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Reading is the one thing I do with any regularity. Whether it is my measured 25 minutes each morning, incessant listening as I piece together a puzzle, or the occasional all day binge on the weekend, there is a book in my hand at some point every day. Consequently, when I determined to revitalize and re-shape this space, I knew I wanted to create a review feature. Not posting here regularly last year as I read through a mountain of books has one benefit, I always have a pile of material to choose from.
I knew I wanted to write a book review this week. I even knew which book I wanted to review this week, because it remains as vital and useful at this moment as it was when I read it last year. As often happens, however, the universe conspired to bring together disparate elements, putting them in relation until the underlying message and theme becomes undeniable. Now, instead of a fairly straightforward book review, there’s television, and social commentary. The only question remaining is where to start pulling this thread.
Energy is a great place to start. Last week, for reasons I couldn’t really explain, I ended nearly every day feeling like the figure on the far left. I was exhausted. In fact, on Monday night, I was in bed by 8:30pm and asleep before 9:00pm. The depletion of energy I felt by the end of the day felt inexplicable, because I was generally eating well, sleeping well, and would wake up feeling in the green. If I wasn’t completely charged like the image on the far right, I was pretty close. And, while I had work to do each day, there was nothing overtly stressful happening. I completed my daily task lists, without anything looming incomplete over me. Even the weather cooperated by providing a lovely bit of sun and warm weather to re-charge the world after our grim week of snow and ice. My exhaustion at the end of each day felt bewildering.
My week-night pandemic ritual has become nearly as well defined as my morning contemplations (dinner on the couch with 30 minutes of local news followed by The News Hour). Yet, this week I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t take in the news any more. Yet, I didn’t have the energy to do anything but sit in front of the television. Fortunately, Dr. Revolution chimed in at just the right time to convince me to finally start Bridgerton.
I’m late enough to this game that I don’t feel like I need to recap the standard fare about this show. If you haven’t heard about the intimacy coordinators required to make this show, or seen Regé-Jean Page on Saturday Night Live, the details are covered incessantly elsewhere. While I will admit the eye candy is lovely and the underlying romance swoon-worthy, this technicolor ode to Austen and Regency scandal sheets makes its way onto the blog for other reasons this week. I will elucidate below. For now, what I will say is that if you need a retreat from the world there are worse places to go than 1813 London.
Bridgerton follows the coming out season for Daphne Bridgerton, the eldest daughter of a Viscount. In this season a pseudonymous author Mrs. Whistledown begins publishing a gossip sheet detailing the events of the season. Daphne’s father has passed away, leaving his eldest son Anthony in charge of the family estate and Daphne’s courtship. As in often the case in such stories, Anthony is chaffing under the strain of his new responsibilities. Don’t worry, there are no spoilers here and I will not begiving you the entire plot run down. You only need the set up to understand that as Anthony attempts to exert his new authority as Viscount by making a match for Daphne he fails to consult her, and routinely dismisses her desires. Daphne often asks him something to the effect of, “Is it because I am a woman that you do not think me capable of knowing my own mind or understanding my own experience?” The question of a woman’s ability to determine her own desires, her own life, and to shape the world around her runs throughout the show underscoring many different plotlines. As does the way the men of the show continually fail to see women as fully developed people, not just as their role in society or function as an accessory to a man’s life.
Perhaps it is because I’d immersed myself in Bridgerton, that I started paying attention to just how many women are still forced to ask the same questions. Let me provide just one category of example, women’s health. Just this week, yet another friend shared with me the story of how complicated her relationship with her body and her health are, because she has consistently had to convince medical doctors to take her concerns seriously, to believe her description of her experiences, to treat her symptoms not her weight. She described how it has taken her so long to feel an ownership over her body and her health, after doctors – instead of treating her – asked her if she was faking her symptoms. I don’t know a woman without a similar story. If it isn’t an overt questioning of symptoms, “Are you faking it?” Ask a woman how many times the intensity of her pain has been questioned? How many times has she been treated like addict for asking for relief from that pain. My point is that women still, in so many ways, have to constantly prove the validity of their own experience.
The book, books really, I recommend today start from this point and explore the causes and costs of how women must navigate the world. Emily and Amelia Nagoski’s book Burnout: the secret to unlocking the stress cycle focuses entirely on women by identifying the elements that make life stressful for contemporary women and then providing a way for women to better manage that those stressors. The functional tips the Nagoski’s provide for dealing with stress are useful to everyone. Their discussion of the societal pressures creating stress creates a place where women can see themselves and their experiences taken seriously. The book becomes an expansive breath that reminds us that we are not alone.
To help frame their discussion of the societal pressures that create different stressors for women, the Nagoski’s rely on Dr. Kate Manne’s book Down Girl: the Logic of Misogyny. They identify Dr. Manne’s concept of Human Giver Syndrome as a significant stressor in women’s lives. If I did not overtly recommend Dr. Manne’s book a couple of years ago when I first read it, let me do so now. Dr. Manne is a philospher. Consequently the opening chapter or two of the book, where she situates herself within the philosophical tradition are dense. However, the following chapters where she lays out Human Giver Syndrome and her discussion of misogyny are brilliant.
Within this pandemic, we are all being asked to give more than what we are able to currently receive. And, we are all being asked to do this differently depending on our race, gender, our socioeconomic status, and all the intersections of those elements in our lives. Burnout and Down Girl describe what it means to be a woman in this world. Yes, they were written pre-pandemic, but their lessons are still relevant. Down Girl helps us to name, see, and understand women’s experience in the world. Burnout provides us actionable practices to recuperate from our experiences in the world. Of all the books I read last year and could have chosen to review right now, I chose Burnout, because it is so helpful. If you don’t want to read the whole book, Brené Brown interviews Emily and Amelia Nagoski in the first season of her Unlocking Us podcast. It is a remarkable conversation that brought me to tears at least twice.
After this week, I understand why my energy is depleted so quickly, and in writing this review, I am reminded that I know what to do to replenish myself.
Last year, for the first time ever, I kept a list of all the books I read. As I made the list I decided ‘read’ included listened to, but I only included new books I listened to, not those I re-listened to as I waited for my Audible credits. The number of “new” books I read and listened too was 62, if I remember correctly. No one needs to know what that number would have been if I counted the re-listens.
Yes, yes, I know there are other options than Audible, and they are likely cheaper. But, listen, Audible is a known quantity for me. I know what day I get my credits. I know which narrators I love, which narrators I can tolerate, and which narrators to avoid. And, they recently started giving members access to a lot of free content each month. Sure, sometimes what I find there is trash, but sometimes it is exactly the trash I need. Am I happy that Amazon bought out Audible a few years ago? No. But, I assuage my guilt about giving Jeff Bezos money in other ways.
In addition to reading A LOT last year — which really didn’t feel like reading that much, last year was the year of crazy birthday presents that did not come on my birthday. Yes, there are multiple stories to tell about this; no, I cannot say when you will get them all. If y’all know anything about this space, it’s that I write about what I want when I feel like it. (Though, I intend to be more regular about posts this year.)
I believe was toward the end of September when my friend, Northwoods Renaissance Woman, sent me a message asking what I would ask, if I could ask Tana French anything. NRW earns her moniker because she takes amazing photographs, has her own radio show, and is in all ways cooler than any of us. For her radio show, she frequently interviews authors with new books coming out, and in the last year has snagged some impressive interviews. Of course, the Tana French interview was the most impressive for me. I gave her my question, and then waited rather impatiently for the interview and French’s new book to come out. Once the interview was complete, NRW sent me a five minute clip of French answering my question! I listened immediately, at work so I couldn’t actually squeal like a teenage girl, but that was exactly my reaction, especially when French answered the question exactly as I would have!
As soon as her new book The Searcher came out, I used the audible credit I’d saved for this moment, and downloaded the book. I binge listened to it over that weekend as I worked on a jigsaw puzzle. NRW had told me she was really interested in hearing what I thought of the book, so when I was done I texted her and we set up a quick video chat to talk about the book.
A few weeks later NRW tweeted about a VE Schwab book I didn’t realized had already come out. I mentioned how excited I was to read it, and NWR told me to let her know when I finished it. Once again, when I’d finished we set up an impromptu video chat to talk about our reactions to the story. We also talked about how much we enjoyed getting together to talk about books we read in common.
One of the things we both said we loved about it is that we do not have a book club. There is no deadline, no standard meeting, no agenda for the type of book we are reading, no special questions. We pick a book to read and once we’re both done, set up a chat. It’s been great, and we’ve picked some solid books, as you can see in NRW’s recent tweet, after our discussion of The Lost Book of Adana Moreau.
The Lost Book of Adana Moreau is an amazing book, particularly the first two-thirds. I was only a 1/4 of the way through when I texted NRW to say that this book made me feel like I was back in grad school. I know, I know that doesn’t always signify a good thing, but in this case it does. The book is such an interesting exploration of our identities and connections to one another. Even when it feels like the author takes a few too many side roads, you can see why the author is doing it. As I read I knew exactly which class and which professor I thought should teach this book. I even thought about emailing him to recommend it.
NRW and I are continuing our ‘not-a-book-club’ read along, and no you can’t join, because there is nothing to join. We are just two women, who get together to talk about books. Periodically, I’ll tell you when we find a gem like The Lost Book of Adana Moreau, or the other one we truly enjoyed The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue.
While I thought it would be the book I closed out 2018 with, Text Me When You Get Home: The Evolution and Triumph of Modern Female Friendships by Kayleen Schaefer ended up being the first book I finished of 2019. The book’s primary message that our romantic relationships do not make up the only love story of our lives isn’t one I mind carrying into 2019. Tending to my friendships is often an intention I set and re-set for myself.
When I first started reading it, I made a list of all the women I wanted to send copies to for Christmas. Ultimately, though I am glad I didn’t follow through with that plan. At the end of this book I started with such enthusiasm, I was underwhelmed. My enthusiasm for the book stemmed from the way it seemed written for me.
Circumstances being what they are, I am a straight, single, professional, white woman whose primary form of emotional support comes from her friends, which is exactly what Shaefer describes in this book. Ouiser is my emergency contact in all things. Dr. Lawyer was my person during my most recent medical adventure. I rely on Amié Volée for help with Les Animaux and her family always makes sure I have a place to go for the holidays. I could go on and on about how Dr. Revolution, Dr. Phoenix, The Banshee, and others have been just as integral in my life and form my collection of people. At the beginning of the book it felt great to read someone recognizing the importance of these friendships. I wanted to send everyone copies to show them a reflection of our relationships.
The recognition of the importance womens’ friendships can play in our lives was refreshing, but I wish Shaefer had spend more time examining the ramifications. In this extended passage she quotes and summarized Briallen Hopper, who says she is:
“not ashamed to admit that my friends are my world. They are responsible for most of my everyday joy, fun, and will to live.” [Hopper] goes on to explain that, despite, this, it can be terrifying to make friendship your main support system. The relationship is “chronically underrated and legally nonexistent.”
I wanted more of discussion about how the women who value and create these friendships work to change these ideas. To be fair Schaefer does provide examples of women listing friends as emergency contacts or beneficiaries on insurance policies. As I read though, I was longing for a more sociological discussion of the consequences of this behavior.
As I mentioned above, Schaefer’s book primarily describes and discusses the friendships of straight, single, professional, white women, which is part of what made me enjoy this book. It is nice to feel seen and represented. While Schaefer attempts to address women of color and other differences by describing positive media portrayals of these friendships, her discussion of them remains shallow. This is a comment an early Amazon reviewer made and I do think she attempted to address it in the final work. However, because it is her own story and friendships serve to illustrate many of her points, the work never feels as inclusive as it attempts to be.
Overall, I enjoyed this book. It provided me with an important mirror at just the right time in my life by reminding me that, while it may not look like a Hallmark movie or the relationship in a paranormal romance book, I do have an incredible love story in my life. My friendships are deep, abiding, and essential to my joy. In the end though, I also wanted a little more analysis and discussion.