After years of debilitating mental illness and insecurity, manga author and illustrator Nagata Kabi had never had sex or her first kiss. Desperate for connection, she makes an appointment at a lesbian escort agency…and the result is this book, a very funny, frank, and moving manga about exactly what it sounds like: her lesbian experience with loneliness.
This is a lightning-fast read (I finished in a short sitting) that will stick with you. I wish the ending had been a little less abrupt–we don’t get a good look at what comes after Nagata’s titular “experience,” which would have made the arc more satisfying to me–but that’s a minor quibble with a fantastic book.
You can read my full review below. Please note that this book has vivid descriptions of what it’s like to live with mental illness (including eating disorders), so if that’s a trigger for you, please read this review and this book with caution.
My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness by Nagata Kabi (translated by Jocelyne Allen)
publisher: Seven Seas Entertainment (distributed by Macmillan)
U.S. publication date: 2017
length: 152 pages
Here I am, twenty-eight years old. I’ve never dated anyone, never had sex–and on top of that, never had a real job. It’s June 2015, the middle of the day. And I’m face to face with a woman from a lesbian escort agency.
–from My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness by Nagata Kabi
I first noticed My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness when it appeared in NPR’s 2017 book concierge. I don’t read much manga (I don’t read many American graphic novels and comics either), so I set the recommendation aside. But after finally making the time for it, I can state definitively that–even if you don’t like manga–if you like heartfelt and funny stories about queerness and/or mental illness, you’ll love this.
The manga starts right in the middle of its faux-lurid inciting incident: the author in bed at a love hotel with a lesbian escort. But Nagata Kabi quickly turns the sexy image on its head by zooming in on her trichotillomania-induced bald spot, her cutting scars, and extreme nerves.
She’s not a pornographic idea of a lesbian, or even the less-fetishized but still idealized version of a lesbian that typically appears in media. She’s awkward and messy and very, very real. This isn’t surprising on its own terms, since Nagata is telling her own true story, not writing fiction. But it is surprising given how little cultural room lesbians (and other queer women) are given to be anything less than stunningly beautiful and perfect.
It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with images of sexy queer women or power femmes or badass butches. (My love of Charlize Theron’s character in Atomic Blonde is proof!) Straight people have loads of idealized standards around sex to live up to, too.
But because there are so few representations of lesbians to begin with, this kind of offbeat and specific (rather than archetypal) representation is especially important.
My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness is packed with jokes (including plenty of the visual gags manga is known for), but there’s a strong undercurrent of sadness in all of them. Nagata has dealt with debilitating mental illness since leaving high school, and her experiences not being able to get a “real” job and feeling like a disappointment to her family were so relatable it hurt.
As much as My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness is about, well, lesbian experience, it’s just as much about disability. And this disabled lesbian appreciated that very much.
Like I said at the top of this review, I don’t read much manga, so it’s hard to place this in the context of genre conventions around length and arc. So, those of you who do read manga, please be gentle with me if I’m missing the point here. But my one complaint about this book is the abruptness with which it ends.
But if you’re looking for a standalone read, or you also didn’t know about the sequels, the final scenes of this warm, big-hearted manga might leave you a little bit cold.
I gave this to my wife to read as soon as I was finished with it because I couldn’t wait to talk about it. Not only did we both find it immensely fun and entertaining, it also sparked a great conversation between us about love and loneliness and mental health and identity. I hope it sparked those same conversations for others as well.
In its vulnerability, My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness is powerful.
I want more stories like this one–starting with Nagata’s My Solo Exchange Diary sequels. ★★★★☆
I purchased my own copy of My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness and was in no way compensated for this review.
I publish book reviews every Tuesday and Thursday.
In the 1950s, David Nowak, a neurotic Polish American heir to a piano fortune, marries Jia-Hui Chen, a young woman from Taiwan with nerves of steel, and moves with her to remote northern California. Their relationship is volatile, but its legacy for their children will be much worse. The Border of Paradise is an astonishing historical novel that’s unlike anything I’ve read before, in the best possible way. If you love creepy thrillers like The Vegetarian by Han Kang or intimate portraits of trauma like History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund–or if, like me, you love both of those things–then this novel is a must-read. I deeply enjoyed The Collected Schizophrenias, Esmé Weijun Wang’s nonfiction essay collection, earlier this year. I’m pleased to say I like her fiction just as much.
Content note: Suicide and self harm are central to The Border of Paradise. If those things are triggers for you, then you should consider carefully before reading the rest of this review (or the book itself).
I’ve never known a man who has taken his own life, and so I’ve never read a suicide letter, seeing as how the final words of such uncelebrated and self-condemned souls are so privately guarded. Still, I can’t help but think such letters all must be the same, because what else can be said but, over and over again, Sorry, sorry, I am so sorry, in the way that someone newly smitten can only say I love you, I love you, I love you…
–from The Border of Paradise by Esmé Weijun Wang
In The Border of Paradise, Esmé Weijun Wang writes in long paragraphs that still feel light and airy, like a dense pastry that fluffs up in the oven. That’s a good thing, because the subject matter of this novel is almost unbearably heavy.
David Nowak, a teenage boy in 1940s-1950s New York, is a brilliant student and heir to a piano factory and accompanying fortune, but he can’t stop strange new neuroses from creeping in. He becomes unable to select clothes and dress himself. When he looks in the mirror, his body is impossibly distorted. He becomes hysterically attached to stuffed animals.
He knows something is wrong, but not what. The word schizophrenia is, to my memory, never used in The Border of Paradise, but we the readers can fill in the blanks.
David’s instability culminates in him being forcibly separated from his childhood sweetheart, Marianne, by her father, who is sneeringly cruel about David’s condition. Heartbroken, David cashes out the family fortune and leaves for Taiwan, where he marries a young woman named Jia-Hui, whom he renames Daisy.
Everyone warns Jia-Hui against David’s moods and volatility, but Jia-Hui has instabilities of her own–ones that have horrifying consequences for the couple’s two children.
I wouldn’t call The Border of Paradise horror, but it is horrifying. There is ample gore, disturbing sex, and piercing descriptions of what it’s like to live with untreated mental illness.
Of course, in the time period in which The Border of Paradise is set, there wasn’t really such a thing as treated mental illness. Wang uses this historical setting in unusual ways. Instead of yoking the story to real world historical events or intricate period detail, she focuses on internal, insular experiences instead.
In one word, The Border of Paradise is about isolation: the absolute isolation of being an immigrant woman of color, or a mentally ill person, or an abused child in the 1950s-1970s, when there was little awareness of these issues in the general public and no internet communities to turn to, either.
This novel is emotionally dense and deeply introspective, but it’s also extremely readable. It’s peppered with plot bombshells, dramatic and cinematic without straining belief. (I do wonder if Wang is trying to say something about the nature of delusion and hallucination here–how real life really can be stranger than the fictions our own brains can tell us.)
I raced to get to the end, using it as motivation to hop on the treadmill at the end of each day, knowing it would absorb me enough to make my workout fly by.
Specific and intense, The Border of Paradise is like a fever dream if your feverish brain were a top notch novelist. This novel is a gift. ★★★★★
Alana Massey’s funny, sharp, and just-the-right-amount-of-sentimental essay collection, subtitled Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen to Be Famous, is a banger. The celebrity subjects of the essays are diverse, from Britney Spears to the fictional Lisbon sisters of The Virgin Suicides to Lil’ Kim and Nicki Minaj. Massey intersperses the histories and cultural impacts of her subjects with episodes of her own life, including grimly dancing to Nine Inch Nails’s “Closer” in a strip club and a sad summer spent reading Joan Didion aloud to a distant boyfriend. It’s a book that’s intimate and expansive all at once, as well-cited and academic as a conference presentation yet as real life and relatable as a slumber party spent spilling your deepest secrets.
I adored this book. You can read my full review below.
All the Lives I Want: Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen to Be Famous Strangers by Alana Massey
publisher: Grand Central Publishing (an imprint of Hachette)
publication date: hardcover in 2017, paperback in 2018
length: 256 pages
“Bitches be crazy” has become modern shorthand for “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” This line itself is a paraphrase of “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned/ Nor Hell a fury, like a woman scorned.” Like its predecessors, it is a statement that seemed to be reclaimed ironically by women at almost the exact moment that it entered the vernacular as a way to disparage them. This line is repeated more often by a sage and mercenary woman, both in fiction and in reality, than it is by a man trying to insult one. It is a wink, an exaggerated shrug of the shoulders that women communicate preemptively, a shield against the accusation that their behavior is inherently irrational compared to that of men. The sentiment is ancient, of course.
–from “Long-Game Bitches: On Princess Di, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, and the Fine Art of Crazy Exing” in All the Lives I Want by Alana Massey
I find essay collections to be the most personal sort of book to read and the hardest to review. Even the ones I don’t ultimately enjoy–even the ones I find boring! –stir up something powerful in me, reflecting back my most intense shames and desires. It’s hard to slap a star rating on that.
Luckily, it’s easier when the essay collection in question is as good as this one. Five stars is an easier distinction than choosing two, or three, or four. Perhaps it’s funny to notice that relief in myself while reviewing a book that so eloquently navigates mysterious and unmeasurable cultural places.
The essays of All the Lives I Want are surprisingly cohesive given the breadth of the subject matter. Massey’s topics bounce from A-list celebrities like Scarlett Johansson and Gwyneth Paltrow to slightly more niche choices (for a book published in the late 2010s, at least) like Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen and Anjelica Huston.
And some of my favorite essays of the collection aren’t about traditional celebrities at all: the title essay, “All the Lives I Want,” is about Sylvia Plath and her legion of young women fans on Tumblr and in tattoo parlors across the country. “Broken-Bodied Little Girls: On the Horror of Little Girls Grown” is about the grotesque young girls of horror movies like Poltergeist. And “Our Sisters Shall Inherit the Sky” reimagines the Lisbon sisters from The Virgin Suicides as the true subjects and protagonists of their own story rather than as the objects of young men’s imagination.
Massey writes about race and class in a much more refreshing way than most white women culture writers, finding new angles to talk about power and privilege without the constant “I know I’m privileged, but–” path that many take.
“Run the World: Amber Rose in the Great Stripper Imaginary” avoids many of the gross oversimplifications and stereotypes of white women writing about black strippers (likely because Massey has been an on-again, off-again stripper herself). “There Can Be Only One: On Lil’ Kim, Nicki Minaj, and the Art of Manufactured Beef” is one of the best pieces on the subject of beefs that I’ve read, especially in the way it calls out white celebrities like Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus for simultaneously stealing from black icons like Lil’ Kim and Minaj and attempting to humiliate them.
Most of all, I loved the accessibility of All the Lives I Want. To me, creating accessible prose is not about the length of your sentences or the simplicity of the words you choose but rather about the common ground you make with your audience. Massey is a sort of citizen scientist of celebrity, passionate and humble and endlessly curious. Her writing is barbed without being condescending; frank without being crass.
These essays are short, smart dollops of joy and bittersweetness. I’m sure there’s an argument to be made for lengthening the essays and diving deeper into each topic; however, if that had happened, I think something vital and energetic would have been lost. On the rare occasions I noticed myself getting bored or lost, bam: the next essay was already beginning and pulling me in deeper.
I’ve long followed Alana Massey on Twitter. I find her particular blend of sly humor and genuine emotion (and shameless thirst traps) endlessly appealing. If you enjoy her Twitter presence as much as I do, you should know it’s only intensified here.
This is a terrific book about celebrity, girlhood, pleasure, and pain. You must read it. ★★★★★
In Review posts are a chance for me to catch my breath, note that I am actually making progress towards my reading goals, and give each month’s blog posts a little extra love.
August was a month full of good books and not quite enough time to read them! Or blog about them, even. I added much, much more to my TBR than I finished, and didn’t even manage to review everything I read. (I read but didn’t cover The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks. I enjoyed very much, even though it was absolutely bananas and very very violent.)
Will I catch up on that backlog in September? Absolutely not, but it’s a nice thought!
And with that, here’s what I read, reviewed, and added to my bookshelf this month.
cover description: the outline of a scraggly tree is burnt into a woodgrain background.
cover description: An illustration of some kind of tree or vines growing out of two broken halves of a body. The background is orange.
cover description: An illustration of rows and rows of similar houses with different colored roofs separated by solid dark blue bars.
cover description: A mustard yellow background has a cutout in the shape of a hand that features a nature illustration of a pink flower and a yellow bird.
cover description: The cover is bright green and cream. It has an abstract marbled pattern.
cover description: A three-quarters view of the bottom half of a woman’s face behind a matrix of tiny dots.
cover description: A bright yellow cover with stylized illustrations of a red fish, a boat, a passport, an envelope, a needle and thread, a knife, nail polish, pins, a molotov cocktail, and a flower with heavy dark seeds or stamens.
cover description: A black and white photo of half of a Chinese woman’s face. It’s a photograph of the author, Chuang Hua.
cover description: A hot pink cover with creepy white font and a cartoon white skull and crossbones that has a red bow perched jauntily on its head like the cartoon character Hello Kitty.
cover description: A banner reading “James Patterson Presents” stretches across the top. It’s a colorful illustration of a girl with golden eyes whose rainbow hair is full of sparks.
cover description: A bright red cover. A pale disembodied arm reaches out to stroke the head of a tiger.
cover description: A colorful illustration of a forest with lots of trees and a crescent moon overhead.
cover description: A tiny figure at the center of the cover is throwing a tear gas canister. Red smoke from the canister makes a spiral, turning the person at the center into a target. The background is stark white.
Rutting Season is a collection of nine stories that are as earthy, animal, and at times brutal as the title would imply. My favorite stories included “Mercy,” about a widow keeping vigil over her favorite horse after her carelessness puts the horse’s life in danger, and “The Someday Cat,” about a mother who begins selling her children for cash, and the toddler daughter who fears that she’s next to be sold. Mandeliene Smith writes ferociously and vulnerably; this is short fiction, not personal writing, and yet each story is imbued with personal, vital urgency. I didn’t always love this collection while I was reading it–I think Smith writes awkwardly about race, and I think the quality of the stories included here varies–but now that I’m a few days removed from it, I admire Smith’s style and choice of subjects more and more. This book is brave.
You can read my full review of Rutting Season below.
publisher: Scribner (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
publication date: February 12, 2019
length: 240 pages
Randall wasn’t their father, or even their stepfather, and they couldn’t have given a rat’s ass about his problems with the police or anyone else, but it just so happened that Danny and Amber were both at the house when the SUV from the sheriff’s office drove up, and by the time they realized there was going to be trouble, Randall had already bolted the door and taken out a gun.
–from “Siege” in Rutting Season by Mandeliene Smith
Do you ever catch yourself being way too hard on something or someone, just because it (or they) remind you too much of yourself? I cannot tell a lie: I was initially going to eviscerate this book, because at times, it irritated me like an insult.
Rutting Season is Mandeliene Smith’s debut short story collection, and in it, she explores raw pain with obsessive intensity. Much of it is pain that’s incredibly familiar to me: abusive homes, the messy and literally visceral experience of living on a farm, mental illness, violence.
Because it felt so familiar, Rutting Season cut me to the bone, and it scrambled my ability to comprehend or evaluate it. I think my conclusion is that it’s mostly an excellent book. But I hope you’ll forgive me if this review takes a roundabout path to that destination.
First, the things about Rutting Season that genuinely grated me, that I wasn’t necessarily oversensitized to:
The way Smith writes about race, especially her physical descriptions of Black characters,
And I think that advice applies very much to Rutting Season, where Smith is making clear choices to write outside what she knows.
Unfortunately, I think some of those choices undercut her otherwise interesting Black characters. In my least favorite story of the collection, “What It Takes,” Black high school students menace white high school students, including the white protagonist, a teenage pot dealer. I think the point of the story is that the white students’ perception is wrong–that what they perceive as “menace” is justifiable racial tension. But it’s so close to the line that I think you could read it either way. Subtle fiction is important, but I get nervous when white people write about race so subtly that it becomes a game of Schrödinger’s racism.
In a later story that I otherwise loved very much, “The Someday Cat,” a Black character is literally described as “chocolate.” Which, almost more than it is annoyingly fetishizing and racist, is simply a tired description of dark skin.
But for that story, too, there’s a Racism Loophole™: it’s told from the perspective of a white toddler whom we already know loves chocolate and who probably has never seen a Black person in her life, who might genuinely describe a Black person as “chocolate.” Schrödinger’s racism.
The third story that is significantly about race, “You the Animal,” is the most successful at being about race, I think. Where “The Someday Cat” is told from the perspective of a neglected toddler being removed from her home by two Black social workers, “You the Animal” is the same story told from the perspective of one of the social workers. It’s an interesting exploration of what happens when people who were abused as children encounter abuse as adults, and while I didn’t think it was the strongest in the collection, it was still thought-provoking.
The unevenness question is so closely tied to the race question that I think it’s hard to separate them. When Smith is writing about white people–as in “Mercy,” where a new widow struggles to hold her farm together in the face of her own exhaustion and grief, as in the title story “Rutting Season,” where a potential act of workplace violence is dissected from three angles, as in “Siege,” when three siblings separated by their mother’s death come together during a terrifying threat of gun violence–the collection is extraordinary. When she’s not, the stories falter a bit.
But extraordinary is still a word I’m comfortable applying to much of Rutting Season.
What moved me most about Smith’s writing is its vulnerability, almost fragility, underneath a hard, ferocious surface. It’s a literary crème brûlée. She makes messy, risky choices and sticks to her guns. (Perhaps a poor choice of words given how much this book condemns gun violence.)
I was struck by how reminiscent the first story, “Mercy,” is of Alice Munro. Like so many Munro stories, “Mercy” is domestic and terrible all at once. It’s at its Munro-iest when its protagonist, Pam, hesitates for a split second before calling the vet for her sick horse because the vet constantly patronizes her and she doesn’t want to deal with it. You’re frustrated with her and understand her deeply all at once.
But Rutting Season is not knockoff Munro. Smith demonstrates that most in “The Someday Cat,” which felt wholly unique in its execution. A story about a woman who literally begins selling her children in order to appease her terrible boyfriend and afford groceries could easily tip into a melodramatic pantomime of extreme abuse and poverty rather than feel like something real that crackles with electric terror. But it does crackle. I had a white knuckle grip on my copy of the book while I read. It reminded me so vividly of some of the things I saw growing up in a desperately poor area that I had to take a breather after finishing.
Rutting Season feels a little like staring at the sun. The premises of Smith’s stories are so bright and ambitious that it’s hard to get a handle on why they work (or even if they work). But there’s no denying their power.
It feels strange to write this about a literary short story collection rather than a horror novel, but it feels right anyway: only read Rutting Season if you dare. ★★★★☆
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.
I’ve felt pretty out of it this month. I was sick for most of last week, but even if I hadn’t been, I suspect I would still feel groggy. August seems to do that to everyone. I’m sad that summer is winding down, but I’m already looking forward to cooler September reading weather. Are you? (If you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, I’m sure the prospect of spring sounds pretty nice, as well.)
This week I’ve got a fiery YA fantasy novel, a quirky short story collection, a novel about the 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square, and a novel about an ecologically anxious commune experiment gone wrong in my bookbag. I’m hoping they’ll snap me out of my summer slump. Let’s dive in!
“Each year, eight beautiful girls are chosen as Paper Girls to serve the king. It’s the highest honor they could hope for…and the most demeaning. This year, there’s a ninth. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire.
In this richly developed fantasy, Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most persecuted class of people in Ikhara. She lives in a remote village with her father, where the decade-old trauma of watching her mother snatched by royal guards for an unknown fate still haunts her. Now, the guards are back and this time it’s Lei they’re after — the girl with the golden eyes whose rumored beauty has piqued the king’s interest.
Over weeks of training in the opulent but oppressive palace, Lei and eight other girls learns the skills and charm that befit a king’s consort. There, she does the unthinkable — she falls in love. Her forbidden romance becomes enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens her world’s entire way of life. Lei, still the wide-eyed country girl at heart, must decide how far she’s willing to go for justice and revenge.”
why I’m excited: The “James Patterson presents” label is kind of a turn-off for me–I’m not really a fan of the guy’s business practices or work. However, this story looks incredible in every way. It reminds me of a more grown-up version of The Princess Academy by Shannon Hale with a dash of Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon. I guess I’m impressed that Patterson seems to be using his considerable influence to lift up authors of color, especially for a book that I’ve heard has a queer romance, too. I can’t wait to read this. (Also, that cover is G-O-R-G-E-O-U-S.)
“Death Is Not an Option is a bold, dazzling debut collection about girls and women in a world where sexuality and self-delusion collide. In these stories, a teacher obsesses over a student who comes to class with scratch marks on his face; a Catholic girl graduating high school finds a warped kind of redemption in her school’s contrived class rituals; and a woman looking to rent a house is sucked into a strangely inappropriate correspondence with one of the landlords. These are just a few of the powerful plotlines in Suzanne Rivecca’s gorgeously wrought collection. From a college student who adopts a false hippie persona to find love, to a young memoirist who bumps up against a sexually obsessed fan, the characters in these fiercely original tales grapple with what it means to be honest with themselves and the world.”
The City Always Wins is a novel from the front line of a revolution. Deeply enmeshed in the 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square, Mariam and Khalil move through Cairo’s surging streets and roiling political underground, their lives burning with purpose, their city alive in open revolt, the world watching, listening, as they chart a course into an unknown future. They are―they believe―fighting a new kind of revolution; they are players in a new epic in the making.
From the communal highs of night battles against the police to the solitary lows of postrevolutionary exile, Omar Robert Hamilton’s bold debut cuts to the psychological heart of one the key chapters in the twenty-first century. Arrestingly visual, intensely lyrical, uncompromisingly political, and brutal in its poetry, The City Always Wins is a novel not just about Egypt’s revolution, but about a global generation that tried to change the world.
why I’m excited: This book’s title made it jump off the shelf for me. It’s pessimistic but hopeful, too, which is about how I feel about the Arab Spring in general and the Egyptian revolution in particular. This is outside the wheelhouse of what I normally read, but it sounds terrific. I can’t wait to read it.
Certain that society is on the verge of economic and environmental collapse, five disillusioned twenty-somethings make a bold decision: They gather in upstate New York to transform an abandoned farm, once the site of a turn-of-the-century socialist commune, into an idyllic self-sustaining compound called the Homestead.
Louisa spearheads the project, as her wealthy family owns the plot of land. Beau is the second to commit; as mysterious and sexy as he is charismatic, he torments Louisa with his nightly disappearances and his other relationships. Chloe, a dreamy musician, is naturally able to attract anyone to her–which inevitably results in conflict. Jack, the most sensible and cerebral of the group, is the only one with any practical farm experience. Mack, the last to join, believes it’s her calling to write their story–but she is not the most objective narrator, and inevitably complicates their increasingly tangled narrative. Initially exhilarated by restoring the rustic dwellings, planting a garden, and learning the secrets of fermentation, the group is soon divided by slights, intense romantic and sexual relationships, jealousies, and suspicions. And as winter settles in, their experiment begins to feel not only misguided, but deeply isolating and dangerous.
The Body Myth is an ambitious novel that’s full of all sorts of ingredients I like: explorations of health, sickness, loss, love, queerness, non-monogamous and nontraditional relationships, and prickly women. About a disaffected schoolteacher in a fictional city in India whose chance encounter with a young couple in a park leads to an intense, life-altering triad, The Body Myth is drenched in existentialism and Sufism. (The narrator, Mira, is obsessed with Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Foucault, all noticeable influences on Rheea Mukherjee’s writing style.) It ties Western and Eastern philosophies together in intriguing ways, but unfortunately, the end result is too shaggy and oblique for me to recommend it wholeheartedly. I admired this book more than I enjoyed it–but I did admire it very, very much, and I’ll be keeping tabs on Mukherjee’s future work, as well as checking out her previous short story collection, Transit for Beginners.
You can read my full review of The Body Myth below.
The woman was sitting on a park bench in West Point Gardens, where I came every Sunday for a five-kilometer walk. She couldn’t see me, but I had stopped mid-stride to stare at her. I looked at her for three reasons:
(1) her face was twisted in contemplation;
(2) she was wearing a beige kurta with a transparent golden dupatta; and
(3) she was fucking gorgeous.
–from The Body Myth by Rheea Mukherjee
I went through a Jean-Paul Sartre phase. Like The Body Myth’s adrift and grieving narrator, Mira, it happened as a way to cope with one of the most difficult times in my life, when my mental health was in freefall and it was an effort just to stay alive. I read Sartre in a philosophy class and held on for dear life. Existentialism saved my life then, and in a less intense way, it still appeals to me now.
For that reason and many others, I was easily transported to the world of The Body Myth, Rheea Mukherjee’s first novel, which is deeply existentialist fiction in the tradition of Sartre’s own Nausea. It felt a little like visiting an old friend.
Mira is a widowed schoolteacher just going through the motions when she meets young, attractive couple Sara and Rahil in a local park. She witnesses Sara having a seizure–was it a seizure or a performance? We’re left to question that almost immediately–and Rahil rushing to comfort her. The chance encounter blooms into an intense friendship between them and Mira, and very quickly a romantic and sexual love triangle, as well.
Sara is plagued by mysterious illnesses: cramps, arthritis, mouth ulcers, fevers, fatigue, and, of course, seizures. Rahil takes careful care of her. It quickly becomes obvious that Mira has stumbled into a heady, codependent ritual of needing and being needed that has less to do with illness than it does with love and marriage. It’s a ritual that Mira’s presence disturbs forever.
The Body Myth is fascinating. Mukherjee writes like no one else I’ve ever read, accomplishing much more than just updating Sartre for the 21st century. This novel is earthy, frank, surprising, and full of flashes of brilliant, beautiful insight that make me want to sit down and have coffee with Mukherjee someday.
The Body Myth’s ideas about the ways being sick feeds into our universal need to feel loved and cared for particularly interested me. As I’ve written many times on this blog before, I’m chronically ill in ways that have felt very mysterious at times; I was a little nervous to read a novel that so baldly implies that its chronically ill character isn’t “really” sick, but thankfully, Mukherjee takes the premise in a more abstract, thought-provoking direction than merely, she’s faking it.
Perhaps “abstract” is the key descriptor for The Body Myth. I could go on for hours about all the philosophical threads Mukherjee ravels and tugs at–the way she connects Sufism and existentialism was truly moving and mind-blowing to me–but I was less enthused about this novel as fiction than I was about this novel as a big repository of ideas.
In that way, it reminded me of Sorry to Bother You, also a big-repository-of-ideas piece of fiction that was striking and memorable but that I ultimately kind of loathed as a movie. I didn’t come anywhere close to loathing The Body Myth, but its plot machinations felt clunky in the same way as Sorry to Bother You‘s, especially towards the end.
I want a plot to feel like more than just something to hang beautiful prose upon, even in literary fiction, and unfortunately, The Body Myth never quite clears that bar. Its ending especially goes off the rails.
But I still enjoyed it, and I’m still glad I read it. I think a good barometer for whether or not you’ll get something out of The Body Myth is whether or not you enjoy a little navel-gazing in the style of late-night dorm room conversations about the meaning of life, man (but with a women’s studies twist). I love those conversations, even when they get a little ridiculous, and so I was happy to indulge Mukherjee here.
I didn’t love The Body Myth, but I doubt I’ll forget it. This is a unique and startling novel. ★★★☆☆
This is a poet’s memoir, both literally and stylistically. Knock Wood is Jennifer Militello’s first book of not-poetry, after three critically acclaimed and award-winning poetry collections. It begins with Militello reflecting on a “knock on wood” that was, unluckily, actually a knock on a surface that wasn’t wood. From there, the memoir blooms out into everything she believes was touched by that ill luck knock, from an uncle’s death three years before to a crumbling marriage to an arrest for theft to an aunt’s suicide attempt and mental illness.
Knock Wood is full of revelatory, quotable gorgeousness, and it’s surprisingly easy to read given its time-warping experimental format. (The lightning-fast 144-page length helps, too.) I enjoyed it very much, with one significant reservation: Militello consistently treats disability and fatness as grotesque. I still recommend this book, but I want to arm readers with that knowledge going in so that they’re not so unpleasantly caught off guard by it as I was.
I don’t want to remember. Memory is the bush in the yard that we keep cutting down as it keeps growing back. I don’t know what species it is. It is the kind that has berries you can’t eat. Bird berries, my mother used to call them. Red and round and smooth. Now I tell my daughter, don’t eat them. They’ll make you sick.
–from Knock Wood by Jennifer Militello*
Knock Wood asks you to take a leap of faith. Its opening scene, in which Jennifer Militello describes an ill-fated knock on wood on an airplane to London in 2016, is extremely idiosyncratic, almost a parody of the mannerisms of creative nonfiction. Militello recounts reading “a Murakami novel about an uncle with cancer,”* knocking on wood (which turns out to be plastic or metal, something not-wood), and then suddenly realizing that this unlucky knock caused the death of her uncle three years before.
It’s a leap, and for a couple of pages, I held my breath, wondering if I was going to be stuck reading something painfully strained and false for the duration of this memoir, Militello’s first book of prose after three books of poetry.
Luckily, I wasn’t stuck: in fact, I was gripped before the first chapter had even ended, when a description of a hide being tanned sent deep shivers down my spine.
It’s not a chronological or even fully comprehensible memoir. It’s a deeply intuitive experience, like literally show me a healthy person by Darcie Wilder or, to a lesser extent, much of Annie Dillard’s work. Knock Wood is a memoir held together by déjà vu.
It reminded me of the way that a particular formation of clouds transports me back to summer camp every time I see it. I don’t have a distinct memory of seeing those clouds while I was actually at camp; I have no idea why the link is so strong, but it is. Militello moved me from memory to disparate memory in the same way: it didn’t make sense if I stopped to think about it, but it definitely felt right.
Militello spends a lot of time with the monstrous and chilling, the pulsing and bleeding, the ghostly and the all-too-embodied. This is mostly a good and interesting thing, but it leads me to my one, very serious criticism of Knock Wood: Militello’s dehumanizing treatment of disabled and fat bodies.
Much of this memoir revolves around Militello’s aunt Kathy, who was a model until severe mental illness struck. Over and over, Militello equates Kathy’s illness with ugliness and repulsiveness. Kathy is at first described as an elegant, slim, suicidal woman in a houndstooth coat. After treatment and medication, she becomes a breathless fat monster in tacky clothes one size (or more) too small.
There are plenty of ways to write about physical transformation that aren’t nearly so judgmental and cruel. Not only is this lazy writing, it’s a lazy reflection of a widespread belief that I find infinitely more monstrous than mental illness or fatness could ever be: that it is better to die beautiful than live to become undesirable.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder seven years ago, and it very nearly killed me. I refused to take my medication, because antipsychotic drugs (along with many other types of medication for mental illness) cause weight gain, and I refused–refused–to be fat, for fear I would become exactly the kind of object of pity and scorn that Militello paints here.
Eventually I did take my meds. Eventually I did become fat. I wore clothes that were too small. I have a double chin. I sweat easily. The hair on my face grows in oddly. And yet my life is still worth living! Imagine that.
That Militello leans so much on the same tired, insulting tropes of the grotesque in a memoir that is otherwise so gorgeous, humble, and insightful feels like a slap in the face.
This book was well worth reading, and Militello is a tremendously gifted nonfiction writer. Her words will be reverberating with me for some time. But some of the words she invokes are powerful for all the wrong reasons. ★★★★☆
Knock Wood hits stores and your favorite online retailers tomorrow, August 13th.
* Please note that all quotes in this review come from an ARC, which is an uncorrected proof. Quotes may appear differently in the final version.
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 was all libraries, all the time for me this week. I’ve got six great library finds I’m really excited about, and apparently I’m on a short story kick, since short story collections made up over half of my haul. I’ve also got two very different Chinese American novels, one a modernist classic from the 1960s and the other a more recent wicked satire about a model young Chinese American woman who just might be a serial killer. Let’s dive in!
“In these lucid, sharply observant stories, Mandeliene Smith traces the lives of people in moments of crisis. In “What it Takes,” a teenage girl navigates race and class as the school’s pot dealer. “The Someday Cat” follows a small girl terrified of being given away by her neglectful mother. “Three Views of a Pond” is a meditation on the healing that time brings for a college student considering suicide. And in “Animals,” a child wrestles with the contradictions inherent in her family’s relationship with the farm animals they both care for and kill.
In barnyards, office buildings, and dilapidated houses, Smith’s characters fight for happiness and survival, and the choices they make reveal the power of instinct to save or destroy. Whether she’s writing about wives struggling with love, teenage girls resisting authority, or men and women reeling from loss, Smith illuminates her characters with pointed, gorgeous language and searing insight. Rutting Season is an unforgettable, unmissable collection from an exciting new voice in fiction.”
why I’m excited: Like I said in my preamble to this week’s post, I’m really digging short story collections right now. (Carrianne Leung’s collection That Time I Loved You,a previous Friday Bookbag entry, inspired me. I’m really loving that one.) And as much as I love sci-fi and magical short stories, I have a real soft spot for realistic ones like these. Rutting Season is a provocative title for what I hope is a thought-provoking book.
Mars: Stories by Asja Bakić (translated by Jennifer Zoble)
“Mars showcases a series of twisted universes where every character is tasked with making sense of their strange reality. One woman will be freed from purgatory once she writes the perfect book; another abides in a world devoid of physical contact. With wry prose and skewed humor, this debut collection from the Balkans explores twenty-first-century promises of knowledge, freedom, and power.”
why I’m excited: I like works in translation and I’m not sure that I’ve ever read one from the Balkans region. (This short story collection was originally published in 2015 in Croatia before being translated by Jennifer Zoble and published here by Feminist Press in 2019.) That description is tantalizingly short, but the stories it does tease sound fascinating. It was blurbed by Jeff VanderMeer, an author I really enjoy and admire. And on top of all that, this book is really short–only 144 pages. I’m looking forward to it!
“The End of Youth is a collection of 13 linked stories, essays and rants, about carrying on after youth’s hope is gone. In “Afraid of the Dark,” a child learns that there is good reason to be afraid. The adolescent narrator of “Description of a Struggle” finds that love can be brutal. “The Smokers” -examines an adult’s realization that longevity means seeing loved ones die. Written with the same spare and vivid beauty as her earlier award-winning works, The End of Youth is certain to win even wider acclaim.”
why I’m excited: This is another itty-bitty-tiny small press book, even shorter than Mars at only 123 pages. It’s from 2003 and I think it might even be out of print, but it looked so much like my thing that I couldn’t leave it on the library shelf. It’s yet another short story collection (and from what I can read online, I think it might blend in some personal essays, too). It looks great, and I don’t think it’ll even take me as much as an afternoon to devour it.
Foreign Soil and Other Stories by Maxine Beneba Clarke
“In this collection of acclaimed stories, the reader is transported around the globe and back. In “David,” two women from Sudan randomly meet in the streets of Melbourne. The younger one feels like she’s being judged by the older woman, a refugee from the Sudanese civil war, for discarding the ways of her country, until she realizes the woman is more interested in her bicycle–a powerful symbol of all that she’s left behind in her native country. Harlem Jones, in the eponymous story, takes an index finger and “carefully wipes specks of London grime” from his light gray Adidas stripes before he joins a crowd of angry rioters protesting police brutality, simultaneously swatting away the feeling–and the resulting anger–that he just might be the next casualty of the authorities.
In the tradition of storytellers Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Marlon James, and Helen Oyeyemi, this urgent, poetic, and essential work announces the arrival of a fresh and talented voice in international fiction.”
why I’m excited: The final short story collection in my haul, this is another international title (though unlike Mars, it was originally written in English). Maxine Beneba Clarke lives in Melbourne, Australia. I like the authors she’s compared to in that description and most of all I like the quote that opens the book (I peeked into the inside and saw it):
“Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard-of things with it.” –Chinua Achebe.
I’ll be delighted to read those unheard-of things.
“Crossings, Chuang Hua’s erotic semi-autobiographical novel, is widely recognized as the first modernist novel to address the Asian American experience. It’s deeply imagistic prose, as haunting as the dreamlike visions of Jane Bowles, centers around the character of Fourth Jane, the fourth of seven children of a Chinese immigrant family, who becomes caught in an intense love affair with a married Parisian journalist. Jane’s intimate encounters with her lover are collaged with recollections of her family, her homeland, and her constant migrations between four continents. What emerges is a deeply stirring story of one woman’s chronological, geographical, and emotional crossings. Spare, lyrical, Taoist in form and elusiveness, visually cinematic, tender and sensual, Chuang Hua’s powerful novel endures as a moving and original work of American literature.”
“On the outside, twenty-eight-year-old Fiona Yu appears to be just another Hello Kitty–an educated, well-mannered Asian-American woman. Secretly, she feels torn between the traditional Chinese values of her family and the social mores of being an American girl.
To escape the burden of carrying her family’s honor, Fiona decides to take her own virginity. In the process, she makes a surprising discovery that reunites her with a long-lost friend, Sean Killroy. Sean introduces her to a dark world of excitement, danger, cunning and cruelty, pushing her to the limits of her own morality. But Fiona’s father throws her new life into disarray when he dupes her into an overnight trip which results in a hasty engagement to Don Koo, the spoiled son of a wealthy chef. Determined to thwart her parents’ plan to marry her off into Asian suburbia, Fiona seeks her freedom at any price. How far will she go to bury the Hello Kitty stereotype forever? Fiona’s journey of self-discovery is biting and clever as she embraces her true nature and creates her own version of the American Dream, eliminating–without fear or remorse–anyone who stands in her way.”
why I’m excited: This sounds vaguely like American Psycho meets Crazy Rich Asians, which will either be amazing or just a little too weird for me. I love the cover and title and I’m curious just how wild this satire is going to get! I look forward to reporting back to all of you.
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!
In ten linked stories that function almost as a novel, Carrianne Leung writes with a simple directness that belies the depth and power of her themes. That Time I Loved You is entirely set in one suburban neighborhood in Scarborough, Canada. It has a recurring cast of characters, but its central character is a Chinese Canadian middle schooler, June. June is the narrator of three stories and appears as a watchful presence in the rest. The action kicks off with a series of suicides of parents in the neighborhood, which send the surviving adults (and especially their kids) into a tizzy of fear and gossip.
Suburbia is a common setting for literary fiction, but Leung really makes it something special here. Her writing reminded me of Celeste Ng’s, another writer who understands that suburbs are more complex–in race, class, gender, sexual, and family dynamics–than your stereotypical snooty WASPs and manicured lawns. At times I wished she had been a little more ambitious with her straight-ahead prose, but overall, I thought this quiet, lovely collection was well worth my time.
publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation (an imprint of W. W. Norton & Company)
publication date: February 26, 2019
length: 224 pages
1979: This was the year the parents in my neighborhood began killing themselves. I was eleven years old and in Grade 6. Elsewhere in the world, big things were happening. McDonald’s introduced the Happy Meal, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran and Michael Jackson released his album Off the Wall. But none of that was as significant to me as the suicides.
–from “Grass” in That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung
I recently tried to re-read The Virgin Suicides, a novel I read and failed to understand or connect with when I was about 14. Unfortunately I found it just as opaque and slippery the second time around, and set it aside without finishing.
That Time I Loved You, Carrianne Leung’s first short story collection, is worth comparing to The Virgin Suicides in more ways than one. First, it’s about a series of suicides; second, it’s about 1970s-1980s suburbia and how hard it is to grow up. But where Jeffrey Eugenides took a highly stylized, metaphorical approach to those themes–too stylized and too metaphorical, in my opinion–Leung’s style is so direct and realistic it almost reads like memoir. (Leung did in fact grow up in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, where That Time I Loved You is set.)
Like Ng, Leung intimately understands suburbs, not as narrative devices or places to be derided by people who live in the city, but as real places. Her characters are not icy, repressed blondes; they’re a far more diverse group of mainly immigrants: Chinese, Jamaican, Portuguese, Italian. The sex these people have doesn’t feel like a defilement of the American Dream (not least because they’re Canadian); it feels like the sex that real people have. The growing up that June and her friends must do doesn’t happen in some single cathartic moment that’s a statement about the loss of innocence; instead, it happens in a series of tiny, dizzying forward shifts, the way growing up actually felt for me (and, I imagine, the way it felt for most people).
Leung’s suburbia, in other words, resembles the majority of suburbs in which my family and friends have lived. It’s set in 1979 and the very early 1980s, but it felt especially representative of what suburbs look like today, after gentrification and the reverse white flight that has pushed marginalized people back out to the suburbs.
That Time I Loved You‘s suicides feel equally real. They’re the catalyst for the book, but they’re also surprisingly quiet and small. In fact, the most notable thing about them is how un-notable they become to the surviving neighbors. I was concerned that this book would be difficult for me to read given my own history of mental health problems, but luckily Leung treats the subject with great respect and compassion.
That Time I Loved You functions well as a short story collection, but its structure is just close enough to a novel that I’d still recommend it to people who don’t usually like short story collections. That it’s anchored by one memorable character, June, makes it much easier to follow than a typical collection. It’s roughly chronological and takes place all in the same location; events that happen in one story affect the others.
That That Time I Loved You is so realistic helps, too. As much as I like current trends in reality-blurring short fiction,it’s nice to take a break and read a book that doesn’t feature extended dream sequences, hallucinations, or other long jaunts away from the recognizable world.
But as much as I liked having straightforward stories, I did wish that Leung had ventured beyond straightforward prose. Leung is exceptionally talented at developing characters and plot, but her writing style is very simple–which on one hand was kind of a welcome rest for my brain (I’ve done a lot of reading for work and pleasure recently), and on the other left me somewhat unsatisfied, like a meal that tasted good but came in too small a portion. Oh well.
There wasn’t a single story here that I didn’t like, but my favorites were “Fences,” about an Italian American woman struggling to conceive a child with a husband she doesn’t really love, “Sweets,” about June’s grandmother who becomes a surprising ally to one of June’s genderqueer friends, and the final, titular story, “That Time I Loved You,” which is a tour de force culmination of all the stories that came before.
That Time I Loved You is light on its feet despite its serious subject matter, but it never feels insubstantial. It’s a great example of how diverse in form and style short story collections can be–and it’s welcome that its characters are so diverse, too. This book will stay with me. ★★★★☆