Vivian Apple at the End of the World by Katie Coyle

Available for purchase here.

Imagine for a moment that the Westboro Baptist Church had major political power. That the “divine fusion” of spirituality and capitalism that fuels the megachurches of men like Joel Osteen were the majority. Children are actively kept out of school for fear of exposing them to secular teachings, girls marry young and get pregnant within seconds of the vows. Racism, sexism, and homophobia are considered virtuous.

It’s not hard to imagine, because between rampant police shootings, permissive sentences for convicted rapists, and bigoted, bullying laws that prohibit people from using almost any service, up to and including public bathrooms, because of their sexuality or gender identity, Katie Coyle’s novel Vivian Apple at the End of the World feels like nothing so much as the extreme logical endpoint for where our society is headed.

There’s a lot to like about Vivian Apple. The title protagonist is partying away on “Rapture Eve” with her fellow skeptics, dancing with other teenagers and toasting the strike of midnight, assuming that when the new day dawns and the world remains as it was, her parents and the rest of the world will disavow their cultlike fanaticism with the fictional Church of America and she can slip back into a semblance of normalcy.

When she gets home, Vivian discovers that her parents are gone and there are holes in her ceiling. News begins to pour in–the Rapture has apparently happenedon a significantly smaller scale than the Church’s devotees had planned, and the rest of the country is left to pick up the pieces. Some hunker down with renewed zealotry, some philosophize, some plunge into a second coming of Caligula’s court, while a final few continue a strong strain of denial and disavowal that the world has changed.

Vivian, lifelong meek girl defined by her good grades and 10 star rating on the parental likability scale, is tired of the world gone mad. She pairs up with her recently acquired best friend, Harp, a character that smashes about a thousand and a half stereotypes, and a boy with the most beautiful blue eyes (this is a YA novel, after all) who has insider information about the upper echelon of the Church.

The ensuing road trip takes the trio on a literal quest through the US, and a philosophical one on the nature of love, mortality, morality, motherhood, and our place in the world. It sets up a real stunner of a sequel hook while being a fully contained story in and of itself. But in a world where a 70 year old toddler brags about not paying his billionaire business taxes to thunderous applause from working class supporters, a man who opposes the very existence of most Americans and pushes for the continued and extreme marginalization of the already marginalized, who could become our president, it reads a lot like horror.

 

I’m Judging You by Luvvie Ajayi

Available for purchase here.

I’m an atheist and have been for about ten years, but it’s hard to deny the spark of the divine in Luvvie Ajayi. An ad for her book popped up on my Facebook feed several months ago, with a blurb featuring my imaginary fairy godmother Jenny Lawson extolling her virtues, and if Awesomely Luvvie wasn’t a thing I’d have spent the summer languishing with need.

Luvvie Ajayi is a magnificent force. She hates kitten heels. She extracts pop culture moments from major political events and peels back the layers of pop culture moments to reveal the underlying political significance. She toys with language on a Shakespearean level and when English fails to provide the necessary oomph she creates new words. She’s the Sophia Petrillo for the social media age, only instead of being the Italian grandma we never had she’s the wise friend we’ve always needed. She judges us because she cares.

Ajayi wants us to be better people, whether we’re attempting to navigate the murky waters of dating while dealing with the stupidity-inducing haze of really good sex, or while we’re trying to dismantle the patriarchy or take our society beyond the stagnant waters of white supremacy. She speaks only her truth but excoriates her readers to understand that all women cannot speak for each other. She calls out a society that sees Europe as a rich, diverse continent where a plethora of languages and cultures converge, but sees Africa as a monolith–or worse, a country. She even uses her nickname of Lovette (Luvvie) instead of Ifeoluwa because she tired of tongues that can manage names like Galifianakis butchering hers.

Ajayi, despite the solemnity of her subjects, is fun. She made me laugh out loud during an essay on institutional racism. She chastises those who would consider doing exactly what she’s railing against with the exasperation of the mom friend who is capital-D Done. She uses her social media acumen to turn the online community into a desirable place to be–oh Universe, grant into the hands of every teenage girl I’ve ever taken care of a copy of I’m Judging You.

Ajayi calls herself to task as often as she does others. She is a woman of enormous accomplishment, and with such, a concurrent level of responsibility and a certain level of privilege. She quotes Luke (the book of the Bible, not Skywalker): “To whom much is given, much is required.” and takes the lesson imparted to heart. She judges herself, and us, because we as individuals and a society, deserve to be the best versions of ourselves. Reading this book is a good start on that journey.

Life in Motion by Misty Copeland

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Ballet is a beautiful art form, despite my near philistine level of ignorance of the nuances surrounding a dance or workshop. I don’t know a plié from a jeté, and if pressed to critique a performance I’d fall short. So my interest in Misty Copeland is purely from the aspect that she is a breaker of barriers. She’s the first Black principal dancer for a major American ballet company, and her memoir chronicles the story that brought her to such a feat.

In many ways the fact that Copeland still had the opportunity to be the first African American dancer in 2015 is a telling barometer for where our country stands regarding equality, for those readers who haven’t been convinced by the epidemic of civilian murders at the hands of police.

Ballet is classically known as a rarefied art form. Those who can attend performances take pride in the exclusivity of their club, which is one of the many ways in which it’s problematic. Another is chronicled in Copeland’s memoir: the physically punishing demands the dance makes of the body. Copeland describes having the “perfect ballet” body until her very late onset of puberty, and the pressures put on her to lengthen (read: lose weight) her body after the normal flux of hormones caused her breasts and hips to sprout.

These are personal grievances against the culture of the dance, for the record, not a slam against Copeland or the incredible amount of work she’s put in to mastering her craft or achieving her high rank. A dancer tapped to perform with Prince and who has been credited with bringing ballet to the masses who may otherwise never have a chance to discover the majesty is a force to be reckoned with, not an emblem of my own reticence.

Copeland’s life started out in reduced circumstances. She grew up with a rotating cast of stepfathers and moved from house to house with her many siblings while her mother struggled to provide for them. One of the great joys of her memoir is learning that, while famous, Copeland is not alone among her siblings in achieving success, and they are doing extremely well for themselves.

Copeland learned that she was a natural dance talent while taking classes at an after school center, where she dazzled her teachers with the speed with which she mastered her classes. Over the remainder of her teen years she attended workshops and camps where she distinguished herself amid dancers with double and triple her years of training. She even resided with one of her teachers for a long stretch of time so she could follow a more rigorous dance curriculum, an offer made after her teacher saw the cramped circumstances Copeland was living in one night after class.

This, more than any other passage, highlights our social problem with perceived merit. Copeland’s dance teacher was horrified at the idea of her star pupil being crammed into a tiny flat with her siblings, but where was that compassion for her siblings? Where was the influx of support for the children who were just as young and in need of a leg up but hadn’t yet displayed a remarkable–some would say exploitable–gift? How many children are being denied the opportunity to develop the skills that will earn them self-reliance because we don’t see it? Why do we demand that the people who struggle with poverty prove they deserve a shot while those born in the upper echelons are presumed to belong there?

This is not a question of how many Misty Copelands have we deprived ourselves of because of the arbitrary standard of “merit”, but how many of those who weren’t remarkable athletes or artists have we condemned to a cycle of poverty because we couldn’t make a buck off their talents. This is an acknowledgment that young Misty deserved healthy food and a safe place to spend her afternoons regardless of her talent. This is a call to do better.

 

Bad(ass) Feminist by Roxane Gay

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There are some books that I feel flat-out unqualified to read. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace has been eight pounds of big, blue judgment haunting my bookshelf for ages. And Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay has been staring me down from my nightstand for over a year, taunting me with its sleek font. “You’re not worthy of reading this.” said the cover. I was aware of its cultural importance as a book, and had only just learned of the panache of the woman behind it. So I let my own insecurities curtail my interest. It’s a bad habit of mine.

It’s a shame I existed for so long in that paradigm of needless self-deprivation, because for all her serious academic acumen and brilliant analysis of cultural issues both serious and frothy, Gay is eminently down-to-earth and relatable. Hard to imagine a woman on earth who can’t find a way to connect with her, while she debates the merits of pink (and traditional femininity in general–Gay is an unabashed girly girl who loves fashion and once live-tweeted the September issue of Vogue) or calls out the centering of white voices in stories about people of color *cough*The Help*cough*.

In Bad Feminist, Gay calls out the feminist movement and herself as a feminist. Neither are perfect, and the former is riddled with problematic history and tactics that persist to this day, in our supposed age of enlightenment. And no one feminist is a “good feminist”. I can count the ways in which I could be accused of hindering the movement: I shave my legs, I wear makeup, I chose a traditionally feminine career, I am absolute shit with money and all things regarding cars–fixing them, maneuvering clogged highways, parallel parking them, etc. On that last front, I apologize to all women everywhere who had some sexist male in their life use my personal crappiness as justification for some form of casual misogyny that they leave like slug slime in their wake.

The point is, which Gay makes so clear so well in the breadth of essays in Bad Feminist, is that a movement comprised of people, is inherently flawed, because we are inherently flawed. And we could strive for perfection in ourselves and our philosophy, which is an admirable but pointless cause, or we can simply try to be better. Better, like listening to women of color and making sure we (white feminists) add our voices to their concerns. Better, like not allowing affable men to hide behind their veils of likability when they rape women. Better, like calling out microaggressions when we hear them instead of allowing a “nice” person to slide because they “mean well”.

We can also be better by not letting a book’s pedigree intimidate us, but that might really be more of a me problem. What can I say? I’m a Bad Feminist.

 

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad

Available for purchase here.

Wow, was this book ever brutal to get through. It reads more like a memoir to the teenage years I’d rather forget, the days when unsolicited sexual attention, both in real life and the burgeoning, hazy scape of cyberspace, was something I responded to positively, both because I thought I should be grateful for it because I was big and awkward (Barb from Stranger Things spoke to me on a spiritual level), and because sexuality was something I was still acclimatizing myself to owning.

Now, my teenage years are not something I think about on the day to day. My current friends, habits, hobbies, and work are far richer and more prescient–although my paycheck is disturbingly similar. But within pages of Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, those feelings came rushing back, and I felt seventeen again, not in the good way like when I listen to Green Day, but in the frail, insecure way that made me wonder if anyone would ever find me worthy of taking notice of.

Lizzie, the protagonist, has the story of her teen years and early to middle womanhood told in thirteen vignettes, some from her perspective, some from friends, family, and lovers. Her actual weight is never mentioned–one entire chapter is from the perspective of a drunk wannabe rock star with Nick Cave ambitions and a lack of equivalent talent who refers to her as “The Fat Girl”–but it’s somehow the most important thing about her. She lives in the suburbs, her job is uninspiring, her ambition is to be thin.

The closer she gets to thinness, the less of a person she becomes. Food becomes less of a source of pleasure, the things that once gave her joy are secondary to her regiment of eating and exercising. No matter what though, she’s defined by her weight, either its presence or the threat of its return. Any western woman between ages 16 and 60 would be hard-pressed to not find a sliver of herself within Lizzie’s story.

The story ends with neither hope nor condemnation. Lizzie is not here to shame or inspire, she’s simply existing within her own purview, and the whole world feels the need to weigh in. It’s a mirror to how we perceive both ourselves and each other, and it’s not a pretty sight.

I’m Just a Person by Tig Notaro

Available for purchase here.

Sometimes I feel like a walking garbage heap of a human being. This feeling usually surfaces while I’m reading the memoir of a contemporary woman, one who has spent our equivalent time on earth seeing the world, creating art, and fighting for the rights of humanity while I’ve spent that same time acquiring massive student debt and failing to master parallel parking. Yes, I can also throw myself a mad pity party.

Then there are memoirs like Tig Notaro’s, which details not her accomplishments (star of comedy, podcast, film, and music, not to mention her recently released Amazon series One Mississippi, which I binged over the weekend, thankyouverymuch), but rather the brief period of her life when she was assaulted with personal tragedy every time she turned around.

To wit: she was diagnosed with Colistridium difficile, a bacterial intestinal infection that can range from uncomfortable to fatal (Notaro’s nearly killed her), breast cancer showed up to attack while her immune system was still compromised, and her relationship was falling apart. And then, the ultimate tragedy, from which no medical treatments could rescue her–a freak accident claimed her mother’s life.

Notaro deserves a medal and a standing ovation for still standing after all she managed to pack into her 200 plus page memoir, and she exhibits enormous kindness towards the important people in her life, even as she bares open and dissects her complicated relationships with them in order to make some semblance of sense of her life.

She’s also bracingly honest. She treats herself as a character in her own story, and bares open her own flaws–the beginning concerns a lot of her early childhood, where she ditched school and ultimately dropped out, while still caring for her hard-partying mom.

I was raised to believe that the airing of dirty laundry spoke poorly of the one shaking the sheets, but I grew up to be a writer. Words are powerful and important. When written down, they are meditative and long-lasting, giving a voice to lived experience and creating a community across space and time, a collection of letters that let us know we are not alone and others are hearing us, listening, empathizing. Notaro’s words will prove healing for generations to come, but it is her unique voice that saved her from succumbing to the tragedies she was surrounded by. It’s important to share a story for the sake of others, but it’s equally important to speak for your own sake.

Bone Black by bell hooks

Available for purchase here.

If you only read one bell hooks book in your lifetime, first of all, don’t talk to me. Don’t talk to my friends, and in the event I ever buy nice clothes, don’t talk to my dry cleaner. But assuming you are a person who has a strict one book per author limit, Bone Black is not the bell hooks for you. Her most famous work is Feminism is for Everybody, but if asked for a personal recommendation, the one that changed my life is All About Love. Either of these would be better, as would her numerous other works, but not because Bone Black is lacking in either quality or beauty, but because the lens through which it must be read can’t be fully appreciated without understanding the important role bell hooks has played in shaping the core feminist movement.

bell hooks frequently writes in such a way that makes reality more magical than the realms of Hogwarts and Narnia, and though she’s writing through the framework of adulthood, academia, and the shifting paradigms of time itself, hooks identifies so cleanly and clearly with her child-self, and children in general, especially with her own foibles and temerity that ousted her completely from fitting the mold of proper sixties girlhood, that she unveils, without ever stating it, how one small twist of fate could’ve turned her into a woman like her mother, trapped and tragic, serving the needs of a man who had no consideration for hers.

How many fine minds and hearts have we lost to just such casual cruelty? There’s no way to overstate the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement, and their goal to end police violence towards communities of color, but our society is inherently flawed in how we structure human worth around a given system of race, class, sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and the myriad smaller ways that elevate certain people above others for something absent of merit.

People born at the top of the pyramid are presumed worthy, those holding it up must prove their worth, and we accept this as function of a society that prizes equality when nothing could be less equalizing. bell hooks may have a singular mind, but what other talents and gifts have we as a society deprived the world of because they existed in someone we felt didn’t warrant opportunity?

hooks had some advantages–she was taught to see her black skin as beautiful and regal, even knowing society did not. But it was hooks herself, her strong sense of determination and self-advocacy, that placed her on the trajectory that lead her–and us–to a revitalized and revolutionary way of thinking about ourselves and our place in the world.

 

The Never Weres by Fiona Smyth

Available for purchase here.

Minor spoiler: the buoyant tone of Fiona Smyth’s The Never Weres pretty much establishes from page one that the dystopic setting is destined for a happy ending. It’s riddled with charm and a satisfying amount of quirk for a graphic novel that deals with a reproductive crisis, genetic cloning, and mythic camps where responsible parents send their children to prepare for the troubles brewing in the immediate future.

At the heart of the story are three city kids: Mia, a gentle artist whose family is wary of the liability her sweet and generous nature will prove to be, Xian, an orphan whose brother/caregiver is a planet away, leaving her to roam the city in search of materials for her science experiments, and Jesse, a budding geneticist hoping to follow in the footsteps of his brilliant but distant mother.

The teens are the youngest and final generation of humanity, living in a post-virus world which has all but condemned them to witness the last days of the human race, but they remain hopeful, Jesse and Xian devoted to their scientific pursuits and Mia entwined in her dual passions of art and community service, spending most of her afternoons with the elderly Mrs. C.

Of the many ways that The Never Weres hits all the feminist high marks–fully fleshed female characters, male characters who aren’t intimidated by powerful women, a diverse ethnic makeup of a major city, full marks on the Bechdel Test–one of the greatest ways is the way traditional male and female archetypes are treated: Mia is the most stereotypically feminine, Xian is fairly masculine, and Jesse falls somewhere in the middle, yet all of them are equally important to both the story and the resolution–and no one is made out to be less than for not fulfilling their predetermined archetypes.

The salvation of the human race turns out to be found within scientific endeavors, inspired by artistic ones, and made possible by an act of (non-romantic) love. It’s also in the hands of the youngest generation–much like real life. And I’m pretty confident in the teens of today, given how much passion they show despite how routinely they’re criticized for being lazy and entitled. Especially if they read The Never Weres.

The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff

Available for purchase here.

There’s a thought experiment involving monkeys, a banana, and a ladder that highlights the absurdity of following tradition for tradition’s sake. Taking it literally would be a mistake, but the moral is that we often go through life without examining our behavior, and end up going against our own best interests in the process.

Enter Deshi, a thoroughly unremarkable young man living in northern China whose equally unremarkable older brother (though the jewel of their parents’ eyes) is killed, and in a convoluted way, Deshi is held responsible. His mother sends him to acquire a “ghost bride” for the dearly departed, an old custom wherein a recently deceased young woman is symbolically wed to a late groom so that they will be spiritually whole in the next world.

In his journey south to find an appropriate bride, Deshi fails to find a woman who meets the standards that will exonerate his guilt and redeem him in the eyes of his parents. He finally finds the perfect woman in the form of Lily Chen, who is problematically very much alive.

Lily is the only child of a man who would stifle his daughter under the weight of traditional gender roles, and seizes the opportunity to take the reins of her life by taking the reins of Deshi’s mule and fleeing the oppression of her father’s house. It should be noted that Lily has no idea that Deshi’s idea for her future are even worse than what’s in her past.

Lily is irrepressible and freewheeling. She could easily be interpreted as a manic pixie dream girl, but instead, she represents the possibilities of a society unimpeded by irrelevant conventions, while the parents are the dogmatic adherence to the current social mores. Deshi, poor soul, is strung between them, besotted by Lily and stayed by his own morality, but tempted by the rewards inherent in playing the role of dutiful son. The end isn’t happy, it’s just the best of what can be expected.

As a side note, I am someone moderately obsessed with skull imagery and the art for The Undertaking of Lily Chen is achingly gorgeous.

Sleepwalking by Meg Wolitzer

Available for purchase here.

When Meg Wolitzer released The Interestings (pick up that pilot, Amazon!), I fell instantly in love. She’s one of the authors I can actually list when I’m asked what my favorite book is (although why people use the singular is beyond me), and I stumbled upon this rerelease of one of her earliest novels while spending a perfect rainy day wandering the aisles of Barnes and Noble (bliss).

Swarthmore College is home to gifted intellectuals, old buildings, beautiful trees and the three notorious “death girls”, young women who are each fascinated by a gifted but troubled poet–Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Lucy Asher, the latter of whom is as fictional as Claire Danziger, the primary death girl of the narrative, who finds herself drawn deeper and deeper into the the brief life of her idol, pulling her away from her friends and her schoolwork, as well as a blossoming new relationship.

To be honest, Claire’s boyfriend is the least interesting thing about her, and could be lifted right out of the book without damaging the story at all–it might even improve. He has shades of the dreaded Nice Guy syndrome: Claire treats him pretty horribly, but he in turn keeps imposing upon her the normal girl behavior he’d like her to display, while she’s been upfront that she’s gloomy, quiet, and reserved.

More compelling is the symbiosis between Claire and Lucy Asher,  too young to be a contemporary of Plath or Sexton, but just as darkly brilliant, just as tragically gone. Claire’s obsession with her leads to finding a job with the Asher family under false pretenses, but Claire is just the logical extreme of a society that implicitly loves it when our stars burn too brightly. We romanticize the tragic loss of a brilliant life cut short, imposing a beauty that doesn’t exist.

In her time with the Ashers, Claire begins to see both herself and Lucy for who they really are–women confronted with the reality of life and the bleakness inside them, both trying so very hard to cope with the darkness they face. Lucy, unable to articulate her fears and needs, was ultimately beyond help, but Claire’s time with her family proves healing not only for Claire, but for Lucy’s parents. It’s the greatest lesson we can learn from the tragic loss of suicide–how to prevent it from happening again.