Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay

Bad FeministA few months back, I read Gay’s An Untamed State and did not like it very much at all. It was a tough read in several ways, and I just couldn’t bring myself to appreciate the reading experience. But I liked Gay’s writing and I knew this book was coming out and I kept my fingers crossed that it would be good.

It was pretty good!

I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, as I’m not the widest reader of essay collections, so I just dove right in and hoped for the best. Gay starts off the book talking a bit about the state of feminism and the state of her own feminism, which is, like mine, somewhere along the lines of “I’m a lady and ladies are awesome and we shouldn’t put down ladies for the sake of putting down ladies.” She’s willing to expend a little more effort than I am in getting the “ladies are awesome” word out, as evidenced by the collection of feminist-y essays that follows the introduction.

Gay’s essays are primarily about the intersection of women and pop culture, from Girls to Sweet Valley High to The Hunger Games, and how pop culture needs to get its act together because it’s not cool to make a really awesome rap song for Gay to blast with her windows down and then have all the lyrics be about abusing women. There are also several essays about race and politics and general public discourse on feminism, and some closing essays reiterating Gay’s feminist stance or lack thereof.

I think my favorite essay from the collection is one near the beginning that is also available on Gay’s tumblr, in which Gay details the steps women can take to be better friends. These include not belittling other women, not being mean for the sake of being mean, not believing that women suck (something it took me several years to figure out between high school and college), telling the truth, and enjoying a friendship for what it is. Really, it’s a good primer for embarking on any kind of relationship, and you should share it with all of your friends, especially those of the adolescent variety because I just read another book where the lack of this knowledge caused a murder and yeah it’s a fiction book but YOU NEVER KNOW.

Ahem. Anyway. There’s also an essay about Scrabble that follows shortly after the friends essay which baffled me a little at first because it is in no way obviously about feminism, but it’s a fun essay and if you read enough into it you can come away with some good metaphors about feminism, so that’s a win.

All of the essays are written in a very personal style — I think at least a few of them come from her tumblr and others are opinion pieces from various media outlets — and while it’s fascinating getting into Gay’s head and learning more about her personal opinions and beliefs, it turns out that she is juuuuust a little bit prone to run off on tangents. They’re not uninteresting tangents, but sometimes the connections are jarringly tenuous, as in her essay that is about either Miss America or Sweet Valley High or fitting in at school or the terrible writing in Sweet Valley Confidential, which left me wondering more than once if my ereader had skipped a page or seven accidentally.

But overall I found this book a fun read, reinforcing a lot of my already-held beliefs and introducing me to some new ways of thinking about race and privilege that will hopefully lead to me being a better person in the future. Not bad!

Recommendation: For those who want to spend some time thinking about social issues and also terrible teen book series.

Rating: 8/10

An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay

An Untamed StateThis book. Oof.

I would not have picked this book up probably ever except that a couple of people on my bookternet were like, this book is amazing and gut-wrenching and did I say amazing already? And I’m generally trusting of those couple of people, so I picked up an advance copy and went to it.

And maybe if you don’t go into it expecting amazing and gut-wrenching, that’s what you’ll get, but that is not what I got at all. Blast.

The main story is fascinating. It kicks off with a woman in Haiti being kidnapped from in front of her husband and young son, which is bad news. Then it turns out that the woman’s father is some super big shot in Haiti and has made public proclamations that he won’t pay ransoms for employees or friends or family members in order to avoid paying all the ransoms ever, and he’s committed to said proclamations even in the face of his daughter actually being actually kidnapped by actual kidnappers. Which, sure, he’s got reasons, but dude. So now the daughter, Mireille, is being held captive by a bunch of dudes and her dad’s not paying and you know from the beginning that she’s stuck there for something like 13 days and it’s really just a waiting game to see when things are going to go horribly wrong, which they do. I learned more than I wanted to about wealth and class politics in Haiti from this awful story, and what’s worse is that I know there’s more to know.

So that’s all… great, for certain values of great, but the book is written in this jumbled-up fashion where the narrative cuts back and forth between Mireille in captivity and Mireille meeting her husband, Michael, and eventually marrying him, and I just couldn’t get behind the latter story. Mireille and Michael are both kind of horrible people for different reasons that just don’t mesh into one happy horrible household, and I could not for the life of me figure out how they survived marriage to each other nor could I bring myself to care about their relationship. I just didn’t get it, and I found myself kind of looking forward to getting back to the whole kidnapping thing, which makes me a horrible person, I think.

And then, after she finally gets out (which you know she does from the beginning this is not a spoiler), the book turns into the second half of Room (that might be a spoiler, oh well) where Mireille is trying to integrate herself back into her Before Life and failing super miserably. But where that second half is the part of Room that I liked the best, here I was just trying to power through it and finish the book and move on to something less depressing and boring and awful all around. I disliked Sad-Sack Mireille intensely and Michael wasn’t much better (although his parents are the best), and I was really only turning the pages to see if maybe I would start to care before the book finally ended.

Maybe that’s the point? Maybe I’m supposed to see that bad things happen can happen to bad people and I can still not feel like they deserved the bad things? Maybe I’m supposed to feel one iota of the torture that Mireille went through by having to read about it? If that’s the point, then it’s well done, but I certainly didn’t like it. Or find it amazing. Or even gut-wrenching — most of the bad stuff happens off-page, and the stuff that does happen on-page is told from Mireille’s disaffected point of view, providing a buffer.

But for all that I just didn’t like or connect with this book, I really enjoyed Roxane Gay’s writing and am looking forward to her upcoming book of essays, called Bad Feminist, in hopes that her nonfiction and humor make me happier than this book did.

Recommendation: I’m pretty sure you have to be in the right mood for this one, but I have no idea what that mood is. I will take suggestions in the comments!

Rating: 6/10