Book Review: THE BODY MYTH by Rheea Mukherjee

The Body Myth is an ambitious novel that’s full of all sorts of ingredients I like: explorations of health, sickness, loss, love, queerness, non-monogamous and nontraditional relationships, and prickly women. About a disaffected schoolteacher in a fictional city in India whose chance encounter with a young couple in a park leads to an intense, life-altering triad, The Body Myth is drenched in existentialism and Sufism. (The narrator, Mira, is obsessed with Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Foucault, all noticeable influences on Rheea Mukherjee’s writing style.) It ties Western and Eastern philosophies together in intriguing ways, but unfortunately, the end result is too shaggy and oblique for me to recommend it wholeheartedly. I admired this book more than I enjoyed it–but I did admire it very, very much, and I’ll be keeping tabs on Mukherjee’s future work, as well as checking out her previous short story collection, Transit for Beginners.

You can read my full review of The Body Myth below.


The Body Myth Cover
cover description: An illustration of some kind of tree or vines growing out of two broken halves of a body. The background is orange.

The Body Myth by Rheea Mukherjee

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  • publisher: Unnamed Press
  • publication date: February 26, 2019
  • length: 234 pages

The woman was sitting on a park bench in West Point Gardens, where I came every Sunday for a five-kilometer walk. She couldn’t see me, but I had stopped mid-stride to stare at her. I looked at her for three reasons:

(1) her face was twisted in contemplation;

(2) she was wearing a beige kurta with a transparent golden dupatta; and

(3) she was fucking gorgeous.

–from The Body Myth by Rheea Mukherjee

I went through a Jean-Paul Sartre phase. Like The Body Myth’s adrift and grieving narrator, Mira, it happened as a way to cope with one of the most difficult times in my life, when my mental health was in freefall and it was an effort just to stay alive. I read Sartre in a philosophy class and held on for dear life. Existentialism saved my life then, and in a less intense way, it still appeals to me now.

For that reason and many others, I was easily transported to the world of The Body Myth, Rheea Mukherjee’s first novel, which is deeply existentialist fiction in the tradition of Sartre’s own Nausea. It felt a little like visiting an old friend.

Mira is a widowed schoolteacher just going through the motions when she meets young, attractive couple Sara and Rahil in a local park. She witnesses Sara having a seizure–was it a seizure or a performance? We’re left to question that almost immediately–and Rahil rushing to comfort her. The chance encounter blooms into an intense friendship between them and Mira, and very quickly a romantic and sexual love triangle, as well.

Sara is plagued by mysterious illnesses: cramps, arthritis, mouth ulcers, fevers, fatigue, and, of course, seizures. Rahil takes careful care of her. It quickly becomes obvious that Mira has stumbled into a heady, codependent ritual of needing and being needed that has less to do with illness than it does with love and marriage. It’s a ritual that Mira’s presence disturbs forever.

The Body Myth is fascinating. Mukherjee writes like no one else I’ve ever read, accomplishing much more than just updating Sartre for the 21st century. This novel is earthy, frank, surprising, and full of flashes of brilliant, beautiful insight that make me want to sit down and have coffee with Mukherjee someday.

The Body Myth’s ideas about the ways being sick feeds into our universal need to feel loved and cared for particularly interested me. As I’ve written many times on this blog before, I’m chronically ill in ways that have felt very mysterious at times; I was a little nervous to read a novel that so baldly implies that its chronically ill character isn’t “really” sick, but thankfully, Mukherjee takes the premise in a more abstract, thought-provoking direction than merely, she’s faking it.

Perhaps “abstract” is the key descriptor for The Body Myth. I could go on for hours about all the philosophical threads Mukherjee ravels and tugs at–the way she connects Sufism and existentialism was truly moving and mind-blowing to me–but I was less enthused about this novel as fiction than I was about this novel as a big repository of ideas.

In that way, it reminded me of Sorry to Bother Youalso a big-repository-of-ideas piece of fiction that was striking and memorable but that I ultimately kind of loathed as a movie. I didn’t come anywhere close to loathing The Body Myth, but its plot machinations felt clunky in the same way as Sorry to Bother You‘s, especially towards the end.

I want a plot to feel like more than just something to hang beautiful prose upon, even in literary fiction, and unfortunately, The Body Myth never quite clears that bar. Its ending especially goes off the rails.

But I still enjoyed it, and I’m still glad I read it. I think a good barometer for whether or not you’ll get something out of The Body Myth is whether or not you enjoy a little navel-gazing in the style of late-night dorm room conversations about the meaning of life, man (but with a women’s studies twist). I love those conversations, even when they get a little ridiculous, and so I was happy to indulge Mukherjee here.

I didn’t love The Body Myth, but I doubt I’ll forget it. This is a unique and startling novel. ★

Reviews and books you might also enjoy:


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

Book Review: THAT TIME I LOVED YOU by Carrianne Leung

In ten linked stories that function almost as a novel, Carrianne Leung writes with a simple directness that belies the depth and power of her themes. That Time I Loved You is entirely set in one suburban neighborhood in Scarborough, Canada. It has a recurring cast of characters, but its central character is a Chinese Canadian middle schooler, June. June is the narrator of three stories and appears as a watchful presence in the rest. The action kicks off with a series of suicides of parents in the neighborhood, which send the surviving adults (and especially their kids) into a tizzy of fear and gossip.

Suburbia is a common setting for literary fiction, but Leung really makes it something special here. Her writing reminded me of Celeste Ng’s, another writer who understands that suburbs are more complex–in race, class, gender, sexual, and family dynamics–than your stereotypical snooty WASPs and manicured lawns. At times I wished she had been a little more ambitious with her straight-ahead prose, but overall, I thought this quiet, lovely collection was well worth my time.

You can read my full review below.


That Time I Loved You Cover
cover description: An illustration of rows and rows of similar houses with different colored roofs separated by solid dark blue bars.

That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung

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  • publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation (an imprint of W. W. Norton & Company)
  • publication date: February 26, 2019
  • length: 224 pages

1979: This was the year the parents in my neighborhood began killing themselves. I was eleven years old and in Grade 6. Elsewhere in the world, big things were happening. McDonald’s introduced the Happy Meal, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran and Michael Jackson released his album Off the Wall. But none of that was as significant to me as the suicides.

–from “Grass” in That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung

I recently tried to re-read The Virgin Suicides, a novel I read and failed to understand or connect with when I was about 14. Unfortunately I found it just as opaque and slippery the second time around, and set it aside without finishing.

That Time I Loved You, Carrianne Leung’s first short story collection, is worth comparing to The Virgin Suicides in more ways than one. First, it’s about a series of suicides; second, it’s about 1970s-1980s suburbia and how hard it is to grow up. But where Jeffrey Eugenides took a highly stylized, metaphorical approach to those themes–too stylized and too metaphorical, in my opinion–Leung’s style is so direct and realistic it almost reads like memoir. (Leung did in fact grow up in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, where That Time I Loved You is set.)

Perhaps a better comparison is Celeste Ng’s hit novel Little Fires Everywhere, which I loved, and which is soon to be made into a Hulu TV series. If you loved that, you’ll also find a lot to love in this.

Like Ng, Leung intimately understands suburbs, not as narrative devices or places to be derided by people who live in the city, but as real places. Her characters are not icy, repressed blondes; they’re a far more diverse group of mainly immigrants: Chinese, Jamaican, Portuguese, Italian. The sex these people have doesn’t feel like a defilement of the American Dream (not least because they’re Canadian); it feels like the sex that real people have. The growing up that June and her friends must do doesn’t happen in some single cathartic moment that’s a statement about the loss of innocence; instead, it happens in a series of tiny, dizzying forward shifts, the way growing up actually felt for me (and, I imagine, the way it felt for most people).

Leung’s suburbia, in other words, resembles the majority of suburbs in which my family and friends have lived. It’s set in 1979 and the very early 1980s, but it felt especially representative of what suburbs look like today, after gentrification and the reverse white flight that has pushed marginalized people back out to the suburbs.

That Time I Loved You‘s suicides feel equally real. They’re the catalyst for the book, but they’re also surprisingly quiet and small. In fact, the most notable thing about them is how un-notable they become to the surviving neighbors. I was concerned that this book would be difficult for me to read given my own history of mental health problems, but luckily Leung treats the subject with great respect and compassion.

That Time I Loved You functions well as a short story collection, but its structure is just close enough to a novel that I’d still recommend it to people who don’t usually like short story collections. That it’s anchored by one memorable character, June, makes it much easier to follow than a typical collection. It’s roughly chronological and takes place all in the same location; events that happen in one story affect the others.

That That Time I Loved You is so realistic helps, too. As much as I like current trends in reality-blurring short fiction, it’s nice to take a break and read a book that doesn’t feature extended dream sequences, hallucinations, or other long jaunts away from the recognizable world.

But as much as I liked having straightforward stories, I did wish that Leung had ventured beyond straightforward prose. Leung is exceptionally talented at developing characters and plot, but her writing style is very simple–which on one hand was kind of a welcome rest for my brain (I’ve done a lot of reading for work and pleasure recently), and on the other left me somewhat unsatisfied, like a meal that tasted good but came in too small a portion. Oh well.

There wasn’t a single story here that I didn’t like, but my favorites were “Fences,” about an Italian American woman struggling to conceive a child with a husband she doesn’t really love, “Sweets,” about June’s grandmother who becomes a surprising ally to one of June’s genderqueer friends, and the final, titular story, “That Time I Loved You,” which is a tour de force culmination of all the stories that came before.

That Time I Loved You is light on its feet despite its serious subject matter, but it never feels insubstantial. It’s a great example of how diverse in form and style short story collections can be–and it’s welcome that its characters are so diverse, too. This book will stay with me. ★★★★☆

Reviews and books you might also enjoy:


My copy of That Time I Loved You came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: DIFFICULT WOMEN by Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay’s highly anticipated (and well-received) 2017 short story collection, Difficult Women, is, in short, worth every bit of that anticipating and receiving. Difficult Women is everything I want out of a short story collection and a lot more: the stories on their own are excellent; together, they’re transcendent. This is easily one of my favorite books I have ever read.

You can read my full review below.


Difficult Women Cover
cover description: A shattered pink glass heart against a black background.

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

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  • publisher: Grove Press
  • publication date: 2017
  • length: 272 pages

Boys don’t really know how to hurt girls.

–from “Baby Arm” in Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

I’ve loved Roxane Gay’s short fiction for many years, even before she became as beloved and well-known as she is now. As a teenager, between writing my own short stories, I would pore over the “Writing” page on her website, tracking down and devouring every short story I could find that wasn’t behind a paywall.

Yet even that abiding love for Gay’s uncollected work did not prepare me for how much I would adore Difficult Women.

Difficult Women‘s parts are extraordinary, but as a whole it’s even more powerful. I don’t think I’ve ever read a collection so artfully assembled. Themes are established with exquisite care; one of my favorite runs of stories builds from metaphor to magical realism to straight-up science fiction about society and prejudice. Without that onramp, the sci-fi story (set in the near-future) would have felt jarring in an otherwise realistic collection. With the onramp, it only strengthens Gay’s real-world themes.

Another standout run of stories is about fertility and infertility, without ever feeling like it’s about fertility and infertility. A moral kills a short story; luckily, each story in Difficult Women has the desperate feeling of a message in a bottle sent from a place where morals have unraveled.

This is, unsurprisingly, a difficult book. It is not essential reading. It is not a crystallization of our times. It is not palatable, exactly. But it is gripping, sharp, indulgent, and pleasurable in the way of an excellent meal had at an expensive and unfamiliar restaurant.

“Difficult” does not have to mean unpleasant, distasteful, or uncomfortable. Difficult Women is a blueprint for how to write a difficult book that’s a delight to read.

I think much of that comes from how embodied Gay’s writing is. Gay is a top-notch sex writer who understands, and uses, sensation completely.

Difficult Women encompasses a wide variety of bodies: thin ones, muscled ones, fat ones, wounded ones, transparent glass ones, sadists, masochists, bad priests. Gay (presumably) only has one body, but she transports readers effortlessly into all of these different and contradictory bodies. Even when I didn’t totally love or understand a story’s plot, I was always so taken with its feel that it hardly mattered.

It’s difficult to choose favorite stories since this collection fits together so well, but with a gun to my head I might pick “Baby Arm,” about a fight club, “North Country,” about an isolated engineer in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, “Requiem for a Glass Heart,” about a woman made of glass and her careful careless husband, and “I Am a Knife,” about a woman (the knife) and her husband (a gun).

I can’t wait to re-read Difficult Women. Many reviews I’ve seen of this book describe it as a deeply relatable book, about women like “us.” I didn’t find it that way. I didn’t understand these characters at all. Sometimes a book is better for being unfathomable; I think Difficult Women is unfathomable in the best way, an endlessly fascinating Rorschach test kind of way.

If you missed Difficult Women during all its initial fanfare, please come back for it. I’m glad I did. This book is a treasure. ★★★★★

Reviews and books you might also enjoy:


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

Book Review: BABY TEETH by Zoje Stage

In Baby Teeth, Zoje Stage makes both motherhood and daughterhood terrifying, or perhaps just lays bare the terror that’s been there all along. Alternating between the perspectives of mute, violent 7-year-old Hanna and her chronically ill stay-at-home mother, Suzette, Baby Teeth is a deeply unsettling and hauntingly realistic horror story. Stage’s writing style is crisp, creepy, and compulsively readable; I can already tell that all its haunting little details have worked themselves deep into my psyche. I loved this book, even if it’s going to have me sleeping with a night light on for the foreseeable future.

You can read my full review below.


Baby Teeth Cover
cover description: A shattered red lollipop against a cream-colored background.

Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

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  • publisher: St. Martin’s Press (an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: July 17, 2018
  • length: 320 pages

She had tried, as a little girl, to express what was within her. But it came out like marbles. Nonsense. Babbling. Disappointing even to her own ears. She’d practiced, alone in her room, but the bugs fell from her mouth, frighteningly alive, scampering over her skin and bedclothes. She flicked them away. Watched them escape under her closed door. Words, ever unreliable, were no one’s friend.

–from Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

I went into Baby Teeth expecting some kind of substitute Gillian Flynn-inspired horror, yet another novel that would temporarily fill the Gone Girl and Sharp Objects-shaped hole in my heart without ever really capturing the pulse of what makes those novels great. Boy, was I wrong: Baby Teeth is a potent and terrifying experience all its own, no pale comparisons to Flynn needed.

In Baby Teeth, Zoje Stage efficiently winds up an unsettling conflict between a mother and her young daughter–Suzette and Hanna, respectively–in a chapter or two, and then spends the next 300 or so pages toying with the reader. This novel gave me a literal feeling of queasiness. First Suzette has the upper hand, then Hanna; vicious acts of violence are immediately undercut by devastating emotional vulnerabilities.

There’s nowhere safe to place your sympathies. In the end, no one has the upper hand here but Stage.

My favorite part of Baby Teeth is its specificity: Suzette is a Jewish interior designer who feels alienated from her religious and ethnic heritage because of her abusive mother. Suzette’s husband and Hanna’s father, Alex, is a Swedish architect who loves fika and holidays. (There is a significant amount of Swedish in this book, little of it directly translated.) We get all kinds of believable detail about this family’s home, food, clothes, and rituals, meaning that when those rituals inevitably fall apart, we’re just as disturbed and unmoored as the characters are.

I especially loved how health and illness were handled. Suzette has Crohn’s disease, and lives in terror of flares, surgeries, fistulas, and colostomy bags; even though my chronic illnesses are different, Stage captures the fear and uncertainty of chronic illness just right. When mental illness and intellectual disabilities enter the novel in significant ways, Stage zeroes in on what’s scary about those things without piling on stigma. (In fact, much of the horror in this novel springs directly from the stigma and institutionalization its characters experience.)

Choosing to tell this story from a dual perspective was risky, especially when one of those perspectives is that of a mute 7-year-old. Lucky for us, Stage makes it look effortless. Each voice is distinct; all the needling ways Suzette and Hanna get under each other’s skin are incredibly discomfiting since they’re so believable. No dramatic pea soup vomiting here: just the dynamics that are inherent to parent/child relationships, ever so slightly dialed up to the “chilling” setting.

Suzette is so terrified of being a bad mother (just like her own bad, abusive mother) that it brings out the bad mother in her. Even if you’re not a parent, who can’t identify with that helpless feeling of failure? And who can’t identify with being afraid of your own creation, biological or otherwise?

Meanwhile, Hanna becomes the cuckoo in Suzette and Alex’s marriage, determined to push out Suzette and get her (clueless, trusting) father’s love all to herself. She may go to desperate lengths to do so, but that hunger for love feels universal.

I did find Baby Teeth‘s third act a little overlong and understuffed, and its ending was not quite as conclusive as I wanted it to be. But that’s hardly a dealbreaker in a novel that’s otherwise so electrifyingly good.

In a novel this scary, you expect monsters. But it’s much more frightening–and satisfying–that ultimately, there are none. ★★★★☆

Reviews and books you might also enjoy:


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

Book Review: INCENDIARY GIRLS by Kodi Scheer

Incendiary Girls is a literary short story collection that stays firmly in the realm of magical realism. Kodi Scheer is excellent at incorporating the magical elements, but despite the magic, Incendiary Girls is boring. Its stories are gruesome and uncomfortable with little emotional payoff; characters are bitter and selfish without having the necessary quality of “interesting.” Some of the imagery comes off as blatantly bigoted, and it’s not clear to me if Kodi Scheer was intending to critique those images or if she’s just blandly perpetuating them.

I don’t mind difficult stories as long as I feel changed at the end, but all I felt at the end of Incendiary Girls was annoyed. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t like this collection at all, and at times I even actively loathed it.

You can read my full review below.


Incendiary Girls Cover
cover description: a white Arabian horse against a stark black background.

Incendiary Girls by Kodi Scheer

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  • publisher: New Harvest (an imprint of Amazon Publishing)
  • publication date: April 2014
  • length: 208 pages

Incendiary Girls is a tight spiral of a short story collection, eleven stories that all circle the same handful of themes and motifs: medicine, death, sex, motherhood, and intercultural and interracial relationships. None of the stories are technically linked, but all contain small nods to the others. All take place in a universe of magical realism: there’s always least one bizarre and impossible element always in play, and it’s always treated with complete seriousness.

It’s an intriguing structure that gives Incendiary Girls a cohesive, distinctive feel. The problem is that the stories themselves don’t work.

I found ten of the eleven stories here to be irredeemably gruesome, tacky, confusing, and often tone-deaf. Body horror abounds: dissection, graphically described tumors, and melting skin are all par for the course. It’s not something I would mind if there were meaning or at least entertainment in all the suffering, but I rarely found it. Character arcs barely budge. The dark humor doesn’t land. It comes off like a stodgy slasher film. (Is there anything worse than a stodgy slasher film?)

More disturbingly, the collection is steeped in creepy racism and other bigotry (in dialogue, first-person monologue, and even third-person narration), and it was unclear to me if Kodi Scheer was deliberately writing about bigots or if she simply didn’t realize it was bigotry at all.

There are are ways to write about racists without a whole story coming off as racist. Scheer just never pulls it off cleanly.

In “Transplant,” a blonde, pale woman gets a heart transplant, and her skin and hair literally get darker and thicker in the aftermath. She suddenly decides to convert to Islam and speculates about whether or not her donor heart came from someone Muslim. Then her body rejects the heart and she goes back to being blonde and sort of atheist. The whole thing is dripping with orientalism, and again, I can’t tell if it’s a critique of orientalism or the real deal. Hmm.

Tied for the two most bafflingly offensive stories were “When a Camel Breaks Your Heart,” about a white American woman dating an Arab Muslim man who’s embarrassed to bring her home–he then literally turns into a camel, whom she sends to a zoo–and “Primal Son,” about a couple struggling to conceive who try to adopt an infant from China and but then miraculously conceive and have a monkey for a baby. They end up moving to Tanzania after. You know, in Africa. Because they’re monkeys now?

HMMMMMMMMM.

I sincerely hope that I’m misreading all of this and that Scheer is actually trying to say something nuanced and complicated. I’m being sincere when I say that is my sincere hope! I’m desperate for more complicated and messy narratives around race and desire, and I absolutely don’t think there’s only one correct way to write about those topics.

But the optics here are…bad. There’s no challenge to characters’ bigotry, no pushback on unsavory ideas. It’s plausibly deniable Schrödinger’s racism that’s even more grating to me than an openly racist narrative would be. It’s all just ambiguous enough to make me feel like I’m overreacting by calling it racist.

But I’m officially going to come down on the side of calling this book racist. If your points about racism are so subtle that a racist reader might still enjoy your story comfortably, then I think you’ve failed both morally and technically as a writer.

I will allow that Scheer has an admirable grip on when to use magical realism: i.e., when real world imagery isn’t as effective at conveying an emotion or experience as magical imagery would be. I liked the use of magic in Incendiary Girls. That’s difficult to do and I admire that. It’s just the how part of using magical realism where I feel she’s slipped.

In “Primal Son,” for example, I’m not objecting wholesale to an allegory for infertility in which a woman gives birth to a monkey. I’m objecting to the total obliviousness involved in having a white-seeming couple give birth to a monkey and then slowly turn into monkeys themselves, culminating in them moving to Africa.

In the story “Ex-Utero,” which takes place in a hospital, a man with congenital adrenal hyperplasia–a very real intersex condition–discovers that he’s pregnant and begs for an emergency abortion. This is juxtaposed with rolling power blackouts and treated as a sign of the end of the world.

I don’t inherently object to a magical realist story about a “pregnant man”; I do object to a story that dehumanizes a character with a real life condition, treating him more like a freak show cadaver than a person. He’s not even a main character with agency or an inner life–the protagonist of “Ex-Utero” is instead a competitive, striving female doctor doing her residency, who delights in watching the man be cut open for the abortion.

Compounding the moral muddiness, a lot of the writing in Incendiary Girls is simply not good. Clichés abound. Dialogue thuds. Cheap twist endings come out of nowhere. There are a few beautiful sentences and emotional revelations here, but they’re buried by the crud.

The one story in Incendiary Girls that did fully work for me was called “No Monsters Here.” It’s about a woman with OCD who’s raising her daughter alone while her husband is working as a medic in the Middle East. She slowly discovers his body parts lying around the house and desperately tries to hide them in a linen closet so she doesn’t disturb her daughter; she realizes her husband must be missing or dead, and frantically tries to come to terms with that fact.

“No Monsters Here” is an urgent, palpable, desperate-feeling story about mental illness, loss, motherhood, and legacy. The imagery of the body parts fit the subject material perfectly. It didn’t wander off on strange and offensive tangents. It was well-written and haunting and I enjoyed it.

Unfortunately, it made up only one-eleventh of this book. ★☆


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

Book Review: WHITE DANCING ELEPHANTS by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

I love short story collections, but they’re devilishly tricky to review. Luckily, Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s debut collection, White Dancing Elephants, makes it easy for me: every single story is a knockout, cohering into a whole even greater than the sum of each part. Spanning continents, centuries, societies, religions, languages, genders, and sexualities, White Dancing Elephants offers up a profoundly moving series of observations about what it means to be alive (and sometimes dead), in some of the most beautiful prose I’ve read lately. Fans of the short stories of Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, and Jhumpa Lahiri won’t want to miss this one, though this collection is far from a mere imitation of those authors: with White Dancing Elephants, Bhuvaneswar forges terrific new ground all her own.

You can read my full review below.


whitedancingelephantscover

White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

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  • publisher: Dzanc Books
  • publication date: October 9, 2018
  • length: 208 pages

Two years ago, when I went back to Agra, India, at the age of twenty-two, to visit my grandparents and let two of my uncles set up my marriage, my ex-girlfriend Lauren, whom I work with now on a daily basis, came after me, hoping to stop me from giving in.

–from the story “Adristakama,” in White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

I always forget how much scaffolding goes into making a good story until I read–or attempt to write–a short story. A novel (or even a novella) has so much room for curtains and cover-ups, words that smooth over worldbuilding and stakes in order to keep us fully immersed in the fiction. A short story does not.

Authors of short stories must hit a bullseye every time in order to be successful: they need to choose a premise that’s exactly the right size for the story, peopled by the right number of characters, made meaningful by the right array of metaphors and themes and big reveals. One wrong move and the spell is broken.

Assembling a collection is even harder. The stories must not only work well on their own, but add meaning to each other. They must be unified into something that’s more than just a collection of pretty items in a shoebox–something more like a thoughtful exhibit at a museum, something you’d remember for a long time.

I was reminded of all these difficulties because White Dancing Elephants makes it look absolutely effortless. It’s a high wire act that its author, physician and writer Chaya Bhuvaneswar, might as well be performing at ground level for all it seems to test her.

It’s hard to say what, exactly, unifies the stories of White Dancing Elephants, except that they are unified. The titular story (also the first one in the collection) follows a woman struggling with a miscarriage. It’s trippy and surreal, but not self-consciously so, a watercolor-y portrait of pain and dreaming.

From there the collection opens up into a riot of color, idea, sound, humor, violence, ache. “Talinda” is vicious and tender by turns, chronicling a toxic friendship poisoned by cancer, an affair, and overwhelming, terribly attentive cruelty. “A Shaker Chair,” my least favorite story in the collection (but still a damn interesting one) is also about two women determined to hurt each other, but this time it’s a black biracial therapist and her Indian client. It probes at the ways abuse, prejudice, and sex intertwine, especially at how Asian anti-Blackness and Black xenophobia work in frustrating tandem, neither sin of mistrust cancelling out the other.

My favorite story comes near the midpoint and is also, I believe, the shortest. “Neela: Bhopal, 1984” explores the “world’s worst industrial disaster” (the 1984 chemical leak at the Union Carbide pesticide plant) in language that’s far from the clinical and numerical, the way it’s mainly written about in the U.S. today. A girl goes outside to play and does not come home. Bhuvaneswar handles the material with great tenderness and sharpness both, managing to avoid a simple environmentalist morality play in favor of something more spiritual, piercing, and indicting.

I can’t decide if Bhuvaneswar’s style is deceptively simple or simply deceptive: she’s a master of storytelling sleights-of-hand, focusing your attention on the details so that the full emotional weight of each story sneaks up on you right at the end, without feeling like a cheap “gotcha.” I don’t think I’ve ever read a book so full of revelations.

She also writes with incredible specificity, name-dropping brand names and place names and disorders and configurations of queerness. This would feel less interesting if the stories were obviously autobiographical, but they’re not: in addition to “Neela: Bhopal, 1984,” there’s “Heitor,” a story about a Portuguese slave, and “Jagatishwaran,” about an artist living with schizophrenia in an Indian city wandering between a brothel and his fraught family home.

You can feel how precious each story is to Bhuvaneswar, and because their subject matter is so diverse, the effect is one of intense empathy. Perhaps this is what unifies White Dancing Elephants so well: an intense love and attention paid to the margins, wherever they may be.

It also helps that White Dancing Elephants goes out on such a high note. The final story, “Adristakama,” about a star-crossed lesbian couple fighting culture clash, but even more than the culture clash, fighting the fear of loving and being loved freely that I think we all hold inside, is so beautiful I could do nothing but read it again once I finished.

Lastly, if you’re tired of the way American publishing houses market the work of South Asian writers–flowery language, emphasis on spices, lots of images of tea and henna and lotuses and such–you’ll find a lot to love in Bhuvaneswar’s sly commentary about writing and publishing.

In “The Bang Bang,” a father speaks Sanskrit at an open mic and then gives up his family in exchange for literary recognition (and no small amount of tokenism); it’s a darkly funny and sharp critique of publishing as well as being a powerful story about family. Other stories also draw from this well: one’s about a writer on a retreat who’s processing her unsatisfying marriage (“Chronicle of a Marriage, Foretold”; it’s also an element in “Talinda.”

I haven’t even scratched the surface of the stories in this book, nor what they meant to me. How could I? I adored this book. It’s going on my shelf right next to Runaway by Alice Munro, another favorite short story collection marked by its empathy, its vision, its deep sadness.

Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a writer of tremendous power, skill, and gift; her work is visionary and experimental without sacrificing readability. (I tore through each story, barely pausing for breath.) White Dancing Elephants is simply dazzling. ★★★★★

Standout stories: “Jagatishwaran,” “The Bang Bang,” “Neela: Bhopal, 1984,” “Adristakama”

Content warning: White Dancing Elephants contains a graphic rape scene in the story “Orange Popsicles” (highlight to read). It is also substantially about infertility, abuse (including towards disabled people), and bigotry in ways that may be triggering. Read with caution if you have those triggers.

Books you might also enjoy:


I received a copy of White Dancing Elephants from the author in exchange for an honest review. I received no other compensation and opinions are entirely my own.

Friday Bookbag (plus a personal story), 2.8.19

FridayBookbag

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

But first, story time: As some of you may know, I had a pretty major surgery yesterday. (A total hysterectomy, in order to treat my endometriosis and related pain.) I’m happy to say that the surgery was a major success. I’m extremely emotional about it, because even though the post-surgery pain is not fun and I’m too weak to sit up without help right now, I actually feel better after surgery than I did before. I literally felt better as soon as I woke up. It’s incredible.

I’ve been suffering with this condition for years and had pretty much lost hope I’d ever get relief. I still have a long recovery ahead and there’s a strong possibility I will continue to deal with some endometriosis pain in addition to my everyday fibromyalgia pain, but both conditions should be much improved now. (The endometriosis was triggering fibromyalgia flares and vice versa. That should no longer be the case.) I’m praying that this hysterectomy closes the book on the worst pain and illness I’ve ever experienced in my life. My doctors are hopeful it will, so I’m hopeful, too.

Here’s to more reading, writing, and blogging in the future. And PSA: if you’re suffering debilitating menstrual pain, I implore you to take that shit seriously. It’s not normal to be vomiting with pain during periods. It’s not normal to be laid up for 2-3 (or 4-5) weeks out of every month because of your periods. It’s not normal to be too weak to eat or walk or think or take the bus by yourself because of your periods. Please take your pain seriously and fight for the care you deserve. I’m so glad I did.

/end story time. Now, back to the books! This week I’m featuring three exciting reads by Black women authors: two new ones I bought recently, plus an old favorite that’s just gone on deep sale. Happy Black History Month!


How Long ’til Black Future Month?: Stories by N.K. Jemisin

How Long Til Black Future Month Cover

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

the premise: From Goodreads:

In these stories, Jemisin sharply examines modern society, infusing magic into the mundane, and drawing deft parallels in the fantasy realms of her imagination. Dragons and hateful spirits haunt the flooded city of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In a parallel universe, a utopian society watches our world, trying to learn from our mistakes. A black mother in the Jim Crow south must figure out how to save her daughter from a fey offering impossible promises. And in the Hugo award-nominated short story “The City Born Great,” a young street kid fights to give birth to an old metropolis’s soul.

why I’m excited:I’ve been dying to read N.K. Jemisin’s critically acclaimed work for years, but the timing’s never seemed to work out. I’ve also been dying to read more sci-fi short stories, especially with recent work like “Say, She Toy” by Chesya Burke and “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” by Rebecca Roanhorse knocking my socks off.

It’s like N.K. Jemisin read my mind and combined my sci-fi wishes into one awesome package in How Long ’til Black Future Month?. Every single story mentioned in that Goodreads summary sounds fascinating to me. That cover is gorgeous. And during a Black History Month that’s already been pretty miserable for Black Americans, I love the idea of immersing myself in a Black Future Month instead.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

The Mothers Cover

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

the premise: From Goodreads:

It is the last season of high school life for Nadia Turner, a rebellious, grief-stricken, seventeen-year-old beauty. Mourning her own mother’s recent suicide, she takes up with the local pastor’s son. Luke Sheppard is twenty-one, a former football star whose injury has reduced him to waiting tables at a diner. They are young; it’s not serious. But the pregnancy that results from this teen romance—and the subsequent cover-up—will have an impact that goes far beyond their youth. As Nadia hides her secret from everyone, including Aubrey, her God-fearing best friend, the years move quickly. Soon, Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey are full-fledged adults and still living in debt to the choices they made that one seaside summer, caught in a love triangle they must carefully maneuver, and dogged by the constant, nagging question: What if they had chosen differently? The possibilities of the road not taken are a relentless haunt.

why I’m excited: You all already know how much I love the books that bridge the gap between YA and adult fiction. The Mothers looks like it will do that, and be tremendously complex and interesting to boot. I love that it seems to take teens’ issues seriously. I’m genuinely excited to see a love triangle between a “beauty,” “pastor’s son,” and “former football star” in a critically acclaimed literary fiction novel. Yessss! I think the current array of typical literary fiction protagonists is incredibly limited, and I’m looking forward to spending some time with Bennett’s characters in contrast. Also, teen pregnancies are so often flattened into metaphors or deuses-ex-machina, but I trust The Mothers will do much better. (Its gush of positive reviews seems to suggest that, anyway.)

Also-also, that cover is gorgeous. I want it on a poster on my wall.

Bonus Round:

9780544786769

This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare by Gabourey Sidibe is currently on sale for $2.99 on Kindle. (If you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber, it’s available to read for free through that service, too.)

I reviewed This Is Just My Face last year and really loved it. Reading Sidibe’s memoir is like going to the coolest, funniest, realest sleepover of your life. She writes in a conversational, down-to-earth, self-deprecating (but also self-loving) style that’s the antithesis of what you would expect from a typical celebrity memoir. She’s lived a genuinely interesting life full of interesting stories (like her parents’ green card marriage, her summer stuck in Senegal with her brother, and her time as a phone sex operator and how it prepared her for acting).

You might know Sidibe best from the movie Precious or the shows Empire and American Horror Story: Coven, but I actually love her presence as a writer and social media personality the best. If you haven’t read it already, This Is Just My Face is definitely worth picking up during this sale.


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!