Book Review: THE CURSE OF THE BOYFRIEND SWEATER: ESSAYS ON CRAFTING by Alanna Okun

This book’s subtitle may be Essays on Crafting, but The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater is actually a work of tender autobiography through which crafting is strung like taut yarn. Alanna Okun intersperses longer, introspective essays on anxiety, dating, friendship, and family with shorter, humorous lists like “The Best Places to Knit, Ranked” and “Words They Need to Invent for Crafters”; her writing is wry and sentimental by turns and always charming, but the problem is myopia: Okun seems less concerned with crafting’s place in the world than she does with its place in her own life, and it makes the book feel insubstantial, undercutting Okun’s own thesis that crafting is an incisive opportunity for self-invention and reinvention. I look forward to seeing what Okun does next with (hopefully) sharper subject matter–her writing style is truly lovely–but I’ll admit to being disappointed with this book.

You can read my full review below.


9781250095619

The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting by Alanna Okun

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  • publisher: Flatiron Books (an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: March 20, 2018
  • length: 256 pages
  • cover price: $24.99

But these “soft” things do matter. What we put in and on and around our bodies is important, and so are the things we create. They’re a series of choices we get to make when we may not be able to choose much else: our jobs, our loves and losses, our place in the world. And so maybe in some accidental way, those sad-sack sitcom jokes about knitting contain a grain of truth: making things an certainly help you navigate when the outside world gets to be too much. The difference is, we’ve chosen to do it.

–The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting, page 19

It’s much harder to be kind than it is to be mean, and that’s why I love kind books, especially kind memoirs. I find myself being preemptively snide towards myself and others all the time, hiding my lumpy softnesses (crying at every movie; loving down-home country music; many others) in favor of a more uniform and boring hardness. I like books that remind me that that’s a limiting way to be.

But in abundant kindness, you do risk naïveté. I think it’s a risk worth taking, but there will always be times that kindness just…thuds, and this is one of them.

The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting is a very kind, sweet book, but it’s also painfully naïve. Alanna Okun strikes on a great many truths (especially about what it means to grow up and invent yourself), but she also generalizes where I think she shouldn’t and doesn’t personalize where I think she should.

First, this book is even more niche in practice than the premise suggests. There’s a significant, passionate swath of the population that’s interested in crafting (I’m one of them, obviously), but The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater isn’t about crafting so much as it’s about Okun’s relationship to crafting.

Okun comes from an upper middle class background: she does write with self-awareness about her comfy upbringing in New England (complete with a beach house), her time at a small liberal arts college, her life in the New York publishing business, and the amount of money she spends on yarn, but it’s not quite enough self-awareness for her points to land. When she writes about all her half-finished projects, I could relate, but it also made me cringe to think of all that money in unknitted yarn at the bottom of her closet.

And then I felt bad for cringing, because if there’s something I dislike more than people talking blithely about money and privilege, it’s people pretending they don’t have it. I’m also from an upper-middle class background, and I also start lots of expensive projects without finishing them, but the amount of time Okun spends writing about it felt tone-deaf, even though it wasn’t quite tone-deaf, because she doesn’t justify it or revel in it.

All those conflicting feelings were an ugly catch-22 that tied my brain in knots and really impacted my enjoyment of the book.

If you aren’t a knitter or crocheter, you might not realize how expensive quality yarn is, and the answer is really, really expensive–like $20-40 a skein, minimum. (You usually need multiple skeins for a project, too.) I mention that because I think Okun had an opportunity to meaningfully reflect on what that means. Like Okun, I love to craft (I prefer sewing, but I knit too), and there’s a real dissonance between how people talk about crafting (a resourceful DIY skill!) and how it actually plays out (thanks to outsourcing, it’s far more expensive to make your own clothes than it is to just buy them at Forever 21).

But instead of essays on crafting’s semi-anachronistic place in the modern world (a once-survival skill that’s fast becoming a rich-people pastime), or really, essays on much of anything that spills beyond the boundary of Okun’s life and social circle, The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater is chock-full of essays about things that are much smaller. Okun proposes that the soft and personal things matter, and I agree, but I think she undermines herself by keeping such a myopic focus. If this collection had been more ambitious, it could have been really great; instead, it feels deflated.

That said, there’s a lot here that works. The essays are ordered very skillfully: each one builds on the others, deepening each previous point and adding new ones. Her writing is deceptively simple and then sparkles at unexpected times: the essays meander and then suddenly come together in a few brilliant lines, like a magic trick. I like Okun’s writing at fashion website Racked.com, where she is a senior editor, and since this is her debut, I think she has a lot of room to grow into an author to be reckoned with.

Unfortunately, The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting doesn’t seem sure what it wants to be, as if Okun started creating a simple scarf and pivoted suddenly to a sweater. It’s an intimate memoir that strives for more general truths, but doesn’t quite reach them. 3/5 stars.


My copy of The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: TOO AFRAID TO CRY: MEMOIR OF A STOLEN CHILDHOOD by Ali Cobby Eckermann

From 1910 to 1970, it was official Australian government policy that Aboriginal children should be removed from their families whenever possible in order to assimilate them into white culture. The children harmed by this practice are known as the Stolen Generations, and author Ali Cobby Eckermann is just one of their number. She recounts the vicious racism, sexual abuse, domestic violence, addiction, and physical injury that she has experienced, but this memoir–told in alternating poetry and prose–is as focused on her return to wholeness as it is on her wounds. Too Afraid to Cry is lovely even when the experiences Eckermann recounts are brutal, and I turned the last page feeling calm and hopeful that even in the face of great injustice, it’s never too late for healing.

You can read my full review below.


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Too Afraid to Cry: Memoir of a Stolen Childhood by Ali Cobby Eckermann

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  • publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation (an imprint of W.W Norton & Company)
  • publication date: March 6, 2018 (first published in Australia in 2012)
  • length: 224 pages
  • cover price: $25.95

I wanted to be by myself and not think about the new school, so I climbed to my favourite place, my old cubby built high in the pine trees, where no one could see me. I watched strips of clouds float through the leaves, and let my thoughts drift with them. Daydreaming had become my new pastime. Mum said daydreaming was an age thing, and that I would hopefully grow out of it soon.

Too Afraid To Cry: Memoir of a Stolen Childhood, page 59

It’s rare that I read a book in one sitting; I’m an easily distracted person with a low threshold for getting overwhelmed and upset, meaning that intense books like this one usually take me a dozen or so attempts to finish. To my pleasant surprise, I finished Too Afraid To Cry over the course of one morning on my couch. It helps that this memoir is short, but that’s not the only reason: Ali Cobby Eckermann is an astonishingly gifted writer who seems to have an abundance of goodwill towards herself and her readers, and though she’s experienced awful things in her life, she grants us all the joys she’s experienced, too.

If you’re not familiar with Australia’s racist assimilationist policies that targeted Aboriginal children (especially “half-caste,” or mixed race children), two good primers come from Australians Together and the New York Times. In short, the policies tried to force Aboriginal culture to “die off” by adopting out these children to white families and forbidding them from speaking and practicing their language and culture. It’s a brutal, white supremacist practice that continues unofficially today, and I was glad that I had researched it a bit before reading Too Afraid To Cry, since Eckermann’s approach to the tragedy is decidedly micro and doesn’t fill in the blanks for the uninformed.

Adopted away from her mother to a white German Lutheran family when she was just a baby, Eckermann grew up ostracized by neighboring white children and warned away from neighboring Aboriginal children, whom her adoptive parents considered a bad influence. Suspended between cultures, Eckermann turned to alcohol and drugs, eventually adopting away the son she had out of wedlock when she was 18–inadvertently continuing the cycle of the Stolen Generations.

The memoir opens with Eckermann recounting the sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of a family friend while her mother was in the hospital, and I braced myself for another Very Difficult Book (I’ve read a string of those lately). Instead, Too Afraid To Cry opens like a flower after that first chapter instead of closing like a fist. Eckermann doesn’t shy away from writing about her pain, whether it’s racist taunts she heard in the schoolyard or the broken leg she got when her foster brother ran over her leg with his car. But she pays just as much detail to to the lovely parts of her life: the joy of beach vacations, chasing camels in the desert, her friends in the pub, her barbecue wedding, and her eventual reunion with her Aboriginal family.

If you’re looking for a book to teach you about the big, overarching facts of Australian assimilationist policy and the Stolen Generations, Too Afraid To Cry isn’t it. Instead, it’s something much smaller, more precise, and truer: Eckermann offers up her life in piercing, unaffected prose, her lack of judgment disarming, her ultimate redemption reassuring.

I always admire writers who pick a small task and then do it to the nines. That’s exactly what Eckermann does here, in lyrical, slightly accented prose that reads just like a good storyteller sounds. Even the poems that alternate with the prose chapters–a technique I often find gimmicky–feel exactly right. (It helps that Eckermann is a renowned poet more than she is a prose writer.)

My favorite part of the memoir was the final quarter, where Eckermann recounts meeting her Aboriginal family for the first time and beginning the process of healing with them. It’s such a hopeful thing to read in a world that feels decidedly un-hopeful. It’s so wonderful to think that despite the trauma Eckermann’s been through, it still wasn’t too late for her to find a measure of peace. I think there’s a tendency in literary fiction and memoir to drive home that the world is a terrible place, and I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to read a book that posits that in fact we are all, at our core, resilient.

I can’t recall the last time I’ve read a memoir as cleansing, as purifying, and as hopeful as this one. While reading Too Afraid To Cry, I felt as though Eckermann had extended me a hand, promising me that despite the fear and trauma of the now, we can still build a better tomorrow, one where no child is stolen and everyone belongs. 5/5 stars.


My copy of Too Afraid to Cry: Memoir of a Stolen Childhood came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: WHITE CHRYSANTHEMUM by Mary Lynn Bracht

Moving between the years 1943 and 2011, White Chrysanthemum is told from the perspectives of Korean sisters Hana and Emi, both of whom grow up under Japan’s oppressive colonial rule. In 1943, Hana sacrifices herself for Emi and is captured by Japanese soldiers as a “comfort woman”: a sex slave for the Japanese army. In 2011, Emi travels to Seoul to search for Hana one last time. Love, war, family, and violence are big, messy themes to play with, but Mary Lynn Bracht tackles them with aplomb, and from an unusual and necessary angle. This novel is precisely told, always-suspenseful, ambitious, and moving, and Bracht is a debut author to watch.

You can read my full review below.


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White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht

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  • publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
  • publication date: January 30, 2018
  • length: 320 pages
  • cover price: $26.00

So many years have passed since the war ended, since the protests began, yet the crimes still go unpunished. What does it require to deserve an apology? To give one? Emi touches her chest. Her heart unclenches. Today’s demonstration is special, the one thousandth protest.

White Chrysanthemum, page 78

The haenyeo divers of Jeju Island, a province just south of the Korean mainland, are celebrated as real-life “mermaids“; they train to hold their breath for up to three minutes, diving deep into freezing waters year-round in order to harvest fresh seafood like conch, seaweed, urchins, and oysters. In White Chrysanthemum, Jeju Islander sisters Hana and Emi train as haenyeo with their mother. Their lives under Japanese occupation are hard, but the sea gives them a measure of strength, independence, and respect that most Korean women in 1943 could only dream of.

Unfortunately, it’s not enough to save Hana. The 16-year-old manages to hide her younger sister Emi from raiding Japanese soldiers, but is kidnapped herself and taken far from home to serve as a “comfort woman“: a sexual slave for the Japanese army.

After the introductory chapter documenting Hana’s love of her sister and her  shamanistic induction ceremony as a haenyeo (expressly forbidden by the Japanese), the narrative splits: one half stays in 1943, following Hana’s capture and hellish new life as a comfort woman, and the other half jumps to 2011, following an elderly Emi as she seeks news of her lost sister during the historic (and ongoing) Wednesday protests at the Japanese embassy demanding reparations for comfort women.

The split narrative is risky: if Hana is still missing to Emi in 2011, we know she won’t make it back to her family in 1943, which threatens to undermine the novel’s tension. Luckily, this structure actually serves to modulate the horrors documented in White Chrysanthemum, giving us respite in Emi’s story just when Hana’s threatens to be too much to bear.

This novel is Mary Lynn Bracht’s debut, and it is a tremendously auspicious one. The existence of comfort women wasn’t widely known until the first Korean woman came forward in 1991–over 50 years after the practice began–but the history is still foggy to many Americans. (It certainly was to me.) Similarly, I would venture that many, if not most, non-Koreans don’t know about the brutal history of the 1910-1945 Japanese occupation or the Korean War that immediately followed.

This is all to say that Bracht has a lot of ground to cover in establishing her narrative, but she’s more than up to the task. The history is explored with a light, eloquent touch that leaves plenty of room for character and plot development.

White Chrysanthemum is absolutely harrowing; like I wrote in my review of The Tangled Lands last week, readers who are triggered by sexual assault and violence should probably avoid this book. Rape, torture, and violent deaths are written about in graphic detail that at times made me feel physically sick.

What amazed me about Bracht’s skilled, precise writing, however, is that these events never feel sensational or cruel. White Chrysanthemum is not an “issue novel” seeking to twist the knife and make you feel as much pity and pain as possible; instead, Hana and Emi’s stories feel powerful and fully realized, as if Bracht is merely a documentarian uncovering the forgotten lives of real women. (In a sense, she is.)

A few elements work less well than others. There’s a tragic twist to Emi’s story about halfway through the book that came off as cheap to me–I think Bracht was trying to add urgency, but I thought the story would have been just as good without it. There are times when Bracht moves back and forth between fantasy and reality, particularly in Hana’s story, that feel more confusing than dreamy. (It makes sense that Hana would dissociate under the circumstances, but it doesn’t make for good reading.) And Hana’s story undergoes so many twists and turns that I felt a bit of whiplash when it finally concludes.

But the payoff more than compensates for these weaknesses. Bracht has a Korean mother and grew up in a community of expat Korean women, and after I turned the last page, that detail was utterly unsurprising to me: White Chrysanthemum reads like it was written by an attentive, interested listener. It is tremendously empathetic, especially to the women at its core but even to its villains, and it confronts difficult events head-on without simplifying the people who experience them to one-note tragedies.

When Emi tries to tell the truth about Hana at last, her family doesn’t respond with awe or wonder–they respond with confusion and even a little cruelty. That was the detail that clinched the book for me. Family secrets are exciting to readers, but they’re astonishingly painful to the people who live them, hear about them, and must re-evaluate their core selves around them.

Bracht dives to the heart of Korean family secrets in this debut, which I hope marks the beginning of a long and fruitful career for her. White Chrysanthemum will stay with me for a long, long time. 4/5 stars.


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