Book Review: ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer

Fear of losing one’s self and one’s mind drives a lot of fiction these days, but I can safely say that Jeff VanderMeer’s eco-thriller Annihilation is one of the most original and thought-provoking takes on the theme I’ve read. Somewhere in the American South, an ecological mystery zone is spreading, governed by the top-secret Southern Reach organization. Some who enter kill themselves; some kill each other. The last expedition materialized randomly back at their homes, dying of aggressive cancer within months. Annihilation is the story of the twelfth expedition, told from the perspective of the an idiosyncratic biologist. The expedition quickly unravels amidst ever-eerier encounters with the natural (and unnatural) world, leaving the biologist to uncover devastating secrets…and to wonder if Area X is truly a disaster, or a blessing in disguise. While parts of the story feel almost hypnotically dull, it’s also, somehow, unputdownable. If you’ve ever been lost in the woods, you’ll recognize the mixed sensations of dread and wonder that Annihilation inspires. VanderMeer’s vision is breathtaking here, and my quibbles with his execution pale in comparison to the vast feelings of awe and possibility I felt while reading: exactly what I go to science fiction for in the first place.

You can read my full review below.


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Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

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  • publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: February 4, 2014
  • length: 195 pages
  • cover price: $14.00

The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. Beyond the marsh flats and the natural canals lies the ocean and, a little farther down the coast, a derelict lighthouse. All of this part of the country had been abandoned for decades, for reasons that are not easy to relate. Our expedition was the first to enter Area X for more than two years, and much of our predecessors’ equipment had rusted, their tents and sheds little more than husks. Looking out over that untroubled landscape, I do not believe any of us could yet see the threat.

Annihilation, page 1

I’m usually a “book first, movie second” kind of reader, but the movie adaptation of Annihilation came out of left field earlier this year and had me completely under its spell before I’d even heard of the novel. The film’s vision of a sci-fi future in which an alien crash landing causes a violent “shimmer” to begin devouring the American South, mutating everything it encounters, completely engrossed me–and while I was warned that it was a very loose adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel (Annihilation is the first in a trilogy), I knew I had to read it, if only to get another hours-long fix of the eerie world of the shimmer, a.k.a. “Area X” in the novels.

It’s true that the movie and novel are vastly different, but after reading Annihilation, I wasn’t disappointed at all by those differences–far from it. If you’ve read the book and been hesitant about the movie, or vice versa, I’m here to say that I think they both do an admirable job with the premise: a doomed expedition explores a creepy cordoned-off zone that’s as beautiful as it is dangerous, and finds more than they bargained for.

And with that, I’ll stop talking about the movie, since I really do intend this as a book review!

The most striking thing about Annihilation from the very first page is how bloodless and almost bland the narration is. The conceit is that we’re reading the journal of a member of the twelfth expedition known only as The Biologist (for unknown reasons, the Southern Reach strips all expedition participants of their names before they enter Area X). The biologist’s voice is extremely idiosyncratic, cold, and obsessive; I think that’s a polarizing choice on VanderMeer’s part, but it worked for me.

Something I loved about the diary structure is how it exposes the way the biologist has little allegiance to humanity and much more to the natural world. We get the sense early on that she wouldn’t be sad if Area X up and swallowed society as we know it. Pages and pages are devoted to how beautiful Area X is, including unsettling sights like human-dolphin hybrids and a strange moss/lichen/something that grows in the shape of ominous psalm-esque words; more disturbingly, she seems to view terrible violence as beauty, too. Her reaction to the death of a companion has the resigned-cum-awe feel that I associate with watching an osprey snatch a fish from a lake: that’s just the way of things, and at least it’s stunning to watch.

I don’t think that the biologist’s stance on humanity is necessarily wrong; I think a lot of the world’s ills can be traced to the fact that humans view other humans as exceptional, and the rest of nature as disposable. It’s just an unusual perspective to read about, especially in science fiction, which often draws from the “humanity must unite against apocalypse” well. Annihilation‘s tack is much more “humanity must concede to the apocalypse, and also acknowledge that it’s nothing personal.”

A lot of other science fiction (looking at you, The Matrix) also proposes that the world might be better off without us; the difference is that in those other movies, books, and TV shows, I always feel like I’m being manipulated into thinking either that of course humanity should survive, or of course I should take the cynical, suicidal view and think we shouldn’t.

Annihilation, on the other hand, poses the question genuinely and almost casually; you’re welcome to feel either way. You don’t have to engage with the philosophical parts of this book if you don’t want to–the woman vs. nature story will be enjoyable regardless–but there’s an abundance of riches here if you’re an overthinker like me, and I love that VanderMeer has created a novel that works on so many levels.

Unfortunately, Annihilation‘s pacing and plot do fizzle at times. There’s a lot of doubling-back, both literal (the biologist hiking back and forth around Area X) and ideological (is Area X good? is it bad? what is it? we just don’t know). Sometimes there’s a heart-pounding action sequence that suddenly stops dead as the biologist reminisces about her life. And there are several revelations that left me scratching my head, and not in an exciting “I wonder what happens next” way: more of a “where could VanderMeer possibly be going with this?” way.

For me, it wasn’t enough to ruin my enjoyment, but if you’re the kind of person who can’t stand when characters act stubbornly and/or stupidly, you might find it to be a deal-breaker.

To be fair, some of the vagueness (though not the biologist’s stubbornness) could be attributable to Annihilation‘s position as the first book in the Southern Reach trilogy. I haven’t read the latter two books–Authority and Acceptance–yet, but I’ll gladly deliver a verdict when I finish the trilogy, which should be soon. I can’t wait for payday when I can splurge on those two in good conscience.

Ultimately, what I can’t get out of my head is Annihilation‘s drastic (and I think successful) experiments with selfhood and setting. VanderMeer creates a world in which giving up our individual needs to participate in collective systems instead–the human system of the Southern Reach, and the natural one of Area X–seems not only practical, but appealing. When you look at how society (especially Western society) is set up, inverting the reader’s perspective in that way is a tremendous achievement. I love that kind of ambition.

Annihilation is an immersive and reliable ticket out of everyday life for a few hours. It’s as visionary and cerebral as it is earthy and grounded, and I’m convinced there’s something here for everyone. Even if you don’t love the trip, it’s an unforgettable view out the window. ★★★★☆


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

Book Review: THE MERRY SPINSTER by Daniel Mallory Ortberg

Fairytales are often as repulsive as they are fascinating, and in The Merry Spinster, Daniel Mallory Ortberg dials up the intensity of both sensations up to 11. These short stories are all retellings of myth and legend (with a few Bible stories thrown in), and they’re the only retellings I’ve ever encountered that retain all the opacity, awe, and terror of the originals. Sometimes that opacity is a little much–I didn’t understand a word of one story, “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad”–but usually it’s thrilling. I’m a fairytale nut and it sometimes feels like I’ve consumed every story under the sun already. Reading The Merry Spinster felt like uncovering a treasure trove of lost work from a favorite artist, something exactly in the style of the originals, but wonderfully new. Much of the praise of this book centers on Ortberg’s wit–and his wit is indeed brutally sharp–but what I liked best was his obvious understanding of what makes fairytales work. In the end, it’s not about wit, plot, or character, though those are nice–it’s about pure, raw, turbulent emotion, and luckily, The Merry Spinster has that quality in spades.

You can read my full review below.


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The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Daniel Mallory Ortberg

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  • publisher: Henry Holt & Co. (an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: March 13, 2018
  • length: 208 pages
  • list price: $17.00

Daughters are as good a thing as any to populate a kingdom with–if you’ve got them on hand. They don’t cost much more than their own upkeep, which you’re on the hook for regardless, so it’s not a bad strategy to put them to use as quickly as possible.

The Merry Spinster, page 1

I converted to Christianity just before Christmas, 2016. After years of atheism, it’s still something that feels mildly embarrassing to me, like I gave up somehow; I’ll admit that in many ways, I’m not very good at being a Christian, though at this point, God and I have reached the point of no return in our serious, if wary, relationship. (I relate strongly to this piece by Hanif Abdurraqib about why he still fasts for Ramadan despite being a less-than-fully-observant Muslim.)

I write all this because Daniel Mallory Ortberg has created something almost biblical with The Merry Spinster, not in the sense that it is remotely holy, but in the sense that it is polyphonic, inscrutable, and often terrifying. The love, loss, and vengeance in these stories is loud and in your face; it feels like it’s instructing you, though you don’t quite understand the lessons. And I mean these things in the most positive way possible.

The strongest story in the collection is the first one, “The Daughter Cells”; in this retelling of “The Little Mermaid,” the mermaid is more alien than girl. She goes to land not so much for the love of the prince but out of a bureaucratic desire to improve the efficiency of humans and a more personal one to gain the prince’s soul. In message, if not in tone, it reminded me of films and books like Annihilation and Contact; two species meet and harm each other entirely by accident. The thing is, those examples have hours and many pages to set up their premise; Ortberg achieves the same thing in a scant 25 pages. I’ve never read anything like it.

While in my opinion the collection doesn’t quite return to the heights of “The Daughter Cells” after that 25th page, most of the other stories are nearly as compelling. Ortberg does particularly interesting things with gender, playing with pronouns, names, and titles in intriguing and unsettling ways that meant a lot to me as a nonbinary person. (Ortberg has talked about how writing this book helped him come to terms with being trans.)

In particular, “The Thankless Child”–the second story in the collection and a loose retelling of “Cinderella” among other fables–provoked me to think harder and deeper. Its protagonist is named Paul, but she uses she/her pronouns. (It jarred me at first, but after all, so many “boys’ names” have been reclaimed as “girls’ names” anyway…why not Paul?) She lives in a desert hellscape where salt is currency, and her godmother is a supernatural and vengeful being who is jealous of Paul’s dead mother. Gender roles are fluid–couples fall into the “husband” and “wife” roles depending on their aptitudes, not their genders–and it fundamentally alters the Cinderella story in ways that surprised me. “Cinderella” is one of the most-retold stories imaginable (Ella Enchanted is my personal favorite retelling), yet Ortberg still manages to make it fresh.

Other stories are straight-up terrifying rather than just unsettling. “The Rabbit,” a sinister retelling of “The Velveteen Rabbit,” particularly upset me (in a delicious way). Another story, “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad,” is just as creepy, but much less effective because it’s so confusing. (Ortberg has a loopy prose style that usually works well but sometimes seems to waffle and double back on itself.)

Every story in the collection feels like a major risk, and some don’t pay off as well as others. I really didn’t like the “Mr. Toad” story, and others, like “The Wedding Party”–about a couple arguing before their courthouse wedding–were interesting but not emotionally effective for me.

But in a way, I love that uneven, unpredictable quality in The Merry Spinster: because it’s not only a short story collection, but a short short story collection at only 208 pages, everything flies by so quickly that even the parts that drag didn’t drag down my enjoyment too much.

The word that pops up again and again when I think about The Merry Spinster is “unique,” and not in a passive-aggressive Midwestern way–it’s genuinely unique and thoughtful and experimental and wonderful. It scratched an itch I never knew I had, and now that it’s been scratched, I’m sad that there aren’t more books in this niche. Ortberg’s next book will be a memoir (currently titled Something That May Shock and Discredit You) but I hope he returns to this well soon. ★★★★☆


My copy of The Merry Spinster came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: THE GOSPEL OF TREES by Apricot Irving

The Gospel of Trees is an ambitious memoir: it’s both a personal reckoning and a much bigger historical one; it’s a microcosm of one missionary family and also a macrocosm of the tangled legacy of missionary work around the globe. In it, Apricot Irving recounts her personal experience growing up as a missionary’s daughter in Haiti–Ayiti Cherie–while weaving in meticulous and nuanced research about the island’s brutal colonial history. It’s a little too long and its structure comes somewhat unglued by the end, but it’s still a top-notch memoir by a gifted writer that will reverberate with me for a long time.

You can read my full review below.


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The Gospel of Trees by Apricot Irving

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  • publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • publication date: March 6, 2018
  • length: 384 pages
  • cover price: $26.00

When we don’t know what to make of a situation, we grope for a familiar pattern, a path worn into the grass. The danger, of course, is that by imposing our own expectations, we fail to see anything clearly. I am as guilty of this as anyone.

Stories, like archaeology, are fragmentary, composed of scraps and nuances, and–depending on what is left out–most narratives can be constructed so as to end in either glory or ruin. But the missionaries I had grown up with were neither marauders nor saints; Haiti was neither savage nor noble. The truth was far more complicated.

The Gospel of Trees, page 1

Publishing is full of books by white people who write about how they saved the “Third World” or how the “Third World” saved them. Luckily, The Gospel of Trees feels like a sort of antidote to this disrespect and tackiness: written by a white woman who was once a missionary’s daughter in Haiti, it somehow turns these tropes upside-down and inside-out, transforming them from cardboard cut-outs into something rich and new.

Apricot Irving is the daughter of white farmers who picked up everything and moved to northern Haiti as missionaries in the 1980s; Irving and her sisters went with them. At first the girls were enchanted by the beauty and opportunities of their corner of the island–especially the paradoxical and uncomfortable luxury they enjoyed as blan outsiders, a sharp contrast to their austere lives in the States–but paradise soon crumbles beneath their father’s single-minded desires and anger and their mother’s growing exhaustion.

Irving draws on a wide array of material to build the narrative: her own diaries, those of her parents, the ever-optimistic and fundraising-oriented missionary bulletins sent back to American churches, field research, historical documents, and personal letters; the facts never feel mushy or in doubt.

She is also impressively introspective throughout: she writes about some of her most unflattering thoughts and actions with a thoughtful openness I can’t even imagine possessing. It allows her to tackle enormous questions of race, wealth, religion, power, privilege, misogyny, and more without it coming across as yet another guilty white person looking for absolution. It’s clear that she’s either found absolution within herself or has given up on finding it, so there is–refreshingly–not a drop of neediness left on the page.

It’s all tremendously effective right up until the latter third, which sees Irving first leaving Haiti as a teenager and then returns again and again as an adult. The tight structure of the first two parts is replaced by a confusing coming-apart that muddies things; all the powerful contradictions and ironies from earlier pages seem to fizzle out as Irving doubles back and forth and back again.

But this is a top-notch memoir regardless of that slump. Irving is a stunningly talented writer; better yet, she’s a stunningly talented thinker, someone who seems capable of holding multitudes within her without flattening sharp edges in the process. (I wish I had that talent.)

The Gospel of Trees is neither bitter nor sweet; it’s not even merely bittersweet. It contains a whole and dazzling palette. It haunted me as I read it and it will continue to haunt me long after I’ve set it down. ★★★★☆


My copy of The Gospel of Trees came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: ORPHAN MONSTER SPY by Matt Killeen

It’s hard to think of a novel I’ve read recently that seems more destined to make the leap into film than this one. Orphan Monster Spy–about a blonde and blue-eyed Jewish girl who becomes a spy at a Nazi boarding school after her mother’s murder in 1939–is a thrilling, risky, messy, wonderful firecracker of a novel. Dialogue is a weak point, and sometimes the novel’s little nods to the rise of Naziism in the U.S. today threatened to pull me out of this ostensibly historical fiction. But I can’t be too harsh–Matt Killeen works magic on every page, and Orphan Monster Spy is unlike anything else I’ve read. It’s technically YA, but I’d recommend it for anyone who loves taut, cinematic thrillers in the vein of Atomic Blonde (a.k.a. The Coldest City) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

You can read my full review below.


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Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen

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  • publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
  • publication date: March 20, 2018
  • length: 432 pages
  • cover price: $18.99

Finally, the car came to a stop. With difficulty, Sarah opened her eyes, blinked to clear her vision, and looked up from her hiding place in the footwell. Her mother was slumped in the driver’s seat, her head against the top of the steering wheel. She was gazing through the spokes to where Sarah crouched. Her mother’s eyes were almost the same, wide and pretty. Her pupils were so big Sarah could nearly see herself in them. But now they seemed dull. Her mother was no longer in there.

Orphan Monster Spy, page 1

Sometimes one book makes me fall in love with all books all over again. Orphan Monster Spy is that kind of book, not because it’s perfect, but because it’s a damn good read. Its almost unbearable tension and sadness is balanced with humor and small victories that had me pumping my fist as much as I was biting my nails.

15-year-old Sarah doesn’t keep kosher or go to synagogue, and she even has a “good Aryan” Gentile father, but she can’t erase her mother’s Jewish heritage. Trapped in the Jewish ghettos of Berlin and Vienna in the 1930s, blonde and blue-eyed Sarah and her actress mother are targets of the increasingly hostile Nazi government. When they try to make a run for the Swiss border in 1939, just before Germany invades Poland, Sarah’s mother is brutally murdered, and Sarah finds herself on the run.

That’s where the book opens, and from there, the plot moves at the speed of light. Sarah saves an enigmatic British spy from suspicious Nazis, and in turn, he protects her, employs her, and places her undercover at an elite Nazi boarding school where she must befriend the daughter of a scientist building a “grapefruit bomb” (nuclear weapon) that could level whole cities in minutes.

The setup is quick and direct, leaving plenty of time to dig deep into Sarah’s character (fascinating) and life at the Nazi boarding school (even more fascinating). The high-stakes final act, in particular, is breathtaking.

I love the breadth and depth of YA novels that exist now, more than existed even a few years ago when I was a teen. (I’m only 23!) I don’t read much YA anymore, but I picked this one up because I like WWII history and literary-ish thrillers. Boy, was I not disappointed. I was shocked at how much depth and historical detail Killeen managed to cram into this book without compromising the taut, gritty narrative. It’s a YA book that feels perfectly YA (as I define it: young protagonist, fast pace), but it’s unique and edgy enough that I’d also recommend it to someone who thinks they’re above YA. (Like myself, sort of.)

A couple of things don’t ring so true, though.

One, Killeen does the thing I hate in multilingual novels: he has characters say things in their native language (mostly German, here) and then has them immediately “repeat it” in English. It doesn’t make any sense and I wish authors would either only use words that I could pick up through context clues or would just use the English versions. I know it’s set in Germany; I don’t need to be constantly yanked out of the story by something that feels like the author being clever instead of being authentic to the characters.

Two, speaking of being authentic, this book is at times heavy-handed with its social commentary at the expense of its characters. I struggled with how to phrase this criticism because Orphan Monster Spy’s subject matter is inherently timely and social justice-y and I don’t want to ding it for that. That’s part of why I chose to read it, after all, and I wish more stories faced anti-Semitism and oppression as head-on as this one does. Still, there are times where it’s so blatant it practically breaks the fourth wall.

For example, in one conversation with Elsa, the Nazi scientist’s daughter whom Sarah is tasked with befriending, Elsa lets slip that America is full of Nazis. Sarah, deep in character as another good Nazi girl, reminds Elsa that America is not to be trusted. Elsa just laughs and tells her that American Nazis are even more dangerous than German ones because they have to hide their true colors.

I mean, I can’t fault Killeen’s accuracy on that count, but it’s such a transparent aside that it felt like it had been sung out by the gospel Greek chorus from Hercules(It certainly doesn’t feel like natural conversation.)

In the end, though, this book is so dazzlingly ambitious, smart, and compulsively readable that those things barely impacted my enjoyment of it.

Orphan Monster Spy is a desperate book for desperate times; its mission statement–take down Nazis, get revenge, survive–shouldn’t feel so relevant in 2018, but it does. For those tired of fighting the good fight, this book is a heady infusion of entertainment, energy, and pure steel. 4/5 stars.


My copy of Orphan Monster Spy came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: WHITE CHRYSANTHEMUM by Mary Lynn Bracht

Moving between the years 1943 and 2011, White Chrysanthemum is told from the perspectives of Korean sisters Hana and Emi, both of whom grow up under Japan’s oppressive colonial rule. In 1943, Hana sacrifices herself for Emi and is captured by Japanese soldiers as a “comfort woman”: a sex slave for the Japanese army. In 2011, Emi travels to Seoul to search for Hana one last time. Love, war, family, and violence are big, messy themes to play with, but Mary Lynn Bracht tackles them with aplomb, and from an unusual and necessary angle. This novel is precisely told, always-suspenseful, ambitious, and moving, and Bracht is a debut author to watch.

You can read my full review below.


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White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht

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  • publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
  • publication date: January 30, 2018
  • length: 320 pages
  • cover price: $26.00

So many years have passed since the war ended, since the protests began, yet the crimes still go unpunished. What does it require to deserve an apology? To give one? Emi touches her chest. Her heart unclenches. Today’s demonstration is special, the one thousandth protest.

White Chrysanthemum, page 78

The haenyeo divers of Jeju Island, a province just south of the Korean mainland, are celebrated as real-life “mermaids“; they train to hold their breath for up to three minutes, diving deep into freezing waters year-round in order to harvest fresh seafood like conch, seaweed, urchins, and oysters. In White Chrysanthemum, Jeju Islander sisters Hana and Emi train as haenyeo with their mother. Their lives under Japanese occupation are hard, but the sea gives them a measure of strength, independence, and respect that most Korean women in 1943 could only dream of.

Unfortunately, it’s not enough to save Hana. The 16-year-old manages to hide her younger sister Emi from raiding Japanese soldiers, but is kidnapped herself and taken far from home to serve as a “comfort woman“: a sexual slave for the Japanese army.

After the introductory chapter documenting Hana’s love of her sister and her  shamanistic induction ceremony as a haenyeo (expressly forbidden by the Japanese), the narrative splits: one half stays in 1943, following Hana’s capture and hellish new life as a comfort woman, and the other half jumps to 2011, following an elderly Emi as she seeks news of her lost sister during the historic (and ongoing) Wednesday protests at the Japanese embassy demanding reparations for comfort women.

The split narrative is risky: if Hana is still missing to Emi in 2011, we know she won’t make it back to her family in 1943, which threatens to undermine the novel’s tension. Luckily, this structure actually serves to modulate the horrors documented in White Chrysanthemum, giving us respite in Emi’s story just when Hana’s threatens to be too much to bear.

This novel is Mary Lynn Bracht’s debut, and it is a tremendously auspicious one. The existence of comfort women wasn’t widely known until the first Korean woman came forward in 1991–over 50 years after the practice began–but the history is still foggy to many Americans. (It certainly was to me.) Similarly, I would venture that many, if not most, non-Koreans don’t know about the brutal history of the 1910-1945 Japanese occupation or the Korean War that immediately followed.

This is all to say that Bracht has a lot of ground to cover in establishing her narrative, but she’s more than up to the task. The history is explored with a light, eloquent touch that leaves plenty of room for character and plot development.

White Chrysanthemum is absolutely harrowing; like I wrote in my review of The Tangled Lands last week, readers who are triggered by sexual assault and violence should probably avoid this book. Rape, torture, and violent deaths are written about in graphic detail that at times made me feel physically sick.

What amazed me about Bracht’s skilled, precise writing, however, is that these events never feel sensational or cruel. White Chrysanthemum is not an “issue novel” seeking to twist the knife and make you feel as much pity and pain as possible; instead, Hana and Emi’s stories feel powerful and fully realized, as if Bracht is merely a documentarian uncovering the forgotten lives of real women. (In a sense, she is.)

A few elements work less well than others. There’s a tragic twist to Emi’s story about halfway through the book that came off as cheap to me–I think Bracht was trying to add urgency, but I thought the story would have been just as good without it. There are times when Bracht moves back and forth between fantasy and reality, particularly in Hana’s story, that feel more confusing than dreamy. (It makes sense that Hana would dissociate under the circumstances, but it doesn’t make for good reading.) And Hana’s story undergoes so many twists and turns that I felt a bit of whiplash when it finally concludes.

But the payoff more than compensates for these weaknesses. Bracht has a Korean mother and grew up in a community of expat Korean women, and after I turned the last page, that detail was utterly unsurprising to me: White Chrysanthemum reads like it was written by an attentive, interested listener. It is tremendously empathetic, especially to the women at its core but even to its villains, and it confronts difficult events head-on without simplifying the people who experience them to one-note tragedies.

When Emi tries to tell the truth about Hana at last, her family doesn’t respond with awe or wonder–they respond with confusion and even a little cruelty. That was the detail that clinched the book for me. Family secrets are exciting to readers, but they’re astonishingly painful to the people who live them, hear about them, and must re-evaluate their core selves around them.

Bracht dives to the heart of Korean family secrets in this debut, which I hope marks the beginning of a long and fruitful career for her. White Chrysanthemum will stay with me for a long, long time. 4/5 stars.


My copy of White Chrysanthemum came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: A QUICK & EASY GUIDE TO THEY/THEM PRONOUNS by Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson

This short-‘n’-sweet comic book guide to they/them pronouns has two simple goals in mind–to educate people about they/them pronouns, and to encourage the use of gender neutral language in general–and it accomplishes those things breezily and effectively. I’m nonbinary myself, and while none of the information here was new to me, it was presented with admirable precision and concision. I wholeheartedly recommend A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns as a toolbox and source of friendly validation for trans and nonbinary folks and their allies.

A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns will be released on June 12th, 2018. You can read my full review below.


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A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns by Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson

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  • publisher: Limerence Press (an imprint of Oni Press)
  • publication date: June 12, 2018
  • length: 64 pages
  • cover price: $7.99

I came out as nonbinary in 2015. I distinctly remember how that felt: how afraid I was, how exhausted I was, but also how hopeful I was that I could finally live out an important part of myself authentically. For months, I pushed at friends and family members to remember. Please don’t call me a woman. Please don’t use “she”; please use “they” instead.

Unfortunately, outside of my very innermost circle, none of it stuck–and between being a busy student and a person with multiple disabilities, I just didn’t have the energy to keep correcting people. My feelings haven’t changed–I’m still a nonbinary person, and I’m happiest when people refer to me using they/them pronouns–but it’s not something that gets acknowledged in my day-to-day life anymore.

That’s why A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns is so refreshing: it’s a 64-page comic book that can be read in less than an hour, and its breezy, no-nonsense tone treats a future in which gender-neutral language prevails as a given instead of a distant dream. That’s a much-needed hopeful message for nonbinary people. It’s also a palatable one for the legions of friendly-but-ignorant people who struggle with gender-neutral language, even if they aren’t hostile to it: this book is a cheerleader that says, yes, you too can do it!

In fact, what I appreciated most about the book was that it simply doesn’t acknowledge the bigots. Far too many educational resources about trans and nonbinary people take a sweeping, self-important approach that simply tries to do too much at once. Changing the mind of someone who’s virulently transphobic is maybe impossible, and it’s certainly something that can’t be done in the space of a brief and affable comic book, so the authors choose not to try. The book is clearer and better for it.

A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns also walks an admirable line of providing information without presenting itself as an unimpeachable authority. It’s quick to offer general definitions and cheat-sheets while also explaining that there are as many ways to be nonbinary as there are nonbinary people. It offers suggestions, like encouraging businesses to train staff to use gender-neutral language (cutting down on erroneous “sirs” and “ma’ams”), without insisting that those suggestions are inherently solutions.

Also, smartly, the book encourages people to err on the side of gender-neutral language not just for the sake of nonbinary people (who are a small but growing slice of the population, after all), but also to create a more equal world where gender matters less in general. It’s an argument I wish more trans and nonbinary advocates would make.

I’m confident that I can attribute all these good qualities to the fact that the book is spearheaded by an actual nonbinary person who uses they/them pronouns: Minneapolis cartoonist Archie Bongiovanni. (You may recognize their work from the Autostraddle Saturday morning cartoon, Grease Bats.) It’s cowritten with their cisgender (non-transgender) male friend, Tristan Jimerson, meaning the book can speak for nonbinary people and allies alike.

Of course, it’s not all perfect: I’m not a huge comics person, and though the comics format makes the book feel breezier and easier to read, I would have preferred plain text. (That’s 100% just because I’m boring, but I figured I’d note it anyway.) The jokes are on the corny side and a few don’t quite land. Most of all, because nonbinary identity tends to be so unique and personal to each individual, there were a few points in the book that rubbed me the wrong way since they didn’t ring quite true for me–a problem that cis readers likely won’t have.

Overall, A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns fills a necessary niche with aplomb. It’s cheap to buy (just $7.99) and quick to read, and I recommend it highly, especially for educational and professional spaces looking to do trainings on this topic or just looking to keep resources on their shelves.

If you’re a nonbinary person looking for validation and a toolbox–or a cis person who’s looking to be a better, more supportive friend to the nonbinary community–this book is for you. 4/5 stars.

A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns is currently available for pre-order and will be released on June 12th, 2018.


I received this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I received no other compensation and opinions are entirely my own.

Book Review: THE ANSWERS by Catherine Lacey

The Answers’ premise is about as difficult to explain as the novel’s many layers are to digest: a broke New York 30-something, Mary, gets a job acting as an on-call “Emotional Girlfriend” to a vain, selfish actor and auteur. But in Catherine Lacey’s hands, this “Girlfriend Experiment” feels no stranger than reality TV or even more ordinary experiences of falling in love. Love or hate The Answers, you’ll almost certainly find it unforgettable (and not just because of its eye-catching cover).

You can read my full review below.


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The Answers by Catherine Lacey

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  • publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: June 6, 2017
  • isbn: 978-0-3741-0026-1
  • length: 304 pages

I wondered what could have happened between them that would make her need him this badly, but I suppose you can never tell what is happening between people. It’s as private as eye contact, no room for more than two.

The Answers, page 272

Few books have reminded me how subjective reading is as potently as The Answers did. As I turned the pages of Lacey’s novel, I kept thinking about why, for example, I gave five stars to There Your Heart Lies by Mary Gordon–a book that’s undoubtedly lovely but also forgettable–but only four stars to Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, a book I think of constantly and even purchased as a Christmas gift for my partner.

Oh, the things that keep a book blogger up at night.

The answer is because I’m flawed, of course, but also because I’ve noticed that I demand more from books I love than from books I merely like and admire. I loved The Answers unconditionally–but I also wanted to demand more from it.

In The Answers, 30-year-old Mary is isolated and lonely, crushed by travel debt, and seriously ill with chronic pain and numbness that doctors can’t explain. Her best friend Chandra recommends new-agey PAKing treatments, and to Mary’s shock, they begin to cure her–but they’re also desperately expensive, so she replies to a cryptic job ad, and is quickly hired as the “Emotional Girlfriend” in a vanity project-cum-scientific experiment run by actor Kurt Sky. Mary caters to Kurt’s every emotional need for pay, along with teams of other women who cater to his other needs, like the “Mundanity Girlfriend,” “Anger Girlfriend,” and the, er, “Intimacy Team.”

Unsurprisingly, the “Girlfriend Experiment” doesn’t go well.

I tweeted up a storm about this book’s thriller-like atmosphere–it feels intensely like a David Fincher movie, complete with me imagining Rooney Mara as its heroine–though it’s not a thriller at all. Rather, it’s a deep dive into the meanings of vanity, celebrity, isolation, the queasy power of falling in love, and–profoundly–sexism.

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Rooney Mara chews out Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network (2010).

We eventually learn that Mary was an only child raised off the grid by deeply Christian parents. She’s ignorant of and ambivalent towards pop culture: she’s never seen a movie, doesn’t listen to music, and doesn’t read the news, making her the perfect sponge for all of superstar Kurt Sky’s emotional diatribes, since she has absolutely no idea who he is.

Kurt fetishizes Mary’s emotional availability to an absurd degree, ignoring the fact that he’s literally paying her to act that way, and Mary, for her part, finds herself falling in a sort of love with Kurt regardless. The whole experiment is a an extreme allegory for how sexism, money, and power complicate all sorts of relationships between men and women, but it never feels heavy-handed.

Unfortunately, the story’s early beginning and late end did leave a lot to be desired. Mary is inscrutable, something that’s made worse, not better, by parts I and III’s first-person perspective. (Part II, told in third-person omniscient, is by far the novel’s strongest section.) Some questions also don’t get the answers (ha!) that I was looking for, or don’t get answered at all; I think that Mary’s best friend Chandra, in particular, gets short shrift.

I couldn’t help it, though–by 50 pages in, I was enough in love with The Answers’ bonkers, brilliant premise and Lacey’s lyrical, profound style to forgive it just about anything. The idea of the Girlfriend Experiment might be extreme–but so is sexism; so is falling in love. 4/5 stars.


My copy of The Answers came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.