Happy for You by Claire Stanford

The premise for Happy for You made me think that this would be something in the realms of titles such as Temporary, The Factory, and Severance, which present their readers with wry commentaries on the gig economy and the modern workplace, or, satires about social media, the tech industry, and wellness culture, such Followers and Self Care ….so I was slightly disappointed by the trajectory taken by Claire Stanford’s character arc and, consequently, the direction of the story. If you are approaching this thinking it will be something in the realms of shows like Black Mirror or Severance, well, you may want to readjust your expectations. The speculative element within the narrative is barely there and mostly appears in the form of a few skits featuring invasive personalized adverts and apps, which, to me, was a bit of a letdown. Still, there were parts of the narrative that I did find engaging, even if I was frustrated by how our main character’s arc becomes exclusively about the possibility of marriage and motherhood, her life outside of the ye old woman=wife/mother equation is given little to no page time.

Evelyn Kominsky Kumamoto is a burnout PhD student who is offered the opportunity to work as a researcher at ‘the third-most popular internet company’. The company is currently working on an app that is meant to track and improve its user’s happiness. To ‘quantify’ happiness the company has employed various researchers, including Evelyn whose research allegedly focused on the mind-body problem. While she does meet two of her colleagues, the narrative barely explores the realities of working for this company. It may seem bizarre but I like or am intrigued by books that explore, in whatever capacity, office dynamics (a few examples: Edge Case, Luster, Severance, If I Never Met You, The New Me, Promising Young Women, and Days of Distraction) maybe because I do not work in such an environment, and I was under the impression that convinced that Happy for You would focus in equal measure on Evelyn’s working and personal life…but it doesn’t, not really.
She is employed by this company, picks up on some weird vibes (which lead nowhere), and at some point goes on a work trip/retreat of some sort to discuss the app and happiness. That’s kind of it. The narrative does highlight how male-dominated the tech industry is, the commodification of non-western religious and cultural practices in the west, and the many microaggressions experienced by a person of dual heritage (for instance, the fetish-y comments about ‘how cute your babies will look’). Evelyn is routinely questioned by strangers in regards to her ‘background’ and at times feels a sense of alienation when moving in predominantly white spaces. Readers will also notice that because she has always been at the receiving end of ‘guess their ethnicity game’, she too at times does the same (except she exclusively plays this ‘game’ in her head), which seems to point to the loneliness she experiences as the only woc in many predominantly white environments and how exposure to certain attitudes may eventually lead to you to imitate/perpetuate said behaviours/mentalities. Though Evelyn’s experiences the narrative touches on the realities and many microaggressions experienced by poc in a society that deems whiteness to be the norm.
The author’s social commentary could be quite effective, and her stylistic use of repetition adds to the sense of otherness and claustrophobia that Evelyn experiences in this modern age.

Her work life and her experiences as a student remain largely unexplored, which is a pity. The narrative doesn’t really give us any information in regards to Evelyn’s actual contribution to this ‘happiness’ app. Her relationship to the academic world is also given little consideration, which is a pity as her character supposedly had already spent a few years on her dissertation.
I did enjoy those sections that focused on her somewhat awkward relationship with her father, who was born in Japan and spent most of his life in the United States. Evelyn seems to feel a certain degree of jealousy that his new partner is Japanese, especially when she perceives changes in his routine and beliefs, changes she attributes to his new partner, and worries that her presence in his life will erase her mother’s memory. The sections focused on the dynamic between them all were my favorite as I appreciated how the author is able to render an undercurrent of unease in their various interactions and to create poignant moments of mutual understanding or empathy.
Now, as I mentioned above, I went into this thinking that it would be a book about this ‘happiness’ app and the tech industry (on a related note, i’d definitely recommend ‘why does everyone want to break into tech?’ by the lovely amanda), however, the story offers only a surface level understanding of modern workplace politics…instead we have pages and pages spent with her boyfriend who is easily interchangeable with the male ‘love interests from The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing and Days of Distraction who, funnily enough, are named respectively Jamie and J….in Happy for You we have yet another Jamie, of the white straight cis American male variety whose personality resembles that of sliced bread. He is well meaning-ish and fairly supportive, has a stable job and comes from a financially & emotionally stable family. He often isn’t aware of his own privilege and seems to either be oblivious or dismissive of the microaggressions experienced by Evelyn. Yet, while the narrative tries to paint him as this fairly innocuous & insipid guy annoyed me when the story concludes with him managing somehow to convince Evelyn to do things she initially was opposed to or unsure of doing.

spoilers below

We are told that Evelyn enjoys the financial stability offered by her new job and even if she’s not convinced by the app—from whether it is feasible to ‘quantify’ happiness, to the meaning and desirability of happiness itself and the actual benefit an app like this would have—she naturally feels a sense of satisfaction and pride when her boss implies that she is talented etc. We also know that at this stage in her life Evelyn doesn’t want to get married and is unsure of ever having kids…by the end of the narrative, we are somehow led to believe that after becoming pregnant Evelyn has somehow reconciled herself to both of these things. She spends the latter of the narrative worried that she will be a bad mother, and eventually gives up her job because she doesn’t believe in it (it wasn’t clear to me whether she was interested in picking up her studies again). And, at the end, she also says yes to Jamie, who’d proposed early on in the book. Like..ugh. I am tired of narratives where the female protagonist initially doesn’t want marriage/kids and by then ends up marrying (or about to marry) and with kids (or about to have kids). This type of narrative feeds into ‘you will change your mind’/‘it is natural for a woman to be a wife/mother’ reactionary rhetoric. That is not to say that there is no palace for narratives where female characters go on to do so things should not exist, but given their abundance, I found it frustrating when a character who says they don’t want those things for themselves, ends up being persuaded into doing/becoming those things. Evelyn lacked agency, and I wasn’t convinced that she really had had a change of heart.

Back to the app. This was very disappointing. Employees like Evelyn are ‘encouraged’ to be beta users for this app so we get to actually see it in action..and it basically consists of the classic questions you would get in any type of happiness quiz. Yes, Evelyn gets a lot of push notifications and she’s urged to improve her results but I wish the author had gone heavier on the speculative elements when it came to her portrayal of this company and app.
And, I almost forgot, Evelyn has one single friend who is given two appearances where he exists only as an object of not quite ridicule but his depiction felt cartoonish. Later on, his character is completely forgotten by both Evelyn and the story, which made it really seem as if he was included as an afterthought.
The narrative often doesn’t name things directly. From Evelyn’s company, which is constantly referred to as ‘the third-most popular internet company’, to things like Facebook and Ikea or even a book she’s reading (missing husband? greece? i’m fairly sure the book in question was Katie Kitamura’s A Separation)…anyway, the point is that this device was implemented in a rather gimmicky way.

I have rather mixed feelings about this debut. On the one hand, I found its themes compelling and thought-provoking. I liked that the narrator questions the origin of some of her behaviours and attitudes, for example, there are several instances where she realizes just how pervasive and insidious stereotypes perpetuated by the media are. I also thought that the author truly captures her dissonance and her sense of discomfort. That is not to say this was a bad book, in fact, I would probably recommend it, especially to fans of the ‘she’s not feeling so good’ subgenre. I did find the resolution to her story and arc frustrating, as they were predictable. I would have found it more satisfying if Evelyn had left Jamie and truly focus on herself, her career, her studies, and her friendships (which were painfully absent). Her relationship with her father and her tentative bond with his new partner was far more emotionally stimulating than her bland and generic romance.
Lastly, I would have appreciated a more intersectional approach to certain discussions as I found it a bit sus for a story exploring contemporary social issues that lbgtq+ related issues are very much not addressed or even mentioned.

Anyway, if this book is on your radar I recommend you check it out for yourself as Claire Stanford is clearly a promising author. Sometimes her prose is a bit heavy-handed on repetition and her satire does stray into silliness but some of the ideas that are at play in the story and her storytelling herself have definite potential…personally, I just prefer when these types of books don’t conclude with the mc getting married and having children.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Lightseekers by Femi Kayode

Lightseeker is a propulsive thriller that combines a who/whydunnit with a thought-provoking social commentary. Set in Nigeria, Lightseeker is predominantly narrated by Dr. Philip Taiwo, an investigative psychologist who has recently returned to Nigeria after having spent years in the United States. A husband and a father of two, Philip struggles to readjust to Nigeria’s sociopolitical climate. When he becomes convinced that his wife is cheating on him, he finds himself giving in to his father’s request to investigate the mob killing of three university students that occurred a few years beforehand. Their deaths were linked to their being members of a confraternity, but one of the victims’ fathers, who is connected to Philip’s own father, is adamant in his belief that his son would never join a cult. Philip takes the opportunity to get away from his marriage troubles and finds himself travelling to a village near Port Harcourt. Here he is aided by his driver and guide Chika, who is employed by the victim’s father, and who seems to have many hidden skills. The two soon pick up on the hostility that locals harbor against outsiders, especially those who are seeking to unearth a recent and tragic occurrence. Not only are the local authorities unwilling to help them, but they seem intent on obstructing their investigation. The locals instead see them as a threat, often refusing to talk to them. The students at the university seem more open to discussing the killing but it is only when the rapport between Philip and the locals worsens, to the point where his well being is at stake, that he begins to understand what occurred.
Not only did the story have a strongly rendered setting but the author was able to incorporate diverse and numerous issues within Philip’s investigation. Religious tensions between the town’s Christian and Muslim communities, class and educational disparities, cultism and herd mentality, politics and corruption, as well as the long-lasting consequences of colonialism. Because Philip is not from this town and has yet to fully readjust to Nigeria, we mostly glimpse and understand things through his ‘naive’ eyes, which makes for an immersive experience. The shifting dynamic between Philip and Chika was compelling and I appreciated the way their bond develops.

Now, on the things that didn’t quite convince me. One, well, it’s a crucial one. Once Philip decides to accept this request to investigate the Okriki Three he never seems to really doubt that their deaths were not ‘simply’ the horrific result of a mob killing. And the thing is, he believes this with no substantial proof. The locals’ unwillingness to discuss it or the police’s general shadiness can be understood as a sign of their guilt over their role in the mob killing. Yet, he ‘knows’ that something else is going on…and I didn’t really buy it. Early on he really had nothing to consolidate this belief and yet throughout the course of the narrative, he operates under that assumption. The narrative also shifts to a different point of view, and these chapters are very brief and intentionally ambiguous…and I found them cheap. I have never been a fan of mysteries that provide us with short, and corny usually, chapters from the ‘bad guy’s’ perspective. That the bad guy in question here is clearly experiencing a severe mental disorder was also…dodgy. True, this time around the person is not a psychopath but their (likely) disorder is still routinely stigmatized in the media and popular culture.

My last issue has to do with the female characters in the novel. On his flight to Port Harcourt Philip just happens to be seated near an attractive girlboss who, quelle surprise, is somehow connected to his case. He seems to entertain the possibility of cheating on his wife because this woman is such a girlboss. Fair enough, I don’t particularly mind reading about characters who behave badly or have bad thoughts. However, the language he uses to describe her and refer to her combined with the story’s running gag (Philip declaring that a happy marriage can be achieved by never contradicting your wife in an argument/discussions because “women be like”…especially ‘nagging’ wives who are often mad about nothing…and the thing is, his wife seems far more reasonable and clear-eyed that he is. She barely has any ‘page-time’, but I wondered why Philip would brag about his ‘tactics’ when the only conflict in his marriage seems a result of him having (recently) seen something that has led him to jump to certain conclusions. I hated that he is not quite ‘proven’ right but that what he had seen had escalated into something to be concerned about. Even more frustrating, she blames herself! Like wtf! Also, how could Philip, an investigative psychologist who is shown to be fairly intuitive, be so ready to believe the worst about his wife? Especially given the fairly banal nature of what he’d seen? The woman who helps Philip in the investigation serves the function of a plot device: adding further tension to the troubled marriage subplot and aiding Philip in his investigation when the story needs it.

While the resolution to the mystery was a bit dragged and not particularly satisfying, I did find the majority of this story gripping and I look forward to whatever the author writes next.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

I Want to Die But I Want to Eat Tteokbokki by Baek Se-hee

“I wonder about others like me, who seem totally fine on the outside but are rotting on the inside, where the rot is this vague state of being not-fine and not-devastated at the same time.”

There was something about the title and cover of this book that brought to mind Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation and a line from Madame Bovary: ‘She wanted both to die and to live in Paris’. Naturally, me being a fan of both of those novels, I found myself intrigued by I Want to Die But I Want to Eat Tteokbokki. This is a relatively short read which is made up of the transcripts from the author’s session with her psychiatrist over a 12-week period. While there are occasional breaks in this patient/psychiatrist dialogue, these are brief, lasting one or two pages and consist of the author musing on the words of her psychiatrist or offering her own words of wisdom. Now, on the one hand, I appreciated reading these sessions as they lead to discussions on self-esteem, depression, anxiety, peer pressure, one’s desire to fit in and be liked, toxic relationships, etc. Baek’s worries and everyday tribulations will likely resonate with many millennials. While I appreciate the honesty that radiated from these sessions, and from her willingness to confront, assess, and critique aspects of herself, I did grow a tad bored by them. I remember coming across a book (i think it was a book) where a character comments on how, most of the time, other people’s dreams do not strike us as interesting as our own ones. Well, this is how I feel about this book. Baek, understandably, finds these sessions to be enlightening as through them she gains self-knowledge and a more nuanced understanding of her mental health, I did not. As I said, I could certainly relate to some of the conversations they have around self-esteem and self-perception, but at the end of the day, these sessions were tailored for Baek, and I couldn’t help but feel a bit uneasy at being ‘invited’ in. Maybe because I have always associated therapists/psychiatrists with privacy, but there were several instances where I wanted to bow out and leave Baek some space. Part of me wishes that this book could have taken only certain exchanges from her sessions, and incorporated these into longer pieces where the author considers the issues they discussed. In short, I wanted to hear more from Baek, and less from her psychiatrist. If I were to record my hypothetical sessions with a therapist or whoever, I doubt anyone would want to read transcripts of it. And if they did, well, that’s kind of sus.
Anyway, jokes aside, this was by no means a bad book. I just think it could have benefitted from more original content (ie mini-essays/think pieces).

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

“‘How do you feel?’ ‘All right.’ But I didn’t. I felt terrible.”

I feel incredibly conflicted over Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. On the one hand, I found it to be an ingenious and striking read, one that immortalizes in exacting detail a young woman’s slow descent into psychosis and offers a piercing commentary on 1950s American society, specifically its oppressive gender norms. On the other hand, I could not look past how racist it was.

Set in 1953 The Bell Jar is narrated by Esther Greenwood, a misanthropic 19-year-old from the suburbs of Boston who wins a summer internship working for a New York fashion magazine. For the most part, Esther’s voice is a winning combination of acerbic and witty. She often entertains morbid thoughts, she offers scathing assessments of those around, and, as the days go by, she seems to be steadily sinking into torpor. Although Esther tries to make the most of New York, she quickly becomes disenchanted by its supposedly glamorous scene. She is at once repulsed and appreciative of the girls who are interning with her. While Esther is drawn to Doreen, who is one of the livelier of the girls, and Betsy, a pious goody-two-shoes, she ultimately feels very much apart from them, and often seems to view them and the rest of New York through a glass darkly. What follows is Esther’s unsettling descent into depression. As her contempt towards others and life in general grows, she begins to engage in self-destructive behaviour and acts in increasingly irrational ways. Later on, Esther attempts to write a novel but her deteriorating mental health becomes a concern to her mother who forces her to see a psychiatrist who goes on to prescribe her electroconvulsive therapy. This ‘treatment’ goes awry and Esther worsens. Eventually, Esther is committed to a hospital where she is reunited with an old acquaintance. While the novel does end on a hopeful note, it is by no means an easy ride. It is brutal and unsparing. Throughout the course of this novel, Plath captures with razor-sharp precision the mind of an alienated young woman. She articulates Esther’s ugliest thoughts and fears. As Esther tries and fails to navigate adulthood in New York she becomes more and more withdrawn. She’s apathetic, pessimistic, and derisive of others. Her experiences fail to match her expectations and Esther struggles to make sense of who she is, who she wants to be, and who she ought to be. She’s suffocated by the limitations of her gender and seems to reject the visions of womanhood, of marriage, and of motherhood that American society presents her with: “when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterwards you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.”

Not only does Plath render the stultifying atmosphere of the city and of the circles Esther moves in, but she conveys the lethal ennui experienced by her protagonist. In New York Esther struggles to traverse from adolescence to adulthood. Her alienation from others, her self-estrangement, and her disconnection from her contemporary society pave the way to her eventual breakdown. When others attempt to ‘help’ and/or ‘cure’ Esther they cause more harm than good. They either treat her in an inhumane way or dismiss the severity of her condition.
Esther is certainly not a likeable heroine. She’s a mean snob who often views other people as grotesque and beneath her. But, as I read on, I came to pity her. In spite of her solipsisms and general nastiness, Esther is clearly suffering. Esther’s mother seems to care more about appearances than her daughter’s wellbeing. The men around seem unable to truly see her. Her former sweetheart doesn’t really know her, while the men she meets in New York seem all too eager to use her. As Esther’s desperation grows her view of the world becomes steadily more distorted, her imagination even more ghoulish.
I appreciated how effective Plath’s style is in rendering Esther’s mental state. At times a scene or one of Esther’s thoughts are depicted in such vivid detail as to be overwhelming. But, the story also plays around with linear storytelling, presenting us with fragmented conversations or scenes that we are able to understand only as we read on. At times her prose acquires a sticky quality that fits perfectly with the story’s initial summer backdrop.
So what could possibly cause me to give this novel 3 stars instead of say 4 or 5? Well, while I recognise that this is a seminal feminist work, I could not look past how racist Esther, Plath’s ‘alter ego’, was. While I can usually look past classics’ books using dated/non-pc language, Esther’s racist remarks/attitudes did not strike me as merely being symptomatic of ‘the times’. It’s total ‘okay’ if our college-educated and intellectual protagonist, who is critical of the accepted social norms of her time when it comes to gender-based inequalities, uses racial slurs. Sure. She’s white and it’s the 1950s. But then we have these instances where Esther is not feeling good and mistakes her reflection as belonging to somebody else, specifically someone who is Asian: “I noticed a big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman staring idiotically into my face. It was only me, of course. I was appalled to see how wrinkled and used-up I looked.” and “The face in the mirror looked like a sick Indian.”.
When a girl says she’s meeting up with a Peruvian guy Esther says the following: “They’re squat,” I said. “They’re ugly as Aztecs.”….And then we have that scene at the hospital involving a Black orderly. After establishing that he is indeed Black she keeps referring to him as “the negro” rather than say “the orderly” or “the man”. This orderly say things like “Mah, mah!” or “Oh Miz, oh Miz […] You shouldn’t of done that, you shouldn’t, you reely shouldn’t.”. Before this (as far as i can recall of course) Plath did not lay much (or any really) emphasis on her characters’ accents. Yet, all of a sudden she just has to establish the specific way in which this man talks. And of course, because he’s an orderly and Black the way he talks has to be ridiculed. Anyway, Esther believes that the orderly is toying with her and the other patients so she “drew my foot back and gave him a sharp, hard kick on the calf of the leg”. Great stuff.
Plath’s description of non-American characters also left a sour taste in my mouth: “She was six feet tall, with huge, slanted, green eyes and thick red lips and a vacant, Slavic expression.” and “A large, bosomy Slavic lady”. Wtf is that even supposed to mean? How fucking lazy is this type of description? Why are all ‘Slavic-looking’ women large?

While Esther uses unflattering terms to describe white Americans, describing someone’s neck as “spam-coloured”, these descriptions, which poking fun at their physical appearance, are ultimately humorous. The ones referring to Black or Asian characters, not so much. Esther’s repugnance is even more pronounced in the instances I mentioned above, and the language she uses is often dehumanising or at least seems to suggest that she does view them as inferior to white people. Every few chapters I would come across a racist remark/line that simply prevented me from becoming invested in Esther’s story. That this is a highly autobiographical novel makes me feel all the more uneasy at Esther’s racism.
While this is certainly an important novel and one of the first books to depict in such uncompromising terms a young woman’s descent into depression, its white American brand of feminism is dated at best.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

Edge Case by YZ Chin

“[I]f I could make Americans laugh, then I would be accepted. I would be embraced and admired.”

Realistic, subtly off-beat, and keenly observed, Edge Case couples an indictment of the rampant misogyny that permeates the tech industry with an unsparing depiction of the everyday inequities and hurdles immigrants face in their pursuit of green cards and citizenship. Our narrator, Edwina, is a Malaysian woman of Chinese origin now living in New York and employed at AInstein, a tech startup working on an AI that can tell jokes. She’s married to Marlin, who is also Malaysian born but is of Chinese and Indian descent (his darker skin combined with him being from a majority Muslim country make him a target to both racism and Islamophobia). After the death of Marlin’s father, he begins to drift away from Edwina, and, much to her surprise, becomes increasingly preoccupied with the spirit world. One day Edwina returns home to discover it empty. Marlin has left her without leaving a note or any explanation.
A confused and hurting Edwina tries to make sense of his actions, compiling a list of the places he might have gone all the while questioning the motives behind his departure. Did he decide to return to Malaysia? Did he fall out of love with her? Or does it have to do with his newfound interest in spirits?

The novel takes place over the course of 10 days or so and we witness Edwina slowly coming apart. She struggles with her body image and food (after years of vegetarianism she begins to eat meat even if this results in her being physically unwell), with her self-esteem, and seems to experience difficulties wherever she is. Her calls with her mother, who has always been quick to criticise her appearance and life choices, are strained. Her best friend Katie seems oblivious to her crisis, encouraging her instead to forget Marlin and find someone else. Edwina is the only woman working at AInstein which results in her feeling understandably isolated. Her clannish male colleagues either ignore her, speaking over her, boohooing her ideas and feedback (for instance, when she points out that, surprise surprise, many of the jokes in their robot’s repertoire are sexist and or otherwise offensive, she’s told that she has no sense of humor because she’s 1) a woman 2) a foreigner). A white colleague of hers repeatedly toys the line between ‘banter’ and harassment, forcing her to proofread his crappy books and implying that she’s sleeping with other male colleagues.
Interspersed through this are flashbacks detailing Edwina and Marlin’s first meeting, their early days together, and their slow dissolution.
I liked and admired Edwina. Despite her situation, she’s determined to find out what happened to Marlin. At work she tries hard to be polite and agreeable but eventually, she’s forced into taking matters into her own hands. Her insecurities related to her body were certainly relatable and I appreciated how frank yet empathetic the author was when discussing this subject. Edwina’s desires, to be accepted by Americans, to be reunited with Marlin, were certainly understandable even if I did find myself questioning her devotion to Marlin. He behaves abhorrent towards and much of its chalked up to ‘he’s grieving’, which, fair enough, but, that doesn’t negate the months of emotional neglect and abuse. He drives Edwina to self-hatred, something I had a hard time glossing over. Having once shared a roof with an incredibly paranoid individual prone to gaslighting those around them, it just hit too close to home. His character never comes fully to life, part of it is because by the time the story begins he’s already gone MIA, and part of it is that even in the flashbacks he appears as a somewhat remote sort of figure, never coming into full focus.
Edwina on the other hand was an all too believable character. From her insecurities to her motivations, Edwina was a multi-faceted character one can easily relate to and root for. This made much of her narrative really hard to read. Many scenes focus on her being mistreated or overlooked. Her mother is constantly undermining her, claiming that in previous lives she was a terrible person. Her best friend is blind to her pain and despair. One of her colleagues is increasingly inappropriate towards her while the others behave like sexist tech-bros. Edwina struggles to navigate her male-dominated workplace, their harmful ‘it’s a boys’ club’ mentality.
Through Edwina’s perspective, we witness how her day-to-day life is punctuated by sexism (both in and outside the workplace), racism, discrimination, and body shaming. Edwina’s estrangement from Marlin affects the way she interacts with the world and she becomes increasingly disconnected from others. Her anxiety and loneliness are exacerbated by the fact that she’s surrounded by Americans. Her apprehension over Marlin’s welfare, her discomfort at work, her anxiety about her immigration status, her sense of inadequacy, all of these things result in a rather heavy-going narrative. While Edwina’s wry and self-deprecating tone does alleviate some of the tension, Edge Case is not a light read. The author’s deceptively simple prose belies the complex nature of Edwina’s story and this might not appeal to those who are looking for an easy-going or plot-driven narrative. Edge Case is a very introspective novel that provides a lot of food for thought.
I did find myself wishing for some more variety when it came to character interactions. Many scenes are just really uncomfortable to read, and, while I understand that they were realistic, it did get the repetitive reading time and again about people mistreating Edwina. Her passivity is understandable given her position, still, it was immensely satisfying to see her in action and I doubt many will condemn her for her actions. Marlin, as I said, remains a rather flimsy sort of figure, which detracted a lot from the story. The exploration of marriage also suffers because of it.
Another thing that detracted from my overall reading experience was the author’s choice to have Edwina recount these events—Marlin’s disappearance as well as their relationship—directly to us, her ‘therapist’, and addressing us as ‘you’. This framing device felt somewhat gimmicky and distracting. At times the prose could be a bit…icky, “ I felt his tongue spread like jam”, and we do get a few lines that were very superfluous, such as: “My belly button itched, and I scratched it”, or scenes that were trying to be ‘out there’ but struck me as contrived, such as that blood clot scene (it worked in I May Destroy You but here…eh).

In spite of these minor criticisms, I found Edge Case to be a thought-provoking and absorbing read. The author captures how it is to feel ‘other’, emphasizing how hard and exhausting it is to try to ‘assimilate’ into a culture different from the one you were born and raised in. Edwina believes that she will find acceptance through comedy, that by making people laugh she will belong but, as she herself realizes, it is all too easy to end up as the object of ridicule.

With acuity, clarity, and empathy, Chin presents us with an unsettling portrait, that of a woman in crisis. Alongside her exploration of Edwina’s identity, her marriage, her attempts at connection, Chin provides us with a candid look at contemporary America, underlining how sexist and toxic the tech industry is and the absurd rules and draconian policies immigrants have to circumnavigate. There are two scenes, in particular, one at an airport and another on the street, that truly emphasize how vulnerable Edwina and Marlin are in the U.S.
Lastly, this novel gets a plus just for mentioning one of my all-time fave books, Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson.
I look forward to reading more by Chin. Bravo!

my rating: ★★★½

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Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

“I’m thinking I could spend the rest of my life becoming an expert at forgetting.”

Heartbreaking, moving, and ultimately uplifting Last Night I Sang to the Monster is my favourite novel by Sáenz. While this novel explores themes and issues that are recurrent in Sáenz’s oeuvre, Last Night I Sang to the Monster is much darker and, quite frankly, more depressing than his other books. But, if you’ve read anything by Sáenz you know that he never sensationalises ‘difficult’ subject matters nor is he superficial in the way he handles ‘hard’ topics. Sáenz’s empathy and understanding of his characters always shine through. This compassion, tenderness even, that he shows towards them is catching so that within a couple of pages I find myself growing just as attached to his characters as he is.

Last Night I Sang to the Monster follows Zach, an alcoholic eighteen-year-old Mexican-American boy who is in rehab. We don’t know exactly the events that led to his being there but as the narrative progresses, the picture that emerges of his family life is certainly not a happy one (his father, an alcoholic, his mother, severely depressed, his older brother, abusive).

At first, Zach is unwilling and unable to discuss his past, and he finds it difficult to open up to his therapist or his fellow patients. He eventually grows close to Rafael, an older man who understands Zach’s sorrow.
I always admire how Sáenz writes dysfunctional families without vilifying or condoning neglectful parents. Here, like in many other novels by him, father-like figures play a central role in the main character’s arc. With Rafael’s support, Zach’s is able to begin his slow healing process which will see him confronting the events that led to him being in rehab. While his silences initially protected him from being hurt further, eventually, they became debilitating, alienating him from others and his causing him to retreat inward.
Zach’s damaged sense of self-worth, which results in a lot of self-loathing, is not easy to read. Yet, Sáenz’s conversational prose is really easy to read. This style also lends authenticity to Zach’s voice, making it seem as if we truly are in his head. Sáenz has a great ear and his dialogues reflect that. The realistic rhythm of the characters’ conversations makes their interactions all the more vivid and ‘real’.

Throughout the course of the narrative, Sáenz navigates loneliness, trauma, grief, acceptance, and belonging. Zach’s struggles are rendered with clarity and kindness, and so are those of the people around him.
There is no denying that Last Night I Sang to the Monster is a difficult and sad read. Yet, the relationships Zach forms with the other patients, as well as his personal arc, resulting in an incredibly rewarding reading experience.

my rating: ★★★★★

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The Fat Lady Sings by Jacqueline Roy

Although I have not yet read anything by Bernardine Evaristo I am so grateful to her for bringing about this Black Britain: Writing Back series (which re-issues 6 titles by Black British authors). If it hadn’t been for Evaristo, I doubt I would have come across The Fat Lady Sings, a criminally overlooked modern classic. Jacqueline Roy’s novel provides an eye-opening look into mental health in Britain: set in the 1990s in London the novel is narrated by two Black women who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses and sectioned into a psychiatric hospital. The setting of course brought to mind Girl, Interrupted but style and tone-wise it seemed closer to Everything Here is Beautiful.

The narrators of The Fat Lady Sings have starkly different voices. Born in Jamaica Gloria, the title’s ‘singing lady’, is now in her forties and grieving the death of her partner, Josie. Because she occasionally breaks into a song and or starts skipping instead of walking she is deemed mentally ill and forced into a psychiatric ward. Here, she grows irritated by the inefficient staff and doctors, who resort to overmedicating their patients or shaming them for not making ‘progress’. Yet, despite her circumstances, Gloria is unwilling to be less of herself and I truly loved her for it: she was funny, observant, strong, and empathetic.
The other chapters are narrated by Merle. Whereas Gloria’s narrative is full of life and awareness of her circumstances and new environment, Merle’s narrative is far more fragmented, her voice often drowned out by other voices. These voices describe what is happening and what has happened to her, but they do so with vehemence, belittling her, calling her slurs, blaming her for everything little thing. Merle’s chapters once again brought to mind Everything Here is Beautiful as they provide an unflinching glimpse into someone diagnosed with a mental illness. According to the hospital, Merle is in the ward because she suffered a psychotic breakdown. Yet, their attempts to help her seem at times to be more harmful than not. It is Gloria who begins to really see Merle, and the bond between these two women was truly heart-rendering to read.
During their time at the ward, they are made to do ‘exercises that require them to talk or write about their past, and through these, we learn more about Gloria’s early life and Merle’s childhood and marriage.

First published in 2000 The Fat Lady Sings is not only stylistically innovative but discusses all too relevant issues (mental health, race, sexuality) and I hope that thanks to Evaristo it will find its audience. In spite of the harrowing depiction of mental health and sexual abuse, The Fat Lady Sings is not without its moment of joy and beauty. Roy renders the vulnerabilities and strengths of her characters with nuance and empathy. Like some of the best novels out there The Fat Lady Sings made me sad, it made me laugh, and, more importantly, it made me think. Not an easy read but a truly wonderful novel that I look forward to re-reading.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat — book review

“It is a bizarre and unsettling feeling, to exist in a liminal state between two realms, unable to attain full access to one or the other.”

Although I’d intended to read You Exist Too Much I nearly didn’t after reading a really negative review for it, one that was very critical of Zaina Arafat’s depiction of bisexuality. Luckily, my mother read this first and recommended it to me. When an author writes about a character—and even more so when they draw upon their own personal experiences to do so—they are presenting a unique point of view and they are not making generalisations for entire groups of people. The protagonist of this novel is a “love addict” not because of her bisexuality but because of her distorted relationship with her parents—in particular with her mother—and her belief that she’s not worthy of love. Arafat never implies that bisexual people can’t be faithful nor does she suggests that her protagonist’s “love addiction” is caused by her bisexuality (it seems to stem instead from her fraught relationship with her narcissistic mother).
Arafat portrayal of mental illness also struck me as incredibly realistic and deeply resonated with my own personal experiences (having had an eating disorder and having lived with a parent who was undiagnosed bipolar and had substance abuse issues).
All of this to say that Arafat’s treatment of mental and physical health conditions struck me as both informed and believable (feel free to disagree).
I will say that while I found this to be a deeply compelling read, I’m aware that it may not appeal to readers who dislike reading about self-destructive characters. If you hated Madame Bovary for the selfish behaviour of its eponymous heroine, well, chances are you won’t like this one either (curiously enough Arafat’s protagonist thinks rather harshly of Emma Bovary for “her childish fantasies and for cheating on Charles”).

“All along I knew what I was doing was wrong, that I was dangerously close to a precipice. But still, I need to fall in order to stop.”

You Exist Too Much presents its readers with an intimate and in-depth character study. While there are many new novels featuring self-loathing protagonists whose alienation interferes with their ability to form—and sustain—meaningful connections with others, You Exist Too Much feels like a fresh take on this ‘genre’.
After yet another breakup the unnamed main character of You Exist Too Much tries to break free from this vicious cycle of self-sabotaging. She’s unable, and at times unwilling, to maintain healthy relationships with others and frequently becomes drawn to unattainable people, often women. Her infatuation with them soon morphs into toxic obsessions. Arafat’s protagonist mistakes attention for affection and she repeatedly harms those who actually care for her in order to pursue her objet petit a (what can I say, Lacan comes in handy now and again).
When the main character’s girlfriend finds out about her latest “inappropriate emotional connection”, she breaks up with her, telling her to “sift through your issues and face them” so that “maybe one day you’ll learn you can’t treat people with such disregard. Even yourself”. Our narrator attempts to do just that.

The narrative moves between past and present, from the Middle East to New York City and from Italy and Egypt. Readers are given a glimpse into the protagonist’s childhood—her emotionally distant father, her overbearing narcissistic mother—where we see the way these early years skew her self-perception. Her mother tells her she’s unlovable and that she “exists too much”. The narrator is aware that her attraction towards women is a problem for her mother, yet, even if she knows that she would be more accepted if she were to become exclusively romantically involved with men, she pursues relationships with women. So, while our protagonist clearly seeks her mother’s approval, she’s unwilling to deny her sexuality.
Throughout the course of the novel, readers will realise that the narrator is perpetuating the same self-destructive behaviour. Regardless of how her relationships start, they always seem to come to disastrous ends because of her unfaithfulness (emotional and physical) and her “love addiction”, her solipsism and self-loathing, and her underlining unresolved issues with herself and her mother.

Now, I know that I’m making this novel sound rather depressing. And, to be fair, it has quite a few bleak moments. The protagonist makes a lot of awful choices, and she does some really terrible things. She’s also pretty much aware that her actions are wrong, and she does try to improve (for example she goes to rehab for her “love addiction”).
There are more downs than ups as time and again we witness her repeating the same damaging behaviour (becoming attached to unavailable or toxic people). It certainly isn’t easy to unlearn habits, especially ones that are instilled in us during our upbringing. Our narrator messes up a lot, she hurts people who genuinely love her—breaking their trust, keeping them at arm’s length—and readers will probably want to shake her quite a few times. Still, I found myself growing attached to her. I really liked her cutting sense of humour, which also lightens the overall tone and her introspectiveness. Her longing for happiness, for love, for acceptance, are rendered with clarity. Regardless of when or where she is—New York or the West Bank—the narrator is deeply aware of her own ‘otherness’. Although she grew up outside of the Middle East she remains strongly attached to her Arab roots, yet, she notes that “it’s the idiosyncrasies of culture that keep me an outsider, and leave me with a persistent and pervasive sense of otherness, of non-belonging”. In the U. S. too she’s “just as much of an outsider” and she’s made “starkly aware of [her] nonconformity”.

Arafat introduces her readers to flawed, yet ultimately compelling, characters. Regardless of their role in the narrator’s story, these characters—who are all contending with their own issues and desires— felt incredibly nuanced.
While this novel focuses a lot on the narrator failing to connect to others, there are moments of genuine understanding and love between the protagonist and her acquaintances/friends/partners. The narrator’s quest for love isn’t a happy one and her self-divide—between family obligation and desire, between her homelands, between the kind of person she is and the person she wants to be—don’t make for easy reading material. Still, the directness of Arafat’s narrator can at times make her into a rather charming individual.
You Exist Too Much is an impressive debut novel, one that is poignant, thoughtful, and bold and will appeal to readers who enjoyed The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay or books on this list.

My rating: 4 ½ stars (rounded up)

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Good Girl, Bad Girl by Michael Robotham — book review

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This was an unexpectedly silly thriller.
While the story’s premise was compelling enough, the characters and various plot-lines are tawdry rehashes of other novels in this genre…

The plot seems to focus on uninteresting encounters and two unrelated ‘mysteries’, one around Evie Cormac’s identity and past, and the other one is the case forensic psychologist Cyrus Haven is working on. Cyrus ends up fostering Evie and the two have a hard time adapting to their new circumstances. Evie has the ability to detect from someone’s face wherever that person is lying or not. Deeply alienated from her society, she seems both unable and unwilling to act in accordance to social norms. Yet, behind her unbrazen front, Evie is deeply insecure and prone to self-loathing. Sadly, her character was often reduced to a silly caricature of the ‘broken’ girl.
Cyrus is a less compelling protagonist. His voice often sounded far too similar to Evie’s…which wasn’t ideal given that the two have radically different upbringings…he is as interesting as a piece of sidewalk…in other words, not at all. His role in the investigation isn’t very clear cut and it is extremely unlikely that they would let him foster Evie…(conflict of interest anyone?)
Anyhow, the story isn’t all that interested in creating a layered or realistic murder investigation but rather it focuses on how ‘different‘ Evie is. At times it seemed that she was either being sexualized unnecessarily or with the intent of making her appear ‘edgy. She said a lot of stock angsty-teen phrases…she wasn’t likeable nor believable. Her involvement in Cyrus’ case is due to a series of extremely unlikely coincidences which came across as lazy shortcuts to have her help him out.
With the exception of Cyrus all the men in this novel were lacking in intelligence, completely misogynistic, and with no self-control, either shouting or grumbling poorly articulated comments at our two MCs or making sleazy passes at Evie. The women were either ‘promiscuous’, ‘aggressive’, or ‘wet blankets’….
Overall, I found this novel to be a bit of a cheap read…the writing was flat, the characters were stereotypes, and the plot never truly seemed to pick up speed.

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2.5 stars

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Everything Here is Beautiful: Book Review


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Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee

★★★★✰ 4 stars

  “Where are you? Where the fuck are you, Lucia?”

Being punched in the stomach would have been less painful than this.

Lee’s depiction of mental illness is both incredibly vivid and deeply disturbing. Lucia is the focal point of the narrative: she is a free-spirit, full-of-life, a romantic with a big heart. However in her early twenties, something changes. Miranda is in many ways the opposite of her younger sister Lucia and after their mother’s death, Miranda struggles to understand what exactly is happening to her once so happy sister.
Not only does Lee masterfully utilises different point of views in order to give all of her characters an ‘equal’ voice but she also gives us a glimpse of what an ‘outsider’ thinks of Lucia’s situation and of her friends and family. After a particularly severe episode Lucia is hospitalised and we see what the nurses and doctors think of Lucia herself, and of her loved ones (Miranda, Manny—Lucia’s boyfriend— and Yonah, Lucia’s husband).
Each point of view brilliantly renders the individuality of a certain character. The chapters from Lucia’s perspective (which could be both in 1st and 3rd person) were incredibly jarring. A series of staccato sentences, broken up thoughts and impressions, really made me feel what Lucia was experiencing. In spite of how disturbing this feeling was, it was hard to take my eyes away from Lee’s vivid prose.
Another thing that stood out to me was the way in which Lee describes different places and cultures. Each of the main characters has a rich and multi-layered background. And the people that orbit around the main ‘cast’ were just as distinctive. With only a few words Lee is able to imbue her characters with history, personality and realism.

“There’s a word for this in Portuguese: saudade. It’s not exactly nostalgia, there’s more of a longing in it, for a feeling or way of life that may be impossible to recapture—that may or may not have even existed in the first place. An indolent dreaming wistfulness is how I’ve seen one writer describe it. Now that’s a great word.”

The narrative traces Lucia’s life, and the way in which she attempts to escape from her diagnosis. Fearing the loss of her individuality, Lucia tries to reject labels and or diagnosis, which are presented to her as inescapable sentence. Those she cares for try in different way, and with different—if not terrible—results, to help her. More than once the characters and their narratives confront the increasingly blurred line between Lucia and her mental illness. Would Lucia still be herself if it wasn’t for mental illness? Is her personality a result of her schizophrenia? Where does Lucia begin and where does her disorder ends?

“Later, in hindsight, they would come together on this: to wonder when it had become impossible to distinguish which parts of Lucia fell under her own juridistinction and which belonged to her illness.”

Lee does not provides with an answer. In her portrayal of Lucia—and of mental health in general—she never resorts to a didactic or dogmatic explanations, but rather she lets her narrative—which follows different characters during different periods of Lucia’s life—relate how Lucia’s illness is perceived by her and those around her.

 “I’m human first, aren’t I? Aren’t we all?”

We could clearly see that Miranda has the best intentions and tries her best to help Lucia, yet, we can also see how Lucia and others might find Miranda ‘controlling’.
We could also see how Lucia begins to disconnect from her everyday reality and those around her. For example, she is unable to recognise Manny’s terror at being deported or Miranda’s own concern about trying to have a child of her own.
The relationships between the various characters are all too realistic. Misunderstandings can foster resentment and tensions. In spite of all of this pain and hurt, there are some truly beautiful moments of tenderness and compassion that convey the underlying love and affection between these characters.

“You could say: This is the way tow people drift apart.”

Equally harrowing and evocative, Everything Here Is Beautiful is a heart-rendering debut that really that really packs a punch.

“I try not to think about it. I don’t take it personally. People say things, people do things, these two are not the same, I know that. I hope she’s happy, that’s all.”

There are a lot of ‘disturbing’ and painful things: Lucia’s mental illness, how her diagnosis alienates her from her sister, what Lucia experiences during one of her psychotic episodes, what others feel in witnessing Lucia’s dangerous behaviour. And perhaps all of these distressing moments make those rare moments of calm and or peace all the more beautiful.

“When she wakes, she feels something inside her like a venom, a flare in her chest, a burning sensation just beneath her skin. The serpents. A thought flickers. She extinguishes it. When she slows her breath to listen, the air is quiet. It is only her.”

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