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

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

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

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

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

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

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. ★★☆☆☆

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.

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!

Book Review: DEAD GIRLS: ESSAYS ON SURVIVING AN AMERICAN OBSESSION by Alice Bolin

Laura Palmer. Lilly Kane. Harriet Vanger. “Amazing Amy” Dunne. We’re obsessed with dead girls and maybe-dead girls, both fictional and real. Alice Bolin’s essay collection, Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession, explores that premise through cultural criticism of true crime coverage, books, movies, and TV shows like Gone Girl, Twin Peaks, Veronica Mars, Joan Didion’s writings on the Manson murders, and more. There are also many essays about non-crime and crime fiction related topics.

Its title lets it down, since you’ll likely be disappointed if you go into this book expecting more “dead girl” content than it delivers. (That part makes up about a third of the book, with the more general essays making up the rest.) Alice Bolin is an excellent writer and I enjoyed the essays on their own merits, but as an essay collection, this book doesn’t hang together all that well.

You can read my full review below.


Dead Girls Cover

Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession by Alice Bolin

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: William Morrow (an imprint of HarperCollins)
  • publication date: June 26, 2018
  • length: 288 pages

“I didn’t hate and fear all women,” Nick says defensively in Gone Girl. “I was a one-woman misogynist. If I despised only Amy, if I focused all my fury and rage and venom on the one woman who deserved it, that didn’t make me my father.” Aren’t they all one-woman misogynists?

–from Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession by Alice Bolin

My experience of reading Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession was a frustrating one. I signed onto this book expecting what it says right there on the tin: essays about the American (probably global?) obsession with “dead girls,” and what that means for the very-much-alive girls and women who live in a world full of that kind of laden, violent imagery.

The problem is that a good deal of this book isn’t about dead girls at all. It’s also full of more personal essays about Bolin’s experience in the American West, her move to L.A., her family, her experience navigating white womanhood, her favorite books, an incompatible boyfriend, and more.

These essays are beautifully written: poignant, sharp, elegant, neurotic in a self-aware and interesting way. They’re genuinely great! They just weren’t what I thought I was going to get, and because of that, the latter two-thirds of this book were a slog.

The first third had me jazzed. I zipped through it, highlighting what felt like every other paragraph. My favorite essay, “The Husband Did It,” is largely about Gone Girl and Gillian Flynn’s characterization of hapless, pathetic, misogynistic husband Nick Dunne, and it’s a straight banger: Bolin is witty, funny, and sharp as a tack, and here is where it shone the best. Gone Girl is one of my favorite books (I also love the movie adaptation), and it was a delight to see it through Bolin’s eyes.

But as soon as I hit the second third of the book, titled “Lost in Los Angeles,” all the zip left. Bolin turns her eye from more widely known cultural touchstones (True Detective, iconic true crime cases, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) towards more obscure texts, and she starts diving deeper into her own experiences. In particular, she writes seemingly endlessly about Joan Didion, and while I’m always up for reading about Joan Didion (truly!), it felt like a record scratch. I got why Didion’s work is important to Bolin–I just didn’t understand why that should be important to me.

Maybe I’m falling into the exact same trap Bolin is excoriating here–after all, I’m saying that I was far more interested in the “dead” part than the “surviving” part, which is exactly the problem with “dead girl” culture. And I do think Bolin is doing an interesting thing here: setting out a theory of dead girls and their effect on our culture, and then applying it to her own life.

But the flow is all wrong, and it bothered me tremendously. I don’t know if this discordance is Bolin’s “fault” (not the right word to use here, but the best fit I can think of) or her publisher’s. I know that it’s rare for authors to choose their titles. I know that editors have a say in organizing the order of a collection. They certainly have a say in how a book is marketed, and in setting readers’ expectations for what a book will be like, through everything from blurb choice to cover design.

And all the choices that the publisher made here left me feeling baited and switched.

The best fix I can think of would be to publish this as two books. Split the dead girl content from the more general content, add more essays to both to compensate, and then publish two collections whose promises line up with what they actually deliver.

Had I read each of these essays individually, I can practically guarantee I would have loved them unreservedly. Even the ones that I think work less well than the others are still very good. But as one book meant to be read altogether, Dead Girls falters. There’s just not enough connective tissue to keep you hooked from essay to essay.

Dead Girls is full of treasures, but they’re best enjoyed one by one instead of consecutively. Either read it in small doses or skip it–taken as a cohesive collection, I think this one’s a dud. ★★★☆☆

Reviews and books you might also enjoy:


I purchased my own copy of Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession and was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 4.26.19

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.

It’s like I learned nothing from last week! I kept buying books way faster than I’m reading them. (Shout out to Book Riot’s daily book deals newsletter, which is the best worst thing that’s ever happened to me.) Luckily my reading slump seems to have broken and I’m back to reading more, if not quite enough. Expect some interesting book reviews coming soon.

Let’s dive into all my bad great decisions this week!


The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Poet X Coverthe premise: From Goodreads:

“Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking.

But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours all her frustration and passion onto the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers—especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class named Aman, who her family can never know about. With Mami’s determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself.

So when she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she doesn’t know how she could ever attend without her mami finding out, much less speak her words out loud. But still, she can’t stop thinking about performing her poems.

Because in the face of a world that may not want to hear her, Xiomara refuses to be silent.”

why I’m excited: Slam poetry–its fiercely loving community and its empowering vulnerability–are ripe for a YA novel, especially one about an Afro Latina girl fighting rape culture and abuse. That premise + myriad rave reviews and awards mean that this book is guaranteed to make me Feel Things. I can’t wait.

The Emissary by Yōko Tawada (translated by Margaret Mitsutani)

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Emissary Coverthe premise: From Goodreads:

“Japan, after suffering from a massive irreparable disaster, cuts itself off from the world. Children are so weak they can barely stand or walk: the only people with any get-go are the elderly. Mumei lives with his grandfather Yoshiro, who worries about him constantly. They carry on a day-to-day routine in what could be viewed as a post-Fukushima time, with all the children born ancient—frail and gray-haired, yet incredibly compassionate and wise. Mumei may be enfeebled and feverish, but he is a beacon of hope, full of wit and free of self-pity and pessimism. Yoshiro concentrates on nourishing Mumei, a strangely wonderful boy who offers “the beauty of the time that is yet to come.”

A delightful, irrepressibly funny book, The Emissary is filled with light. Yoko Tawada, deftly turning inside-out “the curse,” defies gravity and creates a playful joyous novel out of a dystopian one, with a legerdemain uniquely her own.”

why I’m excited: Researching nuclear disaster is a hobby of mine (sort of related to a novel I’m writing, sort of just because I find it fascinating), so the connection to Fukushima sold me on this book immediately. It also looks short, sweet, and funny, meaning it’s going to be a good in-between book if I’m getting bogged down in heavier, denser stuff. It’s either going to be weird and off-putting, or weird and great. Either way, it’ll be interesting!

Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Young Jane Young Coverthe premise: From Amazon:

“Aviva Grossman, an ambitious congressional intern in Florida, makes the mistake of having an affair with her (married) boss. When the affair comes to light, the popular congressman doesn’t take the fall. But Aviva does, and her life is over before it hardly begins: slut-shamed, she becomes a late-night talk show punch line, anathema to politics. She sees no way out but to change her name and move to a remote town in Maine. This time, she tries to be smarter about her life and strives to raise her daughter, Ruby, to be strong and confident. But when, at the urging of others, Aviva decides to run for public office, that long-ago mistake trails her via the Internet and catches up—an inescapable scarlet A. In the digital age, the past is never, ever, truly past. And it’s only a matter of time until Ruby finds out who her mother was and is forced to reconcile that person with the one she knows.”

why I’m excited: This basically feels like Monica Lewinsky: The Novel, and I’m here for it. Ripped-from-the-headlines stories can get creepy and/or ham-handed, fast, but this novel sounds self-aware, complex (I particularly love the idea of the intergenerational stuff between Aviva and Ruby), and funny enough to sidestep those pitfalls. Fingers crossed!

Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession by Alice Bolin

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Dead Girls Coverthe premise: From Goodreads:

“A collection of poignant, perceptive essays that expertly blends the personal and political in an exploration of American culture through the lens of our obsession with dead women.

In her debut collection, Alice Bolin turns a critical eye to literature and pop culture, the way media consumption reflects American society, and her own place within it. From essays on Joan Didion and James Baldwin to Twin Peaks, Britney Spears, and Serial, Bolin illuminates our widespread obsession with women who are abused, killed, and disenfranchised, and whose bodies (dead and alive) are used as props to bolster a man’s story.”

why I’m excited: I’m obsessed with the dead girls obsession, so this looks about perfect for me. Earlier this year I read The Hot One by Carolyn Murnick, a book with a somewhat similar premise, which I didn’t love. The essay excerpt of The Hot One over at The Cut contained all the best parts of that book and trimmed the bits I didn’t like, so I’m hoping that essays might be a better format with which to tackle the topic. I’m very much looking forward to this.


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: 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

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  • 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.