Review: Her Body and Other Parties

Macabre, erotic, twisted, haunting, skin-crawling, timely, darkly comedic, elegant.

I devoured these feminist fairytale horror stories over the course of the week during Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford’s testimony before Congress about the sexual assault she [allegedly] sustained at the hands of Brett Kavanaugh. I can’t decide if that was the best possible timing for reading these or a really bad idea, but consuming the horrors committed against women in this medium during that particular week felt cathartic. I had a place to put my revulsion and terror, my tears and my ironic laughter. Machado created a mood that was, in a word, unsettling, and the metaphors paralleling the tales to their real life counterparts crawled under my skin and into my psyche and camped out long after I’d closed the book for the evening. I want this book on the reading list for future Women in Lit classes when they talk about the #MeToo era.

91ZOrAgmdrLMachado oozes style; I just loved her phrasing and comedic timing. The famous “green ribbon” story made famous by Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark gets an update here, lamenting the fact that men feel entitled to own each and every part of “their” woman. A queer love story that, at first, reminded me of the BEST Black Mirror episode of all time (I could burst into tears and break out into Belinda Carlisle just thinking about it) — “San Junipero” — makes the concept of society’s erasure of women literal in the most horrific way possible. There’s also an apocalyptic outbreak with a LOT of sex and introspection, an insane fever dream/Hunter S. Thompson/alternate universe screenplay of Law and Order SVU, a cautionary tale about self-loathing, and much more. “The Husband Stitch” and “Real Women Have Bodies” were my favorites, and to write a detailed synopsis or analysis of my takeaways from these pieces would steal the chance from you, reader, to experience them for yourself, which you definitely should do.

This book isn’t for everyone. Anybody looking for a classic horror or ghost story might be disappointed here. She creates horror with a mood rather than monsters; and with a dose of sci-fi realism that mirrors current society just a bit too closely for comfort, rather than with otherworldly settings and scenery. Since Machado was clearly inspired by the Scary Stories series, I’m hopeful she’ll follow Schwartz’s footsteps and gift us with another volume or two of Her Body. Any writer who wants to take up the task of writing realistic fiction/sci-fi/horror based on women’s issues, sadly, has plenty of material from which to choose.

Macabre, erotic, twisted, haunting, skin-crawling, timely, darkly comedic, elegant. I devoured these feminist fairytale horror stories over the course of the week during Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford's testimony before Congress about the sexual assault she [allegedly] sustained at the hands of Brett Kavanaugh. I can't decide if that was the best possible timing for reading these... Continue Reading →

Review: The Underground Railroad

Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning The Underground Railroad will sit with me for a long time. I’m not sure what my expectations were before digging in, but the result exceeded whatever they had been.

This is a work of historical fiction — more accurately, alt-historical fiction — with a light dose of magical realism. Whitehead animates the legendary human network that was the Underground Railroad into a physical, literal subway system. It’s a subtle but brilliant edit to history and acts as a metaphor for so many things, a book club could have several meetings dissecting and analyzing all the ways in which the Railroad parallels the African-American experience. One character remarks that a train is the ideal way for white folks to see the world, to taste freedom. Ironically, a train is how Black slaves can see the world and taste freedom, but they most do so underground, in the darkness. 9780345804327

The story centers on Cora, a young (the reader is given the impression that she’s in her mid-to-late teens) runaway slave who endures horrific brutality at the hands of the plantation owners, then manages to escape with her friend and fellow slave, Caesar. They’re pursued by the sinister slave catcher, Ridgeway, who’s more driven by the twisted thrill of harming Black slaves than collecting reward money.  The Railroad takes Cora and Caesar to multiple stops in the Southern and Midwestern U.S., with each state taking on its own personality and attitude towards slavery. Each time Cora arrives at a Railroad stop, it’s like Dorothy emerging from the front door of the farmhouse and discovering Oz. And, for those who read Baum’s series beyond the one with the munchkins, you know that Oz can be full of dark and terrible things.

One state seems to embrace Black folks with open arms, feigning progressiveness and denouncing slavery. Behind the scenes, however, science and medicine are working against them, yielding a new form of cruelty and enslavement touted as being “for their own good.” Another state advocates extermination of Black people outright, forcing Cora into a hideout that will elicit echoes of Anne Frank’s diary. It’s hard not to believe that Whitehead — who, again, earned a Pulitzer for this novel — created this alternate history without a deliberate intention to hold a mirror up to the white reader. Each spot on the Underground Railroad’s map could very well be a different point on America’s timeline, illustrating the different, horrific ways we subjugated and harmed African-Americans throughout history.

Whitehead is exceptionally gifted with the written word, employing a classic style of literary prose that’s just begging for The Underground Railroad to become assigned reading in high school AP Lit class. My only criticism of this book is its pacing. Whitehead tends to build up a big plot point and then abruptly abandon it to shift gears. He doesn’t advance the story in a linear fashion — it stops and starts, revisits a past event or a secondary character’s background story, then picks up again. In a few years I’d like to reread it now that I have a sense of his pacing and style.

The Underground Railroad is painful and intense, yet my inner plucky optimist kept rooting for Cora every step of the way. I gasped out loud, cried, and cheered for her. Whitehead made her a very real person for me and I was sad to leave her. It’s simply a masterpiece of a book.

[Sidenote: this book also fulfilled my #BookRiotReadHarderChallenge2018 category of an “Oprah’s Book Club” book. See the Challenge details here: https://bookriot.com/2017/12/15/book-riots-2018-read-harder-challenge/%5D

Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer-winning The Underground Railroad will sit with me for a long time. I'm not sure what my expectations were before digging in, but the result exceeded whatever they had been. This is a work of historical fiction -- more accurately, alt-historical fiction -- with a light dose of magical realism. Whitehead animates the... Continue Reading →

Review: The Last Place You Look

Did I ACTUALLY find a mystery series I like? I think so! Roxane Weary is a great protagonist in this fast-paced suspense procedural. Some of her is a cliche (detective with a drinking problem, relationship/attachment issues thanks to a Daddy backstory) but most of it’s forgivable since she’s a compulsively readable character. You’ll root for her but also utter the phrase “Roxane, WTF?” under your breath. I like complex heroines, and this one has an added layer of intrigue as she’s a bisexual woman. LGBTQ leads are basically non-existent in the mystery genre.

31450910The plot is a typical procedural mystery with great twists and turns as Roxane races against time to prove the innocence — or confirm the guilt — of a Brad, a Black prisoner on death row for murder. The murdered woman in question is seen in public fifteen years after her disappearance… or is she? Roxane, a private investigator, is hired to find this mystery woman who may just be able to prove Brad’s innocence in time to save him from execution. Roxane — an alcoholic juggling two part-time booty calls, one a man and the other a woman — stumbles across an old case that may be connected to this one, but her personal vices may not let her get out of her own way enough to solve it.

There are plenty of well-developed supporting characters who help move the story along. My only criticism of The Last Place You Look is the fact that the character with the most potential for development wasn’t utilized well. Brad, the aforementioned inmate on death row, is a Black man potentially convicted of a crime he maybe didn’t commit. I think the author missed an opportunity here to offer a larger commentary on what the justice system — especially law enforcement — does to African American folks in this country. Then again, I recently read An American Marriage by Tayari Jones and am possibly being unfairly influenced by her intimate portrayal of another incarcerated and potentially innocent Black man. I completely understand that isn’t Lepionka’s objective with this novel.

This is the first in what will be a Roxane Weary series of mysteries, the second of which is What You Want to See, already out. As mentioned, mysteries aren’t usually my genre but I might have to visit Roxane again and see what she’s up to.

Did I ACTUALLY find a mystery series I like? I think so! Roxane Weary is a great protagonist in this fast-paced suspense procedural. Some of her is a cliche (detective with a drinking problem, relationship/attachment issues thanks to a Daddy backstory) but most of it's forgivable since she's a compulsively readable character. You'll root for... Continue Reading →

Review: Body Full of Stars

I’ll get right to it. Body Full of Stars frustrated me to no end. The only thing that tempered my frustration and kept me from throwing it at the nearest wall was Molly Caro May’s gorgeous, lyrical writing style. She used pretty words to tell an ugly story.

I’m counting Body Full of Stars as my “Book With a Cover You Don’t Like” category for the #BookRiotReadHarderChallenge2018 because I let this one sit on my shelf for months, avoiding it, knowing that heading back into postpartum territory could be triggering for me. Well, happy to report that May’s memoir didn’t bring me back into that traumatic place but it did have me screaming at the pages over her utter incompetence and stubbornness when it comes to her own health.

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Nursing my newly born daughter after she was born via unplanned cesarean.

May is a new mother recovering from a childbirth that wasn’t what she’d envisioned. I know firsthand what starting life with a newborn is like when that guilt and ache of a birth plan gone awry feels like and on that level, I deeply empathize with May. Navigating the newness of parenthood with her husband is challenging enough, but she’s sustained pelvic floor damage as a result of her pregnancy and birth, adding a complicated layer to an already difficult phase of parenthood. As her tale advances so, too, do her symptoms of a postpartum mood disorder, manifesting as rage and fatigue. She bounces from practitioner to practitioner — at first, medical, and eventually alternative — seeking help for her pelvic floor dysfunction as well as for her mood disorder but ultimately just… stops. She derides the care given to her by a woman practitioner who seems to mainstream for her hippie self. She continues to push her body to take long hikes, knowing that she’ll leak urine through her clothing due to the incontinence. The navel-gazing in this memoir was too heavy-handed to balance out what could have been a raw and vulnerable glimpse into the messy bits of motherhood. Instead, it’s 250-ish pages of her justifying why she doesn’t need medical intervention and instead opts to dig her heels into the dogma of “natural” living. It’s full of woo and pseudoscience (naturopaths and acupuncturists are not medical doctors).35840713

It’s hard to criticize a memoir without appearing to criticizing the author themselves. I want to emphasize how talented a writer May truly is while also pointing out how flawed the content is. I’ve been an advocate for postpartum health for years, including during my work with The Birthing Circle, and it’s maddening when the wrong message gets sent. While May does a great service by bringing pelvic floor health into the larger conversation about postpartum care, there are consequences to suggesting — however directly or indirectly — that new mothers can eschew pharmaceuticals and medical intervention. Telling a story about a postpartum mood disorder and pelvic prolapse and incontinence yet refusing to properly treat these conditions is dangerous.For a woman who uses a lot of her words (which, again, are beautifully written) in Body Full of Stars to spell out her particular brand of feminism, I found her disdain for Western medicine and unwillingness to treat her own womanly maternal body decidedly un-feminist.

I'll get right to it. Body Full of Stars frustrated me to no end. The only thing that tempered my frustration and kept me from throwing it at the nearest wall was Molly Caro May's gorgeous, lyrical writing style. She used pretty words to tell an ugly story. I'm counting Body Full of Stars as... Continue Reading →

Review: The Last Black Unicorn

Oh, Tiffany. I wanted to love this. And I did love a lot of it. But the parts I didn’t love, I actually loathed.

Tiffany Haddish has exploded in the last year. Gaining fame for her hilarious, scene-stealing turn in the film Girls Trip, she’s become a social media starlet for click-worthy bits like her appearance on Ellen and the number of times she’s worn this white gown. She’s got a rags-to-riches story that Hollywood couldn’t have written better if it tried. She’s adorable, likeable, and hilarious. I became an instant fan of hers and couldn’t wait to read this when it came out.

81jfRGazQ6LI ended up listening to this as an audiobook because I assumed it would be even more enjoyable if Haddish herself read it. Strangely, she made a terrible narrator for her own book. Her cadence was awkward, like when a public speaker is clearly reading their index cards. The likeability that’s made her so famous simply wasn’t there.

And that’s not the worst of it. I’m getting tired of folks not realizing that, in 2018, it’s not okay to make fun of disabled people. It’s never been okay, really, but now we live in an era of empathy and awareness in which stories like the one with “Roscoe” shouldn’t be funny anymore. He’s described as a mentally neurodivergent and physically disabled man, which is the punchline for all the jokes told in this chapter. It was particularly cringeworthy to hear Haddish imitate his voice, exaggerating the speech impediment of a mentally challenged person for laughs.

There’s another chapter in which she tells the story of the time she did a standup performance for a group of lesbians, and it’s uncomfortably homophobic. We’ve been through this, comedians! Do better at being funny.

The Last Black Unicorn is at its best when Haddish recounts the horrors of her childhood through the lens of her own adolescence, the innocence of youth protecting her from understanding too much. In Haddish’s case, the extent of poverty and abuse she endured isn’t fully realized until her adulthood. I always enjoy seeing another side of comedic artists and glimpsing the serious side of their stage self, and Haddish endears herself to her audience by allowing us into such a personal space.

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Image via That Grape Juice.

Her funniest anecdotes are the one with the ex-boyfriend and the shoe (you’ll know it when you get there), and the one with Jada Pinkett-Smith and the Groupon deal.

I’m going to continue to be a Tiffany Haddish fan and watch her career blossom in the hopes that she’ll hear some of this criticism and let it change her. My verdict on The Last Black Unicorn is a mixed one: Come for the background story, leave for the intolerant bits.

 

Oh, Tiffany. I wanted to love this. And I did love a lot of it. But the parts I didn't love, I actually loathed. Tiffany Haddish has exploded in the last year. Gaining fame for her hilarious, scene-stealing turn in the film Girls Trip, she's become a social media starlet for click-worthy bits like her... Continue Reading →

Review: Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore

Mysteries aren’t my favorite genre. The writing has to be really tight throughout the story — including the ending — for it to be successful. Too often, I find mysteries that hold my interest in the first three-quarters will fall apart at the end because of predictability, implausibility, or both.51ouGGas06L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_ Let’s just say, this one wasn’t the book that made me change my mind about mysteries.

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore caught my eye on the shelf because, well, I like books about books. I’m meta like that. This is author Matthew Sullivan’s debut novel and it’s set in Denver in the 1990s. We find out right away that a regular patron of the Bright Ideas Bookstore — a young man named Joey Molina — has died by suicide right there in the store, hanging himself in the upstairs room. Our protagonist and reluctant sleuth is Lydia, a bookseller at the shop, to whom Joey left his possessions despite her not knowing him particularly well. Lydia begins to unravel the mystery of Joey’s life as she sorts through the things in his apartment and we soon learn that Lydia has her own traumatic backstory to tell. While learning more about Joey’s past she begins to relive her own, complete with people she’d long since cut from her life suddenly resurfacing.

I’ll start with the good: The backdrop of Denver was richly drawn and the cast of supporting characters were fun and eccentric. The plot moved along nicely, and the phrase “page turner” would truly apply here, particularly as we dig into Lydia’s past and the terrifying Hammerman killer.  The twists and turns of Joey’s past were intriguing and the reader really gets taken along for the ride alongside Lydia, hoping to find answers as to why this troubled young man died in such a sad and horrific manner.

Now, the not-so-good: Lydia is not a likable character. I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt because she survived a truly traumatizing childhood tragedy but she’s insufferably introverted about it, even towards her kind and supportive boyfriend who keeps getting pushed farther and farther from her life. Also, the mysteries (there are two here: Lydia’s backstory and Joey’s) start out suspenseful and it’s fun to watch Lydia follow the trail of breadcrumbs, but if I’m being honest it felt a little contrived. Joey’s belongings that he leaves behind for Lydia send her on a scavenger hunt that’s just a little too tidy and well-constructed. The Hammerman killer is fairly obvious and the epilogue felt rushed.

It was a good mystery, not a great one. It’s a quick read at only 352 pages and a fun puzzle to solve. Until you’ve actually solved the puzzle and you have to slog through the final hundred pages of Lydia’s angsty inner monologue. But if you were an angsty 90’s book nerd, maybe it’ll be fun nostalgia for you.

Mysteries aren't my favorite genre. The writing has to be really tight throughout the story -- including the ending -- for it to be successful. Too often, I find mysteries that hold my interest in the first three-quarters will fall apart at the end because of predictability, implausibility, or both. Let's just say, this one wasn't... Continue Reading →

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