Inbox // Outbox 3/6/17

Just as I had finally whittled my library pile to near zero, it’s suddenly full again.  Isn’t it funny how life is like that?

Inbox

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle

I had a moment earlier this week when I saw something about this book and thought, “How have I not read this?  How can I be a fantasy book lover and not have read this?”  So I’m going to read it.

The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit

Last fall, I read Solnit’s Men Explain Things To Me and found it insightful and enjoyable.  I was thrilled to hear she had a follow-up book coming out.  My library was kind enough to purchase this upon request and I look forward to spending time with it.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

YES, this is the third time this book has appeared in my Inbox//Outbox feature.  I’m actually reading it this time.  I’m taking it slowly and am about 130 pages in.  So far, I am absolutely loving it.   Continue reading

On the Shelf: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

This book was a lucky find and Goodwill.  Normally when I buy books secondhand, they sit on my shelf for years waiting to be read.  I picked this one up right away and am very glad I did!

Rating: 4 / 5 stars

Summary from Goodreads: In these funny and insightful essays, Roxane Gay takes us through the journey of her evolution as a woman of color while also taking readers on a ride through culture of the last few years and commenting on the state of feminism today. The portrait that emerges is not only one of an incredibly insightful woman continually growing to understand herself and our society, but also one of our culture.

Bad Feminist is a sharp, funny, and spot-on look at the ways in which the culture we consume becomes who we are, and an inspiring call-to-arms of all the ways we still need to do better.

My Thoughts:

This is not a perfect book.  The cover says it’s a collection of essays and, in a way, it is.  Each chapter gives Gay’s thoughts on different subjects.  If you’re looking defining essays by formal, academic standards however… this book falls short.  But falling short of academia does not mean that it has no value.

I loved this book.  My time within its pages felt less like reading a book and more like having a conversation with Gay over a cup of tea.  Her voice is informal and engaging.  She covers a wide variety of topics in this book, some relating to feminism and others not relating to it at all.

“I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying—trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself.” Roxane Gay

I love the honesty of this book.  Gay openly acknowledges her contradictions because that’s part of being human.   She’s not consistent at many points, loving aspects of pop culture that directly oppose everything feminists stand for.  But she doesn’t shy away from her contradictions.  She embraces them.

I didn’t always agree with everything Gay said.  At times, she even had me squirming in my seat with discomfort.  But this isn’t a bad thing.  I’ve learned to see challenges to my opinion as extremely valuable.  They teach me to see things from a perspective may not be my own, but is still valid.

Many of the chapters in this book are dedicated to culturally relevant topics like race and privilege.  As a protestant white woman, I’m privy to all kinds of cultural privileges that, most of the time, I’m completely blind to.  Reading Gay’s words about her life, her various experiences, and her responses to certain pop-cultural icons, it hit me for the first time just how deeply the issues of race go.  Which is ridiculous because I’m not uninformed about the shootings in Ferguson, the Black Lives Matter movement, the Charleston shooting, or the Confederate flag debates.  I gave my senior seminar presentation about racial issues regarding the figure of the artist in Barbara Chaise-Riboud’s Sally Hemmings.  But what I’ve got is all head knowledge.  Gay’s words pushed through whatever barrier exists within my consciousness between what’s in my head and what I feel.  I know that I will never truly understand these issues because of my privilege, but this book brought me closer.  Gay writes:

“You don’t necessarily have to do anything once you acknowledge your privilege. You don’t have to apologize for it. You need to understand the extent of your privilege, the consequences of your privilege, and remain aware that people who are different from you move through and experience the world in ways you might never know anything about.”

This is what this book did for me.

This book was, at points, incredibly serious.  But, at other points, it was fun.  I appreciated the chapter about Gay’s time playing competitive Scrabble.  I also liked her discussion of The Hunger Games, even if it was relatively shallow.

All in all, I really enjoyed Bad Feminist.  It took several weeks to read, but was well worth the time.  This book challenged and pushed me to see the world from an individual who is very different from myself.  But it also had me nodding, agreeing, and even laughing at points.

You Will Like If You Enjoy: cultural discussions, racial issues, feminism, women’s rights, gender equality, GLBT rights

On the Shelf: Summer Reading Updates & Mini Reviews

I’ve decided to switch up my On the Shelf this week.  Instead of one big review, I’ve done some mini-reviews, followed by some chit chat about other books I’ve been reading.  (Also, apologies for being a day late on this post…)

The Heir by Kiera Cass

Rating: 3.5 / 5 stars

A few weeks ago, I finally picked up the fourth book in Cass’s The Selection series.  The thing about Cass is that she isn’t a breathtaking writer–her post-apocalyptic America is relatively boring and her characters lack depth–but I somehow still love her books.  They’re like a mashup of The Hunger Games, The Bachelor, and all my favorite fairy tales.

Taking place after the trilogy ends, the book centers around Eadlyn, the first female heir to the throne.  Although the caste system has been dissolved, the country’s problems aren’t over.  Citizens are increasingly unhappy and are beginning to turn on the royal family.  In attempt to lift morale, another Selection begins and male suitors begin pouring into the palace from all over the country, determined to win Eadlyn’s hand.

For the most part, Eadlyn isn’t very likable.  She’s stubborn, proud, and stuck-up.  She’s pretty high and mighty, but her many flaws are partially forgivable because of the amount she gives up for her throne.  The book makes clear that, given the choice, she wouldn’t choose to rule the country.  But she throws herself into it anyways and, throughout the book, sacrifices her personal desires for her position.  That doesn’t wholly redeem her, though.  She still is annoying at points.

What I love about this book is that it takes us on the other side of the Selection.  In the first three books, we see it all from the point of view of one of the participants.  In this story, we get to see the process from the heir’s point of view.  What would it be like to balance dating 30 young men and learning to rule an unstable country?

The other thing I love is that it brings out a lot of double-standards.  Being a feminist, I LOVE seeing double-standards exposed.  Before this, it was always a male heir surrounded by female suitors.  Boys, though, respond differently to the competition.  While girls got into spats, boys brawl.  With a female heir, sexual assault becomes an issue.  While it’s okay for male heirs to get physical with the candidates, a female one is looked down upon as loose.  While the press was all about praising Maxon in the first series, it seems out to get Eadlyn–painting her as a prideful, spoiled, ice queen.

Is The Heir the best piece of literature out there?  Nope.  Is it enjoyable?  Definitely.

The Kingkiller Chronicles: The Name of the Wind & The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

Rating: 2 / 5 stars

Summary: Told in Kvothe’s own voice, this is the tale of the magically gifted young man who grows to be the most notorious wizard his world has ever seen. The intimate narrative of his childhood in a troupe of traveling players, his years spent as a near-feral orphan in a crime-ridden city, his daringly brazen yet successful bid to enter a legendary school of magic, and his life as a fugitive after the murder of a king form a gripping coming-of-age story unrivaled in recent literature.

I picked up this unfinished series at the high recommendation of a book lover friend.  It’s been a while since I picked up a massive fantasy novel and thought I’d give the highly-acclaimed series a try.  What I can say is that Rothfuss is a very gifted writer.  His prose is truly excellent.

What I can’t say is that I enjoyed these books.  Although they’re entertaining/easy reads, I didn’t feel myself loving these books.  The way they’re set up bothers me.  The premise is that there’s one story taking place present-time regarding a civil war with mysterious monsters on the loose.  The main character, Kvote, is the stuff of legend, but has taken cover as an innkeeper and thought dead.  When discovered by a recorder of stories, Kvote decides to tell his.  The majority of the books follow the course of his life–tracing his childhood in a troupe of traveling musicians to years living as a street urchin to living as a student at the university.  In the second book, Kvote continues his studies, helps a king woo a wife, tracks down bandits in the woods, winds up in the fairy world and shacks up with a fae temptress, and spends time with an off-the-map society where he learns to fight.  All the while, Kvote looks for information on the Chandrian–a group of killers out of legends who killed his parents.

The story, ‘though intriguing, feels like it’s going nowhere.  Kvote isn’t very likable.  He goes from adventure to adventure and is amazing at everything he does.  He’s an amazing musician, student, lover, fighter, and magician.  There’s nothing he can’t do…  And he’s a smart-ass.

Then there’s his love interest, Denna.  Ugh.  She’s one of the worst female characters I’ve ever encountered.  I’d go into how awful she is, but a Goodreads reviewer has said it better than I ever could.

If you’re into fantasy, you might like these books.  If not, skip them.

Other Books I’m Reading…

I’m still plugging through The Silmarillion by Tolkien.  It’s breathtaking, but extremely thick.  I can only manage thirty pages a week.  This afternoon, I finally breached the 200 page mark.  It’s slow going, but I’ll have it finished by the time summer ends!

At work, I’m listening through Harry Potter again.  This week, I reached Order of the Phoenix… so my hours are filled with lots of angst.  I plowed through Goblet of Fire last week and, in the wake of Voldemort’s return, I’m once again annoyed by how unpleasant Harry is in this book.  But it’s okay.  It just makes me thankful I’m out of the teen years.

Recently, I picked up Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier.  Yes, more fantasy.  It’s the first of Marillier’s Sevenwaters series.  I’ve read the whole series already, but it’s been a few years.  The first is a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Wild Swans”.  I love a good fairytale retelling and am looking forward to this read.

That’s it for this week’s On the Shelf.  What books have you been reading lately?

Removing the Pedestal: Why Paper Towns is Culturally Important

This weekend, the film adaptation of my favorite John Green novel is being released.  In light of this, I’d like to pause my usual On the Shelf book reviews in order to talk about why this story is important–not just to me, but to culture in general.

As far as plots go, Paper Towns isn’t anything special.

Q, the hero of the book, fits the average, nice guy mold to a tee.  He drives his mom’s minivan, hangs out with the band kids, and hates the whole idea of prom.  He actually tries (to an extent) in school, never breaks rules, and is secretly in love with the girl next door.

Then, one night, Margo Roth Spiegelman (the beautiful, mysterious girl Q loves) shows up at his window and takes him on the all-night, prank filled adventure of his dreams.

We live in a culture that idealizes women.  We place them up on pedestals and only see the pieces of them that we choose.  Women are viewed as perfect, pristine creatures that must be served, protected, and loved.  In the process, their humanity slips away.  Idealized women are scattered throughout literature, starting with the Troubadours in medieval France.  It was true in the Victorian Age when Coventry Patmore wrote his famous poem about “Angels in the House“.  It happens in Tennyson’s Guinevere in Idyls of the King–a poem in which the failure of Camelot’s queen to live on a pedestal brings about the destruction of a nation.  The idealized women shows up in the form of Daisy Buchanan (a personification of the American Dream) in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.  There are hundreds of examples out there.  Literature and film are great shapers of how people think and the presence of supposedly perfect women only leads to the expectation that such women actually exist. (Newsflash: They don’t.)

It’s not surprising, then, that our fictional friend Margo finds herself on a pedestal.  In fact, this is one of the first things we ever learn about her.  In the novel’s prologue, Q informs us that:

The way I figure it, everyone gets a miracle. Like, I will probably never be struck by lightning, or win a Nobel Prize, or become the dictator of a small nation in the Pacific Islands, or contract terminal ear cancer, or spontaneously combust. But if you consider all the unlikely things together, at least one of them will probably happen to each of us. I could have seen it rain frogs. I could have stepped foot on Mars. I could have been eaten by a whale. I could have married the Queen of England or survived months at sea. But my miracle was different. My miracle was this: out of all the houses in all the subdivisions in all of Florida, I ended up living next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman.

When the wonderful miracle that is Margo disappears, of course Q feels compelled to rescue her.

In addition to idealizing women, culture has messages for men as well.  You see, we live in a culture that is obsessed with guys “getting the girl”.  Don’t believe me?  Go pick up any chick flick released in the past thirty years.  You’ll see what I’m talking about.  So many movies and books teach men that they can get the girl if they just try hard enough.  Although this story line leads to some adorable, enjoyable, films, it also introduces rhetoric that is alarming.  It implies that nice guys get girls.  Which isn’t always the case.

Messages like these are powerful.  They have consequences.  In 2014, Elliot Rodger went on a killing spree on his college campus to enact revenge against all women.  His logic?  Watch the video he made before committing his murders.  It’s bone-chillingly familiar.

Back to Paper Towns.

The story has been told before.  Average boy (Q) loves unattainable, idealized girl next door (Margo).  Idealized girl disappears and average boy feels the need to rescue her.  They fall in love, ride into the sunset, and live happily ever after.

Or do they?

This is where Green turns the tables.  This is where things get good.

What if Margo is aware that everyone around her idealizes her?  What if she would rather disappear completely than continue living on her pedestal?  What if Q goes on a quest to save her but, instead of saving her, discovers that he never actually knew her in the first place?

The story’s main message is pounded into Q’s head through retracing Margo’s steps and closely analyzing Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself”.  In order to find Margo, Q must put himself in her shoes, to see the world as she does.  In the process, he learns that he knows nothing.

Q’s quest, ultimately, isn’t about Margo at all.  It’s about stripping away preconceived notions and learning to see people as they really are.  At one point, one of his friends even points this out, saying “You know your problem, Quentin? You keep expecting people not to be themselves.

Ultimately, this leads to Q’s major revelation:

Yes. The fundamental mistake I had always made—and that she had, in fairness, always led me to make—was this: Margo was not a miracle. She was not an adventure. She was not a fine and precious thing. She was a girl.

This is why I love Paper Towns.  Green spoon feeds us the expected “boy gets girl” story only to turn the tables.  The story isn’t about finding Margo.  It’s about taking Margo off the pedestal and restoring her humanity.  It’s about stripping away the ideal and acknowledging that people, even beautiful ones, are cracked, flawed, and messed up.  In the end, the story presents us with the challenge of seeing people as they really are.

My favorite line from the book states it perfectly:

To finish it all off, I’m really looking forward to seeing the movie adaptation.  I know it won’t be exactly like the book, but I’m okay with that.  I’ve been assured by John Green (via Vlogbrothers videos) that it stays true to the message of the book–a message that I believe is powerful and relevant.

P.S. Much of this post was influenced by the Courtly Love literature class I took this past Spring.  A huge thank you to my professor for giving me insight into the importance of these messages and the way they affect society.