2016 Wrap Up

Here I am, ten days deep into 2017, with the loose threads of last year’s reading challenge still dangling and the start date of this year’s looming (February 1, a celebration of Black authors that will run until January 31, 2018 for those itching to know).

The end of the year was brutal, for a lot of reasons. There was a little bit of personal heartbreak, but in truth the results of the election hit me like a gut punch, and cast a shadow over the remaining tendrils of 2016. I stayed awake on November 8 watching the election results pour in, tears streaming down my face while I prayed to all the deities I don’t believe in for an 11th hour turn of the tide, a Superman swooping in to save Lois Lane. But Supes never arrived, and Lex Luthor took the highest seat in the country.

For all the buffoonery surrounding Trump, it’s the elevated position of the worst of society that his presidency promises. Pence, Bannon, Sessions, all uniquely unqualified to protect the rights of American citizens, all tasked with doing exactly that. The injustice of this whole election became a crushing weight that rolled over me, my joys, my creativity, my desire to write. To whit, I haven’t written a single word since I profiled Laura Jane Grace’s memoir. What is the point of creativity, when my country has decided to yank out the rug from every civil rights gain we’ve had since our inception?

I turned to the solace of books, as I always have. I broke my fast with Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things, enjoyed the self-deprecation of Anna Kendrick’s Scrappy Little Nobody, meditated on the idiosyncrisies of Modern Romance with Aziz Ansari, and plowed into Carrie Fisher’s full bibliography upon the breaking news of her untimely death, and emerged, as always, feeling a little less lonely and considerably rejuvenated.

Great writing does one of two things: provides connection or provides escape. Truly great writing does both. As we trudge through the next four years, it is more important than ever that the words of anyone and everyone who will be targeted, marginalized, or silenced find an audience.

Words have power. As humans, we are fundamentally wired for story. Story is how we give form and meaning to chaos, how we empathize across all the realities that separate us. Inhabiting the stories of those we differ from is as close as we come to walking in each others’ skin. JK Rowling performed more magic with simple words than her characters ever could.

And so, without facetiously attributing my time and talent to that of all the amazing women who opened my eyes to the world around me this past year, my promise to myself is that I will continue with my words. I will protest, I will talk back, I will yell until my voice disintegrates in the air, and I will write until my fingers bleed.

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.

 

Vivian Apple Needs a Miracle by Katie Coyle

Available for purchase here.

I promised myself I wouldn’t read any more books by the same author, since I’m two weeks from my deadline and still trying to eke out a solid 100 books that I was hoping to make as diverse as possible, but I was tempted by a friend who dangled the sequel to Katie Coyle’s excellent YA debut Vivian Apple at the End of the World in front of my face, and…I’m weak.

To be clear, this is not literary escapism. Vivian Apple living in an America that seems to be fairly gunning for an apocalyptic event (see: all of 2016), and she has, due to her own tenacity and ill luck, become a lynchpin to unleash the revolution. She and her friend Harp, the teenage girl we all pretended we were but few of us had the chops to pull off, are the victims of a smear campaign by the still powerful Church of America. They’ve lost their most precious asset in anonymity, and are now pursued by law enforcement, as well as the Church’s own lethal forces.

Vivian and Harp are taken in by Vivian’s sister Winnie, previously long-lost and currently one of the driving forces of the revolution. Both girls are pulled in over their heads, being symbols for what proves to be a militia almost as extreme as the Church they so vehemently oppose.

Reading this with the election looming is the equivalent of watching a horror movie alone on a dark stormy night in a cabin in the middle of the woods. I know whom I support in this election, and truthfully, the name of this blog should be a giveaway, but eruptions of ugly behavior coming from both groups of supporters indicate that the results of the election will not cool the ardor of hate in this country, where we are so deeply concerned with being right we are losing sight of what is actually right.

Vivian and her allies seek a third option as they try to ease the tension and terror that has gripped the society, and without giving away too much of the plot, the adage that violence only begets more violence bears out. This is not me being a bleeding heart who advocates for handholding during wartime, this is the reality that war does not buy peace, and hopefully more people will realize that before we reach a breaking point.

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.

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.

 

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.

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.

 

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.