Monthly Archives: April 2018

Chemistry, by Weike Wang

Chemistry Weike Wang coverI recently finished the novel Chemistry by Weike Wang, and I liked it so much! It tells the story of a 20-something woman in a chemistry graduate program who is deeply unhappy and figuring out what to do about it. She’s frustrated by her research and her unsupportive advisors. She also doesn’t know what to do about her boyfriend’s marriage proposal. She has been happy with him, more or less, but the idea of marriage really freaks her out, not least because her parents’ marriage was so deeply unhappy. She is also worried about how she will feel if she follows her more-successful boyfriend/husband so he can pursue his career, while her own languishes. Will she end up made miserable by that decision?

The novel is in first person, and I liked the narrator’s voice — it’s thoughtful and quirky, smart and panicked. She brings in scientific concepts to help explain her feelings in a way that’s apt and funny. She’s struggling and only sometimes fully self-aware, and I rooted for her as she took risks and tried out new things, and I admired her stubborn refusal to make decisions when she’s not ready to.

The book gradually reveals what it is in the narrator’s past that makes her so afraid of marriage, and that part is moving, as are her descriptions of what it’s like to be the child of immigrants, trying to make her own way forward while dealing with the weight of her parents’ hopes and expectations.

This is the kind of book where not a whole lot happens, but the interest and enjoyment come from characterization and voice — one of my favorite kinds of fiction.


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Eventide, by Therese Bohman

Eventide cover I really loved Eventide by Therese Bohman, translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy. It’s a novel about the academic world, which always appeals to me, and it’s a smart look at life for a newly-single woman in her forties who is struggling to figure out what she wants out of life and what meaning the world has for her. It’s a dark novel — another thing I like — and a philosophical one and one that takes a close look at the experience of being a middle-aged woman.

Karolina is the protagonist; she’s in her early forties, newly single, and struggling to find equilibrium in her new life. She’s an art professor in Stockholm with a successful career, although currently her research isn’t going anywhere. Meeting a new graduate student promises to change that, though, as he has found new material about a turn-of-the-20th-century female artist that could shake up her research field. What happens with this research project and with Karolina’s relationships among the academics, critics, and artists who make up the Stockholm intellectual world form the basis of the rest of the plot.

Karolina spends a lot of time in this novel thinking — about work, relationships, sex, art, aging, feminism — and while her mind is a complicated, fraught place, I enjoyed following her thoughts. She is struggling and depressed, but still clear-sighted and sharp. I also like reading about women my age, even though she and I have very different lives — women who are figuring out what they think about their careers, their lives, their bodies, their relationships, at the time when fertility wanes, which can bring up complicated feelings, and one’s career is (often) established, which can also bring up complicated feelings. Karolina is a difficult, prickly character, and I liked her for exactly that reason.

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Recent Reading, 4/14/2018

Recently I finished two books that I loved: Zadie Smith’s Feel Free and Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage. About the Smith essay collection, I read every word, and liked every piece, but I don’t think it’s necessary to read the whole thing if you’re not inspired to. It’s a pretty hefty book and some of the subjects she writes about might not interest every reader. But there are so many pieces that any reader will like. She’s such a fun writer: her sentences are so smart and so elegant that it’s a joy to watch her mind work. She moves among very different subjects within the same essay with ease and it’s a pleasure to let yourself be surprised by where she takes you.

Eloquent Rage has a lot of memoiristic material, but it’s really more of a personal exploration of feminism, and Black feminism in particular. She writes about her experiences as a Black girl and woman and at the same time looks at the experiences of Black girls and women more broadly: experiences in schools, in the church, in love, in friendship, in the working world, in pop culture. Her tone is informal and funny:

Eloquent Rage opening

She brings the meaning of “intersectionality” to life: she writes about the struggles of women generally, and about those of Black men, and about those of Black women (as well as those of other groups) and shows how they are all different, all inflected by sexism and racism in different ways. She has some challenging words for men generally, and for Black men, and for white women, and also for Black women. It strikes me that any reader might find this book uncomfortable at some point, as I did, because she really spares no one. But this book, at heart, is a love letter to Black women. Her definition of Black feminism is about keeping a love for Black women front and center. She wants justice for everyone, and works with people of all types to make that happen, but her guiding principle is making the lives of Black women freer, safer, and better.

The book is an easy read in a lot of ways: it’s accessible and engaging, consistently surprising and fresh, informed by philosophy and theory, but always in an approachable, clear way. It’s a difficult book in other ways, though: Cooper has some harsh truths to share about the sexism and racism particular to the U.S. and how those two “isms” combine to make the lives of Black women much more difficult than they should be. I think this is a book every American would benefit from reading.


Filed under Books, Essays, Nonfiction

Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud

I didn’t mention this in my last post, but I’ve also been listening to, and recently finished, Anne Helen Peterson’s book Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman. I decided to listen to this because it’s the first pick for Book Riot’s “Persist,” a feminist book club. The book club is run on Instagram Live (a new thing for me, and one I will never use for myself), and the way it works is a Book Riot staff member talks about the book live and people can send in comments, so there’s some back and forth with the audience. It’s an interesting experiment, and one that’s been fun to follow along.

Too Fat Too Slutty cover As for the book itself, it’s the kind of nonfiction that I approach with trepidation, not because of the topic, but because its ten chapters cover one “unruly” woman each, and I often find that format boring. It’s hard to make the give-the-theory-in-the-intro-and-apply-it-over-and-over-again-in-the-chapters format consistently fresh and interesting. Peterson does a pretty good job with this, though, mostly, I think, because each chapter has not only a different unruly woman to discuss (not interesting enough in and of itself), but it looks at a different type of unruliness in each chapter: too pregnant, too shrill, too queer, too fat, too slutty, too loud, etc., so there’s a wide variety of material.

Her definition of “unruly” is kind of a mess: the degree of unruliness in each chapter varies a lot, as does the degree of intentionality: some examples purposefully set out to break rules and cause trouble (Jennifer Weiner, Madonna) and others break rules just by existing (Caitlyn Jenner). All of her examples are celebrities, which is done purposefully in order to look at unruliness as it happens in the public eye, but are celebrities really the most interesting examples of unruliness available? It is interesting to look at how the celebrity status of these women limits their ability to be unruly — they need to follow SOME rules in order to remain popular — but I’m not sure they are the best sources to look at to study female unruliness in and of itself.

But there are a lot of interesting ideas packed into the chapters, and Peterson does a wonderful job of telling the women’s stories and also placing them into historical and intellectual contexts in a relatively short book with lively, entertaining writing. I particularly liked the chapters on Hillary Clinton (too shrill), Jennifer Weiner (too loud), and Lena Dunham (too naked). If you’re into audiobooks, Peterson reads the book herself and does a good job. The book was good company during my commute and laundry-folding sessions when I had some listening time to give it.

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Recent Reading, 4/1/2018

Oh, it’s been over a year since I wrote here? Haha, I guess it has! Ah, well.

So, what am I reading? I just finished a novel in translation called In the Distance with You by Carla Guelfenbein, to be published by Other Press this June (translated by John Cullen). Guelfenbein is a Chilean author and the book takes place in Chile and various places in Europe. It’s inspired by Clarice Lispector and is about a Lispector-like author who spends the novel in a hospital room, while three other characters who knew her in various ways tell their stories. It’s about writing and writerly relationships, about literary lineages, about the way the past bears down on the present, about the pressures the world places on the body. It’s labeled a literary thriller, although the pace is slower than that leads one to expect. But there are plot revelations along the way that kept me reading happily, and the ideas about the writing life and the creative process were engaging.

I’m also reading Feel Free, an essay collection by Zadie Smith, and it’s so good! Smith is such a master of the essay. I like her novels, but her essays are better: she’s so entertaining, and so smart. She brings together things you would not expect to be brought together, in classic essay style. I’m about halfway through. The essays have been about politics, libraries, art, film, aesthetics, and more. Many of them I had read before in various publications — The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New York Review of Books — but I’m happy to read them again. One of my favorites, “Some Notes on Attunement” starts with Joni Mitchell and moves to Wordsworth, Seneca, Kierkegaard, and a drive through Wales, all while never losing site of where it started. But the essay is really about artistic taste and how we change our minds about what we like. It’s really so good. Here’s a passage from another essay I loved, “Dance Lessons for Writers”:

Zadie Smith Feel Free passage

What’s next? I’m thinking of picking Brittney C. Cooper’s Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, but we’ll see what I’m in the mood for later.


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