Books! They're great. Here's what I read in January, a cold sad month made for reading. *disclaimer: some spoilers, but not much you wouldn't get from the jacket.
The small innocent bodies and beautiful minds of midwest queer kids: The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth
Review, short version: Cameron made me cry.
This is a pretty well-known and widely read work of lesbian/queer fiction. It falls in the YA category, which is one I enjoy dabbling in only occasionally, but the depth in this sprawling story is pretty astonishing in terms of the development of the main character as she comes of age in 90's small-town Montana. Cameron moves through a couple of iterations of heart-fluttering, pulsing, aching love for her best friends both in childhood and adolescence, with a fair amount of romantic and/or sexual exploration with other tertiary characters in between. In fact, one issue I took with this novel is that even in the tiny town of Miles City, Cameron seems to have no shortage of possibilities for lesbian encounters. I mean, there aren't very many people in this town overall, and that there would be several girls her age with whom to even make out seems somewhat hard to believe; however this might be slight resentment on my part that my experience growing up was utterly devoid of such opportunities. But I digress.
This story is all about its main character and how much pain she needs to overcome, from the death of her parents to the rejection of her community to her forced residence at a religious gay-to-straight conversion "school," but it's also a story of a girl firmly rooted in herself, a child of the water and the sky, a person with a staggering ability to love with her whole body and forgive herself and those around her. I got attached to her pretty quickly, and am thankful to have been carried through this story on her narrative.
I was left wanting more from this novel, maybe because of my attachment to its protagonist, but also because the story seemed to end sort of abruptly without as much resolution as I would want from such a thorough account. The book is almost 500 pages so it's pretty long, and maybe that's one reason it ended where it did, but I for one would happily read a sequel. Please and thank you, Emily Danforth.
The small mighty bodies and beautiful minds of "girl" rockers in 90's Pacific Northwest: Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein
"The notion of 'female' should be so sprawling and complex that it becomes divorced from gender itself."
I need all of the emoji hearts x one million in order to express how I feel about Carrie Brownstein. I have to admit (at the risk of being hated by OG fans) I first came to know her because of Portlandia, and the more I learned about her the more I fell for her. Even though music in general is not my area of expertise and I don't spend much time listening to any music, including Sleater-Kinney, I am a sucker for women who have busted patriarchal boundaries, intentionally or not, by following their own burning fires.
Also, Carrie Brownstein is a first-degree writer. She has a command of language (and broad vocabulary) that I would argue is beyond most people on the globe, including myself. I had to look up words constantly, and thus she helped prep me for the GRE's in case I ever take them, so thanks for that too, Carrie. You da best.
Anyway I can't relate to any of the music-history stuff in this book, and that felt alienating at times. But everything else about the prose, the personal history, the honesty and fearlessness with which she described her inner journey from childhood through early adulthood had my heart gripped.
There were a lot of specific sentiments and sentences I could relate to. For example, she writes about the experience of being a fan, calling it "curious, open, desiring for connection, to feel like art has chosen you, claimed you as its witness." As a fan not necessarily of music but of other forms of [pop] culture, this description feels perfect. She also expressed her reasoning behind moving to a new place in a way that impeccably mirrors my own experience:
"I wanted a new family of outlaws, of queers and provocative punks, of wit and sexiness. I had one trajectory and that was to get out: of Redmond, of my childhood, of my head. But I needed a place to take me in. It was both a calculated move and an aimless one. I possessed the force of a bullet, albeit one shot from a very shoddy gun... There is something freeing in seeing yourself in a new context. People have no preconceived notion of who you are, and there is relief in knowing you can re-create yourself. When you're entrenched in a community of people who know you, it's scary to proclaim wanting to be different and wanting to experiment."
Brownstein also writes superbly about finding her place within the personal and political of the riot grrrl movement. She depicts a journey that could be any type of personal journey within a wider sociopolitical context or label- like feminism, for example- that inevitably possesses multiple, often conflicting, meanings.
"I became acutely aware of myself as a political entity, but while the discourse felt important, necessary even, it also felt stifling. The perimeters felt unclear, almost like traps. Those bolder than I set forth unabashedly and were willing to be called out, but I stuck to watching it happen, on the periphery of the dialogue as an audience member and supporter, too scared to commit something treasonous. Only in the early songs was I willing to emulate that sort of naming and blaming, reclamation and wound-sharing. I didn't know how to really process those things in person."
Riot grrl and feminism and Black Lives Matter and LGBTQIA+ rights and all social justice branches have central struggles in common, so many intersecting points, and yet so many differences that, to me at least, it is hard to reconcile all of the overlaps and disparities within myself in a way that truly validates everyone's experiences and lifts everyone up. There are ways to do this in a broad sense, when talking about categories or groups, but how valuable is it to be broad and when do you become too narrow? How do you honor every individual person experiencing oppression and also take the wide view, which seems necessary to bring about institutional and systemic change? I too am afraid of saying or doing something treasonous.
So yeah, Carrie got in my head and my heart and made me think and feel, and what more could you want from a piece of writing?
The small powerful bodies and beautiful minds of runners across the globe: Run The World by Becky Wade
"For every person who successfully makes a career out of running, there are thousands of others who remain in obscurity in the forests."
"The 'best' way to train was becoming more baffling with each stop on the map."
It's no secret that I'm a running nerd, so when I saw that another running nerd had written a book about her Watson-supported trip around the world to get some insight into the professional and amateur running culture of different places, I was legit excited to read it. There's a lot to learn in these pages about running and the different (or similar) approaches to it across several cultures. I didn't know much about how the recreational jogging boom and birth of Nike started in New Zealand with Arthur Lydiard; or that the most popular running event in Japan is the ekiden, a "long-distance road relay modeled after the ancient communication system in which mail was delivered through a chain of messengers" and today can involve any number of legs or distances and are so popular, especially around New Years, that they are "blamed for Japan's weak presence in international running, relative to the true depths of the country's runners;" or the outsized role of poverty in the running culture of Ethiopia, where being a sponsored athlete can be a way out of poverty, but paradoxically, fueling can be difficult for the same reason, and with the number of athletes in pursuit of this career, the competition is fierce.
The cultural, economic, personal, professional, geographic circumstances and priorities within running communities across the globe is incredibly interesting and made not only for a good read but a stirring of thought in my mind. I wanted more depth in all of these categories, but appreciated the insights she did give.
The role of privilege in running is undeniable and takes many forms. But one layer of privilege the author didn't really touch on was that of gender. As she is a woman, I expected there to be more discussion of gender roles in running, from number of female runners to safety. Of course I am interested in reading about nonbinary or trans people in running, but didn't expect that from this book. We're not there yet, unfortunately. However, there was a lack of discussion around gender; I'm unsure if this was intentional. I also would have liked to read about how the author was personally confronted with her specific privileges or lack of privilege in the different cultural contexts she found herself in. Her own background is dripping with privilege- white, economically stable, straight, educated, all the running resources in the world at her college fingertips from coaches to nutrition to gear. This isn't to bash her- she obviously works incredibly hard to push her physical and psychological limits in the context of sport, and that is really admirable. I personally share a great deal of her privilege and can relate to her journey to an extent (though I'm nowhere near the professional athlete she is). But I find great value in evaluating my advantages and disadvantages in the context of the sport I love, and would have loved to have heard that from her, too.
In any case, I enjoyed this book immensely, and if I want to read about privilege in running, maybe I need to write it myself. *disclaimer: no promises
That's it for this month. Next month: Scifi! Fantasy! Lesbians! And Roxane Gay! Basically, all the good stuff!