Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For me, reading about Coates's life is like looking through a window into another world. It's horrifying, heartbreaking, and eye-opening to hear that a life of constant fear can be the norm, that waking up and thinking, "maybe today is the day the world kills me," can be a daily occurance. It's hard to review this book because I can't analyze it, or pick it apart and say what I liked least or most. Coates has a perspective that is unique from my own, and it's important to listen to voices such as his, so those of us with privilege don't dwell in a rose-colored world and ignore what doesn't affect us personally. What happens to people of color, or anyone who is different, DOES affect us all, because we are all human above all else and share this world with one another.

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Friday, February 16, 2018

Pointe

Pointe Pointe by Brandy Colbert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

SPOILERS AHEAD


This has been such a hard book to read, but it's also really important. Teens need to have books that talk about hard subjects like rape and eating disorders and body dysmorphia and PTSD because they need to know they are not alone, that they are not the only one to ever feel this way. They need to hear a character being told that just because you love someone doesn't mean they're not raping you. That 13 is too young to consent to sex, especially if they are older than you, whether it be 18 or 26. They need to know that they have done NOTHING wrong. I hope that message is conveyed through every word of this book.

My heart breaks for Theo, who has lived with the guilt of her secrets for so many years, so desperately afraid people won't love her if they knew the truth. Because of course, from her perspective, the people she loves the most all leave her - Trent/Chris, Donovan (even if it wasn't by choice), Hosea. There are so many times I want to yell at Theo, shake her, hug her, tell her that she deserves better. She deserves more than being someone's secret, she deserves someone who not only makes her feel special, but is proud of her, and treats her like the center of the universe.

The guys in this book are for the most part, very self-centered and frustrating. You have Hosea, who claims he thinks Theo is "perfect" and "special," but not enough to love her, not enough to choose her. Just enough to use her and shame her and break her. Maybe he had real feelings for her, but it wasn't enough, and it wasn't fair of him to put Theo in that position. Here is Klein, who constantly harasses Theo, is practically a stalker, and in the end is so put out that Theo doesn't want him that he's convinced he's in the right to expose her secrets, no matter whom it hurts. Even Theo's friend Phil is frustating at times. Watching her and telling on her to her parents was a good thing, he was trying to get her help. But when his primary reaction to hearing how his FRIEND Hosea treated Theo was annoyance that he was in the dark about it? Talk about self-centered.

Chris/Trent isn't even worth talking about. He is a pedophile and a rapist and he makes me sick. His lawyer is disgusting as well. The best part of this book is him going to jail.

There were a few exceptions to the annoying men in this book. There's poor, sweet Donovan. We don't know exactly what Donovan has been through because he can't talk about it, not even to Theo. I'm glad that Theo eventually got to see him, and could see that he needed her to speak for him both, but I just wish that could have happened earlier. I can only imagine what he went through, and the time it will take to hear from that.

Theo's dad and mom were great, as well. They have clearly been doing their best in a TOUGH situation. They obviously love Theo and are doing whatever they can to help her, but how do you help someone who is determined to deceive you? They listen to her when she talks, and tell they love her. Sometimes that's all they can do.

The women in Theo's life are excellent. Marisa, her ballet teacher, is such a constant source of support and encouragement, and I was relieved to see that continue after the trial, which I guessed it would. Ruthie, Theo's fellow dancer, had always been competition in some ways, but she knows the strenuous work that goes into ballet, and when she opens up to Theo herself, she allows Theo to open up as well. Ruthie supports her, is clear and honest with her, and is there for her, without trying to coerce her into doing or saying anything she doesn't want to. Sara-Kate is also a good, supportive friend to Theo, even if she does disapprove of what she's doing with Hosea. At least it's for a good reason, though - she wants better for Theo. And she doesn't rub it in her face when it goes exactly as she expected. Their continued friendship is so important for Theo's recovery.

In the end, we are left with this: don't be afraid to speak up if you are uncomfortable in an situation, if something doesn't feel right. Don't just listen to the words people tell you, but judge them by their actions: "Words don't mean anything without actions to back them up." You are special, you are loved, and you deserve the best. Don't settle for less.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Bad Feminist

Bad Feminist Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A great book of essays that focus on not just feminist issues, but also those of race and privilege. As Gay writes, the term "feminist" seems to carry a lot of pressure, and it can be uncomfortable to assume. Accept the idea that no one is perfect, we are human and messy, and you can't expect your feminism to be perfect, either. You just need to try and do whatever you can to effect the change you want to see in the world. I'm trying to be better and do better, and part of that is educating myself by reading books written by smart, intelligent women of color.

I enjoyed hearing the details of Gay's life and experiences - both what it's like to be a black, female college professor in the middle of nowhere, and how one ends up a desperate, loneliness-induced competitive scrabble player. (Who knew there were so many fragile egos in the Scrabble community?) Her reaction to the angry Scrabble-playing man (hold as still as possible and hope the situation diffuses) is so real and true. How many times in your life have you held your breath and hoped nothing happened, because you didn't know how a volatile person was going to react? By the way, if you are doing that regularly, that is not a healthy relationship.

Perhaps my favorite essay was the one entitled "How to Be Friends With Another Woman." These are the BEST guidelines. "Abandon the cultural myth that all female friendships must be bitchy, toxic, or competitive." They might be sometimes, but these are not defining characteristics of female friendships. "If you feel like it's hard to be friends with women, consider that maybe women aren't the problem. Maybe it's just you." If you are writing off female friendships because you don't want drama in your life, then you are missing out! Not all friendships have drama, and your life is not the plot of a TV show or book. I loved this particular advice, and I'm happy and lucky to say, I have friends like this: "Surround yourself with women you can get sloppy drunk with who won't draw stupid things on your face if you pass out, and who will help you puke if you over celebrate, and who will also tell you if you get sloppy drunk too much, or behave badly when you are sloppy drunk." <3 my BFFs.

A good chunk of these essays are about specific pieces of media and their place in our culture as a whole: how they shape the way we see things like gender, sexuality, and race; what they say about their creators; and what things they got "right" or "wrong." What sort of unfair standards are TV shows like "Girls" being subjected to, simply because they are created by and starring women? Yes, it's a show that (supposedly: I've never seen it) expresses just one point of view on girlhood, and ignores issues like race, but SO many shows and moves are the same. Communities are insular, and we all have a tendency to write what we know and watch what we know. Maybe "Girls" is held to higher standard because it was labeled as "groundbreaking," but you can't discount the fact that women are being judged more harshly. The same is true for recent books written by female CEOs: critics say that their advice isn't applicable to the working class woman, struggling to make ends meet. But on the flip side, you don't see people complaining that business and like books written by male CEOs are applicable to the working class man.

I loved the essay on Sweet Valley High. Like Gay, I was a kid with my head in books, and those characters were my friends, regardless of our commonalities (or lack there of). I did read Sweet Valley High, and Sweet Valley Twins, and Sweet Valley University, and the more recent Sweet Valley Confidential, but my true jam when I was a kid was the Babysitters Club. My habits were similar to Gay's - I lived for new books in the series, and would run into Waldenbooks at the mall, hoping for a new one, especially if it was a Super Special. My life was a constant internal debate - am I a Kristy? A Mary Ann? I knew I wasn't cool enough to be a Stacey, or chill enough to be a Dawn, or quirky enough to be a Claudia, so those were my main options, and I had to fit somewhere, right? "Books are often far more than just books." Some stories are universal - a girl is a girl, wherever she grew up. By the way, Gay's analysis of Sweet Valley Confidential was SPOT ON. It is terrible - "the exquisite badness," Gay calls it - but it will at least entertain you if you loved that series.

I've created quite a list of books I want to read based on Gay's essays (and some I absolutely don't). At the top of my list is the duo of "Green Girl" by Kate Zambreno and "Play It As It Lays" by Joan Didion, to analyze the journey a woman in of the cult of beauty and the idea of gender as a performance. I also have on my list "Heroines" also by Kate Zambreno.

Next up is a series of books featuring unlikeable women. Characters need to have flaws to be more human and more interesting, but for some reason, unlikeability isn't tolerated in female characters as it is in male. Readers tend to think, "I would never be friends with this woman," but is that the point of the book? Unlikeable women "aren't pretending; they can't and won't pretend to be someone they're not. They accept the consequences of their actions, and those consequences become stories worth reading." Of the books Gay mentions in this segment, the only one I've read so far is "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn, and the rest are new to me: "Treasure Island!!!" by Sara Levine; "You Take It From Here" by Pamela Ribon; "Dare Me" by Megan Abbott; "Magnificence" by Lydia Millet; "Battleborn" by Claire Vaye Watkins; "The Woman Upstairs" by Claire Messed. Interestingly enough, these are all by female authors.

The genre "Women's Fiction" itself is sexist - non-genre fiction written by men is simply called "Literary Fiction." The genres are indication of a bigger problem in the literary world and in our culture as a whole: women will read books by and about men, but men won't read books about women. When did men become the measure? When did "women" become a slur? We can't make male readership become the goal. Female writers who try to distance them self from the term "women's fiction" are as bad as women who rejoice when a man declares she's "not like other girls," whatever that means. This needs to be the focus: "How men as readers, critics, and editors can start to bear the responsibility for becoming better, broader readers."

The hardest essay to read was Gay's rape story. It's so horrific, and so sad, and makes me want to punch things. Those f-ing boys. Those f-ing classmates of hers, calling her a slut. There are people out there that say young adult books shouldn't be violent or dark or upsetting, but teens need dark books because they go through dark things in their lives. As Gay mentions, some of them might one day be the girl in the woods, and they will need a book there to let them know that they're not alone and that what happens of them was not OK. Tying in the Hunger Games, yes these kids in those books go through horrific things, but sometimes that is what happens in real life. In a way, things could've been worse: there's very little sex in the Hunger Games books, and can you imagine if some of that sort of injustice was taking place in District 12? Oddly, it's only in the capital that we get wind that there might be abuse and assault going on,from Finnick, former District 4 champion. "It gets better" has become popular cry of encouragement, but you can't say it gets better without demonstrating what it takes to get better.

The other essay that made me angry was the one about rape humor. Not all jokes are created equal - you can go too far, too soon. I don't know much about Daniel Tosh or his show, Tosh.0, but encouraging men to take and post videos of themselves touching women softly on their stomach is so intrusive and offensive, I'm not even sure how it could be considered humor. If it is, it can only be Frattish humor, rape humor, misogynist humor. Rape humor reminds women they are not quite equal. Women are called "sensitive" or "feminist" (in a bad way). Yes, humor is subjective, but is it THAT subjective? Rape jokes are never funny. "We are free to speak as we choose without fear of prosecution or persecution, but we are not free to speak as we choose without consequence." As Gay says about men like Daniel Tosh, "They have conscience. Sometimes saying what others are afraid or unwilling to say is just being an asshole." It's definitely hard to stand up and speak up when you hear something you're not comfortable with, but it's something we absolutely need to learn to do. "We remain silent because silence is easier...When we say nothing, when we do nothing, we are consenting to these trespasses against us." Men want what they want, and our society caters to them. "It's hard to be told to lighten up, because if you lighten up any more, you're going to float the fuck away." It becomes a case of trickle-down misogyny.

Another essay is an analysis of fairy tales, and how women are forced to do all the work to obtain their happily ever after, in which they sometimes still aren't the center of their own stories. See also Twilight and 50 Shades of Gray: "Ana's sexual awakening is a convenient vehicle for the awakening of Christian's humanity."

A set of further essays examines several popular books and movies ostensibly showcasing the black experience, with various degrees of success. There's the best seller and blockbuster "The Help", which I remember liking it, but I also don't know better. I actually just went back and changed my review on Goodreads, and I'm a little embarrassed I connected with it so much in the first place. More evidence that I need to read more books by POC to expand my perspective and get out of my privilege. There's Django Unchained - "not about a Black man reclaiming his freedom, but about a white man working through his own racial demons and white guilt." I'm not a fan of Tarantino myself, and Gay gives me a reason now. The more things change, the more things stay the same. In addition to these, Gay discusses 12 Years a Slave, a slew of Tyler Perry movies, Fruitvale Station, Red Tails, and Orange is the New Black.

Overall, I really enjoyed this series of essays. I know that I am a feminist, but I also feel better about saying that out loud, because I'm trying to be lenient to myself and others and let go of my perfectionist nature. I can like what I like, even if it is expected of me as a woman, or normative or silly, and that's ok. I can be a feminist without being the best feminist. I don't even have to be a good one. But I'm trying, and I hope that counts for something. I'll keep listening and learning.

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Monday, February 12, 2018

March: Book Three

March: Book Three March: Book Three by John Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book, just as the first two volumes, is absolutely essential reading. This is not just our history, it informs our present day in very real ways. This last volume highlights all the marches in Selma, which directly led passing to the 1965 Voting Right Act. It details all the atrocities of violence perpetrated not only against those working for a fair future, but also against innocent children. More than that, it highlights those who fought so hard for equal rights. There are those who became voices and leaders in the movement. I'm ashamed to say I had never heard of Fannie Lou Hamer before, and now I want to track down everything there is to know about her.

And then there are those who were murdered in the name of anger and fear and bigotry, those who gave their lives fighting for what they knew was right. It is only right to end this review honoring their memories. Say their names: Denise McNair. Addie Mae Collins. Carole Robertson. Cynthia Wesley. Virgil Lamar. Johnny Robinson. Mickey Schwerner. Andy Goodman. James Chaney. Jimmie Lee Jackson. James Reeb. Viola Liuzzo. Malcolm X. Martin Luther King, Jr. And all the nameless, faceless others we don't know of.

It was frustrating to watch Lyndon B Johnson sabotage the equality efforts because they didn't fit into his current plan. Of course, he eventually pushed forth the Voting Rights Act, and he seemed like a generally decent guy, but it just goes to show that even decent people can do indecent things if they feel like their lives or plans are being threatened. That definitely doesn't excuse his actions, but it might go a little ways in explaining them.

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Thursday, February 8, 2018

March: Book Two

March: Book Two March: Book Two by John Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Even more powerful and moving than the first book. The freedom rides, the protests, the arrests, the time spent in jail - it all reminds me of something out of the New Testament. I'm sure Lewis would appreciate the comparison to the early Christians. I knew embarrassingly little about the history of the freedom rides and the marches, and the amount of violence perpetrated on those involved was truly shocking. The most frustrating was the violence supported and endorsed by the police, the local government, and in some cases, the federal government. The determination of the riders, protestors, and marchers is truly something to behold - they fought (figuratively, peacefully) for every inch of progress, and weren't going to slow down no matter how many times it would have been reasonable and understandable to do so. Sometimes this all seems like ancient history, but we keep being reminded of how little some things have changed, which is truly heartbreaking. Leaders like Lewis continue to be vital.

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Wednesday, February 7, 2018

March: Book One

March: Book One March: Book One by John Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fascinating, inspiring, and humbling. I cannot recommend this book more highly - it is a must-read, bringing history to life in vivid detail. John Lewis is a hero - he has been striving his whole life for justice, for a world of peace. We need voices like his even more than ever today, to fight against the bigotry and racism that continues to threaten our culture and our lives. As he describes his training in nonviolent protest from Jim Lawson, Lewis says, "The hardest part to learn -- to truly understand, deep in your heart -- was how to find love for your attacker." Even though it feels like we haven't come very far in the last 60 years, I can only imagine how much worse it would be without the tireless sacrifice, work, and influence of Lewis, Dr. King, and their colleagues.

In addition to the amazing source material, the writing, pacing, style, and art of this book is masterful, and conveys both the energy and tone of the time period.

I am lucky to have a lot of privilege in my life, and I'm trying to do my best to acknowledge that and educate myself, both on our country's history and on what I can do today to help affect change.

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Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Wanderers

The Wanderers The Wanderers by Meg Howrey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

SPOILERS AHEAD


For some reason, this is a hard one to review. Maybe because I'm still not sure what *actually* happened in this book, or because the narrators changed every few pages? Maybe because it's character-driven instead of being plot-driven? Despite the fact that this story is built around a mission to Mars, the primary focus of each person's inner narrative is relationship: that between a parent and a child, and that between two people in general. There is also a focus on the idea of one's true self - how do your find yourself? What is actually true about you, and who gets to decide that?

Helen and Mireille have a complicated relationship, one that has in many ways been shaped by Helen's deceased husband, who was Mireille's primary caregiver until his death. Helen and her husband's relationship itself was very complicated - it sounds like Helen was desperate for companionship, but found herself lacking, and she found the one person who said he loved her, despite all the flaws he consistently pointed out. Going into their marriage, Helen knew her husband wanted a child, and that is the main reason Mireille was born in the first place. I think she was surprised to find how much she loved the baby, and wanted to spend time with her, but soon enough, her husband established himself as The Parent, and Helen was left to follow her plan of becoming an astronaut. Mireille grew up living with her father's version of her mother, and always felt like her mother didn't love her enough. She felt continually overshadowed by her mother's achievements, and worried that at the end of her life, the only special thing about her would be that she's her mother's daughter, so she jumps into that role with gusto, performing it to the best of her abilities.

Where Helen lacked emotion, Mireille had an overabundance of it, and her father encouraged that in her. When you're constantly performing, though, it's hard to know who you are, and harder still for anyone to know the real you. Throughout this book, Helen and Mireille go through parallel journeys of self-discovery, symbolized by each of them cutting off their hair, or the weight of the past that has held them back. Helen has a near-death experience on "Mars" and comes out of it a suddenly much more open person. She's less focused on keeping her cool and flipping her emotions to the positive, and more about finding out what is true about herself. Mireille also has an awakening of sorts - maybe it's find a job she truly enjoys, maybe it's the forced distance from her mom giving her a new perspective. I loved what she said, though, about deciding to stop blaming her mom: "At a certain point, you probably had to stop thinking about what your mother did or didn't do to you, and start thinking about what you did or didn't do to your mother."

Sergei and his son Dmitri's relationship was also complicated, but mostly because of lack of communication. Sergei has lived his life trying to be the opposite of his own father, who bullied him and called him names, and drove his sister into an anger-fueled life separate from the rest of their family. His goal as a father has always been to be a kind, loving role-model to his boys. From Dmitri's perspective, though, he himself was never that special, never as deserving of love as his father or his prodigy brother. His defining characteristic seems to be "beautiful," and even though he suspects he might be gay, he isn't willing to admit it because he doesn't want the only thing interesting about him to be his sexuality. I don't blame him for that. What Dmitri doesn't realize, though, is that his father loves him, no matter what, and all he wants is to be loved in return. It's not complicated.

Yoshi and Madoka's relationship is perhaps the most intriguing. Yoshi obviously loves Madoka a lot, while Madoka seems oddly cold and aloof from their relationship. One of Madoka's issues is that she doesn't know who she is, and she's doesn't know how to figure that out. She doesn't think Yoshi really loves the true her because she doesn't think he really sees the real her, but she doesn't have proof that's not true, so she just continues to go along with it, ad infinitum. At one point, Madoka says "...aren't we all pretending to be who we really are?" And that really seems to be the case, both for Madoka specifically and the real of the characters as a whole. Her reasons for not wanting to be a mom are born in the fact that she doesn't need another thing to remind herself of her lack of importance in the world.

Through their separation, and his exposure to Helen's transformation, Yoshi himself comes to realize some big, true things about his relationship with Madoka. He has always loved her so much that he was almost in awe of her - she was his whole world, his personal planet. The problem, he comes to realize, is that he loved a dream, a version of Madoka he had built in his head, so much that he hadn't seen any other part of her, or truly gotten to know her. In his final letter to her, he asks,"Would you rather I love you incorrectly forever, or correctly but potentially less?" I'm pretty sure we all know Madoka's answer to that: see me and love me correctly, even if it's less.

So, I have to guess that the big debate of this novel is: Did they actually go to Mars? Was the whole "training" plan a scheme of sorts to try and keep the pressure off the astronauts and their families and possible failure off the media radar, if anything happened? The first thing that clued me in that something might be out of order was when the astronauts woke up puking and disoriented, and couldn't figure out how they could have staged such a thing. And of course, you have Sergei's few seconds of SIM failure on "Mars" during the dust devil - what did he really see? Was it an isolation-fueled hallucination? I'm sure there is evidence on either side (I haven't looked yet), but I'm definitely on Team Mars. It's so much money and time to waste to do a training like that, and it just didn't really make sense in the first place. Part of me wishes the author would have told us specifically what happened at the end of the book - we don't even know if the astronauts survived the "landing" or not! But most of me realizes that this book wasn't about space travel in the first place. Like Helen said early on, "...What is true does not always feel like what is true."


Here are some other lines from the book I specifically enjoyed:

Helen

"If you try to jab your fingers all stiff through cornstarch and water you'll encounter a solid. But if you sink and melt your hands on the surface, you'll move right through it. So that's what you gotta do. You gotta tell your hands to sink and melt. Sink and melt."

"Also, when she has an "emotion" she should take a moment to "flip it." I really don't want to have to deal with poop right now needs to become I'm glad that all I have to deal with right now is a little poop."

"It's another reason why you had to be so careful with grief. It was like an impact crater, its surface always larger than the thing that created it."


Sergei

"I know that the only thing that matters with parent and child is how much parent loves child. Child does not have to love you back. But this can only be borne by truly strong people. I am too weak not to care if you love me."


Yoshi

"Trusting a person and knowing a person were not the same things. It was necessary that Helen and Sergei trust him completely. It was not necessary that they know him to the same extent."

"Yoshi does not ask for much, he merely wants to be where he should be, where he belongs, which is something you can know by orienting yourself to what is around you, and making yourself a part of it."

"They rotate around a barycenter between them. Looking only at one piece of each other." (Pluto and Charon)


Madoka

"That probably sounds horrible," Mireille says. "I mean, my using it. Like I'm cashing in on an emotion that isn't mine." Madoka thinks. It doesn't sound horrible to her, but possibly she's not the right person to judge this. "How is the emotion not yours?" she asks. "If it makes you sad?"

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