Category Archives: General Reviews

How Emotions Are Made, by Lisa Feldman Barrett

How Emotions Are Made.jpg

What It’s About

A new look at the structure of the brain, the constructs of society, and how those two combine to create the experiences we call “emotion.”

Why I Think You’d Like It

Every page got my mental wheels spinning. I thought her merger of social constructionism and neurology had interesting potential, but I had so many questions about what exactly she meant and how she dealt with some of the research that contradicted her. She dealt with them, in ways that not only answered my questions, but opened up new, exciting implications.

One of the theories she contradicts is Paul Ekman’s famous categorization of emotions and facial expressions. That’s the one that has gotten a lot of attention from the show Lie to Me and the Pixar film Inside Out. She not only provides solid counterevidence, but repeats the experiments he used to develop his theory, and lays out the flaws in his methodology. For people who aren’t already massive geeks on the topic; he claimed to demonstrate that even humans in highly isolated cultures divide cultures into variations on happiness, sadness, anger, disgust and surprise. He also said that people from any culture can readily identify the corresponding expressions. What Lisa Feldman Barrett discovered, in repeating these experiments, was that the researchers framed the studies in such a way that they were teaching their subjects Westernized categories of emotion as the experiments were performed.

That chapter alone is worth reading, because of how well it educates people about not only the interplay of emotions and culture, but the scientific method and the importance of critical thinking. I think that is especially important right now, when so many people are willing to cherry pick the studies they want. When experiments contradict, and they often do on the borders of our understanding, you do sometimes need to choose which ones to believe. But you can’t do that effectively without understanding why scientific studies often disagree, and how to compare methods to see which result is more likely to be correct.

The book also talks about social constructions not as illusions, but as realities. So often, social construct is treated as synonymous with “fake” or “insignificant,” but in truth social constructs are a natural part of how our brains work. They have implications for our lives and our ability to understand the world around us. She discusses them in a way that I think is productive and enlightening, that allows for both criticism and appreciation of how cultures affect our understanding of even our own minds.

All that content is impressive, and what’s more impressive is how Lisa Feldman Barrett fits it all in while still giving us a fun read. She has a tone that is intelligent but warm conversational, and relies more on practical examples than technical jargon. When she has to include more scientific language, she explains it in a way that is highly accessible, without making you feel like you’re being talked down to.

I went ahead and bought a copy because I knew I’d want multiple readings to process all the good stuff that’s in here. I don’t know if she has cracked the puzzle or not, but I know she gave me great ideas to mull over, and important questions to ask. When it comes to these kinds of topics, that’s the best you could possibly ask for.

Content Warnings

You’re good.

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Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh

Hyperbole and a Half

What It’s About

The misadventures and comic reflections of a beautiful person who is still figuring out how to get her life together.

Why I Think You’d Like It

It’s one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. It began as a sort of half blog half webcomic-with-terrible-art. But terrible in a good way. Even though the shapes and proportions are all wrong and weird, there’s this wonderful expression in all of her characters. I’m not normally one for stylistically bad cartoons (I can’t even stand The Fairly Odd Parents or South Park) but I unabashedly love the art of Allie Brosh.

Anyways, this comic/blog stopped updating for a long time. When it reactivated, she revealed that she had been struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts. She shared her story in a way that was simultaneously educational, honest and hopeful. And, of course, very funny.

This book includes that story, along with her greatest hits from the blog and a handful of great new stories. Common themes include her childhood, her dogs, and the bizarre chains of events that lead to her making the weirdest life choices. She also touches frequently on depression and ADHD, not in a lecturing, Very Special Episode way (except for the post about her depression, which, as I said before, is fantastic). It’s more just that these are stories about her life, and everyone’s life has recurring supporting characters. Some of those characters are people, like her Mom and her boyfriend and her dogs. Some are more abstract, like her ADHD, depression, anxiety and assorted maladaptive self-loathing thoughts. This is what being a person with mental health baggage is like.

I love her honest lens, her warm humor, and her ability to be vulnerable, in a way that lets us see our own flaws in her, and love ourselves for them just as we love her. If there’s one complaint I can make about this book, it’s the sense that she is still struggling to recognize how special she is. It’s a struggle we all face, and I hope that she, and you, will conquer it.

Content Warnings

Discussion of suicidal ideation.

The Paper Menagerie, by Ken Liu

Paper Menagerie

What It’s About

A series of sci-fi and fantasy shorts that explore humanity’s past, future and soul.

Why I Think You’d Like It

I love the idea of alternate history. I want to better understand history, and I think a powerful tool in that understanding is imagining what things might have been like, had a few details turned out differently. Unfortunately have seen two alternate history stories that I thought were good. One is the mockumentary C. S. A. :The Confederate States of America, which is one of the few “what if the South won the Civil War” takes that is not blatantly southern apologist, but is instead equal parts satire of southern apologism, and chilling dystopia on par with 1984. The other one is “A Brief History of the TransPacific Tunnel,” the thirteenth story in this book. It is equal parts an intimate redemption story, and a complex, immaculately researched look at the interwoven threads of history. In a handful of pages, it speaks more profoundly about the intersection of politics, economics and social movements than most textbooks. Without sacrificing impact for subtlety, or subtlety for impact, it raises unsettling questions about effects vs intentions, sacrifices, and the costs of progress. And while exposing humanity at it’s worst, it also exposes raw, brutal hope.

If this book only had a couple of stories on that level of excellence, that would be reason enough for a recommendation. But honestly, every one is on that level; quality characterization, beautifully crisp language, Black Mirror-level thought provoking while still lovely and cautiously optimistic. What’s still more staggering is the sheer diversity of stories. There’s a sweet, personal coming of age story about a world where everyone’s soul manifests as a physical object, and a young woman who must carefully protect her ice cube heart. There’s a tense cyberpunk detective noir where a PI hunts a serial killer with a bizarre MO. There’s a strangely poignant encyclopedia entry on the writing systems of interplanetary species.

The stories in these books have swept up Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards like so many crumbs, and it’s no surprise. Ken Liu takes on every subgenre of science fiction and fantasy and masters them all.

Content Warnings

Some stories discuss racism or violent events. For the most part, they are at most moderately intense, but two, The Literomancer and The Man Who Ended History, have especially graphic torture scenes. In both cases, the torture is completely necessary to the points the stories are making. The latter is especially important because it is an accurate account of historical events. But man, it is rough.

Shadowshaper, by Daniel Jose Older

Shadowshaper

What It’s About

A secret society of magicians in New York City, who use murals to channel spiritual power.

Why I Think You’d Like It

As I try to describe this book, the word that keeps coming to mind is “smart.” It’s a book that fits neatly into a genre niche, specifically the YA Chosen One Coming-of-age-while-exploring-a-hidden-magical-world niche, without any pretense. It knows what it is and it means to be what it is. And yet, with every trope and character type and turning point, you get something that’s just a little bit more creative, more thought out, and more authentic than the usual fare.

Take the old cryptic elders trope. Authors rely on this to avoid long stretches of tensionless exposition. Instead, they make you wait for information and draw out the suspense, so that when it’s time for an infodump you’re invested. Unfortunately, their stories don’t always justify the withholding of information. Sometimes it’s even out of character (why do these wise old mentors never educate their protagonists? Isn’t that literally their entire job?). Still, this trope serves a narrative purpose, and we, the audience, just sigh and go along with it because we know we don’t actually want a big string of exposition in chapter three.

But in Shadowshaper, the author gets the radical idea that maybe mentors withhold information because of character flaws. Maybe they have anxieties and gaps in their understanding and even prejudices. This creates a far more satisfying explanation, as well as adding dimension to the supporting cast, and forcing the protagonist to be proactive in sorting through the conflicting, piecemeal information. This turns into quests and conflicts that have real emotional weight when they are finally resolved. One smart decision, and not only has an annoying cliche been avoided, but every resulting plot thread has become just that must stronger.

This kind of thing keeps happening. I know what kind of story this is, and so I know where it’s going, but in getting there it keeps taking a path that is better on every level. The result is something that feels very polished and satisfying. Something that aims to be the best at what it is, and succeeds.

If you like that YA Chosen One coming-of-age-while-exploring-a-hidden-magical-world subgenre, you’ll like this book. If you used to like that genre, but went off it because of too many lazy cliches, you’ll love this book.

Content Warnings

Not much to warn about. There’s some scary fantasy monsters and personal explorations of identity that, since the protagonist is a Black Hispanic girl, dip into all the bigoted isms, but author knows how to acknowledge real world issues without either trivializing them, or letting them overwhelm and bog down the adventure. Like I said, it’s a smart book.

The Wives of Henry VIIIth, by Antonia Fraser

The Wives of Henry VIII

What It’s About

The lives and deaths of the women who were, in some cases very briefly, queens of England under Henry the Eighth.

Why I Think You’d Like It

The aim of this book was to take these women out of Henry’s shadow and examine them on their own terms. This goal is met. Before this, I could barely name the six wives, even though they have only three names between them (spelling variations aside, there’s one Jane, two Annes and three Katherines). Now I feel almost as though I have met them; shook their hands, attended their weddings, been there to cry at their tragic ends.

It also does so much more. From reading this book, you learn about the state of women of their time, about medicine and childbirth and the compex politics of noble marriages. You get the full story of the social and political revolutions that lead to the formation of the Church of England. You gain insights into the future reigns of Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, by understanding the turmoil they grew up in. Everything about this book will enrich your understanding of that moment in history where we transitioned from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, by better understanding the human beings who were right there at the turning of the wheels.

I especially appreciate the attention to source material. My biggest turn off, when it comes to history of marginalized peoples, is the desire to fill in the gaps with speculations flavored by modern ideas, especially when those create a more digestible interpretation of events. While many things stay the same throughout the twists and turns of history, so much is dependent on culture. If we don’t at least attempt to understand historical figures on their own terms, we will inevitably do them a disservice. Antonia Fraser keeps the focus, as much as possible, on the historical records, and on representing these women as they represented themselves. Where the records make room for multiple interpretations, she explains those as well. The result is a richer, more complex, more honest book.

If you’re interested in either feminism, history or politics, you’ll find this book detailed, well-researched and absolutely fascinating.

Content Warnings

I think in this case the content warnings are true trigger* warnings. The book’s tone is fairly clean and academic, but even so these women lived through some truly horrible events. Katherine of Aragon was gaslit during the divorce proceedings. Anne Boleyn was falsely accused of witchcraft and beheaded. Jane Seymour died from complications after childbirth. Anna of Cleves was bullied, manipulated and stranded in a foreign country where she didn’t speak the language. Katherine Howard was groomed to be sexually appealing from a far too young age, and then that very behavior got her beheaded. Katherine Parr got off fairly well, but after Henry died she did marry an asshole who groomed Princess Elizabeth for sexual abuse, so there’s that. All the language is fairly academic and well below most people’s threshold for offense, but if you’re in a place where that might trigger a relapse, maybe put this on an “after I’ve done some healing” list.

*In case you haven’t read my rant, trigger warnings are not for people who are easily offended, they are for people with medical conditions, especially PTSD.

China Dolls, by Lisa See

China Dolls

What It’s About

Three best friends try to make it big in show business, despite anti-Asian prejudice in World War II.

Why I Think You’d Like It

Personally, I’m a sucker for old school Hollywood glamour. I know that world was full of lies, exploitation, and hierarchies of privilege, but goddamn, it was a great aesthetic. And, of course, the best works use that image while acknowledging the seedy underbelly. All About Eve, Mildred Pierce, Sunset Boulevard… that’s my jam right there.

This book captures that aesthetic, and combines it with detailed, research into an underrepresented and overlooked part of that world. The author is a mixed racial woman who was strongly influenced, both in life and her writing, by her Chinese grandparents. She based her portrayal of 1940s Chinatown heavily on her family’s recollections, and the result is a fantastic, fresh setting for a classic story.

I loved the dynamic between the three protagonists; all good hearted, all wounded in their own ways, all with flaws that balanced out when they worked together but escalated all too quickly when conflict was introduced. The thing you want from this story is to see them all work it out and get back together. Of course I won’t tell you if that happens or not, but the writing is completely successful in making you ache to see that.

Can somebody make a movie of this? I would watch the shit out of it.

Content Warnings

Frankly, all the things. You’ve got your racism, your sexual content, your alcoholism and depression, your physical abuse, your homophobia… it’s an offensive content buffet.

But man, if you’re going to read an offensive book, this is a great one to read. Obviously not if you want to avoid any of those things for mental health reasons. If you’re in need of actual trigger warnings for any of that, I recommend putting this on a “when I’m in a better place” shelf.

If, on the other hand, you are someone who is passionate about those topics, and wants to see them explored well in a book that is also very entertaining in its own right, this is the book for you. Full disclosure; characters are faithful to the perspectives and prejudices of their time, and don’t apologize for using un-PC language or embracing Hollywood stereotypes to get ahead. That doesn’t mean those issues aren’t addressed, but that they unfold naturally over the course of the plot. There were a lot of times I was worried about where she was going with a particular issue, but I pressed on, and I’m so glad I did.

Same Difference, by Derek Kirk Kim

Same Difference

What It’s About

Two best friends, who are a hot mess and a half. I wish I could say more than that, but it’s a short enough book that goes so many places, literally and figuratively, that there’s no summary that isn’t also a bit of a spoiler. Although I will say that it involves an awkward visit to an old hometown, and semi-accidental catfishing.

Why I Think You’d Like It

Back when The King’s Speech came out, I wasn’t all that interested in it, until I read a review that said, “you won’t know why you need to see this movie until after you’ve seen it.” That line worked on me, and I hope it will work on you.

This is a book that is alternately warmly and sadly funny. Every character is a person and every moment feels real. I loved both protagonists, despite how often they screwed up, because in their hindsight-is-20/20 awkwardness I saw myself.

The execution really shines. Every page had me feeling a whole range of emotions; giggly amusement to reflective sadness, anxiety to relief, excitement to resignation, depression to hope. The ending was a good kind of unsettling. It didn’t leave me unsatisfied, but I did leave wondering. It haunts me, not like an angry spirit, but like Russell, who lived in your apartment before you and electrocuted himself with a faulty toaster, and who likes to sit next to you on the couch and ask slightly annoying questions, but it’s cool because he’s a good dude and he promises he’ll scare off any intruders. He’s not sure why he’s here and he doesn’t know when he’s going to leave.

Not sure where Russell came from; he’s not in the book. Anyways. It’s a good book. You should check it out.

Content Warnings

You’re good.

Coal, by Audre Lorde

Coal

What It’s About

An early collection of poems on identity and society by an iconic activist.

Why I Think You’d Like It

In my last review, I said how much I love Dothead’s transparency; how it does not alienate those new to poetry by hiding the point. But please don’t take that to mean that subtler, puzzling poems are any less worth reading. There is something positively thrilling about poems that hit you with a feeling you can’t quite explain, then make you hungry to go back, dig deeper, put fragment after fragment together until the whole meaning hits you. It’s like solving a crossword, but the crossword is also a sacred, beautiful hymn to all of life’s mysteries.

The only trouble is that those kinds of poems are easy to fake. It’s easy to create bewilderment without payoff. Too many poets with nothing to say hide behind obscurity, punishing their readers with a fruitless chase. They train other cowardly pseudo intellectuals to hide behind incomprehensibility, while teaching the truly curious to dislike poetry.

The best antidote to that is a poet who has real ideas behind their words. One who knows how to tantalize you with poignant images and beautiful flashes of understanding, rewarding the readers who read over and over again, until the full truth comes out.

Anyway, if you like that kind of thing, Coal by Audre Lorde is a fantastic book, and it happened to be written by a Black queer feminist civil rights pioneer and overall badass human being.

Content Warnings

Many poems talk about oppression, isolation and emotional pain, but while the language is moving it is generally not graphic.

Dothead, by Amit Majmudar

Dothead

What It’s About

Everything. Race, family and identity, language, the loss of a friend, the flight of a drone, the motion of a spinning top. The only thing all these poems have in common is that they’re all brilliant.

Why I Think You’d Like It

 

If you’re the kind of person who sometimes struggles with poetry, but wants to like it, this is a perfect book for you. Even as he uses all the devices that make poetry, well, poetic, he is careful not to let the reader lose the point. He never mistakes incomprehensibility for brilliance. He is also fun. Even when dwelling on a difficult topic, there will be lines that startle you into smiling at their witty incongruities. If he references older work or academic esoterica, it will either be because that’s what the poem is about, or he will be careful to give enough context for the reader who is less familiar. He will never use them in a way that distances you from a topic you should be able to relate to. I wish I had found him earlier; he would have helped me get from my “wanting to like poetry” stage to my “actually liking poetry” stage much faster.

At the same time, well established literary nerds will be delighted by his wordsmithing. He uses nearly every structure and device under the sun with equal brilliance, and he’s clearly one of us. Whether the goal is beauty or tragedy or irony or humor, he can put his goddamn words together.

The balance between entertaining and thought provoking is splendid, and the craftsmanship is awe inspiring. This went straight to the top of my must-buy list.

Content Warnings

Some of the poems are about violence, racism or bullying. One, Abecedarian, talks about (among other things) a teenager pressuring his girlfriend into having oral sex.

You Can Fly, by Carole Boston Weatherford

You Can Fly

What It’s About

A history of the Tuskeegee Airmen, in free verse.

Why I Think You’d Like It

 

It is a beautiful celebration of the struggle and victory of African American pilots in WWII, illustrated with woodcuts made by the author’s son. There is a fictionalized POV character but the events and social realities are meticulously researched. Despite the pain and unfairness, this is ultimately a story of triumph and pride. It’s a celebration of the hard work, and the people of color who battled white supremacy, both at home and abroad.

Content Warnings

References to Jim Crow, racist bullying and lynchings, but nothing graphic