Book Review: Perfectly Good White Boy by Carrie Mesrobian

Sean Norwhalt thinks his crappy life is turning around when he meets Hallie and they start dating.  But then she leaves for college, and Sean is still stuck in his small town, and he doesn’t know what kind of a future he has, let alone the bright one full of “possibilities” that Hallie keeps talking about.  The only things that are looking okay for Sean are the Marine Corps, which he hasn’t told anyone about, and Neecie Albertson, a girl who wasn’t even on his radar before.

Carrie Mesrobian has done it again in her excellent sophomore effort about a “perfectly good white boy” with serious doubts about his abilities and his future.  As much a character study as a novel can be, this outstanding novel offers an insightful, honest, and achingly real look at a teenage boy.  At times laugh out loud funny and also searingly heartbreaking, this is a standout of a novel, and one of the best of the year.   This is a must-read, must-stock title, not to be missed.

Mesrobian demonstrated her uncanny knack for getting into the heads of teenage boys in her debut, Sex & Violence.  She continues to excel at that talent here, by presenting a teenage boy so authentic in his portrayal that he feels like a real person.  We’ve all known boys like Sean.  Some of the readers are Sean.  He’s smart but unfocused, perceptive but unknowing, and frequently crassly funny.  He’s a good kid who lacks direction.  The result is a memorable character readers can’t help but root for.

The secondary characters work just as well.  Both Hallie and Neecie feel like fully realized people, and they relate to Sean in realistic, sometimes uncomfortably awkward ways.  As Sean navigates his last year of high school, he starts to make realizations about the people around him that feel authentic and natural.  Mesrobian never gives her readers too much information, allowing them to go along on the journey with Sean.

Some readers might get tripped up by the fact that the novel doesn’t have any huge events to knock Sean or the other characters on their asses, but that’s kind of the point. Mesrobian’s book is about a kid who is completely normal, and his life reflects that.  There’s not supposed to be some huge cataclysmic event between the book’s pages, because that’s not something that happens often in life, either.  The result is a measured pace with vivid characters and a moving and satisfying conclusion to the book.

Highly, highly recommended.  One of my favorite titles of the year.

Perfectly Good White Boy by Carrie Mesrobian. Candlewick: 2014. Electronic galley accepted for review via Edelweiss.

My Weekend in Pop Culture

Here are the pop culture-y things I consumed this weekend.

tammyTammy: I finally got around to watching Tammy, and I was surprised by it, in a mostly good way.  It was funny, but not as silly as I thought it would be.  It had a stellar cast (in addition to Melissa McCarthy and Susan Sarandon) including Allison Janney and Mark Duplass, and it was so female-centric.  I loved that part of it.  I’m glad I saw it, but I’m also glad I waited and didn’t see it in the theater.

The Purge: Anarchy: J. and I love a terrible horror movie, and this one purgefits the bill.  There are so many things wrong with the logic behind The Purge movies if you think about it for like a second, so I spent most of this one cracking jokes and trying not to be scared (just because it’s stupid doesn’t mean I don’t get jumpy).  I don’t know why we keep subjecting ourselves to this shit, but tis the season or whatever.

Elliphant – “One More”

I’m obsessed with this song and have been listening to it on repeat.  There’s something about it that is kind of uplifting but also sort of depressing?  Does that even make sense?  At any rate, it is stuck in my head and I love it.  The video is pretty awesome, too.  I want some light up sneakers, like right now.  The song features Mo, who is also one of my favorite artists right now.  It’s a win-win situation, in my opinion.  This is definitely my song of fall.


What pop culture did you consume this weekend?

What I’m Reading and Thinking About This Week

Here’s the stuff that got me thinking this week! Yay!

What Do You Really Mean When You Say “Basic Bitch”? (NY Mag)

This phrase is everywhere these days, and whenever I hear it, I get a little uncomfortable.  I’ve had several conversations about it recently, and while I don’t feel like I ever fully articulate my feelings on it, I was happy to come across this article this week:

Basic, according to the BuzzFeed quizzes and CollegeHumor videos that wrested the term from the hip-hop world and brought it into the realm of white-girl-on-white-girl insults, means someone who owns things like Uggs and North Face and leggings…The basic bitch — as she’s sometimes called because it’s funnier when things alliterate, and because you’re considered a poor sport if you don’t find it funny — is almost always a she.

It’s a pretty great read, and it tackles a lot of the issues I have with the way the phrase is thrown around (It describes someone’s consumption habits without actually condemning consumption? It’s a way to rag on girls and not seem as mean?) while still managing to be smarter and more articulate than I am:

And so the woman who calls another woman basic ends up implicitly endorsing two things she probably wouldn’t sign up for if they were spelled out for her: a male hierarchy of culture, and the belief that the self is an essentially surface-level formation.

And that, right there, is my biggest problem with it.

 Roxane (The New Inquiry)

“All Roxane Gay, all the time” is a thing I wrote to my mom in an email this week, and I’m proving that by linking to this great article about my current internet obsession.  It’s worth a read whether you’re familiar with Gay’s work or not, and it deftly tackles feminism, pop culture, race, and the intersection of all these things.

In addition to dismantling the myth of the BLACK ♀, Gay is a crossover success in various ways—respected by critics and mainstream consumers at the same time, in the academy but not necessarily of it, appealing to white feminists while offering the kind of nuanced description of a black woman’s life that so many of us seek.

In addition to dismantling the myth of the BLACK ♀, Gay is a crossover success in various ways—respected by critics and mainstream consumers at the same time, in the academy but not necessarily of it, appealing to white feminists while offering the kind of nuanced description of a black woman’s life that so many of us seek.

Like in Gay’s work, there’s some good, hard stuff to unpack here.

Abortion: Not Easy, Not Sorry (Elle)

I mean, the title sort of encapsulates the entire article’s thesis: why are women fed a message that they should regret their abortions (and if they don’t, the implied message is that there is something wrong with them as a result).  Partly a discussion of a new book by The Nation’s Katha Pollit called Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, part a personal essay on the part of the author, Laurie Abraham writes:

For a small segment of women—and the number is small, by any reasonably scientific account—abortion is indeed a tragedy, a trauma with long-lasting reverberations. But I want to tell a different story, the more common yet strangely hidden one, which is that I don’t feel guilty and tortured about my abortion. Or rather, my abortions. There, I said it.

She also talks about how living in the “abortion-is-murder” media frenzy–even as a pro-choice person–means you forget actual facts and that your perspective is altered.  It’s a fascinating read, and it’s also very long, so be prepared for that–but it’s absolutely necessary and important reading.

#GamerGate: Is their Hashtag Really More Important than Women’s Lives? (Pajiba)

GamerGate is a difficult topic to follow along with, especially if you aren’t already ensconced in the gaming world, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important to at least know the basics of what is happening.  Because it speaks to a larger, more disturbing issue that permeates every part of the online world.  This piece over at Pajiba addresses a lot of things and frames it in a very accessible way (there’s a very succinct summary that will get you up to speed in about a paragraph).

The problem is, as Courtney Enlow states, that this is not about gaming, nor is it about journalistic ethics (which makes absolutely NO SENSE if you think about what is happening for a second).  It’s about a hatred and fear of women, and it is fucking terrifying.  Enlow makes a plea to those of us who are not directly involved with the gaming community:

There will be no getting through to the violent, terrible individuals making the threats against these women in the industry and the men who dare defend them. So, I appeal to you, the moderate middle of the movement and those on the fray who, like me, were unsure of the goings on. This movement, this falsely ethical witch hunt, it has nothing to offer you. Do not pretend, do not lie to yourself — this is not about ethical reporting. This is about putting women in their place, and apparently that place is the ground.

I encourage you to read more about what is happening and why it’s happening.  Deadspin has a pretty good rundown, too.

What got you reading and thinking this week?

Romance Spotlight: Abigail Barnette

Abigail Barnette is the pen name of author Jenny Trout, who writes under her actual name, too.  Today, I’m highlighting her excellent “The Boss” series as part of my “Reading Out of Your Comfort Zone” goal.  This is a thing I just made up, guys.  I mostly just wanted to talk about this smart, sexy series.

Partly created as a response to how problematic and worrisome the dom-sub relationship is in E.L. James’s ridiculously popular (and astonishingly TERRIBLE) 50 Shades trilogy, Trout’s books focus on Sophie Scaif, a woman in her mid-20s working for a fashion magazine when she realizes that her new boss, billionaire Neil Elwood, is the same man (who gave the name of Leif) that she hooked up with for the hottest one-night stand of her life in a hotel room eight years previously.  Realizing that there are still sparks between them, they start a sexual relationship that quickly becomes much more.

The first book started as serialized fiction on Trout’s blog, but she ended up turning it into a book.  That novel has spawned two published sequels and a novella, with a fourth book to be published this November.  The books are sexy, smart, and completely different from most of the other things I read on a day-to-day basis.  They are really, really fun.

But what sets these books apart from other titles in the romance/erotica/kink genres is that Trout has given them fully-realized personalities and quirks.  Although there is a ton of sex in the books (and it is some hot BDSM sex, you guys–this woman knows her kink), there’s also a lot of other stuff happening, too.  Sophie and Neil have hopes and dreams completely unrelated to their bedroom activities.  They talk about life stuff, they support each other, and they struggle with things that are incredibly real.

At any rate, the books are a ton of fun, and I’m enjoying the hell out of them.  I can’t wait for The Ex to be released in November.

Waiting on Wednesday: The Ex by Abigail Barnette

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine.  Its purpose is to spotlight eagerly-anticipated upcoming releases.

This week I’m eagerly awaiting:

The Ex by Abigail Barnette 

Expected Release Date: November 22, 2014

Magazine editor-in-chief, bride-to-be, and soon-to-be-step-grandmother at twenty-six, Sophie Scaife is looking forward to married life with her fiancé and Dom, wickedly sadistic billionaire Neil Elwood. As they enter unexplored sensual territory, Neil leads Sophie to the very edge between pain and pleasure—and she discovers a surprising new side to her sexuality.

While Sophie balances her hectic work routine with her devotion to her unconventional family, Neil has to adjust to life as a retired mogul. With their big day drawing nearer, they have to forge through pre-wedding jitters, personal crises, and an unexpected houseguest to get to their kinky ever after.

But a decades old trauma still haunts Neil. When the private details draw public interest, Sophie learns that the scars of his past are greater than he let on—and he’ll need all of her love to heal them…

(summary via Goodreads)

In what is a total departure for me, I’m featuring a self-published erotica novel by Jenny Trout (writing as Abigail Barnette).  I discovered Trout’s “The Boss” series earlier this year after stumbling across her blog looking for pieces about how irritating Megan Trainor’s “All About that Bass” was.  I stayed for her excellent 50 Shades recaps, and then downloaded one of her romances on a whim.  And guys: I was HOOKED.  I devoured the first three books in this series in about five days.  I can’t wait to see what happens next in the series.

These are smart, sexy erotica books, featuring characters who feel like actual humans.  Expect a post about the books later this week.

What are you waiting on this week?

Recommendation Time: Spooky Reads

In lieu of a review today (I’m just not feeling the reviews this week), I thought I’d do a quick round-up of a few books that hit the spooky bone for me.  That’s a thing, right?  At any rate, here are a couple of reads that are chilling in all sorts of good ways.

The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco

A dead girl walks the streets, avenging her own murder by killing people who kill children.  A ghost story with a ton of frightening imagery and even more historical lore, this is a must-read this Halloween.  If you like J-horror or a book that reads exactly like a horror movie plays onscreen, this is a great choice.  It’s legitimately scary, and the characters are vivid, memorable, and ground in authenticity.  This is a stand-out horror novel that should work for teens and adults alike.

Read my review here.


Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn

Jamie Henry has been living a mostly quiet life dealing with his crippling anxiety while his sister Kate is in juvenile detention.  But then he gets news: Kate is out, and now things around town are going all weird again.  She’s coming for him, and she promises to bring the truth with her.  But just what is the truth, and is Jamie to blame? This one is a different kind of scary: psychologically scary.  It will work especially well for readers who don’t want gore but want a brain-bender of a tale.  What happens when you can’t remember where you were or what you were doing?  One of the best books I’ve read all year.

Read my review here.

Long Lankin by Lindsey Barraclough

“Beware of Long Lankin, that lives in the moss…” That’s how the old story goes, at least.  When Cora and her sister go to live with their estranged aunt, she warns them to never wander off.  What the girls don’t know is their aunt is trying to protect them from the evil that lives nearby and has been dormant for years.  An intense read, this atmospheric read is full of excellent writing, truly chilling passages, and plenty of the unknown.  Put this in the hands of readers who like their horror to come from the fairy tale variety and like their novels to be a bit meaty.

Read my review here.

Do you have some horror to recommend? I’m always looking to expand my reading in this area.  Let me know in the comments!

What I’m Reading and Thinking About This Week

Time for another round up of the things I’m reading and thinking about this week.  Basically everything is terrible and this is not helped by the fact that I’m facing down a weekend full of obligations.  So here we go!

Gone Girl is the Most Feminist Mainstream Movie in Years (Vox)

Todd VanDerWerff is one of my favorite movie and TV critics writing on the internet these days, but this piece about the Gone Girl movie is an absolute must-read.  There are a ton of think pieces about the film right now: is it misogynistic? feminist? anti-feminist? full of misandry?   VanDerWerff argues it’s inherently feminist, and although I have had mixed feelings about it, he’s got me more than half-convinced:

But open up Gone Girl and dig around in its guts, and you find something surprising. This is perhaps the most feminist mainstream movie in years, a forthright depiction of the ways that society controls women and forces them into certain roles, then lets men basically do whatever they want. Amy Dunne might be a monster, but she’s no sui generis psychopath. No, she’s Frankenstein’s monster, stitched together by a husband, parents, and a social order that demanded she be certain things, rather than who she really was.

I mean, obviously there are spoilers in this review, but if you have seen it or read the book or don’t care about spoilers (I fall into this third category, and J. says I’m a monster because of it) it’s so worth your time to sink into this article.  Fincher doesn’t have the best track record with women in his films (add him to a very long list, yeah?), but this film might mark a departure for him.

The Price of Black Ambition (VQ Magazine)

At this point, Roxane Gay is my imaginary best friend because she’s so amazing.  This piece does nothing to dissuade that opinion (and if you haven’t read her recaps of Starz’s Outlander series over at NY Mag, go do that and I will wait).  But this piece is EXCELLENT and IMPORTANT:

Many people of color living in this country can likely relate to the onset of outsized ambition at too young an age, an ambition fueled by the sense, often confirmed by ignorance, of being a second-class citizen and needing to claw your way toward equal consideration and some semblance of respect. Many people of color, like me, remember the moment that first began to shape their ambition and what that moment felt like.

This whole essay is amazing.  If you read one thing this week, read this.  I could quote the entire thing:

Like many students of color, I spent a frustrating amount of time educating white people, my professors included, about their ignorance, or gritting my teeth when I did not have the energy. When race entered class discussions, all eyes turned to me as the expert on blackness or the designated spokesperson for my people. When racist “jokes” were made, I was supposed to either grin and bear it or turn the awkward incident into a teachable moment about difference, tolerance, and humor. When a doctoral classmate, who didn’t realize I was in hearing range, told a group of our peers I was clearly the affirmative-action student, I had to pretend I felt nothing when no one contradicted her. Unfortunately, these anecdotes are dreadfully common, banal even, for people of color. Lest you think this is ancient history, I graduated with my Ph.D. in December 2010.

Important stuff. Read it.  READ IT.

Stories Like Passwords (The Hairpin)

Everything I’ve read that’s written by Emma Healey has been excellent (so I should probably get to the galley of her book I have, right?) and this essay is no different.  It’s about power, and gender dynamics, and it’s incredibly powerful.  After she shows some other female writers at a writers-colony emails from a male colleague that have made Healey feel vaguely uncomfortable, the other women open up  with their own stories:

If you listen to enough stories like this, you’ll start to hear a few themes. These men are not ever that big of a deal. What they do to us is never really that bad in the grand scheme of things, no matter how big it feels at the time. It could always have been much worse. We might just have been misreading the situation. They might not have meant anything by it. They’ve never apologized – but then again, we’ve never asked them to.

This fits nicely into what I’ve been thinking about this week, which is about consent and power, about the insidiousness of sexism, of rape culture, of how important it is to open dialogues, to keep talking.  The entire thing is incredibly disturbing and incredibly powerful:

An abusive relationship is a closed loop. So is a professional network. So is the patriarchy.

Healey talks about an experience as a student with a much older professor.  Of how, after that relationship ended, he attacked her in her apartment one night.  She talks about how sharing this story opened the floodgates of dozens of stories just like hers:

Without exception, every single one of these men is still working—writing, publishing, editing, teaching—today.

These men do not work, or live, or act in a vacuum. Unless they are masterminds or psychopaths (and they cannot all be), their behavior, or aspects of it, is often visible. These men are everywhere.

It’s about the tacit approval we give these men.  It’s about how we are failing women.  It’s going to stay with me for a long time.

On Deciding What Counts: Elizabeth Ellen and What Makes a Victim (The Toast

Keeping up with the theme of really complex essays about hard stuff, here’s another one!.  If you aren’t reading The Toast at least periodically, I encourage you to do so.  If you are, let’s talk about it! This week, I corresponded (in a very long and passionate email chain) with a friend about this piece, about Mallory Ortberg and her brain (I wish to live in it), and about the prickly issues at play here.  This piece is so good.

The piece is a response to Elizabeth Ellen’s “Open Letter to the Internet” (so edgy!) about the allegations Sophia Katz made about a magazine editor named Stephen Tully Dierks, and also about the allegations of statutory rape made against writer Tao Lin.  That summary barely scratches the surface of what Ellen’s bizarre essay tackles, though.  Ortberg writes:

And yet, I think that anyone who is willing to publicly Monday-morning-quarterback the details of another woman’s rape must be prepared to face criticism, and to be brave about it…It is one thing to wish to have a public conversation about passive and active forms of consent, about how to deal with regrettable sex after one has had it, about how to best take care of oneself after being sexually assaulted; it is another to publicly pick apart the details of someone else’s rape. One can do it, of course! But it is thorny and painful territory. Best to go prepared.

What follows is a detailed and excellent critique of the arguments Ellen is trying (and failing) to make about consent.  Ortberg nears the end of her essay with this:

Not every argument is worth having! And yet, I think, it is important to gently but firmly point out that this is a wrong-headed and a dangerous and a profoundly unkind argument to make. It is shot through with the worst and the laziest sort of empathy. It prioritizes the avoidance of pain and criticism over honesty. It confuses public criticism with dehumanization. It confuses the victimized with the victimizer.

Please go read it and think about it.

What got you thinking this week?