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Book Review: Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Petersen

Put down your avocado toast and close that Zillow page — the latest salvo in the intergenerational war between boomers and millennials is here, and you don’t want to miss it. In Can’t Even, media scholar (and millennial) Anne Helen Petersen offers an insightful treatise on the “burnout generation” that is a far cry from the essentialist portrayals of both generations that dominate the current discourse.

Rather than dissect who is to blame for the plight (and it is a plight, histrionics aside) of millennials, Petersen offers a moving discourse on why the kids are not alright and, even more importantly, why they are not, despite how they’ve been characterized, the spoiled, lazy, feckless generation.

“Okay, boomer, sit down and read” is an apropos prescription for this book.

In 2019, Petersen published a Buzzfeed article titled “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,” which drew millions of readers. Wry title aside, Can’t Even, an expansion of that earlier piece, is well researched and sobering in its findings. The book examines a variety of areas of millennial lives, including work, education, social-media culture, relationships, and parenthood, zeroing in on issues like student debt, workplace burnout, and millennials’ astronomical levels of anxiety and hopelessness.

The section on millennials’ childhood is especially engrossing. Petersen uses the concept of “concerted cultivation” to explain how the parenting style of the previous generation sowed the seeds of the thorny relationship between millennials and work. Dispelling the popular trope of millennials refusing “to adult,” the book illustrates the very opposite: that millennials have been adulting since they were kids:

“The child’s schedule takes precedence over parents’; the child’s well-being and future capacity for success is paramount; baby food should be homemade; toddler play should be enriching; private tutors should be enlisted if necessary…Every part of the child’s life should be optimized to better prepare them for their entry into the working world.”

And, of course, the first step toward that world is education. Here, too, Petersen is masterful in foreshadowing the inevitable burnout. She describes millennials as the “first generation to fully conceptualize themselves as walking college resumes.” Because — you guessed it — getting into college (let alone paying for it) isn’t as easy for them as it was for boomers.

Getting a job isn’t as easy, either. Can’t Even offers an excellent analysis of how millennials graduated into the “worst job market in 80 years,” one with an excessive list of demands:

“To be valued, you need plans, lengthy resumes, ease and confidence interacting with authority figures, and innate understanding of how the job ladder works. You need connections and a willingness to multitask, and an eagerness to overschedule.”

Not to mention that being groomed to find a job one is “passionate” about created a toxic mentality disconnected from the realities of the working world. Fracturing the cliché that millennials heedlessly hop from one job to another, Petersen shows how it was boomers who instilled the “one’s work is one’s identity” mantra into their children. With that conflation came the predictable — and incredible — stress millennials feel about their careers.

One thing missing in Can’t Even is a broad discussion of how class factors into the boomer/millennial dynamic; the author only briefly suggests that concerted cultivation is, in part, a reflection of class anxiety. That is, while only wealthy boomers may have been able to afford things like private tutors, less-affluent boomers could at least sacrifice all their time and limited resources in the name of their child’s future success.

Speaking of time, Can’t Even presents a thoughtful commentary on free time. Connecting it to the groan-inducing “unstructured free time” term from child psychology, Petersen’s conversations with adult millennials are moving and unsettling. These people can’t even have fun: “Any down time began to feel like I was being lazy and unproductive, which in turn made me question my self worth,” one subject shares. So much for the popular image of the carefree, brunchin’ millennial.

The moments when Can’t Even grapples with the burnout that has now become the hallmark of the millennial generation are insightful and leave the reader hungry for more. I, for one, would’ve been happier with fewer statistics and more of those first-person testimonials. Nevertheless, like a good millennial, Petersen has done her homework.

Can’t Even is a must-read both for millennials and the generation that made them. In the immortal words of Tupac, “I was given this world; I didn’t make it.” This book illustrates exactly that: that millennials are living in a world that’s a far cry from the one they were groomed to inhabit. And all that hard work they were taught would lead to a better life has led, instead, to nothing but a need to work even harder.

Book Review: Kink: Stories, Edited by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell

My review for the Washington Independent Review of Books

Its titillating subject matter aside, this collection is strangely uninspired.

Kink’s veritable all-star-writer roster and exciting subject matter belie how drearily humdrum the collection is. The anthology tackles BDSM and other “unconventional” relationships yet fails quite spectacularly in whipping itself into shape (sorry, I couldn’t resist). Contributions by bestselling authors Alexander Chee, Roxane Gay, and Carmen Maria Machado are surprisingly un-titillating.

In attempting to capture complex emotions, however, Kink succeeds at times, such as in “The Cure,” where Melissa Febos writes, “She didn’t care. Her not caring was voluptuous, sensual. It was a most substantial absence. It filled her like a good meal. She had had enough.” Elsewhere, the narratives are weighed down by tropes, as in Larissa Pham’s “Trust,” where we get the ubiquitous empty-shell metaphor: “She feels delicate and hollowed out, like an empty seashell.”

Of course, writing about love and desire is not easy, and some of the stories do it in a straightforward, moving way. Here again is Febos:

“The first time he slept with a woman who asked him to hit her, it felt like a window had opened inside him. He’s not sure what happened, exactly — that she saw something in him and touched it, or if the thing in her was so powerful, it moved the thing in him. All he knows is how it felt — where there was blank space, a rupturing.”

In other tales, we see these supposedly “alternative” relationships normalized: “After some discussion, they decided they’d both benefit from professional guidance. It was like doing yoga, they figured. Hazardous, at first, to go through the poses without an instructor’s help,” writes R.O. Kwon in “Safeword.”

Kwon’s story is a trenchant commentary on the commodification of desire and how, when the self-care ethos meets capitalism’s “we have a solution for everything you desire” motto, even our intimate lives aren’t sacred or private. (When it comes to consumerism, there is no safe word.) Kwon also shows us that practitioners of BDSM are not immune to the groan-inducing banality of eroticism becoming a chore:

“He was tired. His right shoulder hurt. He didn’t want to hit Julie anymore — he wanted to get out of here. He wanted to untie her and take her home, soothe her and have sex with her, his wife, whom he loved. But he kept going. Finish the session, he told himself.”

“Emotional Technologies” by Chris Kraus similarly demystifies the supposed danger and subversiveness of BDSM relationships by narrating the ways in which they’re dating scenarios like any other:

“He told me he would put me on probation. If I consented, we were entering the second stage. The rules were: He’d decide when and how often we would see each other. He’d decide when and how often we’d talk on the phone. I would not know his address or phone number, but I was free to leave him as many voice mails as I wanted, providing that they made him hard. I found this very liberating. How many hours had I spent in ‘normal’ dating situations, pondering the etiquette and timing of the post-fuck call?”

One of the few outstanding pieces in the collection is Garth Greenwell’s “Gospodar” (translating to “master”), in which an American teacher has a tryst with a Bulgarian man in the latter’s home country, where the LGBTQ lifestyle is still hush-hush. Greenwell’s prose is evocative and precise:

“He lived on a middle floor of one of the huge Soviet-style apartment blocks that stand everywhere in Sofia like fortresses or keeps, ugly and imperious, though this is a false impression they give, they’re so poorly built as already to be crumbling away.”

Unfortunately, Kink ultimately fails in its power play for the reader’s excitement; I had to force myself to get through it, and not in a good way. While its subject matter still sorely lacks literary representation, this anthology doesn’t contribute much to the conversation.

Book Review: The Horror is Us by Justin Sanders (Editor)

My review for the Washington Independent Review of Books

Riffing on that famous quip that “horror is other people,” the authors in this slim, affecting anthology from Baltimore-based Mason Jar Press speak of the horror that is us. The stories are pithy — most run just a few pages — but powerful in their parsimony.

Laura Walker’s “A Trick of Uncertain Light,” for instance, at first appears to be a simple tale of a girl stranded in a car on a dark desert road who encounters a guy driving a tow truck. But she’s not a girl in a car; she is “a rabbit feeling the primal liquid-boned fear of desert prey.” And the man in the truck hasn’t stopped out of concern. “Something’s not right. I can feel it the way you can sense the threat of storm when the wind kicks up before the clouds start rolling in.”

The imagery is evocative: “He cuts off my response, slices into the fear of the moment, spilling it.” Fear is spilling toward an inexorable end here, one that is not described and, hence, looms even larger. “Besides, there are things that bullets can’t stop from happening.”

Abigail Teed’s “Rise” and “The Pine Witch” by Alexandria Baker are both about a return to something from the past. The former has Native American mythological elements, while the latter features Wiccan notes. Continuing the theme of the everyday gone awry, the coven in “The Pine Witch” isn’t too far removed from members of a sorority house, sort of like a modern (and far less corny) take on the 1996 supernatural-thriller movie “The Craft.” As with other stories in the collection, the menace is unnamed — and thus all the more terrifying — and the words relentless in their simplicity: “I closed my eyes and reveled in the smell of burning flesh.”

Another brilliant offering is Justin Sanders’ “Baphomet and Blue,” about a Neo-Nazi death cult. The subject matter is all too believable and seemingly plucked from the headlines — police racism and brutality — but it’s given a sinister twist. A music fest turns brutal as participants wreak havoc and enact the violent reality idealized in the songs. As the author points out, “White power music is the number one method for recruiting new members.” Evil sometimes wears a badge instead of a pentagram.

Comic-book writer Scott Bryan Wilson’s “The Enthusiastic Butcher” is a keen dissection of our social-media-obsessed world. Its protagonist cuts deeper and deeper into himself (on several levels) in a vanity-fueled quest for attention and an escape from a life of loneliness. “He was like a king washed up on a desert island, his subjects sending him messages in bottles.”

The tale is a trenchant commentary on the terrifying ways in which we as a society keep pushing beyond boundaries personal, ecological, and global. The first cut is the deepest — or not, it seems to suggest.

Though spare, The Horror Is Us is nonetheless incisive and provocative. Its stories are smartly curated and fleshy, making it a must-read for any fan of the horror genre in its most modern iteration.

Book Review: You Exist Too Much: A Novel by Zaina Arafat

My review of the Washington Independent Review of Books

Love addiction is vividly brought to life in this exceptional debut.

Zaina Arafat’s You Exist Too Much is an engrossing character study of a young, bisexual Palestinian American woman. Much more than an exploration of intersecting lines and identities, the debut novel revels in their clouding: “Ambiguity was an unsettling yet exhilarating space…I enjoyed occupying blurred lines.”

This is not a book about isms, however; it is squarely centered on its unnamed protagonist, whose voice is enthralling. Oscillating between prescient self-awareness and oblivion, she transports readers into her rich emotional realm. Her identity is beautifully captured when she travels to Palestine with her mother, who “knows the rules instinctively, in that part of the world, and I only learn them by accident.”

While she fits in (mostly), she also doesn’t: “Anytime I heard of another Arab girl’s engagement, it snapped me out of my gayness.” Her parents’ fraught relationship is also wryly captured: “If my mother was Hamas — unpredictable, impulsive, and frustrated at being stifled — my father was Israel. He’d refuse to meet her most basic needs until she exploded.”

While the book engages with both the narrator’s heritage and her queerness, it is ultimately a story about love addiction. Lest you groan in anticipation of high doses of schmaltz or wince at the prospect of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” being stuck in your head (sorry, not sorry), the novel’s brilliant exposé on a real psychological condition will leave you, well, addicted and wanting more.

Arafat’s description of the protagonist’s stint in a rehab program to treat her anorexia and love addiction is one of the best accounts of the rehab experience I have ever read. The writing is precise, keen, and relies on observation and no pathos, which is somewhat odd considering the subject matter. It is also well-researched. Arafat reveals love addiction for what it is — codependency, which she defines as “the inability to have a healthy relationship with the self.”

The protagonist is in love with being in love, which puts her on a never-ending Don Quixote-like quest in pursuit of the feeling. And much like Quixote, she is chasing chimeras:

“When love addicts develop a relationship with the object of their affections, they stop seeing who that person actually is, but instead focus on a fantasy image.”

Arafat captures why this addiction is particularly damaging, rejecting anyone’s glib dismissal of it as a made-up disorder. The protagonist’s emotional gyrations are captured powerfully: “I had been clinging to her I love yous like a refugee clings to a threatened nationality.”

The author writes about other characters in the rehab program with compassion and depth, too. There aren’t many books about recovery from this particular addiction — less flashy, perhaps, than drug or sex addiction — which gives the book a bright spark.

You Exist Too Much tackles bisexuality with equal care. The title is what the protagonist’s mother says when her daughter comes out, and its interpretation is rich in ambiguity: The Palestinian mother would never have had the permission or space to be anything but heterosexual. She interprets her daughter’s orientation as a demand for the right to live free of old constraints. But the phrase is also an incisive commentary on the daughter’s fixation on unavailable objects of affection and her lust for a life filled with emotional highs.

This novel is truly captivating. I read it several times over and found something new each time. Arafat’s writing extracts emotion from every word and builds vast psychological landscapes. One of the best releases in 2020, it cements Zaina Arafat’s position in the ranks of Carmen Maria Machado and Lydia Yuknavitch. I cannot wait to see what she will offer readers next.

Book Review: The Pleasure Plan by Laura Zam

My review for the Washington Independent Review of Books.

This honest account of a quest for pain-free intimacy pulls no punches.

With its pink-purse cover and self-help-conjuring title, Laura Zam’s The Pleasure Plan has the auspices of yet another treatise on the elusive art of sexual-spark kindling. And while there can never be enough books written on the topic, this one has a slightly different audience in mind — namely, those of us too “broken” for a conventional sex book and for whom there is nothing normal or conventional about intercourse.

Not to mention that this book is more a quest to avoid pain than to find pleasure in the face of dyspareunia, vaginismus, or sexual aversion disorder. As the author puts it, “I have every hooha hangup in the DSM.” Though the condition affects between 10 and 20 percent of women, the author herself didn’t know it had a name — or names — until she was in her 40s.

Lest you’re inclined to think that incredibly painful intercourse is no big deal, people with disorders like vaginismus often cannot even wear tampons. Psychologically, they experience during sex something akin to PTSD. Intercourse is “like being a virgin every single time. Madonna, this is not sexy,” the author explains. And since sex is the lingua franca of our society, you can surmise what a death knell this can be for relationships.

The book — which grew, in part, out of the author’s “Modern Love” essay in the New York Times — starts on a happy note: Zam has met and married her husband, Kurt, but hasn’t told him about her “hooha hangups.”

Insert screeching-halt noise here.

You might be wondering how someone could not know his partner isn’t only not having a particularly good time in bed but is enduring lightning-bolt levels of pain. You might also wonder why the author hasn’t revealed this fact to the love of her life.

This dynamic is less a commentary on Zam’s particular relationship than an indictment of the social norms that drive women to literally grin and bare it. These norms also discourage women from admitting to anything other than a perfect sex life. As Zam puts it, “Privacy has stolen my life force.”

But tell her partner she does, and she goes a step further, undertaking the Sisyphean task of trying to remedy her problem. Like a lot of us “broken” ones, however, as a survivor of childhood trauma, she first must untangle how much of the issue is psychological, how much is physical, and how much is both — a case of “my mind is telling me yes, but my body is screaming a hell no.”

Zam begins a tortuous tour of 15 specialists, exploring EFT (emotional freedom techniques), hypnosis, tantra, trauma therapy, group couples’ workshops, pelvic-floor physical therapy, vaginal weights, and dilators. Unfortunately, vaginismus is poorly understood and difficult to treat, and the situation isn’t helped by various medical professionals’ dismissive stances.

For example, a hypnotist asked Zam pointedly, “You do want to stay married, right?” before doling out the several-hundred-dollar advice to “Just do it.” A sex therapist refuses to see Zam before sending her to a physical therapist first because “she doesn’t deal with vaginal pain.”

(Please, dear reader, don’t start in about how patient Kurt must be for going through this with her. Enough about others. Let’s talk about us, not the long-suffering partners we have a really hard time finding in the first place.)

While Zam’s book is filled with levity — which I interpret as “laughing to keep from crying” — there’s nothing funny about being in so much pain that every attempt at intimacy feels like something to be endured. “Do I love Kurt in these moments? I don’t know. I am too far away to notice,” writes the author. “I strap down my animal sadness so I don’t saturate the bed with the wrong kind of moisture.”

Zam interweaves into The Pleasure Plan stories of her family and growing up as a commentary on trauma and resilience. It makes for engrossing reading and, likely, some vigorous nodding in agreement from people who identify as female and who, like the author, laugh to keep from crying.

Although the clinical term of “vaginismus brought on by fear of penetration” is one way to describe the Hydra she is fighting, “I don’t want anything inside me” captures it more aptly. In its face, Zam perseveres long after most would have given up. At times, the methods of the “healers” she consults are downright hilarious, such as the cringe-worthy approach of “repeating vapid, lascivious language while in a pseudotrance.” (No, it doesn’t work.)

The response to Zam’s book has been overwhelmingly positive, and she has been praised for her bravery in writing it. Of course, a subset of critics harps on Kurt’s patience and understanding. But forget him for a moment. This is about her pain, remember?

The Pleasure Plan isn’t a quest for pleasure. It is an attempt to contend with physical and social pain — the pain of being rejected as a weirdo too broken to repair. Sex is enormously important in our society. If one can’t function sexually, is one doomed to a lifetime of loneliness?

The book is full of questions and exercises to help readers develop their own plan and asks, “Where are you stuck in your sexual healing?” Alas, this presupposes that we all want to become unstuck, when many of us have simply dropped out of the, er, marketplace altogether. Maybe in her next book, Zam could address some alternate forms of relationships where intimacy is not expressed through intercourse alone, open relationships, or even asexuality.

Despite this small cavil, The Pleasure Plan is a must-read not just for people affected by dyspareunia, but for anyone interested in learning more about a complicated condition foreign to most. The book will move you and keep you reading no matter your gender or “hooha hangups” — or lack thereof.

Book Review: The Call: Inside the Global Saudi Religious Project

My review  for the Washington Independent Review of Books

An in-depth look at the export of conservative Islamic teachings from the Arabian Peninsula.

The term “soft power” is ubiquitous enough that it has long left the international relations arena behind and moved into public discourse. It seems intuitive that changing hearts and minds is a much less costly and subtle route to hegemony. But what sort of work is soft power and what sort of an export is ideology?

Krithika Varagur’s The Call: Inside the Global Saudi Religious Project is an incisive, salient, and comprehensive exploration of the sort of philanthropy that comes with a heaping side of religious proselytizing. Varagur brilliantly captures the complexities and contradictions of Saudi Arabia’s export (intentional or incidental) of Salafism and portrays soft power for what it really is — messy, highly unpredictable, and a far cry from the puppet-master-like characterization it has recently received.

The author offers three case studies on three continents: Indonesia (where she lived for several years); Nigeria and the rise of Boko Haram; and Kosovo, which has the dubious honor of having “contributed more foreign fighters per capita to ISIS than any other country in Europe.”

It would be wrong to characterize this book as a “follow the money” exposé, all the more so because that trail has been cold for decades. Money is no longer flowing as it once did; Mohammed bin Salman, the new Saudi prince, seems especially uninterested in the grand dawa pursuits of his predecessors. Instead, Varagur’s journalistic acumen shines in her interviews with imams, government leaders, students, and the media, and in her own observations.

Dawa refers to the call or invitation to Islam, akin to mission work. The State Department estimates that as much as $10 billion has gone to charitable organizations as part of the Saudi dawa. Saudi Arabia’s Dawa Ministry has a staff of over 9,500 people, a $1.86 billion budget, and is responsible for dawa, as well as the maintenance of mosques inside the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia’s dawa project reached apotheosis following the 1973 oil embargo, which made the kingdom flush with petrol wealth. The Islamic University of Medina, built by King Faisal in the 1960s, brought its students into the Wahhabi fold. The oil money went toward such large projects in Indonesia as, for example, a university, a large Saudi embassy, and the presence of a “religious attaché.”

“Wahhabism is a movement within Sunni Islam named after Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, an eighteenth-century preacher who sought to purify his faith of the idolatrous and blasphemous practices that he thought corrupted the austere monotheism at the heart of Islam,” writes Varagur. Wahhabism lent the Saud family the religious legitimacy necessary to entrench the monarchy and shelter it from more global influences, like that of Pan-Arabism or socialism.

Varagur presents both the dim view of Salafism and its appeal (Wahhabism is a Saudi-specific term; its outside counterpart is called Salafism). Its obsession with minutiae — like how to pray, what music (if any) to listen to, and whether to take pictures with cats — speaks to its conservatism.

The flipside of what Varagur calls its small-mindedness is its austere simplicity and, she astutely points out, its accessibility: Doctrinal knowledge comes directly from texts, which are nowadays available online and simple enough to not require a mediator.

Although Saudi dawa has waned in influence and investment, The Call demonstrates how ideological ecosystems take on a life of their own. The influence of Salafism is much more apparent now, perhaps because the problematic link between charitable aid and religious indoctrination is equally so.

For example, Saudi dawa helped rebuild the Ache and other regions of Indonesia devastated by the 2004 tsunami, gaining a foothold for its puritanical brand of Islam. Indonesia, a modern and tolerant Islamic society, now has an anti-Shia league, and Ahmadiyya Muslims have been driven into refugee camps.

Perhaps one small shortcoming of The Call is Varagur’s failure to draw parallels between Christian development organizations and the rise of intolerant Christianity abroad (Nigeria comes to mind). She remains steadfastly focused on Salafism, when situating her argument into a larger context might have served it.

Ultimately, Varagur argues, the intersection between political Islam and the public sphere is complicated. But three consequences, in all of her case studies, are that an educated class of Salafi scholars, who then shape the local religious landscapes, emerged; there is rancorous intolerance against Shia and Sufi Muslims; and there is greater popular consumption of Salafi books and media worldwide. A turn toward fundamentalism breeds an environment of intolerance and strife.

“The Saudi project,” she writes, “can be chaotic and full of contradictions.” So has been the response of the rest of the world to it. In the past, the West was all too happy about the way in which conservative Islam served as a counterweight to leftism and communism and stabilized the monarchy’s control of the region. But the West has also mistakenly attributed myriad conflicts in the region to historical theological differences, which are actually fairly modern and political in their origin.

Krithika Varagur writes with the precision and nuance of a seasoned journalist. The Call is a must-read for anyone wanting to understand the complicated history of the Saudi state and its religious missions. The book also raises questions about the uneasy and problematic connection between aid and proselytizing.

Book Review: Verge: Stories by Lidia Yuknavich

My review for the Washington Independent Review of Books:

A breathtaking series of insights into people who are “becoming.”

Lidia Yuknavitch’s debut short-story collection, Verge: Stories, is an incandescent testimonial about lives spent on the margins, on the cusp, on the edge, on the periphery, on the frontier, on the birthing place…of something.

Or everything. Or nothing at all.

Yuknavitch’s writing is visceral and unsettling, the metaphors eloquent and moving. “Who amongst us can see a self,” she asks, and responds with singular characters sketched in stark detail, their burdens strange yet familiar. Her descriptions are terse, as though built on picked-clean skeletons, but the flesh emerges from the pages, raw and refusing to be contained.

“The Pull” is set on a capsizing raft of refugees in the Aegean Sea — the people “a wave of other leavers.” Those left behind “never swim another lap toward their futures.” Two children who had been on the swim team back home (and, as the author so pointedly writes, are from a reality that has neither a future nor a past) tie the raft to their feet and swim toward shore: “This story has no ending. We put children into the ocean.”

This is exactly the kind of parsimony that marks Yuknavitch’s writing — the pathos is in the pith-os, I would like to think.

“The Organ Runner,” a story about an 8-year-old who literally runs organs between seemingly disparate yet intimately sewn-together bodies in dark streets, is equally relentless in its quiet condemnation of us:

“Whatever money — that thing more valuable than a body, or a people, or a nation — had changed hands was worth more than the life of one homeless creature in this newsless, powerless, invisible country.”

The author is neither political nor polemic, but her witness-bearing will disquiet readers. The simile “he held one arm against his body like a broken wing” is a trenchant commentary on dehumanizing others in a literal and figurative sense. And again, the author makes clear the damning, if not always apparent, connections tying the globalized world together: “Kiril would die but not by her hand. Or he would die by all of our hands.”

“Second Language” takes this tacit condemnation to a crescendo; the story will hold you hostage long after you finish it. The protagonist is a nameless, sex-trafficked child locked in a house near a freeway (anything but free to her) and “delivered like a card-board box from a UPS truck, sifted through by rummaging hands like recycling,” along with other “girl popsicles.”

To the outside world, she is a ghost, barely even noticed by the “disaffected latte pity” gaze. Her “bodyworth” is the only thing concrete about her — that, and a story in a foreign language. A fairytale, told in a grim and otherworldly tongue, which lulls the popsicle girls to sleep: “Girls are growing from guts, enough for a body and a language all the way out of this world.”

Speaking of language, the author is a masterful writer of towering genius. Her comparisons are so intricate, yet heavy, they often require a reread. A drug addiction is “four long years of youth sliding cold silver glint into waiting blue.” “He builds the fire like a new faith for all the white (snow) against them.” “She aches to summer over into a different life.” “The streets are clean and cured and uncultured — no, that’s not what I meant. Uncluttered, I meant.”

Yuknavitch is also eloquent in her depiction of women. The female protagonists are on the run, gnashing and trashing and aching to tell their stories in their own language. She compares a “street walker” to Mary: “When I see an image of Christ, I picture Mary so drawn and gaunt and tired and angry and spent to the point of emaciation that she can barely wear her own face.” But she is no saint, just an “ordinary woman eaten alive by her own heart, her own veins, her own cunt.” Another character is “on the edge like Ophelia, rewriting her ending.”

Verge is enthralling and should garner Yuknavitch much-deserved acclaim. It is the author’s answer to the question, “Does it hurt more to keep the secrets or to tell them?” While her characters may be on the edge of the storyline, in the dark corners of the nightly news, residing in a forgotten, misshapen geography, speaking in tongues, the book reminds you that you know these people; that you are bound to these people; that you are these people.

Book Review: Pain Studies by Lisa Olstein

My review for the Washington Independent Review of Books

If you think poets shouldn’t dabble in nonfiction, Lisa Olstein’s Pain Studies will do nothing to convince you otherwise. The book has moments so contrived that the reader might wryly observe the title as apropos.

Olstein, a poet, writes this book as a rumination on the nature of pain, riffing on her experience with migraines that she describes as “a headache that lasted three months acute-chronic, chronic-acute.”

When the author leans on her poetic skill, the outcome is beautiful, captivating prose that bleeds and thrums: “Left brow like a pressed bruise, an overripe peach you accidentally stuck your finger into.”

But when she waxes more philosophical, the reader is left baffled at best and groaning at worst. For example, there is an entire chapter on the color of pain. And navel-gazing moments like this one: “Drowning, live pain, has a way of flooding you with the present.”

When Olstein stops taking herself so seriously, she makes insightful (and incisive) observations about what we mean when we talk about pain. Her deadpan lines — “We’re notoriously bad at talking about it, even literally, as in, do you have it, how much, what kind” — will leave readers nodding enthusiastically.

Her accounts of dealing with various healers are equally wry and amusing. She uses an example of good medicine as someone who asks her whether she has found anything that increases the pain, rather than decreasing it. And we can all relate to the humor behind well-meaning advice that fails to deliver: “She’s visibly disappointed I report back miracleless.”

Some of the choices that Olstein makes, however, will confound more than cheer. She dedicates no less than two chapters to Joan of Arc. Why? Because “Joan’s refusal to translate her experience into acceptable terms” is apparently analogous to the trials of pain sufferers, and because “she was a woman surrounded by prying, know-it-all men who pelted her with questions.”

Readers may be willing to hang their coats on such flimsy pegs, but Olstein doesn’t stop there. Exploring the work of obscure philosophers like Antiphon the Sophist will, again, do no favors for those wanting to deny the characterization of poetry as affected and decadent.

Then, we have a whole chapter on the TV show “House.” While the program’s exploration of pain makes this rumination salient, in today’s rapidly moving pop-culture zeitgeist, it feels quite dated to discuss a show that ended in 2012.

Eyebrow-raising choices aside, however, the book is incredibly creative in its style, seamlessly suturing together poetry, journal entries, and discourse analysis. Olstein’s strength as a poet imbues her prose, too, even when it manifests in lists: “Opium poppy, ordeals, orthopedist, Ovid.”

The poems included in Pain Studies are vivid and enthralling. And Olstein’s portraits of how others respond to her pain are compelling and relatable. But could this unconventional meditation have benefited from ditching the obscure references and morose gravitas? A resounding yes.

Book Review: Homewreckers by Aaron Glantz

My review for the Washington Independent Review of Books

This exploration of the housing crisis evokes anger but comes off as a sloppy polemic in places.

The cover of Aaron Glantz’s Homewreckers depicts Donald Trump holding wads of cash, Steve Mnuchin riding a wrecking ball, and Wilbur Ross pulling money out of a house. It is a rather apt summary of the book’s main argument, along with the somewhat-hyperbolic characterization of the destruction of the “American dream” the title hints at.

While many books have been written about the 2008 Great Recession, including The Big Short and The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown, few have explored who benefited from the bank bailouts and what happened to all of those foreclosed homes. Homewreckers tells that story — the story of what the author cleverly dubs “vulture capitalists” profiting off the very disaster they orchestrated.

But Glantz spends an unwarranted part of the book drawing detailed biographical sketches of people in Trump’s inner circle, including Mnuchin, Thomas Barrack Jr., Stephen Schwarzman, Sean Hannity, and Trump’s father, Fred Trump. While the investigative zeal with which he goes after these figureheads is keen and captivating, ultimately, it detracts — or, better put, distracts — from the strength of his argument.

Glantz points to the fact that U.S. homeownership rates began declining in 2012 to the present, reaching some of their lowest levels in history. He argues that this is at least partly due to buyers not being able to snatch up the foreclosed homes because banks were not interested in issuing post-meltdown mortgages, and the government preferred to sell to Wall Street:

“In March 2010, the U.S. Treasury estimated that 6 million home loans were at least 60 days delinquent but the federal government reported that only 230,801 Americans had renegotiated their loans with the help of the Making Homes Affordable program, the part of the bank bailout that was supposed to help homeowners stave off foreclosure.”

The most incisive condemnation of “business as usual” is the story of shadowy (and shady) banks hiding behind shell companies with sci-fi-esque names like ColFin AI-CA5 LLC that purchased foreclosed homes in bulk, only to flip them into rental properties with exorbitant rents and minimal maintenance costs. Between 2012 and 2014, for example, Schwarzman’s Blackstone Group spent $7.8 billion to buy 41,000 foreclosures and turn them into rentals.

The most bitter of ironies is that some of the owners who had lost their homes to foreclosure stayed on as tenants who now paid rent to these faceless, absentee landlords. But Homewreckers fails to convince the reader that rent-seeking alone is lucrative enough for these investors; Glantz hints at the creation of mutant mortgage-backed securities but offers no evidence to support it.

In other words, renting out 80,000 homes seems like small potatoes for these billionaire robber barons. Glantz doesn’t make a strong case for why we, the readers, should be outraged and not simply see this as sound capitalism (buying low and selling high is Investing 101).

He veers off track in exploring reverse mortgages, as well. These mortgages have been in place since before the meltdown. Are they predatory? Yes. But what they have to do with the 2008 debacle is not made explicit. Still, the story of Sandy Jolley, who lost her family home to a reverse mortgage and then sued the bank for constructive fraud and financial elder abuse is eloquently and poignantly narrated.

This is where Glantz’s journalistic prose shines, compelling and trenchant. Yet, he struggles to connect the story to his general argument. He details how Mnuchin’s OneWest Bank (which purchased failed IndyMac) foreclosed on thousands of reverse mortgages across Southern California, but again, there was nothing illegal about doing that even though no one will dispute the pernicious nature of reverse mortgages.

Glantz makes a stronger argument for the way in which a small cadre of billionaires took advantage of the government’s fire sale on lending banks that had crafted their own demise. He cogently traces the way in which American taxpayers ultimately footed the bill for the bank bailouts without reaping any of the benefits.

In that sense, Homewreckers is a captivating read, almost thriller-like in its way. But Glantz could have benefited from avoiding some of the rather petty and irrelevant asides, such as what fur coat Melania Trump wore and how “flipping wives went hand in hand with flipping houses.”mp wore and how “flipping wives went hand in hand with flipping houses.”