book review: No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood






NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT THIS by Patricia Lockwood
★★★★★
Riverhead, 2021



I thought this book was brilliant but as I was reading, I found myself a little dismayed at the way I’ve heard a lot of people talk about it. So much has been made of the fact that this is a book in “two halves”–the first is an irreverent stream-of-consciousness-style series of pithy observations that mimics the experience of scrolling through Twitter, and the second is much more serious, focusing on a family tragedy. The temptation to explain this division away by describing the first half as Online and the second half as Real Life is understandable, but I think it does a disservice to what Lockwood has actually attempted and achieved here.

I don’t think it’s about the division of Online/Real Life as much as it is a commentary on the inextricable fusion of the two. The narrator’s framework for viewing the world through a heavily Online lens is established in the first half, and then the second half shows that in times of grief and hardship, she’s still existing within that same framework even while being forced to participate in “Real Life” with more immediacy than she had been used to. While I certainly agree that this is structurally a book made up of two halves, I thought the second half of the book was such a natural continuation of the first that I really admired how Lockwood managed to achieve such a natural coherence of two completely disparate narratives. 

And as an Extremely Online Person myself, I loved how much nuance Lockwood brought to this commentary. I feel like so many books and articles and essays about The Internet fall into one of two traps, either extreme reverence or utter condemnation. The reality is so much more nebulous–The Internet is this bizarre world that we all live in separate to our real lives but an intrinsic part of our real lives and I thought Lockwood captured that beautifully. 

This is absolutely not a book that I’d recommend to everyone (frankly if you aren’t interested in Online Culture, stay away), but it really struck a chord with me and I admired it so much more than I had expected to.

book review: Dark Horses by Susan Mihalic | BookBrowse




DARK HORSES by Susan Mihalic
★★★★★
Gallery/Scout, February 16, 2021


Dark Horses is a shocking, heart-pounding debut; it’s both a coming-of-age novel and an unflinching story of resilience and survival. Fifteen-year-old Roan Montgomery is an equestrian prodigy; she attends a private high school, where she is given a special schedule allowing her to miss afternoon classes to train for her horseback riding events, which are a stepping stone to her plan of one day riding in the Olympics. In spite of her shortened class schedule, Roan receives straight As, and isn’t allowed to date or attend any social events outside of school. The reason why, the reader soon finds out, is disturbing and sinister: Roan’s father, also her riding coach, is in complete control of every facet of her life, and on top of the daily emotional abuse he inflicts on her, he has been sexually abusing her since early childhood.

You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote about equestrian eventing HERE.

book review: Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson




OPEN WATER by Caleb Azumah Nelson
★★★★★
Viking, February 4, 2021


“To be you is to apologize and often that apology comes in the form of suppression. That suppression is indiscriminate. That suppression knows not when it will spill. What you’re trying to say is that it’s easier for you to hide in your own darkness, than energy cloaked in your own vulnerability. Not better, but easier. However, the longer you hold it in, the more likely you are to suffocate. At some point, you must breathe.”

Caleb Azumah Nelson’s debut, a slim volume just under 150 pages, blew me away. I’m inherently skeptical of second-person narration; I find it particularly tricky to do effectively and with real purpose, so when I started reading it was with a slight apprehension, but Azumah Nelson won my trust effortlessly. His writing is absorbing and gorgeous, the bond between character and reader sealed by the author’s choice to frame reader as protagonist, a choice that has the potential to fall flat but which instead is elevated by Azumah Nelson’s sharp commentary on sight and observation. 

This probably sounds like an off the wall comparison but Open Water is a bit like James Baldwin meets Sally Rooney. It has that tender, push-and-pull, will-they-won’t-they quality of Normal People but it’s also heavier; the stakes are higher; it’s not a book generically about young love but instead specifically about young Black love, and the cost of systemic racism on Black love and Black bodies. It’s a gentle, supple story, joyous and heart-rending and intimate.

26-year-old Caleb Azumah Nelson is an author to watch. Calling it now, whatever he writes next will be shortlisted for the Booker.


Thank you to Netgalley and to Viking 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: No One Asked for This by Cazzie David




NO ONE ASKED FOR THIS by Cazzie David
★★★★★
Mariner Books, 2020





About a month ago I read an interview with Cazzie David about her breakup with Pete Davidson. I could not for a million dollars tell you why I clicked on that article, having no emotional investment in either of these people, but here we are. I was struck by two things: how resonant I found the way Cazzie talks about anxiety, and the fact that she’s open about having emetophobia, something I’ve struggled with since the age of eight. So that alone was enough to pique my curiosity about this essay collection. 

The thing about this book is that you need to accept what it’s trying to do and read it in good faith. Would this have been published if Cazzie weren’t Larry David’s daughter, of course not, but is she trying to join the ranks of great modern essayists like Jia Tolentino? Not in the slightest. These essays are self-indulgent, tone deaf, and solipsistic, but if you dwell on any of these things I promise you are taking this collection much more seriously than Cazzie is. 

So let’s focus on the good, because I unabashedly loved this book. Cazzie’s writing won’t win any literary awards but she’s surprisingly incisive, especially when it comes to talking about anxiety and her fear of mortality. Another thing is, the more neurotypical you are, the less this book is going to resonate with you (not that you’re necessarily neurotypical if you didn’t like it). Cazzie makes absolutely no effort to be likable; she paints a portrait of what it’s like to be fully in thrall of anxiety and the insidious ways it tears you apart from the inside out, affecting both your self-worth and your relationships. She makes comments like this, that are on one level dismissive and alienating (yes, some people simply “get really bad anxiety” and it’s still a bitch for them to live with), and on another level were like looking into a mirror:

“I never understood social media posts advising people that “it’s okay to not feel good all the time!” Who said that wasn’t okay? Who is so okay to the point where they need to be reminded that it’s okay when they don’t feel okay?! When people “reveal” they “get really bad anxiety,” I’m dumbfounded, because I’ve never not been anxious long enough to “get” anxiety. It doesn’t leave. Not ever.”

She’s also funny as hell. You’ll either get her humor or you won’t, and you’ll know by the end of the first essay which side you’re on. But–surprisingly, for the fact that you’re spending 300+ pages inside the head of an extremely unhappy person–this collection is fun. It’s self-deprecating, it’s clever, and above all else, it’s an entertaining way to spend an afternoon.

This isn’t for everyone (clearly), but I just really ‘got’ this book; I got what Cazzie was trying to do with it and I also got Cazzie as a person, and it made me feel slightly less alone in the world whenever I picked it up. At the end of the day, that’s all you can ask from a book like this.

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

book review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell | BookBrowse

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HAMNET by Maggie O’Farrell
Tinder Press, 2020
★★★★★

 

William Shakespeare’s name is never used in Hamnet — a conspicuous absence around which Maggie O’Farrell forms her richly imaginative narrative. Instead, the novel tells the story of those closest to Shakespeare: his parents, John and Mary; his wife Agnes; his daughter Susanna; and his twin children Hamnet and Judith. Shakespeare himself features in the narrative, though he is only ever described in relation to those around him, referred to as the Latin tutor, the husband, the father, the son. The result of this narrative decision is twofold: it pushes Shakespeare’s family to the foreground, but it also humanizes Shakespeare himself by reminding the reader that none of his works were created in a vacuum. This is the central conceit around which the novel’s climax is formed, as O’Farrell imagines the potential influence of Hamnet’s death in 1596 on Hamlet, written between 1599 and 1601.

You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote about the real Anne Hathaway and Hamnet Shakespeare HERE.

book review: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

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EXCITING TIMES by Naoise Dolan
★★★★★
Ecco, June 2, 2020

 

Exciting Times is the most Sally Rooney book to have not been penned by Sally Rooney.  In a way that statement is overly reductive of Naoise Dolan’s fresh and distinctive voice, but still, the fact remains: if you don’t find Sally Rooney to be much to write home about, steer clear of this debut about Irish socialist millennials overanalyzing their messy and self-destructive relationships.  But if you’re like me and that’s sounds like a recipe for perfection, you’ll probably love this.

Shown through the eyes of an Irish expat living in Hong Kong, Exciting Times essentially focuses on a love triangle between narrator Ava and two individuals who in many ways are polar opposites – the rich, tactless English banker Julian and the elegant, clever Hong Kong native Edith.  Each is distinctly compelling, though the love triangle itself isn’t what moves the narrative so much as Ava navigating her own boundaries and ethics and evolving perspective on relationships.  Irish identity is another theme that takes center stage; Ava is an English teacher and finds herself tempering her natural speech patterns so that she teaches ‘correct’ English to her students.  It’s a thoughtful, clever, meditative book from a number of angles.

Dolan’s prose is this novel’s shining jewel; she has such a compact, witty, dry voice – it won’t be for everyone and I can see where others might find that it grows wearisome as the novel chugs along, but I found it consistently charming.  ‘”Anything strange?” said Mam on the phone.  She really said it, “antin strange,” but if Brits spelled Glosster as Gloucester then I supposed Mam deserved similar leeway.’

Exciting Times is definitely this year’s Normal People while also being very much its own thing, and I recommend it very highly.

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


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

book review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

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MY DARK VANESSA by Kate Elizabeth Russell

William Morrow, 2020

 

My Dark Vanessa was an absolute tour de force and well worth all the hype it has been receiving.  The entire framework of the novel is startling – Vanessa, now in her 30s, reflects on a relationship she had with her high school English teacher, Mr. Strane, especially in light of that same teacher being accused of sexual abuse by another student, a young woman named Taylor.  I think this novel in most authors’ minds would have been conceived around Taylor – and indeed, though she’s mostly a shadowy figure in this book, there would be plenty to dig into if she were thrust into the limelight: the difficulty of coming forward with abuse allegations when you can’t produce ‘evidence’, the strength that requires, the unwarranted backlash it solicits.

Vanessa however is an entirely different kind of heroine.  In fact, we learn that in her 30s, she’s still in contact with Strane, and that she doesn’t believe Taylor’s allegations.  Vanessa doesn’t believe herself to have been abused, and she still sees her relationship with Strane as a love story – albeit a doomed one.  It’s a premise that could feel almost deliberately belligerent toward its reader, but what Kate Elizabeth Russell is able to achieve with this book is a textured analysis of the difficulty in identifying as a victim.  My Dark Vanessa doesn’t have a comforting and predictable trajectory of Vanessa slowly coming to terms with the reality of her situation – the process is messier and the conclusion arguably less satisfying, but it feels truer to life and successfully challenges the disturbing concept that some survivors are ‘good victims’ while others aren’t.

It’s a disturbing, uncomfortable read – the passages which detail the ways Strane groomed and manipulated Vanessa are almost unbearable in their verisimilitude – but at the same time it’s almost impossible to put down.  The Lolita intertextuality is occasionally heavy-handed, that’s my one complaint, but the Nabokov references ultimately do serve to give the reader an idea of how 15-year-old Vanessa attempts to make sense of her situation through the classic novels that Strane lends her.  It’s a wonderfully paced, brilliantly characterized book that’s as harrowing as it is engrossing.


You can pick up a copy of My Dark Vanessa here on Book Depository.

book review: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel | BookBrowse

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THE GLASS HOTEL by Emily St. John Mandel
★★★★★
2020, Knopf

 

Vincent—a young woman named for American poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay—is working as a bartender in a hotel on a remote island in British Columbia, when one day a message is scrawled across the hotel window that reads: “Why don’t you swallow broken glass.” This sets off the unexpected chain of events that are chronicled by Emily St. John Mandel in her highly anticipated novel The Glass Hotel, which follows Vincent from rural Canada to Wall Street as she becomes involved with a high-level financial executive, whose successful business is revealed to be fronting a Ponzi scheme. This is the first novel that Mandel has published since the release of the wildly successful Station Eleven in 2014.

You can read my full review HERE and a piece I wrote about Ponzi schemes HERE.


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

book review: The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

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THE SPINNING HEART by Donal Ryan
★★★★★
Doubleday Ireland, 2012

 

The Spinning Heart is just tremendously, unbelievably good.  Set in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, Donal Ryan chronicles the impact of the recession on a close-knit rural community.  With about twenty different points of view, the chapters are short, each a couple of pages long, and the novel is bookended by chapters from a married couple, Bobby and Triona.  Bobby is the novel’s central character, each of the other characters connected to his story in some way, but it’s hard to give a plot synopsis without giving anything away.  Suffice to say it opens with the brilliant lines “My father still lives back the road past the weir in the cottage I was reared in.  I go there every day to see is he dead and every day he lets me down.”

Though The Spinning Heart is Ryan’s debut, this is my third novel by him, and I think it’s safe to say that it’s cemented him as one of my all-time favorites.  His prose is just top-notch, lyrical and evocative, and he has a way of capturing the distinct voice of each of his narrators while still allowing his own style to creep in – I just find it so compelling and pleasurable to read any of his books.  The plot isn’t heavy in this one, though there’s a kidnapping and a murder going on in the background, but it was still hard for me to put it down.  In fact, I’d recommend reading it in as few sittings as possible, lest you begin to forget the hundred names you’re meant to be keeping track of.  Though I’d argue that if you forget who’s who a couple of times, as long as you remember who Bobby is, the impact won’t really be lessened.  This ultimately succeeds as a portrait of a community economically depressed, and is more about the overall effect that Ryan achieves with the panoply of voices, rather than the intricacies of the characters’ lives.

Anyway, as I’m sure you can tell, I loved this. Maybe not QUITE as much as I loved All We Shall Know, but it’s close.


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