mini-review · stuff I read

In the Dream House: A Memoir by Carmen Maria Machado

42188604._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
A startling, moving, and innovative memoir from the National Book Award Finalist for Fiction.

For years Carmen Maria Machado has struggled to articulate her experiences in an abusive same-sex relationship. In this extraordinarily candid and radically inventive memoir, Machado tackles a dark and difficult subject with wit, inventiveness and an inquiring spirit, as she uses a series of narrative tropes—including classic horror themes—to create an entirely unique piece of work which is destined to become an instant classic.

In the Dream House is a phenomenal work of memoir, both in its unique construction and determination to shatter cultural myths about domestic violence in queer relationships. Machado chose to use second person as a point of view to show how her relationship with her “dream woman” slowly devolved into terror, a choice that both allowed space between herself and the incidents and also invited the reader to make those horrible situations personal, make them universal. In between these short vignettes/chapters are small essays about the recognition of domestic abuse in queer relationships and how, legally and culturally, it is still very hard to contemplate from a cis-het-patriarchal worldview.

I was privileged to hear Machado read over the weekend (and in conversation with Garth Greenwell) and she’s such a wonderful speaker and thinker. In the Dream House is both a quick (lots of white space) and slow (there are some incidents with her “dream woman” that are truly terrifying and give you pause) read but very much worth the time you spend on it.

Dear FTC: I read a galley that I requested from Graywolf Press. Thank you so much, Graywolf, for sending it.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West

38362811Summary from Goodreads:
A brilliant and incisive look at how patriarchy, intolerance, and misogyny have conquered not just politics but American culture itself.

What do Adam Sandler, Donald Trump, and South Park have in common? Why are myths like “reverse sexism” and “political correctness” so seductive? And why do movie classics of yore, from Sixteen Candles to Revenge of the Nerds, make rape look like so much silly fun? With Lindy West’s signature wit and in her uniquely incendiary voice, The Witches are Coming lays out a grand theory of America that explains why Trump’s election was, in many ways, a foregone conclusion.

As West reveals through fascinating journeys across the landscapes of pop culture, the lies that fostered the catastrophic resentment that boiled over in the 2016 presidential race did not spring from a vacuum. They have in fact been woven into America’s DNA, cultivated by generations of mediocre white men and fed to the masses with such fury that we have become unable to recognize them as lies at all.

Whether it be the notion overheard since the earliest moments of the #MeToo movement that feminism has gone too far or the insistence that holding someone accountable for his actions amounts to a “witch hunt,” The Witches are Coming exposes the lies that many have chosen to believe and the often unexpected figures who have furthered them. Along the way, it unravels the tightening link between culture and politics, identifying in the memes, music, and movies we’ve loved the seeds of the neoreactionary movement now surging through the nation.

Sprawling, funny, scorching, and illuminating, The Witches are Coming shows West at the top of her intellectual and comic powers. As much a celebration of America’s potential as a condemnation of our failures, some will call it a witch hunt—to which West would reply, “So be it. I’m a witch and I’m hunting you.”

I so enjoy Lindy West’s writing and The Witches are Coming does not disappoint. I snort-laughed in public often. This collection doesn’t have as much range as Shrill, which drew from all parts of Lindy’s life and felt very personal, but has more focus on cultural commentary – good commentary, and yes, that Adam Sandler essay because I have never understood why people thought he was funny. Her excellent Goop Health piece is included here.

(1. That cover. 2. Whee, Shrill S2 drops in January!)

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book. Although I might have to exchange it since we’re going to get signed copies for the holidays at the store.

stuff I read

Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino

43126457Summary from Goodreads:
Trick Mirror is an enlightening, unforgettable trip through the river of self-delusion that surges just beneath the surface of our lives. This is a book about the incentives that shape us, and about how hard it is to see ourselves clearly in a culture that revolves around the self. In each essay, Jia writes about the cultural prisms that have shaped her: the rise of the nightmare social internet; the American scammer as millennial hero; the literary heroine’s journey from brave to blank to bitter; the mandate that everything, including our bodies, should always be getting more efficient and beautiful until we die.

Trick Mirror is a good collection of long-form essays (nothing wrong with a short hot-take, but a well-researched and laid out essay is becoming rare), all of which deal with the ways in which feminism and femininity are packaged and served to us. Our yoga pants, our television shows, the internet, our relationships, our celebrities. Outstanding essays include “We Are Old Virginia” and “The Cult of the Difficult Woman.”

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

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.

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.