Five Minute Book Blurb: Shrill by Lindy West

Five Minute Book Blurb: Shrill by Lindy West

I have a problem with Lindy West: none of my strong, feisty, inspiring gal friends are reading her. Admittedly, I only recently discovered her myself when an acquaintance recommended that I check out her essay Donald and Billy on the Bus, published shortly after the piggish tape of Trump bragging about grabbing women’s genitals hit the airwaves. In the coming days, I read a few more of her columns, but it wasn’t until I read her memoir Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman that, as I wrote in my journal afterwards, I was “on fire with love for Lindy West.” I’m not normally so effusive in book reviews, but if none of my friends are reading Lindy West, who am I to gush with? So, here we are.

Shrill is a collection of and expansion on West’s best essays throughout the years. It touches on a wide variety of topics, including fat shaming and body positivity, internet trolls and online harassment, and period and abortion stigma. West, a fat feminist (her preferred term, by the way) is a columnist for The Guardian and has long been known in the blogosphere for her outspoken writing on feminism and social justice. Long before she was writing for The Guardian, she penned columns for Jezebel and The Stranger, and, as the age of the internet troll came about, she became known for the onslaught of online harassment she experienced while writing for each of these publications, a trend that still continues today.

Why does she get so much hate? Because West fearlessly speaks truth to power and can effortlessly eviscerate any argument thrown her way. She is a deft debater who refuses to cower in the face of relentless sexism and hatred from the deplorables of the world, and that is exactly what makes her book so compelling.

In a way that I still can’t quite pinpoint, reading Shrill felt like coming home for me. What I love most about West is that she constantly demands better from society, and rightfully so. In her most compelling essays (“Hello, I am Fat,” “Chuckletown, USA, Population: Jokes,” “Death Wish,” and “It’s About Free Speech, It’s Not About Hating Women”), she unpacks layer upon layer of nuance to illustrate how society builds and then perpetuates a system that consistently strives to shrink, minimize, and marginalize women. The haters of the world will argue that she rants, that she hates men, that she complains for the sake of complaining. But, of course, the book is none of that. In addition to being well written, fierce, and on point, it’s thoughtful, funny, and sincere. It is warm and earnest and everything I aspire to be while simultaneously fighting the each of the –isms she calls out in the course of her book. For me, the book and her style of writing is the epitome of one of my favorite mottos: Do no harm, but take no shit.

Without exaggeration or hyperbole, I can say that reading this book has made me a better person. It made me think. It made me laugh, and it made me weep. It kept me up at night. But more than anything, Shrill reminded me that our words and our writing matter, that they can move the needle of public opinion and create a better world. More importantly, it reminded me that the hard work of deciphering and analyzing our world via the written word is always a worthy and just cause.

West describes it best herself. In the conclusion of the book, she says:

I think the most important thing I do in my professional life today is delivering public, impermeable “no”s and sticking to them. I say no to people who prioritize being cool over being good. I say no to misogynists who want to weaponize my body against me. I say no to men who feel entitled to my attention and reverence, who treat everything the light touches as a resource for them to burn. I say no to religious zealots who insist that I am less important than an embryo. I say no to my own instinct to stay quiet…. It’s a way of kicking down the boundaries that society has set for women–be compliant, be a caregiver, be quiet–and erecting my own. I will do this. I will not do that. You believe in my subjugation; I don’t have to be nice to you. I am busy. My time is not a public commodity. You are boring. Go away.

That is world-building.

I, too, want to contribute to world-building. Lucky for me, West has already been laying the path for us.

If you’re interested in books about feminism, I’d highly recommend… Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit. Not so coincidentally, Solnit has also produced a fantastic amount of intelligent writing on Trump in the past months.

If you’re interested in a more traditional review… check out this one in the New York Times. I have to say, though, that I read Sex Object and much preferred West’s book!

 

 

 

 

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Five Minute Book Blurb: Why Write?

A few weeks before the new year, I found myself wandering through my local book shop as snow gently floated outside of the store’s big bay window. I’d come with the explicit purpose of selecting the first book to read during my year of writing and reading to come. Less than five minutes into my browsing, Mark Edmundson’s book Why Write? A Master Class on the Art of Writing and Why it Matters seized my attention. “Why write?” the inside cover asked. “Why write when it sometimes feels that so few people really read—read as if their lives might be changed by what they’re reading? Why write, when the world wants to be informed, not enlightened; to be entertained, not inspired?” I nodded so forcefully that my head felt it might bobble off my shoulders. We were only a few weeks out from the worst election in U.S. history, and I couldn’t help but think of a nation obsessed with fake news and Facebook politics. I’d only read the synopsis on the cover, but this book was already speaking my language. So I snatched it up and headed home, excited to crack the cover when the new year, and my year of reading, officially began. Unfortunately, I’d soon discover that my year of reading would not start with a bang, as they say, but with a whimper.

Edmundson begins strong with a beautiful and inspiring foreword. Among other reasons, like learning to think and building up the muscles of your mind, Edmundson says that writing is important because “by coming up with fresh and arresting words to describe the world accurately, the writer expands the boundaries of her world, and possibly her readers’ worlds, too.” Afterwards, Edmundson breaks down the book by reasons you should and should not write along with the pleasures and perils that come with the craft. Each chapter is dedicated to a possible benefit or pitfall with Edmundson using his own reflections, experiences, and interpretations of what other famous writers have said about writing to argue his position.

The first chapters of the book are enjoyable enough; Edmundson discusses the importance of writing, even in a world inundated with the mindless prattlings of everyone on the internet, and reflects upon the difficulty of transitioning from your “habitual self,” which is still thinking about the dishes in the sink and the humdrum tasks of everyday life, to the creative self, which can delve into the words and worlds of your creative mind. Despite these welcome reflections, the book quickly becomes insufferable. Edmundson takes every opportunity to wax poetic about his favorite canonical authors, leaving the reader feeling as if she were stuck in a lecture hall while Edmundson talks in circles about the greatness of old, white men.

At another point, Edmundson retells a story that appears in Rebecca Solnit’s book Men Explain Things to Me. Without crediting the story to Solnit, Edmundson recaps her personal experience with a man who explains the premise of her own book to her, insisting that he knows more about the subject even after he discovers that she’s the author of the book he’s explaining. After his retelling, Edmundson says he’s “not sure [he] believes this one out and out.” I’m sure Solnit would not appreciate the irony of a man explaining her experience to his readers in his own words without so much as mentioning her name or granting credibility to her story. If I didn’t have a book quota to meet, I would’ve snapped the book shut right then and never turned back. One Goodreads reader remarked that “women were an afterthought for Edmundson,” and it certainly seems that Edmundson thought he could cover his bases by citing Emily Dickinson and, on occasion, substituting the masculine pronoun for the feminine one. Unfortunately for Edmundson, his lip service to women can’t cover up his white male privilege.

Despite its many downfalls, Why Write? did offer a few refreshing insights. For example, Edmundson discusses the importance of choosing the right medium for writing, noting that word processors can block our creativity, if only because our words appear so official and well-formatted, like a work that’s already complete the moment the words are written. Instead, he advocates for putting pen to paper when drafting; as a writer that mostly drafts on a computer, I was pleasantly surprised at how composing in a notebook opened the floodgates of my brain and how easy it was to edit my jottings into something more polished as I converted my draft into a typed document.

However, Edmundson’s best argument is for the importance of writing itself. Why write in the age of information overload and rampant skimming? It’s the question that hangs over the whole book. Edmundson argues that writing—good or bad, published or unpublished—preserves the timeline of our lives and is important for that reason alone. “Our writings create constellations[,]” Edmundson say. “They are the way we look back (or look up) and see that we have had a life.” Really, what could be more beautiful than that? Unfortunately, though, a handful of thoughtful or inspiring ideas does not make a remarkable book.

Last year, I moved for the third time in less than three years. As I packed up my belongings, I resolved that, moving forward, I would keep only the books that truly inspired me, books that I’d regularly refer to as a writing handbook of sorts. It’s safe to say that Edmundson’s book will soon find its way to the donation pile.

If you’re interested in books that discuss the craft of writing, I’d highly recommend… Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, which also delves into the importance of writing in the modern world as well as how writing is akin to a spiritual practice.

Typically, I’d also link to a review from a more well-known publication as well, but I couldn’t find any to date. So, for now, I suppose you’re stuck with my opinion.

 

 

Five Minute Book Blurb: The Art of Memoir

I’ve always identified myself as a fiction writer. Creative nonfiction, as a genre, didn’t enter into my awareness until I was a couple of years into college, and even then, the idea of writing it never occurred to me. Creative nonfiction was for those who had lived extraordinary lives or those who had survived horrendous childhoods plagued with alcoholic or drug-addicted parents, those who had built schools in Afghanistan or those with collections of exotic stories after traveling the world. It wasn’t until my last year of graduate school that I made my first attempt at writing my own true stories as part of a nonfiction class and started to discover what writing nonfiction meant.

Compelled by my experiences in Ecuador and a need to reconcile my life there with the high-paced American life that I live now, I recently picked up Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir in an attempt to figure out how to render lived experiences to the page. The week before, I had settled down to begin unwinding the matted yarn ball of memories that is my Peace Corps life and realized that I had a multitude of questions about writing in this genre: What if the details are fuzzy and I can’t remember every event in a sequence of occurrences? How do I tap the mixed up card catalog of memories that is my mind so I can render the details on the page?  Is there a secret strategy for rediscovering memories long forgotten? How do I muster the courage to include the details that portray myself and others in a less than flattering light? Does writing nonfiction necessarily mean giving up all of your secrets?

If you’re not lucky enough to be one of Karr’s students at Syracuse University, reading The Art of Memoir is the next best thing to taking her memoir writing class. Citing her own creative process while writing her three best-selling memoirs and referring to a list of others that she regularly teaches, Karr explains the ins and outs of writing memoir, dedicating entire chapters to unraveling the thread of memory, dealing with difficult portrayals of friends and family, and defining what truth means in the context of memoir. The reoccurring theme that ties the book together is why we write memoir in the first place. As Karr points out, good stories don’t always make good memoir material; instead, she says, we write memoir to make sense of lived experience, to explore the details of our lives more fully and understand what it means in the greater context of who we are. Throughout the book, she dissects passages, line by line, from other admired memoirs, illustrating how any lived experience, if rendered truthfully and with emotion, can capture a reader’s interest. Multiple chapters also contain lists of practical writing strategies, and what many disliked about this book—the extremely technical discussion of the craft of writing—is what I so loved the most.

As I sit with my thoughts and memories now, I find myself weighing the emotional significance of each and reconsidering how snippets of my lived experience can be incorporated in a way that impacts the reader rather than just tells them a good story. Karr’s book also provides a good reminder as to why we write, even in the face of doubt and unpromised reward:

“Writing, regardless of the end result—whether good or bad, published or not, well reviewed or slammed—means celebrating beauty in an often ugly world. And you do that by fighting for elegance and beauty, redoing or cutting the flabby, disordered parts.”

It’s an argument for revising, but it reminds me why I get up before sunrise every day to scribble down my thoughts, even when the words come slow and the work is frustrating.

Writers who are well versed in the world of memoir or who are looking for prescriptive rules on how to write a best-selling book will be unsatisfied with Karr’s book. If there’s anything a true writer knows, it’s that there isn’t a one tried and true method. For this nonfiction novice, though, Karr’s book struck the right balance between instructional and theoretical, helping me to reimagine how to approach writing about a complex time in my life and nudging me to finally put some words to paper. If you’re a memoir lover, you lose nothing from reading this book. At the very least, you’ll walk away with an expansive list of memoirs to study as you journey down your own path of turning memories into pages.

This is a great book to read if… you’re making your first venture into nonfiction and/or memoir writing, or if you’ve already begun and you just need a helpful nudge to get back on track.

If you’re interested in books that discuss the craft of writing, I’d highly recommend… On Writing by Stephen King, which also discusses the craft of writing in specific terms.

If you’re interested in a more traditional review…(especially one with an opposing point of view), I’d suggest this one by Gregory Cowles, who believes that Karr’s book is scattered and that her treatment of truth in memoir overlooks exactly what makes the genre so appealing: the formation and subjective recreation of identity.

 

 

 

Five Minute Book Blurb: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

When I embarked on my reading challenge last year, a lot of my friends asked me, “How do you decide which books to read?” or “Could you recommend a good book related to ________ theme?”

If you’re like me, you rarely have the time or the will power to read more than a couple of paragraphs into a book review. With so much reading and writing to do, who has time to read someone else’s opinion of a book? Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes I like a sharp, smart review of an interesting book, but more than anything, I want a brief overview of the book’s overarching themes so I can quickly decide if it’s interesting enough to mark as “To-Read” on my Goodreads list. Let’s be real. There are so many books in the world and only so little time. I don’t have even a moment to spare on an uninteresting read.

Thus, I introduce the five minute book blurb, where I’ll be giving you just that: the essentials. Enjoy, and check back for more updates in the future.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

publicly shamedAlthough many of us remember a time before the Internet (myself included), it’s an invention that has become as commonplace and mundane as white bread. In fact, it’s something that we in the first world often take for granted. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed shatters that notion, reminding us that the Internet is a powerful, creepy, and dangerous world.

In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson (known for The Psycopath Test and Men Who Stare at Goats) seeks to take on the world of Internet shaming and social media justice. Think of Cecil the Lion, and you’ll immediately know what I’m talking about. The stories of both the shamed and the shamers are eerie and surreal, and this book struck a discordant fear in me that is normally reserved for Stephen King novels and scary movies.

Throughout the book, Ronson examines the effects of shame on those who fall victim to the angry “pitchfork mobs” of Twitter goers, whether or not the shaming is truly just, who gets shamed and who manages to escape, and the haunting online reputations that make recovery from that shame nearly impossible. By the end, I was reconsidering posting to this blog or Facebook or Instagram or the Internet at large ever again. And I’m still contemplating why strangers can take and post pictures of others online without their consent (even if it means it may ruin their lives) while broadcasting your face on live television still requires a signed waiver.

While interesting and definitely worth reading, the book fell flat for me overall. Ronson assumes that, like him, you are entrenched in the weird world of incessant tweets and widely-broadcast Youtube confrontations. Likewise, he approaches interesting conclusions about who suffers most from these online shamings (spoiler alert: it’s women) and the deeply damaging effects of shame, but then shies away from the topic as if he has no opinion or the greater consequence of the shamings is less important than the creepy circumstances. In all, Ronson gets too caught up in the lure of the bizarre to truly make any worthwhile statements about what our tendency to mob-shame others via the Internet really means about us.

This is a great book to read if… you wonder who those Internet trolls really are and you’re in for a semi-dystopian time.

dare greatlyIf you’re interested in themes like shame and vulnerability, I’d highly recommend… Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown. This book does the heavy lifting that Ronson’s book does not, and, without exaggeration, changed the way that I think about the big projects, moves, and relationships in life.

If you’re interested in a more traditional review… I’d recommend this one by Choire Sicha, who very smartly points out where and why Ronson’s book on the unruly mob of Tweeters goes wrong: “The actual problem is that none of the men running those bazillion-dollar Internet companies can think of one single thing to do about all the men who send women death threats.”

And with that, I’m on to the next book!