To say that Rebecca Solnit’s last collection of feminist essays was a success would be an understatement; Men Explain Things To Me was a national bestseller, and I’m hard-pressed to think of anyone in my feminist circles who hasn’t read at least one of the essays in the collection (namely, the title essay). So, I was delighted to learn that Solnit had a new book of feminist essays planned for publication, the contents of which were written within the past few years; I believe they’re all from 2014 on. As such, The Mother of All Questions feels fresh and timely, part of a larger conversation on feminist issues that continues to grow.
Like its predecessor, The Mother of All Questions is a slim book packed with incisive cultural commentary. It’s split into two parts: Silence is Broken and Breaking the Story. The first part begins with Solnit’s newest and longest piece in the collection, “A Short History of Silence,” which explores the damaging roles that silence plays in society. Its opening paragraph immediately had my attention:
Ayelet Waldman suffered from severe mood swings for years. She went through a lot trying to get a diagnosis — she was even misdiagnosed as having bipolar disorder for a few years — and she dutifully participated in therapy and tried almost every medication out there. That worked to varying degrees, but it was all taking a toll on her life and her marriage.
In the midst of this, Waldman heard about an experimental treatment in which people microdose with LSD. At about 10% of a typical dose, people who microdose don’t feel any of LSD’s trippy effects and instead begin to experience…nothing. The doses are too minuscule to cause any discernible mood alteration. And yet, the little research that does exist on microdosing points to its usefulness in treating mood disorders and illnesses like PTSD.
A Really Good Day is part memoir, part investigation on the LSD and drug laws in the United States. Waldman, a self-described nerd and chicken when it comes to breaking the law, chronicles the events that led to her finally receiving a little blue vial of diluted LSD in the mail from “Lewis Carroll.” As a former lawyer who often represented clients accused of drug-related offenses, Waldman had personal experiences with drug laws that gave her book some unique insights.
Butter: A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova
Publisher/Year: Algonquin Books, 2016
What it is: Khosrova takes readers around the world to examine the cultural and religious significance of butter. She also looks at the history of butter making and its subsequent commercialization, then turns her focus to contemporary butter artisans. Only about half the book deals with butter’s history; the other half consists of butter-filled recipes.
Why I read it: Because butter is awesome.
What I thought: I’m glad to be alive now and not back in the day when butter sold on the market was filthy and sometimes loaded with rocks to make the butter seem heavier. But in all seriousness, the science behind butter making is really interesting, and Khosrova packs a lot of information into a few chapters without making it too dense. As someone who travels a few times a year, I kind of want to start hitting up butter artisans from now on to see what I’ve been missing out on!
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Publisher/Year: Random House Audio, 2013
Narrators: Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, and 164 others
Length: 7 hours, 25 minutes
What it is: Willie Lincoln died of typhoid fever in 1862. A grief-stricken Abraham Lincoln was said to have entered his son’s crypt in the middle of the night to be alone with him. On the other side, in the Bardo — a Tibetan term that refers to a sort of in-between place between the living and the dead — Willie Lincoln doesn’t understand what’s going on and why his father won’t take him home. Several other people, who are buried in the cemetery and are stuck in the Bardo alongside Willie, are touched. A plan takes shape as to what should happen next.
Why I listened to it: I preordered the audiobook partly because of the hype, but mostly because Nick Offerman and Carrie Brownstein are narrators. I was also curious about how an audiobook with 166 narrators would sound.
What I thought: I know this is an unpopular opinion because everyone raves about George Saunders, but I don’t get the hype. That’s not to say that the book doesn’t have its moments; there were parts that genuinely made me laugh, and there were several parts where the grief is palpable. It’s a unique spin on historical fiction, and I could appreciate what he was trying to do, but I just couldn’t get 100% on board with it. As for the 166 narrators thing, it’s…a lot. I do think that Offerman and Sedaris, whose roles are bigger than everyone else’s, were perfectly cast, though.
I read a lot of really great nonfiction books in 2016! I actually think I had better luck with nonfiction than fiction. The first three listed are my top three favorites; everything is listed in alphabetical order.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (2016)
When Breath Becomes Air focuses on Kalinithi’s a career as a neurosurgeon, which was cut short by a rare and terminal form of lung cancer. The memoir — which he was still striving to complete at the time of his death — offers reflections on life and death. In doing so, he reflects on past interactions with patients who had been on the receiving end of bad news that came from him. It’s a gorgeous book.
The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing (2016)
Mixing memoir, biography, and art history, Olivia Laing explores the different meanings of loneliness in New York City through the lives of different artists who lived there. The essays offer beautiful, elegant explorations of human interactions (or the lack thereof).
So Sad Today by Melissa Broder (2016)
Steeped in dark humor, So Sad Today is a collection of autobiographical essays by Melissa Broder. She writes about her struggles with extreme anxiety low, self-esteem, and addiction, but she also throws in some off-the-wall essays about sex and relationships. There’s one essay in there revolving around sexting that had me going, “This woman is completely nuts. I love her.”
Last year, one of the tasks for Book Riot’s Read Harder challenge was to read a feminist book. I saw how people seemed to be stuck in a rut, listing the same books over and over, so I came up with feminist book recommendations for every task in the 2016 challenge.
The 2017 Read Harder tasks were announced a few days ago, and I’ve been mulling these topics over ever since. So what the heck…here are 100+ more feminist book recommendations that should cover most of the tasks (alas, I’m afraid I can’t recommend a book you’ve already read as I am not a mind reader). The micropress task had me stumped for a while, but I got that one too. And hey! For those of you panicking about your library acquiring a micropress book, an added bonus: Native Realities offers Deer Woman for free as an ebook download! Am I good or what?
A lot of titles overlap with other tasks, but each author is only listed once. Happy reading!
Task 1: Read a book about sports.
- Course Correction: A Story of Rowing and Resilience in the Wake of Title IX by Ginny Gilder
- Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports by Susan Ware
- Getting in the Game: Title IX and the Women’s Sports Revolution by Deborah L. Brake
- Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer
- Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape by Jessica Luther
Task 2: Read a debut novel.
- 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad
- The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
- Cinder by Marissa Meyer
- Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn
- The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin
Task 3: Read a book about books.
- Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman
- Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak
- The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman
- Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
- Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch