Month in Review: September 2020

Another month, another wrap-up of the previous month. At the beginning of the month I sped through 5 books, all of which were 4-star reads or higher. Then a reading slump/mental slump hit and I only read two more books for the rest of the month. The last two books I read – The Book of Not and Transcendent Kingdom – both disappointed me in some ways, but were still overall enjoyable reads for me. Reviews for those will be up in a week or so.

Books read:

  • Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich – 4 stars out of 5
  • Paradise Cove by Jenny Holiday – 4 stars out of 5
  • Chemistry by Weike Wang – 4.5 stars out of 5
  • Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward – 5 stars out of 5
  • Dear Ijeawele by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – 4 stars out of 5
  • The Book of Not by Tsitsi Dangarembga – 3 stars out of 5
  • Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi – 3.5 stars out of 5

Books in progress/October TBR:

I’m currently finishing up We Want Our Bodies Back by Jessica Care Moore and Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall. I had wanted to finish these by the end of September…but my reading slump made that goal pretty unattainable.

I’m not sure if it’s realistic to finish 8 books on top of the two that I’m currently wrapping up – we will see. The books that I want to read this month are:

  • This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga. I have been working through the Nervous Conditions series in anticipation of this novel, and am really looking forward to it! I’ve heard good things about this one so far, and am encouraged by the fact that it advanced to the Booker Prize short list.
  • Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam. This seems like a perfect spooky read for October. I get scared REALLY EASILY, but this novel just sounds too good to pass up.
  • The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante. I’ve heard wonderful things about this coming-of-age novel, and am really looking forward to it.
  • Luster by Raven Leilani. This is one of my most anticipated reads of 2020, and while the reviews I’ve read so far would suggest that this book didn’t quite live up to its hype…it’s still a must-read for me.
  • Notes from a Young Black Chef by Kwame Onwuachi. I don’t know too much about this book, but based on the title it seems like a perfect audiobook/commuting-read for me.
  • The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste. One of my Booker Prize reads! I love historical fiction that shows history from a non-whitewashed point of view, so I’m hopeful that I’ll enjoy this Booker-shortlisted novel.
  • Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler. Also reading this one because of the Booker Prize, even though it didn’t advance to the shortlist. Because my October TBR is unrealistically ambitious, there is a good chance that I actually won’t end up reading this one.
  • The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab. This has been on my TBR for SO LONG and it also seems like a great Halloween read. So excited about this one!!

Some blog posts I enjoyed:

September photos:

Mini-Reviews of Short Reads: The Origin of Others & Dear Ijeawele

Over the past couple of months I read two short (~100 pages) nonfiction books that I definitely want to discuss, but don’t have that much to say about. Although I read the titles a few weeks apart, I think the books go quite well together, as they are both short pieces of nonfiction that focus on themes of social justice and equality. So with that, please enjoy (or don’t – I can’t tell you how to feel) my first ever mini-reviews post!

The origin of others by toni morrison

The Origin of Others is a collection of six essays which demonstrate how societal injustices and inequalities often occur through the act of excluding, or “othering,” minority groups. By characterizing minority groups as “others,” rather than human beings deserving of the same rights as everyone else, the in-group is able to justify its unfair advantages and even abuse of power over the oppressed. Morrison talks about distinct forms of othering including: romancing and romanticizing slavery, fetishization, and stereotypical depictions of minorities in literature and films.

Although short, The Origin of Others packs a powerful punch. The foreword alone (which is written by Ta-Nehisi Coates) had me nodding and underlining vigorously because, like the rest of the book, it is full of powerful insights. One of the reasons why this book is so powerful is because Morrison uses examples about slavery and the Civil Rights Movement to illustrate her points – yet her points are still incredibly pertinent to the current moment. There is something so striking and stirring about clearly seeing the parallels between slavery and contemporary society. I’m sure this was no accident on Morrison’s part, as The Origin of Others was published in 2017.

Overall, The Origin of Others was an incredibly powerful read. Despite being only 112 pages, this book is neither light nor easy to read – yet it is also so eye-opening and necessary. I highly recommend it.

Dear Ijeawele by chimamanda ngozi adichie

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions was born after a friend of Adichie’s asked her for advice on how to raise her daughter as a feminist. The result is this short book of – as the title says – fifteen suggestions on how to raise a feminist daughter, with elaborations and examples to accompany each suggestion. Adichie’s suggestions include rejecting gender roles/stereotypes, teaching women to aspire to more than just marriage, teaching girls to question why certain behaviors are criticized in women but not men, rejecting the idea that “likeability” is a measure of success, and talking openly about sex.

For the most part, I got on well with this book. I agree with most of Adichie’s suggestions, and think that her advice is valuable for raising a curious and socially conscious child of any gender – not just a daughter. However, as the need for intersectional feminism becomes increasingly apparent, I feel that this book isn’t intersectional enough. For one thing, many of Adichie’s examples – like teach your daughter about oppression, but don’t turn the oppressed into martyrs or saints – assume that the reader enjoys a certain level of privilege and is not oppressed themself. Additionally, the book is not very trans-inclusive, as it contains well-intentioned, yet problematic statements which equate being a woman with having a vagina (for example, in rejecting the notion that women in a cis-heterosexual relationship must do all the cooking for their partner, Adichie writes that “the knowledge of cooking does not come pre-installed in a vagina“).

Despite its limitations, though, I still think Dear Ijeawele is a good book with good advice. I recommend it, with the caveat that you should also read more intersectional books (such as Mikki Kendall’s Hood Feminism) in order to recognize the limitations of this one.

Book Review: Chemistry

Chemistry tells the story of an unnamed protagonist whose life, from a distance, would appear to be going really well: she is a Ph.D. student in a prestigious chemistry program, and her longterm boyfriend (who is also a chemist) has proposed to her. But her laboratory experiments aren’t going well and she doesn’t feel ready for marriage. All of this pressure – plus the pressure her parents have placed on her from an early age to succeed – causes the protagonist to panic and break down, and then to reevaluate her life as she slowly picks herself back up.

The book: Chemistry by Weike Wang
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Chemistry was such an immersive and wonderfully emotional read. Wang’s unnamed protagonist is so well-developed that I really felt her pain of feeling inadequate and lost in life. At the same time, I found it frustrating and distressing to watch the narrator make one questionable decision after another – I so badly wanted her to make different choices and take better care of herself! The way the protagonist simultaneously evoked frustration and tenderness in me is a testament to Wang’s razor-sharp writing.

I also really enjoyed the writing style and structure in Chemistry. The story is told as a somewhat disjointed collection of the narrator’s thoughts, experiences, and memories. While this might sound like a disorganized or chaotic reading experience, there is a remarkable consistency and flow to the narrator’s voice. The result is that all of the story’s fragments come together beautifully to illustrate a wonderfully complex and compelling character.

On the topic of the novel’s structure, I also want to mention that it doesn’t follow a typical narrative arc. Chemistry‘s protagonist slowly breaks down and (even more slowly) tries to find herself and, just as journeys of self-discovery go in real-life, there is no perfect resolution to her journey. The end of this book actually snuck up on me because of that; I had naively assumed that the story would resolve conclusively, and wasn’t expecting it to end in the somewhat anticlimactic way that it did. While anticlimactic, though, the way the story wrapped up was also hopeful and realistic.

In addition to being evocative and compelling, Chemistry is also full of fantastic commentary. Wang touches upon the insane demands of graduate school that inevitably lead people to break down, as well as the unique challenges faced by first-generation Asian Americans. While all of the commentary was excellent, I was particularly touched by Wang’s portrayal of being caught in between two different cultures – one individualistic and one more community-focused – and feeling like you don’t quite belong to either of them.

Note: I live in the greater Boston area, so the next paragraph is very much influenced by my personal biases.

My only critique of Chemistry is that I wanted more from the setting! Wang sets the novel in Boston, but aside from mentioning a few Boston landmarks (and I use the word mentioning very intentionally; she does not describe these landmarks in much detail, not even the Arnold Arboretum in the Fall), there is not much that gives the story a distinct setting. And yet…I have to acknowledge that despite the lacking setting, I still found Chemistry to be a completely captivating read because the narrator’s internal experience was so immersive.

Overall, I loved and highly recommend Chemistry. There were so many things about this novel that don’t normally work for me, but the novel was SO well-written and the protagonist so realistically compelling, that I found myself completely immersed in the story. I tend not to reread books, but I would reread this one for the experience of feeling so absorbed in the main character’s mind.

Month in Review: August 2020

Just a couple days into September, and it’s already starting to feel like autumn in my corner of New England! Looking back on August, it was probably my best month of the year. The warm weather made it possible to socialize with friends IN PERSON (outdoors and distancing, but still!), and to go kayaking TWICE. I also got to have some nice virtual hangouts, including a Zoom pickling sesh with my little sibling and a couple lovely video chats with Melanie at Grab The Lapels! And while I didn’t achieve all of my reading goals (which were unrealistic to begin with), August was still a great reading month: I finished 7 books and rated most of them 4-stars or higher.

Books read:

  • Difficult Women by Roxane Gay – DNF
  • How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang – 3.5 stars out of 5
  • I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong – 3 stars out of 5
  • Real Life by Brandon Taylor – 4.5 stars out of 5
  • Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga – 4 stars out of 5
  • The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi – 4 stars out of 5
  • So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo – 5 stars out of 5
  • The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison – 4 stars out of 5

Books in progress/September TBR:

Honestly, I have no business setting a reading goal of 10 books for September…and yet…here we are. This month’s reads are primarily inspired by the Booker prize longlist, books that I think would work well as audiobooks on my commute to work, and a fun read-along that Melanie at Grab The Lapels is hosting.

  • Bright Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich. I’ve been interested in this book for so long, yet never seem to prioritize it. I even incorporated it into my June reading plan, and still didn’t read it! But now I’m FINALLY reading this and really enjoying it so far!
  • Paradise Cove by Jenny Holiday. For Melanie’s read-along! A romance novel set in the tiny town of Matchmaker Bay, this seems like the book we need in 2020. There’s still time to join and read along if you’re interested!
  • Chemistry by Weike Wang. This has also been on my TBR for a while! I started it yesterday and find it incredibly moving so far!
  • We Want Our Bodies Back by Jessica Care Moore. I wanted to read this in August, but fell a bit behind on reading. Very excited to get to this in September.
  • The Book of Not by Tsitsi Dangarembga. Last month I read and enjoyed Nervous Conditions, so I’m really looking forward to the sequel!
  • Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. A short feminist manifesto by an incredible writer? Sounds like a powerful and necessary read!
  • Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi. This was my September BOTM pick! I checked BOTM literally just a couple hours after TBRing this book, and it was such a pleasant coincidence.
  • Apeirogon by Colum McCann. This Booker longlisted novel seems like it will either be hit or miss for me…so hopefully it is a hit!
  • Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward. Another Booker title. This is one of my most highly anticipated Booker reads, but I’m trying to keep my expectations in check so I don’t overhype it.
  • Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall. This seems like it will be a great follow-up to So You Want to Talk About Race (which had one chapter about intersectional blindspots of feminist and progressive movements).

Some posts I really enjoyed:

Baking!

I made: blueberry bars, pecan cupcakes (adapted from this recipe), and strawberry cupcakes!

More photos:

Month in Review: July 2020

It’s the first of the new month, so you know the drill: time to look back on another month of reading! I’m slightly changing the format of these month-in-review posts by incorporating a small section dedicated to things I’ve cooked/baked. During a conversation with Melanie at Grab the Lapels (who I highly recommend following!), it came up that I don’t really post about baking, despite my blog being called “Books and Bakes.” So the new section is an attempt to bring baking back to Books and Bakes.

Books read:

  • Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas – DNF
  • The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell by W. Kamau Bell – 4 stars out of 5
  • Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh – 2.5 stars out of 5
  • Hunger by Roxane Gay – 4.5 stars out of 5
  • Big Friendship by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman – 3 stars out of 5
  • Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid – 4 stars out of 5
  • The Hilarious World of Depression by John Moe – 3.5 stars out of 5

Books in progress/August TBR:

Apparently I’m the type of person who sets a July reading goal of 9 books, doesn’t come close to completing it, then sets the same unrealistic goal for August! We’ll see how it goes. This month’s TBR is influenced by the Booker Prize longlist, which I’m going to try to read through (more or less) before the winner is announced.

  • The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison. I’m currently reading this short book of essays about how the act of “othering” people allows those in power to abuse their authority without feeling guilty about it. It’s very powerful.
  • So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. Still reading this for a book club! It’s also incredibly powerful so far.
  • Difficult Women by Roxane Gay. After absolutely loving Hunger last month, I’m excited to read Difficult Women. I’ve heard that Hunger is Gay’s best work, but I want to explore more of her books and decide for myself 🙂
  • How Much of These Hills is Gold by C. Pam Zheng. This is from the Booker longlist, but it was already on my list of books that I wanted to finish before the end of 2020. Its place on the longlist is giving me the push I need to prioritize it.
  • Real Life by Brandon Taylor. Another one of the Booker-longlisted books that I was already really excited about (thanks in large part to Emily and Gil‘s glowing reviews).
  • Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga. This is also on my radar because of the Booker prize. The third book in this trilogy (This Mournable Body) got longlisted, but since I haven’t read the other books yet, I’m starting here.
  • We Want Our Bodies Back by Jessica Care Moore. This has been on my radar ever since reading Melanie’s excellent review, and I’m really excited to read it for myself!
  • Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler. Honestly, this is one of the Booker-longlisted books that I’m less excited about…but I’m reading it anyway because sometimes I end up really enjoying books that I “wasn’t excited about.” We’ll see.
  • The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi. Hahaha I was saving the best for last. I have been anticipating this release for so long and I’m SO excited for this read!!!

Some recommended posts:

  • Stargazer’s clever review of Circe in the form of a fictional interview! It was super creative, and perfectly captured Circe’s character.
  • Stephanie’s moving post about how reading “Will I Ever Be Good Enough?” by Karyl McBride helped her out of a really (mentally and emotionally) rough place.

Things I baked!

This month I baked red velvet cupcakes with cookies and cream frosting, rhubarb pie bites, and a birthday cake for my husband!

Other July photos:

Book Review: Hunger

Roxane Gay’s Hunger is a collection of the author’s complex thoughts about her body. In the memoir, Gay explores how a traumatic childhood event led to her weight gain, and examines how having an “unruly body” (as she calls it) has affected her self-image, relationships, and life experiences.

The book: Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
Genre: Memoir
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

One of my favorite things about Hunger was Gay’s honesty and vulnerability. Throughout the memoir, Gay unapologetically portrays herself in all of her complexity, including her moments of pettiness and insecurity. Gay takes ownership of her body and her experiences, but she balances that self-possession with honesty about the ways in which she still struggles to accept herself. Listening to Hunger as an audiobook – which is narrated by Gay herself – especially accentuates her vulnerability.

In addition to being deeply moved by Hunger, I also learned a lot from it. Early in the memoir, Gay mentions that the upper-end of the “normal” BMI range was lowered in 1998. This infuriated me, because I have heard so many fear-mongering claims that the obesity “epidemic” in the United States has dramatically increased in the past 30ish years. None of those claims were accompanied by an acknowledgement that this “increase” is likely an artifact of the way we classify overweightness.

Hunger also opened my eyes to more obvious problems with the way fatness is treated in the United States; problems that should have been obvious to me, but that I had never considered before reading this book. An example of such a problem is the fact that overweight people experience eating disorders too. This hadn’t occurred to me before, because (as Gay points out) health class textbooks and the media generally don’t talk about eating disorders as something that overweight people struggle with. Another example is TV shows – like The Biggest Loser – which portray fatness as a problem to be combatted by any means necessary. Taken together, these examples paint a disturbing picture of how American society actively encourages unhealthy weight loss strategies. This hadn’t explicitly occurred to me before, but as Gay pointed out these problems, they immediately rang true.

Without summarizing the entire memoir, here are a few more of Gay’s critiques that really resonated with and moved me. First, I loved Gay’s idea that women in particular are pressured to be thin because thin women literally take up less space, and American society certainly isn’t ready for women to take up as much space as men. I also appreciated Gay’s point that no matter how powerful a woman becomes, she will never be exempt from critiques of her body (she cites Oprah as an example of this). Finally, I loved Gay’s idea that it is possible to know logically that your body doesn’t define your worth, yet simultaneously feel insecure about your body in a society that harshly judges appearances (especially women’s appearances).

My one critique of Hunger is that some of the chapters ended a bit abruptly, giving some of the stories an “unfinished” quality. Still, the writing was incredibly moving, and the chapters came together to create a beautiful and powerful memoir. I loved Hunger and would highly recommend it.

Trigger warnings: eating disorders, r*pe. Even if these aren’t normally triggers for you, Gay’s accounts of her experiences are so deeply personal that they might shake you up a bit.

Month in Review: June 2020

It’s July! This INSANE year is halfway over! I’m a little late posting my June wrap-up, and that’s because I finally started a job after 4 months of unemployment. As a research technician, I work with lab equipment that can’t be taken home (for many reasons), which means that I am physically going into work. It is risky, but I feel pretty safe at work – everyone wears masks and the lab I work in is spacious enough to achieve 6 feet of distance between employees. Anyway, I’m mentioning the new job because, until I adjust to my new schedule, I will be posting less on here. Now, onto the monthly wrap-up!

Books read:

Books in progress/July TBR:

I’m not sure if reading 9 books this month is realistic, but I want to try! I bought two of these as audiobooks, which should help. I’m currently in the middle of Catherine House and The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell (seriously struggling to finish Catherine House, though). Other books that I want to read this month include:

  • Death in Her Hands by Otessa Moshfegh: I pre-ordered this AGES ago, and it finally arrived last week! I’m so excited for this (hopefully not too excited, though – sometimes I hype up books too much in my mind, and end up severely disappointed).
  • So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo: I’m reading this for a book club this month. As much as the internet and tough conversations have been great resources for unlearning some of my subconscious racist biases, I’m also eager to read a full-on book about race and anti-racism.
  • Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid: this has been on my TBR forever, and doing the Midyear Book Freakout Tag reminded me that I really need to read this!
  • Big Friendship by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman: This was my BOTM pick for July (and yes, I’m still supporting BOTM – at least for now – since they appear to be using their platform to promote authors of color).
  • The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison. Really looking forward to this short non-fiction book about how literature contributes to the narrative on race/racism.
  • Hunger by Roxane Gay. I’ve wanted to read Roxane Gay’s works for a while, so I’m finally committing to it. I hope to read all of her books within the next year or so.
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This one has been on my “TBR” since my TBR was just a mental list of books that I wanted to read. It’s about time that I actually read it!

Blog posts/anti-racism resources:

Instead of my favorite wordpress posts of the month, here are some anti-racism resources that helped me this month 🙂

  1. This extensive list of anti-racism resources, including funds to donate to.
  2. This Google Doc full of resources for taking action against racism.
  3. Etiquette for white people at BLM protests.
  4. A list of anti-racist movies and TV shows.
  5. This article (from 2015) about why it is ignorant and harmful to say that you “do not see race.” If you know people who say this and aren’t sure how to talk to them, this article might help.
  6. This article about how to talk to people who always focus on “the riots and the looting!!!” in conversations about race.
  7. This article about how white women unintentionally center themselves in conversations about race, and ways to stop doing that. This one is controversial, and I have friends of color who don’t entirely agree with it, but I’m still including it because reading and discussing it with others really helped me.

June photos:

Month in Review: May 2020

Another month has passed and I can’t wrap my head around the fact that it is already JUNE. A couple great things happened this month: spring finally came to my neck of the woods in the Northeastern U.S., and I think I’m nearing the end of my job search (fingers crossed/knock on wood/hopefully I didn’t just jinx anything). It was also a pretty good month of reading! Interestingly, I didn’t give any of the six books I read the same rating, but I enjoyed most of them – especially My Dark Vanessa, which was my first 5-star read in months!

Books read:

Books in progress/June TBR:

  • Hamnet: I’m just wrapping this one up, and will have a review up soon. The novel wasn’t quite what I expected, but once I got over that I really enjoyed it.
  • Bright Sided: Barbara Enhrenreich has been on my TBR forever, and a couple people have specifically recommended Bright Sided to me, so I’m really looking forward to it.
  • Had I Known: my plan *was* to follow up Bright Sided with this more recent essay collection from Ehrenreich, but in light of recent events in the United States, I might switch this out for Another Day in the Death of America or How To Be An Antiracist.
  • Bunny: I’ve seen so many positive reviews of this novel, and it sounds very much like my type of book, so I’m super excited for this.
  • So We Can Glow: a collection of short-stories focused around the topic of obsession, with a glowing 5-star review from Roxane Gay – seems promising!
  • Freshwater: am I a million years behind on this? Yes. Does that take away from my excitement to read this novel? No.
  • The Vanishing Half: this has been on my TBR for a while, so I was very happy to see it as a BOTM offering!
  • Wolf Hall: yup, I’m finally starting this trilogy! Wish me luck!

Some blog posts that stuck with me:

May photos:

Book Review: The Bridge of Little Jeremy

12-year-old Jeremy is an aspiring artist in Paris with a genetic heart condition. Finances have always been tight for Jeremy and his mother, but when the family is unexpectedly hit with a hefty inheritance tax, Jeremy’s mother ends up in serious debt. So Jeremy does what any teenage boy in his situation would: he uses his artistic talent to earn money and save his mother from her debts.

The book: The Bridge of Little Jeremy by Indrajit Garai
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: DNF

Even though I didn’t finish this novel, I will provide my honest opinion of the first ~33% of it. My favorite thing about The Bridge of Little Jeremy was the immersive setting of Paris. Jeremy and his dog Leon spend a lot of time adventuring around Paris, and these passages are written in such a way that I felt like I was wandering alongside them. At times I felt that the descriptions of Paris were a bit superfluous – some detail could have been omitted and the passages still would have been quite immersive – but at other times these scenes took on an absorbing and surreal quality, which might not have been achieved without such vivid detail.

I also liked the main character, Jeremy. He is kind and compassionate toward people and animals alike, he is confident and charismatic, and he doesn’t let his financial and medical struggles dampen his amazement for life. The fact that Jeremy retains his childlike curiosity in spite of his struggles made him a very realistic child narrator for me (and in this way he reminded me of Jai from Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line).

My main issue with this novel was that I just couldn’t get into the writing. There was a lot of focus on the mundane details of Jeremy’s day-to-day life, which worked well at times, but fell flat at others. Based on the first ~33% of this book, I think it could have been considerably shorter. Interestingly, I noticed on Goodreads that the paperback format of this book (which is the format that I read) has a lower rating than either of the Kindle editions – perhaps the intricately detailed writing lends itself better to scrolling on a Kindle? If I ever get an eBook reader, I will try The Bridge of Little Jeremy again and see if the different format improves my experience.

While I enjoyed the immersive setting and compassionate main character, I couldn’t get into The Bridge of Little Jeremy and ultimately decided to stop reading about one-third of the way through. Although this book didn’t work for me, there are plenty of positive reviews of it on Goodreads, so do still check it out if you’re interested! And maybe go for an eBook edition, since that format has higher reviews than the paperback format.

Thank you to Estelle Leboucher for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: My Dark Vanessa

In the year 2000, 15-year-old Vanessa Wye has an affair with her 42-year-old English teacher, Jacob Strane, at a prestigious boarding school in Maine. In 2017, Strane is accused of sexual abuse by another student, who reaches out to Vanessa in hopes of uncovering the scale of Strane’s abuse. But Vanessa doesn’t believe she was ever abused – she views her relationship with Strane as a love story, and still keeps in contact with him seventeen years after their affair. As abuse allegations surface on social media and make news headlines, Vanessa is forced to revisit her teenage years and reconsider the relationship from a new perspective.

The book: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

My Dark Vanessa is deeply disturbing and uncomfortable, yet so captivating. The chapters alternate between Vanessa’s high school and college years in the early 2000’s, and her adult life in 2017 when the abuse allegations against Strane come out. The alternating timelines work really well here, because they show not only how Strane manipulated Vanessa as a high-schooler, but also how that manipulation has shaped Vanessa’s entire self-concept and still affects her seventeen years later.

The character development in this novel was incredibly nuanced: Vanessa is complicated, frustrating, heartbreaking and painfully believable. Through Vanessa’s character, author Kate Elizabeth Russell effectively shows the complex effects of surviving covert abuse, and how particularly insidious abusers can manipulate their victims into believing they are willing participants in an abusive relationship. Russell also shows glimpses of how abuse survivors unwittingly perpetuate the cycle of abuse: because Vanessa doesn’t believe herself to be a victim of abuse, she does not empathize with other women who identify as victims, and even blames other women for letting themselves get involved with predators. In real life, I would find somebody like Vanessa incredibly frustrating, but getting to know her character in this novel, I felt so much heartbreak and tenderness for this woman who was groomed to perceive the world in a truly flawed way.

Something else that stood out to me in My Dark Vanessa was the dynamic between Vanessa and her parents. While I certainly wouldn’t consider Vanessa’s parents to be abusive, they do neglect Vanessa and fail to support her emotionally, which makes her melancholy and lonely even before Strane begins his affair with her. It is no coincidence that Strane singles out the loneliest student, one who might be used to having her needs neglected. Abusers specifically target people that they think will make easy victims, and Russell does a great job illustrating this.

I adored My Dark Vanessa, and would recommend it with the caveat that the scenes between Strane and Vanessa can be pretty difficult to stomach. This novel was such an enthralling read, and I loved the way it portrayed the healing process in a realistically complex yet compassionate way.