Review: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes


Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
by Caitlin Doughty


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: Mermaids in Paradise


Mermaids in Paradise
by Lydia Millet


2014 • 304 pages • W.W. Norton & Company

Let me begin this review by popping up on my soapbox, whipping out my megaphone, and bellowing at the top of my lungs, “PUNCH UP, NOT DOWN.”

If there’s one thing I cannot stand in comedy, it’s cruelty. As much as I am enjoying my journey through early Saturday Night Live, sometimes I want to scream into a pillow. Like, for instance, when there’s a sketch that centers solely around screwing a blind black man out of a law scholarship to make a muddied point about how affirmative action is crap. I can see no comedic value in privileged groups mocking marginalized groups. (I do want to stress there’s a difference between this and internal, loving parody, a la Portlandia.)

But that’s the kind of comedy that runs rampant through Mermaids in Paradise, which is, I gather, meant to be a light comedic trifle about a honeymooning couple who discover mermaids at their Caribbean resort. It’s told from the perspective of Deb, who applies a patronizing and slightly cruel gloss to everything she sees.

For instance: during the lead-up to the wedding, Deb despairs of everything related to weddings, calling them infantile and pedophilic. (Of course, her analysis stops at side-eying women who like that kind of thing, instead of interrogating the system.) Her beloved Chip loves World of Warcraft, which she constantly points out as a huge problem and a major sacrifice that she’s made in the relationship. (It’s also really apparent Millet did no research for the handful of times Deb is describing what Chip is doing in the game, which begs the question—why not just invent a game if you’re just going to crap on it? It just ends up implying that Millet assumes her readers will similarly have never played such a game but have immediately dismissed it.) When an indigenous employee shows Deb and Chip to their rooms, Deb immediately starts rhapsodizing about the woman is “embodying a primordial womanly grace, with her darkish, gleaming complexion and earthen-toned sarong” (62). And there’s a “comedic” set piece centered around Janeane, a fellow vacationer, who clearly suffers from panic attacks, a non-specific anxiety disorder, and may have survived some sexual trauma. At a resort-wide dinner, she begins suffering a panic attack and her partner tries to soothe her, but the way he touches her arm re-triggers her. Hilarious!


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Review: The Price of Salt


The Price of Salt
by Patricia Highsmith


2004 (originally 1952) • 292 pages • W. W. Norton & Company

I’ve decided that this is the year that I’m actually going to start tracking how diverse my reading is.

Over the course of the last five years (!), I haven’t really made a specific effort to read diversely. As a queer fannish lady type, I’ve sort of assumed that my reading will be more diverse than the average bear. But that assumption obviously doesn’t make up for my blind spots as a middle-class white girl who most people read as straight. I felt kind of sheepish about it last year, but there’s nothing to be gained by feeling awkward about it, so it’s time to fix that. Plus my newfound (okay, it’s been like two years, but it still feels new) love for nonfiction means that there are a lot more straight white dudes on my reading list as I seek out “canonical” texts about media and media history.

So I tackled my behemoth of a reading list recently and updated it to reflect the gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation of the authors. And… well, there’s a lot more straight white dudes than anticipated. Which is exactly why I needed to start doing this. I’ve decided to start out by focusing on women writers for the first six months of 2015 (specifically, one book by a woman for every book by a man at the least) and then taking stock in the summer to see what I’ve learned about balancing my reading list and applying it to the other categories.

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Review: The Wide Sargasso Sea

The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Ah, The Wide Sargasso Sea. Cited in Aja Romano’s glorious “I’m done explaining why fanfic is okay.”, The Wide Sargasso Sea is sort of the lynchpin for my senior thesis on derivative and transformative works; Pride and Prejudice, my second choice, doesn’t have such a high profile published transformative work that haunts its footsteps and aims to correct an injustice. (And also I think you get cursed for eternity when you cite Lost in Austen in MLA format. I’m just saying.) After finishing off Jane Eyre, I picked up The Wide Sargasso Sea eager to dive in… only to discover that the pool was a bit shallower than I expected.

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Review: The Lonely Polygamist

The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall

I don’t think I’ve mentioned my love for sprawling family sagas here yet, because I haven’t really read one yet for the blog—A Song of Ice and Fire doesn’t count, since it doesn’t focus on one family. And is there anything more sprawling than a polygamist family? And more challenging—well, at least to me. I strive to be the kind of woman that says live and let live, but there’s something that gets me about sister wives, some kind of personal jingoism that refuses to let me slow down and respect their choices. (And, I must admit, a heaping handful of dismayed rubbernecking.) So I think I find traditional polygamist families fascinating because they challenge me and my efforts to respect other people’s choices, even if they aren’t what I would choose. But it’s The Lonely Polygamist that introduced a third party I hadn’t even thought of: the children.

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Review: The History of White People

The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter

As I’ve mentioned here before, I enjoy volunteering at my local library in my hometown. (Even if other volunteers keep scheduling themselves over my hours, exactly how our supervisor asked us not to. Ahem.) Over the summer, I came across The History of White People, which I was putting on hold for a patron. After encountering the antiquated concept of “white races” in Kathy Peiss’ Hope in a Jar, I was intrigued by the construction of race. On top of that, my school is offering a class on constructions of race in antiquity, which I cant’ take because it conflicts with another class. But it sounds so interesting! I’ve realized how important it is to see your own culture and experiences through someone else’s lens, and this seemed like a fantastic place to start.

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Review: The Influencing Machine

The Influencing Machine by Brooke Gladstone

While I listen to Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! in podcast form, I’m not what you would call an avid listener of National Public Radio; in my car, I’m usually switching between three radio stations and my own mixes. So I didn’t know who Brooke Gladstone was until I read Laura Miller’s review of her new book, The Influencing Machine. And of course it went right onto my reading list. Y’all know how I feel about Laura Miller; you can only imagine the conniption fit I had when she commented on my blog last September. But this is the second work of graphic nonfiction I’ve read in the past few months (the other being Fun Home), and I’m becoming very interested in understanding the medium better—my next graphic read will be Understanding Comics, I think.

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Review: Nothing Like the Sun

Nothing Like the Sun by Anthony Burgess

Naturally, in my Race in Shakespeare class, we read a lot of plays, but there is one novel on the syllabus–Anthony Burgess’ Nothing Like the Sun. When I came back from fall break and realized I hadn’t even started it yet (it was either that or my economics textbook, people!), I picked it up without much ceremony or knowing much about it–I knew Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange, which I’ll probably never read, and that it, in some fashion, dealt with race and Shakespeare. I was in for a lovely surprise.

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