BOOK REVIEW: PARIS SYNDROME by LUCY SWEENEY BYRNE

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Image result for Paris Syndrome by Lucy Sweeney ByrneParis Syndrome is a collection of interconnected short stories that follows its principal character, Lucy, as she finds herself flitting from one place to the next, forced to confront who she is inside and outside different millieux, alternately surprised by what she is capable of doing and disillusioned by a sense of inherent sameness in her self across all these places.

In all the stories in Paris Syndrome there is a through line of psychological and emotional fluctuation. And this is exactly what makes this collection so lend itself to the “millennial” label. Lucy is a character burdened by an overwhelming emotional sensitivity and yet, at the same time, often witness to her own feelings of passivity and emptiness. At times she strains to manufacture emotion to perform in what she believes is the context that requires it. At others she is almost incapacitated by a hyperawareness of everything within and without her: an all-too-sudden sense of the uncontrollability of her experience in an already precarious, uncontrollable world.

“And this realization of yet again feeling absolutely nothing when there ought to have been something caused a slicing of sharp, reddish-pink heat to rise in my chest. I flexed my fingers and worked hard on remaining calm. Not to shout out, to howl, to start banging my chest or pulling out my hair or scratching my nails deep into the soft, well-moisturized skin of my very kind, very good friend or – even better – to lie down right there on the white dusty path; to curl up and stop altogether.

Luckily, in a matter of seconds . . . this feeling too passed. And I was left with my familiar, easy nothing.”

This “nothing” emotional state is perhaps most emblematic of Sweeney Byrne’s whole collection. There are, in these stories, nothings with different emotional inflections: the “easy nothing” in “Montparnasse” that so disturbs Lucy; the desperate, self-imposed nothing of “Zeno’s Paradox,” one borne out of an instinct to suppress and protect the self from pain; and the lost nothing in “La Rêve” that is acted upon because…why not? All of this is to say, at different points throughout her travels, Lucy is constantly in the throes of the push and pull of her own self, indulging in her emotions so extremely so as to obscure them, or else refusing to engage in them at all.

“. . . she was deafened, overwhelmed by the din of all that unspoken silence . . . all the endless stories, forgotten, wordless stories . . All the lives lost and ruined right here, lives like hers, measly and nothing and everything too”

When we travel, we expect the places we go to to give us something: an answer, a feeling, an insight. What Lucy wants from the cities she travels to is unclear, and that is exactly what defines her experiences in Paris Syndrome. She wants something from these cities, but she doesn’t know what it is. And so she keeps moving, travelling, hoping that, at some point, it will all click for her. There is no feeling more millennial than that. (I would know.)

Thematic discussion aside, the best story in this collection is by far “Zeno’s Paradox.” Heartbreaking and beautifully written, with a perfect title to boot. My other favourites included “And We Continue to Live” and “Montparnasse.”

There were some aspects here that I didn’t love, namely the language used to describe fatness (I felt that a lot of it bordered on, or was, fatphobic), and the way that some of these cities and their natives were described, especially Mexico. I’m not from any of the cities mentioned in this book, so I can’t exactly tell to what extent these descriptions were appropriate, but some of them definitely didn’t feel right to me.

Paris Syndrome is, I think, a collection that is most invested in exploring how a kind of psychological restlessness manifests itself in a geographical restlessness. There aren’t exactly answers to be found in these stories, but there is always an effort to question, unsettle, negotiate.

(Thank you so much to Banshee Lit for sending me a review copy of this in exchange for an honest review!)

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JANUARY WRAP UP

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january is over which means time for a wrap up!! and let me say, january was good to me. i read 14 books, THREE of which made it to my 2020 favourites shelf, which was such a pleasant surprise. AND 2 of those 3 books were nonfiction, which is so unheard of for me. there’s some amazing nonfiction out there apparently, who knew?? (everyone knew)

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what i read

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🌵 January 1-2: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan | ★★★

this one doesn’t come out till june so i won’t say much, but i have a review of it that’s going to be posted to the blog around that time. if you’re curious though, i wrote a review for it on goodreads.

🌵 January 3-4: Wilful Disregard by Lena Andersson | ★★

woman likes shitty man, woman sleeps with shitty man, woman is sad because shitty man ghosts her. the end. (what was i supposed to get out of this, exactly ???) needless to say, i didn’t particularly enjoy this.

🌵 January 4-5: Serpent & Dove by Shelby Mahurin | ★★★

► this was enjoyable, but i had a lot of little gripes about it that just accumulated over the course of my reading it.
► by far my biggest problem with this book was that the romantic dynamic between its 2 main leads was SO SIMILAR to matthias and nina’s dynamic from six of crows. like pretty much identical. the nina character, lou, speaks her mind, is free-spirited, embarrasses her love interest, is part of a group of people that the love interest has vowed to exterminate, loves desserts, and has magical powers. the matthias character, reid, is uptight, has been indoctrinated into a group of people with an oppressive ideology, is good at fighting, but ultimately falls for the nina character. it was just way too similar for me to able to disentangle it from six of crows. also let’s be honest the nina/matthias dynamic is SO much more well-executed than the lou/reid dynamic.
► did not like how possessive/territorial reid was. im so bored by male characters who feel the need to protect their female love interests at every second. chill
► i am also so bored by male love interests who are angry all the time. chill
► the inclusion of french in this book is so forced and randomly done that it added absolutely nothing to the story. telling me a character is drinking a “chocolat chaud” at a cafe is not worldbuilding lol. nor is adding the occasional french swear word.

🌵 January 6: “Color and Light” by Sally Rooney | ★★★★★ (reread)

(listened to sally rooney’s narration of the story on the new yorker podcast)

“He’s seen the display ten or twelve times now, or however many years the festival has been going. The first time he was a teenager, still in school. He thought that his life was just about to start happening then. He thought that he was poised tantalizingly on the brink, and that any day—or even any minute—the waiting would end and the real thing would begin.”

so tantalizingly short. there’s a feeling, here, that something is on the brink of happening, that something important has maybe already happened–and then the story ends.

it’s just so damn good.

🌵 January 6-8: Such a Fun Age by 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.)

🌵 January 6-13: The Idiot by Elif Batuman | ★★★★.5 

haven’t reviewed this yet, but it’s one of my favourite books of this year. psychologically astute, thematically complex, and compellingly written.

🌵 January 14: Fox 8 by George Saunders | ★★★.5 stars

such a cute lil book complete with fun doodles and some interesting, relevant themes about environmental conservation. a quick, enjoyable read.

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🌵 January 8-16: Know My Name by Chanel Miller | ★★★★★

wow wow wow. this is one of the most powerful books i have ever read, and i don’t 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.

🌵 January 15: Lucky Caller by Emma Mills | ★★★

definitely my least favourite emma mills. the dialogue was weak and a little repetitive, the jokes never quite landed for me (i barely laughed at all while i read this, which is a travesty considering this is an emma mills book), and the characters just didn’t end up feeling all that fleshed out. the story needed more pages and more time to breathe; sadly, it didn’t get either.

🌵 January 14-19: Solace by Belinda McKeon | ★★

sadly a very forgettable book. the characters didn’t feel fleshed out, and the plot meandered. i didn’t feel like it was going anywhere, or that it even had anywhere to go. definitely recommend reading Belinda McKeon’s Tender though. it’s leaps and bounds better than Solace.

🌵 January 16-22: Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett | ★★.5 | full review

🌵 January 21-24: The Book of X by 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.

🌵 January 26: Multitudes by Lucy Caldwell | ★★★.5 

will review this soon, but it was a really lovely collection of short stories, all centering on the experiences of adolescent girls in northern ireland.

🌵 January 22 – February 3: Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe | ★★★★★

it’s kind of cheating to include this in my january wrap up since i technically didn’t finish it till february, but i really wanted to include it anyway because it was AMAZING. i read the audiobook and WOW. i’m gonna try and write a full review for this soon because it was honestly one of the best non-fiction books i’ve ever read. it doesn’t get better than this.


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BOOK REVIEW: TENDER by BELINDA McKEON

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Image result for tender belinda mckeon coverMckeon’s Tender is a novel that progresses much like a bruise would: the writing, when it initially hits the page, is sharp and vibrant in its impact, filled with all the excitement of a new, all-engrossing friendship. But as the plot unfolds, the bruise of that initial impact becomes more and more apparent, blooming into increasingly worrying shades of purple and blue, the colours of something gone wrong, something that is so clearly not right happening.

“She laughed. There was a pleasure in hearing him use her name; it was so direct. It was somehow a higher level of attention than she usually got from people; almost cheekily personal. Intimate, that was what it was. And yet pulled clear of intimacy, at the last second, by the reins of irony which seemed to control everything he said, by his constant closeness to mockery. She found herself wanting more of it, and she found, too, that it held a chellenge: to edge him away from that mockery towards something warmer. To make him see that he was wrong in whatever decision he had made about her, about her silliness, about her childishness, about whatever it was he had, by now, set down for her in his mind.”

All of this is to say, McKeon is so good at depicting the gradual collapse of her protagonist, Catherine; the narrowing, over time, of Catherine’s psychological vision. The writing is honest and fluid, almost overflowing in its attempts to catch up with Catherine’s frantic thoughts. Form and content work in parallel, here, the writing becoming more fragmented and divided just as Catherine’s ever-increasing focus on her singular subject becomes more desperate.

(Trying to be vague here so as not to spoil the intrigue. 👀)

More than anything, though, what Tender does that I haven’t seen from a lot of novels is not just depict, but substantially delve into deeply uncomfortable and unpleasant emotions: jealousy, self-pity, possessiveness, clinginess, self-loathing. All of it done, too, in the context of a friendship and a toxic, unrequited love. But McKeon builds her novel’s central dynamic, the fraught friendship between Catherine and James, with such nuance and layers that come what may, I was ready to follow these characters into whatever circumstances they happened to find themselves in. Needless to say, I was not disappointed.

4.5-


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