Book Review: THE BODY MYTH by Rheea Mukherjee

The Body Myth is an ambitious novel that’s full of all sorts of ingredients I like: explorations of health, sickness, loss, love, queerness, non-monogamous and nontraditional relationships, and prickly women. About a disaffected schoolteacher in a fictional city in India whose chance encounter with a young couple in a park leads to an intense, life-altering triad, The Body Myth is drenched in existentialism and Sufism. (The narrator, Mira, is obsessed with Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Foucault, all noticeable influences on Rheea Mukherjee’s writing style.) It ties Western and Eastern philosophies together in intriguing ways, but unfortunately, the end result is too shaggy and oblique for me to recommend it wholeheartedly. I admired this book more than I enjoyed it–but I did admire it very, very much, and I’ll be keeping tabs on Mukherjee’s future work, as well as checking out her previous short story collection, Transit for Beginners.

You can read my full review of The Body Myth below.


The Body Myth Cover
cover description: An illustration of some kind of tree or vines growing out of two broken halves of a body. The background is orange.

The Body Myth by Rheea Mukherjee

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  • publisher: Unnamed Press
  • publication date: February 26, 2019
  • length: 234 pages

The woman was sitting on a park bench in West Point Gardens, where I came every Sunday for a five-kilometer walk. She couldn’t see me, but I had stopped mid-stride to stare at her. I looked at her for three reasons:

(1) her face was twisted in contemplation;

(2) she was wearing a beige kurta with a transparent golden dupatta; and

(3) she was fucking gorgeous.

–from The Body Myth by Rheea Mukherjee

I went through a Jean-Paul Sartre phase. Like The Body Myth’s adrift and grieving narrator, Mira, it happened as a way to cope with one of the most difficult times in my life, when my mental health was in freefall and it was an effort just to stay alive. I read Sartre in a philosophy class and held on for dear life. Existentialism saved my life then, and in a less intense way, it still appeals to me now.

For that reason and many others, I was easily transported to the world of The Body Myth, Rheea Mukherjee’s first novel, which is deeply existentialist fiction in the tradition of Sartre’s own Nausea. It felt a little like visiting an old friend.

Mira is a widowed schoolteacher just going through the motions when she meets young, attractive couple Sara and Rahil in a local park. She witnesses Sara having a seizure–was it a seizure or a performance? We’re left to question that almost immediately–and Rahil rushing to comfort her. The chance encounter blooms into an intense friendship between them and Mira, and very quickly a romantic and sexual love triangle, as well.

Sara is plagued by mysterious illnesses: cramps, arthritis, mouth ulcers, fevers, fatigue, and, of course, seizures. Rahil takes careful care of her. It quickly becomes obvious that Mira has stumbled into a heady, codependent ritual of needing and being needed that has less to do with illness than it does with love and marriage. It’s a ritual that Mira’s presence disturbs forever.

The Body Myth is fascinating. Mukherjee writes like no one else I’ve ever read, accomplishing much more than just updating Sartre for the 21st century. This novel is earthy, frank, surprising, and full of flashes of brilliant, beautiful insight that make me want to sit down and have coffee with Mukherjee someday.

The Body Myth’s ideas about the ways being sick feeds into our universal need to feel loved and cared for particularly interested me. As I’ve written many times on this blog before, I’m chronically ill in ways that have felt very mysterious at times; I was a little nervous to read a novel that so baldly implies that its chronically ill character isn’t “really” sick, but thankfully, Mukherjee takes the premise in a more abstract, thought-provoking direction than merely, she’s faking it.

Perhaps “abstract” is the key descriptor for The Body Myth. I could go on for hours about all the philosophical threads Mukherjee ravels and tugs at–the way she connects Sufism and existentialism was truly moving and mind-blowing to me–but I was less enthused about this novel as fiction than I was about this novel as a big repository of ideas.

In that way, it reminded me of Sorry to Bother Youalso a big-repository-of-ideas piece of fiction that was striking and memorable but that I ultimately kind of loathed as a movie. I didn’t come anywhere close to loathing The Body Myth, but its plot machinations felt clunky in the same way as Sorry to Bother You‘s, especially towards the end.

I want a plot to feel like more than just something to hang beautiful prose upon, even in literary fiction, and unfortunately, The Body Myth never quite clears that bar. Its ending especially goes off the rails.

But I still enjoyed it, and I’m still glad I read it. I think a good barometer for whether or not you’ll get something out of The Body Myth is whether or not you enjoy a little navel-gazing in the style of late-night dorm room conversations about the meaning of life, man (but with a women’s studies twist). I love those conversations, even when they get a little ridiculous, and so I was happy to indulge Mukherjee here.

I didn’t love The Body Myth, but I doubt I’ll forget it. This is a unique and startling novel. ★

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

Book Review: KNOCK WOOD by Jennifer Militello

This is a poet’s memoir, both literally and stylistically. Knock Wood is Jennifer Militello’s first book of not-poetry, after three critically acclaimed and award-winning poetry collections. It begins with Militello reflecting on a “knock on wood” that was, unluckily, actually a knock on a surface that wasn’t wood. From there, the memoir blooms out into everything she believes was touched by that ill luck knock, from an uncle’s death three years before to a crumbling marriage to an arrest for theft to an aunt’s suicide attempt and mental illness.

Knock Wood is full of revelatory, quotable gorgeousness, and it’s surprisingly easy to read given its time-warping experimental format. (The lightning-fast 144-page length helps, too.) I enjoyed it very much, with one significant reservation: Militello consistently treats disability and fatness as grotesque. I still recommend this book, but I want to arm readers with that knowledge going in so that they’re not so unpleasantly caught off guard by it as I was.

You can read my full review below.


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

Knock Wood by Jennifer Militello

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  • publisher: Dzanc Books
  • publication date: August 13, 2019
  • length: 144 pages

I don’t want to remember. Memory is the bush in the yard that we keep cutting down as it keeps growing back. I don’t know what species it is. It is the kind that has berries you can’t eat. Bird berries, my mother used to call them. Red and round and smooth. Now I tell my daughter, don’t eat them. They’ll make you sick.

–from Knock Wood by Jennifer Militello*

Knock Wood asks you to take a leap of faith. Its opening scene, in which Jennifer Militello describes an ill-fated knock on wood on an airplane to London in 2016, is extremely idiosyncratic, almost a parody of the mannerisms of creative nonfiction. Militello recounts reading “a Murakami novel about an uncle with cancer,”* knocking on wood (which turns out to be plastic or metal, something not-wood), and then suddenly realizing that this unlucky knock caused the death of her uncle three years before.

It’s a leap, and for a couple of pages, I held my breath, wondering if I was going to be stuck reading something painfully strained and false for the duration of this memoir, Militello’s first book of prose after three books of poetry.

Luckily, I wasn’t stuck: in fact, I was gripped before the first chapter had even ended, when a description of a hide being tanned sent deep shivers down my spine.

It’s not a chronological or even fully comprehensible memoir. It’s a deeply intuitive experience, like literally show me a healthy person by Darcie Wilder or, to a lesser extent, much of Annie Dillard’s work. Knock Wood is a memoir held together by déjà vu.

It reminded me of the way that a particular formation of clouds transports me back to summer camp every time I see it. I don’t have a distinct memory of seeing those clouds while I was actually at camp; I have no idea why the link is so strong, but it is. Militello moved me from memory to disparate memory in the same way: it didn’t make sense if I stopped to think about it, but it definitely felt right.

Militello spends a lot of time with the monstrous and chilling, the pulsing and bleeding, the ghostly and the all-too-embodied. This is mostly a good and interesting thing, but it leads me to my one, very serious criticism of Knock Wood: Militello’s dehumanizing treatment of disabled and fat bodies.

Much of this memoir revolves around Militello’s aunt Kathy, who was a model until severe mental illness struck. Over and over, Militello equates Kathy’s illness with ugliness and repulsiveness. Kathy is at first described as an elegant, slim, suicidal woman in a houndstooth coat. After treatment and medication, she becomes a breathless fat monster in tacky clothes one size (or more) too small.

There are plenty of ways to write about physical transformation that aren’t nearly so judgmental and cruel. Not only is this lazy writing, it’s a lazy reflection of a widespread belief that I find infinitely more monstrous than mental illness or fatness could ever be: that it is better to die beautiful than live to become undesirable.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder seven years ago, and it very nearly killed me. I refused to take my medication, because antipsychotic drugs (along with many other types of medication for mental illness) cause weight gain, and I refused–refused–to be fat, for fear I would become exactly the kind of object of pity and scorn that Militello paints here.

Eventually I did take my meds. Eventually I did become fat. I wore clothes that were too small. I have a double chin. I sweat easily. The hair on my face grows in oddly. And yet my life is still worth living! Imagine that.

That Militello leans so much on the same tired, insulting tropes of the grotesque in a memoir that is otherwise so gorgeous, humble, and insightful feels like a slap in the face.

This book was well worth reading, and Militello is a tremendously gifted nonfiction writer. Her words will be reverberating with me for some time. But some of the words she invokes are powerful for all the wrong reasons. ★★★★☆

Knock Wood hits stores and your favorite online retailers tomorrow, August 13th.

* Please note that all quotes in this review come from an ARC, which is an uncorrected proof. Quotes may appear differently in the final version.

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I received a copy of Knock Wood from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. I received no other compensation and opinions are entirely my own.

Book Review: THAT TIME I LOVED YOU by Carrianne Leung

In ten linked stories that function almost as a novel, Carrianne Leung writes with a simple directness that belies the depth and power of her themes. That Time I Loved You is entirely set in one suburban neighborhood in Scarborough, Canada. It has a recurring cast of characters, but its central character is a Chinese Canadian middle schooler, June. June is the narrator of three stories and appears as a watchful presence in the rest. The action kicks off with a series of suicides of parents in the neighborhood, which send the surviving adults (and especially their kids) into a tizzy of fear and gossip.

Suburbia is a common setting for literary fiction, but Leung really makes it something special here. Her writing reminded me of Celeste Ng’s, another writer who understands that suburbs are more complex–in race, class, gender, sexual, and family dynamics–than your stereotypical snooty WASPs and manicured lawns. At times I wished she had been a little more ambitious with her straight-ahead prose, but overall, I thought this quiet, lovely collection was well worth my time.

You can read my full review below.


That Time I Loved You Cover
cover description: An illustration of rows and rows of similar houses with different colored roofs separated by solid dark blue bars.

That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung

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  • publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation (an imprint of W. W. Norton & Company)
  • publication date: February 26, 2019
  • length: 224 pages

1979: This was the year the parents in my neighborhood began killing themselves. I was eleven years old and in Grade 6. Elsewhere in the world, big things were happening. McDonald’s introduced the Happy Meal, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran and Michael Jackson released his album Off the Wall. But none of that was as significant to me as the suicides.

–from “Grass” in That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung

I recently tried to re-read The Virgin Suicides, a novel I read and failed to understand or connect with when I was about 14. Unfortunately I found it just as opaque and slippery the second time around, and set it aside without finishing.

That Time I Loved You, Carrianne Leung’s first short story collection, is worth comparing to The Virgin Suicides in more ways than one. First, it’s about a series of suicides; second, it’s about 1970s-1980s suburbia and how hard it is to grow up. But where Jeffrey Eugenides took a highly stylized, metaphorical approach to those themes–too stylized and too metaphorical, in my opinion–Leung’s style is so direct and realistic it almost reads like memoir. (Leung did in fact grow up in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, where That Time I Loved You is set.)

Perhaps a better comparison is Celeste Ng’s hit novel Little Fires Everywhere, which I loved, and which is soon to be made into a Hulu TV series. If you loved that, you’ll also find a lot to love in this.

Like Ng, Leung intimately understands suburbs, not as narrative devices or places to be derided by people who live in the city, but as real places. Her characters are not icy, repressed blondes; they’re a far more diverse group of mainly immigrants: Chinese, Jamaican, Portuguese, Italian. The sex these people have doesn’t feel like a defilement of the American Dream (not least because they’re Canadian); it feels like the sex that real people have. The growing up that June and her friends must do doesn’t happen in some single cathartic moment that’s a statement about the loss of innocence; instead, it happens in a series of tiny, dizzying forward shifts, the way growing up actually felt for me (and, I imagine, the way it felt for most people).

Leung’s suburbia, in other words, resembles the majority of suburbs in which my family and friends have lived. It’s set in 1979 and the very early 1980s, but it felt especially representative of what suburbs look like today, after gentrification and the reverse white flight that has pushed marginalized people back out to the suburbs.

That Time I Loved You‘s suicides feel equally real. They’re the catalyst for the book, but they’re also surprisingly quiet and small. In fact, the most notable thing about them is how un-notable they become to the surviving neighbors. I was concerned that this book would be difficult for me to read given my own history of mental health problems, but luckily Leung treats the subject with great respect and compassion.

That Time I Loved You functions well as a short story collection, but its structure is just close enough to a novel that I’d still recommend it to people who don’t usually like short story collections. That it’s anchored by one memorable character, June, makes it much easier to follow than a typical collection. It’s roughly chronological and takes place all in the same location; events that happen in one story affect the others.

That That Time I Loved You is so realistic helps, too. As much as I like current trends in reality-blurring short fiction, it’s nice to take a break and read a book that doesn’t feature extended dream sequences, hallucinations, or other long jaunts away from the recognizable world.

But as much as I liked having straightforward stories, I did wish that Leung had ventured beyond straightforward prose. Leung is exceptionally talented at developing characters and plot, but her writing style is very simple–which on one hand was kind of a welcome rest for my brain (I’ve done a lot of reading for work and pleasure recently), and on the other left me somewhat unsatisfied, like a meal that tasted good but came in too small a portion. Oh well.

There wasn’t a single story here that I didn’t like, but my favorites were “Fences,” about an Italian American woman struggling to conceive a child with a husband she doesn’t really love, “Sweets,” about June’s grandmother who becomes a surprising ally to one of June’s genderqueer friends, and the final, titular story, “That Time I Loved You,” which is a tour de force culmination of all the stories that came before.

That Time I Loved You is light on its feet despite its serious subject matter, but it never feels insubstantial. It’s a great example of how diverse in form and style short story collections can be–and it’s welcome that its characters are so diverse, too. This book will stay with me. ★★★★☆

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My copy of That Time I Loved You came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: THEY BOTH DIE AT THE END by Adam Silvera

What if you knew what day you would die? How would you feel? What would you spend your last hours doing? They Both Die at the End takes place in a world where everyone gets a phone call the day they will die, giving them time to say goodbyes, plan their own funerals, and cram in as much life as they can. Two strangers, Mateo and Rufus, get their call on the same day. They meet on an app designed for “Deckers” (people who’ve received their call) and take off on an adventure across New York City.

For a book that spoils its ending right in the title, They Both Die at the End is surprisingly gripping. It’s a tearjerker that never feels manipulative or hokey. I occasionally found its shifting perspectives hard to follow (chapters alternate between Mateo, Rufus, and a few side characters), but overall I enjoyed this book very much. If you enjoy sad but ultimately hopeful stories along the lines of Netflix’s Russian Doll, you’ll love They Both Die at the End.

You can read my full review below.


9780062457790
cover description: An illustration of silhouetted figures walking side by side along a pier in New York City. It’s nighttime, the sky is dark blue, and the moon and stars are bright.

They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

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  • publisher: HarperTeen (an imprint of HarperCollins)
  • publication date: September 5, 2017
  • length: 384 pages

Everything has come full circle between my mother and me. She died the day I was born and now I’ll be buried next to her. Reunion.

–from They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

Awhile back I tweeted about how “four star” books often mean more to me than many “five star” books, because the little bit I don’t love about them gets under my skin, irritates me, and keeps the book on my mind. The grit makes them unforgettable.

I didn’t love everything about They Both Die at the End and that, somehow, makes it even more special to me.

They Both Die at the End is about two teen boys, Mateo and Rufus, who live very different lives in New York City until they get a call telling them they won’t live to see the next day at all. 17-year-old foster kid Rufus beats up his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend to within an inch of his life: he receives the jarring phone call mid-beating, and suddenly decides that he has more important stuff to accomplish than petty revenge.

Mateo, on the other hand, is a meek 18-year-old whose mother died in childbirth and whose dad is in a coma. He’s put off all his dreams till adulthood, and then the phone call tells him he won’t have an adulthood, sending him straight into an existential crisis.

Both boys turn to an app designed to connect people living their last day–called “Deckers”–to each other, giving them one last friend to spend their last hours with. Mateo and Rufus become each other’s last friend, and maybe more.

Mateo and Rufus are wonderful characters. So many teen boys in YA are either tortured tough guys or dreamy princes, with little room for the real world in between, but Rufus and Mateo felt so real that I wouldn’t be surprised if I met them on the street.

Rufus can be angry and violent, but he’s also gentle and thoughtful when it counts. He’s out as bisexual, and everyone in his life accepts it, which is a nice change to read about. Plenty of non-tortured, non-repressed bisexual teen boys exist, but I’m not sure I’ve ever read about one in YA.

Mateo is shy and weak in some ways, but portrayed as ultimately incredibly kind and loving, the kind of person who would literally give the shoes off his feet to someone experiencing homelessness.

Their friends, too, are richly drawn anti-caricatures. I particularly loved Mateo’s best friend Lidia, a Colombian American teen mom. She’s smart and ambitious and loves her kid, Penny, more than anything in the world.

The large cast of great characters has a downside, though: perspective-jumping that had me losing the plot more than once. Mateo and Rufus’s chapters are told in the first person, and we get third-person chapters from side characters. I didn’t mind the jumping between Mateo and Rufus, but it became difficult to keep track once other subplots were introduced, some of which are critical to understanding the ending. It was frustrating to get to the ending and feel like I was missing its full effect because I couldn’t keep the details straight.

That’s my only complaint, but it’s a major one. Fortunately, the rest of this book is so darn good that it didn’t ruin my enjoyment.

Adam Silvera does a great job envisioning what a near future world would be like where everyone knew when they would die. Details include cruel social media trolls trawling death day-related Instagram tags, an “ultimate one night stand” dating app named Necro, and a spate of expensive, weaksauce businesses looking to exploit people’s last-minute desire to try things like skydiving. All of it felt extremely believable and interesting.

If you don’t like sci-fi, the sci-fi elements of this novel are subtle enough that you’ll probably enjoy this book anyway–but if you do like sci-fi, there’s plenty of thought-provoking speculative material to sink your teeth into.

It didn’t surprise me that I cried at multiple points while reading They Both Die at the End; the sadness is right there in the title. It did surprise me that those tears felt so spontaneous and natural every time. I knew I was reading a tearjerker of a book, but in the end, my tears didn’t feel so much jerked as earned. This book is so, so tender and loving, like a warm, sturdy hug when you’re grieving. It’s healing. Kudos to you, Adam Silvera; you’re a miracle-worker.

I don’t know when I’m going to die, but even if my last day ended up being tomorrow, I’d still be glad I took the time to read They Both Die at the End. ★★★★☆

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I purchased my own copy of They Both Die at the End and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: TELL ME AGAIN HOW A CRUSH SHOULD FEEL by Sara Farizan

In this sweet, quippy young adult comedy, closeted teen lesbian Leila deals with an unexpected crush on her private high school’s newest student, Saskia. The crush upends Leila’s friend group and her relationships with her conservative-but-loving Persian American family, forcing her to choose between coming out as her girl-loving best self or staying quiet and isolated till graduation.

Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel isn’t just great because of the nuanced representation it offers queer teens, especially teens from immigrant families. It’s also great because Sara Farizan is such a funny, charming writer, infusing this book with lightness and fun even as it tackles serious issues of grief, bullying, friend breakups, and homophobia. I highly recommend this book for teens–and there’s a lot for adults to love, too.

You can read my full review below.


Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel Cover
cover description: Two girls’ faces are opposite to each other on the cover, one at the top of the cover and one on the bottom. The background is pink stripes.

Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan

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  • publisher: Algonquin Young Readers (an imprint of Algonquin Books)
  • publication date: hardcover in 2014, paperback in 2015
  • length: 320 pages

“Look at how pretty you are!” Mom exclaims. “You should straighten your hair all the time!” Well, I guess that’s one thing I can straighten about myself.

–from Tell Me Again How a  Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan

Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel has the vibe of an indie teen dramedy in the vein of Juno or Lady Bird. It’s full of great jokes that deliver a potent shot of anger, sadness, and other complicated feelings about growing up alongside all the belly laughs.

Leila is a Persian (Iranian) American teenager who attends a fancy private high school. She’s an okay student but not a great one, much to the gentle chagrin of her parents, who hold out hope she’ll be a doctor like her sister someday. She has two best friends, geeky athlete Tess and zombie movie aficionado Greg, even though her childhood best friend Lisa has ditched her to become a popular kid.

Leila carefully cultivates as “normal” a life as possible despite being a closeted lesbian, a secret she’s convinced will ruin her life if her conservative parents ever find out. It’s her junior year, and she’s doing pretty great at keeping everything under wraps so far–until a flashy, gorgeous new student named Saskia arrives and ruins everything.

Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel ambles along at a leisurely pace, and its stakes never feel particularly high. Despite Leila’s intense fear of her parents’ reaction to her sexuality, it’s pretty clear from the start that they love her unconditionally, and that their homophobia is the knee-jerk kind rather than the violent, put-your-kid-out-onto-the-street kind. That’s why it surprised me that this book gripped me the way it did.

Like Juno (truly this book’s tonal match–Leila is Ellen Page with slightly less affected quips), Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel is light and airy right up until it packs an emotional wallop that’s enough to knock the wind out of you.

Sara Farizan writes teens just right. I was 19 in 2014, when this book was published, so Farizan was probably writing this book right around my own junior year. I was homeschooled and didn’t attend high school, but I still recognized myself in all of Farizan’s teen characters. Using humor as a defense mechanism, making cringey decisions, not knowing how to just use their words instead of assuming and fumbling through. But like most real-world teenagers, these teens are also brilliant, good-hearted, and way more socially mature than adults give them credit for. Watching them, especially Leila, grow up over the course of the novel was a treat.

It’s been awhile since a book made me giggle in public, but Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel actually made me ugly-snort. (Maybe be careful taking this book into waiting rooms or on public transit.) This book also made me cry, simply because it transported me back to the closet perfectly. Leila is so afraid of what everyone around her will think about her sexuality, even though she knows, deep down, that she is loved and cared for. I’m glad that YA books about high-stakes, life-threatening homophobia exist, since that’s certainly an experience that many teens are facing. But I think just as many teens face Leila’s situation: one where they’re not in danger, exactly, but where they still need to make heart-pounding choices and confessions that their straight peers never have to consider.

That Leila is proudly Persian, without the whole book being about her Persian-ness in a scrutinizing, othering way, is the cherry on top of the important representation Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel has on offer.

Most of all, I appreciated how Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel tackled unhealthy lesbian relationships. Many LGBTQIA+ novels portray queer relationships in a carefully sanitized light, ensuring that there are no rough patches where homophobes, biphobes, and transphobes might latch on and decide that all their worst beliefs about queer and trans people are true.

I understand why authors take that kind of care, but it’s still frustrating to see so many tidy queer relationships and characters when I want messy ones, too.

Without spoiling anything, there’s plenty of mess in Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel, and it’s what transforms this book from a four-star book into a five-star one. Farizan could so easily have chosen to make this a featherweight YA comedy. If she had, it would have still been a good book, but the grit makes it memorable. It’s an entertaining and enjoyable experience from start to finish, but featherweight it is not.

Reading Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel felt as nostalgic and lovely to me as the taste of Nutella or the smell of the Haribo fizzy colas my friends and I ate by the bagful at summer camp. Farizan is a gifted writer who makes both comedy and tragedy feel effortless. This book has a little something for everyone, but if you know a questioning or out-and-proud teen, it would be a real gift to buy them a copy. I wish this book had been there when I was a 17-year-old lesbian. ★★★★★


I purchased my own copy of Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: DIFFICULT WOMEN by Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay’s highly anticipated (and well-received) 2017 short story collection, Difficult Women, is, in short, worth every bit of that anticipating and receiving. Difficult Women is everything I want out of a short story collection and a lot more: the stories on their own are excellent; together, they’re transcendent. This is easily one of my favorite books I have ever read.

You can read my full review below.


Difficult Women Cover
cover description: A shattered pink glass heart against a black background.

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

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  • publisher: Grove Press
  • publication date: 2017
  • length: 272 pages

Boys don’t really know how to hurt girls.

–from “Baby Arm” in Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

I’ve loved Roxane Gay’s short fiction for many years, even before she became as beloved and well-known as she is now. As a teenager, between writing my own short stories, I would pore over the “Writing” page on her website, tracking down and devouring every short story I could find that wasn’t behind a paywall.

Yet even that abiding love for Gay’s uncollected work did not prepare me for how much I would adore Difficult Women.

Difficult Women‘s parts are extraordinary, but as a whole it’s even more powerful. I don’t think I’ve ever read a collection so artfully assembled. Themes are established with exquisite care; one of my favorite runs of stories builds from metaphor to magical realism to straight-up science fiction about society and prejudice. Without that onramp, the sci-fi story (set in the near-future) would have felt jarring in an otherwise realistic collection. With the onramp, it only strengthens Gay’s real-world themes.

Another standout run of stories is about fertility and infertility, without ever feeling like it’s about fertility and infertility. A moral kills a short story; luckily, each story in Difficult Women has the desperate feeling of a message in a bottle sent from a place where morals have unraveled.

This is, unsurprisingly, a difficult book. It is not essential reading. It is not a crystallization of our times. It is not palatable, exactly. But it is gripping, sharp, indulgent, and pleasurable in the way of an excellent meal had at an expensive and unfamiliar restaurant.

“Difficult” does not have to mean unpleasant, distasteful, or uncomfortable. Difficult Women is a blueprint for how to write a difficult book that’s a delight to read.

I think much of that comes from how embodied Gay’s writing is. Gay is a top-notch sex writer who understands, and uses, sensation completely.

Difficult Women encompasses a wide variety of bodies: thin ones, muscled ones, fat ones, wounded ones, transparent glass ones, sadists, masochists, bad priests. Gay (presumably) only has one body, but she transports readers effortlessly into all of these different and contradictory bodies. Even when I didn’t totally love or understand a story’s plot, I was always so taken with its feel that it hardly mattered.

It’s difficult to choose favorite stories since this collection fits together so well, but with a gun to my head I might pick “Baby Arm,” about a fight club, “North Country,” about an isolated engineer in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, “Requiem for a Glass Heart,” about a woman made of glass and her careful careless husband, and “I Am a Knife,” about a woman (the knife) and her husband (a gun).

I can’t wait to re-read Difficult Women. Many reviews I’ve seen of this book describe it as a deeply relatable book, about women like “us.” I didn’t find it that way. I didn’t understand these characters at all. Sometimes a book is better for being unfathomable; I think Difficult Women is unfathomable in the best way, an endlessly fascinating Rorschach test kind of way.

If you missed Difficult Women during all its initial fanfare, please come back for it. I’m glad I did. This book is a treasure. ★★★★★

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

Book Review: THIS WILL BE MY UNDOING by Morgan Jerkins

In This Will Be My Undoing, Morgan Jerkins exposes raw nerve after raw nerve, seemingly fearless about sharing her most vulnerable experiences. This book is technically an essay collection, but the essays bled together in my mind into something more closely approaching a memoir of Jerkins’s education as a black woman in a white world. It’s a great premise for a book, and Jerkins has a wealth of interesting experiences to draw on. Unfortunately, I really, really did not like the finished product. Sloppily edited, wildly uneven in tone, and at times self-contradictory in ways that felt un-self-aware rather than nuanced, I found it a deeply frustrating and unsatisfying read. I’m looking forward to seeing where Jerkins goes next–her talent is clear, so I’m not writing all of her work off as “not for me” just yet–but I think this collection is a dud.

You can read my full review below.


This Will Be My Undoing Cover
cover description: A black and white image of author Morgan Jerkins, a black woman wearing glasses and with her hair styled in long braids, leans back with her eyes closed. She looks peaceful and focused.

This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jerkins

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  • publisher: Harper Perennial (an imprint of HarperCollins)
  • publication date: January 30, 2018
  • length: 272 pages

When I was ten, I realized that I was black. In some ways, that had nothing to do with actual cheerleading, but rather with what blackness meant, writ large, learned from the experience of trying to force myself into this pristine, white, and coveted space, which spit me out before I could realize how much I had been abused.

–from This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins

Reviewing memoirs and personal essay collections is always fraught for me. It’s extraordinarily difficult to take someone’s life story in my hands and not feel strange about nitpicking how they’ve told it to me. It is a gift when writers are willing to bare so much of themselves to us, and I try not to take it lightly.

That’s why, when I felt my first prickles of dislike about This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America–Jerkins’s debut essay collection–before I’d even finished the first essay, I felt so much dread and disappointment.

The actual experiences of misogynoir that Morgan Jerkins writes about could never be trivial, petty, or boring. They are critically important. I’m glad she’s writing about them. But in This Will Be My Undoing, I think her writing itself is all of those adjectives, and more.

First and foremost, the essays are rambling and unfocused. Not one essay stands out on its own in my memory. The events she writes about–racist taunts at cheerleading tryouts, witnessing a Nazi salute while tipsy in St. Petersburg, miraculously getting into Princeton after getting stuck on a waiting list of 1200 applicants–are notable, but robbed of their full power because their context is so wonky.

Anecdotes run too long, or too short. Truly shocking experiences go weirdly undertapped, while every last drop of portent and then some is wrung out of things that struck me as fairly mundane. Quotes and research are dropped in excessively where they’re not needed, but then her wilder claims (like one that’s been cited in many reviews already, where Jerkins asserts that every black woman she’s met has lost her virginity in a traumatic way) go unsupported.

Much of this could, and probably should, have been cleaned up by an editor before it ever reached my hands; in fact, it’s been a long time since a collection’s editing stood out to me so strongly, and not in a good way. Jerkins has chops, but even the best writers need good and challenging editors. This book doesn’t feel like it had one.

This Will Be My Undoing is at its best when Jerkins is writing from direct personal experience or historical research, and at its very worst when she tries to get into other people’s heads, and in its connective tissue between ideas.

For example, when Jerkins writes about a guilty preference for porn where blonde white women are penetrated and subjugated, the collection crackles with power. It’s uncomfortable and weird and great, because it’s one of the few times Jerkins fully seems to own and control what she’s writing about.

Conversely, my least favorite moment of the book is when Jerkins weakly points out that black disabled women are underrepresented beneath the umbrella of Black Girl Magic, because so much Black Girl Magic is about athleticism. Nothing about those paragraphs feels authentic or fresh. (Jerkins is not disabled.) It’s a thinkpiece-y attempt to unify ideas that do not need to be unified, to bring everyone into one big happy tent where they don’t actually need to be.

That essay, titled “Black Girl Magic,” is primarily about Jerkins’s labiaplasty. I appreciate that in a book so concerned with intersectional analysis, Jerkins is trying to incorporate disability into her lens. But the connection between labiaplasty and disability just doesn’t work. In fact, the labiaplasty itself seems to have very little to do with the theme of Black Girl Magic. It’s one more way Jerkins chooses to dilute a potent message by trying to make it universal, instead of doubling down on her own unique perspective.

It’s clear that Jerkins is willing to dive deep and go hard in pursuit of a great essay. That’s why it’s frustrating when she repeatedly pulls back at the last second and buries the good stuff between way too much 101-level explaining.

I don’t think the essays in This Will Be My Undoing work at all, much less the book as a whole. That’s a damn shame. ★★☆☆☆

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I purchased my own copy of This Will Be My Undoing and was in no way compensated for this review.