Friday Bookbag, 4.13.18

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week all my library holds seemed to come in at once–I’ve got two more to pick up this afternoon that aren’t even on this list!–so I’ll be reading like mad to keep up. It’s a good thing, then, that I’ve picked out three tightly-plotted coming-of-age stories that promise to keep my eyes glued to the page from start to finish.

Let’s dive in!


The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat

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9781250128508the premise: A father and daughter, both Ethiopian immigrants, flee Boston for an island commune after the daughter becomes entangled with a parking lot attendant named Ayale–a hustler and “unofficial king of Boston’s Ethiopian community,” according to the inside flap. The Parking Lot Attendant is a suspenseful coming-of-age story about immigration, national identity, and the choices and unforeseen consequences that shape all of us.

why I’m excited: This is a slim book–only 240 pages–that promises to pack a punch; it’s already received praise for being an unusual and interesting take on the coming-of-age story, a really saturated sub-genre. I’m particularly excited to read about the commune aspect–I’m fascinated by communes and off-the-grid living–and about the narrator’s struggle to navigate her Ethiopian identity in America.

Gun Love by Jennifer Clement

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9781524761684the premise: A mother and daughter live out of their car at a trailer park in central Florida, the daughter Pearl in the front seat, her mother in the back. It’s a difficult life made more difficult by the intoxicating, menacing presence of guns: guns owned for all sorts of reasons and guns that trigger a shocking act of violence that turns Pearl’s life upside-down. (P.S.: isn’t it so funny that this cover looks so similar to The Parking Lot Attendant‘s? They’re both fiery coming-of-age novels, so it makes sense.)

why I’m excited: A novel about gun violence in the U.S. couldn’t be more topical right now, and best of all, it seems that Clement will interweave that theme with a story that’s genuinely nuanced and compelling (making it much more than just an “issue novel”). The premise also put me in mind of The Florida Projecta film about a mother and daughter struggling to make ends meet living in a motel in central Florida. That movie is streaming on Amazon Prime; I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s currently at the top of my to-watch list, and I’m hoping Gun Love will strike the same notes.

Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen

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9780451478733the premise: It’s 1939 Germany, and the Holocaust has just begun. Sarah, a blonde and blue-eyed Jewish girl, burns for revenge after her mother, an actress, is murdered at a checkpoint. She’s soon recruited as a spy by a mysterious man who needs her to infiltrate an elite boarding school attended by the daughters of Nazi leaders so that she can uncover the blueprints to a devastating bomb that could turn the tide of the war.

why I’m excited: It’s yet another thrilling coming-of-age novel: just take a minute or two to absorb that premise! It’s hard to imagine a more intriguing backdrop for a story that also promises to tackle tough questions of identity, revenge, and survival. It’s appalling to me that today in 2018, Nazism is on the rise all over again. Orphan Monster Spy feels like an urgent antidote to the anti-Semitic hate that has killed millions and might kill millions again if we’re not careful. I’m planning to clear my calendar for an afternoon read this in as close to one setting as I can manage–I hope it lives up to the hype I’ve built up for it in my mind.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Describe Yourself Like a Male Author Would: Thoughts on FEROCITY by Nicola Lagioia

It seems like fate that I picked up the English translation of Ferocity by Nicola Lagioia this week. Ferocity (titled La ferocia in the original Italian) chronicles a southern Italian family’s moral decay and the environmental destruction they wreak; its pivotal event is the apparent suicide of the eldest daughter, Clara.

Unfortunately, in the few dozen pages I read, the novel is also awful to its women. Misogyny in literature is a crime I’ve been unwilling to forgive and forget lately, thanks especially to the “describe yourself like a male author would” challenge and this accompanying excellent New Yorker article by Katy Waldman about “How Women See How Male Authors See Them.”

Read on for my full thoughts on why I didn’t finish Ferocity–a novel that seems to have many good qualities, but also one glaring bad one. (Beware of light spoilers for the first 62 pages of the book.)

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Ferocity by Nicola Lagioia (translated by Antony Shugaar)

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  • publisher: Europa Editions
  • publication date: October 10, 2017
  • length: 464 pages
  • cover price: $18.00

I’ve been trying to read more books by women lately, and I have to admit that, because Nicola is usually a female first name in the English-speaking world, I first thought Ferocity had been written by a woman. I do read plenty of books by men, but the male authorship of this particular book–which hinges on an act of violence against a woman–felt like a let-down.

Despite this mix-up, I decided to read the novel anyway anyway–after all, Ferocity has been almost universally wellreceived and even won the prestigious Strega Prize in Italy.

Unfortunately, my uneasiness was completely justified in this case, because Ferocity treats its women terribly. It’s a fault in technique that stings all the worse because Lagioia (through his translator, Antony Shugaar) is otherwise technically brilliant here.

If you haven’t read about the hilarious and biting “Describe Yourself Like a Male Author Would” challenge on Twitter, you really should. Women and nonbinary writers wrote sometimes silly, sometimes angry, always necessary examples of the kind of purple prose male writers get a free pass on when describing the objects of their desire, and after that brilliant, sensitizing cultural moment, I just couldn’t get past Ferocity’s 62nd page.

Exhibit A, from the opening scene of the book:

She wasn’t much over thirty, but she couldn’t have been younger than twenty-five because of the intangible relaxing of tissues that turns the slenderness of certain adolescent girls into something perfect. Her fair complexion highlighted the scratches running down her legs, while the bruises on her ribs and arms and lower back, like so many Rorschach inkblots, seemed to tell the story of her inner life through the surface. Her face was swollen, her lips slashed vertically by a deep cut.

That paragraph comes after 2-3 truly gorgeous pages describing the industrial hellscape that is Bari (the part of Italy where Ferocity is set), and while reading it, I swear I heard a record scratch in my head. This is amazing…amazing…amazing…huh?

I get that Lagioia is trying to juxtapose horror and sexuality here, but nothing about how he describes Clara is fresh or interesting, and everything about it is yucky. This is a woman who’s about to die, and we’re talking the “slenderness of certain adolescent girls”?

Please.

Then we have Exhibit B, in which Clara’s father (bear that in mind) is reminiscing about her:

     The feeling he had about Clara was that he never understood her quite well enough. Snapshots of his eldest daughter emerged, each detached from the others. The only objectifiable theme was that she was attractive, and that was a puff of air no net could capture for long. Quiet and taciturn until the age of thirteen. Logical without being pedantic at fourteen. Magnetic at sixteen–jeans and long-sleeved cotton shirts, hair worn loose and long, straight-backed and composed on an armchair in the living room. A Mayan idol whose touch unleashed visions from the future: the caravels of Christopher Columbus, the mass rapes of the conquistadors.

At eighteen, she sometimes resembled certain movie stars after the va-va-voom period. Her curves soft, though not excessively so, a Natalie Wood without the final gloss.

What the hell.

Clara’s father is quickly established as a conniving jerk, so I’m not surprised he thinks gross thoughts. If Clara had been given a speck of agency here, I’d be willing to chalk these two paragraphs up to Lagioia characterizing the villainous center of his narrative.

But at this point in the book, Clara is already dead. She exists only in the memories of her family (mostly her father and brothers) and the truck driver who saw her by the side of the road.

Worst of all was the scene that caused me to set the book aside once and for all. In it, Clara’s sister Gioia is masturbating, and her father walks in on her in order to tell her that Clara died. I’m not going to quote the whole paragraph, but we get ample description of Gioia’s height (five foot six and an eighth), her slender blond-ness, and the “tenderest part of her pelvis” which she then flashes at her father “perhaps not entirely by chance.” Then, as she runs to embrace her mother upon hearing that her sister is dead, her mother literally smells her fingers and pushes Gioia away in disgust.

It reads like it was written by a creepy old man with an incest fetish, it’s deeply upsetting, and after writing that all out, I kind of want to take a shower.

I know that Lagioia is trying to make a point that this family is morally corrupt. I’m smart enough to understand that. What I don’t get is why he is choosing to show that corruption in a way that feeds into the worst kinds of objectifying stereotypes that society has about women (the tragically lovely femme fatale, the stupid sex-crazed bimbo).

If men weren’t already at the center of damn near everything, I could let this slide. Lagioia’s prose is truly luminous and I can tell that the story he’s telling is powerful. (It was described as an “ecological thriller” in the Los Angeles Review of Books, a sub-genre I adore.) But with a stack of intriguing books by women on my bedside table, I can’t justify reading a book that I already resent.

Have you read and finished Ferocity? What did you think of Lagioia’s treatment of women in the novel? I’d love to hear your thoughts, and I welcome (respectful) disagreement and debate in the comments.


My copy of  Ferocity 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.

Friday Bookbag, 3.30.18

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week I’ve got a smorgasbord of environmentally conscious sci-fi and family saga literary fiction on offer. Heavy stuff–but they all look like they’ll have a rewarding payoff. Ready? Let’s dive in!


Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

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9780374104092the plot: An anthropologist, a surveyor, a psychologist, and a biologist enter a contaminated zone known as Area X that has distorted everything around it, creating astonishing and beautiful natural phenomena. It also threatens all of human civilization. The four women must strive to survive themselves and each other while seeking to uncover Area X’s secrets.

why I’m excited: I saw the movie adaptation of Annihilation in theaters a few weeks ago and was entranced by its combined sense of breathless wonder and creeping dread. As I understand it, the movie is a rather loose adaptation of the book–the first novel in VanderMeer’s creepy eco-thriller Southern Reach trilogy–but I’m excited to immerse myself regardless.

White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht

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9780735214439the plot: Two Korean sisters struggle under Japanese occupation on the idyllic Jeju Island. In 1943, one sister, Hana, one of the famed haenyeo divers, is captured and forced to become a “comfort woman” for the Japanese army during World War II. In 2011, the other sister, Emi, embarks on a journey to find her.

why I’m excited: I think many Americans either don’t know or forget about Japanese colonization and occupation, especially the horrible (and still-fresh) wounds it enacted on Korea. Mary Lynn Bracht is part of the Korean diaspora–she’s an American of Korean descent who lives in London–and I’m looking forward to reading her take on a neglected part of history that continues to have devastating consequences.

Ferocity by Nicola Lagioia

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cover_9781609453824_1120_240the plot: The bloody death of Clara, daughter of one of southern Italy’s preeminent families, is officially ruled a suicide–but her brother can’t let go. The novel plumbs the depths of moral decay and unscrupulous wealth in modern Italy, and is pitched as a thriller that’s a cross between Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. The novel is translated from the Italian by Anthony Shugaar.

why I’m excited: This one is the biggest risk on my list this week. I love literary thrillers, I love weird family sagas, and I’m always looking to read more books in translation, but I don’t know much about this book or its author, so I’m still a little cautious. Here’s hoping that I love it!

The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell

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9781481497299the plot: A city corrupted by overuse of magic is crumbling and under the rule of a vicious tyrant known as The Jolly Mayor; in the face of environmental ruin and overwhelming decadence, the city’s citizens fight back. This book is made up of four interlinked stories about the city and the uprising.

why I’m excited: Allegory much? This book couldn’t be more timely, and I’m sure that’s intentional. Paolo Bacigalupi is incredibly skilled at turning  today’s nightmares into a horrifying (but strangely hopeful) vision of tomorrow. I’m less familiar with Buckell’s work, but I can’t wait to dive into this magical dystopian tale.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Book Review: AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE by Tayari Jones

About a black man’s wrongful conviction and the shattering effect it has on his wife (and everyone around him), the plot of An American Marriage may feel ripped from the headlines, but Tayari Jones’s gifted and highly personal prose takes it someplace much richer, deeper, and truer. Heartbreaking, unforgettable, and even a little bit hopeful, this novel is something special.

You can read my full review below.


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An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

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  • publisher: Algonquin Books (an imprint of Workman Publishing)
  • publication date: February 6, 2018
  • isbn: 978-1-6162-0134-0
  • length: 320 pages

Looking back on it, it’s like watching a horror flick and wondering why the characters are so determined to ignore the danger signs. When a spectral voice says GET OUT, you should do it. But in real life, you don’t know that you’re in a scary movie. You think your wife is being overly emotional. You quietly hope that it’s because she’s pregnant, because a baby is what you need to lock this thing in and throw away the key.

An American Marriage, page 14

If good historical fiction is always about the time in which it was written (and not about the time where it’s set), then I think it’s also fair to say good contemporary fiction is often about the future: futures the author and readers want, and ones they hope never come to pass.

An American Marriage is an excellent example of good contemporary fiction. Its characters are nuanced, its plot is ambitious, and Tayari Jones’s prose sings on every page. It’s also a book that reckons with past and present but is, above all, about the future–both the future of the marriage at the novel’s center, and the future of a United States that does not change its course, where terrible and frightening injustices continue to happen with alarming regularity.

Celestial and Roy are black, bourgeois Atlantan newlyweds settling into a passionate marriage that’s not quite on the rocks, but not smooth sailing, either. On an ill-fated trip to Louisiana to visit Roy’s parents, Roy is accused of a rape he didn’t commit and sentenced to thirteen years in prison, shattering both his life and Celestial’s.

An American Marriage is the rare book that I don’t think I could spoil for you if I tried, since all of its tension comes from knowing what will happen and being powerless to stop it: Roy’s arrest and conviction will feel depressingly familiar to anyone who pays attention to the news. I felt an especially sharp pang when Roy admits that he feels grateful that at least the cops didn’t just shoot him.

The fact that nearly every (? in fact, perhaps every) character is black and that none of them are surprised by what happens (even if they’re devastated by it) is refreshing in a climate where most novels that touch on racism are preoccupied with convincing white people that racism exists in the first place and not with actually telling a story. It frees up An American Marriage to be much more than something ripped from the headlines.

Jones doesn’t tidily package the lives of Celestial, Roy, and Andre (Celestial’s childhood best friend who becomes central to the plot) to suit the short memory of a 24-hour news cycle, and every single page feels personal, messy, flawed, funny, sad, helpless, and hopeful all at once, even if the balance of those emotions shifts a lot from chapter to chapter. In Jones’s world, everyone is a sinner and no one is a saint, which only amps the novel’s power: if none of us are saints, then this could happen to any of us, and illusions of “deserved it” or “didn’t deserve it” are out the window.

I wondered, often, if the book would have felt much different if Roy had actually done what he was accused of. Of course it would have, at least somewhat–I do think that rape is a particularly horrible and unforgivable crime, and I would have trouble sympathizing with a protagonist who committed it–but I imagine that the novel’s sense of injustice would have remained.

An American Marriage calls into question whether anyone deserves to experience the horror of prison–much less to experience the incessant, creeping fear that you might go to prison–and it seems to ask us to imagine a future without that horror and fear, which brings me around to the beginning of this review:

An American Marriage is a book that asks us things, and while it is not a work of dystopian science fiction, it draws from the same well. It asks: How did we get here? How do we get out? How do we heal?

Jones doesn’t provide answers, but the radical empathy and virtuoso storytelling of An American Marriage do feel like a start. 5/5 stars.


P.S. If you’re as enraged as I am that wrongful convictions happen, The Innocence Project does great work to free the wrongfully convicted. There are also many nonprofits dedicated to sending books to people who are currently incarcerated to help them pass the time and to prepare them for life beyond bars.

P.P.S. A personal note: I’ve been blindsided with a serious health issue this month and am pulling back from a number of personal and professional commitments while I recover. I will be reading, writing, and blogging less in the meantime, but I promise that I haven’t abandoned this blog! I do plan to return to a regular schedule once I’m feeling better, and hope you’ll stick around till then. (I am still tweeting regularly if that’s your thing.) Thanks!


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

Book Review: A LOVING, FAITHFUL ANIMAL by Josephine Rowe

Josephine Rowe is already a lauded author in Australia, but A Loving, Faithful Animal marks her U.S. debut–and it’s an auspicious one. The novel chronicles one family’s cycle of trauma against the backdrop of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, which is already an interesting story; Rowe’s prose, at once precise and dreamy, elevates this arc into fiction so potent and powerful that I want sing its praises from the rooftops, pressing copies into the hands of everyone I know.

You can read my full review below.


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A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe

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  • publisher: Catapult (catapult.co)
  • publication date: September 12, 2017
  • isbn: 978-1-9367-8757-9
  • length: 176 pages

That was the summer a sperm whale drifted sick into the bay, washed up dead at Mount Martha, and there were many terrible jokes about fertility. It was the summer that all the best cartoons went off the air, swapped for Gulf War broadcasts in infrared snippets, and your mother started saying things like I used to be pretty, you know? Christ, I used to be brave. But you thought brave was not crying when the neighbor girl dug her sharp red fingernails into your arm, until the skin broke and bled, and she cried out herself in disgust. You were still dumb enough to think that was winning.

A Loving, Faithful Animal, page 3

The concept of World Englishes is usually applied to colonized (and neo-colonized) countries and cultures whose variations on English are often considered “broken” and less-than. There’s a growing understanding that these Englishes are no less valid and rich than “standard” British and U.S. English–but World English speakers still find the long arm of U.S. and U.K. cultural dominance difficult to shake.

I define all this because although Australian English is usually considered “standard,” I was struck by how much A Loving, Faithful Animal feels like a work of World English: a working-class, trauma-laden, bitter and acerbic portrait of an Australia that’s impossibly far-flung from its easygoing cultural stereotype.

The Burroughs family is damaged: by domestic abuse, by poverty, by a Vietnam War that Australians wished to be involved in even less than Americans did, and by an intense and painful love for one another that none of them know how to safely express.

Ru quietly seethes, Lani is a rebel on a razor’s edge, and their parents, Evelyn and Jack, are locked in a terrible cycle of abuse. When Jack, a Vietnam War veteran, disappears for what seems to be the last time, Jack’s brother, Les, waits for Evelyn in the wings. The beloved family dog–the eponymous loving, faithful animal–was recently torn to shreds by a wildcat.

Two big questions hang over all of this–Would Jack be an abuser if his draft number had never come up? Would this family still struggle this much? –which Rowe smartly doesn’t answer. Instead, she tells what are effectively linked short stories from the perspective of each family member, all distinct in style but anchored by a single point in time that serves as a dark star at the center of the chaos: New Year’s Eve, 1990.

Rowe’s grasp of language is superhuman, and the act of reading her prose feels rather like watching Mirai Nagasu land that triple axel at the Olympics: jaw dropped in stupefied awe, not quite understanding but certainly feeling. I had to keep my smartphone handy while reading to interpret the Australian slang and cultural references, and this added to the dream-like feeling, as if I were using an interpretation book. (I read the American edition, but Catapult seems not to have made any changes from the Australian one, which is an excellent thing.)

The Burroughs’s dusty, devastated home, full of holes punched in drywall and with redback spiders crawling all over the garage, is nowhere near my world. But in this book, Rowe seems to have pulled up a chair for me, asking if I’d like a glass of water or anything to eat. For a few precious hours, it felt like my home. And though it wasn’t exactly a pleasant place to be, it was still a magical one.

When I’m reading good fiction, I feel infinite, able to explore lives and Englishes far from my own. Josephine Rowe writes prodigiously good fiction–and I hope that A Loving, Faithful Animal is only the start of what U.S. readers will see from her. 5/5 stars.


My copy of A Loving, Faithful Animal came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

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.