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.




All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes by Maya Angelou

You know who was awesome?

Maya freaking Angelou!

Many of you have probably read her classic memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  I first read that in high school and loved it.  But I wasn’t aware until just a few years ago that she had written an entire series of memoirs – six of them total, in fact!  I read the third memoir, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, in 2014.  And now I’ve read the fifth one, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes.  I honestly don’t know why I’ve read these memoirs out of order!  (Usually I’m such a stickler for reading things in order.  So be it.)

IMG_3255This book chronicles Angelou’s experiences in Ghana in the early 1960’s.  She had separated from her Egyptian husband, who is barely mentioned at the outset.  Three days into their new life in Ghana, her teenage son, Guy, is in an automobile accident, and is hospitalized.  Angelou is understandably beside herself.  Friends in Ghana, African American ex-patriots, bolstered Angelou’s spirits during the difficult time of Guy’s recovery.  They took her to the Flagstaff House, the seat of government.  Angelou writes,

Seeing Africans enter and leave the formal building made me tremble with an awe I had never known.  Their authority on the marble steps again proved that Whites had been wrong all along.  Black and brown skin did not herald debasement and a divinely created inferiority.  We were capable of controlling our cities, our selves and our lives with elegance and success.  Whites were not needed to explain the working of the world, nor the mysteries of the mind.

I was very much interested in Angelou’s exploration of the ways in which her African American community did and did not fit in with Ghana culture.  Many of the immigrants chose Ghana, Angelou writes, “because of its progressive posture and its brilliant president, Kwame Nkrumah.  He had let it be known that American Negroes would be welcome to Ghana.”  Her circle was hungry for connection to a place that they desperately wanted to feel like home and in which they wanted to be embraced.

We had come home, and if home was not what we had expected, never mind, out need for belonging allowed us to ignore the obvious and to create real places or even illusory places, befitting out imaginations.

As the mother of one son (who is about to turn five) I was particularly touched by Angelou’s observations about her son growing up and not needing her as much anymore.  Guy recovers from his injuries and starts attending university, moving away from home.  At one point a Ghanaian friend tells her that Guy is dating a thirty-six year old woman, and Maya kind of freaks out.  When confronted by Angelou, he says, “Oh, Mother, really.  Don’t you think it’s time I had a life of my own?” Angelou writes,

How could his life be separate from my life?  I had been mother of a child so long I had no preparation for life on any other level…His existence defined my own…

She realizes that she needs to find her own identity as more than Guy’s mother, as painful as the realization is.

In the last third of the book, Malcolm X comes to Ghana and is embraced by the ex-pats as well as the Ghanian people.  Maya’s characterization of Malcolm is so nuanced.  I felt like I really got a sense of him as a person, in a time of great personal change for him, as he had just broken with the Nation of Islam.

I really enjoyed this book. It is very much a book about finding a place that feels like home and Maya coming into her own as a woman and not just a mother.  It was fascinating to get a glimpse of 1960’s Ghana, a country I knew nothing about.  It was fascinating getting a glimpse of the intellectual, driven people who left America just as the Civil Rights movement was coming into its own and searched for a place that (they hoped) would welcome them with open arms.    All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes is an engrossing portrayal of a vibrant country, community, and above all, the compelling Ms. Angelou herself.

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead

This book surprised me, which is kind of fun.  I didn’t know much about it going in, other than it was about a 40-something British woman and her relationship to the classic George Eliot novel Middlemarch.  I expected it to be more of a memoir, perhaps linking certain passages in the novel to single instances in the author’s life.  What I found instead is mostly a very well-written, very readable biography of George Eliot herself, with a smattering of memoir and some very insightful literary criticism of the classic thrown in.

Mead first read Middlemarch when she was seventeen, and yearning to leave the bucolic English countryside next of her parents’ making.  She wanted culture, museums, an academic, intellectual life, and she was pursuing an Oxford education.  Her high school friends were similarly bookish, each with their own favorite classic novel that informed their being, like Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night and Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.  Of those teen years Mead writes,

Books gave us a way to shape ourselves – to form our thoughts and to signal to each other who we were and who we wanted to be.  They were part of our self-fashioning, no less than our clothes…Though I would not have been able to say so at the time, I sought to identify myself with the kind of intelligence I found in Middlemarch – with its range, its wit, its seriousness, its erudition, its deep feeling… I loved Middlemarch, and I loved being the kind of person who loved it.

But this book is not really much about Mead herself.  She travels to Eliot’s former homes (some of which no longer exist, one of which is now a hotel and bar) and travels to libraries to read some of Eliot’s manuscripts and letters, but Mead doesn’t reveal much more about herself as the book progresses.  George Eliot is really the star of the show.  We see her in her early thirties, living and working in London as a journalist and editor.  We see her inspiring true love story of the “middle aged” romance with George Henry Lewes, a man who is married to another woman and whom Eliot does not marry, but spends many happy years with in a committed partnership.  We see Eliot assume the role of a caring stepmother to Lewes’ three boys, already teenagers when she and Lewes get together.  There’s a fascinating section about a mysterious young Scottish man named Alexander Main, who essentially writes Eliot a fan letter and somehow charms her into a lengthy correspondence.  He ends up collecting passages and quotations from her works into a volume he edits called Wise, Witty, and tender Sayings in Prose and Verse, Selected From the Works of George Eliot.  Many have portrayed him as a stalker type, wondering how Eliot could have allowed her works to be used in such a manner.  Mead explores this question at length in a very sensitive characterization of both Main and Eliot.

I find it interesting that the British version of this book is titled The Road to Middlemarch.  It makes Mead’s role in the book seem less front and center.  If you’ve read another biography of George Eliot, this book may not hold much new information.  Regardless, this is a book-lover’s book.  If you’ve not read Middlemarch, or if it’s been years since you’ve read it, I still think you may enjoy this book.  (Although if you’ve not read it before, you may want to finish it before you finish this one, as Mead definitely reveals the entire plot.) Her experience of passionately loving a book for all of her life (so far) will likely resonate with you.  I very much enjoyed learning more about an author whom I had not before studied in depth.  Eliot emerges as a vibrant, kind, idiosyncratic woman, ahead of her time.  Perhaps it will inspire you to revisit the novel.  Perhaps it will inspire you to question which books have an equivalent hold on you.


A Catching Up Post, and The Oregon Trail

The first week of December was a really crappy week.  There’s no other way to put it.  My uncle, my mom’s brother, passed away unexpectedly.  And I was sick as a dog with stomach trouble.  I couldn’t be there for my mom physically when she needed to travel to Nashville to tend to my uncle.  The whole week sucked.  I loved my uncle, even though I hadn’t seen him in almost four years.  He was a kind person, funny, always sweet to me.  He was a passionate animal lover and rescued many cats and dogs over the years.  But he had a lot of problems in his life, even before I came along in the family.  I miss him, though, and despite my sadness will always have good memories of him.  Mom and I are working on finding ways to honor his memory and will have a service in January.

Needless to say my reading and blogging has been off pace to end the year.  But I’m getting back in the swing of things.  I finished a work of nonfiction last night  – The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck.  It’s an interesting mix of memoir, history, and travel writing.  Ricker Buck and his brother have a wagon custom made, acquire a team of mules from some Amish folk, attach a pup tent for gear, and make their way down the Oregon Trail.  I was kind of surprised at how much of the old trail is actually still there; just a few sections have been paved over by interstate and highways.  I was also surprised by the age of the brothers. I admit that when I put the book on hold at the library, I assumed that they would be young men.  Wrong!  They’re both over 60!  The work of the trail was very physical, so I can say that these men are in much better shape than I am!

IMG_2839I enjoyed the historical information and excerpts from pioneer journals and letters, but my favorite sections were the interactions the Bucks had with strangers along the way.  Turns out word spreads fast in the West, among ranchers, farmers, and small townspeople who take an interest in the Trail and keeping it alive.  People flocked to the wagon, the mules, as well as Rinker’s brother Nick’s Rack Russell terrier, Olive Oyl.  There were so many instances of goodwill  and generosity, people giving the brothers and their mules a place to rest, rides to town when mishaps occurred, and tips on the best ways to proceed down the trail.  It made me feel good about humanity to read about just how doggone nice people were to them.

It could use a bit of editing, and there’s a surprising amount of profanity included, which in and of itself doesn’t bother me.  I skimmed a few paragraphs here and there that went into too much detail about wagon and mule harness information.  Buck also has a lot of issues with the legacy of his father and their complicated relationship to work out; his father’s ghost sort of haunts the trail at times.  I admit that these sections didn’t hold my attention as strongly as the other parts.  But all in all, this was an interesting and entertaining work of nonfiction.  I certainly admire the courage and spirit that the brothers maintained throughout their adventure!


My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

I was attracted to Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year because it is a book about books (my genre kryptonite!) and it is set in New York City (always a plus.) I knew it had gotten good reviews, and that it portrayed the publishing world in the late 1990s.  I obviously knew it involved J.D. Salinger in some way, but this wasn’t necessarily a draw for me, as I’ve only read one of his works.  What I didn’t know was that it would be so damn good.

The memoir details a year Rakoff spent working for The Agency (unnamed, but obviously venerable, as it represented writers like F.Scott Fitzgerald and Agatha Christie.)  While other literary agencies are well into the digital age, The Agency operates almost out of time: typewriters and dictaphones are used instead of computers, people smoke in the office.  A young woman, fresh out of a long-term relationship and grad school in England, Rakoff falls into the position of assistant to one of the senior agents, a woman with a reputation of being somewhat difficult.  Essentially a secretary, Rakoff is assigned the duty of responding to Mr. Salinger’s voluminous fan mail – with a formal response letter.  But as she reads the letters, from all ages, teenagers and World War II veterans alike, she takes the liberty of responding with more personal kindness or advice.  She’s also not supposed to have much contact with Salinger, but as her boss suffers a personal setback, she is forced to engage on a more meaningful level, forming a deeper understanding of the author and his work.

This book is only partly about Salinger and The Agency, though.  It’s also a coming-of-age story, about dingy, freezing apartments, awful, pretentious boyfriends, having no money for lunch, having to face paying back student loans, growing apart from former best friends.  Rakoff writes with such grace about ordinary moments, vividly capturing what it was like to be young and broke in the City.  Take this passage, where she rashly spends money she shouldn’t part with on a sandwich.

I walked directly and purposely to the elegant food shop on Forty-Ninth from which the agents obtained their lunches.  Around me, the Masters of the Universe ordered frisee salads, rubbing elbows with their female counterparts, thin tanned women with Cartier bangles dangling from their thin, tanned wrists.  The sandwiches sat like pastries on silver cake stands.  After much deliberation, I chose a slender flat of bread with some sort of pink cured meat.  At the register, I grabbed a chocolate cookie, ordered a coffee, and handed over a crisp twenty.  I was not, at that exact moment, overdrawn, but my heart still sped up as I placed my meager change in my wallet.  Sandwich in hand, I walked over to Fifth, sat down on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral with the tourists, and took a bite, a dense, salt, oily bite.  It was, there was no doubt, the most delicious sandwich I’d ever tasted.  I ate half, planning to save the remainder for the next day, then went ahead and devoured that too.

IMG_2634I loved this book.  I love the cover, with its vertical title on the spine (we learn in the memoir that Salinger apparently liked that style.)  I love that it’s a memoir that read likes a novel.  I love that it evokes nostalgia for the late 1990’s, before cell phones and tablets and social media took over our lives.  I love that it makes me want to read everything that J.D. Salinger has ever written, when before I was content with my one high school reading of Catcher in the Rye.  Most of all I loved Rakoff’s voice, so elegant yet so compelling, the wistful tone, the portrait of a young woman finding her voice and her strength.


Gulp by Mary Roach

Who ever knew that reading about your digestive tract could be so much fun?  I’d read Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers years ago, and remember enjoying her unique sense of humor.  She is very playful and really enjoys puns, which makes her nonfiction a pleasure to read.  Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal is no different.  She delves into how intimately smell relates to taste, the weird history of “Fletcherizing” (extreme chewing,) and goes to a prison to interview people about smuggling contraband cell phones and tobacco in their rectums.  (I learned there’s a word for that: Hooping.  Who knew?)

IMG_2632Gulp is filled with many amusing asides and footnotes, including this gem in a chapter about whether or not someone could survive being swallowed by a whale, and what keeps the stomach from digesting itself while you’re alive.

While a seaman might survive the suction and swallow, his arrival in a sperm whale’s stomach would seem to present a new set of problems. *

*I challenge you to find a more innocuous sentence containing the words sperm, suction, swallow, and any homophone of seaman.  And then call me up on the homophone and read it to me.

What’s great about Roach’s approach to subjects that are uncomfortable or possibly disgusting, aside from her humor, is her palpable sense of appreciation for the human body and all its intricate, bizarre, beautiful systems and abilities.  Near the end of the book, reflecting on watching her own colonoscopy without sedation, she says,

Most of us pass our lives never once laying eyes on our organs, the most precious and amazing things we own.  Until something goes wrong, we barely give them a thought.  This seems strange to me.  How is it that we find Christina Aguilera more interesting than the inside of our own bodies?  It is, of course, possible that I seem strange.  You may be thinking, Wow, that Mary Roach has her head up her own ass.  To which I say: Only briefly, and with the utmost respect.

I freely admit that my sense of humor may be on the juvenile side, but I really enjoyed this book.  Her free-wheeling curiosity is a gift to all of us who might want to learn more about the world and ourselves, but also have a great time doing so.


Secrets From the Eating Lab by Traci Mann

Oh, how I love a good self-help book, especially if it deals with weight loss and/or body image.  Without going into detail let me just say this is an area of great interest to me.  Secrets from the Eating Lab is a book I’d recommend to just about anyone, even if you’re not overweight yourself.  It’s an informative, persuasive, fast read that will have you saying, “Never diet again!” and perhaps lacing up your walking shoes.IMG_2179

Even though she is an academic and she shares lots of scientific research to bolster her ideas, Traci Mann writes with a light, familiar touch.  She makes it clear that she wants people to enjoy their lives, whether or not they are overweight or obese by our society’s standards.  It’s a refreshing tone, frankly.  In the chapter titled “Obesity is Not a Death Sentence” Mann looks at a compilation of numerous studies about whether or not obese people live shorter life spans than “normal weight” people (BMI 18.5-25.)  Turns out that the ratio of overweight people’s death rates to normal weight folks was 1, meaning the risk of death is the same for both groups.  Even people classified as Obese Class 1 (BMI 30-35) had a ratio of 1 with normal weight people.  It wasn’t until the Obese Class 2 (BMI 35-40) and higher did a biostatistician find a risk ratio higher than 1, and even then in only a third of the studies.   Mann goes on to write that there are many other factors involved in whether or not being overweight is bad for you, like your socioeconomic status (poor and undereducated people may not see the doctor until it’s too late or have access to fresh food) and your stress level (more stress = health problems.)  Where you carry your weight (abdominal area vs. hips and thighs) also correlates to specific health problems, even if you’re not obese.

Rather than obsess about the number on the scale, Mann wants the reader to take steps to eat better and get more exercise.  She provides “Smart Regulation Strategies” which are simple ways to improve your health.  One of my favorites was called “Be Alone With a Vegetable,” which means try to eat a veggie or salad before you eat anything else.   That way your only option is the healthy item, which will make you fuller and leaves less room in your belly for whatever else you might eat at that meal.  And you’re sure to get your veggies in that way.  She also advocates making things as easy as possible by washing and chopping your vegetables as soon as you bring them home.  How many times have vegetables died a slow death in your refrigerator crisper?  I know I’ve wasted money and good food far more than I’d like to admit, simply out of laziness and not remembering the asparagus or broccoli until it was too late.

Mann really wants us all to get more exercise, but not for weight loss.  The other benefits of exercise, both physical (lowering blood pressure, resting heart rates, need for medications)  and mental (helping mild to moderate depression and anxiety, etc.) are proven over and over.  She wants us to find the types of exercise that we enjoy, whether it’s a yoga class or running or hiking, which will make it easier to keep it up long term.  She makes a good case that doctors and the media should be touting the benefits of exercise to us all, removed from the prospect of weight loss.

I really enjoyed this book, both in message and delivery.  It was easy to read and I like her common-sense approach to a very touchy subject that many people struggle with.  In the end she quotes one of my heroes, writer Glennon Doyle Melton of Momastery:  “Your body is not your masterpiece – your life is.”   I can totally get behind that idea.