book review: I’m Afraid of Men by Vivek Shraya

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I’M AFRAID OF MEN by Vivek Shraya
★★★★☆
Penguin Books Canada

 

A worthwhile, sobering account of Shraya’s own experiences with toxic masculinity and societal expectations of gender roles; hardly unfamiliar topics if you read a lot of this kind of nonfiction, but Shraya’s perspective as a queer trans woman of color is a valuable addition to the discourse, and I’d highly recommend this over a lot of similar books, especially if you’re looking for something short and punchy.

My only issue is that at 96 pages (or under 2 hours on audio, which is how I consumed it) this text sort of awkwardly sits in between long-form article and book in a way that suffers occasionally for its brevity.  Shraya’s societal observations are where this book shines, consistently; it’s in the details of her own life that the reader is left a bit wanting.  But as this is more essay than memoir it’s hard to fault it too much for that.  This was a very eye-opening read that I can see myself revisiting again and again.


You can pick up a copy of I’m Afraid of Men here on Book Depository.

book review: Cleanness by Garth Greenwell

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CLEANNESS by Garth Greenwell
★★★★☆
FSG, January 14, 2020

 

Cleanness is a sparse and melancholic novel about an American man living in Bulgaria.  His sexual encounters with other men – some of these encounters loving, some purely transactional – mostly take center stage in this story that unfolds across nine vignettes, in which the narrator reflects on the time he’s spent living and teaching in Sofia.

Greenwell’s linguistic prowess is this book’s greatest strength; I think On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is an obvious enough comparison, though they vary in subject matter – but these are the kind of novels that won’t appeal to anyone who grows weary of lyrical prose and introspection, who instead need a diverting plot or a strong attachment to characters.  (I have to wonder if I’m becoming such a reader, because my only qualm with this book was a certain lack of narrative cohesion that seemed to be beside the point entirely.)  But the writing is worth the price of admission alone:

“But none of this was right, I rejected the phrases even as they formed, not just because they were objectionable in themselves but because none of them answered his real fear, which was true, I thought: that we can never be sure of what we want, I mean of the authenticity of it, of its purity in relation to ourselves.”

The narrative mostly centers on the protagonist’s relationship with a man he calls R. – his ideal, pure image of R. in stark contrast to the degrading sex he seeks from other men after his relationship with R. crumbles.  This tension between cleanness and toxicity underscores his interactions, and the alienation he feels as he grapples with shame and desire can be acutely felt.  Cleanness is a challenging, sexually explicit book that isn’t going to be for everyone, but I found it fascinating for its insight and the prolonged sort of aching sadness it sustains.

Thank you to Netgalley and FSG for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.


You can pre-order a copy of Cleanness here on Book Depository.

book review: Unbelievable by T. Christian Miller & Ken Armstrong

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UNBELIEVABLE by T. Christian Miller & Ken Armstrong
★★★★☆
Broadway Books, 2019

 

Harrowing and eye-opening, Unbelievable (originally published as A False Report) strings together the stories of victims of a serial rapist, focusing on one young woman, Marie, whose rape allegation was dismissed after she was more or less forced to recant her accusation.  When she went back to the police station to insist that she had in fact been raped, she was charged with false reporting.  Years later, the rapist was caught and Marie’s record was expunged – Unbelievable then ties together Marie’s story, and the stories of the officers investigating this crime, with a larger commentary on the alarming way sexual assault allegations are often handled in the U.S.

I decided to pick this up after a conversation with the editor of a piece I wrote recently on the rarity of false sexual assault allegations; this book echoed a lot of the research that I had uncovered while writing that, so it was ultimately every bit as infuriating as I had expected it to be. Seeing the startlingly unprofessional behavior of the officers investigating Marie was painful; they would take minor inconsistencies in Marie’s story and blow them out of proportion, having never been trained to recognize that assault victims often have scattered recollections.  But if there’s one thing that saves this book from being a total downer, it’s that T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong emphasize the department-wide changes that were instigated in the way officers are trained to deal with assault victims, that came about as a result of this incident.  I think this should be required reading for anyone in law enforcement handling a sexual assault case.

I will say, one thing I would have liked from this book is more of a focus on the historical precedent of disbelieving women – Miller and Armstrong put the effort in here, but their research is essentially relegated to a footnote in Marie’s story, whereas I felt like there was room for more interrogation into the socio- and psychological factors that underscored the particular narrative that they chose to highlight.

There was also a certain discomfort in the back of my mind whenever I thought too long and hard about the fact that this book’s two authors are both male – a bit of unpleasant irony given that the book’s core conceit is advocating for the voices of women.  But to my pleasant surprise, this was actually addressed in the author’s note; the discomfort has been assuaged a bit knowing that this book’s editorial team was entirely female, a number of female experts were consulted, and Marie herself was able to weigh in on the manuscript before it was published.


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

book review: The Liar by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen | BookBrowse

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THE LIAR by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston
★★★★☆
Little, Brown and Co., 2019

 

The Liar is a book that will make its readers uncomfortable by design; set in modern-day Israel, it follows a 17-year-old girl, Nofar, who is unremarkable in every way until one day she decides to tell a terrible lie, with far-reaching consequences. At her summer job at an ice cream parlor she has an unpleasant encounter with a local celebrity who yells at her and insults her appearance—things then escalate when Nofar falsely accuses him of attempted rape.

It’s a deeply unsettling premise, and a difficult one to pull off. How does an author tell a story about a false accusation without trivializing the reality of sexual assault? Ayelet Gundar-Goshen rises to the challenge.

You can read the rest of my review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote about the rarity of false sexual assault allegations HERE.


You can pick up a copy of The Liar (published as Liar in the UK) here on Book Depository.

book review: We, the Survivors by Tash Aw | BookBrowse

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WE, THE SURVIVORS by Tash Aw
★★★★☆
FSG, September 2019

 

We, The Survivors tells the story of Ah Hock, a Malaysian man recently released from prison where he served time for murdering a Bangladeshi migrant worker. This poignant, quietly moving story is not a mystery or thriller: the identity of the victim and the circumstances of the crime are established early on. Instead, Tash Aw uses this novel to create a bleak and textured portrait of working-class Malaysia.

You can read the rest of my review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote about Bangladeshi migrant workers in Malaysia HERE.


You can pick up a copy of We, the Survivors here on Book Depository.

book review: The Door by Magda Szabó

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THE DOOR by Magda Szabó
translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix
★★★★☆
NYRB Classics, 2015
originally published 1987

 

What a brilliant, infuriating, deeply perplexing book.  The Door centers on the relationship between two very different women – the protagonist who is a writer, and her housekeeper, an older woman named Emerence.  A clash of values between the two provides the main conflict for this tense and elusive story: Ali Smith writes in her brief introduction, “Their relationship transforms into one full of the barbed hostilities of love.”

Emerence – cold, strong, and fiercely, irrationally independent – is an unforgettable character, though she doesn’t feel like a real person as much as a construct; but a construct for what is the question.  While The Door reads almost like a twisted fable, it’s morally ambiguous to the extreme: both characters engage in destructive behavior and it’s difficult at times to discern who exactly you should be sympathizing with.  Emerence herself feels like a (very deliberately constructed) contradiction: she abhors organized religion but appears to be the embodiment of something almost divine – there’s also a question of her relationship to Hungary’s shifting cultural landscape that I think could benefit from a deep dive into the sociopolitical context of this historical period.

But though I found this book brilliant from start to finish, there was something I grew to dread about picking it up the closer I got to the end.  Like Emerence herself, this book is entirely devoid of warmth in a way that started to feel draining; this from someone who genuinely loves dark fiction.  I’m happy to have read it and am eager to read more from Szabó – and from Len Rix, who did a great job with the translation – but I can’t decide if this is the sort of book I’ll want to revisit in a few years or whether I’m sufficiently unsettled as to appreciate it from afar without attempting a reread to reengage.  Time will tell.


You can pick up a copy of The Door here on Book Depository.

book review: Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson

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FRANKISSSTEIN by Jeanette Winterson
★★★★☆
Grove Press, October 1, 2019

 

Frankissstein is a bold, bawdy, and tremendously clever creation; the first of its two storylines follows Mary Shelley as she writes Frankenstein, and the second follows a host of characters in the present-day, chronicling the love story between Ry, a transgender doctor, and Victor Stein, a scientist with a passion for artificial intelligence.  The thematic interplay between these two narratives is genius, and Winterson brilliantly highlights the timelessness of the classic she’s riffing off, as themes of death, gender, and bodily limitations underscore both narratives.

But for me, the storyline in the past was the much more unique and engaging one.  These chapters were just begging to be developed into a full-blown novel fictionalizing Mary Shelley, and frankly, if that’s all Frankissstein was, I’m sure I’d give it 5 stars with no reservations.  Though these chapters were largely figments of Winterson’s imagination, the parallels she draws between Mary Shelley’s personal life (what we know of it, anyway) and the content of Frankenstein were incredibly stimulating.

“I have love, but I cannot find love’s meaning in this world of death.  Would there were no babies, no bodies; only minds to contemplate beauty and truth.  If we were not bound to our bodies we should not suffer so.  Shelley says that he wishes he could imprint his soul on a rock, or a cloud, or some non-human form, and when we were young I felt despair that his body would disappear, even though he remained.  But now all I see is the fragility of bodies; these caravans of tissue and bone.

At Peterloo, if every man could have sent his mind and left his body at home, there could have been no massacre.  We cannot hurt what is not there.”

The issues I had with the present-day chapters were twofold: first, I found some of the philosophizing on artificial intelligence to be overwrought, and second, the humor was a series of constant misses for me.  Winterson often employs humor in this novel to drive home the absurdity behind certain characters’ misogyny, but she would make her point and then continue to bash you over the head with jokes about sex-bots; it got very old for me.

In spite of this, the parallels between the two storylines were brilliantly rendered, and the overall impression I’m left with of this book is that I am very impressed, and I think this would have made a truly interesting addition to the Booker shortlist.

Thank you to Netgalley and Grove Press for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.


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