Book Review: STRAYING by Molly McCloskey

Straying is a portrait of a marriage gone stale; it’s also the story of a daughter struggling to understand her mother, and the story of an American woman in Ireland who finds–metaphorically, at least–that she can’t go home again. (Straying‘s protagonist, Alice, is at the heart of all three threads–she’s the cheating wife, the disappointing daughter, and the wander-lost American, respectively.) Nothing is new or exciting about that plot, but Molly McCloskey’s sharp prose style elevates the experience somewhat, especially in the first third of the book, which captures the staticky, on-edge feeling of being in love with the wrong person perfectly. Unfortunately, the decay of Alice’s marriage is nowhere as insightful or interesting as its beginning, and while I understand that that’s likely a conscious choice on McCloskey’s part, the latter two-thirds still make for dry, abrasive reading. Straying starts with a spark and plenty of tinder, but it never catches fire.

You can read my full review below.


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Straying by Molly McCloskey

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  • publisher: Scribner Book Company (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
  • publication date: February 20, 2018
  • length: 224 pages
  • cover price: $24.00

How do people do it, I used to wonder. Well, I learned. That sort of secret feels like an illness, the way the world slows to a crawl as though for your inspection. So much clarity and consequence–it was like enlightenment, it was like being in the truth, which is a funny thing to say about deceit.

Straying, page 1

I think that there are two iconic American dreams: one of coming to America and one of leaving it. Alice, Straying‘s narrator, decides to visit Ireland because she realizes that a full European tour is out of her budget; she ends up moving there in working in a pub for a summer, and though her experience isn’t glamorous at all I still felt my heart beating faster.

How romantic! I thought. I wish I could drop everything and move to Ireland.

And that was the last romantic, silly thought I had while reading this book, which is one of the dreariest I’ve experienced in some time.

Part of that dullness lies in Straying’s subject matter. I don’t like to ding authors for that in my reviews, since more than anything else, our preferences for what we like to read and write about are personal. I can’t develop a coherent rubric for why I love books about cults but am wary of mid-life crisis novels; it’s pure preference, and I had the sneaking suspicion throughout Straying that nearly everything I disliked about it was just that: preference.

McCloskey seems to evade (or at times, to stomp on) warm-fuzzies everywhere they might naturally pop up. In a nutshell, Straying is about how Alice moves to Ireland, falls in a sort-of love, falls out of it, embarks on an affair, works for NGOs in war zones, loses her mother, and feels a lot of things about homesickness. The novel is told out of order, partially in flashback to the ’80s and partially in the present day, so this is all established early (which is why I don’t consider them spoilers). The tension lies entirely in the sordid specifics, which unspool agonizingly slowly and pessimistically.

For example, instead of finding any sort of tourist’s joy in Ireland, Alice seems disenchanted immediately. The kindest, most loving thought she has about Eddie, her once-husband, is about his solidness–that he will someday be the kind of old man she likes. She loves her mother recklessly and yet lives almost her whole life away from her.

To me that’s all very realistic, very sad, and very, very boring.

But what do I know? Another major theme of the book is the recklessness of youth. I’m 23 and fully in my reckless phase, so it was probably inevitable that I would find this book as dry as sawdust. (When I initially picked it up, I thought more of it would focus on Alice’s younger self, but it’s mostly told from her late middle age.) I’m about to get married myself–of course I’m not going to want to be reminded of all the ways my life could go wrong. Of course I would find this book stolid. Of course I would find it unpleasantly hardened.

But there’s still a lot to like here. Every character feels almost disconcertingly three-dimensional, like I could access their backstories Magic Eye-style by crossing my eyes a bit. McCloskey has a knack for making observations about life that are so true and painful that they made my blood run cold. And Alice is a truly wonderful first-person narrator, prickly and vulnerable, someone we get a real sense of as a participant in the story instead of someone who is just a glorified third-person narrator.

Most of all, I loved how McCloskey writes about Ireland in the 1980s. While I was reading, Ireland’s grimy upstart-ness, its trauma and resilience, its falls and rebirths, and its smells and sights and geography were all as real to me as the Saint Paul, Minnesota streets outside my window.

While Straying wasn’t to my taste, it still felt like a conversation with someone very interesting; someone whom you want very much to like you and think of you as sophisticated. Maybe it wasn’t to my taste exactly because I didn’t feel like I measured up to the novel’s exacting gaze.

No one likes to be predictable. Everyone likes to think their story is the special one. Perhaps McCloskey’s refusal to write about someone special is, in itself, very special, even if it is far from enjoyable. It’s food for thought, anyway. ★★★☆☆


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

Book Review: THE MERRY SPINSTER by Daniel Mallory Ortberg

Fairytales are often as repulsive as they are fascinating, and in The Merry Spinster, Daniel Mallory Ortberg dials up the intensity of both sensations up to 11. These short stories are all retellings of myth and legend (with a few Bible stories thrown in), and they’re the only retellings I’ve ever encountered that retain all the opacity, awe, and terror of the originals. Sometimes that opacity is a little much–I didn’t understand a word of one story, “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad”–but usually it’s thrilling. I’m a fairytale nut and it sometimes feels like I’ve consumed every story under the sun already. Reading The Merry Spinster felt like uncovering a treasure trove of lost work from a favorite artist, something exactly in the style of the originals, but wonderfully new. Much of the praise of this book centers on Ortberg’s wit–and his wit is indeed brutally sharp–but what I liked best was his obvious understanding of what makes fairytales work. In the end, it’s not about wit, plot, or character, though those are nice–it’s about pure, raw, turbulent emotion, and luckily, The Merry Spinster has that quality in spades.

You can read my full review below.


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The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Daniel Mallory Ortberg

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  • publisher: Henry Holt & Co. (an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: March 13, 2018
  • length: 208 pages
  • list price: $17.00

Daughters are as good a thing as any to populate a kingdom with–if you’ve got them on hand. They don’t cost much more than their own upkeep, which you’re on the hook for regardless, so it’s not a bad strategy to put them to use as quickly as possible.

The Merry Spinster, page 1

I converted to Christianity just before Christmas, 2016. After years of atheism, it’s still something that feels mildly embarrassing to me, like I gave up somehow; I’ll admit that in many ways, I’m not very good at being a Christian, though at this point, God and I have reached the point of no return in our serious, if wary, relationship. (I relate strongly to this piece by Hanif Abdurraqib about why he still fasts for Ramadan despite being a less-than-fully-observant Muslim.)

I write all this because Daniel Mallory Ortberg has created something almost biblical with The Merry Spinster, not in the sense that it is remotely holy, but in the sense that it is polyphonic, inscrutable, and often terrifying. The love, loss, and vengeance in these stories is loud and in your face; it feels like it’s instructing you, though you don’t quite understand the lessons. And I mean these things in the most positive way possible.

The strongest story in the collection is the first one, “The Daughter Cells”; in this retelling of “The Little Mermaid,” the mermaid is more alien than girl. She goes to land not so much for the love of the prince but out of a bureaucratic desire to improve the efficiency of humans and a more personal one to gain the prince’s soul. In message, if not in tone, it reminded me of films and books like Annihilation and Contact; two species meet and harm each other entirely by accident. The thing is, those examples have hours and many pages to set up their premise; Ortberg achieves the same thing in a scant 25 pages. I’ve never read anything like it.

While in my opinion the collection doesn’t quite return to the heights of “The Daughter Cells” after that 25th page, most of the other stories are nearly as compelling. Ortberg does particularly interesting things with gender, playing with pronouns, names, and titles in intriguing and unsettling ways that meant a lot to me as a nonbinary person. (Ortberg has talked about how writing this book helped him come to terms with being trans.)

In particular, “The Thankless Child”–the second story in the collection and a loose retelling of “Cinderella” among other fables–provoked me to think harder and deeper. Its protagonist is named Paul, but she uses she/her pronouns. (It jarred me at first, but after all, so many “boys’ names” have been reclaimed as “girls’ names” anyway…why not Paul?) She lives in a desert hellscape where salt is currency, and her godmother is a supernatural and vengeful being who is jealous of Paul’s dead mother. Gender roles are fluid–couples fall into the “husband” and “wife” roles depending on their aptitudes, not their genders–and it fundamentally alters the Cinderella story in ways that surprised me. “Cinderella” is one of the most-retold stories imaginable (Ella Enchanted is my personal favorite retelling), yet Ortberg still manages to make it fresh.

Other stories are straight-up terrifying rather than just unsettling. “The Rabbit,” a sinister retelling of “The Velveteen Rabbit,” particularly upset me (in a delicious way). Another story, “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad,” is just as creepy, but much less effective because it’s so confusing. (Ortberg has a loopy prose style that usually works well but sometimes seems to waffle and double back on itself.)

Every story in the collection feels like a major risk, and some don’t pay off as well as others. I really didn’t like the “Mr. Toad” story, and others, like “The Wedding Party”–about a couple arguing before their courthouse wedding–were interesting but not emotionally effective for me.

But in a way, I love that uneven, unpredictable quality in The Merry Spinster: because it’s not only a short story collection, but a short short story collection at only 208 pages, everything flies by so quickly that even the parts that drag didn’t drag down my enjoyment too much.

The word that pops up again and again when I think about The Merry Spinster is “unique,” and not in a passive-aggressive Midwestern way–it’s genuinely unique and thoughtful and experimental and wonderful. It scratched an itch I never knew I had, and now that it’s been scratched, I’m sad that there aren’t more books in this niche. Ortberg’s next book will be a memoir (currently titled Something That May Shock and Discredit You) but I hope he returns to this well soon. ★★★★☆


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

Friday Bookbag, 5.18.18

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is 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 three short books in my bookbag that each carry a big, emotional, firecracker punch. Let’s dive in!


Straying by Molly McCloskey

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

9781501172465the premise: Alice, a young American woman, moves to Ireland in the late 1980s, settles down, marries an Irishman…and then embarks on an affair that shatters the life she’d carefully created for herself. Years later, grieving her mother’s death and recovering from years of working in war zones, Alice returns to Ireland and discovers that her marriage and the affair that ended it may not have been at all what they seemed.

why I’m excited: I’m a big fan of stories that hinge on an affair–there’s so much inherent tension in cheating that it’s no wonder it’s such a trope. Lately, I’ve also been seeking out books set in countries other than the United States. McCloskey is a renowned writer in her native Ireland and part of Straying‘s plot is the alienation and culture shock Alice experiences when she moves away from the United States. Both of these elements add up to a novel I’m really excited about.

9781936787845Cove by Cynan James

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the premise: A man out kayaking at sea is struck by lightning in a sudden storm. He awakes with his memory gone, still adrift in a hostile sea. Relying on instincts and imagination, he sets out for home in an ultimate man-against-nature adventure.

why I’m excited: This is a tiny book: it’s made up of barely 92 pages of spare prose. That’s great for me, since I much prefer short books to long ones (Larissa Pham recently tweeted that “the novella might be the ideal form” and I relate), and I also love nature and survival stories. I’m terrified of open water, so the kayaking element promises to be especially thrilling for me.

9781250113429The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Daniel Mallory Ortberg

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the premise: Ortberg transforms beloved fairy tales into eleven creepy short stories in this collection–“tales of everyday horror” seems to be the perfect subtitle.

why I’m excited: Two reasons: one, I love fairytales, and two, over the course of writing this book, Ortberg came out as a trans man, in part because of the way these stories challenged him to think about gender. (For more on that, you should read this excellent interview with Ortberg in The Cut. ) I would have been sold on this book regardless without that second part, but as a nonbinary person myself, I’m really excited to read a book by a fellow transgender person that pushes gender boundaries.


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!

Are you a reading perfectionist?

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Ah, the Goodreads reading challenge: it’s a New Year’s resolution that’s probably more keep-able than just “working out and eating healthy” (at least it’s tangible!), but for me, it’s also a source of major overcommitment and stress.

This year, I intended to read 100 books, which seemed pretty simple at the time. I’m a fast reader, and a little under two books a week seemed eminently doable. Right?

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Wrong. Between my busy life and my own perfectionism, I feel like I’ve had to fight for every single book I manage to read this year–not a good feeling, since ostensibly reading is supposed to be fun.

Where did I go wrong?

I can think of at least one clinical reason that’s outside my control: I’ve had obsessive-compulsive disorder since I was a kid, and it often causes this same kind of overcommit-and-crash-and-burn pattern. (My obsessions and compulsions relate to organization in ways that are less “helpful” and more “quagmire.”)

But I’ve heard a lot of other avid readers and book bloggers complain of this problem, too, so I don’t think it’s just me.

After all, there are so many new books and old favorites to enjoy, and never enough time–an essay by NPR’s Linda Holmes, titled “The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We’re Going to Miss Almost Everything,” gets to the heart of this. That’s one source of perfectionist tendencies.

But worse, when you’re a book blogger, you notice that there are always others who read more than you, who write reviews better than you, who publish more content than you, and are generally just “better” at being a reader/blogger than you. It creates this weird cycle of admiration and resentment, of “I could be like that if I just put my mind to it” and then despair when you can’t measure up.

This game of comparisons that I play with myself is tremendously unhealthy, unrealistic, and unfair, and I’ve noticed it spoiling my enjoyment of reading. It’s so frustrating that my oldest and favorite hobby is getting poisoned by something so pointless.

I started this blog as a way to get myself to read more and, by extension, also to write more. It began in my final semester of college (I graduated in December 2017), when I was feeling thoroughly burnt out on my coursework and uncertain about my life path–I was initially planning to go into the public health field before I switched to freelance writing.

Reading was my escape from that, and falling in love with reading all over again convinced me that I made 100% the right choice by striking out as a freelance writer. I already accomplished my initial goals for this blog–so I think it’s time to revisit them and make some newer, healthier ones.

I want to blog as a way to celebrate the books I love and process the books I don’t. I want to blog as a way to connect with other people who love books as much as I do. And in conjunction with that, it’s time to put my foot down and read for myself and not for other people. It’s time for me to stop putting my every reading choice and habit under the microscope in comparison to others.

I’m working on eradicating perfectionism from my life wherever I can, since the thing about perfectionism is it’s not about creating something “perfect” as it is about avoiding the nasty monologue of criticism that runs 24/7 in my brain. If I let that monologue get the best of me, it’s going to eat up everything I love and continue to make me miserable. Enough is enough.

Next year, I’m skipping the Goodreads reading  challenge. This year, I’m giving myself permission to ignore it (though I’ll continue to use Goodreads–you can friend me here.)

I’m tired of being a reading perfectionist–I’d much rather enjoy reading than be some arbitrary kind of “best” at it.


Are you a reading perfectionist? Have you overcome that perfectionism? (If so, how?!) I’d love to hear all about it in the comments!

Friday Bookbag, 5.11.18

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is 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 have three works of literary fiction that toy with gender, optimism, and expectations in my bookbag. Let’s dive in!


The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel

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9781616206307the premise: Set in the 1980s, The Optimistic Decade takes place at Llamalo, a “utopian summer camp.” As they learn camp survival skills through booms and busts, wars and protests, and dreams and mistakes, the novel’s five central characters push up against the limits of idealism and themselves.

why I’m excited: I love novels set in the recent past, and while there are plenty set in the ’50s-’70s, there are fewer about the ’80s. I think the title–particularly the “optimistic” part–says it all: so much of the ’80s feels both glamorous and naive in hindsight and I like that the premise of the novel (especially the back-to-the-land element) plays around with that.

A Lucky Man: Stories by Jamel Brinkley

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9781555978051the premise: This short story collection contains nine stories set in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Each story probes at the ways the ways men make and interact with power, exploring facets of masculinity from elementary school through adulthood.

why I’m excited: I’m tired of the fact that the entire weight of “gender” fiction is placed on the shoulders of everyone who isn’t a man. That’s why I’m excited for this collection, which promises to not only be interesting from a writing and craft standpoint but also because Brinkley seems to be taking on masculinity from a man’s perspective. That shouldn’t feel fresh, but it does–and the buzz this book is receiving is more than enough to convince me to read it.

Eventide by Therese Bohman

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9781590518939the premise: Karolina Andersson, a solitary art history professor in her forties, becomes entangled in a ferocious, erotic game that threatens to uproot her personal and professional lives. When she begins to advise a postgraduate student whose research could turn Swedish art history upside-down, Andersson finds herself reckoning with much more than academic consequences.

why I’m excited: This is a relatively slim book that promises to pack a big punch. I love translated works (Eventide is translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy) and this one tackles gendered double-standards, academia, and loneliness in a big, fascinating way. 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 #2: WHEN KATIE MET CASSIDY by Camille Perri

Ballyhoo

Ballyhoo: “an excited commotion” or a 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 romantic comedy that’s already getting a lot of buzz as exactly the kind of sweet and funny lesbian romance queer readers deserve, but have had trouble finding. Let’s dive in!


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When Katie Met Cassidy by Camille Perri

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Coming June 19th, 2018

From the acclaimed author of The Assistants comes another gutsy book about the importance of women taking the reins—except this time, when it comes to finding sexuality, pleasure, and love sometimes where you least expect it.

Katie Daniels is a perfection-seeking 28-year-old lawyer living the New York dream. She’s engaged to charming art curator Paul Michael, has successfully made her way up the ladder at a multinational law firm and has a hold on apartments in Soho and the West Village. Suffice it to say, she has come a long way from her Kentucky upbringing.

But the rug is swept from under Katie when she is suddenly dumped by her fiance, Paul Michael, leaving her devastated and completely lost. On a whim, she agrees to have a drink with Cassidy Price-a self-assured, sexually promiscuous woman she meets at work. The two form a newfound friendship, which soon brings into question everything Katie thought she knew about sex—and love.

When Katie Met Cassidy is a romantic comedy that explores how, as a culture, while we may have come a long way in terms of gender equality, a woman’s capacity for an entitlement to sexual pleasure still remain entirely taboo. This novel tackles the question: Why, when it comes to female sexuality, are so few women figuring out what they want and then going out and doing it?

The marketing copy might be clunky (“how, as a culture, while we may have come a long way…” is pretty mealy-mouthed), but a glowing review of this book published in Autostraddle last week already has me sold.

As I mentioned last week when I talked about The Wedding Date, I love romance–but I’m also a lesbian, and romance pickings that center lesbians and bi women are notoriously slim. That’s why I’m excited for this book, which promises to be genuinely sweet and swoonworthy as well as funny and full of social commentary.

Oh, and I especially love romance pairings where one person is more innocent and the other is more experienced. As long as it doesn’t cross the line into manipulation and creepiness (uh, looking at you, Fifty Shades), that dynamic always gives me butterflies in my stomach. I’m excited to see the queer twist that When Katie Met Cassidy will bring to the trope.

Have you got your eyes set on When Katie Met Cassidytoo? 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!

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

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

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

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

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!