Hello! Happy holidays, and happy NEW YEAR! Goodbye 2020. Welcome back to another post! I apologize for the long break I have inexplicably taken from writing. It was certainly not intentional, but resulted from having read very few compelling books lately. In addition, I have been drowning in school work (prior to the holidays). However, I have returned to review four books and one recent documentary.
*All italicized summaries are courtesy of Goodreads.*
*This link will direct you to a page featuring helpful Black Lives Matter resources.*
*In addition, this link will direct you to my post on the Black Lives Matter movement, in which a number of resources are listed.*
HUNGER: A MEMOIR OF (MY) BODY by: Roxane Gay – A memoir *3.75-4/5*
In her phenomenally popular essays and long-running Tumblr blog, Roxane Gay has written with intimacy and sensitivity about food and body, using her own emotional and psychological struggles as a means of exploring our shared anxieties over pleasure, consumption, appearance, and health. As a woman who describes her own body as “wildly undisciplined,” Roxane understands the tension between desire and denial, between self-comfort and self-care. In Hunger, she explores her past—including the devastating act of violence that acted as a turning point in her young life—and brings readers along on her journey to understand and ultimately save herself.
With the bracing candor, vulnerability, and power that have made her one of the most admired writers of her generation, Roxane explores what it means to learn to take care of yourself: how to feed your hungers for delicious and satisfying food, a smaller and safer body, and a body that can love and be loved—in a time when the bigger you are, the smaller your world becomes.
Roxane Gay’s Hunger is a powerful and intimate account of trauma and its influence on weight, body image, and her relationship with food. Gay approached her memoir with brutal honesty and a unique degree of raw and revealing emotion. Rather than purely contributing to the lamentably common, albeit critical, conversation of eating disorders, she explored the nuances and seemingly paradoxical elements of her weight gain. Most admirable, however, was Gay’s ability to avoid the overly saccharine promotion of “self-love.” On the contrary, she discussed, in a naked and sincere manner, the enduring painfulness of suffering from her current and ever-fluctuating weight, in addition to the persisting desire to develop (and redevelop) a “fortress” around herself—the latter a devastating consequence of the act of violence she suffered several decades prior. Despite Gay’s candid voice, however, I found her writing astonishingly plain and flavourless. Unlike her story, her writing remained less than compelling throughout the memoir. In addition, I found the ideas and events explored throughout Hunger strangely repetitious. However, in spite of its curiously, for lack of a more appropriate word, “popular” quality, Hunger remains a powerful and influential contribution to the shelves of marginalized and illuminating stories.
Side note: I interpret Roxane Gay’s bracketed “my” in the novel’s title as subtle symbolism of the quiet and invisible presence she has striven for. I believe it signifies the subliminally rooted belief that she and her body, and her story, are of little significance, and therefore deserve little recognition and care, and a presence to bask in.
THE NEW JIM CROW: MASS INCARCERATION IN THE AGE OF COLORBLINDNESS by: Michelle Alexander – A novel *3.5/5*
As the United States celebrates the nation’s “triumph over race” with the election of Barack Obama, the majority of young black men in major American cities are locked behind bars or have been labeled felons for life. Although Jim Crow laws have been wiped off the books, an astounding percentage of the African American community remains trapped in a subordinate status–much like their grandparents before them.
In this incisive critique, former litigator-turned-legal-scholar Michelle Alexander provocatively argues that we have not ended racial caste in America: we have simply redesigned it. Alexander shows that, by targeting black men and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of color blindness. The New Jim Crow challenges the civil rights community–and all of us–to place mass incarceration at the forefront of a new movement for racial justice in America.
I read The New Jim Crow over the span of several months, having allowed myself a necessary break approximately half-way through the novel. A triumphant enterprise, Michelle Alexander delivered a deeply researched and finely explored novel of immense intelligence and understanding. Although Alexander successfully composed a complex and nuanced text, I found The New Jim Crow especially wearisome and sluggish, and thus remained vaguely removed throughout my reading. I believe this can be partially attributed to my unfamiliarity with the nuances of incarceration and such, and my expectation of moderate accessibility. However, I believe it unfair to fault Alexander on the somewhat inaccessible nature of her novel (in my case, however), for it was plainly intended for a mature audience due to its dense themes. I did not, however, face immense difficulty understanding the discussed themes, but rather found myself overwhelmingly weary and unengaged. The novel’s intensely repetitious quality additionally revealed its monotonous nature. Despite my rather unfortunate reading experience, The New Jim Crow was nevertheless rewarding and educational, and remains essential reading for all, particularly those interested in social justice issues.
THE SOCIAL DILEMMA by: Jeff Orlowski (director, screenplay), Larissa Rhodes (producer), Vickie Curtis (screenplay), and Davis Coombe (screenplay) – A 2020 documentary *4/5*
The Social Dilemma explores technology experts’ perspectives on the harmful consequences of excessive social media consumption.
For the past several years, I have grown increasingly invested in exploring the toxicity of social media. Naturally, The Social Dilemma held its appeal. Following my viewing of the documentary, I can safely claim that it is a necessary contribution to the conversation of social media and its progressively negative impacts on its users. I found the integrated perspectives of the former social media platform associates a fascinating and powerful contribution to the documentary, as it emphasized the gravity of the matter and offered irrefutable evidence of the harmful nature of social media. Moreover, I felt the interwoven elements of fictitious narrative was an exceptionally clever addition to the film. It not only allowed for a more engaging experience, it boldly reflected the experience of teenage social media consumption and the accompanying consequences. More significantly, however, I believe it was an effective means to captivate audience members who were not necessarily invested in the subject.
Despite the narrative element, however, I do not believe the documentary is sufficiently accessible and appealing to the teenage audience. As it is most crucial for teenagers/young adults to sufficiently understand the toxicity of their excessive social media consumption, the documentary’s appeal should have been more deeply considered. I am, of course, evaluating the latter in relation to the delivery as opposed to the deliberation. The Social Dilemma nonetheless remains of immense significance and value in its contribution to accentuating the insidious nature of social media.
AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A FACE by: Lucy Grealy – A memoir *4.5/5*
At age nine, Lucy Grealy was diagnosed with a potentially terminal cancer. When she returned to school with a third of her jaw removed, she faced the cruel taunts of classmates. In this strikingly candid memoir, Grealy tells her story of great suffering and remarkable strength without sentimentality and with considerable wit. Vividly portraying the pain of peer rejection and the guilty pleasures of wanting to be special, Grealy captures with unique insight what it is like as a child and young adult to be torn between two warring impulses: to feel that more than anything else we want to be loved for who we are, while wishing desperately and secretly to be perfect.
Lucy Grealy’s memoir is a beautiful fusion of wit and grace, and sorrow and yearning. Utterly engrossing and fascinating, Autobiography of a Face explores Grealy’s painful battle with Ewing sarcoma, a rare cancer, from the tender age of nine. Much like Tara Westover’s memoir Educated, I cannot quite identify the precise reason Grealy’s memoir captivated me so greatly. Perhaps I was drawn to Grealy’s youth and her innocence and snide remarks… Or perhaps I was attracted to her unique story of understanding beauty—both physical and spiritual—and its indefinable and elusive, albeit influential and supreme, nature amid a narrow and destructive North American culture that exclusively embraces a white, slim, cosmetically-transformed feminine appearance. I can, however, safely claim to have been desperately mesmerized by Grealy’s equally liberating and lamentable ignorance of the severity of her illness and its damning physical consequences. Following my read of Autobiography of a Face, only now can I wholly appreciate the subtlety with which Grealy explored the themes of beauty throughout her memoir. Despite the particulars of her daily life the primary and most apparent focus of the memoir, the physical trauma and the resulting disfiguration Grealy suffered remained a haunting presence, palpable and ever-present undertones discernible on every page. That said, I had anticipated further exploration and analysis of beauty and self-image in relation to her experience as opposed to a sweeping account of her life. In hindsight, however, the latter is to be most expected in a memoir.
In a beautiful and striking conclusion, Grealy revealed the shocking degree of liberation and peace she experienced after her years immersed in shadow, her physical appearance having been mentally reduced to a mere silhouette. Despite the rather lamentable reality, the implication that “shedding,” as Grealy writes, her image was ultimately freeing is indefinably powerful. Only when we withdraw from our woefully narcissistic, impressionable, and superficial culture of physical beauty will we achieve acceptance and independence.
Bonus feature (though of significance nonetheless):
THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT by: Walter Tevis – A novel *5/5*
Eight year-old orphan Beth Harmon is quiet, sullen, and by all appearances unremarkable. That is until she plays her first game of chess. Her senses grow sharper, her thinking clearer, and for the first time in her life she feels herself fully in control. By the age of sixteen, she’s competing for the U.S. Open championship. But as she hones her skills on the professional circuit, the stakes get higher, her isolation grows more frightening, and the thought of escape becomes all the more tempting. Engaging and fast-paced, The Queen’s Gambit speeds to a conclusion as elegant and satisfying as a mate in four.
A striking and hypnotic narrative, The Queen’s Gambit remains unparalleled in its desperately exciting and irresistibly clever nature. Walter Tevis remained unpredictable in his offerings, his characters ever oscillating between devastation and beauty, arousing a natural balance of hostility and sympathy in the reader. The characters’ contradictory and obscure natures contributed an admirable layer of humanity and realism to the novel, and allowed for great complexity and richness. Tevis’ ability to finely craft an array of severely intricate and seemingly paradoxical characters allowed for the detection of unique layers of suffering and wonder throughout the narrative. In particular, Benny Watts remained a most distinguished character in his cool and distant nature (unlike the seemingly softened and warm character presented in the Netflix adaptation… which I have not seen, so don’t quote me on that!), allowing for an edge of intensity and solemnity that are appropriately reflective of the game of chess. I believe Benny remained cool and reserved because he recognized Beth and her innocently destructive tendencies as a reflection of himself.
Despite my unfamiliarity with, and genuine disinterest in, chess, Tevis writes with such palpable fervour and intimacy that I remained breathless, rapt, feverishly reading on. As it happens, it appears as if Beth is loosely based on Tevis’ own life and experience. Therefore, I believe the undeniable empathy and perception with which he writes is as a result of his intimacy with both Beth and Benny (the latter’s gambling tendencies, in particular) and their hardships and triumphs (although, according to this article, Tevis developed an affinity for the game pool). However, Tevis’ life evidently did not progress quite as elegantly as Beth’s chess career. Eloquently written, a subtle tenderness detectable in Tevis’ prose, The Queen’s Gambit remained astonishing in its satisfying and graceful pacing. Following a moment’s pause after reading the final line of the novel, a reread seemed most natural, for I desperately craved the rewarding sensation that accompanied experiencing Beth’s evolution as a character.
In addition, I found Tevis’ natural exploration of racial disparity rather refreshing, the subtle undertones of inequality recognizable in Jolene’s (Beth’s friend) experience in the orphanage and the years following in comparison with the notably white, glamourized culture of professional chess Beth learns to navigate. Despite my exasperation at the apparent fact that Netflix’s adaptation of The Queen’s Gambit is receiving more recognition and praise than the original text, I am immensely pleased that Tevis’ final novel is experiencing a vivid revival, allowing for a fresh generation of readers (like myself!).
I would also like to remark on the fact that, ironically, my most flattering review concerns a novel that does not pertain to the general theme (“our social dilemmas”) of this post. Whelp. I hope you enjoyed it nonetheless!
Happy New Year,