Book Broads • Scary Book Month

by Angie Eakley

just a note: Elis was unable to find her laptop cord from moving, hence the late Halloween post just before Thanksgiving :P

I'm always jealous of people in long-running, functional book clubs. In theory, I love book clubs. Especially since leaving my bookstore job, which was essentially a book club discussion interrupted by customers and projects, I don't talk to people about books as much as I used to. Since I always have a book with me, people often ask me what I'm reading, but a lot of the time it's a one-way conversation. I miss spending several hours each week with friends who are also always actively reading, and who are excited to share their discoveries and bond over a shared love of specific authors or individual books. The problem is, it takes a lot of effort to get a book club together, and its success depends on the efforts of all of the members. Also, more selfishly, I like to be able to choose what book I read next; I have literal piles of books to be read, and I am not always in the mood to read a specific book at a specific time, which is sort of the standard operating procedure of a successful book club.

I don't have a specific rubric for choosing my next book, but sometimes I like to choose something related to a specific time or season (Bernd Heinrich's wonderful Summer World and Winter World, for example, are even better reads when what's being described in the books is happening around you). As a recent Joe Hill-related 6-year-old Facebook memory can attest, I've long chosen a "scary" book to read around the end of October. That year it was Heart-Shaped Box, another The Girl Next Door, another Columbine. Fact, fiction, or in between, it just has to be scary. Initially, I was going to read Five Days at Memorial, but recent events made me reluctant to want to read about the government failing to protect its citizens in the wake of a natural disaster. Instead, I chose probably the most famous true crime book of all time, which has long been on my to be read list but that I didn't even own until recently: Helter Skelter.

I know the story; at this point the story of Charles Manson and his "Family" is the stuff of cultural legend. I've listened to the Manson series on both The Last Podcast on the Left and You Must Remember This podcasts in addition to all the general information about the story you'd pick up as someone who grew up watching various true crime shows. Helter Skelter is written by the prosecutor, but tells the story of the formation of the Family and the execution, investigation, and capture of the killers in addition to the story of the trial itself and the immediate aftermath.

I don't know what exactly about this story resonates as much as it does. It may be the same reason stories of any cult situation are so fascinating. The idea of an individual giving up their autonomy in service of a singular person or idea seems insane, but it happens with regularity. Despite the location, time, or culture, people - often young, disaffected, questioning - voluntarily give themselves over to another in service of a larger ideal. In the compressed timeline of a 42 minute procedural or true crime show or book, it doesn't seem plausible. When put in the context of real time, however, and the psychological commonalities among the followers, these things can build. Manson had dozens of followers; only a handful committed murder.

That's what makes this book (and lots of other true crime books) so scary; it's not the specifics of the story itself. It's the idea that at any point people could break in and commit savage murder for seemingly no reason, and with seemingly no remorse. That under the right circumstance, any person can become disconnected enough to go looking for something else. Depending on who they find, they could end up with a better, more fulfilling life; or they could lose themselves to evil - thinking, saying, and doing things they'd never believed possible. And what of those murderous "followers?" Without Charlie, who are they? Could they again commit those heinous crimes? Can a person change?

Evil is something we always want to see. We don't want to look at images of the victims; they could be anyone. They could be us. But the killer - the killer is "other." We want to be able to look into the faces of Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, the Boston Marathon Bombers, the Columbine killers, and we want to see something there that makes them different. Because if they are just people, people just like us, if evil isn't something inherent, then those people could be us. Or the people we know, the people we love. We want to believe that people are basically good, that life is sacred, worthy of respect. When someone like Charles Manson comes along and not only refutes that, but does it by manipulating others both on a movie ranch in California and from the confines of a prison cell, then we are all at risk. Because evil doesn't have a tell. It's not a look, a mark, a strict dichotomy that is either present or not. It is a part of being human. It is a choice, albeit one that is easier for some to make than others. These true crime stories capture attention because they are shades of us; they don't make us feel safe, but maybe they reassure us that we are not evil. That given a choice, we would not choose violence, revenge, or hate. That for us, dressing up, decorating, and binging on candy once a year, just playing at evil, is enough.

Happy Halloween!

what are you?

From a very young age, I was made aware that I was different; not different in how we are all unique, different because of the names I was called (spic, pork chop, monkey), questions I was asked. I heard,"What are you?" so often before the age of ten, I began to believe I was an alien.

At thirteen, my bus mate and I were questioned by the police as to why we were walking in our neighborhood that afternoon. Why two brown girls with our backpacks bursting with books seemed like a threat to those two officers, I will never know. But I knew they could see me as I opened the gate to my yard (my friend lived a block over). As we were questioned, I remembered our social studies teacher taugt up about out Fourth Amendment Right. Luckily, my knowledge wasn't needed during this encounter, but my heart remained in my throat until they pulled away five minutes later.

That same year, we were assigned to read Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. We read this after Maus, a graphic novel that depicts Spiegelman interviewing his father about his experience as a Polish Jew & Holocaust survivor. We were well acquainted with atrocities inflicted upon those deemed different and not human. With out reading of Black Life Me came project that remins one of the most powerful things I have seen from thirteen year old.

Essentially, we were to create situations within society similar to how John made himself black. I'd like to note that NO BLACKFACE was involved. All projects were subject to teacher approval. Some folks partnered with other races for their own experiment of treatment of blacks vs treatment of whites. One gal even when to the mall with a pillow to see the stigmas black teen mothers are faced with. It emotionally effected her so much that she had the class in tears.

Everyone was deeply affected by their projects. At thirteen, how do you grapple with the fact that there has been no progress in the years since John Howard Griffin wrote the book? As we grew older, we began to experience those injustices directed at us. The most vile, racial epithets lobbed at our athletes when we visited more rural areas. They wanted to intimidated the "city kids," yet it fueled our beast mode and proved on the court/field/track that we can and will rise above the bullshit. Plus, we didn't need to resort to bigotry and intolerance. At 16, we were well acquainted with the DWB-- Drive While Brown/Black. It's when you get pulled over in a predominantly white neighborhood for bullshit reasons:

  • tail light is out
  • what are you ladies doing out here?
  • did you know your right headlight is out?
  • where you going in such a rush?
  • just checking to make sure things are alright.

    Alright? That my car is my own? That I want to go home after a long work day? Unless I am straight up running people over, there's never been a real reason for me to be pulled over. I worked in a predominantly white shopping mall for many years and was subjected to some awful microaggressions. White colleagues would try to say,"maybe they didn't mean it that way," or "you're overreacting." but having lived this experience as a woman of color, I'm pretty sure I know when microaggressions are being lobbed at me, no matter how passive aggressive.

    So, what was the point of me rambling on about all of these things? From a young age, I have been made to feel other, not only in society at large, but also within my familial circle. Because I don't eat beans and am shy to speak Spanish, I'm deemed "not Puerto Rican" enough, although coquito runs through these veins. My heart aches and breaks constantly as I read the news and the bullshit regarding the lack of aid to Puerto Rico. I'm not surprised by the lack of help given to mi gente. I just wish other Americans realized puertorriqueños son su gente tambien and stop believing the lies of 45.

    please consider donating here (Hurrican Relief Fund for Puerto Rican) or here (Hispanic Federation). Anything you can do to help can make a huge difference.

  • Book Broads • Shrill

    by Angie Eakley

    My first exposure to Lindy West was years ago, when she was doing recaps of the show "Glee" for Vulture. When the writer is funny, smart, and engaged (positively or negatively) with the material, I start looking forward to the recap as much as the show (especially when, as with a lot of long-running shows, it loses its way and becomes a ridiculous shell of what it was), and I start imagining how the recapper will react to something especially funny, or ludicrous, or problematic. It's basically talking about tv with friends, but, you know, the internet.

    And then she wasn't writing them any more, and I missed her voice, but not enough to do any actual follow up. I'd see her articles here and there, and I heard her on the episode of This American Life where she confronts her troll. I've always liked Lindy West, but in a lazy sort of way.

    When her book Shrill came out, I had a feeling I'd like that too. Not having read much of her work at the Stranger or Jezebel, most of what I read was new, and I was excited about how much she had to say. It was smart, engaging, and funny, but after each essay I felt a little down.

    Lindy West is a feminist. She is smart, she is funny, she is strong. She is also a woman. She is also overweight. The majority of her public writing deals with all of these things. She rails against misogyny and body shaming, even though she knows it makes her a bigger target for the people who attack her in the first place. She stands up for the people who don't have her platform, even after a man created a twitter account in the name of her dead father for the sole purpose of trolling her.

    I guess this is the place where I talk about my privilege. I'm a white girl from a middle class suburb with a college education. I also have probably an overabundance of empathy. It makes me feel so angry, and so impotent, to learn about the kinds of struggles people face every day for things that are completely outside of their control, and on top of that to realize that so little of that has ever happened to me. And then I feel silly for even typing that, because how much of a self-important, out of touch asshole do I sound like by saying "I can't believe all of this awful shit has been happening and I didn't even know. I'm just over here complaining about a student loan payment from the comfort of the apartment that I can afford because of the job that I have and if I ever get into trouble financially or physically or mentally I have a strong network of friends, family, and community around me and also just going to the fucking bathroom has never been an issue for me because I am also cisgendered and heterosexual and so I don't get accused of being a potential child molester because of they way I look or dress and I'm not pretty enough to be objectified and underestimated based on my looks but I'm not ugly enough to be targeted for that and basically I live in a world that was designed for the male version of me and no, I'm not afraid that my family will get sent back to a dangerous country that isn't their home because I signed up for a program to allow me to go to school and work in the only home I've ever known and the people who use bits and pieces of an old book of stories to justify their hatred and ignorance and superiority complexes happen to technically be of the same religion that I grew up in, so no, I haven't been denied a job or housing or a loan because of the way my name is spelled, thanks for asking.”

    The thing is, we shouldn't need Lindy West (or Roxane Gay or Ta-Nehisi Coates or Bryan Stevenson or Matthew Desmond) to live the lives and write the books that they do. Not now. It's 2017, and Lindy West is still writing about how being fat still makes you a person, how being a woman with a brain isn't a threatening abomination, how maybe if you need to spew violence and hate at someone anonymously over the internet, you should probably spend less time looking at a screen and more time looking at a mirror, because the problem is you.


    "As a human being, I am as worthy and capable and entitled to my life as you are," "other women identify with and gain strength from my outspokenness because they also receive hate and violence and rape threats just for existing," "sure I'll go on your talk show and try to explain to a comedian why it isn't funny to joke about raping anyone, not matter what the people on reddit think" should not be revolutionary statements. We should be able to laugh at the quaintness and reactionary quality of those statements, not gathering in support of a woman who died because a bunch of Nazis felt bad about a statue coming down (just kidding, the cultural and political climate created a powder keg of hatred that was going to explode around anything, and god damn it there are no FINE PEOPLE in a group of chanting, torch wielding bigots, but that's another fight for another day).

    What if Roxane Gay wasn't defined by her appearance, or her skin color? What if Bryan Stevenson didn't have a job because poor minorities weren't targeted and incarcerated at alarming rates? What would Matthew Desmond study if people weren't forced to live like discarded non-entities in a degrading cycle of unemployment and eviction? What would Ta-Nehisi Coates have to say to his son?

    Can you imagine what someone like Lindy West would write about if she didn't have justify her very existence every time she has something to say?

    Book Broads • The Difficulties of Being a Fast Reader

    by Portia Turner

    I’ve always prided myself on being a fast reader. I love that I can get through crazy amounts of books (even though it still stresses me out that I can’t get through more) and I am well aware that it is a skill that people are jealous of.

    That said, I recently went to a family reunion and decided to tackle a “book written before 1900” for my reading challenge with my roommates. I brought Middlemarch with me because I have been wanting to read it for ages and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. Reading this book, though, has made me realize that I have developed very little patience when it comes to reading and my attention span for books has, unfortunately, decreased. I’m not used to spending more than a week reading a book and, as I approached week 3 with this tome, I found myself thinking, why aren’t you reading this faster? It’s thoughts like these that kept me reading and honestly, have probably pushed me through passages too quickly so I found myself not even sure what has just happened. And then I would go to work and realize that books are coming out that I meant to have read and I started to resent that I was still reading Middlemarch even though I was really enjoying the book and really did want to finish it.

    It is disturbing to me that my attention span for reading has decreased and it is even more upsetting because, working at a bookstore, my hunger for books and my TBR list has grown insanely huge amounts. My want to experience as many stories as possible is making it hard for me to experience some of these books in the moment. Sure, there are the books that immediately pull me in and that I can’t put down and love from page one (I’m looking at you, Spoonbenders) but for most books, I find myself speeding through, not always giving myself a chance to fully relax and enjoy the book for what it is. This year I have found myself feeling so-so about more books than any other year.

    This isn’t going to slow me down. I still have overwhelming piles of books around my room and I am still constantly bringing home new ones. But hopefully this realization will make me think harder about each book. Because books and reading are so important to me. And I need them to mean more than just a number at the end of the year.

    Book Broads • Summer of Truman

    by Angie Eakley

    I'm not sure when my fascination with Truman Capote began. I read In Cold Blood years ago, not for any class but because it was one of those books you're supposed to read. I also don't remember being blown away by it, but then again, I was young. It would be years later, probably after passing it on display at the book store many times, that I would read Deborah Davis' Party of the Century, and my interest in him would be renewed.

    It's not even his obvious, famous attributes that are so interesting to me. It may be because those things - the strange, high voice; the tiny stature; the extravagant style of dress - are dwarfed by the slurred speech and ravaged, puffy appearance that dominates recordings of him from the last part of his life. It seems the real Truman, the one he crafted his entire life, is the Truman of the 50s & 60s: famous author, darling of society, "pet" of the richest and most glamorous women of the time.

    It's this man and those relationships that are explored in Melanie Benjamin's historical fiction novel The Swans of Fifth Avenue, a book that's long been on my reading list but that I only recently tackled. These women are the real housewives of the past, although I wonder how much their behavior would mimic that of the current Bravo stars if they had cameras and contracts rooting them on. These women lived by a very strict set of rules, with rule number one being to maintain appearances at all times. Slim Keith never threw shade about her friends to the cameras. Babe Paley never flipped a table.

    I think it may be the duality of Truman's life that is so beguiling to me. From the time he could talk he told everyone who would listen that he was going to be a famous writer, and almost through sheer force of will he made it happen. In every way he seemed most himself on the arm of one of his beautiful swans, at the best table at the best restaurant, sipping champagne and trading gossip, making up for their husbands' neglect and their friends' duplicity, and giving them a credibility beyond "enviable beauty with rich husband," with the most talked about novelist of the time at their side. Although he embellished his youthful literary accomplishments, Truman never betrayed his dream. His writing life and his social life were separate, and when he was writing he was diligent and serious. He spent years in Kansas researching In Cold Blood, and even he didn't need to exaggerate the impact his "non-fiction novel" had on crime writing in general and on his notoriety as a public figure. It may be this aspect of him that makes the motivations behind his short story La Cote Basque, 1965, so curious. Its publication sets off the events in Benjamin's novel and in real life marked the beginning of Capote's own downfall. His social life became his writing life, and everything fell apart.

    To some degree, we've probably all been betrayed by someone we considered a friend. Imagine if your life revolved around maintaining appearances, your every move documented by paparazzi and written about on Page 6. Even your closest friends don't know all your secrets, but the ones they do know are kept to themselves, because you know their secrets too. People like to imagine they know what your life is like, that behind all the glamor and the expensive clothes and the carefully curated magazine spreads and the seemingly effortless beauty and the older, handsome, wealthy husband, that something has be rotten beneath the surface because if not then life is simply not fair. So they talk. They talk about how your husband can't even be discrete about his affairs, how your "natural" beauty is the result of very good plastic surgery, how you must be miserable and all the money in the world can't make you happy.

    Now imagine at least some of that is true, and after a lifetime of training to be a society wife, you find a soulmate in the most curious form of a tiny dandy with a very high voice and a very serious literary talent. And this friend accompanies you to the best restaurants, the fanciest boutiques, even on vacation at your second home and on your yacht. He makes you feel like you're more than a pretty face on the arm of an Important Man. Sure, he gossips about your friends, but you two have a real connection, and you know he would never betray you. Until he does.

    Until it's 1975 and you open the new issue of Esquire. Your friend, the man who happily touted the publication of anything he wrote, who got you advanced copies and bragged about how this new thing would be better than all the old things, he hadn't even mentioned it. And you read it and there, laid bare, or hidden under the thinnest of guises, are all your secrets. And all your friends' secrets. And you have been played a fool. You have been unmasked, and your whole life at this point has succeeded because you were the best at wearing that mask. No matter what anyone said about you, you were the woman with the beautiful face and the rich husband and the mansions and vacation homes and the latest fashions and the best jewelry and the most fabulous friends.

    And afterword, through the press because you have stopped taking his calls, what does this man have to say about it? That you should have expected it; that he is a writer. That he did it for you - to free you of the miseries in your life that you kept secret. But what does that make you? A fool for befriending him? Stupid for telling him anything about your life? A pawn he used for money and fame and material treasures while he catalogued every detail of your life for public ridicule? Because that story isn't a thoughtful meditation on the empty life of a glamorous public figure. Or about the face we show the public no matter what's going on in our private lives. It is a catty takedown, the flailing of a once great writer who took the easy route. A great work of self-destruction.

    And so my fascination with Truman Capote continues. I'll end with a confession of my own (and the only way that his swans and I are at all similar): outside of In Cold Blood and "La Cote Basque, 1965," I don't believe I've actually read anything else that Truman wrote. I've read much more about him than by him, which for some reason I think he'd appreciate. 1960s, top of the social world Truman would, at least. The strange, athletic child from Monroeville, Alabama; the earnest writer embedded in Holcolmb, Kansas working on his genre-breaking masterpiece; or the sad outcast, drunk and on pills, stalking the dance floor at Studio 54? Him, I'm not so sure.