Review: LITERALLY SHOW ME A HEALTHY PERSON by Darcie Wilder

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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

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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.

Review: PRETEND WE ARE LOVELY by Noley Reid

Monday Reviews

Pretend We Are Lovely by Noley Reid

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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.

Review: LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng

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Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

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publisher: Penguin Press (imprint of Penguin Random House)

publication date: September 12, 2017

9780735224292Some books, like this one, are magic. They succeed on every level, they hit every emotional sweet spot, they do things with words that remind me why writing is such a unique and incredible art form…and I just can’t explain why. This book struck me dumb with awe and gratitude. I finished it over a week ago, now, and I’m still struggling to articulate how much I loved it, because the truth is that I loved it too much for words.

Bear with me, folks.

Little Fires Everywhere is a story about a lot of things, but it’s especially the story of a place and two families that live there: Shaker Heights, Ohio, is a planned community struggling to cope with the rapidly encroaching mess unpredictability of the outside world; the Richardsons are a big, messy, mostly-happy upper-middle-class white family with deep roots; and mother-daughter pair Mia and Pearl Warren are newcomers no one can quite figure out. When Mia instigates an ugly custody battle between a young Chinese American woman, Bebe Chow, and the wealthy white neighbors who attempt to adopt her baby, May Ling, the community is blown open and family secrets laid bare.

The story isn’t told in order, and opens as the Richardsons’ house burns to the ground around them. From that first page, I was hooked. The closest book I can think to compare it to–though they’re not really similar at all–is The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. But where I found Eugenides’ book to be an arch, unpleasant, and chilly allegory for the folly of suburbia, Ng is deeply, warmly concerned with a real suburban community and characters so lifelike they might as well be real people.

I think “realistic” is a quality that can be overrated in fiction, because it’s fiction–why not take the opportunity to create something intricately, beautifully unreal? As long as an author does it well, I’m onboard. But Little Fires Everywhere did remind me of the magic and power of authors who write about the real world and understand real people: what we think like, what we act like, and what we care about. Ng not only understands people, but values them. She treats her characters–most of whom are painfully clueless, some borderline malicious–as if they are all worthy of love and respect. It’s revelatory, especially because Little Fires Everywhere is literary fiction, which is a genre that I think values coldness overmuch and compassion too little.

Every scene, no matter how slight, benefits from this loving characterization. Characters with only few paragraphs devoted to them are still given actions and dialogue that hints at the rich motivation within; central characters we thought we understood are given shake-ups that reveal new and satisfying depths. I particularly loved the (very) minor character of Mr. Yang, a tenant of the Richardsons and downstairs neighbor of the Warrens, and the more central characters of Trip and Moody, teenage Richardson sons who are tender and emotional and defy every dull and tired stereotype of teenage boys.

But of all these characters to fall in love with, my favorite was Mia Warren, whom we discover is a gifted photographer as well as mother and enigmatic drifter. A powerful theme of the book is the process of creation, punishing and healing by turns, whether it’s art-making or motherhood. I cried several times at this book, and each time it was because of that push and pull: the things mothers give up and the things their children give back; the things the children lose that their mothers want to stop them from losing but can’t; the bravery and vulnerability it takes to put art into the world.

I think most of us have at least some idea of what makes a good mother, but novels about visual artists can be especially hit or miss because we can’t see for ourselves whether a canvas or photograph is good or bad or mediocre–the author has to tell us. Thankfully, Ng has a light touch when describing Mia’s talents, trusting the mind’s eye of the reader to fill in the rest.

In fact, it’s been a long time since my mind’s eye felt so engaged in a novel. I was born in ’95 and thus have no memories of the late ’90s, I know nothing about Ohio, and I certainly knew nothing about Shaker Heights, but every scene is so carefully detailed, as lovingly costume-designed and set-dressed as a Wes Anderson movie (though less twee by half), that I felt there.

This absorbing, transporting quality is especially wonderful because Little Fires Everywhere is told in the omniscient 3rd-person, often hopping from mind-to-mind mid-scene, a technique I associate most with epic, impersonal fantasy novels and not with intimate family dramas. It turns out that–at least in Ng’s skilled hands–that mind-hopping can actually make a book more personal and more intimate. We don’t see one side of an argument, we see all of them: a good quality in a book filled with complicated and unwinnable arguments.

I could write a book-length love letter to this book. (Can you tell?) I could especially go on for hours about its razor-sharp critique of the kind of feel-good, orderly white liberalism that crumbles in the face of honest and difficult questions.

But I won’t go on any longer. I’ll just trust that you’ll read Little Fires Everywhere, and tell all your friends, and tell them to tell all of their friends, too. This book is miraculous. Don’t miss it. 5/5 stars.

My copy of Little Fires Everywhere came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Review: GINNY MOON by Benjamin Ludwig

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Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig

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publisher: Park Row Books (imprint of Harlequin)

publication date: May 2, 2017

9780778330165Ginny Moon is a quirky book that doesn’t know it’s a quirky book. (This is a good thing.) The eponymous Ginny Moon is an autistic 14-year-old who survived an abusive mother only to find that those survival skills have left her ill-equipped for a safe home and a family that loves her, so she decides to run away from her adoptive family in order to reunite with her drug-addicted mother and her Baby Doll…who, we eventually discover, isn’t a doll after all.

It’s a lot for the reader to piece together, especially since the novel is told entirely from Ginny’s first-person, idiosyncratic, and utterly unselfconscious perspective. Ginny’s many obsessions–including Michael Jackson, Maine Coon cats, having 9 grapes for breakfast, gallons of milk, and her Baby Doll–are inexplicable to those around her, including her well-meaning but struggling adoptive family, her special education peers at school, and her therapist; surprisingly, Ludwig has captured Ginny’s voice in such a way that these obsessions make perfect sense to the reader, and that’s where this book’s magic lies.

Because Ginny Moon is so concerned with Ginny Moon herself and not just the people around her, it’s personal rather than alienating, often funny, sometimes sad, always compassionate, and overall the sort of story that I wish there were more of in the world. It’s also fast-paced and readable–I devoured it in two or three sittings–and I think it could have tremendous YA crossover appeal.

I’m still surprised at how much I liked this book because I almost returned it to the library unread, worried it was going to be a try-hard, “inspirational” disability story. I’m disabled myself, and I absolutely hate the garbage fire that is disability “inspiration porn” (which activist Stella Young so wonderfully condemns in this video). On the inside flap of Ginny Moon, Benjamin Ludwig’s author bio shares that “[s]hortly after he and his wife married, they became foster parents and adopted a teenager with autism.” It felt like a red flag that this book would fall into the “inspirational” trap, but but thankfully, that wasn’t the case at all: Ginny is Ginny, a well-rounded protagonist who is neither inspirational nor uninspired.

In fact, it’s actually Ludwig’s honest and nuanced writing that’s inspirational here. Ginny’s foster parents love her, but occasionally they fumble and are even borderline cruel at times. Ginny’s birth mother is a horrible parent, but it’s understandable how badly she wants to make things right. Ginny’s teachers and classmates want the best for her, but they also find Ginny’s single-minded desires obnoxious. And Ludwig captures all of this from Ginny’s point of view, conveying things to the reader that Ginny herself doesn’t understand, but without any distasteful winks to a neurotypical audience.

There are a few rough patches in the narrative, but they mainly stem from Ginny being so utterly sympathetic, not from some terrible flaw in the writing. I found myself craving a happy ending for Ginny so much that I felt almost fatigued with worry by the end of the book. Ginny’s autistic perspective is an interesting twist on the “how could [character] make such an obviously terrible decision?!?!?” problem that I sometimes have as a reader, since, for Ginny, it’s not a terrible or inexplicable decision at all. (And she’s not portrayed as pathetic or stupid for making those decisions, either–as much fault rests on the neurotypical people around her as does on Ginny.)

Ginny Moon resonates as a portrait of a misfit learning to live in the world–a theme that’s not unique to autistic kids and their foster parents. By placing Ginny’s voice front and center and trusting the reader to read between the lines, Ludwig has authored something truly affecting and gratifying, and I can’t wait to see what’s next from him. 4/5 stars.

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

Review: HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi

Monday Reviews

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (imprint of Penguin Random House)

publication date: June 7, 2016

9781101947135Some books are so flawless they skate through my memory, leaving a pleasant aura in their wake but not much else. Homegoing is not one of those books: it’s flawed, frightening, ambitious, and hopeful, and best of all, it sticks with you.

Since I first picked up Homegoing two weeks ago, I have not gone a day without thinking about it, struggling with it, and marveling at it. Yaa Gyasi has achieved something remarkable here, and this book is everything I want literary fiction to be.

The story spans over 300 years, exploring the lives and bloodlines of two half-sisters–each unaware of the other’s existence–born near the Gold Coast. One sister achieves a life of relative privilege as the “wife” (read: glorified mistress) of a British slave trader, while the other is sold into slavery in the fledgling United States. Evil and suffering taint both branches of the family, including those left in Ghana, who must slowly reckon with their complacency and cooperation in the transatlantic slave trade.

The novel sags in the middle, especially because of its unusual structure: each chapter is told from the perspective of one member of one generation (alternating between branches of the family), and just as you expect to settle into one story, you are jolted to the next. Some of these stories are more riveting than others: standout chapters belong to Quey Collins, a half-British, half-Fante boy forced to choose between British colonial expectations and happiness; Kojo Freeman, a free black man in the 1850s whose life is upended by the Fugitive Slave Act; Willie Black, a gifted singer who trades the Jim Crow South for the subtler segregation of New York City in the early 1900s; and Marjorie Agyekum, who struggles with her Ghanaian-American identity, unable to assimilate into whiteness but equally barred from assimilating into American blackness.

Between these standout chapters, I occasionally found myself bored, and I was also sometimes irritated by the borderline deus ex machina resolutions of certain character arcs. But these are minor quibbles compared with the enormous payoff of Gyasi’s risk-taking: a novel that reckons with the cost of slavery to both sides of the Atlantic.

Gyasi pulls off this historical epic because she grounds it intimately in present-day discussions of race. Homegoing clarifies the connection between the enslavement, torture, and rape of black people 300 years ago and today’s racism, mass incarceration, and police brutality; it also illuminates the less-considered legacy of those who cooperated with the British and were both rewarded and condemned as a result.

All that, and it’s still a damn good story–Homegoing is not Metamucil for guilty (white) readers, but rather a literary banquet as complex as the African diaspora itself.

Through fiction, Gyasi achieves something history textbooks rarely do: she finds the lives in our facts and the questions in our answers. She finds nuance in the blunt horrors of American racism and absolution in the lives of modern-day Ghanaians. Homegoing is a debut of the highest order, and Gyasi is a writer to watch. 4/5 stars.

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

Review: HISTORY OF WOLVES by Emily Fridlund

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History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

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publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press

publication date: January 3, 2017

For me, the line between navel-gazing and specificity is drawn (perhaps counterintuitively) between the stories people tell about Ideas, and the stories people tell about People. Fridlund’s debut does not seem overly concerned with nature, or faith, or morality, though it touches on all three; instead, it is wholly preoccupied with its first-person narrator, Linda, and is the better for it. Linda’s story is as hyperreal as a museum, as if each word is cataloged, preserved, and polished, and it’s not a museum of winter, or summer, or Christian Science, or even the history of wolves. It’s something altogether more private and chilling, as functional and sharp as her Swiss Army Knife.

The capital-P People at the center of this novel–Linda especially–are not good, and often not even likable. They are, however, almost hypnotically sympathetic, and it makes the chronicle of the ways in which adults enact terrible harm on children all the more startling.

9780802125873Linda is a quiet, oddball teenager, the kind who could be called queer in the original sense of the word (and maybe the current one, too). She lives in the ruins of a commune with checked-out parents whom she’s not even sure are her parents; her high school history teacher is busted for child pornography and maybe for raping her classmate; a new family that seems mysteriously, intoxicatingly normal moves in across the lake. Linda starts babysitting the young son, Paul, for the young mother, Patra, and for awhile finds herself falling in a kind of love with both. But when it all goes bad, it goes bad fast, pushing Linda further down a path of obsession and isolation.

It’s a setup that seems either like a gritty YA novel or a gritty literary bildungsroman a la Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, but Fridlund skillfully threads the needle with the best of both genres. While the story is not self-consciously told out-of-sequence, it’s not as simple as point A to point B, and we check in frequently with an adult Linda, as if she were telling us her story over coffee or a beer. It keeps the story moving, and keeps it from feeling too awful to be real (something I occasionally felt about White Oleander). It never fully feels like fiction, so we are never fully immunized against its quiet horror.

At first I thought that Fridlund had an axe to grind: against the harshness of the Minnesota northwoods, maybe, or checked-out hippie parents, or pervert teachers, especially after a first chapter about all these things that was as blistering as I’ve ever read. I also thought Fridlund was setting me up for an explosion. What I got was a feeling more akin to locking myself out of my apartment: slow-motion anger and bitterness followed by exhaustion and resolve.

If that makes the book sound unpleasant, let me reframe: for a book that has received as much Important Book buzz as History of Wolves, I was expecting explicit, self-conscious traumas, but Fridlund has accomplished something much more devastating: an expansion of the kind of crazy story you see a few column inches of in a local paper. A teacher busted for child pornography, a former cult that’s rumored to burn children for fun, a completely avoidable family tragedy; I imagine Linda wouldn’t have been interviewed for any of these stories, but she’s been touched–and destroyed–by all of them. You start wondering what sorts of Lindas are behind every headline.

Like Linda, I was raised in the Minnesota northwoods. I spent more time outside than in, more time reading than talking, more time disdaining my peers than trying to understand them. For awhile, I also hopped from odd job to odd job. It’s not hard for me to imagine taking this kind of babysitting gig, and it’s not hard for me to imagine testifying about a family tragedy in court, since I’ve done it. It is hard to imagine a book that could cut me closer to the bone than this one. There is a sense of inevitability, of no escape.

It haunted me because I did escape this sort of life. I’m sure it will find a way to haunt you. History of Wolves is calamitous, and it is not to be missed. 5/5 stars.

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