Book Review: ALL THE LIVES I WANT by Alana Massey

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 Cover
cover description: The title “All the Lives I Want” is spelled out in red glitter against a stark white background.

All the Lives I Want: Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen to Be Famous Strangers by Alana Massey

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  • 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. ★★★★★

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I purchased my own copy of All the Lives I Want and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: DEAD GIRLS: ESSAYS ON SURVIVING AN AMERICAN OBSESSION by Alice Bolin

Laura Palmer. Lilly Kane. Harriet Vanger. “Amazing Amy” Dunne. We’re obsessed with dead girls and maybe-dead girls, both fictional and real. Alice Bolin’s essay collection, Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession, explores that premise through cultural criticism of true crime coverage, books, movies, and TV shows like Gone Girl, Twin Peaks, Veronica Mars, Joan Didion’s writings on the Manson murders, and more. There are also many essays about non-crime and crime fiction related topics.

Its title lets it down, since you’ll likely be disappointed if you go into this book expecting more “dead girl” content than it delivers. (That part makes up about a third of the book, with the more general essays making up the rest.) Alice Bolin is an excellent writer and I enjoyed the essays on their own merits, but as an essay collection, this book doesn’t hang together all that well.

You can read my full review below.


Dead Girls Cover

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

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  • publisher: William Morrow (an imprint of HarperCollins)
  • publication date: June 26, 2018
  • length: 288 pages

“I didn’t hate and fear all women,” Nick says defensively in Gone Girl. “I was a one-woman misogynist. If I despised only Amy, if I focused all my fury and rage and venom on the one woman who deserved it, that didn’t make me my father.” Aren’t they all one-woman misogynists?

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

My experience of reading Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession was a frustrating one. I signed onto this book expecting what it says right there on the tin: essays about the American (probably global?) obsession with “dead girls,” and what that means for the very-much-alive girls and women who live in a world full of that kind of laden, violent imagery.

The problem is that a good deal of this book isn’t about dead girls at all. It’s also full of more personal essays about Bolin’s experience in the American West, her move to L.A., her family, her experience navigating white womanhood, her favorite books, an incompatible boyfriend, and more.

These essays are beautifully written: poignant, sharp, elegant, neurotic in a self-aware and interesting way. They’re genuinely great! They just weren’t what I thought I was going to get, and because of that, the latter two-thirds of this book were a slog.

The first third had me jazzed. I zipped through it, highlighting what felt like every other paragraph. My favorite essay, “The Husband Did It,” is largely about Gone Girl and Gillian Flynn’s characterization of hapless, pathetic, misogynistic husband Nick Dunne, and it’s a straight banger: Bolin is witty, funny, and sharp as a tack, and here is where it shone the best. Gone Girl is one of my favorite books (I also love the movie adaptation), and it was a delight to see it through Bolin’s eyes.

But as soon as I hit the second third of the book, titled “Lost in Los Angeles,” all the zip left. Bolin turns her eye from more widely known cultural touchstones (True Detective, iconic true crime cases, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) towards more obscure texts, and she starts diving deeper into her own experiences. In particular, she writes seemingly endlessly about Joan Didion, and while I’m always up for reading about Joan Didion (truly!), it felt like a record scratch. I got why Didion’s work is important to Bolin–I just didn’t understand why that should be important to me.

Maybe I’m falling into the exact same trap Bolin is excoriating here–after all, I’m saying that I was far more interested in the “dead” part than the “surviving” part, which is exactly the problem with “dead girl” culture. And I do think Bolin is doing an interesting thing here: setting out a theory of dead girls and their effect on our culture, and then applying it to her own life.

But the flow is all wrong, and it bothered me tremendously. I don’t know if this discordance is Bolin’s “fault” (not the right word to use here, but the best fit I can think of) or her publisher’s. I know that it’s rare for authors to choose their titles. I know that editors have a say in organizing the order of a collection. They certainly have a say in how a book is marketed, and in setting readers’ expectations for what a book will be like, through everything from blurb choice to cover design.

And all the choices that the publisher made here left me feeling baited and switched.

The best fix I can think of would be to publish this as two books. Split the dead girl content from the more general content, add more essays to both to compensate, and then publish two collections whose promises line up with what they actually deliver.

Had I read each of these essays individually, I can practically guarantee I would have loved them unreservedly. Even the ones that I think work less well than the others are still very good. But as one book meant to be read altogether, Dead Girls falters. There’s just not enough connective tissue to keep you hooked from essay to essay.

Dead Girls is full of treasures, but they’re best enjoyed one by one instead of consecutively. Either read it in small doses or skip it–taken as a cohesive collection, I think this one’s a dud. ★★★☆☆

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I purchased my own copy of Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession and was in no way compensated for this review.