Tag Archives: United States

Sula #BlackHistoryMonth

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Sula #BlackHistoryMonth

I have two goals for 2017: read books with positive representations of fat women, and read books I already own written by black women. So far, so good.

Today’s Review: Sula by Toni Morrison

Published in 1973 by Plume, originally by Knopf


Sula focuses on a few individuals who live in Medallion, Ohio, a place commonly referred to as “the Bottom.” We begin by learning about how the Bottom came to be, how National Suicide Day started, then move to Nel, her mother, and grandmother. Then, we meet Sula, her mother, grandmother, and a gaggle of “strays” that live with them. Sula and Nel are girls inseparable until one day Nel gets married and thus Sula leaves. Ten years pass, and when Sula returns it’s with bad omens galore. Their friendship can’t stand up under betrayal, especially since the two are so different as people now.

Basically, that’s the general plot of Morrison’s book. If you’re read anything by Morrison, though, you know it’s not always the plot, but how it’s told that is magic. Toni Morrison writes black pain like few can. The trauma characters face is both severe and beautiful as a result. For instance, the Bottom is established through trickery. We learn:

A good white farmer promised freedom and a piece of bottom land to his slave if he would perform some very difficult chores. When the slave completed the work, he asked the farmer to keep his end of the bargain. Freedom was easy — the farmer had no objection to that. But he didn’t want to give up any land. So he told the slave that he was very sorry that he had to give him valley land. He had hoped to give him a piece of the Bottom. The slave blinked and said he thought valley land was the bottom land. The master said, “Oh, no! See those hills? That’s bottom land, rich and fertile.”

“But it’s high up in the hills,” said the slave.

“High up from us,” said the master, “but when God looks down, it’s the bottom. That’s why we call it so. It’s the bottom of heaven — best land there is.”

Well, if you know anything about agriculture, you know that you can’t tend land up in the hills. Seeds and top soil wash away, it tends to be rocky, and because people are up high they are unprotected from wind and cold. The result of such trickery is life-long suffering, but Morrison also describes the Bottom as a unique home, a place people return to.

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Then, one young man leaves the Bottom to fight in WWI in France, 1917. Shadrack is hospitalized for years, but doesn’t know it, and is finally dumped  out of the institution because they’re tired of his aggressive behavior (which he didn’t know he had — he remembers only a few days of those years). Eventually, Shadrack makes it back to the Bottom where he becomes the town “idiot” of sorts, exposing himself to women and girls and peeing in public. He’s a drunk, someone who shouts at white people (and gets away with it, we’re told). He invents National Suicide Day as a result of his PTSD: if everyone dedicates themselves to dying, they won’t have to be anxious about when death will come for them. Now, it death always comes January 3rd. The story of Shadrack is amusing, odd, and sets the tone of trauma for the book.

Morrison sets up a history for our two main characters, Sula and Nel, but sometimes it doesn’t quite seem needed. Nel’s mother was raised by her grandma because her mother is a prostitute. We never hear of Nel’s mother again, though her story takes up a whole chapter is this very slim book (174 pages).

The intended emphasis of the entire novel is Nel’s and Sula’s friendship. They’re so close as girls they’re like one person. And yet, other than a brief mention of Sula cutting off a piece of her finger to scare away white boys who bully them, the big event that’s meant to convince readers that these girls are inseparable is a day when Sula and Nel play along the river. A small boy called Chicken Little plays with them. Then, as Sula swings him around by his hands, Chicken Little slips out of her grip and flies into the river, never to surface. Why these girls don’t run for help or try to save him is surprising, and the only thing I can come up with is perhaps they would be beaten for accidentally throwing a boy into the river or getting their clothes dirty should they try to save him (this is time of whippings for everything). The girls never tell anyone that they know how Chicken Little died, even as they watch his family wail at his funeral.

Since the book is so short, it can’t do everything. But I really wanted more to suggest Nel and Sula were best friends. Near the end, we learn Nel and Sula used to go with the same boys and then compare their kissing styles and pick-up lines. Why couldn’t we see this when they were girls? Overall, I didn’t feel the closeness Morrison wanted me to.

A theme I can’t fail to mention is sex. Morrison writes about sex in a way I didn’t know sex could be. Not the act, per se, but people’s feelings and reasons for it. “Empty thighs” is a concern for abandoned women. Promiscuous single women can be a help to wives, if she treats the man well, because it means the man has desirability. Sexual positions suggest power. Morrison will certainly get you thinking about sex in a new way.

However, Sula seemed like a book about Eva, Sula’s grandmother. She seemed Paul Bunyan legendary. Eva was abandoned by her husband, left with three children, nearly starved and frozen. Her youngest baby is screaming and can’t poop, so she uses the last of her lard and extracts the blockage from his read end. This story is pivotal; Eva is scared into doing something different because the baby’s death was too imminent that day. She leaves her kids at the neighbors and disappears — for 18 months. When she returns, she has money, one leg, and sets up a prosperous house.

Stray folks live in Eva’s new home: a white drunk who barely speaks who has pretty blonde hair, whom Eva calls Tar Baby; “the Deweys,” three boys who are at different times abandoned at Eva’s house. None of them look the same, yet no one can tell them apart. They are all called Dewey. Eva’s house is in constant motion, as people have sex, catch fire, are set on fire, leap out of windows. Yes, I know this sounds amazing, but it all happens. There was so much to mine from Eva’s parts that the titular character and her friend seemed back burner.

Not only that, but Sula remains unexplored in places. She goes away to college and travels the U.S., but when she comes back to the Bottom she seems almost unchanged. She values her mind, but it’s not really as a result of academic pursuit. More so, Sula isn’t hive-minded. She isn’t constrained by marriage. Is this what college taught her? What are her interests other than satisfying her sexual needs? Early in the book, Sula is an audience to events, but when she comes home she has opinions about that childhood that seem to come out of nowhere. I wasn’t ready for them and didn’t see the bridge. Again, did college change the way Sula analyzed her childhood?

Overall, the writing is superb and the story has many interesting moments, but the focus on Sula and Nel takes away from much of the rich places Morrison could have gone.

Review/Comparison of #HiddenFigures film and book

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Review/Comparison of #HiddenFigures film and book

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

published by William Marrow, 2016

and also

Hidden Figures directed by Theodore Melfi

released by 20th Century Fox, 2016


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If you’re from the United States, you know someone who has seen Hidden Figures and raved over the performances of leads Octavia Butler, Taraji P. Henson, and Janelle Monáe. The movie was based on a nonfiction work of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly. No one seems to be reading the book. The film follows the lives of three black female mathematicians at NASA in 1961-1962.

The book, however, looks at decades of scientists and mathematicians at NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) with the three women from the film tenuously holding the book together to create some “story.” There are dozens of employees at NACA who are featured, and it’s difficult to know who to remember and who’s just “passing through.” I kept highlighting the names of folks who never appeared on the pages again.

While the film is delightful, honors the lives of three black female mathematicians, and clearly has an agenda, the book is scattered, confusing, and wants to be both science and narrative.

The first thing I noticed is the writing is unclear at times. Shetterly’s words come in an awkward order at times:

As Dorothy learned — the West Area Computers received many assignments from the lab’s Flight Research Division — it was not good enough to say that a plane flew well or badly….”

A simple rewrite would make the sentence clearer: The West Area Computers received many assignments from the lab’s Flight Research Division, and Dorothy learned that it was not good enough to say that a plane flew well or badly….

I had trouble staying engaged while I was reading. Long passages about various scientists and mathematicians make my eyes play a game of Where’s Waldo, except instead of searching for a little man in a stripped shirt, I was looking for the stories of the three main characters I had seen in the film: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson. These women are few and far between, and the book rarely demonstrates a clear connection between them. Basically Dorothy is older, so she got to NACA first, thus opened the door for women like Jackson and Johnson. However, they don’t work together (to be fair, Johnson works for Vaughan for 2-3 weeks before she’s relocated).

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Left to Right: Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monae), and Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer)

While the film would suggest Vaughan, Jackson, and Johnson were best friends and rode to work everyday, the truth is they had other best friends, both black and white women. Many women are removed from the film, to consolidate characters I would image. Kirstin Dunst’s character (not in the book) comes out looking like a grumpy “my hands are tied” passive racist. At one point she says “Ya’ll should be thankful you even have jobs at all.” However, in Shetterly’s book, NACA heavily recruited from black colleges; these women were wanted and needed.

Furthermore, Shetterly emphasizes that Mary Jackson’s “treasured friend,” Gloria Champine, was a white woman, and their relationship was “one of the most poignant of all the stories” Shetterly heard during her research. They two worked together to help all women in the workplace advance, get hired, and gain independence from men.

One of the biggest climaxes of the film, featured proudly in the trailer for Hidden Figures, meant to highlight racial tension was Kevin Costner’s character bapping down a “Colored Girls” sign from above a restroom door. He did so because Katherine Johnson was gone from her desk too long, having to make the mile trip from her desk in one building to the “Colored Girls’ restroom on the other side of the NACA campus.

I was surprised to learn that Johnson never experienced problems with the bathroom; she was light-skinned enough that she “passed.” While author Shetterly doesn’t suggest Johnson lied about her race, she does write that Johnson happily avoided racism in her workplace, and even ate and played card games with her white male co-workers at lunch. Costner’s big dramatic moment was highly unnecessary — the focus tries to be on Johnson’s humiliation at having to run for a restroom, but the focus is wobbly at best. His character, though, was necessary, as he represented a mishmash of several white men working at NACA. When I watched the film, I appreciated that he spent most of his screen time pacing behind a glass window so as to stay out of the spotlight, but based on the book, Johnson interacted positively with her white colleagues frequently.

Instead, it was Mary Jackson who, on one occasion, had white women laugh at her because she asked where the “Colored Girls” restroom could be found — they giggled because their opinion was, “why should we know?” No one tore down the “Colored Girls” sign; it was simply gone one day. According to the Shetterly, racism existed in NACA as a result of what amounts to complacency. When Christine Darden, another woman left out of the film, couldn’t understand sexism at NACA, she asked her “boss’s boss’s boss”:

“Why is it that men get placed into engineering groups while women are sent to the computing pools?” Christine asked him. “Well, nobody’s ever complained,” he answered. “The women seem to be happy doing that. so that’s just what they do.”

Now, if you feel like I’m diminishing the struggles of black women (and men) in the space race, please try to understand. I’m simply pointing out that the film added a whole lot that didn’t happen and consolidated many people into one character. It suggested NACA was very “us vs. them,” and Shetterly doesn’t suggest that in her book at all. Whether the film or author is portraying the history incorrectly is not known to me. I do know that Shetterly writes in generalities instead of citing specific examples.

Of course there was racism in 1940s-1060s Virginia. What struck me was the vicious racism that happened around NACA in town that never made it to the film. When schools legally had to desegregate, one governor took all the money from a district that tried to comply with the law and shut down all the schools — for five years. Some white mothers screamed that they would rather have their kids out of school than sitting next to “a Negro.”

To me, this seemed way more important than a dramatic bathroom sign scene. If there’s anything Vaughan, Jackson, and Johnson stood for, it was a solid education. In their own state, a whole generation of children missed a large portion of their education (50% or more).

Both versions of Hidden Figures have value, but the audience for each is not the same. The nonfiction work is geared more toward history buffs with a solid grasp of science and math who care less about the people (there are a lot to keep track of) and more about the history of the science. The movie can be enjoyed by audiences from all walks who are looking for a powerful narrative the likes of which rarely appear in white-washing Hollywood. Then again, the film creates dualism that doesn’t exist in the book.

A Cute Tombstone #bookreview #readwomen #Russia

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A Cute Tombstone #bookreview #readwomen #Russia

A Cute Tombstone by Zarina Zabrisky

published by Epic Rites Press, 2013 (48 pages)

A Cute Tombstone includes two pieces, a short poem called “The Hat” and the main story. Before the poem is a beautiful black-and-white picture of a woman in a giant, fluffy black hat with bows on it. The woman herself is quite attractive and put together. In the poem, the hat first represents love, but the hat might disintegrate or be the woman herself (without a head) or be put on a man’s head or the woman’s head (it fits at first but then it doesn’t) until we’re uncertain what the hat means, as if there cannot be love because we don’t know what it means.a cute tombstone 2

Following the poem is the long story “A Cute Tombstone,” preceded by another black-and-white picture of a woman in simple clothes. Her portrait is beautiful, but comes from the era when smiles in pictures were not welcome, so she looks unhappy or mournful instead. In this title story, a Russian woman who moved to the U.S. 11 years prior gets The Hatthe call that her mother has died in Russia. The narrator reflects on the ease of death in the U.S. and that shoppers at Costco can sample nuts, buy Cheerios, or purchase a coffin. Before the mother died, Russia represented crazy, decadent summers of parties and friends for the narrator, but when she returns to make the funeral arrangements, she can’t help but note that everyone winks, the traditions try to overpower the individual’s wants, and there are always smells in the air that are unfamiliar to Americans: fish pies, vodka, raspberry marmalade. In this way, Zabrisky produces the experiences of a Russian through the lens of an American.

American readers see what’s unusual, and the details are enough to make the story’s setting and characters vividly “other.” When the narrator heads to a funeral portrait business to get her mother’s photo enlarged to put next to the closed casket, she notices the displays of others’ funeral portraits: “I imagine their lives: At six, they probably played with German trains and tanks—war souvenirs. At eighteen they were getting married in dresses made from curtains, airy veils and ill-fitted military uniforms—the women pregnant already.”

Zabrisky’s story is smooth and melodious. It’s important to read the punctuation carefully, the words slowly, to get the full poetic effect. A sentence may begin positively and end in a new place. You won’t be lost; she’ll lead you there, but if you read too fast, you’ll find you’re trying to gulp down your specially-made meal.

*Review originally published with some slight changes at TNBBC. Thank you to Zarina Zabrisky and Epic Rites Press for sending me this reviewer’s copy in exchange for an honest review.

Single Stroke Seven #readwomen #drummer #bookreview #20BooksofSummer

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Single Stroke Seven #readwomen #drummer #bookreview #20BooksofSummer

Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow

published by Casperian Books, March 2016

I write out alternate variations of the single stroke seven and point to each as I narrate the differences….[my percussion student] points to the clustered single stroke seven at the very bottom of the page and says, “I like this one. They’re all holding on to each other so no one’s lonely.”

And thus the reader learns what a single stroke seven is — a cluster of beats played on the drum. And yet this set of notes perfectly describes the main characters of Ludlow’s sophomore novel: four band mates in their late twenties or early thirties who live like homeless animals in a house (I’m now convinced you can be homeless in a house) that should be condemned. It’s all for the sake of their band of 14 years. But the problem is the band doesn’t rehearse or get gigs, and three of its members have day jobs at which they’re treated as sub-human. The emphasis is on the bad economy in an expensive state: California. Rent is $800 per month per person, the characters are starving, and one guy is on the brink of death from his diabetes and lack of insurance.

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One surprising element of Single Stroke Seven is that the narrator is a female drummer named Lilith. The book opens with her in the middle of a gruesome scene: she’s just mutilated a co-worker’s genitals:

Fuck. I can’t get fired, even if I am just a secretarial peon at a bottling plant festering on the lip of the San Francisco Bay like a puss-filled herpes sore. This sweatshop bailed me out of my decade-long gig as a contract janitor, doubled my hourly pay, freed up my nights and weekends, and guaranteed that I’d never have to touch another piss cake or sanitary napkin receptacle again. Four months in, I fuck up by doing something eccentric like hacking off Steve’s balls.

Okay, if that paragraph grossed you out, the whole novel is like this. The writing is hardcore and reminded me of a metal drummer — the beat never slows. When the band is all together, the wit is turned up, even if they’re discussing the grocery list on the fridge:

“Who the hell wrote organic coffee?” Nolan asks. “And what the hell is Wowgreen dish soap? We can’t afford to be pretentiously organic or pointlessly green.”

When the Lilith’s mom stops by to insult everyone, Nolan, without looking up, says, “I thought vampires had to be invited in.” These little moments of wit — a vampire trope, acknowledging the huge effort in the last several years to buy environmentally-friendly products — give the reader and characters an intellectual connection.

But, sometimes, those characters start to sound the same. You could either argue they all sound like Lilith, who tells the story from a first-person perspective, or you could say they all sound like author Lavinia Ludlow. Since other characters are quoted, and thus not what Lilith thinks someone said, the characters shouldn’t all sound like Lilith. Here is an exchange with the four band members present:

“My life is a circular wheel of death and I’m the egg salad sandwich no one buys ’cause it’s gross and soggy. That’s why I can only land champagne room and diet pill skanks.”

“You’re stultifying your narrative voice with inconsistent presentation of detail,” Duncan says.

“Thanks Maxwell Perkins, for your obscure syntax,” Nolan says. “What the hell is a circular wheel of death?”

“Those rotating refrigerating vending machines,” Colt says. “And I am the egg salad sandwich.”

“That is a fantastically depressing analogy,” Duncan says. “You’re rivaling Bukowski.”

“My purpose in society is becoming increasingly ambiguous,” Colt says.

Here, all three characters sound the same. They use larger vocabulary and make scholarly references. If the dialogue tags were removed, I wouldn’t be able to tell one person from another.

The minor characters all speak the same way, too, especially when it comes to the strange insults we use in the United States, which are often made up forms of real words. One of Lilith’s former college professors claims that Gary Busey is “acclaimed for being society’s utmost example of douchebaggery.” Her mother tells her, “You look like a child molester’s fantasy. And Plain Jane called. She wants her washed out face back.” Later, Lilith’s employer’s lawyer tells her she should resign because “there’s less paperwork for those Stretch Armstrong fingers of yours to have to fill out.” While the witty remarks are spot on in some places, when they’re handed over to minor characters, the voices all mesh, and I have a hard time believing the characters when the professionalism is absent from a professor, a psychologist, and a lawyer.

There were other places it was hard to suspend my disbelief. When Lilith is having a bad day, it’s because she’s starving, so she gorges a can of on-sale beef ravioli and then cuts her thumb on the lid of the can. She then ends up throwing up while driving because she ate too fast, causing her to crash her van onto her own front yard, which has a port-a-potty on it, causing feces to fly everywhere. When she gets out of the van to try and push it out of the yard (a fruitless effort; she weighs less than 100 pounds), she burns her face on the grill. Then, she falls in the crap, reaches into the van for a napkin, puts her hand in her own barf, and falls again. Her cut thumb gets infected/full of puss. This whole scene just seemed over-the-top. I understand fiction about rock ‘n’ roll life is mostly hardcore and disgusting, but there weren’t always enough lull moments to make the big gross moments mean something or have an impact on me.

Such catastrophes are describe with streams of hyphenated adjectives: “worlds-cleaner-than-what-I-have-caked-to-my-body clothes” and “driving-under-the-hurling-influence.” It’s just too much at times, like a drummer doing double bass drums for a whole song.

double bass heels

Of course I found a GIF with heels.

 

While the book goes at 100mph and doesn’t let up, it’s also relevant to today. Lilith describes the high gas prices, unemployment, rent hikes, stagnant wages, and lack of health insurance that affects her band over the years. At her secretarial job, she is promoted from hourly to salary, which is really a loophole to abuse workers. Lilith is at her job all day and night to accomplish work that’s due, but if she averages out her salary and the time spent at her job, she’s making less than minimum wage. Her boss heaps on new responsibilities without more wages, simply changing Lilith’s job title. She can’t protest, or she’ll be back in janitorial work. Nolan is the one who voices what a stable job actually means:

“I had to lose a great job to realize that I want structure in my life,” he says. “I want to work sixty hours a week, be part of a scrum team, and a victim of office politics and performance reviews. At least I’d know I was suffering in all the right ways….I want to feel protected under the wing of a major corporation. I need that false sense of security more than my next insulin shot.”

Lilith’s a hard to define person; she and her band live like the guys of Jackass fame. You wouldn’t know she’s a woman unless you’re told, which is a quality I like; she’s unique because she doesn’t conform to gender stereotypes. The main thing that made me hang on to this story was Lilith’s kindness. She’s always the first one to stop a fight, or volunteer to bail someone out of jail, or pay for Nolan’s COBRA insurance so he can get his insulin. Lilith surprises me.

She’s also susceptible to being used by Duncan. He’s the fourth band member, who is fantastically rich, but pretends he isn’t, and a psychopath, who watches his band mates creep toward death. He spends his days going on “danger missions,” which is how Lilith ends up with missing teeth, infected wounds, and a body ready to disintegrate. He takes Lilith’s last $40, eats her only food (condensed milk + water), and spoons her every night, which is enough love to keep her dangling so that she won’t leave the band, or him, or get a boyfriend. It’s a highly abusive relationship that Lilith returns to repeatedly. She notes that she quit “the San Jose Symphony, San Jose State University alumi band, and San Jose Taiko, even a paid gig with the San Francisco Symphony” as a percussionist to try to enact change with her music. But she admits to herself that she fears that if she leaves her band, Duncan won’t be there anymore, and an ounce of Duncan is worth it to Lilith. This abusive relationship is hard to read. Days after I’ve finished the book, I’m still mad about how sadistic Duncan is, how emotionally abusive to Lilith in a way that gets her to seek more. Lilith’s old college professor tells her she could could make six figures playing the tambourine in a professional orchestra, but she won’t hear of it, despite starvation, infection, abuse from her employer and co-workers, and eventual homelessness.

I want to shake Lilith, tell her to get her shit together and balance her life — money and art — but I have to remember that reading about someone who is unlike me is a good experience, no matter how frustrating. Women don’t need to be likable. Single Stroke Seven has some bumps from trying a bit too hard to be witty and gruesome, but it’s a good read, and I really wanted to know what happened to Lilith and Duncan’s situation, and the band’s, in the end.

Thank you to Lavinia Ludlow for sending me a copy of her book in exchange for an honest review. Read more about Ludlow’s work at her Meet the Writer feature!

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#20BooksofSummer

This book was read as part of Cathy 746‘s challenge to read 20 books between June 1st and September 5th. Here’s the roster:

  1. Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
  2. On Air by Robin Stratton
  3. Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
  4. Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz
  5. Retelling by Tsipi Keller
  6. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  8. The Thirteenth Earl by Evelyn Pryce
  9. Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody
  10. Terror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper (*might change ranking due to when book club meets)
  11. Of Zen and Men by Robin Stratton
  12. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  13. Anne of Avonlea
  14. Anne of the Island
  15. Anne of Windy Poplars
  16. Anne’s House of Dreams
  17. Anne of Ingleside
  18. Rainbow Valley
  19. Rilla of Ingleside
  20. The Brothers Karamzov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Harley & Me #bookreview #readwomen #harleydavidson #20BooksofSummer

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Harley & Me #bookreview #readwomen #harleydavidson #20BooksofSummer

Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy

published by Counterpoint Press, May 2016

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Harley and Me is a memoir about what it means to take risks. For Murphy, her risk-taking most noticeably began when she was a skateboarder in California. But a teen pregnancy followed by her baby’s adoption led Murphy into the arms of safety: marriage at 22 to a stable guy, 3 kids, house, university job, and what she calls a blanket of estrogen that kept her from doing anything too risky. But at 48 and contemplating divorce, Bernadette Murphy feels something unusual — something she wouldn’t image over the past 25 years of wife and mother — she wants to be fully alive, fully present, and not risk averse. Furthermore, she doesn’t want to do a “song and dance” to please men anymore.

I’ve been a passenger on motorcycles for 26 years. My parents have been riding my whole life. Before that, it was my paternal grandparents. You could say it’s a family thing! Go through my thousands of family photos and you’ll find dozens of motorcycle pictures from through the years, including strangers’ motorcycles (hey, if a bike looks good, you never want to forget it).

Far left: me leaning on my brother’s motorcycle circa 2004. Going to the right is my dad, brother, and granny on their newest rides circa 2016.

But Harley and Me is about a middle-aged woman getting a motorcycle, which isn’t terribly common — unless you’re my mom. Which is why I felt a great desire to read Murphy’s book when it popped up in my Twitter feed. I wanted to see how other women with nearly grown children felt about driving a “death machine,” as some paranoid people call them (as if we don’t die in cars).

Left: my sweet ma as passenger in the early 80s. Right: 4 motorcycles and 120,000+ miles later, my sweet ma today with her own award-winning motorcycle. I love the skeleton hands on the mirror!

Murphy really captures what it means to start riding a motorcycle. Her good friend Rebecca inherited a Harley dealership, which is how Murphy is lured into signing up for her motorcycle license. First, she must attend a week-long class. While most people have down the “look” of a biker (and I see this all the time — people who don’t own a motorcycle but do own an entire closet of leather and Harley-Davidson T-shirts), Murphy feels she does not. She shows up to class:

In baggy men’s Levi 501s, a stained T-shirt, gardening gloves, and hiking boots. I look more like a hired hand than a biker chick. At this moment, I’d love a pair of killer motorcycle boots.

Because I get what Murphy is saying about “the look,” I really enjoyed her descriptions and comparisons. Even when she dumps her bike the first time, she makes the scene come off the page:

I sit on the curb in front of the gas station’s convenience store. My hands shake. My mouth is dry. It feels as if all my blood has been exchanged for electricity. I am awash in shame. I don’t look like the badass biker chick I’m trying to become, but some kind of poseur who can’t control this machine, a pathetic girl trying to do something beyond her ability.

Here, I really felt for Murphy. Though pretty much everyone dumps their bike at one time or another, a woman doing so with witnesses serves as evidence that motorcycles are just “too much” for women. It’s scary to face those people shaking their heads, Murphy notes, wondering if she’s gone crazy and this is her mid-life crisis. A year later, she is divorced,and people wonder if the “crisis” caused Murphy to give up stability and comfort. The ability to take a chance, change her life, and try something brave had me nearly in tears for how safe and squishy I want to make my own life — truthfully, I felt like a wuss.

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Harley and Me provides plenty of commentary on feminism. Sometimes a whole book on feminism can be great, but when it’s woven into a personal narrative, the author can accomplish connections that might otherwise seemed forced. For instance, Murphy shares her love of Fonzie. Later, when talking to a male biker, he says he wishes he were the Fonz, and Murphy says she wanted to date the Fonz. But as the conversation changes direction, Murphy boldly confesses:

Actually, I take that back….I wanted to be Fonzie, too.

If Fonzie is cool, powerful, and slick, is he only a role model for men? Murphy proves no, and again I related to her inner complications about assigned gender roles. I often wished I had the power and energy and chaos that the men in my favorite rock bands, like the guys in Metallica, or Chris Cornell, or Tom Morello. Don’t we all wish to be seen and in control? For women, being seen is harder than men might think. We’re either invisible or on display like a prize cow.

Murphy breaks down stereotypes of women on bikes and how she doesn’t fit:

Just to get on a bike is to break prescribed gender roles even in this postfeminist age. By taking it one step further, refusing to be constricted by the typecast of the sexy biker mama or the hard-ass butch rider, is to accept one’s true sense of self. I like my motorcycle simply because I like to ride.

Her examination of stereotypes comes up again and again when she notes that her friend drives a pink motorcycle with Barbies attached to the sides, so everyone pays attention to her (and wants pictures). At biker events, women are almost always on the back (known as the “bitch seat” in biker culture) and are sure to have lots of skin showing, riding along in ridiculous spiked heels. After her divorce and bonding experience with her motorcycle, Murphy realizes she has a strong libido, and that to embrace it is not promiscuous or doing men a “favor,” but has to do with sex in biker culture.

There is a lot of useful information in Harley and Me, but this isn’t a book about discovering the love of riding. It’s about risk-taking. Murphy shares many (perhaps too many) articles and studies on the effects of taking risks on brain chemistry, how we strive our whole lives to create safety, but when safety is assured, our brains grown sluggish. We lack the brain chemistry that comes from risks, like learning a new language, taking up an instrument, sky diving, competing in a sport, getting a new job, dating, changing homes — or riding a motorcycle. I felt less wuss-like when I learned that “risk” isn’t defined by the activities from the X-Games; it’s what we personally consider risky.

I appreciated all the research Murphy did, but it really slowed down the memoir. Chapter 8 was terribly slow when she explained risk taking in a scientific sense, because she keeps explaining it. Basically, once we do something that makes us anxious because we took a risk, we get a hit of feel-good chemicals and want to do it again. This concept is restated at least a dozen times over the next 150 pages.

Part of reinforcing the theory that taking risks has made Murphy a dopamine fiend comes from personal evidence. There are many scenes in the 3rd part of the book: Murphy living in French Polynesia for three months, Murphy running a marathon there, scuba diving in the ocean, paddle boating, rock climbing, ice climbing. Each example comes with its own descriptions of how afraid she was, how she knows she can conquer fear, and how taking the risk will make her take new risks because she received those feel-good chemicals. Science was scattered throughout this section, too, and the book got so repetitive that I was forgetting the focus was Murphy’s relationship with her Harley-Davidson. I felt impatient and spacey.

The book ends with Murphy reiterating all the risks she’d experienced (though I’d just read them!) and taking a blood test to see if riding a motorcycle increases oxytocin. It was more science to prove that riding a motorcycle changed her life because it changed her chemistry, but I didn’t need it. I wanted more personal insights, more intense description that came earlier in the book, both when she described her current life and childhood. Including the numerous typos I spotted, I felt a stronger editor could have culled the best parts and made this into an educational, inspiring, feminist memoir.

I want to thank Bernadette Murphy and her publicist at Counterpoint Press for sending me a reviewer’s copy in exchange for an honest review. To learn more about Murphy’s writing, please check out her Meet the Writer feature!

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#20BooksofSummer

This book was read as part of Cathy 746‘s challenge to read 20 books between June 1st and September 5th. Here’s the roster:

  1. Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
  2. On Air by Robin Stratton
  3. Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz
  4. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (*might change ranking due to when book club meets)
  5. Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
  6. Of Zen and Men by Robin Stratton
  7. Retelling by Tsipi Keller
  8. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  9. The Thirteenth Earl by Evelyn Pryce
  10. Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody
  11. Terror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper (*might change ranking due to when book club meets)
  12. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  13. Anne of Avonlea
  14. Anne of the Island
  15. Anne of Windy Poplars
  16. Anne’s House of Dreams
  17. Anne of Ingleside
  18. Rainbow Valley
  19. Rilla of Ingleside
  20. The Brothers Karamzov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

 

Meet the Writer: Bernadette Murphy #interview #writerslife #harleydavidson

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Meet the Writer: Bernadette Murphy #interview #writerslife #harleydavidson

I want to thank Bernadette Murphy for answering my questions! Her bio and contact links are at the bottom of the page.

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Grab the Lapels: What is your writing process like?

Bernadette Murphy: I adore writing something new when it’s fresh and I have some idea of what I’m doing. That experience, unfortunately, doesn’t happen all that often. With new material, I’m often casting about, trying to figure out what I’m writing, what I’m trying to say. I hate that not-knowing stage, but I also know it’s necessary and doesn’t last forever – usually.

Revising, on the other hand, is more painless and I find it super creative. I love shaping a narrative, cutting it up into little bits and then reconstituting the whole once I’ve figured out what the main thing is I’m shooting for. I’ll often write a longish first draft, one that meanders and doesn’t quite know what it’s trying to be. But the revision stage, once I’ve done some thinking and non-thinking about “what is this about?” can be fun and magical. I love seeing how the shape starts to reveal itself, how, as I cut and hone and cut some more, the core idea begins to shimmer a bit and stand out from the background. So while I thrive on the energy that comes with starting something new and its freshness, I think I favor revising.

One of my early mentors, Leonard Chang (a novelist and now a writer for television) once told me this analogy: Other artists start out with some kind of media: paints and a canvas, a camera and an image, a piece of wood to be carved. Writers start out with nothing beyond the alphabet, little glyphs on a page. In writing the first draft, we create our medium. By the time we’re done with the first draft, about all we have is a big, wet pile of clay. The revision stage is where we really practice our art. That’s when make that clay into what we envision it as.

GTL: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

BM: I always wrote as a kid to make sense of life and to have someone to talk to. I grew up in a household of seven people with one bathroom. The only way to get privacy was to lock myself into the bathroom, climb in the tub and while soaking, fill pages of my Hang-Ten notebook. I never dreamed that I could pursue a career as a writer. It was just something I did.

In community college, I was double majoring in dance and marine biology (like those two go together!), obviously unsure what I was doing about a potential career. I was failing Chemistry and totally lost when the English teacher said, “Have you ever thought about being a writer?”

And the answer was “no.” I had never thought about it. It was like thinking I could be an astronaut or President of the United States. But once he planted that seed, my eyes started to open. At first, I studied journalism and started my career writing things other people wanted me to: journalism, public relations copy, ad copy. But in my 30s, I could finally identify the stories I wanted to tell, stories of the human condition and our struggles with it. I was finally ready to do so.

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GTL: Did you learn anything from writing Harley and Me?

BM: Oh my! Yes! I learned that a woman’s hormones basically trick her into being a master nurturer during the childbearing years but that, as we age, we become more like we were when we were younger, around age 11. I was much more gutsy and fearless when I was a kid, but while raising children, I became meek and skittish. It was a relief to realize that my ‘coming out’ as a risk taker was totally normal.

I also learned that I’m tougher and more resilient than I thought I was. Over the course of writing that book, I rode my motorcycle across the country and back, pursued a divorce after a 25-year marriage, lived on my own for the first time in my life, dated for the first time in a quarter of a century, moved to Mo’orea in French Polynesia for a while, and learned to ice climb, among other crazy things. I was shocked and amazed at what I did. Neighbors, my kids, and friends: everyone was shocked. But in a good way. I found out I’m braver than I would have guessed.

And that’s part of why I wrote this book. I think this can be the story for many people, but that unless they try something that feels risky to them – taking a drawing class, starting a business, training to run a 10K – they may never know. My wish is that Harley and Me will encourage people to try something new and discover that untapped reservoir of courage that’s waiting inside them.

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GTL: What did you want to be when you grew up, and does this choice influence your writing today?

BM: I was totally lost about what I wanted to be when I grew up, other than a dancing marine biologist! At one point, I thought I wanted to be a nurse, but that was because of cultural programming. Neither of my parents had attended college; they were emigrants from Ireland. I thought the only real choices were teacher or nurse.

The marine biology background shows up in Harley and Me in the chapter “Evolve or Die,” in which I wrote about the researchers on Mo’orea studying coral reef ecology and what they taught me about my need to “re-wild” myself. Also, I’ve been writing a couple of nature/biology pieces recently for Palm Springs Life Magazine lately that uses my biology background. My dance background led to my interest in all things fitness related, and shows up in Harley and Me when I run a half marathon in French Polynesia.

It’s interesting, though. Until you asked this question, I had no idea that those interests were in this book. Thank you for that.

GTL: You’re welcome! Does your writing include any research?

BM: All my books involve research, but this one, by far, included the most. I tapped into neuroscience, endocrinology, psychology, the study of happiness – everything I could find that would lend scientific backing to what I was exploring. I even had my blood taken before and after riding a motorcycle to see how my levels of testosterone, cortisol, and oxytocin changed as the result of riding. The basic question the book asks is twofold: 1) What in the world happened to me, that I suddenly wanted to do risky things when my kids were flying the coop? and, 2) Were these risky things good for me or harmful? I needed science and lots of experts to help me answer these questions in a legit way.

All the books I’ve written have included research because I like to use my experience not so much as the focal point of the story but as the lens to look at a larger question. For example, in Zen and the Art of Knitting, I looked into the creative, spiritual, and meditative qualities of knitting to help me understand my own response to it. I turn to science to help me comprehend what my story alone doesn’t fully reveal and to make my experience more universal.

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GTL: Finally, why do you think Harley and Me might be a good pick for a book club?

BM: We all have stories of wanting to do things that scare us and what we have to do to get ourselves over that hump – whether we’re talking skydiving, starting to date again after the end of a long-term relationship, or embracing our own creativity that may have gone dormant.

What’s fun about Harley and Me in a book club setting is that, while I found out I was stronger than I thought I was by learning to ride a motorcycle, other people have similar stories in totally different ways. We share these stories and by the end of the book club meeting, everyone has come up with a list of new things they want to try, coupled with a sense of community support as they make plans to do so. Plus, they now have the scientific backing that helps them see how and why risk makes us healthier neurologically, and the ways it enhances our neuroplasticity. (We also have fun saying big words like that, as if we know what we’re talking about.)

GTL: Thanks so much for visiting Grab the Lapels to share with readers who you are! Read my review of Murphy’s newest book, Harley and Me, HERE.


thumb_DSC04715_1024Bernadette Murphy served for six years as a weekly book critic for the Los Angeles Times, and has published three books of creative nonfiction: The Tao Gals’ Guide to Real Estate (with Michelle Huneven); The Knitter’s Gift; and the bestselling Zen and the Art of Knitting. Other essays and short stories have been in featured in anthologies, including: Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting, edited by Ann Hood; Wild with Child: Adventures of Families in the Great Outdoors, edited by Jennifer Bove and Mark Jenkins; My Little Red Book, edited by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff; Our Working Lives: Short Stories of People and Work, edited by Larry Smith and Bonnie Jo Campbell, and others. She currently serves as core faculty in creative nonfiction MFA program at Antioch University Lost Angeles.

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman #readwomen #bookreview @thelindywest

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Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman #readwomen #bookreview @thelindywest

*Author photo from The Guardian.

Shrill (May 2016, Hachette Books) is a collection of 19 essays from comedian/journalist Lindy West, who writes for The Guardian and has pieces at many websites, such as JezebelNew York TimesGQ, and The Stranger. I heard through a Tweet that her collection was being published, and I was instantly drawn to what I learned: West is smart, precise, funny — and fat. As a fat lady myself, I wanted to know more. Rarely do fat female role models appear in the United States (um, or elsewhere), so I put a hold on a copy at the library.

After I got into the book, I realized that I’ve read some of West’s articles in the above mentioned publications. I don’t often remember a writer’s name when I read an online article, but the piece she wrote that I remembered clearly describes the time a troll created an e-mail address and Twitter account using West’s recently deceased father’s name to humiliate and torment her. And then he later came out and apologized to her, which never, ever happens. The main themes of Shrill are fat shaming, rape culture, comedy, abortion, and trolls, and they’re all examined through a feminist lens.

Anytime I read about feminism, I instantly compare the work to Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. Gay is probably the most notable feminist of our generation. After reading Bad Feminist, I didn’t feel great. I was mostly confused and disappointed. It seemed like she was either telling personal stories, talking about how she likes things that most feminists feel oppress women (like Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”), and listing what she likes and hates (movies, books, etc.). I felt like Bad Feminist started as a listicle and ended up a book. Thesis statements? Not really. Organization? More like meandering. A call to action? I have no idea what Gay thinks feminists can do to move forward. I do not write to demean Gay’s book. But I do know that many other readers, according to Goodreads, found the same issues and are perhaps seeking a different contemporary feminist voice.

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Yes, West is a white woman and Roxane Gay is Haitian-American, but both women talk about intersectional feminism, so West is a good alternative if you are also an intersectional feminist. Both women included personal essays that appeared to have little to do with feminism. Both are hugely into pop culture (especially Twitter). But I felt West’s writing was clearer, more rhetorically sound, and presented solutions to problems feminists encounter.

Some examples of West’s intersection feminism include the socioeconomic. She talks openly about her abortion (and created #shoutyourabortion to de-stigmatize abortion rights) and how she discovered, “It didn’t occur to me, at the time, that there was anything complicated about obtaining an abortion. This is a trapping of privilege: I grew up middle-class and white in Seattle, I had always had insurance, and, besides, abortion was legal.” Later in the essay, West states what privilege is, referring to the abortion clinic making her promise to pay her bill instead of charging her up front like they’re supposed to: “Privilege means that it’s easy for white women to do each other favors. Privilege means that those of us who need it the least often get the most help.”

West again touches on intersectional feminism when she discusses fat-shaming, which makes fat women feel like they don’t deserve anything. She argues, “Denying people access to value is an incredibly insidious form of emotional violence, one that our culture wields aggressively and liberally to keep marginalized groups small and quiet.” Throughout Shrill, West considers feminism that benefit her more than women of color, with disabilities, etc.

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The best part of Shirll is that West helped me “figure out” my own feminism. While I feel that rape jokes are never, ever funny, I would not have an answer that appeased the folks who shout about freedom of speech, say “you’re just not funny,” or call you “too sensitive” for your claims. But West breaks it down. When she was younger, West constantly went to comedy clubs and saw rising stars (who are now super famous), like Patton Oswalt, Mitch Hedberg, Marc Maron, and Maria Bamford.

One night, a comedian was telling a joke about herpes, and everyone was laughing. Except West. She analyzes why she didn’t laugh. Because the comic wasn’t making fun of his herpes, the joke was designed to shame people who have herpes. Statistically, West points out, many people in the room have herpes. So why are they laughing? They laugh, she argues, because if they don’t, they will be outed for having herpes. The joke works “brilliantly”because there is no chance that people won’t laugh, essentially, because the comic was lazy enough to embarrass everyone into laughing. Those who don’t have herpes are now vindicated in their feelings that people with herpes are gross. This moment changed the way West felt about comedy, which led her into arguing publicly that rape jokes are not funny.

Rape jokes are not funny, West points out, because they come from a person of power profiting on the traumas of people with no power. She compares it to the CEO of a company getting up at the Christmas party and roasting the janitor for barely making enough money to feed his family. Similarly, a white man will most likely never be raped, nor will he fear being raped, nor does he have a game plan for how to avoid being raped and what to do if raped (women like me know these plans in detail). Therefore, the joke is funny to men. West was invited to debate Jim Norton on a TV show over the issue. If you know Norton, you know he’s a bit if a dark comic, and I’m not surprised he’s pro-rape jokes.

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What’s interesting is that West’s rhetoric was sound, but she didn’t change Norton’s mind. Off camera, he said he agreed that it’s wrong to take advantage of victims, but he was more concerned about free speech for comics. Norton felt that comedy didn’t translate into real life — that people who believe rape jokes are funny won’t go rape people. West disagreed, and then something happened…

Jim Norton fans bombarded West’s Twitter feed, e-mail, the comment section sof her articles — all over the internet. They wrote things about raping her, thinking she’s too fat to rape, cutting her up with an electric saw, etc. Norton had to admit that his fans were being aggressive and translating the “right” to tell rape jokes into real-life rape threats. He even wrote an article asking his fans to cool it. This was in 2010. West notes that since then, the comedy scene has changed; comedians are changing their tune. Thinking about how speaking up helped, and how using the rape threats to make a point helped, changed the way I thought about treading the internet, and about the maxim “Don’t Feed the Trolls,” with which West disagrees. Why should women be silent?

West also argues that fat is a feminist issue. She notes, “You have to swallow, every day, that you are a secondary being whose worth is measured by an arbitrary, impossible standard, administered by men.” West also describes how as a fat child, she was so ashamed of her body that it kept her silent. Women, both online and in life, are silenced constantly. Heartbreakingly, West explains that as a child, “[she] got good at being early on — socially, if not physically. In public, until [she] was eight, [she] would speak only to [her] mother, and even then, only in whispers, pressing [her] face into her [mother’s] leg.” West doesn’t have these earth-shattering traumas to report (if I compare her to Jessica Valenti, for example, whose new memoir catalogs all the sexual trauma she’s experienced). Yet, she is affected for most of her life by fat-shaming and the way it shuts her down as a woman, helping me to think more about my own silences — and the voices we’re missing from other fat people. There’s no need to compare traumas (sexual, emotional, physical) and decide whose is worse by some made-up standard. Traumas that shut women down are all appalling.

No matter what she’s writing about, West is ridiculously funny. She starts Shrill by describing all the fat female role models from her childhood, a list that included Auntie Shrew, Lady Cluck, The Trunchbull, and Ursula the Sea Witch. There are almost none, is the point. But did you ever wonder why King Triton is so ripped? West writes, “History is written by the victors, so forgive me if I don’t trust some P90X sea king’s smear campaign against the radical fatty in the next grotto.” Oh, man! I almost died!


auntie shrew      lady kluck3      the trunchbull      ursula2


In a nutrition class West signs up for, back when she felt like she needed to lose weight to be somebody, the teacher tells the students that if they get hungry after breakfast at 7Am and before lunch at 1PM, they should have 6 almonds. If they’ve gone over their “almond allotment, try an apple. So crisp. So filling.” West remembers, “Then everyone in nutrition class would nod about how fresh and satisfying it is to just eat an apple.” Lindy West labels this scene…wait for it… “the Apple Appreciation Circle-Jerk Jamboree.” I laughed so hard about this I called my mom and read her the scene! My mom, too had experienced such a class years ago.

Here’s one more great line: West compares her first experience in first-class flying and compares her seat to the ones in coach: “It has succeeded at being a chair instead of a flying social experiment about the limits of human endurance.” I read this passage at work and started cackling, despite the dead silence of the building.

Sometimes I wondered if I found Shrill so terribly funny and relevant because I am a fat woman. I tried reading passages to my husband, who didn’t laugh as much as I did, but he’s also a thoughtful person who may dismiss the humor and feel bad, wondering instead if I’m feeling bad for having read about fat-shaming and rape. My verdict is you must read this book. Lindy West is a feminist who’s doing something; she fought –with results — the fat-shaming that became acceptable around 2005, rape jokes in 2010, and internet trolls who make the internet unsafe for women.

Bright-Sided

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brightsided“Keep Calm and Stay Positive.”

“Everyday is a second chance.”

“S.M.I.L.E.–See Miracles in Life Everyday.”

“Positive Mind. Positive vibes. Positive life.”

I ask myself, what do positive quotes teach us, other than “every day” and “everyday” are used interchangeably without fail? Barbara Ehrenreich, a highly credible journalist with 16 books under her belt and whose work appears in college textbooks, must have asked a similar question before she started writing Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America. Published in 2009 by Metropolitan Books, Bright-Sided is the examination of positive thinking, both in the individual and how it became a product, and how positive thinking developed and changed the American landscape. Ehrenreich uses personal anecdotes, along with dozens of sources, to examine the bad side of happy. Early on, Ehrenreich defines “positive thinking” for readers, establishing her key term so that everyone works with the same definition. This move demonstrates the willingness to reach out to her audience and clarify the abstract term.

Bright-Sided is an academic text, though the content affects the average American–especially the blue- and white-collar workers. The diction is complicated at times, and I see the moves Ehrenreich makes to integrate and effectively use sources. Of course, I am an English professor, so understanding rhetorical moves is part of my job. However, I can see how the book would turn off some readers for its level of difficulty.

Bright-Sided is a book many will shun for the subject matter alone. Americans love happiness. But Ehrenreich’s credibility is not to be pushed aside. First, the author’s impressive resume establishes her credibility; she is someone we should listen to because she’s devoted her life to uncovering unfair practices in the United States. Secondly, the author isn’t only a journalist; she has a PhD in biology, from which she lends expertise to examine happiness peddlers who claim that biology and happiness are related, and explaining equations that don’t actually work in the laws of science. Thirdly, Ehrenreich uses personal anecdotes from her experience with breast cancer.

The author describes the way cancer patients are told that a positive attitude can help their survival rate, but then supports her theory that positive thinking is useless by quoting studies that find positive-minded patients are no more likely to beat cancer than those who aren’t. The only people who benefit from positive attitudes in the cancer ward, says Ehrenreich, are the nurses and family members, who are worn down by sadness and death.

The author also investigates breast cancer charities and how they (possibly unintentionally) infantilize women. Everything is pink, supporters buy teddy bears, and female patients are given care packages that include crayons. Ehrenreich wonders if men are given the same tools of self-expression. Though there aren’t as many studies and quotes in this section, the author’s curious attitude and personal experience make her argument believable.

One thing many “positive thinking” coaches tell their clients is to avoid the news. Ehrenreich furthers her argument that positive thinking is undermining American by pointing out that news allows its consumers to make change, petition, or even maintain awareness. Sure, you may be sad, but you can also send money to funds after a natural disaster, for example, to help those in need. Ignorance doesn’t benefit anyone, except the ignorant person. Looking at news consumption helps the author solidify her point that Americans are weakened by the desire to be happy no matter what.

After her personal anecdote and researching the business of selling happiness, Ehrenreich steps back to look at the source of positive thinking in America: Calvinism. People were so depressed due to their restrictive religion that practically forbids happiness that their feelings manifested in bodily illness. Now, here is where things got confusing for me. If a positive attitude doesn’t lead to a more healthy physical state, why does depression cause bodily harm? I never found a satisfactory reason in Bright-Sided, but that may be due to the book getting more complex. Take this passage, for example, a response to “New Age” positive thinkers bringing quantum physics into the happiness debate:

In the words of Nobel physicist Murray Gell-Mann, this is so much “quantum flapdoodle.” For one thing, quantum effects comes into play at a level vastly smaller than our bodies, our nerve cells, and even the molecules involved in the conduction of neuronal impulses. Responding to What the Bleep Do We Know?, which heavily invokes quantum physics to explain the law of attraction, the estimable Michael Shermer notes that “for a system to be described quantum-mechanically, its typical mass (m), speed (v) and distance (d) must be on the order of Planck’s constant (h) [6.626 x 10 to the -34 power joule-seconds],” which is far beyond tiny.

If you stopped reading my quote, I’m not surprised. I have a basic understand of biology, but here Ehrenreich is asking the reader to follow along with a basic understanding of quantum physics, which I haven’t studied, nor do I recall learning about in physics class back in 12th grade. Who is the audience, I ask? Perhaps the author had faith that her readers would take her interpretation of Shermer’s quote (“which is far beyond tiny”) as is, and I understand that she’s basically saying that quantum theories can’t be applied to happiness because our bodies are too big (for what, I’m not sure), but I do know that I don’t like guessing at what an author means.

After her exploration of quantum physics and Calvanism, Ehrenreich discusses mega-churches. Here, I was engaged again. The thing I like best about Barbara Ehrenreich’s work is that she doesn’t only research her topic, she gets in there—good old-fashioned investigative journalism. So, there she is, in the mega-church, a place I find ridiculous for its distant relationship to church, a point Ehrenreich gets to. Mega-churches don’t have crosses or steeples or communion. They’re often set up in old warehouses, staff hundreds of people, and break out feel-good guitar music. The “pastor” isn’t necessarily a religious person, but rather a spiritual peddler. There is no requirement of seminary school or Bible study or anything, other than how to SELL. Selling happiness is what it’s about. The author brings in some bemusing and amusing claims from religious leaders of mega-churches, such as the “pastor’s” wife who didn’t have money for a plane ticket and prayed (or yelled at?) God to make that plane ticket ready when she got to the airport or else. The plane ticket is an example of the “laws of attraction” principle that positive thinkers apply to happiness. If you want it hard enough, if you think about it excessively, the thing you want (money, job, love, etc.) will know you’re putting your vibe out there and come to you. Ehrenreich isn’t poking fun at the woman; in fact, the author is always a bit distant, a requirement for a good journalist whose job is to deliver information, not distort it with personal bias.

At the end of this 235-page piece, Ehrenreich really hits her point home by looking at contemporary America, including how businesses bring in positive-thinking coaches and buy positive-thinking books for each of their employees, amounting to hundreds of books for some companies, causing works like Who Moved My Cheese? to hit the bestseller list. The funny thing is I remember my mom’s boss giving everyone Who Moved My Cheese? and reading it myself. Such books convince readers that being fired is just a “new opportunity” and that anger or sadness for losing a job is “whining.” We’ve shamed ourselves into being happy, essentially, and also made ourselves more careless:

Robert Reich once observed, a bit ambivalently, that “American optimism carries over into our economy, which is one reason why we’ve always been a nation of inventors and tinkerers, of innovators and experimenters….Optimism also explains why we spend so much and save so little….Our willingness to go deep into debt and keep spending is intimately related to our optimism.”

Again, Ehrenriech uses a source to support her claims that the desire to be happy all the time is weakening our country. In fact, she has 16 pages of end notes, for which I am impressed. When I look at my course textbook, essays are published without so much as a citation, for a reason unknown to me, but I do know that giving credit to sources bolsters Ehrenreich’s credibility and demonstrates the huge amount of research that went into the topic.

Lastly, the author looks at the flip side of the argument: if we shouldn’t be happy, are we supposed to be sad? No, the author argues. While these are polar emotions, they are not the only ones. Diligence is what keeps us from making stupid decisions. Notice how animals are always on alert, the author notes, and that if danger presents itself, animals in a group sound the alarm. The goal is to “see things as they are.” She notes the emphasis in college on critical thinking, which involves asking questions to get to the truth of things, and I can verify that lessons on critical thinking are in every Composition textbook I see. While I appreciated Ehrenreich’s response to how people should be, I wanted to see more of her sources. Mostly, she offers brief examples, such as how pilots don’t “hope” they can land the plane, and that politicians don’t cross their fingers to win an election; they work hard to make the reality they most desire happen. It’s in this final chapter that the author pulls way back on studies and anecdotes and hopes—maybe just a little—that her readers agree with reality as a better option than blind happiness.

*This book was procured from my public library. I have no personal nor professional relationship with the author.

Gag

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GagGag by Melissa Unger

Pages: 141

Publisher: Roundfire Books

Released: 2014

Gag starts out with a simple idea: Peter, a native of Brooklyn, stopped eating 15 years ago. How does he fit into a society that often schedules its activities around eating? His solution is to head to Paris, the food capitol of the world. On the plane ride over, he meets Dallas, a large red-headed Texan man who will challenge Peter’s very notions of what is truth, what is reality—even when Peter doesn’t, or even can’t, believe what he’s hearing.

This is a short little book that tends to read with the ferocity of a well-developed post-modern short story (like “Cavemen in the Hedges” or “Stone Animals”). For that reason, I enjoyed it very much. Post-modern stories can often be crazy, whimsical, or downright odd because readers will just go with it for a certain amount of time. Novels can’t make readers suspend disbelief for too long, lest they become silly or ridiculous. Unger flows back and forth between making me disbelieve her characters and making me understand that unusual things happen to people. Just when the plot felt like it couldn’t keep up its strangeness, a character would do something normal, like crochet or go for a walk to reel me back in.

Part of the charm of Gag is that it’s funny. When Peter gets on the plane to head to Paris, he realizes that no one is sitting next to him. Until—

“…the inevitable happened: loud, fat, male and smelling slightly of refried beans.

‘Hiya! Mind if I squeeze in there, buddy?’

Well of course I do, you bovine monster, Peter thought to himself, averting his gaze, repulsed; but he got up silently and let the man through.”

There is quite a bit about being fat and consuming food in this book. At one point, Peter tries to force himself to eat an éclair while in Paris: “He impulsively grabbed it, and swung his hand up to his mouth. It was closed. He wiled his brain to send a message to his mouth, to open up, but the wires were somehow crossed, the message didn’t get through. He knocked and knocked at the door of his mouth, the éclair smashing repeatedly against his face, to no avail. He stopped. The éclair was now a pulp of brown goo in his fist, and on the edge of his vision when he looked down, he could see the blurred bits of slop on his nose and mouth.”

At times, though, it seemed like the story was sending a fat-hate message. One character can’t see herself as a woman when she is heavier. At one point, she is so thin that she looks “frail, possibly delicate, like a paper cut-out of herself, yet to [Peter] she looked extraordinarily beautiful.” I was troubled by the idea of a woman looking so different that she is not quite herself, yet this is when she is most gorgeous. The book repeats this message throughout.

Overall, Gag is a story about trust and secrets, but it’s delivered in a way that seems more about the absurd and metaphor. There are a number of comma splices throughout the book, but if you overlook those, you will enjoy this curious story. So much of what’s great about this book would spoil the story if I discussed it further, so check it for yourself.

This review was originally published at TNBBC

Bad Feminist

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71BKpcWC4bLBad Feminist (Harper Perennial, 2014) by Roxane Gay is a collection of essays, many of which have appeared online at places like The RumpusJezebel, and Buzzfeed. The book is broken into sections:

  • Me
  • Gender & Sexuality
  • Race & Entertainment
  • Politics, Gender & Race
  • Back to Me

Each section has a number of essays that address the topic of the section.

Several times, Gay tries to define feminism and understand her relationship to the idea. She notes, “Feminism has helped me believe that my voice matters, even in this world where there are so many voices demanding to be heard.” This is from the introduction, which first tells the reader that Gay is a bad feminist–someone who believes in equality and thinks sexism is institutional, but who also contradicts what some people believe is feminism.

A number of essays seemed without a thesis, which caused the content to seem only loosely related. “Bad Feminist: Take One” (which appears at the very end of the collection) begins by defining feminism (though I’m not sure why she’s doing this again–to come full circle?). Gay quotes a number of women who identify as feminist and then those who don’t due to the harsh connotations. Gay admits she has trouble being called a feminist for the same reasons: “I sometimes cringe when I am referred to as a feminist, as if I should be ashamed of my feminism or as if the word ‘feminist’ is an insult. The label is rarely offered in kindness.” She discusses stereotypes of feminists and how “sex-positive feminism” was born (to show which feminists don’t hate sex). She gives examples of wealthy or famous women who have made it who don’t call themselves feminists. Then, Gay describes how discouraged she is that feminism doesn’t really include women of color who face different kinds of struggles that white women don’t. The essay then describes Elizabeth Wurtzel’s idea that feminism needs to have work/life balance followed by an introduction to Anne-Marie Slaughter, who wrote an article about the struggle of feminists to have it all. Finally, Roxane Gay ends with discussing the book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg–and spends about 6 pages discussing the problems with this book and when the author should be forgiven. Why is so much time dedicated to just Sandberg’s book? By the end of the essay, I wasn’t sure what the point was that Gay wanted to make. Did Gay work to define feminism, give a brief history of recent views of feminism, or mean to deconstruct Sandberg’s book?

The various essays have differing tones. I tended to like the articles that were personal. For example, “Bad Feminist: Take Two” seems much more heartfelt. Roxane Gay writes about her own struggles with feminism and the way she doesn’t quite fit into what she thinks the definition of a feminist is. This essay is a breath of fresh air, one that seems honest and suggests that readers not simply follow her advice, but to consider their own positions. However, I’m not sure why she discusses her own views on feminism in multiple essays and felt that editing to create one essay on Gay’s “bad feminism”–even if she did write about it multiple times on various websites–was needed. The essay on Scrabble also gave some great insight into the author’s personality. When she beats a man whom she considers her personal Scrabble enemy, she runs into the bathroom, hides in a stall, and does a fist pump while repeatedly whispering “I beat you!” Here, Gay shines as a unique personality that I wanted to get to know better.

Many of the essays left me feeling just…bad. I get that we have to go to uncomfortable places to understand societal issues, but sometimes the negativity left me with no direction. For instance, when Roxane Gay discusses movies, she hates the recent movies that discuss black lives because she’s tired of seeing stories about slaves. She’s over it. But, she barely talks about movies about contemporary black lives that she does support. She lists a few–Love & Basketball, The Best Man, The Best Man Holiday–but she doesn’t say much about them. She gives more attention to Fruitvale Station, but it wasn’t always clear what made this movie better. I do understand that Gay is pointing out that people of color shouldn’t feel thankful simply because they’re included: “Here is popular culture about people who look like me. That’s all I should need, right? Time and again, people of color are supposed to be grateful for scraps from the table. There’s this strange implication that we should enjoy certain movies or television shows simply because they exist.” However, I felt that without some guidance as to what kinds of movies/TV she feels would be successful representations of black lives, the book left me just feeling grumpy, and not supportive.

Some of the articles brought together media quotes, such as “The Alienable Rights of Women”. What was interesting is that Gay used quotes from articles off of social media that I remember seeing when they first were released, typically stupid things conservatives have said about rape, contraception, and abortion. The essay puts these quotes together and adds some information from how abortions were conducted centuries ago, but I struggled to see what Gay was contributing that was new. Part of the blogging world is collating information and adding our two cents; however, in book form, the essay had less impact because it is now a “million” years old in internet time. Mostly, I gathered that the current politics around reproductive rights scares the author.

Where Roxane Gay shined the most was when she was right in her element: discussing literature. Gay analyzes her love of the Hunger Games series and how damaging the Fifty Shades series is to women. She looks at how women who behave badly are hated by critics, and that people often attribute mental illness to such characters. In another essay, “Beyond the Measure of Men,” Gay explores the publishing industry and how it is gender biased:

“There are books written by women. There are books written by men. Somehow, though, it is only books by women, or books about certain topics, that require this special ‘women’s fiction’ designation, particularly when those books have the audacity to explore, in some manner, the female experience, which, apparently, includes the topics of marriage, suburban existence, and parenthood, as if women act alone in these endeavors, wedding themselves, immaculately conceiving children, and the like.”

In this essay, she gives the readers something to chew on, something we can do:

The solutions are obvious. Stop making excuses. Stop saying women run publishing. Stop justifying the lack of parity in prominent publications that have the resources to address gender inequity. Stop parroting the weak notion that you’re simply publishing the best writing, regardless. There is ample evidence of the excellence of women writers. If women aren’t submitting to your publication or press, ask yourself why, deal with the answers even if those answers make you uncomfortable, and then reach out to women writers.

Although I can’t expect one author to offer solutions to every issue that plagues a nation, when she does give some ideas, I finished the essay and wanted to take action. I’m not asking to leave each essay with warm and fuzzies, but in contrast, so many were negative and without suggestions that the collection began to wear on me, like someone telling me I’m unhealthy and saying I should do something about it, but not brainstorming suggestions to get me started. “Beyond the Measure of Men,” with its advice, gave me room to breathe.

In the end, I wanted more breathe room, more Roxane Gay herself. Unfortunately, at times, she drowns out her own voice by quoting media and bringing up enormous issues with no hope of addressing them or working to correct those problems, even in small ways, even in ways that she herself practices.