Best of TLB Online 2018: Review of Books

If anything can be said for 2018, it's that at least TLB Online got some excellent book reviews out of it.

The team recently got together to choose the reviews that most excited us this year. We put forward pieces that were thoughtful, experimental, challenging and disruptive — reviews that lived on in our heads long after we'd finished reading them.

Unfortunately, that was the bulk of our reviews this year. So, faced with a list that kept growing instead of shrinking, our book-review editor Luke had the unenviable task of narrowing these down to twelve.

Here they are, in chronological order. (If you're after holiday reading, this would be a pretty good place to start!)


‘Public Displays of Affection: A Review of Hera Lindsay Bird’s Pamper Me To Hell & Back, by Eloise Grills

There is something violent in her constant obsession with boredom and nostalgia, and the conflation of the two. But it’s really fucking funny. It’s so fucking funny. If a man had written something this funny it would be mass-printed like Gideon’s bibles and placed in hotel drawers next to a gun with only one bullet in it. If a man had written something this funny it would be land at the top of PornHub’s list of most popular search terms. Lindsay Bird’s work homes in on the absurdly human ways we hold close to eternity and yet blaze towards death. The way in which we lie in the warm fuzz of our nostalgic pasts like a warm bath instead of doing…literally anything useful. Love and humanity and life are all irredeemably corrupt. And if there’s an afterlife Lindsay Bird is a ghost there haunting us for our sins, the way a “train distributes its vague cancers into the sky”.


‘Not Another Brown Nostalgia Tale: A Review of Naben Ruthnum’s Curry: Eating, Reading and Race, by Sonia Nair

The pervasiveness of the term ‘curry’ is something that we can control no more than we can control the immutable forces of transnational movement and colonisation that gave birth to the expression in the first place. But the homogeneity that erases nuance in favour of uniformity doesn’t have to be reflected in our ‘currybooks’ if we take a leaf out of Ruthnum’s book and see curry for what it actually is — “an ever-inauthentic mass of dishes that is a close parallel to the formation of South Asian diasporic identity”.

In Curry: Eating, Reading and Race, Ruthnum has written a currybook — the word ‘curry’ certainly appears more times than one could count — but it’s one where he explores what it means to be a brown person on his own terms. It’s not a brown nostalgia tale. There are no mangoes. There are no scattered cardamom seeds. There are curries, but they include the incongruous ingredients of kale and sour cream, and Ruthnum cooks them not to reimagine his childhood and practise age-old Indian cooking techniques, but to feed himself.


‘To Freedom That Blooms on Stumps: A Review of Jackie Wang’s Carceral Capitalism, by Cher Tan

It's the dawn of a predatory state. We're not just witnessing taxation and debt, but seeing these aspects of capitalism blossom as it works hand-in-hand with privatisation, tech and the elite. These factors continue to ensnare the poor in cycles of poverty within what Wang refers to as a “logic of exploitability and disposability” that inevitably penalises the already-marginalised. The book is very US-centric, but I nevertheless draw horrific parallels in Australia: ‘liar loans', rent-to-own scams, privatised prisons and an automated fines system surround me like spectres. And as banks act like salespeople and try to sell us indebtedness itself, debt continues to balloon. To use myself as an example, I have barely lived long enough in Australia (let alone make enough money) to build up a ‘good’ credit rating, yet I can get a loan approved online in mere minutes. Furthermore, how much debt have my peers racked up using ‘fintech’ (financial technology) like Afterpay, ostensibly targeted towards cash-poor millennials? For many without connections, money or power, we are increasingly living in a no-future era where we trade on the present to grasp upon an illusory sense of security. Who can we trust?


‘Letters Collapse: A Review of Jesse Ball’s Census, by Jennifer Down

Consider the semantic difference between the words caretaker and caregiver, typically used interchangeably. Ball prefers the former in his introduction. I tend toward the latter, though only, I suspect, because it’s more common in Australian English. If I were a non-native speaker of English, I could imagine myself confusing the two words, or assuming them to be antonyms.

To take care of: a phrasal verb that carries the similar but distinct meaning of deal with or see to. One might take care of a plant in another’s absence, or take care of a child for an afternoon. Equally, one might take care of a problem; that is, eliminate or rectify it.

To give care is not a common phrase, except in the negative construction; as in, “They didn’t give a care”.


‘Hieroglyphs: a review of Chelsea Hodson’s Tonight I’m Someone Else, by Emma Marie Jones

I have lived like a hieroglyph. I have stared out of windows with a face composed especially for staring out of windows. Do our bodies speak languages, or are they their own languages? We are messages, forces, we pull near to one another, we orbit and collide. Our bodies surge with secret power like rivers after rain. Desire, admiration, aspiration, envy: the essays in Chelsea Hodson’s collection Tonight I’m Someone Else know this surge, they ride it effortlessly. The writing is turbulent, fluid. As the surge passes from one body to another, both bodies change; sometimes they don’t know that they are doing it, the passing or the surging or the changing, although of course, sometimes they do..


‘Judgement and perfectionism and compulsion and writing: a review of Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering, by Ellena Savage

These moments read to me as almost compulsively diligent and, perhaps, even, performatively self-flagellating. The confession, here — getting ahead of the shame by confessing the shameful thing, and agreeing that, yes, it is indeed shameful — betrays a perfectionism in the form of suffering. Beyond the messy ‘wound dweller’ — a name Jamison reported she was called by an ex in The Empathy Exams — Jamison has graduated to become a mature abettor of sound (read: hypercritical) self-judgement. I don’t want to conflate Jamison the textual sign and Jamison the flesh-and-blood author, but perhaps this perspective, this form-perfect self-critique, is what permits recovery. I wouldn’t know. It does, however, leave little room for mistakes or surprises or even those nourishing little indulgences: rage, self-pity, contempt. And so I found myself most interested in the scenes that seemed to spill over with something not resembling self-control.


‘It Was Going to Save My Life: A Review of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by Paul Dalla Rosa

The narrator is similar to Moshfegh’s other narrators, the voices in “Bettering Myself”, “Slumming”, “The Weirdos”. They divorce themselves from the world, recognising that something is deeply wrong with it, that it’s full of bullshit. But it is difficult for them to escape from their knowledge or know how to live with it. It’s a problem of existentialism, nihilism. They are rebellious, but they can also be cruel and selfish — when Reva says her mother’s cancer has spread to her brain the narrator replies, “Don’t be a spaz”. And they are almost always unhappy. In My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the narrator wants to change and sleep is her answer. She doesn’t want to hate the world. She hopes that when she wakes up, “everything — the whole world would be new again”. Under the drugs, her subconscious body resists; during blackouts it orders Chinese take-out, books pedicures, goes out dancing, takes Polaroids of her vagina and sends them to strangers in the mail. Her actions don’t scare her. What does scare her is that in some way she’ll sabotage herself, make herself fail. Her year of rest and relaxation is an attempt at reintegration, “a quest for a new spirit”; a consciousness that can see the world clearly and still be able to live within it. In that sense, she wants what everyone wants, what Reva wants too; that is, to change.


‘An Apocalyptic Sensibility: A Review of Ling Ma’s Severance, by Claire Cao

Like the narrative’s linearity, this identity is constantly in flux. On her trips for business, Ma constructs surreal, crudely Westernised-spaces to highlight Candace’s disorientation. She stays at a hotel with a comically overblown and orientalised name, “The Grand Shenzhen Moon Palace Hotel”, which boasts a complete lack of discernible identity: abounding in tennis courts, English-style rose gardens and feudal iron gates. When touring the markets of Hong Kong, Candace feels a warm rush of recognition seeing children drinking sugarcane juice like she did as a child, but is simultaneously drawn to the 7-Eleven across the street, “a beacon of American summer”. The store’s interior epitomises the fragmented identity of a child growing up with a tapestry of countervailing influences. The fluorescence of the convenience store is “cooling” and “life-affirming”, reminding her of the 7-Elevens back home. But like a Claire Danes photo that she spots taped to the wall of a Shenzhen factory, Candace is fixated on mutated American-Chinese forms that echo her hybrid identity.


‘Careful, There Are Eels Down There: A Review of Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under, by Rebecca Slater

As I walk, I wonder if Johnson has walked this path. Whether she has passed these same canal boats, stopped at this bridge, looking out over this same stretch of muddy water. A part of me feels I might be able to sense her, as though great writers, and writing, leave a trace on our landscapes. It’s not such an outlandish concept in a place like Oxford. A place where on a daily stroll you might pass the pub where Tolkien drank, the lamppost that inspired Lewis’ Narnia, the dining hall where Carroll met his Alice. These writers have left their traces on the sandstone and the marble. Those stable, enduring (male) landmarks. Johnson has left hers here, among the water and the weed. The fluctuating (female/gender-fluid) spaces of the river.


‘There’s a Reason I’m Telling You This: A Review of Meera Atkinson’s Traumata, by Jini Maxwell

Atkinson notes that chronic trauma robs you of your ability to adapt your responses. I relate to this: I respond to everything like it’s a disaster, and then I respond to disaster like it’s nothing. I respond to this book like it’s a disaster, too: I hate reading it, I hate every pithy reference, and every moment of reflection and anecdote. I find myself equally unhappy with my moments of personal identification, and the points of difference. Honestly, I want this book to be my book, not Meera Atkinson’s, which is such an ungenerous and unfair reaction that I feel ashamed to write it down. I am equally resentful of the aching familiarity of this lucid, relentless account, and of the new perspectives it offers me. I hate its insistence on staring down the wound. I hate its project of approaching trauma through language, through theory, through structure, through the body. There are sentences in this book that will seem patently insane to anyone who doesn’t relate to them instinctively; at one point Atkinson writes, “It was, as child sexual assault goes, relatively harmless.” I get it! I hate that I do. I’m playing chicken with this fucking book and I’m chicken, every time. If this matters, then it all mattered. I want this book to be my book, but I also can’t bear it having anything to do with me at all.


‘Luck; Loops and Variations: A Review of Carys Davies' West, by Laura Stortenbeker

Early in West, Bellman hires a Native American boy, Old Woman From A Distance, to lead him through the shifting seasons. This transaction is undeniably exploitative, but it is one that represents Bellman’s good luck, it’s obvious his luck would be much worse, much sooner without the guide, and the companionship. The two press on for most of the novel, with landscapes and time and seasons passing in sudden cuts. The beautiful, rapid way Davies writes is simple and grounded, everything sits where it should (I’d forgotten the thrill of what it’s like to see an ugly word perfectly placed in a beautiful sentence and remembering that felt lucky): “and in the morning bright jewels of melting snow dripped from the feathery branches of the pines onto his cracked and blistered face, his blackened nose.”


‘Grief, Its Many Faces and Infinite Gaze: A Review of Emma Marie Jones’ Something to be Tiptoed Around, by Jennifer Nguyen

Grief is not neat, but the telling of a story must be if you want your reader to be able to follow along easily enough. I admire Jones’ choice of sectioning her/Jeannie’s grief into parts, eleven in total, with titles like ‘The Unpalatable Sympathy of Strangers’, ‘All the Holes’, ‘Aqua Profonda’, and of course, ‘Something to Be Tiptoed Around Until It Goes Away’. Each section is distinct from the other yet they all build and cumulate to make a whole. There is an overarching thread, present in the majority of the book, that Jeannie has (by becoming Jones’ ‘other’) grown snakes on top of her head and they whisper words to her. Medusa here is not “the real Medusa…made monstrous by trauma", or Versace’s Medusa, “shorn of her snakes and robbed of her potent gaze”. The snakes on Jeannie’s head are Helene Cixous’ Medusa, “Laughing Medusa becomes all of us, and all of us become her. Our identities are chaotic, multiple, alterable and infinite. We pop out a new little snake whenever we feel like it. We gaze upon our sadnesses and turn them to stone”.

Remember, if you’d like to write for TLB Online in 2019, we’d love to hear from you — we’ll still be accepting pitches for Commentary pieces and The Lifted Brow Review of Books pieces over the break.