Review || Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Genre: YA Contemporary | Diversity: #OwnVoices sexual assault survivor

My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

39280444Speak is one of those books that’s become a bit innocuous within the YA world. Why? Because it was—to my knowledge at least—the first YA book to deal openly with sexual assault.

On the surface, Melinda seems like a typical, if a bit awkward, ninth grader: she hates going to class, feels like algebra is useless, and avoids connecting with her parents. In so many ways, Melinda is incredibly relatable. She reminds me of my 14-year-old self in that she’s dealing with undiagnosed depression and wondering why no one in the world seemed to care what she has to say. As the story progresses, Melinda avoids speaking whenever possibly and it becomes clear that she’s coping with trauma by pretending it never happened.

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Reading this book for the second time, I was struck by the deceptive simplicity of the writing.

This is a book that could be read in one sitting, without a doubt. At just about 200 pages, it’s not a long read, and the language reflects the mental age of the main character perfectly. Anderson tells the story in short but powerful vignettes, each revealing an aspect of Melinda’s everyday life and thought processes. Despite the classic teen angst of not fitting in with peer cliques and frustration with teachers, there’s an underlying thread of pure sadness.

Melinda exhibits symptoms of depression and anxiety as she attempts to ignore her trauma: she’s constantly biting her lips to the point that they’re cracked and bleeding; she avoids talking to people, skipping class to hide out in an abandoned janitorial closet; she constantly talks about how she wants to just go back to bed forever. Yes, it’s angsty; yes, it’s also realistic.

The hardest part about reading this again, though, was noticing the many ways the adults in Melinda’s life fail her.

I am not a parent (and definitely not a parent to a teenager) but I can guarantee you that I’d definitely sit up and take notice if a 14-year-old girl in my life suddenly stopped speaking entirely. Melinda’s parents are characterized as being so involved in their own lives that they either don’t notice her behavior, or that they just write it off as Teen Angst.

What I truly don’t understand is the reaction of Melinda’s teachers. Rather than seeing her behavior as a cry for help, they lecture her on how she needs to apply herself and show up for class. Not even the literal guidance counselor attempts to look beneath the surface of Melinda’s behavior for the underlying cause.

Ultimately, this is a character-driven story of Melinda’s albeit incomplete recovery from sexual assault.

For the majority of the book, the unknowing reader may not know what happened to her. Someone who’s looked into the book might know ahead of time that it involves rape, but not necessarily know the context. I certainly enjoyed reading the book again knowing ahead of time—and I think it’s important that this book be labeled as potentially triggering. On my second reading, I was able to trace the tiny hints at Melinda’s trauma throughout and appreciate her slow trudge toward recovery.

In writing this review, my biggest struggle lies in discerning the merits of this book versus what I would’ve preferred to see.

On the one hand, Speak shows how dealing with sexual assault comes down to whether or not the person recognizes her own agency and grasps control over her life. Still, I personally wanted more than the book leaves us with: I wanted to know how the adults in Melinda’s life react when she finally comes clean about being raped. I wanted to see “IT” brought to justice. I wanted to see Melinda’s parents come around to realizing their mistake in not taking her behavior seriously. I wanted, more than anything, to see Melinda in therapy for her depression and anxiety related to her trauma.

I originally read this book as a sophomore or junior in high school.

I remember being struck by the sadness of the story about a ninth grader who stops speaking after she’s raped at a party. At the time, though, I remember being struck with the feeling of “but this kind of thing doesn’t happen all that often, so there’s no point in dwelling on it.”

I recently spoke with a close friend, asking if she’d ever heard of this book, as she would’ve been in high school when it came out. For her, rape wasn’t discussed openly until she was in college, and then only because she took a class on the psychology of trauma. I don’t recall an open discussion of the prevalence and reality of rape before the year 2010, when I took Intro to Women’s Studies in college.

I don’t think this is a perfect book about rape. I don’t think there is in existence a perfect book about rape. I do think feminism owes a debt of gratitude to Laurie Halse Anderson, for not only bravely writing from her own experiences, but for opening up a place for conversation a time that it didn’t really exist outside of outspoken feminist circles.

Even in its imperfections, Speak is an important piece of feminist YA history and I’m thankful for its existence.

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—find this book—
Goodreads | B&N | IndieBound

Have you read Speak or any other books by Laurie Halse Anderson? What is the first book you read with sexual assault rep? Let me know in the comments!

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10 Things I Learned from Reading Sarah Schulman

things i learned

If you follow me on Instagram, you might know that I’m a huge fan of self-education. I try to read at least one nonfiction book per month. Over the past couple of months, I’ve been doing a lot of research for a novel that takes place in New York City in the mid-1990s. Specifically, I wanted to explore what life was like for queer people at that time, considering that was the thick of the AIDS crisis.

I came across Sarah Schulman, a lesbian activist at the time who published an entire book of her writings from 1980-1993. My American History: Lesbian and Gay Life During the Reagan/Bush Years is a 300-page collection of writings from a period we don’t often talk about in history classes—outside of feminist and queer circles, of course. Due to the nature of the book itself, I struggled to write a review in a traditional form. Instead, I thought I’d share some things I learned.

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1] Schulman argues that (what we would now call) identity politics prevented true activism from feminists in the 1980s-90s. More or less, women were too busy drawing maps of their own unique identities to remember how to work together for change. The act of exploring one’s identity became more important than direct action tactics.

2] In the 80s, there were apparently several lesbian bars in New York City—although they were all owned by businessmen outside the lesbian community. Interesting, considering I only know of two overtly lesbian bars, to this day. Schulman doesn’t necessarily talk about this, but I’m wondering how and why those lesbian bars closed. For instance, I think one of the bars she mentioned has now been turned into a plain old gay bar called Monster. Is there just not as much of a draw for lesbians going out? Has the internet changed this at all? I’m intrigued (and angry).

3] One of the biggest campaigns to deal with AIDS occurred when New York City shut down the baths—basically, public places where men went to have sex. Schulman argues that shutting down the baths would just force people to go to private venues; instead, she argues, we need to put money toward educating people about how to have safe sex, which we can’t do if they’re not in public. She also argues for safe needle exchanges, which, obviously, was controversial. This kind of reminds me of the abstinance-only vs. sex education debate today: people are still going to have sex and possibly do drugs; the least we can do is show them how to do it safely.

4] AIDS didn’t just bring the gay community togetherit also drove them apart. There were plenty of public gay figures who distanced themselves from people with AIDS, from IV drug users, from promiscuous gay men. Even as the entire rest of the country blamed gay men for spreading AIDS, individuals were still focused on assimilationist tactics. At the same time, gentrification affected lesbians and gay men of color more than it affected white gay men, and this also drove a wedge in the community.

5] Lesbians got involved in ACT-UP for multiple reasons. Partly, ACT-UP was the only gay movement that actually used direct action tactics. Also, lesbians were deeply affected by AIDS in that they lost many friends to the disease. While white gay men still clung to their sense of entitlement and wish to assimilate, lesbians often brought the radical side to the movement in that they had always seen themselves as “other.”

6] The push for gay domestic partnership to be recognized came at a time when that request seemed more “normal” in the face of the radical movement of ACT-UP and the fear of AIDS. I was relatively aware that domestic partnership became such an important thing due to the sheer number of gay people dying of AIDS, but I had no idea how political that move really was. At a time when the mainstream pushed for the closing of gay bars/baths, asking to be allowed legal rights over your loved one seems pretty tame.

7] Women were often excluded from AIDS drug trials, which were designed to treat men. It was a lot harder for a woman with AIDS to get adequate treatment in general. Women tend to have different symptoms, which makes it harder to get a full-blown diagnosis of AIDS, which means they couldn’t get adequate treatment, at least at the time of Schulman’s writing.

8] Schulman passionately argues that gay and lesbian writers have a responsibility to tell their stories. She says, “personal homophobia becomes social neglect” and that society needs to confront this. However, Schulman also argues that writing isn’t enough, that writers should also participate in direct action.

9] Schulman points out how lesbian writers in particular live in a parallel publishing world—if they write explicitly about lesbianism, they’re relegated to non-mainstream publishing. If they write about straight people, they might be able to achieve mainstream success, but at the cost of sacrificing part of who they are. The problem, Schulman points out, is that straight people don’t read gay books. I’d like to say that this isn’t so much of a problem in 2019. After all, look at how many books, at least in the YA world, have achieved success with gay characters! And yet, I still feel the need to justify my gay reading to people who don’t know I’m bisexual—because “straight” people don’t read gay books. This is something I definitely think needs to change outside the YA community in particular.

10] While she insists that everyone can and should be an activist, Schulman says “one act of resistance every day is something I think we can all incorporate into our lives.” This line really struck me, because I think it’s absolutely true during the Trump years just as much as the Reagan/Bush years. “Once a day, say something complicated, take on something difficult, challenge yourself, surprise the people around you, resist acting for the approval of straight people, of white people, of men.”

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What do you think are some of the biggest problems facing the queer community today? Do you see any parallels between the problems of the 80s-90s? What’s the last book you read that taught you something? Let’s share!

Review | How to Get Sh*t Done

How to Get Sh*t Done: Why Women Need to Stop Trying to Do Everything So They Can Achieve Anything by Erin Falconer

Genre: Nonfiction (Personal Growth) | Pub Date: 2018 | My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.🌙

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

img_0315Erin Falconer, editor in chief and co-owner of the highly respected self-improvement site Pick the Brain (with over 1.8 million monthly page views), shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more.

In the first productivity book by a woman in a decade, Erin Falconer will show you how to do less—a lot less. In fact, How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

Packed with real-life advice, honest stories from Erin’s successful career, and dozens of actionable resources, How to Get Sh*t Done will forever reframe productivity so that you can stop doing everything for everyone and start doing what matters to you.

My Thoughts

Somewhere around October, I finally admitted what has been a long time coming: I’m a sucker for self-help books. To be fair, I suppose this started around age 10, when I became obsessed with every single Chicken Soup for the Soul book I could get my hands on. Sure, self-help (or, as it’s now being re-branded, “personal growth”) is cheesy. Sure, a lot of what these authors typically have to offer is advice you could just as easily give yourself, if you just had the balls. But I have to admit, sometimes it’s easier to take advice from folks who at least have a book deal.

How to Get Sh*t Done does follow the typical layout of the genre. Each chapter begins with a story from Falconer’s life as a writer and internet entrepreneur. She details how she’s failed hugely in life, and what she learned from each failure. Falconer proposes a unique method called POP for Personality, Opportunity, and Productivity. She argues that before you can be truly productive, you have to get clear about who you are and where your opportunities lie. Each chapter concludes with a checklist of introspective activities designed to guide you toward a more focused understanding of yourself. Each set of ideas builds on itself, ending with her final breakdown of how to design a schedule that works for you and helps you achieve what you want without burning out.

What’s different about this, and why I rated it so highly, is Falconer’s woman-focused perspective. This truly is the first self-help style book that prioritizes women’s specific issues. Falconer discusses how women feel the need to do everything—excel in our careers, be the perfect spouses, take care of our families, and also somehow be magically fit and focused. What this means is that we constantly feel like we have no time to actually do what we want, and we’re left feeling selfish if we take even half an hour to ourselves once in a while. We run ourselves ragged so that we can’t actually achieve what we truly want. On top of that, we’re not really encouraged to even focus on what we want, because we’re so busy doing what everyone else wants us to do. We say “yes” to things we really want to say “no” to in order to avoid being perceived as a bitch. We over-commit because we’re trained to always be busy, as if busyness is some sort of cult we all aspire to join. In How to Get Sh*t Done, Erin Falconer encourages us to let all that sh*t go and focus on what we truly value.

This would have been an instant 5-star read for me if it hadn’t been for the chapter on outsourcing. Falconer argues that women need to become more comfortable with outsourcing tasks that don’t serve their main goals in life. While I agree that we should all be more comfortable with asking for help from family/roommates when it comes to household maintenance and childcare, I couldn’t relate to the idea of being able to pay someone else to do things I don’t want to do. Sure, it would be nice to have someone come clean my house, but I honestly can’t afford it. Even if I could, I don’t think I would feel comfortable paying another woman to do something I don’t want to do. The fact is, as a person living on less money than pretty much anyone else I know, there’s just no way I could afford to outsource. The reality of my life is doing things that I often don’t want to do. All I can do is try to focus my spare hours toward what I want to achieve.

That being said, this is a great read for anyone who’s ever felt frustrated by being pulled in a thousand different directions. How to Get Sh*t Done will help you focus your energy on what truly matters to you and give you some tools to help you get there.

—find this book—

Goodreads | B&N | Book Outlet

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What’s your favorite self-help book? What genre do you feel guilty for enjoying? What are your top 3 goals for 2019? Let’s talk in the comments!