I’m elbow-deep in this week’s book, Emma Cline’s The Girls, and the Manson vibes in the novel + the creepy Lolita energy I’m getting off this means I’ve checked the locks on my house four times today and it’s broad daylight.
I’m elbow-deep in this week’s book, Emma Cline’s The Girls, and the Manson vibes in the novel + the creepy Lolita energy I’m getting off this means I’ve checked the locks on my house four times today and it’s broad daylight.
When I was home for a wedding last month, I visited my favorite local bookstore, Carmichael’s, a couple times. We don’t have an English-language bookstore in my city in Italy (and my reading level in Italian is roughly that of a ten-year-old), so I luxuriated in a store full of things I could potentially actually read. I’m going to need everyone to stop writing books for the next six to ten years so I can catch up; there’s so much amazing stuff and somehow there’s always more.
The guy behind the desk recommended three books for me to take home, one of which was The Sellout by Paul Beatty. “You like Josh Ferris, right?” I do, yes. “And you were into Confederacy of Dunces?” Sure was. “Already read the new Ta-Nehisi Coates?” Twice. “Great, here.”
I devoured The Sellout on the plane home, though I don’t know if I would describe my appetite for it as voracious. As you and the rest of the English-speaking world likely already know, The Sellout was the first book by an American to win the Man Booker, which should have warned me. Remains of the Day, A Brief History of Seven Killings, God of Small Things, and The Blind Assassin are some of my other favorite winners, and they all fall squarely into the category of “things I am glad I read and agree are for sure outstanding art but made me want to die the whole time.”
Here’s the premise, and let me know when you start squirming:
The Underground Railroad is going to win the Pulitzer this year, of this I am certain. I’m sure you’ve heard about this incredible book by now if you’re not living under a literary rock. I’m not breaking new ground here telling you about it; I saw a copy at the grocery store a few weeks ago, and you can get it at an airport bookstore. Its ubiquity is well-deserved: everyone should read this.
The Underground Railroad is a very, very difficult easy read, if you will. It’s so riveting that I read this whole thing on a cross-country flight, but you know how people are more susceptible to crying on planes? I was crying by page ten. It’s exceptionally hard to get through in a great many parts, but the writing and storytelling is so compelling that you can’t stay away, even as it shows you things that make your worst nightmares seem like an afternoon at Disneyland.
The book tells the story of a slave named Cora and her journey on the Underground Railroad. We move forward and backward in time and place, learning about her mother and grandmother’s experiences as slaves and seeing what the world is like in different parts of the American South. In Colson Whitehead’s imagining of the Underground Railroad, the railroad part is not a metaphor; it’s a literal railroad. There are actual locomotives and train schedules and conductors and stations.
While the book doesn’t tidily fit into the category of magic realism, it moves back and forth between heart-wrenching, unflinching depictions of American slavery and a bizarre dystopian dreamland, making the reader feel unmoored and uncertain, much like the protagonist. After Whitehead departs from a strictly linear and factual narrative, he’s freed up to touch on things that happen outside the timeline, like the advent of skyscrapers, the eugenics movement, and the Tuskeegee experiments. These slightly out-of-scope elements serve as a prescient warning to Cora (and the reader): this isn’t going to be over when you get out of the slave states and this isn’t going to be over at the end of the war.
I’ve probably mentioned this before, but I hold a master’s degree in Southern Studies, so I’ve done a lot of reading and studying on how region and history is taught across the country. You were probably taught a very simplified version of events that was at best 20-60% accurate. It’s very tempting to make slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction into a tidy narrative of right and wrong, where everyone was either doing the enlightened and morally correct thing or they were not, and The Underground Railroad is not interested in furthering that story in any way, shape, or form. Whitehead integrated matter-of-fact primary sources that felt extraordinary and exceptional to me, but he periodically reminded me that no, this unimaginable cruelty and horror was pedestrian, and the fact that this is foreign to me speaks to my position of privilege. Whitehead skillfully wove in an under-discussed part of the post-war period in America: the sanitizing of slavery begun almost immediately and continues to this day. I was really in awe of how he drew parallels with the contemporary state of race in the United States with the Civil War; without ever saying it directly, he brought things like “stop and frisk” policies into context.
Whitehead has done copious research to place you in the direct path of the horrors of slavery, and he’s not about to let you off the hook with some story where everything works out great in the end and there’s a tidy moral. Things are not easy for Cora and her trials aren’t even close to over when she escapes the plantation. Many of the people who help her along her way meet gruesome ends. Some of the white railroad conductors are at best reluctant (with many deeply resentful of the circumstances that forced them into service) to help. The more well-intentioned pretty plainly don’t see former slaves as human beings, but rather something significantly less than they and exist almost completely in made up environs. It’s hard to read; you get to a point where you want badly for Cora and her friends along the way to eke out a win, but Whitehead withholds that because you know what? This is not Meet Addy or Dear America: 1863. You’re an adult and you need to acknowledge that slaves did not get an easy win, and racism is very much alive and well. There’s hope, to be sure, but there aren’t any promises.
It’s important to read books that challenge you and expand your world view, and this book absolutely did that for me. Considering slave narratives in this surreal milieu shone a bright light on some things I hadn’t previously considered, to say nothing of how incredible his writing is. There’s so much to say about his research and storytelling that you almost forget, but paragraph for paragraph, the Underground Railroad was stuffed with beautiful prose that lunged off the page at me.
Next week, I’m reading this. Please join me!
Have you read the Underground Railroad? What did you think? Did you also cry to yourself for hours after finishing it? Tell me in the comments.
I am a feminist.
Quick definition of terms for you: feminism means you support men and women having equal opportunities, rights, and access. If you think it’s cool for me to write this snarky blog, you’re a feminist. If you’re a woman who can read this, you’re a feminist. If you’re a woman who doesn’t like anything I write ever and then take to your own blog/Twitter/Facebook/local saloon to talk about how much you think I’m a total moron with no taste, you’re a feminist. It doesn’t mean you don’t wear a bra, or hate men, or have to agree with everything other feminists do, but it means that you gotta think women and men should both be allowed to take part in public life and make their own decisions. If this does not describe you, I ask that you please click the little X in the right hand corner of your screen and make your merry way back to The Chive. Thanks in advance.
I was at a conference in New York a few weeks ago, and this badass literary agent, Janet, was going on and on and on about Bad Feminist and how we had to read it. I am in equal parts in awe of Janet’s terrified to disappoint her and intellect and humor, so I ran straight to a SoHo bookshop and grabbed a copy. I knew Roxane Gay’s work from meeting her once at some cocktail thing and following her hysterical live tweeting of Ina Garten’s show(s), so I was jazzed to read this.
Out of the gate, she deployed this neat rhetorical trick that’s going around the non-fiction world right now like chicken pox at Chuckie Cheese. She isn’t that well-versed in feminist writing and theory, she tells us, but knows she’s a feminist (see above definition) without that. My academic grounding in feminism is limited to some undergrad coursework and a graduate-level seminar, so I relate to that. I feel out of my depth when I talk about feminism with my friends who majored in gender studies all the time! I think that’s pretty common. She feels, though, like a bad feminist because she likes to wear dresses and bake and watch the always-horrifying Law&Order:SVU. As I write this, I am eating a muffin I baked this morning and wearing not only a skirt but a puffy one. I don’t feel like this puts me at odds with advocating for my access to services, but I get that this feels different for different people. Still, I don’t think declaring yourself an unreliable narrator in your own memoir is a workable solution.
The book is divided into several sections clumped loosely by theme. The essays within are sometimes barely more than a couple pages, and sometimes what most people would consider a chapter. Like all small pieces of art that are asked to stand together, some are better than others. Let’s start with the good, shall we? She plays competitive Scrabble, and describes the people she meets and vanquishes in a way that made me ROFL IRL. It also made me want to never, ever play Scrabble again. Her vivid, brave description of her own gang rape as a child was a straight gut punch. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone discuss their own trauma so eloquently. The way she talked about her immigrant family was both touching and insightful without being saccharine. I loved these polished bits, both grim and light.
But the bad, man. The bad was pretty bad. There were a ton of passages in sore need of an editor; I found some easy-to-fix stuff that was just lazy editing. Since almost all of this had been previously published elsewhere, she’s had at least three people take a look at this, none of whom took out errant commas or adverbs. I know, this is rich coming from me, but this is a blog I write for fun. At work, I go through and turn n-dashes into m-dashes and consult my dogeared MLA guide constantly.
Most of the things that touched on feminism in the media, rape culture, and race in America were hot takes. She’d look at something like the music she loves to dance to, point out something salient about how degrading it was to women, say she still liked to get down to Robin Thicke, and then move on. She’d get right up against pushing through why she liked all the procedural cop shows that are, about women getting sexually assaulted, then stop short. The door was there. She tested the knob and found it unlocked. There’s so much to say about all these things that’s needs to get said, and she’s got the platform, background, and intellect to do so. I really wanted to hear what she thought about Trayvon Martin, about rap videos, about beer commercials. I felt let down by her saying, “okay, I like makeup! I’m a bad feminist!” and leaving it there. Especially because that has nothing to do with feminism.
Look, I get feeling estranged from the most verbal of our feminist sisters and brothers. I get feeling a little weird about having a candy dish on my desk. I’ve been called bossy and pushy and slutty and bitchy and whatever other gendered adjectives you can think of and felt mad at myself for internalizing it rather than recognizing it for the bigoted bullshit it is. I was hoping she’d have something more to say that, “that felt bad to me, too.”
So what did you think? I know I’m the only person who didn’t like this book, and I’m almost scared to say this out loud. Thoughts? Tell me why I’m wrong.
Next week, I’m reading this. Join me!
This week, Cosmopolitan asked me to interview Caitlin Moran, the Times of London columnist and author of several books about contemporary feminism. It was so much goddamned fun I don’t even have a word for it. Funny, self-effacing, profane, and simultaneously very polite. we spent a fun hour chatting about her newest book, How to Build a Girl, the first in a fictional trilogy.
While I’m deeply tempted to say this is not a book for kids, it completely and totally is. Sex, masturbation, rampant teenage horniness, drug use, negligent parenting, partying with and like rockstars: the Parents Television Counsel’s top concerns are all here, and it encapsulates perfectly how uncool, lonely, and weird you feel as you figure out who you’re going to be when you grow up. How to Build a Girl tells the story of a young girl from a big family in an industrial town in England in the early 90s. Poor, chubby, and friendless, she embarks on a journey of self-improvement and self-discovery that mirrors Moran’s own. After winning a poetry contest as a preteen, she realizes that being a good, incisive writer is her ticket out of loneliness, poverty, and her not-great Midlands hometown.
I was a pretty uncool preteen who didn’t have a lot of friends and was a little bit chubby. Like our heroine, Johanna, I won a writing contest at the age of twelve and started writing record reviews for money at about age sixteen. Like her, I grew up, figured out how to dress myself, made friends, and became a writer. How to Build a Girl, coupled with Moran’s other, non-fiction books, is something like an “It Gets Better” project for self-loathing, awkward kids. What I appreciated about Moran’s Johanna is how little time is spent feeling pity for her being a loner. Indeed, it’s positioned as a great way to have time to read, listen to cool records, and dream about your awesome, fun-filled future. The book’s arguing the virtue of playing a long game, which is the number one thing I wish I could tell my twelve-year-old self. Twelve year olds, if you are reading my blog: You are not going to be a loser forever and I am living proof of this. After all, I get to interview women like Caitlin Moran for money, and the boys who didn’t want to kiss me and the girls who made fun of me are pretty boring humans who still haven’t read Moby Dick or gone to Africa or worn dark purple lipstick.
It’s refreshing to see a novel about a teenager that deals with teen sexuality frankly and directly. Other than Forever by Judy Blume, I can’t think of another book that is so unflinching. I’ve been watching reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer of late, and it stands in stark contrast to How to Build a Girl. On the one hand, you’ve got virginal Buffy Summers who literally takes her boyfriend’s soul away the first time they Do It (which only happens after two seasons of boring will they/won’t they buildup). On the other, you’ve got Johanna masturbating in her twin bed, trying desperately to offload her first kiss on anyone who will have her. Once she manages that, she never, ever mentions this boy (“The Kisser”) again, mostly because it just wasn’t that big a deal. One of these things is a lot more realistic a depiction of how you feel as you figure out your own sexuality, and it’s not the one with vampires.
If I had a little(r) sister, I would give her this book so hard (my sister is too old for this to be the revelation it would be to a teenager). It celebrates the self-determination that you have as a preteen and teenager, instead of treating that unformed state as something feral that requires taming. If you know a teenage girl, I think it’s important for you to look at her and say, “if you don’t like who you are, just make a new you. Work hard, be kind, and focus on the future. Draw a new face on top of your face if you want to.” That’s what I did, and that’s what Caitlin Moran did, and that’s what Johanna does. I’m excited to see where the next two books take her, and I can’t wait to give this book to the next uncool teenage girl I meet.
When I was a freshman in high school, my friend Andrea bought me Everything is Illuminated for my birthday. I was instantly smitten, and a long love affair with the work of the then very young Jonathan Safran Foer was born. I devoured the entirety of his output, and I have the weird cutout book to prove it.
As I’ve gotten older and the hysterical realism vein of contemporary literature has bled out a little, I’ve come to see his work a bit less romantically and its flaws are more apparent. A tendency toward self-righteousness is inborn in people who are very good at their chosen craft at a tender age, and he’s no exception. It’s for this reason that I put off reading Eating Animals for five years.
I was a vegetarian for five years in my late teens and early twenties, but I was never that enthused about meat before that. A stint in Spain where ham is considered a vegetable and a desire to impress a particularly omnivorous beau cured me of what my mother loved to call “the vegetarianism.” Though I dabble in veganism and am extremely watchful of what I eat, I don’t place much in the way of restrictions on my diet these days.
Let’s get one thing straight here: this book is a dangerous thing to read in the wrong bar. I was hanging out on my lunch, enjoying The Signature of All Things, and not one but two women approached me to tell me that Eat, Pray, Love had helped them gather the strength to “follow their passions.” I’m here to tell you that this is a risk you ought to undertake, though I recommend you digest this volume in the privacy of your home. As I mentioned the other day, girlfriend wrote Coyote Ugly, and for the record, Eat, Pray, Love is whitegirlproblems but it is well-written, thoughtful whitegirlproblems.
The Signature of All Things is sprawling, but briefly, it’s an 80-year tour of the life and times of Alma Whittaker, a autodidact botanist from Philadelphia. Her father, Henry, is something of an American success story. A poor boy, he makes himself useful to Joseph Banks and James Cook, explores the globe, and makes a name for himself in the new world in the realm of medicinal plants and decorative flowers. I can’t even begin introduce everyone who wanders in and out, but that’s the basic premise.
Alma isn’t very pretty, nor is she very well-socialized. She isn’t close to her (very beautiful) adopted sister Prudence, nor does she have any other friends save a dotty neighbor girl named Retta who seems like a character from a fairy tale. Her mother is forbidding, her father is something of a loon, and men don’t take much notice of her unless it’s to talk about smart people stuff. Even though she’s rich and bright, Alma is really, really lonely. Time marches on, and her crushes go unrequited and the world moves on and Alma’s just out in her mansion, reading books in Greek by herself.
Enter a man named Ambrose Pike, a genius botanical illustrator. He’s almost like the answer to Alma’s prayers. He’s handsome and loves the natural world, like her, and he loves her. When he sort of asks her to marry him, she jumps at the chance. Things don’t really go according to plan on that front, and I don’t really feel like I’m giving anything away on that one. If you’re reading this book and thinking this wedding is a good idea, you and I have different ideas of how dating should work. She sends Ambrose away to Tahiti when things fall apart, and he dies there. Though she’s getting on in years by 1800s standards, she goes to the island and then on to the Netherlands to pick up the pieces of her life. I think this is an adequate summary of events.
The Signature of All Things is a work of fiction, but I kept forgetting that. Alma’s research, the world of her estate, her father’s discoveries– they all felt so real. There’s a staggering amount of research that undergirds every left turn, and I’m sure there’s much that’s invisible to me, the casual reader. I found myself googling “alma+whitaker” and “vandevender+botany+amsterdam” and “bryology” to attempt to ascertain where fact ended and invention began. I’m still not sure, so tight is the tiny, erudite world Gilbert has created. I was in awe for much of the 500 pages on account of the scope of knowledge contained within.
That said, The Signature of All Things is too long in some parts, and too short in others. I loved Gilbert’s storytelling and sprawling prose, but there were so many things going on at once that I kind of got twisted up sometimes. I was so immersed in my hope that Alma was finally going to lose her virginity that I almost missed the big plot point that is the uh….great discovery of her career (this is actually a pretty smart commentary about the status of women in the sciences at the time). I loved the exploration of female longing and sexuality, as well as the erotic lives of plants, but wanted more in the way of descriptions of Alma and her father’s actual work. I learned a lot of the purple novels of early America, but didn’t get any concrete details of Alma working, just that she did. Some of the characters of the early parts of The Signature of All Things are distracting, even though they’re fully realized and smartly detailed. I was so mired in the morass that was the Tahiti portion of the novel that I never worked out if her erstwhile husband was gay and deeply attracted to Asian men or a bizarre, possibly mentally ill mystic. The Amsterdam story line featured so many unexpected and maybe irrelevant characters that the end felt rushed and a little bit like a cop out. I never figured out why Alma’s sister didn’t develop a personality, or why her only friend got so crazy. I would have liked to have known that, or at least had some hints.
I’m glad I read The Signature of All Things, and that I gave Elizabeth Gilbert a chance. It was an easy, interesting read, and for all its frustrations, it has much to recommend it. I learned much about mosses, a few words of Dutch, and a couple things about Ben Franklin. My appreciation for botanical drawings is much greater than it was this time last week. I am now much more likely to defend liking the cheesecake at the Cheesecake Factory in fashionable circles. You can’t say that about most novels.
Have you read this or Pilgrims? I read that and really liked it. Thoughts?
Next week, I’m reading this. I’d love to talk with you about it!