Friday Bookbag, 4.20.18

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week I’ve got a YA novel about resilience, the Civil War, and zombie slaying (a killer combo!) and a nonfiction book about ten great cultural critics in my bookbag. Let’s dive in!


Dread Nation: Rise Up by Justina Ireland

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9780062570604the premise: In Justina Ireland’s vision of the past, the American Civil War was never won because zombies rose from the battlegrounds of Gettysburg, forcing America into an uneasy peace, united against the undead. The Negro and Native Reeducation Act forces Black and Native people–many just children–to train to protect white people from zombies, and protagonist Jane McKeene is training as an Attendant to protect the wealthy–a cushier gig than the front lines, at least. She dreams of someday returning to her Kentucky home, far from the privilege and intrigue of the East Coast…until she accidentally gets tangled up with enemies even more dangerous than the undead.

why I’m excited: Like Orphan Monster Spy in last week’s Friday BookbagDread Nation: Rise Up is an explosive YA novel that tackles history and oppression from a fresh new angle. I love alternate history (even the zombie-infected kind) and I can’t wait to get lost in Ireland’s world, which seems to have a lot to say about our own world, too.

Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean

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9780802125095the premise: Sharp tells the story of ten cultural critics who have (according to the inside flap) “what Dean calls ‘sharpness,’ the ability to cut to the quick with precision of thought and wit.” Those women are Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm. In Sharp, Dean blends biography with her own cultural criticism and commentary.

why I’m excited: Dean’s chapter on Joan Didion was excerpted in Buzzfeed as “How Joan Didion Became Joan Didion,” and it was excellent, so I requested this book from the library right away. I love history, I love feminism, I love literary criticism, and I love the inside baseball of literary criticism. This book looks to have all four, which makes it a must-read for me.

I’ve been hoping to improve my cultural criticism skills (I play around with them on this blog, but I’d love to do more work with actual media outlets with editors someday), and though Sharp isn’t a how-to book, I think I could do worse than to read about the greats. Plus, Dean’s own work as a journalist and critic is really great.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Book Review: THE CURSE OF THE BOYFRIEND SWEATER: ESSAYS ON CRAFTING by Alanna Okun

This book’s subtitle may be Essays on Crafting, but The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater is actually a work of tender autobiography through which crafting is strung like taut yarn. Alanna Okun intersperses longer, introspective essays on anxiety, dating, friendship, and family with shorter, humorous lists like “The Best Places to Knit, Ranked” and “Words They Need to Invent for Crafters”; her writing is wry and sentimental by turns and always charming, but the problem is myopia: Okun seems less concerned with crafting’s place in the world than she does with its place in her own life, and it makes the book feel insubstantial, undercutting Okun’s own thesis that crafting is an incisive opportunity for self-invention and reinvention. I look forward to seeing what Okun does next with (hopefully) sharper subject matter–her writing style is truly lovely–but I’ll admit to being disappointed with this book.

You can read my full review below.


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The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting by Alanna Okun

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  • publisher: Flatiron Books (an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: March 20, 2018
  • length: 256 pages
  • cover price: $24.99

But these “soft” things do matter. What we put in and on and around our bodies is important, and so are the things we create. They’re a series of choices we get to make when we may not be able to choose much else: our jobs, our loves and losses, our place in the world. And so maybe in some accidental way, those sad-sack sitcom jokes about knitting contain a grain of truth: making things an certainly help you navigate when the outside world gets to be too much. The difference is, we’ve chosen to do it.

–The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting, page 19

It’s much harder to be kind than it is to be mean, and that’s why I love kind books, especially kind memoirs. I find myself being preemptively snide towards myself and others all the time, hiding my lumpy softnesses (crying at every movie; loving down-home country music; many others) in favor of a more uniform and boring hardness. I like books that remind me that that’s a limiting way to be.

But in abundant kindness, you do risk naïveté. I think it’s a risk worth taking, but there will always be times that kindness just…thuds, and this is one of them.

The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting is a very kind, sweet book, but it’s also painfully naïve. Alanna Okun strikes on a great many truths (especially about what it means to grow up and invent yourself), but she also generalizes where I think she shouldn’t and doesn’t personalize where I think she should.

First, this book is even more niche in practice than the premise suggests. There’s a significant, passionate swath of the population that’s interested in crafting (I’m one of them, obviously), but The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater isn’t about crafting so much as it’s about Okun’s relationship to crafting.

Okun comes from an upper middle class background: she does write with self-awareness about her comfy upbringing in New England (complete with a beach house), her time at a small liberal arts college, her life in the New York publishing business, and the amount of money she spends on yarn, but it’s not quite enough self-awareness for her points to land. When she writes about all her half-finished projects, I could relate, but it also made me cringe to think of all that money in unknitted yarn at the bottom of her closet.

And then I felt bad for cringing, because if there’s something I dislike more than people talking blithely about money and privilege, it’s people pretending they don’t have it. I’m also from an upper-middle class background, and I also start lots of expensive projects without finishing them, but the amount of time Okun spends writing about it felt tone-deaf, even though it wasn’t quite tone-deaf, because she doesn’t justify it or revel in it.

All those conflicting feelings were an ugly catch-22 that tied my brain in knots and really impacted my enjoyment of the book.

If you aren’t a knitter or crocheter, you might not realize how expensive quality yarn is, and the answer is really, really expensive–like $20-40 a skein, minimum. (You usually need multiple skeins for a project, too.) I mention that because I think Okun had an opportunity to meaningfully reflect on what that means. Like Okun, I love to craft (I prefer sewing, but I knit too), and there’s a real dissonance between how people talk about crafting (a resourceful DIY skill!) and how it actually plays out (thanks to outsourcing, it’s far more expensive to make your own clothes than it is to just buy them at Forever 21).

But instead of essays on crafting’s semi-anachronistic place in the modern world (a once-survival skill that’s fast becoming a rich-people pastime), or really, essays on much of anything that spills beyond the boundary of Okun’s life and social circle, The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater is chock-full of essays about things that are much smaller. Okun proposes that the soft and personal things matter, and I agree, but I think she undermines herself by keeping such a myopic focus. If this collection had been more ambitious, it could have been really great; instead, it feels deflated.

That said, there’s a lot here that works. The essays are ordered very skillfully: each one builds on the others, deepening each previous point and adding new ones. Her writing is deceptively simple and then sparkles at unexpected times: the essays meander and then suddenly come together in a few brilliant lines, like a magic trick. I like Okun’s writing at fashion website Racked.com, where she is a senior editor, and since this is her debut, I think she has a lot of room to grow into an author to be reckoned with.

Unfortunately, The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting doesn’t seem sure what it wants to be, as if Okun started creating a simple scarf and pivoted suddenly to a sweater. It’s an intimate memoir that strives for more general truths, but doesn’t quite reach them. 3/5 stars.


My copy of The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: TOO AFRAID TO CRY: MEMOIR OF A STOLEN CHILDHOOD by Ali Cobby Eckermann

From 1910 to 1970, it was official Australian government policy that Aboriginal children should be removed from their families whenever possible in order to assimilate them into white culture. The children harmed by this practice are known as the Stolen Generations, and author Ali Cobby Eckermann is just one of their number. She recounts the vicious racism, sexual abuse, domestic violence, addiction, and physical injury that she has experienced, but this memoir–told in alternating poetry and prose–is as focused on her return to wholeness as it is on her wounds. Too Afraid to Cry is lovely even when the experiences Eckermann recounts are brutal, and I turned the last page feeling calm and hopeful that even in the face of great injustice, it’s never too late for healing.

You can read my full review below.


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Too Afraid to Cry: Memoir of a Stolen Childhood by Ali Cobby Eckermann

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  • publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation (an imprint of W.W Norton & Company)
  • publication date: March 6, 2018 (first published in Australia in 2012)
  • length: 224 pages
  • cover price: $25.95

I wanted to be by myself and not think about the new school, so I climbed to my favourite place, my old cubby built high in the pine trees, where no one could see me. I watched strips of clouds float through the leaves, and let my thoughts drift with them. Daydreaming had become my new pastime. Mum said daydreaming was an age thing, and that I would hopefully grow out of it soon.

Too Afraid To Cry: Memoir of a Stolen Childhood, page 59

It’s rare that I read a book in one sitting; I’m an easily distracted person with a low threshold for getting overwhelmed and upset, meaning that intense books like this one usually take me a dozen or so attempts to finish. To my pleasant surprise, I finished Too Afraid To Cry over the course of one morning on my couch. It helps that this memoir is short, but that’s not the only reason: Ali Cobby Eckermann is an astonishingly gifted writer who seems to have an abundance of goodwill towards herself and her readers, and though she’s experienced awful things in her life, she grants us all the joys she’s experienced, too.

If you’re not familiar with Australia’s racist assimilationist policies that targeted Aboriginal children (especially “half-caste,” or mixed race children), two good primers come from Australians Together and the New York Times. In short, the policies tried to force Aboriginal culture to “die off” by adopting out these children to white families and forbidding them from speaking and practicing their language and culture. It’s a brutal, white supremacist practice that continues unofficially today, and I was glad that I had researched it a bit before reading Too Afraid To Cry, since Eckermann’s approach to the tragedy is decidedly micro and doesn’t fill in the blanks for the uninformed.

Adopted away from her mother to a white German Lutheran family when she was just a baby, Eckermann grew up ostracized by neighboring white children and warned away from neighboring Aboriginal children, whom her adoptive parents considered a bad influence. Suspended between cultures, Eckermann turned to alcohol and drugs, eventually adopting away the son she had out of wedlock when she was 18–inadvertently continuing the cycle of the Stolen Generations.

The memoir opens with Eckermann recounting the sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of a family friend while her mother was in the hospital, and I braced myself for another Very Difficult Book (I’ve read a string of those lately). Instead, Too Afraid To Cry opens like a flower after that first chapter instead of closing like a fist. Eckermann doesn’t shy away from writing about her pain, whether it’s racist taunts she heard in the schoolyard or the broken leg she got when her foster brother ran over her leg with his car. But she pays just as much detail to to the lovely parts of her life: the joy of beach vacations, chasing camels in the desert, her friends in the pub, her barbecue wedding, and her eventual reunion with her Aboriginal family.

If you’re looking for a book to teach you about the big, overarching facts of Australian assimilationist policy and the Stolen Generations, Too Afraid To Cry isn’t it. Instead, it’s something much smaller, more precise, and truer: Eckermann offers up her life in piercing, unaffected prose, her lack of judgment disarming, her ultimate redemption reassuring.

I always admire writers who pick a small task and then do it to the nines. That’s exactly what Eckermann does here, in lyrical, slightly accented prose that reads just like a good storyteller sounds. Even the poems that alternate with the prose chapters–a technique I often find gimmicky–feel exactly right. (It helps that Eckermann is a renowned poet more than she is a prose writer.)

My favorite part of the memoir was the final quarter, where Eckermann recounts meeting her Aboriginal family for the first time and beginning the process of healing with them. It’s such a hopeful thing to read in a world that feels decidedly un-hopeful. It’s so wonderful to think that despite the trauma Eckermann’s been through, it still wasn’t too late for her to find a measure of peace. I think there’s a tendency in literary fiction and memoir to drive home that the world is a terrible place, and I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to read a book that posits that in fact we are all, at our core, resilient.

I can’t recall the last time I’ve read a memoir as cleansing, as purifying, and as hopeful as this one. While reading Too Afraid To Cry, I felt as though Eckermann had extended me a hand, promising me that despite the fear and trauma of the now, we can still build a better tomorrow, one where no child is stolen and everyone belongs. 5/5 stars.


My copy of Too Afraid to Cry: Memoir of a Stolen Childhood came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 4.13.18

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week all my library holds seemed to come in at once–I’ve got two more to pick up this afternoon that aren’t even on this list!–so I’ll be reading like mad to keep up. It’s a good thing, then, that I’ve picked out three tightly-plotted coming-of-age stories that promise to keep my eyes glued to the page from start to finish.

Let’s dive in!


The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat

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9781250128508the premise: A father and daughter, both Ethiopian immigrants, flee Boston for an island commune after the daughter becomes entangled with a parking lot attendant named Ayale–a hustler and “unofficial king of Boston’s Ethiopian community,” according to the inside flap. The Parking Lot Attendant is a suspenseful coming-of-age story about immigration, national identity, and the choices and unforeseen consequences that shape all of us.

why I’m excited: This is a slim book–only 240 pages–that promises to pack a punch; it’s already received praise for being an unusual and interesting take on the coming-of-age story, a really saturated sub-genre. I’m particularly excited to read about the commune aspect–I’m fascinated by communes and off-the-grid living–and about the narrator’s struggle to navigate her Ethiopian identity in America.

Gun Love by Jennifer Clement

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9781524761684the premise: A mother and daughter live out of their car at a trailer park in central Florida, the daughter Pearl in the front seat, her mother in the back. It’s a difficult life made more difficult by the intoxicating, menacing presence of guns: guns owned for all sorts of reasons and guns that trigger a shocking act of violence that turns Pearl’s life upside-down. (P.S.: isn’t it so funny that this cover looks so similar to The Parking Lot Attendant‘s? They’re both fiery coming-of-age novels, so it makes sense.)

why I’m excited: A novel about gun violence in the U.S. couldn’t be more topical right now, and best of all, it seems that Clement will interweave that theme with a story that’s genuinely nuanced and compelling (making it much more than just an “issue novel”). The premise also put me in mind of The Florida Projecta film about a mother and daughter struggling to make ends meet living in a motel in central Florida. That movie is streaming on Amazon Prime; I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s currently at the top of my to-watch list, and I’m hoping Gun Love will strike the same notes.

Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen

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9780451478733the premise: It’s 1939 Germany, and the Holocaust has just begun. Sarah, a blonde and blue-eyed Jewish girl, burns for revenge after her mother, an actress, is murdered at a checkpoint. She’s soon recruited as a spy by a mysterious man who needs her to infiltrate an elite boarding school attended by the daughters of Nazi leaders so that she can uncover the blueprints to a devastating bomb that could turn the tide of the war.

why I’m excited: It’s yet another thrilling coming-of-age novel: just take a minute or two to absorb that premise! It’s hard to imagine a more intriguing backdrop for a story that also promises to tackle tough questions of identity, revenge, and survival. It’s appalling to me that today in 2018, Nazism is on the rise all over again. Orphan Monster Spy feels like an urgent antidote to the anti-Semitic hate that has killed millions and might kill millions again if we’re not careful. I’m planning to clear my calendar for an afternoon read this in as close to one setting as I can manage–I hope it lives up to the hype I’ve built up for it in my mind.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Describe Yourself Like a Male Author Would: Thoughts on FEROCITY by Nicola Lagioia

It seems like fate that I picked up the English translation of Ferocity by Nicola Lagioia this week. Ferocity (titled La ferocia in the original Italian) chronicles a southern Italian family’s moral decay and the environmental destruction they wreak; its pivotal event is the apparent suicide of the eldest daughter, Clara.

Unfortunately, in the few dozen pages I read, the novel is also awful to its women. Misogyny in literature is a crime I’ve been unwilling to forgive and forget lately, thanks especially to the “describe yourself like a male author would” challenge and this accompanying excellent New Yorker article by Katy Waldman about “How Women See How Male Authors See Them.”

Read on for my full thoughts on why I didn’t finish Ferocity–a novel that seems to have many good qualities, but also one glaring bad one. (Beware of light spoilers for the first 62 pages of the book.)

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Ferocity by Nicola Lagioia (translated by Antony Shugaar)

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  • publisher: Europa Editions
  • publication date: October 10, 2017
  • length: 464 pages
  • cover price: $18.00

I’ve been trying to read more books by women lately, and I have to admit that, because Nicola is usually a female first name in the English-speaking world, I first thought Ferocity had been written by a woman. I do read plenty of books by men, but the male authorship of this particular book–which hinges on an act of violence against a woman–felt like a let-down.

Despite this mix-up, I decided to read the novel anyway anyway–after all, Ferocity has been almost universally wellreceived and even won the prestigious Strega Prize in Italy.

Unfortunately, my uneasiness was completely justified in this case, because Ferocity treats its women terribly. It’s a fault in technique that stings all the worse because Lagioia (through his translator, Antony Shugaar) is otherwise technically brilliant here.

If you haven’t read about the hilarious and biting “Describe Yourself Like a Male Author Would” challenge on Twitter, you really should. Women and nonbinary writers wrote sometimes silly, sometimes angry, always necessary examples of the kind of purple prose male writers get a free pass on when describing the objects of their desire, and after that brilliant, sensitizing cultural moment, I just couldn’t get past Ferocity’s 62nd page.

Exhibit A, from the opening scene of the book:

She wasn’t much over thirty, but she couldn’t have been younger than twenty-five because of the intangible relaxing of tissues that turns the slenderness of certain adolescent girls into something perfect. Her fair complexion highlighted the scratches running down her legs, while the bruises on her ribs and arms and lower back, like so many Rorschach inkblots, seemed to tell the story of her inner life through the surface. Her face was swollen, her lips slashed vertically by a deep cut.

That paragraph comes after 2-3 truly gorgeous pages describing the industrial hellscape that is Bari (the part of Italy where Ferocity is set), and while reading it, I swear I heard a record scratch in my head. This is amazing…amazing…amazing…huh?

I get that Lagioia is trying to juxtapose horror and sexuality here, but nothing about how he describes Clara is fresh or interesting, and everything about it is yucky. This is a woman who’s about to die, and we’re talking the “slenderness of certain adolescent girls”?

Please.

Then we have Exhibit B, in which Clara’s father (bear that in mind) is reminiscing about her:

     The feeling he had about Clara was that he never understood her quite well enough. Snapshots of his eldest daughter emerged, each detached from the others. The only objectifiable theme was that she was attractive, and that was a puff of air no net could capture for long. Quiet and taciturn until the age of thirteen. Logical without being pedantic at fourteen. Magnetic at sixteen–jeans and long-sleeved cotton shirts, hair worn loose and long, straight-backed and composed on an armchair in the living room. A Mayan idol whose touch unleashed visions from the future: the caravels of Christopher Columbus, the mass rapes of the conquistadors.

At eighteen, she sometimes resembled certain movie stars after the va-va-voom period. Her curves soft, though not excessively so, a Natalie Wood without the final gloss.

What the hell.

Clara’s father is quickly established as a conniving jerk, so I’m not surprised he thinks gross thoughts. If Clara had been given a speck of agency here, I’d be willing to chalk these two paragraphs up to Lagioia characterizing the villainous center of his narrative.

But at this point in the book, Clara is already dead. She exists only in the memories of her family (mostly her father and brothers) and the truck driver who saw her by the side of the road.

Worst of all was the scene that caused me to set the book aside once and for all. In it, Clara’s sister Gioia is masturbating, and her father walks in on her in order to tell her that Clara died. I’m not going to quote the whole paragraph, but we get ample description of Gioia’s height (five foot six and an eighth), her slender blond-ness, and the “tenderest part of her pelvis” which she then flashes at her father “perhaps not entirely by chance.” Then, as she runs to embrace her mother upon hearing that her sister is dead, her mother literally smells her fingers and pushes Gioia away in disgust.

It reads like it was written by a creepy old man with an incest fetish, it’s deeply upsetting, and after writing that all out, I kind of want to take a shower.

I know that Lagioia is trying to make a point that this family is morally corrupt. I’m smart enough to understand that. What I don’t get is why he is choosing to show that corruption in a way that feeds into the worst kinds of objectifying stereotypes that society has about women (the tragically lovely femme fatale, the stupid sex-crazed bimbo).

If men weren’t already at the center of damn near everything, I could let this slide. Lagioia’s prose is truly luminous and I can tell that the story he’s telling is powerful. (It was described as an “ecological thriller” in the Los Angeles Review of Books, a sub-genre I adore.) But with a stack of intriguing books by women on my bedside table, I can’t justify reading a book that I already resent.

Have you read and finished Ferocity? What did you think of Lagioia’s treatment of women in the novel? I’d love to hear your thoughts, and I welcome (respectful) disagreement and debate in the comments.


My copy of  Ferocity came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: WHITE CHRYSANTHEMUM by Mary Lynn Bracht

Moving between the years 1943 and 2011, White Chrysanthemum is told from the perspectives of Korean sisters Hana and Emi, both of whom grow up under Japan’s oppressive colonial rule. In 1943, Hana sacrifices herself for Emi and is captured by Japanese soldiers as a “comfort woman”: a sex slave for the Japanese army. In 2011, Emi travels to Seoul to search for Hana one last time. Love, war, family, and violence are big, messy themes to play with, but Mary Lynn Bracht tackles them with aplomb, and from an unusual and necessary angle. This novel is precisely told, always-suspenseful, ambitious, and moving, and Bracht is a debut author to watch.

You can read my full review below.


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White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht

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  • publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
  • publication date: January 30, 2018
  • length: 320 pages
  • cover price: $26.00

So many years have passed since the war ended, since the protests began, yet the crimes still go unpunished. What does it require to deserve an apology? To give one? Emi touches her chest. Her heart unclenches. Today’s demonstration is special, the one thousandth protest.

White Chrysanthemum, page 78

The haenyeo divers of Jeju Island, a province just south of the Korean mainland, are celebrated as real-life “mermaids“; they train to hold their breath for up to three minutes, diving deep into freezing waters year-round in order to harvest fresh seafood like conch, seaweed, urchins, and oysters. In White Chrysanthemum, Jeju Islander sisters Hana and Emi train as haenyeo with their mother. Their lives under Japanese occupation are hard, but the sea gives them a measure of strength, independence, and respect that most Korean women in 1943 could only dream of.

Unfortunately, it’s not enough to save Hana. The 16-year-old manages to hide her younger sister Emi from raiding Japanese soldiers, but is kidnapped herself and taken far from home to serve as a “comfort woman“: a sexual slave for the Japanese army.

After the introductory chapter documenting Hana’s love of her sister and her  shamanistic induction ceremony as a haenyeo (expressly forbidden by the Japanese), the narrative splits: one half stays in 1943, following Hana’s capture and hellish new life as a comfort woman, and the other half jumps to 2011, following an elderly Emi as she seeks news of her lost sister during the historic (and ongoing) Wednesday protests at the Japanese embassy demanding reparations for comfort women.

The split narrative is risky: if Hana is still missing to Emi in 2011, we know she won’t make it back to her family in 1943, which threatens to undermine the novel’s tension. Luckily, this structure actually serves to modulate the horrors documented in White Chrysanthemum, giving us respite in Emi’s story just when Hana’s threatens to be too much to bear.

This novel is Mary Lynn Bracht’s debut, and it is a tremendously auspicious one. The existence of comfort women wasn’t widely known until the first Korean woman came forward in 1991–over 50 years after the practice began–but the history is still foggy to many Americans. (It certainly was to me.) Similarly, I would venture that many, if not most, non-Koreans don’t know about the brutal history of the 1910-1945 Japanese occupation or the Korean War that immediately followed.

This is all to say that Bracht has a lot of ground to cover in establishing her narrative, but she’s more than up to the task. The history is explored with a light, eloquent touch that leaves plenty of room for character and plot development.

White Chrysanthemum is absolutely harrowing; like I wrote in my review of The Tangled Lands last week, readers who are triggered by sexual assault and violence should probably avoid this book. Rape, torture, and violent deaths are written about in graphic detail that at times made me feel physically sick.

What amazed me about Bracht’s skilled, precise writing, however, is that these events never feel sensational or cruel. White Chrysanthemum is not an “issue novel” seeking to twist the knife and make you feel as much pity and pain as possible; instead, Hana and Emi’s stories feel powerful and fully realized, as if Bracht is merely a documentarian uncovering the forgotten lives of real women. (In a sense, she is.)

A few elements work less well than others. There’s a tragic twist to Emi’s story about halfway through the book that came off as cheap to me–I think Bracht was trying to add urgency, but I thought the story would have been just as good without it. There are times when Bracht moves back and forth between fantasy and reality, particularly in Hana’s story, that feel more confusing than dreamy. (It makes sense that Hana would dissociate under the circumstances, but it doesn’t make for good reading.) And Hana’s story undergoes so many twists and turns that I felt a bit of whiplash when it finally concludes.

But the payoff more than compensates for these weaknesses. Bracht has a Korean mother and grew up in a community of expat Korean women, and after I turned the last page, that detail was utterly unsurprising to me: White Chrysanthemum reads like it was written by an attentive, interested listener. It is tremendously empathetic, especially to the women at its core but even to its villains, and it confronts difficult events head-on without simplifying the people who experience them to one-note tragedies.

When Emi tries to tell the truth about Hana at last, her family doesn’t respond with awe or wonder–they respond with confusion and even a little cruelty. That was the detail that clinched the book for me. Family secrets are exciting to readers, but they’re astonishingly painful to the people who live them, hear about them, and must re-evaluate their core selves around them.

Bracht dives to the heart of Korean family secrets in this debut, which I hope marks the beginning of a long and fruitful career for her. White Chrysanthemum will stay with me for a long, long time. 4/5 stars.


My copy of White Chrysanthemum came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 4.6.18

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week I’m on a nonfiction kick: I picked up a memoir from a survivor of Australia’s Stolen Generations and a more lighthearted collection of essays on knitting, crafting, second sock syndrome, and boyfriend sweater curses. Let’s dive in!


Too Afraid to Cry: Memoir of a Stolen Childhood by Ali Cobby Eckermann

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9781631494246the premise: Ali Cobby Eckermann is a survivor of Australia’s “Stolen Generations”–the generations of Aboriginal Australian children forcibly taken from their families and communities by the Australian government in order to be placed with white families. The practice fragmented Aboriginal culture and subjected children to horrific abuse, but the practice unofficially continues today. In this slim memoir, Eckermann writes about her experience from traumatized child, to rebellious adolescent, to an adult who has finally found acceptance in the culture that is her birthright.

why I’m excited: This memoir received a positive review in Shelf Awareness a few weeks ago; the reviewer praised Eckermann’s co-mingling of poetry and prose as well as the powerful story she has to tell. I’ve been on a memoir kick lately and am especially looking for memoirs from marginalized writers; this fits the bill.

The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting by Alanna Okun

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9781250095619the premise: Alanna Okun took up knitting to keep anxiety at bay and regain control of her life. If that seems dramatic, well, crafting is dramatic: you transform a pile of raw materials into a meaningful object that often takes on a life of its own (the collection is titled after the dreaded “Boyfriend Sweater Curse,” the idea that knitting or crocheting a sweater for your partner will cause you to break up). The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater is a punchy, short, and sweet collection of essays exploring the role of crafting in Okun’s life and in the world at large.

why I’m excited: I decided I had to read this book when I saw the adorable sweater that Okun knit for the book on release day. Okun is also a senior editor for Racked, my favorite fashion website (it does some of the best longform reporting around), so I’m hoping that this book will do what Racked does best: take “women’s interests” seriously and contextualize their place in the world. I’m an amateur crafter (I knit terribly and love to sew) who comes from a family of crafty women, and I’m looking forward to reading a book that celebrates crafting’s peculiar power.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!