Frances is an underpaid dressmaker with a terrible boss–until a daring design for a noble client catches the attention of a mysterious royal. That royal turns out to be Prince Sebastian: an ordinary prince by day, secretly the fabulous fashion icon Lady Crystallia by night. Frances and Sebastian become fast friends, but the effort of keeping the secret of Lady Crystallia’s identity begins to take a toll on both of them. Can they find a way to hold onto their dreams and each other, or is this fairy tale doomed to have an unhappy ending?
Well, of course this story has a happy ending, but the journey to it is such a joy that I won’t give away anything more than that. The Prince and the Dressmaker is a gorgeous graphic novel for all ages that swept me off my feet as surely as any Prince(ss) Charming.
One of my favorite things about The Prince and the Dressmaker is the way its queerness defies labels. Is Sebastian a trans girl? Genderfluid? A drag performer? It’s never stated, and it doesn’t have to be. Is Frances straight, bi, or a lesbian for loving all aspects of Sebastian and Lady Crystallia? It’s never stated, and it doesn’t have to be. Are both or either of them aro, ace, or on a gray spectrum? It’s never stated, and it doesn’t have to be! As someone who’s struggled with my own labels quite a bit (understatement of the year), it was such relief to read a book that was joyfully queer but didn’t get bogged down in the details.
Jen Wang’s art is simply terrific. I tend to find comics and graphic novels distracting and hard to read (which is a me problem–my brain just doesn’t seem to work that way), but these illustrations only enriched my experience of the story. Every panel is so colorful, exuberant, distinctive, and all-caps BEAUTIFUL. I wanted to hang them on my wall or get them tattooed on my body or both.
The Prince and the Dressmaker really is a modern-day fairy tale, an instant classic along the lines of Ella Enchanted. It’s a pitch-perfect balance of harrowing and comforting–no matter how bad or sad things got, I always knew I was hurtling toward a happy ending, and the catharsis when I finally got there was so, so sweet. This would be an amazing book for adults and kids to read together for that reason.
If you’re looking for a happily-ever-after to restore your faith in humanity right now (who isn’t?), it would be hard to do better than The Prince and the Dressmaker. I loved this book and I hope you will too. ★★★★★
The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang
Originally published in February 2018 by First Second (Macmillan).
Published in March 2020 by TorDotCom (an imprint of Macmillan)
“I have taken everything from you. It is the nature of royalty, I am afraid, what we are bred for and what we are taught. I will not take more unless you tell me it’s all right. Do you understand?”
In-yo, princess of the North, arrives at the southern court of Anh in an opulent dress of white sealskin, the like of which has never been seen in the South before. She brings with her a lavish dowry and the promise of a union between North and South, the Mammoth and the Lion. Though In-yo is crowned Empress of Salt and Fortune, divine made flesh, she finds herself isolated and ostracized by a hostile court, belittled and underestimated at every turn by her husband the emperor and his sneering associates. Her handmaiden and most trustworthy ally is a peasant girl called Rabbit, sold into imperial service as a child for five containers of orange dye. The relationship that follows–not a friendship, not really, for even a disgraced empress in exile wields more power than Rabbit ever could–will change the course of the history of the empire.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a classic high fantasy court intrigue drama, soapy and sexy and at times shockingly violent. But author Nghi Vo’s exhilarating worldbuilding and clear-eyed politics put it head and shoulders above most entries into the genre. It’s a dual consciousness balancing act: a critique of monarchy and empire that’s also an indulgence in every sumptuous trope I love about stories of monarchy and empire. The Empress of Salt and Fortune is full of gorgeous clothes, delicious food, high-stakes card games, stylish secret codes, and just about every other convention of the genre you can think of. It’s not preachy or didactic and it doesn’t shame the reader for enjoying reading about those things. But by showing it all through the eyes of Rabbit, one of the thousands of people on whose back this lifestyle is built, Vo is constantly complicating our loyalties.
My favorite example comes when Rabbit recounts how much work it was to clean and care for that striking white sealskin dress, in which In-yo made her intensely symbolic entrance to court:
“I was thirteen then, and it was my job to look after it. I packaged it so carefully between layers and layers of crisp paper, and every ten days I brought it out to brush away any possible moth eggs of larvae.”
All that work, and In-yo never wears the dress again. I was left savoring the beautiful descriptions of the dress–I’ll admit it, clothing descriptions are one of my favorite parts of fantasy, and this book is a doozy in that regard–but I was also left thinking: what a waste. What a waste of a beautiful dress, to sit in a cedar chest forever. More importantly, what a waste of Rabbit’s life, to have to spend that much time taking care of a wasted dress. It’s not that beauty isn’t worth creating and maintaining in the world. But The Empress of Salt and Fortune pushes readers to engage with the particular kind of waste of resources and lives that’s involved in turning royals into beautiful symbols rather than people. I wasn’t exactly pro-monarchy before, but this book had me considering the cost of it in fascinating and affecting new ways.
I’ll admit that, despite all the warm fuzzy feelings I have now, it did take me awhile to “get” this book. At only 112 pages, The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a novella, not a novel, and this leads to some pacing abnormalities. I won’t call them problems, because it all came together spectacularly at the end, but they were unusual enough that I had to really work to understand what was going on at first.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune is framed through the eyes of the cleric Chih (who is genderless and uses they/them pronouns) and their magical bird companion Almost Brilliant. The two arrive at Lake Scarlet–the recently declassified location of the empress’s exile–in search of stories to bring back to their religious order. There they encounter the former handmaiden Rabbit, who is eager to tell her tale.
Vo drops the reader straight into this lushly perilous magical universe with no hand-holding whatsoever. The timeline in particular is slippery–Chih keeps referring to a new empress who’s about to be crowned, and it’s not immediately clear what the relationship is between this newcomer and the titular Empress of Salt and Fortune. The book demands your fullest attention from start to finish: I made the mistake of trying to read it one night when I was sleepy and got so confused that I had to start the whole section over again the next day to make sense of it.
But the work it takes to get there is part of what makes the pay-off at the end of those 112 pages so thrilling. Once I turned the last page I sat with it for a long moment, experiencing its emotional wallops one at a time: surprise, heartbreak, longing, peace. I was put more than a little in mind of the ending of The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, a novel that trusts its reader to understand the shattering implications of the slightest details.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune is as eerie and uncompromising as the empress of its title. It’s searingly political–ferocious, feminist, and queer as hell–while still retaining all the escapism and stunning aesthetics I want out of high fantasy. I hope this is the first of many, many books set in Anh; I’m enormously excited to hear that a stand-alone sequel, When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, is coming later this year. ★★★★★
Originally published in 2017 by Del Rey (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
It has always seemed ironic to me that we use the term “fairy tale” to mean happy and sweet: a “fairy tale” romance, a “fairy tale” wedding. Anyone who’s spent more than a minute or two in the world of fairy tales knows just how hearbreaking and bitter they can be. The Bear and the Nightingale whisks readers off to a place where household spirits require sacrifices of blood, where rusalki might drag you off and drown you in a lake, where the dead rise from their graves and tear horses in two.
The Russian mythology that Katherine Arden draws from was unfamiliar to me, but that sense of delicious fairy tale danger was not. If you’re tired of fantasy novels set in the perilously lovely worlds of Mount Olympus, Asgard, Faerie, or Tír na nÓg, The Bear and the Nightingale might just be the cure for what ails you. It’s original and gorgeous, vivid and haunting. I absolutely loved it.
The protagonist, Vasya, is the youngest daughter of Pyotr Vladimirovich, a boyar in the medieval kingdom of Rus’. Her mother died in childbirth, but not before wishing that Vasya might inherit the powers of her mysterious, witch-like grandmother. In time, Vasya becomes everything her mother dreamed and more: a clever, headstrong girl who has a supernatural ability with horses and talks to spirits no one else can see. But her idyllic life changes forever when Pyotr marries Anna, a frail, devout princess of Moscow who scoffs at the old customs of honoring the spirits of household and forest. When Anna invites a zealous priest to live in the village, fear begins to spread like a contagion, fueling an ancient force that threatens to destroy everything Vasya holds dear.
The Bear and the Nightingale is told in the lilting prose of a fairy tale, using an omniscient third person voice that bounces effortlessly between the perspective of Vasya, Anna, Pyotr, and many other characters. Arden’s writing utterly transported me to the world of medieval Rus’, especially its ominous weather; the real-life forces of nature are written as only slightly less terrifying than the evil spirits, and one of the most memorable (and horrifying) scenes in the book involves a small child freezing to death in his mother’s arms during a particularly harsh winter.
Any modern writer who tries to write a story based on fairy tales runs the risk of creating flat, boring characters. The narrative structure of fairy tales just isn’t designed to allow the growth and development that readers like to see in characters in a full-length novel. But Arden is more than a match for this problem. All the characters are lovable and interesting in their own way, and that’s especially true of Anna, who could have been a mere wicked stepmother but comes across as a much more tragic and nuanced antagonist instead. She and Vasya are perfect foils for one another, and even when Anna is horribly cruel towards Vasya, you can still understand and sympathize with her motivations.
If I might lodge one tiny complaint about The Bear and the Nightingale, it’s that it drags a tad in the middle section, causing the final climactic battle to feel a little rushed. At the same time, there’s some incredible worldbuilding that happens in that section that I’d have been sad to see sacrificed, so I’d say the whole thing’s a net neutral. (And at a tight 336 pages, The Bear and the Nightingale is on the shorter side for a fantasy novel, making that slow middle even easier to take.)
The Bear and the Nightingale is an instant fantasy classic. I can’t wait to pick up the rest of the trilogy, beginning with the second installment, The Girl in the Tower. ★★★★★
Kathleen Collins was a groundbreaking artist: a playwright, filmmaker, educator, and activist as well as a writer. She died young in 1988 and her work was at risk of fading into obscurity until the publication of this collection in 2016. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, named for one of the standouts of the collection–a bittersweet, sly story about how the politics of the Civil Rights Movement played out on a personal level–is absolutely wonderful. It’s made up of 16 intimate stories that are so short that they border on flash fiction; each one feels simultaneously like an overheard scrap of someone’s life and like a whole, rich meal. This is easily one of my new favorite short story collections. Collins was an extraordinary talent and I wish she had been with us longer.
You can read my full review below.
Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins
I had an uncle who cried himself to sleep. Yes, it’s quite a true story and it ended badly. That is to say, one night he cried himself to death.
–from “The Uncle” in Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins
How do you get a reader to care about a short story? There’s so much less time to get a short story off the ground than a novel, so much more pressure to find just the right hook to pull us in.
But in Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, Kathleen Collins seemed to trust that dialogue was enough, her characters were enough, their problems were enough. This is a short story collection that is bold in its unassumption and I was riveted to every page.
It starts with “Exteriors,” in which a conflict between a couple is set up like a shot for a movie, followed immediately by “Interiors,” made up of two stream-of-consciousness monologues from husband and wife. In “The Uncle,” a woman’s wonderful childhood memories of her aunt and uncle are disrupted by the adult truths of their lives. In “Documentary Style,” a combative Black cameraman resents the woman who will edit his work. And in “Of Poets, Galleries, New York Passages,” two New York artists host a friend from the country, each projecting their fantasies of city and suburban life onto the others.
The title story is as provocative as its name suggests, both mischievously and seriously examining what happens when the personal becomes too political, when the politics of the Civil Rights Movement embedded themselves in romance and sex as well as protests and policy.
Every story in the collection is so good that it’s hard to choose standouts. Collins had one of the best ears for dialogue I’ve ever encountered–right up there with Zora Neale Hurston in Their Eyes Were Watching God–and a knack for imagery that symbolizes without feeling symbolic. Not a thing about Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? is artificial or forced.
Collins wrote as fluidly as most people think, or talk, or breathe. I’m sure it was hard work, but her work is so skillfully hidden from the reader that it’s hard to picture it happening at all, as if it sprung fully formed from her mind onto the pages of the book in my hands.
Sadness lingers around the edges of every story, both because of the heartrending subject matter (most of the stories are about disintegrating relationships, especially romantic ones) and because you know from the lovely foreword by poet and professor Elizabeth Alexander that Collins died at the age of only 46, in 1988, before her work could gain the full acclaim in her lifetime that it deserved.
Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? works as both a terrific book on its own merits and a fierce rebuttal to the way Black women artists are systematically marginalized and deliberately forgotten. It’s a treasure trove of great writing and fascinating politics. It’s an essential manifesto of Black and female art;it’s also purely delightful, unforgettable, compulsively readable fiction. It’s given me a new vision for what a short story can be, and what a short story collection can be.
What an excellent way to spend an hour or two. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? doesn’t ask much of your time, but in its own quiet way it does command–demand, in fact–your full attention. You will be happy to oblige. ★★★★★
Educated is a harrowing memoir of the isolation, abuse, and paranoia Tara Westover experienced at the hands of her fundamentalist family in Idaho. Westover didn’t receive vaccinations or a birth certificate, everyone in her family refused to see doctors even during grave illnesses and injuries, and above all, she and her siblings were forbidden from going to school–which makes Westover’s eventual prestigious academic plaudits (acceptance to Brigham Young, a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, a PhD from Cambridge) all the more extraordinary. Westover has a calm, crisp writing style that turns the excruciating experiences she recounts into a damn good reading experience. It’s not hard to see why this book has been a bestseller for weeks on end: it’s an intoxicating story of redemption, healing, and yes, education in the face of near-unimaginable adversity. I absolutely adored Educated.
Turning toward our house on the hillside, I see movements of a different kind, tall shadows stiffly pushing through the currents. My brothers are awake, testing the weather. I imagine my mother at the stove, hovering over bran pancakes. I picture my father hunched by the back door, lacing his steel-toed boots and threading his callused hands into welding gloves. On the highway below, the school bus rolls past without stopping.
I am only seven, but I understand that it is this fact, more than any other, that makes my family different: we don’t go to school.
–from Educated by Tara Westover.
Memoirs require either extraordinary writing or extraordinary experience to be worth reading. You don’t actually need both–but when you do have both, you end up with something as dazzling as Educated.
Tara Westover grew up in an extreme fundamentalist family in Idaho. She didn’t receive a birth certificate for years, she didn’t go to school, she never went to the doctor, and her family furiously eschewed mainstream culture, including mainstream Mormons, whom they called “gentiles.” All that makes it all the more extraordinary that Westover eventually taught herself enough math, science, and grammar to take the ACT and attend Brigham Young, later gaining prestigious scholarships to Cambridge and Harvard.
Educated could have easily been a screed: against fundamentalism, against white supremacy in the prepper movement (one memorable chapter details how Westover’s older brother beat her and taunted her with the N-word when he was displeased with her), against unregulated homeschooling, against unsafe home medicine, and much more. In some ways, it is; you certainly won’t leave Educated with a positive impression of any of those things. But I admire that Westover chose to focus on something much more personal: her slow and painful estrangement from her family.
Westover sees so much good in her family, even her father and brother Shawn, who were the ringleaders of the abuse she experienced. The fact that she writes about the good so generously–her father’s love of her singing, Shawn’s fierce protectiveness over her–cut me to the bone, even more so because I’m currently estranged from part of my own family because of abuse.
People have asked me what the worst part of the abuse was; after several years of considering, I’m sure that the worst part is not theworst parts–the screaming, the danger–but the fact that the worst parts poisoned the good parts. I could never let my guard down around my parent again, I could never trust that the good parts of my teens would last, there was never a new leaf turned over that would not eventually be turned back again. “Trust issues” doesn’t even begin to cover it.
I would guess that Westover would agree with me. Educated is full of horrifying moments–life-threatening burns and head injuries not treated in the hospital, beatings and physical torture, murdered animals–but the hardest parts of the book to read by far are its moments of love and tenderness because you know they will not last. No matter how good the good is, it can never fully cure the rot underneath.
With every word of Educated, Westover walks a tightrope of compassion and fury, a tightrope that was very familiar to me and will be familiar to anyone else who’s loved a family who can’t love you back in the way that you deserve.
That’s the extraordinary experience part of this memoir; let’s not forget the extraordinary writing, too.
It took me a few chapters to warm up to Westover’s straight-ahead style until I realized how carefully she was calibrating that style to each experience she recounts. Early in the book, when Westover is writing about things that happened when she was 7-10 years old, Educated’s tone is credulous and matter-of-fact; as she enters her teens and gains a sliver of access to the wider world, her writing breaks wide open into artfulness. Maybe I imagined it, but I could even swear her vocabulary changes as the book goes on.
At minimum, if I’m imagining those differences, then Westover is doing something right. Throughout Educated, I felt I was growing up right alongside her. It’s a really special storytelling experience.
Educated was a balm for me. It reminded me that there are others out there who are living with the consequences of generational trauma and paranoia and managing to make amazing lives for themselves regardless. But even if it’s not quite that personal for you, I guarantee that you’ll still find it a gripping and unforgettable story.
Like Wild by Cheryl Strayed, another memoir so harrowing that it almost defies belief, Educated is a reminder that, while we’ll never find the perfect, uncomplicated happily-ever-afters we were promised in fairy tales, there is such a thing as a happy ending for a true story. Westover has had to make impossible choices, but she’s come out the other side and thrived. That is exactly the thing I needed to be reminded of right now–exactly the thing that many of us who have suffered, or are currently suffering, needed to be reminded of. There is hope.
It’s hard to imagine a memoir more deserving of the celebration Educated has already received from critics and readers. Add my name to the long list of those who adore it. ★★★★★
For a memoir about gaslighting and nightmarish domestic abuse, Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House has a shockingly lucid, powerful core. Told through small chapters that each explore facets of “the dream house” (the home Machado shared with her abusive female partner), this book pushes the boundaries of real and unreal, personal and archetypal. By talking openly about her experience of queer abuse, Machado forwards a new and necessary concept of queer humanity: one where we finally find a middle ground between viewing queer people as only deviants or only saints. (Speaking from my personal lesbian experience: we are neither.) In the Dream House scared me and soothed me, educated me and entertained me. With this book, Machado sets ambitious goals for herself as a writer and knocks every single one out of the park. In the Dream House is an instant classic. Don’t miss it!
publisher: Graywolf Press (distributed by Macmillan)
publication date: November 5, 2019
length: 272 pages
I enter into the archive that domestic abuse between partners who share a gender identity is both possible and not uncommon, and that it can look something like this. I speak into the silence. I toss the stone of my story into a vast crevice; measure the emptiness by its small sound.
–from In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
As a kid, I hoarded books of fairy tales from all over the world, reading and re-reading them, horrified and enthralled, until the pages fell out of the binding.
In my adult reading life, no book I’ve read has been more reminiscent of the primal experience of reading fairy tales than Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, her memoir of her abuse by another woman–the first woman she’d dated since coming out as bisexual.
Like magic, Machado weaves her specific story into an archetype, referencing Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature in the footnotes. (These footnotes are one of the greatest pleasures of the book, in fact.)
The titular dream house is the house where Machado and her abusive partner lived together–or is it? At times it seems to be something much larger and more liminal, terrifying.
Machado comes at the dream house from dozens of tiny angles chapters, each named after the motif she explores within it:
“Dream House as Not a Metaphor”
“Dream House as Lesbian Cult Classic”
“Dream House as Haunted Mansion”
The story unfolds at a dreamy pace: the lush, erotic early days of the relationship, the sour terror when it started going wrong, the shattered and isolated feeling of recovering from something so many people refuse to believe exists.
The myth of queer people as perfect is a poisonous side effect of the fight for LGBTQ rights: in order to correct an image of our community as lascivious, predatory, and emotionally stunted, a funhouse mirror image of purity, benevolence, and emotional competence was created.
Unfortunately, the new image was just as unrealistic as the old one, and it has left queer people like Machado with nowhere to turn if another queer person harms them. To talk about abuse is to harm our community, the thinking goes–except, as Machado points out, that those victims of abuse are just as much a part of the queer community as their abusers.
About halfway through the book, Machado writes:
Fantasy is, I think, the defining cliche of female queerness. No wonder we joke about U-Hauls on the second date. To find desire, love, everyday joy without men’s accompanying bullshit is a pretty decent working definition of paradise.
That dream of a queer woman’s paradise, “punctured” (as she puts it in the next paragraph) by the reality of abuse, haunts the entirety of In the Dream House. Though I don’t share Machado’s experience of queer abuse, I’ve bumped up against the limitations of that dream myself so many times in other ways. Queer people will never be seen as fully human until we can be understood as flawed in the way that all humans are flawed.
In the end, after surviving the abuse, Machado did fall in love and marry someone new and wonderful, a fairy tale happy ending to match her fairy tale trials. The glimpses she gives us of this loving future/present make In the Dream House as cathartic and satisfying as it is painful and difficult, a Cinderella story with teeth.
I don’t know if I’ll ever stop thinking about In the Dream House; there’s simply nothing else like it out there right now. Please, please read it. ★★★★★
I purchased my own copy of In the Dream House and was in no way compensated for this review.
I publish book reviews every Tuesday and Thursday.
In the 1950s, David Nowak, a neurotic Polish American heir to a piano fortune, marries Jia-Hui Chen, a young woman from Taiwan with nerves of steel, and moves with her to remote northern California. Their relationship is volatile, but its legacy for their children will be much worse. The Border of Paradise is an astonishing historical novel that’s unlike anything I’ve read before, in the best possible way. If you love creepy thrillers like The Vegetarian by Han Kang or intimate portraits of trauma like History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund–or if, like me, you love both of those things–then this novel is a must-read. I deeply enjoyed The Collected Schizophrenias, Esmé Weijun Wang’s nonfiction essay collection, earlier this year. I’m pleased to say I like her fiction just as much.
Content note: Suicide and self harm are central to The Border of Paradise. If those things are triggers for you, then you should consider carefully before reading the rest of this review (or the book itself).
I’ve never known a man who has taken his own life, and so I’ve never read a suicide letter, seeing as how the final words of such uncelebrated and self-condemned souls are so privately guarded. Still, I can’t help but think such letters all must be the same, because what else can be said but, over and over again, Sorry, sorry, I am so sorry, in the way that someone newly smitten can only say I love you, I love you, I love you…
–from The Border of Paradise by Esmé Weijun Wang
In The Border of Paradise, Esmé Weijun Wang writes in long paragraphs that still feel light and airy, like a dense pastry that fluffs up in the oven. That’s a good thing, because the subject matter of this novel is almost unbearably heavy.
David Nowak, a teenage boy in 1940s-1950s New York, is a brilliant student and heir to a piano factory and accompanying fortune, but he can’t stop strange new neuroses from creeping in. He becomes unable to select clothes and dress himself. When he looks in the mirror, his body is impossibly distorted. He becomes hysterically attached to stuffed animals.
He knows something is wrong, but not what. The word schizophrenia is, to my memory, never used in The Border of Paradise, but we the readers can fill in the blanks.
David’s instability culminates in him being forcibly separated from his childhood sweetheart, Marianne, by her father, who is sneeringly cruel about David’s condition. Heartbroken, David cashes out the family fortune and leaves for Taiwan, where he marries a young woman named Jia-Hui, whom he renames Daisy.
Everyone warns Jia-Hui against David’s moods and volatility, but Jia-Hui has instabilities of her own–ones that have horrifying consequences for the couple’s two children.
I wouldn’t call The Border of Paradise horror, but it is horrifying. There is ample gore, disturbing sex, and piercing descriptions of what it’s like to live with untreated mental illness.
Of course, in the time period in which The Border of Paradise is set, there wasn’t really such a thing as treated mental illness. Wang uses this historical setting in unusual ways. Instead of yoking the story to real world historical events or intricate period detail, she focuses on internal, insular experiences instead.
In one word, The Border of Paradise is about isolation: the absolute isolation of being an immigrant woman of color, or a mentally ill person, or an abused child in the 1950s-1970s, when there was little awareness of these issues in the general public and no internet communities to turn to, either.
This novel is emotionally dense and deeply introspective, but it’s also extremely readable. It’s peppered with plot bombshells, dramatic and cinematic without straining belief. (I do wonder if Wang is trying to say something about the nature of delusion and hallucination here–how real life really can be stranger than the fictions our own brains can tell us.)
I raced to get to the end, using it as motivation to hop on the treadmill at the end of each day, knowing it would absorb me enough to make my workout fly by.
Specific and intense, The Border of Paradise is like a fever dream if your feverish brain were a top notch novelist. This novel is a gift. ★★★★★
Alana Massey’s funny, sharp, and just-the-right-amount-of-sentimental essay collection, subtitled Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen to Be Famous, is a banger. The celebrity subjects of the essays are diverse, from Britney Spears to the fictional Lisbon sisters of The Virgin Suicides to Lil’ Kim and Nicki Minaj. Massey intersperses the histories and cultural impacts of her subjects with episodes of her own life, including grimly dancing to Nine Inch Nails’s “Closer” in a strip club and a sad summer spent reading Joan Didion aloud to a distant boyfriend. It’s a book that’s intimate and expansive all at once, as well-cited and academic as a conference presentation yet as real life and relatable as a slumber party spent spilling your deepest secrets.
I adored this book. You can read my full review below.
All the Lives I Want: Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen to Be Famous Strangers by Alana Massey
publisher: Grand Central Publishing (an imprint of Hachette)
publication date: hardcover in 2017, paperback in 2018
length: 256 pages
“Bitches be crazy” has become modern shorthand for “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” This line itself is a paraphrase of “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned/ Nor Hell a fury, like a woman scorned.” Like its predecessors, it is a statement that seemed to be reclaimed ironically by women at almost the exact moment that it entered the vernacular as a way to disparage them. This line is repeated more often by a sage and mercenary woman, both in fiction and in reality, than it is by a man trying to insult one. It is a wink, an exaggerated shrug of the shoulders that women communicate preemptively, a shield against the accusation that their behavior is inherently irrational compared to that of men. The sentiment is ancient, of course.
–from “Long-Game Bitches: On Princess Di, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, and the Fine Art of Crazy Exing” in All the Lives I Want by Alana Massey
I find essay collections to be the most personal sort of book to read and the hardest to review. Even the ones I don’t ultimately enjoy–even the ones I find boring! –stir up something powerful in me, reflecting back my most intense shames and desires. It’s hard to slap a star rating on that.
Luckily, it’s easier when the essay collection in question is as good as this one. Five stars is an easier distinction than choosing two, or three, or four. Perhaps it’s funny to notice that relief in myself while reviewing a book that so eloquently navigates mysterious and unmeasurable cultural places.
The essays of All the Lives I Want are surprisingly cohesive given the breadth of the subject matter. Massey’s topics bounce from A-list celebrities like Scarlett Johansson and Gwyneth Paltrow to slightly more niche choices (for a book published in the late 2010s, at least) like Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen and Anjelica Huston.
And some of my favorite essays of the collection aren’t about traditional celebrities at all: the title essay, “All the Lives I Want,” is about Sylvia Plath and her legion of young women fans on Tumblr and in tattoo parlors across the country. “Broken-Bodied Little Girls: On the Horror of Little Girls Grown” is about the grotesque young girls of horror movies like Poltergeist. And “Our Sisters Shall Inherit the Sky” reimagines the Lisbon sisters from The Virgin Suicides as the true subjects and protagonists of their own story rather than as the objects of young men’s imagination.
Massey writes about race and class in a much more refreshing way than most white women culture writers, finding new angles to talk about power and privilege without the constant “I know I’m privileged, but–” path that many take.
“Run the World: Amber Rose in the Great Stripper Imaginary” avoids many of the gross oversimplifications and stereotypes of white women writing about black strippers (likely because Massey has been an on-again, off-again stripper herself). “There Can Be Only One: On Lil’ Kim, Nicki Minaj, and the Art of Manufactured Beef” is one of the best pieces on the subject of beefs that I’ve read, especially in the way it calls out white celebrities like Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus for simultaneously stealing from black icons like Lil’ Kim and Minaj and attempting to humiliate them.
Most of all, I loved the accessibility of All the Lives I Want. To me, creating accessible prose is not about the length of your sentences or the simplicity of the words you choose but rather about the common ground you make with your audience. Massey is a sort of citizen scientist of celebrity, passionate and humble and endlessly curious. Her writing is barbed without being condescending; frank without being crass.
These essays are short, smart dollops of joy and bittersweetness. I’m sure there’s an argument to be made for lengthening the essays and diving deeper into each topic; however, if that had happened, I think something vital and energetic would have been lost. On the rare occasions I noticed myself getting bored or lost, bam: the next essay was already beginning and pulling me in deeper.
I’ve long followed Alana Massey on Twitter. I find her particular blend of sly humor and genuine emotion (and shameless thirst traps) endlessly appealing. If you enjoy her Twitter presence as much as I do, you should know it’s only intensified here.
This is a terrific book about celebrity, girlhood, pleasure, and pain. You must read it. ★★★★★
In 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 by Sara Farizan
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.
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.
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. ★★★★★