Review: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

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Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
by Caitlin Doughty

★★★½☆

2014 • 272 pages • W. W. Norton & Company

My entire life, I’ve had what I called “death scares”—existential panic attacks brought on by obsessively thinking about death. (Much like being queer, being what I believe is technically referred to as hellaciously anxious was blindingly obvious to everyone but me throughout my childhood.) I have a very specific memory of having one at the age of twelve, standing in the doorway of my childhood bedroom, staring out into the dark hallway, frozen in fear by the idea that it could all end. As an adult who enjoys her life, they’ve slowed down to maybe two a year (I suspect they’re much more about “WHAT IF I’M WASTING MY LIFE?!” rather than fearing the biological process of death), more if I read too many Cracked articles about unsolved murders.

(By the by, have you ever heard of the 1920s Hinterkaifeck murders? The murderer was probably living in their attic before the murders and definitely living in their house after the murders. Look, if I can’t sleep, you can’t sleep.)

When my anxiety is not in the driver’s seat, though, I have a more holistic approach towards death; after all, contemplating the ramifications of actually living forever renders me near catatonic. Death gives life meaning, to be trite (and quote Hannibal Lecter, that great humanitarian). My mother and I have had long conversations, her enthroned on the structurally compromised orange leather couch that dominates her living room and me lolling on the floor with the dog, about how it’s nothing to be scared of, because it’s a natural part of life and there’s nothing we can do about it. Fear isn’t useful when it comes to death.

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Review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

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The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
by Marie Kondo and translated by Cathy Hirano

★★★★☆

2014 (originally published 2011) • 224 pages • Ten Speed Press

Once, in college, I helped my mother clean out her garage. We waited until my father was assigned a long trip at work to don our nastiest utility clothes and get to work. We put on work gloves and dug through childhood toys I’d long forgotten, badminton sets missing their parts, a complete set of vintage soccer magazines that was also almost completely decomposed. We had to ask my mother’s neighbors if we could put our trash out with theirs, because it would otherwise overwhelm her lawn. I uncovered a box that turned out to be a shrine to my father’s childhood dog, complete with photos of my father’s family with the dog and a lock of the dog’s fur. When we were done, the garage looked wonderful—and then we put the overflow of my dad’s book collection in there so we could breathe in the house.

The point is, my parents like to hold onto things. It makes sense. My father grew up in a military family and became a military man himself, which meant that moving was a near-constant. And my mother immigrated to the United States with, from what I hear, a sundress and an encyclopedic knowledge of antiques to her new name. For them, their younger lives were characterized by the constant need to compromise on their possessions—what can survive the move to new housing? A new state? The move to France? The move back? The luxury of having a more or less permanent home where they never have to worry about that must be such a relief.

Having grown up in an environment like that, it took me a while to realize that I’m not like that and that’s okay. I do get sentimental about some objects—you will pry my Agnes Scott beer stein from my cold, dead hands, and then I will zombie-punch you in the face—but I feel emotionally and almost physically oppressed by having too many things around. To combat the oppression of accumulation, I regularly clean, recycle, and just throw out. I’ve had to become ruthless in my assessment of my material possessions.

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Review: Women in Clothes

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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.

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