Review: Women in Clothes

hetiwomeninclothes

Women in Clothes
edited by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton

★★★★★

2014 • 528 pages • Blue Rider Press

I’ve started wearing blue lipstick recently. I’ve also started wearing purple lipstick—true, dark, royal purple, not berry or mauve—but they both get the kind of attention I want. With the warm tones in my face neutralized by how dark and cold they are, I look… different. Women are usually pleasantly baffled by it; men are repelled. Cute shop girls ask me where I get it. I leave fantastical, cosmic lip marks on coffee cups and apples. I actually had a teenage girl timidly touch me on the shoulder at a museum exhibit to compliment me on it, staring at my mouth like she’d simply never conceived of the idea before and found something inspiring about it.

What those lipsticks give me is something incredibly rare: power over the way other people see me. As a femme queer, I have so been long resigned to being visually misread that I’ve reached the point of just not caring and doing whatever I want, since people usually just begin and end with my hair anyway. Stumbling across something that disrupts what I had previously believed to be something completely static feels like finding a magic wand.

The decisions we make about what we wear, no matter how conscious or conscious, speak to how we interact with both the outside world and our inner world. Women in Clothes, a massive project undertaken by editors Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton, explores those decisions by asking over six hundred women (and a few male transvestites) what their clothes mean to them. Largely, they used a survey (which you can look at here), but there are also interviews, diagrams drawn by women about their bodies, maps of the discarded clothes left on the floor, and collections of similar clothing owned by one person, just to name a few.

Continue reading

Review: Girl Walks Into a Bar

dratchgirlwalksintoabar

Girl Walks Into a Bar
by Rachel Dratch

★★★½☆

2012 • 272 pages • Gotham

Hear ye, hear ye—my Saturday Night Live fandom has only grown more passionate over the last two years. Captain Cinema and I have at last escaped Chevy Chase on our tour of the entirety of the show, I may or may not finally satisfy my morbid curiosity about Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and I am starting to feel like I’m ready to crack open my pristine copy of Live From New York to read it chapter by chapter. And so begins my descent into the various literary offerings concerning Saturday Night Live and its children.

Rachel Dratch predates my Saturday Night Live cast; I began watching in 2007 (and thus will always have warm, fuzzy feelings about Casey Wilson, so, you know, Gone Girl was fun) and began watching seriously in 2010. But even though she left the show in 2006, I was always aware of her through her most famous character, Debbie Downer, the occasional E! rerun of early aughts episodes, and being regaled with several repeat performances of “Lovers” on my college trip to Ireland. Not so much through her post-Saturday Night Live work, which is a shame, since she’s a delight.

Continue reading

Review: New York Diaries

carpenternewyorkdiaries

New York Diaries
edited by Teresa Carpenter

★★★★½

2012 • 512 pages • Modern Library

I hate traveling.

While my family, a French-American trio of inveterate wanderers, often and loudly protest that it is genetically impossible for me to be so, it’s true. A substantial part of it is because of the usual complaints about travel—airports stress me out, packing is a nightmare for a femme with size eleven shoes, sleeping in strange beds inevitably hurts my back—but a large part of it is simply being away from my orderly life. I have been told time again (and again and again) that this is the point of traveling: to get away from it all, or, as my father says, changer les idées. But I don’t have an all I want to get away from. And in any case, I completely lack the personal virtues and faculties to engage meaningfully with a specific place in the space of a handful of days.

So I hate traveling. But I love living places. Even during my year in Denver, a city that is decidedly not for me, I enjoyed the slow burn of getting to know it through its neighborhoods, farmers’ markets, seasons, used bookstores, public transit, cold nights, hot nights, roads, sprawling wide open spaces, libraries, my first Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, mountains, and grocery stores (oh, why did I ever complain about the price of Greek yogurt at Safeway? I never had it so good!)—in short, the accumulation of experience that can only come with staying put. When I finally, finally, made the long awaited move to New York, I told Madame McBride two things. First, that when I got there, I was never going to leave. (This has since expanded to a predication of my peaceful death at the age of eighty on the island of Manhattan, after which I will buried like the Vikings of old, complete with funeral pyre, and leave my bafflingly considerable fortune to a pack of exceedingly smug terriers.) And secondly, that I was going to build my life there (here! Oh, how wonderful!) in a such a way that, a decade from now, I will be made up entirely of those little, daily experiences, the same way mountains are made up of rocks.

Continue reading

Review: You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me

rabinyoudontknowmebutyoudontlikeme

You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me
by Nathan Rabin

★★★½☆

2013 • 272 pages • Scribner

As I’ve had the opportunity to cultivate my current lifestyle of constant media consumption (dimmed only slightly by the enjoyable necessity of full-time work), I’ve developed certain rituals about how I consume what. (I have an anxiety disorder and I was raised by ex-Catholics. It’s be expected.) I watch films in total darkness, helped by New York’s absurdly early sunset these days. Television programs can be watched in any lighting conditions, with varying attention levels based the program. (Gotham? Appointment viewing. Late Night with Seth Meyers? Keeps me from falling asleep while I do my makeup in the morning.) Even prose, which I previously prized for its ability to be consumed anywhere, now takes center stage during my commute.

However, I’ve come to realize that prose is not prose is not prose. I’ve known for a while that I consume print prose and digital prose differently, whether or not the text in question originated as print or digital. But the context of a writer’s development is also a factor. For instance, especially in light of today’s book, there’s the AV Club versus the Dissolve. The Dissolve is an unofficial offshoot of the AV Club, sprung from both a desire to focus exclusively on film and, I deeply suspect, a desire to write personally about films in a way that the AV Club’s house style for major features discourages. If something as small (if ragingly important) about what viewpoint to write from can influence a writer, then it’s easy to see how a medium can affect them. There are plenty of writers who can capably switch writing mediums without a hitch, or even just impose their voice on any form that takes their fancy.

Continue reading

Review: Relish

knisleyrelish

Relish
by Lucy Knisley

★★★★☆

2013 • 192 pages • First Second

Despite my love of cooking, I don’t review cookbooks for this blog. There are a lot of reasons for that. Firstly, I don’t actually read that many of them, because the Internet is my main resource for recipes. Secondly, I don’t actually read them the way I consume media. I rifle through them, searching for something I like, and when I finally do alight on a likely candidate, my improvisation is brutal because of my lactose intolerance, laziness, and cheapness. When I look for a recipe for myself, it’s with the specific intent of making it my own.

But when I read food histories or food-centered memoirs, it’s a different story. I’m seized by the urge to recreate a historical dish, to better access the past through my sense of taste, or by the need to go find the pizzeria this book recommends and see if it’s really worth all the praise. Relish’s recipes and recommendations proved all the more tempting for author Lucy Knisley’s clear, clean, and bright artwork. I have bookmarked places to go eat in Chicago because of this book, and I have never been to Chicago nor plan to visit Chicago. I have an ear of corn in my fridge from the farmer’s market, ready for me to eat raw, per Knisley’s fond memories of doing so. I even copied her recipe for sautéed mushrooms down to the letter, but my stomach was being peculiarly tender and refused to digest it.

Continue reading

Review: Candy And Me

897895

Candy and Me
by Hilary Liftin

★★★☆☆

2003 • 224 pages • Free Press

For me, it was always Shockers (née Shocktarts). Just typing out the name makes my mouth water. They are (and, despite my ability to restrain myself from purchasing them all the time, remain) the perfect confection for me. Wholly artificial sugar rounds with a gloriously tart and hard exterior that, after some sucking, gave way to a soft, chewy, and sweet center. (Warheads, being all sour, do not appeal to my love of texture.) I bought them in the rolls, I bought them in the bags. I found one at the bottom of my purse once and had to talk myself out of eating it, because I’m an adult and not a feral child. I unrolled the roll one pellet at a time, always hoping that it was mostly red, purple, and the most treasured flavor—blue.

When I discovered, in college, that you could buy entire theater boxes of them, I practically exploded. Invited to a repeat viewing of Sherlock Holmes, I brought along this newfound glory. After perfunctorily offering my friends some, I set to devouring the entire box. Halfway through the film, my mouth started to feel like it was vibrating. In the bathroom after the film, I bared my teeth and stuck my tongue at my reflection. My bleeding tongue. I had, by sucking on the sour coating, managed to scrape a great deal of skin off of my tongue.

Continue reading

Review: She Matters

sonnenbergshematters

She Matters
by Susanna Sonnenberg

★★★☆☆

2013 • 272 pages • Scribner

The storied Bechdel Test caught some flack last year in the wake of Pacific Rim. Faced with such a fully realized female character that was, nonetheless, the only woman with a major speaking role in the film, fans coined the Mako Mori Test, which focused on testing a film’s development of a female character.

Of course, passing the Bechdel Test doesn’t mean that a text is feminist or not. Showgirls, as you may hazily recall, passes it several times, and John Carter squeaks by with a single exchange. What the Bechdel Test means that the film’s female characters have the potential to exist, however briefly, in a world where they are not defined by the men in their lives and where they can connect to each other. The test indicates a breeding ground for depictions of female relationships, be it in the film itself or in the fanworks created around it. Representation in media is incredibly important, as we’ve been over time and again. In a culture where teenage girls pat themselves on the back for not being like “other girls” and mainstream films tell us that (heterosexual) marriage is the only important relationship in your life, seeing female friendships not only validated but celebrated onscreen disrupts those harmful narratives on a visceral, immediate level. Which, to bring it back to Ms. Mori, is why fans were so unsettled to realize that Pacific Rim fails the Bechdel Test: it’s the rare—and, perhaps, only—action movie that posits that friendship is more than capable of being the defining relationship of a lifetime.

Continue reading

Review: The Good Girls Revolt

The Good Girls Revolt by Lynn Povich

reviewstarreviewstarreviewstarreviewstarreviewstar

povichgoodgirlsrevolt

Consciousness raising, that beloved tool of second wave feminism, has been making a comeback on Twitter in the last week. In the wake of the horrific Santa Barbara shootings, #YesAllWomen collected (and still collects—bless the perpetual present tense of the Internet!) stories of what women have to put up with in the patriarchal rape culture that birthed the attack. During the second wave, consciousness raising was a way for women to identify what they previously thought were personal problems as, instead, systemic ones; last week, several men admitted to never realizing what it was like for women. And to make good on the fact that feminism will be intersectional or it will be bull, #YesAllWhiteWomen and #CisGaze soon followed.

Given the nature of Twitter, there are plenty of morons trying to hijack the hashtags, but they can’t keep a good conversation down. Consciousness raising was first started to combat how isolated women were from each other at the time, but the demise of the monoculture and the nichification of everything, including politics, can occasionally have the same effect. Seeing a wide rainbow of feminists taking to Twitter to speak up for each other without talking over one another—that’s feminism.

Against this particular backdrop, reading The Good Girls Revolt is an interesting experience. In 1970, on the same day that Newsweek ran a story about the burgeoning second wave of feminism, forty-six female Newsweek staffers announced that they were suing their employer for gender discrimination. Frustrated by being trapped in the research department despite having credentials identical to their male coworkers, this committee banded together to protest the casual sexual harrassment and dismissal they faced every day. It’s fleetly written by Lynn Povich, one of the staffers who ended up becoming Newsweek’s first female senior editor. Her journalistic style stretches a little thin to accommodate the book. She breezes through decades in just a little over two hundred pages, never delving too deeply into the emotional turmoil caused by the harrasment or the demise of her marriage.

Largely, The Good Girls Revolt is a feel-good piece about second wave feminism, complete with a heartwarming coda of three new Newsweek staffers discovering the story, writing a piece about feminism inspired by their lawsuit, and feeling a kinship to their foremothers. But, tellingly, these staffers express disappointment when Jezebel calls them out for not touching on the voices of the women of color, bemoaning that Internet feminism is so cliquish. (They took the ensuing debate to the Internet.) The kind of feminism that The Good Girls Revolt champions and wants to pass down is mainstream white second wave feminism—complete with blinders.

Povich demurs that the ladies of Newsweek were hardly radicals. (Their insistence on working within the system rather than dismantling it and feasting on its bones already says that in spades.) Povich and company weren’t the man-hating, bra-burning, granola-crunching feminists they so feared—oh, she insists, they were ladies. Like a nervous kid trying to convince the Sorting Hat that they don’t belong in Slytherin, she even prefers the word “drive” to “ambition.” For the most part, the book is about the rather gentle feminist awakenings of the women involved, although it still giggles at the idea that a lawyer was relieved to see them as clients because they were straight feminists! (They then go one to call Floyrence Kennedy the lunatic fringe, despite her help.)

I see this kind of feminism—narrowly focused on well-to-do, well-educated, white women to the exclusion of others—rearing its ugly head recently, especially in the form of Lean In. It’s very disappointing, albeit not totally unexpected in a book like this. There’s a way to write about the second wave and its problems without indulging in them yourself, and The Good Girls Revolt misses that mark.

Still, as with everything I read, there’s something to be learned here. Namely, that Anna Fels’ Necessary Dreams sounds awesome, if the quotes included from that book here are anything to go by. Her book is only called upon to explain ambition and the power of child care, but having someone specifically point out that our work cycle is expressly designed for the male life cycle is mind-blowing.

Bottom line: There’s a way to write about the second wave of feminism without indulging in the way it erased various groups, but The Good Girls Revolt isn’t it. Fleetly written. If you’d like.

This book was made available to me for publicity purposes.

Review: The Devil Finds Work

The Devil Finds Work by James Baldwin

reviewstarreviewstarreviewstarreviewstarreviewstar

baldwindevilfindswork

I can’t decide if my reticence in calling The Devil Finds Work more than “just” film criticism lies in my astonishment and admiration for the sheer breadth of of the essay or a falsehood I’ve internalized somewhere that criticism cannot get too far afield from the text it’s critiquing. The first is, if problematic and exceptionalizing, a product of my aching love for this essay; the latter is something to work on. Late in the essay, the reader is asked to question the motives of filmmakers adapting material: “What do the filmmakers wish us to learn?” (112). And the answer, no matter the text, will necessarily engage the reader with their culture and its deepest assumptions, values, and fears. Calling The Devil Finds Work more than film criticism implies that criticism shouldn’t be striving for that truth.

Continue reading

Review: Wild

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

strayedwild

As you can imagine, working at a bookstore has done some serious damage to the reading spreadsheet, which is large enough to start looking for a job. Books used to haunt me by turning up under my questing fingers in libraries or thrift stores; now, they stare me down as I refresh displays and make sure the overstock piles aren’t going to fall over and knock me unconscious. While the exposure is much more constant, I still get those serendipitous hauntings. A used copy of Mystic Vision: The Making of Eragon turned up at the store months ago and I’m still pretending that it’s not going to come home with me. At this point in that film’s life, it’s pretty clear that it was meant to cross the path of someone who loves crap fantasy films.

Continue reading