Book Review: Big Friendship

Co-written by best friends Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, Big Friendship is a memoir of the authors’ friendship. Using their friendship as a model, Sow and Friedman explore why friendship is so important, how and why certain people become friends, why those friendships sometimes end, and the (oftentimes invisible and unspoken) work required to maintain close friendships. Ever since I moved over 1,000 miles up the coast, I’ve wondered how to make new friends in a new city – but I’ve spent considerably less time thinking about how to maintain those friendships. Big Friendship seemed like something I needed to read.

The book: Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman
Genre: Nonfiction, memoir
Rating: 3 stars out of 5

The first couple chapters of Big Friendship left me feeling skeptical, because the authors didn’t seem relatable at first – and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to connect with the authors’ advice if I couldn’t connect with them. Sow and Friedman clearly value ambition and success, and they spend a lot of time in the early chapters talking about their professional achievements. This made me worry that the book was aimed for a more professionally ambitious audience, with an emphasis on #girlbosses and #squadgoals. While there certainly was some of that, and while the authors seem to care about climbing the professional ladder in a way that I probably never will, I still got a lot out of Big Friendship (including the chapter that focused on female camaraderie in the workplace).

One of my favorite things about Big Friendship was its emphasis on the importance of respectful but honest communication between friends. Sow and Friedman point out that many women have been socialized to avoid “drama” at all costs, but that there’s an important distinction between avoiding “drama” and sweeping issues under the rug in a way that may ultimately be harmful to a relationship. They also talk about how jealousy can turn ugly, but how jealousy can also be used as an opportunity for good communication. For example, if I’m feeling jealous that my work friend got an incredible promotion that I wanted, instead of being salty that I didn’t get the promotion, I should reach out to that friend for advice!

While I gained some great insights from Big Friendship, I think the book would have been even stronger if it hadn’t used Sow and Friedman’s friendship as the model for all their ideas about friendship. I’m inspired by the co-authors’ ability to maintain a deep and rewarding long-distance friendship, but at the same time, they are just two people, and not every friendship is going to look like theirs. In fact, many friendships cannot look like Sow and Friedman’s, because most people probably don’t have the resources to resolve rough patches in a friendship by going on a luxurious spa weekend, or paying for expensive couple’s counseling (two things that the co-authors talk about in the book).

While Big Friendship certainly isn’t perfect, I still enjoyed it. The book is highly readable, and surprisingly not too heavy despite its focus on maintaining deep, interpersonal relationships. And even though I found many of the authors’ anecdotes unrelatable, I still gained valuable insights from their book.

Book Review: Hunger

Roxane Gay’s Hunger is a collection of the author’s complex thoughts about her body. In the memoir, Gay explores how a traumatic childhood event led to her weight gain, and examines how having an “unruly body” (as she calls it) has affected her self-image, relationships, and life experiences.

The book: Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
Genre: Memoir
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

One of my favorite things about Hunger was Gay’s honesty and vulnerability. Throughout the memoir, Gay unapologetically portrays herself in all of her complexity, including her moments of pettiness and insecurity. Gay takes ownership of her body and her experiences, but she balances that self-possession with honesty about the ways in which she still struggles to accept herself. Listening to Hunger as an audiobook – which is narrated by Gay herself – especially accentuates her vulnerability.

In addition to being deeply moved by Hunger, I also learned a lot from it. Early in the memoir, Gay mentions that the upper-end of the “normal” BMI range was lowered in 1998. This infuriated me, because I have heard so many fear-mongering claims that the obesity “epidemic” in the United States has dramatically increased in the past 30ish years. None of those claims were accompanied by an acknowledgement that this “increase” is likely an artifact of the way we classify overweightness.

Hunger also opened my eyes to more obvious problems with the way fatness is treated in the United States; problems that should have been obvious to me, but that I had never considered before reading this book. An example of such a problem is the fact that overweight people experience eating disorders too. This hadn’t occurred to me before, because (as Gay points out) health class textbooks and the media generally don’t talk about eating disorders as something that overweight people struggle with. Another example is TV shows – like The Biggest Loser – which portray fatness as a problem to be combatted by any means necessary. Taken together, these examples paint a disturbing picture of how American society actively encourages unhealthy weight loss strategies. This hadn’t explicitly occurred to me before, but as Gay pointed out these problems, they immediately rang true.

Without summarizing the entire memoir, here are a few more of Gay’s critiques that really resonated with and moved me. First, I loved Gay’s idea that women in particular are pressured to be thin because thin women literally take up less space, and American society certainly isn’t ready for women to take up as much space as men. I also appreciated Gay’s point that no matter how powerful a woman becomes, she will never be exempt from critiques of her body (she cites Oprah as an example of this). Finally, I loved Gay’s idea that it is possible to know logically that your body doesn’t define your worth, yet simultaneously feel insecure about your body in a society that harshly judges appearances (especially women’s appearances).

My one critique of Hunger is that some of the chapters ended a bit abruptly, giving some of the stories an “unfinished” quality. Still, the writing was incredibly moving, and the chapters came together to create a beautiful and powerful memoir. I loved Hunger and would highly recommend it.

Trigger warnings: eating disorders, r*pe. Even if these aren’t normally triggers for you, Gay’s accounts of her experiences are so deeply personal that they might shake you up a bit.

Book Review: Death in Her Hands

Death in Her Hands is about an elderly widow named Vesta, whose mundane life is disrupted by a note that she finds while walking her dog in the woods. The note says “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” Vesta’s curiosity about this note slowly begins to consume her, and she starts spending the majority of her time trying to solve the murder mystery with what limited information she has.

The book: Death in Her Hands by Otessa Moshfegh
Genre: Literary fiction
Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5

If you’re looking for a fast-paced mystery novel, you won’t find it in Death in Her Hands. Although the novel has some elements of mystery, the real focus of this story is the narrator’s mental and emotional state. Vesta is elderly and lonely, and without much factual information about the mysterious note she found in the woods, she spends most of her time pondering hypothetical situations that could have led to Magda’s death. As she becomes increasingly obsessed with Magda’s death, Vesta’s grip on reality – and therefore the events of the novel as described by Vesta – becomes hazy.

Conceptually, I think what Moshfegh did with Death in Her Hands was clever and interesting. Humans are extremely good at telling stories, and we are especially prone to telling ourselves stories to make sense of situations that don’t have an obvious explanation. When we do this without enough factual information, however, we can get lost in spiraling thoughts that are no longer based on reality. I find the stories that people tell themselves fascinating, and I can appreciate the ideas behind Moshfegh’s detailed exploration of an elderly widow getting lost in her own mind.

While I appreciate what Moshfegh was trying to explore in Death in Her Hands, I didn’t actually enjoy reading it. This 270-page novel takes place over the course of a couple days, and most of that time is spent inside Vesta’s unreliable mind. The combination of slow pacing and an unreliable narrator who may or may not be losing her mind just didn’t work for me – especially since I had expected the book to be more of a mystery than it turned out to be. I kept waiting for the mystery to pick up, but it never really did.

Although Death in Her Hands didn’t work for me, I still recommend checking it out if you were previously interested, or if it sounds interesting to you based on this review. Many of my issues with the book are the result of my own expectations, so if you go into this book knowing that it is not a typical mystery novel, you will likely have a better time with it.

Trigger warnings: fatphobic narrator and an animal abuse scene that I wish I could unread.

Book Review: The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell

Black lives matter, Black voices matter, and Black stories matter! The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell is, as you may have inferred from the title, an essay collection and memoir from stand-up comedian W. Kamau Bell. If you haven’t seen his work, I highly recommend his Netflix comedy special “Private School Negro” or his CNN show “United Shades of America.” In his memoir, Bell dissects the various components of his identity – fatherhood, Blackness, activism, nerdiness, and more – and how they shape who he is as a person.

The book: The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6′ 4″, African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian
Genre: Memoir
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Before I get into the content of the book, I want to mention that I read this as an audiobook, which probably influenced my opinion in some ways. Bell has a deep, clear voice which is pleasant to listen to and well-suited for audiobooks. Beyond enjoying the sound of Bell’s voice, I enjoyed the experience of hearing his stories in his own voice. From now on, I will try to listen to memoirs and autobiographies exclusively as audiobooks.

I also enjoyed the book itself. W. Kamau Bell’s comedy is political with an emphasis on intersectional racism, and so is his memoir. The book isn’t exclusively about racism or politics, but as a Black man in America (or more specifically, a 6’4″ black man married to a white woman, with two interracial children), Bell’s perspectives are influenced by the racism that he has witnessed and experienced. Even the chapters about “apolitical” things – such as Bell’s love of superheroes, Denzel Washington, and the movie Creed – eventually touch upon race, subtly demonstrating the ways in which racism seeps into virtually every facet of American culture.

In addition to offering excellent commentary on intersectionality, Bell describes his life experiences with brilliant transparency and authenticity. He proudly talks about his nerdiness, his love for his family, and his personal and professional growth. He is also very open about how his shortcomings and failures shaped him, discussing failures in the early stages of his stand-up career, his unconscious sexist biases that he unlearned with the help of a friend, and even a rough patch in his marriage where he and his wife lived apart. Of course, celebrities aren’t required to present themselves in all of their complexity to write an enjoyable memoir, but I found Bell’s honesty refreshing.

My biggest critique of The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell is that it could have been considerably shorter. The book is repetitive in places, and his elaborate build-ups to important moments didn’t always work for me. One story in particular focuses on an incident at a gas station that took place over the span of a few minutes, but Bell spends over twenty minutes telling the story! I also took issue with a comment Bell made that “some kids are just jerks. After all, where else do adult jerks come from?” The comment was probably a joke, but it was one of his jokes that really didn’t land for me, especially because it contradicts Bell’s own assertion that jokes at the expense of innocent people aren’t that funny.

Overall, though, I had a great time with The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell. This deeply personal essay collection strikes a great balance between funny, sincere, and serious. I also learned a lot from Bell’s stories, with one of my biggest takeaways being that racism subtly invades just about every facet of American society (even things that white Americans think of as “apolitical”). I would recommend this book – especially as an audiobook so you can hear Bell’s stories in his own voice!

Book Review: So We Can Glow

This post is a couple weeks late, but I recently read Leesa Cross-Smith’s short story collection So We Can Glow. Actually, as I learned from Melanie at Grab the Lapels, this is a flash-fiction collection: most of the stories are just a few pages long. The stories in this collection feature women in moments of obsession, longing, and fantasy.

The book: So We Can Glow: Stories by Leesa Cross-Smith
Genre: Contemporary, short-stories
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

While the stories all center around similar themes, they are different enough from each other to make for a varied and interesting reading experience. So We Can Glow is a book about obsession, but the stories are also about loneliness, longing, grief, fear, fearlessness, and friendship. The stories also vary in tone – some are whimsical, some are heavy, and some are endearingly weird. That variety in theme and tone really worked for me: it made most of the stories distinct enough from each other to be memorable, and it also allowed me to experience a full range of emotions as I read through the collection.

And even though the stories in this collection are short, Leesa Cross-Smith made them unbelievably captivating in just a few pages. It normally takes me a while to “get into” any new story I’m reading, but with So We Can Glow I instantly felt connected to the characters and their worlds. The writing is lyrical, immersive, nostalgic and also super readable.

I also appreciated how the characters’ emotions are given validity no matter what. Even when the characters behave in challenging ways, Cross-Smith never judges her characters or goes into lengthy explanations to justify their behavior. Instead, she unapologetically shows her characters as they are in the brief moments of their lives that the stories capture. In this way, the collection kind of reminded me of Amber Sparks’ And I Do Not Forgive You or Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You, but Cross-Smith’s stories were much more compelling and accessible to me.

Finally, I want to mention that some of the later stories in the collection follow up on earlier stories. Continuity in a short story collection isn’t a necessity for me, but in this case I really appreciated the opportunity to follow up on old characters and to see their stories from new perspectives.

My overall impression was that the stories in this collection are beautifully written, emotionally evocative, endearing, and unapologetically authentic. I loved and highly recommend So We Can Glow, and can’t wait to read more of Cross-Smith’s work.

Month in Review: June 2020

It’s July! This INSANE year is halfway over! I’m a little late posting my June wrap-up, and that’s because I finally started a job after 4 months of unemployment. As a research technician, I work with lab equipment that can’t be taken home (for many reasons), which means that I am physically going into work. It is risky, but I feel pretty safe at work – everyone wears masks and the lab I work in is spacious enough to achieve 6 feet of distance between employees. Anyway, I’m mentioning the new job because, until I adjust to my new schedule, I will be posting less on here. Now, onto the monthly wrap-up!

Books read:

Books in progress/July TBR:

I’m not sure if reading 9 books this month is realistic, but I want to try! I bought two of these as audiobooks, which should help. I’m currently in the middle of Catherine House and The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell (seriously struggling to finish Catherine House, though). Other books that I want to read this month include:

  • Death in Her Hands by Otessa Moshfegh: I pre-ordered this AGES ago, and it finally arrived last week! I’m so excited for this (hopefully not too excited, though – sometimes I hype up books too much in my mind, and end up severely disappointed).
  • So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo: I’m reading this for a book club this month. As much as the internet and tough conversations have been great resources for unlearning some of my subconscious racist biases, I’m also eager to read a full-on book about race and anti-racism.
  • Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid: this has been on my TBR forever, and doing the Midyear Book Freakout Tag reminded me that I really need to read this!
  • Big Friendship by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman: This was my BOTM pick for July (and yes, I’m still supporting BOTM – at least for now – since they appear to be using their platform to promote authors of color).
  • The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison. Really looking forward to this short non-fiction book about how literature contributes to the narrative on race/racism.
  • Hunger by Roxane Gay. I’ve wanted to read Roxane Gay’s works for a while, so I’m finally committing to it. I hope to read all of her books within the next year or so.
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This one has been on my “TBR” since my TBR was just a mental list of books that I wanted to read. It’s about time that I actually read it!

Blog posts/anti-racism resources:

Instead of my favorite wordpress posts of the month, here are some anti-racism resources that helped me this month 🙂

  1. This extensive list of anti-racism resources, including funds to donate to.
  2. This Google Doc full of resources for taking action against racism.
  3. Etiquette for white people at BLM protests.
  4. A list of anti-racist movies and TV shows.
  5. This article (from 2015) about why it is ignorant and harmful to say that you “do not see race.” If you know people who say this and aren’t sure how to talk to them, this article might help.
  6. This article about how to talk to people who always focus on “the riots and the looting!!!” in conversations about race.
  7. This article about how white women unintentionally center themselves in conversations about race, and ways to stop doing that. This one is controversial, and I have friends of color who don’t entirely agree with it, but I’m still including it because reading and discussing it with others really helped me.

June photos: