Lakewood by Megan Giddings

“America is only routinely good to women, especially Black women, when it wants something from them.”

Having recently read Megan Giddings’ intriguing sophomore novel, The Women Could Fly, I decided to revisit Lakewood, a book that I have picked up and put back down on and off since August 2020. Each reading attempt saw me lose interest during Lena’s first ‘interactions’ with Lakewood. Whereas The Women Could Fly drew me in from the very first pages, I had a much harder time becoming invested in Lena’s story. The writing was solid enough but lacked the polish of the prose that I encountered in The Women Could Fly. Still, this time around I was determined to finish what I’d started, and so I persevered reading, despite my waning interest. Now that I have finally ‘made it’, I can definitely pinpoint why this book didn’t really grab me like The Women Could Fly: whereas in that novel Giddings maintains a delicate balance between her subject matters (authoritarian & patriarchal regimes, female bodily autonomy) and her character development, here Lena never comes into her own, she sadly remains fairly one-dimensional, and her character often struck me as a vehicle through which the author could explore a horrifyingly unethical human experimentation.

I will begin with the positives: I think Giddings excels at atmosphere, and most of the narrative is permeated by a subtle yet unshakeable sense of unease, one that morphs from a feeling of not-rightness into downright horror. Lena’s story also retains an ambiguous quality, one that blurs the line between what’s real and what’s not. Many of her experiences at Lakewood appear to us as fragments, with no clear chronological order, certain events or memories are distorted. The people involved with the Lakewood project and the people of Lakewood themselves remain opaque figures, their names and faces a blur. Their perturbing vagueness exacerbated the narrative’s eerie atmosphere, their perpetual unfamiliarity a source of unease and potential danger. So, in terms of ambience, Lakewood certainly succeeds in making for an alienating and murky read. There were also some very clever descriptions (“Inside, a white woman with a haircut that looked as if she had shown her stylist an image of a motorcycle helmet and said, “That’s the look,” was waiting.”), and I appreciated the narrative’s discourse on sacrifice & freedom.

“Maybe the hypothesis is how much do people value money over themselves?

Where this book lets me down however was the way the Lakewood project is presented to us. Much of the narrative, most of the narrative it seemed, consists of the questions Lena has to answer as part of this experiment. And these questions were by turns weird, seemingly arbitrary, and intrusive. Yet, they bored me. I would have preferred the narrative to be heavier on introspection, as Lena was in much need of, well, a personality (besides being a dutiful daughter). She responds to her environments as you would expect: at first she’s perturbed, then disturbed, and finally horrified. But her responding to the questions and the experiments at Lakewood in this manner did not make her come across as a rounded character. The third-person perspective makes her feel further at a remote, which lessened the impact of her narrative. While we do understand the circumstances that lead Lena to ‘participate’ in this project, I did find her initial compliance odd. I would have liked to see more of an internal monologue on her part, rather than having to see her function as a mere plot device through which the author can show how dehumanizing medical experimentation can be. I mean, you could read an article discussing actual unethical medical experimentations, if I have to read about a fictional take on these, I would like for these to be explored through nuanced characters (or a compelling main character at least). Still, the author is able to address the type of circumstances that might lead someone to take part in medical experimentation, and the difficulties in extracting oneself from it. Lena is never quite certain of what is happening to her, and is very much restricted by nda she has signed. She does now and again ask why certain questions are being asked to her, the point behind her answers, but she receives no replies or unsatisfying ones. With the exception of one person, we don’t learn much about the other people in the experiment, and the time Lena spends at Lakewood acquires a blurry, almost feverish quality, one that makes it often difficult to grasp how much time has passed from one scene to the next and determine Lena’s reactions to what she is subjected to and witnesses there. There is a lot f*cked up stuff that happens there that is just glossed over, and in a way, I get that the author was showing that the participants in this experiment had been desensitized to the weirdness of the questions and rules there, but I would have wanted the author to expand some more on Lena’s feelings about a lot of stuff, to be honest.
There seemed to be neither a lot of telling nor showing bizarrely enough. What we do get is a lot of question-and-answer scenes which are profoundly repetitive and dull. I would have liked for the narrative to incorporate more portions of Lena’s life prior to Lakewood, as I believe that her relationship with her now-deceased grandmother, her chronically ill mother, and her best friend, would have added an emotional layer to the story. Again, maybe the cold, detached, somewhat clinical tone was intentional given the focus on Lakewood, however, I personally would have preferred some more depth from Lena.
Still, the author does focus on the way racial minorities, in particular Black people, and disadvantaged groups, such as poor and/or disabled individuals, are often the targets of these experiments, and how they are lied to, abused, and ultimately treated as ‘disposable’. The author also shows the hypocrisy of institutions and corporations that perpetuate physical and psychological violence in the name of ‘progress’.
The denouement was anticlimactic and in some ways predictable. That whole last section, which is presented as a letter if I recall correctly, in some ways ruined the surreal atmosphere so far established by the narrative.

I would have liked more. More from the story, the plot, and especially Lena. The premise was certainly intriguing but the execution left a lot to be desired. I went into this excepting something along the lines of Yorgos Lanthimos or Get Out, and while the book does have Black Mirror and even some Severance vibes, the storyline ultimately feels incomplete and it severely lacked in oomph.

Still, just because I didn’t find this to be as gripping a read as I’d hoped does not mean it was a bad book. If you are interested in it I recommend you check out more positive reviews.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Boy Parts by Eliza Clark


disclaimer: i did not like this book. the opinions and impressions i will express in this review are entirely subjective and i am not in fact stating ‘irrefutable facts’. it has come to my attention that this author has a history of going on twitter to ‘bemoan’ reviewers who have given her book a negative review…which has never been a win in my books. so i will attempt to write this review with a death of the author approach. please do not confuse my negative review of this book as a personal attack on the author or as an estimation of the author herself as i do not know her in any capacity whatsoever. if you are incensed by reviewers expressing an opinion that differs from your own one, you are better off skipping this review (this includes you too eliza…).

vague and not so vague spoilers below

I am befuddled by the ratings and reviews singing this book’s praises. This is one of those cases where I am forced to ask myself: did I read the same book as everybody else? And before you @ me, no, I did not dislike this book because it is work of satire centred on an (exaggeratedly) intentionally unlikeable main character. Some of my favorite books focus on people who are varying degrees of horrible or ‘messy’ (my year of rest and relaxation, luster, madame bovary, sula, pretend i’m dead, you exist too much, apartment, symptomatic, these violent delights, and a lot of the stuff written by authors such as shirley jackson, danzy senna, and joyce carol oates). I also like characters like Hannibal or Villanelle. I read Lolita and while it did repulse me (as intended) I didn’t hate it because it was from the pov of a pdophile. And I am fond of the ‘she’s not feeling too good’ subgenre, contemporary books that are characterized by a caustic tone and explore the lives of women who are, you guessed it, not feeling too good and are depicted as alienated and self-sabotaging … I also do not have a problem with books combining dark humor with violence, My Sister the Serial Killer is a fave of mine. And a few months ago I was enthralled and disturbed by Titane directed by Julia Ducournau (who actually gets a mention in boy parts). All of this to say is that I can deal with and even appreciate characters who for whatever reason do, think, or say things that are ‘frowned’ upon or downright evil. I would go as far as to say that I prefer flawed characters over flawless/uber-likeable characters (very edgy of me, i know). My only caveat is that I have to find said unlikable characters interesting: Emma Bovary, for instance, is not a particularly clever character, you could say she is quite the opposite. She’s naive, pathetic, obnoxious, solipsistic, cruel, and superficial…but I found her acts of self-dramatization to be both fascinating and a source of great amusement. Ottessa Moshfregh’s narrator in MYORAR is nasty (she is awful to her supposed best friend, callous, narcissistic, morbid, and says/thinks offensive things about many groups of people). Did I condone her actions in the novel? No. Did I find her fcked up sense of humor to be highly addictive? Yes. This is all to say that Irina being a stronza who engages in ‘bad’ behaviour, is not why I didn’t like this book. The reason why I did not like this book has less to do with her being an unlikable cnt and more to do with her being boring as fck. Her internal monologue is repetitive, but not even in a realistic navel-gazey way, like Selin’s narration is in The Idiot, but in an incredibly affected way that just comes across as the book desperately trying to present this character as some counter-culture edgelady, who repeatedly ‘transgresses’ accepted norms of behaviours and—shock horror—flips the ‘male gaze’ on its head by being the one behind the camera. Maybe if this book had come out in the 80s, I would be more inclined to forgive or accept its many shortcomings, but since it was published in 2020 I have a harder time reconciling myself with its unimaginative and superficial exploration of female sexuality, the male gaze, and female rage. There is nothing clever about the way the narrative represents and discusses these themes. The narrative is very much all flash, no substance (tutto fumo e niente arrosto) as it not only mistakes shock value for real horror but it operates under the false assumption that gratuitous or otherwise sensationalistic content is subversive and thought-provoking. If this book had actually been disturbing maybe then I could have overlooked its pulpy and overt storyline…but it isn’t. Funnily enough the story’s numerous floundering attempts at edginess, but these feel dated and painfully affected, on the lines of Awad’s Bunny or Mariana Enríquez who at least do not settle for mid-tier levels of offensive but fcking commit.

Boy Parts reads like a short story that has been stretched beyond its expiry date. The ‘hook’, that of a ‘pervy’ female photographer, had potential for the first 30% of the narrative. Then things just get messy, and not a good kind of messy where I am enthralled by our mc’s unreliable and increasingly disconcerting narrative, but messy in a poorly executed kind of way. The writing changes slightly, but not in a believably organic way that reflects the main character’s spiralling mental health. The book’s satire is devoid of substance or bite. The caricatures populating this narrative are neither amusing nor particularly provocative. Some characters come across as heavy-handed attempts at capturing a certain type of person, while either serve no function other than to exist so the narrator can prove to the readers how nasty she is. The story could have been a lot more effective if the tone had been camped up, so we could have something along the lines of Jennifer’s Body (which is by no means a perfect film but at least it’s entertaining and self-aware). Or maybe if the book had gone for a more elliptical stream-of-consciousness type of storytelling, a la Clarice Lispector, maybe then I would have liked it more. But what we got just did not work for me at all. There was something profoundly simplistic about the way these themes are explored and the narrator is one of the dullest galls I have ever had the misfortune to read about. Being a tall and sexy white Northern who thinks she’s the fcking hardcore because she likes to take kinky photos of men she deems ‘beta’…yeah. The way the book satirizes England’s art scene is banal, we get unfunny lines about identity politics and artists such as Tracey Emin. The narrative doesn’t convey Irina’s creative process in a convincing way, in fact, I was left with the impression that—and here i must briefly break from my death of the author approach and acknowledge the existence of the author—whoever was behind the story was either not particularly familiar with photography or not interested in going into detail about it (as i said this an impression i formed, not a fact). As examinations of female creativity go, this one is derivative and unsatisfying. I mean, compared to We Play Ourselves, Self-Portrait with Boy, and Generation Loss (all of whom happen to focus on queer young women who are not portrayed as exclusively interested in men and in replicating tired dom/sub dynamics) Boy Parts just doesn’t go much into depth when it comes to Irina and her changing relationship to her photography. I didn’t feel that she actually felt passionate about these photos, rather, we are told what she did at a school, and she relates the art she produced in that period in a very meh way, and now she gets horny when she tells men to pose in vanilla sub positions, while she occasionally plays the dom role (stepping on them and sht). Like, wow. How edgy. And you might say that the narrative is less concerned about mapping out the creative process preceding these photos than with over-emphasising what the photos themselves signify. Male gaze who? Uhm. Sure. Thing is, this kind of obvious ‘appropriation’ of the male gaze and the misogyny often underlining said gaze is not new nor thought-provoking. Quite the opposite in fact. I found the logic at play in the narrative to be highly sus: Irina experiences misogyny and is objectified by the male gaze; Irina perpetuates misogyny + misandry and objectifies men, her models in particular. Irina has a sexual encounter where the partner doesn’t listen to her when she says she wants to be on top. He ignores and demands her to scream for him, yanking her hair. She says that since he is going to ignore her he ‘could put his back into it’. He takes this as a confirmation that she ‘likes it rough’. Quelle surprise, she later has sex with someone she deems weak who asks her to slap him she starts hitting him until he starts crying and this leads to the classic ‘victim becomes abuser’ kind of observation that doesn’t really go deeper than that. If anything it is annoying that we get that scene just so the mc can have this dark eureka moment. Early in the story, Irina goes to a party where she is meeting up with a guy who is there to make fun of the ‘I’m a Nice Guy Really’ type of men who claim they are feminists while trying to wrangle themselves out of being accused of SA. Anyway, she goes to this party with her spineless friend who reminds her that even if she acts all hardcore she is a vulnerable woman. Our mc makes a joke about being raped by the guys she’s hanging out with and what later follows is an intentionally unclear scene where it seems that this guy the mc went to see tried to rpe her while she was passed out or was otherwise incapacitated and therefore not being able to give consent. I really hated how timed this whole thing was. It was rather tasteless. I have come across other books that punish female characters who are confident in their sexuality or sexually active by resulting in scenes where they are SA or need a man to ‘save’ them. And here…this whole rpe subplot seems just there for shock value and nothing else. The narrative seems to forget about it, more intent on emphasizing how edgy and obscene the mc is. Fcking hell. Can we not?! I am not saying that I want every story to include rpe or SA to be serious and to exclusively revolve around this. However, the way the narrative meanders about without any real direction or without the kind of piercing commentary that makes up for vacuous storylines…I am left wondering why, why, why did we get this scene? Especially when the narrative seems confused about the kind of character Irina is. It seemed we were meant to perceive her as a vile character. Not quite a Humbert Humbert type of figure but someone who is working their way towards being the female equivalent of Patrick Bateman. She’s apathetic, has an inflated sense of self, experiences moments of dissociation where she observes the people around her with a mixture of superiority and detachment seems to categorize men in a way that is all the rage in the manosphere, and makes no compunction about transgressing accept norms of behaviour, engaging in sadistic behaviour, or deriving pleasure from what her society deems taboo (rpe fantasies etc.). She can also perform certain roles, such as that of the Manic Pixie Girl, to her advantage, for example when she wants to attract the kind of men who would be into that type of girl. Irina, so far, seems a satirical take on the femme fatale. Yet, we also get so many instances that go against what this kind of characterization is trying to establish. For instance, she forgets that she has to perform a certain role and says whatever the fck comes to her because she’s such a girlboss. Sometimes she would make observations or remarks that would be believable if they originated from someone ‘normal’ or who was not shown to have psychopathic traits. For example, after that guy forces himself on her…she wonders about whether she really wanted rough sex and why do women feel that they have to say yes to rough sex etc…which is a valid af point but I did not believe that someone like Irina would even bother to have such thoughts. She should have been annoyed that someone of no consequence had physically overpowered her. Previously her response to being SA at the party was to be annoyed that that non-entity guy had the gall to try to rpe her. But then we are meant to believe that she was in fact traumatized by this so much so that now she herself is subjecting others to the type of trauma she was victim to. Like…what is going on. And don’t get me started on how large chunks of the narrative make her abuse of men seem so fcking transgressive and hardcore when it was anything but. There is a storyline involving, you guessed it, ‘boy parts’ that was just a rip off from American Psycho (in that we are meant to question the veracity of irina’s recollection of these violent events). Anyhow, the man who Irina abuses most happens to be a lot younger than her and, unlike her, despite the story’s initial attempts at painting her as a struggling artist, her name is known in artsy circles and she can afford her living expense and the type of materials required to print out her edgy photos, he works at Tesco. Additionally, he is mixed-race, possibly queer, and was involved with someone abusive (emotional abuse is still abuse fellas). So, did I find Irina’s SA him, gaslighting him, humiliating him, mistreating him, etc, empowering? Not really. Sure, the narrative shows us just how ‘pathetic’ and ‘sad’ he is about his messed up relationship with Irina but his experiences bear no real weight on Irina’s narrative. He serves as a plot device through which Irina, a character who is supposed to be very much beyond caring, can inflict the trauma she herself was subjected to. Also, for someone who goes on scathing takes about ‘white people’ who pretend they are not ‘white’ but dance to The Smiths in this ‘post-racist-Morrissey’ era and expresses frustration about the misogyny and classism rampant in her day-to-day life…it seemed weird that she would think sht like this (“I know I’m white, but there’s just a lot of white people White People-ing in a very small area, like it’s just some very, very densely packed mayo, you know? Densely packed mayo, jiggling about, doesn’t know what to do with its arms, doesn’t know what to do with its feet, undulating loosely, barely in time to the rhythm.”) but actually says sht like this to the mixed-race boy she is toying around with (‘It’s fine for you being out in this heat; you tan. You’re always tan. You look like you’ve just been on holiday or something,’) or this (Japenese/Korean girls being the ‘same thing’). It would have made more sense if she’d said that first thing out loud, to impress her peers with how comfortably she can talk about whiteness and make them feel inadequate and less savvy (after all wasn’t she supposed to enjoy feeling superior to others?), and to ‘merely’ think the other two as to say them out loud in front of someone who is not white, and who she had identified as ‘sensitive’, and risk that he would see her for who she truly was. She, later on, writes a transphobic email to someone trans which again, was just gratuitous yet seemed included for laughs, and made me question why she would do that if this person could use that to prove to others that she is in fact awful. Why bother with all that gaslighting of your acquaintances if you then don’t give a sht about being exposed…? We are previously told that she is manipulative AF. She fools men and has her pathetic bff convinced they are friends to start with. Although she wants to transgress accepted norms of behaviour she knows these norms are there to begin with so in certain spaces she comports herself in a certain way, her art is the only indicator that she is into some smutty kinky stuff. I did not find her inconsistencies to be realistic or to result in a nuanced character. It seemed that the story didn’t really know what kind of character it wanted us to read about so it went all over the place. I wish that the story had committed to paint her as a morally reprehensible character we were meant not to like.
The other characters are one-note and just as unrealistic. They would not be out of place in an episode of Family Guy or Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Speaking of Tarantino if you thought that Uma Thurman’s character in that or Kill Bill have some merit…well, you might like Boy Parts after all. This book radiates the kind of feminist energy that Cara Delevingne wearing that ‘peg the patriarchy’ outfit at the met gala gives. Trying to be provoking in a puerile way. And I can forgive a lack of intersectionality and dimension if say this, like Plath’s Bell Jar, had been published in the 1960s. But it wasn’t so…anche no.

Anyway, the side characters are just as boring as Irina herself. Some of them are downright insulting. We have someone who exists to be the transman who is the butt of the joke for many comments made by Irina. He makes two or possibly three appearances where she makes comments about his height, barbs that are meant to make him feel inadequate and not masculine enough, and later on writes that disgusting email to him where she goes on about identity politics and claims that he is solely drawing upon his personal experiences to produce art (when she is doing that very same thing…get it? ah! ). Flo (i had to check her name, that’s how memorable she is) is a rip off of Reva from MYORAR who exists to be the classic female friend in love with our female protagonist who does not and will not ever reciprocate her feelings. I am so f*cking tired of books that make the mc bisexual because it’s edgy and ‘different’ but then proceed to have said character almost exclusively engage in sexual/romantic relationships with men. This character will rarely if ever acknowledge or indicate that she finds people who are not men attractive. She will have a friend who is a lesbian or in this case a bi friend, who is in love with her. The narrative will mention towards the very start or the very end that she did have a relationship with a woman once and call it a day. They don’t even try to explore the mc’s internalised homophobia/biphobia. Here we have a line about Irina preferring men to women and that’s kind of it.

Anyway, don’t even get me started on Flo’s blog posts. What was the point in them? Irina gives us a summary of their contents so why add the blog entries themselves? Their attempts at making fun of cringe people like Flo came across as a joke that has gone on for too long.
And mio dio, the amount of dated references in this book is something else. The film mentions make sense given that Irina is an edgy photographer but the amount of pop culture in these pages is just…it made me feel that I was having to slog through a series of insufferable twitter posts. If avoid that in real life why should I be interested in a fictionalized take on these comments/discussions? The conversations about kim’s bum did not make the dialogues realistic or mumblecoresque. They struck me as stagey and dull.
The exploration of sexual desire that goes on in this novel is painfully and predictably heteronormative, with the ‘twist’ that the woman wants to be the more dominant party. How revolutionary. The more I write about this f*cking book the more I hate it. What an utter waste of time. With the exception of that funny line about Timothée Chalamet, I was not amused. I did not feel anything for our main girl. Her being hot, from the North, and into kinky sh*t do not make for a compelling character (‘Geordie girls are up there with Irish girls and Scottish girls; the black women of white women, you know?’….f*ck off). Maybe if the narrative had committed to portraying her as a menace I would have felt a modicum of interest. The instances where she is offensive are played up for laughs but were anything but. Her Mommy Issues™ and eating disorder are presented in a childish way and the narrative barely scratches the surface beneath these issues. You Exist Too Much deals with these issues in a much more nuanced and compelling way.
Anyway, I don’t need a character’s motivations to think violent thoughts or do violent things to be made ‘transparent’: like I said I was transfixed by Titane, and there we learn virtually nothing about our central character, let alone why she goes on a killing spree. I also really love things like Stoker and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, both focus on morbid teens/young women. Or New People by Senna. That book presents us with a believably perturbing portrait of an alienated and alienating woman. But this is eh. Boy Parts reads like something that has been done before and better. It has the same vibe as those ‘that’s literally me’ filmbros who overidentify with the leads from films such as Taxi DriverAmerican PsychoFight ClubDrive, and Joker. Just because the lead here is a woman doesn’t make this wannabe subversive exploration of alienation any less cringe. I swear, Irina just gives Gaslight Gatekeep Girlboss vibes and it could have worked if the narrative had committed more fully to being a campy satire instead of then deciding it wanted to be dark and serious. Also, the way the latter half of the novel goes for this feverish, surrealist tone is just schifo. Even Awad did this better in Bunny. And don’t get me started on Caroline O’Donoghue’s Promising Young Women: the narrative there truly captures the narrator’s bizarre and disturbing dissolution. And if you prefer a more heavy exploration of r*pe I recommend Rosie Price’s What Red Was. And, of course, I May Destroy You: that series is just…spectacular. And its final episode is what Boy Parts wishes it was. Why didn’t the novel go for a subversive take on the ‘r*pe & revenge’ subgenre? I don’t know…it had the chance to but then seems to lose itself in a self-indulgent and puddle-deep exploration of the male gaze.
The prose was derivative and lifeless. Now and again we get lines that are trying so hard to be provocative but failed to inspire a response in me (be it amusement or disgust). The first half of the novel would have Irina try to go for this conversational/confessional tone that just came across as trying to be Fleabag or the narrator from MYORAR (the constant ‘you know’ were annoying).
I doth not understand the hype. Personally, I found this book’s attempt at being edgy and subversive to be rather performative and disappointingly shallow. And to compare this to Moshfegh’s MYORAR..? te piasaria…I was not a fan of the writing, of the plot, or of the way the narrative explores its themes. I am surprised that so many readers did not seem to pick up on this book’s Gaslight, Gatekeep, Girlboss shtick. White feminism at its finest…and if this was intentional it doens’t result in a particularly daring or fascinating narrative. I mean, this book thinks its something by Gaspar Noé (a director who is not my cup of tea but i can’t deny that the man’s films are transgressive and really gratuitous) but it is just rather insipid. Like I said, the offensive bits just gave me Family Guy vibes. Again, I must stress how shallow this felt. And not in an intentional way, like in American Psycho and its critique of capitalism and consumerism. I wish the story could have actually interrogated more Irina’s own privilege, that’s she is white, able-bodied, pretty, and ‘straight’ passing…but it doesn’t. We get a very ostentatious take on a woman perpetuating the ‘male gaze’. It is such a pity. I am a fan of books depicting women capable of monstrosity not because i condone their behaviour but i find the way these narratives engage with their conflicting ideals of femininity and explore their darkest parts of their psyche fascinating.

Not all satire is good satire. And this just ain’t it for me.
Boy Parts was banal. Really painfully banal. The kind of book that makes me wish that I could be able to unread things.

my rating: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America by Laila Lalami

Drawing from her own experiences as a Moroccan immigrant living in the States, in Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America Laila Lalami presents us with an impassioned and thoughtful social commentary. With piercing clarity, she touches upon Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, and sexism. She reflects on the many flaws and conditions of citizenship, specifically American citizenship, and on the many ways, it fails people. I truly appreciated the way she discusses topical and oh so important social issues, and the lucidity of her arguments: from discussing the way citizenship is equated with whiteness, white privilege and white fragility, racial profiling, borders, racist rhetorics and the vilification of immigrants, inhumane legislations, the notion of ‘assimilation’, belonging, etc. Throughout this collection of essays, Lalami raises many thought-provoking points and makes many illuminating observations. While Lalami does discuss other people’s experiences, often providing statistics or citing specific incidents/events, her own personal experiences inform much of her writing, which makes it all the more affecting. I admired the way she would attempt to relate to the kind of people I personally would write off as c*nts while also fully acknowledging how frustrating a position she is often made to be in (that of educating bigoted people).
While she does write about subjects that are ‘American’ specific, such as applying for citizenship in America, the issues underlying her essays should not concern exclusively an American readership. Although I did gain insight into processes I am not familiar with, throughout this collection Lalami delves into topics that will undoubtedly resonate with many readers outside of the States.

My only quibble is that some of her essays could have integrated a more intersectional approach. For instance, while Lalami does include ‘asides’ discussing gender inequality and #metoo, she barely acknowledges lgbtq+ related issues.
Curiously enough this is another case where I find myself liking the non-fictional work of an author whose fiction I low-key did not get on with…I would definitely recommend this one and I am determined to read (and hopefully like) Lalami’s The Moor’s Account.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Midnight at Malabar House by Vaseem Khan

Midnight at Malabar House presents its readers with a fairly promising start to a new sleuthing series. As you may or may not know I am a big fan of whodunnits and golden detective fiction and ever since finishing Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries I have been on the lookout for a historical mystery with a female lead. Midnight at Malabar House starts off in Bombay on New Year’s Eve, 1949. Inspector Persis Wadia, our main character, happens to be India’s first female inspector. Persis is fairly ‘fresh’ on the force and is keen to prove her worth. Yet, her passionate and driven attitude seems to have only antagonized her peers who are quick to dismiss her on the basis of her gender and her age. It just so happens that she’s the first on the scene of Sir James Herriot, a ‘distinguished’ English diplomat. Persis knows that his death is not a result of a robbery gone wrong and is prepared to pursue avenues that might make her a persona non grata in the force as the wealthy and well-connected guests of Herriot’s party are not happy to be seen as suspects. Her superior too seems to show little concern over the apprehension of the true killer, seemingly satisfied with attributing his death to the most convenient and ‘expandable’ person. As Persis investigates Herriot’s not-so-straight-and-narrow affairs and the various members of his household she is forced to reassess her idea of justice. Persis is assisted by Archie Blackfinch, a Scotland Yard criminalist who becomes her unlikely ally.
The aspect I enjoyed the most was the historical setting. Vaseem Khan demonstrates an admirable ability to render specific time periods and places: from his dialogues to the way the characters comport themselves, Khan shows an understanding of the social mores existing in this period of time. Because of this many characters express unsavoury opinions, and Persis is often at the sharp end of these remarks. I appreciated that Persis was portrayed as a very determined individual. Her characterization does fall a bit into the clichèd territory as she’s the ‘green’ young investigator keen to prove herself and the, allegedly, ‘stubborn’ woman in a male-dominated field. Her stubbornness is made out to be her ‘main’ flaw, something that frustrated me a little. At times this aspect of her character was a tad overdone as if the author wanted to stress that she wasn’t a perfect lead and/or to explain how she has ‘made it’ onto the force. It just so happens that before reading this I’d read another male-authored book with a ‘headstrong’ female investigator/agent/whatever and part of me realizes that may very well be realistic but I’d like more complexity in their characterization. The male investigators are battling inner demons/recovering from traumas/clever-yet-super-flawed or whatever else and the women are ‘stubborn’ and ‘spunky’….then again, this is only the first instalment in a series that will probably go on to make Persis into a more rounded character, so I look forward to that (khan, do not disappoint me pls).
The case is fairly engaging and I liked the plot’s momentum. We have red herrings, some false leads, some interesting dialogues with possible suspects etc. Backdropping this investigation are some thought-provoking discussions on the long-lasting consequences of colonialism, the partition, class-based inequalities, and corruption. This landscape of political and social turmoil adds a layer of tension and urgency to Persis’ investigation, and overall I liked the author’s nuanced approach to these topics. I particularly appreciated how he challenges simplistic ‘good/evil’ binaries. Persis does undergo some promising character growth, as she learns that good intentions do not always lead to good outcomes and that her ambition sometimes clouds her judgment. While she does show empathy for others, there are instances where she is so focused on the big picture, in this case, the identity of the killer, that she can come across as callous. There is a hint of a romance subplot which I am not wholly sold on yet…but maybe the follow-up will make said romance a bit more credible.

While this whodunnit doesn’t quite fall into the cozy mystery genre it ultimately had a feel-good vibe to it. It was very rewarding to see Persis challenge the people who oppose her or who proudly & loudly share their misogynistic views. If you are an Agatha Christie fan you should definitely check this one out.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼

Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan

In many ways Sex and Vanity was exactly the pulpy light-hearted read I was in dire need of. Kevin Kwan’s engrossing and entertaining storytelling made me speed through his book and I ended up finishing it in less than a day. As retellings go, this manages to be both (fairly) faithful and rather refreshing. What kept me from wholly loving this book was Lucie, the book’s central character. She’s the kind of self-absorbed, self-pitying, and milquetoast type of heroine that I have come to abhor, so much so that I actively root against them (especially since they are presented to us as likeable/good heroines who are not wholly responsible for their ‘bad’ actions).

Kwan’s reimagining of Forster’s A Room With A View features a contemporary setting and focuses on Lucie Churchill, a Chinese American young woman who is tired of feeling like the odd one out in her social circle. Her deceased father’s relatives are insufferably wealthy WASPs who see and treat her like an ‘oddity’ (the grandmother repeatedly refers to her as a ‘China doll’…yikes). To avoid being the subject of further gossip Lucie, now aged 19, has cultivated a good-girl image. Whereas A Room With A View opens in Florence, Sex and Vanity transports us to Capri where Lucie is staying to attend the wedding of her friend Isabel Chiu. Lucie’s chaperone is the snobbish and fussy Charlotte, her older cousin on her father’s side, who both in name and character is very faithful to her original counterpart. The wedding is decidedly over-the-top and Kwang certainly seems to have fun in envisioning the opulent foods & beverages and extravagant activities that would seem like musts to filthy rich ppl like Isabel and her cohort. As with the original, the two cousins end up in a hotel room with no view and are offered to trade for one with a view on the Tyrrhenian Sea by two other guests, George Zao and his mother (in the original it was George and his father). Lucie dislikes Gergeo on sight. She tells herself it’s because he’s too handsome and too un-American, but, over the course of the wedding celebrations, she finds herself growing intrigued by him.
As with the original something happens between Lucie and George that could very well lead to a ‘scandal’. This is witnessed by Charlotte who makes it her business to separate the ‘lovers’.

The latter half of the story takes place 5 years later in New York. Lucie is engaged to Cecil, who is ‘new money’ and therefore not wholly accepted by Lucie’s set. We are introduced to Lucie’s mother and her brother, who due to his gender and possibly his ‘WASP’ appearance, isn’t as scrutinized as Lucie herself is. Lucie’s future is jeopardized when George and his mother arrive in town. Lucie is horrified at the discovery that George knows her fiance and that the two will be forced to be in each other’s proximity at the various social gatherings they attend. Of course, even as Lucie tells herself she’s not interested in George and that he and his mother represent everything she does not want to be (the gal sure has a lot of internalized racism to deal with) she can’t stop obsessing over him.
Whereas the tone and atmosphere of Forster’s original struck me as gentle, idyllic even, Kwan’s brand of satire is far louder and sensationalistic. This suits the kind of people he’s satirizing, their obsession with status, brands, and reputation, as well as their lack of self-awareness. The rarefied world he depicts is certainly an insular one and while Lucie does experience prejudice, for the most part, the problems his characters face are very much rich people problems.
Given that this novel is far lengthier than Forster’s one I hoped that George would get his time to shine, or that his romance with Lucie could be depicted more openly. But Kwang prioritizes gossipy dialogues over character development.
Most of the conversations and scenes in this novel are of a humorous nature, and Kwang is certainly not afraid to poke fun at his characters (their hypocritical behaviour, their sense of entitlement, their privilege). Still, he keeps things fairly light, and there were even a few instances where the narrative veers in the realms of the ridiculous.
While there is no strictly likeable character, Lucie was perhaps the most grating of the lot. Whereas I excepted Cecil to be a conceited, condescending, wannabe-aesthete (kwang and forester’s cecils pale in comparison to daniel day-lewis’ cecil), I wasn’t prepared for such as wishy-washy heroine. While I could buy into the motivations of Forester’s Lucy (her self-denial, her inability and or unwillingness to articulate her feelings towards george), I could not bring myself to believe in Kwang’s Lucie’s ‘reasonings’. She acts like a child experiencing their first crush, not someone in their mid-twenties. Her antipathy towards George and his mother also made her into an extremely unlikable character. Her actions towards the latter, which as far as I can recall were not inspired from the original, made me detest her. Not only was her ‘plan’ was completely inane but inexcusable. She struck me as bratty, self-involved, superficial, vapid. At times she acts like a complete cretin. I could not see how other people could stand her, let alone how someone like George could fall in love with her.
Even if her character lowered my overall opinion of this novel, I nevertheless had a blast with Sex and Vanity. I liked how Kwang adapted certain plot elements to fit with his modern setting (instead of a book revealing that ‘scandalous’ moment, it’s a film; instead of the carriages there are golf carts). Part of me would have preferred it if Kwang had not made George and his mother ultra-rich given that in the original George and his father are certainly not well off. I also liked that in the original Lucy refuses Cecil twice, whereas here (as far as my memory serves) Lucie immediately accepts Cecil’s request.
Sex and Vanity is a gleefully ‘trashy’ comedy of manners. Kwang’s droll prose and drama-driven narrative make for the perfect escapist read.

my rating: ★★★½

It Is Wood, It Is Stone by Gabriella Burnham

Aside from its pretty cover It Is Wood, It Is Stone doesn’t have a lot to offer. It is one of those novels that is very much all style, no substance. Plot and character development are sacrificed in favour of gimmicky narrative devices and flashy metaphors. I finished this less than a week ago and yet I have retained almost nothing about its story or its characters. Not a great sign.

The novel is narrated by Linda, a bland American woman who follows her husband, a professor (?), to São Paulo after he’s given a yearlong teaching position there. Linda refers to Dennis as ‘you’, a gimmick that gets old fast (the kind of literary stunt that is more suited to a creative writing class). Anyhow, Linda isn’t sure if she still loves her bland husband but she nevertheless follows him because why not. In Brazil, Linda has to adjust to having a maid, Marta, an older woman she finds fascinating because of reasons. She then meets a woman in a bar and allegedly falls for her. More navel-gazing ensues with a few sprinkles of a half-hearted social commentary. The narrative doesn’t really provide much insight into issues of class, race, and sexuality. It thinks it does but really, the author is more intent on impressing their vibrant language on us (which often consists in clichéd imagery involving blood or the abject body and fake-deep realizations). The author doesn’t do much with her setting either. Much of the novel takes place indoors, which could have worked if our protagonist Linda had been an interesting narrator but her observations managed to be both dull and predictable. The author’s portrayal of marriage dynamics also failed to engage me. The author doesn’t maximise her story’s domestic setting, and rather than painting a convincing portrait of an increasingly disaffected married woman she presents us with a series of digressions (on the body, dreams, sex) that amount to nothing. The affair she has with this woman was rendered in such a vague manner that I never really bought into it. It seemed a plot-device more than anything.

There is nothing subversive or original about this novel. If you don’t mind affected and purply language, maybe you will find this more rewarding than I did.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang

“Who knows. I could change my mind. It is changing all the time.”

Days of Distraction should have been right up my street. Alas, it turned out not to be the ‘wry’, ‘tender’, and ‘offbeat coming-of-adulthood tale’ its blurb promised it’d be. Our quasi-unnamed narrator is a Chinese American woman in her early twenties who works at a tech publication. Her boyfriend is this generic white guy, who’s aptly enough referred to by just the one letter, J. The prose is plain & dry, the characters are as flat and thin as paper, the storyline is slow and repetitive. The narrator decides to follow J to Ithaca, an upstate New York town, where he will be completing his degree. She works a bit from home but soon finds herself growing bored by her new life. She invests most of her time delving into American history and interracial relationships. Great chunks of text read as if belonging to a textbook, and in fact, I’d go as far as to say that the author should have either committed to writing a work of fiction or gone for an essay on this subject matter.
The narrative does highlight the sexism and racism our protagonist encounters at work and during her everyday life. In her old job, her managers are unwilling to give her a raise, confuse her with the other Asian American employee, or say inappropriate/racist/sexist things. Our protagonist doesn’t have a personality as such. She’s very much a generic millennial who expresses the typical woes and worries that are bound to arise during a person’s twenties. Her quarter-mid life crisis is a very subdued one. Nothing much happens. She has some awkward encounters or conversations, her boyfriend seems to minimise her experiences with racism (implying that she’s taken something ‘the wrong way’ or that that person ‘meant well’ and other yike-ey stuff like this). She eventually goes to visit her father who lives in China and here the story finally felt a bit more engaging, but sadly this section is rather short and that epilogue killed what little enthusiasm I had for this novel.
The dynamic between her and J was so boring and flat. They are together for reasons beyond me. Our narrator is not particularly likeable, which, if you know my book tastes, is not a problem. However, I do want some sort of personality. And this gal had none. I found her unfunny, uninteresting, and unpleasant. Is she entirely unsympathetic? No. However, she never struck me as a fully-realised person. J is even worse. He’s a white male straight American. That’s more or less his whole character. He was painfully bland. I did not care for him in the least nor was I at any point convinced by his relationship with our mc. I guess they were both boring?
This novel had potential but it very much lacked zing. The author’s sparse prose combined with her insipid character results in a rather underwhelming affair. Add to that those large portions of text that read as if straight from a textbook and there you have it, a snoozefest. The one aspect I did enjoy was our mc’s phone calls to her parents. I ended up rather liking her parents and I found myself wishing that they would play a bigger role in the narrative (the mc also has siblings but they have 0 impact on the story and her character). There were paragraphs or lines now and again that sort of struck a chord with me but they did not make up for the mc’s waffling and self-pitying outweighed those few insightful moments.
While I won’t be dissuading anyone from reading this I do feel the need to recommend Edge Case as an alternative. While not perfect it did delve a bit more deeply into the realities of being a woc working in the tech industry. And if you are looking for more books following alienated women in their 20s I have made a list over here.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Inseparables by Simone de Beauvoir

“She had appeared so glorious to me that I had assumed she had everything she wanted. I wanted to cry for her, and for myself.”



Superbly written The Inseparables is a novella that pairs an enthralling depiction of female friendship with a razor-sharp commentary on gender and religion This is the kind of work of fiction that reads like real life, unsurprising perhaps given that Beauvoir created Sylvie and Andrée after herself and her real-life friend Zaza Lacoin.

Written in a controlled and polished style The Inseparables presents us with a beguiling tale in which Sylvie, our narrator, recounts the enigmatic nature of her bond with Andrée. The two first meet as young girls while enrolled at a private Catholic school and, in spite of the divergence between their religious beliefs, they become, as the title itself suggests, inseparable. Due to the conventions of their time and society—the French bourgeois of the early 20th cent.—they cannot be too close and so have to refrain from being too intimate with one another, for example by addressing each other with the formal you.Still, they keep up a correspondence and talk at length to each other, earning themselves the disapproval of Andrée’s mother who frowns upon their, God forbid, long and possibly intimate conversations.

Sylvie is fascinated by Andrée, in particular, she seems hyperaware, intrigued even, by her self-divide. On the one hand Andrée, a devout Catholic, expresses conservative ideas and opinions, which make her appear particularly naive. On the other Andrée possesses a clever mind and a propensity for expressing surprisingly subversive thoughts. Andrée is a magnetic individual who oscillates between irreverence and conformity. Sylvie, who did not grow up to be a staunchly religious individual (apropos, in a diary entry beauvoir wrote: “i have no other god but myself”), cannot always reconcile herself to Andrée’s way of thinking and struggles to understand the loyalty that Andrée has for her family, which Sylvie herself views as suffocating.

As the two grow up we see how Andrée continues to struggle with understanding her own emotions, trying and failing to contain her fiercer self. We also see how her mother’s constant reprimand have affected her self-worth and distorted her view of herself. When she falls for Pascal, a puritanical young man who seriously considered being a priest, Andrée’s resolve to lead the kind of life that her family, as well as her society, is tested. She desperately wants to escape her present circumstances but this desperation ultimately results in self-sabotage. We witness her unravelling through Sylvie’s eyes, who, as much as she yearns to be of help, cannot ultimately save her.

Beauviour’s piercing commentary on gender, class, and religion was profoundly insightful. She addresses these things with clarity and exactness, illustrating how fatal oppression and repression are on a person’s psyche. What I found particularly touching, and relatable, in this novel was the unrequited nature of Sylve’s love for Andrée. Regardless of whether the love she feels for Andrée is a platonic one or a romantic one, we know that Andrée doesn’t feel the same passion for Sylve. Whether she’s unwilling or unable to reciprocate the iSylve’s feelings, we do not know for certain, however, we can see how deeply this realization cuts Sylvie. Sylvie is shown to be both jealous and resentful of Andrée’s family, holding them responsible for her friend’s unhappiness.

This novella’s subject did bring to mind Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline, which also explores an intense female friendship, Dorothy Strachey’s Olivia
(which is far more flowery and sentimental than this but also capture a youth’s unrequited love and longing for another) as well as novel such as Abigail and Frost In May (which are both set in all-girl schools and touch on female friendships and religion).
While Sylvie is both attuned and attentive to Andrée, her moods and beliefs, she does, like we all tend to do, idealise her given that she is her object of desire (whether this is desire is platonic or sexual, it’s up to the reader to decide, i, to no one’s surprise, felt that it was the latter).
This was a riveting read. The prose is sublime, the story an equal parts evocative and tragic exploration of young & unrequited love, heartache, independence, kinship and intimacy.

I will say that as much as I loved this I couldn’t help but the publisher’s short bio of Beauvoir, as well as Levy’s and the translator’s mentions of her, felt very incomplete. As far as I can recall they all omit to mention Beauvoir’s more ‘unethical’ behaviour. As a teacher, she had ‘relationships’ with her underage pupils and went on to sign a petition seeking to abrogate the age of consent in France (because of course age is just a number!). Here you might argue that those things have nothing to do with this novella or her friendship with Zaza (discussed by both Levy and the translator). But I maintain that they do. You can’t just mention the fact that she’s a feminist and try to analyse her real-life friendship with another woman or her commentary on female sexuality while at the same time omitting that in her lifetime she (‘allegedly’) groomed her underage female students and seemed in favour of pedophilia. That she did those things did not detract from my reading experience however it certainly made me a little bit more critical of our narrator’s obsession towards her friend.


Some of my favourite quotes:

“Secretly I thought to myself that Andrée was one of those prodigies about whom, later on, books would be written.”

“No, our friendship was not as important to Andrée as it was to me, but I admired her too much to suffer from it.”

“What would I have daydreamed about? I loved Andrée above all else, and she was right next to me.”

“I thought to myself, distressed, that in books there are people who make declarations of love, or hate, who dare to say whatever comes into their mind, or heart—why is it so impossible to do the same thing in real life?”

“The errors I admitted were those of the soul above all: I had lacked fervour, too long forsaken the divine presence, prayed inattentively, regarded myself too complacently.”

“Andrée was unhappy and the idea of it was unbearable. But her unhappiness was so foreign to me; the kind of love where your kiss had no truth from me.”

“Never. The word had never fallen with such weight upon my heart. I repeated it within myself, under the never-ending sky, and I wanted to cry. ”

“No doubt she loved Andrée in her way, but what way was that? That was the question. We all loved her, only differently. ”

“Happiness suits her so well, I thought.”

““Don’t be sad,” she said. “In every family there’s a bit of rubbish. I was the rubbish.”

“For Andrée, there was a passageway between the heart and the body that remained a mystery to me. ”

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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People From My Neighbourhood by Hiromi Kawakami

The extremely short stories collected in People From My Neighbourhood bear many of the trademarks that I associate with Hiromi Kawakami’s storytelling and work. Under Kawakami’s hand, slice-of-life scenarios are approached from odd angles and permeated by a sense of surreality that will make readers question what exactly is going.

As the title itself suggests this collection transports readers to a Japanese neighbourhood and each story reads like a short vignette detailing an odd episode involving a resident of this neighbourhood. The stories are loosely interconnected as we have recurring figures—such as Kanae and her sisters or the school principal—who make more than one appearance. Occasionally one is even left with the impression that they vaguely contradict one another, or that time doesn’t quite unfold as it should in this neighbourhood. This elasticity with time and reality results in a rather playful collection that is recognizably a product of Kawakami’s active imagination. Her offbeat approach to everyday scenarios does make for an inventive collection of stories. There is a story about the unusual lottery that takes place in this neighbourhood (the loser has to take care of Hachirō, a boy with a voracious and seemingly never-ending appetite), one about the bitter rivalry between two girls named Yōko, one about a princess moving to the neighbourhood, another recounting the origin of the Sand Festival, and many detailing people who are curses or are part of some sort of prophecy.

While I love Kawakami’s storytelling, which is full of zest and humour, as well as the almost Kafkaesque feeling of her narratives, I just found these stories too short and, ultimately, insubstantial. If she happens to be an author on your TBR pile I suggest you pick one of her novels instead, like, Strange Weather in Tokyo or The Nakano Thrift Shop.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

“It was the kind of giggling they themselves did as kids. Now, that kind of giggle seemed foolish for them to do. It was like a far distant thing, a thing that happened only to other people. All they could do now was be close to it, and remain out of sight.”

While How to Pronounce Knife does fall prey to the short story collection syndrome (kind of a mixed bag, we have some good stories and some forgettable one, many of which are just too short and lack character/story development) it is nevertheless a promising debut. Souvankham Thammavongsa’s spare and unadorned prose brought to mind Jhumpa Lahiri so did her focus on the everyday minutiae that characterise her characters’ lives. Thammavongsa centres her stories on immigrants and refugees from Laos and their experiences in an English-speaking country (presumably Canada?), highlighting the myriad of ways in which they are exploited and othered, the difficulties they face in trying to assimilate to a new culture, and how language barriers further exacerbate their sense of alienation (and how often native English-speakers equate their lack of fluency in English with stupidity). Thammavongsa reveals how diversely different generations adapt to their new and often confounding environments, how insidious discrimination is, and how holding onto one’s heritage is perceived as a ‘failure’ to integrate or a source of shame (in a few stories children are embarrassed by their parents’ ‘foreignness’).
In this collection there are 14 brief stories, most of them lasting just over 10 pages, many of which take place in the characters’ workplaces (a nail salon, a chicken plant, a farm) and star two or three characters at most. Thammavongsa’s unsentimental tone greatly complements her crisp very matter-of-fact storytelling, which details the routine of her characters or recounts a particular episode of their lives. The stories that affected me the most were ‘Mani Pedi’ (in which a boxer begins working at his sister’s nail salon), ‘Chick-A-Chee!’ (which is set on Halloween), and ‘You Are So Embarrassing’ (a short yet piercing mother/daughter tale). Many of the other stories didn’t really leave a long-lasting impression on me, their scenarios too samey, their ‘run-time’ too short. Their endings too feel somewhat anticlimactic, and I can’t say that I found them particularly eye-opening or moving. Having fewer but longer stories would have probably increased my appreciation of this collection.
While yeah, out of 14 stories sonly 3 really stood out to me, I did like Thammavongsa’s clear style and I would happily read more by her.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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