Review: Trick Mirror – Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino

44282599._sy475_Verdict: Sharp, rambling, wonderful.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Essay collection

Published by Fourth Estate, August 6th 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

We are living in the era of the self, in an era of malleable truth and widespread personal and political delusion. In these nine interlinked essays, Jia Tolentino, the New Yorker’s brightest young talent, explores her own coming of age in this warped and confusing landscape.

From the rise of the internet to her own appearance on an early reality TV show; from her experiences of ecstasy – both religious and chemical – to her uneasy engagement with our culture’s endless drive towards ‘self-optimisation’; from the phenomenon of the successful American scammer to her generation’s obsession with extravagant weddings, Jia Tolentino writes with style, humour and a fierce clarity about these strangest of times.

Following in the footsteps of American luminaries such as Susan Sontag, Joan Didion and Rebecca Solnit, yet with a voice and vision all her own, Jia Tolentino writes with a rare gift for elucidating nuance and complexity, coupled with a disarming warmth. This debut collection of her essays announces her exactly the sort of voice we need to hear from right now – and for many years to come.

This is an incredibly strong essay collection, brought down by a first essay that did not work for me and made picking this back up difficult for me. But once I finished that first essay, Jia Tolentino gives the reader an incredibly well-structured and presented collection. I know why this was one of my most anticipated reads for this year.

Jia Tolentino writes about many different things but always through a lense of feminism and internet culture – something I particularly adore as a feminist who is very much online. Her essays have a rambling quality that worked exceedingly well for me because I could trust her to pull her different strands of argument back together by the end of each essay. She combines the personal with the political, always underpinning her arguments with quotes and statistics in a highly effective way. This is the type of essay collection I adore.

My absolute favourite essay of this collection is about ecstacy – both the drug and the concept in religion. Tolentino reflects on her own religious upbringing, her relationship to drugs, her discovery of Houston’s hip hop scene, and her experience with god in a way that should not work for me (I am not particularly interested in any of these topics on their own) but that was just incredible. If you are only going to read one essay from this collection, make sure it is this one.

Content warning: discussions of rape culture and rape, bigotry, misogyny, racism.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Fourth Estate in exchange for an honest review.

Mini-Review: Be With Me Always by Randon Billings Noble

40168047Verdict: Readable, interesting, nothing completely incredible.

My rating: 3,5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Creative Non-Fiction

Published by University of Nebraska Press, March 1st, 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

“Be with me always–take any form–drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!” Thus does Heathcliff beg his dead Cathy in Wuthering Heights. He wants to be haunted–he insists on it. Randon Billings Noble does too. Instead of exorcising the ghosts of her past, she hopes for their cold hands to knock at the window and to linger. Be with Me Always is a collection of essays that explore hauntedness by considering how the ghosts of our pasts cling to us.

In a way, all good essays are about the things that haunt us until we have somehow embraced or understood them. Here, Noble considers the ways she has been haunted–by a near-death experience, the gaze of a nude model, thoughts of widowhood, Anne Boleyn’s violent death, a book she can’t stop reading, a past lover who shadows her thoughts–in essays both pleasant and bitter, traditional and lyrical, and persistently evocative and unforgettable.

I’ll be honest here: I requested this solely because of the cover. I am a huge fan of anatomical hearts on covers and something about this cover and the title just spoke to me. Thankfully, this was absolutely worth reading.

The essays in this collection are for the most part wonderfully constructed. The author uses literature and other works of art to draw comparisons to her own life. This is something I particularly enjoy when it is well done and I thought it worked really well here.

The essay that worked best for me is the title essay – drawing on themes of Wuthering Height, a book I personally really appreciate, Noble carefully presents her own thoughts. I appreciated the way she mixes the personal with the literary to form a cohesive whole.

I have to admit that I did not find this collection spectacular and I am not sure it will particularly stick with me, but I will definitely check out whatever the author does next.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and University of Nebraska Press in exchange for an honest review.

 

Mini-Reviews: Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom and 300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso

40365093Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Published by The New Press, January 8th 2019.

Thick is a non-fiction book that straddles the line between academic writing and memoir – something I personally really happen to enjoy. Here McMillan Cottom writes on a variety of topics, often with anecdotal evidence centered into her more academic musings.

This book both suffers and improves for me because McMillan Cottom comes from a similar academic tradition as I do. On the one hand it means that I am bound to agree with a lot of her analyses, on the other hand some of her arguments do lose persuasiveness because I have seen them done better elsewhere. I especially thought her use of Bourdieu did not always take into account all of his nuances (which I only know of because I am using his works for my own thesis).

I thought this was a well-written collection of essays that manages to make sociology accessible to a variety of readers and for that I was always going to love it. It did not reinvent the wheel but it makes for an interesting discussion starter.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and The New Press in exchange for an honest review.

40660124300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Published by Picador, 2017

I read Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness a few months ago and absolutely, positively adored it; enough to decide I want to read everything she has ever written. 300 Arguments appealed to me because I really happen to adore Manguso’s style of micro-micro-essay (some of them only being one sentence long). I have to admit that it did not completely work for me – I found some of her thoughts dazzling and thought-provoking but others weak and maybe kind of superficial. It took me way too long to finish this book, given that it is tiny and only 96 pages long (and the pages are half empty). I still really love what Manguso is doing but it might take me a bit longer to pick something of hers up the next time.

 

Review: Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

40217960Verdict: Mesmerising. Unbelievable. Compulsively readable. Highly recommended.

My rating: 4,5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Non-Fiction

Published by Random House Audio, May 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

The full inside story of the breathtaking rise and shocking collapse of a multibillion-dollar startup, by the prize-winning journalist who first broke the story and pursued it to the end in the face of pressure and threats from the CEO and her lawyers.

In 2014, Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes was widely seen as the female Steve Jobs: a brilliant Stanford dropout whose startup “unicorn” promised to revolutionize the medical industry with a machine that would make blood tests significantly faster and easier. Backed by investors such as Larry Ellison and Tim Draper, Theranos sold shares in a fundraising round that valued the company at $9 billion, putting Holmes’s worth at an estimated $4.7 billion. There was just one problem: The technology didn’t work.

For years, Holmes had been misleading investors, FDA officials, and her own employees. When Carreyrou, working at The Wall Street Journal, got a tip from a former Theranos employee and started asking questions, both Carreyrou and the Journal were threatened with lawsuits. Undaunted, the newspaper ran the first of dozens of Theranos articles in late 2015. By early 2017, the company’s value was zero and Holmes faced potential legal action from the government and her investors. Here is the riveting story of the biggest corporate fraud since Enron, a disturbing cautionary tale set amid the bold promises and gold-rush frenzy of Silicon Valley.

I cannot recommend this highly enough. I sped through this audiobook in a few days because I just could not stop listening to it. There were so many unbelievable things in this true account of the Theranos scam that my mouth dropped open in a way I did not think happens in real life.

John Carreyrou traces the story of Elizabeth Holmes and her medical start-up Theranos from the beginning with the help of countless interviews and other insights. The picture he paints is breathtaking: of a firm run like a cult, of incompetence that can only be explained by a complete lack of understanding of science by nearly everyone involved, of unethical hounding of those who did see the bad science for what it was. I can tell you, if I can see the science as flawed it is really flawed – my knowledge of biology and chemistry is lacklustre to say the least.

While I overall enjoyed this book a whole lot, there were a few things that did not quite work for me. First and foremost the framing of the story – as Elizabeth Holmes did not give any interviews for this book, her story is told from the other end, which I am absolutely fine with and I do think Carreyrou did an exceptional job with this, but his clear distaste for Holmes shines through in a way that I did not always appreciate. For example, early on he uses an anecdote of her playing Monopoly with her brothers and being a super sore loser as an indication for how horrible and competitive a person she is – and I don’t buy that. Lots of kids are sore losers, most of them grow up not scamming patients. I do agree with his assessment that Holmes scammed her investors purposefully and did not care about the patients being misdiagnosed because of her flawed technology but I wish he had let me come to this assessment on my own a bit more.

As a case study of how the lack of diverse knowledge can harm a company, this book is priceless. There were many instances where having somebody on the board of directors with just a little bit of knowledge of the science between the big idea would have led to a totally different ending. I would have liked to have seen an analysis of the social structures in place that enabled Holmes to build her company and run it for many years without any pertinent experience as a 19-year-old college dropout just based on knowing the right people and acting the part. But still, this book is amazing in achieving what it set out to do.

Review: The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein

39690383Verdict: Fascinating portrait of a fascinating life.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Non-Fiction, Biography

Published by Text Publishing, 2017

Find it on Goodreads.

Husband, father, drag queen, sex worker, wife. Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner is a love letter to an extraordinary ordinary life. In Sandra Pankhurst she discovered a woman capable of taking a lifetime of hostility and transphobic abuse and using it to care for some of society’s most in-need people.

Sandra Pankhurst founded her trauma cleaning business to help people whose emotional scars are written on their houses. From the forgotten flat of a drug addict to the infested home of a hoarder, Sandra enters properties and lives at the same time. But few of the people she looks after know anything of the complexity of Sandra’s own life. Raised in an uncaring home, Sandra’s miraculous gift for warmth and humour in the face of unspeakable personal tragedy mark her out as a one-off.

This is an incredible portrait of a deeply complicated woman – and I adored it. Sandra Pankhurst owns a company specializing on trauma cleaning (after suicides and violent crimes but mostly for people with hoarding tendencies). Sarah Krasnostein followed her work for months and tells in alternating chapter of Sandra’s clients and her own, tumultuous life.

Sandra, who was born as Peter, adopted by a deeply dysfunctional and abusive family, married young and had two children before leaving her family. She is a deeply complicated person and a completely unreliable narrator as she freely admits to having forgotten large parts of her life due both to her own trauma and drug abuse. Krasnostein manages to painting a wonderful portrait nonetheless. I especially admire that she let Sandra be contradictory and difficult without trying to paint a coherent picture: because Sandra’s life does not lend itself to coherence and her contradictions are fascinating. She is able to extend an utmost sympathy to her clients, while at the same time being callous in the way she talks about her ex-wife, who she left without any financial assistance and who had two raise her two sons on her own. She was part of the LGBTQIA-scene before it was legal and now supports conservative politicians. She is empathetic and lovely to people she hardly knows and has not spoken to people she was close with in the 70s in decades.

My favourite parts were in the present, following Sandra and her empathy while dealing with her clients. I appreciated the way in which Krasnostein painted vivid pictures of very difficult living situations while avoiding sounding voyeuristic. The women Sandra became has my utmost respect even if she has done some horrible things to get there. Her life story is an interesting and in parts harrowing one, and it is a story that is well worth knowing.

The audiobook is extremely well done and I cannot recommend it high enough. The narrator, Rachael Tidd did a wonderful job letting Sandra come alive in my ear. I think the excellent narration lifted this book to a definitely four-star read for me.

Lastly, I do feel the need to point out that this book contains some seriously harrowing scenes; there is one rather lengthy and detailed rape in the middle of the book that might be triggering for some readers.

 

Review: Ongoingness – The End of a Diary by Sarah Manguso

22244927Verdict: Glorious.

My rating 4,5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Creative Non-Fiction, Memoir

Published by Graywolf Press, 2016

Find it on Goodreads.

In Ongoingness, Sarah Manguso continues to define the contours of the contemporary essay. In it, she confronts a meticulous diary that she has kept for twenty-five years. “I wanted to end each day with a record of everything that had ever happened,” she explains. But this simple statement belies a terror that she might forget something, that she might miss something important. Maintaining that diary, now eight hundred thousand words, had become, until recently, a kind of spiritual practice.

Then Manguso became pregnant and had a child, and these two Copernican events generated an amnesia that put her into a different relationship with the need to document herself amid ongoing time.

Ongoingness is a spare, meditative work that stands in stark contrast to the volubility of the diary–it is a haunting account of mortality and impermanence, of how we struggle to find clarity in the chaos of time that rushes around and over and through us.

I adored this. When it arrived, I just wanted to have a peak at the first page and suddenly I was a third of the way through. There is just something hypnotizing about Sarah Manguso’s writing and I cannot wait to pick up more of her books.

This is a book about a diary, without any quotes taken from that diary at all. As such it is obviously an incomplete text – but some reason I cannot even put into words it spoke deeply to me. Sarah Manguso kept a diary, obsessively so, for years: “I wrote about myself so I wouldn’t become paralyzed by rumination – so I could stop thinking about what had happened and be done with it.” Until she stopped. She writes in short, fragmented paragraphs about a text the reader cannot access – and everything about that just worked for me so very well.

I found this book mesmerizing and deeply moving; her language is precise and no word is obsolete, which is often my favourite type of language. I cannot quite give it five stars, as it is super short and maybe could have been fleshed out more. But on the other hand, every sentence of this book hit home.

Review: Can You Tolerate This? by Ashleigh Young

40206019Verdict: Uneven.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Non-Fiction, Essays, Memoir(ish)

Published by Bloomsbury Publishing, August 9th 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

In Can You Tolerate This? – the title comes from the question chiropractors ask to test a patient’s pain threshold – Ashleigh Young ushers us into her early years in the faraway yet familiar landscape of New Zealand: fantasising about Paul McCartney, cheering on her older brother’s fledgling music career, and yearning for a larger and more creative life.

As Young’s perspective expands, a series of historical portraits – a boy with a rare skeletal disease, a French postman who built a stone fortress by hand, a generation of Japanese shut-ins – strike unexpected personal harmonies, as an unselfconscious childhood gives way to painful shyness in adolescence. As we watch Young fall in and out of love, undertake intense physical exercise that masks something deeper, and gradually find herself through her writing, a highly particular psyche comes into view: curious, tender and exacting in her observations of herself and the world around her.

How to bear each moment of experience: the inconsequential as much as the shattering?

In this spirited and singular collection of essays, Ashleigh Young attempts to find some measure of clarity amidst the uncertainty, exploring the uneasy tensions – between safety and risk, love and solitude, the catharsis of grief and the ecstasy of creation – that define our lives.

This was… highly uneven. I thought the second half worked a lot better than the first (there were some really amazing essays there) but if I hadn’t had a review copy of this, I don’t think I would have even gotten that far. The first third of the book was particularly difficult to get into.

Ashleigh Young wrote essays on a variety of topics, often semi auto-biographical in nature but always considering other perspectives as well and in theory I should have adored this. There is a fairly long essay early on in this collection (Big Red) dealing with her relationship with her brothers that seems custom-made for me (I do love sibling relationships) but made me nearly give up the book. I found it unfocused and to be honest, pretty badly written in a vague way.

I did, however, really enjoy her essay on working in Katherine Mansfield’s birth house which signaled a shift in quality for me. After that her essays become both more experimental and more assured in tone. Her essay on her eating disorder was the high point for me. I adored how she structured it and the vulnerability and strength she showed.

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