Five Star Book: The Girls by Emma Cline


I’ve written before about my fascination with cults. (I’ve probably even shared that one of my favorite texts I’ve ever received was just a link to an article with the note “CULT!” Like my friend just instantly thought of me when they saw the word.) In fact, as I was about a third of my way through Emma Cline’s bestselling novel about a Manson-family-like cult gone sour, another friend sent me a text saying she was reading it and it made her think of me. Partly this obsession is an outlet for my more judgmental energies, but mostly it’s an interest in how people build themselves, their belief systems, and their communities. Cults from the outside seem strange, often mostly in retrospect after they fall apart or do something terrible, but to the people in the moment they seemed like the right choice. How does that happen? We like to think it all must be coercion and “brain washing” on the part of “evil” leaders, but there isn’t a lot of evidence of that being a real thing. *

What’s great about this book is that it addresses this question in a really fresh way. Cline’s protagonist, a girl named Evie, is drawn into the dangerous circle she is not because of Russel (the Charles Manson stand in) but because of the titular girls, one in particular, who she loves but also idolizes. The spiritual beliefs don’t matter to her so much as the alternative life with the group offers to her boring suburban existence. She sees in these “girls” a way to be a woman other than the one scripted for her in magazines. Of course, the idea of the Manson ranch (so thinly disguised I’m not sure why the author bothered to at all, except there are probably legal issues she was trying to avoid) as an escapist paradise is unthinkable to us now, but we know what’s coming. By showing us Evie as both a child caught up in it’s newness and a middle aged woman dealing with the choices her younger self made, Cline creates the sense of creeping dread found in other explorations of murderous cults (the best one about the Mansons I’ve ever come across is Karina Longwirth’s “You Must Remember This” series on the murders) while also making the appeal of the group emotionally clear in a way I had never seen before.

This book is dark and angry as you might expect, but I was surprised by that anger’s feminist bent. Cline compellingly illustrates the way these women were primed by the patriarchy that raised them to be good little soldiers for a creep like Russell. A culture that teaches girls to think first about how they are seen and to always be amenable to the whims of men (and always fearful of them) leaves young women vulnerable to the bullshit of charismatic men who claim they know what’s best. It’s so easy to look at a cult and think “how could that happen?” This book gives one frighteningly plausible explanation.


*Manson is actually one of the only examples I would call really brain washing and it was mostly aided by the fact that he routinely drugged his followers with truly astounding amounts of hallucinogenic drugs while starving them.


Five Star Book: The Lonely City by Olivia Laing


“What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.” 

I had to return this book to the library this morning and I felt a real pang at giving it back. It’s been a long time since I felt that kind of connection to a borrowed book. (Everything I Never Told You a few years ago in Austin maybe?) But I’m actually really glad that I read the slightly-water-warped Queens-communal copy of this book, because it felt like exactly the kind of evidence of other people’s search for connection that the book describes.

British writer/critic Olivia Laing moved to New York City to follow a romantic partner who then promptly broke her heart. Finding herself isolated in a city filled with far too many people (my own editorializing about my own experience in this city is unavoidable here) she burrows into the rabbit hole of studying lonely New Yorkers (and one Chicagoan) who came before her and used art to try to articulate their predicament. Through the biographies and work of artists as varied as Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper, and singer Klaus Nomi, she examines loneliness not just as a feeling, but as state of existence. One that can have truly devastating consequences (like for the to-me-disturbing work of the outsider artist Henry Darger whose indigent childhood and mostly solitary adulthood worked it’s way out in twisted mythological paintings of violence towards child-like cherubs).


Laing’s approach, well-researched and articulated academic argument mixed with a breathtaking vulnerability about her own lonely period, drew me in from the first page and never let me go. Some of these artists I had heard of before (a few like Warhol and Nan Goldin I already loved) but her obvious affection for her subject made me want to delve into their work and lives. I especially fell in love with her depiction of the multimedia artist and activist David Wojnarowicz, and I can’t wait to delve more deeply into his work. The act of creation, according to Laing, is an attempt at connection, and though she may worry about the virtual nature of this (the last chapter is a bit of a polemic against the faux-sociability of our networked culture), I couldn’t help but feel a little less alone reading this book.


David Wojnarowicz, Arthur Rimbaud in New York (On Subway), 1978-79.


Awards Show Round Up: Emmys 2017

So with the notable (and frankly disturbing) exception of the inexplicable inclusion of Sean Spicer, last night’s Emmys were one of the best I can remember. Usually the show starts to drag around hour 3, but last night’s combination of skilled (but not overly intrusive) hosting and genuinely surprising/deserved wins made for a fun few hours. Here are my highlights:

I love a musical number and Stephen Colbert did not disappoint (love that Chance interlude too!):

(As always these videos will probably go away with copyright claims…)

I love John Lithgow, though I would have given this one to Ron Cephas Jones…

I want to give Kate McKinnon all of the awards always:

The SNL sweep continued, and I will never be surprised at Lorne Michaels’s ability to appear on the edge of falling asleep at all times:

(Also Anna Farris and Allison Janney are just the best.)

Also pretty happy to see this stunt casting lead to this:

I have always, and will always want to be these women when I grow up:

John Oliver is pretty great:


On a serious note,”Thanksgiving” is once of the best episodes of any show ever, and this speech was amazing:

Riz Ahmed is amazing:

Reese Witherspoon for entertainment president:


It is BS that they played him off, Laura Dern and Nicole Kidman (both of whom I love) talked forever…

And then right at the end there, Margaret Atwood was there:

Other notes: I really need to watch Atlanta; It’s time to put JLD in an Emmy pantheon and spread the comedy actress love around a bit. It was a fucking fantastic year for women. (I need to watch Big Little Lies too.

Fashion wise, it was a mixed bag. Weird flowy skirts over leotards and strange feather duster fringe bottoms, but there were some great looks:


Jane Fonda in Brandon Maxwell (Photo Credit: Getty)


Millie Bobby Brown in Calvin Klein (Photo Credit: Getty)


Nicole Kidman in Calvin Klein (Photo Credit: Getty/Jason Merritt)

69th Primetime Emmy Awards, Arrivals, Los Angeles, USA - 17 Sep 2017

Kate McKinnon in Narcisco Rodriguez (Photo Credit: Rob Latour/Variety/Shutterstock)


Reed Marano (Photo Credit: Strauss/Invision/AP)

(BTW I may design my future wedding dress based on this gown. I’m in love with it.)


Jessica Biel in Ralph & Russo Couture (Photo Credit: J. Merritt/Getty Images)


Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Boss (Photo Credit: Getty/Frazer Harrison)

Susan Kelechi Watson in Cristina Ottaviano (Photo Credit: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Things I’ve Been Meaning to Blog About

I think at this point I should just admit that I take the month of August off from blogging and stop promising that I will write about things I do during that month. Anyway, here are some things I meant to blog about:

Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman


Based mostly on watching this trailer about 20 times the week it came out, I went and got this book out of the library, and I loved it. Miró and I discussed on a couple of episodes of our podcast, that one of the things that we love about Rainbow Rowell’s books (which are very different from this, but stay with me), is that she captures the sense of adolescent longing incredibly well. Well if you’re into that, but you wish it were more explicit, gay, and heartbreaking? Well I have a book for you. It’s consuming, much like the central character’s obsession with his father’s graduate student, who inconveniently (or maybe conveniently?) is staying a door down from his room for the summer. I cannot wait for this movie. (Though you should all read this book.

Prince of Broadway 

Look, revues are tough, but Hal Prince’s career is so varied and spectacular that this evening didn’t drag for me until the very end. (And that wasn’t so much a function of the show as the fact that that I have no patience for The Phantom of the Opera.) You need to be the highest level of musical theater nerd to love it I think, but if you are, it’s fun.

HAIM cover of That Don’t Impress Me Much” 

And bonus:

And one more (can you tell I went down a YouTube rabbit hole with this one?):

Buffering the Vampire Slayer 


Are you craving a fun feminist on-line community that also loves puns about vampires and making fun of cheap werewolf costumes? Well do I have the podcast for you. Obviously, you need to have watched (and probably rewatched) Buffy to get it, but c’mon, you should have watched Buffy by now.

There’s probably more that I meant to write about over the past month or so, including a trip to Chicago for my dear friend’s bachelorette party (and a Kelly Hogan show at The Hideout!) and my 28th birthday. But this is what I got right now.

Weekly Adventure: 1984


When I first read about how people were fainting and vomiting during previews for 1984, I was rolling my eyes a bit. Typical buzz hyperbole, I assumed. But, after sitting through the last 20 minutes of this truly visceral production I can honestly say that if I had been closer to the stage (I was in the balcony) I may have lost consciousness myself.

Anyone familiar with this story (and in these times it can feel like we all are even if we haven’t read it) knows going in that this isn’t going to be an easy watch. But it is a vital one. Directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, mix technology and pathos in interesting ways to keep the pace unrelenting. This makes the rare moments of calm between Winston (a befuddled but intense Tom Sturridge) and Julia (Olivia Wilde) all the more heart wrenching in their doomed peacefulness.


The kicker of 1984 has always been for me that it doesn’t offer a clear road map for what we are supposed to do in the face of Big Brother and this is really hit home here by the unrelenting calm of Reed Birney as O’Brien. It doesn’t matter what Winston (or an interrupting audience member) says to him, the Party’s will will continue apace. It’s terrifying, and like Orwell, I’m not sure how that is to be resisted, but its worth thinking about and this play will make you do that. Once your heart rate returns to normal.

Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

Read Harder Review Catch Up

So, I sort of forgot that I was doing the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge, but I discovered my spreadsheet for it (occupational hazard, I have spreadsheets for everything) yesterday, and saw that unintentionally I’ve crossed some off the list in the past few months. Here are some mini-reviews (mostly taken from my Goodreads. Are you on Goodreads? Let’s be friends there.)


The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood “A book that has been banned or heavily challenged in your country” 

This is a terrifying book. The timely resonance is chilling of course, and it made it harder to read than it probably would have been before the open misogyny of the current administration. It’s well written and the character is realistic, even in her weakness – this is a person not a “strong female character,” which I appreciated. But I’m not sure how I feel now that I’ve finished it. At times it felt like a chore, not because it was dull, but because it was scary. I think I’ll be processing this one for a bit


Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston – “A classic by an author of color” 

I realized a couple of weeks ago that I could remember next to nothing about this book. I think I read it in high school, but it was a quick, beautiful read. The dialect (like all dialect) took me a little bit to get into, but I really loved the rhythm of it after a bit. Janie is an excellent central character. Knocking it a star for the bullshit (of it’s time) attitude towards domestic violence.


No One is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts – “A book where all of the POV characters are of color” 

Billed as a reworking of The Great Gatsby, set in a present-day, economically depressed, African American community in the South. So not really The Great Gatsby at all. But that’s great! Watts takes the broad themes, and some of the character types, from Fitzgerald’s novel and then deeply roots them in their new context. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking and deeply humane. (So maybe not that different from Gatsby at all.)



A People’s History of Chicago by Kevin Coval – “A book published by a micropress”

So, I’m stretching a bit to classify Haymarket Books as a micropress, but whatever. This book is amazing. It will break your heart, make you laugh, and leave you wanting to storm some barricades. If you’re me, it will also make you incredibly homesick.

Weekly Adventure: Colm Tóibín at the Paula Cooper Gallery


Almost 8 years ago (!), when I was studying abroad at University College Cork, my contemporary Irish literature professor assigned Blackwater Lightship, and since then I have been mildly obsessed with its author Colm Tóibín. I’ve been working my way through all of his books (and they range in genre including short stories, novels, memoirs, and literary criticism.) I’ve loved all of them. Many of them fall into the category of “things that are too important to me for me to write about in any coherent fashion.”

So instead, I will just give you my three favorite quotes from last night, remind you that sometimes it is great to meet your heroes (he was so kind and I’m inspired to write for the first time in ages), and tell you all to go buy his new book, or any of his old books.

“A novel loves money, it loves disappointment, it loves a marriage, it loves a marriage that does not happen.” – On novels as secular spaces


Follow up: “So on page 6, I rid of the gods.” 

“If you’re a novelist, the most interesting part of a story is the blurred figure in the photograph.”


Related: The Story of Night (a beautiful book about a gay man in Argentina) is “about someone who has not spoken before but must now speak”

Where I’m from the men didn’t say much, but the women would all be talking all at the same time.” – on why he writes with such power (to borrow a phrase from a question asker) in the voices of women


The Shakespeare Project: Henry VI, Part III


The Writer’s Almanac helpfully reminded me yesterday that it was Shakespeare Day (both his birth and death day, or at least as far was we know), which was good encouragement to finish reading Henry VI. I only had a few scenes left, but was having trouble motivating myself. Because, as I have now mentioned multiple times, I’m pretty over this particular interpretation of the War of the Roses. I admit this is because I have, based on very casual personal research, and a crush on this well-cast actor, I’m pretty much decided that the Yorkists were right and therefore this whole conflict was wasted bloodshed.

I basically had made up my mind at the end of Part II how I felt about all characters involved in this tragic miscommunication, and at first it felt like there was a possibility for poor Henry to escape away to a monastery and pray, letting York and his sons take back the throne (as clearly based on patriarchal genetic inheritance ridiculousness was theirs). But of course, this is a Shakespearean history play so 1. there must be heads cut off and 2. a woman must ruin everything.

I wrote last time about how I appreciated Queen Margaret’s badassery, and I still kind of do, but it turns to folly in this part. Not just because she loses the ultimate battle, but because she has no foresight. She and her son should have stayed in France and they would have lived long, prosperous lives, claiming to be wrongfully exiled but with their heads intact. But, no, the all important crown must be won back for “poor Ned.” (Side note: why did they all name all of their sons Edward? I appreciate the comparative lack of Henrys in this installment, but still…diversify for the sake of clarity at least.) She does seem to love her son, but it’s clear that she really wants to hold power for herself and as she is female this is evil, I get that. But the scene where she and Clifford murder York is a bit heavy handed on the hand wringing villainy. Great wordplay sure, but it must be tricky to play and keep her seeming even remotely human.


Gabriela Petrushevska in a Macedonian production available from Shakespeare’s Globe Player

Even if I hadn’t already made up my mind about the rightful claimants to the throne, the really disturbing, onstage murder of the youngest York boy would have turned me against the Lancastrians from then on. (Yes, I know that the York’s then retaliate by killing the also seventeen year old Prince of Wales, but he was actively waging war against the York princes when they killed him. Rutland was traveling home with his tutor and literally begging to spared the sins of his father. It’s heartbreaking and I’m not sure how you can watch that scene and then root for anyone associated with Clifford.)

This play also begins the character assassination of Richard III, which I won’t bore you with all my grievances now, but suffice to say the conflation of physical disfigurement with moral ineptitude is pretty hard to read with a modern eye. You’ll all get to read my full treatise on this if I ever reach the Rs. For now, just one more Henry to go!

Read Harder Review (and Five Star Book!): Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman


I underlined so many passages in this book. A fact I know Ms. Fadiman would appreciate. I also bought it on a trip to a bookstore that was explicitly to buy a book club book, and nothing else. But it fit the “book about books” line on my Book Riot Read Harder challenge list, so naturally I had to get it. (If that reeks of rationalization and addict behavior, you’re not wrong.) I knew from the blurb on the back that I was going to love this book, but I didn’t know just how much I would identify with it. Yes, I knew that Fadiman and I are both book people, who were also raised by book people, but more than that we’re both the same kind of book people.

For one, we’re both obsessive annotators, she described it as treating reading like a conversation, which I loved. We are also both collectors of words. She has an essay in here about quizzing her friends and family on words she had to look up while reading a 1920 Carl Van Vechten essay, something I have never done – I want my friends to keep liking me – but I have definitely made the same kinds of lists. (Honestly, I made a long one reading this book. I would argue her word choice was overly grand if I didn’t know she was just reveling in the diversity of the English language.)

Aside from the kinship with a fellow book and word nerd, I really loved her description of her family. When she was growing up they used to watch quiz shows religiously and shared a love of proofreading menus. I know that to some (most?) of you that must sound insufferable, but to me it was warmly familiar. My dad gives my mom (and anyone else who is around) a history quiz from the morning paper. My brother once took a victory lap around our dining room table after besting us all on a final Jeopardy question. A couple of months ago my brother’s high school friend responded to my correcting my father’s statement that Faneuil Hall opened in the 1990s by saying that he meant it was renovated then, by saying, “You can’t get away with anything with the Dennetts.” So maybe we’re a little insufferable too, but this book made me feel in good company.

Side note: She writes a lot about her husband George, and each time he came up I thought, “he seems great.” Turns out – I had read and loved his own memoir The Big House and thought the same about her!

Weekly Adventure: Mini-Break to Salem

The idea of witches has always been pretty fascinating to me. I’ve always loved reading Alice Hoffman novels, in high school I wore out my copy of The Probable Future, and I still return to her sprawling tales of New England women with complicated “gifts.” It’s no surprise that this was my favorite sign at the Women’s March in January:


Because so much of the moral panic of witch trials can be tied back to women who didn’t fit into the idea of what a woman should do. Which is why its surprising that I actually hadn’t been to Salem, MA until this past weekend. Well, this weekend I took the Megabus up to visit Hanna in Cambridge (well actually Somerville…) and we took the train out to see what Salem had to offer.

And…it was awesome! For a few reasons:

1. It’s a super cute little New England harbor town, which is a particular kind of charm I really enjoy.


2. The history, both of the witch trials and otherwise (it’s also Nathaniel Hawthorne’s hometown)



3. The witchy wonderfulness. There is so much camp, and so much earnest Wiccan stuff. It was just exactly what I wanted it to be, and it was also incredibly strange once I stopped to think about it. The actual historical trials were about the paranoid superstition of a group of people who were wrongly accused of witchcraft, which is obviously a tragedy. But now the town is forever associated with witchcraft, and is a Mecca of sorts for the Wiccan and neo-Pagan community. Which is cool in that it’s sort of the ultimate fuck you to the Puritan authorities, but it also leads to a strange tension where the town can’t decide if they believe if witches are real or not, which opens the uncomfortable question about the (obvious at least to me) innocence of those executed. This narrative is most confused at the Salem Witch Museum, which I wish I could describe to you but it is beyond my power. Please just go, it costs $12 but you will never experience anything quite like it….

Anyway, it was also just a great first real Spring weekend up here in the Northeast, and Hanna and I had a delightful time being silly through the streets:







I did not buy any, but I’m really regretting that now…