Hunger by Roxane Gay

hungerLike much of the literary world, I am obsessed with Roxane Gay and I LOVED her collection of essays that blended memoir, popular culture, and commentary on society, Bad FeministHunger: A Memoir of (My) Body dives more deeply into some of the pieces of Gay’s story that she alluded to within Bad Feminist.

The composition of this collection was different than a memoir I’ve read before: the chapters vary in length, some only a page long, as if they’re all of the thoughts Gay had while conceiving this book, some jotted in the notes app on her phone so as not to forget and then left in their brief form. Other short pieces signify emotions that simply have too much underneath them to be explored further.

This book is heavy and you should take your time with reading it and give yourself the space to unpack the things that have happened and persisted in Gay’s life. Her story will likely make you reflect upon your own life stories and you should give yourself the time to do so. Within Hunger, Gay details her trauma associated with a gang rape, which had been lightly brushed upon in Bad Feminist, how fat bodies often have trauma and stories underneath that people dismiss or assume the bodies are just in poor health out of choice, her challenges with romantic and sexual relationships post-trauma, with her body, and with her geographic location, and the ways that people assume large bodies are always indicative of poor health.

Hunger forced me to challenge some assumptions I didn’t even know I had about how people move through the world and some of the things people who are large are forced to consider that I simply take for granted (i.e., will the chairs at this restaurant be compatible and provide necessary support to my body?). While Hunger definitely made me aware of things I had previously been oblivious to, it’s also important to remember that the book is an account of one person’s experiences with a large, fat body and it shouldn’t be taken as how everyone with these bodies feels or what they want, an important point that Gay emphasizes throughout her work.

Speaking of her work, I haven’t read any of Gay’s fiction pieces yet, but maybe I should add Difficult Women to my 2018 reading list? Hunger makes me want to be a Roxane Gay completionist, something that I feel like is rarer and rarer for me to even consider pursuing while staring at my ever mounting To Read pile, but Gay’s writing encourages me to do so. If you haven’t read one of her works yet, pick up Hunger or Bad Feminist the next time you see them at a store or your local library!

As an aside, this anecdote is tangentially related to the book Hunger, but I’m going to share anyway. Last year, I was inspired by the podcast The Cooler to start a “long-distance book club” with a bestie. The idea revolves around you reading a book on your own, underlining your favorite bits that resonate with you, and then passing along the book to a friend who can reflect on your bits, add their own bits, and give you specific things to talk about when you catch up on the phone since sometimes long distance besties can get in the rut of not really talking about their lives. While I do this with my faraway friends, I also do it with two of my nearby friends wherein we read the book back-to-back and then have a coffee/beer date where we talk about the book, like a two person book club where you only have to buy one copy of the book. There’s something so intimate in seeing what lines specifically connect with a friend and it can be very revealing, especially with a book like Hunger. My friend and I shared Hunger and it ended up being a nice way to talk about very sensitive and personal topics without having to put all of the cards on the table. I do this with a lot of books, but the experience of sharing Hunger will always be a poignant memory for me. 

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Comics for a Strange World by Reza Farazmand

comicsforastrangeworldDespite not being familiar with Reza Farazmand’s previous workPoorly Drawn Lines, I decided to read this collection of comics after recognizing the artist’s style from my Instagram Explore pages. I follow quite a few artists who draw lil comics on Instagram and while I don’t specifically follow Farazmand, I had stumbled upon enough of his pieces to recognize his work and some of his recurrent characters. 

This collection of comics, with each page typically consisting of a set of four images that compose a single comic, was slightly funny, but not laugh out loud funny for me or revelatory in the way that I found Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half even though that collection didn’t make me laugh much either. Each of the comics can function as a standalone, unrelated from the rest of the book, and the characters don’t often repeat, save for Ernesto the Bear and Kevin the bird that pop up frequently on Farazmand’s Instagram account (and were probably prominently featured in his previous collection too).

The collection is loosely organized into the following themes, but doesn’t always flow smoothly from one piece to the next: The Human Experience, Social Creatures, Changes, A Strange World, and Thoughts on Things.

Comics for a Strange World is a smidge existential, a touch sadistic, and full of dry humor. While I remember chuckling a few times while reading, none of the comics really stuck around in my mind after I finished reading it. I did photograph a few of the pages to send to my friends and I’m including one here that I think that we probably all could use help remembering sometimes. 

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Comics for a Strange World will be released at physical and digital bookstores in the U.S. on October 24, 2017!

Disclaimer: I was provided with a digital copy of this book for free from Plume Books via NetGalley. All opinions expressed in the review are my own and have not been influenced by Plume Books or NetGalley.

Evicted by Matthew Desmond

evictedEvicted by Matthew Desmond is 100% a must read and hands down one of my favorite books of the year. Don’t just take my word for it though — the book won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction this year which is no small feat!

Sociologist Matthew Desmond spent years immersing himself in the lower end of Milwaukee’s housing market, observing and interviewing those living in poverty and mostly terrible conditions perpetuated by landlords, the local government, and more. He often lived alongside his subjects, experiencing the daily occurrences that happened typically in a trailer park and later in the “ghetto” of Milwaukee. Throughout his work, Desmond mostly follows a small cast of characters, though he interviewed an incredible number of people, to give the reader a very in depth look at the cyclical suffering that many people with unstable and unreliable housing have been forced to accept and expect. 

While this is a necessary read to help people understand how those in control of housing perpetually disadvantage those in poverty, this is also just generally worthwhile reading for anyone who has ever been a tenant (aka someone who has ever rented their housing). While living in New York City, several of my friend’s and my housing frequently had issues that were unacceptable, dangerous, and repeatedly ignored by landlords despite multiple requests for maintenance or assistance. This is an important read to understand what your rights are as a tenant, the systems that make it essentially impossible for tenants to challenge their landlord’s actions, the typical issues that occur for those who are tenants within very in demand housing (either because of limited housing for the number of people in a city or because there is limited housing that will allow you to reside somewhere because of the nature of evictions, etc.), and to try to understand why landlords will choose to repeatedly ignore a problem that impedes a tenant’s standard of living and quality of life. 

From a research perspective, I really enjoyed that Desmond spent time detailing how he gathered his qualitative data and his rumination on the challenges of conducting this type of research. Despite this book being written by an academic, this book is incredibly accessible and is written to be enjoyed by a wide array of readers. 

And here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

“For many landlords, it was cheaper to deal with the expense of eviction than to maintain their properties; it was possible to skimp on maintenance if tenants were perpetually behind; and many poor tenants would be perpetually behind because their rent was too high.” (p. 75)

“The techniques landlords used to ‘keep illegal and destructive activity out of rental property’ kept poverty as well.” (p. 89)

On why defending yourself in eviction court is difficult, “but also [she] would have to defend herself against someone who was more educated, more familiar with the law, and more comfortable in court.” (p. 99)

“When we try to understand ourselves, we often begin by considering the kind of home in which we were raised.” (p. 293)

If you want another taste of the topic before committing to the whole book, you can read the excerpts that were published in The New Yorker. Don’t let the page number dissuade you from picking up this book! 100+ pages of this book are notes pertaining to the quotes and observations that Desmond incorporates and are not necessary to reference to understand the story unless you want to dig in deeper to his data. You can read more information about the book from the publisher by clicking here.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a physical copy of this book for free from Broadway Books via Blogging for Books. All opinions expressed in the review are my own and have not been influenced by Broadway Books or Blogging for Books

Vow of Celibacy by Erin Judge

vowofcelibacyThis is a very late, autumnal review of a book that I LOVED this summer. I was going through a bit of a rut with my summer reading — I felt overwhelmed by reading academic articles for work, nonfiction that detailed not always pleasant things, and fiction novels that usually featured not the sunniest of characters. Vow of Celibacy snatched me out of that funk. 

The novel opens with our main character Natalie at a little bit of a crossroads in her life, she’s not completely satisfied with what she’s doing, where her path is going, or the types of people she’s seeing, but she’s also not completely unhappy either. So she decides to take a ~Vow of Celibacy~ to eliminate one of her unsatisfying aspects of her life as she works through all of her previous relationships to try to determine if a link exists between them that perpetuates her dissatisfaction. The reader gets thrown into her previous romantic and sexual experiences with men and women, whilst bouncing back to current day Natalie, and then back again to previous experiences throughout the whole novel.

Present day Natalie is feeling a little less enchanted with her job as a fashion event planner. Through the encouragement of a new friend, she dips her toe into a new career pathway (being a plus-size model; the internal dialogue as she negotiates this career move with the negative feedback she’s gotten from her mother about her size is A+) and the new, exciting friends that come along with it. She’s also helping her college best friend, Anastaze, navigate her own relationship trysts and ideals after Anastaze decides she wants to enter sexual relationships for the first time which creates a fun contrast between the narrator.

Speaking of fun, this book is filled with it! I laughed so much while because it was exactly my sense of humor. The fact that the author is also a comedian definitely helped amp up the humor that is usually only mildly amusing in other novels. I don’t think I’ve laughed this much or had so much fun while reading a novel since Big Little Lies.

This book is so great in so many ways… down to how the pages of the book were literally the softest of any book pages I have ever felt. When I started reading, I made multiple friends touch the pages to confirm I was not somehow changing their texture in my mind simply because I loved the book so much. Another thing I loved about this book is how Judge introduces a lot of high culture items and gives definitions of what they are (through the narrator’s new perspective to also learning about them) in a way that’s not condescending to the reader and informative in a casual way. I would recommend reading Vow of Celibacy on this merit alone to people on the cusp of hanging with wealthy people, but not coming from a wealthy background themselves just for these bits of accessible high culture (food, wine, etc.).

I also found the later chapters perfectly captures the young adult who moves to New York living experience: being  inundated with bugs and ceilings collapsing, whilst garnering absolutely no remorse from your landlord. I felt worn out for Natalie because I could feel how much New York repeatedly chewed her up and spat her out despite how much she tried to make it work during her immediate post-college years. This book depicts everything so perfectly, including icky situations like New York living and failing, and I cannot recommend it enough. 

When people ask me what was the most fun read of my summer, this is the book that I recommend. As soon as I finished reading Vow of Celibacy, I looked up the author, Erin Judge, because I wanted to gobble up everything she had written. Unfortunately, this is the only book she’s written so far, but I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.

Mini Review: The Bad Seed written by Jory John and illustrated by Pete Oswald

badseedMy boyfriend and I were stumbling around a bookstore when this cover stopped us dead in our tracks. What could The Bad Seed, depicting a very sullen yet adorable seedette on the cover, possibly be about? Well… if the title didn’t give it away, it’s about being a baaaaaaaaaad seed. We flipped through a couple of pages and couldn’t stop laughing and one of us has called the other a baaaaaaad seed at least once a week since we found this title a month ago.

When my two year old niece’s birthday snuck up on me, I was at a loss for what book to get her (I always get her a book… I mean c’mon, I’m the aunt with a book blog after all) and I decided to purchase The Bad Seed for her to laugh at when our family members stretch out the baaaaad seed phrase when reading it to her. She’s definitely a little young for this book (it’s probably best for 3 – 6 year olds), but I think the stretched out words will still manage to bring her joy. My niece struggles slightly with manners currently and I think this book gently introduces how some behaviors can be seen as rude and illustrates how rude actions can affect how other people interact with you after you’ve been… wait for it… a baaaaaad seed. At the end, the bad seed decides to reform some of his actions and habits, and while he still isn’t perfect, he’s still mostly successful at choosing to be a nicer person to his peers and reaps some rewards for that. I think this would be a good book to show to children who are struggling with being nice to others and highlight ways that their actions might come back around and ultimately negatively impact them. This is definitely the most fun, new children’s picture book I’ve read in a bit. 

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

manhattanbeachI was eager to read the next novel by Jennifer Egan after loving A Visit from the Goon Squad, which was intriguingly constructed and unique. That story spun from character to character and wove a beautiful, interconnected web. To her credit, Egan tried to establish a similar web with Manhattan Beach, but it mostly fell flat for me. In contrast to the other, the reader spends their time reading the perspectives of three characters instead of a wider multitude and the character spins aren’t as great. While Egan clearly excelled at writing some of the characters, not all of them seemed fully developed. 
Manhattan Beach mostly takes place during the 1940s, but weaves to times before then occasionally, and the war is perpetually on the horizon. A theme of water moves throughout the entire novel with our three main characters all meeting at the beach for the first time, two of the characters diving together to find clues about a third, and one working on a ship.
The main characters are Eddie, the patriarch of an Irish family in Brooklyn who eventually becomes involved with the shadow world aka organized crime, Eddie’s daughter Anna who we follow from youth to her early 20s where she aspires to be a civilian diver at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and Dexter Styles, a prominent figure within New York’s shadow world who employs Eddie. In addition to our three central characters, so many characters are mentioned in passing (particularly those related to Dexter Styles) that it was hard to keep track of who they are, why they matter, and what their relevant traits are when they’re reintroduced. 
I liked all of the bits from Eddie’s perspective the best and if we had followed him throughout the entire novel instead, this book very well could have garnered 5 stars from me. There’s a moving scene with Eddie on a raft that will stay with me for weeks. Aside from Eddie’s bits, the novel trudges along slowly and picks up in the last 100 pages (though it seems like other reviewers disagree with me and felt like the first 100 pages were the most engaging).
Overall, the novel was well written, but the story arcs and setting just weren’t for me. I haven’t been a fan of historical fiction in over a decade (remember that Dear America diary series? *swoon*) and this book didn’t incite me to switch back into the historical fiction appreciation camp. When I was more interested in this genre, I was partial to historical pieces that aren’t based in America so it’s very possible I could’ve liked something like this had it been situated elsewhere, but I simply didn’t find this story all that interesting. If you’re an Egan fan with a hunkering for some NYC historical fiction, this will be great. If you’re not… well, you’re not. 
My favorite quote from the novel is, of course from one of Eddie’s bits, when he is reflecting on his relationship with his daughter Anna:
“It was as if being his daughter had blinded her uniquely, as if anyone else — everyone — had seen and known him in a way she could not.”
Manhattan Beach will be released at physical and digital U.S. bookstores on October 3, 2017! 
Disclaimer: I was provided with a digital copy of this book for free from Scribner via NetGalley. All opinions expressed in the review are my own and have not been influenced by Scribner or NetGalley.

We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

eightyearsinpowerI was thrilled when I received an Advance Reader’s Copy of We Were Eight Years in Power from Random House because I love LOVE loved Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and even included it in my list of 5 favorite reads from 2016! Coates has a wonderful style of writing that will leave you breathless (intentionally so as the author mentions in one part of this collection) and I will continue to gobble down his pieces.

We Were Eight Years in Power is a collection of 9 pieces that Coates has written for The Atlantic in the past 9 years, thus if you’ve been following Coates’s online articles, you’ve likely read some or all of these pieces before (they’re all still available online too). Before each piece begins, Coates ties each of the pieces to where he was personally, blending in some of the memoir style exemplified in Between the World and Me, and where America was socially, culturally, economically, and politically. This means that he often connects his pieces to the Obama administration (pre- and post-) and mentions how it influenced his articles, even if not explicitly stated in the features.  I often found the justifications and positioning of when the pieces were written to be more interesting than the earlier pieces in the collection, probably because I found myself more interested in Coates and his reflections than Bill Cosby’s weird and harmful conservatism regarding the black community (something I hadn’t read about before now). It would have been nice if the dates that the pieces were originally published had been included next to their titles, in order to help the reader position when it occurred; this would also help this book stand 20 years from now if something happened that wasn’t common or accepted knowledge at the time of first publication (such as the widespread depths of Cosby’s transgressions, which Coates does acknowledge in the introduction for that piece, but would be missing for things uncovered in the future).

The collection includes pieces about (1) Bill Cosby, (2) Michelle Obama, (3) The Civil War, (4) Malcolm X, (5) Fear of a Black President, which is commentary on how Obama talked about race during his first presidential term, (6) The Case for Reparations, a viral piece that’s widely assigned on my college campus according to my undergrads, (7) Mass Incarceration, (8) My President was Black, a feature on Obama and reflections on his presidency, and (9) White Supremacy and Trump, a piece that serves as the epilogue and also recently went viral under the title The First White President.

The pieces become progressively longer as the reader progresses through the collection, presumably aligning with the growth of Coates’s readership and The Atlantic assuming that their digital readers would stay along for the ride and full length of the pieces. In my opinion, Coates’s writing strengthens throughout the collection, building upon his years of writing experience. In the introductions, Coates also corrects some errors that were in the previous publications of pieces or properly acknowledges sources that were neglected in the original publications.

At times, We Were Eight Years in Power could feel like reading an accessible textbook, but a textbook nevertheless. The readings are dense and cannot be pored over in one sitting. I really liked the collection, but if someone were completely unfamiliar with Coates, this would not be the first piece of his I recommended. Instead, I would thrust Between the World and Me into their hands and emphatically encourage them to read it immediately. It’s a bit more accessible and shorter and, within this collection, Coates perfectly sums up Between the World and Me with this description of his mindset at the time of writing, “I imagined of crafting a singular essay, in the same fashion (as James Baldwin), meant to be read in a few hours but to haunt for years.”

I recommend We Were Eight Years in Power to people already familiar with Coates and who haven’t read each of these pieces online yet. If you’re not familiar with Coates, make Between the World and Me the next book that you read.

We Were Eight Years in Power will be released at physical and digital U.S. bookstores on October 3, 2017! 
Disclaimer: I was provided with a digital copy of this book for free from Random House Publishing Group – Random House One World via NetGalley. All opinions expressed in the review are my own and have not been influenced by Random House or NetGalley.