mini-review · stuff I read

I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution by Emily Nussbaum

42815538._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
From The New Yorker’s fiercely original, Pulitzer Prize–winning culture critic, a provocative collection of new and previously published essays arguing that we are what we watch.

From her creation of the first “Approval Matrix” in New York magazine in 2004 to her Pulitzer Prize–winning columns for The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum has known all along that what we watch is who we are. In this collection, including two never-before-published essays, Nussbaum writes about her passion for television that began with stumbling upon “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”—a show that was so much more than it appeared—while she was a graduate student studying Victorian literature. What followed was a love affair with television, an education, and a fierce debate about whose work gets to be called “great” that led Nussbaum to a trailblazing career as a critic whose reviews said so much more about our culture than just what’s good on television. Through these pieces, she traces the evolution of female protagonists over the last decade, the complex role of sexual violence on TV, and what to do about art when the artist is revealed to be a monster. And she explores the links between the television antihero and the rise of Donald Trump.

The book is more than a collection of essays. With each piece, Nussbaum recounts her fervent search, over fifteen years, for a new kind of criticism that resists the false hierarchy that elevates one form of culture over another. It traces her own struggle to punch through stifling notions of “prestige television,” searching for a wilder and freer and more varied idea of artistic ambition—one that acknowledges many types of beauty and complexity, and that opens to more varied voices. It’s a book that celebrates television as television, even as each year warps the definition of just what that might mean.

I’m not really much of a television watcher these days – for some reason multi-episode stuff isn’t doing it for me – but I do love criticism about it. I’m not going to get to most of the television shows I’d maybe like to watch – there are only so many hours in a day and after working most of them I have to share my leisure time with books and movies and cats and knitting and (occasionally) spending time with other humans – so I don’t mind getting spoiled for something I haven’t been watching and perhaps only plan to watch after the whole thing is done.

I’d read a number of Emily Nussbaum’s The New Yorker essays previously so I already knew that I would enjoy I Like to Watch immensely. Some essays are more reviews of a show’s season or finale, some are more of a critical look back. Two of the essays are completely new – which in my opinion was too few. I would have loved a better balance of older pieces and new cross-topic pieces. Out tomorrow!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

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mini-review · stuff I read

Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language by Amanda Montell

41716694._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
The word “bitch” conjures many images for many people but is most often meant to describe an unpleasant woman. Even before its usage to mean a female canine, bitch didn’t refer to gender at all—it originated as a gender-neutral word meaning genitalia. A perfectly innocuous word devolving into a female insult is the case for tons more terms, including hussy, which simply meant “housewife,” or slut, which meant “untidy” and was also used to describe men. These words are just a few among history’s many English slurs hurled at women.

Amanda Montell, feminist linguist and staff features editor at online beauty and health magazine Byrdie.com, deconstructs language—from insults and cursing to grammar and pronunciation patterns—to reveal the ways it has been used for centuries to keep women form gaining equality. Ever wonder why so many people are annoyed when women use the word “like” as a filler? Or why certain gender neutral terms stick and others don’t? Or even how linguists have historically discussed women’s speech patterns? Wordslut is no stuffy academic study; Montell’s irresistible humor shines through, making linguistics not only approachable but both downright hilarious and profound.

Wordslut is an interesting overview of the English language and the ways that words have shifted meaning over time to become more or less genered, patririarchal, racist, bigoted, etc. There’s a really great chapter on uptalk and vocal fry and one on whether there is a “gay voice”. Lots of sources cited on the page.

Dear FTC: I started reading a digital galley, but it expired and I had to borrow a copy from the store to finish it.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas

42129087Summary from Goodreads:
Stories provide portals into other worlds, both real and imagined. The promise of escape draws people from all backgrounds to speculative fiction, but when people of color seek passageways into the fantastic, the doors are often barred. This problem lies not only with children’s publishing, but also with the television and film executives tasked with adapting these stories into a visual world. When characters of color do appear, they are often marginalized or subjected to violence, reinforcing for audiences that not all lives matter.

The Dark Fantastic is an engaging and provocative exploration of race in popular youth and young adult speculative fiction. Grounded in her experiences as YA novelist, fanfiction writer, and scholar of education, Thomas considers four black girl protagonists from some of the most popular stories of the early 21st century: Bonnie Bennett from the CW’s The Vampire Diaries, Rue from Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, Gwen from the BBC’s Merlin, and Angelina Johnson from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. Analyzing their narratives and audience reactions to them reveals how these characters mirror the violence against black and brown people in our own world.

In response, Thomas uncovers and builds upon a tradition of fantasy and radical imagination in Black feminism and Afrofuturism to reveal new possibilities. Through fanfiction and other modes of counter-storytelling, young people of color have reinvisioned fantastic worlds that reflect their own experiences, their own lives. As Thomas powerfully asserts, “we dark girls deserve more, because we are more.”

The Dark Fantastic is a very thought-provoking examination of race in media and young adult speculative fiction through the lens of the “Dark Fantastic” (spectacle, hesitation, violence, haunting, and emancipation). Thomas uses four key Black characters – Rue from The Hunger Games, Gwen from BBC’s Merlin, Bonnie from CW’s The Vampire Diaries, and Angelina Johnson from Harry Potter – to explore this cycle and how fan-fiction and counter-storytelling are changing these characters in the fandom. This monograph sits between popular lit-crit and academic theory so be ready for a more formal argument.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker by Damon Young

40652123Summary from Goodreads:
From the cofounder of VerySmartBrothas.com, and one of the most read writers on race and culture at work today, a provocative and humorous memoir-in-essays that explores the ever-shifting definitions of what it means to be Black (and male) in America

For Damon Young, existing while Black is an extreme sport. The act of possessing black skin while searching for space to breathe in America is enough to induce a ceaseless state of angst where questions such as “How should I react here, as a professional black person?” and “Will this white person’s potato salad kill me?” are forever relevant.

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker chronicles Young’s efforts to survive while battling and making sense of the various neuroses his country has given him.

It’s a condition that’s sometimes stretched to absurd limits, provoking the angst that made him question if he was any good at the “being straight” thing, as if his sexual orientation was something he could practice and get better at, like a crossover dribble move or knitting; creating the farce where, as a teen, he wished for a white person to call him a racial slur just so he could fight him and have a great story about it; and generating the surreality of watching gentrification transform his Pittsburgh neighborhood from predominantly Black to “Portlandia . . . but with Pierogies.”

And, at its most devastating, it provides him reason to believe that his mother would be alive today if she were white.

From one of our most respected cultural observers, What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker is a hilarious and honest debut that is both a celebration of the idiosyncrasies and distinctions of Blackness and a critique of white supremacy and how we define masculinity.

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker is one of the new Discover titles at the store. Young uses the form of the essay to both tell his own story of growing up black in Pittsburgh AND write about the culture around him. He has a sharp turn of phrase and a dry humor that I really enjoyed. There is a lot to think about here, from ripping culture, to masculinity, to use of the N word in black culture, to his lack of an driver’s license and how that impacts employment, to his new identity as a parent. I really appreciated how he constructed the chapter about his mother’s illness and death then commented on how the white medical establishment views black women’s pain and bodies; very well-crafted.

What Doesn’t Kill You Doesn’t Make You Blacker is out now in the US.

Dear FTC:

mini-review · stuff I read

Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession by Alice Bolin

36461782Summary from Goodreads:
A collection of poignant, perceptive essays that expertly blends the personal and political in an exploration of American culture through the lens of our obsession with dead women.

In her debut collection, Alice Bolin turns a critical eye to literature and pop culture, the way media consumption reflects American society, and her own place within it. From essays on Joan Didion and James Baldwin to Twin Peaks, Britney Spears, and Serial, Bolin illuminates our widespread obsession with women who are abused, killed, and disenfranchised, and whose bodies (dead and alive) are used as props to bolster a man’s story.

From chronicling life in Los Angeles to dissecting the “Dead Girl Show” to analyzing literary witches and werewolves, this collection challenges the narratives we create and tell ourselves, delving into the hazards of toxic masculinity and those of white womanhood. Beginning with the problem of dead women in fiction, it expands to the larger problems of living women—both the persistent injustices they suffer and the oppression that white women help perpetrate.

Sharp, incisive, and revelatory, Dead Girls is a much-needed dialogue on women’s role in the media and in our culture.

This is an interesting collection of essays. Parts 1 (“The Dead Girl Show”) and 3 (“Weird Sisters”) are the strongest sets of essays examining the culture’s obsession with The Dead Girl in TV/film/books and how a living female body is harder to handle (“Just Us Girls” about the B-horror flick Ginger Snap is excellent). Part 2, which is largely about LA and Bolin’s connection with Joan Didion was fine, but the writing didn’t feel as strong to me.

Dead Girls is out June 26.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America by Alissa Quart

36137920Summary from Goodreads:
Families today are squeezed on every side—from high childcare costs and harsh employment policies to workplaces without paid family leave or even dependable and regular working hours. Many realize that attaining the standard of living their parents managed has become impossible.

Alissa Quart, executive editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, examines the lives of many middle-class Americans who can now barely afford to raise children. Through gripping firsthand storytelling, Quart shows how America has failed its families. Her subjects—from professors to lawyers to caregivers to nurses—have been wrung out by a system that doesn’t support them and enriches only a tiny elite.

Interlacing her own experience with close-up reporting on families that are just getting by, Quart reveals parenthood itself to be financially overwhelming, except for the wealthiest. She offers real solutions to these problems, including outlining necessary policy shifts, as well as detailing the do-it-yourself tactics some families are already putting into motion, and argues for the cultural reevaluation of parenthood and caregiving.

Written in the spirit of Barbara Ehrenreich and Jennifer Senior, Squeezed is an eye-opening page-turner. Powerfully argued, deeply reported, and ultimately hopeful, it casts a bright, clarifying light on families struggling to thrive in an economy that holds too few options.

We were all told that college was the path to success, right? Go to college, get a nice 9-to-5 job, buy a house in the suburbs, and you’re good. Right? Nah, probably not anymore. Now you’ve probably got $50,000 in student loans, two jobs (because neither job has enough hours to qualify for a healthcare plan), and an apartment.

Squeezed is a sort-of Nickel and Dimed but for struggling and/or downwardly-mobile middle-class, educated, under-employed families. It is very well-researched. Although Quart stays primarily within the confines of two-partner M/F families and single moms (rarely, single dads) there is a lot to think about. It would have been nice, though, if the subjects had been less homogenous. Fair warning: if you already have a lot of anxiety about debt, income, future earnings, job stability etc., Squeezed will probably exacerbate that, it’s not a calming book.

Squeezed is out on June 26.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

90s Bitch: Media, Culture, and the Failed Promise of Gender Equality by Allison Yarrow

34217537Summary from Goodreads:
The close of the 20th century promised a new era of gender equality. However, the iconic women of the 1990s—such as Hillary Clinton, Courtney Love, Roseanne Barr, Marcia Clark, and Anita Hill—earned their places in history not as trailblazers, but as whipping girls of the media. During this decade, American society grew increasingly hostile to women who dared to speak up, challenge power, or defy rigid expectations for female behavior.

Deeply researched yet thoroughly engaging, 90s Bitch untangles the complex history of women in the 1990s, exploring how they were maligned by the media, vilified by popular culture, and objectified in the marketplace. In an age where even a presidential nominee can be derided as a “nasty woman,” it’s clear that the epidemic of casting women as bitches persists. To understand why we must take a long, hard look back at the 1990s—a decade in which female empowerment was twisted into bitchification and exploitation.

Yarrow’s thoughtful, clear-eyed, and timely examination is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand gender politics and how we might end the “bitch epidemic” for the next generation.

I liked 90s Bitch – it’s a good overview of how conservative backlash and media marketing strategies worked against very high profile women in politics (Monica Lewinsky), entertainment (Courtney Love), and crime (Marcia Clark). There are some rough transitions between subjects that I think could have been done better. I also think that some areas could have been fleshed out with more examples – there is a conspicuous absence of Janet Jackson (how can anyone forget her 90s release “Janet”? The “If” video, lordt) and Daria (and there was an easy opportunity when talking about Girl Power and the “self-esteem” remedy, which Daria tackled head-on).

Addendum: this book, while the author tries to cover some culture related to people of color – mostly rap culture/Living Single, and Anita Hill, of course – and LGBTQ+ it is very white and heteronormative, just FYI.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

Reading Women · stuff I read

Invisible: How Young Women with Serious Health Issues Navigate Work, Relationships, and the Pressure to Seem Just Fine by Michele Lent Hirsch

Sum33931697mary from Goodreads:
An exploration of women navigating serious health issues at an age where they’re expected to be healthy, dating, having careers and children.

Miriam’s doctor didn’t believe she had breast cancer. She did.

Sophie navigates being the only black scientist in her lab while studying the very disease, HIV, that she hides from her coworkers.

For Victoria, coming out as a transgender woman was less difficult than coming out as bipolar.

Author Michele Lent Hirsch knew she couldn’t be the only woman who’s faced serious health issues at a young age, as well as the resulting effects on her career, her relationships, and her sense of self. What she found while researching Invisible was a surprisingly large and overlooked population with important stories to tell.

Though young women with serious illness tend to be seen as outliers, young female patients are in fact the primary demographic for many illnesses. They are also one of the most ignored groups in our medical system–a system where young women, especially women of color and trans women, are invisible.

And because of expectations about gender and age, young women with health issues must often deal with bias in their careers and personal lives. Not only do they feel pressured to seem perfect and youthful, they also find themselves amid labyrinthine obstacles in a culture that has one narrow idea of womanhood.

Lent Hirsch weaves her own harrowing experiences together with stories from other women, perspectives from sociologists on structural inequality, and insights from neuroscientists on misogyny in health research. She shows how health issues and disabilities amplify what women in general already confront: warped beauty standards, workplace sexism, worries about romantic partners, and mistrust of their own bodies. By shining a light on this hidden demographic, Lent Hirsch explores the challenges that all women face.

This spring is bringing a small crop of books focussed on women’s health and/or marginalized groups’ health. I reviewed Doing Harm a few days ago and Ask Me About My Uterus is also out today (I didn’t get a galley, so I’ll be checking that out later). Today is Invisible‘s turn.

Michele Lent Hirsch used her own experience as a queer woman with chronic pain and illness as a jumping off point to both a) research societal and medical attitudes toward young women with chronic illness and b) interview women all across the spectrum of gender identity/expression and race to give us a taste of what women with chronic illness experience. Chronic illness affects whether or not a woman is able to maintain her personal and professional relationships after symptom onset or diagnosis. It affects whether she can even acquire new relationships. It affects whether she is believed when reporting symptoms.

Invisible is the most intersectional book I’ve ever read. Hirsch has clearly made an effort to create a truly inclusive cohort of female-presenting interview subjects: straight women, gay women, women of color, queer women of color, women who are single, women in relationships, women with children, women without children. A qualitative researcher could take her notes and write a scientific paper about the common themes found in those women’s words. Her information is that good. The only other thing I can say is that the subtitle speaks for itself and this should be required reading for everyone. I think Hirsch could have done more summation or wrote a conclusion to tie all the books’ chapters together. Or perhaps not – maybe we deserve to hit the end of the book and sit there with our thoughts because chronic illness and its effects on women’s lives really has no end or conclusion.

Invisible is out now!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.