Trick Mirror

A hand holding a hardcover copy of Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino.
I wasn’t trying to make some artistic statement with the terrible lighting – there just wasn’t enough of it.

Trick Mirror is Jia Tolentino’s much commented on set of essays published in 2019, blissfully pre-pandemic, but sadly still during the Trump presidency. She has been much praised for her insights into internet culture and brought out her feminist voice – and there has been the predictable backlash.

The strongest part of the book, for me, was her discussion of the internet, its now seemingly inevitable focus on the individual, and how that plays into the “forever hustling” culture. It helped me understand the takeover of the personality as fame-generator and monetizer. It was a movement that started before the internet really took over everyone’s lives – Martha Stewart Living was founded in 1997, the height of the pre-social internet boom – and I can remember being a college student in the mid-90s and being told to follow your passion, to make sure that you were always motivated to care about your work. Without those seeds in the culture, I’m not sure social media takes off as strongly as it does, at least in terms of people monetizing themselves.

The feminist parts, while strong and passionately argued, were less revelatory. Don’t get me wrong: in a society that still doesn’t take violence against women seriously, we need as many voices as we can talking about rape. But I felt like I’d read those parts before.

Trick Mirror is absolutely worth the read, especially for the first half of the book.

The White Album

There is a line in the first essay in The White Album: “…I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.” Substitute 2020, and I’m here (though 1968 was also a very climactic year).

The White Album is a collection of Joan Didion’s excellent essays from the late 1960s through the 1970s. She covers topics from the Manson Killings to the new California Governor’s mansion (built for “a family of snackers”, and it has since been sold to a private family) to Hawaii, Georgia O’Keefe, Doris Lessing, and more.

I picked up The White Album this time precisely for that 1970s-era-disaster-vibe that 2020 has. She has a wonderful way of describing the unreality of the world that we live in, and I needed to see that 2020 isn’t original in its awfulness.

This has happened before. This time around, we suffer anxiety and depression instead of vertigo and nausea. Welcome to 2020, same as 1970.

Read your broccoli

This collection of George Orwell’s essays was so interesting and relevant. I would say that if you are inclined to write about politics, even to tweet about them or write a post on Facebook, you would benefit from reading his essays. Orwell was famously interested in and wrote well about politics. His points about fascism in Britain during the 1930s and while WWII was going on are relevant to our current political situation.

His essays cover many topics, not just politics (though if you want to own your own copy of Politics and the English Language, it’s in here), but also how terrible it actually was to live at a boarding school, how terrible books start to seem when you have to work amongst them all the time, and what it was like to fight in the Spanish Civil War.

Would I recommend it? Absolutely. Just be aware that this is more about eating your broccoli – necessary and good for you – than the fun of eating dessert. Luckily, you can break it off into small, essay-sized chunks.

Wonderful and terrible and full of life

The Collected Schizophrenias – a book of essays that functions as a memoir, by a person suffering a mild form of schizophrenia – is both wonderful and terrible. Is this what sublime means?

The writing is beautiful and detailed, though be forewarned that the first essay about the DSM-IV and its history might only be interesting if you’re into the ins and outs of psychological politics. The other essays capture:

  • what it’s like to have hallucinations;
  • what it’s like to have Cotard’s Delusion, which is being absolutely convinced that you’re dead;
  • the oddness of trying to convince your doctor that you’re sane when you’ve been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital;
  • how society (read: Yale) treats you when you’ve been diagnosed with schizophrenia (spoiler alert: not well).

I am a person who always develops a certain amount of empathy for the main character in whatever I’m reading. That meant feeling not entirely well whilst reading this book. My teenager kept asking me if I was all right. I decided to plow through as fast as I could so as to be in this mindset as briefly as possible. Reading the whole book was necessary – putting it down was never an option.

The Collected Schizophrenias was vital to me. Highly recommended.

How to be, as a writer

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is part of my reading books about writing, even though it’s not a book about craft. It’s more about how to live as a writer, finding the time to write and read in every nook and cranny of your day, how to live passionately for the things you believe in, and possibly how to incorporate those things into your writing. And how writing can be therapy and how therapy sometimes needs to happen before you can write about what you most need to.

The thing from this book that I can’t get out my head is an image of him writing on the subway, on the way to his cater-waiter job that paid for his life for so long. It’s not about having the perfect space to write, it’s about doing the writing wherever and however you can.

I’m going to be thinking about How to Write an Autobiographical Novel for a long time to come.

Now I want to read all of the Shirley Jackson

Let Me Tell You is a compilation of essays and short stories by Shirley Jackson, who you may know best as the author of “The Lottery”, a story about a stoning that takes place in what otherwise seems to be contemporary America. (In one of the essays, she talks about the genesis of that story. She’d been reading a book about human sacrifice, and, whilst walking her kids to school, started thinking about how such a thing would work in the small town in which she lived.)

It was deeply entertaining – some of the stories were better than the others – but the best part of a good book were her essays. One of the best was when she was describing the old house she and her family lived in, and its ghosts which were sometimes friendly and sometimes not, but by and large seemed to approve of them living there. The whole book was smart and entertaining.

Highly recommended.

Media Studies in the Ancient World

Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard

What’s it about?
Confronting the Classics is a series of book reviews written for the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, or the Times Literary Supplement over the years by the author. Mary Beard is a famous classicist (if there is such a thing as a famous classicist), and her reviews are all trying to answer the question: why does this particular book she’s reviewing matter to you, a non-classicist?

Why should you read it?
I loved it for a few reasons.

  1. I have a not-so-secret fondness for Ancient Rome. Mary Beard has a great skeptical eye through which to take a second look at some books I’ve read.
  2. Not to mention suggestions for all kinds of new books to read. Seriously, this one made my to-read list grow.
  3. She asks the serious question: why is Asterix so funny? Why do so many people (including me) love Asterix?
  4. I like her approach to book reviewing – asking why a particular book matters to someone who isn’t a classicist allows her to explore all kinds of questions. What was the woman’s voice in Ancient Greece (about Sappho)? What did the ancients find funny? Why do we still find most of those jokes funny?
  5. So much of what we know about the ancient world is because of what’s been written down. That’s biased in certain ways, with certain people wanting to influence how someone else was perceived. (e.g. Augustus burning anything about Cleopatra that didn’t fit how he wanted Roman society to see her). She takes a critical eye that reminded me a lot of modern media studies – there’s a thread in common with, say, Anne Helen Petersen.

Overall, I enjoyed it. You might too.

Of an era

White Album


What’s it about?
The White Album is a famous set of essays by Joan Didion about the various aspects of living in California in the 1960s and 1970s. She covers weird neighbors, the California governor’s mansion, how to pack, migraines, depression/anxiety, and a wide range of other topics. It is a window on a particular time in a particular place.

Why should you read it?
Well, if for no other reason that it allowed me to start describing my own kitchen as “for snackers, not for cooks.” (We’ve moved in the last few months. Our new kitchen isn’t set up for even semi-serious cooking.) There may be a bon mot for you too.

But it also is a window on an era: it’s a very specific slice of American history, when the baby boomers were protesting Vietnam, when the idealism of the 1960s  moved into the hedonism of the 1970s, and what it was like to be a young adult during that time. Now we’ve moved so far away from that to the-market-and-capitalism-will-fix-everything… It can be jarring to think of the world like that. Part of why we moved on is because of criticism like Didion’s. She didn’t give the era a warm, happy glow. She points out its flaws, and does it well.

It’s a critical eye looking at a time that was often romanticized (at least when/were I grew up). For that, I am grateful.

Thoughtful feeling

the empathy exams


What’s it about?
The Empathy Exams is a series of personal essays – if they were strung into one, this would be a memoir. The first one is titled The Empathy Exams, and it’s about her job at a medical school. She’s required to portray different patients with different ailments and symptoms and willingnesses to talk about those symptoms. The medical students are required to talk to her to gather information to diagnose her, but also to improve their bedside manner. After the interviews, she has to grade them on, among other things, their empathy. Did the students make her feel like they felt her pain? She also gains a lot of insight into what empathy is. The rest of the essays in the book are about her putting herself into situations (or situations she’s already been in) and empathizing with the people around her. What can she learn about humanity?

Why should you read it?
Because learning about people and sympathizing with people is a good thing. Seriously, The Empathy Exams is an eloquent exploration of what it means to be a person. The author does a good job at making you feel her apprehension at getting an abortion. She communicates the horror of living in a world where drug lords are fighting for territory. But it’s never too heavy. It’s thoughtful. I enjoyed it.

Girl Power!

Not That Kind of Girl


What’s it about?
Not That Kind of Girl is about Lena Dunham’s life. I’d say it was a memoir, but it wasn’t. It was a series of essays, grouped by themes like “Love & Sex” or “Work.” She’s entertaining and kind of messed up in a punk-ish way. But she’s also clearly got a serious work ethic, and I suspect is less messed up than she portrays herself as.

Why should you read it?
Maybe if I watched Girls I’d’ve like it more. Not That Kind of Girl is a fine book, it just didn’t grab me in the way I thought it would. I like that it’s supportive of women and girl culture. I like that she shows herself and her flaws and that that’s ok. I like that she is ambitious as hell. I hate that she feels the need to downplay that ambition. But I don’t identify with her – that’s what I was missing. I’m not as punk or trendy or young, and I didn’t grow up with hippy parents in NYC. But I do think that Lena Dunham is a pretty good role model, and I’m happy she’s out there for people to look up to.