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.
You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir by Sherman Alexie
Sherman Alexie lost his mother in 2015, and this is the book he wrote to deal with his grief. He writes about his difficult childhood living on the Spokane Indian reservation, his volatile relationship with his mother, and the secrets his family kept for years. This book was an education for me about Native Americans and the effects colonization has had on their lives and families. Alexie also writes about his experiences of racism and his reaction to last year’s election. The form of the memoir is fragmented and disconnected personal essays, stories, and poems, stitched together like one of his mother’s quilts.
I knew The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was autobiographical, but I didn’t realize exactly how closely that story parallels Alexie’s real life. In some ways, reading this book was like reading a sequel to that novel, written by its protagonist as an adult. Grown-up fans who read Alexie’s first novel years ago will enjoy this book as well.
Alexie is a gifted performer and an amazing reader, so his audiobooks are a real treat. He communicates so much more with his voice, adding accents, singing, and tearful emotion. I think if you read his work in print, you’re missing out.
You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day
This book fits into a subgenre of memoir that I call, “Why I Am the Way I Am.” In these books the authors explain their various quirks in charming and endearing and self-deprecating ways. They spend a lot of time listing their various likes and dislikes and tracing these preferences back to childhood experiences. In this example, Felicia Day connects her homeschooled upbringing to her adoption of unusual hobbies and her ability to throw herself single-mindedly into them. As a fellow recovering valedictorian, I related hard to Day’s perfectionism, her craving for external validation, and her people-pleasing teacher’s pet behaviors. When she described her honest-to-God addiction to World of Warcraft, I had to pause a moment and cross myself because I have played some MMORPGs in my day, and “There but for the grace of God go I.”
I was surprised that Day didn’t talk more about her time on Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long. (It would have been natural, Joss Whedon did the foreword!) Instead, the narrative concentrated on her childhood, her introduction to video gaming, and her creation of the web series The Guild. All of the stories she told were interesting and funny, but I wondered about those other stories that didn’t make it into this book. All that is to say, “Psst, Felicia, I think you have another book in you!”
Day’s story is an example for me of how sometimes success comes from the luck of being an early adopter. She got in on the ground floor of video game fandom and web videos. I don’t think it’s so much that she was prescient, predicting that these passions of hers would gain a huge following, as that she was just doing what made her happy, and the zeitgeist happened to align with her. She was lucky enough to have a weekly group meeting with a woman who had made one of the first viral youtube videos, and got her help to create The Guild. Day did crowdfunding before Kickstartr existed. The story also shows in excruciating detail how hard she worked, but luck plays a role in any success as big as Day’s.
You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein
This memoir is in the same vein as others by Mindy Kaling, Lena Dunham, Tina Fey, and Amy Pohler, though Jessi Klein is not as famous as they are, and she’s somewhat less bombastic than these other comedians. Klein is a writer for comedy shows, most recently and successfully for Inside Amy Schumer, and has been on camera for shows like VH1’s Best Week Ever. But for the most part she seems a little bit more down-to-earth than these other stars, and few of her essays are about show business.
I related to this book so hard. It was like Klein had looked inside my head and seen all my insecurities. Her take on the problem of female beauty–especially what it’s like to long to be effortlessly gorgeous without that natural gift–really hit home for me. She is about eight years older than me–reading this was like a long sleepover with an older cousin whose life has closely mirrored my own, in themes if not in exact events. Klein’s humor is mostly self-deprecation over her own pathetic life. She writes about allowing herself to be treated poorly in relationships, about a nasty breakup, her engagement, wedding dress, fertility problems, aging, and how long it took her to have the courage to make a leap in her career. Her analysis of cultural phenomena like Anthropologie, The Bachelor, porn, and New Age retreat-spas is spot-on and hilarious. She reads the audiobook herself and delivers her writing with irony and sadness. I strongly recommend it to any woman who has ever felt not good enough.
The Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes
This memoir by a TV goddess is empowering and just as funny as I expected it to be. I really enjoy Shonda Rhimes’s TV writing: Scandal, Gray’s Anatomy, and How to Get Away with Murder are addictive and brilliantly plotted. I recognized some of the sentence-level pacing and style from her shows; it works just as well in this format. The gimmick of the book is that in the year 2014 Rhimes made a resolution to say yes to things that scared her. The end result was that she moved from hiding in the writers’ room to taking the spotlight herself, and feeling more comfortable there. She made several intimidating TV appearances and a few public speeches, including her Dartmouth commencement speech. Her stories about working motherhood and the mommy wars. losing weight without self-hate, learning to accept compliments, and taking time to play were perfectly expressed, and just what I needed to hear.
How Should a Person Be? A Novel From Life by Shelia Heti
When this book came out, there was a lot of talk about it, so I put it on my list. People were saying how it’s a book about female friendship and the struggle to produce art, topics which certainly appeal to me. A lot of people didn’t like it and called it navel-gazing, and others responded to that criticism with accusations of sexism: “You’d like it if it were a man doing the navel-gazing.” Because I know where I generally stand on those debates, I was fully prepared to like and enjoy this book, and was disappointed when I didn’t so much. It wasn’t because female friendship is boring or because a woman writing about her own life is objectionable to me (obviously), but just because I guess I didn’t like the particular things Heti had to say about her life, or the way she said them. Heti (or her character) divorces her husband for reasons I didn’t understand (I didn’t understand why she married him either), and has a relationship with a creepy guy who likes to make sex as degrading for his partners as possible. It takes her way too long to dump him. She moves from Toronto to New York because statistically it seems more likely she’ll make her way into the canon if she’s there. The story (not that there’s much plot) is framed by an “ugly painting” contest that Heti’s friends participate in. Heti’s friend Margeaux is a central figure, and the effect both have on each others’ art is a key question.
I’d compare Heti to Lena Dunham in that they’re both privileged white women making art and focusing on relationships between women. Both also explore relationships with men that are at least borderline exploitative or abusive. Dunham is a decade younger, a lot funnier, and has some important things to say about date rape, women’s bodies and representation, while Heti is more esoteric and existential, and less concerned with social justice. I’m between the two in age, but I think I prefer Dunham.