What Unite Us

What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism by Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner

Dan Rather draws on his decades of experience reporting on politics and world events to inform this set of essays, mixing anecdotes from the history he’s witnessed with stories from his modest childhood in Texas. His quietly inspiring exploration of what it means to be an American aims at bridging the current partisan divide to find principles that all Americans can agree on, ideals like inclusion, empathy, science, and service. Rather states progressive values in terms that conservatives can agree with, leaving the specific policy implications of these values for readers to decide for themselves.  He does all that without mentioning our current president by name. It’s a brilliant rhetorical move, one that I think George Lakoff would approve of.  Directly invoking that name would invite charges of partisanship, when Rather’s goal is to transcend party loyalties. Maybe Rather is too gentle and indirect in his arguments, and perhaps it’s impossible to change minds and hearts without offending someone. But I do think there is value in his project here, and that if we can all agree on these principles, even if we disagree on how to act on them, there is cause for hope. I’m considering giving this book to my Dad for Christmas.

Turtles All the Way Down

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

I enjoyed John Green’s earlier books, so I have been one of the many fans eagerly anticipating his newest novel. In Turtles All the Way Down, Green’s first-person narrator, Aza, struggles with extreme anxiety and OCD, to the point of self-harm. She fixates on germs, gut bacteria, and her microbiome. Green manages to make her anxiety seem utterly reasonable–which is of course the exact right way to portray this disorder from the inside looking out. Mental illness makes the extreme thoughts that are its main symptom seem absolutely logical, even inevitable. Like, why aren’t we all always freaking out about our complex, fragile microbiome? How does anyone ever kiss, when it’s obviously disgusting swapping so many germs?

The plot is a mystery surrounding the disappearance of a millionaire CEO, and a romance with the CEO’s teenage son, Davis. Several times, Aza shows a lot of genre-savvy. She knows how the money should affect her relationship with Davis, and how her unique mind should help her to solve mysteries. but she doesn’t want to or can’t go along with those genre rules.

My one criticism of the book might be that Davis is too perfect, too accepting of Aza’s flaws, too poetic to be a real teenage boy. He’s obsessed with astronomy and writes contemplative reflections on Shakespeare quotes on a blog that Aza happens to discover through some lucky cyber-stalking.

I was almost more interested in Aza’s best friend Daisy, a fast-talking fanfic writer, than in Davis or the mystery surrounding his father. Daisy is super charming, and she took me in from the beginning, but there is a seed of meanness and selfishness and discord in her relationship with Aza that has to be revealed and fixed. I love it when strong female characters have complex friendships with deep-seated problems that are NOT rooted in jealousy over a boy.

In the end, there is resolution, but considerably less than in most YA books. There’s no happily ever after. Aza is certainly not cured. She will always have anxiety. The heartbreaking realism of Aza’s difficult future is not something Green flinches away from, and I really appreciate that.

Hunger

Hunger: A Memoir of My Body by Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay is a novelist, essayist, and cultural critic that I was honored to meet in the summer. I already knew the outlines of Gay’s life story from reading Bad Feminist, but this book lays out her trauma and its aftermath in detail. It was heavy and hard to read at times. Gay describes in excruciating detail what it’s like to live in her body, the physical discomfort, the social stigma, the loneliness.

Gay talks openly about her struggles to fit into a world made by and for smaller people, her hesitations about going in public and doing things I find normal and simple, the planning and accommodations she has to make to get around her body’s incompatibility with our physical world. I was already on board with body positivity and fat acceptance, but reading this book made me realize again how wrong it is to make moral judgements based on body size. I also think that conversations about fat acceptance sometimes limit themselves to people who are overweight or even obese, but who are not so big that they have trouble fitting into standardized clothes or furniture.  “We’ll accept fat people,” people say, “but not if they’re THAT fat.” Which obviously completely undermines the point. Gay offers readers a lesson in empathy for those we are much too quick to judge and dismiss. You never know what someone else has gone through, the deep reasons why they are the way they are.

The book doesn’t really have a happy ending, but instead a brave look to Gay’s future, where she will work to approach happiness. I so admire her, her spirit and determination to move forward despite everything that happened to her, and her courage to look unflinchingly at the ugly things weaker people would have to repress or ignore just to survive, and then to say them to the world.