Review: Vanishing Twins: A Marriage by Leah Dieterich

37690295Verdict: Stunning, accomplished, clever.

My rating: 4,5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Memoir, Creative Non-Fiction

Published by Soft Skull Press, September 4th 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

“It’s like we’re the same person. We finish each other’s sentences. This is what we’ve been taught to desire and expect of love. But there’s a question underneath that’s never addressed: Once you find someone to finish your sentences, do you stop finishing them for yourself?”

As long as she can remember, Leah has had the mysterious feeling that she’s searching for a twin–that she belongs as one of an intimate pair. It begins with friends, dance partners, and her own reflection in the mirror as she studies ballet growing up; continues with physical and emotional attractions to girlfriends in college; and leads her, finally, to Eric, whom she moves across the country for and marries. But her steadfast, monogamous relationship leaves her with questions she can’t answer about her sexuality and her identity, so she and her husband decide to try an open marriage.

How does a young couple make room for their individual desires, their evolving selfhoods, and their artistic ambitions while building a life together? Can they pursue other sexual partners, even live in separate cities, and keep their passionate original bond alive? This memoir in fragments looks for answers in psychology, science, pop culture, art, architecture, Greek mythology, dance, and language, to create a lucid, suspenseful portrait of a woman testing the limits and fluidities of love.

Vanishing Twins is a memoir about a marriage – but it is also so much more. It is an exploration of identity and gender, of growing up and finding oneself, of culture and literature, of ballet and advertising. I adored this.

Leah Dieterich frames her story both in ballet and in the science of vanishing twins, using metaphors and literary analysis to construct a picture of her twenties and her marriage. She meets her husband Eric fairly young and gets married to him at an age where most people are still trying to find themselves. Their symbiotic relationship starts to feel limiting and she proposes an open marriage to explore her queerness.

The book is told in (very) short, fragmented essays (one of my favourite styles) that grow to a convincing whole. I love how the author does not try to fit everything into a cohesive narrative, because life just isn’t that way. As she muses on her marriage and distinct memories, she also writes about other things in-between, mostly ballet but also philosophy and art history. I obviously adored this, there are few things that make me as happy as brilliant, clever memoirs. I have said countless times, I love when women unapologetically put themselves front and center in their art and Leah Dieterich does this, impressively so. One of my favourite aspects was the fact that she realizes her tendency to mirror people she is close to – from her sense of style to her haircut. I loved how this was addressed time and time again. It showed the aspects of her lovers that she most felt drawn to and it illuminated the growing distance between her husband and her while simultaneously underlining the bond between them.

There is a lot to admire here: from her clean prose to her insightful analysis of everything between ballet and advertising to art. I found this a highly rewarding reading experience that has me excited for more to come from Leah Dieterich.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Soft Skull Press for review consideration. My opinions are my own.

Mini-Reviews: So Sad Today by Melissa Broder and Sick by Porochista Khakpour

I read two very similar and very different memoirs last month. Both are written by women and focus their own lives in the way I just adore (if you have read my blog for any length of time you know how much I love memoirs written by women), but I only loved one of them and thought the other fell a bit flat.

So Sad Today by Melissa Broder29213247

Verdict: I think I might be in love.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Memoir; Creative Non-Fiction

Published by Scribe, 2016

Find it on Goodreads.

I love the way Melissa Broder writes. There is something mesmerizing in the way she structures her sentences and her essays. I read her debut novel The Pisces earlier this year and fell so much in love that I more or less immediately went out and bought this one. And I am so very glad I did.

My favourite essay in this collection is “I want to be a whole person but really thin” – it’s repeating sentences and sentence structures hammered home a point so painful and real that all the other essays that followed could not quite keep up with. Broder unflinchingly looks into her own eating disorder and the way it impacts her life and does so stylistically brillaint.

In general, So Sad Today is painfully honest in a lyrical way that made reading it a total joy while also giving me whiplash. Melissa Broder does not shy away from the uglier parts of her life and her personality. She centers herself in her art in that unapologetic way that I just adore.

32600407Sick by Porochista Khakpour

Verdict: Disappointing.

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Genre: Memoir

Published by HarperPerennial, June 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

This might be my biggest reading disappointment of the year so far. I have been looking forward to this book for ages and when it finally arrived I jumped straight into reading it. I find the story Porochista Khakpour tells – of illness that went years without a diagnosis, about racism and sexism in medicine, about addiction and losing oneself – so very very important and relevant, but the execution just did not work for me. I found the structure of the book unhelpful, the jumping back and forth, sometimes within the same paragraph difficult to follow and frustrating, even though I can see how that could have worked wonderfully.

She says in the acknowledgments that she stripped her memoir of everything but herself – and maybe she was a bit too successful in that aim. I left the book not even quite knowing what Lyme Disease does to her, or what symptoms she had. Her encounters with medical doctor after medical doctor felt undefined and somehow left me confused – because I know she wanted me to see how godawful the doctors were (and I am sure they were) but I could only ever see her. I think some grounding in the reality of Lyme would have worked better for me.

My biggest problem was the prose, on a sentence-by-sentence level. I found it weirdly clumsy in parts, while sometimes being very profound. There were sentences however that I had to read multiple times to get to their meanings and I am not sure that was intentional.

 

Review: The White Book – Han Kang

39220683Verdict: Exquisite.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Published by Portobello Books, 2017

Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir

Find it on Goodreads.

Writing while on a residency in Warsaw, a city palpably scarred by the violence of the past, the narrator finds herself haunted by the story of her older sister, who died a mere two hours after birth. A fragmented exploration of white things – the swaddling bands that were also her shroud, the breast milk she did not live to drink, the blank page on which the narrator herself attempts to reconstruct the story – unfolds in a powerfully poetic distillation.

As she walks the unfamiliar, snow-streaked streets, lined by buildings formerly obliterated in the Second World War, their identities blur and overlap as the narrator wonders, ‘Can I give this life to you?’. The White Book is a book like no other. It is a meditation on a colour, on the tenacity and fragility of the human spirit, and our attempts to graft new life from the ashes of destruction.

This is both the most autobiographical and the most experimental book to date from South Korean master Han Kang.

I am quite unsure how to review this brilliant little book. I think it is something that needs to be experienced rather than read about. Told in a series of very short musings on different white things, Han Kang circles her own grief and Warsaw’s scarred history in a way that I found absolutely moving. I read the book mostly in one sitting (it is very short) and can only recommend doing that. This way the interplay between the blank spaces on the page, the photography, and the writing worked to create an immersive experience.

Han Kang’s writing is economical; there is not a spare word to be found. It gives the impression of deep concentration and thoughtfulness which worked extremely well for this book. Another way to describe her prose would be elegant and precise. I loved this. I find there to be something fascinating in being able to write about personal trauma in this way – rather than it reading clinical it made the book all the more profound for me.

I have recently read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, which much in the same way deals with a colour (blue). But the two books are radically different besides their obvious similarities. Nelson’s writing is a lot more visceral and blunt, whereas Han Kang creates the illusion of distance while being obviously affected. I am very glad to have read of those these in short succession.

There is now only one book of hers left that has been translated to English and I haven’t read. I am a huge fan of Han Kang’s writing.

Review: An Abbreviated Life by Ariel Leve

26889911Verdict: I am conflicted.

My rating: 2,5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Memoir

Published by Harper Perennial, 2016

Find it on Goodreads.

A beautiful, startling, and candid memoir about growing up without boundaries, in which Ariel Leve recalls with candor and sensitivity the turbulent time she endured as the only child of an unstable poet for a mother and a beloved but largely absent father, and explores the consequences of a psychologically harrowing childhood as she seeks refuge from the past and recovers what was lost.

Ariel Leve grew up in Manhattan with an eccentric mother she describes as “a poet, an artist, a self-appointed troublemaker and attention seeker.” Leve learned to become her own parent, taking care of herself and her mother’s needs. There would be uncontrolled, impulsive rages followed with denial, disavowed responsibility, and then extreme outpourings of affection. How does a child learn to feel safe in this topsy-turvy world of conditional love?

Leve captures the chaos and lasting impact of a child’s life under siege and explores how the coping mechanisms she developed to survive later incapacitated her as an adult. There were material comforts, but no emotional safety, except for summer visits to her father’s home in South East Asia—an escape that was terminated after he attempted to gain custody. Following the death of a loving caretaker, a succession of replacements raised Leve—relationships which resulted in intense attachment and loss. It was not until decades later, when Leve moved to other side of the world, that she could begin to emancipate herself from the past. In a relationship with a man who has children, caring for them yields clarity of what was missing.

In telling her haunting story, Leve seeks to understand the effects of chronic psychological maltreatment on a child’s developing brain, and to discover how to build a life for herself that she never dreamed possible: An unabbreviated life.

I don’t quite know how to write about this book in a way that is respectful to the author and the genre. This is always a problem I run into when I don’t quite enjoy a memoir. This is somebody’s life I am talking about and who am I to tell them how to tell their story? But I struggled with this.

Ariel Leve tells of her difficult relationship with her emotionally (and maybe physically) abusive mother and how this has influenced who she became. It is not until her forties that she realizes what long-reaching consequences her childhood had. I am in awe of Leve’s bravery of confronting her inner demons and of trying to find closure.

The thing that hit me the strongest was the realisation that Ariel Leve is still not sure anybody will believe her account of her relationship with her mother. The gaslighting cut so deep that even years, even decades later, while writing her memoir, she needs outside perspectives, the assurance that others have seen it too, to be able to tell this story. Which is why she quotes letters written by people close to her, her therapist, and even her father; she feels the need to prove beyond doubt that she had a horrible childhood. This was by far the most successful part of the book for me – and something I am not so sure was intentional on the author’s part.

The book is loosely structured and told in short paragraphs jumping through time; a technique I am usually particularly fond of. Here I found the framing (a story of her falling in love with a quiet man who never talks about his feelings and of starting to act as a mother to his twin daughters) a bit tedious. She never examines her relationship in a meaningful way and moreover seems to think that because Mario does not talk much he must be more truthful and more worthy than other people. A conclusion I cannot agree with – I mean, I love that she found happiness, but equating quietness with honesty seems a bit shortsighted.

Leve seems unable to look outside her own trauma while pretending to do just that (I am notoriously glad when women unapologetically center their art around themselves, but they do have to own it). She sometimes sounds dismissive of other people’s trauma to a point that made it difficult to read (example: “My emotionally imparied beliefs have a source. This information is comforting because it is a real, scientific explanation. Feeling grounded in an uncertain world is not a matter of willpower or getting over it in the way one might get over a breakup, a lost job, a death, or an outrage.” p. 138). When talking to a neuroscientist specialising in trauma she realises the myriad ways in which her trauma has fundamentally altered her – but she never extends that line of thinking to her mother who supposedly also suffered trauma. And now, I don’t mean to say that she has to take her abuser’s feelings into account when writing about her own story, but it does not seem to fit into the overall narrative voice that she doesn’t find these parallels and draws on them. Especially because she herself works to provide the twins with the childhood stability she had wished for herself. That this inability to give proper room to the outside world might be directly influenced by her mothers gaslighting is something I would have loved to have seen explored.

The book is well-written and competently told. It just does not even come close to some of the brilliant memoirs I have read the last couple of years. And it is a shame because I was so very sure this would be amazing.

 

Review: Bluets – Maggie Nelson

31817300Verdict: A near perfect book.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Date read: April 15th, 2018

Published by Jonathan Cape, 2017 (First published 2009)

Find it on Goodreads.

Bluets winds its way through depression, divinity, alcohol, and desire, visiting along the way with famous blue figures, including Joni Mitchell, Billie Holiday, Yves Klein, Leonard Cohen and Andy Warhol. While its narrator sets out to construct a sort of ‘pillow book’ about her lifelong obsession with the colour blue, she ends up facing down both the painful end of an affair and the grievous injury of a dear friend. The combination produces a raw, cerebral work devoted to the inextricability of pleasure and pain, and to the question of what role, if any, aesthetic beauty can play in times of great heartache or grief.

Much like Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, Bluets has passed between lovers in the ecstasy of new love, and been pressed into the hands of the heartbroken. Visceral, learned, and acutely lucid, Bluets is a slim feat of literary innovation and grace, never before published in the UK.

This is the third book by Maggie Nelson I have read and my favourite so far. I admire her craft very much and thought this book near perfect. It is a collection of short thoughts, brief paragraphs that pack a punch, all losely structured around the colour blue.

Maggie Nelson, as always, unapologetically places herself in the center of her art; I adore that. This is an introspective book centered around the loss of a partner and grief and depression and the injury of a close friend and, yes, the colour blue. She talks about many things, in fragmented but poignant form. There are not many writers that I know of who can pull this disjointed form off, but Maggie Nelson can and her thoughts shine with an urgency that I could not escape.

She has a brilliant way with words. Her writing is both theoretical (drawing on Wittgenstein and Goethe and Warhol and many writers more) and visceral (her descriptions of sex are graphic and honest) in a way that I find mesmerizing and very difficult to describe. She mixes these two parts of her writing so effortlessly that it seems easy and like her sentences just flow out of her without further editing (and I am sure this is far from the truth). A near perfect book.

First sentence: “Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color.”

Review: Meaty by Samantha Irby

35952943Verdict: I just love Samantha Irby’s writing.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, April 3rd 2018

Genre: Memoir; Essay Collection

Find it on Goodreads.

The widely beloved, uproarious, first essay collection and the basis for the upcoming FX Studios series from smart, edgy, hilarious, and unabashedly raunchy Samantha Irby.

Samantha Irby exploded onto the printed page with this debut collection of essays about trying to laugh her way through failed relationships, taco feasts, bouts with Crohn’s disease, and more. Every essay is crafted with the same scathing wit and poignant candor thousands of loyal readers have come to expect from visiting her notoriously hilarious blog, bitchesgottaeat.com.

I love Samantha Irby. I adored her second essay collection, I find her funny and relatable, and I enjoyed this collection (her first now republished with a beautiful cover) a whole lot as well. I have been reading mostly heavy memoirs and this was the perfect antidote to those. While there is obvious darkness here, there is also light and humour. I absolutely sped through this and it made me happy while doing so.

I adore her language and her honesty. I love how honest she talks about her body and Krohn’s disease. I love how she structures her essays and her thoughts. I do not mind her vulgarity at all and in fact appreciated its freshness.

As most of you will know, I adore memoirs written by women funnier than me and Samantha Irby is among the funniest. I do think her second collection is the stronger of the two which only makes me more excited to see whatever she does next. Also, this book is being made into a TV series and I cannot tell you how excited I am.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

Review: This Will Be My Undoing – Morgan Jerkins

32326006Verdict: Important, readable, impressive, not always convincing.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Published by Harper.

Genre: Essay collection, political non-fiction, memoir

Find it on Goodreads.

From one of the fiercest critics writing today, Morgan Jerkins’ highly-anticipated collection of linked essays interweaves her incisive commentary on pop culture, feminism, black history, misogyny, and racism with her own experiences to confront the very real challenges of being a black woman today—perfect for fans of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists.

Morgan Jerkins is only in her twenties, but she has already established herself as an insightful, brutally honest writer who isn’t afraid of tackling tough, controversial subjects. In This Will Be My Undoing, she takes on perhaps one of the most provocative contemporary topics: What does it mean to “be”—to live as, to exist as—a black woman today? This is a book about black women, but it’s necessary reading for all Americans.

Doubly disenfranchised by race and gender, often deprived of a place within the mostly white mainstream feminist movement, black women are objectified, silenced, and marginalized with devastating consequences, in ways both obvious and subtle, that are rarely acknowledged in our country’s larger discussion about inequality. In This Will Be My Undoing, Jerkins becomes both narrator and subject to expose the social, cultural, and historical story of black female oppression that influences the black community as well as the white, male-dominated world at large.

I have slightly confused thoughts about this: I thought it was important, well-written, super interesting but at some points not always convincing. I listened to the audiobook read by the author and can only recommend this. You can tell how her confidence in her voice increases and how self-confident she reads her book in the end. I loved that.

I adore how Morgan Jerkins does not write for a white reader but rather other black women. As such it worked wonderfully as an insightful glimpse into a world that is in parts very different than mine (I love that in memoirs). She centers her own experience successfully in making her larger points and thus contructs highly personal essays that still work wonderfully as fully fledged academic essays.

I especially appreciated what she had to say about hair; black hair to be exact. I do love how she uses sources to underscore her points. The rigor of her essay construction works extremely well here.

I do not always agree with her on her analyses but that might be because my academic background is different than hers – and different disciplines always bring with them different ways of looking at the world. I do know that whatever she shall write next, I will be reading it, because I think it will be insightful and exciting. I cannot believe Morgan Jerkins is younger than me.

Wrap Up: February 2018 or I read so very many memoirs

I had an okay to good reading month. I read some absolutely brilliant books, finished a few meh books, and have also been stuck on some books for longer than I would like to admit (How I Lose You is taking me forever). I did read a lot of books though.

These are the books I read this month:

  1. I Am I Am I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell: 4 out of 5 stars
  2. The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale: 2 out of 5 stars
  3. Mean by Myriam Gurba: 4,5 out of 5 stars
  4. Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey: 3 out of 5 stars
  5. Heart Berries: A Memoir by Terese Marie Mailhot: 5 out of 5 stars
  6. All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries #1) by Martha Wells: 4 out of 5 stars.
  7. The Rending and the Nest by Kaethe Schwehn: 3 out of 5 stars.
  8. This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins: 4 out of 5 stars.
  9. You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie: left unrated.
  10. Meaty: Essays by Samantha Irby: 4 out of 5 stars.

Favourite of the Month

Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot was just so unbelievably stunning that I still don’t really have the words to talk about it. It is hypnotic and mesmerizing, honest and raw, and most of all poetically beautiful. And also the opposite of cathartic.

Mean by Myriam Gurba is another memoir that I can only recommend.

Stats (ish)

My reading month was dominated by memoirs and genre fiction. More than half of the books I read were memoirs or essay collections or something in between. This has never happened but I am loving every second of it.

I finished 2929 pages worth of books. Of these ten books I read six memoirs, two science fiction books (one of those was a novella), one post-apocalyptic book, and one fantasy book. Three books were written by men, seven by women. six books were written by people of colour (so at least I seem to be succeeding with parts of my resolutions).

How did I do with my TBR:

This month I set myself a TBR; I don’t usually do this but I had so much fun thinking about the books I might read this month. I think I will keep doing this, if only for the fun. Because sticking to a TBR? Not that much my thing. I read a lot more non-fiction than I thought I would this month. But memoirs seem to be the kind of books I gravitate to right now. I will take that into account for my TBR next month.

I read two books of my TBR… Oops.

Currently Reading:

The Gender Games by Juno Dawson: I am absolutely loving this. I am listening to the audio book of this and Juno Dawson is hilarious.

The Sea Beast takes a Lover by Michael Andreasen: I am nearly finished with this and have a few thoughts that I still need to organize in my head.

How I Lose You by Kate McNaughton: This is taking me forever. While I enjoy parts of it, others drag. I will finish this though, hopefully before the release date on the 8th.

(Some of the) Blog posts I loved:

I wasn’t very good at remembering to bookmark the posts I loved this month. So this list is “slightly” shorter this month.

I loved Paula’s review of a book I had never heard of before.

I am glad I am not the only one with way too many unfinished series. Also Jeroen agrees with my assessment of The Name Of The Wind.

And finally, Sarah compiled a brilliant list of upcoming SFF-releases.

How was your reading month? What was the best book you read?

Review: Heart Berries: A Memoir by Terese Marie Mailhot

35840657Verdict: Unbearable. Painful. The opposite of cathartic. Impossibly brilliant.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Published by Counterpoint Press, February 2018

Genre: Memoir

Find it on Goodreads.

Heart Berries is a powerful, poetic memoir of a woman’s coming of age on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest. Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalized and facing a dual diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Bipolar II; Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma. The triumphant result is Heart Berries, a memorial for Mailhot’s mother, a social worker and activist who had a thing for prisoners; a story of reconciliation with her father—an abusive drunk and a brilliant artist—who was murdered under mysterious circumstances; and an elegy on how difficult it is to love someone while dragging the long shadows of shame.

Mailhot “trusts the reader to understand that memory isn’t exact, but melded to imagination, pain, and what we can bring ourselves to accept.” Her unique and at times unsettling voice graphically illustrates her mental state. As she writes, she discovers her own true voice, seizes control of her story, and, in so doing, re-establishes her connection to her family, to her people, and to her place in the world.

I don’t think I have the words. I have been trying and failing to write a proper review for days. This book has rendered me speechless, so this will be a super short review.

Terese Mailhot’s memoir packs an unbelievable punch into a book this short. I could not stop reading it: her language is hypnotic, her turn of phrase impressive, her emotional rawness painful. This book does not follow conventions, Terese Mailhot tells her story the way she wants to and needs to. She is unapologetically herself. She bares her soul and hides it at the same time. I cannot wait to see what she does next.

I have been reading and loving many memoirs the last few years, but this is definitely one of my favourites. I cannot recommend this enough.

First sentences: “My story was maltreated. The words were too strong and ugly to speak. I tried to tell someone my story, but he thought it was a hustle.”

Review: Mean – Myriam Gurba

34381333Verdict: Incredible.

My rating: 4,5 out of 5 stars. (It’s my blog, I can change my rating rules if I want to)

Published by Coffee House Press, 2017

Find it on Goodreads.

Myriam Gurba’s debut is the bold and hilarious tale of her coming of age as a queer, mixed-race Chicana. Blending radical formal fluidity and caustic humor, Mean turns what might be tragic into piercing, revealing comedy. This is a confident, funny, brassy book that takes the cost of sexual assault, racism, misogyny, and homophobia deadly seriously.
We act mean to defend ourselves from boredom and from those who would cut off our breasts. We act mean to defend our clubs and institutions. We act mean because we like to laugh. Being mean to boys is fun and a second-wave feminist duty. Being mean to men who deserve it is a holy mission. Sisterhood is powerful, but being mean is more exhilarating.

Being mean isn’t for everybody.

Being mean is best practiced by those who understand it as an art form.

These virtuosos live closer to the divine than the rest of humanity. They’re queers.

This was absolutely stunning. The only reason this was not quite a five star read for me was because it took me about 60 pages to find my rhythm with this book (and the book is not particularly long). But once I did, it was beyond incredible. Myriam Gurba has a way of structuring her thoughts, of coming at her point from different angles that I found particularly brilliant. And I might still change my rating. This memoir will for sure stay with me and I can already see it featuring on my best of the year list (which is still a long way off).

Myriam Gurba’s tone is abrasive and funny, like my favourite essayists she is unapologetically honest and herself and, yes, sometimes mean. She puts herself at the centre of her art and I adore that (nothing new here). Her art is clever and intellectual without losing an emotional heart, the whole book being intricately structured (not unlike a dance) while still packing a punch you would not believe. The last half builds like crescendo and when I realized what she was leading up to, I was knocked aside – her way of reaching her points from different angles really took me unawares here. The reaction I had cannot be overstated.

I cannot recommend this highly enough: if you like memoirs, if you like voices that are unique, if you like to be viscerally moved, if you like good books. This is brilliant. Myriam Gurba is brilliant.