The Personal Beyond #MeToo – Any Man, Amber Tamblyn

I’ve not been having an easy go of it as of late, friends. I can’t help but laugh, because I started blogging again after finally feeling like I was doing pretty well. But even after six years of chronic pain, sometimes it’s hard to know when a physician (or physical therapist in this case) isn’t doing me any favors. I backslid HARD. Suddenly, I’m cancelling on plans involving $50 comedy tickets and waking my husband up in the middle of the night crying. While I know this flare-up is smaller and more temporary, that my neurologist and I have an appointment this month with a solid plan, I just hate feeling like I’m back at step one.

But. If I most be home. Let me tell you about this book Amber Tamblyn wrote while she also wasn’t having an easy go of it. Mentally she had to wade through the stories of sexual assault to ensure she got it right, and physically she suffered from a nerve injury to her upper extremities while writing. She described pushing through the pain as her body “breaking out of some sort of physical cast” to create such needed, passionate art on this crucial topic. On this I can relate to her more than I’d like.

Full disclosure: I already loved Amber Tamblyn before reading this book. I particularly love watching her embody feminism with close friend America Ferrera, whether it be at The Women’s March, presenting the Feminist AF series, supporting Time’s Up, or just on Lip Sync Battle:

The conventional narrative for a novel about sexual assault focuses on female trauma, but in this book men narrate stories of sexual assault committed against them by an unknown female serial rapist. It matters. For a couple of reasons. The first is the most obvious – sexual assault of men (yes, even by women) is a very real thing that happens. While so many current social movements are rightly pointing out that women’s voices have been ignored for decades (centuries), that doesn’t mean that when we discuss sexual assault we should only allow one gender into the club to fight for change.

But for me, the more important aspect of this approach is that when a man narrates, just as when a man speaks in life, people listen more closely. When I read the descriptions of each male’s experience of sexual assault, all I could think about was how much we minimize these issues when they come from a woman’s voice. Tamblyn has strongly stressed that this book isn’t a revenge fantasy, but rather about evoking empathy; that is, finally understanding what the aftermath of rape truly feels like. We hear a man describe the brutality of the examination after an assault, of the anesthetic poking and prodding without being allowed to clean himself, violated all over again. We hear a man describe the agony of not being believed, or of being questioned by both himself and others as to what he did to make his assailant believe he deserved it. However much we’d like to believe otherwise, we are living in a time when the male voice simply carries more weight. Why do you think we needed a movement to carry women’s voices to begin with? One of Tamblyn’s narrators reflects, “Tell me how you prove coercion? How you prove the difference between being hit on and hunted? How you prove your arms were held down? Your body was touched? Your life was threatened if you ever told anyone? For people who have suffered violent sexual crimes, proof—the very act of proving—is more than just a burden. It is boundless bearing. An eternity of futility.” When I heard men (even fictional ones) recounting these tales, I couldn’t help but think, “Would hearing this from a man help other men understand what women experience on such a regular basis?”

Amber Tamblyn, author, actress, Any Man, Book Review
Amber Tamblyn

The female assailant serves an interesting purpose as well. Tamblyn shirks aside gendered assumptions, demonstrating that these social movements happening around us are not designed simply to hold women up as infallible as women can be, just as all humans can be, deeply unlikable products of their culture. Her characters reflect on what to feel about this woman, with one questioning, “How can you forgive the person . . . the woman who raped you, who has no face to forgive, who has no intention to understand, who is nowhere forever and everywhere inside you for eternity? How can you forgive yourself? How can you enjoy the trees and not plead continuous fucking guilt to them? How can you end your own suffering, without ending completely? How can you accept touch? Or walk through your life, a lived wound, forever avoiding some terrible, inevitable wind.”  As Tamblyn told the Washington Post, “[T]he ultimate intent of her character and her mythology in the book is that it aims to start feeling less like an actual person that has been assaulting people and more like a culture that’s been doing it.” The female assailant is so unlikeable, so unforgivable, so irredeemable – this is not only a statement on how women can embody these characteristics, but on how our culture can as well. We are all entrenched in a toxic rape culture, and Tamblyn uses an unexpected gender narrative to demonstrate that we’re all coming up in this same culture with the same teachings and expectations. No individual is immune from either being impacted by the culture or of actually becoming a product of it.

Tamblyn further shines a light on the media, which does not simply discuss or report toxic aspects of our culture but in so many cases perpetuates it. She utilizes characters who host a talk show to explain the various ways we debate sexual assault as if it isn’t a real violation of real people. And then after, the way we click click click along social media without feeling the true weight of that experience. She writes, “My heart breaks for the #MaudeToPenetrate victims and their families, sending so much love & prayers & strength. -Taylor Swift. 685 comments. 56k retweets. 742k likes. Conflicted about #MaudeToPenetrate – why was this married father of two drinking with a random woman in the first place? – Meghan McCain. 229 comments. 676 retweets. 2.5k likes. Moment of silence for victims of #MaudeToPenetrate tonight at my MSG show. I am here, and will fight for you. You are not alone. Be strong. -Lady Gaga. 1,001 comments. 31k retweets. 990k likes.” We like and retweet and post photos of our pink hats. Are we helping solve the problem or just not realizing we’re caught up in the machine? Could it be both? Maybe there’s not a clear answer, but there is clearly, in the reflection upon these fake tweets by real humans who have made such similar statements in real life, a sentiment that perhaps we have too much removal from one another in this social media culture. We’ve forgotten the personal nature of what we’re fighting for, and we must be actively conscientious in order to prevent the message from falling through the cracks. I think of moments like the length of time Lady Gaga took to speak out against R. Kelly. DAYS after the documentary went up on Lifetime, not to mention that those days already followed the years of public information available. A performance at the Academy Awards on sexual assault was doable, but fans cried out in fury before Lady Gaga provided a simple statement about a real life human involved in her life and life’s work. Tamblyn is all about bringing us back to the personal. This isn’t just about your likes or retweets or benefit concerts or even the number of rallies you showed up to. It’s about the personal moments and connections in between, and how if you truly want to change the culture, you have to start paying more attention.

Perhaps most importantly, this book is simply imperative for anyone following the #MeToo or #TimesUp movements. I can see the cultural shift happening on larger levels in these movements; we’re seeing companies and high-level individuals being prosecuted, watching organized walk-outs at places like google. But here on the ground floor, where we have to wait for all of it to trickle down, I primarily hear my male peers wondering what all the fuss is about. I hear them wondering if we’ve gone too far, or what the point is. I don’t think this book holds the answers, but I think it accomplishes what Tamblyn needed it to – the emotion behind WHY something like #MeToo exists and isn’t overstepping. This. This experience. This feeling. This violation. This despair. This is why we’re here. This is why we need to unify to fight back against this culture, and when I say unify, I don’t just mean the privileged white women. Tamblyn, more than any trending hashtag on twitter has done, made me feel like perhaps if we all understand the starting point, we can finally get on the same page about how to move forward. That is a monumental accomplishment.

And, at the end of the day, the reality is Tamblyn accomplished all of that by writing what is at its heart simply a “straight-forward thriller in many ways.” Fans of crime, mystery, thrillers, suspense, and true crime alike will be easily intrigued by the mystery of this serial criminal – provided they can wade through the difficult and brutal emotional description to get there. Trust me, it’s worth the wade.

I listened to this on audio and was very impressed, though I’ve read you may have a similarly unique experience if you read the hard copy. Without downplaying the intensity of the subject matter, this is one of the coolest audiobooks I’ve ever listened to. The voice actors are phenomenal, but more interestingly each segment is done as if you are hearing that moment. Voicemails sound like voicemails. Radio shows within the novel have full scale production that sound like radio shows. I rarely recommend anything outside the realm of autobiography that simply should be listened to on audio, but I highly recommend you take a swing at the audiobook with this one.

David Cross, Arrested Development controversy, Husband, Amber Tamblyn, Any Man, Book Review
David Cross

When prepping for this review, I read a few interviews Tamblyn had given to major publications, and article after article stated you can’t talk about Tamblyn’s book without discussing the recent issues with her husband, David Cross, and his contributions to the very problems that #MeToo and #TimesUp are fighting back against. Personally, I think we could have talked about Tamblyn without discussing Cross – easily. No woman is her husband’s keeper or spokesperson. But as I see so many reporters continue to make that argument, I’ll address my own thoughts on it here. Discussing this problem with NPR, Tamblyn said,  “[I]f you care about my voice and what I have to say at all … and you think you know me, then you better assume that I’m having really difficult conversations with my husband about it. Just like all women are.” I know from my own personal experience, while my husband and male friends have a pretty solid grasp on why even Aziz Ansari’s actions are indicative of wider cultural problems (despite not necessarily being criminal), they still sometimes lack a well-rounded understanding and occasionally say some fucked up things. Hell, sometimes I still do because intersectionality is very real and as a middle class white woman I am not immune from being ignorant. My husband, my friends, and I, we discuss it. Luckily, not on a world stage. Nothing is taken away from Tamblyn’s writing or message by anything Cross has done as of late. I trust by watching her actions prior to and since publication of this book that what she preaches in her writing is not simply performance art, but rather the start of everything she wants to do and change in the world.

And she inspires me to do the same.

My real concern with Tamblyn’s work is that those who desperately need to hear its message will never read it. I feel something similar when I watch shows like Dear White People, an excellent dramedy constantly reminding its audience of the implicit racism and colorism all around us, but one that will likely never be watched by the kids in blackface throwing those “gangsta parties.” Will the guy down the road who believes his buddies in a frat could never rape a woman, who thinks women bring those charges just so that they can get money or political gain, who sided with Kavanaugh only because Ford didn’t speak up sooner – is he going to pick up Tamblyn’s book, let alone take the message to heart? Probably not. Or maybe I should just stop worrying about whether he will, and be happy for what she’s given me and the many others who will pick it up.

A final note: please consider this a trigger warning for those of you who have experienced rape or sexual assault or anything remotely similar. This book is brutal. It’s raw and real and portrays exactly what assault feels like. True thanks to Amber Tamblyn for getting it right, but because she got it so right, it may be traumatic for many of you. Take care of yourselves.

Broken Earth Trilogy, Fifth Season, Obelisk Gate, Stone Sky, N.K. Jemisin

Art as Activism – The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin

It’s been quite some time since I last wrote.  And by quite some time I mean years. I will never cease to be amazed by how quickly unforeseen circumstances can upend your life and yet simultaneously feel as if they’re all happening in slow motion. Since my last post, the postherpetic trigeminal neuralgia on my face became so severe that I barely read for a year, sweeping the only coping mechanism I had developed for nerve pain right out from under my feet. I switched exclusively to audio (a big hit for me as I’m a visual learner and have trouble with auditory focus). I couldn’t bring myself to login and blog after already exhausting myself typing throughout a work day.  I took dilaudid for more than a full year after a botched experimental procedure.  Turns out all I really needed was some lidocaine ointment for the nerve pain and botox for the migraines.  I am now dilaudid free for one full month, friends (though the post-withdrawal syndrome still comes in waves).

My fiancé moved in, and together we discovered he is bipolar by way of a hospitalization one Thanksgiving day with a medical staff who had no idea how to handle a human being mid-manic episode.  I participated in A LOT of couples’ therapy, addressing communication, bipolar disorder, chronic pain, and my own PTSD.

Wedding Day, Redwoods, Oakland Hills, intimate ceremony, Roberts Regional Park, Lisha Wang Photography
Wedding Day
Photo by Lisha Wang

Somehow we made it through all of that, became healthy (or perhaps more accurately reached a state of working to maintain healthiness), and planned a beautiful wedding with 25 of our best friends.  It’s been a ride.

And maybe I should say more about all of these massive life events, but so much else has happened that framed these last few years.  When I wrote my last post about women supporting Trump and participating in their own oppression, I didn’t think he would become President; though rereading that post in my very own words, I should’ve seen it coming.  We should’ve seen it coming.  During the time since I last wrote, I watched the sting of pain as one my closest friends who happens to be Jewish grappled with the fact that whiteness is tenuous and he indeed feels all the things his parents warned him about as a child.  I watched my LGBTQ friends break down in tears when they realized that some of their closest friends back in the midwest believed that the possibility of a few industry jobs returning meant more than everyone’s quality of life. I unexpectedly found that I now jump during gunshots in movies, no matter what the context, because I’ve watched too many videos of Black people being shot for going about their daily lives, or of being faced with the possibility of being shot for going about their daily lives simply because some white woman who looks like me felt uncomfortable.  I watched as someone we’re supposed to think of as a leader imposed a ban on Muslims entering our country, separated families seeking asylum into cages, stepped it up to tear gassing those seeking asylum, and said Nazis are fine people.  I watched an enormous portion of our society argue that a woman who stood up against sexual assault “destroyed” the life of a man who is sitting pretty on the Supreme Court while she is the one who still can’t return home.  I’ve watched. Trump is both the product of that hatred which already existed in our society and the catalyst as a seal of approval for more to come, and while I don’t want to give him the time of day in writing, you can’t ignore a catalyst. I’ve cried. I’ve felt helpless, sitting alone at home wondering what can be done from a couch while in a constant state of exhaustion, ironically running my health into the ground just so that I can afford to pay my healthcare bills.

And so, with all of that in mind, upon my return to blogging (hopefully permanent but who can say what is permanence anymore), I chose the book series that proved you can in fact affect the world from your home with activism through art, as N.K. Jemisin (with three well-deserved record-breaking Hugos for this series) has done.  The Fifth Season is bold in every sense of the word, and yet it is also so simply just writing observation and truth. As Jemisin has said, “[T]here’s nothing that happens in [The Fifth Season] that hasn’t happened in our own world, in some way or another.”

N.K. Jemisin, author photo, Fifth Season, Broken Earth Trilogy
N.K. Jemisin

I didn’t really know I liked fantasy books before I read this one.  Fantasy, to me, had always read as European white boy wish fulfillment.  Or, at best, something like The Dresden Files, an entertaining little urban fantasy romp that is still steeped in misogyny.  Then one day on goodreads every reader whose opinions generally align with my own was reading this book, and I asked my favorite book friend (shout out if you’re reading this Rachel!) what she thought.  She said I should set everything else I was reading aside and dig in ASAP, and so I did.  In doing so, not only did I read an incredible story, but I also opened myself up to a world of reading wherein fantasy is, at it turns out, actually my favorite genre. I just needed to read the right kind.  I read a blog post of Jemisin’s in which she noted how much SFF is out there in this non-formulaic vein, and questioned why it is that people feel blocked in finding it until they come across an author like her.  I can only speak for myself, but I had reached a point in fantasy where my immediate reaction was, “In my experience, what I’ve read in this genre hasn’t really been enjoyable.” It was like a punch to the face to realize I’d just been too daft to seek out what I was missing from fantasy books – would have been as simple as conducting a basic google search.

While I would prefer to dissect the entirety of this series (and The Inheritance Trilogy which I tore through immediately after), I focused on this book alone because I hope that, like me, you may find it an introduction to a world you’ve been missing.  This is activism in art, activism in writing.  The Fifth Season tells the story of three women at different stages of life: Damaya, Syen, and Essun.  We follow each of them as they navigate this world called The Stillness that Jemisin has crafted in such detail. Within this world, Seasons (natural disasters of apocalyptic power) occur with some regularity and can be both brought on or quelled by those with magical powers. These individuals are called Orogenes (or the more intentionally-derogatory term roggas), and they are the very essence of “otherness.”  At once powerful, and also oppressed by the nature of those who fear such power due to a lack of understanding or perhaps just an inability to wield it.  Looking around at our world, I hope I don’t need to spell out for you why this metaphor rings as realistic and important. (And perhaps it is worth mentioning again, this is not only a problem of Trump. The Fifth Season was published well prior to Trump’s election.)

In a quote that could be plucked right out of fantasy or reality Jemisin wrote, “Not that she hadn’t known it before: that she is a slave, that all roggas are slaves, that the security and sense of self-worth the Fulcrum offers is wrapped in the chain of her right to live, and even the right to control her own body. It’s one thing to know this, to admit it to herself, but it’s the sort of truth that none of them use against each other – not even to make a point – because doing so is cruel and unnecessary… he refuses to allow her any of the polite fictions and unspoken truths that have kept her comfortable, and safe, for years.”  We tend to debate the death of Black bodies at the hands of police as if it’s an argument, we tend to debate the criminal justice system or that portion of the 13th amendment that still acts as a form of slavery – through a different world, a different but similar Earth, Jemisin pulls our eyes wide open to the fact that such oppression is EXACTLY where we are, no matter what lies we’ve been told that may have led us to believe otherwise.

Perhaps reviews of The Fifth Season, mine included, are so vague because the book can’t quite come into focus until its ending, and to bring it into focus for you now would ruin your experience of its two twists instead of allowing you to feel the weight of them.  I will instead say this. For me, the book feels like a rallying cry to say, “SEE US. We are a culmination of all that you have placed on us over our lifetimes and over the lifetimes of our ancestors.” Maybe most importantly, the reactions to the Orogenes by others in The Stillness is not only a reflection of race in our culture; this otherness holds reflections of sexuality, holds reflections of immigration, holds reflections of the people we are gentrifying out of neighborhoods.  Very simply anyone we have labeled “other.”  We can feel the stings of confirmation bias throughout the book as the crimes of one marginalized character become the crimes of all.  “When you’re lazy, we’re all lazy.  We hurt you so you’ll do the rest of us no harm. Once Damaya would have protested the unfairness of such judgments. The children of the Fulcrum are all different; different ages, different colors, different shapes. Some speak Sanze-mat with different accents, having originated from different parts of the world.  One girl has sharp teeth because it is her race’s custom to file them; another boy has no penis, though he stuffs a sock into his underwear after every shower; another girl has rarely had regular meals and wolfs down every one like she’s still starving…One cannot reasonably expect sameness out of so much difference, and it makes no sense for Damaya to be judged by the behavior of children who share nothing save the curse of orogeny with her.”  Our society has consistently used fear to impose the sins of one person onto the sins of all, in many cases where no sin ever existed but rather was created in order to hold an entire group of people back. No one group of people in our culture is a monolith, but we tuck ourselves in at night with false stereotypes to make the world fit a normalized (namely white and primarily male) group’s perception of it.

In a recent interview, N.K. Jemisin said that as a Black woman writing about dragons it’s inherently fucking political.  I would go further and say the very fact that characters who are people of color or are sexually fluid appear in this story so matter of factly, without some sort of justification to their very existence, is political (no matter how fucked up that may feel). She has said of fantasy, “The status quo is harmful, the status quo is significantly racist and sexist and a whole bunch of other things that I think need to change. With epic fantasy there is a tendency for it to be quintessentially conservative, in that its job is to restore what is perceived to be out of whack.”  When you change the voice of fantasy, you shine a light on marginalization that is no longer willing to be ignored.  I like that Jemisin takes pushes this concept to its limits, appearing with ease to show you that no, in fact – being a “minority” has nothing to do with physical power or numbers, and rather everything to do with the fears of those controlling institutionalized or normalized power.

The feeling of Jemisin’s boldness also comes from her writing style itself.  The book is present tense, and Essun’s story is written in second person.  I have never seen this executed well.  But in this case it instills so much in the reader.  I felt Essun’s pain, that disconnect from her own body and experiences wherein even should you as the reader discover this character is speaking on her own behalf, she might still refer to herself as “you.” I could go on, perhaps about the astounding way Jemisin managed to weave in the complexities of interpersonal relationships like family and motherhood without feeling like she overdid it.  Or about the way that I still don’t understand how not a single one of her metaphors comes off as heavy-handed. But there’s just too much. Even in this one book, there’s just too much richness and complexity to break it down. I mean, there’s a reason she has three Hugos.

Daveed Diggs has signed on as an executive producer for the television adaptation of The Fifth Season. He has referred to Jemisin a realist, saying, “The idea that there’s a certain kind of magic embedded in a race of people that is ultimately to be feared or worshiped or commodified is woven into our times.”  And she is a realist.  For all the fantastic world building and magic built into its spine, The Fifth Season is at its core a story of the oppressions of the past impacting the systemic institutionalized oppression in the present and the raw emotions attached to that structure.

Blindspotting, blu-ray, personal copy, Oakland Filmmakers, Bay Area Filmmakers

And it is only because of this that I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Diggs and Jemisin are making art that falls along parallel lines (to say nothing of Diggs directly referencing Jemisin in his own work).  I wouldn’t normally bring a movie plug into my book reviews, but Blindspotting (by the powerhouse writing/acting unit of Rafael Casal & Daveed Diggs) is by and large the best film I’ve seen all year. They utilized realistic character studies to produce an intense impact similar to that which Jemisin accomplished through fantasy. Casal and Diggs introduced their film at CinemaCon with a spoken word performance that gives me chills every single time:

“The art is how we hold the mirror up. Show this fiction to reveal the truth until it’s clear enough.”  Do it with Blindspotting. Do it with The Fifth Season.  Just as N.K. Jemisin used a second person narrative to make you understand the feeling of oppression and otherness and removal and PTSD (you here being people like me who, while female, are also middle class and white and benefitting from so much privilege), Casal and Diggs used the most common-place everyday moments to portray emotions wrapped up in the tension of systemic injustice.  In one of the film’s climactic scenes, a cop car shines a spotlight onto the back of the main character Collin, a Black male who is just getting off probation – finally.  Diggs & Casal discussed the moment during a Q&A by explaining that while most Black people understand that feeling, most white people don’t. We – those who are not entrenched in otherness – will never feel that experience, but we may feel FOR that character.  They wanted the white audience to gasp and feel a nervous ache, and as a white person in that audience, one in the Bay no less, I definitely did.  Just as I found myself longing for Essun and the pain of her trauma as she spoke “you” to me.

We can hear this desperate need for furthering critical social movements in art all around us.  When will we take this art we consume and realize it is not just entertainment but its own movement to bring the truth before our eyes, to inspire empathy, to remember we must create a space so that these stories are not only never forgotten – they are also used to create a future with less otherness?  Let us treat the art as what it is, both entertainment and an exercise in activism.  To call it any less would be to discredit its importance.

Jemisin’s new short story collection How Long ‘Til Black Future Month was awaiting me amongst my Christmas gifts, and I cannot wait to read the reimagining of The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, one of my favorite stories of all time. Until then, I recommend you start with The Fifth Season.  Let me know how long it takes before you’ve devoured the rest.

How Long 'Til Black Future Month, N.K. Jemisin, Let It Be T-Shirt, Beatles, Litographs, Christmas Presents
My Husband Buys Great Christmas Gifts
Margaret Atwood, Handmaid's Tale, Book Review, Political Critique, Trump, Women's Oppression

Participating in Our Own Oppression & the Age of Trump – The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

I am fascinated and infuriated by Presidential politics.  It’s difficult to be someone from a swing state living in California, a culture shock I never anticipated.  I struggled to find someone to spend election night with me this year and when I finally did it was someone else from my home state.

Presidential politics are so important in Ohio that the first election I voted in sparked the disintegration of my high school relationship.  He was for Bush and the war in Iraq; I wasn’t. Shortly after, I went to college to GREATLY expand my liberal horizons and he enlisted in the military.

This Presidential election, though.  Oh man, this is something else, isn’t it?  I’m disturbed.  We have accepted someone who is on his third marriage with multiple children, who has publicly flip flopped on even his party affiliation, who regularly says racist and sexist things to the point of actually describing sexual assault, who tries to dismiss this sexual assault discussion as “locker room talk” as if it being an aspect of culture should be something acceptable, who will not release his tax returns, who has so many when-has-this-ever-flown-before qualities about him as a candidate (and human) that this has become my worst run-on sentence ever, as a LEGITIMATE candidate. Someone we might hand nuclear codes to in just a few weeks.

Trump, Clinton, debate, election, political critique

Listen, friends.  If you are conservative, I get it.  If you’re third party, I get it.  Wanting this particular man to be President?  I don’t get it, and you are just going to HATE this post.

A friend of mine from college (two blog shout outs in a row, Ben!) and I talk about Trump often in the context of whether he is the voice of cultural beliefs or the one influencing them. In truth he’s probably a little bit of both, but I find him to be much more the latter. The louder someone in a position of power preaches hate speech, the more others believe it’s okay for them to say it, too.  And round and round we go.

Ben would argue these beliefs wouldn’t be so embraced if they didn’t already exist in culture.  True, but they might not take on the same life if not for Trump.  Thanks to him and the bigotry disguised as honesty that he’s inspired, the societal progress of hatred this election cycle could take years to be undone.

I skipped the final debate last week.  I felt momentarily exasperated most likely because I am still so sick.  My pain has remained steady long enough that I may need radiosurgery on my trigimenal nerve, and I’m having ablation re-done on 2 ribs in December.  Cram in everything before that out-of-pocket max runs out Jan. 1st!  But despite my good solid reasons for skipping the debate, the Ohioan inside me felt guilty and somewhere around 9 p.m. I was tucked in bed with the transcript.  Reading it was so much worse than watching it would have been.  I suddenly found myself with the opportunity to read the same disgusting lines over and over again.

The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood, Book Review, Political Critique, Women's Oppression, TrumpAs I was thinking about the impact of Trump, as both a candidate and a societal force, this quote from The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood came to mind: “Is that how we lived, then?  But we lived as usual.  Everyone does, most of the time.  Whatever is going on is as usual.  Even this is as usual, now…Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.”

My fiancé bought me this book about a year ago.  I started it before I had vertigo and finished months later just as the shingles pain was beginning.  Reading it in the midst of this election year could not be more timely, and if you have time to get it in within the next couple of weeks I highly recommend it.  I feel I’ve read a fair amount of Atwood (five books, three of which comprised the MaddAddam series) and this was by far my favorite.

The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a futuristic dystopia where women are valued based upon either their ability to conceive children or their rank as a wife.   The protagonist is a handmaid named Offred whose sole societal role is to become pregnant and provide her offspring to a high-ranking couple.  The book is as much a commentary on current society as it is an excellent and fascinating story in its own right.

Those within Atwood’s fictional culture argue that its rules value women and their ability to provide life to the highest degree.  Yet said value is entirely defined and controlled by men, upon whom there are nearly no restrictions.  This contradiction is the norm.  As Offred said, nearly anything can be considered the norm when you are in it.

Margaret Atwood, Handmaid's Tale, Book Review

Margaret Atwood

But perhaps most relevant to our current situation are those whom Atwood names “the true believers.”  Offred walks on eggshells regarding her own beliefs and desires when speaking to other women in the community, worried that any one of them might be a true believer in the system and report her.  Men in this world didn’t have to patrol women at all times; the women proved they would also regulate one another.  And this willingness of “true believer” women to participate in their own oppression isn’t something that is unique to the fictional futuristic creation of Margaret Atwood. It happens now.

And we pretend it isn’t real.

There are so many recent examples, but let’s consider the infamous tape released just shy of the second debate.   Feel free to watch yourself if you haven’t already seen it or read a transcript.  Warning: it can and has been triggering for victims of sexual assault.  In it, Trump describes how easy it is to kiss or grab a woman without consent when you’re famous.  Trump didn’t directly apologize for the comments.  Instead, he dismissed it as acceptable locker room talk.

We easily forget that women grow up hearing the same societal beliefs that men do.  On a regular (sometimes daily) basis we are reminded that we’re too promiscuous, that we aren’t sexy enough to be desirable, that we’re such sexual objects our clothing is distracting to boys, that we should make an effort to be excellent mothers, and that we should simultaneously desire careers.  There’s more, but you get the point.   If you condition someone enough, the odds gradually increase that she will buy into it.

Just as women were willing to report other women in Atwood’s dystopia, women are willing to regulate one another in our own reality.  We rush to the defense of our male friends accused of rape and call the woman a liar ourselves, no matter how statistically unlikely.  We call other women both sluts and prudes.  And once we’re older?  We judge the women who choose to stay home and raise their children just as much as those who never want to have children.  We judge a woman’s worth as a woman based on subjective “success” as a mother.
women for Trump, female trump supporters, female oppression, women's oppression, Trump, election, trump supporters, book review, HandMaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood, political critiqueWe females do all of this because our culture taught us that such oppression is “normal,” and so we embrace it without even realizing it.  Forget Trump saying sexist things about women – we will do it for him!  Once we take into account how freely we regulate one another without a second thought, how can we possibly find it surprising that there are still women voting Trump after listening to a tape in which he essentially described sexual assault?  How can we be shocked that they also define it as locker room talk?    There are so many women still supporting him!  Just as easily as we judge one another, so we blindly support a man who may run the country despite the fact that he has demonstrated a complete lack of respect for women in just one leaked tape.  (Which is to say nothing of his long history of sexist comments.)

Let’s not pretend that women who support Trump are stupid.  I’m so tired of hearing that.  They’re not.  They are simply the products of the culture that we created.  We are responsible for them.  We are all responsible for women’s participation in their own oppression.

The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t offer us life lessons that I can provide to you here, though I wish it did.  In fact, the entire time I was reading it I kept thinking, “How can she end this?  How are we this close to an end without an end it in sight?” And then it didn’t really end. There was no clear notion of how to escape the society, or how the society could eventually escape its own culture.  Probably because such a simple answer doesn’t exist.

But here’s what I know – what I can offer.  After so much feminist theory in college that I was near a postmodernist meltdown.  You can work everyday to be mindful of your own thoughts and change them little by little.  Then try to get others, in as non-confrontational a way as possible, to be aware of their own culture-imposed thought patterns.  And try to be as sane as you can in the fucked up mess we are constantly within; in the era of a Presidential candidate who’s talked about grabbing pussies.  Then hopefully all of those baby steps eventually add up and change occurs, so slowly we barely notice it.

The reality is women have only been able to vote in the U.S. for less than 100 years.  Culturally speaking, that’s not a very long time at all.  We’ve come a long way, baby, and we’ve still got at least that far to go.  To bookend us with The Handmaid’s Tale: “Sanity is a valuable possession; I hoard it the way people once hoarded money.”  Hoard your sanity.

dear mr. you, mary-louise parker, book review, book cover

The Importance of Reading Female Authors – Dear Mr. You, Mary Louise-Parker

This post took over a week and it was worth every minute.  I’ll provide you warning (for those that want to skip straight to the bookish information) that it’s split between a rambling status on my life and health and a review of the best book I read this year.  On second thought, I guess I didn’t really need to warn you.  This is, in fact, a blog dedicated to both.

Private Practice, Addison Montgomery, Shonda Rhimes, TV show, shingles

Private Practice

When I started writing, I was laying in bed watching Private Practice for the second time. I’m not even sure I put it on because I enjoyed it.  I talked before about an episode of Grey’s Anatomy and the way I watched it when in pain as some type of weird catharsis, and it seems I replaced that episode of Grey’s Anatomy with Private Practice as a whole.  Because I got shingles again.

I’ve been MIA because it’s like a living hell.  Truly.  My last procedures worked so well, I had almost forgotten.  This March, I got vertigo and couldn’t read or write; it took up the vast majority of my 2016 and I thought, well, this is it – this is the problem of the year.  A few months, it’ll be done.  But then the shingles.

The difference between now and 2013 being that I got a minor rash this time.  To tell you the truth, I thought my acupuncturist hit a nerve because my face felt numb after a session, and I was putting ice packs directly onto my face at night.  I thought I had what amounted to freezer burn on my face, but it turns out those small red spots were shingles.  Look at those spots! Would you have guessed?

Shingles, shingles spots, shingles rash, pain, postherpetic neuralgia

Shingles Spots – Left of My Eye in Photo

The worst part of shingles on your face is not being able to put on your reading glasses (for me, anyway, since I need reading glasses).  Right now I’m suffering through eye strain to write this because I miss it.  I miss you, faceless reader and subscribers to my blog.  I miss our conversations and I miss the relationship to books that we have.  The rash is now gone, but the pain remains.  My very great new neurologist tells me that because I got a rash this time and I actually feel like I’m improving this likely won’t result in postherpetic neuralgia as on my ribs and will resolve on its own (though there is no guarantee).  However, the time frame is weeks – maybe over a month.  So I’m waiting it out.  Waiting out the resolving.

And in the meantime in bed with Private Practice I heard these lines: “I would like to think that pain is what helps us grow.”  “Well maybe I don’t want to grow.” I agree, Violet.  I don’t want to grow anymore.  I feel like I’m all done growing from my pain.  I want to finally be able to read the Obelisk Gate (which I’ve had on my bookshelf since its release date) and fucking exercise for the first time in months because I’ve gained 10 pounds and I miss my pants fitting.  But I’ll grow anyway.  And I’ll make myself walk and get through work and look forward to seeing Kamau Bell this month and marathoning scary movies for Halloween and maybe finally seeing the Winchester House for a scary night tour because that’s what you do.  That’s how you deal with being sick.  Baby steps and a hope figurine.

I’ve resorted to audiobooks which I genuinely hate.   I can’t immerse in them.  But they get me through my book junkie days. And there are so many books from when I was doing ok that I haven’t even told you about yet.  Like Dear Mr. You, the most surprising delight of the year.

I watched a TED talk  just before the 2015 holidays about the way in which literary journals determine what we later read in book form, and because they do we might read less diversely; in particular, we may read less by female authors.  The idea is that we want to believe each journal would publish the best works received, but given human bias and reading preferences as to what defines “good,” how likely is that, truly? She encouraged readers to step outside of whatever their reading comfort zones may be, and after watching it (before resorting to audiobooks) I began exclusively reading female authors.  And one of my first selections was Dear Mr. You by Mary-Louise Parker.

Christmas books, book haul, Dear Mr. You, Mary Louise Parker

Christmas Book Haul

Dear Mr. You is a non-fiction collection of letters to the men of Mary-Louise Parker’s life.  Per the book jacket, they “range from a missive to the beloved priest from her childhood to remembrances of former lovers to an homage to a firefighter she briefly encountered to a heartfelt communication with the uncle of the infant daughter she adopted.”  And they are brilliant.  My mother purchased this for me at Christmas because I love Mary-Louise Parker as an actress (I will discuss Angels in America with anyone who feels like listening to me), but as it turns out she held literary accomplishments far prior to my knowledge of them, including writing in The Riveter, Bust, Esquire, and Bullet. And it’s funny because that’s exactly what this TED talk was about.  Sure, Mary-Louise Parker probably could have gotten a book deal without first being taken seriously in the literary world.  But she moved through the ranks as a legitimate author, not writing any star-studded autobiography in the traditional sense, likely because of her movements in that arena first.

Her writing is, for lack of any great symbolism, beautiful.  Breathtaking.  She writes the way I want someone to talk to me before I fall asleep every night.  And in such a way that makes me think that even if the subject were awful I would have been enthralled with every word all the way to the end.

The first letter to her deceased father ends, “We all miss you something fierce, those of us who wouldn’t exist had you not kept walking when an ordinary person would have fallen to his knees.  To convey in any existing language how I miss you isn’t possible.  It would be like blue trying to describe the ocean.”  And just like that I found myself invested in the emotion of her life while knowing very little about it, scooped up and surrounded by her sadness.

Sometimes I marked passages only for their beauty, as she wrote to Man out of Time: “Scientists can’t agree where speech evolved from so no one can arrive at what makes a particular communication successful.  This is something I would never want to know the secret to any more than I would want to know on which day I will die; but its’s a subject I could pull apart for hours without getting bored.  I love attempting to describe a thing, but I might love even better the fact that the more words you have available to encode with when you attempt denotation, the farther away you can sail into ambiguity.  I could go on about you forever and that might only make you less clear to someone discovering you through my words.” How endlessly I could read and re-read her description of lack of description.

And not only was I wrapped up in her own emotion, surrounded by her beautiful writing, but swallowed up in the memories that her writing inevitably invoked.  I thought about the lovers from my drug-induced early 20s in her letters to Risk Taker as she described his responsibility to the audience when he performs because “risk creates intimacy.” Or in her letter to Blue, explaining that he could take “anyone’s idea of modern life and set in on fire decades before anyone dreamed up Burning Man.”

There is so much I want to quote to you!  How much is too much?  I felt her pain – my own pain – in the disintegration of what felt like it would last forever as she wrote to Popeye, “You said you would love me until you were ashes…I wrote about us while you were away in a notebook that eventually saw the end of us, but the last I wrote about that time was in ink; it was hurried, angry scrawl reading: Time, that cold bastard, with its nearlys and untils.  I think, what a shame.  Time should weep for having spent me without you.”

I’ll spare you the full paragraph quotation, despite the fact that I want SO BADLY for you to read about how she describes the “less fortunate” and hates the way people write about the “less fortunate” to prove her brilliance to you, but I felt my sister in the description of her adopted child’s uncle. In the way in which she became aware of how intertwined her child would be in families and cultures, both multiple.

Mary-Louise Parker, book review, Dear Mr. You, actress, author

Mary-Louise Parker

This isn’t to say I learned nothing about her life, if your goal were to have a better understanding of Mary-Louise Parker’s life. I learned about college and the way she trained with her movement teacher.  I learned about her family’s intricacies, both her parents and children.  I learned about her relationship to AIDS in the 80s, the friends she lost and drag queens she loses herself amongst today.  Her disgust for those referencing the Bible or the American Psychiatric Association to put down the expression of love in those that she loves.  About her lovely neighbor in the country who taught her how to live in the country.

But learning about her life clearly wasn’t the purpose.  When writing to the physician who saved her life after she became septic and nearly died in the hospital, she told a tangential but significant story about a close friend:  “My friend lived next to the World trade Center and I was on the phone with her while she saw people jumping, close enough to see the color of their socks.  Her husband urged her to move away from the window.  Why are you doing that to yourself, he asked.  She said Someone has to watch them.”  The raw tangential emotion related to this experience of dying seemed so much more important than the actual experience of dying to Parker.  In fact, emotion and the act writing of it seemed to be more thematically important throughout her book than not only her experiences but even the very structure of writing letters to men.  How refreshing.

I did, I think it’s worth noting, have a PTSD episode reading about her experiences with physical abuse.  The chapter to Cerebrus (funny as perhaps what I would name my own abuser) begins, “This is a once upon a time that happened too much.  I’m telling this grim tale to you three.  Well, Konnichiwa!  Remember me?  I’m the gal who sat dumbly in a living room on the Upper East Side while one of your kind lifted me off the couch by my hair in the few seconds it took your wife to go fetch more pistachios.  Didn’t you.  I put my fingertips to my scalp and they came away bloody as you whispered, ‘Keep your mouth shut about this.’ Didn’t you.  Now don’t be frightened.  This isn’t an indictment. This is addressed to you, yes, but also to myself, because guess who stood for it?”

In fact, reading this is perhaps the first time I realized I had PTSD.  Just this past week, actually, I was speaking to one of my best friends from college, whom I knew when I was dating the man in question, and I told him about the abuse for the first time.  It took him a moment to to find his footing in the conversation and grasp what I was revealing.  I surprised even myself in that moment with how well I had kept it all a secret.  And it was somewhat therapeutic for me to read about Mary-Louise Parker emotionally saving herself in the end. But the chapter is in no way lacking in description or length, and it took a lot of treading through to finally find the salvation.  I’m not sure if this is a trigger warning to anyone interested in her work or just me still wading through my own emotional reaction, but like the emotional themes in Mary-Louise Parker’s book, I don’t think the  “what” is something I need to be able to identify right now.

This comfort with lack of identification, lack of “normal” themes, makes me feel almost whimsical about her book when I try to name my response.  Down to the last sentence, when she explains why she writes, maybe why she wrote this book, I feel romantic at the thought.  About the ability to feel without the detailed description of the thing itself.

Was there anything I read that I didn’t like?  Sure. The letter to NASA, while clever, felt a little out of place to me.  But it doesn’t come close to bringing down my five star rating.  Mary-Louise Parker is an amazing writer and an amazingly strong woman, giving glimpses of pure emotional vulnerability without revealing all of the agonizing details of her life.  What a feat.

Instagram, Dear Mr. You, blog post, book review, Free REad and Write, Mary Louise-Parker

Maybe a part of me loves that although we have lived different lives in different decades I feel a kinship with her.  Is that because the design of this book is such that anyone might feel kinship, or do I really purely relate on this level of crazy casual sex I had in college, this question of God, the personal nature of adoption to my life, the impact of medical personnel when feeling disconnected to your body, this pattern of abuse?  Or are those just the most important letters I pulled from it?  What would you pull?

Or maybe part of it is that this book made me feel like I just completed a therapy session and now I want to write ALL THE LETTERS of my own.   To the man who I’m engaged to about why marriage makes me anxious.  Is it harder to marry when you’ve created an entirely independent life for yourself at the age of 30?  Why doesn’t society allow me to speak about this without implying I’ve chosen the wrong person?  And to the man who physically abused me and to the other one who caused even more lasting damage when he did it emotionally.  I may suffer through illness now but I will never allow such suffering like that in my life again.

Or maybe it’s just that there are so many parts, so many reasons, to love it.

This post is not to say that The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin wasn’t probably my FAVORITE book that I recently read (it was, and I’ll make sure to tell you all of the reasons why).  But the book that hit me the hardest?  The one I would have to choose if describing “best?” That award goes to Mary-Louise Parker.  Without question.


Why Not Me, Mindy Kaling, Book Review, Book Blog, Humor books

Mindy Kaling Changed My Recovery (and Life) – Why Not Me?, Mindy Kaling

If you haven’t been keeping up with my procedural schedule (and I wouldn’t blame you if you haven’t), I just went through a series of procedures called intercostal radiofrequency ablation.  Each procedure requires 2 diagnostic blocks in which lidocaine is injected into the intercostal nerves (meaning those between your ribs) to test the procedure’s anticipated efficacy.  If that works twice, they move you onto the real deal in which they take very long, hot needles and put them under your ribs, then burn off the nerve.  The nerve essentially freaks out and increases your pain as it dies off over a period of 2-3 weeks, and after 4-5 weeks you are finally healed from the procedural pain.  I did the whole cycle (on a combined 7 ribs) twice since my last post.  I am a person who has had a 24 hour pain condition for almost 3 years, and I have never experienced pain or hell like that from these injections. (Hence a long, long gap in posts.)

Mindy Kaling, Book Cover, Why Not Me, Book Review, Book BlogSo thank goodness that my mother, who so often knows me better than myself, wanted me to have something funny to read after my first ablation procedure and wisely bought me Mindy Kaling’s sophomore book, Why Not Me?  I touched on my love of Mindy Kaling while reviewing B.J. Novak’s collection of short stories, but let me reiterate it here.  Her show is one of the single best on television. While I can’t believe anyone could be so socially deaf as to cancel it, I couldn’t be happier with the freedom the show has found in its first year on Hulu.  I liked her first book, and while it has made it through every single move I’ve made, boxed up time and again, I wavered on whether or not I truly loved it.  Let me clear that up for you on this one:  I LOVE THIS BOOK.  And reading Mindy Kaling’s words right now, at this point in time, changed my life.

While Kaling told some personal stories in her first book, I always felt like she was holding a little back.  Yes, she was vulnerable in sharing stories about her weight in Hollywood and photo shoots, but it almost felt as though she was telling just enough; I could feel the effort behind finding her voice.  In Why Not Me? it’s clear Kaling has come into her own.  She’s comfortable in her own skin and any fear of what other people think has melted away.  Her snippets about meeting the President and dating feel like the rare honest glimpse into a celebrity’s heart (or, really, anyone’s heart).

In fact, the entirety of the book feels like a look inside Kaling’s unapologetic peace with who she is.  She begins the book with satirical advice, showing her growth and boldness as a comedian through her willingness in book #2 to take a comedic risk in the opening without looking back. We are able to learn about her work ethic and kissing style, some of the many examples of Kaling’s acknowledgement of what she has earned and how hilarious the story can sometimes be of how she earned it.

Really, it’s all great.  I honestly can’t say enough good things about it.  And I LAUGHED; I laughed for days.  But that’s not the reason I chose this as my first review now that I’ve come up for air and found that these procedures worked (I’m not pain free; but I’m vastly pain improved). It’s not the reason I wanted hers to be the book out of dozens I read while in recovery that I recommended to anyone and everyone (though particularly women experiencing any kind of struggle).  And it’s not the reason that I wanted to ensure that I got this review in before the end of the year.

No.  The reason for that is that this book did something that so rarely happens with any book, fiction or nonfiction: it changed my way of thinking, and in doing so it changed my life.

Mindy Kaling, photo, book review, Why Not Me, Is everyone hanging out without me, book blog

Mindy Kaling

Mindy’s confidence and storytelling style alone would be enough to change a person’s perspective, really. It’s funny that while she focuses so much more on a wild amount of success that many will never attain in this book than in her previous one, it is in her current book that I find her completely relatable – someone I understand and someone whom I see in myself. Someone who sometimes just wants be home in time to watch Weekend Update on Saturday nights.  And who is even comfortable about the fact that some aspects of her personality are wildly neurotic.

But in her last chapter there’s a bang. A moment.  I cried.  The chapter starts like this:

“One evening last year, I was on-stage at a Q&A in Manhattan hosted by a magazine to discuss my life and career … I was very tired.  I had filmed a full week on the show, traveled on a red-eye from Los Angeles, done press all day, and arrived at the theater.  It would be the last hurdle before I could go back to my hotel, take off my pants, and eat a room-service club sandwich while I watched syndicated reruns of The Big Bang Theory.  Sheldon’s sweet bazinga would lull me to sleep, as is always my preference.  At the end of the interview, the moderator opened the floor to the audience.  I noticed that the small group of people who lined up to ask me questions looked very different from the majority of the crowd.  They were mostly women of color.  After a few people went, a young Indian girl stepped forward to take the microphone.  She looked about fifteen, and not only out of place in that crowd but also a little young to be asking a question in front of such a big audience.  I think she felt it, too, becauseI could see from the stage that she was shaking. After  a moment of nervous silence, she asked, ‘Mindy, where do you get your confidence?  Because I feel like I used to have it when I was younger but now I don’t.’  Context is so important.  If this question had been asked by a white man, I might actually have been offended, because the subtext of it would have been completely different … But this wasn’t coming from a white man.  This was coming from a vulnerable young girl who thought that maybe, when I was her age, I too faced similar obstacles.  All she wanted was guidance, or maybe a little empathy.  My answer was not very good. My tiredness betrayed me, and I think I said something like: ‘wow, I don’t know.  I think it’s from my parents always telling me I could do anything.  I wish I had a better answer for you.’ “

And then Kaling uses the rest of her final chapter to respond to that one girl, who represents so many females overcoming societal obstacles, and she spends eight more pages giving a heartfelt, uplifting, and real answer that at the end makes you ask, “You know, why NOT me?”

Even with this pain condition, I don’t have a car here in the Bay Area; I rode a bike.  I did yoga for thirty minutes every morning.  I wrote book reviews of free books at least every couple of weeks.  But after these intensive procedures the last couple of months, no bike riding, no yoga, no blogging….lots of TV.  SO MUCH TV.  So much couch.  So much food.

But luckily, reading this book at the beginning of it all permanently implanted Kaling’s voice in my head.  I forced myself to go on a trip between the two major procedures, briefly, to turn 30.  And was wildly rewarded!  A good friend of mine from high school took me to see Nancy Pearl, a very famous west coast book blogger who gave her 2015 book recommendations (of which my friend bought me 3), as well as a book art exhibit. I spent some time in a beautiful town with my cousin and former boss turned friend.  And after each procedure, I took my pain pills, diligently got the rest I needed and focused on what was still in front of me.

Nancy Pearl, literacy council, book blogger, book reviews, best books of 2015

Book Blogger Nancy Pearl

Instead of wallowing during all of my TV watching, I planned. I thought about using this year to get my health together and how it was the right thing to do.  I thought about looking for new work, and where I would want to go with my career.  I thought about a job offer that I currently have waiting in the wings and my sincere desire to move into the world of publishing, one way or another.  I turned to a publicist at Penguin for advice who agreed to assist me.  I thought about how I can change my life, and how I’m going to start doing it.  I made a loose plan and left room in it for plenty of mistakes.

Getting down to it, my point is this.  Going through a painful recovery like this over a period of months could have easily caused severe depression and isolation.  And there are many, many books that could have made me laugh for a few days. But I think there are few that could have given me the courage to be optimistic during this time of my life, to just put one foot in front of the other each day, to make a plan and believe that somehow, some way I will get there.  I can achieve it.

Because why not me?

The Circle, Dave Eggers, Book Review, Movie

Social Relevancy – The Circle, Dave Eggers

I received this book as part of the haul when my mom came to visit over the summer. I can’t quite remember when I finished it (though I’m sure if I wasn’t so incredibly lazy I could look up the date on goodreads), but at the time I felt so frustrated with the portrayal of the female character that I wasn’t ready to address it. I just wanted to have my procedure and then lay in my bed with Mindy Kaling’s words of wisdom.

Book Haul, The Circle, Dave Eggers, book review, brutal telling, sick in the head, love may fail, free read and write, instagram

Summer Book Haul

This week, though, the novel feels incredibly relevant for two reasons. 1. The announcement of the app Peeple. (I’m going to use this space to clarify that there is already a non-evil app named Peeple that has nothing to do with rating anyone, so the new app is probably looking at a renaming ceremony.) 2. Gender seems to be everywhere in the news this week, but particularly in literature news with Stephanie Meyers pulling a gender swap on her Twilight characters as part of her anniversary release. (I really hate Stepanie Meyers’ writing but am incredibly curious about this, and would really appreciate it if someone trained in gender dynamics would read it and tell me what she thinks. Cough *Della* Cough. I hope you’re reading this.)

Anyway.   Maybe what I was really waiting on for this review was social relevancy, because that is (to me) the entire purpose of the novel itself.

This is my first encounter with Eggers’ fiction. I read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius while I was in graduate school and while stunningly heartbreaking and well written my response was “eh” on the genius part. But when I was browsing the bookstore with my mom (Barnes and Noble…I always wish I could do a shout out to some awesome indie store when I say things like that) the premise of this one jumped out at me. When I first started reading it, I told a friend of mine back in Ohio that it was an insanely intriguing plot with equally insanely asinine characters and unrealistic dialogue. He said that he referred to this as a good book with a bad editor.

The Circle, Book Cover, Dave Eggers, Book ReviewThe novel is about a company called The Circle that is essentially a merging of Google, Amazon, and Facebook. If your immediate reaction is that this company sounds terrifying then good, we are on the same page. Google is scary because they have all of this information about everyone everywhere, and they also ultimately control the access to said information. Facebook is scary because they collect loads of data on you, it’s accessible to others who know you (and even some who don’t), and it never disappears, never gets deleted. Amazon is scary as the leader in the marketplace for EVERYTHING. Put them together. Imagine all of your information open sourced to everyone everywhere? Everything google has on you accessible by your Facebook friends?  Including those data files collected by your gmail? By those creating and selling you products? And there’s no delete button. Do you feel concerned yet?

In the book, The Circle is heavily recruiting millennials as employees, and one naïve young girl named Mae goes to work there, excited about the possibilities with this kind of access and information. For example, one of the first projects you as a reader are introduced to is that of a chip implant for young people. You would put it in your children when they are born, and then it would collect information not just about their location but health, well being, etc. The idea is to prevent 100% of future child abductions. Maybe a good idea on the surface? Maybe you could make that argument. (But I would fight you hard on it.)

This lead character Mae is what I define and admire in literature as a strong female. She used to work in a factory despite her college degree and a friend of hers pulled some strings to get her into this job. The company supplies her very sick family with full health insurance, and before long she recognizes the benefits she never dreamed she could have. (As someone racking up health costs, I get it.) They very soon give her expectations and rewards that are mindfully similar to inducting someone into a cult (i.e., expecting additional time spent on the company and placing people on a daily ranked list of success or failure based on time spent).

Eventually, the company expands into something called “transparency.” Politicians are able to wear a video camera all day long and it feeds through the company site. No more lies, no more backdoor meetings. That availability naturally forces a standard of transparency in politics, but soon seeps into the culture at large as well. Through some very overt manipulation Mae, while at first hesitant, eventually becomes a face of both The Circle and transparency itself.

Emma Watson, The Circle, movie, Dave Eggers, book review

Emma Watson

This is going to be a movie with Emma Watson playing Mae, by the way. I didn’t know that until after I finished reading but it made immediate sense. Mae is an independent female. She’s motivated and desired to be on the frontier, the voice of her generation if she is able.  At first she has little faith in herself, but with the backing of the The Circle she quickly excels in her position.

There is a character in the book that I cannot bring myself to ruin for you all, a romantic interest, playing the voice of reason in Mae’s ear throughout her time at The Circle. And yet…

Oftentimes in a cult situation the individual is encouraged to cut off communication with those who disagree with their mission. This is true of The Circle, as you see slowly happening with Mae’s family and friends. One of them even makes an astute observation about the people who come together to create such a mission: “First of all, I know it’s people like you. And that’s what’s so scary. Individually you don’t know what you’re doing collectively. But secondly, don’t presume the benevolence of your leaders. For years there was this happy time when those controlling the major internet conduits were actually decent enough people. Or at least they weren’t predatory and vengeful. But I always worried, what if someone was willing to use this power to punish those who challenged them?”

And the person in the cult can’t open her eyes to the argument, because she is so entrenched in it. But Mae doesn’t get the benefit of that argument. She has an individual within the structure who provokes deep emotion within her echoing the same feedback. She conspicuously chooses the manipulation rather than reason without recognition of its inherent evilness. She chooses more dangerous avenues showing a lack of thought to the long-term consequences. She mindfully chooses loveless, practical romance over emotion and intimacy. And I am frustrated by that.

Mindy Kaling, book review, The circle, dave eggers

Mindy Kaling

I am frustrated that’s where Eggers took his portrayal of this amazingly strong female. If there’s one thing reading interviews with Amy Schumer and finishing Kaling’s sophomore book has done it’s made me wish there were more women receiving recognition for being incredible everywhere. And when we get the chance to be represented by a male author in a strong, real, dynamic way…we are ultimately portrayed as the idiots who cannot see the forest for the trees. And while I understand cults and the tendency to be swept up, the difference for Mae is that she was never isolated. She always had this other voice whispering in her ear. She just chose otherwise. Dammit, Eggers.

And that’s where the gender dynamics of the new Twilight come into play. Twilight is at its core about a very controlling and abusive relationship no matter how you want to spin it, and young women all over the country internalized it (along with its tag-along success: Fifty Shades of Grey). And switching those genders doesn’t mean that it is less so – though they are far more likely to be abused, women can certainly be abusers.

Twilight, Edward, Bella, Gender switch, book reviewBut I have to wonder how it reads now that Meyers has switched it around. Did she pull back on the controlling aspects? Did she make the character of what would have been Edward softer? Or do we now have in what was essentially the poster child series for passive, abused women an insanely powerful woman to the point of abuse? Is either really a success for Meyers or women? And where do we draw those lines for women, these “strong” women we want to be portrayed? And why am I sitting here judging the intricacies of these female characters when possibly I should just be supportive? It’s a frustrating line for a feminist to straddle. The Circle is a frustrating book for a feminist because it raises more anger and questions within myself than answers or strength. Can’t we be heroic in dynamic and realistic ways in anything besides The Hunger Games?

Switching gears entirely on my rant, if you want to understand the danger of this new (yet to be renamed) Peeple app that rates people, you should read this novel – because the answer is in between its lines. Essentially, what you really see as dangerous in a company like The Circle is the destruction of intimacy. In a life of transparency intimacy, true, delicate intimacy is wiped away. While interviewing the inventors of Peeple The Washington Post referenced the danger in a new app like this by considering an interaction such as a teacher/parent conference now being tip-toed around because of the concerns regarding how it might affect your ratings. The inventors’ only response was, “That’s feedback for you!” No, THAT’S NOT FEEDBACK FOR ME. That’s the fear of technology providing us with such “honesty” that our actual honesty disappears. An app like that suddenly makes something like this book, which felt like such far off science fiction because WHO IS DUMB ENOUGH TO MAKE SOMETHING LIKE THAT HAPPEN, actually come to fruition. It frightens me. The disappearance of my honesty and rawness and intimacy with other humans frightens me. I don’t want to worry about what my ex who broke my heart 2 days before I was moving across the country with him rated me on some app a potential employer could later look at. Dude deserves me being pissy. I don’t want to worry that when I disclose how sad this much pain can sometimes make a person in a true exposed moment with a friend or acquaintance that I’m going to have to find out that they might think I’m annoying because my rating went down. That’s scary. You should be scared.

But that doesn’t really tell you whether the book is good or not, does it? I was recently texting a new acquaintance and told her I was working on this review, and she said she liked the book but that it was divisive, as Eggers generally is. I concur. The book is full of stirred up controversy, which is why it lead me into a blog post where I rant about pop culture more than I speak to the merits of the book itself. That alone is actually a testament to what the novel can accomplish. I do feel frustration with the characters, but I also have to recognize the worth in Eggers’ ability to emote such caring from me for them. Plus, the plot is fascinating and original – it kept me hanging on until the last line, which then haunted me for days. Ultimately, it’s worth a read. Not only will you get an excellent plot, you will get a grey political field that will likely lead you down your own current events rant.

The Continuous After – After you, Jojo Moyes

I received this book as an advanced review copy from Viking Books. It came at the perfect time, as I still find myself on the couch in recovery from intercostal radiofrequency ablation (a special kind of hell).  I finished the book days ago but struggled with what to say.  It seems appropriate that the words would finally find me on the book’s U.S. release date.

Jojo Moyes, Twitter, Free Read and Write, Book Review, Me Before You, After YouI read a review that said you definitely need to read Me Before You prior to reading After You.  I disagree. It is true that After You picks up where Me Before You leaves off, but it summarizes its predecessor succinctly. If you follow my blog (or even me personally) on anything, you know my Me Before You book review is possibly the most personal thing I have ever written.  You know that while Matthew Quick is my favorite author, Me Before You might me by favorite book. You know I truly admire the author Jojo Moyes.  (The tweet that she sent me just a month into blogging is still one of the single greatest moments of my life. Exhibit A: I still have the screen shot.)

And while I continue to think of Jojo Moyes as a talented person that I would be incredibly lucky to ever meet, I have to admit that I find this book very separate from Me Before You. While other reviewers will tell you what’s similar about the two (the cast of characters, grief taking the place of illness, etc.), I will offer you what’s different:

  • The everyday nature. In Me Before You, I marveled at the way Moyes made everyday realistic events entirely compelling. The lives of the characters enveloped me.  In After You, the stories and characters remain interesting and compelling but wholly unbelievable (primarily those tied to the blast from Will’s past).
  • The grey area. Actually the title of my Me Before You review.  In the prequel, Moyes allows controversy to be central to her story and there is no right or wrong choice – in fact, the heart of the controversy is that there is no right answer.  While After You shows different ways individuals handle grief, it seems more on the side of a universal “right” message in which all roads lead to life working itself out.
  • Subjectivity and Controversy. As someone who primarily identified with Will Turner, this bullet point is the most important to me.  In Me Before You, the reason there are no right answers is that the thematic questions being asked are subjective based on one’s experiences. This was particularly true for Will who held a unique vantage point.  In After You, Will and/or his actions are frequently described by all characters as “selfish.”  I won’t elaborate too far on this point because I avoid spoilers at all costs, but I will say that while Moyes used her characters to exhibit subjectivity and different points of view in Me Before You, they all seemed to be singing a chorus of similarity on the major controversial issues in After You. (It’s true that Louisa does sort of take on the burden of Will’s point of view in her defensiveness of him, but for the most part she falls in line with the majority opinion.)
  • The ellipses. In Me Before You, Moyes exhibits confidence as an author with telling us only a piece, a snapshot of the lives of characters. And then there is the feeling of an ellipses, of wondering what happened, and allowing that feeling to sink in. It was brilliant and daring.  In After You, 100% of the problems wrap up neatly by the end. And while I don’t have an epilogue of every character’s future, I don’t much feel any ellipses.  The happily ever after feels overt.

The issue, or maybe the core question for those of you thinking of reading it (or desperate to read it, as I was), is whether these differences are positive or negative. And the reality is maybe they are neither: maybe they are just factual differences.

After You, Jojo Moyes, Book Review, Instagram, free read and write

If I was not comparing After You to Me Before You, would it be an excellent novel on its own that I would recommend reading? Yes. As a stand alone novel, After You is excellent because Moyes is excellent. Because her writing is excellent. Because she can weave a story of grief and humor together and make it appear effortless. Because I become lost in her pure flawlessness.

I love that I can flip through any section and find a sentence I am in love with: “I lift my head, feel the night breezes, hear the sound of laughter below and the muffled smash of a bottle breaking, see the traffic snaking up toward the city, the endless red stream of taillights, an automotive blood supply.”    “Now, when I read newspaper stores about the bank teller who had stolen a fortune, the woman who had killed her child, the sibling who had disappeared, I found myself not shuddering in horror, as I once might have, but wondering instead at the part of the story that hadn’t made it into print.”

I also adore this core theme of the after….just after.  To every piece of our lives, whether happy or sad or loved, there is an after.  And while our afters are inherently wrapped up in our pasts, that doesn’t make them any less of an after.  After You.  It reminds me of after all of the people I’ve loved and no longer know, or whom I have lost.  While the package in this case felt a little forced in its wrapped happiness, I liked seeing the afters of so many characters.  And knowing that, somewhere in their futures, and in ours, lies the continuous after.

But as a follow up to my favorite novel? It pains me to say that I just don’t know about that. I don’t think you need to read Me Before You first – I think After You stands up well on its own two legs. In fact, I hope people flock to it even without having read Me Before You, maybe because I am less happy with the stories and concepts of the two novels intertwined (despite their inherent nature as a prequel and sequel) than I am evaluating two very different excellent books from Moyes. As two separate novels, you can see the way they each hold their own personal beauty.  Together, it is hard to overcome the differences with similarities.  Either way, After You is without a doubt worth a read. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts.

Bringing Me Out of My Suspenseful Slump – Before I Go to Sleep, S.J. Watson

Consider this Part 2 of my “this sort of qualified as a free book” series.  Clearly, it’s going up more than a couple of days after Part 1.  To be fair, part of my distraction this time was racism disguised as satire.

The other part was this fear/obsession thing I’m going through.  I’m freaking out a little bit, you guys.  This Thursday I’m having a procedure called radiofrequency ablasion intercostal nerve blocks on 7 of my ribs. They’re essentially using a giant hot needle to cauterize my nerves between those ribs.  Since I’ve ruled out getting a spinal cord stimulator (hello, you can become paralyzed from that shit), this is the last procedural card I’ve got.  And I’m playing it.  (There’s also the possibility the MD could, um,  puncture my lung in the process.)  So if anyone out there has good thoughts, vibes, prayers (if that’s your thing) – whatever you have to throw into the universe, if you happen to be thinking it on Thursday, I wouldn’t be opposed.

Before I Go to Sleep, SJ watson, book review, movie

Front Cover (

Anyway.  This qualifies as “sort of” a free book because I did in fact originally check it out from the library.  But the cover was so beautiful.  SO BEAUTIFUL, YOU GUYS.  (Seriously, though. Even the back of this book is beautiful. Just look.)  A couple of days after checking it out I bought the hardcover online.  It arrived at my door 2 days later, and that’s the version I actually read.  I just wanted to own this beautiful cover. Thank goodness the book lived up to the beauty.

Before I Go to Sleep, SJ Watson, book review, cover, movie

Back Cover

I had been in something of a suspense funk when I started reading this, as I was having a hard time finding good, free suspense when I first began this blog. I experienced a big letdown with Simon Wood’s piece.  I also discovered that, unlike most of the world, I am not a huge fan of Robert Galbraith, which intensely disappointed me (more on that to come later).  But I saw this movie on the shelf at Target and, greatly drawn to Colin Firth, picked it up and read the summary.  My immediate thought was, “This would make a way better book than a movie.”  Luckily for me, it was a book first.  (I have not yet gone back to watch the movie due to other bookworms confirming my instincts that the book was in fact better.  Somebody else should watch it and break down why for me.) Before I go to sleep, movie, SJ watson, movie cover, book review

S.J. Watson wrote the book in the form of a woman’s journal.  Christine (our protagonist) has short-term memory loss, though at first the reader isn’t sure why, and she started keeping a diary for herself to form a collective memory.  She can remember a full day until she falls asleep at night, but when she wakes each morning she finds she is in the skin of a much older version of herself than she remembers (by about 20 years).  She finds the journal each day with the aid of a doctor who calls in the morning to tell her where it is hidden, but she gradually starts to remember on her own.  The weird part is that she is keeping this from her husband – not only that she is writing the journal, but that she has sought out the treatment from the doctor at all.  And so I enticingly read on to discover what she pieces together day after day, desperate to recall details of flittering memories that creep in and out of her mind.

The writing itself flows beautifully.  Watson has a gift.  This, for example, is just one sentence plucked from many: “Thoughts race, as if, in a mind devoid of memory, each idea has too much space to grow and move, to collide with others in a shower of sparks before spinning off into its own distance.”  In his writing style, at no point did I feel like he was faltering or not staying true to the tone he had created.  This is a book I would potentially read again not for the story but just for the adoration of his ability to put pen to paper.

The book is (obviously) in first person, and I genuinely thought the author was a woman until writing this review and finding I was extremely, extremely wrong.  So good on him for making me believe otherwise.  It may not seem like much, but I think the ability to convincingly take on the mind of your character in another gender, particularly a character lost and trying to find her way back to the soul of herself, is an accomplishment when the reader senses no gender ambiguity.  (Part of this has to do with the fact that even the very way we learn speech is gendered, so you have to take on a wholly new speech pattern to accomplish such a task.)

Further, in terms of thematic elements, I enjoyed the way he explored the idea of memory as a self-defining trait.  For some reason, this theme keeps popping up in literature I’m reading lately.  I discussed that in Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, the author tied the fogginess of our developmental memories to our sense of self. In Before I Go to Sleep, S.J. Watson explores the concept of all memories and who we are without them.  He states, “What are we, if not an accumulation of our memories?”   Watson essentially draws attenion to the fact that our memories are the entirety of ourselves, and when we lose them, what then becomes of our sense of self – or even, potentially, our sense of wholeness and humanity?  He then goes on to explain the way in which we interact with our memories.  “We’re constantly changing facts, rewriting history to make things easier, to make them fit in with our preferred version of events. We do it automatically. We invent memories. Without thinking. If we tell ourselves something happened often enough we start to believe it, and then we can actually remember it.”

While this idea is central to the plot, as the character can only experience any sense of memory by being told enough times, it also intertwines with the same wider concept of who we are without our memories.  Eye witness testimony in a courtroom is virtually the most unreliable evidence because witnesses so rarely remember details as they actually occurred.  If we are constantly distorting all of our memories in a similar fashion, and the essence of who we are is tied to memories of experience, have we subconsciously created a version of ourselves which might be vastly different were we to have actual memories rather than biased/distorted ones?  I’m getting into philosophical territory at this point, but I think it brings up an altogether frightening idea: how do we know who we are, and how can we trust that we are correct when we answer that question?  Perhaps the fact that this philosophy creeps in at all is part of what keeps the frightful feeling in tact while reading this book, despite the fact that very few terrifying events happen throughout it.

Before I Go to Sleep, Instagram, Free Read and Write, SJ Watson, Book Review, movie

The writer does a good job of making the tone of the book feel like that of someone who is sick and desperate; there are no sinister overtones.  And yet you can tell, not just because the book is labeled suspense, that something is off.  In every question that is answered, ten more are raised, and it’s like a race to the finish line to put them all together.  I read this book in under 48 hours.  Not entirely uncommon for me with a suspenseful novel, but I specifically remember one Saturday blowing off all of my plans to read the rest of this book.  It’s that good.

I’m also happy to report that the ending didn’t let me down.  I can’t tell you why without spoiling it all, but I can tell you that if you put in the time, you won’t be disappointed.  And that pep in my step in finding such a great suspense book has made me, I feel, make wiser reading choices overall.  I have noticed that the current reviews I have waiting to get down on paper (the computer) are more positive than negative.  (Though I’m chomping at the bit to get my review of The Circle out, and I make no promises on my tone in that one.)

I’m very impressed that this was a debut novel for this author.  I haven’t read his other work because the review of it by and large is, “This book was no Before I Go to Sleep.”  As a result, I think I might keep this as the only book I read by S.J. Watson.  So that nothing ever tarnishes the perfection which brought me out of my suspense reading slump (or that gorgeous cover).

Look Who's Back, Book Review, Timur Verdes, Hitler

No Mel Brooks: My First DNF Review – Look Who’s Back, Timur Vermes

I almost can’t believe I’m writing this.  I just had a conversation with a wonderful author last week, who gave me his book to read and whom I really admire, about why I didn’t finish his work.  I told him how beautiful the writing was but there were a few contradictions I couldn’t get past, and that I didn’t want him to think I had dismissed it without thought.  I said was telling him all of this as I don’t write DNF reviews because they’re cruel.

Then I got this racist shit book and I changed my mind.

Look Who's Back, Book Review, Timur Verdes, Hitler

The gist of the plot is that Hitler has woken up in Germany in 2011, with memory only up until just before he killed himself.  He’s decided to try to carry out his goals in the modern era, but there’s so much he doesn’t know.  Through hijinks and shenanigans he winds up on television as a satiric personality, etc.  That’s as much as I got through because I had to wade through anti-Semitic hate speech just to get that far and I finally decided that I was done.

When I first started it, I wondered if some of the hate speech was just German humor that was lost on me in translation (this is a translated book).  It quickly became clear that this wasn’t the problem.

A friend of mine sent me this one because he thought the premise sounded interesting but he wasn’t sure if it could be done well, and didn’t trust the reviews he’d read (we see eye to eye on most media).  I thought it sounded funny and told him if he sent it to me I’d throw a review up on the site.  Granted, I’ve been a little behind on here.  I have 7 reviews waiting in the wings and my last procedure gave me a 7-day migraine that still keeps on giving.  Oddly luckily enough, this book came along and made me pissed enough to get my writing groove back.

The Producers, Mel Brooks, Springtime for Hitler, book review

The Producers

When I told my friend who mailed this to me that I was writing a DNF review, his response was essentially that he sort of expected it as he wasn’t sure anyone could write about the Third Reich and have it be funny at all.  I quickly reminded him that Springtime for Hitler was FUCKING HILARIOUS and satire of horrible people can be really funny, when done well. (It’s in The Producers, you guys.  Mel Brooks?  You’re disappointing me if you aren’t grasping this reference.)  Even more disappointing, though, the satire portions of this book are done really, really well.

In the book, Hitler connected with a store owner, then a television station. Most people thought he was method acting and there were so many miscommunications as he learned to use the internet.  The fact that Hitler is a bad dude (okay, the worst dude) actually did make these interactions funny, and Vermes surprisingly crossed no lines during them.  It was a perfect comedic blend that could be thrown into an SNL sketch.  He even made funny observations of our society, like what it must look like to outsiders when we run around picking up excrement from our dogs.  Or how when we return to daytime television they summarize what has already happened for us every.single.time.  I laughed out loud, a lot.  Actually, the humorous plot is the only thing that kept me going for over 100 pages.

The problem is that for some reason Vermes felt like there needed to be character development?  I put a question mark because I’m not sure that was the goal; I’m just really hoping because that’s the only justification for pages that go on like this: “Only one thing was gratifying: German Jewry remained decimated, even after sixty years.  Around 100,000 Jews were left, a fifth of the 193 figure – public regret over this fact was moderate, which seemed to me perfectly logical but not entirely predictable.”  Or this: “It never ceases to amaze me how the creative genius of the Aryan race refuses to be suppressed.  This is an axiom I recognized long ago, and still I find myself surprised by how it holds true time and time again, even in the most adverse of circumstances.  assuming, of course, that the climate is right.”  Or this: “The man had been issued with an order.  And he was executing the order.  With a fanatical loyalty my leading generals would have done well to imitate. A man following orders – it was as simple as that.  Was he complaining? Was he moaning that it was a pointless task in this wind?  No he was performing his ear-splitting burdern bravely and stoically.  Like a loyal SS man.  Thousands of these had completed their tasks regardless of the burden placed on them, even though they could have easily complained, ‘what are we to do all these Jews?  It makes no sense anymore; they’re being delivered faster than we can load them into the gas chambers!'” …….. Or this: “As I strolled onward I scrutinized the faces around me.  Overall, not much seemed to have changed.  The racial measures implemented during my time in government had evidently paid off, even if they had been abandoned by successive regimes.  What struck me most of all was the apparent lack of half-breeds.  I could see comparatively strong oriental influences slavic elements in any of the countenances, but that had always been the case in Berlin.  What was new, on the other hand, was a substantial Turkish-Arab element on the streets.  Women with headscarves; old Turks in jackets and flat caps.  To all appearances, however, there had been no racial mixing.  The Turks I saw looked like Turks; I failed to detect any enhancement through Aryan blood, even though such a development must surely be of interest to the Turks. What such a large number of Turks was doing on the streets remained a complete mystery.  Especially at this time of day.  They did not look like imported domestics; there was no sense that these Turks were hurrying anywhere…What emerged from their mouths might suffice for communicating the most basic information, but for organized resistance it would be no use at all.  Lacking an adequate vocabulary most of them supplemented their utterances with expansive gestures.”

Did I mention I only read 1/3 of this book and the above quotes were just from briefly flipping through those pages?

timur vermes, look who's back, book review, did not finish, hitler The thing about Hitler is, and I feel like I shouldn’t have to actually spell this outyou don’t need to know what Hitler is thinking.  We know what Hitler would be thinking.  He was one of the worst humans to ever live.  He would think racist things and then try to play them out in political games.  It’s fucked up. It’s fucked up, man.  Don’t write it.

What surprised me was the moments you would have expected the author to falter, he didn’t at all. The plot was quite well done and humorous, and I almost wanted to finish it just for that.  The problem was that for some reason the author thought I needed the inner monologue OF HITLER along with it to understand why everything was happening, and I didn’t.  The last thing I ever needed in my life, especially when trying to sit down with a comedy, was to be inside Hitler’s head reading racist bullshit.

And it is for that, and for that anger, that I DID NOT FINISH.  And I don’t recommend you start.

What an asshole.

Palace ThAziz Ansari, Modern Romance, Book Cover, Book Review, Comedian, Sociology

What Sociologists Should Aspire To – Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari

Aziz Ansari came to Dayton, OH (where I was living at the time) the week before I moved to California and I just missed buying tickets before they sold out.  So when I saw him coming to San Francisco for any purpose, I swiped tickets that day.  They were for his new book tour, Modern Romance.  With the ticket for the talk came a “free copy” of the book.  C’mon, Aziz, your’e not fooling anyone – that book was built into your ticket price.  Still, thanks to your semantics you get a technicality review on my site.  And I’m so glad this one made it onto my list as I truly believe it should change the way academia functions.  

Palace Theater, Book Tour, Modern romance, Book review, comedian, sociology

Palace Theater, Location for Modern Romance’s San Francisco Book Tour

(Consider this part 1 of my “this sort of qualifies as a free book” reviews. I’m hoping Part 2 is heading your way within the next few days, but my blogging has clearly not been on schedule this month.)

This book isn’t your typical comedic biographical write-up, nor a collection of short stories if that’s your thing (I’m looking at you, B.J. Novak).  Ansari and a sociologist combined qualitative and quantitive data to look at not only what connects singles in today’s modern era, but also how that connection changes across time and culture.  In short, it is in-depth sociological research on attraction and romance written by a comedian.
In the acknowledgments section of the book, Ansari thanks the sociologist who helped him design and complete all of the research for the book, Eric Klinenberg.  He states, “If you are a renowned sociologist and best-selling author, teaming up with a comedian to write a sociology/humor book about modern romance is not necessarily a safe or logical bet.”  While this is meant in jest, what’s sad, and what many individuals who pick up this book won’t realize, is how true that sentence is.  Sociological academic research is designed to be written in academic jargon and then peer-reviewed prior to publication in (largely) sociology-only journals.  If you’re up for tenure, the publishing of a book with Aziz Ansari isn’t necessarily going in your positives column.Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari, Eric Klinenberg, book review, comedy, stand up

And that’s frustrating.  Let me make this about me for a moment (it is, after all, my blog.)  This book addresses head on all of the problems I had with academia and why I left it.  When I wrote my thesis, I spent months doing ethnographic research by sitting in therapy groups at a women’s prison.  In order to write it I made myself available and transparent to the women in the groups.  While I easily received authorization from my university’s human research review board for the project, I spent four months in process with the Ohio Department of Corrections review board to gain professional access.  In my writing I focused on the way that therapeutic techniques in prison are based off of studies with men (as so much of our healthcare needs are), and how women in general – but particularly women in prison – have an entirely different set of therapeutical needs.  I wrote about the way in which therapists were already trying to adapt their programs to be more amenable to the women they work with, but what was truly needed was a change in policy for therapy in prison.  It was a very policy-driven paper, and to the chagrin of all the professors on my thesis committee, I used everyday language rather than scientific jargon as much as possible so that it could be understood by anyone. (Many of my friends have read, understood, and loved it.)  My thesis advisor was sure that after making my own contacts in a prison system and getting past a DOC Review Board as a master’s student, I was a shoe-in at any PhD program focused on prison studies that I wanted.  And given my findings she was eager to have her name next to mine when I published.

I didn’t publish.

Department of Corrections, Federal Bureau of Prisons, Therapeutic, Women's Prison, Therapy, Thesis, SociologyI didn’t publish and tanked my academic career.  Spending 6-10 hours/week over a period of months in therapy with those women…if now is the most physically draining portion of my life, that was the most emotionally draining.  And when it was all over, I was told that I needed more sociological buzz-words, that I should draw only from sociological theory (not any psychological theory), and that I should publish in a research journal where (most likely) only other sociologists would read it and we could all self-masturbatorily discuss it without it actually being applied to any of the policy it was written for.  These are the core problems of academia: we don’t cross disciplines and we only write for each other in a language that only we can understand. How fucking stupid is that?

But publishing a book like this solves all of those ivory tower issues and I can tell you it is nothing short of brilliant.  I am so, so excited about this book.

Monster truck rally, "our boring ass dates", aziz ansari, modern romance, book review

Monster Truck Rally

This work is genuinely sociologically sound. The methodology and results are detailed (including focus groups in retirement homes, with teenagers and their parents, etc.), and compared to other current research.  They’re even up front about gaps in the findings: from the beginning Ansari states that this is mostly heterosexual research, as trends inclusive of homosexual dating habits would require an extra book.  And yet, because it took on the voice of Aziz Ansari, we can all understand the language and analogies written. For example, when talking about how dates are more successful if they are at an event where two people can get a sense of each other, rather than the repetitive coffee date, Aziz titles the section “Our Boring-Ass Dates.”  He writes, “One of the social scientists I consulted for this book is the Stanford sociologist Rob Willer.  Willer said that he had several friends who had taken dates to a monster truck rally.  If you aren’t familiar with monster truck rallies, basically these giant-ass trucks, with names like Skull Crusher and the ReJEWvinator, ride up huge dirt hills and do crazy jumps.  Sometimes they fly over a bunch of smaller cars or even school buses.  Even more nuts, sometimes those trucks assemble into a giant robot truck that literally eats cars.  Not joking.  It’s called Truckzilla and it’s worth looking into.  Frankly, it sounds cool as shit, and I’m looking at tickets for the next one I can attend.”  Now, if there was a sociological article in a journal titled “Monster Truck Rallys and Dating: A Sociological Theory of Attraction” which explored sociological terminology like group dynamics and social norms, I wouldn’t be half as interested as I was reading just that intro paragraph Ansari threw in.

Essentially, this book takes a sociological concept that is applicable to the real world (how we date, what that means, and what it says about our future), and then it is written and dispersed in a way (a comedic book) that makes it accessible to those for whom the knowledge would affect (any person in the population interested in starting or continuing any type of romantic relationship).  Ansari has 10 pages of journal article references in here full of information peppered throughout his pages, but I’d bet big money you will never read ANY of those articles. Yet you might read this book.  That’s huge.  That’s MONUMENTAL.  Not only is the research accessible but because it was written by a popular comedian it is actually a desirable read.  Reading relevant sociological research is suddenly so desirable it’s a New York Times best seller.  That’s bigger than what anyone seems to be giving Ansari and Klinenberg credit for accomplishing, and frankly, I believe it is what every sociologist should aspire to.

aziz ansari, stand up, modern romance, book review

Aziz Ansari

Beyond breaking down the walls that the ivory tower has held up for decades, the book is a legitimate read.  Ansari makes clear that this is not a how-to book, but there is enough information on what works and what doesn’t if that’s what you’re in it for.  I feel like I learned so much about how wrong I’ve been doing online dating, and I felt more comfortable with the fact that I am single going into my 30s.  I learned how many people are still meeting in real life instead of through a virtual hand-held world.  THERE WAS EVEN INFORMATION ON HOW TO DO THAT.  Aziz Ansari just single-handedly changed the way I date.

He also may have single handedly changed the way I want to communicate, or at the very least, shed more light on our current state of communication.  When talking about the way in which we respond to voicemails versus texts in the modern era, he discusses a woman in his focus group who was saying she got a really sweet voicemail from a guy recently.  When asked to play it, it simply said, “Hey, Lydia. It’s Sam.  Just calling to say what’s up.  Gimme a ring when you get a chance.”  Aziz states, “I pleaded to know what was so great about this.  She sweetly recalled that ‘he remembered my name, he said hi, and he told me to call him back.’ Nevermind the fact that this was the content of LITERALLY EVERY VOICEMAIL IN HISTORY.  Name, hello, please call back.” He goes on to describe that as we are calling people less our reactions to it as a form of communication now differ; we either love it (as in the case of this woman, who is happy with any voice communication what-so-ever) or hate it.  But on the whole, the take-away was if you’re dating and make a phone call, you’re going to make an impression.  (But if you’re going to play it safe and text, he has some basic research results on the 3 things that will make you successful.  I’ll keep that mystery alive for your own read.)

He also discusses our focus on texting as primary communication in a way I never would have thought about. He lists many actual text message exchanges throughout the book, including some with his own girlfriend (taken, ladies and gents.  I know.  I’m sorry.)  Ansari talks about the power of not getting a text back immediately, describing our beginning to wonder, “Why the fuck didn’t she write back? What’s wrong? Did I screw something up?” He discusses this with an MIT anthropologist, Natsha Schull, who likens our relationship with texting to gambling addiction.  We are now so used to putting a quarter in that slot and getting an immediate return – such is our way of communicating. No more of this waiting a few days to call you back bullshit. But when we don’t get that immediate response we’re conditioned to expect, we go into withdrawal sweat mode – why didn’t we get that text?  WHY DIDN’T WE GET THAT TEXT?  Just taking the time to understand our communication psychology could completely unravel it.

In the category of advice in the book, the piece I found most interesting was what Aziz called googling the fuck out of each other.  It turns out that the more you know, the less likely you are to be into it when you get together.  So take it from me, kids: keep the mystery alive.  Drop your phone prior to your date.

masturbation, aziz ansari, modern romance, book review

Aziz’s Description of Masturbation Device in Japan

This book is also (obviously) really funny.  I laughed out loud more times than I can count.  At one point Ansari actually describes trying a masturbation trend for men going around in Japan.  I can’t believe he did it let alone gave us a detailed description in the book.  Similarly, while talking about open relationships, he describes having a very loud conversation in a public place with his girlfriend about the idea of her having a one night stand with Tyrese.  Through what could easily be some pretty dense material, Ansari keeps it as light as his stand-up.

I should point out that this is much more than just a how-to book and includes information for everyone, whether you are in fact active in the dating circuit or you’ve been married for years.  There is information about how the way we communicate has changed and what that means, and how we can communicate more successfully with anyone important to us in this changing environment. There’s information about why that change happened, what the landscape used to look like, and what we might want to anticipate in the future. And there’s information about what modern romance looks like in other parts of the world in comparison to our own: how these social norms that we’ve created are in fact very culturally specific and perhaps if we understand why we can break down some of our current assumptions.  In short, it was about the function of love in society and what creates a successful or failing relationship.

I think it really could have gone one step further on that front.  For example, Ansari and Klinenberg throw the word “love” around frequently throughout the book, whether they are talking about the U.S. or Buenos Aires or historically.  But love is a very culturally specific word, and it changes over time.  Even the very definition of sexuality has changed: our sexual preferences being part of our identities (gay, straight, etc.) rather than simply an action we do is a very recent concept/change.  (Wink – shout out to my boy Foucault.)  While the authors looked at the way entering into loving relationships differed across time and culture, they failed to mention that the actual idea of what this “love” thing is holds just as much debate.

Dan Savage, Aziz Ansari, Modern Romance, book review, critique, open relationships

Dan Savage

The largest problem, though, is that there is little to no criticism in the book, and this is where I think the deviation from traditional academic writing took a nosedive. For example, when speaking with Dan Savage about the ideas of open relationships, Ansari writes about how Savage “contends that the women’s movement during the twentieth century fundamentally changed our approach to the problem.  Women, he explains, rightly contested the presumption that men could fool around while they had no outside sexual options.  But the decisive shift came when, rather than extending to women the lee-way men had always enjoyed to have extramarital sexual escapades, society took the opposite approach.  Men could have said, ‘Okay let’s both mess around.’  But instead men got preemptively jealous of their wives messing around…When a nonmonogamous relationship fails, everyone blames the nonmonogamy; when a closed relationship fails, no one ever blames the closed relationship.”  One problem with this commentary is that Savage isn’t quite quoting history correctly.   And even more-so, you would need statistical evidence regarding open relationships to see what typically dooms them to justify including such claims.  Aziz does somewhat provide his own counterpoint; for example, the same chapter is filled with anecdotal evidence that non-monogamous couples often get into such a relationship for the wrong reasons and it becomes the singular thing that tears them apart.  He further ends the chapter on a lovely quote from Pitbull about how everyone should do what’s right for them (and then explains how excited he is to end a chapter on a quote from Pitbull).  So there is some underlying criticism, but nothing conspicuous – there are little to no actual opinions from Ansari or (as far as I can see) Klinenberg throughout the book.  It’s more like a bunch of information thrown together.  In some sense this is dangerous. When throwing all of this information out into the world, the experts should give us the low-down on what information appears most legitimate and why, because if you buy into the whole thing, you might be buying into really shitty information along with your really good information.  In reading the conversations the two writers had with other “experts” along the way, without putting in the effort to dig, analyze, and critique, it’s hard for the average reader to tell which parts are actually shitty information. (For example, these awful sections with Dan Savage.)

Still, given the vast amount of legitimate academic information and research that is contained in this book, and given the leaps and bounds that this made for academic writing, I’m inclined to consider it a success.  Kudos to Ansari for having the idea and making it happen.  Sociological information should inherently be accessible to the people it pertains to, and I am so proud of my field for producing this.