so you’ve been publicly shamed

Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed has been on my TBR pretty much since it came out a couple years ago. I’m not exactly sure what compelled me to read it now in particular…? But I decided to borrow the ebook from the library just because. Edited from Goodreads:

For the past three years, Jon Ronson has travelled the world meeting recipients of high-profile public shamings. The shamed are people like us—people who, say, made a joke on social media that came out badly, or made a mistake at work. Once their transgression is revealed, collective outrage circles with the force of a hurricane and the next thing they know they’re being torn apart by an angry mob, jeered at, demonized, sometimes even fired from their job. Simultaneously powerful and hilarious in the way only Jon Ronson can be, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is a deeply honest book about modern life, full of eye-opening truths about the escalating war on human flaws—and the very scary part we all play in it.

We’ve all done things that we’re not proud of in our lives—honest, stupid mistakes because (surprise!) we’re all flawed human beings. Imagine having your life ruined because of something you did or said, thinking it was just harmless, silly, and trivial in the moment. Remember Justine Sacco, the woman who tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” to her ~100 followers, got on an 11-hour flight, and found upon landing that her tweet had gone viral… and not in a good way? She meant it as a mockery of white ignorance and privilege, but the joke was tasteless and fell flat. Twitter ruthlessly destroyed her, so much so that she lost her job and social life, and embarrassed her family. Only recently has she gotten her life and reputation back on track.

What does such a brutal public shaming do to a person? How does one recover from such profound humiliation? Ronson’s book covers Sacco’s story, as well as a handful of others to varying degrees of disgrace, to illustrate the point that pitchfork-wielding angry mobs are still alive and well—they (we) tar and feather the “offender” behind the anonymous safety of the internet now instead of in the streets. Some people were afraid to leave the house after their shamings, some felt no shame at all and were practically unscathed. Why do we do this? Simply put: because we can. But Ronson shows yes, it’s because we can, but also much more.

Was I experiencing some schadenfreude by reading about these people’s shamings in this book? Maybe? I wanted to find out if their professional and personal lives survived, though—I wanted them to come out the other side with a new life. I never bullied anyone, I don’t participate in dragging people online or get into heated debates. But still. I’m aware of them. I lurk and I read through them sometimes. I have opinions on what perpetrators of certain offenses deserve (like the sexual harassment/assault stories recently exposed in Hollywood and, well, every industry and field). Why do we derive pleasure from hearing about and witnessing others’ misfortunes? How has public online shaming become a new kind of social justice system, and why do we feel entitled to dole out the punishment?

There’s a lot of psychology to unpack, a lot of questions to ask yourself after reading So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. I would have liked more insight and depth to the fact that today’s public shamings are overwhelmingly misogynistic, in that women get violent threats of rape and death almost immediately when they transgress whereas men do not. It’s more difficult for women to rebound from a shaming, both personally and professionally. This sexism is mentioned, but Ronson doesn’t elaborate. (Maybe follow up reading this one with Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why).

Regardless of that minor criticism, this is just the kind of accessible research I like, in the same vein and as interesting as anything Mary Roach has written. Even though this book ultimately contains more questions than answers, it’s a thought-provoking book worth a read.

Read ebook in February 2018.

broad strokes

During my epic hunt the other day for audiobooks, I came across Broad Strokes: 15 Women Who Made Art and Made History (In That Order) by Bridget Quinn in the non-fiction section and was immediately intrigued. Edited from Goodreads:

Historically, major women artists have been excluded from the mainstream art canon. Aligned with the resurgence of feminism in pop culture, Broad Strokes offers an entertaining corrective to that omission. Art historian Bridget Quinn delves into the lives and careers of 15 brilliant female artists in text that’s smart, feisty, educational, and an enjoyable read. Replete with beautiful reproductions of the artists’ works and contemporary portraits of each artist by renowned illustrator Lisa Congdon, this is art history from 1600 to the present day for the modern art lover, reader, and feminist.

I absolutely LOVED this book! I was totally engrossed in Quinn’s way of telling these women’s stories through their incredible art. The narrator, Tavia Gilbert, does a wonderful job setting a warm, enthusiastic tone for the audiobook reading. My only regret, which I realized about a third of the way through, was that I didn’t have this as a hardcover or paperback copy, as I’m sure there are reprints of the individual artworks discussed throughout the book. However, I was so taken with the women and Quinn’s friendly, descriptive writing brought everything to life for me anyway. She inserts herself in this book a lot, taking the reader along on her journey of following her dream (writing about art) and discovering these artists, but I didn’t mind that. I really love art but admittedly I have only a small base knowledge of any sort of art history, so I found this really fascinating and I learned a lot.

Besides art history, this is also a great piece on feminist history, as many (if not all) of these artists rebelled against the traditional expectations placed on women, like how you dress, keeping your last name after marriage, remaining devoted to your passion (in these cases, creating art) regardless of whether you’re married or have children, choosing NOT to marry or have children, or being an out lesbian. I appreciated that Quinn looked at this part of these artists’ lives as well—it really fleshed them out as real, 3-dimensional human beings for me and made them memorable.

This past year I’ve returned to one of my earliest loves, pencil drawing. Last month I was in such a bad slump—just couldn’t focus on hardly anything, and I had virtually no motivation to draw. Listening to Broad Strokes as I was trying to finish up a portrait of my parents helped so much to continue working—these women artists were so inspiring to me. I’m sure I’ll be recommending this book all year!

Listened to audiobook in February 2018.

gratitude

Yesterday I spent an embarrassing amount of time on Overdrive hunting for new audiobooks to listen to (seriously I think I had 100 tabs to different books open at one point). Gratitude by Oliver Sacks caught my attention, as I remember enjoying reading Musicophilia several years ago. (Although looking back at my review, I was pretty critical of that book at the time!) Edited from Goodreads:

No writer has succeeded in capturing the medical and human drama of illness as honestly and as eloquently as Oliver Sacks. During the last few months of his life, he wrote a set of essays in which he movingly explored his feelings about completing a life and coming to terms with his own death. Together, these four essays form an ode to the uniqueness of each human being and to gratitude for the gift of life.

This is a very brief collection (36 minutes on audio) but it was filled with profound insight into a life lived, and lived well at that. All the pieces are lovely and moving. In “The Joy of Old Age” (or “Mercury”) from July 2013, Sacks looks back at his professional accomplishments and looks forward to his ninth decade of life. “My Own Life,” from February 2015, is his announcement of having terminal cancer, which began as a melanoma in his eye nine years earlier but had metastasized in his liver. Though the end is near, he has not given up on life and is determined to make the most of the few months(?) he has left.

When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate—the genetic and neural fate—of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death. I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

In “My Periodic Table,” July 2015, he talks about his interest in minerals and metals, and how they relate to his life and cancer treatments, and how the treatments were making him feel physically and emotionally. The final essay, “Sabbath,” published just a couple weeks before his death in August 2015, is a tender reflection on purpose and meaning in life. I was inspired by his positivity and gratefulness, his wise perspective and unwavering curiosity, and his gentle voice in this collection.

And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life—achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.

Oliver Sacks was a remarkable human being who made a difference in the lives of his patients and their families, his colleagues, and his readers. I should definitely read more of his books in the future.

Listened to audiobook in February 2018.

i am, i am, i am

I saw I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell on one of the what-to-read-in-February lists online last month, and immediately put it on hold on my library app. I love memoirs and I was intrigued by this unconventional look at very specific experiences in this writer’s life. Edited from Goodreads:

I Am, I Am, I Am is a memoir with a difference—the unputdownable story of an extraordinary woman’s life in near-death experiences. Intelligent, insightful, inspirational, it is a book to be read at a sitting, a story you finish newly conscious of life’s fragility, determined to make every heartbeat count. A childhood illness she was not expected to survive. A teenage yearning to escape that nearly ended in disaster. A terrifying encounter on a remote path. A mismanaged labour in an understaffed hospital. Shocking, electric, unforgettable, this is the extraordinary memoir from Costa Novel-Award winner and Sunday Times bestselling author Maggie O’Farrell. It is a book to make you question yourself. What would you do if your life was in danger, and what would you stand to lose?

I hadn’t read Maggie O’Farrell’s work before (confession: hadn’t heard of her before) reading this memoir. I was really spellbound by her beautiful writing, which simultaneously conveys rationality and an emotional rawness in these often harrowing vignettes. The first story was easily my favorite and one of the most chilling. Here’s the first sentence: “On the path ahead, stepping out from behind a boulder, a man appears.” NOPE. My heart literally raced while listening to this opener. As a woman, this resonated so deeply with me because things like this have happened to me. Granted and fortunately, no man ever interacted with me the way O’Farrell describes she was in this piece, but that doesn’t make my feelings when I’ve seen a strange man staring at or following me any less frightening.

I realized quickly that perhaps my expectations were too high going in—seventeen brushes with death?? O’Farrell’s either extremely lucky or unlucky (or a bit of both). But some experiences were definitely more true to near-death than others: a machete held at her neck during a robbery and almost bleeding out while delivering her first baby bring a person much closer to death than taking an STD test. The momentum lulled just slightly for me in the middle, as there was a little repetition (more than one drowning story), but the last few chapters were utterly heartbreaking and captivating, especially the final one about her daughter’s anaphylaxis and life-threatening allergies. Despite the brief ebb in the middle, I thought this book was a perfect length—easily devoured in a sitting or two.

There are so many amazing-looking books coming out this month and I Am, I Am, I Am definitely lived up to the hype for me. I really admired O’Farrell’s resilience, gratitude for her life, and generally optimistic outlook, all things considered.

Listened to audiobook in February 2018.

fire and fury

I had to see what the hype was all about, of course. I mean, he tried to have Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff banned! Edited from Goodreads:

With extraordinary access to the West Wing, Michael Wolff reveals what happened behind-the-scenes in the first nine months of the most controversial presidency of our time in Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. Never before in history has a presidency so divided the American people. Brilliantly reported and astoundingly fresh, Fire and Fury shows us how and why Donald Trump has become the king of discord and disunion.

Well, it’s not great. The book or its subject matter or the state of the Union. But that’s not to say I don’t think this book is worth reading… at least maybe as an act of protest and dissent since he was trying to squash its publishing and have it banned. And while we still are allowed to read <eyeroll>. I’m fine with having borrowed it from the library instead of purchasing a copy.

Reading Fire and Fury affirms that it’s both exactly as bad as and worse than we think it is inside this administration, even if just half of the content of this book is true. No one is qualified for any of these positions, least of all Trump himself. Everyone is trying to keep their jobs and avoid prison; attempting to reign in Trump, which is impossible due to his unpredictable behavior; sucking up to him while simultaneously badmouthing him behind his back; pushing their own agendas; and fighting amongst themselves. It reads like a sensationalist piece of tabloid gossip, so it’s shamefully entertaining in that way, but there’s nothing new or revelatory as far as what’s covered in the book. If you’ve been paying attention, you know about all the scandals and tweets and disfunction. But there is a little more backstory to some of these scandals that I hadn’t heard before. Wolff is preoccupied with Steve Bannon, painting a somewhat sympathetic portrayal (which was unsettling to me), and much of what we read is based off interview(s) with him. There’s also a lot of focus on Ivanka and Jared’s roles and actions taken in the last year. Mike Pence is conspicuously absent…

I do believe it’s worthwhile to have a piece of concise documentation on this part of American history… but maybe this book is a little too rushed, too “unauthorized,” too speculative. I experienced this on audiobook, so I’m not sure if there was a reference list in the back or not. I’m hopeful that in the future after we’ve overcome this horrid moment, a more reliably factual account will exist.

Listened to audiobook in January–February 2018.

american housewife

As you know, I’ve been in a funk the last month or so with my reading (and kind of everything…). I’ve been having the worst time focusing on books in any format, but I think maybe I’m starting to come out of it, partly thanks to American Housewife: Stories by Helen Ellis, a great recommendation from one of my friends back home. Edited from Goodreads:

Meet the women of American Housewife: they wear lipstick, pearls, and sunscreen, even when it’s cloudy. They casserole. They pinwheel. They pump the salad spinner like it’s a CPR dummy. And then they kill a party crasher, carefully stepping around the body to pull cookies out of the oven. These twelve irresistible stories take us from a haunted prewar Manhattan apartment building to the set of a rigged reality television show, from the unique initiation ritual of a book club to the getaway car of a pageant princess on the lam, from the gallery opening of a tinfoil artist to the fitting room of a legendary lingerie shop. Vicious, fresh, and nutty as a poisoned Goo Goo Cluster, American Housewife is an uproarious, pointed commentary on womanhood.

As a woman who happens to be married and also happens to just now not be working outside the home, I have to admit the beginnings of some of these stories hit me a little to close to home (“What I Do All Day,” for example—a list of the mundane things a former career woman rattles off after she relinquishes her office job to become a full-time author supported financially by her husband, only to lose her motivation and settle into a stereotypical housewife role… holy identity crisis (mine), Batman). Here in Singapore, I’ve been called a housewife and have gotten so offended! “NO, I’m a musician and artist.” I’ve learned since that there isn’t the stigma or historically negative association with being a non-working female spouse here like there is in the States (I still answer “no,” though). But just when I moved from slightly uncomfortable to cringing while listening to these stories, there’d be a wtf! moment that would turn the whole thing on its head and have me laughing. Well done! My favorite stories were:

  • “The Wainscoting War,” about a condo-hallway decorating conversation that, in the immortal words of Ron Burgundy, “escalated quickly”
  • “Dumpster Diving with the Stars,” a commentary on our ridiculous obsession with reality TV and celebrities
  • “Hello! Welcome to Book Club!” which emphasizes the cliquey-ness of book clubs and takes it to the extreme
  • “My Novel is Brought to You by the Good People at Tampax,” another “that escalated quickly” story, about a woman with a touch of writer’s block working on her first novel, which has been sponsored by Tampax
  • “Dead Doorman,” in which a bored housewife develops relationships with employees of her posh apartment building

There were a few list-like pieces that I found amusing too, like “How to Be a Grown-Ass Lady” and “How to Be a Patron of the Arts.” Ellis’s characters are devilish and wicked while her observations on the expectations of modern womanhood are sharp and sardonic. Overall I enjoyed the dark quirkiness to this collection; it’s a funny, entertaining quick read that was perfect to get me out of this slump.

Listened to audiobook in February 2018.