Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski

The introduction to Burnout reads: “This is a book for any woman who has felt overwhelmed and exhausted by everything she had to do, and yet still worried she was not doing ‘enough’.” Um, hello! The Nagoski sisters have been reading my mail.

A1+-unICxaLI loved this book. I need to own a copy to be able to flip through and underline and reread. There are so many good points in Burnout that I decided against writing a traditional review and simply share some quotations that meant the most to me instead. Here goes.

  • “Physical activity is what tells your brain you have successfully survived the threat and now your body is a safe place to live. Physical activity is the single most effective strategy for completing the stress response cycle.”
  • “To be ‘well’ is not to live in a state of perpetual safety and calm, but to move fluidly from a state of adversity, risk, adventure, or excitement, back to safety and calm, and out again. Stress is not bad for you; being stuck is bad for you.” 
  • “Meaning is not made by the terrible thing you experienced; it is made by the ways you survive.”
  • “At the heart of Human Giver Syndrome lies the deeply buried, unspoken assumption that women should give everything, every moment of their lives, every drop of energy, to the care of others. ‘Self-care’ is, indeed, selfish because it uses personal resources to promote a giver’s well-being, rather than someone else’s. “
  • “Feeling helpless and hopeless after watching news about the state of international politics? Don’t distract yourself or numb out; do a thing. Do yard work or gardening, to care for your small patch of the world. Take food to somebody who needs a little boost. Take your dog to the park. Show up at a Black Lives Matter march. You might even call your government representative. That’s great. That’s participation. You’re not helpless. Your goal is not to stabilize the government… your goal is to stabilize you, so that you can maintain a sense of efficacy, so that you can do the important stuff your family and your community needs from you.”
  • “Maybe you don’t look like you used to, or like you used to imagine you should; but how you look today is the new hotness. Even better than the old hotness. Wearing your new leggings today? You are the new hotness. Hair longer or short, or a different color or style? New hotness. Saggy belly from that baby you birthed? New hotness. Gained twenty pounds while finishing school? New hotness. Skin gets new wrinkles because you lived another year? New hotness. Scar tissue following knee replacement surgery? New hotness. Amputation following combat injury? New hotness. Mastectomy following breast cancer? New hotness. The point is, you define and redefine your body’s worth, on your own terms. Again and again, you turn towards your body with kindness and compassion.”
  • “Instead of just looking at your body to evaluate her well-being, turn to her and ask her how she feels: ‘What’s wrong, honey? Are you hungry? Thirsty? Tired? Lonely?’ She can definitely tell you, if you listen. You might have to stop what you’re doing, take a slow breath, focus on the sensation of your weight on the floor or the chair, and actually ask out loud, ‘What do you need?'”
  • “Your body is not the enemy. The real enemy is out there – the Bikini Industrial Complex. It is trying sneakily to convince you that you are the problem, that your body is the enemy, that your body is inadequate, which makes you a failure.” 

What my body needs right now is to stop writing this post and get up and stretch – ha ha! Reading this book was like talking to a very wise, compassionate friend. The tone is so intimate and warm, but also pragmatic. Here’s the situation, and here’s what you can do about it. It’s the kind of book that can start to crack deeply ingrained thought patterns and let in some light and freshness to your stale habits. It’s also refreshing that it doesn’t put all the blame for this crap on the individual – it acknowledges the big societal and cultural structures and attitudes that contribute to our stress. I am so grateful I happened upon this book. If you are a woman who feels overwhelmed, run down, worn out, helpless, or like you need a boost of confidence, this is a book for you!

 

 

 

Two Awesome Audio Books: We’re Going to Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union and Born A Crime by Trevor Noah

Confession time: I don’t really like to write about audio books.  I like to listen to them but I balk at writing reviews of them. Why? Because I don’t take notes. I’m almost always driving in my car or doing dishes when I’m listening to them, so I don’t want to stop and get a piece of paper and a pen and write things down like I do when I’m sitting and reading a paper book.

Because I don’t take notes, I feel like I can’t give a detailed review of the book. So I just listen, hopefully enjoy, count them in my Goodreads total, and move on.

Today, however, I feel compelled to let you know about my two most recent audio book adventures. These books are so outstanding that I know I will include them in my end-of-the-year Best Of list. The first is Gabrielle Union’s memoir We’re Going to Need More Wine. I have to be honest, I’m not exactly sure why I listened to this. I don’t think I’d even seen one of her movies or shows before I picked this up! But it was available in my library’s digital nonfiction audio collection, and I saw that one of my Goodreads friends had rated it highly, so I thought, Why not?

51lTCeNTXNL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_What a woman! She is strong in the best way a person can be strong: by being vulnerable, showing her flaws and admitting her mistakes. She covers a lot of ground in these stories. She covers her childhood, growing up in a predominantly white, conservative town in California, dealing with clueless white classmates who are sometimes horribly racist without “meaning to be.” She writes about her disastrous first marriage, being a recovering “mean girl,” the importance of having money of her own, experiences on various movie sets she’s worked on, her sweet dog, Bubba Sparks, and so much more. She is smart and thoughtful and unapologetic about her owning her sexuality. These are really stories where you feel like a friend is telling you these things over a glass of wine, getting real with you so that she can impart some wisdom from learned experience. I don’t remember if she uses the word “feminist” at all in the narrative, but I wouldn’t hesitate to call her a feminist. She is a strong woman who wants other women to take care of their minds, hearts, and bodies, and to lift up other women. These stories were entertaining, sometimes funny and occasionally sad, and I loved 29780258them.

When I finished Union’s book, I thought that perhaps it was the best celebrity memoir I’d ever read. Until I started listening to Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime. I’ve heard nothing but good things about this from everyone I know who’s read it. I waited on my library’s hold list for months before I finally got it, and it’s worth the wait! I’m actually not finished listening yet – I’m on the last disc! But it is absolutely riveting. Not only is his delivery unbeatable, but his personal story is just fascinating. He managed to weave in so much historical and sociological information about South African and Apartheid. I learned that there’s a LOT I don’t know about that place and time, and even the aftermath of Apartheid, when Mandela came to power. I had no idea how codified and rigid Apartheid was. I had no idea of all the ethnic groups and languages contained in South Africa. So besides being entertained, I’m definitely learning! Noah’s very existence is unlikely with the way the races were kept apart. One anecdote he shared that stuck with me was how he later met other “colored” (what South Africans call mixed-race people) South Africans around his age who were expats. It blew his mind that his mother could have theoretically left South Africa and raised him elsewhere, somewhere that didn’t operate under the dark cloud of overt racism. He said something like, Imagine you fell out of an airplane and broke every bone in your body in the landing. You spent years and years healing from all the damage done to your body and spirit, and then someone told you about the existence of parachutes. That was how he felt when he realized that his life could have been different if he grew up in Europe or somewhere else. Noah’s mother is a force of nature, a strong and powerful woman who, despite an abusive marriage to Noah’s stepfather, raised a smart, compassionate son. Noah doesn’t shy away from describing his faults, though, especially delving into his youth as a petty criminal and a brief but harrowing stint in jail. This audio book is truly a MUST LISTEN. Even if you aren’t familiar with Noah’s work (which I’m not really) or you normally don’t read celebrity memoirs, I encourage you to give this a try.

Have you read or listened to either one of these? What kinds of audio books do you like, or do you enjoy them at all? Do you write reviews of the audio books you listen to, and if so, do you take notes on them? Let’s chat in the comments.

 

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay (#20BooksofSummer book 12)

I feel some trepidation as I begin writing this review.  I so want to do this book justice. Hunger by Roxane Gay is so powerful and honest and brave, and it’s one of my favorite books so far this year.  Roxane Gay pretty much puts her soul out there for everyone to see, the good and the bad, in an attempt to convey to the world what it’s like to live as a very fat woman in a society that abhors, pities, and stigmatizes fat people.22813605

I wish I did not see my body as something for which I should apologize or provide explanation.  I’m a feminist and I believe in doing away with the rigid beauty standards that force women to conform to unrealistic ideals.  I believe that we should have broader definitions of beauty that include diverse body types… I (want to) believe my worth as a human being does not reside in my size or appearance.  I know, having grown up in a culture that is generally toxic to women and constantly trying to discipline women’s bodies, that it is important to resist unreasonable standards for how my body or any body should look.

What I know and what I feel are too very different things.

This is not an easy read but neither is it unrelentingly brutal.  Gay chronicles the changes in her life, mental state, and body after being gang-raped by a boy she trusted and his friends when she was twelve.  She was a “good Catholic girl” and didn’t understand that what happened was not her fault, that she didn’t invite it in some way.  She didn’t tell her parents until she was well into adulthood (indeed, until her essay collection Bad Feminist came out.)  Instead, she decided that the best way to protect her body and soul from anything like that ever happening again was to eat.

I was swallowing my secrets and making my body expand and explode.  I found ways to hide in plain sight, to keep feeding a hunger that could never be satisfied – the hunger to stop hurting.  

Throughout high school and college and beyond, she kept getting bigger and her mental state kept deteriorating.  She even experienced a “lost year” where she moved to Phoenix on a whim, not telling her roommate or her parents where she was going.  Her parents, loving and supportive but always trying to “fix her weight problem,” finally hired a PI to find her.  She completed college, got her Masters, and slowly built her professional life.  But progress in her personal life was painstakingly slow, as she admits to letting people use her and treat her poorly because she felt she didn’t deserve better.

Gay also writes about weight loss “reality” shows like “The Biggest Loser,” how doctors (mis)treat her, and the wonders of the famous cook Ina Garten (“She teaches me that a woman can be plump and pleasant and absolutely in love with food.”)  She talks about getting tattoos (“I am taking back some part of my skin”) and the stress and indignities of dressing up for, traveling to, and getting around at readings and bookish events.  She is charming and insightful and very, very human.  I can’t imagine the courage it took to lay her life out there like this, so open and vulnerable.

Any woman, any person, who has ever felt ashamed of their body in some way will feel a kinship to Gay.  We may not know her exact struggle but we know the ways in which our bodies let us down, fail to measure up to the ideals in our minds.  Gay is, like any of us, a work in progress, and I was left feeling hopeful when I finished reading Hunger. Writing and talking about her pain and her body has helped her.  She writes, “I am not the same scared girl that I was.  I have let the right ones in.  I have found my voice.”  I am profoundly grateful that Roxane Gay decided to be so vulnerable in such a public way. I feel like she is helping others find their own voices.   This was a moving, compelling, beautiful memoir.  Five Stars.

 

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins (#20BooksofSummer Book #2)

I had low expectations going into Paula Hawkins’s second novel, Into the Water.  I liked The Girl on the Train – liked, didn’t love.  I certainly turned the pages fast enough, reading it in less than two days.  But I didn’t think it was worth all the tremendous, overwhelming hype that it got, and I certainly didn’t think it was the best mystery published in 2015.  But I knew that her next book would be one of the most popular of the year, and I was curious enough to give it a go.  I’m very glad that I did, because it was a compelling, layered, twisty mystery with an almost Gothic feel that kept me wanting to return to its pages.

Basic premise:  Single mom Nel Abbott is dead, turning up in The Drowning Pool, a stretch of river in the English town of Beckford that has seen many women taking their lives in its waters.  Or have they been victims of foul play?  Only a couple of months earlier, a high school girl was found in the river, an apparent suicide, with stones in her pockets.  She was the best friend of Nel’s daughter, Lena.  Is there a connection between the two events?  Nel was writing a book about the sordid history of the river and its victims.  Did she come too close to the truth for comfort?

61OLegHQzvL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Told from multiple perspectives, including the type-written pages of Nel’s manuscripts, this mystery was layered with secret upon secret.  It seemed every person in the town had a grudge against Nel, even her own estranged sister, Jules. It’s Jules’s perspective that we get the most of, and we see the sisters’ complicated history in flashbacks.  Her grief is overshadowed by something she thinks Nel played a part in  when she was thirteen and Nel was seventeen, something Jules has never recovered from emotionally.

Some of the women you wrote about are buried in that churchyard, some of your troublesome women.  Were all of you troublesome?  Libby was, of course.  At fourteen she seduced a thirty-four-year-old man, enticed him away from his loving wife and infant child. Aided by her aunt, the hag Mary Seeton, and the numerous devils that they conjured, Libby cajoled poor blameless Matthew into any number of unnatural acts.  Troublesome indeed.  Mary Marsh was said to have performed abortions. Anne Ward was a a killer.  But what about you, Nel?  What had you done?  Who were you troubling?  

I liked the feminist tone of the book.  Issues of domestic violence, sexual assault, and statutory rape play a part in the town’s sordid past and present.  In fact, now that I think about it, almost much all the men in the story are creeps.  Not that the women are saints – they’re pretty messed up too, only they don’t seem to be holding the power.  I liked Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, an outsider to the town brought in to help local police with the investigation. She injected a bit of humor in an otherwise pretty dark book.  I chuckled at her frustration when I read this bit:

Seriously, how is anyone supposed to keep track of all the bodies around here? It’s like Midsomer Murders, only with accidents and suicides, and grotesque historical drownings instead of people falling into the slurry or bashing each other over the head.

20-booksWith so many suspects and secrets I admit I didn’t know the identity of the murderer until the very end of the book.  It wasn’t a shock so much as a “Yes!  That makes sense!” feeling.  It was a satisfying ending for me, considering all the plot elements swirling through its pages.  I would say that this book was not about the “big twist” or the surprise ending as so many contemporary thrillers are.  Instead, it’s a book about the complexity and unreliability of memory, and the ways in which “troublesome” women have been dealt with over time.  So my second book for 20 Books of Summer was a hit!  I was pleasantly surprised by how much I like this, and I will definitely be putting Ms. Hawkins’s next book on my TBR.  If you plan to read it, know that it’s pretty different from her first book; for me, that was a good thing.

 

Juliet Takes A Breath by Gabby Rivera

I really enjoyed reading Gabby Rivera’s Juliet Takes a Breath.  Several bloggers I follow had  recommended this coming-of-age novel and I thought it would be a good pick for my goal of reading more LGBTQ authors in 2017.  What I didn’t anticipate was what a lively, energetic voice the character of Juliet would have.  I didn’t anticipate the extent to which I would identify with Juliet, despite not being Puerto Rican or a lesbian. This novel truly was a breath of fresh air.28648863

The bones of the story is this:  Juliet is a freshman in college, and she’s just come out to her close-knit family in the Bronx the day before leaving for a summer internship in Portland, Oregon.  She obtained the internship with feminist author Harlowe Brisbane by writing a beautiful, funny, soul-baring letter to her, which the book opens with.

I’ve got a secret.  I think it’s going to kill me.  Sometimes I hope it does.  How do I tell my parents that I’m gay?  Gay sounds just as weird as feminist. How do you tell the people that breathed you into existence that you’re the opposite of what they want you to be?  And I’m supposed to be ashamed of being gay, but now that I’ve had sex with other girls, I don’t feel any shame at all.  In fact, it’s pretty fucking amazing.  So how am I supposed to come out and deal with everyone else’s sadness?  … You did this to me.  I wasn’t gonna come out.  I was just gonna be that family member who’s gay and no one ever talks about it even though EVERYONE knows they share a bed with their “roommate.”  Now everything is different.

While Juliet is in Portland she is dealing with the emotional fallout of her coming out to her family and also trying to maintain a long-distance relationship with her first girlfriend. She’s researching forgotten feminist heroines for Harlowe and learning new terms like “PGPs” (preferred gender pronouns.) She smokes weed and drinks soy milk and flirts with cute baristas and librarians.  She learns that while her idol may be an expert on feminism, she is still clueless when it comes to dealing with her white privilege.

What I really liked about this novel was the fact that we not only got to join Juliet on her journey, geographically and spiritually, but we also got to see a loving family grappling emotionally with her coming out.  There are some honest, wrenching phone conversations between Juliet and her mom, and she finds a safe haven later in the book with one of her aunts and cousins on a trip to Miami, FL.  I loved all the references to the music Juliet listened to – her description of Ani Difranco’s music absolutely cracked me up. (“Her music evoked images of Irish bagpipes and stray cats howling in heat.”) I loved seeing Portland through Juliet’s eyes.  I’ve visited the city a couple of times and could see Powell’s Books and Pioneer Courthouse Square in my mind.  I identified with Juliet in that I was once a fiercely feminist young woman in a conservative environment, eager to experience life in a more liberal place.  When I got to my small liberal arts college I, too, felt out of my depth with all the new-to-me terms and language people were using to describe themselves.  I liked seeing her wrestle with her lesbian identity, her feminism, and her brownness, trying to find a place for herself where the intersection of all three identifiers gets messy.  All sorts of characters in this book are earnestly trying to be good to one another, which is a refreshing tone in modern fiction.  It was funny profane, and sweet.  I think this book would be a lifeline to a young person trying to deal with their sexuality.  It’s an excellent pick for anyone looking to diversify and shake up their reading.  I’m glad I read it.

For a brilliant take on this book, check out Naz’s great review here.

Have you read Juliet Takes A Breath?  Do you have any other recommendations for a coming-of-age story or a novel by a LGBTQ author?  Have you ever visited Portland, Oregon?  Let me know in the comments.

You’ll Grow Out Of It by Jessi Klein

Oh my goodness, this was a fun read.  I had no idea who Jessi Klein even was before I read this, but a bookish friend’s positive review on Goodreads made me add her memoir You’ll Grow Out Of It to my TBR.  (Thanks, Eve!)  I don’t watch Amy Schumer’s show, of which Klein is head writer and executive producer.  But it didn’t matter one bit as I raced through these funny, slightly raunchy essays on growing up, living, and loving as a cishet Jewish woman in America.  I’m the target audience for this book, I think – I’m two years younger than Klein (we’re solidly Gen X) and reading these essays made me feel like I’d found an equally neurotic, self-deprecating, more hilarious kindred spirit.

Let me share some of my favorite passages with you:

On the three style options available to women as they grow older – 1) You were a Supermodel, 2) You are Rich, and 3) You’re an Eccentric:

This is the last option.  And it will be my option.  We see these women all the time. They’re not leaning on beauty, and they’re not leaning on money.  They’re leaning on character.  They wear hot pink tights and high-top sneakers.  They wear big glasses and pillbox hats.  They looked like they might have once worked at Interview even though they didn’t.  Or they look like Betsey Johnson back in the 1980s, but now here in the present and much older.  Thy’re memorable and fun.  They’re kooky old ladies.  When I see them, I feel a little pulse of happiness that maybe I won’t be so sad losing the little dollop of prettiness I was allotted.  That maybe the secret to getting old and feeling okay is just buying an enormous silly hat and making people smile when they look at you because they think you’re having a good time.

But maybe that’s not what the hat is about.  Maybe the real issue is not so much making other people think you’re having a super-fun time creeping toward death; it’s simply being seen.  This is the lament of older women, and ultimately of all old people – that you become invisible.  It is especially hard for women, though, whose entire lives have been spend spinning around the idea that if no one is staring at you, you’ve somehow failed.  Maybe the silly hat is really a Hail Mary to get people to look at you, no matter the reason.

 51bvntfqcnl-_sy344_bo1204203200_On the two types of women, Poodles vs. Wolves:

Wolves need to eat more than poodles do (both larger amounts and more frequently.) Wolves wear lip balm. Wolves can’t deal with thongs. Wolves sweat a lot. Wolves are funny. Wolves show up ten minutes early to everything and are always the first ones there and then have to fake a conversation on their cell phone so they look like they know other human beings on this earth. Wolves usually own two bras total, and neither of them matched their tattered old Gap underwear.  Wolves lose their virginity during their junior year of college at the very earliest.

On natural childbirth vs. getting an epidural:

But how often do people really want women to be or do anything “natural?”

It seems to me the answer is almost never.  In fact, almost everything “natural” about women is considered pretty fucking horrific.  Hairy legs and armpits?  Please shave, you furry beast.  And while you’re at it, don’t forget to remove your pubic hair, that’s also an abomination.  Do you have hips and cellulite?  Please go hide in the very back of your show closet and turn the light off and stay there until someone tells you to come out (no one will tell you to come out.)

It’s interesting that no one cares very much about women doing anything “naturally” until it involves them being in excruciating pain.

No one ever asks a man if he’s having a “natural root canal.”  No one ever asks if a man is having a “natural vasectomy.”

GET THE EPIDURAL.

I read some negative Goodreads reviews of this that reference Klein’s obvious privilege, and yes, she does talk often about visiting spas and fancy stores, but that didn’t bother me for some reason.  I mean, I figure someone who’s the head writer of Inside Amy Schumer is going to be buying top end skin care products.  Honestly, if I were a successful, famous comedy writer, I’d be buying $250 jars of La Mer too.  Klein struck me as knowing that all the stuff she gets to do now is slightly crazy but she’s also kind of enjoying it.  I don’t begrudge her that.  I appreciated her honesty and her self-deprecating, relatable humor about her own awkwardness in all things “feminine.”

This was when I learned one of the biggest secrets of being a women, which is that most of the time, we don’t feel like we’re women at all.

If you’re a fan of female comedian memoirists, like Mindy Kaling, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler, you’ll probably enjoy You’ll Grow Out Of It.  It’s a funny, somewhat profane, sometimes poignant essay collection that I’m glad I took a chance on.

 

 

Mini Review – Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde

It seems that my reading speed is far outpacing my blogging speed right now, so I decided to write a mini-review..  I feel like this is a book that I must share.  Based on my Goodreads friends, I know many of you have read it, or read selections from it.  If I borrow a book from the library, and I think it’s one that I’m likely to write a post about, I take notes in a medium-sized magenta  notebook.  While reading Audre Lorde’s collection of essays and speeches, Sister Outsider, I ended up with four pages.  It took me quite a while to get through this, because I did not want to rush it.  I wanted to sit with the essays for a while.  I’d read Lorde in college in my women’s studies classes, but that was almost twenty years ago, and honestly, I can’t remember half of what I did back then (other than make midnight trips to Taco Bell with my friends and pine obsessively for boys who weren’t into me.)

img_0322This is a collection written in the 1970s and early 1980s, but (sadly) so much of what Lorde writes feels relevant and fresh for today’s reader.  Bookended by insightful travel pieces about Russia and Grenada, the bulk of Lorde’s essays are about speaking , writing, and owning her truth, and the power of words, language, and poetry to unite women who may lead different kinds of lives but who are all oppressed by patriarchal structures.  There were so many powerful passages that I noted, so many sentences that spoke to me and that I wanted to share.

I was reminded of Lindy West and her excellent book Shrill when I read this from “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action:”

What are the words you do not have?  What do you need to say?  What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you sicken and die of them, still in silence… And where the words of women are crying to be heard,we must each of us recognize our responsibility, to seek those words out, to read them and share them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives.  That we not hid behind the mockeries of separations that have been imposed upon us and which we so often accept as our own.

This stunning passage is from “Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response:”

I wish to raise a Black man who will not be destroyed by, nor settle for, those corruptions called power by the white fathers who mean his destruction as surely as they mean mine.  I wish to raise a Black man who will recognize that the legitimate objects of his hostility are not women, but the particulars of a structure that programs him to fear and despise women as well as his own Black self.  For me this task begins with teaching my son that I do not exist to do his feeling for him.  Men who are afraid to feel must keep women around to do their feeling for them while dismissing us for the same supposedly “inferior” capacity  to feel deeply.

And finally, this passage on guilt from “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism;”

Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own action or lack of action.  If it leads to change then it can be useful, since then it is no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge.  Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.

Oh man, I felt that.  Did you feel that?

I wish I could be more eloquent in my appreciation of Lorde’s poetically devastating prose. While some of the essays in the book spoke to me more than others, this is a book to be shared, discussed, and pondered.  It is the kind of book that can change lives, that can galvanize action, that can inspire a woman to speak her truth and seek out common ground with others who are speaking theirs.  I am so glad that I read it.

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West

I freely admit to not being the most plugged in person on the planet, so before my book group chose Lindy West’s Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman as our choice last month, I hadn’t heard of her.  I am grateful that a fellow member brought this book to our attention, and I now consider myself a Lindy West fan.  Our group certainly had a lot to talk about.

You may have heard of West from her appearances on NPR’s This American Life.  She’s done two episodes in the last two years.  In one she gets an unexpected and heartfelt apology from the internet troll who impersonated her recently deceased father (episode 545.)  In the other (episode 589) West talks about how she started embracing her identity as a fat woman.41L6cVdMOFL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Shrill is a book of essays and also a memoir, although our group couldn’t quite decide if it felt more like one than the other.  West writes about the lack of positive, sexy, young fat women role models in entertainment, her period, her abortion, growing into acceptance of her body, internet trolls, not fitting into a seat on an airplane, misogyny in stand-up comedy, and her father’s death.  Some of her writing is funny and brave, some of it is heartbreaking and raw.  All of it is infused with a passionately feminist, body-positive perspective.  I marked many passages as I read.  I’d like to share a few.

On vicious internet harassment (in the brilliantly titled chapter “Why Fat Lady So Mean to Baby Men?”):  “Why is invasive, relentless abuse – that disproportionately affects marginalized people who have already faced additional obstacles just to establish themselves in this field – something we should all have to live with just to do our jobs?  Six years later, this is still a question I’ve yet to have answered.”

On the pressure to be a thin and beautiful woman in our society: “Women matter.  Women are half of us.  When you raise every woman to believe that we are insignificant, that we are broken, that we are sick, that the only cure is starvation and restraint and smallness; when you pit women against one another, keep us shackled by shame and hunger, obsessing over our flaws rather than our power and potential; when you leverage all of that to sap our money and our time – that moves the rudder of the world.  It steers humanity toward conservatism and walls and the narrow interests of men, and it keeps us adrift in waters where women’s safety and humanity are secondary to men’s pleasure and convenience.”

On rape jokes in comedy: “Comedians regularly retort that no one complains when they joke about murder or other crimes in their acts, citing that as a double standard.  Well, fortunately, there is no cultural narrative casting doubt on the existence and prevalence of murder and pressuring people not to report it.”

I feel like Lindy West is such a necessary writer and a strong and relatable feminist voice.  I found her to be funny and insightful and fierce.  I marvel at her hard-won confidence.  I’m angry that she has to endure such hateful vitriol online for speaking her mind and loving who she is.  Shrill is a great choice for a book club – it provides so many avenues of conversation.  This was a very good collection of essays – powerful and brave in a way that women in our society definitely need.

 

 

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

I wasn’t at all sure that I was going to read Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.  Even when it popped up in review after review on blogs I follow, I still wasn’t sure.  Once I began reading it, I still wasn’t sure that I’d even finish it.  And now that I’ve read it, I’m still not sure what I think about it.  Despite all of that uncertainty, I’m genuinely glad that I read it, and find it one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read.

I worried that it might be too disturbing for me to handle.  It certainly wasn’t a pleasurable reading experience for me, but it was too strange, too different from the things I normally read, to put down.  If I’m honest, the short length (188 pages) helped .  As did the fact that I’m almost certain it will be a Tournament of Books pick next year.  But the spare elegance of Kang’s writing kept me turning pages.56abcc1b1f00007f00216f6a

It’s told in three sections, which were apparently published in South Korea as three novellas.  Yeong-hye, a young, married woman is the center of this story, but she does not really get to tell her own tale.  There are italicized passages here and there that are probably told from her point of view, but they are infrequent.  The first section is told from the point of view of her husband, Mr. Cheong.  He’s a real… well, I’m thinking of a crass word to describe him.  There is nothing whatsoever appealing about him.  He basically married Yeong-hye because she was so unremarkable and demanded so little from him.  When she has a terrible dream and decides to becomes a vegetarian, she is rocking his orderly, boring, controlled life.  She shocks and angers her family as well, and there is a violent scene at a family dinner that is really hard to read.

The second section is told from her brother-in-law’s point of view, and it’s disturbing in a totally different way.  He is sexually obsessed with her, and wants to use her as a model in his video art installation.  This section is interesting in that Yeong-hye seems to subvert her brother-in-law’s desires and claim her own power in the midst of his objectification.  However, her gradual descent into madness, which has been building throughout the whole novel, is unchecked.

The third section was the strongest for me, the one that finally awakened me emotions and locked me into the flow of the narrative.  It’s told from the point of view of her sister, In-hye, and it’s some time later after the events of the second part.  Yeong-hye has deteriorated drastically, both mentally and physically, and she is in a mental hospital.  We learn more about In-hye and how their family life may have informed each of the sister’s life paths.  There is some gorgeous writing in this section, like this passage:

She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of.  She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner.  And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.

I was deeply moved by the final section, so much so that it made me reconsider the novel as a whole.  I was finally able to push against my discomfort and appreciate what I think this novel is trying to explore.  For me, it is about family, and expectations, both familial and societal, especially for women.  It’s about choice and desire, how free one person can truly ever be to create the life they want to live, for themselves without hurting or angering or disappointing the people around them.  At least that’s what I emerged with from my reading of this bizarre, haunting, remarkable book.

The Vegetarian would make a killer book for your book group – one could talk about it for hours.  I’m really glad I read it, even though it was not an easy read.I haven’t yet rated this novel on Goodreads with a star rating.  I usually find it pretty easy to assign stars: three for “I liked it,” two for “it was okay,” four for “REALLY good.”  I don’t think this is the kind of novel that is suited for that system.  It really is something totally of its own, and to give it a star rating would almost diminish its odd terror and beauty.

 

 

 

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

Sometimes it’s the books we love the most that are the hardest to write about, right?  I loved Lyndsay Faye’s Jane Steele, plain and simple.  It’s a novel that I want to buy so that I can read it again.  I can see it becoming a “comfort read” for me in the future.  It’s genuinely romantic, a page-turning mystery, and a surprisingly feminist spin on a classic, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

I have only read Jane Eyre once  – I know, GASP! – back in high school.  It’s one of those books that I’ve been meaning to reread for ages.  But it’s influence is so widespread that the story feels fresh to me somehow.  I certainly don’t think you have to have read Jane Eyre recently or ever to enjoy Jane Steele, but for me it added an extra layer of enjoyment.

IMG_3493This is not what I would call a retelling, but rather I feel it is a companion piece to the original.  This Jane tells us from the first page,

I have been reading over and over again the most riveting book titled Jane Eyre, and the work inspires me to imitative acts.  My new printing features a daring introduction by the author railing against the first edition’s critics.  I relate to this story almost as I would a friend or a lover – at times I want to breathe it’s entire alphabet into my lungs, and at others I should prefer to throw it across the room.  Whoever heard of disembodied voices calling to governesses, of all people, as this Jane’s do?

Jane Steele is also an orphan, suffers at a horrible boarding school, and she becomes a governess, but there is one huge difference from the original – she’s a murderer.  This is not a spoiler, as it’s on the inside jacket flap and included in the first sentence.  I will say that she does not kill for fun.  Jane Steele is a warrior, fiercely protective of the people she cares for.  Perhaps this is what I loved most about the novel – her spirit of resourcefulness and capability, and her courage.  There is a decidedly feminist tone to the book, in Jane’s strength and also in her ownership of her sexuality.  Jane is a realistically lusty woman, and I appreciated that.

Which brings me to the romance at the heart of the novel.  I am not a dedicated romance reader, as a genre, but I DO appreciate a heartfelt, moving, deeply felt love story.  Lyndsay Faye has succeeded in bringing to life a sexy, slightly tortured, romantic pairing in Jane and Mr. Thornfield. I will not say more because I don’t want to spoil the plot.  But I loved, loved, loved, the pacing and unfolding of Jane’s attraction to her pupil’s father figure.

There’s also a riveting mystery about something precious hidden in a trunk, and a whole bunch of history about the British and Sikh wars in the Punjab, and all the while Jane is terrified of her past catching up with her.  I simultaneously couldn’t turn pages fast enough and didn’t want it to end.

I’m thrilled to have discovered that Lyndsay Faye has written previous novels and am adding them all to my TBR.  And I bought a used copy of Jane Eyre at the bookstore tonight.  I’m inspired now to reread the original after all this time.   This is going up there with Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest for my favorite books of the year so far.  It’s also my first read for the 10 Books of Summer challenge.  What a fun, well-written book to kick off my challenge!