Four Excellent New Things

Two highly recommended reads, a stripped-raw and gobsmackingly brave confessional, and the funniest podcast I’ve ever heard:

1. We Were Feminists Once, Andi Zeisler. The co-founder of Bitch magazine (for which [full disclosure] I penned a few features, back in the day) writes beautifully, passionately, and wittily about the depressing co-optation of feminism by popular culture. Her point is that the transmutation of feminism into a “go-girl” individualist cheer, entirely decoupled from political action, leaves behind the actual societal shifts we desperately need to enact. It also puts the onus of empowerment on individual women, ignoring the structures that have been in place for centuries which prevent/limit/undermine women’s achievement.

At the same time, pop culture’s version of feminism (“feminism”) leeches the power from what is supposed to be a political and social movement by rendering it “judgmental” to call out specific actions as unfeminist. In other words, as long as any woman chooses to do something, we’re told that implying that she might be choosing against the common good is wrong and even anti-feminist. SIGH. At any rate, Once is a fantastic book and a reminder that the work of feminism is very much unfinished. It’s also fiercely entertaining, for whatever that’s worth.

2. I’m Just a Person, Tig Notaro. I read a lot of memoirs by comedians, in addition to a lot of comedic memoirs, and I feel conflicted about them. I find the genre compelling and funny, which is its point. I also love getting to know more about people whose work I admire. But it’s almost inevitable that writers joke lightly about what I take to be serious things, laughing over their pain. It can feel like they’re selling out their wounds for a laugh, which . . . I know, I know. That formulation applies basically to all of comedy, right? That’s kind of what stand-up is? And yet there’s something about the book version of it that amplifies my discomfort and sorrow. I wish everyone had the permission to let the bad shit be as bad as the bad shit actually is.

Cue Tig Notaro’s recent memoir. It’s certainly funny, at times, and it’s always compelling. But mostly it’s real and heartfelt and well told and emotionally present. She’s not trying to make her suffering smaller. It’s the opposite, in fact: She’s diving deep into the details of her now infamous Four Months of Extreme Agony, in which she nearly died from a bacterial infection, her romantic relationship broke up, her mother died in a freak accident, she was diagnosed with cancer in both breasts, and she had a double mastectomy. It’s all right there in the title: Hey, I’m a person with all of the terror and confusion and conflicts and non-knowing that everyone else has, and/but I’m happy to share that with you in my very specific and charming and humble voice. Beautifully done.

3. Elna Baker’s recent segment on This American Life. To say too much about this piece would be to risk ruining its many heart-plundering surprises, so I mostly want to recommend a listen. It’s not long, but it is dense, packed with moments of epiphany and wonder that you’ll need to press Pause on. I had already listened once when I shared it with John, and by the end, his entire face had cracked open and his eyes were wet with tears. I almost can’t believe the degree to which Elna Baker is willing to be publicly vulnerable, particularly because she is in the middle of what she’s relating; she’s taking us through a new, raw, and frightening crisis that’s currently playing out for her and for her marriage. I bow in deference and in gratitude.

4. My Dad Wrote a Porno. A podcast in which a thirty-year old British guy reads his father’s self-published pornography, line by line, and he and his two charming friends deconstruct it. This is the stuff of gut-clenching hilarity, and you don’t even have to feel bad about it, since the father (whose pen name is Rocky Flintstone, natch) is delighted. Just a few quick deets to help convey the beauty of this project:

  • The book is called Belinda Blinked.
  • The heroine’s full name is Belinda Blumenthal.
  • Belinda is a sales manager for Steeles Pots and Pans. Not Steeles Kitchen Supply. Not Steeles Restaurant Wares. Steeles Pots and Pans.
  • Rocky tends to use overly medical terminology to describe female genitalia—and/but he doesn’t have a clear understanding of the landscape. At one point, for example, Belinda’s partner “grabs her cervix.”
  • There is a sex-slave situation in which the safe word is “thimble.”

Start at the beginning, because the jokes build. And don’t listen while riding your bike! There have been accidents!

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