Gothic/horror is not my usual genre, but so far I’m enjoying Seanan McGuire’s “Wayward Children” series, of which this is the second, though it also could work as a standalone because time-wise, it’s a prequel to the first book, Every Heart a Doorway. The dark-fairy-tale tone of this book is similar to the first, though in some ways I liked this book more than that one. In Every Heart a Doorway, we meet the students at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, all of whom traveled to other realms via magic portals but ended up back in our world. In Down Among the Sticks and Bones, we learn more about two of those students, the twin girls Jack (short for Jacqueline) and Jill Wolcott, and actually get to see the world they went to, which is a dark and dangerous place called the Moors.

Before we get to the Moors, though, we get a lot of background about Jack and Jill’s childhoods and their terrible parents, who are pretty insufferable/want children for all the wrong reasons/spend years and years not seeing Jack and Jill for who they are at all/mold the twins into their visions of who they should be. They see Jillian as the brave and boyish one, so she gets dressed in sporty clothes and signed up for the soccer team; they see Jacqueline as the reserved and girlish one, so they put her in fancy dresses that she’s not allowed to get dirty. But because they don’t actually know their children, the Wolcott parents get it totally wrong:

They didn’t know that Jillian was brave because she knew Jacqueline was always somewhere behind her with a careful plan for any situation that might arise. They didn’t know that Jacqueline was timid because she was amused by watching the world deal with her sister, and thought the view was better from outside the splash radius. (34)

The girls find themselves stuck in these roles that have been imposed on them; neither of them has the opportunity to make her own choices about what she wants to do and who she wants to be. That changes one rainy day when they’re twelve: Jillian, bored, suggests that they go play in the attic; when they open the old trunk that’s normally full of dress-up clothes from their grandmother (who is awesome and basically raised them for the first five years of their lives, but is no longer really in their lives because their dad is a jerk), what they find instead is a staircase. Which, of course, they go down. Which takes them to the Moors, where they eventually learn that there are vampires and werewolves and a kindly Dr. Frankenstein-ish figure named Dr. Bleak. In the Moors, the girls’ paths diverge, in ways that readers may already know from having read Every Heart a Doorway, but I really liked getting to see Jack and Jill’s experience of this world in more detail here. Getting to see Jack’s interactions with Dr. Bleak is especially excellent—there was one passage featuring the two of them that totally made me teary-eyed.

The fact that An Arrangement of Skin has cover blurbs from Mark Doty and Maggie Nelson, both of whom I really like, probably helped convince me to check this book out from the library, even though I wasn’t actually sure I was in the mood for a book of essays. As it turns out, I was (eventually) in the mood for a book of essays, and this was an excellent choice. The fourteen essays here are largely personal in nature, with Journey recounting bits of her life and her family history, but they also pull in literature and history; there are passages talking about (and quoting) poems by Larry Levis or Thomas James or C.D. Wright, or referencing Walter Benjamin or Gaston Bachelard. (Journey herself is a poet and academic.)

Journey refers, in the first essay, to a point in her life when she “invented a ritual to stop time,” and then talks about poetry as serving the same purpose (pp 4-5). She talks about taxidermy (which she take a few classes in) as another way to do this, and also about it being a characteristic of certain places, as when she says this about Richmond, Virginia: “As soon as someone enters an alley, the wisteria-shrouded path stops time” (121). This concern with the passage of time/memory reminds me a bit of André Aciman, as does the way Journey looks at her past self and the spaces she inhabited or moved through, whether she’s talking about the horseback-riding lessons she took when her family lived in India when she was six and seven years old, or those alleyways and wisteria and porches of Richmond (where she went to college and also lived after the end of a long-term relationship).

I like the style of these essays a lot: in a few of them, like “Epithalamium with Skunk Pigs,” I really like how Journey seems to proceed via a chain of association and memory, in this way where you don’t quite know where she’s going until she gets there, though when you arrive you get the sense that it was actually all carefully mapped out. I also really love the descriptions of places in some of the pieces, especially a paragraph about the now-empty zoo in Los Angeles’s Griffith Park that appears in “A Flicker of Animal, a Flank”: it’s so great I wish I could quote it in full here, but it’s a bit long for that. Ah well: if you read this book, you’ll have it to look forward to. Meanwhile, the book’s very satisfying final essay, “Bluebeard’s Closet,” is available in its entirety on the Blackbird website: this was a really solid end to the book, but I think would serve just as well as an introduction to it.

I decided to read this book, which is Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest for the Hogarth Shakespeare series, after reading Teresa’s post about it over on Shelf Love, and I’m really glad I did. As Teresa says, this book is fun—lots of fun. Before I picked this up, the last five books I read were either 1) enjoyable and readable nonfiction or 2) good but somewhat challenging or offputting fiction, and I was ready for a book like this: a novel that is smart and well-written but also pretty straightforward. Hag-Seed was a pleasure to read, a book that made me look forward to my subway commute every morning and evening because it meant a chance to read a bit more of it.

From early in the book, it’s clear that Felix Phillips is going to be our Prospero-figure, associated as he is with “illusion” and “pretense” and “fakery”, and with a rivalry that has resulted in a “vengefulness” that’s been building for the past twelve years (9-10). As Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Festival, doing over-the-top Shakespeare adaptations, Felix has been a “cloud-riding enchanter” (12). But he’s familiar with loss, too: his wife, we learn, died in childbirth, and his young daughter (named Miranda, naturally) died from meningitis at the age of three. Felix fears his absorption in his work may have contributed to Miranda’s death, but he’s also convinced it’s what will save him: he throws himself into a production of The Tempest in which he will play Prospero. But that production is never to be: Felix’s assistant, Tony, delivers the news that the festival’s board has decided to cut Felix’s contract short; Tony himself will be the interim artistic director. This blow leads Felix to a self-imposed exile in a shack on the outskirts of town, his version of Prospero’s island, with the imagined ghost of his dead daughter for company.

Eventually, though, he realizes he needs to do something, and so applies to teach a “Literacy through Literature” program at the local prison. He applies under a false name, but the woman who interviews him recognizes him: he convinces her that his true identity needs to be their secret. He gets the job, and decides to make his version of the program focused on Shakespeare: the inmates will read the plays, write about them, and put on productions of them. After three successful years of this, Felix learns that Tony, now a government minister, will be in the audience of the next production: he decides that it has to be The Tempest, and of course, because this is a retelling of The Tempest, he decides he wants to use the occasion of the production to get his revenge on Tony and on others who wronged him. It’s a pleasure to watch the various strands of the story unfold—we get classroom scenes where Felix works with his students to tease out the play’s characters and their motivations; we get rehearsal scenes where we get to see the production taking shape; we get scenes of Felix shopping for props and costumes, and scenes of Felix planning his revenge, all told in a way I found to be lively and fluid and immensely readable.

The Surrender is Toni Bentley’s “erotic memoir” about transcendence/anal sex/submission, and despite the fact that there were things in the book that bugged me, I quite liked it overall. To start with the things that bothered me: I could have done with a lot less Freudian psychologizing, though at the same time, it feels somewhat unfair to criticize the book for its emphasis on something that is apparently a very big part of Bentley’s subjective experience of her life and sexuality. Like, even though for me the appeal of being called a “good girl” feels like it has zero relationship to anything about my childhood or parents, I can’t speak for anyone else’s feelings or experiences; while I may not be able to relate to the way Bentley connects her childhood experiences of shame or humiliation, particularly related to her relationship to her father, to her adult sexuality, I can’t disbelieve her experience of the relatedness of those things. I also feel like Bentley and I have quite different takes on gender and male/female relationships, but, again, her experiences and feelings are hers, so it’s sort of neither here nor there except to the extent that I, as a reader, want a memoir to be “relatable” in some way: I sort of do, but I also see the value in reading memoirs that come from different perspectives. That said, I was annoyed that Bentley wrote these two sentences and that her editor didn’t talk her out of them: “I reckon every woman wants a cock between her legs, ultimately. The question is: Does she want one of her own, or can she tolerate one belonging to a man?” (43). Ugh, really?

Those complaints aside, Bentley is smart and funny, and I appreciated this book’s combination of intensity and humor, and how wide-ranging it is. It includes sections about such disparate things as being an atheist who had wanted to find God/faith for a long time and crotchless underpants and the various styles thereof; it’s got sexy threesome/foursome scenes and philosophical musings about non-monogamy and stories about the experience of jealousy. At its heart, really, is a whole lot about the experience of letting go—the surrender of the title. For Bentley, that surrender comes mostly via anal sex (though not entirely: there’s a section where she writes about learning to go down on her lover in just the way he likes that also has a fair bit of surrender/submission in it). The sections about that experience of surrender and submission were probably my favorite parts of the book, and I think not just because I do find those bits relatable—there’s something so pure and intense about the way Bentley writes about the experience of letting go of her “desire to know, control, understand, and analyze”, about how that makes room for her to experience “openness and vulnerability” (7). Also, I love that Bentley writes about laughing during sex—and not like, oops-we-fell-off-the-bed laughter or oh-bodies-are-weird laughter, but a laughter that’s tied to that experience of letting go. My other favorite bits are the writerly parts—as someone who also feels the impulse to write things down, I really liked sections like this:

He presented me with the first sex I’d ever had that I thought about in words, that I wanted to describe and preserve in words. And so the scribbling began. Every time he came, and left, I went straight to my notebook and wrote it all down. I was experiencing an impossible pleasure, and having it on paper would prove that the impossible existed. (29)

The Black Notebook, which was originally published in French in 2012, caught my eye at the library after I’d seen this post on Instagram: I like the cover a lot, how layered and atmospheric it is, the way the different urban images are juxtaposed. I’d never read anything by Modiano, and I’m not sure if this short novel was the best place to start: maybe? (If you’ve read anything by him, I’d love to hear your thoughts.) For a book under two hundred pages, it felt like slow going to me, and I sometimes found myself slightly bored by the flatness of the characters, but there were also things about it that I found really appealing.

The black notebook of the title is one that Jean, the book’s narrator (who is a writer) kept when he was younger, in the 1960s. It’s now fifty years later and he finds himself consulting the notebook again as he thinks about the time when he was writing in it, a time when, for a few months, he was dating a mysterious young woman who hung around with some shady-seeming men at a Paris hotel. There’s a little bit of a noir/mystery feel to this book, but not entirely: it’s less plot-driven than that might imply, and there’s not really a big revelation or a tidy ending. It’s not exactly character-driven either: several of the characters are little more than names, and Dannie remains largely a mystery, though the narrator does learn some things about her that he didn’t previously know.

More than anything else, this book to me felt like a combination of place-driven and idea-driven and image-driven. I suspect that if I knew the Paris neighborhoods and landmarks being discussed as intimately as I know New York, I would have liked it even more than I did, but even without a strong sense of the geography (or the scenery or history, beyond what the book includes), I liked the sense I got of the changing city, where the narrator recognizes some buildings fifty years later but realizes that other places have been transformed, with whole streets erased for new construction. The city and the layers of its past are one of the narrator’s concerns even as a young man: some of the things he wrote down in his notebook, in the 1960s, were the names of painted signs for old businesses (tanneries, wine warehouses) that will probably soon disappear. As someone who is really fond of cities/history/layers/old signs myself, I found this really appealing.

In terms of ideas and images, there is a lot here about memory and identity, the distance or lack thereof between the past and the present, between one’s past self and one’s present self, and also a lot about the remove at which the narrator moved through his life when he was younger, writing things down but not necessarily understanding their import, not piecing together the strands of narrative connecting the people around him. A recurrent image throughout the book is a pane of glass separating the narrator from something or someone else: lit apartment windows that give you “a feeling of both presence and absence,” a metaphorical train window beyond which the scenery passes quickly, an imagined window of a subway car through which he thinks about looking at someone he knows, a pane of glass separating a prisoner from a visitor (in a dream), a café window through which the narrator and someone from his past recognize each other, a hotel lobby window outside which the narrator stands, unseen. That sense of distance is sometimes present in the narrative itself, which I think is why it felt like slow going, but it’s intentional and I guess it worked: I found it striking and thought the images where it’s made explicit were some of the loveliest passages of the book, like this, which the narrator uses to explain what he was doing in writing things down in his black notebook, “to have a reference point later”:

A train rushes by a station too fast for you to read the name of the town. And so, with your forehead pressed against the window, you note down other details: a passing river, the village bell tower, a black cow ruminating beneath a tree, removed from the herd. You hope that at the next station you’ll be able to read the name and find out what region you’re in. (13)

I heard about Fish in Exile via Sarah McCarry’s post about it on her old blog, and re-reading that post now I would agree with her assessment that this book “is addictive, but for quite some time you have no idea what it’s even about.” The day I started it, I tried to explain it to someone, and I think all I managed to express was my befuddlement. That befuddlement remained for a fair chunk of the book, but I didn’t much mind, because on a sentence level, Nao’s writing is gorgeous. Like: “Light shifts, lifting the four corners of the room into an origami box” (16). Or: “I stand there like a front burner gazing at the stars and the dismal, faraway sea” (45). Or: “I imagine moving through the sea of winter with a boat, a pair of oars, and light” (87) Or: “The clouds take turns combing each other’s manes” (133).

The book is about a married couple, Ethos and Catholic, who are in a deep state of grief over their dead children, but that description of it doesn’t get at its sometimes-surreal strangeness. The six sections of the book have different narrators and different forms; there are sections of dialogue that recall a play (perhaps a Greek tragedy); Greek myth is there, too: a fairly great/hilarious retelling of the Persephone myth makes up a large part of one of the sections. At one point in the retelling, Hades is talking about how great things have been since he brought Persephone to the underworld: “It’s like a festival down there. Banquets and film screenings left and right. Of course, the only film we watch in the underworld is Satantango” (77). (Ethos’s mother is a classics professor, and there are a few amusing Anne Carson jokes/references in this section too.)

But when it’s not being formally inventive or surreal or funny, Fish in Exile gets at the emotional experiences that Ethos and Catholic are having. They seem to alternate in who is more sad and more stuck at any given moment; their shared but separate grief strains their partnership. Early in the book, Ethos (the husband) tells Catholic he’s “in exile” and notes she doesn’t understand; he left his job when the children died and seems to spend his days aimlessly passing time at home or by the ocean. Later, it’s Catholic who seems more stuck in sorrow; there’s a gorgeous several-page section near the end of the book talking about her pain which I would love to quote but can’t really, because it’s all so good. Despite how adrift I felt when I started this book, I was caught up in it by the time I got to the (very good) ending, which I read on the subway home from work, totally rapt.

I didn’t enjoy all nine chapters of Future Sex equally, but I did really enjoy this book, which is part personal narrative and part cultural commentary about sex and dating now, with a lot about what sex and dating now is like for a straight woman in her 30s. Maybe I partly liked it so much because I’m in a similar demographic to Witt, in terms of being a never-married woman in my 30s (she’s a year older than me) living in Brooklyn (though she spends a chunk of the book in San Francisco) but I don’t think that’s entirely it. I mean, yes, there were things I found relatable, but Witt’s writing is very smart, very funny, and so right on about so many things, particularly when she’s recognizing and questioning contemporary American culture’s often-gendered assumptions around sex/relationships/what people want.

One of my favorite chapters in the book is the first one, “Expectations,” where Witt writes about finding herself single and starting to question her own assumptions that she would eventually end up in a traditional monogamous long-term relationship. “The year I turned thirty a relationship ended. I was very sad but my sadness bored everyone, including me,” she writes, which made me laugh because it’s so relatable (5). She writes about sleeping with various male friends/acquaintances, including one who’s seeing someone else who apparently has expectations of monogamy, though Witt isn’t necessarily aware of this at the time; there’s a cringe-inducing and hilarious bit where she quotes from a sanctimonious email she got from one of that other woman’s friends that made me decide, six pages into this book, that I was clearly going to enjoy it a whole lot. The next chapter, “Internet Dating” (which is a thing I also have experience with, though my experiences seem to be quite different from Witt’s in some ways) was also really satisfying in the ways that it combines a history of online dating with Witt’s own attempts at it and with a critique of assumptions about women wanting relationships/monogamy and not wanting sex, as in this passage, which is too good not to quote at length:

I saw that it was taken for granted, or asserted by books of biological determinism such as Louann Brizendine’s The Female Brain, that the monogamous relationship made women the most happy, was where they most enjoyed sex, and that this sort of commitment brought women both freedom and security. This line of thinking forced me into a gendered role that I resented. If every expression of free sexuality by a woman would be second-guessed, it left men as the sole rational agents of sexual narrative. The woman was rarely granted the heroic role of seducer. If a woman pursued a strictly sexual experience, she was seen as succumbing to the wishes of the sovereign subject. If the sex she had with no commitments made her unhappy, it was not simply bad sex but rather proof of her delusion that it could be good. (33)

In other chapters, Witt learns about something called orgasmic meditation by attending the events of an organization called OneTaste, watches live web cams (and talks to some of the people behind them) on a website called Chaturbate, talks about polyamory (largely through the lens of three people she meets in San Francisco who tell her about their experiences with being open/poly), talks about the politics of birth control, goes to Burning Man, and explores her feelings about porn, partly by attending a shoot of Kink.com’s Public Disgrace series. The porn chapter was another highlight for me: early in it, Witt notes that porn “caused [her] friends a lot of anxiety,” and goes on to explore both her own relationship to it and larger cultural reactions, current and historical (71). (The bit about it causing her friends anxiety was surprising/interesting to me. Do I have friends who feel that way? And if not, why not? I feel like I’ve only talked about porn with straight/mostly-straight guys and gay women, which may be part of it?) Maybe my favorite moment in this essay is when Witt is interviewing the female lead performer from the Public Disgrace shoot, Penny Pax, and we get this, which just delights me so much:

Slightly incredulous, I asked if there were moments of genuine pleasure. She looked at me like I was crazy. “Yeah. Like the whole thing! The whole thing.” (84)

There is more good stuff about this book I want to talk about, like sex and capitalism, or how funny some of the descriptions of various scenes/people are, but really, all I can say is, this book was great. I initially heard about it via Alexandra Schwartz’s (also great) New Yorker piece about it, and am glad I eventually got around to reading the book itself and not just reading about it.

Like my last read (Ali Smith’s Autumn), The Outrun by Amy Liptrot was a book I first heard about before it had been published in the US, first via this post over at Tales from the Reading Room and then again from a friend on Goodreads who wrote about how much he loved it. As with Autumn, I snapped this book up when I saw it at the library, and am glad I did.

The Outrun, the book, is Amy Liptrot’s memoir about alcoholism and recovery, about being from the Orkneys and living in London and going back to the Orkneys and finding things out about nature and herself and what she wants her life to be like, and at first I wasn’t totally sure I was going to like it. I’m not sure if it was the book or my mood, but I found the scene-setting of the beginning, where we learn about Liptrot and her family (her father has bipolar disorder; she has a younger brother; her mother became a born-again Christian; her parents got divorced; Liptrot herself was living in London and drinking way too much and having seizures and losing flats and jobs and relationships) felt a bit disjointed to me. But the beauty and energy of some sentences or descriptions or paragraphs carried me along, and once I reached the point in the book where Liptrot goes back to the Orkneys after completing a non-residential rehab program, I found myself totally won over. I was delighted by so many of Liptrot’s descriptions of her sober island life, whether she’s talking about rebuilding stone walls or watching clouds or going to an island uninhabited since 1958 and seeing an old farmhouse there, whether in passages about listening for corncrakes at night as a summer job, or about her time wintering on the small island of Papa Westray (Papay), where she goes on an 11-mile circumambulation of the island with the Papay Walking Committee one December day, despite the sun setting at 3:20 pm, despite cold and hail. I also loved reading about Liptrot’s solo Papay swims, with bits like this paragraph:

There are things about the sea you find out only by being in it. The waves carry stones, large pebbles suspended in the water, thrown around effortlessly. I watch, from a seal’s-eye perspective, a gull descend and land on the water. It seems not to have noticed me. One morning, the sky is reflected in the flat water and I’m swimming in the clouds. (197)

The Outrun, the place, is a general term for “the furthest reaches of a farm, only semi-tamed, where domestic and wild animals co-exist,” a place where “humans don’t often visit so spirit people are free to roam” (2). It’s also the name of the biggest field on the sheep farm where Liptrot grew up. In both the general and the specific it’s a space at the edge of the farm: in Liptrot’s case, it’s at the edge of the farm and the edge of cliffs and sea. It’s a place and mood that Liptrot clearly feels a kinship with, in the way it’s partly wild, in the way it’s windswept, in the way that daily domestic life doesn’t have a full hold on it. Liptrot writes, too, about the wildness of drinking, and the appeal of that, calling her drinking life “rough and windy and tangled” (20). Later, when she’s working with the structure of AA’s twelve steps despite her atheism, dislike of religion, and skepticism about the program, the wildness and bigness of nature is the closest thing she can find to a higher power, and a lot of the book is about how being in nature and learning about the natural world helped her recovery. One of the most appealing things about the book, for me, is the way Liptrot explores this ongoing appeal of wildness and edges, the way she writes about trying to figure out how to have room for those things in her sober life, in a way that’s healthy rather than destructive.

I was recently talking with someone about what I was currently reading, which was this novel, and he asked what else I had read by Ali Smith and then asked if she’s an author where I feel like I want to read every book she writes/has written, and I realized that the answer to that question is yes, even if I’m sometimes slow to get around to them: I still haven’t read How to Be Both, for example, even though I own a copy. I wasn’t too slow with this one, though: I heard about it last year, before it was actually out in the US, and was reminded about of its existence by Stefanie’s post about it last month, and promptly grabbed it when I saw it at the library recently.

The flap copy says that Autumn is “a story about aging and time and love and stories themselves,” to which my reaction was basically “yes please,” and aw, there are so many good things in this book, which centers around the friendship of Elisabeth Demand and her old (both in the sense of former and in the sense of elderly) neighbor, Daniel Gluck. In the autumn of 2016, Elisabeth is 32 and a university lecturer; Daniel is 101 and in a care home. The book is set in the autumn of 2016, but with lots of earlier bits too: we see Elisabeth at age 8, meeting Daniel, and Elisabeth at age 11, going to see The Tempest with him, and Elisabeth, somewhere in childhood, crying in his backyard, and Daniel himself not much past childhood, spending time with his sister when he was 17 and his sister was 12. A lot of the book is about Elisabeth and Daniel, but there are sections too, about Elisabeth’s sometimes-challenging relationship with her mother, and about Daniel’s unrequited love for the (real) artist Pauline Boty, and about life now, television and bureaucracy and uncertainty. There’s a lot, too, about more abstract things: art, and story, and transformation. Metamorphosis is a recurring theme (at one point, Elisabeth is reading Ovid aloud to Daniel as he sleeps; some images find their way into his dreams) but not just metamorphosis, change in general: changing seasons (this is the first of four planned volumes in a seasonal quartet) and the changes of growing up/growing old/nearing death, and unexpected life changes (like when Elisabeth’s mother finds herself surprised by love) and political changes (the Brexit vote, though not named as such, is referenced, including in a really amazing two-page section that is made up mostly of sentences beginning with “All across the country,” as in, “All across the country, people felt righteous. All across the country, people felt sick” (60) et cetera).

I like how many good conversations between Elisabeth and Daniel there are, imagined ones and remembered or forgotten ones, and I like how good-natured and big-hearted Daniel is in those conversations, and how he teaches Elisabeth about important things, about, for example, how “whoever makes up the story makes up the world,” and how you should “always try to welcome people into the home of your story” (119).

And oh, I love Smith’s writing: this book is full of so many good descriptions and images. Like when Daniel tells Elisabeth to close her eyes and then closes his eyes, too, to describe one of Boty’s pieces to her, and then she opens her eyes just before he does and thinks of how seeing him open his eyes is “like that moment when you just happen to see the streetlights come on and it feels like you’re being given a gift, or a chance, or that you yourself’ve been singled out and chosen by the moment” (74). Or this moment when Elisabeth wakes up one morning at her mother’s house: “the little TV up on the shelf in the kitchen is on but with the sound turned down; it must have been on, lighting and darking the kitchen by itself, all night” (233). Or this, about the sidewalk in November (with a nod to Gerard Manley Hopkins): “The leaves are stuck to the ground with wet. The ones on the paving are yellow and rotting, wanwood, leafmeal. One is so stuck that when it eventually peels away, its leafshape left behind, shadow of a leaf, will last on the pavement till next spring” (259).

TL;DR: this book is lovely and made me teary-eyed on the subway, twice. Also, I really like Sarah Lyall’s review of it in the New York Times.

I don’t know whether to call Pond a novel or a collection of linked stories: it consists of named pieces of varying length, all but one of which are first-person narrations, with the same narrator. A novel with a shift at the very end? Whatever it is, I found myself alternately enjoying it and not. I found it well-written, with a strong voice, but that strong voice is pretty much all there is: there is little in the way of plot or character, other than the sense of our narrator’s character we get through her voice, and I found the whole thing a bit claustrophobic, and a little off-putting, but I think that may well be intentional. Our narrator lives in a cottage somewhere in the west of Ireland; she was an academic at some point, or was trying to be, but seems not to be at present. She sleeps with people; she has friends; she throws a party. But largely it feels like she moves through her days alone/in her head, and these stories are very concerned with the way she moves through her days. She talks about breakfast: “Sometimes a banana with coffee is nice” (3). She talks about her fading nail-polish and the dirt under her nails: “They look like the hands of someone very charming and refined who has had to dig themselves up out of some dank and wretched spot they really shouldn’t have fallen into” (6-7). She talks about coming to a literal and figurative standstill after a break-up, and about fleeing the room after giving an academic talk, and about how the knobs on her stove are eventually all going to break and she’s not sure what she’ll do then. There are some really lovely bits, like when she talks about lying in the garden on a blanket listening to insects and various kinds of birds:

And each sound was a rung that took me further upwards, and in this way it was possible for me to get up really high, to climb up past the clouds, towards a bird-like exuberance, where there is nothing at all but continuous light and acres of blue. (25)

Some of the shorter pieces in the book are funny and really well-paced: there’s one called “First Thing” that’s only a page that’s about waking up after having had maybe too much beer the previous night, and having to deal with a ratcatcher coming to take care of a rat in her cottage, which ends like this: “And because I wasn’t really here I didn’t yet know how I like things, so I put two sugars and milk into my coffee, because that’s how the ratcatcher takes his” (29). A piece called “Wishful Thinking” was another highlight for me, as was “Stir-fry,” which you can read in full in Jia Tolentino’s review on the New Yorker website.

Also, I really like this, from “Finishing Touch”:

Quite often I’m terribly disappointed by how things turn out, but it’s usually my own fault for the simple reason that I’m too quick to conclude that things have turned out as fully as it is possible for them to turn, when in fact, quite often, they are still on the turn and have some way to go until they have turned out completely. (80)