Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

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Here’s the thing: I think Roxane Gay is awesome. I loved Bad Feminist and An Untamed State and I love following her on twitter. I haven’t read Ayiti, her first short story collection, but I’ve bought a copy and it’s on my TBR list.

So it’s hard for me to say this. I didn’t like Difficult Women, which is her new collection of short stories, previously published in various literary magazines. I had already read a couple of these stories in anthologies and magazines, so I wasn’t surprised by her writing style, but all together, this felt like a very underdeveloped collection. It feels rushed and underwritten, like it’s a collection of very first drafts. Instead of growth, character development, and depth of language, we get a collection of stories that are somewhat skeletal, all similarly structured. It’s a collection of stories that tells, and not shows, and in the end, all the characters and their stories blurred together.

Here’s a sentence about two characters having sex in a highly emotional moment in a story, “The Sacrifice of Darkness”: “We were not gentle but we were gentle.” This is an example of writing that tries to convey meaning by becoming overly vague instead of digging deep, and I found it deeply unsatisfying. At best, it’s poetic-and Gay’s writing certainly has its poetic moments-but at worst, it falls short. These characters really aren’t difficult. They are all pain and no depth, and I kept wishing the stories would linger on important moments instead of rush.

I will say I found the last story “Strange Gods” to be very well done. However, I had to read the entire book to get to a story I really loved, so I’ll take a pass on recommending Difficult WomenI’m going to assume that I’m not the biggest fan of her style of short fiction; I think her writing is better suited for essays (like Bad Feminist) and longer works that are more thought out (like An Untamed State). I’m looking forward to reading her forthcoming memoir Hunger, which will also be released 2017. 

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All Joe Knight by Kevin Morris

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I got about a quarter of the way through All Joe Knight, the debut novel by Kevin Morris, and thought very seriously about not finishing it. The story is told in the first person, narrated by the titular character. His character is mostly defined by the fact that he once made a lot of money and now spends an inordinate amount of time with strippers; that, and he used to play high school basketball.

I am not the audience for a novel narrated by a rich misogynist about Philadelphia and basketball. I don’t enjoy spending my leisure time reading a two-page long screed on the tits of women. However, I could sense that even though I really hated being inside the brain of this scumbag character, there was a little bit more to the story. So I kept reading.

The second half of the novel has a little bit more depth – and, to my relief, Joe goes into his relationships with his wife, daughter, and the aunt who raised him with a little more thought and tenderness in the later half of the novel. The novel goes through Joe’s childhood as an orphan, living with his aunt after both his parents die in car accidents when he was a baby. It tells the story of the 70s in Philadelphia, and the ties he had with the men he played basketball with. The crust of the story is that Joe is facing legal trouble from a business deal he made years ago, the deal that made him rich, a deal that involved all of his former teammates.

This is an ambitious first novel that attempts to cover a lot of substance in dealing with history, race, corruption, but it gets caught up in it’s own characterization a bit too much, ultimately attempting shock value over substance. I like unlikeable narrators, but I have trouble with unsympathetic ones. The thing is with Joe Knight – as a character, and a novel, is that I had very little sympathy while reading it. The parts of the character that were sympathetic – his childhood, his relationship with his aunt and his daughter – were understated, leaving the story drenched in the seediness that remains. As I initially expected, this wasn’t my cup of tea.

On Failing, and A Review of Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Next month is NaNoWriMo month, as always, which reminds me that I’ve participated every year since 2006 – I was 15 and thought for sure I was some sort of wunderkind who would be published before I graduated college. These are the sorts of goals failures regularly have.I lost my first NaNoWriMo, and I never stopped trying again after that.

After I made it through college without publishing anything (I was notably rejected from my own school’s literary magazine, of which I was an editor my senior year), I had a new goal: be published by 25. I had been humbled by my failure to succeed right out of the gate, but I was still sure of my talent in the way only the young and/or truly untalented can be.

I’ve been thinking about failure a lot lately, along with a lot of other people – there’s a whole section on the TED website about the matter, and one TED talk on persevering through failure is now a popular pop psych book.

I’m 25 now and I’m rethinking what my success will look like. It’s no longer a matter of time but of shape. How will I fit writing in at the corners of my real life? How will I create work I find satisfying? How will I use writing to communicate with strangers, and tell the stories of the people I love with compassion? How will art change me? Everything else seems small in comparison.

I don’t plan on being published anytime soon. I’m just not there yet. My 15 year old self would be devastated – if being a writer is so important to me, and I’m not producing work good enough to be published, what does that say about me? I think, after all, it doesn’t say much. I could miss every deadline, and fall short of every expectation I have for myself, and no matter what the drive to write is still there. That’s the kind of passion they make TED talks about. I’m really excited for this November – I always am.


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I recently finished Margaret Atwood’s new novel Hag-Seed, which is a retelling of the The Tempest by Shakespeare. It got me thinking a lot about failure, too, because the main character, Felix, is a failed director who ultimately triumphs in a wacky but heartening way.

Felix is fired from his job as the artistic director of a theatre company right in the middle of a production of The Tempest, which is cancelled shortly after. Felix is upset at losing his job, but what especially pains him is that he had been planning The Tempest to be a sort of tribute to his three year old daughter, Miranda, who passed away. After he is fired, he moves away from civilization and isolates himself. He lives with the memory of his daughter in a literal sense; she is like a friendly ghost that he lives with like a real daughter. After a few years he decides to take a job teaching literacy at a local prison. He does this, of course, by teaching the inmates how to put on Shakespeare plays.

When he gets a chance to seek revenge against the people who had him fired all those years ago, he does it by finally putting on his Tempest. Even in a prison, with inmates for actors, with a heart desiring nothing but revenge – Felix puts everything into his work. He’s a somewhat strange and flawed character, but I fell in love with him nonetheless.

Truthfully, I know nothing about The Tempest, except a vague recollection of reading it in 8th grade English class. Luckily, this novel doesn’t require any knowledge of the play or Shakespeare, and it does a good job of not carrying on as if everyone reading the novel is familiar with the play.

In conclusion, Margaret Atwood remains a patron saint of this blog.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

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I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a short-and-sweet (depending on how you define sweet) psychological thriller that doesn’t waste time. Iain Reid creates an atmosphere of pure creepiness from the very first page, and it’s amazing.

The narrator is an unnamed college girl who is taking a road trip with her new boyfriend, Jake. They haven’t been dating very long, and you get the sense that they don’t know each other very well. The girl has a certain darkness that she doesn’t let on very easy. They’re on a road trip to visit Jake’s parents, and the girl thinks about how it may be a bad idea, because she’s thinking about ending things with Jake. He’s good looking, smart, and talented, but there’s something off between them. She’s also going through a lot of stress; she’s getting creepy, harassing phone calls, and she doesn’t know who to tell. She’s on this trip with Jake as the story begins, and the refrain that keeps going through her head is that she needs to end things when they get back.

The story gets steadily creepier and creepier as her narration progresses. They meet Jake’s parents, who live on a rural, slightly decrepit farm, and there the story takes a horrific turn. The ending left me feeling unsettled and like I wanted to re-read the whole novel to see if I could have caught on to what was really going on sooner. But that’s not why I recommend I’m Thinking of Ending Things – I recommend it because Reid masterfully weaves a creeping sense of horror into every mundane sentence, giving the reader a sense of unease right from the start. It’s everything I wanted it to be – scary, quick, and fun (depending on how you define fun).

Thanks to Netgalley and Scout Press for letting me read an advance copy of this novel. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is out June 14th.


And now here’s a new thing where I tell you some things.

I’m currently readingWhere All Light Tends to Go by David Joy on my kindle and The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century  by Thomas L. Friedman on audio.

The next book I’m going to review isThe Vegetarian by Han Kang

Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

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I don’t think at eighteen I would have enjoyed Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg, but now that I’ve been in the workforce for a couple of years, I’m not scared off by the buisness-y title. Duhigg is looking for readers like me: people who want to know how to “optimize” their “work flow” while still using words like “buisness-y”. He writes with a pop psych flair that is easily digested.

When I do read non-fiction, I like lighter stuff like this – it’s not dry at all, but I still learn a lot of stuff that I can apply to my everyday life. There are no crazy discoveries here, but the book reminds us that we can make ourselves more productive with a few techniques. Duhigg writes about forecasting – how people can be more efficient and focused if they tend to imagine what they are going to do next, instead of just blindly showing up to work. He discusses how to set goals in the most effective ways. The book is essentially a series of anecdotes strung together to explain Duhigg’s research; the stories detail the way corporate teams, pilots, and film writers used different techniques to create, manage their time, make decisions, and self-motivate.

Overall, I recommend it if you’re feeling like you’re in a funk, in work or elsewhere. I’ve felt drained lately trying to balance personal projects (like this blog, and my own fiction writing) and my 9-5 job, and this book gave me a sense of motivation. Accomplishing goals and getting things done is something we all struggle with, but Smarter, Faster, Better makes it seem simple.

The Girls by Emma Cline

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On the outside, The Girls by Emma Cline is a fast-paced, nostalgic novel loosely based on the Manson family. And it is all those things, but there’s more here than meets the eye. It explores the messed up ways girls crave affection, attention, and someone to devote themselves to. It’s a literary novel about women and violence: the violence acted against them and the violence they are capable of enacting themselves. The violence of jealousy, desire, and faith.

The main character, Evie Boyd, is an awkward, lonely 14 year old in the late 1960s, and a lonely middle aged woman in the present day, reminiscing about her strange coming-of-age. Evie is a constant observer, and she never feels like she fits in. She craves affection from boys who don’t reciprocate. She is, basically, perfect cult fodder. One day she sees a group of effortless, ethereal older girls in a park, and she wants so badly to be one of them. The leader of the girls, Suzanne, enchants Evie the most, and that enchantment continues darkly as the plot of the novel takes off.

In the ride to bring Evie to meet Russell, the cult leader, the girls wax poetic about him. “He’s not like anyone else. No bullshit. It’s like a natural high, being around him. Like the sun or something. That big and right.” But the hero worship doesn’t go very far, because Evie is the observer, and you get the sense that she doesn’t buy into Russell’s greatness. She hangs around, simply, for the girls; specifically, for Suzanne. All we know about Russell is that for some reason the girls love him, he wants a record deal, and he has a slight temper.

It never feels like a true crime story. The best parts were the scenes where present-day Evie is looking back on the past.  She still looks at teenage girls with a sense of fractured awe. She is an observer to the end, still on the outskirts. We are lead to wonder what responsibility those on the outskirts of evil have to stop it. 

The Girls will get a lot of press because it’s a fictionalization of the Manson murders, but it may be wrongly advertised. It’s a slow-burn of a novel, and beautifully written. It examines the way women are manipulated, and in the same sentences exposes how women can be just as destructive and evil as the men who control them. If you like lush language and you’re interested in literary fiction about teenage girls, you will find something valuable here.

The Girls is out June 14th. Thank you Random House and Netgalley for providing me with a copy to review.

Single, Carefree, Mellow by Katherine Heiny

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In Single, Carefree, Mellow, Katherine Heiny has written a collection of short stories about the inner life of unfaithful women. Check out the quote from Lena Dunham on the cover – I was expecting something similar to Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Mother’s, Tell Your Daughters, but Heiny doesn’t write about women with the same broadness – Single, Carefree, Mellow is full of stories about a very specific type of woman. The characters suffer mainly from their own boredom. They are mistresses and cheating wives, and they have little remorse, nor does the narrative suggest that they should.

In the title story, the main character, Maya, is a woman waiting for the right time to dump her boyfriend. It’s complicated by the fact that her dog is dying, and she relies on the emotional support. In the end she decides to just stick it out, even if she doesn’t really love him. The two characters show up in later stories, except then the dog is dead and Maya is having an affair with her boss. And she’s still with her boyfriend who bores her. I couldn’t really relate, so maybe that’s my fault for expecting that I was going to.

During her affair, Maya muses about “come facts” – little bits of trivia the men she sleeps with mention to her after sex. Her second story begins with the line: Here is what Maya’s boss said to her after they made love the first time: ‘Did you know that peanuts are one of the ingredients in dynamite? It’s a unique way to play on the “Men Explain Things to Me” frustration. But as far as any other commentary on the relationship between men and women, this collection offers little else except that it all seems miserable.

The characters in Single, Carefree, Mellow are all frustrated by the men in their lives, and the major failing is that Maya’s musing on how men are always telling her silly facts after sex is the only time any of them seem to kick up any fuss. They instead react to their frustration by being cheaters, and that is aggravating.

A lot of readers will dislike these stories just because of the infidelity, and I get that. I’m a little more forgiving with unlikeable or morally questionable characters, but even I got sick of reading story after story of women having affairs. The characters all blend in together into one relatively attractive and dishonest blob of a woman. Heiny has a good comedic voice, and a little more variety in subject matter would have helped this collection along quite a bit.

Many thanks to Goodreads and Vintage Books for sending me a giveaway copy of this novel for review.