Category Archives: essays

How to Fall in Love with Anyone by Mandy Len Catron

Screen Shot 2017-07-11 at 10.12.50 AMI had this book for a week and recommended it to more than 10 people before I had even finished it, which I think should be enough to convince you to add it to your To-Read list immediately! I knew about Mandy Len Catron from her 2015 viral piece in the “Modern Love” section of The New York Times. I loved the article — I forced my friends to do the first chunk of the 36 questions with each other during the first night of a trip when they all met for the first time. While Catron’s pieces for the Times are fantastic, this book is something else. It’s a better version of Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance and a more personal version of Moira Weigel’s Labor of Love
How to Fall in Love with Anyone details how the author has mythologized her parents’ and grandparents’ love stories and the effect that has had upon her own conceptualization and approaches to romantic love. She spends a chapter detailing the cultural scripts that Western culture passes down about love through romantic comedies or through what we’re told embodies a “good relationship”, who even “deserves” a “good relationship,” and discusses that while we’re told what the best end product is, we aren’t often taught about how to love others well. In fact, I think this book could be more aptly titled How to Love Better, in order to better convey its contents and to be more alluring than the current title. The book made me think a lot about how we could all be better to each other, if we all decided to value loving better more often. 
The author devotes multiple chapters to the love stories of her family, all situated within Appalachia, and details how the relationships allowed individuals to move beyond the circumstances they inherited. She contrasts these love stories with her own ten year relationship, which made me feel kind of queasy, simply because I identified with spending too much time in a relationship that slowly fizzled, unbeknownst to the couple, until its pulse flatlined.
Eventually the book shifts into describing the relationships Catron enters after her first big relationship, including the one detailed in her viral Modern Romance piece. This reminds me of something I made my boyfriend do on one of our first dates, where we played a question asking game that encourage medium-to-deep conversations instead of the polite, small talk that often occurs. I don’t remember the questions or the answers now, but I do remember the feeling of sharing a deeper version of myself than is traditionally expected on these early dates when I would try to present the shiniest version of myself. This book magically captures all of those feelings that I’ve felt and I loved LOVED loved reading while Catron ruminated on love. 
That was easy to do because Catron spins many pretty phrases, as you’ll see in the quotes that I’ve included at the end of my post. While I’m loaning this book out to a few friends (to underline their own favorite quotes), I’ve told them all that I want this book to be on my forever bookshelf (aka the highest honor I can bestow upon a book) so it absolutely must be returned to me.
Unfortunately, the book doesn’t include Catron’s latest piece for “Modern Love,” though she alludes to some of the content in the book. I’ve linked to it because I feel like it’s worth reading too. Read all of her things — each of them are special and wonderful and will sift through your mind for days. 
“I think of the four of us as subject to the same flash flood, all senselessly bailing water into our own boats in hopes the others might end up on dry land.” (p. 122)
“Our views of love — what we want from it, what we think it should feel like — are rooted in the context of our lives.” (p. 72)
“But now I understand that there are always two breakups: the public one and the private one. Both are real, but one is sensible and the other is ugly. Too ugly to share in cafés. Too ugly, I sometimes think, to even write.” (p. 134)
“I didn’t know what was real and what was scripted.” (p. 16)
“Nothing was funny, really, but we couldn’t stop laughing the manic laughter of people who know it will be a while before they hear themselves laugh again.” (p. 40)
Disclaimer: I was provided with physical and digital copies of this book for free from Simon & Schuster. All opinions expressed in the review are my own and have not been influenced by Simon & Schuster.

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Screen Shot 2017-06-19 at 12.09.13 PMThis was good and I’ve yet to read something by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that I haven’t been impressed by or hasn’t provoked me into thinking about something slightly differently than I did before. This thin, little book is composed as a letter to a friend who was seeking advice on how to raise her daughter as a feminist. Adichie offers 15 suggestions, specifically linking them to Nigerian, Igbo, and western cultures, but even these specific examples are still universal. Adichie admits that these tenants may be hard to accomplish, but we must strive to embody them to create feminists in our children and in ourselves.

A few choice quotes are below:

“Be deliberate about showing her the enduring beauty and resiliences of Africans and of black people. Why? Because of the power dynamics in the world, she will grow up seeing images of white beauty, white ability, and white achievement, no matter where she is in the world. It will be in the TV shows she watches, in the popular culture she consumes, in the books she reads. She will also probably grow up seeing many negative images of blackness and of Africans.” (p. 40)

“We ask of powerful women: Is she humble? Does she smile? Is she grateful enough? Does she have a domestic side? Question we do not ask of powerful men, which shows that our discomfort is not with power itself, but with women.” (p. 24)

“If we stopped conditioning women to see marriage as a prize, then we would have fewer debates about a wife needing to cook in order to earn that prize.” (p. 15)

“Don’t think that raising her feminist means forcing her to reject femininity.” (p. 43)

“Social norms are created by human beings, and there is no social norm that cannot be changed.” (p. 51)

How to Be a Person in the World by Heather Havrilesky

Screen Shot 2017-06-18 at 12.32.27 PMMy friend lent me this book, touting it as an advice column with Lemony Snicket realness (I’ve been in a Snicket binge recently) and it simply wasn’t that for me, nor have I ever found something that could fit that fantastic label. I had never read the advice column Ask Polly that this book is a collection of before reading this book. For me, How to Be a Person in the World is situated somewhere between my favorite advice book, Dear Sugar‘s Tiny Beautiful Things and The Best of Dear Coquette. While better than Dear Coquette, I found How to Be a Person in the World not nearly as memorable as Tiny Beautiful Things, which could be due to myriad reasons beyond the book: Maybe I’ve read too many of these advice column collections and they’ve lost their charm? Maybe it’s summer so I’m less contemplative of my head space because everything is sunny and just feels good? Maybe this was a jigsaw piece that doesn’t quite connect with my own puzzle of a heart?

That said, I underlined quotes that I enjoyed (and some are included at the end of this review) throughout reading, but none of them felt particularly revelatory and I didn’t feel “seen” when I stumbled across them. My favorite piece was the second to last entitled “Mourning Glory” about the death of a parent because of course it was. The first two quotes below are from that piece and are followed by other snazzy quotes that appear throughout the collection.

“When you lose someone very close to you, someone who makes up this essential part of your history and your future, your worldview shifts dramatically. You have a palpable feeling that everything and anything good can disappear at any time.” (p. 243)

“This is a beautiful, terrible time in your life that you’ll always remember. Don’t turn away from it. Don’t shut it down. Don’t get over it.” (p. 246)

“Being mildly depressed can fuck with your life on every level. It keeps you from feeling great at work or feeling exhilarated after a great yoga class. It turns you into someone who’s always peering into someone else’s windows, wondering why the people inside seem so passionate and happy and thrilled, wondering if they’re just simpleminded or stupid, wondering if they grew up in happier homes so they’re not damned to shuffle around in a haze of uncertainty the way that you are.” (p. 205-206)

“Letting the wrong ones show their true stripes is just as important as letting the right ones show their true strengths.” (p. 68)

“Dive into a bunch of stories about absorbing and leaning into disappointment and loss and melancholy as a way of moving through it.” (p. 116)

Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman by Anne Helen Petersen

unrulywomenBuzzfeed writer Anne Helen Petersen covers a range of “unruly” women, using celebrities to describe how society reacts now and has historically to different types of unruly women. In the author’s own words, the women in the book, “spark feelings of fascination and repulsion” and are “explicit and implicit alternatives to the ‘new domesticity.'” (p 10).

The entire collection felt like an extended long read and each section is broken into chapters that feature a specific celebrity and then culturally and historically situates their corresponding label. I was familiar with all of those profiled which probably helped me eagerly approach each of the essays. Because of how this felt like a series of long reads, I recommend reading each piece as a stand-alone and not concurrently. Set aside 20-30 mins to read a chapter and then come back to the book the next day to read the next standalone piece. Otherwise, it feels repetitive and the book as a whole becomes less shiny.

For me, the standout is the piece on Kim Kardashian and her “performance of pregnancy” which discusses how publicly being pregnant has evolved since the beginning of pregnancy depictions (the Virgin Mary), to how pregnancy was omitted and banned from media enactments, to how Demi Moore’s naked, 7-month pregnant body on a magazine cover completely changed the public performance. Petersen discusses the emergence of “cute pregnancies” with cute, slim bodies and compares and contrasts Kim Kardashian to Kate Middleton, who was cutely pregnant at the same time as Kim’s unruly pregnancy. Compared to the rest of the pieces, this chapter had the best integration of the history of celebrity than any of the other chapters.

I found Petersen’s piece on Jennifer Weiner to be the most unlike anything I’ve read elsewhere and I found myself sending multiple quotes from the essay to a friend. The Weiner chapter had the most sociological influence, demonstrated by comparing mass market books to the “high” culture of books marketed to the “educated” classes. As someone who reads a lot, this was a very necessary reflection on what’s allowed to be a “good book.”

Overall, I recommend this book – as long as you spread out consuming each of its chunks instead of devouring it in one sitting.

I ranked the pieces in order of my perception of their quality below. I didn’t necessarily rank the pieces on the celebrities I liked the best as the highest (i.e. Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer are probably my favorites, but their chapter was my least favorite):
1. Kim Kardashian (Too Pregnant), 2. Serena Williams (Too Strong), 3. Jennifer Weiner (Too Loud), 4. Nicki Minaj (Too Slutty), 5. Hillary Clinton (Too Shrill), 6. Melissa McCarthy (Too Fat), 7. Caitlyn Jenner (Too Queer) (later in the chapter, Petersen categorizes her as probably least unruly, but counterparts on her show are), 8. Madonna (Too Old), 9. Lena Dunham (Too Naked), 10. Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer (Too Gross).

For more, check out http://www.girlwithabookblog.com!

Disclaimer: I was provided with an Advance Reader Copy of this book for free from the Penguin First to Read program. All opinions expressed in the following review are my own and have not been influenced by Penguin.

Mini Review: Do What You Want by Ruby Tandoh and Leah Pritchard

Screen Shot 2017-05-28 at 5.15.45 PMI had to stop all of my plans the day I was reading this because this was SO GOOD, but it also made me want to collapse into a puddle of tears. Reading about other people’s mental health always makes me feel some type of way — comforted by feeling seen through shared experiences but shattered that so many people have these same experiences and feelings. That said, it was great to see a range of different types of mental health covered (in addition to the heavily talked about depression and anxiety), along with the factors that can contribute to issues developing and the aftermath that can be caused after issues emerge. This is primarily a zine (though can it technically be a zine if it has a ISBN number?) about mental health with a few recipes sprinkled throughout, contrary to my friend’s and my belief that it would be an equally balanced food and mind zine since one of the editors is Great British Bake Off‘s Ruby Tandoh.

Coffee in the photo is courtesy of Chicago’s Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits and will be included in a future coffee review post of all of the coffee beans I’ve tried for my cold brew creations.

[the best of] dear coquette: shady advice from a raging bitch who has no business answering any of these questions

Screen Shot 2017-05-14 at 11.29.17 AMI picked up this book form of a long running advice column without being aware of the source material – it was on a display at my local library and I found the cover compelling (yep, judged the book by its cover!) so I snatched it up and dove in, enjoying the segmented chunks that allow you to quickly read when you had the time and easily pause whenever was necessary (aka a perfect type of reading when you’re balancing grad school and life).

I definitely enjoyed the vibe of Dear Sugar’s Tiny Beautiful Things (one of my favorite reads of 2016) better but I’m sure this collection will be better appreciated by others. The book reprints questions and answers from Dear Coquette, formerly Coke Talk, with a readership that seems to skew a bit younger with a few questions about high school life and plentiful college related questions. I liked the responses to these younger questions that predominantly were things like “omg have the type of your life with your young love you lil fluff ball!” but then I also found some of the questions, answers, and situations described to be gross things I hope I forever avoid. The book seems to be very hetero-focused, but so are the submitted questions.

While the author’s advice sometimes rubbed me the wrong way, the writer is very aware of that, as seen by these quotes where she describes her advice-giving strategy: “I’m wrong all the damn time” (p. 331), “I’m as completely full of shit as everyone else” (p. 335), and finally, “I’m happy to provide a surrogate background long enough for them (the readers, advice seekers) to feel what it’s like to stand up for themselves” (p. 326).

The book is organized into sections which helped categorize the questions and allowed the book to flow smoothly: Love, Sex, Drugs, Dating, Relationships, Breakups, Friends, Family, Work, Mental, Physical, Spiritual, Individual, Greater Good, and Coquette (about the anonymous writer).

Here’s a link to my favorite piece from the whole book that felt like some very necessary bluntness, and very much provided the surrogate backbone the author wants to give her readers: http://dearcoquette.com/on-not-being-a-doormat/

Some of my other favorite quotes are included below:

“If you live your life trying to avoid the possibility of future pain, you will end up a numb and timid creature without any stories worth telling.” (p. 105)

“[Q:] How do you know when to give up on someone? [A:] When they’ve shown you who they are, and it isn’t enough.” (p. 143)

“The relationship isn’t boring. Life is boring, and you’re just now noticing it for the first time as an adult because you aren’t being distracted by some youthful flavor of chaos.” (p. 144)

p.s. I think I might start reviewing the delicious coffees I use to make my amazing cold brew coffees that I indulge in when I read on weekend mornings? Good idea or best idea?

Chuck Klosterman X by Chuck Klosterman

xI haven’t read any of Chuck Klosterman’s collections before, despite them hanging on my TBR list for years. When I received an email indicating I could review his soon to be released work, I thought it would be the perfect time to explore Klosterman’s writings. Aside from a GQ profile here and there, I didn’t know much about Klosterman’s favorite topic areas or style. Before reading this, I had no idea that he was also a prolific sports writer or a general culture critic since I had only read his music pieces. This collection is a mix of all of those flavors and because of that, I didn’t feel compelled to read each and every piece, but I did read most – even those that I wouldn’t have initially if I had known the topic area without context.

But the contextualizations work and drew me into reading about things that I would have dismissed otherwise. For most of the essays, Klosterman introduced them and describes the time, place, and subject that is captured in the essay. I read each of these introductions and used them to help me determine if I wanted to read a piece even if I thought I wouldn’t have (like the first chapter on an obscure and mostly forgotten junior college basketball game, the piece on Noel Gallagher, the profile of Jonathan Franzen, or an article about attending both Creed and Nickleback concerts in a single evening). Not every piece has this introduction though, which caused me to skip out of the essay if I wasn’t ensnared by the first paragraph.

My favorite standalone piece was “Everybody’s Happy When The Wizards Walk By (Or Maybe Not? Maybe They Hate It? Hard To Say, Really,” which is about actively choosing to not engage with a piece of media that is dominating culture (Harry Potter) and the ramifications this may cause, especially for a culture writer. It was also hilarious to read someone discussing Harry Potter, and what they believe the franchise to be, without having read the novels since Harry Potter was a big piece of my life (and my body – shout out to my predictable Harry Potter tattoo).

One of my favorite lines in the whole collection was, “Here’s something I wrote in Europe in 2008, when I was pretend depressed” and I can’t even remember which essay that introduced now. The collection closes with a piece on collective mourning over celebrity deaths (specifically the loss of David Bowie and Prince in 2016) and ends with the line “I could not psychologically compete. I could not compete with the collective unreal, so I decided to think about something else.” This seems like a profound statement to end a collection of cultural commentary – like maybe Klosterman is finding himself more disengaged with popular culture than he used to be and feels like it’s time to transition to a new topic, just as he moved from covering death to culture. Because I haven’t read most of his work, I’m not sure if this is on point or not, but it seemed very intentional. We’ll see what’s to come from his future works and you can count me in as a regular reader.

Chapters I Skipped:
1) The Light Who Has Lighted the World (Tim Tebow), 2) Liquid Food (Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin), 3) C’mon Dave, Gimme a Break (Eddie Van Halen of Van Halen), 4) The (Unenthusiastic) Return of the Thin White Duke (Stephen Malkmus of Pavement), 5) User Your Illusion (But Don’t Bench Ginóbli), 6) The Drugs Don’t Work (Actually, They Work Great, 7) Brown Would Be the Color (If I Had a Heart) (Cleveland Browns), 8) Democracy Now! (Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy album), 9) Metal Machine “Music” (Lou Reed-Metallica Lulu album), 10) Advertising Worked on Me (KISS).

Disclaimer: I was provided with an Advance Reader Copy of this book for free from the Penguin First to Read program. All opinions expressed in the following review are my own and have not been influenced by Penguin.