BOOK REVIEW: FUNNY WEATHER by OLIVIA LAING

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Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency by Olivia LaingI know what Olivia Laing is capable of—Lonely City was one of my favourite books of last year—and I don’t think Funny Weather did justice either to her writing or to the subjects she was writing about.

My disappointment with Funny Weather is more about my high expectations for it than anything wrong with this book, necessarily. If you go into this book keeping in mind that it’s a collection of her previously published articles, then you’ll enjoy it. I mean, it’s Olivia Laing, so her writing is still great. But given that this is an anthology and not a cohesive book about one specific theme, like The Lonely City, it read as a little disjointed and underdeveloped. At times I felt like just as I was getting into a piece, it ended. At others it felt like I got barely anything from a piece because it ended so quickly. What I’m trying to say is: these pieces were just too short to be substantial enough for me.

Another thing is that a lot of the artists Laing talks about in this book are people I’ve never heard of before. In The Lonely City I didn’t mind this at all because Laing took her time to develop their histories and relate their art back to loneliness. In this book, though, the pieces we got were essentially the barebones of artists I had no interest in, so it felt like a bit of a lose-lose situation.

That said, I am still ridiculously excited to read Laing’s next book, Everybody, which I think will be more in the vein of The Lonely City. I mean, this is the first line of the book’s description: “Everybody is a fierce, vital exploration of what it means to have a body in the modern era.” I am so sold.

(Thank you to W.W. Norton for providing me with an e-ARC of this via Edelweiss!)

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BOOK REVIEW: THE SHAPELESS UNEASE by SAMANTHA HARVEY

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Image result for The Shapeless Unease: A Year of Not Sleeping

The Shapeless Unease is, as its subtitle puts it, about its author’s year of not sleeping. But to say that this book is about insomnia is to miss the soil that that insomnia grows in: the anxiety, the existential panic, the sheer exhaustion with life. This is what Harvey writes about: insomnia as an all-encompassing thing, an ouroboros eating its tail, sleeplessness breeding anxiety, anxiety pushing a full night’s sleep further out of reach.

Harvey’s book is more than anything, I think, a series of meditations on her insomnia, anxiety, and existential panic. It has no structure as such, but is moreso fluid in its movement from one subject to another. In many ways Harvey’s writing mirrors her condition throughout the book: slightly stream-of-consciousness, introspective, sometimes painfully aware of her physical being and sometimes transposing herself onto vivid snippets of memory. Because the book so inextricably follows her states of being and trains of thought, it reads as particularly organic in its layout, lending its writing a distinct feeling of being unfiltered and spur-of-the-moment. And this is not even to mention the absolute beauty of Harvey’s writing. “Beauty” almost feels like the wrong word to use here, given the searing intimacy of Harvey’s account, but her writing really is just exquisite. It’s the kind of writing style that enhances rather than buries meaning—that is, it’s not superficial or flowery for the sake of being flowery, but actually gives you a more intimate sense of Harvey’s experiences.

“. . . my friend looks at me with infinite compassion and says, une petite nuit? Oui, I say, une petite nuit, encore. In this expression, French has it all wrong; nights awake are the longest, largest, most cavernous of things. There is acre upon acre of night, and whole eras come and go, and there isn’t another soul to be found on the journey through to morning.”

The Shapeless Unease is a book that has some of the most beautiful, painfully honest writing I’ve read in a while. I think everyone will find something in this book that will speak to them in some measure. Highly recommend giving it a chance when it comes out on May 22.

Thanks to Grove Press for providing me an e-ARC of this via NetGalley!

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MINI REVIEWS (january-march)

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The Lonesome Body Builder – Yukiko Motoya (translated by Asa Yoneda) | ★.5

Motoya’s stories start out promising and interesting enough, but then they take that interesting premise and draw it out for so long that it absolutely loses any of the appeal it once had. The ideas were there; the execution was not.

These stories were too long or too convoluted or too nonsensical, often padded out with a lot of filler that felt like it added nothing to the stories’ narratives. Seeing as I only really enjoyed one story from this collection, “Fitting Room,” I can’t say that I especially enjoyed this collection.


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The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing – Mira Jacob | ★.5

What makes this novel work is Jacob’s ability to write dialogue, spoken and internal. Her characters are humane and sympathetically drawn, trying to reach out to each other in their flawed, sometimes misguided ways. I really enjoyed this one.

There was one particular scene in this book that really discomfited me, though. In it, Amina, the main character, is about to give her boyfriend a blowjob. He says “wait” twice; she ignores him and goes ahead and gives it to him anyway. Let me just make this clear: when you’re in that kind of situation and the person you’re with says “wait” multiple times you do not ignore them: YOU WAIT–you wait for explicit consent. Okay that’s all I have to say about that.


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Such a Fun Age – Kiley Reid | ★.5

What compelling story this book had was completely overshadowed by its weak dialogue. There is so much extraneous dialogue in this book. So. much. unnecessary. dialogue. I like “unnecessary” dialogue when it helps build character dynamics or establishes a social atmosphere of some kind, but that was not the case here. Like Emira and Alix would be talking and literally every other sentence would be Briar interrupting them with some weird observation (do kids really talk like that ?) that completely detracted from the oftentimes serious conversations being had.

Also I didn’t like the ending of this at all. I’m just so tired of endings that deflate all the conflict that had been building up in the story by tying everything up in a pretty little bow with zero nuance or time to actually flesh out the implications of what the characters did.

One more thing that irritated me: the constant references to Alix’s weight. Always the fact that Alix hasn’t lost her baby weight or has gained weight or her friends telling her she needs to lose weight or her eating too much and thinking about how she needs to drop the baby weight. This was never questioned or challenged; we were just supposed to accept that being fat is bad and that shaming your friends for their weight is okay. (Hint: it’s not.)


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Know My Name – Chanel Miller |

wow wow wow. this is one of the most powerful books i have ever read, and i dont hesitate to say that for a second. it is searing, arresting, masterful. it seems false, somehow, to give this a numerical rating, given how monumental of a read it really was, but this book deserves nothing less than 5 stars.


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The Book of X – Sarah Rose Etter | ★.5 

the prose here is what didn’t work for me. it was trying to be poetic but couldn’t quite get there, so what you got as a result was writing that felt clunky and forced more than anything else. the book is also very episodic in terms of the way its told—typically in half-page mini chapters—and so that, too, ended up making the story feel more fragmented and less cohesive as a narrative.

i do appreciate the focus on loneliness and isolation in this story, though. etter definitely didn’t sugarcoat her protagonist’s experiences of sometimes unbearable solitude and longing.


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Women Who Read Are Dangerous – Stefan Bollmann (translated by Christine Shuttleworth)| ★.5 

women who read are dangerous is just a confection for the eyes. books like this make me feel like a little kid, quickly flipping through the pages so i can see all the pretty pictures. but there’s also an effort here to actually examine the multiplicities of reading via visual art: reading out loud, religious reading, reading as morally dangerous, reading as self-development. it’s a short book so it definitely doesn’t get to unpack the complexities and depth of its topic, but then again i cant fault it for not doing something that it never set out to do.

also gotta give this book credit for making me very interested in reading a bunch of art history books


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Verge – Lidia Yuknavitch |

My biggest impression of these stories is how humane they are. Yuknavitch takes characters going through some real low points—either an insidious kind of marginalization, or else outright traumatizing and horrific circumstances—and gives them the time and space to exist as nuanced and complex people. And this is, I think, a real priority of this collection as a whole: it privileges those in the margins, those whose stories are overlooked or undermined or not recognized at all.

I loved all these stories, but the most standout ones to me were “Street Walker” and “The Garden of Earthly Delights.”


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You Know You Want This – Kristen Roupenian | ★.5

my reactions to these stories ranged from “wait what” to “okaaay…?” to “i don’t get it”

mostly though, i just really didn’t get it. some of these stories ended so abruptly that i genuinely didn’t know what i was supposed to get out of them. though well-written, it feels like almost all the stories in this book follow the same loose plotline: bad characters do bad things. that’s literally it. which, as you can probably tell, didn’t really leave room for a lot of complexity or nuance. and i do agree with what a lot of reviewers have pointed out about the unrelenting bleakness of these stories: the characters treat each other so horribly, there’s not even the tiniest sliver of anything positive to be found here. if i were to just go by this short story collection, i would not be very optimistic about human relationships—hell, i wouldn’t be optimistic about them at all. which makes me question what Roupenian wanted to say with this collection, exactly. surely there’s something to be said about relationships that’s more complex than “they are shitty most of the time.”


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The Memory Police – Yōko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder) | ★.5

I wanna say something more sophisticated than “this was boring” but…this was boring.

Given the slew of positive reviews this novel has gotten, I was expecting something impressive, not milquetoast characters and a directionless plot. Also, the writing was Not Good. It was plain and simplistic in a way that completely flattened any complexity or depth the story might’ve had. Oh, and irritatingly repetitive—we get it your memory is a pool of water and seeing disappeared objects stirs your memory like ripples in the water please stop hitting me over the head with the same metaphor.

I just…I don’t get what the appeal of this book is. What was it supposed to be offering, exactly, because the extent of its commentary pretty much boils down to: police bad, controlling people bad, state surveillance bad. Uh, thanks, but I didn’t really need to read an entire novel to know that…


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