Category: Short Form

Very Good Lives

Cover image for Very Good Lives by J.K. Rowlingby J.K. Rowling

Illustrated by Joel Holland

ISBN 978-0-316-36915-2

“We do not need magic to transform our world; we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”

J.K. Rowling’s 2008 commencement speech, given at Harvard, joins the ranks of other such small gift books, including Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman, and This Is Water by David Foster Wallace. Such books are often relatively expensive for their short length, in this case $15. However, like some of J.K. Rowling’s other short works—Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them and Quidditch Through the AgesVery Good Lives benefits charity, in this case, her own children’s charity, Lumos.

Very Good Lives begins with a funny, self-deprecating opening that gives way to an honest and heart-felt address dedicated to learning from failure, and the importance of imagination and friendship. Subtitled “The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination,” Rowling draws on the lessons of her early failures, while refusing to romanticize poverty or ennoble suffering. Instead, she acknowledges that sometimes failing is inevitable, and, given that inevitability, worth learning from. Among other things, it clarifies priorities: “Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I believed I truly belonged.”

Rowling’s conception of imagination and its value is broad, touching not just the creative realm, but the humanitarian one, and our capacity as humans to imagine a better world, and then work to realize it. Given this second theme, it is even more appropriate that the proceeds of the book will be donated to charity. Like many, I expected this section of the address to be about writing or art, but Rowling instead draws on her time working for Amnesty International when she was in her early twenties.

You can watch Rowling’s speech on Harvard’s YouTube channel, or read the text of the address online, but this small book, in addition to benefiting charity, is also quite beautiful. The basic red and white colour scheme echoes Harvard’s school colours, and Joel Holland’s illustrations are simple, but well-executed and carefully laid out. I borrowed a copy from my local library, but I suspect I will be buying a copy to grace my own shelves sometime soon.

Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power on the Internet

cybersexismby Laurie Penny

ISBN 978-1-4088-5320-7

“The Internet made misogyny routine and sexual bullying easy, but first it did something else. It gave women, girls and queer people space to speak to each other without limits, across borders, sharing stories and changing our reality.”

To give the author the first word, “the feminist revolution and the digital revolution have grown up together, and both are incomplete.” In Cybersexism, Penny examines the way the two revolutions have intersected, with some disappointing results for feminism. Tim Berners Lee conceived of the internet as being for everyone, but in practice, the internet can be a very hostile place where anonymity and distance dissolve social mores about what is acceptable, leading to misogyny and threats of violence. Sharp and occasionally even funny, Penny gives a revealing introduction to the internet’s rampant misogyny. In the face of all this, Penny retains a relentless positive attitude towards the possibilities the internet offers for providing a platform for people to share their experiences, and allowing members of communities to reach out to one another across the globe.

Penny knows a thing or two about the violence that women in the public eye face. While working on this piece, Penny was staying in a safe house, after several female British journalists received bomb threats on Twitter. I wasn’t familiar with Penny’ specific story before reading this Single, and she doesn’t get into her own situation very much, but as I read up on her online while writing this review, I read a story that was very familiar, because it is one that I’ve read about countless female public figures before. The sexualized and gendered abuse faced by women who share their opinions freely online creates the kind of environment that forced Penny, and many women like her, to seriously considering “kicking it in for the good of my mental health.” Some give up and disappear because they simply can’t cope with it anymore, but for those who don’t, Penny reminds us that we shouldn’t “ever imagine there’s not a cost.” In many cases, their livelihoods come at the cost of their peace of mind.

Of course, not every woman who makes a home for herself on the internet faces the kind of vitriol discussed here. But every time one woman speaks up about her experiences, a host of others find the strength to give voice to their own, once they realize that they are not alone. You may spend most of your time, as I do, on parts of the internet that are relatively safe for women, even dominated by women, but any time you venture into a new area, it has to be acknowledged that this “could be any of us” if we anger the wrong people. But as Penny points out, this very sharing of experiences is part of the power of the internet. And given how much of our future depends on the web, we cannot afford to advise women to “just stay away” from this public space until it is “safe.”

Penny has tackled a large topic in a short work, and as such Cybersexism focuses on unveiling the issues and considering causes, but was not deeply involved with seeking solution. I’m looking forward to reading Unspeakable Things, Penny’s forthcoming book on gender and power in the twenty-first century in the hope that a longer work will allow for the space for this very talented writer to engage the issues in greater depth. Nevertheless, Cybersexism gets the discussion off to an excellent start.

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To Have and Uphold

Cover image for To Have and Uphold by Adam Liptakby Adam Liptak

ISBN 978-1-61452-084-9

The Supreme Court has sometimes lived to regret intervening too soon as the country sorted itself out on a major social controversy. But sometimes it has been catastrophically slow to act, leaving in place discriminatory laws that history would judge plainly unconstitutional.”

On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down two historic decisions affecting the fight for marriage equality; both the Defence of Marriage Act and Proposition 8 were dealt significant blows that day. While the decisions stopped short of declaring a federal constitutional right to same sex marriage, gay marriage became legal in California, and the DOMA case opened the door for the federal government to provide federal benefits to same sex couples in states where gay marriage is legal. New York Times reporter Adam Liptak revisits earlier decisions and cases that led to this moment, and tracks the route of these historic cases to the Supreme Court. While the outcome was not as broad as some proponents of marriage equality might have wished, Liptak argues that future history texts will still recognize this date as a watershed moment in the battle for gay marriage in the United States.

Gay marriage has been a reality in Canada since before I was really old enough to understand the issue or the controversy that surrounded it. Although the social context is different, it has been interesting, if sometimes frustrating, to watch the debate play out in the United States at a much slower pace. In this primer, Liptak takes the reader beyond what you would find in the average news article covering these important cases, by examining arguments that were considered and discarded, and pointing to other cases that might have arrived at the Supreme Court before the Windsor case. He also has a comprehensive understanding the dynamics between the nine justices, and thorough knowledge of their backgrounds and sympathies. He provides a solid historical background to contextualize the issues, but doesn’t get bogged down in the past. He manages to retain a great deal of nuance in his explanations and analyses despite the necessity of simplifying the issues for length and popular consumption. This is a well-written and carefully explained short introduction to the legal battle for marriage equality in the United States.

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Drinking My Way Through 14 Dating Websites

Cover image for Drinking My Way Through 14 Dating Websites by Tiffany Peonby Tiffany Peón

ASIN B00CHB86ZQ

Waking up hungover on a weekday solidifies for a few brief moments the deep-seated fear that I will never be a functioning adult.”

In 2011, recently single and having trouble getting over her ex, 26 year old Tiffany Peón decided she needed to do something to help her move on. Inspiration struck, and she decided to start a new project on her blog, chronicling her adventures trying out fourteen of the web’s best (OK Cupid/Match.com) worst (Darwin Dating) and weirdest (Atlasphere) dating sites. Drinking My Way Through 14 Dating Websites is the Kindle Single that summarizes that adventure.

I have a confession, fellow readers. I am a complete sucker for non-fiction gimmicks. Are you going to follow all the edicts of the Bible to the letter for a year? I will read that.  Will you spend a year applying the latest research about the psychology of happiness to your own life? I’m in. Did you start a multi-year project to read and blog about every book on the Times 100? I will eat up every step of that journey. So when I was looking for some short fiction and non-fiction to review this month, I couldn’t resist finding out what sort of hilarity was going to ensue from this adventure into the brave, terrifying world of meeting people from the internet.

I thought that the short form would be a good fit for Peón’s experiment, as I might not have been willing to commit to a full-length book about dating websites. However, 70 pages of shenanigans sounded like a bit of light reading that would be right up my alley. Surprisingly then, a lot of the stories felt rushed and abbreviated, and might have benefited from a few more details. Understandably, Peón has removed most of the original posts from her blog, so I wasn’t able to do much in the way of comparison to see how much she had to edit down her original material for this short. The well-fleshed out anecdotes are humourous, but others come across as cursory summaries, just covering the bases of some of the sites. Of course, sometimes it’s just that real life doesn’t work out like a fictional comedy. Her date from Atlasphere, the Randian/Objectivist site, turns out to be completely normal and nice. And then Peón gets back together with her ex part way through the experiment, though she decides to carry on, sapping some of the tension from the narrative. Ultimately, this is one of the cases where the potential for a humourous outcome was greater than what the writer actually experience. She wrings some decent laughs out of it, but I was hoping for more.

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