Friday Bookbag, 4.26.19

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.

It’s like I learned nothing from last week! I kept buying books way faster than I’m reading them. (Shout out to Book Riot’s daily book deals newsletter, which is the best worst thing that’s ever happened to me.) Luckily my reading slump seems to have broken and I’m back to reading more, if not quite enough. Expect some interesting book reviews coming soon.

Let’s dive into all my bad great decisions this week!


The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Poet X Coverthe premise: From Goodreads:

“Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking.

But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours all her frustration and passion onto the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers—especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class named Aman, who her family can never know about. With Mami’s determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself.

So when she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she doesn’t know how she could ever attend without her mami finding out, much less speak her words out loud. But still, she can’t stop thinking about performing her poems.

Because in the face of a world that may not want to hear her, Xiomara refuses to be silent.”

why I’m excited: Slam poetry–its fiercely loving community and its empowering vulnerability–are ripe for a YA novel, especially one about an Afro Latina girl fighting rape culture and abuse. That premise + myriad rave reviews and awards mean that this book is guaranteed to make me Feel Things. I can’t wait.

The Emissary by Yōko Tawada (translated by Margaret Mitsutani)

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The Emissary Coverthe premise: From Goodreads:

“Japan, after suffering from a massive irreparable disaster, cuts itself off from the world. Children are so weak they can barely stand or walk: the only people with any get-go are the elderly. Mumei lives with his grandfather Yoshiro, who worries about him constantly. They carry on a day-to-day routine in what could be viewed as a post-Fukushima time, with all the children born ancient—frail and gray-haired, yet incredibly compassionate and wise. Mumei may be enfeebled and feverish, but he is a beacon of hope, full of wit and free of self-pity and pessimism. Yoshiro concentrates on nourishing Mumei, a strangely wonderful boy who offers “the beauty of the time that is yet to come.”

A delightful, irrepressibly funny book, The Emissary is filled with light. Yoko Tawada, deftly turning inside-out “the curse,” defies gravity and creates a playful joyous novel out of a dystopian one, with a legerdemain uniquely her own.”

why I’m excited: Researching nuclear disaster is a hobby of mine (sort of related to a novel I’m writing, sort of just because I find it fascinating), so the connection to Fukushima sold me on this book immediately. It also looks short, sweet, and funny, meaning it’s going to be a good in-between book if I’m getting bogged down in heavier, denser stuff. It’s either going to be weird and off-putting, or weird and great. Either way, it’ll be interesting!

Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin

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Young Jane Young Coverthe premise: From Amazon:

“Aviva Grossman, an ambitious congressional intern in Florida, makes the mistake of having an affair with her (married) boss. When the affair comes to light, the popular congressman doesn’t take the fall. But Aviva does, and her life is over before it hardly begins: slut-shamed, she becomes a late-night talk show punch line, anathema to politics. She sees no way out but to change her name and move to a remote town in Maine. This time, she tries to be smarter about her life and strives to raise her daughter, Ruby, to be strong and confident. But when, at the urging of others, Aviva decides to run for public office, that long-ago mistake trails her via the Internet and catches up—an inescapable scarlet A. In the digital age, the past is never, ever, truly past. And it’s only a matter of time until Ruby finds out who her mother was and is forced to reconcile that person with the one she knows.”

why I’m excited: This basically feels like Monica Lewinsky: The Novel, and I’m here for it. Ripped-from-the-headlines stories can get creepy and/or ham-handed, fast, but this novel sounds self-aware, complex (I particularly love the idea of the intergenerational stuff between Aviva and Ruby), and funny enough to sidestep those pitfalls. Fingers crossed!

Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession by Alice Bolin

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Dead Girls Coverthe premise: From Goodreads:

“A collection of poignant, perceptive essays that expertly blends the personal and political in an exploration of American culture through the lens of our obsession with dead women.

In her debut collection, Alice Bolin turns a critical eye to literature and pop culture, the way media consumption reflects American society, and her own place within it. From essays on Joan Didion and James Baldwin to Twin Peaks, Britney Spears, and Serial, Bolin illuminates our widespread obsession with women who are abused, killed, and disenfranchised, and whose bodies (dead and alive) are used as props to bolster a man’s story.”

why I’m excited: I’m obsessed with the dead girls obsession, so this looks about perfect for me. Earlier this year I read The Hot One by Carolyn Murnick, a book with a somewhat similar premise, which I didn’t love. The essay excerpt of The Hot One over at The Cut contained all the best parts of that book and trimmed the bits I didn’t like, so I’m hoping that essays might be a better format with which to tackle the topic. I’m very much looking forward to this.


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: AUTHORITY by Jeff VanderMeer

Authority is the second installment in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, after Annihilation and before Acceptance. Rather than clarifying the mysteries of the first novel, Authority only adds more: we get a new main character, more exposure to the mysterious (and dysfunctional) Southern Reach organization, and a bunch of freaky new imagery. I didn’t love everything about this book–in particular, I thought it was a little too inscrutable and dense–but I’m coming to believe that the Southern Reach trilogy is an experience more than it’s a story. In the same way a trip to an interesting place can be life-changing without being pleasant every minute, diving into Authority is vivid and unforgettable even when it’s also confusing and occasionally a slog. And if you can tolerate the leadenness (intriguingly leaden, mind you–it feels like a deliberate choice rather than a failure of craft), you’ll be rewarded with an absolutely electric ending that has me on tenterhooks till I can start Acceptance.

Spoiler note: If you haven’t read Annihilation yet and you care about spoilers, you should probably skip the body of this review. It’s difficult to talk about Authority without spoiling some details of Annihilation‘s ending.

You can read my full review below.


Authority Cover

Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

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  • publisher: FSG Originals (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: May 6, 2014
  • length: 352 pages

In Control’s dreams it is early morning, the sky deep blue with just a twinge of light. He is staring from a cliff down into an abyss, a bay, a cove. It always changes. He can see for miles into the still water. He can see ocean behemoths gliding there, like submarines or bell-shaped orchids or the wide hulls of ships, silent, ever moving, the size of them conveying such a sense of power that he can feel the havoc of their passage even from so far above.

–from Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

After Annihilation, you’ll likely notice immediately that something with Authority isn’t quite right. First, you were probably expecting Authority to be told from the perspective of the biologist, Annihilation‘s unforgettable central character whose alliance seemed to lie with the eerie natural world of Area X more than it did with her human companions: the surveyor, anthropologist, and psychologist.

Next, if you remember key plot details, you might be surprised that Authority re-introduces us to the surveyor and anthropologist at all, seeing as both died memorable, horrible deaths in Annihilation. But here they are in the first chapter of Authority, in a lineup right next to the biologist. Our new narrator, Control, is taking stock of them.

Most of all, you will be perturbed for the same reason Control is perturbed: despite the miraculous resurrection of the surveyor and anthropologist (a resurrection Control doesn’t even realize has occurred) and return of the biologist, the psychologist is still missing. Control is supposed to figure out why–and to get to the bottom of the deeper mysteries of Area X.

Despite his moniker, Control is never in control. Right away he’s established as a troubled man with an ocean of fear, anger, and resentment right under his surface. He’s following in the footsteps of his mother, a talented government agent. She’s the one who got him the director’s job at the Southern Reach, the job recently vacated by the psychologist. All is not well at the Southern Reach. In fact, the top-secret government organization is crumbling and demoralized, and Control’s staff is incompetent, hostile, and…not quite right, to put it lightly.

Then there is the biologist, the only returnee from the twelfth expedition who seems to remember it. Control quickly becomes fascinated. Their fates intertwine, as you suspect they will from the start.

In my review of Annihilation last July, I described it as a novel that works on many levels: woman-versus-wild, a deep meditation on selfhood and grief, and an inversion of the traditional sci-fi idea that humanity must be protected at all costs. Area X threatens to catastrophically disrupt humanity, and in the view of the biologist, that outcome doesn’t seem so bad.

Authority has a narrower focus than Annihilation, and it’s a good-bad thing. The diary conceit is dropped for a more traditional first-person narration. Control is less intriguingly cold and alienating than the biologist, though every bit as weird and idiosyncratic. And rather than being set in the wide-open wilderness of Area X, Authority takes place mostly at Control’s workplace, the Southern Reach.

Where Annihilation felt a little like Star Trek, an expedition boldly going somewhere (although not quite where no one had gone before), Authority is more like Alien, a claustrophobic haunted house of a workplace drama.

I both missed Annihilation‘s open ends and was grateful for a firmer place to land.

Jeff VanderMeer is enormously skilled, and one of his most interesting qualities as a writer (at least in this and Annihilation) is the way he plays with density and opacity of narrative. Large sections of Authority felt like banging my head against a wall. I was confused and frustrated and there seemed to be no end in sight.

And yet…it was good? Yeah. It was good. It added to the experience of reading in ways I’m struggling to put my finger on. Of course Area X and the Southern Reach are confusing! That’s the point. For the sake of the new territory VanderMeer is forging here, I’m willing to be confused.

In manipulating the ways the reader can absorb information, VanderMeer keeps us in the same foggy state of mind as the biologist or Control, meaning that as revelations are slowly doled out, they hit us with full force. (The ending in particular feels like a sudden, gorgeous parting of clouds.) We are never one step ahead of the characters; we’re right along with them, or even a little behind. Even though we know (or think we know) what happened to the biologist on the twelfth expedition, we can’t make the wider connections any better than Control can.

Or…maybe I’m overreading all of this. It could just be that I don’t jive with VanderMeer’s style, even though I appreciate the skill and craft behind it. Either way, I always felt that VanderMeer was fully empowered here, making choices about how to tell his story instead of being overwhelmed by it. You’ll either like it or you won’t, but you’ll know you’re in expert hands.

I’m so, so curious about what answers will ultimately lie in Acceptance. Either it’s going to be the mother of all payoffs, or it’s going to disappoint me, given the immense mental energy I’ve already invested in Annihilation and Authority. 

I would be remiss in finishing this review before I talked about Authority‘s character development, which is terrific. Despite the fuzziness of the plot, each character in the novel–from the protagonists to the periphery–was crystal clear and real. VanderMeer effortlessly commits to diverse characters, both in the sense of having characters from many different racial and ethnic backgrounds, genders, disability statuses, and sexual orientations, and in the sense of having characters with a variety of personalities.

In particular, Control was a fascinating character to spend time with. I loved his vulnerability mixed with bravado, his alternating anxiety and numbness, and I particularly loved the tension between the softer, more artistic side of his personality encouraged by his father and the harder, more militaristic side encouraged by his mother. VanderMeer writes about how it feels to grow up as a child of divorce better than maybe anyone else I’ve read. And a character twist we get late in the novel throws Control’s intense guilt over his status as a nepotism hire at the Southern Reach into sharp and fascinating relief.

Authority ultimately feels like anything but authority. It’s chaotic and overwhelming and frightening. That tension between name and reality is what makes Authority a true novel for the 21st century, a kind of Rorschach blot for anxieties about war, government malevolence and ineptitude, and climate change. Love it or hate it, you won’t leave feeling like it has nothing to say. ★★★★☆

Books you might also enjoy:


I purchased my own copy of Authority and was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 4.19.19

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.

Happy start to Passover, and a little later this weekend, happy Easter! Spring also tends to feel like a holiday all its own here in the Twin Cities. It’s been a long, frigid, snowy winter and I’m ready for warm weather. (Although I’m sure I’ll be decrying the hot sun and steam and sweat shortly. Give it a month.)

I’ve also been taking an unfortunate, unintentional holiday of sorts from reading lately. I just don’t have the headspace or energy to read. In addition to my health problems earlier this year, I’m also in the process of moving, which brings a ton of stress and headaches (the literal noise-and-paint-smell kind) with it. It’s going to be so nice once we’re finished, but holy smokes, I’m tired.

So while I’ve only read 9 books so far this year (ugh), I’ve predictably continued the book buying and acquiring apace, like any book lover worth their salt. Let’s dive in to this week’s titles! There are some serious good’uns here that I’m hoping will snap me out of my slump.


Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Alif the Unseen Coverthe premise: From Goodreads:

“In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker shields his clients—dissidents, outlaws, Islamists, and other watched groups—from surveillance and tries to stay out of trouble. He goes by Alif—the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, and a convenient handle to hide behind. The aristocratic woman Alif loves has jilted him for a prince chosen by her parents, and his computer has just been breached by the state’s electronic security force, putting his clients and his own neck on the line. Then it turns out his lover’s new fiancé is the “Hand of God,” as they call the head of state security, and his henchmen come after Alif, driving him underground. 

When Alif discovers The Thousand and One Days, the secret book of the jinn, which both he and the Hand suspect may unleash a new level of information technology, the stakes are raised and Alif must struggle for life or death, aided by forces seen and unseen.”

why I’m excited: It’s hard to pick just a few things to write about here. I love the way it seems to blend the real world and fantasy, I love YA stories about hacker teens rebelling against authoritarian governments (as cliché as it may be), and it’s awfully nice to see YA dystopi-fantasy (it’s a thing, right?) set outside a white and culturally Christian lens. The Middle Eastern futurist cover design is also quite lovely to behold. This looks like it will be a fun adventure.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

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The Paying Guests Coverthe premise: In the aftermath of World War I, London is in upheaval, and so is the household of widow Mrs. Wray and her spinster daughter Frances. Impoverished in their villa that was once full of servants and the men of the family, they are forced to take in lodgers, a modern couple n amed Lilian and Leonard Barber. Then “passions mount and frustration gathers” (from Goodreads)…and, it’s a Sarah Waters novel, so…yeah. Hell yeah!

why I’m excited: It’s a Sarah Waters novel! If you’re a bi, pan, or lesbian woman, ’nuff said. (If you’re not familiar with her work, she writes thrillingly plotted historical novels about women who love–and have hot sex with–other women.) My wife and I love her work (we bonded over it back in our baby lesbian days!), so I was happy to snap this one up when it was on sale for Kindle recently.

If you’re not sold yet, USA Today called it “volcanically sexy.” Nice.

Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Here and Now and Then Coverthe premise: Kin Stewart seems like an ordinary man on the surface. He works in IT and lives in suburban San Francisco with his wife and daughter. But secretly he’s a time-traveling secret agent who got stranded in 1990s San Francisco from 2142 by mistake. He’s happy where he is and tells no one about his past, until his future rescue team shows up way too late to save him, but definitely on time to ruin his new family. Kin needs to fight against his own failing memory and his former bosses in order to protect his daughter, Miranda, from a future in which she never existed.

why I’m excited: This sounds like a sweet, simple read (despite all the time traveling) about family and love and memory. Its genre blending sounds super cool and I’m always a sucker for two-families stories (Kin apparently left one family back in 2142). I don’t have much else to say about this one except that it looks nice and is getting great reviews. What more do you need?

Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore

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Wild Beauty Coverthe premise: From Goodreads:

“For nearly a century, the Nomeolvides women have tended the grounds of La Pradera, the lush estate gardens that enchant guests from around the world. They’ve also hidden a tragic legacy: if they fall in love too deeply, their lovers vanish. But then, after generations of vanishings, a strange boy appears in the gardens.

The boy is a mystery to Estrella, the Nomeolvides girl who finds him, and to her family, but he’s even more a mystery to himself; he knows nothing more about who he is or where he came from than his first name. As Estrella tries to help Fel piece together his unknown past, La Pradera leads them to secrets as dangerous as they are magical in this stunning exploration of love, loss, and family.”

why I’m excited: This just sounds so lovely. It reminds me a little of Nova Ren Suma’s A Room Away from the Wolveswhich I read and was moved by so deeply I couldn’t even bring myself to review it. This also reminds me a little bit of the themes of memory and family in the movie Coco. (The name Nomeolvides translates to “don’t forget me.”) Stories about bonds between women, tragic love, and unreliable memory are total catnip for me. I can’t wait to lose an afternoon to this one.


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 COLLECTED SCHIZOPHRENIAS by Esmé Weijun Wang

The Collected Schizophrenias is an essay collection so essential that I’m pained that it didn’t exist fifty years ago, or thirty, or ten. Thank goodness we have it now. Chronicling Esmé Weijun Wang’s years of living with bipolar-type schizoaffective disorder (along with other compounding chronic and mystery illnesses like Lyme disease), its essays go far deeper than abnormal psych 101s. Wang instead weaves in more open-ended themes of liminal space, the boundaries of science and belief, and what it means to be permanently sick. The keenness and heart of The Collected Schizophrenias reminds me of the very best of Joan Didion.

If you live with mental illness, especially one of “the schizophrenias,” you need to read this book. If a loved one lives with schizophrenia, you need to read this book. And if you just plain love terrific nonfiction writing, you need to read this book.

You can read my full review below.


The Collected Schizophrenias Cover

The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays by Esmé Weijun Wang

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  • publisher: Graywolf Press
  • publication date: February 5, 2019
  • length: 224 pages

In these investigations of why and how, I am hoping to uncover an origin story. Pan Gu the giant slept in an egg-shaped cloud; once released, he formed the world with his blood, bones, and flesh. God said, “Let there be light.” Ymir was fed by a cow who came from ice. Because How did this come to be? is another way of asking, Why did this happen?, which is another way of asking, What do I do now? But what on earth do I do now?

–from the essay “Diagnosis” in The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang

I knew I would love The Collected Schizophrenias the second I held it in my hands. It’s a sturdy paperback, perfect bound, with a cover design like a particularly lovely composition book. I knew I would love it because that is the kind of notebook they allow you to have in a psych ward–that or a legal pad, which is what I wrote on during my own stay. If you’re a writer in a psych ward, you know that such a notebook is an escape.

What’s inside The Collected Schizophrenias also feels like an escape from the overly simple and the simply overwrought. Esmé Weijun Wang establishes a distinct style from the first page, which begins, simply, “Schizophrenia terrifies.” It does. The escape velocity from that mind-numbing terror–similar to the escape velocity required from mere bland sympathy–is one part clarity, one part mystery, one part wild love for oneself, others, and the world. Wang nails the combo. This book does not put its author-subject on display the way so many mental illness memoirs and biographies do, as if this were a zoo or a classroom. She gently but firmly commands a more personal kind of attention.

In the essay “Perdition Days,” Wang documents weeks spent in the Cotard delusion, when she believed she was dead. In “Reality, On-Screen,” she writes about how watching the movie Lucy during a psychotic episode warped reality, and how watching Catching Fire after the episode restored it, fragilely. In “The Slender Man, the Nothing, and Me,” she compares her obsession with The NeverEnding Story’s The Nothing with the Creepypasta Wiki’s The Slender Man, who inspired two Wisconsin girls to stab a third.

In all three of those essays, Wang, a novelist as well as a nonfiction author, refers to needing to remove herself from fiction for her own safety when she’s psychotic. It’s a detail that moved me and perturbed me. I had never even considered it as a thing that someone might need to do. And that’s only one of many quiet but earth-shaking details in the The Collected Schizophrenias.

For each personal revelation here, there’s just as much research and reporting, on everything from the Americans with Disabilities Act to California’s dreaded 5150s to the story of Nellie Bly, the American journalist who went undercover to expose the terrible conditions in 19th century psych wards.

“The schizophrenias” of the title refers specifically to the kaleidoscope of diagnoses that make up psychotic disorders: schizophrenia, nonspecific psychoses, and schizoaffective disorder, a blend of schizophrenia and a mood disorder like bipolar or depression. Wang has that last schizophrenia: schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type.

Less specifically, “the schizophrenias” seems to be a way of talking about a life lived in, as Wang writes in “Perdition Days,” percentages. Percentages of sane. Percentages of psychosis. Schizophrenias.

Schizophrenia may onset in your late teens, twenties, thirties, long after your life is already on its course. I’ve thought about that endlessly. My bipolar I disorder crested and changed my life when I was 17. I was psychotic too, and when I started treatment they thought I might have schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type, just as Wang does. I have now lived for years without psychosis. The schizophrenias seem to have been ruled out–for now. But I have always wondered if they might make up a second wave of my mental illness; now that I’m 24, they could be just around the corner.

After reading The Collected Schizophrenias, the thought of that potential new wave no longer feels frightening or crushingly sad to me. Wang gave me a picture of how my life–any life–might go on with schizophrenia; the way she writes about how her “physical” illnesses like chronic Lyme intertwine with her mental health only strengthens this picture of going on. The Collected Schizophrenias offers a new framework on how to be sick and whole–perhaps wholly sick–without losing your self underneath.

There are 13 essays in the book, and the only way you might know they were essays rather than chapters of a single memoir is that certain biographical information is occasionally repeated: Wang’s diagnosis (schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type), her acceptance to Yale, her work in a psychological research lab. Somehow this works to make the book more cohesive, not less; it feels faceted, and each time this information was repeated I felt a different way about it. The narrative is remarkably tight, even when it veers far from chronology.

Every essay in The Collected Schizophrenias reminded me of Joan Didion. Maybe that’s because I’ve been working my way through The White Album for the past two months. Maybe it’s because, like Didion, Wang has strong ties to California, and California permeates this book.

But I think most of all it’s because both Didion and Wang tell stories using decisive, crystallizing, anchoring words even when those stories are about the times they felt most anchorless. Wang’s prose here is lilting and light, punctuated just enough by sharpness and dark. Didion’s, too. They blend the detail and rigor of reporters with the wide-ranging questions and openness of artists. Neither writer is ever just one thing. They are full notebooks. Perfect bound. How lucky we are to have their words to escape into.

The Collected Schizophrenias is everything I want creative nonfiction to be: sharp and soft in all the right places, conveying things that dates and numbers and statistics cannot. What a stunning book. I found it life-changing. ★★★★★

Books you might also enjoy:

  • The White Album by Joan Didion
  • Just Kids by Patti Smith
  • The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn Saks

I purchased my own copy of The Collected Schizophrenias and was in no way compensated for this review.

The thing about selling a whole mess of books to Half Price is…

adult book book store bookcase
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

…you come home with even more books. Woe. (If you’re unfamiliar with Half Price, it’s a used bookstore chain where you can sell your used books for cash or credit…and I always take the store credit.)

This time I bought cookbooks–including a badass sushi cookbook and Essentials of Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan–a paperback copy of Difficult Women by Roxane Gay, and an intriguing big fat hardcover book about the history and sociology of “the other woman” over the centuries. That last one seems like it’ll make great fiction fodder.

The problem with this is, of course, that I am currently in the process of moving. Not sure if this is common knowledge (/s), but books are HEAVY and I was supposed to be moving less of them, not more! Oh well. *hair flip*

Those of you with a Half Price in your backyard know how it is, I’m sure. What’s your favorite section? Mine is definitely the sociology/anthropology/social justice/cultural studies section (whew, a mouthful!), where I found the book about “the other woman,” because I am a nerd about that stuff. Cookbooks and literary fiction are close seconds. Obviously.

Learn from my mistakes. Go sit in your car while they tally up the offer. Wandering around Half Price Books unsupervised is dangerous.

My favorite (fictional) cults

man holding the hand of woman going downstairs
Photo by Artem Bali on Pexels.com

There’s a great piece over at LitHub today by Katherine Cusumano that asks an interesting question: “Why are so many fictional teens entering cults?” They list a bunch of novels on my already-read and TBR lists as examples of the trend, including The Girls by Emma Cline, The Ash Family by Molly Dektar, The Shades by Evgenia Citkowitz, and The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon.

I’m such a fan of the cult novel (er, novel-about-cult?) trend that for awhile I listed it specifically as something I was looking for on my Netgalley profile.

Part of that is personal: while I didn’t grow up in a cult, I did grow up homeschooled in rural Minnesota, and several of the homeschooled families my family crossed paths with were in actual cults and communes. My family definitely had some cult-like conspiracy theory beliefs, too, like sovereign citizenship and anti-vaxx, and we bounced between conservative Christian-adjacent spirituality and Wicca for most of my teens.

Reading novels about cults is a way for me to process my complicated feelings about the way I grew up. I don’t think I’m alone in that–in fact, I wonder if we’re seeing a new rise in cults and conspiracies like what famously occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, because as I’ve gotten older and met more people, I’ve learned that the isolated, fearful way I grew up is far from unique among other 20-somethings.

But cult novels get at something more universal, too, as Cusumano breaks down:

Cults, and the forces at play within them, are not new—but their presence in these books reflects a desire to engage with an increasingly polarized sociopolitical landscape. These stories hold a disquieting mirror up to gendered discrimination, and violence, that exists in other arenas, and they put pressure on the ways in which the most extreme cultish tendencies—the absolute faith in a singular leader, the subjugation of women, the stoking fear of alternate perspectives—exist well beyond cults themselves.

–Katherine Cusumano, “Why Are There So Many Fictional Teens Entering Cults?

All fiction is a funhouse mirror compared to reality. Reality, after all, doesn’t care much about catharsis or narrative (although we may may find personal catharsis and narrative in hindsight). Cults are the funhouse-iest funhouse mirrors of all. Personal and political dynamics are turned topsy turvy (or helter skelter), giving authors a bigger, messier, more symbolically-laden sandbox to play in.

I love cult novels, and I’m guessing many of you do, too. That’s why I’ve assembled a list of some of my favorites below:

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

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9780802125873One of my most-recommended books on this blog (and the first one I ever reviewed), History of Wolves follows teenage Linda, who grows up in the remains of a commune in northern Minnesota with two adults she’s not even sure are her parents. She soon becomes entangled with her new neighbors across the lake, stirring up intense questions about faith, family, and what kind of love and care we owe one another.

History of Wolves is especially interesting to me because it blends different kinds of cults (and explores the line at which a cult becomes a religion–more about that when I talk about The 19th Wife.) Linda’s family’s failed commune-cum-cult is contrasted with their neighbors’ Christian Science beliefs. This book inspired me to read Caroline Fraser’s excellent nonfiction book about Christian Science, God’s Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church. Fraser grew up in Christian Science and is now intensely critical of the church’s policy towards medical care for children (namely, that they shouldn’t receive any Western medicine, only prayer healing).

This book’s out-of-sequence storytelling and bitter, idiosyncratic tone (it bounces between Linda’s unhappy childhood and maybe-even-more-unhappy adulthood) won’t be for everyone, but History of Wolves is one of my favorite books about how isolation and indoctrination affects children and teens.

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

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The 19th Wife Cover.jpgI’ve read The 19th Wife several times. Each time I’ve given away my copy afterwards, convinced I’ll never come back to it–it’s a dense, ambitious novel that can be a bit of a slog at times–but over and over again it’s pulled me back. The 19th Wife takes its title from Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife of Mormon leader Brigham Young. It’s both a historical novel about Ann Eliza and the early days of Mormonism and a modern day murder mystery about a fictional fundamentalist spinoff of Mormonism that never got rid of its polygamous practices.

Even more so than History of Wolves, The 19th Wife is about the blurred lines between cults and religions. From the description, you might expect it to be a hit piece on Mormonism, but it’s not–there are modern Mormon characters who reflect the ways Mormon beliefs have grown and changed in the 21st century. It’s much more about the harm charismatic leaders can do to their true believers, and about the ways sexism and homophobia can poison faith.

The 19th Wife is interesting from a writer’s craft perspective, too. The sheer volume of fictional and partially fictional historical documents that Ebershoff created for this book is astounding. (There’s a long author’s note at the end where he teases out some of the fact from the fiction.) I think the character development is a little flat and the plot a little too thick, but The 19th Wife, to me, is everything a good cult book should be: namely, as much about our fascination with cults, and the way normal life reflects cult life, as about the fictional cult itself.

Runaway by Alice Munro

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Runaway CoverThis one feels a little like cheating, since Runaway is a short story collection and only one story deals explicitly with cults. Runaway contains a trio of linked short stories about a woman named Juliet, who starts as a teacher on a cross-country train trip and ends as a woman torn apart by her daughter’s decision to cut her out of her life. Her daughter joins a cult for reasons Juliet cannot (or chooses not to) understand. Juliet blames the cult for their estrangement, but the more complicated truth creeps in around the edges of the story.

The reason I think the Juliet stories in Runaway are such a great addition to cult fiction (fiction-about-cults?) is that it’s one of the few I can think of that stays entirely on the outside of cults. There’s a quick peek in as Juliet tries to track down her daughter, but she’s kept firmly (blandly) on the outside.

It’s also one of the few stories about cults that I’ve read that doesn’t tangle with the belief/religion threads at all. It’s about the ways cults can be legitimate tools to leave painful memories behind, and about how hard it is to acknowledge that when we hurt people, they have the right to leave us behind.

We are all on the outside of something, or someone. Cults just make it visible, like cold air or a mirror makes the vapor of our breath suddenly appear.


What are your thoughts on the rise of fiction-about-cults? What favorite titles of yours should I be checking out? As always, leave ’em in the comments!

Book Review: WHITE DANCING ELEPHANTS by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

I love short story collections, but they’re devilishly tricky to review. Luckily, Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s debut collection, White Dancing Elephants, makes it easy for me: every single story is a knockout, cohering into a whole even greater than the sum of each part. Spanning continents, centuries, societies, religions, languages, genders, and sexualities, White Dancing Elephants offers up a profoundly moving series of observations about what it means to be alive (and sometimes dead), in some of the most beautiful prose I’ve read lately. Fans of the short stories of Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, and Jhumpa Lahiri won’t want to miss this one, though this collection is far from a mere imitation of those authors: with White Dancing Elephants, Bhuvaneswar forges terrific new ground all her own.

You can read my full review below.


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White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

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  • publisher: Dzanc Books
  • publication date: October 9, 2018
  • length: 208 pages

Two years ago, when I went back to Agra, India, at the age of twenty-two, to visit my grandparents and let two of my uncles set up my marriage, my ex-girlfriend Lauren, whom I work with now on a daily basis, came after me, hoping to stop me from giving in.

–from the story “Adristakama,” in White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

I always forget how much scaffolding goes into making a good story until I read–or attempt to write–a short story. A novel (or even a novella) has so much room for curtains and cover-ups, words that smooth over worldbuilding and stakes in order to keep us fully immersed in the fiction. A short story does not.

Authors of short stories must hit a bullseye every time in order to be successful: they need to choose a premise that’s exactly the right size for the story, peopled by the right number of characters, made meaningful by the right array of metaphors and themes and big reveals. One wrong move and the spell is broken.

Assembling a collection is even harder. The stories must not only work well on their own, but add meaning to each other. They must be unified into something that’s more than just a collection of pretty items in a shoebox–something more like a thoughtful exhibit at a museum, something you’d remember for a long time.

I was reminded of all these difficulties because White Dancing Elephants makes it look absolutely effortless. It’s a high wire act that its author, physician and writer Chaya Bhuvaneswar, might as well be performing at ground level for all it seems to test her.

It’s hard to say what, exactly, unifies the stories of White Dancing Elephants, except that they are unified. The titular story (also the first one in the collection) follows a woman struggling with a miscarriage. It’s trippy and surreal, but not self-consciously so, a watercolor-y portrait of pain and dreaming.

From there the collection opens up into a riot of color, idea, sound, humor, violence, ache. “Talinda” is vicious and tender by turns, chronicling a toxic friendship poisoned by cancer, an affair, and overwhelming, terribly attentive cruelty. “A Shaker Chair,” my least favorite story in the collection (but still a damn interesting one) is also about two women determined to hurt each other, but this time it’s a black biracial therapist and her Indian client. It probes at the ways abuse, prejudice, and sex intertwine, especially at how Asian anti-Blackness and Black xenophobia work in frustrating tandem, neither sin of mistrust cancelling out the other.

My favorite story comes near the midpoint and is also, I believe, the shortest. “Neela: Bhopal, 1984” explores the “world’s worst industrial disaster” (the 1984 chemical leak at the Union Carbide pesticide plant) in language that’s far from the clinical and numerical, the way it’s mainly written about in the U.S. today. A girl goes outside to play and does not come home. Bhuvaneswar handles the material with great tenderness and sharpness both, managing to avoid a simple environmentalist morality play in favor of something more spiritual, piercing, and indicting.

I can’t decide if Bhuvaneswar’s style is deceptively simple or simply deceptive: she’s a master of storytelling sleights-of-hand, focusing your attention on the details so that the full emotional weight of each story sneaks up on you right at the end, without feeling like a cheap “gotcha.” I don’t think I’ve ever read a book so full of revelations.

She also writes with incredible specificity, name-dropping brand names and place names and disorders and configurations of queerness. This would feel less interesting if the stories were obviously autobiographical, but they’re not: in addition to “Neela: Bhopal, 1984,” there’s “Heitor,” a story about a Portuguese slave, and “Jagatishwaran,” about an artist living with schizophrenia in an Indian city wandering between a brothel and his fraught family home.

You can feel how precious each story is to Bhuvaneswar, and because their subject matter is so diverse, the effect is one of intense empathy. Perhaps this is what unifies White Dancing Elephants so well: an intense love and attention paid to the margins, wherever they may be.

It also helps that White Dancing Elephants goes out on such a high note. The final story, “Adristakama,” about a star-crossed lesbian couple fighting culture clash, but even more than the culture clash, fighting the fear of loving and being loved freely that I think we all hold inside, is so beautiful I could do nothing but read it again once I finished.

Lastly, if you’re tired of the way American publishing houses market the work of South Asian writers–flowery language, emphasis on spices, lots of images of tea and henna and lotuses and such–you’ll find a lot to love in Bhuvaneswar’s sly commentary about writing and publishing.

In “The Bang Bang,” a father speaks Sanskrit at an open mic and then gives up his family in exchange for literary recognition (and no small amount of tokenism); it’s a darkly funny and sharp critique of publishing as well as being a powerful story about family. Other stories also draw from this well: one’s about a writer on a retreat who’s processing her unsatisfying marriage (“Chronicle of a Marriage, Foretold”; it’s also an element in “Talinda.”

I haven’t even scratched the surface of the stories in this book, nor what they meant to me. How could I? I adored this book. It’s going on my shelf right next to Runaway by Alice Munro, another favorite short story collection marked by its empathy, its vision, its deep sadness.

Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a writer of tremendous power, skill, and gift; her work is visionary and experimental without sacrificing readability. (I tore through each story, barely pausing for breath.) White Dancing Elephants is simply dazzling. ★★★★★

Standout stories: “Jagatishwaran,” “The Bang Bang,” “Neela: Bhopal, 1984,” “Adristakama”

Content warning: White Dancing Elephants contains a graphic rape scene in the story “Orange Popsicles” (highlight to read). It is also substantially about infertility, abuse (including towards disabled people), and bigotry in ways that may be triggering. Read with caution if you have those triggers.

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I received a copy of White Dancing Elephants from the author in exchange for an honest review. I received no other compensation and opinions are entirely my own.