Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Available for purchase here.

When the leader of your country seems hell bent on a personal mission to antagonize the rest of the world leaders, spend every dime at his disposal and then some on policies that marginalize the already at risk while bankrupting the nation, and generally behaving like a coked out gorilla, literature can offer a respite, a sanctuary of black letters on white pages that can buoy the reader only to the limits of imagination.

Or, it can shine a light on the swift devolution of civility and the eruption of chaos that can break out instantaneously in a country with an ever widening gap between the privileged and the working class and a strident adherence to us vs. them mentality.

Exquisitely written as it is, Half of a Yellow Sun is unmistakably the latter of the two. The story is told from three perspectives: Ugwu, an Igbo houseboy to Nsukka professor Odenigbo, Odenigbo’s fellow professor and mistress Olanna, and Richard, British expat and lover to Olanna’s twin sister Kainene. In the early sixties, the characters interact with each other through the prisms of race, class, and gender. Ugwu receives an education thanks to his employer’s socialist ideals, Olanna is a daughter of privilege and enjoys the benefits of both beauty and education, but has to live with accusations of witchcraft from Odenibo’s old-fashioned mother. Richard is a perennial outsider who views Nigeria–all of Africa, in fact–as a wonderland peppered with self-fulfillment.

Following the military coups that lead to the persecution of the Igbo, the characters become caught in the civil war follows the attempted secession of an Igbo state called Biafra. Olanna witnesses the slaughter of her beloved aunt and favorite cousin at the hands of Hausa militants. Ugwu gets conscripted and perpetuates the same war crimes that leave Olanna traumatized. Richard uses his privilege as a white man to report the atrocities of war to the wider world. In real life, the Nigerian-Biafran War saw the birth of NGOs across the world.

Adichie knows well that a million is a statistic. By weaving the story of a country in turmoil around her characters, the readers see firsthand the horrors of war, rape, starvation, and the casual brutality of indifference. Of course, the war in Nigeria was the result of American and European imperialism, the need to stake out multiple recognized territories as a singular country, currying the favor of one tribe while systemically forcing down the others, and absconding when the consequences of our actions come raining in. We’ve shifted the geographic location, but not learned from the tragedy. See the rise of Daesh in Syria, or Al-Quaeda in Afghanistan.

Reading Adichie now is like gazing into a crystal ball, and we are running out of time to curtail the effects of monumental greed combined with political power. It’s easy to absorb the story in a mantle of fear, but better to heed the warnings, pinpoint the failings, and resolve to improve both our approach and our attitudes.

2016 Wrap Up

Here I am, ten days deep into 2017, with the loose threads of last year’s reading challenge still dangling and the start date of this year’s looming (February 1, a celebration of Black authors that will run until January 31, 2018 for those itching to know).

The end of the year was brutal, for a lot of reasons. There was a little bit of personal heartbreak, but in truth the results of the election hit me like a gut punch, and cast a shadow over the remaining tendrils of 2016. I stayed awake on November 8 watching the election results pour in, tears streaming down my face while I prayed to all the deities I don’t believe in for an 11th hour turn of the tide, a Superman swooping in to save Lois Lane. But Supes never arrived, and Lex Luthor took the highest seat in the country.

For all the buffoonery surrounding Trump, it’s the elevated position of the worst of society that his presidency promises. Pence, Bannon, Sessions, all uniquely unqualified to protect the rights of American citizens, all tasked with doing exactly that. The injustice of this whole election became a crushing weight that rolled over me, my joys, my creativity, my desire to write. To whit, I haven’t written a single word since I profiled Laura Jane Grace’s memoir. What is the point of creativity, when my country has decided to yank out the rug from every civil rights gain we’ve had since our inception?

I turned to the solace of books, as I always have. I broke my fast with Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things, enjoyed the self-deprecation of Anna Kendrick’s Scrappy Little Nobody, meditated on the idiosyncrisies of Modern Romance with Aziz Ansari, and plowed into Carrie Fisher’s full bibliography upon the breaking news of her untimely death, and emerged, as always, feeling a little less lonely and considerably rejuvenated.

Great writing does one of two things: provides connection or provides escape. Truly great writing does both. As we trudge through the next four years, it is more important than ever that the words of anyone and everyone who will be targeted, marginalized, or silenced find an audience.

Words have power. As humans, we are fundamentally wired for story. Story is how we give form and meaning to chaos, how we empathize across all the realities that separate us. Inhabiting the stories of those we differ from is as close as we come to walking in each others’ skin. JK Rowling performed more magic with simple words than her characters ever could.

And so, without facetiously attributing my time and talent to that of all the amazing women who opened my eyes to the world around me this past year, my promise to myself is that I will continue with my words. I will protest, I will talk back, I will yell until my voice disintegrates in the air, and I will write until my fingers bleed.

Unspeakable Things by Kathleen Spivack

Available for purchase here.

If you’re planning on using these waning days of summer for a few final hours of sun-soaked beach vacations before the weather turns and the days shorten, do NOT bring Unspeakable Things with you. For all the world is well acquainted with the horrors of the Holocaust, there are as many ugly realities that lay hidden in the shadows of history that Spivack’s novel pulls back the veil on. It’s not an easy or comfortable read.

It’s nigh impossible to not draw parallels between the European refugee crisis during the advent of World War II, and the modern Middle Eastern crisis faced by refugees fleeing the Islamic state. When blocked from safety through legal means, desperate people will fall to shady and even immoral means to find shelter for themselves, which leads to innocents being holed away with the same people they were fleeing from in the first place.

Unspeakable Things lives up to its name. Eugenics, rape, and pedophilia are shaped into a story with language so gorgeous it only serves to highlight the horror of what is so lovingly rendered. It’s not without its problems: one of the vilest characters is gender non-conforming in a cultural landscape rife with vilifying depictions of trans, non-binary, and other GNC people, a gay son serves as the sacrificial lamb for the rest of his family’s freedom, leaving a guilt-ridden father to tend to his grieving, catatonic wife.

In a simplistic purview, Unspeakable Things could be seen as a treatise against the acceptance of refugees, but in a more thoughtful, analytical lens, it’s a highlight of our historical failings and missteps, a spotlight on the people we’ve failed to help in the past and a blueprint for how we can be better.

The Marriage Pact by MJ Pullen

Available for purchase here.

“Strong women don’t need validation from anyone.”–I may not actually be a strong woman. To be clear, that’s a commonly repeated quote I see bouncing around on the interwebs, not something culled from the book itself. And at thirty, my life looks markedly different from how little me imagined it. It costs way more than I anticipated, for instance, I don’t have seven children (and don’t even want one) and I’m not married to Taylor Hanson (don’t judge, don’t even pretend you didn’t love him back in the day). Instead, I live paycheck to paycheck, have no kids (although that’s less a lament than a blessing), and am trying to figure out how one goes from being single to not without enduring the horror of dating. Seriously, dating is the worst.

In essence, I have a lot in common with Marci Thompson, protagonist of The Marriage Pact. She’s at an age where conventional wisdom dictates she should have her shit together, but all she really has to show for her life is a crappy apartment and an affair with her married boss.

Of course, Marci ends the novel having got the guy (the handsome childhood friend with whom she made the titular marriage pact), sloughed off the rough edges of her miserable life, and with a lot to look forward to. I don’t anticipate such neat, tidy resolutions for my own woes, because this is chick lit, a predetermined happy ending lurking on the last page of every book of its breed. And this isn’t a scree against chick lit, although a post in defense of it is forthcoming, just a note that some books inspire and some are for escape. This is very much the latter.

Less than ten years ago, most of the chick lit I was reading featured protagonists who had locked down their dream jobs, dream real estate, dream squad goals (or whatever we referred to as squad goals in those halcyon days before hashtagging. What was that? It was friendship? Sounds a little precious, but ok.)

The implied theme was clear–love was the penultimate piece you got in the puzzle of life, preceding only children as you assembled the whole picture. And it was a very linear and locked in sort of thinking that cropped up time and time again, so the fact that Pullen allows her protagonist to be messy and frayed, and maybe even a little bit of a bitch before she ends up with the rich guy–it is a fantasy, after all–is a comforting message. You’re allowed to fall in love, and still be a mess, and to maybe not love or even like yourself very much some days, or have a terrible job, and not have your goals accomplished by 27, and still be the type of dynamic, interesting, worthy person that ends up a character in a book about wish fulfillment.

The Clasp by Sloane Crosley

Available for purchase here.

Guy de Maupassant’s short story The Necklace is potentially the most famous and widely taught pieces of short form literature in the world. I read it for academic purposes no less than eight times in middle school, high school, and college. It’s strange, it retrospect, that there are so few adaptations of it in modern lit, because it is one of the most perfect short stories ever written.

Sloane Crosley’s variation, The Clasp, is less an adaptation as it is an homage. Crosley uses the famous story as framework for her own, female driven work. The Clasp is all about thirty–not only are the central characters approaching that fateful age (which your intrepid blogger also recently conquered), but is also a throwback to the screwball comedies of the actual silver screen thirties. To a one the main characters are witty and well-educated, and the story starts innocuously with everyone reunited at a wedding, flashing back to their “real” lives and their college days, and culminates in a madcap scavenger hunt throughout Europe.

Of the three main characters, Kezia, the sole woman in the trio, is the one with a sense of direction. She’s working for a horrible boss in her chosen career, wanting better but being impressive where she is. While Nathaniel fulfills the role of writer character and Victor literally falls into the central mystery that drives the plot, Kezia’s contribution is germane to her job and provides the crux of the journey.

The fact that the story as a whole is centered around a deeply feminine object (jewelry) and profession (design) serves only to highlight what a force women are in the story. My one gripe was the groom’s mother, one of the greatest characters in the novel and one about whom an entire series could be written. I would have loved to see more of her–perhaps even another book in the works from her perspective.

You Don’t Have to Like Me by Alida Nugent

Available for purchase here.

Lest there be any accusations of nepotism or favoritism, I’ll state right here that not only do I not know Nugent, but she and I are not related by anything other than a common last name, generation, and burgeoning acknowledgment of our places in modern feminism.

Her hilarious first book of essays, Don’t Worry, It Gets Worse, was my first foray into her eminently relatable brand of humor, and here is more of the same, tapping into the zeitgeist of the older Millennial trying to navigate the tenuous world of professional ambition with a foundering job market and the ever present bogeyman of student loans. But hey, at least we can see the humor in it all.

Nugent’s second outing is more focused on how feminism impacts not only her, but the world in general. While reading it, I found myself nodding and even “mm-hmm” ing out loud. While I not only adore but respect feminist work of heft and importance–bell hooks is the greatest gift feminism has given the world and the greatest gift the world gave feminism–they are great leaders and I’m merely a pupil. Nugent is a peer, down in the trenches, a woman of certain privileges, not unlike myself, who needed to examine her worldview inside and out.

She’s also audacious and proud–an entire chapter is devoted to the lipstick she loves and she encourages readers to find their own lipstick, their feel-good ephemera that makes them feel powerful, cool, in control. She pulls apart the rules of feminism and tells them to go and fuck themselves. She talks with candor of her struggles with eating disorders and the occasional necessity of acquiring Plan B if you like sex but aren’t ready for motherhood.

She’s a New Yorker, and like every woman who’s strode down the streets of a major city, she’s experienced harassment. In one harrowing story, she’s saved by the cruder and crueler intentions of a knot of young men with too much freedom and too little idea of consent by quick-thinking passersby. There was a sigh of relief when I got to the end of the chapter and Nugent was unharmed, but it’s a profoundly messed up culture we live in when that’s considered lucky.

While the essays are on feminism, Nugent’s book is about how she grew up to become one, and not a manifesto of the movement as a whole, an important distinction as she’s only here to speak for herself, even while she encourages her readers to seek their own truths. Which is a fantastically feminist thing to do.

Sex Object by Jessica Valenti

Available for purchase here.

Jessica Valenti is one of the most prominent voices in modern feminism. Her earlier work, Full Frontal Feminism, was the book that propelled me from passively considering myself a feminist to making it an active part of my life, my writing, and my worldview. She’s also the co-founder of Feministing, a political and pop culture blog that features analysis and alternative perspectives.

Her memoir takes a step back from the lens of global and social feminism to address her personal experiences with being sexualized from an age so young she barely understood what was happening to her, the double edged sword of being used for sex while shamed for her appearance, her experiences with abortion, and a pregnancy that nearly killed her, being a young mother to a daughter with health issues, the stresses of her marriage and her mental health.

If someone else had written this story, a tale of being masturbated to on the subway, a drug habit that veered dangerously close to addiction, the struggles of having a premature baby, the constant questions of how to best guide her daughter through the difficulty of selective mutism, if someone else had typed this manuscript and presented it to Valenti, or even just told her this story in person, Valenti, so sisterly seeming in her public persona, so proudly and unabashedly feminist, would’ve been supportive and comforting.

In her own story, her words are tinged with self-doubt. It is a particular characteristic of sexual violence–no other crime demands shame from its victims. She recounts her stories not only as they happened, but how she felt in the moment. Where shame is absent, normalcy is abundant. Valenti is among the same generation of women as I am, where it was expected that there would be a certain amount of leering and harassment, as much a part of growing up as other unpleasantries like root canals and menstrual cramps.

I found myself nodding along with many of her youthful experiences. We’re not the same: she’s a gregarious city girl and I grew up an introverted suburbanite, so many of her dealings with men lurking in subways were foreign to me until I was much older than she. But the sum is more important than the parts–we are just two drops in the bucket, sharing the same snippets of our past and present.

I was reading Sex Object on the train one evening, on my way to a magazine launch. When I arrived at my stop, my Uber app stalled, and men lounging on the street corner took the opportunity to get too close, give me “compliments” better left unrepeated, and ask to join me wherever I was going. In my head I was a feminist warrior, articulate and prideful, putting these men in their place and sending them home, cowering and repentant.

In reality, I ducked into the nearest cab, shaken and trying to shrug off my mantle of discomfort so my evening wouldn’t be ruined. (And it wasn’t, primarily because Apiary, the magazine hosting the party, was a hotbed of Black Lives Matter and feminist voices, the perfect antidote to feeling weak and worthless. If you’re in the Philly area, please check them out.) I didn’t engage those men in a torrent of modern feminist rage for one simple reason: there were three of them, each stronger than me. I didn’t want to win, I wanted to escape. I craved safety in a situation that I’d grown up internalizing as “normal”.

But hopefully, for my nieces, my students, my patients, for Valenti’s daughter and her peers, it won’t be.

The Things I Miss

Over Easter weekend I was a wreck. It started on Friday when I drove all over creation looking for culinary lavender buds so I could make this cake courtesy of Red Cottage Chronicles, and yes, it ultimately turned out to be very, very worth it. Saturday I spent the day cleaning and bemoaning the fact that I live like such a slob it’s necessary to deep clean when I have company over. Sunday, of course, was Easter, so I slow cooked a ham, roasted a chicken, and made two kinds of potatoes.

What I did not do this weekend, however, was dye Easter eggs. I didn’t watch the story of Peter Cottontail, or leave flour pawprints on the rug to mark where the Easter Bunny hid his eggs. I haven’t done those things since my youngest sister grew out of her belief, so it’s probably been about 15 years. Christmas and Easter are especially tied to the magic of pretend, and without kids around, they just aren’t as fun. I’m blissfully childfree and intend to remain so, so my childless holidays will remain so for the foreseeable future. I miss the creation of illusion even more than I miss being young enough to buy in.

I find myself now missing the men’s voices from my bookshelf. I reread Neil Gaiman’s short stories whenever I want to immerse myself in a particular brand of magic, and Smoke and Mirrors occupies a prominent place on my bookshelf, from where it’s currently taunting me. He has a new book out this spring, which I will be buying but judiciously avoiding reading until November. I skim the book reviews in Entertainment Weekly for the authors’ names so that I don’t get enchanted by a review for something I’m self-denying for most of the remainder of the year. There has been a notable shift in how I perceive the world without men’s literary voices echoing in my mind.

Not every loss is accompanied by a gain, but this one is. I’ve lost interest in what was once Must See TV–whether it’s a network, cable, or Netflix show, it can wait until morning while I lose myself in the simple pleasure of written words. Reading has become a mindful activity again, in ways it hasn’t been since I was young enough to make pages my only priority.

I’ll be posting a fresh review tomorrow. It’s been too long and I run the risk of falling behind. But if I’m not writing, I’m reading. It’s a good trade off.

Winter and Stars Above by Marissa Meyer

Available for purchase here and here.

I have a somewhat embarrassing affinity for Young Adult Literature. I know I should read whatever I want, critics be damned, but I internalized  the idea that it was immature and frivolous reading. At my local bookstore, I rather shamefacedly had to ask for a copy of Winter because they were in a display, so  I also bought Carrie Brownstein’s memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl to re-establish my cred as a reader of depth (incidentally, check for Brownstein joining my list before summer).

That said, YA literature gets a bum rap for being insubstantial. Even when it’s not as complex as say, Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, YA lit still manages to make strides that more adult and literary fiction should strive for.

Winter is the final of a quartet of books that can best be described as futuristic adaptations of popular fairy tells with a heavy aesthetic from the Japanese anime Sailor Moon. Stars Above is a compendium of short stories that act as mini prologues and epilogues for the series, overall dubbed The Lunar Chronicles.

Each of the four novels focuses on a princess classic expy: Cinder is a cyborg and mechanic enslaved by her stepfamily (Cinderella), Scarlet is a farmer trying to lead a quiet life with her grandmother (Little Red Riding Hood), Cress is a hacker living in isolation in a satellite between Earth and the Moon (Rapunzel), and Winter is a princess with a cruel stepmother who struggles to protect her citizens (Snow White).

Throughout a series of events no less than political intrigue, fantastic racism, and space travel, the four seemingly unconnected young women form a band that aims to restore a throne, destroy a tyranny, and save a planet.

One of the most refreshing things about the series is that while all the female protagonists have love interests, they are A) fully fleshed characters in their own right, B) are motivated by circumstances and interests other than romance, and C) the series as a whole avoids the love triangle trope that so plagues most YA fantasy lit.

The series is also notable for having a diverse main cast–Cinder and Winter are both WOC, although some queer representation would’ve been even more of an intriguing modern twist. Throughout the series the heroines’ divergent personalities and occasionally conflicting goals lead to arguments and frustration, but Meyer respects her readers too much to devolve into “girls are petty”. There are also main characters Iko and Peony, who have stereotypically feminine traits, still considered strong, respected, even beloved characters.

In the same vein of other popular dystopic series, the end resolution ties together all the various storylines while simultaneously giving weight to the losses suffered. Some characters are lost, and some are changed beyond all recognition, and the happily ever after doesn’t gloss over the sacrifices that have been made.

The most important aspect of the series is the manipulation of the convention of damsel in distress. The “princesses” as we know them are not virtuously beautiful or helplessly fragile. Even though their fates have been largely predetermined by the roles society forced upon them at birth, they take on the mantles of their own destiny, and even do some of the rescuing.