Book Review: INVITATION TO A BONFIRE by Adrienne Celt

Invitation to a Bonfire is a slow-burning reimagining of Vladimir Nabokov’s marriage, told mostly through the eyes of the fictional Zoya, a boarding school employee who falls in love first with “Lev Orlov’s” (the Nabokov insert’s) books and then with the man himself. Over the course of the 1930s, she finds herself in a vicious–and murderous–love triangle with him and his wife. It’s an extraordinary premise that unfortunately feels sordid in execution. The novel careens from a slow first half, beginning in Zoya’s childhood in the Soviet Union and inching through her time as a scholarship student and greenhouse employee, to a breakneck (and murderous) second half that goes off not so much with a blaze as an incomprehensible flash-bang that left me frustrated and dazed. The novel is full of keen observations (especially about life as a Soviet immigrant to America) and razor-sharp turns of phrase, but as a story, I found it extraordinarily unsatisfying.

You can read my full review below.


Invitation to a Bonfire Cover

Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt

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  • publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
  • publication date: June 5, 2018
  • length: 256 pages
  • cover price: $26.00

No one minded theft or inconsistency, even vitriol, so long as it meant you were making a statement. This was my first great lesson in being American, and I took it to heart.

Invitation to a Bonfire

I’m struck by how much I find my gut creeping into my feelings about books, no matter how hard I try to get my reviewing down to a science. I like this because X, I don’t like this because Y, I’ll tell myself smugly when I’m not reading. The problem is that as soon as I start reading, those lofty theories fly out the window. It’s all about me and the book, and sometimes we hit it off, and sometimes we don’t.

I did not hit it off with Invitation to a Bonfire, and while I have a few inklings as to why, the intensity of my dislike surprises me.

Invitation to a Bonfire follows a young Soviet American woman named Zoya who falls in love with Soviet author Leo Orlov, a stand-in for Vladimir Nabokov. Zoya also falls into a standoff with his calculating wife, Vera, based on Nabokov’s actual wife, Véra. It’s framed as a collection of found papers including journals and love letters, a device that I think works not at all, and it’s about as slow of a slow burn as you’re likely to find in literary fiction.

I enjoyed this book most when Adrienne Celt was writing about Zoya’s experience as the daughter of a Red revolutionary-turned-traitor. The Soviet Union holds such a cartoonishly evil and exaggerated place in American culture that the subtlety Celt brought to its politics was refreshing and welcome. The problem is that as soon as Celt turns to the setting of an exclusive boarding school in 1930s America, where Zoya is sent as a scholarship student and where she works after graduation, the tension pops like a balloon and never comes back.

I hammer on this point to the degree that family and friends roll their eyes when they hear me say it, but historical fiction is never really about the past–it’s about the present, and over and over I found myself frustrated with how little Invitation to a Bonfire seems to be about the past or the present. The supposed “historical” documents Celt uses (including oral histories) feel not at all like something written in the 1930s. The boarding school is about as clichéd and cardboard a boarding school setting as it gets; it could have been set in the ’80s or ’90s instead and I wouldn’t have noticed. There’s so little genuine American historical detail–though the Soviet stuff is well done–that it left me unmoored and uncaring about anything that happened.

The novel seems uncertain if it’s expecting you to know about Vladimir Nabokov’s marriage or not. I’ve never read Lolita or anything else of his work, so I went into this novel pretty cold except for a brief scan of his Wikipedia page. As far as I can tell, Celt has based the novel very loosely on actually events, dropping in wink-wink-nudge-nudge Easter eggs: Felice is the novel’s version of Lolita; in Orlov’s love letters, he refers to names as having colors, and Nabokov himself was a renowned synesthete. The problem is that they felt to me like the literary version of after-credits scenes in Marvel movies: cool bonuses, but utterly unnecessary. In a novel that’s already agonizingly slow, that Celt chooses to devote so much energy to establishing her almost-Nabokov is frustrating.

Celt also spends a lot of time establishing Vera’s background as upper-crust and Zoya’s as a half-step above peasantry; class is a crux of the novel even after Zoya comes to America, a poor student at an overwhelmingly rich school. But in real life, Véra was Russian Jewish and faced overwhelming anti-Semitism that very much shaped her life and Nabokov’s. It’s not so much that I think Celt has an obligation to include every real-world detail–as I said, Invitation to a Bonfire is an extremely loose adaptation–as that I think it’s odd she includes so much peripheral detail about Nabokov and so little about Véra. The imagination of the novel feels lumpy, coming in clumps when I don’t want it there, yet feeling oddly barren when it would be most useful.

I could have forgiven most if not all of that if the core murder mystery were more effective, but it’s not. About halfway through, the novel goes from extremely predictable to off-the-walls nuts. I could see Celt’s motions behind the curtain so clearly that it made me roll my eyes. Zoya and Lev’s love story is as flimsy as tissue paper; there are plot holes so big you could drive a tank through them. I had to read over the final couple of pages several times just to understand what I was reading because it was such a polar flip from what the first half seemed to be leading up to.

I don’t like being made to feel stupid while reading a novel, and Invitation to a Bonfire made me feel somehow simultaneously stupid and overly smart. There’s so much here that I wanted to love: a fascinating history, a fiery love story, crimes of passion. Celt’s prose is perfectly serviceable and sometimes even stunningly beautiful. The DNA is all there. So why didn’t it come together for me?

I think I can place the fatal flaw in the novel, but it might really be in me as a reader, and I hate that. I hate writing negative reviews because they remind me of the subjectivity and mundanity of my own opinions more than anything else, though they’re not fundamentally different than my positive ones: expressions of how a particular book struck me at a particular time, expressions that are affected by a smorgasbord of things that are not actually the book or the author’s fault.

No matter the root cause, for me, Invitation to a Bonfire fizzles instead of blazes. What a shame. ★★☆☆☆


My copy of Invitation to a Bonfire came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: SWEETBITTER by Stephanie Danler

Sweetbitter follows Tess, a 20-something who moves to New York in search of…well, New York itself. She miraculously lands a job at a high-end restaurant and begins a life full of heady food, drink, coke, and 3 a.m. benders with coworkers. She also falls hard for Simone, an aloof waitress full of Old World knowledge and mystery, and Jake, an otherworldly-beautiful bartender with secrets to keep. Sweetbitter feels miraculous, a wonderful novel superimposed onto the blueprints of a worse one. Coming to New York stories are cheap and well-trodden, but Stephanie Danler finds all the rough edges worth exploring. As I wrote last month, the novel’s vivid restaurant setting helps freshen it, but there’s other alchemical magic at work too. Danler finds the sweet spot between young adult and adult literature, turning the big swings and harsh failures of Tess’s 20s into a novel that feels decadent and rich, lofty without being bloodless. I loved every minute.

You can read my full review below. Please note that this review is a bit more NSFW than my usual and contains some sexual content and swearing.


Sweetbitter Cover

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

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  • publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
  • publication date: May 24, 2016
  • length: 368 pages
  • cover price: $25.00 in hardcover, $16.00 in paperback

Does anyone come to New York clean? I’m afraid not. But crossing the Hudson I thought of crossing Lethe, milky river of forgetting. I forgot that I had a mother who drove away before I could open my eyes, and a father who moved invisibly through the rooms of our house. I forgot the parade of people in my life as thin as mesh screens, who couldn’t catch whatever it was I wanted to say to them, and I forgot how I drove down dirt roads between desiccated fields, under an oppressive guard of stars, and felt nothing.

Sweetbitter, page 4

20-something Tess comes to New York from Ohio as a blank slate with a vaguely alluded-to education in English literature. She doesn’t come to New York striving to be an actress, singer, writer, or artist; she just arrives for the sake of arriving, hungry for city living. She decides that working as a waitress is her best chance at making life in the city work, so she gets a job at a high-end restaurant in Manhattan and begins an education in good food and something called the 51%–the “something special” about back- and front-of-house staff. From there, she falls headlong into a love affair with food and two of her most mysterious coworkers. Hijinks (and a beautiful coming-of-age story) ensue.

For all the effort we put into getting kids and teens to read, I think that we put very little cultural effort into keeping adults readers during and after college. There’s a massive jump between the work of offbeat YA authors like A. S. King and the cloistered world of adult literary fiction.

That’s what struck me most about Sweetbitter: that it is a young adult novel in the sense that it intimately captures the things I care about as a 23-year-old moving through the world, in a way that very few literary novels (except maybe Nafkote Tamirat’s flawed The Parking Lot Attendant) have captured recently: love, hard work, love, hard pain, love, hard joy, love, with the intensity of it all dialed up to eleven.

Danler’s writing is dramatic, almost to the point of melo-, but not quite. At first when reading Sweetbitter’s mythology-tinged dialogue, I thought, no one talks like that. But because Danler writes a dazzling amount of dialogue for a dizzying array of characters, it works. For every allusion to Greek myth and the terroir of Old World wines, someone’s talking about puking after a night out and the latest girl the office manager is screwing under his desk. It’s hi-lo writing that perfectly captures the hi-lo atmosphere of restaurant work, no matter how “fine” the dining is at a particular establishment.

Sweetbitter hews so close to the border of cliché that it’s a miracle it never crosses into it. For one, a love triangle with an older, mysterious bartender and an icy head waitress is at its center. For the other, it’s a coming-of-age story about coming to New York. But in Danler’s hands those elements have an unexpected emotional immediacy. Tess snorts obligatory coke in a bar bathroom, but she also then buys a leather jacket with a heady (and recognizable to any 20-something) mix of self-consciousness and pride. She has hot sex in the back of a cab but also masturbates, miserably, in her overheated apartment in the middle of a damp December.

Sweetbitter is both archetypal and vulnerable, something in the vein of Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar but also something entirely its own. It’s both claustrophobic and expansive, confined to a restaurant that somehow contains a whole world within it. The tenderness with which the staff treat their regular customers is in sharp contrast to the vicious way they treat each other, yet both feel like manifestations of love. They’re a family. A completely fucked-up family, but still.

Sweetbitter is yet another book about a beautiful, thin young white woman, but it’s perhaps the best one of that ouevre I’ve ever read. It’s a book about the aged optimism–not quite pessimism–of your twenties, and how it mellows and deepens. I want to read more stories that live in that niche, ones with different specificities and desires and homes.

If you’re disaffected and bored and in a reading slump, I couldn’t recommend anything else to shake you out of it more highly than Sweetbitter. It’s sad and thrilling and cathartic at once, both a mirror-image of our world and a bright still life full of artistic license. Get some good grapes and cheese and take a hot bath while you read. You’ll lose yourself and your troubles, too. ★★★★★


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

Book Review: ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer

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

You can read my full review below.


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Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

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

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

Annihilation, page 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Book Review: THE MARS ROOM by Rachel Kushner

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

You can read my full review below.


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The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

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

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

The Mars Room, page 25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Book Review: STRAYING by Molly McCloskey

Straying is a portrait of a marriage gone stale; it’s also the story of a daughter struggling to understand her mother, and the story of an American woman in Ireland who finds–metaphorically, at least–that she can’t go home again. (Straying‘s protagonist, Alice, is at the heart of all three threads–she’s the cheating wife, the disappointing daughter, and the wander-lost American, respectively.) Nothing is new or exciting about that plot, but Molly McCloskey’s sharp prose style elevates the experience somewhat, especially in the first third of the book, which captures the staticky, on-edge feeling of being in love with the wrong person perfectly. Unfortunately, the decay of Alice’s marriage is nowhere as insightful or interesting as its beginning, and while I understand that that’s likely a conscious choice on McCloskey’s part, the latter two-thirds still make for dry, abrasive reading. Straying starts with a spark and plenty of tinder, but it never catches fire.

You can read my full review below.


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Straying by Molly McCloskey

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  • publisher: Scribner Book Company (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
  • publication date: February 20, 2018
  • length: 224 pages
  • cover price: $24.00

How do people do it, I used to wonder. Well, I learned. That sort of secret feels like an illness, the way the world slows to a crawl as though for your inspection. So much clarity and consequence–it was like enlightenment, it was like being in the truth, which is a funny thing to say about deceit.

Straying, page 1

I think that there are two iconic American dreams: one of coming to America and one of leaving it. Alice, Straying‘s narrator, decides to visit Ireland because she realizes that a full European tour is out of her budget; she ends up moving there in working in a pub for a summer, and though her experience isn’t glamorous at all I still felt my heart beating faster.

How romantic! I thought. I wish I could drop everything and move to Ireland.

And that was the last romantic, silly thought I had while reading this book, which is one of the dreariest I’ve experienced in some time.

Part of that dullness lies in Straying’s subject matter. I don’t like to ding authors for that in my reviews, since more than anything else, our preferences for what we like to read and write about are personal. I can’t develop a coherent rubric for why I love books about cults but am wary of mid-life crisis novels; it’s pure preference, and I had the sneaking suspicion throughout Straying that nearly everything I disliked about it was just that: preference.

McCloskey seems to evade (or at times, to stomp on) warm-fuzzies everywhere they might naturally pop up. In a nutshell, Straying is about how Alice moves to Ireland, falls in a sort-of love, falls out of it, embarks on an affair, works for NGOs in war zones, loses her mother, and feels a lot of things about homesickness. The novel is told out of order, partially in flashback to the ’80s and partially in the present day, so this is all established early (which is why I don’t consider them spoilers). The tension lies entirely in the sordid specifics, which unspool agonizingly slowly and pessimistically.

For example, instead of finding any sort of tourist’s joy in Ireland, Alice seems disenchanted immediately. The kindest, most loving thought she has about Eddie, her once-husband, is about his solidness–that he will someday be the kind of old man she likes. She loves her mother recklessly and yet lives almost her whole life away from her.

To me that’s all very realistic, very sad, and very, very boring.

But what do I know? Another major theme of the book is the recklessness of youth. I’m 23 and fully in my reckless phase, so it was probably inevitable that I would find this book as dry as sawdust. (When I initially picked it up, I thought more of it would focus on Alice’s younger self, but it’s mostly told from her late middle age.) I’m about to get married myself–of course I’m not going to want to be reminded of all the ways my life could go wrong. Of course I would find this book stolid. Of course I would find it unpleasantly hardened.

But there’s still a lot to like here. Every character feels almost disconcertingly three-dimensional, like I could access their backstories Magic Eye-style by crossing my eyes a bit. McCloskey has a knack for making observations about life that are so true and painful that they made my blood run cold. And Alice is a truly wonderful first-person narrator, prickly and vulnerable, someone we get a real sense of as a participant in the story instead of someone who is just a glorified third-person narrator.

Most of all, I loved how McCloskey writes about Ireland in the 1980s. While I was reading, Ireland’s grimy upstart-ness, its trauma and resilience, its falls and rebirths, and its smells and sights and geography were all as real to me as the Saint Paul, Minnesota streets outside my window.

While Straying wasn’t to my taste, it still felt like a conversation with someone very interesting; someone whom you want very much to like you and think of you as sophisticated. Maybe it wasn’t to my taste exactly because I didn’t feel like I measured up to the novel’s exacting gaze.

No one likes to be predictable. Everyone likes to think their story is the special one. Perhaps McCloskey’s refusal to write about someone special is, in itself, very special, even if it is far from enjoyable. It’s food for thought, anyway. ★★★☆☆


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

Book Review: THE MERRY SPINSTER by Daniel Mallory Ortberg

Fairytales are often as repulsive as they are fascinating, and in The Merry Spinster, Daniel Mallory Ortberg dials up the intensity of both sensations up to 11. These short stories are all retellings of myth and legend (with a few Bible stories thrown in), and they’re the only retellings I’ve ever encountered that retain all the opacity, awe, and terror of the originals. Sometimes that opacity is a little much–I didn’t understand a word of one story, “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad”–but usually it’s thrilling. I’m a fairytale nut and it sometimes feels like I’ve consumed every story under the sun already. Reading The Merry Spinster felt like uncovering a treasure trove of lost work from a favorite artist, something exactly in the style of the originals, but wonderfully new. Much of the praise of this book centers on Ortberg’s wit–and his wit is indeed brutally sharp–but what I liked best was his obvious understanding of what makes fairytales work. In the end, it’s not about wit, plot, or character, though those are nice–it’s about pure, raw, turbulent emotion, and luckily, The Merry Spinster has that quality in spades.

You can read my full review below.


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The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Daniel Mallory Ortberg

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  • publisher: Henry Holt & Co. (an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: March 13, 2018
  • length: 208 pages
  • list price: $17.00

Daughters are as good a thing as any to populate a kingdom with–if you’ve got them on hand. They don’t cost much more than their own upkeep, which you’re on the hook for regardless, so it’s not a bad strategy to put them to use as quickly as possible.

The Merry Spinster, page 1

I converted to Christianity just before Christmas, 2016. After years of atheism, it’s still something that feels mildly embarrassing to me, like I gave up somehow; I’ll admit that in many ways, I’m not very good at being a Christian, though at this point, God and I have reached the point of no return in our serious, if wary, relationship. (I relate strongly to this piece by Hanif Abdurraqib about why he still fasts for Ramadan despite being a less-than-fully-observant Muslim.)

I write all this because Daniel Mallory Ortberg has created something almost biblical with The Merry Spinster, not in the sense that it is remotely holy, but in the sense that it is polyphonic, inscrutable, and often terrifying. The love, loss, and vengeance in these stories is loud and in your face; it feels like it’s instructing you, though you don’t quite understand the lessons. And I mean these things in the most positive way possible.

The strongest story in the collection is the first one, “The Daughter Cells”; in this retelling of “The Little Mermaid,” the mermaid is more alien than girl. She goes to land not so much for the love of the prince but out of a bureaucratic desire to improve the efficiency of humans and a more personal one to gain the prince’s soul. In message, if not in tone, it reminded me of films and books like Annihilation and Contact; two species meet and harm each other entirely by accident. The thing is, those examples have hours and many pages to set up their premise; Ortberg achieves the same thing in a scant 25 pages. I’ve never read anything like it.

While in my opinion the collection doesn’t quite return to the heights of “The Daughter Cells” after that 25th page, most of the other stories are nearly as compelling. Ortberg does particularly interesting things with gender, playing with pronouns, names, and titles in intriguing and unsettling ways that meant a lot to me as a nonbinary person. (Ortberg has talked about how writing this book helped him come to terms with being trans.)

In particular, “The Thankless Child”–the second story in the collection and a loose retelling of “Cinderella” among other fables–provoked me to think harder and deeper. Its protagonist is named Paul, but she uses she/her pronouns. (It jarred me at first, but after all, so many “boys’ names” have been reclaimed as “girls’ names” anyway…why not Paul?) She lives in a desert hellscape where salt is currency, and her godmother is a supernatural and vengeful being who is jealous of Paul’s dead mother. Gender roles are fluid–couples fall into the “husband” and “wife” roles depending on their aptitudes, not their genders–and it fundamentally alters the Cinderella story in ways that surprised me. “Cinderella” is one of the most-retold stories imaginable (Ella Enchanted is my personal favorite retelling), yet Ortberg still manages to make it fresh.

Other stories are straight-up terrifying rather than just unsettling. “The Rabbit,” a sinister retelling of “The Velveteen Rabbit,” particularly upset me (in a delicious way). Another story, “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad,” is just as creepy, but much less effective because it’s so confusing. (Ortberg has a loopy prose style that usually works well but sometimes seems to waffle and double back on itself.)

Every story in the collection feels like a major risk, and some don’t pay off as well as others. I really didn’t like the “Mr. Toad” story, and others, like “The Wedding Party”–about a couple arguing before their courthouse wedding–were interesting but not emotionally effective for me.

But in a way, I love that uneven, unpredictable quality in The Merry Spinster: because it’s not only a short story collection, but a short short story collection at only 208 pages, everything flies by so quickly that even the parts that drag didn’t drag down my enjoyment too much.

The word that pops up again and again when I think about The Merry Spinster is “unique,” and not in a passive-aggressive Midwestern way–it’s genuinely unique and thoughtful and experimental and wonderful. It scratched an itch I never knew I had, and now that it’s been scratched, I’m sad that there aren’t more books in this niche. Ortberg’s next book will be a memoir (currently titled Something That May Shock and Discredit You) but I hope he returns to this well soon. ★★★★☆


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

Book Review: THE GOSPEL OF TREES by Apricot Irving

The Gospel of Trees is an ambitious memoir: it’s both a personal reckoning and a much bigger historical one; it’s a microcosm of one missionary family and also a macrocosm of the tangled legacy of missionary work around the globe. In it, Apricot Irving recounts her personal experience growing up as a missionary’s daughter in Haiti–Ayiti Cherie–while weaving in meticulous and nuanced research about the island’s brutal colonial history. It’s a little too long and its structure comes somewhat unglued by the end, but it’s still a top-notch memoir by a gifted writer that will reverberate with me for a long time.

You can read my full review below.


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The Gospel of Trees by Apricot Irving

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  • publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • publication date: March 6, 2018
  • length: 384 pages
  • cover price: $26.00

When we don’t know what to make of a situation, we grope for a familiar pattern, a path worn into the grass. The danger, of course, is that by imposing our own expectations, we fail to see anything clearly. I am as guilty of this as anyone.

Stories, like archaeology, are fragmentary, composed of scraps and nuances, and–depending on what is left out–most narratives can be constructed so as to end in either glory or ruin. But the missionaries I had grown up with were neither marauders nor saints; Haiti was neither savage nor noble. The truth was far more complicated.

The Gospel of Trees, page 1

Publishing is full of books by white people who write about how they saved the “Third World” or how the “Third World” saved them. Luckily, The Gospel of Trees feels like a sort of antidote to this disrespect and tackiness: written by a white woman who was once a missionary’s daughter in Haiti, it somehow turns these tropes upside-down and inside-out, transforming them from cardboard cut-outs into something rich and new.

Apricot Irving is the daughter of white farmers who picked up everything and moved to northern Haiti as missionaries in the 1980s; Irving and her sisters went with them. At first the girls were enchanted by the beauty and opportunities of their corner of the island–especially the paradoxical and uncomfortable luxury they enjoyed as blan outsiders, a sharp contrast to their austere lives in the States–but paradise soon crumbles beneath their father’s single-minded desires and anger and their mother’s growing exhaustion.

Irving draws on a wide array of material to build the narrative: her own diaries, those of her parents, the ever-optimistic and fundraising-oriented missionary bulletins sent back to American churches, field research, historical documents, and personal letters; the facts never feel mushy or in doubt.

She is also impressively introspective throughout: she writes about some of her most unflattering thoughts and actions with a thoughtful openness I can’t even imagine possessing. It allows her to tackle enormous questions of race, wealth, religion, power, privilege, misogyny, and more without it coming across as yet another guilty white person looking for absolution. It’s clear that she’s either found absolution within herself or has given up on finding it, so there is–refreshingly–not a drop of neediness left on the page.

It’s all tremendously effective right up until the latter third, which sees Irving first leaving Haiti as a teenager and then returns again and again as an adult. The tight structure of the first two parts is replaced by a confusing coming-apart that muddies things; all the powerful contradictions and ironies from earlier pages seem to fizzle out as Irving doubles back and forth and back again.

But this is a top-notch memoir regardless of that slump. Irving is a stunningly talented writer; better yet, she’s a stunningly talented thinker, someone who seems capable of holding multitudes within her without flattening sharp edges in the process. (I wish I had that talent.)

The Gospel of Trees is neither bitter nor sweet; it’s not even merely bittersweet. It contains a whole and dazzling palette. It haunted me as I read it and it will continue to haunt me long after I’ve set it down. ★★★★☆


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