Monsters is a lot of things–smart, incisive, insightful, absorbing–but more than anything, it is such an impressively thoughtful book in so many ways.

To begin, Monsters is a thoughtful book because it understands that monstrousness is contingent. What makes a monster? To what extent does an artist’s monstrousness bleed into–or, in Dederer’s words, “stain”–their work? What do we do when the artist whose work we love turns out to be, in fact, a monster? These are questions of dissonance and ambivalence: the dissonance of the great art of the monstrous artist, the ambivalence of engaging with the art despite its artist’s monstrousness. They are contingent questions because, as Dederer puts it, “Consuming a piece of art is two biographies meeting: the biography of the artist that might disrupt the viewing of the art; the biography of the audience member that might shape the viewing of the art.” This point of intersection is the site of negotiation; it is where this book takes place.

“The tainting of the work is less a question of philosophical decision-making than it is a question of pragmatism, or plain reality. That’s why the stain makes such a powerful metaphor: its suddenness, its permanence, and above all its inexorable realness. The stain is simply something that happens. The stain is not a choice. The stain is not a decision we make.

Indelibility is not voluntary.

When someone says we ought to separate the art from the artist, they’re saying: Remove the stain. Let the work be unstained. But that’s not how stains work.

We watch the glass fall to the floor; we don’t get to decide whether the wine will spread across the carpet.

The stain begins with an act, a moment in time, but then it travels from that moment, like a tea bag steeping in water, coloring the entire life.”

So, Monsters doesn’t take for granted; it centers the contingent nature of these questions, not questioning for the sake of questioning (everything is relative! case closed!), but instead making room for that contingency of all contingencies, that always various thing: subjectivity. Anything can happen in that meeting place of the biography of the artist and the biography of the audience, and Dederer not only recognizes this, but makes it the foundation of her book. Her writing has an elasticity that is precisely suited to the topic at hand; it is what allows her to accommodate different contexts, viewpoints, ideas. Put another way, she approaches her topic with nuance and sensitivity. Monstrousness is not a monolith, and Dederer’s book shows us how: there are different kinds of monsters, different kinds of responses to monstrousness, different standards for monstrousness. Personally, my favourite chapters were “The Genius,” about how the genius of the male artist exerts a kind of force that excuses and countenances all kinds of monstrousness; “The Critic,” about who responds to, and in what way, to art and to monsters; and “The Beloveds,” which is the final chapter and which I won’t say anything about because I don’t want to spoil it (I’ve never thought of non-fiction as “spoilable,” but Monsters is just that good).

Finally, Monsters is a thoughtful book because Dederer is a thoughtful writer; that is, it’s a thoughtful book because its author so firmly roots herself in her own writing. Perhaps this goes without saying, but in a book like this it needs to be said, and Dederer says it aptly, clearly, insightfully, unwaveringly. It’s a very intertextual book, in conversation with works by artists, novelists, poets, musicians, moviemakers; but it is also a book that’s in conversation with itself, self-aware, its ideas not set down so much as they are continually negotiated. An example of this that especially struck me is the way that Dederer is always distinctly alive to the slipperiness of speaking to a reader versus speaking for them: “But hold up a minute: who is this ‘we’ that’s always turning up in critical writing? We is an escape hatch. We is cheap. We is a way of simultaneously sloughing off personal responsibility and taking on the mantle of easy authority.” And more than just enriching her ideas, Dederer’s personal voice is just so damn enjoyable to read. Her writing takes seriously the questions it poses, but it also isn’t afraid to be funny or wry. Even more, I listened to Monsters on audio and Dederer’s excellent narration of her own book just made me love it that much more.

Monsters is, to put it simply, a book that rang true to me: in its efforts to contend with contentious questions, in its frank recognition of the open-endedness of these questions, in its willingness to ask them anyway.

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Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon is a dual biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, famously the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman; and her daughter Mary Shelley, who of course wrote the now iconic Frankenstein. Have I read a single thing by either of these women? Nope. Did I still love this? YES.

Romantic Outlaws is such a well-written, nuanced, and humane biography, a compassionate look at these two women and the often difficult but deeply rich lives that they led. As Gordon explains in the introduction of her book, there have been many books written about Wollstonecraft and Shelley’s lives separately, but rarely have authors drawn direct links between these two women’s lives: the ways in which Wollstonecraft’s life and work affected her daughter, and the ways in which Shelley’s life and work allows us to see her mother’s from a different perspective. And throughout the course of reading this book, I just became so attached to these two women. Gordon’s meticulous and well-documented research means that she is able to render these two women with the complexity and richness that they deserve; more than just giving you information about them and their lives, she makes you really care about, and feel for, them. In Gordon’s hands, they aren’t “figures” so much as they are people.

Another aspect of Romantic Outlaws that I also want to highlight is the way that Gordon’s writing is always so attuned to the cultural, social, and political context of the historical time periods that these women lived in; a good biography is as much about its subject as it is about the historical time period that shaped and influenced that subject’s life, and Romantic Outlaws is a great example of how seamlessly those two aspects can work together.

Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley were such incredible women, and Gordon’s biography absolutely does them justice. I loved this book a lot and would definitely recommend it, especially if you love literary biographies.

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What strikes me the most–and really, what impressed me the most–about Enter Ghost is its writing. Everything that works about this novel works because its writing does, and everything I can say about its writing I can also say of it as a novel more broadly. Hammad’s writing, here, is incisive, measured, restrained. More to the point, it is distinctly unsentimental and yet always sympathetic. It’s a very sensitive novel in the way it’s attuned to the nuances of its characters, especially its narrator, Sonia; it gives you such a strong sense of the fine gradations of these characters’ reactions, thoughts, and feelings. That is, it’s a precisely written novel because it is a sensitively written one, and it’s a sensitively written novel because it is a precisely written one. It pays attention to the details, gives them the space to matter, so that the more you read the novel the more those details get added to each other, and the more richly layered the story becomes.

“I was professionally skilled at holding two things in my mind at once and choosing which to look at as felt convenient. And not only which to look at, but which to actually believe.”

One part of the novel where I think this sensitivity especially shines is in the strained relationship between Sonia and her older sister, Haneen. The whole story begins with Sonia landing in Haifa, having decided to take the summer off to spend time with Haneen, who works at a university there. The relationship between these two sisters is one of the pillars of the novel: there is so much unsaid between Sonia and Haneen, and across their interactions, you get a sense for the contours of the issues they are tiptoeing around–their family, their distance, their history–but not necessarily of the full substance of those issues. They clearly care about each other, and yet many of their moments hint at a tension that, as the novel moves forward, we’re waiting to boil over. And it is exactly in those moments–the tipping points when the tensions finally boil over–where Hammad’s writing is especially effective. Hammad manages to write Big Scenes that feel important but not overblown, moving but never sentimental. So many of the most memorable moments in Enter Ghost are memorable not because they are filled to the brim, but because they are restrained–and because they are restrained, they are able to resonate in the true sense of the word: to reverberate, to move outwards, to linger.

“My whole life I’d been aware of Haneen’s stronger moral compass; it made me afraid to confide in her until the very last moment, until I absolutely needed to. I also wanted to resist her, the way a child resists a parent and at the same time absorbs their wisdom; I wanted to sulk in her second bedroom and feel better with the secret muffled gladness that someone was holding me to account.”

Thematically, Enter Ghost is such a rich novel, too. It’s about a West Bank production of Hamlet, so the question of the role of art in political resistance is very much at the forefront of the story, though certainly not in any hackneyed or simplistic way. The characters are acutely alive to this question, and think critically about what they want to accomplish not just with their production, but with their production of Hamlet specifically. A lot of the novel’s substance is concentrated into this production–the politics, of course, but also the thematic concerns, the conflict, the characters, their dynamics, their backstories–and this ultimately makes it such a potent and fascinating lodestone for the story. I loved the way Hammad incorporated scenes from Hamlet into key character and story moments; I loved the camaraderie–but also the tension–between all the cast members; I loved Mariam, their brilliant director; and I just loved the way theatre as a whole provided such fertile ground for this story to go in all kinds of compelling and thought-provoking directions.

“Nothing is more flattering to an artist than the illusion that he is a secret revolutionary. These public developments created a feeling among the cast that we were, in fact, preparing ourselves on a training base for an operation with a transcendental goal, that in combing our translated lines for subtext we were fighting the odds in the name of Palestinian freedom.”

Moving, deftly written, and with a layered, distinct sense of its narrator’s interiority, Enter Ghost is an excellent novel. Needless to say, I will be reading anything else that Isabella Hammad decides to write next.

Thanks so much to Publisher’s Group Canada/Grove Atlantic for providing me with a review copy of this!

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