The Book of Essie

41qvnhhvupl._sx336_bo1,204,203,200_I am obsessed with the Duggars. Yes, in this golden age of peak TV, I have devoted many, many hours to watching various iterations of their TV show and even reading gossip blogs. As someone raised as an only child, I have long been fascinated with stories about big families. As a kid, I used to LOVE the Boxcar Children books and a 1950s time capsule series called the Happy Hollisters about a family with five kids who solve very gentle mysteries. So the reality show genre following big families was made for me, and I have watched them all. The Duggars are obviously the biggest, in terms of family size, popularity, and scandal level, and they just fascinate me. I wish I could be embedded in the family, like an anthropologist, so I could truly see how their unconventional beliefs play out in real life and how much of what you see on TV is really just for the benefit of the cameras. Meghan MacLean Weir must feel the same way, because The Book of Essie is a fictionalized behind-the-scenes story of a religious reality show family, with all the hidden secrets and scheming you can imagine.

The book kicks off with Essie, the teenage daughter whose life has been lived on TV, revealing to her mother that she is pregnant. This will not fit with the family’s public image and Essie’s mother immediately starts strategizing how to spin this unexpected development. But Essie is not about to sit around and wait for someone else to decide her fate–she’s been planning for years and has her own strategy for getting herself and her baby out of the reality show rat race. The book’s point of view alternates between Essie, one of her high school classmates who get swept into her plan, and a reporter who has her own experience with how the media and the truth intersect. This cleverly allows you to see Essie’s perspective from inside her family, but also how the rest of their small town and the larger outside world perceive the reality show circus.

There are plenty of twists and turns in the book, although nothing particularly took me by surprise. The story largely goes where you expect it to and most of the twists are fairly well-telegraphed.  Although this is not classified as a YA book, as far as I can tell, it read that way to me–the main characters are teenagers and the story is presented entirely from their point of view, and it was a quick and easy read. But I enjoyed the peek into this family with its wildly different public and private faces, and I appreciated reading a story in which a cast of female characters are running the show, for better or worse.

Kinsey’s Three-ish Word Review: Emotional behind-the-scenes drama

You might also like:  Educated by Tara Westover is a memoir, not a novel, but it was one of the best books I read last year and tells a similar harrowing story of a childhood in a family on the religious fringe.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

By Xiaolu Guo

chinese-english_dictionaryThis novel is described as “a novel of language and love that tells one young Chinese woman’s story of her journey to the West—and her attempts to understand the language, and the man, she adores.” I was expecting a love story, quite honestly, though one with a unique approach. It is, uh…not that.

The hook, for me, was that the book is written in Zhuang’s voice, and over the length of the book, the text itself becomes more mature as her English improves. According to the inside blurb, Guo used her own journals from when she first came to London as a reference, and the developing language is really interesting to follow.

The thing is, the relationship stuff is…rough. I spent the vast majority of the book stressed over this young woman in a foreign country with very little support, convinced that any minute, things were going to go dangerously wrong. I wasn’t completely wrong, either, but traumatic events are written in the same sort of wondering tone as everything else she experiences in the West, which lessened the stress a little, I guess.

Less of a story about love, Guo is talking about how our cultural expectations, and even our individual wants and needs, can interfere with relationships, even when people love each other. Our society often addresses sexual incompatibility in romantic relationships (so many letters to advice columns!), but Guo delves into something that is mostly overlooked: emotional intimacy incompatibility. Some people like a higher amount of connective-ness in their relationship than others, and if you are very mismatched, like the couple in this novel, it will be frustrating and exhausting for both sides.

The Tomato Thief by Ursula Vernon

The Tomato Thief
by Ursula Vernon
2016

Some time ago I bookmarked this short story, intending to read it later, and then mostly forgot about its existence until I was searching through some old bookmarks wondering why I had so many of them.

It’s really good! It’s sort of magical-realism, fairy-tale like, with a cranky old woman as the main character and is a delight.

It reminds me of Zen Cho’s short stories, including “Prudence and the Dragon” which Anna reviewed previously, and the stories in “Spirits Abroad” which apparently I never got around to reviewing here, but are also fabulous.

But you should go ahead and read The Tomato Thief here.

Amnesty for unfinished books

I think we all try to finish the books we start, more out of principle than anything else.*  However, we always have books that just defeat us (you can see the ones that haunt us in our bios). Here, on New Year’s Eve, we say goodbye to those books from 2018:

Confessions of the Fox

By Jody Rosenberg

Confessions_of_the_FoxThis was on all sorts of Best of lists and the description sounded amazing; this was the quote from the New York Times review: “A mind-bending romp through a gender-fluid, eighteenth century London . . . a joyous mash-up of literary genres shot through with queer theory and awash in sex, crime, and revolution.” I like all of these things! This should be awesome! But even after multiple tries, I never made it past the third chapter. It was written in some of Olde Englishe dialect that my brain just wouldn’t parse at all. I feel like if I could have gotten over the hump and into the story I would have liked it, but I guess I’ll never know.

—Kinsey

Fear: Trump in the White House

By Bob Woodward

FearOf course, everyone was reading this book. In DC, naturally, but I think there was a mad scramble for it nation-wide. I don’t really buy books anymore, and the library waitlist was over 900 people, so I figured I’d probably get around to reading it in a couple years once the next big exposé came out. However, at Thanksgiving my dad said that I could borrow his copy, as long as I return it at Christmas. A month! Plenty of time, right?

Whew! The first 50 pages summarize the campaigns, leading up to the election, and just brought back how horrifyingly shocking November 8 was to me. Once we got past that, though, I was actually finding the behind-the-scenes details pretty interesting, similar to Game Change. However, it was still a slow read, and I had just reached Lindsey Graham convincing Trump to hire General Mattis as Secretary of Defense, when the news broke that Mattis was resigning. That was pretty much the last straw for me, and I decided that I just couldn’t handle trying to make sense of everything while it continues to change so frequently. I’m going back to my escapist fiction until at least 2020.

—Anna

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

By Sherman Alexie

lonerangerWith a title like that, how could I not want to read it? Also, the book is a 20th anniversary edition that was being highlighted at my local library as a recommendation from one of the librarians, and it’s about modern life on an Indian reservation. It’s a collection of 24 short stories, most of them only about 10-pages long.

I’m now on my third renewal of the library check-out because I’ve just stalled after the first two and a half stories. There’s no particular reason for me to not like them, I just find myself asking why I’m trying to read these when I’m not getting anything from them and I could be reading something else instead. But I keep on renewing the check-out because the introduction was excellent! It was also written by the author, but 20 years after the rest of the book, which might be why it’s more centered and entertaining. So, I recommend the introduction, and maybe while you’re at it, try out the rest of the stories, but for the new year I’m going to let myself give up on this book and just return it to the library.

—Rebecca

*Though as I get older, I’m more inclined toward the idea that life is too short to waste time on a book you aren’t enjoying.

Your Black Friend and Other Strangers, by Ben Passmore

yourblackfriendYour Black Friend and Other Strangers
by Ben Passmore
2018

I saw Ben Passmore speak on a panel discussion at the Small Press Expo this year. And he was one of the better speakers about doing nonfiction journalism in graphic novel format. I definitely wanted to read his book, which is twenty short stories in graphic novel format – between 1 and 21 pages each. All twenty combined are 120 pages.

The first story, the titular “Your Black Friend”, was remarkably hard to get through. It was fabulous, but it was also deeply uncomfortable because it pointed out my own problems and how none of us get to opt out of a racist society. We can do our best to try to improve society and make it less racist, but we’re all impacted. Black people don’t get to opt out of being oppressed and white people don’t get to opt out of being the oppressors. And here’s a constant struggle with stereotypes in both directions and from all sides.

When reading it, I could feel myself becoming defensive (“I don’t mean it that way!” the white person’s version of “not all men!” etc.) and that itself was an important realization to have, and a reaction I know to guard against.

Once I got through that one though, the rest were (relatively) smooth sailing. Some of them were more impactful than others, and they tended to deal with just different issues that Passmore had run into during his life and travels, many of them about racial inequality but certainly not all of them, and a few that were pure navel-gazing philosophy.

All the stories are good, but a couple of that I want to call out in particular are:

“It’s Not About You”, which does a hilarious and fantastical job of addressing the fact that we’re all dealing with our own issues and struggles and yet that doesn’t excuse us from acknowledging other people’s issues and struggles.

and

Ally I Need is Love”, which is a hilarious and biographical story from his past as a pedicab driver dealing with intersectionality issues, generational changes, and stereotyping.

Anyway, the art isn’t my usual style preference but it carries the stories well and is distinctly his Passmore’s own style, which I can now semi-reliably recognize in other contexts (such as on The Nib, which I follow on Instgram.)

I definitely recommend this book.

In writing this review and checking some links, I also discovered that “Your Black Friend” (the short story, rather than the whole book) got turned into a 3-minute youtube video available here.)

Artemis by Andy Weir

220px-Artemis-Andy_Weir_(2017)Artemis
by Andy Weir
2017

This book was fine. I enjoyed it. Mostly. But it had a series of flaws, some more serious than others.

For the good parts: it’s got a diverse cast of characters, and it does what most good science fiction novels do and takes some theories of how science could develop and looks into how those developments impact society. The ideas for how a moon colony would operate are fascinating, both from the science side and from the social side.

It’s also a bit of a heist story which is always fun. Where Weir’s first book, The Martian, was man-vs-nature, Artemis is man-vs-man, which opens up some additional opportunities for interesting conflicts.

But the man-vs-man story line generally needs you to like your characters and pick your side, and I was a bit thrown off by it ultimately being a conflict between a ‘good’ billionaire and a ‘bad’ billionaire. I guess the difference is that one kicks puppies and the other doesn’t? (Metaphorically, at least: there were no pets of any kind in this book.) And there’s ongoing commentary about how unions are like protection rackets that hurt the best skilled workers.

The main character, Jazz (short for Jasmine), is a fine point of view character except for the parts where she literally complains about how everyone is always telling her how much potential she has and offering her opportunities to develop her potential. (We should all have such trials and tribulations.) But she doesn’t take any of them up on the offers, and then feels betrayed the one time she can’t get a pass she wants because potential is fine but you actually need achievement to be successful. (This isn’t a spoiler, it’s the second scene in the book, which is admittedly before she starts complaining about people offering her opportunities, so isn’t quite so jarring until you think back about it.)

In the end, she’s so smart that she can do pretty much everything with just a little extra studying, and everyone is very impressed with it. There’s a level of wish-fulfillment meets entitlement that I find off-putting (also ignoring the difference between intelligence and education.) Weir is flipping a trope by writing it as a female character, at least, since mostly I see that as guys writing guys, but there’s only so much credit for that. Especially when paired with the narration about how she’s slept with so many men, but then the details seem to be that it’s only two men, both while in monogamous relationships (on her part at least.)

It all comes together like warning signs that Andy Weir might be going the way of Robert Heinlein and Orson Scott Card: talented science fiction writers who went increasingly extreme in being uber-conservative, with a side-order of sexual hang-ups. I grew up reading and enjoying their books, but I’m too old and entitled now myself to deal with that anymore.

Anyway, to sum up: The Martian was amazingly great and any next book of Weir’s would necessarily have a high standard to meet. Artemis didn’t meet that standard, but it’s no worse than many other science fiction novels I’ve read. I’ll keep an eye out for any other books he writes because The Martian was a masterpiece, Artemis was interesting, and two data points is a poor way to predict the future, but I’m not particularly optimistic.

The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

By Stuart Turton

Evelyn_HardcastleThis is like Wibbly-Wobbly, Timey-Wimey: the novel. The book is covered in blurbs raving about how original and fascinating it is, but I’m not sure that I ever got a full grasp of what was happening. Every so often, I’d get a spark of understanding, which was pretty cool, but then it would inevitably lead to even more confusion.

The novel opens with the narrator running through the woods, calling a woman’s name, with no memory of who or where he is. So, the reader starts as lost as the narrator, and it is a slow start as he puts together the pieces of the country house party he is attending. That’s basically as much as I can say without beginning to spoil things, but it isn’t really enough to get anyone interested in reading it. The basic publisher’s description realized this, too, so does provide some additional context.

The young society lady, for whom the party is in honor, dies at the end of the ball, and a mysterious cloaked figure tells our narrator that he must solve her murder. He has eight days to solve it, or rather eight cycles of the same day – the day of Evelyn Hardcastle’s death. The added twist is that each day, he will wake up in the body of one of the houseguests and he must run the detection through that person’s perspective. Which is really cool, and the author does a great job of showing how each different host affects the narrator (though it does lead to a chapter of some very uncomfortable fat shaming that made me like the book a little less).

It gets even more complicated, of course, with a slew of other houseguests and other strange characters in addition to the narrator and the eight guests he inhabits. Schemes, dangers, and suspicions abound, and I could never have predicted the final conclusion. (Like I said above, I’m not super sure that I understood everything, but I for sure did not anticipate it!)