story-telling regarding complex power dynamics all surrounding a really well-written love story. Like, really well-written.
  • An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir – This book follows the story of a girl spy-turned-slave as she fights to free her brother from the oppressive regime; she meets and falls for a high-ranking soldier for the empire who has rebellious ambitions. It’s so suspenseful that it’s borderline stressful. This is for action fans.

For people who love history

  • The Wright Brothers by David McCullough – If you know someone who has read McCullough’s previous projects (namely John Adams or or 1776), I’ve heard this is an awesome one to listen to on audiobook.
  • Dead Wake by Erik Larson – I actually think all of Larson’s book in hardcover would be an awesome gift for someone you really like because he is universally acknowledged as one of the best non-fiction writers alive today. This is about the sinking of the Lusitania, which is what provoked the US to get involved in WWI.
  • Never Surrender: Winston Churchill and Britain’s Decision to Fight Nazi Germany in the Fateful Summer of 1940 by John Kelly – I’ve heard about this book from a few different places, and it boasts a 4.41 rating on Goodreads.  A very narrow time in the WWII history, I’ve heard this is a gripping account that any history buff would enjoy.

For people who love to laugh

  • Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling – I think Kaling’s books are great gifts because they are endless discussion fodder for people who are close friends. I also think they are re-readable, which isn’t something I’d say about Bossypants or Yes Please.
  • You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day – A charming, earnest writer, she showcases her rags-to-riches story in a very engaging way. An honest and enjoyable read.
  • Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Gutsiest Troublemakers by Nick Offerman – Having only skimmed this, I was impressed with the Americans he chose to include in this piece. What I did read made me laugh out loud.

I have plenty more thoughts on books I’ve read this year (especially romance, young adult, middle grade, and picture books).  Here are two more links if you’re interested in other ideas:

Reactions – Suffragette

I’ve been looking forward to this movie for months – and for as intensely as I’ve followed movie news and reviews the past few years, I’ve heard very minimal buzz about it aside from my very close feminist friends. It’s gotten overlooked as a “movie to look forward to,” and it hasn’t been discussed in the Oscar conversations as I’d anticipated. And I’m genuinely perplexed about why.

The movie opens with images of main character Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) working in the laundry – this London in 1912 is gritty and overcast, Mulligan is wearing no (or extremely minimal) make-up, and the dulled monotony of her job as a laundress is displayed with intentional shots of her and other women going through the motions with tenuous resignation.

I appreciated that this film began as a conversation about class – undoubtedly, no feminist film or conversation is complete without acknowledging the added layers of oppression that often make womanhood so challenging. We watch as Maud starts out as a reluctant, almost happenstance participant in the British women’s fight for the vote, but the blatant inequality, violence, and unfairness of events she witnesses draw her deeper and deeper into becoming more radical. Mulligan’s performance was riveting – without unnecessary melodrama or excessive staging/posturing, she captured the essence of a truly downtrodden yet not defeated woman with grace and grit.

Written and directed by two women–Abi Morgan and Sarah Gavon–this film perseveres in its journey to explore a past that isn’t as distant as one would think. Helena Bonham Carter plays a savvy and determined pharmacist whose crusade for the vote is supported (mostly) by her husband–a rarity at the time. It was a relief to see Carter play someone other than a cartoon for once, and she mastered this role with similar subtlety and poise. Meryl Streep’s cameo as Emma Pankhurst felt a little forced – I wonder if her availability for filming was limited. All of the other female characters got time to reveal themselves, while her performance was so brief and unsatisfying.

The three main male characters–Brendan Gleeson as the investigator, Ben Whishaw as her spouse, and Adam Michael Dodd as their son George–are all finely drawn in realism. Both Gleeson and Whishaw’s characters are unlikable and contribute very notably to Maud’s unhappiness and state of oppression–yet they are not sloppy or convenient caricatures but instead nuanced reflections of that time. I came away more resentful of a society that creates men so socialized by patriarchal systems, laws, and mindsets that I couldn’t blame these men in particular.

Aside from watching Maud grow closer to other women in the movement and develop solidarity in the face of such incredible challenges, I loved the authentic connection Maud’s character had with her son. Achieving this level of intimacy between an adult and a younger counterpart is not easily done; it is a true testament either to Mulligan’s skill in connecting with this young man or his ability to warm up on camera, but this relationship made the film far more believable and heart-breaking for me.

This is not just a movie for people who consider themselves “feminists” as there is a lot to learn here. Ultimately, I would love a film like this (or this) to be shown in partnership with political social justice films like Selma or Milk as a reminder that the fight for equality is A) never over and B) not exclusive to white, cis, heterosexual women.