Wild by Nature by Sarah Marquis

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I remember reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed a few years ago, and how I felt so in awe of her experience on the Pacific Crest Trail as well as her personal transformation over the course of her journey. I was inspired on so many different levels, and I remember researching the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail at the time. I remember that I thought I wanted to attempt one of them, at least until I realized I was already working full-time at that point and probably wouldn’t be able to support myself for so long without income. I like to think that because I’m a hiker and avid about the outdoors my inspiration was on a deeper level than the women portrayed on the Gilmore Girls revival A Year in the Life, but who knows. I’ve accepted the fact now that I probably won’t be doing any thru-hikes in my lifetime, and I’m okay with that. But the feeling of awe never really went away, and since then I’ve been drawn to books and memoirs by and about other PCT hikers, and Appalachian Trail hikers too (see my On Trails post here). When I stumbled upon Wild by Nature in the bookstore this past December, though, I think I was in shock.

It was one thing to spend a few months or a summer hiking a trail in one’s native country. It is a completely other (and in my opinion more monumental) thing to spend three years walking through some of the world’s most desolate landscapes in a journey that encompasses two continents! Not to mention the dangers that inhabit each of the countries Sarah Marquis wandered through, and the fact that this was all a completely solo expedition! She takes her love of the outdoors, and Earth overall, to a level that I had never encountered before. I couldn’t wait to dive into this book.

I started reading Wild by Nature on a plane on my way to Texas for a work trip. I was traveling with a male coworker who is in his sixties, and he noticed the book and asked to look at it. I handed it over, and he looked at the cover and glanced through some of the photos before giving it back. “Wow,” was his only comment. If you knew this man personally, you would understand that this is actually one of the highest compliments he can possibly bestow on anyone.

Marquis’ journey is incredible. She faced so many hardships throughout the expedition, but despite everything she remained positive and happy and so grateful about the experience. She walked through sub-zero temperatures and scorching heat, she faced down thieves on horseback and drug dealers, she battled dengue fever and tropic ringworm and a severe tooth abscess, and yet she continued her trek with an amazingly positive attitude. The distance and length of the expedition is awe-inspiring enough without the rough spots; she crossed over 10,000 miles on foot over the course of three years!

While reading the book, I think I was most inspired by her positive attitude, and I can’t say that enough. Many of the sections ended with Marquis offering up a grateful “Thank you, thank you…”. It provided me with a much better perspective on things in my own life. If she was able to continue the expedition and stay positive after dealing with some of the obstacles she faced, then I think it’s time I adopt a similar attitude for situations (not as intense) in my personal life.

I think when I started this book I was expecting more of an adventure story. While it does chronicle Marquis’ solo trek through the wilderness (which is indeed adventurous), I think I was more drawn to the spiritual and philosophical aspects of her journey. Marquis stressed the importance of a simple life tied to nature, and I think this book was a gentle reminder that I need a little more balance in my own life. Things have been crazy lately; I feel like I’m constantly jumping from one thing to another and it’s definitely been taking a toll. At one point in the book, Marquis talked about how your body knows what it needs and gives you signs to signal those needs; all you have to do is listen. I can’t help but draw parallels to my own life right now. I’ve been running, and admittedly stressing, almost nonstop since the holiday season. I kept saying that I needed to start slowing down and taking care of myself, but for January and most of this month I continued to ignore my own advice. So what did my body do? It threw a sinus infection and tendonitis at me, quite literally forcing me to take it easy and rest. And as odd as this may sound given my current condition, I actually do feel better!

As I’m reflecting on it now, I’m grateful that I read this book. It wasn’t quite what I expected but it was what I needed at this point in my life. Sarah Marquis is without a doubt an amazing individual, and I am truly inspired by her story. I’m looking forward to following her story on any future expeditions she challenges herself to.

 

 

All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister

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I must admit, I’m starting my 2017 reading list much better than 2016. I started this one on New Year’s Day and finished the other night. My reading challenge goal on my Goodreads Account last year was 50, and I only read 39 books. This year I adjusted to 45, and if I keep up this pace then hopefully I’ll meet my goal!

Anyway, I really enjoyed this book! Reading it put me in a very “Girl Power” kind of mood, and I felt so much more comfortable with myself being a twenty-six-year-old single woman. On a very basic level, one of the things that struck me about “All the Single Ladies” was that most (if not all) of the women interviewed are so successful, and they are all relatively young! I was so impressed with the accomplishments of these women, and just reading about them has given me motivation that I’ve been lacking recently. I’m not going to lie, since I started this book I’ve begun putting together a new five-year career plan, something which I’ve never bothered with before. I feel like I have always been a “go with the flow” kind of person, and since I’m reasonably smart and hard-working I’ve just always assumed that things would work out in good ways. But reading about the amazing women in this book who are starting companies and nonprofits, and they’re socially and politically active, it just really hit me: I could be doing so much more. Instead of just reading about amazing women I could actually be one myself.

“All the Single Ladies” also provided a view of women’s rights that I’ve never really considered before. It never occurred to me that by default, the system is pretty much designed to make it much harder for single women to live a happy, independent life (compared to married couples and men). And I’m a single lady myself! You would think that I would’ve thought about this, but I haven’t. And now that I am thinking about it, I’ve realized that I’ve had conversations with co-workers and colleagues circling these ideas, though framed in different contexts. One of the things I really appreciated was the appendix of this book, where Traister listed policies and attitudes that she believes must change as single women move forward in the world. It’s a good resource for talking points, as well as what to look out for in politics.

When it comes to feminism and what that means socially and politically, sometimes I feel like I’m just not as knowledgeable as I would like to be. Though I’ve always identified as a feminist, it wasn’t until I joined Our Shared Shelf (Emma Watson’s feminist book club on Goodreads) last year that I really started learning more about what that actually means for different people. Feminism is all about equal rights for men and women, and there are so many different perspectives you can examine. That book club has really opened up my eyes to women’s experiences that are vastly different from my own, and it’s been a great learning experience. This book, however, looks at it from the perspective of single women in the United States, who face their own set of troubles and limitations, which is something I relate to very much.

In its most general sense, “All the Single Ladies” is an investigation of the current trend of delaying (or opting out of completely) marriage. In this book, Traister has put together a comprehensive study of all aspects of single women: history, politics, relationships (both friendships and sexual), poverty, independence, city life, and more. Some of the chapters I felt really hit home, and I was able to identify with them very well. Other chapters, not so much, but I was still invested in the discussion.

In the introduction, Traister quotes Simone de Beauvoir’s observation about real life women: we “are married, or have been, or plan to be, or suffer from not being.” For most of history (and often still today) women are expected to marry and raise children, and if they don’t they are viewed as incomplete or damaged or selfish or any combination of these. This topic came up at work yesterday, and was directed at me. One of my (female) co-workers said that she was “looking out for a man for me.” Trying to speak lightly about it, I responded by saying that I wasn’t really looking anyway, and her answer was that that’s why she was doing it for me. And that conversation isn’t the only time my singlehood has been discussed at work; it happens on a fairly regular basis, which becomes very annoying and sometimes hurtful. But seriously, I’m happy that I’m not married or trying to get married anytime soon. I’ve come to the realization lately that I am generally more unhappy when I’m in a relationship, compared to when I’m not. And for the first time in my life, I’m really focusing on myself and what I want, and it’s freeing! I feel like I’ve been much more excited about things lately, and this book added to that feeling. It was probably one of the best ways to start off a new year, and I’m looking forward to seeing what I accomplish, as well as all the other single ladies across the country.

Love With a Chance of Drowning

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To be perfectly honest (and petty), I’m immensely jealous of Torre DeRoche after reading her memoir. Actually, if I’m going to be really honest I’ll say that I was immensely jealous about twenty pages in, and my envy only grew throughout the remainder of the book. I mean, she walks into a bar, approaches an attractive guy that just so happens to be a sexy Argentinean man, and not only does their drunken hook-up turn into a real, meaningful relationship but she ends up sailing halfway around the world with him! For me, personally, I would be completely and totally happy with about one of the above, let alone all of them! Torre DeRoche is one lucky woman, and I would do anything for her to show me her ways!

Okay, but all silliness and pettiness aside, I was very inspired by her story. And not just in the I-would-love-to-quit-my-job-and-travel-the-world way. Much of “Love With a Chance of Drowning” was about overcoming fears, or at the very least learning to live with them. And it was a very good examination of relationships, and how sometimes it’s not easy to reconcile the long term goals and dreams of two different people. Also, I think it was a good lesson on how to determine when you’re ready- for a move, for a job change, for whatever.

So in this book, Torre DeRoche tells the story of how she ended up sailing across the Pacific Ocean with her boyfriend, Ivan. Not only is this incredible by itself, but it’s made more incredible by the fact that Torre was very afraid of deep water. That’s right- a woman who was afraid of water spent two years sailing on the ocean! If that’s not the definition of overcoming fears, I don’t know what is. For Torre, the one thing holding her back was herself and her own trepidations. She talked a lot about how her experience was something she would tell her grandchildren about. Basically, she was presented with an opportunity of a lifetime, and she could either take advantage of it or turn it down because she was afraid. Obviously, she chose to embrace the adventure. But her fears didn’t end with her decision to go; her anxiety and stress were present throughout the book. Sailing across the Pacific Ocean sounds glamorous, but in reality it can be very dangerous. Over and over again Torre found ways to face down her fear and enjoy their adventure together, despite the risks. I think that was one of my favorite takeaways: you don’t have to be fearless to go on an adventure, you just have to be brave one day at a time.

Tied into Torre’s fears about the trip were her feelings for Ivan, her boyfriend. The relationship seemed to move at lightning speed: they met, then they were dating, within months they were living together, and almost within a year they were sailing the open seas together. I’ve had some experience being in a relationship that moves at hyper-speed, and in my case it didn’t work out. I had jumped in with both feet before I was ready to accept that his dreams were vastly different from mine. In my situation, he broke up with me because he was afraid that I wouldn’t be happy in the long run. It was brutal at the time, but looking back on the experience I think it was the right thing. I think I would have become miserable a few years in, and would have caused a lot more pain for everyone if it had continued. In a sense, Torre’s experience started out the same way. She committed to the trip knowing that Ivan had dreams of spending his life on the ocean. By comparison, she was a city girl with ties to civilization and people, and had plans to live out her life in Australia, her homeland. This dichotomy between the two of them was apparent throughout the book, and in some ways contributed to Torre’s stress and anxiety. It was proof that relationships aren’t easy, and that they often require sacrifice from both parties. This true story of a couple’s experience was evidence that love isn’t the fairytale that fiction pretends it is.

Aside from lessons on fear and relationships, I was most impressed with how and when Torre and Ivan knew it was time to let go and begin their journey. They had spent months living in the sailboat as it was docked in Los Angeles, and doing everything possible to prepare for their trip. For Torre, that meant learning how to sail as well as helping Ivan improve the boat so it was in its best condition. They received some frightening “advice” from some of the people they encountered. Sometimes they were told they would die at sea. Other times people said they were crazy and inexperienced, and it was too dangerous. But one woman told them that if they kept trying to prepare for the journey, then they would never leave. She said that it was impossible to ever be ready for such a trip, and it was just a matter of waking up and deciding to go. This stuck with me. It reminded me of a John Green quote from Paper Towns, which I’ll try to loosely quote here: “Leaving is the hardest thing to do, until you go. Then it’s the easiest damn thing in the world.” This quote, and Torre and Ivan’s experience, shows that we’re never really ready for what’s coming. There is no way to ever be completely prepared for what’s ahead. It’s just a matter of making a decision and sticking to it, and figuring it out along the way.

I wasn’t really expecting all of these important life lessons when I started reading this book. I was expecting it to be a light and comical read, without the philosophy lessons. However, I’m happy that these messages were there along with the humor. In a way, this was just what I needed to read at this point in my life, and I’m pleased that I had the notion to pick it up one day.

On Trails by Robert Moor

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As a hiker, I was intrigued by the concept of On Trails. Written by Robert Moor, the book’s origins started out as musings during Moor’s thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2009.  He began wondering where trails came from, why people follow them, and what makes people set off on their own.  On Trails is the result of his journey over the next seven years to attempt to find answers to these questions.

One of the things I enjoyed about this book is that it’s hard to categorize into one genre. It’s part autobiographical, covering not only his quest for answers but also pieces from his past.  But it also includes elements from science, history, and even philosophy, all interweaved with a tone and voice that felt poetic to me.  A lot of information was packed into 336 pages, yet I was captivated by it without feeling overwhelmed.

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Trail to Wolf Rocks, PA

I found myself reflecting on this book more than any other that I’ve read recently. It made me anxious to get into the woods and go hiking, to see trails with new and enlightened eyes.  My mind started churning on my way to work in the morning, wondering how the highway I drive every day became a major road and if maybe it had once started out as a deer path or Native American trail.  I especially focused on the philosophical parts of the book.  I’m at a point in my life where I’m questioning where I am and where I want the course of my life to go.  It was rewarding to read about those metaphorical paths in relation to the physical trails I encounter every day.

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Bridge in Bear Run Nature Reserve, PA

One of the interesting facts that stuck with me was the revelation that “on average people who are lost, without external navigational cues, will typically not travel farther than one hundred meters from their starting point, regardless of how long they walk.” I’ve had some experience being mildly lost, and in my case I feel this is true.  This past February, I took advantage of a sixty-degree day and went on a solo hike.  Somehow, near the end of the hike, I found myself off the trail with no map and a dead cell phone, and dusk fast approaching.  I was close enough to the road that I could hear cars passing so I knew which direction I needed to walk.  But I couldn’t find a clear path and my way was obstructed by a creek too wide to jump across.  Even though I was so close to the road I can’t deny the panic that was starting to build; it’s not a good thing for a young female to be alone in the woods on a winter night with no food or shelter.  Instead of following the creek to where I most likely would’ve met up with the trail at the point it crossed over the water, I kept retracing my steps backward and trying a new direction.  I was so sure that there was a sign I missed.  In the end, I found a private footbridge that went to somebody’s house, and I crossed through their backyard to the road with my hands in the air, paranoid that they would think I was trespassing or trying to rob them.  The lesson from that (now slightly comical) experience was to carry more emergency items in my daypack (and be more careful), but I couldn’t help but think of that day while I was reading On Trails.  With the exception of finding the private footbridge, I think I mostly stayed within one hundred meters, so I fell into the average.

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About 2 hours before I lost the trail in Laurel Hill State Park, PA.

Throughout the book, Moor provided a history of the land the United States emerged from. The way it’s presented here is unlike any class I’ve had in school; it focuses on the land and how it’s affected by the people that live here, and also on how the land changes the people.  Nature, and the land itself, was a way of life for the Native Americans that lived here for centuries.  Then as settlers from Europe arrived, the wilderness was viewed as something to be tamed and farmed.  During the industrial revolution, the farms turned into factories as natural resources were harvested to earn money.  And now, in the technological age, there is a rediscovered respect for nature.  As Moor put it, “With the advent of industrial technology we began to see wilderness less as a landscape devoid of agriculture and more as a landscape free from technology – and thus the wild went from being a wasteland to a refuge.”  That passage hits home for me; in times of stress or unhappiness I always seek the outdoors to find peace and contentment.  I know I’m not alone in this sentiment; there are countless articles and blogs that tell of the benefits for personal health and well-being that come from going outdoors and experiencing nature.

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Fall at Frick Park, PA.

I’ve been seeking refuge in the wild a lot lately, and not just because it’s autumn and a beautiful time to be outdoors. In many ways I feel like I’m in limbo, and being in the woods provides a sense of grounding for me.  I’m trying to find answers to some big questions I have for myself about where I want to go and what I want to do over the next few years.  My way forward is a bit hazy, and it’s hard to make out the details and see what’s ahead, but I trust myself enough to know that I’ll figure it out along the way.  In On Trails, Moor says, “In the end, we are all existential pathfinders: We select among the paths life affords, and then, when those paths no longer work for us, we edit them and innovate as necessary.  The tricky part is that while we are editing our trails, our trails are editing us.”  For me, this observation is a new way of looking at things, and it’s a satisfying conclusion to everything that On Trails offers.  It gives me a lot to think about the next time I find a trail and explore the wilderness.

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Nature at its best- Parker Ridge, Banff National Park, Canada.

 

 

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein

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To be honest, I couldn’t really get into this book. Partly it was because of the subject material, but I think my biggest issue is that I’ve had so much other stuff going on, and my interest just wasn’t there.  As I mentioned in my previous post, my vacation is coming up.  In fact- I leave for New York this afternoon and we fly to London tomorrow!  So needless to say, I’ve been rushing around and doing some last-minute shopping and attempting to pack and prepare for everything.  The trip has been the main thing on my mind, but I’ve also been busy with the young professional networking group I’m a part of, and I’m also trying to line up everything at work while I’m gone.  There were so many points over the past two weeks where I wanted to just stop reading this book and devote my energy to something else, but I promised myself I would finish it before I left.  So I pushed through.

I had never heard of Carrie Brownstein or Sleater-Kinney before, so I really had no idea what I would be reading about when Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl was announced as the July/August book for Our Shared Shelf. Looking back at my progression through music, I think I was too young for the Riot grrrl movement and the whole indie-punk scene in general.  I was around seven years old when I got my first CD, which was the first Backstreet Boys album.  I spent the next few years in the mainstream pop music world, listening to not just Backstreet Boys but NSYNC, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera too (such a diversity).  My older brother might have listened to some punk bands, but his music never made it outside his bedroom or headphones or anywhere that I would be exposed to it.  In my early teens I started gravitating toward more “emo” bands, and the trend stayed throughout high school.  New Found Glory, Dashboard Confessional, Bowling for Soup, and Fall Out Boy were some of my favorites (enough so that I still listen to them today when I’m feeling nostalgic).  College was mostly about Top 40 and whatever was playing at bars and parties, and then after graduation I discovered Spotify.  Nowadays, I would say 50% of my music library is made up of singer-songwriter acoustic type artists, then split evenly between classic rock, country, electronic pop, and Top 40.  So, reading about a feminist punk rock band from the nineties was unlike anything I was familiar with.

The beginning part of the book, when Carrie talks about her childhood, I could relate to. She talked about putting on plays and performances for her family, and I kept smiling because I used to do that too.  My best friend and I always had a performance ready for our parents after sleepovers.  I think our best one was about two girls who lived by the beach.  The worst was when we created a band called Blue Ice, and our opening song was “We’re Blue Ice, we’re so nice, we’re Blue Ice and we’re so nice.”  The most entertaining one was the video we created of my Beanie Babies competing in a game show, complete with me using different voices for each contestant (this video still exists somewhere).  But then she started to grow older and had to deal with serious issues.  Carrie’s mother began suffering from an eating disorder, and as a reader you could see how that affected her.  Her life took a darker turn, and it was more difficult for me to relate to.

As Carrie described how music began to become more and more important in her life, I began to lose interest. She referenced bands I had never heard of, and feelings I had never experienced.  When she wrote about seeing bands live and discovering new music at record stores, I began to wonder if it was an age thing.  Would I be able to relate more if I had to hunt for good music, if it wasn’t as simple as opening an app on my phone?  And as for Sleater-Kinney’s experience touring and recording, I just couldn’t garner any appeal for it.  Sleeping on borrowed and possibly dirty mattresses, practicing in confined places that smelt bad, struggling to get by; it all repulsed me.  Maybe I’m too mainstream or protected or snobby (I seriously hope not) but I just couldn’t connect with it.

Despite all that, there were two important aspects of Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl that I really enjoyed and appreciated. The first is Carrie’s complete openness about her struggles with depression and mental health.  It takes a certain kind of bravery to be that open and honest with the world, and I have so much respect for her.  I wish others (myself included) could be more open about our personal vulnerabilities.  In the world today, I think people are so exposed; there’s no break in attention.  It requires us to be “on” all the time, and it takes effort to maintain the image that’s out there, the image we want people to view us as.  So for someone to basically strip that image away and open up about such personal details, it’s amazing.

The second aspect that I appreciated were her thoughts on being a female musician, and why the word “female” shouldn’t really make a difference. A musician is a musician, regardless of gender, yet Carrie (and the other band members of Sleater-Kinney) faced countless questions about what it’s like to be a female musician, and they had to deal with so many gender stereotypes throughout the band’s career.  It’s frustrating.  As Carrie wrote in Chapter 15, “Anything that isn’t traditional for women apparently requires that we remind people what an anomaly it is, even when it becomes less and less of an anomaly.”  I mostly feel the same way about my job.  Being a woman in business is still something I have to explain; it’s like I have to constantly justify myself.  In reality, my job would be the same if I were a man, but it’s the perceptions and attitudes of others that make it different.

Despite my struggles connecting to Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, I’m glad I read it. So far, the books discussed in Our Shared Shelf have pushed me and expanded my knowledge about a number of different subjects.  This is definitely a book that I would never have considered reading if it weren’t for this book club, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to get outside my comfort zone and try something new.  And I’m happy to have learned about Carrie Brownstein and Sleater-Kinney.  I’m definitely planning on checking out the band on Spotify, and I’ll probably try to catch a few episodes of Portlandia as well.

 

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

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Reading outside by the river!

The Argonauts was the May book choice for Our Shared Shelf. I was very excited to read it because it was so different from my normal reading material. If I had to describe what kind of book The Argonauts is, I would say that it’s a memoir blended in with essays on love, gender studies, and family (among many other topics!). It’s Maggie Nelson’s very personal account of her relationship with her fluidly gendered partner, and the experience of going through a pregnancy.

I struggled a lot with reading this book. I think it was a combination of the format and some of the subject material. The book is not divided into chapters, or any sections really. To me it reads like a stream of consciousness, with Nelson’s thoughts and insights and memories blending with references to theorists and scholars. Because there was no break throughout the book, I found myself becoming completely absorbed in her writing because it was very intense and powerful. But after 10 pages or so I would have to stop because it was so much information to take in, and I just needed a break. Also, I had to look up many of the references that she made, which made it a little more difficult and ultimately slowed my process. Overall, I think the book is very intellectually written, and I’m just not as familiar with some of the topics and references, and needed to get myself up to speed.

I think the thing that completely amazed me was how frank and honest Nelson was about such personal details of her and her family’s life. She held nothing back in writing this, she was herself openly and completely, regardless of opinions that others might have. I thought it was a beautiful piece of writing in that regard. That level of honesty is so rare, I felt very connected to what she was saying, and the experience kind of blew me away.

The Argonauts also expanded my awareness and understanding of gender fluidity. I haven’t had any experience with gender fluidity in my life, meaning that I don’t personally know anyone that would identify in that way. To be completely honest, I found it incredibly difficult to wrap my head around. I think the concept of “male” and “female” is so ingrained in my mind that I felt like I had to unlearn something, though I’m not exactly sure what it is that I unlearned. I just found myself questioning things a lot. For example, I was confused on what pronoun to use to describe Harry (Nelson’s partner), and eventually I reached a point where I was asking myself why I had to choose, and why couldn’t I just accept Harry as Harry and leave it be? This probably isn’t a good analogy because it’s so basic, but I remember telling people in high school that “I don’t believe in labels.” At the time I was referring to the loose classifications of preps, jocks, geeks, etc. I would tell people that I didn’t believe in labels because I felt like I belonged to more than one group. Is it such a stretch to apply the same logic to gender, even though the logic is so incredibly basic? I don’t know the answers to these questions, or even if there are answers. I’m just enjoying being challenged by the reading material. This is the first book in Our Shared Shelf that I felt motivated to participate in a discussion board, so it’s clear that the book is making me think. And however confusing or challenging that is, I like it.

Maggie Nelson also spent a significant portion of the book discussing motherhood, and how being a mother relates to and impacts being a woman. I thought these parts of the book were very interesting and eye-opening because it made me think about motherhood in a new light. I’m not a mom, and I have no plans to become one anytime soon, so a lot of the theories that Nelson discussed were basically unknown to me because motherhood just isn’t on my radar right now. It made me think a lot about my own mom, and some of my friends that have recently had children, and I wonder what they would think if they read this book. In that regard, I think they would have gotten more out of the reading experience than I did. I already want to re-read The Argonauts at some point, just because it is so much to digest, but I want to make a mental note to myself to pull this out if and when I ever have children. I wonder what I would think about it then.

Reading The Argonauts was definitely an experience. It was a struggle- both in the structure of the book and the subject material. Even though it’s only about 140 pages long, I was challenged enough that it took me over a week to read. But I’m not complaining about it. It was such an eye-opening book; it was just a really good learning experience. In a weird way, I’m kind of proud of myself for completing it. If it weren’t for Our Shared Shelf, I would’ve never felt compelled to read The Argonauts. It’s something I would’ve passed over in a bookstore without a second glance. So the fact that I went outside my reading “comfort zone” and that I finished it despite the struggle… it’s just a good feeling. It serves as a reminder to me that you can always learn by reading.

How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

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How To Be A Woman was the April book for Our Shared Shelf. In the announcement post, Emma Watson said that she laughed out loud when reading it for the first time, and she meant it as a more light-hearted and entertaining read than some of the previous books. When I bought the book, the cover included a quote from VanityFair.com saying, “The British version of Tina Fey’s Bossypants.” Okay. I was sold.

Honestly, Moran is funny. And maybe slightly ridiculous, but I mean that in the best way. She is just so very… herself.   I think her personality really shines through. I would absolutely love to sit down at a bar and have a few rounds with her. Because not only is she hilarious, but she’s also wise (or at the very least she gives really, really good advice). I experienced a few “aha” moments while reading the book, and it has definitely made me question some things in my own life. Admittedly, though, there were a few topics that I found difficult to relate to, but for me that didn’t take away from the experience. If anything, it makes me want to re-read this book in a few years to see what more I will gain from it.

Moran begins the book by talking about her 13th birthday, and sharing thoughts she had at that time about what being a women meant, or what she felt she had to do to become one. Saying it like that sounds kind of ridiculous, but 13 is a confusing time, especially for girls. I think a lot of people would agree with that. But as Moran continues and discusses different topics concerning modern women (body hair, breasts, pornography, love, etc) she makes it clear through the telling of her own experiences that for women, growing up is a lot more than “finding yourself.” She points out over and over again all the different ways that society dictates how women “should” be. Ultimately, she reveals that the real learning experience was in figuring out how to block out all that noise, and just be her own person freely without judgment or consequence. Which essentially is how she goes on to define feminism in the fourth chapter: “What is feminism? Simply the belief that women should be as free as men, however nuts, dim, deluded, badly dressed, fat, receding, lazy, and smug they might be.” *applause*

One of the first chapters that really hit home for me was when she discussed encountering sexism at work. I can completely relate, and I understand the frustration of trying to figure out how to deal with it. Because, as Moran points out, the sexism encountered today in the modern workplace isn’t flagrantly obvious.   It’s subtle. It’s tricky. It makes you question yourself, “Was that really sexist? Or am I too sensitive? Is being sensitive giving into a predetermined role for a woman? Is calling sensitivity a female trait sexist? Am I sexist? I’m a woman how can I be sexist?!” I work in a corporate setting in a predominantly male environment (and a lot of these males are over 60), so I experience this kind of stuff daily and have learned to just shrug it off. It sounds crazy, but the flip side is filing a (probably embarrassing) report with HR that will be taken very seriously and might cause someone to lose their job, and is all of that really worth it just because of a few comments here and there? Because again, it’s never overtly sexist.   It’s mostly comments that are quite possibly intended as jokes, and I can take a joke right?

The very next chapter (about relationships) felt like it could have been written out of pages from my own diary, but it was also one that made me laugh a lot. My favorite part was when Moran discussed how so many women have imaginary relationships with men, and as she put it, “living in a parallel world in their head; conjuring up endless plots and scenarios for this thing that never actually happened.” I mainly enjoyed this because I am fully aware that I do this. Here is a summary of my most recent imaginary experience:

A couple of months back, I had been on a few dates with a guy when I saw on Facebook that he RSVP’d to a cocktail event that was about a month, maybe a month and a half away. And even though we had never actually discussed this event in person, I started thinking about buying tickets. Should we get the VIP tickets or go for the regular tickets? I thought VIP would be better, it included drinks so we could save money. And what about a dress? This would be our first public event as a couple, and someone would probably take pictures of us, so oh my god this is going to be our first Facebook picture together. Now, I absolutely had to buy a new dress, and probably new shoes too. I wanted to pick out a really nice dress, preferably a little sexy, because I’m relatively young and wanted this first picture to look Really Good. But it can’t be too sexy, because his mom will see it and I didn’t want her to think I was slutty. And while I was thinking of picking out a sexy-but-classy dress I thought I should plan on hitting the gym more just to make sure I look Really Good in this monumental picture, but I was going on a work trip the next week and visiting my brother out of town the following week, so how was I going to find the time?!  And I thought that I really should get my hair cut and maybe get my nails done too? Forget the VIP tickets, all of this costs money, and I’ve been trying to save up for vacation so maybe I should just plan on skipping some museums in London and then I won’t worry about spending the money now. And on and on I went, thinking all these crazy things, and the whole thing was pointless because he ended up not even going to the event! He was out of town that weekend!  And to top it all off- we aren’t even a couple!

Retrospective conclusion: I’m insane. But Moran made me feel like I wasn’t alone, and that it was perfectly normal for women to think things like this because society has such a negative opinion of single & unmarried women. I mean, if you’re a single woman I’m willing to bet you’ve been asked these questions more than a few times: When will you settle down? Don’t you hate living alone? When will you get married/have kids/start a family? Why are you single? Aren’t you afraid of becoming a crazy cat lady? Ugh… it’s all so annoying. Moran’s point was that there’s so much pressure out there on women when it comes to relationships, so it’s pretty natural that we go a little overboard when we think about them.

This was just one of the sections in the book that made me feel so understood. Like yes, this is what it’s like. This is what’s going through my head. I’m not alone, other women feel/think/do this too. Another chapter that I related to was when Moran discussed fashion and clothes, and how it’s about so much more than just picking out a shirt you like. She says, “How women look is considered generally interchangeable with who we are – and, therefore, often goes on to dictate what will happen to us next.” Basically, she’s saying that for women life is an elaborate game of dress-up where every day your clothes are just a costume for the person you’re supposed to be that day. For me, I could live in jeans and tee shirts (in the summer) and leggings and sweaters (in the winter). But at work I have to dress the part of Young Bright Professional Woman, so it’s all heels, skirts, and dresses. And heaven forbid I wear slacks and pull my hair back, coworkers might think I was out late the night before! (True story: I once wore slacks and pulled my hair back and my coworker asked if I was out drinking the night before. I wasn’t.) And if I go out at night, whether with friends or on a date I have to be the Cool Attractive Post-College Easygoing Woman Who Isn’t Trying To Be Cool And Attractive. For the record, I’m still trying to figure out how to pull that one off.

Basically, How To Be A Woman made me feel understood.  I could go on and on about everything that I related to, and how some of my experience were so similar to what Moran described.  There were some heavier topics in the book (children, abortion, etc) that I couldn’t relate to because personally I’m not there yet in my life, so I’m not ready to fully comment on those right now. But for the rest of the book, for all the chapters that I found relatable, including the topics I didn’t discuss here, reading felt like hanging out with a friend. Moran is funny, personable, and to me, relatable. I’m definitely looking forward to reading some of her other books, and I’m incredibly grateful to Emma Watson for introducing me to her.