Let’s talk about sex… and feminism!

Sex.  It’s personal in the most intense of ways.  It’s beautiful and exhilarating and deeply unique to all of us.  And it can be a theoretical minefield for those of us striving to be “good feminists.”  With that in mind, I submit to you a pair of articles to ponder.

“This contrast—of women raring to assert their agency in one context, then willing, even eager, to relinquish it another—captured my interest.”

Sarah Resnick explores the push-pull of control and women’s desires in the context of Miranda Popkey’s début novel, “Topics of Conversation.”  She asks us about the liminal space between the simplicity of embracing another’s authority, and assembling one’s own story as a means of control and therefore, power.  Modern feminists are supposed to be in control, to know what they want, to not be afraid to ask for it, or to take it for themselves.  But what if we want, sometimes, to give up control?  What if, sometimes,  that prospect is sexier than anything?  Is that bad?  Are we bad feminists?  Resnick visits Amia Srinivasan’s essay, “Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?” from 2018, asking whether feminism should have anything to say about desire at all, testing the lines between creating more binds for the people it means to liberate, and excusing patterns of desire that replicate broader patterns of oppression and exclusion. If a woman enjoys sexual submission, who are we to say she shouldn’t?

A year and a half later, Alexandra Schwartz tackles Srinivasan directly, examining her new collection of essays “The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century” in conversation with Katherine Angel’s new book, “Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again.

“This is an ancient belief: that our most ardent desires dwell fully formed within us, only waiting to emerge… Has the time come to reconsider?”

This conversation broadens beyond control and desire and asks the question of where and how our desires — often perceived to be innate and even perhaps immutable — are actually shaped to a certain extent by social conditioning. How much is our gravitation towards a certain “type” simply our own preference, for example, and how much is subconsciously ingrained racism? From perceptions of beauty and attractiveness to reevaluating our values, Schwartz takes us on a thoughtful journey that circles down to the idea that “maybe we shouldn’t worry too much about how to shift what we want but instead… recognize that we may be wrong about what we think we want, and embrace the possibility of wanting something different.” And then we loop back again to control: “Vulnerability entails risk… and sex is never free from the dynamics of power. That is what makes it scary, and also, sometimes, wonderful.”

As scary as it can be to probe and question our own desires and wants, clearly it can also be wonderful. From a place of discomfort or the kind of ambivalence Srinivasan encourages us to dwell in, perhaps we can find a more expansive version of pleasure — and of ourselves. And isn’t that the kind of liberation we want from feminism in the first place?

Read, ponder, and enjoy. I hope you find these selections as thought-provoking as I did.

On a less theoretical note, tomorrow October 2nd is a chance to mobilize and defend reproductive rights and a woman’s right to choose. Visit https://womensmarch.com/mobilize to find events near you.

A bookish-ish afternoon

You know how sometimes your brain can be on overdrive? Not for a little while, but for several days or weeks? Lots of things swirling around, lots of opportunities for growth to be had, lots of love and heartbreak, maturing, digging, seeking, pondering, and finding. Sometimes those days or weeks require something small, focused, and a touch mindless, even if just for a little while.

While I am always grateful for times of growth like this, it is hard. And draining. So what did I do today? After I got dressed and walked the dogs, somehow I wound up in our hallway facing my bookshelves. For the next couple hours, I sorted and purged. I organized, alphabetized, puttered, and shifted. The biggest questions I had to face were, “will I want to read this again?” and “if so, can I do it easily online or through the library?” Done and done. A couple books I kept for purely sentimental reasons beyond my read-it-again criteria, but by and large, the sentimental and the read-it-again columns neatly matched. And it was so. very. satisfying. I now have a few stacks of well-loved YA fiction to pass along to my niece and nephew, and still more to donate to the local library book sale, or to sprinkle into the little free libraries in my neighborhood. I now have no recent additions leaning haphazardly here and there for lack of space, and perhaps the best part — I had a couple hours of very Zen focus on a single enjoyable, achievable task.

This afternoon I’m feeling a little less frazzled, a little more calm, and a little more even-keeled than I have in a few weeks. For the anxious overthinker in me, that is a huge win. Big questions are good to grapple with, but sometimes we need small things to give ourselves time to rest in between. What kind of little win can you gift to yourself this weekend? May I suggest a bit of decluttering or organizing? For me, at least, this little thing felt big — in the best way.

Quiet getaway

Travel is looking very different — or nonexistent — for a lot of us these days. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of visiting a dear friend in Washington, and we explored the little towns of the Olympic Peninsula by day and cozied up to watch movies by night. Paired with slow, quiet mornings, cup of tea in hand, it was the perfect foray back into travel, sans crowds or stress.

Unlike Southern California, where most cities sort of bleed into each other as you drive, there are trees and greenery aplenty in between each town in this area of Washington. You can travel a relatively short distance and feel like you have traveled far and wide, as each town has it’s own character, quirks, and charms. Puget Sound is quietly omnipresent everywhere you go, a stunning blue-grey backdrop that is integrated into daily life in a way that fascinated me. Residents here will see it, have to go around it, over it, or through it every day. It made me reflect on “life on the water” in a new way, one very different from my youth living in San Diego not far from the beach. It’s not a spot to visit here, but part of the fabric of every day.

Little Manchester with its lovely views, the historic buildings of Port Townsend, the Scandinavian charm of Poulsbo, the windswept beaches near the Kingston ferry — I loved my time in Washington. If you’re looking for a place in unwind, explore, and spread your post-lockdown wings a little, maybe find a waterfront cottage on Airbnb and take in the serene charms of the Olympic Peninsula for a few days. Whatever you do, make sure to visit the bakery in Poulsbo. Trust. I could have cried at finding the bread I remember eating as a kid, best served toasted. Also perhaps the best apple strudel I have had in my entire life.

If you aren’t convinced yet, here is a smattering of photos from my visit. Enjoy!

Thank you so much, B, for being the best host and companion. Much love.

The House in the Cerulean Sea

A very dear friend recommended this book recently, and I am so grateful he did. The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune is the kind of book you pick up and don’t want put down, just from the sheer heartwarming loveliness of it. I read it over a few days while on a short vacation, and the sweetness of both my trip and this story will be staying with me for a long time.

Meet Mr. Linus Baker. He is a case worker for DICOMY, or the Department in Charge of Magical Youth. His job is to visit orphanages for magical children and produce strictly impartial reports on their efficacy. His days are largely the same: dull grey and tedious, and he is remarkable in only his studious self-effacement. That is, until a unique assignment from Extremely Upper Management puts him on a collision course with love, joy, purpose, and his very first glimpse of the ocean. Intrigued? I was, too!

The titular house is actually Marsyas Island Orphanage, a secluded place run by a Mr. Arthur Parnassus. It is full of children who will tug at your heartstrings as much as they make you laugh out loud. Nothing has prepared Mr. Baker for whatever a Chauncey is, much less a six-year-old Antichrist, and their antics drive him to apoplexy. The children are as magically unique as they are uniquely magical, and their caretaker is both mysterious and delightful. I belly laughed, I teared up, and I came back for more even as my nights turned into the wee hours of morning. Beyond the beautifully developed characters is a story about finding oneself, making space for joy, and how even one of us can help bring positive change. Oh, and love. Most of all, this story is about love. It feels like a hug down to the very last page, and I hope you love it as much as I did.

Decorate wild!

photo via Justina Blakeney

Congratulations to Justina Blakeney on her new book, Jungalow: Decorate Wild! In her most personal book to date, Jungalow is alive with Blakeney’s signature bold colors and patterns, mixed textiles, and plants galore. She centers her adventurous designs squarely amidst her own beautifully mixed heritage and encourages all of us to do the same. I found this to be not only a delightful design perspective, but a timely reminder amidst increasing polarization that we are all enriched by the “magic of mixing.” Cross-cultural food, art, music, design? Yes and please! Her mixes are artful, collected, and so stylish (amazing!) while also being grounded and respectful of deeply rooted traditions. As she shared in a book talk recently, she believes strongly in respecting cultures and supporting artisans. Her seriousness in this regard is matched only by the playful exuberance she brings to decor, and her earnest belief that we can all thrive, grow, and express our creative selves in the home we cultivate for ourselves. Bravo, Justina! I couldn’t agree more.

Jungalow is a feast for the eyes, full of Dabito’s stunning interior photography along with shots from Blakeney’s own travels. The colors are saturated and exuberant — such a delight after a dreary year! Pick up a copy and you won’t be disappointed, I promise.

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Three great new books

Three great new books have graced my shelves over the past couple weeks, and I just have to share!

One of the small perks of this “new normal” is the plethora of book talks available online, and I was delighted to be able to attend a talk with Kate McDermott on her new book, Pie Camp. Besides being a wizard with all things pie, she is a gem of a human being who finds so much fun and enjoyment in what she does, it is hard not to share her enthusiasm. I am always a fan of people who enjoy what they do, and McDermott is no exception. I had no less than three, “wow, that is genius!” moments in the charming hour we spent together, including this: McDermott tossed together an incredible-looking berry crostata in the last 7 minutes, with which she encouraged everyone to just have fun with fillings. Marionberry preserves, fresh raspberries, and (what?!) dried blueberries tucked into the center of each raspberry, JUST FOR FUN? Genius.

If her previous book, Art of the Pie, is the “why” of pie, then Pie Camp is indubitably the the “how.” Over three hundred pages of methods, recipes, tips, and beautiful photography make for as thorough a primer on sweet pies as anyone could ask for. Fruit pies, custards, creams, crisps, crostatas — oh my! Lattices, braids, and crimps, too! I am more of a cake baker, myself, but I hit the checkout button before I even got halfway through her chat. Now I am looking forward to a pie-filled holiday season — and beyond.

Poet Maggie Smith of “Good Bones” fame has delivered us her genre-defying book, Keep Moving, at just the right moment in time. Originally spurred by her divorce, Smith’s “notes on loss, creativity, and change,” are precisely what many of us need to hear as this pandemic continues to turn our lives inside-out and sideways. Many of the entries are tweets to herself, encouraging reminders to “keep moving.” They are interspersed with the occasional meditation on a beautiful moment, a creative reflection or learning opportunity, or perhaps a small rumination on fear or hope. Whatever the you want to classify this book as, Smith’s grace in the face of change shines through in every page. She’s the encouraging voice reminding us, quietly, than even if all we can do is keep moving, it’s more than enough.

Finally, I could not be prouder of Henry James Garrett and his book, This Book Will Make You Kinder. Garrett may be better known to some as the artist behind Drawings of Dogs on Instagram, with his delightful art and his knack of piercing to the heart of so many social issues with a wittily observant caption or pun. (If you spend even just a couple minutes watching his Instagram stories, you can see what a genuinely kind and lovely person he is, and why I am so proud to hold his book in my hands.)

Now, building on his academic studies and keen interest in ethics, kindness, and morality, Garrett has graced us with an “empathy handbook” — a guide to developing our moral kindness and confronting cruelty in our world. His animal cartoons are peppered throughout his well-considered tome, but he goes far beyond his online art presence to bring us a book I think everyone can and will benefit from reading. Part philosophy, part sociological observation and critique, and entirely accessible, it is as timely as Maggie Smith’s book, but in a different way. Smith reminds us how to keep going, and Garrett reminds us that we need to do so together, with kindness and empathy. And I think McDermott has the right idea — let’s do so with a warm slice of pie.

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Wow, No Thank You.

via samanthairby.com

Somewhere between two days and two months ago (time has basically ceased to have meaning or proper flow these days, amirite?), I had the privilege of enjoying a conversation between Samantha Irby and Jia Tolentino. My Jia fangirl status was cemented a while ago (as exhibited here and here), so it was extra fun to hear her interview an author live. And someone as hilarious as Samantha Irby? Thank you, Free Library of Philadelphia! Razor-sharp wit combined with the intimacy of a chat between friends made for a delightful listen. I hit “purchase” on Irby’s most recent book before the chat was even finished.

Wow, No Thank You is one of those books that manages to deal with racism, classism, sexism, sexual orientation, body issues, and and number of other -isms with such a deft and humorous touch that you don’t even realize it isn’t pure brain candy until after you’ve put it down for a bit. Irby is hilariously blunt, occasionally raunchy, and always painfully, amazingly observant. Why do we women feel pressured to buy cream specifically for our necks? If your family never had the privilege of owning a house, does gutter maintenance magically find it’s way into your conscience when you sign a mortgage? Are Hot Pockets and self-care really mutually exclusive? Why waste energy on that person who hates you, when they realistically would add nothing of value to your life even if they did like you? Can anyone utter the phrase, “are you familiar with my work?” without feeling painfully awkward about it? Questions and answers to laugh at and ponder and nod along with abound in this collection of laugh-out-loud essays. Irby also provides an excellent annotated playlist, for those of you hungry for late 1900s nostalgia mixed with a heretofore unmatched level of hilarity.

In a nutshell, Samantha Irby is one funny lady, and you should buy her book immediately. “Because we live in a fiery hellscape,” to quote her directly, and we need all the clever hilarity we can get. And this hilarity even comes with a dose or three of contemporary awareness, so you can feel virtuous while you indulge. You’re welcome, and enjoy.

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Everything I Never Told You

ng_everything_coverIn Celeste Ng’s debut novel Everything I Never Told You, the story of the Lee family unfolds like the petals of a flower.  Lydia is dead, that we know, and the story of her family, their grief, and their undoing unfurls slowly, with pathos and grit alike.  Chapters from Lydia’s own childhood, her parents as young people, her siblings and their own lives — all of these are twined inexorably together, as all families’ are.  Ng pulls together the experience of being an outsider deftly with a multi-layered coming-of-age story that resonated with me deeply.  There was not a single character I wasn’t rooting for by the end.

We all have inner lives, and we all carry wounds that make us fragile, even if they are invisible to the naked eye.  The saga of the Lee family brings that home with quiet power, drawing us through a gripping page-turner of a story that sears, comforts, and ultimately shows how even the darkest hours can led us to a semblance of redemption.  Highly recommend.

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Girls’ weekend

I’m in the process of planning a getaway in December with a few girlfriends, and we are all seriously looking forward to a few days away to relax, recharge, and savor some quiet.  Currently we are scouting out some AirBnB locations, trying to decide.  Beachy location?  Desert oasis?  Mountain escape?  Regardless of which we choose, I do have some essentials in mind.

Alice Munro’s Dear Life, for short stories to dip in and out of all weekend long.

A hair band in the perfect ochre for easy-yet-cute hair.

Comfy velvet wide-leg pants for lounging, because duh.

Softest hoodie that is ideal weight, ethically made, and beyond comfortable.

Faux fur mules that will be equally stylish outdoors as in.

Cozy candle with a hilarious boyfriend-y backstory, for all the comfort and none of the inconveniences of toting our menfolk along.

 

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The Grace Year

I preordered Kim Liggett’s new novel The Grace Year as soon as I could, and was riveted the moment I had it in hand to devour.  There is simply no other way to consume this book — heart in hand, fully devouring this tale of girlhood and womanhood.  Liggett’s speculative fiction expertly weaves a world where women have no power or agency, save the magic they must be rid of in their sixteenth year, the grace year.  the_grace_year_coverIt is a survival story, a modern fairy tale, a coming-of-age, a resistance manifesto, and a terrifying horror yarn all at the same time, deftly told and hauntingly realized.  I could not put it down.

There are so many ways that women and girls tear each other apart and lift each other up by turns, and this novel  explores those dynamics in interesting ways.  What does power come to mean when you are entirely deprived of it?  How do we define ourselves within the rhythms of family, society, friendships, and love?  What does that mean for our self-hood?  How can we push for meaningful change?  All of these are questions I turned over in my mind as this story unfolded.

Besides a fascinating macro look at a society described by some as The Handmaid’s Tale meets Lord of the Flies, I thoroughly appreciated Liggett’s attention to small details.  The language of flowers in particular made for a beautiful leitmotif, further strengthening her world-building.  Flowers make for a common language, but they also prove to be a perfect metaphor for the girls themselves.  Fragile, beautiful, unique, prized, just as easily crushed as admired — the Grace Year girls and their story will haunt you long after Liggett’s last page.

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