Monthly Archives: December 2014

Book Review: Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet

2014 may go down as the year of the out-of-left-field twist ending. Back in February, Helen Oyeyemi rounded out her eerie, racially charged retelling of “Snow White” with a last-minute, gender-bending revelation that proved controversial. Readers of Mermaids in Paradise—the latest novel by the equally intelligent and prolific writer Lydia Millet—can take comfort in the fact that its own concluding swerve has none of the unsavory implications that regrettably cling to Oyeyemi’s otherwise standout novel. Better yet, the twist—though unexpected—does what it’s supposed to do: It recasts the events that preceded it in a way that makes you want to reread the novel. Unfortunately, it will also likely make you wish that what preceded it was a stronger, more reliably engaging read. Though Mermaids in Paradise is a highly (and deservedly) memorable novel, it suffers from tonal problems that temporarily threaten to eclipse its wit and inventiveness. Continue reading

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Money, Money, Money, Money (and Novels)

Merry Christmas! In honor of the brazen (if unusually honest) Western Union commercial proclaiming money “king” this holiday season, let’s talk about money.

If someone asked me to name a novel that’s largely about money, my first thought would probably be Our Mutual Friend. According to Thomas Piketty—economist and author of the wildly popular Capital in the Twenty-First Century—that’s not just because I’ve read too much Victorian fiction. As a recent Slate article helpfully notes for those of us who just can’t stomach 700 pages of economics, even for a good cause, Piketty argues that in the early 20th century, novels became increasingly less interested in money as money itself ceased to be a “stable reference point” following massive inflation and a temporary reduction in wealth inequality. If I might risk paraphrasing Slate’s paraphrase (always a dangerous proposition): Earlier references to money in literature were a way of ordering the world in knowable ways, so when money itself became a slipperier signifier, it ceased to have the same value (har har) for authors. Continue reading

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Book Review: An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

Writers like to write about the writing process, and critics like to read novels that reflect on literature itself—that much is clear. All too often, of course, this metafictional bent devolves into (at best) a kind of neurotic navel-gazing and (at worst) self-important proselytizing on the transcendent, transformative nature of art. The messianic overtones of the latter in particular can quickly become grating, even to the staunchest proponents of literature’s intrinsic value, which is perhaps why Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman comes as such a breath of fresh air. “I bet you believe in the redemptive power of art,” writes Aaliya Sohbi, the novel’s wearied, aging, but delightfully quick-witted narrator, “I’m sure you do. I did. Such a romantic notion. Art will rescue the world, lift humanity above the horrible quagmire it’s stuck in. Art will save you.” Continue reading

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On Subbing, and Why I’m Slowly Losing the Will to Teach

A few years ago, once I had more or less resigned myself to the fact that taking the time to get a doctorate in the humanities is impracticable in today’s academic job market, I decided that I would get an MA and then teach English at the high school level. I can’t say I was ever thrilled by the idea of teaching teenagers, but since finding full-time work at a community college is increasingly difficult (as it is at any kind of college or university), I concluded that it was the only financially viable option, assuming I wanted to teach English at all. So, after failing to land a position at a private school immediately after finishing graduate school, I decided to become certified in order to improve my odds. And in the course of the certification process, I applied to work as a substitute teacher—partly for the experience, partly to complete the requisite number of “field hours” my state requires.

I should say at the outset that as a substitute, and as someone new to teaching, I expected to have classroom management problems. What I did not expect was to be sexually harassed by the students. Continue reading

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Book Review: You by Caroline Kepnes

You—the debut novel by writer Caroline Kepnes—begins like a keyed-up Billy Joel fantasy. Joe Goldberg—charming, perceptive, and acutely aware of his service-sector lot in life—is working in a New York bookstore when MFA candidate Guinevere Beck walks in. Beck is pretty, perky, and slightly pampered, and the couple’s first, bantering encounter (straight out of a romantic comedy) carries with it the promise of both future misunderstandings and ultimate reconciliation. Of course, the novel’s blood-drenched cover promises something else entirely, as do Joe’s obsessive ruminations on Beck and his ominously evasive references to a prior failed relationship. It soon becomes clear that the novel’s cross-class romance is less “Uptown Girl” than it is Collector, with Joe going to extreme and amoral lengths to secure Beck’s affections. Continue reading

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Friday Finds

Despite having recently said that I don’t participate in a lot of memes, I’m making (another) exception. Last week there was a slight mishap involving my laptop and my cat, and the cat definitely emerged victorious from the encounter. The upshot of this was that my computer had to be checked over and cleaned at the shop, and since I am horribly negligent when it comes to backing up my files, I temporarily lost access to several posts I had begun drafting and got a little behind. Fortunately, Bookshelf Fantasies has a really handy meme directory that is particularly useful when it comes to finding last-minute inspiration. Continue reading

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