Monday, August 8, 2016

"This anxiety of non-belonging."

by Susan Faludi
As soon as I read the New York Times' book review of Susan Faludi's In the Darkroom, I knew I wanted to read it.  I immediately put it on hold at the library, and I went to pick it up the same day my hold came in.

I have struggled a lot with my reading this year.  But this book brought back so much of that enjoyment to me.  Every day after work last week, I would finish my dinner, pour myself a glass of wine, and then settle down on my sofa for some quality reading.

I set myself the task this summer of being more outgoing, of inviting a lot of different people to do a lot of things with me, and of trying to form true friendships with new people.  It has been a lot of work (and I wouldn't say it always feels particularly rewarding), but it's also been pretty fun and kept me extremely busy.  I have a feeling the people I have gotten to know over the past few months probably think that I am far more extroverted and social than I would probably ever describe myself as being.

For whatever reason, last week, I made no plans.  I had no plans for ten days in a row.  It was the perfect time to settle down with a good, meaningful, beautiful book.  And I'm so glad that In the Darkroom was there because it is one of the most moving books I have read in a very long time.

I almost hesitate to share a summary of the book because I think it will frighten some people away, and that would be sad.  At a high level, the book is about a grown woman coming to know her father after many years of estrangement, after he has undergone a sex change operation to become a woman.  She goes to meet her father in Budapest and the story unwinds from there, from his childhood growing up in a very wealthy Jewish family to the horrors of the Holocaust and the many re-inventions he underwent before this final one - choosing to live as a woman at the age of 76.

[Apologies if I am misusing pronouns here; Faludi refers to her father as "him" before the operation and as "her" after.  I will try to do the same.]

Faludi is a staunch feminist, and as she talks to her father and others who have undergone the male-to-female operation, she is struck by their adherence to traditional (stereotypical) gender norms.  Her father says troubling things like, "Now I can communicate better, because I'm a woman... It helps that I'm a woman.  Because women don't provoke."  She reads memoirs of women who talk about their experience, and none of them sound very feminist at all.  Take this quote from Jan Morris.  As Jim Morris, she had climbed Mt. Everest.  And yet, as a woman:
"I was even more emotional now.  I cried very easily, and was ludicrously susceptible to sadness or flattery.  Finding myself rather less interested in great affairs (which are placed in a new perspective, I do assure you, by a change of sex), I acquired a new concern for small ones.  My scale of vision seemed to contract... It is, I think, a simpler vision that I now possess.  Perhaps it is nearer a child's."
It's difficult not to be offended by the comments above.  And yet, most men who want to undergo sex change operations to become women have to pass a horrible test that dates from mid-century and very much requires them to conform to stereotype.  In order to be approved for the operation, they are expected to say that they don't mind putting their careers on hold or not being the bread winner, etc.  I had no idea this was the case.  The way that all of these memoirs are written with this assumption that women are inherently different than men in their approach to the world, and that feminists are stupid to want to change things because being a woman is just such grand fun, is very hard to take.  For Faludi, whose father fetishized womanhood prior to her operation with costumes and posed photos and then became much more conservation after her operation (this happens a lot, it seems), it must have have been overwhelming.

Faludi doesn't only tackle feminism, though.  She also talks a lot about Jewish identity.  Faludi is not very religious, but she doesn't have to be.  "I was someone with only the vaguest idea of what it meant to be a Jew who was nevertheless adamant that I was one."  Her father's relationship with religion was much more up and down.  Born to affluent but negligent parents who didn't even attend his bar mitzvah, Istvan Friedman shed his Jewish identity during World War II when Hungary became extremely anti-Semitic.  The many stories he recounts over the course of this book are amazing; he saved his parents' lives and the lives of many others, often by pretending to be a Nazi.  He escaped Hungry with friends on a fantastic lie.  He moved to Brazil, changed his name to Steven Faludi, and then moved to America, got married and had a family.  It was only when Susan said she was considering becoming a Christian that he informed her, quite violently, that she was Jewish.  "I remember exactly what I said.  That they exterminated the Jews.  And how could you do this?"

There are many stories like this in Hungary.  After World War II, there was Communism.  Many people hid their religion just to get by.  Only now are people (ironically, some of them ultra-right-wing politicians who denounce Jews) coming to know their family history and religion.  Faludi shares some of these stories in a beautiful chapter in which she attends Rosh Hashanah services and dinner with her father.  Temples that were built to hold hundreds now cater to groups of twenty or fifty.

In the Darkroom is one of the most moving books I have read in a long time.  The way Faludi weaves her own story with her father's and Hungary's, and that thorny issue of identity, is beautiful.
I studied my father's face, averted as it so often had been in life.  All the years she was alive, she'd sought to settle the question of who she was.  Jew or Christian?  Hungarian or American?  Woman or man?  So many oppositions.  But as I gazed upon her still body, I thought:  there is in the universe only one true divide, one real binary, life and death.  Either you are living or you are not.  Everything else is molten, malleable.

Monday, August 1, 2016

A beautiful, troubled city

Natalie Y. Moore
Hello again, friends.  Once again, it has been a while.  I have been very up and down over the past several months, and certainly since my last post.  Sometimes, I feel very optimistic about the future and really believe that good people doing good things can make good changes in the world.  And sometimes, I'm just exhausted and saddened.  I have been reading, though not as much as I usually do.  And not many books that I feel compelled to review.

I have been drawn to non-fiction of late, possibly in the hope that my reading facts will compel the rest of the world to trust in facts.  Or to help me make sense of how the world came to be the way it is now (though I do feel strongly that fiction can help just as much as non-fiction in that regard).

I recently read Natalie Y. Moore's The South Side:  A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation.  As I think many of you know, I have lived in or around Chicago my whole life, and I love the city so much.  But it is a city with deep-rooted problems.  It's a city that can break your heart if you let it, from a legacy of corrupt politicians, gang violence, police brutality, and segregation.  Martin Luther King, Jr. said that he had never faced such virulent racism anywhere as he faced in Chicago.  The beautiful, striking skyline that locals love so much came at a huge cost to many communities and people.

Natalie Moore writes about her own life growing up on Chicago's south side (the historically black area of the city) and then settling back on the south side as an adult.  Her book is so many things:  an homage to her happy childhood, a guide to so many of the city's overlooked neighborhoods (and restaurants!), and an indictment of how little the government has done to invest in black neighborhoods.  The facts she shares about what it's like to be Black in America are pretty horrifying, not only because it's so obvious that racism is there, but because it just seems so endemic.  I know that a lot of racism is under the surface now, even sub-conscious.  But its consequences are just as real and impactful, and it's just so sad.

The chapter that most affected me was the one on gun violence in Chicago.  Some have given the city the nickname "Chiraq" due to how many people have been killed here (one year, more than the number of US soldiers killed in Iraq).  As someone who lives in the city, I would say the news of shootings and killings is absolutely constant, particularly in the summer.  It's unending.  It's horrifying.  It's such a tragedy I don't even know how to describe it without sounding trite.  And it makes Chicagoans themselves scared of their city.  People don't take public transportation after a certain time.  We don't walk in parks after dark.  We tell people when we reach home safely.  And there are some neighborhoods that people just won't go to.  Such as many, many neighborhoods on the south side.  We won't even stop for gas there, let alone think of shopping or eating there, or definitely not living there.

I have, of course, always been aware that violence in Chicago has an indelible impact on communities.  Kids who can't play outside, teens who can't go to school, family structures broken down.  But I don't think I realized just what a huge economic drain it is, too.  If everyone is too scared to visit a neighborhood or to even walk around outside, then business suffers.  And if businesses don't feel like they can invest in a neighborhood, then no one is ever going to move to them.  And property values decline, and people move out, and the city continues to shrink, to condense in the very gentrified central area.  And when you refer to a community as a "war zone," you automatically think about punishment and strong enforcement as the only means of solving the problem.  You don't think about how to work with the community for longer-term solutions or addressing the root of the issue because you're so busy scrambling to save lives in the moment, to stop that next gun from being purchased.  Its consequences are much more far-reaching than I ever considered, and it makes me even sadder for my city than I was before.

I also really enjoyed the chapter about food and access to food.  Whole Foods is opening a massive store in Englewood, one of Chicago's poorest (and most dangerous) neighborhoods, and it created quite a stir.  Were they trying to gentrify the neighborhood?  Were they trying to do good?  Would people be able to afford to shop there?  Were they going to bring some cheapened version of their store that wasn't as nice as the other Whole Foods in wealthier neighborhoods?  It was so fascinating to read multiple points of view on this.  The store is slated to open this fall, and I hope it helps the community.

Moore talks about many more topics in her book - public housing and public schools, her own childhood, property values, the pros and cons of integration vs access to the same resources, and so much more.  Her own love (and frustration) with the city comes through strong and clear.  Obviously, people who live in or around Chicago are probably most likely to be interested in this book, but I think much of what is true about Chicago is true around America, or at least the Midwest.  And if you are not American, and look at America now and wonder what is happening, I think this book would be a good primer to help you understand.  It's really well-written, very evocative of the city's highs and lows, and I am so glad I read it.  There's a reason that I came out of my semi-blogging retirement to write about it and urge you all to read it.  I hope you do.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

It's hard being nice sometimes

Recently, my family went to dinner at one of my favorite restaurants in Chicago.  We were celebrating the visit of my dad's best friend from medical school being in town with his family, so our it was a special occasion.  It was a great meal, we all had some drinks, and we left the restaurant around 10:30 to get in our cars or cabs and go home.  My mom asked that we all pose for one last photo before we parted ways.  We all groaned and complained, but we posed and then gave each other hugs and started to say our goodbyes.

This is not that photo, but this is my immediate family.
At that time, a woman passing by on the sidewalk paused in her journey, turned to all of us, and started saying truly vile and horrible things to all of us.  I will not repeat them here, mostly because I don't remember her exact words, just the tone of her voice and the fact that she was very clear that we did not belong in America.  Mostly, she went on and on about Indian people in general (she was weirdly specific about her hatred of Indians), and how all of us should go back to "our country."  (Not that it should matter, but everyone in my family is an American citizen.)

My brother's girlfriend is white, so the woman took special care to show her disdain and special level of anger for anyone white who would choose to spend her time with so many Indian people.

Needless to say, all of us were horrified and very shaken up.  I have never before in my life felt the full power of unadulterated hatred.  I don't think I've ever seen so much anger directed at anyone so pointedly.  And it was for me.  And my parents.  And my siblings and friends.

I did not react well.  I was tired from traveling home from a weekend away, I knew I had to be up early and at work the next day, I had had a couple of glasses of wine.  And there had already been enough hatred spewed into the world that day.  Everyone else reacted by not reacting.  Trying to ignore the woman, trying to get all of us in the cars, trying to make light of the situation to keep everyone calm and feeling safe.

I yelled back.  I'm not proud of this.  It was stupid.  This is Chicago.  She could very possibly have had a gun and used it.  And what's another hate crime in America these days?  I wish I could say I did not stoop to her level, but I 100% did.  I did not call her vile or horrible names or insult her entire race or nationality or family, but I did tell her to get away from us using a lot of words that I do not use regularly.

I have read a lot about the Civil Rights movement.  I grew up hearing all about satyagraha.  I understand that there is power and dignity in passive resistance and that one should try to take the high road.  After all, the woman was probably mentally unstable.  Maybe she had had a bad day.  Perhaps she was homeless.  (In my defense, she did not look to be any of those things to me, but I was not an unbiased observer.)

Honestly, it's SO HARD sometimes to be kind to people.  Especially to people who are verbally pounding you and your loved ones with the full force of their vitriol.  People who make it personal without knowing you personally.  And it's not even being actively kind.  It's just... not being angry.  Holding your emotions in check.  Being the adult.  Being the better person.

But I know I'm the better person, at least in this situation, and I still reacted that way.  I have been doing so much reading and thinking and discussing around kindness and empathy and vulnerability  and trying so hard to become a kinder, more empathetic and open person for months now.  I said as much in my last post.  And it all just went right out the window at the first pressure point.

The fact is, it's a lot easier to be kind and empathetic and vulnerable with people who are like you.  It's much harder with people who are at the other end of the spectrum.  It's not that I wish I had given the woman a hug and learned about her past horrible experiences with Indian people so that I could understand where her hatred was coming from and then wow her with my empathy so that she would trust me and, thus, all Indians she encounters in the future.  I'm not that naive.

It's more that I wish I had been like the rest of my family in that situation and just remained calm and aloof.  I mean, none of them are on a personal improvement project of kindness and empathy and vulnerability, and yet, somehow, they all managed to hold it together until we were in private.  I don't like to be quiet about things that are important to me.  It feels like acceptance.  As though by not saying anything, you are implying, "You are entitled to your opinion, and I shall respect that opinion."

BUT SOMETIMES PEOPLE ARE JUST WRONG.  And I feel like they should know that.  Granted, I am unlikely to convince them of this by shouting at them while I get into a car.  But... well, someone should tell them.  Possibly someone who is further along on the continuum of kindness and empathy than I am. 

If I could do that night over, I would.  Obviously, I would ideally do it over in that the woman wouldn't be there at all.  But if she had to be there, I'd prefer to not react as I did.  I wish I had a mantra.  Be the person you want her to see, not the person she already does see.  Be better.

But, as many of you know, that  puts the onus on the innocent party and basically lets the other guy off without even a slap on the wrist.  I guess just the moral victory of being the better person is supposed to balance that equation.  I don't know if it does.

There is so much misdirected anger and hatred in the world.  It's too much.  I don't know how to handle it, and I clearly do not deal with it well when I come face-to-face with it.  It's hard to be rational.  It's hard to stay calm.  It's hard to not fight back, to kick and scream about the unfairness of it all.  Because, dammit, it really sucks to have to be the bigger person every. single. time.  To remind yourself:  She is not well.  She does not know you.  She has no power over you.  Her words do not define you.  YOU define you.  YOU choose the words.  YOU choose the actions.  But you have to do it.  Not every moment is a teaching moment, and not everyone is open to being taught, anyway.  You can only control what you do, and hope that when you reflect back on your own actions, that you are happy with how you acted or find it in yourself to react better the next time.  If there has to be a next time.

As the glorious and sorely missed Terry Pratchett said in his book A Hat Full of Sky,

"There isn't a way things should be.  There's just what happens, and what we do."

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Be kind to yourself

When I was younger, I really hated the word "nice" as a descriptor of people.  I thought nice meant boring.  I hoped that no one would ever use "nice" as the first word to describe me.  I was so much more!  Fun and witty and opinionated and all the rest.  I wasn't boring.  And I didn't want to be thought of as just nice.

I'm in my early 30s now, and my perspective has completely changed.  I love nice people.  I would be thrilled if someone were to describe me as "just a really, really good person."  I can't think of any personality trait that I find more attractive than kindness, except perhaps a sense of humor that is similar to mine.

Sara Eckel's book, It's Not You:  27 (Wrong) Reasons You're Single, is a kind book.  It is a longer version of her excellent, very popular Modern Love essay in the New York Times.  It's about being kind to yourself, which can often be very difficult, especially if you are a single woman in your 30s or 40s.  Inevitably, people think there is something wrong with you.  Eckel does not.  She says that if you're single, it's not because something's wrong with you.  It's because finding someone is hard.  It takes a lot of luck.  It's about timing.  And if it happens, that's great.  But if it doesn't, it's not your fault.  You are no less worthy of love than other people are.

So many things that Eckel brings up here as the reasons why women are single (you're too picky, you're too intimidating, you're too available, you need more practice, you aren't playing the game, etc.) are things that have been said to me by well-meaning friends and pretty much complete strangers.  Eckel takes 27 of the most common reasons self-help books and well-meaning friends tell you that you're single and refutes them.  She tells you why vulnerability is a good thing, why you should stand up for yourself.  She is just that really wonderful girlfriend who listens to you and doesn't judge you but instead gives you support and a really excellent hug.

I've been single for pretty much my entire life.  I have done so many of the things Eckel mentions here.  She talks about all the projects and tasks single women take up, trying to make themselves more well-rounded, better, worthier people for relationships.  They exercise, they learn to cook, they host dinner parties, they volunteer in their communities, they travel alone, they work really hard to make new friends and keep long-established friendships alive.

And it's true.  I am in the best shape of my life right now, I have more friends than I've ever had before, I make sure that I have a full calendar (though I will never use the word "busy" to describe myself as I hate that word), and I put myself out there far more often, and in ways that make me quite a bit more uncomfortable, than I ever would have thought possible even 5 years ago.  Being single has made me into a better person, even if being single can be really hard sometimes.  But has it made me more "worthy" of finding someone?  No.

Eckel talks a lot about self-compassion and Buddhist teachings (though she does not consider herself a Buddhist).  This is an idea I have been thinking about quite a bit over the past several months, mostly because I think so many people are kind to others but are not kind to themselves.  We do not trust ourselves, we do not give ourselves credit for going out there and giving it the ole college try, we assume there must be something wrong with us.  Eckel references a TED Talk by Brene Brown that I looked up after finishing the book.  It's about the power of vulnerability, and it is excellent.  Brown says, yes, it's hard to make yourself vulnerable.  It makes you feel weak, it makes you feel exposed, and it can be horrible when it doesn't go well.  But... making yourself vulnerable also opens you up to richer, more wonderful relationships with people.  It gives people the opportunity to be vulnerable with you, too.  You learn more about someone.  Your friendship deepens.  You are kinder, gentler, more forgiving.  They are, too.  And it's worth it.  "The people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they are worthy of love and belonging.  That's it."

Eckel also talks about the whole "ice queen" idea - that if a woman really wants to get a man's attention, she should basically ignore him and pretend she doesn't care about him, because if he realizes she cares, then he'll leave.  Of every piece of dating advice out there, this one always comes up.  Don't show too much interest.  Play the game.  Don't respond to his text for like, 8 hours, even though everyone knows you saw the text as soon as it was sent because what are the chances you don't have your phone with you?

I would say this is always the one I struggle with the most because I think it's really bad form and quite rude not to respond to someone who contacts you.  I also have very little patience in spending time with people I don't like when I could spend time with people I do like.  If I like you, I will make time for you.  If I don't, I won't.  The idea of not making time for someone that I like is just ridiculous to me.  The idea of treating someone I really like unkindly is also very hard to take.  As Eckel says,
Think about the most self-assured people you know.  Are they inconsiderate, selfish, or withholding?  Do they try to make you feel small and powerless?  Or are they the ones who offer to take your coat and give you their full attention when you tell them about the book you're reading?  Are they the ones who notice when you've done something well and tell you so?
Like I said, I want to be the nice person.  I don't want to be the cause of angst or anxiety in someone else's life, I want to be a source of support.

And that's why I think this book was so great.  It was not at all self-help-y, it was not about finding ways to find guys, it was not about anything except feeling good about yourself.  And that means a lot.

One of Eckel's single friends, when asked what she wanted in a man (because some people thought she was too picky, and other people thought she just didn't know a good thing when she had it), said something that I think is pretty much perfect, and will be my criteria going forward:
I want to find a guy who delights and surprises me as much as my friends do, but I also want to make out with.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Slumlord Millionaires

It cannot be said that Matthew Desmond's Evicted:  Poverty and Profit in the American City is an uplifting book.  Amazon has given it the dubious distinction of being "#1 Best Seller in Poverty."  The book follows eight families in some of Milwaukee's poorest neighborhoods from mid-2008 to late 2009 and shows how their struggles to pay the rent each month can create insurmountable challenges in every other aspect of their lives.  A snowball becomes an avalanche.  And then they are evicted, and it becomes even worse.

I did not realize just how often people are evicted from their homes.  I have always had a vague idea that laws favor the renter over the landlord, perhaps based on the whole "possession is 90% of the law" idea.  But I think that whole notion is predicated on the idea that both sides are equally educated and have the same access to resources.  When the two sides are not balanced, things can go south very quickly.

Desmond states that "If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women.  Poor black men were locked up.  Poor black women were locked out."  In Milwaukee, black women make up less than 10% of the population but more than 30% of the evictions.  Eviction wreaks havoc in so many ways - parents have to scramble to secure housing, they often lose their material possessions in addition to their homes, their kids are taken out of school, no one feels connected to or committed to a neighborhood, and they now have an eviction on their record, making it even harder to find another home.

It is hard to read Desmond's book without feeling a little sick or hoping that maybe he is exaggerating the situation.  Can landlords really be so cruel?  Is it true that they make the most profit off their poorest tenants?  This must be a pretty one-sided presentation of the information, right?

And maybe it is.  After all, there are eight families profiled, but only two landlords, and the two landlords are disturbingly unkind and mercurial.  Even with that caveat, though, this is a very bleak picture of America.

The tenants here have all made mistakes in their lives, some of them have made really big ones.  It is tempting to think - well, they messed up.  They deserve this.  If they just worked more/tried harder/stayed clean, then they wouldn't be in this situation.  I think we all want to think that because we need to believe that we live in a fair world, and that those of us who are being dealt a better life got that life because we work more, try harder, and are smarter.  Not just because we were lucky.  Because if any of this is based on luck, and luck can change, then any one of us could be struggling.

But even people who make mistakes have children who deserve stability.  They have families that need financial and emotional support.  They need help but are afraid to ask for it.  They don't know their rights.  They pay a very high price for their mistakes, and with the snowball effect that just one crisis can have on someone in poverty, they keep paying that price, over and over.

Desmond uses the word "exploitation" to describe the relationship between landlords and their tenants in poor neighborhoods.  I was aghast at the conditions he described.  Landlords often charge tenants very high prices (really, not that much lower than rent in much better neighborhoods) for apartments that are in really bad shape.  And, since they can threaten these tenants with eviction at almost any time, they don't feel any obligation to do maintenance work or upkeep on their units.  They nickel and dime tenants, make them do work for free, kick them out, and then begin again with someone new.

It took me a very long time to read this book, mainly because it was so sad.  It was hard to pick it up after a long day of work.  But I live in a very large and very segregated city, and I think it's important for me (and everyone else) to understand how housing policies can impact Chicago.  For that reason, I'm really glad I read this book and better understand the economics and politics at play here.  It was a tough one, but it's important.  You may not think that housing policy has any effect on you, but it does - it is your taxes, your neighborhood, your school, and your city.  So pay attention.

If you would prefer to read about Desmond's book and the issues he brings up rather than reading the full book, I highly recommend the New York Times review.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

How to follow your dreams and disappoint your parents

I am not sure why comics are such great vehicles for memoirs, particularly memoirs of growing up and coming of age.  Whatever it is, I definitely have a weakness for memoirs in comic book form (whereas I hardly ever read memoirs in prose).  So when I heard about Ozge Samanci's Dare to Disappoint, her memoir of growing up in Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s, I put it straight on my library wish list.

As usual, I have no idea where I first heard about this book.  I think possibly on some comic book round-up from the end of 2015.  While the story itself is nothing earth-shattering or ground-breaking, it's related in a very endearing and visually appealing way, and I really enjoyed it.

Ozge grew up in a pretty tense environment.  Turkey was in a period of high militarization, religious fervor and conflict, and an opening of the economy and culture to outside influences.  In the midst of all that, Ozge's parents worked very hard at low-paying jobs; they were insistent that Ozge and her older sister would do better for themselves.  Only study engineering at the very top school!  Otherwise, they'd be failures.

As someone who grew up in an Indian household, I completely understood the pressure Ozge felt to do well in subjects that were not nearly as interesting to her as others were (though, to be fair, Indian parents require their kids to be good in all subjects, not just math and science).  Similarly, I can understand parents' deep desire to ensure that their children's lives are easier and more comfortable than their own.

As this is a pretty universal conflict, it's not really Ozge's struggles that draw you into the story, though they are shared in a humorous and entertaining manner.  Instead, it's the juxtaposition of her coming-of-age against Turkey's growing pains.  She learns about herself, understands her environment better, and navigates a complicated system.  All with the help of fun, colorful illustrations and collages.

I really enjoyed learning more about Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s, at the end of the Cold War.  It's always fun to learn about everyday life in a different place, particularly when systems are set up so differently from what you are used to.  For example, Turkey's school system was set up (maybe still is?) in such a way that you had to do really well on tests to advance to the good schools and the well-paying jobs.  Students practiced military drills at school.  Ozge encounters devout Muslims (she is not one herself), studies and works herself to exhaustion, discovers boys, chats with Jacques Cousteau, and tries to figure out what she wants to do with her life.

Dare to Disappoint is not likely to change your world or blow your bind, but it's funny, bright, and thoughtful.  If you're a fan of comics or of coming-of-age stories or memoirs (that's a pretty wide range), then I'd recommend checking it out.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Gabi, the amazing girl you wish you knew in high school

Isabel Quintero
I am not sure how I first heard about Isabel Quintero's novel, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces.  But whatever serendipitous circumstances finally worked to bring me and this book together, I'm grateful for them.  Gabi, A Girl in Pieces, is funny and heart-breaking and marvelous.

The book is written as a series of diary entries over Gabi's senior year of high school.  Gabi is an overweight Mexican-American girl in southern California.  Her father is a meth addict, her mom is a very traditional Mexican mother, her brother is angry, one of her best friends just came out and her other best friend is pregnant.  Through all this, Gabi applies to college, discovers a deep love for poetry, finds her own considerable creative genius, and deals with the complications of many boy problems.

I really loved reading this book.  Gabi is such a wonderful narrator.  She's smart, she's sassy, she's confident, she's loyal, and she's a great person with whom to spend a few hundred pages of teenage drama.  To give you a sense of her personality and why I would have loved to be her best friend in high school, here are a few quotes:
That's the magic of poetry - some gay Jewish poet wrote about people wasting away around him because of drugs, and I, a straight Mexican-American girl. know how he felt because I am seeing the same waste he witnessed over fifty years ago.  Ginsberg is talking about my dad in those first lines.  He didn't know it then, but he was. 

I feel bad about that, like I'm supposed to be lying in bed, distraught, eating an entire container of Chunky Monkey.  But I already did that last night.  And I think one night of crying for a guy I-think-I -really-like-but-am-not-so-sure-about-anymore is enough.

And my absolute favorite:
Then I looked myself straight in the eyes and said, "Gabi, get over it.  You look spectacular.  You look amazing, so stop your bitching or do something that makes you feel better."  I took a deep breath and took off my shorts and shirt and stepped out on that beach like I owned that shit and didn't give a fuck about all the skinny girls around me.  After a while, I didn't feel like an outsider and nobody made comments or even cared about what I looked like.  The other thing about being fat is that you spend too much damn time worrying about being fat and that takes time away from having fun.  But I decided today would be different.  And it was.
Gabi was such a breath of fresh air, and I loved her.  Quintero makes clear that Gabi is overweight and loves to eat, but she also makes clear that Gabi is extremely attractive to people.  She has no less than three guys after her over the course of this book, showing that even teenage guys are drawn to smart, confident women.  Gabi also is very secure in herself and her talent.  She has no issues with writing poetry and reciting it in front of other people.  You won't find long, angsty paragraphs here about not wanting other people to know about her family drama, or not wanting to attend an open mic night at a coffee shop because people won't think it's cool.  You'll find a girl who just STEALS THE SHOW.

It's because Gabi is such a fantastic narrator that this book doesn't ever get weighed down by all of the serious issues it confronts.  In some ways, it felt like Quintero tackled a bit too much in this book to give any one issue enough attention on its own.  But in other ways... maybe that's just what teenagers these days deal with all the time.

Quintero deftly juxtaposes Gabi's traditional upbringing and the expectations of her family against her newly-awakened feminism.  She does this with glorious references to feminist poetry, such as Sandra Cisneros' Loose Woman and Tracie Morris' Project Princess.  As someone who doesn't read a lot of poetry, all the references to poems in this book had me Googling all over the place, trying to find the poems that Gabi mentions so that I, too, can experience what she feels when she reads poetry.

There is so much more that is covered in this book; if I were to talk about all of it here, I'd be gushing on and on.  To me, Gabi's confidence and her budding feminism butting heads against her upbringing were the most memorable.  But there's something for everyone here, something that will resonate with you and remind you of your own childhood and your own insecurities and how you can face them.  Personally, I haven't owned a swimsuit in I don't know how many years.  (Mostly because I really don't like beaches, but also because, well, swimsuits are a pretty stressful piece of clothing to buy.)  But after reading Gabi's comments that I quoted above, I realize that, damnit, I can wear a swimsuit if I want to, and there's no reason to deny myself an enjoyable experience on the off-chance that someone else who probably sucks, anyway, will judge the way I look.  So there!

Seriously, read this book.


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