Extra Reality This Month: Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon

I never felt cool enough to be a Sonic Youth fan. Or, I’m not sure I’ve ever really understood their music and I attributed my lack of understanding to how utterly uncool I am. But, I’ve always respected them as a band (and more than once my lack of understanding because me an opportunity to flirt with a musically inclined cutie.) Plus, Kim Gordon has always been kind of a feminist icon to me. She was a shining example of how a woman could succeed in a profession dominated by men. And, the fact that she succeeded and managed to maintain a relationship with talented hottie Thurston Moore just made her even more iconic. It’s a little unfair to pin so much hope to a relationship but I know a lot of people who looked at their marriage and thought, “If they can do it, we can do it.” and the world seemed surprised and disappointed when they announced they were divorcing. I was also disappointed. It seemed like the end of a era and maybe it was. I don’t know. So, when I heard that Gordon was writing a memoir I knew I had to read it.

The book chronicles her life starting with her childhood in California and takes us all the way to the present day with a kid in college in new projects post-band. Gordon talks a lot about her relationships with her parents and brother and her mentors and how that shaped who she was and how she ended up in a band. Kim Gordon, you may not know, went to art school and studied painting. (I didn’t know that.) So, this memoir is not just a story about a band or a story of how her marriage came together and fell apart. It is also an interesting look into the art world and how the New York of today grew up.

This was a really, really neat book that made me crave 90s music and to wander around Manhattan. It was really interesting to read what Gordon had to say about the music scene and the growing gallery culture of that time period. It was also really interesting to get a perspective from an older feminist on the world then and now. As I mentioned in on periscope, Kim Gordon is the same age is Beth’s and my mother and her feminism and my feminism are not the same. It is nice to be reminded that the movement has moved.

So, if you are interested in the music and art of the 80s and 90s, I definitely recommend it.

This Month in Reality: Love and Revolution

So, Russell Brand’s third book is about the state of the world and what we can all do to change it. He does his usual comedy schtick but he also presents the views of public figures, past and present, who are advocating for change. I checked this book out from the library to listen to while I cleaned my apartment and but I found myself often just listening. There were many touching and poignant things in the novel. Brand gets personal and talks about painful breakups and relationships and his history of addiction. He gets global and he talks about alternative energy and failures in many governmental systems world wide. One of the things that he keeps coming back to is small groups of people coming together to take care of themselves and effect change.

To be quite honest, I was very touched by this book. I found that it stuck with me long after I had put it down.

When people have to take to the streets because they are being injured or killed by a police service that is not part of the community and not serving the community the system isn’t working. When congress can spend an entire session not passing bills, not appointing people to positions that need to be filled, not taking care of veterans, and not debating or discussing any issues that affect the lives of the people that they actually represent, the system isn’t working. When we expect students to get a college degree to get a good job but that college degree will set them back thousands and thousands of dollars into debt (and when that degree is no guarantee that a good job will ever be available), the system is broken. When apples are shipped to another continent to be processed and then shipped back to be sold (or fish are caught, frozen, shipped to another continent thawed, scaled and boned, refrozen and shipped back) the system isn’t working.  Or, maybe it is working and it is just a stupid system.

I think we can all agree that at least some of those things sound crazy. I mean, at least the fish and the apple thing. I hope the other things as well.

So, the question is, if the system isn’t working, how do we as people, come together and fix the system or change the system or make the system work? The big question that we all have ask ourselves is what are the things that are important to us? How do we center those important things in our lives and in our policies? How do we create a government that is on the same page as we are?

Brand has some suggestions but three of the things that he keeps coming back to are meditation, people coming together to change something, and love.

These are things that have been on my mind recently. Meditation because I have become increasingly aware of how some sort of meditation practice could benefit me.  People coming together because of all of the movements that are rolling and changing things (#blacklivesmatter, #sayhername, and #lovewins as possible examples).    Love for a possibly bizarre reason. I have about one year left on my PhD and I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’m going to do next. All of that thinking about the future has really highlighted what is important to me and it turns out that what’s important to me is a need to be near people I love. One of the things I took from reading this book was that, yes, the world is in an awful state and it can be an awful place. But, it doesn’t have to be. We can work together to make it better. We can be there for each other, we can support each other and we don’t have to take any of this as, “that’s just the way the world works.” Naw. The world works the way we work and if we want to change something, we should.

This book was full of a lot of really quotable things that as a listener I kept coming back to like: “Sometimes you have to realize that the only power you have in a situation is the power to make it worse.” (Or, not.)  I could not have heard this quote a better time.  Sometimes, you just have to be reminded that your only options are to be a dick or to be a compassionate human being.

In a discussion of suffragette Emily Davison who worked the get women the vote in England, Brand pointed out that were former leaders of past revolutions to be magically transported in time to now that they might not be encouraging people to vote but rather to riot. It is important to remember that even leaders of peaceful movements did not countenance peace in all instances and that we need to be very careful not to take their life’s work out of context. (We especially need to be careful not to take their life’s work out of context in order to silence a vocal minority that is looking to be heard or that is looking for justice.)

But, the best part of this book for me was maybe how personal it was. Brand reminds you over and over again that you don’t need a perfect solution now, that you can start where you are, that you can do something small and that you, right now, are enough and that you do not need to change. You are okay. I was a little surprised at first by how affected I was to hear that. But, I think we get messages every day about how inadequate we are and we are so habituated to seeing and hearing them that we don’t even question them. Having a weirdo comedian who has had many hilarious (possibly unintentionally so) hairstyles remind me to begin where I am was oddly comforting. Knowing that this guy, who is probably a total dick, is trying his best for his community, was moving. Listening to Brand talk about his many fuck ups and shortcomings was oddly empowering.

Brand reminds us that, “This is your planet, you can change it if you want to. You can change it by doing loads of drug or having it off with loads of women or going on a murderous rampage with a licensed weapon. Doesn’t it make more sense though to change it by binding together with your fellow man and working to create a society that is fair and just? Of course it does!”

So, if you’re interested in hearing a comedian discuss the work of forward-thinking people and talk about revolution, meditation, and power structures, I highly recommend this book.

I checked the audio for this book out from the Buffalo and Erie County Public Libraries.

Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Featured imageThere was a recent discussion on Twitter about whether or not you avoid reading popular books.  Is the fact that the book is popular and “You just got to read it” a turn on or turn off.  Whether a book is popular is not really a selling point for me but I’m not going to avoid reading it if it is.  Unless it’s an Oprah book. Now bear with me.  Oprah’s Book Club has done so much to get people to read and for that I applaud her.  It has also been a boom for the publishing industry, it has promoted authors that probably would never get exposure or that level of exposure but as a former bookseller, it made my life difficult.  I know, it sounds weird but ask any bookseller.  For years, Oprah wouldn’t announce her new pick until she did it on her show.  People would immediately come into stores asking for the new Oprah book and we wouldn’t have a clue what they were talking about since we were working and not watching Oprah.  And rarely would people who watched the show know the title of the book they must read and would come in with no information.  Now, it’s a little easier.  Oprah works more with publishers to make sure her picks are ready to go with her sticker already on the book when she makes her announcements.  Also, now with the internet, if customers come in for her books and we were left unaware, they could look it up more easily but yeah Oprah.  Also I found that a lot of her picks were the same.  Different authors but all carried the same theme and that didn’t appeal to me.

Why bring this up? Wild was the first book in Oprah’s book club 2.0 and quickly became the “You just have to read” book.  It’s also a memoir and  I think we have established I don’t read much non-fiction.  So I had no interest in reading it.  I still had no interest in reading it when  Kate assigned it to me but I’m glad I did.  I was truly touched by Cheryl’s story.  I was in tears when she was describing the death of her mother.  I don’t even want to think about losing my mom and I think I could understand her downward spiral.  To decide to go on a three month, thousand mile hike by herself is not only crazy to me but unbelievably brave.  To do something like that when you are not really prepared to so is even more crazy and brave.  I laughed through her struggles with “monster” aka her pack.  I was anxious for her when the reservoir was out of water and she hadn’t brought enough.  With every new person she met, I was just as nervous about meeting as she was but most were nice and helpful.  As a woman alone, meeting strangers, particular men can be dangerous but the danger was mostly from the trail itself and Cheryl’s own mistakes not from people she met.  I enjoyed reading her journey and could see as the hike went on how much she grew.  By the time it ended, I knew she would be ok.  Not just because I know that Cheryl has had a successful writing career but because through her hike, she was able to see truths about herself, admit the ugly truths and accept things about herself that are unpleasant but all of that, everything that happened, led her to that moment and made her who she is today.  Maybe we all should take a break from our lives and go wild.

Pop Culture Homework Assignment for Beth

Any basic analysis of this site will clue you into one fact: Beth reads (and reviews) way more than I do. For the past few years or so, she has been my go-to for book recommendations. First, because she has really good taste and knows how to sniff out hits (she recommended Hunger Games and Divergent to me before they were big. She also got me hooked on Bone Season and the Shades of London and countless other series that, ultimately, I’m thankful for even if I’m annoyed after I’ve finished a book and have to wait for the next one). And, second because she is honest and she will not sugar coat it that when a book doesn’t live up to expectations. I have read a lot of really fun books because of her suggestions so suggesting books to her is a real responsibility.

When we proposed this challenge, Beth and I asked each other about a number of different books and authors. I found out that Beth has never read one of my favorite travel memoirs, A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. This led me to a theme for my books: travel.

Bookending the assignment are two travel memoirs that feature hiking. Since we don’t come from a hiking kind of family, these will both probably feel like a way weird choice for her. But, hiking is the backdrop to the story in these narratives. Beth will be starting with Wild by Cheryl Strayed and ending with A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. Both of these books I enjoyed immensely but I am interested in her opinions on them. The middle two books are both from different genres (and don’t involve hiking). I picked Wild because I think it is a beautiful narrative about family and personal growth. Book 2 is Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott (travel as a metaphor for spiritual growth!). I picked this because I thought this book was full of essays that were funny and touching. Book 3 is 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson, a fictional tale of a young adult doing some traveling to say goodbye to a loved one. So, travel, family. This book is funny and touching and full of adventure. A great summer read! Finally, A Walk in the Woods is a fun story about two middle aged dudes walking the Appalachian Trail. It is funny, it is touching, and it is informative.

So, the list is:

Book 1: Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Book 2:Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott
Book 3: 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson
Book 4: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson.

There you go, Beth! I hope you love them as much I did! Or, not! Whatever! I can’t wait to hear what you think!

This Month in Reality…and the Oscar Goes to…

When Beth and I talked about what to do for this month, I got really excited about travel memoirs. But, then, everyone in the Northeast is probably dreaming of warm beaches and sunny locales. (Although, it has been sunny this week. I love the look of the sun on clean, white snow. It makes the world so bright and beautiful. Of course, this beauty has also been accompanied by dangerously cold temperatures and wind. Win some, lose some.) But, then we got to talking about something that has always been a fun night for us: The Oscars. It is fun to watch people win, the speculate and to discuss the films that we saw (and didn’t see). We’ve been known in the past to drink a lot of wine, make and eat a lot of food and be pretty irreverent in our cheering and jeering (which, this year, we’ll be doing over FaceTime.)

In honor of this glorious night of fancy dresses and finger food, I give you the low-down on three books that inspired Oscar-nominated films. All of these books I listened to rather than read and all of them came from the Buffalo and Erie County Public libraries. Go, Library Card!

12 Years a Slave

This is the tale of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Written by Northup after he was rescued and returned home this memoir is a painful inside look into the institution of slavery. It is every bit as harrowing as you expect it to be but that is what makes this such an important piece of history. Slavery was very real and it destroyed many, many lives and we still live with its legacy. The audio book was read by Louis Gossett, Jr. Northup’s strength and courage are inspiring but the situation that he finds himself in is utterly despicable. This book is totally worth the read.

A Beautiful Mind

I wasn’t sure I was going to like this when I picked it up because I remember being only a little into the film. This biography follows the life of John Forbes Nash, Jr., a brilliant mathematician who had a promising career ahead of him until he fell ill with schizophrenia. The first part of the book details his early life and schooling. He’s great at math, he gets scholarships and it becomes apparent that he’s good enough that he has a serious shot at a prestigious academic career in mathematics full of groundbreaking research and accolades. He works for the Rand corporation. He fathers a child. He has homosexual encounters that cause some upset in McCarthy era America. He gets married and fathers a second child. He holds a position and almost receives tenure at MIT. He is, like most geniuses, a lot a bit arrogant and kind of a dick. He’s a possible candidate for the Fields medal ( which is like the Nobel of math). And then his illness strikes. Much of the rest of the book chronicles the harrowing struggle that is schizophrenia and how he, and the people around him, worked to manage it, manage him, or sometimes, failed to manage either. This was a terrible tale of losing ground, gaining ground and then losing it again. Towards the end of the book, when Nash’s work in game theory was being considered for a Nobel prize, it was also a tale of how people tried to use his illness as an excuse to not give him the prize. This was a harrowing picture of mental illness and how the mentally ill are perceived. It did have a small light at the end of the tunnel, though. Nash seems to have had a long remission from schizophrenia later in life which allowed him to return to his work and he did receive the Nobel memorial prize for Economics in 1994. This is an important book for how it sheds light on schizophrenia and perceptions of the mentally ill.

Wild

This book broke me open put me back together and then broke me again. A memoir of Cheryl Strayed’s 20s in which she gets married, loses her mother, graduates from college, does a lot of drugs, gets a divorce and hikes the Pacific Crest Trail had me laughing and sobbing and laughing again. I spent a lot of time texting and calling my mother after reading this book, so grateful I was to have that opportunity. I like hiking memoirs (and travel books in general) so I enjoyed the descriptions of the hike and her monster backpack. This story was beautiful and poignant and I’m so happy to have read it. Unlike the two previous books, I feel like I can say that I enjoyed this one. (The other two I’m happy to have read but I can’t really say that I enjoyed them.)

We hope that if you have Oscar plans that they are enjoyable and that your favorites win!