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.

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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: Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson

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CONSTELLATIONS by Sinéad Gleeson
★★★★★
Picador Books, April 2019 (UK)

 

Constellations is the debut memoirist essay collection by noted Irish arts critic Sinéad Gleeson, and it’s a collection that appears to have been years in the making. It’s unsurprising then that the result is as masterful as it is – I inhaled this utterly marvelous book in one day and could not stop thinking about it after I finished.

Gleeson puts her own body at the front and center of these essays; she writes of hip replacements, leukemia, arthritis, and childbirth, deftly tying in her own stories with broader observations about the politicization of women’s bodies. These essays are at their best when they’re the most personal, I think, because Gleeson has the remarkable ability to express vulnerability without self-pity, but there isn’t a single essay in this collection that isn’t in its own way thought-provoking and memorable.

This is perfect for fans of Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death, though I consider Constellations to be (perhaps ironically) more thematically coherent. ‘Blue Hills and Chalk Bones’ opens the collection with a story about a school trip to France and coming to terms with her body’s limitations, a moving opening that segues into the more widely accessible ‘Hair,’ which interrogates the relationship between hair and identity. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that captures the utter senselessness and cruelty of death better than ‘Our Mutual Friend,’ far and away the collection’s standout, but even though that emotional crescendo comes early, the essays that follow continue to hold their own and deliver the occasional gut-punch while meditating on themes of illness, death, motherhood, and the interplay between art and health.

All said, this collection is essentially a reminder of the importance of bodily autonomy (which Gleeson fights for most ardently in her essay in which she reflects on Ireland’s notoriously harsh abortion policies). But despite the relentlessly heavy subject matter, this is the kind of book that you feel lighter having read, because it isn’t weighed down by the kind of hopelessness and despair that Gleeson has been fighting through ever since her first health diagnosis. As a self-proclaimed lover of all things macabre I tend to shudder at the word ‘uplifting’ so I’m trying to avoid using it, but suffice to say that this is a beautiful book that works through a number of difficult subjects to a consequential and impactful end. Read it.


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

mini reviews #6: nonfiction and theatre of the absurd

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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BAD BLOOD by John Carreyrou
★★★★☆
date read: February 26, 2019
Knopf, 2018

Wow. This was every bit as wild as everyone has been saying. Bad Blood is probably the best embodiment of ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ that I have ever read. Trust me, you do not need to be interested in Silicon Valley or business or medicine in the slightest to be riveted by this incredible piece of investigative journalism.  You can pick up a copy of Bad Blood here on Book Depository.

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WAITING FOR GODOT by Samuel Beckett
★★★★☆
date read: April 7, 2019
Faber & Faber, 2006
originally published 1952

This is famously ‘the play where nothing happens,’ so I certainly didn’t expect this to be the surreal, madcap romp that it is. I’m going to have to think about this one for a while.  You can pick up a copy of Waiting for Godot here on Book Depository.

 

1035312SPY PRINCESS by Shrabani Basu
★★★☆☆
date read: May 22, 2019
Sutton, 2006

This is a competent biography of a really remarkable woman. I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about Noor Khan, an SOE agent and the first woman to be sent into occupied France, who was executed at Dachau after being imprisoned for a year and not revealing anything under extensive interrogation. But while Spy Princess certainly has value in filling in the gaps left by other biographers, it does occasionally beatify Noor at the expense of other women (what does Shrabani Basu have against Mata Hari, my god) and fall victim to making very generic statements about Noor’s life when there isn’t documented information (i.e., a page-long description of the global advancement of WWII followed by a lazy statement like ‘Noor was worried about this’). Still, Basu does an impressive job at chronicling Noor’s life and contextualizing her legacy.  You can pick up a copy of Spy Princess here on Book Depository.

13944THE SECRET LIFE OF HOUDINI by William Kalush and Larry Sloman
★★★☆☆
date read: May 28, 2019
Atria Books, 2006

In this book’s introduction the authors state that although they did an extensive amount of research, they made a decision at times to spin fact into imagined dialogue. That should set your expectations for this biography: wildly entertaining, often sensationalized, but decently informative nonetheless.  You can pick up a copy of The Secret Life of Houdini 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: 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.

mini reviews #5: recent literary releases & classic nonfiction

I’ve decided to start swapping these over from Goodreads in chunks of 4 rather than 5.  Big changes around here, clearly.  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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WAITING FOR EDEN by Elliot Ackerman
★★★★☆
date read: December 25, 2018
Knopf, 2018

For being so sparse, Waiting for Eden manages to pack a powerful punch. Ackerman meditates with surprising insight (aided by potent religious symbolism) on the very nature of life and the impossible decisions we have to make when our loved ones are suffering. This was succinct and chilling.  Pick up a copy of Waiting for Eden here on Book Depository.

 

 

38819868MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER by Oyinkan Braithwaite
★★★★☆
date read: January 15, 2019
Doubleday Books, 2018

This was tremendous fun from start to finish. Sure, certain elements could have withstood a bit more depth and detail, and it’s destined to disappoint anyone expecting a proper thriller, but for a quick and pacy character study it was extremely satisfying. Braithwaite toes the line between satire and realism so deftly that you manage to get properly invested in these sisters even as their actions shock and horrify.  Pick up a copy of My Sister, The Serial Killer here on Book Depository.

35487749CENSUS by Jesse Ball
★★☆☆☆
date read: January 31, 2018
Ecco, 2018

I had trouble engaging with this book emotionally or intellectually, which isn’t to say that it isn’t intelligent or emotional, just that I personally did not find it particularly accessible. There is a very real possibility that a lot of this just went over my head, I will admit that, but so much of this book just felt wanting; the relationship between the father and son seemed generic, the experimental narrative came across as underdeveloped, the speculative element and the characters’ journeys felt dissonant. I have no doubt that this was an intensely personal project for Ball based on the novel’s introduction, and I’m sure it will be feel intensely personal to a lot of readers, but something about it just didn’t click for me.  Pick up a copy of Census here on Book Depository.

730745SISTER OUTSIDER by Audre Lorde
★★★★☆
date read: February 19, 2019
Crossing Press, 2007
originally published 1984

Sister Outsider was a really fantastic introduction to Audre Lorde for me, though its episodic nature isn’t my favorite way to digest nonfiction and I think I would have preferred to stay on track with any one of these essays for a hundred pages rather than to bounce around from topic to topic the way this collection is structured (though all pieces are obviously interconnected to an extent). But still, this is a sharp and insightful and seminal work that I’d recommend.  Pick up a copy of Sister Outsider 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.