Book Review: EDUCATED by Tara Westover

Educated is a harrowing memoir of the isolation, abuse, and paranoia Tara Westover experienced at the hands of her fundamentalist family in Idaho. Westover didn’t receive vaccinations or a birth certificate, everyone in her family refused to see doctors even during grave illnesses and injuries, and above all, she and her siblings were forbidden from going to school–which makes Westover’s eventual prestigious academic plaudits (acceptance to Brigham Young, a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, a PhD from Cambridge) all the more extraordinary. Westover has a calm, crisp writing style that turns the excruciating experiences she recounts into a damn good reading experience. It’s not hard to see why this book has been a bestseller for weeks on end: it’s an intoxicating story of redemption, healing, and yes, education in the face of near-unimaginable adversity. I absolutely adored Educated.

You can read my full review below.


Educated Cover
cover description: An illustration of the tip of a pencil made to look like a mountain. The silhouetted figure of a girl is visible on the “mountain.”

Educated by Tara Westover

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Random House (Penguin Random House)
  • publication date: February 20, 2018
  • length: 352 pages

Turning toward our house on the hillside, I see movements of a different kind, tall shadows stiffly pushing through the currents. My brothers are awake, testing the weather. I imagine my mother at the stove, hovering over bran pancakes. I picture my father hunched by the back door, lacing his steel-toed boots and threading his callused hands into welding gloves. On the highway below, the school bus rolls past without stopping.

I am only seven, but I understand that it is this fact, more than any other, that makes my family different: we don’t go to school.

–from Educated by Tara Westover.

Memoirs require either extraordinary writing or extraordinary experience to be worth reading. You don’t actually need both–but when you do have both, you end up with something as dazzling as Educated.

Tara Westover grew up in an extreme fundamentalist family in Idaho. She didn’t receive a birth certificate for years, she didn’t go to school, she never went to the doctor, and her family furiously eschewed mainstream culture, including mainstream Mormons, whom they called “gentiles.” All that makes it all the more extraordinary that Westover eventually taught herself enough math, science, and grammar to take the ACT and attend Brigham Young, later gaining prestigious scholarships to Cambridge and Harvard.

Educated could have easily been a screed: against fundamentalism, against white supremacy in the prepper movement (one memorable chapter details how Westover’s older brother beat her and taunted her with the N-word when he was displeased with her), against unregulated homeschooling, against unsafe home medicine, and much more. In some ways, it is; you certainly won’t leave Educated with a positive impression of any of those things. But I admire that Westover chose to focus on something much more personal: her slow and painful estrangement from her family.

Westover sees so much good in her family, even her father and brother Shawn, who were the ringleaders of the abuse she experienced. The fact that she writes about the good so generously–her father’s love of her singing, Shawn’s fierce protectiveness over her–cut me to the bone, even more so because I’m currently estranged from part of my own family because of abuse.

People have asked me what the worst part of the abuse was; after several years of considering, I’m sure that the worst part is not the worst parts–the screaming, the danger–but the fact that the worst parts poisoned the good parts. I could never let my guard down around my parent again, I could never trust that the good parts of my teens would last, there was never a new leaf turned over that would not eventually be turned back again. “Trust issues” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

I would guess that Westover would agree with me. Educated is full of horrifying moments–life-threatening burns and head injuries not treated in the hospital, beatings and physical torture, murdered animals–but the hardest parts of the book to read by far are its moments of love and tenderness because you know they will not last. No matter how good the good is, it can never fully cure the rot underneath.

With every word of Educated, Westover walks a tightrope of compassion and fury, a tightrope that was very familiar to me and will be familiar to anyone else who’s loved a family who can’t love you back in the way that you deserve.

That’s the extraordinary experience part of this memoir; let’s not forget the extraordinary writing, too.

It took me a few chapters to warm up to Westover’s straight-ahead style until I realized how carefully she was calibrating that style to each experience she recounts. Early in the book, when Westover is writing about things that happened when she was 7-10 years old, Educated’s tone is credulous and matter-of-fact; as she enters her teens and gains a sliver of access to the wider world, her writing breaks wide open into artfulness. Maybe I imagined it, but I could even swear her vocabulary changes as the book goes on.

At minimum, if I’m imagining those differences, then Westover is doing something right. Throughout Educated, I felt I was growing up right alongside her. It’s a really special storytelling experience.

Educated was a balm for me. It reminded me that there are others out there who are living with the consequences of generational trauma and paranoia and managing to make amazing lives for themselves regardless. But even if it’s not quite that personal for you, I guarantee that you’ll still find it a gripping and unforgettable story.

Like Wild by Cheryl Strayed, another memoir so harrowing that it almost defies belief, Educated is a reminder that, while we’ll never find the perfect, uncomplicated happily-ever-afters we were promised in fairy tales, there is such a thing as a happy ending for a true story. Westover has had to make impossible choices, but she’s come out the other side and thrived. That is exactly the thing I needed to be reminded of right now–exactly the thing that many of us who have suffered, or are currently suffering, needed to be reminded of. There is hope.

It’s hard to imagine a memoir more deserving of the celebration Educated has already received from critics and readers. Add my name to the long list of those who adore it. ★★★★★

Reviews and books you might also enjoy:


I got my copy of Educated from the library and was in no way compensated for this review.

I publish book reviews every Tuesday and Thursday.

Book Review: IN THE DREAM HOUSE by Carmen Maria Machado

For a memoir about gaslighting and nightmarish domestic abuse, Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House has a shockingly lucid, powerful core. Told through small chapters that each explore facets of “the dream house” (the home Machado shared with her abusive female partner), this book pushes the boundaries of real and unreal, personal and archetypal. By talking openly about her experience of queer abuse, Machado forwards a new and necessary concept of queer humanity: one where we finally find a middle ground between viewing queer people as only deviants or only saints. (Speaking from my personal lesbian experience: we are neither.) In the Dream House scared me and soothed me, educated me and entertained me. With this book, Machado sets ambitious goals for herself as a writer and knocks every single one out of the park. In the Dream House is an instant classic. Don’t miss it!

You can read my full review below.


In the Dream House Cover
cover description: A gothic-style illustration of a woman staring out from the attic of a dilapidated house. A shadowy figure stands on the porch.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Graywolf Press (distributed by Macmillan)
  • publication date: November 5, 2019
  • length: 272 pages

I enter into the archive that domestic abuse between partners who share a gender identity is both possible and not uncommon, and that it can look something like this. I speak into the silence. I toss the stone of my story into a vast crevice; measure the emptiness by its small sound.

–from In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

As a kid, I hoarded books of fairy tales from all over the world, reading and re-reading them, horrified and enthralled, until the pages fell out of the binding.

In my adult reading life, no book I’ve read has been more reminiscent of the primal experience of reading fairy tales than Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, her memoir of her abuse by another woman–the first woman she’d dated since coming out as bisexual.

Like magic, Machado weaves her specific story into an archetype, referencing Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature in the footnotes. (These footnotes are one of the greatest pleasures of the book, in fact.)

The titular dream house is the house where Machado and her abusive partner lived together–or is it? At times it seems to be something much larger and more liminal, terrifying.

Machado comes at the dream house from dozens of tiny angles chapters, each named after the motif she explores within it:

  • Dream House as Not a Metaphor”
  • Dream House as Lesbian Cult Classic”
  • Dream House as Haunted Mansion”

The story unfolds at a dreamy pace: the lush, erotic early days of the relationship, the sour terror when it started going wrong, the shattered and isolated feeling of recovering from something so many people refuse to believe exists.

The myth of queer people as perfect is a poisonous side effect of the fight for LGBTQ rights: in order to correct an image of our community as lascivious, predatory, and emotionally stunted, a funhouse mirror image of purity, benevolence, and emotional competence was created.

Unfortunately, the new image was just as unrealistic as the old one, and it has left queer people like Machado with nowhere to turn if another queer person harms them. To talk about abuse is to harm our community, the thinking goes–except, as Machado points out, that those victims of abuse are just as much a part of the queer community as their abusers.

About halfway through the book, Machado writes:

Fantasy is, I think, the defining cliche of female queerness. No wonder we joke about U-Hauls on the second date. To find desire, love, everyday joy without men’s accompanying bullshit is a pretty decent working definition of paradise.

That dream of a queer woman’s paradise, “punctured” (as she puts it in the next paragraph) by the reality of abuse, haunts the entirety of In the Dream House. Though I don’t share Machado’s experience of queer abuse, I’ve bumped up against the limitations of that dream myself so many times in other ways. Queer people will never be seen as fully human until we can be understood as flawed in the way that all humans are flawed.

In the end, after surviving the abuse, Machado did fall in love and marry someone new and wonderful, a fairy tale happy ending to match her fairy tale trials. The glimpses she gives us of this loving future/present make In the Dream House as cathartic and satisfying as it is painful and difficult, a Cinderella story with teeth.

I don’t know if I’ll ever stop thinking about In the Dream House; there’s simply nothing else like it out there right now. Please, please read it. ★★★★★


I purchased my own copy of In the Dream House and was in no way compensated for this review.

I publish book reviews every Tuesday and Thursday.

Book Review: KNOCK WOOD by Jennifer Militello

This is a poet’s memoir, both literally and stylistically. Knock Wood is Jennifer Militello’s first book of not-poetry, after three critically acclaimed and award-winning poetry collections. It begins with Militello reflecting on a “knock on wood” that was, unluckily, actually a knock on a surface that wasn’t wood. From there, the memoir blooms out into everything she believes was touched by that ill luck knock, from an uncle’s death three years before to a crumbling marriage to an arrest for theft to an aunt’s suicide attempt and mental illness.

Knock Wood is full of revelatory, quotable gorgeousness, and it’s surprisingly easy to read given its time-warping experimental format. (The lightning-fast 144-page length helps, too.) I enjoyed it very much, with one significant reservation: Militello consistently treats disability and fatness as grotesque. I still recommend this book, but I want to arm readers with that knowledge going in so that they’re not so unpleasantly caught off guard by it as I was.

You can read my full review below.


Knock Wood Cover
cover description: the outline of a scraggly tree is burnt into a woodgrain background.

Knock Wood by Jennifer Militello

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Dzanc Books
  • publication date: August 13, 2019
  • length: 144 pages

I don’t want to remember. Memory is the bush in the yard that we keep cutting down as it keeps growing back. I don’t know what species it is. It is the kind that has berries you can’t eat. Bird berries, my mother used to call them. Red and round and smooth. Now I tell my daughter, don’t eat them. They’ll make you sick.

–from Knock Wood by Jennifer Militello*

Knock Wood asks you to take a leap of faith. Its opening scene, in which Jennifer Militello describes an ill-fated knock on wood on an airplane to London in 2016, is extremely idiosyncratic, almost a parody of the mannerisms of creative nonfiction. Militello recounts reading “a Murakami novel about an uncle with cancer,”* knocking on wood (which turns out to be plastic or metal, something not-wood), and then suddenly realizing that this unlucky knock caused the death of her uncle three years before.

It’s a leap, and for a couple of pages, I held my breath, wondering if I was going to be stuck reading something painfully strained and false for the duration of this memoir, Militello’s first book of prose after three books of poetry.

Luckily, I wasn’t stuck: in fact, I was gripped before the first chapter had even ended, when a description of a hide being tanned sent deep shivers down my spine.

It’s not a chronological or even fully comprehensible memoir. It’s a deeply intuitive experience, like literally show me a healthy person by Darcie Wilder or, to a lesser extent, much of Annie Dillard’s work. Knock Wood is a memoir held together by déjà vu.

It reminded me of the way that a particular formation of clouds transports me back to summer camp every time I see it. I don’t have a distinct memory of seeing those clouds while I was actually at camp; I have no idea why the link is so strong, but it is. Militello moved me from memory to disparate memory in the same way: it didn’t make sense if I stopped to think about it, but it definitely felt right.

Militello spends a lot of time with the monstrous and chilling, the pulsing and bleeding, the ghostly and the all-too-embodied. This is mostly a good and interesting thing, but it leads me to my one, very serious criticism of Knock Wood: Militello’s dehumanizing treatment of disabled and fat bodies.

Much of this memoir revolves around Militello’s aunt Kathy, who was a model until severe mental illness struck. Over and over, Militello equates Kathy’s illness with ugliness and repulsiveness. Kathy is at first described as an elegant, slim, suicidal woman in a houndstooth coat. After treatment and medication, she becomes a breathless fat monster in tacky clothes one size (or more) too small.

There are plenty of ways to write about physical transformation that aren’t nearly so judgmental and cruel. Not only is this lazy writing, it’s a lazy reflection of a widespread belief that I find infinitely more monstrous than mental illness or fatness could ever be: that it is better to die beautiful than live to become undesirable.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder seven years ago, and it very nearly killed me. I refused to take my medication, because antipsychotic drugs (along with many other types of medication for mental illness) cause weight gain, and I refused–refused–to be fat, for fear I would become exactly the kind of object of pity and scorn that Militello paints here.

Eventually I did take my meds. Eventually I did become fat. I wore clothes that were too small. I have a double chin. I sweat easily. The hair on my face grows in oddly. And yet my life is still worth living! Imagine that.

That Militello leans so much on the same tired, insulting tropes of the grotesque in a memoir that is otherwise so gorgeous, humble, and insightful feels like a slap in the face.

This book was well worth reading, and Militello is a tremendously gifted nonfiction writer. Her words will be reverberating with me for some time. But some of the words she invokes are powerful for all the wrong reasons. ★★★★☆

Knock Wood hits stores and your favorite online retailers tomorrow, August 13th.

* Please note that all quotes in this review come from an ARC, which is an uncorrected proof. Quotes may appear differently in the final version.

Reviews and books you might also enjoy:


I received a copy of Knock Wood from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. I received no other compensation and opinions are entirely my own.

Book Review: THIS WILL BE MY UNDOING by Morgan Jerkins

In This Will Be My Undoing, Morgan Jerkins exposes raw nerve after raw nerve, seemingly fearless about sharing her most vulnerable experiences. This book is technically an essay collection, but the essays bled together in my mind into something more closely approaching a memoir of Jerkins’s education as a black woman in a white world. It’s a great premise for a book, and Jerkins has a wealth of interesting experiences to draw on. Unfortunately, I really, really did not like the finished product. Sloppily edited, wildly uneven in tone, and at times self-contradictory in ways that felt un-self-aware rather than nuanced, I found it a deeply frustrating and unsatisfying read. I’m looking forward to seeing where Jerkins goes next–her talent is clear, so I’m not writing all of her work off as “not for me” just yet–but I think this collection is a dud.

You can read my full review below.


This Will Be My Undoing Cover
cover description: A black and white image of author Morgan Jerkins, a black woman wearing glasses and with her hair styled in long braids, leans back with her eyes closed. She looks peaceful and focused.

This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jerkins

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Harper Perennial (an imprint of HarperCollins)
  • publication date: January 30, 2018
  • length: 272 pages

When I was ten, I realized that I was black. In some ways, that had nothing to do with actual cheerleading, but rather with what blackness meant, writ large, learned from the experience of trying to force myself into this pristine, white, and coveted space, which spit me out before I could realize how much I had been abused.

–from This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins

Reviewing memoirs and personal essay collections is always fraught for me. It’s extraordinarily difficult to take someone’s life story in my hands and not feel strange about nitpicking how they’ve told it to me. It is a gift when writers are willing to bare so much of themselves to us, and I try not to take it lightly.

That’s why, when I felt my first prickles of dislike about This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America–Jerkins’s debut essay collection–before I’d even finished the first essay, I felt so much dread and disappointment.

The actual experiences of misogynoir that Morgan Jerkins writes about could never be trivial, petty, or boring. They are critically important. I’m glad she’s writing about them. But in This Will Be My Undoing, I think her writing itself is all of those adjectives, and more.

First and foremost, the essays are rambling and unfocused. Not one essay stands out on its own in my memory. The events she writes about–racist taunts at cheerleading tryouts, witnessing a Nazi salute while tipsy in St. Petersburg, miraculously getting into Princeton after getting stuck on a waiting list of 1200 applicants–are notable, but robbed of their full power because their context is so wonky.

Anecdotes run too long, or too short. Truly shocking experiences go weirdly undertapped, while every last drop of portent and then some is wrung out of things that struck me as fairly mundane. Quotes and research are dropped in excessively where they’re not needed, but then her wilder claims (like one that’s been cited in many reviews already, where Jerkins asserts that every black woman she’s met has lost her virginity in a traumatic way) go unsupported.

Much of this could, and probably should, have been cleaned up by an editor before it ever reached my hands; in fact, it’s been a long time since a collection’s editing stood out to me so strongly, and not in a good way. Jerkins has chops, but even the best writers need good and challenging editors. This book doesn’t feel like it had one.

This Will Be My Undoing is at its best when Jerkins is writing from direct personal experience or historical research, and at its very worst when she tries to get into other people’s heads, and in its connective tissue between ideas.

For example, when Jerkins writes about a guilty preference for porn where blonde white women are penetrated and subjugated, the collection crackles with power. It’s uncomfortable and weird and great, because it’s one of the few times Jerkins fully seems to own and control what she’s writing about.

Conversely, my least favorite moment of the book is when Jerkins weakly points out that black disabled women are underrepresented beneath the umbrella of Black Girl Magic, because so much Black Girl Magic is about athleticism. Nothing about those paragraphs feels authentic or fresh. (Jerkins is not disabled.) It’s a thinkpiece-y attempt to unify ideas that do not need to be unified, to bring everyone into one big happy tent where they don’t actually need to be.

That essay, titled “Black Girl Magic,” is primarily about Jerkins’s labiaplasty. I appreciate that in a book so concerned with intersectional analysis, Jerkins is trying to incorporate disability into her lens. But the connection between labiaplasty and disability just doesn’t work. In fact, the labiaplasty itself seems to have very little to do with the theme of Black Girl Magic. It’s one more way Jerkins chooses to dilute a potent message by trying to make it universal, instead of doubling down on her own unique perspective.

It’s clear that Jerkins is willing to dive deep and go hard in pursuit of a great essay. That’s why it’s frustrating when she repeatedly pulls back at the last second and buries the good stuff between way too much 101-level explaining.

I don’t think the essays in This Will Be My Undoing work at all, much less the book as a whole. That’s a damn shame. ★★☆☆☆

Reviews and books you might also enjoy:


I purchased my own copy of This Will Be My Undoing and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: THE COLLECTED SCHIZOPHRENIAS by Esmé Weijun Wang

The Collected Schizophrenias is an essay collection so essential that I’m pained that it didn’t exist fifty years ago, or thirty, or ten. Thank goodness we have it now. Chronicling Esmé Weijun Wang’s years of living with bipolar-type schizoaffective disorder (along with other compounding chronic and mystery illnesses like Lyme disease), its essays go far deeper than abnormal psych 101s. Wang instead weaves in more open-ended themes of liminal space, the boundaries of science and belief, and what it means to be permanently sick. The keenness and heart of The Collected Schizophrenias reminds me of the very best of Joan Didion.

If you live with mental illness, especially one of “the schizophrenias,” you need to read this book. If a loved one lives with schizophrenia, you need to read this book. And if you just plain love terrific nonfiction writing, you need to read this book.

You can read my full review below.


The Collected Schizophrenias Cover

The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays by Esmé Weijun Wang

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Graywolf Press
  • publication date: February 5, 2019
  • length: 224 pages

In these investigations of why and how, I am hoping to uncover an origin story. Pan Gu the giant slept in an egg-shaped cloud; once released, he formed the world with his blood, bones, and flesh. God said, “Let there be light.” Ymir was fed by a cow who came from ice. Because How did this come to be? is another way of asking, Why did this happen?, which is another way of asking, What do I do now? But what on earth do I do now?

–from the essay “Diagnosis” in The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang

I knew I would love The Collected Schizophrenias the second I held it in my hands. It’s a sturdy paperback, perfect bound, with a cover design like a particularly lovely composition book. I knew I would love it because that is the kind of notebook they allow you to have in a psych ward–that or a legal pad, which is what I wrote on during my own stay. If you’re a writer in a psych ward, you know that such a notebook is an escape.

What’s inside The Collected Schizophrenias also feels like an escape from the overly simple and the simply overwrought. Esmé Weijun Wang establishes a distinct style from the first page, which begins, simply, “Schizophrenia terrifies.” It does. The escape velocity from that mind-numbing terror–similar to the escape velocity required from mere bland sympathy–is one part clarity, one part mystery, one part wild love for oneself, others, and the world. Wang nails the combo. This book does not put its author-subject on display the way so many mental illness memoirs and biographies do, as if this were a zoo or a classroom. She gently but firmly commands a more personal kind of attention.

In the essay “Perdition Days,” Wang documents weeks spent in the Cotard delusion, when she believed she was dead. In “Reality, On-Screen,” she writes about how watching the movie Lucy during a psychotic episode warped reality, and how watching Catching Fire after the episode restored it, fragilely. In “The Slender Man, the Nothing, and Me,” she compares her obsession with The NeverEnding Story’s The Nothing with the Creepypasta Wiki’s The Slender Man, who inspired two Wisconsin girls to stab a third.

In all three of those essays, Wang, a novelist as well as a nonfiction author, refers to needing to remove herself from fiction for her own safety when she’s psychotic. It’s a detail that moved me and perturbed me. I had never even considered it as a thing that someone might need to do. And that’s only one of many quiet but earth-shaking details in the The Collected Schizophrenias.

For each personal revelation here, there’s just as much research and reporting, on everything from the Americans with Disabilities Act to California’s dreaded 5150s to the story of Nellie Bly, the American journalist who went undercover to expose the terrible conditions in 19th century psych wards.

“The schizophrenias” of the title refers specifically to the kaleidoscope of diagnoses that make up psychotic disorders: schizophrenia, nonspecific psychoses, and schizoaffective disorder, a blend of schizophrenia and a mood disorder like bipolar or depression. Wang has that last schizophrenia: schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type.

Less specifically, “the schizophrenias” seems to be a way of talking about a life lived in, as Wang writes in “Perdition Days,” percentages. Percentages of sane. Percentages of psychosis. Schizophrenias.

Schizophrenia may onset in your late teens, twenties, thirties, long after your life is already on its course. I’ve thought about that endlessly. My bipolar I disorder crested and changed my life when I was 17. I was psychotic too, and when I started treatment they thought I might have schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type, just as Wang does. I have now lived for years without psychosis. The schizophrenias seem to have been ruled out–for now. But I have always wondered if they might make up a second wave of my mental illness; now that I’m 24, they could be just around the corner.

After reading The Collected Schizophrenias, the thought of that potential new wave no longer feels frightening or crushingly sad to me. Wang gave me a picture of how my life–any life–might go on with schizophrenia; the way she writes about how her “physical” illnesses like chronic Lyme intertwine with her mental health only strengthens this picture of going on. The Collected Schizophrenias offers a new framework on how to be sick and whole–perhaps wholly sick–without losing your self underneath.

There are 13 essays in the book, and the only way you might know they were essays rather than chapters of a single memoir is that certain biographical information is occasionally repeated: Wang’s diagnosis (schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type), her acceptance to Yale, her work in a psychological research lab. Somehow this works to make the book more cohesive, not less; it feels faceted, and each time this information was repeated I felt a different way about it. The narrative is remarkably tight, even when it veers far from chronology.

Every essay in The Collected Schizophrenias reminded me of Joan Didion. Maybe that’s because I’ve been working my way through The White Album for the past two months. Maybe it’s because, like Didion, Wang has strong ties to California, and California permeates this book.

But I think most of all it’s because both Didion and Wang tell stories using decisive, crystallizing, anchoring words even when those stories are about the times they felt most anchorless. Wang’s prose here is lilting and light, punctuated just enough by sharpness and dark. Didion’s, too. They blend the detail and rigor of reporters with the wide-ranging questions and openness of artists. Neither writer is ever just one thing. They are full notebooks. Perfect bound. How lucky we are to have their words to escape into.

The Collected Schizophrenias is everything I want creative nonfiction to be: sharp and soft in all the right places, conveying things that dates and numbers and statistics cannot. What a stunning book. I found it life-changing. ★★★★★

Books you might also enjoy:

  • The White Album by Joan Didion
  • Just Kids by Patti Smith
  • The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn Saks

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

Book Review: THE HOT ONE by Carolyn Murnick

I’m still recovering from surgery, which means my reviewing and reading pace has gone way down while I relax and nap. (Lots of naps!) I’m in the mood to catch up with older releases I’ve missed over the past few years, and that’s why it feels like the perfect time to review The Hot One, a memoir that’s been near the top of my TBR list since it first came out in 2017.

The Hot One, dramatically subtitled A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder, is about the murder of writer and editor Carolyn Murnick’s childhood best friend, Ashley, who was the victim of a serial killer in the early 2000s. It’s also about the ways our adult selves diverge from our child and adolescent ones, and especially all the ways women are limited by one-dimensional definitions (for example, “the hot one” vs. “the smart one”).

The premise is powerful and The Hot One’s first third is excellent, but the book soon fizzles into what I found to be boring, confusing navel gazing. You can read my full review below.


The Hot One Cover

The Hot One: A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder by Carolyn Murnick

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • publication date: hardcover in 2017, paperback in 2018
  • length: 272 pages (paperback)

In the courtroom I had seen in a new way what it looks like when a life is cut off at twenty-two. All the messy baby fat of emotional immaturity still stuck on you for eternity, paraded out for everyone to see.

–from The Hot One by Carolyn Murnick

A woman’s murder is never just her murder: it’s a stage for social commentary and catharsis, too. Usually it’s men drawing the conclusions, but in the true crime memoir The Hot One, it’s the victim’s female friend, Carolyn Murnick. Murnick uses the murder of her childhood friend Ashley as a jumping off point for big ideas about friendship, men, women, girls, the criminal justice system (kind of), journalism, sex, sex work, drugs, and most of all, herself.

Doesn’t that sound like a lot? It is, at least for Murnick. Her intense emotion is palpable and her courage in writing about this experience is admirable. But on the page, The Hot One feels remarkably understuffed. It’s simultaneously airy and swampy, overly personal and too broadly political, very dry and also too messy.

The memoir does crackle along nicely in its first third, in which Murnick details her friendship with Ashley and its tragic end. Murnick and Ashley were not close at the time of Ashley’s murder, and this is the best part of the book, although it is of course the worst part for Murnick. She is angry at herself for abandoning Ashley; she is angry at Ashley for abandoning her; she is angry at the fact of the murder for destroying any chance at reconciliation. That’s compelling stuff.

Crucially, it’s compelling stuff that also has a linear narrative. Murnick and Ashley become inseparable; they drift apart; the murder happens. It’s an arc.

It’s when that arc transitions into Murnick’s solo journey to come to terms with the murder that The Hot One becomes a voyeuristic-feeling slog, like you’re overhearing a stranger’s rambling therapy session rather than reading words assembled for publication. It’s told out of order, but not very effectively. I don’t mind piecing things together for myself, but it would be nice if it felt like I had the whole puzzle rather than odd parts.

I have the utmost respect for what Murnick has been through, and I want to be clear that in no way do I think the actions or emotions she describes in The Hot One are unseemly or wrong. I just think that they’re her actions and emotions, deeply private and inaccessible to me, and that unfortunately, The Hot One gives me little reason or opportunity to get invested in them. When Murnick is writing about Ashley, her prose shines. When she’s writing about herself, it just thuds. Unfortunately, this book is mostly her writing about herself.

The Hot One hammers certain points home again and again: that Ashley did sex work, that she was hot and flirty and confident, that she was slut-shamed and a drug user and living a double life, and that her murder was left unsolved for years partially because of all those things. (It was assumed she was killed by a jilted lover or that she had gotten tangled up in drugs or trafficking.) These things are stated and restated so many times that I found myself just skimming over them whenever they reappeared.

But The Hot One then leaves other points desperately unclear. There are weird interludes in the book where Murnick visits with astrology-obsessed friends who talk about how serial killers are often thwarted water signs. She visits a guy who’d once gone on a date with Ashley, and almost ends up sleeping with him herself, until he reveals himself to be kind of a cad. She’s asked to testify after tons of writing about how she was afraid to testify…and then we get barely any details about that testimony or what it felt like.

It’s not that these events are “wrong” or “unbelievable.” Again, nothing about Murnick’s experiences could be wrong or unbelievable in this traumatic context. It’s that the way she transcribes them for readers is murky, and worse, boring. I went from loving the book in its first chapters to loathing it by its midpoint, simply because I couldn’t understand what was going on or why it was relevant.

I also think Murnick’s reaches for political relevance are clumsy, especially with the new afterword in the paperback addition, which tries to tie the memoir to the #MeToo movement and to Murnick’s pregnancy. Her points about the ways girls both are defined and define themselves with narrow concepts like “the hot one” or “the smart one” are spot on, because they’re based in her experience. Her points about, say, the male gaze are…less spot on, since they veer wildly between talking about men’s literal gaze and the feminist concept of the male gaze without clearly distinguishing the two. Lots of other feminist concepts get similarly bungled, and the courtroom and criminal justice sections are frustratingly thin.

Like Emma Cline did in her (fictional) book about murder, The Girls, Murnick seems determined to draw wide conclusions from one narrow experience when the narrow experience is actually more compelling on its own. And as in The Girls, Murnick writes about the experiences of upper/upper middle class white girls without really acknowledging that many other kinds of girls exist, with many other archetypes than just “the smart one” or “the hot one” working against them.

The Hot One is of course different from The Girls, because Murnick is writing about her own experience. Yet it’s almost worse, in a way, since The Hot One has plenty of room for interesting research that could have filled those gaps, whereas The Girls was confined to a tighter narrative structure.

Murnick has published several excellent essays about her experience, including one that’s a condensed excerpt from this book, which is what motivated me to buy my own copy. In short form, her points are salient and gripping. But spun out into a whole book, they fizzle. It’s terribly disappointing considering how much I adored that excerpt.

The Hot One is a promising new kind of true crime memoir: one that turns its voyeuristic gaze on its author and her baggage, rather than on all the gory, salacious details of the crime. I just wish it had actually delivered on that promise. ★★☆☆☆

Books you might also enjoy:


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

Friday Bookbag, 7.27.18

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.

This week in my bookbag, I’ve got a sober meditation on climate change, a literary take on Korea’s Gwangju Uprising from the author of The Vegetarian, a futuristic video game-themed YA adventure, and more. Let’s dive in!


Rising: Dispatches From the New American Shore by Elizabeth A. Rush

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

New American Shore Coverthe premise: Author Elizabeth Rush reports on areas on the East Coast, Gulf Coast, and beyond that are threatened by rising seas and climate change. From worsening natural disasters like hurricanes to islands literally drowning beneath incessant waves, Rising is a polyphonic portrait of a world on the brink of change.

why I’m excited: Excited is perhaps the wrong word for this one, as climate change is an issue I’m deeply worried about, and I think this book will cause me no small amount of anxiety. But I’m looking forward to immersing myself in Rush’s reporting and educating myself on what’s happening on the coasts. I currently live in Minnesota, which is about as far from an ocean as you can get in North America. (We have Lake Superior, but that doesn’t count in this case.) I’m not affected by climate change with as much urgency as the communities Rush documents are, and I consider it a duty to inform myself. Every review I’ve read of this book does praise Rush’s skillful, lyrical writing and interviewing, so I hope it won’t be an entirely self-flagellatory exercise.

Human Acts by Han Kang

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Human Acts Coverthe premise: Set against the backdrop of the bloody 1979 Gwangju uprising in South Korea, Human Acts is a series of interconnected stories about people desperately trying to make a difference–and survive. It spans three decades of lead-up and follow-up to Chun Doo-hwan’s declaration of martial law that led to the deaths of anywhere from 160 people to around 2000. (For more information on the premise of the novel, the history of the Gwangju uprising, and Han Kang’s personal connection to both, I recommend reading Min Jin Lee’s excellent article, “Korean Souls,” in the New York Review of Books.)

why I’m excited: I remain obsessed with Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian, which I reviewed a few months ago as “extraordinary and…nauseating, like a spinning theme park ride with its speed cranked up one level past safety.” Where The Vegetarian was almost claustrophobically personal, Human Acts appears to break wide open, encompassing more stories and larger events. Also, I know embarrassingly little about the history of Korea (especially South Korea), and I’ve recently found fiction to be a good way in. From Mary Lynn Bracht’s White Chrysanthemum (about Japanese occupation and comfort women) to The Hole by Hye-young Pyun, which I wrote about in a previous Friday Bookbag, I’ve been striving to read more works by Korean and Korean diasporic authors, and I look forward to adding Human Acts to that list.

Driven: A White-Knuckled Ride to Heartbreak and Back by Melissa Stephenson

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Driven Coverthe premise: For Melissa Stephenson, cars are (and were) an escape, from her blue collar childhood in Indiana, to her brother’s suicide, to camping trips with her kids in a VW bus. Driven is a memoir of her relationship with her brother and her healing after his death, structured around the cars she’s loved over the years.

why I’m excited: I can’t say that the “cars” part of the premise sets me on fire. My partner’s a mega-gearhead, but I’m not. This memoir seems to be about more than cars, though. It seems like it’s also about family, and healing, and independence, and how sometimes running away from something can also mean running towards our better selves. It’s being billed as similar to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, a book I adored. I certainly hope it scratches the memoir itch I’ve had recently.

Warcross by Marie Lu

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Warcross Coverthe premise: Warcross is an immersive international video game sensation: think Fortnite meets Overwatch meets World of WarcraftEmika Chen is a hacker and bounty hunter who scrapes out a living hunting down people who bet on Warcross illegally, but she risks it all when she decides to make quick cash by hacking into the Warcross championships. She’s caught–but instead of getting arrested, she gets an appointment with the elusive founder of Warcross, who offers her a job in Tokyo as a spy…where she uncovers fortunes and dangers greater than she’d ever imagined.

why I’m excited: It’s hard to beat a good YA sci-fi thriller–they’re like a surprise trip to an amusement park in the middle of a dreary reading schedule–er, work week. I’m especially excited about this one because I loved Marie Lu’s Legend series (Goodreads) when I was a teen, and also because Lu worked in video game design before she was an author, so I think Warcross will be full of cool (and maybe even accurate!) details.

The Occasional Virgin by Hanan al-Shaykh

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Occasional Virgin Coverthe premise: Two women–Yvonne and Huda–were raised in restrictive households in Lebanon: one Christian, one Muslim. When they meet on vacation in Italy, their complicated pasts threaten to interfere with the powerful and successful professional lives they take pride in now.

why I’m excited: I enjoy fiction that delves into religion and its effects on our lives, and I especially enjoy that one protagonist is Christian and one Muslim. Christianity and Islam are so often set up as an either/or that a novel that deals with their similarities is hugely exciting to me. I also love novels that explore how the values we’re raised with can interfere with the values we wish to have now. This novel could turn out to be sloppy or melodramatic in execution a la The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso (which has a semi-similar premise), but I like the idea enough to give it a shot.


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!