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.

 

 

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The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum

Meghan Daum wants to write about the things we don’t talk about as a society,

the unspeakable thoughts many of us harbor – that we might not love our parents enough, that ‘life’s pleasures’ sometimes feel more like chores…”

and in her essay collection The Unspeakable: and Other Subjects of Discussion she mostly succeeds.  I was simultaneously entertained and irritated by her, which I take to mean that she’s reached her aim of being authentic about her feelings and experiences.  She writes about everything from her lack of desire for children to attending a party thrown by writer/producer Nora Ephron where she played charades with Steve Martin and Larry David.  IMG_1998

As with most collections of essays, some work better than others.  The two most affecting are “Matricide,” a searing examination of Daum’s relationship with her mother both in life and while she was dying,  and “Diary of a Coma,” in which Daum recounts a scary brush with death through a random and strange bacterial infection.  Wisely on her (or her editor’s) part, they bookend the collection.

I didn’t connect with the essay about Joni Mitchell, “The Joni Mitchell Problem,” mainly because I honestly haven’t listened to that much Mitchell myself.  I also skimmed “The Dog Exception,” because I have a hard time reading sad things about animals.  (I will say that Daum gets points from me for her deep love and appreciation for dogs.)  And as other reviewers (on Goodreads in particular) have mentioned, the essay “Honorary Dyke” is weird and problematic.

My personal favorite, though, was “On Not Being a Foodie.”  Like Daum, my husband is the cook in the family.  She describes not being able to read a recipe all the way through before getting started, which is a trademark of my cooking attempts.  She chooses pans not on suitability for the task but rather on her ability to hoist them from cabinets with her weak wrists.  I particularly love this quotation:

(Cooking) takes me chronic impatience, divides it by my inherent laziness, and multiplies it to the power of my deepest self-loathing.

It summarizes perfectly why I’m not a very good cook.  I, too, am impatient, lazy, and paralyzed by anxiety in the kitchen.  (Except when I bake.  For some reason I really enjoy baking.  Go figure.)  If I came into sudden wealth one of the first things I’d do would be to inquire about a healthy meal delivery service.

The point of this essay is not to dwell on her kitchen failures, however.  She uses it as a way to deconstruct the idea that we’re all supposed to be regularly doing things outside our comfort zones and that there’s something wrong with us if we aren’t.  This notion is prevalent in our YOLO, live-your-best-life society.   Daum contends that

…the key to contentment is to live life to the fullest within the confines of our comfort zone.  Stay in safe waters but plunge as deeply into them as possible.  If you’re good at something, do it a lot. If you’re bad at something, just don’t do it.  If you can’t cook and refuse to learn, don’t beat yourself up about it.  Celebrate it.  Be the best noncook you can be.

What a freeing notion!  How much anxiety and second-guessing could we save ourselves if we decided to play to our strengths and stopped thinking we might be missing out by not learning to surf or knit or paint watercolors?  I’m all for trying new things, but I’d love to leave guilt and self-flagellation at the door.

Overall, I enjoyed this collection.  Meghan Daum is refreshingly candid and engaging, and occasionally just a bit annoying.  But she’s real.  She’s laying it all out there, and I can dig it.