I did reading challenges in 2015 and 2016. I spent a ridiculous amount of time writing things in defense of the first challenge (one which I did get paid for, so hey!). Despite the doomsday cries of the peanut gallery, the market for white male authors did not collapse due to my — or anyone else’s — personal reading choices. Just check out the Bad sex award 2018 nominees!
I didn’t read much in 2017 for a lot of reasons, but did manage to get in proportionally more LGBTQ-centric works than I had in previous years.
2018 proved that my 2015 and 2016 challenges were effective. While I didn’t actively focus on any particular sort of author this year, I ended up reading a wider range of authors than I had in the past. I made my way through proportionally fewer books by and about exclusively cis, straight white men, as was the goal of my challenges.
2018 was an important year in one way: I learned what it is to miss my window for enjoying a book, and to mourn that fact. I accidentally challenged my unconscious idea that a good read will wait for me for as long as I need it to.
My year of disappointing reads began happily enough with a game-changing money- and time-saving discovery. I found out that I was eligible to join a much larger library system than the one I already was part of and discovered the Library Extension. Between the LA Public Library’s extensive digital selection and the Library Extension, I converted much of my Amazon book wishlist into an Overdrive wish list and began making my way through it.
This meant that, for the first time in my life, I got through a meaningful portion of my decades-old to-read list.
The meander down Amnesia Lane was entertaining in its navel-gazey way. I could tell at exactly what point in my life I had added certain books to my list. The anti-religious books from when I first left Islam. The progressive religious books that followed shortly after as I tried to see if I could make some kind of peace with Islam and other religions. The works of pretentious literature I craved aspirationally so that I could try to impress the young men who were determined to be unimpressed by me no matter what I did or didn’t do. The apostate narratives that served to both make me feel less alone and rip open the wounds of my own deconversion. The hate-reads I used to think of as “research” on the opposition as well as a sign of my own toughness and fair-mindedness. The infinite books on sex, the Feminism 101 treatises, and the pioneering trans memoirs.
A lot of them just… didn’t work for 2018 Me the way they would have for Past Me. It was such a disappointment.
This went beyond the obvious. My political and social evolution matters, sure, but sometimes, it was just that my interests have diversified. There isn’t much of a point in reading yet another book on the same topic when your obsession with the topic hit its peak years ago.
In addition to continuing to retrain myself to read books, this was a big year for reminding myself to stop reading when a book isn’t for me — or is no longer for me. Forcing myself through a book I don’t like is a surefire recipe to get me to stop reading just so I can avoid that particular book.
The most important reading lesson I’m taking from 2018 is to let myself read in the moment. If a new book is out from an author I love, especially if it’s non-fiction, I should add myself to that library waitlist queue as soon as it’s up (which is often months before the book actually comes out) rather than wishlist it for later. I might not be as able to appreciate it if I wait years before I get around to it.
In order of nothing, really.
- Jon Ronson – I wanted to like him. I still do. I like his podcast about the wide-ranging impact of Pornhub, the movie based on one of his books, his voice, and his overall approach. I do not like the unexamined ableism and transmisogyny that leaked out of his book The Psychopath Test. I like least the self-deprecation that shields his less-than-lovely attitudes towards trans women and the mentally ill. I couldn’t even stomach the idea of finishing the last two chapters. Now I wish I’d read The Men Who Stare at Goats back when I saw the movie so that I could’ve enjoyed it unencumbered.
- The Voyeur’s Motel by Gay Talese – The story behind the book is titillating and unethical. That I knew when I started it. What I didn’t expect was the book to be less about a wide-ranging cross-section of Americans having sex and more about the prejudiced rantings of the voyeur himself. If I wanted to listen to an old white dude with a fetish ramble about what he hates, especially the youths these days, I would willingly go outside without headphones on. Back when I read anything and everything about sex, I would’ve found the tidbits the book presented utterly fascinating.
- Why We Left Islam by Joel Richardson – I hated it so much that I won’t link it here. It’s a book of apostate narratives presented with a very obvious Christian-pushing and right-wing agenda. While there are several highly-visible ex-Muslims with right-wing beliefs, there is a huge difference between reading something one of them wrote to understand their lives and perspectives and reading a highly-edited and editorialized book by a never-Muslim profiting from their stories. Back when I was a fresh apostate, any book about apostates would’ve been fine by me.
- City of Night by John Rechy – It’s historically-important gay lit. Back when I was hungrier for representation and a sucker for sordidness, I would have been riveted. Now that I’m both a dedicated reader of my kind of smut and sick of male authors who write gonzo-journalist style, a book like this, regardless of its place in the LGBTQ+ canon, isn’t something I can finish.
- Perv by Jesse Bering – It’s a book about sexuality. I used to inhale those by the dozen then clamor for more, but no more. I am now incredibly picky, finicky even, highly selective about how I spend my time with sexuality. This is both literal and a metaphor. This book sucks in its treatment of people who aren’t conventionally sexually attractive and/or men. It assumes that the reader has never considered the sexuality of someone who hasn’t aroused them, which is befuddling to nearly anyone who isn’t wholly self-absorbed. The way the author talks about unconventional sexual tastes left me feeling disgusting about myself in the way I used to when being rejected by men I was told were “desperate”. I’m the Sasquatch in the bed alluded to by the author, not the fuckable person he seems to be writing for. I’m not desperate enough to go where I’m not invited.
- Iron John by Robert Bly – This work was intended to be the male counterpoint to the cis-centric (not to mention incredibly hokey) goddess stuff that feminists in the 70’s-90’s seemed to love. I don’t care for the female version, so what drove me to try out the male version? My current quest to feel more at home in my gender and my body might have something to do with it. The fact that the first man to ever thoroughly destroy my heart had recommended it to me might also play a part. Too bad I’m many years past the compulsion to understand why he did what he did to me.
- Sex and Punishment by Eric Berkowitz – Another book about sex that got added to my list years ago which turned out to be evo-psychobabble for the historically-minded misogynist. I choked down barely 20% of it before realizing that I didn’t need to read it for any reason.
- Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill – I would have absolutely loved it if my expectations had been set correctly. The reviews and summaries heavily implied that the book is sexy, kinky, and/or erotic. It… is not. It’s more a realistic, literary depiction of how sad, disconnected, pretentious people pretend at sexiness, kink, and eroticism. That doesn’t make it a bad book, but one you’d have to approach less as smut, more as about smuttiness in the real world.
- Man Seeking Woman by Simon Rich – I saw the show, was sad the show was over, and read the book. This was a mistake. Where the show subverts a lot of classic misogynistic tropes regarding women and especially women in the context of dating and relationships, the books presents them straight. So straight. The book is painfully heterosexual and resentful towards women.
- A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride – I was once an eager reader of parodies, especially ones that felt like steps towards parity. If you really like the dark Irish stream-of-consciousness of James Joyce but wish his books were from the perspective of that one bird girl instead of some boy-man, this is the book for you. It certainly wasn’t for me. I no longer derive pleasure from books simply because they’re an “anything you can do, I can do better” gender-flip.
- She’s Not There by Jennifer Finney Boylan – There’s really nothing wrong with this book. If anything, I am very interested in reading more from trans elders these days. The issue is that it’s very much written for cis people’s enjoyment and edification, not as a slice of trans life. I would’ve benefited more from it when I was first exploring gender as a concept and learning about trans people.
- Feminasty by Erin Gibson – This book wasn’t so much read too late by me than written too late for me. Breezy semi-autobiographical works on feminism by cis white feminists who pay lip service to trans women and/or feminists of color while still focusing in on white feminism are a dime a dozen. This one isn’t even especially funny or insightful. It’s already blending into the haze in my memory labeled Books Self-Described “Strong Hollywood Women” Wrote.
- Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home by Rhoda Janzen – This one hurts to dislike. It contains multiple elements of things I should like — apostasy, an irreverent woman, trying to make peace with a conservative religious family — but fell flat in execution. If I had read it when freshly apostized, I might have enjoyed it more since I had the hunger for such works, but not anymore.
2018’s Top Reads
Also not in any particular order.
- Marriage of a Thousand Lies by SJ Sindu – Marriages of convenience between gay men and lesbians is very much a phenomenon, especially in more conservative and traditional communities. This is the first novel I know of that explores the concept.
- What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City by Mona Hanna-Attisha – Simultaneously edifying and inspiring yet heartbreaking, this is the first-hand account of the pediatrician-turned-activist who is in the front lines of fighting for clean water for Flint.
- The Sensational Life And Death Of Qandeel Baloch by Sanam Maher – Qandeel Baloch was Pakistan’s first real break-out social media star. She died at the hands of her own brother
- Murder in the Name of Honor: The True Story of One Woman’s Heroic Fight Against an Unbelievable Crime by Rana Husseini & Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism by Karima Bennoune – When I talk about supporting on-the-ground, native-born efforts in non-Western countries to combat issues like terrorism and honor violence, the myriad efforts described in both these works are exactly what I’m talking about. The second especially covers the works of both devout Muslims and skeptics of Muslim origin in trying to build a more humane world.
- Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou – I’m not really a huge participant in the true-crime bandwagon that seems to have been eagerly taken up by many of my peers lately. This book is more of a titillating scam expose and I found it to be riveting.
- We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement by Andi Zeisler – This book was personally written for me to properly articulate a lot of the feelings I’ve been having about the term “feminist” lately. You can’t change my mind. In all sincerity, this book is a must-read for anyone who cares about feminism and general culture.
- From a Certain Point of View (Star Wars) – I was heartbroken and frankly a sore loser about the fact that most of my Star Wars knowledge no longer counts. I spent so much of my adolescence reading Star Wars Legends novels (then known as the Expanded Universe/EU) and all I knew suddenly became even more useless than it already was. This anthology brought me back from the brink as a fan. Its overall humor and humanistic take is reminiscent of the best of the EU, along the lines of the Tales From/Tales Of anthologies, but with stricter enforced continuity. The quality and tone varies wildly, but that’s part of the fun.
- Tomboy Survival Guide by Ivan Coyote – This couldn’t have come into my life at a better time. Struggling to figure out how to relate to the world and what to call myself in a binary-driven, misogynistic world is not something that’s going to end anytime soon, but knowing that I’m not alone is important. Ivan Coyote is an excellent writer even if you don’t relate.
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas – This was a bestseller adapted into a movie for very good reason. Believe the hype. It’s touching, personal, and real.
- The Pregnant King by Devdutt Pattanaik – Hindu mythology is even more rich and varied than literal thousands of years of history would tell you it is. This is a very genderqueer take on several very gender-bending classic tales within Hindu mythology.
- Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden – This lesbian YA classic has aged incredibly well. Its simplicity is what makes it so good. It’s about loving and being in love as a young person, pure and simple.
- The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Daniel Mallory Ortberg – If you loved the fairytale/horror weirdness that Ortberg wrote in The Toast, this will be right up your alley.
- Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado – One of the stories in this anthology, The Husband Stitch, was going around for a while and it compelled me to pick up this book. I am now a devoted fan and re-reader of the stories. I have it in ebook and audiobook. Machado is incredibly talented and something about her writing resonates very deeply with me, something that’s rare in fiction for me.
- Dietland by Sarai Walker – As a survivor of diet culture, this book really spoke to me. It’s a weird conspiracy-theory-with-a-reality-twist sort of read. The AMC series is good, too, even though it got cancelled.