Exploring Feminisms’ Best Books Read During 2016

  1. Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman (2016) by Lindy West

There are few times where I say, this book is wonderfully amazing and should be required reading for everyone, but this is one of those few times.  This smart, deeply insightful, so, so personal and extremely well narrated (by the author if you listen to audio, simply fabulous) book illuminates the raw feelings of another person, leaving you to examine your own preconceived notions concerning the bodies of those around you.

2. You’ll Grow Out of It (2016) by Jessi Klein

A fantastic piece of non-fiction, and yet again, the audio was narrated so perfectly and with such wit and precise inflection, I heard her voice speaking to me inside my own brain.  Her voice literally started to narrate my thoughts as if I was Fred Savage in the Wonder Years.

Audio aside, Klein, this complete stranger out of nowhere, makes her life so accessible and identifiable to the life of a 30-something middle-class woman who dates, works and maybe one day gets married, that you are in a constant state of saying, “me, too!”  One of the most striking threads throughout the book was how incredibly funny she was without trying to be funny.  She has an innate talent to make a point of the obvious that also simultaneously hilarious.  I can’t wait for her next book.

3. A Natural History of Hell: Stories (2016) by Jeffrey Ford

It’s mind-boggling to me that Jeffrey Ford isn’t a household name in horror along with your Joe Hills, Stephen Kings or Shirley Jacksons.  His short stories are surprisingly original, eerie, and thoroughly penetrate the psyche during the dark parts of the day.  Some stories include that of an evil angel set in a desolate and isolating backdrop, a reanimated skeleton with a will of its own, and a devilishly quirky examination of clergymen as saint or sinner.  A Natural History of Hell is a collection that you check out from your library for the first story, then purchase for the rest as you’ll no doubt need it close at hand when describing the stories to friends or family over the hot stuff.

4. Oh She Glows Everyday: Quick and Simply Satisfying Plant-Based Recipes  (2016) by Angela Liddon

Her sequel to the first cookbook, Oh She Glows (2014), is of the same ilk of easy to make and delicious vegetarian and vegan-friendly recipes.  One of the many to die for recipes–vegan mac and peas.  The dairy-free cheese is confusingly delicious because it’s made with whole foods such as potatoes and carrots, but somehow the end result tastes like melty dairy cheese. Liddon’s recipes are simple but excitingly different (no crust of bread with iceberg lettuce and an ice cube, here), and you should just probably buy it.

5. We Should All Be Feminists (2014) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

You really have no excuse not to read this book, it’s like, fifty pages long, and the pages themselves are small.  During this transcript from a 2012 TEDx talk, Adichie ruminates about growing up in Nigeria and the sexism that she has faced due to its cultural norms.  However, as you flip from page to page, you quickly realize that “its cultural norms” aren’t indicative of Nigeria, but of the planet.  Her experiences are universal, and if I were ever to say that women are linked via one particular aspect, its by the discrimination we experience based on gender. Adichie, through concrete examples in her own life, so beautifully and succinctly in this teeny tome argues that sexism against women is thorough, and it affects both men and women alike.  If you’re reading this, please read that book.  Especially if you’re a man.  Or if you voted for Trump.  I have an extra copy at home, just ask.

6. My Best Friend’s Exorcism (2016) by Grady Hendrix

I was lucky enough to interview Grady Hendrix before its publication and has been described as “Heathers meets the Exorcist,” which is true in a general outline kind of way, an affluent high school and a group of girls with a possession thrown in, but it’s more meaty than a simple Heathers plot (no dis to the movie Heathers, Heathers is sublime).  Here, we’re privy to the internal workings of high school friendship with all its platonic intense intimacy as expressed through the terrifying sojourn into adulthood.  The culture of the 1980s background and how Hendrix recollects the time period is terrifically precise, sending you flying back in time to recall your own days of Aquanet and sweet Cherry Pie (get it, Warrant?  Maybe a little Quiet Riot?).

7. When Breath Becomes Air (2016) by Paul Kalanithi

Published posthumously by his wife after being diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, New York based neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi writes a terse but oh so weighty recollection of his life, specifically as a lover of the arts by examining the work of writers and scholars, seeking the secrets of life, death, virtue and morality.  At times this book breaks your heart (especially when Paul’s wife Lucy finishes the last chapter after his passing), encouraging you to reflect on your own relationships, values, life, and how you, or if you, consider your death and if you will do that with grace. Paul makes a compelling case for grace, and though most of us may not so concretely meditate on our own passing, his call to action for a life well lived is what readers will most certainly take away.

8. My Life on the Road (2015) by Gloria Steinem

What can you say about Gloria Steinem that hasn’t already been said?  The book is a fascinating recollection of the tales and trials of a life-long nomad, beginning with her childhood.  She recounts her life as an organizer, an activist, a receiver of love, friendship, aggravation, struggle and hope.  In Shrill, West tells you how she feels, and if you’re worth a damn, you listen.  In My Life on the Road, Gloria talks about the importance of listening to those around you, ever changing, ever growing.  She gives a damn and she empowers you to as well.

9. Wishful Drinking (2008) by Carrie Fisher

Due to the magnificence of technology in 2017, shortly after Debbie Reynolds passed I downloaded the audiobook of Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher immediately and for free (thanks library!).  It’s a shitty thing, but I didn’t have the urge to read Carrie Fisher’s books until she died, justifying, I’m not a Star Wars fan.  The real shame is that it wasn’t until after her death that I realized how completely bad ass she is.  You can knock the book out in a day, so it’s a good primer on Fisher if you know very little about her.  Plus, she narrates her memoirs so you get that perfectly timed and felt inflection.  The book is comprised of brief anecdotes about her life relayed with the honesty, humor and incredulity that is (was) her life.

10. 99 Coffins (2007) by David Wellington

99 Coffins is the second in Wellington’s Vampire series and given the somewhat comical book jacket, there’s much more lurking behind the cover.  Though I didn’t read the first in the series, I was able to catch up quickly with the plot.  We’re set up with a run of the mill contemporary horror story: protagonist and state trooper Laura Caxton is hunting vampires.  Wellington then expands the narrative by inserting historical fiction, the Civil War, alternating narratives, and an enchanting world where humans accept that vampires exist and that they are a bloody thirsty nuisance that needs to be checked.  The novel is story based, teasing out the lives and therefore the motivations of the lead characters, as opposed to gratuitous violence as the book cover would suggest.  The book is light, fun, thoroughly well-written and if you’re looking for a different sort of beach read, this is your gal.  Highly recommended on audio, the narrator is wonderful.


Exorcising the 1980s in Grady Hendrix’s New Book, My Best Friend’s Exorcism

Flipping through Grady Hendrix’s (Horrorstör) new book, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, it’s difficult to not be instantly attracted to a book described as “Heathers my_best_friends_exorcism_72dpimeets the Exorcist.”  After finishing the book, it’s easy to see that like Heathers, its staying power and popularity will be anything but ephemeral.

Exploring Feminisms: I can’t think of beginning any other way besides asking you, what was the impetus for writing this book?!  What was the inspiration?  I found it refreshing, sweet, extremely suspenseful, fun and to say the least, an unconventional “page turner,” as we say in the library world.

Grady Hendrix: It was the title. One afternoon, the phrase, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, just popped into my head and everything flowed from there. Although saying “flow” makes it sound like writing this book was a blissful, uninterrupted stream of creative inspiration. That is not accurate. Imagine a flow of lava rolling through your living room and setting your hair on fire while you run around screaming and trying to rescue your favorite possessions as they burst into flame and give you hideous burns. More that kind of flow.

EF: Throughout the entire novel, I was struck by how well you interpreted the universal aspects of the lives of most young women, such as the intensely emotional friendships and going through your parents closet and finding their porn stash.  How were you able to reflect back on the intricacies of high school with such detail, and further, from the varied perspectives of different types of young women?  

GH: When I’d finished half of the first draft of this book I was really, really proud of it, so I showed it to my wife. She informed me that it was full of clichés, stereotypes, and lazy assumptions. It was, to use her words, hot garbage. After I spent some time crying, I realized she was right. So much of what I thought I remembered about high school in the 80s was other people’s memories, John Hughes movies, and an infinite supply of pop culture clichés. So I sat down with all of her letters and photos from high school, and I sat down with all my letters and diaries, and yearbooks from high school and I spent weeks reading them. I copied the letters again and again until my handwriting changed. I got lost in them. And then, one day, an actual real memory of exactly what it felt like to be 15 and in high school in 1988 bubbled to the surface. And then another one. And another. And I started to write.

EF: The book takes place in an upper class high school academy in Charleston, SC.  Did you grow up in the South?

GH: I grew up in Charleston, SC and went to a school that is very similar to Albemarle Academy. I also lived on Pierates Cruze. Everything else is total fiction.

EF: I was discussing the book with my spouse, who is from North Carolina, and we were continually comparing notes on how accurate your portrayal was for me, of the 1980s, and for him, the South in the 1980s.  The tight gym shorts, the tv shows, the (economic) class politics, the music, et al.  Can you tell me about writing for a specific time and location?

GH: It was so hard, but so much fun. I love research, and digging into a time and place I actually lived through was a blast. I’ve got a calendar for 1988 next to me on my office wall with every incident in the book mapped out, I’ve got TV schedules for every day of the week, I’ve got clippings from magazines that came out in those months (Seventeen, 16, TIME, Sports Illustrated), and I think I’ve read almost every issue of my hometown paper, The News and Courier, that came out between June and November, 1988. It makes me sound like a serial killer stalking 1988, but I love this kind deep nerdery.

EF: When Abby tries to tell the adults that her best friend Gretchen may have been sexually assaulted, resulting in the adults turning on Abby instead, I couldn’t help but absorb her feelings of incredulity and alienation.  How were you able to create and express such a sense of betrayal?

GH: It’s how I felt every day I was in high school. Adults were the enemy and they could not be trusted. Even now, if someone asks me what advice I’d give a teenager, I’d tell them that teenagers shouldn’t be taking advice from anyone over 30. We all look back and we minimize our teenaged experiences, or attribute what we felt to “adolescent angst” but I look at the way my friends and I were treated by the adults we knew and I’m still angry about it. I knew girls who had awful things happen to them, and couldn’t get anyone to believe them. I knew guys who were targeted by teachers for humiliation and mockery. When you tried to get help it was dismissed as “drama.” Let’s face it, teenagers are still treated as being less than human, and it hurts.

EF: I was stuck by how easy it was for me to envision each of the characters because you really gave them all distinct, believable personalities, even if they were only in a few  paragraphs.  No one was made into a caricature, and though the book has been compared to the movie Heathers, all of the lines were believable within the context of an actual conversation between two people.  Tell me about how you were able to construct these characters.

GH: Thanks so much for saying that. I love these characters and spent so much time with them that when bad stuff happened I felt like a jerk. I mean, anything that went wrong with their lives was actually 100% my fault. Everyone in this book started with a seed of someone I saw or someone I knew in the real world, whether it was a person I watched on the subway or someone I went to high school with. Then I wrote their biography and they grew past that seed and became someone different and fully created. Also, I felt a real responsibility to my friends from high school to make sure everyone felt real. My friends are the people who got me through that place alive and I felt like I had to write a book that was worthy of them.

EF: I loved the doctor at the Gross Anatomy Lab and his goofy personality.  My father’s an undertaker and pretty much everyone I’ve met in the field of dealing with dead bodies has a very good sense of humor, so you hit that nail on the head.  Was he modeled after someone you actually knew?

GH: Actually, he was modeled after the doctor at the Gross Anatomy Lab where my class took a tour! He was a blast! I grew up in a medical family, so I’m pretty familiar with the sort of casual goofiness people in that field have around death, like they’re whistling past the graveyard.

EF: When Gretchen begins acting strange–not showering, cut marks on her arms, becoming anti-social–it sounds like pretty angsty teenage stuff and could be interpreted as such, as opposed to her being possessed by a demon.  Could one argue that her possession is an allegory for teenage angst; the divide between the teenage world of confusion, discovery and burgeoning individuality juxtaposed with the pressures that parents put on their children and the stories they tell themselves to save face in front of other adults?

GH: I hate to say anything’s an allegory because it makes me sound pretentious, but I will say that I watched friends go crazy in high school. They never got diagnosed or anything, but I watched them change so radically I didn’t recognize them anymore. Overnight, they’d go from being my close friend to being someone dangerous and scary. And I wasn’t immune. For me, 10th grade was so hard. I felt like everything I did was going wrong. I felt possessed. I’d try to do something good, and it would turn out bad. I’d be proud of doing the right thing, only to discover it was absolutely 100% the wrong thing. I felt completely out of control and, even worse, no one seemed interested in stopping me.

And, while My Best Friend’s Exorcism is told from Abby and Gretchen’s points-of-view, there’s another, equally valid, version of this story told from the POV of Gretchen’s parents. That’s a story about having a daughter who seems to be losing her mind. It’s a story about loving this kid for years and years and then overnight she becomes dirty, and loud, and angry, and, to be honest, even a little bit scary. And you don’t know what to do, and she’s hurting herself, and every time her best friend comes around she only gets worse. That’s not the story I set out to tell, but it’s another version of this book that I think is just as true as the one I wrote.

EF: What made this book a page turner for me was the high level of suspense; I had no idea what was going to happen next or how the story would end, or what was going to happen to Abby as she was constantly being put through the ringer.  Can you tell me about how you were able to create this feeling and extend it throughout most of the novel?

GH: I wasn’t sure it worked, so thank you for letting me know it did! Suspense is hard because there’s a thin line between creating suspense and jerking your reader around. I had to make sure that anything I set up, paid off, and any pay offs I wanted were properly set up. That makes it sound like I had some kind of master chart, but it’s a lot more organic than that. When you’re writing a long book you get to a place where you’re so buried in it that things get weird. But there comes a point when you need something and you reach out and there it is, already waiting for you as if you knew you’d need it down the road. Good Dog Max is a great example. I had no idea why he was in the book, until all of a sudden towards the end I needed him and there he was, waiting for me.

Suspense is all about setting up unsolvable situations for your characters, and then figuring out solutions. It’s really hard because it means you have to be honest about your characters, and sometimes smarter than them, and I’m not known for being smart. Fortunately, your subconscious mind seems to be working on your side.

EF: The horror in the book is intermittent but effective.  I also appreciated how you used restraint, especially in the part with the dog and the possessed character, Gretchen.  It seemed to me that you chose horror that was scary but not so much that you would completely alienate your audience, which would have happened if you went into detail during that scene.  I’d love to hear more about the process of devising horrific scenarios.    

GH: I have a notebook that I carry around and whenever something gross, weird, or disturbing occurs, I jot it down. Whether it’s the way a guy smells on the subway, or a dead animal I see on the street, or even just an idea about people hiding behind doors and watching you through the cracks — if it makes me uncomfortable, it goes in the notebook. When it’s time to write a book I hold it up over my desk and shake it really hard and the worst stuff falls out and that’s what I use. Writing horrific scenes is both hard and easy because all you have to do is be totally and completely honest about what makes you feel sick and then relay exactly why to the reader. Like I said: it sounds easy, and it is, but you’re also exposing your own weaknesses and that doesn’t come naturally. If I’m making myself feel ill (and for two scenes in this book, I really felt sick while writing them) then I know I’m doing a good job. I’m my own best lab rat.

EF: Overall and for so many reasons, the novel was a great “complete package” of a book that I recommend to both adults and teens, though I see the appeal towards adults as especially alluring because of how you were able to reflect on the 1980s, which is great nostalgia for anyone of that era.  Thanks so much, Grady!

My Best Friend’s Exorcism will be available on May 17, 2016.  You can pre-order the book from Women and Children First if you live in Chicago,  at Amazon.com, or of course, your local library.

You can also visit Grady’s website to see what else he’s up to.