book review: Milk Fed by Melissa Broder





MILK FED by Melissa Broder
★★★★☆
Scribner, February 2, 2021


Milk Fed just goes to show that you can love a book and still be incredibly disappointed in it. After I read the first 30%, I was convinced that this was going to be my favorite book of the year. Ultimately it did lose a bit of steam and I can’t help but to mourn for the exceptional book that it could have been, but nevertheless, I still enjoyed this so much and recommend it wholehearted to the right reader.

Milk Fed, Broder’s sophomore novel following her sensational debut The Pisces, follows Rachel, a lapsed Jewish woman who works at a talent agency in LA and spends every waking hour of her days counting calories and fixating on her diet. Her therapist recommends a detox from her emotionally abusive mother, who Rachel usually calls every day. Mid-detox, she meets Miriam, an Orthodox woman who works at Rachel’s local frozen yogurt place, who Rachel becomes fixated on, leading to a breakdown of her carefully constructed food rituals. 

Broder’s books are messy, piercing, gritty, and deeply, deeply funny–it’s a recipe that works perfectly to my tastes. (Also, if you’re familiar with LA and/or into bougie LA culture… her books are such a treat.) Rachel is a character whose head I bizarrely enjoyed inhabiting, in spite of or perhaps because of the sheer level of toxicity. Rachel was so convincing and well-crafted that I felt like I knew her intimately after only a few pages. Melissa Broder really excels at sharp and specific characterization where a lot of books in the ‘disaster woman’ genre tend to opt for a more ‘generic millennial every-woman’ approach (which I’ve certainly seen done well, but which I think I may be a bit burnt out on). Where this book falters is in its introduction of Miriam and her family–the pace slows, the focus shifts, Rachel’s behavior becomes slightly less intelligible. Still, while I ultimately felt that Broder could have used a defter hand in editing to get it up to the high standard she set for herself in The Pisces, I honestly loved spending time with this book. It’s not for everyone, but if you gravitate toward the slightly fucked up and absurd, you’ll probably love this too.

Massive trigger warning for eating disorders (in many different forms, though calorie counting is a big one). Probably other things too, but that’s the big one.

Thanks to Netgalley and Scribner for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book reviews: two pieces of Shakespearean nonfiction




THIS IS SHAKESPEARE by Emma Smith
★★★★★
Pantheon Books, 2019



This Is Shakespeare is an essay collection by Shakespeare scholar and Oxford lecturer Emma Smith, whose work I first encountered on her excellent podcast Approaching Shakespeare. In each lecture-turned-podcast-episode she dissects a different play through the lens of a very specific question (“what is the narrative and thematic role of Antonio in Twelfth Night,” “why does Bassanio choose the lead casket in Merchant of Venice,” “why doesn’t Marcus offer Lavinia first aid in Titus Andronicus“).

This Is Shakespeare is basically just her podcast in book form and slightly condensed, but you certainly don’t need to be familiar with her already (and in fact, it’s probably better if you aren’t–I didn’t mind the repetition between this book and her podcasts, but for someone even marginally less invested, these essays might feel extraneous). An interest in Shakespeare, whether you’ve read all of his plays or only read one, is really the only requirement to picking this up. Smith doesn’t give broad strokes overviews of the plays, but instead she zeroes in on details that stick out to her in each one, which start to tie into one another with the more essays you read. This was an incisive, thoughtful, and ultimately fun read that certainly helped augment my understanding of each of the 20 plays she covers.



THE YEAR OF LEAR by James Shapiro
Simon & Schuster, 2015
★★★★☆


The Year of Lear focuses on one specific year as it pertains to Shakespeare’s life and works–1606, the year he wrote Antony and CleopatraMacbeth, and King Lear. This is a historical rather than literary text–Shapiro doesn’t give a line-by-line analysis of any of the aforementioned plays, but rather, he fills in the historical context surrounding their respective compositions, particularly highlighting the Gunpowder Plot and its aftermath. 

It’s an interesting text as long as you’re compelled by this level of historical specificity. If you’re looking for a literary analysis of Lear or a biography of Shakespeare’s life, look elsewhere, but as a piece of historical nonfiction this is a fascinating snapshot into a turbulent piece of early modern history and the literature it directly and indirectly inspired.

book review: The Butchers’ Blessing by Ruth Gilligan





THE BUTCHERS’ BLESSING by Ruth Gilligan
★★★★☆
Tin House Books, 2020


Set in 1990s Ireland, The Butchers’ Blessing (originally published as The Butchers in the UK) tells the story of a group that travels through the country, practicing an ancient ritual of cattle slaughter for farmers who still believe in the old customs.  It follows a handful of characters – primarily Úna, the preteen daughter of a Butcher whose life’s aspiration is to follow in her father’s footsteps.  We also follow Grá, Úna’s mother, trapped in an unhappy marriage; Ronan, an ambitious photographer; Fionn, a semi-retired farmer whose wife is dying of cancer, trying to atone for past sins; and Davey, Fionn’s son, a teenage boy who’s immersed in classical studies and dreams of escaping to Dublin.  

Gilligan does an expert job of weaving historical context throughout the narrative.  The novel’s backdrop mainly concerns BSE, also known as mad cow disease, as the crisis kicks off throughout the UK and Ireland.  While Gilligan excellently captures the resulting tension of that social climate, her skill in establishing the setting is right down to the nitty-gritty details; the Spice Girls playing on the radio, The Beauty Queen of Leenane on a the local playhouse, Ballykissangel on tv.  Setting historical fiction in a moment that your readers have lived through is a unique challenge, but Gilligan has a talent for the immersive.  The details of Celtic folklore were also well-woven in; this probably isn’t the Gothic or eerie book you’re expecting from its premise, but the way the folklore was presented as a part of these characters’ daily realities was handled incredibly well.

There were a few things that didn’t work for me – the whole story was framed in a past/present way with the present being narrated by the least interesting character, which unfortunately causes the interludes to lag more than they should.  But on the whole I thought this was a clear-eyed, unsettling, morally ambiguous read that captures this moment in modern Irish history brilliantly. 

book review: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart


WE WERE LIARS by E. Lockhart
★★★★☆
Delacorte Press, 2014






I read this because it’s allegedly a retelling of King Lear. It… isn’t really (and I’ll talk about that more when I one day inevitably do a blog post on retellings of King Lear) but I actually liked this a LOT more than I was expecting to. Usually when I read YA my overriding feeling is ‘this wasn’t written for me,’ but I actually didn’t feel that so much; this largely felt like an adult thriller when I was reading.  Yes, it contains Teenagers Experiencing Emotions, but that isn’t something I have an issue with; there was this sort of cool detachment to the writing that I felt worked in its favor and it was a fantastically paced, cleverly structured book that wasn’t weighed down by the protagonist’s navel gazing.  And yes, there’s The Twist—it didn’t blow my socks off because it ended up being something I’ve seen done in other books, but I actually thought the execution here was really fantastic and it was definitely worth the wait.  I did feel like the whole thing came together successfully, and it’s hard to talk about without giving anything away, but suffice to say this book was just delightful escapism if you prefer your beach reads to have a sharp edge. 

book review: The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue




THE PULL OF THE STARS by Emma Donoghue
★★★★☆
HarperAvenue, 2020




I have a very strong stomach but I am triggered by three things. 1. Vomiting, 2. Childbirth, 3. Pandemics (this last one evoking existential dread more than nausea but do I find reading about them almost as painful as living through one). This book has all three, so, it’s a testament to how much I like Emma Donoghue’s writing that I: a. Made it through this book, and b. Actually enjoyed it. 

Set in a maternity ward in 1918 Dublin over the course of three days, The Pull of the Stars follows Julia Power, a nurse attending to expectant mothers who are sick with the flu.  It’s a fast-paced, frantic novel that contrasts the hectic episodes on the ward with the tender, budding friendship between Julia and her new volunteer helper, an uneducated girl named Bridie Sweeney.

This book is thoroughly engrossing–it immerses you in a borderline excessive amount of detail, but Donoghue manages it in a way so that it pulls the reader in rather than alienating them.  Full disclosure, I had to skip entire paragraphs of this book that were too gruesome for me, but it was entirely with regret that I did so–there’s something so transfixing about Donoghue’s storytelling, and I’ve felt this about all three of her books that I’ve read.  She also nails the evocation of this Irish hospital in a city under siege by a deadly virus. With obvious parallels to 2020 in a lot of ways, this still felt firmly fixed in its historical setting, which was a positive for me.

I did find The Pull of the Stars rather heavy-handed at times (notably in its treatment of Irish political history; it felt very transparent that Donoghue was framing Julia as an outsider to the rebellion in order to spoon feed the reader about how maybe the British empire aren’t the good guys after all!–though I will concede I probably read more of these narratives than most), but that was my only real complaint.  On the whole I thought this was a compelling, moving read, though I must caution that you need either a strong stomach or a strong conviction to make it through.

I won this copy in a Goodreads giveaway; all thoughts are my own.

book review: The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton | BookBrowse




THE DEVIL AND THE DARK WATER by Stuart Turton
★★★★☆
Bloomsbury, 2020



In 1634 on the day that world famous detective Samuel Pipps is set to board the Sardaam from Batavia to Amsterdam in handcuffs, the ship is approached by a leper who climbs atop a crate to declare a frightening prophecy: “The Sardaam‘s cargo is sin, and all who board her will be brought to merciless ruin. She will not reach Amsterdam.” The man then bursts into flames and dies moments later, at which time it’s discovered that, despite the prophecy he just announced, he has no tongue.

While the opening of this standalone mystery is explosive, The Devil and the Dark Water is a slow burner. It mostly follows Arent, Samuel Pipps’ bodyguard, a gruff yet honorable man intent on proving the innocence of his accused employer. It also follows Sara Wessel, a noblewoman trapped in an abusive marriage hoping to make a new life for herself in Amsterdam. The two form an unlikely friendship as the ship comes under siege by dark forces in the form of a demon called Old Tom that has a terrifying link to Arent’s past.

You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote about the Dutch East India Trading Company HERE.

book review: Three Plays by Lisa B. Thompson

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UNDERGROUND, MONROE, & THE MAMALOGUES: THREE PLAYS by Lisa B. Thompson
★★★★☆
Northwestern University Press, August 15, 2020

 

This is a brilliant collection of three plays from scholar and playwright Lisa B. Thompson, each of which navigates issues of racism and trauma as they particularly pertain to the Black middle class.  Each play is distinct both in style and subject, but all thematically cohere into a sharp, savvy collection that makes for fantastic reading, though I imagine seeing any of these come to life on the stage with the right actors would be an even more entrancing experience.

Underground – 5 stars

Originally performed in 2017, Underground is the standout play from this collection, which focuses on the tension between two friends, two middle-aged, middle class Black men who had both been activists for the Black Panther movement, but who have drifted apart in life and in ideologies.  This play is razor-sharp and startlingly prescient; reading it amid the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement was a rather humbling experience, to be reminded so starkly that the movement’s catalysts have been decades, centuries in the making.  This exchange in particular drove home a relevant piece of discourse that’s been in the news a lot lately:

MASON: Wait. This is not just sensational journalism. They are out here bombing shit, man.
KYLE: Things. Not people. Statues of long dead white men can’t die again.

Monroe – 5 stars

Set in 1940s Lousiana, Monroe follows the impact of a lynching on a small-town community, including one young woman, the victim’s sister, who believes herself to be pregnant like the Virgin Mary.  Monroe has a sort of mystical, fable-like quality to it which makes it stand apart from the other two plays in this collection, but it’s all the more resonant for its examination of the timelessness of anti-Black violence in America.

The Mamalogues – 2 stars

This one’s tricky, because here’s the thing; I was never going to like this play.  I don’t like books (and films, and plays, and stories, more broadly) about motherhood and that’s what this is.  Three Black middle class single mothers compare their lived experiences in this sort of vignette-style play.  When you’re already disinterested in motherhood as a theme and there’s no actual narrative to sustain the play, it’s not fun reading.  But that criticism is very much on me so I won’t hold it against this collection too much.  Lisa B. Thompson is a brilliant writer and this is worth the price of admission for the first two plays alone.

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

book review: Hysteria by Jessica Gross

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HYSTERIA by Jessica Gross
★★★★☆
Unnamed Press, August 18, 2020

 

Hysteria belongs to a Marmite subset of literary fiction that I like to call ‘books about disaster women’.  (Other disaster women books include, for example: The Pisces, My Year of Rest and RelaxationAlmost Love.)  These books tend to feature young women in their 20s-30s who have abrasive personalities and make poor decisions and have a lot of casual sex usually for the wrong reasons.  If you do not enjoy disaster women books, you will not like Hysteria, it’s important to get that out of the way.  This will not be the book to change your mind and embrace this whole subgenre if it’s something you’ve henceforth found uninteresting or repulsive.

But with that said, if you do enjoy disaster women books, it’s a damn good one.  In Hysteria we follow an unnamed narrator living in Brooklyn, who goes into her local bar one day and discovers a new bartender has just started working there; she becomes compelled by him and starts to believe that he is none other than Sigmund Freud.

Hysteria is short, punchy, and shocking.  The way Jessica Gross juxtaposes the narrator’s meditations on sexual desire and meditations on daughterhood are uncomfortable to the extreme – I’m trying to avoid using the word oedipal in this review as I know that isn’t an enticing prospect for most people – but what works is that Gross’s writing never tips into gratuitousness.  It isn’t provocative for the sake of being provocative; she actually does have incisive points to make as she simultaneously celebrates and interrogates the narrator’s lasciviousness.  Not a book for everyone but highly recommended to those who it appeals to.

Thank you to Unnamed Press for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.


You can preorder a copy of Hysteria from the publisher here (not an affiliate link).

book review: The Everlasting by Katy Simpson Smith | BookBrowse

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THE EVERLASTING by Katy Simpson Smith
★★★★☆
2020, Harper

 

Broad and ambitious in scope, The Everlasting endeavors to capture the history and spirit of Rome across generations. It opens with an epigraph from the poem “Adonais” by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

“Go thou to Rome—at once the Paradise,
The grave, the city, and the wilderness.”

The plot begins in 2015 with a section titled “The Wilderness,” which introduces us to Tom, an American field biologist studying a group of crustaceans called ostracods. Though still married, Tom spends his days alone while his wife is back in California with their daughter, and reflects on the failed state of their marriage. This novel is dense at times, and Tom’s sections offer little reprieve; the crumbling marriage and allure of an enigmatic Italian woman a sort of clichéd setup that doesn’t feel like it quite earns its length, or the reader’s investment. This section does, however, establish the novel’s central theme: desire and temptation, and whether succumbing to temptation is inherently immoral.

You can read my full review HERE and a piece I wrote about books set across huge spans of time HERE.


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

book review: Saint X by Alexis Schaitkin | BookBrowse

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SAINT X by Alexis Schaitkin
★★★★☆
2020, Celadon

 

In the opening pages of her debut novel, Alexis Schaitkin introduces the reader to an idyllic beach scene, where mostly American tourists are lounging around on the fictional island of Saint X. Within a few pages idyll turns to tragedy as the 18-year-old daughter of the Thomas family, Alison, goes missing, and days later turns up dead. Two men are charged with her murder, but both are acquitted, and the mystery goes unsolved. Years later, we follow Alison’s younger sister, Claire, who was only seven years old at the time of Alison’s death. Now living in New York, Claire has a chance encounter that brings her into contact with Clive Richardson, one of the two men that had been charged with killing Alison. Believing their encounter to be an act of fate, Claire latches onto her connection with Clive in an attempt to discover what really happened to her sister.

You can read my full review HERE and a piece I wrote about Caribbean immigration to the US HERE.


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