Pure Hollywood by Christine Schutt

Hardcover, 144 pages
Published March 13th 2018 by Grove Atlantic

In 11 captivating tales, Pure Hollywood brings us into private worlds of corrupt familial love, intimacy, longing, and danger. From an alcoholic widowed actress living in desert seclusion, to a young mother whose rejection of her child has terrible consequences, a newlywed couple who ignore the violent warnings of a painter burned by love, to an eerie portrait of erotic obsession, each story in Pure Hollywood is an imagistic snapshot of what it means to live and learn love and hurt.

Schutt gives us sharply suspenseful and masterfully dark interior portraits of ordinary lives, infused with her signature observation and surprise.

Pure Hollywood proved to be a collection plagued by a wide spectrum of dullness. There were moments, mostly at the start of the collection, where overwrought prose ran rampant in a way that made no sense whatsoever. It was as if the author, Christine Schutt, had her trusty Word thesaurus immediately on hand, ready to whip out at any moment to form absurd sentences instead of creating readable literature—as if her way of being “creative” was to write so evasively and nonsensically as to confuse the reader into thinking, “Damn, this MUST be the newest form of erudite art; I’ve got to HAVE it!” purely (sure, why not?—pun intended) because they don’t get it at all.

As many readers and writers know, Ernest Hemingway is famously quoted as saying: “If a writer knows enough about what he is writing, he may omit things that he knows, and the reader … will feel those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” I’m confident that this is not what you’ll find in Schutt’s Pure Hollywood. All of the stories seemed incomplete and covered in a blanket of gray soot. They were all a bit dreary in atmosphere (I found that to be fine if that’s the mood she was going for) and very unfinished. There was very little shock factor in this collection at all, and what little there was wasn’t followed-up on, so the few moments of revelation turned out to be aimless, pointless, near-powerless punches that slipped off the skin like water, non-scathing and unmemorable.

The first story in the collection took up one-third of the space of the entire anthology and had literally only one moment of pure interest. You’ll know that moment when you get to it. I left “Pure Hollywood” behind feeling that moments of my life had been squandered in reading it. But, I pressed on.

The second story in this collection, “The Hedges,” begins as such:

The woman who had just been identified as attached to Dick Hedge looked pained by the clotted, green sound of her little boy’s breathing, an unwell honk that did not blend in with the sashaying plants and beachy-wet breeze of the island.

*raising hand* Umm, did you just try to say that a woman’s son was sick on the beach? I had to read that line at least three times just to extract some meaning from that sludge of words, almost senseless when mixed in that formula. That opening line alone was enough to make me say “Pass” on that story. BUT I pressed forward again. I ended up liking “The Hedges”—the story of a strangely unhappy young couple on vacation with their fussy toddler and the events on that vacation that led to an unfortunate event—far more than I liked any of the other stories, but I didn’t like everything about it. It read like an adult version of Fun with Dick and Jane (and the husband is even named Dick). If that was Schutt’s intent, it fell just short of being clever because it was somehow never fully realized. It read like an outline of a story with none of the goods filled in, and because of that I didn’t especially care about the family, particularly that toddler.

“The Duchess of Albany” was the absolute epitome of the word WASP(y) and held no interest for me whatsoever. It read easily, sometimes even jauntily, but in the end left absolutely no impact.

“Family Man” was a dull flash fiction about a dull man. Literally. That is all.

“Where You Live, When You Need Me” warranted only an annoyed side-eye glance and a curt flipping of the page. As far as I can tell, it said nothing about anything but still managed to be rather snobbishly WASPy. Are these people hiring a homeless woman whose full name they don’t even know to help them out around the homes they’re renting in “the Berkshires,” then contemplating their belief in God (for one ridiculously, pretty much ironically brief second) with nothing else said as if that was enough? The nerve. Nothing else to be said about this one.

“The Dot Sisters”—what for??

“Oh, the Obvious” drew me in because of the potential for irony implied in the title. There was some irony in the end that was tolerably well done.

In the end, Christine Schutt’s Pure Hollywood is a collection I’m sure most people can live without. This compilation of stories added nothing to the dialogue about anything, unless you are the kind of reader who enjoys a dry read of literary content the likes of which is sure to make future readers inexperienced with the genre cringe away from it. I get the feeling that Schutt may have been going for dry, witty, ironic and possibly socially commentating fiction, but I do feel that I very well might be stretching for benefit of the doubt. (If not, it definitely needed to be stepped up several notches.)For me, it was fiction without a soul (except for, maybe, the second one), which, I’ve noticed, is almost always what you get from Grove Atlantic/Grove Press. (This is an unfortunate, but accurate observation, in my personal opinion.) To give the best and most accurate analogy I can think of, this entire collection was written for and about extremely uptight Protestant-esque people of coin (probably family money) who would wear cardigans buttoned at the neck and drone on and on about the troubles with “the help.” Picture that person and you’ve got a pretty good idea of the audience for this short story collection. I struggled with what rating to give Pure Hollywood. In the end, 2 stars seemed fair enough, and I’ll move on with my life thinking no more about it. **

*I received an advance-read copy of the book from the publisher, Grove Atlantic, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

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The Red Word by Sarah Henstra

Paperback, 352 pages
Expected publication: March 13th 2018 by Grove Press, Black Cat

A smart, dark, and take-no-prisoners look at rape culture and the extremes to which ideology can go, The Red Word is a campus novel like no other. As her sophomore year begins, Karen enters into the back-to-school revelry–particularly at a fraternity called GBC. When she wakes up one morning on the lawn of Raghurst, a house of radical feminists, she gets a crash course in the state of feminist activism on campus. GBC is notorious, she learns, nicknamed “Gang Bang Central” and a prominent contributor to a list of date rapists compiled by female students. Despite continuing to party there and dating one of the brothers, Karen is equally seduced by the intellectual stimulation and indomitable spirit of the Raghurst women, who surprise her by wanting her as a housemate and recruiting her into the upper-level class of a charismatic feminist mythology scholar they all adore. As Karen finds herself caught between two increasingly polarized camps, ringleader housemate Dyann believes she has hit on the perfect way to expose and bring down the fraternity as a symbol of rape culture–but the war between the houses will exact a terrible price.

The Red Word captures beautifully the feverish binarism of campus politics and the headlong rush of youth toward new friends, lovers, and life-altering ideas. With strains of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, Alison Lurie’s Truth and Consequences, and Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, Sarah Henstra’s debut adult novel arrives on the wings of furies.

O sing of the American student body, glorious and young. We are the future!…Everyone on a university campus is equally young. We are all the same social class…We all wear the same clothes and listen to the same music…We are all giddy and hyperventilating in the superoxygenated atmosphere of attention and information and privilege and power. We all thought we were different but we weren’t. We all thought we were resisting something but we weren’t. We all thought that life would be like this forever but it wouldn’t. We were going to spend the rest of our lives trying and failing to re-create this feeling of urgency, of specialness, of being smack at the epicenter of everything important and real happening in the world. For the rest of our lives we would yearn for this feeling of exigency and belonging and fullness and passion. From here on in, it would be nostalgia.

Sarah Henstra’s The Red Word pulsates with the tangible feel of a truly undergraduate experience – in many ways, my experience anyway. From the scraping of coins together for packets of Ramen noodles to the dogged debates in the library over Starbucks on the merits of feminist ideology and the next paper due. All of the key players are present here: the “butch” ultra-feminist, the foreigner, the erudite professor whom all the smart girls look up to and yearn to be like, the frat boys, the rich kids, the students holding down part-time jobs and the free-spirited girls who make kissy-faces at taxi drivers then call them assholes and walk away; they’re all here. If you lived this undergraduate experience, you’ll feel at home here, wrapped in a Snuggie of, yeah, “nostalgia.” You’ll understand the references and won’t be shocked at how often the words “smoke” or “condom” or “rights” come up.

The above quote is a fantastic summation of this novel in all the best ways. The Red Word is about a year in the lives of a group of undergraduate students, and the catastrophes they catalyzed, exacerbated and lived within their “superoxygenated atmosphere of attention and information and privilege and power.” At the center of this story is Karen, a Canadian student on an American Ivy League campus her sophomore year. When Karen moves into “Raghurst,” a student house where a group of lesbian radical feminists live, and simultaneously starts dating a frat boy from GBC (better known as “Gang Bang Central” on campus), it is the spark that ignites the subsequent events; she is straddling a dangerous line between two houses who go to war over women’s rights versus patriarchal “brotherhood” – a war of the greater society as a whole. It’s about their year of learning, of trauma, of sexual exploration and viewing the world around them through their stanch lens of feminism.

“Frat boys like to share. You have to watch your back.”

Far beyond just being an ode to campus life, The Red Wordexplores the crevices of rape culture on college campuses and in society as a whole. It reaches into the nooks and crannies of words like “consent” and “consensual” and shows it all to us through the eyes of a group of young women so far from home, so close and yet so far from finding themselves. Sarah Henstra’s debut is intelligently done, intellectual, and very often witty. It is biting and often cringe-worthy, both theoretically and physically. But keep watching; keep reading. Never look away from this mirror. This novel puts the reader right in the midst of the Crog-wearing, Iliad-quoting erudites of a women-centric viewpoint, right in the middle of the bloom of self-awareness. (They’d hate me for saying that, wouldn’t they?)

It did tend toward the melodrama in areas, but doesn’t the college experience itself? Toward the end I was thinking, If I see one more melodramatic, theatrical proclamation, I’ll scream. (Oh Dyann, how you would splinter the spears and batter the bright shields! Stay, oh stay with me.) And yet, the subject matter here was so worthy of exploration. Frat culture and pack mentalities. The ethics of “victim blaming” –

*spoken in an existential cadence

If a girl goes into a frat party and gets herself drunk, does she deserve to be gang raped? * The politics of single parenthood for the woman – is she weak for “succumbing” to her circumstances, being “trampled by patriarchy,” for letting her parents pull her out of school, for embarking on single-parenthood of an unwanted baby? Or, is there another worthy argument at play here as well? You be the judge.

The Red Word was a fantastic debut novel from Henstra, which I would highly recommend to anyone, particularly college-aged females. If there was ever a novel to sit around and discuss ad nauseam, it’s this one. It raised brave questions and turned the typical “college trajectory into adulthood” story on its head. There was nothing predictable about this novel. And I thought that was for the best – because, is there ever really anything predictable about college or our life experiences after it? I think not. Henstra and The Red Word earned a strong 4 stars from the start and held them throughout. ****

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Sarah HenstraMy novel The Red Word is available March 2018 from Grove Atlantic (US) and ECW (Canada), and in 2019 from Tramp Press (UK). Mad Miss Mimic was published by Penguin Canada in 2015. I’m also an English professor and I teach courses in Fairy Tales & Fantasy and Gothic Horror.

A Voice for America: Sam Graham-Felsen Speaks Candidly On Reflecting the Turbulence of American Culture Through the Eyes of Middle Schoolers

Hardcover, 301 pages
Published January 2nd 2018 by Random House
If you haven’t heard Sam Graham-Felsen’s name around everywhere yet, you definitely will soon. With the release of his debut fiction novel, Green, Graham-Felsen has hit the literary scene as a new and thought-provoking voice for 2018 — a forceful voice that commands attention. But, he’s used to commanding attention, isn’t he? In this interview, the former Chief Blogger for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign candidly speaks out about the effects of racism and discrimination on our society, humanizing black characters, and the inspiration he found in working for President Barack Obama.


Question # 1

Your debut novel, Green, has been well received since its release early this year. What was the jumping off point for your idea for this novel, and what was your writing process while juggling other career obligations?

I started envisioning this novel while I was working for Barack Obama on his 2008 campaign. I was the chief blogger on the campaign, and I wrote a lot about the grassroots movement forming around Obama, Obama’s policies, etc — but one thing I couldn’t really touch was the issue of race. Whenever Obama got attacked for being “too black” or “not black enough,” the campaign did its best to minimize the attacks and move on. But then Obama gave this amazing, very candid speech about race in Philadelphia — right in the midst of being attacked for the church he attended, which was led by pastor Jeremiah Wright. A lot of his advisors told him not to give the speech at all. But he spoke, in very specific detail, about the state of race relations in this country, and didn’t gloss over the ugly history of slavery, Jim Crow, and continuing discrimination against blacks. And it worked. Instead of running away from race, he directly addressed the topic — and spoke about it with great care and nuance. That inspired me. I knew I had a fairly unique experience as a white kid growing up in a mostly black school. I decided that I wanted to write a novel based on those experiences — that by diving as deep as I could into my own memories I might be able to better understand not only the city I grew up in, but the country I live in. After the campaign, I worked as political consultant, and I traveled the world giving lectures about my work on the Obama campaign. It was hard to get any writing done being on the road for so long. So eventually, I decided (in sort of an early mid-life crisis) to quit my life in politics, go get an MFA, and attempt to really write this novel that had been brewing inside of me for so long.


Question #2

Which of your characters in Green was the most difficult to write, and which character did you enjoy writing the most? Why?

It’s a toss-up between Dave’s dad (Lou) and Mar. Lou was hard to write because I took some details and aspects of my own father, not all of which were 100% flattering, when I created that character. I love and deeply admire my own dad, and I didn’t want him to feel hurt by the portrayal of Lou. The dad in the book can be parsimonious and tough-love at times, but he’s also a caring and courageous guy who is comfortable in his own skin (and dorky clothes) and teaches Dave about what it’s like to break free from self-consciousness and stand up for what one believes in. My dad read the book and ultimately felt moved by it, which was a relief to me.

The Mar character was also tough to write, because Mar is a secretive, very sensitive kid, who keeps a lot hidden from Dave. The trick was how to hint to the reader that hard things were happening in Mar’s life, without explicitly stating a lot of it. Part of what I was trying to show is how clueless Dave was — in part as a consequence of his youthful inexperience, but also as a result of his white privilege — in seeing what Mar was going through, and how unfairly society treats Mar.

And I felt anxious at times, about whether I, as a white guy, could create a black character — whether I had that right, and whether my own blind spots as a white person would make it impossible to create a fully fleshed-out black character. So much of our literature is littered with stereotypes of black characters — and often, these characters are either utterly demonized villains, or are magical, ethically immaculate characters who exist, essentially, to help white heroes and teach them lessons. All I can say is that I tried my best to make Mar a human being. He, like Dave, is a complex mix of ideals, aversions and desires; he’s highly intelligent and incredibly kind to Dave’s emotionally troubled younger brother, Benno. He’s more emotionally developed and mature than Dave, but he’s not superhuman. He can be stubborn, he tells lies — some small, some big — and even takes something of Dave’s (I could elaborate on this, but I don’t want to spoil the ending for those who haven’t yet read the book). In other words, he’s a kid.


Question #3

What was the most challenging part of portraying ‘The Force,’ your main character’s term for “racism,” in Dave and Marlon’s lives, and what did you want to be particularly sure to get right in conveying and describing these experiences from a sixth-grade perspective?

This book is told from a twelve-year old’s perspective — and not just any twelve-year old, but a white kid who is coming of age in a mostly black school environment and who loves hip-hop. So a lot of Dave’s language has a kind of hip-hop inflection. A lot of the time, he’ll use a word like “crib” instead of “house” — but he’ll also make up words to describe objects and ideas in his universe. For example, his small, honorable mention sports trophies — he calls these “chumpstumps.” A lot of the fun, for me, in writing this book, was inventing Dave’s idiosyncratic, hip-hop-inflected but nerdy language.

“The force” is the term Dave comes up with to describe racism — both on an individual and institutional level — but it also goes a bit beyond overt racism. It’s sort of how Dave sees the very idea of “race” intruding into everyday life: the various small and big racial tensions that exist in Dave and Mar’s world, the way that all kinds of racial rules seem to be written by society, the way that certain behaviors are deemed “black” or “white” by Dave’s peers. For example, whether you are a fan of the basketball player Larry Bird. Dave’s white friends Kev and Simon, who really don’t like being white, refuse to root for Larry Bird, because they think that’s a “white” thing to do. And to a large degree, “the force” bleeds into gender dynamics as well. Dave and Mar are constantly feeling pressure to act “hard” — i.e. aggressively male — and avoid “soft,” supposedly feminine behaviors, such as showing emotions or acting kindly. Black, white, soft, hard — these are binaries created by “the force” and they make it very difficult for Dave and Mar to just be themselves.

Why “the force” of all terms? For one, every kid growing up in the 1990s was familiar with Star Wars. So I liked playing with this big pop culture reference about a secret energy that exerts power over people. That’s sort of how Dave sees the concept of race — as an invisible energy that tugs people into dark places. I also liked playing with the idea of “force” in verb form. To “force” something is to move it against its will, and that’s kind of how Dave sees race — as an energy that exerts pressure on us all and makes something that should be as natural and easy as Dave and Mar’s friendship into this complicated and difficult thing to maintain.

Just to be clear: I, as a 36-year-old, personally have a different and more nuanced understanding about how race works in America than Dave does. To Dave, “the force” is something that afflicts people of all races, not just whites. For example, the black kid who mugs Dave, was, in Dave’s mind, driven by “the force.” But Dave is twelve, and hasn’t read much U.S. history, and doesn’t have a very deep understanding of the roots of the thing he calls “the force” — which, of course, is white supremacy. Dave doesn’t yet grasp that the very concept of “race” — the categorizing and hierarchizing of people based on something as arbitrary as skin color — is an invention of white supremacy, and the justification for slavery, Jim Crow, and continuing discrimination. All he’s really conscious of is that racial tension is in the air, coming from all quarters, especially in the wake of the explosive L.A. riots. I don’t think he fully realizes — yet — that “the force” can only be undone when white supremacy is undone.


Question #4

The end of Green leaves Marlon and Dave in a new and surprising phase of their friendship. What did you want to convey to your readers with the final scene in Marlon’s apartment?

The most important thing to me was that this book could not have a Disney ending. Why? Because this book is about race in America, and America has not had a happy ending when it comes to race. Even after the end of legal segregation, schools remain profoundly segregated in this country — even more so than they were before Brown v Board of Education. To a certain degree, I wanted Dave and Mar’s friendship to be symbolic of where the country is at, racially. We’re still deeply segregated and divided. We’re not even close to living post-racially, happily ever after.

Yes, we’ve made lots of progress; we elected Barack Obama — twice. But our justice system is still disproportionately jailing and killing black people, there’s still an enormous wealth gap between the races, there are still giant racial disparities in home ownership and employment. “The force” is alive and well.

But I’m not in total despair about America, even under Trump’s hateful, divisive rule. Amazing grassroots movements are springing up, from Black Lives Matter to #MeToo, demanding a fairer and more just society. And lots of people are waking up — really, for the first significant time in my lifetime — to the insidious effects of white privilege.

I wanted the ending of my book to be ambiguous — to offer a glimmer of hope that Dave and Mar’s friendship can heal — because I hope America can heal. We’re never going to have a happily ever after story, but we can, and must, become a more decent and more equal society.


Question #5

In writing Green, what were some of the sections, passages or themes that you or your editors opted to remove from the final drafts of the manuscripts, and why? How does this part of the editorial process shape your writing as a whole?

There were so many scenes that got removed, it’s hard to keep track — but mostly they were smaller things. Lines here or there that just weren’t packing a punch, jokes that weren’t landing. I wrote the first draft of this book quickly, but the revision process took almost two years. It was frustrating, and even painful at times, to have my agent or editor return yet another draft to me full of critiques and suggestions, but it was worth it to do all the revision. It helped me focus, laser-like, on the relationship between Dave and Mar, to deepen their story and cut out a lot of fat. It helped me deepen the symbolic structure of the book as well — all that stuff about softness and hardness, and the force, came in later drafts of the book.

One scene that was cut in the revision process was the scene where the grandfather lectures the class and tells his immigration story — which, admittedly, is a bit of diversion from the narrative of Dave and Mar. But I missed that scene, and so I put it back in the book.


Question #6

You’ve been published in phenomenal publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Nation, just to name a few. What has been your favorite piece you’ve ever had published, and why?

I got to travel to Taiwan to write about one of my favorite baseball players of all time, Manny Ramirez, who had joined a Taiwanese baseball team. It was really cool to go to baseball games in Taiwan — to hear the chants, see the mascots and signs, eat the ballpark food (Taiwanese food is amazing). And I even got to interview Manny — who seemed a bit puzzled that I’d traveled all the way to Taiwan just to see him. But what I enjoyed even more than the reporting was the writing. Manny is an incredibly enigmatic guy, and I did my best to understand his quirks and brilliance at the plate. But I also got into the racial history of Boston — which was helpful as I was thinking about Green — the way fans in my city often treated players of color unfairly. Manny, I felt, in spite of his amazing accomplishments — including helping the Sox win their first World Series in over 75 years — never got the respect he deserved.


Question #7

Your role as the chief blogger for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign is quite an interesting job title and must have been a life-changing experience! How did you come into this role, and what has been the impact on your life since then?

I was writing about campus politics for The Nation, and I did an article about how college students were using this new platform called “Facebook” to organize in support of Obama and urge him to run for president. When he finally declared his candidacy — in part because of the urging of young people — I wrote to the campaign and told them I would work for him in a heartbeat. I didn’t have any relevant skills beyond writing, so I was hired as his blogger. It was very cool — I got to travel around the country with him and meet hundreds of people from all walks of life who supported his campaign.


Question #8

What is the strangest experience you ever encountered as the chief blogger for Barack Obama’s campaign?

I did some video stuff in addition to blogging, and right before the Jeremiah Wright controversy blew up, the campaign sent me to Trinity Church, to make a documentary about how Obama’s church was basically a friendly and welcoming place, and not the scary radical place the right-wing media was making it out to be. One of the people I interviewed was a white woman who attended the church — she and her husband may have been the only white people at the church. She wasn’t a hippie or radical or anything, just a very friendly, plainly dressed woman with a Midwestern accent. So that was a sort of funny thing to me, looking back: making a video about the white lady who went to Trinity Church. I’m not sure if we ever posted that online.


Question #9

Tell us one awkward/embarrassing/unique fact about yourself.

Like Dave, I barely read at all as a kid. The only books I can remember reading for fun — as opposed to for school — were Dennis Rodman’s autobiography and Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret.


Question #10

Tell us one thing you wish you could change permanently about the American way or our society.

I just read Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, and it blew me away. I am now convinced that arguably more pressing than any other issue relating to inequality in America is the issue of affordable housing. Too many people in this country — disproportionately people of color who were excluded from FHA loans — pay exorbitant amounts of rent for substandard housing. When you’re putting 80% of your monthly income into rent, you barely have anything left over for food, clothing, and other essentials. It makes it nearly impossible to save, plan for the future, and get ahead.

But to get widespread affordable housing, we need a culture of empathy. Trump has stoked fear, finger-pointing, and fragility — the forces that sap us of empathy. So we need to get him out and get someone in like Elizabeth Warren, who tells a different story, not one of blame and division but of communal responsibility.



Where the Tables Turn: Feel free to ask me any question you’d like for me to answer for my readers, and/or pose a question to your readers or the general public!


I hear you are working on a novel. If you feel comfortable, can you share the first line?

If that question is too private — I know some people like to keep their drafts on the ultra-DL — here’s another one. What’s your writing routine like? Morning, night? Do you type or write by hand? Where?


Wow, Sam, your questions really blew me away—they’re really good ones! So, I’ll answer both of them. 😊

You’re right; I’d never thought of it, but the first line of your work is somehow a deeply personal display. It feels like a vulnerable action to tell someone or let someone see that (aside from my awesome friends who have functioned as my beta readers!) while it’s still in draft form, unagented, and I’m glad to have this moment of vulnerability with my readers.

The first line of my novel is: Of the fabled seven cardinal sins, greed and vanity had always been the real family Achilles’ heel, at least for as far back as she could remember being with them.

It is a novel about the precariousness of family and racial ties when class lines and social prejudices only complicate the matter.

About my writing routine, I wish I could develop more of a routine! In my “everyday” life, I work as a writer for a major brand/corporation, which can be hectic. I also write book reviews and interview many of the authors of them – which I love and wish I could do fulltime! So, I write in those moments when I’m not doing one of those things. Now, the book is done, and I’m doing a final edit before preparing *gulp* to find an agent who would care for this novel the way that I do, and editing holds a different pleasure for me than actually writing it (not better, just different). It’s as if I get to relive these characters’ lives while editing it rather than building their lives; I suppose that’s the “different” feeling I feel.

You would not want to see me write by hand—I don’t know who let me out of elementary school with my terrible handwriting, but they did! But, thanks to a pretty good public school education and a mom who nagged and nagged me about my typing form (thanks, Mom) I am an excellent typist and do all of my writing in a Word doc. For me, typing it all out allows ideas to flow freely from my fingertips, uninterrupted and unstifled. There are times when I start writing and what is the result is not at all what I thought it’d be, something that’s better than I thought it’d be, because I just let it all come out on its own. Then, I go back and edit, with a glass of wine. 😊

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Hardcover, 240 pages
Expected publication: February 13th 2018 by Grove Press

An extraordinary debut novel, Freshwater explores the surreal experience of having a fractured self. It centers around a young Nigerian woman, Ada, who develops separate selves within her as a result of being born “with one foot on the other side.” Unsettling, heartwrenching, dark, and powerful, Freshwater is a sharp evocation of a rare way of experiencing the world, one that illuminates how we all construct our identities.

Ada begins her life in the south of Nigeria as a troubled baby and a source of deep concern to her family. Her parents, Saul and Saachi, successfully prayed her into existence, but as she grows into a volatile and splintered child, it becomes clear that something went terribly awry. When Ada comes of age and moves to America for college, the group of selves within her grows in power and agency. A traumatic assault leads to a crystallization of her alternate selves: Asụghara and Saint Vincent. As Ada fades into the background of her own mind and these selves–now protective, now hedonistic–move into control, Ada’s life spirals in a dark and dangerous direction.

Narrated by the various selves within Ada and based in the author’s realities, Freshwater dazzles with ferocious energy and serpentine grace, heralding the arrival of a fierce new literary voice.

It’s not easy to persuade a human to end their life – they’re very attached to it, even when it makes them miserable, and Ada was no different. But it’s not the decision to cross back that’s difficult; it’s the crossing itself.

Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater is a novel of layers that do not always nicely overlap; in fact, the pieces often seem to not fit together at all. It is a novel born from trauma and emotional paroxysms, a read that erupts with them throughout. You have to peel back the layers to get to what Emezi has laid underneath, to find the gems, to find the hidden well of pain and sentiment offered here, and that may not be a satisfying journey for many readers.

Freshwater is the story of Ada, a young Nigerian woman with a fractured self, or multiple personalities, due to the gods who have mistakenly taken root in her body and mind. It is a dark novel portraying the malevolence within us – that darkness at the very deepest depths of us that we hope to never have to witness of ourselves or in others. It is a novel that portrays the psychological effects of such darkness and emotional violence. When Ada comes into adulthood and leaves her splintered home for a new existence in a Virginia college, a traumatic sexual experience further shatters her mind and her multiple personalities are born. Ada fights a battle between herself, her other selves and her God she left behind, a battle to regain her equilibrium that veers her onto a dangerous course of self-destructive behavior. A path of bloodshed, tears and an equal dose of sexual trauma and exploration. Ada fights with herself, realizing something is wrong. She wants a change but her other personalities refuse to let her go.

Let me tell you now, I loved her because in the moment of her devastation, the moment she lost her mind, that girl reached for me so hard that she went completely mad, and I loved her because when I flooded through, she spread herself open and took me in without hesitation, bawling and broken, she absorbed me fiercely, all the way; she denied me nothing. I loved her because she gave me a name.

Freshwater was a novel that took a lot of patience for me to read. If you’re a reader who clings to continuity, who needs progressive character development to follow the path a protagonist’s life, or a reader who is in the least bit squeamish, this will likely prove to be a difficult read for you. Not an unworthy read – but a difficult one. The narrative leapt back and forth in time with new personalities and overlapping stories already told being retold differently. This book was a collage, a kaleidoscope, a reflection of a splintered self. Given the subject matter, the shattered quality of the narrative is understandable but at times arduous to read.

It was hard for me to fully connect with Freshwater when the moments of truth, heartbreak and the demise of entire relationships in Ada’s life were narrated, not fully shown in action. Emezi’s debut novel is more about the relationship between Ada and her other selves –internally—than it is about her outward experiences in the world. (view spoiler) It wasn’t enough for me, though some parts of the novel were absolutely gripping, and there were some lovely lines scattered throughout.

He wanted to pretend he was somehow better than he knew he was; he wasn’t ready to throw himself into sin. Humans find it easier to just lie and lie to themselves.

However, in those neglected moments (which is probably why the book is relatively short) the novel loses its soul and misses opportunities.

Other qualms:

The quote headings at the start of each chapter made no sense to me in the context of the story. Often, they made no sense to me at all though I got the feeling that they were Nigerian sayings. And I had too many WTF moments here because of the haphazard way life events and realizations were thrown into the narrative, no build-up, just dumped. I found myself reading whole passages and thinking, Where did this come from – outta thin air? That was the main issue I had with this novel: there was no real character development aside from Ada and Ewan, just a series of narrations and events.

I also never understood the title of the book. There was a reference to it at the end of the novel, but I found it to be too cryptic and unclear, so I still have no idea what it was trying to convey, why it was the namesake of the book. Because of this, I had the noteworthy experience of loving and hating Freshwater. There were moments where I couldn’t wait to turn the page and others where I skimmed past the incoherence of the We. Because of that, Freshwater’s dazzling and dreadful moments condensed down into a grade of 3 stars. ***

*I received an advance-read copy of the book from the publisher, Grove Press, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.


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Akwaeke Emezi Akwaeke Emezi

Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed

Hardcover, 352 pages
Published July 25th 2017 by Little, Brown and Company

For fans of Emma Cline’s THE GIRLS and Emily St John Mandel’s STATION 11, this dark, unsettling and hugely compelling story of an isolated island cult will get under your skin.

GATHER THE DAUGHTERS tells the story of an end-of-the-world cult founded years ago when ten men colonised an island. It’s a society in which men reign supreme, breeding is controlled, and knowledge of the outside world is kept to a minimum. Girls are wives-in-training: at the first sign of puberty, they must marry and have children. But until that point, every summer, island tradition dictates that the children live wildly: running free, making camps, sleeping on the beach. And it is at the end of one such summer that one of the youngest girls sees something so horrifying that life on the island can never be the same again.

“When a daughter submits to her father’s will, when a wife submits to her husband, when a woman is a helper to a man, we are worshiping the ancestors and their vision.”

Jennie Melamed’s Gather the Daughters bowled me over in more ways than one. It was haunting, arresting, thought-provoking and confrontational in all the best ways possible. It pressed up against the boundaries of my personal comfort levels – and then pushed passed them. This was a novel with something to say, and Melamed’s voice carried far, loudly and still resonates in my head as I write this.

In Gather the Daughters, this island is no ordinary island, and these girls live no ordinary lifestyle. Cut off from the mainland (which they’ve been told has burned to the ground, riddled with disease, sin and destruction, never to be habitable again) they live in a dystopian world without realizing that they really don’t. The “ancestors” brought their people here as an escape, away from the laws and customs of the mainland, and built their own commandments (the Shalt-Nots) and customs for the people to abide by – customs which include no access to outside books or knowledge, a social hierarchy where men reign supreme and women are subservient in every possible way, and a land where fathers have a special relationship with their daughters…

In the midst of it all, a handful of girls have the wherewithal to question it all, and those who don’t suddenly disappear for speaking out band together to find answers…

The first thing I’ll say is that Gather the Daughters is not a read for the faint of heart, but it IS a book for readers who aren’t afraid to cross a few lines. Jennie Melamed has crafted a novel that both explores and speaks out for the victims of abuse with poeticism, grace and force. She tells their story, paints their woes and harnesses their pain to educate and lend them a voice. The Daughters will push you to your boundaries. It will make you uncomfortable, make you think, make you angry.

“She bit Garret Jacob badly when he tried to slide fingers over her breast in the night, waking to him cradling a bleeding palm and glaring at her. Embarrassed and guilty, she apologized and let him do whatever he wanted with her later – acts she was pretty sure the ancestors would have disapproved of.”

With this novel, Melamed addresses the effects of rape culture on its survivors and on its observers. But, it is so much more than that. Gather the Daughters is an exploration of cult mentality and the tools used on its subjects to maintain the status quo and power the cult forward, of patriarchal rule and oppression, of the burdens of womanhood, of the will we have to survive and of what happens when we lose that will and succumb to the influence of others. It is an exploration of the darkness within us all and of an extreme patriarchal system of oppression not unlike how many women live today.

“If everyone does it, it can’t be too bad, right?”

(I can only imagine someone said something similar just before drinking the Jonestown punch in ’78.)

From the very first page I was drawn in with one of the most haunting and arresting prologues I’ve read in a long time. Admittedly, there were times when the writing was too flowery in a way that took away from the poeticism of the novel rather than adding to it, so that what Melamed was trying to convey was nearly lost, but that never overshadowed the evocativeness of this atmosphere she painted for us. This world was complete. I felt it, lived it, was part of it, a difficult feat that Melamed surmounted with ease. Their world was all encompassing and the tension of their cult-like existence against the backdrop of the “Wastelands” was palpable. This novel started out of the gates with a bang garnishing an easy five stars, but the second half of the novel slowed a bit, while still offering morsels for thought, earning Jennie Melamed’s Gather the Daughters a very strong four stars overall. ****

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Jennie Melamed JENNIE MELAMED is a psychiatric nurse practitioner who specializes in working with traumatized children. During her doctoral work at the University of Washington, she investigated anthropological, biological, and cultural aspects of child abuse. Melamed lives in Seattle with her husband and three Shiba Inus.

Behind the Name: Joe McGinniss, Jr. Talks Life, Writing and the American Way

Hardcover, 368 pages
Published August 2nd 2016 by Simon Schuster

Joe McGinniss, Jr. isn’t just his father’s son. Here, the author of The Delivery Man and Carousel Court sheds some light on growing up the son of a celebrated author, his own writing process and, well, the thing he would change about American society if given the shot. After reading and reviewing Carousel Court, I was intrigued at the thought of getting to know more about this author in particular, and now we can. Here you have it folks — Joe lets loose his wry outlook on life and writing in this hilarious but thoughtful interview.


Question # 1

Some would say that writing is in your blood, as the son of the late, esteemed writer Joe McGinniss. How did your father’s professional heights, experiences and struggles impact your urge or desire to become a published author?

Great question. So, I watched him from afar; my parents divorced around the time of my birth, and my mother raised my sisters and me. We’d visit him on the weekend and during the summer and, though most of the time we spent with him he wasn’t working, the days he did were the same scene: dad in the kitchen early making something weird for breakfast, then into his office, closing the door and the hum of the Selectra…the paper being spooled in,….then typing….hours of it…until lunch.


Question #2

In your 2016 article, “Lessons from My Father” printed in The New Yorker, you gave a poignant account of your father’s life from your own point of view, from your childhood to his death after you’d become a published author yourself. What was it like to write such a telling account of the triumphs, pains and struggles of this man you loved beyond the words we know on his pages, and how does your knack for fearlessly regarding hard truths translate into your own fiction writing?

Oh boy. Kind of draining. But not technically difficult because there was so much emotion fueling the writing of the piece. I felt compelled to get some information out there about his personal struggles, demons if you will. He was loving and supportive and driven and flawed. His vulnerability and isolation haunted me. Something unseen prevented him from fully embracing the moment and those who cared most about him without drifting back into his personal darkness. Depression and drinking were/are a family legacy (both of his parents suffered from it both their entire adult lives. He was an only child. A lonely child.)


Question #3

As the author of full-length novels The Delivery Man (2008) and Carousel Court (2016), what is the hallmark of your writing process? Do you follow a particular path from inception to completion of a novel, and how does this process—if any—change as your career grows and morphs?

Initially, for the first two stories, there was a tonal quality that appealed to me. Visceral, spare, propulsive and haunting were all goals and came more readily. As well, so much of what I read that moved me tended to be spare and accessible, if not dark. A sense of place and location also were critical. Las Vegas and the exurbs of Los Angeles had me mesmerized, and I wanted to channel that as best I could through the lens of the story I was architecting. The current novel is less about place or even tone/mood and more character and plot driven (though the first two certainly had what seemed like pretty propulsive stories that one could ideally, if they were into it, race through). 

Dear lord those years. Too many between them from a writing perspective. I was, and am still in many ways, an idiot. I didn’t realize that it kind of doesn’t help one professionally in the writing business to take nearly a decade between books. Yes, I had good reasons (my son was born and my wife worked outside of the home).


Question #4

Both The Delivery Man and Carousel Court are phenomenal displays of contemporary literary Realism, written as “shattering indictment[s] of a society.” As a writer, do you start with this at the heart of your novel-writing process—an intuition to dispel myths and expose truths—or do you find it to be a byproduct of the topics you write about?

I’m not that sophisticated. I create what I can and try to convey what I feel and try to make sure it’s interesting. Does the story move and entertain and surprise? Is it boring the reader? Does it feel simultaneously real and dreamlike? I never know, but through the process of rereading and stewing about it, obsessing about how thin and uninspired it might read and is it working, will people want to pick it up and if they do, will they want to read it to the end—and if they do will they post some crap review on Goodreads complaining that the characters weren’t “likable” enough, as though novels and stories now have to provide new bff’s for readers.


Question #5

Your 2016 novel, Carousel Court, is written about a street you actually know intimately yourself. Did the actual people you know from this neighborhood shape the direction of the novel? If so, how?

Interesting. So Carousel Court is the name of a random cul de sac (I believe) that I located on Google maps, then zoomed in and did the whole street view thing where I spent hours tooling around the neighborhoods in the Inland Empire east of LA imagining life there. So no, I did not know it well. And the characters who I sentenced to a life there were pulled from the ether and other odd places and shaped into the cast of Carousel Court.


Question #6

In writing your novels, what were some of the sections, passages or themes that you or your editors opted to remove from the final drafts of the manuscripts, and why? How does this part of the editorial process shape your writing as a whole? 

Well my esteemed editor – a brilliant bloke named Jofie Ferrari Adler – suggested I write the last chapter in French. So that was awkward.

No not really. There was actually, with Carousel Court, one significant story turn that we didn’t agree on initially but discussed and meditated on and in the end, as always, the editor was right.


Question #7

Tell us one thing you wish you could change permanently about the American way or our society.

Public education. Schools should be community hubs, financed like private colleges, tailored to meet the needs and wants of the people they serve. Open year round and paying teachers so much more and training and retraining so that children and their families have an oasis available to them every day of the year every year of their lives no matter where they’re born or their neighborhood’s property values.

Oh and no more “summer vacation.” A few weeks off here and there but wow, like we need to educate and nurture our children less?


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The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Paperback, 289 pages
Published March 1st 2016 by Picador (first published March 3rd 2015)

The Sellout is the first book by an American author to win the UK’s prestigious Man Booker Prize.

A biting satire about a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game. It challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality – the black Chinese restaurant.

Born in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens – on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles – the narrator of The Sellout resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: “I’d die in the same bedroom I’d grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that’ve been there since ’68 quake.” Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, he spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He is led to believe that his father’s pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family’s financial woes. But when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that’s left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral.

Fueled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town’s most famous resident – the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins – he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.

This entire novel, especially the prologue, reminded me of the ramblings of someone’s old grandpa rocking on the front porch of his clapboard home. I can only assume this is exactly what Beatty was going for, by the direction the novel ended up taking, but I felt like I was reading—no, sifting through—a bunch of nonsense I just wanted to be done with. And a lot of this read like an ultra-liberal excuse to spout out the n-word (hard er, mind you) as both a starting point, comma and full stop to every paragraph. It was absolutely exhausting.

I was looking forward to a good satire, but I don’t think I ever laughed once, because I was too distracted by trying to figure out what the hell he was even rambling about and how it fit into any possible plot line, ironic device, literary direction–hell, even a Katt Williams-like satirical skit–anything! I wanted to like this one – the first time non-Commonwealthers are allowed to be considered for the Man Booker Prize and an American—I’d be lying if I didn’t go ahead and point out—and African American wins it. I HAVE to read it; I’m so excited…I’m so confused…I’m so let down.

I don’t want to take away from the win at all. Have it; keep it, Paul Beatty. But I’m not on the bandwagon. Not even a little bit. DNF.


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Paul Beatty Paul Beatty (born 1962 in Los Angeles) is a contemporary African-American author. Beatty received an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College and an MA in psychology from Boston University. He is a 1980 graduate of El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills, California.

In 1990, Paul Beatty was crowned the first ever Grand Poetry Slam Champion of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. One of the prizes for winning that championship title was the book deal which resulted in his first volume of poetry, Big Bank Takes Little Bank. This would be followed by another book of poetry Joker, Joker, Deuce as well as appearances performing his poetry on MTV and PBS (in the series The United States of Poetry). In 1993, he was awarded a grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grants to Artists Award.

His first novel, The White Boy Shuffle received a positive review in The New York Times, the reviewer, Richard Bernstein, called the book “a blast of satirical heat from the talented heart of black American life.” His second book, Tuff received a positive notice in Time Magazine. Most recently, Beatty edited an anthology of African-American humor called Hokum and wrote an article in The New York Times on the same subject.