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.

 

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.

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.

 

Black Hair and Misogynoir

    

Women are accustomed to having our bodies policed and politicized. Our reproductive parts are legislated, our body hair used as a source of shame. Trans women’s bodies are used as an excuse for violence. We aren’t safe at parties, clubs, on the streets, or often in our very own homes. We don’t have many ways to stake out a claim for autonomy over our own bodies, but if you’re not a Black woman, the hair on your head is at least a non-controversial aspect of your appearance.

I’ve read a fair amount of books by Black women over the past year, and not one of them, not novels, memoirs, or essays, that don’t devote massive amounts of time and story space to the phenomenon of living in a white-privileging culture with natural Black hair.

Being white, I’ve never thought about my hair outside the parameters of my own personal preferences. It’s long and layered because I like it that way, it’s red because that’s the color I landed on this time, and it’s straight because curling takes too much time. If I cut it off it would be a pixie cut, if I dyed it pink it’d be “quirky”. But it wouldn’t be a statement about anyone or anything but me.

Black women’s hair has been admired on white women while scorned on Black women. It’s been called unprofessional in the work place merely for growing. If a Black woman dyes her hair pink it’s “ghetto”, if she shaves it or grows it naturally it’s a political statement, if she straightens it she’s assimilating. In Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie details the scalp singeing ways women relax their natural curls into an approximation of white hair, not because white hair is naturally more beautiful, but because society prizes it as such.

Black hair is only the tip of the iceberg (forgive me). The more closely Black women resemble white, the more beautiful we consider them. It’s why the internet felt so comfortable saying vile things about adorable Blue Ivy Carter, who played dress-up with her mommy Beyoncé at the VMAs, because Blue Ivy looks more like her father. She’s a four year old little girl, by the way.

Nothing I’m saying is new in anyway, of course. This is merely an observation made after reading the words of the wise and wonderful women directly impacted by our Eurocentric beauty standards. We see this subject on dozens of think pieces as we scroll through social media, and it would be easy to dismiss the issue as having little importance–hair is small potatoes compared to the issues of racism and sexism our society struggles with. But reading Adichie, or bell hooks, Misty Copeland, Issa Rae, Kaitlyn Greenidge, or Angela Flournoy gives shape to the insidious ways misogynoir, that unholy confluence of racial and sexual hate targeting Black women, take root. Hair is the symptom, these women and their words are the cure.

The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae

Available for purchase here.

I’m not cool. There’s ample evidence of that, so I won’t waste precious reading time listing the reasons, but it’s sufficient to say that I’m hopeful that perpetual awkwardness is the root cause of an individual’s powers of fascination and not just correlative, because otherwise Issa Rae’s memoir/essays offer only amusement and not hope.

Rae doesn’t write for the laugh out loud crowd, but more for the chuckle, wince, and knowing sigh. There’s a lot to recognize in the bad fashion choices, the early days of cyber chatting (think Tinder, but without the class, for those of you not in the know). It’s a testament to Rae’s writing ability that she hits so many notes that ring true for the average reader when she’s lived such a noteworthy life. She’s a Stanford grad who’s been straddling the cultures between America and her father’s native Senegal, where the music is old and flirtation is dangerous. But the more compelling narrative is the two worlds she finds herself caught between in one culture.

She’s awkward and black, and in between her amusing anecdotes and observations about life, youth, education, and the interaction between loved ones she reveals the ways in which she’s told she doesn’t measure up.

Whiteness offers me numerous options in American society. I can be a punk, a prep, a jock (stop laughing), a vamp, a hippie, a hipster, or any other subculture with a known aesthetic. Even cultures I don’t come from are open to me, with enough similarly white folks willing to defend me if I decide to appropriate someone else’s culture for my own amusement.

In a worst case scenario, I’d look silly or stupid. My very identity as an Irish American would never be questioned though, while Rae’s identity is measured against some arbitrary standard of Blackness, and she gets found wanting by people who have no place judging her in the first place.

No matter the color of one’s skin, there’s something eminently relatable in every word of Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, but the ways it quietly dismantles aspects of privilege that are hidden from those who benefit make it a standout among a scree of confessional first person essays.

You Deserve a Drink by Mamrie Hart

Available for purchase here.

It’s a weird thing falling in the no-man’s land where there’s no collective agreement as to whether or not I’m a millennial. I have a fair amount in common with the Gen X’ers, but Ben Stiller is the only one in Reality Bites that I didn’t think was a tool, and he’s playing the father of young adults these days, while I’m still trying to master young adulthood. However, young adults are getting their entertainment through YouTube these days, while I go one there to play lyric videos while I’m writing. So the point is, I’m a little out of touch.

I discovered Mamrie Hart in an almost quaint way–wandering the humor section of my local bookstore. The summary on the back cover was enough to make me fall instantly in love–she’s funny, crass, bawdy, and provides killer drink recipes and a built-in game. She’s all I’ve ever wanted to be, and she gets paid for it. If this was a tweet I’d hashtag LifeGoals here.

In the ever expanding world of comedy, women have long been accused of not being funny. Not the women of Carol Burnett and Gilda Radnor’s era either–modern working women like Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling have had to deal with sexist rhetoric even while they’re OWNING the comedy market. But Hart is different. Maybe it’s the medium, but more likely it’s her own unique voice getting a chance to shine, because of those comedy giants that came before. She has as many stories of road trips, drunk shenanigans, and surprise nudity as any frat guy, with wit, charisma, and intelligence to spare.

Make no mistake, I’m still using YouTube primarily as a means to listen to Robyn and Def Leppard in between Against Me!, My Chemical Romance, and my zillionth sing-along to American Idiot the musical, but the next time I’m considering Netflix and Chill (literally, and by myself), I might click on YouTube instead. Because Hart’s right. I do deserve a drink.

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.