book review: So Sad Today by Melissa Broder

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SO SAD TODAY by Melissa Broder
★★★★☆
Grand Central Publishing, 2016

 

As she proved in her invigorating novel The Pisces, Melissa Broder is nothing if not candid. Her essay collection So Sad Today makes an interesting companion read, especially due to a main criticism you’ll often hear of The Pisces: that Lucy (the main character) isn’t ‘likable’ enough. I hadn’t known much about Melissa Broder’s personal life before reading So Sad Today, but I understandably came away from it with the strong impression that Broder modeled Lucy after herself; in which case, can we extend the same complaint to this book, and how much is likability tied to worth? Broder doesn’t spare herself in these essays: she can be selfish, hypocritical, vain, needy, and emotionally distant, but I don’t think she, or anyone, should have to sanitize themselves in an essay collection that focuses on the tension between being authentic to yourself and being accepted by others.

As for the writing style itself, the essays that erred on the side of conversational were consistently my least favorites (I have never enjoyed reading other people’s text message exchanges and I wasn’t about to start here). But the more literary essays I thought were incisive and piercing; make no mistake, this isn’t a scholarly, academic exploration of the many many themes that she introduces – loneliness, sex, mental illness, addiction – but instead it’s a fiercely personal collection that will probably succeed in striking a chord with most readers at one point or another, despite the fact that the details of Broder’s life may be difficult to relate to. For me it was the essay on depression and anxiety that hit the hardest, with lines like this particularly resonating: “For someone with anxiety, dramatic situations are, in a way, more comfortable than the mundane. In dramatic situations the world rises to meet your anxiety. When there are no dramatic situations available, you turn the mundane into the dramatic.”

Ultimately if you don’t get on with crude, vulgar writing, you won’t get on with this, though I wouldn’t suggest that it’s only crude for the sake of being crude. In both her novel and nonfiction, Broder excels at exploring the uglier sides of human behavior and examining the underlying neuroses and insecurities that propel us to act in unsavory ways. But I will say, if you have emetophobia, please for the love of god be smarter than I was and skip the essay about her vomit fetish.


You can pick up a copy of So Sad Today here on Book Depository.

book review: Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister

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GOOD AND MAD: THE REVOLUTIONARY POWER OF WOMEN’S ANGER by Rebecca Traister
★★★★★
Simon & Schuster, 2018

 

“The fact that lots of people could extend such sympathy for [Charlie] Rose […] affirmed a bunch of things. First, that the world is stacked in favor of men, yes, in a way that is so widely understood as to be boring, invisible, just life.

But more deeply, it was a reminder of how easily we can see in men — even in the bad ones — talent. Brilliance. Complexity. Humanity. We manage to look past their flaws and sexual violations to what value they bring to the world. It is the direct opposite, in many ways, of how we view women, whose successes can still be blithely attributed to the fact that the boss wanted to fuck them.”

Good and Mad is probably the best contemporary feminist text I’ve read. Smart, biting, and unapologetic, Traister meditates on the post-2016 election state of affairs in America – Trump, Weinstein, #MeToo, school shootings, police brutality – and contextualizes all of this into a coherent narrative, the root of which is (not so surprisingly) white supremacy and patriarchal infrastructures. As an American who’s been sad and disheartened and yes, angry, every day since the election, who’s overwhelmed daily by the constant stream of depressing state of world affairs on Twitter, it was nice to read a refreshingly intersectional analysis of the times we’re living in that doesn’t write off the potential of the numerous female-led protests and movements that have arisen in recent years.

Traister’s central thesis is that female anger is good, healthy, constructive; she cites numerous examples of women, often women of color, who have refused to be silenced by the sociopolitical structures that have endeavored to dismiss their anger as irrational. This was at times frustrating to read because sometimes it feels like the sexism and racism in US politics is an unassailable force, but Traister herself has no interest in that kind of cynicism, ending this book on a note that succeeds in inspiring. I couldn’t recommend this highly enough.


You can pick up a copy of Good and Mad here on Book Depository.

Read More Women

“Well, I’d read more female authors if only I knew of any.” – ancient bro proverb

So, I got the idea for this post from the wonderful Hannah while we were brainstorming what I should do for International Women’s Day.  The idea behind this post is essentially ‘if you liked x book by this male author, try y book by this female author.’  I tend to find that with people who don’t read female authors the excuses are either ‘I don’t know any’ or ‘they don’t write about the kinds of things I’m interested in,’ so we are here to remedy both of those misconceptions.

If you liked The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne, read Tin Man by Sarah Winman.

Tin Man is essentially a more compact (and more British) version of The Heart’s Invisible Furies, but they each offer the same kind of heart and heartbreak.  Set in the 20th century in Ireland and England respectively, these are both coming of age novels that feature a protagonist coming to terms with his sexuality while living in a deeply conservative society.  I didn’t think Winman would be able to break my heart with her short little novel in the same way Boyne did with his 500 page epic, but she rose to the challenge.

If you liked All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan, read Tender by Belinda McKeon.

Featuring two of my favorite contemporary Irish writers, All We Shall Know and Tender are striking, beautifully written novels about passion and obsession and different kinds of love.  If you like the feeling of near-claustrophobic tension that you get from Donal Ryan’s novels, you need to pick up Tender immediately.

If you liked East of Eden by John Steinbeck, read Pachinko by Min Jin Lee.

… I know, it’s a weird comparison on the surface, but hear me out.  Both novels are multi-generational family sagas that span the 20th century, though one takes place in the US and the other takes place in Korea and Japan.  But despite the differences, the thematic conceits of these two books are surprisingly similar, focusing on religion, family ties, and whether children are irrevocably shaped by the sins of their parents.

If you liked Bright Air Black by David Vann, read Medea by Christa Wolf.

This one’s a bit obvious: both are retellings of Euripides’ Medea.  But, the interesting thing about these two books is that their approach to this character couldn’t be any more different if they tried.  Vann’s Medea is savage, unhinged; Wolf’s Medea is composed, calculating.  Both interpretations remain fiercely loyal to the original story, in their own way, and even if you loved Vann’s approach to this character you’ll probably still be deeply moved by Wolf’s politically-driven retelling.

If you liked The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman, read The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose.

These two novels look at contemporary art through very disparate lenses, but if you’re an art lover, both are valuable reads.  The Italian Teacher is mostly set in the 20th century and focuses on the career of a fictional artist, while The Museum of Modern Love features a fictionalization of the real-life performance artist Marina Abramovic, but both novels are written by authors with clear love and passion for the subject matter, rather than using art as an underdeveloped backdrop for their stories.  If you were drawn into Rachman’s fictional melodrama, you’ll undoubtedly be riveted by Rose’s stranger-than-fiction novel.

If you liked The Overstory by Richard Powers, read Lab Girl by Hope Jahren.

I read both of these books very close to one another and I had the same problem with each of them: I don’t care about trees.  But!  The good news is that if you are into tree books, these are about as good as it gets.  The Overstory is a novel which centers on a group of environmental activists, and Lab Girl is a memoir by a research scientist, and both are written with a searing love and passion for nature that I can’t help but to admire, even if it isn’t to my own personal taste.  If The Overstory whet your appetite for this kind of story, Jahren’s memoir is a fantastic nonfiction counterpart.

If you liked On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, read When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy.

Both of these books are about the failure of a marriage; in one because the two parties are unable to communicate with one another, in the other because of a severe case of domestic abuse.  But the similar thread lies in the way the female protagonist of each novel has deeply internalized and given into certain social pressures that she was raised to adhere to.  Both are quiet, perceptive, hard-hitting novels about all the ways in which a society can fail women when it comes to marriage.

If you liked Grief is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter, read The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway.

Both authors provide alarmingly incisive commentary on the grieving process – Grief is the Thing With Feathers is more abstract while The Trick is to Keep Breathing is much more literal, but both are deeply introspective novels that are quietly affecting.

If you liked Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman, read The Pisces by Melissa Broder.

If you like your romance novels to be all at once crude, sensual, obsessive, literary, and unorthodox, chances are you’ll enjoy both of these books.  They don’t have a whole lot in common on the surface (Call Me By Your Name is a gay romance set in the Italian Riviera; The Pisces is a strange love affair between a woman and a merman in contemporary Los Angeles), but both chronicle the destructive nature of love with razor sharp precision.  And both have lush beach settings, if you’re into that kind of thing.

If you liked The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, read The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker.

Both are sort of dreamy, hypnotic books about something going desperately wrong in small-town America, chronicling both the phenomenon (in one, suicide, in the other, illness), and tying in social commentary that contextualizes the characters’ realities.  (I’d also add that The Dreamers is good and The Virgin Suicides is not good, if you want my personal opinion.)


Happy International Women’s Day!  Which pairs of books by a male and female author would you add to this post?  Let me know!  Suggestions absolutely welcome.  Let’s chat.

book review: Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

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BLOOD WATER PAINT by Joy McCullough
★★☆☆☆
Dutton Books, March 2018

I really wanted to love this book. I studied art history extensively in college, I love Artemisia Gentileschi, and the promise of a story from her perspective was so tantalizing that I ended up ignoring my suspicions that this book was going to be too young and too heavy-handed for me. I really should have listened to my gut on this one.

Artemisia Gentileschi was an Italian Baroque painter, whose works are often overshadowed by the fact that she was raped by her mentor, Agostino Tassi. She and her father Orazio took him to trial and eventually won the case, though she was subjected to torture to verify her claims, and Tassi only served two years in prison before his release. Blood Water Paint is a novel in verse told from Artemisia’s perspective, which focuses mainly on her rape and the subsequent trial, which explores the way she drew on the biblical figures Susanna and Judith for inspiration.

Look, I am a self-proclaimed feminist. I could not agree more with McCullough’s indictment of the patriarchy, her lament of how women are treated in society, the parallels between Artemisia’s circumstances and the #MeToo movement. The problem is, she sacrifices subtlety and authenticity at the altar of these ideas. This book is one of the most maddeningly simplistic, binary, melodramatic, and anachronistic things I’ve ever read. While the word ‘feminism’ never appears in this book (thankfully – not because I don’t like the word feminism, but because it isn’t a concept yet in in the seventeenth century), we do see a lot of hot-button issues that we’ll all recognize, like:

(Why, though, does it take
a mother, daughter, sister
for men to take
a woman at her word?)

and:

If I wait it out, he’ll go.
I learned this as a child:

When boys pull your hair,
it means they like you.
Just ignore them.

… which, I’m sorry, but narrated from the perspective of a seventeen-year-old girl in 1610 just strike me as laughably unbelievable. Not because these aren’t universal, timeless ideas, but because they’re stated so eloquently by this character who I hesitate to even refer to as Artemisia because she is so transparently a mouthpiece for the author.

I’m not saying that it’s impossible to write a historical novel that focuses mainly on themes which don’t have an established vocabulary or some kind of developed social discourse at the time the book is set. I recently read and loved On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, which deals primarily with asexuality in a time before the term was coined, and the way McEwan handled the subject was done with subtlety and brilliance. I guess I was just looking for more of this here, I was hoping for a more nuanced and intellectually stimulating rumination on the themes in this book, rather than having everything stated so plainly and positively shoved down the reader’s throat. (I mean, I guess it’s also worth noting that Blood Water Paint is YA, so maybe I’m being unfair here, but I’d argue that it’s even more unfair to posit that YA doesn’t have the capacity to be more nuanced than this.)

There’s also another element to this whole thing that admittedly grates on me. As I’ve said, I really love Artemisia Gentileschi. But the way she’s become a cipher for contemporary feminism I think does a disservice to the complexity of her character, as well as to the sundry other groundbreaking female artists we tend to overlook in holding Artemisia up as this feminist poster child. So when I say that I wasn’t impressed with the research and historical accuracy in this novel, I’m not trying to be some kind of academic purist. It just felt like the author had seen a tumblr post about how ‘Artemisia Gentileschi painted herself as Judith and her rapist as Holofernes!!!1! Badass feminist ICON!!!!’ and spun the novel out of this half-formed idea of who Artemisia actually was. The few times the art itself is referenced also suggests to me that McCullough is out of her depth. If you’re looking for historical accuracy, please pick up one of the many brilliant biographies written about Artemisia, notably those by Mary Garrard.

So, to wrap up this novel length review (sorry, thanks for sticking with me): This is a book of (relevant, necessary) 21st century feminist concepts that try to masquerade themselves as Artemisia Gentileschi’s story at the expense of narrative, character development, and subtlety, which I felt ultimately did a disservice to its protagonist. But clearly I do not hold the majority opinion about this book, and that is perfectly fine. There are many brilliant and eloquent reviews which discuss this book’s virtues, if that’s what you’re looking for.

book review: Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard

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WOMEN & POWER: A MANIFESTO by Mary Beard
★★★★★
2017, Profile Books

We only need to look at the size of Women & Power: A Manifesto – 128 pages – to know that this isn’t going to be an in-depth academic text which rigorously examines the themes it presents. But that’s okay. Instead, it’s a concise and thought-provoking introductory text for anyone interested in feminist theory, who maybe isn’t quite sure where to start.

Women & Power is a combination of 2 essays, which each began as a lecture that Mary Beard – classicist and outspoken feminist – gave somewhat recently in her career. The first essay concerns itself with the role of women in the public sphere, and the precedent of silencing women’s voices, using both historical and literary examples. The second essay shifts to our societal conception of power as a male-dominated domain, to which women are still somewhat grudgingly granted access.

My main piece of advice going into this is to keep your expectations reasonable and remember the page count. If you don’t find this kind of brevity suitable for this subject matter, this is definitely not the text for you. But if that doesn’t put you off, I’d highly recommend taking an hour to read this. Mary Beard’s ideas are brilliant and well-articulated, and the way she links current events with classical precedents is something that I found particularly engaging and unique about this. This isn’t exactly a treatise on where we go from here, on how we change the way we have perceived power for so long, which some may find disheartening, but Beard leaves this question up for discussion and contemplation. Books like this are a necessary step.

The Feminist Book Tag

I wasn’t tagged for this, but I’ve seen it going around and I wanted to do it in celebration of International Women’s Day… and now I am several days late, but oh well.  I’m a feminist every day.

1- Your favorite female author

I wouldn’t even know how to pick just one.  Hanya Yanagihara, Donna Tartt, Agatha Christie, Han Kang, Mary Renault, JK Rowling, Min Jin Lee, Lisa See, Celeste Ng… and then my classicist faves: Anne Carson, Caroline Alexander, Emily Wilson, Mary Beard.

2- Your favorite heroine

17333319So many.  I’m trying to not use the same answer I give every time, which is Sansa Stark, so I’ll mix it up and say Agnes Magnusdottir from Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.  Agnes was actually a real person – the last woman to ever be sentenced to death in Iceland – though her personality in Burial Rites is mostly invented by Kent.  She’s a strong, complex, brilliantly crafted heroine, and her journey in this novel haunts me still.

 

3- A novel with a feminist message

cover_girl_waits_with_gun_amy_stewartGirl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart.  This is a historical fiction novel which fictionalizes the life of the first female police officer in New Jersey in the early 1900s, and it’s a major feminist triumph.  A group of three sisters are being harassed by a local bigwig business man, and the three of them are able to fight back on their own while rejecting the help of the male figures in their lives.  It’s a very entertaining novel, but also, it’s hard not to feel empowered by the end of it.

4- A novel with a girl on the cover

 

All of these.

5- A novel featuring a group of girls

29981261The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchinson.  Ok, this is a bit of a morbid answer, as it’s a novel about a man who imprisons girls in his ‘Garden’ before assaulting and eventually killing them.  However!  The really great and surprising thing about this book was the focus on the camaraderie between the girls who have been captured.  This book is as much about female friendships as it is about the horrors that occur in the Garden – it’s less about the gruesome details and more about the psychological impact, and I’d highly recommend it.  Though, obviously, trigger warnings for rape and violence apply.

6- A novel with a LGBTQIAP+ female character

220px-funhomecoverFun Home by Alison Bechdel.  This graphic novel is Bechdel’s autobiographical account of growing up in a funeral home, but it also focuses on coming to terms with her own sexuality, as well as her complicated relationship with her closeted gay father.  I’m not usually a big graphic novel reader, and I only decided to check this out after falling in love with the musical that’s based on it, but I ended up loving the book too.  Bechdel’s prose is really superb, and it’s a really honest and heartfelt account of a young girl realizing that she isn’t straight.  (Or you could just watch this performance of Sydney Lucas singing Ring of Keys at the 2015 Tony Awards if you want to cry a lot about that.)

7- A novel with different feminine POV

35412372Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi.  Admittedly I’m not 100% sure what this question is asking, but, this book has the most ‘different’ POVs I have ever encountered.  It’s narrated by a chorus of the main character’s ‘selves,’ which she conceptualizes as Nigerian ogbanje.  This is one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in expanding their horizons with some less traditional but still feminist lit.

 

8- A book where a girl saves the world

220px-the_hunger_gamesThe Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.  Creative, I know.  I don’t really read YA fantasy, so this is all I could come up with.  I did really love these books, though (with the exception of Mockingjay) and Katniss is still one of my favorite fictional heroines.

 

 

9- A book where you prefer the female sidekick to the male MC

15827344The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater.  I’m bending the rules for this one a little bit – Puck isn’t Sean’s sidekick, and I’d say they share their narration equally… but I couldn’t come up with anything else, so, here we are.  I practically fell asleep every time I was reading one of Sean’s chapters, but I found Puck so compelling and sympathetic.

 

10- A book written by a male author and featuring a female character

12903397Venus in Fur by David Ives.  It’s a play, not a book (I’m doing a great job following the rules in this tag aren’t I) but Vanda is one of the most enigmatic and formidable female characters ever created.  If you haven’t read this script, you absolutely should – it’s a fascinating meditation on gender roles, and it subverts all of your expectations.

 

Tagging: Steph, Chelsea, Callum, Hannah.  Feel free to pass, etc.

top 5 tuesday: Top Buzzwords

Top 5 Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the fantastic Bionic Bookworm.  This week’s topic:

AUGUST 8th – Top 5 buzzwords that make me want to read a book

This is a great topic, and it was difficult to narrow it down… Each of these sets includes both books that I’ve read and books on my TBR.

Irish

I don’t know how or why this began, exactly, but I love Irish lit.  Seeing the word ‘Irish’ attached to a book summary or an author’s bio has been enough for me to buy a book or click request on Netgalley, without really knowing anything else about it.  Irish lit tends to be atmospheric, a bit bleak and dreary and depressing, and often grapples with religious themes, all of which I find fascinating,

(Have already read: The Glorious Heresies, The Wonder.)

LGBT+

Because I have to admit, I get tired of reading books about straight white men.  I’m all about reading diversity, and think it’s important to support books with LGBT+ protagonists – so if I see a book shelved as LGBT+ on goodreads, I am automatically more inclined to look into it.  Bonus points if no one dies.

(Have already read: More Happy Than Not, Maurice, The Price of Salt, Fun Home.)

Evocative & Atmospheric

Grouping these two buzzwords together because they’re quite similar.  I love books with immersive settings, so if a book promises a strong atmosphere, my interest is definitely piqued – especially if the atmosphere is bolstered by the prose itself.  I don’t care for ‘purple prose,’ i.e., prose that tries to be elaborate for the sake of being elaborate and the whole attempt comes across as rather amateur, but I do love when writing comes off as both authentic and lyrical.  Bright Air Black is a fantastic example.

(Have already read: all of these.)

Feminist

This one’s pretty self-explanatory.  I consider myself a feminist (hopefully of the intersectional variety), so I love narratives that explore the struggles unique to women, and which ultimately advocate equality across all genders, races, classes, etc.  If a book’s description calls it feminist, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, it’s probably going on the TBR.

(Have already read: Venus in Fur, The Awakening, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Bell Jar.)

Epic

It’s probably no coincidence that most of my all-time favorite books are 500+ page monsters.

(Have already read: all of these.)

Which buzzwords always grab you?  And what do you think of my choices?  Comment and let me know!