Monday, March 30, 2015

A few I did not finish

It's been a while since I've talked about some of the books I started and put down, so here are the latest, in chronological order.

Lost and Found by Brooke Davis
I received a galley of this novel from Penguin First Flights, and probably read close to half of it. It begins with a little girl abandoned in a department store by her mother, and she joins up with two elderly people, Agatha Pantha and Karl the Touch Typist. It was almost a bit twee, but not quite. Somehow it just barely worked and I did enjoy it for a while. I think something more exciting was calling to me though, and I set it aside.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Unless you live under a rock, you have probably heard of this since it's the hottest novel around. Again and again I am surprised when I don't see the appeal of the book everyone else in the world seems to love, and this is no different. It has been compared to Gone Girl (which is the first mistake), and centers around an unlikeable young woman who is an alcoholic and a stalker. She watches a particular couple from the train every day, and then one of them is missing, and it is perhaps related to a night she cannot remember because she was so drunk. I wanted to slap this woman and tell her to pull herself together, but also the writing style just didn't draw me in. I gave it 50 pages and decided that it's not for me.

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway
This one was a bit more painful, because it has been on my list to read for literally years (and by "literally" I don't mean "figuratively.") In the first 25 pages I thought I'd put it down, but then it got better and I really got into it for a little while, but after 150 pages when I impulsively set it aside to read the new Sam Savage novel, I knew I was done. It was 500 pages long and I feel like after 150 pages I should know more about what was going on. It was supposed to be a post-apocalyptic novel (and you know how much I love those) but I knew almost nothing about the apocalypse or how the world was actually different. It was very unusual in terms of the story and the narrative voice, but the meandering and distractions all became a bit of a chore. This was supposed to be for my TBR Pile Challenge. Ah, well. At least it's one more off my list, and the point of the TBR challenge (for me) is to at least try the books I've been putting off reading for so long.

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen
To be fair, I was never convinced I'd actually read a 500-page book about science, but it's been on my to read list for quite a while and the subject matter is interesting. Last week when I finished Station Eleven, in which most of humanity is wiped out by a new strain of flu, I was suddenly inspired to pick it up. I didn't think I'd read the whole thing, but I also thought if there was any point at which I was likely to read this book, it was now. Quammen luckily writes in a style accessible to the layperson, and I found it quite interesting. But about 100 pages in, I came to a point where he described in great detail a scientist infecting lab mice with ebola. There is very little I cannot stand to read about, but the use of animals in labs - at least when described in such a casual way - is apparently one of them. If the author had shared even a smidgeon of my feelings about the wrongness of such things, perhaps I could have kept going. But like most people who aren't me, he seems to consider it just a fact of life, and completely worth the knowledge that we gain. I didn't abandon the book entirely though; I skipped ahead to the chapter about AIDS, which is the part I was most interested in, and read/skimmed that before putting the book aside.

So those are my last few failed books, going back several months. Not bad, considering how many I've picked up in that time.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Station Eleven

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014)

An actor playing King Lear collapses on a stage in Toronto, while a horrified audience looks on. Almost immediately after, a deadly flu spreads across the globe leaving few survivors. Twenty years later, a troupe of musicians and actors travel the Great Lakes region performing among the small villages that remain in this new civilization. Their motto is taken from Star Trek: Survival is insufficient.

There are many major characters in the book and their lives are intertwined in ways that don't always seem obvious, both before and after the catastrophe. They all relate in some way to Arthur Leander, the actor who dies in the very beginning, just before the flu takes hold. One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the way each character is changed by what happens, and how they touch the lives of others, even those they have not met.

When I think about this book, so many images come to mind: Arthur's ex-wife Miranda, on the beach in Malaysia after she has received the news of his death; Jeevan Chaudhary, an entertainment photographer, skulking outside Arthur's house hoping to get the perfect shot; Arthur's best friend Clark, twenty years after the flu, living in the airport where he was stranded when the planes stopped flying. With almost the entire population of the world wiped out, everything has come to a halt - transportation, running water, electricity, the internet. There's a reference to another post-apocalyptic novel, The Passage, when someone hopefully speculates that the catastrophe may just be confined to North America. There's a scene in which Kirsten, who had only been 8 when it happened, has a question about multiple universes that she cannot get answered. She says, "None of the older Symphony members knew much about science, which was frankly maddening given how much time these people had to look things up on the Internet before the world ended."

I love a good apocalyptic novel, and this is a great one. One of the things that frequently frustrates me about post-apocalyptic or dystopian novels is that you never get the part of the story where the big changes occurred. Usually the focus is on the world now and that is totally fine, but just occasionally it would be nice to get that part of the story. Satisfyingly, Station Eleven includes many parts of this catastrophe - before, during, and after - just not in a linear fashion. I think the book it reminds me the most of is The Dog Stars, another post-apocalyptic novel, which shares an atmosphere both bleak and hopeful, and similarly exquisite writing.

Station Eleven has been getting tons of accolades, including nominations for the National Book Award and the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction. I've been wanting to read it for a while but held off because my book group chose it a few months ago for this month. I'm so glad I was finally able to read it! I'd highly recommend it to anyone who likes a good story, but it's essential for readers of post-apocalyptic fiction.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

All the Truth That's In Me

All the Truth That's in Me by Julie Berry (2013)

Judith and her best friend both disappeared from their small town of Roswell Station four years ago. Two years later, Judith returned alone, with her tongue cut out. Treated as an outcast, she has tried to keep to herself, while secretly longing for the boy she has always loved. When the town is attacked she helps in the only way she knows how, and now there are even more questions about her disappearance.

Despite the cover and how the description sounds, this is not a contemporary crime novel. The community in which Judith lives seems to be Puritan, complete with stockades in the village square. The people who attacked them are described as "homelanders" - the English? It is all a bit unclear, which only adds to the mystery.

Written in second person, Judith is speaking the entire time to Lucas, a boy she has been close friends with since they were little, and who she feels more for now that they are older. Of course, now that she is mutilated and it's taken for granted that she has been defiled, he is unlikely to care for her. (And if you think Lucas is that insensitive, you haven't read very many books.) Second person should be awkward, but here it's not. In fact, the writing style is quite sophisticated and the story well-crafted.

Judith was a compelling character, one I rooted for. She was treated so unfairly by her mother, who seemed to blame Judith for what happened to her but should have been protective of her and glad to finally have her home. The rest of the town seemed to either be suspicious of her, or want to take advantage of her inability to speak. She did find one friend who encouraged her to come out of her shell, and her brother Darrel was also on her side. I loved this mixture of enemies and allies, and the tension it created.

There aren't enough books that take place in colonial America, and this one was incredibly unusual. Judith was an uncommon character, and everything about her story was unfamiliar and maybe even a little disorienting. But once all is revealed, it was very satisfying. It was also impossible to put down. I think this considered young adult, but I'd put it firmly in the crossover category. People who don't read young adult would still like it, and might even be surprised if you told them it is YA, but teens would also find it gripping. Highly recommended!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Funeral in Blue

Funeral in Blue by Anne Perry (2001), narrated by David Colacci

When two very different women are murdered together in an artist's studio, the case takes Hester and William Monk to gambling halls and the streets of Vienna. They delve into the personal lives of people close to them, and research the Vienna Uprising in 1848. One of the victims was the wife of Christian Beck, a doctor in a hospital where Hester has worked, making the case very close to the Monks and their friends.

I think most of the audiobooks in this series are narrated by a woman so I did not have high hopes for this male narrator, but I was pleasantly surprised. The book itself, however, left a lot to be desired.

The way the stories usually go, Monk and Hester start out thinking the case is about one thing, but when they follow the trail it leads them to something else entirely. But with this one, it turned out not to have anything to do with anything they had been investigating and was basically all a misunderstanding. So, not very satisfying.

I've also gotten over the whole crazy introspection/mind-reading thing. Hester and Monk are constantly extrapolating a ton of information based on looking in someone's eyes. This is not limited to this series, of course, but is quite prevalent and I find it ridiculous. You simply can't glean more than someone's general mood from looking in their eyes or observing their expression, you just can't. This is something I'm willing to overlook if the story is better, but in this case I couldn't.

In general, this is a pretty good series and I'm a little surprised to see that I've already read twelve of them. I was considering stopping after this disappointing one, but then I read the description of the next book and it sounds more appealing, particularly since there is progress in the overarching story of William Monk's memory loss. So perhaps I'll continue on to the next book one day.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

It Will End with Us

It Will End with Us by Sam Savage (2014)

I read the newest Sam Savage book unexpectedly last weekend as a means of procrastinating from a novel I was struggling with, and what a nice little side trip it turned out to be.

Like his other novels it's super short, just 150 sparsely-worded pages. And like his other novels, it's packed with emotion and atmosphere. At the heart of this story is Eve, an older woman recalling her childhood in South Carolina, especially her relationship with her mother. Currently, Eve is being cared for - perhaps in a nursing home or similar place - and it's clear that she is in decline. She moves back and forth from ruminating on her missing hairbrush to thinking about her mother's failed efforts at writing.

There's no plot, just meandering thoughts expressed in short paragraphs, some of which are sort of truncated sentences, like "The time I put Thornton's paper dolls in the fire, after he wouldn't talk to me at school." It can jump around a bit too, one paragraph not necessarily leading to the next, but it's never confusing or jarring. It's just like a wandering mind.

There were some sad moments that have stuck with me. Eve and her mother both loved the arts, but couldn't quite grasp them. When Eve was young her mother spent a great deal of her time writing, and Eve remembers the moment when she realized that her mother was a failure as a poet, that what she wrote wasn't actually literature. Eve also points out at the beginning that she has never seen a famous painting, and then later tells about a time when she tried to visit a museum and was denied admittance:

"I remember that I cried when we found out the museum was closed to the public, sensing, I suppose, even then, that I was never going to see an actual painting by anyone famous."

I bought It Will End with Us a couple of months ago and was just waiting for a day at home alone to read it all in one sitting, but that's not what happened. Instead I picked it up impulsively at a time when it was exactly the one thing I wanted to read. I was worried because I've liked all of his books so much I'm always afraid the next one will be the bad one, and I was even a little unenthused for a while reading this, but once I became immersed in Eve's internal world I liked it much more. It's not my favorite, but it's still very good. His books are totally character-driven and Eve is probably his most realistic character and I think this is the least humorous story. I'm pretty sure I said the same thing about his last book, The Way of the Dog, but it was true about that one, and now it's even more true about this one.

I don't know what it is about Savage's work that speaks to me so much. His books don't have very high ratings on Goodreads and it doesn't even bother me. If I see a low rating from some other reader, I just think "Eh, it's not for you." I wouldn't care if noone else in the world liked his books, and I wouldn't try to convince them. He could just send me his manuscripts written in longhand for all I care, and I'd be glad to read them. He published his first novel when he was 65 and I hope he'll be around long enough to write a bunch more, but on the other hand I find his work so re-readable I could be content forever with what I have now.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Top Ten Books On My Spring TBR List

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted over at The Broke and the Bookish.

Here are my top TBR choices for this spring (subject to change at any moment based on my whims):

1. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. I've been wanting to read this for months, and my book group picked it, so it's a definite!

2. The Bees by Laline Paull. I've heard outstanding reviews of this one and, though I'm terrified of bees, I've added it to my list. The audio is supposed to be great and it's read by one of my favorite narrators, Orlagh Cassidy, so I might download it quite soon.

3. Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill. I've waited too long to read this - in fact, it's on my list for my TBR Pile Challenge. I finally watched the movie version of Horns recently, and it has rekindled my love for Joe Hill (and Daniel Radcliffe, but that's another story.)

4. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. Also for the TBR Pile Challenge, and also a book I've heard rave reviews about. I'm trying to read one long book a month from my challenge list until I've conquered them all, leaving me free to zip through the short ones for the rest of the year, and this will be the last chunkster from that list.

5. A Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev. An unconventional romance that I keep hearing good things about.

6. West of Sunset by Stewart O'Nan. New Stewart O'Nan! About F. Scott Fitzgerald! Why didn't I read this the moment it came out?

7. Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia by Peter Pomerantsev. I'm going to Russia on vacation in June and I'm hoping to read this before I go.

8. The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks. This much-anticipated (at least by me) story about a teenager who is kidnapped and held captive was finally just published and I'm anxious to finally read it!

9. Faithful Place by Tana French. Or something else by Tana French, anything. I read The Likeness recently and now I need more.

10. An Untamed State by Roxane Gay. I've been wanting to read it for a while. It's about a young woman in Haiti who is kidnapped, and just sounds very different from other novels out there. Plus, Roxane Gay is awesome.

What's on your list to read this spring?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sunday Knitting

I started a pair of socks back October and now that I've finished, I realized I haven't even shown you a progress shot since the very beginning. Well, five months later I have a new pair of socks!

It is very difficult to photograph one's own feet.
To be fair, I could have finished them ages ago, but kept setting them aside to wait for a knitting group night because I didn't have another portable project that was easy enough to work on while socializing. Eventually, I said to hell with it and just finished them.

They're pretty snazzy, if I do say so myself.
The pattern is Pharoah's Check from Sensational Knitted Socks. I've been wanting to do one of these mosaic-style colorwork patterns for a while. In fact, I've done very little colorwork which brings me to the weird striping thing on the toes. We need to talk about this.

Do you see how the stripes on the right foot suddenly look more black as we get closer to the toe? There's a definite line of demarcation where the black somehow suddenly pops out.

This has to do with how you hold the two colors of yarn, and which one you bring over/under the other one when you switch. One is always more dominant and you need to make sure it stays consistent. Because I haven't done much colorwork I wasn't really paying attention, although it is something I vaguely know about. I was aware, as I was knitting, that I wasn't consistent, and I knew it would make a difference. But honestly, they're socks, and I don't care a whole lot. It didn't seem worth the trouble of trying to keep track of which color I was bringing over or under which color each time I switched. I don't know if there's a trick to keeping track, and if it applies to all colorwork or just vertical stripes, but I'll certainly figure it out if I plan to do a pattern like this for a hat or a sweater. 

All in all, I think these came out pretty nice. They fit and feel good, and I'm sure I'll get a lot of use out of them.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Chocolate War

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier (1974)

It's time for the annual chocolate sale at Trinity, an all-boys high school run partly by some ill-equipped and slightly sinister Brothers and partly by a not-so-secret society of students called the Vigils. This year Brother Leon stupidly bought twice as many chocolates for the sale and is now asking the students to sell them for $2 a box instead of $1. So, the Vigils are always setting up stunts by bullying unwitting kids into doing their bidding, and this time they pick on Jerry Renault and tell him to refuse to sell the chocolates for a certain number of days. Then he is supposed to start selling like everybody else, but he doesn't. He continues to refuse until the Brothers and the Vigils are both after him.

For Jerry Renault, I think there was supposed to be some connection between his mother's death and his refusal to sell the chocolates, but honestly I had no idea what the connection was. It was more like he was told to refuse to tell them, and then told to start, but he impulsively refused to sell for reasons he was unsure of himself, and then he felt like he had to stick with it because he was committed to the bit.

I didn't feel like the characters had real personalities. The Brothers were all a bit sinister and the boys all masturbated a lot. The end. Jerry was the most developed character and I still didn't get enough to really feel much for him or his situation. I don't know what he was thinking when he did the things he did. Told in third person and although we got some thoughts from the several of the characters, it still felt a bit distant somehow.

Mostly, the story was about bullying. I did not like these boys, or their teachers, but I was sympathetic to the victims of the teenage power struggle that was going on. I kind of liked the idea of the story and it wasn't bad, it just wasn't especially good. It certainly doesn't hold a candle to the best bullying book out there, Stephen King's Carrie.

The Chocolate War is kind of a classic of teen lit, being one of the few YA novels written back in the 70s. I just don't have a whole lot to say about it, and my struggle to come up with something has made me feel a bit more negative about it than I did when I was reading it. I gave it three stars on Goodreads, which means I liked it but didn't love it.

I have a vivid memory of another Robert Cormier book that I read, maybe more than once, back when I was a teenager and I feel like I have to mention it. It was called After the First Death, and it's about a group of terrorists who take a bus of kids captive and start killing them. It is way more exciting than a bunch of boys being mean to each other at school. I still remember the silver cover on my school library's copy. I wonder now if it's as good as I remember it, or if it was just good compared to all the other crappy books I was reading at the time?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Being Mortal

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande (2014)

I haven't read anything by Atul Gawande since his first book, Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science, which I loved. His newest takes on the end of our lives, something I've been thinking about a lot lately (see: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes) so I was eager for this book. It did not disappoint.

Gawande discusses various options for end of life care, including assisted living, nursing homes, and hospice, and a bit about the history of each of them and how we went from taking care of our sick and elderly at home to our current system. We all know how much people resist leaving their homes to go to nursing homes, or even assisted living, but here he gets into why that is - it seems obvious, but it's actually complicated and breaking it down can help inform ways to make nursing homes better places. Of course he talks about the role of medicine in extending our lives - though often not the quality - and how terrible medical personnel are at having conversations about health care and end of life issues.

Some of this I knew first hand, which I suppose is one of the reasons I was so interested in this book. A couple of years ago, my mother died after an illness and I recognized so many things Gawande discusses in the book from that experience. For instance, aging (or illness) isn't just a steady decline, but a series of setbacks that are each treated as they come along, offering temporary relief until the next one occurs. It's very up-and-down, even though the trajectory is, overall, a downward one. I also recognized the way medical staff tend to treat these particular conditions, but seem to forget the person in front of them, and even the larger context of the person's overall illness and decline. When they talk, it sounds more like a medical lecture than a conversation with a person who is ill. A family member would always try to be with my mother when things were explained to her, but even though most of my family work in hospitals or elder care, even they would be confused. In fact, when Gawande's own father was dying, his family were subject to one of these conversations. He says "The discussion became difficult for me or my parents to follow, despite all three of us being doctors." Now imagine being alone with the doctor having this conversation, especially if you are extremely ill. How is anyone to understand what is going on? And how can you then make difficult, life-or-death decisions?

The conversations should follow a different path, Gawande says, one that makes more sense to the patient and gets at the fundamental truths needed. Doctors should ask their patients what their goals are, how much they are willing to endure, and what trade-offs they are willing to make. In one example, a man faced with possible death or paralysis says that as long as he can watch football and eat chocolate ice cream, then he is ok with surgical risks. Others may only want to live if they can still walk. By having this conversation up front, the smaller and more specific decisions that will come up later will already have been made. This also requires an honesty that many doctors aren't willing to employ, as relentlessly optimistic as some of them are determined to be.

Gawande says that doctors have been mistaken that their job is all about ensuring health and survival, and that in fact it should be about well-being, and that means a focus on our reasons for being alive. He talks a lot about the loss of independence many experience when they are elderly, because nursing homes are so hyper-focused on health and safety with no regard for the larger picture. Patients are put on strict schedules, carefully monitored diets, and made to stay in wheelchairs so they don't fall and get hurt. I think any normal adult would resent being infantilized this way and I know that I, for one, intend to eat and drink whatever the hell I want when I'm old. If there's any time in our lives when we should be able to have a chocolate cake and a cocktail for dinner, it's when we don't have much time left. Shouldn't that time be filled with the things we enjoy? Shouldn't we walk while we still can, rather than sitting and letting our muscles atrophy? To hell with safety. Life isn't safe.

But Gawande offers hope in his examples of facilities that have been dedicated to helping residents retain independence and dignity. These places try to be like home, with plants, pets, and onsite daycares so residents can interact with children. Some have locks on doors to retain privacy, and no rules about, say, drinking alcohol or having overnight romantic guests. I cannot think of a more ideal place to finish living than one that doesn't require trading off all the pleasures in life in order to get some assistance.

I could go on. There is so much in this book to think about and discuss, and it's pertinent to all our lives, even if we prefer not to acknowledge it. What Gawande writes about is so important, especially as medicine advances and we live longer. It's becoming ever more crucial to examine what it means to extend our lives in terms of the quality of the time we have left. I hope many who work in health care read this book, or at least somehow adopt these ideas. I highly recommend this to anyone who may be concerned about what things will be like at the end of life, or who has the same worries about their loves ones. So basically, if you are a person, you should read this.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Martian

The Martian by Andy Weir (2014)

Mark Watney has found himself in an impossible situation. On a trip to Mars, a dust storm separated him from the rest of his team and, thinking he was dead, they left. Now Mark is alone on the planet with no means of communication and no way to survive long enough to be rescued. But he is not just going to give up. This guy has remarkable ingenuity and tenacity, not to mention a healthy sense of humor, and these qualities may possibly give him a chance of survival.

He began by evaluating his situation, and methodically tackling one problem after another. His goal was to stay alive until the next Mars mission in four years. It seemed impossible, but his organized examination of everything that would be needed to survive revealed some solutions that weren't apparent at first. In addition to his expert problem-solving skills, he needed tools, information, and luck. When he failed or his plans backfired, he would reevaluate and find another approach. There was a lot of science and technical talk but, surprisingly, it wasn't as boring as that sort of thing usually is for me. It was explained in a way that I could understand, but it was also integral to a story that I found incredibly suspenseful.

Science fiction - what I've read or tried to read anyhow - doesn't generally have very well-developed characters, which is why I struggle with it even though I find the premises of the stories so compelling. Although we never learn very much about Mark Watney's life before the mission, or his future, we get the full experience of his personality and sense of humor. Relying on his crew mates' leavings for entertainment, he is left with Agatha Christie mysteries, 70s tv shows and, most upsetting to him, disco music. It gives him a whole new view on some of the other astronauts and he makes fun of them relentlessly. His narrative voice is casual and conversational, frequently punctuated with exclamations like "Yay!" and it is this that balances out the technical talk and makes it more palatable.

What struck me the most about this novel is that so much of it is about Mark being faced with incredibly difficult problems and having to solve them. He is very clever and excellent at problem-solving. Doesn't that mean that Andy Weir is also very clever and excellent at problem-solving? I realize it's fiction, which gives him some leeway, but astute science fiction readers pick up on that sort of thing and so far I haven't heard any negative reviews of those aspects of the story.

The Martian was a suspenseful page-turner that I enjoyed the whole way through. I loved reading about the everyday aspects of life on Mars, and I found Mark Watney incredibly appealing, not to mention infinitely patient. One small setback often means days of work, and at times it seemed almost Sisyphean, which is one of many reasons why I am not an astronaut. I keep hearing positive reviews of this book from blogs, podcast, and random people I run into. I read it for book group and I don't think everyone liked it as much as I do so I'm really looking forward to the discussion this weekend to find out what people didn't like about it. As for me, I'll likely be recommending it all over the place. The movie (was there any doubt?) will be out in November.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Top Ten Favorites From the Last Three Years

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. This week's topic is top ten all-time favorite books from the last three years. I don't know if that means it has to be published in the last three years, but that's what I'm going with because otherwise it's too hard to choose! 

Here, in no particular order, are my ten favorite books published since March 2012. Links all go to my reviews so you can easily click over to see why I loved them so much.

1. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

2. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

3. Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

4. The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

5. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

6. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

7. Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick (second review, with spoilers)

8. Thunderstruck and Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken

9. I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

10. The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming

Ok, the first two may actually be my top two, but otherwise they are in no particular order. I notice a couple of things here. First, two of them are nonfiction. Second, four of them are young adult. You can draw your own conclusions.

What are your recent favorites?

Monday, March 2, 2015

Bad Feminist

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay (2014)

I've been following Roxane Gay in the media for a while, so it was high time to read one of her books. Bad Feminist is a collection of essays about feminism, race, politics, and pop culture. A couple were a bit esoteric, but most were totally accessible and relatable. Gay has strong feelings about these issues, but she's also very forgiving and acknowledges that none of us are perfect at living up to ideal standards, including herself, hence the title.

There were a few essays that especially resonated with me. "Not Here to Make Friends" is a condemnation of the double standard requiring fictional female characters to be likable while male characters have much more leeway regarding what sorts of people they are. (It goes without saying that it's already the case in real life.) I was quite familiar with a couple of the examples, Charlize Theron's character in the movie Young Adult and the protagonist in Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs. Many criticisms of this movie and book centered around how unlikable the characters were. Yet Gay points out that male characters can be downright despicable as long as they are interesting and well-developed. (For the record, I loved Young Adult and although The Woman Upstairs didn't blow me away at the time, it has grown on me considerably in the year since I've read it.)

There's been a lot of recent discussion about trigger warnings, and I feel vaguely opposed to them in a way I can't put my finger on. But Gay does so quite articulately in "The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion." She points out the difficulty in practical terms, citing an extensive list of topics that she has seen trigger warnings for (eating disorders, poverty, Dan Savage) which perfectly illustrates her conclusion that "Life, apparently, requires a trigger warning." Her next question is how explicit the treatment of the topic must be to merit a warning. Must it be a graphic description of rape, or just the word "rape"? Yet despite these complications and her feelings that no amount of warnings can make our lives feel as safe as we'd wish, she has obvious compassion for people who have gone through traumatic events, and she ultimately isn't opposed to the warnings if people want them. It was an interesting discussion that basically amounted to an argument with herself. And I agreed with both sides of that argument.

Other essays I enjoyed were about the HBO show Girls, Scrabble tournaments, female friendship, sexual violence in popular culture, and The Hunger Games, among others. She just covered so many topics it was rather a whirlwind of interesting ideas.

There were only a few times where her opinion departed from mine. In her critique of Caitlin Moran's How To Be a Woman, she pointed out a passage in which Moran stated her desire to reclaim the label "strident feminist" the way that the N-word has been reclaimed. Gay sees this statement as racist, in that Moran is comparing the two labels, but I don't believe Moran was implying that the labels were equally offensive. Gay also took issue with many of Moran's statements and thought she was undermining her arguments for the sake of humor. I actually think Moran is just naturally funny (as opposed to trying to be funny), and perhaps her arguments aren't impeccably thought out but her book is more of a memoir than a scholarly treatise on feminism.

In writing about abortion, Gay characterizes the issue as a fight between politicians and women, as though all politicians are male and all women are pro-choice. Abortion is a pretty complex issue (though Gay would probably agree with me that it shouldn't be) and her oversimplification does a disservice to her argument.

Overall, the places where I disagree with her are few, and for a collection of so many opinions on such a wide range of topics, I wouldn't expect to agree with everything. Feminism is a pretty broad concept and there are many ways for it to be expressed, and vast room for disagreement within it. In general, I like how she thinks about it, despite calling herself a "bad feminist."

On the contrary, I think she is the best kind of feminist. Here is a woman who is clearly brilliant and a skilled writer, who can criticize without being constantly offended, and who understands the appeal of pop culture. She takes issue with Kanye West while acknowledging how good "Blood on the Leaves" is (and it is!) because she is not some feminist scholar who lives in an isolated tower, untainted by the world. She's a real person who lives in the world and engages with all parts of it, with all the complications that real people have. If she's a bad feminist, then aren't we all?