The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Available for purchase here.

As a child I envied Harry Potter’s magical abilities, the Pevensie children’s gateway to Narnia, and even Anne Shirley’s freedom to float down the creek in a barge of her own making, the fact that it almost ended in tragedy be damned. As an adult, I envy the fictional characters their financial problems, which can always be resolved within about 300 pages. (And yes, I’m disappointed in myself, too.)

As someone drowning in student debt and trying to fit an adult’s life into a shoestring paycheck, I would be elated to deal with the problems of the Plumb clan, who all have the kind of money problems brought on by an abundance of wealth in the first place. The titular nest is their collective inheritance, which they are months from receiving, and which has been jeopardized by eldest son Leo, who spends the novel chasing validation and other ways to caress his own ego. His sister Bea is the opposite–she’s surviving, but not thriving the way someone with her talent should.

Jack is not quite as spectacular as his siblings, and just smart enough to resent them for it. Melody doesn’t shine, but has no aspirations to, and is all the better off for it, both as a person and a character. She shows the most growth, and has a better grasp of the value of a dollar than any of her siblings. Luckily, of all of them, she’s the only parent, so the kids in the story have the benefit of a well-adjusted parent, at least.

The siblings, all in their forties, are already distant at the start of the novel, but the wedge created by the precarious state of their inheritance only serves to exacerbate the four decades of rivalries and resentments, and it’s in those moments that the average reader finds these would-be millionaires recognizable and relatable. There’s also a great subplot with Melody’s daughter exploring her sexuality that feels organic and real, despite the busyness of the narrative.

Deep into the story, which rotates between all four siblings as well as Melody’s twin daughters pov’s, it becomes clear how members of the uppermost levels of the socioeconomic class are divorced from the reality of money, with no concept of how twenty dollars can mean the difference between staying afloat and drowning. Money is nothing more than a concept to them.

It begs the question of why we are allowing those people control over the economy, but as excellent as The Nest is, it can’t answer everything.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by Kim Barker

Available for purchase here.

To date, while the film adaptation starring Tina Fey piqued my interest in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, I haven’t actually seen it. I don’t know if the movie does justice to Barker’s real life experiences in the Middle East, but I do know that Barker, if anything, undersells the position she was in, working alongside her handlers and private citizens while interviewing Taliban leaders and rural warlords. It’s said that humans can get used to anything, and so it seems, while Barker recounts her time in Afghanistan and Pakistan with the same blasé tone as she recounts her trips back and forth to Chicago, home of the Tribune, which originally dispatched her.

I’m loathe to bemoan the state of media in Western society, but I will concede that the fast pace of news, the availability of multiple sources, the thinkpieces that read as articles, all combine to contribute to shortened attention spans. Barker’s time in Afghanistan, and later Pakistan, occurred at a time when American attention and sensibilities were focused on Iraq (which has been since displaced by Iran and Syria in our cultural consciousness).

Barker does better than to glamorize her chosen profession. For as much as she was in the center of a maelstrom of international affairs, her memoir is as full of waiting as her real life was, epochs marked by long stretches of questioning and self-doubt, even while she gloried in calling Afghanistan her home.

The latter half of the book, which focuses on her time in Pakistan, is less effusive. For all that Westerners lump the entire region into one amorphous culture, it’s clear Barker had a yen for Afghanistan that Pakistan couldn’t offer, but two of her most humanizing anecdotes occur in Islamabad.

The first is when Barker, tired of being groped in Pakistani crowds, an experience she describes as unremarkable and par for the course at the time, gets fed up and grabs and wrenches the wrist of one of her assailants, leaving him whimpering in pain and embarrassment. Perhaps it was an ugly American thing to do–she was warned off doing so numerous times by her handlers–but this ugly American whooped out loud after reading that passage.

The second is Barker’s sense of real, keening grief when she details the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Bhutto was as beloved by Barker as she was her native Pakistan, and reading the story of her death is less an exercise in journalism and more a beautifully detailed description of mourning, even as she highlights the political meaning behind the loss.

A book is not an article, and all the better for that. A book, while still a limited medium, can scratch the surface of the depth and breadth of a culture, and western readers should attempt to add more to their reading lists from the area that’s dominated our new cycle for so long. It’s much greater than mainstream media would want us to believe.

 

Real Artists Have Day Jobs by Sara Benincasa

Available for purchase here.

If you are a patient type of person, you can pace yourself by reading one of Benincasa’s essays every week. 52 essays–a year of quality, no-nonsense examination of life as an artist.

I read this book in a day and a half. Patience may be a virtue, but it’s one I’m sorely lacking, if only because Benincasa is an incredible writer, and if there is such a thing as fate, her book came into my life at a good time. Writer friends of mine are seeing greater and more visible success with their work, while I feel stalled and blocked on mine. Artists are supposed to be collaborative, not competitive, but there’s a greater, human compulsion to compare ourselves with our compatriots, and it’s a struggle when you find yourself lacking.

Which is why Benincasa’s latest venture is a prescription strength cure for Imposter Syndrome, that insistent little voice in the head of everyone who dares to call themselves an artist (maybe other professions, too, I don’t know. I do know I never felt this way claiming myself as a teacher.) Real Artists Have Day Jobs is a reminder that creating art makes you an artist. Not supporting yourself with art, not having it recognized as such, not your first gallery show, publication, record/role/whatever. Most creators of art are working crap jobs with crap hours, living in tiny apartments or with family, and they are no less valid than artists who show at MoMA or write really excellent books.

Benincasa also gets personal, detailing her struggles with mental health and her experiences as being a part of what I call the invisible queer–queer identified people who “read” as straight, and come out over and over again throughout their lives, who have their identities invalidated when they enter certain relationships.

It’s also important to recognize that Benincasa needed to be her age and have her experiences in order to write this book. I felt a keen sense of failure when I turned thirty having not published a book or otherwise made a name for myself as a writer. After 29, nothing we do is really considered precocious or impressive for our ages. Young as I am, I no longer have the benefit of youth.

What I do have, thanks to my widening perspective due to this yearlong sojourn into the world of women writers, is the knowledge that I am ten years more accomplished and interesting than I was at twenty. I can cave under the weight of my lack of accomplishment now, or I can work steadily, knowing that my best is still ahead of me. I choose the latter.

The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood

Available for purchase here.

Given what fondness–and that’s a conservative term for it–millenials have for the four fabulous ladies of the Golden Girls, logic would dictate that other forms of media would follow suit and showcase the lives of older women–we’re all gonna get there one day, hopefully, and we’d all like to believe that the back end of our lives holds more promise than Jell-O, Bingo, and other sad things that end in O.

Alas, Monica Wood’s latest novel, featuring 104 year old Ona Vitkus as the protagonist, is an exception rather than a rule. It’s also heartbreaking–Ona’s life is lonely and quiet, save for the attentions of one young boy trying to earn his scout badges. Into her life he slips, unassuming and a little strange, as all the best people are, and just as quietly slips out, victim of an unknown genetic condition that claims his life on an early spring day.

The boy–always unnamed, a specter across the pages–unifies in death the disparate people in his life–namely, Ona and his estranged parents. In his memory the three combine their efforts to see that Ona achieves as many “Oldest Living Person to…” goals in the Guinness Book of Records, a particular passion of the boy’s and tougher than it seems.

There’s a lot at stake–Ona feels deeply the loss of a boy only given eleven years of life when she’s had a higher than average number to hers, and the flashbacks to her past are heavier with loss than most of us will ever experience. But there’s beauty to her will to push and achieve beyond the scope of her losses. We don’t get to pick our tragedies, and sometimes we don’t even get to pick how we respond, contrary to popular opinion. Loss is loss, and losing someone we weren’t ready to say goodbye to will never be ok. But you can be spurred towards living in their honor, and shouldering your grief with their other loved ones. Immortality is a funny thing. It exists, just not the ways we expect.

Ona’s life before the boy, but after the hardships of her past, is the great fear of all the elderly today and those yet to come. She’s treated as less than a child, even though she’s seen the beginning and end of an entire century. She’s alone and dismissed because she’s no longer vivacious, and if we can’t get ourselves out of the mindset that this is simply the sum total of growing older, it’s our own fate, to our own detriment.

Deadly Persuasion by Jean Kilbourne

Available for purchase here.

I don’t remember how old I was when I first internalized the effect of “not being enough”, mostly because it happened so many times and in so many ways over the course of my girlhood that it took me a long time, in the media saturated culture that virtually all the Gen X and millenial Americans (and those of us who fall in the strange place between) grew up in. It’s not just ads, it’s the movies, books, magazines that all collude with the people who are selling their brand. From the first time I saw a diet ad that taught me thin was good and fat was bad to the regularity of painful beauty products and procedures that would give me the “right” face, clothes, hair, house, shoes, purse, figure, eyebrows, and attitude to be considered worthy, I grew up believing that certain realities of womanhood were fixed and unassailable. And I’m hardly alone.

Advertising is prolific in the modern age, but when men are the target audience the tone of the ad is: “Hey, you’re great and manly. Celebrate how awesome you are with this unnecessarily expensive thing.”, and women’s ads are: “You are lacking. You are a ridiculous and hopelessly naive excuse for a person. Buy this so you can deserve respect and love.” And it’s so pervasive it requires stepping back from our own realities and carefully examining all the ways we’re being groomed to consume before we even have a concept of what money is–at the expense of our physical and mental health.

Jean Kilbourne, who authored Deadly Persuasion way back in 1999, before the birth of social media, makes it clear that advertising isn’t the root cause of addiction: to drugs, alcohol, food, sex, gambling, whatever external factors we are using to fill the holes that drive us to seek outside gratification. Rather, it’s a powerful way to exacerbate the underlying cause and turn it into something that is perilously close to a pandemic. Humans are complex. Who knew?

It’s not enough to empirically understand that there’s a big wallet behind every ad that crosses our paths seeking to fill itself up with our money. It’s about the culture of consumerism, and the underlying values we’re passing on to ourselves and subsequent generations. Staying healthy and working your own particular brand of style are great, but when the entire world is trying to convince you that a slice of chocolate cake is as fatal and forbidden as black tar heroin, we need to stop pretending we’re not playing a part in a culture that profits from women feeling less than.

It’s here that I’d advocate for our daughters, but honestly, the mothers, teachers, aunts, etc. who are setting the example for the girls of tomorrow deserve freedom from that kind of backwards thinking just as much as those who follow us. We are already enough, and we deserve to feel like it.

You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero

Available for purchase here.

Engaging in self-improvement comes from a place of a certain amount of privilege. The kind of books lining the shelves in the self-help section tend to be read by people who are already working from a pretty solid foundation–even if their education, work, and home situations aren’t ideal, they are usually comfortable. Sincero actually acknowledges this, which puts her a mile ahead of most authors in her genre, who tend to write as though their book is the only thing standing between reality and utopia.

Sometimes You Are a Badass takes its titular ethos a little too literally–readers of self-help may not always be in a place to read Sincero’s brash assessment of their mindsets and situations, but her crude humor and language are what made it work for me. It reads as a very tongue in cheek manifesto, aware of its own limitations and how precious some of the ideology can come across. There’s a reason it’s not called You Are a Precious Flower, after all.

Sincero doesn’t ease her readers into her vision–she’s straightforward and direct, all the more impressive because women tend to be the primary readers of self-help, and often get in our own way because things like achievement and accomplishment aren’t considered feminine goals, and we aren’t “nice” when we’re nakedly ambitious. Sincero doesn’t mince words when conveying that we simply need to let go of our biases and prejudices, and see success as a friend, and our right.

Ultimately, there isn’t much here that hasn’t been stated in a thousand other tomes since the inception of self-help as a marketable genre. Sincero offers her own wry twist, and an unconventional attitude, which makes all the difference. The best way to get people to follow conventional wisdom, after all, is all a matter of presentation.

The Benefits of Chick Lit and Other “Girly” Things

How to be a Modern Woman: Wine, complaints about men, yoga pants

So, despite the fact that in the intro to this blog declared that all the books I’m reading for the year must be written by women–no other qualifiers, not genre, length, pedigree, etc.–a friend expressed surprise at some of the fluffier entries on my list. “I thought you were reading feminist fiction,” said Friend. And I realize I set a high bar with Austen and Adichie, as well as important sociological entries detailing feminist theory, but a well-balanced literary diet requires some measure of lighter fare.

We all remember Amy Dunne’s epic takedown of the “Cool Girl” from Gone Girl, right? The “Cool Girl” has all the mannerisms and interests of a typical guy: she loves sports, comic books, beer, and pizza, but she’s also svelte and effortlessly hot. She’s better than a girly girl, who loves shopping, fashion mags, wine, and kale. Except Amy–and Gillian Flynn, the author behind Gone Girlexcoriate the “Cool Girls” for being disingenuous and capitulating to male fantasy. So women can’t have any interests ever, at all, no matter how gendered or neutral said interests are perceived to be.

In the realm of entertainment, so long as it’s harmless, no depth is required of an activity other than bringing some joy or pleasure for people who engage with it. Regardless of how society would prioritize stereotypically masculine interests over feminine ones, there’s no inherent value in watching a football game over an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and yet, a man’s intelligence won’t be questioned for the former while a woman doing the latter is immediately pinged as vacuous.

So, yes, chick lit, which is implicitly formulaic and has the heft and substance of birthday cake, will be showing up on this blog, so long as the author behind it identifies as a woman. Spy novels and political thrillers are treated with a due amount of reverence despite being as by the numbers and implausibly trope-filled as the pinker, more pastel section of the bookstore. Because we value masculine interests over feminine ones, being unabashedly girly is a feminist act.

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 Hanged Man by P.N. Elrod

Available for purchase here.

What if Sherlock Holmes was a woman? What if her inductive powers (not deductive, despite what Sir A.C. Doyle wants us to believe) were a combination of both native intelligence and psychic abilities? What if she managed to save Queen and Country while still making time for the blessed brew?

What if you read The Hanged Man? You’d get the answers to all those questions. And you’d be salivating for more, which is lucky because The Hanged Man is the first of a forthcoming series starring Alexandra Pendlebury, goddaughter to Queen Victoria and enrolled in Her Majesty’s Psychic Service, using her unique abilities to assist in the investigations of murders.

Alexandra’s–or rather, Alex’s–greatest strength is that while being a woman in Victorian society is a major characteristic, it’s not the sole definer of her role in the story. Alex has far worse to worry about other than gender stereotypes–she’s embroiled in a murder case that hits far too close to home and her involvement leads to her being targeted by villainous forces.

It can’t be a coincidence that of all the periods of British history, Elrod sets her story under the reign of Queen Victoria, notable not only for her own place in history as a powerful monarch, but for the time itself being the era that history would eventually recognize as the first wave of feminism. It’s what enables the character of Alex to fit so seamlessly into the setting but feel so incredibly modern.

Alex is, as typical for a real life Victorian detective, a soul alone among the men, but Elrod gives her fascinating women characters to surround herself with, both as friends and foils. Even bit characters get little pellets of rich characterization–a passing acquaintance who brings Alex a change of clothes has the foresight to bring her a few necessary items, for instance. As the series progresses, I can’t wait to see more from Miss Pendlebury’s intriguing life.

Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

Available for purchase here.

Susannah Cahalan is alive today because she couldn’t draw the numbers on a clock.

In her early twenties, Cahalan, a woman emblematic of youthful American success–well-educated, ambitious, working as a journalist, living in New York, recently embarked on a serious relationship–started having memory lapses, hallucinations, episodes of rage and violence that led to her institutionalization, with the going theory being psychosis or schizophrenia.

To call Brain on Fire a memoir could be a bit misleading–Cahalan’s account of her disease, diagnosis, and recovery is largely informed by her family and friends, as well as Cahalan’s accounts of taped interviews she watched without recalling. She has enormous chunks of memory missing from her time in the hospital, waiting to discover the cause and cure for the erratic symptoms that sent her life into a downward spiral.

The importance of advocacy when it comes to mental health is beyond words. While many of Cahalan’s symptoms were textbook for a diagnosis of schizophrenia, many could not be so easily explained and were glossed over. Only because she so ardently did not fit the profile for schizophrenia, and because her family advocated so passionately on her behalf, did Cahalan live to become a major advocate for others with her condition, ultimately coined by Dr. Josep Dalmau, as anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis.

It was another doctor, Souhel Najjar, who first thought to give Cahalan the clock test, a diagnostic tool used primarily for patients with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. When she lumped numbers 1-12 on one side of the clock face, it was the clue doctors needed to eventually deduce that half her brain was swollen, and she was perilously close to death.

Though expensive, Cahalan’s treatment was ultimately straightforward, and today she’s one of the leading awareness raisers of the autoimmune disorder that almost cost her life. It’s sobering to consider how many other Cahalans out there died because they were poor, or uninsured, or lacked support. Even in the early stages Cahalan was accused of “partying too much”.

With this book, though, and her testimony, those who find themselves lacking her resources now have one in her. The more we speak about health, especially the aspects that have been stigmatized by society, the few tragedies will come of a system that’s quick to both dismiss and fail its patients.