The Reading Hour.

books

Tonight at 6pm marks 2015’s edition of The Reading Hour.

In celebration, here are the books I’ve read in the past year and a brief review of them.

What have you been reading since last year’s event?

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay.

If you haven’t read Roxane Gay’s book of essays since it was released last year, then what the hell have you been doing?! Gay is one of the best writers out there, and her take on all things pop culture and the conflicted relationship feminists sometimes have with it is a must read.

Death Clutch by Brock Lesnar.

This is one of those terribly ghost-written wrestling autobiographies and the main reason I read it was because it had been sitting in my to-read pile for far too long. Brock Lesnar is one of my least favourite wrestlers mostly because he was the first one I met and he was an asshole. This book gives a glimpse as to why he’s so introverted, which can sometimes come across as rude and ungrateful.

Rebels & Chicks: A History of the Hollywood Teen Movie by Stephen Tropiano.

Having been written a decade ago, this book unfortunately misses many of the teen movies we’ve come to know and love since then, such as Mean Girls and John Tucker Must Die, not to mention the booming genre of fantasy/dystopian teen flicks. But it does provide a pretty thorough and entertaining history of many teen movies you might have missed from as far back as the ’50s and, of course, the golden age of teen flicks, John Hughes’ ’80s.  

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.

This was one of those books that, no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get into. The main reason I stuck with it was because it was a gift and I wanted to tell its giver that I’d actually read it.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

Carrying on from the funk that Madame Bovary got me into, I spent a few weeks reading this on public transport (which, at over 600 pages, is no mean feat!) but my mind wandered elsewhere.

Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham.

Of all the celebrity memoirs I read over the past year, I’d probably recommend this one the most, if only for the salacious alleged molestation Dunham detailed and her experiences breaking into sexist Hollywood.

Too Much Money by Dominick Dunne.

Not one of Dunne’s better books but a carefree romp for the reader nonetheless.

The Bling Ring by Nancy Jo Sales.

This was also a gift from the same person who gave me Madame Bovary. I’m pleased to report it held my attention much more than Flaubert.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.

Another gift, and one of my first forays into comic books. I enjoyed it more for the story than Bechdel’s illustrations.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins.

By far the worst instalment in the Hunger Games trilogy. I know it’s set in a dystopia, but Mockingjay was thoroughly depressing.

Yes Please by Amy Poehler.

I had such high hopes for Yes Please, but it was mediocre, both in writing style and humour.

Maybe the Moon by Armistead Maupin.

One of only two books written by Maupin outside the Tales of the City franchise, I didn’t fall in love with the characters as I have with his previous books, but it was an interesting story based on the life of Tamara De Treaux, the actress who played E.T.

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.

Not as good as the movie and I struggled with the animal cruelty portions.

Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy.

One of the most overrated feminist texts I’ve read. This is probably a testament to the fact that it was written ten years ago and feminist theory has come a long way since then, baby. A lot of unnecessary scaremongering not unlike this recent Vanity Fair article on Tinder and online dating in general.

The Night Listener by Armistead Maupin.

Maupin’s second non-Tales book, it was turned into a film in 2006 starring the late Robin Williams which was dubbed as a “psychological thriller”. While I would say the book is far more campy than a psych thriller has a right to be, I did enjoy the suspense of Maupin’s fictionalised real-life encounter with Anthony Godby Johnson, the young author of a book about his abuse as a child, which later turned out to be a hoax.

Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism by Natasha Walter.

A poor woman’s Female Chauvinist Pigs.  

The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

This book could have stood to be shorter, but it is very suspenseful and lives up to the hype.

Wild Things by Brigid Delaney.

I had high hopes for this modern-day Aussie version of the aforementioned The Secret History set in the residences of an elite Sydney university. The local spin increased the novelty factor, but I was expecting more.

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay.

Not for the easily triggered, Gay has a knack for writing about suffering that is second to none.

Redefining Realness by Janet Mock.

If you ever need to explain the plight of trans people and how to talk to and about them, I can’t recommend Janet Mock’s memoir highly enough.

Bitchfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine by Andi Zeisler (ed).

A selection of some of Bitch magazine’s best pop culture writing from its inception in 1996 to this book’s publication in 2006. Another decade has passed since then, so it’ll be interesting to see if Bitch comes out with another collection. I hope so. In the meantime, subscribe to them.

The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf.

There’s a lot to be said for feminist theory that is accessible to its readers and I don’t think The Beauty Myth is. I found it hard to stay focussed on some of its more wordy theories and criticisms.

Periods in Pop Culture by Lauren Rosewarne.

Who would’ve thought there were enough examples of menstruation in pop culture to warrant a whole book?! I enjoyed this exploration of periods in pop culture and its demystification of something that is normal but rarely discussed.

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie.

I was obsessed with this movie as a kid so I thought I’d finally read the book. The movie trumps it TBH.

Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith.

I had different expectations for this relationship thriller but I was pleasantly surprised by what Deep Water turned out to be.

Laurinda by Alice Pung.

One of the best YA’s I’ve read… well… ever. Pung has a knack for putting to paper the way inner city teens talk and the dynamics of private school girls. If you’re looking for something easy to read but gritty, Laurinda is the one for you.

Nightlight by Harvard Lampoon.

This book made me understand the nuances between satire and parody: satire is smart and crafty, parody is the equivalent of Chief Wiggum—annoying and stupid.

Bossypants by Tina Fey.

In the vein of Amy Poehler’s Yes PleaseBossypants wasn’t as good as I thought it would be. In fact, it was barely funny.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty.

This was one of the best books I’ve read all year. It looks at the funeral industrial complex and argues that people have options for their loved ones in death that don’t include embalming, a sterile mortuary and an impersonal traditional funeral.

The Wife Drought by Annabel Crabb.

A lot of statistics and studies brought down what is otherwise a funny, engaging argument for more equality between men and women in the home and at work.

Big Girls Don’t Cry by Rebecca Traister.

With the announcement of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential run, I thought I’d finally get around to reading Rebecca Traister’s take on the 2008 election, which has been on my to-read list for years. It was interesting, however its distant tone means I barely remember its contents only a few months after reading it.

Holding the Man by Timothy Conigrave.

This is a beauty of an Australian fictional work and I can’t wait to see the film it was recently adapted into. Very tender and sad but also brilliant.

Playland by John Gregory Dunne.

This book began the series of four books I attempted to into over the course of a few weeks but just couldn’t. I think this one was about Hollywood (as Joan Didion’s husband and Dominick Dunne’s brother, it seems only fitting) but I gave up after less than 100 pages.

Falling Man by Don DeLillo.

I got almost to the end of this novel about September 11 after realising I’d taken in nothing.

Oswald’s Tale by Norman Mailer.

Coming in at over 800 pages, I couldn’t justify giving any more than about 90 pages of my time to this biography of Lee Harvey Oswald.

The Feminisation of American Culture by Ann Douglas.

I’d bought this book six years ago when its contents may have interested me, but upon cracking its spine, I realised I was no longer.

I Remember Nothing by Nora Ephron.

The Most of Nora by Nora Ephron.

I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron.

I decided to get into Nora Ephron after the previous spate of books that kind of made me hate reading. Whilst I’d never read any Ephron before, I did devour most of her movies over the summer, so I thought her book writing might be similar. I was right, although I did end up encountering most of her essays more than once as these collections tended to double or triple up on some of them.

Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas by Jane Mayer & Jill Abramson. 

Another book that had been on my list for years that I decided to read upon HBO’s announcement that they’d be turning the sexual harassment of Anita Hill by current Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas into a biopic starring Kerry Washington as Hill. While Strange Justice isn’t light reading by any means, it did enlighten me to the politics of the case ahead of the biopic.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.

I was late to the party on this one. I did have a little cry as was expected, but I found its protagonist annoying, the dialogue unrealistic, and the writing misogynist at times.

The Sex Myth by Rachel Hills.

Naomi Wolf and Ariel Levy, take note: this is how you write feminist theory. With an informal, accessible tone and a non-judgemental discussion of sex, this is the seminal text about sex and feminism for the millennial generation.

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman.

I had no idea some of the Netflix series’ characters would be so heavily based on real people Piper Kerman encountered during her incarceration that inspired the show. While her story and her subsequent work with the Women’s Prison Association are important, I found some of the language she used alienating and transphobic, in particular.

Paper Towns by John Green.

Despite The Fault in Our Stars‘ overhype, I still had high expectations for Paper Towns, which I had written on my to-read list next to the words “debunking of Manic Pixie Dream Girl”. While the book tries hard to do that, particularly towards the end, it ultimately fails. Also, too much use of the word “ret*ard” and Quentin’s friend Ben is a complete creep who refers to women as “honeybunnies”. Gag me.

Scandals of Classic Hollywood by Anne Helen Petersen.

I love Anne Helen Petersen but I didn’t necessarily love her take on classic Hollywood which is arguably what made her famous. I’m looking forward to her dissection of more modern stars and the gossip surrounding them for her second book.

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee.

No wonder Harper Lee kept this original manuscript of what would eventually become To Kill a Mockingbird hidden for so long. It’s pretty average on all counts and focusses far too much on the racism we’ve all heard about. Mockingbird is by far the superior text so if you aren’t able to separate the two in your mind, steer clear of this one.

The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum.

This, along with Laurinda and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, was perhaps the best book I’ve read all year. Featuring only a few longform essays, The Unspeakable is bookended by the two standouts: “Matricide”, in which Daum explores her ambivalence and sometimes rage towards her dying mother, who passes away less than a year after her own mother with whom she had a tumultuous relationship; and “Diary of a Coma”, which details the viral infection that almost killed Daum, again, less than a year after her mother’s death. Challenging, laugh out loud funny and gasp-inducing.

In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume.

Based on the real life events in Judy Blume’s hometown in the ’50s, where three planes crashed in the period of a few months, I expect to finish this one tomorrow. I’m enjoying the story however there are far too many characters and giving them equal time in their own little mini-chapters distracts from the central story of Miri and her family.

Related: The Reading Hour 2014.

The Reading Hour 2013.

The Reading Hour 2012.

Blood Bonds—The Sisterhood of Menstruation.

Interview with The Sex Myth Author Rachel Hills.

Elsewhere: [Bitch Flicks] Lena Dunham, Slenderman & the Terror of Little Girls.

[Vanity Fair] Tinder & the Dawn of the “Dating Apocalypse”.

[The Hairpin] Scandals of Classic Hollywood.

[The Independent] Go Set a Watchman: Atticus is Now a Racist in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird Sequel.

Image via HuffPo.

Writing About Taylor Swift Ruined My Friendship!

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This is a version of a post that originally appeared on Writer’s Bloc as part of their May series on balance. Republished with permission.

A few years ago I wrote a blog post about Taylor Swift’s anti-feminist lyrics. Perhaps ill advisedly, I used an example from my friend’s love life to illustrate my point about Swift’s detrimental view of gender roles in her music without my friend’s consent.

This friend has a soft spot for Taylor Swift, along with Twilight, Glee and young adult fiction, and I believed these biases informed her actions when she started hooking up with my roommate. When their courtship fizzled out a short time later, she revealed to me that because they were friends first, she didn’t feel that as lovers their relationship was any different: where were all the grand gestures on his part, she wondered?

Now, at the time I thought this observation would perfectly prove my assertion that Swift’s lyrics and anti-feminist rhetoric in interviews enforced an ideal that heterosexual relationships must take the shape of fairytale romances that are performed primarily by the guy, while the woman is just a passive receiver of surprise weekend getaways, jewellery and flowers.

In hindsight, perhaps my opinion about my friend’s love life wasn’t something I should have published on my blog, or even passed judgment on in the first place. Needless to say, she didn’t think so either as we’re no longer in contact.

Funnily enough, after that shit went down, I suffered a bout of writer’s block that lasted the better part of a year. Karmic retribution, perhaps?

This is not the first time I’ve gotten into trouble with a friend for airing their dirty laundry in my prose. About a year and a half before the post that ended a friendship, I wrote about how I thought one of my friends wasn’t very socially adept due to a sport-focused sheltered upbringing and how this informed my broader point that sportspeople shouldn’t be held up as heroes (a topic that was doing the rounds in the news that week). Understandably, he was very hurt that I used personal details he’d told me in confidence to further my agenda and that I had those opinions about him. He’s a bigger person than both myself and my former friend, though, as he was able to see both points of view and hash it out with me like an adult and our friendship has since recovered. (Yes, I ran his inclusion by him prior to publication!)

The irony is that the singer herself is all too familiar with mining her and others’ personal lives for her work. I’m not trying to equate my writing with Swift’s or that using other people’s stories is the same as using your own, but I’d like to think she could relate. Either way, we both wrote and write about people who are no longer in our lives, a feat some writers are more adept at that others.

But how much of the personal anecdotes of the people in our lives do writers have the permission to share? Obviously, I had permission to share neither experience, but in the absence of anything happening in my own love life and the desire to act as therapist to another friend, respectively, I crossed a line.

And it’s a fine one to write on when you’re crafting memoir. Increasingly, I’ve been delving into the personal essay and wondering whose stories and lives I share I have the permission to make public.

How specific can you get when using identifying details in your writing? At the time of publishing the pieces in question, only a few of my friends were reading my blog and would have realised who I was writing about. The majority of people who read my work are unknown to me. But just because only a handful would recognise the subject in question doesn’t necessarily mean writers have free reign over how they’re represented.

Writers such as Lena Dunham and Janet Mock share that problem on a global scale. Dunham’s memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, drew controversy last year when she wrote of her curiosity about her sister’s body parts and an alleged date rape in college. Though names and other details were altered, a fellow student of Dunham’s alma mater was falsely identified as her attacker. Mock shared concerns about the portrayal of her family in Redefining Realness, her memoir about growing up trans in Hawaii. When the stakes are that much higher—being perhaps the most influential millennial in a decade and coming out as a gender identity much of the world is yet to accept as legitimate, respectively—there’s an increased likelihood that your audience and subjects take issue with your words.

Call it the life of a writer or chalk it up to my own narcissism or lack of imagination but it would seem that I haven’t learned my lesson as I’m still writing about the people and situations that caused friction in my personal life in the first place.

Related: Taylor Swift—The Perfect Victim.

In Defence of Mia Freedman.

Elsewhere: [Writer’s Bloc] Writing About Taylor Swift Ruined My Friendship!

Image via Blank Space.

Some Thoughts on Bruce Jenner.

bruce jenner abc interview

I’ve been loath to contribute my feelings about Bruce Jenner’s coming out as a trans woman to a feminist/humanist/trans rights sphere because, as a cisgender person, the last thing I’d want to do is cisplain.

However, as probably the most well-versed person on human rights in my immediate circle of friends, colleagues and family members, I’ve been throwing my two cents out there whenever the conversation inevitably veres Bruce’s way.

Because the people I’ve been talking to about him* are espousing predictably ignorant views. Things like “what’s his deal?”, “is he a she-he” and “tell me about this Kardashian who now thinks he’s a woman”.

I try not to get angry when explaining that gender is a spectrum, being transgender is a legitimate gender identity, and that it’s not for us to judge a person who’s spent 65 years keeping this secret, but I can feel my expression change as the fury bubbles up inside me.

One person I was actually able to have a tempered conversation with about Bruce wondered whether ignorance to trans issues (and, by extension, race, gender, sexuality, disability, class issues) could excuse such bigoted reactions: “You can’t fault people for not being aware,” she said.

Except you can. How do you think anyone who’s sensitive to minority issues came to be that way? Because they listened to people who are from these communities and actually deal with these things on a daily basis. Read about them in books like Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness and online. Follow enlightened people on Twitter. Watched Bruce’s interview with Diane Sawyer to understand that not everyone who falls under a certain umbrella wants to be addressed in the ways that are generally accepted as politically correct. The information is out there and ripe for the picking so ignorance is not an excuse. I actually have more respect for bigots who are informed about the issues they choose to be so bigoted about, even though I fundamentally disagree with them and think they’re horrible people.

My friend agreed, saying that watching shows like Transparent (which is problematic in it’s own right) has opened her up to trans issues. The problem she has with Bruce’s coming out though, she said, is that he lied about it: “You don’t have to come out, but when he was asked whether he was a trans woman in the past, he said no.”

Sure, there are ways Bruce could have framed his answers to be more ambiguous, but the media still would have spun it to service their agenda. It’s not Bruce’s job to make us more accepting of people who don’t fit our preconceptions.

Imagine the weight on his shoulders being a trans woman whilst also being a) held up as an American hero as an Olympic gold medalist in a sport that women can’t even compete in (thanks, Alice Eve!); and b) a member of a family comprised of some of the most famous women in the world who, whether we agree with it or not, are the epitome of femininity in many instances. (And for all the Kardashian haters who’ve made comments such as those in the third paragraph of this piece, Bruce’s family has actually come out in support of him—a low barometre of decency, but I digress—in his transition which makes them better than you.) No wonder he didn’t feel safe or accepted to come out. (Props to Bruce and ABC for mentioning the very real violence trans people face, especially trans women of colour who aren’t protected by the security Bruce has.)

Maybe it’s just because I try to surround myself with progressive people (at least online if not IRL), but the reaction to Bruce’s interview has been overwhelmingly positive. Those who actually took the time to listen to his experiences can take into account the obstacles put in Bruce’s way that have prevented him from living his truth in public. Maybe it will open their eyes to the obstacles put in the way of other trans people who haven’t been #blessed with the privileges Bruce Jenner has.

*I’m referring to Bruce by his birth name and using male pronouns as that is what he’s stated a preference for at this time and is in line with GLAAD’s guidelines.

Elsewhere: [Slate] Jill Soloway Apologises for Joking About Bruce Jenner on Facebook.

[The Mary Sue] Why Transparent Has Lost the Trust of the Trans Community.

[Jezebel] Alice Eve is Sorry She Said Bruce Jenner is “Playing at Being a Woman”. 

[GLAAD] GLAAD Responds to ABC News Interview with Bruce Jenner, Releases Tip Sheet for Journalists.

Image via ABC News.