Why I read women (or, why “universal” literature is bunk)

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If you’ve spent any time on my blog–if so, thank you! –I think you’ll soon realize how few books by men I seek out, read, and write about. Scanning back a few months, the last two books by men that I’ve mentioned were Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan (in September) and November Road by Lou Berney, in a Friday Bookbag all the way back at the beginning of August.

It’s not that there aren’t books by men that I enjoy. To discount the artistic ability of nearly half the population would be absurd, right? (Ha.) It’s that, for me, reading is personal. I have always read what I want to read, and I want to read about women.

Luckily, at least in this regard, I grew up homeschooled. (The only formal schooling I got before college was one hellish year in kindergarten.) While the experience was a mixed bag, one thing I remain grateful for was that my mother did not insist I read classics, leaving me instead to read…well, everything else.

Before starting this blog, I ran a YA book blog titled “Bibliophilia – Maggie’s Bookshelf” (clearly, I’m not particularly creative with blog names) from 2009-2013 or so. I took it down some time ago–it was full of embarrassing coming-of-age content that I no longer wanted to broadcast to the web–but the experience was profound. It was my first exposure to ARCs, reviews, the ins and outs of publishing, and most importantly, the incredible diversity of books that are out there if you’re willing to find them.

Once, both for that blog and for my own enjoyment, I read 365 books in a year. It’s a great fun fact.

And yet I’ve never read Moby Dick. I’ve never read Lord of the Flies or 1984 or Lolita or Steinbeck or Twain or Dostoyevsky or any of the dozens more defining books of the English-language canon.

It’s not something I’m proud of, per se, because canons exist to create common ground, and no reader is an island. I may not have read Moby Dick but I have read countless other books by authors who care a lot about Moby Dick. To be so unfamiliar with their source material is a loss, not a gain.

But I still don’t know if I’ll ever read Moby Dick, because I value fun–or at the very least, human connection–in what I read, and Moby Dick strikes me as neither fun nor about the kind of humans I care for, although perhaps I would be interested in the whale. If that makes me a bad reader, so be it.

There is also, quite simply, so much else to read.

I once began a college essay with “I have never been fond of feminism as a way of being.” It was an essay for an English literature class; an essay on Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, no less. It’s an essay I look back on with a fair amount of embarrassment, but also, strangely, delight.

Because earlier that same year, I devoured Mockingjay, hunting an elusive release day copy at every bookstore in town. I would soon be introduced to Tris of Divergent. I already loved the kooky, Southern Belle-esque feminine wiles of Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves, about a schizophrenic biracial girl who returns to a Lovecraftian Texas town to fight monsters. I was enthralled by Gemma Doyle, Libba Bray’s Victorian witchy badass who has a vulnerable side, too. I was addicted to Philippa Gregory’s “historical,” smutty novels about the women of Tudor England. Which is to say nothing of Katsa or Lauren Olamina or Offred, or–heaven help me–Bella Swan, or Merricat and Constance of We Have Always Lived in the Castle itself, or the dozens of other intense, prickly, complex heroines who have profoundly shaped my life.

I am delighted by my crappy college essay because it has the broken-clock quality of understanding that feminism, to me, is not a way of being, at least not in any cohesive sense. It is merely–and perhaps that is the wrong word–merely the acknowledgment that the lives of women and nonbinary people are not second-rate. (Revolutionarily.)

Their stories aren’t second-rate, either, something I must have understood already, based on my tastes. Based, as well, on my analysis of Jackson’s creepy, idiosyncratic, lovely novel about two sisters, an uncle, and a sugar bowl. I still think that analysis is quite good; I found that novel to be deadly serious, and still do, just as I find the lives of young girls everywhere to be deadly serious.

If I were to assemble a personal canon, here are the novels I would place most prominently within it:

  • The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
  • History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
  • Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
  • Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
  • and, yes, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.

It is not the canon. It is a canon, and I am always re-shaping it. It is a key to my heart and also, somehow, my heart itself. I encourage you to develop your own.

My life is not second-rate. My experiences are not second-rate. And neither of the stories of other oft-forgottens, especially the stories of Black women, Indigenous women, and other women of color. I am always reading–devouring–stories that affirm that truth, however frivolous they seem. (In fact, the more frivolous, the better.) This is an act of self-love and an act of love for the universe.

It is not that I find the male literary canon to be irrelevant. It is that it is a treasure that already has a home and a prominent shelf to itself.

And I am looking to find treasures of my own.

Friday Bookbag, 10.19.18

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.

Since it’s been so long since a Friday Bookbag (er…that was in early August, to be exact), this will be a loosey-goosey, mega-stuffed, big ol’ omnibus post full of the books that have come and gone from my possession over the past couple months. No time to waste. Let’s dive in!


Sabrina and Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Sabrina and Corina Coverthe premise: Sabrina and Corina is Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s debut collection of short stories, centered on Indigenous Latina women living in the American West. Her characters include mothers and daughters, sex workers and prisoners, ancestors and descendants.

why I’m excited: Sabrina and Corina doesn’t release until April 2019, but I was lucky enough to be approved for a review copy on Netgalley. I’m so excited for this one that it makes my fingertips tingle. I love the innovation and beauty happening in the short story collection space right now: it seems that more collections are being published by major presses than there have been in a long time. I’m thrilled that this one (with that gorgeous cover!) gets to see the light of day in mainstream publishing. Fajardo-Anstine is working with familiar short story themes of family, legacy, and death, but she populates them with settings and characters that feel fresh and timely in this climate. I just can’t wait for April, when you’ll all get to dive into this one with me. (It’s currently available for pre-order.)

Starless by Jacqueline Carey

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble IndieBound

34357122the premise: Khai has been training from birth to protect the Princess Zariya, in a world where gods walk among humans and magic reigns. When a secret and a dark god threaten to upend his world, Khai must journey to the ends of the earth, deep beneath starless skies, to save himself and Zariya both.

why I’m excited: I did a Ballyhoo about this one way back in May and I’m excited to say that I finally got to the top of the library waiting list for it. Jacqueline Carey is one of the most thrilling authors working in fantasy today: she transforms familiar fantasy tropes (fantasy, fated mates, broody warriors, fierce yet vulnerable princesses) into powerhouses of storytelling that rip my heart out of my chest and stomp on it. I’m a die-hard fan of her Kushiel novels and I can’t wait to lose myself in this new world of hers.

Just Kids by Patti Smith

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Just Kids Coverthe premise: Just Kids is rock legend Patti Smith’s memoir of her storied relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, beginning with her sickly, dreamy childhood in New Jersey and continuing with her bohemian years in New York City as an artist and poet crossing paths with legends from Janis Joplin to Bob Dylan to Lou Reed.

why I’m excited: This one feels like cheating to include, since I’ve read it so many times before, including for the most recent time last week (when I bought an e-book copy, which is why I’ve included it). It’s a memoir that has profoundly shaped my life: it’s hard not to feel inspired and awed by Smith’s work as an artist. Just Kids could so easily have been a self-hagiography–and frankly, Patti Smith has earned such an indulgence–but it’s not. It’s a slim, modest book that’s at its heart a love story, sometimes romantic and sometimes powerfully platonic, between her and Mapplethorpe. What a gift to get a peek into a New York arts scene that’s long since vanished, and what a gift that Smith is a talented enough writer to make that peek a work of literature instead of a mere voyeuristic exercise.

Incendiary Girls by Kodi Scheer

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Incendiary Girls Coverthe premise: Like Sabrina and Corina, Incendiary Girls is a short story collection that feels uniquely able to exist because of the short story renaissance. Incendiary Girls is a madcap, magical, humorous romp through modern life, with characters ranging from a woman whose mother has been reincarnated as a Thoroughbred mare to an unorthodox angel.

why I’m excited: I’m wary of short story collections that seem self-consciously irreverent, and this one’s wacky advertised premises definitely come across that way. But there’s something about it that captured me. Maybe it’s that cover, which is gloriously understated even as the stories seem like they’re anything but. Maybe it’s that it seems that Scheer’s characters are mostly women, a quality I always seek out in my fiction. Either way, I took a chance on it, and I’m looking forward to seeing whether or not it pays off.

American Street by Ibi Zoboi

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

American Street Coverthe premise: American Street is a YA novel about a Haitian teenager, Fabiola Touissant, who finds herself uprooted with her family to harsh Detroit. She struggles to find her footing, but just as it seems she might finally do so, she faces a choice that could shatter everything.

why I’m excited: This book is an instant YA classic. It’s universally beloved by the book-tweeters I follow (shameless self-plug that I am also a book-tweeter) and I’m so excited to finally get the chance to read it. American Street seems to have everything I want in a contemporary YA story: a protagonist making the best of a bad situation, an identity crisis, a sharp look at the problems real teens face all over the world. (And a gorgeous cover, too.) Love, love, love.

We Were Mothers by Katie Sise

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

We Were Mothers coverthe premise: In a picturesque, repressed, tight-knit suburban town, two families become entangled in a web of secrets around one daughter’s illicit encounter and another’s disappearance.

why I’m excited: Consider this yet another fix for my twisty-turny, Gone Girl-esque thriller habit. I’ll be honest: this one sounds like Big Little Lies-lite to me (and also like a less thoughtful version of Little Fires Everywhere), and I’m pretty sure I won’t love it…but like I said, it’s a fix. I love this kind of book, so I’ll reserve official judgment on its seemingly derivative elements till I read it.

On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

On the Edge of Gone Coverthe premise: A comet is scheduled to hit the earth in 2035. Denise, her sister, and her mother Iris are on their way to a temporary shelter in Amsterdam, but then Iris disappears and Denise’s drug-addicted mother seems in no hurry to reach the shelter. Luckily, Denise receives another opportunity to survive: to leave earth on a ship that will colonize other worlds after the comet hits. There’s just one catch: everyone on board must have a useful skill, but Denise is autistic, which she fears will disqualify her from a new life among the stars.

why I’m excited: Literally everything about this premise excites me. An imminent societal collapse that isn’t a grim-dark moral on how crappy humanity is, a setting in Amsterdam (more YA set in other countries that isn’t an “issue novel” about those countries, please), and an autistic protagonist who seems to have a great deal of agency. It’s interesting sci-fi with something to say about the world that feels fresh. Love. Can’t wait to start turning the pages of this one.

The Girl with the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Girl with the Red Balloon Coverthe premise: Try reading that title and looking at that cover without humming “99 Luftballons” to yourself–you can’t. And just like the song, The Girl with the Red Balloon’s story hails from a divided Berlin. 16-year-old Ellie Baum accidentally warps to East Berlin in 1988, a city about to (almost literally) shatter. She falls in with the Balloonmakers, a secretive guild who use magic and balloons to help people escape over the wall. But it soon becomes clear that someone is using dark magic to manipulate history, putting Ellie at the center of a battle for the future.

why I’m excited: I can’t believe how untapped the Berlin Wall is as a setting for fiction, especially YA. It’s hard to imagine a more potent real-life event to set a story in. It feels more relevant today than ever, and it also serves as a potent metaphor for the battles over identity and selfhood that teenagers face every day. The Girl with the Red Balloon strikes me as genuinely innovative and interesting, a YA like no other I can think of. How wonderful.


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 back!

…and newly married, honeymooned, and more relaxed than I’ve felt in what seems like years. So relaxed, in fact, that I can’t quite seem to focus on books just yet. But since I can never stay away from reading (or opinion-giving) for long, I’m sure you’ll see me back here soon. I’ve got a number of library holds and NetGalley requests pending that have me extremely excited, after all. I might do a post this week just about those. Hmmm…

In the meantime, here’s a photo of me and my wife taken just before our ceremony that’s giving me warm fuzzies every time I look at it:

Photo of the Brides

image description: a photo of two very happy-looking people in white poufy dresses. My now-wife Serena is on the left. She is wearing a veil, pearl earrings, and a pearl necklace. I am on the right wearing a tiara. We are embracing in front of a brick background.

Thanks for sticking around, dear readers, and I’ll see you soon!

Book Review: EVENTIDE by Therese Bohman

Eventide follows Karolina Andersson, an art history professor who finds herself in a personal (and possibly, career) rut after a passionless breakup with a long-term partner, Karl Johan. Drifting aimlessly through life in Stockholm, she becomes involved with several old and new flames, along with a good-looking graduate student who promises to have unearthed a secret for his dissertation that could revolutionize the history of Swedish art. It’s a spare, self-contained novel that feels both achingly melancholy and surprisingly light on its feet. I am always charmed by novels that choose a small story to tell and then execute it perfectly; Eventide is such a novel. At times Eventide feels just a little too small, but its precise prose (translated from the original Swedish) and outsize emotional power make it more than worth the read.

You can read my full review below.


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Eventide by Therese Bohman (translated by Marlaine Delargy)

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Other Press
  • publication date: April 10, 2018 (originally published in Sweden in 2016)
  • length: 208 pages
  • cover price: $15.95

…Karolina liked her new home. It had soon begun to feel like an oasis, a space of her own, maybe somewhere she could make a fresh start, even if that was still some way beyond the horizon. For the moment it was a good location for a period of aimless confusion.

Eventide, page 5

I am struck, frequently, by how few books we have that are really about women. Not just starring women, not just written by women, but about women. It’s not that books about women are inherently better than other kinds of books. I’d just as soon read books that are about dragons, or sword-fighting, or cold-blooded murder, or pirates, or even about men.

It’s just that there are so many women, and so few stories about them, that the artificial scarcity hurts my heart. It boggles my mind. So when I find a book like Eventide, which is an intimate, specific, compassionate, but not sappy novel that is intensely concerned with the woman at its center, I find myself with an abundance of goodwill towards that book, maybe even unfairly.

Luckily, Eventide deserves that goodwill. It’s a tightly crafted, slim novel about an art professor, generically named Karolina Andersson, who is dealing with personal and professional upheaval. She’s good at her job, as far as the reader can tell, but she finds herself romantically adrift and desperately sad about it. She ends a long-term relationship because she knew it wasn’t the right fit, but endlessly despairs that that relationship, flawed as it was, might have been her only shot.

The novel circles this self-pitying drain for nearly its entire duration, but somehow, it rarely feels stale or overdone. In fact, it’s refreshing.

In a less skilled author’s hands, Eventide might only have been one more novel about the “biological clock.” For Bohman, Eventide‘s basic plot is a probing instrument to get at all sorts of unjust truths about society, even a society as supposedly egalitarian as Stockholm, Sweden’s.

The driving force of the plot is that Andersson’s newly assigned Ph.D candidate, Anton Strömberg, has uncovered a startling connection between an obscure female Swedish artist and a male-dominated German arts movement. If this sounds boring and academic, I understand; I’m not sure how to convince you that it’s not boring, other than to say that it isn’t.

Bohman infuses Karolina and Anton’s interactions with a tautness and sexuality that make the art rather secondary. That’s true of all the art history in the book, in fact. For Karolina (and the reader, at least for Eventide‘s duration), the intellectual and the sensual are inseparable.

I dislike when people try and reduce feminism in fiction to feminist characters. Is Katniss Everdeen a feminist character? Is Lizzie Bennett? Hester Prynne? And so on, and so forth. I think a better question is whether or not a novel fully realizes the power structures that women are subjected to. By expecting perfection from our heroines, I fear that we are doing the opposite of feminism.

In contrast, Karolina’s imperfection was the thing I loved most about Eventide, even when I found her to be frustrating, unethical, and claustrophobically self-centered; even when I found her story to be a bit boring and repetitive. This is a novel that understands that there is no right thing to do or say that makes things fair in a profoundly unfair world. Sometimes things go badly, and there’s little morality (or immorality) to it.

Towards the end of the novel, there’s a long meditation on the fact that no one really “deserves” anything, so you might as well strive for what you want. In a lot of fiction and pop culture, this viewpoint (which is hardly unique) comes across as defeatist or greedy; in Eventide, though, it feels different:

If no one deserves anything, that means you are just as entitled to the good things in life as the rival you hate, as the ex-lover you vilify. There is no need to keep hating them or vilifying them or giving them endless mental energy when you can simply ignore them and pursue your own desires. You are not more, or less, moral for doing so.

Eventide suggests that endlessly sorting ourselves into “deserving” and “undeserving” is a trap we can free ourselves from. It’s a message, without being, in the preachy sense, a Message.

Eventide has a small and perfectly balanced center of gravity. It is not a novel that is explosive, glorious, unforgettable, or even vivid. It is simply a little thing done well, modest and purely itself. It’s the person at the party who’s quiet all night, and then says one tiny thing just before leaving that stays with you forever.

In short, Eventide is lovely. ★★★★☆


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

My favorite book covers of 2018 (so far)

“Never judge a book by its cover” is an uber-cliché; in fact, it’s such a boring and trite cliché that it’s spawned a whole second cliché that’s the opposite: “yes, do judge a book by its cover.” But we all do both anyway, right? Judge and not judge? It’s enough to give you a headache.

As with most clichés, the truth is somewhere in between. I try not to let a bad cover put me off an otherwise good book, especially since writers don’t usually have a say in their design. But it’s also true that a spectacular cover will embed a book in my mind, making me more likely to seek it out and less likely to forget it when I’m done.

2018 has been a year of spectacular covers in publishing, with more beautiful books than I could possibly hope to read in 9 or so months. That’s why I’ve narrowed my list down to my 5 favorite covers of books I’ve read this year so far. Let’s dig in!

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An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

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

A flat image on a computer screen doesn’t do this cover justice–in person, it’s a glittering metallic–just like a book review can’t possibly do the novel justice. An American Marriage follows a Black couple, their relationship tumultuous but also passionate and strong, who are separated when the husband, Roy, is falsely accused and imprisoned for rape for years. His wife, Celestial, tries to pick up the pieces, and falls in love with her childhood friend, Andre. It’s a novel so star-crossed that it hurts to read, but it’s also vibrantly hopeful, full of vivid romantic and sensory detail that transported me completely into Roy, Celestial, and Andre’s world.

The cover design is simple but intriguing. The golden tree is beautiful, but the metallic finish makes it look a little like prison bars. Family is a major theme of the novel, so a tree on the cover is especially appropriate; its branches soar but there are no roots to speak of. The font, also, strikes me as looking a little bit like something you’d see in colonial America: perfect for a novel that speaks to the legacy of American slavery. All in all, that simple image belies a deeper meaning–just like the novel suggests that simple narratives aren’t always as they seem.

The Mars Room Cover

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

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

The woman on the cover of The Mars Room looks vulnerable and ready to fight, diminutive but with an outsize attitude. The Mars Room is a vicious, blistering book about a woman named Romy Hall who’s incarcerated for life for killing her stalker. It’s morally complex but also simple at the same time: it posits that Romy is neither good or bad, but shades of grey; it also seems to posit that no one, even if they were bad, deserves the brutal dehumanization of prison.

The cover is as dark, gritty, and somehow alight as the Tenderloin district of San Francisco (where much of the novel is set). It’s grim but captivating. You know the woman in that photograph won’t take any shit, except, of course, for the mountains of shit that have already been shoveled her way. Both cover and novel are unforgettable.

Convenience Store Woman Cover

Convenience Store Woman by Sayata Muraka

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

Convenience Store Woman is a charming short novel (almost novella-length) about Keiko Furukura, a woman in her 30s who devotes her entire life and self to working in a convenience store. Her friends and family are baffled as to why she chooses not to get married or get a “real” job, but for Keiko, the convenience store is all she needs. The novel is frank and observant, equal parts achingly sad and laugh-out-loud. It’s one of the best portrayals of an autistic character I’ve ever read. It’s sweet with sharp edges, never cloying or infantilizing.

I don’t have many deep things to say about this cover except that it’s completely adorable. The exquisite design of something as simple and ordinary as a rice  ball (a.k.a onigiri) seems to promise that the story within will be just as surprisingly lovely, and author Sayaka Murata delivers wholeheartedly.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation Cover

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

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

Sometimes less is more. That’s both the philosophy of this cover and of My Year of Rest and Relaxation‘s unnamed heroine, who decides to drug herself to sleep for an entire year in her New York apartment in 2000. She’s disenchanted and rich and working with a psychiatrist so unbelievably unethical that it made me cringe; she doesn’t care about anything, which means, somehow, that she cares about everything. It’s a difficult book to read. For all its flat affect, it’s also extremely beautiful and emotional.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation is historical fiction set in a very recent past–the held-breath-that-no-one-knew-they-were-holding before September 11th, 2001 in New York City–which makes its cover design all the more clever. The painting is clearly historical, but the woman’s sardonic facial expression and the bold, hot-pink font speak of more recent times. The novel’s protagonist is described as a waif-like blonde, but I couldn’t help picturing her like the cover. The image gets its hooks in your mind and stays there, just like the story does.

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

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

In the nonfiction book Sharp, Michelle Dean documents the interlinking histories of “sharp” (i.e. brilliant, insightful, and sometimes caustic) women writers of the 20th century, including Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, and Dorothy Parker. It’s a book that feels both academic and dishy: it’s well-researched and -written enough for it to feel “classy,” but brings its claws out enough to be terrific fun to read. It makes you feel like you know the women Dean is writing about.

That’s why I think its cover is especially perfect. The illustrations are charming, done in their own distinctive style, but each woman is fully recognizable as herself. It encapsulates the work Dean has done to create a through-line between these talented and influential writers, and it certainly catches your eye on the shelf.


Did I include any of your favorites? What covers have made you swoon in 2018? I want to hear about them. Leave them in the comments (and feel free to link to your own blog posts!).

Book Review: CRAZY RICH ASIANS by Kevin Kwan

Crazy Rich Girlfriend is Kevin Kwan’s romantic comedy send-up of his home country of Singapore. In it, Nick Young decides to take his girlfriend, Rachel Chu, with him for a 10-week vacation in Singapore. Unfortunately, he neglects to tell her that his family is ridiculously wealthy and that he happens to be the island’s most eligible bachelor. There are a few interlinking plotlines about Nick’s petty, spoiled family, along with delicious descriptions of food, luscious fashion porn, and plenty of sly political and social observations about the “crazy rich” of Asia. In the midst of all this opulence and bitchy drama, I found myself hard-up for someone to root for–that is, until the final 50 or so pages, which pierce the novel’s silly bubble to reveal a core much sharper and smarter than I had been expecting. I’m looking forward to books two and three in the trilogy: China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems, respectively.

You can read my full review below.


Crazy Rich Asians Cover.jpg

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Anchor Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
  • publication date: 2013
  • length: 544 pages
  • cover price: $16.00

“You probably want to prepare her a bit,” Astrid said with a laugh.

“What is there to prepare her for?” Nick asked breezily.

“Listen, Nicky,” Astrid said, her tone getting serious. “You can’t just throw Rachel into the deep end like this. You need to prep her, do you hear me?”

Crazy Rich Asians, page 40

Billionaire romance feels like my dirtiest habit. It’s not the romance part–I’m a proud romance reader–but the billionaire part. I’m a socialist, social justice killjoy, you see, if you haven’t picked that up already from reading this blog. So why do I eat up stories of the powerfully wealthy with a spoon? Why do I swoon over the gowns and the food and exotic destinations? I’m not sure, but I do.

I entered Crazy Rich Asians with no small amount of guilt and trepidation. From everything I’d heard (including about the smash hit movie, which I haven’t seen yet), Crazy Rich Asians wasn’t just about rich people: it was loud about rich people. It was unabashed in its glamour and wealth. It was downright tacky about it. It basically filled a ball pit with hundred dollar bills and paid a supermodel in a Louis Vuitton couture gown to roll around in it.

And I’ll admit, after reading Crazy Rich Asians, I don’t think I’ll be able to have my billionaire escapist fiction any other way. This novel is ridiculous. It’s ridiculously fun. Also, perhaps surprisingly, considering how romantic and frothy it is, it has a lot of  smart and resonant things to say, that it can only say because of how ridiculous it is.

As many, many a reviewer has said before me, Crazy Rich Asians is Jane Austen for the modern age. Its claws are out, its satire stings, but it’s also unabashedly a love letter to the things it’s critiquing. And just like as it is with the endless Mr. Darcy discourse, you’ll also be wondering just how romantic this romantic comedy really is by its end.

The plot is simple: a crazy rich guy (Nick) from a crazy rich family (the Youngs) asks his girlfriend (Rachel Chu), who doesn’t know he’s rich, to come with him on a 10-week trip to Singapore. Rumors spread like wildfire that Nick is going to ask her to marry him, and Rachel is subject to the most catty hatred imaginable, from his family and from other bachelorettes on the island. People mock her Chinese American identity and her middle class-ness. They call her a gold digger. Most of all, they want Nick (and his money and good name) for themselves.

Unfortunately, that wild plot also generates what I think the novel’s biggest weak point is: I actually didn’t like or trust any of the characters, not even Nick and Rachel.

First of all, Nick throws Rachel to the f***ing wolves extremely cavalierly and never seems to fully understand that it was wrong. Seriously. It’s horrifying. It’s almost villainous, and it killed any sympathy I might have had for him.

Second of all, Rachel is a bit of an enigma, and not in a good way. She’s effortlessly perfect in that classic romance heroine way, and it’s so slippery that I just couldn’t empathize with her. Despite the catty attacks she endures, she actually fits into Singaporean society (and hundred thousand dollar couture) effortlessly. Come on, girl! I would be freaking out, but she just goes with it. It didn’t ring true to me. (Her sweet but complicated relationship with her mom, though, is a highlight of the novel.)

And don’t even get me started on the rest of the characters: the third novel in the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy is called Rich People Problems, but that might as well be the subtitle of this one. I thought the novel was at its best when it was eviscerating these people, and at its most mealy-mouthed when it sympathized with them. It’s unfortunate, since that’s not entirely fair: people are people, and everyone really does have problems. But if 99% of your problems are self-inflicted…damn. I do start to lose patience at that point. Rachel’s best friend Peik Lin and her family are a nice antidote to the bitchiness, but it’s too little, too late.

Just when I was getting tired of the crazy richness, however, the novel takes an abrupt turn in its last fifty or so pages. The opulence bubble bursts to reveal an ugly underbelly full of piercing, heart-pounding emotional conflict. I won’t spoil it, but I went from wanting to rate this book a two or a three to feeling like it deserved a five by the end. I decided to compromise with four stars, but do know if you read it that there is a massive end payoff that more than justifies the saggy middle.

Crazy Rich Asians is a little too long, a little overstuffed, a little uncertain where the reader’s sympathies should lie. Despite that, it’s startlingly good and completely unique. Kwan expertly spins his personal experiences in Singapore into a novel that manages to satirize big picture politics as well as the tiniest familial idiosyncrasies. Even when I wasn’t loving the novel, I was in awe at Kwan’s storytelling. It’s the whole package: spicy, sweet, umami, salty, and bitter and sour enough to make you pucker.

I didn’t like every dish at this book’s banquet, but the experience is unforgettable–and you can bet I’ll be reading the rest of the trilogy. ★★★★☆


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

Margaret Atwood, Han Kang, and more will bury their new novels for 100 years. What do you think about the Future Library Project?

Yesterday I was reading the Literary Hub newsletter (ever a goldmine) and ran across the news that a new novel by Han Kang, along with work by Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Elif Shafak, and Sjón, will be part of an art project called “Future Library.” Scottish artist Katie Paterson has asked that no one see the new books except for the authors themselves. The new novels won’t be read for 100 years, when a grove of Norwegian spruce trees planted in 2014 will mature and be cut down in order to print them.

nature forest trees fog
Photo by Jaymantri on Pexels.com

My first reaction is…what?! This seems terribly gimmicky to me, like most time capsule projects do. Who will be in charge of making sure this actually happens in 100 years? Will these authors even be remembered? Will anyone care? (Even remarkably popular, talented, and prolific authors aren’t guaranteed to age well in people’s memories.)

But maybe that’s a selfish reaction, and one that Paterson is deliberately trying to provoke. I can’t help but feel like something is being stolen from me. I especially don’t like the idea of missing out on new Han Kang, who wrote one of my favorite novels, The Vegetarianas well as Human Acts.

What say you, readers? Will this art project be an aching testament to the power of time and imagination? Or is it a waste of perfectly good words from some of the greatest novelists working today?

You can read more about the Future Library Project over at The GuardianHan Kang had some especially lovely comments about why she’s excited about the project–even if I’m still feeling grouchy about not getting to read this newest novel of hers.