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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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  • 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)

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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

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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.

Book Review: THE HOT ONE by Carolyn Murnick

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

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

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


The Hot One Cover

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

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

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

–from The Hot One by Carolyn Murnick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books you might also enjoy:


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

Friday Bookbag, 7.27.18

FridayBookbag

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

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


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

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

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

Human Acts by Han Kang

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

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

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

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

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

Warcross by Marie Lu

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

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

The Occasional Virgin by Hanan al-Shaykh

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

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


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

Friday Bookbag, 6.8.18

FridayBookbag

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

I didn’t post last week, but my book acquisitions continued apace, so I’ve got an extra-full bookbag to go through this week. Black klansmen, chronic illness, family tragedies, queer coming of age, short stories, and MORE. Oh my! Let’s dive in.


Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer by Barbara Ehrenreich

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

9781455535910

the premise: Nickel and Dimed author Barbara Ehrenreich turns her journalistic prowess towards aging, dieting, fitness fads, and preventive care as she argues that we over-prepare for death. Death is an inevitability, but our unhealthy obsession with postponing it need not be.

why I’m excited: Nickel and Dimed is one of my favorite books and health is one of my favorite topics, so this book is a slam dunk. I majored in public health in college, and one of my biggest takeaways from my coursework was that it’s important to clearly define what “health” means before we strive for it. Does health mean living the longest? Does it mean life without disability? (That raises uncomfortable questions for the already-disabled–like me–then, doesn’t it?) Does it mean a happy and fulfilling life, and if so, how do we define happiness and fulfillment? Health and aging are a minefield of biases, and while I’m sure I’ll find plenty to disagree with in Ehrenreich’s book, her sharp assertion that we need to care less about death and more about living is a refreshing one in today’s longevity-obsessed culture.

Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

9780061284922

the premise: Niru is a successful, Harvard-bound American high school student with a secret: he’s gay, which is unacceptable to his conservative Nigerian parents. When his secret comes out (as secrets usually do), Niru’s world is turned upside-down, and he’s left to lean on his best friend Meredith–the daughter of Washington D.C. insiders–who is dealing with problems of her own.

why I’m excited: Honestly, where to start? Coming out stories, especially in literary fiction–I think genre fiction is slightly better about this–are so overwhelmingly white and homogenous that Iweala’s story of a Nigerian American high schooler coming of age as a gay man is already going to feel fresh to me. I’m interested in the Washington D.C. setting, and I’m curious about how much American politics is going to play into the plot. Most of all, I’m excited for Iweala’s writing, which is highly acclaimed. (He’s the author of Beasts of No Nation, a book that’s on my to-read list that was also adapted into a movie, which was also acclaimed). Lastly, it’s short. Bless authors who tell small stories with big punches–they’re perfect for readers with short attention spans, like yours truly.

LaRose by Louise Erdrich

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26116430

the premise: Two families, both alike in dignity…LaRose isn’t exactly a tragic romance, but it’s tragic. Landreaux Iron accidentally kills his neighbor’s son in a hunting accident, and decides to make amends through an ancient tradition: he gives the neighbors his own son–LaRose–to raise. The two families slowly begin to heal, but when a bitter man with a grudge stumbles into their lives and begins to raise hell, the fragile peace is upended.

why I’m excited: Erdrich’s Love Medicine is another one of my favorite books. (I also liked The Master Butchers Singing Club.) Her writing is like a dream: it doesn’t always make sense on the surface, but it always plumbs deeper truths underneath. The premise of this book is really intriguing to me–I can’t imagine how painful literally giving up a child would be–and I think Erdrich is exactly the right person to tell the story.

The Red Convertible: Selected and New Stories by Louise Erdrich

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9780061536083

the premise: Exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a collection of short fiction by Erdrich, whose career spans from the 1970s to the present. The Red Convertible contains several short stories that Erdrich later turned into longer works, most notably “Future Home of the Living God,” a story about human evolution and motherhood that was released as a novel last year.

why I’m excited: I decided to do an Erdrich deep-dive both because I love her work (she’s been a heavy influence on the way I think about fiction, and I can only hope my work is a fraction as good as hers) and because the recent revelations about Sherman Alexie have me wanting to think more deeply about my relationship to works by Native American writers. Erdrich is one of the greats, and I’m hoping to read more work by newer Native authors this year, too. (Rebecca Roanhorse comes to mind–her story “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” is chilling and she has a novel, Trail of Lightning, releasing this year.)

Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime by Ron Stallworth

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9781250299048

the premise: Stallworth is a real-life law enforcement veteran who undertook an incredibly risky infiltration operation into the Ku Klux Klan beginning in 1978. Stallworth was the voice on the phone, and his white and Jewish coworkers showed up in person to rallies. The operation exposed white supremacists infiltrating the military, sabotaged cross burnings, and even fooled David Duke.

why I’m excited: I first heard of this story because of the trailer for Spike Lee’s upcoming adaptation of this memoir, which debuted at Cannes recently and was highly acclaimed. You should watch that trailer, because it’s amazing:

I couldn’t believe that this actually happened, but it did, and Stallworth has a hell of a story to tell. I can’t wait to dig into this one to get more of the facts before watching the film, which looks like it’s on the stylized side.

Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women’s Pain by Abby Norman

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

9781568585819

the premise: Abby Norman went from college student and dancer to sudden dropout who was bedridden because of pain. Doctors assumed it was a UTI and sent her home with antibiotics; Norman knew something else was wrong, and embarked on a quest to figure out what. Norman was eventually diagnosed with endometriosis and now works as a science reporter. Ask Me About My Uterus is an exploration not just of her own story, but of medicine’s long history of dismissing women’s pain and suppressing women’s access to good treatment.

why I’m excited: I have endometriosis and am currently facing surgery to correct it. It’s a hell disease that’s taken a terrible toll on my life, and I’ve faced a lot of dismissal and misdiagnosis (though I’m lucky to be diagnosed at 23 when many others wait decades for diagnosis and treatment). Unsurprisingly, this book is personal for me, but I’m also academically interested in this book (as with Natural Causes, this has major public health implications). I almost squealed out loud when I saw this book available on my library’s new arrivals shelf and I can’t wait to read it.


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!