The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

Available for purchase here.

Veblen is messy, complicated, strange, and very stuck in the mire of a world that doesn’t value her artful, sensitive nature. She’s also about to marry Paul, who’s the picture perfect son–a neurologist drawing a contract from the Department of Defense. He’s successful, upwardly mobile, and in all other ways the picture of American ambition, which would be emblematic of his excellence for almost every other set of parents in the world.

Unfortunately, Paul’s parents are pot growers and nudists who eschewed modern American society to raise their son with hippie values–the type of people who would be proud parents to Veblen, chronically underemployed and blissfully happy with a simple life unmarked by “conspicuous consumption”, a term coined by the philosopher from whom her name derives.

Veblen’s own mother is an overbearing hypochondriac who domineers every aspect of her daughter’s life. She has an opinion about everything, and as the wedding draws closer so too does Paul, who’s beginning to see his future wife’s quirks less as evidence of her charms and more as a roadblock to their future.

Small wonder, then, that Veblen begins talking to the squirrel in her attic, the bane of Paul’s existence but an extremely unlikely ally in her increasingly complicated and anxiety-inducing life.

The Portable Veblen is abound with unanswered questions. When does a quirk become a serious problem? What are the ethics involved when healing trauma with surgery instead of psychiatry? Who are we when we’re separated from our families?

Some of these questions are ones I’ve been wrestling with for a long time, others were brought up in ways I didn’t consider. That’s the beauty of a story that doesn’t tell its readers what to think, merely that they should be thinking.

And that we should, from time to time, consider the counsel of our friendly neighborhood squirrels to get some perspective.

The Big Rewind by Libby Cudmore

Available for purchase here.

There’s a lot to mock about hipsters. They (we) are aggressively ironic, nostalgic, and pretentious in their (our) passions. They (we) are overly precious about their (our) art and politics. Also, I promise to stop pretending not to be a hipster now.

Yes, I prefer the funky coffeehouse in my small town with its floral accented lattés and local artist displays to Starbucks. Not everybody has heard of my favorite band (although shame on them if they haven’t, because they are missing out). And music really does sound better on vinyl.

Hipsterdom is, in part, a reaction to the fact that my generation has been essentially priced out of the previous generation’s glossy, lavish lifestyle (see, Sex and the City) that was held up as the gold standard of success. So we took the leftovers and made them funky, cool, desirable. And Cudmore’s The Big Rewind is a love letter to the ethos of Brooklyn’s art and music scene.

In essence, Cudmore’s book is actually a murder mystery, with her hero Jett Bennett being embroiled in searching the history of her neighbor KitKat after she receives a cassette in the mail meant for the latter, and discovers KitKat dead in her kitchen.

The mixtape, as it turns out to be, not only provides clues to KitKat’s mystery-shrouded personal life but triggers a trip down romance lane for Jett. Every song is linked to epoch of KitKat’s past and a man from Jett’s. When she’s spurred to seek out her old flames, Jett learns more about herself and her past–and her needs–all while trying to exonerate KitKat’s boyfriend, the police’s prime suspect.

Some of the great feminist points in the novel are when Jett calls out a catty misogynist for using feminism as a front for her cruelty, a stripper being fully fleshed out and presented as a real human character, Jett’s friend Sid being set up to fall into a Nice Guy trap but swerving into genuine nice guy territory, the implied incarceration of KitKat’s boyfriend due to his race,  and Jett herself learning to leave the past behind.

Her personal past. Not vinyl. Vinyl rules.

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 Turner House by Angela Flournoy

Available for purchase here.

One million is a statistic. Our puny human brains can’t comprehend the enormity of one million lives, one million tragedies, one million complex existences. So when trying to capture the spirit and sacrifices of a city like Detroit, Angela Flournoy tells her story through the lens of the Turner family, dynastic in their world of Yarrow Street, generations folding upon each other so that sisters are raised by brothers, cousins are mingled together, and the theme of family thickens the page with characters so real and relatable it’s easy to forget this is a work of fiction.

Unlike many works that use money–or the absence thereof–to drive the plot, Flournoy’s use of money and property, in the form of the house the Turner family patriarch, has real and relevant meaning for the characters. Loss does not mean new paths for them to forge or an absence of opportunity, loss means debt and struggle and homelessness for various members of the Turners, as real and concrete as it is for the majority of readers.

The story of Detroit is told through each generation–the family patriarch eking out a solitary living in the burgeoning Motor City while his wife lingered behind in their small Southern town, raising children with little money and less help while he experiences the Northern response to segregation. When his disillusionment with his fabricated bachelorhood come crashing down, he retrieves his family and starts a new life in earnest.

His children grow up in the strong working class that defined mid 20th century America. The older children never want for work, even as the younger experience the effects of white flight, when the city’s white residents take their families and their tax dollars to the cardboard cutouts of newly created suburbs, plunging Detroit into a self-contained depression that’s exacerbated by the recession era economy faced by the third generation.

Flournoy knows, though her characters do not, that now, halfway through the second decade of the 21st century, that Detroit is experiencing a renaissance. Her characters deal with not only their personal struggles cocooned in slings of secrecy but also representing the culture of an entire region and country at large. When they finally divest themselves of their weaknesses, their sources of shame, they begin to lean on each other, become stronger, and end with hope.

Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat

Available for purchase here.

Continuing my reviews of short stories from yesterday, Danticat’s collection of stories culled from the brutal revolution era of Haiti read more like poetry than prose. She manages to make prison, death, and exile the stuff of fairy tales, all the more poignant because the brutality is caused not by trolls and dragons but by mere mortals.

How Danticat manages to find the beauty in the brutality is something to marvel at, but she finds it, and grants her characters an almost maternal tenderness that their real-life counterpoints would’ve ached for. Each story is a self-contained miracle, strung along in the greater narrative and referencing each other, but still existing whole and separate from each other.

The most heartbreaking story is at the end, not the tale of the drowned refugee, or the mother concealing her profession from her son, the woman and daughter struggling with prison, the tiny corpses mistaken for living children, but the story of the modern young woman living in New York, a consummate American in all but title, for whom her mother’s stories and traditions are nothing more than an affectation, sometimes embarrassing, sometimes endearing, but always old-fashioned and unnecessary.

It’s both a tragedy and a triumph when the subsequent generations are able to relegate their painful histories to the realm of school lessons and and mythological stories. All the pain and sacrifice becomes worthwhile, and also marks the end of the suffering. But there is no appreciation, no real life respect, for what the mothers and fathers of today went through to bring us to our modern lives, not unless they take the time to heed the words of a truly gifted storyteller.

Danticat’s title comes from the Haitian tradition of asking a group if they want to hear a story (Krik?) for the audience to respond that they do (Krak!). There’s an elegance to using the traditional structure to tell the stories of people who are rarely heard in mainstream America. The title itself demands that we pay attention to what we can’t be allowed to forget.

The Great Hunger by Kitty Shields

Can be read here.

I’ve been so focused on long form literature for this project that I’ve been neglecting my favorite beloved genre–the short story. Crafting one of these requires all the skills of a novelist with the added restraint of minimal word counts. There are a lot of bad short stories out there.

Luckily, there are also some great ones, and “The Great Hunger” is one of them. In short order it subverts every trope and expectation that it introduces. In a dark fantasy that almost has a vampiric villain as a given, Shields draws on lesser known and (to my mind) more compelling folklore to give her story more flavor and venom. She uses lush, sexually charged language when discussing anticipated violence, and the result is profoundly, deliberately disturbing.

That “The Great Hunger” takes place among real historical events–mass Irish immigration and quarantine on American shores–is more noteworthy than ever given the current political climate. We have ample historical examples of the danger of allowing people to be corralled and categorized based on some arbitrarily chosen facet of their identity. Shields alludes to the harsh conditions faced by the Irish in 19th century America. The true horror of the story is how close we are to having it happen again.

Sexism in America by Barbara J. Berg

Available for purchase here.

Berg’s piece examines the postfeminist society that the mainstream patriarchy likes to claim we live in, but she sheds light on how women are still being held back in both professional and public spaces. It speaks to not only the achievements of second wave feminism but the pervasive undermining of such since their inception.

Berg makes some excellent points, but she examines Sexism in America from an extremely mainstream feminist viewpoint. Much is made of the glass ceiling and the importance of women in the workplace, the hypersexualization of women and girls, the pinkwashing of anything deemed feminine, and other problems faced by women who are straight, cisgender, abled, educated, and white. I personally fall into most of those categories, and I see the echoes of my own privilege in almost every discussion of feminism–and I’m painfully aware of how the narrative excludes me from the category that doesn’t apply.

We obviously can’t fit every story into every book, but the importance of women excelling in patriarchal power structures is vastly overrated. If we assimilate into the same systemic structure we claim to be fighting, we’re just putting a prettier, pinker package on patriarchy.

Some pages are devoted to women of color and queer women, but always framed by how their experience differs from that of straight, white women. It’s a false dichotomy, and defines people by what they are not.

Berg raises many salient points in her work, well documented sources that should not be dismissed. But intersectionality is not only missing from the text, it would go a long way towards remedying many of the problems she sheds light on.

The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips

Available for purchase here.

Josephine and Joseph are a married couple not quite skating by, living in a suburb and searching relentlessly for work. Luck smiles upon them in the form of two basic office jobs, filling out filing numbers and forms in boxy offices with not much space and even less natural light. The work is uninspiring and monotonous, but it’s work, and it enables the J’s to bring home a regular paycheck. As their finances strengthen, however, their marriage falters. Joseph becomes distant, and Josephine is increasingly bemused by her bizarre workplace, where she seems to interact with no supervisors yet they seem to know her every move.

Mild spoilers ahead.

The further into her workplace Josephine investigates the more the slice of life story takes a more sci-fi twist. Her family and in-laws are only mentioned in passing, she and Joseph are new to their neighborhood, effectively isolated in their home and work lives. Despite the increasingly fantastical elements, the story begins to suggest a reality for most Americans during their working years–the job is the priority, demanding the most time and attention from individuals, not because we want it that way, but because that’s the cost of maintaining our lives, and that makes The Beautiful Bureaucrat almost painfully real. The story goes on to illustrate just what a stranglehold our workplaces have on every aspect of modern life.

Josephine and Joseph have a happier reconciliation than most real life couples, after a protracted period where they discover they are cogs in the machine that literally plays God, they decide to accept the role the unseen corporate higher-ups play in their lives and head out to a life of blissful acquiescence. The end is a more upbeat but no less ominous echo of 1984, this time with mega-corporate monoliths taking the place of the government. Reality offers an even more chilling blend of the two.

Much like 1984 was brought to fruition instead of heeded as a warning, the signs are around us that we have been dulled into complacency, believing it’s easier to let the wealthy and powerful dictate our lives on both macro and micro scales.

It would be. Easier, but not better. Easier, but not safer, Easier, but with us less happy, less fulfilled, less human. Easier, and more bureaucratic.