Click on the titles below for my thoughts/ takeaways/ over-sharing of how deeply I relate to certain characters.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
If you know me, you know that it’s quite antithetical to my entire image/personality that I hadn’t read this book until now. Sylvia Plath is the self-proclaimed idol for morbid sad girl writer types who hate things and love to wear turtlenecks, which is me in a nutshell. I was afraid that I wouldn’t like it after all these years or that it would seem dated at this point, but alas – the stereotype wins. I loved it.
I feel like I don’t need to summarize the plot of a novel that most people were assigned to read sometime in their high school years, but essentially, we follow Esther through the trials of being a young woman and on the journey to ultimate madness. I had to double check that the version I was reading wasn’t some sort of 2000s adaptation, because it felt so relevant and understandable. I almost never read books written in the 1950s or 60s that feel like I’m walking through life with a contemporary. But Esther seems bold for her time. She wants to please her family, but she also feels a certain revulsion towards men and all their clichés. She’s not afraid to do what she wants, but her depression and mania finally lead her to an asylum after several failed suicide attempts. I hate to say that being suicidal feels relatable, because that’s an exaggeration (at least for me), but her lack of connection with the world and her desire to escape it certainly touches on sentiments I’ve had during my years as a young person. This is like the ultimate queen angsty YA novel that started it all, and I will treasure it forever.
How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti
How should a person be? The title intrigued me enough to pick this book up off the shelf while I was house sitting last month. I recognized the name Sheila Heti but wasn’t sure from where. Someone, somewhere had talked to me about a newer book she’d written…I think? The back cover boasts a thorough list of acclaims and accolades for the novel, and after reading it be described as “part literary novel, part self-help manual, and part vivid exploration of the artistic and sexual impulse” I was sold.
The book starts off strong. The narrator, Sheila, introduces us to her world of 20-something artist friends, all trying to just “figure it out.” Sheila herself has been commissioned to write a play, which she just can’t seem to get around to do, and she tries desperately to find inspiration in art, conversation, men, and isolation. The writing is quick-witted and honest and relatable.
However, the book reached a point of boredom for me. I’m not sure if it was halfway, or two thirds of the way in, or maybe even one third of the way in. Chapters begin to be written as lines from a play, which was innovative and fun at first, with banter-y dialogue between Sheila and her friend Margaux, but then becomes exhausted. I read this book during travel – in airports and airplanes and parks – so maybe I wasn’t giving it the proper attention or perhaps I wasn’t in the correct frame of mind. But for me, it reached a point where our narrator was being a little too “quirky 20-something in New York is failing at everything! it’s so hard to CREATE! I should just have sex with trashy men instead!” for my own taste. But then again, I love to complain about being a 20-something creative with no direction and understanding of what the heck I’m going “to do” with myself, so there’s a chance my lack of affection for this novel stems from the fact that it is quite possibly a big, fat mirror shining back at me.
Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
I’m vegan, and I’ve read my fair share of animal welfare/health/wellness/sustainable living-focused literature. However, most of it leaves me thinking well, no wonder people hate vegans because it tends to be overly sensational, shame-y, preach-y, and generally not super effective. Eating Animals broke that mold, and I would genuinely recommend this book to everyone I know.
Simply put, Eating Animals presents a case against factory farming. But it does so in a way that relies on facts and not scare tactics. It talks to family farmers and engages with the question of whether or not there is an ethical or less bad way to consume meat. It also talks about the nuances of food consumption, from respecting culture to the awkwardness of rejecting a Thanksgiving dinner, to the collective history of sharing a meal with loved ones. I believe that our food choices should be looked at through these overlapping lenses, rather than just thinking oh, I’m vegan. I’m better than you. In order for people to even think about the possibility of reducing their intake of a food that has been the center of a family meal for decades, presenting the option through these lenses is vital.
None of this is said to downplay the fact that factory farming is one of the most cruel, disgusting, corrupt, and truly evil industries that exists in the world (and particularly in the USA) today. Animals are mutated, raped, beat senseless, and often slaughtered while still alive. There is little to no regulation, and terms like “natural” and “free range” continue to dupe even the best-intentioned Whole Foods buyers. Family farmers are being reduced to essentially nonexistence, and at the rate we’re going, consuming the meat from these farms will give most of us disease, obesity, diabetes, and a higher percentage of allergies than any generation that has ever lived. Not to mention that the environmental pollution caused by these farms (both from methane/waste/actual chemical emissions) is several times larger than the pollution caused by the entire transportation sector combined. Yes – planes, trains, cars, buses – do not compare to the environmental damage caused by these death factories.
I think if everyone had to see or even read about the reality of where their food comes from, things would be vastly different. But the fact is, people don’t know and don’t care to know. People like the comfort of being removed from the killing part of their meal and going straight to the I’ve got a piece of medium rare steak on my plate part of the meal. And from a social justice perspective, factory farming should definitely be a part of the conversation. I’ve got lots of friends who won’t buy from Amazon or Apple because they’re becoming corporate monopolies that exploit their workers, etc. But if I bring up the topic of eating meat, it’s suddenly abrasive – too personal, not relevant, and kind of rude. Yet the rate of PTSD in factory farm workers is literally higher than that of war veterans. The turnaround rate for kill floor personnel is nearly 100% – they have to re-hire new people almost every year, and it’s almost always undocumented immigrants who are paid close to nothing and are grossly overworked. The factory farm industry also pays the FDA to never tell people to eat less of anything, arguing that the messaging will hurt the American economy. What is more, these animals from birth to death live in cages of their own feces, are pumped with hormones, never see the light of day, and arrive to the slaughterhouse almost always with broken bones, heart conditions, and bacterial infections. And we EAT that. And by giving our money to the meat and dairy industry, we continue to allow this to exist. Being mindful consumers shouldn’t just come into play when it comes to what chain stores we support. What we put on our plate needs to enter the conversation as well, and I hope anyone who picks up this book starts to think about how these small everyday choices really can change the bigger picture.