An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

Available for purchase here.

So much of who we are as people is based on the social contract. We give non-committal answers to questions like “How was your day?”, we close the door when we relieve ourselves, then spray Febreze when we’re through. Even concerning the people with whom we are most intimate, there are some niceties that we all observe, a surface level veneer of politeness.

There are brief epochs of time when we suspend our superficiality and expose our most raw, primal selves. Extreme youth and advanced age, extreme illness and grief, childbirth. Know someone in those circumstances, and you truly know them.

Stealing that kind of intimacy is the cruelest act one can perpetuate, which is the circumstance Mirielle, the protagonist of Gay’s An Untamed State, finds herself. Mirielle is an American woman visiting her re-patriated parents in Port-au-Prince when she’s kidnapped in a smoothly orchestrated event outside the gates of her parents’ palatial home. She manages to remain calm at first–kidnapping is a common problem for wealthy families in an impoverished country. Mirielle can offhandedly think of five friends and family members who’ve experienced it.
Mirielle’s father is a man unmoved by sentiment and designed to play hardball. He refuses to meet the ransom demands, and the gang of kidnappers vent their frustrations and cruelties on Mirielle. She is beaten, raped, and starved. They withhold the bathroom, and her breasts, from which she’s still nursing her toddler son, run painfully dry.

In the aftermath of Mirielle’s kidnapping and eventual return, the true complexities of her trauma emerge. Her body has been destroyed, her brain is racked with PTSD, and upon her return to the United States, her casually racist mother-in-law becomes her port in the storm of her ordeal.

Mirielle is used as a pawn so frequently in her story–ignored by her father, abused by the ringleader of the kidnappers, beset by a husband who ignorantly tries to compare his fears to her trauma–but always she, and her native Haiti, are the crown jewels of the novel. Exposed at their ugliest, most primitive selves, Mirielle and Haiti could easily be dismissed as a tragedy, but both are so much more.

Neither Mirielle nor Haiti can be healed in one fell swoop. Only by peeling back the layers of what they’ve survived and exploring the root causes of their pain can anyone hope to be the port in the storm. But both woman and country have so much more to unveil to a world willing to offer support.

Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout by Laura Jane Grace

Available for purchase here.

This is not a book. This is a fucking floatation device.

If booklust is real (and it is), I’ve had it hardcore for Laura Jane Grace’s memoir since she first announced its inception. I structured this entire blog with reading it as my ultimate end goal, long before the US went through a political mindfuck of an election that has shaped every facet of this year’s art and pop culture.

I don’t mean to take away from TRANNY as its own animal. Grace is a gifted storyteller with a compelling story to tell. It’s hard to reconcile the demure, articulate, warm person Grace is in interviews with the younger self she unveils in her pages. The charisma is there, and the keen intelligence, but closeted Grace is achingly angry, depressed, dysphoric, and reactionary. Her story of combatting her internalized fear and shame with punk rock, anarchist politics, and an almost absurd amount of drugs is heartbreaking and eloquently rendered. Her choice to be honest about her struggles post-coming out, being a newly single parent still figuring out her own shit, neatly avoids the fairy tale ending and the narrative is all the better for it.

TRANNY would be a great story at any time, but being released exactly one week after half the country decided to hit the reset button on civil rights feels like finding port in a storm. The president-elect is a clueless bigot, his chief strategist is a blatant white supremacist, and his VP would rather electrocute kids than have them grow up to be like me or my friends.

I can’t claim that Grace’s struggle with her gender is the same as mine with my sexuality–that’s kind of the point of closets. They are all specific to the individual, but all marked by shame and isolation. If it was a shared space where we had the benefit of each others’ love and wisdom, no one would ever feel the drive to come out.

Every time Grace tries to commit to the masculinity foisted on her at birth, I’m reminded of every time I tried to force myself to be straight–and the utter self-loathing I felt when I failed. Every out and open LGBTQ+ person who provides a platform for these conversations gets us closer to a generation that won’t grow up without community or support.

It would be easy (idiotic, but easy) to dismiss Grace’s memoir as one in a series of rock BTS stories, but it’s so much more. It’s 306 pages of forward momentum. Grace isn’t going backwards, and neither am I. And so long as we stay loud, and focused, neither is society.

 

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.

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

Available for purchase here.

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

Available for purchase here.

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.