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While at the ALA Conference in San Francisco, learning about all that is shiny, sticky and new in librarianship, I started my day with Gloria Steinem.  She spoke for less than an hour but completely blew my hair back.  The woman is brilliant, modest, quick on her feet, and all of the other things that you’d expect of a woman who has dedicated her life to equal rights.

A few paraphrases from GS:

-Men can be feminists.

-If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.

-Every year on Columbus Day I forget to put a note on that statue in Columbus Park that says “murderer.”

-Women are kept down by men controlling by their reproduction. It all starts there.

-We’ll boost the economy by giving women equal pay. It would put millions back into the economy.

She left me in an incredible headspace, feeling empowered to be better, to connect as humans, to learn and impart, to question what is being said to you, and to be the kind of librarian that I want to be, rather than what I think is expected of me by my peers.  It’s easy to forget these basics in the day-to-day, and we all need a little nudge back to the inner light once in a while.  Mine just happened to be from Gloria Steinem.

Best conference ever.

*Project Recap: For one year, I will read one book per month that I know nothing about that was recommended to me by a stranger; friend; family member, or co-worker; and I will write about that experience.  God help us all.

Bad FeministBad Feminist
by Roxane Gay
Book #7, read during May, 2015

My experience of reading this book was wonderful.  Let me begin with a quote from the preface, page xiii, “I hear many young women say they can’t find well-known feminists with whom they identify.  That can be disheartening, but I say, let us (try to) become the feminists we would like to see moving through the world.”  I was riding the red line train, full of people during rush hour and I cried when I read this.  Though I may not be the youngest feminist woman, this quote is applicable to all women of any age and this simple yet so powerful statement foreshadows the most awesome of insight to come.  Since this book is comprised of essays, including discussions of teaching, American education, women and the media, the TV show Girlfriends, et al, mentioning them all would essentially be rewriting the book, so I’ll pull out a few of my favorites.

Gay’s essays range from the more hardcore, we’re going to dissect these issues right here, right now, including a critique of Caitlin Moran’s How to Be Woman and an analysis of women’s likeability in the media to her love of Sweet Valley High and Scrabble.  Let’s talk about the latter.  I am horrible at Scrabble; just awful.  So much so, that I don’t want to even talk about the game on an average day.  But, Ms. Roxane Gay is great at Scrabble and as of May 2015, she is ranked 870 out of over 2,200, or to put it more plainly, she’s 870 out of everyone ever as of May.  Roxane also manages to talk about Scrabble in a way that left me with an unbelievable sense of urgency to get to the next page, or should I say, she left me “scrabbling” through the pages (thank you, Ms. Gay).  She turned me into her own personal cheerleader, gasping and shaking my head when her opponents challenged and mocked her.  Gay has the amazing gift to bring you into her stories so that you are on her side, and you want to punch her “Scrabble nemesis,” Henry, right in his smug face.  Gay transports us to the silent, tension filled world of competitive Scrabble where shockingly, a game face and swagger are geekily paramount.

Gay does this wonderful thing that I’ve mentioned in other book reviews by the Tina Feys, Julia Sweeneys and Mindy Kalings of the world where she makes our thoughts tangible.  Much like Bossypants, I kept thinking, yes! this is what I think, too!  Roxane, I think that, too, but couldn’t verbalize it.  Gay also talks about things that are scary, like privilege and race.  I’m scared to talk about white privilege.  Oftentimes, I look at black people and want to apologize for slavery, the state of the their world now and tell them that I feel awful and that I don’t know how to make it better, but that I want to.  As a white girl, for me, Gay was like the privilege whisperer.  She told me that it was okay to recognize it and admit it, and that it was okay for me to own up to the fact that some parts of my life are better than others’ lives because of my skin color and how much money my parents had when I was born (I grew up in Villa Park, Illinois, so you can imagine, it wasn’t much, but it was so much more than lots of other people).  And you know what?  There’s something liberating in that confession because you feel like you can now work with people; you’ve released your own baggage that was keeping you choked and gagged.  But she also told me that some people are more privileged than me, so I shouldn’t feel like total shit, and some people love to be the “privilege police,” (we all know them) and dig this, “We would live in a world of silence if the only people who were allowed to write or speak from experience or about difference were those absolutely without privilege (18).”  How great is that?

Have you ever read a story where you feel tickled?  As if little bubbles of delight dancing throughout every part of your brain?  That’s how I felt while reading “How to Be Friends with Another Woman.”  She gives us 13 rules, many with sub-points for further clarification on how to be not only friends, but a good friend.  Here are a few of my favorites:

3A. If you feel like it’s hard to be friends with women, consider that maybe women aren’t the problem.  Maybe it’s just you.

6. Tell your friends the hard truths they need to hear.

6A. Don’t be totally rude about truth telling…finesse goes a long way.

6B. These conversations are more fun when preceded by an emphatic “GIRL.”

7. Surround yourself with women you can get sloppy drunk with…

12. If a friend sends a crazy e-mail needing reassurance about love, life family, or work, respond accordingly and in a timely manner even if it is just to say, “GIRL, I hear you.”

Trust me, all 13+ points are 100% valid and I recommend you read them all.  I could not have been more amused when I read 3A  because I have been the awful woman who said that, and you know what, it probably was indeed me.

Early on in the book, Gay tells us to be wary of “professional feminists,” women who are held on a pedestal in the media as the truth speakers of feminism.  They can be flawed, thereby complicating matters of feminism in mainstream culture all the more.  Being a published and hugely popular writer, Gay inadvertently dips her toe into this group but does so with humility.  She’s speaking her truth, and this truth is vulnerable, smart, and so fucking insightful.  GIRL, seriously, run out get your hands on this book.

*Project Recap: For one year, I will read one book per month that I know nothing about that was recommended to me by a stranger; friend; family member, or co-worker; and I will write about that experience.  God help us all.

Mrs. CalibanMrs. Caliban
by Rachel Ingalls
Book #6, read during April, 2015

Recommended by my spouse, Mrs. Caliban was the first book that I knew absolutely nothing about.  In all honesty, reading a book that was less than 150 pages with a pile of books on my “to-read” desk was extremely appealing, so here we go book number six.

Mrs. Caliban is at first glance a love story between a lonely housewife and an over six foot amphibious fish/man named Larry.  It’s a simply written and understated story that tugs at any heartstrings susceptible to loneliness, infidelity, love, and childlessness.  This book is said to be science fiction, but for those who clam up in disgust at the mention of the genre, there is a fish/man present, but beyond that you’re safe from conventional sci-fi.

Here’s a little plot rehash: Dorothy Caliban, due to the loss of two children is engaged in a loveless marriage where she and her husband are “too unhappy to get divorced.”  In the first few pages, while rushing around at the demand of her husband to spontaneously make dinner for his business partner, the gigantic amphibious man/creature Larry shows up at her door, recently escaped from an institution where he was tortured by scientists.  Having no idea where this would go, I immediately became immersed in Dorothy’s life and couldn’t wait to know what would happen to Dorothy and Larry, which is a hilarious name for the frog man.  An immediate bond is forged between the two as each one fills the gaps in the others’ life.  The overarching theme of this book is relationships and we are given a more thorough glimpse into Dorothy’s life through her conversations with not only Larry, but with her physically and emotionally absent husband, Fred and with her best friend Estelle, whose 180 degree personality acts as an interesting juxtaposition.  By the end, Ingalls expresses themes of marital love, tenderness, loneliness, betrayal and complacency all through the vehicle of a creature.

The amphibious Larry’s presence in Dorothy’s life can be taken literally or figuratively and can change your interpretation of the ending drastically, though the aforementioned themes remain relatively the same.  If you’re a realist, then the story becomes about coping mechanisms and grief, if you are drawn to more flights of fancy, then Larry the fish/man’s presence facilitates discovery and comfort.  Though published in the early 1980s, the thrust of the story reminded me of The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and The Awakening, by Kate Chopin.  All three stories illustrate that not much has changed in the past 100 plus years concerning such issues as the social stigma concerning women and childbirth and your everyday, plain old gender norms where women are cast as causalities of so many inequities due to socially constructed ideas of what men and women should be, and how that construct keeps women down.

Lucky number six!  This was by far the best book as of yet, and on a personal note, it’s nice to know that my spouse knows me so well after nearly eight years, and that thankfully, we have something else in common besides our love of Indian food and gin.  Ingalls has written a novella with few words, but they’re all the right ones.  Her deft story-writing skills, delivered in the most hard-hitting but simplistic of ways are a breath of fresh air in a time where we are saturated with the concept that more is more in art.  Ingalls reminds us that even with the presence of a nearly seven foot green monster, that sometimes less is indeed more.

*Project Recap: For one year, I will read one book per month that I know nothing about that was recommended to me by a stranger; friend; family member, or co-worker; and I will write about that experience.  God help us all.

Dark Currents: Agent of Hel     Dark Currents
by Jacqueline Carey
Book #5, read during March, 2015

The fifth month of reading books that someone else recommended to me was the most difficult month.  It was a chore and the first time that I actually considered quitting the year-long project of reading unknown books.  I kept looking through the list of books and when I broke my rule and read their descriptions, every one sounded like pulling teeth.  This is also why I am not part of a book club; I hate to read books that I don’t want to read.  I’ve dropped out of three clubs without even finishing the first books.  With so many wonderful books in the world, why read anything that you don’t want to read?!

I decided to settle on Dark Currents: Agent of Hel (the Norse Goddess, not Hell), sitting in the adult fiction section of the library.  My first impression was that the cover is awful.  It looks like a cheesy teen fantasy book with a toe-headed girl wielding a knife.  One day on the Red Line el I dropped the book and as the person across from me handed it back, I felt completely embarrassed to be seen with it.  The main character’s dialogue often touts such juvenile sentences of the like: “…he’s so hot!” and other very 20-something year old-isms about the plethora of guys turning her on.

After page five, I could not put this book down.  It’s silly, light, and lucky for me, features my love of other worlds, mythological creatures, gods and goddesses and all other sorts of supernatural ilk.  Carey’s construction of this world is akin to Neil Gaiman’s novels (American Gods, Neverwhere, Anansi Boys), where gods and goddesses live amongst humans in hidden form, but from the perspective of a hormone-crazed young woman.

Carey has constructed a book with a well-written, fleshed out story with a good balance of dialogue and description, filling in the holes without being Stephen King wordy (where you know how many calories were in the lunch of a secondary character on a random Tuesday) that makes for an entertaining read without asking too much of your time and concentration.  It’s about 20-something Daisy, who is half human, half succubus aka demon.  She works part-time for the local police department in the small town in which she lives.  This small town, in addition to your random humans, is inhabited by (and somewhat grudgingly tolerated by the the townspeople) a supernatural counter-culture due to the presence of an active underworld, located otherwise in only the select big cities. In this story, a young frat boy goes winds up dead and Daisy is brought in to help investigate as supernatural forces become suspect, including water nymphs, mermaids and Ghouls, creatures who breath and look like humans, ride motorcycles and but feed on human emotions.

Besides the varied other-worldly creatures’ descriptions hooking me, I also, against my will, was drawn in by the tangental love interests.  Werewolf and police officer Cody has been Daisy’s crush since high school, but this new European Ghoul is alluring, and so is this new guy from Jamaica who can see auras!  What’s a girl to do?!  I know, it’s awful and I’m ashamed, but I was blind-sided by these silly sub-plots and I can’t wait to dive into book two (there are three as of this month).

Reading Dark Currents is exactly what I hoped would happen for this project-that I would read a book, completely unknown to me, and love it, which I did. Whenever I had a free moment, I couldn’t wait to get back and find out what was going to happen next, and it made me realize how much of a struggle some of the previous books have been.  I have hated none, struggled throughout many, but always learned something, whether about story or style.  Thankfully, this novel was a breath of fresh air and gave me an airy, romance filled March.

I’m a big believer in purchase power.  If you spend your money at Walmart, for example, then you support Walmart and all its practices regarding employees, the environment, its political stance, et al.  If you participate in a CSA (a local produce share box), then you support small farmers in your community and you’re saying yes to organic food.  When you support Kickstarter Campaigns like these, you are using your purchase power to support a cleaner earth, small business, and help to fight against big business and their own campaigns to capitalize off of the sexualization of women’s bodies.

~

New York based gals Alexis and Jess, creators of the website Beauty Lies Truth are working to get the word (and the products) out about safe and healthy beauty products that are actually good for you and the environment.  It may come as a shock but the U.S. government isn’t doing the greatest job at protecting the public, and these gals are helping us to become better informed about what we purchase and put in and on our bodies.

Their Kickstart Campaign, titled #TRUTHBEAUTY is raising funds to purchase environmentally safe beauty products that you’ll be sent in the mail.

It is our mission to find the most conscious companies making safe, effective products, and then make those products affordable and accessible.

 Visit their website for DIY beauty tips and great articles on the whats and whos about the beauty products that you use everyday.

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Based in the UK, designer Hayat Rachi has created her feminist lingerie brand, Neon Moon, which is made by a woman, for real women in our varied sizes and shapes, and is raising funds to bring the brand to fruition.  Want to know what feminist lingerie could look like?  Check out the video here and to donate.  Made from from highly renewable bamboo, the lingerie is said to be comfortable, antibacterial, and just from the sight of it, really cute and stylish.

Bra

Personally, I am in love with this bra.

*Project Recap: For one year, I will read one book per month that I know nothing about that was recommended to me by a stranger; friend; family member, or co-worker; and I will write about that experience.  God help us all.

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness IndustryPsychopath Test      
by Jon Ronson
Book #4, read during February, 2015

In his book, The Psychopath Test, Jon Ronson explores the history, classification and presence of psychopaths.  Admit it, we all have used this word, sometimes liberally with certain people (come on, we all have that one co-worker or in-law) when labeling someone who acts so irrationally or manipulatively that they are beyond our comprehension.  But how do we know who is crazy, eccentric, or just quirky?  This is what Ronson sets out to explore, and we soon learn that from a clinical standpoint, it’s damn near impossible, but yet all the more intriguing.

We learn from the outset that Ronson’s personality is goofy and insecure, which makes for an amusing journey into what could be an otherwise depressing and humdrum exploration into the history of this facet of psychology.  The backbone of the book is the psychopath test, or the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, created in the 1970s by Dr. Robert Hare to determine whether or not a person is a psychopath based on a series of questions, including pathologically lying, lack of remorse, and grandiose self-worth (see full list here).  We are placed in the room with Ronson as he learns about the test and we, like him, begin to believe that we may indeed be mentally disturbed.  Irresponsibility? Check! Emotionally shallow?  I’ve been there!  Lack of empathy? Sometimes I lack empathy!  However, as one mental health professional tells him, if we believe that we have failed the test and think ourselves to be psychopaths, then we aren’t–psychopaths lack self-awareness and empathy.

The way that Ronson relates his subject reminded me of the true crime documentary, The Staircase.  You are given the facts, and yet all of these “facts” completely conflict, making everyone seem right and simultaneously wrong, leaving you without a concrete conclusion.  Throughout the book, Ronson explores different cases and personality types, attempting to pinpoint the what’s and who’s of psychopathy.  He introduces us to Scientologists who hate psychology, and we’re given some pretty compelling evidence in support, such as sane people overanalyzed and wrongly incarcerated in mental health facilities, children being needlessly medicated (does the ADD crazy of the 90s ring any bells?), and homosexuality being labeled as a mental disorder in older editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, otherwise known as the DSM.  On the flip side, we also meet doctors who have spent their lives attempting to remove the stigma of psychopathy and mental illness by radical yet humane treatment, thereby ostracizing themselves within their own professional community.  Ronson creates a compelling case by giving us all sides of everyone’s story, thereby leaving you without a clue!  It’s a torturous experience because you can’t make up your mind, and when you do, you’re given a difference perspective and have no idea what to think of psychiatry, your safety, or if we live in a world of true chaos.

The issue is so complex, and the difficulty of an effective diagnosis can be seen in the individuals interviewed throughout the book.  They beat someone up, but does that make them crazy?  They have sexual fantasies involving hair pulling (hello, Fifty Shades), but does that make them sadistic, and who decides?  Psychiatrists and psychologists trained in what course of study?  Yes, there are unfeeling, disturbed psychopaths out there who want to harm others and feel no remorse.  There are also people all along the spectrum of mental illness who don’t want to harm others. Because of the varied personality types in the world, it seems improbable that the dangerous ones could be weeded out of society until they do harm to others, and even after that, how do we know if they’re truly a danger to society?  Ronson presents us with all of these questions and we are left pondering the answers along with him.

Of the books read thus far for my Stranger by the Book project, I enjoyed this one the most.  Unlike some of the past books, such as Vellum, where I would have only finished the book for a project, I couldn’t wait to turn my audiobook back on and hear more stories of the criminally insane, and the appalling stories of the wrongly accused.  Ronson’s research method and style reminded me of one of my favorite non-fiction writers, Mary Roach, as she also focuses on a subject and explores its history and current day implications in lay-person’s terms with a sense of humor.  I would recommend this book to anyone who wants an easy read that is also thought-provoking, entertaining and maybe just a little bit crazy.

Post-apocalyptic world (virus) written with subtlety, restraint and heart.

(M.R. Carey, 2014)

Girl with all the gifts

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