Reading this while on medical leave from graduate school and in the midst of a depressive episode (the very same school our narrator is attending, in fact) was… tough, to put it lightly. Wang succeeds in portraying the deep ambivalence and lack of motivation that mental illness and loneliness bring. The narrator’s history slowly unravels to the reader as we follow her through this breakdown. The daughter of two Chinese immigrants, she feels immense pressure to succeed in obtaining her Chemistry PhD and can think of little else. She avoids unpacking her childhood trauma at all costs and sees little value in looking backward, even when it keeps her from moving forward.
A short and sweet novel, I found this incredibly compelling and felt deeply for our unnamed narrator. I certainly see how this wouldn’t be for everyone, but highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys quietly introspective literary fiction.
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The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, narrated by Bahni Turpin Published by Random House Audio on September 3, 2016 my rating: ★★ (2 stars) Goodreads avg: 4.04 (as of 2021-09-23) Spoiler-Free Review
I truly feel bad that I didn’t like this. There was not much with the book itself; Whitehead is an excellent writer who creates believable characters. I do wish the Railroad itself was featured more heavily or more creatively, as is this was really just an over the plate historical fiction where the Underground Railroad happens to be a literal railroad. The concept itself felt underutilized and I think the book would have had the same impact on me had Whitehead not changed this, which left me wondering why he did.
It feels wrong to say that I felt bored reading this, but I truly did. I didn’t feel attached to Cora or any of the other characters and didn’t feel very involved with the plot itself. I kept wondering where it was going to go. This is where I mention that I think it was my mistake to read this book — I rarely enjoy straightforward historical fiction and I read this thinking it was going to be something different because of the railroad. The fact is, this read like any other historical fic novel and it’s a me problem that I didn’t enjoy that.
I definitely recommend readers interested in historical fiction, particularly Southern history, pick this up. It’s well-written and is obviously enjoyed by many. Unfortunately I just wasn’t the right audience for this.
This ended up being an incredibly impactful read for me, although I wouldn’t have known that from the start. I went into this relatively cold, knowing only that it had ‘two parts’ and had a lot to do with online culture. Both of those things are very true, but what I wasn’t prepared for was how absolutely this would destroy me.
The first part reads much like a Twitter feed and contains plenty of internet humor; I was nearly cackling at both how relatable it felt and how Lockwood was able to condense and present these collective internet experiences. If you are not capital-O Online, I worry that you’ll be lost and/or hate this. If you hate books about the internet, definitely do not read this. I personally found it to be a unique take on tackling the intricacies of modern technology and was looking forward to seeing where Lockwood took it.
Enter, Part 2. I had absolutely no idea where Part 2 was going to go and won’t discuss it too thoroughly because I think going in without expectations will give it the biggest impact. Let me just say that I think Part 1 sets the stage perfectly for the tragedy that unfolds in Part 2. It provides the foundation to understand how the narrator copes and to see the lens she views the world through.
I feel like this will be a divisive book so I hesitate to recommend it to anyone who isn’t fully convinced by the concept. I struggled myself a little bit towards the beginning to read this in anything other than small bits. But close to Part 2, I was able to sit down and and carefully inhale the rest. I really, really enjoyed this though and very much look forward to reading more by Lockwood.
Luster by Raven Leilani To be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux on August 4, 2020 my rating: ★★★★.5 (4.5 stars) Goodreads avg: 4.18 (as of 2020-07-17) disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for review consideration. All of the opinions presented below are my own. Quotes have been taken from the advanced copy and are subject to change upon publication.
Edie is stumbling her way through her twenties—sharing a subpar apartment in Bushwick, clocking in and out of her admin job, making a series of inappropriate sexual choices. She’s also, secretly, haltingly figuring her way into life as an artist. And then she meets Eric, a digital archivist with a family in New Jersey, including an autopsist wife who has agreed to an open marriage—with rules. As if navigating the constantly shifting landscapes of contemporary sexual manners and racial politics weren’t hard enough, Edie finds herself unemployed and falling into Eric’s family life, his home. She becomes hesitant friend to his wife and a de facto role model to his adopted daughter. Edie is the only black woman young Akila may know.
Razor sharp, darkly comic, sexually charged, socially disruptive, Luster is a portrait of a young woman trying to make her sense of her life in a tumultuous era. It is also a haunting, aching description of how hard it is to believe in your own talent and the unexpected influences that bring us into ourselves along the way.
I think of all the gods I have made out of feeble men.
This is an absolutely stunning debut from Leilani. From the first page, I was hooked by the writing style; the flat tone elevated my reading experience, emphasizing just how much Edie has given up on life and boosting my emotional connection to her. While at first the novel appears to focus on her relationship with Eric, a mediocre white man in an open marriage, it shifts (thank god) and focuses more strongly on Edie’s relationship with Eric’s wife, Rebecca, and his Black daughter, Akila. Their friendship is tenuous and charged and impossible to look away from.
Not everyone is going to get along with this; I’d shelve it into the same category as Supper Club and The Pisces. Luster is about a messy woman who is just barely keeping it together. She makes terrible decisions, and knows that she makes terrible decisions. It’s heartening to see this kind of novel featuring an ownvoices Black woman: as Edie herself comments in the novel, society has lower expectations of Black women and they have to be twice as good to be recognized as such. To allow a Black woman to be messy and difficult is all the more important in this context.
I’m honestly stunned that this is a debut and will be keeping a sharp eye out for Leilani’s future works. I’ll go as far as to say that she may have cemented herself as an auto-buy author for me and I am not complaining. Definitely recommend this if it sounds like it would be your kind of thing, and am hopeful that we’ll see this longlisted for the Women’s Prize.
I am a white woman and my review is written through that lens. If you are an ownvoices reviewer who would like your review linked here, please let me know!
One hand came up to press on her sternum. Her heart hurt. If Marina could peel off her left breast, crack back her ribs, and grip that muscular organ to settle it, she would.
Let me start off by noting that this novel is primarily literary fiction; while a mystery sits at its core, there is little-to-nothing in the way of thrills and readers are going to be disappointed expecting them. The setup itself is atypical: essentially a collection of interconnected short stories, each following a different character (all women, if I recall correctly?). Think There There by Tommy Orange or Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. Like these comparisons, Disappearing Earth also has a great deal of commentary to make on race, specifically racism impacting the indigenous peoples of Russia.
I was honestly shocked to discover that this was a debut. Phillips skillfully traces the web of connections surrounding the mystery of the two missing girls and was able to make me care so deeply about the majority of the characters in the single chapter she devotes to them. There were so many moments in this that felt like a punch to the gut, so many stories that made my heart ache. And all of this in less than 300 pages.
I’m so glad I read this and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for Phillips’ future works.
The Butterfly Lampshade by Aimee Bender To be published by Doubleday Books on July 28, 2020 my rating: ★★ (2 stars) Goodreads avg: 3.15 (as of 2020-07-04) disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for review consideration. All of the opinions presented below are my own. Quotes have been taken from the advanced copy and are subject to change upon publication.
“What would I do?” “You would cry,” she says. “And what would you do?” She looks at me with surprise. “Honey,” she says. “I would stop.”
At its core, this feels like a book about processing trauma through fantasy. In theory it sounds like something I would enjoy, but I just found the execution lacking. While highly readable (I managed to get through this in a single day), I just didn’t feel particularly connected to the characters or the story. I wasn’t reading because I wanted to see what would happen next, but because I wanted to finish the book and get on to another. Those who like slow-moving plots and magical realism are more likely to get along with this, but I found it just didn’t hit the spot for me.
I Hold a Wolf by the Ears by Laura van den Berg To be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux on July 28, 2020 my rating: ★★★★ (4 stars) Goodreads avg: 4.49 (as of 2020-07-13) disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for review consideration. All of the opinions presented below are my own. Quotes have been taken from the advanced copy and are subject to change upon publication.
I Hold a Wolf by the Ears presents a collection of women on the verge, trying to grasp what’s left of life: grieving, divorced, and hyperaware, searching, vulnerable, and unhinged, they exist in a world that deviates from our own only when you look too close. With remarkable control and transcendent talent, van den Berg dissolves, in the words of the narrator of “Slumberland,” “that border between magic and annihilation,” and further establishes herself as a defining fiction writer of our time.
It may be the first work I’ve read by Laura van den Berg, but this collection absolutely gutted me. Almost every story was devastating to some extent, often in ways I wasn’t expecting. The stories all feel properly connected and seem like they are occurring in the same universe, happening to similar people. van den Berg allows the women she writes to be flawed human beings and doesn’t pull any punches. They do and think bad things, but they’re always sympathetic — and fascinating to read about. There’s a lot of commentary on grief, trauma, and gender, and I urge readers to tread lightly and to look up content warnings if necessary. I’ve included an incomplete list below. On the whole, I was incredibly impressed by this collection and will be looking to read more of van den Berg’s work.
-Last Night, 3.5 stars -Slumberland, 5 stars -Hill of Hell, 4 stars -Cult of Mary, 2 stars -Lizards, 4 stars -The Pitch, 4 stars -Volcano House, 3.5 stars -Friends, 4 stars -Karolina, 4 stars -Your Second Wife, 4 stars -I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, 3.5 stars
average: 3.77 stars, rounded up to 4
content warnings: sexual assault; loss of a loved one; domestic abuse; mass shootings; miscarriages; kidnapping; attempted suicide.
Roberta spends her life trying not to take up space. At almost thirty, she is adrift and alienated from life. Stuck in a mindless job and reluctant to pursue her passion for food, she suppresses her appetite and recedes to the corners of rooms. But when she meets Stevie, a spirited and effervescent artist, their intense friendship sparks a change in Roberta, a shift in her desire for more.
Together, they invent the Supper Club, a transgressive and joyous collective of women who gather to celebrate, rather than admonish, their hungers. They gather after dark and feast until they are sick; they break into private buildings and leave carnage in their wake; they embrace their changing bodies; they stop apologizing. For these women, each extraordinary yet unfulfilled, the club is a way to explore, discover, and push the boundaries of the space they take up in the world.
Yet as the club expands, growing both in size and rebellion, Roberta is forced to reconcile herself to the desire and vulnerabilities of the body–and the past she has worked so hard to repress. Devastatingly perceptive and savagely funny, Supper Club is an essential coming-of-age story for our times.
Watching programs on cannibalism, reading horror stories about lovers devoured, reports of people searching the Internet for someone to eat them, I’d think: I get it. My whole life was the push/pull of appetite: wanting to consume but also to be consumed.
This is one of those books that strikes me as being similar to The Pisces in that it will probably be very divisive. The characters are messy and not necessarily enjoyable to read. But I’ve grown to love reading about messy women and Supper Club was no exception. I found Lara Williams’ writing style enthralling. She writes quite simply, but I felt a great depth of emotion while reading this. She was able to describe the most inane of interactions in a way that made me incredibly anxious. This novel also contains far more character examination than plot; Roberta is really trying to figure out who she is and how to make herself happy.
There is a lot to be said in this book about trauma as well as various forms of abuse or toxicity. The majority of Roberta’s relationships contain one or both of these, but it’s difficult for her to see that just as it’s difficult for many survivors of abuse. I did struggle with trying to figure out whether or not Roberta is queer, as one of her toxic ‘relationships’ is with a queer woman, but by the end I was pretty convinced she was straight and that this was just a seriously codependent friendship. There’s also a trans woman in this book who is misgendered when the narrator recounts her childhood and her discovery of the lgbtq community, as a heads up to any trans folks who may read this.
Overall, I found this was very much a worthwhile experience for me. I really enjoyed Supper Club and appreciate how Williams was able to write such a chaotic and messy book while still holding my attention fully. I do think a lot of people will dislike the ending, but I found it to be a satisfying finish to the book. Pick this up if you liked The Pisces. Don’t pick this up if you hated The Pisces, dislike reading about women who are constantly making poor life choices, and/or can’t stand detailed descriptions of food, drink, and emesis.
content warnings: on-page sexual assault; fatphobia; detailed descriptions of food; on-page self-harm; misgendering; emesis
Sometimes you have to kill your darlings, you know?
i wish i had liked this more because it had a lot of potential. i just found it to be a little too disjointed for my tastes. i was at a loss a lot of the time and didn’t feel like the journey was fully worth the destination — as great as i found that destination to be. i even put this down for a few days because i was just bored reading it, which is a shame considering how wild the content itself is. i do think it’s worth giving a shot if the premise intrigues you, even if it didn’t work for me personally.
I was frightened of everything in the past and whatever was going to happen next.
This is a short novel that packs quite a punch. The first half feels slow, and a little strange at times, but everything is suddenly turned on its head in the second half. There is so much going on and yet it never seems like too much for the page count. A lot of the writing is very simplistic, which I think works. Had it been more complex, I think it would have been easy to get lost in. It’s hard for me to say much about this without spoilers, but I do think this was quite a worthwhile read although I was left wanting. Not a new favorite, but I can see why this has been so highly lauded and perhaps worth an eventual reread to see if that ties things together a bit better.
content warnings: domestic abuse; nazi mentions; homophobia.