Book review: Shrill by Lindy West

Title: Shrill

Author: Lindy West

Publisher: Hachette

Published: 2016

Version reviewed: Kindle edition

One of the things I wonder about in my spare time is how historians will portray these times. I celebrated my 50th birthday this year, which makes me officially an Old Fart (™), and these are the most turbulent times I can remember living through. I could fill many blog posts inventorying that turbulence, but I’m here to review books and chew bubble gum, and I’m all out of bubble gum, so I’ll get to the point. Wherever you stand politically, it’s hard to miss the fact that women are getting more vocal about sexual harassment and sexual assault. As I write this, the Harvey Weinstein scandal is a few weeks old, several women have accused Louis C.K. of sexual harassment, and several other prominent men have been accused in recent weeks (make that days) of less-than-honorable behavior toward women. One of the young, fresh voices of this latest women’s movement is Lindy West, New York Times columnist, founder of an advice column on Tumblr for teens, I Believe You, It’s Not Your Fault, and creator of the #ShoutYourAbortion campaign on Twitter. Apparently I’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, because I’d never heard of her till Amazon recommended her 2016 memoir, Shrill, when I finished Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me on my Kindle. The title caught my attention, so I took a closer look. I’m very glad I did. West’s memoir is fierce and funny and brutally honest, and I loved every bit of it.

Before we get into the meat of the review, I want to get a few things out of the way. First, West is a loud and proud feminist, as you might guess from the title. Wait, wait, don’t close that browser tab! She is neither a misandrist nor a boring academic who requires twelve pages of two-dollar words to explain a simple concept. West is a comedian. Yes, you read that right. A funny feminist is not an oxymoron (I’ve spent most of my life trying to be one, though West is way wittier than I’ll ever be). And despite the title, she is not shrill. Her writing is full of confidence and sharp wit, the voice of a woman comfortable in her own skin and unwilling to silently tolerate those who would strip away that hard-earned comfort.
In Shrill, West writes about everything from her own life (and, yes, her abortion, though only for a few pages) to comedy, feminism, and surviving the Internet troll brigade (note: the internet is not kind to women guilty of Writing While Female, Feminist, and Fat). Whether she’s talking about the trials of growing up geeky or rape jokes in comedy, she is sharp and funny and self-deprecating and ruthlessly honest. West has a gift often shared by both comics and poets: the ability to condense a thought into a a few well-sharpened words that convey more than the wordiest tomes produced by academics like me. Here are just a few of West’s best Twitter-sized punches:  

On women:

“Maybe women would finally be considered fully formed human beings, instead of off-brand men with defective genitals.”

And internet trolls:

“Why is invasive, relentless abuse—that disproportionately affects marginalized people who have already faced additional obstacles just to establish themselves in this field—something we should all have to live with just to do our jobs?”

“Internet trolls are not, in fact, monsters. They are human beings who’ve lost their way, and they just want other people to flounder too.”

“People say it doesn’t matter what happens on the Internet, that it’s not real life. But thanks to Internet trolls, I’m perpetually reminded that the boundary between the civilized world and our worst selves is just an illusion.”

And rape jokes in comedy:

“You get to decide where you aim: Are you making fun of rapists? Or their victims? Are you making the world better? Or worse? It’s not about censorship, it’s not about obligation, it’s not about forcibly limiting anyone’s speech—it’s about choice. Who are you? Choose.”

“Women, it seemed, were obliged to be thick-skinned about their own rapes, while comics remained too thin-skinned to handle even mild criticism.”

On being fat:

“Being fat and happy and in love is still a radical act.”

On empathy:

“It’s hard to feel hurt or frightened when you’re flooded with pity. It’s hard to be cold or cruel when you remember it’s hard to be a person.”

People who claim feminists have no sense of humor have never read West–and they should. She is a more eloquent version of the smart, snarky friend we either had or wished we had in high school. But that last quote above captures an element of West’s voice that underlies the snark and anger. Like all of us, West has suffered, and that suffering and her own vulnerability seem to have imbued her with a deep sense of empathy. In one of my favorite parts of Shrill, West talks about a time when she reached out to an especially cruel internet troll. The exchange is touching and illustrates beautifully that we (all of us, not just women) can care about people (even mean people) and still take no crap from them.

As I read Shrill, I found myself wishing I could hang with West in a dive bar somewhere, laughing at trolls (because it beats crying) and sharing inside jokes about music and old TV shows and geeky books normal people don’t read. If you’re offended by the very notion of feminism, this isn’t the book for you. But if you appreciate a confident woman who refuses to let other people define or limit her–and who can bare her soul and share her passion with crackling wit and self-deprecating humor–you’ll love Shrill.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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