Book Review: RUTTING SEASON by Mandeliene Smith

Rutting Season is a collection of nine stories that are as earthy, animal, and at times brutal as the title would imply. My favorite stories included “Mercy,” about a widow keeping vigil over her favorite horse after her carelessness puts the horse’s life in danger, and “The Someday Cat,” about a mother who begins selling her children for cash, and the toddler daughter who fears that she’s next to be sold. Mandeliene Smith writes ferociously and vulnerably; this is short fiction, not personal writing, and yet each story is imbued with personal, vital urgency. I didn’t always love this collection while I was reading it–I think Smith writes awkwardly about race, and I think the quality of the stories included here varies–but now that I’m a few days removed from it, I admire Smith’s style and choice of subjects more and more. This book is brave.

You can read my full review of Rutting Season below.


Rutting Season Cover
cover description: A mustard yellow background has a cutout in the shape of a hand that features a nature illustration of a pink flower and a yellow bird.

Rutting Season: Stories by Mandeliene Smith

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Scribner (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
  • publication date: February 12, 2019
  • length: 240 pages

Randall wasn’t their father, or even their stepfather, and they couldn’t have given a rat’s ass about his problems with the police or anyone else, but it just so happened that Danny and Amber were both at the house when the SUV from the sheriff’s office drove up, and by the time they realized there was going to be trouble, Randall had already bolted the door and taken out a gun.

–from “Siege” in Rutting Season by Mandeliene Smith

Do you ever catch yourself being way too hard on something or someone, just because it (or they) remind you too much of yourself? I cannot tell a lie: I was initially going to eviscerate this book, because at times, it irritated me like an insult.

Rutting Season is Mandeliene Smith’s debut short story collection, and in it, she explores raw pain with obsessive intensity. Much of it is pain that’s incredibly familiar to me: abusive homes, the messy and literally visceral experience of living on a farm, mental illness, violence.

Because it felt so familiar, Rutting Season cut me to the bone, and it scrambled my ability to comprehend or evaluate it. I think my conclusion is that it’s mostly an excellent book. But I hope you’ll forgive me if this review takes a roundabout path to that destination.

First, the things about Rutting Season that genuinely grated me, that I wasn’t necessarily oversensitized to:

  1. The way Smith writes about race, especially her physical descriptions of Black characters,
  2. The unevenness of the collection.

I admire when white authors make the decision to write outside their comfort zone. I’ve been chewing over Toni Morrison’s admonition to not write what you know all week: “Think of somebody you don’t know. What about a Mexican waitress in the Rio Grande who can barely speak English? Or what about a Grande Madame in Paris? Things way outside their camp. Imagine it, create it. Don’t record and editorialize on some event that you’ve already lived through.

And I think that advice applies very much to Rutting Season, where Smith is making clear choices to write outside what she knows.

Unfortunately, I think some of those choices undercut her otherwise interesting Black characters. In my least favorite story of the collection, “What It Takes,” Black high school students menace white high school students, including the white protagonist, a teenage pot dealer. I think the point of the story is that the white students’ perception is wrong–that what they perceive as “menace” is justifiable racial tension. But it’s so close to the line that I think you could read it either way. Subtle fiction is important, but I get nervous when white people write about race so subtly that it becomes a game of Schrödinger’s racism.

In a later story that I otherwise loved very much, “The Someday Cat,” a Black character is literally described as “chocolate.” Which, almost more than it is annoyingly fetishizing and racist, is simply a tired description of dark skin.

But for that story, too, there’s a Racism Loophole™: it’s told from the perspective of a white toddler whom we already know loves chocolate and who probably has never seen a Black person in her life, who might genuinely describe a Black person as “chocolate.” Schrödinger’s racism.

The third story that is significantly about race, “You the Animal,” is the most successful at being about race, I think. Where “The Someday Cat” is told from the perspective of a neglected toddler being removed from her home by two Black social workers, “You the Animal” is the same story told from the perspective of one of the social workers. It’s an interesting exploration of what happens when people who were abused as children encounter abuse as adults, and while I didn’t think it was the strongest in the collection, it was still thought-provoking.

The unevenness question is so closely tied to the race question that I think it’s hard to separate them. When Smith is writing about white people–as in “Mercy,” where a new widow struggles to hold her farm together in the face of her own exhaustion and grief, as in the title story “Rutting Season,” where a potential act of workplace violence is dissected from three angles, as in “Siege,” when three siblings separated by their mother’s death come together during a terrifying threat of gun violence–the collection is extraordinary. When she’s not, the stories falter a bit.

But extraordinary is still a word I’m comfortable applying to much of Rutting Season.

What moved me most about Smith’s writing is its vulnerability, almost fragility, underneath a hard, ferocious surface. It’s a literary crème brûlée. She makes messy, risky choices and sticks to her guns. (Perhaps a poor choice of words given how much this book condemns gun violence.)

I was struck by how reminiscent the first story, “Mercy,” is of Alice Munro. Like so many Munro stories, “Mercy” is domestic and terrible all at once. It’s at its Munro-iest when its protagonist, Pam, hesitates for a split second before calling the vet for her sick horse because the vet constantly patronizes her and she doesn’t want to deal with it. You’re frustrated with her and understand her deeply all at once.

But Rutting Season is not knockoff Munro. Smith demonstrates that most in “The Someday Cat,” which felt wholly unique in its execution. A story about a woman who literally begins selling her children in order to appease her terrible boyfriend and afford groceries could easily tip into a melodramatic pantomime of extreme abuse and poverty rather than feel like something real that crackles with electric terror. But it does crackle. I had a white knuckle grip on my copy of the book while I read. It reminded me so vividly of some of the things I saw growing up in a desperately poor area that I had to take a breather after finishing.

Rutting Season feels a little like staring at the sun. The premises of Smith’s stories are so bright and ambitious that it’s hard to get a handle on why they work (or even if they work). But there’s no denying their power.

It feels strange to write this about a literary short story collection rather than a horror novel, but it feels right anyway: only read Rutting Season if you dare. ★★★★☆

Reviews and books you might also enjoy:


My copy of Rutting Season came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 8.16.19

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.

I’ve felt pretty out of it this month. I was sick for most of last week, but even if I hadn’t been, I suspect I would still feel groggy. August seems to do that to everyone. I’m sad that summer is winding down, but I’m already looking forward to cooler September reading weather. Are you? (If you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, I’m sure the prospect of spring sounds pretty nice, as well.)

This week I’ve got a fiery YA fantasy novel, a quirky short story collection, a novel about the 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square, and a novel about an ecologically anxious commune experiment gone wrong in my bookbag. I’m hoping they’ll snap me out of my summer slump. Let’s dive in!


Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Girls of Paper and Fire Cover
cover description: A banner reading “James Patterson Presents” stretches across the top. It’s a colorful illustration of a girl with golden eyes whose rainbow hair is full of sparks.

the source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

“Each year, eight beautiful girls are chosen as Paper Girls to serve the king. It’s the highest honor they could hope for…and the most demeaning. This year, there’s a ninth. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire.

In this richly developed fantasy, Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most persecuted class of people in Ikhara. She lives in a remote village with her father, where the decade-old trauma of watching her mother snatched by royal guards for an unknown fate still haunts her. Now, the guards are back and this time it’s Lei they’re after — the girl with the golden eyes whose rumored beauty has piqued the king’s interest.

Over weeks of training in the opulent but oppressive palace, Lei and eight other girls learns the skills and charm that befit a king’s consort. There, she does the unthinkable — she falls in love. Her forbidden romance becomes enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens her world’s entire way of life. Lei, still the wide-eyed country girl at heart, must decide how far she’s willing to go for justice and revenge.”

why I’m excited: The “James Patterson presents” label is kind of a turn-off for me–I’m not really a fan of the guy’s business practices or work. However, this story looks incredible in every way. It reminds me of a more grown-up version of The Princess Academy by Shannon Hale with a dash of Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon. I guess I’m impressed that Patterson seems to be using his considerable influence to lift up authors of color, especially for a book that I’ve heard has a queer romance, too. I can’t wait to read this. (Also, that cover is G-O-R-G-E-O-U-S.)

Death is Not an Option by Suzanne Rivecca

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Death is Not an Option Cover
cover description: A bright red cover. A pale disembodied arm reaches out to stroke the head of a tiger.

source: the library

the premise: From Goodreads:

Death Is Not an Option is a bold, dazzling debut collection about girls and women in a world where sexuality and self-delusion collide. In these stories, a teacher obsesses over a student who comes to class with scratch marks on his face; a Catholic girl graduating high school finds a warped kind of redemption in her school’s contrived class rituals; and a woman looking to rent a house is sucked into a strangely inappropriate correspondence with one of the landlords. These are just a few of the powerful plotlines in Suzanne Rivecca’s gorgeously wrought collection. From a college student who adopts a false hippie persona to find love, to a young memoirist who bumps up against a sexually obsessed fan, the characters in these fiercely original tales grapple with what it means to be honest with themselves and the world.”

why I’m excited: The reign of the short story collection continues in my heart! This looks fun and weird and interesting. Authors can try things in short stories that simply don’t work in novels, and I’ve been enjoying witnessing that, even when the things being tried are a little left of center.

The City Always Wins Cover
cover description: A tiny figure at the center of the cover is throwing a tear gas canister. Red smoke from the canister makes a spiral, turning the person at the center into a target. The background is stark white.

The City Always Wins by Omar Robert Hamilton

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

source: the library

the premise: From Goodreads:

The City Always Wins is a novel from the front line of a revolution. Deeply enmeshed in the 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square, Mariam and Khalil move through Cairo’s surging streets and roiling political underground, their lives burning with purpose, their city alive in open revolt, the world watching, listening, as they chart a course into an unknown future. They are―they believe―fighting a new kind of revolution; they are players in a new epic in the making.

From the communal highs of night battles against the police to the solitary lows of postrevolutionary exile, Omar Robert Hamilton’s bold debut cuts to the psychological heart of one the key chapters in the twenty-first century. Arrestingly visual, intensely lyrical, uncompromisingly political, and brutal in its poetry, The City Always Wins is a novel not just about Egypt’s revolution, but about a global generation that tried to change the world.

why I’m excited: This book’s title made it jump off the shelf for me. It’s pessimistic but hopeful, too, which is about how I feel about the Arab Spring in general and the Egyptian revolution in particular. This is outside the wheelhouse of what I normally read, but it sounds terrific. I can’t wait to read it.

We Went to the Woods Cover
cover description: A colorful illustration of a forest with lots of trees and a crescent moon overhead.

We Went to the Woods by Caite Dolan-Leach

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

source: the library

the premise: From Goodreads:

Certain that society is on the verge of economic and environmental collapse, five disillusioned twenty-somethings make a bold decision: They gather in upstate New York to transform an abandoned farm, once the site of a turn-of-the-century socialist commune, into an idyllic self-sustaining compound called the Homestead.

Louisa spearheads the project, as her wealthy family owns the plot of land. Beau is the second to commit; as mysterious and sexy as he is charismatic, he torments Louisa with his nightly disappearances and his other relationships. Chloe, a dreamy musician, is naturally able to attract anyone to her–which inevitably results in conflict. Jack, the most sensible and cerebral of the group, is the only one with any practical farm experience. Mack, the last to join, believes it’s her calling to write their story–but she is not the most objective narrator, and inevitably complicates their increasingly tangled narrative. Initially exhilarated by restoring the rustic dwellings, planting a garden, and learning the secrets of fermentation, the group is soon divided by slights, intense romantic and sexual relationships, jealousies, and suspicions. And as winter settles in, their experiment begins to feel not only misguided, but deeply isolating and dangerous.

why I’m excited: I love cult novels! This sounds like a prequel of sorts to History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund, which takes place in the ruins of a commune. This looks sinister and of the moment and great.


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, 8.2.19

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 was all libraries, all the time for me this week. I’ve got six great library finds I’m really excited about, and apparently I’m on a short story kick, since short story collections made up over half of my haul. I’ve also got two very different Chinese American novels, one a modernist classic from the 1960s and the other a more recent wicked satire about a model young Chinese American woman who just might be a serial killer. Let’s dive in!


Rutting Season: Stories by Mandeliene Smith

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Rutting Season Cover
cover description: A mustard yellow background has a cutout in the shape of a hand that features a nature illustration of a pink flower and a yellow bird.

source: the library

the premise: From the inside flap:

“In these lucid, sharply observant stories, Mandeliene Smith traces the lives of people in moments of crisis. In “What it Takes,” a teenage girl navigates race and class as the school’s pot dealer. “The Someday Cat” follows a small girl terrified of being given away by her neglectful mother. “Three Views of a Pond” is a meditation on the healing that time brings for a college student considering suicide. And in “Animals,” a child wrestles with the contradictions inherent in her family’s relationship with the farm animals they both care for and kill.

In barnyards, office buildings, and dilapidated houses, Smith’s characters fight for happiness and survival, and the choices they make reveal the power of instinct to save or destroy. Whether she’s writing about wives struggling with love, teenage girls resisting authority, or men and women reeling from loss, Smith illuminates her characters with pointed, gorgeous language and searing insight. Rutting Season is an unforgettable, unmissable collection from an exciting new voice in fiction.”

why I’m excited: Like I said in my preamble to this week’s post, I’m really digging short story collections right now. (Carrianne Leung’s collection That Time I Loved You, a previous Friday Bookbag entry, inspired me. I’m really loving that one.) And as much as I love sci-fi and magical short stories, I have a real soft spot for realistic ones like these. Rutting Season is a provocative title for what I hope is a thought-provoking book.

Mars: Stories by Asja Bakić (translated by Jennifer Zoble)

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Mars Cover
cover description: The cover is bright green and cream. It has an abstract marbled pattern.

source: the library

the premise: From the back of the book:

“Mars showcases a series of twisted universes where every character is tasked with making sense of their strange reality. One woman will be freed from purgatory once she writes the perfect book; another abides in a world devoid of physical contact. With wry prose and skewed humor, this debut collection from the Balkans explores twenty-first-century promises of knowledge, freedom, and power.”

why I’m excited: I like works in translation and I’m not sure that I’ve ever read one from the Balkans region. (This short story collection was originally published in 2015 in Croatia before being translated by Jennifer Zoble and published here by Feminist Press in 2019.) That description is tantalizingly short, but the stories it does tease sound fascinating. It was blurbed by Jeff VanderMeer, an author I really enjoy and admire. And on top of all that, this book is really short–only 144 pages. I’m looking forward to it!

The End of Youth by Rebecca Brown

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The End of Youth Cover
cover description: A three-quarters view of the bottom half of a woman’s face behind a matrix of tiny dots.

source: the library

the premise: From IndieBound:

“The End of Youth is a collection of 13 linked stories, essays and rants, about carrying on after youth’s hope is gone. In “Afraid of the Dark,” a child learns that there is good reason to be afraid. The adolescent narrator of “Description of a Struggle” finds that love can be brutal. “The Smokers” -examines an adult’s realization that longevity means seeing loved ones die. Written with the same spare and vivid beauty as her earlier award-winning works, The End of Youth is certain to win even wider acclaim.”

why I’m excited: This is another itty-bitty-tiny small press book, even shorter than Mars at only 123 pages. It’s from 2003 and I think it might even be out of print, but it looked so much like my thing that I couldn’t leave it on the library shelf. It’s yet another short story collection (and from what I can read online, I think it might blend in some personal essays, too). It looks great, and I don’t think it’ll even take me as much as an afternoon to devour it.

Foreign Soil and Other Stories by Maxine Beneba Clarke

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Foreign Soil and Other Stories Cover
cover description: A bright yellow cover with stylized illustrations of a red fish, a boat, a passport, an envelope, a needle and thread, a knife, nail polish, pins, a molotov cocktail, and a flower with heavy dark seeds or stamens.

source: the library

the premise: From the inside flap:

“In this collection of acclaimed stories, the reader is transported around the globe and back. In “David,” two women from Sudan randomly meet in the streets of Melbourne. The younger one feels like she’s being judged by the older woman, a refugee from the Sudanese civil war, for discarding the ways of her country, until she realizes the woman is more interested in her bicycle–a powerful symbol of all that she’s left behind in her native country. Harlem Jones, in the eponymous story, takes an index finger and “carefully wipes specks of London grime” from his light gray Adidas stripes before he joins a crowd of angry rioters protesting police brutality, simultaneously swatting away the feeling–and the resulting anger–that he just might be the next casualty of the authorities.

In the tradition of storytellers Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Marlon James, and Helen Oyeyemi, this urgent, poetic, and essential work announces the arrival of a fresh and talented voice in international fiction.”

why I’m excited: The final short story collection in my haul, this is another international title (though unlike Mars, it was originally written in English). Maxine Beneba Clarke lives in Melbourne, Australia. I like the authors she’s compared to in that description and most of all I like the quote that opens the book (I peeked into the inside and saw it):

“Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard-of things with it.” –Chinua Achebe.

I’ll be delighted to read those unheard-of things.

Crossings by Chuang Hua

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Crossings Cover
cover description: A black and white photo of half of a Chinese woman’s face. It’s a photograph of the author, Chuang Hua.

source: the library

the premise: From the back of the book:

“Crossings, Chuang Hua’s erotic semi-autobiographical novel, is widely recognized as the first modernist novel to address the Asian American experience. It’s deeply imagistic prose, as haunting as the dreamlike visions of Jane Bowles, centers around the character of Fourth Jane, the fourth of seven children of a Chinese immigrant family, who becomes caught in an intense love affair with a married Parisian journalist. Jane’s intimate encounters with her lover are collaged with recollections of her family, her homeland, and her constant migrations between four continents. What emerges is a deeply stirring story of one woman’s chronological, geographical, and emotional crossings. Spare, lyrical, Taoist in form and elusiveness, visually cinematic, tender and sensual, Chuang Hua’s powerful novel endures as a moving and original work of American literature.”

why I’m excited: This is kind of an old book for me to be featuring on this blog. It was originally published in 1968; it was Chuang Hua’s only novel and she died in 2000. But modernism is my favorite literary movement and this premise caught my eye. (It actually sounds a little like the modernist novel-within-a-novel that Margaret Atwood created for The Blind Assassin.) I think this book will be an interesting experience.

Hello Kitty Must Die by Angela S. Choi

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Hello Kitty Must Die Cover
cover description: A hot pink cover with creepy white font and a cartoon white skull and crossbones that has a red bow perched jauntily on its head like the cartoon character Hello Kitty.

source: the library

the premise: From the inside flap:

“On the outside, twenty-eight-year-old Fiona Yu appears to be just another Hello Kitty–an educated, well-mannered Asian-American woman. Secretly, she feels torn between the traditional Chinese values of her family and the social mores of being an American girl.

To escape the burden of carrying her family’s honor, Fiona decides to take her own virginity. In the process, she makes a surprising discovery that reunites her with a long-lost friend, Sean Killroy. Sean introduces her to a dark world of excitement, danger, cunning and cruelty, pushing her to the limits of her own morality. But Fiona’s father throws her new life into disarray when he dupes her into an overnight trip which results in a hasty engagement to Don Koo, the spoiled son of a wealthy chef. Determined to thwart her parents’ plan to marry her off into Asian suburbia, Fiona seeks her freedom at any price. How far will she go to bury the Hello Kitty stereotype forever? Fiona’s journey of self-discovery is biting and clever as she embraces her true nature and creates her own version of the American Dream, eliminating–without fear or remorse–anyone who stands in her way.”

why I’m excited: This sounds vaguely like American Psycho meets Crazy Rich Asians, which will either be amazing or just a little too weird for me. I love the cover and title and I’m curious just how wild this satire is going to get! I look forward to reporting back to all of you.


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: THAT TIME I LOVED YOU by Carrianne Leung

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

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

You can read my full review below.


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

That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviews and books you might also enjoy:


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

Book Review: DIFFICULT WOMEN by Roxane Gay

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

You can read my full review below.


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

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

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

Boys don’t really know how to hurt girls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviews and books you might also enjoy:


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

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: INCENDIARY GIRLS by Kodi Scheer

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

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

You can read my full review below.


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

Incendiary Girls by Kodi Scheer

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HMMMMMMMMM.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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