Book Review: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

I have to admit that I chose to read this novel almost entirely because of how entranced I was by both the title and the cover. The idea that anyone could have seven husbands seemed foreign to me, at least until I encountered the character of Evelyn Hugo.

The story starts not with Evelyn, but with Monique Grant, a writer working at the major publication Viviant. If you’ve never heard of it, that is fine, because said magazine is, as far as I know, entirely made up. Never outside of a fantasy novel have I seen worldbuilding as intense as is shown in The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. Prepare to wipe all the movies and actors and producers that you remember from the history of Hollywood away for this vivid reimagining of what the world would be like if we had a whole new set of stars. Some things are the same – the Academy Awards exist, but with all new recipients; Time Warner and Paramount are name dropped, but they operate in the background. References are made to the Stonewall Riots and the Civil Rights movement, and while they do inform the story, they are not fully engaged with.

The biggest change is the title character herself, Evelyn Hugo. The novel centers around the idea that Evelyn wants her story told in a biography, and she wants Monique to write it. Monique and Evelyn’s conversations, and Monique’s life outside of the time she spends at Evelyn’s apartment, act as a frame for Evelyn’s story in the sense that most of the chapters are flashbacks to Evelyn’s past, told from her first-person perspective. Interspersed are short articles from whichever era Evelyn is describing, that show events from the perspective of the press. The book is divided into sections by which husband she was with at the time, each accompanied by an adjective that succinctly describes his presence in her life. Every few chapters the narration will cut back to Monique’s first person perspective as she ponders over the information that Evelyn has given her, which is equal with what is described in the chapters from Evelyn’s perspective.

This all contributes to my key takeaway from this novel, which is that the entire book is beautiful crafted. I gradually got more and more entranced by Evelyn and Monique, who both have incredible and ultimately intersecting stories. There is just the right amount of foreshadowing that made me curious and kept me convinced that I knew what was going on right up until the big reveal, upon which my theory was proven wrong but the story still sustained itself, just in a way that I never could have imagined. I can confidently say that I have never been so thoroughly shocked about a reveal, including all the Doctor Who episodes I have watched, which have some pretty intense plot twists. That said, independent of the absolutely stunning  reveal, the novel absolutely holds itself up as a well written and compelling work of fiction.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo also contains a healthy amount of diversity and LGBTQIA+ representation. One of the smaller but no less important themes examined by the text is the fact that Evelyn Hugo was born Evelyn Herrera, a Cuban-American woman who shed her identity in order that she may become famous and be what the public wanted from her. Many of the characters in the book are either gay or bisexual, and one aspect of the text that makes me particularly happy is that the struggle against bi erasure gets a significant amount of page time. This was not something that I expected coming in to the text, so when I realized that there was so much queer representation I was pleasantly surprised.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is not exactly a happy book, but it is not a sad one either. The full shape of a life lived is exactly what I needed when confronting my own personal loss, and so I’d also recommend it to those who are grieving in the same or similar manner that I am. That said, as a consequence of reading this book I have an uneven tan line from my last beach day, so for those of you looking for a summer read, full of intrigue and drama, this is absolutely a book for you as well.

Happy reading!

Cheers,

Talia

Book Review: When Katie Met Cassidy by Camille Perri

I will freely admit that romance novels are not typically to my taste. I don’t like romcoms, and my least favorite part of any book or movie is almost definitely the romantic subplot. That said, the often heteronormative plot of the majority of romances is what least appeals to me, not the concept of romance itself — which is to say, if something is gay enough I will definitely give it a chance. When Katie Met Cassidy was one of the books that popped up in my Book of the Month queue and it was the one I picked to have sent to my apartment this June.

I was slightly less than impressed with the character of Katie when I started the book, as I at first misjudged her as being the stereotypical incredibly sad and betrayed woman whose fiance dumped her for the best friend, who sat alone on the couch with comfort food – right up until she got annoyed with fitting into that stereotype and decided to take control of her night and took herself out to a bar. A series of fortunate events leads her to run in to Cassidy, a fellow lawyer who had sat opposite her in the boardroom as both parties negotiated a merger.

Both Katie and Cassidy are compelling characters, and my favorite feature of the book was that it was written from both of their perspectives, each chapter alternating which woman was the focus of the third person limited writing style. As I usually have little to no patience for romance, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. Part of why I love reading so much is that it allows me to really get in to the head of the narrator, and so I tend to consider constant POV changes jarring when I am too involved in a novel. That said, I loved the changes in this book, because most scenes depicted in the book are actually told twice, from the perspective of both Katie and Cassidy. I am a strong proponent of the idea that everyone sees the world differently, and that a single interaction has as many legitimate perspectives as there are people in the room. As such, I deeply enjoyed the ability to see the development of Katie and Cassidy’s romance from both of their perspectives.

After so many years of reading YA novels where the characters are young and unsure, it was a breath of fresh air to read a romance between adults, aged thirty (Cassidy) and twenty-eight (Katie) respectively. There’s nothing wrong with YA novels, I adore them as much as the next millennial or gen Z reader, but reading the unfolding of a romance where the characters don’t live with their parents is something that I definitely need more of in my life. The best part about them being adults (in my opinion) is that all of the shyness that comes with the sexual experiences of younger people is gone. There are no blushing virgins in this book. The closest to that is Katie, who is unfamiliar with her own homerotic desire, and her naïvité is contrasted with the unapologetic nature of Cassidy, who is very much in-tune with her own sexuality and desires.

If you are looking for a quick read that includes a healthy but not intolerable dose of romance with a tad of drama that is very gay and has a happy ending, I can almost guarantee that you will like this book.

Happy reading,

Cheers,

Talia

Book Review: Noteworthy by Riley Redgate

From the first line about Monday mornings and having an existential crisis I just knew that I was going to love Noteworthy by Riley Redgate. The premise of what is now my new favorite YA novel is that Jordan Sun, a student at the fictional Kensington-Blaine Boarding School for the Performing Arts, has been rejected from one too many musicals. In the depths of her dismay at the rejection, she gets the idea to take advantage of the lack of communication between students in her own theater department with those in the music department to create the identity of Julian Zhang, the newest member of the Sharpshooters, an elite, all male, a capella octet on campus.

When I was weighing my options on what my next read would be I was hesitant to choose this book, primarily out of worry over whether the novel would pay proper respect to the very real challenges that trans people face, since the character Jordan is a cisgender female. I am happy to report that my fears were groundless, and Jordan as a character is incredibly self aware of herself and her privileges in the novel.

Screenshot_20180614-193801.jpg
My hot take text to my roommate after finishing Noteworthy

I have to admit that I do not remember the book of fiction that I read where I genuinely enjoyed being in the headspace of the protagonist. Often I find characters to be insufferable, but Redgate managed to write a character that, while I disagreed with some of her actions, was compelling, authentic, skilled, and willing to grow in to herself in a way that demonstrates both an awareness of her own ignorance and the capability to take steps to rectify said ignorance.

I wish I had this novel when I was a teenager, because it hits all of my buttons. The main character is a bisexual woman of color, which there are plenty of in the world, so having more of them in our fiction is fantastic. So many of the characters are unapologetically out, and yet those that are not do not receive extra criticism for it from friends in the know. That isn’t to say that there is no homophobia or transphobia, because those are real factors that are considered by the characters, but the majority of the relationships that exist are full of loving friendship and apathy. That said, the stakes are played high in this book, and while I do consider it a light-hearted and easy read, there were a few spots where I couldn’t flip the pages fast enough, I was so absorbed by Jordan’s journey.

A recurring and important theme in the novel is the fact that Jordan is a student at Kensington-Blaine due to a scholarship, and so while she attends an incredibly expensive boarding school, her family is incredibly poor and struggles to make ends meet. The juxtaposition of Jordan’s situation with those of her wealthy classmates and friends could be seen as a stereotype, or be ignored, but Redgate integrates Jordan’s experience in a way that is authentic but not exploitative. There comes a moment in the middle of the novel where Jordan acknowledges her poverty not as something to be pitied, but as something that she considers mundane. This causes her to ponder over whether her rich classmates can say the same about their own wealth, and is just one of Jordan’s incredibly self-aware moments that make me again wish that I had been more like her in high school instead of worrying about not having all of the same expensive gadgets as the kids at my private high school who weren’t there on scholarship.

As a former aca-bopper and theater kid myself, in particular as one who didn’t know a lick about it before joining a group my freshman year of college, I delighted in Jordan’s confusion turned to confidence when it comes to the music and the friendship shared by the Sharpshooters. Even so, I’m certain that I would have loved this book even without my musical and theatrical background[1] and I’m confident that anyone who is even mildly interested in YA would love it too.

Happy reading!

Cheers,

Talia

[1] Especially since I have very much let my skills lapse over the years.

Book Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

This is the GIF I sent to my group chat as soon as I finished reading The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller:

crying

Half of the tears were because of the story itself, but the other half were for the fact that I went a whole six years of my  life without having read this book. The Song of Achilles tells the story of the lives of and love between Patroclus and Achilles. Considering that the Iliad, together with the Odyssey serve as what some call the foundation of the Western canon, I think that the moratorium on spoilers is functionally non-existent, but I will do my best to make this a spoiler free-review just in case.

As a classics minor and more importantly a lover of mythology, I knew the basic plot of the story before I turned the first page, but I remained emotionally unprepared for this book that does so much more than retell Iliad. As a matter of fact, the Iliadic portion of the text doesn’t even start until chapter twenty-five. The book opens with Patroclus recounting the marriage of his parents’s marriage and his own birth and childhood. In many ways, The Song of Achilles, is a coming of age story, soaked in the mythic tradition that my professors have so kindly educated me with. We follow, from Patroclus’s perspective, his journey from his place as the son of a son of Kings to be the beloved of Achilles, the best of the Greeks, and staying by his side throughout the most famous war in literary history – that of the Trojans and the Greeks.

According to the back cover of my copy, the Wall Street Journal called this book “One of the best novelistic adaptations of Homer in recent memory,” and I have to agree. Madeline Miller’s text has reinforced my already fierce belief that stories are meant to be told and retold. I  believe that my knowledge of the Homeric tradition greatly added to my experience reading this book, as I noticed all of the subtle (and not-so-subtle!) nods to the myths I have grown to know and love, but I also strongly believe that someone with little to no familiarity with the source material would also enjoy this story.

The blossoming from friendship to love between Achilles and Patroclus is incredibly moving and quite realistic, both within the text itself and when considering its original mythic context. The two quite clearly share a close bond, but one that is not at all overdone or rushed. On a personal note, I am 100% here for literature that acknowledges and celebrates the fact that queerness is here and always has been. Beyond the representation present within The Song of Achilles, I find the cast and characters incredibly compelling and I enjoyed every second that I read through the text. I was so engaged that I read the entire book in one setting* and was hit with the “what do you mean it’s over??” feels. (See above GIF)

That is not to say that I have no criticisms of the book. While I wholly enjoyed the text and intend to read it again, I know that it is not for everyone. The text makes free and constant reference to both rape and slavery in ways that certainly unsettled my stomach. The presence of the content is not the fault of the author, but more the source material and time period. On the very first page we read of Patroclus’s who was arranged to be married to an abusive husband at age fourteen, and Patroclus tells us that his father didn’t care about her appearance because “if she was ugly, there was always slave girls and serving boys.” The text pulls no punches when referencing the treatment of women in the time period, and while Patroclus and Achilles do not themselves participate in such activities, and are uncomfortable at times, they still accept that it is a practice and do not publicly voice any concerns. Despite the fact that I read both Achilles and Patroclus as being bisexual, and thus we do have some queer representation there are class and gender issues abound within the world of The Song of Achilles and I’m not going to pretend that they don’t exist.

On the whole, I greatly recommend the book, though I issue a strong content warning for rape, slavery, gore, and the general violence that comes with close-combat warfare.

Happy reading!

Cheers,

Talia

*Excluding one Hogwarts Mystery break because my phone buzzed and I realized that class was about to end and I was still 2 stars short in regard to successfully brewing my herbicide potion.

Precision, Recall, and Inclusivity

[This is a guest post by Talia’s girlfriend Annie, who is maintaining this blog while Talia is away at Middlbury Language Schools]

In my last post on here I mentioned that my job involves writing programs that identify important information from text documents. When testing these programs, there are two main ways of evaluating the accuracy of their output: precision and recall. Put simply, precision refers to what fraction of the retrieved information is relevant to what we’re looking for, while recall refers to what fraction of the relevant information in the original text is retrieved by the program. Ideally, one would want a program to have both high precision and high recall – that is, for it to return most or all of the information the user is looking for and little or no irrelevant information – but this isn’t always possible. More realistically, you’ll often face a tradeoff between precision and recall. You can optimize for precision, and make sure that everything in your output is the sort of thing the user is looking for, but then you run the risk of overlooking other information that might be slightly less obviously relevant, but still within the scope of the user’s query. You can optimize for recall, and make sure to return every piece of information that could possibly be relevant, but then there’s the chance you’ll also turn up a lot of junk data along with the useful stuff. Or you can try to strike a balance between precision and recall, getting each one high enough to be useful without sacrificing the other.

Which of these evaluation metrics is most important depends on what task a program is intended to accomplish, and what the end user’s particular needs are. For instance, suppose you’re writing a program to automatically filter out offensive content on social media. (Some of my classmates and I wrote a program like this for a class project once, although it didn’t end up working very well.) If a social media company is going to be using your program as the first line of moderation for everything that gets posted on their platform, you likely don’t want it to become a heavy-handed censor. In this case you’ll probably want to err on the side of optimizing for precision, filtering out only the things that are well and truly beyond the pale and letting human moderators make the call on the edge cases. On the other hand, if this program is intended as an optional add-on that users of a social media platform can choose to enable, you’ll probably want to err on the side of optimizing for recall. The people who are likeliest to use such an add-on tend to have a very strong need to filter out certain content – say, people with anxiety or trauma who are trying to avoid seeing content that is triggering for them – so you want to make sure all of this content gets filtered, even if that means blocking some harmless stuff as well. High precision isn’t inherently better than high recall, or vice versa; it all depends on the specific goal you’re trying to achieve.

I’m now going to completely switch gears for a minute and move from this relatively dry, technical subject to one with much more emotional heft: inclusivity in the LGBTQ+ community. (I’m focusing on this community because I’m a part of it, but I doubt it’s the only community this discussion will be relevant for.) If you’ve spent any time discussing LGBTQ+ politics – especially on the internet, where political discourse is a full-contact sport – you’re no doubt aware of the frequent heated debates about where exactly to draw the boundaries of this community. For instance, I once saw a post on Facebook proposing the acronym SAGA (Sexuality And Gender Acceptance) as an alternative term to LGBTQ+ that could include everyone without making the acronym cumbersomely long, and one of the comments was arguing against this idea, pointing out that such imprecise wording could allow kinky straight people to elbow their way into the community. Or on a more serious note, back in June when Pride was going on, I saw rather a lot of posts on Tumblr arguing about whether asexuals should be included in Pride, with several people arguing that asexuals hadn’t experienced the same oppression that gay, lesbian, bi, and trans people had, and so Pride wasn’t for them.

 

When I come across arguments like this, all I can think is: this is clearly a situation in which recall matters a whole lot more than precision. Remember how I said that whether it’s better to optimize for recall or precision depends on your particular goal? Well, what is the goal of building an LGBTQ+ community? There are obviously many goals, but as far as I’m concerned, the primary goal is to provide a space for people who are marginalized by the heteronormativity and cissexism of mainstream culture, where they can be safe and free to live their authentic lives, and where they find the support and solidarity they need in order to overcome the obstacles that the rest of society has placed in their way.

Personally, I care much more about making sure that everyone who needs such a space has access to it than I do about keeping out people who don’t meet some set of entry requirements. Sure, there might be a few straight kinksters who will see inclusive language around sexuality and assume it’s talking about them, but there are also countless queer kids who are just figuring out their sexuality or gender and aren’t sure what label – if any – to claim. Don’t we want them to know they have a place in our community, even if they don’t have the precise words for what they are yet?

For every asexual person who doesn’t face much discrimination for their orientation, there’s another one who’s facing ostracism from their family for rejecting their “sacred duty” of getting married and having children. Don’t they need our love and support too? By focusing on precision instead of recall – that is, focusing on who we need to exclude instead of who we need to include – we run the risk of pushing away some of the people who our community could do the most good for.

In other words, when the machine revolution comes and our new robot overlords implement Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism, I know what sort of information retrieval algorithms I want them to be running.

To read more of Annie’s content check out her blog at http://www.escape-velocities.com/ or the guest posts page for a list of posts on word-for-sense made by people that aren’t Talia.