No book review today because my chronic pain continues to be a real bastard, so I thought this might be a good opportunity to grow my TBR list, which is surprisingly short right now. I’m just not sure what to read next–I’d love to find a book that will really grab me.
To that end, what books did you read in 2019 that were worth dropping everything for? What should I order from the bookstore or request from the library post-haste? Go ahead and drop the titles in the comments, all genres welcome!
I’ll be back with a new review on Thursday. Happy reading, friends!
Educated is a harrowing memoir of the isolation, abuse, and paranoia Tara Westover experienced at the hands of her fundamentalist family in Idaho. Westover didn’t receive vaccinations or a birth certificate, everyone in her family refused to see doctors even during grave illnesses and injuries, and above all, she and her siblings were forbidden from going to school–which makes Westover’s eventual prestigious academic plaudits (acceptance to Brigham Young, a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, a PhD from Cambridge) all the more extraordinary. Westover has a calm, crisp writing style that turns the excruciating experiences she recounts into a damn good reading experience. It’s not hard to see why this book has been a bestseller for weeks on end: it’s an intoxicating story of redemption, healing, and yes, education in the face of near-unimaginable adversity. I absolutely adored Educated.
Turning toward our house on the hillside, I see movements of a different kind, tall shadows stiffly pushing through the currents. My brothers are awake, testing the weather. I imagine my mother at the stove, hovering over bran pancakes. I picture my father hunched by the back door, lacing his steel-toed boots and threading his callused hands into welding gloves. On the highway below, the school bus rolls past without stopping.
I am only seven, but I understand that it is this fact, more than any other, that makes my family different: we don’t go to school.
–from Educated by Tara Westover.
Memoirs require either extraordinary writing or extraordinary experience to be worth reading. You don’t actually need both–but when you do have both, you end up with something as dazzling as Educated.
Tara Westover grew up in an extreme fundamentalist family in Idaho. She didn’t receive a birth certificate for years, she didn’t go to school, she never went to the doctor, and her family furiously eschewed mainstream culture, including mainstream Mormons, whom they called “gentiles.” All that makes it all the more extraordinary that Westover eventually taught herself enough math, science, and grammar to take the ACT and attend Brigham Young, later gaining prestigious scholarships to Cambridge and Harvard.
Educated could have easily been a screed: against fundamentalism, against white supremacy in the prepper movement (one memorable chapter details how Westover’s older brother beat her and taunted her with the N-word when he was displeased with her), against unregulated homeschooling, against unsafe home medicine, and much more. In some ways, it is; you certainly won’t leave Educated with a positive impression of any of those things. But I admire that Westover chose to focus on something much more personal: her slow and painful estrangement from her family.
Westover sees so much good in her family, even her father and brother Shawn, who were the ringleaders of the abuse she experienced. The fact that she writes about the good so generously–her father’s love of her singing, Shawn’s fierce protectiveness over her–cut me to the bone, even more so because I’m currently estranged from part of my own family because of abuse.
People have asked me what the worst part of the abuse was; after several years of considering, I’m sure that the worst part is not theworst parts–the screaming, the danger–but the fact that the worst parts poisoned the good parts. I could never let my guard down around my parent again, I could never trust that the good parts of my teens would last, there was never a new leaf turned over that would not eventually be turned back again. “Trust issues” doesn’t even begin to cover it.
I would guess that Westover would agree with me. Educated is full of horrifying moments–life-threatening burns and head injuries not treated in the hospital, beatings and physical torture, murdered animals–but the hardest parts of the book to read by far are its moments of love and tenderness because you know they will not last. No matter how good the good is, it can never fully cure the rot underneath.
With every word of Educated, Westover walks a tightrope of compassion and fury, a tightrope that was very familiar to me and will be familiar to anyone else who’s loved a family who can’t love you back in the way that you deserve.
That’s the extraordinary experience part of this memoir; let’s not forget the extraordinary writing, too.
It took me a few chapters to warm up to Westover’s straight-ahead style until I realized how carefully she was calibrating that style to each experience she recounts. Early in the book, when Westover is writing about things that happened when she was 7-10 years old, Educated’s tone is credulous and matter-of-fact; as she enters her teens and gains a sliver of access to the wider world, her writing breaks wide open into artfulness. Maybe I imagined it, but I could even swear her vocabulary changes as the book goes on.
At minimum, if I’m imagining those differences, then Westover is doing something right. Throughout Educated, I felt I was growing up right alongside her. It’s a really special storytelling experience.
Educated was a balm for me. It reminded me that there are others out there who are living with the consequences of generational trauma and paranoia and managing to make amazing lives for themselves regardless. But even if it’s not quite that personal for you, I guarantee that you’ll still find it a gripping and unforgettable story.
Like Wild by Cheryl Strayed, another memoir so harrowing that it almost defies belief, Educated is a reminder that, while we’ll never find the perfect, uncomplicated happily-ever-afters we were promised in fairy tales, there is such a thing as a happy ending for a true story. Westover has had to make impossible choices, but she’s come out the other side and thrived. That is exactly the thing I needed to be reminded of right now–exactly the thing that many of us who have suffered, or are currently suffering, needed to be reminded of. There is hope.
It’s hard to imagine a memoir more deserving of the celebration Educated has already received from critics and readers. Add my name to the long list of those who adore it. ★★★★★
Originally published in a limited run by Artistically Declined Press well before Roxane Gay was a household name, Ayiti was recently republished by Grove Press. It’s a short story collection about Haiti and the Haitian diaspora; just as she did in her bestselling 2017 short story collection, Difficult Women, Gay excels at breaking apart a big theme into digestible pieces that are at once acrid and vulnerable, bitter and sweet. I didn’t like Ayiti quite as much as Difficult Women–I think Gay has sharpened her craft significantly since Ayiti was first published in 2011–but it’s still a beautiful collection of stories and I’m glad it’s gotten the chance to reach a wider audience this time around.
publication date: first published in 2011; Grove Press edition published in 2018
length: 320 pages
On the first day of school, as he and his classmates introduce themselves, Gérard stands, says his name, quickly sits back down, and stares at his desk, which he hates. “You have such an interesting accent,” the teacher coos. “Where are you from?” He looks up. He is irritated. “Haiti,” he says. The teacher smiles widely. “Say something in French.” Gérard complies. “Je te déteste,” he says. The teacher claps excitedly. She doesn’t speak French.
–from “Motherfuckers” in Ayiti by Roxane Gay
One of my favorite themes in Roxane Gay’s fiction is righteous vengeance. Her characters accumulate tiny humiliations like dust, eventually snapping in fits of satisfying pettiness and rage. When I read one of her stories, I know I will have catharsis; even when I don’t love one of her stories, I’m always entertained and I never regret making the time to read it.
Ayiti, Gay’s 2011 short story collection about Haiti and its diaspora that was republished for a wider audience in 2018, is full of moments like these. In “Motherfucker,” a sullen, bullied immigrant teenager fights insults with cologne, in “Voodoo Child,” a Haitian college student manipulates her ignorant roommate who believes she practices voodoo, in “Gracias, Nicaragua y Lo Sentimos,” a personified Haiti bittersweetly passes the dubious torch of being the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere to Nicaragua, knowing the title will eventually return.
Even when certain stories in the collection falter–the longest story, “Sweet on the Tongue,” is powerful but hard to follow and has at least two too many subplots–Ayiti as a reading experience never loses its momentum.
After reading both Ayiti and Gay’s later collection, Difficult Women, I’m convinced that Gay and her editors are the best in the business when it come to theming short story collections and ordering the stories within them. The stories in Ayiti don’t hammer us over the head with their themes of home and diaspora, but they keep a steady enough rhythm to keep us fully engaged to the last page. (I finished this book in a sitting.)
Gay is my favorite short story writer working today, and the fact that this feels like a slightly lesser work in her catalog speaks to just how terrific her catalog is. Ayiti is wonderful, both on its own merits and as a peek into the ascendancy of such a marvelous writer. ★★★★☆
Instead of writing new book reviews during this U.S. holiday week, I thought I’d re-post a couple of the early reviews I wrote for this site, updating the original (terrible) formatting and getting them to a wider audience than they had the first time around.
Some books, like this one, are magic. They succeed on every level, they hit every emotional sweet spot, they do things with words that remind me why writing is such a unique and incredible art form…and I just can’t explain why. This book struck me dumb with awe and gratitude. I finished it over a week ago, now, and I’m still struggling to articulate how much I loved it, because the truth is that I loved it too much for words.
Bear with me, folks.
Little Fires Everywhere is a story about a lot of things, but it’s especially the story of a place and two families that live there: Shaker Heights, Ohio, is a planned community struggling to cope with the rapidly encroaching mess unpredictability of the outside world; the Richardsons are a big, messy, mostly-happy upper-middle-class white family with deep roots; and mother-daughter pair Mia and Pearl Warren are newcomers no one can quite figure out. When Mia instigates an ugly custody battle between a young Chinese American woman, Bebe Chow, and the wealthy white neighbors who attempt to adopt her baby, May Ling, the community is blown open and family secrets laid bare.
The story isn’t told in order, and opens as the Richardsons’ house burns to the ground around them. From that first page, I was hooked. The closest book I can think to compare it to–though they’re not really similar at all–is The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. But where I found Eugenides’ book to be an arch, unpleasant, and chilly allegory for the folly of suburbia, Ng is deeply, warmly concerned with a real suburban community and characters so lifelike they might as well be real people.
I think “realistic” is a quality that can be overrated in fiction, because it’s fiction–why not take the opportunity to create something intricately, beautifully unreal? As long as an author does it well, I’m onboard. But Little Fires Everywhere did remind me of the magic and power of authors who write about the real world and understand real people: what we think like, what we act like, and what we care about. Ng not only understands people, but values them. She treats her characters–most of whom are painfully clueless, some borderline malicious–as if they are all worthy of love and respect. It’s revelatory, especially because Little Fires Everywhere is literary fiction, which is a genre that I think values coldness overmuch and compassion too little.
Every scene, no matter how slight, benefits from this loving characterization. Characters with only few paragraphs devoted to them are still given actions and dialogue that hints at the rich motivation within; central characters we thought we understood are given shake-ups that reveal new and satisfying depths. I particularly loved the (very) minor character of Mr. Yang, a tenant of the Richardsons and downstairs neighbor of the Warrens, and the more central characters of Trip and Moody, teenage Richardson sons who are tender and emotional and defy every dull and tired stereotype of teenage boys.
But of all these characters to fall in love with, my favorite was Mia Warren, whom we discover is a gifted photographer as well as mother and enigmatic drifter. A powerful theme of the book is the process of creation, punishing and healing by turns, whether it’s art-making or motherhood. I cried several times at this book, and each time it was because of that push and pull: the things mothers give up and the things their children give back; the things the children lose that their mothers want to stop them from losing but can’t; the bravery and vulnerability it takes to put art into the world.
I think most of us have at least some idea of what makes a good mother, but novels about visual artists can be especially hit or miss because we can’t see for ourselves whether a canvas or photograph is good or bad or mediocre–the author has to tell us. Thankfully, Ng has a light touch when describing Mia’s talents, trusting the mind’s eye of the reader to fill in the rest.
In fact, it’s been a long time since my mind’s eye felt so engaged in a novel. I was born in ’95 and thus have no memories of the late ’90s, I know nothing about Ohio, and I certainly knew nothing about Shaker Heights, but every scene is so carefully detailed, as lovingly costume-designed and set-dressed as a Wes Anderson movie (though less twee by half), that I felt there.
This absorbing, transporting quality is especially wonderful because Little Fires Everywhere is told in the omniscient 3rd-person, often hopping from mind-to-mind mid-scene, a technique I associate most with epic, impersonal fantasy novels and not with intimate family dramas. It turns out that–at least in Ng’s skilled hands–that mind-hopping can actually make a book more personal and more intimate. We don’t see one side of an argument, we see all of them: a good quality in a book filled with complicated and unwinnable arguments.
I could write a book-length love letter to this book. (Can you tell?) I could especially go on for hours about its razor-sharp critique of the kind of feel-good, orderly white liberalism that crumbles in the face of honest and difficult questions.
But I won’t go on any longer. I’ll just trust that you’ll read Little Fires Everywhere, and tell all your friends, and tell them to tell all of their friends, too. This book is miraculous. Don’t miss it. ★★★★★
Instead of writing new book reviews during this U.S. holiday week, I thought I’d re-post a couple of the early reviews I wrote for this site, updating the original (terrible) formatting and getting them to a wider audience than they had the first time around.
There is a difference between stories that end unhappily and stories for which there can be no happy ending. All the Rivers falls in the latter category. It is the story of an Israeli woman, Liat, and the Palestinian man she falls in love with, Hilmi, while both are living in New York City in 2002. If that seems like a simple setup, it’s because it is; charged politics do the heavy lifting here, and Liat and Hilmi aren’t so much characters as sketches.
At first, this grates. I’m not fond of mouthpiece books, and from the beginning this book has all the tell-tale signs. But there’s a subtler undercurrent here too, a promise of the thing that made me pick up the book in the first place: a love story that is at once tender and sweet, visceral and scathing.
Liat narrates, and narrate is the appropriate word here, since we don’t get much of a sense of Liat other than that she’s Israeli, and that she’s telling the story. Ostensibly she’s working in New York as a Hebrew/English translator; I’m not totally sure, since the details are breezed over and somewhat irrelevant. What matters is lust, and love, and being Middle Eastern in New York City in 2002.
All the Rivers is at its best when it is describing sensation. Rabinyan (with the aid of translator Jessica Cohen) seems to have infinite new combinations of words to describe homesickness, good food, and erotic encounters; she adds less fresh fuel to political conversations, which is perhaps the point: the conflict between Israel and Palestine drags on and on without changes or answers. It’s not that I didn’t care about those politics; I did while I was reading, and still do. It’s that every moment between Liat and Hilmi was so searing that arguments over borders and binational identity–and there are many of these, between Liat and Hilmi, and between Liat and other characters as well–seemed ponderous in comparison.
I’m not sure if All the Rivers left me feeling particularly enlightened, although that’s the book’s marketing angle in the United States. It did leave me deeply sad in a way I can’t fully explain. This book ends (almost) how you’d expect, but Liat’s narrative folds in on itself so often that I found myself second-guessing my conclusions, my dread and disappointment so intense that I felt shaky after turning the last page.
It’s funny how much we love stories about people in love who aren’t supposed to be in love, from Romeo and Juliet to Titanic. It’s also funny how being in love can make reading about love so painful that it’s almost unbearable. I can confidently say that my own partner is nothing like Hilmi, and I am fairly certain I’m nothing like Liat, but I found myself casting my real-life relationship into the mold of this fictional one over and over. Every bitter fight between Liat and Hilmi was a fight I’ve experienced, or fear I will experience. And every threat of loss, of an ending for this couple, felt like it was threatening me, my own ability to love and be loved. It hurt in the way that I go to literature to be hurt: a hurt that expands, purges, and understands.
Rabinyan has accomplished something that, to me, is more complex and powerful than All the Rivers’s Very Important Book marketing can get at. Love is messy, love stories are messy, and attempting to impose politics upon lovers is impossible; it’s not surprising that Rabinyan doesn’t fully succeed. But in a way, that failure is its own success. I set this book down wishing that its unhappiness sprang only from the careless way people sometimes love each other, and not from a terrible political mess bigger than all of us: these characters, this author, and myself as a reader.
“How enviable, how infuriating, how hateful we look to them from that vantage point,” Liat laments. She is describing how the prosperity of Israel looks to Palestinians on the other side of the fence, but I felt something else. How enviable, how infuriating, how hateful, indeed, to love without restriction or complication. Someday we should all be so lucky. ★★★★☆
For a memoir about gaslighting and nightmarish domestic abuse, Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House has a shockingly lucid, powerful core. Told through small chapters that each explore facets of “the dream house” (the home Machado shared with her abusive female partner), this book pushes the boundaries of real and unreal, personal and archetypal. By talking openly about her experience of queer abuse, Machado forwards a new and necessary concept of queer humanity: one where we finally find a middle ground between viewing queer people as only deviants or only saints. (Speaking from my personal lesbian experience: we are neither.) In the Dream House scared me and soothed me, educated me and entertained me. With this book, Machado sets ambitious goals for herself as a writer and knocks every single one out of the park. In the Dream House is an instant classic. Don’t miss it!
publisher: Graywolf Press (distributed by Macmillan)
publication date: November 5, 2019
length: 272 pages
I enter into the archive that domestic abuse between partners who share a gender identity is both possible and not uncommon, and that it can look something like this. I speak into the silence. I toss the stone of my story into a vast crevice; measure the emptiness by its small sound.
–from In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
As a kid, I hoarded books of fairy tales from all over the world, reading and re-reading them, horrified and enthralled, until the pages fell out of the binding.
In my adult reading life, no book I’ve read has been more reminiscent of the primal experience of reading fairy tales than Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, her memoir of her abuse by another woman–the first woman she’d dated since coming out as bisexual.
Like magic, Machado weaves her specific story into an archetype, referencing Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature in the footnotes. (These footnotes are one of the greatest pleasures of the book, in fact.)
The titular dream house is the house where Machado and her abusive partner lived together–or is it? At times it seems to be something much larger and more liminal, terrifying.
Machado comes at the dream house from dozens of tiny angles chapters, each named after the motif she explores within it:
“Dream House as Not a Metaphor”
“Dream House as Lesbian Cult Classic”
“Dream House as Haunted Mansion”
The story unfolds at a dreamy pace: the lush, erotic early days of the relationship, the sour terror when it started going wrong, the shattered and isolated feeling of recovering from something so many people refuse to believe exists.
The myth of queer people as perfect is a poisonous side effect of the fight for LGBTQ rights: in order to correct an image of our community as lascivious, predatory, and emotionally stunted, a funhouse mirror image of purity, benevolence, and emotional competence was created.
Unfortunately, the new image was just as unrealistic as the old one, and it has left queer people like Machado with nowhere to turn if another queer person harms them. To talk about abuse is to harm our community, the thinking goes–except, as Machado points out, that those victims of abuse are just as much a part of the queer community as their abusers.
About halfway through the book, Machado writes:
Fantasy is, I think, the defining cliche of female queerness. No wonder we joke about U-Hauls on the second date. To find desire, love, everyday joy without men’s accompanying bullshit is a pretty decent working definition of paradise.
That dream of a queer woman’s paradise, “punctured” (as she puts it in the next paragraph) by the reality of abuse, haunts the entirety of In the Dream House. Though I don’t share Machado’s experience of queer abuse, I’ve bumped up against the limitations of that dream myself so many times in other ways. Queer people will never be seen as fully human until we can be understood as flawed in the way that all humans are flawed.
In the end, after surviving the abuse, Machado did fall in love and marry someone new and wonderful, a fairy tale happy ending to match her fairy tale trials. The glimpses she gives us of this loving future/present make In the Dream House as cathartic and satisfying as it is painful and difficult, a Cinderella story with teeth.
I don’t know if I’ll ever stop thinking about In the Dream House; there’s simply nothing else like it out there right now. Please, please read it. ★★★★★
I purchased my own copy of In the Dream House and was in no way compensated for this review.
I publish book reviews every Tuesday and Thursday.
The Handmaid’s Tale is such an iconic sci-fi novel that I’m surprised it took this long to get a sequel. Despite the decades Margaret Atwood has had to think over what Gilead might look like after the end of Offred’s story, I found The Testaments to be underbaked, full of interesting ideas (and interesting imagery, especially) that don’t blend all that well. Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, which was narrowly, almost claustrophobically focused on Offred’s story, The Testaments sprawls across the lives of three new characters: an Aunt, a privileged Commander’s daughter, and a Canadian teenager who’s only dimly aware of the horrors of the totalitarian state of Gilead.
I think I would have liked The Testaments more if I had liked The Handmaid’s Tale less. Is it worth reading? Yes. But it’s significantly blunter and messier than I had hoped. Where The Handmaid’s Tale was a scalpel, The Testaments is a machine gun, crude and loud.
You have asked me to tell you what it was like for me when I was growing up within Gilead. You say it will be helpful, and I do wish to be helpful. I imagine you expect nothing but horrors, but the reality is that many children were loved and cherished, in Gilead as elsewhere, and many adults were kind though fallible, in Gilead as elsewhere.
–from The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
Novels are not a visual medium in the way that TV and film are, so it’s notable that The Handmaid’s Tale spawned so much iconic imagery, even before the TV adaptation came to Hulu. The red and white Handmaids’ costume, the shops with pictures on their signs instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read, Offred rubbing margarine into her hands instead of lotion, because she is no longer permitted the luxury of lotion: I can picture all of that (and more) so clearly, despite how long it’s been since I’ve read the novel.
The Testaments is just as visually iconic as The Handmaid’s Tale, full of new visions of oppression and totalitarianism that will haunt my nightmares. But its underlying substance is significantly less memorable.
There are three central characters in The Testaments: a powerful Aunt and architect of Gilead, a young daughter of a privileged Gilead family, and a Canadian girl with only a distant awareness of Gilead’s atrocities.
All of them have ties to the original novel (some of them wincingly obvious despite being framed as a “twist”), and all of them reminded me in some way of the protagonist of The Blind Assassin, Iris. There are even maids, called Marthas, who are reminiscent of Iris’s nanny Reenie, right down to making dough people for a privileged but heartbroken young girl to play with after a tragedy.
It’s not just that it shares themes with The Blind Assassin. That would be fine! Authors with an output as vast as Atwood’s tend to come back to the same wells from time to time. It’s that the parallels to The Blind Assassin are so obvious and so oddly self-plagiarizing that they repeatedly pulled me out of the story.
In fairness, the story of The Testaments is so sprawling and dense that it’s not hard to be distracted from it.
What I admired most about The Handmaid’s Tale wasn’t the worldbuilding of Gilead, despite that worldbuilding being extraordinarily good. What I admired most was Atwood’s laser focus on Gilead’s impact on Offred. The way that Offred’s life becomes so critically important to the reader even though she is just one tiny, literally anonymous part of this terrifying totalitarian regime rings true to the way real life totalitarian regimes swallow people whole and disappear them.
The Testaments shifts that focus from individuals in Gilead to the systems fighting to uphold it or undo it. It’s a bird’s eye view when I wanted a close-up, and it leaches all the urgency and terror out of Gilead. Maybe that’s the point! Maybe it’s supposed to feel hopeful, especially now that the real America feels closer to Gilead than ever. But it left me a little cold.
This loss of momentum and stakes is most obvious at the end, which uses the same device as the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale: a far-future academic conference on Gilead Studies. But where the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale felt chillingly open-ended and detached,The Testaments’ ending feels winkingly obvious and overwrought.
If you love The Handmaid’s Tale, you likely won’t be able to resist reading The Testaments, nor should you. There’s plenty of interesting stuff here that makes the novel worth reading. I especially loved the character of Agnes (a Commander’s privileged daughter), whose slow disentangling of her sincere religious beliefs from the poisonous spiritual abuse she experiences in Gilead is genuinely heartbreaking.
But in its attempt to satisfy readers’ curiosity about Gilead, The Testaments stifles it with too much detail instead, replacing an open door for our imaginations with one that firmly shuts. It’s a shame. ★★★☆☆