Quick thoughts on some non-fiction

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Jessica Valenti came to my college when I was a senior, and I don’t remember her talk as much as I remember how excited I was to see her talk. I had just devoured The Purity Myth and it made me want to crush the patriarchy in ways only  women studies minors know how – attend Jessica Valenti talks in the student union, I guess?

Her writing at that time was easy stuff to digest: no means no, the world is full of double standards, women are allowed to enjoy sex, etc. I remember being a high schooler and deciding I was a feminist, pre-tumblr, and realizing that everyone, most of my teachers included, thought the term feminist was distasteful. Writers like Valenti gave us the words to use as we set out in the world as new feminists. The culture regarding feminism has changed so much that I find it crazy that just 7 years ago, when I was graduating high school, no one I knew wanted to call themselves a feminist. Jessica Valenti, with her easy to read, conversational essays, really helped turn internet-age feminism into the mainstream.

But in Sex Object, Valenti is no longer easy to digest. Here, she writes with a stark, ugly genuineness. She writes with anger at all the harassment, insecurity, and just plain bad sex she had to experience. She doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable topics like her abortions, sexual assault, and bad relationships with men. She talks about being a new mother and how awful and lonely it felt. All of these things, the bad sex included, are facts of life for women, but we are encouraged to sugar coat them – and Valenti, her middle finger in the air like Beyoncé, refuses to sugar coat anything.

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I don’t know how I feel about Elizabeth Gilbert. I never read Eat, Pray, Love, but I kind of hate all the criticism it gets from people/hipsters who haven’t even read it. I admire her more recent TED talks regarding creativity, but Big Magic didn’t really inspire me like I thought it would. She has some good wisdom in these pages – stuff about how making art is work, and you have to do the work to get to the sought-after flow state that makes art look easy…but then she also has a whole lot of poorly written mumbo jumbo that made me roll my eyes.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Sometimes I’ve had to watch as other people enjoyed successes and victories that I once desired for myself.

Them’s the breaks, though.

But them’s also the beautiful mysteries.”

If that garbage got past an editor, then I guess Gilbert is right – anyone can be a writer.

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My Year of Running Dangerously is not a book I’d recommend to anyone who isn’t a runner. It is basically one long training journal, detailing Tom Foreman’s training schedule as he ran a marathon, then as he immediately attempted the harrowing death-wish that is ultra marathoning. It isn’t written very well, and I found the dialogue to be especially annoying, because no one talks like that, least of all a teenaged daughter. I can’t stand memoirs where the dialogue feels like the author is writing bad fan fiction about their own life. But still, I liked it better than Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, if only for it’s refreshing lack of pretense.

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The Vegetarian by Han Kang

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The Vegetarian by Han Kang (the winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize) is an understated, darkly rich story. The vegetarian is a Korean housewife named Yeong-hye. Starting with a section narrated by her husband, the novel begins with the sentence, “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way,” and continues to describe her in more unflattering ways. She is a timid housewife who stays out of the way and does everything for her overworked husband, until she starts having violent, bloody dreams, and almost immediately stops eating meat. She also stops being the same timid housewife. First she stops cooking her husband dinner (because she doesn’t want to cook meat, and she doesn’t seem interesting in replacing it in her diet with anything substantial), and then she starts acting bizarrely and wandering around the house naked, much to the embarrassment of her husband.

The story alternates between different point of views, starting with Yeong-hye’s husband, than her artist brother-in-law who secretly has the hots for her, and finally her career woman sister who sticks with her until the end. Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism worries her family, but it also makes them angry. Yeong-hye’s abusive father tries to force-feed her meat, which leads to a violent outburst that lands her in the mental hospital. The reader only gets small snippets into Yeong-hye’s mind, but it’s enough to know that her new diet isn’t a typical vegetarian diet. She is practically starving herself, but her family is convinced that if she would just eat meat again she would get better. They are furious about what the see as her stubborn, disrespectful behavior.

In becoming a vegetarian and refusing to listen to her family’s insistence that she eats meat, Yeong-hye becomes an inconvenient woman. My favorite scene in the novel is when Yeong-hye’s husband takes her along on a dinner with his boss and his wife. Yeong-hye makes everyone uncomfortable by hardly eating anything, and her husband is furious and embarrassed. This novel says a lot about the autonomy of women through Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism, which can be read as both insanity and defiance. The novel itself is concise and short, but very literary in its execution. It’s not for everyone, but it’s worth checking out for fans of literary fiction.

I’m currently reading…Sex Object by Jessica Valenti. Let me know what you’re reading in the comments. 🙂

I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

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I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a short-and-sweet (depending on how you define sweet) psychological thriller that doesn’t waste time. Iain Reid creates an atmosphere of pure creepiness from the very first page, and it’s amazing.

The narrator is an unnamed college girl who is taking a road trip with her new boyfriend, Jake. They haven’t been dating very long, and you get the sense that they don’t know each other very well. The girl has a certain darkness that she doesn’t let on very easy. They’re on a road trip to visit Jake’s parents, and the girl thinks about how it may be a bad idea, because she’s thinking about ending things with Jake. He’s good looking, smart, and talented, but there’s something off between them. She’s also going through a lot of stress; she’s getting creepy, harassing phone calls, and she doesn’t know who to tell. She’s on this trip with Jake as the story begins, and the refrain that keeps going through her head is that she needs to end things when they get back.

The story gets steadily creepier and creepier as her narration progresses. They meet Jake’s parents, who live on a rural, slightly decrepit farm, and there the story takes a horrific turn. The ending left me feeling unsettled and like I wanted to re-read the whole novel to see if I could have caught on to what was really going on sooner. But that’s not why I recommend I’m Thinking of Ending Things – I recommend it because Reid masterfully weaves a creeping sense of horror into every mundane sentence, giving the reader a sense of unease right from the start. It’s everything I wanted it to be – scary, quick, and fun (depending on how you define fun).

Thanks to Netgalley and Scout Press for letting me read an advance copy of this novel. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is out June 14th.


And now here’s a new thing where I tell you some things.

I’m currently readingWhere All Light Tends to Go by David Joy on my kindle and The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century  by Thomas L. Friedman on audio.

The next book I’m going to review isThe Vegetarian by Han Kang

Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

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I don’t think at eighteen I would have enjoyed Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg, but now that I’ve been in the workforce for a couple of years, I’m not scared off by the buisness-y title. Duhigg is looking for readers like me: people who want to know how to “optimize” their “work flow” while still using words like “buisness-y”. He writes with a pop psych flair that is easily digested.

When I do read non-fiction, I like lighter stuff like this – it’s not dry at all, but I still learn a lot of stuff that I can apply to my everyday life. There are no crazy discoveries here, but the book reminds us that we can make ourselves more productive with a few techniques. Duhigg writes about forecasting – how people can be more efficient and focused if they tend to imagine what they are going to do next, instead of just blindly showing up to work. He discusses how to set goals in the most effective ways. The book is essentially a series of anecdotes strung together to explain Duhigg’s research; the stories detail the way corporate teams, pilots, and film writers used different techniques to create, manage their time, make decisions, and self-motivate.

Overall, I recommend it if you’re feeling like you’re in a funk, in work or elsewhere. I’ve felt drained lately trying to balance personal projects (like this blog, and my own fiction writing) and my 9-5 job, and this book gave me a sense of motivation. Accomplishing goals and getting things done is something we all struggle with, but Smarter, Faster, Better makes it seem simple.

The Girls by Emma Cline

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On the outside, The Girls by Emma Cline is a fast-paced, nostalgic novel loosely based on the Manson family. And it is all those things, but there’s more here than meets the eye. It explores the messed up ways girls crave affection, attention, and someone to devote themselves to. It’s a literary novel about women and violence: the violence acted against them and the violence they are capable of enacting themselves. The violence of jealousy, desire, and faith.

The main character, Evie Boyd, is an awkward, lonely 14 year old in the late 1960s, and a lonely middle aged woman in the present day, reminiscing about her strange coming-of-age. Evie is a constant observer, and she never feels like she fits in. She craves affection from boys who don’t reciprocate. She is, basically, perfect cult fodder. One day she sees a group of effortless, ethereal older girls in a park, and she wants so badly to be one of them. The leader of the girls, Suzanne, enchants Evie the most, and that enchantment continues darkly as the plot of the novel takes off.

In the ride to bring Evie to meet Russell, the cult leader, the girls wax poetic about him. “He’s not like anyone else. No bullshit. It’s like a natural high, being around him. Like the sun or something. That big and right.” But the hero worship doesn’t go very far, because Evie is the observer, and you get the sense that she doesn’t buy into Russell’s greatness. She hangs around, simply, for the girls; specifically, for Suzanne. All we know about Russell is that for some reason the girls love him, he wants a record deal, and he has a slight temper.

It never feels like a true crime story. The best parts were the scenes where present-day Evie is looking back on the past.  She still looks at teenage girls with a sense of fractured awe. She is an observer to the end, still on the outskirts. We are lead to wonder what responsibility those on the outskirts of evil have to stop it. 

The Girls will get a lot of press because it’s a fictionalization of the Manson murders, but it may be wrongly advertised. It’s a slow-burn of a novel, and beautifully written. It examines the way women are manipulated, and in the same sentences exposes how women can be just as destructive and evil as the men who control them. If you like lush language and you’re interested in literary fiction about teenage girls, you will find something valuable here.

The Girls is out June 14th. Thank you Random House and Netgalley for providing me with a copy to review.

The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson

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The Art of Being Normal begins in the point of view of David, a closeted transgender teenager and adorable bundle of teen anxiety. If you think this sounds like a literary after-school special, you’re right. It reminded me of a U.K. version of Degrassi, all bright colors and dramatic music playing at the end of chapters. Besides worrying about how to come out to his loving parents and hoping to be able to transition before puberty makes it harder, David hangs out with his two cardboard-cutout friends, gets bullied at school, and lazes about. He is the definition of a normal teenager. Then he meets the mysterious Leo Denton, the new boy at school with a bad boy edge, and things start to change.

I would recommend this mainly for middle schoolers or freshmen in high school. Any older than that and this novel is too wholesome. There’s slight drinking and the mention of sex but the characters still have the wide-eyed wonder of middle grade characters. The plot twist about what Leo Denton’s deal really is was cheap and easily guessed. The value in The Art of Being Normal is that it’s a book about a transgender person with a sunny perspective. Stories like this are important for young people struggling with gender identity. We get a lot of harsh stories about how hard it is to be different. The Art of Being Normal tells young people that there is hope in community.

My only big complaint: I’m not an expert on the subject, but I think this story made physical transition with hormones seem both accessible and affordable for teenagers, and that doesn’t seem true to me.

If you’re just an adult reader looking for an interesting YA novel to read, I’d look elsewhere, unless you really have your heart set on something with a transgender main character and have read everything else. If you’re an English or Health teacher, this is a decent book to consider reading or assigning to your teenage students.

The Art of Being Normal will be in bookstores in the U.S. on May 31, 2016.

Single, Carefree, Mellow by Katherine Heiny

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In Single, Carefree, Mellow, Katherine Heiny has written a collection of short stories about the inner life of unfaithful women. Check out the quote from Lena Dunham on the cover – I was expecting something similar to Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Mother’s, Tell Your Daughters, but Heiny doesn’t write about women with the same broadness – Single, Carefree, Mellow is full of stories about a very specific type of woman. The characters suffer mainly from their own boredom. They are mistresses and cheating wives, and they have little remorse, nor does the narrative suggest that they should.

In the title story, the main character, Maya, is a woman waiting for the right time to dump her boyfriend. It’s complicated by the fact that her dog is dying, and she relies on the emotional support. In the end she decides to just stick it out, even if she doesn’t really love him. The two characters show up in later stories, except then the dog is dead and Maya is having an affair with her boss. And she’s still with her boyfriend who bores her. I couldn’t really relate, so maybe that’s my fault for expecting that I was going to.

During her affair, Maya muses about “come facts” – little bits of trivia the men she sleeps with mention to her after sex. Her second story begins with the line: Here is what Maya’s boss said to her after they made love the first time: ‘Did you know that peanuts are one of the ingredients in dynamite? It’s a unique way to play on the “Men Explain Things to Me” frustration. But as far as any other commentary on the relationship between men and women, this collection offers little else except that it all seems miserable.

The characters in Single, Carefree, Mellow are all frustrated by the men in their lives, and the major failing is that Maya’s musing on how men are always telling her silly facts after sex is the only time any of them seem to kick up any fuss. They instead react to their frustration by being cheaters, and that is aggravating.

A lot of readers will dislike these stories just because of the infidelity, and I get that. I’m a little more forgiving with unlikeable or morally questionable characters, but even I got sick of reading story after story of women having affairs. The characters all blend in together into one relatively attractive and dishonest blob of a woman. Heiny has a good comedic voice, and a little more variety in subject matter would have helped this collection along quite a bit.

Many thanks to Goodreads and Vintage Books for sending me a giveaway copy of this novel for review.