We Should All Be Feminists (Duh)

It’s worth noting that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie originally gave the Ted Talk that We Should All Be Feminists is a transcription of in 2012 but it still/again feels like a super relevant topic.

Largely this under-50-page book is about societal (world-wide) misconceptions about what feminism is and who it benefits – perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that at one point in her life the author referred to herself as a “Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men And Who Likes To Wear Lip Gloss and High Heels For Herself And Not For Men.” And the rest of the book is sort of her explanation of how none of those qualifiers should have ever been necessary because the basic tenet of feminism is that men and women are equal and should be treated as such. It’s the most radical, okay? But then people project their own beliefs (or, who knows, the beliefs of that one super angry person they met one time) onto feminism and then everyone’s fairly certain that to be feminist women have to hate men, want to dress like men, all be lesbians, practice witchcraft, etc.

“Some people ask, ‘Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?’ Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general – but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. […] For centuries the world divided human beings into two groups and then proceeded to exclude and oppress one group. It is only fair that the solution to the problem should acknowledge that.”

ANYWAYS

This book is, as previously mentioned, super short and full of Adichie’s personal life experiences that led to her understanding of feminism. But also to a really friggin’ excellent explanation of how feminism benefits everyone:

Patriarchy doesn’t only hurt women – it also hurts men by super narrowly defining masculinity and requiring that men in patriarchal societies ONLY EVER display masculine traits AT ALL TIMES. Which is an impossibly small box to live inside.

 

“The problem with gender is that prescribes how we should be rather than recognizing how we are. Imagine how much happier we would be, how much freer to our true individual selves, if we didn’t have the weight of gender expectations.”

So, everyone please read or watch this. Either way it’ll only take like half an hour.

MORE HARRY POTTER, YOU SAY???

As was my obligation as a life-long Harry Potter fan, I pre-ordered the newest book, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Through a hilarious confluence of events involving me not having a key to my mailbox for like two months (fun story: my new apartment is garbage), I didn’t get to read it the second it came out and had to wait, like, two whole weeks. BUT it worked out perfectly because I basically traveled backwards in time to read the book. I finally got it while I was visiting my parents’ house and read it in a single sitting locked in my childhood bedroom. So, identical to the circumstances under which I read most of the previous Harry Potter books. Except the first couple which I read incrementally over many nights because I was a child and someone came by at least once a night to insist that I not stay awake all night reading. Ah, adulthood: when no one reminds you that human beings need sleep so you can read as much as you want.

That was still several weeks ago because I’ve been thinking about it for a while. I had a lot of very positive feelings about it right when I finished it but also a lot of immediate criticism and I wanted to think about them for a while before I wrote them down. Also that provided me with plenty of time to talk to my other nerd friends about it.

So, while I’m definitely glad that J. K. Rowling is continuing to write things in the Harry Potter universe (primarily because I wish I lived in that universe) I can’t get over the awkwardness of this being a play. And really all of my criticism boils down to that: this shouldn’t have been published as a play. Don’t get me wrong, I’m 100% in favor of there being a play. And I super want to see that play. But it just seems lazy to release the printed script of that play instead of converting it into a novel. Or what seems more likely, since Rowling isn’t traditionally a playwright and had two playwrights as coauthors, probably just expand on her original outline that they converted into the play. Rambliest sentence ever is now over. Just…make it a book, please. Even a novelization of the play would have been more fun to read.

The characterization was lazy at best – I think as a result of it being a play. There wasn’t any background information provided or any thoughts or feelings for any of the characters. The very nature of a play is that all you get are dialogue and actions. So the characters were completely static. The adults, who it is assumed all the readers are intimately familiar with, haven’t changed a single personality trait since they were children apparently. And the children are just the sequels of their parents. More complex characters could have been developed in a novel.

I’m also not sure that some of the time turner logic isn’t contradictory to the previous books. I’ve heard from other people that it’s not consistent but I’m going to try to fight the urge to be that person who goes back and rereads all the previous books just for specifics about how time turners function. We’ll see how that goes…

That said, I still enjoyed reading it and will happily read anything else they put out.

Will someone just send me my Hogwarts letter already?

Harry, there is never a perfect answer in this messy, emotional world. Perfection is beyond the reach of humankind, beyond the reach of magic. In ever shining moment of happiness is that drop of poison: the knowledge that pain will come again. Be honest with those you love, show your pain. To suffer is as human as to breathe.

 

Steampunk Trains and Whatnot

I actually had to look up steampunk before writing this post because while I know what it is aesthetically, I’ve never really been sure what it was about other than cogs and goggles and dressing like Victorian nobility who have fallen on hard times. So I can now say with certainty (thanks, Wikipedia) that steampunk is alternate history – usually of the 19th century – with anachronistic technologies but still with Victorian sensibilities.

That said, I just finished reading A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! by Harry Harrison today. I originally bought it because I read somewhere that it was the origin of steampunk. I am pretty sure that is not accurate now – because it came out in 1972 and is occurs in (an alternate) 1973 and is way more alternate history than steam-anything although there is some interesting technology involved.

The alternate timeline that the book occurs in is super interesting. It’s a world in which America lost its war for independence from the British, and George Washington was put to death as a traitor, and so in 1973 America is still a colony of the British Empire and they decide to build a super fast train line between America and England that goes along the ocean floor. The science of which is discussed at length, although I can’t attest to its accuracy it definitely seemed legit.

The alternate timeline even gets a little self referential with the inclusion of a hypnotist and a medium who think that there are various time streams that exist and who are trying to get in contact with the alternate time stream that is our reality outside of this book. Definitely my favorite part was this even though it’s kind of a bummer and I edited out a bunch of “urghh”s and “arrrgggh”s:

“She spoke, first rambling words, out of context perhaps, nonsense syllables, then clearly she described what never had been.[…]
‘penicillin, petrochemicals, purchase tax…income tax, sales tax, anthrax…Woolworth’s, Marks & Sparks…great ships in the air, great cities on the ground, people everywhere. […] I see strange things. I see armies, warfare, killing, tons, tons, tons of bombs from the air on cities and people below, hate him, kill him, poison gas, germ warfare, napalm […]'”
“We can hear no more, Madame will not approach this area, she cannot stand it, as we can see why instantly. Such terrible nightmare forces. Hearing of it, we are forced to some reluctant conclusions. Perhaps this world does not exist after all, for it sounds terrible and we cannot possibly imagine how it could have become like that, so perhaps it is just the weird imaginings of a medium’s subconscious mind.”

As is almost always the case with sci-fi and especially old sci-fi, I must add UHG THE LADIES. There are technically two named female characters, only one of whom actually says things. And she’s the daughter/stay at home care taker of the story’s patriarch, she is on-again-off-again engaged to the main character based entirely on her father’s wishes. It’s infuriating. But not even a little surprising.

The ending of this book is not my favorite. In an effort to tie up every possible loose end the last 30 pages are so are just really rushed and pretty forced. The patriarch, on his deathbed, changes his personality entirely to resolve unobsolvable obstacles, etc.

That said, I’ll probably read more Harry Harrison soon. Both because he seems to have written some steampunk novels (there’s a whole series about a stainless steel rat?) and I’m still curious about that and also because his name is hilarious.

Modern Romance

So, Aziz Ansari wrote, Modern Romance, which I actually read a while ago but recently convinced my book club to read so that I would have people to talk to about it (full disclosure: that did not really happen because as is most often the case book club was just an excuse to hang out with some of my super busy friends and catch up while drinking at someone’s house). So I reread it and decided I’d tell the internet about it instead.

ANYWAYS Aziz Ansari is famous for being a comedian (on Parks and Rec but also in other stuff too, I guess?) so I think a lot of people were expecting this book to be a comedic memoir – which it kind of is when he talks about his dating forays and failures – but mostly it’s a book about the sociology of dating and specifically online dating. He does do significant sections of it as part of his stand-up and I think several of the text message examples he uses in the book are from people who volunteered to come up on stage at some of his comedy events so it’s safe to assume it’s all pretty funny. But there are also studies, graphs, focus groups, and even a co-author (Eric Klinenberg, who has actually written a bunch of other interesting-sounding books too) who is an actual Professor of Sociology (and a bunch of other stuff) at NYU.

It’s a super interesting book. In which I learned that, shockingly, I am not alone in being literally the worst in the world at dating. I am actually part of a pretty large team. Because dating is nebulous and ever-evolving as an idea and because most people in my age range aren’t even sure how seriously they want to take it anyways. This, apparently, is new-ish. In previous generations marriage was how you moved out of your parents house and started being and adult. Now it’s pretty much the last thing most of the people I know want to do. Like the steps are: you want to be settled into a location, employed at a thing you like, financially stable, generally happy with your life, and then find a person who fits into all of that to feel serious feelings about. This is rambly and making my head hurt. It’s/We’re all a mess basically. Let’s just stick with “nebulous.”

One of my favorite things in this book were the various graphs. For example: So I knew that average marriage ages were younger and that people often lived with their parents until they got married. But it never really occurred to me that this meant that people 70 years ago didn’t really consider many options before to deciding who to marry. There are some pretty hilarious quotes in the book from people they interviewed at a retirement home about how they literally proposed to/were proposed to by and then married the first non-off-putting stranger they saw. Which certainly sounds simpler but is definitely not ideal.

So, I guess, in conclusion I’ll leave you with this quote because it seems pretty pertinent:

“We want something that’s very passionate, or boiling, from the get-go. In the past, people weren’t looking for something boiling; they just needed some water. Once they found it and committed to a life together, they did their best to heat things up. Now, if things aren’t boiling, committing to marriage seems premature. But searching for a soul mate takes a long time and requires enormous emotional investment. The problem is that this search for the perfect person can generate a lot of stress. Younger generations face immense pressure to find the “perfect person” that simply didn’t exist in the past when “good enough” was good enough.”

Last thing: This book, I think because it was comparing dating over several generations where the definitions would have been significantly different for each, sort of uses the words dating and marriage like they are interchangeable (not as parts of speech, but as activities) and that wasn’t great but I can understand why it would happen. It occasionally made it sound like dating was what you did after you got married in the past and/or that all dating in modern times was leading inevitably towards marriage otherwise it was unsuccessful. Perhaps feeling strange about that is just a me thing. But, just a heads up, that happens.

Books I Don’t Want to Read

There are a lot of books in the world that I know I should read because they will, theoretically, make me a better person. Not, like, self help books (although I’m sure some of those would be beneficial too…how do people ever save money?). Books that will teach me about parts of the world I’ll likely never see, in the first person, in the past or the present. Books that will broaden my empathy and understanding.

But I don’t want to read them because THEY’RE UPSETTING. And not in the way Gillian Flynn is upsetting. Upsetting in a way that stays with me for a long time after I finish reading them because they are about the real cruelties that humans regularly inflict on one another. And usually they show how both the perpetrators of violence and their victims are, in fact, victims of the same circumstances. And the whole world is to blame.

We’ll call that the introduction to my book club’s newest choice, An Untamed State by Roxane Gay. I haven’t finished it yet. I’m actually nowhere near finishing it… I’m on page 19 and I’m stalled. The book is about a woman of Haitian descent who goes with her husband and their baby to visit her parents in their upper-class home in Haiti and gets violently kidnapped while they’re on their way to the beach. And…that’s all I know because all that happens in the first 19 pages. Other than that all I know is that one of my friends from book club texted me “So the word “gun” was just used as a euphemism multiple times in this book and I’m now hoping it can’t possibly get much worse… Upon further reading, I’m not even sure it was a euphemism and that makes it so much more disturbing.” And although I have reasonably deduced what happened already, really, I just don’t want to read that.

I also felt this way about Half of a Yellow Sun (a wonderfully written book about the 1960s civil war in Nigeria that made me empathize with a rapist and then gradually grow to hate everyone on the entire planet and want to never go outside again). Every time they left their house I was like “Nooooo! Stay home! Stay safe!” And they never listened. And that was a long ass book to worry through.

This one too.

So I’ll let you know more when I finish it… So, in like a year probably.

The Midnight Assassin

So, The Midnight Assassin is not at all something I would normally have read or even heard about. I’m not really on top of my historical crime novels anymore. (Although I willingly admit to having read a ton of them in the past.)

But my mom’s book club read it and she gave me her copy when she was done with it. AND IT’S GREAT. I mean, it would be better if it had a definitive conclusion (like, say if they caught the guy before he maybe went on to be Jack the Ripper or whatever). But still, it’s super interesting and very well written.

One of my favorite aspects of it was that it was also a narrative of the history of Austin. In the background of these grizzly, seemingly random murders, the place I currently live is growing from a small town into a real city. The pictures of things like the Driscoll hotel right after they finished building it standing alone on a 6th Street that is not yet crawling with drunk college kids, and the UT campus surrounded by green space and “overflowing with 230 students” were almost impossible to believe considering how big the city is now and almost as interesting to read about as the murders themselves or the historical racism that definitely contributed to them never being solved.

Also, if you’re a fan of the Texas Monthly’s long form journalism, this is basically just an extra long article. Skip Hollandsworth has written some of my favorite Texas Monthly pieces – all of those are great reads if you have a free hour or so before anyone expects you to do anything. If you have actual stuff humans expect you to do in the world, here’s an overview Texas Monthly did of Skip Hollandsworth and the super weird stuff he likes to write about that’s a much more reasonable length.

Gillian Flynn???

I think I am in love with you, Gillian Flynn.

You also scare the bajeezes out of me.

Probably this is partially my fault for only reading your books when I’m alone in strange cities on business trips. Somehow I read Gone Girl alone at night in a hotel in Pittsburgh, Dark Places alone at night in a hotel in Boston, and Sharp Objects at night in an AirBNB also in Boston where I was alone with the stranger whose room I was renting (who turned out not to be a murderer, but I didn’t know that at the time). None of those were a great time to be reading interpersonal horror* (a phrase I’m making up now but for which there probably already exists better terminology…someone let me know what it is and I’ll fix this). Why do I make obviously poor situational reading choices? Like when I started reading Preacher comics on the airplane while I was sitting in a middle seat. My seatmates definitely assumed I was a monster. I should definitely work on that.

Back to you: you are an excellent writer. You and Tana French are the only two people who write books that I genuinely cannot put down once I’ve started reading them. I worry about your characters while I’m out in the world unable to read more because I’m doing dumb things – like working. Your characters and the world you writer for them feel real – and, again, terrifying. I’m honestly sort of annoyed I’ve never seen any of your books shelved in the horror section of a bookstore. (To be continued: I have a whole rant about how book stores sort things based on useless trivia like the author’s gender. BUT ANYWAYS.) And I will fight anyone who says they could have guessed the endings of your books before they read them. A+ for plot twists that don’t seem cliche.

And on top of all that, you seem like a really kickass person, based on the few interviews I’ve read of yours. Particularly this one with the Guardian where you respond to the recurring accusation that your books are misogynist because none of the women in them are likeable. But there are a bunch of others that are also excellent.

I especially liked this bit from a post on your website:”I’ve grown quite weary of the spunky heroines, brave rape victims, soul-searching fashionistas that stock so many books. I particularly mourn the lack of female villains — good, potent female villains. Not ill-tempered women who scheme about landing good men and better shoes (as if we had nothing more interesting to war over), not chilly WASP mothers (emotionally distant isn’t necessarily evil), not soapy vixens (merely bitchy doesn’t qualify either). I’m talking violent, wicked women. Scary women. Don’t tell me you don’t know some. The point is, women have spent so many years girl-powering ourselves — to the point of almost parodic encouragement — we’ve left no room to acknowledge our dark side. Dark sides are important.”

In conclusion, please write more books before I go on any more business trips so I can have something terrifying to read while I’m gone.

*Interpersonal horror: (as defined by me) horror but where the monster lives inside someone you love. Like how interpersonal violence is the smaller cruelties that people exact against each other every day instead of, like, the bombs of movie violence.