wrap up: December 2018


  • Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko ★★★★★ | review
  • The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg ★★☆☆☆ | review
  • The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonagh ★★★★☆ | review
  • The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman ★★★★★ | review
  • Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday ★★☆☆☆ | mini review
  • The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey ★★★★☆ | review
  • There There by Tommy Orange ★★★☆☆ | review
  • The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories edited by Jay Rubin ★★★★☆ | review
  • Severance by Ling Ma ★★★★☆ | review
  • The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose ★★★★☆ | review
  • Waiting for Eden by Elliot Ackerman ★★★★☆ | mini review
  • The Maze at Windermere by Gregory Blake Smith ★★★★☆ | review
  • Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima – ★★★☆☆ | review

Favorite: Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko
Honorable Mention: The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman
Least favorite: Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

YEARLY TOTAL: 133 (once I finish Territory of Light)

Exciting stuff – 133 is definitely a new yearly record!  It definitely wasn’t the best year quality-wise, but I’m still very pleased with the amount I was able to read.

Currently reading: Heavy by Kiese Laymon, Cherry by Nico Walker


What was the best book you read in December?  Comment and let me know!

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Favorite Films of 2018

Last year I listed my top 5 films that came out before 2017 and then my top 5 of 2017, but I found that my favorites this year didn’t follow a similar pattern at all.  In fact, there are only two pre-2018 movies that I thought was worth mentioning in this post, but I loved them way too much to leave either of them out.


Divines (2016)
Director: Houda Benyamina
Starring: Oulaya Amamra

This is a French-Qatari film that you can hopefully still find on Netflix, and if you can, you should all watch it immediately.  It follows a teenage girl, Dounia, played by the incomparable Oulaya Amamra, living in a Romani suburb outside Paris, who hustles for money alongside her best friend.  This film is raw and desperate and heartbreaking and beautifully shot and beautifully acted and it just destroyed me.  Go watch it.


I, Tonya (2017)
Director: Craig Gillespie
Starring: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney

A fictionalized account of the life and career of former U.S. figure skater Tonya Harding.  I was dreading watching this, to be completely honest; I was positive that it wasn’t going to be for me as I tend to really dislike sports movies.  But it’s easily in my top 3 of the year.  I thought the fusion of fact and fiction was inspired, it hit all the right comedic beats but still proved to be something much heavier than I was expecting.  Margot Robbie gives the performance of her career; that scene where she’s crying while fixing her makeup is something I just felt in my bones.  This is one I watched twice and I loved it even more the second time.

Now, onto all of the fantastic films of 2018:


9. A Quiet Place
Director: John Krasinski
Starring: John Krasinski, Emily Blunt

This masterfully creepy horror film could have been much further up my list, but I thought the emotional climax came too soon and the film ended too abruptly and I’ve felt vaguely dissatisfied with the lost potential ever since.  But still, this is horror done right as far as I’m concerned: relying more on primal fear than gore, with an undeniable emotional core that doesn’t verge too heavily into corny territory.  This fully deserved all of its accolades as far as I’m concerned.


8. Eighth Grade
Director: Bo Burnham
Starring: Elsie Fisher

This pared down comedy/drama about middle school is one of the most emotionally honest things I have ever watched.  Emotionally honest to a fault, even; I was also That Quiet Girl all through school and this film hit a bit closer to home than I’d have liked.  In a lot of ways it’s a paint-by-numbers coming of age drama, so don’t go into this expecting any innovations for the genre, but it’s one of the best-acted renditions of this story I have ever seen.  If the stupidly talented 15-year-old Elsie Fisher isn’t nominated for an Oscar I will be very upset indeed.


7. Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again
Director: Ol Parker
Starring: Lily James, Amanda Seyfried

Listen.  I don’t want to hear it.  I know I have a ~dark and edgy~ reputation to uphold but don’t care.  Lily James is a ray of sunshine and ABBA has been a constant source of joy in my life since childhood.  I loved every moment of this dumb movie.  And it is FAR superior to its predecessor, imo.


6. Calibre
Director: Matt Palmer
Starring: Jack Lowden, Martin McCann

This thriller follows two friends who go on a hunting trip in Scotland and end up shooting and killing a child by accident; it then deals with the psychological ramifications as they attempt to get away with what they’ve done.  This film is a train wreck you can’t look away from, which is one of the highest compliments I can give something.  This is just a wonderfully tense melodrama-turned-revenge-saga, and Lowden’s incredibly moving performance provides the required amount of pathos.


5. Mary Queen of Scots
Director: Josie Rourke
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie

This is probably the only film on this list that got panned by critics and audiences alike, and in a way, I kind of get it.  The trailer is misleading as hell (Margot Robbie is barely in it), the pacing is… not great, the screenplay lucks out in being elevated by superb performances.  But I don’t really care about any of that, to be completely honest: I found this riveting.  I’m someone who tends to veer toward all things indie and art-house, so I understand the compulsion to contrast this to The Favourite in order to tear it down, but sometimes a good old fashioned period biopic is all you need.  This got the job done, as far as I was concerned.  It was flawed but I loved it.  And – I say this as a HUGE fan – I firmly believe that this is Saoirse Ronan’s best performance yet.


4. Widows
Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki

When four men are killed while attempting to pull off an armed robbery, their widows join together to pull of a heist of their own.  This is probably the best premise of any film I have seen all year (maybe ever?), and thankfully the film itself lived up.  (Also – this was the only film Colin Farrell was in ALL YEAR, you guys.  I had to rest all of my hopes on this.)  I was expecting an action movie and got a character study instead, and I am perfectly happy with that.  The performances were truly exceptional across the board, but Elizabeth Debicki and Daniel Kaluuya really stood out to me.  Why this isn’t getting more awards season attention is beyond me.


3. American Animals
Director: Bart Layton
Starring: Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters

Based on a true story, American Animals is a sort of dark comedy about a 2004 library heist, in which four students attempted to steal an Audubon book valued at several million dollars from a rare books collection.  In a sort of documentary style, interviews with the real people portrayed are interspersed throughout the film, though the events themselves are performed by their fictional counterparts, who are the film’s emotional anchors as well as the main players (Barry Keoghan stands out, as he always does).  I’ve watched this film twice and both times I was so, so impressed by the creative liberties it takes to tell this story in a way that engages its audience; the first time I watched this I couldn’t make sense of which elements were real and which were fictionalized, and I loved it all the more for that.  This is storytelling done right.


2. Thoroughbreds
Director: Cory Finley
Starring: Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Anton Yelchin

A privileged teenage girl enlists her friend’s help to try to kill her stepfather in this beautifully shot dark comedy.  This film is visually stunning, twisted, hilarious, tense, and deliciously melodramatic.  The climactic scene is one of the most interesting shots I have ever seen and it will forever be seared into my brain.  Both leading women give performances that are utterly unforgettable – I couldn’t even choose which of them is stronger.  Anton Yelchin’s tragically inert character gives the film an even more macabre undertone, given the actor’s untimely death before it was released.  Everything just comes together to form something striking and dynamic and haunting.

I so desperately wanted this to be my film of the year, a spot it held until I went to the movies again yesterday.  So now, of course, it just has to be:


1. The Favourite
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring: Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone

Yorgos Lanthimos is my favorite director; I don’t know how to explain the strong connection I feel to his brand of insanity, but I have been simultaneously amused, disturbed, and deeply moved by something in Alps, The Lobster, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (I have not yet seen Dogtooth in its entirety).  So to say I had high hopes for The Favourite is an understatement, but it managed to exceed my expectations.  It’s not even my first or second favorite film by Lanthimos and it still blows this year’s competition out of the water.  Blending absurd humor with a story that is, at its core, deeply sad, The Favourite is a captivating and unconventional film about love and power, that gives us three of the best written female characters of 2018 cinema.  It’s fresh, it’s funny, it’s oddly unsettling, and it deserves all of the hype and more.  And if anyone can figure out a way for me to marry Rachel Weisz, do kindly let me know.

So, there we have it.  What was your favorite film of 2018?

Best Books of 2018

Mamma mia here we go again.  I’ve read a grand total of 131 books so far this year which far and away exceeds any of my former records, and narrowing this list down to 10 was a little torturous.  But I will say, even though I read so many fantastic books this year, my reading year on the whole wasn’t as strong as the last couple of years have been.  Although I loved each and every one of these books, I’m not sure any of them would make my list of top 10 favorites of all time.  I also didn’t have a definitive #1 favorite, whereas last year East of Eden blew all of its competition out of the water.  I guess this just goes to show that quantity =/= quality.  Who’d have thought it?!

But enough rambling, let’s get into the books.

Honorable mentions, in no particular order, all of which I want to talk about but I feel like a 20+ favorites post would get boring for all of you: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid, Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang, In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne, Tin Man by Sarah Winman, On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman, When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy, How to be Both by Ali Smith, and My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh.


10. Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko, translated by Julia Hersey.  Look at me starting off my books of the year with fantasy!  Who am I!  But this spot was very well-earned, as Vita Nostra is one of the most singular and spectacular books I’ve read in my life.  It follows Sasha Samokhina, a young girl manipulated into attending a magical school filled with eccentric teachers and incomprehensible lessons.  I was expecting a rather run of the mill fantasy novel, but instead I got something esoteric and darkly horrifying that enchanted me from start to finish.  Full review here.

There are concepts that cannot be imagined but can be named. Having received a name, they change, flow into a different entity, and cease to correspond to the name, and then they can be given another, different name, and this process—the spellbinding process of creation—is infinite: this is the word that names it, and this is the word that signifies. A concept as an organism, and text as the universe.


9. Dopesick by Beth Macy.  This book is a masterclass in how to fuse the personal and the professional in nonfiction.  Macy treats the subject of the opioid crisis and its innumerable victims with the compassion they deserve, but also remains factual and informative.  I learned so, so much from this book, and it was written in such a starkly compelling way that I didn’t want it to end.  I’d recommend this to absolutely everyone.  Full review here.

Opioids are now on pace to kill as many Americans in a decade as HIV/AIDS has since it began, with leveling-off projections tenuously predicted in a nebulous, far-off future: sometime after 2020.


8. The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker.  It has been well documented that I am a pretty big fan of Greek mythology and the Iliad in particular, and that I live for a good retelling.  Pat Barker’s feminist spin on the Iliad proved to be everything I ever wanted and more.  It follows Briseis, a Trojan captive given to Achilles as a war prize, and does a spectacular job at giving voice to the female characters who litter the background of Homer’s epic.  Barker put her own unique stamp on this story while honoring the original to such an extent that I wanted to reread the Iliad (yet again) the second I finished.  Full review here.

Men carve meaning into women’s faces; messages addressed to other men.


7. The Blood Miracles by Lisa McInerney.  The Glorious Heresies was one of my books of the year in 2017, so it’s with great pleasure that I can say that its sequel also earned a place on my end of year list.  In fact, I think I loved The Blood Miracles even more.  It narrows down the first book’s bird’s eye focus to just one of the main characters, and it happened to be the one character that I was the most invested in, so I was riveted by every single second of this bleak and tragic account of Irish drug deals and gang violence.  Lisa McInerney’s writing just thrills me.  Full review here.

This, like so many of Ryan Cusack’s fuck-ups, begins with ecstasy.


6. The Pisces by Melissa Broder.  On the surface, this isn’t the kind of book I like.  If you look at how this is commonly shelved on Goodreads you see Romance, Fantasy, and Magical Realism – that should be strike one two and three right there.  But I gave it a try and my god was I glad that I did.  This book was everything I didn’t even know I needed.  Lucy is one of the most unnervingly realistic protagonists I have ever read about, and the thematic depths to which this mermaid erotica novel dove were… unexpected, to say the least.  And it has one of the most unforgettable endings I have EVER read.  This managed to be both hilarious and haunting.  Full review here.

I’d been wrong about death … There was no gentle escape. When I had taken those Ambien in Phoenix I thought there was a peaceful way to just kind of disappear. But death wasn’t gentle. It was a robber. It stole you out of yourself, and you became a husk.


5. The Idiot by Elif Batuman.  I’m not Turkish-American and I didn’t go to Harvard.  But otherwise, I have never read a book where I’ve seen myself reflected on the page more starkly than in The Idiot.  The simultaneous disillusionment and fascination with academia that characterize Selin’s first year of college were so, so real to me, as was her obsession with the function of language.  This cerebral, plotless work is not something that I would recommend to most people, but I couldn’t help but to feel a very strong connection to it.  Full review here.

“Even though I had a deep conviction that I was good at writing, and that in some way I already was a writer, this conviction was completely independent of my having ever written anything, or being able to imagine ever writing anything, that I thought anyone would like to read.”


4. Asking For It by Louise O’Neill.  This is hands down the best YA novel I have ever read.  It doesn’t patronize its reader or tread lightly with its harrowing subject matter.  In fact, it’s almost viscerally painful to read at times.  Louise O’Neill takes on the subject of rape culture through a criminally under-examined lens, and highlights the fact that victims of sexual assault aren’t always going to be very nice people, they aren’t always going to behave and respond to trauma in one particular way, but they are every bit as deserving of justice and compassion.  This book’s rawness and honesty really struck a chord and I’ve been unable to put it out of my mind since reading it early this year.  Full review here.

They are all innocent until proven guilty. But not me. I am a liar until I am proven honest.


3. Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney.  I think Sally Rooney is one of the most perceptive writers working today.  The little observations she makes about human nature are subtle and searing.  Rooney’s character work in both Conversations with Friends and Normal People is just outstanding – she writes about real, ordinary, flawed individuals who I somehow desperately want to read about, despite how real and ordinary and flawed they are, or maybe because of that.  Full review here.

Gradually the waiting began to feel less like waiting and more like this was simply what life was: the distracting tasks undertaken while the thing you are waiting for continues not to happen.

2. Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon.  This is one of the first books I read in 2018, and it has haunted me all year long.  This is probably the best book about art and artists that I’ve ever read, which asks of its protagonist in a startlingly harsh way how much she’s willing to sacrifice to achieve her ambitions.  I just loved everything about this.  The antiheroine is one of the best I’ve ever read, the atmosphere of a Brooklyn neighborhood that I’m quite familiar with was rendered perfectly, there’s this one scene where the protagonist is trying on a dress that was so vivid I will never, ever forget it, and the final sentence made me cry.  Just, read this book.  Full review here.

The very act of recall is like trying to photograph the sky. The infinite and ever-shifting colors of memory, its rippling light, cannot really be captured. Show someone who has never seen the sky a picture of the sky and you show them a picture of nothing.

Still I have to try.


1. Milkman by Anna Burns.  I mean… it has to be my book of the year, doesn’t it.  I gave it 4 stars and then I changed it to 5 stars; I was sure it was too niche to make the Booker shortlist and then I gradually became convinced that it was going to win.  I would say that this book crept up on me, but that implies past tense and I’m not positive that this book is done with me.  I still think about it constantly, and I think it is one of the most masterful things I have ever read.  This is a stylistic and thematic feat. Full review here.

“The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died. He had been shot by one of the state hit squads and I did not care about the shooting of this man. Others did care though, and some were those who, in the parlance, ‘knew me to see but not to speak to’ and I was being talked about because there was a rumour started by them, or more likely by first brother-in-law, that I had been having an affair with this milkman and that I was eighteen and he was forty-one.” 

What was your favorite book of 2018?  Comment and let me know!

Most Disappointing Books of 2018

Some of these books I hated, some of them just disappointed me.  Some I went into with high expectations, some managed to slide under my already low bar.  But, whatever the reason, here is a list of books that I wanted so much more from.  These are books that I read in 2018 but were not necessarily published this year.  Here we go:


10. The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin.  The fact that a neo-Victorian lesbian thriller was able to be this perfunctory and devoid of passion is just tragic.  This sounded like it could have been wonderfully gothic and haunting and sensual, but instead it’s riddled with melodrama and convenient plot devices and utterly inane characters.  The protagonist Hester waxes eloquent about her love interest Rebekah for 300 pages straight, and in none of those 300 pages does Rebekah display even one (1) personality trait.  Full review here.


9. Snap by Belinda Bauer.  If you haven’t read Snap, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking that the sheer amount of vitriol for this novel and its Man Booker nomination may stem from snobbery and a bias against genre fiction.  If you have read Snap, you will know that that is not at all the case.  This novel is filled with plot holes wider than the Grand Canyon.  I don’t even know what the worst part was: the running commentary on how pregnant women are essentially moronic (apparently ‘baby brain’ doesn’t mean ‘where did I leave my car keys,’ it means ‘my house was broken into and the burglar left a death threat on my pillow, but I won’t tell my husband, I don’t want to worry him!’), the fact that the police literally used a teenage child to help them with an investigation by having him break into someone’s house, or the fact that the killer’s motive was so contrived and contradictory that the entire premise of the novel falls apart once the whodunnit is confirmed.  (*Spoiler: the murderer killed Jack’s mom because they ‘snapped’ in a moment of madness, but the murder itself involved kidnapping this woman and driving her to another location, bringing her out into a field, and stabbing her, all of which took some sort of premeditation and lasted something like half an hour…?  Can a ‘moment of madness’ last half an hour?!)  Full review here.


8. Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday.  I am so TIRED of this kind of novel.  The kind that’s lauded by critics as some kind of literary masterpiece simply because the whole thing is an elaborate experiment that hinges on a gimmick which (imo) was predictable in the first place.  Maybe I’d have gotten more out of this if I had any feelings toward Philip Roth other than apathy, I don’t know.  I just thought this was so badly written and just a complete waste of time.  Mini review here.


7. The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware.  This is one of the most bizarrely structured thrillers I’ve ever read.  Locked door mysteries are some of my favorites, but there were so many guests and staff on that damn boat that the locked door element felt like it never really came into play since I couldn’t even begin to keep all of the potential suspects straight in my head.  And once we find out the killer, rather than the genre-typical final showdown that lasts a chapter before the book ends, we’re only about 60% into the book and we spend the rest watching the protagonist trying to get to safety… which we’re sure she’s going to, because, you know, it’s a thriller, and that’s how thrillers end.  This book was like listening to someone telling in a really rambling story that started out interesting but quickly became tedious and you’re too polite to tell the person talking that they should just quit while they’re ahead, so you’re just awkwardly trying to inch away while they go on and on and on and you just want to shout OK I GET IT.  But the final nail in the coffin for this book was its frankly glib treatment of mental illness:

Lissie says she finds the notion of chemically rebalancing your mood scary, she says it’s the idea idea of taking something that could alter how she really is. But I don’t see it that way; for me it’s like wearing makeup – not a disguise, but a way of making myself more how I really am, less raw. The best me I can be.”

Right, because painting on my face every morning because I’ve been socialized to accept that I’m not desirable to men unless I do that is EMPOWERING, and definitely equivalent to needing to take meds to function.  I have never been closer to flinging a book across the room than when I read this.  Full review here.


6. Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao.  I feel like the phrase ‘torture porn’ gets thrown around a bit too readily where depressing literary fiction is concerned.  I don’t think a book automatically falls under this category just because sad things happen.  Do these sad things serve a narrative or thematic purpose?  If so, I do think there’s value in telling these stories.  But Girls Burn Brighter took this to a frankly ridiculous extreme.  The two girls at the center of this story are raped, drugged, mutilated, starved, and otherwise abused for hundreds of pages after the author makes her point (which wasn’t all that revolutionary to begin with – that there is a certain female-specific resilience to compensate for the kind of injustices that women are forced to endure).  I mean, one of the characters who has suffered horrifically throughout the entire story is raped yet again about 20 pages from the end of the book, which has absolutely nothing to do with the narrative at that point, because why the hell not!  Plus, the entire book is building toward a payoff that the author then deprives the reader of, and I also didn’t care for the writing style which just seemed to be trying too hard to be ‘pretty’.  Full review here.


5. The Girl in the Ice by Robert Bryndza.  To be fair to this book it did give me 2 of my favorite sentences that I read all year.  First, we’re treated to the most questionable description of an escalating argument in literary history:

‘I said, I’m now in control of this crime scene and I’m ordering you to step aside!’ shouted Sparks, losing it.”

Yes, ‘losing it,’ you did read that correctly.

And then we get to witness the villain’s eloquent and emotionally wrought confession:

“‘You think you can analyze me. Rationalize what I did, why I killed? I did it because I CAN.’”

Bryndza ALSO introduced ‘the figure’ as a gender-neutral term and kept going with that throughout the whole damn book.

So.  That was fun.  Full review here.


4. The Summer Children by Dot Hutchison. I loved The Butterfly Garden but the next two installments of this series were… not good.  All of The Butterfly Garden‘s maturity kind of evaporated and we were left with two books that were almost painfully juvenile.  What could have been an intense and harrowing read ended up being hard to take seriously as we were treated to hundreds of pages of FBI agents having sleepovers and reminding each other that it’s ok to not be ok and other similarly obnoxious moments of transparent fan-service.  And the extent to which Hutchison is obsessed with her own characters is more than a little embarrassing to read – we have to endure paragraph after paragraph of the protagonist being praised by the narrative for her competence and it’s just so tiresome.  Full review here.


3. How To Be Safe by Tom McAlister.  I understand what this pro-gun-control satire was attempting but my god was it obnoxious.  McAlister seemed so proud of himself for writing this book in the first place he didn’t extend any effort toward plot or character development, and it resulted in something as tedious as it was poorly written.  Also the audiobook was terrible.  Full review here.


2. The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld.  It’s a bit strange that the sappiest book I’ve ever read is a thriller of all things, but here we are.  Here we have another case of ‘author obsessed with their own protagonist’ – Naomi Cottle can do no wrong and my god is this woman attractive (I know this because every man she comes into contact with wants to have sex with her immediately).  I could go on and on about how this whole book is trite and overwritten and saccharine, but I will just leave you with a quote that speaks for itself:

“I loved you then. I loved you, no matter where you came from. No, scratch that.” His voice floated up to her. “I loved you because you came from wherever it was. It must have been a magic place to produce you.”

Naomi felt something deeper than crying, a flush in her womb. “Are you trying to talk your way into my bed?” she asked, her voice thick with emotion.

“No.” His voice sounded warm. “I’m trying to talk my way into your heart.”

Full review here.


1. Days Without End by Sebastian Barry.  I’m giving this book the coveted #1 spot because the rest of this list didn’t give me the same crushing disappointment that this one did.  On paper, this should be everything I love in a book: it’s Irish, it’s literary, it’s sad, it’s historical, it’s about a queer relationship, it’s blurbed by Kazuo Ishiguro.  What I hadn’t counted on is that it is also just painfully boring and written in almost impenetrable dialect.  If you click with the bizarre narrative voice that fuses dialect with lyricism in a way that I found stilted and arbitrary, you probably won’t have any problems with this book, but if you struggle on page 1 you will struggle all the way through, which I found out the hard way.  Full review here.

What were some of your most disappointing reads of 2018?  Comment and let me know!

book review: The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose



Algonquin Books, 2018


The Museum of Modern Love is a tender and thought-provoking book. Fusing fact and fiction, it centers around a real piece of performance art that was showcased at the MOMA in 2010 – The Artist is Present by the Serbian artist Marina Abramović. It then weaves together the narratives of several fictional characters, all of whom attend the performance and become so captivated by it that they attempt to use Marina’s art as a way to process the grief in their own lives.

As someone who adores contemporary art and performance art, I find the highly controversial Marina Abramović to be a fascinating figure. The love and respect that Heather Rose has for Marina (to whom this novel is dedicated) can be felt on every page and it made it a joy to read. The parts of the novel that focused on Marina were the highlights for me – they helped give me such a clear picture of this piece of art and where it fit in with the rest of Marina’s career

Unfortunately this did naturally mean that Rose’s fictional creations, Arky and Jane, paled in comparison for me. I never fully believed Jane’s character – she seemed too poised and too articulate for the role that she was supposed to be playing in the story. Arky on the other hand I did find more interesting, though he resisted my emotional engagement rather strongly and consequently I never felt particularly compelled by his narrative. But for its thoughtful portrayal of Marina and its tender exploration of grief and its wonderful depiction of the contemporary art world, I just loved this.

2019 Reading Goals

In case you missed it you can see how I did on my 2018 reading goals here, and since I failed pretty spectacularly at that, time for some new ones!

My 2019 reading goals:

Read at least 80 books.  Again, I’m purposefully setting a low goal (not that 80 books is low – just lower than what I’ve been reading the past few years), because I find stressing about my Goodreads reading challenge to be… not a great use of my energy.

Request fewer ARCs/read more books I already own.  Everyone’s perennial resolution.  Wish me luck.

Read at least two books a month from any of these categories: plays, poetry collections, short story collections, nonfiction.  Trying something new this year.  Last year one of my goals was to read a classic and a play each month, which didn’t quite work for me as I found it too restricting.  But I know I lean more heavily on novels than I’d like so I still needed a way to diversify my reading.  Hopefully this will be a good compromise.

Read my 2019 backlist TBR.  Self-explanatory.  There is no excuse for me to have not read these books by 2020.  (Even The Color Purple by everyone’s newly problematic fave – I was incredibly disappointed to read that and I’m positive it’s going to cloud my experience with the book, but it’s still a seminal work that I’ve been wanting to read for a decade, so I’m going to read it and unhaul it and move on.)

Read at least 12 classics.  The equivalent of one a month, obviously, but hopefully this will be less restrictive and allow me to go on more classics binges without thinking ‘wait I should save this for later.’

I probably have other goals I’m forgetting right now but I think I’ll stop there.  That’s enough to keep me busy for the year, certainly.

What are some of your 2019 reading goals?  Comment and let me know!

book review: Severance by Ling Ma



Farrar, Strous, and Giroux, 2018


There are a lot of elements from Severance that we’ve all seen before – the global pandemic which brings an abrupt halt to civilization as we know it, the few survivors trying to forge ahead in the absence of a structured society, the juxtaposition of before and after narratives. But the similarities to Station Eleven or Bird Box end there, because what Ling Ma does with Severance is fuse the post-apocalyptic survival genre with anti-capitalist satire, and it works almost startlingly well.

Both wry and meditative, Severance offers a positively haunting commentary on corporate greed and what that means for the individual, and that awful paradox of being trapped inside a system that you feel guilty having any part of. The fictional Shen Fever was pretty awful; rather than offering a quick death it would essentially turn people into zombies who performed rote tasks ad infinitum – it’s heavy-handed but it works – but the most horrifying part of this novel was probably how much of the directionless millennial narrative resonated, and the amount of decisions these characters had to make at the detriment of their happiness just to survive, both before and after.

I did think the book’s structure could have been more cohesive as a whole, and I felt like Ling Ma didn’t really know what she wanted to do with the ending, but ultimately I loved this strong and unexpected debut. I can’t wait to see what Ling Ma does next.

2018 Reading Resolutions – Update

On January 3, 2018 I posted a list of my reading goals for this year.  Let’s see how I did!  Spoiler: not great.

  1. Read at least 75 books.  Verdict: Success!
    As of December 19 I have read 128 books, so I’d say I knocked that one out of the park.  But to be fair I purposefully set my goal on the low side of what I thought I was capable of reading so I wouldn’t stress too much about the number.  I’ll probably raise my goal a bit for 2019 but still keep it manageable.  The Goodreads reading challenge is the last thing on earth I want to stress about.
  2. Read at least one book in Italian.  Verdict: Fail 😦
    I avoid books written in Italian for the same reason I avoid long books – I always think about how many shorter books I could be reading in that same amount of time.  I’m not sure this goal will publicly carry over into 2019, mainly because I’d be embarrassed to fail at it two years in a row.  But it will remain a goal in my head.
  3. Use the library more often.  Verdict: Success!
    One of my steadiest sources of books this year was my library’s Overdrive account, which has been a life-saver for audiobooks and ebooks.  But I’ve used my physical library more often as well.  This has presented me with a new challenge though – library holds coming in all at once.  So I still need to figure out a better way to balance my library holds with mood reading.
  4. Request fewer Netgalley ARCs/spend more time reading books I already own.  Verdict: Fail 😦
    The road to hell is paved with good intentions, etc etc.  What can I say – I still haven’t figured out a way to resist the pull of ARCs, even when I have plenty of books on my shelves that I’m also interested in.
  5. Read at least one classic and at least one play each month.  Verdict: Fail 😦
    I was doing SO WELL with this for the first half of the year…. and then I fell off the horse and never got back on.  I did end up reading 11 plays this year, which isn’t very good for me but still makes the one-a-month goal rather feasible, and I think that will carry into 2019.  But I learned that ‘one classic a month’ does not really work for me; I read 13 (with a bit of overlap between plays and classics), but sometimes I’m in the mood to read 3 classics in a row and sometimes I’m in the mood to read none.  As a firm believer in finding books at the right time, I don’t want to force myself to read a classic just for the sake of meeting an arbitrary goal.  So if I do this goal again I might say ‘read at least 12 classics in 2019’ or something like that, rather than one per month.

So, I succeeded at only 2/5 of my challenges, one of which wasn’t really a challenge at all but an arbitrary number I knew I’d hit easily.  But it’s good that I’ve taken the time to check in with last year’s goals before writing 2019’s.  Notes to self: (1) keep it manageable, (2) if you set goals that you know you won’t automatically meet, you need to actually make an effort.

What were some of your 2018 reading goals and how did you do?  Comment and let me know!

Favorite Book Covers of 2018

I wasn’t planning on doing a post like this but I saw Hannah and Aurora do it and it looked like such fun.  So here we go.  Favorite covers of 2018.

  1. Almost Love by Louise O’Neill (riverrun, UK): Not usually a fan of faces on covers but the muted colors are a good look.
  2. Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton (Doubleday, US): Again, I usually hate the single eye on a cover look, but the smudged eyeliner takes this to another level.
  3. The Idiot by Elif Batuman (Penguin Press, US): Technically from 2017 but this feels more like a 2018 book so I’m including it.  This is probably my cover of the year to be completely honest.  It’s iconic, minimalist, and memorable, what more could you ask for.
  4. Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon (Scribner, US): In contrast, this one is a bit busy, but the color scheme is great and this image fits so well with the content of the book.
  5. My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (Penguin Press, US): Easily one of the most iconic covers of the year.
  6. Milkman by Anna Burns (Faber & Faber, UK): I just really like pink, what can I say.
  7. In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne (Tinder Press, UK): …… I just really like pink, what can I say.
  8. The Pisces by Melissa Broder (Hogarth, US): I don’t know if this is objectively pretty or if it’s so ugly it’s good, but either way I just adore this cover.
  9. Tin Man by Sarah Winman (GP Putnam & Sons, US): I’m easily won over by a bit of gold foil.
  10. I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press, UK): Probably tied with The Idiot for my favorite: I love anatomical hearts on covers (Hannah and I have a growing collection of heart cover books that we send each other that hopefully one day we will compile into a blog post), and this one is just stunning.
  11. The Queen of Hearts by Kimmery Martin (Berkley, US): Another clear frontrunner in the anatomical heart cover category.
  12. Sight by Jessie Greengrass (John Murray, UK): This composition!
  13. Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko (Harper Voyager, US): A dramatic cover befitting the drama within very nicely.

What’s your favorite cover from 2018?  Comment and let me know!

book review: The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories



THE PENGUIN BOOK OF JAPANESE SHORT STORIES edited by Jay Rubin and introduced by Haruki Murakami
Penguin Classics, 2018


I spent a while with this collection and I think on the whole it’s stronger than the sum of its parts. Apparently my average rating for these 34 stories was 3.35 stars, but it still feels like a 4-star collection to me, because it absolutely got its job done: introducing me to a number of authors whose work I’m interested in exploring further.

Curated by Jay Rubin and introduced by Murakami, this collection is arranged thematically rather than chronologically: there’s a section on natural and man-made disasters, a section whose stories are unified by the theme of dread, and a section on the values of Japanese soldiers, among others. Jay Rubin writes in his forward that he wanted this collection to reflect his personal taste rather than serving as a more generic primer to Japanese lit, and for better or worse I think that shows: I didn’t understand why every single one of these stories was chosen, but I did feel like I got a clear sense of Rubin as a reader, and why shouldn’t an anthology say something about its editor?

There were three main standouts for me:

(1) Dreams of Love, Etc by Kawakami Mieko: A woman is invited into her neighbor’s house, and her neighbor confesses that although she loves playing the piano, she’s unable to play a certain piece straight through when someone is watching, and she entreats the protagonist to sit with her until she’s able to play the piece perfectly. Compelling, sensual, and subtle, but still rewarding.

(2) Hell Screen by Akutagawa Ryunosuke: The talented but contemptible painter Yoshihide is commissioned to create a folding screen that depicts Buddhist hell. As he’s unable to paint an image that he hasn’t seen firsthand, he inflicts torture on his apprentices. The climax, though it’s easy to see it coming from a mile away, still somehow manages to shock, with horrifying imagery that isn’t easily forgotten.

(3) Insects by Seirai Yuichi: Set against the backdrop of the bombing of Nagasaki, Insects follows an elderly woman whose lifelong love had died fifteen years ago, after having been married to another woman. Brutal and tender all at once.

There are a handful of other noteworthy stories worth mentioning. The story that opens the collection, Tanizaki Jun’ichiro’s The Story of Tomoda and Matsunaga reads like a film noir mystery but ultimately takes a philosophical turn, ruminating on the conflicting values of the East and the West. Factory Town by Betsayaku Minoru is wry and clever and achieves a lot with its brevity. American Hijiki by Nasaka Akiyuki provides a frighteningly honest look at Japanese post-war psychology. And of course, Mishima Yukio’s Patriotism and its graphic, visceral depiction of seppuku will probably haunt me to my dying day.

But I have two main criticisms of this collection: one about its composition and one about its selection. While I enjoyed the thematic arrangement, why oh why weren’t the stories’ publication dates readily accessible?! All the dates were listed somewhere in Murakami’s introduction, but it took a lot of flipping back and forth and I would have liked the date listed alongside the title, author, and translator. The second and larger criticism is that only 9 of these 34 stories are by women, so needless to say we can do better than a mere 26%.

Still, I found this to be a really solid introductory collection for anyone looking to expand their horizons and discover some new favorite Japanese writers, some seminal and some more obscure.

Thanks so much to Penguin for the copy provided in exchange for an honest review.