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.


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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.

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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!

3 book-themed gift ideas, 2017 edition

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image source: picjumbo.com

I always struggle with gift-giving. I hate the pressure to buy extravagant gifts that no one will really use, and buying gift cards can feel like a total cop-out. So, this year, I’m trying something new in my Christmas shopping–and no, it’s not buying giant teddy bears for everyone on my list, per the photo above.

Instead, this year, I’m trying to shop exclusively for books, clothes, and consumables like chocolate and tea for friends and family. In my experience, these items are easily usable, even if that use is regifting, which I’m actually okay with–especially for books, since the more readers, the merrier! Since I know I’m not alone in trying to cultivate better gift-giving habits, I thought I’d share some of my favorite book-themed gift ideas here.

If you don’t celebrate Christmas,  but do celebrate another holiday with gift-giving traditions–or you’re just really into giving gifts!–nothing here is Christmas-specific. Bookmark and gift-give away in this or any season!


Cookbooks

A lot of people love to cook (myself included), but even folks who don’t can appreciate tasty food–which is why cookbooks are such a great gift. Cookbooks tend to fall into two categories: the “yes, you can actually make these recipes!” cookbooks, and the “no, these recipes aren’t practical, but the writing/photography/etc. is SUPER pretty” cookbooks. Either one can make a great gift if you’re thoughtful about it!

Does your intended recipient love to travel? Find them a cookbook full of authentic recipes from their dream destination (complete with pictures), and even if they don’t cook any of it themselves, they’ll know what to sample when they visit.

Does your intended recipient follow dietary restrictions? Instead of mocking them for it (which is a really crappy thing to do!), find a cookbook that caters to those restrictions. It’s a thoughtful gift that might help them find new delicious things that are safe/allowable for them to eat.

RedBubble nerd merch!

RedBubble.com is a site where artists create beautiful fandom designs for all kinds of items, from T-shirts to laptop stickers to coffee mugs. In my experience (and unlike many other “nerd”-oriented sites), their apparel is actually good-quality, too! Searching for authors like Oscar Wilde, Audre Lorde, and Stephen King turns up great stuff.

If your intended recipient is a teen (or adult!) who loves The Hunger Games, Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle, or Divergent, those fandoms seem to have a particularly active literary RedBubble presence. And, of course, there’s always Harry Potter.

Don’t assume that a particular quote, author, or fandom is too obscure to appear on RedBubble, either. If you know someone who’s really into a thing, there might be an artist on the site who’s just as obsessed!

A well-thought-out list

Maybe it’s a list of your favorite reality TV shows hand-written inside a card, or a collaborative Spotify playlist shared with your friend group, or an email full of suggestions on what book to check out next from the library. Whatever the format, there’s a reason that curated lists are always such a lovely gift: the effort involved in making them (and sometimes vulnerability, if you’re putting your near-and-dear media choices on the line) is a real sign of love. And if the recipient doesn’t appreciate that, well…it might be time to pare down your inner circle.

If you share a favorite book with the intended recipient, try creating a music playlist for your favorite characters! I remember this being really popular for Twilight and Hunger Games ships, but it could work for less fandom-oriented books, too. Speaking from personal experience, some of the music might look cringey in 5 years, but there are always real gems on those lists, too.

If your intended recipient has very different tastes from you, try compiling a list of “things I’d never read/watch/listen to that I still think you’d love.” If you do it with a sense of humor (or maybe even a gentle roast of your friend/relative’s weird, trashy, or pretentious tastes!), it’s a nice way of showing that person that you pay attention to their interests, even if you don’t share them.


What are your favorite gifts to give and receive? Let me know in the comments!

Short Story Roundup, 12.6.17

Short Story Roundup

“A short story is the ultimate close-up magic trick – a couple of thousand words to take you around the universe or break your heart.” – Neil Gaiman

Introducing Short Story Roundup: a new feature where I gather the best short stories I’ve read this week and share them with you on Wednesdays. 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.


Say, She Toy” by Chesya Burke

  • genre: science fiction
  • publication: Apex Magazine
  • date: April 4, 2017
  • why I loved it: “Say, She Toy” is the story of an android in the form of a black woman designed to bear the pain and abuse intended for real black women. It’s exactly as brutal and clarion as you’d think, and if you read only one piece of fiction this week, make it this one.

Clutchings” by Alina Stefanescu

  • genre: literary
  • publication: Necessary Fiction
  • date: October 25, 2017
  • why I loved it: “Clutchings” is a paranoid snapshot of a tattoo and a dissolving marriage. It’s a story perfectly suited to its micro length: a glimpse that is significant but not overwhelming.

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!

Review: PRETEND WE ARE LOVELY by Noley Reid

Monday Reviews

Pretend We Are Lovely by Noley Reid

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

publisher: Tin House Books

publication date: July 18, 2017

9781941040669As you may recall from Tuesday’s post on triggering books and when to keep reading, I struggled a lot with this book. I did finish it, but not only did I find it painful, I also find it lacking in any positive respite or catharsis. Pretend We Are Lovely drags, and the slipperiness of its narrative structure gives an effect more like incoherence than profundity. While there are treasures to be found here, they are few and far between in a narrative full of things I didn’t care about and nearly devoid of things I did.

Pretend We Are Lovely tells the story of a summer and fall in the lives of a Virginia family in the 1980s. The Sobel family, made up of parents Francie and Tate and daughters Enid and Vivvy, all suffer from a tortured and toxic relationship with food. Overweight philosophy professor Tate has moved out and embarked on an affair with one of his students (a kind and curvaceous donut shop employee, just in case you missed the symbolism), and Francie sinks ever-further into binge-purge cycles and shockingly nasty treatment of her daughters. Enid, 10, is chubby, mercilessly bullied, and always thinking of her next meal. Vivvy, 12, is struggling with confusing feelings towards girls and an even more confusing apathy towards boys, along with a punishing desire to be as thin as her mother.

As if that weren’t enough, there’s the suspicious death of Enid and Vivvy’s voraciously hungry older brother, Sheldon, whom Francie hit and killed with her car years ago. This incident, supposedly the driving force behind all the other problems, was incomprehensible to me. I was hoping answers–how and why Sheldon died–would be revealed at the end, but they weren’t, leaving me even more frustrated and confused by the last page than I’d been at the end of the first chapter.

Reid’s decision to tell the story from the rotating perspectives of all four characters, switching perspectives within chapters (and sometimes even paragraph-to-paragraph), worsens the confusion. Each Sobel does have a distinct and interesting voice, but they spend so much of the book separated from each other and lost in thoughts of the past that I didn’t understand what was supposed to be currently happening for at least half of the book. All I got was jolt of unpleasant emotion after jolt of unpleasant emotion, utterly unconnected to plot events.

The other problem with Pretend We Are Lovely’s shifting perspectives is that they remove all tension from the narrative. I can’t get mad about how Vivvy treats Enid because in the next paragraph I am told exactly why Vivvy is lashing out. I can’t get mad on Francie’s behalf at Tate for having an affair because I know Tate’s exact reasons for having the affair. I think the effect is supposed to trigger something like sadness about the miscommunications inherent in family, but instead, I found it boring.

There were two things I really, really loved about this book, and both involved Vivvy: Vivvy and Enid’s sister relationship, and the Reid’s delicate touch when writing about Vivvy’s feelings for other girls. Admittedly, I’m a sister partial to sister stories, and a lesbian partial to lesbian stories, so I don’t know if these were the best parts of the book or just the ones that pushed my buttons. But with every Francie and Tate scene, and some of the Enid scenes, I found myself wanting to be back with Vivvy.

For me at least, Pretend We Are Lovely was a Vivvy story trapped inside a family story, and the promise of the book I wanted trapped inside this book that I didn’t want made my reading experience even more tortuous. I wonder what this book might have looked like had its narrative been reorganized around Vivvy, perhaps even as a literary YA novel. I know her story would have meant a lot to me as a teen struggling to come out.

Other aspects that showed promise were the book’s commentary on kids’ nastiness toward other kids–boys, especially, hold an air of sexual menace, including a couple of truly disturbing assaults on Enid and Vivvy by classmates and neighbors–and Reid’s prose style, which I found refreshingly simple and affecting. But these things are utterly buried under the weight of convoluted narrative, spoiling their power.

Pretend We Are Lovely really is lovely in places, but its hazy plot and countless unresolved and underdeveloped sub-plots ruin the effect. 2/5 stars.

My copy of Pretend We Are Lovely came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Triggering books: When do you set them aside? When do you keep reading?

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image source: picjumbo.com

This question occurred to me because right now I’m reading Pretend We Are Lovely by Noley Reid, a book that delves intensely into eating disorders and the deeply unhealthy thought patterns that are associated with them, and I’ve been struggling to decide whether or not to set the book aside. When I wrote about this book for Friday Bookbag, I mentioned that I was excited to see how the author handled the issue…and unfortunately, I’m not enjoying Reid’s take.

The cover copy led me to believe that Pretend We Are Lovely would have more of a dark humor component, when instead it’s just dark: we dip in and out of the thoughts of the four members of the Sobel family, all of whom have lots and lots of baggage around food. I also don’t think this book is very good, complicating things further, because I’m dealing with all of this unpleasantness without the payoff of beautiful language, plotting, characterization, and all the other things I expect from good fiction.

I’ve never been diagnosed with an eating disorder, but I do have obsessive-compulsive disorder, which can create unhealthy eating patterns for me when it flares up. Pretend We Are Lovely has left me feeling jittery, anxious, and unhappy with all its reminders of the difficulty I’ve had managing my mental health at times, especially since so far, none of the Sobels are getting the help they need.

I do think I’ll finish it, but this has happened to me before, and I’m curious how other readers cope with this. This isn’t so much a matter of trigger warnings as what happens when a reader finds a book triggering for any reason, whether PTSD-related or due to another trauma or sensitivity. I knew this book would contain discussion of eating disorders, so I was warned, but I’m still finding it a much more difficult read than I had anticipated.

So, I thought I’d throw this problem out to the internet.

Have you ever read a book that triggers unpleasant or harmful thoughts and memories? Did you finish reading? Did you set it aside? Do you try and screen books for these triggers beforehand? Please leave your thoughts in the comments!