So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

I like Ronson’s writing style and previously really enjoyed The Psychopath Test. Shame – how we process it, how we use it on each other – has been on my mind a lot, and it was interesting to see a handful of public shamings explored in-depth.

There have been some really brilliant critiques of the book, too – namely that Ronson failed to recognize that women got a disproportionate amount of punishment to even the most shamed men and generally that he’s examining, and choosing, the selected shamings from a place of incredible privilege.

I thought the book was a good read. It got me thinking, as did the conversation supporting and critiquing it. Pick it up if you’re equally interested in what internet and other public shamings do to a person personally and professionally. It won’t tell you the magic solution to global harmony, but it will give you some food for thought.

“She is undeniably a funny lady, and her humor translates beautifully — even more powerfully, I’d argue — to the page. Her jokes have more time to build, her punchlines land harder. She’s created an entirely hilarious read that will delight her current fans by giving them a pitcher-sized serving of her normally shot-sized jokes (she is clearly better at booze analogies than I am) and entice new readers who have enjoyed recent books by other humor heavy-hitters (Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling — you know the drill).”

I wrote a book review for SheKnows:

Mamrie Hart’s new memoir is a hilarious lesson in radical self-acceptance

A few years before I moved out of my mother’s house, hummingbirds started nesting in the roof. One, above the front door. Another in the backyard just above the kitchen window. I don’t have a single memory of what they looked like. I didn’t stop to really look. But my mother loved them, and she regularly called us over to peek. “Oh, look! The babies have hatched!” she’d say. “Come look at the baby hummingbirds!”

When my mother was dying, I kept thinking: I want a tattoo. I want a tattoo to remind me of you. I couldn’t figure out what I wanted until I thought of this memory, my mother leaning toward her window, trying to share a small moment of joy with us.

One day, in the care facility, I told her I was thinking about getting a tattoo. A hummingbird. I didn’t tell her why. She paused a second before saying, “A small one.”

It’s not a small one. But I do think she’d like it. I can hear her in my head, saying it. “Oh Colleen,” she’d say. “It’s beautiful.” As, to her, so many small things were.

Reeling Through Life by Tara Ison

Reeling Through Life by Tara Ison

I was lucky enough to have a Creative Writing class in college with Tara Ison. This is the first of her books that I’ve read. It’s a series of essays that illuminate Ison’s life and the way that it was shaped by movies. 

I really enjoyed the book, though many of the movies were not ones I had seen and many I was not even familiar with. The parts that shine most brightly are the places where Ison was able to explore her own experience more deeply because of the movies – she discusses madness in a way that was really impactful, the way that movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest shaped her understanding of madness and the quiet family secret of her aunt’s mental illness.

I’d say: Read it to get a peek into the mind of a really fantastic writer. Read it if you’re in the mood for a memoir.

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

This book was really powerful for me. It’s a series of essays that starts with the author describing her experience as a Medical Actor – someone who plays a patient with a script of symptoms and issues that a doctor in training must then diagnose. It continues on to tell stories of 100 mile hell marathons, Morgellons disease and the people who believe they have it, and more. 

Jamison does a really lovely job of blending philosophy and fact, being smart but accessible and really teasing out the ways in which we relate to each other – whether it’s our ideal selves or the reality of how we judge.

A few pieces that I underlined:

“This was the double blade of how I felt about anything that hurt: I wanted someone else to feel it with me, and also I wanted it entirely for myself.”

“Which is the sad half life of arguments – we usually remember our side better.”

“I needed people… to deliver my feelings back to me in a form that was legible. Which is a superlative kind of empathy to seek, or to supply: an empathy that rearticulates more clearly what it’s shown.”

“That the hardship facilitates a shared solitude, an utter isolation that has been experienced before, by others, and will be experienced again, that these others are present in spirit even if the wilds have tamed or aged or brutalized or otherwise removed their bodies.”

“I’m tired of female pain and also tired of people who are tired of it. I know the hurting woman is a cliche but I also know lots of women still hurt. I don’t like the proposition that female wounds have gotten old; I feel wounded by it.”

“We shouldn’t have to turn every scar into a joke. We shouldn’t have to be witty or backtrack or second-guess ourselves when we say, this shit hurt.

Read it if you want a good think about what it means to be a person trying to relate to other people… and someone to lead you through it.

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

Woman starts feeling strange, within a month she’s nearly catatonic with what the doctors are saying is schizo-affective disorder. Compelling book about the brain issue that caused this and how she is now.

That said, I think what was most compelling was her struggle to find her identity again as she recovered. The brain is who we are, what we are, it’s our observation and our conclusions. So what happens when for a month your brain is wrong? How do you trust yourself again? Who are you now, especially when everyone around you knows what has happened to you? It also has far-reaching implications for psychiatric disorders – how many, like this one, are actually a complication of a physical issue?

It’s a quick read and great if you want to dive in a life that is perhaps very different from yours and get a glimpse of what it means go mad for a month.

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer


Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

You’ve probably already heard of this book, but. 

When I got it I was searching for a book about going into the wilderness since I was craving something like Wild by Cheryl Strayed. I was familiar with the story and had watched the documentary, but hadn’t ever read the book. I went to a big local chain used book store. When I asked for this book, they said, “Oh you mean the one with the boot on the front?” No…

When they took me to the travel section (Wild by Cheryl Strayed, I was annoyed to find out, was not placed in that section) I realized that 99% of the books there were written by men. Boo. I plan on making it a point to read some more books written by women who go on nature adventures, so if you have recommendations, let me know.

Anyway – the book was good. There’s an ongoing controversy about how Chris McCandless really dies, which I got sucked into an afternoon of reading about. I came away with the following feelings about him:

1) How sad that he died

2) I think there was a very real and particular reason that the author included so few of McCandless’s own words from his journals, being that he was very much a kid and I imagine his words were sort of self-indulgent and not conducive to the kind of picture Krakauer was trying to paint of him. Krakauer in certain places does state this, though I think he minimizes it. Which makes the controversy and arguments around his death so much more… confusing? Interesting? Shallow? This was a kid. A smart guy, so young… and the arguments range from “he was an idiot who didn’t respect the wilderness” to “he was a genius and died from something even a wilderness expert would have suspected” all of which seems beside the point to me.

3) McCandless made me think of my own brothers, where their lives will lead them. I thought of his indignation toward the hypocrisy of his parents – and the world – and I think there is a bit of that in everyone. What made him the one who tried to escape it by going into nature? By, in many ways, avoiding humanity altogether?

It’s a great book and will haunt you for a while, so if you haven’t read it yet, do. 

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

Totally enjoyable. There was a little too much about the Upright Citizens Brigade that I didn’t feel I could relate to – it was a lot of name dropping, fun having, and stuff people who are into Improv would enjoy – but other than that, truly pleasant read. She’s personal but doesn’t divulge a bunch of secrets. There’s some solid advice but also some vulnerability and doubt, and that’s cool. 

Read if you want something breezy but pleasant and smart.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

So… confession. I also read her book An Untamed State and was not impressed. I wanted to be. I follow Gay on Twitter and tumblr and am an all-around fan, so I scooped up that novel with enthusiasm, but for me it just fell flat.

Another confession: I read this book a solid month ago and am just now typing this up. Fail.

That said, this is a really strong group of essays. There are a couple in the collection that felt so strongly academic-review-paper that I actually skipped them, but the rest were fantastic and I highly recommend the book. I do wish that, in some ways, she had gotten more intimate. Her style seems to be very matter-of-fact – she’ll give you details and will name her feelings but won’t encourage you to feel them with her so much as tell you about them. I’m not saying these to dissuade at all – again, highly recommend and I’ll be passing it to friends. Just thinking aloud.

Read this if you’re a feminist. Or not a feminist. Or (ha!) a bad feminist. I also recommend you get familiar with Roxane Gay on Twitter and tumblr for a taste of her musings. She is a true literary internet rockstar.

Book Review: The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch

So, I want to preface everything I’m about to say with: I liked this memoir. I don’t know that I loved it, I’m curious to what extent reading Wild immediately before affected my interpretation of it, and most of what I’m about to say is more like the teasing out of a discussion that I’m trying to have with myself about the book. They’re conclusions I haven’t come to, ideas I’m jumbling around in my head.

The language and power of the emotion, particularly in the beginning, is amazing. I was drawn in, compelled to continue. I finished the book in under a day. Just sat down and read it. It opens with giving birth to a stillborn child and it just tugs you from there. It follows her through her childhood, her relationship to swimming, her escaping her oppressive and abusive home to go on to college to fuck up college to trying college again, trying and failing in marriages, through her life as a writer and on and on. It goes from beautifully abstract to almost exploitative-specific to stream of consciousness — but in the way that it should, I think.

So here are the things I’m teasing with:

Why, with so much detail to other potentially “private” matters, with so much focus on basically carnal sex, drug experimentation, the physicality of losing a child… why does she mention only in essentially two words the sexual abuse from her father? It felt like I was teased the entire way through. Yes or no? It’s not as if her father’s abuse was illegitimate without being sexual. He was a brute, controlling, his anger filled their entire house. It’s not as if I even needed to see it, but I wanted to really see it acknowledged, a contemplation of what part of it affected her. When someone asks if her dad was abusive, how, she says “sexually” and  yet that seems only a part of the abuse, because we see it in its other forms. And then I also wonder if it was necessary, to explain the sexual abuse, or if the narrative is complete without it. I think the greatest frustration I had was that the book in many ways seems to say, look, how open I am, I am so honest so real so raw and then this one place she chooses to be less than, and to make it obvious that she is not being fully open.

Sometimes I felt like the parts of her writing life were name-dropping. The parts about her writing life were honestly my least favorite. They seemed the most forced and unpoetic, the most tailored to a specific representation of herself. But it’s hard to write about being a writer and I might be particularly sensitive to it.

There were some parts of the narrative that were literally true that felt more magical-realism. A boyfriend turned husband who would literally fall asleep, as a defense mechanism, when she would fight with him. Her father losing his memory after a specific incidence. It’s not that these things are impossible, but the way she dealt with them felt more like metaphor than reality and the metaphor on top of being unlikely felt overdone.

But this is not me saying I didn’t like it. I read the thing in a day. After reading Wild, I think part of me was searching for someone I recognized again — since I could relate in ways to Cheryl Strayed, who seemed to have pain in her past but there was a specific incidence that pushed her to her breaking point, where as most of Yuknavitch’s life seemed to be that breaking point, an acting out of pain. Maybe it’s that in many ways I have too little patience for people who are dealing with so much. At many places (in both Strayed and Yuknavitch’s memoirs) I wondered: who is it that is loving these people? I’m certainly not saying they don’t deserve to be loved. What I’m saying is, loving them seems to be a hell of a challenge (speaking of mostly Yuknavitch) because of the chaos they invite to their lives. I am a chaos-avoider. I can’t see people bringing pain to themselves for long before I bail. So I was curious what they are giving to these friends, what value they’re providing, to make the friendship a worthwhile thing? And then, with Yuknavitch, any kind of friendship-worthiness she seemed to edit out. Like she would show us her down dirty raw disgusting so terrible I am persona, but not the nice things, the giving she must have done to have such dedicated friends.

What I’m saying is, there was very little I recognized in Yuknavitch. It was still worth reading. And if you’re someone who has dealt with a lot of chaos in your life, it might be a soothing read, somewhere that you can recognize yourself. But it’s also a good read, period, because it’s well crafted and interesting and compelling. It’ll stick with me, but in my head instead of in my bones.