ASK Musings

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CBR9 Archive

Thursday

22

June 2017

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COMMENTS

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None Of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

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Four Stars

Best for: People who enjoy strong, witty writers who are able to handle fluffy and serious topics with equal finesse.

In a nutshell: Scaachi Koul shares some snipets of her life as the child of Indian immigrant now living in Canada.

Line that sticks with me: “It changes you, when you see someone similar to you, doing the thing you might want to do yourself.” (p 123)

Why I chose it: Because Lindy West, Jessica Valenti and Samantha Irby can’t all be wrong.

Review: I’d seen this book in my local bookstore a bunch of times and always walked past it because I thought it was a much more serious book. I didn’t fully process that the title was more of a joke than some clever way of of being hopeful (I’ve got the cover uploaded here so hopefully you see what I mean); that’s on me. Then I finally picked it up and flipped it over, and three of my favorite authors — and just generally awesome women — provided the blurbs. So obviously I purchased it immediately.

This is a collection of loosely connected essays in which Ms. Koul shares her perspective as a woman whose parents immigrated to Canada from India before she was born. She talks about body issues (the chapter on body hair is amazing), about being lighter skinned than other Indians. She talks about online harassment and rape culture.

I enjoyed Ms. Koul’s style of writing and her wit. Not everything is a laugh out loud joke, and some parts and extremely serious, but the book never feels heavy in a bad way. She somehow makes challenging topics feel manageable, if that makes sense. I’m so happy I got this book, and look forward to reading more from her.

Monday

19

June 2017

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COMMENTS

How To Be Parisian Wherever You Are

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Three Stars

Best for: Anyone who likes Paris, needs a bit of a quick, distracting read, and is willing to overlook the heteronormativity of it all.

In a nutshell: Four friends from Paris decided to write the type of advice book one might buy on impulse when shopping at Anthropologie.

Line that sticks with me: “darkest Africa” – used when referring to places where people might be from. I just … was a bit gobsmacked that this weird bit of racism made it past the editors.

Why I chose it: I’m pretty sure I bought it at a non-bookstore store because I’m a sucker for Paris and for advice.

Review: This book is fine. Yesterday my mind was not in a great place, and I just wanted something distracting. A book that talked about pretty clothes and a city I love and tips for making my hair looks good. And for the most part, this fit the bill.

It definitely assumes the reader is a woman who likes men, and it assumes that the reader has access to money. And is slender. But this is probably not a surprise, because the whole goal of the book seems to be to bring the stereotypes of Paris to life on the page. And they do, and mostly it just made me want to go out and find some jeans that actually fit and start wearing my red lipstick all the time.

Sunday

18

June 2017

0

COMMENTS

ain’t i a woman by bell hooks

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Four Stars

Best for: Those interested in exploring how feminism has failed at inclusivity, and how U.S. society has failed Black women.

In a nutshell: bell hooks provides a history of how racism, sexism and classism have impacted Black women in the U.S.

Line that sticks with me: “The process begins with the individual woman’s acceptance that American women, without exception, are socialized to be racist, classist, and sexist, in varying degrees, and that labeling ourselves feminists does not change the fact that we must consciously work to rid ourselves of the legacy of negative socialization.”

Why I chose it: I picked this for my office’s equity and social justice book club because I don’t think my feminist reading has included nearly enough of the Black woman’s perspective, and I wanted to be able to discuss this with others.

Review: I’ve somehow managed to never read any bell hooks even though I’m familiar with her importance to feminism. With this great book (which is frustratingly hard to track down in bookstores – I had to resort to ordering online) I feel like I got a more in-depth education on issues that I’ve been trying to learn more about this year.

Starting with slavery, Dr. hooks examines how racism, sexism and classism work together in impacting the experience of Black women in the U.S. For example, she explores how women who were slaves were forced to perform “masculine” tasks, but men who were slaves were not compelled to perform “feminine” tasks, and how society has spent a lot of time examining how slavery impacted the Black male psyche but has spent far less time examining how it impacted — and continues to impact — Black women.

She also looks at how the patriarchy — when combined with racism — has influenced the experience of Black women in society, eschewing the idea that Black women exist in a matriarchy simply because some households are run by women.

In the sections that might be challenging to read for white women who consider themselves feminists, Dr. hooks examines the ways in which white women have pushed black women out of discussions of sexism, seeking to maintain their status within the patriarchy as at least above Black people. She also spends time looking at how society seems to default ‘women’ to mean white women and ‘Black’ to mean Black men, leaving Black women out completely, and what the implications of that are.

I appreciated Dr. hooks’s examination of how so much of feminism (as practices by white feminists) seeks not to overturn the system, but to make gains with the patriarchal, capitalist system that exists in this country. This isn’t particularly imaginative or revolutionary, and can mean that instead of fighting for true freedom, we just end up fighting with each other for material gains. I also appreciate that despite all of this, she doesn’t argue that feminism is only for white women; she sees the real benefits of it, but only when we can really fight for the freedom that feminism should bring about. I’m looking forward to discussing it at work this week.

This is a dense read (at under 200 pages it still took longer than I expected) but definitely worth it.

Thursday

15

June 2017

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COMMENTS

Hunger by Roxane Gay

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Five Stars

Best for: Those who enjoy amazing writing, searing honesty, and vulnerability.

In a nutshell: Roxane Gay shares a memoir of her life, framed through her relationship with her body.

Line that sticks with me: There are too many to include all of them. But here’s one: “But the pain of a tattoo is something to which you have to surrender because once you’ve started, you cannot really go back or you’ll be left with something not only permanent but unfinished. I enjoy the irrevocability of that circumstance.” (p 186)

Why I chose it: It’s Roxane Gay. Come on.

Review: I was so anxious to read this that instead of visiting my regular bookstore I stopped at chain store in the middle of the work day in a town I happened to be passing through because I wanted to be able to start reading it at the first possible opportunity. Which turned out to be waiting in line at a coffee shop before a meeting. A meeting I was nearly late to because the writing and story are so compelling that I did not want to put it down.

Dr. Gay (Professor Gay? She has a PhD, so I want to acknowledge that properly) has written a memoir that is unlike any other I’ve read. It feels almost like poetry, as the 300 pages are split into nearly 90 chapters. Some chapters are but a paragraph long; others span multiple pages. The subject matter is challenging, but Prof. Gay’s language is not. As she provides some detail of her rape at a young age, the rape that she describes as a turning point that caused her to build up a physical distance between herself and others through weight gain, she manages to use language that is extremely uncomfortable and horrifying yet possible to read through.

The book focuses on her relationship with her body and what it is like to be in this world that does not value fat people, but it isn’t a laundry list of the challenges she faces. Yes, there are chapters about the frustrations she deals with when traveling, but Prof. Gay finds a way to discuss it that simultaneously points out all the ways people unintentionally — and intentionally — shun, punish, or otherwise seek to harm fat bodies AND remind us all that this is her experience. She isn’t a headless fat person on the evening news; she is a person who lives in this body, who deserves to be seen and respected. And we as a society — and individuals — fail at this. Hard. And often.

And people suffer because of it.

As Prof. Gay points out in the beginning, this is not a ‘before’ and ‘after’ story in the sense that you’ll see her holding up her old clothes and her new, skinny body. She is still a very fat woman. And she is still valuable, and worth love, respect, and basic human decency. She won’t be more of a person if she weighs less.

This is a book you should read. We live in a world where it is so easy to deny the humanity of those who are not like us. Even some of the progressive folks I know, who would never dare mock someone who is a different race, religion, or sexual orientation than themselves, still make shitty comments about fat people. Still used fat as an insult. Still take joy in seeing other people gain weight. And that’s really fucking shitty.

I hope you read this book.

Monday

12

June 2017

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COMMENTS

Al Franken: Giant of the Senate

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Four Stars

Best for: Those interested in a fun (but surprisingly serious) look at how the sausage is made.

In a nutshell: Comedy writer turned senator provides the story of how he got where he is, and what it really means to be a U.S. Senator.

Line that sticks with me: “They’re all extremely conservative Republicans who I’m sure don’t want me to say anything good about them. And make no mistake, I hope they get beat in their next elections. But they’re there right now! And just as part of my job is standing my ground against all the terrible hings they want to do, part of it is looking for opportunities to find common ground, because that’s how stuff gets done.” (p284)

Why I chose it: I’ve read most (maybe all?) of Sen. Franken’s books, and this one called my name from the airport bookstore.

Review: If you like Al Franken, then you’ll like this book. If you don’t, you still might like this. However, if you are looking for nothing more than revolution against all members of the GOP, then you might find Sen. Franken’s pragmatism unforgivable.

Sen. Franken spends nearly half of the book sharing how he got to be a senator. He talks (briefly) about his days working at Saturday Night Live, but spends a lot of time talking about how he came to the idea of running for office, his first race for senate, and then the recount. Man, I forgot about that one.

As interesting and pithy as that half of the book is, the fascinating stuff comes in the second half, when he’s in the senate. Hearing his perspective on why he works with some of these people that those of us on the outside despise is … almost convincing. Of course, he acknowledges that he’s a white guy working in politics, but I think he doesn’t necessarily give enough credence to the fact that as a white guy, he has more wiggle room and is probably seen as less threatening to some Republicans than others.

At the same time, though, I appreciated reading his perspective on his job, and why he loves it, and what it really means to be a U.S. Senator. How you don’t always get your way. How you need to think about the people you represent (in his case, Minnesotans), but also about your own morals.

He started writing this book in earnest in November, and was working on it well into this year, to the point where he can talk about his experience with the Trump administration and his cabinet appointees. He’s as pissed as we are, and he uses the last couple of chapters to both encourage us all to fight back, and to tell the story of a young woman who represents all that is good in the US.

It’s an interesting look at our government that left me a little more hopeful.

Saturday

10

June 2017

0

COMMENTS

Life Moves Pretty Fast by Hadley Freeman

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Three Stars

Best for: People who enjoy pop culture analysis that is serious but not too serious.

In a nutshell: Film critic explores some of the top movies of the 1980s, focusing on what made them good and why we don’t see them anymore.

Line that sticks with me: “Nineties teen makeover scenes are all about stamping out a teenage girl’s awkwardness and unique personality, whereas the girls in the eighties teen movies celebrate those two qualities.” (p76)

Why I chose it: Book club!

Review: First, thank you everyone who voted for this as our CBR book club pick. It’s pretty much made for me: nonfiction, essays, humor, pop culture, written by a woman. Huzzah!

I haven’t read any of the other reviews of this so I might be repeating other folks, but I wanted to go into without any preconceptions. And overall, I enjoyed so much of it. I appreciate the author’s honesty about her feelings about the films, and the fact that she didn’t remove herself from the analysis. It’s apparent — and she acknowledges — that much of what she has to say is based o personal taste, yet she’s able to back up her assertions.

So instead of focusing on the good (and there is so much — especially her analysis of teenagers and teenage girls specifically, and the overall way these films tackle sexism), I wanted to share a couple of things that bothered me, and they are intertwined: the discussion of race (or lack thereof) throughout, and the Eddie Murphy chapter, where Ms. Freeman seems to put much of the discussion of race.

Ms. Freeman spends so much time providing good critical discussion about the depiction of women in film (ten of the eleven chapters, while not each focused on gender issues, at least touches on it), but she glosses over racism in nearly every other one. She does mention the issue in the chapter on Ghostbusters, and sort of makes an attempt and looking at it when talking about John Hughes, but mostly she seems to just be making excuses for filmmakers.

But any movie set in NYC that she discusses, for example, should at least be questioned if there aren’t any non-white characters (When Harry Met Sally … I’m looking at you. And I love you, but that’s a pretty white NYC). And sure, John Hughes may not be able to speak personally on the experience of a person of color, but perhaps he could seek to include at least a couple of non-white, non-stereotypes characters?

And then there’s the Eddie Murphy movies chapter. Ooof. Just not great. And I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about it, but it feels ironic to have nearly the entire discussion about race shoehorned into a single chapter. A chapter with the subheading “Race Can Be Transcended.” Oh Ms. Freeman, no. Just…no. You would have benefited from a sensitivity reader here (of course I’m assuming she didn’t have one, but I could be wrong). Or perhaps just a read over of this article.

Because of that, this otherwise four-star book gets three stars from me.

Tuesday

6

June 2017

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COMMENTS

The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell by W. Kamau Bell

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Four Stars

Best for: Fans of decent memoir writing.

In a nutshell: Comedian and political commentator offers some insight into his perspective on life.

Line that sticks with me: “If there’s one thing that I learned from both of my parents, it is that you don’t need the paper to get the information.” (p33)

Why I chose it: The cover and subtitle (”Tales of a 6’4”, African-American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian”)

Review: I’m trying to figure out the best way to describe this book and my reaction to it. It was a nice, fun (thought not especially funny – which I think was the point), fairly quick read. It offered insight into Mr. Bell’s life. It tackled topics like race and sexism in a nuanced and clever way. But it didn’t leave me raving. It was like a perfectly fine dinner at a decent restaurant. Not going down in the top five meals (or books), but also not necessitating that I warn off others from experiencing it.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some rough parts – this isn’t a fluffy book. He tells some sweet stories, but also some challenging ones. Like his experiences being a Black star of a show dealing with heady topics like interviewing the KKK with a white showrunner who doesn’t really get it. Or his honesty in recognizing that some of his jokes, while spot on in the racial commentary category, were missing it with some thinly veiled (and unintentional) misogyny.

I also appreciate that, while I believe that books like this are often turned in pretty far in advance of their publication, I’m guessing he either edited or added some things to address the 2016 election.

Mr. Bell is a talented writer, and I enjoyed the stories he chose to tell. I would recommend this as a library book read for sure, or maybe pick it up when it’s available in paperback. I think if you enjoy memoirs, this is a good one to add to your list, especially if you want something refreshing and honest but not annoyingly self-deprecating.

Saturday

3

June 2017

0

COMMENTS

You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero

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Two Stars

Best for: I can’t think of a reader I’d recommend this to.

In a nutshell: Life Coach re-purposes classic self-help book recommendations into multiple short chapters that say very little that is new or original. Also, she swears.

Line that sticks with me: None.

Why I chose it: Embarrassingly, the “Badass” in the title drew me in.

Review: From a quick CBR search, it appears I might be the only person to have reviewed this book so far. Good. If this is in your TBR pile, I recommend returning it, as your time is more valuable than this.

As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, I’ve read many a personal growth / self-help book, and can usually find something to like in them. And I have to say that for a couple of pages, I was into this book. Mostly because I appreciated that the author said fuck a lot.

But then it became apparently to me that the author has read a lot of books on personal growth, and this is just a rearranging and distilling of the some of the genre’s greatest hits. I’ve never read “The Secret,” but fuck if this doesn’t read like what I understand to be the main thesis of that book. I just cannot take seriously anyone who says things like (direct from page 33) “In order to truly raise your vibration, you’ve got to believe that everything you want is available to you. And the best way to keep this belief strong is by staying connected to Source Energy.”

I’m sorry. Did I just wander into a Scientology seminar?

Also, Ms. Sincero seems to think that capitalizing a couple of nouns makes them something real. Source Energy is not a thing. Stop trying to make Source Energy happen, Gretchen. It’s not. Going. To happen.

I have to admit that I was turned off just pages in because this books seems to take a page out of Alcholics Anonymous: I have to believe in some “higher power.” Nopety nope nope. And that’s not to say that one shouldn’t believe in a higher power, or that I’m not super wrong in my lack of belief, or that it can’t play a role in this type of book, but I wish there had been some mention of this requirement on the back cover, because that would have let me know this book definitely was not for me, and saved me the time and money and Ms. Sincero this review.

There are like a million chapters, and each one is distilled down to a list, as though Buzzfeed decided to write a book based off of its early, less well-edited work.

Also, at one point the author talks about her life-changing visit to India. (She’s white. I know, you’re shocked.) White women (and men)? Can we please collectively agree to stop putting these types of things passages in books? No problem with traveling the world and learning about different cultures, but maybe keep it in your travel journal.

There’s a sort of odd recurring theme of money, as though that should definitely be a primary motivating factor. I know that we all have bills to pay and that we live in a society where money still matters, but I didn’t realize I’d picked up a ‘make money now!’ book. Sadly, that’s on me, because the line on the back cover is right there: “Make some damn money already. The kind you’ve never made before.” That should have been sufficient for me to put this back on the shelf, but alas, I missed it.

I can’t with this. This book isn’t one-star bad, but I’m having a really hard time thinking of someone I’d recommend it to, because if a person really is interested in finding good ways to make changes in their lives, I want better for them than this cobbled together treatise that seems to think that if we just wish hard upon a star and Stuart Smalley ourselves, then everything will fall into place.

 

Saturday

3

June 2017

0

COMMENTS

We Are Never Meeting In Real Life by Samantha Irby

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Five Stars

Best for: Anyone who enjoys a great collection of essays.

In a nutshell: Samantha Irby shares stories from her life that are at times so funny you’ll stop someone on the street to read a passage just so they can share in your joy.

Line that sticks with me: “No one ever tells attractive children how much they suck, and then the rest of us get stuck with insufferable, narcissistic adults who can barely tie their shoes because someone else is busy either doing it for them or congratulating them on their effort.”

Why I chose it: The cover. Seriously, look at it.

Review: I’m writing this review fewer than 24 hours after buying this book. I read it all evening on the walk to an event this morning, on two bus rides, and wile I inhaled my lunch. I kept yelling out passages to my husband, who kindly paused his video game and then found himself laughing along with me.

I’m late to the Samantha Irby game; this is her second collection of essays. But oh my god it is brilliant. There are parts of her life I can relate to (like just wanting to stay inside and not interact with others) and parts I can’t (like her experiences growing up) but I found myself riveted by every single essay.

I don’t want to spoil it for you, but there is an essay about the start of her relationship with her now-wife that I was not expecting but that was candid and hilarious and real. This is one of my favorites of the year for sure, and will likely get many re-reads in the years ahead.

Friday

2

June 2017

0

COMMENTS

Dying in the Twenty-First Century by Lydia Dugdale

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Three Stars

Best for: Philosophers who will have a chance to discuss the contents.

In a nutshell: Bioethicist and doctor compiles essays addressing how we die and if there is a way to revive the art of dying well.

Line that sticks with me: “We can’t talk about the art of dying without first accepting that we will die.” (p 174)

Why I chose it: A lot of folks who are dear to people who are dear to me have died over these past 18 months, so I decided to get philosophical on it and picked this out.

Review: This collection of essays seeks to answer the question of what role bioethics has in helping people ‘die well.’ This doesn’t mean people dying in a way that is convenient for others, but in a way that allows someone to make some sense of peace with the reality of their death and the life they have lived.

Some of the essays look at how death has been handled in the past, with ceremony and ritual. We still see some of that today, especially after the fact, with certain religious funeral services. But how much of what death means today involves things other than ‘extraordinary measures’ in a hospital room? One of the essays explores the concept of hospice and palliative care, examining whether the way it is practiced now allows people to be as present as they would like to be as they experience the end of their life.

Other topics explored are how far we should be going to extend lives. Just because a life can be extended, should it be? One author specifically argues that we shouldn’t require people to live beyond what they could have expected before medical technology took off in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s interesting to contemplate for sure.

One essay that the editor chose to include frustrated me to no end, as it took the position that the Catholic hospitals and health care practices are the best for compassionate care while examining the issue of end-of-life-care. I live in a state where many private hospitals are being purchased by Catholic ones, and these facilities have been shown to repeatedly cross the line when it comes to making the ‘death with dignity’ options known to their patients, not to mention the horror stories of women denied proper reproductive health care because abortion. I fully recognize the very important role that religion plays in death for so many people, so I’m not suggesting that the Catholic piece is what made this a bad essay; it was jut so ironically ignorant that I remain baffled at its inclusion in an otherwise fin collection.

If you are interested in this topic, I think this is a fine book to read. However, I would urge you to find a fellow reader so that you have someone to talk about each essay with. Some works can be fully absorbed and process internally (although you might want to tell the world about it, you don’t need to in order to really understand it); this book requires some internal and external reflection to really get the most from it.