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.

Books you might also enjoy:


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.

The Handmaid’s Tale gets a graphic novel. What do you think?

I’m not sure how I missed this news when it was announced earlier, but it turns out Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale is getting a graphic novel adaptation. It hits shelves tomorrow and looks absolutely gorgeous: head over to io9 to see the exclusive images from behind this edition’s enigmatic cover.

Mild spoilers for the original novel below. I’m not spoiling the ending of Offred’s story, but I will be discussing details of the novel’s structure.

The Handmaid's Tale Graphic Novel Cover.jpeg

I am fascinated by adaptations of The Handmaid’s Tale because, in typical Margaret Atwood fashion, the original novel had such an unusual format. At the end of the novel, we discover that Offred had been telling her own story via cassette tape, and that we had been reading the “transcripts” of these tapes as collected by historians.

I’ve always thought that this detail is what made The Handmaid’s Tale so haunting. In the epilogue, the horrifying events we experienced through Offred’s eyes in Gilead are being dissected, sympathetically but distantly, by academics hundreds of years in the future, in a similar fashion to how many people discuss horrifying events like the Spanish Inquisition or the transatlantic slave trade today.

It’s also a detail that loses some of its magic as soon as we get visuals, whether that’s via a graphic novel or hit TV show. You can’t exactly transmit images via audio, so it’s hard to maintain the cassette tape conceit. That gives the story a myopic immediacy that I don’t love.

Despite that gripe, which I realize is pretty pedantic–I just love that original ending so much–I’m very interested in the graphic novel. I sometimes struggle to read graphic novels because my eyes just can’t seem to follow the panels correctly, but the panels previewed over at io9 seem crisp and deceptively simple in a way that I find really appealing.

The graphic novel’s art and adaptation are by Canadian artist Renée Nault, who chose not to watch Hulu’s TV adaptation in favor of forging her own visual style and version of the story. That also appeals to me, since I thought the TV show had some weird plot holes (its refusal to engage with racial inequality in a far right society like Gilead being the biggest one, I thought) and was definitely too violent for me to stomach onscreen.

My personal copy of The Handmaid’s Tale is a yellowed, battered, much-thumbed trade paperback that reflects my love of this seminal novel in one way: every read and re-read are inscribed on the pages through every dog-ear, taped-up tear, and tea stain.

It looks like the graphic novel is going to reflect my love in another, equally important way: it turns a beloved book into an art object, something to be not only read, but admired page by page.

I think I’ll be heading to the bookstore for a copy when it drops tomorrow, March 26.

What do you think of this graphic novel adaptation? Are you excited, or do you have reservations? What do you think of Renée Nault’s art style? (I think her work looks a little bit like the illustrations you see in children’s books and especially children’s Bibles, which I think is an intriguing choice for the material.)

You can order The Handmaid’s Tale graphic novel from the Penguin Random House website, which features handy links to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and other booksellers. You can also check it out over at Goodreads.

And don’t forget to check out io9’s exclusive look at the book, without which I would not have been able to write this post.

Friday Bookbag, 3.15.19

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.

This week I indulged in some Barnes & Noble wandering (looking for the print copy of The New Yorker that I appeared in!) and some e-book bargain hunting. I’ve been watching my spending closely over the past few months since I took so much time off of work, so I’d almost forgotten how nice it is to wander between bookstore shelves, consumed with the possibility of the damn good stories each title might hold. Lovely.

Before we dive in, I wanted to share that my heart goes out to New Zealand today and to the Muslim community around the world. I’m praying for healing, justice, and a strong rebuke of the white nationalist terror that is on the upswing online and globally. Here is a list of places you can donate to support victims of the attack and the wider Muslim community in New Zealand.

Here are the books I picked up this week:


My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

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My Sister the Serial Killer Coverthe premise: Korede is used to cleaning up after her serial killer sister, Ayoola. She keeps Ayoola’s secrets and tries to mind her own business; family comes first, after all. But when Ayoola begins to pursue a doctor whom Korede loves, putting his life at risk, Korede must choose which beloved to save.

why I’m excited: This book sounds absolutely bananas, like a grown-up and Nigerian version of Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves, a YA novel (one of my favorites!) about a set of supernatural serial killer sisters. I mean, this novel can only go spectacularly or horribly, right? And even if it goes horribly, it’s going to put on quite a show. Family, murder, love, secrets–it doesn’t get more deliciously soapy than that.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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The Bear and the Nightingale Coverthe premise: At the edge of the Russian wilderness, Vasilisa listens to her nurse’s fairy tales. Her favorite is the story of Frost, a blue-eyed winter demon who steals unwary souls. The village honors the spirits to protect themselves, until Vasilisa’s widowed father brings home a devout wife from Moscow, who’s determined to tame the village and her rebellious stepdaughter. Evil begins to stalk the village, and Vasilisa must call upon secret powers to protect her family from a supernatural threat.

why I’m excited: I live in a cold and sometimes frightening climate myself (for example: right now, in March, there are still knee-deep snowdrifts outside my front door!), so I have a soft spot for fantasy built around Russian folklore. This novel looks to have it all: evil spirits, evil stepmothers, dangerous protective gifts. Hell yeah. I can’t wait to curl up with a cup of hot chocolate to enjoy this one. (It’s the first in the Winternight trilogy.)

Serpent in the Heather by Kay Kenyon

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Serpent in the Heather Coverthe premise: From the back cover:

Summer, 1936. In England, an assassin is loose. Someone is killing young people who possess Talents. As terror overtakes Britain, Kim Tavistock, now officially employed by England’s Secret Intelligence Service, is sent on her first mission to the remote Sulcliffe Castle in Wales, to use her cover as a journalist to infiltrate a spiritualist cult that may have ties to the murders. Meanwhile, Kim’s father, trained spy Julian Tavistock, runs his own parallel investigation–and discovers the terrifying Nazi plot behind the serial killings…

why I’m excited: This is actually the second book in Kay Kenyon’s Dark Talents series, something I didn’t realize when I bought it. (It’s not written anywhere!) The fact that the publisher is so blasé about the novel’s place in the trilogy makes me hope it’ll work as a stand-alone, since this premise is just as bananas as My Sister, the Serial Killer and also features Nazis. Nazi serial killers! Checkmate, my wallet. I had to get it.

My wife is a hardcore WWII history buff and also a big fan of the Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger, so this is right up her alley. She’s the one who picked it off the shelf. We’ll be fighting over it, I’m sure.

Authority and Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

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Authority Coverthe premise: Authority and Acceptance are the sequels to Annihilation, which I reviewed some months ago. Together, they make up the Area X trilogy, about a lush, remote, ever-expanding land that’s deadly, full of mysteries, and seems to threaten human life as we know it. Yay! (The first book was adapted into a movie by Alex Garland, but the books definitely take things in a different direction.)

Acceptance Coverwhy I’m excited: I didn’t love everything about Annihilation, but damn, did it get under my skin. I think about it and talk about it all the time. If you love nature, if you’re worried about climate change, if you’re deeply concerned with what humans are doing to the planet, you have to read this trilogy. It’s about all of that anxiety without being too literal about it. From what I’ve heard, Authority and Acceptance don’t pick up where the first book left off: they go in entirely new and exciting directions. I can’t wait.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Book Review: THE HOT ONE by Carolyn Murnick

I’m still recovering from surgery, which means my reviewing and reading pace has gone way down while I relax and nap. (Lots of naps!) I’m in the mood to catch up with older releases I’ve missed over the past few years, and that’s why it feels like the perfect time to review The Hot One, a memoir that’s been near the top of my TBR list since it first came out in 2017.

The Hot One, dramatically subtitled A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder, is about the murder of writer and editor Carolyn Murnick’s childhood best friend, Ashley, who was the victim of a serial killer in the early 2000s. It’s also about the ways our adult selves diverge from our child and adolescent ones, and especially all the ways women are limited by one-dimensional definitions (for example, “the hot one” vs. “the smart one”).

The premise is powerful and The Hot One’s first third is excellent, but the book soon fizzles into what I found to be boring, confusing navel gazing. You can read my full review below.


The Hot One Cover

The Hot One: A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder by Carolyn Murnick

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  • publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • publication date: hardcover in 2017, paperback in 2018
  • length: 272 pages (paperback)

In the courtroom I had seen in a new way what it looks like when a life is cut off at twenty-two. All the messy baby fat of emotional immaturity still stuck on you for eternity, paraded out for everyone to see.

–from The Hot One by Carolyn Murnick

A woman’s murder is never just her murder: it’s a stage for social commentary and catharsis, too. Usually it’s men drawing the conclusions, but in the true crime memoir The Hot One, it’s the victim’s female friend, Carolyn Murnick. Murnick uses the murder of her childhood friend Ashley as a jumping off point for big ideas about friendship, men, women, girls, the criminal justice system (kind of), journalism, sex, sex work, drugs, and most of all, herself.

Doesn’t that sound like a lot? It is, at least for Murnick. Her intense emotion is palpable and her courage in writing about this experience is admirable. But on the page, The Hot One feels remarkably understuffed. It’s simultaneously airy and swampy, overly personal and too broadly political, very dry and also too messy.

The memoir does crackle along nicely in its first third, in which Murnick details her friendship with Ashley and its tragic end. Murnick and Ashley were not close at the time of Ashley’s murder, and this is the best part of the book, although it is of course the worst part for Murnick. She is angry at herself for abandoning Ashley; she is angry at Ashley for abandoning her; she is angry at the fact of the murder for destroying any chance at reconciliation. That’s compelling stuff.

Crucially, it’s compelling stuff that also has a linear narrative. Murnick and Ashley become inseparable; they drift apart; the murder happens. It’s an arc.

It’s when that arc transitions into Murnick’s solo journey to come to terms with the murder that The Hot One becomes a voyeuristic-feeling slog, like you’re overhearing a stranger’s rambling therapy session rather than reading words assembled for publication. It’s told out of order, but not very effectively. I don’t mind piecing things together for myself, but it would be nice if it felt like I had the whole puzzle rather than odd parts.

I have the utmost respect for what Murnick has been through, and I want to be clear that in no way do I think the actions or emotions she describes in The Hot One are unseemly or wrong. I just think that they’re her actions and emotions, deeply private and inaccessible to me, and that unfortunately, The Hot One gives me little reason or opportunity to get invested in them. When Murnick is writing about Ashley, her prose shines. When she’s writing about herself, it just thuds. Unfortunately, this book is mostly her writing about herself.

The Hot One hammers certain points home again and again: that Ashley did sex work, that she was hot and flirty and confident, that she was slut-shamed and a drug user and living a double life, and that her murder was left unsolved for years partially because of all those things. (It was assumed she was killed by a jilted lover or that she had gotten tangled up in drugs or trafficking.) These things are stated and restated so many times that I found myself just skimming over them whenever they reappeared.

But The Hot One then leaves other points desperately unclear. There are weird interludes in the book where Murnick visits with astrology-obsessed friends who talk about how serial killers are often thwarted water signs. She visits a guy who’d once gone on a date with Ashley, and almost ends up sleeping with him herself, until he reveals himself to be kind of a cad. She’s asked to testify after tons of writing about how she was afraid to testify…and then we get barely any details about that testimony or what it felt like.

It’s not that these events are “wrong” or “unbelievable.” Again, nothing about Murnick’s experiences could be wrong or unbelievable in this traumatic context. It’s that the way she transcribes them for readers is murky, and worse, boring. I went from loving the book in its first chapters to loathing it by its midpoint, simply because I couldn’t understand what was going on or why it was relevant.

I also think Murnick’s reaches for political relevance are clumsy, especially with the new afterword in the paperback addition, which tries to tie the memoir to the #MeToo movement and to Murnick’s pregnancy. Her points about the ways girls both are defined and define themselves with narrow concepts like “the hot one” or “the smart one” are spot on, because they’re based in her experience. Her points about, say, the male gaze are…less spot on, since they veer wildly between talking about men’s literal gaze and the feminist concept of the male gaze without clearly distinguishing the two. Lots of other feminist concepts get similarly bungled, and the courtroom and criminal justice sections are frustratingly thin.

Like Emma Cline did in her (fictional) book about murder, The Girls, Murnick seems determined to draw wide conclusions from one narrow experience when the narrow experience is actually more compelling on its own. And as in The Girls, Murnick writes about the experiences of upper/upper middle class white girls without really acknowledging that many other kinds of girls exist, with many other archetypes than just “the smart one” or “the hot one” working against them.

The Hot One is of course different from The Girls, because Murnick is writing about her own experience. Yet it’s almost worse, in a way, since The Hot One has plenty of room for interesting research that could have filled those gaps, whereas The Girls was confined to a tighter narrative structure.

Murnick has published several excellent essays about her experience, including one that’s a condensed excerpt from this book, which is what motivated me to buy my own copy. In short form, her points are salient and gripping. But spun out into a whole book, they fizzle. It’s terribly disappointing considering how much I adored that excerpt.

The Hot One is a promising new kind of true crime memoir: one that turns its voyeuristic gaze on its author and her baggage, rather than on all the gory, salacious details of the crime. I just wish it had actually delivered on that promise. ★★☆☆☆

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