1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List by James Mustich

37588678If there is anything better than a book, it’s a book about books.  The joy of reading is suffused with the anticipation of reading the amazing titles put before you.  Wishlists and bookshelves fill along with our literary hearts.

There are similarly titled books-on-books out there, sure, but I’m really liking this one. Let me list the reasons why:

  • Other tomes list what you should read, like literary brain veggies.  Mustich takes a different tack: if he had a bookstore that held exactly 1,000 books these would be the ones he includes.  There’s something for every reading mood – books to ponder over, books to gulp down whole, books for children, books for when you need an escape, and more.
  • Most people will likely dip in and out as the mood strikes but, me being me, I blew through the entire thing front to back.  It holds up!  The books are in alpha order by author, perfect for brushing up against a writer you’ve never heard of.
  • Unlike many of these lists about half of the selections are non-fiction of the well-wearing sort – memoirs, travelogues, nature writing, history, food writing, etc.  A large part of the TBR I assembled is nonfiction, to my pleasant surprise.
  • Each entry has a bevy of info attached – bibliographic details, related works, recommended editions and translations, adaptations, and more.  And if you’ve already read a book there’s several more by different authors to try.
  • As a result the one thousand main entries are the tip of the iceberg – six thousand more books are referenced throughout.  The index, it is epic.
  • While some picks are obvious, some are not.  Mustich will name check an author’s most famous work while highlighting another that he feels is underappreciated or a better entry point into their oeuvre.
  • Instead of espousing why the content of a book is important, we’re told why it’s a good read.  A touching memoir, thrilling mystery, a book that will stay with you for the rest of your life – hearing the why makes the selections even more alluring for me.

All of that being said, as you’d expect with any arbitrary selection of books, I have some quibbles.

  • The author is a well-meaning white guy and the list reflects that in many ways.  First, he obviously made an effort to include women and people of color, as well as dip into world literature, which is much appreciated. And I want to say up front – it’s hard to hold one thousand books in your head and I may be missing a few.  However.
    • By my estimate women only make up 20-25% of the authors listed in the thousand.  Out of the 45 authors with more than one book I only see six women, or 13%.  Better than the “expected” 8% mentioned in How to Suppress Women’s Writing but still well short of half.  Boo.
    • Looking at the books written by people of color, most by Western authors are squarely centered on the POC experience (James Baldwin’s Collected Essays, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, etc.).  These are all great and worthy books, but it perpetuates the myth that non-white people are only qualified to write about themselves.  I would have liked to see a larger range, maybe by throwing in fantasy like The Broken Earth series by N.K. Jemisin or a book by Octavia Butler.  (No, Butler is not on this list.  There are two Butlers but not her.  I know.)
    • In the same vein, LGBTQIA+ folks don’t get their full due.  Fun Home by Alison Bechdel is here, huzzah, but that’s about it.  Other than classic authors whose Queerness gets a passing mention (Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, etc.) I have a hard time remembering another book related to the gay experience.  With all the nonfiction how about And the Band Played On, about the AIDS epidemic, or Columbine, by a gay author?  Again, I may be missing a couple, but even then it’s slim pickings.
    • There are so. many. books. about. war.  The history of war, soldier memoirs, the politics and tactics of war… ugh.
    • Many of the travel books are about a white dude traveling to a place populated by black or brown people.  I just… no thank you.
  • While some genres are lovingly included (sci-fi, mysteries, thrillers), others are largely ignored.  There is precious little fantasy (and most is sword and sorcery at that), and there’s only one romance.  Huzzah for Georgette Heyer but considering the attempt at inclusiveness it made me sad.

Laid out like that my criticisms may look harsh but overall I really liked 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die.  I’m planning on getting a hard copy and marking it up (in pencil!) with notes about the books I’ve read. There are also illustrations and pictures on almost every page, making the already impressive volume an attractive gift.

Curating a selection like this is an incredibly hard task and Mustich does better than many.  Perfect for readers who love books about books.

Thanks to Workman Publishing and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

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London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes

26162300Mollie Panter-Downes not only wrote short stories but also non-fiction “Letters from London” for The New Yorker. Her New Yorker obituary observed: “Other correspondents were writing about the war, of course, often with great power and conviction, but they dealt with large incidents and events, while Mollie wrote of the quotidian stream of English life, of what it was like to actually live in a war, of what the government was doing, of the nervous sound of the air-raid sirens, of the disappearance of the egg, of children being evacuated – of all the things that made life in England bearable and unbearable.” In a steady flow of copy, directed to editors she had never met at a magazine she had never visited, she undoubtedly did more to explain wartime England to American readers than anyone else in the field.

Review:

I love primary sources and I’ve been wanting to try a book from Persephone, so London War Notes was just the thing.  Panter-Downes lived in and around London during World War II and wrote weekly articles for The New Yorker, describing the state and mood of the city.  This 459 page book is an edited collection of those pieces.  I’m not big on military tactics or strategy but real, lived experiences on the home front are exactly my thing.

Panter-Downes paints a vivid picture of what London was like from the first rumbles of war, through the Blitz, up to VE Day.   Her attention to detail serves well, and single sentence scenes bring the war to life.

It has always been a strange and startling sight to see middle-aged Kensington matrons in fur coats standing grimly in line waiting for six pennyworth of gumdrops, as though it were Biblical manna.

There were so many things I hadn’t even heard about.  Blackout deaths, where vehicles would strike and kill pedestrians on the dark streets.  Double summer time, a two hour version of daylight savings, was put into effect to try and conserve energy.  And at one point newspapers were forbidden from printing weather reports, as it was feared it’d give the enemy an advantage.

The detail is paired with humor to make each entry pleasantly readable, despite the circumstances.

The Christmas dinner isn’t going to be so particularly festive, either, from all accounts.  Turkeys are difficult to find, though it’s rumored that tinned ones will be available – a bleak prospect for those who can’t work up any suitably seasonable emotions at the thought of getting out the yuletide can-opener.

And when she aims your heartstrings, she hits.

Old men and women call to find out if that can be evacuated to safe areas and the bureaus try to find billets for them, but it isn’t easy. “Old and infirm people take a good deal of looking after and people grow tired of them” is the official explanation – a full-length tragedy in seventeen words.

Once more London finds itself a blitz city.  A city officially enters that class when people ring up their friends the day after a noisy night to find out if they’re still there.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend London War Notes to someone with little interest, but if you’re curious about the lived home front experience it’s a great place to start.

Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman who Saved the Appalachian Trail by Ben Montgomery

18527222Emma Gatewood told her family she was going on a walk and left her small Ohio hometown with a change of clothes and less than two hundred dollars. The next anybody heard from her, this genteel, farm-reared, 67-year-old great-grandmother had walked 800 miles along the 2,050-mile Appalachian Trail.

Grandma Gatewood, as the reporters called her, became the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail alone, as well as the first person—man or woman—to walk it twice and three times. Gatewood became a hiking celebrity and appeared on TV and in the pages of Sports Illustrated. The public attention she brought to the little-known footpath was unprecedented. The story of Grandma Gatewood will inspire readers of all ages by illustrating the full power of human spirit and determination. Even those who know of Gatewood don’t know the full story—a story of triumph from pain, rebellion from brutality, hope from suffering.

Review:

Trigger warning for domestic violence. (I wasn’t expecting it, either.)

Complicated thoughts about this one.  I’ve had to sit with it rolling around my head for several days before I was ready to write a review.

I have to start by saying that Emma Gatewood was an amazing woman.  When people hike the Appalachian Trail (AT) nowadays they are kit out to the nines – high-tech lightweight camping gear and freeze dried provisions, smart phones and head lamps.  Gatewood didn’t even have a backpack, just a sack she sewed herself slung over her shoulder.  She slept on the side of the trail in piles of leaves or on rocks she warmed by the fire, or didn’t sleep at all if the howling of the wild dogs was a bit too close.  In this manner, at the age of 67, she walked over 2,000 miles up and down mountains.  And after being the first woman to do it once, she became the first person to do it twice.  Then three times.

So in my book Gatewood gets all the stars.  I don’t think Montgomery did the best job telling her story, though.

Part of it, I’m guessing, has to do with the problem of time.  Gatewood first completed the trail in 1955 and I’m sure that many of the people that met her along the way, along with some of her children, weren’t around to tell their stories. (Gatewood herself died in 1973.)  Montgomery relied on her notebooks, news articles, conversations with family members, and those who remember meeting her on the trail.

Grandma GatewoodMontgomery takes these sources and puts them together into a plodding, paint-by-numbers account of her first AT thru-hike.  On this day she hiked from here to here, and slept beneath a picnic bench.  On the next day she got as far as there, ate some berries along the trail, and stayed the night with Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so.  No emotions, no themes, no heart.

Every now and then there’s asides that are meant to connect us to the time.  A couple make sense – the rise of the automobile leads to a decline in people walking after all – but some are out of left field.  He goes on and on about a hurricane that passes well south and doesn’t affect her progress much.  And notes about McCarthyism in the middle of a book about a hiker? Really?

We flash back and forth between Gatewood’s hiking and her early life in Ohio around the turn of the century, which was jarring at first but didn’t bother me too much.  What did bother me, and what I’m having the hardest time articulating, is the way the domestic violence in her marriage is handled.  It’s back to the rote statements of fact – he hit her at this time, these were her injuries, etc.  Near the end Montgomery writes,

To suggest she was trying to be the first woman means believing that she was walking toward something. I’m not sure that’s wholly true. I’m not sure she was walking toward something so much as walking away.

This sits wrong with me.  Like, if her husband didn’t beat her badly enough to crack her ribs she never would have attempted the AT?  Women, especially in that era, are defined by their roles as mothers and caretakers. Heck, she was quickly dubbed Grandma Gatewood by the newspapers.  When she was finally old enough – no children at home to take care of, no husband to hold her back – she set out on her walk.  Why don’t you discuss that societal obligation as an insight to the times instead of another aside about the H-bomb?

On Goodreads Kay points out that Montgomery unnecessarily inserted himself into the story, recreating Gatewood’s climb of Katahdin at the end of the AT and giving that more space than her own summit.  Men usurping women’s experiences by inserting themselves into the story is a new thought for me, and I’m going to keep an eye out for it in the future.  I have a feeling it’s one of those things that’s always been there but I haven’t thought to notice it.

In sum: yea Emma Gatewood, meh this book.

Fashion Climbing by Bill Cunningham

38820052I’m not a fashionista by any stretch but I like me a good fashion documentary.  The September Issue gave me a grounding in this topsy turvy world, after which I gravitated to Bill Cunningham New York.  Cunningham was a private person, almost to the point of being a loner, so when I saw his posthumous memoir would be published the first week of September (natch) I snapped it up.

I knew Cunningham as a fashion photographer for the New York Times who did lovely On the Street videos. Treat yourself to a few here, here, and here – I dare you to watch without smiling.  But before he picked up a camera he was a Boston boy who loved clothes, was drafted into the Army, and became a milliner upon his return.  This memoir covers this early period of his life, so if you’re looking for info on his photography or modern day notables like Anna Wintour you will be disappointed.

Cunningham starts with his childhood, growing up as part of an Irish Catholic family that did not approve of his playing dress up in his sister’s clothes.  In fact, his family approved of little that he did, from dropping out of Harvard and moving to New York to becoming a hat designer.  Reading between the lines you can infer the pain that must have caused but Cunningham rarely discusses his inner life.  We get all the action instead – working as a stock boy in Boston department stores, getting a lucky posting in France during the Korean War, and moving to New York and feasting his eyes on fashion.

The account appears to be written around 1970 and I had to keep reminding myself that.  Modern me bristled at women designers being called “girls”.  He crashed party after party to look at the clothes the women were wearing, and I had to tell myself that 60 years ago that was more of a social faux pas than a criminal one.

Cunningham’s writing is down to earth, and in the book he says kitchen-table style is preferable to sending the reader to the dictionary.  As a result the tone is almost conversational and kept drawing me back to the page.

You will find many insights into his thinking here, such as why he never accepted anything while working, not even a glass of water.  As the narrative catches up to the time of writing the telling slows down, going over each collection of hats, each year in the fashion world.  While I would have liked more info about his early life I get the feeling that he only shared what he wanted to, and I respect that.

I enjoyed the read but if you’ve never heard of Cunningham this is probably not the place to start. First watch Bill Cunningham New York, become smitten, then read this memoir to fill in the gaps.

Thanks to Penguin Press and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises by Rebecca Solnit

39688744In this powerful and wide-ranging collection of essays, Solnit turns her attention to the war at home. This is a war, she says, “with so many casualties that we should call it by its true name, this war with so many dead by police, by violent ex-husbands and partners and lovers, by people pursuing power and profit at the point of a gun or just shooting first and figuring out who they hit later.” To get to the root of these American crises, she contends that “to acknowledge this state of war is to admit the need for peace,” countering the despair of our age with a dose of solidarity, creativity, and hope.

Review:

Solnit, perhaps best known for Men Explain Things to Me, is back with another essay collection.  While her past two books centered on feminism this one is about social justice of all sorts, touching on climate change, police brutality, gentrification, wrongful imprisonment, and more.

The essays were largely written between 2016 and 2018.  The most powerful theme is the idea that names and language truly matter.  If you cannot name a problem you cannot begin to solve it.  A couple of the essays take a phrase – like “preach to the choir” or “break a news story” – and examine it from various angles.  If preaching to the choir is useless, does that mean we have to try and convert those utterly opposed to our views? Other essays hew closely to reportage, covering the killing of Alex Nieto in San Francisco and the failings of the legal system in the case of Jarvis Masters.

The writing is good but I had fewer “wow” moments than usual.  Solnit is great at stretching your brain and making you look at things from a different perspective but there wasn’t as much of it compared with her earlier essays.  Perhaps if this were my first Solnit, or if I were less versed with the issues, I would have felt differently.

In sum it’s a solid collection, as you would expect from such a good writer, but not my favorite nor her best.

Thanks to Haymarket Books and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic’s Wild Ride to the Edge and Back by Kevin Hazzard

25111005A former paramedic’s visceral, poignant, and mordantly funny account of a decade spent on Atlanta’s mean streets saving lives and connecting with the drama and occasional beauty that lies inside catastrophe.

In the aftermath of 9/11 Kevin Hazzard felt that something was missing from his life—his days were too safe, too routine. He signed up for emergency medical training and became, at age twenty-six, a newly minted EMT running calls in the worst sections of Atlanta.

Combining indelible scenes that remind us of life’s fragile beauty with laugh-out-loud moments that keep us smiling through the worst, A Thousand Naked Strangers is an absorbing read about one man’s journey of self-discovery—a trip that also teaches us about ourselves.

Review:

Being an EMT is a crazy job.  It’s your duty to keep people alive long enough to get to the hospital.  Sometimes they’re dead before you arrive at the scene.  Other times it’s a spry-looking man complaining about a toothache.  And sometimes you drive past the address you were given because the shooting hasn’t stopped yet.

Hazzard joined this world for ten years and takes us along for the ride.  A word of warning for the squeamish – there’s a fair share of gore and gallows humor, and know that the nature of the job doesn’t lend itself to overflowing empathy.  I didn’t bother me but I work in medicine so your mileage may vary.

The writing is good and the crazy stories are indeed batshit crazy.  Hazzard gets at the soul of the job when he writes,

Medics don’t have to be heroic or tough or even good people.  They simply have to enjoy the madness…. [It’s] a willingness to walk in unprotected when we clearly should walk away.  A desire to take part but just as often to bear witness.

But mainly he does it

Because it’s fun.

I listened on audio and am so glad I did – Hazzard is a natural storyteller and George Newbern does an amazing job with the narration.  He gets all the jokes, the pauses and nuances right on, to the point that I thought the author was reading his own work.

A Thousand Naked Strangers may not be for everyone but I really enjoyed it – a nice addition to my first responder memoir shelf.

Making Things Right: The Simple Philosophy of a Working Life by Ole Thorstensen

Translated by Sean Kinsella

35787524Making Things Right is the simple yet captivating story of a loft renovation, from the moment master carpenter and contractor Ole Thorstensen submits an estimate for the job to when the space is ready for occupation. As the project unfolds, we see the construction through Ole’s eyes: the meticulous detail, the pesky splinters, the problem solving, patience, and teamwork required for its completion. Yet Ole’s narrative encompasses more than just the fine mechanics of his craft. His labor and passion drive him toward deeper reflections on the nature of work, the academy versus the trades, identity, and life itself.

Review:

I am always here for non-fiction in translation so when I saw this title as an audiobook I scooped it up.  Using the framework (ha) of a loft renovation Thorstensen shows what it’s like to be an independent contractor in Norway.

Most of the book is process – how bids are calculated, how materials are ordered and brought into the loft via a crane, how you make sure the floor of a bathroom is water-tight.  It’s fine and good, but this electrician’s daughter was slightly bored by the details.

My favorite bits were the ones between – talking about how people from different places and backgrounds enter the trades, what gets played on the radio, how people in different parts of Norway opt for different kinds of construction.  I was cuted out when he gave to small kids, who were going to live in the loft once it was done, free rein to draw in pencil all over the drywall.  They marked out the rooms, still only plans, and drew airplanes as they saw fit.  Adorable and heartwarming.

27427788I ran into a few issues, though.  Unfortunately the translation and audiobook narration do not mesh well.  It sounds like a British English translation read by someone who knows Norwegian and speaks with an American accent.  On top of that it sounds like some terms were slapdash “translated” into American without much thought.

For example, at one point the text reads “6.25 feet”.  This strikes me as poor translation from metric – I’d call that “six feet three inches”.  But 6.25 feet stands, and it’s read aloud as “six point twenty five feet”, which sounds even worse.  Six and a quarter feet, six point two five feet… why “point twenty five”?

There are also some terms that seem common in European discourse that I’ve never heard before.  I found myself googling “social dumping” and “passive housing”, terms that make no sense unless you’re familiar.  I may just be ignorant but a gloss in the text would have been appreciated.

Likewise, at one point Thorstensen lists radio programs he listens to while working.  “[so-and-so] does a great radio show”, he says, with no further info.  I desperately wanted one more word in there – a great music show, a great interview show, a great comedy show… something.  I don’t think you have to explain every unfamiliar reference (there are many more) but some could use this minimal, additional info.

All in all Making Things Right is an okay book, but if you’re looking for great carpentry memoirs go for Nina MacLaughlin’s Hammer Head instead.

The Language of Kindness: A Nurse’s Story by Christie Watson

36750090Christie Watson spent twenty years as a nurse, and in this intimate, poignant, and remarkably powerful book, she opens the doors of the hospital and shares its secrets. She takes us by her side down hospital corridors to visit the wards and meet her most unforgettable patients.

In the neonatal unit, premature babies fight for their lives, hovering at the very edge of survival, like tiny Emmanuel, wrapped up in a sandwich bag. On the cancer wards, the nurses administer chemotherapy and, long after the medicine stops working, something more important–which Watson learns to recognize when her own father is dying of cancer. In the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, the nurses wash the hair of a little girl to remove the smell of smoke from the house fire. And the stories of the geriatric ward–Gladys and older patients like her–show the plight of the most vulnerable members of our society.

Review:

I’m not sure I can be completely fair reviewing this book – a section early on made me mad and ended up tainting it for me.  I’ll get to that in a minute.

But first, let me say that this is a well-written account of being a nurse in England.  Watson is drawn to some of the most emotional parts of the hospital – mental care, emergency, palliative care, neonatal intensive care – so expect heart-wrenching, as well as heart-warming, stories.  We watch Watson grow from a nursing student that’s duped by psych patients to a knowledgeable practitioner of one of the most noble arts.

I learn then that nursing is not so much about tasks, but about how in every detail a nurse can provide comfort to a patient and a family. It is a privilege to witness people at the frailest, most significant and most extreme moments of life, and to have the capacity to love complete strangers.

She talks how hard the work is – not only long hours and lifting heavy patients, but also the emotional toll.  I think most understand nursing isn’t easy, but I’m not sure we all appreciate how punishing it can be.

Compassion fatigue is common when caring for people who have suffered trauma. The nurse repeatedly swallows a fragment of the trauma—like a nurse who is looking after an infectious patient, putting herself at risk of infection. Caring for negative emotions puts her at risk of feeling them, too. And taking in even a small part of tragedy and grief, and loneliness and sadness, on a daily basis over a career is dangerous and it is exhausting.

As you can see the writing is good, and Watson’s stories are interesting and affecting… but I’m having a hard time getting over the fact that she throws my profession under the bus.

Many of you probably know that I’m a medical interpreter who helps non-Japanese speakers communicate with doctors and staff at a Japanese hospital.  It’s an important job because without correct and complete information about symptoms, family history, and so many other things it’s difficult to arrive at a correct diagnosis and provide adequate care.

Strike one – Watson calls interpreters “translators”.  It’s a distinction many don’t know (translators = written word, interpreters = spoken), so I can let that slide.  But then there’s strike two – she continues and says that in the emergency department they forgo calling qualified interpreters because using family members is faster and easier.

There are arguments against [interpretation] from non-experts; a suspicion, on the part of the nurses and doctors, that the words are being softened and not translated precisely, but it’s quicker than finding a[n interpreter].

There aren’t just arguments – it comes down to professional ethics and morals.  It is a health provider’s duty to provide the best care, and asking a daughter or brother to relay important, detailed, technical information under stress can go wrong in so many ways.  Interpreter codes of ethics state that even professionals shouldn’t interpret for friends and family, the conflict is so great.  Watson blithely dismissing the right of limited English speakers to have a qualified interpreter, to have access to critical information about their health in a language they understand, makes me see red. Looking at the importance she places on ethics in other parts of the book it becomes galling. Gah.

I admit it, I pretty much glowered at the chapters after that.  The writing and stories brought me around again so I can still recommend the book to fans of medical non-fiction, but not as wholeheartedly as I would like.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara

35068432“You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark.”

For more than ten years, a mysterious and violent predator committed fifty sexual assaults in Northern California before moving south, where he perpetrated ten sadistic murders. Then he disappeared, eluding capture by multiple police forces and some of the best detectives in the area.

Three decades later, Michelle McNamara, a true crime journalist, was determined to find the violent psychopath she called “the Golden State Killer.” Michelle pored over police reports, interviewed victims, and embedded herself in the online communities that were as obsessed with the case as she was.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark offers an atmospheric snapshot of a moment in American history and a chilling account of a criminal mastermind and the wreckage he left behind.

Review:

My Serial Killer Summer™ (ha) continues!  There is no way I would skip this book, especially with the alleged killer being found, not to mention the hype!

McNamara deserves that praise for her writing – it’s engaging, chilling and fascinating.  She spent years hunting down the Golden State Killer and details that search while describing many of the murders and rapes he committed.  I’ve seen people on BookTube who had a hard time getting through the creepiest parts – understandably, the crimes are heinous.  While I shivered a few times I never felt compelled to put the book down… not sure what that says about me.

What McNamara does better than so many ~cough male cough~ writers is that she respects and honors the victims.  We hear their stories, how their life was changed – they are their own people and I greatly appreciate having their perspective.

On top of the tragedy of the crimes is the tragedy of the author’s unexpected death in 2016, before she finished the book.  As a result some chapters were cobbled together from her notes and research.  These sections are rough compared to McNamara’s amazing prose, but I’m not sure what else they could have done.  It did make for a jarring experience, though, and lessened my… enjoyment?… of the entire book.

I listened on audiobook and got on well with the narrator, ending up at 1.8x speed.  A pdf with maps and timelines is included with the audio files.  I wasn’t sure I’d use it but it’s handy near the end as the detectives go hunting for patterns in the crimes.

I’m so sad that McNamara wasn’t able to finish her book and see the Golden State Killer brought to justice.  Despite the choppiness it’s a great read and an easy recommendation for any true crime fan.

Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession by Alice Bolin

35180951In her debut collection, Alice Bolin turns a critical eye to literature and pop culture, the way media consumption reflects American society, and her own place within it. From essays on Joan Didion and James Baldwin to Twin Peaks, Britney Spears, and Serial, Bolin illuminates our widespread obsession with women who are abused, killed, and disenfranchised, and whose bodies (dead and alive) are used as props to bolster a man’s story.

From chronicling life in Los Angeles to dissecting the “Dead Girl Show” to analyzing literary witches and werewolves, this collection challenges the narratives we create and tell ourselves, delving into the hazards of toxic masculinity and those of white womanhood. Beginning with the problem of dead women in fiction, it expands to the larger problems of living women—both the persistent injustices they suffer and the oppression that white women help perpetrate.

Review:

I have mixed feelings about Dead Girls – it starts amazing but sadly I had trouble getting all the way to the end.

I do want to be clear – the first part, about the titular women American culture obsesses over, is incredible.  Bolin talks about “Dead Girl Shows” that use the memory of women-who-were to tell stories about the men who killed them or seek to revenge their deaths.  Instead of looking at the impulse some men have to prey on young women the narrative of these shows concentrates on the killer’s psychology and methods, making the practice seem inevitable and beyond the man’s control.  I highlighted many, many passages from this section and will be revisiting the essays so I can chew over them more.

That’s only part one of four, though.  The second section takes a step away and examines women who are living but have been used to sell a story in a related way.  I like Lonely Heart, about the contradictions and tragedy in Britney Spears’ fame, but otherwise my interest started to wane.

If the book were a tire that’s where the slow leak started, with a more steady whooosh becoming apparent over the last two parts.  Bolin gets deep into her experience of being lonely after moving to the West coast and I couldn’t get on board.  It’s an amalgamation of things I have a hard time caring about or connecting with (LA, Joan Didion, accounts of roommates and boyfriends) with books that we are assumed to know but oftentimes I did not.  If you love so-called “Hello to All That/Goodbye to All That” essays, worship Didion, and don’t mind a jumble of thought, you’ll do better here than I.

It’s hard for me to rate Dead Girls because it went from a compulsively readable, fascinating ride to a flat tire I had trouble rolling over the finish line.  I thought it would be a great fit for my Serial Killer Summer but sadly only the first quarter or so fit the bill.

Thanks to William Morrow and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.