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

Instagram.com/free_read_and_write

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

Instagram.com/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 (instagram.com/free_read_and_write)

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

Instagram.com/free_read_and_write

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

Instagram.com/free_read_and_write

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.

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, Matthew Quick, book review

To Have a Favorite Author – Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, Matthew Quick

Man, it’s been a crazy couple of weeks.  So many of you read and shared my piece on Go Set a Watchman – I appreciate it and am very humbled that my blog is starting to make the rounds.  I just got word that I’ll be receiving an ARC soon that I’m completely amped about (so much so that I’ve been going around using words like “amped” and “stoked”), so I’m looking forward to that as well.  (And my mom would want me to mention that I got recognized as a valuable colleague at work that came with a bonus, and, um, a polo shirt – “all the good things!”)

Rock Raccoon, dog, pet, cancer

Our family dog – “Rocky Raccoon”

The good things have been awesome because the bad things have been wild.  Eight years ago I found a puppy this big in the woods, and brought her home as our family dog.  She grew into that giant bone hoarder!  We just found out she has cancer and numbered days.  I also had a procedure called an intercostal nerve block.  This type of block is actually in/beneath your rib – done twice diagnostically prior to going in with a super hot needle (the big guns).  The hope is it works, though the things that could go wrong are terrifying.  My first diagnostic procedure was a success – no pain for 24 hours.  CRAZY.  I have not had a day without pain in so long!  But the recovery, whew, buddy – 3 days of pain so bad that I thought I was going to be sick, not even able to read.  The next diagnostic procedure is coming up this Friday.

So I’m glad I’ve got this balance of good with the bad happening. More and more as I get older it feels like things happen for a reason, that the universe unfolds as it should or some shit.  Really, though.  I never felt it when I was younger and I’m not sure what that is.  Anyways, to add to my list of wonderful things happening that off-set the stressful, I have officially found a favorite author.  I’ve never had a favorite author before which people have always found strange, given the amount of reading that I do.  And now I know I will be able to answer the question with certainty.

Matthew Quick.

Silver Linings Playbook, Matthew Quick, book reviewThe first thing I read by Matthew Quick was Silver Linings Playbook, and I really only read it because I knew it was a movie coming out with Jennifer Lawrence.  Now, if you only saw the movie, you need to reevaluate and go back to that book.  Matthew Quick did an amazing job telling a contemporary and modern love story, but even more importantly, he jumped into the psyche of stigmatized illness.  He explored with beautiful penmanship the difficulty of living in the margins of society.  The entire book was written as a stream of consciousness, which unfortunately didn’t translate well to movie form.  What should be silent internal dialogue became spoken in the film, and as a result the character’s diagnosis didn’t quite remain the same.  The only constant from book to film is Jennifer Lawrence’s character (and fuck did she deserve that Oscar).  Criticisms of the movie were often that the portrayal of mental illness wasn’t realistic, and I just wanted to say to everyone, “Yeah, but if you’d read the book and saw that it was a good portrayal and understood why they had to translate that portrayal for the movie in a different way….” etc. etc. etc.  You get my point.  The movie is good, but the book is fantastic.

I loved it so much that when Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock came out Goodreads notified me (Goodreads is so nice about notifying me).  This was in 2013.  Here we are in 2015 and I finally got low enough in my TBR pile to check it out from the library.  And, as per usual in this blog, I felt like a huge idiot for not reading it sooner.  Because the man is now my favorite author.

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, Matthew Quick, cover, book reviewForgive Me, Leonard Peacock is about a teenager who is prepping for his 18th birthday, and no one has remembered.  He plans to spend the day providing gifts to people who have had an impact on his life, just before he kills another boy and himself.  It’s not the happiest of plots, when it is all laid out like that, but don’t let it scare you off.  At its core the story is really about uncovering why this is Leonard’s plan for his 18th birthday, what has affected his life, and how to re-open his heart.

Matthew Quick really showed his range with this book.  Silver Linings Playbook is a beautifully written in-depth novel.  Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is without a doubt a young adult story.  It’s paragraphs are brief and it reads quickly, and yet both books are equally done well.  For me it was the equivalent of watching someone go from writing and directing a movie that was a comedic drama for adults to writing and directing a cartoon and hitting it out of the ballpark on both; it just seems like there is so rarely that cross-over.  In literature, the general rule is that if you write YA, you are a YA author.  Period.  And I really liked seeing Quick demonstrate that a writer can explore the spectrum, stay true to his craft and still develop an excellent piece of work.

What’s more, he maintained his ability to write about damaged psyches even when translating it to the mind of an adolescent.  It’s tough to be in the mind of a teenager as an adult. I remember being in 8th grade and thinking I wanted to a middle school counselor when I grew up because no one understood what it’s like to be in middle school.  Now that I’m an adult, all I can think is that I really don’t understand or relate at all to 8th graders, I would be terrible at that job, and when did that happen?  But the way Quick writes makes me remember.  He captured it.  It seems like magic to me as a (sort of) grown-up. He’s not exploring feeling fictional romance as you fight to death in an arena (not that this can’t be well done; I love the Hunger Games) – this book is a very simple realistic look at the life of one teenage boy, inside his head.  And Quick managed to make him feel like a real person.

I continued to admire the way Quick addressed mental illness.  It isn’t outlandish. His plots are driven by the need to uncover the source of the character’s mental illness and, in the process, the readers inevitably join the movement of removing stigma attached to it.  Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is about slowly understanding pieces of the puzzle of the protagonist’s mind, until finally you see the completed image.  I’ve never seen a writer who not only understood mental illness in all of its forms so completely, but also tricked the reader into understanding it by withholding details of it up until the end.  It’s like the suspense of getting to the bottom of what caused mental illness in this child is also uncovering your own understanding of the problem itself.  By writing it in this way, providing a little bit of the story first and then the tools to understand the underlying cause of Peacock’s mental illness, the reader comes away with a heartfelt almost protective feeling of Quick’s protagonist.  And thus, by extension, perhaps a more loving view of those children battling mental illness amongst us in real life.  I’m not really sure if writing this story of discovery and thus inherently affecting emotion toward mental illness as a whole is intentional on Quick’s part, but given the depth and excellence of his writing, I would guess that it is.

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, Matthew Quick, book review, footnotes

Footnotes in chapter five

Quick also did something in this book I’ve never seen before.  He wrote about half of it in the footnotes.  I’m not talking about something like Good Omens, where a decent portion of side notes and hilarity are found there.  I’m saying that there is the central basic plot in the main portion of the pages, and the rest of the story is actually told and developed through footnotes.  It’s a unique way to write any novel, YA or otherwise, and I’m surprised with how well it worked.  It allowed him to break up what were, essentially, two separate stories being told – what was happening this day of Leonard Peacock’s 18th birthday, and why it was happening (the why it was happening being the bulk in the footnotes).  Breaking the book up with footnotes allowed the telling of two different stories to feel connected in some way, whereas if it had all been in one flowing narrative it might have felt fractured.

The footnotes accomplished something else as well.  The story felt really heavy at times, as you can tell by me having to explain to you that the plot isn’t really as gruesome as the outline would suggest.  By breaking up the darkness with jumping between footnotes, Quick gave the reader a bit of a break. He allowed the reader to steer away from being totally engulfed by the intense portions of the story, and even made the occasional humorous comment seem welcome rather than out of place.  I’m not sure if the footnotes were written as a solution to the heaviness of this YA plot, or if the footnotes were the idea and the rest written around them, but either way – it worked.  And it was a big risk, because how many books do you see written that way?  It could easily have been a disaster. Matthew Quick takes risks in his writing, straying from the conventional, and it works.

There are two primary themes in the book that I found deeply human and intriguing.  The first is the absolute desire to make a connection with others around us, and how difficult it is to actually do that.  Throughout Peacock’s journey, you find him desperately desiring connection by wishing people to understand him and simultaneously trying to understand them.  For example, he follows strangers on the train that he thinks are sad in an effort to understand where their sadness comes from and decide whether it is worth growing up – growing up to a life of commuting and hating your job and being lonely.  Where is that feeling of human connection? In an interaction at school that day, he thinks, “I would have talked with him openly and honestly – no double talk at all – if he would have just sat down, taken a few minutes to be human.”  This is the heart of the primary story line – the search for connection that makes Peacock seem like both a normal teenager and too intelligent for his own good.

Matthew Quick, Forgive Me, Leonard peacock, silver linings playbook, book review

Matthew Quick

The other primary theme is the idea of memory and how it is connected to the development of the self. The repression of memory, you find out in the story, is what lies beneath Peacock’s mental illness and what brings about his birthday of horror (though I won’t disclose to you what those memories are).  But Quick also points out that this idea of loss of memory and confusion is not specific to the mentally ill, but all around us.  Thinking about memory and our birthdays, Peacock thinks, “And I wonder at what age it’s appropriate to stop keeping track of everyone’s birthday.  When do we stop needing the people around us to acknowledge the fact that we are aging and changing and getting closer to our deaths?  No one tells you this.  It’s like everyone remembers your birthday every single year and then suddenly you can’t remember the last time someone sang the birthday song to you, nor can you say when it stopped.  You should be able to remember, right?”  Quick is essentially raising questions of how our memory development affects who we become.  The youth that shaped us – are we really aware of the majority of it?  How many memories do you have?  There aren’t definitive answers to these questions, but I appreciate that Quick raises them. In reality, any bubbling up of some lost specific memory could potentially put you on the edge of relating to poor Leonard Peacock.  Quick connects the universal ideas of memory to the individual protagonist, and suddenly, without realizing it, you are intertwined in his story.

For all of these reasons, after reading just two books (two flawless books), I have decided this person has to be my favorite author.  When my mother was here visiting earlier this month she offered to buy me some books and I asked for Love May Fail.  I will soon be reading and reviewing that here.  A bit behind, given that millions have already read Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock and I’m only now getting around to it.  But man I’m glad I read it.  Better late than never.

And I think it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyways: yes, I recommend you give this one a read.

Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee, author, To Kill a Mockingbird

To Read or Not to Read: An Ethical Decision – Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee

I’ve been thinking about this for awhile, but something about a book review I read yesterday sent me over the edge. Usually, I would consider myself a reader, but in this instance it seems more important to be a writer.  I need to get down on paper (I mean the Internet) why I made the ethical decision not to read Go Set a Watchman.  And it’s not because Atticus Finch is racist.

There is of course the question of whether reading can even be an ethical decision.  The reality, though, is that tweets fly around everyday (see what I did there?) about the ethics surrounding books.  Shouldn’t we support the indie writers?  Shouldn’t we help provide the little guy money and exposure by buying their books, by reading, by reviewing?  I’ve only been in the game a couple of months, but I can say with certainty that the book blogging world has an ethical stance on corporate versus indie publishing; they encourage absolute support of the latter.  So at least occasionally we already look at what we read as a moral choice.

If we ethically choose what to read, shouldn’t we also ethically choose to abstain from reading?

Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee, author, book reviews, ethical readingI said it yesterday and I’ll say it again today: I haven’t seen buzz like that around Go Set a Watchman since the last Harry Potter book came out.  I sincerely believe that if the bookstores had caught onto this sooner and decided to open at midnight, they would have made a killing.  For some reason, it’s speaking to multiple generations: those of us who are the same age as Harper Lee, those of us who remember her writing as “classic,” and those of us still in high school reading To Kill a Mockingbird wondering what all this new talk is about.

Is it the talk or the publishing campaign that made this so popular?  Probably a little bit of both – but it’s the talk that bothers me.  If you’ve been following this book at all, you already know about the suspicious circumstances behind the finding, buying, and publishing.  Harper Lee’s sister, who up until recently acted as her attorney and protected her estate, passed away.  Both Harper and her sister had stated very publicly that none of Haper Lee’s other work would be published.  Then “suddenly,” with magical timing, Harper Lee’s current lawyer discovered this long lost important book. The publishers didn’t even speak to Harper Lee directly about buying it.  They spoke to her lawyer, and issued statements by “Harper Lee” delivered by – you guessed it – the lawyer.  If the lawyer didn’t get a cut of this deal I would drop dead of surprise right here and now.  Those still fighting to protect her with scrutiny questioned whether Harper Lee is even able to consent to the publication; she is a stroke victim, nearly deaf and blind in assisted living.

Harper lee, author, to kill a mockingbird, go set a watchman, book review, ethics

Harper Lee

All of these suspicious circumstances that we will only know the answers to 100 years from now aside, there is also the issue of the body of work itself.  If you are reading it, you may want to bear in mind that it was written BEFORE To Kill a Mockingbird.  If Harper Lee had wanted to publish Go Set a Watchman instead of To Kill a Mockingbird, or even following, she certainly had ample time to do so.  More troubling, it’s an unrevised version of the book that is currently released.  IT’S HER ROUGH DRAFT.  Lee used it as her starting point prior to To Kill a Mockingbird, so there are entire passages that are word-for-word identical in both.  From what I understand, sections of Go Set a Watchman also completely contradict the timeline and/or events of To Kill a Mockingbird.

I’m no expert on writing, but I’d put my money on this: if Harper Lee wanted Go Set a Watchman released in the world, it would be odd for her to decide Draft One was ready to be scooped up by millions.  If you can name me any author who would prefer that to a well crafted book, let alone one author who has succeeded in writing a classic piece of literature for all time, I’ll drop dead of shock for the second time in just a few paragraphs.

I haven’t interviewed or spoken with Harper Lee.  I can’t tell you with 100% certainty that she didn’t want this novel published.  I can tell you that logically it stands to reason that as Harper Lee only decided to publish with a new lawyer after decades of stating she would never, as she sometimes does not understand what is being asked, and as the initial draft of the “new” book largely contradicts her beloved classic, there are good odds this was not her wish.  Or, maybe more likely, this was not entirely her wish. There are good odds that this was exactly the wish of the publishers and agents and lawyers who have made millions off this deal (or will inevitably).  And if you don’t want to call it logic, call it instinct.

Assuming it isn’t the author’s choice to release published work, or even that it just probably isn’t, should we read it?  Should I? There is such a morbid curiosity I hold about what’s in there.  Especially now that it is out in the world with bits and pieces of plot floating around.  But if I read it, am I not contributing to what could very well be a corrupt situation?  Can I read it and ethically feel ok about my choice?  What about reading it from the library, without the exchange of money?  The problem is, the library’s numbers are tracked, too; we already have a wildly long waiting list.  And what does that say? It says we will buy it.  We will come.  If you can (possibly) con an author into publishing something they desired to stay secret, we will buy it from you and make you wealthy, little to no questions asked.  We, the bloggers, the readers, the writers.  We will help you do it.

Battle in Seattle, This is What Democracy Looks Like

Battle in Seattle

It’s a bit dramatic, I know.  When I was taking my social movements class in grad school I had a complete existential breakdown (a real one, not like one of the ones we all thought we were having in high school) after I watched the documentary This is What Democracy Looks Like.  It’s about the Battle in Seattle, where protests against the WTO became radically violent…at the hands of the police.  In one scene an officer knocks a gas mask off of a protestor and sprays him directly in the face with tear gas, just before the camera cuts away to the evening news which talks about the strong police restraint and complete lack of tear gas.  It was depressing.  We can’t even protest anymore, you guys.  You have to have a permit for your marching route and if they say no, you’ll be arrested for marching. For SITTING. And with the globalization of, well, everything, nobody is going to give a shit that you got arrested in rural Ohio protesting..well..globalization.

I really disappointed my social movements professor, who wanted the class to be a motivating force for his students.  Like we were all going to go out and change the world.  And then he taught me the most important thing any sociologist, any postmodernist, any humanist can know; you can’t change it all at once.  (I mean, duh.  We still have a gender pay gap and black male children who are brutalized by our protective forces.)  But you can change it with a baby step.  And you can change it where the capitalist system actually gives a shit: corporate bank accounts.

So that’s what I do.  Ethically.  Morally.  Even when it comes to what I get for free, I want my one number on someone’s statistical report to reflect my support.  I can’t support this.  I won’t. Not with so many unanswered questions.  It’s true that my one number is nothing among thousands.  But maybe if ten other people start thinking ethically about their reading choices after this, and 10 more after them, and 10 more after that…maybe eventually we’ll be the thousands on the other side of the fence.  Determining what should be published, rather than only reacting to it.

And hey, maybe you still think this was Harper Lee’s choice and ethically it’s right to read and enjoy the publication she finally released.  At least you pondered it enough to make an ethical reading decision.