01 September 2014

One-Star Revue: Roxane Gay, BAD FEMINIST

Roxane Gay's essay collection BAD FEMINIST will probably end up on my best-of-the-year list this year. I follow Gay on Twitter and, not surprisingly, like other women I follow who write about issues touching women, people say the most egregious garbage to her. This is hardly groundbreaking news but the strength of it makes me depressed.

Take Amazon, for instance. The lowly product review was invented as a buyer's service to other buyers: Do or don't do what I did! The product review has steered me away from many consumer products in the past (my favorite is for clothes, because clothing copy is notoriously fluffy in its lack of description). It also lends a platform to express closely held beliefs beyond the pages of the book, especially when the book contains any political matter. It's like the letters section of your newspaper, turbocharged.

It's worth considering whether the form of the anonymous content is not long for this Internet. Just kidding, of course most of us can handle it, and some people evidently can't. Last year Popular Science announced it would shut off comments entirely due to (of course) research showing such online debates negatively influenced how people viewed the science discussed, describing a "decades-long war of expertise" that has led to absurdities like (and this is my example, not theirs) Jenny McCarthy speaking as a physician on autism. In August the editors of the women's blog Jezebel.com wrote an open post to their parent company Gawker Media begging them to change the structure of anonymous comments, due to an overwhelming volume of anon. accounts depositing porn and other upsetting images in comments sections. How much time should be spent regulating online comments and reviews before it can be concluded that there's no saving them?

For now the Amazon review stays, which is great because we can examine the perspectives of people who didn't agree with me and/or are just wrong on Gay's book. But for the first time since starting this survey, I didn't have that much to choose from; there aren't too many reviews of BAD FEMINIST on Amazon, but the ones that are there are overwhelmingly positive. Granted, a well-articulated negative review can be a great provoker of thoughts, but as this series has shown, the one-star reviews on Amazon are normally not examples of that. So I dipped into Goodreads (which is owned by Amazon so it's not honestly cheating) to borrow 2: 
  • ""Bad Feminist" Or The Secret Life of the Remainder Shelf Where Dust Mites Prevail Over All Things Paper" This review is signed "God" because if you write it, it's true.
  • "It was pure nagging"
  • "She spends half the book talking about movies, books, and articles she likes or dislikes." Yup, that's how criticism works. 
  • "Instead of focusing on real events in life, she was obsessed with TV, the book wasn't even about feminism." Sigh

25 August 2014


This weekend's New York Times travel section included a trip that, reading about it, I realized I always wanted to take: Searching for Anne of Green Gables on Prince Edward Island. I loved the Anne of Green Gables books and Montgomery's other books (the Emily of New Moon series is also quite good though I don't want to talk about the ending). Travel writer Ann Mah (a former book editor at Viking Penguin, I have just learned) weaves in scenes and places mentioned in the books in her account. It's totally captivating and I'm in. 

The L.M. Montgomery memoir mentioned in the article, THE ALPINE PATH, is available on Kindle for 99 cents (a deal even at the modest 78 pages). Falling down a rabbit hole there, I also found out that Montgomery's selected journals were published in several volumes, but were edited with a view toward small-town Canadiana and max marketability; the ones you want are in the Complete Journals, which I obviously bought, so see you in 2016 sometime when I'll have all the gossip on 1890s Canadian provinces. 

21 August 2014

A book I'm in, a roommate lesson

Last year I read an irresistible request for interview subjects around the topic of roommates. I have had a lot of roommates in my life but I agreed to be interviewed about one in particular, my experience with whom is captured in the chapter "Newborn Baby." (Some of you have heard that story, and the rest will just have to go seek the book out, I guess.)

Now that I've read my portion, I am pretty happy with how it looks. (I do sound a little naive, but that's on me. And perhaps I was at the time!) I would probably stress again that my story differs from most in the collection in that my experience was uniquely positive. I think if my roommates were to come across it independently, they would be pleased with their portrayal (though they might not remember it the exact same way). The way they handled the stage of their life that they were in was remarkable to me at the time, which is one of the reasons I agreed to be interviewed; it was an uncommon thing.

I haven't read the whole book yet (though I planned to) but I get the sense, again, that most of the stories collected are about bad or bizarre roommates. That can happen, as can the million tiny petty aggressions that come of living with people and that can slowly drive a person crazy. But overall, living with roommates has been beneficial to my life. Even if I would rather have lived alone at times given my druthers, and even though I sometimes still relish the solitude that comes from an empty apartment, on balance it was good for me to have that close-range personal experience. In the portion of this book that came from me, it was much more than that. If you're afraid of moving in with roommates, you shouldn't be, because everyone has her own weird quirks. Sometimes, living with people is as much about discovering what your weird quirks are, and when something goes from "weird quirk that I can get used to" to "intolerable state that I devoutly wish never to experience again." Self-discovery is just the bonus. And the best part is, as long as you're not legally attached, you can always move.

20 August 2014

Three books to talk about when we talk about Ferguson

The Left Bank Bookstore in St. Louis is putting together a recommended reading list for residents and others who want to learn more about the underpinnings behind what's been going on in Ferguson, Missouri these past (nearly) two weeks. The list, which is here, incorporates fiction and nonfiction, recent books and some classics. This is not the only necessary response but for me it is an important one; one of its effects on me has been to make me aware of how much I need to learn about the U.S., racial politics, policing, etc.

Here are some recommendations I have gotten from Twitter and elsewhere that I intend to follow up on:

  • James Loewen, SUNDOWN TOWNS: A HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICAN RACISM. A "Sundown Town," historically, was a town that unofficially kept African-Americans and other minorities from living or working there through intimidation, threats or indirect local ordinances. Ferguson may have been one of those towns, prior to the 1980s when the demographics of the town began to shift to today (majority African-American population). 
  • Radley Balko, THE RISE OF THE WARRIOR COP. Some of the most striking images coming out of Ferguson have been focused on the silhouettes cut by the Ferguson police against the protesters, seemingly over-militarized in their riot gear. This book elaborates on and evaluates the programs that have armed local law enforcement divisions (largely since 9/11) in places like Ferguson. 
On the fictional side, I have been also reminded of some of the historical pieces in Jonathan Franzen's debut novel THE TWENTY-SEVENTH CITY, which is set in St. Louis and whose plot involves suspicion among several racial and ethnic groups in and around the city. 

What have you been reading about Ferguson lately?

11 August 2014

Creative juices

What should I bring to my writing class next week when I go up for critique? Here's my shopping list so far:

  1. Wine for me

17 July 2014

Would you Netflix your books?

Rumor has it Amazon is launching a "Kindle Unlimited" service that allows free monthly access to all Prime titles. Any Amazon Prime subscribers want to give me an idea of how extensive that library is? 'Cause whoa

10 July 2014

Filmbook-to-Be: "Wild" (2014) first trailer

I'm cautiously optimistic about this even though I really didn't like Jean-Marc Vallee's last movie "Dallas Buyers Club." (Is it OK yet to admit that? Oh, well.) That's Nick Hornby on the script, Reese Witherspoon as the driving force and star, Laura Dern as Strayed's mother and Michiel Huisman in a supporting role because he has to be in every film project now.

08 July 2014

Because it's best to have goals

Dear Activate Apparel: if you make "work out" two words, I will buy this shirt and I know at least 2 other people who will as well.

07 July 2014


Not surprising, it was the top selling Kindle book of 2014 so far, but surpassed by Veronica Roth's DIVERGENT which was the top selling book overall. Despite some critics' best efforts (joking, but not) THE GOLDFINCH rang in as the 20th best selling book overall, #5 on the Amazon Kindle list. 

25 June 2014

Filmbook: "The Fault In Our Stars" (2014)

I didn't head out to see this movie with All The Teens, for reasons I can share below, but it's for the best.

This movie had two problems it doesn't share with the book: First, Ansel Elgort, who plays love interest Augustus Waters, can't pull off the kind of smart-aleck-yet-sexy '80s characterization that the movie needs him to do. He either comes off as someone rattling off lines he doesn't understand, or as a creep. Neither helps his case as the fellow cancer survivor who sweeps Hazel off her feet. Gus' lines are mostly taken from the book (from what I remember), but while book-Gus is improbable yet charming, movie-Gus punctuates everything with a leer or a smirk. The one time I thought it worked for him (mild spoiler ahoy) is in the travel sequence, when Hazel says "We're just friends" and Gus says "She is, I'm not." He sold that line but many others seemed kind of beyond them. Nothing against the guy, but I think he was cast more for his ability to be a blank palette for teenage girls to project their interest onto than for his own skills. His chemistry with Woodley is fine, but in his verbal moments I was reminded of last summer's "The Spectacular Now," a much better movie featuring an actor much more up to the task of banter (Miles Teller).

The second problem is probably more subjective, if possible, but here goes: THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, the book, works in part because it pulls against the sentimentality of the person-with-cancer subgenre. Being narrated by Hazel, who tends to be blunt and resist being classified as a saintly patient or a martyr, the book is able to cut through those subgenre elements quickly. Apart from a sprinkling of voiceover, the movie doesn't have that, and while it's a good deal less sentimental than your Walks to Remember or your Notebooks, it is constantly trying to be a sappy, soppy, weepy, gummy Hollywood Cancer Flick. There's a moment when one character accuses Hazel and Gus, our young lovers, of only wanting to get their way, of living in a world where they always get their way due to their protected status. They protest: No! That's not how they live at all! But the movie betrays them in that moment and indulges them there, and later, so that they do get the important moments to round out their story, if not the ending they might have scripted.

Throughout, the tearjerking quality that Hazel resents drowning out her own story is constantly leaking out at the seams, from too-on music cues to super-clumsy dialogue. It made its emotional peaks feel cheap and ordinary. (I'm thinking, especially, of the scene on the park bench.) And believe me, I went into this movie primed to cry, having spent a whole weekend trying not to cry. I was almost looking forward to it, the way that you hesitate in a winter month before getting into the shower because you know you'll just be freezing when you get out, but at least in the middle there you will be comforted in a way. Forget America needing a catharsis; I needed one. I didn't get it from this movie, and I have to lay that at the feet of director Josh Boone, because the book made me feel differently.

Woodley's performance is very good, along with Laura Dern's as her mother and Mike Birbiglia's as an over-eager youth counselor. But I probably won't remember this movie much when I look back at the end of the year, never mind beyond that.

Filmbook verdict: Read this book, then go watch "The Spectacular Now," "Atonement" or "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet" (1996, Luhrmann) to see young adults falling in love and tragedy.

Next up, Chicken Karenina

A book of Tolstoy family recipes has been rescued from obscurity, including (according to Open Culture) one closely resembling our popular mac and cheese. Macaroni was probably an upper-class delicacy with fancy European connotations in those days, since it took so long for those blue boxes to ship to Russia. 

24 June 2014

Take 2 chapters and call me in the morning

The American Academy of Pediatrics is expected to announce today that it officially recommends parents read to their children starting at birth. This may be the area of hypothetical parenting where I feel the most prepared!

23 June 2014


June 22, 2014: Powell's closes its post-security stores at Portland International Airport.
June 23, 2014: I have a 3-hour layover at PDX.

One-Star Revue: Hillary Clinton, LIVING HISTORY

This year, Hillary Rodham Clinton released her second memoir HARD CHOICES. HARD CHOICES, also the unpromising name of a very good ethics class offered at my university (aka the Best School Ever), has variably been reviewed as boring, unnecessary, overwritten, and too safe -- and that's from all from people who would strongly consider voting for her. She sure is polarizing! But let's face it, these memoirs are no fun anyway. As the commentators on Slate's Political Gabfest recently pointed out, the only good political memoirs are ones from people with nothing to lose (career-wise), and however you feel about Fmr. Secretary Clinton, you can't say she would fall into that camp.

Should we journey back to 2003 and the release of Clinton's first memoir, LIVING HISTORY, the story is pretty similar. But is there any hilarity in the vituperative heap of one-star reviews that attended that book? Already, HARD CHOICES' Amazon customer review section is overrun with one-star reviews from people who just don't seem to like the author and have nothing of substance to say on the book. Moreover, most of them aren't funny, and seem to fault the book's author for painting herself in a positive light. Isn't that what these books are intended for? Consider the source! At least the older ones are funnier -- take a look:

  • "LIVING HISTORY is basically the mass-market, nationally published equivalent of one of those big, splashy (but completely respectable, & in no way offensive to the Establishment or, most of all, the Principal) student-body election campaign posters from back in high school."
  • "This book could pass for a grainy selfie in print." Note: this review is from 2014, it's not just abnormally prescient. 
  • "I pride myself for having read many autobiographies. This book just lost me."
  • "This book is just about as dumb and unneccessary as California." "Rude." --California
  • "I just receiver my book and to day the price is much cheaper. Why do I have to pay more because I order early? I don't think that is fair Do you? I will not buy from Amazon if I don't hear from you. Unhappy customer. Beware before you buy." I hope this person isn't still waiting to hear. 
  • "The book was written completely by a ghost writer, not by Hillary." You're catching on! 
  • "[A] big sale does not make a book great, even though meager sale indicates inferiority." This review is also titled "What A Irony" which I nominate for official one-star hashtag of the week. #WhatAIrony
  • "Very boring, unrealistic." ???

19 June 2014

Saïd Sayrafiezadeh and Hanya Yanagihara are two of the PEN American Center's finalists for its debut fiction prize this year. Expect Janet Malcolm, David Sedaris, Rebecca Solnit and James Wolcott to duke it out in the very competitive essay category, while biography is anyone's guess.