Book Review: TELL ME AGAIN HOW A CRUSH SHOULD FEEL by Sara Farizan

In this sweet, quippy young adult comedy, closeted teen lesbian Leila deals with an unexpected crush on her private high school’s newest student, Saskia. The crush upends Leila’s friend group and her relationships with her conservative-but-loving Persian American family, forcing her to choose between coming out as her girl-loving best self or staying quiet and isolated till graduation.

Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel isn’t just great because of the nuanced representation it offers queer teens, especially teens from immigrant families. It’s also great because Sara Farizan is such a funny, charming writer, infusing this book with lightness and fun even as it tackles serious issues of grief, bullying, friend breakups, and homophobia. I highly recommend this book for teens–and there’s a lot for adults to love, too.

You can read my full review below.


Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel Cover
cover description: Two girls’ faces are opposite to each other on the cover, one at the top of the cover and one on the bottom. The background is pink stripes.

Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan

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  • publisher: Algonquin Young Readers (an imprint of Algonquin Books)
  • publication date: hardcover in 2014, paperback in 2015
  • length: 320 pages

“Look at how pretty you are!” Mom exclaims. “You should straighten your hair all the time!” Well, I guess that’s one thing I can straighten about myself.

–from Tell Me Again How a  Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan

Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel has the vibe of an indie teen dramedy in the vein of Juno or Lady Bird. It’s full of great jokes that deliver a potent shot of anger, sadness, and other complicated feelings about growing up alongside all the belly laughs.

Leila is a Persian (Iranian) American teenager who attends a fancy private high school. She’s an okay student but not a great one, much to the gentle chagrin of her parents, who hold out hope she’ll be a doctor like her sister someday. She has two best friends, geeky athlete Tess and zombie movie aficionado Greg, even though her childhood best friend Lisa has ditched her to become a popular kid.

Leila carefully cultivates as “normal” a life as possible despite being a closeted lesbian, a secret she’s convinced will ruin her life if her conservative parents ever find out. It’s her junior year, and she’s doing pretty great at keeping everything under wraps so far–until a flashy, gorgeous new student named Saskia arrives and ruins everything.

Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel ambles along at a leisurely pace, and its stakes never feel particularly high. Despite Leila’s intense fear of her parents’ reaction to her sexuality, it’s pretty clear from the start that they love her unconditionally, and that their homophobia is the knee-jerk kind rather than the violent, put-your-kid-out-onto-the-street kind. That’s why it surprised me that this book gripped me the way it did.

Like Juno (truly this book’s tonal match–Leila is Ellen Page with slightly less affected quips), Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel is light and airy right up until it packs an emotional wallop that’s enough to knock the wind out of you.

Sara Farizan writes teens just right. I was 19 in 2014, when this book was published, so Farizan was probably writing this book right around my own junior year. I was homeschooled and didn’t attend high school, but I still recognized myself in all of Farizan’s teen characters. Using humor as a defense mechanism, making cringey decisions, not knowing how to just use their words instead of assuming and fumbling through. But like most real-world teenagers, these teens are also brilliant, good-hearted, and way more socially mature than adults give them credit for. Watching them, especially Leila, grow up over the course of the novel was a treat.

It’s been awhile since a book made me giggle in public, but Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel actually made me ugly-snort. (Maybe be careful taking this book into waiting rooms or on public transit.) This book also made me cry, simply because it transported me back to the closet perfectly. Leila is so afraid of what everyone around her will think about her sexuality, even though she knows, deep down, that she is loved and cared for. I’m glad that YA books about high-stakes, life-threatening homophobia exist, since that’s certainly an experience that many teens are facing. But I think just as many teens face Leila’s situation: one where they’re not in danger, exactly, but where they still need to make heart-pounding choices and confessions that their straight peers never have to consider.

That Leila is proudly Persian, without the whole book being about her Persian-ness in a scrutinizing, othering way, is the cherry on top of the important representation Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel has on offer.

Most of all, I appreciated how Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel tackled unhealthy lesbian relationships. Many LGBTQIA+ novels portray queer relationships in a carefully sanitized light, ensuring that there are no rough patches where homophobes, biphobes, and transphobes might latch on and decide that all their worst beliefs about queer and trans people are true.

I understand why authors take that kind of care, but it’s still frustrating to see so many tidy queer relationships and characters when I want messy ones, too.

Without spoiling anything, there’s plenty of mess in Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel, and it’s what transforms this book from a four-star book into a five-star one. Farizan could so easily have chosen to make this a featherweight YA comedy. If she had, it would have still been a good book, but the grit makes it memorable. It’s an entertaining and enjoyable experience from start to finish, but featherweight it is not.

Reading Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel felt as nostalgic and lovely to me as the taste of Nutella or the smell of the Haribo fizzy colas my friends and I ate by the bagful at summer camp. Farizan is a gifted writer who makes both comedy and tragedy feel effortless. This book has a little something for everyone, but if you know a questioning or out-and-proud teen, it would be a real gift to buy them a copy. I wish this book had been there when I was a 17-year-old lesbian. ★★★★★


I purchased my own copy of Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: DIFFICULT WOMEN by Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay’s highly anticipated (and well-received) 2017 short story collection, Difficult Women, is, in short, worth every bit of that anticipating and receiving. Difficult Women is everything I want out of a short story collection and a lot more: the stories on their own are excellent; together, they’re transcendent. This is easily one of my favorite books I have ever read.

You can read my full review below.


Difficult Women Cover
cover description: A shattered pink glass heart against a black background.

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

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  • publisher: Grove Press
  • publication date: 2017
  • length: 272 pages

Boys don’t really know how to hurt girls.

–from “Baby Arm” in Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

I’ve loved Roxane Gay’s short fiction for many years, even before she became as beloved and well-known as she is now. As a teenager, between writing my own short stories, I would pore over the “Writing” page on her website, tracking down and devouring every short story I could find that wasn’t behind a paywall.

Yet even that abiding love for Gay’s uncollected work did not prepare me for how much I would adore Difficult Women.

Difficult Women‘s parts are extraordinary, but as a whole it’s even more powerful. I don’t think I’ve ever read a collection so artfully assembled. Themes are established with exquisite care; one of my favorite runs of stories builds from metaphor to magical realism to straight-up science fiction about society and prejudice. Without that onramp, the sci-fi story (set in the near-future) would have felt jarring in an otherwise realistic collection. With the onramp, it only strengthens Gay’s real-world themes.

Another standout run of stories is about fertility and infertility, without ever feeling like it’s about fertility and infertility. A moral kills a short story; luckily, each story in Difficult Women has the desperate feeling of a message in a bottle sent from a place where morals have unraveled.

This is, unsurprisingly, a difficult book. It is not essential reading. It is not a crystallization of our times. It is not palatable, exactly. But it is gripping, sharp, indulgent, and pleasurable in the way of an excellent meal had at an expensive and unfamiliar restaurant.

“Difficult” does not have to mean unpleasant, distasteful, or uncomfortable. Difficult Women is a blueprint for how to write a difficult book that’s a delight to read.

I think much of that comes from how embodied Gay’s writing is. Gay is a top-notch sex writer who understands, and uses, sensation completely.

Difficult Women encompasses a wide variety of bodies: thin ones, muscled ones, fat ones, wounded ones, transparent glass ones, sadists, masochists, bad priests. Gay (presumably) only has one body, but she transports readers effortlessly into all of these different and contradictory bodies. Even when I didn’t totally love or understand a story’s plot, I was always so taken with its feel that it hardly mattered.

It’s difficult to choose favorite stories since this collection fits together so well, but with a gun to my head I might pick “Baby Arm,” about a fight club, “North Country,” about an isolated engineer in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, “Requiem for a Glass Heart,” about a woman made of glass and her careful careless husband, and “I Am a Knife,” about a woman (the knife) and her husband (a gun).

I can’t wait to re-read Difficult Women. Many reviews I’ve seen of this book describe it as a deeply relatable book, about women like “us.” I didn’t find it that way. I didn’t understand these characters at all. Sometimes a book is better for being unfathomable; I think Difficult Women is unfathomable in the best way, an endlessly fascinating Rorschach test kind of way.

If you missed Difficult Women during all its initial fanfare, please come back for it. I’m glad I did. This book is a treasure. ★★★★★

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

Book Review: ALIF THE UNSEEN by G. Willow Wilson

In an unnamed Middle Eastern country where inequality and unrest are simmering and a mysterious censor known as the Hand of God threatens dissidents with prison or worse, Alif is a genius hacker–and a target. He offers web services to a dangerous roster of clients; worse, he’s pursuing a forbidden relationship with the daughter of a man far above Alif’s station. Suddenly Alif’s security is breached and he finds himself on the run, pursued by demons and aided by a jinn, a sheikh, a convert and his childhood best friend, Dina.

I adored this novel. It’s an intricate fantasy set in the modern day–no small feat to write believably–but G. Willow Wilson seamlessly integrates the magic and mysteries of this world with more familiar real-world elements, like computer hacking and ethnic tensions between Arabs and other groups. It’s funny and profound by turns, and also chock-full of mind-blowing ideas about how Muslim theology and computer programming intersect. This story will linger with me for a long time.

You can read my full review below.


Alif the Unseen Cover

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

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  • publisher: Grove Press (an imprint of Grove Atlantic)
  • publication date: April 2, 2013
  • length: 456 pages

Alif understood her desire for secrecy. He had spent so much time cloaked behind his screen name, a mere letter of the alphabet, that he no longer thought of himself as anything but an alif—a straight line, a wall. His given name fell flat in his ears now. The act of concealment had become more powerful than what it concealed.

–from Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

It disappoints me that more fantasy fiction doesn’t draw on religion. I’m not talking vague incense burning or references to moon time rituals; I mean well-thought-out, believably drawn fantasy religions, or meaningful grappling with the real-life religions of our own world.

Some of my favorite fantasy novels do this to great effect. Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey is one. Carey’s latest novel, Starless, also handles its religious themes exceptionally wellThe Golden Compass by Philip Pullman is infamous for its potent atheist themes, which have caused it to be banned over and over again; I’m a Christian and very much not an atheist, but I still find The Golden Compass‘s vision of religion compelling.

Like it or not, religion is one of the most compelling and important parts of humanity’s past and present. So I say again: it disappoints me that more fantasy fiction doesn’t draw on religion.

Luckily, Alif the Unseen doesn’t have that problem. It’s a heady fantasy that sucked me in more than any other book I’ve read lately, drawing on Middle Eastern history, present-day conflicts, and Muslim theology in order to create a rich, textured, and thoroughly believable world.

I don’t think I’m going to be able to summarize this book more concisely than I did in my mini-review, above, so I’m just going to go ahead and copy-paste that summary again here:

In an unnamed Middle Eastern country where inequality and unrest are simmering and a mysterious censor known as the Hand of God threatens dissidents with prison or worse, Alif is a genius hacker–and a target. He offers web services to a dangerous roster of clients; worse, he’s pursuing a forbidden relationship with the daughter of a man far above Alif’s station. Suddenly Alif’s security is breached and he finds himself on the run, pursued by demons and aided by a jinn, a sheikh, a convert and his childhood best friend, Dina.

Alif–a pseudonym, and we don’t find out his real name until the very end–is a terrific protagonist. He’s kind of an asshole: bitter and angry and unable to see the forest for the trees, hurting the people who love him at every turn. But he’s vulnerable, too. We see how his computer hacking prowess makes him arrogant in some ways and leaves him lonely in others; he’s convinced he has all the answers, but fears deep down that his biggest questions might not have answers.

He’s madly in love with Intisar, a college girl from his city’s upper crust. The novel opens with her rejecting him because her parents have matched her with someone else, sending Alif’s world spinning on its axis. At that point, his encounter with a mischievous, magical jinn (a.k.a. genie) named Vikram the Vampire hardly seems that weird.

When the Hand of God finds finds evidence of Alif’s subversive hacking activity, he’s forced to go on the run with his neighbor and childhood friend, Dina (whose decision to wear the niqab, a full-face veil, bewilders and annoys him).

From there the novel unspools into an incredibly profound exploration of the nature of divinity and evil, and how the power of modern technology can unleash both. G. Willow Wilson (who is a convert to Islam, and who includes a sort of American convert self-insert character here) paints a highly textured portrait of Islam, showing the ways it can be misinterpreted and perverted but also the ways it helps people, brings them love and joy, and guides them to be their best selves.

I’m racking my brain trying to think of any other novel that’s as bold and ambitious and empathetic towards any real-world religion as Alif the Unseen is–much less one that extends that empathy towards Islam, which has been so deeply demonized in Western culture.

All that adds immeasurably to this book’s worldbuilding, stakes, and character development. I particularly loved the way Dina’s faith shapes her moral backbone and her decision to help Alif, even when Alif is being a total jerk towards her.

Most of all, it’s hard to believe Alif the Unseen was written before the Arab Spring. (It was, though it wasn’t released till after.) Its vision of how technology can uproot whole societies, for better or worse, is prescient and urgent and kept me racing till the final page.

I feel like I’m talking a lot about this book’s big themes, and not a lot about the plot–but that’s because Wilson integrates the book’s themes into its plot so seamlessly that it’s difficult to separate them.

This book races along at a breakneck pace, never once feeling heavy or dry despite its weighty source material and implications. It’s an adventure novel, one that’s perfectly situated between a YA audience and an adult one. (I recommend it heartily for teens and adults alike.) The magical world of the jinn is beautiful and intoxicating; the romance(s) are compelling and impossible not to root for; the final battle had me quivering with anticipation.

Alif the Unseen is an impressive balancing act: a novel that’s as thrilling and entertaining as it is studied and thought-provoking. Don’t miss it. I especially can’t wait to get my hands on its recently released companion novel, The Bird King. ★★★★★

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

I’m not reviewing MONDAY’S NOT COMING by Tiffany D. Jackson (but you should read it anyway)

Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson is one of the best YA novels I’ve ever read. It’s up there for best novel of all time, too. It’s engrossing, pitch-perfect, and elegantly plotted, and its characters are so real it’s hard to remember that this is fiction, not fact.

Unfortunately, that intensity and reality made this an extremely triggering book for me, and I won’t be doing a normal review of it, even though I loved it.

Here’s the description, from Goodreads:

Monday Charles is missing, and only Claudia seems to notice. Claudia and Monday have always been inseparable—more sisters than friends. So when Monday doesn’t turn up for the first day of school, Claudia’s worried. When she doesn’t show for the second day, or second week, Claudia knows that something is wrong. Monday wouldn’t just leave her to endure tests and bullies alone. Not after last year’s rumors and not with her grades on the line. Now Claudia needs her best—and only—friend more than ever. But Monday’s mother refuses to give Claudia a straight answer, and Monday’s sister April is even less help.

As Claudia digs deeper into her friend’s disappearance, she discovers that no one seems to remember the last time they saw Monday. How can a teenage girl just vanish without anyone noticing that she’s gone?

Triggers in this book include graphic child abuse and general violence, as well as some references to sexual abuse and violence. To a lesser extent this book has triggers for racism and bullying, since a large component of the novel is that the main character, Claudia, who is Black, is not believed by the police or her peers in school.

Obviously, triggers are different for everyone, and sometimes I hesitate to include trigger warnings in my reviews because what throws up red flags for me might be perfectly fine for someone else, and what would bother someone else might not even register for me. But Monday’s Not Coming has so much difficult content that I wanted to give my readers a heads up.

On the brighter side, even if you do find this book traumatic, you might find it cathartic, too. Tiffany D. Jackson is so good at writing about how hard it is to be a teen girl. You can tell how much she cares about teens’ real-life experiences. Many teens have lived through things worse than some adults could ever imagine, and by writing about those things honestly, Tiffany D. Jackson is helping those teens (whether they’re still teens or now-adults, like me) feel seen.

That’s pretty special, especially for the Black girls out there who get much less good representation than white teens and adults like me do.

I really loved this book, despite everything it dredged up for me. As long as it’s safe for you to read, I highly recommend it. ★★★★★

Monday's Not Coming Cover

Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson

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  • publisher: Katherine Tegen Books (an imprint of HarperCollins)
  • publication date: May 22, 2018
  • length: 448 pages

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I purchased my own copy of Monday’s Not Coming and was in no way compensated for this post.

Book Review: THE PROPOSAL by Jasmine Guillory

Whether you’re a longtime romance superfan or a relatively recent convert, like me, The Proposal has something for you. Loosely linked to Jasmine Guillory’s debut, The Wedding Date (though you can read this one first without missing anything), this novel follows Nik, a journalist whose crummy boyfriend springs a disastrous Jumbotron proposal on her at a Dodgers game, and hot, sensitive pediatrician Carlos, who helps shepherd her out of the stadium unscathed. (You may recognize Carlos as Drew’s best friend from The Wedding Date.)

I adored this book. It’s fully a romance novel, happily-ever-after and all, but I think it’s an ideal choice for people who are hesitant about the genre, since it’s more on the realistic side than the pure escapism side. The Proposal is perfect for a bad day: bubbly and light enough to cheer you up, but with just enough bittersweetness and real-world problems to be believable when you’ve got a bad case of the blues.

You can read my full review below.


The Proposal Cover

The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory

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  • publisher: Berkley (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
  • publication date: October 30, 2018
  • length: 352 pages

Okay, this was getting way out of hand. Sure, her fingers were dying to run themselves through his thick dark hair, and her hand had lingered a little too long on his bicep tonight, and every time he curved those inviting lips of his into a smile, she wanted to pull him closer. But a rebound with Carlos was a terrible idea, remember? She neither wanted, nor needed, a rebound with anyone! That was why she’d hinted it was time for Carlos to go home. Men were trouble. She’d learned that over and over again.

–from The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory

If a public proposal (especially without your private okay) is your worst nightmare, then you’ll cringe with sympathy at The Proposal‘s opening scene, when Nik’s crummy man-bunned boyfriend of five months, Fisher, springs a Jumbotron proposal on her at a Dodgers game. When she turns him down, Nik becomes a stadium pariah who needs to make a quick exit.

Enter Carlos and his sister Angela, who were sitting a few rows behind Nik and Fisher and watched the whole debacle go down. They help sneak Nik out of the stadium and into a bourbon-and-pizza dish sesh with her best friends.

Grateful to Carlos (and intrigued by his sizzling hotness, of course), Nik decides to take him out to dinner later that week as a thank you…

…and I bet you know where this one’s going.

What I loved most about The Proposal was Jasmine Guillory’s gift for weaving the real world into the romance. Romance haters always point to the way the genre, well, romanticizes life and what it’s like to fall in love, but that would be ignoring the way contemporary romances like Guillory’s tackle modern romantic problems head-on, like, say, the problems inherent in a public proposal.

Much of The Proposal is about power dynamics: what it means to have a controlling partner who views you as an accessory rather than a person, and conversely what it means to be so obsessed with “rebounds” or “keeping it casual” that you never actually tell someone how much they mean to you.

Other welcome real-world touches to the novel include the frank way Guillory writes about race (Nik is Black, as is Alexa from The Wedding Date who makes an appearance here, Carlos and his family are Latinx, and Nik’s two best friends are Black and Korean) and a subplot about Carlos’s cousin’s high-risk pregnancy.

In addition to what I loved about the content, Guillory’s writing style is also absolutely delightful. The Proposal basically starts in media res: you gradually learn about Nik’s backstory and previous abusive relationship as well as Carlos’s complex feelings about becoming the “man of the family” after losing his dad, but it’s all revealed through naturalistic conversations rather than big chunks of info dump. This makes The Proposal an extremely fast read–I blew through it in an afternoon.

Neither Nik nor Carlos are stereotypes. Nik is a striving writer, sure, and Carlos is a hot doctor–characters right out of the romance hero/heroine playbook–but there are enough unique details to both of them that they don’t feel rote.

The dialogue is extremely funny, even when it’s tackling the most emotional subjects, and Guillory has a knack for describing what makes for a great date: great food, great conversation, emotional vulnerability, and fiery chemistry.

Which leads me to maybe the best part: The Proposal is sexy as hell. One of my hesitations with romance for a long time was the fact that I’m a lesbian, and good lesbian romances are few and far between. Luckily I’ve been able to find a few hetero romances, like Guillory’s, where I’m just as invested in a straight central couple as I would be in a gay one.

The sexiness of romance, after all, is often less dependent on descriptions of the hero(es) or heroine(s) than it is on the effervescent feeling of being powerfully attracted to someone that good romance writing can capture. The attraction radiates off Nik and Carlos so powerfully that even though I wouldn’t be interested in Carlos because he’s a dude (hot, sweet, and sensitive as he may be), I still loved the flirting and sex scenes between him and Nik.

It helps that there are bi and lesbian supporting characters, too, which made me feel like a valued reader. Just like The Wedding Date, The Proposal is marvelously diverse in all kinds of ways.

The Proposal is a gem. Even if you’ve never read romance or never plan to again, it’s worth giving this one a shot. (And if you do love romance–well, get thee to a bookstore, post haste, though I suspect I’m preaching to the choir.) ★★★★★

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

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.

Book Review: WHITE DANCING ELEPHANTS by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

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

You can read my full review below.


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White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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