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Book Review: Men Who Hate Women – From Incels to Pickup Artists: The Truth About Extreme Misogyny and How It Affects Us All by Laura Bates

If you’re a woman, you know. You know there are men out there who hate you simply because you were born (or became) a woman. They make shitty misogynistic jokes that they think are hilarious, they roll their eyes when you talk about the statistics that one in three women experience domestic violence in her lifetime, they talk about how men are the real victims in all of this. They grope. They harass. They assault. They abuse. They rape. I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t come in contact with men like this; many of us are unfortunate enough to have them in our own families. And the problem is growing. The internet has made institutionalized misogyny widespread, and it’s cropping up in our schools, our workplaces, and our government policies. Laura Bates has chronicled this infuriating phenomenon in her outstanding book, Men Who Hate Women – From Incels to Pickup Artists: The Truth About Extreme Misogyny and How It Affects Us All (Simon & Schuster UK, 2020).

Chapter by chapter, Laura Bates introduces us to the different types of misogyny that have become prevalent throughout the culture: the incels (short for involuntary celibate, this is a group of whiny men who feel that women owe them sex simply for being male, and they refuse to take responsibility for having lame personalities and zero decent personal grooming habits. Because of course it’s our fault and not theirs that they’re alone), the pickup artists (slimy, manipulative conmen who will go to any lengths to get women to sleep with them, and who think that rape is no big deal), the MGTOWs (Men Going Their Own Way; basically, dudes who are so done with women, they want nothing to do with them, which pretty much sounds like a giant favor to the rest of us, but which can have major affects on women if, say, your boss belongs to this group), and others, including red pillers and men’s rights advocates. These men spend their time on a portion of the internet collectively known as the manosphere, where they share degrading memes, make pathetic jokes, and egg each other on towards violence. More than a few mass shooters have been known to participate in these misogynistic communities; almost all of them have had prior convictions or accusations of some sort of violence against women.

This well-documented book illustrates the violence, fear, and extreme black-and-white thinking that goes on in the minds of the men who identify as members of these groups, and the real-life consequences and outcomes of such groupthink.

Once again, this is not an easy read. It’s an extremely disturbing exposé that shows the gradual creep of misogyny into nearly every corner of our lives, and how it’s very much not taken seriously. How many times has it come out that yet another mass shooter had been arrested for domestic violence or assault against a woman? Almost every time, and yet it’s barely a blip on the radar of most authorities that this alone is a major risk factor. Ms. Bates, who has received thousands of death and rape threats throughout her career as a journalist for exposing these cretins for who they are, makes the case over and over again that this line of thinking is dangerous- dangerous for women, dangerous for society, and yes, dangerous for men.

It’s a line of thought that doesn’t get enough mainstream press coverage, she argues (correctly!) that toxic masculinity (not men-are-toxic; strictly-enforced-ideas-about-masculinity-are-toxic would be the better way to frame it) hurts men. Women can be anything from a dancer to an engineer; why shouldn’t the same be true and acceptable for men? Why does society want to shove all men into one round hole of ‘tough; unemotional; strong,’ when that’s obviously unhealthy? Men should be able to create beautiful art, and to explain what they were feeling when they painted it (and to be taught from an early age how to understand what it is they’re feeling and TALK about it!). They should be able to become whatever it is they want, from teachers to librarians to engineers to dance instructors and no one should give a shit, because that’s what makes for healthy people and a healthy society. And men should be able (and expected!) to be good, nurturing parents to the kids they create and the kids they take on as their own. Society hurts men (which in turn hurts women) when we expect so little from them.

Will this book help create change? I don’t know. It’s a deep, wide problem that spans the globe, and Ms. Bates is well aware of that. But we have to do better, and being aware that these communities exist and of the damage that they inflict- on women, on our society, on themselves- is a start. At the very least, every parent should be reading this to understand what’s out there and what’s trying to rope your kids in, since most of this radicalization is taking place online (YouTube is especially bad at recommending far-right content; meme farms on Instagram are also a major problem). Be aware; read this book, and make sure you’re paying close attention to the language your teen boys are using (and girls as well; there are some women out there looking to rope in like-thinking young girls. The trad wife movement is a big nasty part of this).

Visit Laura Bates’s website, Everyday Sexism, here.

Follow Everyday Sexism on Twitter here.

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Book Review: Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy by Talia Lavin

I wanted to read Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy by Talia Lavin (Legacy Lit, 2020) from the moment I first heard about it. Homegrown terrorism, nationalism, and white supremacy has been a huge and growing problem in recent years, as witnessed by constant news reports of attacks, bomb threats, shootings, mass shootings, synagogue and mosque threats and attacks, and plots against various political organizations. It’s been terrible watching all of this, and I knew I needed to learn more about who these people are.

Talia Lavin is an outspoken feminist Jewish journalist. All that would have made her a target online as it is, but she began investigating the far right and its online activities, and that made her even more of a target (to the point where she’s had to hire security to protect her family, because these people are so disgusting). Her investigations led her to visit some incredibly dark places on the web, where alt-right reading materials are passed around, groups develop new slurs for the people they hate (if you’re not straight, white, Christian, male, and deeply conservative in your political beliefs, they hate you and would rather see you dead), and plots to murder are planned out. These aren’t just people living in tin-can shacks far out in the woods. These are your neighbors, the people you pass by in the city every day. Biotech employees, working professionals, educated people. People who appear to be normal, but who are hellbent on the destruction of everyone not like them.

This disturbing exposé is tempered by Ms. Lavin’s self-deprecating humor and bolstered by her strong writing skills and quick-witted intellect. Oftentimes, I reread a particularly well-crafted sentence twice, just to admire it. But the content is difficult to consume; she’s reporting on the true dregs of society here, dregs that span the globe and show up in multiple countries and on multiple continents. The hatred of the people she writes about runs deep: Muslims and Jews feature heavily (being Jewish herself, Ms. Lavin brings personal history and expertise to the narrative), but women are also a major target, especially when she delves into the incel movement (short for involuntary celibate, this is an internet movement of men that has turned their inability to develop a decent and attractive personality into a rage-filled hatefest of women, because of course they’re owed women’s time and attention simply because they exist. *eyeroll* Men affiliated with this movement have engaged in assault, murder, and mass shootings).

Culture Warlords is an emotionally taxing book to read, but it’s an important one. If you’ve never heard of any of the content Ms. Lavin covers here, you’ve likely been in a coma for a very long time, or you’re not one of the groups targeted by the people she infiltrated (and in that case, you very much need to read this book and understand what life is like when you become a target). White supremacist groups are a major problem; I truly hope that this book shines some light on the danger they present and help us as a society take the necessary steps to stamp out such disgusting hatred.

Jewish Women’s Archive hosted a great talk with Talia Lavin about this book in February of 2020; you can view that video here. It’s worth the watch.

Follow Talia Lavin on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control by Steve Hassan

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you know I’m fascinated by cults. Not just the cults themselves, though; I’m also fascinated by the mindset that it takes to join and stay in a cult: the beliefs and ties to reality that followers must suspend, the excuses they need to make, and the misbehavior that must be dismissed in order to continue to defend and remain within the group. What makes all that happen? What kind of perfect storm has to take place in order for a single person to convince themselves that this group above all others has it right, despite glaring evidence to the contrary? In the past few years, we’ve been able to watch- and still watch- this play out on a massive scale in real time, and when I learned about The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control by Steve Hassan (Free Press, 2019), I was interested. I’d heard interviews with Steve Hassan before on the topic of cults, and I had long before made the connection between the many, many cults I’ve read about and the behavior of Donald Trump’s most ardent followers. Onto my list it went.

Steve Hassan had once been a member of the Moonies, the colloquial name for members of Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. His family recognized early on that he had been pressured into a cult; it took him several years to leave (with the help of his family, who were not members; it’s obviously much, much harder for people raised in these movements to extract themselves), and he went on to become a mental health expert who specializes in treating people who leave high-control groups. He’s well aware now of the tactics that the Moonies and other groups use in order to pressure people to join and stay in their movements, and he recognized early on that Donald Trump and his entourage have engaged in all of the same tactics in order to build their own movement.

Step by step, Steve Hassan breaks down how Donald Trump engages in the same mind control techniques that cults use, using specific examples not just from Trump and his entourage, but showing how those same techniques played out in other high-control groups (such as NXIVM, Jonestown, Waco, etc). (And this isn’t mind control like in cartoons, where people’s eyes spin around; these are psychological tactics designed to manipulate how a person thinks, to break ties with a person’s prior life and beliefs and instill new, mostly fear-based beliefs that encourage the potential convert to join the group, because the group or the group’s leader alone can fix this. Sound familiar?). The parallels are disturbing.

I enjoyed a lot of the content here. Seeing the tactics used by various cults and the Trump campaign broken down step-by-step is definitely eerie, especially seeing it all in one place. Mr. Hassan isn’t the only one to notice this; the podcast Behind the Bastards has noted this in multiple episodes, and if you’ve ever listened to the podcast Cults on Parcast, you’ll recognize the same patterns of behavior and control over and over again, used throughout all the various groups. There’s no doubt that the Trump campaign used and continues to use these unfortunately effective tactics. They work, yes, but they work by manipulation and fear. If you can’t convince people of your message without manipulation and fear, your message isn’t worth propagating.

The book did get a little dry for me at times, and there were several instances where the text veered into speculation. “Many people believe…” “Some people think…” I didn’t care for that and felt that it weakened his argument. In a book that is making such big claims (claims which I think are unfortunately accurate), I want every claim to be backed up with hard evidence. There’s no room for conjecture when you’re penning nonfiction about a presidential administration that engaged in devastating acts, and God knows there’s enough hard material to base these claims on. The speculation turned me off quite a bit, and I felt that it lessened the effectiveness of the rest of the book. It also strayed into straight-up political discussion more than I expected; I was looking for more of hard look at the Trump administration’s cult-like tactics in engaging its followers and keeping them coming back for more despite this often not being in their best interests (something we’re still seeing today throughout this pandemic, though there are definitely signs that the monster he created is beyond his control, what with his encouraging his rallygoers to get vaccinated, only to have them boo him). While it did contain some of that, it wasn’t as much as I had expected when I put this book on my list.

It’s definitely an interesting perspective, but not as in-depth of an examination as I had hoped for.

Visit Steve Hassan’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears) by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

Sometime late last winter or early last spring, one of my online friends posted an article discussing A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears) by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling (Public Affairs, 2020). The premise sounded wild, and I added it to my list, and there it was at the library on my latest trip. I only have forty-some books left on my TBR that are available at my local library branch, so it’s less mood-reading these days and more reading-what’s-available-at-this-particular-moment in terms of my list. Which is usually fine (although there are certain things I know I can’t handle at the moment, so those sit a little longer on my list).

The town of Grafton, New Hampshire became the focus of a group of Libertarians (an American political party that emphasizes freedom above all, oftentimes without the corresponding responsibilities. Wikipedia article on Libertarianism here). They chose this town as the site they were going to ‘liberate’ from the tyranny of taxes (I hope you can hear my eyeroll) and began to move there in sizeable droves. They liberated a lot of things, including the town from fire protection, road repair, and wildlife management.

Bears began to become a huge menace in the town, aided by certain residents actively feeding them. Bear attacks, uncommon even in the worst of times, took place on several occasions, including bears coming into people’s homes (many townspeople looked for any reason to blame the victim; apparently, cutting up meat in your own kitchen makes you responsible for being mauled by a bear). Houses burned down because the fire department had been so gutted. Roads crumbled. The library suffered, both in terms of the hours it was able to operate and the building itself. The libertarians fought amongst themselves, and the town continued to suffer. To only certain people’s surprise, a higher-taxed town not too far away continued to thrive and grow, while Grafton crumbled and its population shrank.

While nothing in this book was surprising, in terms of outcome, it still made for an interesting, if occasionally slightly dry (more due to subject than the writing style, I think; I don’t necessarily find Libertarianism all that interesting and definitely not appealing, since the thought processes of its adherents is just a whole lot of cringe for me. The book intrigue me because of the strong consequences of seeing this line of thinking through). Mr. Hongoltz-Hetling does a good job of digging down into the essence of the psyches of the libertarians who took over the town, showing their goals and thought patterns and their expectations for Grafton’s eventual tax-free utopian status under libertarian rule. A rule-less (or nearly rule-less) society depends heavily on its citizens always making the morally correct choices, and as this book shows (and common sense dictates), that’s just not something that happens. People are people; they quite often make terrible decisions that are entirely against even their own self-interest, not the mention the interest of the community around them (see: pandemic), and in case after case, this is illustrated throughout this book.

This is a fairly entertaining, occasionally amusing, and often face-palm-inducing read that I think serves as interesting reading material to readers who understand that this particular philosophy makes for a great ideal, but that put into action, the outcome will never match up with its prior vision. Will it convince anyone already married to the ideals of Libertarianism? Having known a few people that prescribe to that particular philosophy, I doubt it; I think they’d be more along the lines of assuming that the Grafton crowd made mistakes that they wouldn’t, that “That wouldn’t possibly happen to me because REASONS,” entirely discounting the fact that living without regard to the society around you makes for a very dangerous society altogether (see: pandemic).

I enjoyed this, and while I assume that it was at least partly written to serve as a warning, I think it’s more of a warning for people to be on guard against these ideals from taking hold and destroying their communities. Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling has painted a picture of a community turned into a pretty bleak place to live; it should serve as a warning to everyone who doesn’t want to end up being mauled by a bear in their own kitchen, and struggling to call for help afterwards due to collapsed town services.

Visit Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

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Book Review: The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Equal America by Carol Anderson

This review will look a little different than my usual reviews.

A few years ago, I read White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson. It’s American history with a spotlight on how deeply and violently racist this country has always been to Black people, and while I knew of many of the stories Ms. Anderson recounted, the details she included and the stories I hadn’t known about were shocking. I was appalled, and this has since become one of the books I recommend the most, because it’s history that everyone needs to know about and understand. Because of that well-written, beautifully researched, and eye-opening book, everything Carol Anderson has ever written is on my TBR- though I’m spacing them out; they’re a lot to handle, but they’re such important books- and next up was The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021).

The Second Amendment, which gives Americans the right to bear arms, has never been applied equally. We’ve seen that play out time and time again, when Black people (usually men, though not always) who are legally in possession of a weapon and are acting in a responsible manner with it are shot and killed (whereas white men who have murdered people as part of an active shooter situation are taken into custody alive and unharmed). Think of Philando Castile or Tamir Rice, both now dead- one had a legally registered gun, which he had informed the police about; the other had a toy gun. Both are now dead. Compare that with all the perpetrators of mass shootings we’ve seen in the US that have been taken into custody alive, even after murdering people. There is a history to all of this, unfair rules that were harshly applied to the Black community, who were never allowed to defend themselves against anything or anyone, and Ms. Anderson meticulously documents it all in the pages of this book.

The Second isn’t a long book (there are a lot of footnotes; her research is meticulous, and I ended up flipping to the back quite often out of curiosity as to what sources she was using, and also because I wrote down a few quotes and wanted the original sources), but there’s a lot to digest here, a lot to wrap your brain around, and I had to keep stopping and rereading passages to make sure I understood them. American history as we’re taught in school is usually about brave patriots who stood up to tyrants; they leave out how often we were the tyrants ourselves. We leave out how racist our founding fathers were; we leave out most of the laws and court rulings that told Black people in no uncertain terms that they weren’t human beings, that their lives were worthless, that they weren’t entitled to self-defense or the rights of citizenship. Carol Anderson doesn’t leave these things out; she’s the education you should have gotten before, but likely didn’t. I was actually lucky and had a few grade school teachers that didn’t hold back when it came to speaking truth about American history; even so, there have still been many things I missed, and I’m grateful to Ms. Anderson and other writers like her to help fill in the gaps and help me understand exactly how deep the injustice in this country runs.

This review is more to make readers aware that this book exists- I’m not a historian and can’t review it as such, but the history she relates is heartbreaking and infuriating- and that Ms. Anderson’s writings are important and deserve your attention and consideration. The US has a lot of work to do to clean up the messes it’s made. To be honest, I’m not sure we have the willpower to do it; there are a frightening number of people out there who seem to revel in being as cruel as possible to as many groups as possible. But the decent people among us know that it’s a fight worth fighting, no matter what the odds, and the first step is being aware of exactly how much work there is to be done. Books like The Second and White Rage are excellent places to start.

Visit Carol Anderson’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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Book Review: Antisemitism: Here and Now by Deborah E. Lipstadt

I believe I learned about Antisemitism: Here and Now by Deborah E. Lipstadt (Schocken Books Inc, 2019) while combing through the library’s digital card catalog for Jewish-related books at one point (remember actual, physical card catalogs? I miss those things. In what may be my nerdiest story yet, I actually have a scar on my left hand from when I was 12 and the H drawer of the card catalog fell out of its place and the metal parts of the underside of the drawer sliced my finger). It’s a topic I’ve encountered before plenty of times in my reading, but this was a recent publication, and I knew I needed to read it. I’m so glad I did.

Antisemitism is a lot like racism, in that it’s everywhere. It goes far deeper than Nazis and concentration camps, and there are a lot of ways to be antisemitic (if you’re unsure of exactly what that means or can’t think of more than one or two, this is likely something you should read). Structuring her book as a conversation over email with a student and a colleague, Deborah Lipstadt, a professor and historian, discusses antisemitism: what it is, what it looks like in its many forms, how to respond to it as a Jew and a Gentile, how to process feelings about it. She clarifies a lot of information on the topic, including a discussion on people who may not necessarily be antisemitic themselves but who enable those who are (a massive problem these days, unfortunately, and again, if you can’t think of any examples of this, you’re the target audience for this book, because it’ll open your eyes). The section of Jeremy Corbyn and the antisemitism of the Labour Party disturbed me deeply- I knew things weren’t great, but reading all the examples Ms. Lipstadt laid out helped me to understand how big the problem is there. I don’t know too much about British politics, so I really found this helpful in understanding what has been happening there.

This is not and should not be a comfortable read. Go into this prepared to learn, to recognize antisemitic statements and actions in yourself, in your friends and family, in your favorite politicians (yes, on both sides, and she doesn’t shy away from that unfortunate truth. Both sides absolutely do have an antisemitism problem), in the media you consume, and be prepared to be honest with yourself and change your ways, or call out antisemitism in those around you (they won’t like that. Big deal; do it anyway). Creating a better, safer world is everyone’s responsibility, yours included, and books like this are an important resource in doing just that.

I will say that while this is a deeply serious subject and one that isn’t necessarily pleasant to read about, the tone of this book is kept as light as possible, making it, while not the easiest of reads, a deeply engaging one. I flew through this book, always looking forward to the next chapter and appreciating the education on every page. It’s a book I wish I could get everyone I know to read; it’s that important. If you know and love Jewish people (or even just know, to be honest- and if you’re reading this, you know me! Hi!), if you were horrified by the tiki torch-waving alt-right marching through Charlottesville while screaming antisemitic garbage a few years ago, if you’ve read stories about the uptick in antisemitic events (including the stabbing of a rabbi in Boston last week), and especially if you fit into none of these categories- this is the education you need to be a good friend, a good citizen, and a good ally.

Visit Deborah E. Lipstadt’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini

It’s no great secret that women have been left out of a lot, if not most scientific research in the past, from behavioral studies to medicine- because why bother? They’re totally basically the same as men, right? Except wrong, and that has had serious, often deadly, consequences for women all around the world. I’ve read a few books on this topic in the past few years; Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong- and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini (Beacon Press, 2017) was the latest on my list. It’s a short book; what’s it’s not short on is science and information that’ll make you think.

For most of recorded scientific history, women have been left out of research and studies. There was no need to study them, (male) scientists thought, and the reasons were many: there was no difference between men and women, scientifically. Women could get pregnant and medications might harm the developing fetus, so better to leave them out and just assume the medication worked on them in the exact same way it did men (uh…sorry ‘bout that, dead women). Science already knew how women were different than men: they were passive, subservient, incapable of understanding difficult scientific concepts like men, and less intelligent, with their tinier lady brains…if you’re not screaming by now, check your pulse.

Angela Saini shines a light on the myriad ways that science has ignored women (and not just human women! Why bother studying the females in ANY species, amirite?!!??? *screams again*), and the new research- oftentimes spearheaded by the women who are beginning to engage in research in larger numbers than ever before. This new research isn’t without its detractors, often men who still cling to the juvenile idea that women are just weak, limp creatures incapable of engaging in more than cleaning and child raising and cooing over big strong men, but it’s shoving science in a direction that it should have gone ages ago.

I enjoyed this, but it’s pretty deeply scientific and not the most casual of reads- to be honest, it often read like listening to my biologist husband speak (which isn’t a bad thing!). It was a little bit of a slow read for me, both because I was busy getting stuff done around the house and because I kind of wanted to digest all the information thrown at me. While I knew from other reading that women have long been left out of medical trials and health-based research, I hadn’t really known that scientists hadn’t bothered studying the behavior of female chimpanzees, bonobos, even female birds were left out of the research for a puzzlingly long time, simply because scientists assumed, “Oh, they’re just out there mothering. They’re built for mothering, they just want one single mate to be strong providers with strong genes for their babies, and they’re no more complicated than that.” Shockingly, it turns out that lumping all female creatures into one ladyparts-means-THIS pile is incorrect (and you’re going to be so grossed out by how many dudes are offended by the fact that they got this wrong, and who straight-up seem to scoff at Ms. Saini for questioning them on this). There’s a lot on animal research in the second half of the book, which didn’t interest me quite as much as the medical research bits, but I’m glad I read it, so that I better understand the depths to which half the population has been ignored in all facets of science.

Interesting book, though infuriating to read in terms of subject and how arrogant male scientists have been throughout history.

Visit Angela Saini’s website here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell

I was reading over at Hey Alma a few weeks ago when an article leapt out at me: Jews Probably Won’t Join Your Cult by Emily Burack, all about the new book, Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell (Harper Wave, 2021). The article was great, the book sounded fascinating, and lo and behold, my library had a copy on order! I put my name on the list, and got the email that my book was in this week- of course when I already had like six books sitting at home waiting for me. As is almost always the case. Everything comes in at once. It’s a good problem to have, isn’t it?

Amanda Montell’s father grew up in Synanon, the addiction-recovery-program-turned-cult of the 1970’s, so she grew up hearing stories of cult life. But it was her background as a linguist that had her considering what makes and keeps these groups- not all of them religious- together, and the answer to that is language. Each group has its own lingo, yet they all use similar linguistic techniques to pull followers in, establish themselves as a moral (or otherwise) authority, maintain said authority and bypass certain followers’ inner warning system, and preserve the control they hold over their followers’ lives. From Scientology to Jonestown to MLMs to CrossFit to the cult of Trump, what these groups have in common is the way they use language as a means of groupthink and control, and Ms. Montell illustrates this beautifully in a book that, while academic, never strays toward the dry. This is fascinating reading.

From group-specific vocabulary to thought-terminating clichés (once you learn what these are, you’ll hear them everywhere, just as Ms. Montell warns), the language techniques used by these groups- some of which are straight-up cults, others which only tap dance on the border of cultish- follow similar patterns. That message you get from that girl you went to high school with (“Hey girl! LOVE your posts! You have such a great energy. I have the BEST opportunity for you, if you want to make some money staying at home with your kids IN YOUR PAJAMAS! Who wouldn’t love that, right???”), the fitness guru yelling at you from the screen of your Peloton, and that all-smiles dude in the suit who wants to have a chat with you about where you’re going to spend eternity all use similar tactics. They may not sound the same, they may not have the same end goal, but they’re cut from the same cloth. Listen closely, and the language they use is all similarly cultish.

I’ve read a lot of books that dissect language use over the years, and Cultish is probably at the top of that list in terms of ease of read and enjoyability. Ms. Montell delves into well-known death cults, such as Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate, but she also tackles newer groups such as Peloton, SoulCycle, CrossFit, and various MLMS- groups that, while they aren’t exactly full-on cults, at least make a lot of people vaguely uncomfortable and inspire their devotees to never, ever shut up about them. (Seriously. The MLM people, amirite???)

If you like learning about language usage, you’ll enjoy this book. If you’re interested in cults and groups that inspire their members to near-cultish devotion, you’ll enjoy this book. And if you’re interested in both things, this is definitely one you won’t want to miss. (“Hey girl! I have got a book you’re going to LOVE!”)

Visit Amanda Montell’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son by Michael Ian Black

If you’re my age (40) or older, you might remember a sketch comedy show from MTV called The State. With sketches like Barry and Levon, The Jew, the Italian, and the Redhead Gay, Doug, and The Animal Song, The State was irreverent and hilarious, and twelve/thirteen year-old me was utterly obsessed. Quite a few of the cast members have gone on to have flourishing careers in Hollywood, including Ken Marino, Michael Showalter, Thomas Lennon, and, one of my favorites, Michael Ian Black (not gonna lie; tween/early teen me thought he was super cute). So when one of my friends mentioned she was reading his A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son (Algonquin Books, 2020), onto my TBR it went. I checked the shelves for it a few times at the library, but it was always checked out, but last time, it was in. Score!

The book begins with some disturbing images of the Sandy Hook school shooting. Black and his wife reside in Connecticut, one town over from Newtown, and were thus tasked explaining the murders to their young children. This sent him down a path of pondering what’s wrong with manhood and masculinity today, since it’s overwhelmingly boys and men that commit these atrocious mass shootings. What are we doing, what are we teaching our boys that far too many of them find solace solely in violence? Why do we shove boys and men into such small boxes, emotionally speaking, and then act shocked that so many of them are emotionally stunted? Why do we act like being emotionally stunted is a good thing? What are we even doing here???

This is a really deep look into how badly we fail our sons and how much our society suffers for it. Some of it is a memoir, of where Black succeeded, where he failed, where he could have done better, and where he was allowed to skate by simply because he’s a white man. Other parts are heartfelt advice to his son: do this; don’t get messed up with that; allow yourself to feel things; don’t fall into the traps of masculinity that society says you must; I’ll keep trying to be a better man, and so should you, because we owe it to ourselves and to the world.

This is a really beautiful book. Time after time, I was blown away by Black’s in-depth thoughts on how toxic we’ve made manhood. (Remember when Fox News flipped out about Obama’s tan suit and his ordering Dijon mustard on his hamburger? That’s part of it. Flavor and style are feminine traits, y’all. Real men eat sawdust and wear barrels with straps *eyeroll*) We can all be better about this; we can all do better with this, and there are so many examples of how in this book. This is a subject about which he obviously cares deeply and has spent a lot of time thinking about, and it shows in his writing (which is smooth, witty, and enjoyable to read). This is a man who loves his kids and isn’t afraid of being tender with them. I hope his son realizes- someday, even if he’s not there yet- what an absolute gift his father has given him by writing this.

Who can benefit from this book? Quite frankly, everyone. Parents of sons. Parents of daughters. Anyone who interacts with men and women. Young men. Young women. People who read. People who don’t read. If you’ve ever wondered what’s wrong with American society, you should definitely read this book. Reading this made me wish I could sit down for a long conversation with Michael Ian Black, because he’s obviously an intelligent man who puts a lot of thought into the things he cares about, and I’d love to hear more from him.

What a wonderful, moving, thought-provoking book. I was sad to reach the end.

Follow Michael Ian Black on Twitter.

nonfiction

Book Review: What’s Your Pronoun?: Beyond He and She by Dennis Baron

“What’s your pronoun?”

She/her/hers. They/them. He/them. Xie/hir.

Pronouns are popping up all over: in social media bios, in our screennames on our nine million daily Zoom calls, in applications and various forms we’re asked to fill out (I just wrote out my pronouns in a volunteer application about fifteen minutes ago. LOVE that they asked). Odds are you’ve come across at least one person who uses what is thought of as a non-traditional pronoun; I know several in person and many more online who do. But is this really a new phenomenon? Not at all, says Dennis Baron in his study of the subject, What’s Your Pronoun?: Beyond He and She (Liveright, 2020). This went on my list as soon as I learned about its existence; I’m a bit of a language nerd, so the subject interested me, but I’m also interested in being the best ally I can, so I knew I needed to learn more.

English is seriously lacking in a common-gender pronoun. What’s commonly used is they/them, but grammar fascists have long had their issues with that. (Insert eyeroll.) This isn’t a new problem. Dennis Baron points out that what we think of as ‘alternative’ pronoun use in the US goes back to the 1780’s, and that’s only how far back we’ve been able to dig up written sources. And singular ‘they,’ as in ‘I saw someone at your house, but they ran off when they saw me’ has been in use since 1376, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. If you’re looking for a book to convince a family member that your pronoun use isn’t just some modern-day fancy, this will help you clarify points and back up your argument. (Not that you should have to; your choices about your identity and how you want to be addressed are valid regardless.)

While at times this book is a bit of an information dump, it’s interesting and informative, and it’s written in a jaunty, fun style that doesn’t exhaust the brain to take it all in. The struggle to use English in a way that suits our needs in terms of identity has been going on for a long time, and it’s chock-full to the brim with whiny, tantrum-throwing men who gasped as though someone had kicked their puppy when it was suggested that maybe women didn’t enjoy being referred to as the generic he (as in, ‘If a guest doesn’t enjoy steamed fish, he is welcome to order something else off the menu’). “Men in power accepted the generic masculine only when it didn’t require them to give up too much,” Mr. Baron states, and then presents this to the reader in example after infuriating example (He meant men in terms of rights, like who could vote, but it meant men AND women in terms of punishment. SUPER CONVENIENT, RIGHT?!!?!?? *ragescream*).

Language changes. Uses change. New words crop up. If you don’t think that’s true, try explaining the sentence ‘I downloaded the browser extension, but then my modem disconnected and I bluescreened’ to someone from 1950. What is eternal is respect and how we treat each other, and though it may take some practice to use pronouns that you aren’t necessarily familiar with, if you can remember to use a woman’s new last name when she gets married and changes it to her husband’s, you can also remember to refer to your friend’s kid or your co-worker as ‘them’ or ‘hir’ when you speak about them. It’s not hard, and it’s not new.

Dennis Baron has really shed a lot of light on how far back the struggle for a gender-neutral pronoun goes. I had no idea that ze, for example, traces back to 1864. And one of the most fascinating quotes I found in the book refers to ‘em, as in “The dogs are missing! We need to find ‘em!”:

‘…the informal ‘em, so common in speech, is not a reduced form of them, but a holdover from the old plural object form hem, with unpronounced h.

Fascinating! I never knew that!

Lots of history and information and men throwing fits because they didn’t want to share society with women (seriously, dudes, get over it. Who raised you???), but you’ll learn a lot about the English language and its use throughout history. It’s really true that everything old is new again in terms of pronoun use. 😊

Visit Dennis Baron’s blog here.

Follow him on Twitter here.