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

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  • 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

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  • 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: ALL THE LIVES I WANT by Alana Massey

Alana Massey’s funny, sharp, and just-the-right-amount-of-sentimental essay collection, subtitled Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen to Be Famous, is a banger. The celebrity subjects of the essays are diverse, from Britney Spears to the fictional Lisbon sisters of The Virgin Suicides to Lil’ Kim and Nicki Minaj. Massey intersperses the histories and cultural impacts of her subjects with episodes of her own life, including grimly dancing to Nine Inch Nails’s “Closer” in a strip club and a sad summer spent reading Joan Didion aloud to a distant boyfriend. It’s a book that’s intimate and expansive all at once, as well-cited and academic as a conference presentation yet as real life and relatable as a slumber party spent spilling your deepest secrets.

I adored this book. You can read my full review below.


All the Lives I Want Cover
cover description: The title “All the Lives I Want” is spelled out in red glitter against a stark white background.

All the Lives I Want: Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen to Be Famous Strangers by Alana Massey

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  • publisher: Grand Central Publishing (an imprint of Hachette)
  • publication date: hardcover in 2017, paperback in 2018
  • length: 256 pages

“Bitches be crazy” has become modern shorthand for “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” This line itself is a paraphrase of “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned/ Nor Hell a fury, like a woman scorned.” Like its predecessors, it is a statement that seemed to be reclaimed ironically by women at almost the exact moment that it entered the vernacular as a way to disparage them. This line is repeated more often by a sage and mercenary woman, both in fiction and in reality, than it is by a man trying to insult one. It is a wink, an exaggerated shrug of the shoulders that women communicate preemptively, a shield against the accusation that their behavior is inherently irrational compared to that of men. The sentiment is ancient, of course.

–from “Long-Game Bitches: On Princess Di, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, and the Fine Art of Crazy Exing” in All the Lives I Want by Alana Massey

I find essay collections to be the most personal sort of book to read and the hardest to review. Even the ones I don’t ultimately enjoy–even the ones I find boring! –stir up something powerful in me, reflecting back my most intense shames and desires. It’s hard to slap a star rating on that.

Luckily, it’s easier when the essay collection in question is as good as this one. Five stars is an easier distinction than choosing two, or three, or four. Perhaps it’s funny to notice that relief in myself while reviewing a book that so eloquently navigates mysterious and unmeasurable cultural places.

The essays of All the Lives I Want are surprisingly cohesive given the breadth of the subject matter. Massey’s topics bounce from A-list celebrities like Scarlett Johansson and Gwyneth Paltrow to slightly more niche choices (for a book published in the late 2010s, at least) like Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen and Anjelica Huston.

And some of my favorite essays of the collection aren’t about traditional celebrities at all: the title essay, “All the Lives I Want,” is about Sylvia Plath and her legion of young women fans on Tumblr and in tattoo parlors across the country. “Broken-Bodied Little Girls: On the Horror of Little Girls Grown” is about the grotesque young girls of horror movies like Poltergeist. And “Our Sisters Shall Inherit the Sky” reimagines the Lisbon sisters from The Virgin Suicides as the true subjects and protagonists of their own story rather than as the objects of young men’s imagination.

Massey writes about race and class in a much more refreshing way than most white women culture writers, finding new angles to talk about power and privilege without the constant “I know I’m privileged, but–” path that many take.

“Run the World: Amber Rose in the Great Stripper Imaginary” avoids many of the gross oversimplifications and stereotypes of white women writing about black strippers (likely because Massey has been an on-again, off-again stripper herself). “There Can Be Only One: On Lil’ Kim, Nicki Minaj, and the Art of Manufactured Beef” is one of the best pieces on the subject of beefs that I’ve read, especially in the way it calls out white celebrities like Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus for simultaneously stealing from black icons like Lil’ Kim and Minaj and attempting to humiliate them.

Most of all, I loved the accessibility of All the Lives I Want. To me, creating accessible prose is not about the length of your sentences or the simplicity of the words you choose but rather about the common ground you make with your audience. Massey is a sort of citizen scientist of celebrity, passionate and humble and endlessly curious. Her writing is barbed without being condescending; frank without being crass.

These essays are short, smart dollops of joy and bittersweetness. I’m sure there’s an argument to be made for lengthening the essays and diving deeper into each topic; however, if that had happened, I think something vital and energetic would have been lost. On the rare occasions I noticed myself getting bored or lost, bam: the next essay was already beginning and pulling me in deeper.

I’ve long followed Alana Massey on Twitter. I find her particular blend of sly humor and genuine emotion (and shameless thirst traps) endlessly appealing. If you enjoy her Twitter presence as much as I do, you should know it’s only intensified here.

This is a terrific book about celebrity, girlhood, pleasure, and pain. You must read it. ★★★★★

Reviews and books you might also enjoy:


I purchased my own copy of All the Lives I Want and was in no way compensated for this review.

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

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  • 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.

Friday Bookbag, 7.26.19

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.

This week I’ve got some buzzy nonfiction about Silicon Valley and the inspiration for Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, a fantasy novel about a desert empire and blood magic, an Afrofuturistic vampire epic, and a sweet comedy about aging band members who have all settled down together in Brooklyn. Let’s dive in!


Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley by Emily Chang

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Brotopia Cover
cover description: A highly stylized, colorful illustration of a woman with light skin and dark hair trying to open a locked glass door that has a sign showing women aren’t allowed.

source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

“For women in tech, Silicon Valley is not a fantasyland where millions of dollars grow on trees. It’s a “Brotopia,” where men hold all the cards and make all the rules. Vastly outnumbered, women face toxic workplaces rife with discrimination and sexual harassment, where investors take meetings in hot tubs and network at sex parties.

In this powerful exposé, Bloomberg TV journalist Emily Chang reveals how Silicon Valley got so sexist despite its utopian ideals, why bro culture endures despite decades of companies claiming the moral high ground (Don’t Be Evil! Connect the World!)–and how women are finally starting to speak out and fight back.”

why I’m excited: My wife is a computer programmer and has some interesting stories about being a woman in tech, so this kind of story is interesting to me personally. And, I think everyone has an interest in understanding how Silicon Valley works, given how omnipresent tech is in our lives. This looks fascinating.

The Real Lolita: A Lost Girl, an Unthinkable Crime, and a Scandalous Masterpiece by Sarah Weinman

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The Real Lolita Cover
cover description: A black and white photo of Sally Horner with a red filter. There are also two illustrations of moths.

source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

“Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is one of the most beloved and notorious novels of all time. And yet very few of its readers know that the subject of the novel was inspired by a real-life case: the 1948 abduction of eleven-year-old Sally Horner.

Weaving together suspenseful crime narrative, cultural and social history, and literary investigation, The Real Lolita tells Sally Horner’s full story for the very first time. Drawing upon extensive investigations, legal documents, public records, and interviews with remaining relatives, Sarah Weinman uncovers how much Nabokov knew of the Sally Horner case and the efforts he took to disguise that knowledge during the process of writing and publishing Lolita.

Sally Horner’s story echoes the stories of countless girls and women who never had the chance to speak for themselves. By diving deeper in the publication history of Lolita and restoring Sally to her rightful place in the lore of the novel’s creation, The Real Lolita casts a new light on the dark inspiration for a modern classic.”

why I’m excited: I’ve never read Lolita, but I’m fascinated by the cultural fascination with Lolita. Does that make sense? Anyway… I’m also fascinated by true crime, especially the ways that the kidnapping of white girls take over the media and cause massive ripple effects. This looks cool!

Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Empire of Sand Cover
cover description: A photo of an ornate curved knife against a red background. A starry pattern is visible around the corners of the image.

source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

“The Amrithi are outcasts; nomads descended of desert spirits, they are coveted and persecuted throughout the Empire for the power in their blood. Mehr is the illegitimate daughter of an imperial governor and an exiled Amrithi mother she can barely remember, but whose face and magic she has inherited.

When Mehr’s power comes to the attention of the Emperor’s most feared mystics, she must use every ounce of will, subtlety, and power she possesses to resist their cruel agenda.

Should she fail, the gods themselves may awaken seeking vengeance…”

why I’m excited: This looks like fabulous fantasy. I’ve mentioned before how I have a soft spot for fantasy that invokes gods and religion (see: Jacqueline Carey’s Starless and G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen), so that part looks great; anything with deserts and magic and nobility and royalty and cruel empires is also fine by me. I can’t wait.

My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

My Soul to Keep Cover
cover description: A blood red sunset.

source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

“When Jessica marries David, he is everything she wants in a family man: brilliant, attentive, ever youthful. Yet she still feels something about him is just out of reach. Soon, as people close to Jessica begin to meet violent, mysterious deaths, David makes an unimaginable confession: More than 400 years ago, he and other members of an Ethiopian sect traded their humanity so they would never die, a secret he must protect at any cost. Now, his immortal brethren have decided David must return and leave his family in Miami. Instead, David vows to invoke a forbidden ritual to keep Jessica and his daughter with him forever. Harrowing, engrossing and skillfully rendered, My Soul to Keeptraps Jessica between the desperation of immortals who want to rob her of her life and a husband who wants to rob her of her soul. With deft plotting and an unforgettable climax, this tour de force reminiscent of early Anne Rice will win Due a new legion of fans.”

why I’m excited: Everything about this premise looks creepy and great. Plus, who could resist that favorable a blurb from Stephen King? (The blurb from King appears on the cover and reads: “An eerie epic…bears favorable comparison to Interview with the Vampire. I loved this novel.”)

Modern Lovers by Emma Straub

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Modern Lovers Cover
Cover description: A bright turquoise and yellow cover that has lots of tiny illustrations of people walking around in the city.

source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

“Friends and former college bandmates Elizabeth and Andrew and Zoe have watched one another marry, buy real estate, and start businesses and families, all while trying to hold on to the identities of their youth. But nothing ages them like having to suddenly pass the torch (of sexuality, independence, and the ineffable alchemy of cool) to their own offspring.

Back in the band’s heyday, Elizabeth put on a snarl over her Midwestern smile, Andrew let his unwashed hair grow past his chin, and Zoe was the lesbian all the straight women wanted to sleep with. Now nearing fifty, they all live within shouting distance in the same neighborhood deep in gentrified Brooklyn, and the trappings of the adult world seem to have arrived with ease. But the summer that their children reach maturity (and start sleeping together), the fabric of the adults’ lives suddenly begins to unravel, and the secrets and revelations that are finally let loose—about themselves, and about the famous fourth band member who soared and fell without them—can never be reclaimed.”

why I’m excited: This book was compared to the movie Almost Famous in promos, which, for all its flaws, is one of my favorite movies. Bands are great fiction fodder. This book sounds really fun.


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

Book Review: 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

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  • 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. ★★☆☆☆

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

Friday Bookbag, 6.14.19

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.

This weekend my wife and I are looking forward to some fun Father’s Day plans with my father-in-law (on Saturday) and with my dad (on Sunday). It’s not going to leave a lot of time for reading, but it’s putting a sunny spin on my next few days nonetheless. And if Father’s Day is a difficult day for you, as Mother’s Day very much is for me, I hope you take excellent care of yourself this weekend and get to curl up with the very best books and a good cup of tea.

I’m even more excited than usual about the books I nabbed this week. Let’s dive in!


Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill (with Lisa Pulitzer)

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Beyond Belief Cover
cover description: a young white blonde girl in white robes smiles at the camera in what appears to be a family photo.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“Jenna Miscavige was raised to obey. As niece of the Church of Scientology’s leader David Miscavige, she grew up at the center of this controversial organization. At 21, she made a break, risking everything she’d ever known and loved to leave Scientology once and for all. Now she speaks out about her life, the Church, her escape, going deep inside a religion that, for decades, has been the subject of fierce debate and speculation worldwide.

Piercing the veil of secrecy that has shrouded the world of Scientology, this insider reveals unprecedented firsthand knowledge of the religion, its rituals and its mysterious leader—David Miscavige.”

why I’m excited: I’ve been on a kick of consuming content about cults niche movements this month. (Which is part of a broader pattern of me lapping this stuff up.) I’m currently obsessed with NXIVM, which shares a lot of similarities with Scientology, though Scientology has yet to implode quite so spectacularly. It’s always brave to write a memoir about a troubled childhood, and I think Miscavige has been particularly brave to write this one. I look forward to reading it.

Behind the Throne: A Domestic History of the British Royal Household by Adrian Tinniswood

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Behind the Throne Cover
cover description: an illustration of Queen Elizabeth I being carried in a litter.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“Monarchs: they’re just like us. They entertain their friends and eat and worry about money. Henry VIII tripped over his dogs. George II threw his son out of the house. James I had to cut back on the alcohol bills.

In Behind the Throne, historian Adrian Tinniswood uncovers the reality of five centuries of life at the English court, taking the reader on a remarkable journey from one Queen Elizabeth to another and exploring life as it was lived by clerks and courtiers and clowns and crowned heads: the power struggles and petty rivalries, the tension between duty and desire, the practicalities of cooking dinner for thousands and of ensuring the king always won when he played a game of tennis.

A masterful and witty social history of five centuries of royal life, Behind the Throne offers a grand tour of England’s grandest households.”

why I’m excited: I simultaneously think that the British monarchy is antiquated BS that UK citizens shouldn’t have to foot the bill for…and am completely fascinated by it, rabidly consuming royal content (fictional and…even more fictional) from the Netflix series The Crown to Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl. I have always wondered about the practicalities of keeping monarchs happy, and this looks like a fun peek behind that curtain.

A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

A Manual for Cleaning Women Cover
cover description: A housekeeper’s key against a reddish-pink background.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“A Manual for Cleaning Women compiles the best work of the legendary short-story writer Lucia Berlin. With the grit of Raymond Carver, the humor of Grace Paley, and a blend of wit and melancholy all her own, Berlin crafts miracles from the everyday, uncovering moments of grace in the laundromats and halfway houses of the American Southwest, in the homes of the Bay Area upper class, among switchboard operators and struggling mothers, hitchhikers and bad Christians. Readers will revel in this remarkable collection from a master of the form and wonder how they’d ever overlooked her in the first place.”

why I’m excited: I’m always looking for more short fiction to read, and I particularly love this sort of margins-of-society short fiction. And I super-particularly love what writers from the ’50s-’80s were doing with the form, which was when Berlin was writing. (She was born in 1936 and passed away in 2004.) This looks great.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays by Alexander Chee

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel Cover
cover description: a tiny black and white photo of the author sits slightly off center against a red background.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is the author’s manifesto on the entangling of life, literature, and politics, and how the lessons learned from a life spent reading and writing fiction have changed him. In these essays, he grows from student to teacher, reader to writer, and reckons with his identities as a son, a gay man, a Korean American, an artist, an activist, a lover, and a friend. He examines some of the most formative experiences of his life and the nation’s history, including his father’s death, the AIDS crisis, 9/11, the jobs that supported his writing—Tarot-reading, bookselling, cater-waiting for William F. Buckley—the writing of his first novel, Edinburgh, and the election of Donald Trump.

By turns commanding, heartbreaking, and wry, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel asks questions about how we create ourselves in life and in art, and how to fight when our dearest truths are under attack.”

why I’m excited: I’ve heard nothing but glowing things about this book, and I also love this author’s Twitter presence. I’ve been digging essay collections lately and I hope this one really blows my socks off.

Slipping: Stories, Essays, and Other Writing by Lauren Beukes

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Slipping Cover
cover description: an anatomical illustration of a heart against an electric blue background.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“In her edgy, satiric debut collection, award-winning South African journalist and author Lauren Beukes (The Shining Girls, Moxyland) never holds back. Nothing is simple and everything is perilous when humans are involved: corruption, greed, and even love (of a sort).

A permanent corporate branding gives a young woman enhanced physical abilities and a nearly-constant high
Recruits lifted out of poverty find a far worse fate collecting biohazardous plants on an inhospitable world
The only adult survivor of the apocalypse decides he will be the savior of teenagers; the teenagers are not amused.

From Johannesburg to outer space, these previously uncollected tales are a compelling, dark, and slippery ride.”

why I’m excited: This really blends my current interest in short story collections and essays, doesn’t it? This book feels like a project Neil Gaiman would do, or Margaret Atwood. It looks funny and sharp and memorable. Even if I don’t like this, exactly, I know I’ll love the boldness. I’m excited.


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!