Monday, July 21, 2014

Review: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Since the release of her widely acclaimed debut novel, An Untamed State, 2014 is shaping up to be the year of Roxane Gay. Next up is her collection of essays titled Bad Feminist, set to be released on August 5. I had the privilege of receiving an advanced e-galley of Bad Feminist and was incredibly impressed with the wide-reaching, profound material found in this collection.

Ms. Gay has separated her book into 5 equally riveting sections: Me, Gender & Sexuality, Race & Entertainment, Politics, Gender, & Race, and Back to Me.
As she explains in the "Me" essays, Roxane Gay is a self-proclaimed “bad feminist”: she believes heavily in the tenents of feminism, yet finds herself not quite able to give up certain behaviors and habits. She advocates for gender equality, but still enjoys listening to rap music with not-so-suitable-to-feminist-ears lyrics. She promotes a culture with positive representations of various races, ethnicities, and genders, yet waxes nostalgic for the whitewashed Sweet Valley series. It’s a conundrum that most modern feminists face and must come to terms with: do I disown things that I enjoy if they don’t align perfectly with my beliefs? Am I “bad” if I don’t loudly protest against every problematic situation I encounter? Maybe so. But maybe we can stake a claim in being bad feminists as Gay has.

From her "bad feminist" manifesto, Roxane leads into an acknowledgment of her own privilege, commenting that, "At some point, you have to surrender to the kinds of privilege you hold. Nearly everyone, particularly in the developed world, has something someone else doesn't, something someone else years for." Gay never forgets her privilege, but she also knows where she isn't privileged: as a black woman of Haitian descent she discusses the problems faced by women and people of color in our society, often focusing on their depictions in popular media. 

Ms. Gay's pop cultural commentary is funny and relevant, touching on subjects that still ring in recent memory. The "Gender & Sexuality" section of the book includes commentary on Girls, Bridesmaids, Girlfriends, the Sweet Valley book series, Kate Zambreno's novel Green Girl, VH1's "celebreality" shows Rock of Love and Flavor of Love, Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, the Fifty Shades of Grey series, and many more. Gay uses these cultural milestones to discuss the portrayal of women in books, television, and movies, the expectations placed on women because of these portrayals, and the distorted mirror of popular culture through which women begin to see themselves. Her words are heavy, reminding us constantly of the ways women are forced to perform their gender and the barrage of unrealistic or problematic depictions of women in media. 

Similarly, "Race & Entertainment" is comprised of Gay's thoughts and personal experiences with race in film and television. She specifically addresses the popular "magical negro" trope, the supersaturation of media with struggle narratives, and the assumption that positive depictions of people of color here and there - "scraps from the table" as Gay calls them - will ever be enough. Sometimes Gay's prose is lovely, sometimes it's hard hitting, but it always leaves the reader with new information, and new perspective, and ultimately, the desire for more.  

The penultimate section of Gay's book is "Politics, Gender & Race" with essays ranging from women's reproductive freedom as a political bargaining chip to the media's treatment of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev following the Boston bombing. These criticisms are brash and fierce, forcing open the eyes of those who may not have considered such topics with a critical lens. 

Gay's final essays are "Bad Feminist: Take One" and "Bad Feminist: Take Two" in the "Back to Me" portion of the book. They tackle the concept of "bad feminist" in more depth, discussing the danger of subscribing to an "essential feminism," a feminism that is black or white, right or wrong, and as Gay notes, "suggests anger, humorlessness, militancy, unwavering principles, and a prescribed set of rules for how to be a proper feminist woman." We all mess up. There are no perfect movements and no perfect feminists, so we might as well admit to our flaws and embrace our bad sides.

Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist is a collection of poignant and thought-provoking essays; she never hesitates, never pulls punches, and we readers are all the better for it. Every page is a wonder, every sentence a revelation. Now that I've finished Gay's essays and have had a few days to ruminate on them, I feel wide-eyed and ready to take on the world. And I am proud to call myself a bad feminist. 
Rating: 5/5
**I received a free e-galley of Bad Feminist from Edelweiss.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Book Haul - Feminist Edition

I've been on a feminism kick for a while now and have recently been amping up my feminist book buying. These are purchases that I've made in the last month or so. Currently finishing up Men Explain Things to Me by Rebbeca Solnit. I've heard very good things about The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti. Pretty much everything else I just discovered from surfing online. So these are my feminist/women's studies purchases of the past month or so:
  • Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
  • Yes Means Yes: Visions of Sexual Power & A World Without Rape by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti
  • Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls Are Not For Sale by Rachel Lloyd
  • Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
  • The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women by Jessica Valenti
  • Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards
I can't imagine that I'll get to ALL these books in the near future, but I look forward to picking my way through them in the months and years to come.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Review - The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger

480 pages, published March 18, 2014 by Crown

Susan Rieger's debut novel, The Divorce Papers, is the story of an affluent New England couple's divorce told, literally, through their divorce papers. When Maria "Mia" Meiklejohn Durkheim requests divorce representation from the law firm of Traynor, Hand, the only associate available to perform her intake interview is young criminal attorney Sophie Diehl. Sophie is content with criminal law and abhors the thought of working face-to-face with clients. Unfortunately for Sophie, Mia takes an immediate liking to her and refuses to accept representation from anyone else at the firm. Despite her hesitation, Sophie sucks it up and spends the better part of 1999 learning the ropes of divorce law firsthand.

Nothing much happens beyond discussions of offers and counteroffers, custody of the Durkheim's daughter, Jane, and general marital discontent. However, the main character of this book is really Sophie, and we learn tidbits about her personal life throughout the novel. As Ms. Meiklejohn and Dr. Durkheim's divorce continues through , Sophie struggles with interoffice feuds, boyfriend trouble, and the ways that divorce seems to permeate her own life. 

Lacking a heavy plot, The Divorce Papers leans instead on its unique format. Personally, I didn't mind this trick. I quite enjoyed not knowing what I would find on the next page - an e-mail, an office memorandum, a note from a flower shop, a legal document? It was definitely enough to move the story along for me. And the insights we receive about Sophie from e-mails to her best friend Maggie and letters to her parents were a pleasant bonus beyond the drama of the Durkheim's divorce. At times the legalese and documents were boring and repetitive, but I didn't want to skip anything that might end up being important. Overall, The Divorce Papers is a simple, fun read that peeks into the lives of the parties involved in a high stakes divorce, presenting a conventional narrative in a moderately unconventional way.

Rating: 3.5/5

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Favorites of 2014 (So Far)

I've read 69 books so far this year and have been impressed with quite a few. Not all of these books were published in 2014, of course, but most were (with a few that were released within the last three years or so). These are my favorite reads so far and they all get an automatic recommendation from me:
  • Me Before You by JoJo Moyes
  • Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead
  • Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
  • The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
  • Lexicon by Max Barry
  • We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
  • Since You've Been Gone by Morgan Matson
  • The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
  • The Weight of a Human Heart by Ryan O'Neill
  • Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Pre-Order Fever

There must be something in the water because badass ladies are writing badass books from here to Timbuktu. I'm not the type to wait around for a book that I really, really want. So I've already pre-ordered several books that are coming out this fall/late summer. And since my birthday is October 5th, I figure a few of these can act as birthday presents for myself. Here's What I'm most excited for:

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay (pub. August 5, 2014)

Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham (pub. September 30, 2014)

Grace's Guide: The Art of Pretending to be a Grown-Up by Grace Helbig (pub. October 21, 2014)

Yes Please by Amy Poehler (pub. October 28, 2014)

What can I say? I'm into funny ladies and their funny (or serious) words. I already heard that Mindy Kaling is writing another book so I can officially die happy. Yahoo for pre-orders!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Flash Reviews - June 2014

I've been reading a LOT this year and not reviewing anything, so I figured I'd try doing some "flash reviews." These will just be quick, two or three (or four or five) sentence reviews about the general impression/feelings I got from the books I read in the past month.
  • All-American Girl by Meg Cabot (YA Fiction)
    • I picked this up because it sounded cute and simple and it was exactly that: cute and simple. An average American teenager unthinkingly saves the President's life, then proceeds to fall in love with the first son who happens to be in her art class. Cute. Simple. 3.5/5
  • This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki (Graphic Novel)
    • This One Summer is a coming of age story about two pre-teens who spend every summer together at their families' respective cottages. The artwork was absolutely stunning, but something in the story didn't quite resonate with me and the characters were less than likable. 3.5/5
  • The One by Kiera Cass (YA Fiction)
    • This is the last book in The Selection series. Think The Hunger Games mixed with "The Bachelor". Now make it ten times worse than you imagined and you'll have The Selection. These books are pure, terrible fluff and I have no excuse for reading the whole series aside from wanting to know how the inevitable love triangle is resolved. 1.5/5
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (Fiction)
    • The hero of Ready Player One is Wade, a young man who spends almost all of his time in a virtual online world called OASIS. Wade is making strides to win a contest set by the creator of the OASIS to win control of the virtual world and its creator's vast fortune. Fast paced and fascinating, Ready Player One is a delightful dystopian thriller. 4/5
  • Choker by Elizabeth Woods (YA Fiction)
    • I knew what I was getting into with Choker. A YA thriller set around teenaged Cara, whose childhood best friend Zoe appears after several years of radio silence. Of course, strange, terrible things start to happen once Zoe comes to town. Worth reading if you like a twist ending (albeit a relatively predictable twist ending). 2.5/5
  • A Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel (Short Stories)
    • Ramona Ausubel's collection is literally organized around the stages of being born - love, conception, gestation, and birth. Her stories are beautiful, strange, and often breathtaking. This was a very enjoyable read. 4/5
  • Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead (Fiction)
    • Astonish Me is the story of Joan, a ballet dancer who gives up her career after becoming pregnant. The novel spans several decades and covers the stories of various figures in Joan's life. I found Shipstead's writing to be lovely and the story enthralling, right up to a surprising twist at the conclusion. 5/5
  • Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger (Fiction)
    • Twin sisters move into their mysterious aunt's London flat about her untimely death in Niffenegger's sophomore novel. This novel had the potential to be very interesting, but the plot just wasn't executed well enough. And the last hundred pages or so were so strange and ridiculous that the book lost almost any credibility it would have had. 2/5
  • Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill (Fiction)
    • This is a very short novel narrated by an anonymous wife who reflects on her crumbling marriage and relationship with her daughter. Offill's prose was lovely, but it wasn't quite enough to carry me through with interest. 3/5
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Fiction)
    • I finally got around to reading Gone Girl this month, even though it has been insanely popular for at least two years now. This really was an edge of your seat thriller for me. I read most of it in a day and I absolutely did not see the twist coming. The ending was pretty upsetting to me and some of the last quarter of the book seemed a little ridiculous. But the rest of Gone Girl was very, very good and made for an enjoyable, exciting read. I look forward to reading more of Flynn's books! 4/5
  • Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour (YA Fiction)
    • LaCour's novel is a love story wrapped in a mystery. Emi Price is a budding production designer living in her brother's awesome LA apartment for the summer. When she stumbles across a hidden letter in a recently deceased Hollywood film legend's home, she and her best friend Charlotte find themselves on an adventure they never imagined. Emi spends the summer learning about film, friends, love, and, of course, herself. 4/5
  • The Naturals by Jennifer Lynn Barnes (YA Fiction)
    • Barnes's The Naturals is billed as Criminal Minds for the YA set. I LOVE Criminal Minds and I obviously enjoy YA books, so I figured this was a shoo in. It was enjoyable with (of course) a twist ending. As long as you're willing to suspend your disbelief enough to buy an FBI program for teenagers with innate psychological crime-solving abilities, you'll probably like this book. 3.5/5
  • The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon (Fiction)
    • This book had a very interesting premise: Anana Johnson's father, editor of the last print dictionary in existence, just before the dictionary is set to print its final edition. Around the same time, Americans start coming down with a virus called the Word Flu, spread through their ubiquitous handheld devices called memes. Unfortunately, this proved to be a dense, sometimes exhausting read. Not only was the plot confusing, I literally felt like I had the Word Flu myself while reading. I really would not recommend this unless you like an unrewarding challenge. 2/5
  • Case Histories by Kate Atkinson (Fiction)
    • In Case Histories, Jackson Brodie is a Private Investigator who has been called on to solve three cold cases that span over thirty years. His investigations lead him to dead ends, new relationships, and shocking conclusions. This wasn't the fastest-paced mystery I've read, but it kept my attention and I was satisfied by its conclusion. 4/5
  • Fourteen books in a month is almost a record for me! I'm excited that I've been on such a kick lately and I hope it continues...forever.
  • A weird coincidence this month: three of the books I read had a character named Theo (Her Fearful Symmetry, The Word Exchange, and Case Histories). Strange! 
  • Favorite Read: Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead
  • Least Favorite Read: The One by Kiera Cass
  • Most Disappointing Read: The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon...this was actually hard to choose because I had a few disappointments this month.