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.

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Last Five Books

The Silence of the Sea
Yrsa Sigurðardóttir (2016 in the U.S.)

Silence of the Sea

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.

Furiously Happy
Jenny Lawson (2015)

FuriouslyHappyCover

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 Breath Becomes Air

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.

Tall Tail
Rita Mae Brown (2016)

Tall Tail

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.

The Vegetarian
Han Kang (2016 in the U.S.)

Vegetarian

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.