book review: So Sad Today by Melissa Broder

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SO SAD TODAY by Melissa Broder
★★★★☆
Grand Central Publishing, 2016

 

As she proved in her invigorating novel The Pisces, Melissa Broder is nothing if not candid. Her essay collection So Sad Today makes an interesting companion read, especially due to a main criticism you’ll often hear of The Pisces: that Lucy (the main character) isn’t ‘likable’ enough. I hadn’t known much about Melissa Broder’s personal life before reading So Sad Today, but I understandably came away from it with the strong impression that Broder modeled Lucy after herself; in which case, can we extend the same complaint to this book, and how much is likability tied to worth? Broder doesn’t spare herself in these essays: she can be selfish, hypocritical, vain, needy, and emotionally distant, but I don’t think she, or anyone, should have to sanitize themselves in an essay collection that focuses on the tension between being authentic to yourself and being accepted by others.

As for the writing style itself, the essays that erred on the side of conversational were consistently my least favorites (I have never enjoyed reading other people’s text message exchanges and I wasn’t about to start here). But the more literary essays I thought were incisive and piercing; make no mistake, this isn’t a scholarly, academic exploration of the many many themes that she introduces – loneliness, sex, mental illness, addiction – but instead it’s a fiercely personal collection that will probably succeed in striking a chord with most readers at one point or another, despite the fact that the details of Broder’s life may be difficult to relate to. For me it was the essay on depression and anxiety that hit the hardest, with lines like this particularly resonating: “For someone with anxiety, dramatic situations are, in a way, more comfortable than the mundane. In dramatic situations the world rises to meet your anxiety. When there are no dramatic situations available, you turn the mundane into the dramatic.”

Ultimately if you don’t get on with crude, vulgar writing, you won’t get on with this, though I wouldn’t suggest that it’s only crude for the sake of being crude. In both her novel and nonfiction, Broder excels at exploring the uglier sides of human behavior and examining the underlying neuroses and insecurities that propel us to act in unsavory ways. But I will say, if you have emetophobia, please for the love of god be smarter than I was and skip the essay about her vomit fetish.


You can pick up a copy of So Sad Today here on Book Depository.

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book review: Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

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SWAN SONG by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott
★★☆☆☆
Hutchinson, 2018 (UK)

 

Much like Swan Song‘s subject, Truman Capote, Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s novel is at times charming, at times vicious, and at times insufferable. Despite the fact that it took me over a month to get through this and I was complaining about it for a lot of that time, Swan Song actually does have a lot to recommend it. Its first person plural narration is particularly well done as Greenberg-Jephcott attempts to reclaim the voices of the women whose social lives Truman Capote effectively destroyed with the publication of his salacious story La Cote Basque 1965 (the first chapter of Answered Prayers, which was eventually published unfinished, posthumously). In stealing the real life stories of his close circle of friends for his planned novel, Capote faced extensive backlash and was unable to repair his lost friendships, which ultimately haunted him until he died. It could have been a gripping tale of betrayal and a searing commentary on the kind of symbiotic relationship with high society that both made and destroyed Capote’s career, but while it had its moments, it sadly falls short.

My first issue with Swan Song is how ungodly long it is, which naturally leads to all of my other criticisms, being that this book overstays its welcome in every conceivable way. All of Greenberg-Jephcott’s party tricks wear thin after not very long, the worst offense probably being Capote’s characterization – he’s constantly infantilized and reduced to a caricature in a way that starts to feel more spiteful than constructive after not very long. He’s referred to as ‘the boy’ even as a grown man, his height and voice are incessantly referenced, he’s described as ‘elfin’ or even more derogatory synonyms on just about every page, and after a while it’s like… what’s the point of any of this? The bottom line is established early: Truman Capote was capable of extreme kindness and extreme cruelty. This book just revels in the latter in a way that never convincingly dovetails with the voices that are purportedly being reclaimed with this retelling.

Because that’s the other issue at the heart of this: I love the concept of reframing a traditionally male-dominated narrative by using women’s voices – it’s a concept that’s carried through many of my favorite Greek mythology retellings quite soundly – but here it falls flat, because Greenberg-Jephcott never makes a convincing case for why this is a story that need reclaiming. A bunch of high society women have affairs and sail around on yachts and they’re betrayed by their close friend but… so what? This books feels like an elaborate revenge fantasy that’s so mired in gossip and cattiness that it loses its thematic heft.

But, like I said, it’s not all bad: Greenberg-Jephcott’s writing is lively and charming, the style is inventive (elements of poetry and screenwriting are incorporated), the research is admirable, and maybe it’ll appeal more to a different kind of reader, but I’m afraid I just struggled to care.


You can pick up a copy of Swan Song here on Book Depository.

5 Star Read Predictions: Update & Round 3

A full YEAR AGO I posted round 2 of my 5 star read predictions, so I’ll forgive you if you don’t remember me making this post, but basically: the idea is to choose five books that you imagine you’ll rate 5 stars, and after you’ve read them you come back and let everyone know how you did.  Clearly it took me a while to read these five books, but we got there in the end:

How to be Both by Ali Smith ★★★★☆ | review
A Natural by Ross Raisin ★★★★☆ | review
The Quiet American by Graham Greene ★★★★☆ | review
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid ★★★★★ | review
I’ll Be Right There by Kyung-Sook Shin ★★☆☆☆ | review

Technically only 1/5, so… not my best work, but I did solidly enjoy 4/5 of these books.  How to be Both was a brilliant introduction to Ali Smith for me that was held back from its well-earned 5 stars only because of a nagging pedestrian complaint about the (intentionally) weird portrayal of Renaissance Italy that irritated me too much as someone with a degree in Italian studies, but anyway, make no mistake, this book is genius; A Natural was a kind of mixed bag that I ultimately really appreciated, and The Quiet American was a ridiculously good modern classic about love and war.  The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is just as good as everyone says, thankfully, since I only added that one to my 5-star predictions due to word of mouth praise, as the summary hadn’t really appealed to me.  Sadly I’ll Be Right There was a bit of a dud for me, taking a subject that could have easily been poignant and muting its impact with dull storytelling.

So, the reason I’m doing this challenge again, despite how long it took last time, is that I have been having a ridiculously uninspired reading year.  And I’m not even stingy with my 5 stars – I know some people reserve those for life-changing books, but I tend to give out 5 stars quite liberally, so the fact that I’ve barely given anything (fictional) 5 stars all year is a little disheartening.  So, I need to really hone in on books that I’m sure I’m going to love.

ROUND 3:

 

 

Country by Michael Hughes: An Iliad retelling set in Northern Ireland????  I mean…. if I don’t love this book I won’t even know who I am anymore.

The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor: I just LOVE the summary of this one: “The Gault family leads a life of privilege in early 1920s Ireland, but the threat of arson leads nine-year-old Lucy’s parents to leave Ireland for England, her mother’s home. Lucy cannot bear the thought of leaving Lahardane, their country house with its beautiful land and nearby beach, and a dog she has befriended. On the day before they are due to leave, Lucy runs away, hoping to convince her parents to stay, but instead she sets off a series of tragic misunderstandings that affect all of the inhabitants of Lahardane and the perpetrators of the failed arson attack for the rest of their lives.”  Yes yes yes.

The Door by Magda Szabo: This is a translated modern classic that I think has to do with friendship between two women?  And one is the other’s housekeeper?  Maybe?  I don’t know, but I saw this NYRB edition with an introduction by Ali Smith at my bookstore and I had to grab it.  I just have a gut feeling I’ll like this.

Villette by Charlotte Brontë: Claire said I will probably love this and I trust her.  It was already high on my TBR – I’m a big Jane Eyre fan and Villette seems like it’s going to be somehow less accessible but more interesting?  I’m very excited about this at any rate.

Purge by Sofi Oksanen: Another one that I know very little about – I think it has something to do with sex trafficking, and… female friendship, again?  I’m not sure.  This one is another gut feeling that I feel like I need to pursue.

I’m challenging Hannah, Naty, and Sarah to take part in this challenge, though you are welcome to pass of course, and anyone else who thinks this will be fun.  And if you’re not doing this challenge, let me know in the comments which book you haven’t read yet that you’re convinced will be 5 stars for you!

book review: A Natural by Ross Raisin

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A NATURAL by Ross Raisin
★★★★☆
Random House, 2017

 

The thing that should not be underestimated as you read through my thoughts on A Natural is just how much I hate sports – which probably raises the question of why I decided a book about football/soccer to begin with, to which I can answer: if I had understood the extent to which this book is about football/soccer, I probably would not have picked in up in the first place. Instead I’d seen it billed as a coming-of-age novel about a gay footballer, and I suppose I thought the football/soccer would be mostly backdrop. Reader, it was not backdrop.

There’s a reason this book is 400 pages, and it’s because Ross Raisin details just about every single match, every single inner working of this low-level soccer club, with unerring precision. And for the first half of the book, it was frankly driving me mad. But then in the second half of the novel, when we start to dive into the meat of the story – our protagonist Tom beginning a relationship with the club’s groundskeeper – I found that my frustration with Raisin’s narrative choices was beginning to abate. Yes, I still found the soccer talk endlessly tedious, but the criticisms that I’d had (that soccer was the foreground, Tom’s story was the background, how does this make for a compelling narrative at all, why hadn’t an editor come at this manuscript with a machete) started to mostly* fly out the window, because it’s impossible to deny how well-crafted this book is. It’s a slow burn in every sense of the phrase: it’s a slow-paced story, and (unless you’re riveted by soccer) it withholds its rewards until you get to the end.

*I did have another criticism that never fully faded, though I began to understand it more in the second half: why certain chapters were given to the perspective of a married couple, one of Tom’s fellow footballers, Chris, and his wife Leah. Their story does dovetail with the central narrative and I do understand the decision to include their point of view, but I’m not convinced that we needed as much detail here as we got.

I know I’m doing a pretty poor job of selling this or explaining my 4 star rating (hang in there!), but the thing is, I’m not sure that this is a book I’d widely recommend. It takes patience and perseverance and if I were in the habit of DNFing I probably would have called it quits at the halfway mark. But if this sounds at all like a story you’re willing to commit to, it gets really, really good. Raisin navigates the homophobic world of professional sport with a deft hand, meditating with perception on themes of performative masculinity, shame, and the tension between the inner and outer selves. I think Raisin is a tremendously gifted writer, and the way he renders the relationship between Tom and Liam is so palpably fragile that it’s almost painful to read at times.  So while this book wasn’t perfectly targeted to my preferences as a reader, I do think it’s a gem of a book that I’m glad to have read… and ultimately to have stuck with.


You can pick up a copy of A Natural here on Book Depository.

book review: Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister

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GOOD AND MAD: THE REVOLUTIONARY POWER OF WOMEN’S ANGER by Rebecca Traister
★★★★★
Simon & Schuster, 2018

 

“The fact that lots of people could extend such sympathy for [Charlie] Rose […] affirmed a bunch of things. First, that the world is stacked in favor of men, yes, in a way that is so widely understood as to be boring, invisible, just life.

But more deeply, it was a reminder of how easily we can see in men — even in the bad ones — talent. Brilliance. Complexity. Humanity. We manage to look past their flaws and sexual violations to what value they bring to the world. It is the direct opposite, in many ways, of how we view women, whose successes can still be blithely attributed to the fact that the boss wanted to fuck them.”

Good and Mad is probably the best contemporary feminist text I’ve read. Smart, biting, and unapologetic, Traister meditates on the post-2016 election state of affairs in America – Trump, Weinstein, #MeToo, school shootings, police brutality – and contextualizes all of this into a coherent narrative, the root of which is (not so surprisingly) white supremacy and patriarchal infrastructures. As an American who’s been sad and disheartened and yes, angry, every day since the election, who’s overwhelmed daily by the constant stream of depressing state of world affairs on Twitter, it was nice to read a refreshingly intersectional analysis of the times we’re living in that doesn’t write off the potential of the numerous female-led protests and movements that have arisen in recent years.

Traister’s central thesis is that female anger is good, healthy, constructive; she cites numerous examples of women, often women of color, who have refused to be silenced by the sociopolitical structures that have endeavored to dismiss their anger as irrational. This was at times frustrating to read because sometimes it feels like the sexism and racism in US politics is an unassailable force, but Traister herself has no interest in that kind of cynicism, ending this book on a note that succeeds in inspiring. I couldn’t recommend this highly enough.


You can pick up a copy of Good and Mad here on Book Depository.

book review: Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

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NIGHT SKY WITH EXIT WOUNDS by Ocean Vuong
★★★★★
Copper Canyon Press, 2016

 

Night Sky with Exit Wounds is an invigorating, razor-sharp poetry collection that meditates with both candor and artistry on themes of war, nationality, sexuality, and violence. Vuong, born in Vietnam and raised in the US, threads details of his own family history into his broader narrative verse that centers on Vietnamese identity. It’s a fierce, provocative, political, and sensual collection that I found both challenging and moving, and I’m looking forwarding to reading Vuong’s debut novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous even more, now.

The type of review that just quotes a bunch of passages tends to be my least favorite to both read and write, but I’ll break my own rule here because my own words feel rather inadequate next to these:

“How a horse will run until it breaks
into weather — into wind. How like
the wind, they will see
him. They will see him
clearest
when the city burns.”

– from Trojan

“Snow scraping against the window. Snow shredded
with gunfire. Red sky.
Snow on the tanks rolling over the city walls.
A helicopter lifting the living just out of reach.

The city so white it is ready for ink.”

– from Aubade with Burning City

“He laughs despite knowing he has ruined every beautiful thing just to prove beauty cannot change him.”

– from Immigrant Haibun

“To love another
man — is to leave
no one behind
to forgive me.
I want to leave
no one behind.
To keep
& be kept.
The way a field turns its secrets
into peonies.
The way light
keeps its shadow
by swallowing it.”

– from Into the Breach

“Don’t laugh. Just tell me the story / again, / of the sparrows who flew from falling Rome, / their blazed wings. / How ruin nested inside each thimbled throat / & made it sing”

– from Seventh Circle of Earth


You can pick up a copy of Night Sky with Exit Wounds here on Book Depository.

Women’s Prize 2019 Shortlist Reaction

Well… it’s here.

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In case you missed it, the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 shortlist:

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Milkman by Anna Burns
Ordinary People by Diana Evans
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Circe by Madeline Miller

My friend Chelsea was visiting this weekend, which naturally meant she was subjected to a lot of my last minute excitement about the Women’s Prize in the hours leading up to the shortlist announcement. At one point she asked me what my nightmare shortlist would look like, and I had to think about that one for a minute, but since I only really didn’t get on with three of the books (Chinese Restaurant, Swan Song, and Praise Song) I erroneously declared that unless all three of those made it, I’d probably be happy with anything.

Well, none of those three made it, and I am livid. In fact, two of my absolute favorites (Milkman and The Silence of the Girls) made it, and I am livid.  My average star rating for these six books is 4 stars, and I hate this shortlist.

Because it’s not about these six titles on their own; for the most part these are good, competent, entertaining books – it’s about the shortlist as a whole.  And the impression I’m getting from this list is that the judges aren’t particularly interested in daring, innovative fiction; they care more about marketability and crowd-pleasing.

And here’s where I have to clarify that I’m not saying this out of literary snobbery; I’m not suggesting that the most accessible titles can’t also be great, enjoyable books. But the aim of the Women’s Prize is ostensibly to award ‘the best’ novel written by a woman in the past year. And no, true objectivity is never going to be possible, and we could have a whole conversation about that.  In fact, I think this is the reason why I’m rarely incensed by longlists, even ones that don’t inspire me; taking a list of 200+ eligible books and whittling it down to the ten or fifteen ‘best’ is such a fool’s errand that I’m always more interested in seeing the judges work with the list them come up with than I am about lamenting notable exclusions.  In fact, my general excitement about this particular longlist is well-documented here.  Yes, there are exceptions, but I think that for the most part, the judges came up with a remarkably solid group of sixteen books.  It’s what they did with that list that I’m trying to wrap my head around.

I remain unconvinced that the sheer amount of breadth and depth navigated in Ghost Wall, Freshwater, The Pisces, Normal People, and Lost Children Archive is reflected in any of the titles that made the shortlist, with the one exception of Milkman, the impact of whose inclusion is neutered through no fault of its own, but because it already won the 2018 Man Booker Prize. 

I also remain unconvinced that the bold, nuanced, elegant, thoughtful explorations of a number of relevant themes in any of the aforementioned books are worth sacrificing for the sake of two Greek myth retellings and two depictions of crumbling marriages.  Because that’s the elephant in the room with this shortlist: the baffling repetition.  Circe and The Silence of the Girls both attempt to reclaim the voice of an overlooked woman from Greek mythology, retreading their familiar stories through a feminist lens.  An American Marriage and Ordinary People both tell the stories of ill-fated married couples navigating racial injustice and patriarchal oppression, trying and failing to save their relationships that are crumbling due to both internal and external factors.  In both cases, the two books accomplish the same thing.  Which is why I don’t understand how the judges can pit them against each other and not evaluate their strengths and weaknesses against one another in a way that isn’t afforded with the more apples and oranges pairs on this longlist (how do you compare the sprawling, satirical romp that is Swan Song to the brief and magical Bottled Goods?)  But with these four books, the judges had the advantage of their inherent structural similarities to allow them to compare and contrast.  Ordinary People is better than An American Marriage The Silence of the Girls is better than Circe.  That’s just my opinion, of course, and I know many people disagree.  But if I were on that panel, I would have made my case for the former of each pair advancing and not the latter.

But the aim of this post isn’t really to whine about my faves being excluded, though that’s naturally going to be a part of it, but it more comes down to a question that Elle raised in her incensed and eloquent reaction post.  What exactly is the point of any of this?  As we’ve established, ‘the best’ book by a woman is a somewhat unattainable ideal, but shouldn’t the judges at least try to strive for that?  We don’t need a panel of judges to choose the most sellable, most widely appealing book; we have Goodreads and Oprah and the New York Times for that.  I want a panel of judges to show me a shortlist of books published this year that each has done what no other book has managed to do, and the inclusion of two sets of eerily similar titles undermines that entirely.

Anyway, you all know how much I love Milkman – it was my book of the year in 2018 – but because of its Man Booker win, there were four titles that I would have preferred to have won the Women’s Prize for the increased exposure: The Pisces, Freshwater, Normal People, or, in my opinion, the most baffling exclusion and my own personal winner, Ghost Wall.

But I guess at this point I’m back to rooting for Milkman.

What do you guys think of the shortlist?  I know I just tore it apart, but if you love it, please don’t be afraid to tell me!  Literary prizes are hardly life and death, much as I may forget that at times.  I’ve seen a few positive reaction posts that I’ve loved – it’ll take more than one shitty shortlist to kill my enthusiasm for this prize.