Tag Archives: nonfiction

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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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

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.

 

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)

Mini Review: Core Knowledge and Conceptual Change, edited by David Barner and Andrew Scott Baron

coreknowledgeI 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.

[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?