Friday Bookbag, 2.2.18

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’ve been extremely sick this week (hence why I skipped Short Story Roundup and haven’t been reviewing anything), and I plan to rest up read all weekend to make up for it–here’s hoping I can catch up on books from Friday Bookbags past as well as the two new titles I picked up this week.


9780062476050It Devours! : A Welcome to Night Vale Novel by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

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why I’m excited: I technically picked this one up for my partner, since she’s a Welcome to Night Vale superfan and also stuck-at-home-sick this weekend, but I think I’m going to steal it when she’s done! It Devours! is a stand-alone “mystery about faith and science…and the terrifying, toothy power of the Smiling God” according to its inside flap, which sounds pretty great to me, even if I’m not caught up on the podcast.

9780062444424Heart Spring Mountain by Robin MacArthur

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why I’m excited: Heart Spring Mountain is a novel about family secrets, an estranged mother and daughter, and rural Vermont, which sounds like a good combo to me. I’m a nature lover who spent years living in the stark landscape of rural northern Minnesota–which is part of why Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves spoke to me so deeply–and I hope that Heart Spring Mountain will hit some of the same beats.

And some extra goodies…

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Since I’m planning to take it easy this weekend, I also took advantage of my library’s DVD section and picked up Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (I want to re-watch all of the Star Wars movies this year, even the terrible ones!) and the first season of The L Word, which I’ve never seen. (If only all queer girls could get care packages full of these pop culture touchstones upon coming out, but I guess I’ll figure it out on my own.)


See books here that you’ve already read or that are on your to-read list? Have any burning opinions on Star Wars or The L Word? Let me know in the comments!

Book Review: THE LAST TO SEE ME by M Dressler

M Dressler puts a fresh, supernatural spin on California history in The Last to See Me, which imagines how the vengeful ghost of an early 20th century servant might react to a 21st century town hostile to the “dirty” spirits of its past. The novel is rich with historical detail, but it’s also compulsively readable, making its plot holes and unanswered questions feel eminently forgivable.

You can read my full review below.


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The Last to See Me by M Dressler

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  • publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
  • publication date: September 5, 2017
  • isbn: 978-1-5107-2067-7
  • length: 272 pages

Ever notice how historical fiction lovers–myself included–are usually obsessed with narratives about royalty and the upper class? There are endless novels of Tudor intrigue, Victorian stiff upper lips, and Gilded Age gaudiness, but little about the lives of ordinary people–you know, how most of us would have actually lived.

It’s good, then, that The Last to See Me tackles this gap: Emma Rose Finnis is an unlucky Irish-American girl trapped in an unpleasant, hard-scrapping life as a scullery maid in Benito, a coastal California timber town. The Lambry family are timber magnates who may as well be local royalty, and when Quint Lambry sets his eyes on orphaned nobody Emma, Mrs. Lambry decides to intervene, paying Emma handsomely to leave town and work as a maid for an isolated lighthouse keeper’s family.

But Emma and Quint continue their affair in secret, hurtling towards a shattering tragedy that gets Emma killed. After death, Emma becomes a vengeful ghost who haunts the town–and the Lambry family–for a century, and when a wealthy Silicon Valley couple seeks to buy the Lambry ancestral home, Emma’s violent reaction forces the real estate agent to call in a ghost hunter to purge her.

Dressler’s world is fascinating, though I hesitate to call it complex, since its mechanics are mostly left to the imagination. Modern-day Benito, California, seems to exist in a California that’s exactly the same as our own in every way except that people accept the presence of ghosts–and the need for the “cleaners” who purge them–without question.

It’s an interesting idea, and one I wish had been further developed, but since the story is told from Emma’s old-fashioned and unreliable perspective, there are quite a few puzzle pieces missing from the table. Sometimes characters feel shoehorned in to fulfill a plot necessity, and there’s also a subplot about a character who may or may not be a ghost that left me scratching my head.

Still, it’s hard to be bitter, since Dressler’s writing is excellent in so many other ways. The Last to See Me balances detail and suspense as skillfully as I’ve ever seen it done: Dressler has done her research, and it shows, but she also doesn’t bore the reader with irrelevant facts and old-timey speak. In fact, I found this book impossible to put down, finishing it in two sittings, even though I was initially skeptical that I’d enjoy it.

That the book got its hooks in me so quickly–literally from the first page–is especially amazing considering how slowly the story moves; it’s not like Emma is in a rush to tell all, considering she’s been undead for a hundred years already.

But Dressler draws tension from the moral ambiguity of ghost “cleaning,” an act that Emma is understandably frightened of, seeing as it will destroy her spirit forever. Philip Pratt, the ghost cleaner, insists in that ghosts are evil and takes pride in dispelling them, angering Emma…and the angrier Emma gets, the more she lashes out at the living humans around her, causing you to suspect that Pratt, though arrogant, might be right after all.

The Last to See Me is a tremendously enjoyable book about one of the heaviest topics of all: death, and life afterwards. How lucky we are that Dressler handles it with nuance, empathy, and skill. 4/5 stars.


My copy of The Last to See Me came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 1.26.18

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.


9781939419965The Annie Year by Stephanie Wilbur Ash

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why I’m excited: The Annie Year is a dark comedy that falls a bit outside my regular tastes–it’s about a small-town CPA who becomes entangled in meth labs and a scandalous affair–but the author is local, it was a Minnesota Book Awards finalist, and I’m excited overall for a book that promises to be humorous, even if it touches on dark topics. I’ve lived in a small town deep in meth country, and I’ve been involved in community theatre–the novel takes its title from a production of Annie that’s going on as its protagonist’s life falls apart–so I’m sure there will be plenty here for me to relate to.

9780544912588Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

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why I’m excited: I loved Hala Alyan’s short story, “No Good,” so I leapt at the chance to read her debut novel when I saw it on my local library’s shelves. Salt Houses is the story of a family repeatedly uprooted by Middle East conflicts, beginning with the Six-Day War of 1967; I’m already in love with Alyan’s prose and I’m looking forward to immersing myself in this complicated novel of family, place, and displacement.


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: THIS IS JUST MY FACE: TRY NOT TO STARE by Gabourey Sidibe

Gabourey Sidibe’s bubbly, laugh-out-loud personality bursts from every page in this memoir, full of stories about growing up in Bed-Stuy, her depression and eating disorder, her time as a phone sex operator, her start in acting, and her complicated family–Sidibe’s mother is a subway singer, and her father is a polygamous Senegalese cab driver. As a memoir, it’s all over the place, but because Sidibe’s life is so genuinely interesting, this compulsively readable book feels like a slumber party with a good friend instead of your typical celebrity vanity project.

You can read my full review below.


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This Is Just My Face: Try Not To Stare by Gabourey Sidibe

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  • publisher: Houghton Mifflin
  • publication date: May 1, 2017
  • isbn: 978-0-544-78676-9
  • length: 256 pages

It’s safe to say that This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare is the first celebrity memoir I’ve ever purchased, and maybe even the first I’ve ever read. I do follow celebrity culture, but I’ve never been very interested in what celebrities have to say beyond their short blurbs in fashion magazines. The average celebrity’s life is so extremely different from my own that their memoirs might as well be written in Cyrillic for all I’ll relate to them.

But Gabourey Sidibe is different.

Sidibe is definitely a celebrity–she now appears on Empire and multiple seasons of American Horror Story–but I’d never realized how unusual her path to her success has been. Discovered at the age of 24 when was cast from among hundreds of girls for the starring role in Precious, an indie movie about a teenager trapped by extreme poverty and incestuous abuse, Sidibe recounts how fame didn’t protect her family from being evicted from their Brooklyn apartment; she writes about walking red carpets in dresses from mall retailer Torrid alongside women wearing ultra-high-end couture.

Precious went on to be nominated for numerous Oscars, including a lead actress nomination for Sidibe herself–but you get the sense that Sidibe has never quite lost her outsider status.

She opens the book with anecdotes about how much time she’s spent agonizing over mean tweets and Instagram comments from strangers–something I’d never even imagined a celebrity would do, but that in hindsight, makes sense. Self-flagellating over social media is, unfortunately, a pretty normal thing to do; Sidibe just has more ammunition than most. Her hurt is palpable on the page, instantly elevating This Is Just My Face from “Celebrities! Just Like Us!” to something far more interesting and true.

The memoir isn’t written linearly, something that could be both frustrating and charming. The effect is like talking to an extremely excitable but interesting friend. At times, you kind of want to interrupt for clarification–but to do so would throw off the flow. Conversations are rarely told in chronological episodes; instead, there are through-lines, and This Is Just My Face is the same way.

Sidibe’s complicated relationship to her parents is one such through-line. Her anecdotes are startlingly honest: she’s open about her distaste for her father, who entered into a green card marriage with her mother and then promptly engaged in polygamous relationships with women in New York City and in his native Senegal; she’s open about her frustration with her beloved mother, a subway singer whom Sidibe thinks should spend more time being happy. Most painfully, she’s open about how much her fame and income have poisoned her relationships with relatives who now always seem to have their hand out.

But just as she’s honest about the hard times, she’s also honest about the good ones. She’s especially good at finding the humor in her time as a phone sex operator, where her quips sharpen the emotional power of her anecdotes. (In one of the best parts of the book, she recounts the stories of people who called phone sex lines just for conversation, particularly troops stationed abroad.)

The memoir concludes with a chapter about the notebooks upon notebooks of self-insert *NSYNC fanfiction Sidibe wrote as a teen and 20-something; this chapter directly follows an anecdote about how emotional she felt while meeting President Obama. Somehow, the revelation of how much time she’s spent writing fanfic isn’t surprising, since This Is Just My Face feels like the work of someone who somehow stepped right into her own daydreams.

Going from a 24-year-old struggling psychology student and phone sex operator to getting an Oscar nomination? Meeting Oprah? Mo’Nique? The President of the United States? That’s amazing, and Sidibe never seems to forget it.

This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare feels more like a heart-to-heart conversation than words on a page. It’s a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and a refreshing take on what memoir can be. 4/5 stars.


I purchased my own copy of This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare and was in no way compensated for this review.

Short Story Roundup, 1.24.18

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.


Poetry Suite by Adrienne Novy

  • genre: poetry (not fiction at all! is that cheating?)
  • publication: NAILED Magazine
  • publication date: November 7, 2017
  • why I loved it: I have the privilege of knowing Adrienne in real life (we attended the same small liberal arts college) and she is one of my most gifted friends. Though this suite of poems is neither prose nor fiction, I wanted to include it here, since Adrienne deftly weaves together threads of disability, sexuality, trauma, and the sacred into a truly gorgeous narrative. I sometimes struggle to read poetry–it’s a personal failing–but never when Adrienne is writing it.

Trailer Trash” by Joshua James Sanders

  • genre: magical realism, flash fiction
  • publication: NANO Fiction
  • publication date: March 14, 2016
  • why I loved it: A magician visits a trailer park for a kid’s birthday–and things get weird. I was thoroughly charmed by the details of this story, especially because I’ve noticed that flash fiction writers, panicked by the lack of space, will often omit the little sensory observations that make a story feel real.

Little Reunions” by Eileen Chang (translated by Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz)

  • genre: literary/realistic fiction
  • publication: Literary Hub (excerpted from the English translation of Chang’s novel)
  • publication date: originally, 1976; in English, 2018.
  • why I loved it: This is a lovely snippet of what I imagine is a lovely novel; because it’s an excerpt, I didn’t get a full sense of the plot, but I loved the way Chang has captured what the beginning of falling in love feels like, and the way it happens both from within and without: from within as you fall in love, and without as the people around you react to your fall. I plan on seeking out the novel.

What short fiction have you read and enjoyed lately? 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: THE VEGETARIAN by Han Kang

The Vegetarian has already been so thoroughly acclaimed that it hardly needs my help to spread the word, but I felt compelled to write about this chilling, starkly imaginative novel regardless. Yeong-hye has a terrible dream that causes her to become a vegetarian–setting off a harrowing series of events that irrevocably mark everyone around her, but most especially damage Yeong-hye herself.

You can read my full review below.


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The Vegetarian by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

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  • publisher: Hogarth Press
  • publication date: February 2, 2016
  • isbn: 978-0-553-44818-4
  • length: 192 pages

For an allegory to work, it must also function on a literal level; the reader must always be able to question whether, in fact, it is an allegory at all. The Vegetarian demonstrates this flawlessly. On one hand, it is a novel about the toxic, suffocating effects of sexism. On the other, it is “merely” a novel about a traumatized schizophrenic woman and the many ways her family attempts to contain her.

Both of these threads are equally valid and vibrant, and it’s the interplay between them that gives The Vegetarian its raw, earthy power.

Of course, Han Kang’s poetic wordplay (translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith) also contributes; the imagery here is among the most powerful I’ve ever experienced. In one particularly breathtaking scene, the novel’s protagonist, Yeong-hye, is painted entirely with flowers, basking in the sunshine on an art studio floor as if she is photosynthesizing. I wondered–not for a short amount of time–if she really was.

The Vegetarian is actually series of three novellas, told from the perspective of three people who are not Yeong-hye: her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister, respectively. In the beginning, Yeong-hye is a homemaker, perhaps dimwitted (in the eyes of her husband, at least) but mostly just quiet, and obedient. Her husband laments that she doesn’t always wear a bra; he rejoices that his mediocre wife will never require anything of him but more mediocrity.

Then comes the dream, which triggers both Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism–a surface problem–and her disobedience, which is by far more disturbing to her husband and family. Yeong-hye will no longer be told what to do; she will no longer be dutiful; she will no longer ignore the link between the violence of meat and the violence of men. And that is unforgivable.

The Vegetarian is a horrifyingly violent novel, and if you are squeamish or easily disturbed, then it may not be for you. I am both, however, and still found it a rewarding read, because Kang has found permutations of violence that I’d never imagined before, and in that novelty there is a sort of numbness. Yeong-hye experiences rape by men and then far worse violations by feeding tube; she recounts the gruesome killing of a dog with a dreamy sort of calm; she stands on her head for hours and prays for her crotch to bloom with flowers.

It’s extraordinary and it’s nauseating, like a spinning theme park ride with its speed cranked up one level past safety.

But for me, at least, the violence was not the most extraordinary part. That honor goes to the empathetic, shrewd, and lingering ways in which the novel addresses mental illness. If you are at all familiar with the symptoms of schizophrenia, you will recognize that Yeong-hye is a classic case, especially in her delusions, odd movements, long silences, and even the age at which her break from reality occurs (schizophrenia most commonly onsets in women during their late 20s).

The word “schizophrenia” means “split brain,” and refers to the way schizophrenics often split from reality, slipping further and further out of touch with the rules that govern our normal world.

And yet–is a woman’s break from a violent and unequal reality that surprising? Might we even consider it a moral and necessary act? The Vegetarian says yes. 5/5 stars.


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

If you enjoyed this review, you might also enjoy translator Deborah Smith’s excellent essay–“What We Talk About When We Talk About Translation“–that was recently published in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Book Review: THE WOMAN NEXT DOOR by Yewande Omotoso

On the surface, The Woman Next Door is a novel about two elderly neighbors’ bitter rivalry, but its underlying premise is far more complex. Marion is a debt-ridden white woman living in a Cape Town suburb, whose casual racism is challenged when Hortensia, a wealthy and accomplished black woman, moves in next door. In the abstract, the novel deals beautifully with its hefty themes: Apartheid, reparations, racism, sexism, infidelity, and motherhood. Ultimately, though, it fails to unite these themes into one cohesive story, making the whole thing feel dull rather than incisive.

You can read my full review below.


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The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

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  • publisher: Picador USA (imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: February 7, 2017
  • isbn: 978-1-250-12457-9
  • length: 288 pages

Like many young people, I can be guilty of forgetting that my elders have had inner experiences as complex as my own–that conflicts around sex, family, schooling, and injustice are by no means unique to my generation. The Woman Next Door excels at dispelling this youthful error: its protagonists, suburban neighbors Marion and Hortensia, are complicated, riotous, sad, furious, empathetic, and gloriously unlikeable.

The novel’s plot, however, simply does not provide sufficient scaffolding for its larger-than-life heroines; in fact, so little happens over the course of its 288 pages that I’m at a loss as to how to summarize it. It’s as if the novel begins and ends with its character descriptions, which I’ll sketch out below, since I think they’re worth discussing in their entirety.

Hortensia James is an 80-something textile designer who always seems to be seething about something. She’s tired of the racist baggage that comes along with being the only black property owner in her insular Cape Town suburb, her white husband is dying after years of infidelity and distance, and she’s bitter over a land claim made on her property by a black family deeply harmed by Apartheid.

Marion Agostino is a white, Jewish/agnostic, 80-something ex-architect who desperately envies Hortensia for owning the first–and best–house Marion ever designed. Her awful husband died after racking up massive debt, her children all hate her, and the casual racism she’s cultivated for years is collapsing around her as South Africa recovers from Apartheid.

Despite Hortensia and Marion’s rich and layered backgrounds, however, the two women change little (if at all) over the course of the novel, making the effort feel pointless. It’s as if Omotoso imagined a snapshot in these characters’ lives–a gorgeous snapshot, to be sure–but then neglected to go any further backwards or forwards with it. Subplots flit in and out without satisfactory resolutions, personal revelations happen and then are seemingly reversed, and romantic interests are hinted at (and even explicitly stated) without a single “move” made by either party. It’s baffling.

Worst of all, the novel is told out of order, without clear markers of where, exactly, the reader is situated in Hortensia and Marion’s lives. I think that this was meant to show how much these women live in the past, but the effect is more like aimless drifting through misfortune after misfortune, nasty exchange after nasty exchange. (Hortensia is shockingly mean to everyone, and Marion is painted as a fairly pathetic social climber.)

I can’t shake the feeling that this novel would have been much stronger if it were told chronologically–but since Hortensia and Marion are relatively recent neighbors, the whole conceit would collapse, making it a different novel entirely.

This unmoored quality is even more of a shame because Omotoso’s prose style is simply delightful. She has a knack for artistic description–something that makes sense, given her background as an architect–and she also has a keen eye for the ways inequity plays out on the micro level. There’s an intense sense of loss that pervades these pages, especially in the ways that sexism and racism have robbed both of these women of the lives they should have had. In these moments, Omotoso’s gifts are clear, and The Woman Next Door is transcendent. Then the page is turned, and it falls flat all over again.

I can’t wholeheartedly recommend The Women Next Door, but I do hope Omotoso’s other books are slated for U.S. publication in the future. I’d love to see what she does with more dynamic material. 3/5 stars.


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