P is for Problematic: A Critical Review of of Sue Grafton’s Alphabet Mystery Series—From a Fan!

You may be familiar with the extremely popular alphabet mystery series by Sue Grafton, which starts with A is for Alibi and ends at Y is 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 hardboiled female 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 it’s time to get some new favorites.

7 Books to Teach You How to Write a Memoir

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.


Naked, Drunk, and Writing: Shed Your Inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essay—Adair Lara. “You need a good way to tell your story.” Lara’s book is a gift to anyone looking to learn how to write a memoir. Naked, Drunk, and Writing is a hands-on how-to guide to all the steps of memoir writing—from idea generation and planning your story to finding an agent and publishing your memoir. You will learn all the necessary stages of the journey here.

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 MourningLong 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!

6 Books That Explore Social Dis/Connection

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 GunDalton Trumbo. Be warythis 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.