Dec 27 2018

Hey Ladies!: The Story of 8 Best Friends, 1 Year, and Way, Way Too Many Emails by Michelle Markowitz, Caroline Moss & Carolyn Bahar

Hey Ladies!: A Cautionary Tale

Let me begin by admitting that I was lucky enough to spend ages 8-21 being an Upper Middle Class Asian in Asia, thereby escaping completely the clutches of the American bridal-industrial complex. However, having lived over half my life here now, I can’t claim to be completely unscathed as a result of watching loved ones succumb to that soul-sucking behemoth. My own wedding was quite nice and bridesmaid-free, a small (by Asian standards, with only 100 guests or so) affair on the beach with appropriate dress code and a request for no boxed gifts. It was still quite stressful to put together, so I don’t understand why certain American women willingly put themselves through the wringer micromanaging every little moment of a single day of their lives, and all the lead-up that entails.

Fortunately, Hey Ladies! is here to help explain. Following a year in the lives of 8 best friends, HL! is written in the form of e-mails and texts etc. as the women hilariously prepare for the wedding of one of their own. It is jaw-droppingly outrageous and side-splittingly awful and I could not stop reading it (or admiring the pictures by Carolyn Bahar.) HL! is a relentless but ultimately kind-hearted skewering of a certain demographic of American women and the expectations they exert upon one another as they attempt to appear successful (not, if you’ll notice, to actually succeed.) The protagonists are all flawed and rather silly but they do care about each other very much. These women remind me of people I know and love, and there are glimmers of myself in most of them. Honestly, I’d be surprised if any American woman between the ages of 18-68 didn’t recognize at least part of herself in these ladies.

A quick, charming, satirical/anthropological read. Sequel please!

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Dec 26 2018

This Dreaming Isle edited by Dan Coxon

I love the idea of this, and I love the way it’s been edited, dividing the book into three distinct parts that reflect very much the most vital areas of England: Country, City and Coast. The seventeen stories in this collection cover a host of supernatural occurrences, embracing the diversity of the English experience. Most were very well thought out, even if the execution on some felt iffier than others. I’ll discuss a few standouts, beginning with The Headland Of Black Rock by Alison Littlewood, which was far and away my favorite of the bunch. It packs a lot of story into its few pages, of an aging celebrity who falls in love with a mute girl by the seaside, and satisfyingly covers a wide and complete-feeling gamut of emotions.

I also very much enjoyed Jeannette Ng’s We Regret To Inform You. It was a bit daunting at first, especially if you’re not terribly familiar with the Venerable Bede, but once you slip into the cadences of academia and grow comfortable with the alternate universe on display, the twist is quite impressive. Domestic Magic by Kirsty Logan was far more straightforward but felt beautifully constructed, and I loved the message of women’s love. Angela Readman’s Swimming With Horses was also a delight to read, if definitely one of the milder stories in this collection.

Of the stories that had great ideas but didn’t quite land with me, for one reason or another, a standout is James Miller’s Not All Right. The protagonist is a horrible person and Mr Miller eviscerates him and his ilk very adeptly — I just didn’t understand the what and why of the mishmash of supernatural goings-on around him. I feel like it’s a great idea for exploration in a longer novel, say. I also found Robert Shearman’s The Cocktail Party In Kensington Gets Out Of Hand to be memorable even if I didn’t like it so much as find it deeply discomfiting.

Overall, an entertaining collection of supernatural fiction that considers the many aspects of modern England whilst also incorporating its past. It wholly satisfied that part of me that loves to indulge in the occasional horror anthology.

A big Thank You to Unsung Stories for sending these wonderful books to me. Their commitment to fantastic British fiction is terrific, and I’m much the richer for having encountered them.

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Dec 24 2018

2018 Reading Roundup

I’ve now read 100 books in 2018. I won’t stop between now and the end of the year, but this seemed like a good point to pause and take stock. Here’s a list of my top 10 SFF, fabulist, or otherwise wackadoodle books from the last year, presented in the order that I read them (not by order of enjoyment).

The Princess Bride (William Goldman)

Mrs. Caliban (Rachel Ingalls)

The Merry Spinster (Daniel Ortberg)

Freshwater (Akwaeke Emezi)

Lincoln in the Bardo (George Saunders)

Night Beast (Ruth Joffre)

Stand Still, Stay Silent, book 1 (written + drawn by Minna Sundberg)

The Future Is Female (ed. Lisa Yaszek)

Spinning Silver (Naomi Novik)

How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? (N.K. Jemisen)

And here’s a quick breakdown, for all you last-minute gift buyers out there.

The Princess Bride is better than the movie in almost every way, the only lack being Wallace Shawn (whose inimitable nasal tones and marvelous brocade jacket would be a tall order to include in any novel). I have the 25th-anniversary edition, which includes a short piece called “Buttercup’s Baby,” but any of them would have sufficed. Pro tip: best read out loud, to someone younger than you. Practice doing the voices first.

Mrs. Caliban does a lot of work in a remarkably compact space. If you liked The Shape of Water (which Mrs. Caliban preceded by three decades), you’ll also enjoy this. It centers on a housewife who engages in an extramarital affair with an escaped piscine gentleman, with unsettling consequences.

The Merry Spinster‘s standout story, “Daughter Cells,” also has to do with intelligent ocean life. Come for the murderous merpeople, stay for the wickedly clever and inventively-gendered reimaginings of fairy tales, folklore, and classic children’s literature. (Ever thought Frog and Toad Are Friends got a little gaslight-y? This is the book for you.)

Freshwater is the kind of book you read in one sitting—not because it’s short, but because its world and voice are so deeply absorbing. It’s a distant cousin of Helen Oyeyemi’s first novel, The Icarus Girl, although Emezi’s work is at once scarier and more experimental. Give yourself some time to return to the familiar world after you finish.

I can’t recommend Lincoln in the Bardo more highly than all of your Facebook and Goodreads friends already have. Now that it’s out in paperback, you don’t have any excuse not to read it. Though I’ve heard the audiobook is also excellent, if that’s your thing.

Night Beast is to Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen as Freshwater is to The Icarus Girl. Joffre publishes in a wide variety of venues, from bastions of domestic realism like The Kenyon Review to Lightspeed, John Joseph Adams’s SFF journal, and there are a number of genre-benders here. If you want a sample, here’s my favorite, “Safekeeping,” at DIAGRAM.

I’m cheating a little with Stand Still, Stay Silent, since you can read all of that gloriously slow-paced and lavishly-drawn webcomic online, for free. (But you can also buy a hard copy, and save yourself some clicking.) Book two is in the works right now, with updates four days a week.

The Future Is Female turned out to be one of those rare books that I got from the library, and then wished I’d bought outright. It’s a smorgasbord of 19th- and 20th-century speculative fiction by women, which is sort of my specialty, but at least two-thirds of the writers here were new to me. There’s a lot of good work to choose from here (one of the distinct advantages of anthologies over single-author collections), but my favorite by far is C.L. Moore’s “The Black God’s Kiss.” A small peeve: the Le Guin story closing the anthology, “Nine Lives,” is good but by no means her best.

Spinning Silver is a companion book, of sorts, to Uprooted, an earlier (and also excellent) Novik novel. It’s the only novel I can think of, off the top of my head, to engage at nuanced length with one of medievalesque fantasy’s neglected experiences: that of such a setting’s Jewish population.

How Long ‘Til Black Future Month deserves a post unto itself. I was not previously familiar with Jemisen’s work, but now I want to go out and get everything she’s done. What impressed me most was the range of voices, settings, and genres—the fey are in this book, but so are Lovecraftian monsters, spaceships, and people who feed on earthquakes. If you need convincing, have this piece, “The City Born Great,” from

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Dec 24 2018

Don Karlos by Friedrich Schiller

The first thing to note about Don Karlos is that I noped right out of it somewhere in the middle of the second act. My disbelief had wavered early on when Don Karlos, the crown prince of Spain, unburdens his soul to his childhood friend the Marquis of Posa. Karlos (Carl in English) says he is in love with his stepmother the queen, and means to win her. Schiller subtitled the five-act play “A Dramatic Poem,” and it is generally considered a tragedy. I knew I was in trouble when half the time it seemed like the action was better suited to a farce — mistaken identity, clueless servants, love letters not being from the expected person — than to tragic events. Slapstick among Spanish grandees is definitely not Schiller’s aim, but I kept picturing comic ineptitude rather than true love thwarted by arbitrary royal authority, and it did not get any better for me.

Early in the second act, Karlos wants to dash off to meet with the queen, whom he thinks has written him a letter returning his love, when the Duke of Alba asks him for a moment of time. Karlos has just had a big row with the king because Karlos has asked him for command of troops going to the Spanish Netherlands to quell a rebellion. The king has barely seen Karlos for many years, and turns him down flat, saying that such an important mission needs to be led by an experienced commander such as the Duke of Alba. The Duke had in fact been in the room before Karlos made his request, and Karlos used up much of his limited goodwill with the king by insisting that he send Alba out of the room for their discussion. Karlos goes through the whole inappropriate repertoire of making a request from the king: transparent flattery, begging, wheedling, insisting on his prerogatives as heir, arguing, raging. Schiller has already portrayed King Phillip II as arbitrary and cruel — he banned one of the queen’s handmaidens from Madrid for ten years for leaving the queen alone for less than a quarter hour — and he has no patience for Karlos’ sudden desire for a high position.

So, Karlos has just had a huge fight about wanting to replace the Duke of Alba when who should ask him for a moment but this selfsame Duke? Karlos, however, wants to hurry to the queen, so his first response is “Sorry, Duke dude, no time to talk, gotta run.” I suppose the eighteenth century would say that he was thinking with his hot blood and his heart, but I think his desire was lodged a little bit lower. Alba insists, and after some farcical dialogue in which Karlos is clearly distracted, they wind up challenging each other to a duel then and there. No sooner have they drawn their definitely not symbolic swords than the queen saunters by. “Naked swords!” she exclaims. Karlos, clever guy, realizes that she is not waiting for him in a secret rendezvous and wilts immediately. “Nevermind!” cries Karlos, and throws himself at the queen’s feet before dashing off. Alba, who just by the by later turns out to be a terrible choice as general in the Netherlands, is apparently the only one in this scene with any sense. “By God that was weird,” he says.

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Dec 23 2018

Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton

Shamefully, I have never read The Talented Mr Ripley, electing instead to read the Wiki page to see how much symmetry there is between that classic and this novel that does not pretend not to be very much inspired by that earlier book (in my defense, there are only so many hours in the day, and between Little Tales Of Misogyny and The Price Of Salt, I’ve read my share of Patricia Highsmith.) I don’t know if it’s a bit of a spoiler to warn you that Social Creature is very much a modern updating of TTMR, because that’s pretty much the entire point of the book: to be an exercise in deception and guilt and how to get away with murder in the age of social media. Bonus: the main characters are female, which adds an entirely different level to the goings-on.

SC follows Louise Wilson, a 29 year-old living a life of quiet desperation as she ekes out a respectable living in New York City, juggling three jobs and telling herself that she’ll get back to being a writer some day. Single, friendless and lonely, she quickly succumbs to the seductive spell of Lavinia Williams, the wild and wildly romantic older sister of one of the girls Louise tutors for the SATs. Lavinia introduces Louise to the heady, decadent New York City high life that exists only for the young, rich and well-connected. For the first time in her life, Louise feels beautiful and wanted and seen.

But Lavinia has her private rules and an unspoken agenda that slowly bind Louise closer to her and to her lifestyle. Were Louise more sensible, more self-assured, perhaps she could face losing this entire gilded world when she trespasses against the most closely held of Lavinia’s many mean girl barriers; instead, she finds herself living a life so perfect but for its fragility, encroached upon by the paranoia and guilt that come from needing to keep up appearances in the face of the actual end of it all.

SC is a novel about a toxic female friendship on steroids, about a woman whose only reality is herself and the friend who chooses that reality over the person. It’s also a novel about social media as a filter for our lives, and a merciless extrapolation of how we use it to present the facades we want to show the world. And while it definitely hits several of TTMR’s story beats, it’s not a slavish reproduction — tho perhaps I say that only having read the Wikipedia outline. Regardless, I was vastly entertained by this dark exercise in young feminine ruthlessness. Also, I must say that I thought the growing friendship between Louise and Mimi quite sweet; had Lavinia not done her best to ruin them, perhaps Louise would have stood a chance, in the end.

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Dec 21 2018

The Willow By Your Side by Peter Haynes

A few years ago, I bought a boxed set of Susan Cooper’s The Darkness Rising series, eager for the nostalgia of English children fighting evil, mythical forces in semi-allegory for real world conflicts. It was, sadly, a disappointing experience because, as an adult, the stories are frightfully simplistic in a way that they weren’t to my spellbound childhood self.

The Willow By Your Side, however, is the perfect grown-up successor to that tradition. Atmospheric and creepy, the tale follows a young boy who is devoted to his troubled, tale-telling older sister as much as to his Great War veteran, PTSD-suffering father (his mother gets short shrift, but she clearly favors the older sister, so that’s rather to be expected.) When his sister goes missing after a particularly fraught chapter in their family history, the boy goes into the nearby woods in search of her and enters a fantastical, hallucinatory world of monsters and history-made-almost-legend. Things get a bit muddled sometimes as we leap between past and present, reality and not-quite-surreality, but the boy’s emotions are a steady throughline guiding us on his quest.

And it’s hard because his emotions are so real and his family so loved yet so damaged that you absolutely understand why everything happens the way it does but you can’t really root for anyone or even be really mad at anyone, much like in real life. The Willow By Your Side hit all my sweet spots: English children in a very English fantasy novel with a tinge of WWI and Roman legionnaires. If that’s the kind of thing you like, too, then I can’t recommend this novel highly enough.

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Dec 20 2018

What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton

Two years and some-odd weeks ago, Donald Fucking Trump — aided by the Russian government along with its witting and unwitting stooges, boosted by an FBI director he soon fired, slavered over by a national press that apparently couldn’t help itself any more than it could help spending more time on his opponent’s e-mail practices than all other issues combined, and, finally, selected by fools the length and breadth of the land — assembled a fortuitously placed minority of votes, and secured enough of the Electoral College to make him the forty-fifth president of the United States.

I didn’t see it coming. (I was in good company there.) In the months leading up to the election, I joked that Trump might go the full Mondale — losing all 50 states. I underestimated how difficult it is for a political party to hold the White House for three consecutive terms. Since World War II, that has happened exactly once. I underestimated the willingness of the press to dwell on trivia on one side of the ballot, and make it seem equivalent to serious matters on the other side. I underestimated the accumulated effects of a quarter of a century of bile spewed at Hillary. Most of all, I underestimated misogyny.

In What Happened, which I still think is missing two words from its title, Clinton reckons with the campaign, the election, and a short period afterward. On the inaugural that might have been hers, she relays the quote attributed to George W. Bush, “That was some weird shit.”

She lays out some of the structural constraints in the chapter “On Being a Woman in Politics”:
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Dec 17 2018

The House of Government by Yuri Slezkine

The first half of The House of Government located the Bolshevik party within a specifically Russian tradition of millennarianism. Revolutionary socialism would redeem the world, starting with Russia, and usher in a new era, a time of plenty, a time of the perfectibility of humanity. The second half of the book details what life is like, and supposed to be like, in the arriven utopia.

The House itself, which was Europe’s largest residential building when it was completed, is simultaneously a prototype for the Bolsheviks’ hopes of creating a new kind of life by altering the material conditions under which people lived, a reward for high functionaries in the Party and state (although not the highest; they followed centuries of Russian rulers by living in the Moscow Kremlin), and the scene of hundreds of dramas as victorious revolutionaries settled into the long haul of governing. They worked together, socialized together, had affairs, brought in additional family members, raised children, managed second (or third) marriages, had breakdowns, and did all the things that ambitious humans are prone to do. They did it while attempting to make a new society from the remnants of the Tsarist empire, collectivizing agriculture, forcing industrialization, and otherwise trying to build what had only been glimpsed in the theoretical writings of Marx.

Slezkine captures slices of these lives by generous quotations from their letters, diaries and other personal accounts. The immense size of the book is necessary for him to tell even a small portion of what happens to the people in the House, to give a sense of the ferment, the intrigues, and the interconnectedness among the upper reaches of Bolshevik society. I never found the reading a slog; even now, looking back through the book, if I open it to one of the pages I have flagged, I tend to get pulled back into the myriad stories that Slezkine sketches, following the lines of connection and argument to the next photo, the next anecdote, the next mix of old and new. “Ilya Zharsky’s job after [university] graduation was exempt from Marxist exegesis. (He liked to call himself a ‘paraschite,’ but his official title was ‘Lenin mausoleum employee.’) In other arts and sciences, young proletarian true believers of mostly nonproletarian origin were trying to oust their former teachers while fighting among themselves over Party patronage and definitions of orthodoxy. Urbanists, disurbanists, constructivists, RAPPists, AKhRRists, and sulphuric acid engineers were planning a new world in the ruins of the old.” (p. 455) Slezkine’s occasionally droll take on the very serious Soviets is on display, both in “mostly nonproletarian origin” and in the importance of orthodoxy, but not Orthodoxy, among Russia’s new rulers.

Once in power and ensconced in the House of Government many, but of course not all, Bolsheviks recreated the lives of the educated upper bourgeoisie that they had displaced in Moscow. They had household servants, some of them amassed collections of art, many of them played the pianos that graced House apartments. Some traditions came back with new, Party-approved meanings.

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Dec 17 2018

The Favorite Sister by Jessica Knoll

I don’t think it’s possible to review The Favorite Sister without bringing up Jessica Knoll’s searing debut Luckiest Girl Alive. That book centered a female protagonist who was done being “nice”, to the consternation of a large number of readers. To the rest of us, TifAni FaNelli was a source of cathartic glee.

TFS expands on the idea of the “unlikeable” protagonist and spreads it across several characters, who are all involved with a reality TV program called Goal Diggers. Each season showcases 5 women trying to support and uplift each other as they pursue lucrative careers — or at least that was the original intent. The first season had terrible ratings so the women were subsequently pitted against one another, which turned the show into a highly lucrative smash. The book is told through the points of view of Brett, the white lesbian gym entrepreneur with a passion for helping needy women; Kelly, her older sister who juggles the practical side of running their business together with being a single mom to a mixed-race 12 year-old daughter, and Stephanie, the African-American author whose recent memoir has topped the charts and earned the attention of Hollywood. The reader learns very quickly that Brett was murdered and that Kelly is helping to cover it up: the rest of the book is the why and wherefore and how.

I actually enjoyed the structure of the novel with the shifting viewpoints and leaps back and forth in time. It felt especially suitable for a book about a reality show which, like most of its ilk, manipulates timelines for maximum drama. As far as who I was rooting for (because honestly you’re going to wind up rooting for one of the women,) my sympathies definitely rested more with Stephanie than anyone else. These women are all liars desperate to preserve their ways of life but she, I felt, was the person with the most justification.

Which leads to another thing I enjoyed about this book: the complete and brutal honesty about what it means to be a woman in these times. Ms Knoll skewers the ridiculous expectations women are subjected to while also showing great empathy for women who have to deal with said expectations on a daily basis. Most importantly, Ms Knoll cleverly illustrates how differing viewpoints are equally valid and how women (all, but specifically the ones in this book) aren’t necessarily good or evil but a very human mix of the two.

That said, it was really hard to like most of the women in this book because of their prevailing character trait: some people might think it avarice, but really it’s cowardice. Whereas TifAni did not lack courage, the women in this book all choose the easy way and it’s pretty disappointing. TFS is a well-written book with a lot of great insights but it’s also a story without heroes, which rarely makes for a good read and in this instance most definitely does not. I mean, it’s worthy reading, but it’s not satisfying reading, not the way LGA was. Here’s hoping Ms Knoll’s next book keeps improving on her oeuvre.

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Dec 16 2018

Night of Stone by Catherine Merridale

Night of Stone is a book for deep and dark December, and an amazing work of history. Carrying the subtitle “Death and Memory in Russia,” it focuses on the twentieth century, when there was more than enough of the first, and the second existed under the particular pressures of the Bolshevik revolution and Soviet governance. Merridale started by looking at the rituals surrounding death as a way of understanding the extent of revolution in Russia, but she followed where her questions led, and found herself writing a much deeper, much more heartfelt, and much more tentative history as a result.

“When I first began to think about Russians and death, it was this aspect, the disruption and reinvention of ritual, that interested me most. I had been intrigued by the idea that a modern revolution could try to create an entirely new kind of person. As I began to collect material about the Bolsheviks’ first efforts … the history I thought I was writing was a study of ideology, propaganda and mentalities. Death, or rather the rituals and beliefs that surrounded it, played the part of a test case. I could measure the impact of Bolshevik power by looking at the ways people chose to bury and grieve for each other. Rites of death, after all, are notoriously resistant to change.” (p. 12)

So far, so academic. “But the story of scientific atheism was only one of the threads in an exceptionally rich weave.” (p. 13) The cultural practices surrounding death were singular and vivid under the Tsars, and 70 years of Bolshevism transmuted them but did not extinguish them. Russians are no more inured to death than any other group of people. “The point is worth making because Russia’s story of death has been obscured so often. Rather than thinking of the ritual and the grief, most histories of Soviet Russia write of death from the point of view of politics or demography.” (p. 13) Outsiders often write about Russia as if it were unique, and had a tradition of repeated violence, of brutalization that was somehow inherent. Merridale points her readers in the other direction:

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