May Reads 2021

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

In these funny and insightful essays, Roxane Gay takes us through the journey of her evolution as a woman of color while also taking readers on a ride through culture of the last few years and commenting on the state of feminism today. The portrait that emerges is not only one of an incredibly insightful woman continually growing to understand herself and our society, but also one of our culture.

Going into this book, I was expecting much more memoir-type essays, whereas this is mostly a collection of pop culture critiques with some personal stories thrown in. It isn’t even really a text on feminist theory like you might assume; rather, Gay talks about pop culture and history through the lens of being an imperfect feminist woman.

Even though it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, I liked it. The tone was very inviting and relatable, and Gay discussed some very heavy topics in an accessible way. I really enjoyed the chapter on Scrabble clubs, and the essay on social media got me thinking. Towards the beginning of the book, there were a lot of pop culture references that were before my time, but I mostly got caught up by the second third or so. The essay on The Help especially pained me. I knew that there were some critiques of that book floating around, but had never seen the argument laid out. I loved The Help when it came out, but with the hindsight of the last few years, I absolutely see where Gay was coming from with that one. (American Dirt seems to be 2020’s version of The Help in terms of problematic writing. I’ve stayed away from that one and it makes me wonder whether I would have recognized those flaws in The Help had it been published more recently.) Overall, this was a thought-provoking but easily digestible read and I enjoyed it.

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

Amanda and Clay head out to a remote corner of Long Island expecting a vacation: a quiet reprieve from life in New York City, quality time with their teenage son and daughter, and a taste of the good life in the luxurious home they’ve rented for the week. But a late-night knock on the door breaks the spell. Ruth and G. H. are an older black couple—it’s their house, and they’ve arrived in a panic. They bring the news that a sudden blackout has swept the city. But in this rural area—with the TV and internet now down, and no cell phone service—it’s hard to know what to believe.

Should Amanda and Clay trust this couple—and vice versa? What happened back in New York? Is the vacation home, isolated from civilization, a truly safe place for their families? And are they safe from one another? 

There were some things that I liked about this, but ultimately it rounded out to a big fat meh. Alam chose an omniscient narrator, which was interesting and added to the tension since we were able to see what each character was hiding from everyone else. The book is not gory, but there was a sense of building dread throughout the book that was creepy. Unfortunately, that’s where the good parts end. I love when suspense authors leave some threads hanging for the reader to fill in, but in this case there were not enough details for me about what was actually happening. So much was insinuated and it felt like all the built-up tension culminated in…nothing. There was no plot climax whatsoever.

I wasn’t crazy about the writing style, either. It felt very quintessential male-author, with a lot of repeated details about the characters’ bodies and whether their genitals were visible or not. There was some nudity with no apparent purpose other than, I guess, the author wanted to imagine it while he was writing. It just felt kind of gratuitous and gross, especially when the subject was the main characters’ 13-year-old daughter. Her body and what everyone else thought about it came up a LOT (and the child’s thoughts on her own body were noticeably absent). The more I think about it, the more grossed out I get that this got written and approved. Finally, the book was billed as dealing somewhat with race and class in the context of a natural disaster, and did not really deal with that at all. The white characters acknowledged their biases inside their heads but never mentioned them out loud and it didn’t matter to the plot one iota. If you’re looking for a suspense thriller for a beach read this summer, I’d skip this one.

The Road Back to You by Suzanne Stabile and Ian Morgan Cron

What you don’t know about yourself can hurt you and your relationships―and even keep you in the shallows with God. Do you want help figuring out who you are and why you’re stuck in the same ruts? The Enneagram is an ancient personality typing system with an uncanny accuracy in describing how human beings are wired, both positively and negatively.

I reread this as part of my Enneagram deep dive (initial thoughts here). It was much more Christian-focused than I remembered, and also much more introductory. It was still nice to read again though, because everyone describes the 9 types differently and sometimes you can identify more with a type when it’s described by someone else. There was a lot of focus on behaviors and traits though, rather than core motivation and core fear, which is how you’re supposed to nail down your type. I would have liked to see more about how the core fear and core motivation for each type trigger different behaviors and traits, but maybe that’s something better saved for the therapist. This is still a good intro if you’re just getting into the Enneagram, but I would definitely recommend NOT stopping here.

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Camino Rios lives for the summers when her father visits her in the Dominican Republic. But this time, on the day when his plane is supposed to land, Camino arrives at the airport to see crowds of crying people…

In New York City, Yahaira Rios is called to the principal’s office, where her mother is waiting to tell her that her father, her hero, has died in a plane crash.

Separated by distance—and Papi’s secrets—the two girls are forced to face a new reality in which their father is dead and their lives are forever altered.

And then, when it seems like they’ve lost everything of their father, they learn of each other.

This was a good one! It was a nice story and I loved how it ended on a hopeful note that left room for more. I liked the format of having Yahaira’s sections in couplets and Camino’s in triplets, but otherwise their voices weren’t super distinguishable and I didn’t feel like the story or rhythm flowed as nicely as Acevedo’s previous books The Poet X and With the Fire On High. The back-and-forth poetry format limited the girls’ personalities a bit because of the lack of detail and reliance on feeling; it was much more more plot-focused than character-focused compared to Acevedo’s other work. I would love to see a prose sequel about the girls living together in NYC, where their personalities and speaking styles could be explored in more detail.

Looking for Miss America by Margot Mifflin

Looking for Miss America is a fast-paced narrative history of a curious and contradictory institution. From its start in 1921 as an Atlantic City tourist draw to its current incarnation as a scholarship competition, the pageant has indexed women’s status during periods of social change―the post-suffrage 1920s, the Eisenhower 1950s, the #MeToo era. This ever-changing institution has been shaped by war, evangelism, the rise of television and reality TV, and, significantly, by contestants who confounded expectations.

Spotlighting individuals, from Yolande Betbeze, whose refusal to pose in swimsuits led an angry sponsor to launch the rival Miss USA contest, to the first black winner, Vanessa Williams, who received death threats and was protected by sharpshooters in her hometown parade, Margot Mifflin shows how women made hard bargains even as they used the pageant for economic advancement. The pageant’s history includes, crucially, those it excluded; the notorious Rule Seven, which required contestants to be “of the white race,” was retired in the 1950s, but no women of color were crowned until the 1980s.

In rigorously researched, vibrant chapters that unpack each decade of the pageant, Looking for Miss America examines the heady blend of capitalism, patriotism, class anxiety, and cultural mythology that has fueled this American ritual.

This was a really interesting and engaging read! Mifflin paralleled the feminist movement and the shift of the “ideal America woman” with the Miss America pageant since its inception in the 1920s. To be completely honest, I’m not sure it made a point, other than to show how much (part of) American society wants to hold onto “one right idea” of a woman even as we make social progress. If you’re a woman in America, you probably already knew that. But it was fascinating to see it laid out this way nonetheless.

Mostly, this made me think about how I really feel about beauty pageants. I have never really given them much thought before. My only pageant memory is of wanting to watch the Miss America pageant on TV when I was 11 or 12, and my mom getting mad and turning it off because my 7-year-old brother was in the room and she didn’t want him watching women walk down the runway in bikinis. I want to believe the story that pageants are good way for women to get scholarships, but I can’t quite get over the fact that even though we say it doesn’t, appearance has as much or more to do with winning than talents or platforms. Pageants are a performance of femininity no matter how much scholarship money we wrap it in. It was also frustrating to learn that more often than not, the Miss America experience derailed winners from their plans (at best) and caused irreparable harm to their self image resulting in mental health problems (at worst). Is that worth the scholarships and visibility pageants provide? I’m not sure it is.

The discussion in the last sections of the book about whether local pageants contribute to the community was interesting, especially given that local pageant winners can often win as much as they might as Miss America without having to drop out of school or take a year off to do the tour. There seems to be more benefit and less detriment with local pageants. But most of the local pageant we have today began as feeder pageants for Miss America, and that history makes them harder for me to swallow. Plus, the presence of pageants is kind of objectifying to girls no matter what, not to mention how exclusionary and discriminatory they have been (and continue to be).

Overall, although this was a little dry towards the beginning, it was a fascinating look at pageants, feminism, and how we view women in America. A great book club pick for sure.

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