Wordslut (CBR11 #44)

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Cannonballer kdm posted on Facebook about reading Wordslut and based on her recommendation and its bright eye-catching cover I immediately requested it from my library. I’ve read my share of feminist books over the past several years, trying to build my own repertoire of experience and knowledge whether it be in the form of a treatise on Single Ladies, the recollections of a self-described Bad Feminist, or feminist geeks, or the story of a heroine of mine the Notorious RBG. Amanda Montell’s Wordslut is a worthy addition to those other books, it covers hundreds of years of linguistic history and today’s cutting-edge research in sociolinguistics.

How often do we really think about language, specifically the language we ourselves use? Thankfully there’s entire fields of scientists studying just that – tracking how language develops and how we use it. Building from her own degree in Linguistics and her interest in feminism and inclusive language Montell gives us 10 chapters exploring how we got to the language we have and suggestions for ways to reclaim certain phrases, find more inclusive alternatives, and generally being comfortable with how our word choices and sentence structures tell the world who we are.

Listen, I have a lot of space to grow myself, just today I was putting some chickens away in their hen house and when speaking to them called them “guys”. They are all laying hens – they are girls. But this book pulls apart why my brain went to “guys” instead of “ladies”, or even better “folks” or “friends”. Montell also gives fantastic, well-researched, and inclusive arguments for the singular they, non-binary pronouns, and using y’all because English is missing a second person plural pronoun.

My two favorite sections of the book marry nicely – the first discussing how words go through the process of amelioration or pejoration, either gaining more positive or more negative meanings over time. The second is all about cursing while female presenting. Apparently, we tend to curse for humor, for emphasis, and in a category almost exclusive to us: as part of our personality. In that way so many of the perjorized words that have become vulgar are feminine we’re actively using them (and others) to express who we see ourselves to be. But, we are also using language differently in single-sex situations, really letting the f-bombs fly to show intimacy and trust. I know I do this, as I got more comfortable with one of my previous coworkers my vulgar language use skyrocketed (as, it should probably be noted, did hers).   

So why for the I Love This Bingo square?  I’m a logophile, a lover of words. I love finding very specific words, I love learning new words, and I really love foul words. I also love a book that takes on a non-fiction topic (in this case language) through an historical lens and isn’t afraid to be humorous while deconstructing social norms. Read this book, won’t you?

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Couldn’t Keep it to Myself (CBR11 #41)

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The task list for one of my challenges strikes again. Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge includes a book written in prison. I was struggling to decide what to read for this one, I wasn’t particularly interested in reading a book by the type of criminal who would be the type to get a book deal in the first place. Then a bit of internet research led me to this collection edited by Wally Lamb of the work the women of the writing group he co-facilitates at York Correctional Institute in Connecticut, the state’s only high security prison for women.

The collection features the work of the women of York as they describe in their own words how their true imprisonment started before their entrance to the penitentiary, whether it be by abuse, rejection, or their own self-destructive impulses. These aren’t victimhood tales, instead they are reflections on lives lived, choices made, and consequences endured. I found that Lamb’s introduction did a fantastic job laying out exactly what to expect in the reading, but also all that went into the writing process and how this project found its way to the printing press. Lamb described the journey the women took to authentic expression through their writing. Perhaps most endearing to me from Lamb was when he shared how he ended up working with the program in the first place and how working in this challenging environment as gown him as a teacher and as a fellow author. With his loving and respectful intro I was prepared, or so I thought, to read the women’s work.

Some stories fall into the type of work you might expect, some focus on life before their time at York and while you can see the interstitial tissue connecting their work to their time behind bars it is busy telling a different narrative. (It is important to note that in respect to Connecticut’s Son of Sam law the authors did not write with any specificity about their crimes and profits were shared with Interval House of Hartford who work to end Domestic Violence.) Couldn’t Keep It to Myself becomes a testament to finding oneself and reckoning with what comes next.

Lamb has continued working with the writing program at York Correctional Institute, publishing two more collections with the participants; I’ll Fly Away: Further Testimonies from the Women of York Prison and You Don’t Know Me: The Incarcerated Women of York Prison Voice Their Truths whose publication date is Tuesday September 3, 2019 – a bit of good timing on my part.

Bad Blood (CBR11 #25)

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I picked this one up based on its very good Cannonball Read reviews and because I needed a book of non-violent true crime for the 2019 Read Harder Challenge. This book did not disappoint. I admit, some how I had missed the entire Theranos story as is broke in 2016, so I can to this narrative entirely unspoiled. I was in for quite the narrative ride.

Bad Blood is the story of Elizabeth Holmes and the company she founded at 19 as a Stanford dropout, Theranos. Holmes intended to develop ways to accurately test blood from simple finger pricks with small amounts of blood as opposed to intravenous draws and provide miniaturized machinery that would allow patients the ability to test at home and away from the corporate lab giants. Instead Holmes perpetrated a 15 year ever evolving con that has seen federal fraud charges laid at her feet and other high-ranking members of her company.

John Carryrou broke the story following a tip in 2015 and spent the next year going toe to toe with Holmes and her legal team with the support of his employer, The Wall Street Journal. Following his coverage in the paper, Carreyrou then turned the saga into this book, carefully laying out each step in the saga of Theranos. This is Carreyrou’s first book, and while it is award winning, it also shows here and there his journalistic background – the chapters often have the feel of articles building one on the next. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t, the Theranos story goes from one mind-numbing bit of subterfuge to the next.

The story reads as so outrageous that I actually went and watched the HBO documentary The Inventor to see if it played out as nuts on screen… and while it does it just reiterated to me how well Carreyrou built the tension and how extensively he traced how the secrets and lies built on each other to lead to a truly unbelievable if it weren’t true story.

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

From Here to Eternity (CBR10 #44)

Two years ago I read and truly enjoyed Caitlin Doughty’s debut book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, which chronicled her journey from someone curious about the business of death into an advocate for seeking out what she terms “the good death” and changing the funerary business as it is now in the United States.  Besides being an interesting story about her life, the book is basically a treatise about making death a part of your life, of staring down your fears and accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety of our modern culture is not.

I wasn’t expecting their to be another book by Caitlin Doughty, which is perhaps silly based on the work she does at The Order of the Good Death and Ask A Mortician so I was caught off-guard last year when Lollygagger raved about Doughty’s second book, From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death. I was so excited to find out that there was another book and one well-loved by Cannonball Read’s resident non-fiction medical/disaster/death reader (I hope that’s a description she doesn’t mind) that I promptly added it to my to read list and I had my Cannonballer Says bingo square.

Picking up where her first book left off, From Here to Eternity strives to demystify death and examine how other cultures deal with the rituals of mourning. Doughty remains the kind of author I enjoy reading; she takes a possibly taboo topic and makes it both welcoming and absorbing. Doughty believes (and I agree with her) that it is time once again, as a culture to become comfortable with what death really means, since it’s an experience we will all share. Our ancestors only two or three generations ago knew death, were familiar with its look, its smell. We now have an industry built around keeping these things away from us, and to what end? The book chronicles the travels to remote and near places to investigate people who are still intimately familiar with death and how they inhabit those relationships and those who like us are on the spectrum away or towards a more personal relationship with death.

Not every chapter held my attention so I find myself rating this one four stars as opposed to Lollygagger’s five, but it is still a book I would suggest to any reader wholeheartedly.

(This is neither here nor there but the cover art is beautiful for this book and the interior illustrations by artist Landis Blair are delightful as well.)

 

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.

Rain: A Natural and Cultural History (CBR10 #36)

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We humans share a fascination with the weather, and more often than not, with rain. I’m an eastern seaboard American; I’ve lived both in the northeast and in the Caribbean climate of South Florida. Each location has its own particular type of rain – and I love the rain in all its forms. I love rainy weather and I love listening to rain fall against windows and plopping into puddles. As a Cannonballer I love reading books near an open window on a rainy day catching the new, clean smell the rain leaves behind while devouring the words in front of me.  But Cynthia Barnett has me beat; her fascination with rain stunned me and led her to writing over three hundred pages on the subject.

When Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge called for a book about nature it was not a surprise that I located a book on the topic, and so Rain: A Natural and Cultural History was added to my list. But while this book should have been like catnip to me, I instead had a rough go of it – Barnett, in the words of Cheryl Strayed, writes like a motherfucker but reading her book often left me unsatisfied. There was something about the structure of the sections and chapters that felt like a meandering as opposed to a thoughtfully structured narrative. In the bluntest way I can think to say it, this book bored me from time to time

What Rain does well it does very well. It aims to weave together science—the true shape of a raindrop, the mysteries of frog and fish rains—with the human story of our ambition to control rain. Barnett’s writing flowed easily and blended from one topic to the next with great ease, there were no uncomfortable changes in style or failures of writing mechanics. The authorial voice matched the subject and when it was engaging it was very engaging. But, when it is not working the book is merely a potpourri of rain facts. We get the history of the Mackintosh raincoats. Then there’s a chapter on rain in literature and a stop in India where villagers extract the scent of rain from the monsoon-drenched earth and turn it into perfume.  There’s just too much going on and I struggled to keep my attention on the page.

Barnett hits her stride when she’s exploring the cultural significance to discoveries made in hydrology and detailing the effects of climate change. After thousands of years humanity has finally managed to change the rain. As climate change upends rainfall patterns and increasingly severe storms and drought affect us globally, Barnett shows rain (or its lack) to be a unifying force in our shared history and future. The book would have been better if she’d focused on that or written a more tongue in cheek book about rain mythologies and rain inspired industries.

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.

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. 

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.