book review: Seek You by Kristen Radtke | BookBrowse






SEEK YOU by Kristen Radtke
★★★★☆
Pantheon Books, 2021




In the first pages of Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness, Kristen Radtke’s sophomore work, she explains that radio operators call out across frequencies with what is known as a “CQ call,” named as such because “CQ” sounds like the first syllable of sécurité, or “pay attention,” in French. In English, radio users took to calling it “seek you.” In this graphic work of nonfiction, Kristen Radtke explores this concept of reaching outward, turning the CQ call into a metaphorical representation of 21st century American existence.

With a muted palette of mostly blues, greens and oranges, Radtke illustrates a series of graphic essays, each devoted to a different sociological study or phenomenon or observation on loneliness.

You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse and you can read a piece I wrote about graphic works of nonfiction HERE.

book review: No Visible Bruises by Rachel Louise Snyder






NO VISIBLE BRUISES by Rachel Louise Snyder
★★★★★
Bloomsbury, 2019




I am a notoriously slow audiobook listener, but this was ridiculous even for me; I started this book in March and I’m just finishing it now on the last day of August. But it wasn’t, as is often the case for me, because I never felt like listening to it; I would start playing this book constantly and only be able to listen for a couple of minutes because I felt like my skin was crawling. Which is, of course, exactly what a book like this should be, so, no complaints, only apologies that it took me this long to be able to stomach it.

In No Visible Bruises, journalist Rachel Louise Snyder investigates the state of domestic violence (also known as intimate partner violence) in the U.S. She anchors her thesis to a Montana woman, Michelle Monson Mosure, whose husband Rocky shot and killed Michelle and her two children in 2001, before killing himself. This tragedy was not out of the blue; Rocky had a long history of violence and Michelle had known that he was capable of killing her. When Rocky was briefly incarcerated for breaking and entering into Michelle’s family home, Michelle worked up the courage to file a restraining order — which she then quickly recanted as soon as Rocky was bailed out. Michelle reached out for help and failed to receive it, and Snyder tells her story not only in order to upend common misconceptions about intimate partner violence (the most notable and infuriating of which being, “why didn’t she just leave?”), but also to examine the ways in which her and her children’s deaths could have been prevented.

The focus of the book then turns to the many government-funded programs that have been launched over the years to address intimate partner violence, to varying degrees of success. Snyder puts a huge emphasis in her research on rehabilitation, speaking to perpetrators directly and attending group rehab sessions. It’s a jarring transition, this shift in focus from victim to perpetrator, but it’s a necessary one. The function of this book isn’t merely to dismiss fallacies about intimate partner violence, it’s to address the issue head on and provide insight into what has actually been successful at reducing the crime. Snyder also addresses shelters and police intervention — two commonly cited paths to safety for victims, and she explains the shortcomings of both solutions. The point that she drives home throughout this book is that intimate partner violence doesn’t exist in isolation; it’s caused and influenced by a myriad of social factors which all need to be addressed in their own way, which ultimately involves providing intervention and assistance to perpetrators as well as victims. 

This book is absolutely harrowing but it’s skillfully researched and necessary. There is one thing I’d like to point out though before recommending it — Snyder doesn’t tackle the issue of intimate partner violence within the LGBTQ community specifically, and she often gives she/her pronouns to victims and he/him pronouns to perpetrators when speaking generally. She addresses this in her forward, acknowledging that it’s a generalization based on statistics that she is aware does not encapsulate every instance of intimate partner violence. As it isn’t the aim of this particular project to delve into queer intimate partner violence or to highlight specific instances of women assaulting their male partners, I can’t fault Snyder for not doing that, but it’s worth noting that this is probably the book’s most notable weak area. I do recommend this very highly unless queer intimate partner violence is specifically what you are seeking to learn about.

book reviews: two pieces of Shakespearean nonfiction




THIS IS SHAKESPEARE by Emma Smith
★★★★★
Pantheon Books, 2019



This Is Shakespeare is an essay collection by Shakespeare scholar and Oxford lecturer Emma Smith, whose work I first encountered on her excellent podcast Approaching Shakespeare. In each lecture-turned-podcast-episode she dissects a different play through the lens of a very specific question (“what is the narrative and thematic role of Antonio in Twelfth Night,” “why does Bassanio choose the lead casket in Merchant of Venice,” “why doesn’t Marcus offer Lavinia first aid in Titus Andronicus“).

This Is Shakespeare is basically just her podcast in book form and slightly condensed, but you certainly don’t need to be familiar with her already (and in fact, it’s probably better if you aren’t–I didn’t mind the repetition between this book and her podcasts, but for someone even marginally less invested, these essays might feel extraneous). An interest in Shakespeare, whether you’ve read all of his plays or only read one, is really the only requirement to picking this up. Smith doesn’t give broad strokes overviews of the plays, but instead she zeroes in on details that stick out to her in each one, which start to tie into one another with the more essays you read. This was an incisive, thoughtful, and ultimately fun read that certainly helped augment my understanding of each of the 20 plays she covers.



THE YEAR OF LEAR by James Shapiro
Simon & Schuster, 2015
★★★★☆


The Year of Lear focuses on one specific year as it pertains to Shakespeare’s life and works–1606, the year he wrote Antony and CleopatraMacbeth, and King Lear. This is a historical rather than literary text–Shapiro doesn’t give a line-by-line analysis of any of the aforementioned plays, but rather, he fills in the historical context surrounding their respective compositions, particularly highlighting the Gunpowder Plot and its aftermath. 

It’s an interesting text as long as you’re compelled by this level of historical specificity. If you’re looking for a literary analysis of Lear or a biography of Shakespeare’s life, look elsewhere, but as a piece of historical nonfiction this is a fascinating snapshot into a turbulent piece of early modern history and the literature it directly and indirectly inspired.

book review: No One Asked for This by Cazzie David




NO ONE ASKED FOR THIS by Cazzie David
★★★★★
Mariner Books, 2020





About a month ago I read an interview with Cazzie David about her breakup with Pete Davidson. I could not for a million dollars tell you why I clicked on that article, having no emotional investment in either of these people, but here we are. I was struck by two things: how resonant I found the way Cazzie talks about anxiety, and the fact that she’s open about having emetophobia, something I’ve struggled with since the age of eight. So that alone was enough to pique my curiosity about this essay collection. 

The thing about this book is that you need to accept what it’s trying to do and read it in good faith. Would this have been published if Cazzie weren’t Larry David’s daughter, of course not, but is she trying to join the ranks of great modern essayists like Jia Tolentino? Not in the slightest. These essays are self-indulgent, tone deaf, and solipsistic, but if you dwell on any of these things I promise you are taking this collection much more seriously than Cazzie is. 

So let’s focus on the good, because I unabashedly loved this book. Cazzie’s writing won’t win any literary awards but she’s surprisingly incisive, especially when it comes to talking about anxiety and her fear of mortality. Another thing is, the more neurotypical you are, the less this book is going to resonate with you (not that you’re necessarily neurotypical if you didn’t like it). Cazzie makes absolutely no effort to be likable; she paints a portrait of what it’s like to be fully in thrall of anxiety and the insidious ways it tears you apart from the inside out, affecting both your self-worth and your relationships. She makes comments like this, that are on one level dismissive and alienating (yes, some people simply “get really bad anxiety” and it’s still a bitch for them to live with), and on another level were like looking into a mirror:

“I never understood social media posts advising people that “it’s okay to not feel good all the time!” Who said that wasn’t okay? Who is so okay to the point where they need to be reminded that it’s okay when they don’t feel okay?! When people “reveal” they “get really bad anxiety,” I’m dumbfounded, because I’ve never not been anxious long enough to “get” anxiety. It doesn’t leave. Not ever.”

She’s also funny as hell. You’ll either get her humor or you won’t, and you’ll know by the end of the first essay which side you’re on. But–surprisingly, for the fact that you’re spending 300+ pages inside the head of an extremely unhappy person–this collection is fun. It’s self-deprecating, it’s clever, and above all else, it’s an entertaining way to spend an afternoon.

This isn’t for everyone (clearly), but I just really ‘got’ this book; I got what Cazzie was trying to do with it and I also got Cazzie as a person, and it made me feel slightly less alone in the world whenever I picked it up. At the end of the day, that’s all you can ask from a book like this.

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

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.