Book Review: Landwhale: On Turning Insults Into Nicknames, Why Body Image Is Hard, and How Diets Can Kiss My Ass by Jes Baker

When I first picked up what became my copy of Landwhale, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. To my own shame, I did not know very much about the body positivity movement, and I’d never even heard of Jes Baker. All the same, I’ve made a commitment to myself to read broadly and engage with my activism intersectionally, and so I committed myself to reading this book. I am happy to say that doing so was one of the best decisions I have made in a while, because Landwhale is not only informative, but also a general delight.

I couldn’t possibly fit everything I loved about this book into one review,[1] though the thing that sticks out to me most as I write this is how Baker embraces the nuance that comes with one’s relationship to their body. By this I mean not only that bodies come in diverse shapes and sizes, but also the belief that one can be confident in themself and yet still have internal doubts and insecurities. This memoir means so much to me, not only because it discusses bodies in such a liberating way, but also because it incorporates meaningful commentary regarding mental health that acknowledges that fatness can be a symptom of mental or physical illness, but does not accuse fatness itself of being a mental illness.

I haven’t been skinny since elementary school, and before reading this book I never realized how much I have subscribed to diet culture since the weight gain that puberty and antidepressants bestowed upon me as a teenager. Reading through Landwhale gave me a profound relief in that it made me feel as though I had permission to both love and hate my body. That it was OK to eat what I wanted because my life is mine, and I can live it by my own rules.

On Sunday I wore a bikini for the first time since I was ten, and as I lounged in my beach chair with this book resting on my belly rolls I read the list of diets that comprise chapter thirteen and thought to myself of all the different diets that I have put my body through in the name of losing weight, and how zero of them have worked in the long term. Right now, the only diet I am subscribing to is the one where I avoid the things that I am allergic to, and I am OK with that.

The tone of Landwhale is conversational, and radiates that perfect medium of sincerity and humor. Baker has a talent for discussing difficult topics with sincerity and without airs. She emphasizes her own insecurities about sharing her life and her experiences, but does not let that stop her from sharing them. Baker pulls no punches when it comes to revealing her vulnerability and pulls back the curtain to show that even idols have their moments of doubt.   The struggles depicted in this book are at times hard to read because of the depth of their truth, but that is exactly why they have a place and are necessary to consider in our conversations and consequent actions.

I do not consider myself an expert in body positivity by any means, and I fully realize that I have my own privilege in that while I am rather pudgy I do have privilege in many things because of my smaller size in comparison to many others. That said, I do feel that I am much better informed, especially as I consider all of the ways that I have contributed to many of the sizist issues that all people are negatively influenced by and that actively hurt fat people, threatening their safety and/or comfort. I’ve stayed silent too many times, and I refuse to do so any longer. The idea that fat people are allowed to exist and be happy with themselves as they are should not be such a radical one, and yet it seems to remain so.

In the past, I’ve absolutely participated in diets, and I’ve even posted about weight loss with selfies on Instagram and Facebook. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with someone changing around their diet and exercise habits for their own personal comfort or goals, but the problem isn’t necessarily with the people who buy in to diet culture themselves. The systemic and insidious nature of said culture is what oppresses people. I am skeptical of diets because, as I have learned from this book and from reflecting upon my own experience, diets can be incredibly harmful to people’s mental and even at times physical health. I know that they can help, but they can also hurt.

The ideal goal for me is that people feel comfortable and healthy within their own realm of being, regardless of size, and that is not what we as a society experience when we participate in diet culture. Our relationship with food and our bodies is treated as inherently suspicious, pitted against one another, and their interaction is seen as a source of shame rather than one of sustenance.

Entire books have been written about these subjects. I recommend that you read this one. Even if you may disagree with the message as you understand it, read Landwhale anyway, and to do so with an open mind.

Happy reading!
Cheers,
Talia

[1] My favorite aspect of the book is hands down the footnotes. Many people have varied opinions regarding footnotes, but I promise that even if you are not usually a fan, they are expertly used in this text. Equal parts informative and humorous, the footnotes are balanced in their placement. At times they elaborate, at times they make a joke that doesn’t fit in the main body of the text, but in every instance they are absolutely relevant to the conversation Baker is engaging in with the reader.

Book Review: Trans Like Me by CN Lester

I usually try to start off these reviews by relating to the text in question, but the fact of the matter is that as a cis person I can never fully understand the experience of being trans, just as a white person could never fully understand my experience of being mixed. Marginalized identities are not interchangeable. All that said, Trans Like Me by CN Lester has definitely broadened my mind to how intrinsically intersectional the movements of different marginalized groups are, or rather, how intersectional they need to be.

Part memoir, part educational nonfiction, Trans Like Me is a wealth of information, history, and recognition for those who have shaped our perceptions of gender and continue to do so. A particularly poignant issue tackled within this text is how trans identities are nothing new, only the ways that we have adapted language to describe them. Furthermore, when describing those who came before us, it is best to exercise restraint in using modern terminology, particularly when ascribing an identity to someone who no longer has a voice with which to claim that identity for themself.

In several distinct places within the book, Lester does their best to reconstruct what we can cannot know about the past, voices lost to us through violent silencing and through destruction of our history. Yet, as much as they focus on the past, Lester uses it to construct the context of our present and how our current time and place is at a tipping point.

The issue with tipping points is that things can go in either direction. The final chapter of Trans Like Me is titled Futures and contains a thoughtful analysis of not just where society is and has been, but also where we are going. Other chapters focus on past and present characterizations of trans folk, and deconstruct how media representation can be beneficial, harmful, or a combination of both.

Throughout the text, Lester examines the responsibility that those with influence have to lift up others, how trans folk have been excluded from movements that they helped start, the cost of intersectionality, as well as how despite the fact that many might think that feminism and trans advocacy are diametrically opposed, they are actually inherently compatible. Lester also debunks many myths surrounding trans folk, and informs on their truths, such as how puberty blockers for trans kids merely delay puberty, and do not permanently prohibit it. Lester also dismantles the idea that all trans folk are straight and furthermore the portrayal of all trans folk as being the same, especially in regard to the trans folk who are non-binary, genderqueer, genderfluid, or otherwise fall outside of the binary gender system that is socially reinforced.

As someone who is well versed in much of the language used in this book, I did not need, but nevertheless appreciated the care that Lester took to make their book more accessible to those who might not have much experience with gender studies. Having a open, honest, and respectful discussion is impossible without the language to do so, but many people who want to broaden their perspective may feel shut out if they don’t first get a chance to learn that language.

I consider Trans Like Me to be another one of those books that should be mandatory reading for anyone and everyone, and I highly encourage y’all to get your hands on a copy.

Happy reading!

Cheers,

Talia

Book Review: What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison by Camille T. Dungy

Lady, my one regret / is that we don’t have appetite enough / to make you break every damned plate inside this room.” As a person of color, I am undeniably drawn to works that discuss race in a way that does not skim over the harsh realities that we face every day. As someone who appreciates a little dark humor, I also appreciate a joke thrown in the face of a racist white person and I like imagining the sour looks on their faces. “The Preachers Eat Out” is the first poem I ever read by Camille Dungy, and it exemplifies what I like most about her style. Dungy manages to tie in racial themes, and tell stories not her own while still giving us true impressions of the people within the tales. Almost none of the people that she paints pictures of within her poems have names outside of the notes at the top of the poem, and she still gives us rich impressions of the characters within them.

We learn so much about the characters within “The Preachers Eat Out” just within the 14 lines. We know that the waitress who is serving them is not doing it because she isn’t racist – she is; she just wants the tips because she has children at home, presumably is a single mother, and needed tips in order to support them. She also breaks the plates, whether of her own volition or the restaurant’s, meaning that she works at a place that can afford to break plates and is therefore slightly upscale, meaning that the preachers have money enough to pay for a nice restaurant. She does the breaking behind the building however, meaning that she doesn’t want them to know she is breaking the plates, and is making an effort to be civil. The preacher also calls her ‘lady,’ which could be seen as either a measure of respect or disrespect, depending on tone, and makes it clear that he knows about her racist actions despite her trying to hide them

Dungy’s ability to call out racist actions in a subtle and artistic manner is a skill that I greatly admire. Someone who is not as familiar with the tensions that black folks face in the United States, or not as comfortable with seeking out material explicitly written about the struggles that we face, will find a book of poems such as Dungy’s much more approachable. Through Dungy’s poems, the statistics become not just statistics, but people. Though they are unnamed, the connections that Dungy sparks allow the reader to experience much more. One can read in a history book about the segregation of buses, but when reading Dungy’s “Greyhound to Baton Rouge” there is a much stronger feeling as the listener hears “Arm around his wife, the new father stood, / relieved to see his baby still sleeping. / Small piece.” Hearing the story of this small family, the tired mother, and the bus that was completely stopped because the driver refused to go on with a white woman holding a black child, brings things into focus for someone who might not have previously have understood how things were for the non-whites in America, and the racist attitudes that we face.

These two poems are some of the ones that stuck out to me the most of Dungy’s work, as they exemplify her talent for weaving a story into a lesson, and they are the ones that I enjoyed the most and feel I got the most out of. They taught me that it is possible to be both concise and yet rich in detail and that you can give everything and nothing away about the speakers and other participants in the action of the poem.

Another poem of Dungy’s that stuck out to me was “Requiem.” The idea of someone accepting their death, and being in love with their own crooked and broken bones; the horror of those surrounding them, witness to their untimely demise – it has a sort of macabre allure. I can identify with the speaker of the poem because even though I do not desire my own death, the idea of that moment – that teetering on the edge where one looks at everything around them in that final moment and finds it beautiful – is fascinating. I think that everyone is a little bit in love with death, and when Dungy’s line reads: “Will you believe me / when I tell you I had never been so in love / with anyone as I was, then, with everyone I saw?” I can’t help but think that, yes, I can believe that. As someone who has recently experienced the loss of someone who I know was suffering, I agree with the adage that death is much better for the one dying than for the ones left behind.

When the speaker in “Requiem” starts to talk about the woman who has witnessed her death, I can’t help but think about how well Dungy has captured this intrinsic human reaction. This other woman has no connection to the speaker, yet feels all of this grief, feels the pain that is what comes with the connection that humans have when life suddenly stops. Dungy shows us how as humans we react to death, how we see it, and how, while we cannot imagine life without it, we do not expect it. In the first stanza the speaker says: “I could have lived forever / under that sky.” And yet, when the speaker’s life does end, they accept that ending with love.

It is an admirable lesson that Dungy is giving us about how death is not something that one should fear, but something that happens when the time should come, and yet again we have her artistry shining through as she does it in such a subtle way, enchanting us with words.

I learned a lot about how to write from Dungy, as she writes many poems from a third person point of view and masterfully presents the characters that appear in those poems without going into arduous detail. It was not until I read several poems by Dungy written with such provoking figures that I even realized how many of my own poems were written in the first person. Overall, the lessons that Dungy teaches throughout the book are ones that I think anyone and everyone would benefit from, and I highly encourage people to read her works.

 

Happy reading!

Cheers,

Talia

Book Review: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

I have to admit that I chose to read this novel almost entirely because of how entranced I was by both the title and the cover. The idea that anyone could have seven husbands seemed foreign to me, at least until I encountered the character of Evelyn Hugo.

The story starts not with Evelyn, but with Monique Grant, a writer working at the major publication Viviant. If you’ve never heard of it, that is fine, because said magazine is, as far as I know, entirely made up. Never outside of a fantasy novel have I seen worldbuilding as intense as is shown in The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. Prepare to wipe all the movies and actors and producers that you remember from the history of Hollywood away for this vivid reimagining of what the world would be like if we had a whole new set of stars. Some things are the same – the Academy Awards exist, but with all new recipients; Time Warner and Paramount are name dropped, but they operate in the background. References are made to the Stonewall Riots and the Civil Rights movement, and while they do inform the story, they are not fully engaged with.

The biggest change is the title character herself, Evelyn Hugo. The novel centers around the idea that Evelyn wants her story told in a biography, and she wants Monique to write it. Monique and Evelyn’s conversations, and Monique’s life outside of the time she spends at Evelyn’s apartment, act as a frame for Evelyn’s story in the sense that most of the chapters are flashbacks to Evelyn’s past, told from her first-person perspective. Interspersed are short articles from whichever era Evelyn is describing, that show events from the perspective of the press. The book is divided into sections by which husband she was with at the time, each accompanied by an adjective that succinctly describes his presence in her life. Every few chapters the narration will cut back to Monique’s first person perspective as she ponders over the information that Evelyn has given her, which is equal with what is described in the chapters from Evelyn’s perspective.

This all contributes to my key takeaway from this novel, which is that the entire book is beautiful crafted. I gradually got more and more entranced by Evelyn and Monique, who both have incredible and ultimately intersecting stories. There is just the right amount of foreshadowing that made me curious and kept me convinced that I knew what was going on right up until the big reveal, upon which my theory was proven wrong but the story still sustained itself, just in a way that I never could have imagined. I can confidently say that I have never been so thoroughly shocked about a reveal, including all the Doctor Who episodes I have watched, which have some pretty intense plot twists. That said, independent of the absolutely stunning  reveal, the novel absolutely holds itself up as a well written and compelling work of fiction.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo also contains a healthy amount of diversity and LGBTQIA+ representation. One of the smaller but no less important themes examined by the text is the fact that Evelyn Hugo was born Evelyn Herrera, a Cuban-American woman who shed her identity in order that she may become famous and be what the public wanted from her. Many of the characters in the book are either gay or bisexual, and one aspect of the text that makes me particularly happy is that the struggle against bi erasure gets a significant amount of page time. This was not something that I expected coming in to the text, so when I realized that there was so much queer representation I was pleasantly surprised.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is not exactly a happy book, but it is not a sad one either. The full shape of a life lived is exactly what I needed when confronting my own personal loss, and so I’d also recommend it to those who are grieving in the same or similar manner that I am. That said, as a consequence of reading this book I have an uneven tan line from my last beach day, so for those of you looking for a summer read, full of intrigue and drama, this is absolutely a book for you as well.

Happy reading!

Cheers,

Talia

Book Review: So you want to talk about race by Ijeoma Oluo

The world is fraught with racial tension, and has been for a long time now. Having meaningful discussions about race is important because they are the first step towards creating real and positive change. Unfortunately, many people struggle with finding the language needed to communicate with one another, which is why I consider So you want to talk about race by Ijeoma Oluo to be such an important text. Written by a queer woman of color after my own heart, So you want to talk about race should (in my opinion) be mandatory reading for anyone and everyone, whether or not they think that they have all the answers already[1] or find themselves lost in the minefield that is discussing the need for racial justice.

So you want to talk about race isn’t just about getting people of all races to be nice to one another, this book was written for those with the goal “to fight the systemic oppression that is harming the lives of millions of people of color,” (p. 30). Throughout the text, Oluo stresses how we can only truly fight against racism by pushing back and dismantling the systemic nature of racism in our society. The book undoubtedly centers the conversation around people of color, but also takes the time to address white readers of the text and let them know how they can contribute and where they need to step back and evaluate their own actions and inactions. Reading it as a person of color, I found the sections where Oluo calls out to the POC reading the text extremely validating and in some places informative as well.

So you want to talk about race is broken up into an introduction and seventeen chapters, each of which seeks to answer a question about how to discuss race, including “What if I talk about race wrong?” “Is police brutality really about race?” “What is cultural appropriation?” “I just got called racist, what do I do now?” and ending with “Talking is great, but what else can I do?” Each section breaks down the question, and many of them even include numbered and bolded lists of explanations, responses, actions and possible next steps depending on the situation about how we can individually contribute to overall change.

In a particularly poignant section of the book we as readers are asked to evaluate our own privileges, and how they impact how we see and interact with the world. Oluo tells us to focus on how these privileges have affected us, despite any disadvantages we have. For myself, I had to temporarily set aside my marginalized identities (such as being a queer woman of color among other things) and examine how growing up reasonably comfortable, attending good schools, my college degree, my ability to attend grad school, etc. has contributed to how I formulate my space in the world. While I had done similar exercises in the past I particularly appreciated it within this book, as it has offered me ways to see this exercise of empathy in a new light.

Many times, when people talk about race the conversation stops at black people, but more and more often I encounter books like So you want to talk about race that address the particular struggles of the many other people of color in the united states that are more invisible, such as Asian folk, particularly those who do not fit in to the model minority myth,[2] something that in fact gets an entire chapter of its own.

Week before last, when I reviewed Well, That Escalated Quickly: Memoirs and Mistakes of an Accidental Activist by Franchesca Ramsey I mentioned that within that text the author used humor to discuss tough racial issues. So you want to talk about race is different in that it isn’t a particularly funny book. Undoubtedly there were times that I laughed, and nowhere was there a space that was unnecessarily heavy; however, given the topic, there are some portions of the book that are hard to read, and I’ll freely admit that I had to set it aside a few times. That said, I do highly recommend this book as a solid grounding space for people new to race discussion and a good refresher for those who do have more experience with fraught racial discussions. Like I said before, this book really should be mandatory reading, so the sooner you get a chance to read it the better!

Happy reading!

Cheers,

Talia

[1] Which I simply don’t think is possible anyway, since there is always more to be seen/known beyond what we humans are capable of.

[2] While the point of this review is obviously to get you to read this book, if you are unfamiliar with the model minority myth, this video is a good place to learn more about it in the meantime before you get your hands on So you want to talk about race.

Book Review: Noteworthy by Riley Redgate

From the first line about Monday mornings and having an existential crisis I just knew that I was going to love Noteworthy by Riley Redgate. The premise of what is now my new favorite YA novel is that Jordan Sun, a student at the fictional Kensington-Blaine Boarding School for the Performing Arts, has been rejected from one too many musicals. In the depths of her dismay at the rejection, she gets the idea to take advantage of the lack of communication between students in her own theater department with those in the music department to create the identity of Julian Zhang, the newest member of the Sharpshooters, an elite, all male, a capella octet on campus.

When I was weighing my options on what my next read would be I was hesitant to choose this book, primarily out of worry over whether the novel would pay proper respect to the very real challenges that trans people face, since the character Jordan is a cisgender female. I am happy to report that my fears were groundless, and Jordan as a character is incredibly self aware of herself and her privileges in the novel.

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My hot take text to my roommate after finishing Noteworthy

I have to admit that I do not remember the book of fiction that I read where I genuinely enjoyed being in the headspace of the protagonist. Often I find characters to be insufferable, but Redgate managed to write a character that, while I disagreed with some of her actions, was compelling, authentic, skilled, and willing to grow in to herself in a way that demonstrates both an awareness of her own ignorance and the capability to take steps to rectify said ignorance.

I wish I had this novel when I was a teenager, because it hits all of my buttons. The main character is a bisexual woman of color, which there are plenty of in the world, so having more of them in our fiction is fantastic. So many of the characters are unapologetically out, and yet those that are not do not receive extra criticism for it from friends in the know. That isn’t to say that there is no homophobia or transphobia, because those are real factors that are considered by the characters, but the majority of the relationships that exist are full of loving friendship and apathy. That said, the stakes are played high in this book, and while I do consider it a light-hearted and easy read, there were a few spots where I couldn’t flip the pages fast enough, I was so absorbed by Jordan’s journey.

A recurring and important theme in the novel is the fact that Jordan is a student at Kensington-Blaine due to a scholarship, and so while she attends an incredibly expensive boarding school, her family is incredibly poor and struggles to make ends meet. The juxtaposition of Jordan’s situation with those of her wealthy classmates and friends could be seen as a stereotype, or be ignored, but Redgate integrates Jordan’s experience in a way that is authentic but not exploitative. There comes a moment in the middle of the novel where Jordan acknowledges her poverty not as something to be pitied, but as something that she considers mundane. This causes her to ponder over whether her rich classmates can say the same about their own wealth, and is just one of Jordan’s incredibly self-aware moments that make me again wish that I had been more like her in high school instead of worrying about not having all of the same expensive gadgets as the kids at my private high school who weren’t there on scholarship.

As a former aca-bopper and theater kid myself, in particular as one who didn’t know a lick about it before joining a group my freshman year of college, I delighted in Jordan’s confusion turned to confidence when it comes to the music and the friendship shared by the Sharpshooters. Even so, I’m certain that I would have loved this book even without my musical and theatrical background[1] and I’m confident that anyone who is even mildly interested in YA would love it too.

Happy reading!

Cheers,

Talia

[1] Especially since I have very much let my skills lapse over the years.