Just My Type
2011 (originally published 2010) • 384 pages • Gotham
I was at Michael’s the other day with a friend, in search of black wrapping paper to cover the shoeboxes I have lying around my apartment. (They have to be black to go in my room, you see, so I can put stuff in them. I have a system. A very goth system.) I always end up gravitating towards the cheap tchotchkes, and I discovered a cute little journal emblazoned with the phrase (and title of a very catchy Selena Gomez song) “Kill them with kindness.” Well, it would have been cute, if the font had been a dreamy, Pinterest-worthy script and not terrifyingly sharp block letters.
It’s things like this that remind me of the importance and beauty of typography, and it’s kind of a coincidence that I was halfway through Just My Type and seeing serifs the way David Krumholtz’s character sees patterns in Numb3rs. (That’s, like, a hip reference, right? I am so disconnected from the television landscape and yet, I save absolutely no time.)
2010 • 256 pages • Riverhead Books
While I’ve cooled on all but one, my love for advice columns once led me to subscribe to three at once—Dear Sugar, Ask Polly, and Captain Awkward. These days, Dear Sugar has evolved into a podcast (which I don’t have room for on my current podcast rotation, sadly), Ask Polly has moved from the Hairpin to the Cut, and Captain Awkward is still chugging away. I now only subscribe to the good Captain, but I’ll occasionally drop by the Cut to see what Ask Polly author Heather Havrilesky is up to. Like when I dropped by a few weeks ago, and discovered this gorgeous gem that summed up a lot of my interpersonal issues:
What you don’t know when you’re young and single is how personal it feels to live at the whims of someone else’s bad habits.
It’s this kind of writing that really resonated with me, especially given my issues regarding control and agency. So, inevitably, that led me to add Havrilesky’s memoir to my reading list. Disaster Preparedness focuses on key incidents in the young Havrilesky’s life, growing up in the late seventies and early eighties, that highlight the dysfunction of her family. As she grows up and starts to learn that other people don’t operate the same way that her family does, she finds herself running into obstacles between herself and her ability to connect with other people.
Havrilesky writes Disaster Preparedness with the same clear-eyed wit and wisdom as she writes her column. Mostly, she marvels at the ways in which her family have pushed aside the world to cling together as a unit, in ways that damage them personally and publicly. She writes of her family life at a distance of both years and knowledge.
It’s all very well done. Nonetheless, I am left with one question: how do I review a book that pushed me into a dissociative funk for a weekend?
The Book of Margery Kempe
translated by John Skinner
1999 • 343 pages • Book-of-the-Month Club
I am as frankly surprised as you are that my reading has taken on a religious bent these past two weeks. I threw The Girl of Fire and Thorns into my bag yesterday morning, and only remembered once I started it that I had wanted to read it because it was the rare fantasy novel that actively deals with faith. (Verdict so far: yes, good, continue.) I’ve suddenly become dissatisfied with everything I currently have out of the library, so we’ll see if this trend keeps up when I refresh my selections. (I imagine it won’t, because I have Kieron Gillen’s Darth Vader on hold and cannot wait to read it.)
But I originally wanted to read The Book of Margery Kempe because it’s often considered the first autobiography written in English (and by a woman!). Although, of course, autobiography wasn’t really a genre in the fifteenth century—it’s more accurately an autohagiography. Still, it offers particular insight into the life of a middle-class laywoman in medieval England, as Kempe experienced her call to Christ after the birth of her first child.
Forty Million Dollar Slaves
William C. Rhoden
2006 • Crown • 304 pages
It may not come as a shock to you that I am not a sporting woman. I may enjoy sunshine and long walks nowadays (having come to terms with the fact that, in many respects, I am a glorified dog), but, in childhood, I aligned myself against organized sports after a coach mocked me for sulking behind my long hair instead of participating in fourth grade. I deeply suspect that sports is a bit like religion: it really helps if you were in the thick of it as a kid, although it’s obviously not necessary.
So, despite being a pop culture junkie who gnashed her teeth at the demise of Grantland, sports has never been a part of my life. I only understand sports through the lens of fandom (we are not so different, you and I, Cheeseheads), but even that’s through a lens dark with my culture’s toxic narratives about masculinity, violence, and race. But I had no idea how far that rabbit hole went until I came across Adrienne Elyse’s post on Feministing wondering how to square feminism and just plain ethics with sports fandom. What utility does sport serve us as a cultural practice, and why is that utility served with exploitative practices such as looking the other way when it comes to violence against women? In that post, she specifically names Forty Million Dollar Slaves as a good resource into understanding how modern American sports exploits young black athletes.
How Star Wars Conquered the Universe
2014 • 450 pages • Basic Books
Sometimes, I feel for George Lucas.
As a fan, watcher of cinema, and eighties freak, I am, of course, absolutely infuriated by Lucas’ long history of “improving” his films and refusing to release the original theatrical cuts on DVD. (I know, I know, they’re available as “special features” in one of the Special Edition’s DVD releases. But let’s be real, that feels like a slap in the face.) But I do feel for the guy. I’ve always gotten the feeling that Lucas’ career got railroaded by Star Wars in a spectacular way, a feeling that How Star Wars Conquered the Universe confirms.
It’s easy to forget that the story of Star Wars is not just a story of a film franchise and its fandom, but also the story of Lucas’ career up until the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012. But Chris Taylor’s well-balanced How Star Wars Conquered the Universe makes sure to tell all three in remarkably readable fashion. And by readable, I mean that I started tearing up a little when Taylor concludes the book by describing the only things we could know about Star Wars: The Force Awakens: the iconic introduction. Damn you, John Williams! You can get me even when I’m reading something in perfect silence!
2012 • 212 pages • Beacon Press
I’ll be real: Outlaw Marriages was not the book I thought I would read first in 2016. I’d started picking at Jo Walton’s The King’s Peace, but I didn’t get much reading done while out of my mind with anxiety while Rory Eccleston, my beloved laptop, was in the shop. (He’s been sufficiently retooled and replaced that I am considering renaming him the Centurion, even though I don’t really watch Doctor Who anymore.) I’m also waiting on several books at the library, the main source for all my reading, to come in, now that the holidays are over and my holds aren’t stopping and starting like a faulty car.
It’s not that I didn’t want to read Outlaw Marriages—it’s likely been on my reading list since it came out in 2012. (That seems like forever ago, sitting here in 2016.) But I’d been kind of looking forward to quietly tracking the diversity of my reading for realsies this year, and starting 2016 off with a book written by a man, albeit a fellow queer human being, felt a little like a step back for me from where I ended 2015.
Which, I suppose, is a good sign for how lady-focused my reading was last year.
The Fortune Cookie Chronicles
2008 • 320 pages • Twelve
It makes sense that my last read of 2015 (I had no room in my suitcase or laptop backpack for books, quite frankly, which is probably another reason I don’t like traveling) was food-related: I finished it just before visiting my family for the holidays, which always involves executing Christmas dinner with all the professionalism of a mad scientist. (I have an almond cake cooling on the counter as I type. Can you replace olive oil with almond oil one-to-one? I GUESS WE’LL FIND OUT!)
Jennifer 8. Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is an exploration of Chinese food in America. Spurred on by the strange and strangely common phenomenon of multiple lottery winners getting their winning number from fortune cookies, Lee, a journalist by trade, uses her investigative chops and her Mandarin language skills to investigate how American Chinese food came to be. Along the way, she encounters truckers who think Chinese restaurants make for more consistent dining experiences than fast food chains, travels to China to find a Chinese Jewish woman to answer the question of why Chinese food is so central to American Jewish culture, and tries to divine the true origin of fortune cookies, among many, many other things.
by Lisa Eldridge
2015 • 240 pages • Harry N. Abrams
Makeup artist and current Lancôme Global Creative Director Lisa Eldridge came to my attention a few months ago when she posted a video to her popular YouTube channel wherein she opened up some of her precious vintage Biba cosmetics to demonstrate what they looked like on a human face. Eldridge talks with such obvious love for what Barbara Hulanicki did with Biba in the early seventies—really pioneering the first wave, in Western culture, of nontraditional colors (red, white, and black being those colors) for makeup—that it’s infectious.
Eldridge’s love of the history of makeup isn’t limited just to the early seventies; see her “Best and Worst Makeup Moments in History” video for a greatest hits of Western cosmetic history. So when her vast knowledge of makeup history acquired through years in the industry culminated in her new book Face Paint, I had to check it out. (I have a feeling I am one of the first people to read it in my library system; given that I put it on hold while it was still on order. Go, me!) I was really hoping for a book about the history of cosmetics with an eye on its political and cultural context—how it was made, why it was used, and the various things that it can mean. After all, there’s a world of difference between my desire to paint myself blue (…good heavens, I’m Irish) and the very gendered cultural pressure I feel to cover up my acne scars to look “professional”, and the way that desire has been exploited for various reasons through human history is a fascinating subject.
But it’s not the subject of this book. Continue reading
by Susan Maushart
2003 (originally published 2002) • 270 pages • Bloomsbury
One of the most amazing things that happened on the Internet in 2015 was the epic conversation about gender and emotional labor on Metafilter in July. And when I say epic, I don’t say that carelessly—it boasts over two thousand comments, ran for a month, and took me nearly three whole days to get through. (Touchingly, several of the last comments are commenters essentially raising a glass to how much the thread meant to them). It really changed the way I think about emotional labor and helped me identify my own problems with identifying and articulating my emotional needs.
Naturally, a lot of the discussion in the thread is about different-sex marriage by married women, and several of them mentioned Susan Maushart’s 2001 book, Wifework, as a text they’d read and found useful in the context of this discussion. Eager to continue the discussion after the thread closed, I sought it out.
I myself have a very medieval view of marriage—marriage is about pooling resources or, to put it slightly more romantically, heaving together in this strange thing we call life. I’m not sure how I’ve managed to escape internalizing a lot of the social narratives of marriage flying about Western culture, but I imagine it has plenty to do with being queer and being an introvert who doesn’t like to share. (I’d need to get to a point where I’m willing to share my pizza before considering a lady wife.)
Wifework does end up reading a lot like a less sweary Cliff Notes version of that Metafilter thread. (Alas that Maushart had no concept of Crone Island at the time!) Baffled by the inequity in her marriages despite being a card-carrying feminist, American expat Maushart explores the theory of wifework—the vast, interconnected list of things that a wife is expected to do for her husband. This ranges from everything to putting a hearty dinner on the table when he comes home from work (regardless of her schedule or the kids) to heavy emotional labor (like being the one to remember the important dates of his family members) to putting his needs first at all times almost instinctively. Maushart lays it all down in her accessible but workmanlike prose, occasionally interjecting personal stories when they’re relevant. None of this is new territory if you’ve done any reading on emotional labor, but if you haven’t? This can be world-changing.
by Amy Poehler
2014 • 329 pages • Dey St.
The best story another person tells about Amy Poehler comes from Tina Fey’s Bossypants: it’s the story where Poehler and her BFF Seth Meyers are doing a bit in the Saturday Night Live writers’ room, and Poehler does something gross as part of the bit. Jimmy Fallon complains that the bit isn’t cute, and Poehler drops the comedy to snarl, “I don’t fucking care if you like it,” before getting back to being hilarious and gross. Fey writes about this incident with a peculiar, admiring radiance, like someone writing about the origin story of a beloved superhero, and uses it to jumpstart some discussion about women in the workplace. (The moral of the story? Be more Amy Poehler. This is a very good moral.)
The best story Amy Poehler tells about herself is as follows: during the promotion blitz for Baby Mama (or as we call that movie at the Church of Bowie, Labor Day), Poehler is having lunch with a non-comedian friend. Her face is plastered across taxis and buses and buildings in New York City and her friend is absolutely amazed. He asks her if she can believe that this happening. Yes, she answers—because she’s been working for a decade to get up to that point.