Sunday, December 31, 2017

Completed: Mr. Fox

Kelly: Let’s start with how we got this book. It was in a box from Quarterly, curated by Book Riot waaay back in 2014. The entire reason I bought the box was to get the BOOKS hat, as seen in the photo below -- this is a screenshot I just took from the Quarterly website. (Note: Mr. Fox is also in the photo.)

The hat wasn’t available then in the Book Riot store, so that was the only way to get it [it was briefly available a year or so ago but… it’s now gone again!] So I bought a box of books just to get a hat. Yup. And I bought one for you too. Yup. So that’s how we got this book. Which actually looked pretty good. Until we read it. And then we said WTF.

Jenny: I honestly don’t even know what to say about this book.

K: When we decided to read it, I was packing to move, so I went for the aBook (aBooks generally make good “mindless task” companions). I started listening, got about 20 min in, said, “Wait… what’s going on?” and restarted the book. Sometimes it takes a 2nd try to “get into” a book (especially if I’m distracted). I tried twice more with no luck, so I gave up. After we moved, I picked up the pBook and discovered… Oh! It’s just a confusing book!

J: Just last week I was talking with my students about strategies when you’re reading something that’s hard. And one thing I tell them is that you kind of have two choices: hurry up or slow down. Hurry up means just keep powering through and sometimes it starts to make sense. Slow down is when you know you weren’t as careful, and it’s time to reread. In this case, I decided to hurry up and just keep going. I think I read a lot of this book hoping it would eventually come together, but I don’t know if it ever did.

K: Yes! I felt like I tried “slow down” 3 times and then… “hurry up” the final time but… neither technique ended up working. Reading this book felt like walking into a movie that had already started. But, then one usually has some sort of “Oh, I’m getting it now” feeling at some point. Not with this one, though -- it felt that way the whole time.

J: It only got better for me when I decided to just read it as a metaphor, as symbolic. If that’s the case, then what can I get out of it? The best part, then, was when Mary confronts Mr. Fox about his novels, basically that his fiction makes the unreasonable and obscene seem normal. It was just impossible not to read this and think about patriarchy in general, but the past year. The normalizing of fascism and Nazism. It was fucking depressing.

K: For me, I think the “got better” part of it was focusing on individual stories throughout the book and kind of glossing over/ignoring whatever the hell was going on with the main story [Like: what is Mary? Is she a real person? A figment of his imagination? Whaaaa…?]

For instance, that story about the school to create “world class husbands” was killer. I loved this line:
“...your grade depends not on the answer you give but on the tenacity with which you cling to your choice. You earn a grade A by demonstrating, without a hint of nervousness or irritation that you are impervious to any external logic. You earn an A+ if you manage this while affecting a mild and pleasant demeanour.” [120]
Oh, the satire! The fucking sarcastic take on what makes a “perfect husband.” Brilliant.

J: I would not have come up with the Bluebeard connection on my own. I only clued in about halfway through when I saw the acknowledgements page.  Even then, I only had the most vague knowledge of the Bluebeard story. So then I looked it up on Wikipedia...and, honestly, I’m not sure it helped me much.

K: I thought I was unfamiliar with the story of Bluebeard but once I looked it up, I realized… yeah… I know that story... (just not knowing that the story was that of “Bluebeard,” if that makes sense). Regardless… I don’t really feel like this story was that Bluebeard-y. Fox is killing fictional “wives” and I’m pretty sure his actual wife knows about them the whole time (I mean, unless she doesn’t read his work?) I don’t know.

J: One thing I keep wondering is who is the intended audience for the book? It’s obviously very literary, mythical almost. Who is that appealing to? At this particular point in my life, it’s not really me. And I kind of felt bad about it. I know I didn’t really give this book my 100% full devoted attention. It didn’t feel like it was for me, and if it wasn’t for the fact that we were doing it together, I definitely would have DNF’d this one.

This is the first time in a long time I thought about cheating and reading reviews to help me make sense of the book.

K: Did you read reviews? The final story (where a fox… sort of turns into a human… I think…?) kind of reminds me of that book where that woman turns into a chair or some shit like that.

J: THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE. Ugh. I’m looking up reviews now, and honestly, I’m not sure they know what to make of it either. Here’s a review in the New York Times talking about how great it is. OH! And I just noticed that it was written by Aimee Bender, the author of PSoLC. OF COURSE.

K. Ha. It all comes around full circle, eh? Sooo… I mentioned this before as something I sort of shuffled to the side, but… do you think Mary is real?

J: I don’t know. Maybe she’s Daphne? The thing is, I didn’t care enough to do the work to find out what was going on. You used the movie metaphor earlier, but the experience of reading is like swimming in the ocean. I’m just riding the wave of the language, but not stopping to examine much. If I did, I’d probably drown.

K: Well put. I must say, though, that the language in this book is lovely. Check this passage:
The first moment in the tomb was the most forbidding. The silence, the stillness, the dark. 
Then they realised: They were together, and there was no one else. She felt his lips tremble against her forehead. After that he became courageous and brought his arms down around her. He kissed her closed eyelids and he kissed her mouth and he kissed handfuls of her hair and he kissed her elbows. She placed her brass ring on the palm of his hand and closed his fingers around it. He opened his hand and the ring was gone. It had not fallen, unless it had fallen through him, and if so, it had left no mark. No more counting kisses. 
Reynardine had thrown a candle and a box of matches in with them. They didn’t need the candle... In the darkness they learnt to waltz. Then they lit the candle anyway—why not? And they let its flame warm their stone house for a little while as they danced on behind their locked door. [108]
Just beautiful.

J: Yes, I would definitely agree with that. Her language is lush and rich. I enjoyed that part a lot, but it still felt slippery. Beautiful language alone didn’t give me enough to hang on to.

K: Oh, man… this review on Goodreads is perfect: “This book is so capital-m Meta that it's probably illegal to write a review of it.” HA! Sometimes I like a weird book, but this one didn’t really work for me.

All right! I'm publishing this on the last day of 2017. Gonna hit up Dream of Perpetual Motion now and then we'll turn our attention to 2018!

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Completed: Cunt

[Jenny, you wrote this in August. It's November, and I am finally adding the Bitmojis and publishing... it is amazing to me how the events of just the last month would change some of this discussion. I'm going to leave this time capsule right here, though. -kelly]


This book was your pick, and it had been on your TBR shelf since 2000. I had never heard of it before, so it was a new to me read.

Cunt is feminist manifesto that was written in the late 90s but was updated with a long afterward in 2009. This is a difficult book to write about and we both had our struggles with it.

First of all, let's get the elephant out of the room: the fixation on a body part as the defining characteristic presents some problems given how quickly our understanding of gender is changing. In the 90s, we did not understand the concept of "transgender" in the same way we do now. Right from the get-go, you and I both had some yucky feelings about this. The author does address it in her afterward, but to me, it felt like a more wholesale rewrite was in order. The author ends up sounding like a TERF throughout the book and neither of us liked it much. I'll return to this idea at the end of the review.

Early on in my reading, I texted you saying something like, "This book is way too woo for me." You rightly pointed out that was probably the reason to KEEP reading rather than give up on it. Eventually, I decided to focus on the parts of the book that did work for me rather than the parts that didn't. For example, I was completely fine with her talking about her abortions, but was rolling my eyes at the whole, "I self-induced a miscarriage with some herbs, massages, and the power of my thoughts!"

For me, the most powerful part of the book was her discussion of rape. That was the place I was most in alignment with her. Fuck yes, the idea that women spend their entire lives afraid of being raped is just bananas. The pervasiveness of rape culture and the way it impacts us makes me so angry. At one point, she explains how her mother finally told her daughters she had been raped. She writes, "A man could, feasibly, sacrifice his coffee break raping a woman. That woman would then spend her entire life dealing with it. So would her daughters. So would theirs. This distribution of power is not acceptable" (146). This struck me as absolutely true. My friends who have been raped will never get over it, the pain is still palpable and powerful in a way that is heartbreaking. I'm sure you have had the same experience. While reading this book together, we both reflected on how there is a basic and profound difference in how much freedom men and women have over their own bodies.

During our discussions, you spoke a lot about the role of the media and how the Internet is shifting the landscape for women. The part of the afterward where she discussed George W. Bush was especially powerful for you. You and I had a similar conversation when I read a book you gave me, 100 Demons by Lynda Berry. Given the current US Administration Nightmare, there's been so much retroactive, "Hey W wasn't so bad!" rhetoric. But it's not true! And reading about the pain and anger of people at that time reminded both of us how upsetting it was. The horrifying urgency of now does not erase the mistakes of yesterday. But our reaction to/actions against the horrors are so different now than they were then... the Internet has made organizing the Resistance possible. Not that there were not effective pre-Internet protests and movements, of course. There certainly were, but today, the accessibility to the information is right at our fingertips. Rather than plan a rally months in advance, we can motivate and get the word our to our networks immediately. Even during W's presidency, the web was not nearly has complex as it is today and far more people can and are getting involved in this fight.

We had a hard time focusing on the book itself, instead using it as a springboard to talk about how the issues described play out in real life. We talked about memory and forgetting and how to make sense of how retrograde and regressive the world is becoming. This book honestly left us both a little despondent.

Although it's A manifesto, it wasn't OUR manifesto. We talked about how the framework for this call to action is so troubling: embrace the power of your cunt! Isn't it the case that men embracing the power of their dicks is a huge reason the world is completely fucked up? Do we really want to mimic these failures as a metaphor for our power as women?

You pointed out that there has to be something different, more honest and open, about the way we talk about the power of being a woman -- and all women! not just white, cisgendered, heterosexual women! -- So let's embrace our power as one that's inclusive, welcoming, and freeing. I don't need cunt-swinging to be a metaphor for my power or yours. I want the world to be different, but this fucken approach didn't quite speak to either of us.


Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Completed: What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding


What I did While You Were Breeding is a memoir of TV writer Kristin Newman’s international travels, served up with a big helping of her international love affairs. This memoir was great for a lot of reasons. It was charming and clever; but mostly, it was such a treat to read this book after all of the heavy shit we’ve been reading.

As you know, I’m no fan of the memoir. I’m mistrustful and never truly believe that the author has such a vivid memoir [Aside: you rightly pointed out that just because my own memory is so spotty doesn’t mean that everyone’s memory is like that! Ha!] However, now that I think about it, the x-factor for the memoirs I have enjoyed does seem to be “women in the entertainment industry dish about love and romance.” This topic was a hit for me with Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Patti Smith’s Just Kids---but I think it also has to do with tone. I like the memoirs that are “Here’s a cool story that you might want to read about” vs. “I am self-important and let me tell you about my journey.” The ones I enjoy are breezy AF. They’re fast. You don’t read a lot of memoirs, either, just generally not being a fan of non-fiction.

We did have some interesting discussions about the memory issue. You pointed out that memoirs don’t have to provide absolute truth. An author’s job is to present a story as she remembers it happening, so the expectation is not that this is exactly how it happened. The key to the memoir isn’t reporting, it’s about self-reflection. I have to admit that this is fantastically good point, and if I’m able to remember this as a mantra, I may give more memoirs a chance--especially if they’re written by the ladies of Hollywood. Heh.

There’s a lot of great stuff in this book. For both of us, we related to a story that Kristin tells about going on vacation as a child. Kristin says, “I was a shy little girl and an only child, so on vacations I was usually playing alone, too afraid to go up to the happy group of kids and introduce myself. Finally, on one vacation, my mother asked me which I would rather have: a vacation with no friends, or one scary moment. So I gathered up all of my courage, and swam over to the kids, and there was one scary moment… and then I had friends for the first time on vacation. After that, one scary moment became something I was always willing to have in exchange for the possible payoff” (13). This is such a great moment in the book---both thematically for what comes after in the text, but also advice for approaching life. Even last week when we were on vacation, I thought about this moment of the book. I think it’s going to stick with me for a long time.

I especially liked how sex-positive and unapologetic Kristin is about her life and her choices. This is a book about a woman fucking her way through the world, and having the time of her life doing it. Once I got into the book, I realized how clever the title is. At first, “what I was doing when you were breeding” sounds like the author is judgmental. After all, calling parents “breeders” does feel really aggressive to me since I am one. However, as Kristin continues to tell her story, it’s clear that she is the one who has been judged. She knows people don’t approve of her choices or her many lovers, and this is a book that celebrates her life choices as being just as valid and affirming as those that are more “traditional.”

Finally, Kristin gives lots of advice and tips for how to be a good traveler. In particular, she includes a long list that shows that being a good traveler is a disposition and a state of mind. She says that the best way to travel is to be flexible, go with the flow, know your budget, and do your best to blend in with the locals. There’s another funny “lesson” in the book that is something very similar to what my brother-in-law Nate taught me: in times of stress or trouble, always go to the nearest luxury hotel.

We also spent some time talking about the ending of the book. She ends up settling down and marrying a man with kids. It’s not unexpected that she would grow and change, but in a book that celebrates her bohemian, free-wheeling lifestyle, what does it mean for her to end the book with a slow descent into normalcy? Maybe it’s related to a theme that repeats throughout the book, which is to enjoy perfect moments when they happen. Traveling, like life, demands that we be in the moment. It’s impossible to go back and recreate a perfect time. For Kristin, that crazy time of being young and free to do whatever is over, and a new adventure has begun. But I’ll always like to think of her on a beach somewhere, fucking her brains out.


Thursday, July 27, 2017

Completed: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl

Dear Jenny,

Sometime within the past couple of years, Squirrel Girl was on my radar, but I hadn't really checked it out. When we were picking books to read this year, two of our categories were "superhero comic with a female lead" and "all-ages comic" and you suggested The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. Based on our bitmojis for this book... we liked it: 

That's a lot of hearts right there.

The series is still ongoing -- we read the first 3 trade paperbacks, which collect, basically, the first 16 issues of SG + some other stories (more about that in a minute):
  • Vol 1: Squirrel Power 
  • Vol 2: Squirrel You Know It's True 
  • Vol 3: Squirrel, You Really Got Me Now
[Aside: Is there anything not to love about these books? Even these titles are hilarious. Other volume titles are: I Kissed a Squirrel and I Liked it and Like I'm the Only Squirrel in the World. Bwahaha!]

You loved Squirrel Girl after you used it as as choice in a comic book unit. Squirrel Girl is an example of a female superhero who isn’t trying to imitate men. It’s incredibly body-positive. For example, at one point, Doreen tucks in her tail and it fills her pants. She admires herself in the mirror and says, “My ass looks awesome.” She's excited to start college, meet new friends, and start studying computer science. Squirrel Girl values teamwork, communication, and community and often solves problems through discussion and cooperation rather than butt-kicking. I mean, don’t get me wrong, she’ll kick butts [and, of course, eats nuts] if she has to, but it’s refreshing to see that as a last resort rather than the first option. Squirrel Girl shows that women don't need to be like men, or to solve problems like a man, to be successful.

We talked a lot about the gender dynamics in comics: the “boys club” of writers and pencilers who close ranks and sideline female characters when things are happening, or draw them as nothing more than tits and ass. Although the Squirrel Girl creative team is a man and a woman, it just feels like a totally different kind of comic. Even though we only agreed to read the first three books, we both kept reading. You pointed out that the Mole Man arc in Book 4 could be used to teach consent and boundaries, and Doreen is a character who brought both of us hope and joy---which is something we need now more than ever!

There are many, many things to love about Squirrel Girl, not the least of which is the tiny commentary at the bottom of each page. As we were calling it, the "kid whistle" text. Heh. That's perfect, because I'm not sure that many older readers can even see that text, let alone read it. It's tiny and it's light golden brown --  it is clearly intended for those who can make it out. I don’t know if this is intentional or not, but one nice thing about it is that it slows you down as you’re reading -- I often burn right through comics, but with these, you have to slow down and take a careful look at what is written at the bottom of each page (and it’s worth it, cause it’s hilarious).

The only thing minor nit we had about these books and, really, comic books in general, is that it's difficult to figure out bizarro numbering protocol of the issues. For instance, Vols 1 and 2 are collections of "Volume 1, 1-8." Vol 3 is "Volume 2, 1-6." What? What makes up volumes? Oh, here’s someone breaking down the messed up numbering -- it was a weirdo Marvel choice to blow everything up and then re-build and SG got caught in the crossfire.  As you pointed out, this is another thing that makes the bar even higher for people to enter the world of reading comics -- as if it’s not hard enough to walk into a comic book store with zero comic knowledge [except for yours, I know -- that’s a very welcoming one!] it feels like you have to be an “insider” just to understand the numbering system! Now that I think of it… I do not think this sort of exclusionary behavior would be Doreen-approved.

I think the only thing about Squirrel Girl that we differed in opinions on was the Letters section: I love it and you do not. I was so surprised that you don't read them -- I find the interaction between fans and authors to be very charming (esp. from little girls). It turns out you do look at the cosplay photos, but just cannot stand the formatting of the letters on the page -- there are some justification and general design issues; the responses are bold and inconsistently formatted; and, as you recalled from our High School yearbook days: “ECHO says ‘No trapped copy!’” (there is, in fact, trapped copy). All of that doesn’t bother me -- it reminds me of Letters pages of yore, when reading comics as a kid. You made a good point there that, when we were kids, it was nice to read the letters from other people in the world and realize, “Look! Other people feel the same way as I do!” and now… we have the Internet for that. I still like old-school stuff (real mail, film cameras, etc.) so I guess that’s my thing. Thinking more about it, I just don’t think they want to spend/waste a lot of time formatting that page (if they did, they’d probably have to cut it entirely) so this is how they get those letters out there. And hey, if young kids are reading SG (and I hope they are!) then they can connect with other fans without Internet use.

In conclusion, we love Squirrel Girl and are so happy that this comic exists in the world.


Sunday, June 18, 2017

Completed: Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

We read this book a while ago and took tons of notes, so I’m going to try to preserve as much of the conversation as possible for this entry….which is just going to be super long! We talked about so much!

How it got on our list

Kelly: I suggested reading this book after a friend asked “Hey, have you read that book A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America? I think you would find it interesting.” I said, “No -- that does sound interesting! I’ll have to look into it.” And then she texted me a photo of the cover. And it was Stamped from the Beginning, which was already sitting on my TBR shelf! Heh. She’s an academic and you know they love their subtitles.

Since then, she’s been using it as a textbook for at least one of her classes and she says that her students are finding it super readable, so I’m looking forward to that. [Ed. Note: To everyone’s surprise “super readable” has a different context in academia than in the jennyandkellyreadbooks blog.]

Jenny: We put it on our list, and I added it to my Amazon shopping cart when I needed to have enough to get the “add-on” items. I was secretly hoping to convince you we should read it sooner rather than later. But after TPB (The Putin Book) and Underground Railroad, I figured we’d have to wait a while. We were so exhausted from those books, would we be ready to tackle something that looked so intense right away? [We weren’t.]

The book

We had a pretty long discussion about the prologue, which isn’t something you can skip. As Jenny said, “it really should have had a different name. Something like, 'Chapter one.'” We talked about how we often skip Prologues, but we're so glad we didn't skip this one, as it outlines three words that are the foundation for understanding racist ideas throughout the entire text. Kendi argues that historically, there have been three sides to the discussion about race in America:
A group we can call segregationists has blamed black people themselves for the racial disparities. A group we can call antiracists has pointed to racial discrimination. A group we can call assimilationists has tried to argue for both, saying that Black people and racial discrimination were to blame for racial disparities. (2)
For an example of this IRL, listen to this podcast with Kendi where he explains it in these simple terms: Black Lives Matter is anti-racist, Blue Lives Matter is segregationist, and All Lives Matter is assimilationist. Even though these ideas weren’t exactly new, something about Kendi’s language and description was so clean and precise. Both of us had the experience of reading this book as organizing many of the things we already knew into a more logical and meaningful way in our brains.

Part of the reason this is so important is that Americans believe that assimilationist thinking isn’t racist. But both segregationist and assimilationist thinking is racist. Full stop. Even as a I go back and write this, I feel sort of dumb for not really “getting” that before. But then again, if there’s a second major take-away in this book, it’s to demonstrate just how powerful racist ideas are and the way that they so effortlessly morph and change through the generations.

Kendi argues a second major point in the prologue: racist ideas are created and used to justify racist policies. Policies are created that benefit rich white men, and racist ideas are created afterwards to justify it. As racial progress happens, new racist ideas are created to prevent that progress from happening. In other words, racist policies always come first and racist ideas come along behind to justify them.

It’s probably important to talk about the organization of the book. Stamped from the Beginning advances through American history in chronological order, with each of the five major sections using the life of a famous American at that time for showing the development and advancement of racist ideas: Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison,  WEB Du Bois, and Angela Davis. As a general rule, this worked better for us when we already knew a lot about either the person or that historical era. I have previously discussed how the organization of non-fiction can feel inorganic and clunky. It makes sense to use real people to show the power of racist ideas, but the marriage of storytelling to history is never quite seamless.

The first section about Cotton Mather was especially difficult. Neither of us were as familiar with this part of history, and it felt a little boring at times. Kelly said, “For the most part, even when things that I’ve never thought about were pointed out as racist, I was all ‘Yup. Yup. Oh, yeah. I totally see that. Sure.’” But we also discussed the book’s claim that Newton calling “white light” contributed to racist ideas. It raises the question if the words “white” and “black” now *only* refer to race? That was a sincere question, and one that we chewed over for a while. After all, it’s clear as day that even today in pop culture, the good guys/bad buys are often portrayed as white/light and dark/black. Jenny wondered why it’s so easy to see that now, but we struggle when we talk about where those ideas may have originated. We call our skin “white” even though it’s peach or beige. Isn’t white light really “clear” more than it is white?

Of the subsequent chapters, I’d say that I really enjoyed the Thomas Jefferson section because I think he’s the perfect example of how we lionize and excuse horrible racists. I actually want to kick the shit out of anyone who talks about Jefferson being “in a relationship” or “in love” with Sally Hemmings. And Kendi thoroughly debunks all of that, although Kelly did find reference to “intercourse” rather than rape. Overall, Kendi is firmly committed to intersectionality and always discusses how racism combines with sexism and other forms of bigotry.

Kelly found the WEB Du Bois chapter to be particularly strong, especially because his personal journey from assimilationist to antiracist is so compelling. [Kelly here -- adding this a few months after we read this book: I still think about this a LOT. The idea that we all have an opportunity to "do better" and that it's within our power to do so, if we want to. I guess it gives me hope -- if an antiracist historical icon such as Du Bois had to go on a journey to become antiracist then 1. We all probably have some journey to go on and 2. It's a journey we can all take.]

Once we get into this section, the book also starts to take on a weight and heft as the accumulated centuries of racist thought reveal themselves to be so malleable. Even though we’ve been trained to believe that things have gotten better (and they have in so many ways!), it was in this section that we also see how little has changed. As Kendi states, “Racist logic didn’t have to be logical; it just had to make common sense.” (303)

Angela Davis is a bad-ass, and learning more about her was one of the real pleasures of this book. We had a lot of questions about the source material, and at times wished for more extensive endnotes, but that's a pretty minor complaint. Several times, I wished there was a similar book on feminism that told it as a long story.

The Takeaways

Even though we didn’t come to a satisfactory conclusion on Newton, both of us did talk about how the book illuminates the world around us. Over and over again, it challenged what we have both been taught as white people, which is to assume that philosophers, scientists, and thinkers are “neutral” when it fact they are just as steeped in racist ideas as we are, and that they often explicitly advance those racist ideas to further their own agenda.

Throughout the book, we both noticed that the way racism works now is entirely the same as how it worked in the past. Here’s a list of some those moments where we exclaimed something like "This is still the same today!"
  • Rich white people use poor white people to advance their own wealth and power at the expense of black people.
  • Black people’s actions are always viewed through a lens of criminality and deviance.
  • Failures of individual black people to thrive are always blamed on individual choices rather than racist politics and policies.
  • Black women treated as either hyper-sexualized or ignored as hapless victims.
  • White people are always seen as individuals with compelling reasons for their behavior, while black people are always generalized as a part of their group identity.
  • Respectability politics (or "uplift suasion," as our author calls it) is the carrot by which black people are lured into believing whites will accept them, but it never works.
  • White Northerners believe that “real racists” are in the South, so they never evaluate the ways Northerners have created, embraced, and furthered racist ideas
Finally, although this was a often difficult read for a variety of reasons (content, writing style, disconnect with the historical figures), it was well worth it. Reading this book changed both of us --we each think about it ALL THE TIME, and the segregationist-assimilationist-antiracist language will forever be useful to us in both our personal and professional lives.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Completed: Underground Railroad

Dear Jenny,

We kind of struggled to find the right Bitmoji for this one because... oof. Heavy. In the end, we're sad and drinking... together:
"So, we're reading Underground Railroad."
We have both had this book on our TBR shelves for quite some time, but just have not been able to get into it. For me, every time I started it, I just... couldn't. You know, the slavery.

We should also say that this post is FULL ON SPOILERIFIC, if anyone stumbles across this that isn't us!

For you, it was about the author -- you liked Sag Harbor a lot, but have struggled with Whitehead's other books. The thing you were dreading about this book was readability. Turns out, it's extremely readable. I've only read The Intuitionist, which I remember being very readable, but it was also his debut novel, so perhaps before he developed his more impenetrable style? Like Underground Railroad, that book took some liberties with reality (I guess I would call it "magical realism"), which I do tend to enjoy.

This book is masterfully written and we both agreed that "accessibility" is good -- more people will read it (hopefully!) We compared that to Beloved, which was often so difficult read.

I am cleaning up our notes to publish this blog post, and I found this quote. I think it's from you, but we feel the exact same way about this:

"I want every fucking person in the universe to read this. Especially the section on Georgia [the terrifying plantation where Cora begins her journey]. This was terrible. Every person in this country should read this book -- if you wonder why we're in our current state, read this and see how we haven't faced this history."

As you put it, "This book is 'hunting for big game'" -- by showing that each state with a different treatment for slaves, it shows the many facets of slavery and that not every horror is the same, but still horrific. Slavery was terrible. In this book, Whitehead used each state/stop on the Underground Railroad to a illustrate different way that we repressed slaves. We discussed each state separately, talking not only about Cora's life, but also the history it uncovers.

Georgia -- Plantation 
I don't really have a ton of stuff to say about this. I mean, it's a plantation. Her owners are horrible. It's all horrific. We get some graphic descriptions here and it's a good setup for why Cora decides to GTFO. And yet, one of the things that is most interesting about her character is that the reader sees how hard it is for her to imagine freedom. We both admired the bravery it would take to believe that there could be something better worth risking her life to find.

You noticed that the "good" people at the plantation were named "Garner" -- that had to be a call out to the Sweet Home Plantation in Beloved.

South Carolina -- Eugenics
Cora seems to get off to a good start here, as her life is far better (it seems) than on the plantation. She considers staying here, but we both felt the impending sense of: "Look out! Keep running!" while reading this. The dread at what is to come is thick in this chapter.

When she gets put on display as the museum, I wanted to throw up. I actually had to stop reading for a bit. As you said, it's just as bad as any other form of work for a slave. Being on display is dehumanizing. I thought that some people might think "Oh, this isn't so bad..." when they read this and that's part of what made me sick. It's wrong and terrible.

But wait! There's more! The text turns to describing the eugenics movement, which here was about forced sterilization. Jenny, you mentioned being moved by how this grim history is made so poignant when Cora says that taking away people's babies takes away their future. In this way, Whitehead shows that racism steals both the past and future from slaves.

North Carolina -- Unwilling abolitionists
Cora spends and unbearably long period of time in the attic of the the unwilling abolitionists with a horrific view of the Friday night hangings. The people who house her are white people who help in the most perfunctory way possible. They fall into it accidentally, then don't really know how to get out of it with their lives intact. Which, of course, they don't.

You said this: "The maid is a Trump voter. She fucks herself over, but she doesn't care because she fucks over someone else." Exactly. I found that scene to be so horrible -- as she accuses her employers, I thought, "But wait -- you will also lose your job. That's not good for you, either!" But you nailed it. Seeing someone else get fucked is worth it. Ugh.

You also noticed that this is a pretty damning portrayal of the abolitionists. These white people think they know better, are still steeped in racism, and are demanding and unkind. It's impossible to not think of today's struggles where white people always want to "be the voice" for people of color.

Tennessee -- Scorched earth
Looking back on this section, there's lots of clear and specific references in the text to the Trail of Tears. This section seems far more metaphorical, but it reminds me of how after slavery, white people wouldn't allow freed black slaves to own any land. We're reading more about that now in Stamped from the Beginning. I think it's just so clear that the sins of slavery have been sown into the land, making it toxic for generations.

This is also where she and Ridgeway (the slave catcher hunting her) actually speak and talk. She gives him a lot of flak and he takes it. It's clear that Cora would rather die than go back to the plantation and have them kill her in front of everyone as an example.

One thing you particularly remembered about this part was when Cora is rescued by some other black men. She sees one with a gun, and her mind literally can't comprehend. She had never even contemplated such a thing before. It reminded you of Cora's flight from the plantation: everything is new, her whole way of seeing the world has been changed. It's a small moment of character development, but an important one.

Indiana -- the illusion of freedom
Cora is now a black community, which seems ideal. Of course, that cannot possibly stand. Even though she has found love, it's hard not to feel so much dread. The book hammers home again that any prosperity or freedom will be seen as a threat to white people, and they will crush it. It's interesting Ridgeway's own comrade, a boy he'd freed, is the one who betrays them. This book really does take on everything, including internalized racism!  The boy ruins someone else's life but it doesn't matter because he protects himself, or thinks he is avenging Ridgeway. Which, in many ways, reminded me of the maid in North Carolina.

One of our biggest surprises was how many people in the ToB commentariat this year found Cora to be cold, unknowable, or distant. Neither of us felt that way at all! She wasn't just a character in service to the task of telling the story. As hard as the book was to read because of the content, caring about Cora is what kept us going.

Let's take a look at this response from the Commentariat related to this "Cora was distant" topic. Because it's basically perfect.

Even though it wasn't an intimate character sketch, there were so many small moments that show us Cora. One example that we discussed is when a white abolitionist hugs her and she thinks "This is what it is now? I have to allow white people to hug me?" As you said -- it seems unlikely that a white author could have written that! It's this perfect moment in the text where black readers might think of a time they felt like Cora did, and we hope white readers will put themselves in the shoes of the abolitionist and think about when they were insensitive and careless. It really cuts one way. And it's one reason the book is so brilliant overall -- there's all the big things he's doing, but the best books also have these perfectly formed insights. Here, in this single moment, Whitehead tells us about Cora, but also about ourselves.

In some ways, I likened the Commentariat's judgment of Cora to that scene: "It's not enough that you're reading my horrific story? I also have to be super likeable and knowable to you?"

Finally, we find out about Cora's mother, which was just devastating. After Cora spends her whole life believing that her mother abandoned her, we, the readers, find out the truth: her mother died of a snakebite while she was on her way back to get Cora. And Cora will never know that. That's one more horror of slavery: not knowing what happened to your loved ones. Even worse: being separated from your family is what happened when you were a slave, and it's also what happened when you were free. This book. Even after escaping slavery, they were still in danger. Cora blames herself for not running when her lover thinks that they should. She should be able to stay where she is free. She ends up on the run. There's no rest.

Wrapping it Up
It was almost impossible not to read the book in light of where we are now as a country. Never facing up to the truth of slavery, still not being able to face up to the truth of slavery, not being able to see how racism just readjusts and finds a new path for itself has left us a broken country.

I thought that this quote summed up the "what was true then is still true now" situation:
And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes — believes with all its heart — that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn't exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are. [285]
We both agreed that this book was brilliant. I'm not sure this "review" did it justice, but as we've discussed... our brains are like sieves these days. There's a constant stream of "FUUUUUUUUUUUUCCCCKKK!!" running through our heads that is, at best, distracting. So.

Read this book, America. You'll be better off for it.


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Completed: The Man Without a Face


Continuing the 2017 Bitmoji theme... we actually used these in a text conversation about this book! I guess this probably says all you need to know about what this book was like for us.

Whelp. You and I read this really depressing book together, basically trying to be better citizens of the world... but mostly scaring the shit out of ourselves. After the 2016 US presidential election and the news that Russia had influenced the outcome, I asked a FB friend with extensive Russia knowledge to recommend something to read. Kristina recommended this book, The Man Without a Face, saying that you can't understand modern Russia without understanding Putin.

It's easy to summarize this book: Putin does terrible things! But our reading was definitely filtered through the experience of reading with a newly inaugurated tRump in the White House. For both of us, it was discomfiting to read what feels like a futurecast of how things could or might turn out here. You took to calling it "tRump's playbook" (or I guess, Bannon's playbook?), which seems terrifying. I don't want to live in a dictatorship! What can we do to stop it?

In fact, we spent a lot of time talking about how we were grateful that it had been written pre-tRump. Had it been written after, it seemed likely we would have concluded that the Putin's flaws were massaged to highlight the similarities to tRump. Perhaps we would have been skeptical, but since it was written years ago, it was there for us to discover on our own.

One of the pleasures of this book is how great the writing is. Gessen is a journalist, and she weaves a tight and highly readable tale of Putin's rise from lowly KGB agent to Russian President. She makes it easy to follow the complex geography of places and people that populate the book.

However, I think for both of us, it was impossible to read descriptions of Putin's worldviewhis greed, his pettiness, his need to control and manipulate others, his megalomania, his inability to have others question himwithout thinking: this sounds like an exact description of tRump! Here's a selection of some of those lines below:
"No one is easier to manipulate than a man who exaggerates his own influence" (18). 
"Putin could not resist taking it all...On several occasions, at least one of them embarrassingly public, Putin acted like a person afflicted with kleptomania" (258). 
"The person I described in this bookshallow, self-involved, and not terribly perceptive, and apparently very poorly informedwas indeed the person running Russia, to the extent that Russia was being run" (304).
I think there were a few scenes that stood out to both of us: Putin and his wife returning from Germany with a 20 year old washing machine, an unbearable luxury in Russia; the stealing of the Super Bowl ring from the Patriots owner; and the chilling scene where the author meets Putin, only to realize he doesn't know who she is. All dictators are out of touch with the people whose lives they destroy, either from disinterest or from the people around him being afraid to tell him the truth. Impossible not to make the connection to tRump, who shows us every day that he knows nothing about our country, its citizens, or our government.

Here are a couple of "notes" that you made in your book that sum up how we felt as each new Chapter of Doom piled on:

Given tRump's open war on media going on at this very moment in our country, this does not seem like a good sign for us. That chapter was followed by:

Also Not. Good.

This chapter read like a harrowing account of what is going to happen to our own country, and soon. Granted, we have had democracy longer than Russia has, but there were many, many parts of this plan that felt like, "Oh... that's... totally plausible..."

Both of us found the description of how Putin harnessed right-wing hatred for LGBTQ Russians to create a kind of axis of hatred to be surprising and terrifying, especially after there was some hope demonstrated with the marches and the voter turnout! After he decided to attack the gays, other countries banded together behind that flag of hatred and decided he was a man on a holy mission.

Who are we fighting, Kelly? I don't know about you, but the descent to this kind of tribalism scares the everloving crap out of me. I want people to be better. We talked about the differences between our country and Russia, our long history of freedom, widely available social media, education – but will that be enough to save us from those who embrace hatred and authoritarianism as the twisted new American way?


Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Completed: A Confederacy of Dunces


Talk about taking one for the team! Our read of A Confederacy of Dunces to start off the year came about in a really weird way. I had posted some dumb Facebook challenge--sum up the plot of your favorite novel in six words---and my husband posted a six word description of A Confederacy of Dunces. You texted me the equivalent of WUT?!?! and a book challenge was born. 

Basically, we agreed to read (re-read for you, first time read for me) this book, and Darrell agreed to read along with us and be our special guest. 

When we started, your two mindsets could not be more different. Lol. 

The Rereaders and DNFer
Darrell first read this book in a college class (editor's note: LONG TIME AGO!) on Southern Fiction. One of the most interesting parts to me is that Darrell said, "changed my perspective on the South." As you know, the South is not Darrell's favorite place (editor's note: this is a radical understatement), so reading something that helped explain this place and that was also a farce was a real win for him. Farce has always been one of his favorite genres in comedy, and he didn't know it existed in "literature" until he read this book.

Kelly had already read it and *ahem* disliked it. She read it with a book group, and as far as she can remember, they read it as straight fiction, not as a farce/satire/etc. She cannot remember anyone thinking the book was funny; everyone hated the main character and everything he did and wondered why anyone would enjoy this book.

Jenny had started this book at some point---it was her husband's favorite book of all time!--but honestly found it so tedious that she gave up in the first 30 or so pages. "We can still have true love and different tastes in books," she remembers thinking.

This time around, Kelly and Darrell read it via aBook while Jenny read the pBook.

Conversation 1
I for one were really happy we talked to Darrell about it as we read. Having him keep saying, "Don't you think it's funny?" helped me get to the parts that were truly humorous. For me, that wasn't until Ignatius got the job at the Levy Pants factory.

Darell pointed out that the most biting satire is about work: who works, who doesn't, who has to work, who doesn't work, who is made to work. We all liked the character of Trixie, who is forxed to work even though she only wants to retire. Furthermore, with the setting being New Orleans--- it places the book firmly in relationship to the Civil Rights movement. This leads to the ultimate question: what is the ultimate concept of work in a place like the South, where people were forced to work? This setting allows the author to explore modern influences in our society and how they've adapted to the systems of our culture--sexism, racism, feminism, etc.

Kelly noticed that the author was an especially astute observer of race relations, which is not a skill we attribute  to that many white folks, especially white folks in the 60s. In fact, with this ridiculous character, the author recognizes that this is not the right way to bridge the racial divide. This is a topic that is being addressed far more publicly today (2017) so it's interesting to see Toole recognizing it in the 1960s. Darrell agreed, saying that the best part about the writing how observational it is, hitting on all these details without shying away from what he sees.

Darrell talked about the description of what he saw as the "passivity of southern black culture" in the text. He went on to say, "My relationship to people I grew up with in the south--I had a friend like Ignatius, his dad committed suicide--his house looked like a plantation. He never worked! I always had a job, but he never had to work. And the whole notion of work was scary. He had an elitist perspective about work." I thought this was especially interesting because I think one of the things that Darrell and I have most in common is a belief in hard work.

We wrapped up the first conversation by talking about some of the female characters, especially the Mother. She's this fascinating creature that is a complete paradox: nature vs nurture; her pride and intolerance of her son; her spoiling and shaming of him. Kelly pointed out that the "donut scene" where she offers Mancuso the leftover, picked over donuts is the author's way of making sure we know that Mom is the one who created and is feeding the beast that is Ignatius. Jenny did a lot of inappropriate giggling at all of the homoerotic imagery used by Ignatious---lots of hot dogs and Dr. Nuts in this book.

Kelly and Darrell both said that the aBook is terrific and laughed over Jones' pronunciation of "whoa" and "ooowee."

Convo 2:
I didn't take as many notes this time. We talked a lot about how this book is character-driven vs. plot-driven, and the various challenges that presents to the reader.

The plot itself just builds to a farcical crescendo, the most memorable part of which might be Ignatius running around New Orleans with a cutlass! Darrell admired how the author was crafty in the way he created the story, demonstrating how we're all interconnected. We can complain about everything but you'd be surprised how much gravitas you carry for the people around you. Darrell said, "There's no plot!" and Jenny grumbled, "Yes, that's my problem!" Lol.

As a character, Ignatius always blames everyone else for his problems, but his perception of why things are the way they are---fortuna--which compels everything to happen, and he's powerless to help it. We all thought he was pretty loathsome and unwilling to accept any responsibility, but he's  a catalyst, making things happen for all the characters around him. Darrell thought that in this way, Ignatius stands in for the South itself, it carries everyone down a road, it impacts who they are, their outcomes,  but anyone can better their situation. He thinks that the people who end up okay have some sort of impetus, motivation, or drive.

The ending was sort of a let down. Since I was the only one reading a pBook, I could tell that the book was ending, but Kelly said she was surprised it had ended. Especially with the frenetic pace of the plot up until the street fight, the ending just seemed to lose its steam. Darrell, though, pointed out that it played, tempo-wise, very much like a Mardi Gras funeral. The slowness, the mournfulness, seemed almost purposeful.

I honestly would not have enjoyed the book nearly as much without all the conversation, and I'm sure that Darrell and Kelly felt the same way.

Signing off until Putin strikes. Ooowee!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Our books for 2017

Wow! This is our seventh year of committing to reading books from our To Be Read (TBR) piles and talking about them on this here blog. Dang!

New Format for 2017

For the previous six years, we each selected our own list of books and worked on them independently. For the last two years, we have also chosen a few books to read together throughout the year. Since we enjoyed that so much (and kind of struggled to get through our independent lists in 2016...), we decided to read all of our books together this year. 

So this has turned into a little 2-woman virtual book group. (We do have a special guest in January to mix things up, though.)

2016 was the first year that we were not a part of a larger reading challenge. We missed that experience, so we looked around and found... the Book Riot 2017 Read Harder Challenge.

We then went through our TBR shelves and chose books that we had that would fit the 24 Read Harder (RH) categories and we compiled our joint list for 2017:

Our 2017 Books 

Our chosen books, in alphabetical order (RH categorie[s] that the book fulfills are in parentheses):
  1. Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges
    (book set in Central or South America/written by a Central or South American author; book published between 1900 and 1950 )
  2. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
    (debut novel) 
  3. Cunt: A Declaration of Independence by Inga Muscio
    (book published by a micropress) 
  4. The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer
    (fantasy novel)
  5. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
    (book about books; book you’ve read before) 
  6. for colored girls who have considered suicide, when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange
    (classic by an author of color; collection of stories by a woman)
  7. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
    (book that has been banned or frequently challenged in your country)
  8. The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen
    (book that is set more than 5000 miles from your location)
  9. Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
    (book by an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative)
  10. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
    (book about war)
  11. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl by Ryan North
    (superhero comic with a female lead; all-ages comic)
  12. Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
    (book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color; book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey)
  13. Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil
    (nonfiction book about technology)
  14. What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman
    (travel memoir)
Note: We choose 14 books in case any of them are unbearable and we need to ditch them. In the past, we have aimed to read 12 per year. Of course, if we want a chance at "winning" the challenge, we'll be readin' all 14. Stay tuned!

There were 24 categories on the form (<-- that is the form with our books filled in) and these are the ones that we did not select books for together:
  • A book about sports. (Jenny feels confident that a ToB book is going to fulfill this category.)
  • A book that is set within 100 miles of your location (since we don't live less than 200 miles apart, no one book could fit this for both of us. Jenny is going to read Negroland by Margo Jefferson and Kelly is going to read The Sugar House by Jean Scheffler. We may or may not report on these here. It's our blog, so we do what we want. Heh.)
  • A YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+ (Jenny recommends Not Your Sidekick by CB Lee, which fills both this category and the next, but she's already read it.)
  • An LGBTQ+ romance novel.
  • A collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love.

Reading and Discussion Schedule

As we go through the year, we'll update this for ourselves...
  • January: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (w/ special guest: Darrell!)
  • January/Feb: The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen 
  • Post-Putin/Pre-UG Palette Cleanser: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl by Ryan North
  • Feb/March: Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead 
  • March/April: Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi 
  • May: What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman 
  • July: Cunt: A Declaration of Independence by Inga Muscio
[time passes... book blog gets ignored...]
  • Nov: Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi 
  • Dec: The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer
Whew! That was a lot of information. But hey, we'll be happy we wrote all of this down in another seven years when we say "Wait... how did we pick our books that year?"

Now let's get reading!