Emily Ratajkowski’s ‘My Body'

Emily Ratajkowski’s ‘My Body’ ★★★¾

Emily Ratajkowski, for those unacquainted, is an actress and model – with the kind of face and body that has defined her whole life. She rose to mainstream fame in Robin Thicke’s infamous Blurred Lines video, and has since starred in Gone Girl and graced the catwalk at countless fashion shows. Her body has made her a millionaire, but it has undoubtedly come at personal cost.

These essays, better described as a loose memoir, are her attempt to reclaim the narrative, use her voice, and work through the sticky complexities that come from being in her line of work. Her perspective is fascinating, vulnerable, conflicted. She is articulate about the challenges of selling her image while wanting to retain ownership over it. In ‘Buying Myself Back’, an essay previously published in The New Yorker, she writes about a sleazy photographer early on in her career who took nude photos of her, ostensibly for a magazine shoot, only to publish the rest of the roll of film years later when Emily had risen to fame – in glossy coffee-table style books for which she didn’t earn a penny. The distinction may not be visible to all, but it’s an important one. So what, people might think – she was a willing participant in the shoot, why does it matter what the photos are used for? But it does matter, in a world where the power is so frequently taken from women and wielded by powerful men.

She is unflinchingly honest about her experiences as a victim of sexual violence, writing in a clear-eyed way about the self-doubt and self-loathing that creeps in in the aftermath. In fact, the whole book is unflinchingly honest about all sorts of things: how she felt her mother place her value on her beauty from a young age, how modelling became a vehicle for influence and not just money (against her better judgement), the serotonin boost at seeing hundreds of thousands of likes tick up on a single Instagram post.

‘Through the years, I’d developed a necessary and protective immunity to the frequent disappointments and rejections that came with modelling… I didn’t care if my image ended up on a billboard or in a magazine as long as the check cleared. I wasn’t interested in fame or notoriety, just the cash, or at least that’s what I told myself. In New York, I broke my own rules; I let myself imagine the power, beyond money, that other women seemed to have gained by becoming successful.’

The essential problem is that the money and power necessitates playing the game. However much it is a feminist act to commodify your body and use it to make a living and build a public persona (which I wholeheartedly support – make that money!) you are still essentially doing so within the oppressive white, patriarchal power structures of that industry.

‘The women who gained their power from beauty were indebted to the men whose desire granted them that power in the first place.’

I won’t be the first person to point out where this book falls a little short: it’s her perspective alone, and doesn’t always scratch much beyond the surface. If you’re going in expecting a searing interrogation of western beauty ideals, the (fe)male gaze, and what can be done to make the industry fairer, you’re not going to find it. But it succeeds in being a frank first-person account of a life very few of us will ever truly understand.

I know it gets a bit silly to fractionise ratings in this way, but I went back and forth on how to rate this and so settled on 3.75 stars: not quite illuminating enough to be 4 stars, but well-accomplished as an articulate and thoughtful perspective we don’t often hear.

P.S. I picked up a signed copy of this book in Finsbury Park’s delightful Book Bar. If you’re in London, be sure to pay them a visit! Emily had recently stopped by for a signing and they have lots of events with high-profile authors.

A galvanizing account of the power of female rage: Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister ★★★★½

Women aren’t supposed to display rage. While men’s ire is ‘comprehensible’ and ‘rational’, angry women are chaotic, unhinged, unnatural. Of course, we’ve got a lot to be angry about. This double standard is just one more addition to a growing list of rage-inducing injustices. In this powerful, incisive account, Traister traces the history and power of women’s anger, how it has been received and perceived over time, and how it is inherently powerful. Written in the months following the election of Donald Trump, this is very much a book about a particular contemporary moment in American history.

The rage of women, Traister convincingly and meticulously argues, is a catalyst for societal change in the US – despite the disdain, disgust and ridicule that is heaped upon these women. Mamie Till, the mother of lynched schoolboy Emmett Till, insisted upon an open casket at his funeral: the world would not be permitted to look away from the unimaginable racist violence inflicted upon him. Mamie Till, Traister writes, is ‘most often pictured as a grieving mother being held up at her son’s coffin, weeping… What we are never trained to consider is that alongside her sorrow and suffering was a burning rage.’ This was a rage that would help propel the struggle for civil rights and change the course of American history. She also turns to Rosa Parks, often presented in a sanitized way and lauded for her stoicism and refusal to show anger – when in fact she had been a ‘lifelong furious fighter against sexual and racial violence, a defender of black men wrongly accused of sexual misconduct by white women, and an elected NAACP secretary who investigated the rape claims of black women against white men’. As a more contemporary example, she turns to the crusade of the Parkland students, demanding an end to gun violence in the wake of another horrific school shooting. 16-year-old Sarah Chadwick, in a tweet that went viral, responded to Trump’s thoughts and prayers with ‘I don’t want your condolences you fucking piece of shit, my friends and teachers were shot. Do something instead of sending prayers.’ Such rage galvanized Chadwick and her peers towards nationwide protests and resonated with millions of Americans, for whom her anger spoke to their own desperation over the inevitability of relentless gun violence. The year before, the election of a white supremacist and abuser to the White House in 2016 inspired the Women’s March movement and a resurgence of activism for women of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds.

In the twenty-first century, it is still ‘unfeminine’ to be angry. To be angry is to be obscene and hysterical, our anger is pathologized. Women in the public eye – particularly those in politics, such as Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris – are frequently discredited for transgressing that boundary: ‘The best way to discredit these women, to make them look unattractive, is to capture an image of them screaming’, Traister writes. ‘…The act of a woman opening her mouth with volume and assured force, often in complaint, is coded in our minds as ugly.’ Ugly, unlikable, not to be trusted. By contrast, white men display rage with impunity, and are often portrayed in a far more sympathetic light – just think of the so-called ‘lone wolf’ perpetrators of mass shootings who are supposedly misunderstood loners or lovesick teens – something Traister explores in a later chapter, using the term coined by Kate Manne: ‘himpathy’.

We have the voices of stalwart feminists throughout – Audre Lorde, Andrea Dworkin, Gloria Steinem and many more – peppered with Traister’s own personal experiences, lending depth and personality to the essays. I felt seen in her chapter about tears as ‘one of the most frequent outlets for our wrath’ and the depressing truth that they are ‘fundamentally misunderstood’ by the men who witness them. There is nothing more infuriating than involuntary weeping out of fury – except for the fact that men may misread the anger as sadness, something to be pitied.

‘One of my sharpest memories from an early job, in a male-dominated office, where I too once found myself weeping with inexpressible rage, was being grabbed by the scruff of my neck by an older woman—a chilly, hard-ass manager of whom I’d always been slightly terrified—who dragged me into a stairwell. “Never let them see you crying,” she told me. “They don’t know you’re furious. They think you’re sad and will be pleased because they got to you.”‘

She also takes care to explore how anger is not perceived the same across colour lines: Black women must resist ‘America’s cheapest caricature’ of the Angry Black Woman. Quoting Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: ‘for black American women, there is an added expectation of interminable gratitude, the closer to groveling the better, as though their citizenship is a phenomenon that they cannot take for granted’. Similarly, while white women’s tears – of anger, rather than rage – can be perceived sympathetically by white men (or indeed, weaponized by the women themselves) – the same cannot be said for the perception of a Black woman expressing emotion in the same way. They are not afforded the same sympathy, and suffer to an even greater extent as race and gender intersect.

A large part of the book is spent discussing #MeToo in an impassioned and clear-eyed way, where she turns to her own experience of meeting Weinstein as a young journalist. She describes the movement as giving us a ‘view of the architecture of sexism that had been holding everything up.’ The cacophony of voices speaking out meant that women could no longer be derided and disbelieved: there was safety and power in accumulative rage – and perhaps the beginning of breaking everything apart.

‘If they are quiet, they will remain isolated. But if they howl in rage, someone else who shares their fury might hear them, might start howling along.’

In art, and media, and politics, and justice – female rage can incite change. While we are at a different moment now – both better in some ways, worse in others, reeling from a global pandemic and the fall of Roe v Wade, this book still feels powerful, and galvanizing, and a convincing rallying cry to embrace our anger.

Nobody Told Me by Hollie McNish – a raw, funny and fascinating account of motherhood ★★★★

When Hollie McNish became a parent, she soon realised that there was a lot – an awful lot – that nobody talks about. So she sets about to change that in this compassionate, raw, truthful collection of poetry and prose about motherhood. The early days of the book take us through her morning sickness at Glastonbury and her anxious granny trying to put a ring on her wedding finger every time she leaves the house, through to trying to keep a toddler occupied on an 8-hour train journey to Scotland and finally waving her off to her first day at nursery. Hollie lays bare the delightful, mundane, exhausting and thrilling experiences that make up modern motherhood.

‘First thoughts after birth: 1. Salt-N-Pepa’s ‘Push It’ was not as funny on the birthing CD as I had hoped.’

This is a poetry collection, but it’s much more, too – Hollie shares her journal entries from those early days of pregnancy through the goriness of birth and the newborn exhaustion and delight, the ‘one long daydream’ of trying to keep a small human alive. Her writing is candid and funny, playful yet serious, as she discusses the policies that create gendered chasms in the domestic division of child-rearing to the inelegance of having to breastfeed in a toilet cubicle because there are no other options.

‘I now know who is to blame for post-baby relationship issues too. The government. The one that gives you two weeks’ paternity leave so that as soon as you have a baby, the mum and dad are thrown into separate world where one thinks the other is getting to stay at home and bond with the baby on a comfy sofa and the other curses the independence and adult life the other still gets. And no one can understand the other’s world any more.’

She openly explores the identity shift upon becoming a parent – both within and outside of herself. Society, she soon realises, is full of opinions. People heckle ‘teen mum!’ at her on the street (she’s 27), tut loudly when she travels with her toddler during rush hour, demand to know why she continues to breastfeed when her baby can walk and talk. When she’s able to get away to a workshop and poetry slam for a few days in Latvia, she revels in being someone other than a parent, just for a small stretch of time. Some of my favourite poems in the collection were Reading To You and The League-Table Toddlers. Even if you’re not ordinarily a poetry fan, her writing is so fresh and accessible, and the diary entries contextualise her thoughts very well. I knocked off one star because it probably could have been edited a little more rigorously (it’s long!) but I nevertheless devoured it in a few days.

It’s also not just for parents or parents-to-be – likelihood is we will all know someone with a child, whether now in in the future – and so I’d recommend this one for anyone who wants to better understand this unique, bizarre experience that many people go through but that no-one really seems to openly talk about.

Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward, an illuminating, brutal memoir of loss in the Deep South ★★★★½

At the beginning of her harrowing, lyrical memoir, Jesmyn Ward tells us: ‘telling this story is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But my ghosts were once people, and I cannot forget that.’ 

Through this slim book, Jesmyn humanizes these ghosts – the five dead young men, boys she grew up with in the rural South, and tells their stories. Through her thoughtful, introspective storytelling, these men are not statistics but real people with hopes and dreams – even if they were always lingering just out of reach. 

Born and raised the Mississippi coast where ‘where the dirty gray Gulf lapped desultorily at a man-made beach ringed by concrete and pine trees’, Jesmyn was no stranger to poverty, discrimination, addiction, and abandonment. Her father left the family to pursue his dreams (and other women), and her mother worked tirelessly as a housekeeper for rich white families to keep Jesmyn and her three siblings fed and clothed.

“Both of us on the cusp of adulthood, and this is how my brother and I understood what it meant to be a woman: working, dour, full of worry. What it meant to be a man: resentful, angry, wanting life to be everything but what it was.”

In a place with little hope of a better life, the men in her life turn to drink, or drugs, or crime. Jesmyn herself narrowly escapes – she attends a Christian private school, paid for by the rich white family who her mother works for. She’s the only Black girl for long periods of school, and endures constant, grinding racism. But at least the chance at an education offers her a potential route out of the cycle of poverty, the ‘cycle of futility.’ 

“This was like walking into a storm surge: a cycle of futility. Maybe he looked at those who still lived and those who’d died, and didn’t see much difference between the two; pinioned beneath poverty and history and racism, we were all dying inside.”

It’s a complex heritage, a place that may offer little in the way of economic opportunity but a lot in the way of community, and a place that pulls Jesmyn back time and time again. Amongst the relentless grind of survival, there’s freedom and friendship – even if fleeting – on hot summer nights when Jesmyn and her siblings or cousins or friends roll down the windows and drive along the coastal highway, or sit sipping warm beer in the park, listening to music turned up loud. It reminds you they were just children, forced to grow up too soon.

The novel isn’t linear, but instead weaves its way through the timeline of Jesmyn’s life and the deaths of these five young men. The structure took a little while to get used to, but really came into its own when the narratives converged for the penultimate chapter, the death of her beloved brother, Joshua. The final chapter zooms out from her personal tragedies and takes a look at the statistics – of being poor, Black, and from the rural South, of incarceration, discrimination, and the historical context into which these five men were born and died. My only quibble would be that she could have taken this further, and woven it throughout, to really drive home the pernicious and enduring effects of racism. 

Her writing is elegiac and restrained, even as she writes about events and circumstances that have caused her unending sorrow. Jesmyn writes as she is still trying to process and make sense of what happened to her. It’s engrossing and beautiful, and hard to look away from. 

Book Tag | Goodreads Was Wrong

This has been floating around the book blogosphere for a few years, but I believe the tag originated with Gabs About Books on YouTube. I have a love-hate relationship with Goodreads, and have used it inconsistently over the past 11 years (!!) and I’m intrigued to expose my own unpopular opinions.

1. What is the highest rated book that you gave a low rating? (Sort your books in Goodreads based on average ratings and find the highest rated book you gave a low rating)

Daring Greatly by Brené Brown

Goodreads average: 4.25

My rating: 3

Perhaps self-help non-fiction is not for me, but I just couldn’t understand what everyone was raving about with Brené Brown. I didn’t find her ideas to be all that substantial and definitely not life-changing. Maybe I was generous with the 3 stars!

2. What is the lowest rated book that you gave a high rating? (Sort your books in Goodreads based on average ratings, in reverse order, and find the lowest rated book you gave a high rating)

Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey

Goodreads average: 2.8 (ouch!)

My rating: 4

I had an ARC of this and for the longest time I avoided it, scared off by the dismal GR score. But then I considered how GR has definitely been wrong before, and decided to give it a go. I found the fragmentary style to be compulsively readable, and it interrogates modern womanhood in a pretty unflinching, nuanced way. Don’t be put off by the GR score if you can handle a non-traditional narrative! Review here.

3. What is the most popular book you disagree with the avg rating? (Sort your books in Goodreads based on number of ratings, and find the first book you disagree with the average rating)

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Goodreads average: 3.88

My rating: 2

Number of reviews: A staggering 2.2 million

This book is just so totally overrated for me. I was recommended it at an age when I was much more receptive to such whimsy, and I can only imagine that if I re-read it now, I would have an even stronger negative reaction.

4. What is the least popular book you disagree with the avg rating? (Sort your books in Goodreads based on number of ratings, in reverse order, and find the first book you disagree with the average rating)

Margarettown by Gabrielle Zevin

Goodreads average: 3.46

My rating: 2

Number of reviews: 1,129

One of my favourite books as a young teen was ‘Elsewhere’ by Gabrielle Zevin. So enamoured was I with this book that I wrote one of my favourite passages down my door in sharpie.

As I started to feel like I was aging out of YA, I looked to some of Zevin’s adult fiction – but Margarettown was such a bizarre experience for me, and 10 years on I remember little about it apart from it being confusing and weird.

5. My thoughts (aka mini-rant) on Goodreads

When I created an account on the site in 2010, our expectations for what a website could/should do were very different from today. Back then, just the fact of being able to track your books in something other than a spreadsheet or alphabetised diary (yes, I had one of those – sort of like an address book for books) – was good enough.

The problem is, despite the might of the almighty, tyrannous Amazon behind it, Goodreads still feels like a website from the noughties. The amount of data they aggregate could produce fascinating insights into our reading behaviour – the basics on genre breakdown and pages read, but also how many authors of colour, and what times of year do we read or shelve the most. There are loads of things I’d be interested to know, and Goodreads tells me none of them.

My second bugbear is related to the first – think of the recommendations that we could get if the algorithms were smart enough! I don’t know about you, but the recommendations panel when on a certain title is always quite baffling, and rarely are these recommendations relevant to the selected book – or they just push the same books as recommendations on multiple pages. It’s hardly a way of discovering books you might not otherwise have known about.

There are absolutely good things about Goodreads – I wouldn’t have kept using it if there weren’t. I just wish it would do more (and wasn’t owned by Amazon). Rant over!


Here are the questions:

I picked and chose my questions, but here is the list in full if you’d like to participate!

1. What is the highest rated book that you gave a low rating? (Sort your books in Goodreads based on Average Ratings and find the highest rated book you gave a low rating).

2. What is the lowest rated book that you gave a high rating? (Sort your books in Goodreads based on Avg Ratings, in reverse order, and find the lowest rated book you gave a high rating).

3. What is the most popular book you disagree with the avg rating? (Sort your books in Goodreads based on number of Ratings, and find the first book you disagree with the avg rating)

4. What is the least popular book you disagree with the avg rating? (Sort your books in Goodreads based on number of Ratings, in reverse order, and find the first book you disagree with the avg rating).

5. Choose two books that have an average rating of 3/5 stars but you gave a higher rating.

6. Choose two books that have an average rating of 3/5 stars but you gave a lower rating.

7. Choose two books that have an average rating of 4/5 stars but you gave a lower rating.

8. Choose two books that have an average rating of 2/5 stars but you gave a higher rating.

9. Do you tend to agree or disagree with GR average rating and do you use GR as a guide for books you want to read?

Book Review | The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West

In an essay collection that has the dexterity to be both funny and devastating, Lindy West lays bare the current American cultural climate as one that is built on centuries-old misogyny and toxic masculinity.

The book covers a lot more ground than I was expecting, deviating a long way from the initial premise that gives it its (apt) name. Here, the witches are not the poor, blameless women, slaughtered en masse in an act of mass hysteria in 17th century Salem, but the “poor, blameless” men who can’t put a toe out of line without being set upon full force by the “PC brigade.” And when I say ‘put a toe out of line,’ I mean spout their sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, rhetoric. Because being called out for at best inappropriate and at worst actively violent behaviour is, folks, a witch hunt. Now that’s oppression!

In her opening anecdote, West talks about how her husband sat at a bar one night, while the guy next to him lamented the fact that he couldn’t go dance to his favourite song – banned all because a few nights prior he was persistently grinding on a woman, there with her friends, without her consent. Can’t men even talk to a woman now without being accused of predatory behaviour? My heart bleeds.

And the next logical step in this American horror story is to turn to the commander in chief, President Donald Trump. Trump isn’t, sadly, some kind of random outlier, he is instead an embodiment of ‘apoplectic masculinity itself,’ emblematic of so many men we all have had the misfortune of meeting. He puts a frightening, powerful face to so many of our stories.

‘Every woman knows a version of Donald Trump. Most of us have known more of them than we can or care to recall. He’s the boss who thinks you owe him something. The date who thinks that silence means yes and no means try harder. The stranger who thinks your body’s mere existence constitutes an invitation to touch, take, own and destroy. He’s every deadbeat hook-up, every narcissistic  loser, every man who’s ever tried to leverage power, money, fame, credibility, or physical strength to snap your boundaries like matchsticks.’

In a particularly powerful passage in a later essay, West renders the contemporary American right-wing identity as inextricable from toxic masculinity, the right as the true ‘stewards’ of America, where caring about the environment (e.g. the mocking refrain of the “pathetic liberal obsession” with saving the whales) to caring fundamentally about each other, as all societies should inherently do (why does this even need to be said?) is rendered ‘effeminate and therefore despicable.’

‘If you train people to scoff at community and stewardship,  attending to the needs of others, yes, but also for advocating for oneself – you can do whatever you want to them and they will not complain. You can strip away their ability to earn a living wage, to send their kids to college, to retire. You can undermine their most sacred values. You can allow children to be massacred and they’ll weep for the guns. This is toxic masculinity at its most pitiful.’

‘You can allow children to be massacred and they’ll weep for the guns.’ Let’s just let that sink in for one moment.

By and large, West isn’t saying anything new or anything that isn’t already part of the modern liberal feminist zeitgeist. I am the perfect audience for this book, and yet I’m also not the one who needs to read it. It’s also worth noting that the essays are focussed solely on an American perspective with almost zero recognition of how this patriarchal value system manifests in countries around the world. As a non-American, albeit someone who lives in the US, some of the references – particularly those to 90s celebrities – were lost on me. This isn’t a criticism per se, but international readers may not get as much out of that part of the cultural commentary. There is recognition of some of the intersections – of race, and class – but these could have been drawn on in a deeper, less cursory way.

The collection is a little uneven in its impact and message, charting both pop culture and the political and social landscape, ranging from Adam Sandler movies (a chapter that’s only really interesting if you’ve seen most of them, which I haven’t), to our dire environmental straits with the climate crisis. I was reminded of Jenny Offill’s Weather and the ‘obligatory note of hope’ – how any literature about the climate crisis has to end this way to prevent a reader from sinking it to a pit of despair and gin and never coming out of it. It feels a little hollow to be hopeful about anything right now, while at this ‘low and surreal’ moment in US history. But we have to stay engaged, keep fighting – ‘to believe in nothing,’ West says, ‘is to change nothing.’

What’s important is that when West gets it right, she really gets it right, and the most effective essays are a searing, witty rallying cry. The Witches are Coming is overall an articulate, powerful read that reminds us to keep fighting the good fight.

****

Book Review | Know My Name by Chanel Miller

TW: rape, assault

This is a stunning, harrowing and incredibly powerful real-life account of Chanel Miller, once known only as ‘Emily Doe,’ who goes to a party on the Stanford University campus and wakes up hours later in a hospital bed, having blacked out and been raped.

In her powerful testimony, Chanel excavates her trauma and bravely puts it on the page for the world to bear witness to. Her rape is horrific, and horrifically mundane. We know this happens – society engrains in us from a young age how we need to be responsible for protecting ourselves from sexual assault.  But what comes after isn’t talked about as much. There’s the trial-by-media, the incel trolling, the countless victim-blaming. But there’s also the years – quite literally years – of it being dragged through the courts.

‘I’d expected the legal process to be composed of a back-to-back sequence of dramatic court scenes. Nobody had warned me about the waiting, the floating formless months in between, the way it demanded all of you, then none of you.’

There’s a splintering of the self after her assault – known only as ‘Emily Doe’ in the media, her individuality is robbed from her – she’s reduced to a drunk and nameless young woman who went to a frat party and ran into trouble. She resolves to ‘keep the selves separate’ in an attempt to go on living.  She lies awake each night, for ‘sleep is vulnerability,’ she is ‘unsure how to inhabit’ her body. She talks about the ‘dismembering’ that happens when victims seek help, of putting yourself under a microscope in a plea for justice, in a bid to halt this epidemic of sexual violence.

And whilst her rapist is developed in the court of public opinion – and the court itself – into a three-dimensional human, an Olympic-level swimmer, young and mislead, homesick, unused to drink and parties – Chanel’s identity is erased. And that is what she powerfully reclaims in this account. She does stand-up comedy, she is a doting sister, she adopts an old dog, she is inspired by her immigrant mother, she makes art. She is a full and whole person. She is not the sum of what he did to her.

‘The friendly guy who helps you move and assists senior citizens in the pool is the same guy who assaulted me. One person can be capable of both. Society often fails to wrap its head around the fact that these truths often coexist, they are not mutually exclusive. Bad qualities can hide inside a good person. That’s the terrifying part.’

Chanel is incredibly eloquent, writing with a beautiful and simple lyricism that throws her suffering into sharp relief. During the scenes where she is waiting outside the courtroom before her first testimony, I felt physically sick anticipating her having to re-live her trauma and be torn apart on the witness stand, accumulating and losing ‘points toward the unspoken tally.’ Such is the power of her writing that it is impossible not to come away from the book feeling a deep, profound empathy for the unimaginable pain she endured, and a deep respect for her strength.

What was unexpected – and so very effective – was the explicit contextualising of this story within a bigger picture of patriarchal entitlement, of male rage, of the failings of the justice system. Chanel is on campus when Elliot Rodgers, angry that he couldn’t get a date, went on a killing spree that left six young people dead. She talks about Philando Castile, murdered in front of his partner and daughter by a policeman who walked free. This story is very much her own – but it isn’t just her own. When her victim statement is published on Buzzfeed, it is seen by millions worldwide, many thousands of whom reach out to Chanel with their own stories, thanking her for her bravery. In having the strength to tell her story, she gives all victims strength and hope – they aren’t alone.

I’ll never be able to do justice to this memoir. It’s harrowing, riveting, and, ultimately, hopeful.

*****

 

 

Book Review | Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino

I think we can all agree that we’re living in extremely strange and unsettling times. But even before the onset of this global pandemic, our modern lives are lived in a shifting and precarious landscape that throws into question of conceptions of selfhood, truth, and reality.

Tolentino, a remarkable young American essayist, sheds light on our obsession with an unreachable ideal in ‘Always Be Optimizing’, where she talks about our culture’s obsession with efficiency and self-interest, using the fascinating example of the chopped salad (stay with me here) – a chopped salad the embodiment of the way that our attention can be directed away from having to focus on the consumption of nutrients and instead to the consumption of data, of content, as we answer emails or scroll Facebook or buy things on Amazon.

‘The ideal chopped-salad customer is himself efficient: he needs to eat his twelve-dollar salad in ten minutes because he needs the extra time to keep functioning within the job that allows him to afford a regular twelve-dollar salad in the first place. He feels a physical need for this twelve-dollar salad, as it’s the most reliable and convenient way to build up a vitamin barrier against the general malfunction that comes with his salad-requiring-and-enabling job.’

Another excellent essay is ‘The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams’ – covering everything from the now infamous Fyre Festival to the biggest con man of them all taking the highest office in the US, and how Trump becoming president necessarily changes the way we think about ourselves and our society:

‘And here one of the most soul-crushing things about the Trump era reveals itself: to get through it with any psychological stability – to get through it without routinely descending into an emotional abyss – a person’s best strategy is to think mostly of himself, herself.’

We all know about the evils and dangers of Facebook – the PR makeover they had a few years ago in the wake of fake news scandals hasn’t quite done enough to restore their image as a conduit for human connection – but Tolentino still manages to bring a fresh perspective, or perhaps it’s just because of how articulate she is – when she talks about just how much power Facebook has in the modern world:

‘But even when Facebook isn’t deliberately exploiting its users, it is exploiting its users – its business model requires it. Even if you distance yourself from Facebook, you still live in the world that Facebook is shaping. Facebook, using our native narcissism and our desire to connect with other people, captured our attention and our behavioural data; it used this attention and data to manipulate our behaviour, to the point that nearly half of America began relying on Facebook for the news.’

In Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino has penned an impressive, expansive and rigorously academic collection of essays on the modern condition. Some of the essays stand out more than others, which are harder to get through and whose central thesis is more obscured – but this is overall an insightful and masterfully written collection, that throws into sharp relief the many ways we are shaping, and being shaped by, the modern world.

Book Review | Daring Greatly by Brené Brown

In order to lead meaningful, fulfilling lives, we have to be comfortable with being vulnerable. That’s at the heart of Brené Brown’s thesis. Far from vulnerability being weakness, or practicing invulnerability as a shield to protect us from hurt, she explores how leaning into vulnerability is a courageous act.

It might not immediately be obvious what the notion of ‘vulnerability’ means in day-to-day life (it wasn’t to me). Brené explores, through anecdotes and research, the way this concept is mapped onto everything we do – from the way we behave at work, in romantic relationships, in raising children. And in terms of our general feelings of self-worth and accomplishments.

She talks about the barriers we put up to combat shame and fear – the ‘vulnerability shields’. I found this to be the most insightful part of the book – she quantifies some common feelings and experiences and demonstrates how the fear of vulnerability manifests itself in subconscious ways. She talks about her surprise to find, through her research, that moments when people feel deep joy is also when they feel the most vulnerable. Our minds can go to a place where we start to imagine the worst, picturing it all going horribly wrong as if to prepare ourselves to disaster, even in a moment of absolute happiness. She calls this concept ‘foreboding joy’.

‘In a culture of deep scarcity – of never feeling safe, certain, and sure enough – joy can feel like a set up.’

She rationalises ways to overcome this feeling, and talks about actively practicing gratitude as a way of being able to live in the moment and genuinely appreciate what you have without it being overshadowed by the fear of losing it all.

Also in this chapter, she talks about the danger of perfectionism, another concept that hit home for me. She says perfectionism is defensive.

 ‘It’s the belief that if we do things perfectly and look perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. Perfectionism is the twenty-ton shield that we lug around, thinking it will protect us, when in fact it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from being seen.’

Like foreboding joy, it’s a protective armour that actually ends up hurting us more than it helps us.

The final part of the book that I found to be most insightful was the chapter on parenting, even though I am not a parent. What she is saying seems obvious, but I’ve not seen it expressed with that much clarity before. Her core message here is practice what you preach – lead by example and your children will follow. If there’s a value gap between your practiced values and your aspirational values, your children are going to call you out on it.

‘If we want our children to love and accept who they are, our job is to love and accept who we are. We can’t use fear, shame, blame and judgement in our own lives if we want to raise courageous children. Compassion and connection – the very things that give purpose and meaning to our lives – can only be learned if they are experienced.’

I do think that Brené Brown has insightful things to say. The Self Help literature genre is not one I am too familiar with, and perhaps I am not entirely suited to learning how to better myself in this way. In a 250-page book, I had hoped to walk away with greater insights and clarity about steps that could be taken to embrace her ideas. The anecdotes throughout the book were important in contextualising the issues, but they could have been backed up with more specific research and actionable insights. I wouldn’t read it again, but I’ll probably be mulling over some of the ideas for a while.