Book Review: Let’s Talk About Death Over Dinner by Michael Hebb

When I told my therapist that I was reading this book and what it was about she was thrilled because, according to her, I needed to adjust my own attitude toward death. Suffice to say Let’s Talk About Death Over Dinner certainly succeeded in this purpose.  Despite the universal truth that we are all going to die, death is rarely discussed with the depth and breadth that it deserves.

The premise of this book is to act as “an invitation and guide to life’s most important conversation”. The book begins with two introductory chapters that explain the premise of death dinners and is then followed by a series of prompts for participating in a conversation about death.

As with many nonfiction and self-help books, Let’s Talk About Death Over Dinner does not precisely need to be read in order, as Hebb himself acknowledges in the introductory chapters. In a similar vein, the text does not need to be and should not be read all at once. In the introductory chapter the author warns that this book shouldn’t be read in one sitting, and I wholeheartedly agree. Usually, when I read a fiction book I speed through it and then once I know the ending go back and re-read parts that I have bookmarked. With nonfiction such as this I take much longer, and it can sometimes take me over a week to finish a slim volume such as this one. The sheer amount of powerful content makes this a book that takes time to digest. While the first two chapters of the text are traditional chapters, the majority of the book is formatted with sections starting with a question about death that functions as a prompt that one could ask at a death dinner. To supplement each prompt, the author included stories that people had shared at previous death dinners as examples of both how people can answer the prompt and how answering the prompt at their own death dinners had improved the lives of the people featured in each story.

I will whole-heartedly admit that this book caused me to cry a great deal (which was difficult when I read while on my way to work as I got many concerned looks on the subway) and yet I still enjoyed every moment of reading it. Let’s Talk About Death Over Dinner made me cry not because of any fault with the text, but because the heavy emotion behind each of the stories tugged at my heartstrings so to speak, and any time that I saw anything of myself or those that I loved in the text, I empathized to an uncomfortable extent. Nevertheless, I did keep reading because the storytelling nature of the text is both compelling and well-written, and I simply did not want to stop at some points. That said, I did make sure to take breaks from my reading – part of why this review took so long to write – in order that I could process everything that I had read in terms of both understanding and settling some of the emotional turmoil within myself.

A major concern of the text is in discovering where our discomfort with death comes from. Avoidance compounds fear, and this text argues that sitting down over a meal and talking about what makes a good death, what we want for ourselves, and how we grieve is an incredibly useful and necessary experience. Not only is an open and honest conversation about death cathartic, but it has practical use in that we can discover the wishes of our loved ones in regard to how they want us to handle their own deaths.

I have to say that I have always been fascinated with death, in particular the impermanence of our existence and the all-encompassing fate that is the inevitable heat death of our universe. On a large scale, I talk about death and destruction in a deadpan voice all the time, but I rarely feel the emotion behind it, acting glib in the face of needing to express genuine emotion. This text forced me to engage with that emotion directly and to confront things I did not want to confront, such as what I am afraid of with regard to death. What I realized is that I am not afraid of non-existence, or even of physical pain at or toward the end, but rather I am afraid of the consequences of my absence and of what actions those who have known me will undertake after my death, as well as the emotional pain that the loss of others causes within my own self and how that pain influences my actions and thus affects those who remain around me in my grief. While I always knew that to some extent, the ability to talk about these emotions without reservation is a great gift that this text has given me.

This book probably isn’t for everyone. I know that, were I to read this at certain earlier points of my life, I would not have liked Let’s Talk About Death Over Dinner, and I would not have gotten as much out of the experience of reading it. Nonetheless, I feel that for readers who approach this text with an open heart and an open mind, and give themselves time to process as they read, this text is an invaluable one. Let’s Talk About Death Over Dinner will be released on October 2nd, 2018, and I highly suggest that y’all get a copy when it comes out!

Happy reading!

Cheers,

Talia

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: Well, That Escalated Quickly: Memoirs and Mistakes of an Accidental Activist by Franchesca Ramsey

Like many black girls in 2012, I loved the video Shit White Girls Say…to Black Girls, posted on the channel Chesaleigh. It was funny and on point, and to be honest I forgot about it within a year or so, too busy living my own life to pay much attention to the internet. Meanwhile Franchesca Ramsey was living her life, which I had the pleasure of reading about in her new memoir Well, That Escalated Quickly: Memoirs and Mistakes of an Accidental Activist. This memoir chronicles the rise to fame that Ramsey underwent after her video went viral and the many ramifications of becoming, as she says, an accidental activist.

I have so many feelings about this book that it is hard to begin, but I have to say that what most struck me was how easy a book this is to read. The marginalization and othering of minoritized groups can be a distressing topic, and while it is one that I consider to be worthwhile, it can take its toll. While I have not watched many more of Ramsey’s videos beyond “SWGSTBG” and a few episodes of her and MTV’s web series Decoded I can tell from this book alone that Ramsey has the exceptional quality of disseminating and explaining simply concepts that are not-so-simple. She does so throughout the text, using her own missteps and sometimes cringeworthy actions and experiences to show the reader where she went wrong and how we can use those experiences to better our own lives and everyday reactions. The book alternates between showing what to do and what not to do in a way that is hilarious but in no way cheapens the importance of the topics discussed. Ramsey throws plenty of shade at her former self, in no way absolving her actions of their impact, but instead showing us how we can be better.

One topic she discusses at length is how there have been numerous accounts of what she at times calls “black-lash” of fellow black people who thought that she betrayed them with her handling of certain events. The first instance of this was after her interview with Anderson Cooper about the “SWGSTBG” video, and how she felt “crushed” by what people were saying to her, and it was only because of the people who were willing to help her discover her mistakes and where to do better that she was able to become the activist that she is today.

Toward the end of the book, Ramsey has a section dedicated to eulogies for phrases that should no longer be uttered, and while it was hilarious, I also liked the section because it does a very good job of explaining why said pieces of rhetoric are outdated or just plain wrong, and how their impact can be remarkably harmful. Each phrase is bolded, followed by three separate points: where it is commonly heard, why it needs to go, and a comeback for those who respond. A couple favorites of mine among those that need to be laid to rest are “It’s just a joke” and “Well, I don’t see color”, both of which have funny but thoughtful explanations for why those lines of thinking are inherently flawed.

As someone who is also in an interracial relationship, I particularly appreciated Ramsey’s chapter about her relationship with her husband (who is white) and how other people have reacted to it. In the vein of people’s reactions to things that aren’t their business, another favorite chapter of mine chronicled the best and worst ways to end a friendship with someone, particularly as it pertains to Facebook. Sad drama mask icons denote a scale of one to five in terms of how much drama one faces by unfriending the group of people described, and at the end of it all Ramsey even includes a flowchart that is not only funny but practical.

I could go on and on about my favorite parts of the book (which, let’s be honest, is most of the book) yet I want to take a step back and refer to chapter four, where Ramsey calls back to her relationship with her hair through the years, and references an (unsourced) quote, which is “Be who you needed when you were younger.” That simple message, more than anything, is what gets to the heart of this book. As a memoir reflecting on past mistakes, Well, That Escalated Quickly is inherently a volume of information that would have been incredibly useful for a younger Franchesca Ramsey, and is therefore an excellent resource for young folk everywhere.

I’ll admit that this book isn’t for everyone. It takes as its premise that the reader is curious and open toward being an activist in their own right, and the style of humor is brash and unflinching, which I liked but I know might throw some people off. That said, I wholeheartedly believe this book to be an excellent resource, especially for those that are at entry-level for activism, and are eager to learn but aren’t quite sure where to start. And even if you have started, there is always room to improve.

The last section before the acknowledgements is a glossary for those who might be unfamiliar with certain terms, and is as informative as it is funny, and includes the message (under the word “woke”) that “’Getting woke’ should be a moment on your journey, because we never stop having our eyes opened to experiences that we don’t have because of our own privilege or biases,” (p. 240). So keep learning, and if you want my advice, start with this book.

Happy reading!

Cheers,

Talia

Book Review: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

I’m not exactly a scientist. For all that my mother has a PhD in Cell Biology and my girlfriend works in tech, I didn’t major in a STEM field, and had to drop almost every science class I attempted to take in college to save my GPA from ruin. All that said, I maintain an insatiable curiosity about the universe, and so when I was walking through the bookstore and stumbled upon Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, I just knew that I needed to buy myself a copy.

In his preface, Neil deGrasse Tyson offers this book as something for those who are  “too busy to absorb the cosmos via classes, textbooks, or documentaries, and […] nonetheless seek a brief and meaningful introduction to the field,” (p, 12). Personally, I have watched a documentary or two, seen all episodes of Crash Course Astronomy twice or more, and in fact spent an entire semester in an astronomy class, so I do not exactly fit into this category. That is not to say that I did not find this book enriching and valuable, because I very much did. While this book was not written exactly for me, I nevertheless enjoyed it immensely, as the narrative format kept me informed, supplementing information that I already knew, but softening the spiky edges that the math* had created for me while in my courses or watching videos.

Each chapter of the book can for the most part be read as an independent essay, though to get the big picture I read them all, and each flowed easily into the next. That said, they could each be read alone, especially since the sparse but informative footnotes made a brief repeat of important details (picoseconds, I’m looking at you). Personally I’m a big fan of footnotes, but I think that even for those that don’t love them as much as me and Nabokov those within Astrophysics for People in a Hurry are tolerable since they are few and contain only that which is essential and/or funny.

Starting with the big bang, deGrasse Tyson takes us through the beginning of the universe, blending the facts as we know them with how we know them and thus pairing together science and history as the seamless entities they are in a chapter literally titled “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” All of the subsequent chapters focus on an important concept and/or issue in the field of astrophysics, including the much-misunderstood (and distinct!) concepts of dark matter and dark energy that get so much traction within science fiction narratives. Not to mention that in all of the places relevant to it deGrasse Tyson seriously deliberates on the concept of a multiverse, which makes my little nerd heart sing.

The book’s comedic elements are lighthearted and evenly paced, such that I felt both informed and entertained. Any time I might have felt that there was too much information being imported to my brain there would be a brief quip about Pluto to make me laugh.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is not just an excellent outline of what we know about the universe (though it is that) but also a treatise on how viewing life and existence on a cosmic level can inform us as sentient beings to see ourselves as but a mote in the universe. What I’ve taken away from this book is that what we don’t know is vastly larger in quantity than what we do, but staying curious and empathizing with one another is what makes our experiences meaningful. I highly recommend this book to anyone who has an even a passing interest in astronomy, since the universe is even more amazing than they may think.

Happy reading!

Cheers,

Talia

 

*I’m not actually as bad at math as I act like I am, but what little skill I have lies with basic algebra rather than calculus or geometry.

Book Review: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

As with many of my interests these days, I first came across Trevor Noah via YouTube. More precisely, through a YouTube video embedded in a New York Times video. Upon watching the video I laughed more than I had in a long time. The fact of the matter is that I don’t remember which video it was because I laugh that hard at almost everything of his that I watch. His comedy has the excellent quality of being both hilarious and full of depth.

For those of you who are unaware of whom I am talking about, Trevor Noah is a comedian from South Africa who currently hosts The Daily Show on Comedy Central. Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood is his autobiography which touches upon major and what may appear to be minor episodes of his child and young adulthood, including the crime of his own birth.

The book opens with a excerpt from the the South African Immorality Act of 1927, which existed “To prohibit illicit carnal intercourse between Europeans and natives and other acts in relation thereto.” As the son of a black mother and a white father, Noah’s birth was inherent proof of his parents’ illegal actions. Throughout the text Noah describes his experience growing up as apartheid was crumbling and he himself did not fit in anywhere. This is something that Noah discusses at length, by describing how he does and does not fit in the categories that had been created for South Africans.

As a mixed race person myself, I particularly enjoyed reading Noah’s description in chapter two regarding why the systems of societies based on institutionalized racism proved not only unjust but also unsustainable due to the fact that race-mixing proves that the races can and want to mix and that “[b]ecause a mixed person embodies that rebuke to the logic of the system, race-mixing becomes a crime worse than treason.” (p. 21)

What I took most to heart from this book was Noah’s dedication to his mother, to whom the book is dedicated. As someone who is very close with my own mother I always enjoy texts that explore the parent-child relationship. Their relationship as described in the text is different from my relationship with my own mother to be sure, but I was reminded of my mum as Noah described his upbringing in chapter five saying that his mother “raised [him] as if there were no limitations on where [he] could go or what [he] could do. When [he] look[s] back [he] realize[s] she raised [him] like a white kid—not white culturally, but in the sense of believing that the world was [his] oyster, that [he] should speak up for [him]self, that [his] ideas and thoughts and decisions mattered” (p 73) which is exactly how I feel that my mother raised me.[1]

Although Noah was born over a decade before me in a country and an environment that is half a world away from my own, I feel a sort of kinship with him after having read this book. Not only that, but I find myself more informed after having read about his experience, not just because of what the book itself contains, but also the curiosity that it has instilled in me to do further investigation into the history and culture that are presented in the text.

Each chapter is prefaced with a small description, never more than a page and a half, sometimes only a paragraph, that gives a perspective outside of the flow of narration throughout the autobiography. The narrative voice is still Noah’s, but these prefaces give a distanced perspective, sometimes providing historical context, and sometimes adding to the winding narration by giving a slightly different viewpoint from the main text.

Despite the comedy present through every inch of this book, there exist nuance and meaningful life lessons on every page. That is not to say that I necessarily agree with everything presented in the text, but the narration provided me with enough food for thought that I was able to question my beliefs and re-adjust my thought processes to allow for the new information obtained from both the text and my resulting outside research. I know for a fact that this is a book that I will re-read many times. I’ve already gone over it twice, some passages more than that. I have 23 post-it notes from my first reading alone, which took me less than 24 hours, I was so enraptured by the text.

All told, I highly recommend this autobiography as a must-read, for everyone, but especially to those who find themselves in want of something that while light-hearted gives serious food for thought, and what USA Today calls “A soul-nourishing pleasure,”[2] something that I wholeheartedly agree with.

Happy reading!

Cheers,

Talia

[1] Note: It has been pointed out to me that this sounds like I believe that white parents tell their kids that they can succeed, whereas black parents do not, which is not what I meant at all. What I am trying to get across (and what I think Noah is trying to get across) is that due to systemic racism and oppression, limits are put upon children of color in order to protect them from harsh realities, which can damage their ability to aspire to great heights. My mother always acted like “can’t” was a swearword in our house, but many kids are told that they cannot do something, simply because their parents are concerned that an unjust system would cause them pain, both emotional distress and physical harm.

[2] This is according to the blurb on the cover of my book.