Book Club: The Sellout

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 Thingsand 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.”

Photo of the author holding The Sellout, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s the premise, and let me know when you start squirming:

Continue reading “Book Club: The Sellout”

Book Club: The Underground Railroad

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.

Book Club: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

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.

Bad Feminist

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!

Book Club: Eating Animals

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.

Sidenote, in case you hadn't guessed: Yes, I have a tremendous crush on him.
Sidenote, in case you hadn’t guessed: Yes, I have a tremendous crush on him.

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.

Continue reading “Book Club: Eating Animals”

Lazy Sunday, 14 July

I hope you’re enjoying yourself as much as I am.

Book Club: Encyclopedia of the Exquisite

Did anyone I know shop at Borders? I didn’t, but when it was going out of business, I couldn’t help but stop by and check out what was remaining. I found this book, which was on a lot of end-of-year Christmas gift lists in 2010. It was pretty expensive, so I never bought it, but I couldn’t argue with picking it up for $5.

Such a pretty little thing, isn’t it?

The idea behind the book is that it has little capsule entries of “exquisite” things, which sounds right up my alley. What, exactly, is exquisite, might you ask?

“Enthusiasm.” “Lipstick.” “Silence.” “Fanfare.” “Giochi d’Acqua.” “Gloves.” “String.” You get the idea. I like all those things and the writing is fun and clear, but I was bored to tears throughout.

I’ve got two gripes with this little volume.

First and foremost was the definition of “exquisite.” Can we discuss that for a second? Geishas, yes. Okay, geishas are exquisite. Is string? I don’t know that it is. This book, more than anything, felt like a small collection of things Jessica Kerwin Jenkins (a Vogue editor whose work I like!) found interesting and wanted to research for a few hours.

The other thing I don’t love about this book is how much it skips around. Okay, so I know there’s a disclaimer that this is an anecdotal book, but it’s just…so anecdotal. I don’t doubt that it’s all factual– indeed, it seems to be pretty thoroughly checked out– but my gosh! It skips around so much. I felt like I didn’t really learn anything about anything, and that even the entries that interested me most examined only a teeny facet of whatever it was that was fascinating. Tell me more about Catherine the Great’s love notes! I want to know more about ill-fated hot air balloon rides! I felt like I had to sit through some silly entries (string) and I didn’t get enough of the stuff I had really signed up for by reading this book. Overall, I couldn’t wait to be finished with this book so I could move on to my next thing. I feel like this would work out better as a blog (which it is, and it does!).

Did you read this? What did you think? Did I overpay?

Next week, I’ll be reading this. Please, please join me. I’m really excited to share this one with you.

Book Club: Ten LIttle Indians

So raise your hand if you know more than two honest-to-God Native Americans.

Keep your hand up if your understanding of Native American cultures is limited to Thanksgiving, Pocahontas, Indian Princesses at the YMCA, and playground games.

That’s what I thought.

Related: This dude is funny on Twitter.
Related: This dude is funny on Twitter.

I am not better than that. I grew up around few Native American people and haven’t had any close relationship with anyone who had a close relationship with their Native American heritage since about 1995 (hello to my childhood friend Billy Robinson if you’re for some reason reading this blog). I’ll admit that my knowledge of different native cultures is so cursory that I have almost no idea what distinguishes one from the other. I’m not proud of that, but it is the truth. Unfortunately, there isn’t a ton of great, contemporary literature about the Native American experience in the contemporary USA, so I was excited to come across Ten Little Indians.

Sherman Alexie set out to create a short story collection that dealt with the everyday lives of Native Americans without tokenizing them, without being overly sentimental, and without making them seem like some kind of wise, magical, otherworldly beings. The majority of the characters in these stories are Spokane urbanites living in and around Seattle, a demographic of Native people I hadn’t ever really considered prior to reading this. By his own admission, some of these 9 stories are really good, some are okay, and a few are pretty bad. He never comes out and says which ones he thinks are which, so I’m just going to tell you what I thought. Continue reading “Book Club: Ten LIttle Indians”

Book Club: Townie

So, once upon a time, I lived in Mississippi, and the thing is, living in a town with 8,000 souls makes you trusting. I was walking up to the square for the weekly taping of the Mississippi Public Broadcasting arts variety show, Thacker Mountain Radio and a man about my mom’s age pulled up next to me in a sedan with out-of-state plates. “Excuse me,” he said. “Could you tell me how to get to The Lyric? I’m supposed to be reading tonight on the radio, but I’m really lost.” Ordinarily, I do not get near idling cars with strange men from far away contained within, but he seemed nice (read: I’m a sucker AND I’m an idiot). Anyway, long story short, he realizes I’m freaked out, produces his driver’s license, and I end up driving him to the theatre just in the nick of time.

That man was Andre Dubus, III. He gave me a copy of his book, and we kept in touch. Don’t worry, Mom. That was the first and last time I’ve ever done that.

I included a little bit of the note he wrote in the book, but not much because that's probably only of interest to me.
I included a little bit of the note he wrote in the book, but not much because that’s probably only of interest to me.

Townie, which he read from that night, is a memoir of his childhood and young adult years, growing up poor, tough, and without much of a dad in post-industrial Massachusetts. The book is about a lot of things, but more than anything, it’s a long meditation on violence and how that shaped his life. It was strange to square that with the gentle, professional man I met in Oxford that cloudy afternoon. I knew from our chat that he was married and had a couple kids, that they lived in Newbury, and that he was a professor at UMass-Lowell. I had heard that his dad was a famous novelist, too. He was driving a nice rental car and had on a dress shirt. If I had known what I know now of his young adulthood, I wonder if I would have gotten into the car. Continue reading “Book Club: Townie”

Book Club: Russian Journal

Hey, I’m really sorry, but we’re not going to do The Black Swan this week like I promised. I hadn’t quite finished it when our things were stolen, so I’ve ordered a new copy and now we wait. I hope that’s okay. I promise to come back to it. We’re going to skip ahead to the next week’s book, Andrea Lee’s excellent Russian Journal.

Out of print, so get it used!

I fell in love with Andrea Lee‘s work via the New Yorker fiction podcast— she’s very funny, very smart, and has a lot of interesting life experiences. Russian Journal is a collection of journal entries from the year she spent behind the Iron Curtain in 1978 with her former husband, a scholar of Russian politics. 

I’m a little too young to remember the Cold War much at all, but I feel like I don’t know much about what life was like in the Soviet Union during those years, and there are precious few accounts of it available to Americans. I was surprised to learn that things were at once much better and much worse than I thought there, but that’s not really the reason you should read this book. 

Lee captures her day-to-day experiences as they happen, without an agenda or to prove something specific about what the USSR was like. She made friends in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, she got a lot of weird looks from peasants unaccustomed to seeing Americans (much less black Americans), and she ate and drank and slept and lived among unremarkable people. That’s really…rare. Memoirs during times of strife sometimes fall victim to editing– when remembering these times later, everything seems more urgent and more personal, like your own experience must surely have been touched by the hands that shaped the history unfolding around you.

But really, they didn’t. You didn’t know what was going on or when it was going to end, and you probably weren’t palling around with the president or anything. It’s refreshing to see a memoir that’s about eating terrible cafeteria food and sitting in your friends’ living rooms drinking brandy rather than about the time your grandmother hung out with Jenny Lind. 

If this sounds like I’m saying this book is boring, I’m not. It’s anything but. I don’t know anything about Georgian peasants or the “party stores” or American-style Communist rock music. It was great to get a peak into that world. As foreigners, the Lees got preferential treatment, to be clear, but they were a lot closer than you and I will ever be to “getting it.”

So pick it up! Let me know what you think. Do I have any Russian readers? Do you have interesting stories from behind the Iron Curtain? 

Next week, in honor of National Poetry Month, I’m going to be reading this. Want to join me?