Book Review: THE GIRLS by Emma Cline

The Girls was a massive critical and commercial success upon its release in 2016, and it hardly needs my voice chiming in on its behalf. Still, I wanted to write about this historical novel–set in late ’60s California, loosely based on the Manson Family and their infamous murders–because it stirred up such a complex array of emotions in me. With Cline’s prose being so luminous that it practically burned into the back of my eyelids, and The Girls‘s electric premise, I should have absolutely loved this novelinstead I only liked it. As its title implies, The Girls is a lovely novel about girlhood, but I have serious reservations about its myopic focus and the liberties Cline takes with historical events. Despite the novel’s raw power, its plot curdles instead of coheres.

You can read my full review below.


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The Girls by Emma Cline

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  • publisher: Penguin Random House
  • publication date: 2016 (hardcover) and 2017 (paperback)
  • length: 368 pages (paperback)

It was the end of the sixties, or the summer before the end, and that’s what it seemed like, an endless, formless summer. The Haight populated with white-garbed Process members handing out their oat-colored pamphlets, the jasmine along the roads that year blooming particularly heady and full. Everyone was healthy, tan, and heavy with decoration, and if you weren’t, that was a thing, too–you could be some moon creature, chiffon over the lamp shades, on a kitchen cleanse that stained all your dishes with turmeric.

But all that was happening somewhere else, not in Petaluma…

–from The Girls by Emma Cline

The Girls stars one girl, Evie, who is fourteen years old. Her parents have recently divorced; she lives in her mother’s mansion in Petaluma and is acting out against her mother’s boyfriends, though you quickly get the impression that her strife with her mother runs much deeper than the divorce and new beaus: Evie is ignored and smothered by her nervous mother in turns, never quite in the Goldilocks zone of affection. Her father lives in a distant apartment with his former secretary (and new lover), rarely seen. On top of all that, Evie’s best (and seemingly only) friend spurns her. It seems things can’t get worse.

Except they can. It’s the summer of 1969, Evie is terribly lonely, and that’s when she falls in with the girls. Plural. The Manson ones.

Or they would be the Manson ones, if Cline hadn’t created a somewhat scrambled analogue of the infamous cult “family” for this novel. The Girls‘s cult leader is Russell, not Charles. The Family has a run-in with an apparently famous musician named Mitch, but his band goes conspicuously unnamed (it was actually Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys). They’re in San Francisco, not Los Angeles. Cline creates four composite victims here in place of at least eight real ones.

I’m being pedantic here, I know. But I list these details because Cline is working with the freaking Manson murders here, literally one of the best-known crimes in American history. I wish that Cline had either fudged more details or fewer, because the way she writes about the summer of 1969 in this novel left me cross-eyed, like my glasses weren’t on right. The Girls‘s historical details are always distractingly in the middle distance, even as Cline gets the muggy, dizzy vibe of the thing just right.

It’s unfortunate, a little like if an Investigation Discovery reenactment was suddenly given the auteur treatment. (No disrespect meant to ID, but we all know those reenactments are the pits.) Cline is a gifted auteur, and I loved to watch her work, but I could never forget I was watching her work. The Girls never feels real, too much art and too little life. It’s good art, but it can’t escape an uncanny valley.

If you know nothing to very little about the Manson murders, then this critique is pointless. Go in and love this novel, because there’s an awful lot to love. But I don’t even know that much about the murders–most of what I know comes from Stuff You Should Know’s twopart podcast about them that was released last year–and it was still a strong enough dissonance to bother me. Your mileage may vary.

And I’ll add, in a small and self-justifying voice, that I think Cline’s composite artistry also damages the plot. It leaves Evie’s moves feeling a little too planned, leaves her feeling always in the right place and never quite under her own power, meaning that even when I knew she was in danger, the danger never compelled me. (This novel is not very long, but took me two whole weeks to get through. It’s not a slog, just somewhat impenetrable. I could only give it short bursts of my time before losing interest.)

After all that, let me talk about what The Girls gets right, because there’s an awful lot that it gets right. I promise.

First, The Girls gets girls right, and in that way, the novel’s unreality almost works in its favor. Girls are girls, whether it’s 1969 or now, most of their challenges the same. The novel’s framing device is that Evie, now an adult, is staying at an old friend’s beach house when that friend’s college-age son and his girlfriend Tasha stop by. The menacing gender dynamics Evie witnesses between the boyfriend and Tasha take her right back to 1969, when those same forces pushed her into the cult and kept her there. She narrates the story from there, with brief interludes from the present throughout.

I had a (positive) visceral reaction to the way Cline writes about Evie’s loss of innocence, and the observed loss of innocence of other girls, especially Tasha’s. Evie’s circumstances are extraordinary, and yet her arc is terribly mundane and familiar. At one point, she observes that young girls know instinctively that they are objects to be judged, that whatever opinion they have of themselves is subservient to the opinions of others (i.e., men). It’s such a simple observation and yet it hit me like a heart attack. I shivered. It was otherworldly in its potency, sort of like the “Cool Girl” speech in Gone Girl.

Which leads me to the second, perhaps best thing The Girls gets right: the prose. It’s so good I got a high of sorts. I re-read some pages many times just to marvel at them. Cline writes with a manic intensity that is just right for this material. Every scene was supercharged with detail and energy, especially the ones at the cult ranch. Green potatoes foraged from dumpsters, musty girls’ clothes shared from a trash bag, and the scumminess of an unmaintained pool all take on intense significance here. The drugged-up eyes of the other girls at the compound are at one point described as “bright berries.” That lingers.

There’s a constant contrast between the innocence of Evie’s whitewashed Petaluma life, which she hates, and the drugged-up depravity of the cult’s lifestyle, which she also hates, but models herself after anyway. It’s a contrast that becomes interestingly muddled as the novel goes on, less of a choice between two things than an inevitability. She moves from the first to the second as if there’s no way to move, as if growing up were the same as decaying.

And like Evie, I’m left of two minds here. I like the experience of having read The Girls. I love that its images and observations are now bouncing around my mind. But I can’t get over the fuzzy, somewhat numb experience of actually reading it. It’s long stretches of nothing punctuated with mind-blowing moments. On one hand, I admire The Girls’s single-mindedness, and on the other, I feel a little cheated by it. Focus does not require myopia, and yet in its focus on the girls, this novel feels myopic.

It’s worth noting, to that point, that this book does not mention race at all. To my understanding every single character in it is white. The more I think about it, the weirder that is. Evie certainly lives a fairly wealthy, spoiled, insulated life in Petaluma, but it’s 1969 in California. Near San Francisco. Near Oakland! It seems odd that there isn’t even a throwaway mention of race, especially given that the real Manson murders were considered by the lead prosecutor as attempts to frame the Black Panthers and spark a race war. (Some people today think that isn’t true, but it’s still such a huge part of the case that it’s strange to leave it out entirely, even in its made-up version.)

I’m white, and the narrative of white girlhood that Cline presents here resonated powerfully with me, but it’s very much a story of white girlhood. No novel needs to include every human experience (or even most of them), but in the case of The Girls, it feels like yet another important detail elided or muddled to suit the story’s ends. It makes the scaffolding of this novel feel too visible, though I love the structure beneath.

The Girls is a powerful experience. (A real trip, if you will.) I recommend it, and am glad I own it, since I’ll likely revisit it again. I just wish Cline had channeled its raw, cathartic energy into something that flowed just a little better, felt just a little more well-thought-out. Moment by moment, The Girls is astonishingly good, but its connective tissue falters. ★★★★☆

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

Book Review: EVENTIDE by Therese Bohman

Eventide follows Karolina Andersson, an art history professor who finds herself in a personal (and possibly, career) rut after a passionless breakup with a long-term partner, Karl Johan. Drifting aimlessly through life in Stockholm, she becomes involved with several old and new flames, along with a good-looking graduate student who promises to have unearthed a secret for his dissertation that could revolutionize the history of Swedish art. It’s a spare, self-contained novel that feels both achingly melancholy and surprisingly light on its feet. I am always charmed by novels that choose a small story to tell and then execute it perfectly; Eventide is such a novel. At times Eventide feels just a little too small, but its precise prose (translated from the original Swedish) and outsize emotional power make it more than worth the read.

You can read my full review below.


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Eventide by Therese Bohman (translated by Marlaine Delargy)

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  • publisher: Other Press
  • publication date: April 10, 2018 (originally published in Sweden in 2016)
  • length: 208 pages
  • cover price: $15.95

…Karolina liked her new home. It had soon begun to feel like an oasis, a space of her own, maybe somewhere she could make a fresh start, even if that was still some way beyond the horizon. For the moment it was a good location for a period of aimless confusion.

Eventide, page 5

I am struck, frequently, by how few books we have that are really about women. Not just starring women, not just written by women, but about women. It’s not that books about women are inherently better than other kinds of books. I’d just as soon read books that are about dragons, or sword-fighting, or cold-blooded murder, or pirates, or even about men.

It’s just that there are so many women, and so few stories about them, that the artificial scarcity hurts my heart. It boggles my mind. So when I find a book like Eventide, which is an intimate, specific, compassionate, but not sappy novel that is intensely concerned with the woman at its center, I find myself with an abundance of goodwill towards that book, maybe even unfairly.

Luckily, Eventide deserves that goodwill. It’s a tightly crafted, slim novel about an art professor, generically named Karolina Andersson, who is dealing with personal and professional upheaval. She’s good at her job, as far as the reader can tell, but she finds herself romantically adrift and desperately sad about it. She ends a long-term relationship because she knew it wasn’t the right fit, but endlessly despairs that that relationship, flawed as it was, might have been her only shot.

The novel circles this self-pitying drain for nearly its entire duration, but somehow, it rarely feels stale or overdone. In fact, it’s refreshing.

In a less skilled author’s hands, Eventide might only have been one more novel about the “biological clock.” For Bohman, Eventide‘s basic plot is a probing instrument to get at all sorts of unjust truths about society, even a society as supposedly egalitarian as Stockholm, Sweden’s.

The driving force of the plot is that Andersson’s newly assigned Ph.D candidate, Anton Strömberg, has uncovered a startling connection between an obscure female Swedish artist and a male-dominated German arts movement. If this sounds boring and academic, I understand; I’m not sure how to convince you that it’s not boring, other than to say that it isn’t.

Bohman infuses Karolina and Anton’s interactions with a tautness and sexuality that make the art rather secondary. That’s true of all the art history in the book, in fact. For Karolina (and the reader, at least for Eventide‘s duration), the intellectual and the sensual are inseparable.

I dislike when people try and reduce feminism in fiction to feminist characters. Is Katniss Everdeen a feminist character? Is Lizzie Bennett? Hester Prynne? And so on, and so forth. I think a better question is whether or not a novel fully realizes the power structures that women are subjected to. By expecting perfection from our heroines, I fear that we are doing the opposite of feminism.

In contrast, Karolina’s imperfection was the thing I loved most about Eventide, even when I found her to be frustrating, unethical, and claustrophobically self-centered; even when I found her story to be a bit boring and repetitive. This is a novel that understands that there is no right thing to do or say that makes things fair in a profoundly unfair world. Sometimes things go badly, and there’s little morality (or immorality) to it.

Towards the end of the novel, there’s a long meditation on the fact that no one really “deserves” anything, so you might as well strive for what you want. In a lot of fiction and pop culture, this viewpoint (which is hardly unique) comes across as defeatist or greedy; in Eventide, though, it feels different:

If no one deserves anything, that means you are just as entitled to the good things in life as the rival you hate, as the ex-lover you vilify. There is no need to keep hating them or vilifying them or giving them endless mental energy when you can simply ignore them and pursue your own desires. You are not more, or less, moral for doing so.

Eventide suggests that endlessly sorting ourselves into “deserving” and “undeserving” is a trap we can free ourselves from. It’s a message, without being, in the preachy sense, a Message.

Eventide has a small and perfectly balanced center of gravity. It is not a novel that is explosive, glorious, unforgettable, or even vivid. It is simply a little thing done well, modest and purely itself. It’s the person at the party who’s quiet all night, and then says one tiny thing just before leaving that stays with you forever.

In short, Eventide is lovely. ★★★★☆


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

Book Review: CRAZY RICH ASIANS by Kevin Kwan

Crazy Rich Girlfriend is Kevin Kwan’s romantic comedy send-up of his home country of Singapore. In it, Nick Young decides to take his girlfriend, Rachel Chu, with him for a 10-week vacation in Singapore. Unfortunately, he neglects to tell her that his family is ridiculously wealthy and that he happens to be the island’s most eligible bachelor. There are a few interlinking plotlines about Nick’s petty, spoiled family, along with delicious descriptions of food, luscious fashion porn, and plenty of sly political and social observations about the “crazy rich” of Asia. In the midst of all this opulence and bitchy drama, I found myself hard-up for someone to root for–that is, until the final 50 or so pages, which pierce the novel’s silly bubble to reveal a core much sharper and smarter than I had been expecting. I’m looking forward to books two and three in the trilogy: China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems, respectively.

You can read my full review below.


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Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

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  • publisher: Anchor Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
  • publication date: 2013
  • length: 544 pages
  • cover price: $16.00

“You probably want to prepare her a bit,” Astrid said with a laugh.

“What is there to prepare her for?” Nick asked breezily.

“Listen, Nicky,” Astrid said, her tone getting serious. “You can’t just throw Rachel into the deep end like this. You need to prep her, do you hear me?”

Crazy Rich Asians, page 40

Billionaire romance feels like my dirtiest habit. It’s not the romance part–I’m a proud romance reader–but the billionaire part. I’m a socialist, social justice killjoy, you see, if you haven’t picked that up already from reading this blog. So why do I eat up stories of the powerfully wealthy with a spoon? Why do I swoon over the gowns and the food and exotic destinations? I’m not sure, but I do.

I entered Crazy Rich Asians with no small amount of guilt and trepidation. From everything I’d heard (including about the smash hit movie, which I haven’t seen yet), Crazy Rich Asians wasn’t just about rich people: it was loud about rich people. It was unabashed in its glamour and wealth. It was downright tacky about it. It basically filled a ball pit with hundred dollar bills and paid a supermodel in a Louis Vuitton couture gown to roll around in it.

And I’ll admit, after reading Crazy Rich Asians, I don’t think I’ll be able to have my billionaire escapist fiction any other way. This novel is ridiculous. It’s ridiculously fun. Also, perhaps surprisingly, considering how romantic and frothy it is, it has a lot of  smart and resonant things to say, that it can only say because of how ridiculous it is.

As many, many a reviewer has said before me, Crazy Rich Asians is Jane Austen for the modern age. Its claws are out, its satire stings, but it’s also unabashedly a love letter to the things it’s critiquing. And just like as it is with the endless Mr. Darcy discourse, you’ll also be wondering just how romantic this romantic comedy really is by its end.

The plot is simple: a crazy rich guy (Nick) from a crazy rich family (the Youngs) asks his girlfriend (Rachel Chu), who doesn’t know he’s rich, to come with him on a 10-week trip to Singapore. Rumors spread like wildfire that Nick is going to ask her to marry him, and Rachel is subject to the most catty hatred imaginable, from his family and from other bachelorettes on the island. People mock her Chinese American identity and her middle class-ness. They call her a gold digger. Most of all, they want Nick (and his money and good name) for themselves.

Unfortunately, that wild plot also generates what I think the novel’s biggest weak point is: I actually didn’t like or trust any of the characters, not even Nick and Rachel.

First of all, Nick throws Rachel to the f***ing wolves extremely cavalierly and never seems to fully understand that it was wrong. Seriously. It’s horrifying. It’s almost villainous, and it killed any sympathy I might have had for him.

Second of all, Rachel is a bit of an enigma, and not in a good way. She’s effortlessly perfect in that classic romance heroine way, and it’s so slippery that I just couldn’t empathize with her. Despite the catty attacks she endures, she actually fits into Singaporean society (and hundred thousand dollar couture) effortlessly. Come on, girl! I would be freaking out, but she just goes with it. It didn’t ring true to me. (Her sweet but complicated relationship with her mom, though, is a highlight of the novel.)

And don’t even get me started on the rest of the characters: the third novel in the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy is called Rich People Problems, but that might as well be the subtitle of this one. I thought the novel was at its best when it was eviscerating these people, and at its most mealy-mouthed when it sympathized with them. It’s unfortunate, since that’s not entirely fair: people are people, and everyone really does have problems. But if 99% of your problems are self-inflicted…damn. I do start to lose patience at that point. Rachel’s best friend Peik Lin and her family are a nice antidote to the bitchiness, but it’s too little, too late.

Just when I was getting tired of the crazy richness, however, the novel takes an abrupt turn in its last fifty or so pages. The opulence bubble bursts to reveal an ugly underbelly full of piercing, heart-pounding emotional conflict. I won’t spoil it, but I went from wanting to rate this book a two or a three to feeling like it deserved a five by the end. I decided to compromise with four stars, but do know if you read it that there is a massive end payoff that more than justifies the saggy middle.

Crazy Rich Asians is a little too long, a little overstuffed, a little uncertain where the reader’s sympathies should lie. Despite that, it’s startlingly good and completely unique. Kwan expertly spins his personal experiences in Singapore into a novel that manages to satirize big picture politics as well as the tiniest familial idiosyncrasies. Even when I wasn’t loving the novel, I was in awe at Kwan’s storytelling. It’s the whole package: spicy, sweet, umami, salty, and bitter and sour enough to make you pucker.

I didn’t like every dish at this book’s banquet, but the experience is unforgettable–and you can bet I’ll be reading the rest of the trilogy. ★★★★☆


My copy of Crazy Rich Asians came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

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.


9781451690453

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.


9780451478733

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.