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: No One is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg

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NO ONE IS TOO SMALL TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE by Greta Thunberg
★★★☆☆
Penguin, 2019

 

How you feel about this book is entirely going to depend on what you’re expecting to get out of it.  This is not a scientific text, nor is it an in-depth exploration of possible solutions to climate change.  This is a rallying cry; a wake-up call to anyone who isn’t paying attention to the catastrophic state our planet is in.  If you’re familiar with Greta Thunberg from the news or social media, you’ll pretty much know what to expect from this, and it does deliver.

That said, my god did the repetition in this short book start to grate.  It actually rather irritates me how poorly curated this essay collection is; the impact of Thunberg’s words starts to neuter itself the further you read, by no fault of her own but because the editor saw fit to include near-identical speeches back-to-back on several occasions.


You can pick up a copy of No One is Too Small to Make a Difference 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: I’m Afraid of Men by Vivek Shraya

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I’M AFRAID OF MEN by Vivek Shraya
★★★★☆
Penguin Books Canada

 

A worthwhile, sobering account of Shraya’s own experiences with toxic masculinity and societal expectations of gender roles; hardly unfamiliar topics if you read a lot of this kind of nonfiction, but Shraya’s perspective as a queer trans woman of color is a valuable addition to the discourse, and I’d highly recommend this over a lot of similar books, especially if you’re looking for something short and punchy.

My only issue is that at 96 pages (or under 2 hours on audio, which is how I consumed it) this text sort of awkwardly sits in between long-form article and book in a way that suffers occasionally for its brevity.  Shraya’s societal observations are where this book shines, consistently; it’s in the details of her own life that the reader is left a bit wanting.  But as this is more essay than memoir it’s hard to fault it too much for that.  This was a very eye-opening read that I can see myself revisiting again and again.


You can pick up a copy of I’m Afraid of Men 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.

Nonfiction November 2019 recommendations

One of the most joyous things to have come out of my book blogging journey is discovering how much I actually do love nonfiction; so much so that I’m excited for Nonfiction November even though I’m not sure I’ll be able to participate.  My reading has been a bit slow lately, and hasn’t exactly been thriving when I set myself a strict TBR, so I’m not committing myself to anything, but I did at least want to make a recommendation post for others who are planning on participating.  Affiliate links to Book Depository on each of these titles.

Nonfiction November is hosted by Olive on booktube, and for the blogging version you can read Ren’s announcement post here.  In Olive’s announcement she laid out 4 prompts, and I’m going to recommend two books for each one; one that I’ve read, and one that’s on my TBR (again, not necessarily to be read this November… but maybe!).  The prompts are as follows: design, sport, true, and voice.

DESIGN

Read: Walk Through Walls by Marina Abramović
TBR: Old In Art School by Nell Irvin Painter

All of these prompts were created to be as flexible as possible, so you are welcome to take any of them in a radically different direction than I am – but when I hear ‘design’ my first thought is ‘art’ and ‘art history.’  Hence my two recommendations: Walk Through Walls is a stunning and provocative memoir by performance artist Marina Abramović, that challenged my own perceptions about how much of a line there is (or should be) between life and art.  I would absolutely recommend this if you’re already a fan of Marina or familiar with her work, but I don’t think that’s a prerequisite if you’re at all curious about picking this up.

Old in Art School is, from what I gather, a memoir about the author’s experience attending art school at RISD (Rhode Island School of DESIGN, just saying) in her 60s, and the ageism, sexism, and racism she encounters during that experience.

SPORT

Read: Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer
TBR: Beautiful on the Outside by Adam Rippon

Rough Magic is Lara Prior-Palmer’s memoir in which she recalls entering the Mongolian Derby on a whim, which she went on to win at the age of 19, becoming the first woman to win and the youngest person to ever finish.  If it’s slightly uneven at times, this is only a testament to how passionately Lara Prior-Palmer tells her stranger-than-fiction story.  She’s an unforgettable narrator and this book is a breath of fresh air.  I gave this 4 stars after finishing, but a few months later I’d say it’s one of my favorite things I’ve read this year.

One thing that I’ve learned in 2019 is that I actually don’t hate celebrity memoirs as much as I always assumed I would.  One of the most enjoyable memoirs I’ve read all year is Busy Philipps’ This Will Only Hurt a Little; I think I’m expecting something similar in tone from Adam Rippon’s memoir about figure skating.  I don’t really watch figure skating – I don’t watch any sports aside from tennis – but I enjoy Adam Rippon on social media so I’ll probably pick this up on audio at some point in the next few months.

TRUE

Read: The War that Killed Achilles by Caroline Alexander
TBR: Homesick by Jennifer Croft

I’m cheating a little here as I haven’t read The War that Killed Achilles in its entirety; I read half of it a couple of years ago, and I’m planning on starting it over from the beginning when I have more time because it’s excellent.  The subtitle is The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War, so I decided to go for something a little less obvious for this prompt than true crime, in choosing a book that excavates the true story behind one of the world’s oldest classics.  I also met Caroline Alexander a few years ago after listening to her give a talk about translating the Iliad, and she’s brilliant.

For Homesick, I’m employing a bit of irony with my use of ‘true’; though this is a memoir, it is written in the third person, with Croft blending the line between fact and fiction.  Apparently this memoir about sisterhood reads like a novel at times, and I’m so curious to see how Croft pulls this off.  I’ve heard so many fantastic things about it.

VOICE

Read: Know My Name by Chanel Miller
TBR: Voices from the Grave by Ed Moloney

I’m currently reading Know My Name and it’s exceptional; the memoir’s conceit is that Chanel Miller is giving herself the voice that the media storm denied to her throughout the Brock Turner case.  It’s candid and heartfelt and bold and beautifully written.

Voices from the Grave is a book that’s heavily referenced by Patrick Radden Keefe in his book about the Troubles, Say Nothing (my favorite book of the year so far).  The research in this book was gathered through extensive interviews with Brendan Hughes and David Ervine, two members of paramilitary organizations involved in the Troubles.  This is the longest TBR book on this list – over 500 pages – but I think it’s also the one that I’m most likely to pick up for Nonfiction November, as I’d love to read it before the details from Say Nothing start to fade in my mind.

Are you guys participating in Nonfiction November?  What books would you recommend for these prompts?

book review: Unbelievable by T. Christian Miller & Ken Armstrong

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UNBELIEVABLE by T. Christian Miller & Ken Armstrong
★★★★☆
Broadway Books, 2019

 

Harrowing and eye-opening, Unbelievable (originally published as A False Report) strings together the stories of victims of a serial rapist, focusing on one young woman, Marie, whose rape allegation was dismissed after she was more or less forced to recant her accusation.  When she went back to the police station to insist that she had in fact been raped, she was charged with false reporting.  Years later, the rapist was caught and Marie’s record was expunged – Unbelievable then ties together Marie’s story, and the stories of the officers investigating this crime, with a larger commentary on the alarming way sexual assault allegations are often handled in the U.S.

I decided to pick this up after a conversation with the editor of a piece I wrote recently on the rarity of false sexual assault allegations; this book echoed a lot of the research that I had uncovered while writing that, so it was ultimately every bit as infuriating as I had expected it to be. Seeing the startlingly unprofessional behavior of the officers investigating Marie was painful; they would take minor inconsistencies in Marie’s story and blow them out of proportion, having never been trained to recognize that assault victims often have scattered recollections.  But if there’s one thing that saves this book from being a total downer, it’s that T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong emphasize the department-wide changes that were instigated in the way officers are trained to deal with assault victims, that came about as a result of this incident.  I think this should be required reading for anyone in law enforcement handling a sexual assault case.

I will say, one thing I would have liked from this book is more of a focus on the historical precedent of disbelieving women – Miller and Armstrong put the effort in here, but their research is essentially relegated to a footnote in Marie’s story, whereas I felt like there was room for more interrogation into the socio- and psychological factors that underscored the particular narrative that they chose to highlight.

There was also a certain discomfort in the back of my mind whenever I thought too long and hard about the fact that this book’s two authors are both male – a bit of unpleasant irony given that the book’s core conceit is advocating for the voices of women.  But to my pleasant surprise, this was actually addressed in the author’s note; the discomfort has been assuaged a bit knowing that this book’s editorial team was entirely female, a number of female experts were consulted, and Marie herself was able to weigh in on the manuscript before it was published.


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

mini reviews #7: audiobooks with long titles & an ARC

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.

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A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN by James Joyce
audiobook narrated by Colin Farrell
★★★☆☆
date read: July 2019
Audible, 2019
originally published in 1916

In spite of my whole ‘Irish lit thing’ I have never once felt compelled to pick up Joyce. But then Colin Farrell went and narrated this audiobook, so that was that. And though he does a terrific job, this is, unfortunately, probably a book that I should have read in print – I’m just not an auditory person at all and there is a lot going on in this book. So I’m not going to lie and pretend that I got as much out of this as I arguably should have, and I’m sure I’ll want to revisit it one day. But I ended up surprising myself with how much I did enjoy it – Joyce’s language isn’t as impenetrable as I had feared, and more mesmerizing than I had expected, and Stephen Dedalus’s journey was occasionally, unexpectedly, thrilling. There’s a lot to unpack here about religion and family and nationality, and if I ever reread this I will vow to attempt to unpack it all then.

You can pick up a copy of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man here on Book Depository.

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BUT YOU DID NOT COME BACK by Marceline Loridan-Ivens
translated from the French by Sandra Smith
audiobook narrated by Karen Cass
★★★★☆
date read: August 2019
Faber & Faber, 2016

This is a slim, hard-hitting book that doesn’t dwell on the horrors that Loridan-Ivens experienced in Birkenau so much as examine their aftermath. Returning to a family who was spared from the concentration camps while losing the only other family member who was sent to Auschwitz with her, she writes this memoir as an extended letter to her father, whose death overshadows her own survival. Sparse and poignant, But You Did Not Come Back is certainly worth a read even if you feel oversaturated with WWII lit.

You can pick up a copy of But You Did Not Come Back here on Book Depository.

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THE NEED by Helen Phillips
★★☆☆☆
date read: September 2019
Simon & Schuster, 2019

Right book, wrong reader. I don’t have much else to say. I think The Need is a smart, unexpected book that blends genres and arrives at something unique that I can see working for plenty of readers who are willing to embrace a bit of weirdness. I just don’t like books about motherhood, and at the end of the day, that’s what this book is. The science fiction/speculative element is only there to enhance the main character’s anxieties about juggling motherhood with her career, and if that’s a theme that usually makes you reach for a book, by all means, give this one a try; I unfortunately was just bored senseless.

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

You can pick up a copy of The Need 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.

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.