Friday Bookbag, 1.5.18

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

I ran a little wild in the nonfiction and memoir section of the Kindle Store this week and have an abundance of riches to share, so my descriptions of each book will be more abbreviated than they’ve been in previous weeks.

Ready? Let’s dive in.


9781492649359The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: This real-life story of the factory workers who were poisoned by the glow-in-the-dark radium paint used to paint the faces of watches is almost too sad and bizarre to believed. I find radioactivity fascinating and would be interested in this book for that alone, but as a bonus, this book has also received rave reviews.

9781250080547The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: In a culture that has a difficult relationship with sex to begin with, sexual crimes and abuse become even more difficult to unpack. Marzano-Lesnevich’s memoir contrasts her own horrifying history of being sexually abused by a family member with that of a man whose murder of a child was sexually motivated. This book has received less critical adoration than some of the others I bought this week, but I’m intrigued by its blend of true crime and raw memoir.

9780544786769This is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare by Gabourey Sidibe

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: I love Gabourey Sidibe’s particular brand of carefree style and her amazing sense of humor. I’m not usually interested in celebrity memoirs, but Sidibe isn’t an ordinary super-rich, disconnected celebrity. Best-known for her Oscar-nominated role in Precious, Sidibe has also appeared on American Horror Story: Coven, Difficult People, and Empire. She’s one of the celebrities I’d most like to meet in real life, and I’m hoping this memoir is just as down-to-earth as I’ve found her online presence and acting to be.

9781616204624Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History by Bill Schutt

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: This was my biggest impulse-buy of the shopping spree. Who knows if this book will turn out to be as compelling as its eye-catching cover, but I love good science writing and I’ll admit that I’m curious as to why cannibalism is such an intensely repulsive taboo. The line between “animal” and “human” has always seemed disconcertingly thin to me, and it looks like this book will explore that quite a bit.

9780062422910My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward: A Memoir by Mark Lukach

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: I’ve experienced a week-long stay in a psych ward myself, and I absolutely love memoirs about psych wards, as painful as they can be to read. I know that my own experience of mental illness has been devastating–although my health has improved a lot since that week five years ago–and I’m intrigued about the perspective Mark Lukach has as the spouse of someone with severe mental illness. I’m sure that this is going to be a heart-wrenching read for me, but I hope it will be a healing one, too.

9780062379290The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: I love food, I love history, and I especially love Southern food and Southern history. What a treat for me that this book includes all of that. Twitty explores the unique forces that have shaped African American cuisine in the Deep South, from slavery to African heritage to religion. I’ll have to keep snacks on hand while reading, because I can guarantee that this book will make me hungry. Its goal of tracing African American lineage in the South reminds me a lot of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, a novel I adored, so I’m excited for that element as well.

9780062362599Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: I love Roxane Gay’s Twitter and used to obsessively read her short stories available online, but I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t read any of her books. Bad Feminist, her collection of essays, has been sitting on my shelf for years, and I’m planning to finally tackle it this month–but I’m actually more excited about this memoir, which unpacks her history of disordered eating. I’ve struggled with guilt about my weight for years and am looking forward to reading a book by another fat person about the complexities of the experience.

9781328663795Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: Okay, so this one’s cheating a little bit…this book was actually my Christmas present to my partner during our annual trip to Barnes & Noble, where we each pick out a book for the other. An account of the relationship between Nazi Germany and drugs, particularly heroin and methamphetamine, this book caused quite a stir when it was initially published in Germany and I can’t wait to read it when she’s finished.


See books here that you’ve already read or that are on your to-read list? What are you excited to read this week? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Book Review: GOODBYE, VITAMIN by Rachel Khong

Rachel Khong’s novel about a quarter-life-crisis is weird, funny, and sneakily devastating. When 30-something protagonist Ruth returns home after a messy breakup to help care for her father, who has recently developed dementia, she finds that her family is quietly falling apart; in response, Ruth begins to keep an aimless diary of her days that’s full of meditations on the meaning of life, love, and memory. (Also, terrible vegetable puns.) It’s utterly delightful.

Read my full review below.


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Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

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  • publisher: Henry Holt and Company (imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: July 11, 2017
  • isbn: 978-1-250-10916-3
  • length: 208 pages

I’m wary of “quirky” books, because I often think “quirkiness” is a cover for sloppy craft that tosses random happenstance together and calls it a plot. If you feel the same, I’m sorry to tell you that Goodbye, Vitamin is very California-quirky. (At one point, protagonist Ruth and her best friend Bonnie get paid to seat-fill for the Oscars.) But I’d also like to reassure you that Rachel Khong knows what she’s doing, and that I am deeply in love with this book, and hope you will be, too.

With a title like Goodbye, Vitamin, humor is to be expected; what I didn’t expect was this novel’s absorbing, infectious charm.

The conceit is that Ruth returns home after painful split with her ex-fiancé in order to care for her aging father who has just been diagnosed with dementia. While she also shares meaningful moments with her mother and brother (and a cute grad student named Theo), Goodbye, Vitamin is squarely a father-daughter novel. The perspective flits between Ruth’s first-person and an almost-second-person–you, Ruth’s father–for whom the reader is a sort of proxy.

There is something uniquely frightening about memory loss, and that fear anchors the novel, epitomized by Ruth’s obsessive search for “dementia-fighting” foods like jellyfish, juice shots, and cruciferous vegetables. She knows she’s prolonging the inevitable, but it can’t hurt, right?

Meanwhile, her father leaves scraps of paper for her to find; his own diary of Ruth’s childhood, full of chestnuts like:

Today you asked me what “Dick” meant, and while I was deciding what direction I should take, you said, “Mom said you were one.”

Ruth’s devotion to her father, despite his faults–she quickly discovers that he was a philanderer and alcohol abuser during her years-long period of family avoidance–is deadly serious, lending credibility to the more whimsical plot points, including the creation of a fake class for her father (a former history professor) to “teach,” complete with real grad students.

Sure, I don’t really believe that grad students would devote so much time to the charade, especially when it involves expensive outings to Disneyland, but Khong’s distinctive prose style–which always feels firmly in media res–left me eager to play along.

For every dose of whimsy, there were also painful moments that cut me to the bone. Ruth’s life is perhaps more off the rails than average, but her anger that life has been nothing like she hoped it would be is universally intelligible. Nowhere is this clearer than in Ruth’s relationship with her mother, who is both an aspirational and pitiable figure; a beautiful, competent woman deeply hurt by her husband’s carelessness and by her daughter’s years-long estrangement.

No family is perfect is a truism, but Khong elevates the sentiment with every bizarre particularity of this family–recognizable not for their actions but rather, for the universal harm and humor they enact upon each other.

The novel is short at 208 pages; consider it an infusion of insight as potent as a cabbage juice shot–but far more pleasant.  5/5 stars.


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

Short Story Roundup, 1.3.18

Short Story Roundup

Short Story Roundup is a feature where I gather the best short stories I’ve read this week and share them with you every Wednesday. The stories might have been published yesterday or 100 years ago, but as long as I’ve read and loved them in a given week, you’ll find them here.


No Good” by Hala Alyan

  • genre: literary/realistic
  • publication: The Rumpus
  • date: December 2017
  • why I loved it: “No Good” is a snapshot of cruelty and self-destruction that took my breath away. It’s a reminder of the way love can harm as easily as heal, and its fluid, lovely prose will uplift you even as its plot drags you down. Hala Alyan is a poet, both figuratively and literally, and her grasp of language and the human heart is truly inspiring.

The Little Rogue” by Maria Kuznetsova

  • genre: literary/realistic
  • publication: Keyhole Magazine
  • date: Fall 2015
  • why I loved it: Rufina, the failed actress at the center of “The Little Rogue,” is vain, out of touch, and more than a little silly, but in Kuznetsova’s skilled hands, her unlikeability is also her charm. We are all unlikeable in some way, and this story’s skillful blend of love, pity, and lampooning made me feel intensely connected to a character whose life experience is vastly different from my own.

What short fiction have you read and enjoyed this week? For the writers out there: Has any of your work appeared online or in print this week? Tell me all about it in the comments!

Book Review: THERE YOUR HEART LIES by Mary Gordon

Mary Gordon’s wrenching novel of the Spanish Civil War and family secrets that ripple throughout generations is deceptive: each time you expect to settle into one kind of story, whether one of the horrors of war or a more intimate family epic, you are pulled to another. Thankfully, Gordon threads this needle perfectly. There Your Heart Lies is a deeply moral novel that never moralizes; it’s a profound novel absent of profundities; it’s a novel as lovely as it is piercing, and not to be missed.

Read my full review below.


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There Your Heart Lies by Mary Gordon

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  • publisher: Pantheon Books (imprint of Penguin Random House)
  • publication date: May 9, 2017
  • isbn: 978-0-307-90794-3
  • length: 336 pages

When this book appeared in my Friday Bookbag over a month ago, I wrote about how off-put I was by the book’s “Millennial vs. Greatest Generation” jacket copy. The novel follows Marian Taylor, privileged daughter of an Irish Catholic family, who seeks to break her family’s cycle of cruelty by disowning herself and fleeing to 1937 Spain to aid in the effort to quell Franco’s (ultimately successful) fascist rebellion. The novel also jumps 70 years ahead to follow Marian’s granddaughter, Amelia, who knows nothing of this history when she moves in to take care of a dying Marian.

To hear the jacket copy tell it, you’d think this was a novel about Marian schooling Amelia about what real problems are like, but thankfully, Gordon’s moral compass is much subtler and truer than that. At the center of There Your Heart Lies are questions of what it means to be a good person and of what it means to renounce privilege–and of whether the latter is ever possible at all.

Despite my generational trepidations, I picked up this novel because of my own interest in the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s subsequent dictatorship, both rapidly forgotten in the chaos of World War II and in the United States’ own anti-communist fervor. (The Republican government overthrown by Franco was left-wing, socialist if not outright communist.) I was not disappointed by Gordon’s treatment of the material, and can say without a shadow of doubt that There Your Heart Lies is one of the finest historical novels I have ever read, especially in its weaving-in with the present day.

Perhaps the most fascinating element of the novel, particularly in our current political climate, is its refusal to cave to the sort of moral relativism that forgives homophobia, racism, fascism, and other evils by claiming its perpetrators were products of their time who couldn’t possibly have known better. Gordon sharply rebukes this by imbuing Marian and Amelia with an admirable moral fiber independent of their eras.

The tension in the novel doesn’t come from the reader wondering whether or not Amelia and especially Marian will do the right thing–we know they will–but rather from how they will do good works, how they will prioritize the good that must be done, and how they will survive the toll that being a good person in a corrupt world takes.

If that makes the novel sound unbearably moralistic, I can promise it’s not. The effect is more like complex optimism: we see the horrors of the Spanish Civil War through Marian’s eyes, and then Spain’s more peaceful present through Amelia. We see terrible abuses committed in the name of Catholicism, but also the fragile hope present in Catholic rituals. We see Marian’s gay brother go through painful shock treatments that culminate in his suicide (the catalyst for Marian’s rebellion), but we also see the tender queer love between Marian’s best friends in the modern day, a lesbian couple who fled Germany during the Holocaust.

It has been a long time since I’ve read a novel as ambitious as this one–one that asks ambitious questions, plays within an ambitious setting full of rich historical detail, and juggles two ambitiously good characters that are still, somehow, flawed and not saints.

Wise, then, that Gordon doesn’t attempt heroic feats of language, although the writing is beautiful. Her prose is relatively simple, but the story she tells is not. I turned the final page feeling as hopeful as I felt sad. Sad that we have still not learned the lessons of the past; hopeful that we will edge ever closer, day by day, to justice. 5/5 stars.


My copy of There Your Heart Lies came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Short Story Roundup: Let’s talk about “Cat Person,” 12.13.17

Short Story Roundup

Short Story Roundup is a feature where I gather the best short stories I’ve read this week and share them with you every Wednesday! The stories might have been published yesterday or 100 years ago, but as long as I’ve read and loved them in a given week, you’ll find them here.

Because this week is my university’s finals week, leaving little time for me to read anything but textbooks, and because this week also contained the incredible viral phenomenon of “Cat Person,” this week’s post won’t be a roundup, but rather a collection of my thoughts on Kristen Roupenian’s firecracker of a story, instead.

Ready? Buckle in.


Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian

  • genre: literary fiction
  • publication: The New Yorker
  • date: published online Dec. 4, published in print December 11, 2017

“Cat Person” belongs to my new favorite mini-genre: “bad sex and its consequences.” Bearded loner Robert hits on sophomore Margot while she’s working at a movie theatre, and their relationship quickly gets complicated. Robert’s hot-and-cold texts and Margot’s hot-and-cold responses culminate in one spectacularly terrible date and a last word that’s familiar to anyone who’s ever online-dated, ever.

The internet went nuts, both because it’s a “lowbrow” story published in the “highbrow” New Yorker (a characterization I think is debatable), and because it’s a story that hits a nerve in the midst of acrid conversations about sexual harassment and assault.

I absolutely loved this story. I can see and even agree with many of the criticisms leveled at it–I saw several tweets that compared it to the internet’s craze for photorealistic art, which is criticized for capturing reality without actually commenting on it–but “Cat Person” pushed my emotional buttons regardless, and it put a college-age female protagonist on the pages of the New Yorker–something I thought could only happen on a frigid day in hell.

I loved Roupenian’s characterization of Margot and Robert as selfish people going through the motions of something that can bring out the worst in people: dating. I didn’t see it as condemning men–though, predictably, some men have taken it that way–but rather, as condemning a system that treats women (particularly white women like Margot) as prizes, and men as entitled to those prizes after certain mechanical motions have been performed.

Shameless plug: I explored similar themes in my short story, “Attention,” which was recently published in Cat on a Leash Review. In “Attention,” closeted lesbian Ingrid dates a man because it’s easier than articulating her own desires; in “Cat Person,” Margot dates Robert because it’s easier to be pursued than to pursue. That exploration of the self-preservation and selfishness that women cultivate in a sexist world is bottomlessly interesting to me.

Perhaps most importantly, as I mentioned above, the thing I loved most about “Cat Person” is the tantalizing promise of the New Yorker opening itself up to new kinds of fiction. I’ve devoured the New Yorker’s nonfiction sections for years, but I often find their fiction suffocating in its sameness. “Cat Person” isn’t boundary-shattering, but it’s certainly boundary-pushing, and I hope it opens the door for more women writers and particularly more women of color writing about experiences deemed “lowbrow” because they aren’t happening to the white upper-middle class. (It’s rarely admitted, but you know it’s true.)

And one last note: Can we talk about how ridiculous it is that there’s wonderful realistic fiction for children and teens, and wonderful realistic fiction for older adults, but rarely anything for people in their early 20’s? And that the stuff that is out there is usually about ridiculously wealthy Brooklynites and not ordinary folks? If you’re 18-24, “Cat Person” is worth reading for its demographically-appropriate protagonist alone.


What were your thoughts on “Cat Person”? What short fiction have you read and enjoyed this week? Tell me all about it in the comments!

Review: LITERALLY SHOW ME A HEALTHY PERSON by Darcie Wilder

Monday Reviews

Darcie Wilder’s stream-of-consciousness, internet-steeped debut may be difficult to parse, but it’s ultimately rewarding. Acidic, explicit, disturbing, and sometimes profound, literally show me a healthy person is an experimental novel with staying power.

Read my full review below.


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literally show me a healthy person by Darcie Wilder

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

You know how every few years a book comes along that’s being marketed as the “future of the novel,” or even “the future of the written word,” yet somehow–year after year–the tried-and-true format of the novel persists? That’s because most stories are best-told the usual way. But literally show me a healthy person is the exception that proves the rule. Free of chapters and traditional paragraphs and unbound from grammatical convention, the 97-page novel’s experimental style feels like an extension of its raw subject matter, and not a pretentious gimmick.

Protagonist Darcie yo-yos between fury and apathy, drug abuse and sobriety, hopelessness and dark optimism. Her mother is dead, her father is cruel and neglectful, her boyfriends and exes drift in for sex and out for anything resembling intimacy. (Whether the novel’s “Darcie” is a thinly veiled version of Wilder herself or an entirely new creation was unclear to me.)

And…that’s it. Other things happen, but indistinctly and out of order. I normally hate feeling so alienated from the plot, but in Wilder’s skilled hands, the effect is intimate. “im the kid you’re thinking about when you look at your friend and hope they never have kids,” Darcie informs the reader, referring to her own parents; the tone rests on a knife’s edge between real pain and pity-me flippancy, a blend that’s all too familiar in the internet age.

literally show me a healthy person may be thin on plot, but it’s thick on voyeuristic dread. Each snippet of text feels like a missive to somebody, and the myopic focus on Darcie heightens the effect: we only know her side of the story, just as we can only really know our own. It’s a novel that feels genuinely of its time–a response to rapidly evolving technology that can isolate as easily as it connects.

The framing may be new, but literally show me a healthy person has the clear DNA of that evergreen literary sub-genre, the sex, drugs, & rock ‘n’ roll book. But where’s there’s usually something wistful about those stories–in a world with no consequences, I think everyone secretly would want to be a beautiful, drugged-up genius–Darcie’s one-night stands, alcohol binges, and experiments with drugs are portrayed as shattering acts of self-destruction, not wistful at all.

Darcie’s just sad. She’s your cool Instagram friend who’s actually a complete mess; she’s the drunk girl with day-old makeup that you see having sloppy shouting matches in bars. She’s led a legitimately horrible life filled with horrible people. You want to slap her as much as embrace her: can’t you see what you’re doing to your life? Yes, she can see, but she still doesn’t know how to change.

If literally show me a healthy person has a fault, it’s that it’s slightly too honest. There were constant discussions of cum (yep! this book is very explicit!) when I wanted a little more plot; Darcie’s repetitive self-destruction is at times, well…repetitive, just like those patterns are in real life, but not how I like them in fiction. I also think the beginning is the weakest part of the book, which is unfortunate, because it ups the risk of people setting it aside.

Then again, if you–like me–lose countless hours to writing and un-writing texts and social media statuses when real life is too much to take, that honesty might be literally show me a healthy person’s most appealing quality. This novel hits a nerve. 4/5 stars.


I purchased this book myself and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 12.8.17

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

Side note: I’ve been reading so many review-worthy books lately that I’m considering adding a second scheduled slot for reviews like I’m already doing with Monday Reads–I’m thinking on Thursdays or even Saturdays–or maybe I’ll drop extra reviews in randomly…I’m not sure yet!

Musings aside, here are two books I picked up this week that I’m dying to read.


9781250124579

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Loving thy neighbor is easier said than done.

Hortensia James and Marion Agostino are neighbors. One is black, the other white. Both are successful women with impressive careers. Both have recently been widowed and are living with questions, disappointments, and secrets that have brought them shame. And each has something that the woman next door deeply desires.

Sworn enemies, the two share a hedge and a deliberate hostility, which they maintain with a zeal that belies their age. But, one day, an unexpected event forces Hortensia and Marion together. As the physical barriers between them collapse, their bickering softens into conversation. But are these sparks of connection enough to ignite a friendship, or is it too late to expect these women to change?

Source: the library

Why I’m excited: This has been my year of making a conscious effort to read more books by women, and especially books about women who are different from myself. I’m 23, not in my 80s as these two characters are, and I’ll be interested to see if I find this book relatable anyway…even if I don’t, it promises to be funny and sweet, something I need this week.

9781250109163

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Freshly disengaged from her fiancé and feeling that life has not turned out quite the way she planned, thirty-year-old Ruth quits her job, leaves town, and arrives at her parents’ home to find family life more complicated than she’d realized. Her father, a prominent history professor, is losing his memory. Her mother, like Ruth, is smarting from a betrayal. But over the course of a year, the comedy in Ruth’s situation takes hold, gently transforming her grief.

Source: the library

Why I’m excited: I love books about family, which this is, and I also love NPR’s 2017 book concierge, where this book was featured. Like The Woman Next Door, it sounds like there’s a humorous component. Also, the cover design is pretty, and the spine was eye-catching on the library shelf. (What can I say? Sometimes I do judge by a cover.)


See books here that you’ve already read or that are on your to-read list? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and  blog posts!