I am a PhD candidate in interdisciplinary communication studies at Arizona State University. I study nature-based and art-based research methods, relationships and identities, and ecological communication. A good day for me means reading, writing, hiking, cooking, and playing with my two small dogs.
What if you could read a whole book in one day? In a few hours? In twenty minutes?
Are you interested in learning how to read faster? If so, let me introduce you to speed reading. Whether speed reading is even real is contested, and while there may be techniques you can try, the story and science of speed reading is well…complicated.
Speed Reading Is Real
There are some proponents of speed reading who argue that anyone can learn to speed read, that it’s a skill one can practice.
There are common techniques for learning to speed read. When most people read (even silently), they hear the words being said; this is called vocalization, and speed reading trainers will ask you to practice removing this voice. Doing so can increase reading speed. Other techniques include changing the ways your eyes move, including moving them bidirectionally (not just left to right but back and forth across alternating lines) or zigzaging diagonally across a page looking at chunks of texts rather than individual lines.
And there are numerous people who have practiced these techniques and celebrate advances in the speeds at which they read. Check out this person’s journey or this person’s. However, there are critics who believe that people learning to speed read aren’t actually technically reading.
Speed Reading Isn’t Real
Science tends to find a huge sacrifice that speed reading brings: decreased comprehension. The speed reading community joke about people who read War and Peace in only twenty minutes is that they know it’s “about Russia.”
Some speed reading experts and practitioners argue that reading speed and comprehension are inversely proportional, meaning if reading speed goes up, comprehension must always come down. There is a small window, however, of increasing speed to a certain threshold before one begins to sacrifice comprehension; that window differs for each individual.
Another criticism against speed reading are those who argue that it isn’t “real” reading, but rather just skimming. Skimming is “strategic, selective reading method in which you focus on the main ideas of a text.” Skimming isn’t technically reading—since, by design, it requires deliberately skipping large portions of text.
Speed Reading Is Real (Maybe)
After researching critics of speed reading, I was left with many questions because I was someone who believed they could speed read without losing comprehension. There is a site you can use that will test your speed and comprehension, and I was surprised by my results:
So I could read above average reading speeds with high comprehension. But does this mean that anyone can speed read too? Not necessarily. One issue is that people reading in languages that aren’t there first read slower, so speed reading is not accessible to everyone. A second issue is that speed reading might only be accessible to certain neurotypes or to some neurodivergent people. Research finds that autistic readers (like myself) are able to actually speed read.
So, maybe speed reading is real and possible but not in the ways we have thought about it previously.
What You Can Try
Can you actually learn to read 20,000 words per minute? Or read War and Peace in twenty minutes? Probably not. But whether you’re neurodivergent or not and willing to give it a go, here are what speed reading experts (and skeptics!) recommend based on real science that may actually work.
You can try software and apps designed to test or practice reading speeds that show one word at time in order to simplify eye movement. The following video is a quick example of such programs. The downside of these kinds of programs is that users tend to find success only in short bursts.
You can try skimming a text before reading it. While skimming and speed reading are different things, orienting yourself with text before reading may help you consume it both faster and with greater comprehension.
You can try reading a lot, especially new genres and styles. The more you read, the more you update your language banks, which can help you move through texts more quickly. Reading texts that are outside what you normally read can help familiarize you and assist in navigating the unfamiliar more readily.
So, it’s worth giving it a shot! Test your current reading speed and comprehension levels, practice the techniques, and see how and where reading faster might be of use to you in your life. The worst that could happen is you read a few more good books.
I know what you’re thinking. “Who would choose to read a book based on a movie?!” Well, me! And hopefully after reading this defense, you will too!
It is well known that many novels are adapted into movies, but did you know that movies are often adapted into novels? They’re called novelizations.
What are novelizations?
A novelization is a novel derived from the story originally created for a film medium. Novelizations exist for many films ranging from Star Warsto a recent publication of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywoodto—my personal favorites—Alien.
Novelizations are often maligned: some people see them as hackwork, money grabs, or quickly produced junk. But I’m here to suggest to you that novelizations can be good, even very good!
“It’s always amusing to me, you take a book, say, To Kill a Mockingbird, throw away three quarters of it and win an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay, But if you take a screenplay and add three quarters of original material to it — which is a much, much more difficult piece of writing — well, that’s by definition ‘hackwork.’ And it’s much harder, having done both, to take a screenplay and make a book out of it than [to] take a terrific book and make a screenplay out of it.”
Alan Dean Foster, prolific novelization writer
Novelizations have existed for nearly as long as films. And before the existence of DVDs, VCRs, or even televisions in our homes, novelizations were ways that fans of movies could relive and enjoy the story again at home. They were a little souvenir to remind of you of the thrill of seeing Alien in theaters for the first time. But it’s 2021 now, so why do novelizations still exist?
Novelizations are good, actually!
They have more details, including deleted scenes or information that’s not in the movies. You can experience the same story you love in a deeper and more complete way. If you’ve wondered while watching Alien Resurrection why Larry Purvis’s chestburster grows so much slower than in others, the answer is explored in the novelization: he has a genetic thyroid dysfunction. This small detail raises more interesting questions in the Alien universe about the life cycle of the xenomorph and human disability.
They explore different angles than their movie counterparts. Because novelizations are derived, their writers do have some freedom in telling the story in a new way or even telling new stories entirely. Tarantino describes his recently published novelization of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as “a complete rethinking of the entire story.” He explains, “It’s not just me taking the screenplay and then breaking it down in a novelistic form. I retold the story as a novel.” Alan Dean Foster says about writing the novelization of Alien, “As [a fan], I got to make my own director’s cut. I got to fix the science mistakes, I got to enlarge on the characters, if there was a scene I particularly liked, I got to do more of it, and I had an unlimited budget.”
They explore different truths. Novelizations tend to explore characters in more detail and give more individual attention to all characters in a story. We see new sides and nuances of the same characters. In particular, the novelization of Alien Resurrection gives the reader insider knowledge of smaller characters, especially DiStephano and Christie. You can see inside their minds and learn motivations never revealed in the movie. Even the main character, Ellen Ripley, is explored in deeper ways, including more tension on whether her loyalties are with the humans or aliens.
They can be more accessible for some people. In a novelization, you experience the story in different time. A two-hour film can be become a ten-hour novel—maybe experienced and read over weeks or months, giving you time to bask in the mythos. For some, films with flashing lights can be overwhelming, triggering, or impossible to watch, so a novelized version could be a preferred or necessary way to experience the story. Novelizations can be more accessible for people with disabilities, including those who have difficult focusing for the duration of a movie.
They let you linger in worlds you love. The different times you spend in a movie versus in a novel changes your experience of the story, letting you delight in a beloved story or franchise. The truth is: people who read novelizations tend to be the ones who loved the movies. As a huge fan of the beloved Alien franchise, it’s a joy for me to spend more time with characters I already know and love.
So, who would read a book based on a movie? Maybe you! Whatever your favorite movie, check out its novelization and enjoy the story you already love in a deeper, lingering, and more nuanced way.
Publisher: Ballantine Books Genre: Science Fiction Pages: 496 Format: Hardcover Buy Local My Rating: 5/5 stars
Ryland Grace has to save the earth. By himself. In space. And he doesn’t remember who he is.
Grace awakens onboard a spaceship many light-years and many literal years away from earth and from any other human. He has to learn not only who and where he is but why because Earth is in danger of being wiped out. Grace is their only hope for survival. And the clock is ticking.
Space is big. Really big. But Grace may not be as alone as he thought he was. With his unlikely partner and his memories slowly returning, he uses science to navigate his way through problems and challenges on an interstellar adventure filled with suspense, survival, and an unusual friendship.
Will he save Earth in time?
Project Hail Mary is my favorite book of the year. If you enjoyed Andy Weir’s 2011 novel The Martian, you will enjoy his newest novel Project Hail Mary published May 2021. Think The Martian meets Interstellar. There are a lot of welcomed similarities to his first novel: cheeky humor amid a grisly survival situation, lots of fascinating science, and a lone astronaut trying to survive. Except this time, it’s not the whole earth trying to save one astronaut—it’s one astronaut trying to save the whole earth.
The science Andy Weir weaves throughout the whole book is intriguing and complex, yet it is never overwhelming for novices or distracting from the story. Like in The Martian, the protagonist uses his expert knowledge to problem-solve and the science always moves the plot forward in exciting and page-turning ways. Project Hail Mary brings in microbiology, astrophysics, the theory of relativity, and even communication theory. Woven together are two storylines—the current events of Grace aboard his spaceship and revealing flashbacks back to earth of Grace in his memories.
Despite all the science, Project Hail Mary’s real story is about connection. I won’t share any spoilers, but I will say that the strange partnership—and real friendship—Ryland Grace makes on his adventure is one of the best parts of the novel. The friendship invites intriguing questions about language, communication, life, possibilities, and what it means to be human. Or not human. Despite all the science happening in the novel, the emotional story is what really shines in this novel.
In addition to the novel’s exploration of beyond-human connection, it’s also about connection with our own planet. Project Hail Mary is a piece of speculative fiction. Speculative fiction… well, speculates. What if this happened? What would we do? Even through imagined stories, speculative fiction theorizes about our current world. These “narratives” [are] concerned not so much with science or technology as with human actions in response to a new situation created by science or technology…speculative fiction highlights a human rather than technological problem.” Project Hail Mary is ultimately an optimistic story about saving the earth, which gifts the same optimism to readers living in a very real world with fears and anxieties about climate change and environmental collapse. This story gives us hope.
Have you heard that old bit about goldfish and water? Two young goldfish are swimming around and they pass an older goldfish who says to them, “Water’s great today!” After, one of the young goldfish says, “What the heck is water?” Diet culture is like the water around us; we swim through it everyday and it seems so normal and commonplace that we don’t even recognize it’s there.
Diet culture is a system of beliefs that equates thinness to health and a higher moral and social status, that promotes weight loss and shrinking one’s body, and perpetuates fatphobia and oppresses people in non-normative bodies, especially people of color, disabled people, queer people, and trans people. Seventy five percent of women exhibit disordered eating or thoughts about food or their bodies. Ninety one percent of women try to control their weight with dieting and 22% are “always” dieting. Are you tired of the shame we put on diverse bodies? Are you sick of the constant diet cycle and shame of “failing” over and over when actually 95% of diets fail you?
Making peace with our bodies, with eating, with taking up space figuratively and literally, is a radical act while living in a culture steeped in dieting, diet culture, and oppression, and while dieting is a multi-billion dollar industry. To reject dieting, to fight diet culture, and to treat people living in larger bodies with dignity and respect is to live better in our personal lives and to make change socially and culturally. These five books will illuminate the myths surrounding equating health with thinness, challenge your assumptions about fat and size, educate you on the unethical treatment of fat people, and teach you how to live differently—and better—when you reach for liberation from dieting and diet culture.
She uncovers how the blame of dieting failures and weight stigma is not the fault of individuals, but rather the fault of the diet industry, creating victims for profits, and unethical science and attitudes.
Radical self-love is about healing the wounds of oppression, body terrorism, and systems that perpetuate racism, sexism, fatphobia, queerphobia, and ableism. Taylor invites us to dismantle those systems—with love and with a brand new chapter of tools and exercises published in this second edition.
Based on 10 principles, intuitive eating is about everything from rejecting diet mentality to respecting your body to relearning how to honor your hunger and respect your fullness. If this how-to guide is useful to you on your journey, consider their accompanying workbook or their recently published book of daily exercises.
As both a comedian and a former chronic dieter, Dooner’s anti-diet diet book is both funny and scientifically accurate. Are you still hungry after lunch? F*ck it, eat when your body is hungry. The lesson you’ll learn by the end of the book goes way beyond the irreverence or rebellion you might assume it teaches, but goes way deeper and down to relearning intuition and trusting our bodies again.
What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat— Aubrey Gordon. Did you know housing and job discrimination because someone is fat is legal? And what if I told you that fat people received worse healthcare, not simply because half of all doctors describe their fat patients as “awkward” and “ugly” but also because fat people are regularly told to “lose weight” as treatment for things like ear infections or broken bones?
Gordon walks readers through the world of anti-fatness and the systems that keep it in place. This must end. As she says, “We can build a world that doesn’t assume fat people are failed thin people, or that thin people are categorically healthy and virtuous.”
Liberating yourself from dieting and diet culture is not easy, but it is important. These books will help you see differently, love yourself and others more, and ultimately live better. They will help you see the water around you—and you can’t clean up dirty water if you can’t see it.
What’s it like being a YouTuber? What does it mean to be a writer on a video-sharing platform? How can writers use the medium of videos for social justice?
I was able to sit down with Phil who operates the YouTube channel called That Dang Dad. Phil has always been a writer and creator—poetry, essays, film reviews, music—and has since focused his writing on creating video essays on topics like racial justice, accessibility, toxic masculinity, and more. His work is radical, but also funny and approachable.
He talked with me about how he came to create his channel, his writing process for a video, and what is unique about writing for YouTube.
What was the motivation behind beginning your channel and the framing of your channel name That Dang Dad? Are your intentions for your channel for fun expression, to solve a problem, or something else?
I’ve always enjoyed discussing big ideas with people and sharing new things I’m learning. As I got plugged into the YouTube community of people talking about radical social, economic, and racial justice, I found myself really energized to keep learning and making connections between pop culture, academic scholarship, and my own life experiences. I decided to start a YouTube channel as a way for me to continue to share my findings with others as well as just to generally put more kind, thoughtful, and inclusive content on the platform. YouTube is famous for platforming thousands of harmful hucksters fomenting violence and exclusion, so I wanted to do my part to cancel out some of that noise.
My first and foremost intention with my channel is to express an idea I’m wrestling with in a way that will stimulate and delight others. So, not necessarily to teach (although that does happen), and not necessarily to entertain (although I hope that happens), but more to… feed a sense of curiosity about the world. I personally find it exhilarating to see things in new ways and my desire for my channel is to give my audience that same exhilaration.
2. What is your writing process like for creating a new video essay?
Typically, it starts with an idea stimulated by something I’ve read, seen in TV or movies, or an idea sparked from an incident in my real life. I’ll spend anywhere from a week to a month just letting the idea rattle around my skull and seeing what kind of noise it makes, whether it’s “A Thing” or not. Once I’m satisfied that I have something that’s worthy of a 20 minute discussion, I open up a blank document and start writing a script from the top.
Generally, my approach to a script is a quick introduction that entices an audience, two or three big chunks that explore my idea, followed by a “So what?” section in which I attempt to take what I’m talking about and explain what I think it means, why I think it’s important, and how I think it should impact my (and implicitly my audience’s) life.
Typically, it takes me 2–5 hours to write a 20 minute script, including rereading, rejiggering, and revising. Research-heavy videos can take twice that as I hunt for relevant passages in books and essays. I always read a script out loud to myself to see where I stumble over my own words, or where I lose my own train of thought. Once it reads comfortably to me, I’ll wait until my daughter has gone to bed and then record myself performing the script in my home office late at night. When I have all the video and audio recorded, I’ll open up my video editing software and add the files in, and then I start carving it up to make sure it flows well, taking out long pauses and cutting around flubs. This is when I start searching for supplemental images and footage, like charts, graphs, news articles, clips from shows, and the like.
Depending on the subject matter, I always like to make sure I have some jokes and cutaway gags to break up the video and add some places for an audience to catch its breath. I don’t try to write full-on humorous videos, I just let my natural sense of timing and playfulness come out from time to time.
3. What are the strengths or unique considerations for sharing writing and essays via a video platform like YouTube? What is it like to write for YouTube versus for other mediums?
YouTube is a really interesting platform because its ecology is so enmeshed with the modern Attention Economy. In order to have your work succeed on YouTube, you have to get people to click on your videos and watch them in a single sitting without clicking onto another tab. What’s worse, you are competiting with 3 minute long meme videos, 30 minute long incendiary clickbait, videos of people playing video games, videos of raccoons being cute, and food porn, all pre-curated to steal each viewer’s attention.
So, if you’re trying to win over an audience that isn’t extremely niche or loyal to you, you often don’t have the luxury of long introductions or careful, exhaustive table-setting. You have 10–20 seconds to pique their interest or their eyes will float down to the suggestion column for something else. Everything from your video thumbnail to your opening line to your audio quality to your general demeanor has to come together in service of your point.
This means writing for YouTube requires you to have a very strong value proposition up front, and by that I mean, you have to know why a viewer a) wants to hear this, b) will understand it, and c) should trust you to deliver it. You have 10 seconds to make an idea appealing, make it clear, and make yourself credible.
On the flipside, YouTube is amazing for niche topics from voices on the margins because the audience is, for all intents and purposes, infinite. There are vibrant communities for people who are, for example, asexual and aromantic. There are communities of people who document dying malls. There are communities who interview people about daily struggles that society doesn’t know about. There are communities built around support for incarcerated individuals. And there are communities that film themselves playing games and talking to their friends, creating a party atmosphere even during quarantine.
I say that to say, your value proposition doesn’t have to target everyone on YouTube. You just need a strong value prop for the specific people with whom you’re trying to build a community.
4. What is your most popular YouTube video and how do you think it came to be so widely experienced? What impact do you think it created/is creating?
My most popular video is “How Law Enforcement Taught Me to Dehumanize.” I wrote it during the Black Lives Matter protests in the spring of 2020, and it was picked up and promoted by a popular YouTuber and has been very successful since.
If we go back to my explanation of value propositions, this video has a very strong one: a) it’s appealing because we are living during a time of highly visible police misconduct disturbing a nation, b) the topic of dehumanization is something that many people intuitively feel from law enforcement but may not fully be aware of, and c) I’m credible because I’m a former police officer.
Now, would this exact same video have been successful in, say, 2004? Of course not: in the wake of 9/11 and the start of the Iraq War, American reverence for armed forces was at an all-time high. My video just happened to be written at the right time to ride in the wake of a large movement. This isn’t to say the only successful videos are anchored to specific times and politics, only that, for me, the time period was part of the value prop.
The impact I see the video creating is one that is contributing to a slow, increased skepticism about law enforcement in general. Many people take the existence of the police as a given, as a default. Many commenters on my video expressed shock at my experiences and told me it made them see law enforcement a different way. Many said they were sharing it with family and friends to “open their eyes” about how law enforcement really is. To steal from Mark Fisher a little, I think my video is helping to dislodge the modern conception of the police from occupying the horizon of the thinkable.
5. What video(s) of yours are you most proud of? Tell me about how it/they came to be.
I should be proud of my most successful video (and I am), but the two videos that are actually my personal favorites are “You Are Alienated” and “Why You Should Care About Designing For Accessibility.” The former is a kind of spoken word/music video format discussion our modern alienation from our money, our labor, and our communities. It’s very different from my other videos, much more “artsy,” much more audacious—but when I watch it, I feel like my music, my words, and my visuals all harmonized perfectly to create the feeling I wanted to create. Alienation is often subtle, often scary, often demoralizing, and I wanted to give that a voice for people who felt it but couldn’t articulate it. I think I hit it exactly right.
As for my accessibility video, I created it to share lessons I’d been learning about how disabled people are excluded from work, from wealth, and even from democracy. I was so shocked to learn these lessons that I felt I had to amplify them. If they blew my mind, I knew they would blow other minds. I’m super proud of it because my abled commenters told me they had never encountered many of these concepts about disability and disabled access, whereas many of my disabled commenters told me I was one of the first YouTubers they’d seen treat these issues as important. Many disabled commenters told me that even other left-wing or social justice oriented channels seemed to ignore the disabled community and that my video made them feel seen and feel included. That video has a fifth of the views of my dehumanization video but it’s the one that makes me the happiest.
6. For people who may be interested in sharing their own work on a video platform like YouTube, what wisdom might you share with them about the experience?
Practical first: audio is more important than video, believe it or not. If people can hear you clearly, a fuzzy camera image isn’t as big of a deal, especially since you can always supplement with free stock video, free stock images, or footage of you playing Dark Souls.
Also, when you’re finding your voice, I would advise trying to err on the side of being too short instead of too long. Like I said, you’re competing in the Attention Economy and unfocused rambling is a great way to lose eyeballs. Find the core nug of your message and stay focused on it. As you grow your channel and find your sea legs, you’ll start to get a sense for what your audience is willing to stick around for, but when you’re an unknown, people may not invest two hours into someone they’ve never heard of before. I have never done a video longer than 30 minutes and I’ve never felt like I didn’t fully explore the topic I wanted to.
On that same wavelength, there is a concept in user experience called “information scent,” which posits that people click links on the Internet almost like they are foraging for sustenance. If they want to know about a topic, when they click a link they are going to decide within seconds whether they are still on the trail of the topic they want to know about. If they think they’ve lost the scent, they will hit the back button and try a different link. So if you want to make content for people researching a topic, make sure that within a few seconds, your video is clear about what you’re going to cover so that you reinforce the information scent for your famished visitors.
With that out of the way, my big piece of advice is that passion will build an audience. Maybe not a big one, maybe not one you can monetize and replace your income, but one that is authentic and engaged. If you are passionate about mathematical paradoxes, trans liberation, labor relations, young adult horror novels, weird history, cosplay, recipes from ancient cultures, or queer themes in 80s television, you have something to offer on YouTube.
And passion doesn’t mean bombastic speeches, loud talk, or an in-your-face demeanor. More, the passion to do a subject justice, the passion to do the research, to explain a concept people haven’t thought of, or to show them the interesting side of something they thought was mundane. I once watched an hour long oral history of the Super Mario Brothers world record speedrun. I once watched an hour long video about the ten year history of a Japanese professional wrestling rivalry. Passion is infectious. YouTube is full of people trying to make a buck by gaming the algorithm and trying to coast on whatever is trending. My advice is to not worry about the algorithm and instead of focus your energy on getting people excited about what you’re excited about.
Lastly, if you’ve done work you’re proud of and passionate about, don’t be afraid to share it! Promote it on Reddit, share it on the socials, text your friends, and don’t feel selfish about talking about your stuff. If it comes from a place of passion and authenticity, you’re not being greedy or egotistical telling others to see it. And always ask your audience to share your videos. Word of mouth is huge on YouTube.
7. A question we like to ask folks: what are you currently reading?
I am currently reading Postcapitalist Desire and The Weird & The Eerie, both by Mark Fisher, as well as 99% Invisible Cities by Mars & Kolstedt. I also read from Gore Capitalism by Sayek Valencia once a month, but I am as a mewling baby before this text and the only thing I fully understand from it is the concept of “the precariat” and basically nothing else. Normalize👏 not👏understanding👏books👏!
Subscribe to That Dang Dadhere. Follow That Dang Dad on Twitter here, or Phil’s main account here.
FantasticFungi: How Mushrooms Can Heal, Shift Consciousness, and Save the Planet
Publisher: Earth Aware Editions Genre: Nonfiction, Ecology, Spirituality Pages: 184 Format: Hardcover Buy Local My Rating: 5/5 stars
Can mushrooms change the world? Can they heal the planet? Can they repair your body? Can they realign your spirit?
Simply put, yes. In Fantastic Fungi, legendary mycologist Paul Stamets offers a beautiful collection of essays from the director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona Dr. Andrew Weil, food science journalist Michael Pollan, professor of Forest Ecology Suzanne Simard, and nature and food writer Eugenia Bone. Along with the essays are visually arresting photographs of fungi and mushrooms. Organized in three sections, these essays explore what mushrooms mean for the planet, our bodies, and our spirits. Reading the collection is a transformative experience where learning about issues like the mycelial internet, mushrooms as therapeutic intervention, and the stoned ape hypothesis will leave you seeing the world and your place in it from a totally new perspective.
That mushroom you see peeking up out of the mulchy forest floor? That’s only the tip of the fungal iceberg. A mushroom is only the fruiting body part of the organism, a way to release spores and reproduce when conditions are right. But below the surface? In the soil, branching out into a vast network of interconnection lies the vast entirety of the fungus, the mycelium stretching out—sometimes for miles. Mushrooms are much more complex than you may think.
Paul Stamets’ Fantastic Fungi accompanies a documentary of the same name. Both can be enjoyed alone or explored together in a complementary way. They are truly a fantastic journey into the big and tiny, micro and macro beautiful world of fungi, mushrooms, and our human relationships with them.
Did you know fungi are not plants? They’re not animals, either. Rather, they comprise their own kingdom. Stamets’ documentary suggests that perhaps fungi are the dominant species on earth. The biggest organism on earth is no whale, elephant, or giant squid, but a honey fungus that spans 2.4 miles in Oregon and is perhaps almost 9,000 years old. Fungi are the most common species on earth and are literally everywhere, “under every footstep that you take…all over the world.”
Grief, anger, and depression about climate change are normal, but at times reversing environmental destruction can seem hopeless. However, Fantastic Fungi is optimistic, and you can help. Become involved in fungi activism with organizations like The Radical Mycology Mycelial Network, which seeks to increase community resilience, support local ecologies, and recompose organic waste. The documentary and book offer a promise of hope about our environment. Mushrooms can save bees from extinction. Mushrooms can safely break down and recompose hazardous waste and industrial pollutants. Mushrooms can repair soil that has been over-tilled and damaged by pesticides. To quote Stamet: “Nothing lives alone in nature, and communities are more likely to survive than individuals. What a beautiful inspirational model for how human beings might live: in a shared economy based not on greed but on nurturing relationships and mutual cooperation.”
Fantastic Fungi calls us to action—as amateur mycologists, naturalists, and ecologists, citizen scientists, and change agents. Anyone can appreciate, learn from, and heal with mushrooms and fungi. We can—and should—work with fungi for the betterment of the planet.
You may be familiar with the extremely popular alphabet mystery series by Sue Grafton, which starts with A is for Alibi and ends at Yis for Yesterday, when the series ended with Sue Grafton’s death. I read the series this year and I enjoyed it. The main character, Kinsey Millhone, is a no-nonsense, witty, assertive, peanut-butter-and-pickle-sandwich-eating badass and private investigator.
And while I did enjoy the series, there is much to be critiqued. There are problems. You could say it is
p r o b l e m a t i c.
Because the term “problematic” can become partisan or dismissed as simply meaning “offensive,” let’s get clear on what it means. As simply as possible, problematic means presenting a problem. Olly Thorn adds that problematic means presenting a “social or political problem to do with some issue of fairness or social justice.”
It’s even more important to discuss the problematic nature of something that we like, or put another way, to critique our “problematic faves.” And Grafton’s series, especially the Kinsey character, and even larger—the genre of mystery—are many people’s favorites, including mine. I’m not saying don’t read these books; I’m saying when you read them, do so critically, aware of what injustices it may be reproducing. I hope this is a call that we do better moving forward in the genre.
There are many problems in Grafton’s series, including racism, copaganda, victim-blaming, and more, but I will discuss here: sexism, fatphobia, and classism (with a sprinkling of ableism and xenophobia). I write of these problems separately, but please know that they are inherently more complex and interconnected. The intersectional relationships between fatphobia and sexism or between fatphobia and classism, for examples, are extremely complicated.
S is for Sexist. How could a series that stars a hardboiledfemale private eye be sexist? And it’s true that when A for Alibi was published in 1982, it was groundbreaking: a lady private investigator? And written by a lady? The character Kinsey defied previous stereotypical and limited female roles in the mystery genre: either “femme fatale or corpse.” Throughout the series, because of her professional identity and career, other characters often assume Kinsey is a man, which she always sassily and satisfyingly rebuts. “Kinsey was a fictional alter ego for every shy woman who hesitated to talk back. Grafton said she counted herself among those shy women.”
But still, there are problems. In Y is for Yesterday, Kinsey believes, “The odd but unremarkable truth about women is we’ve had the aggression bred right out of us. Many of us are constitutionally unable to handle any kind of confrontation without bursting into tears.” This kind of generalizing about women as a whole is problematic in and of itself without regarding the intersections of gender, racism, disability, class, etc. It’s also problematic in regards to considering women as biologically weaker and that a “feminine” quality of expressing emotion during conflict is negative. Female characters in Grafton’s books, especially beloved Kinsey, regularly judge or comment on other women’s bodies or refer to other women as “bitchy.” Internalized sexism is readily seen when women habitually disparage themselves or other women, especially in regards to body-shaming them. It’s also seen in references to women as the “weaker sex,” which is, unfortunately, a surprisingly common theme in a series featuring a strong female main character!
And let’s talk about the trope of the strong female character, because that is harmful as well. Strong female characters might superficially seem feminist and anti-sexist, but it’s more complicated than that. What makes a female character “strong?” For a female character to be strong, it usually means she expresses masculine traits and eschews feminine ones. The problem is not masculinity, but rather that we associate strength with masculinity. Like other strong female characters such as Sarah Connor from Terminator 2, Kinsey reasserts masculine traits like having a willingness to commit gun violence; being tough and physically fit; needing to assert dominance in most situations; detesting stereotypically feminine interests like fashion, cooking, and make up—just to name a few. The work here is to change the way we see strength, to see strength in typically feminine traits or feminine expression. The response to the damsel in distress trope of the past isn’t to create harm as an overcorrection to the strong female character trope.
F is for Fatphobic. [content warning: fat-shaming, weight] As someone who has struggled with disordered eating and body image, Grafton’s series was often difficult to read. Diet culture and fat-shaming feature as main characters of the series in their own right, unfortunately. Kinsey is constantly exercising to “stay slim,” analyzing the calories of every food, skipping meals or bingeing on junk food, and making harmful judgments and evaluations of other characters’ bodies. If you share the same struggles with diet, weight, and shame as I do, I might recommend skipping this series entirely.
Personally upsetting to me was Grafton’s descriptions of Kinsey’s friend Vera Lipton’s body. From books B through J, Vera is described with words like “big” and “bulky.” In J is for Judgment (how fitting), Kinsey says, “She’s a big gal to begin with: maybe five feet ten, 140 pounds on a good size frame. She’d never been apologetic about her generous proportions.” As a woman who is exactly five feet ten myself, 140 pounds is not remotely “big.”
Especially concerning and harmful is how Grafton writes about a fat and lonely hotel clerk named Arlette who tries to argue for body acceptance:
“Fat is beautiful, Kinsey,” she said to me confidentially as I filled out the registration card. “Looka here.”
I looked. She was holding out her arm so that I could admire the hefty downing of excess flesh.
“I don’t know, Arlette,” I said dubiously. “I keep trying to avoid it myself.”
“And look at all the time and energy it takes,” she said. “The problem is that our society shuns tubbos. Fat people are heavily discriminated against. Worse than the handicapped. Why, they got it easy compared to us. Everywhere you go now, there are signs out for them. Handicapped parking. Handicapped johns. You’ve seen those little stick figures in wheelchairs. Show me in the international sign for the grossly overweight. We got rights.”
Her face was moon-shaped, surrounded by a girlish cap of wispy blonde hair. Her cheeks were permanently flushed as though vital supply lines were being dangerously squeezed.
“But it’s so unhealthy, Arlette,” I said. “I mean, don’t you have to worry about high blood pressure, heart attacks…”
“Well there’s hazards to everything. All the more reason we should be treated decently.”
What’s frustrating to see in this excerpt is Arlette arguing for fat acceptance and an end to fat-shaming, which I wholly support. However, Grafton presents it embedded in disgusted and judgmental descriptions about her body, which makes Arlette’s claims seem foolish and absurd. Not only is there fatphobia is this short quotation, but also sexism and ableism.
We know that fat-shaming, especially embedded in concerns about “health,” like Kinsey claims in the above excerpt, only do more harm than good. Shaming people for being fat by claiming you do so for their health not only doesn’t reduce their weight but actually leads to unhealthy outcomes: both increased disordered eating in response to public shaming, and rejection and the significant mental health tolls the shaming takes on our bodies.
Sure, A is for Alibi was published in 1982, at the height of diet culture, the low-fat movement, and a time where fat-shaming was common (and unfortunately still is today). The book does reflect the culturally acceptable beliefs and behaviors of the day. However, there are 26 books in the series written over three decades, with the final book being published in 2017. Yet, diet culture and fat-shaming is a huge ongoing theme that never gets corrected or addressed. It doesn’t matter if Grafton shares these fat-shaming beliefs with Kinsey or if she is writing them as solely belonging to Kinsey—the harmful consequences are the same.
C is for Classist. Kinsey (and arguably by proxy, Grafton) really hate poor and homeless people. Grafton’s series is rife with classism, which is the “systematic oppression of subordinated class groups to advantage and strengthen the dominant class groups. It’s the systematic assignment of characteristics of worth and ability based on social class.” Not only does Grafton write Kinsey into being in awe of rich characters’ homes and fashion, but she writes about homeless and poor characters and their associated negative qualities in extremely harmful ways.
A theme of the books places the responsibility on individuals instead of systems and structures: “bad apples” in the police force instead of structural problems with policing, criminals who “choose” crime instead of structural problems that leave them desperate, fat people who “choose” to be fat instead of the stronghold of food engineering and advertising. Likewise with classism. However, homelessness is not an individual’s failure—it is a structural failure of the society. Yet, Grafton continually writes that being poor or homeless is a personal lifestyle choice rather than being a victim of mental illness, poverty, and capitalist structures designed to keep people in poverty and out of homes. Even though homeless characters in W is for Wasted work heroically and without pay for Kinsey to solve that book’s case, she continually assesses them as smelly, unhygienic, and morally weak for living in poverty and having substance addictions.
In an intersectional medley of oppression in Y is for Yesterday, fat and homeless woman Pearl comes to live with Kinsey’s kind neighbor. Kinsey tells Pearl she is both taking advantage of the neighbor and illegitimately receiving disability support. Though Pearl’s hip is broken, Kinsey saw her hanging clothes on a clothes line and therefore believes Pearl is faking it, which is extremely offensive and harmful. Kinsey says, “Little sympathy I had for moochers and human parasites.” It should go without saying that no oppressed human deserves to be called a “parasite.”
Grafton writes a scene in V is for Vengeance that is an interesting and disturbing intertwining of classism and ethnocentrism, which entails the evaluation of other cultures as inferior to one’s own. Throughout the series, Kinsey disparages Rosie’s homemade Hungarian dishes as “repulsive” and focusing on animal parts typically considered “disgusting” in xenophobic perspectives. “By the time she finished telling me how tender the feet should be… my eyes were beginning to cross.” Kinsey more than once through the series spits out Rosie’s lovingly prepared meals. Such an ongoing “joke” throughout the series made me cringe every time. We get it: “foreign” food is gross and weird—ha ha. Pearl and another of her homeless friend are the only characters in the series to genuinely enjoy Rosie’s cooking, relating their subordinated social class with the unimaginable enjoyment of “gross” foods and lack of taste.
Grafton’s series itself won’t change as the years go on, but our reading of it will change, because we change with times. A 2020 reading of the series shows some of the problems and perpetuated harm still present in the series. So, read the series with a critical eye.
Better yet—if you’re a fan of mystery, crime fiction, and thrillers and are willing to join me, let’s read some incredible books from LGBT+ and mystery writers of color. Both of these groups have largely been historically excluded from the mystery genre. A classic psychological thriller written by lesbian writer Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley is gripping, suspenseful, and existential. New publications by black women mystery writers like My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite and When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole are fun and creative tales that seek to disrupt the status quo rather than perpetuate it.
And if you can’t get enough of a series featuring a hardboiled protagonist, check out Michael Nava’s series featuring a gay and Latino defense lawyer named Henry Rios. Nava’s queer framing of the mystery and crime genres challenge what we expect.
Maybe you have a story to tell. Maybe you want others to know they’re not alone. Maybe you want to write a memoir.
Writing about ourselves can be powerful, as can reading what other people write about themselves. We find universal, collective connection through sharing our personal stories together. We make sense of the past together. We own our histories together.
Memoir is a unique genre—it’s not autobiography or a chronological retelling of one’s entire life events. Rather, it’s telling a narrow and specific story around a life theme or event, and importantly, the interpretation of those events and what they mean for all of us looking forward. People write memoirs about all sorts of life events, major and small: divorcing their partner, learning to surf, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. There is always something learned, which is then shared.
If you’ve been wanting to write your own memoir, you should. Maybe you’ve been unsure where to start, how to find the right memories, how to write dialogue you don’t remember, and other questions about the genre. Below is a curated collection of books to help you learn how to write a memoir, four of which are books about memoir writing and three are examples of memoirs that you can learn from as well.
The Art of the Memoir—Mary Karr. “Everybody I know who wades deep enough into memory’s waters drowns a little.” Considered by many to be the book about memoir writing, Karr’s treatise on the subject is a perfect place to start your biblio-education of memoir. The Art of the Memoir gives the why of memoir writing. While the other books on this list will offer you the methods, tools, and the how of doing memoir, this book will provide you with the important foundation of the why of doing memoir—the methodology or theory behind the tools. It’s a theoretical overview of memoir and memoir writing, including subtopics like the catharsis of writing memoir, the ethics of writing about real people (sometimes doing so negatively), and finding the truth in memoir when people sometimes have different recollections of the same events. Start here.
Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir—Sue William Silverman. “We interpret facts about the past in order to reclaim them, make sense of them.” If the first book on this list gave you the why of memoir, these next two give you the how of memoir writing. I’ve read many books about writing memoir, and Fearless Confessions is both one of the most practical how-to guides and teaches unique concepts and techniques.
You’ve probably heard the writing advice “show, don’t tell,” and Silverman offers clear tools for doing that in a memoir, including using what she calls savory words, slant details, and revealing your theme. Silverman includes thoughtful exercises and illustrative examples throughout the book.
A particular favorite chapter is “How to Trick Yourself Into Writing,” which gives clever techniques and tools to try in order to developing a regular writing practice for crafting a memoir. She encourages the reader to write a lot—not only to develop usable material, but to cultivate a relationship to memoir writing and a writer’s identity.
Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir—Natalie Goldberg. “Too often we take notes on writing, we think about writing but never do it.” If you are struggling to write your memoir—feeling stuck, having no ideas or memories, feeling like you don’t have a story to tell (which you do!)—then use this book. Goldberg has written several other books on writing and this one is the most oriented toward method and to actually getting some words on the page. Old Friend from Far Away can help you get the what of your memoir.
This one may take you months to read because each page and each chapter is a writing exercise, some only a line or two long. “What was missing? Go. Ten minutes.” Others ask you to inventory every time you remember saying goodbye or to write about any memories associated with a bicycle. You will dig up memories you thought were long gone or didn’t know you still remembered at all. Goldberg says writing is an athletic activity, so get your writing muscles in shape by picking up this book and a pen and getting to it!
Memoirs are worth reading in their own right. The memoirist can teach you a new lesson about the world that you could find instructive, interesting, or comforting. Memoirs are like getting a secret peek into someone’s life—but they want you to peek. And more than that, memoirists want you to get inside, to swim around, to drink. In addition, you can learn about writing memoirs from reading them. Below are three memoirs to enjoy in their own right and to read to better understand the craft of memoir.
The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death In Order—Joan Wickersham. [content warning: suicide] “It had never occurred to me that the other shoe might turn out to be, after all, the original shoe, dropping again, years later, when I was awake and available to feel it.” One day, Wickersham’s father, leaving no note, no clues, and seemingly no reason, takes his own life. His daughter writes in the form of a highly organized and categorized index to try and understand why her father took his own life. It’s a story about how a suicide can affect the family left behind, and about the sometimes impossible and unanswerable questions it leaves forever. What you can learn from reading this memoir is how to write in a unique form and how to write a story that’s not told linearly or chronologically.
The Long Way Through the Woods: On Mushrooms and Mourning—Long Litt Woon. “If you want to hear a mushroom sing, you simply have to use your ears.” Long tells two seemingly unrelated stories about her life that end up being more connected than you’d think: grieving the death of her partner and discovering and falling in love with mushroom foraging. This memoir is incredibly informative and offers fascinating knowledge and detail about mushrooms and how to find them. It speaks to reconnecting with nature and with others, especially after a major loss. What you can learn from reading this memoir is how to intertwine your story with informational writing and how to tell two stories at once.
Strangers Assume My Girlfriend is My Nurse—Shane Burcaw. “You can’t truly know that you want to spend forever with someone until you’ve pooped in their arms.” Burcaw is a disability activist, speaker, writer, and non-profit director living with spinal muscular atrophy. His memoir will make you laugh out loud. This collection of short memoir essays will teach you about living with a disability in everyday ways that prove that the commonplace details of his life—and ours—can be endlessly interesting.
Burcaw is in an interabled relationship, and in the titular essay, he writes about how strangers continually assume that his girlfriend is his nurse. He advocates that disabled people can and do have fulfilling romantic and sexual relationships. What you can learn from reading this memoir is how to use humor in your own memoir and how to write your memoir as a collection of snapshots. If you enjoy this collection of personal essays, he wrote another one called Laughing at My Nightmare and he maintains a YouTube channel with his now wife Hannah.
Reading memoir is an exciting and engaging opportunity to create and experience connectivity in the mundane, the everyday, the quotidian and the real, the gritty, the universal. What develops between memoirist and reader is a type of friendship that lets us know that no one is ever really alone in their story.
And if you’re interested in learning how to write your own memoir, there are three ways you can teach yourself how to do it: by reading books about memoir, by reading memoirs, and by getting out there and writing your own. So, grab your pen!
You might be feeling disconnected and isolated right now going through this global pandemic. Whether you are the type of person that likes to take a deep dive into what you’re feeling and really indulge and explore it,or you’re the type of person that likes to go in the opposite direction and find hope, there is a book on this list for you.
Feeling socially disconnected can be disorienting. The first three books on this list capture the essence of social disconnection and the yawning chasm of isolation. Spooky! Lonely! Take a deep dive into the solitude you’ll find here.
Johnny Got His Gun—Dalton Trumbo. Be wary—this tale is dark, scathing, and unsettling in its embodiment of social disconnection. A young soldier returns from the First World War and slowly becomes aware that he is severely injured. His injuries are such that he has little ability to communicate with the people around him. Written in 1971 during the Vietnam War, Trumbo writes a depressingly persuasive anti-war story by describing the communal untethering it brings.
Room—Emma Donoghue. Made into a movie in 2015, Room is narrated from the perspective of a 5-year-old boy named Jack. Room is all he knows. See, his mother was kidnapped and kept locked in a shed in the kidnapper’s backyard. Completely isolated from others, Jack slowly has to learn how to forge bonds with people other than his mother. Ultimately hopeful, most of the story is unnerving and claustrophobic in the characters’ total forceful removal from society.
The Martian—Andy Weir. To balance out the heaviness of the previous two recommendations, I suggest The Martian, the basis for the 2015 film of the same name. This book will make you laugh out loud. Mark Watney is an astronaut who gets accidentally left behind on the planet Mars after an aborted mission. The story explores themes of survival, communication beyond great distances, and the importance of the many rallying together for the few. Talk about social disconnection when you’re literally the only person on a whole planet!
Or if that’s just not your thing, take a peek at these other three books that speak to the importance of social connection and the awesome power of interpersonal relationships. Hope! Kinship! We will find one another even in the dark.
Still Alice—Lisa Genova. Alice is a successful linguistics professor who begins to struggle after a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Despite the usual associations with the disease as causing further isolated from others, it is her husband and children who remind Alice—and us—about the power of connection and being with loved ones to ground us through hardships.
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window and Disappeared—Jonas Jonasson. Get ready for one of the most delightful books you’ll ever read—seriously, it’s so cute. After escaping from a nursing home, 100-year-old Allan takes off on a series of wild and surreal adventures. You’ll learn about Allan’s colorful history as he creates new friendships along the way. And if you enjoy this book, there is an equally lovely sequel.
Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5 Billion Year History of the Human Body—Neil Shubin. Your inner fish? Now hear me out. In this engrossing nonfiction book, Shubin will take you on an evolutionary journey that will leave you never looking at yourself and the place of humans in the greater scheme of the universe the same again. Through fascinating evolutionary biology, he shows us how vastly interconnected all of humanity and nature are. You’ll never feel alone again.
All of the books on this list remind us that we are human, that we thrive when united, and that coming together is the most important thing. Read a few chapters, and then call a friend to tell them you love them.