Friday Bookbag, 3.15.19

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received 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 indulged in some Barnes & Noble wandering (looking for the print copy of The New Yorker that I appeared in!) and some e-book bargain hunting. I’ve been watching my spending closely over the past few months since I took so much time off of work, so I’d almost forgotten how nice it is to wander between bookstore shelves, consumed with the possibility of the damn good stories each title might hold. Lovely.

Before we dive in, I wanted to share that my heart goes out to New Zealand today and to the Muslim community around the world. I’m praying for healing, justice, and a strong rebuke of the white nationalist terror that is on the upswing online and globally. Here is a list of places you can donate to support victims of the attack and the wider Muslim community in New Zealand.

Here are the books I picked up this week:


My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

My Sister the Serial Killer Coverthe premise: Korede is used to cleaning up after her serial killer sister, Ayoola. She keeps Ayoola’s secrets and tries to mind her own business; family comes first, after all. But when Ayoola begins to pursue a doctor whom Korede loves, putting his life at risk, Korede must choose which beloved to save.

why I’m excited: This book sounds absolutely bananas, like a grown-up and Nigerian version of Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves, a YA novel (one of my favorites!) about a set of supernatural serial killer sisters. I mean, this novel can only go spectacularly or horribly, right? And even if it goes horribly, it’s going to put on quite a show. Family, murder, love, secrets–it doesn’t get more deliciously soapy than that.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Bear and the Nightingale Coverthe premise: At the edge of the Russian wilderness, Vasilisa listens to her nurse’s fairy tales. Her favorite is the story of Frost, a blue-eyed winter demon who steals unwary souls. The village honors the spirits to protect themselves, until Vasilisa’s widowed father brings home a devout wife from Moscow, who’s determined to tame the village and her rebellious stepdaughter. Evil begins to stalk the village, and Vasilisa must call upon secret powers to protect her family from a supernatural threat.

why I’m excited: I live in a cold and sometimes frightening climate myself (for example: right now, in March, there are still knee-deep snowdrifts outside my front door!), so I have a soft spot for fantasy built around Russian folklore. This novel looks to have it all: evil spirits, evil stepmothers, dangerous protective gifts. Hell yeah. I can’t wait to curl up with a cup of hot chocolate to enjoy this one. (It’s the first in the Winternight trilogy.)

Serpent in the Heather by Kay Kenyon

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Serpent in the Heather Coverthe premise: From the back cover:

Summer, 1936. In England, an assassin is loose. Someone is killing young people who possess Talents. As terror overtakes Britain, Kim Tavistock, now officially employed by England’s Secret Intelligence Service, is sent on her first mission to the remote Sulcliffe Castle in Wales, to use her cover as a journalist to infiltrate a spiritualist cult that may have ties to the murders. Meanwhile, Kim’s father, trained spy Julian Tavistock, runs his own parallel investigation–and discovers the terrifying Nazi plot behind the serial killings…

why I’m excited: This is actually the second book in Kay Kenyon’s Dark Talents series, something I didn’t realize when I bought it. (It’s not written anywhere!) The fact that the publisher is so blasé about the novel’s place in the trilogy makes me hope it’ll work as a stand-alone, since this premise is just as bananas as My Sister, the Serial Killer and also features Nazis. Nazi serial killers! Checkmate, my wallet. I had to get it.

My wife is a hardcore WWII history buff and also a big fan of the Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger, so this is right up her alley. She’s the one who picked it off the shelf. We’ll be fighting over it, I’m sure.

Authority and Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Authority Coverthe premise: Authority and Acceptance are the sequels to Annihilation, which I reviewed some months ago. Together, they make up the Area X trilogy, about a lush, remote, ever-expanding land that’s deadly, full of mysteries, and seems to threaten human life as we know it. Yay! (The first book was adapted into a movie by Alex Garland, but the books definitely take things in a different direction.)

Acceptance Coverwhy I’m excited: I didn’t love everything about Annihilation, but damn, did it get under my skin. I think about it and talk about it all the time. If you love nature, if you’re worried about climate change, if you’re deeply concerned with what humans are doing to the planet, you have to read this trilogy. It’s about all of that anxiety without being too literal about it. From what I’ve heard, Authority and Acceptance don’t pick up where the first book left off: they go in entirely new and exciting directions. I can’t wait.


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!

I’m in The New Yorker this week!

In case you’re a subscriber or have a sudden hankering for a real print magazine, I’m delighted to say that I currently have a letter to the editor in The New Yorker. (It’s the March 11th edition, the one with the skier and cute dogs on the cover.)

I wrote a response to Ian Parker’s excellent profile of Dan Mallory, bestselling pseudonymous author of The Woman in the Window and noted scammer and creep in the publishing world. Dan Mallory has said in a response to the piece that the history of lies that Parker uncovered are due to his bipolar II disorder.

Hmmm. I happen to have lived with bipolar disorder for nearly ten years, and I call bull.

Luckily, The New Yorker was kind enough to ask me to expand on my tweet on the subject to explain why mental illness doesn’t make you a liar, scammer, or cheat. Greed, arrogance, and privilege do.

I hope you’ll check it out! There’s a delay between when letters appear in print and when they go up on the site, so I’ll edit this post with a link when it’s live online.

Book Review: THE HOT ONE by Carolyn Murnick

I’m still recovering from surgery, which means my reviewing and reading pace has gone way down while I relax and nap. (Lots of naps!) I’m in the mood to catch up with older releases I’ve missed over the past few years, and that’s why it feels like the perfect time to review The Hot One, a memoir that’s been near the top of my TBR list since it first came out in 2017.

The Hot One, dramatically subtitled A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder, is about the murder of writer and editor Carolyn Murnick’s childhood best friend, Ashley, who was the victim of a serial killer in the early 2000s. It’s also about the ways our adult selves diverge from our child and adolescent ones, and especially all the ways women are limited by one-dimensional definitions (for example, “the hot one” vs. “the smart one”).

The premise is powerful and The Hot One’s first third is excellent, but the book soon fizzles into what I found to be boring, confusing navel gazing. You can read my full review below.


The Hot One Cover

The Hot One: A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder by Carolyn Murnick

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • publication date: hardcover in 2017, paperback in 2018
  • length: 272 pages (paperback)

In the courtroom I had seen in a new way what it looks like when a life is cut off at twenty-two. All the messy baby fat of emotional immaturity still stuck on you for eternity, paraded out for everyone to see.

–from The Hot One by Carolyn Murnick

A woman’s murder is never just her murder: it’s a stage for social commentary and catharsis, too. Usually it’s men drawing the conclusions, but in the true crime memoir The Hot One, it’s the victim’s female friend, Carolyn Murnick. Murnick uses the murder of her childhood friend Ashley as a jumping off point for big ideas about friendship, men, women, girls, the criminal justice system (kind of), journalism, sex, sex work, drugs, and most of all, herself.

Doesn’t that sound like a lot? It is, at least for Murnick. Her intense emotion is palpable and her courage in writing about this experience is admirable. But on the page, The Hot One feels remarkably understuffed. It’s simultaneously airy and swampy, overly personal and too broadly political, very dry and also too messy.

The memoir does crackle along nicely in its first third, in which Murnick details her friendship with Ashley and its tragic end. Murnick and Ashley were not close at the time of Ashley’s murder, and this is the best part of the book, although it is of course the worst part for Murnick. She is angry at herself for abandoning Ashley; she is angry at Ashley for abandoning her; she is angry at the fact of the murder for destroying any chance at reconciliation. That’s compelling stuff.

Crucially, it’s compelling stuff that also has a linear narrative. Murnick and Ashley become inseparable; they drift apart; the murder happens. It’s an arc.

It’s when that arc transitions into Murnick’s solo journey to come to terms with the murder that The Hot One becomes a voyeuristic-feeling slog, like you’re overhearing a stranger’s rambling therapy session rather than reading words assembled for publication. It’s told out of order, but not very effectively. I don’t mind piecing things together for myself, but it would be nice if it felt like I had the whole puzzle rather than odd parts.

I have the utmost respect for what Murnick has been through, and I want to be clear that in no way do I think the actions or emotions she describes in The Hot One are unseemly or wrong. I just think that they’re her actions and emotions, deeply private and inaccessible to me, and that unfortunately, The Hot One gives me little reason or opportunity to get invested in them. When Murnick is writing about Ashley, her prose shines. When she’s writing about herself, it just thuds. Unfortunately, this book is mostly her writing about herself.

The Hot One hammers certain points home again and again: that Ashley did sex work, that she was hot and flirty and confident, that she was slut-shamed and a drug user and living a double life, and that her murder was left unsolved for years partially because of all those things. (It was assumed she was killed by a jilted lover or that she had gotten tangled up in drugs or trafficking.) These things are stated and restated so many times that I found myself just skimming over them whenever they reappeared.

But The Hot One then leaves other points desperately unclear. There are weird interludes in the book where Murnick visits with astrology-obsessed friends who talk about how serial killers are often thwarted water signs. She visits a guy who’d once gone on a date with Ashley, and almost ends up sleeping with him herself, until he reveals himself to be kind of a cad. She’s asked to testify after tons of writing about how she was afraid to testify…and then we get barely any details about that testimony or what it felt like.

It’s not that these events are “wrong” or “unbelievable.” Again, nothing about Murnick’s experiences could be wrong or unbelievable in this traumatic context. It’s that the way she transcribes them for readers is murky, and worse, boring. I went from loving the book in its first chapters to loathing it by its midpoint, simply because I couldn’t understand what was going on or why it was relevant.

I also think Murnick’s reaches for political relevance are clumsy, especially with the new afterword in the paperback addition, which tries to tie the memoir to the #MeToo movement and to Murnick’s pregnancy. Her points about the ways girls both are defined and define themselves with narrow concepts like “the hot one” or “the smart one” are spot on, because they’re based in her experience. Her points about, say, the male gaze are…less spot on, since they veer wildly between talking about men’s literal gaze and the feminist concept of the male gaze without clearly distinguishing the two. Lots of other feminist concepts get similarly bungled, and the courtroom and criminal justice sections are frustratingly thin.

Like Emma Cline did in her (fictional) book about murder, The Girls, Murnick seems determined to draw wide conclusions from one narrow experience when the narrow experience is actually more compelling on its own. And as in The Girls, Murnick writes about the experiences of upper/upper middle class white girls without really acknowledging that many other kinds of girls exist, with many other archetypes than just “the smart one” or “the hot one” working against them.

The Hot One is of course different from The Girls, because Murnick is writing about her own experience. Yet it’s almost worse, in a way, since The Hot One has plenty of room for interesting research that could have filled those gaps, whereas The Girls was confined to a tighter narrative structure.

Murnick has published several excellent essays about her experience, including one that’s a condensed excerpt from this book, which is what motivated me to buy my own copy. In short form, her points are salient and gripping. But spun out into a whole book, they fizzle. It’s terribly disappointing considering how much I adored that excerpt.

The Hot One is a promising new kind of true crime memoir: one that turns its voyeuristic gaze on its author and her baggage, rather than on all the gory, salacious details of the crime. I just wish it had actually delivered on that promise. ★★☆☆☆

Books you might also enjoy:


I purchased my own copy of The Hot One and was in no way compensated for this review.

Ballyhoo #4: BELLY UP by Eva Darrows

Ballyhoo

Ballyhoo: “an excited commotion” or a blog feature? Both, obviously!

Ballyhoo is an on-again, off-again feature where I chat about an upcoming release I’m particularly excited about. Today I’m featuring Belly Up by Eva Darrow, a YA novel that features a lot of representation that’s dear to my heart: bisexual and queer rep, Latinx rep, fat rep, and teen pregnancy rep. All that is wrapped up in a great premise that seems fun and heartstring-tugging by turns. Let’s dive in!


Belly Up Cover

Belly Up by Eva Darrows

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Coming April 30, 2019

When 16 year old Serendipity Rodriguez attends a house party to celebrate the end of sophomore year, she has no intention of getting drunk and hooking up with a guy she’s just met, let alone getting pregnant. To make matters worse, she has no way of contacting the father and she and her mother are about to move to a new town and in with her grandmother.

It’s hard enough to start your junior year as the new kid in school, but at 5-months pregnant it’s even harder. So when Sara meets Leaf, who asks her out and doesn’t seem to care that she’s pregnant, she finds herself falling.

Juggling the realities of a pregnancy with school and a new relationship are hard enough, but when Jack, the father of her baby, turns back up, Sara’s life goes from complicated to a complete mess. With the help of her overbearing mother and grandmother, Sara will learn to navigate life’s challenges and be ready for anything, as she prepares for the birth of her baby.

It’s hard to avoid Juno comparisons when you’re talking about a teen pregnancy story, and Belly Up is already getting plenty of comparisons to Juno. That’s not necessarily a bad thing–Juno is one of my favorite movies, in part because of the “corny” teen dialogue everyone seems to hate–but I’m most excited for Belly Up because of the unique spins it puts on your average teen pregnancy story.

First, check out the cover of the novel! How often do you get to see a teen girl who looks both fat* and totally badass and confident on a book or movie cover? Pretty much never. That would be enough to get me intrigued about Belly Up on its own. (Especially because most of the world seems to forget that fat people do, in fact, go on dates, have sex, and get pregnant, including in high school.)

I love seeing a book that is comfortable conveying that its main character is fat without making it the center of the story. (It’s not even mentioned in the blurb.)

Next, Serendipity “Sara” Rodriguez is clearly written as Latina (she’s apparently biracial)–and yet, similarly to her fatness, that part of her identity is being treated as important without being the only important thing about her. I have nothing against “issue novels” about latinidad that get into complex questions about identity and belonging; I’ve read a great many of them. But I love seeing Latinx teens get other kinds of rep where they face other kinds of problems, too.

Lastly, this book is SUPER queer. It was featured on Book Riot’s list of 2019 bisexual YA books because of its “bisexual, biracial, fat, and ace representation.” I’m going to use these next couple paragraphs to talk about the “bisexual” and “ace” part since I’ve already covered the other two.

It’s truly amazing how far queer rep and acceptance among teens has come in the past ten years or so. I’m only 24, and I distinctly remember how nerve-racking it was to first come out as a lesbian to my friends when I was 16-17. I didn’t fully come out till a semester or two into college, when I was 19 or 20. And even that is so much earlier than many lesbians of previous generations got to come out.

Now, many teens are out of the closet before they’re even in high school. (The idea of the “closet” is itself starting to seem like a silly idea!) Queer teens still face immense challenges–especially transgender teens–but I’m delighted at how much brighter the queer future seems now than it did when I was 13, especially when it comes to representation. (See: the rest of that Book Riot list.)

That’s why books like Belly Up seem so precious to me. Sara’s relationship with Leaf seems so far from the simplistic coming out narratives that dominated when I was a teenage book blogger. I don’t recall ever reading a book that even touched on ace (asexual) identity until I was in my late teens, and maybe not even then. Maybe I’m just projecting my real-life experiences with my ace peers into a book I wish had existed. Who knows!

My point is that Sara seems like an awesome, multidimensional heroine dealing with a tough situation as best she can. How exciting that today’s YA is big enough for stories like these. I can’t wait to read this one, both for the book-loving adult I am now and the starved-for-rep, book-loving teen I was not so long ago.

Do you have your heart set on Belly Uptoo? What’s your ballyhoo this week? Let me know all about it in the comments–I’m always looking to add to my TBR list!


I prefer to use the term fat rather than a euphemism like “plus size” or “curvy” because “fat” should be no more an offensive term than “thin” is. The word “fat” merely describes bodies. (The bodies of most of the American population, in fact!) It is a morally neutral adjective and I treat it as such on this blog, since I myself am a fat person who cares deeply about destigmatizing fatness. Just thought I’d share my rationale in case the term bothers some of my readers!

Friday Bookbag (plus a personal story), 2.8.19

FridayBookbag

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

But first, story time: As some of you may know, I had a pretty major surgery yesterday. (A total hysterectomy, in order to treat my endometriosis and related pain.) I’m happy to say that the surgery was a major success. I’m extremely emotional about it, because even though the post-surgery pain is not fun and I’m too weak to sit up without help right now, I actually feel better after surgery than I did before. I literally felt better as soon as I woke up. It’s incredible.

I’ve been suffering with this condition for years and had pretty much lost hope I’d ever get relief. I still have a long recovery ahead and there’s a strong possibility I will continue to deal with some endometriosis pain in addition to my everyday fibromyalgia pain, but both conditions should be much improved now. (The endometriosis was triggering fibromyalgia flares and vice versa. That should no longer be the case.) I’m praying that this hysterectomy closes the book on the worst pain and illness I’ve ever experienced in my life. My doctors are hopeful it will, so I’m hopeful, too.

Here’s to more reading, writing, and blogging in the future. And PSA: if you’re suffering debilitating menstrual pain, I implore you to take that shit seriously. It’s not normal to be vomiting with pain during periods. It’s not normal to be laid up for 2-3 (or 4-5) weeks out of every month because of your periods. It’s not normal to be too weak to eat or walk or think or take the bus by yourself because of your periods. Please take your pain seriously and fight for the care you deserve. I’m so glad I did.

/end story time. Now, back to the books! This week I’m featuring three exciting reads by Black women authors: two new ones I bought recently, plus an old favorite that’s just gone on deep sale. Happy Black History Month!


How Long ’til Black Future Month?: Stories by N.K. Jemisin

How Long Til Black Future Month Cover

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

the premise: From Goodreads:

In these stories, Jemisin sharply examines modern society, infusing magic into the mundane, and drawing deft parallels in the fantasy realms of her imagination. Dragons and hateful spirits haunt the flooded city of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In a parallel universe, a utopian society watches our world, trying to learn from our mistakes. A black mother in the Jim Crow south must figure out how to save her daughter from a fey offering impossible promises. And in the Hugo award-nominated short story “The City Born Great,” a young street kid fights to give birth to an old metropolis’s soul.

why I’m excited:I’ve been dying to read N.K. Jemisin’s critically acclaimed work for years, but the timing’s never seemed to work out. I’ve also been dying to read more sci-fi short stories, especially with recent work like “Say, She Toy” by Chesya Burke and “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” by Rebecca Roanhorse knocking my socks off.

It’s like N.K. Jemisin read my mind and combined my sci-fi wishes into one awesome package in How Long ’til Black Future Month?. Every single story mentioned in that Goodreads summary sounds fascinating to me. That cover is gorgeous. And during a Black History Month that’s already been pretty miserable for Black Americans, I love the idea of immersing myself in a Black Future Month instead.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

The Mothers Cover

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

the premise: From Goodreads:

It is the last season of high school life for Nadia Turner, a rebellious, grief-stricken, seventeen-year-old beauty. Mourning her own mother’s recent suicide, she takes up with the local pastor’s son. Luke Sheppard is twenty-one, a former football star whose injury has reduced him to waiting tables at a diner. They are young; it’s not serious. But the pregnancy that results from this teen romance—and the subsequent cover-up—will have an impact that goes far beyond their youth. As Nadia hides her secret from everyone, including Aubrey, her God-fearing best friend, the years move quickly. Soon, Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey are full-fledged adults and still living in debt to the choices they made that one seaside summer, caught in a love triangle they must carefully maneuver, and dogged by the constant, nagging question: What if they had chosen differently? The possibilities of the road not taken are a relentless haunt.

why I’m excited: You all already know how much I love the books that bridge the gap between YA and adult fiction. The Mothers looks like it will do that, and be tremendously complex and interesting to boot. I love that it seems to take teens’ issues seriously. I’m genuinely excited to see a love triangle between a “beauty,” “pastor’s son,” and “former football star” in a critically acclaimed literary fiction novel. Yessss! I think the current array of typical literary fiction protagonists is incredibly limited, and I’m looking forward to spending some time with Bennett’s characters in contrast. Also, teen pregnancies are so often flattened into metaphors or deuses-ex-machina, but I trust The Mothers will do much better. (Its gush of positive reviews seems to suggest that, anyway.)

Also-also, that cover is gorgeous. I want it on a poster on my wall.

Bonus Round:

9780544786769

This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare by Gabourey Sidibe is currently on sale for $2.99 on Kindle. (If you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber, it’s available to read for free through that service, too.)

I reviewed This Is Just My Face last year and really loved it. Reading Sidibe’s memoir is like going to the coolest, funniest, realest sleepover of your life. She writes in a conversational, down-to-earth, self-deprecating (but also self-loving) style that’s the antithesis of what you would expect from a typical celebrity memoir. She’s lived a genuinely interesting life full of interesting stories (like her parents’ green card marriage, her summer stuck in Senegal with her brother, and her time as a phone sex operator and how it prepared her for acting).

You might know Sidibe best from the movie Precious or the shows Empire and American Horror Story: Coven, but I actually love her presence as a writer and social media personality the best. If you haven’t read it already, This Is Just My Face is definitely worth picking up during this sale.


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 GIRLS by Emma Cline

The Girls was a massive critical and commercial success upon its release in 2016, and it hardly needs my voice chiming in on its behalf. Still, I wanted to write about this historical novel–set in late ’60s California, loosely based on the Manson Family and their infamous murders–because it stirred up such a complex array of emotions in me. With Cline’s prose being so luminous that it practically burned into the back of my eyelids, and The Girls‘s electric premise, I should have absolutely loved this novelinstead I only liked it. As its title implies, The Girls is a lovely novel about girlhood, but I have serious reservations about its myopic focus and the liberties Cline takes with historical events. Despite the novel’s raw power, its plot curdles instead of coheres.

You can read my full review below.


9780812988024

The Girls by Emma Cline

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Penguin Random House
  • publication date: 2016 (hardcover) and 2017 (paperback)
  • length: 368 pages (paperback)

It was the end of the sixties, or the summer before the end, and that’s what it seemed like, an endless, formless summer. The Haight populated with white-garbed Process members handing out their oat-colored pamphlets, the jasmine along the roads that year blooming particularly heady and full. Everyone was healthy, tan, and heavy with decoration, and if you weren’t, that was a thing, too–you could be some moon creature, chiffon over the lamp shades, on a kitchen cleanse that stained all your dishes with turmeric.

But all that was happening somewhere else, not in Petaluma…

–from The Girls by Emma Cline

The Girls stars one girl, Evie, who is fourteen years old. Her parents have recently divorced; she lives in her mother’s mansion in Petaluma and is acting out against her mother’s boyfriends, though you quickly get the impression that her strife with her mother runs much deeper than the divorce and new beaus: Evie is ignored and smothered by her nervous mother in turns, never quite in the Goldilocks zone of affection. Her father lives in a distant apartment with his former secretary (and new lover), rarely seen. On top of all that, Evie’s best (and seemingly only) friend spurns her. It seems things can’t get worse.

Except they can. It’s the summer of 1969, Evie is terribly lonely, and that’s when she falls in with the girls. Plural. The Manson ones.

Or they would be the Manson ones, if Cline hadn’t created a somewhat scrambled analogue of the infamous cult “family” for this novel. The Girls‘s cult leader is Russell, not Charles. The Family has a run-in with an apparently famous musician named Mitch, but his band goes conspicuously unnamed (it was actually Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys). They’re in San Francisco, not Los Angeles. Cline creates four composite victims here in place of at least eight real ones.

I’m being pedantic here, I know. But I list these details because Cline is working with the freaking Manson murders here, literally one of the best-known crimes in American history. I wish that Cline had either fudged more details or fewer, because the way she writes about the summer of 1969 in this novel left me cross-eyed, like my glasses weren’t on right. The Girls‘s historical details are always distractingly in the middle distance, even as Cline gets the muggy, dizzy vibe of the thing just right.

It’s unfortunate, a little like if an Investigation Discovery reenactment was suddenly given the auteur treatment. (No disrespect meant to ID, but we all know those reenactments are the pits.) Cline is a gifted auteur, and I loved to watch her work, but I could never forget I was watching her work. The Girls never feels real, too much art and too little life. It’s good art, but it can’t escape an uncanny valley.

If you know nothing to very little about the Manson murders, then this critique is pointless. Go in and love this novel, because there’s an awful lot to love. But I don’t even know that much about the murders–most of what I know comes from Stuff You Should Know’s twopart podcast about them that was released last year–and it was still a strong enough dissonance to bother me. Your mileage may vary.

And I’ll add, in a small and self-justifying voice, that I think Cline’s composite artistry also damages the plot. It leaves Evie’s moves feeling a little too planned, leaves her feeling always in the right place and never quite under her own power, meaning that even when I knew she was in danger, the danger never compelled me. (This novel is not very long, but took me two whole weeks to get through. It’s not a slog, just somewhat impenetrable. I could only give it short bursts of my time before losing interest.)

After all that, let me talk about what The Girls gets right, because there’s an awful lot that it gets right. I promise.

First, The Girls gets girls right, and in that way, the novel’s unreality almost works in its favor. Girls are girls, whether it’s 1969 or now, most of their challenges the same. The novel’s framing device is that Evie, now an adult, is staying at an old friend’s beach house when that friend’s college-age son and his girlfriend Tasha stop by. The menacing gender dynamics Evie witnesses between the boyfriend and Tasha take her right back to 1969, when those same forces pushed her into the cult and kept her there. She narrates the story from there, with brief interludes from the present throughout.

I had a (positive) visceral reaction to the way Cline writes about Evie’s loss of innocence, and the observed loss of innocence of other girls, especially Tasha’s. Evie’s circumstances are extraordinary, and yet her arc is terribly mundane and familiar. At one point, she observes that young girls know instinctively that they are objects to be judged, that whatever opinion they have of themselves is subservient to the opinions of others (i.e., men). It’s such a simple observation and yet it hit me like a heart attack. I shivered. It was otherworldly in its potency, sort of like the “Cool Girl” speech in Gone Girl.

Which leads me to the second, perhaps best thing The Girls gets right: the prose. It’s so good I got a high of sorts. I re-read some pages many times just to marvel at them. Cline writes with a manic intensity that is just right for this material. Every scene was supercharged with detail and energy, especially the ones at the cult ranch. Green potatoes foraged from dumpsters, musty girls’ clothes shared from a trash bag, and the scumminess of an unmaintained pool all take on intense significance here. The drugged-up eyes of the other girls at the compound are at one point described as “bright berries.” That lingers.

There’s a constant contrast between the innocence of Evie’s whitewashed Petaluma life, which she hates, and the drugged-up depravity of the cult’s lifestyle, which she also hates, but models herself after anyway. It’s a contrast that becomes interestingly muddled as the novel goes on, less of a choice between two things than an inevitability. She moves from the first to the second as if there’s no way to move, as if growing up were the same as decaying.

And like Evie, I’m left of two minds here. I like the experience of having read The Girls. I love that its images and observations are now bouncing around my mind. But I can’t get over the fuzzy, somewhat numb experience of actually reading it. It’s long stretches of nothing punctuated with mind-blowing moments. On one hand, I admire The Girls’s single-mindedness, and on the other, I feel a little cheated by it. Focus does not require myopia, and yet in its focus on the girls, this novel feels myopic.

It’s worth noting, to that point, that this book does not mention race at all. To my understanding every single character in it is white. The more I think about it, the weirder that is. Evie certainly lives a fairly wealthy, spoiled, insulated life in Petaluma, but it’s 1969 in California. Near San Francisco. Near Oakland! It seems odd that there isn’t even a throwaway mention of race, especially given that the real Manson murders were considered by the lead prosecutor as attempts to frame the Black Panthers and spark a race war. (Some people today think that isn’t true, but it’s still such a huge part of the case that it’s strange to leave it out entirely, even in its made-up version.)

I’m white, and the narrative of white girlhood that Cline presents here resonated powerfully with me, but it’s very much a story of white girlhood. No novel needs to include every human experience (or even most of them), but in the case of The Girls, it feels like yet another important detail elided or muddled to suit the story’s ends. It makes the scaffolding of this novel feel too visible, though I love the structure beneath.

The Girls is a powerful experience. (A real trip, if you will.) I recommend it, and am glad I own it, since I’ll likely revisit it again. I just wish Cline had channeled its raw, cathartic energy into something that flowed just a little better, felt just a little more well-thought-out. Moment by moment, The Girls is astonishingly good, but its connective tissue falters. ★★★★☆

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I purchased my own copy of The Girls and was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 2.1.19

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a (semi-)weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received 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 skipping over the whole pile of books I’ve bought since the last time I put up a Friday Bookbag (in October! Whew!). Instead I’m spotlighting a couple of short story collections I’ve received for review recently. Let’s dive in!


White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

White Dancing Elephants Cover.jpgsource: a copy from the author

the premise: Says the back cover:

A woman grieves a miscarriage, haunted by the Buddha’s birth. An artist with schizophrenia tries to survive hatred and indifference in small-town India by turning to the beauty of sculpture and dance. A brief but intense affair between two women culminates in regret and betrayal.

It’s a collection of seventeen stories that centers on women of color, especially queer women of color, trying to survive in a violent world.

why I’m excited: I’m a lesbian, and as much as I love happy portrayals of women loving other women, I’m also a sucker for more complex stories about queer women in the world. White Dancing Elephants promises to be that kind of complex, interesting, diverse read–diverse both in the shorthand sense of not white, not straight and also diverse in the way short story collections are always diverse: an assemblage of different perspectives and approaches to a theme. Where a novel digs deep, a short story collection can go wide. I’m excited about this one.

Mothers: Stories by Chris Power

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Mothers Cover.jpgsource: a copy from the publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, won in a contest

the premise: From the inside flap (can you tell I’ve given up trying to summarize short story collections on my own? there’s just too much much in them):

Ranging from remote English moors to an ancient Swedish burial ground to a hedonistic Mexican wedding, the stories in Mothers lay bare the emotional and psychic damage of life, love, and abandonment.

It’s apparently “braided through” with overarching stories about Eva, “a daughter, wife, and mother, whose search for a self and a place of belonging tracks a devastating path through generations.”

why I’m excited: Well, everything I said about short story collections above still applies here: I just love the experiments with language and storytelling they enable. For another, I love stories about mothers and daughters. That’s not the entirety of the collection, but it’s obviously a critical portion, given the title and repeated stories about Eva. And as I’ve written about extensively before, I prefer to read stories about women. Those will always be the most interesting, precious stories to me, given how often they’re sidelined. I’m curious what Power’s approach will be to this collection, given that he’s a man writing a very feminine-coded book (the cover’s even pink!). I’m curious how he will treat his characters. It could go wrong, or it could go very right! I’m excited to find out which it is.


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!