Mini-Review: SHARP: THE WOMEN WHO MADE AN ART OF HAVING AN OPINION by Michelle Dean

I’m out sick this week and don’t have the energy to put together a full review, so I’m writing out briefer thoughts instead. I loved Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion so much that right now, less than an hour after returning it to the library, I already miss its presence on my bedside table. (It’s at the top of my to-buy list.)

You can check out my mini-review below.


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Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean

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  • publisher: Grove Press (an imprint of Grove Atlantic)
  • publication date: April 10, 2018
  • length: 384 pages
  • cover price: $26.00

So when I ask in the following pages what made these women who they were, such elegant arguers, both hindered and helped by men, prone to but not defined by mistakes, and above all completely unforgettable, I do it for one simple reason: because even now, even (arguably) after feminism, we still need more women like this.

Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion, page xiii

Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion is a biography-cum-reckoning about the legacy of ten extraordinary women: Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Nora Ephron, Susan Sontag, Renata Adler, Joan Didion, Janet Malcolm, and Zora Neale Hurston. 

Occasionally Michelle Dean gets off zingers every bit as cool and cutting as those of her subjects, but usually her writing style is warm and nuanced, making Sharp feel like a meaningful conversation about these women rather than a mere tribute. It’s a choice I’m glad she made; the effect is more conversation than biography, which perhaps explains why Sharp is more readable than any biography has rights to be.

While nothing could eclipse the women themselves, cameos from other literary greats–F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, H.G. Wells (along with his open marriage), and others–are charming and add a fun “cocktail party tidbit” touch to a book that is otherwise deep and thoughtful.

As a writer, I also loved this book for selfish reasons: I’ve been going through a rough patch in my own creative writing (i.e., writer’s block), and reading about these incredible women cured it. The fact that they also went through periods of massive output and no output, periods of astonishingly good work and shockingly bad work, made me feel like writing is something I can accomplish after all. If you’re in need of that sort of pep talk, Sharp is just what the doctor ordered. 5/5 stars.


My copy of Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 5.4.18

FridayBookbag

Greetings, and May the Fourth be with you!

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With that out of the way, we can get down to the business of Friday Bookbag, a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week I’ve got a thrilling spy-novel-slash-marriage-drama and a sweet, funny romance about a fake wedding date that turns into something more. Let’s dive in!


The Italian Party by Christina Lynch

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9781250147837the premise: Newlyweds Scottie and Michael move to Sienna, Italy in 1956. Little do they know that they’re about to uncover explosive and dangerous secrets–ones on an international scale, and more intimate ones they have chosen to keep from one another. The Italian Party is a thrilling spy novel that’s also about America’s messy position on the world stage.

why I’m excited: Spies! Mid-century drama! A dissolving marriage! A sensual exploration of Italy! Thoughtful criticism of American foreign policy! This book has so many ingredients that appeal to me that it’s hard to boil down my interest in this book to a sentence or two. Suffice to say that I’m sold!

The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory

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9780399587665the premise: Alexa Monroe gets stuck in an elevator with Drew Nichols and, though she’s not usually the spontaneous type, she finds herself agreeing to be his fake date for his ex’s wedding. But these two high-powered professionals find that they’re in for more than they bargained for when their fake date turns into real sparks flying.

why I’m excited: Goodness gracious, I love romance. I don’t write about it a lot on this blog because a) I don’t like to review it, since my feelings on romance novels tend to be of the gushy and incoherent type (I don’t know how Smart Bitches does it) and b) I’ve been distracted by other genres for the past few months. This book feels like the perfect stepping-stone back into romance for me: an utterly charming premise, rave reviews, and an author whose nonfiction pieces I love. I can’t wait.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Ballyhoo #1: STARLESS by Jacqueline Carey

Ballyhoo

Ballyhoo: “an excited commotion” or a brand-new blog feature? Both, obviously!

Ballyhoo is an on-again, off-again feature where I chat about an upcoming release I’m particularly excited about. Today I’m featuring a thrilling epic fantasy from one of my very favorite authors. Let’s dive in!


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Starless by Jacqueline Carey

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Coming June 12th, 2018

Jacqueline Carey is back with an amazing adventure not seen since her New York Times bestselling Kushiel’s Legacy series. Lush and sensual, Starless introduces us to an epic world where exiled gods live among us, and a hero whose journey will resonate long after the last page is turned.

Let your mind be like the eye of the hawk…Destined from birth to serve as protector of the princess Zariya, Khai is trained in the arts of killing and stealth by a warrior sect in the deep desert; yet there is one profound truth that has been withheld from him.

In the court of the Sun-Blessed, Khai must learn to navigate deadly intrigue and his own conflicted identity…but in the far reaches of the western seas, the dark god Miasmus is rising, intent on nothing less than wholesale destruction.

If Khai is to keep his soul’s twin Zariya alive, their only hope lies with an unlikely crew of prophecy-seekers on a journey that will take them farther beneath the starless skies than anyone can imagine.

Words cannot express my undying love for Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series–the recent news that she’s planning to write a version of the first novel, Kushiel’s Dart, from love interest Joscelin’s perspective set my heart pitter-pattering–and Starless seems like it’s going to touch on everything I love about the Kushiel universe: vengeful gods, tortured-but-lovable heroes, epic journeys, and passion in all forms.

I just heard about this book this week and it’s already shot to the top of my TBR list. I think I’m even going to pre-order it to ensure that I get my mitts on it ASAP! (Money’s tight at the moment, so pre-orders are a real treat.)

Have you got your eyes set on Starless, too? What’s your ballyhoo this week? Let me know all about it in the comments–I’m always looking to add to my TBR list!

Book Review: GUN LOVE by Jennifer Clement

Gun Love, about a mother and daughter who live in their car in a Florida trailer park and the “gun love” and trafficking they get tangled up in, is always dark but never heavy; Jennifer Clement’s prose is so gentle and beautiful that I’m convinced she could write a textbook about the most awful subjects imaginable and it would still be a joy to read. Gun Love has the close-focus, raw feel of an indie movie–in fact, it has a lot in common topically and tonally with 2017’s The Florida Project–but it’s never brutal or tortured. It’s an “issue book” that’s actually enjoyable to read–and what an enormous accomplishment that is, especially when the issue (America’s toxic relationship with guns) is so fraught and urgent.

You can read my full review below.


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Gun Love by Jennifer Clement

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  • publisher: Hogarth Press (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
  • publication date: March 6, 2018
  • length: 256 pages
  • cover price: $25.00

My mother was a cup of sugar. You could borrow her anytime.

My mother was so sweet, her hands were always birthday-party sticky. Her breath held the five flavors of Life Savers candy.

And she knew all the love songs that are a university for love. She knew “Slowly Walk Close to Me,” “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?,” “Born Under a Bad Sign,” and all the I’ll-kill-you-if-you-leave-me songs.

But sweetness is always looking for Mr. Bad and Mr. Bad can pick out Miss Sweet in any crowd.

Gun Love, page 1

There’s a corner that stories written in the first person get backed into, and it’s that in the real world, most people don’t articulate their thoughts very well. First person stories need to sound authentic–you can’t sock-puppet haunting, lyrical prose from someone who wouldn’t speak and think in haunting, lyrical ways–but stories also need to be well-written, and those goals are sometimes at odds.

Gun Love is written in the first person from the perspective of a 14-year-old girl, Pearl France, who’s been raised all her life in a car parked in a decaying trailer park. She’s malnourished and tiny for her age; she’s being slowly poisoned by the dump behind the park and the Raid her mother sprays every night to keep the mosquitos down. School is a joke with no bearing on her life, and she doesn’t even have a proper birth certificate. Worst of all, her mother has fallen in love with Eli, a man with a deep undercurrent of trouble that Pearl senses from the start.

Pearl has every right to hate her life and never see the beauty in it. What’s amazing about Gun Love, however, is that it’s a book very deeply concerned with beauty, even in the most difficult of places. Pearl’s voice is as haunting and lyrical as they come, but it somehow rings completely true.

A frequent complaint I have on this blog is that some books revel in darkness and grittiness in ways that are tortuous to read. The events of Gun Love are shocking and horrible–unsurprisingly, it’s thick with gun violence–but Clement’s touch is so light that I never found myself dragged down by it. In one scene, a pair of conjoined alligator twins are found in the river near the trailer park. Reporters and gawkers rush into the trailer park to take in their beauty and strangeness; then, overnight, someone shoots the twins to pieces with a machine gun. It’s a senseless and yet understandable act. In Gun Love, beauty and death entwine in intoxicating and original ways that you can’t look away from–you don’t even want to look away.

It helps that every single character in the novel is fascinating and empathetic, even the murderous ones. My particular favorites were Mr. Brodsky, an aging Jewish foster parent who takes in “shoots,” children whose biological parents have been murdered, and Noelle, an autistic 30-year-old woman who loves Barbie dolls and speaks mostly in fortune cookie quotes. If Clement were less skilled, these people might have come off like pathetic caricatures of poverty and desperation. Instead, they are vibrant, resilient, and full of agency, lovable even when they do unforgivable things.

Over the course of the novel, Pearl hardens and freezes as her mother softens and melts, a testament to how hard it is to grow up at all, much less to grow up in circumstances so literally toxic. (Gun Love definitely has YA crossover appeal.) The mother/daughter relationship in this book reminded me of White Oleander by Janet Fitch, though the mothers in question couldn’t be more different. The through-line of violence traveling through generations is powerful and adds even more depth to the novel.

Another favorite through-line of mine was Selena Quintanilla’s murder. A Mexican couple at the trailer park traffic in guns (as do most of their white neighbors) but they also idolize Selena and mourn her murder daily, especially the wife, Corazón. It’s a taut irony that drives the narrative home without feeling overdone.

In Gun Love, guns are Pandora’s box–its characters can’t live with them yet can’t live without them; they can’t live with the hatred and suffering they dole out yet also can’t live without the power and joy they bring, too. This novel is a nuanced and empathetic gift. Don’t miss it. 5/5 stars.


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

In Review: April 2018

In Review posts are a chance for me to catch my breath, note that I am actually making progress towards my Goodreads reading goal, and give each month’s blog posts a little extra love. (I normally post these on the last day of the month, but yesterday got away from me, so it’s going up today instead.)

After a truly hellish few months, April felt like the sun breaking through the clouds for me. I didn’t read or blog as much as I would like, but I still managed to break my own record for most posts written in a month (12!). I read some great books, and respected my own time and energy enough to set aside one I loathed. I even updated my review archive to include archives by genre and star rating as well as title.

I can’t wait to see what May brings! In the meantime, for your skimming pleasure, here’s my April in Review.


I read 6 books this month:

  • White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht (Goodreads)
  • Too Afraid to Cry: Memoir of a Stolen Childhood by Ali Cobby Eckermann (Goodreads)
  • The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting by Alanna Okun (Goodreads)
  • Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen (Goodreads)
  • The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat (Goodreads)
  • Gun Love by Jennifer Clement (Goodreads)

 

I reviewed 7 books this month:

 

I borrowed, bought, and received 9 books this month:

I have read 21 books so far in 2018!


How was your month in books? Feel free to link to your own blog posts in the comments!

Friday Bookbag, 4.27.18

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.

This week my bookbag is packed with all sorts of goodies: a mind-bending short story collection, a midcentury mystery, a “dystopian” literary novel with a twist, and a memoir of the complicated legacy of missionary work in Haiti. Let’s dive in!


All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva

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9780399593000the premise: This collection of nine short stories spans centuries and genres is “united by each character’s struggle with fate,” according to the inside flap. The stories also explore science, religion, and the overlap between them, with settings ranging from Andrew Carnegie’s fiery steel mills to the Old West to futuristic genetic labs. At least, I think that’s the premise–short story collections are very hard to summarize before I’ve read them, so I hope I’m doing this one justice.

why I’m excited: This book’s cover is sublime, and I’m not too proud to admit that that’s what drew me in first. Second was the fact that short story collections are a delight to read; I love getting the chance to catch my breath between each story in a way that can’t happen between chapters in novels. Third, Anjali Sachdeva is playing with the boundaries of literary fiction and sci-fi in ways I find delightful. This is right up my alley.

Little Deaths by Emma Flint

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9780316272476the premise: In the summer of 1965, the two children of Ruth Malone–a single mother and cocktail waitress–go missing. Malone herself is immediately suspect, her fashionable clothing and makeup, taste for booze, and interest in men making her a target of gossip in her tight-knit Queens, New York community. As the investigation and trial unfold, journalist Pete Wonicke is assigned to cover the case, and he finds himself increasingly entangled in Ruth’s mysterious web: is she a heartless murderer or an unlucky victim of misogyny and the rumor mill? The answer might lie in between…

why I’m excited: I eat up Midcentury stuff with a spoon (Mad Men is hugely flawed but one of my favorite shows for this reason), so a murder mystery set in 1965 New York? That’s a slam dunk for me. I also love books about journalists (check) and ones that dive deep into misogyny and the toxic and contradictory expectations we place on mothers (check). I can’t wait to get lost in this book.

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

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9781941040010the premise: Peggy Hillcoat is kidnapped and taken to the middle of nowhere by her ultra-survivalist father when she is eight years old. He lies to her and tells her that the rest of the world has been destroyed, and the two share a harsh, isolated life in rural Britain for years before Peggy stumbles upon a pair of boots that lead her back to civilization, her mother, and a secret that threatens to tear her apart.

why I’m excited: I was trying to figure out why this title sounded so familiar when I realized that Our Endless Numbered Days is also the title of an Iron & Wine album. It’s the perfect title for this story, which puts a great twist on typical apocalypse stories. I grew up homeschooled on an extremely isolated and dysfunctional farm in rural Minnesota; like History of Wolves rang true for me back in October, I think this book is going to feel heartbreakingly personal, so I’ll keep a box of tissues handy when I read it.

The Gospel of Trees by Apricot Irving

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9781451690453the premise: Apricot Irving grew up in Haiti as the daughter of an environmentalist missionary determined to reforest the country’s devastated hillsides. In The Gospel of Trees, Irving reckons with that past, writing about the bitter legacy of colonization and the unintended consequences of trying to “save” a country you barely understand.

why I’m excited: Missionary work fascinates me because it’s so contradictory. It’s a supposedly altruistic act that often has terrible consequences. It’s rife with painful family drama (The Poisonwood Bible, anyone?) even though it’s all about bringing more people into a Christian fold that idealizes family. And its racial and colonial dynamics are particularly traumatic and messy. I’m excited to read this book, both because Irving has led an interesting life and I think it will be interesting to read about, and also because I hope it will help me sort out my own complicated feelings on this subject.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Book Review: THE PARKING LOT ATTENDANT by Nafkote Tamirat

The Parking Lot Attendant is so drenched in postmodernist style that the actual story drowns beneath the weight. The novel opens on a ginger-scented island known only as B—; the conceit is that an unnamed narrator, an Ethiopian American teenager from Boston, is slowly recounting the mysterious and terrible events that drove her and her father to the island. If you adore the dark humor and twists and turns of writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Louise Erdrich, and Zadie Smith, you might find a lot to love here–or, like me, you might love those authors and still be left cold. Something about this book feels hollow, and while I love its stylish prose and enormous ambition, reading it was a chore and I can’t say I recommend the experience.

You can read my full review below.


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The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Henry Holt and Company (an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: March 13, 2018
  • length: 240 pages
  • cover price: $26.00

…I had never been to Ethiopia, and didn’t much care that I hadn’t; I just assumed it would happen one day. Whenever a teacher first heard my name and feigned curiosity as to its origins, starting or ending with an insincere “It’s so pretty!” I wanted to protest, I’m American! What’s an Ethiopia? How does one come to be there? How does one come to leave it to go to an America? But in truth, I was only almost American, so I gave my explanations and nothing else of myself until the bell rang.

The Parking Lot Attendant, page 73

In my day-to-day life, I don’t spend much time thinking about literary theory. I’m glad that some people do, the same way I’m glad that select groups of people pay close attention to power grids and internet connections so I can sit at my laptop writing this post. Someone should; it just bores me, personally.

I think that boredom is why my reaction to The Parking Lot Attendant, Nafkote Tamirat’s debut novel, is so negative. It’s a book that pays tremendous attention to literary technique to the point where everything else about it fades to the background. By 10 pages in, it felt like a book I’d assigned myself for my own edification rather than a book I was just reading in my free time. And that’s such a shame, because this is a startlingly unique novel, one I wanted to adore but that left me icy instead.

The Parking Lot Attendant centers on an unnamed first-person narrator, an Ethiopian American teenager in Boston. Her parents want the best for her, but they’re terrible at being parents; she excels in school but struggles socially and seems to sleepwalk through life. The novel starts on a ginger-scented island named B– (that we never know the name never stopped feeling pretentious) that is home to a community of Ethiopians seeking to build a new homeland; the narrator and her father live here, tolerated but disliked. As the novel progresses, the narrator works backwards through the events that brought her to the island, especially her friendship with Ayale, an older man beloved by the local Ethiopian community who is full of dangerous secrets.

The Parking Lot Attendant is at its best when it’s a coming-of-age novel. Tamirat’s unnamed narrator is funny, cutting, and sad by turns, and I wanted to spend more time with her. Unfortunately, even though the novel is told in first person and we never leave the narrator’s head, she still seems to vanish into the background, as if she were a documentarian rather than a participant.

That might have been okay had this novel not been so chaotic to begin with, but there are constant twists and turns that tangle up the threads of the plot without moving it forward, and the fact that the narrator doesn’t know where she stands mean we don’t know where anything stands. Most frustratingly, there are entire pages of dialogue in this book where I had no idea who was speaking, since dialogue tags like “he said” and “she said” are almost always absent.

The narrator and Ayale fight; they make up. The narrator and her father fight; they make up. The narrator’s mother flits in and out of her life. Other characters pop in and out for seemingly no reason, their every word feeling shoehorned into whatever mood Tamirat is trying to create in that chapter without feeling like something a real person would authentically say.

Worst of all, very mild spoilers ahead, the ending jumps so abruptly from typical teenage ennui stuff to straight-up murders, arson, suicide, and firing squads that I actually rolled my eyes. I just didn’t care, which is shocking to me, because I wanted so much to care. /spoilers.

There’s a strong possibility that what was hard to understand about this book for me would be obvious to a reader from an Ethiopian background. I want to be clear about that, since on one hand, I love that The Parking Lot Attendant is so chock-full of inside jokes and references to the Ethiopian diaspora. This is one of the most nuanced and cliché-free novels about immigrant identity I’ve ever read; there are also practically no white people in the book, which is refreshing, because it wouldn’t make sense for them to be there. I’m glad this book was able to be published without any obvious catering to a white American audience.

On the other hand, even those good qualities get lost beneath Tamirat’s studied, dense prose style. When I say it’s postmodernist, I mean really postmodernist, to the point where I thought about nothing else, and not in a good way–it felt like being stuck in a poorly taught and very dry Literature 101 class.

Every once in awhile, a particularly cutting sentence would jump out at me–one that got the heart of growing up and not knowing where you belong–and I’d get excited. Then, immediately, I’d be lost in another plot meander that went nowhere, and I’d get un-invested all over again. It’s maddening, because Tamirat’s talent for words is obvious, but her storytelling is remarkably uneven.

The Parking Lot Attendant is a frustrating brain-teaser of a novel, one that demanded a lot and only barely paid off. I hope it blazes trails and makes room for future novels with as much vision and ambition, but I won’t be revisiting this one anytime soon. 3/5 stars.


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