Bad Feminist

Book cover: Bad Feminist by Roxane GayOn my first night in Naples, I went out to dinner with some kids (the thing about backpacking as a thirty-something is that almost all of the other backpackers are at least a decade younger than you). We were at a restaurant, and somehow the conversation briefly turned to “real feminists,” which, to the guy in our group, meant really believing in/fighting for equality and not being a hypocrite and expecting guys to buy you drinks at bars. There were a few good feminists out there, but too many “feminists” were hypocrites that gave the good feminists a bad name.

I chose to remain silent through this conversation, but this is what my internal dialogue sounded like: “Sometimes it’s nice to have drinks bought for you…haha, I’m Feminist Texican…Also, guys can be feminists…I should probably say something but I just want to drink beer and look at the ocean…Say something…Nope, I don’t want to have this conversation with strangers right now…Mmmm, beer…You are a bad feminist.”

It’s a recurring conversation I sometimes have with myself. I’ve had my Feminist Card revoked many times, sometimes by other Feminists, sometimes by myself, like when Jay-Z’s “Can I Get A” pops up on my shuffle and I’m filled with shame as I sing along (yes, I realize that song is about a million years old). And it’s this kind of feminist backsliding, among other things, that Roxane Gay addresses in her new collection of essays, Bad Feminist.

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The Goldfinch

Book cover: The Goldfinch by Donna TarttTowards the middle of my trip, when I got to the section that involved long train/bus rides, I decided to dip into this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. I had preordered it back in the week’s before its release, slightly before the book’s buzz had reached epic proportions. Then the buzz continued, and I had a feeling it would win the Pulitzer even though I still hadn’t read it. And then the backlash started: Real™ critics found the book clichéd, and many disdainfully referred to it as a children’s book. Tartt’s treatment of people of color was all wrong. Readers came out of the woodwork to speak up with relief to discover they weren’t the only ones who hated the book. I tentatively skimmed over all of this — the positive buzz, the negative buzz, even descriptions of the book itself — so that I could eventually read the book with fresh eyes, but so much of it was hard to ignore.

The Goldfinch is about thirteen-year-old Theo Decker and a split decision he makes that will shape his future. On one fateful morning, he and his mother pop into The Met to look at a new exhibit, but a bomb goes off and his mother dies in the terrorist attack. By some miracle Theo survives, and in the gory confusion that ensues, he rescues a painting from the ashes — Fabritius’s “The Goldfinch,” which his mother adored — and stumbles back home (in shock and concussed) to wait for her. She never arrives, and when child services discovers that Theo is on his own without any other family to take him in, he’s temporarily placed with the Barbours, a wealthy couple on Park Avenue whose son Theo once went to school with. Because of something that happened in the moments following the explosion, he also comes to know a kindly and distinguished antique furniture restorer. Neither of them know it at the time, but the man will come to play a huge role in Theo’s future.

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The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street

Book cover: The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane GilmanIn 1913, the Jewish-Russian Treynovsky family leaves their country to start a new life abroad. Malka Treynovsky’s mother has family in South Africa, so she knows they’ll have a little help resettling. Malka’s father, however, has other things in mind and tricks the family into moving to America instead. All the rumors of great wealth and opportunity prove false, and the family moves into a tenement on the Lower East Side; their situation is just as dire as it was back in Russia. Everyone in the family, even the youngest children, must bring home money daily if they want to eat.

Little by little, the family falls apart. Malka is run over by a horse and crippled for life; already stretched too thin to take on another burden, her family abandons her. The man who accidentally ran her over, Mr. Dinello, takes her into his Italian Catholic home. It is there that Malka learns the skills that will change her life. Mr. Dinello sells Italian ices on Orchard Street, and Malka grows up learning all about the ice cream business. As she gets older, gets married, and builds her empire, she transforms herself into Lillian Dunkle, The Ice Cream Queen. She and her husband have lucrative patents and franchises, and through sheer determination, little homely, crippled Malka Treynovsky still manages to grow up and endear herself to the American public as a motherly Jewish-Italian icon; she even has her own television show.

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Sunday Salon (On Monday): In which I return semi-scathed but content

I’ve been back home for almost a week now, and getting acclimated to my old sleep schedule is proving difficult. No matter what I do, I keep waking up at 5 in the morning!

I was in Europe for five weeks. My initial schedule was: Reykjavik, Oslo, Copenhagen, Malmo (Sweden), Helsinki, Krakow, Olomouc (Czech Republic), Trencin (Slovakia), Cachtice (Slovakia), Bratislava, Vienna, Prague, London, Paris, Naples. I was so excited to get to go to castles and castle ruins in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

And then I sprained both my ankles in Oslo. As in Oslo, the second city on my trip. How I managed to do that, I still haven’t a clue, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise considering I have been known to cut myself with water and break my arm while making tea. So.

My left ankle was in intense pain by the end of Day 5 (my first full day in Oslo), but I didn’t want to go to a doctor because I didn’t have my insurance card on me (Oslo is insanely expensive). I figured I’d get better in a few days. On Day 6, my right ankle decided to also screw me over. At this point, I could still walk very, very slowly, so that’s what I did. And I did it in Copenhagen and Helsinki as well, taking bus tours to make up for the fact that I could barely walk, and coming to terms that Malmo was just not going to be feasible anymore. It was frustrating because there was a lot I wanted to see but couldn’t.

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Quickies: Margherita Dolce Vita & On Such a Full Sea

First off: I’m baaaack! I returned from my 5-week, 10-country European adventure late Tuesday night! (I’ll talk more about it tomorrow…drama, drama, drama!) Before I left, I read books from almost all the countries I visited. I posted a few reviews while I was over there, and then stopped. It ended up being a case of either having great WiFi connection but being too exhausted to write, or having lots of time and energy to write but having zero WiFi! Now that I’m back, I’ll be writing those reviews and spreading them out over the coming weeks.

Book cover: Margherita Dolce Vita by Stefano BenniMargherita Dolce Vita by Stefano Benni

Publisher/Year: Europa Editions, 2006
Format: Paperback
Pages: 208
Source: Purchase

What it is: Margherita is a teenager living a peaceful and relatively happy life with her eccentric family in Italy. The family lives within their means in a modest suburban home and tries to recycle whatever they can. This all changes when a wealthy family moves in next door, building an eyesore of a modern home that Margherita’s family dubs “The Cube.” Life as Margherita knows it is suddenly over.

Why I read it: It looked like a happy, lighthearted book. The author is also popular in Italy.

What I thought: I knew this book was a satire, but I wasn’t expecting it to turn out even remotely the way it did. The first few chapters fell in line with my initial preconception of the book: lighthearted, funny, charming. Then the book started taking a very strange turn. By the end, I was just like, “what in the world am I reading?” Margherita’s neighbors can be taken as stand-ins for stereotypical Americans: abrasive, self-absorbed, obsessed with having the newest and best of everything without giving a damn about what anyone else needs or wants. It gets darker than that: Margherita’s neighbors end up revealing anti-immigrant, anti-poor people, pro-guns, pro-using tech to spy on people sentiments. And okay…if you’re trying to go over-the-top with dark satire and need to paint a negative America/American “type,” there’s definitely some basis for all those stereotypes. Fine. But the book went completely off the rails for me with its conspiracy theories and inexplicably bad plot twists. I kind of hated it (but I still love the cover).

Book cover: On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae LeeOn Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee

Publisher/Year: Riverhead Books, 2014
Format: ARC
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher

What it is: In Chang-rae Lee’s dystopian America, the world has split into a bunch of colonies where only the wealthiest have it easy in areas known as charters. Outside the walls of the urban work colonies is a violent, ungoverned no-man’s land where people travel and live at their own risk. Fan is a Chinese fish-tank diver working in B-Mor, what was once Baltimore. When her lover mysteriously disappears, she leaves B-Mor and heads into the treacherous Open Counties to look for him.

Why I read it: It was one of the most talked about and highly anticipated releases this year.

What I thought: So here’s the thing: this was my first Chang-rae Lee book (nope, still haven’t read Native Speaker). I can see why the book got lots of great buzz and why people love Lee’s work. His writing is undeniably beautiful and haunting. There were parts of this book that I completely lost myself in, but there were also lots of times where I thought the book dragged on. It’s an atmospheric book; there are surreal, quietly unnerving plot twists told through the eyes of the narrators (a faceless, nameless group from B-Mor reimagining Fan’s story). Sometimes it worked for me, sometimes it didn’t.