The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

Available for purchase here.

A family patriarch who made his wealth in the private sector, hated by his employees and subordinates, notorious for his vicious temper, an unabashed rapist and known abuser, who turns to Conservative politics in his later years. Oh, and his last name starts with T-R-U.

I’m fully convinced in light of reading this in 2016 that Isabel Allende had psychic powers. Or, more likely, the tendency of history to repeat itself and the archetypical personalities associated with those who have an unbridled lust for power are as unchanging as the path of the Earth around the sun.

Allende’s story is a saga of the rise and fall of the Trueba family in a country that’s totally not Chile, chronicling the trends, movements, and mores of the ever-changing culture of the twentieth century. All the points are hit: two World Wars, the spread of first-wave feminism, communist ideology, a peaceful revolution, the underpinning of the accomplishments of the masses by the wealthy one percent, a military coup, the brutality of the regime. The House of the Spirits would be a grim read if its primary focus weren’t the rich lives of its women characters, both their magical prowess and the more earthly matters which concern them. They are rich in their passions, diverse in their characters, and blissfully faulty, real despite the fantasy that blurs the edges of their world.

The House of the Spirits was born in a letter from Allende to her aged grandfather, and inspired by her own life, twinned with political exile and her friendship with such key figures as Pablo Neruda, of whom the unnamed Poet is a clear expy.

Ideology ebbs and flows, but extremism is a fundamental human flaw, and in the United States is reaching its own tipping point. Every four years our presidential elections are deeply divisive, building on the excess of the preceding one, and here we are, less than a month away from casting our votes, the entire country adhering almost blindly to one candidate or another, turning neighbors into enemies and putting ugly words out into the public where they cannot be shirked or removed in a moment of clarity.

We all like to believe that the events that occupy the final third of Allende’s debut novel cannot happen here, that they do not happen in places like this or countries like ours, but this thought process is shared by everyone who lived before bloody coups and drowned in the aftermath. We ignore precedents set by history at our own peril, and now seems the most prescient time to pick up a copy of The House of the Spirits and learn the lesson crafted so beautifully within its pages.

Where Am I Now? by Mara Wilson

Available for purchase here.

As the name of this blog would imply, I’m a bookworm. I was a shy, quiet kid whose idea of an outdoor activity was taking whatever I happened to be reading out onto the patio. I slipped paperbacks into the pocket of my pink windbreaker (oh, 90’s fashion, how did we ever allow you to happen?) so that I could catch up on the exploits of Kristy and Mary Anne or Elizabeth and Jessica. So, in the lexicon of pop culture, there is perhaps no fictional figure I ever identified with as much as I did Matilda Wormwood.

I never owned my own copy of Roald Dahl’s childhood masterpiece, because, like his heroine, I had a deep and profound adoration for the mysticism and magic of the public library, but I did check out their copy so many times that between the years of 1994 and 1997 it’s possible no other child in Northeast Philadelphia got to read it. #SorryNotSorry.

Mara Wilson played Matilda in a film version so perfectly written, cast, and executed that I almost shy away from watching it as an adult for fear that my overly critical brain will pick apart this gem from my childhood. Wilson’s face is the face of 90’s nostalgia, playing the sweet, cute, curious kid we all empathized with in our favorite movies.

Wilson’s memoir touches on the years between her child star years and her re-emergence as an adult, working as a fresh and funny playwright, author, and storyteller. Her history is eminently relatable–she came from a sweetly stable life in suburban California where child acting was simply one option for after school activities, and she grew up with all of the awkward dithering of navigating the hierarchy of middle school friendships and the horror of first crushes, while she still manages to tell her story of growing up with OCD and the power of story in helping her realize that she had a treatable condition that didn’t have to consume her.

No memoir ever put to paper was written absent of tragedy, but Wilson’s was not the product of the excesses of fame or the indulgence Hollywood has for addiction, but simply from the loss of her mother at a tender age, due to breast cancer.

I can’t imagine my world without my mom now, so for Wilson to peel back the layers of her loss and share with the world how not having a mom right before the age a girl needs her mother the most is one of the most daring and empathetic aspects of her personal story. And the way her family and acting community extended their kindness towards her to help her through the loss is proof positive that all is not ever as dark as we perceive it.

Wilson is more clear-headed about her position in life than most people our age in general, even more so for someone who was processed through the fame machine. She’s been her own advocate for her mental health, survived great personal losses, and had to adjust her professional expectations all while balancing high school, and now, as an adult, she’s telling her story the same way she once consumed them. She is, in fact, much more like Matilda than anyone could’ve guessed twenty years ago.

Memoirs and Mental Health

Up until this past year, memoirs have never really been high on my to-read list. It’s one of the reasons I’m grateful to have stumbled upon that seemingly long-ago post on XOJane that inspired this endeavor. I’ve read the stories of fascinating women leading amazing lives. There’s a body positive mom who was tapped for a TED talk, a barrier breaking TV host and journalist, a descendant of a Nazi officer trying to make sense of her family’s past, an iconoclastic, world-traveling artist, and the Queen of the Geeks, to name just a few (full list here). And no matter what kind of lives these women are living, they all share common characteristics: they foster community, they inspire their readers, and they all have experience living with mental illness.

Artists across all media and genres seem to share a collective experience with mental illness: depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder. Art has been therapeutic for people living with mental illness since long before we had words to define them, which explains the tendency to create as a method of coping. But as much as art is therapy for the artist, it’s a catharsis for the audience. Art is the light in the darkness, the words, pictures, and sounds of what lives inside our own minds, letting us know we are not alone at the moments we most need to feel a connection.

Mental illness, which is so unfairly stigmatized, is not like diabetes or cancer or high blood pressure, the physical ailments to which it is so often compared. The organ affected by mental illness is the one programmed to detect problems, but if someone lives long enough with depression, anxiety, etc. they become almost impossible to dissociate with reality. It makes de-stigmatization all the more important, so that those who suffer will know that living in pain and fear isn’t permanent, and that they can move beyond it. It is only by allowing us to speak our truths that we can relieve the burdens of others.

Healing is not linear. If you have mental illness, even if you are being treated and feel in control, you will have another valley. Do whatever you have to do to ride out the darkness safely. It has passed before and it will again. If someone you love is living with it, you will say or do the wrong thing. They will be unresponsive and emotionless and maybe even mean, but don’t stay away because of it. Everything passes, even the worst of times. And the stories shared by the wonderful, wise women I’ve read this past year are proof that life, ridiculous, funny, tragic, beautiful, strange life, is possible and rich in all its complexity. There is never a need to opt for a permanent solution to a temporary problem, but there is great need to join the chorus of people living with mental illness and their loved ones, stripping away the stigma and sorrows until we no longer suffer losses because of it.

Everyday Monsters by Ellie Robbins

Available for purchase here.

The fantastic racism of X-Men is perhaps the most famous modern example of superpowers-as-allegory regarding the way we exploit the marginalized members of our society while still relegating them to the sidelines. Everyday Monsters clearly draws inspiration from X-Men: the isolated school for the young and gifted, the murky and mythical explanations for “talent”. But there are roots of another story of a seemingly mundane child being thrust into a world of magic flexing its influence as well.

Assume that Harry Potter, instead of being a famous hero who had been bequeathed a fortune, was instead an ordinary orphan, without so much as a Dursley standing between him and homelessness. Imagine if instead of being resigned and snarky he was aloof and resourceful, because he’d had to parent himself on the streets. Imagine if he had to navigate Hogwarts without the benefit of his name, trying to suss out friend and foe without a guide. Imagine him as a 15 year old girl from Austin and you’ll have something approaching Taylor Brock, the protagonist of Everyday Monsters.

Taylor is a street kid earning cash from impromptu fight clubs to keep herself afloat when she’s hunted down, both by a recruiter for the school that can help her harness the powers she didn’t know she had and by creatures who see her as prey. She finds education and allies, if not actual safety, in the mountains of Colorado, where she learns how deep her talents run and discovers the cross section of dimensions, and the magic creatures that live in the hidden corners of the world.

Unfortunately, though, Taylor’s ultimate discovery is that even though she is sequestered away from the troubles that plagued her in Austin–uncertainty of shelter, the violence of the streets, being profiled for crimes because she’s young and dirty and transient, authorities doing more harm than good, all the other problems faced by real life American homeless people–human nature is what it is and her greatest tribulations come in the form of bullies and blowhards.

It’s twisty enough to keep readers engaged, but the best part of Everyday Monsters is how well it lives up to both its roots and its title. Power aside, the problems faced by Taylor are ones real young girls and teens in general face every day.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

 

Available for purchase here.

There’s really not a bad time, per se, to read Shirley Jackson (although when you take four different literature classes in college and they all insist on reading The Lottery one really must wonder if the English department is involved in some mass conspiracy, but I digress). However, October is the perfect time to read Ms. Jackson, notable for her running theme of humanity as the real monsters.

It’s easy, now that every book, movie, and mid-level TV show has co-opted the plot twist as a storytelling gimmick, to forget that a twist was once the hallmark of a master storyteller. Even if you manage to read We Have Always Lived in the Castle completely unspoiled, a seasoned fan of psychological thrillers can pick out the true villain of the piece. I won’t be the one to point out the wizard behind the curtain, except to point out that all the really important key players are women, wherever they fall on the spectrum between “good” and “bad”.

One of the fascinating (and demoralizing) tropes in storytelling is the frequency with which a female antagonist’s villainy is tied to her sexuality–she’s either the whore to the heroine’s Madonna or she’s aging past the point of fuckability, possibly both. See the stepmothers of the Disney villain catalogue, the femme fatales who imperiled James Bond, Batman, and other enigmatic heros, the hags who manipulate the the events of Macbeth. And those are only the ones that popped up in my mind as I was typing. Small wonder Washington is trying to police the sex lives of women–they’ve been raised to associate sexuality with sadism.

Shirley Jackson is a revolution, not only for her talent, but for peeling back the layers of women’s complex emotional histories. Her villains and victims are grandiose, petty, vengeful, sociopathic, meek, a full, glorious gamut of motivations and perspectives that aren’t tied to their hormones. In short, she treated her female characters like men.

Now that we are at the most glorious time of year, where everything is just a little bit spooky and every corner holds the promise of another worldly thrill, Jackson’s very human villains is a reminder that the darkness in all our myths and legends originated in our own minds. It’s a darkly delicious meditation on our own psyches AND an exploration of the feminist narrative.

October and LGBTQ History

           

         

       

October, by dint of the plethora of pumpkin and apple treats available, lush fall foliage, and, of course, Halloween, a nationwide Comic-con, has been my favorite month since I was a weird little kid who took being called “witch” as a compliment. Twenty years later and nothing has changed, but October holds great importance for me and for women in general. It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month and Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Month, both of which have made innumerable efforts in helping individuals and families heal.

October also holds the distinction of being the time of year that honors LGBTQIA+ history. We have our parades in June, we flaunt our flags and celebrate our milestones, but October is a time to reflect on the history that makes our celebration possible.

Throughout this past year I’ve read some extraordinary words from lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer women. Some I would’ve read anyway, some I discovered during this project, but all of them are voices we wouldn’t have without the efforts of civil rights leaders and pioneers who came before.

Jenny Lawson is a Texas-based writer whose daily life and musings provided enough fodder for not one, but two, bestselling memoirs. She’s created an online community for the support and care of people living with mental illness, and has learned (and taught others) how to laugh at life’s absurdities. Her book Furiously Happy was reviewed on June 14. Learn more about her at The Bloggess.

Noelle Stevenson is a writer, artist, and cartoonist who got her start as a fan artist. She created the cover art for Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, and is the co-creator of Lumberjanes. Her graphic novel Nimona was reviewed on June 29. Learn more about her at Gingerhaze.

Janet Mock is a writer and TV personality from Honolulu. She also worked as a contributing editor for Marie Claire magazine and is a noted transgender rights activist who was name-checked on the Emmy-nominated webseries Her Story, which she also helped crowdfund. Her memoir Redefining Realness was reviewed on March 9. Learn more about her at JanetMock.com.

Molly Crabapple is a world-traveling journalist and artist who has covered the trials in Guatanamo Bay, Occupy Wall Street, and scenes from the Syrian War. She has contributed to VICE magazine and founded Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School, with installations in MoMA. Her memoir Drawing Blood was reviewed on May 5. Learn more about her at The Art of Molly Crabapple.

Malinda Lo is a noted YA novelist who has won awards for her work in expanding diversity among novels and authors for young adult works and her journalist contributions for AfterEllen.com. She attended Wellesley and has graduate degrees from Harvard and Stanford. Her novel Ash was reviewed on April 26. Learn more about her at MalindaLo.com.

Alison Bechdel is a noted cartoonist who is best known for her webcomic Dykes to Watch Out For. She’s also the creator of the ubiquitous Bechdel Test, used to gauge the nature of an individual film’s female roles. She grew up in her family’s funeral home in rural Pennsylvania. Her graphic memoir Fun Home was reviewed on July 7. Learn more about her at Dykes to Watch Out For.

Jennifer Finney Boylan is a novelist and college professor who has been featured on multiple platforms as a transgender rights activist. She is a contributing writer for Medium.com and serves on GLAAD’s national board of directors. Her memoir She’s Not There was reviewed on July 5. Learn more about her at There from Here.

Amanda Palmer is a performance artist and musician from Boston. She was half of the indie groups The Dresden Dolls and Evelyn Evelyn, as well as an established solo act. She’s a noted feminist and activist who lives in the artist’s collective the Cloud Club and who was recruited for a TED talk. Her memoir The Art of Asking was reviewed on June 24. Learn more about her at Amanda Palmer.

Sara Benincasa is an essayist and humorist. She is a former teacher with an MA in secondary education who has also worked as a radio/TV/web personality. She has brought national attention to the experiences of people living with mental illness. Her essay collection Real Artists Have Day Jobs was reviewed on August 26. Learn more about her at Sara Benincasa.

Kitty Shields is a recent MFA graduate from Philadelphia. She is a celebrated designer, artist, short story writer, and bookbinder. She’s currently at work on her first novel. Her short story “The Great Hunger” was reviewed on July 18. Learn more about her at KittyShields.com.

Tig Notaro is a stand-up comedian, radio host, writer and actress from Mississippi. She won a Grammy for her performance that detailed her experiences with chronic illness that coincided with the loss of her mother. She recently released an Amazon series based on her life. Her memoir I’m Just a Person was reviewed on September 14. Learn more about her at TigNation.

Laura Jane Grace is a musician and lead singer of punk group Against Me! She’s also a noted trans activist and blogger for Noisey who made headlines for burning her birth certificate in North Carolina to protest the discriminatory HB2 law. She was also the hostess of the Emmy-nominated webseries True Trans. Her memoir TRANNY is due November 15. Learn more about her at Mandatory Happiness.

 

The Recital by Kyle V. Hiller

Available for purchase here.

Witchcraft, whether the clear dichotomy between Glinda and the named-by-another-author-a-century-later Elphaba, the rich spectacle of Harry Potter, or the cheesy lightness of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, has been one of fantasy fiction’s primary go-to’s to illustrate not only female power, but how it is perceived by society (Both the “good witch” and the “bad witch” are outranked by a fraudulent balloon man, the most impressive witch of her generation is the sidekick to the famous main character, and the pretty, bubbly blonde is somehow a social outcast).

Small surprise then, that the dawn of witchcraft in the life of a previously perceived “muggle” girl, so often coincides with puberty. For all I love YA, I would never relive my teenage years. Teens have the bodies of adults and are pressured to have their same wisdom, but are constantly told to occupy the same roles they held as children. It’s just like witches–all the power, minus the free will.

Kyle Hiller writes a stunning first person narrative of a girl caught in the worlds of young adolescence and witchcraft, with incredible insight. In The Recital, Edith Solstice is an ordinary girl, with a father who is revealed to be less and less extraordinary through her eyes as the story unfolds. She’s a middle child living a life so typical of Philadelphia Catholic girlhood I could’ve been reading about my own family. Hiller nails how even in a city as large and diverse as Philly, neighborhoods function, for both good and ill, as small towns. Edith is sheltered and occasionally innocently insensitive, and her problems are the problems of typical kids: an unrequited crush, a dramatic falling out between her parents, the gawkiness of being torn between childish needs and adult desires. And she’s a witch.

Edith has two mentors on her path to mastering magic: her best friend Lenore, and Lenore’s mother, Miss Karen. The crux of the conflict in Edith’s story is both magical and mundane–she hurt a classmate with her powers during an argument, and seeks to make amends. It’s a telling theme for the story–we are responsible for cleaning up our own messes, even the ones we didn’t intend to make. Edith relays a microaggression she once showed this classmate early on, by the end of the novel recognizing it as such and owing up to the fact that she was a bully, whether or not she intended to be.

There are many intriguing subplots to The Recital: what qualifies as “good”, what grief does to our mindset, especially when left unprocessed, the agony of first romance, the double agony of a first romance being a recognition of one’s own queerness. There’s a sequel hook, perhaps even a series hook, towards the end, and I am eager to delve deeper into Edith’s powers.

Master List: 2017

Reading only women authors for 2016–and a good chunk of 2015–has been a dynamic and powerful reading experience. Sometimes imposing a limitation can actually broaden horizons, and I’m sorry to see my year among women draw to a close. So I’ll be entrenching myself among a new class of storytellers next year, reading only the works of Black authors, starting February 1st. But since I lack impulse control, the first book on my list was read during October, to get me in the mood for Halloween.

The Recital by Kyle V. Hiller  Review

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie  Review

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay  Review

Super Black by Adilifu Nama

Born A Crime by Trevor Noah

Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile