Book Reviews, books

Book Review: Shit, Actually by Lindy West

Despite being a librarian, I have been extremely inconsistent about posting book reviews (though, note to basically everyone:  I don’t spend all [or any part] of my day reading at work).  Lately, this has been a result of my concentration being absolutely shot to bits for months.  Can’t imagine why.  There really hasn’t been much happening in the world, right?

So I was stoked when I started listening to Lindy West’s Shit, Actually (narrated/performed/never sure what the appropriate word choice is by the author).  Shout-out to M, a former colleague who recommended this book and knows me suspiciously well despite my attempts to compartmentalize work/home life.

Cover of the book Shit, Actually

I could not stop once I pressed play, and I consumed it all within 3 days.  Most of the time, quippy books that comment on pop culture annoy the bejeezus out of me; however, with West’s sarcastic perspective that never gives a free pass to misogyny, racism, capitalism, or imperialism, I legitimately laughed out loud on several occasions.  Not one to miss an opportunity for tongue-in-cheek humor, West even dedicates the book to Dr. Richard Kimble of The Fugitive and uses 1 to 10 DVDS of The Fugitive as a rating scale throughout.

But let’s back up a minute.  Author Lindy West, best known for her political/activist writing and her memoir Shrill [also an excellent TV series starring Aidy Bryant], wrote a now iconic criticism of Love, Actually several years ago.  Naturally, this is a chapter of the book (with some edits), and this alone would be enough for my stamp of approval.  Whether you love or hate it, close to 20 years have passed since the film was released…and there’s so much of it that really doesn’t hold up, beginning with the fact that it opens by talking about what a great place airports are (this has bothered me forever, TBH).

Though West’s commentary on the puzzling disdain for Muggle technology in Harry Potter, observations on Terminator 2’s odd choice to create a robot with realistic genitals and an Austrian accent, and problematic enjoyment of Rush Hour are entertaining, the sections that zero-in on films or characters she despises are my favorite.

Some of the stand-out chapters focus on The Notebook, Top Gun, Twilight, and Garden State, all of which are dripping with disdain.  For me, the chapter on The Notebook is extremely cathartic because, even as a teen, I haaaaaaaaaaaated that movie and its shitty story line.  It’s even more aggravating to despise something that is so ubiquitous because you are stuck between being a complete asshole but honest and lying while seeming like a normal person who just happens to be repressing a significant amount of rage (which will never be a problem for you later in life).  And, truly, I’m not shitting all over the romantic drama genre; I honestly don’t need to  because, inevitably, the things that women enjoy will be looked down on as lesser forms of art or entertainment either way.  (Nor am I claiming to have better taste than other people, especially since I genuinely liked the classics of cinema Get Over It and Mr. Deeds around this time.)  But, as West notes about Love, Actually, this is a movie made for women by men, and that I do very much resent.  Favorite line of the chapter:  “So instead of talking to her or being normal, he just breathes heavily behind a bush and then goes home and has cry sex with a war widow whom he’s too broken to love.”

Of all of the offenses of Hollywood filmmaking, West has the least time for toxic masculinity.  This is one reason I appreciate her review of Top Gun so much, another film I loathe (though I’m tempted to give it another try based on this book, as I failed to appreciate its famed homoerotic undertones because I spent the entirety of its runtime despising Maverick).  While any opinions I have expressed about this film have been along the lines of “What a bro movie for bro-y bros” and “Ugh, fucking Maverick,” West coherently dissects the problems of toxic masculinity and American exceptionalism on display in this film (and gets to the heart of why I was always rooting for Ice Man).  In some of my favorite thoughts of the book, West ponders, “How is Ice Man the villain of this movie?  Because he likes safety?  This is how America became a hotspot of a global pandemic, because my generation was raised to believe not just that safety is for dweebs, but that it’s evil.  Maverick is a full psycho, and would definitely be at the Reopen America protests—because he wants the right to get his b-hole waxed, even if he isn’t actually going to go get his b-hole waxed, and even though he knows that many thousands more marginalized and high-risk people will die.”

One slightly more serious element of the book I enjoy is its approach to Rush Hour.  Its director, Brett Ratner, is one of many creeps whose disturbing sexually abusive behavior came to light during the Me Too movement.  So how does West reconcile her feelings of disgust with her enjoyment of the film—and how can other viewers do the same?  Some of West’s thoughts include donating money to organizations that support survivors of sexual harassment and assault if renting or buying the film, and remembering the many other talented people who worked on the movie who did not abuse their position of power to harass or assault people. Or, if it makes you feel gross, just skip it. You don’t need permission to do this, of course.

As much as I enjoyed the book, there are still a couple of issues.  I personally wanted Lindy West to take on Star Wars, though simultaneously I don’t want her to be murdered by the interwebz.  Luckily, we have Nicole Byer and Lauren Lapkus’ podcast Newcomers for that, which is quite entertaining, if not as sharp as West’s writing.

Additionally, I know the numerical ratings are not the point at all, and a great deal of their purpose is merely to reinforce that the enjoyment of a film is deeply subjective.  Nevertheless, I find the rating system confusing.  Rush Hour gets a higher rating than Terminator 2?  Um, ok.

So what is ultimately my subjective rating of this book based on an arbitrary ranking system?

4.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

two women sit next to each other in a bookshop
Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Appropriate Behavior, or: I’ve Been a Bad Small Business Owner

Christa’s pick this week as we continue to Blog Free or Die Hard!  As a bonus, I was able to stream through library platforms and thus feel like an ambassador for library services/avoid paying for things.

The Film:

Appropriate Behavior

Where to Watch:


The Premise:

A young Persian American woman deals with the aftermath of a breakup and loss of her job while keeping that she’s bisexual a secret from her family.

The Uncondensed Version:

Shirin is having a pretty rough time.  Having just broken up with her girlfriend Maxine, she has to find a new apartment in Brooklyn on short notice, get a job, and keep her bisexuality hidden from her Persian family.

a woman stands in a dimly lit doorway wearing a t-shirt that reads "A century of women on top: Smith College centennial: 1875-1975"
This is actually a still from much later in the film, but I needed to make sure that shirt appeared somewhere in this post.

Luckily, her bff Crystal is there for her, putting up with her nonsense, listening, and calling out some of Shirin’s delusions, like the claim that she and Maxine were an “it” couple.  It’s through Crystal’s bff magic that Shirin finds one of the most hipster-y new jobs ever as a film teacher for 5-year-olds.  Pete from 30 Rock has a small role as her new boss!

Shirin seems to have a good relationship with her family, but she can’t help resenting the pressure they put on her to achieve more, and of course covering up her sexuality creates a lot of tension (she even tries to explain away the bed she shared with Maxine using Beaches).  Making matters worse, her brother seems desperate to fill the role of perfect Iranian firstborn as a doctor engaged to another seemingly perfect doctor.

a middle-aged man and woman look off-camera as a younger woman looks at them in concern
Right, that classic Beaches excuse…

For most of the film, we alternate between flashbacks of the relationship and its dissolution versus Shirin’s attempts to get over it in the present.  All of this is done with a great deal of dry, witty humor, self-absorption, and a few moments of real emotional depth.  One of my favorite moments is Shirin and Maxine fighting over who should keep the strap-on penis.  But then again, their roleplay in happier times where Maxine pretends to be a tax auditor is great too (and gives us the, ahem, sexy[?] line “I didn’t keep any of my receipts…I’ve been a bad small business owner”).

As Shirin reflects on her failed relationship, she thinks about their good times.  The two met at a party, where Shirin was a bit on the tipsy side and spoke very bluntly about her interest in Maxine.  Maxine is very smart and quite hipster-y, into LOTR but turning up her nose at Sex & the City.  But that’s not the problem with their relationship—Maxine resents all of the lies to Shirin’s parents, whereas Shirin feels judged by Maxine for not being out to her parents.

a woman in a party hat accepts a plastic bottle from a woman wearing glasses
True love = sharing clear liquor from a water bottle.

After the break-up, Shirin tries online dating, meets a woman at an LGBT rights discussion club, dates a series of hipster dudes, and has a threesome with a couple (both of whom have their own latex outfit)—all failed attempts to forget Maxine.

In her family and romantic relationships, career, and personal growth, Shirin seems to be stalled.  Will she learn from her past and those around her or continue to wallow?

The Rating:

4.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

The dialogue and the characters are brilliantly developed in this one.  Impressively, Desiree Akhavan wrote, directed, and starred in this film.  I absolutely adore her character, even though she’s painfully selfish, horrible at decisions, and lacking self-awareness (or at least honesty with herself).  She’s very witty and frequently uses sarcasm to cut others down when she’s feeling insecure.  IDK if I’m saying this because I was just watching Parks and Rec, but I’d say she’s got a bit of an April Ludgate vibe.

Did I want a bit more structure and positive signs of change for Shirin?  Initially, yes.  But I really grew to appreciate this film as both a realistic study of relationships with family, romantic partners, and the self, as well as a story about healing and how difficult it is to make necessary changes.  The script asks as many questions as it answers, offering hope without complete satisfaction or resolution.  It allows Shirin to grow without becoming a completely new character with a sudden sunny disposition (oops, spoiler I guess).

I feel I’ve underrepresented how great the dialogue is in this post and I haven’t made a list in forfuckingever, so in no particular order, 5 brilliant pieces of Shirin’s dialogue from this film:

  1. “I’m dead inside. Can you tell just by looking at me?”
  2. “I’m going to lie here and try to forget how it felt to be loved. Could you turn off the light?”
  3. “I’m looking for the grown-up underwear of a woman in charge of her sexuality and not afraid of change.”
  4. “What happened to you at Wesleyan to make you this way?”
  5. “You have the sex appeal of a ferret.”

Did Christa settle down and make up Beaches excuses with this one or slowly grow to hate everything she loved about it?  Read her review here to find out!