Friday Bookbag, 6.14.19

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 weekend my wife and I are looking forward to some fun Father’s Day plans with my father-in-law (on Saturday) and with my dad (on Sunday). It’s not going to leave a lot of time for reading, but it’s putting a sunny spin on my next few days nonetheless. And if Father’s Day is a difficult day for you, as Mother’s Day very much is for me, I hope you take excellent care of yourself this weekend and get to curl up with the very best books and a good cup of tea.

I’m even more excited than usual about the books I nabbed this week. Let’s dive in!


Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill (with Lisa Pulitzer)

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Beyond Belief Cover
cover description: a young white blonde girl in white robes smiles at the camera in what appears to be a family photo.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“Jenna Miscavige was raised to obey. As niece of the Church of Scientology’s leader David Miscavige, she grew up at the center of this controversial organization. At 21, she made a break, risking everything she’d ever known and loved to leave Scientology once and for all. Now she speaks out about her life, the Church, her escape, going deep inside a religion that, for decades, has been the subject of fierce debate and speculation worldwide.

Piercing the veil of secrecy that has shrouded the world of Scientology, this insider reveals unprecedented firsthand knowledge of the religion, its rituals and its mysterious leader—David Miscavige.”

why I’m excited: I’ve been on a kick of consuming content about cults niche movements this month. (Which is part of a broader pattern of me lapping this stuff up.) I’m currently obsessed with NXIVM, which shares a lot of similarities with Scientology, though Scientology has yet to implode quite so spectacularly. It’s always brave to write a memoir about a troubled childhood, and I think Miscavige has been particularly brave to write this one. I look forward to reading it.

Behind the Throne: A Domestic History of the British Royal Household by Adrian Tinniswood

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Behind the Throne Cover
cover description: an illustration of Queen Elizabeth I being carried in a litter.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“Monarchs: they’re just like us. They entertain their friends and eat and worry about money. Henry VIII tripped over his dogs. George II threw his son out of the house. James I had to cut back on the alcohol bills.

In Behind the Throne, historian Adrian Tinniswood uncovers the reality of five centuries of life at the English court, taking the reader on a remarkable journey from one Queen Elizabeth to another and exploring life as it was lived by clerks and courtiers and clowns and crowned heads: the power struggles and petty rivalries, the tension between duty and desire, the practicalities of cooking dinner for thousands and of ensuring the king always won when he played a game of tennis.

A masterful and witty social history of five centuries of royal life, Behind the Throne offers a grand tour of England’s grandest households.”

why I’m excited: I simultaneously think that the British monarchy is antiquated BS that UK citizens shouldn’t have to foot the bill for…and am completely fascinated by it, rabidly consuming royal content (fictional and…even more fictional) from the Netflix series The Crown to Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl. I have always wondered about the practicalities of keeping monarchs happy, and this looks like a fun peek behind that curtain.

A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

A Manual for Cleaning Women Cover
cover description: A housekeeper’s key against a reddish-pink background.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“A Manual for Cleaning Women compiles the best work of the legendary short-story writer Lucia Berlin. With the grit of Raymond Carver, the humor of Grace Paley, and a blend of wit and melancholy all her own, Berlin crafts miracles from the everyday, uncovering moments of grace in the laundromats and halfway houses of the American Southwest, in the homes of the Bay Area upper class, among switchboard operators and struggling mothers, hitchhikers and bad Christians. Readers will revel in this remarkable collection from a master of the form and wonder how they’d ever overlooked her in the first place.”

why I’m excited: I’m always looking for more short fiction to read, and I particularly love this sort of margins-of-society short fiction. And I super-particularly love what writers from the ’50s-’80s were doing with the form, which was when Berlin was writing. (She was born in 1936 and passed away in 2004.) This looks great.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays by Alexander Chee

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel Cover
cover description: a tiny black and white photo of the author sits slightly off center against a red background.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is the author’s manifesto on the entangling of life, literature, and politics, and how the lessons learned from a life spent reading and writing fiction have changed him. In these essays, he grows from student to teacher, reader to writer, and reckons with his identities as a son, a gay man, a Korean American, an artist, an activist, a lover, and a friend. He examines some of the most formative experiences of his life and the nation’s history, including his father’s death, the AIDS crisis, 9/11, the jobs that supported his writing—Tarot-reading, bookselling, cater-waiting for William F. Buckley—the writing of his first novel, Edinburgh, and the election of Donald Trump.

By turns commanding, heartbreaking, and wry, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel asks questions about how we create ourselves in life and in art, and how to fight when our dearest truths are under attack.”

why I’m excited: I’ve heard nothing but glowing things about this book, and I also love this author’s Twitter presence. I’ve been digging essay collections lately and I hope this one really blows my socks off.

Slipping: Stories, Essays, and Other Writing by Lauren Beukes

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Slipping Cover
cover description: an anatomical illustration of a heart against an electric blue background.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“In her edgy, satiric debut collection, award-winning South African journalist and author Lauren Beukes (The Shining Girls, Moxyland) never holds back. Nothing is simple and everything is perilous when humans are involved: corruption, greed, and even love (of a sort).

A permanent corporate branding gives a young woman enhanced physical abilities and a nearly-constant high
Recruits lifted out of poverty find a far worse fate collecting biohazardous plants on an inhospitable world
The only adult survivor of the apocalypse decides he will be the savior of teenagers; the teenagers are not amused.

From Johannesburg to outer space, these previously uncollected tales are a compelling, dark, and slippery ride.”

why I’m excited: This really blends my current interest in short story collections and essays, doesn’t it? This book feels like a project Neil Gaiman would do, or Margaret Atwood. It looks funny and sharp and memorable. Even if I don’t like this, exactly, I know I’ll love the boldness. I’m excited.


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!

The Hulu adaptation of Little Fires Everywhere looks great so far!

This photo from the Hulu adaptation of Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere crossed my timeline a few days ago, and it looks fab:

In case you missed it, Little Fires Everywhere is going to be a Hulu miniseries. Reese Witherspoon (currently the patron saint of awesome book-to-screen adaptations) is starring as prim suburbanite Elena Richardson, opposite Kerry Washington as Mia Warren, an eccentric photographer with a secret.

9780735224292
cover description: a miniature view of a picturesque suburb.

I absolutely loved the Celeste Ng novel. It was one of the first books I reviewed on this blog, in fact. Witherspoon and Washington are cast perfectly; I think a miniseries is exactly the right way to bring this to the screen. (And unlike all these HBO adaptations of late, I actually *do* have a subscription to Hulu, so I know I’ll be able to catch this one as it comes out.)

Other confirmed cast members include Rosemarie Dewitt as Linda McCullough, Joshua Jackson as Bill Richardson, and Huang Lu as Bebe Chow. You can follow @LittleFiresHulu on Twitter for more news about the miniseries.

Did you like the novel? Are you excited for the series? What do you think of all this casting news? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Friday Bookbag, 6.7.19

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.

I missed Friday Bookbag last week so this is an extra-super-duper stuffed version, full of some of the most exciting books I’ve bought in awhile. I’ve been enjoying the nice weather we’ve been having here in the Twin Cities, so I’m ready to get some serious summer reading done. (In fact, I might grab my Kindle and head down to the patio as soon as I’m finished writing this.)

Let’s dive in!


Tampa by Alissa Nutting

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Tampa Cover
cover description: A closeup of a buttonhole on a pink shirt. It’s deliberately styled to look like labia/a vagina.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“Celeste Price is an eighth-grade English teacher in suburban Tampa. She’s undeniably attractive. She drives a red Corvette with tinted windows. Her husband, Ford, is rich, square-jawed, and devoted to her.

But Celeste’s devotion lies elsewhere. She has a singular sexual obsession—fourteen-year-old boys. Celeste pursues her craving with sociopathic meticulousness and forethought; her sole purpose in becoming a teacher is to fulfill her passion and provide her access to her compulsion. As the novel opens, fall semester at Jefferson Jr. High is beginning.

In mere weeks, Celeste has chosen and lured the lusciously naive Jack Patrick into her web. Jack is enthralled and in awe of his teacher, and, most important, willing to accept Celeste’s terms for a secret relationship—car rides after school; rendezvous at Jack’s house while his single father works late; body-slamming encounters in Celeste’s empty classroom between periods.

Ever mindful of the danger—the perpetual risk of exposure, Jack’s father’s own attraction to her, and the ticking clock as Jack leaves innocent boyhood behind—the hyperbolically insatiable Celeste bypasses each hurdle with swift thinking and shameless determination, even when the solutions involve greater misdeeds than the affair itself. In slaking her sexual thirst, Celeste Price is remorseless and deviously free of hesitation, a monstress driven by pure motivation. She deceives everyone, and cares nothing for anyone or anything but her own pleasure.”

why I’m excited: This is a satire, a sort of gender-swapped Lolita that examines the way we view the vulnerability of young boys and young girls differently. It looks like it’s going to be a very challenging read, but I’ve been intrigued by it ever since it came out in 2013, so when the ebook came on sale, I finally decided to take the chance. Not sure if I’ll like it, but “like” might not be the right metric to use here anyway, since this novel is so deliberately inflammatory.

The Wangs vs. The World by Jade Chang

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Wangs vs The World Cover
cover description: a gold background with red circles of varying shades forming an irregular shape in the middle.

the premise: From IndieBound:

“The Wangs vs. the World is an outrageously funny tale about a wealthy Chinese-American family that “loses it all, then takes a healing, uproarious road trip across the United States” (Entertainment Weekly). Their spectacular fall from riches to rags brings the Wangs together in a way money never could. It’s an epic family saga and an entirely fresh look at what it means to belong in America.”

why I’m excited: This is being marketed as similar to Crazy Rich Asians, a book I didn’t always love but was definitely always entertained by. A road trip story, family story, rags to riches story, healing story, funny story? That all sounds pretty great to me, and I’m really happy to see this recent crop of humorous (or at minimum, bittersweet rather than just plain tragic) novels about Asian American families getting traction in publishing. Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong had a somewhat similar vibe and I really dug it.

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

All Grown Up Cover
cover description: a stylized drawing of a woman’s face, with skyscrapers reflected in her sunglasses.

the premise: From Barnes & Noble’s site:

“Who is Andrea Bern? When her therapist asks the question, Andrea knows the right things to say: she’s a designer, a friend, a daughter, a sister. But it’s what she leaves unsaid—she’s alone, a drinker, a former artist, a shrieker in bed, captain of the sinking ship that is her flesh—that feels the most true. Everyone around her seems to have an entirely different idea of what it means to be an adult: her best friend, Indigo, is getting married; her brother—who miraculously seems unscathed by their shared tumultuous childhood—and sister-in-law are having a hoped-for baby; and her friend Matthew continues to wholly devote himself to making dark paintings at the cost of being flat broke.

But when Andrea’s niece finally arrives, born with a heartbreaking ailment, the Bern family is forced to reexamine what really matters. Will this drive them together or tear them apart? Told in gut-wrenchingly honest, mordantly comic vignettes, All Grown Up is a breathtaking display of Jami Attenberg’s power as a storyteller, a whip-smart examination of one woman’s life, lived entirely on her own terms.”

why I’m excited: I love this kind of personal/family drama. Reading about other people’s baggage makes my own a little more tolerable. Plus, this one looks funny as well as poignant, which is always a nice quality.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue Cover
cover description: An old fashioned portrait of a young white man in fancy clothes. The title is in a modern cartoonish font and there are tiny illustrations of cards, a ship, a violin, and more.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“Henry “Monty” Montague was born and bred to be a gentleman, but he was never one to be tamed. The finest boarding schools in England and the constant disapproval of his father haven’t been able to curb any of his roguish passions—not for gambling halls, late nights spent with a bottle of spirits, or waking up in the arms of women or men.

But as Monty embarks on his Grand Tour of Europe, his quest for a life filled with pleasure and vice is in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.

Still it isn’t in Monty’s nature to give up. Even with his younger sister, Felicity, in tow, he vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt that spans across Europe, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.”

why I’m excited: If you’re not excited about that description, then I don’t know what to tell you. Check your wrist for a pulse? This looks FANTASTIC, with a legion of glowing reviews to back it up. I can’t wait to dig in.

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things Cover
cover description: A field of wheat under a starry sky.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“As the daughter of a meth dealer, Wavy knows not to trust people, not even her own parents. Struggling to raise her little brother, eight-year-old Wavy is the only responsible “adult” around. She finds peace in the starry Midwestern night sky above the fields behind her house. One night everything changes when she witnesses one of her father’s thugs, Kellen, a tattooed ex-con with a heart of gold, wreck his motorcycle. What follows is a powerful and shocking love story between two unlikely people that asks tough questions, reminding us of all the ugly and wonderful things that life has to offer.”

why I’m excited: This looks like it will either be very satisfying or absolutely terrible. I decided to take a chance because I like reading about characters who need to take care of their younger siblings. I lived in an area torn up by meth for years so I’m always interested in reading stories about that, too. Describing the boyfriend as having a “heart of gold” is the biggest red flag here, but hopefully that’s just the description. Fingers crossed that the actual book is much more nuanced.

The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

the premise: From Goodreads:

The Poppy War Cover
cover description: A woman firing a bow. The illustrations and font on the cover have a smoky, ashy look.

“When Rin aced the Keju, the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies, it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard, the most elite military school in Nikan, was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.”

why I’m excited: Holy shit, this looks amazing! I don’t have much to say about it except that. I’m a sucker for “warrior school” fantasy novels (ditto “finishing school” types) and the special powers in this novel sound original and fascinating. This just leapt to the top of my TBR list.

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead Cover
cover description: A stylized illustration of a green parrot over a bright yellow background.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“This knock-out start to a bracingly original new series features Claire DeWitt, the world’s greatest PI—at least, that’s what she calls herself. A one-time teen detective in Brooklyn, she is a follower of the esoteric French detective Jacques Silette, whose mysterious handbook Détection inspired Claire’s unusual practices. Claire also has deep roots in New Orleans, where she was mentored by Silette’s student the brilliant Constance Darling—until Darling was murdered. When a respected DA goes missing she returns to the hurricane-ravaged city to find out why.”

why I’m excited: I’m intrigued by the idea of a Girl with the Dragon Tattoo-style series that seems to take much better care of its central female characters. I love books set in New Orleans, and I love the idea of a teenaged detective prodigy. (I started rewatching Veronica Mars for the fifth or sixth time this week, so I must really have a craving for this sort of thing). I’m excited for 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: ALIF THE UNSEEN by G. Willow Wilson

In an unnamed Middle Eastern country where inequality and unrest are simmering and a mysterious censor known as the Hand of God threatens dissidents with prison or worse, Alif is a genius hacker–and a target. He offers web services to a dangerous roster of clients; worse, he’s pursuing a forbidden relationship with the daughter of a man far above Alif’s station. Suddenly Alif’s security is breached and he finds himself on the run, pursued by demons and aided by a jinn, a sheikh, a convert and his childhood best friend, Dina.

I adored this novel. It’s an intricate fantasy set in the modern day–no small feat to write believably–but G. Willow Wilson seamlessly integrates the magic and mysteries of this world with more familiar real-world elements, like computer hacking and ethnic tensions between Arabs and other groups. It’s funny and profound by turns, and also chock-full of mind-blowing ideas about how Muslim theology and computer programming intersect. This story will linger with me for a long time.

You can read my full review below.


Alif the Unseen Cover

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Grove Press (an imprint of Grove Atlantic)
  • publication date: April 2, 2013
  • length: 456 pages

Alif understood her desire for secrecy. He had spent so much time cloaked behind his screen name, a mere letter of the alphabet, that he no longer thought of himself as anything but an alif—a straight line, a wall. His given name fell flat in his ears now. The act of concealment had become more powerful than what it concealed.

–from Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

It disappoints me that more fantasy fiction doesn’t draw on religion. I’m not talking vague incense burning or references to moon time rituals; I mean well-thought-out, believably drawn fantasy religions, or meaningful grappling with the real-life religions of our own world.

Some of my favorite fantasy novels do this to great effect. Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey is one. Carey’s latest novel, Starless, also handles its religious themes exceptionally wellThe Golden Compass by Philip Pullman is infamous for its potent atheist themes, which have caused it to be banned over and over again; I’m a Christian and very much not an atheist, but I still find The Golden Compass‘s vision of religion compelling.

Like it or not, religion is one of the most compelling and important parts of humanity’s past and present. So I say again: it disappoints me that more fantasy fiction doesn’t draw on religion.

Luckily, Alif the Unseen doesn’t have that problem. It’s a heady fantasy that sucked me in more than any other book I’ve read lately, drawing on Middle Eastern history, present-day conflicts, and Muslim theology in order to create a rich, textured, and thoroughly believable world.

I don’t think I’m going to be able to summarize this book more concisely than I did in my mini-review, above, so I’m just going to go ahead and copy-paste that summary again here:

In an unnamed Middle Eastern country where inequality and unrest are simmering and a mysterious censor known as the Hand of God threatens dissidents with prison or worse, Alif is a genius hacker–and a target. He offers web services to a dangerous roster of clients; worse, he’s pursuing a forbidden relationship with the daughter of a man far above Alif’s station. Suddenly Alif’s security is breached and he finds himself on the run, pursued by demons and aided by a jinn, a sheikh, a convert and his childhood best friend, Dina.

Alif–a pseudonym, and we don’t find out his real name until the very end–is a terrific protagonist. He’s kind of an asshole: bitter and angry and unable to see the forest for the trees, hurting the people who love him at every turn. But he’s vulnerable, too. We see how his computer hacking prowess makes him arrogant in some ways and leaves him lonely in others; he’s convinced he has all the answers, but fears deep down that his biggest questions might not have answers.

He’s madly in love with Intisar, a college girl from his city’s upper crust. The novel opens with her rejecting him because her parents have matched her with someone else, sending Alif’s world spinning on its axis. At that point, his encounter with a mischievous, magical jinn (a.k.a. genie) named Vikram the Vampire hardly seems that weird.

When the Hand of God finds finds evidence of Alif’s subversive hacking activity, he’s forced to go on the run with his neighbor and childhood friend, Dina (whose decision to wear the niqab, a full-face veil, bewilders and annoys him).

From there the novel unspools into an incredibly profound exploration of the nature of divinity and evil, and how the power of modern technology can unleash both. G. Willow Wilson (who is a convert to Islam, and who includes a sort of American convert self-insert character here) paints a highly textured portrait of Islam, showing the ways it can be misinterpreted and perverted but also the ways it helps people, brings them love and joy, and guides them to be their best selves.

I’m racking my brain trying to think of any other novel that’s as bold and ambitious and empathetic towards any real-world religion as Alif the Unseen is–much less one that extends that empathy towards Islam, which has been so deeply demonized in Western culture.

All that adds immeasurably to this book’s worldbuilding, stakes, and character development. I particularly loved the way Dina’s faith shapes her moral backbone and her decision to help Alif, even when Alif is being a total jerk towards her.

Most of all, it’s hard to believe Alif the Unseen was written before the Arab Spring. (It was, though it wasn’t released till after.) Its vision of how technology can uproot whole societies, for better or worse, is prescient and urgent and kept me racing till the final page.

I feel like I’m talking a lot about this book’s big themes, and not a lot about the plot–but that’s because Wilson integrates the book’s themes into its plot so seamlessly that it’s difficult to separate them.

This book races along at a breakneck pace, never once feeling heavy or dry despite its weighty source material and implications. It’s an adventure novel, one that’s perfectly situated between a YA audience and an adult one. (I recommend it heartily for teens and adults alike.) The magical world of the jinn is beautiful and intoxicating; the romance(s) are compelling and impossible not to root for; the final battle had me quivering with anticipation.

Alif the Unseen is an impressive balancing act: a novel that’s as thrilling and entertaining as it is studied and thought-provoking. Don’t miss it. I especially can’t wait to get my hands on its recently released companion novel, The Bird King. ★★★★★

Books and reviews you might also enjoy:


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

Book Review: DEAD GIRLS: ESSAYS ON SURVIVING AN AMERICAN OBSESSION by Alice Bolin

Laura Palmer. Lilly Kane. Harriet Vanger. “Amazing Amy” Dunne. We’re obsessed with dead girls and maybe-dead girls, both fictional and real. Alice Bolin’s essay collection, Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession, explores that premise through cultural criticism of true crime coverage, books, movies, and TV shows like Gone Girl, Twin Peaks, Veronica Mars, Joan Didion’s writings on the Manson murders, and more. There are also many essays about non-crime and crime fiction related topics.

Its title lets it down, since you’ll likely be disappointed if you go into this book expecting more “dead girl” content than it delivers. (That part makes up about a third of the book, with the more general essays making up the rest.) Alice Bolin is an excellent writer and I enjoyed the essays on their own merits, but as an essay collection, this book doesn’t hang together all that well.

You can read my full review below.


Dead Girls Cover

Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession by Alice Bolin

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: William Morrow (an imprint of HarperCollins)
  • publication date: June 26, 2018
  • length: 288 pages

“I didn’t hate and fear all women,” Nick says defensively in Gone Girl. “I was a one-woman misogynist. If I despised only Amy, if I focused all my fury and rage and venom on the one woman who deserved it, that didn’t make me my father.” Aren’t they all one-woman misogynists?

–from Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession by Alice Bolin

My experience of reading Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession was a frustrating one. I signed onto this book expecting what it says right there on the tin: essays about the American (probably global?) obsession with “dead girls,” and what that means for the very-much-alive girls and women who live in a world full of that kind of laden, violent imagery.

The problem is that a good deal of this book isn’t about dead girls at all. It’s also full of more personal essays about Bolin’s experience in the American West, her move to L.A., her family, her experience navigating white womanhood, her favorite books, an incompatible boyfriend, and more.

These essays are beautifully written: poignant, sharp, elegant, neurotic in a self-aware and interesting way. They’re genuinely great! They just weren’t what I thought I was going to get, and because of that, the latter two-thirds of this book were a slog.

The first third had me jazzed. I zipped through it, highlighting what felt like every other paragraph. My favorite essay, “The Husband Did It,” is largely about Gone Girl and Gillian Flynn’s characterization of hapless, pathetic, misogynistic husband Nick Dunne, and it’s a straight banger: Bolin is witty, funny, and sharp as a tack, and here is where it shone the best. Gone Girl is one of my favorite books (I also love the movie adaptation), and it was a delight to see it through Bolin’s eyes.

But as soon as I hit the second third of the book, titled “Lost in Los Angeles,” all the zip left. Bolin turns her eye from more widely known cultural touchstones (True Detective, iconic true crime cases, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) towards more obscure texts, and she starts diving deeper into her own experiences. In particular, she writes seemingly endlessly about Joan Didion, and while I’m always up for reading about Joan Didion (truly!), it felt like a record scratch. I got why Didion’s work is important to Bolin–I just didn’t understand why that should be important to me.

Maybe I’m falling into the exact same trap Bolin is excoriating here–after all, I’m saying that I was far more interested in the “dead” part than the “surviving” part, which is exactly the problem with “dead girl” culture. And I do think Bolin is doing an interesting thing here: setting out a theory of dead girls and their effect on our culture, and then applying it to her own life.

But the flow is all wrong, and it bothered me tremendously. I don’t know if this discordance is Bolin’s “fault” (not the right word to use here, but the best fit I can think of) or her publisher’s. I know that it’s rare for authors to choose their titles. I know that editors have a say in organizing the order of a collection. They certainly have a say in how a book is marketed, and in setting readers’ expectations for what a book will be like, through everything from blurb choice to cover design.

And all the choices that the publisher made here left me feeling baited and switched.

The best fix I can think of would be to publish this as two books. Split the dead girl content from the more general content, add more essays to both to compensate, and then publish two collections whose promises line up with what they actually deliver.

Had I read each of these essays individually, I can practically guarantee I would have loved them unreservedly. Even the ones that I think work less well than the others are still very good. But as one book meant to be read altogether, Dead Girls falters. There’s just not enough connective tissue to keep you hooked from essay to essay.

Dead Girls is full of treasures, but they’re best enjoyed one by one instead of consecutively. Either read it in small doses or skip it–taken as a cohesive collection, I think this one’s a dud. ★★★☆☆

Reviews and books you might also enjoy:


I purchased my own copy of Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession and was in no way compensated for this review.

In Review: May 2019

InReview

In Review posts are a chance for me to catch my breath, note that I am actually making progress towards my reading goals, and give each month’s blog posts a little extra love.

This month I officially finished moving into my new home in Minneapolis, thus ending my Extremely Tiring Housing Saga of the past three months. I love it here and I’m so happy my wife and I decided to take the plunge, but let me tell you, I hope we never have to move again. When you have chronic illness, moving is even more punishing than it normally is, and I’ve been sick as a dog for the past two weeks as a result. I just might die in this condo rather than pack up and move again. Let’s see what the next 50-70 years brings, shall we?

But for now, let’s focus on the past 31 days. Here’s my May 2019 in review! In short, not as much reading and blogging as I would have liked, but still a heck of a lot more than I expected from such a hectic month.


I read 3 books this month:

  • The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang (Goodreads)
  • Incendiary Girls by Kodi Scheer (Goodreads)
  • Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson (Goodreads)

I reviewed 3 books this month:

I borrowed, bought, and received 12 books this month:

I wrote these things this month:

Other content I loved this month:

And most of all, this video of elementary school kids losing their marbles to a surprise performance of “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X:

I have read 15 books so far in 2019!

 

Holiday Weekend Bookbag, 5.27.19

FridayBookbag

Friday Holiday Weekend Bookbag is a weekly semi-annual (?) feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received recently. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

As you might have guessed from the totally-awesome-and-not-desperate title of this week’s Bookbag, I’ve been busy and forgetful and not great about posting things on the blog lately. The free time I have had has been spent on a marathon rewatch of the Twilight movies, which is not a course of action I recommend, exactly, but it sure is mesmerizing!

Luckily I still have a few books to chat about this weekend. Let’s dive in!


Knock Wood by Jennifer Militello

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Knock Wood Cover
cover description: the outline of a scraggly tree is burnt into a woodgrain background.

the premise: From the back of the ARC I received from Dzanc Books this week:

“In Knock Wood, the first nonfiction collection by award-winning poet Jennifer Militello, a knock on wood to ward off illness sets in motion a chain of events and memories that call into question the very structure of time.

Anchored by a wooden ring, Militello explores her life through the lens of three intertwined elements: the story of a mentally ill aunt in an abusive marriage; a high school romance with a boy who eventually dies of a heroin overdose; and an extra-marital affair characterized by an otherworldly connection. Cause and effect reverse as significant events–an arrest for a felony committed in high school, a trip by train to meet an illicit lover, and a suicide attempt on those same New York tracks–seem to influence each other outside of time and space. As Militello delicately threads each memory to the next, she explores the themes of family damage and the precarious ties of love.”

Knock Wood will be released on August 13th, 2019 and is available for preorder.

why I’m excited: Dzanc Books sent me this ARC because they saw my glowing review of The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang, another nonfiction collection that plays around with memory and time. I’ve been on a nonfiction kick lately and I always love when poets turn to prose (why do poets always seem to be so much better at prose than prose writers are at poetry?). At 144 pages, it’s short and sweet and I’m looking forward to digging in.

The Farm by Joanne Ramos

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Farm Cover
cover description: There are three stylized silhouettes of pregnant bellies in pastel colors layered on top of each other.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“Nestled in the Hudson Valley is a sumptuous retreat boasting every amenity: organic meals, private fitness trainers, daily massages—and all of it for free. In fact, you get paid big money—more than you’ve ever dreamed of—to spend a few seasons in this luxurious locale. The catch? For nine months, you belong to the Farm. You cannot leave the grounds; your every move is monitored. Your former life will seem a world away as you dedicate yourself to the all-consuming task of producing the perfect baby for your überwealthy clients.

Jane, an immigrant from the Philippines and a struggling single mother, is thrilled to make it through the highly competitive Host selection process at the Farm. But now pregnant, fragile, consumed with worry for her own young daughter’s well-being, Jane grows desperate to reconnect with her life outside. Yet she cannot leave the Farm or she will lose the life-changing fee she’ll receive on delivery—or worse.”

why I’m excited: I recently found out that Kim Kardashian and Kanye West had their third baby (and now a soon-to-be-born fourth) via a surrogate. Since then I’ve spent a lot of time wondering what it must be like to be a surrogate for people that wealthy: would it be like a fun 9-month vacation from the real world, or something a little more sinister? The Farm looks like it explores exactly that line of thought, so of course I had to buy it as soon as I heard about it this week. I love coincidences like that.

The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Belles Cover
cover description: a Black girl in a fancy dress and makeup with flowers in her hair looks over her shoulder fiercely.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“Camellia Beauregard is a Belle. In the opulent world of Orléans, Belles are revered, for they control Beauty, and Beauty is a commodity coveted above all else. In Orléans, the people are born gray, they are born damned, and only with the help of a Belle and her talents can they transform and be made beautiful.

But it’s not enough for Camellia to be just a Belle. She wants to be the favorite—the Belle chosen by the Queen of Orléans to live in the royal palace, to tend to the royal family and their court, to be recognized as the most talented Belle in the land. But once Camellia and her Belle sisters arrive at court, it becomes clear that being the favorite is not everything she always dreamed it would be. Behind the gilded palace walls live dark secrets, and Camellia soon learns that the very essence of her existence is a lie—that her powers are far greater, and could be more dangerous, than she ever imagined. And when the queen asks Camellia to risk her own life and help the ailing princess by using Belle powers in unintended ways, Camellia now faces an impossible decision. 

With the future of Orléans and its people at stake, Camellia must decide—save herself and her sisters and the way of the Belles—or resuscitate the princess, risk her own life, and change the ways of her world forever.”

why I’m excited: This book got so much buzz last year that I’m surprised I didn’t pick it up sooner. (Books published by Disney tend to be like that. I assume this one is well on its way to being a TV series on Freeform.) I’m a sucker for palace intrigue novels and any novel with the word “opulent” in the description, so I assume I’m going to have a lot of fun with 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!