Throwback Thursday: a Very Scientific Analysis of the TWILIGHT series by Stephenie Meyer

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Throwback Thursday is a new feature about books I once loved, no matter how embarrassing (or awesome!) I find them today.

I’m starting off with a bang by talking about Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series: books that consumed my life for a few months and then fell off my radar just as fast. I went from getting into literal fistfights with my sister over who got to read Breaking Dawn first, to sheepishly dropping off all my copies at Goodwill, where Twilight box sets go to die alongside VHS box sets of Titanic.

 

photo description: a collage of the covers of the four Twilight books. From left to right: Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn.

It definitely wasn’t just me that Twilight sunk its hooks er, teeth into. I maintain that nearly everybody who’s in their early-to-mid twenties today had a Twilight phase, even if they lie about it now. Twilight also turbo-charged the YA, romance, and erotica genres as we know them today, so even if you hated the books and movies from the start, you’ve still been affected by them as a cultural phenomenon. (Fifty Shades, anyone?)

Why were these books so addictive, and why did they turn taboo so quickly? For this week’s Throwback Thursday, I’m going to do some intense science-ing to find out.

the good: 

More than anything, the wish fulfillment.

Sure, the romance was great, but nearly everyone I remember talking to about Twilight found the Cullen family’s endless wealth and opportunity to be the most charming and enthralling part of the series. Into fashion? You probably drooled over Alice and Rosalie’s ginormous closet. Wedding fanatic? The idea of having infinite money and support to plan your dream wedding (like Bella had with Edward) is pretty damn captivating. Love vacations? If you ignore the pillow-biting and bruises, it’s hard to beat Edward and Bella’s honeymoon. Love cars? Edward’s definitely got you covered. Motorcycles? He’s not filthy rich, but Jacob Black’s fine too, I guess.

While it’s hard to imagine why anyone who had the Cullens’ means would want to deal with high school over and over, and there are plenty of other silly plot holes that never get explained, I think the endlessly pleasant and escapist world Meyer created is unmatched in anything else I’ve ever read to this day. I still daydream about how Twilight‘s vampires never needed to sleep. Imagine what I could accomplish!

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Also: the Twilight movies boosted Kristen Stewart, lesbian icon for the ages, to popularity. While others thirsted after RPattz and that guy from The Adventures of Sharkboy and LavagirlI definitely had it bad for Stewart in all her awkward, lip-biting glory. Bless her for bringing such powerful queer energy to an aggressively heterosexual franchise. Bless the Twilight books for existing to give her the opportunity. Good vibes all around.

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image description: Kristen Stewart in costume as Bella sitting in a red pick-up truck, winking, and flashing an “OK” sign. Swoon.

the bad:

The writing, the writing, the writing! I guess you could argue that because these books are so addictive, they must have done something right, prose-wise. Then again, there’s the textual evidence. Geek feminist blog I Wanted Wings did a fabulous round-up of some of the worst quotes from the first novel, like the one where Bella makes a terrible joke about being “part-albino” and then, when no one laughs, decides that “clouds and a sense of humor didn’t mix.”

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gif description: Marcia Brady sarcastically saying “Sure, Jan.”

I legitimately don’t understand how Meyer’s editor and publisher didn’t clean things up a little before unleashing Twilight upon the world. It reads like the first thing Meyer ever wrote (probably because it pretty much was) and the secondhand embarrassment I feel whenever I try and re-read excerpts of the books is…intense. I think this more than anything else is responsible for Twilight backlash.

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I will say that while Stephenie Meyer is terrible at writing about flirting, 99% of teenagers (and, like, 70% of full-grown adults) are really terrible at flirting. So while it’s hilarious to read things like:

“I love them,” I enthused, making an effort to smolder at him…

…you can’t fault the accuracy.

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the ugly:

Stephenie Meyer’s crappy abuse-enabling + repeated ignorance of the real-life Quileute Nation. No matter how fondly I look back on my Twi-hard days, I can’t get past how much damage Meyer and her publishers did in these arenas.

Bella’s relationships with Edward and Jacob are straight-up creepy, controlling, and abusive. On one hand, I think it’s okay to write, read, and fantasize about relationships you wouldn’t be into in real life–most of erotica and romance is based on this! –but the problem was that Twilight 1) was geared towards teens, who are smart and wonderful in many ways but are also uniquely vulnerable to this kind of messaging, and 2) that it gained purchase in lots of highly conservative, abstinence-only circles who are also vulnerable to this.

To get very political (because this shit is important to me), I think everyone deserves accurate sex ed as well as accurate info on what makes for healthy relationships, and the knowledge that the extent of what many people got for sex ed was literally Twilight (and now, Fifty Shades) makes me sick to my stomach. I think choosing the life Bella ultimately chooses in Twilight is fine, but that it was presented as this ultimate and inevitable romantic option is…not great. It’s not entirely Stephenie Meyer’s fault–she wrote the story she wanted to write, I guess–but it still gives me the heebie-jeebies.

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The Quileute stuff is even worse, in my opinion. In the Twilight books, Jacob is from the Quileute tribe, which readers later discover (in New Moon, I think) is home to shape-shifting werewolves who are there to protect their people from vampires.

Of course, that’s not at all the Quileute people’s real history and mythology, and Meyer’s Calvin-ball had consequences. The Twilight craze benefited some tribal members who got in on the tours and special events held in Forks and La Push, Washington, but it also seriously compromised their cultural heritage thanks to Meyer’s dilution of their real stories. Insensitive merch designers looking to make a quick buck off of Quileute designs didn’t help, either.

I don’t know if it would have been much better for the representation of Native Americans if Meyer had created a fictional tribe for the purposes of Twilight, but her wanton finger-painting with the creation story of a culture that’s not her own–especially because she didn’t get permission or any cultural consulting first–leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

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bonus round:

The merch (just not the crappy Quileute stuff). Here, have a gratuitous picture of yours truly, wearing one of my most treasured thrift-store finds:

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photo description: Me (a white person with thick-rimmed glasses and brown hair) wearing a light blue T-shirt that says “Twilight Mom” in fancy font. I’m smirking.

This stuff was EVERYWHERE, especially during the lead-ups to the movies. The Christmas after my obsession had well and truly died, my well-meaning uncle bought me a giant set of Twilight journals and pencils that I promptly hid under my bed forever. There were also supremely cringe-y Hot Topic collections along with everything on this wack-a-doo io9 compilation of the 30 creepiest Twilight merch options, which includes a cross-stitch kit for Jacob’s abs and a felted replica of Bella’s vampire-infested womb. Seriously.

I thought about including all this crap under “the ugly” part of my Very Scientific Analysis, but frankly, I admire the hustle too much to insult it that way. These folks knew there was a limited amount of time to make hay, so they rolled out a bonkers cash-grab hay-baling-operation that I don’t think there’s been the likes of since. Kudos.

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Conclusion:

It’s funny how you can have a soft spot for a book you know you’re never, ever going to read again, and Twilight epitomizes that for me. It motivated me to write and dream bigger, not least because I knew I could write something better. It made publishing seem less like an un-assailable fortress, and more like the business it is. In a weird way, I think I can thank it for my current career as a freelance writer.

In short, Twilight is a hot, bland mess, but it’s my hot, bland mess. Just don’t make me read it again.

FINAL SCORE: 58. 

Thanks for playing! See you in a week or two for another Throwback Thursday deep dive.

Book Review: ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer

Fear of losing one’s self and one’s mind drives a lot of fiction these days, but I can safely say that Jeff VanderMeer’s eco-thriller Annihilation is one of the most original and thought-provoking takes on the theme I’ve read. Somewhere in the American South, an ecological mystery zone is spreading, governed by the top-secret Southern Reach organization. Some who enter kill themselves; some kill each other. The last expedition materialized randomly back at their homes, dying of aggressive cancer within months. Annihilation is the story of the twelfth expedition, told from the perspective of the an idiosyncratic biologist. The expedition quickly unravels amidst ever-eerier encounters with the natural (and unnatural) world, leaving the biologist to uncover devastating secrets…and to wonder if Area X is truly a disaster, or a blessing in disguise. While parts of the story feel almost hypnotically dull, it’s also, somehow, unputdownable. If you’ve ever been lost in the woods, you’ll recognize the mixed sensations of dread and wonder that Annihilation inspires. VanderMeer’s vision is breathtaking here, and my quibbles with his execution pale in comparison to the vast feelings of awe and possibility I felt while reading: exactly what I go to science fiction for in the first place.

You can read my full review below.


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Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: February 4, 2014
  • length: 195 pages
  • cover price: $14.00

The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. Beyond the marsh flats and the natural canals lies the ocean and, a little farther down the coast, a derelict lighthouse. All of this part of the country had been abandoned for decades, for reasons that are not easy to relate. Our expedition was the first to enter Area X for more than two years, and much of our predecessors’ equipment had rusted, their tents and sheds little more than husks. Looking out over that untroubled landscape, I do not believe any of us could yet see the threat.

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I’m usually a “book first, movie second” kind of reader, but the movie adaptation of Annihilation came out of left field earlier this year and had me completely under its spell before I’d even heard of the novel. The film’s vision of a sci-fi future in which an alien crash landing causes a violent “shimmer” to begin devouring the American South, mutating everything it encounters, completely engrossed me–and while I was warned that it was a very loose adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel (Annihilation is the first in a trilogy), I knew I had to read it, if only to get another hours-long fix of the eerie world of the shimmer, a.k.a. “Area X” in the novels.

It’s true that the movie and novel are vastly different, but after reading Annihilation, I wasn’t disappointed at all by those differences–far from it. If you’ve read the book and been hesitant about the movie, or vice versa, I’m here to say that I think they both do an admirable job with the premise: a doomed expedition explores a creepy cordoned-off zone that’s as beautiful as it is dangerous, and finds more than they bargained for.

And with that, I’ll stop talking about the movie, since I really do intend this as a book review!

The most striking thing about Annihilation from the very first page is how bloodless and almost bland the narration is. The conceit is that we’re reading the journal of a member of the twelfth expedition known only as The Biologist (for unknown reasons, the Southern Reach strips all expedition participants of their names before they enter Area X). The biologist’s voice is extremely idiosyncratic, cold, and obsessive; I think that’s a polarizing choice on VanderMeer’s part, but it worked for me.

Something I loved about the diary structure is how it exposes the way the biologist has little allegiance to humanity and much more to the natural world. We get the sense early on that she wouldn’t be sad if Area X up and swallowed society as we know it. Pages and pages are devoted to how beautiful Area X is, including unsettling sights like human-dolphin hybrids and a strange moss/lichen/something that grows in the shape of ominous psalm-esque words; more disturbingly, she seems to view terrible violence as beauty, too. Her reaction to the death of a companion has the resigned-cum-awe feel that I associate with watching an osprey snatch a fish from a lake: that’s just the way of things, and at least it’s stunning to watch.

I don’t think that the biologist’s stance on humanity is necessarily wrong; I think a lot of the world’s ills can be traced to the fact that humans view other humans as exceptional, and the rest of nature as disposable. It’s just an unusual perspective to read about, especially in science fiction, which often draws from the “humanity must unite against apocalypse” well. Annihilation‘s tack is much more “humanity must concede to the apocalypse, and also acknowledge that it’s nothing personal.”

A lot of other science fiction (looking at you, The Matrix) also proposes that the world might be better off without us; the difference is that in those other movies, books, and TV shows, I always feel like I’m being manipulated into thinking either that of course humanity should survive, or of course I should take the cynical, suicidal view and think we shouldn’t.

Annihilation, on the other hand, poses the question genuinely and almost casually; you’re welcome to feel either way. You don’t have to engage with the philosophical parts of this book if you don’t want to–the woman vs. nature story will be enjoyable regardless–but there’s an abundance of riches here if you’re an overthinker like me, and I love that VanderMeer has created a novel that works on so many levels.

Unfortunately, Annihilation‘s pacing and plot do fizzle at times. There’s a lot of doubling-back, both literal (the biologist hiking back and forth around Area X) and ideological (is Area X good? is it bad? what is it? we just don’t know). Sometimes there’s a heart-pounding action sequence that suddenly stops dead as the biologist reminisces about her life. And there are several revelations that left me scratching my head, and not in an exciting “I wonder what happens next” way: more of a “where could VanderMeer possibly be going with this?” way.

For me, it wasn’t enough to ruin my enjoyment, but if you’re the kind of person who can’t stand when characters act stubbornly and/or stupidly, you might find it to be a deal-breaker.

To be fair, some of the vagueness (though not the biologist’s stubbornness) could be attributable to Annihilation‘s position as the first book in the Southern Reach trilogy. I haven’t read the latter two books–Authority and Acceptance–yet, but I’ll gladly deliver a verdict when I finish the trilogy, which should be soon. I can’t wait for payday when I can splurge on those two in good conscience.

Ultimately, what I can’t get out of my head is Annihilation‘s drastic (and I think successful) experiments with selfhood and setting. VanderMeer creates a world in which giving up our individual needs to participate in collective systems instead–the human system of the Southern Reach, and the natural one of Area X–seems not only practical, but appealing. When you look at how society (especially Western society) is set up, inverting the reader’s perspective in that way is a tremendous achievement. I love that kind of ambition.

Annihilation is an immersive and reliable ticket out of everyday life for a few hours. It’s as visionary and cerebral as it is earthy and grounded, and I’m convinced there’s something here for everyone. Even if you don’t love the trip, it’s an unforgettable view out the window. ★★★★☆


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

Hot, Humid, Sleepy, Sexy: The Best Books About Summer

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

At least in the Northern Hemisphere, this week feels like summer’s apogee, complete with record heat and bad weather. To me, the 4th of July is to summer what Christmas is to winter: once it’s over, the season and its weather feel overwrought and pointless, except the 4th of July is nowhere near as fun as Christmas, so what’s the point at all?

Can you tell I’m not a summer person? Maybe it comes from growing up lackadaisically homeschooled: the season doesn’t have the same lazy magic when you’re off school all year round. Instead it’s just too hot, too sticky, and too full of bugs. Swimming’s good, though.

As it turns out, the reading’s good, too. Summer seems to inspire more great novels than any other season. The claustrophobic heat, the long vacations full of people you’ll never meet again, the bone-deep languor, no school, sleepaway camp, the smell of the chlorine at the community pool, the beach…it’s all a recipe for stories as thick with tension and unrequited feelings as pea soup.

In honor of what I’m officially dubbing Peak Summer Week, I’ve compiled some of my very favorite books about summer and its aftermath below.


A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | My Review

9781936787579This novel is set in Australia, so summer is turned on its head, at least as far as the calendar year goes. If you’re an American reader like me (especially one from the frigid North), you’ll probably be charmed by the idea of a blazingly hot December in the bush. If you celebrate Christmas, it’s especially weird to read about how different seasonal tradition becomes when it’s 90+° Fahrenheit outside instead of -28°, like it was this year where I live.

But A Loving, Faithful Animal‘s appeal goes way beyond that novelty. It explores what happens to a family when a father, tormented by his memories of service in the Australian military during Vietnam, runs away one last time. It’s about a once-privileged mother, viciously abused by her husband, who’s desperately trying to hold it together. It’s about two sisters trying to escape the gravity of poverty and desperation. It’s one of the best novels about the working class that I’ve ever read (though even that’s an oversimplification) and it’s a gorgeous summertime coming-of-age novel, too. Just read it.

September Girls by Bennett Madison

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

September Girls CoverTo say this book is polarizing would be an understatement. If you look at its Goodreads page, it’s a pretty even mix of 1-star reviews and 5-star reviews. The biggest critique of it seems to be that it’s piggishly sexist, but one of the biggest praises of is that it deftly deconstructs sexism. If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear where you fall in the comments below, but I, for one, unabashedly love this book.

It’s a YA novel (with lots of crossover appeal for adults, too) about teenaged Sam, who gets whisked off to a beach vacation with his brother by their absent-minded father. The town is full of Girls: beautiful blondes who occupy every possible summer job in town. When Sam begins to fall for Dee Dee, one of the Girls, he uncovers a bizarre secret: they’re all mermaids. The secret is mermaids! And if you’re thinking that a coming-of-age story about a boy who falls in love with mermaids would be corny and weird instead of achingly sad and fascinating, well, I don’t blame you…but you’ll have to trust me when I say it’s the latter.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Bell Jar CoverIf you’ve read it, how could you possibly forget the way Plath opens this novel by talking about the summer the Rosenbergs were electrocuted? The Bell Jar is classic anytime, but it’s especially a classic summer novel to me. Plath captures the hot, stinky claustrophobia of a New York summer perfectly, as well as the way summers can feel much quieter but just as dangerous everywhere else. It follows Esther, a gifted writer and intern at a fashion magazine who spins out into a frightening episode of mental illness.

As you may know if you’ve stuck around this blog awhile, I have bipolar disorder, so this book has a particularly special place in my heart: summer’s long days and short nights can be very hard on people with mood disorders. (I literally have to schedule extra mental health appointments in the summer to compensate.) In Plath’s hands, summer isn’t a time for vacation, but rather a sinister and unescapable force, which is how it’s felt in my own life since my bipolar onset in my teens. Even if you don’t have that experience, The Bell Jar is unforgettable and lovely–you won’t regret making the time to read it, if you haven’t already.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | My Review

9780735224292Where to begin? This book is flawless. It follows two families, one stubbornly suburban and set in their ways and the other free-floating and untraditional, as they become irreversibly intertwined. There’s an unforgettable contested adoption and court case that had my loyalties switching every other page. There are several coming-of-age stories happening at once, each distinct and achingly beautiful. And it all happens during a heady, sordid summer during the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal–a setting Ng makes deft use of to make her characters’ loss of innocence all the more bittersweet and palpable.

Ng does things with words I had previously thought were impossible. She manages to make a quiet literary novel about suburbia feel like a thriller. Little Fires Everywhere feels subtle while you’re reading it, but at the end you realize that your heart has taken quite a beating while your eyes were glued to the page. This book is un-missable. Seriously.

The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

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I’ve packed this post full of heavy-hitting reads, so I wanted to include something lighter and uplifting for those who need it. And even if you don’t think you need it, this one is worth checking out this summer anyway.

The Wedding Date isn’t as heavily summer-themed as others on this list, but 1) it’s set in California, where it’s always kind of like summer (at least in this Minnesotan’s imagination),  2) wedding season and all its fake date potential is totally a summer thing, and 3) it’s the absolute perfect, platonic ideal of a beach read. When Drew invites Alexa to be his fake date for an ex’s wedding, things get more deliciously complicated (and sexy) than either of them could have dreamed. Even if you’re not into romance, I can practically guarantee you’ll love this book. It’s got everything you could want in a book: sweet, sour, salty, umami, and even a touch of bitter. (That analogy made sense in my head, I swear.) It’s an entire reading palate unto itself. Don’t miss it.


What summer classics did I miss? Drop your favorites in the comments below–I’d love to hear them.

Friday Bookbag, 7.6.18

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.

I’m back after my restful hiatus (the surgery was a raging success!) and I’m ready to catch up on all the reading I’ve fallen behind on this month. These books have more than whet my appetite. Let’s dive in!


The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun (translated by Sora Kim-Russell)

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Hole Cover

the premise: Ogi caused a car accident that killed his wife and left him severely disabled. As he reckons with intense grief and guilt, his mother-in-law begins acting strangely, causing him to question everything he thought he knew about his former life with his wife.

why I’m excited: This book was a massive success in Korea, and the English translation was a nominee for the 2017 Shirley Jackson awards. It’s a terrifying, novella-length thriller that’s apparently reminiscent of Stephen King’s Misery. Doesn’t that sound amazing? I’m in. (I’m also seriously excited about the state of Korean literature, since this book also sounds reminiscent of The Vegetarian by Han Kang, which I loved. I hope the success of these books spurs more translations into English.)

All the Ever Afters: The Untold Story of Cinderella’s Stepmother by Danielle Teller

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

9780062798206the premise: It’s right there in the title: All the Ever Afters is the story of Cinderella’s stepmother. In this version, stepmother Agnes starts out as a serf and nursemaid to Ella, the beautiful, ethereal girl who will eventually become a princess. After Ella’s marriage, horrible rumors begin to spread about her childhood,  and Agnes fights to hold on to the real story.

why I’m excited: I’m not sure if any Cinderella-related story is actually “untold” at this point–it’s one of the most popular and most-adapted stories of all time–but this one caught my eye because it looks like it’ll dig deep on the misogyny and class politics that underpin the fairy tale. I hope it’s not too gritty, since I’ve gotten quite sick of Gregory Maguire-style retellings (which this is getting compared to), but I’m excited to give it a shot.

Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Girls Burn Brighter Coverthe premise: Poornima and Savitha are best friends living in an impoverished Indian village, but when an act of staggering cruelty drives the two girls apart, Poornima is determined to be reunited with her best friend. She escapes an arranged marriage and travels the breadth of India and the world on her mission, uncovering startling secrets along the way.

why I’m excited: You know, this one could be hit or miss for me. I sometimes struggle with the kind of novel, like this one, that seems determined to expose the horrible underbelly of the world. But the focus on the girls’ friendship is a strong point in its favor, as are the extremely positive reviews the book has received. I’m hoping the pessimist in me is wrong and that the optimist in me finds the insides of this book to be as brilliant and striking as its cover design.

Cross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

9780062856791the premise: Lisa is a single mother living a quiet life–too quiet, at least according to her daughter, Ava, who wishes to live a normal life with her secret boyfriend. Lisa’s friend Marilyn is concerned about Lisa’s isolation, but she has problems of her own. When a betrayal buried deep in Lisa’s past threatens to have terrible consequences in the present, the secrets these three women keep from each other become explosive–and devastating.

why I’m excited: I received this advance reader copy from the publisher (it doesn’t come out until September) and I am beyond excited for it. I’m a huge fan of literary thrillers, especially ones starring women. I also can’t get enough of the “dark secrets in her past” trope. This and Pinborough’s earlier novel, Behind Her Eyes, have gotten rave reviews from people like Stephen King; the buzz they’ve already generated in Pinborough’s native U.K. is astonishing. I can’t wait to lose an afternoon or two to this one.


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 MARS ROOM by Rachel Kushner

The Mars Room begins on a claustrophobic prison bus, but from there, it opens wide to a tableau of prison, poverty, gentrification, stripping, sex work, murder, and references to Henry David Thoreau and Ted Kaczynski. It’s technically a novel about Romy Hall, a mother who’s facing two consecutive life sentences, but it’s full of other interlinking stories, too: some brutal, some hopeful, most sad. It’s a novel that’s unsettling as much as it is enthralling. It’s not often that I feel I encounter capital-L Literature: a book that will be read and analyzed and loved decades or centuries from now and not just in this year or next year. I think that The Mars Room is that kind of literature.

You can read my full review below.


The Mars Room Cover.jpg

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Scribner Book Company (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
  • publication date: May 1, 2018
  • length: 352 pages
  • cover price: $27.00

Do you ever notice that women can seem common while men never do? You won’t ever hear anyone describe a man’s appearance as common. The common man means the average man, a typical man, a decent hardworking person of modest dreams and resources. A common woman is a woman who looks cheap. A woman who looks cheap doesn’t have to be respected, and so she has a certain value, a certain cheap value.

The Mars Room, page 25

Romy Hall’s life is over. Convicted of murdering her stalker, she’s been separated from her 7-year-old son and prickly German mother in order to serve two consecutive life sentences (plus six years) in a women’s prison. After thirty-seven years, she will see the parole board that will determine if she can start serving the second sentence–requisite on good behavior, of course.

But what motivation possibly exists for good behavior when you know you’re going to be behind bars forever either way? Not much, I imagine, and The Mars Room tells the sometimes sordid, always riveting story of Romy’s bad behaviors past and present, inside and outside the prison.

There are other linked characters whose stories we experience, too, including a former leg model on death row, a dirty L.A. cop with an intriguing moral code, and a well-meaning G.E.D. teacher who gets in over his head with the women at the prison.

The Mars Room excels at casting light on the absurdities, hypocrisies, and desperations that exist in the American criminal justice system (and in our society at large). Its characters seem to exist perpetually at the end of a rope, and in a less-good novel, I might have pitied them. This novel, however, evokes feelings that are much more complex: I wanted to scold, wanted to yell, wanted to embrace, wanted to weep. It’s an emotional symphony that’s unbearably loud but also impossible to walk away from.

Kushner writes characters who are as frustrating as they are compelling. Sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and fatphobia are intense and constant presences here, and slurs and vicious acts are perpetrated by every character. At first I found it too upsetting to handle and set the book aside. I’m glad I went back, though: Kushner seems to truly understand what people tick, and that includes bigotry. It doesn’t feel like it’s there for shock value; it isn’t malevolent so much as mundane, and somehow that mundanity is even more chilling than a clear-cut villain would be.

The literary community has been buzzing with talk of “unlikeable” female characters lately (most recently in this excellent interview with Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl and Sharp Objects fame), and I think that The Mars Room digs deeper into that idea than any novel I’ve ever read before, and here’s why:

There’s a world of difference between an “unlikeable” protagonist like Amy Dunne of Gone Girl–a wealthy white woman who speaks truth to a power that she also, sort of, possesses–and an unlikeable protagonist like Romy, a sex worker who lives in a hotel in the Tenderloin, who leaves her son with random babysitters, who steals and does drugs and manipulates men into giving her what she wants, whose own lawyer won’t let her take the stand because he knows the jury will hate her.

One kind of unlikeable woman has a go, grrl! cachet (like alleged scammer Anna Delvey, though as far as we know Delvey isn’t a sociopathic murderer like Dunne), and one gets sent to prison for life with no friends, no family, no lovers, and no advocates, like tens of thousands of real women nationwide.

Its virtuoso character development aside, The Mars Room also features some damn good settings. Kushner paints a portrait of a seedy-but-rapidly-gentrifying San Francisco in word-pictures as neon and memorable as strip club lights. The Mars Room is set in the early 2000s, around the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the claustrophobic jingoism of that moment adds immeasurably to the novel. We don’t hear so much about the inside of the prison as we do about the polluted valley where it’s located: a smart decision, I think, since most readers have an ample idea of what a prison looks like. A poisoned, isolated scrap of California eucalyptus and redwood forest was much more frightening and interesting to me than cinderblock walls.

Lastly, Kushner’s prose is simply magic. I can’t decide whether there’s a lot happening in The Mars Room or barely anything; it’s told mostly in flashbacks which are usually a tension-killer for me. Yet in Kushner’s skilled hands, stories that should be foregone conclusions (prisoners facing life, prisoners facing the death penalty) are as gripping as an action movie. Kushner takes the world we see every day and clarifies it into something eerie and hyper-real, something that literally kept me up at night while I was reading.

The Mars Room is a triumph: a novel that is at once sharp and declarative, fuzzy and gray. I could argue a million different things about it and I’m sure you could argue ten million back at me. It’s unforgettable. Don’t miss it. ★★★★★


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

The SHARP OBJECTS miniseries on HBO: Are you planning to tune in?

The HBO adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s 2006 debut novel, Sharp Objects, starts broadcasting on Sunday, July 8th!

It stars Amy Adams as a self-harming journalist who returns to her Missouri hometown to investigate a series of brutal murders of young girls, and the trailer moves from kinda-creepy to goddamn terrifying in the span of 90 seconds:

*flails*

I read the book back in 2016 and it was truly one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever read. I have a low tolerance for horror, especially psychiatric horror, but Gillian Flynn hooked me with Sharp Objects just as much as she repulsed me. It’s a complicated book that touches on all sorts of common mental illness triggers but also turns stigma on its head. It’s deeply upsetting but you can’t put it down. What a feat.

Flynn is best known for her novel Gone Girl, and while I love that book (and the movie adaptation) with all my heart, I think Sharp Objects might be an even tighter story structurally and conceptually. This wonderful interview with Flynn about female rage and unlikable characters only increased my excitement for the adaptation–she’s been heavily involved in the series’ development since day 1, so I think viewers have a good chance of a home run here.

I’m sure that the Sharp Objects miniseries is going to leave me trembling and sleeping with the lights on, but I plan to give it a shot anyway. If I can tolerate it, I might even give weekly recaps a try here on the blog.

What do you think? Have you read Sharp Objects? Are you excited about HBO’s newest addition to its Sunday night lineup? Let me know in the comments!

Sharp Objects debuts Sunday, July 8th at 9pm Eastern on HBO and HBO GO.