February was a strange month for me. January felt so long, and it was arduous for personal reasons. Once February began, I was completely wiped out. Due to my mental and physical exhaustion, I didn’t carve out as much reading time as I did in January. I would come home some nights with strained eyes and a pounding head. All I wanted to do was veg out on my couch with Food Network on in the background or go to bed. The notion of imbibing more information via reading words in a book wasn’t compelling me as strongly as my pajamas did.
Even though I did end up reading some books this month, I learned this month that listening to my body and to its needs is extremely necessary. My body craved and required absolute downtime, and that is what I gave it some nights. February allowed me to be less hard on myself because I was more in tune with what my body was asking from me. What I’m trying to say is that it’s okay if you’re not perfect in your goal pursuit, especially if ‘more downtime’ is the crux of your goal. Although I wish I had read more, I still read. More importantly, I provided myself time to myself, which is the essence of my endeavor.
Without further ado, here are my February reads:
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby is a re-read for me. I’ve read it at least twice before, but I read it again mainly because I was teaching it (every year, I read every text I’m teaching). This school year marks my first time teaching Fitzgerald’s novel, so getting to re-read it was exciting. Because we were examining the text through the lenses of Marxist and Gender literary theories, I was able to examine the text more critically than I ever had. More than that, our particular focus allowed me to question and dissect a topic that pervades our culture very poignantly right now: privilege, specifically economic privilege and gender privilege.
The Great Gatsby recounts, as Good Charlotte sang nearly two decades ago, “lifestyles of the rich and the famous.” Through Nick Carraway’s narration, the novel reveals the ways in which individuals, particularly economically-privileged people, navigate their romantic and platonic relationships. The Great Gatsby, however, isn’t merely a tale about the potential return of & incessant desire for lost love. The plot does not speak solely of a complicated love triangle. Although many could, would, & likely have argued that The Great Gatsby is simply a white man’s (limited) understanding of lavish, excessive lifestyle, I think Fitzgerald is doing so much more than that. Fitzgerald’s text is invested in how economic power and gender power works for some people and against other people; how people often become the masks they wear; and how people either reinforce or undermine their economic and gender identities. It’s fascinating to analyze the female (& potentially non-binary) characters of Daisy, Myrtle, and Jordan, respectively, especially in terms of gender performativity. It’s worthwhile to question the fleeting moments Tom seems emotionally vulnerable, and whether or not they are authentic cathartic moments. And, it’s useful (especially for real-life purposes) to consider what makes Gatsby so ‘great,’ especially because this title is given to him by a judgmental narrator who is totally not self-aware (even though he claims to be).
Although my students’ reading was chunked over two weeks, I read The Great Gatsby in a day and a half. The writing is compelling (& easy) enough to just read and read and read. I’m kind of jealous of the fact that my students got to write an essay analyzing this work as a Marxist critic, Gender critic, (or a combo critic). Good thing is, I get to read them. And I’m actually excited.
What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky: Stories by Lesley Nneka Arimah
I added this work to my list of books to read after seeing it listed under “The Other Best Books of the Year” on Roxane Gay’s “My 2017 Reading List” (I’m sorry, Roxane Gay, but I’m slightly fixated on you & your work right now). I wasn’t sure what to expect of this short story collection, but I was looking forward to finding out. Although I read the majority of Arimah’s book while lying on a beach chair in South Beach, I wouldn’t consider this a ‘beach read.’ Beach reads are mindless, easy texts that don’t require much mental energy. Arimah’s short stories made my head spin, in a good way. Each story’s plot is drastically different from the next, ranging from a semi-demonic baby made out of hair to a grief worker whose job is to remove sadness from others. Despite the variance in plots, the entire collection is threaded by themes such as the importance of meaningful relationships, the consequences of impulsive, insensitive behaviors, and the complicated lives of women in a male-dominated world.
What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky demonstrates Arimah’s creative reach. Oftentimes, I wonder how vast one person’s imagination can be, asking, “How could one individual create something as complex as _________” (insert creative work [i.e. an entire symphony, the score of Les Miserables, an extremely inventive story). I found myself asking that question while reading all 12 stories in Arimah’s collection. Several times while reading, I stopped, placed the book on my lap, and mouthed Wow. The plots and characters of Arimah’s stories are compelling because they are evaluative of broader cultural issues. I recommend this collection to any reader who desires remarkably original stories and seeks to suspend reality at times. Check it out here. (Also, The Guardian posted a thoughtful review of Arimah’s collection here).
Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay
GIRL, I am a bad feminist for not reading this collection sooner. Seriously, though. Roxane Gay’s compilation of essays grapples with & criticizes cultural, political, and ‘feminist’ topics, spanning from “rape culture” to media portrayal of race (The Help, for instance). Gay also speaks about participating in a competitive Scrabble organization, as well as being a first-year professor (& the sacrifices that come with a tenure-track position in a remote area). Bad Feminist consists of 37 honest, insightful nonfiction essays, and I have to say, every single one fully engaged me and moved me. “Peculiar Benefits” made me wish I had found this collection sooner so that I could have included it in my The Great Gatsby unit, specifically during our discussion of privilege as a real-life influencer. “How to Be Friends With Another Woman” made me rethink my role in the friendships I share with other women. It prompted me to rectify some of these tense relationships, because Gay reminded me to support other women, not criticize them. “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence” and “The Alienable Rights of Women” provided me a language toolkit to articulate my own thoughts about sexual violence and body politics. Reading Bad Feminist transported me back to my time in graduate school five years ago, where you could find me at a round table with my cohort discussing the ethical import of these same topics.
I could honestly go on and on about Bad Feminist. It is pure genius, not just for the fact that Gay addresses topics that matter, but for how Gay articulates those thoughts: candidly, empathetically, thoughtfully. I admire Gay as a writer for this very reason. Every feminist needs to read this. Every non-feminist needs to read this. Men especially need to read this. Hell, everyone in the world needs to read this. This singular collection is a MUST-HAVE in your library, if you don’t already own it. And please, don’t be like me and wait four years to pick up this text. In our current cultural climate, Gay’s Bad Feminist is exceptionally timely. Go buy it and read it. Now.
I hope you are investing yourself in more self-care activities. I hope that you are giving yourself a break more often, being less hard on yourself. February was a productive month for me because I cut myself more slack. But, March comes in like a lion, and I’m ready to roar.