Good Reads From the Week

FullSizeRender (7)For a longtime was I only reading the same handful of websites, and the internet was starting to feel like a small, somewhat dull place. Lately I’ve been shaking myself up, and searching out great content that I may have been missing. Here are a few of my favorite things from this week:

A round-up of advice about success and generally tearing it up from a bunch of different women. I especially like the idea of the slow burn; success takes a long time and it builds gradually. It’s easy to feel impatient and from that impatience start to believe you are a failure, when really we need to chill out and just keep chipping away.

This examination of why some people are always late rang very true–a little uncomfortably true.

This tiny house of my dreams is a thing of beauty. I want to move into that tiny, sun-filled loft and never leave.

Mark Strand on creativity:

We’re only here for a short while. And I think it’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention…We’re combined in such a way that we can describe what it’s like to be alive, to be witnesses. Most of our experience is that of being a witness. We see and hear and smell other things. I think being alive is responding.

A moving essay about anxiety and taking risks and trying to figure out if you want to be a parent. There are a seemingly infinite number of resources and opinions for parents, and there’s a great community online for people who don’t want children. But I’m hungry for more conversation about how and when to decide.

The Dainty Squid’s new dye-job is making me crave some neon locks.

For reading material you can hold in your hand, I just started Charles Blow’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones which is sharp and bright and raw; I highly recommend it.

What did I miss? Please share the favorite thing you read this week.

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2014: My Year in Books (& the year I saved myself by reading)

2014 books 2

As already established, I’m a bit of a nutjob New Year’s resolution enthusiast. Some years I have many (eleven this year) and other years I take a minimalist approach. Last year I had only one: Read 55 books.

I went into 2014 feeling depressed: I was unhappy professionally and adrift personally. I didn’t like my job, and, because I spent all my free time watching House Hunters and reading crap on the internet, I didn’t know who I was outside of my miserable job. Life felt empty, and I was floundering for meaning and joy. I knew something needed to change, because I was turning into someone I didn’t recognize or particularly like–and that someone certainly wasn’t happy.

There were lots of things I wanted to change: I wasn’t working out, I was drinking too much, I was spending more money than I made, I ate a lot of candy, and I probably wasn’t calling my mom enough. But I also knew, fragile as I was, I wasn’t going to change everything at once. And as much as I craved a major life overhaul, I felt it best to focus my energies. What, I asked myself, used to bring me joy, outside of my work and my relationships with the (beautiful, crazy, smart) people in my life? And I remembered the little girl, blankets piled high even in the summer to block out the flashlight, reading (and sweating) far past her bedtime. And the teenager who underlined her books and excitedly ran into the kitchen to read lines out loud to her mom and aunt. And the college freshman with e.e. cummings poems taped to her wall, who felt electric and alive and a little scared reading the crazy priest sermon in The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. Somewhere along the way, I’d forgotten how to read for the pure joy of it. I’d stopped reading almost entirely; my books were turning into decorations.

So I printed out a calendar for January 2014 and I set a goal–50 pages per day–and I tracked my progress. A month in, and I could feel myself waking up. The refreshing sort of stretching and yawning and tingling that happens after a good, long nap. I like to think that we all have a thing that brings us a joy and acts as a benchmark of a well being. My best friend is an incredible athlete, and if the world feels crazy or scary or dark, she goes running and feels brave and sane and strong. Another best friend is an artist, and practicing her art wakes her up; the happier she is the more she draws (and the more she creates, the happier she is). In 2014 I learned that I’m a reader, and if I’m not reading then my whole world is out of synch.

So I set out to bring balance back into my world with the ambitious goal of reading more than one each week. This past year books pulled me, page by page, out of my depression. They were a lifeline to something I wanted to be part of–something that gave me meaning and purpose and, best of all, joy.

Fifty-seven books later, I thought I would share my some of my favorites with you:

Favorite novel:
Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
I read this book early in January, but it held onto this top spot for the entire year. It’s so delightfully unexpected and the language pulled me in and did not let go. It’s a true literary novel, with a rich and complex and lively plot. This book was like coming home to reading, and finding out someone has left the light on for me.

Runner Up: The Known World by Edward P Jones

Favorite memoir:
Wild, by Cheryl Strayed
A book about a long, arduous & solitary hike should be about as monotonous as that hike itself. But this book is so vibrant and warm and full of triumph. It made me feel incredibly grateful to be living, and I may have gone on a spent the summer daydreaming about my own hiking adventure.

Runner Up: Not that Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham (Haters gonna hate. This book is beautiful and smart and insightful.)

Favorite YA:
Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
This is a beautiful story about first love, but for me it was also about the first time you loved a story. Reading it felt intoxicating in a way that only reading as a small girl has felt. I stayed up until 3am reading this book, and as soon as I finished it, I wanted to start over again at the beginning because I couldn’t bear to leave these characters.

Runner Up: Heir of Fire by Sarah J Maas (I have a soft spot for YA fantasy books. Everyone’s got a guilty pleasure. If this is your thing, go read some Sarah J Maas; she is perfect.)

Favorite non-fiction:
The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen
The eternal student, I love a meaty non-fiction book, but they are rarely page-turners. This book about Vladimir Putin, written by a Russian journalist who has been observing and reporting-on Putin’s Russia for decades, was incredibly compelling. Gessen is a brilliant writer and Putin a fascinating subject; I could not put this book down. Bonus: Reading this will make you feel very enlightened and worldly, considering how active and menacing Russia has been lately.

Runner Up: Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King (If you want to learn more about Jim Crowe South, the NAACP, and the legislative battles of the Civil Rights Movement, especially after Ferguson, please read this book.)

Most joyful book:
Hero Worship by Rebekah Matthews
This book has the distinction of being the only short-story collection I read, and is therefore in a category all its own. And the category I’ve placed it in, “most joyful,” will likely confuse almost everyone, because I can never describe this quite right, but here goes:

Jacques Lacan has this idea that real joy is always a little bit painful. Think of a moment of ecstasy; it’s such a raw moment that you can’t actually stay in that place. And lurking at the edges of joy you can feel the discomfort; they are always a little twisted together.

(And maybe this is why, in my sadness I had turned away from reading, from something I loved so dearly–I knew it would make me feel electric and alive, and in that there is always also discomfort. Maybe I was just too afraid of any pain, even bundled up as it was in goodness.)

Hero Worship is painful and sad and lonely while also being hopeful and sweet and compassionate. Perhaps it is this combination of things, that are both disparate and also make up the very nature of our human experience, that made me feel excited and alive and a little bit uncomfortable while reading it. I cannot recommend it enough.

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Bad Feminism, Roxane Gay, and Being Messy

bad feminist

I recently finished Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. I have not been this excited to read a book in a long, long time. They tell you not to judge a book by its cover, but who isn’t excited about such a striking title, the crisp cover and neon pink lettering?  What even is a bad feminist? I immediately think of someone in high school who aced AP US History and Calculus, but skipped gym to smoke cigarettes in her leather jacket off campus. You know, the kind of girl who is effortlessly cool and also clearly possesses the ability to disintegrate ignorant people with a look. She’s a bad feminist as in bad ass; she gives absolutely no fucks.

But of course, no one is that girl. Even the person who is  that girl, doesn’t think she is.

For me, this book suffered because it couldn’t be the print version of that imaginary girl. I wanted Bad Feminist to be all things. I wanted a book that was equal parts deeply moving memoir and feminist manifesto, something that both spoke to the depths of my soul and rallied the masses. I wanted reading this book to feel like joining hands with Simone de Beauvoir, Judith Butler, and bell hooks as we danced and sang around the maypole (only something less phallic).  In other words, I had entirely reasonable expectations.

 All of this, of course, is one of the very things she’s writing against—the fervent and impossible hope we all carry around—for one voice to speak for and to us all.  Structurally, I think Gay is at her best when she includes her personal, which ranges from funny—an essay about competitive scrabble, another about her hate/love relationship with Shades of Grey—to heartbreaking—a haunting discussion of sexual assault, her own, the language used to discuss others. I think these are the moments she shines, which may say something about me, but it may also say something about what we want from feminism today. The 60s told us “the personal is political,” a phrase that has always felt strangely hollow to me. This is probably because I am a child of the 90s and we came of age, politically speaking, to see a president impeached over an affair, a lie, and something about a blue dress. The personal is obviously political to us, although perhaps not in the way second wavers meant. On top of that, we learned what politics was in the same breath that we saw it as a system, primarily investment in protecting and promoting its own self-importance. That kind of political awareness doesn’t bode well for the spirit of the early motto.

The truth is that feminism is inherently personal; it always has been. In the current age of feminism, I am most interested in the way we struggle to live feminism in our daily lives. How does feminism shape, inform, and help in the space of the personal?

An outspoken male co-worker speaks over and/or down to you at work? How can feminism be a tool to navigate that? The truth is, (and here I’m getting away from Gay’s book, but I like to imagine she’d agree with the idea), the response is different, even if we’re all feminists. Personally, I’m bossy as hell. I’m going to excitedly practice for the next opportunity to put you in your place. (Another way to read that: I’m going to obsessively dwell on your sexism until our next encounter, thereby carrying the burden of your idiocy with me on a near daily basis.) Another woman may see the man’s misogyny and also recognize that her colleagues see this guy for the moron he is. She may use feminism as a lens to place his shitty behavior, and then laugh the situation off, on her way home to her happy life and an OITNB marathon. Feminism is personal; it’s a tool we use to navigate life and sometimes to navigate politics.

Because of this, I like, not only that Gay writes about her personal experiences of living as a woman, as a feminist, but articulates the reality that living feminism means many things. Ultimately, Roxane Gay uses bad feminist to mean something other than my imaginary super smart “bad girl.” She’s talking about an inability to live up to the measure of what a “good” feminist looks like, in much the same way some of us struggle with the desire to be the “good girl.” This “good feminist” ideal, she recognizes, is an ugly combination of our own demons, the unfortunate influence of “feminazi” conspiracy theorists, and other anti-women narratives. Perfectionism is an ugly version of self-hatred-cloaked-as-ambition that I am all too familiar with. So, while I am personally very comfortable to be the feminist in glitter and neon pink lipstick, with a closet full of dresses, I understand the roots of Gay’s anxiety. Wading through that anxiety, Gay comes to an interesting and important place:

I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying—trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself.

Roxane Gay is “bad” at being a feminist—so bad that she’s written a collection of brilliant essays on the topic. This book made me want to sit up straighter and be part of this conversation. It made me want to look inward, at my own preconceived notions and the issues I’m sitting on the sidelines for, and it made me throw some shade at some idiots in the world around me. Ultimately, Bad Feminist made me think and it made me want to write; it inspired me to make some noise and to be myself.

Three Weeks In

orphan masters son

Tea & The Orphan Master’s Son

January 1st rolls around, and everyone dreams of being their best-possible-selves, setting resolutions with abandon–and then of course abandoning them. There’s a lot of disdain for New Year’s Resolutions, mostly because by now, three weeks in, almost everyone has forgotten about who they promised themselves they’d become. But I’ve always loved the idea that you take time each year to assess: Am I living the way I want to be living? Am I who I want to be? What changes do I want to make, to get more out of life?

The check-in process for me this year started in late November, and the single biggest thing I knew was missing from my day-to-day life was reading. Books have always been a huge part of my life; some of my favorite memories as a kid are losing myself in a bookstore and racing to get far enough into a book that my mother would buy it for me because I was so desperate to find out what happened to the characters. But after graduate school, reading fell by the wayside; I’m still trying to figure out why that happened, but it was a noted absence. In years past I’ve had as many as eight or nine resolutions, but this year I only made one:

Read fifty pages a day.

So I printed out a blank calendar for January, and each day I chart my progress, like my own personal summer-reading competition from when we were kids. There’s an argument to be made that keeping track like this can create a fixation on numbers and achievements rather than an embrace of reading for the sake of real pleasure, but this very attainable goal has been really important for me. Forcing myself to spend some time every day doing something this important has reminded me of why I loved reading so much to begin with. Isn’t it funny how we forget to do the things we really love? 

I’ve already finished a handful of books this month, some that were great and some that were interesting but ultimately disappointing. By far the most engaging book I’m reading is in the photo above, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, which takes place in North Korea. I don’t ever want to put it down, and when I am forced to (mainly for work and sleeping), I can’t get it out of my head. You know how sometimes, you are reading something so good that it fills you with this raw sense of joy and possibility? And it’s this  incredible high but also deeply uncomfortable feeling? Maybe that doesn’t happen with everyone when they read; maybe for some people music or painting or good movies create that feeling. Or maybe you think I’m spouting nonsense.

 Either way, I feel a little like I’m waking up after a long nap. It’s a good feeling.

Favorite Books: A Chronology of My Feminist Education

booksReminding me why A Practical Wedding remains one of my favorite blogs, this entire month is devoted to feminism over there. (Infusing popular wedding narratives with active discussions of feminism? Talk about shifting our discourse.) This week the staff shared a round-up of some of their favorite feminist books. It’s brilliant list! In looking through, I was reminded of some old favorites (Undercover, lady-knight, people!) and discovered some books to add to my to-read list.

I’ve been trying to read a lot more lately, and I thought this was a good opportunity to do my own round up and hope that you share some of your favorites in return. This is not an exhaustive list, or even what I consider the “best” feminist titles. But these are books that had a the most formative influence when I was just a wee, budding feminist through graduate school, so they have a special place in my heart.

Ellaenchanted Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

I still remember the day I found this book. My family used to make regular trips to Barnes & Nobel when I was a child, and I would make a bee-line away into the YA stacks. I had discovered that if I found a book quickly and read enough of it before it was time to leave, I could almost always convince my parents to buy it for me. Ella Enchanted was one of these books, and it set the wheels in motion for something much bigger for me. It’s a re-imagining of Cinderella, in which she puts up with all that housework and drudgery because she’s cursed to always be obedient, so she runs away and has adventures and eventually breaks the curse. I think it should be mandatory reading for all pre-teen girls; personally I was so intoxicated by the idea of flipping these traditional tales so that the woman was active, was the hero and in charge of her own destiny. It opened up so much possibility for me: we didn’t necessarily need to start over to look for female heroes; we could apply a different lens to the stories we’ve always known. To some extent, this idea of applying a lens that shifts women and gender issues into a different focus is still at the heart of my brand of feminism.

House of Mirth by Edith Whartonthe house of mirth

In high school, I went through a classic-novels-about-romance phase, which involved a lot of Jane Austen. I picked up House of Mirth, expecting it to fall into the same vein. Oops. This might be the first book that broke my heart. (My one and only foray into fanfic was a rewrite, giving House of Mirth a happy ending.) I suspect any literary-minded feminist has a book that drove home the particular struggles of being a woman, the role of femininity, and the crushing, absurd weight of societal rules and expectations for women, and it was Lily Bart who brought that message home for me.

why_are_all_the_black_kids_sitting_together_in_the_cafeteria1  Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum

I read this book my freshman year of college, and it was the first time I studied contemporary race issues. I spent a lot of time learning about slavery and Jim Crow laws in high school, and I had a vague sense that racism was still a problem, but I didn’t know anything about it and I definitely didn’t know how to engage with it. This is the book that taught me about institutional racism. We can all claim to be (and want to be) “not racist” but are, in fact, products of a racist society so, in truth we probably each have some ugly ideas floating around in our subconscious. We are each responsible to adjust our behavior and question our assumptions, accordingly. This is not a book about feminism, but it was an essential read in making me a better feminist.

Bodies that Matter by Judith Butlerbodies that matter

This book is like hiking through a really dense jungle, up a mountain, following a seemingly overgrown path all the way up. Reading Judith Butler is hard and exhausting work, and you will likely find yourself profoundly uncomfortable at times (because it is complicated, because her ideas challenge fundamental assumptions you may have, because even when you think you get what she’s trying to say, you still have to wrestle with those ideas so they make sense to you).   And then, after struggling through the dense jungle, you get to the top of the mountain and all the hard work has finally paid off: the view (aka whatever insight you have from reading) is so incredible that it rearranges your entire way of seeing, thinking about, and interacting with the world.

Bonus Book: On the Road by Jack Kerouac

As a young reader, I hated this book with a fiery passion. I would indignantly stomp around, complaining about the flat female characters and the ways they were being used as props in the novel to advance the male characters’ narrative. I think that kind of feminist rage was really import to experience; it felt liberating to hate a book on the grounds that the author wrote lame female characters. It was important to realize that I could demand more from my books.

How about you: What are your favorite feminist books? What titles formed your current social consciousness? What should I read next?