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.

Short Story Roundup, 2.7.18

Short Story Roundup

Short Story Roundup is a feature where I gather the best short stories I’ve read this week and share them with you every Wednesday. The stories might have been published yesterday or 100 years ago, but as long as I’ve read and loved them in a given week, you’ll find them here.

This week I’m featuring two novel excerpts–one about post-apocalyptic dogs and one about running into a high school sweetheart after a near-death experience–so read on.


Anna” by Niccolò Ammaniti (translated by Jonathan Hunt)

  • genre: science fiction (post-apocalyptic)
  • publication: Guernica
  • publication date: February 5, 2018
  • why I loved it: This story, an excerpt from Ammaniti’s novel of the same name (translated from the original Italian), is a tense account of a conflict between a young Sicilian girl scavenging for food and a mangy dog covered in ash. Like many novel excerpts, it feels a bit unresolved, but Ammaniti’s world is immediately compelling. Why are all the grown-ups gone? What was the fire? What came before? All those questions will play in the back of your mind, but most of all, you’ll be gripped by the action.

The Afterlives” by Thomas Pierce

  • genre: literary/realistic fiction
  • publication: Literary Hub
  • publication date: January 12, 2018
  • why I loved it: This story is also an excerpt, from a novel by Thomas Pierce about an atheistic man who suffers a heart attack, only to confront the frightening possibility that there might not be an afterlife, after all. The excerpt documents the moment when he runs into his high school sweetheart after the attack, and it’s very tender and funny, propelled along by the gentle believability of its characters, even as they experience unbelievable events.

What short fiction have you read and enjoyed lately? For the writers out there: Has any of your work appeared online or in print this week? Tell me all about it in the comments!

Book Review: THE LAST TO SEE ME by M Dressler

M Dressler puts a fresh, supernatural spin on California history in The Last to See Me, which imagines how the vengeful ghost of an early 20th century servant might react to a 21st century town hostile to the “dirty” spirits of its past. The novel is rich with historical detail, but it’s also compulsively readable, making its plot holes and unanswered questions feel eminently forgivable.

You can read my full review below.


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The Last to See Me by M Dressler

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  • publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
  • publication date: September 5, 2017
  • isbn: 978-1-5107-2067-7
  • length: 272 pages

Ever notice how historical fiction lovers–myself included–are usually obsessed with narratives about royalty and the upper class? There are endless novels of Tudor intrigue, Victorian stiff upper lips, and Gilded Age gaudiness, but little about the lives of ordinary people–you know, how most of us would have actually lived.

It’s good, then, that The Last to See Me tackles this gap: Emma Rose Finnis is an unlucky Irish-American girl trapped in an unpleasant, hard-scrapping life as a scullery maid in Benito, a coastal California timber town. The Lambry family are timber magnates who may as well be local royalty, and when Quint Lambry sets his eyes on orphaned nobody Emma, Mrs. Lambry decides to intervene, paying Emma handsomely to leave town and work as a maid for an isolated lighthouse keeper’s family.

But Emma and Quint continue their affair in secret, hurtling towards a shattering tragedy that gets Emma killed. After death, Emma becomes a vengeful ghost who haunts the town–and the Lambry family–for a century, and when a wealthy Silicon Valley couple seeks to buy the Lambry ancestral home, Emma’s violent reaction forces the real estate agent to call in a ghost hunter to purge her.

Dressler’s world is fascinating, though I hesitate to call it complex, since its mechanics are mostly left to the imagination. Modern-day Benito, California, seems to exist in a California that’s exactly the same as our own in every way except that people accept the presence of ghosts–and the need for the “cleaners” who purge them–without question.

It’s an interesting idea, and one I wish had been further developed, but since the story is told from Emma’s old-fashioned and unreliable perspective, there are quite a few puzzle pieces missing from the table. Sometimes characters feel shoehorned in to fulfill a plot necessity, and there’s also a subplot about a character who may or may not be a ghost that left me scratching my head.

Still, it’s hard to be bitter, since Dressler’s writing is excellent in so many other ways. The Last to See Me balances detail and suspense as skillfully as I’ve ever seen it done: Dressler has done her research, and it shows, but she also doesn’t bore the reader with irrelevant facts and old-timey speak. In fact, I found this book impossible to put down, finishing it in two sittings, even though I was initially skeptical that I’d enjoy it.

That the book got its hooks in me so quickly–literally from the first page–is especially amazing considering how slowly the story moves; it’s not like Emma is in a rush to tell all, considering she’s been undead for a hundred years already.

But Dressler draws tension from the moral ambiguity of ghost “cleaning,” an act that Emma is understandably frightened of, seeing as it will destroy her spirit forever. Philip Pratt, the ghost cleaner, insists in that ghosts are evil and takes pride in dispelling them, angering Emma…and the angrier Emma gets, the more she lashes out at the living humans around her, causing you to suspect that Pratt, though arrogant, might be right after all.

The Last to See Me is a tremendously enjoyable book about one of the heaviest topics of all: death, and life afterwards. How lucky we are that Dressler handles it with nuance, empathy, and skill. 4/5 stars.


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

Friday Bookbag, 1.26.18

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.


9781939419965The Annie Year by Stephanie Wilbur Ash

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why I’m excited: The Annie Year is a dark comedy that falls a bit outside my regular tastes–it’s about a small-town CPA who becomes entangled in meth labs and a scandalous affair–but the author is local, it was a Minnesota Book Awards finalist, and I’m excited overall for a book that promises to be humorous, even if it touches on dark topics. I’ve lived in a small town deep in meth country, and I’ve been involved in community theatre–the novel takes its title from a production of Annie that’s going on as its protagonist’s life falls apart–so I’m sure there will be plenty here for me to relate to.

9780544912588Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

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why I’m excited: I loved Hala Alyan’s short story, “No Good,” so I leapt at the chance to read her debut novel when I saw it on my local library’s shelves. Salt Houses is the story of a family repeatedly uprooted by Middle East conflicts, beginning with the Six-Day War of 1967; I’m already in love with Alyan’s prose and I’m looking forward to immersing myself in this complicated novel of family, place, and displacement.


See books here that you’ve already read or that are on your to-read list? What are you excited to read this week? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Short Story Roundup, 1.24.18

Short Story Roundup

Short Story Roundup is a feature where I gather the best short stories I’ve read this week and share them with you every Wednesday. The stories might have been published yesterday or 100 years ago, but as long as I’ve read and loved them in a given week, you’ll find them here.


Poetry Suite by Adrienne Novy

  • genre: poetry (not fiction at all! is that cheating?)
  • publication: NAILED Magazine
  • publication date: November 7, 2017
  • why I loved it: I have the privilege of knowing Adrienne in real life (we attended the same small liberal arts college) and she is one of my most gifted friends. Though this suite of poems is neither prose nor fiction, I wanted to include it here, since Adrienne deftly weaves together threads of disability, sexuality, trauma, and the sacred into a truly gorgeous narrative. I sometimes struggle to read poetry–it’s a personal failing–but never when Adrienne is writing it.

Trailer Trash” by Joshua James Sanders

  • genre: magical realism, flash fiction
  • publication: NANO Fiction
  • publication date: March 14, 2016
  • why I loved it: A magician visits a trailer park for a kid’s birthday–and things get weird. I was thoroughly charmed by the details of this story, especially because I’ve noticed that flash fiction writers, panicked by the lack of space, will often omit the little sensory observations that make a story feel real.

Little Reunions” by Eileen Chang (translated by Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz)

  • genre: literary/realistic fiction
  • publication: Literary Hub (excerpted from the English translation of Chang’s novel)
  • publication date: originally, 1976; in English, 2018.
  • why I loved it: This is a lovely snippet of what I imagine is a lovely novel; because it’s an excerpt, I didn’t get a full sense of the plot, but I loved the way Chang has captured what the beginning of falling in love feels like, and the way it happens both from within and without: from within as you fall in love, and without as the people around you react to your fall. I plan on seeking out the novel.

What short fiction have you read and enjoyed lately? For the writers out there: Has any of your work appeared online or in print this week? Tell me all about it in the comments!

Book Review: THE VEGETARIAN by Han Kang

The Vegetarian has already been so thoroughly acclaimed that it hardly needs my help to spread the word, but I felt compelled to write about this chilling, starkly imaginative novel regardless. Yeong-hye has a terrible dream that causes her to become a vegetarian–setting off a harrowing series of events that irrevocably mark everyone around her, but most especially damage Yeong-hye herself.

You can read my full review below.


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The Vegetarian by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

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  • publisher: Hogarth Press
  • publication date: February 2, 2016
  • isbn: 978-0-553-44818-4
  • length: 192 pages

For an allegory to work, it must also function on a literal level; the reader must always be able to question whether, in fact, it is an allegory at all. The Vegetarian demonstrates this flawlessly. On one hand, it is a novel about the toxic, suffocating effects of sexism. On the other, it is “merely” a novel about a traumatized schizophrenic woman and the many ways her family attempts to contain her.

Both of these threads are equally valid and vibrant, and it’s the interplay between them that gives The Vegetarian its raw, earthy power.

Of course, Han Kang’s poetic wordplay (translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith) also contributes; the imagery here is among the most powerful I’ve ever experienced. In one particularly breathtaking scene, the novel’s protagonist, Yeong-hye, is painted entirely with flowers, basking in the sunshine on an art studio floor as if she is photosynthesizing. I wondered–not for a short amount of time–if she really was.

The Vegetarian is actually series of three novellas, told from the perspective of three people who are not Yeong-hye: her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister, respectively. In the beginning, Yeong-hye is a homemaker, perhaps dimwitted (in the eyes of her husband, at least) but mostly just quiet, and obedient. Her husband laments that she doesn’t always wear a bra; he rejoices that his mediocre wife will never require anything of him but more mediocrity.

Then comes the dream, which triggers both Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism–a surface problem–and her disobedience, which is by far more disturbing to her husband and family. Yeong-hye will no longer be told what to do; she will no longer be dutiful; she will no longer ignore the link between the violence of meat and the violence of men. And that is unforgivable.

The Vegetarian is a horrifyingly violent novel, and if you are squeamish or easily disturbed, then it may not be for you. I am both, however, and still found it a rewarding read, because Kang has found permutations of violence that I’d never imagined before, and in that novelty there is a sort of numbness. Yeong-hye experiences rape by men and then far worse violations by feeding tube; she recounts the gruesome killing of a dog with a dreamy sort of calm; she stands on her head for hours and prays for her crotch to bloom with flowers.

It’s extraordinary and it’s nauseating, like a spinning theme park ride with its speed cranked up one level past safety.

But for me, at least, the violence was not the most extraordinary part. That honor goes to the empathetic, shrewd, and lingering ways in which the novel addresses mental illness. If you are at all familiar with the symptoms of schizophrenia, you will recognize that Yeong-hye is a classic case, especially in her delusions, odd movements, long silences, and even the age at which her break from reality occurs (schizophrenia most commonly onsets in women during their late 20s).

The word “schizophrenia” means “split brain,” and refers to the way schizophrenics often split from reality, slipping further and further out of touch with the rules that govern our normal world.

And yet–is a woman’s break from a violent and unequal reality that surprising? Might we even consider it a moral and necessary act? The Vegetarian says yes. 5/5 stars.


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

If you enjoyed this review, you might also enjoy translator Deborah Smith’s excellent essay–“What We Talk About When We Talk About Translation“–that was recently published in the Los Angeles Review of Books.