A new month is upon us, which means I wrote another overly detailed roundup of the books I read over the past few weeks! In October, I found myself doing what I haven’t done for a while, which is attempt to read multiple books at once. Some can do it effortlessly; I almost always end up finding some thematic connections or details amongst my reads that end up getting mixed up in my mind. I didn’t have too much trouble keeping things sorted, although I also did the worst thing you can do when trying to hold multiple stories in your head which is pick books that have blatantly similar/the same subjects. Love that for me!
My first read of the month was one of the most intense books I’ve read in a while, Animal, by Lisa Taddeo. I put it in the same category as Gabriel Tallent’s, My Absolute Darling and Toni Morrison’s, Beloved – both beautiful, difficult works that illustrate harsh, important truths we carry within us. Animal is the kind of story that leaves you feeling unsettled and uncomfortable, yet grateful for the perspective you’ve gained. Moving on from such a forceful, violent book, I started reading Rachel Cusk’s nonfiction work, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother. Although I enjoyed it, it wasn’t exactly a page turning kind of read, so I started in on Brit Bennett’s The Mother’s around the same time to keep the reading momentum up. I did have one person ask if I was trying to not-so-suddenly hint at a big life announcement because of the heavy motherhood focus, but rest assured my dog makes me enough of a mother for the time being. It’s just a subject I’ve always found incredibly layered and usually quite complicated, so I enjoy reading about it in every form.
Nestled amongst those books, I picked up Madisen Kuhn’s fourth book of poetry, Bad at Existing. I’ve read two of her three other works, Eighteen Years and Please Don’t Go Before I Get Better, I just need to snag Almost Home and my m.k. poetry collection will be complete. Being that we’re similar in age, I’ve leaned into Kuhn’s words throughout different seasons of my life – the brash teenager, the flailing post grad, and with this book, the 28-year-old settling into an adulthood who recognizes all the past versions of myself have brought me here, now. Her writing feels like a good conversation with a close friend wrapped in cozy blankets with hands framing a warm mug of tea. My final read was Kudos, the third installment of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. Cusk once again pulls deep life insights out of her protagonist’s mundane encounters with everyday people at a writer’s conference in Europe. Maybe I’ve burnt myself out on Cusk having read so much of her work in a relatively short time, but this third book didn’t quite hit for me like the other two, although it was still a very intelligent, well written work. Perhaps a tolerance break from Cusk will do me good?
Animal by Lisa Taddeo
Animal was published in 2021 by Avid Reader Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. The hardcover is 321 pages.
There’s no gentle way to ease into a book like this, so I’ll start instead with a text I sent my sister after finishing Animal: “Heavy, heavy stuff like rape and child molestation, but it channels the rage of being a woman so poignantly its soooo cathartic to read. Lot of unsaid things she puts words to that feel very validating.”
So yeah, holy fuckin shit, Animal is an absolute FORCE of a book. Without knowing of her power, I stumbled across Lisa Taddeo’s first book, Three Women at a thrift store and read it in September of last year. On my bookstagram I gave it a 4/5 and reviewed it briefly as, “A very nuanced, real, and heartbreaking depiction of the dynamics of gender (just a bit too focused on the binary of man/woman) and the power men continue to hold in our current system.” Three Woman displays the impossibility of defining what it means to be a woman, and the unforgiving double standards we’re held to in our judgmental patriarchal society. Her second book, Animal, published just one year later, is also heavily focused on the patriarchy and its manyfold reverberations in women’s lives, but the unwritten understanding layered between the lines achieves a transcendence in the gender-binary focus, instead opting to exist as “man” referring to the cis-het-power-wielding individual, and “woman” as the “lesser than/outside the default” individual. I understand the exclusive, binary categories of “man” and “woman” still remain, but as much as language and word choice matters, for the purpose of clarity I’d like to expand the rigid “man vs. woman” to “those that directly benefit from the patriarchy vs. everyone else” if you’ll allow.
Forgive the play on words, but similarities in theme aside, compared to Three Women, Animal is an entirely different beast. Taddeo’s protagonist is mesmerizing; the same energy as Natasha Lyonne in the show Russian Doll if you’re familiar. Thirty-seven-year-old Joan is a nasty woman in every sense of the word: good, bad, and ugly, and oh my god there is extreme ugly in this book. Massive trigger warning for violence against women, birth trauma, sexual abuse, sexual assault, and rape, amongst others. Taddeo’s writing brims with brutal, harsh truths regarding the violence of men and our male-centered culture that often condones and/or encourages it. Written in the first person, we meet Joan as she travels to L.A. in search of someone named Alice, “the only person alive who can help her make sense of her past”. Joan regularly makes mention of “the day she died” when she was 10 years old, alluding to it being connected to the death of her parents, but withholding her memory until the final chapters. Often, this kind of foreshadowing can feel forced and overwrought, but Taddeo’s approach folds itself into the idea that we suppress certain memories in order to protect ourselves – a survival tactic echoed in her protagonist.
As harsh and blunt as Joan can be, we understand she’s speaking to an unknown future reader she refers to vaguely as “you” throughout. In these moments, there is tenderness and heartbreaking explanations of the way women have had to adapt in order to survive. For just a small sample of the level of gender dynamics we’re dealing with here, a quote from Joan to her unknown addressee reads: “Women have the upper hand. It’s taken me half a lifetime to realize it. We don’t actually care about the man who is bringing flowers to the other woman. River was a stand-in for Jack. All present men are stand-ins of former men. And all men are stand-ins for our fathers. And even our fathers mean less than our own self-preservation. May you not go around the world looking to fill what you fear you lack with the flesh of another human being. That’s part of what this story is for“ (p. 148). Woven within her no bullshit tone, Joan offers these tender moments of nurturing. In her commentary to her unknown addressee, she imparts the wisdom she’s gained through her own experiences, and subsequent pain, so that they might be able to avoid a similar fate.
*BIG TRIGGER WARNING ON THIS PASSAGE*
Through Joan, Taddeo puts words, and therefore validation to the Big Ugly Truths we tend to only talk about in low tones and sugarcoated language, or more often, choose to ignore altogether to pretend this ugliness doesn’t exist at all. At a biker bar with a younger woman, Joan says of a burly man whose come-ons she had the audacity to not entertain, “I saw the rape in his eyes. I was wearing my white dress and laughed to myself, thinking how anyone would say I kept asking for it. I’d opined often with other women and with men that every man has a degree of rape in him. Women didn’t understand what I meant. They were alternately disgusted and confused. They thought I was stupid. But the men didn’t. I think they were impressed that I understood“ (p.260). Surface level, a knee-jerk reaction to this might be similar to the “not all men” or “not all cops” arguments many people attempt, but what Taddeo is saying through Joan here is a comment on the patriarchal system itself; a system in which physical violence is often paired with societal misogyny to create a hellscape for any non-male individual within it. It’s not that every man wants to commit violence against women, but for women like Joan, the existence of the potential for violence is constant enough to remain at the forefront of her awareness, always.
What I appreciate most about this book is the fact that with the subject matter, it could very easily become trauma porn, or reduce Joan to the trope of the scorned, jaded woman. Instead, the moments of horror are delivered with the terrible slow unraveling in which they happen in real life. Not every sexual assault is a violent act, not every small moment of power-wielding ends in tragedy, but Taddeo’s writing of these moments give validation to their significance as well as reveals the small ways in which women must constantly and continuously swallow their rage. When sitting at a bar alone, Joan finds herself next to some Wallstreet hotshots who order a $1,400 bottle of wine, “They offered me a taste. I said no, no, no and they insisted. The bartender got me a glass and watched Tim to see when he should quit the pour. Think of how terrible that feels, to not even want the wine and then be metered out some amount. To be sized up. Was I worth a $100 taste, or a $200 taste?” (p. 80). Through a male lens, the response to this might be to focus on how generous the men were to share and that the “sizing up” part was just made up in her head. But the way Taddeo writes, the way a woman would write, breaks the seemingly innocuous moment into what it means within the structure of a male-dominated society – the evaluation of a woman for the chance to flex a bit of power and control.
I’ve rambled enough, yet I’ve revealed nothing about what makes this book one that left me with such a lasting impression. It’s riveting, heartbreaking, honest, and raw. It gathers the unsaid horrors and puts words to the ones spoken in hushed tones. If I haven’t already sold you on picking this one up, the opening sentence might: “I drove myself out of New York City where a man shot himself in front of me” (p. 1). “Hello My Name is Joan and I’d like to burn the patriarchy and every man who’s taken advantage of the power and protection it offers to the fucking ground.” 🙂
A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother by Rachel Cusk
A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother was first published in 2001 by Fourth Estate, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers in Great Britain. The first U.S. edition was published in April 2002 by Picador U.S.A. The U.S. hardcover edition is 212 pages.
This was my first nonfiction work of Cusk’s, aside from reading a few interviews she’s given. I can’t help but hold her in a similar category as Joan Didion, although Didion appeared more journalistic in her approach. Both authors offer a no-bullshit commentary on subjects often talked about by others with some level of shame or a lack of conviction. Cusk and Didion share a similar sense of sardonic humor as well, a trait Cusk has included through her protagonists that lands even better coming from the nonfiction version of her “real life self”. In A Life’s Work Cusk says, “Motherhood, for me, was a sort of compound fenced off from the rest of the world. I was forever plotting my escape from it, and when I found myself pregnant again when Albertine was six months old I greeted my old cell with the cheerless acceptance of a convict intercepted at large” (p.2). As funny and dry as her delivery is, she follows up on the next page with a sentiment that pulls the reader back into a space of sympathy they may have found themselves drifting from after comparing motherhood to prison. She explains, “In motherhood a woman exchanges her public significance for private meanings, and like sounds outside a certain range they can be very difficult for other people to identify. If one listened with a different part of oneself, one would perhaps hear them” (p. 3). Here, Cusk frames her cell not in a way that focuses on her lack of freedom, but rather on its solitary nature; those outside of the cell are often unwilling or unable to understand the innumerable, intangible, never-ending moments that constitute what it is to be a mother. Within less than a page of each other, these two moments capture what Goodreads describes as “…a landmark work, which has provoked acclaim and outrage in equal measure”. Apparently, the reception was such that, “One famous columnist wrote a piece demanding that Cusk’s children be taken into care, saying she was unfit to look after them, and Oprah Winfrey invited her on the show to defend herself.”
Unsure of where I land on the idea of being a mom myself, I cannot overstate how much I appreciate Cusk’s unfiltered, all-inclusive account of her experience. From her commentary on the splitting of identity that comes with being a mother, “The break between mother and self was less clean than I had imagined it in the taxi: and yet it was a premonition, too; for later, even in my best moments, I never feel myself to have progressed beyond this division. I merely learn to legislate for two states, and to secure the border between them.” (p. 57) to her existential realizations, “My response to these early cries, in other words, is formative. I should do nothing that I don’t intend to continue doing, should make no false moves, lest I find myself co-habiting in the months and years to come with the terrible embodiment of my weaknesses, a creature formed from the patchwork of my faults held together by the glue of her own apparently limitless, denatured, monstrous will” (p. 61) she tells the entire truth of her situation, despite the fact that it might not be the agreed upon or popular opinion to share.
Peppered in amongst the brutal, sometimes off-putting honesty of her experience, Cusk shares moments of tenderness so genuine, it nearly feels too personal to intrude upon, despite the fact that she invites us into them by including them in the first place. “I pray for this stasis to continue, for the telephone and doorbell not to ring, for the city to go about its morning without troubling me. It is in such moments that a drop of confidence wells glittering from the baby and slowly splashes into the gaping vessel of myself” (p.64-65). As the title of her memoir suggests, for most people, motherhood is something that’s never fully “achieved” or “perfected”, but rather it is a slow, daily becoming of a new version of the self. It’s the consistency of being there for your children, and the battle of maintaining an identity beyond those small, demanding creatures. She writes about being a mom in a way that parallels the act. There aren’t always strict categories of “good” and “bad”, it’s mostly everything blended together and only in hindsight can you appreciate the chaos of it all.
The Mothers by Brit Bennett
The Mothers by Brit Bennett was published in October 2016 by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. The hardcover is 278 pages.
Brit Bennett’s The Mothers tells the story of 17-year-old Nadia Turner and her relationship with Luke Sheppard, the pastor’s son at The Upper Room Church. Narratively, we spend our time divided amongst the perspectives of Nadia, Luke, Nadia’s friend Aubrey, and the omniscient voice of “The Mothers”, a group of elder women in the church who concern themselves with the goings on of the community as well as pass judgement for the ways in which thing just aren’t the way they used to be. We follow Nadia, Luke and Aubrey across the span of their young adult lives as Nadia moves away from her small Southern California town to experience more of the world, Luke deals with the physical and emotional injuries of his past, and Aubrey’s friendship with Nadia becomes strained as she grows closer to Luke in their hometown.
Throughout the story, the Mothers intermittently appear to offer recollections of their experience as well as retrospective opinions on all that eventually comes to light. “We would’ve told her that all together, we got centuries on her. If we laid all our lives toe to heel, we were born before the Depression, the Civil War, even America itself. In all that living, we have known men. Oh girl, we have known littlebit love. That littlebit of honey left in an empty jar that traps the sweetness in your mouth long enough to mask your hunger. We have run tongues over teeth to savor that last littlebit as long as we could, and in all our living, nothing has starved us more” (p. 22). Bennett weaves these moments in seamlessly, a section break indicating a switch in narration with the Mothers’ sections identifying themselves though their use of the collective “We” throughout. This narrative choice never felt confusing or overused; Rather, it offered a way to relay plot information that felt congruent with the way information travels through a community. No one ever has the full story, details are often embellished or left out entirely, and as demonstrated by this particular story, information comes out later that drastically affects the nature of what actually happened. Most importantly, the big scandalous events are often discussed by every man, woman, and child in the community…apart from the people who are directly involved.
The Mothers offers a many-layered story, inviting the reader to consider the nuance, confusion, and complexity of the consequences of our choices. It’s told with a depth of understanding that while we are more than our pasts, we have to be willing to accept and acknowledge that our past is a part of us in that it informs our perspective and affects the ways in which we show up for the people in our lives. Brit Bennett’s ear for dialogue is unmatched, and her ability to plot a story across many years and amongst several characters is a feat deserving of the highest praise and admiration.
Bad at Existing by Madisen Kuhn
Bad at Existing is Madisen Kuhn’s fourth book of poetry. It was self-published in October 2022 and the paperback edition is 269 pages.
Poetry is a form I still find intimidating, although much less so once you realize that like any interpretation of art, whatever meaning you find in the piece is the meaning that matters. Kuhn’s poetry is accessible while still remaining elusive enough to create your own experience of it. It speaks to the specifics of being without containing those specifics within strict borders. The dedication to this collection simply says, “For the ones who understand.” As I mentioned earlier, having read two of her previous three collections, there’s a strange parasocial element to her poetry since we’ve experienced certain seasons of life at similar times. I don’t want to be so simplistic as to say something about how her work has matured, or changed overtime, because fuckin duh. Instead, I like to sit with her pieces that put language to the intangible things we all often feel but can’t always recognize or acknowledge. Or bask in the scenes of the imagined future she paints with words that feel within my grasp too, not just as something to dream about or wait for, but as something to work towards and build for myself. Her words are sad girl autumn, Taylor Swift romantic idealism, the contained emotions released after years of looking the other way. Kuhn does the vulnerable and generous thing to share herself and her art with the world. I look forward to whatever future words she has to share with her readers.
Kudos by Rachel Cusk
Kudos was published in 2018 by Faber and Faber Limited, Great Britain and in the United States the same year by Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux. The hardcover is 232 pages.
After weeks waiting for a copy of Rachel Cusk’s Kudos to arrive at my library, I unfortunately found that I wasn’t as absorbed in Faye’s conversations with strangers as I’d been in her previous two books. Kudos rejoins Cusk’s metafictional author Faye as she attends a literary conference in Europe. I’ll admit that I’m almost certain that my ignorance of European politics, specifically Brexit which is a central theme throughout the book is probably the reason I wasn’t as drawn into the dialogue or insights offered. The jacket copy points out the core of the work that I felt a connection to, “Within the rituals of literary culture, Faye finds the human story in disarray amid differing attitudes toward the public performance of the creative persona. She begins to identify among the people she meets a tension between truth and representation…”
The opening scene brings Faye into conversation with her seatmate on the plane. In her description of the nature of his storytelling, she says, “I had the impression that these were stories he had told before and liked to tell, as though he had discovered the power and pleasure of reliving events with their sting removed. The skill, I saw, lay in skirting close enough to what appeared to be the truth without allowing what you actually felt about it to regain its power over you” (p. 10). Now if that ain’t a breakdown of the importance of reframing your story and laying claim to your own narrative, then I don’t know what is. These moments of side commentary are often where Cusk’s insights integrate themselves into her writing using Faye as the vessel through which she adds depth and personality to the work.
In another moment demonstrating this tension, Faye finds herself in conversation with a writer who attended a retreat hosted in the home of a wealthy Countess seeking entertainment. When speaking of the artificiality of the writers’ conversation when the Countess was around, she says, “…it was the conversation of people imitating writers having a conversation, and the morsels she fed on were lifeless and artificial, as well as being laid directly at her feet, so that the spectacle of her satisfaction was artificial too”. (p. 50) The writer’s anecdote reminds me of the Queen of Hearts from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In seeking the seeds of knowledge and nourishment for the soul that literature and art can offer without offering any effort or insight of her own, the Countess’s artificiality becomes the central focus. Without the give and take of creating and consuming, the experience loses its genuine meaning and becomes superficial. It feels similar to another idea discussed in Kudos concerning the current commercial book market pushing “easy reads” to churn out for profit versus the lack of attention the market pays works deemed profound and important. A paradox exists wherein the commercially successful books are deemed “less than” or “low brow” compared to less accessible works often labelled as dense or boring in comparison, yet these less popular works seem to garner an inherent respect or legitimacy despite their lack of revenue – a larger conversation to be had another day when my word count isn’t already stupid high.
As I mentioned earlier, Kudos was my least favorite of the Outline trilogy, although that can mostly be chalked up to me being an ignorant American. Naturally I ignored the parts I didn’t resonate with (i.e. European political identity) and latched onto the meta moments where Cusk writes about people talking about talking about writing, or the act of writing while people are talking, or whatever simple yet thought-provoking confusion she’s created so she can then deconstruct it for her readers. Definitely taking break from Cusk for a while, but I shall return.
& with that, my roundup has come to its conclusion. My endless appreciation goes out to anyone who stopped by to read my words about others’ words. Thank you, thank you, and as always, happy reading 🙂