| Book List
One of my favorite writers is Elif Shafak, and her new novel THE ISLAND OF MISSING TREES (2021) is beautiful and heart-wrenching. Teenagers Kostas and Defne are in love. One is a Greek, one a Turk, both living on the island of Cypris, as tensions between Greeks and Turks rise. Their love must be hidden. Interwoven chapters tell the story, and most interesting is that some chapters are told from the perspective of a tree, Ficus carica, that grows in Cypris inside a tavern where the teens meet secretly. It is later moved to London, where the couple may have a chance of reuniting. There are secrets and hatreds and betrayals in this novel, and the entire time you are clamoring for the two to get together despite murder and shame and political yammering. I loved this one. Love Elif Shafak.
I finally read KINDRED (1979) by Octavia E. Butler. Dana and her husband live in California in the 1970s, but she is transported back to the South to a white plantation/forced labor camp, meeting up with Rufus, a relative from generations back. Time travel is not my thing, but this one is important. Dana is enslaved by Rufus’s father because she is black, and all black people in this place are enslaved, but she brings her knowledge from the future, and she sees slavery and racial terrorism for what it is, though there is (sometimes) little she can do about it. This is an essential read. For sure.
THE WIFE UPSTAIRS (2020) by Rachel Hawkins is a must read for anyone loving JANE EYRE. And who, might I ask, does not love JANE EYRE? Do not raise your hand if you are a JE hater – it will not be abided. This one is an updated version, of course, and in it Jane is a dog walker in Birmingham, Alabama, walking the dogs of the uber-rich in Thornfield Estates. She meets Eddie, widower, handsome, rich, charming. The sort of fall in love or what might resemble love from the perspective of the gossipy Thornfield residents. All of the ingredients from the original JANE EYRE are here, secret rooms, hidden people, dubious pasts, and readers/lovers of JE will recognize them all. This is fun. Add it to the long list of other books and films that take up Charlotte Bronte’s brilliant novel – a story that abides in so many colletive hearts.
THE PLOT (2021) by Jean Hanff Korelitz is about Jacob Finch Bonner, a once promising novelist, who is teaching in a small-time MFA program. One of his students is a pompous guy who “knows” his work in progress has an astounding plot that will result in bestselling status, awards, and a blockbuster film. Bonner dislikes him, as do we. Yet, Bonner himself is taken with the plot, which the author, Evan Parker, divulges to Bonner in a conference. Then Parker dies (this is all on the book jacket, so not really spoiler, right?). The amazing plot is out there in the universe uncaptured by an author. Bonner seizes on it, publishes to acclaim, becomes rich and adulated. Then the emails come: You are a thief. Bonner is freaked out, fears he’ll be revealed as a plagiarist, and the rest of the story … well, it is predictable. It makes me sad to say this because I really love a good literary mystery, but I figured out the ending well before the ending, and this does not make me proud so much as it makes me frustrated. I wanted a big surprise. I wanted all of my theorizing to be wrong. Alas … it is a good novel. And the plot of THE PLOT is compelling, “insanely readable,” as Stephen King wrote. It’s just … surprise me.
THE PROPHETS (2021) by Robert Jones, JR. is a new favorite, yet it is hard to describe. Certainly, it evokes Toni Morrison’s BELOVED. The setting is a southern plantation, and the protagonists are Isaiah and Samuel, enslaved men who are each other’s beloved. When an older enslaved man yearns to ingratiate himself with the slaver, preaching the master’s Christian gospel and inciting hatred and fear, the tension in the novel soars. There are scenes from earlier Africa detailing the lives of happy people who were stolen and sold into slavery, ancestors of the characters upon whom the novel focuses. The enslaved women in the novel are breathtaking in their hope and rage and wisdom. The book jacket says: the novel “masterfully reveals the pain and suffering of inheritance, but is also shot through with hope, beauty, and truth, portraying the enormous heroic power of love.” I agree. This book is a wonder.
INTIMACIES (2021) by Katie Kitamura was a book that had come up on so many reading lists. A MUST READ they all said. Being an obedient reader, I grabbed a copy. It is a slim book. I read it through quickly. It is about an interpreter at The Hague’s international court. Her lover is a married man who is not quite ready to be unmarried. When she is called to interpret for a former president accused of war crimes, much that has been bombarding her heart comes to the fore. All of the components are there, yet this one did not reach the pinnacle for me. Could well be me … but … onto others!
Finally, after toting a used copy in my car trunk for, say, five years or so, I read THE CHILDREN ON MEN (1993) by P.D. James. Would that I had picked it up sooner, for I could have read it again and again over those years. I LOVED IT. I LOVED IT. Still love it. I will teach it in the coming semester, and I fully expect my students will love it. It is a dystopia, so read bleak and dark – which is sort of my thing. Funny thing, or not so funny, it is set in the future: 2021. Since 1995, no babies have been born. The population is dying out. Rising up against the dictator in Great Britain, Theo Faron, an Oxford historian and cousin of this Warden of England (powerful, bad man), is coerced into the resistance by a group of revolutionaries. So much happens. The revolutionaries are both soulful and menacing. Then, then … omg … something happens, then there is a response, then there is chaos, and the entire time I am forgetting the tea kettle on the stove blaring its readiness. This is GRIPPING. Read it now. Read it again. Oh, P.D. James, thank you. And about that ending – let’s talk.
My first ever Percival Everett novel was THE TREES (2021), but it will not be my last. I flew through this one, and I wish there were more and more pages. Told in very short chapters (always appealing. Note to self: remember this in revision phase of new novel), this is the story of the murders of white men in Money, Mississippi – the place where Emmett Till was lynched. Townsfolk in Money in this novel are racist and proud of it. The brutal murders have a similar crime scene: dead white guy along with an already-dead black body. The black body resembles Emmett Till. Such murders bleed out of Money and into the rest of the country with eerily similar murder scenes. The detective characters, two from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and one from the FBI, are sassy and funny (there is, believe it or not, a dark comedy to this novel), and their dialogue is spot on such that you are smiling pages after you are outraged and devastated. Everett is no author to with whom to trifle. The back page of the paperback novel says: “Percival Everett offers a devastating critique of White supremacy and confronts the painful legacy of lynching in the United States.” That he does, and I was with him through every page. Sprinted through this one in one day, took it to the dentist with me, to Dunks (in case there was a line at the drive-through), and returning it to the library will be sad. The front cover, which I pretty much ignored until the end when I could not let this gem go, has artwork by Kapo Ng, and it is – at once -- soul crushing and beautiful. So read this one.
MY MONTICELLO (2021) by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson is a collection of short stories and a novella. So, if Colson Whitehead says on the front cover, “A badass debut by any measure – nimble, knowing, and electrifying,” one must not hesitate. I did not hesitate. Rushed right in. Turns our I’d read the first story, “Control Negro” in THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES 2018 edited by Roxane Gay. In that story, a Black professor clinically observes his son from birth through young adulthood, comparing him to average ACMs (American Caucasian Males). An important, edgy, urgent story. The novella, titled MY MONTICELLO as well, is utterly disturbing and unforgettable. A young woman is driven by a white militia from her neighborhood. She is not alone. Her black neighbors are with her. She is a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and she and her neighbors and friends take cover from the imminent danger at Monticello, safe for a time, reflective and fearful. This is an essential read, particularly the novella. It is timely. It raises fraught questions? It is one to read again.
GENERATIONS (1976), a memoir by poet Lucille Clifton is a brief chronicle of her family’s legacy of enslaved people, of the first black woman hanged in Virginia, of a relative born with a “withered arm.” Clifton lays the groundwork for understanding the generations that came before, their struggles and their joys. This is a one-sitting read for those curious and compelled by this audacious poet.
I picked up MRS. MARCH (2021) by Virginia Feito because I thought it was a novel about Louisa May Alcott’s Mrs. March of LITTLE WOMEN, as most readers would think, right? It is not. As well, there was a blurb on the back by Elif Batuman (I value her thinking), and the inside cover said: “An explosive debut novel that flips the New York literary scene on its pretentious head.” I always read blurbs, and who makes them makes a difference in my choosing to read or not read. And “New York literary scene” – who can resist that? Mrs. March of this novel – no relation in any way to the Alcott Mrs. March – am I disappointed? Is that what this repetition is about? Nevertheless, THIS Mrs. March is called Mrs. March throughout, even when the writer refers to her childhood, little Mrs. March on the playground. This protagonist is angry from the outset because she believes her husband’s newest bestselling novel is based on her, and that is not good because the protagonist of Mr. March’s new novel is a bad-tempered prostitute whom readers love to hate. Most of the narrative takes place inside Mrs. March’s head, and therein lives a world of chaos and egoism and --- well – cra cra. Yet, she sucks you into her petty world even as you are shaking your head and thinking Mr. March might have been onto something. The other inside cover claims the novel is “a razor-sharp exploration of the fragility of identity … [a] casebook [study of] insecurity turned full-blown neurosis.” Cannot disagree with this one. Somehow, I could not look away.
THE FIRST DAY OF SPRING (2021) by Nancy Tucker, another debut novel, begins: “I killed a little boy today.” I was in. Indeed, the protagonist(s) killed a little boy when she was about eight years old. Why? Well … it takes 350 pages to answer that question, and the approach is fresh. Chrissie rules the neighborhood, bullying and showboating. But she has this big secret that makes her “belly fizz like soda pop.” Twenty years later, Chrissie is in hiding, working overtime to forget her past, bleeding over into her own mothering of five-year-old Molly, her daughter. This is a roller coaster of emotion: do I hate murderous Chrissie? Do I feel heartbreak for her when her home life is revealed in its ugly and dangerous detail? Do I just want to place a 911 call, get it over with? Chrissie is a unique voice, one you want to silence then to join with, then to cry with. Unforgettable, this one.
THIS IS MY AMERICA (2020) by Kim Johnson is a YA novel I could not stop reading. Teenaged Tracy has been writing letters to the Innocence X project for the seven years her father has been on death row. He is innocent, and he is a black man in a town ridden with a white supremacist history. One night, the police arrive looking for her older brother Jamal. There has been a murder of a white girl in his high school class. Tracy is living a déjà vu. As her brother is on the run, Tracy is determined to figure out who killed her friend Angela and what is going on in the deep dark of her town. This novel reads at a rocket pace, and the reader yearns for answers and justice right along with Tracy. This is a keeper!
O BEAUTIFUL (2021) by Jung Yun, author of SHELTER is a book I’ve been waiting for since I finished reading SHELTER – many times over! Protagonist Elinor Hanson is both compelling and frustrating. She is brilliant, but she gets in her own way. It is her interiority – her thoughts, her feelings, her decisions – that is rich and nuanced. I was with her every step of the way, as she launches into writing an investigative piece for a prestigious magazine, heading for the Bakken oil boom in North Dakota, not far from where she grew up. Her mother is Korean, and she and Elinor’s father met while he was stationed overseas. He is patriarchal, and Elinor’s mother leaves the marriage and her two young daughters. Elinor’s consequent loss and grief alienate her from her father and sister, and she is forced to confront these hard emotions when she is researching the North Dakota locals who say little but mean big: they hate their changing community. Sure, there are jobs, lots of money, but there are a host of new and non-white people, and this is uber concerning to the townies. Most slot Elinor into this category too, and she feels the insistent male gaze of men in the town, as she feels their underlying (really overlying) racism and disrespect. Meanwhile, in the wings is her ex who was once her writing mentor whose toxic masculinity becomes an escalating problem. Elinor drinks too much. She takes risks that endanger. She rages. She is so wonderfully real, such a complex and rich character – someone to champion. It does not get better than a new Jung Yun novel. READ this one – and, of course, SHELTER.
BECOMING (2021), a memoir by Nicole Luongo, and published by my publisher, Inanna Publications, is intense. As Luongo says in her introduction, “There are reasons why we run from facts.” There sure are, and Luongo has many such reasons. Her “battle cry” of a book is “an analysis of disordered eating, substance abuse, mental illness, and trauma that is informed somewhat by scholarship but is far from academic.” This memoir is her turn to tell her story, one that has been told for decades by others. This is no easy romp through a troubled past. Luongo is brutally honest, and what makes this different from other memoirs about mental illness is that Luongo is a Ph.D. student at the University of Oxford who includes insightful observations about psychiatric tenets and studies, rejecting some, embracing others. This is not an easy read, but it is an important read. Luongo’s struggle is impeccably chronicled, and it is the brave and curious reader who travels with her. I have a better understanding of much more than the broad term “mental illness” because of this book.
SOLD (2006) is a National Book Award finalist by Patricia McCormick. The book tells the story of Lakshmi, a 13-year-old from Nepal whose family is so desperately poor that Lakshmi is happy to help by going with a glamorous stranger who promises her a maid for a wealthy woman. She will send her pay home to help her family. Lakshmi goes with this woman to India where she arrives at Happiness House and comes to realize she has been sold into sex slavery. There is no way out. Her life is horrifying. She forms friendships with the other enslaved girls and women, but every day is about survival. The story is told in vignettes for quick reading. It is a book that offers hope but only after it chronicles the nightmare of some 12,000 Nepali girls who are sold by their families, intentionally or unwittingly, into a life of sexual slavery in Indian brothels. This is a very important book that will break your heart – but it won’t break it more than it has broken theirs.
WHEN THE RECKONING COMES (2021) by LaTanya McQueen is a novel about Mira who fled her small, segregated hometown in the south but returns for her former best friend’s wedding at a former plantation said to be haunted by the spirits of enslaved people. Mira remembers one terrifying day in her youth when she and her friend Jesse trespassed into the manor house at Woodsman Plantation and Jesse ended up arrested for murder. When she reunites with Jesse for the wedding of their former friend, the now lush vacation resort (former plantation) has whitewashed its vicious, enslaving past. The staff is all black and unnamed. Mira is troubled, and this is before the dark past rises up again. The author is a graduate of the MFA program at Emerson College, so that drew me in. This book meandered a bit, but there was low-level terror throughout. It is a good one.
BEHIND THE SCENES OR THIRTY YEARS A SLAVE AND FOUR YEARS IN THE WHITE HOUSE (1868) by Elizabeth Keckley is part slave narrative, part memoir, and part sentimental fiction. It tells the story of Keckley working for Mrs. Abraham Lincoln as her dressmaker, being at the White House when Lincoln’s son died and when Lincoln was assassinated. Major players like Frederick Douglass and confederate generals are part of Keckley’s world. This is an intriguing look into the Lincoln years by a woman who clearly loved the first family but recognizes their complexities. Keckley herself was gifted with the comb and brush the president used in the White House, and details like this were common. An important read republished by The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers.
I was looking for a novel about human trafficking, one I might use in my Slavery: Literature and Legacy class. I picked up THE GUEST ROOM by Chris Bohjalian though I’d “divorced” this author several books ago because of THE DOUBLE BIND, a book I took issue with, even after loving MIDWIVES and TRANS-SISTER RADIO. THE GUEST ROOM will not be the book I teach. It is about human trafficking, yes. And there is a level of sensitivity for the young women stolen (as girls) from their homes and forced into this kind of slavery. But what is more prominent in the novel is an overwrought focus on the Bacchanalian happenings at the opening bachelor party. That is, the repeated focus on the “sex” that takes place at the party (before the murders that is), the re-upping of this kind of reminiscing by several men at the party who enjoyed their experience (before the murders), and the worry these men have that their lives might be impacted by what went down – all of it leaned heavily toward a titillating rather than moderated view of the sex slavery of underage females. Bohjalian missed the boat here, and I am disappointed. Human trafficking is a serious subject, and the focus on the males at this bachelor party who could not stop thinking about the “hot” experience they had was – well – objectionable. Granted, in the end, the author tried to make up for it by killing off one of the men (not the murders aforementioned), but by then, I was both gripped by the plot and washing my hands every ten minutes. Cannot recommend.
OUTLAWED (2021) by Anna North is a feminist western about a band of women bandits, the notorious Hole in the Wall Gang who offer haven to barren women accused of witchcraft and threatened with death. Their leader is a preacher-turned-robber known as the Kid. Ada joins when she is only seventeen, and her skill set is midwifery. She had a promising future in this work until her husband declares her infertile/barren, the sheriff hunts her down as a witch, and she finds the gang. This novel “dusts off the myth of the Old West and reignites the glimmering promise of the frontier with an entirely new set of feminist stakes,” says the inside flap. This one is a romp.
I wanted to love OLGA (2018) by Bernhard Schlink because I loved his THE READER. Alas … this one is just okay. Olga grows up lonely, becomes a teacher, meets Herbert. They are in love but mismatched. He is from a wealthy family, and the family does not want her for Herbert’s wife. Herbert goes off to war, is part of a brutal attack against the Herero of (now) Namibia. Olga is appalled, but her love is solid (and why-oh-why I asked, as I turned each page). She befriends a young boy and his family. He grows up, finds a cache of her letters, learns some deeply kept secrets about Olga. I waited for those secrets, sort of predicted them, did not care a whit for Herbert, and wanted more.
MATRIX (2021) by Lauren Groff – my kind of book. Needed only this on the inside jacket: “defiant and timely exploration of the raw power of female creativity in a corrupted world.” Groff tells the story of Marie from France (remarkably like Marie de France whose lais I teach whenever possible) who is sent to a convent in 1158. She hates it there. Then she gains power, eventually becoming abbess. Part witch, part saint, this Marie is a giant (physically) and in terms of the power she wields. When she steps out of line – far from what is expected of women in the middle ages – I am hooting, fists raised in the air. Oh, Marie, you are a complex, flawed, amazing nun. Thank you, Lauren Groff for this character. She is much needed in the world – resurrect all the Maries. Now.
BEWILDERMENT (2021) by Richard Powers is beautiful, and it is the kind of slim novel I need to read again to “get” the fullness of it. Theo Byrne is a widower with a nine-year-old son Robin. Robin is troubled, hitting a friend in school, melting down routinely. Astrobiologist Theo Byrne maintains he will avoid drugs for his child, and in turn he learns of an experimental neurofeedback treatment that can help his son gain emotional control. This one has the child training on the “recorded patterns of his [dead] mother’s brain.” That training is intriguing if … well … bewildering. The stunning descriptions of nature are stunning as well. Sometimes you know a novel is beautiful and important and – probably – world changing, and sometimes you need to give it time, give it space, give it another read. That is how I see BEWILDERMENT.
I must be into creepy books because Halloween looms. THE FINAL GIRL SUPPORT GROUP (2021) by Grady Hendrix is creepy and violent and gruesome. It is, for sure, fast-paced, and I think I was so caught up in the pace and the fear that I didn’t stop to think if I was liking it. The women characters are all the final girl – that means they were involved in horrific mass killings and survived, while their friends and/or family were massacred. They have a group that has met for years to process their trauma. Throughout the novel, you never know who the actual bad guys are; it keeps switching up. The final girls always fear the killers will come back for them, to finish the job, even if the killers are dead. The fears are both real and irrational it seems. I could not keep track of who might be a murderer, even when I thought the narrator could be the murderer. It was head spinning, but I never let that novel go. I had to know even when it was becoming clear I might never know. And the violence this author (a guy) imagined – bad, bad, bad. Can I recommend this? It certainly is not a book for everyone, but if you want to be kept awake at night, suffer whiplash from the plot swerves, and experience scenes you wish you could erase: grab this one.
NEVER SAW ME COMING (2021) by Vera Kurian came to me just at the right time. As an English professor, I am reading ALL the time, and sometimes I need an escape read. This is it. I do love a revenge story, and Chloe Sevre, a freshman honor student at a DC university is intent on revenge for a hurt by a frat guy. She and a half dozen others have been recruited by this university because they are psychopaths (I cannot/will not attest to the credibility of the science in this novel) and are in an intensive study of psychopaths – and given free tuition and room and board for their participation. Then the murders take place on campus. Then the half dozen students plot to find out who the murderer is – could it be one of them? Chloe is fearless, edgy, dangerous, and just fascinating, as are the others, including Andre who is faking his psychopathy to take advantage of the tuition deal. This is the kind of book that I longed to return to at the end of the day and that kept me awake long after it should have at night in bed. Wait till you get to the part about the twins … yikes!
MALIBU RISING (2021) by Taylor Jenkins Reid is fun! Talk about a beach read. You will fly through this one with its rich, beautiful, talented characters, most of them in the Riva family. One is a supermodel, one a champion surfer, another a renowned photographer, and the youngest a sassy wonder. Their dad is the famous bad boy singer Mick Riva. Oh, these folks have their share of suffering, but the privilege and the money and the glamour overshadows it – for this reader anyway. This is not the type of novel I would normally pick up. A friend recommended it, and I cannot resist a reader-friend recommendation. I flew through it, hating/loving the glass and metal house on the cliff overlooking the ocean, hating the bathing-suit poster that made the money to fund houses, trips, and the HUGE party that constitutes the climax of the novel – bad, bad things happen at this party. There are police and damages and broken hearts and sex in public and – finally – the entire glass and metal house burns to the ground. There is a satisfaction in the small steps toward ethical behavior that the Rivas take, some more than others. Am I reading too much into a beach read? Can’t stop myself. If you have a day off, lounging under a fuzzy blanket with a Yankee Autumn Wreath burning nearby, take this one up.
I fell seriously in love with author Paolo Giordano, he with his Ph.D. in particle physics and his glorious novel THE SOLITUDE OF PRIME NUMBERS. So, when I found on the shelf HEAVEN AND EARTH (2018, translated 2020), I grabbed it. 400 pages of olive groves in Italy, three neighborhood boys living on the nearby farm, one of them the man Teresa, our protagonist, will love for the rest of her life – for better and for gads of worse. This big novel has it all: love, sex, feuding, drunkenness, murder, pregnancy, and a very odd scene in a cave in Iceland. Honestly, though I still love Paolo G, I wish his editor had chopped a third of this. Toward the end, I had to know what happened to the three boys (now men), to the one who is dead, to the one who killed him, and yet, the meandering routes Teresa took to get there, I grew tired of it. Only that this is a Paolo Giordano novel did I soldier on. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good read, lots of atmospheric Italy, characters you get to really know, even the enigmatic ones. And it is praised by my other favorites: Andrew Sean Greer, Dave Eggers, etc. Start with THE SOLITUDE OF PRIME NUMBERS – no one writes the grotesque scene like PG. Then, having fallen in love, grab a copy of HEAVEN AND EARTH, and settle in for the long haul.
I so wanted to sink into ALL’S WELL (2021) by Mona Awad and be taken away by this novel so highly praised by Margaret Atwood (queen), Mary Karr, Elif Batuman, George Saunders, etc. What am I missing with this one? Miranda Finch is a college theater director who had a terrible accident that left her in pain, left her abusing painkillers and alcohol, and left her with a failed marriage. That was not the part that attracted me. It was her determination to put on ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL by Shakespeare and facing off with a student cast who mutiny because they want to put on MACBETH instead. That had to be a winning plot, right? However, there were detractions for this reader. The students acted very much l like high schoolers in their recalcitrance and sullenness, and so I continually had to remind myself this was a college setting. Then there were the three guys she meets at a bar who know all about her and change her life – for the better – I think. Very creepy guys (MACBETH’S witches?). I see the several allusions to Shakespeare’s plays. I see the indictment of those who refuse to witness and believe in female pain. And yet, I do not see the whole of it coming together. I want to. I wanted to. Alas …
Found this one in a reduced section of a bookstore and fell in love. Why reduced? This novel is so much fun: THE BAR HARBOR RETIREMENT HOME FOR FAMOUS WRITERS (AND THEIR MUSES) (2018) by Terri-Lynne DeFino. This novel is exactly what it says in the too-long title. Alfonse Carducci was a literary giant who lived a privileged and excessive life – including the go-to banalities like lovers, alcohol, parties, rivalries, debauchery. Now, living out his last days, he is at the luxurious Bar Harbor Retirement Home with several other once-famous writers, all of them – well clearly – elderly. Enter Cecibel Bringer, a staff member with a horrifying past as demonstrated by the one side of her face which has been severely burned. It turns out Alfonse Carducci is her favorite writer, and it turns out that she tells him this, and he is inspired to write again – something he has been unable to do recently. Soon, his other writer friends join in, writing a fabulous novel – a novel within this larger novel. In the outer novel, we get more of Cecibel’s past in detail along with the past lives of another staff member who killed his abuser and another who is a drag queen with attitude! I could not put this book down. Get it off the reduced shelf and back into its deserved position on the bookstore shelf.
THE END OF MEN (2021) BY Christina Sweeney-Baird is a dystopia set in 2025, but it is way too close for comfort in 2021. There is a pandemic, a virus. It breaks out in Scotland, and it affects only men. They contract the virus, and they die in days. Men, boys, babies – a small percentage of males are immune. Dr. Amanda Maclean reports about the virus, warns those who can intervene. She is dismissed as “hysterical.” So men, boys, babies die. Women and girls and girl babies are left – and those few men. The novel follows several women, as they cope with loss, grief, documenting the experience, problem solving to develop a vaccine, helping the government to build a new society. The absence of men changes society, as one can well imagine, but there is amazing resilience, even hope. A few important things that happened: Rape as a weapon of war disappeared. Women were now 57% less likely to die of heart attacks because treatment protocols changed to recognize the different symptoms men and women experience. Women started dating women. There are great lines in this novel, and I read it right through swiftly. And now, quite frankly, dear reader, I am done with books about viruses, viruses themselves, and books that are too much like watching the news. Give me a breezy, sweet fictional world – for a time.
MARGREETE’S HARBOR (2021) by Eleanor Morse is just the book I needed after THE END OF MEN. Not that this novel, which is so wonderful, is breeze, but there is sweetness and reality and the ocean. I have long loved Eleanor Morse for her novel WHILE DOG FELL FROM THE SKY and for the fact that she lives on Peaks Island, Maine: my favorite place in the world. This novel is about thrice-widowed, elderly, fierce Margreete who lives alone on the Maine coast until she is unable to do so safely. Her daughter and family move in: Liddie and Harry, and their children Eva and Bernie. The novel is set in the late 1950s and early 1960s against a backdrop of civil rights, Vietnam, and fervent activist sentiments brewing in the family. This is a novel to hang out with, to savor. The cover says you will like it if you like Elizabeth Strout (who doesn’t?), Alice Munro (classic), and Anne Tyler (one of the best). This is a good one: happiness, sadness, heartache, real-life human beings rendered in print – lovely.
I am so glad to have read WAKE: THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF WOMEN-LED SLAVE REVOLTS (2021) by Rebecca Hall. This is part graphic novel, part memoir that tells the story of women-led slave revolts and the frustrating process Hall goes through to uncover the truth about the women warriors who have been ghosted from the historical record. Hall, a historian, dives into archives, intent on finding the stories of such women who fought for freedom during the Middle Passage and in colonial New York. Where names and details have been unrecoverable, Hall uses her imagination to reconstruct what might have happened, giving back some sense of the brave agency enslaved women demonstrated.
John Grisham’s A TIME FOR MERCY (2021) is another Jake Brigance novel (Jake from A TIME TO KILL fame). This fat, fast, and furious novel finds our Jake defending a sixteen-year-old boy accused of murdering a local deputy. This is set in Mississippi in 1990, and mobs are calling for the alleged killer, Drew Gamble, to hasten to the gas chamber. Not so fast, says Jake, though he’s reluctant to take the case. It is an uphill battle, yet the victim’s backstory is anything but pretty. Does that matter? Can Jake put the victim on trial too? Show that he is a bad guy who deserved killing by a teenager? Just when you think Mississippi and its prejudices and its law and order will prevail, just maybe Jake Brigance will swoop in with his compelling rhetoric! The only negative, this monster is 464 pages long – so give yourself time.
Finally, finally I returned to THERE THERE (2018) by Tommy Orange. I gave up my first time around. The a friend whose literary taste I consider brilliant said this: Skip the prologue. Begin the novel. Then read the prologue when you are halfway through the novel. I did that. It worked. I could not put this novel down. It is the story of twelve characters from Native communities, and all are connected by the Big Oakland Powwow in come way. These characters are so memorable: there is Jacquie Red Feather trying to get back to the family she left behind when she could not get sober. There is Orvil, a teenager who will perform a traditional dance for the first time. There are drug dealers and documentary makers and Tony who is a grownup whose face gives away the fetal-alcohol-syndrome he inherited. This is – as my friend told me over and over – brilliant. I am going to use it in my Modern and Contemporary Fiction course this semester, so I get to read it again!!!
HOME (2012) by Toni Morrison – the incomparable author herself. This is my second time reading this slim and profound novel, and I am using it, too, in my Modern and Contemporary Fiction course. This one is about Frank Money returned from the Korean War, shattered, lonely, and desperate to find his baby sister Cee who is in trouble, nearing death. Frank’s internal dialogue and his memories of war and his lost love Lily are wrenching. “Brutal yet heartwarming,” says NPR critic Heller McAlpin. I agree. You cannot go wrong with a Morrison novel, and the re-reading is even better. While PARADISE is my absolute favorite Morrison novel, and while BELOVED is a close second, HOME is up there. Read this one!
Praise is lauded on A BURNING (2020) by Megha Majumdar by the likes of Yaa Gyasi, Tommy Orange, Amitav Ghosh and those endowed with giving out literary awards. It had to be read. This is the kind of novel that grabs you by the throat, slumps you down into an Adirondack chair on your porch in a rainstorm, and says: get to it. I did. All set in contemporary India, Jivan is the protagonist, a young Muslim woman charged with participating in a terrorist attack that left 100+ people dead, trapped on a burning train. She maintains she is innocent, and I believe her. So do PT Sir, her school Phys. Ed. Teacher who believed she held great promise and Lovely, a trans woman whom Jivan has been tutoring in English so Lovely can become a film star. This novel is about power, corruption, failure of a justice system, and the willingness to betray when one’s own advantage is in the balance. It could be set in contemporary America, of course – same horrors here. This is “propulsive” says the New York Times, and I agree. A one-day read, this is the kind of novel that repeats on itself, scenes arising long after it is finished, parallels to our everyday lives ringing soundly and sadly.
HEAVEN (2021 translation from the Japanese) by Mieko Kawakami is a slim and deep and sad novel. It reminds me of one of my favorites, THE SOLITUDE OF PRIME NUMBERS by Paolo Giordano. This novel tells the story of a young boy viciously bullied because of his lazy eye. His only friend, a girl who is bullied because of her poverty, reaches out to him, recognizing they have similar world views. Theirs is a bond that is both inspiring and unsettling. The novel asks some BIG ethical and existential questions regarding body integrity and the reasons one torments another. This novel is a quick read, but it will require a re-reading to plumb the depths of these questions. I am not sure I will do that work of re-reading.
I bought this on in hardcover because … well: Stacy Abrams! WHILE JUSTICE SLEEPS (2021) by Stacy Abrams is 360+ pages, and I was deeply attached to it throughout, long though it be. Justice Howard Wynn is in a coma. His young law clerk Avery Keene is appointed to serve as his legal guardian and his power of attorney, which is a huge surprise to Avery. The Justice has some controversial cases pending, one a proposed merger between an American biotech company and an Indian genetics firm. This one is problematic, and Wynn sends Avery (all planned and set in motion before his coma) on a crazy-ass search through his opaque clues – the consequences are high stakes. Avery must figure out the clues, must come to the conclusions Wynn commands. Can she do it? Why her? Why not Justice Wynn’s only son? Why not his wife? This is a good one for when time allows a long-term indulgence.
KLARA AND THE SUN (2021) by Kazuo Ishiguro, Nobel Laureate in Literature, is about Klara, an Artificial Friend with the ability to observe and imitate behaviors of her human friend. When she comes to be chosen to live with Josie and her mother, Klara encounters hidden truths. Josie is unwell, and her doting mother is helicoptering. Josie has a boyfriend who is of a lower status but whom she loves. His family situation is complicated. This world Ishiguro has created allows a commentary on class and intellect and who gets valued and for what. This is essential reading, as is his former NEVER LET ME GO. His very human not-quite-human characters pull at the reader’s empathy and wonder.
THE OTHER BLACK GIRL (2021) by Zakiya Dalila Harris is intriguing. It has all the goodies I really want in a novel: lots of women characters, a publishing company setting, young editorial assistants reading manuscripts and working with authors and engaging authoritative bosses. Nella Rogers is the only black girl at Wagner Books until Hazel May McCall arrives. Hazel is confident, friendly, and a suave one. Nella both wants to be her friend and is wary of her. When Nella gets handwritten notes urging her to leave Wagner, she suspects Hazel and a host of others. The book cover says the book is a “whip-smart commentary on diversity in the workplace,” and it is exactly that – who really does want diversity in the workplace, it asks, and at what cost, and to whom? This is a thriller, a Bildungsroman, a chilling narrative that gets at the heart of our country’s most insidious behaviors. It is fabulous!
I found the premise of THE SECRET TALKER (2021-translation from Chinese to English) by Geling Yan intriguing. Hongmei is a Chinese wife married to Glen, an American. When she gets a mysterious email from a secret admirer, she is charmed, and she carries on a long-term flirtation with him via email. They plan to meet, but it never quite works out. She becomes desperate when he does not write back soon enough. The backstories from Hongmei’s past are painful and secret, ones she shares only with the secret talker. The book cover promises that the ending will leave the reader speechless. I was not speechless. Indeed, since I figured out who the secret talker was, I was annoyed and perhaps my speech was … anyway, I wanted to like this more than I did. I like to guess endings of novels, but I like to be wrong, to be shocked. I was not. Alas.
On the other hand, MADAM (2021) by Phoebe Wynne was awesome. Rose Christie, 26, is recruited to become head of the classics department at Caldonbrae Hall, a castle of a girls’ boarding school in Scotland. She is the first hire in over a decade, and she is thrilled to be working at this elite institution. The novel turns gothic as soon as Rose steps foot onto the campus. What happened to the teacher she is replacing? There is some mystery there? What about all the confusing rules for the teachers and the students? There are literally dark hallways and tunnels and steep cliffs over the pounding ocean waves. Rose is confused then frustrated then enraged. Caldonbrae Hall is not what it appears, and she must get to the bottom of its nefarious purpose. The story is darkly feminist, haunting, and really gripping. Do this one!
OFF THE RECORD (2021) by Camryn Garrett is a YA novel about a high-school writer who wins a contest to write a celebrity profile for a prominent magazine about a young and charming actor. Josie and her sister (chaperone) join the cast of the film the young star is in in a multi-city tour, and Josie, who is shy and anxious, meets not only the young actor Marius but the other cast members. She is taken in by them in ways she had never anticipated, and this romp with the pretty people is dazzling until she learns a devastating secret. This secret triggers in Josie the memory of her own devastating secret, and she makes up her mind to expose the very famous man responsible. Hers is an ethical dilemma of the #MeToo sort. What to do, to speak truth to power, to let things lie, to risk a promising future in journalism by going head-to-head with this very famous man? This is a fast read, somewhat predictable if you keep up with the crimes of the Weinsteins of the world. What makes it memorable is the character of Josie, so naïve yet skilled as a writer, so unsure of herself yet damned willing to commit to justice.
ANGEL & HANNAH (2021) BY Ishle Yi Park is a slim novel in verse, a Romeo & Juliet story about Hannah, a Korean American teenager from Queens, NY and Angel, a Puerto Rican teenager from Brooklyn. They fall in love, their story plays out, and the verse is “rooted in a long tradition of hip-hop and spoken word,” as the inside book flap says. This one got accolades from Cathy Park Hong, which is in part why I picked it up. It is a fast read. The language is beautiful and painful. The story lovely and sad, like most romantic relationships that struggle through time. This would pair well with Romeo & Juliet, for English teachers out there.
HEART BERRIES (2018) BY Terese Marie Mailhot got rave reviews from Roxane Gay, Sherman Alexie, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Justin Torres (to name only a few). This slim volume is a memoir of Mailhot’s coming of age on an Indian reservation in the Pacific Northwest. Diagnosed with PTSD and bipolar II disorder, Mailhot is given a notebook and writes her way out of her trauma. This is an unsettling book that illustrates the author’s chaotic mental state. At the same time, her raw truth is a testimony to the pain and anger and revenge with which a hurt soul abides. This book troubled me, perhaps because some of its most profound moments were so profoundly feminine and urgent. These heart berries will stay with me a while.
LONG BLACK VEIL (2017) by Jennifer Finney Boylan is, as Jodi Picoult says on the back cover, very much in the tradition of Donna Tartt, and that for me is a good thing. This one starts out in 1980 when six college students sneak into a crumbling ruin of Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, just for kicks. It is dark and frightening, and they discover they are somehow locked in and one of them is missing, and the remains of that missing person (one of the six) are found decades later. Another of the six is charged with the murder, and the only one who can attest to his alibi is Judith Carrigan (yet another of the six) who has a secret of her own. Indeed, they all have secrets. This one carried me through swiftly. It is dark, weaving between that 1980 night and the present when police are onto this case.
I really wanted to love THE BLONDES (2012) by Emily Schultz – in some ways because it promised to be frightening, apocalyptic and “darkly satirical.” Now that I’ve finished it, I get the darkly satirical, but I’m not exactly sure why Stephen King claims this author is his new hero. I wanted more, more about the rabies-like epidemic that is carried only by blonde women. I wanted to know the intricate ways in which this metaphor dove into the satirical, but I did not get enough of this disease to satisfy my yearning to understand. Hazel is a grad student who is pregnant from an affair with a married man (a jerk, as it turns out – of course). We follow her as she observes blonde women from every sphere of life transform into murderous beasts, terrorizing New York City. But why? I wanted these women to be enraged by the multiple social injustices that could have spawned such rage. I wanted them to target some blatant or subverted patriarchal “enemies” – CEOS of the beauty propaganda companies, for example. But the attacks seemed random; even a little girl got the disease and attacked, biting a man on the knee. So the book cover says it is a “merciless but giddily enjoyable portrait of what happens in a world where beauty is - literally – deadly.” I get that. I do. But … needed more, wanted more. Alas
THE DEATH OF VIVEK OJI (2020) by Akwaeke Emezi opens with a mother in Nigeria opening her front door to find the body of her beloved son. Backtrack to the story of Vivek growing up a gentle spirit, mysterious, with upsetting blackouts. Close to his cousin Osita, the two have a turbulent yet loving relationship. Our hearts go out to Vivek Oji whose inner life cannot be known to his mother, who worries constantly about Vivek. Can she know the truth about her son, even after his death, even after his friends explain to her about Vivek, about the inner life, the real life, of her child? This is a sad but powerful novel, one that was shortlisted for many awards including the Lambda Literary Award.
My favorite of the summer season 2021 so far is BENEFICENCE (2020) by Meredith Hall, an author whose WITHOUT A MAP is another favorite of mine. This new book, a novel, tells the story of Doris and Tup who own the Senter family farm, have three children, and are deeply in love with each other and their life on this farm. The opening section is serene and sensual, bringing the reader deeply into the lives of the family members and the farm itself. The children are Sonny, Dodie, and Beston. And we are swept up in the charm of their lives. Until … tragedy changes everything for every one of these characters. Grief and guilt eat at their souls, and the experience of reading this grief and guilt is almost unbearable at times. I wanted to shout, to cry, to beg them to get back to their “normal” lives, but when life lobs big tragic events, there is no going back, certainly not without suffering and anguish and whatever healing can come. This description makes the book sound bleak and sad, and while it is, it is also absolutely beautiful. It makes a reader look at herself, assess the ways in which she judges characters/people, and then come to the beneficence of nuance, of understanding that people do the very best they can under dire circumstances. And it makes the reader certain that the only thing that can heal is love and kindness. Thank you, Meredith Hall, for this beloved book.
WHAT COMES AFTER (2021) by Joanne Tompkins starts out with the shocking deaths of two teenage boys, best friends in the Pacific Northwest. Then Evangeline arrives, another teen, pregnant, and somehow, mysteriously connected to both dead boys. She moves in with Daniel’s dad, a Quaker, high-school teacher – Daniel being one of the dead boys, the one who was murdered. Murdered by his best friend Jonah who lived next door to Daniel. So, we start out knowing for sure that Daniel is murdered by Jonah, but we only come to know why and how later on, and we learn how Evangeline is connected. None of this is as interesting as the interactions between the father of the murdered boy and the mother of the murdering boy, next door neighbors and sometimes friends, sometimes enemies. There is also a really cool dog character, Rufus, who is intensely personified, but who is so smelly and drooly and adorable that one can overlook that. This is a 400 pager but worthwhile. I loved the Quaker silences and reflections of Daniel’s dad and the unfailing generosity of Jonah’s mom. Good one!
CAUL BABY (2021) by Morgan Jerkins is – wow – creepy, secretive, appalling, revealing. The Melancons are a family in Harlem who sell cauls – a “precious layer of skin that is rumored to hold miraculous healing properties.” Somehow these cauls remain adhered to those born with the cauls, and the sections of caul must be removed with knives to sell them – in this case rendering the Melancons rich because they sell to white people with mucho money instead of their black neighbors who are also desperate for healing. There is betrayal, cruelty, illegality, an affair, and seemingly impossible physical realities. Somehow, this book is gripping, even with its supernatural happenings that I often eschew. I have a feeling I missed a big swath of metaphorical meaning in this one, reading it so fast to find out who got the next caul, what would happen to the crazy aunt in the basement, and when the nasty old matron would kick it. So … this one may require a re-read, and if so, that’s on me, not Morgan Jenkins!
NOTHING TO SEE HERE (2019) by Kevin Wilson is the kind of book I would have turned away from upon hearing that it is about ten-year-old twins who spontaneously combust on occasion. Nevertheless, I bought myself a copy because it is also about Lillian and Madison, one filthy rich, the other poor, who became roommates at their boarding school. Things go awry. The roomies fall apart until ten years later, rich Madison calls on poor Lillian to help her with the combustible twins. This is a crazy book with some of the most profound sentences written about economic inequality, the privileges built into monied families, and the cruelty that can be built into that inherited, unearned wealth. I ended up devouring this one, flammable kids and all. There were moments I shouted aloud when the rich folks got theirs. This is a keeper!!
THE GOOD SISTER (2020) by Sally Hepworth is one big gulp of a novel. I read it in hours, rushing through to find out who is he good sister. If you loved ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE, read this one. It brings the receipts. Fern Castle works in her local library, has dinner with her twin sister Rose three times a week, and has a sensory disorder which she manages well, for the most part. Fern decides to have a baby for her sister when she learns Rose cannot conceive. Mission #1: find a father. She does. Enter Wally. This is where things get both beautiful and complicated. Hang onto your seats. I take only one issue, and when you’ve read it, be in touch, so we can talk!! Must talk!
WAKING LIONS (2014) by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen grabbed me from chapter 1 and held on tight! Dr. Eitan Green has it all, the wife, the kids, the car – until that car hits an African migrant and flees the scene. But the accident was witnessed by the dead man’s widow, and she is not having any of it. She extracts a price for remaining silent, and Dr. Green has little recourse. This novel is complex and riveting, and it puts on display the underbelly of racism. Wall Street Journal writer Sam Sacks says “Waking Lions yokes a crime story to thorny ethical issues in ways reminiscent of Donna Tartt and Richard Price.” Can’t beat that recommendation.
I have been waiting for another Imbolo Mbue novel, and at last HOW BEAUTIFUL WE WERE (2021) arrived. I had previously LOVED her BEHOLD THE DREAMERS, and this new novel was worth the wait – though, I maintain my heart belongs to the first novel. Still amazing, this new book is about an African village whose people’s lives are degraded, their children killed by the toxicity wrought by an American oil company. There are promises of money and clean up that never arrive. The dictator is in bed with the Americans, and the villagers must fight back on their own. Those fights are often futile. Thula is a young revolutionary who grows up in the village, travels to America to become educated, and returns to foment resistance. This novel is painful, wonderful, beautiful, and enraging. She is someone I will read always.
EVENFALL (2011) BY Liz Michalski is a quick read narrated by Frank, a ghost, his former lover who is the sister of his wife, and his niece. Andie Murphy, the niece, returns to the homestead ( a 200-year-old farmhouse known as Evenfall), and becomes close to a boy she once babysat. Aunt Gert is miserable, still in love with the dead Frank, and the two – Gert and Andie – reckon the world together in ways that are fraught with tension and secrets. Not a big fan of the ghost narrator, but this guy was a pleasure to hear from, I admit. Pleasant, fast, sweet.
HOW THE ONE-ARMED SISTER SWEEPS HER HOUSE (2021) by Cherie Jones boldly takes on the patriarchal trauma experienced by Caribbean women in this fast-paced novel. The characters are ones I cared about or raged against. There was tension throughout, the kind where you find yourself not breathing. Lala and Adan are embroiled in the murder of a white man. There is a dead baby. There is a charismatic young man who makes a living “servicing” middle-aged women tourists. There is deep and abiding love, and there are tunnels where crimes play out. Read this one for sure.
HAMNET: A NOVEL OF THE PLAGUE (2020) by Maggie O’Farrell seemed a timely book to read during homebound Covid-19. Set in 1580 England, it tells the story of William Shakespeare’s son who died of the Black Death. The bulk of the story revolves around the young Latin tutor (Shakespeare) courting Agnes, who roams the woods for healing herbs and carries a falcon on her gloved hand. Hamnet is one of the couple’s three children, he a twin, a delightful growing boy, whose death nearly ruins his parents. In O’Farrell’s imagining, the family works through its grief, Shakespeare in London writes the play HAMLET, named after the boy. This is a must read for anyone interested in the Bard, his personal life, plagues (new and old).
I read a review of NINTH HOUSE (2019) by Leigh Bardugo ( a Yale grad), and I almost did not read it because words like “fantasy” were attached to it in reviews, but then one review said “compulsively readable,” and the inside cover said “the mesmerizing adult debut from Leigh Bardugo, a tale of power, privilege, dark magic, and murder set among the Ivy League elite,” and that was it. Alex Stern is a first-year student at Yale, recruited on a full ride, and tasked with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies, the eight “tombs” that are the haunts of high-ranking folks – politicians to Wall Street big-shot players. At Yale we find occult activity, ghosts, dead people, hair-raising scenes, and one solid-gold bathtub filled with goat’s milk that heals broken ribs. This massive (450 pages) tome is, in fact, compulsive reading, and my pile of to-be reads is near toppling because I have had my face in this beast, foregoing sleep and food (not really this latter) to find out what Alex Stern will do at Yale.
If you love George Eliot, 19th century superstar author, you might just love IN LOVE WITH GEORGE ELIOT (2019) by Kathy O’Shaughnessy. This novel tells the story of Marian Evans (George Eliot, author of MIDDLEMARCH, etc.) who scandalously lived with the married George Henry Lewes until his death. Eliot hides her identity after writing several bestsellers, until her identity is revealed – for some of her contemporaries, her fame outweighs her scandal; for others, she is simply a disgraced woman. Meanwhile, in alternating chapters, two female Eliot scholars work together and also collide over how to interpret Eliot’s work and legacy for their contemporaries. O’Shaughnessy’s Eliot is a challenging character to like, and that can be a problem if liking a protagonist is important to you as a reader. I found her quite intriguing and recommend hanging in there with her, even if simply because of the important novels she left for us all.
I finally got to read THE MARROW OF TRADITION (1901) by Charles W. Chesnutt, and I was wow-ed. This historical American novel is based on the Wilmington, North Carolina Massacre of 1898, engineered by white Democrats and called a “race riot.” The characters in this novel are rich and complex, and the racism that is woven throughout is clear and hurtful. This novel “presents an unflinching portrayal of America’s post-Reconstruction descent into a brutal world of segregation, and of a black culture caught between ideologies of assimilation and protest,” says the back cover. I read this in a seizure of fury and heartbreak, and I will teach it to my students every chance I get. My only regret: I did not open it sooner.
I read somewhere about THE SUMMER BOOK (1972) by Tove Jansson, and I had to read it. A novel about a grandmother and her granddaughter living on an island in the Gulf of Finland in summer told in twenty two vignettes. Sophia is six and feisty, and her grandmother is her match. They are best friends, arguing, cranky, impetuous. The two walk along the coastline and forest, write stories, talk about life, death, God, love. This is a short book that I felt I should love more than I actually did. Kathryn Davis writes the introduction, and that alone told me to pay attention. I expected THE COUNTRY OF THE POINTED FIRS and got something else, not something bad or boring, but something with more verve, more life. And I think my expectations were off b/c this is a book about a girl whose mother has died (an event about which we get very little detail) and whose life is now about living on this island – an entirely new world. This is the case of: it’s me, not you. This will require re-reading.
GHOST BOYS (2018) by Jewell Parker Rhodes is a YA novel about twelve-year-old Jerome who is a black child shot and killed by a white police officer who mistakes his toy gun for a real gun. The story is told by Jerome’s ghost who watches the fallout from his death in his family and in the courtroom where the officer’s fate is being considered. He is befriended by the ghost of Emmett Till, whirled about by the ghosts of thousands of others like him, dead too young, and he finds an unexpected friend in a living white girl. This is a fast read (only hours), and it tells an all-too-familiar story, but it tells it in a unique way, and highlights the fear that underlies this “epidemic of death,” as Nikki Grimes says in a review.
THE TESTAMENT OF MARY (2012) by Colm Toibin has been on my shelf for years. Finally, I picked it up and read it in a sitting (80 pages). It is an interesting take on Mary’s life as her son Jesus is crucified. In this version, she is surprised and even annoyed at her son’s popularity among strangers. She worries. She is afraid. And she is there when he dies, but she is swiftly sent into hiding by others who fear she will also be killed. This author’s Mary is very human, skeptical, sympathetic, and somehow more real than the versions of Mary many of us are used to. I ate this up.
THINGS WE DIDN’T TALK ABOUT WHEN I WAS A GIRL: A MEMOIR (2019) by Jeannie Vanasco is worth the read. Vanasco is raped by her best high school guy friend. Fourteen years later, she wants to write a book about it, so she contacts this best friend – with whom she has lost touch – and interviews him about why he did what he did. Her goal is to understand how a good person can commit a terrible act. The transcripts of their conversations are sprinkled between chapters where she analyzes those conversations. Some of my favorite parts were the scenes where she talked with her best women friends. They were honest and caring, and their feedback on her project was right on. Sometimes, I was annoyed with the author for caring so much about her friend/rapist – and she was annoyed with herself for the very same reason. This book is very interesting, and I would like to have coffee and a talk with someone, with many someones, about it, so please be in touch.
My daughter handed me WHERE THE FOREST MEETS THE STARS (2019) by Glendy Vanderah thinking I would like it. I read the back: graduate student researching nesting birds living in a cabin by herself – this sold me. Then there is the girl who claims she is from the stars and has to witness five miracles before returning to her home in the sky – this was not appealing to me. Not so much a science fiction fan am I. But, I raised my daughter as a reader, and we often like the same novels, so I looked past this kid from the stars, and began reading. Read straight through until it was done. Now I do take issue with some of the way the ending turned out (meaning I would have written it another way), but I can live with this ending, and I am glad I read this one. It is very quick. It is gripping. The characters are vivid. There is a love interest for the grad student (who recently overcame breast cancer). There is a cute dog. Fit this one in when you need a few moments of fast fiction.
I am a new fan of Attica Locke, and her recent HEAVEN, MY HOME (2019) is important. When a nine-year-old white boy whose father is a member of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas goes missing, black Texas Ranger Darren Mathews is on the case. The racial attitudes of the people he meets are archaic and nasty, and it is fascinating to watch Ranger Mathews deal with racism head on. He is one of my favorite characters, an updated, woke Spenser, if you will. His marriage is on the rocks, his relationship with his mother is a mess, and he is dealing with wealthy white folks trying to steal land from black and indigenous people. “A tale of racism, hatred, and surprisingly, love …” says Publishers Weekly. Worth the read, for sure. Keep ‘em coming, Attica Locke.
FIFTY WORDS FOR RAIN (2020) by Asha Lemmie had me from the first chapter. Another fat book (@450 pages), this one flew by. Eight-year-old Nori had my heart and my rapt attention as she encountered hatred for her mixed race, as she suffered at the hands of her royal Japanese grandmother, and as she discovered her beloved half brother, Akira. Nori is raised to be silent and obedient, yet when life besieges her with grief, she rises up, claiming her inner warrior. Nori is a character I will not forget, and Lemmie is a new novelist whose work I will follow. There were moments in this novel that shocked, others that the reader saw coming but resisted intensely, taking it all in bravely – as Nori did. This is a really good one!
Nearly 500 pages, ONE FOR THE BLACKBIRD, ONE FOR THE CROW (2019) by Olivia Hawker is endearing. It tells the story of two families in Wyoming in 1876 who live so far into the frontier that their reliance on each other is essential. Before the first chapter is done, there is a murder, an adulterous liaison, and two husbandless women, one strapping young man, and a slew of little children left to farm, to hunt, and to survive brutal and long winters. The girl Beulah is a wonder, more nature than girl in some ways, she is almost magical in her poise and ability to remain calm, to see the future, to hold all of these characters together, though she is but fourteen years old. I plugged away at this one because of Beulah and because of her friend Clyde – had to know what would become of them. And while this is, by and large, a quiet book, there are arresting moments where one has to put the book down, breathe slowly and deeply, and to reckon with big news.
I took up the novel AMERICAN DIRT (2019) by Jeanine Cummins with a conflicted heart. This book is mired in the controversy of appropriation: who gets to write what story? And I do understand the issues raised by those who object to this book being written by a non-Mexican woman, and toward that end, I chose not to purchase the book (which somehow seemed to put me on the “right” side of these literary arguments). Nevertheless, I had to read it, as I have to read all books that raise ire and/or consternation. I was hooked from the first chapter, given the fear it struck in me and in all readers. There is murder, drug cartels on the hunt for moms and kids. There are good coyotes who lead immigrants carefully to the U.S. to seek refuge; and there are those who will milk a horrible situation for their own gain. Even as I resisted liking this novel, I sped through it, horrified aloud at many moments. She is a good storyteller, whether or not she is entitled to tell this story. So, can I recommend it? Not without urging readers to study the literary conflict, to understand cultural appropriation, and to insist that the books you purchase and read are published by people who have an equitable position on acquiring new books.
A CHILDREN’S BIBLE (2020) by Lydia Millet is the story of a dozen children on vacation in a huge mansion on a lake. Their parents are drunk or high or negligent all the time, and these kids live a free and uncannily unharmed (for the most part) life on their own – on the water, in cars, etc. (Things that would drive non-drunk/high/negligent parents crazy with worry.) Then there is a storm, which is inevitable because of global warming, and there are bad guys taking advantage of those in dire straits because of the storm and lack of power and water and food. Then there is a mysterious woman who arrives fairy-like to save some of the day. There is a baby born. There is a crucifixion-ish scene. The protagonist is named Eve. I am quite certain I missed the gaggle of biblical references beyond this one, but somehow I found the novel the kind you read because it is acclaimed (Pulitzer Prize finalist), the kind you don’t quite really “get,” and the kind you conclude you don’t get because you failed somehow. This leads to a lingering confusion when the last page is turned. So: I don’t know – to read or not to read? But it’s for sure I, not Millet, so have a go at this one.
THE RAGE ROOM (2020) by fellow Inanna author Lisa de Nikolits is a dystopia ripe with the realities of our time. Set in 2055, the author takes up male rage and gives us Rage Rooms where ferociously-atavistic men can break things and “get out” their anger. Meanwhile, can these rooms provide information that can help an army of feminist hackers to return the world to its “natural” state – one where there is vegetation and thriving humans and a non-plastic/non-computerized state of being and an eschewing of a pathological patriarchal system? Though it may not sound like a fictional world where humor can exist, it sure does. The narrator, Sharps Barkley, is both funny and irreverent and infuriating. The reader walks his walk with him (perhaps because de Nikolits calls him a Jason Bateman!) until he does the unthinkable and must time travel back to undo what he’s so brutally wrought. This is Orwell for our time, and it is rendered by an author seemingly as existentially exhausted by male rage and patriarchy as many of her readers are. READ this one. Do it for Inanna Publications, a feminist press. Do it for hope. Do it for those waking up. THANK YOU, Lisa de Nikolits. THANK YOU.
I am reading MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING (1959) by Viktor E. Frankl for the first time in this era of Covid and remote/hybrid teaching and an attack on the U.S. Capitol by white Americans, and I wonder – deeply – why I have not read this before and often. Frankl was a prisoner in Auschwitz, a psychiatrist, and a man who lost his wife, parents, and others in the camps. His theory of logotherapy calls on people to “live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.” He calls on us to reframe our attitudes, to find meaning even in suffering. And his final warning is crucial and even jarring given that I am reading this book the very same week as the terrorist attack on the Capitol (where some of those rioters were wearing t-shirts with the word “Auschwitz” on them): “Let us be alert – alert in a twofold sense: Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.” THIS is a book I will read and re-read – because I have seen what I have seen.
Jericho Brown’s THE TRADITION (2019) is a collection of poems that offers beauty alongside everyday evils: terror in our homes, the classroom, movie theaters, our workplaces – mass shootings, rape, and murder of unarmed people by police. The poems are bold, beautiful, moving. They require slower reading (as does all poetry for me), and they require reckoning, as does our current and ongoing cultural crisis. This is one to savor, to learn from, to keep.
The nearly 500-page THE GUEST BOOK (2019) by Sarah Blake takes up issues of race, genocide, white privilege and complicity but in a meandering and nuanced manner. I almost put this one down, put off by its length and its slow intro – until the thing that Blake intended to snatch up her readers happened at the very end of chapter three. There were more of these pivotal events, but they were revealed slowly, even generationally, and once revealed they altered the reader’s view of the characters. While this lends to the reading experience a sense of plodding, in retrospect, what Blake does here is to mirror her “message” (for the record: I don’t always believe there is a message, a quick and reductive summary, in fiction) with her plotting. That is, she buries her brutal revelations about racism, antisemitism, marriage, and even Nazism in pages of family relations, in financial reckonings, and in those generations of family who own an island off the coast of Maine. There is privilege and protest, and I read on because of those moments of protest, and though I loved the scenes on the island, I carried on for those moments of revelation and even horror.
HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN (2013) by Louise Penny is my first Chief Inspector Gamache novel, my first Louise Penny. I was hooked right away, but the book is an investment of time – another 400 pager. You will want to know all about the quintuplet girls and the murder of the last-living one. You will want desperately to know what happened to Inspector Gamache’s best friend who seems to have taken up with Oxycontin. You will want to know why, among the friends who hang out at the bookstore in the tiny Quebec town, there is a rude old poet who has a pet duck. Beside the murder of the last quint, there are dangerous doings within the Suretéte Québec, and Gamache is determined to get to the root of it. Meanwhile, it is Christmas in the tiny village, and the scenery and cuisine and the dialogue among the friends is just right for a big, fat reading indulgence by your own fire, your own tree, your own mug of hot cocoa with tiny marshmallows.
BLUEBIRD, BLUEBIRD (2017) by Attica Locke is on the favorite list. I am happy to have discovered this author, and I will read more of her fiction. Darren Matthews is a black Texas Ranger in East Texas who cannot wait to get away, until duty calls him back to investigate the murder of a black lawyer from Chicago and a white woman from a small East Texas town. Historic racism and rage seethe beneath a seemingly calm exterior when Ranger Matthews arrives, but soon enough the lid blows, and Matthews finds himself amidst a crew consisting of the lawyer’s widow, the dead woman’s husband and child, and the woman at the center of much of the mayhem who owns a small bistro. This is a contemporary take on race, racism, and the law, and Darren Matthews is my kind of guy: brave, vulnerable, weary, and kind. Get this one!
AFTERLAND (2020) by Lauren Beukes is a novel that boasts a blurb by George R. R. Martin, which caught my eye. The premise for this one is futuristic and wild: a MAN-VIRUS (called MANFALL) has wiped out nearly all men and boys. The world is run by women. Twelve-year-old Miles is one of the few remaining boys, and his mother, Cole, is intent on protecting him from those with money and power who would use his body as a reproductive resource in order to repopulate the world. Cole and Miles lead a frenzied ride across the country, Miles disguised as a girl, while being pursued by menacing agents who would claim Miles. Among these agents is Cole’s sister Billie who has made a deal to “sell” Miles to a wealthy bidder, was badly injured by her own sister when Cole discovered the plot, and who fears for her own life if she does not deliver Miles as promised. The premise, compelling. The execution (400 pages worth), a bit long. For example, there are many scenes where Miles and Cole join a group of nuns on a mission to convert the world, and while I am a reader who relishes a good nun story, I could have done with a few (hundred) fewer pages of Sisters Chastity, Fortitude and Generosity.
So, here is a new wonder (new to me): FORTY ACRES (2014) by Dwayne Alexander Smith. This is a thriller, and I was thrilled. I plowed through its 370 pages as if my life depended on it – because so many character lives did depend on lawyer Martin Grey making the “right” choice. Martin wins a civil rights case against super-star lawyer Damon Darrell, and after that, Darrell and a group of elite African American men invite Martin to a getaway weekend to visit Forty Acres (check out the important historical reference) where black men are called “master” and whites are considered property – in a unique reversal of America’s criminal past. Aligning with these men and with the philosophy that inspired Forty Acres, Martin will be set financially for life. Rejecting their offer could mean death (his own). I found this revenge narrative compelling, as did American rapper Jay-Z who is producing the Netflix version, teaming up with Luke Cage creator Cheo Hodari Coker for what is being described as a cross between THE FIRM and GET OUT. This book is winner of the NAACP Image Award for Best Literary Debut. I cannot stop thinking about this book, and I damn-well hope Jay-Z gets it right, doing justice to the brave work of Dwayne Alexander Smith.
THE EXCEPTIONAL MAGGIE CHOWDER (2020) by Renee Beauregard Lute is pure fun! Maggie is a 12-year-old who yearns to be a forest ranger and to following the footsteps of her favorite hero EAGIRL (Eagle Girl). The book is filled with illustrations by Luna Valentine, and the adventures of Maggie and her family (her younger brother with autism, her father who lost his job and is not playing a crocodile in an internet series, and her mother now working at a local supermarket) and her best friend whose dad becomes an NFL coach launching that family into wealth – in contrast to Maggie’s family now living in a tiny apartment. I loved this book for young readers, not only because Renee was one of my favorite ever students at Franklin Pierce University, and not only because we go to have a fabulous visit when I was on a writing retreat in Washington state (where she lives) last summer, but because Renee is a talented writer whose book (and books – she is the author of the Winicker Wallace series as well) offers so much more than superheroes and best friends and crocodile dads; it offers life lessons without didacticism; it offers love of family even when family annoys us; it offers young readers hope that their dreams can and do come true, despite periodic dark days!
THE BEAUTY IN BREAKING (2020), a memoir by Dr. Michele Harper, an African American emergency room doctor in a profession filled with white males. A Harvard graduate, she is divorced and has moved to a hospital in Philadelphia where she tells the stories of the patients she treats and the multiple ways in which her empathy grows, as she sees those stricken by illness and circumstance. As she is revising her life, learning to live as a single woman and recovering from the pain of divorce, she shares the lessons learned from her over-worked colleagues and the people thrust into her ER. Among my favorite lines: “There is tremendous release in speaking, in letting go of the judgments of others, in the heroism of being willing to heal. It is only in speaking of abuses that we can address them. It is only in speaking of violence that the cycle can be broken instead of replicated day after day in our subconscious, year after year in our lives.” I flew through this one, really wanting to ask Dr. Harper to tea, so I could learn so much more.
ORANGE CRUSHED (2004) by Pamela Thomas-Graham is the third in this author’s Ivy League Mystery series – and lucky I to have discovered her. I cannot wait to read the others. This one takes place on campuses of Princeton and Harvard, and the young and brilliant professor of economics Nikki Chase, whose goal is to become the first African American woman to be tenured in her department, is also a budding and successful sleuth. Soon enough, after arriving at Princeton for a conference, her mentor shows up dead amidst the remains of the torched African American center on campus. Was it an accident? Probably not. Her mentor, Professor Earl Stokes, is about to publish a tell-all text that implicates some of Princeton’s proudest. Could it be murder? Among the elites? I cannot get enough of this kind of mystery. Lots of brick and ivy, lots of library and classroom scenes and literary allusions, lots of flirting professors. Get me to those other two in the series. Stat!
MONOGAMY (2020) by Sue Miller is pretty much what I thought it would be. Graham and Annie have been married for thirty years. They still include in all family matters Graham’s first wife Frieda and her son with Graham, Lucas. Graham and Annie have a daughter, Sarah. Graham owns a bookshop that is successful and features hot new writers; after the readings, Sarah and Graham host memorable parties at their home. Then Graham dies (this is noted on the back cover, so I am not technically spoiling). Annie is distraught, takes refuge in their Vermont cottage. When she learns some unsettling news about her husband, she volleys between grief and rage. How could he? Who was he? Did she really know him? Can we ever really know another? Lots of existential questions packed in here, but – honestly – not much new. If you are a reader and a Sue Miller fan (I am), go ahead and delve into this one, but don’t expect to be shocked; you’ve read it before. Then again, Sue Miller doing it – that’s hard to walk on by.
This dark road to mercy ((2014) by wiley cash (all of this, title and author, are in lower case letters on the cover. Why?) was a fast read with an ethos of Cormac McCarthy without the extreme violence. The back cover says it is a rewriting of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD as if McCarthy wrote it. I do not see it. Sure, the protagonist is a young, feisty girl (like Scout), and her mother dies, and she gets taken into foster care until her outlaw father comes in the night for her and her sister. (Not exactly Atticus Finch). Then they are being tracked down by bad buys because of an old vendetta and because Wade, the errant dad, has a suitcase of money that he did not earn. There are frightening moments, sure. And because I went into this thinking Cormac McCarthy might rise up suddenly with an unseemly sharp weapon, I was on edge. Alas … nevertheless, I will give wiley cash (and his lower-casedness) another chance with A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME, eschewing all promises of any sort that the cover might promote, and just taking it one page at a time.
GODSHOT (2020) by Chelsea Bieker is a novel about 14-year-old Lacey May who lives in the drought-ridden town of Peaches, California that was a once-thriving raisin producer. Lacey May is part of a cult run by Pastor Vern who hands out secret “assignments” to his followers, all of whom hang on his every word since the time he brought rain to the town. But rain is nowhere to be found right now, and a desperate and intuitive Lacey May lights out to find her alcoholic mother, meets up with the women who run a phone-sex enterprise, and begins to doubt the intentions and abilities of Pastor Vern. We readers who have suspected Pastor Vern and his golden locks and charming words early on wait patiently for Lacey May to catch on and to raise her doubt to an urgent scream. If this book suffers from an abundance of familiar tropes, it does, nevertheless, insist that one hang in there for the sake of this intrepid protagonist. Wearying and vapid as is the male figure who proclaims and imbibes his own god-ship, watching this one get taken down is some literary comfort.
THE GIRL WITH THE LOUDING VOICE by Abi Daré (2020) features such a bright and charming young character, Adunni. While her dream is to go to school to become a teacher and to help girls her age(14 years old) have more choices than are offered the in her village of Nigeria, she is sold as the third wife of an old man. When she experiences a horrible loss and fears for her life, she is taken up by a man who sells her into domestic service to a wealthy woman in Lagos. There she is plagued by mysteries: where did the former servant Rebecca go? Why is her mistress so intent on beating and humiliating her? Will she ever find a way to garner her “louding” voice and her independent future? While the complexities of Adunni’s life are certainly grievous, she is a delight – she questions, she thinks, she fails to fail. This is a prize-winning book by an author from whom we need to hear more.
TOO MUCH AND NEVER ENOUGH: HOW MY FAMILY CREATED THE WORLD’S MOST DANGEROUS MAN by Mary L. Trump, Ph. D. (2020) is not a book I wanted to read because the subject one that exhausts me. Nevertheless, I read it -- in one day. Mary and I see life in a similar way, and that helped. I learned many (sad, horrifying, unethical) things that helped me to understand the subject of her book. I did not feel sadness or pity, but I did feel like I had a psychological/emotional context for what I saw on Twitter and in the news for four draining years. I am glad to have read this and to now be done with it. MLT = brave, smart woman.
LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND by Rumaan Alam (2020) is sautéed in luxurious detail – the kind of detail that one can see and smell and hear, and it locates the reader in a world of privilege and money and carefree living. Amanda and Clay head to their vacation home in a corner of Long Island. The rental house is exquisite, lacking nothing, and they settle in with their teenage son and daughter – until one night Ruth and G.H. – an older couple who claim they own the house have arrived at this second home in a panic because of a blackout all over New York. Skeptical, Amanda and Clay let them stay the night. In the morning, all learn that the TV and internet and cell service are down. No one knows why. Should they stay in this remote place? Should they return home? What was happening? What is very cool and unnerving about this novel is that a third-person narrator intervenes at moments to rain down “answers” unknowable to the characters – the kind of device that might initially provoke but that the reader comes to rely on, needing to know if things are actually dire. Things are dire. The novel explores parenthood, race, and class, and it centers money and privilege as the very things that do nothing to help when a real crisis looms.
You will need time to invest in THE NIGHT WATCHMAN by Louise Erdrich (2020). It is 450 pages long, and it is classic Erdrich. Thomas is the night watchman at a factory near the Turtle Mountain Reservation in rural North Dakota. He is also the Chippewa council member tasked with understanding a new bad-faith “emancipation” bill headed to the U.S. Congress that would terminate a long-held treaty and alter the lives of many Native Americans. I followed Thomas around this novel wanting ONLY good things for this ethical, loving, conscientious man. Pixie Paranteau is a treasure of a young character. Enduring life with an inconsistent and alcoholic father, she works a full-time job to support her family, heads out to find her missing sister Vera, and encounters the kind of people who use other people to their own ends. Fortunately, they had yet to encounter Pixie, who is smart, audacious, and puts the amazing into “badass.” In Louise Erdrich style, there a dozens of characters, each carefully crafted, and each cared for by the reader. This is a fat novel that does not let you down.
Okay, so MEXICAN GOTHIC (2020) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia! It is one of the new, HOT novels of summer, promising to play out the classic gothic tropes in exhilarating and contemporary ways. The reviews lured me in with teasers like – it is a little bit JANE EYRE, a little bit FRANKENSTEIN. I raced to my computer, and ordered the darn novel, then sat on my front steps until UPS arrived with the glorious promise of lost time and hot tea and my breezy porch. I read MEXICAN GOTHIC in a day. And … truth be told: I am not sure. It is intense. It is dark. Where is the JANE EYRE? WHERE IS THE FRANKENSTEIN? Were the reviewers gaslighting me? Noemi Taboada travels to the Mexican countryside, to the worn mansion where her cousin resides with her new husband and his relatives. Noemi is there to investigate why her cousin sent a cryptic message about the house being haunted and her being in danger, unable to escape. The dauntless Noemi arrives ready to do battle and to save her cousin. She encounters a cast of oddball characters, spooky rooms wherein the walls seems to move and tremble (re: “The Yellow Wallpaper”) , and a racism that is flagrant. All good – right? But then there is the supernatural element which seems to govern the entire plot. I always look beneath such devices to find the human agency hidden beneath. This is where Moreno-Garcia and I need to have a talk. Seriously, mushrooms? Fungus? Others LOVE this novel, and maybe, somewhere deep in my soul, I do too, but I am struggling to find those other readers who can help me get past the mushrooms, the fungi, the decrepit old man – ooooo, cannot even talk about him. Be in touch when you want talk. I will listen.
YOU EXIST TOO MUCH (2020) by Zaina Arafat explores the life and sexual identity of a Palestinian American girl whose mother tells her “you exist too much.” Indeed, our protagonist defies her upbringing and its expectations, but she is haunted by them as well. There are reckless romantic encounters, time spent inn a treatment center for “love addition,” and endeavors to find something approximating “true” love. A Bildungsroman, this story of growing up different, queer, and confused is a darkly entertaining, thoughtful novel about one young woman’s conflicted life that opens our eyes to the ways culture, religion, and social norms attempt to define us.
RODHAM (2020) is a novel by Curtis Sittenfeld that posits Hillary Clinton did not marry Bill Clinton but lived a thriving (though fraught with challenges) political life with deep friendships and romance. This is a fictional story knitted into actual historical events. While Sittenfeld’s Hillary does date Bill, does come close to marrying Bill, she chooses otherwise given his predilection toward unsavory behavior. The breakup is devastating but clarifying. This is a must read for those of us whose hopes were plummeted in 2016. It offers an alternate fictional universe in which we can abide for a few hours with Hillary’s iron determination, her superior intellect, and her raw humanity. I cheered her on throughout these 400+ pages, this inimitable woman who, let us not forget, won the popular vote. Once upon a time.
One of my favorite novels of the summer is THESE WOMEN (2020) by Ivy Pochoda. The Los Angeles Times said of it: “A dizzying, kaleidoscopic thriller that refuses to let readers look away from the dark side of Southern California.” That is nothing but the truth. We get to inhabit the lives of “these women,” characters who work street corners and bars. When they are victims of a heinous crime, many believe they get what they deserved. Pochoda offers us another way to understand Dorian, wayward after her daughter’s murder, and Jujubee, living hard and fast, and then Essie, a vice cop who looks for and sees patterns in the crimes that connect these (and other) and one man who remains a mystery for much of the novel. This is a tense and fast-paced book, a winner in my view! If it sniffs of stale tropes – forgotten women as victims of violence – Pochoda saves it with her intricate characterization.
THE CACTUS (2018) by Sarah Haywood attracted me because of the blurb: “Fans of Eleanor Oliphand is Completely Fine will love The Cactus.” I cannot say that I loved it, but I did read it through, and I did care about the ornery Susan Green and the men in her life. Too often, I kept going to keep going, and then Haywood would toss out a plot point that urged me to keep on for the sake of wondering about Susan’s job or her love life or her lawsuit against her brother or her grief/non-grief over her losses. I did it, but I am not sure I can suggest you do. It’s a risk!
Rivers Solomon’s AN UNKINDNESS OF GHOSTS (2017) is the ONE science fiction novel I read this summer, and I am happy I did. Frankly, some of it was lost on me, the world-building intricate and scienc-y, but the characters are gold. The novel takes place on the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized like the antebellum South. It is on its way to the mythical Promised Land and has been for generations. The ship’s leaders are immoral and dangerous to the dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster, the protagonist who has an ability with medicine. With a Civil War looming, Aster finds herself in trouble, some of which she brings on –for the greater good. The back of the book describes this novel “in the vein of Colson Whitehead, Samuel R. Delany, and Octavia E. Butler” (Tananarive Due), and that was enough for me to dive right in. Solomon takes on the topics of racism, hatred, misogyny, and fierce female determination with a contemporary nod to forbidden love/lust.
THE OTHER’S GOLD (2019) by Elizabeth Ames appears at first to be a romp – four girls who become friends at Quincy-Hawthorn College and inseparable. They are fun to follow, their antics with boys, their crushes, their studies and non-studies. Then they grow up. Some marry and have children, some not. And this is where the secrets each has withheld are revealed, changing the dynamic of the friendships. At some moments, these secrets are shocking both to the reader and to the other characters, and the secrets are far from run-of-the-mill – which is refreshing for those who read a lot and are used to the overwrought secret. This book is disturbing and angering and compelling, and I really do recommend it.
SAVING RUBY KING (2020) by Catherine Adel West is rough going in the best way possible. It is chock full of dastardly secrets that eat at each character’s being. Ruby King’s mother is murdered in their Chicago home, and the murder is dismissed by police as simply another killing in a black neighborhood. Ruby is left alone, devastated, with her violent father. Her best friend Layla is a consolation, but Layla uncovers secrets and questions loyalties, and she aims to save her friend Ruby from a crash. There are unholy pastors, there are brazen and admirable female role models, and there is the church that narrates several chapters. This one brings you to your knees.
Loved, loved THE BEAUTY OF YOUR FACE (2020) BY Sahar Mustafah. Afaf Rahman, daughter of Palestinian immigrants, is principal of the muslim Nurrideen School for Girls in Chicago. One morning a shooter enters and attacks the school. Hiding in a closet, Afaf recalls her life memories, her mother’s anger, her sister’s disappearance, her own promiscuity in early life, and her ultimate embracing of Islam. This past life is rich and beautiful and sad, its telling in the moment when a gun is pointed at Afaf, that history becomes both urgent and significant. Is this all she has left, those memories? This is a fast read that tugs at the conscience and heart, as do all good novels. Read this one.
THE VANISHING HALF (2020) by Brit Bennett is quite the rage, and I get it. Identical twins who are best friends until they turn sixteen and separate. One returns to live in her all-black southern community with her dark-skinned child. The other lives across the country, is married, wealthy, with one child – she passes for white. This story is both riveting and painful. When the lives of the daughters of the twins intersect – truths are on the line, truths that can upend lives. I loved these sisters, understood them, criticized them, and could not wait to reach the conclusion to see if they could be reunited. Great book!
QUEENIE (2019) is a novel by Candice Carty-Williams. It is a fast read, sort of like SEX IN THE CITY without so many outfits (but there are some!). Queenie is a hot mess: her boyfriend is gone. Her boss is angry with her lame work ethic. She has awesome best friends who are losing patience with her. She makes some pretty bad decisions, and as a reader you are shouting: STOP THAT, QUEENIE, STOP THAT RIGHT NOW. Little does she listen, until …. She comes face to face with herself. For much of this novel, I wondered where it was going, why I was reading about the protagonist ruining her life. Then I remembered that many of us “ruin” our lives when we are young and have no fully developed frontal lobes. If we survive, we can hope to make better decisions. Does Queenie survive? Find out.
THE WITCH DOESN’T BURN IN THIS ONE (2018) by Amanda Lovelace is a long narrative poem (do NOT be afraid!) that sizzles with anger and humor and revenge fantasies. It tackles misogyny in all of its multifarious forms, in all of its fairy-tale tropes, and squashes them all like bugs. This text is so much fun. It is not for the fearful; rather, it is for the reader who has had it, and who needs an hour or so (quick read) of relief. You will laugh and hoot and shout “holy crap” perhaps, but you will not come away unchanged or un-rattled!! Read this one.
RADICAL HOPE: A TEACHING MANIFESTO (2020) by Kevin M. Gannon was uplifting and useful. Gannon argues that teaching (his focus is on higher education) can be an emancipatory and hopeful act. Students, he says, are the primary audience and beneficiaries of teaching, and he stands strong for teachers and the important work they do. I took four pages of notes while reading this book, and I plan to incorporate many of his suggestions into my own syllabi and pedagogy. Too often, books of this sort preach and promise and leave you with little you can USE tomorrow. This is not one of those. Gannon is the real deal: an activist professor who shares his good ideas and practices and speaks honestly about the ways in which we should interrogate our curricular assumptions. I am on that case – Thank you Dr. Gannon.
I found every one of the 400+ pages of Ronan Farrow’s CATCH AND KILL: LIES, SPIES, AND A CONSPIRACY TO PROTECT PREDATORS (2019) fascinating. I buzzed through this book, appalled at the systemic abuse of real-life criminals like Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Leslie Moonves, Donald Trump and the corporations that covered for them. I learned how wealthy men abuse and rape women with impunity with the help of money and fame and influence and nondisclosure agreements. Farrow was harassed and threatened throughout his investigations of these men, and we are fortunate in his fortitude that we have this revelatory text. I recommend this to everyone, perhaps most particularly to anyone who does not believe in systemic abuse. Oh, it exists. Check it out.
Therese Anne Fowler’s A GOOD NEIGHBORHOOD (2020) is a read-in-one-day novel about a North Carolina neighborhood where Valerie Alston-Holt, forestry and ecology professor and a widow, lives with her biracial son. Next door, the Whitmans move in and build a McMansion, disturbing the ecology so precious to Valerie. Brad Whitman is a popular businessman whose TV commercials make him well known in the area. His wife Julia escaped poverty when she married Brad. Things come to a head between the families when one of Valerie’s beloved trees is damaged fatally by Brad’s sideswiping some laws in order to insert his swimming pool into the ground. There is a love story. There is anguish, ethical dilemmas, bad choices, and there is a death. The narrators are the “we” of the neighborhood, the women of Valerie and Julia’s book group, which gives this novel a bit of a Faulkner (“A Rose for Emily”) vibe. I wish Fowler had chosen a different ending – I’ve seen enough of what she provides, but still the novel is fast-paced, gripping, and important. Read this one.
WHITE FRAGILITY: WHY IT’S SO HARD FOR WHITE PEOPLE TO TALK ABOUT RACISM (2018) by Robin Diangelo, and why oh why did it take me so long? Shame on me. This book is essential reading for – well – everyone who is white. I learned so much, and I was the kind Diangelo talked about, the kind who thinks she knows some things about race but really needs to know so much more. Diangelo is clear, to the point, and life changing. There is no better time to read this book, or maybe the better time to have read it would have been 400+ years ago, before we committed our national mortal sin of slavery. Nevertheless, I have some clearer ideas of how to be a better person who was raised in and still abides in a racist country – as we all do. Time for action. Thank you, Robin Diangelo.
SALEM FALLS (2001) by Jodi Picoult is fast and engaging. Jack, a former teacher, Ph.D., makes a new life in Salem Falls after having served nearly a year in jail for raping a student. He falls in love with the local diner owner, Addie, who has her own dark secret. All nice, new start for both … until … four teenage girls who fancy themselves “witches” target Jack with malevolent allegations. True to Picoult form, there is a trial, lawyer characters with their own dark secrets and cops with shady backgrounds. Picoult is comforting when you need to be soothed by fiction that relaxes and pulls you through. She offers just enough surprises to keep you wondering. If she is sometimes predictable, whatever. She is fun and stress-reducing, like a frozen Margarita at an outside eatery in the summer waning sun!
FAVORITE BOOK of this pre-summer season – so far – is MOLLY OF THE MALL: LITERARY LASS & PURVEYOR OF FINE FOOTWEAR (2019) by Heidi L. M. Jacobs. English majors everywhere will buckle in for this literary ride. Molly is a college student, English major, who works at a mall selling shoes. She hates her job. She loves reading, especially Jane Austen. Molly MacGregor is the funniest narrator I’ve read in such a long time. I laughed out loud, cackling if truth be told, because of this character’s hilarious commentary on her life, her university classes, the dweeby boys she encounters, her caustic shoe store boss who dates two different Gordons, the guy she likes, the guy she loves, even her parents who are university professors. I could not stop reading this book. Absolute, unabashed recommendation: read this one!
LOST CHILDREN ARCHIVE (2019) is a novel by Valeria Luiselli and one of The New York Times 10 Best Books of 2019. It was longlisted for the Booker Prize (for those who care about such things). A mother and father and their boy and girl drive from New York to Arizona one summer. Lots of time in the car where bonds begin to fray between the parents. The father is focused on archiving Native American tragedies, the mother on the current tragedies befalling immigrant children. Against the backdrop of this one family’s impending breakup is the news stories of thousands of children trying to cross the southwestern border of the U.S. but being detained or getting lost in the desert along the way. This is, perhaps, a novelto be read more than once. Tommy Orange, author of THERE THERE, says it is “Impossibly smart, full of beauty, heart, and insight. Everyone should read this book.” So, there
I really, really LOVED Lisa Braxton’s THE TALKING DRUM (2020). The novel takes place in a dying factory town in Massachusetts where cash and the political will of powerful men behind urban development will displace a thriving black community. Syndey Stallworth left law school to support her husband’s dream of opening a bookstore in the heart of this community. Omar Bassari is a drummer from Senegal who hopes to bring his African culture to the world. Other beautifully crafted and nuanced characters live robust, if poor, lives in Bellport, and all of them resist the coming gentrification even as suspicious fires ravage their town and livelihoods. What Braxton offers is a cast of characters who bravely take a stance against white power – and I cared deeply for all of them, for their indefatigable spirits, for their heartbreaking losses, for the crimes perpetrated against them. There were surprises. There was resilience. There was a heroic stance against brutal power – all of which makes for required reading.
THE HEART BEGINS HERE (2018) BY Jacqueline Dumas is another book featuring a bookstore – and a feminist bookstore -- something I cannot resist. At Common Reader Books, in 2001, is where we meet the quirky regulars, the giggling teenagers, and the author readings for which Sara Requier, the owner, has such high hopes. The store holds special ceremonies including one to remember the fourteen women murdered at Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal in 1989; it hosted a Women of the Left Bank night where customers dressed as their favorite writers (Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and James Joyce in drag!). Sara Requier is in a relationship with Wanda Wysoka. Wanda is in a relationship with a new lover, Cindy. Cindy is murdered. And bedraggled, yet optimistic, Sara is caught in a whirl of emotions: her abiding love for Wanda, her anguish at being left by Wanda, and her generous heartache for Wanda’s loss of Cindy. Meanwhile, the bookstore is struggling in the era of huge corporate bookstores and the Internet explosion. On top of that, Sara’s mother does not acknowledge Sara’s lesbianism. It may not sound like it, but this book is packed with humor and incisive social commentary. It takes up the issues of misogyny, homophobia, and loss. Though a brief novel, it is packed with much that is wise and warm.
I had not heard of CARMILLA (1871) by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu until a student chose to examine this novella for his final project in my English Romanticism, contending it is a legacy of that literary period. Carmilla is a lesbian vampire who preys on our young protagonist Laura who lives in a remote mansion in a central European forest (of course she does!). When Laura develops bizarre symptoms and declines in health, her father gets busy investigating – which leads to Carmilla, a young woman visiting their home. Other victims of Carmilla become identified, and what follows is the expected: ghostly escapes from locked rooms, hidden scars on young throats, a moss-embedded tomb, stakes and hatchets and the final reckoning with Carmilla. This brief fiction is delightful in the ways one might expect from vampire fiction. It is fast-paced and the Lanternfish Press edition I read has very cool graphics.
I find THE ILLNESS LESSONS (2020) by Clare Beams far more interesting now that I’ve finished it. It took me some time, nightly reading, falling asleep, having to start over, but all the while I had a Louisa May Alcott feel about the novel, and, indeed, as I found out, that is exactly what the author is going for. Sam Hood and his daughter Caroline start a school for teenaged girls in 19th century New England (should have been a dead giveaway, but – geez – the semester was dizzingly busy – until the virus – and so I did not pick up on the obvious). There is a flock of mysterious red birds that descends on the town. The girls develop symptoms: rashes, seizures, night wanderings. They bring in a doctor who ends up being – mendacious and predatory. Caroline must act, defy her father and the doctor and all the other patriarchs who claim to know best, but who know nothing. I am happy to have finished this, and it may be worth another read. What are those damned red birds about?
Even that dreaded stomach thing that gets passed around during a winter term could not keep me from reading DEAR EDWARD (2020) by Ann Napolitano in one day – this of course, once I could lift my head from the bathroom floor and could focus on anything but surviving. This novel is the fastest read I’ve encountered in a long time. The premise is addicting: 12-year-old Edward Alder and his beloved older brother and parents board a flight from Newark to Los Angeles along with 183 other passengers. We meet many of them, get to know them, long to hear more of their stories, when the plan crashes killing all of them but for little Edward. The nation is captivated by Edward’s survival, and when he makes his new home with his aunt and uncle, when he meets up with his new neighbor and best friend Shay,his days and years of reckoning begin. This book is really gripping in a BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY type of way, for those who read that one long ago in high school perhaps. I loved it.
THE MINIMALIST HOME (2018) by Joshua Becker is so motivating. I’ve taken more trips to Salvation Army with bags of well-loved items than ever before. Becker takes you room by room through your home, and nudges gently for you to remove them if they are not your most beloveds. The space created by removing STUFF is so energizing and breathable. Iam a huge fan of minimalism, though I am a newbie at it. I even cleaned out my office at work, and though the books still threaten to topple the shelves, the files are less stuffed, and the desktop is not so rag tag. This is a good one.
I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED OLIVE AGAIN (2019) by Elizabeth Strout. I also loved the original OLIVE KITTERIDGE. Olive is a wonder of a woman. That does not mean she is always (or often) likable in the way many female characters are expected to be. She can be rude, dismissive, judgmental. But she is so complex and kind (sometimes) and quirky. She is older in this novel. Her husband Henry has died. She is “dating” Jack, still having issues with her son Christopher, and living in Maine. Cannot say enough about this one.
THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES 2019 edited by Anthony Doerr (author of ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE) has some really fine stories. I love this series, and I read it every year, and I use the annual collection in my fiction workshop. These are the “best” stories, chosen by Doerr this year, that appeared in magazines in the U.S. and in Canada. This collection, though not my favorite of all time, will impress. “The Era” by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is among my favorites, though I wish “The Finkelstein Five” had been the choice. Get onto this one.
IN THE DREAM HOUSE (2019) by Carmen Maria Machado is getting so much praise, I had to read it asap. This is Machado’s memoir of her relationship turned nightmare. She uses some clever literary devices, including footnotes linking her narrative to the Motif-Index of Folk Literature by Thompson. The story is harrowing and disturbing in that the woman with whom Machado is involved is cruel, mercurial, dangerous. What makes the chronicle desperate at times is Machado’s inability to get out sooner – which, and I emphasize this, is understandable if one knows how the cycle of domestic violence works. The author’s writing is honest and raw, her story crushing – but in an important way. I am VERY happy I read this one. While she acknowledges that domestic violence happens in lesbian/gay relationships, she has a deep sadness about this – as if it is a letdown, as if heterosexual couples cornered the market on such violence. She offers us an important reality, a tough reality.
WHAT RED WAS (2019) by Rosie Price is an interesting novel about Kate who meets Max during the first week at university. They bond, become a sort of best-friend duo. She meets and becomes immersed in his famous family; his mother is a film director much admired by Kate. Kate’s own home life is dire, different from Max’s in all ways possible. When Kate experiences a life-changing trauma in a bedroom at a party at Max’s family home, she finds unexpected support from one of Max’s family members. While I wanted this book to end sooner than it did, I was delighted with the surprise ending. It made it all worthwhile, though a bit of editing would have been welcome.
THE BODY LIES (2019) by Jo Baker is a book I bought in hardcover and really wanted to love. It had all of the ingredients that offered an exciting read: the protagonist is a writer who takes a new job at an English university where she teaches creative writing. She is longing to escape the violent assault she cannot forget. When her students – one in particular – start writing stories wherein she is the central figure, her fear not only returns but escalates. The backstory includes a husband who lives afar, a young boy child, and new neighbors she is unsure she can trust. I wanted more from this book – that’s on me. It is a fast read, a sometimes gripping read. Hmmmm …
KNOW MY NAME(2019) by Chanel Miller is wonderful. This is the memoir by the woman who was raped by Brock Turner in California when she was passed-out drunk. Her story is rich and layered, enhanced by her own words – as opposed to the trite and hackneyed stereotypes put forth by Turner’s defense attorneys and (sometimes) the press. Turner spend pitifully little time in prison for his crime, and the judge who sentenced him to that minimalist sentence was recalled – he is no longer a practicing judge. What Miller does is walks us through HER story, the anguish, her family and friends’ anguish, the overly extensive amount of time it took to get to trial. Miller is a brilliant writer, an English major, and she has written a memoir I will use in my Law & Literature course because it follows a victim through an ordeal that sheds light on our legal system’s successes and flaws.
AN UNSUITABLE JOB FOR A WOMAN (1977) by P. D. James is a Cordelia Gray mystery. Cordelia is a 22-year-old woman who inherits a private detective agency and finds herself on a case alone, shortly after her mentor dies. Hired by his father, Mark Callender is found hanging in his cabin, a faint trace of lipstick on his mouth. A dropout from Cambridge, and an all-around good buy, according to most of those interviewed by Cordelia Gray, Callender’s death haunts his father, who hires Gray to get to the bottom of his murder/suicide. This is a good one because: P. D. James. Female detectives are always fun, and this one is no exception.
THE EDUCATION OF BRETT KAVANAUGH (2019) by Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly was intriguing – still, I learned virtually nothing new. Brett Kavanaugh told us who he was clearly in his investigation on national television. What these authors provide is a background, a look into his college life, and what do we find: a guy who drinks to excess, acts out in ways that are embarrassing and crude, and a guy whose respect for women is – at very best – questionable. Do these authors let Kavanaugh off the hook? Not exactly. They aim to explain his former life, before he landed a Supreme Court position. They acknowledge that his performance during his testimony was boorish and intemperate, that it enraged those watching his clear and uninhibited rage. All of this the careful observer could not help but comprehend. It IS an interesting book. It does fill in some gaps. Ultimately – BK is who we have. The book may be more of a reflection on the state of the United States than on any one justice -- appointed for life.
10 MINUTES 38 SECONDS IN THIS STRANGE WORLD (2019) by Elif Shafak – one of my favorite Turkish writers – one of my favorite writers – is so good. It was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize (not always a good thing – those reads are hit or miss, to my mind). The protagonist is dead in this one. Tequila Leila enters a state of heightened awareness after being murdered – awake-ish and aware and telling us her entire life story – for, you got it, 10 minutes 38 seconds. Her brain is alive and remembering, and we are its beneficiaries. We learn about her childhood in a polygamous family, her authoritarian father, her escape to Istanbul, and her finding a home on the historic Street of Brothels. Leila is a beloved character, as are her dear friends, five of them who are crushed by her death and take bold action to correct a wrong: her burial in the Cemetery of the Companionless in Turkey. This one is a keeper!
THE GRACE YEAR (2019) by Kim Liggett you have a Hunger Games kind of story where girls are made to spend their 16th year in isolation with others of the same age in order to release their “magic” into the wild. What is this magic: it is the powerful aphrodisiac, the potent essence of youth, that drives men wild and uncontrollable and women mad with jealousy. Once in the wild, the girls turn on each other, becoming all Lord of the Flies. Why is this? Is it their “magic” being released? Well – if so, I would have closed that book and sent it back to the library. The book is, of course, a satire, and it is well done – if a bit redolent of those other titles I’ve mentioned here. It is a fast read. There are endearing scenes. There are grotesque scenes. Let me know what you think.
FINN (2007) by Jon Clinch tells the story of Pap/Finn, Huckleberry Finn’s drunken, violent father. The book is rife with violent, bloody scenes of Finn’s making. He is cruel, entitled, and embittered. We meet Finn’s father, a racist judge; his brother who does the judge’s bidding; his mistress Mary, mother of Huck himself. This is not a book for everyone. It surely is for those enamored of Twain’s original, and it has its moments of gripping narrative. On the whole, it chronicles the life of a reprobate, racist, raging man – if you are into that – have at it.
Malcolm Gladwell’s TALKING TO STRANGERS (2019) is a fast read. His premise is this: the tools and strategies we use to make sense of strangers don’t work. We don’t know how to do it. Gladwell references case studies of Sylvia Plath, Jerry Sandusky, Sandra Bland, Bernie Madoff, and Amanda Knox – all cases in which strategies for making sense of strangers went woefully awry. I learned a lot from this book, skills I will seek to use when encountering others I do not know well.
EVERYTHING YOU KNOW (1999) by Zoe Heller I picked up at a used bookstore. I have loved her NOTES ON A SCANDAL the many times I’ve read it, but this one, not up to par if that is the standard. Willy Muller is a celebrity writer and a misanthrope and misogynist. He becomes obsessed with his daughter Sadie’s journal after she commits suicide. This character is unlikable in his entirety. That makes him interesting for a time, but I had to will myself through to the end. Not one I’m going to recommend. Better off with NOTES ON A SCANDAL – that’s a winner.
GEORGE (2015) by Alex Gino is a middle grade novel about George, a young girl born into a boy’s body. She struggles with telling someone – her mom, her friend Kelly, her brother. Only when the play CHARLOTTE’S WEB is about to be produced by her school does she speak her truth, that because she longs to play the role of Charlotte, the female spider. This is a delightful book that introduces young readers to the inner life of a transgender girl. While it has caused controversy in many schools, I found it important and beneficial as a way to understand an experience many do not have – but many do.
THE SEVEN NECESSARY SINS FOR WOMEN AND GIRLS (2019) by Mona Eltahawy is a wild ride. She begins: “I wrote this book with enough rage to fuel a rocket.” She is fearless. Having been sexually assaulted in Mecca, having been silenced by a power structure that could not have cared less about her pain, the adult Eltahawy is not holding back. Her point: patriarchy will not go away, will not be diminished, until it fears feminism. She has very specific anecdotes, very specific statistics, and she has very specific and bold advice in these categories: anger, attention, profanity, ambition, power, violence, and lust. This is a powerhouse of a book. Every page a jolt.
UNRULY CATHOLIC NUNS: SISTERS’ STORIES (2017) edited by Jeana DelRosso, Leigh Eicke, and Ana Kothe is awesome, awesome! These are stories told by former nuns, current nuns, catholic women. They are funny, angering, outrageous, and they affirm why nuns are some of my favorite people. The Sisters of St. Joseph who taught me for twelve years are some mighty strong and wise women, and I am most fortunate to have had them. I have heard the stories about “bad” nuns. They did not appear in my life. Some of the ones I had early on were quirky, for sure, but who among us does not have quirky in her life? This is a must read for anyone interested in what the life of Catholic nuns is like or was like.
HIS MOTHER’S SON (2003) by Cai Emmons is intriguing. Jana Thomas is an ER doctor with a great husband and six-year-old son Evan. Life is good, but Jana worries inordinately about her son’s behavior. Is he a normal boy? Is he destined for a life of woe given some of his rogue antics? Her submerged past, kept secret from everyone in her life, weighs on her and informs her worry about Evan. When that past comes knocking at the door, Jana if faced with a reckoning, a showdown with her secrets. This book leads you on a winding road to the painful truth of Jana’s past and present. I like those kinds of winding roads. This is a good one.
NELLY DEAN: A RETURN TO WUTHERING HEIGHTS (2015) by Alison Case is a fat novel that tells the story of Nell Dean, the narrator in Wuthering Heights. Hers is a long history, and she relays it in a letter to Lockwood, to clear up some mysteries. If you loved Wuthering Heights, this is an interesting follow up. Nelly Dean becomes a far more interesting character in this volume. Is the book too long? Yes. But the secrets keep coming to the clear end, so it is worth hanging on.
THE NICKEL BOYS (2019) by Colson Whitehead is brilliant and distressing. Based on a true story, this novel tells the story of Elwood Curtis who studies the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., is being raised by his grandmother, and is readying to start college. He is arrested and sentenced to juvenile reformatory, Nickel Academy. His crime: being black in Florida at the time of the Civil Rights movement. Nickel Academy is a brutal hell run by white men filled with hate and venom. He and his friend Turner wrestle with differing ideologies and experience similar horrors. The book is heart-wrenching, authentic, and powerful. Drawn in immediately, one cannot stop until she/he learns the fate of Elwood, Turner, Elwood’s grandmother. This is a necessary read.
I was really taken with Lisa Taddeo’s THREE WOMEN (2019). This work of nonfiction follows the lives of Lina, Maggie, and Sloane. Their lives are complex, but at the crux of what Taddeo is examining is their sex lives. One is married to a man, father of her children, who refuses to kiss or touch her, so she has an affair. Another has a sexual “relationship” with her high school teacher when she is a student. The third is married to a man who likes to watch her have sex with others – he chooses all the partners. While this book does not shy away from sexual details, it does manage to examine several complex layers of these women’s lives. If it is rich in details, it is also rich in the lengths to which women can go when coerced, influenced, or led to believe they are loved. It is, in many ways, a sad book, a real book. The writing is simply beautiful. Whole sentences are worth jotting down to read over and over. This is not a book for everyone. It is often raw. But the writing, the metaphors – Taddeo is the real deal.
GOOD TALK (2018) by Mira Jacob is simply awesome and real and intrepid. It is a graphic memoir in which Jacob talks to her son, born of an interracial marriage, about race in America. The illustrations are gripping, the dialogue anguishing and authentic, the praise for this book from some of the biggest names in literature today, including Celeste Ng, Jacqueline Woodson, and Lynn Nottage. I loved this book. I loved the honesty with which Jacob shares her experience of racism, so we readers can understand something that is real, systemic, and dangerous. Absolutely, read this one.
THE RED WORD (2018) by Sarah Henstra is a novel about rape culture on a college campus. Set in the 1990s, Karen Huls is a sophomore involved in both a feminist group and a fraternity. The two clash dramatically and violently. Karen is caught in the middle, loving the intellectual prowess of her feminist friends, equally loving the ease and freedom of the fraternity lifestyle. What she does not count on is the divergent ways one considers “rape.” This is an interesting book, but not a book for everyone. Indeed, I would like – and plan to – speak to the author, an English professor at Ryerson University in Canada, about one of her plot devices I find concerning. Karen is a complex character, one whose path wends from comfortable to irritating. I’m glad I read this one, but again: fair warning.
SWEAT (2017) by Lynn Nottage, a two-time Pulitzer-Prize winner – and one of those times for this play, is amazing. Heartbreaking. Real life. I wept and wept at the end. All of it came together, made sense, forced the reader to see the world as it is – in its ugliness and sadness and desperation. The play takes place in a barroom in one of the poorest cities in Pennsylvania. The folks in the bar work at the local factory, where generations have worked. Financial and personal ruin are coming, but they do not know it. We readers do not know it but for several moments when we get hints and for the stage notes given before each scene that tell us what is going on in the U.S. at large. This play is just beautiful in its heart-rending reality.
I really flew through Steven Rowley’s novel THE EDITOR (2019). It is the story of James Smale who writes an autobiographical novel about mothers and sons, sells it to a major publishing house, and works with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis as his editor. The two become friends, and as James’s life with his partner Daniel and with his own mother becomes fraught – history nudging its way in, as it can do – James must work out not only his “real” life but the ending of his novel, which his uber-famous editor says is not working. I so connected with this book, but for the former-First-Lady editor part. Sometimes the ending of a book DOES connect, even subconsciously, to some part of “real” life, and sometimes that is so very, very hard to see, without the help of readers who give honest feedback. This is a winner! And the author is from Maine. Who doesn’t love Maine.
ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS (2019) by the award-winning poet Ocean Vuong is THE book being touted by reviewers this summer. It is slim, formatted as a letter from a grown son to his mother, and becomes overtly poetic about halfway through. I admit, as I have before about other loudly-praised books, that this one befuddled me. The story is sad, sweet, genuine – but I’m not sure I get it. There is one scene dealing with a monkey that is so profoundly disturbing that I want to erase it from my brain – like a few scenes I’ve almost erased from BREAKING BAD. Alas, it could be me. Can all of those reviewers and cheerleaders be wrong? My reader friends, those who adore fine literature, say this IS a great read. So it is I who is in the wrong here? Or – when in doubt – re-read.
FLEISHMAN IS IN TROUBLE (2019) by Taffy Brodesser-Akner is a fat novel about Dr. Toby Fleishman, a liver expert, married to Rachel, a successful agent to actors. They have two children. On the verge of divorce, Toby experiments – a lot – with dating sites that get him in bed with women but not in love with them. There is no future in this, but for a time it is exciting, especially because Toby is self-conscious about being 5’ 5”. The book is narrated by an old college friend, Libby – who shows up as a character now and again, but mostly we forget she is narrating. I liked this book but wanted it to be over about 100 pages from the end. I was tired of Toby’s anxiety and sex life. I was tired of the life Rachel began living. I was tired of his whining teenaged daughter – loved his little son. I guess I was in trouble committing to this novel – on I thought should be far shorter.
THIS IS HOW IT ALWAYS IS (2017) by Laurie Frankel is about Rosie and Penn who have five boys. She is a doctor, he a novelist. Their fifth son, Claude, is born into a boy body but is really a girl. Frankel is adept at negotiating the fraught encounters Claude (who becomes Poppy) and his parents find themselves up against. Being a transgender child is not easy, but Poppy has the support and love of her family and some friends, which helps, but certainly does not overcome all of the challenges and anguish. This is a fast read and an important and sensitive read. It gets at how difficult it is for parents and children who are different in a variety of ways, but it also celebrates the non-conforming, the unique individual. I found this book heartwarming and encouraging. Given the stats on suicide and trans people, we had all best read this book and take to heart Laurie Frankel’s observations and wisdom.
THE QUESTION AUTHORITY (2019) by Rachel Cline is intense. Nora Buchbinder reunites with her childhood best friend Beth over a work assignment in Brooklyn Heights. Nora finds herself in a storm of memories – was their eighth-grade teacher Beth’s lover or her rapist? Was this man raping other girls in her class? Was there such a thing as justice, or are our childhood experiences, including victimization, erased by the sweep of adulthood? The back cover reads: “Readers will recognize the confusion and distortion brought into the lives of others by one broken man.” What to do when memories arise in adulthood that cry out for justice? This book is important and disturbing and satisfying (sort of), but primarily, it asks good, hard questions about social justice for girls.
Am I the only person who did not read BIG LITTLE LIES (2014) by Liane Moriarty yet? I took it with me on a cross-country trip to my writing residency. Started it and finished it in 24 hours. Gripping. Exciting. Shocking. So satisfying. A beach read? Yep, but with something added. This is such a fun book, big and fat as it is, 400+ pages. I hear the show on HBO is awesome too. I have so much ahead of me.
THE LOCAL NEWS (2009) by Miriam Gershow tells the story of Danny Pasternak and his younger sister Lydia. Lydia, bookish and an outcast at school, narrates. The central tension of the novel is that Danny goes missing. Elaborate searches are underway, but he is not to be found. The effect on Lydia, who perceives herself to be the lesser-desired child, is what captivates the reader. My favorite character is the equally bookish David Nelson, Lydia’s best friend. They are experts on so much, particularly geography and politics, and they use their knowledge to try to find Danny, the older brother who tormented Lydia. Will they find the charming football hero? That is the main wonder throughout. Gershow spent time at the same writing residency as I, and when I found her book here, I was happy to read a fellow writer’s story. This is a good one for sure.
THE STRANGER IN THE WOODS: THE EXTRAORDINARY STORY OF THE LAST TRUE HERMIT (2017) by Michael Finkel is about Christopher Knight who spent twenty-seven years in the deep woods of Maine, beginning when he was twenty. He lived in a tent in a secluded camp, breaking into nearby cottages for the essentials: food, books, batteries. He took only what he needed to survive. This made folks nervous, and eventually, Knight was found, arrested, and later released after serving time for burglary. This is a fascinating study of a man willing and wanting to be alone, completely alone, in the woods, under dire conditions like sub-zero winters. I’ve had this book on my shelf since its publication, and I finally got around to it. Happy I did. Nice reporting, Michael Finkel.
THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE (2008) by Rebecca Miller is a book I almost put down about a third of the way through, but it was the only book I brought on an airplane, and I’d already watched a movie and two sitcoms, talked to my seatmates, and chowed down the tiniest bag of Cheeze-its made by man. So, I soldiered on through Pippa’s crazy life. I finished – because that’s mostly what I do. Can I recommend this book? I can imagine some folks might like it: story of Pippa who marries the far-older Herb, a retired publisher. She is bored now that he is around eighty and she fifty. So the novel takes us through her years of insane drug-addled behavior, through her marriage to Herb, the insane death scene of one of his former wives, through the birth of Pippa’s twins, one of whom hates her, back to her marriage to Herb and onto the kind-of expected ending. So, no. Don’t bother with this one. Check out the other amazing books I’ve been reading before this!
I have been taken by storm by Eve Ensler’s THE APOLOGY (2019). This slim volume is a force of nature. It is tormenting to read but – perhaps – the most essential read of the summer, of 2019. Ensler was physically and sexually abused by her father for her entire life. Though her father is dead, Ensler imagines him in the afterlife apologizing, reckoning with his deeds, undergoing an excruciating self-examination. This book is transformational not only for readers who have experienced similar anguish but for everyone who understands the kinds of deep hurts abusive power can entrench in a human. Ensler gives us a gift with this book. She offers by way of this apology and apology to all readers who have longed for one, who deserve one, and for whom one is never coming. Her agency in imagining this longed-for remorse and soul-searching is what heals. She is – as always – an icon.
HOW TO DO NOTHING: RESISTING THE ATTENTION ECONOMY (2019) by Jenny Odell has some interesting and useful moments. Her argument is this: in a world where one’s value is determined by our 24/7 data productivity, doing nothing may be our most important form of resistance (says this on the inside cover). She critiques social media for catalyzing knee-jerk responses and fury and fervor where one might – alternatively – take time to do some critical thinking, some observing, some dialoguing. She calls for back to nature, caring for that environment, and being bold in CHOOSING that to which we attend. I’m sold.
Martha Nussbaum’s THE MONARCHY OF FEAR: A PHILOSOPHER LOOKS AT OUR POLITICAL CRISIS (2018) is powerful, slim, and motivating. Nussbaum’s arguments are strong and supported by scholarship and examples. She takes on the “political standoff that has polarized American life since the 2016 election.” Her focus: the political is always emotional. Her chapters include those on fear, anger, fear-driven disgust, envy, sexism & misogyny, and hope/love/vision. This book is important for its time, though Nussbaum harkens back to the ancients to help readers understand human behaviors and modes of thinking that have brought us to this crossroads. She offers understanding (not forgiveness) of anger, envy, misogyny, etc. In the end, she offers hope by way of cultivating critical thinking, dialogue across political barriers, and the arts as essential for moving beyond the narcissistic and egocentric and hateful. I am deciding to follow her advice, to be hopeful.
THE FARM (2019) by Joanne Ramos is another reminder that women’s bodies are a luxury item one can control. On the titular farm, women spend nine months pregnant, acting as “hosts” to wealthy patrons fetuses. They cannot leave, are cut off from their former lives and families, and are urged/forced to grow perfect babies. Jane is an immigrant from the Philippines who wants a better life for her daughter, so when the offer to “host” a fetus comes along, she takes it up – until the reality of what is happening on the farm becomes clear. With the aid of other pregnant and resisting “hosts,” Jane aims to return to her daughter, to defy the restrictive rules of the farm, and to live a full life that she controls. This novel proclaims in a shout the serious problem that is wealth inequity, the ease with which women’s bodies are appropriated by the wealthy and powerful, and the significant ways in which women with brains and agency can outwit those powerful.
DAISY JONES & THE SIX (2019) by Taylor Jenkins Reid is a good summer read. It tells the story of the wildly beautiful and over-the-top wild Daisy Jones who joins the 1970s rock band The Six, led by Billy Dunne – brooding, addicted, wild. Daisy and Billy are a charismatic duo, creating music wonders, hitting the top of the charts, creating drama among the band. If you want to read about sex, drugs, and rock and roll, this is your book. It is set up like an interview with the band members, which makes it a fast read, essentially all dialogue. I admit, I wanted the novel to be about 75 pages shorter (it is 350 pages long) because I was exhausted from the drugs and alcohol and irresponsibility and damage, but it had to play itself out, and I hung in there. Beach read: yep.
THE GIRL HE USED TO KNOW (2019) by Tracey Garvis Graves has the most moving (as in I cried my eyes out) endings I’ve read in a while. Annika is an English major (probably why I read this book!) who is awkward and anxious in social situations. She’d rather be reading a book or playing chess. Jonathan joins the chess club, meets Annika, falls in love. Theirs is a quirky love story, a touching one. They break up…sort of. Then a decade later, they reunite. He’s a Wall Street guy; she’s a librarian. Can it work this time around? This is a very fast read, and, as I say, the ending…Tracey Garvis Graves gets it.
THE TOMB OF THE UNKNOWN RACIST (2018) by Balance McCrary Boyd is fast paced, a bit picaresque, and funny while grappling with a tough subject. Ellen Burns’s brother is a renowned novelist turned white supremacist. She is a recovering alcoholic on a mission to find him or to find the ways in which he is connected to recent tragedies in her family’s life. Ellen meets with police, FBI agents, all kinds of other fascinating characters, including her mother suffering from dementia who things her son is a star on a soap opera. This novel is the third in a trilogy. I’ll have to work backward now, since I started with this one. I will read far more of this writer.
WOMAN IS NO MAN (2019) by Etaf Rum takes up the complicated lives of three generations of Palestinian and Palestinian-American women. Isra prefers reading but finds herself engaged and then living in Brooklyn. Her adaptation to America is uneasy. Her new husband is a mystery, and his mother, with whom they live, is a pure nightmare. Deya, Isra’s daughter, lives with her grandmother (the same one who is a pure nightmare), and longs to go to college instead of accepting the offers of marriage from men her grandmother arranges to meet her. Deya stumbles upon many dark and deep family secrets, and ultimately must choose between the old, traditional ways and her own desires. LOVED this one.
NORMAL PEOPLE (2018) by Sally Rooney is the hot new book in Spring 2019, so I had to read it. That’s what I do. If I’m trendy at all, it is via books. Inside the cover it says: “A wonderous and wise coming-of-age love story.” Hmmmm….I, perhaps, am not the target audience for this book because neither wonderous nor wise did I find it. I was pulled through by the characterization of troubled Marianne and Connell who meet in high school and maintain an on-again-off-again best friendship/love affair. She is rich. He is not. They are both uber smart. They are a perfect match. They are a horrible match. They see and sleep with other people, and while this hurts, they slough it off or even applaud it. This novel takes place in the very-troubled heads of the main characters and at college and high school parties. Never one to long for characters to wind up in a Jane-Austen-marriage-plot ending, I did find myself wanting Marianne and Connell to either, proverbially, shit or get off the pot. I have almost never felt this way about a couple of literary characters. Someone else read this book immediately – please – and tell me what’s up with it, or with me!
SPEAK NO EVIL (2018) by Uzodinma Iweala is a wonder of a brief novel. This is a must read. My students will all be reading this for my Law and Literature class next year. Niru lives in Washington, DC with his successful parents. He is a track star and Harvard bound in fall. He has a secret that is outed: he is gay. No one knows this secret but his best friend Meredith. Then he is outed, and his gayness is unacceptable to his conservative Nigerian parents. They work diligently to change him. Niru resists. He and Meredith drift apart, come together, and are catapulted toward a violence that is both inevitable and shocking. The questions this novel urges readers to ask and to discuss are profound. That is what makes it such an important book. In this cultural time of free-flowing hatred, Iweala’s novel offers us a jump start on life-saving dialogue. Join me, please.
I am completely taken with Miriam Toews’ WOMEN TALKING (2018). Based on a horrific and true story about the drugging and rape of Mennonite women and girls in a Mennonite colony, the novel tells the story of the women gathering in a hay loft without the men knowing. There they talk about their trauma, the rape of a three-year-old girl, the violence of their men, and their ultimate plans to leave their community. Is that possible? Could they survive? They cannot read or write, cannot read a map. Where to go? They grapple with essential religious and philosophical questions. They resist the patriarchal insistence that they forgive the rapists – the rapists who are not asking for forgiveness. The talks in the hayloft take place when the men of the community are travelling the 7 hours to pay the bail and to get the rapists our of jail to bring them home. Time is of the essence. Toews, raised a Mennonite, brings to live the unique voices of the women, their concerns, their arguments, their rage, their heartbreak. All the while, August Epp, a sympathetic male who is taking notes during their meetings – at their request – is telling us this story, and we are working ourselves as readers into a frenzy, hoping these women will make the best decision to keep themselves safe, to keep their children safe, the girls safe from rape, the boys safe from patriarchal criminality. This is such a gem. Such an important book. Brief and profound.
This is the second Rosecrans Baldwin novel I’ve read this month. This one is THE LAST KID LEFT (2017), a novel that NPR claimed to be one of the Best Books of [that] Year. It is good. It is long. It tells the story of nineteen-year-old Nick Toussaint Jr. who starts out with a handle of tequila in hand and two bodies in his car. His girlfriend is sixteen-year-old Emily Portis. They are in love, two kids with troubled pasts who find each other. Nick ends up in jail for those bodies. There is a lot of slut shaming, text messaging, tabloid reporters hovering, and a retired police officer who becomes obsessed with Nick and the case. There are alcoholic and abusive parents. There are journalists fighting to the near death to cover the story. This is a fast-paced story that holds the reader’s interest, though, I admit wanting it done about 75 pages from the end. Lots of twists and turns and bad buys in this one. Lots of secrets and very bad behavior. Give it a try!
THE LIBRARY BOOK (2018) by Susan Orlean is power packed with information about libraries, librarians, fires, homeless patrons of libraries, and so much more. It is an important book offering a reader a delightful romp through the Los Angeles Public Library and the fire that nearly took its life. This was not an easy read. It took time and focus – worth it.
I just discovered Judith Claire Mitchell’s A REUNION OF GHOSTS (2015). It is almost 400 pages, and I have so many books piled up and ready to read, but I told myself to read five pages – give it a fair chance. I read those five and was hooked, read straight through all 400. Why have I not known about this woman – an English professor/writer – before now? The best thing about this novel is the voice – it is first person plural, narrated by three sisters, who are – in essence – writing a very long suicide note which includes their extended-family history. Lady, Vee, and Delph are so funny – I laughed out loud so often. Their family is complicated, criminal, and hilarious. They are simply a fabulous trio living in the NYC apartment they grew up in and wanting for company pretty much only themselves. One might not think of such a wary, home staying trio as lively and comic and outrageous, but they are. This was a gem of a find. Read this one!
I read Yuko Tsushima’s TERRITORY OF LIGHT (1979, translation to English 2018), a brief novel about a woman in Tokyo with a three-year-old daughter who is going through a divorce and living in a new apartment. This is pretty much a plotless book. The focus is on the travails one goes through living alone after marriage and the demands of a young child who is your sole responsibility. The husband cannot provide child support (which is not ok), and the woman is in constant angst about her situation. I am not sure why I stuck with this book. I do believe the author captures the emotions and thoughts of the main character credibly. Not my favorite.
THE TWELVE LIVES OF SAMUEL HAWLEY (2017) by Hannah Tinti is quite a ride. This father & daughter tale is a picaresque romp through wild adventures, sleazy characters, guns, and deep and abiding love. The book takes place in fictional Olympus, Massachusetts, where Samuel Hawley is on the run from folks who want to do him harm, in return for harm he has done them. He is always watching his back. He and his daughter Loo move from motel to motel, town to town, while Loo comes of age and grows into a young woman who can adopt her thrilling and dangerous father’s ways or strike out on her own. This is a story about what lengths one is willing to go to in order to protect those he/she loves. Took a bit of time to get into this, then, suddenly, I was in and could not look away.
If you are looking for a happy book that provides uplift, avoid ACADEMY STREET (2014) by Mary Costello. If, on the other hand, you enjoy a more subtle read, one that explores the psychologically-resonant but lonely life of one Irish woman, this one is for you. This brief novel follows the entire life of Tess Lohan (NOT at all like Lindsay), a nurse who feels things deeply and tempestuously. In some ways, this is a plotless book, or rather, it follows a life from childhood through the typical stages. Nothing monumental happens to Tess, except that her inner life is laid bare for readers, and her heartaches become one’s own, her joys as well. Something about this book touched me, maybe its human sadness, its human longing. Again, not a book for everyone, but one I am somehow a better person for having read. PS: some of Costello’s sentences are scrumptious: simple but riveting.
THE SILENT PATIENT (2019) by Alex Michaelides is a fast-paced thriller, the kind you need every once in a while. Alicia Berenson is a successful painter married to Gabriel, handsome, fashion photographer. They are madly in love, according to Alicia. So then why does she shoot him five times in the face when he arrives home from work? Why does she never again speak a word? After her trial, Alicia ends up in the Grove, a secure psychiatric facility in London. She meets there with Theo Faber, a criminal psychotherapist who is intent on getting to the bottom of Alicia’s silence. While this novel is not predictable in terms of who did what, one does see the machinations by which the author leads readers to suspect nearly everyone of bad behavior until the real bad person is revealed. Is it Alicia? Why is she so stinking quiet? Why shoot your husband five times after writing in your diary days before how much you love him. This is a book for those who need a quick and fast thrill ride. The invocation of one of Euripides’ ancient tragedies, Alcestis, lent the book some gravitas a book in this genre would not typically earn.
Esi Edugyan’s WASHINGTON BLACK (2018) is really worth the read. George Washington Black is an eleven-year-old slave on a sugar plantation when he is hand picked by his master’s brother to be his helpmate in his scientific endeavors. Christopher Wilde is an abolitionist and an inventor, and his primary invention is a flying machine. It turns out that Wash is a gifted illustrator, and his drawings support Wilde’s projects. When a white man is killed, Wash – who is completely innocent – is targeted for death. Wilde and Wash escape the plantation, constantly fearing discovery. Readers move with them to America, the far north, Morocco. There is plenty of pain and fear and love in this novel to pull the reader through rather quickly. The “friendship” between these two men, white and black, older and young, is quizzical but believable. The Edugyan’s characterization is remarkable. This one is a keeper.
I chose to take up a Chris Bohjalian novel again, after a bad break up with his fiction years ago, all of that over his DOUBLE BIND. But there is too much past drama to go there, all water under the bridge, so I picked up THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT (2018) at the local library book sale, a new hardcover for $2. I needed something quick, entertaining, not depressing (though I am known for embracing with enthusiasm many works that are dark and dire and, for sure, depressing). Not a few pages into this one, binge-drinker, Cassie Bowden, wakes up in a hotel in Dubai with a dead guy, the one she’d had glorious sex with the night before. His throat is cut. Did she do it? While she has many unhealthy habits to her credit (the aforementioned binge-drinking, binge-one-nighters, a bit of lying), Cassie has never been violent, so the idea that she picked up that broken bottle of Stoly and hacked away at the handsome lover is vexing to her and to us. Afraid to call the police, Cassie does what anyone (read: no one ever) would do: she gets dressed and leaves and heads straight into denial. The rest: more guys, more drinking, a touch of family, the requisite FBI agents. This one met my requirements: it is fast, entertaining (if a bit repetitive), not depressing – aside from the poor dead dude in the bed. Consider it a snack food absent the protein, a Skittle of a novel. If you must read a Bohjalian, I suggest TRANS-SISTER RADIO and MIDWIVES, the latter is marvelous.
I am not sure what my obsession with Ottessa Moshfegh is, but I just had to read MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION (2018), partly because a year of rest and relaxation sounds so lovely and partly because the novel cover sports a Jane Austen-esque woman, the PORTRAIT OF A YOUNG WOMAN IN WHITE, 1798. I thought, foolishly, having read Moshfegh’s EILEEN a while back, that it might involve historical fiction. NOPE. This is called in library categories “psychological fiction,” and I suppose that is right. This could have been a text in my Abnormal Psychology class when I was a Psychology major in college. This protagonist chooses to hibernate for a year, sucking down dozens of drugs prescribed by her really-crazy-nuts-unprofessional-oddest-duck psychiatrist so that she can literally sleep a year away. She hopes to wake up to a better life. It is important to note that she is a privileged young woman: rich, Columbia grad, paid-for Upper East Side Manhattan apartment, beautiful, size 2. She suffers from an existential ennui that beats all. She has a best friend. She has, on and off, a bad boyfriend. She is really quite unwell. However, her voice is what rushed me through this novel, as it did in EILEEN, another unwell protagonist. These women do things that shock, that are totally not recommended by any human, and yet, they are such gripping figures. Anti-heroes, sure. But so, so interesting. This is not a book for everyone. Be forewarned.
I was compelled by THE WATER CURE (2018) by Sophie Mackintosh for several reasons even before reading it. It got accolades from Margaret Atwood (always a win for me) and Leni Zumas of RED CLOCKS). Not only those, but it was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, the Judges Panel Citation reading: “A chilling, beautifully written novel…The tautness and tension of the writing are staggering.” Who would not want to read this book with all this literary power applauding it? Once again, I am reading a feminist dystopia here. Father of the family named King finds and island for his wife and three daughters, Grace, Lia, and Sky. He is “rescuing” them from the dangers of men on the mainland. His women are protected from the inevitable male violence on the mainland. However, he and his wife institute cult-like rituals that are supposed to strengthen them all from the toxicity of the larger world and to protect them from interlopers. Then King disappears and two men and a boy arrive on the island (very much like HERLAND by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, but so not like HERLAND). This cannot go well, given the way the girls have been taught to fear men. Yet, the author includes an element of sexual tension, a pregnancy, and haunting violence. I found this novel both disturbing and fascinating and certainly, as the inside cover says, a “fiercely poetic feminist revenge fantasy about three sisters raised on an isolated island to fear men.” The book raises profound questions for smart readers to ponder.
Mary’ Pipher’s SEEKING PEACE: CHRONICLES OF THE WORST BUDDHIST IN THE WORLD (2009) was an instant draw for me, though I had only just recently learned of it. Made famous with her important book REVIVING OPHELIA, Pipher made the circuit as a bestselling author, doing signings, talks, readings. She exhausted herself, had a breakdown of sorts, and took up meditation. I am a meditator, so I wanted to see what her experience was like. I waited until about page 160 to really get into her bad Buddhist days. Most of the book to that point was detailed memoir of her childhood. While this was important to her discoveries about herself, I was impatient, and I wanted to get to the “good stuff” sooner. Not very Buddhist of me! Overall, I enjoyed the book, and I found that Mary Pipher and I share so many of the same traits, one of them impatience. The ending where she talks about her 60th birthday party given by her children and spouse and grandchildren made me weep with joy. Happy to have read this one.
So Roxane Gay said PACHINKO (2017) by Min Jin Lee was her favorite book of 2017. That was enough for me. This 500-page gem is worth the time one invests. I read this over a long period, reading many others in between stints with PACHINKO. I loved Sunja as a teenager and as an older woman, who fell in love with a rich stranger and had a child by him. But he is not for her. For one, he is married. She marries, has another child. Then comes the heartache, the love, the money, the criminal underworld, the devoted family members. It is all so intriguing and generations. This is a keeper, but it is an investment of time. WELL worth it!
WITNESS: LESSONS FROM ELIE WIESEL’S CLASSROOM (2018) by Ariel Burger is a gift to humanity. Wiesel himself was a gift, of course, but this memoir from one of his students takes us into his Boston University classrooms where we listen to students ask this wise man, this Holocaust survivor, questions about hate and faith and activism and love. It is the kind of book that has you stopping to read aloud to anyone next to you on the subway. It has the kind of sentences that one (me and those like me) has to write down in a notebook because they are so life-changing. Don’t take my word for this. Read this amazing account of a teaching life of a man who suffered the unthinkable. I did not know, for example, that Wiesel had received death threats from a Holocaust denier and had to have a Boston police officer with him, guarding him. Wiesel challenged his students to “explore moral complexity and to resist the dangerous lure of absolutes,” the book flap says. And that is the crux of what makes this book such a roadmap for teaching to create leaders of conscience.
This one is a gem: FRIDAY BLACK: STORIES (2018) by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. These stories are shocking, outrageous, even violent. What makes them so breathtaking (literally) is that they have an incisive punch to the conscience. This author is unafraid to take on the big issues and to lay them bare while foregrounding story rather than didact. Roxane Gay says on the front of the book: “Read this book.” What more is there to say, really. I read it because of all the buzz it is getting but mostly because of this Roxane Gay book. If she is saying it is important, I am in. You should be too. The first story, “The Finkelstein 5,” I cannot get out of my head, and I want to in the way I want to get that scene from BREAKING BAD with the box cutter out of my head. That BB scene was gratuitous and disgusting. What Adjei-Brenyah offers is truly horrifying but so poignant. He is a young master who graduated from my alma mater, SUNY Albany. Bravo, English major.
In YOU LOST ME THERE (2010) by Rosecrans Baldwin, Dr. Victor Aaron is a leading neuroscientist studying Alzheimer’s on an island off Maine. He is a workaholic. His wife died in an accident, and the book is full of his quotidian life, which is not so exciting, and his memories of his life with his wife. He discovers notecards on which his wife wrote her feelings/thinking about their marriage, and this is a wake-up call to Victor. He must reevaluate his life, his marriage. The memories are painful, what he does not remember even more painful. This is a study in how people avoid great pain by keeping busy, by investing in consistent habits (overwork, drinking). It is an interesting if not always gripping read.
Just finished Angie Thomas’s newest novel ON THE COME UP (2019). She is the author of ALL THE HATE U GIVE. This one is fast paced, about sixteen-year-old Brianna who yearns to be a famous rapper. She is talented, and her family does need the money, but some less-than-ethical folks want to take advantage of her talent. Brianna has some family troubles: her famous rapper father was shot and killed, her mother is overcoming drug addiction, her brother is working hard as the “man of the family” to keep it all together. Bri wants to do her part by making it big on the music scene. This is a good one, full of pop culture references and slang. I had to look a few things up – that’s how it goes with YA novels now for baby-boomer readers. It’s all good!
THE WHITE CARD (2019) by Claudia Rankine is a play about racism and white people who think they are above it. The essential question the play poses is this: can American society progress if whiteness remains invisible? This is the kind of intense and important work that deserves more than one reading. I need to go back in, to really focus, and to have folks to talk to about this one. Anything Rankine writes needs to be read. I have liked Meg Wolitzer’s work, but I have not loved it, and I have tried my hardest to love it. I met her at the AWP conference a few years back. She is delightful. She is on the move as a writer. Her novel THE WIFE (2003) has been made into a movie that made the Oscar’s list this past year. And, lo and behold, I really, really liked THE WIFE. I may even love it. I certainly recommend it. It starts out when Joan Castleman announces to us (first person narration) that she is ready to finally leave her obnoxious, needy, baby-man husband Joe, a famous novelist. Her voice is what drives the reader. She is laugh-out-loud funny – and I did several times, in airports, on the plane, etc. She is harsh. She is angry. And he is a womanizing, weak man whom she adored away from his first marriage, she his writing student with robust talent – which she did not evolve, giving it all up to marry Joe and raise his three children – or did she give it up? This book, in some ways, is predictable. I called it midway, but I did not care. I wanted to see it play out, and I was not let down by Wolitzer. This one is a keeper. Now for the film!!
THE BEST BOOK I HAVE READ IN A LONG TIME, AMONG THE BEST BOOKS I HAVE EVER READ is Laurie Halse Anderson’s SHOUT (2019). It is fabulous, gripping, important. It is a memoir in verse – but that is not a negative, as some might imagine. She is raw, honest, brutal, on top of important social issues. I think I am in love all over again with her. Her important novel SPEAK, a YA book about a young girl’s rape and subsequent shunning, is life changing for many readers. It continues to sell in droves. This book is her recounting of her own attack, which she did not speak about for decades. But this book is so much more. It offers a compelling narrative, a faithful rendering of what happens when women are not believed, trusted. It is the kind of book I want to put into every young person’s hand, really – every person’s hand. I read it in nearly one sitting, and truly, I could have highlighted every other line. This is a must read.
GUN LOVE (2018) by Jennifer Clement is a wild ride. If you liked GEEK LOVE by Katherine Dunn you will love this. This is not a circus book, like Dunn’s, but there are unorthodox characters who are both lovable and odd and quirky and heinous – sometimes all at once. Pearl lives in a car with her mother, has for her fourteen years. Others take Pearl as a tiny albino child even when she is a teen, but she sees herself as just herself, no labels. The opening scene with the conjoined alligator babies is shocking, but the kind of shocking that makes sense of the title and that drives one to read on because – who does that sort of thing? This is a book about love and hate and othering. It is both sweet and deeply sad, but overall, it is a great read. I will read Jennifer Clement from now on. There are lots of guns in this book. And they serve the Chekov tenet that if one shows up in a work it has to go off by the end. Many guns go off in this novel, but there is one shot and one shooter that take the cake.
LATE IN THE DAY (2019) by Tessa Hadley is about two couples who are best friends. One of the four dies in the first chapter, and life goes haywire for all of them. The narrator takes us back in time to when the couples met, and we see how disfunction germinates and ultimately crushes friendships. Lots of sex with each other, muddying the waters of friendship. I especially loved the ending, when one of the women, an artist, returns to art (I don’t think this is a spoiler. If so, sorry). The characters behave badly, but that is delightful in a novel. This is a fine book. I’m happy I read it. I felt for one of the characters in particular – the artist. If you have too much to read, this one can move to the middle/bottom of the pile.
I did not get Paulo Coelho’s THE ALCHEMIST (1993). It is an international best-selling phenomenon, as the cover says, and it is lauded by so many, sort of like ULYSSES, as I see it. This shepherd, Santiago, wanders in search of his treasure at the Egyptian pyramids. He finds it. He has adventures in between, including meeting The Alchemist, who actually does transform lead into gold and gives Santiago some. There was a lot of desert and looking at the stars and heeding omens. It emphasizes the importance of listening to one’s heart and the transforming power of our dreams. I did not get it, though I am a fan of listening to one’s heart and the transforming power of our dreams. I am quite certain that I am the one missing the big deal here. After all, it is an international superstar of a book. Yet…
I chose to take up a Chris Bohjalian novel again, after a bad break up with his fiction years ago, all of that over his DOUBLE BIND. But there is too much past drama to go there, all water under the bridge, so I picked up THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT (2018) at the local library book sale, a new hardcover for $2. I needed something quick, entertaining, not depressing (though I am known for embracing with enthusiasm many works that are dark and dire and, for sure, depressing). Not a few pages into this one, binge-drinker, Cassie Bowden, wakes up in a hotel in Dubai with a dead guy, the one she’d had glorious sex with the night before. His throat is cut. Did she do it? While she has many unhealthy habits to her credit (the aforementioned binge-drinking, binge-one-nighters, a bit of lying), Cassie has never been violent, so the idea that she picked up that broken bottle of Stoly and hacked away at the handsome lover is vexing to her and to us. Afraid to call the police, Cassie does what anyone (read: no one ever) would do: she gets dressed and leaves and heads straight into denial. The rest: more guys, more drinking, a touch of family, the requisite FBI agents. This one met my requirements: it is fast, entertaining (if a bit repetitive), not depressing – aside from the poor dead dude in the bed. Consider it a snack food absent the protein, a Skittle of a novel. If you must read a Bohjalian, I suggest TRANS-SISTER RADIO and MIDWIVES, the latter is marvelous.
I am not sure what my obsession with Ottessa Moshfegh is, but I just had to read MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION (2018), partly because a year of rest and relaxation sounds so lovely and partly because the novel cover sports a Jane Austen-esque woman, the PORTRAIT OF A YOUNG WOMAN IN WHITE, 1798. I thought, foolishly, having read Moshfegh’s EILEEN a while back, that it might involve historical fiction. NOPE. This is called in library categories “psychological fiction,” and I suppose that is right. This could have been a text in my Abnormal Psychology class when I was a Psychology major in college. This protagonist chooses to hibernate for a year, sucking down dozens of drugs prescribed by her really-crazy-nuts-unprofessional-oddest-duck psychiatrist so that she can literally sleep a year away. She hopes to wake up to a better life. It is important to note that she is a privileged young woman: rich, Columbia grad, paid-for Upper East Side Manhattan apartment, beautiful, size 2. She suffers from an existential ennui that beats all. She has a best friend. She has, on and off, a bad boyfriend. She is really quite unwell. However, her voice is what rushed me through this novel, as it did in EILEEN, another unwell protagonist. These women do things that shock, that are totally not recommended by any human, and yet, they are such gripping figures. Anti-heroes, sure. But so, so interesting. This is not a book for everyone. Be forewarned.
I was compelled by THE WATER CURE (2018) by Sophie Mackintosh for several reasons even before reading it. It got accolades from Margaret Atwood (always a win for me) and Leni Zumas of RED CLOCKS). Not only those, but it was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, the Judges Panel Citation reading: “A chilling, beautifully written novel…The tautness and tension of the writing are staggering.” Who would not want to read this book with all this literary power applauding it? Once again, I am reading a feminist dystopia here. Father of the family named King finds and island for his wife and three daughters, Grace, Lia, and Sky. He is “rescuing” them from the dangers of men on the mainland. His women are protected from the inevitable male violence on the mainland. However, he and his wife institute cult-like rituals that are supposed to strengthen them all from the toxicity of the larger world and to protect them from interlopers. Then King disappears and two men and a boy arrive on the island (very much like HERLAND by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, but so not like HERLAND). This cannot go well, given the way the girls have been taught to fear men. Yet, the author includes an element of sexual tension, a pregnancy, and haunting violence. I found this novel both disturbing and fascinating and certainly, as the inside cover says, a “fiercely poetic feminist revenge fantasy about three sisters raised on an isolated island to fear men.” The book raises profound questions for smart readers to ponder.
Tayari Jones’ AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE (2018) is really very interesting and unpredictable, which, as you know, I love. A young married couple, Celestial and Roy, an executive and a doll artist, are living the good life. Then Roy is arrested for raping an elderly woman. He did not do this. However, he is incarcerated for many years for this crime he did not commit. On her own now, Celestial balances loyalty to Roy with independence and expectations. The family members of these two fill in the backstory. This novel about yet another young black man sent to prison on little evidence (no evidence) gets at the harrowing experience not only of life in prison but life outside of prison for those who wait and love and worry. This is an important book, Jones an important writer. Her essay at the back of the book explores her research agenda and her thinking on the novel’s themes. This, too, is not to be glossed over. Read this one. Besides, and this is important to me and perhaps not to others, the paperback cover is a lovely shade of blue with a golden tree in the background – I DO judge books by covers, not people, never people, but books, oh yeah!
I really enjoyed AN EXCESS MALE (2017) by Maggie Shen King. It is labeled as science fiction, but it is really not. It is more speculative fiction – no other worlds, no monsters. It takes place in 2030 in China, where the consequence of that country’s one-child policy and its cultural preference for male heirs have created 40 million unmarriageable men. This story is about one young man’s quest for love and family at 40 years old in a country that has now imposed “order” through authoritarian measures that deem homosexuality illegal, intellectual difference illegal, and that require women to have more than one husband. Men must hire matchmakers and provide a dowry to obtain a wife, so rare are they. What makes this book so compelling, if the themes themselves are not enough (they are!), are the characters. Wei-guo is the man seeking a family in May-ling who is married to XX and his brother Hann. She has one two-year old boy. What gets in the way are the personalities of the brother husbands, the interference of Wei-guo’s fathers, the child’s tantrums, and – most extreme – the State’s terrorist policies. This book took more time than I wanted to give it, but I could not stop reading until I read all 400 pages. This one is quite fine. One reviewer said: “The Handmaid’s Tale of a new generation. This start and fantastic view of an almost inevitable future.” He is right. This book frightens in a good way if you are a realist, willing to take a hard look at the world in which we live. If you want daisies and puppies (there are dogs!) and love – you will find much love, but you will find punishing and cruel dogmatism as well. Read this one: be afraid. Be woke.
I am a huge fan of William Landay’s DEFENDING JACOB, so I read MISSION FLATS (2003), a novel set in Boston and in Maine. The opening scene is gruesome, the kind that sticks with you though you wish it would not. That said, it drew me in, and I had to rush through to the end. At the outset, there is a dead man in a cabin in Maine; he is an elite District Attorney from Boston whose beat is Boston’s toughest neighborhood, Mission Flats. Maine Police Chief Ben Truman, grieving for his mother who has died only weeks before, becomes enmeshed in the search for the killer. The number one suspect is a “ruthless predator.” What follows are secrets, lies, drunken retired cops, a love entanglement. As he does best, Landay loops in a surprise ending – one I did not see coming – those are the best (I hate predicting). I’m down for the count: I’ll read anything this guy writes!
Bina Shah’s novel BEFORE SHE SLEEPS (2018) has a unique premise and it pulls the reader through, quickly and with intensity. The idea is this: In the modern post-war Green City, the capital of South West Asia ensconced in tight borders, women are an endangered species, the ratio of women to men has reached extraordinarily low levels. The government’s remedy: women must have multiple husbands. Marriages are arranged, women’s ovaries and wombs are pumped with fertility drugs, menstrual and ovulation cycles are closely monitored. The aim is to boost the number of women up to “appropriate levels.” Two women resist (phew!) and create Panah, this is a new kind of brothel of sorts to which women who resist the government’s intrusive patriarchal manipulations flee. Their job is to spend nights in bed with wealthy men who need comfort, not sex, so they can sleep – so stressed are they from their busy, important lives. This is, of course, all illegal, and the penalty is sure death, but wealthy men being who they are can risk it (theirs are not the deaths that will accrue). There is a freedom of sorts for the women in this arrangement, though they must live underground in Panah. For the most part, they are happy there and with this situation, the alternative – constant pregnancy and arranged marriages to multiple men – is reprehensible to them. Of course, novels being what they are, things get complicated, someone acts out, there are consequences, there is drama and fear. I LOVED IT. I am on a kick of feminist reactionary novels, one more fascinating than the next. Wait till you hear about the one I am deeply invested in now – phew!!
THOSE WHO KNEW (2018), a novel by Idra Novey, is set in the future on an unnamed island country. Lena suspects the popular senator she was once involved with is a murderer, but she is reluctant to speak, lest she ends up dead herself. This is a parable about the fall of patriarchy and the price it costs rebel women. This is one of the many new novels that takes on patriarchy with fierce force. The characters are ones about which the reader cares – Olga who owns a bookstore and has lost the love of her life, Christina married to the vicious senator, and Lena, who knows and suspects so much. Leni Zumas, author of RED CLOCKS (see below), says of this book: “Urgent and propulsive – a deftly braided tightrope of a novel.” That drew me in. I always pay attention to who is writing reviews for novels, and for this one we have praise from Rebecca Traister (see below), Alexander Chee, Cristina Henriquez. Impressive cast of blurbers. Keep these kinds of rebellious, raging books coming, ladies!
Michelle Obama’s BECOMING (2018) is awesome. No surprise. This biography details Obama’s growing up in Chicago, her family life, her teen years, and her college days. The best part, however, is when she shares how she met Barack and their courtship, marriage, and eventual life in the White House. There are some unforgettable anecdotes in this book. It is a delight, as is she. Read this one for sure.
Brittney Cooper’s ELOQUENT RAGE: A BLACK FEMINIST DISCOVERS HER SUPERPOWER (2018) is an important and feisty book. Cooper maintains that black women are mad as hell and have a right to be. I get it. The book is honest and angry and urgent – for all the right reasons. She reminds us that “ultimately feminism, friendship, and faith in one’s own superpowers are all we really need to turn things right-side up again.” I’m in.
STILL IN LOVE (2019) by Michael Downing is so good I am going to start it over again. It is about an English professor who teaches creative writing at an elite school and encounters all of the quirky idiosyncrasies inherent in this kind of work. The protagonist Mark cares about his students; his team-teaching colleague does not. Both care deeply about good writing. So much becomes clear when the novel is finished, but that clarity urges readers like me to take the novel up again, to read it with the ending in mind. ALL professors of creative writing or English teachers will want to get this newest of Downing’s books.
Rosalie Ham’s THE DRESSMAKER (2000) is another of those novels I wanted to like more than I did like. It promised a revenge story. It delivered a revenge story. But there was too much to wade through before any such satisfaction was delivered. The book is a major motion picture, according to the book cover. Perhaps that would have been a better route. I really like sewing and fabrics, so I wanted more of that too. Altogether, this one did not measure up to what I wanted. The revenge though, that was sweet.
LOOM (2010) by Therese Soukar Chehade held my interest. I was particularly compelled by the characters who had secrets like Loom who was building a huge ice igloo in his yard in snow storms and Eva, who was visiting her U.S. relatives from Lebanon and had once kissed her uncle. The characters are rich and curious, and there may have been a few too many of them to keep them straight at all times. I had to keep referencing back to be sure I had the generations all correct. This writer got her MFA from U. Mass Amherst, so I wanted to read her work to support a “local” writer. And she is a fellow teacher. This one is unique, moves from America to Lebanon, and gets at the hurts we bury as we move through life.
Have you ever read a novel and wanted to quit but something told you to stick with it? I did that with Siri Hustvedt’s THE BLINDFOLD (1992), and I wish I had quit early on. Russell Banks, in a blurb on the back of the book, promised “one reads her novel at serious risk of one’s well-being.” I am willing to take such a risk typically with fiction. In fact, I embrace the challenge. However, this one disappointed me. My well-being was vastly annoyed at the good hours I could have been reading another in the pile of books I’ve heaped up for my sabbatical. Ahhhh…Siri Hustvedt. I was curious about Iris Vegan because she is a graduate student in English in New York City. Because she encounters those who alter the shape of her identity. Because she becomes involved in a literary love affair. Alas, I did not care for Iris or her adventures. She is a pitiable character, and not in a good way. I am well done with this one.
R.E.D. (2018) by Chase Berggrun is unique and wonderful. The slim volume consists of 27 erasure poems, meaning that the author took as their (the author is a trans person using the pronoun they) core text Bram Stoker’s DRACULA, the Victorian horror novel that is, according to the “Notes on Process” “Soaked with a disdain of femininity and the misogyny of its time.” Berggrun erases language from the original novel to reveal the poems that comprise this text and that allow the narrator to “take back the agency stolen from her predecessors.” The poems chronicle the abuses of the “husband” and the evolving resistance and rage of the “wife” protagonist. This is an essential companion to the Stoker novel. Its ending is satisfying. It’s aim apt. It’s language, the mitigated language of Stoker’s text, retains the Victorian horror but transfers the violent agency to a woman – ahhhhh!
RAPE: A LOVE STORY (2003) by Joyce Carol Oates reads in one night. It is dark, gruesome, and, ultimately, satisfying – sort of. Teena Maguire is walking home late after a Fourth of July celebration with her twelve-year-old daughter Bethie. A gang of local young men attack her, beat her, gang rape her, and leave her for dead. Bethie hides behind the boats in the boathouse where the attack takes place. Both survive, Teena barely. The rapists hire a slick lawyer who argues the “sex” was consensual. Teena ultimately comes home from the hospital, changed and depressed. The police officer who was first on the scene is also changed and depressed; the case eating away at him, particularly as he watches the slick lawyer’s cheap shots at the victim taking hold on the town’s imagination. If predictable, the novel is still compelling, and the satisfactions come in the understanding that for some “justice” is still a requirement, under the law or outside of the law.
EVERYONE should read Rebecca Traister’s GOOD AND MAD: THE REVOLUTIONARY POWER OF WOMEN’S ANGER (2018). It chronicles the history of the effect women’s rage has had on American politics and policies. It celebrates the current movements and marches, and it urges women, compels women, to embrace their anger unabashedly. I soaked up every word, finding affirmation in Traister’s deep understanding of how women have been furious about our country’s entrenched and systemic inequalities – particularly since the election of Donald Trump. My copy is highlighted, bookmarked, lovingly annotated – and at the ready to read again and again. This is an essential for anyone who wants to understand the workings of those people and those political movements who wake up in the morning ready to revolt against injustice, misogyny, racism, and patriarchy. This is an even more essential book for anyone who does not want to understand those people and political movements.
I simply swallowed whole Nell Stevens THE VICTORIAN AND THE ROMANTIC: A MEMOIR, A LOVE STORY, AND A FRIENDSHIP ACROSS TIME (2018). I was a fan already of Nell Stevens from her BLEAKER HOUSE memoir, so I was ready to indulge her in this book. She did not let me down. First off, she is obsessed with Elizabeth Gaskell, the English Victorian novelist – as am I. She writes not only about Gaskell’s live, merging archival research with whimsical imagining, but she tells the story of her own romantic life and her writing life. Stevens’s struggle through her Ph.D. in Victorian literature at King’s College in London is a must read for anyone who has traversed that long and winding doctoral road. This book is delightful for anyone interested in Victorian literature, scholarly and non-scholarly writing, and memoir that engages from start to finish.
BEFORE EVERYTHING (2017), a novel by Victoria Redel, is a novel I wanted to like more than I did like. It is the story of five friends, friends since childhood, who have seen each other through divorce, abortion, love affairs, and now the impending death of one of their own, Anna. The novel moves smoothly from scenes of Anna’s good and bad days to scenes from the past that cement and detail the friendships. There is jealousy and anger and love and painful honesty. There are other illnesses to be endured. This sounds like the kind of book I would love, as I loved TALK BEFORE SLEEP by Elizabeth Berg. This one – I think the main problem was twofold: it was too long – in that I lost interest in the same characters (who merged a lot for me) doing the same things over and over – and the refusal to believe Anna was dying by some of the friends was not credible. I GET that they did not want her to die. I GET that the denial in which they swam was to protect themselves. But, as a reader, I wanted them to get it sooner. This may be insensitive on my part, but that is what I felt – in the case of a few of those friends. Still and all, this novel got a host of big names to blurb for it, so consider that – that is no small thing.
WHAT WE OWE (2017) BY Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde is a novel about Nahid, fifty years old, who has six months to live. She narrates the entire novel. Nahid is furious about this situation given that her only child is pregnant with Nahid’s first grandchild and that she has suffered deep loss when she lived back home in Iran during the revolution. This is a story of rage and exile and the fraught relations of mothers and daughters. NOT a happy book, but worth the read. Love the cover art.
I was disappointed in MELMOTH (2018) by Sarah Perry because I expected to be alternately frightened and charmed by this contemporary gothic that is getting a lot of press. Helen Franklin, a translator, has her life upturned when her friend Karel discovers a mysterious letter in the library, a confession and a warning about Melmoth the Witness, a darkly-dressed woman who hunts people who have sinned (like everyone) and seemingly brings them to their untimely death. I wanted to be afraid, and Perry did offer the trappings of the gothic. Though I did not buy into it, I get that Perry wants us to think about the ways in which our past mis-behaviors can haunt us, making us feel “watched” by some kind of fate, I suppose. I am ready for a book to LOVE; these last three – not my favorites, and I did enter each willing to champion it. Alas.
MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER (2018) by Oyinkan Braithwaite is a swift fictional romp through the lives of Nigerian sisters Korede, a nurse, and Ayoola, her beautiful younger sister who kills her boyfriends. While Korede helps her sister cover up the murders, she is also troubled enough about her baby sister’s criminal habits to spill her guts to a hospital patient who is in a coma – for the time being. Korede is also in love with a doctor named Tade, he who discovers Ayoola’s beauty long before he discovers her dangerous side. The book is a one-sitting read, the chapters short, the subplots important. While one does not applaud the killing of Ayoola’s boyfriends – or boyfriends in general for that matter – one does get enough backstory to slide into a slipstream of understanding, maybe, not sure yet. This is a book I need someone else to read, so we can have coffee and discuss. Please be in touch ASAP.
I could not stop reading SCRIBE (2018) by Alyson Hagy, though its inclusion of ghosts is not my thing. A fever has decimated the population. In an abandoned farmhouse lives the protagonist lives alone, her beloved sister dead. The Uninvited, migrants, live on her property with her permission. She is an expert in letter writing (thus the title – not sure about the bloodied hatchet she wields) which she exchanges for necessities. When a man with a mysterious past arrives requesting a letter of confession, the central character helps him out, at her own peril. When thuggish bad guy Billy Kingery enters the drama, the bloodied hatchet makes more sense. This is mythic, folktale-ish, spooky, violent, but – again – quite a ride.
The speculative novel RED CLOCKS (2018) by Leni Zumas takes as its premise that the U.S. has outlawed abortion, in vitro fertilization, and has implemented the Personhood Amendment which grants life, liberty, and property to every embryo. Very Handmaid’s-Tale-ish, the novel takes some time to engage fully, but it does ultimately track more clearly the paths of five women: a single schoolteacher trying to have a baby, a frustrated mother of two in a bad marriage, an adopted teenager who finds herself pregnant and unhappy about it, a gifted herbalist accused of being a witch, and a little-known 19th century woman polar explorer. All of these characters attempt to work around (not with) these imposed patriarchal barriers – with varying successes. Speculative and frightening, the novel thrusts us back into a dark age where women’s freedom and lives are in jeopardy, but where women’s friendships make the difference – for some.
THE FRIEND (2018) by Sigrid Nunez is a writer’s novel. That is, the writing is beautiful, spare, and the references to a range of writers and writing “advice” are everywhere. This is a second-person novel addressed to a long-time friend (once lover) who committed suicide. The narrator (everyone remains unnamed) adopts the great Dane of the dead man (who is named Apollo) and makes a life with him. The narrator mourns, comes to love the dog, sacrifices for the dog, and never quite gets over the death of the person closest to her. Clearly, this is a hard book to describe. It is written in short paragraphs, relies on the reader to have a literary background, and is unconventional in the telling – but in a good way. We will be hearing about this one for some time.
RISING OUT OF HATRED: THE AWAKENING OF A FORMER WHITE NATIONALIST (2018) by Pulitzer Prize winning Eli Saslow is so engaging – I could not put it down. This is the story of Derek Black whose father Don Black founded Stormfront, the largest racist community on the internet and whose “godfather” is David Duke, former KKK grand wizard. Derek was homeschooled by his parents and was the leading light of the white nationalist movement UNTIL he went away to a liberal arts college and met the very people he proclaimed to despise: Jews, Hispanics, blacks. They befriended him, inviting him to weekly Shabbat dinners, and two even dating him despite his ideologies, which his classmates found repugnant. Derek changed. He had to reckon with possibly losing his family, the esteem with which the white nationalist organization held him. He took that risk, publicly announcing his renunciation of his past, apologizing for the hurt he had caused. An amazing transformation is captured in this book, and his LIBERAL ARTS EDUCATION, his immersion in a world of ideas and of people he never before knew, did that – asked him to look inside, to consider others, to consider facts and science. I could not put this one down. It gave me hope, a tiny seed of hope.
I read FULL DISCLOSURE (2018) by Stormy Daniels with Kevin Carr O’Leary (ghost-ish writer). Yep. I did. And what can I say about that reading experience? That I am a better-informed citizen? I suppose. That I regret knowing what I know. For sure. To my credit, maybe, is that I skimmed the book, finished it in one hour, and returned it to the library posthaste. And that’s all on that matter. I did say, early on in this review blog, that I read EVERYTHING. Which brings us to this dark place. No judging.
Alexander Chee’s HOW TO WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL: ESSAYS (2018) is a book I am glad I read. I resisted it, as it lingered in my pile of library books for enough time to become worryingly overdue. Then I had a long airplane ride, took Chee along, and enjoyed reading about his MFA experiences at Iowa and his writing and publishing experiences after and his days of dressing in drag. Chee is a writer’s writer, as they say, an award winner, “masterful,” per Roxane Gay. If you are a lover of books about writing, this one’s for you.
WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING (2018) by Delia Owens is just splendid. While it has a slow start, particularly so if you are a reader who does not enjoy plentiful nature description, it picks up, and then it grabs you by the open eyes and refuses to let you go until the shocking and satisfying ending. I loved this book. Kya is a girl abandoned by everyone, including her family, to live in the marsh of the North Carolina coast. She is sensitive and intelligent but unschooled until a young man from town teaches her to read. Her wild beauty is captivating for young men from the town – which opens up a whole new world to Kya, for better and for worse. There is more abandonment. A murder. An accusation. Through it all, Kya captures our heart. Read this one for sure.
THE RECKONINGS (2018) by Lacy M. Johnson, a collection of essays, is gripping in a way one might not expect essays to be. I thought of myself as one not exactly tantalized by essays, but I believe I am evolving on that score. Johnson’s first essay, “The Reckonings,” is breathtaking. I learned so much from it about revenge and hate and love – things I did not know I needed to learn: the best kinds of lessons. I flew through this collection, and I absolutely will use it in my writing classes. Everyone needs to know about Lacy M. Johnson, and today, I will order her two memoirs: THE OTHER SIDE: A MEMOIR and TRESPASSES: A MEMOIR.
STAY WITH ME (2017), a novel by Ayobami Adebayo is so good. What is amazing about this author is that she inserts the most extraordinary moments into her prose without warning. Suddenly, one is reading along, filled with the life of the husband and wife and his second wife, filled with the plot – is the pregnancy for real, is there an affair, will the meddling mother in law ever cease and desist? – when WHAM! an enormous secret reality is revealed, and everything that came before is called into question. If one does not read carefully, if one skims, forget it. It is like missing Bertha Mason in the attic in JANE EYRE – it is too essential to miss. So happy I discovered this author. I will read whatever she writes.
This one is top notch for Iliad lovers: THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS (2018) by Pat Barker. This Booker-Prize winner tells the epic story of Achilles and the Trojan war through the narrative of Briseis, Achilles’ war prize. All the greats are there: Agamemnon, Helen, Patroclus, Priam. And those who know the story follow along with an entirely fresh and vivid voice to guide them. Briseis is direct, angry, resilient. She rightly knows she is “living in a rape camp.” Hers and Achilles’ story is not a love story. It is something else entirely. I flew through this novel, loving it, having longed for such a female voice to be shared without even knowing it. The least favorite parts of these ancient epics for me are the battle scenes, and Barker relieves us of many of those. The focus is on the life of the enslaved Trojan women, exactly where it should be in 2018, where it should have been “back in the day,” as my students say. Read this one for sure.
The plot and subplot of Vanessa Hua’s debut novel A RIVER OF STARS (2018) had me caught up. However, I found myself skimming (something I never do) some of the scenes to get to the end. I am sad to admit this. I almost gave up on the book half way through. I am glad I did not, but I think this book needed an editor. Who am I to say? Hua is a rising superstar. BUT, I am a woman who has a piled-high stack of books to read, and I want to be pulled through consistently. The ending was predictable, and it was lovely, and it was tied up. Alas…
A PLACE FOR US (2018), the debut novel by Fatima Farheen Mirza, is a book you spend time with. It is long (nearly 400 pages) and engaging. Hadia is about to marry when the book opens, and her estranged brother Amar returns to the family after three years to attend the event, at Hadia’s request. The family’s past secrets, disappointments and heartaches fill the novel. A strict Muslim household, some members thrive by obeying the rules, some falter. There is heartbreak here, and part of the beauty of this book is puzzling that out, worrying the question: why do we torture ourselves with ourselves? This is a keeper. Watch out for more from Fatima Farheen Mirza.
I could not put down THE SILENT WIFE (2013) by A.S.A. Harrison. This New York Times bestseller is about Jodi and Todd, he an entitled, cheating, inconsiderate husband to completely giving (too giving) psychoanalyst Jodi. From the first chapter, we know Jodi murders Todd. With this knowledge, the reader plunges toward the final moments, actually urging Jodi on in several places when Todd’s behavior is simply too much to bear. As the novel progresses and nuanced details are served up, we understand the characters’ actions more thoroughly. Nevertheless, we are not fans of Todd. This is a page turner, a book for the times, when women are fed up with taking the doo-doo so long served them.
THE INCENDIARIES (2018) by R. O. Kwon is getting rave reviews. IT tells the story of Phoebe and Will who meet at an elite American university. Phoebe is popular but hiding a secret about her mother’s death. Will is on scholarship, working waiting tables, in love with Phoebe. The loss of her mother drives Phoebe into a cult tied to North Korea, though the reality of what the group represents and intends remains unclear until the novel is nearing its end, when Will’s obsession with Phoebe has met with disaster. This is a dark book, a brief book, and one that requires work on the part of the reader. The language is beautiful, for sure, but this is not your everyday realistic novel – not that that is a bad thing. The very young Kwon promises to be center stage for some time, so I would keep tabs on her. I will be.
THE DAYLIGHT MARRIAGE (2015) by Heidi Pitlor is a fast read. The beautiful Hannah marries climate scientist Lovell, she spirited, he an introvert. They have two children. They have unspoken resentments. They have one enormous and frightening fight, and the next day she is gone. Did she leave of her own accord (her car, purse, and coat are gone with her)? Was she hurt? Did he do something violent after the fight, though he had never been violent before? Lovell is left alone with the children for months while police search for Hannah. The book pulls you through with its intensity. It is dark. It is not exactly predictable, but sort of. The ending stays with one, even if one does not want it to. The cover art is lovely. That’s all.
VOX (2018) by Christina Dalcher is one of my favorite new finds. This speculative novel imagines a U.S. government that decrees women and girls are no longer allowed to speak more than one hundred words a day. They are tormented by a bracelet-like counting device attached to their wrists for every word over one hundred they speak. The average person, prior to the decree, spoke sixteen thousand words a day. Dr. Jean McClellan is an expert in the brain and linguistics. When the U. S. Government calls on her to cure an important man, she has a decision to make. She is a fighter. She has a daughter she wants to save from this world, and she has a new reason to want to change this world. I simply loved imagining the way Jean fights back, the way she never deflates in the face of patriarchal hubris and oppression. Put this one at the top of our list.
Julie Schumacher, author of Dear Committee Members, does it again with the laugh-out-loud THE SHAKESPEARE REQUIREMENT(2018). If you love university narratives, if you work in an English department, if you know someone who does, read this. At the fictional Payne University, Professor Jason Fitger is the new English department chair. His ex-wife, whom he still loves, is sleeping with the dean. His department secretary is in charge of everything, and the Economics department threatens to upheave the entire building, ejecting the English faculty from their basement offices, given its recent claim to outside funding and a superior academic major. When the question of whether Shakespeare should be required – or not – for all English majors, Fitger’s world and department implode. If none of this sounds funny, guess again. It is hysterical, outrageous, right on. Schumacher is, clearly an English professor and clearly someone I want to invite to meet me at Starbucks, so I can thank her for being her and for doing what she does. Maybe we can be friends. Please, Julie Schumacher.
HIS FAVORITES (2018) by Kate Walbert is shocking and sad and gripping. This tiny volume packs a punch. When she kills her best friend in a drunken accident, teenaged Jo flees, enrolls in a prestigious boarding school, where her past cannot be outrun. Ready to begin again, the past and the present that preys upon those with such broken pasts, snares her in its grip. While this book is sad, it is powerful, and it is important. Important in that it is timely and enraging. A must.
I would describe Jo Piazza’s CHARLOTTE WALSH LIKES TO WIN (2018) as a romp were the stakes not so high. Charlotte Walsh is running for Senate in her hometown, having moved her family back to Pennsylvania from California. She is among the many women running for office since the devastating presidential election. Her opponent is a stereotype. Her opponent is all too real: misogynist, dirty politician. The press is unrelenting. Her marriage is churning from the demands of home and campaign. Can a woman have it all is a question that threads the underbelly of the novel and becomes quite transparent near the end of the novel. Piazza’s book is a novel. The book is about the reality of women’s lives who dare to run for office. It is both a cautionary tale and a social critique. It is fast paced and important and leaves one questioning – and that is not a bad thing!
WHAT WE LOSE (2017) by Zinzi Clemmons is a fast read about Thandi, the narrator, whose father is American and mother a South African/American. In some ways a classic Kunstlerroman, the novel explores the losses Thandi endures, her vexed relationship with her father, her intense and persistent memories of her mother, and her tangles – for better or worse – with young men. Clemmons offers us a mixed-media style and a minimalist narrative (not as minimalist as Jacqueline Woodson’s ANOTHER BROOKLYN, but in that vein). I expect we will see more from Clemmons, a young writer who dares to get at the heartaches of growing up.
THE ORIGIN OF OTHERS (2017) by Toni Morrison is, of course, profound. This tiny volume speaks about how literature plays an important part in the history of race in America, both negatively and positively. She talks about efforts to romance slavery in the 19th century, about notions of racial purity, and about how literature employs skin color to reveal character. The best part of the book is when she talks about her own writing and her motivations therein. She is the unequivocal queen, goddess, wonder woman of literature. I read anything/everything she writes, and this one did not disappoint. The foreword by Ta-Nehisi Coates is pure gold.
I wanted to have my life changed by FLOW (1990) by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Did not happen. In fact, everything said here is, well, obvious. He investigates “optimal experience” and maintains that in order to have this, what he calls flow, one must order what information enters our consciousness. One must arrange one’s attitude toward work, friends, family, and life in order to maximize enjoyment and the quality of our lives. The idea is to enter difficulty or challenging activities/tasks that stretch your capacity such that you are deeply rapt, involved and highly focused.
THE PARKING LOT ATTENDANT (2018) by Nafkote Tamirat is one curious walk on a high-tension wire. The young female narrator finds herself on an island meant to be idyllic. She reflects back to how she got here, how she met Ayale, the “unofficial king of Boston’s Ethiopian community” (book jacket). Ayale is charming but mysterious, and the young narrator cannot get enough of him – until she begins to suspect he is involved in some dark behaviors. He involves her as well. Every page is haunted by her wondering and our wondering if Ayale has her best interests at heart or if he will betray her. This first novel by a Boston native kept my attention, brought me hours of worry for her, and never let up, even on the last pages. This one is a keeper. I will look for her future work.
Everyone I know has read THE ICE QUEEN (2005) by Alice Hoffman. I finally read it in order to keep my friend circle alive and well since they badgered me routinely to read this novel. They all know I am terrified of lighting. I share stories all the time about people struck by lightning, killed by it, changed by it. They laugh at me, those weary of my “phobia,” and yet, here is Alice Hoffman writing a novel about people struck by lightning, surviving it barely, having their lives unalterably changed – and not in a good way. It confirms all of my worst fears and more. Yet, I could not put the thing down. I am happy to have read this finally, and I am affirmed in my fears; they are phobias if they can and do happen, just sayin’.
Katherine A. Sherbrooke’s FILL THE SKY (2016) is the compelling story of three best friends who travel to Ecuador to visit spiritual healers who can – they hope – heal Ellie, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. I really liked these women and their foibles and their loves. I learned about ancient traditions of healing and the hope we hold out when the odds are against us. Sherbrooke lives outside of Boston, and her work is published by (sixoneseven) books – a publisher new to me. This one is more than a beach read but in the vein of Anna Quindlen. Read this one.
Tara Westover’s EDUCATED (2018), a memoir, is captivating – once you get past the first one-third (wish she had edited a bit here). Westover grew up in Idaho as part of a Mormon family that did not believe in the medical establishment or public schooling. Having never set foot in a school, Westover ultimately was admitted to Brigham Young University where she learned, for the very first time, about the Holocaust, the Civil Rights Movement, and other crucial world events. She studied after this at Cambridge University and then Harvard, earning a Ph.D. – but all of this education cost her. The book cover says this is a “universal coming-of-age story” – nothing is farther from the truth. Hardly anyone who will read this book has had Westover’s life experience, and no reader would want it. I could not put this book down after the first third, though, honestly, I considered doing so in the beginning. Westover’s detailing of her work with her father in his junkyard laid an important grounding for her story, but it got tedious for me, all that metal….all the danger and injuries…Overall, this is an important book that helps us to understand the folks who live out some of the extreme ideologies in our country – or at least, if not to understand, then to bear witness to those extremes in order to better understand our own place in the world.
SUCCESSFUL WOMEN SPEAK DIFFERENTLY: 9 HABITS THAT BUILD CONFIDENCE, COURAGE, & INFLUENCE (2011) by Valorie Burton offered a few interesting and somewhat new tips about how to be a successful woman – whatever we deem that to be! She talks about posture and voice (don’t uptalk, for example, ending with a question mark) and email tactics (don’t write an email when you are angry, wait…). Not much new here, to be honest, if you’ve been paying attention at all to these sorts of tomes. Say “no” when you want to, she advises. Yup. Speak up when you have something important to say, even if you are afraid. Yup. Ask questions. Yup. This is not to say that the book is not beneficial; it is just that the useful tidbits are, perhaps, too sparsely offered. And Burton sprinkles in Bible verses to support her advice – not sure why. Anyway, by all accounts Burton is an uber-successful woman, so who knows what I may be missing!
I read a lot of books/articles on mindfulness and Buddhist meditation, and may of them are repetitive or, worse, koan-ish – challenging to understand. MINDFULNESS: A BETTER ME; A BETTER YOU; A BETTER WORLD (2018) by Annabel Beerel, Ph.D. and Tom Raffio, FLMI is not that kind of book. It is clear, helpful, and it offers advice one can put into practice immediately. It focuses on mindfulness in the workplace, offering suggestions on how to avoid multitasking (which does not work), how to manage quantities of email, how to transition from one task to another. Tom Raffio says, “No business can succeed if its employees are not happy and engaged because unhappy employees create unhappy customers.” So true. This book tackles our engrained ideas about busyness equaling success or status. It challenges readers to appreciate moments of silence, to take time out to breathe. This is a must read.
TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS: ADVICE ON LOVE AND LIFE FROM DEAR SUGAR (2012) by Cheryl Strayed is certainly worth reading, if one selects carefully from the 350-pages of advice. I really enjoyed the genuine responses written to the heartbreaking letters Cheryl Strayed (writing as Dear Sugar) received. She was blunt, kind, and generous in sharing her own experience when it was warranted. This is really a touching collection of letters and responses, even when the advice is harsh and firm – in my case, I am a big fan of Strayed, so I delighted in her getting right down to it.
THE POWER (2016) by Naomi Alderman – yep! Read it again. And I will read it again before summer is up. Something about this book is so satisfying, so frustrating, so angering…I love it. I question it. I want Naomi to have tea with me. I want a better world, and for a time in this novel, she seems to be offering one. See a more detailed review in an earlier blog post.
HANNA WHO FELL FROM THE SKY (2017) by Christopher Meades has an interesting premise. Hanna is a teenager in a polygamous, patriarchal, “religious” community. She is scheduled to become the 5th wife of a much older man. Her mother tells her she was not born the way others are born, but that she fell from the sky into their lives. Indeed, Meades plays with magical realism in the book, having Hanna fall from great heights without injury. The thing here is, I am not sure Meades pulls this off effectively. Is he going for metaphor? Is he intending us to believe in this one slice of magic when the rest of the book is pure realism? Not sure, and not entirely interested in following up with an email to him. The book is one I am happy to have read in summer with time a tad bit freer. In the fall and winter and spring, Meades novel would not have made the cut.
Tara Mohr’s PLAYING BIG: FIND YOUR VOICE, YOUR MISSION, YOUR MESSAGE (2014) had one chapter that held an interesting perspective. She maintains that girls/women are good at school, good at following rules, but in the world of work this is not serving them well. They need to bust out of this behavioral mode and take more risks, get noticed more, ask for more. They need to promote themselves. Ok, Tara, we get it. This is not new, but she did put an emphasis on old news that gave it a bit of pizzazz. Don’t take time to read this one in its entirety. This young woman is saying things you all know, but do take her up on her advice to take risks and to promote yourself when you are doing amazing things.
MAKE TROUBLE: STANDING UP, SPEAKING OUT, AND FINDING THE COURAGE TO LEAD (2018) by Cecile Richards with Lauren Peterson is much more interesting than PLAYING BIG in that Cecile Richards is the former president of Planned Parenthood and has been in the trenches, testifying before Congress, enduring rhetorical abuse, and standing tall throughout. Richards is a heroic figure who knows how to promote herself and other women without being annoying. I found her story inspiring. I need inspiring right now, as do many of us. I need to read about women who don’t nod and say yes but – rather – who stand up and say, now listen here, this is how reality works. Richards’ book is worth the read. She makes one want to grab hold of a bit of hope and carry on. That’s my kind of woman, my kind of book.
Julian Barnes’s THE ONLY STORY (2018) is about 19-year-old Paul who has a long-term affair with 48-year-old Susan whom he meets at their tennis club. Her husband is abusive. His parents disapprove of the relationship. They set up house in London. Things are blissful until they aren’t. And Paul narrates from the future looking back on all this “only love” story has meant for him. The writing is wonderful; Barnes is a master. The book held my intrigue until it did not, about 50 pages from the end (250 in all). I wanted it to end. I skimmed (I hate skimming), but Barnes left me no choice. Paul’s rabid introspection grew wearisome, and I no longer cared about either character. So, where does this leave us with this book? Musing on what that ONE love we share, the one that trumps (sorry) all others, means in our longer lives? I suppose. Ultimately, the book’s appeal is in the shock of such an age difference, and once one gets past that, gets used to Paul and Susan as an unusual couple, what more is there to say.
BLEAKER HOUSE (2017) by Nell Stevens, a MFA graduate in fiction from Boston University, is compelling and unusual. Stevens is awarded a fellowship that allows her to spend three months anywhere in the world to do as she wishes. She wishes to write a novel and heads to remote (two people live there) Bleaker Island in the Falklands. She attempts a novel, but she winds up with this memoir. It is intriguing to watch her process. The island is cold, stormy, dark, and she has brought too little food. Daily she struggles to write her novel, takes walks in snow and ice, watches penguins gather. I can see where this would be extraordinarily boring for some, but for me – writing a book myself about characters who live on an island – I could not get enough. Having said that, I am not sure I give this one my top rating. Something about the narrator seemed not quite genuine, particularly in places where she shared anecdotes from the past that did not sync up with what we knew of her persona on the island. In those curious anecdotes, I wanted more analysis, less showing. Otherwise, a solid read.
THE GREAT ALONE (2018) is the first novel by the prolific Kristin Hannah I have ever read. I enjoyed it quite a bit. It is about a family, mom and dad and daughter, who move to Alaska, where life is rugged and challenging. Dad makes it more challenging since his return from Viet Nam where he was a POW. He works this through with alcohol and vented rage, rendering life for the mom and daughter unpredictable and hellish, on and off. The characters here are nicely developed, the plot engaging. It is the kind of fat novel you want for summer (though the descriptions of continuous ice and snow kept me chilled throughout). I may take Hannah up on another novel in future. For now, on to another…
NOT THAT BAD: DISPATCHES FROM RAPE CULTURE (2018) edited by Roxane Gay is genius. I could not put this collection of essays down. These include stories of actors, writers, experts and some new voices. Each explores the rape epidemic in our world in deeply personal ways with unflinching honesty. This book provokes, confirms, affirms. It is essential reading in today’s world, for those who want to change it and – even moreso – for those who don’t
THE BOOK THAT MATTERS MOST (2016) by Ann Hood is about Ava, whose 25-year marriage has ended, whose daughter has run amuck in Europe, and who joins a book group where each member chooses the book that has meant most to his/her development. Ava’s chosen book is one from her childhood, one that helped her through the traumatic deaths of her mother and her sister. Ava gets up to some shenanigans, makes some iffy decisions, but she and the narrative hold our attention. This is easy reading, somewhat light reading, worth a summer look.
THE HIGHLY SENSITIVE PERSON: HOW TO THRIVE WHEN THE WORLD OVERWHELMS YOU (1996) by Elaine Aron, Ph.D. makes some significant points. It assures readers who are more introvert than extravert that they are among others, that their resistance to overstimulation is reasonable, that their need for quiet/alone time is ok, fine, good, necessary. I got a few good pointers from this book; the second half offered nothing new, nothing useful, but the first half was worth the read.
HOW WE WORK: LIVE YOUR PURPOSE, RECLAIM YOUR SANITY, AND EMBRACE THE DAILY GRIND (2018) by Leah Weiss, Ph.D. teaches readers how to grapple with work that bleeds into evenings and weekends, how to manage emails and phone calls that can overwhelm, and the stress of live outside of work. The book talks about mindfulness and offers some useful tips. I get why many would resist a book like this, thinking it goes over that same well-trod ground of offering platitudes about priorities and values and not wishing you had worked more as you lie on your deathbed. But I found this book had some useful moment. I did a lot of notetaking, for what that is worth, considering this book not of the usual hackneyed self-help stock. Give it a shot.
THIS IS HOW IT BEGINS ((2017) by Joan Dempsey is way better than I had anticipated. I REALLY liked this book. 85-year-old professor Ludka Zeilonka is immersed into a political firestorm when her grandson Tommy is fired from his high school teaching job because he is gay. The active Christian right is wielding power, making “progress” by having gay faculty let go, in the name of protecting children. Zeilonka won’t stand for it, given her Polish history of the Holocaust. The novel is about free speech, empathy, violence, and activism, but it does not read like a tract. Not at all. The storytelling is compelling. The characters have unique voices, particularly Professor Z. Read this one. It is really fabulous, and it is HIGHLY TIMELY AND RELEVANT AND IMPORTANT today.
DEAR EVAN HANSEN (2017), a play by Steven Levenson is about a boy who commits suicide and a boy who appropriates that death for his own good. This is a challenging play, a provocative one, and one that really calls for coffee and dialogue after reading. Let’s talk, folks.
I have long wanted to read THE BREAK (2016) by Katherena Vermette, the Canadian award-winning novel about Stella, a young Metis mother, who looks out her window one evening and witnesses a crime. The novel shifts narratives among members of Stella’s family and friends and police officers. The novel demonstrates the resilience of many indigenous women, who make up most of the characters. This is a book that comes with a family tree in the front. I am of two minds about such trees – on the one hand, they help clarify multiple-character narratives, and I find myself checking back many times during my reading. On the other hand, do we need so many characters that we require a tree? The jury is still out on this one. This book is quite fine. Margaret Atwood, may she be revered, says on the front cover: “This is an accomplished writer who will go far.” Enough said!
Elise Juska’s IF WE HAD KNOWN (2018) is one of two new novels I read about school shootings, a topic I study. Juska takes up the story of Professor Maggie Daley who teaches composition at a college in Maine. Four years after she had him in class, Nathan Dugan kills people in a rampage shooting in a nearby mall. Maggie’s life becomes embroiled in the aftermath, as does that of her college-freshman daughter Anna. The story is modelled on that of the Virginia Tech professor who tutored Seung Hui Cho, the student who murdered more than 30 people at that university. The book pulls the reader through, and the daughter subplot is interesting, but overall, the book is not that unique. I predicted much of what was coming, and that is not a good thing except when playing Jeopardy. Or, just maybe, I read too much (as if there is such a thing!). If you are interested in the aftermath of school shootings and the desperation with which we attempt to place blame, read this.
HOW TO BE SAFE (2018) by Tom McAllister is the other school shooting novel. The inside cover claims: the “searing novel doesn’t offer easy assurances…a piercing feminist howl written in trenchant prose.” I agree with this statement, and while I was ready to be done with the novel a bit before its end, I did REALLY enjoy the author’s use of language, turning down several pages to return to. This guy is a good writer, and I will be seeking out other books by him. On the school shooting topic, this did expose the sexism that is interconnected with rampage shootings, something we are loathe in this country to talk about. McAllister takes it on. Bravo.
PIECING ME TOGETHER (2017), a YA novel by Renee Watson is quite fine. Jade is a talented teen who makes collages from various papers. She goes to a private school, but is an outsider because she is poor and black. When she joins Woman to Woman, a mentoring program, she is less than impressed with her mentor. What makes this novel worth reading is the spirit that infuses Jade. She learns to identify her feelings, especially of anger, and she comes to express them, to feel she deserves to express them. She is a captivating character. Worth a look see, this one.
THE FEMALE PERSUASION (2018) by Meg Wolitzer is 450 pages, a huge investment of time. I have not always been a super fan of Wolitzer. I do like her work – in the way I like Shepherd’s Pie. It is comforting. There are moments it is delicious and reaches back into childhood memories that soothe. But I don’t want to eat it every day or even every week or month. So, what does that say about this book? Greer is a young college student who meets uber-famous-feminist Faith Frank while Greer is in college and Frank visits to give a speech. That meeting is transformative for the student, and she eventually goes to work for Faith Frank, which is both a dream and a dilemma. There is the subplot of Greer’s love relationship with Cory who is a delightfully LIT young man. That subplot goes all akimbo, and Greer’s life course is altered. She has best friends and judge parents (they are judges!). What Wolitzer foregrounds here is a feminist world in which Greer and Faith take on the big issues like trafficking. I like that world, like the work they do, the books they read, the dialogues they enter. So why is it Shepherd’s Pie instead of grilled salmon or a fresh-from-the-oven raspberry pie? It is too long (which in itself is not a problem) – some parts could be edited for sure. It made Faith Frank out to be a woman who was completely captivating – but it made her out to be such by way of telling rather than showing. I had to believe Wolitzer that Faith Frank was someone everyone wanted to be around rather than seeing it/knowing it for myself. She seems modelled on Gloria Steinem, whom I’ve met and spoken to at length. Steinem IS compelling, and I would be hard pressed to explain exactly why. Perhaps this is what happened with Wolitzer and Faith Frank. Anyway, this is worth the read when you have 450-pages worth of time.
UNBELIEVABLE: MY FRONT-ROW SEAT TO THE CRAZIEST CAMPAIGN IN AMERICAN HISTORY (2017) by Katy Tur is quick and fun, in a People Magazine sort of way. Tur followed Trump’s campaign for NBC as a news correspondent, and she tells tales of inconsistencies, fact-checked falsities, downright lies. She talks about being protected by the Secret Service when Trump got folks at his rallies riled up. Trump calls her out from the crowd on several occasions, deriding her capabilities as a reporter. This memoir is as nutty as the title indicates. I am loath to admit really enjoying it, but there it is. I did read it like a boss. And then I googled Tur doing interviews. It soothed my soul in some odd way. If your politics are mine, you might enjoy this one.
Madeline Miller’s CIRCE (2018) is such a treat. She takes up the epic tale of the daughter of Helios, as she is banished to a deserted island. While life there promises to be quiet and lonely, it is anything but. She is visited by Daedalus, Medea, Odysseus, and later a cast of gods and humans who make island life quite spectacular. Circe is a witch with powers that enchant and horrify. She is not to be trifled with. This is a requisite for those who love master narratives turned topsy turvy by woman narrators. I recommend this for sure.
ONLY CHILD (2018), a novel by Rhiannon Navin tells the story of a school shooting from the perspective of a first grader. Zach Taylor has an up-close and personal connection to the shooting, and that trauma is confounded by the hatred and hurt that follows: his parents fighting, his neighbors blaming, his being an only child weighing on him. This is a fine book. Pulling off a child narrator is quite challenging, but Navin makes it work without the usual annoyance such a figure can create for the reader. While it is not at the top of my school-shooting books (I do have such a list!), it is worth the read, if for the touch of hope it brings.
EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON, And Other Lies I’ve Loved (2018) by Kate Bowler is a very moving memoir by a woman dying of cancer. She is a wife and mother, and her narrative voice is gripping. While she is certainly sad, even incredulous, Bowler draws the reader in with her wit and courage. This is not a melodramatic tale. Rather, Bowler faces her illness with curiosity and intellect. I really think this is a book to read, to inspire.
ELMET (2017) by Fiona Mozley was a finalist for the 2017 Man Booker Prize, and this typically does not drive me toward a book, the Man Booker making some curious choices – routinely. However, this book is intriguing, if not my favorite. It is about a family living a very rural life, an unconventional life. The children, Cathy and Daniel, roam free, living with their dad in the woods. Dad was forced to do brutal work for money, and his fate seems sadly caught up in this kind of “work.” Something about the darkness of this novel called to me. Not sure I recommend it. But …
A FALSE REPORT: A TRUE STORY OF RAPE IN AMERICA (2018) by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong started out as a ProPublica article which won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize. It was titled “An Unbelievable Story of Rape.” This book explores and analyzes the story of Marie, an eighteen-year-old woman who reported that a masked man broke into her apartment and raped her. No one, including the police and her closest friends, believed her. In fact, the police coerced her into taking back her confession, and she was charged with false reporting. Two years later, through meticulous police work, Marie’s story of rape was proven true – and two other women were raped by the same man. The book takes up the uneasy question of why we don’t believe rape victims who don’t present as we stereotypically expect them to: distraught, unglued, “hysterical” – as if there is A WAY to report rape, as if trauma only presents in an established and correct way. This is a must read. It breaks through the myths, the prejudices, and it is laser focused on changing the way women are treated by police and others.
THEY MAY NOT MEAN TO, BUT THEY DO (2016) by Cathleen Schine is a paperback novel I chose to read because of its compelling cover – the blues are simply astonishing. This is a book about the Bergmans. Joy is the matriarch, and when her dear husband dies, her children begin to plan Joy’s life for her. Joy, grieving, lonely, and tired, begins to resent this interference, as she heals. When a suitor from her past makes a reentry, Joy discovers a new way of being, and this is quite upsetting to her grown children. This is insightful for readers in that sandwich generation, thinking they know best (as I sometimes do) for everyone, and realizing that this is not so, not necessary.
THE POWER (2016) by Naomi Alderman is one of my new favorite books, the utopia/dystopia I cannot stop talking about. In the book, teenage girls and women now have immense physical power, with a flick of their fingers, they can cause pain and even death. Everything – in response to this newly discovered power – changes – across the globe. As poetically just as the turn of events presents itself, Alderman has wider, more protean, questions to ask, and so, sadly, so so sadly, the novel becomes a dystopia. But it is a must read. I will read it again. Teach it for sure. The satisfactions along the way, before the events that render it a dystopia take hold, are soul satisfying!
YOUNG JANE YOUNG (2017) by Gabrielle Zevin is delightful. I enjoyed the characters, particularly the voice of the opening narrator mother. The story is one of gendered shaming, but it is not heavy-handed in its message. Rather, we linger with Aviva and her daughter Ruby, as they negotiate what it means to be a woman, to be a human in a world that judges women far more harshly for actions in which men are equal participants. The book satisfies and intrigues, with its alternating narrators and full-circle ending. This is, in some ways, light fare – in other ways profound in its vision.
I am a huge fan of Turkish writer Elif Shafak, and her THE BASTARD OF ISTANBUL is one of my all-time favorites. I was enthusiastic about her newest novel, THREE DAUGHTERS OF EVE (2017), and she did not disappoint. I was gripped by the young protagonist, Peri, who grew up in Istanbul in a home fraught by her parents’ divisive view of religion, her mother a devout Muslim, her father a secular humanist. When Peri attends Oxford and makes new friends, her life is upended by one Professor Azur who teaches a course on God. The novel alternates between Peri’s days at Oxford and her current plighted day that culminates at a dinner at the home of a billionaire in Istanbul. This is an awesome book, the kind you look forward to reading when you get into bed at night – go a bit early; this one is worth it!
THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS (2014) by Christina Henriquez is timely for today. It tells the story of fifteen-year-old Mexican Mirabel, who falls victim to a terrible accident, and with her family seeks healing in the United States. Neighbor boy Mayor Toro finds a kindred spirit in the beautiful Mirabel, but their love story is fraught by events – frankly, the kinds of events we see every night in the news, spawned by the White House. This is a novel that insists on empathy for immigrants, good working people who want the best for their children, as we all do. That empathy is not hard to find. It would serve well our U.S. leaders to get a copy – thousands of copies – of this novel in the mail. Why not? Read and pass on: 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC 20500.
The jury is still out on Louise Erdrich’s FUTURE HOME OF THE LIVING GOD (2017). I raced through it, for sure, but the entire time I kept saying – this is a re-do of THE HANDMAID’S TALE. Now, listen, no one more than I applauds a good HANDMAID revolution in fiction. Bring on the dystopias! Yet, something niggled at me, as I read this. I cannot yet put my finger on it, so I am going to recommend the novel and ask for coffee and conversation from those who take me up on this challenge. In the novel, evolution stops. It’s a mystery. Twenty-six-year-old Cedar, adopted daughter of liberals, is four months pregnant – and pregnancy and childbearing have become issues of state security in this dystopia. Cedar travels to find her Ojibwe birth family, and she encounters war, religions factions, traitors. Pregnant women are take by “police,” and she fears for herself and her child. There you have it. Be in touch!
I had been awaiting Tom Perrotta’s MRS. FLETCHER (2017) because he had stolen my heart with some of his other novels. I gave MRS. FLETCHER many of my precious hours, hoping as I plowed through that it would get better, that it would show me the Tom Perrotta-ness I had anticipated. It failed me. I really, really disliked this book, I am sad to say. This may, in fact, alter my relationship with TP. Mrs. Fletcher was experiencing empty nest when her son went off to college. I thought that was something Mrs. Fletcher and I could connect over since my son had also gone off to college (a few years ago). BUT, Mrs. F. decides to spend her precious time – aside from taking a Gender Studies course – watching hours and hours of porn, having a quicky with a subordinate colleague AND a boy from her son’s high school class. We, Mrs. Fletcher and I, were NOT connecting. Yet, I have an open mind, so I soldiered on through the novel, hoping for a Perrotta miracle. I got nada. The son, the one Mrs. Fletcher was so broken up about losing, he was a jerk, a complete barbarian. And to top it all off – SPOILER ALERT: in the last five pages or so, Perrotta goes all 19th century and has Mrs. Fletcher meet a man (whom we’ve never met before in the novel) and marry him, tidying up the porn-prone protagonist with a new husband. Coming-of-age novel, my foot! I cannot, do not, will not recommend this one. OH, Tom, my heart is heavy. To what readers are you appealing with this one?
Mary Beard’s WOMEN & POWER: A MANIFESTO (2017) is kickass! Beginning with the disrespectful son of Odysseus’s son Telemachus telling his saintly mother to go to her room because “speech will be the business of men,” Beard brings us through the history of men claiming power as their own. She traces the origins of misogyny to their ancient roots, examining the worlds of Penelope, Queen Elizabeth I, Medusa, even Hillary Clinton. Her research is sound. She argues that powerful women provide a necessary example to all women “who must resist being vacuumed into a male template.” Ultimately, she calls for a thorough reexamination and redefinition of power itself.
In one sitting I read the Dalai Lama’s AN APPEAL TO THE WORLD: THE WAY TO PEACE IN A TIME OF DIVISION (2017), drinking it up like medicine. He is profound and succinct and wise. The need for unity, he urges, in a time of division, borders, and strain, is essential. How do we move forward? “I see with ever greater clarity that our spiritual well-being depends on our innate human nature, our natural affinity for goodness, compassion, and caring for others.” This tiny gem holds lessons for us all. I LOVED this book; it gave me a touch of hope and the courage to move forward, believing in human beings’ capacity for love and change and growth.
I read UGLIES (2005) by Scott Westerfeld to prepare for an upcoming conference panel on plausible dystopias. It is a YA novel about a sixteen-year-old girl Tally who lives in a place where all sixteen-year olds are surgically altered to be Pretties. Before this alteration, they are called Uglies –which refers to the way they were born (nothing inherently ugly about them). As one might predict in a dystopia, Tally, and others, resist this change, opting for something more freeing and independent. She meets up with new friends; trouble ensues; there are evil officials who manipulate the population, and – a bit too predictably – the system starts to implode. I did not realize this novel is the first in a trilogy, so the ending seemed abrupt. Makes sense now. The next in the series is titled PRETTIES. I will opt out. This novel is a good dystopia for beginners in the genre; for those of us seasoned dystopic readers, it is somewhat old hat and about 100 pages too long.
OUT FRONT: HOW WOMEN CAN BECOME ENGAGING, MEMORABLE, AND FEARLESS SPEAKERS (2017) by Deborah Shames is uplifting and includes many practical tips on public speaking. Though many of them are directed to women in business, they can be extrapolated for use beyond this venue. The book is easy to read, offers solid advice on overcoming fear in public speaking and how NOT to bore and audience. If you are on deck to give a speech, do a presentation, this may be the book for you.
Reza Aslan’s GOD: A HUMAN HISTORY (2017) is an accessible and fascinating examination of how humans came to understand and to anthropomorphize god. He takes us back to pre-history, through the Mesopotamian and Greek cultures, and through the birth of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. His arguments are cogent and well supported (nearly half the book is comprised of notes). I, like most people, am fascinated by the way people understand god and the way religions understand god. This is my first encounter with Aslan’s work, and I will certainly return for more of his writing.
MY ABSOLUTE DARLING (2017) by Gabriel Tallent is unlike any other book I’ve read. It tells the story of Turtle Alveston, a fourteen-year-old girl living with her father in the woods of the Northern California coast. She is a tough, but she is in thrall to her complex and mighty father, who is unable to accept the death of his wife. Turtle meets Jacob, an erudite teenager who changes the way she sees the world. Dad is not happy with this. The harrowing story is one I could not put down, even as I had to look away. This novel is about love, family, cruelty, and the complexity of family-love-cruelty interacting. I loved/hated this book. Loved the book and the writing, hated the cruelty, understood the deep understanding that has to have been bred into this young writer to have captured such complexity with a protean narrative.
At first, I was not into this novel, IT HAPPENS ALL THE TIME (2017) by Amy Hatvany. It seemed overwrought, as if I’d read it before, heard it all before. But in short order, Hatvany had me. And I have come to really want to discuss this novel with others. It reminds me of BEARTOWN – which I had mixed feelings about as well, but which, upon reflection, I have come to admire. These would be great companion texts to teach in a women’s studies or an English class. In this novel, best friends Amber and Tyler, have a serious falling out, and Hatvany offers us their alternating points of view on the trauma that engages them both. The story is heartbreaking, and the friendship is at serious risk, but the ending brings a satisfaction (do not misinterpret this as meaning “happy”) that this reader wants to feel. I recommend this one for sure. Then let’s talk.
Brigid Kemmerer’s YA novel LETTERS TO THE LOST (2017) begins with Juliet writing letters to her mother at her mother’s graveside. Declan, who works at the cemetery, working off his troubling juvenile behavior, responds to her letters. They continue a correspondence, though one does not know the identity of the other. Meanwhile, their lives at high school intersect, not in a good way, and once their secret is revealed, much is at stake. Secrets are no longer kept secret. This is an awesome book, engaging and important.
Emma Donoghue’s (author of ROOM) THE WONDER (2016) is creepy and compelling and frustrating and worth a read. ROOM was traumatizing in a way this novel is not. A young English nurse working with Florence Nightingale is sent to an impoverished Irish village to observe an eleven-year-old girl who has not eaten in four months. Some believe she is sainted, and many throng to see her. The nurse is not so convinced, and she expects to expose a hoax. What seems like a simple failure of keen investigation becomes something much more complex. You can’t really go wrong with an Emma Donoghue novel, and this one did not fail. It also did not traumatize, and that is a mercy!
There is nothing that says summer like a Dennis Lehane novel. SINCE WE FELL (2017) has a bit of a slow-ish start, but then it takes off, and you cannot let go. Nothing gets done. No sleep is had. The good news is that it is a fast read, so life is not put on hold for too long. Rachel Childs is a journalist who suffers a panic attack on air, loses her career, and becomes a recluse. When she meets Brian, things turn around, and around and around. She finds herself in a series of crises, a world of lies, and she questions everything she ever knew to be true. Brian is a fascinating character in his inconsistency – or is it his consistency in love that grips the reader? Loved this one.
I re-read THE BLUEST EYE (1970) by Toni Morrison (Nobel-winner) with wonder. This brutally painful little novel is poetic and honest. Eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove, a black girl in America who yearns for blond hair and blue eyes – so she will be “beautiful” – The book flap says “this is a story of the nightmare at the heart of her yearning, and the tragedy of its fulfillment.” And that is the truth. We follow little Pecola into her nightmare. We watch. We absorb it, resisting all the way, and in the end, when she “gets her blue eyes,” we weep – for what racial hatred has done to our children. Never has a novel been more necessary and timely as this one.
I re-read BLINDNESS (1995) by Nobel-winner Jose Saramago in preparation for teaching it in my Resistance Literature seminar in fall. A city is hit by an epidemic of white blindness. People are struck, seemingly randomly, by a blindness that is not black but glowing white. Authorities confine the blind to an empty mental hospital. The numbers grow. Blind criminals extort their fellow inmates, withholding food, raping, maiming. It is a harrowing existence, on critics have called an allegory or a parable of loss and disorientation. One woman infiltrates the quarantined quarters, seeing all, and taking on the role of leader/hero. This novel is curious in that it has no particular setting, and characters have no names (they are referred to by their job titles or marital relations). The book is gripping if wretched. It offers lots of juicy discussion questions for readers.
I am conflicted about Fredrik Backman’s BEARTOWN (2016), the story of a tiny community nestled deep in a forest. It has lost jobs, lost most everything that could make a small town thrive, except for its winning boys hockey team. There is a LOT of hockey detail in this novel. A lot. Too much. I like hockey, but I skimmed MOST of the hockey detail because it really did not matter. When the team’s star player rapes the fifteen-year-old daughter of the team’s General Manager, accusations are wielded on both sides, the town implodes, and justice seems like a pipe dream. And yet….On the whole, I enjoyed this book. I found its ending satisfying in a way I did NOT expect. Still, Backman needs an editor to chop half of this book away, leaving the good bits!
Loved so much ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE (2017) by Gail Honeyman. I loved how Honeyman created her protagonist’s voice. Eleanor is unique, quirky, myopic, and so much fun to hang out with. The darker story – and we all have one – is told ever so slowly, but the wanting to know is what urges us through the novel, not moreso than the charming and sometimes stupefying narrative voice of Eleanor. Socially awkward, with limited human contact, Eleanor has set up a solitary life with few human engagements. Things change when her coworker Raymond, an unhygienic, silly IT guy, asks her to lunch. They begin an unlikely friendship that we cannot get enough of. Ultimately, Eleanor learns about being human from Raymond and others who enter their circle. Her dark story is revealed, and we have compassion, but we’ve grown to root for Eleanor. I’d come to really love her. Read this one for sure.
ASH (2009) by Malinda Lo is the retelling of CINDERELLA from the perspective of Ash, the Cinderella character. The grief-stricken girl lives with her stepmother and stepsisters, engages with fairies, including Sidhean, who claims her for his own, and meets the king’s royal huntress Kaisa. She and Kaisa have hunting and woodsy adventures, and there is a ball (a lot of balls), and Ash is accused of atrocities by her stepmother – really, if you know Cinderella, you know this book. What you do not know is that Malinda Lo’s books are particularly targeted by book banners because she writes about non-heterosexual relationships as true, loving relationships. In this book, love triumphs over hate, a reality we all want to be true. This could have been a shorter YA book and still packed the same punch. I am happy to have read it because of the continuing press Lo’s books are getting. I want to be in the know about Lo!
TWO BOYS KISSING (2013) by David Levithan is most interesting for first person plural narrator (we). The narrators are dead gay people who are commenting on the present-day action: teenagers Craig and Harry hoping to set the world’s record for longest kiss (more than 30+ hours); Peter and Neil, a couple who seem to be losing their mojo; Avery and Ryan, a brand new couple just dating; and Cooper, a teen who is very much alone. The plots are interesting, some more than others, but the narrative voice is what caught me up because these dead narrators offer solace to the hurting teens and provide a context for the “privilege” these young boys have of being out with their sexuality. I think I may teach this one in Banned Books.
I re-read Moises Kaufman’s THE LARAMIE PROJECT (2001), and it provides a wide berth in terms of points of view on the savage beating and murder of the young and gay Matthew Shepard in Wyoming in 1998. Kaufman creates this play after doing more than 200 interviews with people from Laramie, Wyoming, the town where Shepard was killed. The upshot of this slim text is an offering of, as the book cover says, “a complex portrayal that dispels the simplistic media stereotypes and explores the depths to which humanity can sink and the heights of compassion of which we are capable.” This one is worth a re-read.
THE WITCHES (1982) by Roald Dahl is frightening but intriguing. An orphan being raised by his grandmother finds himself in a world of witches. His grandmother, an expert in witches, helps him make the best of a bad, life-altering situation brought on as a result of his up-close-and-personal encounter with witches. Good triumphs over evil. This is a troubling book in many ways, yet, there is a whimsy there, and a popular theme in the good overcoming the bad. I am considering it for my Banned Books course – it has been banned often. Might just work.
NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR (1949) by George Orwell is as frightening as ever upon re-reading. Set in London, this dystopia finds our protagonist Winston Smith, who works for the Ministry of Truth, resisting the government, seeing through its façade. When he finds and befriends Julia, things go well, then things go awry. Room 101 is the “place” where every human spirit can be broken and where “truth” is whatever the government (Big Brother) deems TRUE. I hadn’t read this one in years, and it is interesting to consider this novel in companionship with Atwood’s THE HANDMAID’S TALE. Similar plots. It leads me to wonder if all plots, in some way, are about resistance to power.
Oh my goodness, is the MARCH (2013, 2015, 2016) trilogy essential reading for ANYONE who is passionate about racial and social justice or for anyone who does not know about the trauma bravely endured by freedom fighters of the Civil Rights Movement, including Congressman John Lewis, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This graphic novel trilogy is fast reading and painful reading. My heart broke and continues to break for the way our country has treated its people because of a flawed belief that people considered “white” are superior. Herman Melville said that American slavery was our country’s greatest sin, and it is the persistence of ideologies of supremacy that render that sin un-repented and unforgiven. We have work to do, and John Lewis (and Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell, co-author and illustrator) are offering us a grounding in the history that will allow us to more deeply understand movements like #BlackLivesMatter, physical resistance like that offered by Colin Kaepernick, and contemporary literature by brave and strong and illuminating writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Toni Morrison, Imbolo Mbue, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, etc. We owe it to ourselves as thinking readers to read this trilogy – MARCH – by our Congressman. It is a fast read. It is a heartbreaking read. It is required reading for the soul.
THE SLOW PROFESSOR: CHALLENGING THE CULTURE OF SPEED IN THE ACADEMY (2016) by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber, both English professors from Canada, is a breath of fresh air. The authors argue that the corporatization of the contemporary university has sped up the clock, demanding increased speed and efficiently from faculty regardless of the consequences for students, education, and their own scholarship. I read this thin book (they consciously wrote a slim volume b/c academics have so little time – part of their larger point) with gusto. The message is so contrary to the barrage of messages academics receive on a daily basis. They insist that the academy is the place where thought and reflection and analysis – all of which take time – to be done well – ought to be nurtured, fostered. They maintain we need to “remember the values of density, complexity, and ideas which resist fast consumption” (66). They conclude that “distractedness and fragmentation characterize contemporary academic life” (90) and that – they emphasize – is a problem. They champion deepened understanding through reading, discussion, reflection on a topic. They heed Martha Nussbaum’s warning that we are “producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements” (64). I could quote this tiny revolution of a text much more, but suffice it to say I recommend it heartily.
I was disappointed by UNSUBSCRIBE: HOW TO KILL EMAIL ANXIETY, AVOID DISTRACTIONS, AND GET REAL WORK DONE (2016) by Jocelyn K. Glei. I wanted to learn something I did not know. I wanted tips on how to manage email, not a psychology of why email makes us anxious, not ways to write emails. I really got little from this, but I must say I admire her effort here. It is true that email makes us insane. It controls us more than we’d like. Ok, so to be fair, I had one takeaway – plan a time for doing email – build it into your schedule, and don’t have email on in the background when you are doing other work. I am guilty of this, and I am guilty of leaping to see an incoming email, distracting myself from my project, and losing time and energy and patience. So, thank you Jocelyn Glei for this. I will do email twice a day at times I designate as best, and let the messages wait for me to get to them.
I simply loved, capital L loved, BEHOLD THE DREAMERS (2016) by Imbolo Mbue. This young Cameroonian-American can tell a story. I was smitten from the start, and I exclaimed aloud at several points – distracting my family with whom I was on vacation and causing them to wonder if I were crying, in pain, laughing – all of which were true at certain points in the novel. READ THIS ONE. Jende Jonga is a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem with his wife Neni and six-year-old son. Jende is a love of a character; when he gets a job as a chauffeur to Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers, he is ecstatic, earning more money than he thought possible. When Lehman Brothers collapses, and after Jende and Neni have observed some serious rifts in the Edwards’ marriage/family, Jende and Neni suffer their own rifts and crises of conscience. Do they return to Cameroon or soldier on in Harlem trying to eke out a living? Who exactly are the dreamers in this novel is a question I long to discuss with the next person to read the book. The gap between rich and poor here is astounding, but the humanity at the core of each household is ragged and spirited and frightening and brave beyond belief.
I was struck by the skillful and delightful use of language in WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES (2013) by Karen Joy Fowler. I LOVED the novel for about its first two thirds, then I wanted it to end sooner, but that is not to say that Fowler’s language was not still exquisite. Some sentences I read out loud a few times. Some I jotted down in my notebook, just to savor them later on. The last third of the book was irksome because I wanted the plot to move along, but it was not irksome in the way other books I’ve PUT DOWN (a literary venial sin) have been. I just wanted to get to the conclusion, impatient to move onto the next book. Sorry, KJF. You are an awesome writer, and my antsy-ness does not reflect on you so much as me, I am certain. The Cooke family is compelling, and narrator Rosemary has a narrative voice I long to hear over and over. She is funny, smart, snarky, badass. She also has a sister who is a chimpanzee and a brother who is a human. Something horrible happens in the family, and Fern (chimp sister) is exiled. This ruins the family. Waiting to find out what caused this exile of the non-human sister is what caused my impatience, but it was worth the wait, actually. As you can tell, I am conflicted about this book, but I am not at all conflicted about the perfectly awesome writing Fowler offers us. I have studied it, and I am a better human/writer for it, I believe.
MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN (2011) by Ransom Riggs, an author I met at a conference in Atlanta this past year ( young, handsome, detached). I can see why this book was #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list for so long. It draws you in immediately. Its characters are – well – peculiar. And this is a book where the peculiar is celebrated. My favorite quote comes toward the end and is the evolved realization of Jacob, our narrator: “What’s really insane is how you peculiars hide from the world when you could rule it … and let the common genetic trash of the human race drive you underground when you could so easily make them your slaves, as they rightly should be!” A horrific family tragedy provokes sixteen-year-old Jacob to visit a remote island off the coast of Wales to discover his grandfather’s secret life. There he meets peculiar people under the caretaking of Miss Peregrine, a bird/woman – and all of these people have endured horrors of their own. The mysteries of Jacob’s life and the mysteries surrounding his beloved grandfather are cleared up, leaving Jacob with a life decision that haunts him. And us. One cannot read this novel without re-thinking the peculiar people in one’s own life, and subsequently, appreciating their uniqueness.
SERENA (2008) by Ron Rash is very Cormac McCarthy-ish. It is dark, foreboding, and violent, but it is so compelling. The title character is formidable and badass and frightening. Her husband is also, until he becomes a bit more complex, which is his downfall – or is it? This book trudges along, not much happens for a few pages besides a chorus of timber-cutting men gossiping about the Pembertons (Serena and her husband), and then WHAM, something big has happened and the men are talking about it. Some of the violence takes place off-stage, like in the ancient Greek tragedies, but the retelling of the events is even more horrifying. This is my first Ron Rash book; it will not be my last. He is creepy in a good way. No ghosts. No one leaping out of a dark closet. But – Yikes – some avenging, bloodthirsty folks abound.
DEAR IJEAWELE, OR A FEMINIST MANIFESTO IN FIFTEEN SUGGESTIONS (2017) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – the amazing and beloved. This slim volume is Adichie’s advice to her dear friend who asks Adichie to give her advice on raising her newborn daughter a feminist. Adichie is succinct and clear, and while the seasoned feminist reader will find nothing new in this advice, that selfsame reader will delight in Adichie’s clarity, bravery, and audacity. I LOVED this book, and I read it straight through in short order. I believe every student should read this, or at least everyone who will be a new parent or grandparent! NOT a book just for girls and women. A book for human beings. Brava, CNA.
THE CELLIST OF SARAJEVO (2008) by Steven Galloway is a fine read. While it is about war in, it is ultimately about human beings surviving in a war-torn city, doing what they must to stay alive. This is a touching book that follows the lives of three characters, all of whom intersect with a man who takes his cello and plays at the site of an attack that killed 22 people who were waiting in line for bread; he plays for twenty two days straight in their honor, as snipers fire on citizens and bombs land on buildings and people. My favorite character is Arrow, the young sniper who protects the cellist from snipers, and who is forced to make hard life-threatening decisions every day. This is a harrowing novel about life during war. It is rather brilliant, so grab it up.
Yaa Gyasi’s HOMEGOING (2016) is epic. There are many characters – and a family tree in the beginning pages of the book – and they are challenging to keep track of. On my next reading, I will keep a detailed list of my own, as I have had to do with other novels. This is so worth reading. It treats the topic of two half-sisters born into different villages in Thana in the 18th century. One marries an Englishman, the other is captured in a raid on her village, imprisoned, and sold into slavery. The novel chronicles the lives of the sisters’ descendants up through the Civil Rights movement in the United States. Slavery’s troubled legacy is on display here, and this is a perfect companion piece to Colson Whitehead’s THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, Toni Morrison’s BELOVED, and so many more. I am so happy I read this book, but I need to read it again – that is the sign of a book that bears honoring.
HUNGER (2017) by Roxane Gay is raw and beautiful and honest. In this long-awaited memoir, readers learn about Gay’s traumatic past and the ways in which that unhealed, unspoken trauma has led to what she calls her “wildly undisciplined” body. Gay used food to make herself big and strong, so she would never again endure that wretched pain she endured when she was twelve years old. She ate to make herself “unattractive,” believing this might ward off predatory men. This is a memoir that explains that it means to be very overweight in a time when being so is riddled with insult and disrespect and rage. I am an uber-fan of Roxane Gay, and I read everything she writes. This memoir is tough. She is so honest and vulnerable, the reader sways from sorrow to rage to outrage, but the reader also leaves with a much clearer picture of what it is like to live in a world that hyper-values thinness, particularly in women, for a woman who is overweight. Read this one now.
Lidia Yuknavitch’s THE BOOK OF JOAN (2017) is a wild ride into a post-apocalyptic dystopia where the earth has been decimated and elite humans have lighted out for CIEL, a synthetic “planet” that sucks off the life of the remaining humans on earth. Joan is a messiah figure, based on Joan of Arc, who is intent on avenging humanity, and she has followers who are devoted even after her death at the stake. As one reviewer said, “There is so much here that is transgressive and badass and nervy and transformational.” The resistant beings on CIEL keep Joan’s story alive by burning the text of it into their bodies, branding themselves with it. The “people” on CIEL no longer have what we would consider complete human bodies; their genitalia, for example, are no longer intact; sexual intimacy, then, is no longer possible. One of the primary issues of the villain, Jean de Men, is to populate CIEL, and the only human capable of this is – wait for it – Joan of Arc. There is so much tension and humanity and weirdness in this novel that it pulls you forward. It is also bawdy and gruesome. Somehow, it really stays with me.
JUST ANOTHER JIHADI JANE (2017) BY Tabish Khair is really gripping. And it was a fluke I found it – in one of my favorite bookstores: Amherst Book Store in Massachusetts. This is the story of Muslim girlfriends growing up in England, Jamilla and Ameena. We watch as the girls become young women and negotiate being Muslim in England, where practicing their religion is challenging. When they grow up, they leave England secretly and join the Islamist cause in Syria. The back cover says it best: “the intellectual and emotional poverty as well as the violence they find there creates a story as gripping as it is heart-warming.” This book takes us inside the ranks of ISIS in Syria, where we live among women and men, who live completely separately, and learn about hate and violence and what some understand as faith. Islam is presented in this novel as both the simple faith it is and the multilayered interpretations that have wrenched it into a vehicle for creating murderous regimes.
I had such high hopes for this 423-page novel, THE IDIOT (2017) by Elif Batuman. And, for sure, as I’ve confessed many a time before, it may be me. I was ready to love it, to bear with it for all those pages, and at first, I was engaged. This is the story of Selin, daughter of Turkish immigrants, who arrives for her freshman year at Harvard. We meet other student characters; we attend classes with her; we bop about Cambridge with her. THEN, she becomes obsessed with a senior math major from Hungary. They mostly email (which was new at the time of the novel’s setting: 1995. But then the meet and sort of “date.” I did not like Ivan and did not see the draw for Selin. He was distant, obscure, complicated – not in a good way. I wanted her to move past him, to get on with her freshman life. I grew very tired of Ivan and Selin by page 200, and there sat my dilemma, one many of us who read a lot face: to finish or to abandon? This was how I felt reading THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN in college. What is it in me that compelled me to finish both novels while sighing and shouting a little bit? I finished, but the last 150 pages were gotten through with a serious skimming, something I typically abhor. I like to savor words, but ….. I could not do it. Again, it may be that I am missing something, but I sort of wish I had missed it entirely. I am a HUGE fan of the Turkish writer Elif Shafak, and it may be that the author’s echoed name hooked me, or was it the solid reviews the novel has earned? Hey, fact is, Batuman is published by Penguin and has another book as well, so take this with a grain of salt.
DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? (1968) by Philip K. Dick is the novel upon which the film BLADERUNNER is based. It is the story of Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter in 2021 whose job – after the world war that killed millions and drove entire species into extinction -- is to kill androids. The androids fight back. The novel raises questions about whose right to life is more important; what makes us human; what infuses us with power? I am glad to have read this book, but I can recommend it only to those who want an adventure into the science fiction world or who love BLADERUNNER. Just okay by my standards.
How ever did I miss SUFFRAGETTE SALLY (originally 1911 then re-printed by Broadview Press in 2008) by Gertrude Colmore? This is a fabulous novel that tells the fictionalized story of the heroes of women’s suffrage in Britain at the beginning of the 20th century. The book is rife with the horrors women experienced when they asked for/demanded the right to vote. They were beaten, imprisoned, force fed, humiliated, silenced. While this is a novel, it is based closely on historical documentation. It is a riveting novel, and it is uncannily contemporary. Some of the “heckling” the women endured echoes that heard today via social media and rallies around the country. The book is upsetting, empowering, enraging, thrilling, inspiring. I will certainly use it for my Resistance Literature course in fall, but I recommend you grab a copy from Broadview (publishers of all things wonderful) this summer and indulge.
I loved HOUSE OF NAMES (2017) by Colm Tóibín, but allow me to qualify. The novel is a retelling & reimagining of the story of Agamemnon’s return home from the Trojan War from the perspective of his wife Clytemnestra and her children Orestes and Electra. Clytemnestra is furious and out for blood (can’t say we blame her) because her husband tricked her into delivering their teenaged daughter Iphigenia to him, wherein he had her sacrificed to the gods in order to get enough wind to sail to the theater of war. The mother never forgets, never forgives, but her trickery is no match for Agamemnon (leader of men). Upon his return home, she murders him, and she has his “war prize,” Cassandra, murdered for good measure. I am not spoiling this for anyone who knows the age-old story, and the author adds so much more, giving us the anguished narratives of the remaining children who bear witness (to varying degrees) to their parents violent passions and actions. This is riveting, if you are into ancient Greek characters updated with a “modern sensibility and language,” as the book cover promises.
YOU WILL NOT HAVE MY HATE (2016) by Antoine Leiris, translated from French. This is a slim book bountiful with emotion and loss. Leiris lost his wife Helene Muyal-Leiris on November 13, 2015 when terrorists attacked the Bataclan Theater in Paris. Her husband was at home that night with their 17-month-old son Melvil. Three days later, the author wrote an open letter directly to his wife’s killers, posting it on Facebook. He refused to let his life and his son’s life be defined by Helene’s murder. The world responded to Leiris’s post, which manifested ultimately in this book. The grief illustrated here is deep and unrelenting, but the determination to make a life for his child and for himself and his abiding love for his deceased wife leaves an impression on the reader. In a world so chock full of hate, this little book is worthy of a read. An alternative to hate is always worthy of a read.
National Book Award Winner THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD (2016) by Colson Whitehead is essential to understanding our country’s shameful past as a slave-owning nation. We follow the life of young Cora, whose life on a plantation owned by unfathomably-cruel brothers is always one-inch away from torment and death. When she escapes via the underground railroad, the reader is taken on a voyage of hope that is dashed every second it arises. Being enslaved tortures the mind and body and spirit. Being enslavers does the same. The brave people who built and orchestrated and operationalized the underground railroad defied power, risked certain death, to save human beings. This is an uber important book. A must read.
ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE (2017) by Elizabeth Strout is smart and fast reading. She invites us to engage with many characters whose lives weave into one another in profound and tangential ways. I have long been a fan of Elizabeth Strout, since her Pulitzer-Prize-winning OLIVE KITTERIDGE – one of my favorite books ever. Small-town Americans and the complications and shames of their lives line the pages of this novel. Lucy Barton ( of Strout’s earlier novel MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON), successful memoirist, returns home after seventeen years being away. We meet her family in several heartbreaking and evocative scenes along with others whose lives play out before us in all of their agony and sweet charm. I DO recommend this one.
THE WOMAN ON THE STAIRS by Bernhardt Schlick (2016) is the newest novel by the author of one of my favorite books, THE READER. This is a translation from German. This novel held my interest moreso because of my devotion to THE READER than on its own merits. It was good. It was fine. But in the end, it was okay. It is about a woman in a painting -- that is, a real woman who is also in a painting. Two men fight over the painting and the woman, and a third, the narrator, a lawyer, also gets into the fight over the woman. She wants none of them. The lawyer's life is changed when -- in later life -- he reconnects with the woman and she serves as a mentor, indicating his life as a businessman is empty and that he needs to get to the pith of life by investing in people - his own children, for example. Alas, Bernhardt Schlick did not rise to the expectations I had set. And that is fine because THE READER is profound, and he can rest on those laurels for a time.
THE HATE U GIVE (2017) by Angie Thomas is a YA novel that I really enjoyed. Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter lives in a poor, black neighborhood but goes to a suburban prep school. Negotiating her shifting identity between these two very different places is challenging. When her best friend from childhood is shot by a white police officer, her world turns upside down, and the negotiating between home and school becomes impossible. Starr is a teenage star, deeply involved in our world of racism and police violence. Thomas writes a page turner, which is good because this important book is about 450 pages long. It is worth it. For those who want to understand #BlackLivesMatter from the inside, this is your ticket.
THIRTEEN REASONS WHY (2007) by Jay Asher is a YA novel I finally got to read after many urging from my students who have become deeply invested in the Netflix series. The book is compelling, the kind you read straight through. The alternating narrative voices works well to bring us into the world of the living narrator and the dead (via cassette tapes) narrator. At times, the book was touching and painful. This novel, and the Netflix series, has gotten lots of attention lately, generating much controversy. That, too, is interesting, and I suggest readers check all of that out as well. This is an important book, particularly since the topic of suicide is now front and center, thanks to Netflix. That cannot be a bad thing.
I am on a roll with dystopian fiction, and WHEN SHE WOKE (2011) by Hillary Jordan is one that works fairly well. A riff on Hawthorne's SCARLET LETTER, the novel follows the life of Hannah Payne who becomes "chromed," which means she is injected with a virus that causes her skin to be red (very red, not sunburn red) because she had an affair with -- you guessed it: the minister -- and had an abortion in order not to ruin his life. She is sent away to a school for women who have committed such "crimes," and when she is let go, she and a friend attempt to live freely. They, of course, encounter bad folks, prejudice, violence, danger, but Hannah has an awakening, and even if the end is somewhat predictable, there is a saving grace. Don't rush to read this one, but Hawthorne and dystopian fans want to get on it more quickly.
EILEEN (2015) by Ottessa Moshfegh is creepy from start to finish. Eileen Dunlop is a young woman who lives with her alcoholic father in squalor. She longs to escape from her father and her job in a boys' prison. But she cannot somehow. Along comes the beautiful Rebecca Saint John, after the reader is thoroughly depressed with Eileen's life. Rebecca offers -- seemingly -- friendship. Then something criminal and bad happens. The book is touted as having a shocking ending. And, it is true, it is shocking, but when I see shocking, I expect over the top. This was not over the top, but then again, maybe I'm too used to over the top shocking?!
10% HAPPIER: HOW I TAMED THE VOICE IN MY HEAD, REDUCED STRESS WITHOUT LOSING MY EDGE, AND FOUND SELF-HELP THAT ACTUALLY WORKS -- A TRUE STORY (2014) by Dan Harris has been on my list for a long time. Finally, I've read it and I liked it. Harris takes us through his life as a TV news person, his embarrassing live anxiety attack, and his quest thereafter for a way to be calmer but to remain in the game of TV news. I really enjoyed his stories of travel and danger and his namedropping. This was both a lighthearted romp through TV news land and a serious search for calm, which I appreciated. I have been meditating for seven years now, so I was happy for Harris when he found that meditation is an answer he found that works for him. There are dozens and more books out there about meditation, but this one is accessible and fun and funny and lets you enter the world of meditation slowly. Read this one if reducing stress is on your agenda.
SMALL GREAT THINGS (2016) by Jodi Picoult tackles race head on. I was held rapt by this story. At the same time, I was repelled by this story. Ruth Jefferson is a labor and delivery nurse at a Connecticut hospital with 20 years of experience. Ruth is doing a routine check on a newborn when his white supremicist parents demand she be removed from his case because she is African American. When the baby goes into cardiac distress the next day, Ruth is alone in the nursery with him. Does she disobey direct orders not to treat the child, or does she try to save his life? The child dies, and Ruth is charged with murder. Enter white public defender Kennedy McQuarrie who maintains that mentioning race in a courtroom is verboten. This is classic Picoult plotting in some ways: big life event happens upon the unsuspecting and innocent person; police involved; court trial ensues; shocking ending. I knew that going in, but this book got buzz, and I had to read anything that grapples with race, particularly anything being read in our current political climate. Picoult takes this story on with nuance and intelligence. The chapters told from the perspective of Turk, the white supremicist father of the newborn, are really rough going. The kind of chapters where you swim in overt racism, and you have to endure it in order to understand overt racists, or racists. It is a fat book, nearly 500 pages, but it is a fast read because it is shocking and disturbing,and you race to the finish to see what will happen in this novel: will the racist couple win the day? will the black nurse be exonerated? It is nail biting. It is real life. It is a wake up call. — Having said all of this, as a white woman I acknowledge that my reading of this novel is as someone who has never experienced racism. I "experience" it via books and via my students' and friends' experiences of it. Roxane Gay's review of Picoult's novel in the October 16 NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW is fair and pointed. Both she and Picoult, in an author's note, concede that this is a novel aimed at white readers. Gay calls the novel's ending is "over-the-top" and crosses "a bridge too far." I get her point. This is an important book, flawed though it be. For some, it will be an entryway into a racism they never recognized (because they did not have to), and for others it will be an earnest attempt to understand hate. Either way, I recommend it.
Jacqueline Woodson's ANOTHER BROOKLYN is "another kind of book, another kind of beautiful," says Edwidge Danticat. This spare volume tells the growing up story of four girls -- August, Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi, whose friendship is solid and sustaining until it is not. Their innocence and joy intersect with the harsh realities of life. Woodson is poetic about black girls' coming of age in the 1970s in Bushwick. The book is delightful and painful and leaves one pensive. I LOVED it. I loved the narrative style, the brisk chapters, the requirement that the reader do some of the work of understanding. I am grateful for this book. Thank you, Jacqueline Woodson.
THE SECRET LIVES OF THE FOUR WIVES (2010) by Lola Shoneyin was fast-paced and compelling. I was really, really into it. Could not stop, actually, until I figured out the end long before the end. Now, this is an issue --right-- for those of us who read a lot. I do NOT want to figure out the ending. I do not need to feel clever at having done so. I want, rather, to find myself awed by a plot or characterization that flies in the face of what I know. Not that I want a twist or some tacked-on ending -- not at all. Let it end as it should end, but don't be predictable.This was predictable about 50 to 100 pages before the end. Having said that, I think it all worked out as it should have, and the ending is not a bad one, but it should not have been forseeable. The four wives are a challenge, at times, to distinguish, but they are fascinating as a group. The husband, Baba Segi, is creepy and demanding and oafish. The wives have got an insight into patriarchy that satisfies, as does the author, and that is worth a lot.
AGNES (1998) by Peter Stamm, translated from German by Michael Hofmann, is a tiny novel that I so wanted to like. Agnes meets the narrator; they date and become coupled; they have trying times; she insists he write the story of everything that happens to them; he does. She dies. It is, of course, more complex than this, but I the fact that I cannot recall enough details to share here is a sign that this one is not a recommendation to you. It may be one of those short novels that require a second reading, but in fairness, I reserve my second readings for the likes of Toni Morrison. I may well be missing the boat on Peter Stamm's book, and I do recognize that this is, in fact, a non-review. Alas, holidays are nigh...
VINEGAR GIRL (2016) by Anne Tyler is a re-make of Shakespeare's THE TAMING OF THE SHREW. Kate Battista is coerced into marrying her father's lab partner Pyotr. She is as vinegary as she ought to be, if you will, given Tyler's “cloning” of the SHREW. Yet, somehow, the idea that a father would sell off his daughter in the name of HIS science project wrankles..in the way short stories by Hawthorne and Poe do when they kill off young women in order to promote the misguided, cruel “genius” of husbands and fathers. Tyler is amazing, but this is not my favorite by her. Stick to LADDER OF YEARS and some of her earlier work to get a real taste of her at her best. This one had to be read, however, and that is all.
Mona Awad’s 13 WAYS OF LOOKING AT A FAT GIRL (2016) has me stymied. I raced through it. I enjoyed the experience of reading it. Yet, it was painful in ways that are not completely clear to me yet. Lizzie does not like the way she looks – ever. She is too heavy, she is too thin. Her relationships with others are all seen through the lens of body image. She is obsessed, as so many of us are socialized to be. She is at times triumphant and at times pathetic. Mona Awad grasps us by the throat and insists we EXPERIENCE what it is like to have so completely internalized society’s various judgments about women and their bodies. Is the book a novel or a collection of short stories? Not sure, but it doesn’t matter the genre. This text serves as an important social criticism regarding women’s bodies. It broke my heart so many times. It read true, real, painfully honest. It is raw, for sure. There is so much sex in the book, yet not some brand of 50-shades of sex intended to excite the reader. Awad’s sex scenes are fraught, fettered by Lizzie’s hyper-conscious (and then sometimes subconscious/unconscious) awareness of her body’s self-proclaimed inadequacies. I am glad I read this; it happened into my pile. I would really like to talk about it, so please read and be in touch!
IMAGINE ME GONE (2016), the new novel by Adam Haslett, is simply beautiful. I love this book. It is heartbreaking. Told in alternating points of view by five members of a family, this book, as the flap tells us, is truly “searing, gut-wrenching, and yet frequently hilarious.” The novel grapples with the way mental illness and mental anguish reaches its tentacles into a family and weighs on life decisions and alters life paths. Haslett’s sentences are stunningly crafted. They cause a reader to pause and re-read and do that again. He is amazing. The book is amazing. Read this book.
I’ve had AND GIVE YOU PEACE (2001) by Jessica Treadway on my bookshelf for years. I picked it up the other day, and I could not stop reading. It is so moving. Treadway is mistress of the narrative question: that question that pulls you on because you have to answer it, you have to find out how she will answer it. The Dolan family – mom, dad, three daughters – are living their lives, normal and safe, when an unspeakable tragedy befalls them, and removes any semblance of normal from their lives. Though Treadway gives the reader much of the detail of that tragedy up front, what she leaves out draws one on relentlessly toward the end. I HAD TO KNOW what happened in its entirety, and I had to know the outcome for all of the characters even years on in their lives. This is one I recommend, and I am not sure why it took me so long to get to it. If you want a fast read that has depth and complexity, Treadway is your woman.
I LOVED Joanna Rakoff’s memoir, MY SALINGER YEAR (2014). Rakoff tells the story of her first job with the NYC literary agency that represents J. D. Salinger. The agency is esteemed but old school, using outdated Dictaphones and typewriters even as computers have arrived on the scene. Rakoff answers letters that come for Salinger, as he does not want to receive fan mail. She talks to him on the phone, and she narrates in compelling detail the lives of her co-workers as well as her own life in a decrepit apartment, sans sink or heat, with her outlandish boyfriend. I found the book charming, and Rakoff’s reading of Salinger’s books brought me back to high school, where I poured over every volume he wrote, drinking in his worlds and characters. I invited Rakoff to speak our university several years ago, and I was so excited about the visit. The day she was to arrive, I remained in bed with some vexatious flu that would not allow me to move, let alone get to school to meet and introduce Rakoff. I’ve yet to meet her, but I will write to her today to thank her for this heartfelt memoir.
THEY WOULD NEVER HURT A FLY: WAR CRIMINALS ON TRIAL IN THE HAGUE (2004) by Slavenka Drakulić (one of my favorite writers) troubles the soul – in a good way. She details the trails of criminals being prosecuted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the Hague. Hailing from Croatia, Drakulić seeks to understand the human beings behind the atrocities (rape, murder, torture) committed during this brutal conflict. Among these is Serbian president Slobodan Milošević. What does she discover? More questions than answers – no surprise. These men on trial – are they monsters? Ordinary people? And what does labeling them either monster or person change about the way we see them, and more importantly, the way we see ourselves and what humans are capable of? I taught a senior seminar years ago on Monsters, and we asked these same questions of some literary texts, among them DRACULA, WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, GEEK LOVE. We resolved very little, I suppose, but our questions become increasingly more complex, our classroom discussions more intense and spirited. Are we, regular humans, capable of the kinds of atrocities that some (even many) humans perpetrate against other humans in war time? What is it about WAR that incites or promotes or ferments such cruelty – over-the-top, unnecessary, hegemonic cruelty? Drakulić is among the bravest writers I know, and this is an intelligent and sensitive examination of these questions. I was glued to this book, holding it far from me at times in order to bear the horrors. This is an important book for those who dare to look beyond labels and willing to ask questions rather than make banal, knee-jerk judgments.
I am a big fan of Elizabeth Strout, and her newest novel, MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON (2016) made me very happy. Lucy Barton narrates her story, beginning with an extended stay in a hospital, seemingly for anorexia. Her mother, with whom she has a fraught relationship, is at her bedside, though she has not seen her for years before this. The strain in the relationship is clear, highlighted by the decided lack of communication, albeit about People magazine and similar banal experiences of others. Nothing REAL gets talked about. The painful past is never approached. Strout makes us work for it in LUCY BARTON, a requisite of all literary fiction, and the work is satisfying – the kind of satisfying I imagine wards off dementia and Alzheimer’s (I base this on absolutely no scientific evidence at all, just wishful thinking). I could not stop reading this slim novel. I welcome the kind of work Strout offers us. For example, Lucy never comes out and tells us why she is in the hospital; she never tells us exactly what the trauma she endured in childhood consisted of – but we get enough clues (if we are close readers) to put it together – that is, Lucy earns her “right” to her symptoms, if you will. Strout is masterful, never more masterful than in OLIVER KITTERIDGE, of course. But this is a fine follow-up. Finally, I have found a summer read that satisfied my summer soul: it made me curious; it made me think; it made me want to crawl into bed a bit early to finish it. Thank you, Elizabeth Strout. Happy summer!
I finally got around to reading Arundhati Roy’s THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS (1997), winner of the Booker Prize. I should be stunned by this novel, and I should, maybe, be humble enough to keep silent in the face of a Booker Prize winner. Yet, here I am to tell you that I did not LOVE this book. Furthermore, I am not really sure I liked it. In a way, my experience of this book is much like my (multiple) experience(s) of reading MOBY DICK. I really love the main plotline (in the case of MOBY DICK, the story of Ahab and the whale: man gets leg eaten by whale, is enraged, becomes obsessed with getting revenge on whale/nature/god) in Roy’s novel, but there is so much other material, so much stylistic addenda that I should be appreciating. I just wasn’t in an appreciative mood, I suppose. Again, it is summer. I have dozens of books on my list and on all horizontal surfaces in my house – all of them waiting to be read – many of them overdue already at the library (not that I am blaming Arundhati Roy for this…). And this one took a lot of time, and I had to force my way through it. I confess to a bit of shame about this, but not enough to be honest here, which is my compact with readers. I wish I could tell you otherwise, and I do admit that the cultural material regarding India and the caste system and love is profound. Larger voices than mine call it great, so listen to them.
THE RED PARTS: A MEMOIR (2007) by Maggie Smith is about Smith’s aunt who was murdered and whose killer was mis-identified. The wrong man is in jail, and DNA evidence discovers the real killer. The book is a mélange of diary-entries, fact-finding, musing, chronicling of courtrooms, and a touch of reminiscing about Smith’s past. The memoir is, apparently, a sequel to JANE: A MURDER, Smith’s story in verse about this same aunt’s death. The book was recommended to me by a colleague. I can see why. There are merits. But, this is summer. This is the time of year I want to read books that invigorate my brain, that make me think long, languid, even provocative thoughts. This one did not. It was good. Yes, it was good, and it held me, but I am looking for THAT book. The one that has me hastening the day so that I can climb into bed with THAT book. The one that has me talking about it to people who do not read and do not care. The book, THAT book, that shifts my perspective on the world such that I evolve into a wiser, more mindful person. Where is THAT book?
Once again, this is a book I wanted to love. SEX OBJECT: A MEMOIR (2016) by Jessica Valenti is a fast read, an explicit and edgy story of this important 3rd-wave feminist who ignited, and continues to ignite, controversy online. I was hooked by Part I where Valenti seems to make her overarching argument: “naming what is happening to us, telling the truth about it – as ugly and uncomfortable as it is can be – means that we want it to change.” So, having read this, I expected to read her story and to then read her analysis of how she “reads” her story as one of pointing toward change. Part I and the rest of the book did not seem to connect. I did not find the analysis I wanted. This may be a byproduct of generational ideologies. Valenti’s book seemed over the top to me, a matter of oversharing. And that may be precisely where the generational divide comes in. I am in favor of naming women’s truth. I am in favor of personal stories that help us to be more empathetic. So why did I resist this story so much? Why do I call her chronicling of her sex life and drug use oversharing? It certainly could be me, but I have to admit that I was disappointed that Part I, which held so much feminist promise, did not round out in the latter parts. I admire Jessica Valenti and what she has done for feminism. I will continue to be a fan, just not of this book.
David Small’s STITCHES: A [GRAPHIC] MEMOIR (2009) is dark and wonderful. Small tells the story of growing up, facing an illness that is never named by his parents, and then reckoning with his past and its fondness for the kinds of secrets that undermine healthy development. The book’s graphics are dark and telling, getting at insidious and ambivalent feelings more accurately than words might – and this works particularly well since Small’s family did not lend words to their most heart-wrenching experiences. This is a winner, for sure. Sad, deeply sad, in fact. Nevertheless, worthy of a read. Takes an hour.
I read my first Laura Lippman, WILDE LAKE (2016), and I enjoyed it. The inside flap reads “What happens when we’re forced to look closely at the myths and stories that shape our families?” That did it. I have long wondered this, and the book I am writing grapples with exactly this. That is why my dear reader friend recommended the book to me. I read it quickly. It is suspenseful. There are murders and suicides, a rape, an extramarital affair, lots of lies told in the name of love. It has it all, and she packs it with chunky paragraphs of historical background. I like Lippman’s Luisa “Lu” Brant, the newly elected state’s attorney of Howard County, Maryland. She is a widow defending a homeless man accused of beating a woman to death in her home. Her past intersects by dredging up memories of her older brother AJ and her dead mother and her former-state’s-attorney father. The past wrangles its way into Lu’s case, and she must face truths that change the landscape of her life. Lippman has a lot to offer the avid reader. She has at least twenty other titles and is a NY Times Bestselling author. She is someone I recommend IF you want a fast read that is not vacuous, an ending you will probably not predict (ever or not until near the very end), and the kind of author who has many more books to her name if you become hooked. Give her a try.
NOT FUNNY HA-HA: A HANDBOOK FOR SOMETHING HARD (2015) by Leah Hayes is a very short graphic-novel about the experience of two young women who go through two different abortions (medical and surgical). The Huffington Post says, on the book’s cover, “This graphic novel is the abortion story that needs to be heard.” The book is informative, comforting, and important for those seeking knowledge that is, too often, hard to come by. Hayes repeatedly urges readers to consult a physician for their knowledge, that her book is meant to be helpful but not a substitute. I discovered the book on the new-book shelf at my local library, read it in a half hour, and applaud its author’s bravery and compassion for women.
I wanted to adore MONSTERS: A LOVE STORY (2016) by Liz Kay. I got a notification from the author in my email about her new book (I assume I was among many Women’s Studies professors to get such a notification), and I said I would read it immediately. Why? Because the protagonist has written a novel-in-verse that is a feminist reimagining of FRANKENSTEIN. Ok, that’s always going to be a winner for me. AND, to top that off, this long POEM has attracted the attention of the hottest Hollywood actor who wants to produce the film version (HELLO…when was the last time you saw a film – that, by the way – SPOILER ALERT – wins the two protagonists Oscars! -- that was based on a POEM????) of this POEM? Is he a scholar? Is he a feminist? Nope. He is a boozing, womanizing, not-even-high-school-diploma-credentialed-perfectly-irresistablly-handsome man. Credulity, folks, is strained. I hung in for the entire novel hoping, hoping, hoping that the author who created the character who wrote a feminist reimagining of FRANKENSTEIN would pull it out in the end – what did I want? I wanted NOT what I got. Granted, if one reads the whole bloody book as ironic, well – maybe then. NO. NO. No one will read it as ironic because reading something as ironic takes care, consideration, time. People do not even read THE ONION as ironic. Aughhh…I so wanted to really love this one. I wanted to be able to use it in classes, to discuss what Liz Kay is doing with – well, irony, for one – and with Hollywood tropes. But, nay. Sorry, Liz. I am disappointed. Too much drinking (oh, yes, did I mention the vats of vodka, wine, and bourbon that were imbibed?), too much sex (not that there is anything wrong with that!), and the wrong ending, for sure. I admit feeling guilty that I cannot praise a fellow female writer’s new book. I must live with that, as Dr. Frankenstein had to live with the guilt of the rage he fueled in his monster. So much potential here…unrealized.
JUST MERCY (2014) by Bryan Stevenson is life changing. Stevenson’s nonfiction account of how he founded the Equal Justice Initiative dedicated to defending the wrongly condemned, the poor, women and children is gripping. While it is steeped in the history of our country’s systemic progression to mass incarceration and racism, it is chock full of stories, like that of Walter McMillan, the young man wrongfully convicted and imprisoned on death row for murder. This is also the story of how this kind of work can be defeating, demoralizing, and enraging. Yet, Stevenson never quits and concludes that mercy is “most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving.” I found this book heroic, vital, and rejuvenating. Being an activist is draining; the defeats are grueling, but we are called to do what we do because the world is all-too-often small minded and cruel. Thank you, Bryan Stevenson, for not giving up.
Sarah Schulman’s THE COSMOPOLITANS (2016) is quite fine, as are so many of The Feminist Press books. Set in Greenwich Village in the 1950s, the book tells the story of Earl, a black, gay actor and Bette, a white secretary, neighbors and best friends for three decades, both “refugees from small-minded hometowns.” Somehow, I could not put this down, though my summers always find me reading four books at once. This one I kept returning to. Something about the depth of the characters, the detail of NYC life in those lost decades, the trials life brings those very characters you want to overcome the odds and to thrive. It was worth the length and the time.
I bought Jane Hamilton’s THE EXCELLENT LOMBARDS (2016) in hard cover because I love her, particularly her earlier A MAP OF THE WORLD. Dare I say I did not love it. I wanted something to happen, wanted more than the pastoral, Bildungsroman she offered. How dare I want more from an author like Jane Hamilton? I am not sure how I come to dare such a thing, but I am sure I am daring to admit that I was not enamored of this latest book. I appreciate it. Just don’t love it. Cannot recommend it even unless you are a reader who laps up setting, loves a good apple-farm story, loves a Scout-like (Scout as in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD) protagonist (which typically I do). Alas…Jane has not won my heart this time, but I will not give up on her because that earlier novel and THE SHORT HISTORY OF A PRINCE are still among my favorites.
Such an important book is A MOTHER’S RECKONING: LIVING IN THE AFTERMATH OF TRAGEDY by Sue Klebold (2016). Klebold is the mother of Dylan Klebold, infamous for his massacre of fellow students and one teacher at Columbine High School in 1999. After the tragedy, polls indicated that the majority of Americans blamed the parents of the two shooters. Many law suits were levied against them. Sue Klebold understands this feeling, admits she would have felt the same way were her child killed in such a merciless fashion. Yet, she presents a sympathetic character. Readers empathize because Klebold takes us through her life in detail – the build up to the tragedy and the unbearable aftermath. She convinces readers she did not know, could not have seen such a horror coming. The boy who committed that crime, the boy who spewed hatred on the Basement Tapes (which she watched after the killings, when they were “released” to the families for viewing) was someone she had never known. Why is this book so important? Because we hunker down in “safety” by believing school shooters are monsters, that they can be spotted and that the spotters are at fault for not noticing. We feel “safe” because we can blame someone after. Klebold teaches us, with grace and generosity, that we are not safe, that there is no predicting, or that the “predicting” we are doing is not working. I admire her for this work. All proceeds from the book are going to advance mental health awareness. In the world of school-shootings literature, this is required reading.
Ok, so THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (*2015) by Paula Hawkins grabbed me and would not let go for 24 hours. It is gripping, swiftly plotted, and addictive. Readers want to know what is real, what is not, who is guilty. I could not look away, and I am, on the whole, uninterested in trains. I did not particularly like the book cover (sadly, this matters to me), but there it was on my daughter’s table. There I was with a half hour to kill after submitting a semester’s worth of grades and feeling deserving of some fun! I picked it up and never looked back. If you want a book that is fast and furious, one that is that kind of book you look forward to reading at red lights, this is it. Great literature? Oh, posh. Who can say anymore. See for yourself.
I liked THE CHILDREN ACT (2014) by Ian McEwan. That is, I looked forward to reading it each night, as it was my chosen bedside read for Spring Break. Fiona Maye is a High Court judge who presides over cases in the family division in England. She is spirited, creative, uber intelligent, and sad about her married life. She makes really fine decisions about impossible cases: should conjoined twins be surgically separated knowing one will die? Should a seventeen-year-old boy be made to undergo medical treatment that will save his life when his Jehovah’s Witness faith prohibits it? I really liked following Fiona around for these 220 pages. While I cannot admit to loving the novel, I did like it quite a bit, particularly because of the strong female protagonist. That’s what I’ve got on this one.
THIS IS WHERE IT ENDS (2016), a YA novel by Marieke Nijkamp that was recommended by an English major alum, is quite compelling. Granted, It employs that rather annoying multiple-narrator technique, so it takes many chapters before the reader is able to balance out who is whom. On the whole, it worked, and the book is fast-paced, horrifying, and ultimately a success for this young writer from the Netherlands. I am game for any book on school shootings, but I am also a harsh critic. Something about this one works for me, though I would probably not use it in my school shootings seminar. Why not? It does not get at the motivation of the shooter in a way I need for my own satisfaction. Nijkamp DOES explain his motivation; I just don’t buy it. Nevertheless, it is worth the read if not for the wisdom it sheds on school shootings then for the sheer intrigue.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is my newest hero, and her HALF OF A YELLOW SUN (2006) was an investment of time and heart. It is HUGE, delivering in heartbreaking detail Biafra’s struggle to establish an independent republic in southeastern Nigeria in the late 1960s. The characters are like family, as one wades through this war: Ugwu is the thirteen-year-old houseboy for Odenigbo, a university professor zealous in positing his revolutionary ideals; Olana is Odenigbo’s mistress, and her twin sister is the fierce Kainene. I could not look away as characters were tortured, starved, dehumanized because a string of love and loyalty is woven through out. I had to know the outcome. I am Team Adichie all the way. I am teaching WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS this semester. But this one took me in so thoroughly and for such a long ride that I had to seek out some sunshine and express gratitude for having been born in the United States, current politics aside. I don’t shy away from global realities, but living through this violent historical moment was rough reading for this privileged, white, American reader – not nearly so rough as it was for those who survived – and did not – this very real war. For them, for those like them, for those we may be someday – I read. I learn.
THE HEART GOES LAST (2015) by Margaret Atwood is gripping and frightening and a perfectly reasonable prediction of a future we might inhabit. Stan and Charmaine are married, living in their car, and vulnerable to ravaging gangs – you find this out on the book jacket. When a new project creates a town where Stan and Charmaine are offered free housing, food, safety – with a “smallish” price to pay – they jump at the chance. On alternating months, they must do service in a prison, and this is where it gets sticky. Something’s afoot! This is pure Atwood in her The Handmaid’s Tale you-reap-what-you-sow mode. I read it straight through. The sex robots were annoying, but then again, real life has its profound annoyances, as Atwood so well knows. Got this one for Christmas too. I’m totally recommending it for Atwood fans, futuristic fiction fans, anyone really who wants to read about a marriage, a new adventure that starts out so well and fizzles to a near-death crisis. Yep, this one is a go.
FATES AND FURIES (2015) by Lauren Groff is touted as the best book of 2015. I cannot say I agree. I wanted to agree. President Obama said it was his favorite book of the year. I love him; I wanted to love it. I got it in hardcover for Christmas and immediately jumped in. The book got compelling on page 206 of 390. That is too long to wait for compelling. I completely GET what Groff is doing by crafting the book this way. Everything you think is true in the first half of the book is countered by another perspective in the second. I like that technique, but I did not want to wade through 200 + pages about an egotistical husband; his wife was far more interesting. Yet – and here I am wavering, admittedly – her narration made me reflect back on his (first half of book) and re-think my judgment. This book has gotten a lot of hype, perhaps more than it deserves, and it makes me take on even bigger questions like why do some books get RAVE reviews, untold ATTENTION, when some of my favorites remain, well, somewhat obscure? No answers yet. On the whole, I liked the book because the wife’s narration and back story was just the thing to perk you up after being really sick of her husband. Is it too late to say this is a book about young marrieds Lotto and Mathilde and their odd and vexing life together, their dysfunctional families, their messed up friends? I am not recommending against this book and not only because most of the reading world loves it. But – I am cautioning readers to settle in for a long one, wait it out, practice patience, see what comes. So, I suppose, it really is like marriage in that – so hold onto your hats and take the ride.
I re-read LITTLE BEE (2008) by Chris Cleave this winter break because I was deciding whether it would be a good choice for my Fiction Workshop class or not. IT IS GREAT. I loved this one the first time around, and I loved it more this time. The narrative voice of Little Bee is divine. She is a delight, a truth teller, a sage young girl who has witnessed hell on earth and has survived. You will not forget this book. There is one scene that stays with you, a tableau that only the greats can write, and by greats I mean Toni Morrison and Charlotte Bronte. Yet, Chris Cleave pulls it off. I recommend LITTLE BEE to readers who love a great story, quirky and engaging characters, and a focus on hard realities of this world.
IN A PREFECT WORLD (2009) BY Laura Kasischke sat on my bookshelf for a long while until I recently picked it up. The story: Jiselle becomes engaged to Mark Dorn, airline pilot, widower, extraordinarily handsome man, father of three children. She quits her job as an airline steward, at his urging, to care for his three children. In the background people in numbers are dying of the Phoenix flu. When Mark’s plane and crew are grounded and quarantined across the globe, Jiselle evolves into motherhood painfully and without recourse. I waited for this book to come to some kind of profound conclusion, for some way to understand that Jiselle made a huge mistake marrying this man looking for a nanny then living it up across the world under the guise of a pandemic. But it did not turn out the way I had imagined. I enjoyed it, and I was thinking it was going in a direction (some direction), then it just didn’t. While I cannot quite recommend this book, I cannot say I disliked it or that I did not really learn something from it. I suppose that means I slot it into the “it’s ok” category – a category I seldom have time to get to, and yet, it is done.
OUR SOULS AT NIGHT (2015) by Kent Haruf is a delightful slip of a novel. This slim volume brought me so much happiness – then some restlessness. The simplicity of the language and the characters’ lives was refreshing. You root for Addie and Louis from the start, as widowed Addie proposes that widowed neighbor Louis spend the night sleeping at her house and talking in bed: because the nights are the loneliest. Louis agrees, and their life adventures together are sweet. Until: enter other characters, some who gossip about the couple, some family who misunderstand and judge harshly, a grandson and a dog who thrive under their care. This is a book I recommend to everyone – but I need you to be in touch because I want to talk about the ending. Talk to me when you finish – I need to share my restless thoughts.
Paolo Giordano, you’re the HUMAN BODY (2012, with 2014 English translation) disappointed me. I am sure it is more me than you because your book THE SOLITUDE OF PRIME NUMBERS was brilliant, and I teach it as often as possible in my Fiction Workshop. This one held out so much promise, and when I discovered it in a used bookstore in Philadelphia on the third floor jam packed with books, I delighted. You have become somewhat of a literary rock star to me, the kind of writer I will read even when you write a cookbook (not a fan of cooking). Yet---and though I read every word slowly and with careful attention – I did not love this one. I know what you are capable of, Paolo Giordano, and – may I be so bold – you did not fulfill your capability. Maybe we can blame the translator; your native Italian was surely pristine. However, this story about a platoon of young men and one women who head to Afghanistan to engage “the toxic mix of boredom and fear” did not engage me as did the former beloved novel noted above. Why not? You led me, Paolo, to expect horrors –given the suggestions in the Prologue, and while the horror did come – it was not of the same idiosyncratic, sensuous quality of that of PRIME NUMBERS. I still recall, vividly and unwillingly, scenes from that novel. You created disgusting scenes that hit the reader viscerally. You did not do that here – not enough to satisfy my (granted – super high) expectations. Again, you are a genius, a Ph.D. in particle physics turned fiction writer, so I may be way out of bounds, but – No worries, Paolo Giordano, I will still read everything you write right up to the cookbook. As I say, it’s likely not you; it’s me!
Bill Clegg’s DID YOU EVER HAVE A FAMILY (2015) got rave reviews from authors I admire (like Michael Cunningham, Elinor Lipman, etc.), and so I dove in. Almost immediately there was a problem, and I suspected it was I. As it turns out, I was right. So, here is the thing: I got annoyed with the way Clegg chose to narrate his novel through the voices of MANY characters. This is what I judged: GIMMICKY. Yet, I soldiered on. And I also read the book at night before going to sleep, and so I was not at my most astute. (Remember as well that my job is reading and teaching reading and reading student writing – it is what I do day in and day out – not a complaint. I love my job, but I do get weary by night time). I believe Clegg got the brunt of this when I judged his novel harshly after reading three pages a night and passing out. THEN I took a good look at myself and said: Donna, let’s get a grip. This guy is a NY Times bestselling author. Maybe you should lighten up on him, start reading earlier in the evening, and see if this novel is any good. I took my own advice, and let me tell you: This book is amazing! Now that I have let go the assessment of Clegg as less than stellar, I can see that his choice of multiple narrators makes sense. He tells this story: on the eve of her daughter’s wedding, June Reid’s life is upended when a shocking disaster takes the lives of her daughter, her daughter’s fiancé, her ex-husband, and her boyfriend – her entire family gone in a moment. June is the only survivor: this is on the book jacket, so you enter the novel knowing all of this. The novel proper offers the perspectives of the MANY (again – sorry!) narrators whose lives intersected with the tragedy – some seemingly on the periphery, but all with something to add to the entirety of the tale. I am a fan now. I recommend this book now. But get some sleep, hold back on the judgment when things get a tad confusing, and enjoy – oh, and this is another SAD book, as if I had to say that!
BEAUTIFUL RUINS (2012) by Jess Walter (a guy) sat on my shelf for far too long before I got to it. It is gripping and long, and its plot is meandering – but in a good way. Characters like Richard Burton and Liz Taylor show up for a time. The variety of characters can get confusing at times, but a quick look back reminds the reader what is up. The book takes place largely in Italy in a tiny village, and the scenery Walter creates is vivid enough to really allow the reader to feel the ocean breeze and to taste the wine on the terrace. NPR’s FRESH AIR calls the book “a literary miracle.” Ok – I can see that, though these are words I would reserve for the likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Roxane Gay…. This is a good novel, the kind I looked forward to each night, as I tried to stay awake (a phase-of-life challenge I did not anticipate and do not like!) in bed. The story is about an Italian innkeeper who meets a mysterious and beautiful American woman when she resides at his inn for a time – from there, all sorts of twists and turns venture forth. I am sorry it is finished; that is a good sign.
I was riveted by Eve Ensler’s IN THE BODY OF THE WORLD: A MEMOIR (2013). Long a fan of Ensler’s THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES and her inspiring activism, I read this book with curiosity and found myself consumed by the way she weaves her story of her father’s sexual abuse, her own battle with cancer, and her unfailing activism in the rape capital of the world: Congo. Ensler is dynamic, even in her bodily weakness during treatment. Her friends and family kept her strong. The book cover says Ensler is unflinching. I am a fan of unflinching. We have only one life to live, and I want to look it square in the face and see it for what it is. Eve Ensler does this, and she carries on, healing now and compassionate beyond measure. Thank you, Eve Ensler, for being a caring, unflinching, daringly active woman – you teach us all so much.
In quick succession, I read two books that I wanted to love and did not love. That is not to say I did not like things about them or that others do not rave about them. It is to say, simply, that they did not grip me. Nick Hornby’s ABOUT A BOY (1998) has an interesting premise: Will Freeman discovers dating success by faking having a little boy and dating women from a single-parents group. He meets a woman with a little boy of her own, and from there the story is somewhat predictable, though there are delightful passages. Will Freeman is a jerk in the beginning, but the reader comes to like him quite a bit. The young boy he meets, Marcus, is a wonderful character, full of spirit and intellect – he steals the show really! Hornby is a big name, so I feel like I should love him as others do. But…here is how I feel about this book: it is okay. It is a book I took on a trip with me and left behind in an airport – a first for me. Someone will find it and cheerfully take it up – where it belongs, in the hands of someone who will love it properly. Dinaw Mengestu’s ALL OUR NAMES (2014) is newer but equally beloved – seemingly by all but me. Perhaps I need to read it again. Cover says it is “a true love story for our time.” Ok, so I did not see that so much. I get the international sweep of the narrative. I get the urgency of Uganda’s war-torn horrors. Yet. I really wanted to like it a lot. Alas…
I finally read ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE (2014) by Anthony Doerr, and I postponed finishing it because I was so attached – to the characters and their fates and the emotional grip they had on me. This book is really great, and all the hype it has gotten as a New York Times bestseller is – it seems – deserved. I have read so many WW II/Nazi books, but this one is a bit different. In a way, it was like reading Toni Morrison’s BELOVED: I was able to feel what it was like being in that war in the way I was able to feel what it was like to escape slavery and the be threatened with it again. I don’t mean to sound presumptuous, as if a book can ever capture the extreme and tragic experiences of those who actually lived through war and slavery, but if a reader can approximate/approach those experiences, feel them emotionally, that is the entryway to empathy. The characters in this novel, the German Werner with the vital soul, the blind Marie-Laure, all of the others who suffered and died and survived – this is their beautiful/wretched story; it is the story of the hellishness of war. It underscores the way power can and does go awry, serves itself, and demonizes those who threaten it. It read, for me, not so much as a historical novel but as a novel very much resonant for our time: power – used to further its own ends on the backs of the powerless – can ruin our world – is ruining our world. The few – with the vital souls and consciences – can draw dribbles of good, of healing, from the horror. And maybe that is the best we can hope for, so long as humans hate other humans.
I was disappointed by THE SPIRAL NOTEBOOK: THE AURORA THEATER SHOOTER AND THE EPIDEMIC OF MASS VIOLENCE COMMITTED BY AMERICAN YOUTH (2015) by Stephen and Joyce Singular, a book I was looking forward to. The grievances I have are many, starting with the title. Shortly after the Columbine massacre, Gloria Steinem wrote a brilliant article titled “Supremacy Crimes,” in which she took the media to task for claiming we have a problem in our country with our violent youth. It is not our youth, she claimed, it is our boys. The Singulars did not read that article, apparently, though they do site statistics that underscore that 95% of mass shootings are perpetrated by males. Why this title? Why not be specific – say American male youth? So, the Singulars and I did not get off to a good start, but I remained open, hoping to learn what they’d uncovered about James Holmes, the Batman shooter, and his spiral notebook. Funny thing (not really funny), the Singulars never saw the spiral notebook – neither has anyone else, according to them – the very thing that could have sealed Holmes’s fate as insane. They make a convincing case for his insanity, but they did not SEE the notebook after which they titled their book. Really, now? That is misleading, and there is more frustration. The authors paint broadbrush strokes about mass shootings, making statements like the Eric Harrises of the world are everywhere. No they are not. Eric Harris was the teenaged mastermind of the Columbine shooting. He is dead. And shootings, even if on the rise, are not epidemic, and Harris is not everywhere. If that is not bad enough, the Singulars seem not to have done their homework: there is no evidence in the book that they have read (and they certainly did not reference) any of the fabulous work already done on school/rampage shootings. One might imagine they imagined themselves the first duo to tackle this issue. Their lack of context, their absenting of the fact that they are entering a dialogue long ago begun by multiple scholars, was maddening. Finally, they employ this annoying device wherein they reference their son Eric – a quintillion times – to make the point that young people (again broadbrush) like Eric and the others they interviewed have a vastly different perspective on mass shootings that we old codgers do. They are used to such violence, accept it as some kind of fact of life. They think we older folks don’t “get it.” That made me mad. As a person who spends the better part of her year with 18-22 year olds, I do not agree with their Eric, his buddies, or that we “elders” don’t get it. Stop with the imposed generation gap, Singulars. We CAN and do talk to each other, and we can disagree and still try to make sense of the violence young MEN commit. This book made me quake because it is an important topic, and I believe the authors failed to deliver solid analysis. I took away some good statistics (though I will verify the heck out of them before using them in my school shootings class this fall!), and I credit them for being in the courtroom with Holmes throughout, and for loving their son (nothing wrong with that – I love mine too), but geez, folks. Do a literature search. Understand the critical conversation that is already happening before you enter with such bravado. Don’t name the book THE SPIRAL NOTEBOOK – that’s just not right, folks. Sorry, I cannot recommend this one.
THE CASTLE OF OTRONTO (1764) by Horace Walpole is one of the first Gothic novels, and it is a hoot. This is my second time reading it – to see if it will work for my Villains, Vengeance, and Violence class. It will. It is a plot-heavy, zany story of a villainous father, Manfred, whose sins have created havoc for his family. When he sets his sights on a young woman formerly betrothed to his son, all chaos breaks loose. She is not into him. He is not taking no for an answer. Ancient curses are coming to bear on the mess. Supernatural elements intervene. It is a madhouse of 18th century Gothic. The language is not as accessible as contemporary novels, of course, but it is especially charming for the fabulous curses that abound – great fodder for ridding oneself of cocktail-party nuisances. Don’t hasten to read it when so much great literature is out there and keeps on coming, but don’t dismiss this tiny treasure either.
THE BOOK OF NEGROES (2007) by Lawrence Hill took up a big chunk of my summer. It is nearly 500 pages long and worth the read. It is one of those novels I bought, stuck on a shelf, and thought about reading a zillion times. I am happy I finally did. Hill is Canadian, the son of activists, and his book is the story of Aminata Diallo who was taken from her home village in Africa as a child and sold into slavery. She narrates the book, and she is intrepid in speaking her truth. Her life is haunted by barbarous humans who mistreat her and other black-skinned people in horrifying ways. Never once does she lose her sense of dignity as a human being; never once does she refrain from insisting on her freedom as a human being – even when her freedom is wrenched from her. This is a gem. I understand there is a movie being made – and it will be painful and beautiful to watch. Read this one, for sure. It is an investment of time, and it is a thick hunk to tote about, but I can vouch for it.
Mary Shelley’s MATHILDA (@1918) is depressing, and in this case I don’t mean that as high praise. The novella is dark, tackling death, incest, and suicide. Shelley is purported to have used biographical details to ballast the fiction, and her father thwarted the book’s publication for years. The entirety of the novel is a journey through the mind of the protagonist whose father longs for her to BE her dead mother. Once he reveals his incestuous love – and though he tries desperately, unto death, to resist acting upon his desires – the father daughter relationship is destroyed. The remainder of the novel is maudlin, filled with despair and untimely death. Mary Shelley is one of our greats. No question. And while I enjoyed this novella for many reasons, I found it needed editing and more patience that I had during this reading. Stick to FRANKENSTEIN.
Kevin Cook’s KITTY GENOVESE: THE MURDER, THE BYSTANDERS, THE CRIME THAT CHANGED AMERICA (2014) really gave me the background I needed to understand the infamous murder of Genovese on a New York street in 1964. Cook sets the record straight, explains how the untruths managed to metastasize, and renders a portrait of Genovese and her killer that enables both empathy and clarity. This is a quick read, an important read, and one that allows readers to check the myths around this murder.
Alice Hoffman – I try and I try, but somehow Alice Hoffman and I are not soul mates. THE ICE QUEEN (2005) is a favorite of ALL of my friends who read as much as I do. She is amazing, for sure, but she does not keep me up at night. This is the story of a woman who is struck by lightning and has her life completely changed. Feeling responsible for her mother’s death, though she was a child and not responsible at all, she carries this dark secret and crippling guilt with her into adulthood. When she begins an affair with another person struck by lightning, the book begins to take off. I seem to be the only one not getting it, so I must give Alice Hoffman the benefit of the doubt and recommend THE ICE QUEEN. PLEASE, let me know how it goes!
I had read BLACK WATER (1993) by Joyce Carol Oates once before, and I recall it as terrifying and claustrophobic and wonderful. This past week, I read it again, thinking to use it for a class called Villains, Vengeance, and Violence. It is still terrifying, claustrophobic, and wonderful, and I believe I will use it. My students will be far too young to recall the real-life event upon which the novel is based: the 1969 Kennedy-Chappaquiddick incident, but we can get to that after they read about a young woman trapped in a car sinking into a deep pond, having been left by the Senator who was driving and managed to make his way out after the accident. The book explores the young woman’s thinking as she strives to stay alive and her memories of what brought her to that point in her life where she found herself in a car with a U.S. Senator. This is a fast-paced, short, gripping novel, and it was even better the second time around.
THE CHAPEL (2015) by Michael Downing follows a widow on a trip to Italy her husband planned for her before his recent death. Still grieving, she does not want to go but honors his wishes. There, she encounters a charming man who has suffered a recent loss that leaves him deeply grief stricken as well. She explores Italian art and literature and architecture, all of which play into the meandering themes the novel pursues. I especially enjoyed some of the twists this novel took – the kind one does not anticipate and is delighted to find. If this is not my favorite of Michael Downing’s (LIFE WITH SUDDEN DEATH or BREAKFAST WITH SCOT still rank in my book), it is certainly lovely and dark in just the right places.
I read Matthew Lysiak’s NEWTOWN: AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY (2013) in a half day, sobbing my way through the details of the school shooting that took the lives of twenty children and six educators. The book gives us a rounded and heartbreaking picture of the children and teachers killed and of their families in the aftermath. It also gives us a biographical look at the shooter, Adam Lanza, and his mother’s repeated attempts to get him help – when no help was available. This is an important book in that Lysiak does not overly trot out the familiar tropes of school shootings – though he does chronicle them at the very end of the book (listing the ways people understand what “causes” such tragedies: mental health, guns, moms, etc.). Rather, he shows us that school shootings are complex, and that no one cause or solution is available. I believe there is far more to be said about the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting, but Lysiak is a good start.
A HERO (2015) by Charlotte R. Mendel is awesome. It tells the story of an extended family living their lives amidst the Arab Spring. Mohammed, head of the family is dominant and a bully to his wife and children. His wife Fatima is gentle, kind, patient, unlike Mohammed’s sister Rana who is assertive, intelligent, and feisty. All living under Mohammed’s roof, they engage directly and indirectly with the violent conflict that is raging so very near. Some of my favorite characters inhabit this book, and among them is the twelve-year-old Mazin who gets bullied at school for being both smart and non-masculine. He is one of the centers of consciousness for the novel, and he is delightful and brave – even if he doesn’t yet know it. I heard Charlotte Mendel read from this book; she is a force of nature – someone who should be read.
Daniel Woodrell’s THE MAID’S VERSION (2013) is another one of those books that I started out reading, got hooked, wanted to like, and – admittedly – did not. I liked the main story line about the explosion at the local dance hall that killed 42 people. I like Alma and her outrageous sister. I like the dogged pursuit of justice theme. But there were too many inserted characters whose histories got in the way – or rather, it was hard to keep clear track of them given that I was reading in fits and starts. To be fair to Woodrell – who is, by the by, author of NY Times Notable Book of the Year winner, PEN West Award winner, and 2011 Clifton Fadiman Medal from the Center for Fiction winner – this is certainly an exemplary piece of fiction. Though – it and I did not come to a meeting of the mind and spirit this summer. All fault is assuredly mine.
THE FOLDED CLOCK (2015) by Heidi Julavits is so much fun. It purports to be a diary, and it is segmented like a diary with dates (months and days, no years) but has no clear chronology. Nevertheless, it is delightful, funny, and irreverent – with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. I want to meet Julavits now. She seems like the cool high school girl who was not in your group but was one you’d want to notice you and invite you to a sleepover. Not that Julavits is cocky. Rather, she is self-deprecating, confessional, a hoot – really. I am not sure what this book is generically, but I know I liked it, and for this summer-reading fool, that is quite enough.
MISSOULA: RAPE AND THE JUSTICE SYSTEM IN A COLLEGE TOWN (2015) by Jon Krakauer is a gift to those of us who have worked arduously for social justice for victims of sexual assault. AND it is a great read. I have long loved Krakauer’s work, particularly UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN and INTO THE WILD. He knows how to write narrative, to draw a reader in, to persuade without bludgeoning. I want to give this book to everyone. It investigates the crime of acquaintance rape in Missoula, Montana, and in particular, rapes that involved University of Montana students and football players. “Unlike burglary or embezzlement or any other felony, the victim often comes under more suspicion than the alleged perpetrator,” says the book cover about victims of sexual assault. Krakauer’s research is impeccable, his empathy spot on, and his willingness to speak truth to power (huge football schools, outspoken and arrogant attorneys) is honorable. This book is about Missoula, but it is a book about so much more than Missoula – it is testimony to the fact that “PTSD rates for rape victims are estimated to be 50 percent higher than for soldiers returning from war.” This book opens eyes. The fact that Krakauer has lent his esteem as an author – and a male author – to this epidemic of injustice notches up my fandom In a big way. READ THIS ONE!
Despite my deep reservations about ZOMBIE, I picked up the 85-page FIRST LOVE: A GOTHIC TALE (1996) by Joyce Carol Oates. It is riddled with overt sexual and Christian imagery, and it is about child sexual abuse, but it is not as raw and horrifying as ZOMBIE (nothing is). This one has all the gothic touches, including swamps, dark recesses, moldering Victorian houses. There is creepy cousin Jared, Jr., on leave from seminary school who is the nemesis/first love of eleven-year-old Josie. Theirs is a dark, twisted, odd relationship, one of control and abuse, yet one strangely interesting – in a not-quite-so voyeuristic way. Perhaps having just read ZOMBIE, my faculties are not quite clear, but I enjoyed this tiny book.
I have a pretty strong stomach when it comes to books. TV and film are another story, but books – I can handle violence and horror. Yet, Joyce Carol Oates stopped me cold. I almost quit reading ZOMBIE (1995) in the middle. This is the story of Quentin P. who is a sexual psychopath and killer. Quentin tells his own story in first person, so you are inside his head the entire time. The book jacket says the book is “a dazzling work of art that extends the borders of the novel into the darkest heart of truth.” Hmmmm…for all of my reverence for the darkest heart of truth, I cannot recommend this book. Quentin hunts, tortures, kills young men, and the details are chilling, savage. I picked this little gem up to see if it might work for a course titled Villains, Vengeance, Violence. It won’t. Far be it from me to question the artistic prowess of someone of Joyce Carol Oates’ caliber. However, ZOMBIE is going back to the library, safely shelved.
THE JESUS COW (2015) by Michael Perry, author of the beloved POPULATION 485, is a hoot. Here is the brief prologue: On Christmas Eve itself, the bachelor Harley Jackson stopped into his barn and beheld there illuminated in the straw a smallish newborn bull calf upon whose flank was borne the image of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. “Well,” said Harley, “that’s trouble.” This is a fun read that tackles some of the bigger questions around religion and apparitions and devotion and commercialization without disrupting the narrative. Perry is a generous writer who offers characters who are simply complex – living small town lives in big ways. This is a treat. Read this book. Michael Perry is an author who Skyped with my Creative Nonfiction class this past semester, and he was a universal hit: a bit shy, self-effacing, yet utterly talented. Get to the JESUS COW this summer.
Sue Miller’s THE ARSONIST (2014) held my interest throughout. Someone is setting fires to the homes of summer people in a New England town. In all actuality, this plays a role more as backdrop to the primary story of Frankie who has been working in Africa for fifteen years and comes home to the New England town where the fires are being set by an arsonist. She grapples with her elderly father’s illness and meets a man who is both unexpected and passionate and smart. Can she overcome her constant need for do-gooding across the globe to settle long enough with this man to see if it might hold promise? It is a bit touch and go on that score. Sue Miller’s other books, particularly THE SENATOR’S WIFE, are stronger, but this one is fine, enjoyable, worth a go.
Louise Erdrich’s THEPAINTED DRUM (2005) has a compelling plot that features a mother and daughter in New Hampshire, descended from Native Americans, who discover a magical/mystical painted drum through their business of arranging estates after death. What is both delightful and challenging about reading an Erdrich novel is the way she weaves in and out of stories. That is, she is constantly inserting a character who must tell a story. The reader gets involved in that story and forgets she is really inside a story within a story. Erdrich does not miss a beat; the stories are intriguing and always involve Native American characters and themes, but this time, I was, perhaps, too tired to want to meander with her. I wanted to stay with the mother and daughter, the love interest, the marijuana-growing dude down the road. But we got the entire and long history of the painted drum, and that – for sure – was distressing and wonderful, yet, one needs to hold on tight, as if she is on a roller coaster that is swerving at near 90 degree angles. Louise Erdrich is a masterful writer, but be sure to seat belt in for this one.
John Irving's CIDER HOUSE RULES (1985) is an investment of time: 550 pages. I read a hardcover copy, and it boinked me in the head more times than I can count when I read it in bed and dozed off. That is not to say it is boring. John Irving is anything but boring. He is quirky. He is intense. His characters do memorable things. I enjoyed this book -- NOT more than THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, but it was compelling in its Irving-esque ways. What does that mean? Well, his characters have a touch of the caricature about them; they have never seemed quite real to me, not quite mimetic of real people's lives. That is not a criticism so much as an observation. This does, however, keep me from connecting to those characters fully -- say in the way I did with the characters in Roz Chast's book (see below). So I am always aware of myself as a reader\observer. That is, I never forget I am reading a novel when reading this one -- I do not get that lost in this world feeling. Nevertheless, Irving is someone who takes risks with big topics: abortion in this case. He is brave and smart and gets at the issue in a respectful yet humorous way. I am happy I read this one.
Dorothy Allison’s BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA (1992) is a classic, one of my favorites as far as heart-wrenching, rough-going, all-too-real-life novels go. This is the story of twelve-year-old Bone who grows up in the south with her mom and sister. Along comes Daddy Glen, who marries mom and makes life a living hell for Bone. If there is comfort for Bone, it is in her extended family, the Boatwright aunts and uncles, caustic and troubled souls who exude love and delinquency In equal measure. Bone’s is a tragic life, yet she is one of the most compelling little-girl characters in literature. This is no traditional Bildungsroman. Rather, it takes that form and stands it on its head. Sure, one grows up, one experiences trials, but one’s “success” is always relative to one’s opportunities. And Bone’s opportunities to grow up free and happy and fulfilled are hampered in the most heinous ways. Still and all, she is worth knowing, and, perhaps, one might see that Bone cannot be broken in the end. One cannot, to my mind, go through life without having read this exquisite book.
BAD FEMINIST (2014) by Roxane Gay is a new favorite. I am using it in my Women in Leadership Seminar, and all the students are fans of Gay now. We even wrote her letters. She is a badass feminist who tackles the tough subjects with a bravado that is both fierce and fun. She calls it as she sees it, and, almost always, I see it exactly as she sees it. She takes on actors, filmmakers, writers, singers. She is a pop culture expert, and her analysis is right on. I really cannot say enough about this little gem. It is a collection of short essays, and you can read one or two, get up for a mug of tea or a quick trip to CVS, then return to laugh and learn more. Roxane Gay, might I be you in the next life, please?!
THE INCONVENIENT PROCESS OF FALLING (2015) by Katie Neipris is such a fabulous young person (not YA) – college-aged readers – novel. It takes up the lives of a group of long-time friends as they weekend together in the woods after their first year of college. While they had been close for years, the year away at college grew them apart in ways they had not anticipated. Was their friendship strong enough to sustain them through new and heartbreaking challenges, through “crimes of the heart” for which they could not forgive themselves? They are soon to find out, as the weekend rises to a crescendo. Katie and I were on a panel about publishing in Albuquerque, New Mexico weeks ago, and what a treat is was to meet a 23-year-old UCLA grad who has a first novel published and who has a shining spirit. Katie is someone I LIKED a lot instantly. I expect many more fabulous books from her, and I recommend you read this one. I did in a day, could not keep away from what was happening in that cabin. Read this one.
CITIZEN: AN AMERICAN LYRIC (2014) by Claudia Rankine is stunning and challenging. This prose poem tackles the big questions surrounding what it means to be black in the U.S. in the 21st century. She foregrounds Trayvon Martin, James Craig Anderson, and Serena Williams while tackling the very clear reality of abiding racism in our country. Reviewer Hilton Als says the book “comes at you like doom.” That is nothing but the truth. This slim volume weighs on the reader, particularly the white reader like me, because it speaks the painful truth about how skin color determines experience. Rankine is not for the average poltroon. This is for the reader who dares see the way racism is alive in our country. “Rankine suffers no fools and takes no prisoners but lovingly embraces and articulates the trauma and contradictions of what happens when one person is spat upon and another person spits,” says William Pope.L. This one takes time and breath. It is worth all the time and breath required.
Rainbow Rowell’s LANDLINE (2014) is good. Just good. Where her ELEANOR & PARK is simply beautiful, and while her language, particularly her dialogue, is quite something to envy, this novel faded a bit for me just after the half way mark. I wanted the protagonist, sitcom writer Georgie, to figure her life out sooner, with less angst, with less mystery about the landline. There was an odd moment in which puppies were delivered of a mama dog who hung out in the family clothes dryer -- that was quite well done, and that was in the latter half, but otherwise, I kept nudging Georgie to choose her fate. Her husband Neal, whom she kept insisting was the bomb, was unappealing to the reader. Her daughters were adorable, but the littlest one who kept insisting she was a kitty and only spoke in meows – highly annoying. On the whole, Rainbow Rowell is someone I’ll continue to read. She is clever, and many, many times I pause over her craft and want to be her. ..the husband, the angst, and the kitty-kid aside.
THE STORY HOUR (2014) by Thrity Umrigar is engaging, the kind of book you are happy to return to at night. Maggie is a psychologist who treats Lakshmi after she attempts suicide. The boundaries between their professional doctor-patient relationship blur, and soon they are friends. Lakshmi begins to grow out of the damage done by her past, as does Maggie, until those histories insert themselves into the present, and each woman must live with the agony of choices she has made. The relationship between these two very different women is fascinating to watch. The one is hyper-educated and privileged, the other an Indian immigrant in an enigmatic marriage, yet they work together as characters we root for. Umrigar’s use of Lakshmi’s accented English takes a chapter or two to decipher, but one gets in to the groove quite soon. I am happy to have read this book and to have discovered Umirgar – it is more than a beach read, not quite a must-read, but one you will not regret.
I opened EVERYHING I NEVER TOLD YOU (2014) by Celeste NG with one thought in mind: it is the end of a busy semester – I have little time to read a novel that is not exquisite – so I will give this one two pages – if I am not sold, it is game over. The first two sentences read: Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. I was in, and I quickly flew through the 300-page novel. Ng tells a good story, leaves us wondering often, and resolves the novel’s tensions with the kinds of ambiguities I really relish. The language in this book is accessible, the plotline not so overly-familiar, and the characterization complex enough to hold the reader. If time is short, I recommend several others below, but – make time for this one if possible. I will read Ng again, and as for Lydia and her Chinese American family, theirs is a tragic life worth exploring.
HIS book is – quite simply – exquisite: CAN’T WE TALK ABOUT SOMETHING MORE PLEASANT? (2014) by Roz Chast is a graphic memoir that is worth every penny of its $28 cost in hardcover. I want to give this book to everyone I know who, like me, is in that challenging life phase where the care of elderly parents is urgent and central. This book is honest and open and funny in exactly the places it could be depressing. Chast tackles it all – loving & resenting the parents, the incredible and out-of-bounds costs to caring for the elderly, the way age-old resentments insert themselves into life when you least want them there, annoying habits of parents whom we love even as we cringe. I, like Roz Chast, LOVE my parents. But we learn things about the details of our aging parents’ lives that force the re-arranging of roles. We are no longer child; we are a form of parent to our parents, and this role reversal comes with intimate knowledge that makes everyone vulnerable. This is a life phase that calls for love, best behavior, and endless patience. Roz Chast has captured that, and she has made me laugh when the days of crying had threatened to overwhelm. Thank you, Chast, for this book: it bears pivotal truths about our humanity that we are better knowing.
National Book Award Winner BROWN GIRL DREAMING(2014) BY Jacqueline Woodson is a memoir in verse. Woodson grew up in the 1960s and 70s in South Carolina and then in Brooklyn, NY, and she describes each place with vibrant and moving detail. She was teased and misunderstood outside of her home, but inside, she was deeply loved. Woodson’s family life is gripping. From her single mother’s courage to make a home for her children to her beloved grandparents’ abiding and life-giving nurturing, Woodson’s childhood is rich – in ways an outside onlooker could not begin to imagine. I really really liked this book. While it is written in verse, which I know – because people are very frank about these things – that poetry frightens many folks, this book is accessible and worth overcoming a fear that for many – let’s be honest – is untested. This one is worth it, a beauty.
Larry Watson is one of my favorites. His newest novel, LET HIM GO (2013), is true Larry Watson, in MONTANA 1948 fashion. The writing is spare, as are the characters. I am now fully in love with Margaret and George Blackledge of North Dakota who go in search of their little grandson Jimmy. Their son, Jimmy’s father, dies. His wife moves on, marrying another man (a bad man from a bad family) and taking the beloved Jimmy from the Blackledge’s home where he spent his earliest years in safety and joy. Much of this novel is about the marriage of the Blackledges. This is not the kind of novel where every incremental emotion or thought is spelled out. Rather, Margaret and George have been together for decades. Theirs is a well-oiled machine of a marriage, with quirks and challenges and pithy exchanges. The ending is – perhaps – beautiful. In a TALE OF TWO CITIES sort of way. This is a little piece of wonderment. Again, big Larry Watson fan here. I recommend it – indeed.
Emily St. John Mandel’s STATION ELEVEN is all the rave now. It is winning awards, garnering acclaim for the young author. I LOVED it. I read it when I should have been grading and buying groceries and paying the electric bill. I could not stop. In the opening scene, the famous actor playing King Lear has a fatal heart attack on stage. Switch to another scene, and the world is wiped out by a pandemic: the Georgian flu. What follows is so amazing: travelling Shakespeare troupe, violent conclaves with a dastardly prophet at the fore, and the human spirit surviving. This is decidedly not THE ROAD. There is no Cormac McCarthy depths of despair here. Sure, the world as we all know it is, well, over, kaput, gong. BUT, the human spirit remains, sets up shop again in the form of a village in an airport. This is an awesome read. Pay your bills, stock up on food, and settle into 333 pages of escape – really well-written escape. I cannot stop thinking about it. What would life be like without a car, a phone, electricity. So much would not matter. And, really, it does not take Emily St. John Mandel to teach us this, but she offers us an intriguing reminder: everything changes. Everything. So before it does – read this book.
Dennis Lehane’s THE DROP (2014) is fast, centers on a Boston bar, and involves the Chechen mob, psychopathic customers, and Bob, the lonely bartender who finds an abused puppy abandoned in the trash. He and Nadia, a woman with a heart-wrenching past, meet that night and save the dog together. Typical Lehane ensues: Money is stolen. Bad men posture with guns and shots of vodka and threats. There is no telling who is the good guy and who is the bad buy. You cannot go wrong with a Lehane book. He is a master. This one runs just past 200 pages – a snowy afternoon treat. Whip up some popcorn and a mug of hot cocoa and sit yourself down on a corner barstool in the bar in the Flats – where MYSTIC RIVER takes place.
I went through a self-help book phase; it lasted about three decades. Now, Buddhist meditation and mindfulness reading dominates my list. But I picked up SMALL MOVE, BIG CHANGE: USING MICRORESOLUTIONS TO TRANSFORM YOUR LIFE PERMANENTLY (2014) by Caroline L. Arnold, skimmed it, and learned exactly one thing: just to it. If you want to change an age-old habit, you have to change that age-old habit. Yeah. Who does not get that? Arnold’s angle on this is, as the title says, to do it –the changing of habits -- in tiny chunks. Ok. Makes sense. One thing she did say that stuck: make the scariest call (phone call) first, before all else, and a great surge of energy will follow. Yes, Ms. Arnold, you are right. When I have done this, sat my behind in the chair, closed all doors, picked up that phone and called that person and spoke my mind – surge I got! But it is the fear one has to bust through that is the challenge. And the only way out is through. And I am not sure how to microresolve that if not to just do it. The upshot: this book tells you that to make changes you have to make changes. Just make them one step at a time, twelve-step like. Everyone knows that, but we need reminding. Arnold seems like a good sort, earnest, chocking her book full of fun examples of people who succeeded to microresolve their lives. So, if you need to make big changes one tidbit at a time as the new year unrolls, Arnold is your woman. If you are like me, knowing full well what to do and still resisting doing it for a bazillion reasons, take a breath and just do it.
I read Kurt Vonnegut’s SLAUGHTERHOUSE –FIVE (1969) for the first time today. Not sure why this one went un-read? The Sisters of St. Joseph did not teach in when I was in high school. It is pretty gruesome. War is not a hero in this one. Billy Pilgrim has what we would call PTSD today, and his unraveling is fascinating. In the same way Toni Morrison allows contemporary readers into the lived experience of slavery in BELOVED, Vonnegut offers us the experience of WW II through the lens of a young man who ends up being ruined by it, as was Morrison’s Sethe. It is an unsettling novel, and it is hard to follow at times – as is war, as is slavery, as is, frankly, life. So I held on tight, followed Billy Pilgrim, as he was captured by aliens, as he time travelled, as he found multiple alternative ways to live when the reality of the war was simply too much. This is a novel that makes sense to me today. Perhaps too much sense. Had Sister Mary T. Quinn assigned it in high school, I would have complained and moaned, as my students do, that Vonnegut went on and on and was boring. That young I, of course, would have been far too unequipped to GET the book. This much older I – she is at least giving it her best. This is a life changer. Happy it has been read, happy my soul can take its realities today. For now, I need a little quiet time to ponder man’s inhumanity to man. So it goes.
DEPT. OF SPECULATION (2014) by Jenny Offill is minimalist and fragmented – on purpose. As is life, if you think about it. At first, the read balks. What is she talking about? Who is the narrator? What is going on? But in short order, most readers will recognize parts of their lives in the spare paragraphs Offill offers. This is a book about love, marriage, (in)fidelity, parenthood, the possibility of reconciliation. Now that I have finished it, I want to read it again. This Jenny Offill is onto something, and I read the little book so quickly, racing to find out what would happen, that I think I may have missed some gems. And I discovered enough of those little gems to know there are more stuffed in there. This is NOT a book for everyone. It is a life-of-the-mind book rather than a plot-driven novel. It reflects an intensity of an inner life that some readers find compelling (me!), and some will find dreadfully revelatory, true, or boring. Risk reading it, I say. The Boston Globe called it “slender, quietly smashing…a book so radiant, so sparkling with sunlight and sorrow, that it almost makes a person gasp.” I agree.
THE LIFE WE BURY (2014) by Allen Eskens is quite a nice read, a bit mystery, tidbit love story, equal parts compassionate humanity and masculine violence. Joe Talbert, our protagonist, is a college student working on an English class assignment that brings him in contact with an old man who is paroled early because he is dying of cancer. He was indicted decades earlier for raping and murdering his 14-year-old neighbor. Joe, his new friend Lila, and his autistic brother Jeremy discover evidence that changes the outcome of the old case, risking their lives in the effort. This is a page turner with some subplots that work. Some novels offer superfluous subplots, just to – I don’t really know – I suppose to make a novel appear more multidimensional. Eskens’s subplots work, and I am grateful to not have been annoyed with my first holiday choice of reading material. I do recommend this one – somewhat predictable, but – frankly – Eskens makes it work. So go to it.
Gabrielle Zevin’s THE STORIED LIFE OF A.J. FIKRY (2014) was just the short novel I needed right after the semester ended. It is quirky and fun. The protagonist is a Woody-Allen-ish (in the 1970s, neurotic, hyper-anxious kind of way, not the weird, concerning kind of way) bookstore owner who has the only bookstore on a Martha’s Vineyard-like fictional island. He is a widow who has cemented views about literature until that is changed by an abandoned baby, a bohemian publisher’s rep, and by circumstances that appear tragic until deeper investigation discovers them to be, well, remarkably wonderful. This one will not tax your brain, and sometimes, often, that is delightful. I recommend it. The woman who checked it out to me at the local library said she found the book “innnnterrrresting,” drawing the word out to emphasize, I supposed, its oddity. “It is not that it is bad…” she said, a sure-fire sign that it stinks. But, I am here to tell you it not only does not stink, but it is downright lovely. It will not change the world, but after a semester of trying to change the world views of college students, I was ready to relax into the Island Bookstore and its offering of foibles and wonders.
I am now a Roxane Gay fan, having read AN UNTAMED STATE (2014). This is another of those books I love that is not for everyone. Tom Perrotta (another writer I love) says on the back cover: “An Untamed State is a harrowing, suspenseful novel about the connections between sexual violence and political rage, narrated in a voice at once traumatized and eerily controlled.” Perrotta gets it right. The book is about “the compromises people make in order to survive under the most extreme conditions,” he says. That is my kind of book. Gay has been dubbed by Flavorwire “one of the 25 Women Poised to Lead the Culture.” She is that indeed, and this is her debut novel. When Mireille Duval Jameson is kidnapped in her home country of Haiti by a gang of men, this daughter of a rich Haitian man sees life as she’s known it crumble. She is married to an American, has one child, has a thriving career as an attorney in the states, and this visit home threatens all of that. Her father’s standoff with the Commander in charge of her kidnapping and ransom changes her life. Can she heal? What is the stuff of life that keeps us from going under? What is it that allows us to carry on when horrors become the new normal? This novel is important and, I would argue, inspiring, but it is not easy, it is not pretty, it is not a feel-good endeavor. So take it up with your bravest readiness to engage the real world, and grow from one of the 25 Women Poised to Lead the Culture.
MEN EXPLAIN THINGS TO ME (2014) by Rebecca Solnit is tiny treasure. Just 130 pages, Solnit is the kind of writer you want as a friend: she tells it like it is. She is polite but clear. Here it is, she says, let me show you, and let me give you an example or two, now – can you see it? And you can. I think I am madly in love with Rebecca Solnit, and that is why I have assigned her as reading for my Women in Leadership seminar this semester. I want to share her. I want to re-read her. And the title is a fabulous talking point – she defines men who explain things to you as those who explain things to you (women) that the women know and the men doing the explaining do not know. Mansplaining is one word coined several years for this phenomenon – a term Solnit inspired but did not coin. This little book is well worth the little cost for the BiG, BIG laughs and learning.
I have only just read THE CHILDREN OF MEN (1993) by P. D. James. In 2021, the human race is dying out. There have been no babies born since 1995 because all males became infertile. Great Britain is ruled by a dictator who fosters mass euthanasia of the elderly, cruel prison camps, and bands of violent and roving thugs. This is the story of power, its corruption, and the ability of some, even one hero, to fight back. Oxford historian Theo Faron is that hero. Or is he? Cousin to Great Britain’s dictator, will he serve for good or for ill when he encounters a small group of revolutionaries and cannot help but take up with them? This book is a find. Not fast paced like Lehane’s, the novel offers something different: complexity of characterization, beautiful sentences that require digesting, and an ending that requires contemplation. It forces one to think about what the world might be like with no more babies being born, what new life means to the living. I am still thinking about this book and will, I believe, for some time…
A collection of nine short stories, STONE MATTRESS by Margaret Atwood (2014) is fabulous. Clear and away, the story “Stone Mattress” is the winner. It begins, “At the outset Verna had not intended to kill anyone.” What reader can read that and say, “nah, looks boring”? This is my new favorite short story, and students in my Women Writers class next semester can bet their boots they’ll see it on the reading list. Others of the stories are awesome too, including “The Freeze-Dried Groom,” “Torching the Dusties,” and “Alpinland.” Margaret Atwood is still on fire, and she is my hero – though those who know me know that I have so many writer heroes. That does not take away from Margaret Atwood’s rock-solid position in my heart. Read this collection – at least read those stories I’ve highlighted above. Then read THE HANDMAID’S TALE – because a life without that novel is hardly worth living!
I have just read GILEAD by Marilynne Robinson (2004) for the first time because my friends in my book group gave a collective gasp when I said I’d not read it. “YOU?” they yawped…”YOU have not read GILEAD?” Shamed, I read it that very night. It is a particular kind of beautiful, the musings of a dying man, a reverend, whose sharing is quite reflective and open-hearted. He is a good man, and the reader comes to be quite fond of him. His ability to be both a leader and a kind man and a vulnerable man make him a compelling character. I am happy to have read it. I walk now with pride when I enter my book group. That Robinson has two more in her trilogy, GILEAD being the first, means I have more on my plate, but for the time being, I am basking in having caught up on at least one.
FRANKENSTEIN, GEEK LOVE, THE TASTE OF A MAN, BELOVED, HECUBA, WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, POSSESSING THE SECRET OF JOY, MYSTIC RIVER – all of these I taught this semester in my Monster Seminar. We pondered and analyzed and worked out way through our understanding of monsters and the monstrous for fifteen weeks, and we have arrived at many crucial questions. What do all of these have in common? In each one, there is a murder. In each one, there is anguish that leads to the murder. In each one a monstrous, jaw-dropping act is perpetrated. What else? Read them and find out. They are the kinds of book you can discuss for a long time. I recommend them all and am available to discuss once you’ve read!
BOOK OF AGES: THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF JANE FRANKLIN (2013) by Jill Lepore is such a fabulous tribute to a life both obscure and exceedingly significant. In the tradition of Virginia Woolf, whom she credits readily toward the end of her book, Lepore researches the life of Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister, though documentation is slim, as a “meditation on silence in the archives.” The outdated notion (and practice) of historians that only the lives of public and imposing men are worth remembering is taken to task by Lepore. Jane Franklin is delightful. She has no formal education, bore more than a dozen children, and adored her brother. What letters to Franklin survive indicate a young life enervated by domestic toil but a later life infused with reading and contemplation, that later life lived during the tempestuous Revolutionary War. One of the New York Times Notable Books and winner of the Mark Lynton History Prize, this book of history is hailed as one of the best books of the year by NPR, Time Magazine, The Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, and the Boston Globe. Why is that? Why a work of history so garnished with applause by “the people”? Because Lepore knows her stuff. Documented to within an inch of its life, THE BOOK OF AGES reads like a novel, places its readers inside an early America where a revolutionary resistance and spirit resounded, and honors the lives of those whom fame forgot. To historicize only the great is to miss the bigger, rounder, richer picture. Lepore misses nothing. She honors Virginia Woolf’s “rage about the unwritten literary work of women,” and she honors us, readers who care about the lives of women, in all their obscurity and significance.
Gish Jen’s novel WORLD AND TOWN (2010) is one of those books you live inside – deeply -- for a while. I came to love Hattie Kong who finds herself in midlife living alone in a small town in New England. Her recent losses of both her husband and her best friend are still fresh. When a Cambodian family moves in, Hattie begins a neighborly, if fraught, relationship with them. One of the teenage daughters spends time at Hattie’s house, playing with her three dogs, wanting, at once, for Hattie to be her mentor and for Hattie to leave her alone. When Hattie’s former lover, neuroscientist Carter Hatch moves to town, complications escalate. I completely surrendered to the small-town quotidian, eating up the day-to-day lives of Hattie, her gang of women friends, and her troubled Cambodian neighbors, but what really nudged this book into the protean literary realm were the big questions that Gish Jen embroiders into the novel; she does not let us look away. Among the penetrating questions are those about religion, family, love, trust, identity, parenting, loneliness, and love. This is a book to savor, not one to rush through. Brew a cup of tea, nestle into an afghan, and enter a small town that offers up the world.
THE GATES AJAR (1868) by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps is an acquired taste. I happen to be a Phelps freak, having done my dissertation on her work. This is her most popular book; it made her a literary celebrity at age 24.After the Civil War, the death toll was enormous and particularly painful for women who lost their loved ones, sons, husbands, fiancés. Men of religion preached about heaven and the blissful life these lost loves were leading, but their words rang hollow. The grieving women could not imagine their dead ones singing hymns with angels, robed in white glory. It meant nothing to them because there was nothing tangible to relate to. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps stepped into the void with this novel and two more that follow it (BEYOND THE GATES 1883 and THE GATES BETWEEN 1887). What she offered is a story of hope, an afterlife that resembles earth with neighborhoods, houses, gardens, and life as it has been known and cherished on earth. The women will be reunited with their loved ones and live with them in the same way they did on earth. Women in droves took to the book. They needed to hope Phelps offered. Her widowed character who offers the most explicit rendition of this philosophy grounds her preaching in biblical text, and while the ministers in the novel challenge her at every turn, the women who hear her lean in mightily. The brand of hope she offers is what they need, and if there is no proof for either imagining of heaven, they are prepared to err on the side of the one where they get to live again with their loved ones. Phelps spoke to the heartache and yearning; the men of religion spoke to something else – and they were rejected. And Phelps took it to the bank, outselling most other writers of her time!
HOUSEWRIGHTS (2002) is a disturbing novel by Art Corriveau about Lily Willard’s relationship with twins, Oren and Ian Pritchard. She is the town librarian in a small town in Vermont; they are carpenters. Childhood friends, the three who have been deeply connected since youth, meet again in adulthood. Lily marries Oren, and they welcome Ian into their home when he returns shell-shocked from the Great War. The three are happy, quirky, and far too odd in their unorthodox connectedness to garner their neighbors’ respect or tolerance. Misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and wretched loss are on the horizon for these three, and despite their unusual circumstances and desires, we readers recognize what makes them delight so in each other. If you have a stack of books to read by your bedside, no need to add this one to the pile. It is the kind of book you pick up in a used bookstore, read over a weekend, and discover your life is neither better nor worse for the engagement. Feel free to give this one a pass. Nora Eldridge, the elementary school teacher who is the protagonist of THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS (2013), a novel by Claire Messud, is a quizzical character. She is the white-female epitome of the poem “A Dream Deferred.” She is a consummate repressor of feelings and dreams. When a charming student enters her class, and when she befriends his parents, her life becomes infused with something it has been missing. She takes heart .She feels her time has come. She gets herself into a tangle, however, and the outcome is, well, troubling. I cannot really explain why I liked this book so much. All along I wanted to shout: “Nora. Stop being an idiot.” Yet, I could not look away as Nora kept being an idiot. I felt empathy. She needed those people; they were worldly, they filled a void, they liked her. Alas, Nora Eldridge is a bit of a tragic figure but one worth knowing.
THE DEATH CLASS by Erika Hayasaki (2014) is a work of creative nonfiction I found quite interesting. It tells the story of Dr. Norma Bowe, Ph.D. and nurse who teaches a class called Death in Perspective at Kean University in Union, New Jersey (about a 30 minute drive from New York City). The ad on the back of the book claims there is a three year waiting list for Professor Bowe’s class, and after reading the book, I want onto that list myself! Dr. Bowe is not your average professor. She is, by Hayasaki’s account – and the author shadowed Dr. Bowe and several of her students while researching the book – the most loving, self-giving woman ever. She nurses the sick, attends the grieving, and comforts the suicidal. This woman never rests – until she is hospitalized toward the end of the book. The anecdotes relayed in this book are gripping. Among the students who make their way into Bowe’s class and/or life are gang members, a young man who witnessed his father murder his mother in their kitchen, and a young woman whose life is consumed by keeping her drug addicted mother alive. Bowe helps them all, and all of them face death in all of its unglamorous reality. In addition, Bowe takes her students to cemeteries, to autopsies, to funeral homes to look at caskets. This may not be a book for everyone, particularly those who refuse to see death as part of life. All others – pick up a copy.
DEAR COMMITTEE MEMBERS, a novel by Julie Schumacher (2014) is a tiny delight. Under 200 pages, this epistolary novel is straight up funny. All of the letters that comprise the novel are written by a beleaguered English professor who tells it like it is. He is on the outs with his former wife, former girlfriend, and colleagues because of his misbehavior and abrasiveness. He is in with the reader because the transparency of his ego is laid bare, and in the end, he comes around to something like humility – sort of. This book made me laugh aloud, many times, and given the swift vicissitudes and harsh realities of life in an American university today, laughing is a hot-air balloon ride among fluffy white clouds. This is a must read for all English professors or any reader who finds him/herself grappling with a world of rapidly-shifting academic values.
WHEREVER YOU GO, THERE YOU ARE: MINDFULNESS MEDITATION IN EVERYDAY LIFE by Jon Katat-Zinn (1994) is exactly what it sounds like – a book about how to live in a liberating and uncomplicated way through meditation. I think I have read this book before, but it seemed new somehow this summer. Zinn is clear, not so concise but not so prolific as to annoy, and easy to understand. Other Buddhist books can be laden with jargon and so koan-ish that one feels quite dumb. This book is uplifting. It makes sense. It is one of those books one reads when life calls for the reading of such a book. When life calls, read this one. My go-to girl for such mindfulness teaching is still Pema Chodron, but JKZ is up there. Give him a try – when the time is right.
The thing that drew me to DIVERGENT (2011) by Veronica Roth is that she began the book while she was a student in college. Now she has a runaway hit trilogy and a major movie coming out. I want that for all of my creative writing students, but the odds are against it for them and for all creative writers. It is much like becoming an actor: lots of people are talented and want to be famous as an actor, but – like the eye of the needle – few succeed. Nevertheless, the definition of success must be interrogated. Is Roth’s success the only kind of success? Nay, nay. Creative writing is a skill that can be developed and a practice that hones a number of skills, among them critical thinking, problem solving, research, empathy, collaboration….I could go on and on about this. My point: just because one will not necessarily get a three-book contract before college graduation does not make the endeavor worthless. Repeatedly, employers maintain they want new hires who can think critically, write clearly, understand audience, solve problems…you get my point. Ok, onto the book. DIVERGENT incorporates a wicked fast pace. It is sheer plot. Think: HUNGER GAMES with more explicit social class divisions. The hero is Tris, and her love interest is Tobias. They are cute, and their burgeoning romance is, of course, fraught. These two belong to a faction that risks life and limb for the thrill of it all and to become stronger. They jump onto racing trains and leap from tall buildings. They shoot people – bad people. They refuse to cry when a parent dies in front of them. They are tough cookies with heart. So, since this all sounds SO familiar, what makes it worth reading? I am not sure, but I do know that I liked it in the way I like the occasional pepperoni pizza. It was yummy going down. The chapters are short and the print (paperback version) is large. I felt some simplistic accomplishment reading several chapters at a sitting. I began book #2 immediately after, despite having four English courses to prepare for the upcoming semester. Roth’s is lightweight stuff that tangles with bigger philosophical issues. This is the kind of book I would have felt a need to “bash” in my more smug years – simply because of its popularity. I am no longer smug, and popularity does not equal bad – though, truth be told, sometimes that is exactly what it means (like THE HANGOVER). Ok, so maybe still a bit smug-ish…DIVERGENT was entertaining, and I was entertained, and it made me think a bit about what I would be willing to die for (even if I have thought about that one zillion times already), so …there you have it, a non-review?
Beward Sonali Deraniyagala’s WAVE (2013). This memoir is powerful and painful. It is also gripping – I could not stop, and I found myself setting aside very important things in order to finish it in on day, in hours really. It is brief but brutal in its honesty. This is the story of a family vacationing at a Sri Lankan beach resort in 2004 who is swept away in a tsunami. Without warning, they are alive, then dead. Deraniyagala is the sole survivor of her family. She lost her husband, two young sons, her parents. Author Michael Ondaatje (THE ENGLISH PATIENT) calls this memoir powerful and haunting. I agree. I am haunted. The sheer ability to live after such a loss renders me speechless. I can see why this book would be unappealing to many readers. Nevertheless, it was a national bestseller and One of the Best Books of the Year per the New York Times Book Review. So, there is something about it that does grab readers. For me, it was the incomprehensible horror of having an entire life wiped out and surviving it. I wanted to walk with this woman to see where she ended up, to see if she could ever find a measure of peace, a reason to live. This is a ravaging book, to be read with eyes wide open. I can promise tears. I can promise meditative silence. I can certainly promise awe. I honor this woman just for breathing.
I am not sure what to make of Michael Cunningham’s new novel, THE SNOW QUEEN (2014). I raced through it, and there were moments of great enjoyment, beautiful sentences, deep sadness rendered authentically. Honestly, though, I think this novel falls into a category I’ve yet to name. Let’s call it Ponderables. It reminds me of Anne Michaels’ THE WINTER VAULT and any of Toni Morrison’s new novels. I rush to acquisition like some Harry Potter fan at midnight outside a remote Barnes & Noble. I consume them in a gulp. I am delirious with pleasure that my favorite authors have deigned to offer yet another work of art. Then I sit with my response. And in all of these cases the response is not clear or immediate. There is a delay, as if I need processing time to analyze what has happened in the last 250 pages and X number of hours of my life. I consider Cunningham a master because of THE HOURS. I revere Anne Michaels’ FUGITIVE PIECES. Toni Morrison – by now people in Bahrain must know how I feel about this goddess, so often do I go on about her. YET, if I am honest, I always wonder with these Ponderables if it is my fault that I do not LOVE the book like my firstborn, if it is my own lack that disallows me from bonding at first read. Perhaps I don’t get it. Perhaps I did not give it enough of the slow, analytical, grace-filled read it deserves. Always with the Ponderables, I conclude that the only solution is to read it again. Alas…none of this is helpful to the reader who checks out ANY GOOD BOOKS? for advice. Who wants a reviewer who examines her own neurosis instead of just plain getting to it? So, THE SNOW QUEEN is about two brothers, one of whom (Barrett) has a godlike vision in Central Park. This is significant (not sure why yet – re: Ponderables). He keeps it a bit of a secret, even from his brother Tyler who spends much of the novel writing a wedding song for his dying fiancé Beth, and he is coping with symptoms that appear to suggest schizophrenia, but this is never determined with any certainty (would it matter if it were so anyway?). Enter other characters who all exhibit conflicted souls. Some drugs. Some illicit sex. Touching moments, for sure. On the whole: these characters are looking to find that life has MEANING (duh…who isn’t?), and finding that it – does? Does not? When you figure it out, please let me know.
Toni Morrison’s PARADISE (1997) is – hands down – my favorite of her many novels. The first two paragraphs gets to me every time (this is a novel I have read over and over):
“They shot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time. No need to hurry out here. They are seventeen miles from a town which has ninety miles between it and any other. Hiding places may be plentiful in the Convent, but there is time and the day has just begun.
They are nine, over twice the number of the women they are obliged to stampede or kill and they have the paraphernalia for either requirement: rope, a palm leaf cross, handcuffs, Mace and sunglasses, along with clean, handsome guns.”
Oh, Toni Morrison, goddess of literary narrative, bring the world more books like this, books that burrow intrepidly into the root causes of hatred. Haters are just like everyone else, Morrison tells us, people in pain whose inability/unwillingness to see themselves wrenches from them their humanity. In this novel, nine male citizens of the all-black town of Ruby lay their pain, their terror, and their murderous rage upon women who have escaped their own pain to find a safe haven in an old convent. For the first time in their lives, the women feel safe – until the men who cannot abide their Otherness hunt them down. The characters in this book are unforgettable, flawed humans who love and hate and agonize within the luminous language of a master writer. This is no summer beach read. It is not difficult to read, in the way James Joyce is difficult, but it is heart wrenching and alive to the horrors humans perpetrate against other humans. If you are looking for a romantic, sunshiny July read, look elsewhere. If you want to be transformed by a searing work genius, gird yourself and go for PARADISE.
On the other hand, July is a good time for ME BEFORE YOU (2012) BY Jojo Moyes. While Moyes tackles big life issues, she is somewhat predictable. People magazine says she is “funny, surprising, and heartbreaking.” I say not so much. I admit to laughing a few times, but I was never surprised (and I want to be surprised. I am willing to be surprised, even generous in my willingness to be surprised) and, cruel as some will find this confession, not heartbroken. Don’t take my word for it. People love this book. It has been recommended to me so many times that I had to read it (so has GONE GIRL, but I have not yet gotten there). This is the story of Louisa Clark, a 20-something who lives in a small town with her family and gets a job working for a formerly-hunky, athletic businessman who is a few years older. The work is challenging and puts her in touch with real life as she has never known it. The controversial ending makes sense to me, but one could see it coming a mile away, and I, for one, do not like that. That is why I watch THE BLACKLIST, why I teach college students, why I had three children – because no matter what outcome I predict with any of these, I am always surprised. Surprise me, writers. Is that too much to ask? Feeling guilty about being harsh about a book so heartily recommended to me, let me add this: Jojo Moyes tackles a subject most people avoid, and she is to be applauded for her bravery. She has been applauded for such.
AVERY (9102) by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps is more of a long short story than a novel. My copy is the kind of old that smells of library sales. Its cover is maroon embossed with gold stylized flowers. Its pages are thick, non-biblically-tissued. This is a writer I aim to resurrect from obscurity. I wrote my dissertation on her (and four other women writers equally deserving of a Lazarus rejuvenation), and I remain loyal to this day. This novel is about the Averys, Mr. and Mrs. A perfect “angel in the house,” Mrs. Avery suffers from a pernicious malady but her foremost concern, even on her deathbed, is for her husband’s comforts. She loves this man. We hate him. He is narcissistic and obnoxious. While she is struggling for air, because of her chronic and dangerous lung disorder, Mr. Avery decides to go off on a boating cruise with his guy pal. On that trip he worries, anguishes over having left his sick wife alone with the children. He is gripped with guilt. (The reader is shouting: you fool. You big dope – you knew she was sick and you left anyway. Serves you right if she is dead and buried when you return.) He returns home and showers his unconscious wife, so nearly a corpse by this time as to defy healing, with apologies and loving words. In this, he works a miracle. She lives another day to love this man. What the heck, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps? At least Bronte had the wherewithal to chop Rochester’s hand off and to blind him (if for a time). This guy gets a pass, a second chance because he sees the error of his ways? Clearly, I am jaded. I am all in for literary punishments being on the savage side – physical maiming works for me. But Phelps offers us wretched and prolonged soul searching. Mr. Avery does almost die in a sudden storm that sinks the sailboat on which he is boy-bonding. That, at least, is something. Still, I cannot come down too hard on her. It was 1902. The guy did learn a lesson. Mrs. Avery, by all accounts, did blossom because of her husband’s love, which was the only thing she lived for anyway. So….let’s cut the woman some slack on this one. She does maim a philandering husband in THE STORY OF AVIS. That counts.
Re-read BEOWULF this past weekend, in preparation for a course I am teaching in fall about Monsters. Composed in the first millennium, Beowulf is about a classic monster, Grendel, who attacks the Danes. When those Danes cannot manage to save themselves from Grendel’s merciless bloodshed, along comes Beowulf, the Scandinavian hero who defeats the monster, then defeats his anguished-yet-monstrous mother, then culminates his tale by offing a nasty dragon. I read the Seamus Heaney translation which became a New York Times Bestseller in 2000 – kind of an amazing thing, really. Everyone should read Beowulf once, I believe, and this summer is as good a time as any, so – have at it!
Somehow, I managed to never read Jean-Paul Sartre’s play NO EXIT (1944) until last week. It is about three people who find themselves in hell, a hell that is absolutely nothing like what they’d imagined. They all “deserve” to be there, I suppose, their behaviors harmful enough to others to warrant that eternal punishment. From this play comes the famous and fabulous line: “Hell is other people.” The play grates on the reader, as the characters grate on each other. This is a nice alternative to Dante’s monstrous INFERNO. The monsters here are people – were people. They are in a room together. Forever. And on day one they start to annoy each other. It will be a long eternity, Sartre suggests, and he convinces the reader of the truth of this in just 43 pages.
I really really really liked Meg Wolitzer’s novel THE INTERESTINGS (2013). I heard her read the opening of it at the AWP conference in Boston two years ago, and I knew she had a winner. It is fat – lots of popular novels today are fat, and I find this curious and sometimes vexing, but this one could have gone on longer, and I would have stayed true to it. The characters have their charm and quirks, and their lives are lives I was determined to follow into old age – thought Wolitzer doesn’t take us quite that far. The six teens who call themselves “The Interestings” find themselves at an artsy camp for two summers, and their bond is solid and lifelong. This is a fun book, a big loaf of summer reading that you can tote to the beach or to the hammock. I recommend it with gusto.
I ABSOLUTELY LOVED Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s AMERICANAH (2014). It is the kind of fat (477 pages) book you can sink into and forget all the vexations of life. The characters are real, their lives compelling, and the ending is just right – which will surprise those who know my reading habits best! The novel follows Ifemelu and Obinze, teenagers much in love in Nigeria, as they grow up, move away, and face their choices head on. The setting ranges from Nigeria, to London, to America. I took my time with this one, relaxing into its bulk for hours when I could find them, wanting to return to this novel every day. Now it is done, and that literary sadness that arises at such rare times as these is here. Adichie is so clear about the world, about race, about women and women & men. This is one I recommend without hesitation or caveat. Buy it, settle in for the long ride, and inhabit the world of this sublime read.
Geneen Roth’s LOST AND FOUND: ONE WOMAN’S STORY OF LOSING HER MONEY AND FINDING HER LIFE (2011) is a fast read. Roth and her husband lost their life savings in Bernie Madoff’s scheme. In this book, Roth examines the changes in consciousness she experiences regarding money, its value, the meaning with which she has imbued money all of her life. This is a book you can skim. I did. Somehow, I really enjoyed the way Roth told stories about her life and her Madoff-burned friends’ lives. It was not a poor-me-I-am-no-longer-rich monologue. Rather, it was an interesting exploration of why we value money, why we don’t think about money, and – interestingly – how this connects to overeating (Roth’s primary business is writing about and doing retreats on the subject of women and food). Like FROG MUSIC, this is not a necessary read. It is a nice, peaceful read for one who finds herself with a couple of free hours. If you miss it entirely, your life will remain exactly as is.
FROG MUSIC (2014) by Emma Donoghue, author of the National Bestseller ROOM takes on a historical murder in her current novel. In 1876 San Francisco, amidst a record-breaking heat wave and a smallpox epidemic, a young woman who is notorious for wearing (men’s) pants is shot and killed through the window of a railroad saloon. She is survived by her friend Blanche, a French burlesque dancer, who is in the room with her at the time of the shooting. Blanche determines to find the killer, and though the true-life crime was never solved, Blanche uncovers a pathetic, vicious truth (of sorts). This book does not compare to ROOM, yet Donoghue creates rich, bohemian characters who grow on the reader rapidly. This one is fun, not an absolute must, but a fine choice for a day or two at the beach.
I won THE WITCHDOCTOR’S BONES (2014) by Lisa De Nikolits in a contest run by Inanna Press in Toronto (the press that is publishing my novel in March 2015). I had to respond to an email from the publisher naming one of its recently published books, and I was the first emailer. I chose this novel because it looked mysterious and promising. I made a good choice. Sixteen people from all over the world gather to travel through South Africa and Namibia on a tour bus, camping along the way and learning about African culture and lore. Some in the group are heartbroken, looking to escape the pain of lost love. Some have murderous intent. Some are just quizzically odd. There is sex, love, murder, mental breakdown, but the characters become like your well-worn reading chair: comfortable even when a tiny spring pokes into your back annoying you. I eased into this novel, and partway through, found myself wanting to return to it when a reading moment presented itself. “Beautiful, sexy, exciting, mysterious, dangerous and twisted,” says mystery writer Alexander Galant. I agree.
MARGARET FULLER: A NEW AMERICAN LIFE (2013) by Megan Marshall, who teaches in the MFA program at Emerson College in Boston, won the Pulitzer Prize, and it is well deserved, for this plump biography tells the complex story of the awesome and under-appreciated Margaret Fuller. Fuller was prominent among the Concord/Boston set in the mid 19th century, engaging in long-term and robust friendships with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Peabody sisters. She met Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Sand. She was a genius, a powerhouse of feminist energy, and a woman convicted to the premise that men and women should enjoy equally fulfilling lives. Author of Woman in the Nineteenth Century, among other works, she was editor of the Transcendentalist journal The Dial. To study 19th century American literature without highlighting Margaret Fuller is to foster ignorance. She is a key player, an important role model for women in her time and ours, and her tragic and early death marks a loss for our country’s literature and wisdom.
My dearest friend Bernadette from high school gave me SIX YEARS (2013) by Harlan Coben because the protagonist is a college professor. He is like no other college professor I know, but he has a certain charm. Jake Fisher teaches political science, which in no way matters to the novel. The only piece of his teaching life that is remotely interesting is that he agrees to be kidnapped by very bad guys when they threaten to kill students – we would all like to think we’d do that. Jake happens to be 6’5” and jacked, but he has no girlfriend. The gist of the story is that he fell madly in love six years ago (see title!), and suddenly, his love Natalie married another man and disappeared off the face of the earth. Pining for six years, Jake teaches his classes and longs for Natalie. No other woman will do. He is actually quite overwrought about Natalie –theirs was the real deal. And, frankly, sorry to say, Bernadette, Professor Jake Fisher is Hallmarkish about it. Downright pathetic. So you know Coben has to bring this Natalie back because Jake Fisher is NOTHING without her. Anyway, there are bad guys with guns and instruments of torture, best friends who life about their lives, liars in nursing homes, FBI agents who lie – it’s a wonder Jake Fisher knows his own name with all the lying – and yet, Coben works that in too. Here’s the thing about this book that I am ranking on – I loved it in the exact same way I love Circus Peanuts – those creamsicle-colored peanut-shaped marshmallow candies: I know they are pure sugar; I now pure sugar does not add to my quality of life; I know there will be an empty feeling afterward, yet, I pound those beloved Circus Peanuts when I am tired. And it is May. The semester just ended. I am tired. All the Professor Jake Fishers of the world are tired. And so we read whatever we want, whatever we don’t have to prepare a test for, whatever feels EASY. Thank you, Harlen Coben, for being the Circus Peanut that launched my summer!
Rebecca Walker’s new and brief ADE: A LOVE STORY (2013) has the feel of memoir. While I did not get into it immediately, when I was rounding about half way or three quarters of the way, I began to see something I had not – there was a coming together, a synergy perhaps, that made me actually put that tiny volume down and say, “Yeah, Rebecca, I can see where you are coming from here.” When the book ended, exactly as it had to, I was applauding Rebecca Walker, estranged daughter of the beloved Alice Walker (THE COLOR PURPLE). This is, indeed, a love story. It is the story of what it can mean to find your “soul mate” who is a Swahili man living off the coast of Kenya when you are a sophisticated college student from the states. Does love trump all? Can it overcome extraordinary cultural differences and religious ideologies? Walker weighs in with this petite tribute to the kind of love story that has yet to be told, in this way, at this time, with this grace and awe.
Kate Atkinson’s LIFE AFTER LIFE (2013) is 529 pages of bestselling novel, yet I could not wait to finish it. Half way through my spring break I was at page 350, and I had to make an important decision, the decision every reading addict comes to: send the bloody never-ending thing back to the library (happy I had not purchased a copy of my own) or read on. I am a trooper most days, so I carried on. Unhappily. I did not love this book. I did not. But my dearest friends whose opinions on books I value inordinately loved the thing, thought it a masterpiece. Loved the “spaces” in it – the very thing I abhorred. I think it is me this time. I have to own that I read this novel in bits and pieces, giving it a 20-page jaunt then putting it down before picking it up for another go. I did not give the book and its “spaces” enough of myself. This was not a writer-reader bond that I entered fairly. I wanted Kate Atkinson to woo me, to seduce me into reading huge swaths at one time and nudge me to commit to her. I could not, and I consciously own my part in this. The New York Times loves her. My friends love her. That I do not is, perhaps, at my peril. But I have to call it like I see it. This one is for readers who can commit big chunks of time – and a willingness to share in the reader-writer compact more gracefully than I.
THE INVENTION OF WINGS (2014) by Sue Monk Kidd, author of THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES (a must read) is quite fine. It is about the Grimke sisters, daughters of a slave owner who fight for abolition. The story is inspired by these historical Grimke sisters, but is told in alternating chapters, the alternate chapters being about one of the slaves, a spirited young slave named Handful. The treatment of the slaves is horrific, no surprise there. The feisty and tenacious response, on the part of the slaves and the Grimkes, is small comfort but comfort at least. This is an important book, if not as compelling as BEES. The Grimkes get slight attention in actual history, and to bring this extraordinarily important feminist duo to the mainstream reading public is to do women a service. Thank you, Sue Monk Kidd. One Feminist Gold Star to you!
If you want a book you will read straight through dinner and bill paying, pick up LABOR DAY (2009) by Joyce Maynard. It is fast-paced, gripping, and only somewhat predictable toward the very end. Then again, she comes out swinging at the very, very end. It was just the medicine I needed when I felt I had absolutely no time to myself. That happens to all of us, and sometimes we tackle that overwhelmed feeling with the Kardashians, sometimes with vodka, sometimes with M&Ms. I opted for Joyce Maynard, and I am a better woman for it. Maynard is a good story teller, a fine creator of memorable, albeit damaged (who isn’t?), characters, and she is absolutely readable. Treat yourself. I was warmed by this novel and not overly harassed by complex empathies. It was just right.
My daughters forbid me to read one more book before I read THE BOOK THIEF (2005) BY Markus Zusak. That was several years ago. Then the film came out, and two of my dearest friends went to see it at a matinee and then had lunch. I was jealous. I love a matinee and lunch, but I could not, of course, see the film without having read the novel. So I read it. It is intense and moving and chock full of pathos, as one would expect of a WWII novel. It is clever, for sure. There are scenes one will never forget. It is, really, quite a fine book. Yet, there are so many. Ultimately, I am happy I read this book. While I swore off all books even remotely connected to Nazis years ago, I have resumed a measured encounter with them. THE BOOK THIEF offers sweet moments within the maelstrom of human infamy. Anyone who can pull that off deserves to be read and to get a feature film out of his endeavors.
YA novel ELEANOR AND PARK (2013) by rainbow rowell is magical – not in the sense that there is a lick of actual magic, but in the sense that this book lingers. You’ll be in the deli line at Hannaford ordering turkey breast sliced thin, and a scene from the novel will pop out at you: Eleanor and Park, “two misfits, one extraordinary love, “ as the caption reads, on the school bus, Eleanor and Park listening to music, Eleanor and Park’s first kiss. Sounds sappy? Guess again. Those who know me would never say I am one to recommend love stories on a whim. But this one has just enough angst, dread, innocence, kindness to have me actually over the moon. READ THIS BOOK. I cannot imagine life without it now that I have it in my life. Grand talk for a simple YA novel? Perhaps, but I challenge readers here to pick that little book up and remain unchanged. It is like potato chips with ridges; you’ll want more rainbow rowell, and more Eleanor and Park. If there is a sequel – I am in line on publication date!
DRINK: THE INTIMATE RELATIONSHP BETWEEN WOMEN AND ALCOHOL (2013) by Ann Dowsett Johnston is an important book. The author is an award-winning writer, former college administrator in Canada, and mother. Hers is a compelling story of addiction and recovery, but it is not that simple. She peppers, heavily peppers, the book with narratives of other supremely successful women who have been taken (or nearly taken) down by alcoholism. She includes studies and stats that indicate that younger women are keeping pace with men in terms of heavy drinking: drinking to blackout. The book is not so much didactic in its warning about the dangers of alcohol (ho hum) as it is a clear look at the realities of women’s lives today. Admittedly, I skimmed some of the studies because the personal narratives were the best parts of the book. The author is brave in sharing her story, and I admire her greatly. I will email and tell her so after posting this review. Perhaps we shall have tea when I am next in Canada!
S. A NOVEL ABOUT THE BALKANS (1999) by Slavenka Drakulic is one of my favorite, heartbreaking, utterly-important books. It is about one woman’s experience in the Serbian rape camps during the 1990s Balkan war. I am Drakulic’s biggest fan, and I have been emailing with her during this holiday (2013) season since I am teaching this book in Women Writers class in spring 2014. She is awesome and brave and feisty. This book is painful to read, no question. But, then again, life is painful to live, as it is, at other times, joyous to live. That is the deal we get as humans. But when human beings’ inhumanity to humans takes the form of evil and cruelty, it is important that we witness it, honor it, and understand the healing that remains for all of us to share. This is a little book for the brave, and while it is a novel, it is true, true, true. Drakulic interviewed women from the camps, documented their torture and wretched experience, and rendered it in this fine novel, so we might catch a glimpse of how women fare in wartime.
I just finished Donna Tartt’s 771-page novel THE GOLDFINCH (2013), and I am both relieved to return the fat tome to the library and bewildered that my life will carry on without it by my bedside night after night. I loved her first novel, THE SECRET HISTORY, so much that I read it again not so long ago, though her next, THE LITTLE FRIEND, was not such a winner. A product of Bennington’s writing program, Tartt has a certain kind of appeal. I happen to be one of those to whom she appeals tremendously. Right out of the gate, Tartt introduces us to 13-year-old Theo Decker who survives an accident that kills his mother. Tragedy begets more tragedy (my kind of book), and Theo’s life toggles between the Park Avenue home of his best friend and his rogue father in Las Vegas. His is both an ordinary and extraordinary and bizarre life, particularly toward the end of the novel when Tartt chooses to pull in a Russian-mob-esque set of characters who sling guns and drugs and stolen art work (I do take issue with this Hollywood trajectory). There is debauchery and murder and a bit of sex, but on the whole, what drew me in was the voice of Theo Decker. I wanted to see what he would do, what he thought, how he would, or would not, land on his feet after his mother’s death. On her final page, Tartt has Theo say: “whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important: whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair…life –whatever else it is – is short.” I suppose it would not take some folks 771 pages to come to this conclusion, yet for our Theo, it is a satisfactory conclusion – to my mind. I loved this novel, and I look forward to a gritty dialogue about it with other readers.
TELL ANNA SHE’S SAFE (2011) by Brenda Missen is a book I will use in my future Women’s Studies classes. Based on a true story, the novel tells the tale of Lucy, a woman gone missing, and her friend Ellen who is determined to find her. Ellen receives three clear messages in a dream: she is to search and to write everything down, and Lucy is safe. But is she, Ellen wonders. Ellen’s quest leads her to interact with Lucy’s current partner Tim, a man imprisoned on a manslaughter charge and recently released. She spends long hours with Lucy’s former boyfriend, with a police officer whose help suggests he is interested in more, and with Lucy’s family. The book is sensitive and smart about intimate-partner violence. Missen is thorough and clear, as she renders both Tim and Lucy, and her other characters, as complex human beings who transcend and defy commonplace stereotypes. This is a book I could not put down; I had to know about Lucy, and I still think about Lucy and Ellen and the complexities of being female and human. I recommend this one.
THE LIFTED VEIL (1879) by George Eliot is an odd little book, a long-ish short story really. In it, Eliot explores the pseudosciences of its time, imposing this experimental kind of “medical” intervention onto the story of a sad marriage. The book is chilling by 19th century standards, and, frankly, a bit of a stunner for this 21st century reader. This is one that had been on the list, and now it has been crossed off the list. If you must read some George Eliot, and truly – you must, this is not the one. Rather, I recommend the incomparable MIDDLEMARCH or the heart-wrenching THE MILL ON THE FLOSS.
THE ROMANCE OF A SHOP (1888) by Amy Levy is about four sisters whose father has just died and whose financial future falls to them to manage. None is married; none has a prospect, but all of them have a talent: photography. They set up a photography business in their home in London, a rare thing for females of this time who would typically pursue paths of domestic service or governess-ing. This book is reminiscent of LITTLE WOMEN, with its focus on enterprising young women who refused the gendered roles they were expected to inhabit. Levy explores the trials of independent urban life for these “new woman” characters. Her ending is more traditional than I would have preferred, but I do understand the realities of the fin-de-siecle publishing enterprise. She gives audiences and publishing houses what they require, but she leaves this reader wishing for a bolder stroke.
FEAR: ESSENTIAL WISDOM FOR GETTING THROUGH THE STORM (2012) by Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen master and Buddhist monk, is exactly what one would expect from such a book. Hanh reminds us that most of us live in a constant state of fear – fear of the past of illness and aging and death. Mindfulness is the answer. It is not that we avoid these fears. Rather, we embrace them in mindful meditation. In a nutshell: we SIT with them, breathe deeply, invite our fears to tea, as one Buddhist nun says. And when we dwell with our fear, really embrace it, it fades away. I am a big, and rather new, fan of this sort of thinking. We all find ways of coping with the world; this may well be mine.
OLD MAIDS, AND BURGLARS IN PARADISE (1887)by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward is pure delight. Fabulously popular in her time, Phelps brings us by way of this novel the character of Corona, an “old maid” at 36. She decides to buy her own home, to move out of her brother and sister in law’s home. She builds a lovely cottage on the shore for $500, and she lives there “alone” with her maid Puelvir. She encounters burglars, vagabonds, sleepy dogs and boys. She LOVES living alone, loves her house, loves her life. Every day is peaceful. She has visitors. They boat, ride horses, lounge on her piazza in hammocks. She wishes not to marry. This is such a renegade book for its time, though Phelps herself has other transgressive female characters, in particular, my favorite, Avis of THE STORY OF AVIS. When Corona’s old love, gone these 15 years, returns at the very, very end of the novel, she thinks she will not have him but for a friend. While Phelps constructs her very last sentence as a question -- will they remain friends or will something other develop – one is rooting for Corona to live on in her Old Maid’s Paradise, as she calls it, and to forego nothing of the treasure she has found. LOVE THIS BOOK! Had to interlibrary loan it from San Jose State University – grateful it made the trip to me.
Jeanette Winterson’s THE DAYLIGHT GATE (2012) is spare but gripping. An instant bestseller in the UK, Winterson imagines England’s 1600s where “witches” were imprisoned, tormented, and killed. Based on the trial of the Lancashire witches in 1612, the most famous of English witch trials, Winterson incorporates real-life characters like Shakespeare, but invents some of the other lives, making “necessary speculations and inventions.” Winterson is the mistress of narrative, and while this brief novel requires a bit of work on the part of the reader – no hand holding here – it is worth it.
I read THE LAKE HOUSE (2013) by Marci Nault because she is visiting my book group meeting next week. This novel raised multiple questions in my mind, questions that have been much in the press lately, about the difference (the blurred lines) between literary and popular/commercial fiction. I’m not interested in categorizing Nault’s novel so much as I am interested in thinking about what makes such a book sell. What does it offer that other books do not? For one, it is comforting. I think there are surefire ways to sell a book, and one of them is to choose a title with one of the following words: house, wife, daughter, wedding, death. Am I wrong? This one is about a group of friends who grew up together and lived on a lake; most of them stay there, inherit their parents’ properties, and live out their elderly lives as they started them – safe, privileged, among friends. When a stranger comes to town, all hell threatens, but she is swiftly enfolded into the community. In the end (SORRY: SPOILER), everyone marries – the community remains intact, love triumphs over childhood hurts. Ok, so that is all quite nice. Comforting. But, Marci, it did not rock my world the way, say, a book that dares me to THINK about life’s challenges, to face fear head on, to wonder at the resilience of human nature. Perhaps I am only one of a few who needs that jazzing? Nope. I know this is not so because books that do all of those things are on the New Books shelf of my libraries every week. But this one meets readers’ needs – for comfort, for belief in romance that endures over years of anguish and bad choices, for a belief that all will be well. I had those needs too, but – like others – I came to a point in life where those kinds of stories that met those kinds of existential needs did not suffice. I want more. I want to swallow life whole, the good and the bad, to look at it close up, to feel others’ experiences in my bones, and to grow because of it. Is that asking too much? Elizabeth Strout meets my needs. Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Charlotte Bronte…There is no better or worse here. One might argue it all boils down to a matter of taste. I would not argue this – I would delve deeper, ask chunkier questions, but then again, I am one reader among many. As for THE LAKE HOUSE – I read it on a long, rainy afternoon. It soothed something atavistic, domestic. That’s all she wrote.
Elizabeth Strout is incomparable, really. Her OLIVE KITTEREDGE and THE BURGESS BOYS are among my favorites. This literary fiction writer is one whose books I have to read. Plain and simple: if she writes it, I will read. So AMY AND ISABELLE (1998) has been on my shelf for years, and I finally go to it. This is a nuanced novel about a mother and daughter who live somewhat peaceably in a mill town until such time when the daughter’s sexuality begins to unfold. Young women’s budding sexuality always seems to bring tension in ways young men’s does not, and so it is with Amy’s. The novel explores this tension and the way the girl’s innocence is used by her teacher. Her hope and belief in a form of romantic love our culture dishes out to girls in order to keep them in check is tragic, and her mother’s initial inability to help her find some “truth” about her body and her world is, perhaps, even more tragic. This is not my favorite Strout, but it had to be read, as do all Strouts. Readers enraptured by mother-daughter novels: this one’s for you.
I am a staunch First Amendment supporter. I do not believe in banning or burning books. I don’t believe in restricting access to books. Nevertheless, Alissa Nutting’s TAMPA (2013) shook my free-speech faith. She writes about eighth-grade English teacher Celeste who has a sexual obsession with fourteen-year-old boys, her students. Her book has been compared to Nabokov’s Lolita, another novel about a pedophile, in the latter instance a male. I am not a fan of Lolita for a myriad of reasons, but I did not feel the same degree of squeamishness, perhaps downright nausea is a more accurate word, reading that book. Nutting has left no detail unarticulated, and even for the reader who might enjoy what the book flap calls a “scorching” story replete with raw, unadulterated sexual acrobatics, this book is hard to read because all of that detail is about an adult – a teacher, for goodness sake -- having sex with an underage student, a child. In fact, this is not sex. It is statutory rape, and Celeste knows it; her cop husband ultimately knows it, and the lives that are ruined because of her criminal behavior are like so much detritus on the page. Celeste is pathetic, unsympathetic, and unrepentant. She is a sociopath; getting inside the mind of a person who is not like us is the goal of literature. So I am conflicted because I claim I want readers to learn to be empathic: to walk in the shoes of another and to experience what his/her life is like. Dang! Perhaps I am a hypocrite, but I walked in Celeste’s shoes, and I had to put that book down so many times because her shoes hurt my soul, and the pain I experienced for those young boys was continuous. I saw her world, far too much of it. I felt I had to read this book; I feel it is my professional obligation to understand what is taking up space on bookshelves and in reviews and blogs. I read it. I cannot recommend. In fact, I recommend against it. Were I able to erase this novel from my brain, like the characters in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I would.
Elizabeth Berg’s THE LAST TIME I SAW YOU (2010) is about classmates who are attending their 40th high school class reunion, a topic with hefty potential, but this is not Berg’s best novel – which, I maintain, is TALK BEFORE SLEEP. By and large, the characters are not interesting; while not exactly stock figures, they are people whose main motivation is to hook up with their old flames at this reunion. I have spent a lot of time with folks who have returned to their home towns in order to attend reunions, and for nary one of them was hooking up with the high school quarterback or cheerleading captain on the agenda. So I am not sure what Berg is thinking here. I cannot claim that there is not entertainment here. There is, but it is sort of like being really hungry after a hard day’s work and finding some Twizzlers and a can of tuna on your dinner plate. There is sweetness there; there is a touch of protein, but for the most part the dinner is unmemorable. Sorry, Elizabeth Berg, I can’t recommend this one unless it is to a reader with lots of free time, or, I suppose, the reader who has harbored a four-decades crush on the quarterback/cheerleader.
After hearing Susan Choi interviewed on NPR, I really wanted to like MY EDUCATION (2013). It is set in a university. The protagonist, Regina, is a graduate student in English who becomes involved with a faculty couple, for better or for worse. This novel has all of the ingredients, but it does not mix them well and does not successfully bake them into the delicacy I expected. I should have known. I read Choi’s A PERSON OF INTEREST with the same anticipation and was disillusioned as well. Why? A number of things in the nerd category that I wanted I did not get: more about the university life, what each character was reading and thinking about literature and literary theory, more classroom scenes. I wanted to see why the protagonist and the lover (cannot say more lest I spoil) were -- well – in love. There was a quickie kiss, and then there was steamy sex throughout most of the novel – and Choi does not skimp on the details (echoes of Updike and Roth here – why imitate the guys?). What drew them to each other for so long remains unclear to me. I get that the physical relationship was satisfying to them, of course, but that it was so wonderful that they did not have to talk, go to a museum, muse over peppermint tea about Emily Dickinson – that I did not get. Their relationship was all sex and then fighting. While we see that in the “real” world and on reality TV often, it is not what I want to read about when my reading time is so precious. Streamline the sex; add in some conversations, some sweet moments, so the reader is convinced that what drives them to bed is a deeper connection. Ahhh….Susan, I wanted more.
THE BURGESS BOYS (2013) by Elizabeth Strout, author of my beloved OLIVE KITTERIDGE, does it again – not in the keenly brilliant way she does with OLIVE, but close, very close. I loved this book, looked forward to a free moment when I could get back to Jim and Bob and Susan Burgess and their families. I toted that hardcover library book all over kingdom come so I could BE with it. Fiction both soothes and stimulates my mind, and I find I NEED it like some folks need a dry martini. Strout’s novel was my cocktail of choice for a few days. The Burgess brothers are haunted by the accident that killed their father, and they leave Maine to pursue lives in New York City, far from Shirley Falls, where their sister remains with her teenage son Zach. Zach brings all of the siblings back to Shirley Falls when he perpetrates a colossal act of stupidity. One of the brothers is dear, sweet, and kind, the other charming, handsome, obnoxious. The reader finds herself wanting to insert herself into the sibling nastiness to set things straight, but Strout takes care of all of that. She does what needs to be done in the fine novel. Read it.
Nick Hornby’s THE POLYSYLLABIC SPREE (2004) is not for everyone, but for those readers who might LOVE a book about one guy’s struggle with “the monthly tide of the books he’s bought and the books he’s been meaning to read,” as the cover reports, this is a solid choice. Hornby is hilarious and profound. His are sentences that require the reader to laugh out loud on crowded subways. There is no choice in this matter: Hornby is funny, and you will laugh whether you mean to or not, so choose your reading venue carefully.
Only because I organized all of my bookshelves this summer did INTO THE FOREST (1996) by Jean Hegland get read. I have owned it for years and refused to give it up because on the cover there is a primeval forest with a girl’s feet swirled about by a diaphanous skirt. I cannot lay claim to the reason this enticed me. Nevertheless, it did, and so I re-discovered it, dusted it off, and read it. This dark novel is about Eva and Nell, sisters 18 and 17, who are surviving with their father in a world where power – in all of its forms – is lost. No electricity, no government, no doctors. Theirs is a brutal life, yet they work to maintain a form of civility and artistic creation that defies their dire circumstances. I liked this book, found it a puzzle to work out. I wanted to know what would happen to the sisters, but I did not want to know all the way through the 241 pages. I could have been content with learning their outcome in, say, 200 pages – it needs a touch of editing, I posit. If you are into dark novels, this female version of THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy may be for you.
THE IMPOSSIBLE LIVES OF GRETA WELLS (2013) by Andrew Sean Greer is a time travel novel of sorts. The first Greta we meet struggles with the death of her beloved brother and the breakup with her lover. When a psychiatrist treats her deep depression with convulsive shock therapy, Greta travels to 1919 and to 1941, then back to 1985 – where she is herself and not herself. In each time period, Greta comes to realizations that change her way of being in the world. Ultimately, Greta’s treatments end, and she must decide which is the world for her. Time travel gives me the heebejeebies, frankly. I have done my duty by THE TIME TRAVELLER’S WIFE and several films foisted upon me by loved ones. While I am not a fan, I am a HUGE FAN of Andrew Sean Greer (author of the very best THE STORY OF A MARRIAGE), so I took the leap of faith required to launch into another time travel narrative. What Greer does to help along the time-travel challenged like me is to explain carefully where the protagonist is at every moment, how she got there and how she will get out. I suppose my seminal issue with these sorts of book is that authors typically assume their readers just buy into time travel, as if that is a thing people do like going to Market Basket for a chicken-wing sale. They expect one to suspend disbelief. I am not that reader. I need to be coaxed and convinced that the time travel has a sound reason for happening – so Greer provides one – electroshock therapy works for me. It may not be scientific, but it is scientific enough for me to buy without too much fuss. This is a good book. I will read it again, for sure.
THE TRUE SECRET OF WRITING: CONNECTING LIFE WITH LANGUAGE (2013) by Natalie Goldberg, author of WRITING DOWN THE BONES, is delightful, despite its unfortunate title – dumb title really, Natalie. There is no true secret unless it is sit your *** in the chair and type, but what this author does is to connect Buddhist meditation practice with writing practice, and I like that because I do that. I have been meditating for two years now, and if it is hard to explain exactly why it works, well – one must then trust the experience of the one meditating. It works, and it does enable clearer thinking which enables clearer writing. This is one of those books that has short chapters, spiced with Buddhist text and poetry and literature. Primarily, Goldberg tells how she conducts her Zen/Writing retreats in New Mexico, so the reader can do them at home. Goldberg is a favorite of mine. I have used her books with success in College Writing classrooms. Shut up and write is her mantra. It does not get any clearer than that. And that is the secret.
This will surprise those who know me, but I have finished Book One of the GAME OF THRONES (1996) series by George R. R. Martin. Yesindeedy, all 674 pages, and I am onto Book Two now: A CLASH OF KINGS. The book is easy to summarize: everyone you love dies, and most of those are beheaded. With a huge bowl of popcorn and my GOT devotee son beside me, I watched the first HBO episode last year. He and his college friends are such fans, as are my students, I had to see what it was all about. Ten minutes in, someone is beheaded, blood spews across the freshly-fallen snow, and I’m out. There is something about SEEING violence, hearing the ominous predictive music leading up to horror, that is the opposite of entertainment for me. But reading it on a page, even the part where one of my favorite characters (surely to be killed next book) eats an entire raw (warm) heart of a hart – in order to insure that her soon-to-be-born baby is healthy, well, I can do that. The difference: my brain. Actually seeing the violence, or that bloody, muscle-ish heart would make me spontaneously ill. Reading about it, I can pace, read a sentence or two, take a sip of tea, look outside at the trees, imagine I am in Macy’s buying a new pair of shoes. There is no imagining with HBO – decapitation is decapitation – no Macy’s, no swaying trees, not matter how much you will it to be so. Anyway, I have finished the first book, and I really, really liked it. Exactly why is still a mystery to me. In fact, I think I went into the corpulent book wanting to not like it, wanting to eschew it for schlock. But there I was, reading and reading, even when the book fell onto my face because I was tired and it is fat. There are few great lines like those you find in Andrew Sean Greer’s work or that of Lionel Shriver or Margaret Atwood or Toni Morrison. It is not about great lines (though Tyrion, the dwarf, has the best lines of all). It is about intricate plotting and memorable, if barbaric, characters. It is exciting and upsetting and shocking. There are far too many characters to remember all the names, yet you remember and look forward to the narration of your favorites. You hate, hate, hate the bad guys, and – knowing how bestial George R. R. Martin treats his favorites – you hope (against every moral fiber of your being) that the bad guys get an extra-special, creative death. The book appeals to something primal; perhaps I should be embarrassed to admit that that something primal in me has been piqued. But I’m not. It’s summer. I want to read it. That is enough.
Turkey’s Elif Shafak is one of my favorite authors. She won me over with THE BASTARD OF ISTANBUL years ago. When HONOR (2013) came out and summer opened up, I grabbed it. I simply love her, though I can see where she would not be everyone’s cup of tea. She has a bazillion characters – a bit like GAME OF THRONES (but not at all like GOT in any other way) – and all of them have detailed and fascinating lives (even the banal is intriguing in her books). This novel is about twin daughters born in the 1940s in a Kurdish village on border of Turkey and Syria. Jamila becomes a midwife and remains in the village, but the villagers are wary, believing she has secret powers. Pembe marries Adem and follows him to London in the 1970s where they raise three children. One of Pembe’s children will murder her in an “honor” killing, in order that shame not come to the family name. The book weaves the plot’s past and the present in order to explore the ways in which humans can love others and yet bring devastation to them. This book has an awesome ending. Some critics have said the novel has a touch of Isabel Allende and Alice Walker. These critics would be right. Shafak is Turkey’s foremost female writer. Her novels are consuming, so read this one and prepare to be swept away for hours.
MENAGE (2012) by Alix Kate Shulman, best known for MEMOIRS OF AN EX-PROM QUEEN, was just okay, which was disappointing. I picked it up in a used bookstore because the jacket said that Mack invites exiled writer Zohan Barbu to live with him and his wife in their tony home, offering him a writer’s retreat of sorts. And that is what happened, but the characters were not people I cared about . The inevitable sexual tension arose – and they were boring. Yep – boring! The whole reading experience felt like a walk in the excessive park. These people had it all – money, real estate, cars, wine, connections, and they were miserable, miserable in a way the Richard Yates’s REVOLUTIONARY ROAD couple was miserable, but not so satisfyingly miserable as Yates’s tragic couple was. I get that Shulman is poking fun at “our modern malaise (why is having it all never enough?),” as the cover also says, but she took the fun out of the poking. I agree with her premise: having lots of stuff does not a happy family make, but I knew that going in, and I had higher expectations from this renowned feminist writer. Sorry, Alix Kates Shulman. I wanted to like it.
FLORA (2013) by Gail Godwin was a chore to get through. It had promise, specifically the winning words of John Irving on the cover: “luminously written, heartbreaking book.” Who am I to take exception to either John Irving or Gail Godwin (three-time National Book Award finalist, Guggenheim Fellow, etc.)? I find, however, that I must. I get what Godwin is doing here, building a slow moving narrative about one summer where Flora Waring, 22, cares for ten-year-old Helen while her father is doing secret military work in Oak Ridge during the final months of World War II (guess what that turns out to be?!). Helen lost her mother when she was three and her beloved grandmother just recently. Flora is perennially pleasant, ludicrously innocent, and unfailingly kind. Helen, even at this young age, is cynical and downright mean, behaviors, we presume, born of grief and abandonment. The summer is LONG and DULL, and the reader longs for it to end, as does Helen. The last few chapters illuminate the mysteries that have been hiding in shadow all along, ties it all up. Finally, we understand why Helen is such a little brat, why she is writing this narrative as an aging adult woman. It works technically, but the reading experience for me was one of ennui. When will it be done, I wailed, like some kid on a too-long trip with mommy and daddy. I did not want to give up on Gail Godwin, but every time I picked up the novel, I thought to finish it, not so much to savor it. That is not the summer reading experience I cherish. I interspersed it all with chunks of GAME OF THRONES, book number one. I have become a devotee, of sorts, unable to bear watching the television series given that every character, sooner or later, seems to have his head sliced off with a sword. But the books – that is somehow ok. Anyway, GAME OF THRONES got me through FLORA, and while I have guilt about that – for a bazillion reasons – it is the simple truth, and what is summer for, after all, if not for telling simple literary truths?
BIG BROTHER (2013) by Lionel Shriver, author of WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, is really intriguing. Pandora picks up her brother at the airport. She has not seen him for years. She does not recognize him because he has gained hundreds and hundreds of pounds. He is transformed, and he transforms Pandora’s life while he stays with her family. Her husband and brother detest each other. Her children are at once remote and loving, embracing their uncle but puzzled by his enormity. Edison, the brother, is a problem, but he seems to be Pandora’s problem since he has no job, has no home, and has a body out of control. What should she do? Can she fix this? Is it hers to fix? Shriver is a fabulous writer, one of the best, and this book is no simple fat story. She gets into the nooks and crannies of the American mind as it contemplates obesity: the judgments we make, the diets we obsess over, the attitudes we cop. Can we help those we love who are intent on harming themselves? Should we? What do we owe our loved ones, and in what ways does their free will trump our desire to save? Shriver packs a lot into this 373-page book. Her language is beautiful. It is serious and sad, and it tests our facile assumptions about fat. I loved this novel, not more than KEVIN, but second best, for sure.
Herman Koch’s novel THE DINNER (2009) is translated from the Dutch. I listened to it on tape in my car – 8 hours, 59 minutes of story. I had to do it because the book is getting so much press. The first two tapes nearly drove me mad, so repetitive and grating was the voice of the narrator. It was like being in a room with the most negative, complaining person in the world with no possible exit. I stuck it out only because I was afraid I would miss what so many reviewers were raving about. I tarried, and I discovered what excited the reviewers. The book is far darker than its title suggests. The lengths to which parents will go to protect their children – even their very bad children – are stupefying. THAT is what this novel is about; it is really is a study in the intricate and multiple ways in which people can be “crazy.” I admit I am glad to have finished the book. The narrator is tiresome, but when the narrative onion is peeled back and the core of his being is revealed, h he is not only tiresome but frightening, as is his son, as is his wife…. The book is complex and violent and hard to reckon with at points, but worth it, I think.
A dear friend gave me the new novel, MARY COIN (2013) by Marisa Silver, for my birthday in April. I opened it two days ago, and I realized why she chose it for me. What beautiful writing. The novel imagines (and relies on historical research) the life of the woman in Dorothea Lange’s MIGRANT MOTHER photograph, taken in 1936 California during the Great Depression. Surely the novel will evoke muscle memory in those readers who swallowed GRAPES OF WRATH whole in high school. The agony of migrant work, camp life, bone-chilling poverty – it’s all there in this novel, but the overlay is about Walker Dodge, a present-day professor of cultural history who uncovers a family mystery and Vera Dare, the fictional stand in for Dorothea Lange. Silver delivers the narrative in one of my favorite formats: a trinity of perspectives, all in third person, but focalized closely through the lens and language of each character. This is my first Marisa Silver novel; it will not be my last. “In luminous, exquisitely rendered prose,” the book jacket claims, “Silver creates an extraordinary tale from a brief moment in history, and reminds us that although a great photograph can capture the essence of a moment, it only scratches the surface of a life.”
BINGO! THE ROUND HOUSE (2012) by Louise Erdrich is a National Book Award winning novel: rightfully so. I loved this novel from start to finish. I will assign it the next time I teach my Law & Literature course because it raises questions that cannot be -- but must be -- answered -- if we are to live in a civil society. Geraldine Coutts is attacked one Sunday in 1988. She and her husband Bazil and son Joe, thirteen years old, live on a reservation in North Dakota. Geraldine is traumatized and will not speak about what happened, though she is lucky to be alive. Joe and his buddies set out to find the perpetrator and to render “justice,” growing up too soon in a world where violence is not easily convicted. Erdrich is at her best here. She has made me a believer again. I’d thought she was a waning star with SHADOW TAG, but this is a new favorite of mine. I followed Joe, this teenaged narrator through every adventure and clue and tear to find out what happened to his mother, and I would do it again – probably will. Fair warning: there is heartbreak, and there is moral dilemma, but there is something that salves the soul here. Beyond that, Erdrich knows how to write a good novel. I believe she’s back. This one is a keeper.
I picked up YOU ARE THE LOVE OF MY LIFE (2012) by Susan Richards Shreve because I loved her novel A STUDENT OF LIVING THINGS when I read it a few years ago. This newest novel moves from interesting to very tense and intriguing as it goes along. Shreve is the mistress of what I call narrative promises: she tosses out story nuggets, just a few here and there, like crumbs. And you wait and read on, and more crumbs accumulate. The more they accumulate, the faster you read, so you can collect all the crumbs and get a full-fledged piece of cake. I really liked this book, so much so, I read without stopping until I knew what would happen to Lucy Painter, the children’s story book author, and to her eleven-year-old daughter Maggie and three-year-old son Felix. What about her married lover Reuben Frank? What about the stylish, frenetic neighbor Zee and her secrets? What about the widower next door who knows the truth about Lucy’s dead father? So many characters with so many secrets – qualifies as a fine summer read, but a summer read with some meat on its bones."
LAST DAY ON EARTH: A PORTRAIT OF THE NIU SCHOOL SHOOTER (2011) by David Vann is insightful on many levels. It is difficult to gain entry into the mind of a school shooter. Most of them kill themselves during their rampage. Steve Kazmierczak, the subject of Vann's nonfiction book, does as well. The difference is that Vann is able to garner full access to 1500 pages of police files and to interview Kazmierczak's friends and fellow students and professors. What made this Dean's Award winning graduate student in sociology kill five students and wound eighteen at Northern Illinois University on Valentine's Day 2008? A toxic cocktail of life circumstance, mental instability, and festering self loathing. But that makes it all sound so simple. It is anything but simple, and it is anything but pretty. Vann does us the "service" of offering up the tawdry and wretched details of the life of a mass murderer in order to differentiate between himself, who contemplated a school shooting as a teen, and Steve Kazmierczak, who follows through on his deadly plan. I read this book because I teach a course on school shootings, and -- frankly -- I read anything written about school shootings. Yep -- we all have our quirks. I may assign this book when I next teach the school shootings seminar; while it is difficult to get through the detailed inhumanity at times, it is worthwhile to read for the insight it gives us into the world of the traumatized and heartsick.
I am a late bloomer, having finally read THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER (1999) by Stephen Chbosky, after my teenaged niece insisted. The narrative voice of Charlie is one of the most compelling I have read. His honesty and vulnerability is remarkable on many levels. Think CATCHER IN THE RYE without attitude. The book is a fast read, a nonstop read, and the ending is a whopper. But...the thing is, the ending is a whopper that comes at you like a thing in the night -- not in one leap, not as a menacing pounce, but rather in a cloudy-sky-clears-up-ever-so-slowly sort of way. It all makes sense at the end, not tied-up-neatly sense, but SENSE. I just closed the book, and I am still in its grip. The back cover says it is a "haunting novel about the dilemma of passivity vs. passion." It is all of that. Why in heaven's name did I never get around to reading this earlier? Don't make the same mistake. This one is a keeper. Hats off to my niece and to all those young readers who can teach us a thing or two. READ THIS ONE NOW.
HOMER & LANGLEY (2009) by E. L. Doctorow is especially interesting to me because Doctorow writes what the book jacket calls "a free imaginative rendering of the lives of New York's fabled Collyer brothers." The book I am writing is a novel about a real event as well, and I am intrigued by the choice to render "real life" via fiction -- the possibliities this offers are protean. The brothers in this novel are recluses living in a grand mansion on Fifth Avenue. They are hoarders -- really outrageous hoarders. One is blind, the other is either mad or brilliant or both, having been damaged by mustard gas in World War I. This is one odd set of brothers, unlike the SISTERS BROTHERS (another book reviewed on this site), but equally curious. These two are not murderers, not particulary violent, but they are worth an investigation. Their adventures are zany, though they seldom leave home. There is a claustrophobia that accompanies the reading of this book, but it is short lived -- only 208 pages. Doctorow is a master: National Book Award, three National Book Critics Circle awards, two PEN/Faulkners....one cannot go wrong with this sliver of brotherly peril.
THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS by M. L. Stedman (2012) is about 100 pages too long but worth the read if you like moral dilemmas whose outcomes you can predict a mile away. To be fair, there is enough nuance that a reader might not anticipate the outcome in its totality. And it is sweet and sad and a touch romantic. The novel explores motherlove and sacrifice and the darkest deceptions and betrayals. Nearing the last fifty pages, I could not stop reading ? knowing what was coming, not caring a whit because I was in Australia with those characters, working through their heart-wrenching destinies with them. My book group chose this one, lots of ?loved it? swayed the majority. I cannot commit to having LOVED this book, but I can safely recommend it to a summer reader who has 100 pages of time to spare.
John Green's latest novel, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS (2012) is a one-day bender. You cannot stop. You don't want to stop. If I tell you that this is a YA novel about kids who have cancer and make friends at a Cancer Support Group -- do not be deterred. Green is the master when it comes to narrative voice. I'm not sure how old this author is -- looks young-ish on the book jacket -- but he's found the millennial niche and it's all because of one thing: characters with irreverent and bold narrative voices. These kids are compelling. Were I sixteen again, Augustus Waters would be my new beau. He is all charm and humility and intellect. Hazel, the narrator, is bewilderingly adorable and feisty. Both have cancer and don't for one minute pretend it is not so; self pitying they are not. The reader, however, is wrenched by this little book. It is worth every minute of the agony that is, inevitably, to come with any book about kids with cancer. I loved Green's LOOKING FOR ALASKA, but this one is a contender, for sure.
ETHAN FROME by Edith Wharton is a time-honored classic. I taught it this winter, but frigid weather kept our class from taking the traditional (my tradition) sledding venture down the front lawn of the manor on our university campus. For those who have not read the novella, this sledding tradition is a touch of gallows humor, but it has always held an appeal to students. Sledding aside, the book is gloomy and, frankly, miserable, set in the deep winter of New England among folks whose lives have been damaged beyond repair or resurrection. So what's the appeal? Wharton's language and characterization, her ability to capture hopelessness, her infiltrating 60+ pages with protean and existential questions like: do humans really have free will? Can we really love whomever we choose? Do moral obligations tether us to lifelong imprisonment? If you're looking for a cheery read, skip this one, but if you are up for a brief jaunt into the depths of human despair, Wharton is your gal.
A bit more uplifting is THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS (2012) by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. My book group picked this one. It has a pretty cover, and I did not expect much given the abundance of pastel-colored flowers on the cover. Yet...I became fond of it, and I can recommend it with a clean conscience. It is not schmaltzy, as the cover might lead one to surmise. It has some depth, some curiously-wounded and complex characters, and an interesting ending. There is a touch of charm in the way the Victorian meaning of flowers is woven throughout. This is a nice springtime or early summer read.
WILD: FROM LOST TO FOUND ON THE PACIFIC CREST TRAIL (2012) by Cheryl Strayed is perfectly wonderful! Read it immediately. It is all the rage and deservedly so. This is a memoir about a young woman who lost her mother, allowed her life to unravel into a danger zone, and quested after healing by hiking from the Mojave Desert north to Oregon -- alone -- with a backpack -- and NO hiking experience. All of the things you fear she might come face to face with on the trail, a woman alone, she comes face to face with: snakes, weather, men with bad intentions, etc. But she does it, and you cheer for her every blistered toe of the way. A MUST read.
A LONG WAY GONE: MEMOIRS OF A BOY SOLDIER (2008) by Ishmael Beah is another text I taught in Creative Nonfiction this semester. Beah's family was wiped out in the civil war in Sierre Leone, and he was recruited (forced) to become a boy soldier. Drugged, brainwashed, and be-weaponed, Beah lived a hellish existence before being "save" by Good Samaritan NGOs who worked to heal boy soldiers in war-torn areas. Beah's survival is a miracle, and reading about it is an object lesson in gratitude. Not for the squeamish, this memoir is important and beautiful, testimony to the resilience of the human spirit.
FLIGHT BEHAVIOR (2012) by Barbara Kingsolver is an environmentalists dream. Chock full of science, not so much unlike Ann Patchett's STATE OF WONDER, the novel is so richly detailed that one finds herself imprisoned at moments in sensuous paragraphs, fully plucked out of the real world. Protagonist Dellarobia Turnbow is ready to toss her dull marriage to the wind when she encounters a miracle/mystery: monarch butterflies in such tremendous numbers that they appear as raging fire. But why here? why so many in Appalachia? She discovers why, and the answer is not pretty. Rather, the monarchs' beautiful brotherhood signals environmental catastrophe. The novel is contentious; it tackles climate change head on with an empathy this reader has yet to find in the non-fictional world. Kingsolver "dissects the motives that drive denial and belief in a precarious world," the book jacket says. That she does. The characterization of Dellarobia's young precocious son Preson, five years old, is precious, and a scene in which Dellarobia "helps" a ewe give birth is deeply touching. Stick with this one, all 436 pages. If you teach science -- consider using it in the classroom. Delivery of important and timely messages via fiction is more often than not an effective pedagogical tool -- not so much preaching as intellectual wondering. Bottom line: loved it.
THE JOURNAL OF BEST PRACTICES: A MEMOIR OF MARRIAGE, ASPERGER SYNDROME, AND ONE MAN'S QUEST TO BE A BETTER HUSBAND (2012) by David Finch is a New York Times bestseller for good reason: the book is laugh-out-loud funny. It is also touching and endearing and smart. Five years into a troubled marriage, David learns he has Asperger Syndrome after taking a 150-question "test" his wife finds online. No need to get confirmation from a doctor, he and his wife conclude: David "passes" the test with flying colors. This brings relief to both husband and wife because what was heretofore thought to be David's irritating idiosyncracies and even challenging compulsions turned out to be attributable to the inner workings of his brain. This very realization made easier their decision to work together to make their marriage work, less fraught with blame and guilt. Nevertheless, David's commitment to becoming a better husband is not without its quirks. I loved it, read it in one day. This is one for lots of couples, spectrum or not.
THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY (2012) by Rachel Joyce is surprisingly delightful. My bookgroup chose it, and I was skeptical but sold on the premise: Harold gets a letter from a woman he has not heard from in twenty years. She is dying. Harold determines to deliver his final message to this woman in person, so he sets off to walk 600 miles across England. Along the way, he encounters intriguing characters, reflects on the depths (and shallows) of his life, and winds up inspiring multitudes. Readers will find themselves rooting for Harold and for his wife Maureen, who resurrects herself from an emotional stranglehold. This is a nice book, charming and happy making at many moments.
PLAIN TRUTH (2000) is classic Jodi Picoult: there is a crime of moral dilemma, usually a crime, as is the case here. A young Amish woman delivers a baby by herself, and the child turns up dead. Who killed it? A crackerjack lawyer moves into the Amish community -- a condition of bail -- and prepares to defend the girl. Who among the cast of characters introduced might have killed the baby? There is a ghost. There is romance. There is heartache. There is, inevitably, the trial scene, in which the lawyer does her formidable thing. The end is shocking -- shocker! Nothing wrong with a good, page-turning Jodi Picoult to warm the cockles of your wintery heart. Some days, what you need is predictable, easy, comforting. That's what you'll get here.
ELECTION (1998) by Tom Perrotta is 200 pages of narrative whirlwind. Every chapter is told from the perspective of yet another character -- too many of them. The plot revolves around a high school election -- yet it is gripping in its way, even for those of us for whom high school elections are a scant memory. Perrotta can be counted on for offering scathing social commentary, and here he does so less harshly than, say, in LITTLE CHILDREN. This is a quick, fun read that will not tax any brain matter. Perrotta is awesome; this is not my favorite, but any Perrotta is worth a gander.
One of the best novels I read this summer was STATE OF WONDER (2011) by Ann Patchett. It takes place in the Amazon, and I’ve read nothing like it since Barbara Kingsolver’s THE POISONWOOD BIBLE. The main character, Dr. Marina Singh, travels to the rainforest to find out what happened to her friend Enders Eckman, a fellow medical doctor and researcher. He is reported dead, and Marina is compelled by Enders’ wife to uncover the details. Once in the hellish and hot world of vipers and insects and diseases, Singh discovers that doctors there are making medical history, but their discoveries come with some frightening price tags in terms of ethics and the wellbeing of humankind at large. Singh is tougher than she believes, and we follow her from tree to tree, anaconda to anaconda, in order to find out what she’ll do, whom she might betray, to what agenda (medical, ethical, corporate, personal) she’ll stay faithful. Absolutely read this one.
GOING SOLO: THE EXTRAORDINARY RISE AND SURPRISING APPEAL OF LIVING ALONE (2012) by Eric Klinenberg, Professor of Sociology at NYU is chock full of compelling statistics like these: in 1950, 22 % of American adults were single; today, more than 50 % of American adults are single. People who live alone make up 28% of all U.S. households, and these people and childless couples are the most prominent residential type, more common than the nuclear family, multigenerational family, and the roommate or group home. Solo dwellers are primarily women, the majority between the ages of 35 and 64. Historically, this is something new: No previous human societies have supported large numbers of people who lived alone, so we have no historical examples to learn from. Klinenberg is learning. Living alone has its challenges, he says, but it may not be the social problem it’s generally made out to be. His questions are interesting. For example, does living alone mean something different now that we’re hyper-connected through cell phones, social media, etc? What does living alone mean for communities? Is this trend paving the way for what he calls “urban tribes” to replace traditional families that often break apart? Sometimes I need narrative – a good story. Frankly, I ALWAYS need a good story, but this sociological study came as close as this kind of reading can to telling the story of who lives alone and why and what it might mean. I know lots of singletons (what the author calls people who live alone) who are happy, contented, balanced folks – I did not know they were the subject of a study. Is there no end to what fascinates us about human behavior?
MONKEY MIND: A MEMOIR OF ANXIETY (2012) By Daniel Smith is immediately funny. His style is self-deprecating in just the right measure. This is a laugh-out-loud book in the beginning. But it is inconsistent. Smith ventures, with intrepid honesty, into the darker parts of his life from whence his anxiety is born (he theorizes), and in those places the hilarity wanes. Something about the balance is off. It can be done, marrying the dark and painful with the self-reflective and hopeful – I don’t think Smith has done this. What he does do is explore his anxiety, and anxiety at large, with humor and humility, and that may be helpful to those who find the human animal a compelling study. Looking for answers about how to stop living the anxious life – look elsewhere. Smith overcomes – sure – his memoir would not sell otherwise, but how he does this – as in how he does this and how YOU, reader, can do this – that is not the book he has written.
YOU CAN BUY HAPPINESS (AND IT’S CHEAP): HOW ONE WOMAN RADICALLY SIMPLIFIED HER LIFE AND HOW YOU CAN TOO (2012) by Tammy Strobel is – appropriately simple. Strobel and her husband made a conscious decision to downsize their life – to get rid of cars, credit card debt, a big house – they ride bikes and live in a tiny house (128 square feet). They gave away most of their possessions. They do work they love now because they don’t need big salaries to support an expensive lifestyle (Tammy is a writer!). I ate this book up, not so much because it was telling me something I did not know, but because I got to see someone actually doing it, enduring the interior struggles required to make such an enormous change. Buying happiness according to Strobel, is something we all can do, but we’ve got to examine ourselves and our STUFF. We’ve got to come to grips with our desires for things, and bigger things, and the biggest things. For those up to the challenge of examining, you will want to check this book out.
CRITICAL CARE: A NEW NURSE FACES DEATH, LIFE, AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN by Theresa Brown(2010) was interesting to me because the author was an English professor who switched careers to be come a nurse. Brown chronicles her first year in a hosptial oncology ward with warmth and detail such that the reader gets a close-up, behind the scenes, look at this harried profession that demands compassion and empathy every minute of every day -- not unlike teaching English, some might say. Brown's stories are moving and sad, and one wonders how anyone has the fortitude pack up a lunch and go into work day after day when the human horrors and sorrows that await one are so unabaiting. Brown is to be admired, as are all nurses. The book is worth reading, but it is not worth setting at the top of the yet-to-be-read pile. It can wait. Maybe future nurses or practicing nurses or mothers of nurses or husbands and wives of nurses should read it sooner than later, but as for me and mine, we would indulge novels that penetrate enormous life questions before this one.
THE SISTERS BROTHERS (2011) by Patrick DeWitt is a very funny novel about a pair of brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, who are hired assassins in Oregon in the 1850s. They are cowboys whose dialogue is gentlemanly and entertaining. I loved this book – though it bogged down a bit toward the end. Winner of the Canadian Governor General’s award, the novel really is a treat. Don’t miss this one.
BEFORE AND AFTER (1992) by Rosellen Brown is a classic. High school student Jacob is accused of murdering his girlfriend. He disappears. His parents are distraught. What follows is his trial for murder, but the bulk of the novel centers on the inner workings of Jacob’s parents and little sister. In fact, Jacob has no narrative voice of his own in this book. We see him through others’ stories. The newer DEFENDING JACOB is a takeoff on this novel. While this one lays claim to better writing, the other raises issues that are, in some ways, more troubling and insidious. It has been a summer of reading about boys who do bad things – I’m not sure why this is – but this one is worth the read. It is long and detailed and psychologically dense. Take it to the beach while the sun still shines with summer light.
I borrowed THE SMALL ROOM (1961) by May Sarton from my local library, a copy with the crispy clear wrap that crinkles whenever you open the book. Where tape had once been, were traces of yellowing glue. The physicality of the book lent to the reading experience a sense of time past. I have long loved May Sarton, yet, as one friend puts it, Sarton’s novels lull, and this is true for THE SMALL ROOM as well. There were times I wanted to say, “pick up the pace, May. No need for such narrative meandering here.” How dare I? Yet, I dared, quietly. The story, nevertheless, is a good one. The characters are professors at a small New England college who encounter an academic scandal that causes everyone on campus to reflect on their mission as professors – what is their role in relationship to students? “All good teachers must lead private lives of intensity and dimension,” the book jacket says. These teachers live such private lives and ponder their mission – while grappling with one student’s potential downfall. Sarton explores some of the very same ethical issues we engage on today’s campuses. This novel is charming in a cottage-hamlet-Barbara-Pym sort of way, minus the British clergy. It is a lazy afternoon with a tall glass of lemonade.
DIRT (2012), a novel by David Vann, is barbaric, chilling, and poignant. I admit being drawn to books that explore the psyche of characters under emotional duress. This novel takes that to the extreme in ways similar to JULIUS WINSOME (best book ever) by Gerard Donovan and THE SOLITUDE OF PRIME NUMBERS by Paolo Giordano. I could not stop reading this book, even when I wanted to look away. There are sex scenes that make the reader squeamish – why this is so will become crystal clear in short order. There is psychological and physical violence. But what remains, when all of that is done, is a haunting despair that human beings can hurt each other so deeply and abidingly. I loved this book, twisted as are the plot and characters. I’ve never read anything by David Vann, but now I will. This book is definitely (be sure to pay attention to this) NOT every reader’s cup of tea. It takes a strong constitution to endure characters “hurtling irretrievably toward a dark outcome,” as one reviewer says. No book for those needing happy endings or spiritual uplift, DIRT is gritty and insane. I NEED to talk about this with someone, so please email me when you, whoever dares, read this book!
JUST KIDS (2010) is Patti Smith’s memoir about her lifelong friendship with renowned photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. For lovers of the late 1960s and 1970s arts/poetry/rock and roll/sexual politics scene in New York City, this is a treasure trove. These two knew everyone. They lived at the famed Chelsea Hotel, made art and poetry and music, and defined bohemian. I enjoyed this more for its socio/historical commentary than for its great writing or compelling story line. Mapplethorpe was a boundary crosser, and this kind of character is always intriguing and quizzical. Smith’s book was a NY Times bestseller -- I suppose because both Smith and Mapplethorpe are big personalities. The book had some keenly interesting moments. However, I would not move it to the top of the book pile. I would, rather, keep it there if this sort of edgyBildungsroman appeals.
TAKING THE LEAP: FREEING OURSELVES FROM OLD HABITS AND FEARS (2009) by Pema Chodron and YOU ARE HERE: DISCOVERING THE MAGIC OF THE PRESENT MOMENT (2001) BY Thich Nhat Hahn are slim books that teach how to be free of suffering. Both Buddhists, these writers offer a simple and clear guide to understanding how certain habits of mind “hook” us and get us stuck in states of anger and blame. The thing I like about these two authors is that the make sense to a non-western reader. While the books are sprinkled with Buddhist concepts and language, they always explain the concepts in ways that make them useful or the person who is a lay practitioner of meditation.
LOW-FAT LOVE ( 2011) by Patricia Leavy is about Prilly Greene and Janice Goldwyn who are adversarial editors at a New York City publishing house. Prilly’s love life is fraught since she’s fallen in love with Pete, a handsome guy with a sexy voice who offers fun with an enormous dose of lies and unfaithfulness. Janice is a miserable woman who has it all but cannot enjoy it. These two are interesting to follow around for 180 pages to see how they change. This is a cautionary tale about how women view themselves in mirrors held up by media and men and other women. It warns –without ever being pedantic – about the social construction of femininity and the ways women can be hurt by it. The book offers a critical commentary about popular culture, the hook-up generation, and the inner anguishes that exist alongside an exterior that dresses in designer clothes and has its hair perfectly coiffed. It is a quick read, written by a Stonehill College professor of Sociology. Give it a shot!
THE MARRIAGE PLOT (2011) by Jeffrey Eugenides is exactly the kind of fat tome I love to rendezvous with for a lingering while. This does not mean that I think some judicious editing might have benefited the novel. On the whole, however, I loved climbing into bed each night with this book where the female protagonist is an English major heading to graduate school in literature. Eugenides explicates the abiding conundrums of English departments everywhere: tiffs over theory, rancor over canonical placements. That part was gripping, but it was too shortlived -- for the likes of me. I carried on, and I am happy I did (until the Mother Teresa scenes became laborious) because Eugenides deconstructs the marriage plot (girl meets boy; boy is an obstacle or girl is an obstacle; they nearly lose each other; they marry) with complexity, and that is as it should be. As he said in an interview with Terry Gross, the marriage plot as we know it (think Jane Austen) can no longer exist. He is right, and what he offers in its place is fine by me. This is a good read. I recommend it and his others.
What is there to say about FIFTY SHADES OF GREY (2011) by E. L. James? The book is a #1 New York Times bestseller. It is the first in a trilogy that gets piled so high in bookstore displays it threatens to topple over and take out hoards of shoppers. Why is it so plentiful? Why the rabid sales? I am still wondering, even after I’ve finished it. The premise is this: rich, handsome twenty-something Christian Grey meets and immediately lusts after Ana Steele, a college senior (English major). She is a virgin. His sexual preferences dominate his life. He wants sex all the time, in a variety of ways that include pain for his partner (not him), and he wants Ana to sign a contract wherein she claims she will be the Submissive to his Dominant. The contract says that she is his “to own, control, dominate, and discipline” and that he may use her body “at any time …in any manner he deems fit, sexually or otherwise.” He is jealous. He hits her with whips and belts. He punishes her by spanking her. He ties her up to the bed with neckties or chains. THEN, he says things like “What I think you fail to realize is that in Dom/sub relationships it is the sub who has all the power. That’s you. I’ll repeat this – you are the one with all the power. Not I.” This is dangerous. Many of the things he says are the things abusers say. Many of the things he does are the things abusers do. The difference – is there really one? The difference is that Ana agrees to be with Christian Grey, to go along with his painful preferences because he flatters her with talk about how good looking she is, how much he wants her, and he lets slip that he was abused as a child, for a lengthy time, by an older woman who was and still is a friend of the family. So, is there really a difference? Christian Grey is an abuser. Ana, like Bella in TWILIGHT, eschews the danger and determines to heal her man – teach him how to love. The book is damned wearisome, and I would toss it off as an anomaly were it not so intensely dangerous to women. Can it really be that this is the only hot guy available to Ana? Did no one ever tell her that someone who loves you DOES NOT hit you, does not claim repeatedly that he owns you, does not stalk you (Grey shows up everywhere Ana is – even if it requires plane travel), does not scare you? Christian Grey may be a rich man and a handsome man, but he is not well. Her love may well save him from himself by the end of the trilogy, but at what cost? And why? Why not date a nice guy, have hot sex with him, and be safe? There are fish in the sea who do not demand your complicity in their psychic anguish. I think women are reading this book because of this age-old story line: girl meets guy who is messed up. She endures his pathology for a time believing she can change him with her love. She changes him. I haven’t read the second and third books yet, but it does not take a brain surgeon to figure out the narrative trajectory. The problem is that in real life – far too often – she does not change him. Rather, he kills her. This book frightens me. Women deserve nice men. Nice men deserve to get women. Guys like Christian Grey deserve to get help.
SEEKING PEACE: CHRONICLES OF THE WORST BUDDHIST IN THE WORLD (2009) by Mary Pipher (author of REVIVING OPHELIA) tells her story of achieving enormous success with REVIVING OPHELIA in 1994 and then finding the touring and lecturing and demands of popularity overwhelming. Pipher takes time off to meditate and read and relax – something her Type A personality would never have allowed had she not reached rock bottom. I enjoyed much of this book. The parts I did not enjoy so much were the too-detailed chapters about her childhood. I understand, as a writer, why she put those chapters there. They make technical sense. I simply was not interested. Rather, I wanted to get to the part where she healed herself when the world became too overbearing. Pipher has a delightful personality and narrative voice. This book read as if she were chatting with a few women friends in a living room. She offers hope that joy can follow pain by walking us through the nitty gritty of her experience.
I seem to be in a holding pattern of reading novels about boys who kill. DEFENDING JACOB (2012) by William Landay is one of those novels you cannot put down. I just finished it, and the ending is perfect. This is the story of the teenage son of an assistant District Attorney in Massachusetts who is on trial for killing a classmate. It is a classic trial story with some unique subplots woven in. What makes this book different is that the story is narrated by the father, who is inherently unreliable as a narrator since his own son is on trial for murder, and that the book includes some science/pseudo-science about something called the murder gene. Can one be genetically predisposed to kill? If so, can one be cured? Read this one, for sure, but maybe give yourself a break and read something light in between Kevin and Jacob. I made the mistake of also watching the film version of WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN between reading that novel and this one, and I am a bit creeped out by bad boys for now. I’m going to round up some ANNE OF GREEN GABLES just to catch my breath.
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (2003) by Lionel Shriver is AMAZING!!! I loved this book, hated how long it was (400 pages) because I have so many more in my reading pile to get to, but I would not want it any other way. Shriver is a masterful writer. This is a book with fistfuls of scenes readers will never forget –they will want to forget them – they will need to forget them – but they will be unable to unshackle the images from their minds. This is a powerful novel about a school shooting – it is fictional, but it is real, so real. Among my fetishes is reading all things school shootings (In my defense, I teach a course on school shootings). Most of the novels I have read are just okay , the primary flaw in them is that they embrace too many of the media-fomented stereotypes. This one does not do that. It is original and frightening. Like opening a brand new bag of Lay’s original potato chips, all of one’s senses are engaged, and biting into one chip clinches the addiction: nothing will do but munching the entire bag. KEVIN is this way – a long journey with a narrator who is condescending and unfriendly but sublime in her clarity and discursive heft. READ THIS ONE READ THIS ONE READ THIS ONE. Unless you are a reader who needs happy endings – in that case, skip it skip it skip it. If you get part way through and weary – trust me: finish it. There is a new film version out with Tilda Swinton playing the mother/narrator. I have been waiting until I finished the book to watch it. But now I am afraid to see what I have been “seeing” in print for the past week. This is a keeper, a disturbing, dark, monstrous, brilliant, nuanced, intelligent keeper.
SHAKESPEARE AND COMPANY (1956) by Sylvia Beach is a classic. An American who relocated to Paris as a young woman, Beach opened her famous bookstore that was befriended by the most esteemed writers of the 1920s and 1930s, including Hemingway , Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, and most prominently, James Joyce. This memoir is a delightful romp through their world. The book is worth the read simply for the sheer numbers of writers befriended by Sylvia Beach. When the Nazis came to Paris, her store was closed down, and Beach spent six months in an internment camp before returning to Paris. When Paris was liberated, her liberator was her old chum Ernest Hemingway!
Canada’s Farzana Doctor’s SIX METRES OF PAVEMENT (2011) is a bit longer than it needs to be, but the premise and much of the plotting and characters are interesting. Ismail Boxwala left his 18-month-old daughter in the car one August morning, forgetting to drop her off at daycare. She died in the car on a city street in Toronto. Ismail has never forgiven himself, and the novel takes place twenty years after that accident when he is divorced, drinking heavily, and miserable. His life changes when he meets the new widow who lives across the street and a young woman in his writing class. Healing comes in unexpected ways. Don’t rush out to read this one, but keep it on your to-do list. The emotions and thoughts alone of a man who accidentally kills his beloved infant are worth the read – getting into a psyche so battered with remorse and shame is compelling.
A STILL FOREST POOL: THE INSIGHT MEDITATOIN OF ACHAAN CHAH (1985), compiled and edited by Jack Kornfield and Paul Breiter, is – well – insightful. Achaan Chah is a forest monk of Thailand. He says the things one who reads around in Buddhism will recognize: attachment causes all suffering. We need to understand that all is impermanent, insecure, and that we are selfless – to realize this is to be free from suffering. So what makes this book different? Maybe it is not so different from others in the meditation canon, but what I appreciate is that this little monk pulls no punches. His message is consistent and promising, but it is very hard, especially for westerners used to finding/forcing happiness through people and things they want to “own.” Chah says the simplest things, like -- know what you are doing and know how you feel about it. What you do should not be out of habit. Ask yourself: why do I do what I do? A year ago, I would have laughed after reading what I just wrote. Today, I’m not laughing. I am learning what I can from a man who lives in the woods in a country far away because – it’s time.
BROKEN FOR YOU (2004) by Stephanie Kallos comes together beautifully in the end, though it takes some meandering time to get there. Readers have to trust that Kallos will draw the multiple characters and narrative threads into one mosaic by the time the novel is finished. She does. The characters are memorable for the unique ways they fashion their lives in order to overcome pain/trauma. It is worth spending nearly 400 pages in their company. This is a good read. However, I would not move it to the top of the pile if I had some of the recent books listed below at hand. This one can wait, but it should not be let go entirely. I copied out one entire paragraph from her last chapter, so exquisite was Kallos’s insight into the way humans can grasp after a former beloved until that moment of reconnection, when the benighted vision is replaced with the banal reality. Kallos works with the symbol of the mosaic throughout the book (and in the title), underscoring the ways the broken parts of us can come together in unimagined ways, glued –once again – to sanity and health.
Here is how I feel about Toni Morrison, author of the new novel HOME (2012): I am not worthy. She is the supreme being of fiction writing, so my review of her latest slim novel is fraught with slavish adoration. I apologize up front. HOME is anguishing and tightly-wrought and full of tenderness and pain. The protagonist is Frank Money, a Korean War vet who experiences traumas in war no human should experience. A black man returned to racist America, Frank is consumed by memories that confine him to apathy, rendering him incapable of everyday tasks. Yet, he overcomes through love – the way we all overcome. When his baby sister’s need becomes urgent, greater than his trauma, Frank acts with courage, surprising even himself. Some of Morrison’s scenes are a punch to the gut. Readers will need a breather after these. She is surgical in her cutting away of euphemism, no reality too raw to be illustrated in perfectly-succinct-yet-poetic language. As always, Morrison’s novels have to be read more than once. Some of hers I have read half a dozen times, and still, there is more, layer upon layer of reality. Beautiful, heartbreaking reality that – I swear – heals.
THE BEGINNER’S GOODBYE (2012) by Anne Tyler is sad and sweet. The narrator, Aaron, whose right arm and leg became crippled in childhood, meets Dorothy, a plain, independent doctor. They marry. Their marriage is not unhappy. She dies when a tree falls onto their house. Aaron’s loss becomes a personalized walk through grief and recovery that remains uplifting and funny while it explores the day to day life of a widower. It is not a miserable book at all, despite its plot. Aaron is a man readers want to be with. The novel’s first line reads: “The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.” This is a fast read, a book that will not, probably, change your life, but one that provides a few hours of reading pleasure with a touch of insight into the life of a man whose world changes, forever, in one minute.
Like some drug hustler, my friend Melanie shoved the completely white hardcover in front of me and said, “buy it. Read it. Then talk to me about it. I need someone to talk to about this book.” I bought it then and there, read it, loved it, just emailed her. WHEN WOMEN WERE BIRDS: FIFTY-FOUR VARIATIONS ON VOICE (2012) by Terry Tempest Williams is called a “lyrical meditation” in 54 short chapters. The premise is this: Williams’s mother dies and leaves three bookshelves of her journals to her daughter, making her promise not to look at them until she dies. She dies. Williams opens them, one after another, and discovers that all of them are blank. This book, WHEN WOMEN WERE BIRDS, is a daughter’s response to her mother’s blank pages. She writes, in essence, what she understands of her mother’s leaving blank pages behind, what it means that her mother purchased a new journal each year and wrote not one word in any of them. It is difficult to sum up what Williams is saying in this book, but it is easy to say that her sentences are scrumptious. She discusses the concept of voice – female voice – every which way to Sunday – and never once does it get stale. Vistas open up while reading this book. I have yet to read her famous memoir REFUGE, but this most recent book will drive me there soon. The book is more memoir than novel, more musing and suggestion than essay. It delights while it makes the reader think, remember, and wonder. The all white cover has embossed birds in flight all over it – somehow advancing the idea that freedom can be found within. I found it there – my yellow highlighter found sentences plump with freedom. This may not be a book for everyone, but for those interested in the freedom and risk and responsibility that accrue to having a voice – this one is worth the $23.
So much do I love this book, that I read it again this week: THE FOURTH PROCEDURE (1995)by Harvard-trained lawyer Stanley Pottinger. This book is worth all 500 pages. I loved this book when I first read it, and I love it more – undoubtedly – since Gloria Steinem signed my copy recently. She and Stan Pottinger were a couple years back, and they remain friends. All of that aside, this is a book unlike any other. Dubbed “a novel of medical suspense,” it is that and more. It is an exploration of the extremes to which people will go in order to get social justice. The book is gripping from the first scene, which illustrates in gruesome and heartbreaking detail a botched abortion. Abortion is the central issue the book takes up. Readers should know this going in. Pottinger treats the topic with a wide lens, considering the multiple and rancorous viewpoint and privileging some over others, never straying from the foremost task of telling a good story. Re-reading the novel, after having worked on my own novel for months on end now, I believe Pottinger could have compressed a few hundred pages – though compelling, the plot does get complex, even unwieldy at times. I stand by this novel. It is a bold stroke.
The memoir TOWNIE (2011) by Andre Dubus III is a mixed bag. The highlight is when Dubus transitions from the rough, hyper-masculine persona he develops to survive in his working-class neighborhood to his beginnings as a writer. This is where the book gets engaging – particularly for writers interested in the motivations of other writers. The problem is that he doesn’t get there for the first 75 % of the book. There is simply too much punching and fighting, swearing, weight lifting, blood, broken noses, and drinking. I grew up in a neighborhood like Dubus’s, and the points of intersection were interesting the first few times I read an anecdote, but by the time Dubus got to the part where he channeled his intensity into writing instead of fighting, I was war-torn. I was on his side, urging him to become a writer, to find peace in words, but I was tired of his past – exquisitely tired. There is no doubt: his self reflection and his willingness to set aside machismo is impressive. My suggestion to readers: skip through the first 75 % -- let me summarize it: dad left mom to raise four kids on her own. They got into trouble. Andre learned to fight, then he fought everyone. After the first 75 %, he realized this was not a soulful way to live, so he began writing, like his famous father. Andre is a likeable character. His insights into his own life and flaws and the turnarounds he makes are significant, worth reading about – toward the very end.
THE SONG OF ACHILLES (2012) by Madeline Miller is getting slammed by reviewers, though some like her attention to detail (she is a classicist, B.A. and M.A. from Brown University). This is a fun read, particularly if you are familiar with Trojan War literature. Miller knows her stuff, and what she does is retells Homer’s ILIAD from the perspective of Patroclus, the BFF/lover of Achilles. Scholars far earlier than Miller suggested that the most famous Greek warrior and his doting friend were lovers, but this, of course, has met with reactions from hostility to nodding acquiescence to downright applause. Miller embraces it, expands on it, brings Patroclus to life in ways Homer did not. If there is one pesky problem (and there are several) it is this: Patroclus narrates even after his death. I, and others, find this not only grating but illogical. I know…I know…THE LOVELY BONES is built on this device, but I can excuse Alice Sebold because her dead narrator has always been dead. Patroclus is alive, romping in the Greek fields with Achilles, the he is dead – which should have been the end of him, but no, no. Miller keeps him on, like some rambling drunk at a bar after last call, so he can tell how Achilles mourns him and reconciles with Hector’s father Priam. That does not work for me. It did not work for some of the critics. It is a delightful book in many ways. It is a fast read, more like a YA novel than an adult novel, but if you are into men and war with a twist – an ancient Greek BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN of sorts – this one is for you.
THE EDUCATION OF A WOMAN: THE LIFE OF GLORIA STEINEM (1995) by Carolyn G. Heilbrun tells the life story of my feminist icon and is worth every one of its 400+ pages. Though this tome has been on my shelf for some years, I only picked it up since I was on sabbatical and since I acquired a ticket to see Gloria Steinem in person. I crammed, so I would know everything about her when I met her. She is my hero because she is brave when she speaks truth to power. She has endured much heartache for the sake of bettering life for all women. She is a change-maker who genuinely loves her work. She has vexed presidents and popes, angered right-wing politicians, and enraged even factions of feminism. Yet, she has remained on task since before the civil rights movement. If I admired her before reading Heilbrun’s book, I am ready to canonize her after – particularly after meeting her.
I admit it! I read ONCE UPON A SECRET: MY AFFAIR WITH PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY AND ITS AFTERMATH (2012) by Mimi Alford after watching, to my horror, as Barbara Walters skewered this author on THE VIEW (I suppose I have admitted here watching THE VIEW too). Walters was unprofessional, hateful, and without her critical faculties when she encountered Alford. So, of course, I was intrigued. I read the book to spite Walters, in part. So, Mimi has an 18-month affair with Pres. Kennedy almost up until his death. She is a 19-year-old intern in the White House. He sees her, has his right-hand-man lure her to him, and seduces her. Nothing could be clearer. She is captivated, enthralled, tremendously complimented that a man of such power and charm “likes” her. She does not resist. The affair ends shortly before he dies, but they are still in touch, he calling her Wheaton College dormitory often, weekly even. The upshot: this is a story of how power abuses the powerless and gets away with it. Kennedy’s womanizing is both common knowledge and commonly made invisible. Alford bears the brunt of the accusations from the media (Walters, etc), even from people who have not read the book but are outraged that Alford would write a book now, revealing such sexual “secrets”, 40 + years later. I have yet to hear outrage that a man of such stature and power and fame as JFK needs to glom onto teenagers for libidinous kicks. I am outraged; that’s what I got from reading Mimi’s story.
Matthieu Ricard’s A GUIDE TO DEVELOPING LIFE’S MOST IMPORTAN SKILL: HAPPINESS (2003) is exactly the sort of book I would never choose to read, but a dear friend gave it to me for Christmas. She knew I was missing my children, all off to college and jobs and life. It was a gift of love, so I reckoned – what the heck; I’ll give it a go. The good thing about this book is that it engages scientific studies, Buddhist teachings, poetry, and Western philosophy to talk about how to attain equilibrium, an inner peace. This is not about having things or one upping others or being famous. It is about purging mental toxins and finding well-being. It made sense to me, and I would not have been ready to listen to Ricard’s words until recently. My friend knew I just might be ready. This is one to take slowly, to savor, to highlight. When you’re ready.
THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL (2004) by Deborah Moggach is a lot of fun. An Indian born London doctor opens a retirement home in India, and the cast of characters who leave their painful lives in England to settle there and find friendship, love, healing, and unabashed truths. Moggach peoples this novel with dozens of characters, but somehow, she manages to keep them all individualized for the reader. This is a light read that has a happy ending and asks a handful of life’s big questions without overwhelming the reader with ponderous and worrisome thoughts. Feels like a mini vacation.
I read WHY I LEFT THE AMISH (2011), a memoir by Saloma Miller Furlong, because I am intrigued by the Amish and because Furlong is visiting Franklin Pierce University this week (March 29, 2012). Her story is sad. What she withstood as a child is unfair and brutal. I am not certain her parents are typical of Amish families, but certainly the covering up of patriarchal sins is part and parcel of the religion and of Amish communities. Furlong is impressive in that she escapes home, moves to Vermont, marries and raises a family and finally returns to finish her education at Smith College. As for her writing style, Furlong gets the job done. Where one might suggest a more severe editorial hand, another might let bygones be bygones. The book tells a good story of child abuse and recovery, of healing. It warns us all of the dangers of religions in which some are beyond accountability.
Phyllis Shand Allfrey’s (1953) novel THE ORCHID HOUSE is advertised in the back copy as being about a house empty of men, a house of women. This is not completely true, yet it is true in some significant ways. What caught me beyond this description was the setting. The novel takes place on the Island of Dominica, and the characters are wealthy whites and their native housekeepers and nurses and errand boys are black. The story is told through the lens of Lally, the black nurse to the protagonist family. As the three daughters return home from England and America, they cause a stir that upsets the status quo of their sensuous homeland. Ironically, their imperial muckraking causes a firestorm that at once makes things minimally better and horribly worse. The novel nearly lost me about half way through, but I hung in there because the narrator’s crystal clear vision of what was going on was compelling. This is an important book about gender and power and the effects of colonialism. It is, as the cover says, reminiscent of THE WIDE SARGASSO SEA (a book about Bertha Mason, the mad woman in the attic in JANE EYRE). For all of that, I feel enlarged by reading it if less than satisfied.
I just finished HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE (1997) BY J.K. ROWLING. My twenty-year old son grew up with these books, and I listened to him tell me the stories year after year. His biggest disappointment in life, I believe, is that I have only ever read this first Harry Potter book, the one I just re-read. He challenged me to read them ALL while I am on sabbatical this semester , and I accepted the challenge. But heavens-to-Betsy do the novels get fatter and fatter as they go. Harry is delightful, as are Ron and Hermione and the others. I have my work cut out for me, but Rowling makes it easy, leaving me hanging at the end of this first volume wondering how Harry will manage a whole summer with those blasted Dursleys. If I am to complete the challenge, I have about one volume a month to go. Wish me luck!
THE HISTORY OF LOVE (2005) by Nicole Krauss (who, by the way, is married to Jonathan Safran Foer, author of EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE) is an important book about love. Simplistic as that sounds, the novel boils down to that. Of course, boiling down a novel to any one sentence is criminal, so, let me explain. This novel is complex. There are generations of people, and the love of one boy for one girl touches them all. The novel is about how love and its loss have the power to alter lives and to alter other lives touched by those lives. There are writers who plagiarize, children who play sleuth and messiah. There are old men whose pain is palpable and sweet and endearing. This is a hard one to describe, clearly. Read it. Simply read it. It is a beautiful book that should not go unread. It is the rare book that touches the heart in, ironically, wordless but deep ways. It may not be happy but it is profound.
THE SUBMISSION (2011) is a first novel by Amy Waldman, and it is a winner. The premise is this: there is a blind juried contest to determine which design will be used to create the 911 memorial at Ground Zero. Upon choosing the winner, the jurors learn the designer is a Muslim. All hell breaks loose, and all of the ethical questions imaginable are taken up by the characters. I found this book gripping. At times, the responses of the victims’ families seemed harsh, even crude, but one has to wonder what it must be like to lose a loved one in such a horrifying way. Does it bring out the worst in us? The best? I recommend this book for those who want to be gripped, who need to get away from reality for a while and enter a really fascinating novel world.
THE PLACES THAT SCARE YOU: A GUIDE TO FEARLESSNESS IN DIFFICULT TIMES (2001) by Pema Chodron is a primer in the benefits of meditation and Buddhist thought, Buddhism-lite really. I love this Buddhist nun; Pema Chodron is becoming one of my favorite people. I have read everything she has written now. She just GETS IT. We make life harder than it has to be because we have created habits to insulate ourselves from pain. Who knew that those habits were insuring pain? Pema knew. I recommend this book to anyone with the courage to give her way of life a shot. Nothing she recommends is easy, but it makes sense – when one is ready for it to make sense. For some of us, that is a few years on. Give it a go. You will know if the time is right.
WRITE-A-THON: WRITE YOUR BOOK IN 26 DAYS (AND LIVE TO TELL ABOUT IT) (2011) is by Rochelle Melander. She is the coach I would want if I had just 26 days to write a book. She is encouraging but realistic. She has even inspired me to think about – I repeat, think about – entering the National Novel Writing Month contest in November where contestants write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. That equals a novel a bit longer than FAHRENHEIT 451 and a bit shorter than A SEPARATE PEACE. Think 6 ½ pages a day. That seems impossible for the person who works, has a family, loves a good sitcom at night, but Melander makes you a believer. She shares secrets like this: Victor Hugo had his valet keep his clothes until he finished his writing. I raced through this book though I’ve read every other book like it in the world. Something about this one is different somehow. It makes you certain that you can write. It challenges you to write. It author doesn’t cite her own books as examples of how to do things correctly (a peeve of mine). She just rah-rahs the reader through. If you don’t write after reading this book, shame on you. Melander is a no-excuses kind of gal, and she won’t want to hear it. Gotta go…words to write…
THE FIRST FIVE PAGES: A WRITER’S GUIDE TO STAYING OUT OF THE REJECTION PILE (2000) by Noah Lukeman contains a few gems, but there is nothing in here that has not been said elsewhere. Don’t overuse adjectives and adverbs. Be sure your pacing is even and moves along. Be sure you incorporate setting effectively. I started to skim swiftly through when he said things like be sure your manuscript is clean of stains. Spell correctly. For readers who are new to writing, this could be a good resource. Otherwise, skip it.
THE SWEET HEREAFTER (1991) by Russell Banks is brilliant. Apparently it is a major motion picture with 3 Cannes Film Festival awards as well. I read this novel straight through, and I did not even stop for Glee this week! The story is about the aftermath of a school bus crash in which fourteen children are killed in upstate New York. The book is told from the first-person perspectives of the bus driver, the father of dead twins, a lawyer who wants in on the case of suing someone, anyone, and a victim of the crash who will spend her life in a wheelchair. Nothing about this book is boring. I cared about these characters and their despairs because Banks illustrated them in such minute detail. I imagine a film version of this could be rough going, but the book is magical – if heartbreaking. It is a fast read, but it drop kicks the reader into an empathy that is almost visceral. This is, simply, a great read.
ONDINE’S CURSE (2000) by Steven Manners is weird – not in a good way like GEEK LOVE. I read it because it is set in Montreal, and one of the characters has a repressed memory of violence as witness to the Montreal Massacre in 1989 –when fourteen women were murdered in Canada’s most shocking mass murder. The jacket says the book is “moody and macabre” and a “literary tour de force.” I think not. I unearthed one good line from the book: “She saw it [the university where the massacre happened] now for what it was: God’s bombsight.” That’s it, folks -- one line only. Save yourself 208 pages of moody and macabre. This book is not worth it.
MEMOIRS OF A WOMAN ENGINEER (1990) by Jane Gardiner is deadly dull. I wish to God I did not have to say so. The real-life stories of female engineers are like gold to me given the writing project in which I am so deeply invested. I have interviewed several of them, and real-life women tell interesting stories. Poor Jane Gardiner, a graduate of Cambridge, specialized in heat transfer and stressing. She worked at Rolls Royce for a time. She was the only woman at a dinner for 150 engineers once. They sang to her: “If You Were the Only Girl in the World.” There: I have told you ALL of the exciting parts of the memoir. Wait, wait, I forgot that she was interviewed by a man once who only agreed to see her because he had never seen a woman engineer and another who said he would never hire her at the advertised post because it would involve managing the work of men. Surely she experienced sexism – she was born in 1922, for golly sakes -- but she mentions these two interviews as the rare demonstrable incidents. She even ventriloquizes Harvard’s Larry Summers with this line: “To be fair, a majority of girls do not have a positive inclination to choose the physical sciences, arts subjects being a less hard furrow to plough.” Whose team are you playing for, Janey? I confess disappointment. I expected the world from Jane Gardiner and I got squat. The jacket flap advertised a book “rich in anecdote.” It lied.
NEVER TELL A LIE (2009) by Hallie Ephron is advertised on the front cover as “a novel of suspense.” And this is the truth. It is cotton candy, consumable in one yomp. You get bites of sugary, suspenseful goodness. You cannot stop eating it. But it doesn’t fill you up in, say, the way an Andrew Sean Greer or a Charlotte Bronte do. Nevertheless, I read the thing straight through, had to know who made the pregnant woman disappear, had to get to the bottom of it. When I did, I thought, yes, that is okay. I am okay with this, but there is this one nagging question. Did the husband do the bad thing in high school? Hallie Ephron does not answer this question, and I NEED her to answer it. I, of all people, understand how provocative a good existential or spiritual or metaphysical question can be at the end of a text, but this is not that. THIS is a question I need answered in order for the ambiguous ending to settle down. It has been roaming around like the ghost of the unburied dead in the ancient world, haunting me since late last night. Did he do it? If he did it, good grief, if he did it, how can his wife go on, how can I go on? I trusted him. Ephron writes a novel of suspense, one that keeps the reader engaged and thinking...and a bit mad at her. I am taking a one-day Suspense Writing class with Hallie Ephron in March. We shall, I believe, have words. I WILL get to the bottom of this.
I am smitten with POPULATION: 485 (2002) and its author, Michael Perry. Perry returns to his home in New Auburn, Wisconsin to live and to write, joins the EMT/firefighting team, and tells stories about the encounters he has with accidents, local eccentrics, fires, and life in a small, small town. This memoir has all the potential to be a whopping snore, but Perry is magical with language. He is the kind of writer you want to read because of the way he tells a story – any story. I will now read all of his other books and follow him on his website www.sneezingcow.com. I am declaring myself a fan based on this one book. If you like slam-dunk sentences or stories about rescue-squad work or farming life, you won’t want to miss this book. I highlighted about 100 sentences just because they were so beautifully constructed. I spoke them aloud to hear how they sounded. READ THIS.
TOLSTOY AND THE PURPLE CHAIR: MY YEAR OF MAGICAL READING (2011) by Nina Sankovitch is my kind of memoir. Sankovitch lost her sister to bile cancer, and she coped with her grief by living in overdrive for three years until she could not keep up the pace. A lawyer, she took a year off, took care of domestic duties (four sons, husband, house) and committed to reading a book a day for a year. In this way, she grounded herself, healed some of her grief, and learned insightful lessons. The book is about her sister, her family, her life as a child and as an adult, and it is about the books she is reading and the gems she gleans from them. Simple, really. I found it chummy, peaceful, really soothing reading. This is not a book to wrestle you into a grip and shake you up, like Lehane or Collins below, but it is a welcome indulgence. It has its issues, some repetition, an odd focus on the fact that the cat urinated on the purple chair often in its past (I would get a new chair; she did not), though she cleaned it and sits on it daily. These are minor nuisances. I am signing myself up as an official fan.
TWELVE STEPS TO A COMPASSIONATE LIFE (2010) by Karen Armstrong is not a light read or a light listen. I obtained the book on tape from my local library, listened to it traveling to and fro, and nearly quit after disc two (of five). It is heavy going, loaded with lots and lots of detailed references to the great religions and their traditions and holy people. Usually, I love this material, but Armstrong is a world-renowned theologian, and her wealth of detail about dates and historic moments threatened to overwhelm a short trip to the supermarket. I am pleased that I hung in there for all five discs because I learned a lot about what religions have in common and how they can and have laid the foundation for compassion in the world. For those who believe organized religion is at the root of today’s hateful global encounters, Armstrong just might convince you these selfsame religions, at their core, contain the lessons of healing compassion that are required to save our planet.
Reading CATCHING FIRE (2009) by Suzanne Collins is yummy. This is the second in the HUNGER GAMES trilogy, a YA series, and it is addicting, even for those long past adolescence. Heroine Katniss is torn between two loves, Gale and Peeta, much like Bella in TWILIGHT. The big, huge, enormous difference is that Katniss is active where Bella is passive (and Gale and Peeta are regular human guys). Katniss is talented and strong and capable of taking care of her family. She wins the Hunger Games, a barbaric, Roman-Empirish concoction of an evil Empire, and she launches a revolution – this series is very hip given the recent contemporary revolutions around the world. What makes the book so addictive is its plot. Since the Empire will stop at nothing to retain its hold on the districts, their evils know no bounds. Little kids are sacrificed. Bigger little kids are compelled to save them. There is violence on every page and blood and secrets. But it is all for the greater good. Katniss is not selfish; she is doing all of her killing in order to remain alive to take care of her fatherless family. She loves Gale; she loves Peeta but not because she wants either to bring her eternal and drowsy bliss. She wants freedom. She is a teenage hero, and who can resist them, really? Something tells me I should not love these books so much. The language is pedestrian, the plot unoriginal (Roman Empire, Ender’s Game, etc.). Yet…the third book awaits…
Ahhhhh….I finished MOCKINGJAY (2010) by Suzanne Collins, the last of the HUNGER GAMES trilogy. There is a bit of a bow tying up the ending of this trilogy into a neat package, but it is a relief after the gore and violence of this segment. I believe I stopped breathing on occasion while reading this novel. Collins is a page turner. I see why YA readers devour her books. She does raise the important existential questions that have puzzled us through the ages: why do we resort to war over and over again? Why do we sacrifice innocent people to violence and greed over and over again? Why do we repeatedly return to playing repulsive “games” that thrive on bloodshed? These are heavy questions, but Collins is brave enough to tuck them into the cubbyholes of a gripping plot like broccoli cooked into brownies – readers getting so caught up in what will happen to Katniss Everdeen, girl hero, that they don’t necessarily realize they are grappling with history and philosophy and psychology and social justice and real life. My favorite line from this final book: “The unthinkable has happened and to survive will require previously unthinkable acts.” Collins Is not a poetic writer, but this line is a keeper. Perhaps now is the time for previously unthinkable acts – in our world.
VERONICA (2005) by Mary Gaitskill is troubling novel about Alison, a fashion model in the 1980s, and her friend, Veronica, a middle-aged office temp worker whose eccentricities both attract and repel Alison. The book touches down on raw emotions but swiftly flits away from these to scenes of 1980s decadence in New York and California. The characters in this book have more sex and do more drugs than any characters written by Jay McInerny and Brett Eason Ellis combined. While they do all of this to avoid coming face to face with their genuine pain, it gets old for the reader. What kept me going, frankly, was the National Book Award Finalist imprint on the front cover and the fact that Gaitskill is judging a fiction contest I am entering next month. I had to be a believer. In the end, Alison does an about face (sort of) and sends her dying friend off with compassion and love. Veronica dies of AIDS, and her vulnerabilities manifest as universal human vulnerabilities to the wretched Alison – finally, in a touching Priam-meets-Achilles moment. I wanted to love it. I did not love it, but I respect it, and I do keep thinking about it. That has to count for something. Bottom line: don’t rush out to get a copy. You can have mine.
I finally got to read THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS (2010) by Rebecca Skloot. It is good on so many levels. While it is the story of Lacks and her cells and her family, it is also the story of Skloot’s researching the book and the oftentimes bizarre experiences she has encountering Henrietta Lacks’s eccentric family. It is a story that needed to be told. Skloot raises important medical concerns for all readers, concerns about privacy and ownership over our bodies, before and after we die. This is a must read.
Dennis Lehane’s novels are peanut butter cups: gritty on the inside and smooth all around. I read A DRINK BEFORE THE WAR (1994) in one big swallow. It was a read aloud book – I was shouting, exclaiming, laughing out loud all the way through; Lehane and I had an ongoing dialogue throughout. He is awesome, one of the best. His gem of a short story, “Until Gwen,” is sheer perfection, and MYSTIC RIVER – awww, shucks. I could go on about this Boston writer all day long. Just read whatever he writes, but expect to turn your life over to his books for as long as it takes. You might sneak a load of laundry in here and there, but you will not be able to go back to real life until his PIs clean up the streets of Beantown.
Lily Tuck’s slim novel, I MARRIED YOU FOR HAPPINESS (2011), is a lot like EVENING by Susan Minot, but that is a good thing. In Tuck’s book, Philip has just died suddenly and is lying in his bed. His wife of many years, Nina, muses on her husband, their life together, her life as it will be with him gone. The reader learns about their secrets, affairs, jealousies, and love, sitting with Nina all the night through. It is both heartbreaking and sweet and honest. As marriage books go, it gets at some profound and mundane truths. Give this one a whirl.
THE NIGHT CIRCUS (2011) by Erin Morgenstern was rejected by thirteen pubishers before trapezing its way onto the bestseller lists. The novel is delightful, engaging, mysterious, ponderous -- all of the qualities I never expect to find in circus books. I don't like circuses. I think they are, by and large, weird and incomprehensible. Yet, I am recommending this novel to anyone who loves a good read that does not have to be based in a reality like the reader's own. This novel by the thirty-something Morgenstern gives me pause since I can think of several circus books I admire, among them GEEK LOVE and WATER FOR ELEPHANTS. I must recognize and accept, apparently, that I am drawn to the weird, that the weird and unfamiliar offers a reader a chance to step outside of his/her own comfy overstuffed chair and to imagine more fully another's experience. My students will laugh at this, for I have a reputation for offering/assigning books that dive deeply into the darker side of humanity, yet here I am confessing surprise at my affinity for circus lore which is some of the darkest anyone can encounter. In my defense, we are on the precipice of a new year, and self discovery is the hallmark of the Resolution. I, thereby, resolve to disparage no more the circus novel and to know my reading self better.
THE TIGER'S WIFE (2011) is written by Tea Obreht, a woman born in 1985 in Belgrade. She is getting rave reviews for her work and especially for this novel. The New York Times calls it one of the best books of 2011. So why don't I love it? I wanted to love it and began reading it with the commitment of a high school girl to her first boyfriend. I was ready to be wow-ed, until I became disenchanted. It IS about a tiger's wife, but the wife is human. There are memorable scenes that are both brutal and vibrantly human (tiger gnaws off a man's arm; tiger guts a man/bear). The author, for goodness sake, is 26 years old. There is every reason to really love this book, to relish the promise of a new young author. I do not even really like the book. I do not know why exactly, but it has something to do with too many intersecting (barely) plot lines, too much magical realism (in the right hands, this is a good thing), and too much reading just before bed when nodding off interferes with the entire enterprise. It may be my fault, but Tea Obreht did not inspire me this go round. I feel like an old fuddy duddy even admitting all of this when Tea is out there raking in the accolades and the residencies and the economic bennies. But I simply must say that this novel can be moved to the bottom of your pile. Happy Holiday Reading.
WE THE ANIMALS (2011) by Justin Torres is 128 pages of beautiful pain, "brilliant and ferocious," Michael Cunningham (THE HOURS) calls it. I LOVED it. I will read anything Justin Torres writes from now on. This is a book about three brothers growing up in Brooklyn with their Puerto Rican father and white mother. The story is touching, emotional, beastial. Torres's sentences are drop-dead gorgeous. Once again, right in the middle of the gym, on the eliptical machine, I was driven to loud exclamations over some of those sentences. This is not a happy book, quite the contrary, but it is an important novel that takes its place among those many others that attempt to understand how our families shape us, how they train us up to be the people we are -- for better or worse.
SEMPRE SUSAN: A MEMOIR OF SUSAN SONTAG (2011) by Sigrid Nunez is an insider's view of the brilliant cultural critic Susan Sontag. Nunez dated Sontag's son David Rieff and lived with Susan and David for a time. Hers is a memoir short on pages (140) but long on detail. Nunez gives the reader a sense not only of how difficult Sontag was to be with but how vexed it was to be her. From her intense fear of being alone to her obsession with her own fiction not selling well (until her later years) to her rudeness to people in the service industry, Sontag lived an outsized life that was fraught with vexing demons and irritations. Nunez pays homage to Sontag's genius but balances it with a look at her mentor that is honest and compassionate. Rich scenes of the literary life in 1970s New York City, chock full of protean personalities, fill this book and make it the kind of jewel a reader/writer treasures. This is a find.
THE LEFTOVERS (2011) by Tom Perrotta is disappointing, and, frankly, it is too long (355 pages) to be disappointing. My history with Perrotta moved me through the book. I found LITTLE CHILDREN nothing short of a brilliant social commentary, and THE ABSTINENCE TEACHER was a perfectly respectable novel, but this one -- Tom, Tom, Tom. Maybe at this harried time of the semester I should not be reading novels that promise a biting social commentary -- my bad. But this premise had promise: the biblical Rapture has taken place, and we enter the lives of those who have been left behind. Some take to extreme, cultish measures, that include murderous rituals. Some sink into depression and drunkenness. Some, like our primary protagonist, become mayor (?!). There is a message in here, surely. Something about how we, as a culture, respond to life-changing devastation (9/11? War on Terror? Katrina?). I get it. I got it 20 pages in. I wanted more depth, more insight. There are too many characters. I found myself skimming. I became uninterested. Good grief, I have become my first year students before they have been transformed by the love of fine literature. This is not fine literature; we know that when we see it. Too bad because I like Perrotta on the whole. He is a wiseacre with an intellect. But what we get here is leftovers.
AMERICAN BOY (2011) by Larry Watson, author of MONTANA 1948 is classic Watson: understated and slow-paced but with one pivotal narrative moment that stays with you for years. That was the case with MONTANA 1948; it is the case with this newest novel. Watson examines the quotidian in 1960s Willow Falls, Minnesota, where life is ordinary until a young woman is shot by her lover. Though Watson's themes are derivative, his handling of loss of innocence and betrayal by a trusted other is unique in that the readers is as caught off guard as are the characters. It is maddening in its predictability -- after the fact. In narrative thrall to Watson's yarn, the reader is lulled into the loss and betrayal that she should have seen coming. Hats off to Larry Watson, yet again.
LOOKING FOR ALASKA (2005) by John Green is worth a few hours out of your hectic life. Sixteen-year-old Miles is new at Culver Creek Prep School in Alabama. Friendless in his public school back home, Miles bonds at Culver Creek with a group of wisecracking, prank-playing, drinking & smoking teenagers who become central to his life and development. When one dies suddenly, he is faced with existential questions that rock him to the core. This is a young-adult novel that my students recommended, and they are forevermore trusted because this is a keeper, right up there with SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson. Read this one.
SING YOU HOME (2011) is everything you want and expect in a novel by Jodi Picoult: you open with an idyllic family scene. Then come complications that involve some big contemporary issue – in this case a mélange of infertility, gay marriage, and the Christian Right. You feel empathy toward one character; then you wonder, should you really feel empathy for another? After all, no one is perfect, and they all have secrets that eke out. Ultimately, all of it converges in a courtroom where the issues get a bit of an intellectual airing, and then, whammo, the surprise ending. Despite it being formulaic, the novel is also engaging, realistic, and fun to read. There is a music CD attached to the book – a compilation of songs the protagonist sings or would have sung – all written by Picoult and her singer/writer friend – seems gimmicky. I did not listen. I am happy I read this book because it took me away for a day or two, and the surprise ending worked for me. And that is that.
THE BORROWER (2011) BY Rebecca Makkai is a book motivated by social justice. Makkai’s premise is a big draw: a children’s librarian borrows a child! She has a favorite ten-year-old patron named Ian whose family is sending him to anti-gay camp and censoring his reading material severely. An avid reader, Ian runs away from home, camps out in the library, and convinces the librarian to embark on a road trip without anyone else knowing. They encounter bizarre characters, including ferrets and the Russian mafia. Were Makkai to have consulted me, I would have suggested cutting about 50 pages of these adventures. She wraps the novel up nicely, and I admit, I wondered as I got toward the end if she would fall into the trap of offering up a schmaltzy conclusion. She did not. She tied up the loose narrative strands without any visible or awkward bows. This is a fast read, and it has a moral I can stand behind. Makkai is just revving up. Watch for more good work from her.
THINK NO EVIL: INSIDE THE STORY OF THE AMISH SCHOOLHOUSE SHOOTING…AND BEYOND (2009) by Jonas Beiler with Shawn Smucker has an endorsement by Glenn Beck on the front cover. Still, I wanted to read it, so I took the dust jacket off and stowed it away. This is a simple book that tells the story from the point of view of a family counselor who grew up Amish, left the tradition when he was a teen, but still lives in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and has a great respect for the Amish. The focus of Beiler’s narrative is this: the parents of the ten little girls shot (five of them were killed) by Charles Roberts forgave Roberts immediately (though he was dead of suicide). Furthermore, they sent emissaries from their community to tell the widow and children of the killer that they held no ill will and wanted to help them through their grieving. They wanted reconciliation. Amazing. I admit, when I picked this book up and learned this was the theme, I rolled my eyes a lot. I definitely brought some snarky attitude to my reading experience. But doggone it if I did not get to the end and re-think. These folks forgive because holding hatred in your heart hurts YOU and because hatred breeds hatred and revenge and depression, etc. They maintain that their grieving and growth is mitigated, if only a bit, by forgiving the perpetrator of their pain. It is not easy, the author points out, but it is possible. I am intrigued by this, can’t stop thinking about it really. Yet, the Amish ground their belief in a religious ideology that says two important things: I will see my dead child again in heaven, and God decides when one dies, so this must have been her time. My question: can one forgive in this way – for all the good and healthy reasons it makes sense to do so, if one does not hold to these grounding beliefs? Is it possible?
DEMONS OF THE BLANK PAGE: FIFTEEN OBSTACLES THAT KEEP YOU FROM WRITING & HOW TO CONQUER THEM (2011) by Roland Merullo, author of BREAKFAST WITH BUDDHA ( a really fun book in itself!) is a quick read. He says nothing you have not heard many times if you read these sorts of books. However, he has a gem or two inside this slim volume. My favorite is this: a writer must fence off, cultivate, and give plenty of water and sunlight to that part of the mind where writing sprouts and flourishes…writing is intimately connected to the process of thinking – so, how can we expect ideas to come to us if the mind is cluttered with errands, duties, worries, plans, and a myriad of pleasurable distractions? I knew this before picking up Merullo’s book, but some ideas bear repeating.
CALEB’S CROSSING (2011) is the newest novel from Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks. It is not my favorite, but I confess a checkered relationship with Brooks. I loved PEOPLE OF THE BOOK and despised MARCH (for which she won the Pulitzer). This one is worth reading, indeed, but it has some slow patches. She bases the novel on the true story of the first Native American student to graduate from Harvard. In many ways this is not Caleb’s story, though he is the Harvard grad; it is Bethia’s story, a fictional character who is just wonderful – spirited, daring, genuine. I imagine the lack of archival material that could have fleshed out Caleb kept Brooks from developing him to the extent she did with her own creation, Bethia. Understandable, for sure. My book group read the book, and we were split in our impressions: some loved it, some thought, as I did, that it was fine, just fine; if it were a hotel, it would be a 2.25 star hotel.
I finally took the bait. I read FREEDOM (2010) by Jonathan Franzen. Every time I opened the corpulent novel, I prayed for an open mind. As some of you may recall, I lambasted critics (in a www.msmagazine.com blog) for adoring Franzen’s treatment of domesticity as if he gave birth to it. Still, I consider it my professional duty to keep up with contemporary fiction, so I toted Franzen’s tome home from my local library, and I have finally finished it. It took too long. It needs an editor. There is some very good storytelling in it. But, geez, Jonathan, what’s with the women characters? All three major female characters -- no matter how much college education, or athletic prowess, or drop-dead beauty and professionalism and wealth -- home in on one thing: a man. Patty is a college basketball star who marries Walter, has two children, is miserable, drunk and adulterous before she finally lays down her life for her estranged husband (sits outside his house in the freezing cold of winter until she loses consciousness and he rescues and forgives her). Lalitha is the Bengali-American lover of the husband above – a career woman who is high powered, beautiful, and entirely and completely focused on another woman’s husband. And Connie…well Connie so loves the ridiculously narcissistic Joey, son of Patty and Walter, that she gives him all of her trust fund and cuts herself, one little cut to the wrist, for every night he does not call – about two weeks. Seriously, Jonathan Franzen, who are these women? It is hard to get past such a consistent pattern of wasted female life. This is not a domesticity I recognize. Clearly, others recognize it and applaud it, so I submit my minority report knowing full well it will spawn disagreement. Ahhh…the freedom to speak our truths is a blessed thing.
ART AND FEAR: OBSERVATIONS ON THE PERILS (AND REWARDS) OF ARTMAKING (1993) by David Bayles and Ted Orland is my new favorite book about writing/making art. This slim book grabs you by the shoulders, gives you a stern talking to, and tells you this: making art is hard, so just know that, and get on with it. The book is like a coach who cares deeply but does not want to listen to whining. It explores the way art gets made and the reasons it all too often does not get made. Its back cover says it is about “placing Free Will above predestination, choice above chance.” This tiny book buoyed while giving a dollop of hard reality. “What separates artists from ex-artists is that those who challenge their fears, continue; those who don’t, quit. Each step in the art-making process puts that issue to the test.” There is nothing easy inside these covers. Reading it is like exercise: it hurts; you want to quit and lounge in the hammock; but if you make it through to the end, you are a better person for it.
THE SOLITUDE OF PRIME NUMBERS (2009) by Paolo Giordano is a masterpiece of the abject. This novel is translated from Italian, and the writer is a first time novelist, only 27 years old, who is a professional physicist working on a doctorate in particle physics. The novel is not about physics (not really – though metaphorically…). It is about two young people whose lives go terribly awry early on. It is about consequences and human connections and disconnections. Some scenes require a fierce determination to keep down your lunch. But they are not gratuitous; they work toward creating a psychological depth to the characters. This is not a happy book, so if you need that – skip this one. It is, however, as one of my favorite writers, Andrew Sean Greer (author of THE STORY OF A MARRIAGE), says “deeply soulful…one of those rare books you love in an instant.” I confess to having loved it in an instant. I will use it in my Advanced Fiction class in the fall because of the lessons in good writing it teaches, lessons about intricate characterization, narrative timing, backstory, and vividly wretched imagery.
WHITE FANG (1906) by Jack London is a very short novel first published serially in OUTING magazine. It is about a wolf/dog who lives in the Yukon during the late 19th century gold rush. Much of the story is told from the point of view of White Fang, the wolf/dog. This is an unlikely catch-up read for me; I never got to it in high school or college, but I found it on CD at a library book sale and bought it, along with a CD of two nonfiction works, THE BITCH IN THE HOUSE AND THE BASTARD ON THE COUCH. I decidedly do not recommend the latter two, though I admit to having engaged in a covert chuckle now and again. But as for WHITE FANG, it got me through more than an hour on the New York Thruway, a notoriously boring road, and it made me – seriously – laugh and cry. The beginning is rough going – violence and mayhem and unfairness, drunken men who guffaw at dogs fighting to the death. I nearly pushed the eject button until I breathed deeply, remembered how much I love American naturalism, and soldiered on. THIS one does have a happy ending, and I was happy to be there in my car, on that eternal NY Thruway, for that ending. It is sappy and simple, but worth the hour and the dollar I spent on it. Apparently there was some literary controversy surrounding it, and President Theodore Roosevelt got involved – check Wikipedia!
THE CITY OF THIEVES (2009) by David Benioff is simply awesome. It is the story of two young men who are surviving the siege of Leningrad any way they can. They save their lives by agreeing to secure a dozen eggs for a Soviet colonel’s daughter’s wedding cake. While all around them are starving and suffering, they venture forth in search of the eggs. Oddly enough, this is a very funny book. Nevertheless, there are scenes of such horror that they remain indelible – beware! This is a page turner, as they say. I give it a sound recommendation, no reservations.
A THOUSAND CUTS (2010), a first novel by Simon Lelic, caught my eye because it is about a school shooting. It is a twist on the “typical” school shooting, in that a teacher is the killer. It also has multiple narrators, too many narrators, something I always warn my writing students against – yet, I think Lelic pulls this off effectively, credibly. The thing is – I am on the fence with this book. It is a fast read. It is violent and sad and horrifying in all the right places. It is complex. But…in some places it is just plain gross, vulgar really, and I am not sure it needs to be so. Lelic seems to want to make a point about the gendered struggles that face Detective Inspector Lucia May. She is the only woman in her office, and her plight parallels, in some ways, the plights of the other characters involved in the school shooting. But, good grief, some of the “antics” that go on in that British PD are over the top – and when all is said and done, I am concerned about Lelic’s reasons for putting them into the novel. Am I alone in reading a touch of homophobia here?
IPHIGENIA IN FOREST HILLS: ANATOMY OF A MURDER TRIAL (2011) by New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm is brief (155 pages) but mighty. Malcolm does just what her title says: she anatomizes the murder trial of 35-year-old physician Mazoltuv Borukhova, a young mother accused of hiring a hit man to kill her orthodontist husband after he wins a nasty custody battle over their four-year-old daughter. Malcolm gives us not only the story as it plays out in the courtroom – she is there reporting for the New Yorker – but she analyzes the ways in which appearance, clothing, language, accents, and a judge’s narcissism influence the outcome of the trial. This one is a gem for those who are both zealous and skeptical about justice being served in the American judicial system.
Whenever I carried THE SUMMER WITHOUT MEN (2011) by Siri Hustvedt into a coffee shop or a train station, inevitably, women would come up to me and say, “I want to read that.” The lemon-yellow cover attracts attention, but the title seals the deal. After thirty years of marriage, Mia’s husband, a famous neuroscientist, leaves her for another woman. She is devastated, hospitalized for a time, and finally rents a house nearby her mother who lives in an old-folks home with group of close friends who call themselves “the Five Swans.” Sandwiched between these elderly and fabulous Swans and the group of pre-teen girls to whom she teaches poetry, Mia views the world of women who have lost men, found men, hurt each other over men, and who live full and rich lives, sometimes, despite men. This one lives up to its title. Heir to Cranford and The Country of the Pointed Firs.
ANGER (1982) by May Sarton is about the turbulent marriage of Boston banker Ned Fraser and up-and-coming singer Anna Lindstrom. Sarton drills down here, examining the different ways men and women express love and anger. Many times, the reader wishes Ned away, but Anna is in for the long haul, and once the entirety of their stories is revealed, the reader finds herself re-examining, just as Ned and Anna must do. Nothing fast-paced about this book, but its analysis of marriage is revealing. This novel has one of the most lovable dogs in literature, Fonzi.
ANNABEL (2010) by Canadian Kathleen Winter is essential reading for anyone interested in gender issues. Wayne/Annabel is born with ambiguous genitalia, and his/her parents must decide whether they will raise their child as a boy or a girl…or as both. The year is 1968, and the setting is a remote, blue-collar seaside town in eastern Canada. Reminiscent of Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, this novel is important for anyone who works with children and adolescents. There is a beauty and an agony to the story, and the reader learns that what we think we know, we may not know, and that can be a good thing. If you are up for it, this is a book that will open you up.
IN THE ROOMS (2011) by Tom Shone is a quick read about a down-and-out British literary agent who spots his favorite writer on the streets of New York city and follows him. The writer, Douglas Kelsey, a one-time Pulitzer nominee, vanished after writing two books, and failing to write the third, for which he had received a sizable advance, he was sued. Kelsey is both sought-after and disdained. To literary agent Patrick Miller he is a god. Miller trails Kelsey to an AA meeting and stalks him thereafter until they have a proper meeting. What ensues is anyone’s game. For those interested in writing, alcohol, AA, and the lengths to which humans will go to avoid their own truths, read this book.
I listened to DRY: A MEMOIR (2004) written and read by Augusten Burroughs on CDs in my car. Burroughs, famous for RUNNING WITH SCISSORS: A MEMOIR (2002), is honest with a capital “H.” He tells all, and often you wish he would not. Still, this is a good story about a man out of control who gets sober, falls off the wagon, gets sober again. In between, his life parses out in zany anecdotes. This book is just OK. For those interested in issues of sobriety, DRINKING: A LOVE STORY (1997) by Caroline Knapp is still the frontrunner, hands down. Knapp is Burroughs’s equal in honesty minus the showboating.
CUTTING FOR STONE (2009) by Abraham Verghese is a portly marvel – all 667 pages of it. I am so very happy I read this book, and I am so very sad I finished this book. From the first page, I was a fan. A Catholic nun gives birth to identical twin boys in Ethiopia. Is the baby daddy the British genius of a surgeon? Ahhh… too, too much to tell. Let it suffice to say that I discovered the novel when a colleague walked into my office mid-semester with this tome in hand. “You must read this,” he said. It sat on a shelf through classes, exams, snowstorms, graduation. And then – I read it. And you must too.
TO EACH HIS OWN (2000) by Leonardo Sciascia has an enticing cover, and I admit that it helped when I chose it from the millions of other books at the town library’s annual book sale. It is a murder mystery with a high school teacher as protagonist. Typically, those three components add up to something great: good cover art, teacher sleuth, unsolved murder, but in this case, not so much. It is short, 158 pages, so the investment of time doesn’t give rise to resentment. I had to finish it to see who killed the hunters, and I am quite certain I missed some of the signature devices that make this a Sicilian classic, and Gore Vidal says Sciascia is the “perfect Virgil” leading us through mafia hell – still, I cannot recommend this – even if one finds it for 50 cents at the library sale. And in the end, the teacher turned sleuth… of all things…
THE GIFT OF AN ORDINARY DAY: A MOTHER’S MEMOIR (2009) by Katrina Kenison – who lives in very-nearby New Hampshire is comforting. It could be distilled down to a chapter, really…but it is a lovely, quotidian walk through a mother’s life that will speak most clearly to women whose children are leaving home or have just left home. The prospect of starting over after active mothering, of uncovering the other aspects of one’s life, is what Kenison faces, and her story is genuine, simple, approachable. This is not a change-your-life book, but it asks good questions and provides some sound, if predictable, answers. At the exact right time of life, for the exact right mother, this book is exactly right. Note: Kenison writes this book after losing her long-time job as editor of the annual Best American Short Story collections; for having done a commendable job with hundreds of short stories, she deserves a readership of the loyal.
GEEK LOVE (1983) by Katherine Dunn was a National Book Award Finalist, a novel that a reader cannot forget, not matter how hard she tries. It is about the Binewskis, a carnival family, who give birth to their own “freaks” in order to enhance the family business. They “breed their own exhibit of human oddities,” says the book cover. On my second read, preparing to teach the novel in an advanced fiction workshop, I found the book so disturbing, crude, and touching that I could not put it down – again! It screamed outrageous allegory. It snarked – “so you want to talk about family values, eh?” Dunn’s is a book that hurts to read but hurts more to contemplate. The incisive social commentary is too bright, making it hard to look away. This is not a book for the faint of heart. It is for the curious soul who is willing to be taunted and disgusted into looking human behavior dead in the eye.
When I finally got around to reading LADY AUDLEY’S SECRET (1861-1862) by Mary Elizabeth Braddon I was not disappointed. It is a Victorian thriller about a woman with a secret. She is both angelic and monstrous, anything but hum drum. The book both infuriated and intrigued me. I recommend it to anyone loving 19th century fiction. It is a fast read, mysterious, satisfying, and a “cult” favorite among British Women Writer scholars. On a long, lazy, hot afternoon in mid-summer: just the thing. Add ice-cold lemonade.
A NOVEL BOOKSTORE (2010) by Laurence Cosse has had me in its grip for three days. I have eschewed all else to be with it, like a dazed lover. All 416 pages kept me enthralled. The premise: two voracious readers, one with independent wealth, open a bookstore that sells ONLY great novels. They have a secret committee that chooses the books. They are a smash hit, opening in Paris (this is a Eruopa edition in translation from the French). All is successful until members of the committee are targeted for near assassination. Literary taste sparks literal violence. I cannot claim this is a great novel of the sort the titular bookstore would sell, but for me it was a dream. Lots of titles I got to jot down in my notebook for future reading. Lots to ponder about how passionately readers and writers feel about their books. Read, read this one! I will be checking out her other books (yes, the writer is female with a male name!) pronto.
I finally got around to reading INTO THE WILD (1996) by Jon Krakauer. The book tells the story of Christopher McCandless who hikes into the wilds of Alaska, after giving to charity the $25,000 in his savings account, and is discovered dead of starvation four months later. Krakauer is himself a lover of the wild and of risk taking, and his affinity for, if not downright defense of, McCandless is crystal clear. I felt myself in alien company, reading it in the cold of January New England with a fleecy comforter over me and a mug of hot tea at hand. Still, it is a necessary read...though, my vote goes to his other nonfiction book about the history of Mormonism, UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN.
SCHOPENHAUER'S TELESCOPE (2003) by Gerard Donovan is stepped with philosophy, which makes it intellectually interesting but without anything like a typical realistic plot line. Worth the read, however, as it grapples with the nature of evil, from Ghengis Khan to Hitler to the everyday person. I read this because I loved his next novel, JULIUS WINSOME. The latter is certainly the better, but if you enjoy philosophy and characters who struggle with the big questions of life, this is a book for you.
THE SECRET HISTORY (1992) by Donna Tartt is epic. I read it over winter break for the second time since it came out. It is an academic drama, set in a fictional New England College, with a cast of characters who study Greek and indulge a narcissism that is beyond the pale. I have long loved this book, but I admit, on this second go around, I yearned for an editor for Tartt. It is simply too long. Not the kind of long where you wish it would never end, but the kind of long where you wonder why you need to know so much about so much. While it is still worth the read, it is -- fair warning -- depressing, dark, unredeeming, and ... 524 pages long. I will continue to recommend this novel, just not to everyone.
MOONLIGHT MILE (2010) by Dennis Lehane is the sequel to GONE, BABY, GONE. The novel is worth the read just for the dialogue. Lehane is the master of Boston PD lingo. His Patrick Kenzie is a badass love. He gets the job done, loves his wife and daughter, holds to a dubious but consistent code (of ethics?), and entertains for all 325 pages. Lehane deserves far more credit than he gets from the literary world. My hat is off to him with this newest one.
THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MY MOTHER (1996) is a novel by Jamaica Kincaid that deserves and requires more than one reading. I just finished it for the first time, and I admit, my appreciation of it did not kick in until the last one third. What Kincaid is doing here is both allegorical and enigmatic, and it will require a more attentive read on my part the second time around. Xuela, the protagonist, grows up motherless and is haunted by her very motherlessness. It is a book about imperialism and power and narcissism and sex and love. If Xuela is not a warm character, she is one who commands attention because the truths she unearths are truths the thinking person cannot evade.
THE WEEKEND (2010 in translation) by Bernhard Schlink, author of THE READER, is about Jorg, a terrorist who has spent the last 24 years in prison. Upon his release, his friends and family host a weekend-long reunion for Jorg. Some applaud Jorg as a hero of a cause, some denounce him as a murderer. Will he resume his "heroic" work or take up a reclusive life? While this novel pales in comparison to THE READER, it is worth a few hours, even if to consider what 24 years of solitary consciousness can do to even the most extremist activist.
NICE WORK (1988) by David Lodge is delightful, and not simply because one of its two protagonists is a feminist academic who teaches English and Women's Studies. The novel gives more than a passing nod to the 19th