Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air

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5.0 Stars

When Breath Becomes Air is heartbreakingly beautiful. A young neurosurgeon with a love for literature is diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer and in his attempt to understand morality and death, he teaches us how to live.

Kalanithi’s identity in this book is as both doctor and patient or as he puts it, as subject and then direct object. He gives readers an insight into his experiences and opinions as a doctor. Then, once diagnosed, he struggles with the idea of how to live. He says, “The future I had imagined, the one just about to be realized, the culmination of decades of striving, evaporated.” Always eloquent, Kalanithi recounts his struggles and his decisions. A great example, and one that I believe bears witness to the depth of his character and his capacity to live, is when he and his wife discuss if they should have a child:

” ‘Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?’ She asked. ‘Don’t you think that goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?’

‘Wouldn’t it be great if it did?’ I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.”

The hard choices that he had to face and the love and grief that are intermingled will bring you to tears many times throughout his book, but still, read on. Philosophical, raw, eloquent and powerful, this book’s premise is about facing death and about leaving something behind; yet what we really learn is how to live: ceaselessly striving.

Favorite quotes:

“When there’s no place for the scalpel, words are the surgeon’s only tool.”

“I don’t think I ever spent a minute of any day wondering why I did this work, or whether it was worth it. The call to protect life – and not merely life but another’s identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another soul – was obvious in its sacredness.”

“I searched for a question to bring understanding. None was forthcoming. I could only imagine the overwhelming guilt, like a tidal wave, but had lifted him up and off that building.” – describing how he felt when he found out a friend and colleague had committed suicide by jumping off the roof of the hospital.

“The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients. You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”

“What happened to Paul was tragic, but he was not a tragedy. I expected to feel only empty and heartbroken after Paul died. It never occurred to me that you could love someone the same way after he was gone, that I could continue to feel such love and gratitude alongside the terrible sorrow, the grief so heavy that in times I shiver and moan under the weight of it.” – Lucy, Paul’s wife

I’m pairing this book with Boulevard Brewing‘s Tell-Tale Tart, a slightly sour ale. I chose this brew because even though not everyone enjoys a sour ale, the tartness seemed to fit this sorrowful yet powerfully inspirational book. Add that the name of the brew is a play on words regarding literature, Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart, and it seemed like the perfect pairing for Kalanithi since he was a lover of literature. He majored in English literature before turning to neurosurgery and always struggled with what to do first – medicine or writing. It’s clear that he was accomplished at both. As we see from this book, he was a brave and brilliant man. It was only time that was against him.

Format: Hardcover.

Crazy Brave: A Memoir by Joy Harjo

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4.0 Stars

Joy Harjo is a Mvskoke poet, musician and activist. She is a strong defender of women’s equality and is an active member of the Muscogee tribe. She uses her poetry as a “voice of the indigenous people.” I first encountered Harjo through her poetry and I’ve been hooked ever since. Harjo’s works blend the physical world with the spiritual world. She is almost a mystic, a shaman, a seer. In both her memoir and her poetry she speaks of visions and stories as though they are a part of her life and the spirits of her ancestors.

Harjo’s memoir chronicles her life from before she was born, to when she was fighting in the womb and had to be pulled into this world, to how she finally was able to envision herself above panic and poverty and eventually follow the spirit of poetry. Her storytelling in enchanting and brutally honest. The lesson that Harjo lived and relived is that through the casual abuse, rape, negligence, and fear there is still the ability to transcend beyond that, to let yourself be healed, and to bring healing to others.

While most Native literature is suffused with magical realism (for lack of a better term), Harjo is one of the few who actively sees visions. While other authors create characters like the wise grandmother or the magical elder in their works, Harjo is that character. She is the one who sees into the past of her ancestors. She’s the one who relives the life of her great-grandfather through a vision. As a reader, it is not hard to suspend my disbelief; because I want to believe. I am fascinated by the idea of being able to dream the life of your great-grandmother. I am enthralled at the thought of having sickness being eaten away by an alligator in a dream. I find it mystical and wonderful. Can I honestly say that I believe it without a doubt? Probably not. However, I want to believe; and I think it is the believing that makes it beautiful.

I’ve chosen to pair this with Black Grouse, a smokey-sweet whiskey that finishes with hints of peat and a gentle smokiness. Throughout her childhood, Harjo lived in Oklahoma and everybody seemed to have smoked. She also believed that “all of these plant medicines, like whiskey, tequila, and tobacco, are potential healers. There’s a reason they’re called spirits. You must use them carefully. They open you up. If you abuse them, they can tear holes in your protective, spiritual covering.” So pour yourself a finger of whiskey, light a cigarette and enjoy this memoir.

Memorable quotes:

“In the end, we must each tend to our own gulfs of sadness, the others can assist us with kindness, food, good words, and music.”

“I felt the presence of the sacred, a force as real and apparent as anything else in the world, present and alive, as if it were breathing. I wanted to catch hold, to remember and never forget. But the current hard reality reasserted itself. I had to have the house cleaned just right or my stepfather would punish me. So I continued on my path to forgetfulness.”

Format: Paperback.

Joani Blank’s Femalia

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3.5 Stars

I came across Femalia by Joani Blank while reading CUNT by Musico. Feminists have been advocating this book for men and women for years to help shape people’s perspectives about their own bodies and the bodies of their partners. Femalia consists of 50 photographs of the female vulva. The purpose of this book is to show males and females that the vulva comes in many different variations and they are each perfectly formed. Sadly, some women are uncomfortable with their ladybits and worry that it doesn’t “look right.” But where do we get our expectations of what a vulva should look like? Porn? Male-dominated conversations and opinions? Women body-shaming each other? I’m sure there’s another book out there that discusses these points. However, Femalia‘s only goal lies in the photographs. There is no denying that each woman is unique and it is the hope of Blank that when men and women view these photographs they will be more comfortable with their own bodies and the bodies of their partners.

I decided to purchase this book solely on the recommendations I came across while reading feminist texts. Truthfully, the only vulva I’m intimately acquainted with is my own. There are also depictions in pornography, but we know some of those women get labiaplasty surgery to make their vulva more “acceptable.” Hearing all of this is disconcerting, especially when (as far as being a straight woman is concerned) I consider my own to be “normal” but it’s also all I know. Taking that into consideration, I decided to purchase this book and I have to agree with my fellow feminists and concur that all women should know the many different shapes and colors and variations of other women’s bodies. This way, when we hear people shaming or criticizing their own bodies or the bodies of others, we can present them with the facts. After all, if all female bodies have it, how can it be “unfeminine,” or “ugly,” or “not right looking.” We live in a society where a mom tweets a picture of sandwiches to compare her daughters “vaginas” to that of Taylor Swift. Someone never told that woman that vaginas (and by vaginas, I mean vulvas) don’t work that way. Hopefully, someone will inform her daughters. (Check out the tweet HERE and read the comments for a good laugh.)

If this review teaches you anything, it’s that the outside ladybits is the vulva; and the inside is the vagina. I never cared enough to make the distinction since “vagina” is our society’s default word for lady parts, but Blank’s book has made me change my mind, and I hope to change all of your minds! If we cannot correctly name and label our bodies, how do we protect and love ourselves, thus teaching our partners to do the same? Language holds power over us. It gives us agency and allows us to empower ourselves. Let’s not take for granted that empowered women empower women.

I’m pairing this book with Good JuJu by Left Hand Brewery because all vulvas are good juju. This beer has a crisp, fresh hint of ginger that is refreshing and light.

Format: Paperback.

Mary M. & Bryan Talbot’s The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia

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4.0 Stars

The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia recounts the life of French feminist and anarchist Louise Michel. The narrative is structured as a frame tale, in which American feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman is told the history of Michel’s work by a few women who knew her. This graphic novel explored the idealism of the Paris Commune of the 1870s and the optimistic futurism that was being displayed in the current literature.

Once I started reading, I had to stop and brush up on my French history (Joke’s on me, guys. There are annotations at the back of the book that I completely missed). Louise Michel and her revolution were fighting for the people of Paris after the fall of Napoleon III. They took over the city of Paris and tried to create a utopia where there was free marriage, in which men no longer held proprietary rights over women; equal education, where children and women could be educated and have jobs so that all classes of people had food on their tables.

This revolution was eventually taken down by the French army. The slaughter is known as the “Bloody Week” due to the thousands of France’s own people who were killed. Louise Michel was arrested and her most famous quote came the day she stood trial. She stood before the committee and said, “Since it seems that any heart that beats for liberty has the right only to a small lump of lead, I demand my share. If you let me live, I will not stop crying for vengeance, and I will denounce the assassins on the Board of Pardons to the vengeance of my brothers. If you are not cowards, kill me!” Although she dared them to execute her for her revolutionary ideals, she was deported. She spent two years in prison and seven in deportation before returning to France to continue her work.

There is one particular scene in the comic that is striking. It takes place during Michel’s deportation. The story is being recounted to the American feminist of how Louise Michelle helped the local indigenous people rise up against the white colonizers. The American feminist starts to say “you mean, she helped those nig-? I mean, she didn’t stick with her own kind?” At this point, Michel’s friend who is telling the story explodes, yelling “her own kind you say? She was sticking with her own kind! She stuck with the indigenous people, just as she always stuck with the oppressed! Just as she did with the rebellious, oppressed and then defeated people of Paris. They were fighting the same fight.”  What is important to take away from the scene is that so many of us American and feminists, forget that the feminist movement, in particular, Susan B Anthony, did not want the black man to have the right to vote before the white woman. Racism and classism was still very much an accepted norm. Yet, here we have the story of a 19th-century French woman, who defies those norms. That being said, we know how colonialism works. The white colonialist pitted tribe against tribe and there was massacre after massacre. Michel wrote to her friend, Victor Hugo, asking for his help and sent documents to the French newspapers exposing the massacre in the colony. This type of revolutionary, activism from a woman – a woman with no power, remember, she is a prisoner. She has been deported. But time and again she is reaching out to help those groups in need. And when she cannot help them, she exposes their oppressors.

While she is hailed as the “French grande dame of anarchy”, her real legacy lays in the Labour movement and women’s rights. Michel was decrying poverty in theoretical essays long before it was recognized as a problem. She was a school teacher, medical worker and revolutionary. After coming back to France she was continually in and out of prison, always giving lectures and writing essays on the Social Revolution. She was shot in the head for her words, and thankfully survived, although some reports say she had remnants of the bullet in her head. She continued her work until her passing at age 74.

The graphic novel format made this fun to read. It’s always nice to have history and feminism presented in a non-traditional style. The art was simple but striking.

Some of my favorite quotes are as follows:

“Knowledge, it must be presented in a manner that enlarges the horizon instead of restricting it. Girls are given a pile of nonsense supported by childlike logic, while at the same time boys have to swallow little balls of science until they choke. For both of us, this is a ridiculous education. Education can provide not only an avenue to economic independence, but also a means to hasten the recognition of women’s rights.”

“Let’s run into the red teeth of the chattering machine guns, the ash blowing around us like black butterflies!”

“I have seen criminals and whores and spoken with them/now I inquire if you believe them made as of now they are,/to drag their rags in blood and mire,/preordained an evil race./You to whom we are all pray, have made them what they are today. ”
(Ok, doesn’t that remind you of Drew Barrymore in Ever After when she says “first you make thieves and then punish them”? Well, now we know who said it first.)

I’m pairing this book with Left Hand‘s Milk Stout Nitro. I was originally going to get a light French lager but this graphic novel was dark and moving, so I opted for the rich, stoutly sweet taste of this beer. The mild coffee aromas coupled with the sticky sweetness of the beer perfectly matched the mood and tone of this novel.

Format: Hardcover.

I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan

Translated By: Eliza Griswold
Photographs By: Seamus Murphy

5.0 Stars

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Landays are two line poems that have always been an oral tradition in Afghanistan. If you’ve read Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns or Malala Yousafzai’s I Am Malala then you’ve unwittingly read Afghan Landays. Landays are deeply embedded in the oral traditions of womenfolk in this region of the world. The couplets are passed down and around from woman to woman. They speak on Love, Grief, Separation, War and Homeland. The most important aspect of this tradition is that it is anonymous. In a region where women can be punished for speaking out against the societal norms and for even writing poetry, they subvert the patriarchy by spreading anonymous oral poetry, Landays.

After learning of a teenage girl who was forbidden to write poems and burned herself in protest, journalist Eliza Griswold and photographer Seamus Murphy journeyed to Afghanistan to investigate her death and explore the role Landays play in contemporary life. The poems they put together in this book are accompanied by more than fifty photographs, collectively expressing rage, love, war, despair, and humor; belying the misconception of women being servile mutes behind their burqas.

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I found these Landays to be passionate and clever. The couplet form allows for a concise expression of thought. A few of my favorites are as follows:

“When sisters sit together, they always praise their brothers. / When brothers sit together, they sell their sisters to others.”

“You sold me to an old man, father. / May God destroy your home; I was your daughter.”

“In my dream, I am the president. / When I awake, I am the beggar of the world.”

“Widows take sweets to a saint’s shrine. / I’ll bring God popcorn and beg him to take mine.”

“Separation, you set fire / in the heart and home of every lover.”

I chose to pair this book with Coppertail Brewing‘s Unholy Trippel, a Belgo-American Trippel that finishes smoothly and is immensely drinkable. There are hints of citrus and fruit that make for a nice finish.

Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity

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Serrano’s Whipping Girl is a very personalized and informative discussion on gender identity. Serrano explains the language of gender and the many factors that make up our expectations of gender. Serrano goes into length about femininity, trans-misogyny, and sexism. She explores what it means to be a transwoman and how they are treated. Her knowledge coupled with her clear writing style makes this book an enjoyable read. It is the best educational text for trans-allies or anyone hoping to learn a little more about the people around them. At times, I found all the new language overwhelming. It makes me a little nervous thinking and learning about these issues as a trans-ally. If it’s so confusing for me, how do I advocate effectively for the community that I support? So much about the LGBTQ is based on ignorance and misunderstanding. The ongoing battle to change or enlighten people’s pre-established biases is frustrating.

Quotes: “It is no longer enough for feminism to fight solely for the rights of those born female.”
“And while we credit previous feminist movements for helping to create a society where most sensible people would agree with the statement ‘Women and men are equals,’ we lament the fact that we remain light-years away from being able to say that most people believe that femininity is masculinity’s equal.”

I’m pairing this book with Goose Island’s saison, Sofie. I love saisons and this style alesofie drinks pleasingly when reading a book that will leave you feeling confused but informed. Oh, the things you didn’t know you didn’t know. Let your beer be a comfort to you as you try to sort out cissexuals, oppositional sexism, traditional sexism, gender hierarchies and femininity in feminism. Good luck!

Beer Photo Credit: Beer Metal Dude
Format: Paperback.

Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me

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5.0 Stars

When I chose this book I thought it seemed like it would be hilarious. I was assuming it was just a humorous spoof of a book. I was pleasantly surprised that it was much more than that.

Solnit says it best herself, “when I sat down and wrote the essay ‘Men Explain Things to Me,’ here’s what surprised me: though I began with a ridiculous example of being patronized by a man, I ended with rape and murders.”

Solnit’s essays encompass more than just the basic “mansplaining” that most women are familiar with. She gives us a brief look into the history of gender roles and the concealment women have struggled with and how feminism has done much to help us walk a road toward equality.

Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist has been touted as the perfect “intro to feminism” text, but I believe Rebecca Solnit’s essays in this book give a vastly more comprehensive look into the lives and struggles of women and in explaining the importance feminism has played in giving us a road to equality.

unnamedFunky Buddha‘s Floridian Hefeweizen pairs nicely with this book. This golden brew has aromas of bananas, citrus, and cloves that lends a calming haze while drinking it.

Beer Photo Credit: Columbus Beer Scene
Format: Paperback.