What I read last week: The Refrigerator Monologues

What I read last week:  The Refrigerator Monologues, Catherynne Valente, 2017

File under: Fiction

What’s it about: In Deadtown, Paige Embry, murdered girlfriend of superhero Kid Mercury, presides over meetings of the Hell Hath Club. The club members, women who met grisly ends due to connections with superheroes, share their stories in monologue style.  The title comes from the “women in refrigerators trope” – the killing off of undeveloped female characters to provide motivation for male protagonists. This annoying plot device takes its name from a comic book storyline in which the body of one such woman is left in her superhero boyfriend’s refrigerator. Anita Sarkeesian explains it well in this short video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DInYaHVSLr8

Highlights: The concept is incredibly clever. Each monologue provides an entertaining critique of the various ways women are portrayed in comic books.  Valenete creates her own superheroes but they are obvious rifts on characters like Batman, Spiderman, etc.  She uses dark humor and sarcasm to make points more often seen in feminist essay collections. It’s a unique, enjoyable, and effective approach to the topic. While she doesn’t spend a lot of time developing the rules of Deadtown, the small bits of world building she provides create an interesting backdrop and added depth to the overall story. Also, it’s funny.

Downsides:  Much of the fun in this book comes from knowing the original stories Valenete reworks. My vague knowledge of classic comic book characters, mostly picked up from movies, gave me enough background to appreciate the stories fifty percent of the time. The monologue format and flat nature of the source characters produced a lot of similar sounding voices. This was fatiguing at times as there are only so many ways to say snarky things about being the second string character in a narrative. The book works well as satire but rarely creates compelling stand-alone characters or storylines.

This book reminded me of: Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, a retelling of the story of Greek hero Odysseus from the perspective of his wife, Penelope, who narrates her life story from the land of the dead.  This book had similar humor but stronger, more complete characters. It probably didn’t hurt that I’d just read The Odyssey for a lit class when I picked it up years ago. For the record, Odysseus is a total jerk.

Stars: 3 ½ out of 5


What I read last week: The Good Death

What I read Last Week: The Good Death: An Exploration of Dying in America, Ann Neumann, 2016.

File under: Nonfiction, Memoir

Why I read it: One of my writing teachers had recommended it and dying scares the hell out of me, so why not face it in print?

What’s it about: After providing care for her father, who died after a long illness, Neumann finds herself obsessed with the definition of a good death. Her search for answers leads her to become a hospice volunteer and research the many complex political, economic, religious, and ethical issues surrounding death in America.

Highlights: The book is best when Neumann focuses on her personal experiences of caregiving and the people she befriends though her volunteer work. It would be easy to slip into caricature or cliché here, but the people she profiles never seem less than real, complex, and human. These portraits inspire deep feeling and reflection and are manipulation free. Her mediations are thoughtful, never sappy, melodramatic, or euphemistic. She explores her own divided feeling about caregiving as well, particularly the tension of starting and sustaining relationships that will soon end in grief and the limits of compassion. The questions Neumann poses regarding a medical system geared toward sustaining life at all costs and the difficulties of end of life care are not easily answered. Her analysis of American culture’s simultaneous attempts to avoid and romanticize death is thoughtful and doesn’t devolve into proverb or sermon.

Downsides: Neumann attempts to cover assisted suicide and it’s overlap with the anti-abortion movement, disability rights movements, death in prison and larger issues of labor abuses and substandard heath care in prisons, the history of the hospice movement and the challenges of hospice care, legal issues around the end of life, advanced directives, the Teri Schiavo case and more, in a little over two hundred pages. Any one of these issues could easily fill those pages and I was left feeling that many important ideas had been touched on but few explored adequately. The beautifully written personal sections seemed mostly removed from these more journalistic investigations of issues. Neumann clearly has the research and writing chops to tackle policy issues and the ability to write more personal focused pieces as well. I found the juxtaposition of the two in a small space disjointed and less successful than a book more limited in scope would have been.

If you’re interested in journalist/memoir combinations: Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff is a fantastic balance of memoir and investigation and proof that these two different types of writing can be successfully combined.

Stars: 3 ½ out of 5

What I read last week: You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me

What I read last week: You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, Sherman Alexie, 2017

File under: Memoir, Poetry

Why I read it: I heard an interview with Sherman Alexie on Fresh Air, and he read some of it. I wanted to hear more

What’s it about: Much of the memoir focuses on Alexie’s difficult relationship with his mother, who passed away in 2015. He also explores his relationship with his father, his experiences as a Spokane/Couer d’Allene Indian, who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation and then left to live in the city, and his recent brain surgery.

Highlights:  There are books that stick with you, books you know you will read again. This is one of them. It is devastating in the best possible sense of that word. The best parts of the memoir were Alexie’s exploration of his relationship with his mother. It’s a staple of the memoir genre but I can’t think of a writer who’s done it better. It’s difficult to write about a subject like this without either demonizing or canonizing the parent in question. It’s also rare for a writer to be so honest about their own role in a tumultuous parent/child relationship.  All of this makes for excellent reading.

There’s a wonderful vein of dark humor in this book and you’ll need it to get though some of the difficult topics Alexie explores, particularly racism and poverty. Alexie doesn’t minimize the pain of these experiences, instead the humor underscores what it takes to survive these things.

The way Alexie has structure the book is also brilliant. At one point, he compares his chapters to patches in one of his mother’s quilts. This is a perfect way to describe a book in which each piece can stand alone but together the chapters form patterns and a greater whole. The integration of poetry is particularly well done (see the side note for those who hate poetry below). I’ve never seen a writer play with genre quite like this.  Finally, it’s not a major theme of the memoir but I love writers who explore the fallible nature of memory. At one point Alexie recounts a conversation he had with his college writing teacher. The conversation turns out to be fictional and the teacher tells Alexie he is, “the unreliable narrator of your own life.”  The perfect title for a memoirist.

Downsides:  Alexie likes to use word repetition. Sometimes this works well. Other times I found myself thinking, “I don’t really need to read the word loss more than five times in a row. Get on with it.” That may be the point – to convey both the overwhelming nature of the experience, it’s inexpressibility, and its wretched monotony – but I’m not sure impatience was the desired effect.

If you think you don’t like poetry: You should still read this. As I read, I thought of the many people I’ve known who said they didn’t like poetry because they “couldn’t get it.” One of the brilliant things about this book is the way Alexie embeds poetry in prose and allows both expressions to enhance and provide commentary on each other.

Stars: Five out of five

What I read last week: Born a Crime

What I read last week: Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, Trevor Noah, 2016.

File under: Memoir

Why I read it: Ben and I were looking for a good audio-book for our recent road trip to Chicago

What’s it about: It’s hard to beat the summery included in the title, which manages to be arresting and descriptive. The book chronicles Noah’s childhood in South Africa with a particular focus on his loving yet tumultuous relationship with his mother and the challenges of being a biracial child in society defined by strict segregation and racism.

Highlights: Because of his background in comedy, particularly stand-up, I was expecting stories peppered with punchlines. Because of his experience, I expected these stories would be compelling but figured this would come more from their substance than the writing. I was wrong. The book is funny, but more than that it is insightful, thought provoking, even harrowing at times.  Noah addresses difficult topics – racism, poverty, domestic abuse, and religion with humor and intelligence. The stories are moving without being overwhelming. It would have been easy to create clear heroes and villains; Noah instead presents complex, flawed people navigating difficult circumstances. His sharp, smart commentary deftly avoids any hint of preachiness. I particularly enjoyed his observations about church and the relationship between language and racism.

Downsides: Not many. I didn’t enjoy passages where Noah presented the severe corporal punishment dealt out by his mother though a humorous lens. However, in most cases, he put these stories in a cultural and personal context which addressed the issue seriously without demonizing mother or minimizing the harmful impact of the beatings.

How to read this: Get the audio-book version, which is read by Noah. His performance (including voices for various bits of dialogue) is memorable and enhances an already great book.

Stars: 4 ½ out of 5

What I read last week: Shrill

What I read last week: Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, Lindy West, Hachette Book Group, Inc. 2016

File under: Memoir, Comedy

Why I read it: I heard Lindy West on various podcasts including This American Life and Politically Re-active. Also, it showed up on a daily list of Kindle deals which I’ve temporarily stopped looking at as the number of books I purchase had accelerated from mildly ridiculous to irresponsible at an alarming rate.

What it’s about: West covers a wide range of topics – life as a self-identified and unapologetic fat person and opinionated woman, internet trolls, grief, and relationships.

Highlights: West’s writing is sarcastic and energetic making for a quick, engaging read. I wish I could make everything she wrote about bodies that don’t conform to conventional ideas of health or beauty and everything she wrote about rape jokes required reading for most of the world. She writes about online harassment with the prefect mix of humor, anger, and simple documentation.

Downsides:  This book should have been a collection of essays arranged by topic instead of a series of vaguely connected chapters arranged chronologically. The mix of life story, issue, and humor focused pieces did not always mesh cohesively and produced some jarring tone shifts. She spent a few too many paragraphs lauding her tackling of various controversial issues publicly. While she should be proud of this, it doesn’t make for the most compelling reading and is a tendency I’ve seen writers who engage in activism drift into.

Who should read this: Anyone interested in thoughtful and funny explorations of body issues and feminism – particularly related to online writing and comedy.

Who shouldn’t read this: People bothered by slang or conversational-style writing. Trolls.

If you don’t read this/read this too: Roxane Gay’s, Hunger: A Memoir of (my) Body, explores many of these issues with less comedy and more reflection. They are excellent books to read together.

Stars: 3 ½ out of 5

What I read last week: The Idiot (2017)

What I read last week: The Idiot, Elif Batuman, Penguin Press, 2017

File under: Literary Fiction

Why I read it: I enjoyed Batuman’s previous book, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. I’m a sucker for nods to Dostoevsky.

What it’s about: Set in Harvard around 1995, the book chronicles the freshman year of Selin as she attempts to adjust to college life. Selin develops a crush on Ivan, an older student, and much of the novel revolves around their almost relationship. The second half of the book follows Selin’s travels over the summer as she spends a few weeks in Paris, teaches English in Hungary for a month, then meets up with her family in Turkey.

Highlights: In the character of Selin, Batuman skillfully presents an awkwardly intellectual freshman struggling to find her identity and place in the world. Selin has a tendency to see artificiality in the society around her and pops its pretensions with zingers, mostly in her internal monologue (the story is told from her point of view). This ability leaves her isolated and adrift. Unable to find a cohesive understanding of her experience, she floats though her story unsure of where or what to do, capturing the age and circumstances of many a first year college student expertly.  How much you enjoy this character will depend a lot on how like her you are. I found myself laughing not just at her but how she embodied elements of me at that age.

The first half of the novel gently mocks a great deal of academia. Anyone whose take an art, language, or literature class with an overly serious, self-infatuated professor will find much to enjoy here. Her presentation of language classes, including a fake textbook, is also quite funny. There are some interesting ideas explored in the book, particularly how language forms our perception of the world, and how it shapes the way we turn random experiences to life stories.

Downsides: I loved the first 150 pages of this book. When I hit 200 pages and realized there were 224 remaining, I became concerned.  For every good line that made me laugh or smile, I had to slog through a paragraph or two of brain curdling tedium. There are far too many scenes in which Selin walks down the street, or goes to class, or boards a train, while giving us extensive observations of the people and places around her. This usually involves a clever sentence or two, but the payoff per line of text is small. These scenes may be included to show how much of what we observe is truly superfluous to our understanding of ourselves. It may be a nod to 19th century Russian novels – which the text mimics in a number of ways. Whatever the larger purpose was, my eyes still glazed over and my head buzzed with irritation far too many times.

There are reoccurring items and motifs. The color yellow or strawberries or some other random thing will appear and reappear in disconnected scenes. This may be a statement about the human tendency to attaching meaning to random events in an attempt to create meaning. It’s clever but there’s far too much of this. It brings the novel dangerously close to the type of literary fiction that seems to scream at you in red letters, “Bow down and worship at the altar of my awesome self-awareness.”

I enjoyed the nods to Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Particularly the honesty and naiveté shared by the protagonists of both and the way these characters critique their societies. Unlike Prince Myshkin, hero of The Idiot, Selin’s dialogue is mostly internal so she causes fewer disturbances and suffers less embarrassment, but seems equally isolated. This gets too meta when Selin starts discussing the works of Dostoevsky and states that she doesn’t like them because “[Dostoevsky] invents these supposedly complicated problems and then gets so worked up about them – like it’s hell, it’s intolerable humiliation, it’s the mathematically highest point of abasement. But to me, none of those things seem particularly hellish or humiliating or complicated.” It’s a critique that could be made of this novel – 424 pages devoted to a freshman in love with a senior who doesn’t share her feelings. This is the sort of thing I found amusing early on, became fatigued by half way though, and wanted to pound my head against the wall over in the last fourth.

Who should read this: Fans of literary fiction, particularly Russian literature. Anyone who had an awkward first year of college due to overly intellectual detachment from other people or who had some kind of existential crisis.

Who shouldn’t read it: To enjoy this, you need to be the kind of person who gets a kick out of a well-constructed sentence. An interest in larger philosophical or linguistic questions will also get you through. Without that, the plot and character elements of this probably aren’t going to hold your interest.

If you don’t read this: Batum’s first book, The Possessed, a memoir of her studies of Russian literature in graduate school and her experiences teaching English abroad, is less ambitious and less unevenly written.

Stars: 3 out of 5

What I read last week: Mirror

What I read last week: Mirror: The Mountain, Emma Rios & Hwei Lim, Image Comics, Inc.  2016.

File under: Comic books, Sci-fi/Fantasy

Why I read it: I love the series Pretty Deadly, co-created by Emma Rios and Kelly Sue DeConnick and wanted explore some of Rios’s other work.

What it’s about: A group of humans creates a colony on the asteroid, Irzah. The asteroid, which is alive, causes animals to achieve human levels of intelligence and language. Humans experiment and create a number of hybrids as well. Hostilities ensue and most of the animals are either killed or forced to live in a retraining camp.

Highlights: The strongest element of this comic is its art. Straight lines and hard edges are avoided and everything is drenched in swirls of rich color creating a wispy effect.  This style pairs well with a story in which the lines between human and animal are unclear and the land itself is alive; the lines between all things are blurred. It also echoes the magical world the story inhabits where humans can move though space via portals –nothing is perfectly solid or as it seems.  Interesting things are also done with the panel structure. There are panels in glass-like shatter patters reflecting intense action or strong emotion. In others, hands are drawn on the edges of the panel to demonstrate memory or communication at a distance.  Themes of loyalty and identity are well explored in the animal characters, particularly those torn between their friendship with a handful of sympathetic humans and their kinship with the larger, oppressed group of rebellious animals.

Downsides: It’s unnecessarily confusing. Too little is done to clarify how magic works in this world or even who can use it. There seem to be a number of powerful leadership groups but they are simply named (the Elders, the Families, the Kybele). The origins of the war between humans and animals are unclear. The incomplete world building is further complicated by the decision to tell the story out of order. We move between year 5, year 15, year 25, and year 35 (where the bulk of the story takes place) frequently and chaotically. There are some sections where this is done well. One particularly brilliant sequence superimposes panels showing the action in year 35 over a larger, full page panel showing events from the past. More often these switches obscure the developing story in year 35. The book ends with a number of mini-comics, including a history of the Irzah colony, which should have been the book’s prologue, along with a number of maps, character histories, and a timeline. If elements of these had been incorporated earlier, the story would have been at least 70% clearer.

Also, most of the human characters were woefully underdeveloped, particularly the leader of the colony, Elena, whose few pages of backstory left me feeling as if too much and too little time had been spent on her character. In general the human focused sections were too short and divided amongst too many characters. The fact that we are never told what the goal of the animal experimentation on Izrah was or how the war with the animals started obscured their motivations. However, this is an ongoing series and I’m interested to see where it goes.

Who should read this: People who appreciate the art of comics.  People who like comics with sci-fi/fantasy elements and imaginative worlds, particularly ones exploring what it means to be human.

Who shouldn’t read this: Everyone else

If you don’t read this: I know it’s the second time I’ve recommended Pretty Deadly,  but you should read Pretty Deadly.

Stars: 3 out of 5