book review: Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder





NIGHTBITCH by Rachel Yoder
★★☆☆☆
Doubleday, 2021





This should have been a short story. I can’t sit here and say that Nightbitch is an entirely unsuccessful project, because I think it does in fact accomplish exactly what it sets out to do — I just found my patience for it wearing thin the longer I spent with it. 

I’ve expressed my personal disinterest in books about motherhood before, so I always knew this book was going to be a bit of a gamble for me, but I had hopes that it would be a bit more “disaster woman who happens to be a mother,” rather than “mother who happens to be a disaster.” That wasn’t a problem, in and of itself — when it became clear to me how little my own vision for this novel overlapped with Rachel Yoder’s, I course-corrected my expectations as best I could. And I actually came to appreciate the relentless, brutally honest depiction of a young woman’s inability to cope with the demands of motherhood. This book is visceral and furious, and Yoder gets her claws into the reader.

But the longer it goes on, and the more the magical realism slant starts to take over, the more its impact starts to wane. For something so graphic and carnal, this book ironically has very little meat on its bones; it never justifies its length, its metaphors all wear themselves out — it says absolutely everything it has to say, and then it keeps going. And going. And going. It’s not even a very long book, only around 250 pages, but it isn’t able to sustain even that. Any appreciation I had for this book’s themes became eclipsed by my frustration at Yoder’s insistence at presenting this to the world as a novel, instead of what I think could have been a punchy and memorable piece of short fiction. Instead, I haven’t thought about this book once since I finished it.


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

book review: The Women of Troy by Pat Barker | BookBrowse




THE WOMEN OF TROY by Pat Barker
★★★★☆
Doubleday, 2021



Set in the liminal days following the Trojan War, The Women of Troy follows Briseis, who the reader may have met in this novel’s precursor, The Silence of the Girls. Briseis begins that story as a free married woman in Troy and ends up a captive and slave of Achilles, the Greek fighter to whom she was given as a war prize when her city was sacked. Though Pat Barker begins The Women of Troy right where the last book left off, the sequel reads comfortably as a standalone. The two novels together, however, form a fuller picture of the life of Briseis.

You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse and a piece I wrote about Cassandra of Troy HERE.

book review: Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan






SMALL THINGS LIKE THESE by Claire Keegan
★★★★☆
Grove Atlantic, November 30, 2021






Small Things Like These is the second standalone novella by award-winning short story writer Claire Keegan. It tells the story of Bill Furlong, a man born to a single mother in a small Irish town in the 1940s, who now in the 1980s runs his own coal and timber business, and who, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, meets a girl at a Magdalen Laundry whose physical state and predicament concerns him. 

With shades of A Christmas Carol, Small Things Like These is the story of a man wrestling with his own morality when doing the right thing means going against the Catholic Church, which has a stranglehold over his town. What I found so affecting about this book was Keegan’s deft touch — her prose reads effortlessly and the horrors of the Magdalen Laundries are elucidated not through graphic, violent descriptions, but in the harrowing small moments of abuse captured. Character and setting are rendered with impressive detail given the scarcity of pages, and I found this to be a great place to start with Keegan, whose backlist I’m keen to explore now.


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

book review: Disoriental by Négar Djavadi | #WITmonth2021







DISORIENTAL by Négar Djavadi
★★★★★
Europa Editions, 2018




Both a multigenerational family saga and an intensive primer on modern Iranian history, Disoriental is translated from the French with skill and humor by Tina Kover; the resulting novel is an absolute tour de force. We meet Kimiâ Sadr in the waiting room of a fertility clinic in Paris, and the pages that follow tell the story of her family’s history, unfolding in a nonlinear fashion and focusing largely on her father, journalist and radical activist Darius Sadr.

This is a complex book both in terms of structure and subject, but Djavadi manages to navigate it with finesse, making this an unexpectedly smooth reading experience. I’m firmly of the belief that it’s not an author’s responsibility to educate the reader about their country’s history and culture, and I’m not sure what Djavadi’s intentions were with this novel, whether she envisioned it primarily in the hands of international readers, but as someone who knows shamefully little about Iranian history, I never felt out of my depth and I appreciated the level of detail — informative but not overwhelming. 

The story itself is hard to sum up in brief, so I’m going to take the easy way out and not attempt to, but Disoriental is a darkly funny, affecting, thought-provoking work that I’m happy to have read; maybe the highlight of Women in Translation Month for me.

book review: Cassandra by Christa Wolf | #WITmonth2021






CASSANDRA: A NOVEL AND FOUR ESSAYS by Christa Wolf
translated from the German by Jan van Heurck
★★★★☆
FSG, 1983





I read and adored Christa Wolf’s Medea years ago — a fiercely human and political retelling of the myth — and have been wanting to read Cassandra ever since. Oddly, I’ve been misremembering for years that these books have the same English-language translator; they do not, and I think that factor alone might be responsible for the fact that I had a stronger reaction to Medea than I did to Cassandra. Jan van Heurck’s translation here is serviceable, but John Cullen’s Medea translation really sings in a way this one does not. (Hannah, whose favorite novel is Cassandra, has assured me that the German-language prose in Cassandra is much stronger than in Medea, but knows other English-language readers who share my assessment of the two.)

In this volume published by FSG in the 80s, Wolf’s novel Cassandra is published alongside four essays which were originally presented as a lecture series. The first two are travel diaries that detail Wolf’s journey to ancient sites in Greece, the next is a personal journal entry, and the final one is a letter. Through these essays the reader comes to not only see what a passion project this novel was for Wolf, but also to see the myriad of factors from her contemporary sociopolitical perspective that influenced her perception of the Cassandra character. She writes of the ways in which her concept of Cassandra evolve throughout her research:

The character continually changes as I occupy myself with the material; the deadly seriousness, and everything heroic and tragic, is disappearing; accordingly, compassion and unilateral bias in her favor are disappearing, too. I view her more soberly, even with irony and humor. I see through her.

The novel, which comes first in this bind-up, is essentially a monologue from Cassandra’s perspective, narrating her account of the Trojan War as her death draws nearer. Like Medea, this is a very political retelling, focused not only on Cassandra’s life but also the machinations of the Trojan court, notably subverting the romantic notion that the war was waged for Helen’s honor and beauty, instead exposing that that was a smoke screen for Greek occupation, actually driven by an interest in Troy’s trade routes.

This book in both of its halves — novel and essays — is a beautiful and thoughtful meditation on the destructive effects of war on the individual. I’m glad I finally made the time to read it, I only wish I were capable of reading it in the original German, in which I suspect it may have affected me a bit more.

Women’s Prize 2021 Shortlist Review & Winner Prediction

So it’s that time of the year again! The Women’s Prize winner announcement is right around the corner, on September 8. I did actually succeed in my resolution not to read the entire longlist this year, but I somehow ended up reading 10/16, including the entire shortlist.

On the whole, from what I’ve read, I’m pretty ambivalent about this list — there were a couple of real highlights for me, but also a lot of duds, and I think the huge delay between the longlist announcement (March 8) and the winner announcement (September 8) deadened some of my excitement.

Round up of my 2021 Women’s Prize coverage:

Now here’s the shortlist ranked from what I would least to most like to see win.

6. How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones

This book just fell flat on its face for me — I admired what it was trying to do in its excavation of the dark realities of a small-town Caribbean tourist paradise, but I ultimately felt like its graphic portrayals of trauma were so extreme that they swallowed up the fictional elements, leaving me unconvinced by this story and these characters. That this sort of trauma is true to life, I have no doubt; but in a novel, it wasn’t able to convince me or hold my interest. I also didn’t get on with the writing style at all, meaning I solidly enjoyed reading this book the least.

5. Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller

Another one that I felt did a poor job at balancing its social commentary with a compelling, convincing narrative; while reading both One-Armed Sister and Unsettled Ground I felt acutely aware that I was reading a fictional story about invented people; Jeanie and Julius never fully came to life for me, and I felt that this book was largely just spinning its wheels without really going anywhere. I felt like I ‘got the point’ fairly early on and then was just waiting for something bigger and better to materialize out of this story.

4. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

This is the final entry to my ‘did not do a good job at balancing themes and story’ half of this list. While I felt that this book really excelled at its commentary on colorism and racial identity, it left a lot to be desired as a work of fiction. I had a lot of problems with this book — character development, writing style, heavy reliance on coincidence — but I think its biggest offense for me was how poorly it was structured. Of the three shortlisted books that I didn’t enjoy reading, The Vanishing Half would probably offend me the least as a winner: I think these are three really poorly written novels, if I’m being honest, but I felt that The Vanishing Half at least did the best job at its social commentary.

3. No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

A really interesting thought-experiment on the inextricable nature of “reality” and “online life”, that I felt didn’t cut any corners in its development of a very harrowing narrative that runs parallel to its commentary on The Internet. I was so impressed by this book but what it didn’t have, for me, was staying power; much as I loved it at the time, I hardly ever think about it now, and when trying to recall the shortlist off the top of my head, this is the one I always forget.

2. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

A richly imaginative work that really stuck with me in its poignant depiction of loneliness. I wasn’t sure about this one going in, but Susanna Clarke’s lush and confident prose lured me in and I ended up enjoying every second that I spent in this strange world. (I also recently realized something about what happens in my head when I read, which is that I visualize interior spaces very vividly, which is probably why this worked so well for me when I don’t tend to love descriptive writing.) But anyway, back to the Women’s Prize — I don’t expect this to win, but I think it would be an exciting and unconventional choice.

1. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

This book does what so many on this shortlist failed to do for me — it takes a heart-wrenching narrative and a wide array of themes and subjects and it synthesizes them into a singular, spectacular novel. This is one of the shorter books on the shortlist and still not a single one of its 264 pages is wasted — Gyasi’s prose is exquisite and her structure and pacing are impeccable. This manages to be both a hard-hitting exploration of the connection between science and faith, and also a moving story about a broken family, and I would love so much to see this exceptional book win next week.

Winner Prediction:

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

I don’t particularly want to see this book win, but I think it’s inevitable. The Vanishing Half has been lauded for its well-constructed characters, for its compelling storytelling, and for its heart-wrenching depiction of the fractured bond between two sisters. I didn’t personally see or feel any of that, but obviously the judges do, or it wouldn’t have made it this far. The fact that it’s topical, that it’s SO successful in the U.S., and that it’s supposedly a heartbreaking story is the right combination of factors that will give it the edge up above the other shortlisters, I think. It’s hard to describe something that you can’t even fully see, but so many readers are finding a real magic in this novel that I’m really expecting it to take home the prize.

So to recap: the only two novels I’m actively rooting for are Transcendent Kingdom and Piranesi; I don’t expect No One is Talking About This to win and I think I’ll be some sort of combination of impressed and bemused if it does; I’m resigned to The Vanishing Half; and Unsettled Ground and How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House are the two that I’ll be the most actively irritated by.

But those are just my personal thoughts — as always, good luck to all the shortlisters.

What are you guys expecting and hoping to see win?

Hannah and I have too many ARCs: #ARCsofshame 2021

That’s right, #ARCsofshame is back for the third year running!

If you are not familiar with #ARCsofshame, it is a readathon that Hannah and I host for 2 weeks every September. When I say readathon… Hannah and I are usually the only people who participate. There are no prompts except “read your damn ARCs already.” But you are all more than welcome to join us! Don’t listen to Hannah, there IS a hashtag, #ARCsofshame, which I think Laura Frey coined? Not totally sure on that. But yeah, this is more us publicly holding ourselves accountable than anything, so feel free to join in if that sounds fun to you! We will be doing this the first 2 weeks of September this year.

I made a TBR for this project in 2019 and 2020. To be fair to me, I was never intending to read every book off those lists in a single two week period. But now it’s been… a hot second, so, let’s see how I’ve done.

I have read 9 books off my 2019 list, and 5 books off my 2020 list.

Oops.

So one of my goals for this year is to read one of the unread books off my 2019 list, and one off my 2020 list. From 2019 I’m eyeing The Glass Woman and from 2020 I’m eyeing The Majesties and It is Wood, It is Stone, but I’m not totally settled on any of those.

Otherwise, here’s what I’ve acquired since that I have yet to read:

I’m not reading Cathedral for this as I think it’s over 600 pages, and I will 100% be reading The Women of Troy as I intend to review that for BookBrowse with a mid-September deadline, but otherwise, I’m totally open.

So… what should I read?? Help!

book review: Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy






MIGRATIONS by Charlotte McConaghy
★★★★☆
Flatiron, 2020




I didn’t expect to love this book nearly as much as I did. When I started reading, I was immediately turned off by the writing, which I thought was overwrought and stylized to a frankly annoying degree — but I pushed through and I actually found that the writing mellowed out after the first chapter; the prose does have a distinct lyrical flair throughout, but there was almost an air of desperation to the first chapter that the rest of the book was mercifully lacking. (It reminded me of this phenomenon that you sometimes see where it is very transparent that the author workshopped the hell out of chapter 1 to submit to agents, and then settled into a more organic style after that. I can’t say for sure that that’s what happened here, but that was the impression I got.)

Migrations is set in a version of the near-future where almost all animal life has died out, and it tells the story of Franny, a woman determined to follow a species of bird called the Arctic tern on their final migration from Greenland to Antarctica. Because she doesn’t have any funding for this expedition, the only way to make it is to join a fishing vessel and convince the captain to reroute the boat. Obviously she succeeds, or there wouldn’t be a book, but the novel is less about the journey itself and more about Franny’s past, and the trauma that led her to undertake such a dangerous expedition. 

Large swathes of this book are downright implausible, let’s just get that out of the way. If you have a particular interest in environmentalism specifically through a scientific lens, I cannot in good faith recommend this book. It takes liberties, it gets facts wrong, its worldbuilding is under-developed. Personally, nature writing is one of my very least favorite things and the less time spent on it the better, so this catered to my personal tastes quite nicely, but there’s every chance you’ll find this element silly and distracting. 

Regardless, I ended up loving this. Migrations has been compared a lot to Station Eleven and I found that actually rang true for me — there’s something in the character work that felt really similar and familiar. McConaghy’s characters, like Mandel’s, are brilliantly drawn — even the most minor characters feel like they have an entire story hidden in them. 

It’s honestly challenging to describe this book’s strengths when its weaknesses are so evident and tangible; the strengths are a lot more slippery and understated. I think where this worked for me is in its depiction of a very flawed person searching for atonement in all the wrong places. It’s a deeply human, deeply sad work, and it ended up being one of the most emotionally affecting books I’ve read in a long time. Definitely recommended more from a character-driven angle than a dystopian one.

Thank you to Flatiron for the free copy.

book review: The Vixen by Francine Prose | BookBrowse




THE VIXEN by Francine Prose
★★★★☆
Harper, June 2021





Recent Harvard graduate Simon Putnam has been rejected from grad school and has thus returned to his parents’ place in Coney Island for the foreseeable future. It’s the summer of 1953, and Simon and his parents spend their evenings devotedly watching the news coverage of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s trial — an event that is especially emotionally charged for the Putnam family. Like the Rosenbergs, the Putnams are Jewish, and Ethel Rosenberg is a former classmate of Simon’s mother. Contrary to the predominant social attitude about the Rosenbergs, Simon and his parents watch with horror and disbelief as the execution takes place.

You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg HERE.

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.