The Pisces

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Review #42: Fiction

First to Read #1

The Pisces by Melissa Broder

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If you haven’t read Melissa Broder before, you may be shocked (pleasantly or not) by the blunt, crass, in-your-face honesty of her writing. If you’re familiar, you will recognize her voice in The Pisces instantly. Broder is a master at telling it like it is and throwing two middle fingers up at sugarcoating. Just as she has done with her non-fiction writing, Broder leaps into fiction with a reality that is both uncomfortable and refreshing. She refrains from polishing the harsh edges of the world, of people, and doesn’t give in to the fantastical – even in a story involving a merman.

The Pisces, as it turns out, is not about a woman who meets a merman and falls in love. It is instead about a woman who is severely addicted to love and sex and has very destructive intimacy issues. Lucy loses herself in the company of men, she runs from commitment when boredom sets in, then becomes nearly suicidal without a romantic partner. She’s completely self-destructive, feels almost no guilt when her actions negatively affect others, and is constantly using love to rationalize her bad behavior. Lucy enters therapy after a bad break up, while watching her sister’s house and dog in California. Though mostly Lucy silently judges the other women in her group therapy, there are moments when she sees herself in them, and for brief periods of time, realizes she is a mess and actually in need of help. Though another man will come into the picture, or an old one will pop back up, and eventually Lucy loses control and spirals, leaving nothing but ruin in her wake. It is no different when the man is a merman.

One of Broder’s biggest accomplishments with her writing is that she has this ability to make it seem as if she reached inside your head and pulled the words out. It feels so intimate that you want to turn away, give the characters their privacy, but like a car crash, you can’t help but stare. It feels as if Broder has created her characters with pieces of you. Each woman in Lucy’s group therapy, Lucy included, could be you, a version of you. There are fragments of relatability in them. The hard part is that they are not good fragments. It is the hard truths about ourselves that we see in these women, in Lucy, and just like Lucy, we subconsciously judge them for the very things we dislike about ourselves.

Claire and Lucy are arguably the two most destructive and problematic characters, and I found relatable ideas and behaviors in both of them. Ironically, it was these same ideas and behaviors I disliked them for. Lucy and Claire seem to dislike each other for these things as well. Lucy spends a lot of time thinking about how messed up Claire is, but also how she feels as if she is judging herself when judging Claire, and so avoids it. She feels Claire does the same thing. By encouraging and not demonizing Lucy’s behavior, Claire is allowing herself to be just as bad if not worse. They see themselves in each other, just as we see ourselves in them. Broder uses her characters as mirrors, of each other, and of her readers, and probably, herself.

Though the characters are wonderfully crafted and painfully, brilliantly, flawed, the story itself doesn’t feel complete. Lucy fluctuates between destructive behavior and determination to change. She goes from man to man trying to feel better. She slips into states of depression and euphoria. Other women in her group therapy do the exact same; each woman has a break through then a setback then a break through then a setback. Though this is very much how therapy and recovery actually is, perhaps this isn’t the best for the book. The merman is merely another man in the story, another escape for Lucy, another excuse to do unspeakably terrible things. When the book comes to a close, it seems like Lucy may have finally broken her pattern and will turn things around, but we never know. The book ends before we actually see any real progress. And in the end, her (possibly) final straw in letting go of toxic men and toxic routines is caused when Lucy doesn’t feel special enough. She finds out her relationship with the merman is one he’s had with other women before her, and she cannot handle not being special. It’s selfish and childish, and though she leaves that situation claiming to have finally realized she needs to get her life together and has a few ideas about how she can move on, none of it comes to fruition in the book. We have no reason to believe Lucy has really changed. In fact, since Lucy is the only source we have concerning the merman, there’s even the chance he never existed, and Lucy is far sicker than we know.

Broder’s voice is unique and clear and unmistakable in The Pisces. She delivers the kind of uncomfortable characters and situations that reality is made up of. The Pisces feels like an extension of author and reader. However, the story falls flat, it’s very static, slightly predictable, and seems a little like the 200+ page equivalent to walking in place.

My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

I received access to an e-copy of this book for this review.

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How Democracies Die

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Review #41: Non-Fiction

Blogging for Books #13

How Democracies Die by Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky

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How Democracies Die is fast-paced and gripping, throwing history at you, analyzing current world governments, and contemplating the future state of world governments with an emphasis on America’s democracy at just the right speed to keep even non-political junkies hooked. It’s very easy to assume that this book is a Trump-bashing tome, but it’s an honest critique of current politics in America, with evidence from governments around the world through decades of struggle with democracy. And it’s a much shorter read than it looks (there’s an extensive Notes section that has successfully added dozens of books to my TBR, so thanks.)

Ziblatt and Levitsky give us just the facts, ma’am — and for anyone who is legitimately concerned about democracy, citizens’ involvement in government, the use of checks and balances, the US constitution — the facts point to democracy in America failing, and being increasingly jeopardized by a Donald Trump presidency. They build a very compelling case, one that does not place the weight of the destabilizing of America’s democracy squarely on Trump’s shoulders. Example after example of fluctuation governments in South America, in Europe, in Africa, etc., show how democracies have risen and fallen, and discuss the events that led up to those points.

What Ziblatt and Levitsky do is point out how each destabilizing event around the world can be related to something in past or recent American history. They pull no punches when calling out American politicians for straying from democratic behavior; they go back to Washington, discuss Lincoln, Nixon, and up through how Donald Trump was elected…and what could happen in the coming years if democratic norms are not restored. They weave an at once fascinating and terrifying story of the birth and weakening of America’s democracy, give us three possible outcomes of the Trump presidency, and thankfully leave us with optimism that there is still time to correct our path.

True believers in democracy will read How Democracies Die with a lump in their throat and finish it with a fire in their belly to make things right. Unfortunately, those who merely believe in their political party, regardless of how that party may be undermining the tenants of democracy, will probably write the book off as an attack on one party, one figure in particular, and may not get what they should out of this warning. Ziblatt and Levitsky have raised the alarm, and we would all do well to respond to it.

5 out of 5 stars

*I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

The Merry Spinster

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Review #40: Fiction

The Merry Spinster by Mallory Ortberg

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This collection of stories will feel at once familiar and darkly, deliciously fresh.

Though fairytales and fables, these stories carry such a refreshing air of reality. They drip with a dark, sinister unpredictability that flows through our real lives. Ortberg forces the reader to see each retelling and re-imagination through a new lens, one that refocuses the otherworldly and fantastic as real. Remove the preconceived idea that mermaids aren’t real, that animals don’t talk or interact with each other in friendships, or that little boys don’t turn into swans; what do their lives look like? They are as complex and flawed as our own. And they can be similarly heartbreaking and cruel.

With every story, we are given a new glimpse into worlds and situations we thought we already knew. Readers will feel the heart-string tugs of the stories that inspired this collection, nostalgia working to convince us that we know how each story ends. But Ortberg rewrites the script, opening our narrow perceptions to something more – cruel realities of these fairytales we’ve come to love. What may be expected to tarnish the memory of beloved fairytales and fables ultimately elevates them, allowing these stories to grow and mature with the audience.

Ortberg does not shy away from the harsh and unfair or unsavory elements of life, and allows these aspects to shine in this collection. She has given us our favorite stories, with an honest, relatable tone that is unencumbered by preconceived notions of a “happily ever after” ending. We, and our stories, are better for it.

4 out of 5 stars

*Cover image from Amazon