Book Review: Devotion

Dani Shapiro, an essayist and novelist, has been on my radar for a while, but sort of on the back burner. I read her blog now and again, and I've caught her essays in The New Yorker and appearances on Oprah, and her words have always stuck with me due to their emphasis on faith and family. 

Her second memoir, Devotion, is no different. I picked it up during some airport downtime, and while I found myself skimming through sections, I ended up liking a few excerpts quite a bit. Shapiro is reflective, thoughtful, and honest about the difficulty and grace of being at a later stage of her life, and she has one big question: what does she believe?

She writes about having a sick child, and losing her father, and how those experiences led her to this crucial question of faith. She acknowledges that she's not old by any means, but at the same time, she spends more time looking back than forward. Shapiro also explores themes of yoga, body connection, breath and meditation, and I certainly appreciated her insights.

Sometimes it feels as if I’m building a bridge. This act of bridge-building requires stamina, balance, and more strength than I think I possess. What’s more, I have to walk fairly far out onto the bridge as I’m building it.

At this point, I’m way out there — too far to make it back to land if the bridge starts to splinter. Sometimes it sways. Once in a while, I hear it creaking. Below me, a precipitous drop: a rock-filled ravine. Best not to look down. Best to put one foot in front of the other.

Krama akrama, the Sanskrit teaching goes: step by step and all at once.

The text is divided into short sections, so it's really easy to read a little bit here and there. Some critics have stated that Devotion is too navel-gazing, to which I say, uh, it's memoir--but I do get it. It sort of reads like a journal or a diary rather than a collection of short chapters or essays. Shapiro rambles, but she always loops back to her central themes and questions: how do we live a fulfilling life? What does that mean? Why is religious tradition important, and how do we hold onto faith throughout the context of challenges? 

Life was unpredictable, yes. A speeding car, a slip on the ice, a ringing phone, and suddenly everything changes forever. To deny that is to deny life — but to be consumed by it is also to deny life . . . to think: it is true, the speeding car, the slip on the ice, the ringing phone. It is true, and yet here I am listening to my boy sing as we walk down the corridor. Here I am giving him a hug. Here we are — together in this, our only moment.

What Shapiro wants to explore is presence and awareness in the face of our days: the small worries and anxieties, the big fears and doubts, the resentment that scrapes away peace, the envy that creates distance, the sadness of the shortness of life.

Three moments within the memoir stayed with me: first, a mention of a concept I had heard before, but forgotten -- samskara. Shapiro describes it as "knots of energy that are locked in the hips, the heart, the jaw, the lungs. Each knot tells a story -- a narrative rich with emotional detail. Release a samskara and you release that story. Release your stories, and suddenly there is more room to breathe, to feel, to experience the world." In teacher training, we certainly talked about this idea, and in class I often hear teachers talk about holding emotions in the body and how we need to release tension that we carry with us. But I think it often doesn't resonate with students, and this description worked a little better for me, so I'm looking forward to using it.

Second, Shapiro discusses ayurveda. Again, a phrase I've read about before. It essentially means that we become what we surround ourselves with, which means we have to be careful about our surroundings -- environment, people, inspiration. Everything matters, because everything has an impact on who we are and who we are trying to be. 

Finally, Shapiro offers a mantra she learned from one of her own spiritual guides, and explains the way its meaning has evolved over the years for her. It started out this way:

May I feel protected and safe
May I feel contented and pleased
May my physical body support me with strength
May my life unfold smoothly with ease

And slowly, over the course of Shapiro's life, the phrase became more succinct, just as it did for the woman who originally shared it with her. Instead of the verb "feel," it switches to "be." Considering the physical body may fail and disappoint, just as life in general, the entire stanza shifts to this: "May I be safe, may I be happy, may I be strong, may I live with ease."

Indeed.

Book Review -- Bad Feminist

What I like most about Roxane Gay's writing is her commitment to unflinching honesty, and her desire to ask the kinds of questions other people secretly think to themselves and never say aloud. She's also incredibly funny and well-versed in popular culture; she's descriptive, vibrant, self-deprecating and completely uninterested in bullshit.

I also respect and admire that even though her work is currently receiving a substantial amount of press (specifically for Bad Feminist, a collection of essays), she's actually been writing for a really long time. Such a fact is not unique or uncommon for most writers, nor for female writers; most writers who reach the edges of fame and fortune, whose names become known by larger populations and Hollywood and literary circles and so on, are not new the game. They've been hustling for years, often teaching and certainly not making millions along the way.

But Gay has publicly acknowledged that, yeah, she's worked her ass off and some days it didn't feel like she would ever "make it" -- whatever that means -- and now that she's "here," it's a little strange. Its kind of like when a model admits that she does, in fact, try to eat healthy. Its weird and totally awesome when a public figure admits the work that goes on behind the scenes, whatever their role. And I find it particularly important nowadays, when writers occasionally expect instant popularity and focus their efforts upon going viral as opposed to sharing their truth. (Or perhaps that's just my perspective due to knowing lots of budding writers.)

So I like that Gay pulls no punches. This attitude shows up in her writing. She absolutely will confront your expectations and assumptions about all sorts of things, but sort of in a sly way, where you don't know you've been had until it's happening.

Bad Feminist is a compilation of essays, some previously published elsewhere and some not, on a range of subjects: reality television, racism, sexism, television, movies, feminism, novels, friendship, politics, sex, abuse, etc. The title alone is alluring: being a feminist is often toted as either "good" or "bad" for women (and men), and it is refreshing that she says she's essentially "not good" at being a feminist, yet cares deeply about the ongoing movement. This admission runs counterculture to our societal expectation that women be perfect or get out of the way, that women should have and do it all, that women cannot identify themselves with a particular group unless they're all in. Instead, Gay makes space for nuance, which I find incredibly helpful when it comes to feminism.

I consider myself a feminist. I don't know enough about the history of feminism, even as it continues on in my generation. I appreciate the sacrifices and efforts of the women who came before me, those in my life and complete strangers. I see the publicity of young actresses making bold claims that they, too, are for women; I see the young men calling out sexism when possible and making generic statements of support. (I mean, celebrity-wise, I would argue that feminism is fairly good for one's career.) I care about equality for women because I'm a woman. I also like men. The fact that I have to state both truths in the same paragraph for my feminism to count makes little sense to me.

That's why being a "bad feminist" appeals to me -- at least, by way of Gay's definition. She calls herself a "bad feminist" because:

Because I’m human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying — trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself: a woman who loves pink and likes to get freaky and sometimes dances her ass off to music she knows, she knows, is terrible for women and who sometimes plays dumb with repairmen because it’s easier to let them feel macho than it is to stand on the moral high ground. I am a bad feminist because I never want to be placed on a Feminist pedestal.
— Roxane Gay

Her ability to note nuance, again, matters a great deal. Feminism is not all or nothing, and that's something I can relate to. Sometimes the work of feminism seems so overwhelming, so exhausting, so all encompassing, that I can see why some women want nothing to do with it. Hell, I'm one of those women sometimes. I sometimes don't change the Chris Brown song when it comes on the radio. I have no desire to learn how to change a tire or fix a wall or build anything. I tell myself that I'll ask for a raise "next time" or that the salary offered is "good enough." I like to cook but get annoyed when it's expected that I will every time. Sometimes I call out people on racist comments or jokes and other times, I let it go because the fight feels like too much hassle. There are many moments, in my relatively privileged life, where I don't necessarily "do" the work of feminism, yet benefit and still remain passionate about it. Gay's writing reminds me that supporting feminism is pointless, yet understandable, on the days when it's all talk, all clouds, all walking through the mush. She also notes that feminism means fighting for the rights of women who don't want to be feminists, because this whole fight is first and foremost about the ability to choose.

My two favorite chapters are about friendship with other women and the Sweet Valley High book series; regarding the former, Gay states,

"Step 12: If a friend sends a crazy e-mail needing reassurance about love, life, family or work, respond accordingly and in a timely manner even if it is just to say, 'GIRL, I hear you.' If a friend sends you like thirty crazy e-mails needing reassurance about the same damn shit, be patient because one day that's going to be you tearing up Gmail with your drama."

I certainly recommend reading Bad Feminist, but do it in installments with a chapter here, a chapter there. I raced through it and immediately wanted to re-read it upon finishing, so take your time and let the mental and emotional dust settle after each section. Gay's words might make you uncomfortable, or make you sing out with praise -- either way, embrace it. See my favorite excerpts below.

On privilege:

"We tend to believe that accusations of privilege imply we have it easy, which we resent because life is hard for nearly everyone . . . What I remind myself, regularly, is this: the acknowledgment of my privilege is not a denial of the ways I have been and am marginalized, the ways I have suffered. You don't necessarily have to do anything once you acknowledge your privilege. You don't have to apologize for it. You need to understand the extent of your privilege, and remain aware that people who are different from you move through and experience the world in ways you might never know anything about . . . You could, however, use that privilege for the greater good."

On truth:

"We should be able to say, 'This is my truth,' and have that truth stand without a hundred clamoring voices shouting, giving the impression that multiple truths cannot coexist."

On television:

"I'm more interested in a show called Grown Women about a group of friends who finally have great jobs and pay all their bills in a timely manner but don't have any savings and still deal with sloppy love lives and hangovers on Monday at work. That show doesn't exist, though, because stability holds little allure for the popular imagination and Hollywood rarely acknowledges women of a certain age."

On likability:

"Why are we so concerned with whether, in fact or fiction, someone is likable? An unlikable man is inscrutably interesting, dark or tormented, but compelling, even when he might behave in distasteful ways . . .  When women are unlikable, it becomes a point of obsession in critical conversations by professional and amateur critics alike . . . Unlikable women refuse to give in to that temptation [to pretend, be someone they are not] . . . They are, instead, themselves. They accept the consequences of their choices, and those consequences become stories worth reading.

On trigger warnings:

"This is the uncomfortable truth: everything is a trigger for someone. There are things you cannot tell just by looking at someone. We all have history. You can think you're over your history. You can think the past is the past. And then something happens, often innocuous, that shows you how far you are from over it. The past is always with you. Some people want to be protected from this truth . . . Writers cannot protect their readers from themselves, nor should they be expected to."

On misogyny:

"The time for outrage over things we already know is over. The call-and-response of this debate has grown tightly choreographed and tedious. A woman dares to acknowledge the gender problem. Some people say, 'Yes, you're right,' but do nothing to change the status quo. Some people say, 'I'm not part of the problem,' and offer up some tired example as to why this is all no big deal, why this is all being blown out of proportion. Some people offer up submission queue ratios and other excuses as if that absolves responsibility. Some people say, 'Give me more proof,' or 'I want more numbers' or 'Things are so much better' or 'You are wrong.' Some people say, 'Stop complaining.' Some people say, 'Enough talking about the problem. Let's talk about solutions.' Another woman dares to acknowledge this gender problem. Rinse. Repeat."

On rape humor: (THIS.)

"When women respond negatively to misogynistic or rape humor, they are 'sensitive' and branded as 'feminist,' a word that has, as of late, become a catchall term for 'woman who does not tolerate bullshit' . . . Men want what they want, we should all lighten up. It's hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you're going to float the fuck away . . . These are just songs. They are just jokes. It's just a hug. They're just breasts. Smile, you're beautiful. Can't a man pay you a compliment? In truth, this is all a symptom of a much more virulent cultural sickness -- one where women exist to satisfy the whims of men, one where a woman's worth is consistently diminished or entirely ignored . . . A culture that treats women as objects, that gleefully supports entertainment that is more often demeaning toward women than it is not, that encourages the erosion of a woman's autonomy and personal space, is the same culture that elects state lawmakers who work tirelessly to enact restrictive abortion legislation."

Book Review: Me Before You

Lou Clark, the young protagonist in Jojo Moyes' Me Before You, likes her small life. She works at the local cafe, which helps pay her parents' bills. She also lives with her parents, and sometimes her sister and her young nephew, in a crowded, ramshackle house. She avoids new experiences at any cost, preferring instead to enjoy a thick paperback from the library. And she likes her long term boyfriend, Patrick, well enough.

Then Lou gets laid off from her job, and scours the newspaper for temp opportunities, as to avoid letting her parents down. One, written rather vaguely, promises excellent pay to be a companion to a man in a wheelchair. Lou figures, how hard can it be?

The thing about being catapulted into a whole new life — or at least, shoved up so hard against someone else’s life that you might as well have your face pressed against their window — is that it forces you to rethink your idea of who you are. Or how you might seem to other people.
— Jojo Moyes

Turns out, extremely hard. She meets the man in question, Will Traynor, and the two immediately dislike one another. Though Will is handsome, rich and smart (naturally), he is also livid and devastated at his condition due an accident, which destroyed his beloved, adventurous lifestyle of days past. Lou can't understand Will's anger and pain, and over time, tries to simply earn her keep and get through the days unscathed, until one afternoon, she overhears a shocking conversation that sheds light on Will and sets their lives in motion in a completely different direction.

They say you only really appreciate a garden once you reach a certain age, and I suppose there is a truth in that. It’s probably something to do with the great circle of life. There seems to be something miraculous about seeing the relentless optimism of new growth after the bleakness of winter, a kind of joy in the difference every year, the way nature chooses to show up different parts of the garden to its full advantage.
— Jojo Moyes

Could. Not. Put. It. Down. 

Moyes, a British writer, tells the story of Lou and Will clearly and with emotion, and while Me Before You certainly involves themes of love and commitment and respect, it primarily asks morally charged questions such as: what does it mean to live a good life? Who gets to decide what a "good life" looks like? How do we as a society look out for individuals with disabilities? What makes an experience worthwhile? How important is love? How often should we tell the truth in our families? How does morality work against autonomy, or vice versa? And so on.

Me Before You doesn't end the way you think, or hope, it will -- yet it's refreshingly honest and heavy and hopeful all at once, and well worth the read.