10

Unruly Women

I used to get really stressed out reading about characters that did all the bad things. I always considered myself a rule follower and experiencing second-hand rule breaking was HARD.

But the older I get, the more I realize that actually, I’m not a rule follower. F*ck the rules.

And because I’m a rule-breaker now, I love to read about other women who are miles ahead of me in this department.

too fat

Anne Helen Petersen’s Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman was so very much exactly the kind of book I’ve been waiting for. In it Petersen,a BuzzFeed staff writer, looks at ten women who she classifies are being “unruly” for some reason. Serena Williams is too strong, Lena Dunham too naked, Melissa McCarthy is too fat while Hillary Clinton is too shrill. Each chapter is an essay dedicated to these women and why they are considered unruly, eschewing the more traditional aspects of femininity.

Look, anytime a book looks at women who break the rules AND pop culture, I am here for it. But more than that, this book is source material for any woman who steps “out of line” from time to time. It’s a way to look at these women, all of them beautiful, brilliant, strong and capable and go “I’m in great company, f*ck the rules!”

One of my favourite essays in the collection looks at Kim Kardashian. And before you roll your eyes at that, take a few minutes and read the essay! It’s pretty great right? Who knew that Kim Kardashian was so radical?

I was especially pleased to see that Petersen didn’t shy away from intersectionality when she was choosing the women for her book. Her essays on Serena Williams and Nicki Minaj (Too Slutty) were among my favourites for her willingness to actually dig in to the issues around Black womanhood. Arguably less successful, but important nonetheless is the chapter on Caitlyn Jenner (Too Queer). The trouble with that chapter is less about Petersen and more about the problematic nature of holding up Jenner as the pinnacle of Trans personhood.

Still, I loved reading each and every one of these essays. It’s the kind of non-fiction that anyone can read, that’s so accessible you will recognize your own life in it. I found myself nodding along as I read, muttering “YES!” to myself each time Petersen vocalized something I’d already felt.

My gossip guru, Lainey Gossip, also loved this book (obviously). She wrote an incredible piece about it in her gossip intro the day it came out. She says everything I want to say so much better!

If you come across Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud I hope that you pick up a copy. This book needs to be read far and wide so that more of us become confidently unruly.

10

The Non-Fiction struggle

Reading non-fiction is not something that I have ever struggled to do. I love reading non-fiction! Lately, my inner struggle has become “am I reading too much non-fiction?”

Which is completely ridiculous. Read what you want, right?

Currently, a full third of my reading has been non-fiction. I’ve been deep diving into true crime (thanks to a full blown obsession with the My Favorite Murder podcast – shoutout to any lurking murderinos!), fueling my Bette and Joan addiction after Feud, and indulging in biographies whenever I get the chance.

I’ve been wondering about this draw to non-fiction – why am I suddenly reaching for these books back-to-back? I think reading about history or politics, women in the world, or the intensely personal endeavors of those who willingly share their stories, are my way of making sense of this crazy-ass world we find ourselves in. It lets me search out little glimmers of hope in human history, or shows me how we got here, which in a weird way is comforting?

The problems are twofold:

  1. People ask me for book recommendations a lot. And most people don’t read non-fiction on purpose.
  2. It feels weirdly wrong to read non-fiction back-to-back wherever possible. Especially in the summer?

In terms of the first “problem”, I’m kind of left scrambling to come up with titles that people might be interested in – some of the fiction I’ve read this year has been middling at best. I’ve resorted to telling people about books I haven’t read based on reviews I’ve read from those voices that I trust.

And when it comes to the second “issue”, well I’m my own worst enemy in this case but isn’t that always the way with those things that truly stump us?

I know that this is also completely ridiculous, but there’s something about summer that is supposed to scream fun (I actually hate summer so I don’t know why I feel like I need to play by summer’s rules)! I don’t think anyone has issues dragging out massive non-fiction titles when the weather is nasty and we’re all holing up at home under blankets. But there’s something very off about heaving those same titles to whatever is your summer destination of choice. Summer feels like the time to be somewhat frivolous about reading and this year, I guess I’m not feeling it.

I don’t really know why I’m writing a blog post about this! Partly, this inner battle I’ve engaged in is just a symptom of the larger issue of my on-hold life. Partly, I need blog content.

Just know that every time I need to choose the next book I am wracked with indecision and guilt about wanting to choose non-fiction, and feeling pressure to read fiction (which feels in scarce supply in my place right now). But also, I’ve read some really great non-fiction.

When did reading become so fraught?

hillary

4

Reading about sports

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

I almost never watch baseball.

And yet, I was intrigued by Stacey May Fowles’ collection of essays about her love for the game. Baseball Life Advice: Loving the Game That Saved Me isn’t a book “about” baseball; it’s a book about loving something that better helps to understand yourself.

baseball

Fowles has always loved baseball but in 2011, baseball came to mean something more to her. Having recently been diagnosed with PTSD, years after a sexual assault, she needed baseball in a way she hadn’t before. The baseball season became a way to organize her days, to help her do her therapy, to get back out into the world and find herself again.

Fowles later made the decision to leave the security (and stress) of her full-time magazine marketing job and write about the game she loves. These essays allow her to ruminate on certain aspects of the game and the relationship she has with it. She talks about bat-flipping, about the politics of booing, bandwagon fans, and injuries.

I wasn’t sure that I was going to be able to relate to this collection that much – my knowledge and understanding of baseball can best be termed ‘basic’.

But then I read the essay titled “Watching Like a Girl”. And then I found myself nodding along. She talks about the stereotypes of female fans, the assumption that you are at a game because your partner likes the sport, the availability of pink, sparkly team gear, how you are quizzed on your sports knowledge to test if you are really a fan.

In talking about a piece that actively looked to spotlight the stereotypes of female fans, she writes:

…it reinforces the antagonistic attitude many male fans have about women being in “their” ballpark – as if a bunch of girls chatting about wedding plans instead of paying attention to the action is more off-putting than “real fans” yelling homophobic slurs and harassing people around them. It points to an ingrained belief that women don’t belong, which is exacerbated by an appalling gender imbalance in terms of who is “allowed” to talk publicly about “Dad’s game.”

Fowles is honest and open about some of the struggles she has been through and calls out her beloved sport for not being as inclusive as they should be. Baseball Life Advice is more about the emotional connection fans have to a game and I found the angle refreshing and so very interesting. It made me kind of wish that I had that kind of love for a game, that maybe I need to give baseball another chance.

8

Option B

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

I remember when I heard that Sheryl Sandberg, COO at Facebook and author of Lean In, had lost her husband suddenly. I had a visceral reaction to the news, giving voice to my biggest fear.

option B

Two weeks after he passed, she wrote an incredibly moving post on Facebook about him and her loss. If you read it, there’s no way you didn’t cry.

In Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, Sandberg builds on that post as she talks about her grief, how it affects her life, and how she and her children are trying to build a new one. And in what I have come to learn is typical Sheryl Sandberg fashion, she also attempts to understand what’s happening, how grief affects our brains and what we can do to feel some kind of joy again.

The title of the book came from a friend:

Just weeks after losing Dave, I was talking to Phil about a father-child activity. We came up with a plan for someone to fill in for Dave. I cried to Phil, “But I want Dave.” He put his arm around me and said “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out of Option B.”

Life is never perfect. We all live some form of Option B. This book is to help us all kick the shit out of it.

As was the case with Lean In, I know that there are lots of people who scoff at the efforts she has made. Those who say that since she has loads of money and can afford to pay people to help her with the things that she can’t do, that she doesn’t understand what ‘real’ people go through when they grieve.

But once again, Sandberg is the first person to say that she isn’t the typical person. That she does have access to resources and supports that not everyone else has. It doesn’t mean that this book doesn’t have something for others going through the same, or similar experiences.

I personally found this book moving, honest, unflinching and ultimately helpful. She works with Adam Grant (author of Originals, psychologist and expert in how we find meaning in our lives) to research how we find strength in adversity. Together they tell the stories of different people they know who have gone through a range of experiences: rape survivors, refugees, parents who have lost children to disease, women who have experienced miscarriages or stillbirths.

And like Malcolm Gladwell, Sandberg and Grant use these personal stories to illustrate the research that they have done, to show readers how they can benefit from both. With chapters like “Kicking the Elephant Out of the Room”, “The Platinum Rule of Friendship” (treat others as they want to be treated), and “Taking Back Joy”, Sandberg and Grant have created a helpful manual for anyone who is dealing with more than their share of pain and sadness.

Sandberg shares so much of herself in this book – I can’t imagine how draining the process of writing was. Sections of her journal in the months after Dave died are in the book, as well as part of the eulogy she delivered and a letter she wrote to him to say goodbye when she decided to start looking forward instead of back. She shares about falling apart at work, sitting on the floor and screaming, the despair she felt going to recitals and parents’ nights solo, the realities of the year of firsts.

And still, going through all that, losing the love of her life, she wrote this book to help others experiencing the same or similar.

If you or someone you know is going through something, I wouldn’t hesitate in picking up this book.

All proceeds from the book go to OptionB.org, a non-profit initiative to help people build resilience and find meaning in the face of adversity.

3

Black Like Me

I think the first time I heard about John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me was on twitter. It kind of blows my mind that I reached the ripe old age of 31 before ever hearing of this book.

But now I’ve not only heard of it, I’ve read it.

A friend of mine commented on my Goodreads “review” (I only ever star on Goodreads) that this book sounds like a “racist mess.” I completely understand how she might look at it this way. At times, reading the book, I cringed. But I think Griffin’s intention was good and reading the Afterword, understanding how he put his money where his mouth was after the fact to agitate for Civil Rights, I’m willing to give him a pass.

black like me

If you’re not already familiar with Black Like Me, it’s the diary of a white man who, in 1959 decides to take medication that will darken his skin and cross into the Deep South to find out what life was like for a Black man. Before he undergoes the transformation, he writes about why he’s decided to do this:

How else except by becoming a Negro could a white man hope to learn the truth? Though we lived side by side throughout the South, communication between the two races had simply ceased to exist. Neither really knew what went on with those of the other race. The Southern Negro will not tell a white man the truth. He long ago learned that if he speaks a truth unpleasing to the white, the white will make life miserable for him.

Once Griffin had made the decision, he leaves his life and family and crosses into the Deep South as a Black man. And it becomes evident very quickly how different life is on the other side. He very quickly realizes how he has to modify his behaviour, language and clothing in order to stay safe.

As Griffin works his way ever deeper, from Louisiana to Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, he meets Black men and women with whom he feels a connection, who smile at him and help him when he needs it, like when he’s stranded on a highway and a family lets him stay the night with them, even though there is only room for him on the floor. In talking to those he meets, he comes to see how difficult it is for Black men and women to get a fair shake in a country that is still intent on seeing only the colour of their skin.

It is an indictment of the times that it took a white man standing up to say “hey this is an issue” but if you stop and actually think about it, it’s not so very different today. I watched The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on HBO the other day and there’s a scene where Oprah asks a white woman a question and the white woman looks at Oprah’s white companion to answer, as if Oprah isn’t standing right there. This is still an issue.

But for all the flaws in the experiment, Griffin’s book remains an interesting historical document. He wrote with respect and empathy about people that he wouldn’t otherwise have gotten to know because of the racist laws of the time. His experience, what he learned, served to change the direction of his life. And that’s worth something.

 

13

Lake Reads: Easter 2017

It’s been pretty quiet around here eh?

I’m going through another reading rough patch – I’m having a lot of trouble concentrating on reading! It’s been really busy at work and we’re still house hunting (which is the most intense experience out here) so I don’t have much left for this space.

BUT.

That’s about to change because it’s Easter and you know what that means? I’m headed to my in-laws’ house and all that’s expected of me in the next few days is to read and have some drinks. Maybe also run to town for ice cream.

lake reads

I have been looking forward to this weekend for weeks and weeks, thinking about what books will come with me. I’ve changed my mind many times but in the end, these are the books that I’m taking with.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante. You may recall that I wasn’t a massive fan of My Brilliant Friend. It took me more than a year to take a chance on the second book in the series, The Story of a New Name. Well, that one converted me. I fell for that book hard and I think it’s safe to say that I’m obsessed by the friendship between Lila and Elena. I can’t wait to get into the third book.

Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. This account of a white journalist going undercover as a black man in the Deep South in 1959 is more serious lake reading but it feels important and timely.

The Kept Woman by Karin Slaughter. What can I say? I’ve been in a murder state of mind. I’ve been listening to as many episodes of the My Favorite Murder podcast as time will allow. Given my non-focus abilities recently, I need something to grip me. I was haunted by Slaughter’s Pretty Girls. I look forward to her scaring the crap out of me again. This book needs to be back at the library on Tuesday – someone is waiting for it!

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne. When I saw this post from Amy @ Read a Latte I was intrigued. I mean, it’s serious if you read a book twice in a week. When I was next at the library, I saw this book sitting out and felt like it was meant to be. I like the idea of an office duel between competing assistants who hate each other right about now.

The Secrets You Keep by Kate White. I don’t want to brag but I know the guy who took the picture that they used for this cover. When he told me about it I looked the book up and it sounded interesting: what would you do if your new husband is keeping secrets from you, ones that are potentially dangerous? I pre-ordered it (something I NEVER do) and now I’m taking it to the lake.

The Edge of the Fall by Kate Williams. I read the first book in this promised trilogy (The Storms of War) quite a while ago. It was the story of a German-English family navigating society into the First World War and what it meant for their place in it. Kate Williams is an incredible biographer and she has taken equal care in crafting some solid historical fiction.

And that’s “it.” Three full days, 10 hours worth of car rides – I can do some serious reading damage this weekend. Promise that when I get back, I will actually post about some of it.

Happy Easter, friends!

27

The Most Difficult Book I’ve Ever Read

So far this year, I’ve been drawn to more serious subject matter. I’ve written about it here and here and here.

Today’s another one. The difference this time is that the book in question, One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway, shredded me. I don’t just mean that this book made me sad.

This book broke me.

I had to take breaks from this book. I was in tears, I was sobbing reading this book.

seierstad

This book, by Åsne Seierstad, started when the author was asked to write a piece about the massacre for Newsweek. Seierstad was used to writing about conflict in the Middle East, about war happening in far away places, but her home in Norway was always a peaceful refuge from her work. Now the conflict had bled into her home.

The result is a stunning portrait of what happened: in Anders Breivik’s life, in Norway over the past 40 years, in Oslo and on the island of Utoya on that summer day in 2011.

Seierstad doesn’t just look at the radicalization of Breivik – his wreck of a home life, days as a tagger in the city, and the eventual descent into hatred and delusion that saw him plant a bomb in the centre of Oslo before shooting a bunch of unarmed teenagers on a secluded island.

She also looks at the lives of those lost: Simon Saebo, a teenager from the north of Norway who had  a summer job at the cemetery and started a local youth branch of the Labour Party; Bano Rashid, whose family fled the war in Iraq, who was so intent on becoming a “proper” Norwegian and loved the traditions of her adopted country, and hoped to become a minister one day; Anders Kristiansen, another young man who thought one day he could be Prime Minister, who had asked his mom to weave him a blanket the colour of the summer sky. By the time the book gets to that day in July, you know these kids, their families, their hopes and dreams.

And this is why this book was so difficult to read – possibly the most difficult book I’ve ever read – these children had their whole lives ahead of them. Each of them was hard-working, clever, decent and they all had plans for working towards a better Norway, a better world. And some asshole, blinded by hatred, fueled by delusions of grandeur, took it upon himself to end their promising young lives.

Seierstad tells a complete story. The before, the after, the trial, how the families are coping; but she also includes about 60 some odd pages of the actual shooting. I wasn’t prepared for that. She looks at the response of the Norwegian authorities, how things maybe didn’t go as well as they could have. She is critical but you get the sense that everyone in Norway was just flabbergasted that anything like this could happen there. Altogether, this adds up to one gut-punch of a book.

I’ve thought about those kids often in the days since I read it; about their parents and siblings having to navigate the rest of their lives without them. Seierstad got approval from all the families of those whose children’s last moments are covered in the book – their families don’t want them to be forgotten. Reading this book seems like a good start in honouring their memories.