book review: Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden

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LONG LIVE THE TRIBE OF FATHERLESS GIRLS
by T Kira Madden
★★★★★
Bloomsbury, 2019

 

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls was a breath of fresh air.  If you isolate many of its thematic elements and you read a lot of this type of memoir, there’s plenty of familiarity – coming of age, coming to terms with queerness, racial identity, sexual assault, trauma, drugs, love, family ties.  But T Kira Madden does something completely unique with it, revealing enough of her life to the reader in each chapter to keep us absorbed, yet employing a non-linear structure so faultlessly that its full impact cannot be felt until you turn the final page.

Set mostly in Boca Raton where Madden grew up, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls chronicles a childhood marked both by privilege and instability (she grew up with many material comforts being related to the Steve Madden shoe dynasty, but under the guardianship of neglectful parents battling addiction).  Each chapter, charting a different period of Madden’s life, is in its own way fresh, dynamic, and heart-wrenching, but the titular chapter is probably the stand-out – the depiction of the tight bonds of teenage girlhood underscored by Madden’s burgeoning sexual awakening made my heart hurt – as well as the final chapter that so brilliantly ties the whole book together.

It’s hard to talk about this book without getting into specifics which would neuter some of the impact if you know too much of what to expect, but I can’t say enough good things about it and about Madden’s prose.  It was gentle, visceral, intricate, and structured with a kind of careful deliberation that ultimately elevates what was already going to be an exquisite book.


You can pick up a copy of Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls here on Book Depository.

book review: In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

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IN THE DREAM HOUSE by Carmen Maria Machado
★★★★★
Graywolf, November 2019

 

I finished In the Dream House a few weeks ago but I haven’t found myself able to rise to the challenge of reviewing this book.  It’s one of the best things I’ve read all year; one of the best memoirs I’ve read ever.  My instinct is to say that this book won’t be for everyone due to its highly inventive structure, but where I find that literary invention tends to be alienating, Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir is so fiercely personal that I doubt anyone could accuse it of being emotionally removed.

In the Dream House tells the story of an abusive relationship that Machado was in with another woman in her 20s; she draws the reader into the alarming reality that she lived for years, with just enough of the abuse detailed that it avoids gratuity while still becoming a sickening, terrifying read, oddly reminiscent of an old-fashioned horror film.  This book is written in first and second person, with present-day Carmen speaking to past-Carmen, allowing her to display a vulnerability to the reader that can be hard to achieve in even the most open of memoirs.

Machado is very conscious of the fact that she’s written a singular, pioneering text; there’s commentary woven throughout the narrative about how woefully under-researched the subject of abuse in queer female relationships is.  In contrast with the cultural misconception that women cannot abuse each other, she integrates references to myth, literature, history, and scholarship into her own story, heightening the timelessness, the commonality of her own horrifying experiences.

This is a chilling, clear-eyed, conceptually brilliant text that I sincerely hope reaches the readers who need it the most. Highly recommended.

Thank you to Graywolf for the comp copy; this did not impact my rating in any way.


You can pick up a copy of In the Dream House here on Book Depository.

book review: Notes to Self by Emilie Pine

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NOTES TO SELF by Emilie Pine
★★★☆☆
Dial Press, 2019

 

This is a competent essay collection and it’s not difficult to see why it’s gotten so much critical acclaim; it’s topical, to the point, and easily digested.  Some of these essays really worked for me; the standouts being the opening essay, Notes on Intemperance where Pine discusses her father’s alcoholism and illness, and Something About Me – more on this one in a second – but ultimately this essay collection just fell a bit flat for me.

My problem with Notes to Self was that I never felt like Emilie Pine was bringing anything new to the table.  The common theme among these essays seems to be ‘let’s talk about it’: let’s talk about period blood, let’s talk about infertility, let’s talk about the effect of divorce on young children, let’s talk about alcoholic parents – but the problem is, it’s a lot of talking without really saying anything.  I’m not suggesting that personal essays need a moral, necessarily, or that they need to draw a conclusion, but I do think that for them to be effective, they need to bring in a unique perspective, and that’s what I felt like this essay collection lacked.  Emilie Pine is clearly an intelligent woman and a capable writer, but something kept getting lost in these essays for me.  I wanted them to hook me, speak to me, challenge me, but they never did.

It’s probably not incidental therefore that my favorite essay, Something About Me, was technically one of the messier ones in this collection.  It’s about Pine’s rebellious teenage years, and structurally it’s a bit all over the place, and it undergoes a radical tonal shift in its final pages.  But I felt like it was one of the only essays where Pine was really showing herself; not just talking abstractly about topics that have affected her, but showing the reader a glimpse of herself that I felt otherwise remained hidden.

It’s also quite possible that part of the problem was that this was so similar in tone and structure to Sinead Gleeson’s Constellations, which is one of the best things I’ve read all year.  I wouldn’t dissuade others from picking up Notes to Self, but Constellations is the one I’d really point you toward if ‘Irish memoirist essay collection about feminism, illness, and womanhood’ is a premise that appeals to you.


You can pick up a copy of Notes to Self here on Book Depository, and Constellations here.

book review: Know My Name by Chanel Miller

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KNOW MY NAME by Chanel Miller
★★★★★
Viking, 2019

 

Chanel Miller’s memoir Know My Name is aptly titled; the name Brock Turner is known by most Americans who watch the news, while Miller was known for years only as ‘Emily Doe,’ the nameless, faceless girl that he attempted to rape at a Stanford frat party in January 2015.  Turner’s case gained notoriety after his sentencing where he received only 6 months of prison time – he only served 3 – and Miller’s victim impact statement was published to Buzzfeed, receiving millions of hits and sparking conversations about sexual assault on college campuses, as well as the lenient sentences that privileged young men receive.  In September 2019, Miller finally broke her anonymity, appearing on 60 Minutes and publishing this memoir.

Miller’s memoir isn’t only extraordinary for the fact that, for female victims, putting yourself out there necessarily means abuse, dismissal, and violated privacy; it’s extraordinary because it is a damn good book.  It’s clear-eyed while still being pointed and righteously furious; it’s razor-sharp and compassionate in equal measure; it’s deeply personal and macrocosmic all at once.  This memoir highlights the impact and recovery process for sexual assault, with Miller stressing that it isn’t a simple road with a happy ending.  That said, she wants to make it clear that she writes for victims above all others, hoping her honesty will touch others who have lived through similar horrors.  Know My Name is an accomplished, impressively self-aware piece of writing that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to everyone who can stomach the subject matter.  (I listened to the audiobook which Miller herself narrates, and I cannot recommend that highly enough.)


You can pick up a copy of Know My Name here on Book Depository.

book review: Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer

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ROUGH MAGIC: RIDING THE WORLD’S LONELIEST HORSE RACE by Lara Prior-Palmer
★★★★★
Catapult, 2019

 

Rough Magic is a coming of age story, an interrogation of naked ambition, and a self-conscious meditation on English colonialism, all wrapped up in a thrilling tale of a 19-year-old girl entering and winning the most difficult horse race in the world. Lara Prior-Palmer’s underdog story couldn’t have been any more pitch-perfect if it were scripted: she entered the Mongol Derby on a complete whim, underestimated its difficulty, was dismissed by the other competitors early on, but still rallied to become the first woman to win the race and the youngest person ever to finish. But it’s far from the conventional sports memoir, as winning is never really the point, or even the goal, for Lara, whose motivation for entering the race is hazy even to herself.

This book’s greatest strength is something that often irritates me in memoirs: that Lara doesn’t have much distance from the experience she’s writing about (she won the race in 2013, her memoir was published in 2019). Had she waited 15 or 20 years to tell this story, it could have been more polished, more articulate, but that sophistication would have come at the detriment of its charm, its passion, its frenetic energy. Perhaps the most successful thing about this book is that due to her lack of emotional distance from it, Lara doesn’t place her own character development front and center; instead she takes us through the race step by agonizing step, showing us rather than telling us about the physical and psychological toll it was taking. This entire memoir cleverly circles the question ‘is naked ambition in and of itself a virtue or a vice?’ (a character trait she sees reflected in her main competitor, Devan) – and the few moments where Lara zeroes in on it have the emotional punch they’ve earned.

“Our pace slowed. I began imagining Clare and Kirsten catching us. Nothing is swift as thought—I felt it jumping through me. But riding in a big group just wasn’t efficient. It was a simple thought, and when it came, I knew the race had me.”

And then, shortly after:

“What if I wanted to win for myself, without wanting to beat Devan or please Charles or any other audience? It’s a lonely thought; I wish I were strong enough for it.”

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Photo credit: Richard Dunwoody

All that said, this book isn’t the easiest to settle into; Lara Prior-Palmer’s prose is almost a perfect reflection of her flighty, restless nature – she jumps from one thought to another with no preamble, she constructs an elaborate metaphor unnecessarily and follows it a bit too long. But there were also lines that I adored, that I found especially resonant (more than enough to compensate for the more awkward passages), like:

“I’m just so used to swallowing myself as I speak that I can’t help seeing self-assuredness as indulgent.”

So while I don’t think this was a perfect book (not that anything is a perfect book), I do think it was a really special one that I enjoyed reading immensely, that filled me with anxiety and excitement in equal measure. Lara Prior-Palmer is a fascinating, sympathetic, strong and vulnerable person who doesn’t spare herself for a second on the page, making this story as personal as it is informative about the Mongol Derby. I’d highly recommend Rough Magic if you like horses, coming of age stories, underdogs, memoirs about young women, or any combination of the above.


You can pick up a copy of Rough Magic here on Book Depository.

book review: Walk Through Walls by Marina Abramović

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WALK THROUGH WALLS by Marina Abramović
★★★★★
Crown, 2016

 

I don’t even have words for how much I adored this book. (My one-word Goodreads review before I finishing gathering my thoughts was just ‘Perfection’.) Let’s get this out of the way: Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović is a controversial figure, and much as I’d love to shove her ghostwritten memoir into everyone’s hands, I must admit that there are plenty of people who will remain thoroughly unmoved by it, and that’s completely fine. But I also want to clarify that I don’t think it’s essential for a reader to love or understand or even be familiar with her art in order to appreciate this. The best thing to be while picking up this book is open-minded.

Personally I love contemporary art, I love performance art, and I love Marina Abramović, so this was always going to work for me. But it still managed to exceed my expectations; I think I was anticipating entertaining and instead I got revelatory. I did study Art History in college and am hardly a stranger to thinking critically about what art is, so I wasn’t expecting my perception of that question to be so shaken by Abramović’s perspective. Art and life are fundamentally inextricable concepts to her, which she explores throughout her career in a series of daring, unconventional performance pieces, which are chronicled in this book with vividly descriptive imagery. This book, as well as Marina’s career, is a testament to her unbelievable ability to push her body to its limits, and using her own physicality to connect with her audience. The way her performances build upon and interact with one another is delineated here with clarity: I genuinely feel enriched from this new understanding I have of her work and what she has tried, and has succeeded, to achieve.

Even outside of her art (though she would probably frown upon making this distinction), Marina’s life is a constant source of fascination. This reads more like autobiography than memoir, as it’s heavy on fact and chronology and light on emotional analysis, but this isn’t a criticism. Marina is presented in this book as an open, vulnerable figure, her methods and ideology made accessible through a thorough excavation of her life, from childhood to present day.

If you’re interested in Marina Abramović but aren’t a big nonfiction reader, the novel The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose is a brilliant depiction of her 2010 show The Artist is Present. Otherwise, I really couldn’t recommend Walk Through Walls highly enough.


You can pick up a copy of Walk Through Walls here on Book Depository, or The Museum of Modern Love here.

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: Mother Winter by Sophia Shalmiyev

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MOTHER WINTER by Sophia Shalmiyev
★★★★☆
Simon & Schuster, February 12, 2019

 

Of the three memoirs I read this month, Mother Winter was far and away the one that hit me the hardest, which may surprise you as I’ve talked before about my disinterest in ‘motherhood books’ (only as a matter of personal taste). But I suppose Mother Winter is less of a mother book than it is a daughter book, centered on the irreconcilable grief that Sophia Shalmiyev incurred by growing up motherless. This is a sharp, focused, achingly tender and highly literary memoir that reads like a constant gut-punch.

Growing up in Leningrad in the 1980s, Shalmiyev had very little contact with her alcoholic mother, who she was forced to leave behind altogether when her father decided to emigrate in 1989. Shalmiyev spends the rest of her childhood and then adolescence and then adulthood unable to contact her mother, without any means of finding out if she’s even alive or dead. Her experimental memoir (which will undoubtedly appeal to fans of Maggie Nelson) fuses her unique experience of loss with themes of exile, grief, sexuality, displacement, and feminism; she often looks to iconic feminist women as stand-in maternal figures, as she relentlessly interrogates the lacuna that comes to define her.

Shalmiyev’s prose is vivid and searing. In this passage she’s talking about a dream she has where her mother is a statue at the bottom of the sea, and the imagery and emotional honesty on display here is rather emblematic of the rest of the book:

“When you’re fished out, you will go to your proper place in a museum to be admired by me only. I will polish your bronze name plaque, and I will be writing the small paragraph, printed on heavy card stock in a tastefully solemn font, about you as a priceless relic, a found shard, degraded, a puzzling piece of history. A head lost, bust found somewhere, a battered woman with blank eyes, erected by those who had infinite worship in their hearts.”

My one criticism is the overly abrupt ending, which leaves the reader with question after unanswered question. I obviously have to ask myself if that was indeed the point, which is certainly a possibility, but this is one of those books that seems so mired in the past that there isn’t much consideration for the future, and I’m left wondering what Shalmiyev intends to do after the final pages of this book. But, perhaps she does not owe us that explanation, or perhaps we will have to wait until she writes another book. Which I certainly hope she will.

Thank you to Netgalley and Simon & Schuster for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review. I will check the quote against a finished copy upon publication.

book review: This Will Only Hurt a Little by Busy Philipps

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THIS WILL ONLY HURT A LITTLE by Busy Philipps
★★★☆☆
Touchstone, 2018

 

I was surprised by how much I ended up enjoying this book. I never reach for celebrity memoirs, less out of literary snobbery and more because the celebrities I’m invested in do not usually write memoirs. But I am a fan of Busy Philipps so I thought why not, let’s give it a try.

Busy states early on in her book that she’s a natural-born storyteller, that she knows when to embellish and when to omit details to keep her audience compelled, and I have to agree. What this book lacks (which I’ll get to in a moment), she makes up for with an immense skill at honing in on what exactly makes an anecdote worth sharing. Whether it was dislocating her knee after being trampled at a school concert by eighth grade boys moshing to Nirvana, or confronting the creator of Modern Family years after he made a rude comment about Busy winning a Critics Choice Award for Cougar Town, she knows how to keep her reader hooked. As I’ve talked about before, I’m not the best audiobook listener, but I don’t think my mind wandered once while listening to this, and I managed to finish it in a week (which is probably a record for me with audiobooks). Even the least exciting of anecdotes were far from boring, because Busy manages to convince you that the stakes are always much, much higher than they actually are (with an occasional tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement that maybe she was a bit melodramatic given the circumstances, but in the moment the minor calamity did feel like the end of the world).

But the introspection didn’t go much further than that, which is my biggest issue with this book. The writing itself wasn’t great but I assume that’s par for the course with this kind of memoir, so I won’t dwell on that. What bothered me more was the constant self-absorption and how it was never met with adequate reflection. Though she certainly faced hardships and I don’t want to dismiss that, for the most part Busy Philipps has lived a rather privileged life, which she really only acknowledges once toward the end of the book, when she wonders why she’s dreading going on a paid Disney cruise that her mother arranged when so many people would kill for that opportunity. There’s a weird kind of dissonance between the persona that Busy has crafted on Instagram (being down to earth and relatable) and the extravagant life that she lives in Hollywood, and it’s never really addressed. I mean, of course celebrities aren’t our friends, of course the lives of the rich and famous are never going to be perfect reflections of our own; it’s just the lack of awareness of that fact throughout this memoir that grated. I don’t think for a second that Busy is ungrateful for the life she leads, but I do think her gratitude is something that never fully translated to this text.

Ultimately I’d really only recommend this one to fans of Busy, or to anyone who really enjoys celebrity memoirs in general. I don’t see this book winning Busy many fans who hadn’t already been familiar with her work and her persona, but for those of us who enjoy her, it certainly didn’t fail to entertain. It just… didn’t do much else. And though I consistently enjoyed it, I ended it feeling vaguely dissatisfied as its anecdotal nature left many questions unanswered (did Busy stay close to Michelle after Heath’s death, how is her relationship with Marc after counseling, did Busy look back on her teenage abortion when she was pregnant with her daughters, how did the people and the stories she talked about early on come to shape her later in life). But it was a fun, entertaining read, and sometimes that’s all you can ask of a book. 3.5 stars

book review: Heavy by Kiese Laymon

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HEAVY: AN AMERICAN MEMOIR by Kiese Laymon
★★★★☆
Scribner, 2018

 

This is one of the hardest reviews I’ve ever attempted to write. Probably because, as my friend Hannah so aptly put it in her own review, this book was not written for me. But that’s what was so admirable about it. Kiese Laymon states clearly in the prologue to his memoir that he has no intention of writing a sanitized, palatable version of events; it’s almost painful in its honesty but it’s for this reason that I think this book is so crucial and necessary (especially for non-black readers).

Heavy is Laymon’s visceral and fearless attempt at reckoning with a number of issues that have plagued him his entire life – his relationship with his mother whose uncompromising expectations for her son often resulted in abuse, his fraught relationship with his own body, addiction, trauma, poverty, education, masculinity, and ultimately what it means to be black in America. The honesty and nuance with which he examines anecdotes from his childhood, even more than the anecdotes themselves, make this an unforgettable read.

(4 stars instead of 5 because ratings are subjective and I never ever end up connecting with audiobooks as well as when I’m reading printed text, which isn’t to say that Kiese Laymon did a bad job with the narration – on the contrary he was a joy to listen to – but I’m just not an auditory person. Anyway, this was brilliant.)