mini reviews #9: YA, translated autofiction, magical realism, and nonfiction

You can see all my previous mini reviews here, and feel free to add me on Goodreads to see all of my reviews as soon as I post them.


WE ARE OKAY by Nina LaCour
date read: February 23, 2020
Dutton, 2017

I know this seems like a sort of hollow platitude, but We Are Okay is the kind of book that breaks your heart and then mends it again; a rather impressive feat given that I read it in under 2 hours. I imagine it won’t leave a huge long-term impression on my heart, but I found it very moving and engrossing and I’m glad I finally got around to picking it up. I’ll happily read more from Nina LaCour in the future.

You can pick up a copy of We Are Okay here on Book Depository.


OPTIC NERVE by María Gainza
translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead
date read: February 29, 2020
Catapult, 2019

This book should have done so much more for me than it actually did. I’m a bit of an art history geek, so autofiction about an art geek musing on various paintings sounded like it was going to be a dream, but I think the execution left a lot to be desired. I found the art history lessons engrossing, as expected, but María Gainza’s life (or the life of her fictional stand-in, I guess) never really dovetailed into her art lessons to form a cohesive narrative. This ultimately felt a bit disjointed and unsatisfying, though I did enjoy the strength of Gainza’s passion for art.

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


SHARKS IN THE TIME OF SAVIORS by Kawai Strong Washburn
DNF @ page 66
date read: April 5, 2020
MCD, March 2020

I think the fact that this is the first book I’ve DNF’d in 8 years says it all. Between the painfully labored prose – it’s one of those books where it feels like the author is trying to imbue every single sentence with Meaning – and the fact that all four protagonists that I’ve encountered so far have the exact same narrative voice, I just can’t. This reads like an unfinished MFA project.

You can pick up a copy of Sharks in the Time of Saviors here on Book Depository.


date read: April 5, 2020
Scribner, 2018

If you’re interested at all in Irish lit, this is SUCH a brilliant hidden gem. In this sort of offbeat biography, Tóibín digs into the lives of the fathers of Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, and James Joyce, with an emphasis on their relationships with their respective sons. The book is divided pretty evenly into three sections and each has its strengths and weaknesses – I was most compelled by Joyce’s, somewhat to my surprise – but for a book that changes trajectory three times it’s reassuringly steady in its aims: humanizing these men, contextualizing the way they manifested into their sons’ writing, and creating a textured portrait of the history of literary Dublin. (Also, I can HIGHLY recommend the audio – Tóibín has a fantastic voice and his rendition of Joyce’s Ecce Puer was chilling.)

You can pick up a copy of Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know here on Book Depository.

Have you guys read any of these, and what did you think? Feel free to comment if you’d like to discuss anything in more detail.

some Irish lit to read this St. Patrick’s Day

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!  I figured this was a good excuse to talk about some of my favorite Irish lit.  If you wanted to read something Irish this St. Patrick’s day, here are a few recommendations:


Translations by Brian Friel: Friel was a seminal twentieth century Irish playwright, whose Field Day Theatre Company (founded in 1980 with Stephen Rea) was created to bring themes of Irish national identity to life on the stage in Northern Ireland.  Translations, the first production they put on, is a phenomenal piece of theatre, which tells the story of a group of Irish Gaelic-speaking students in the 1800s.  One day English soldiers arrive in this fictional Donegal village to conduct an Ordnance Survey and anglicize all Irish-Gaelic place names, and their inability to communicate with the native Irish speakers sets the stage for the story.  Both an incisive commentary on English imperialism and a fascinating look at the function of language, Translations is a masterful piece of writing.  Highly recommended reading for all theatre fans.  You can also listen to the 2010 BBC radio play here! + my full review here.


Tender by Belinda McKeon: Set in Dublin in the 1990s, Tender is a story about the friendship between two university students.  When quiet, insecure Catherine meets the confident and charismatic James, the two build a strong friendship which quickly devolves into an intense and unhealthy relationship, as something irreconcilable sits between them.  This is a story about desire, about obsession, about the parts of human nature that we want to distance ourselves from, because they’re so ugly and raw.  Set against the backdrop of the turbulent social climate of 90s Ireland, this book is one of the most intense and frantic and claustrophobic things I’ve ever read.  In a good way, because McKeon’s stellar prose makes this impossible to put down.

23230030The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh: I am absolutely obsessed with Martin McDonagh, best known for his films In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths.  But before he was a director, he was a playwright, and in my opinion The Pillowman is his masterpiece.  In this play, a writer in a totalitarian state is brought in for questioning about a series of recent murders which bear a striking resemblance to the content of his stories.  Typical of McDonagh’s nonpareil black humor, The Pillowman is strange, moving, gruesome, horrible, poignant, and wickedly funny.  If you liked In Bruges, you’ll probably love this.  If you hate morbid humor, stay far, far away.  As I love black humor, this is one of my all time favorite plays.

51ilsnc5chl-_sx326_bo1204203200_Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt: Honestly life-changing.  If you haven’t read Frank McCourt’s memoir about growing up poor in twentieth century Limerick, you must.  I read this when I was probably too young to get everything out of it that I could have, so I intend to reread it one day, but it’s stayed with me for years.  Born in New York, Frank McCourt and his Irish immigrant parents move back to their homeland during the Great Depression.  Honest, forgiving, and relentlessly depressing, this is a truly poignant book that I find myself unintentionally measuring all other memoirs against.

4954833Brooklyn by Colm Toibin: This is one of the few cases where I actually liked the movie better!  I blame Saoirse Ronan’s incredible performance.  But I liked the book too.  A really interesting story about Irish immigration from the point of view of a young girl who finds herself torn between two cultures.  If at times not as emotionally resonant as it has the potential to be, Brooklyn is still a great examination of the factors which lead one to leave their home and start a life in an entirely new country.  Toibin is a really fantastic writer; his prose is steady and it’s easy to read this book in a single sitting.  Not an all time favorite, but one which I find myself liking more and more, the more I think back on it.  So if you’re curious, definitely check it out!



The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde: And finally, a classic.  And another play, because I love them and the Irish do them so well.  This ridiculous story about mistaken identities remains one of the funniest things I’ve ever read.  Whoever said classics aren’t fun clearly hasn’t read Oscar Wilde.


What are some of your favorite Irish plays and novels?  I’m always looking for recs!

book review: House of Names by Colm Tóibín


House of Names by Colm Tóibín

US pub date: May 18, 2017


House of Names is Irish writer Colm Toibin’s retelling of the story of the house of Atreus – an ancient tale fraught with tragedy and vengeance, most famously depicted in Aeschylus’ Oresteia. This is going to be a long and detailed (though spoiler-free) review, because Ancient Greek lit is something of a passion of mine and this was my most anticipated read of 2017.

This is a story that I’ve loved for years, and have loved enough to read it in multiple iterations by different authors. Which begs the question – why? What exactly does a retelling accomplish? How does an author effectively strike a balance between the old and the new, between honoring a story which has been loved for centuries, and giving it new depth? I think readers go into retellings hoping to see the elements that we loved about the original preserved, but also to see gaps filled in, or to see a new intimacy given to a story originally told with impartiality. This question was on my mind the whole time I was reading this novel – what has Toibin succeeded in adding to this familiar tale?

House of Names begins with the point of view of Clytemnestra, who plots to murder her husband Agamemnon in retaliation for Agamemnon sacrificing their eldest daughter, Iphigenia. Clytemnestra is a character who I find particularly intriguing, and a character who I think has been unfairly maligned in various works of literature through the ages. Toibin’s Clytemnestra is everything I could have hoped for: she masquerades vulnerability with a hard exterior, she is motivated by vengeance while being grounded by a love for her family. She’s complex and nuanced and Toibin succeeds in humanizing rather than vilifying her. It’s a promising start to a novel which I hoped would be told in its entirety from this perspective. It’s hard to build on the thematic richness of The Oresteia, which concerns itself with questions of conflicting systems of justice (justice through vengeance vs. justice through law), but one often unexamined thematic thread is that of gender, which permeates the original narrative as Clytemnestra’s crimes are viewed through a different lens than Orestes’ and Agamemnon’s. How better to give this story new depth from a contemporary perspective than to tell it from a female point of view?

But then the narration shifts to Orestes, and things go downhill. As we plod through an unnecessarily long chapter detailing Orestes’ kidnap from the palace of Mycenae, I couldn’t help but to think: why? Why are we devoting so much of this narrative to Orestes? Clytemnestra is a character who has historically never been given much of a narrative voice. Orestes, on the other hand – there is no dearth of material surrounding Orestes. Homer and Aeschylus and Pindar and Sophocles and Euripides have pretty much got that covered.

But interestingly, Toibin takes this character of Orestes who is traditionally known for his resolve, and renders him rather inert. In Homer’s Odyssey, Orestes is consistently held up as a shining example of decisive action to Odysseus’ son Telemachus, who is being urged to reclaim his house from the influx of his mother’s suitors. In Toibin’s House of Names, Orestes is a follower – he doesn’t make decisions, but rather, waits for the affirmation of his friend Leander and his sister Electra. Is this an intentional subversion of Orestes’ traditionally hyper-masculine narrative? If so, why does Toibin allow Orestes’ point of view to overpower his narrative at the expense of Clytemnestra and Electra’s perspectives? Wouldn’t a more effective subversion be to reduce Orestes’ narration, or eliminate it altogether?

Once Orestes’ perspective took over, I couldn’t help but to feel a certain aimlessness to this story. After the sacrifice of Iphigenia, one of the most poignant and harrowing renderings of that scene that I’ve ever read, Toibin’s narrative begins to be infiltrated by details I no longer recognize. While I have no theoretical objections to authors deviating from the well worn path of canon (some of the best retellings I’ve read have involved original characters or invented plotlines – Katharine Beutner’s Alcestis and David Malouf’s Ransom come to mind), I struggle to discern the rationale behind some of Toibin’s choices. He omits Pylades and invents a character to essentially fill the role of Pylades – why? He changes the duration of the Trojan War from nine years to five years – why? He does a complete overhaul of Aegisthus’ narrative – why? None of this becomes self-evident throughout Toibin’s meandering story, and the result is frustrating. The further you read, the more this story’s initial poignancy becomes diluted.

Since this review has erred on the side of the critical, I do want to highlight what I thought were particular successes. Toibin’s writing is beautiful and visceral. This is only the second Toibin novel I’ve read after Brooklyn, which I enjoyed well enough while being frustrated by a certain detachment in the narration, but I didn’t think that was the case here. This is an inherently brutal story, and Toibin’s prose succeeds in adding another layer of darkness and unease, creating a tense and urgent environment. The two chapters which focus on Clytemnestra are superb, and the first-person narration was an excellent choice here.

I would tentatively recommend this to readers who maybe aren’t so familiar with the original story that Toibin is attempting to build upon, because this seems to be where the majority of my criticism lies. It’s impossible for me to say how this story would stand on its own for one who is entirely unfamiliar with these characters and their fates, but maybe that reader would fare better with the unconventional journey that Toibin takes us on. It’s not that I necessarily want to see the events of Aeschylus’ Oresteia rehashed in exactly the same fashion, but I felt like Toibin never embraced his unique contemporary perspective to its full potential; the invented details felt extraneous and did nothing to augment the themes present in the original.

This wasn’t a bad novel. I’m always critical of the things I love the most.

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Scribner, Simon & Schuster, Netgalley, and Colm Toibin.

+ link to review on goodreads