Why you want to hate ‘The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky,’ but can’t

Jana Casale’s debut novel “The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky” feels like reading the story behind a carefully curated Instagram feed. Between the entries about sitting in coffee shops, falling in love, moving to San Francisco, taking scenic road trips with her boyfriend, working on her novel and pretending to read Noam Chomsky to impress a boy she likes, Casale’s heroine Leda is insecure — obsessed with the concept of being “linear.”

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“The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky” 
By Jana Casale. 
368 pp. Knopf. $27.97.
April 17, 2018.

Leda was the type of girl who thought “salad for lunch was a distant notion she associated with mortgages and weddings,” orders clothing made out of tree pulp or vegan silk, “grown accustomed to drinking intolerable drinks at parties by holding her breath and taking small sips,” and builds her days around “tea and ice cream.”

She was the type of girl who apologizes all the time and forces herself to do stuff she hates because that’s what everybody else does and thinks its also what’s expected from her. The type of girl who shaves the pubic hair from her vagina even though it hurts and makes her bleed and her boyfriend tells her to stop shaving down there.

She’s the type of girl that you hate — who has her whole life put together and still feels insecure. She’s engaged by 25 and married by 26. She doesn’t have to go through the charade of mindlessly swiping on Tinder or OkCupid. She became a mother before she turned 30. And writes her first novel and gets it published*. (* I’m referring to Jana Casale rather than Casale’s heroine Leda in this instance.)

But the main reason you hate Leda: because she reminds you of yourself and you hate yourself and your indecision and insecurity. You want Leda (and yourself) to be brave and fearless and above pettiness, but even as you’re reading about how Casale describes the cattiness of women who constantly try to one-up each other, you’re just as guilty of this and “never reading Noam Chomsky,” comparing yourself to a fictional character and her invisible Instagram feed.

 

 

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If you’re anxiously waiting for new ‘Black Mirror’ episodes, read Rachel Heng’s ‘Suicide Club’

Rachel Heng’s dystopian debut novel “Suicide Club” is like watching the “Black Mirror” episode “San Junipero” for the first time.

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“Suicide Club” 
By Rachel Heng. 
384 pp. Henry Holt & Co. $27.
July 10, 2018.

It’s hard to get your bearings, at first, but eventually you fall in love with the writing and the characters.

Like “Black Mirror,” Heng’s book features amazing technological advancements which are not necessarily for the better.

“San Junipero” and “Suicide Club” share other similarities: both are love stories about living forever and self-discovery, featuring girls living a lie.

In “Suicide Club’s” case, the girl is Lea Kirino, a 100 year old who looks no older than 50.

For a “Lifer”  like her, being 100 years old isn’t an incredible achievement. It’d be a failure. “Three hundred was now the number to beat,” writes Heng.

Part of that comes down to good genes (Lea’s comes from Japanese parents known for their longevity). If you’re deemed naturally healthy and have the right temperament, you’re prescribed a strict eating and exercise regimen that consists of DiamondSkinTM, ToughMuscTM and RepairantsTM — stuff that will eliminate wrinkles, instantly heal cuts and expand a human’s life span so it nears immortality.

If you’re not blessed with good genes, you’re labeled a “sub-100,” and will naturally die young. No DiamondSkinTM, ToughMuscTM or  RepairantsTM will be spared in prolonging your life. It’s sad, but that’s natural selection at work.

Like most Lifers, Lea’s goal is to become one of the few and first Lifers selected for the “Third Wave” of scientific and medical advancements designed to make you immortal, but when she accidentally steps in front of a car in an attempt to chase after a man who looks like her father, a man who’s been exiled and labeled as an antisanct for taking someone’s life, Lea gets flagged as an attempted suicide case, jeopardizing her own chances of being invited to the “Third Wave.”

Through mandatory group therapy meetings and attempts to find her father, Lea also meets the Suicide Club, a radical underground organization of Lifers who’ve had enough of the endless soulless days following the strictly government-mandated rules of what to eat, breathe and do. Like Lea, they’ve been flagged as attempted suicide cases and are monitored by government agents enlisted to enforce the status quo; the supplements they’ve taken as Lifers have made it impossible to “take a kitchen knife to your wrists and watch the life pour out of your veins” (You skin will heal before you bleed). Their philosophy: to really live, they have to be able to choose how they die.

Despite the subject matter, “Suicide Club” isn’t death-defying for its genre. “Suicide Club” feels like Scott Westerfeld’s “Uglies” trilogy and other dystopian young adult coming of age novels I’ve devoured in one sitting. Perhaps that’s why I like Heng’s debut so much. Like “Black Mirror,” “Twilight Zone,” or “Brave New World,” “Suicide Club” explores what humanity might wish for and shows how things might be OK as they already are.

Fun fact: “Black Mirror’s” “San Junipero” episode actually inspired the design of “Suicide Club’s” UK book cover.

Disclaimer: I received a free eARC of “Suicide Club” by Rachel Heng from NetGalley in exchange for this honest review. 

Why ‘Not That I Could Tell’ should be in your reading queue

My favorite lines in Jessica Strawser’s novel “Not That I Could Tell” are: “For once, I just want there to be a story with a happily-ever-after that does not involve ending up with a love interest. Do you think that’s possible?”

Her character, Izzy, a radio show producer struggling with her lack-of-love life, posed this question to her friend and neighbor Clara.

“Absolutely,” responds Clara, a stay-at-home mom of two.

Strawser’s novel, which is what you’d want from a rom-com if it were actually based on real life, is proof of it.

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“Not That I Could Tell” 
By Jessica Strawser. 
236 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $26.99.
March 27, 2018.

By all means, Strawser’s novel passes the Bechdel test, starring a legion of women — mothers, daughters, sisters, friends and neighbors who genuinely seem to care about each other, and talk to each other about things other than men.

In the span the 336-pages of “Not That I Could Tell,” most of these whispered conversations revolve around women, or rather, one woman in particular: Kristin Kirkland, the mother of two four-year-old twins. The three of them and a million-dollar life insurance payout mysteriously went missing, becoming day-after-day front page coverage in Yellow Springs, Ohio (whose most famous resident includes comedian Dave Chappelle).

The main suspect is a man, Kristin’s estranged soon-to-be ex-husband Dr. Paul Kirkland, an obstetrician-gynecologist who moved back into Kristin’s house after her and her kids’ disappearance. But he’s just a obscure supporting character in Jessica Strawser’s drama.

The leads are all strong and likable female characters from: Izzy and Clara to their neighbors, Natalie; Natalie’s precocious 12-year-old daughter Hallie; and lesbians Randi and Rhonda.

Through Strawser’s words, you come to care for this army of women who don’t blame Kristin for kidnapping her kids or for leaving (if that’s what really happened). They just hope that Kristin and Aaron and Abigail aren’t hurt or dead.*

Their friendships are the reason you should be reading “Not That I Could Tell.” And these women are how happily-ever-afters without love interests are possible.

Now if only we could see more female-dominated narratives like this in films, movies or television shows….

* Since we don’t know if Kristin is dead or injured, “Not That I Could Tell” also passes the Women in Refrigerator test on a technicality.

Disclaimer: I received a free eARC of “Not That I Could Tell” by Jessica Strawser from NetGalley in exchange for this honest review. 

Recalling a ‘A Short History of Drunkenness’

If I could add one word to the title of Mark Forsyth’s book “A Short History of Drunkenness: How, Why, Where, and When Humankind Has Gotten Merry from the Stone Age to the Present,” I would include the word funny so it’d read “A Short Funny History of Drunkenness: How, Why, Where, and When Humankind Has Gotten Merry from the Stone Age to Prohibition.”

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“A Short History of Drunkenness” 
By Mark Forsyth. 
256 pp. Three Rivers Press. $18.
May 8, 2018.

Not that there aren’t sad things in the book. (Englishwoman Judith Defour strangled her two-year-old baby and sold the baby’s clothing to feed her gin addiction.) But for the most part, “A Short History of Drunkenness” doesn’t dwell on the sad things — like how alcohol should include a warning label for “could cause death.”

It’s introduction — “I’m afraid that I don’t really know what drunkenness is” — made me chuckle. “That may seem an odd confession for a fellow who’s about to write a history of drunkenness,” Forsyth writes, “but, to be honest, if authors were to let a trifling thing like ignorance stop them from writing, the bookshops would be empty.”

So how can someone not be able to define drunkenness? Forsyth, who admits he “drinks an awful lot more than most,” describes it like seeing the Silence from “Doctor Who” — those aliens you instantly forget about if you don’t see them — in that “If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.”

“Certainly, if an alien knocked on my door and asked why people across this peculiar planet keep drinking alcohol, I wouldn’t answer, ‘Oh, that’s just to impair our reflexes. It’s basically to stop us getting too good at ping-pong,'” he writes.

So Forsyth’s “The Short History of Drunkenness” is his attempt to explain something that “will never and can never be precisely recalled.”

Forsyth’s thesis: most religions and cultures can be interpreted through their relationship to alcohol. Alcohol was the very reason people worked (from Ancient Egypt to Australia) and cultures (from Greece to Russia) designed rituals around required binge-drinking. “In 9,000 B.C., we invented farming because we wanted to get drunk on a regular basis,” “Very primitive writing was really just a bunch of IOUS,” and “The Pilgrim Fathers weren’t meant to land at Plymouth Rock, but the Mayflower had run out of beer. So they had to stop there,” writes Forsyth.

People devoted themselves to gods of drunkenness (think Ninkasi, Hathor, Dionysus, Bacchus or Odin) and men who controlled the intake and distribution of alcohol wielded the power (George Washington exchanged free booze for votes). Even monotheistic religions like Christianity “saw wine as a Good Thing,” with the gospels pointing to Jesus’ reputation as a “drunkard.” And since Christianity required wine for the ritual of communion, “wherever Christianity has spread, the Christians have had to take vines with them.”

Alcohol even had a role in the afterlife. Ancient Egyptians were buried with jugs of imported wine, Chinese cultures used alcohol to talk to the dead and faithful Muslims and Vikings are promised eternities full of wine or mead in heaven or Valhalla.

But the most amusing explanation for why humans drink might be the most primitive, or what Forsyth calls the “Drunken Money Hypothesis”: “We evolved to drink.”

Disclaimer: I received a free eARC of “A Short History of Drunkenness: How, Why, Where, and When Humankind Has Gotten Merry from the Stone Age to the Present” by Mark Forsyth from NetGalley in exchange for this honest review. 

Eliza Robertson writes new myths with debut novel ‘Demi-Gods’

Eliza Robertson’s debut novel “Demi-Gods” is an experience — like that of a total eclipse of the sun, both frightening and awe-inspiring as the moon swallows the sun, suddenly overpowering her daylight with his darkness.

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“Demi-Gods” 
By Eliza Robertson. 
240 pp. Bloomsbury Publishing. $26.
April 10, 2018.

“Demi-Gods'” sun is Patrick and its “changeling” moon Willa (or perhaps it’s the other way around), step-siblings living in mirror border towns by the sea — “one nudging the forty-ninth parallel, the other a twenty-minute cab ride to Tijuana.”

Like the sun and the moon, they chased each other out of the sky and didn’t exist in each other’s universes except for those six rare fleeting instances of totality between 1950 and 1961 — when they  happen to be in the same time and place because of circumstances out of their control.

The first time happened in 1950 when Willa was nine and Patrick 11. Willa’s mother and Patrick’s father Eugene brought them together in Willa’s family’s beach house in Salt Springs Island, British Columbia. Willa got stung by a jellyfish and Patrick offered to pee on her arm to numb the pain (she wouldn’t let him, but peed on herself while Patrick listened) and dared Willa to intentionally poop in her underwear as collateral to hold their secrets.

The second time happened in 1953 when Willa was 12 and Patrick 14. Patrick’s older brother and Eugene’s son Kenneth brought the family together in San Diego because he was graduating high school. Willa’s mom and Patrick’s dad were still seeing each other. While the step-siblings were at the hotel pool, Patrick intentionally went into the girl’s changing room while Willa was showering and masturbated to the sight of her boobs.

The subsequent meetings are similarly dark and perverted — as if you were reading whispered taboo secrets or hearing the sea’s soft shhhhhhhhhhhh’s.

“Events between him and me seemed to occur on another membrane, which pulsed, here and there, into the membrane we all occupied, but which contracted when a third person entered the room,” wrote Robertson from Willa’s first person confessional. “I remembered our interactions as I remembered a dream, with doubt, and if I mentioned that night to him, I expected him to look at me questioningly. I didn’t trust that my subconscious hadn’t invented the whole thing.”

So Willa and Patrick became each other’s half-remembered suns and moons — stealing secrets from their imprinted shadows even though they barely knew the other, “thinking about memory as a space we dwell in.”

And so they basked in each other’s borrowed light, both compelled and disgusted by the power they had over the other, thinking about how “‘scared’ was an anagram of ‘sacred.'”

Robertson’s prose is intentionally blurry, using pronouns instead of names and lacking quotation marks so you’re never sure when Patrick’s speech begins and Willa’s ends.

Instead, Robertson challenges dualities, immortalizing Patrick and Willa through both beautifully poetic and vulgar prose.

With “Demi-Gods,” Robertson writes a new myth, rivaling Psyche and Cupid’s, Oedipus and Jocasta’s, Castor and Pollux’s and Cronus and Zeus’s. Her “demi-gods” Patrick and Willa can instill fear, turn day into night and blind you if they meet.

Disclaimer: I received a free eARC of “Demi-Gods” by Eliza Robertson from NetGalley in exchange for this honest review. 

What ‘The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, his iconic test, and the power of seeing’ says about you

If you’re hoping “The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, his iconic test, and the power of seeing” is your WebMD on how to self-diagnose yourself for depression, anxiety, neuroticism, obsession, schizophrenia, egocentrism, or something else entirely based on a series of 10 inkblots known collectively as the Rorschach test, Damion Searls’ book doesn’t necessarily fit the bill.

If you’re hoping “The Inkblots” will teach you something about the history of the Rorschach test and the man behind it (even if it reads like a dry textbook), then Searls’ book is the one for you.

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“The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, his iconic test, and the power of seeing”
By Damion Searls. 
416 pp. Broadway Books. $17.
Feb. 20, 2018.

Searls’ became fascinated with Hermann Rorschach and his test after he encountered Rorschach’s inkblots, “so rich and strange — enticing enough, in any case, for me to spend the next several years exploring their history and their power.” The result is this 416-page book — which contains almost 100 pages of extensive footnotes. (Searls’ Rorschach test results revealed his obsessive tendencies.)

Through its pages, we learn about psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach, a Swiss Russophile who read Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” for fun and looked “like Brad Pitt, maybe with a little Robert Redford thrown in.” Rorschach was the oldest son of a painter, who died from lead poisoning and suffered from “depression, delusions, and bitter, senseless self-recriminations” when Rorschach was 18. Rorschach, who was nicknamed Klex (German for “to daub, to paint mediocre paintings”) because he made pictures out of inkblots, inherited his father’s artistic talents.

His father’s death inspired him to become a doctor, eventually working in an asylum where he encouraged his mental patients to draw. It was there that Rorschach first invented and experimented with his inkblot tests and discovered an open-ended questionnaire about them could reveal how a person thinks.

Rorschach discovered patterns between his patients — how “certain kinds of answers were given almost exclusively by either schizophrenics or people talented at drawing.” He found that certain types of answers (based on movement, color, form and detail) revealed personality traits from introversion to extroversion and emotional instability to thoughtfulness.

“The Rorschach ‘seemed like a mental X-ray machine. You could solve a person by showing them a picture,'” said one of Rorschach’s students.

Rorschach died at 37 before finishing his work, but his students continued his testing. A. Irving Hallowell discovered that cultures influences patterns in answers. For example, Samoans tended to give pure color responses because their language defined colors as nouns (red literally translated to “like fire, like flame”; blue meant “the color of the deep sea”; and green was “the color of everything growing”).

Rorschach’s test eventually took on a life of it’s own, showing up in art (think Andy Warhol’s “Rorschach” paintings); comics (think Alan Moore’s “Watchman,” featuring a masked vigilante named Rorschach); television (think the opening credits of Netflix series “Hemlock Grove”); and political metaphors (Hillary Clinton has been compare to “our national Rorschach test”). Meanwhile, how a Rorschach test is administered and interpreted today depends on who you ask.

If you ask me though, “The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, his iconic test, and the power of seeing” isn’t as fascinating as Rorschach’s pop culture legacy — reading it feels like doing homework — but what I see and think probably says more about me than the book itself.

Disclaimer: I received Damion Searls’ “The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, his iconic test, and the power of seeing” from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.