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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I Believe

Last year, the Tony-award winning musical, The Book of Mormon, finally made its way to Chicago and V. and I sat enraptured through every single moment. As expected when you watch anything written and produced by the co-creaters of South Park, parts of the musical had me literally guffawing while other parts had me squirming with discomfort. At the end of the night, I once again left the theater absolutely inspired and in awe of those who write and perform musical theater. That is, perhaps, one of the biggest privileges of living in a big city: the endless opportunities to see good (and even not so good) art.

Six months later, V. and I started speaking seriously about writing our own musical together based on an idea that he had months ago, and since then, I’ve listened to this song almost every day. It sounds crazy, I know, but this song just…inspires me. When I’m bored to death at work and drudging through the day, I turn this song on. When I feel like this project might be impossible and fearing inevitable failure, I turn this song on. No matter the time or the situation, this song instantly lights me up with thoughts of hope and possibility.

It’s a funny thing, inspiration. The song is clearly meant to be comical; I still laugh at its preposterous lyrics.  Yet, if you look past the lyrics and to the music, the melody is beautiful and downright compelling. And the idea of having faith in something that seems unlikely, well, that speaks to me.

As always, the first thing I do when embarking on a project that I don’t know how to approach is read a book about it. Once we decided we were serious about this idea that we’d been joking about for months, I promptly searched the Kindle store for good reads on how to write musical theater. Although I took a playwriting class in college and have participated in plenty of theater, musical and not, I’m a complete newbie to writing lyrics and a script (or a book as they call it in the musical theater world). On top of that, I’ve never collaborated with someone on a creative idea before. As a blogger, essayist, and sometimes fiction writer, I’m more accustomed to pursuing my own creative inklings, content to wander in the darkness until my ideas turn into something new and exciting or fizzle out and disappear. Working solo is one of the most liberating and lonely things about being a writer. Working with another person’s vision and unique creativity is certainly going to be an adjustment.

If there’s anything I know for certain, though, it’s that both of us feel this is an important idea, an idea that needs to be made into something whole, whether that be by us or by someone else. In the end, we just hope it’ll be by us.

As we attempt to plan two weddings and a trip to India, keep up with our demanding jobs, and maintain a health regimen, I can only hope that this idea will be patient with us while we slowly grow it into something more. In the meantime, I’ll continue to believe that V. and I will write this musical. I don’t know what will happen along the way or after it’s finished, or if anything will happen at all. But, still, I believe.

EDIT: This post was brought to you by approximately 10 hours of watching musical clips on Youtube.

Born to Run? Maybe. Love to Run? Yes.

It occurred to me a month ago, while on a short practice run before the 5.3k I planned to run a few days later, that I’ve been running for over a year now. If you had asked me just two years ago if I’d ever envisioned myself as a runner, you’d first get a loud and incredulous laugh and then an emphatic no. For as long as I can remember (before this past year), I’ve hated running. As a child, I stuck to sports that involved little to no running, like softball and volleyball. I absolutely loathed the “fun runs” that our high school P.E. teacher required us to suffer through—for a grade no less!—and no matter how many people talked about that “epic runner’s high” that comes after  pounding the pavement, I could never fathom why anybody would want to put themselves through such misery.

I still deeply hated running when I first heard Christopher McDougall talking on the radio during the long drive between Kansas and my parents’ house in 2009. Deep in the middle of Bible thumping territory, where your selection of radio stations narrows to painfully hopeful Christian music, angry preachers delivering hell fire and damnation, and twangy country ballads, I stumbled upon McDougall talking about his now famous book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. I was quickly enveloped in the interview as McDougall described the never-ending list of running injuries that had permanently placed him on the DL list and his amazing journey to discover both the secret of running and the most legendary runners in the world: the Tarahumara Indians. I looked out over the miles of road slipping below my tires, but what I saw before me were the bare feet of the Tarahumara shuffling over the jagged trails of the Copper Canyons, McDougall and his motley crew of superathletes jouncing over dirt roads in a beat up Mexican bus, and the shoe-clad feet of the superathletes lined toe-to-bare toe with the Tarahumara before the epic 50-mile race that serves as the book’s climax.

When I finally sat down this spring to read McDougall’s full account of the ultramarathon that took place between the Tarahumara and his team of world-renowned super runners, the experience was much different than I anticipated. Now a runner myself, I expected to love every page, to be fully convinced and riveted by every magical word. Instead, I found myself alternately enthralled and turned off by McDougall’s story, my reactions as severe and extreme as the Copper Canyons where most of the book is set. In a sentence, Born to Run is a love letter to running riddled with medical studies, running history, and personal anecdotes. Although the tale McDougall weaves is a compelling one, his sometimes movie-esque writing style and inclination for cliff hangers often had me wondering about the authenticity of the book’s happenings. By the time I finished the book, I found that everything I’d read could be safely filed into two categories: things I’d like to believe  and things I know to be absolutely true.

Things I’d Like to Believe

In this first category is a theme that McDougall touches on frequently throughout the book: running makes us better people. While describing the life and career of Joe Vigil, an Olympic running coach, McDougall writes about this philosophy, one which he obviously shares.

“Vigil couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but his gut kept telling him that there was some kind of connection between the capacity to love and the capacity to loverunning. The engineering was certainly the same: both depending on loosening your grip on your own desires, putting aside what you wanted and appreciating what you got, being patient and forgiving and undemanding…. Perhaps all our troubles—all the violence, obesity, illness, depression, and greed we can’t overcome—began when we stopped living as Running People. Deny your nature and it will erupt in some other, uglier way.” 

After reading that, who wouldn’t want to take up running, right? Throughout the book, McDougall uses various case studies and tribal histories to illustrate that we are born-to-be runners trapped in a modern, mostly sedentary culture. While the science is interesting enough, I was never fully convinced by its folklore-like nature or the way that McDougall substitutes hodged podged information for solid facts. I personally found one of McDougall’s subthemes to be far more realistic and believable: running promotes emotional intelligence. Although that exact phrase never appears on the page, it’s a theme that McDougall alludes to over and over again. He tells stories of numerous super athletes who somehow manage to do the undo-able—run hundreds of miles in deadly heat or finish marathons while consuming nothing but beer and pizza along the way, for example—and after each account, he returns to the same theory.

“Suffering is humbling. It pays to know how to get your butt kicked…. Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction.”

As a new runner—after a year of steady practice, I’ve finally allowed myself the title—I’d like to believe that running cultivates a tolerance for pain and an unfailing physical and emotional endurance unseen in non-runners. Running certainly helped me endure my last painful months in Ecuador, where my running story coincidentally began. Despite the altitude and my constant inability to really catch my breath, I didn’t find it to be so miserable anymore. But then again, I knew a little bit more about misery by then. Other runners and writers have certainly ascribed to this idea, too. As Haruki Murakami so elegantly states in his running-themed memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

Of course, McDougall’s most controversial claims center around his now infamous assertions that “running shoes may be the most destructive force to ever hit the human foot.”  The author makes a solid and believable case for the benefits of barefoot running. It’s not hard to imagine that major shoe companies would exploit runners by peddling overly-fabricated shoes that actually exacerbate running injuries rather than prevent them. However, McDougall’s sardonic tone paired with the large scale barefoot running movement that was born after the book’s release—a movement that undoubtedly generated a significant sum of money for multiple big name shoe companies—does seem a bit suspect. Unfortunately, those claims along with the hodge podge science I mentioned earlier left me with the nagging suspicion that McDougall’s love for running may not have been his only motivation for writing the book.

Things I Know to Be True

Even as I dismissed some of the author’s more extreme claims, I found myself deeply identifying with the few nuggets of truth gleaming amid the exaggerated facts and heavy-handed cliff hangers. Throughout the book, running is portrayed as an ethereal, peaceful, and even sensuous act.  My favorite description of running comes from one of the female super athletes who describes the feeling she experiences while running as something akin to a romance: 

“But yeah, Ann insisted, running was romantic; and no, of course her friends didn’t get it because they’d never broken through. For them, running was a miserable two miles motivated solely by size 6 jeans: get on the scale, get depressed, get your headphones on, and get it over with. But you can’t muscle through a five-hour run that way; you have to relax into it, like easing your body into a hot bath, until it no longer resists the shock and begins to enjoy it. Relax enough, and your body becomes so familiar with the cradle-rocking rhythm that you almost forget you’re moving. And once you break through to that soft, half-levitating flow, that’s when the moonlight and champagne show up: ‘You have to be in tune with your body, and know when you can push it and when to back off,’ Ann would explain. You have to listen closely to the sound of your own breathing; be aware of how much sweat is beading on your back; make sure you treat yourself to cool water and salty snack and ask yourself, honestly and often, exactly how you feel. What could be more sensual than paying exquisite attention to your own body?” 

Before this book, romantic isn’t the word I would’ve used to describe running, but I, too, have been lulled into that “cradle-rocking rhythm,” so comfortable that your mind wanders to another place and you barely even realize that you’re moving.  When I run, I find myself in a place void of stress and worry, to-do lists and rushed dinner preparations, corporate criticisms and pressures. For me, running is almost like meditating. As another featured super athlete explains:

“’When I’m out on a long run…the only thing in life that matters is finishing the run. For once, my brain isn’t going blehblehbleh all the time. Everything quiets down, and the only thing going on is pure flow. It’s just time and the movement and the motion. That’s what I love—just being a barbarian, running through the woods.’”

Running has gotten me through painful breakups, debilitating pre-interview nervousness, post bad-work-day frustrations, and relentless culture shock anxiety. Even when I fall out of my running routine for a few days (or weeks, let’s be real), I always come back to it, because running quiets down all the extraneous noise in my life and allows me to think about nothing but my own body, the way I feel right in that moment, and the deep calm that comes with just breathing in and out.

Perhaps the brightest nugget of truth is this: “Ask nothing from your running, and you’ll get more than you ever imagined!”

I started running during my last five months in Ecuador. Not to take on the prestigious title of runner, but to train for my four day hike on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, which I had planned to do with my sister in late August. I figured: What better way to prepare for hiking at altitude than to run at altitude? For five months before our expedition, I ran in Loja’s various parks and the city soccer stadium, sometimes passing others—like the Loja police recruits—but, more often, watching others pass me—usually aspiring Olympic speedwalkers. (It’s true. I couldn’t make this up.) I wasn’t running for those size 6 jeans or to improve my already abysmal mile time. I was simply hoping to shield myself against altitude sickness and that paralyzing feeling of desperation that comes when you are in the middle of nowhere and feel like you just can’t take one more step. I had no expectations for my running other than to simply go out and do it, even if that meant taking walking breaks between sprints.  Five months later, I spent four glorious days on the Inca Trail with my sister, and neither of us got altitude sickness. 

To everyone’s surprise, including my own, I continued running even after moving back home to the States. It was still humid and miserable in early September, but my love for running somehow grew and grew. As McDougall said, I asked nothing from my running, and yet I got so much in return: an outlet for stress, patience with myself and others, self-discipline that I never knew I had, the ability to let go of my perfectionism and be proud of both my long and small runs, and more than anything, joy in simply stretching my legs and pushing forward.

We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand. We were here; we are human beings; this is how we lived. Let it be known, the earth passed before us. Our details are important. Otherwise, if they are not, we can drop a bomb and it doesn’t matter. . . Recording the details of our lives is a stance against bombs with their mass ability to kill, against too much speed and efficiency. A writer must say yes to life, to all of life: the water glasses, the Kemp’s half-and-half, the ketchup on the counter. It is not a writer’s task to say, ‘It is dumb to live in a small town or to eat in a café when you can eat macrobiotic at home.’ Our task is to say a holy yes to the real things of our life as they exist – the real truth of who we are: several pounds overweight, the gray, cold street outside, the Christmas tinsel in the showcase, the Jewish writer in the orange booth across from her blond friend who has black children. We must become writers who accept things as they are, come to love the details, and step forward with a yes on our lips so there can be no more noes in the world, noes that invalidate life and stop these details from continuing.”

—Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within

Between Lines, Between Worlds

I am a liminal person.  I guess to some extent we all are, but the past five years of my life have involved a substantial  number of figurative and literal moves: between geographies, cultures, identities, jobs, languages. After completing my M.A. in English and teaching introductory writing classes for a bit, I took my teaching career to Ecuador, where I worked as an English professor and teacher trainer with the Peace Corps. That’s where this liminal state really began.  Ecuador is a place of blurred lines, of two things at once, this and that, everything you thought and nothing like what you expected. For two years, I straddled the line between teacher and friend, casual and professional, American and Ecuadorian, English and Spanish, foreign and familiar, first world and third world, rich and poor, happy and heartbroken, logical and irrational. The list goes on and on.  My life was an endless series of contradictions.

Then, I moved home.

After years of working in higher education and nonprofits, I got a corporate job. I moved out of my small town and into the big city, and I slowly, very slowly began transitioning back into American culture. (It’s true what they say; reverse culture shock is worse.) A few months after moving home, I realized that while I was happy to be near my family and although I occasionally missed my Ecuadorian friends and my Ecuadorian life, what I mostly felt was numb. Or perhaps shell shocked. I’m not sure. What I do know is that the person I was before leaving for Ecuador is not the person that I am now, and that’s confusing business. I tried writing about it. I love writing; I want to be a creator of beautiful and breathtaking things. But nothing was coming out. So mostly I just did all the things that used to bring me some fulfillment before—listened to NPR, talked about politics with friends, went running, sang at the top of my lungs, read a short story here and there—and I waited. I waited for a change. One that you feel instead of see this time. But, still, nothing came.

As a last ditch effort at recovering some form of my previous self, a self I knew better than the self I am now, I made a New Years resolution to read more books. I’m not a very fast or consistent reader, so I made the goal a bit more challenging: In 2014, I will read 52 books in 52 weeks, one book a week for the whole year. It’s an ambitious goal, given my workload and my extreme love for Netflix and trashy reality TV. This blog is an account of my quest to not only honor a New Years resolution for the first time in my life, but to document my search for inspiration and my daily attempts to navigate this liminal state I find myself in. Let’s see where this trail of pages leads, shall we?