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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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.

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer

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Lately I’ve been missing college. Not in a serious way, because let’s face it: life is better in the real world! (Everyone lied when they said otherwise.) But I do miss the classes. This is part of the reason why I read Missoula by Jon Krakauer. It reminded me of the kind of book I would have read in one of my Women’s Studies courses. It was a warm and snuggly feeling, being able to talk about women’s rights in a class full of people who care about women’s rights. In the “real world” it’s a lot harder to find kindred spirits, and since I’ve graduated I’ve felt a lot of anti-feminist backlash happening in the public discourse. This is mostly because more people are talking about these issues, which is good. It’s good to have your views challenged, to talk to people who think differently. You don’t get anything done talking to people who already agree with you. It’s just exhausting, that’s all. I’m sick of bringing up feminist issues with people only to be answered with, “Well, men have it hard, too.” It’s sad to say, but I think because of this I definitely pay less attention to what’s going on in the current feminist discourse.

I think a lot of people have this image in their head about the college feminist, and it isn’t always a good image, but having been one I know why feminism is so important and exhilarating to women in college. It can feel so damn powerless to be a young woman in America, and trying to piece together why that is can be empowering.

I didn’t feel empowered reading Missoula. I just felt angry. There were times in the book where I actually felt too upset to finish, and I wondered why I picked it up in the first place. These stories sound like all the stories I have heard before. And now that I’m older, it feels kind of pointless to be reading them still. I don’t need another book to make me mad about rape culture! I’m already mad! I guess I’ve lost the energy to constantly rail against it all. It’s tiring, facing down a world that really doesn’t understand why you’d be so mad about the fact that a lot of people really don’t care when women are raped.

Krakauer tells the story of a handful of women who had been date raped at the University of Montana in Missoula, which was investigated by the Department of Justice for its mishandling of several cases of sexual assault. He details the ways that these women were failed and even outright attacked by the legal system. It goes through rape accounts, trial transcripts, trolling message board comments by college football fans. It can be scream inducing.

There were moments in some of these women’s stories where my heart just dropped, but there are some heartening things about Missoula. Not exactly happy-making, but enough to give me hope. The University of Montana, to its credit, seemed to take the punishment of rapists very seriously in most of the stories, making an effort to not continue to fail rape victims like they had been failed in the past on countless college campuses. The very fact that Jon Krakauer wrote this book makes me feel like things are looking up, and that people are taking these issues seriously. They’re not just discussed by Women’s Studies students anymore. It sucks that people will take this more seriously because it was written by a respected male non-fiction writer, but I think that’s a reality. Not to pat Krakauer on the back, but it’s nice to see a man using his voice to shed light on these problems.

I think the thing that upsets me so much about these accounts is the rabid hatred rape victims received in the cases where a football star is accused. A lot of times when a rape victim reports the crime and it is brought to the public’s consciousness, it’s called a “witch hunt” – the implication being that the men accused are innocent and being unfairly attacked. Then the rape victim is victimized all over again by public hatred and legal BS. And you’re going to call a rapist on trial a witch hunt?! Seriously, the stories about the shit defense attorneys pulled in this book made me sick. People have an obsession with fake rape accusations, when the fact is that very few women actually feel comfortable reporting sexual assaults. After reading this book, I don’t think I would feel comfortable reporting an assault if I were in the same situation, and that makes me so mad.

Missoula isn’t telling us anything we don’t already know: Victims need our support. We need to stop treating the victim as if they are lying criminals. I hope this book helps people understand.

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I haven’t been on WordPress for a while because I decided a few months ago to blog solely on Tumblr.

I have done monthly roundups. I have reviewed the following books: Wild by Cheryl Strayed,  The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood, Yes Please by Amy Poehler, and…is that it? I thought I blogged more than that.

I figured more people are on Tumblr, so it’s easier to have a conversation there. I was right and wrong. There probably are more people on Tumblr, but it’s not easy to have a conversation there, or even read more than two paragraphs at a time there. I’ve had a personal Tumblr since 2009, so I don’t even know what I was expecting, really. It’s very easy, on Tumblr, to simply reblog quotes and pictures and call that “blogging”, but that was really never the vision I had for this blog. I loved Tumblr once upon a time, but now I am getting old and cranky. So, back to square one on WordPress.

I started this blog a couple of years ago when I was still in college, and now I am wondering what about it keeps me locked in. I’m not entirely invested, don’t get me wrong, this is not my Main Thing; if I were I would post more often — but this blog has taught me a lot of things, namely, that I’m not good at book reviewing, and I’d like to get better. Also, I’m not good at blogging, and I’d like to get better. And, most importantly, it is one of many things over the past few years that has helped me realize that stories are my passion and I need to find ways to express that however possible, in a million ways a day. I need to be writing and reading stories, I need to be talking about them, I need to be teaching them/preaching them/cherishing them. Stories, true or false, are how human beings make meaning out of an indifferent world. I want to tell a story about that.

The Saltwater Book Review is simply a piece of this love I have, even if it’s no good and no one reads it. What I need for this blog is simply a space that feels like my own, and Tumblr, for all its charms, can’t ever feel that way. It’s a community collage, and that’s wonderful, so I will still re-post things to Tumblr, and I will still reblog quotes and pretty book covers stylistically placed next to lattes, but I know that if I leave this blog entirely on Tumblr I will lose interest, distracted by a gif of Taylor Swift, dancing.

On that note, I have been reading a ton and will be updating a bunch soon.

Review: Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

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I first started reading David Sedaris’s books because I was a huge Strangers with Candy fan (he is Queen Amy Sedaris’s brother) but I soon became just a big as a fan of his writing. I think what I’ve always loved about David Sedaris’s essays was the recognition I felt in them. I don’t always need to relate to stories to enjoy  them, but sometimes it helps, and the overly big, lower middle class setting is one I can relate to.  And then there is the sense of absurdity that Sedaris sees in everything. Sometimes when I am reading one of his essays I think, “Yes! It is like that! It is silly in exactly that way!” That’s the mark of a perfect essay, I think.

Anyway, I think this might be my favorite collection of essays from David Sedaris yet, although that may be because I read most of his books when I was a teenager. Maybe the older I get, the better I like him, but this book was very, very good. It was funny, of course, but it was also moving, and sad. It was everything that a good book should be and it’s the first book I read in a while that I was sad to finish.

I’ll end this too-short review with my favorite quote from the collection, without context, because why I think it’s sort of better that way:

“No one on our street had reason to hate my mother. It was likely someone just road testing his new curse word–a little late too, as our end of the block had discovered it months earlier. ‘It means ‘female dog,’ I’d explain to my sisters, ‘but it also means “a woman who’s crabby and won’t let you be yourself.'”

Now go read it! Bye y’all!

Review: Remaking Love: The Feminization of Sex by Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess, & Gloria Jacobs

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Every once in a while I like to go to my university’s “sexuality” area, which coincidentally is the poorest lit area of the library. I admit it, I’m kind of a nerd for this stuff. I like looking at sex from an intellectual stand-point, and my intellect is fiercely feminist, so I usually do end up reading books like Remaking Love, a feminist analysis of female gains in the sexual revolution.

The book was written in 1986, so there are obviously some things that make it dated in the field of feminist research, namely that it assumes white, heterosexual women as the female norm, making it feel a little incomplete. But, besides that, it’s interesting in a sort of snap-shot sort of way, and gives historical perspective as to what  we would now call sex-positive feminists were writing about sex in the 80s. It also gives insight to the dramatic changes in attitudes on and practice of female sexuality, from the original sexual conservatism of the 1950s to the newer, backlash-fueled conservatism of the 80s with modern fears of promiscuity and HIV.

Although it’s dated, the overall message of the book is still relevant: male sexuality didn’t change all that much in the 20th century, but female sexuality did a whole lot. I’d be interested in a more recent take on this subject, especially dealing with the question of the stagnancy of male sexuality. The feminization of sex here is more the appearance of female voices in the sexual conversation (as a result of the demystification of the conversation in the first place), but sex as a whole remains unchanged for most men, except for maybe the minor inconvenience of gender equity in the bedroom. I’d argue that the next sexual revolution should be a re-imagining of what heterosexual male sexuality can be, in order to turn it into something less socially toxic. A truer feminization, perhaps.

Until then, I’m grateful to live in a post-sexual revolution world where women at least have some agency in their sexual lives. This wasn’t something my mother’s generation always had and it’s definitely something my grandmother’s generation went without. This book is a good reminder of that, as well as a reminder that conservatism comes in waves, and progress is ongoing.

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Book Challenge Progress: 2/70
Currently Reading: Still working on Wuthering Heights.

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