In my ©1976 edition of Rita Mae Brown’s In Her Day, the perfect tribute during Women’s History Month.
The Silence of the Sea
Yrsa Sigurðardóttir (2016 in the U.S.)
In her sixth installment of the Thóra Gudmundsdóttir Icelandic mystery series, lawyer and oftentimes sleuth Thóra Gudmundsdóttir investigates the disappearance of a family of four and the crew traveling on what becomes a ghost ship that docks into an Icelandic harbor.
Sigurðardóttir’s writing is rock solid; the way that she builds the story from slow burn to twisted finish, withholding enough details along the way to keep you in constant, blissful suspense. As usual, she writes with steady characterization, giving us what’s essential to illuminate the personalities and lives of the characters without tending toward verbose details that sometimes mars the flow of the story. Sigurðardóttir’s portrayal of Thóra and how she relates to the world around her is truly the heart of each novel as she constantly evolves as the series advances.
Whether or not you’ve visited Iceland, the descriptions take you on an armchair travel to another country, and a world where you just might believe in the supernatural and that the good guy, or rather gal, exists and has your back.
You can find my longer review here.
Jenny Lawson (2015)
Jenny Lawson is mentally ill. She wants to tell you about her mental illness, or rather, mental illnesses. Plural. And she wants to tell you about everything, ranging from depression to basically what bulks out WebMD. If you’re up for it, you’re in for a roller coaster of experiences and language that may make you say to yourself, “maybe my shit’s not all that bad…”
Lawson attempts to de-stigmatize the world of mental illness (can we take a shot for every time those two words are mentioned?) by revealing her own surplus of diagnosable disorders, including but not limited to sleep disorders, anxiety, depression, phobias, and their corresponding medications and treatments. In the genre of literature on serious topics, such as death, drug abuse and wait for it, mental illness, Lawson presents her case through humor, exposing-oftentimes in the most humiliating of ways-herself, her family and husband to relate to you that a.) she lives a life of strife of the mind, but that b.) it can be possible to find a silver lining and c.) you may not be so different than her, and that’s great.
This is what can be categorized as a truly divisive book. I’ve had library patrons who absolutely hate this book and some who absolutely love it. Broken up by chapters that seem more like short stories, her anecdotes are funny, goofy, silly, raw, dirty, and sometimes self-aggrandizing and annoying. But as she says early on, if you’re part of her “tribe,” then within these pages you’ll find a spokesperson and ally. If you’re one of the lucky ones where life is peachy keen, then chances are you’ll close the book with sympathetic feelings for a large percentage of the world who grapple with some tough stuff within their own mind.
When Breath Becomes Air
Paul Kalanithi (2015)
When attempting to convince people that reading a book about a thirty-something man dying of Stage IV lung cancer wasn’t depressing, I was met with looks of disbelief. Because of the author’s introspective and candid reflections about his own life and then impending death, I can assure you that the result will be well worth the read.
Sudden terrible backaches plagued New York based neurosurgeon/scientist Paul Kalanithi while working his way through residency, only to reveal through his MRI results that terminal tumors inhabited his lungs. He then takes us back through his life as a lover of literature and by way of the work of artists and scholars, he seeks the secrets of life, death, virtue and morality. Instead of becoming the predictable English professor or writer, the classics lead him to a more direct route to discovery: practicing medicine, thereby enabling him to experience life and death through a more empirical means.
At times this book breaks your heart (especially when Paul’s wife Lucy finishes the last chapter after his passing), encourages 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.
Rita Mae Brown (2016)
I have a serious soft spot for Rita Mae Brown and her Mrs. Murphy cat mystery series. I just cannot resist a talking animal, especially one inhabiting the brain of the most amazing, pragmatic, gutsy and no b.s., Rita Mae Brown.
Tall Tail is the 25th in the series where Mary Minor Haristeen, or “Harry,” investigates a murder in her hometown of Crozet, Virginia when a young woman suspiciously drives into a ditch who may or may not have been dead prior to the crash. As typical to the series, she investigates with the help of her two cats, her dog and a gaggle of other barnyard animals, who all speak among themselves to help solve murders, unbeknownst to Harry. What’s interesting about this cog in the series is that its chapters alternate between current day Crozet, and 1700s Virginia as the happenings begin to eventually intersect between time periods. The cast of characters is lengthy, so much so that Brown gives us a who’s who as the novel begins broken up by century, but it’s simple to follow as you get into the swing of the story. Harry’s method of investigation mirrors the mood of the town, unconcerned and casual by way of banter with neighbors, all which serve to unfurl the truth over the course of the book.
What makes Rita Mae Brown’s cat mysteries so addictive is the way she devises her characters and locale to create an atmosphere of warmth and community. As the series progresses, you become so familiar with these personalities that you feel as if you are intimately acquainted, whether you love them or not. The manner in which Brown creates Crozet, Virginia is where the cozy (in the cozy mystery) presents itself as you find yourself dreaming about warm days, the Blue Ridge Mountains and expansive landscapes.
Han Kang (2016 in the U.S.)
When I first read the description for this book, most reviews similarly described the novel as dark, brooding, violent, bloody, erotic, and about a vegetarian (naturally, right?). While these elements are accurate, it’s amazing to me how easy it is to market popular appeal factors, when in all actuality the novel is so much more complex.
The novel begins with a man and his wife, told from his point of view so that we are privy to the inner dialogue concerning his banal view of life, himself and his wife. To his astonishment, she becomes a vegetarian immediately after her first of many blood-filled dreams, and it’s only then when we hear his wife’s voice throughout the book’s entirety, when she describes her dreadful visions. His lack of any attempt to understand his wife is troubling, and reflects the mood of their community at large throughout the novel; any non-conformity is met with hostility, thereby casting an air of extreme suspicion and ultimately ostracization. Part two of the book focuses on the point of view of the first man’s brother-in-law, or the husband of the vegetarian’s sister, who feeds an obsessive, sexual fantasy about his sister-in-law. Part three, the last part, is from the voice of the vegetarian’s all too responsible sister and delves into issues of obedience and freedom.
What’s so disturbing and thought provoking about this book, and thought it may sound slightly cliched, is that it keeps you in a constant state of wonder, shock and awe, and is subject to varied interpretations. With the vegetarian woman staying central to the three main narrations, Kang makes visible the complex, sometimes perverse and obsessive nature of our own minds, and how that can be imposed upon another. The three characters have fabricated scenarios in their owns minds about the vegetarian, whether it be ambivalence, lust, or control out of fear of societal constraints.
Wish You Were Here
Rita Mae Brown (1991)
This is the first in Rita Mae’s Mrs. Murphy mystery series, where a cat and dog can communicate amongst themselves, and help their human-mama, Mary “Harry” Haristeen solve murders in her small town of Crozet, Virginia. Yes, this can be considered a “cozy mystery” due to its lack of sex and any real violence, but who needs it when you’ve got a sassy divorced cat, an independent, hard-working post mistress and an author who in real life is a kick-ass lesbian who infuses her characters with what is obviously her personal brass and love for all creatures, great and small.
There’s More to Life Than This
Theresa Caputo (2013)
If you watch Long Island Medium on TLC, then you’re already picking up what she’s putting down. Likewise, if you think that LIM Theresa Caputo is a fake, then obviously this book is not intended for you. This writer is the former, and if you watch her show and consistently find yourself sobbing like you’re watching the end of Steel Magnolias during each episode, then you’ll love the book. It’s extremely well written, rounded-out and thorough. Even if you aren’t a believer in Theresa’s abilities to speak with spirits, angels and God, you have to give her respect for tackling subjects that may be seen as taboo, including abortion and reconciling her “gift” with being a Catholic. It’s one of those books that you read to experience, rather than get to the end, and it reminded me of The Dude and the Zen Master because it offers tangible lessons on how to interact with one another more kindly.
Drinking and Dating
Brandi Glanville (2014)
Drinking and Dating by Real Housewife of Beverly Hills Brandi Glanville may not stand the test of time in the annals of canonical dating tomes, but is a perfect example of a piece of pop culture that is here and now, and it’s completely entertaining. The book stations the reader as that proverbial fly on the wall and lets us see all of her sexual escapades. You can read this book several ways: you can get a kick out of her blatant enjoyment of sex, you can leave feeling bad about your own sex life, or you can let Brandi’s experiences empower you to get a little risque in your own bedroom–or top of your car.
It’s audience is exclusively for fans of the Real Housewives franchise and when the Housewives have ended, most likely so will the popularity of this book. But, like spending lots of money on wine, or eating a delicious doughnut, some things you can just enjoy for the moment, knowing that they are fleeting. Such is Drinking and Dating.
The Good Nurse
Charles Graeber (2013)
This is the unbelievable and completely shocking true story of Charles Cullen, ICU nurse who for over a decade (during the 1990s and 2000s) worked at a plethora of hospitals in New Jersey and on the east coast killing hundreds of patients. His method was quietly delving out lethal doses and improperly mixing medications. Throughout his spree, he was let go of at least five hospitals for suspicious patient deaths, and up until his final arrest was dubiously sent off with stellar references. Given the heinous nature of the story in and of itself, the author lets the facts do the talking while he organizes them in a cohesive manner, and narrates in a careful and respectful manner. It follows in the traditions of In Cold Blood, Helter Skelter and Manhunt where the author weaves a true story like a piece of fiction.
Anne of Green Gables
L.M. Montgomery (1908)
“The more things change, the more they stay the same” should be an alternate title for Anne of Green Gables, which was written over 100 years ago. The reason this book has stood the test of time is because Montgomery was able to extract the steadfast nuances of human nature, making it seem as though it could have been written yesterday.
Throughout the novel, Montgomery shines a light on gender inequality and via the actions, conversations and internal monologues of her characters she subverts gender roles during a time when it was definitely prohibitive. Some examples include Marilla Cuthbert (who adopts Anne) living with her brother as an unmarried woman; Anne discussing women’s suffrage in Prince Edward Island when women were decades away from the right to vote; Anne, educated, opinionated and chatty, puts her own education at the forefront of her focus instead of concentrating on men and getting married; and though debatable, one could possibly argue the plausibility of Matthew Cuthbert’s (homo)sexuality.
Pretty racy for 1908, huh?
It may seem unusual that not every book on Exploring Feminisms’ top 10 list of 2013 was published in 2013, but some are just so timelessly fantastic that they deserve to be kept on our socially conscious radar.
2013 is Rubyfruit Jungle’s 30 year publishing anniversary and because it’s just so damn good, it makes #1. While reading Rubyfruit Jungle, I couldn’t help but think of the 19th century novel The Awakening by Kate Chopin: down to earth, subversive-by-nature female lead characters who challenge social norms in times where women received the short end of the stick (even more than now, one could argue). RJ details the life of Molly Bolt as a child in the south through young adulthood as she moves to New York, and we follow her journey as a blossoming lesbian. She is a rough and tumble character, and the book is filled with hilarious and brutally honest thoughts on womanhood, the life of a wife, and lesbian stereotypes. Completely entertaining and thought-provoking.
The true testament to any great piece of art is its permeability and stickiness-does it get it and stay in? Having read The Dude and the Zen Master in June of 2013 and even in the swirling catalog of my own brain, I still often think back to the novel-long conversation between actor Jeff Bridges and Jewish Zen Master, Bernie Glassman, where they discuss the art of living a more meaningful life. There are times when I feel Sartre’s timeless words, “hell is other people,” were written just to describe my plight in life, and it is especially during those times that I can easily manifest the Dude’s Zen teachings. The manner in which the authors communicate coping mechanisms has saturated so thoroughly that I often find myself imagining my many enemies in clown noses, leaving the often imagined assaults on my character disarmed.
It takes a lot of gumption for a woman to make the conscious choice to not have children, especially in a world where childless women continue to be looked upon with suspicion. The writers in this collection consist of a group of women with diverse life experiences, all of which have shaped their views on “bypassing” biological motherhood. They share their varied stories as to why they chose, or life chose for them, not to have children. Because of the plethora of viewpoints, the reader really gets the full gamut of opinions, thereby neither damning nor exalting child rearing. This book wouldn’t be called food for thought, but rather feast for the heart. No Kidding is filled with comedy, tragedy, wit and even some schadenfreude to keep you on your toes.
Being a parent only to two cats and not an actual human baby, there was some hesitation to pick up this book. Reading a lecture about how wonderful parenting is and those adorable trials and tribulations of raising a child and how those without children couldn’t possibly even begin to understand…it just didn’t seem appealing.
Luckily, this book isn’t about any of that. What this book is about is insight and the threads that connect us all by inevitable shared life experiences. We all have families who actually annoy us; we date, we break up; we knit actual and proverbial sweaters as proof of our love; we face stereotypes, either our own or others; we eat cupcakes or candy bars and then feel eater’s remorse, thus perpetuating the cycle of how no one will ever love us because we are fat and ugly, et al. Sweeney, by describing what is probably a sprinkling of her major life moments, has an amazing gift to pull out the teensiest emotion or observation and tease it out into something that we can all recognize as being personal in our own lives. I often found myself stopping and thinking, “That’s how I feel! How come I’ve never thought about that?” Plus, the appeal of this book could be attractive to many audiences. Have a kid? Bam! This book is for you. Have a mother? Bam! This book is for you. Are you a sentient being? Bam! This book is for you.
Gulp is about the digestive system, from start (mouth) to finish (guts, and then you can guess). Why would you want to read about the digestive system, you may ask? Because she goes in deep: smelling and tasting what we cringe to even read about and relates it back with humor and tact. In essence, she skins herself for us, the reader, by diving into the world of cat food sampling, Elvis’ mega colon and a thoroughly gripping description of the nose/tongue connection. Roach chooses a topic, researches it, and pulls out the most interesting parts; in essence, she does the dirty work for us, while keeping the gross-out factor completely classy.
The premise of Rebecca Miller’s third book is truly original: a Hasidic Jew, born in the 1700s, is reincarnated as a fly in current day America who has the power to control the minds of humans. The story see-saws between his current day observations in the U.S. as a winged insect and his life as an 18th century Parisian. Miller, who has in the past done a magnificent job of writing and directing from varied female perspectives, takes a stab at writing from the male perspective. Her observations from the masculine gender’s point of view are entertaining, tawdry, and scintillating, thereby ever-changing your feelings towards the narrator. While reading, I was sometimes appalled by the hyper-sexualized inner-workings of the main character, and as many of my male friends have informed me, her insight in the male psyche is not so far off, which is both engaging and gross.
In all, JF is a fun book with an amusing storyline that paints some interesting portraits of Hasidic communities, 18th century Europe, and of what many men are usually thinking. Excuse me as I reach for a full body condom.
I really don’t like to accept advice from those who haven’t been through some shit in life, and Tabatha Coffey, she’s been through some shit. She grew up in Australian strip clubs worked by transgender dancers, her father left her and her mother in the most heinous manner, she was an overweight child who endured the torture that only other children can deal out, and like many of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, had to endure a little piece of hell while coming out to her family. Given all of this, she’s surfaced on the other end as a successful business woman who has a firm grasp on what she wants and who she is. Much like Julia Sweeney’s book, Coffey has taken a fine tooth comb to her life and has given us a guide on how to empower ourselves so that we can live a more authentic life.
With my formal Women’s and Gender Studies lessons years behind, I find it necessary to take additional strides to keep feminist fundamentals close at hand, especially if my work or home environment may be somewhat lacking from time to time. Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story is an amusing graphic novel that highlights the more monumental and even titillating details of the life of the Planned Parenthood founder. Thanks to writer and illustrator Peter Bagge, Sanger is presented to us as a real person, though in graphic novel form, by illustrating (pun intended) such enumerations as her famous sexual escapades, to her more unflattering personality prejudices. In turn, we are reminded that extraordinary people who accomplish extraordinary feats often embody a sliver of the ordinary, sometimes making our own extraordinary feats seem tangible after all.
It’s so rare that one comes across a book that can only be described as truly original, and after reading a plethora of books over the past year, The Last Girlfriend on Earth remains steadfast as one of the most original books that I’ve read. It’s short stories are sweet, simple, surprising, and don’t take themselves too seriously, which is especially refreshing in a world where many authors neglect to relate any sort of elasticity and fun. I mean really, what other books have you read lately that make you sympathize with a sad condom?
10. Ocean at the End of the Lane
Neil Gaiman (2013)
Neil Gaiman is a man who communicates his respect for women through his stories, and in this case, by dreaming up a cosmically strong lineage of three women (grandmother, mother and daughter) whose bond with each other spans time and space. The three woman, along with a little English boy, fight an evil witch-woman in a small English town. This book is beautifully written, a quick read and a great primer for any Gaiman novices.
The Dude and the Zen Master
Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman (2013)
The Dude and the Zen Master is the transcription of a conversation between actor Jeff Bridges and Jewish Zen Master Bernie Glassman on their life experiences, and how we should all strive to be more relaxed like “The Dude,” the main character in the Coen Brothers’ film, The Big Lebowski. The two men offer very different perspectives based on their professions, which lends the perfect balance. The book is filled with easy to absorb, practical examples that can be practiced on the spot during tough situations throughout life and work.
Stephen King (1986)
I listened to It on audiobook for 44 hours. Yes, 44 hours. If you’ve never read Stephen King, his writing is extremely descriptive; It goes on and on, chock-full of vivid, minute details. King’s style is also written from a very male, masculine point of view. The descriptions are told through the voice of someone who obviously idolized his boyhood youth and all of the experiences therein–a lack of sexual insight, friendships in youth, silly and base teenage boy insults, et al.
All in all, if you are a reader to who craves an intricate portrait of a community, mixed with a killer clown alien, then this book is for you. However, if you are someone who often finds yourself skipping pages when said author puts the phrase ad nauseum to shame, then pass this one up.
Ocean at the End of the Lane
Neil Gaiman (2013)
A cosmically strong lineage of three women (grandmother, mother and daughter), along with a little English boy, fight an evil witch-woman in a small English town. This book is beautifully written, a quick read, and the way in which Gaiman describes the home life of the female characters makes you want to live with them and eat their homemade jam.
Rita Mae Brown (1973)
While reading Rubyfruit Jungle, I couldn’t help but think of 19th century novel The Awakening by Kate Chopin; honest female lead characters who challenge social norms in times where women received the short end of the stick (even more than now, one could argue). RJ details the life of Molly Bolt as a child in the south through young adulthood as she moves to New York, and we follow her journey as a blossoming lesbian. She is a rough and tumble character, and the book is filled with hilarious and brutally honest thoughts on womanhood, the life of a wife, and lesbian stereotypes. I haven’t read a book this entertaining and thought-provoking in a long time.
Ellen DeGeneres (2011)
You can read this book in about 3-4 hours, and one could compare it to the likes of a more airy Bossypants by Tina Fey. DeGeneres shares almost stream of consciousness tips and life experience on lofty subjects such as gardens and dinner parties. Luckily, there are a few leftist niblets to keep the average liberal reader interested, such as a shout out to female inventors and addressing her sexual orientation, thereby fighting the good fight to normalize same-sex relationships in American culture.