What I’m Reading and Thinking About This Week

These are the things that got me reading and thinking this week.

The Parable of the Unjust Judge or: Fear of a N***** Nation (The Toast)

I’m still following the protests in Ferguson and reading all I can about the situation.  This piece, over at The Toast, should be your required reading for the week:

So let’s be clear about the stakes of this conflict: we are trying to decide whether or not Michael Brown was a nigger. A dead human being is a tragedy that needs to be investigated and accounted for. A dead nigger doesn’t even need to be mourned, much less its death justified.

This is a hard read, but it’s an important one.  Eloquently and succinctly, Ezekiel Kweku breaks down the media’s narratives surrounding Michael Brown and respectability politics.  Respectability politics provide a completely false narrative, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s the narrative we are fed.

The troubling scenes we’ve seen in Ferguson – of the abrogation of basic civil rights, of the lack of respect for the community being policed, of casual brutality and harassment of the citizenry, of a police force taking the aggressive crouch of an occupying army  – these scenes might be new to many white Americans, but for black America, they are as old as Reconstruction and as familiar as Sunday. Our white allies can alleviate their fears by returning the country to some imagined golden age of the friendly neighborhood constable, whistling as he strolls his beat, idly swinging his baton. Black Americans don’t have to be civil rights scholars to know that there is no idyllic utopia there for us.

Please go read this.

Female Sexuality in YA Fiction: a Look at the Landscape (Stacked)

Jensen is a blogger to watch when it comes to books, YA, and social issues, and this piece about the holes in YA fiction is another standout post.  In this post, she tackles the portrayal of female sexuality in YA:

The depictions of sexuality in YA matter because these are safe spaces for readers — teen readers, especially — can think about, explore, and consider what it means to be a sexual being. We don’t talk openly or honestly about sex as a culture, and we certainly don’t talk about it in positive, affirming, and empowering ways with teenagers.

There is, of course, a book list and great discussion.  Worth your time if you’re at all interested in YA fiction/feminism/female empowerment.

Why Female Writers Get Trolled the Worst (Salon)

There aren’t really any answers to the question posed by the article’s title, but it’s interesting to see another piece about this (and I will keep linking to these posts because it’s important) that takes a look at the results of a recent study about the amount of vitriol people get based on their sex (and, it seems, their profession):

According to new research released by the think tank Demos, which pored over more than 2 million online messages, one in 20 messages directed at a male public figure is abusive, while just one in 70 is for a female counterpart. That is, unless she’s a female journalist.

In that case, more than 5 percent of the messages a woman receives online will be abusive or derogatory in nature, on average.

Obviously, these negative comments often include rape threats and seriously violent threats, and if the woman is a feminist or is advocating for women?  Expect an outpouring of vitriol.  Because internet. Because misogyny.

 What got you reading and thinking this week?

Book Review: The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco

Okiku walks the streets, hunting murderers of children.  She finds these murderers and sees the children they have murdered tied to them, and she feels compelled to act.  It has been this way for hundreds of years.  When she meets a strange boy with even stranger tattoos, she discovers that he is not alone, and he is in very real danger.  But can she save him when it’s not what she’s on earth to do?

Rin Chupeco’s novel is a near perfect blend of contemporary YA and supernatural storytelling.  Billed as a mix of The Grudge and The Ring, this is definitely a perfect novel for fans of J-horror. This is a fresh take on horror for teens (and adults), and it’s a standout of a debut.

Much of the novel’s success lies in the narrator’s unique, haunting voice.  Chupeco makes Okiku’s voice very formal and very detached, and the result is compelling.  Her ghostly telling of the story’s events offer readers just enough to understand what’s happening but also encourages the reader to figure out what lies beneath the surface.  As Okiku becomes more embroiled in the life of Tarquin, her voice becomes stronger.  It’s brilliantly done.

An unsettling story, this novel deftly blends many creepy elements: ghosts, spirits, old legends, and super, super creepy dolls.  Readers interested in legends, ghosts, and the like will eat this one up.  It’s bloody without being overly so, and the novel’s suspense is perfectly paced.  It’s a page-turner, and one that horror fans should eat up.  Highly recommended.

The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco. Sourcebooks Fire: 2014. Electronic galley accepted for review via Netgalley.

Waiting on Wednesday: Rooms by Lauren Oliver

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine.  Its purpose is to spotlight eagerly-anticipated upcoming releases.

This week I’m eagerly awaiting:

Rooms by Lauren Oliver

Expected Release Date: September 23, 2014

Wealthy Richard Walker has just died, leaving behind his country house full of rooms packed with the detritus of a lifetime. His estranged family—bitter ex-wife Caroline, troubled teenage son Trenton, and unforgiving daughter Minna—have arrived for their inheritance.

But the Walkers are not alone. Prim Alice and the cynical Sandra, long dead former residents bound to the house, linger within its claustrophobic walls. Jostling for space, memory, and supremacy, they observe the family, trading barbs and reminiscences about their past lives. Though their voices cannot be heard, Alice and Sandra speak through the house itself—in the hiss of the radiator, a creak in the stairs, the dimming of a light bulb.

The living and dead are each haunted by painful truths that will soon surface with explosive force. When a new ghost appears, and Trenton begins to communicate with her, the spirit and human worlds collide—with cataclysmic results.

Elegantly constructed and brilliantly paced, Rooms is an enticing and imaginative ghost story and a searing family drama that is as haunting as it is resonant.

(summary via Goodreads)

The buzz on this one has been largely positive.  Even though I haven’t exactly loved everything Oliver has written, she’s definitely an author to watch.  This foray into adult fiction has been written about since the book deal was announced.  Since I can’t resist a good buzzed-about book, you know I’m all over this.

I love a good ghost story, too.  So that doesn’t hurt.

What are you waiting on this week?

Book Review: Beautiful Day by Elin Hilderbrand

The Carmichael family, along with the Grahams, have come to Nantucket for a wedding.  While not unique in theory, the plans for this wedding have come together thanks to a notebook full of wishes of the bride’s late mother.  Everything should be falling into place according to Dead Beth’s wishes, but then things start spiraling out of control.  Like most weddings, drama cannot be avoided.

Hilderbrand has crafted a name for herself as an author who sets her novels (probably the epitome of a beach read) on the island of Nantucket.  Her wealthy protagonists have their share of quirks and tics, and this novel is no different.  All the hallmarks of a Hilderbrand novel are present: bizarre first names, wealthy families, sarcastic conversations, and family drama.  Which means that while the novel doesn’t offer up much in the way of surprises, it should satisfy readers who enjoy Hilderbrand’s work.

There are a few things that Hilderbrand does particularly well: she does a nice job of establishing a cast of characters with distinct voices and motivations.  Her ear for dialogue between characters, especially when they’re sniping at each other, is both amusing and realistic.  A large cast keeps things moving along at a good pace.

The problem comes from the fact that none of the characters are very sympathetic, and that the stakes present in the novel feel so low that it’s hard to care about the outcome.  The central conflict–will Jenna and Stuart (so bland is this man that I just spent 10 minutes trying to remember his name) get married–never really feels like that big of a deal.  Because of this, the novel’s tension doesn’t quite work as well as Hilderbrand wants it to.

Another thing that some readers will struggle with is the concept of The Notebook itself.  Before Beth dies, she leaves behind a notebook detailing (in excruciatingly clear detail, natch) all the things she wants for Jenna’s wedding.  There are several things about this that are worrisome: that Beth’s dying wish is for her youngest daughter to have a “perfect” wedding feels profoundly arcane; and that Beth’s attention to every detail leaves nothing for Jenna or Stuart to decide on when it comes to their wedding.  While Beth frames these ideas as suggestions, there’s quite a bit of emotional manipulation in her wording, and the fact that she is dead sort of leaves her notebook as the final word on wedding planning.  It’s creepy, and it’s controlling, and yet the reader and characters (with the exception of step-mom Pauline) are supposed to believe that Beth was wonderful, perfect, etc.

Perhaps some readers won’t take issue with this aspect of the novel.  Some will take it at face value, and that is fine, for this reader’s guess is that was Hilderbrand’s intention.  It just didn’t totally work as a narrative device, leaving the novel lacking something.

Perfectly fine beach read, but the characters were pretty insufferable.

Beautiful Day by Elin Hilderbrand. Hachette: 2013. Library copy of the Audiobook.

My Weekend in Pop Culture

Another busy weekend, but I managed to get in some time with pop culture goodness.  Here’s the pop culture I consumed this weekend.

parenthoodParenthood Season 2: I don’t know what to tell you.  I’m a masochist, I guess.  But this show is so good, and I wanted some comfort TV after finishing Gilmore Girls.  So this is it.  I love Lauren Graham, and I love Mae Whitman especially, but I think the entire cast is pretty solid.  I’m loving watching the show from the beginning and crying at every episode.  Haters to the left.

About Alex: I was really excited to watch this little indie movie about alex(which has been described as The Big Chill for Gen Y), but it was actually kind of terrible?  Like, really boring and full of characters who were both underdeveloped and completely unsympathetic.  Which wasn’t the point, I don’t think?  At any rate, it was a bummer of a film.

woman in blackThe Woman in Black: I’m not sure why it took me so long to see this one, but it was a pretty smart horror movie that’s less about horror and more about a super weird small town in England.  It was one of the first movies Daniel Radcliffe did after Harry Potter, and while he’s very good in it, I feel like he was too young to play the character he does?  I don’t know. The ending is a total bummer, too.

What pop culture did you consume this weekend?

What I’m Reading and Thinking About This Week

Here are the things I’ve been reading and thinking about this week.  The topics range from the silly to the serious.

On Reading Your Book Club Book When You’re Not Interested in Your Book Club Book (Book Riot)

I think there are some universal experiences of being in a book club, and this piece from Book Riot hits on many of those things.  There are many reasons people join a book club.  For me, it was to read more broadly outside of my preferred genres and drink wine with other ladies.  But that doesn’t mean that everyone in our book club shares those same values.  This piece hits that:

But what happens when you have people in a book club for different reasons? This, in my opinion, is where the real strife of book clubs is. Not when some love the book and others hate it, but when some read the books religiously and others never finish a book, or even worse: when someone flat out decrees that they aren’t going to read a book club pick because it doesn’t interest them.

Like the author of this piece, I agree that the whole point of a book club is to read the book and discuss it.  You don’t have to love the book, and the discussion doesn’t have to take up the entirety of book club, but the implication of attending book club is that you have at least familiarized yourself with the book and are prepared to discuss it.  You are going to read things you don’t like.  That’s part of life.  And book clubs:

I’m not trying to say you should kick members out of your book club if they neglect to finish a book or two (or that you are a bad book club member if you’re that person—we’ve all been there). Just that being in a book club does come with responsibilities to your fellow members, and even if you aren’t interested in a book, QUIT YOUR WHINING AND AT LEAST TRY IT, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.

Words to live by.

On Ferguson and the Privilege of Looking Away (Amy Dieg)

I certainly hope that you all are following the news of what’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri.  I realize that not everyone is following it with the obsessiveness that I am, but I came across this piece and found it well-written, thoughtful, and resonant.  In it, Dieg talks about her reaction to the news out of Ferguson and her decision to look away when she felt uncomfortable from following the news too closely:

What I suddenly understand, much later than I am proud of, is that looking away is a privilege, one that many of us participate in with overwhelming regularity without even realizing it. I see the proof clearly on my Facebook. My feed has been almost devoid of news or discussion of Ferguson, despite the vast majority of my Facebook friends being people from and in Missouri.

I’ve talked about this in real life, but I also noticed the dearth of information about it on my Facebook.  This is sharply different from my Twitter feed, and it is interesting to think about what that means.  But also to realize that there is a privilege in being able to disengage, and what that means for me.

A Critical Review of Taylor Swift’s New Video for ‘Shake it Off’ (Pajiba)

There’s a lot of buzz surrounding Taylor Swift’s new video for the catchy (totally frothy) single “Shake it Off,” and some of it is negative, which I’m sure Swift was expecting (and probably hoping for, in all honesty).  The big question seems to be: is the video racist?

Let me answer that for you: yes.

This article quotes heavily from Angelina Burnett, who posted this about the new video:

Try to imagine the surface evidence of your cultural identity – your clothes, your physical vernacular, your slang, your music – all things that are in no way indicative of what’s in your heart, despite having been used by those in power frequently and repeatedly, for centuries, to justify your harassment and murder…

Imagine those things being co-opted by a rich, powerful, pop princess on a day when the national guard has been called in to your small, working class suburb to restrict your right to protest that centuries old injustice. Try, just for a second, to imagine how that might make you feel — the double standard shoved so baldly and brazenly in your face. The very same things that get you called a thug or a ho, gets her called “adorable” and “staying true to herself”. Then times that feeling by infinity because it NEVER STOPS.

Cultural gatekeepers make billions of dollars co-opting black culture and then use that same culture against black men and women to prove they’re thugs who deserve to die.

Do I still enjoy Swift’s music?  Yes, but I also recognize things about her I find fundamentally fucked up.  This is one in a log list of problems.

What got you reading and thinking this week?

Book Review: Give Me Everything You Have on Being Stalked by James Lasdun

When James Lasdun begins what he thinks is a benign email relationship with a former creative writing student, he has no idea how it will forever alter his life.  What begins as a cordial professional relationship sours when student “Nasreen” feels rebuffed by James.  In retaliation, she begins trolling him on the internet, leaving negative reviews and sending him (and his colleagues) increasingly hostile emails with insane accusations.  Unable to stop what Nasreen herself calls “verbal terrorism,” Lasdun falls into despair over what she could do to his reputation.

It’s always been a challenge for me to review non-fiction on the blog.  This is especially true here, as I’m not entirely sure how much of this novel can actually be classified as “non-fiction” so much as one person’s interpretation of emotionally charged events.  Originally read for my book club, I ended up with pages of handwritten notes by the time I completed the relatively short book.  I also did some digging and found some interesting pieces on Lasdun, and on the book that are worth a read if you’re familiar with this tale.

In all honesty, I have very few positive remarks to make about the memoir.  Lasdun is a competent writer who has a couple of good sentences in him.  There are moments in the book (I keep wanting to call it a novel because in my mind, this is his own fiction) where he makes some good points.  But the book is so uneven in its execution and so selective in its detailing of Nasreen’s “assault” on Lasdun that it’s hard to find much good here.

A large part of the problem is that Lasdun is so self-obsessed that it’s hard to get behind him.  He proclaims his innocence in the entire relationship throughout the novel, and he obsesses (there is a lot of obsessing done in this novel, both by Lasdun about his reputation and by Nasreen about Lasdun in general) over whether or not he led her on in some way.  But for all the navel-gazing Lasdun does, it is strange he doesn’t see what others might: he was attracted to Nasreen, and perhaps because of this, encouraged her in ways he doesn’t fully realize.

Near the beginning, Lasdun writes about critiquing Nasreen’s work in his class:

I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember a shift in the atmosphere as I spoke: an air of faintly sardonic attentiveness settling on the students as they sat listening to my words of praise.

His lack of awareness here casts his entire story in a different light to me as a reader.  He might never have carried on a physical affair with this woman, but he fixates on her looks and at times veers into creepy, totally racist exoticism (by the way, he makes several other weirdly racist remarks throughout the book).  That he’s a total creep never leaves your mind as you read it, even though you realize that Nasreen herself is a total creeper, too.

Perhaps my biggest issue with the book is the fact that Lasdun maintains a stance that Nasreen was in her right mind during her assault on him.  He goes so far as to say that admitting she might be mentally ill (despite the myriad evidence to support this idea) means that his book lacks meaning and that he might in fact have to feel uncomfortable with his decision to write it, include her correspondence, and essentially eviscerate her character in a published work.  Um, okay.  Whatever helps you sleep, buddy.

There are other, more nitpicky things that don’t work here, too.  Lasdun has a tendency to veer off into long-winded descriptions of things that have no bearing on the central story.  He makes connections to other literary works that seem pompous and tenuous in their links to his own story.  There’s an entire section of the book devoted to the Israeli-Palestinean conflict that seems completely inappropriate for the book, not to mention borderline offensive.

There is no doubt in my mind that the emails and internet stalking that Nasreen engaged in took a toll on Lasdun’s psyche.  While that is not nothing, it is the only thing that resulted from this experience.  As much as Lasdun OBSESSED about how his reputation would be tarnished or how he might lose out on paid writing jobs, neither of those worries came to fruition.  Lasdun has continued to teach and write and work, and he even got a book out of the ordeal.  And Nasreen?  Well, that remains to be seen.

Some critics have heaped praise on Lasdun for writing such a beautiful memoir, but I definitely don’t see it.  What I do see is a man so completely obsessed with his own image that he can’t actually see what is happening around him.  While that might be interesting, his complete and fundamental (and, I think, intentional) misunderstanding of mental illness renders this entire thing an exercise in futility.

They’re both crazy, but I ended up feeling worse for Nasreen than Lasdun.  And that really says something.

Give Me Everything You Have on Being Stalked by James Lasdun. Farrar, Starus, & Giroux: 2013. ILL’ed through my library system.