“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)
This 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)
My 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)
This was my first dive into the words of Simon Rich, despite consistently ranking the show he created (that is based on this collection), Man Seeking Woman, as one of my top five favorite TV shows. This is a collection of humorous, laugh-out-loud stories that largely revolve around heterosexual relationships from the perspective of a dorky man in his 20s/30s.
Because I knew I loved the tone of Man Seeking Woman, the absurdist comedy featured in this book was something I was familiar with and enjoyed. A lot of the storylines for the show were lifted from this collection, which makes some of the particularly absurd examples easier to visualize in my brain since I had already seen them depicted in the show.
Within the first 6 pages of the collection, I had already laughed out loud three times. The jokes I laughed the most at were New York situational humor though, so they may not be as funny to someone who hasn’t spent a lot of time in the city, but oof did I love them.
I read most of this as the textbook for a graduate course on Cognitive Development. As someone who was new to studying core knowledge and conceptual change, I thought this book did a great job of including the different studies that have led to current thoughts in the field. Each piece is composed by different students of Susan Carey’s, meaning that the tone and writing style shifts from chapter to chapter. The sequential flow between chapters didn’t always make sense, so I recommend picking and choosing which chapters you want to use and arranging them in whatever order is best for your purposes. My favorite chapters were 4. Bundles of Contradiction by Andrew Schtulman & Tania Lombrozo, 8. Different Faces of Language in Numerical Development by Susan Levine and Renée Baillargeon, and 9. How Numbers Are Like the Earth by Barbara Sarnecka.
Buzzfeed 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.
I 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.