The Panic Years by Nell Frizzell - Book Review

Book Review | The Panic Years by Nell Frizzell

Reading Nell Frizzell’s debut is like sitting with your best friend over a large glass of red wine and having life laid bare. It’s a raw, emotional, funny and candid look at our late twenties into our thirties and early forties – so today’s millennial women – and it gives a name to this otherwise nameless period. ‘Unlike childhood, adolescence, menopause, or the midlife crisis,’ Frizzell writes, ‘we have no common term for the tumult of time, hormones, social pressure, and maternal hunger that smacks into many women like a train at the end of their twenties and early thirties.’

This book made me feel seen. It commits to page the ways that likely many millennial women* have felt – or will feel – at some point in their lives. Unlike men, who aren’t bound to their fertility in quite the same way, women are conditioned to listen to the tick of their biological clock and make a decision that will forever shape their lives. It’s not a choice that can be made in isolation – at Frizzell says, it becomes ‘the baseline to everything.’ It’s a choice that you have to make ‘now, before your body takes the choice away from you.’

This is a deeply personal account from Frizzell about her navigation of the panic years, through disastrous dates to a determined resolve to live a baby-free life to the max and relocate to Berlin. Frizzell is a journalist, and there’s a journalistic flair and refreshing honesty to the way she blends the sacred and profane. These are heavy topics, doubtless, but written in an accessible way that combines a perfect balance of facts and figures with the personal anecdote.

‘Our biology hasn’t caught up with our politics’

Reproductive rights is, of course, a key feminist issue, and Frizzell addresses the myriad ways in which our biology disadvantages us – from the woeful and shocking lack of research into the effects of the contraceptive pill to the politics around going on maternity leave while you’ve only got your feet on a low rung of a very tall ladder – and how on earth you’ll be able to continue to climb it after a year off work (if you’re lucky enough to live in Europe) combined with the utter exhaustion of being a primary caregiver.

She talks openly about how it feels to have members of your friendship group procreate. Interestingly, she links the feelings of anxiety over one’s own reproductive plans in relation to their friends having babies as a necessary biproduct of life under capitalism, where we are conditioned to view the allocation of resources as competition. Illogical as it may be, a sea full of happy pregnant friends may have you sweating as to the statistical probability of your own healthy pregnancy.

It’s graphic at times – sometimes there’s a little too much candour, but perhaps I’m just squeamish (I am). But there’s something so refreshing in the messiness of it all. I’ve also never read anything that really gives voice and validation to these decisions. Rather than brushing off motherhood as existing in some removed feminine realm of the domestic, as it has been for so much of history, Frizzell champions these decisions and experiences as pretty much the crux of humanity:

‘Everybody is the product of some woman’s pregnancy and birth; the possibility and reality of having a baby is as important, as interesting, and as worthy of our attention as anything created, experienced, or believed by humanity.’

I read it in two days. And I’m buying for all fellow millennial women in my life.

*Women/nonbinary/trans

Book Review | The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls’ first memory is sustaining third-degree burns as she attempted to boil hot dogs on the stove – at age three. Raised – and ‘raised’ is being generous to her parents – by eccentric nonconformists Rex and Rose Mary, Jeannette and her three siblings have a pretty astonishing story to tell.

It’s astonishing because I’ve never read a memoir quite like it. It is so harrowing and dark, and yet told with a levity and a compassion that makes it easier to read that it would otherwise be.

Rex and Rose Mary determine that their family will live a nomadic lifestyle, ‘doing the skedaddle’ when things go south, and pitching up in another American small-town nowhere. Rex is a habitual drunk and chain smoker, and Rose Mary is trained as a teacher but prefers to spend her days pursuing her art. Neither accept a penny of charity or government assistance, and both are some of the most astoundingly narcissist characters – people – I’ve ever read about. They live in abject poverty and the children are frequently hungry, dumpster-diving for discarded items, and eating cat food more than once. Putting food on the table is not the top priority for Rex and Rose Mary, and they can’t quite understand how they got to be lumped with such a responsibility.

‘‘…I was hungry.’

Mom gave me a startled look. I’d broken one of our unspoken rules: we were always supposed to pretend our life was one long, and incredibly fun, adventure.’

There are truly horrifying anecdotes – their ramshackle house in Phoenix, AZ has no air conditioning, so in the summer they would leave all the windows and doors open at night. The young Jeannette wakes up one night to find herself being molested by a paedophile who has broken in. But the anecdote takes on a somewhat magical feel when Jeannette and her brother Brian go paedophile hunting in the middle of the night, two children on a mission for vengeance. This is the astonishing (sorry for overusing this adjective, but it fits) way in which many of these stories are told – particularly for the young Jeannette, there is no blame, derision or hatred of her parents for the way they left the children wide open to danger; only an acceptance that they had to fend for themselves, and would become stronger and more resilient in the process.

‘When Dad wasn’t telling us about all the amazing things he had already done, he was telling us about the wondrous things he was going to do. Like build the Glass Castle.’

But it’s not simply enough to paint these parents as neglectful monsters (although with the facts on paper, it’s hard to argue anything else). Jeannette speaks with particular fondness of her father, who, one Christmas, takes them all out to look at the night sky in order to pick a star as their gift. Jeannette is particularly close to her dad, his ‘mountain goat’ who swears he’ll never let her down, even as he does – time and time again. Despite frequently going hungry, wearing holey clothes and with no safe space to do her schoolwork, Jeannette excels academically. One night she accepts a ride home from a stranger, who asks her about her future plans. Pre-teen Jeannette regales her career ambitions to the silent stranger. ‘For the daughter of the town drunk,’ he says, ‘you sure got big plans.’

As Jeannette and her siblings grow older, the shine starts to fade and they begin to realise that the way they live is not the way that normal people – happy people – live. The last quarter of the memoir recounts her life as she moves away and begins life on her own terms. I wished that this part of the book gave us a little more in the way of introspection on what had happened in her childhood, especially with the distance of time and geography to provide the space to reflect. There were many moments in the novel that took on a romanticized sheen, which was deeply unsettling. But as I reflect, I don’t think any of us can deny someone their story, and the way in which they choose to tell it – even if all evidence points to an uncomfortable truth: that this was a terrible, deeply dysfunctional childhood, and Jeannette was lucky to make it out alive. I’ll say it just one more time: astonishingly told. This one will stay with me for a long time.

Pairings of fiction and non-fiction books

So, I initially wanted to participate in this as part of non-fiction November, but life happened – five months later, here I am! I really enjoyed reading other readers’ pairings last year, and I love the concept.

Meng Jing, ‘Little Gods’ and Mei Fong, ‘One Child’

Mei Fong’s One Child – subtitled ‘The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment’ blew me away. Mei Fong offers a nuanced and striking examination of the (in)famous one-child policy in China, the world’s largest experiment in social engineering. She dissects the long-reaching, and sometimes surprising, human impact of this policy and how it has shaped families and relationships for generations to come. And the fact that Meng Jin’s protagonist of Little Gods, Liya, is an only child – though not as a direct result of the one-child policy – shapes her life and the way she connects with her heritage. Having been raised in the U.S., Liya returns to China after the death of her mother, anxious to trace the fragile threads of her family history and with no known living relatives. In doing so, she weaves through and dissects contemporary Chinese history in a poetic, insightful and moving way. Both are must-reads for anyone with an interest in modern China.

Lauren Oyler, ‘Fake Accounts’ and Jia Tolentino, ‘Trick Mirror’

Now, I wouldn’t usually give a 3-star read more airtime than what it took to read and review. But Fake Accounts is hot off the press and has drawn plenty of praise, and just because it did dazzle me doesn’t mean it doesn’t have something to say. It’s a fictional mediation, via our unnamed protagonist, on the lives we construct for ourselves online, the nature of selfhood and of performance and power, from a woman who’s just found out her boyfriend is secretly running a popular conspiracy theorist Instagram account. Jia Tolentino’s incredibly articulate essay collection Trick Mirror addresses many of these same themes – in one memorable chapter ‘Always Be Optimizing’, she explores the modern condition through the vehicle of a chopped salad – a chopped salad the embodiment of the way that our attention can be directed away from having to focus on the consumption of nutrients and instead to the consumption of data, of content, as we answer emails or scroll Facebook or buy things on Amazon. Compelling stuff, and both searing accounts of the modern condition.

Yaa Gyasi, ‘Homegoing’ and Ta Nehisi-Coates, ‘Between the World and Me’

I feel like I have waxed lyrical about both of these before, but for good reason. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is a sweeping and devastating novel, transporting us from 18th century Ghana to just before the turn of the millennium in the United States. It charts the descendants of two sisters, one who is enslaved and brought to the U.S., the other who remains in Ghana. It’s an ambitious and moving examination of the ripple effects of history and racism. Between the World and Me (which should be required reading for the planet, as per the iconic Toni Morrison), is written as a letter Coates addresses to his son. He eloquently examines how the pernicious nature of systemic racism is woven into the fabric of American society. And while his experience as a Black man in America is different from his father’s, and different from his son’s, who has grown up under a Black president, there is a long, long way to go before Black lives in America are valued equally. If you loved Yaa Gyasi’s debut, make sure Ta Nehisi-Coates is next on your TBR.

Thanks for visiting! Are there any fiction/non-fiction pairings you would recommend?

Three Women Lisa Taddeo Book Review

Book Review | Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

Three Women is a book that I waited for nine months on the library wait list. No kidding, I requested it back in May (when I was still hopeful that by the time my name was up the pandemic would be distant memory.) But here we are.

This is a journalistic tour de force – because that’s right – it’s the real, raw, messy relationships of three real women laid bare by Lisa Taddeo. She spent years immersed in the lives of these three subjects (and others who ended up ultimately withdrawing from the project).

Taddeo’s women are drawn with finesse and insight and empathy. There’s Maggie, groomed by her teacher in what she sees as a real love affair. Lina, trapped in a loveless marriage who reconnects with her high school sweetheart. And Sloane, beautiful and successful, whose husband likes to watch her have sex with other men in front of him.

All of the stories are compelling, though Maggie’s hit me the hardest. For those who’ve read My Dark Vanessa, it’s not hard to draw parallels – a young girl lured in by an older, trustworthy male figure – only to have their whole world collapse when they’re no longer the subject of desire. ‘Maggie feels she has done something wrong,’ Taddeo tells us, ‘His superpower is that he can make her feel stupid very fast. It’s not just that he’s older, and her teacher. It’s something else, but it’s also those things.’ For Maggie, a young woman with her whole life ahead of her, the ramifications of this gross abuse of power reverberate into her future in a devastating way.

‘There’s a train that chugs in the distance. Maggie is animated, thinking of future train rides, one-way tickets out of Fargo, into careers and sleek apartments in glassy cities. Her whole life stretches out before her, a path of imprecise but multiple directions. She could be an astronaut, a rap star, an accountant. She could be happy.’

It’s voyeuristic, of course – and it does leave you wondering how much is embellished for the sake of the story – but it’s refreshing to hear these frank deep-dives into the romantic lives of other women, an unapologetic voice given to female desire. There’s a sadness tinged throughout – but Taddeo passes no judgement on these experiences, steadfast in the role of a faithful narrator who will resist a defined beginning, middle, and satisfying denoument.

‘Lina knows the literal translation of I don’t want to hurt you is I want to have sex with you but I don’t love you.’

It isn’t a sweeping treatise on what it means to be a woman – this is a minuscule subsection of white America – but the feelings that Taddeo memorializes within these stories – of longing or self-loathing or restlessness or the desire for control – are universal. Taddeo gives weight to these three stories, in all their intimate, multi-faceted and complex realness. Worth the wait? I think so.

Book Review | Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall

This is not an easy book to read, but boy is it an important, timely book. 

Mikki Kendall meticulously dissects the tenets of women of colour (WOC) womanhood – with a large focus on African American womanhood, as this corresponds to her lived experience. With razor-sharp insight and armed with the facts, Kendall shows us how White Feminism™ – that is to say, mainstream feminism that does NOT take into account the intersections of race, disability, socio-economic status, etc – has failed WOC in the United States since its conception.

It’s sadly a truth pretty much universally acknowledged now that some of the most well-known suffragettes who championed a woman’s right to vote at the turn of the century were also card-carrying racists. While racism isn’t as explicit in mainstream feminist circles today, I think what Kendall is saying boils down in part to Angela Davis’s quote: ‘it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be antiracist.’ Not explicitly addressing the concerns of non-White, able-bodied, middle-class, straight women actively causes harm and contributes to the structural oppression of other groups of less privileged women. And Kendall is going to show us how, in eighteen chapters that turn the microscope inward.

There is a chasm, Kendall shows, between the concerns of the mainstream feminist movement and the needs of poorer WOC. ‘All too often,’ she writes, ‘the focus is not on survival but on increasing privilege.’ For the women Kendall shines the light on, their biggest concerns are material: ‘food insecurity and access to quality education, safe neighbourhoods, a living wage and medical care.’

There’s a lot to digest from in this sharp, clear-eyed and powerful essay collection. My feminism has most certainly evolved in the last decade, but like most people, I have blind spots. And although of course I’d consider myself intersectional, there’s always so much to learn, and so many women to learn from. It’s one of those books where I grabbed my pen and found myself underlining multiple pages for the succinct, frank way Kendall navigates the collection. There’s a lot to explore, and I really want you to read it for yourself – so I’ll just highlight a few sections I found particularly effective.

In ‘Race, Poverty and Politics,’ Kendall dissects the role of conservative women who campaign and vote for policies and practices that actively oppress and marginalize already marginalized communities of women. They have been, she writes, ‘empowered by feminism to do harm.’ 

‘You can argue that conservative values are at odds with feminist ideology, but ultimately the question has to be not only “what women are we empowering” but also “what are we empowering them to do?”’ 

Further on, she talks about the confirmation hearing of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court, despite the testimony of Dr. Blasey Ford who was sexually assaulted by Kavanaugh as a teen. Here we have a white, middle-class, professional woman – the kind of a victim society will rally around – and yet, and yet. 

‘It might seem shocking that an educated white woman wasn’t able to stop Kavanaugh’s confirmation even with the support of mainstream feminist organisations,’ Kendall writes. ‘But their willingness to ignore the “wrong” victims based on race or gender or class paved the way to their moment. When some victims are seen as disposable (Kendall explores this in the chapter ‘Missing and Murdered’) then eventually all victims are disposable, regardless of white supremacist patriarchal claims to be invested in the protection of white womanhood. It’s not enough to show up for big battles; unfortunately feminism has to show up for every battle, or it can rapidly find itself nearly powerless to prevent moments like these.’ 

The ideas repeat themselves somewhat, with the same concepts layered over each other as the collection builds – but Kendall’s layering of the personal with the political – her lived experience with those of the wider community – is very effective. She also offers a way through, with strategies for supporting intersectional thought and practice, and not just giving the mic over, but sometimes needing to get off the stage.

****

Book Review | The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West

In an essay collection that has the dexterity to be both funny and devastating, Lindy West lays bare the current American cultural climate as one that is built on centuries-old misogyny and toxic masculinity.

The book covers a lot more ground than I was expecting, deviating a long way from the initial premise that gives it its (apt) name. Here, the witches are not the poor, blameless women, slaughtered en masse in an act of mass hysteria in 17th century Salem, but the “poor, blameless” men who can’t put a toe out of line without being set upon full force by the “PC brigade.” And when I say ‘put a toe out of line,’ I mean spout their sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, rhetoric. Because being called out for at best inappropriate and at worst actively violent behaviour is, folks, a witch hunt. Now that’s oppression!

In her opening anecdote, West talks about how her husband sat at a bar one night, while the guy next to him lamented the fact that he couldn’t go dance to his favourite song – banned all because a few nights prior he was persistently grinding on a woman, there with her friends, without her consent. Can’t men even talk to a woman now without being accused of predatory behaviour? My heart bleeds.

And the next logical step in this American horror story is to turn to the commander in chief, President Donald Trump. Trump isn’t, sadly, some kind of random outlier, he is instead an embodiment of ‘apoplectic masculinity itself,’ emblematic of so many men we all have had the misfortune of meeting. He puts a frightening, powerful face to so many of our stories.

‘Every woman knows a version of Donald Trump. Most of us have known more of them than we can or care to recall. He’s the boss who thinks you owe him something. The date who thinks that silence means yes and no means try harder. The stranger who thinks your body’s mere existence constitutes an invitation to touch, take, own and destroy. He’s every deadbeat hook-up, every narcissistic  loser, every man who’s ever tried to leverage power, money, fame, credibility, or physical strength to snap your boundaries like matchsticks.’

In a particularly powerful passage in a later essay, West renders the contemporary American right-wing identity as inextricable from toxic masculinity, the right as the true ‘stewards’ of America, where caring about the environment (e.g. the mocking refrain of the “pathetic liberal obsession” with saving the whales) to caring fundamentally about each other, as all societies should inherently do (why does this even need to be said?) is rendered ‘effeminate and therefore despicable.’

‘If you train people to scoff at community and stewardship,  attending to the needs of others, yes, but also for advocating for oneself – you can do whatever you want to them and they will not complain. You can strip away their ability to earn a living wage, to send their kids to college, to retire. You can undermine their most sacred values. You can allow children to be massacred and they’ll weep for the guns. This is toxic masculinity at its most pitiful.’

‘You can allow children to be massacred and they’ll weep for the guns.’ Let’s just let that sink in for one moment.

By and large, West isn’t saying anything new or anything that isn’t already part of the modern liberal feminist zeitgeist. I am the perfect audience for this book, and yet I’m also not the one who needs to read it. It’s also worth noting that the essays are focussed solely on an American perspective with almost zero recognition of how this patriarchal value system manifests in countries around the world. As a non-American, albeit someone who lives in the US, some of the references – particularly those to 90s celebrities – were lost on me. This isn’t a criticism per se, but international readers may not get as much out of that part of the cultural commentary. There is recognition of some of the intersections – of race, and class – but these could have been drawn on in a deeper, less cursory way.

The collection is a little uneven in its impact and message, charting both pop culture and the political and social landscape, ranging from Adam Sandler movies (a chapter that’s only really interesting if you’ve seen most of them, which I haven’t), to our dire environmental straits with the climate crisis. I was reminded of Jenny Offill’s Weather and the ‘obligatory note of hope’ – how any literature about the climate crisis has to end this way to prevent a reader from sinking it to a pit of despair and gin and never coming out of it. It feels a little hollow to be hopeful about anything right now, while at this ‘low and surreal’ moment in US history. But we have to stay engaged, keep fighting – ‘to believe in nothing,’ West says, ‘is to change nothing.’

What’s important is that when West gets it right, she really gets it right, and the most effective essays are a searing, witty rallying cry. The Witches are Coming is overall an articulate, powerful read that reminds us to keep fighting the good fight.

****

Book Review | Know My Name by Chanel Miller

TW: rape, assault

This is a stunning, harrowing and incredibly powerful real-life account of Chanel Miller, once known only as ‘Emily Doe,’ who goes to a party on the Stanford University campus and wakes up hours later in a hospital bed, having blacked out and been raped.

In her powerful testimony, Chanel excavates her trauma and bravely puts it on the page for the world to bear witness to. Her rape is horrific, and horrifically mundane. We know this happens – society engrains in us from a young age how we need to be responsible for protecting ourselves from sexual assault.  But what comes after isn’t talked about as much. There’s the trial-by-media, the incel trolling, the countless victim-blaming. But there’s also the years – quite literally years – of it being dragged through the courts.

‘I’d expected the legal process to be composed of a back-to-back sequence of dramatic court scenes. Nobody had warned me about the waiting, the floating formless months in between, the way it demanded all of you, then none of you.’

There’s a splintering of the self after her assault – known only as ‘Emily Doe’ in the media, her individuality is robbed from her – she’s reduced to a drunk and nameless young woman who went to a frat party and ran into trouble. She resolves to ‘keep the selves separate’ in an attempt to go on living.  She lies awake each night, for ‘sleep is vulnerability,’ she is ‘unsure how to inhabit’ her body. She talks about the ‘dismembering’ that happens when victims seek help, of putting yourself under a microscope in a plea for justice, in a bid to halt this epidemic of sexual violence.

And whilst her rapist is developed in the court of public opinion – and the court itself – into a three-dimensional human, an Olympic-level swimmer, young and mislead, homesick, unused to drink and parties – Chanel’s identity is erased. And that is what she powerfully reclaims in this account. She does stand-up comedy, she is a doting sister, she adopts an old dog, she is inspired by her immigrant mother, she makes art. She is a full and whole person. She is not the sum of what he did to her.

‘The friendly guy who helps you move and assists senior citizens in the pool is the same guy who assaulted me. One person can be capable of both. Society often fails to wrap its head around the fact that these truths often coexist, they are not mutually exclusive. Bad qualities can hide inside a good person. That’s the terrifying part.’

Chanel is incredibly eloquent, writing with a beautiful and simple lyricism that throws her suffering into sharp relief. During the scenes where she is waiting outside the courtroom before her first testimony, I felt physically sick anticipating her having to re-live her trauma and be torn apart on the witness stand, accumulating and losing ‘points toward the unspoken tally.’ Such is the power of her writing that it is impossible not to come away from the book feeling a deep, profound empathy for the unimaginable pain she endured, and a deep respect for her strength.

What was unexpected – and so very effective – was the explicit contextualising of this story within a bigger picture of patriarchal entitlement, of male rage, of the failings of the justice system. Chanel is on campus when Elliot Rodgers, angry that he couldn’t get a date, went on a killing spree that left six young people dead. She talks about Philando Castile, murdered in front of his partner and daughter by a policeman who walked free. This story is very much her own – but it isn’t just her own. When her victim statement is published on Buzzfeed, it is seen by millions worldwide, many thousands of whom reach out to Chanel with their own stories, thanking her for her bravery. In having the strength to tell her story, she gives all victims strength and hope – they aren’t alone.

I’ll never be able to do justice to this memoir. It’s harrowing, riveting, and, ultimately, hopeful.

*****

 

 

Book Tag | The Mid-Year Book Freakout

The fact that it is the middle of 2020 is mind-boggling. On one hand, I am mentally stuck in March, but on the other, it feels like this new reality has been with us for much longer than four months. About the only positive thing to say is that I have been able to spend all this time indoors catching up with reading. 

1. Best book you’ve read so far in 2020

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo. I’m hardly alone in adoring it, given that it won the Booker, but Evaristo is such a fresh and innovative new voice.

2. Best sequel you’ve read so far in 2020

I don’t really read series, so nothing so far – however I am highly anticipating the latest in the Cormoran Strike series, Troubled Blood, which is set to be released in September.

3. New release you haven’t read yet, but want to

author britt bennett and her latest book the vanishing half
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett – I’m seeing it everywhere and so looking forward to getting stuck in.

4. Most anticipated release for the second half of the year

See above #2!

5. Biggest disappointment

Lie With Me by Philippe Besson – I think I was expecting this to be emotionally impactful and compelling, but the sparseness of the prose meant that it fell short for me.

6. Biggest surprise

thin_girls_diana_clarke

Thin Girls by Diana Clarke – it took me a little while to get into, but I couldn’t get enough of it, and it has been on my mind in the days/weeks since I finished reading.

7. Favourite new author (debut or new to you)

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Ling Ma, debut author of Severance – this is a very close second to the ‘best book of the year’ – a gripping and masterful portrait of a fictional pandemic and a searing indictment of modern society.

8. Newest fictional crush

Connell from Normal People? Should I join the back of a long line?!

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Also, not a character but Jia Tolentino, the author of Trick Mirror, is astonishingly talented and I am in love with her writing.

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9. Newest favourite character

Amma from Girl, Woman, Other – a Black British playwright, her life summed up so beautifully here –

 “Amma then spent decades on the fringe, a renegade lobbing hand grenades at the establishment that excluded her

until the mainstream began to absorb what was once radical and she found herself hopeful of joining it”

10. Book that made you cry

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Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.

11. Book that made you happy

Not as a whole, but the hopeful endings of Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.

12. Most beautiful book you’ve bought so far this year (or received)

Madeleine Thien - Do Not Say We Have Nothing

I adore the cover of Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, which is sitting on my bookshelf staring at me and begging to be read.

13. What books do you need to read by the end of the year?

A ridiculous number, but I’ll just pick the top five:

  • Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall
  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • The Travelers by Regina Porter
  • Hysteria by Jessica Gross

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Are any of these on any of your lists?  Are you also freaking out that we are halfway through the year?! 

Book Review | Lie With Me by Philippe Besson

There’s a sorrow and a quietude about Philippe Besson’s Lie With Me, a fleeting book that explores a fleeting romance between two teenage boys in 1980s rural France. The glimpse of a young man passing by a window catapults our narrator, Philippe, back to his childhood, to Barbezieux, a ‘dying city.’

In 1984, Philippe becomes infatuated with classmate Thomas, and upon finding his attraction is reciprocated, the two begin a clandestine affair. They steal time away when they can, but never so much as make eye contact otherwise.

‘In later years, I will often write about the unthinkable, the element of unpredictability that determines outcomes. And game-changing encounters, the unexpected juxtapositions that can shift the course of a life. It starts there, in the winter of my seventeenth year.’

For Philippe, the devotion is all-encompassing. As for Thomas – we are never quite sure what he feels. We are limited by our first-person perspective from Philippe, and as such Thomas is always a nebulous figure, rendered only through the lens of those around him.

There’s been much made of if this is memoir, or fiction, or somewhere in between. The parallels between the author and his protagonist are numerous, but Besson has resisted committing to the narrative. It adds an extra layer of poignancy if true, but ultimately, I’m not sure it matters – the same story is true in countless other forms over time and space.

Sparingly told and elegantly translated – some of the phrasing felt distinctly French, which I can only imagine was a deliberate move on the part of the translator, there is an economy with language that I felt kept the reader at arm’s length. The minimalism of the prose was effective to a degree, but I felt somewhat lacking. The story was elegiac and moving, but not devastatingly so, and the emotional punch wasn’t there.

I prefer the English translation of the title, oddly. The original, Arrete avec tes mensonges, translates to ‘stop with your lies,’ but in French you don’t have the double entendre of lie. It’s so much more evocative in the English, and the complicity of the ‘with me’ – lie down with me, but also – we are also complicit in the lies we tell ourselves about who we are.

***.5

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Read if you enjoyed: Call me by your Name by André Aciman, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong