The Revolution Was Televised (CBR10 #25)

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Sometimes I read a non-fiction book and wonder to myself, what would this book look like if the author had waited just a few more years before analyzing the available evidence? In The Revolution Was Televised Sepinwall takes a critic’s eye to the changing landscape of television drama in the past two decades. He was absolutely in the right place to make the necessary observations and do the needed interviews with the creatives behind the shows he analyzes – Sepinwall started his career as a television critic for my now local paper, The Star-Ledger, during the years in question (he left the paper in 2010 right after I moved to the area and joined the staff at Hitfix, and later UPROXX, and now Rolling Stone). But, Sepinwall published this book in 2012 and not 2015, and due to that misses the second wave of the revolution entirely: the advent of streaming service prestige television meant for binge-watching. Netflix unleased their original series on us the very next year and the television landscape looks very different again in the five years since the arrival of House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, let alone The Handmaid’s Tale, and Amazon Prime’s offerings.

It was nearly impossible for me to separate my reactions to the work that Sepinwall did do from what it could have been. It was part of the reason I was a bit underwhelmed by the book, something that emmalita and I share. But I should perhaps back up a little first because Alan Sepinwall did tackle a large mountain of a topic that is going to be at the center of the discussion of what pop culture and television are and can be moving forward.

In The Revolution Was Televised Sepinwall looks at twelve shows that started the era we now call the Golden Age of Television, or Peak TV. Those dramas are The Sopranos, Oz, The Wire, Deadwood, The Shield, Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 24, Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad. Sepinwall’s main argument that these are twelve of the shows which were at the vanguard of taking what television drama had been up to that point and creating the space to take the medium more seriously, and use it more creatively, than ever before. Sepinwall tells the story of these twelve shows, and the shows they made room for, through his own recollections of reviewing them as they were released, and using interviews with their creators from then and in most cases new ones from when the book was being written.

I mention above that one of the drawbacks I found in the book was the timing of its publication, my other issue is perhaps a fairer one: the actual structure of the book. In some ways the twelve chapters function as twelve oral histories of the shows. We march through time from one show to the next in the order they were released (with one exception). It becomes, at times, repetitive and a bit redundant. On its surface there is nothing wrong with tracking the growth of the revolution over time, as the shows affected each other and the milieu in Hollywood where they were being green-lit. However, it doesn’t let Sepinwall dive deeper into the themes emerging in Peak TV, and instead focuses perhaps over heavily on the auteur theory.

Non-fiction is difficult to review. The meat of the argument or story being told and how well it is reasoned or argued cannot be ignored, but this is still writing. Sepinwall has an easy to read facility in his craft, honed one can only assume by the sheer size of the output he’s written in the course of his career so far. This was a three star book for me, but I don’t think I’m done reading Sepinwall, and look forward to eventually picking up his book with Matt Zoller Seitz, TV (The Book).

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society. 

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Missoula (CBR10 #17)

Rape culture is real.

But that doesn’t make me want to face it any more than I already have to in my life. I have had this book on my to read list since it was published in 2015.However I didn’t read it then, instead I picked up Into Thin Air to get a taste of Krakauer’s style before jumping into the deep end so to speak.  I have comments across many Cannonball Read reviews of this book saying that I’m going to tackle it in the coming months, and each time I found an excuse to put if off a few more months, until three years elapsed and I could no longer justify to myself not picking up Missoula.

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Research shows that the vast majority of rapes will be committed by someone who is known to the victim, and likely someone they trust. On top of that, the person will be trusted because there is no single, reliable way to identify a rapist until they have committed an act of sexual violence. Rapists generally have no sense that their actions do in fact qualify them as a rapist and imagine some other, larger, scarier boogeyman – some “other”- as the true danger without realizing that the behavior they accept as “normal” based on our culture is in fact, not. Our society raises sexually aggressive men and shrouds them in the cover of “boys will be boys”.

In Missoula, Jon Krakauer follows several rape victims and recounts their stories from rape to prosecution in order to illustrate how our justice and educational systems are broken, and how it is affecting rape victims, their families, and ultimately, perpetuating a culture that shelters the rapists, who statistically will almost all go on to assault again. It is upsetting*, rage-inducing stuff. It is also important reading.

*I do not suggest this book for someone who has experienced sexual trauma or is suffering from PTSD. I do suggest it for absolutely everyone else.

Krakauer is an astounding writer; he brings a non-biased accounting that leaves no doubt as to the severe, life-altering consequences for the victims as they pursue their quests for justice. Meticulous research serves as the backbone of this book and Krakauer’s forthright style is the perfect fit for examining the testimony and transcripts that make up the evidence in the highlighted cases. Krakauer does very little editorializing, because the documents speak for themselves. Importantly he chose Missoula because there was a paper trail he could base the book on and held himself to a three person corroboration threshold for including things in the book. There is so much more that didn’t make the book because he didn’t have the third person, and didn’t feel comfortable reporting without it.

Here is the new thing I learned, the thing I did not properly understand and that leaves me infuriated (not that most of the information in this book didn’t leave me infuriated and necessitate that I take a step away from the book every so often) is that across this country prosecutors are declining to prosecute cases referred to them by police departments in staggering numbers. In Missoula during the window in which they were being investigated by the Department of Justice, January 2008 to April 2012, 114 reports of sexual assault of adult women were referred by the Missoula Police Department to the Missoula County Attorney’s office. Of those only 14 were filed by the County Attorney for prosecution. FOURTEEN. The police found probable cause to pursue a case following an investigation for 114 cases and the County Attorney’s office agreed approximately 12% of the time. Twelve percent. The DOJ found 350 reported sexual assaults from January 2008 to May 2012, and the 236 were not referred not because they were found to be false or specious, but rather the vast, vast majority were not pursued because there was too little evidence for the police to determine probable cause. Taken at that level only 4% of all sexual assaults even made it to court.

The story of Missoula is in many ways the story of the average American city, its stats line up with the national average, and all of that should upset us greatly. I don’t know exactly how to end this review, as I am well and truly in my emotions about this book. Perhaps that is the best response I can give it at this time.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

A Hope More Powerful than the Sea (CBR10 #6)

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When I didn’t manage to read a book I had selected for 2017’s Read Harder Challenge I left the library request in as these were books that I had put onto the list for several reasons. Following ElCicco’s detailed and extensive review of A Hope More Powerful than the Sea I knew I needed to read this book in order to bear witness to one woman’s experience as a refugee from the Syrian war as it is one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of my life, and with this being Melissa Fleming’s debut I had an excuse to move it up the list.

I am always stunned when I come across people who seem to think refugees are to blame for their circumstances. There seems to be a prevailing response in the United States (and parts of Europe) to blame the individual for the crimes of the masses and government. Perhaps I am so far in the other direction because I grew up in South Florida during the Haitian and Cuban refugee crises of the early 1990s. Dry foot laws and quotas, detention centers, and seemingly racist choices about who to send home to death and who to allow in permeated the nightly news as well as my classrooms and friends’ families were a part of my daily reality and directly impacted my view on what it costs for someone to leave their only home with nothing but the clothes on their back and no guarantee that they will survive the trip. Twenty years later we’re watching it happen again, on a much larger scale.

Because the suffering and despair that push refugees to flee their homes and risk their lives can only be tremendous, it is expected that a book memorializing the story of one such woman must be harrowing. Doaa Al Zamel’s is exactly that, but it is also an incredibly accessible primer on what life was like in part of Syria before the war started, the excitement that the Arab Spring brought, and the realities of suffering that families and communities have been made to endure both in the war zone but also in the places they have run to for safety. Melissa Fleming takes dozens of hours of interviews a well as other primary resources surrounding Doaa’s life and her ordeal in the Mediterranean Sea in order to make the point that not only is this suffering happening, that we are all criminally negligent (my wording) in our overall lack of response and follow through to this humanitarian need. It has become to easy to get caught up in to what the war has metastasized into; and not look into the great crevasse of need it has created.

While I wish this story was more directly from Doaa, I understand intuitively why it would have been to hard, to emotionally taxing, for her to have attempted it alone. Instead she turned to Melissa Fleming and the other UNHCR staff and humanitarians to tell her story and to help reunite her remaining family. Doaa’s story is important, and Ms. Fleming has done a respectable job in crafting a streamlined, accessible, and easily read accounting. There is no excuse to not read this book.

A Hope More Powerful than the Sea was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (with a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

Feminist Fight Club (CBR9 #57)

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I feel like I should have so much more to say about this book, having read it while the Weinstein scandal broke wide and the world seems to be reeling from what decades of systematic (and systemic) harassment and sexism create. I recognized myself and my friends in Jessica Bennett and her original Fight Club, I see the value in the techniques and tricks she encapsulated in this book, and I’m encouraged to see so much of what she writes backed up by hard scientific evidence.

However, I am just so exhausted by all of it.

This book is meant to be practicably useful: flip to a section, find the particular problem you are experiencing and read suggestions for how to combat the toxic masculinity and misogyny that surrounds you. What it is not however, after the first section, is a book that is likely meant to be read straight through. Which is what I attempted to do. While the world continued to burn down around us.

I know I’m sounding a bit dramatic and full of hyperbole, but I am feeling that way. I also brought my own particular needs to reading this book. I work in a nearly 100% lady environment, so the sexism I see is more often internalized misogyny – good news is that this book does cover that angle.

The book is full of all kinds of practical tips and explanations about how these scenarios pop up so that you know you aren’t alone or aren’t crazy for seeing them in the world around you. The title says “manual for a sexist workplace” but really, it is a manual for a sexist world. You will experience some of these behaviors no matter who you are or where you work, or where you shop, eat, or visit. The part of the conceit of the book that I liked best is that it offering varying ways of responding. Bennett isn’t telling us that every solution will work each time; nor that every solution is right every time. She instead offers a scale of ways to react.

A small word of caution though, this book often equates being a woman with your reproductive parts. It definitely made me raise an eyebrow on occasion, as it leaves out so many of our sisters in arms.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we want (with a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

A Room of One’s Own (CBR9 #54)

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I think I keep doing Book Riot’s Read Harder challenges because they do force me to look through my epic list of books to read and get out of my own comfort zone and read with more variety. I have many startling gaps in my reading history, and Virginia Woolf’s entire oeuvre is one.

I have seen or read exactly one of Woolf’s works before reading A Room of One’s Own (Orlando at the Yale School of Drama about 8 years ago while a friend was there). Other than her ties to the Bloomsbury Group and the Dreadnought Hoax and that one play I knew very little. Along came the Read Harder challenge, which included a task to read a book published between 1900 and 1950 and I finally had my excuse to push the audiobook I already owned up the proverbial list.

A Room of One’s Own is a short work: its measurements range from 114 pages, to 40,000 words, to about 4 hours of audio recording by Juliet Stevenson. Nevertheless, it should not be judged by its slight measures, Woolf packs an appraisal on the patriarchal systems that have systematically held women down and back throughout history. I had an “oh shit” moment about half way through as I realized that Woolf has in essence kept the receipts on 300 years of patriarchy and was slamming it all on the table in front of packed auditoriums.

Suffice it to say, I was 100% more invested than I had previously been.

Structurally, Woolf made incredible use of the nature of speech making. Throughout the first sections she is consistently coming back to words and phrases, meant to allow the reader (or in my case, listener) to track her train of thought and build meaning. So many authors attempt to use the stream of consciousness mechanics, which Woolf demonstrates so facilely here but they miss this component – a reader will “hear” your words as if your characters were speaking. If your stream of consciousness does not conform to the rules of speech making the reader will have difficulty with it, as I so often do.

To the content of her speeches and later book, Woolf argues that women can never accomplish anything of their own, or of ‘value’ without the stability and space that “five hundred a year and a room of one’s own” provide. She then traces how very rare, and very recent such a thing was. Travelling mentally between the lack of reason for women to attempt to accumulate wealth before they were allowed to own it outright, the lesser education of girls compared to boys, the denial of access to halls of learning (of herself being turned away at the university library door) and you suddenly see both the world surrounding Woolf in 1928 and the world surrounding ourselves now.

How many of us would gnaw off our own left arm to be able to have space and security to follow our desires, to be able to create? That is the heart of this work.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it as we see fit (with a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud (CBR9 #45)

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We are entering the period of time where the cultural upheaval that Hillary Clinton losing the White House will have on our literary intake. Out early is Anne Helen Petersen formerly of The Hairpin and currently of Buzzfeed, who is known for her incisive long reads on culture, celebrity, and feminism. This book literally grows out of her election night response article “This is How Much America Hates Women” where she began grappling with what last year’s election reaffirmed about American society.

Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud is the spiritual successor to Trainwreck by Sady Doyle which I reviewed earlier this year.  Doyle’s writing works to make you angry at how we treat women, and how we always have. But the tone of the book isn’t “look at all these terrible things that others have done to women” it is instead, “look at how our societies have been built to bring down women”. It is this distinction, which changes that book from what could have been an angry rant into a well-paced, well-spoken examining of culture. Petersen’s does nearly the same thing, even highlighting the historical relevancy of the type of women she is setting out to discuss and how actions like there’s can be found any time in history that women are pushing against what constitutes “feminine behavior”.   Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud focuses itself on current examples through the frame of unruliness. Unruly women are the type who question, interrogate, and challenge the staus quo.

Petersen highlights ten women from various arenas of public life, and investigates their own personal unruliness. Ranging from Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer (Too Gross), to Madonna (Too Old), and Kim Kardashian (Too Pregnant) Petersen’s trademark incisive cultural commentary is on display from page one. My only true drawback, which is why I have rated this four stars, is that in some ways we don’t have the necessary distance to truly examine some of the phenomena that Petersen is discussing, and at times this book feels rushed – as though the editing process was sacrificed to get it on the shelves so quickly.

Here’s some of my favorite quotes from the book:

Serena Williamson: Too Strong

“Whatever the intent, it was the opposite of what mot of America – and the sporting world in particular – had come to expect as the norm for dealing with issues of race and racism, which is to say, not to deal with it at all.” (6)

Melissa McCarthy: Too Fat

“it’s no coincidence that several of her roles were originally written for men, or mapped onto traditionally “male” genres, lie he buddy cop film, the spy movie, or the ghost-busting narrative – McCarthy’s characters have the confidence and shamelessness of a pompous white male.” (39)

Nicki Minaj: Too Slutty

“… it was also about a celebrity seeing the publicity game for what it is – calling out Grigoriadis’s questions not because they were aggressive, but because the assumptions behind them were reductive, sexist, and purposely incendiary.” (93)

Hillary Clinton: Too Shrill

“Postfeminism was in full and powerful effect: Why think about the overarching significance of sexist attacks on the First Lady, if you’ve been told te goals of feminism have already been achieved? Clinton’s image, like so many signifiers of second-wave feminism, felt like a real drag.” (143)

Jennifer Weiner: Too Loud

“As Weiner’s experience makes clear, part of the difficult, essential work of unruliness is shaking the status quo so thoroughly, so persistently, so loudly, that everyone – even the very women behind the agitation, many of whom have internalized the understandings they fight so tirelessly against – can see their value within it.” (209)

This book is read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it however we want (with a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society.

Unmentionable (CBR9 #37)

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One of the questions I receive most often at my job as a educator at historic sites is “wouldn’t you love to live back then?” For reference, that encompasses a period of time roughly 1820-1920 and the answer is a resounding no. I am all about indoor plumbing, air conditioners, and not being considered property. This book, Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill lays out all the ways life was downright terrible for women life was during that same approximate period.

For most people this would not be considered a beach read. For me it absolutely is. Lumenatrix coined the style of this type of book as “accessible non-fiction”, which I completely agree with and am now stealing. I’ve always thought of it as “non-fiction with a sense of humor” like Mary Roach’s books. Therese Oneill is wonderfully sarcastic and direct in her prose, and the structure of the book is well thought out and easily followed. Oneill moves naturally from one aspect of daily life to the next laying out all the differences for life of women in the firmly upper middle class then to life today.

For me, the best part of this book is the way in which Oneill weaves in primary resources, both visual and print into her narrative. While I already knew much of what Oneill discussed, having access to her resources was a bonus to me. So much so, that I immediately passed it along to Ale since she is researching Victorian ladies and their unmentionables for an upcoming project.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.