Book Broads • Book Challenge 2018

by Angie Eakley

I've written before about my aversion to book clubs. As an avid reader and lifelong book hoarder, I like being able to choose what I want to read next in the moment, not to have to "force myself" to read something on a certain timeline. In the past few years, however, I have structured my own reading choices along certain rubrics, and have enjoyed the motivation and structure they afford.

A few years ago, I declared the "Fall of Grish," and proceeded to read all of John Grisham's books. Hunting used book stores for his entire catalogue was easy given his popularity, and was relatively inexpensive as I stayed in the realm of the mass market paperback. It also justified trips to Half Price Books on the regular, which is a favorite pastime of mine. Shortly before I left my job as a bookseller, we had a bay of psychological thrillers. I've always been a fan of this genre, but hadn't read many of the authors on display. Before I left, I printed the title list for the display and kept it in my bag. More authors discovered, more direction at the used book store, more anticipation of forthcoming titles!

Three years ago, I started keeping track of all the books that I read. After I finished a book, I'd make a note in the calendar on my phone and scan the ISBN into my BookCatalogue app. (I could probably write thousands of words in praise of this app; you can organize your books, note when and to whom you've lent books, mark their location and whether they are signed, and double check that you're not buying a book AGAIN, because you've meant to read it and it's in the clearance bin and for $2 you can't pass it up.) In 2015, I read 38 books. In 2016, I got my crippling anxiety under control AND left the bookstore, so I had adequate serotonin levels and 3-4 weeknights free; I read 59 books. In 2017, I set a goal of 60 books. I had to knock out a bunch of those quick-read psychological thrillers in December, but I made it!

This year, I'm doing something a little bit different. A friend of mine came across the POPSUGAR 2018 reading challenge. It consists of 40 open prompts, with entries like "read the next book from a series you've already started," "read a true crime novel," and "read a book that was published the year you graduated from high school." In a twist that will require more will power than I may possess, I'm going to attempt to complete this challenge all with books that I already own but haven't yet read. Even as I type this, I can think of at least two that I'll have to acquire, so that's going about as well as you'd expect.

I really love the open-endedness of this challenge. There is something incredibly validating about checking something off of a list, and being able to pick and choose the order in which to accomplish those tasks makes it feel less like an obligation. If I don't feel like reading a book about or involving sports this time, I don't have to. I've got a whole year. A few of my friends are doing the challenge as well; some will combine challenges, so a nordic noir with two authors published this year will check three prompts off the list; I'm going to do one book per prompt. It has us all talking about books and excited about reading, which is kind of my brand, so I'm very much looking forward to this reading year.

If you'd like to hop in on this challenge, you can find the list of prompts here. If you're looking for a suggestion from someone else doing the challenge, let me offer Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan. It's short, it's beautifully written, and serves as a wonderful introduction to his incredible books. (Don't read Prayer for the Dying unless you are ready to be DESTROYED, though. If you prefer non-fiction, his true crime book, The Circus Fire, is one of the best of that genre. You can't go wrong with any of his books, really.)

Finally, I'd like to say a giant thank you to everyone who takes the time to read my and all of our posts. I've had a great time thinking, talking, and writing about books since we started this, and I love hearing that people are reading and responding to our thoughts. From everyone on the Nerd Phone Chain, happy 2018, and happy (& challenging, fulfilling, informative, escapist, empowering, entertaining) reading!

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.