Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips
Sometimes, the beginning of a book is so disturbing and resonant that you have no choice but to keep turning its pages. Such was the case for me as I read Julia Phillips’ Disappearing Earth, a beautiful novel that is more like a collection of connected short stories about an outpost of Russia called Kamchatka. The book’s lavender and light blue cover depicting two figures walking at the base of towering waves is both soothing and confusing, perfectly conjuring the terror and the banality within its pages.
The novel’s fulcrum is the disappearance of two sisters after an unknown stranger tricks them into helping him to his car and accepting a ride home. Instead of that, he swiftly takes their phone and drives them into darkness. This abduction is not for the frail of heart, as it triggers every repressed fear we have of being unsafe and helpless or of losing someone we love to such an unbearable act of faceless violence.
Yet even within this terrifying opening scene, an odd kind of serenity and inevitability permeates as if to say, in this place, things unfold as they will and no one can stop them or understand them. The ensuing chapters progress month by month, shining a light on a number of different mostly domestic situations in which women confront smaller-scale challenges, to little effect. Try as they might, the women that populate this disappearing earth leave no footprint, make no lasting sound. In the end, while the Golosovsky sisters and another character named Lilia literally disappear from sight, they are not so different from the various Kamchatka women who fade away over the course of their everyday lives.
Phillips is a deft writer, an American who lived in Kamchatka on a Fulbright fellowship and came to know it well enough to bring her readers there through these compelling stories of everyday people who surprise us with their familiarity. Ultimately, it is the place itself that is most captivating – a place where reindeer herders sleep under the stars, where bears drive quarreling lovers together, and where thoughts about girls gone missing nudge people to appreciate, if fleetingly, what they’d otherwise surely take for granted. Unpredictable, peculiar, and haunting, Disappearing Earth offers an enchanting picture inside a frame of horror.
Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson
A truly original plot? Characters that you haven’t quite met before, but still somehow recognize? Hilarity that dissipates unexpectedly into heart-rippling sadness? All so rare, all found within the pages of Kevin Wilson’s wonderful new book, Nothing to See Here.
Lillian and Madison meet at an elite boarding school in the Tennessee mountains, roommates who share a common sense of weirdness that is never quite explained, but always felt. When the wealthy, beautiful Madison gets in trouble, plain, poor Lillian takes the fall for the friend she loves and in exchange for $10,000, agrees to be expelled from school in Madison’s place.
Back in her old, lonely life with her single mother and unrealized potential, Lillian works a menial job for years until Madison, now married to a Tennessee politician, invites her to visit and offers her an opportunity inflected with fire and magic. Madison’s husband’s first wife has died and left twins who catch on fire when they are upset, and in order to secure her husband’s political future, Madison needs Lillian to mind the fire-twins. Bessie and Roland, the twins, are on the one hand like comic book kids with superpowers and on the other, no different from all children who have to learn to control their emotions in order to survive.
Out of unrequited love for Madison as well as boredom and her own emptiness, Lillian agrees to the job. Not a nanny, not a governess, not a mother but something inclusive of all three, Lillian finds herself doing a not bad job of raising two children who just need love and care. She reads to them, teaches them about Dolly Parton and meditation, and throws them in the pool when they begin to burn – at least at first. Ultimately, her greatest act of parenting may be her realization that what she really needs to do is let them burn, knowing that they will know when they should stop.
Nothing to See Here is strange, funny, and deeply touching at times as Wilson explores the different kinds of non-blood bonds that can create a feeling of family for those in need of one. I loved the message the novel sends about how unexpected challenges can upend lives and how in the midst of upheaval, what we really need is simply other people to help us keep calm and carry on.
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
I used to teach a class on dystopian fiction to high school seniors. They immediately liked Orwell’s 1984 and they were communally interested in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, but when it came to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, they splintered as a cohesive reading group. Some counted it as one of their favorite books of all time, while others felt that the novel was bizarre, far-fetched, or simply hard to read. Student response to the book did not depend entirely on gender, either; some of the book’s biggest fans were boys.
Why? Many reasons, certainly – but for starters, The Handmaid’s Tale paints a graphic picture of state-sanctioned rape, which is uncomfortable to read and think about. And, it openly critiques and satirizes men and male-led governments that place women on a pedestal while at the same time using and abusing them.
Atwood’s The Testaments picks up all of the indelible threads and characters first presented in 1986 – principally Aunt Lydia, one of the most powerful women in the religious autocracy called Gilead who, along with other Aunts, is responsible for managing the female sphere. Aunt Lydia is as cold and calculating as she was in The Handmaid’s Tale – but in The Testaments, we get inside her mind and come to understand who she was, is, and what she herself believes.
In The Testaments, as in The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood conceives of and explores the tremendous power that women have – among other women but also among men. In the sequel, Aunt Lydia wields true influence not only over her colleagues and mentees but also over Commander Judd, Gilead’s leader. It’s not too surprising to learn that before the coup resulting in the government of Gilead, Aunt Lydia was a judge – and a well-trained one, too. In The Testaments, she impressively uses every intellectual skill she possesses in the pursuit of her idea of justice.
In her captivating sequel, Atwood continues to emphasize the importance of reading and education. Aunt Lydia’s power in this misogynistic society absolutely derives from her knowledge – of the past and of people – as well as her literacy. The Testaments, like The Handmaid’s Tale, is narrated by women through written accounts that they left behind for posterity, and proves that the power to read, write, compare, contrast, speak and advocate transcends the physical power that a body, specifically a female body, may have.
It would be nice to say that The Testaments is easier to read than The Handmaid’s Tale because its story of male single-mindedness and sexism and female cleverness and resiliency is an outdated binary – however, I doubt that is the case. I suspect instead that it’s easier to read because readers don’t any longer find disturbing hallmarks of its dystopian society far-fetched at all.
The Guest Book by Sarah Blake
The Guest Book, Sarah Blake’s mesmerizing new novel, begins with a conversation between two men in a boat on the water off Rockland, Maine. “It’s the usual story,” the man at the tiller reflected, regarding the beautiful derelict on the hill. “At the end of old money there is real estate.” The speaker reveals that he’s going to buy it, this house on a private island that belonged to “one of those families who used to run the world” – the haute-WASP Miltons of New York. Another man in the boat seems especially intrigued when the speaker adds, “One of those tragic families. They say somebody drowned there.”
From page one, an element of intriguing mystery is present – Who drowned? What happened to the Miltons? And who are these onlookers in the boat, who might save the beautiful ruin from oblivion? Soon, we learn that the Miltons were wealthy bankers and keepers of the old-world order, American scions who believed strongly in the goodness of other men like themselves despite signs to the contrary in Germany after World War I.
Integral to their decades of influence in America and abroad were the Milton women, notably Kitty Milton, the wife of patriarch Ogden Milton. Kitty uses her femininity, wits, and careful silence to maintain societal rules and familial power for generations. Like the Anchoress who walled herself in during medieval times in order to maintain the sanctity of a monastery for its monks, Kitty – and her daughters after her – upholds an unspoken and unrelenting code of conduct keeping outsiders out and insiders in.
Burnished and beautiful, Blake’s narrative masterfully holds the 20th century American elite accountable while exploring their motivations and limitations. Although Kitty’s hands are not clean when it comes to her role in perpetuating elitism, heterosexism, and antisemitism, she experiences her own devastating losses that help in some ways to humanize, but not excuse, her.
In many ways, this novel about one family’s private and public life is actually an exploration of three global and historical questions: who died, who was partially or wholly responsible for that death, and what was and is the impact of the loss? Further, what role did and do women play in preserving or challenging the status quo?
More than anything, for me Blake’s work underscored the tremendous power of place — the way it holds the past in its slants of light and reminds us of who we once were, and are now. The Guest Book offers readers a rare combination of elements – vivid, engrossing historical fiction; gorgeous writing; complex characterization; and unresolved tension due to the fact that decisions resulting in tragic outcomes can’t be forgotten and may not be forgiven. It is my top recommendation for the summer of 2019.
Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens by Tanya Boteju
For two summers, I sat through graduate school classes with Tanya Boteju. You might think, based on the fact that she has just published her first book of fiction, that we were studying creative writing. Not so — Tanya and I were studying educational leadership. I mention this because it is important to understanding why her book, Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens, has layered significance for me. Because we were in a program dedicated to school administration, it didn’t occur to me that Tanya was not only a teacher and aspiring leader but also a writer working on her first novel. Because of my assumption, I missed out on the chance to learn about her creative projects or collaborate with her until later. That’s essentially what Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens is about: the things we miss when we make assumptions about what we and others are interested in and capable of.
Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens tells the story of a funny, smart, and believably insecure adolescent named Nima who lives in small town and is in love with her friend, Ginny. Ginny does not, at first blush anyway, feel the same way about Nima. When Nima, lightheartedly depressed about her limited life experiences as she readies for her senior year of high school, stumbles upon a drag show at a local festival, her circle of friends widens while her assumptions about herself and others are exposed and challenged.
Nima easily falls in with a lively crowd for whom gender fluidity and same-sex love is not noteworthy. What is noteworthy, for Nima, is the way this group of people instantly accepts and celebrates one another. Deidre, a drag queen, and Winnow, a king, don’t bat a sequined eyelash as Nima fumbles her way toward greater self-realization. Instead, they humorously, patiently, and kindly help her find her footing. When Nima meets a butch Wonder Woman named Luce at her second drag show, Luce tells her, “You look like someone who’s dying to try something new tonight.” Nima can’t disagree and finds herself taking to the stage for the first time in an imperfect attempt at karaoke-style drag. This small taste of gender performance will plant a seed in Nima that continues to grow in surprising ways.
Boteju’s book refreshingly side-steps and even revises stereotypes and tropes. In her search for self, Nima is not reckless and her family and friends are not horrible to her. Even the book’s villain, a bully named Gordon, turns out to have struggles of his own that Nima can empathize with, while sub-plots involving Nima’s mother, father, and their friend, Jill, resonate naturally with Nima’s story. Boteju writes Nima’s story with a light but very skilled touch. When I finished reading Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens, I had a deeper understanding of not only how limiting our assumptions about ourselves and others can be, but also how without intention in noticing them, they can take root and proliferate in us.
Lost and Wanted by Nell Freudenberger
Although I tried my best, I never truly understood most of the key concepts in my high school Physics class. While my teacher drew arcs and waves on the blackboard and rattled off formulas for calculating things like time, distance and speed, I sat in mild to moderate panic, waiting for the proverbial lightbulb to blink on in my head. So when I found myself drawn to a book about a physicist this month – Nell Freudenberger’s Lost and Wanted – I suspected that its gravitational pull on me was due at least in part to the feeling that for years, I have been lost in space during discussions involving this science.
Helen Clapp is a tenured physics professor at MIT who, with her friend Neel Jonnal, created a “model for quark gluon plasma as a dual black hole in curved five-dimensional space-time” and assumed her place in the high-ranking reaches of her field at just 33. Helen, author of books for physics laypeople such as Into the Singularity, is a single parent overseeing graduate students when she learns that her best friend Charlotte Boyce, a successful television writer living in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter, has died. Helen and Charlotte, called Charlie, were not in good communication before Charlie’s death, and Helen did not know that she was ill.
Very early in the novel, a mystery is framed out: why did Helen and Charlie fall out of touch such that Helen did not know that Charlie was not well? To amplify the mystery further, despite the fact that Charlie has now died, Helen continues to receive text messages from her. Helen does not typically believe in the supernatural. “In my line of work, I do get asked about the paranormal,” Helen narrates. “What I normally say is that it isn’t that magical things are necessarily impossible – only that they must be confined to environments we haven’t yet observed.” However with continuing technological nudges from Charlie’s lost cellphone, along with Helen’s son’s insistence that he saw Charlie in Helen’s office and Helen’s own feeling that Charlie’s presence is still very much at work in the world, readers are invisibly pulled into Freudenberger’s skilled plotwork, much as a satellite is pulled into orbit.
While I can’t say, after finishing this book, that I understand things like LIGO, CERN, Higgs-Boson or the Hadron Collider any better, I do feel more comfortable with the concept of relativity. How things look, and even feel, depends on the position from which we are looking and feeling. At Charlie’s funeral, her brother reads a poem by W. H. Auden about the moon: “This like a dream/ Keeps other time/ And daytime is/ The loss of this./ For time is inches/ And the heart’s changes/ Where ghost has haunted/ Lost and wanted.”
Sometimes, especially in moments of grief, time moves in such slow increments that all things, and no things, seem possible. Nell Freudenberger’s captivating Lost and Wanted bridged a gap for me between the world I live in – words, relationships and ideas – and the physical world, with its ever expanding set of properties, elements, and mysteries. In her latest winner, Freudenberger works her quiet power on readers.
On Being 40(ish) by Lindsey Mead
milestone: a stone set up beside a road to mark the distance in miles to a particular place
The number 40 is such a stone – for everyone, but somehow, especially for women. And while women’s lives are in no way universal, there are certainly more than a few universal elements. A 40-year-old woman has very likely confronted these things: a changing body and, with it, a changing understanding of self; experiences in which she felt like a failure; an ever-expanding to-do list as she tried to balance her own needs with those of others; joy in moments when her ideas and ambitions were realized; grief in the face of insurmountable realities and, inevitably, losses. Lindsey Mead’s new collection of first-person essays by a phenomenal group of women writers in (and around) their forties, On Being 40(ish), gathers readers to an inviting table set with understanding, humor, and insight.
I met Lindsey at summer camp when I was twelve years old. A slight girl with red hair, she was not a spotlight grabber. To the contrary, she was then, and continues to be now, a watcher, a deep thinker, and a powerful writer. Her blog, A Design So Vast, reveals as much about her daily life as it does about the themes that resonate with so many women: the experience of time passing; the toll of work on more sacred, personal priorities; the beauty of words, light, and nature.
In her introduction to On Being 40(ish), she paints a vivid picture of being with her closest friends, now in their forties, at their annual reunion. “Forty feels like we’ve come to the top of the Ferris wheel: the view is dazzling, in no small part because we know how quickly the descent will go.” Mead understands that “the forties are a decade of reckoning and awareness, of gratitude and loss, and they are limned with emotions as divergent and powerful as the individual voices that speak to them.”
The voices are in this collection of essays are indeed powerful – they are: Meghan Daum, Catherine Newman, Veronica Chambers, Sloane Crosley, KJ Dell’Antonia, Jill Kargman, Jena Schwartz, Kate Bolick, Allison Winn Scotch, Jessica Lahey, Julie Klam, Sujean Rim, Sophfronia Scott, Lee Woodruff, and Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Each essay, each expression of what life is like for a woman in her forties(ish), is uniquely impactful. Reading this book feels very much like sitting in a wonderful seminar, one where everyone in the room has her hour to share her story, and does so with unparalleled intentionality, grace, honesty and humor.
What is universal in women’s lives? Perhaps it is the way in which we use words, the way we, to use a line from Jena Schwartz’s beautiful poem Inheritance, we “reach for words from air.”
Inheritance by Dani Shapiro
Who am I? Why am I here? And how shall I live? These are the three great spiritual questions that every human being wrestles with and in many ways, our lives are shaped by our answers. Dani Shapiro, author of memoirs including Slow Motion, Devotion, and Hourglass, now tells the riveting story of how she reckoned with a powerful revelation resulting from her decision to spit into a small plastic vial from Ancestry: The DNA Test that Tells a More Complete Story of You. She had no idea whatsoever the secret she would learn — that the man who raised her and who she deeply loved was not her biological father.
Readers of Shapiro’s earlier work know that she was an only child raised in an Orthodox Jewish household and was utterly devastated when her father died in a terrible car accident years ago. Readers also know that she herself has an only child, a son who was born with a frightening illness, and that she has a wonderfully supportive husband. Now, with Inheritance, readers know even more about her. Specifically, that she is fearless and unflinching. A detective in search of her own true story, she follows every breadcrumb she can find, speaking with relatives in their nineties, researching the history of fertility clinics, and patiently waiting for her biological father to respond favorably to her request for communication.
Shapiro paints a particularly haunting picture of a person confronted with the truth behind her own face in the mirror: I trace my fingers across the planes of my cheekbones, down my neck, across my clavicle, as if to be certain I still exist. One can easily imagine the disorienting sensation of looking in the mirror at 54 years of age and seeing the face of a stranger staring back at you, a face that at once affirms what you’ve always on some level suspected but never understood, and at the same time unstitches the person that you are.
Inheritance is the work of a highly disciplined person and writer, one unusually adept at conjuring a complexity, letting it steep for just the right amount of time, and then dispelling all of the tension she has wrought with a snap of her magic fingers. Hers is a story few would choose but many more will likely contend with as DNA testing reveals, with stunning quickness and precision, secret histories people have long depended on to remain shrouded in uncertainty or forgotten. Inheritance will rivet you and make you weep as it offers this comfort — that no matter the particularities of the genetic code that built your body, there is not one of us who is truly certain of who we are, why we are here, or how we should live.
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
Each child’s journey to adulthood has its own unique elements. Washington Black’s difficult, surprising, sometimes magical journey is the subject of this formidable novel by Esi Edugyan, Canadian author of the highly acclaimed Half Blood Blues.
A slave in Barbados, young Washington Black witnesses unspeakable horrors on the Faith Plantation run by Englishman Erasmus Wilde, a “sinister man in white – tall, impatient, sickly, his legs bending away from each other like calipers.” Knowing nothing of the world outside of the plantation, nor any family apart from a woman who looks out for him when she can, Washington learns from experiences and impressions, gut feelings and physical pain.
One of the first things he learns is that whiteness is a variable condition. Where Erasmus is cold and cruel, his brother, known as Titch, is neither, and when he is plucked from the fields to attend Erasmus and Titch in the Great House, Washington’s journey begins in earnest. Although part and parcel of the white world that created and enforced slavery, Titch is a quiet abolitionist of limited influence outside of his immediate impact on Washington, whom he calls Wash as an early term of endearment.
Wash has a natural gift for drawing, and his talents are immediately put to use in Titch’s work on a contraption he is building called the Cloud Cutter. To perhaps everyone’s surprise, the Cloud Cutter indeed flies, and a good thing too – Wash’s life is increasingly in peril and would be lost if it weren’t for Titch’s flying machine.
From the moment of take-off, Washington Black, like the wild ride Wash and Titch undergo after escaping Barbados, is unputdownable. As a discerning, artistic, black companion to a white man during slavery, Wash is a welcome counterpoint to the sarcastic and clever Huck Finn and a total revision of Huck’s companion, Jim. About the nuanced nature of race and identity, Wash perhaps says it best when he contemplates snow upon seeing it for the first time: “I had been warned that snow was white, and cold. But it was not white: it held all the colours of the spectrum.” This is one of the best novels of the year.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
Like the narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s laid beau (ugly, beautiful) novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, I lived, worked, and tried to sleep well in New York City from 2000-2001. Getting a good night’s sleep was hard because there was so much to keep me up at night. The woman who lived upstairs refused to put down rugs and her dog barked constantly; buses idled on the street just below my bedroom window; my mind whirred, powered by the adrenaline and anxiety of being a new teacher, a newlywed, a New Yorker. I was 27.
For Moshfegh’s nameless 24 year old narrator, the reasons she can’t sleep are more profound, although she is not able, for most of the book, to effectively plumb her depths. After losing both of her parents, graduating from Columbia, and launching into adulthood without a partner or a good enough job, aimless and untethered, she takes an arsenal of sleeping medication to avoid thinking. Probably because she is white and has plenty of money, a healthy body, and a beautiful face, she is able to navigate a universe of anguish – and sometimes insanity – largely undetected and wholly unhelped. Her prescribing doctor seems to be a sympathizer on the one hand and a sadist on the other, and maybe, ultimately, a psychopath.
It’s scary and fascinating to watch a person with everything going for her try so hard to quiet her mind, yet not die. She eats just enough, moves just enough, communicates with the outside world just enough to hang on. Most of the time, she is truly unlikeable – someone who lacks empathy for others, lies, forgets, borrows, and steals, is inappropriate in her thoughts and deeds – but she is also pitiable, a young woman for whom no one seems to really care, including her best friend, her employer, her doctor, her lawyer, or her doorman. She’s the woman in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper; she’s Gregor in Kafka’s Metamorphosis; she’s Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening; she’s Girl, Interrupted; she’s everyone and no one at all.
Infermiterol, a made-up drug, finally does the trick of rewiring and relieving her mind. When she takes it, she loses three full days of her life and remembers nothing of those days when she wakes up. The reader can’t help but compulsively read as the narrator discovers, through purchases, messages, and changes to her body, what she’s done in the missing three days. In order to completely erase her past pain and start anew, she takes an Infermiterol every three days until she’s used up her supply of 40 pills. At the end of the 120 days, she wakes up and renews her life and on September 11, when the Twin Towers hurtle to the ground and the book ends, she is fully conscious.
Moshfegh’s book kept my attention all the way through, but during the last quarter, I found myself reading furiously. It was as if I was aware of a dream, or a nightmare, that was ending, and I wanted to capture something of what it was about, and knew that I probably would not. As the book closed, I was surprised by the tears streaming down my cheeks, having relived, to some degree what the time that ended with 9/11 was like for me when I was a young woman, for New Yorkers, for the country, and maybe the world.
The experience of reading the book, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, was neither restful nor relaxing, but like a nightmare stitched into a dream, it continues to haunt.
Educated by Tara Westover
Since well before the publication of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1762 treatise on education, Emile, people have wondered whether formally schooling children is more helpful or harmful to the development of free and critical thinkers.
In Educated, a powerful memoir of growing up without any formal education until the age of seventeen, historian Tara Westover offers a nuanced picture of a life lived completely out of school. Raised by Mormon survivalists always readying for the End of Days in rural Idaho, Westover spent her childhood and much of her adolescence in an informal apprenticeship to her mother, a self-taught midwife and healer, and her father, in his scrap metal junkyard. She had no birth certificate and was not allowed to attend public school. She was not homeschooled in the current sense of the word, but certainly received an education in a number of practical and very difficult arts.
Over time and through her own determination to know more about the world outside of Buck’s Peak, Westover studies for the ACT and secures a high enough score to attend Brigham Young University, where she wins the support of professors who push her to pursue learning for a different kind of survival. Westover, who had no sense of past or present when she was growing up and didn’t know what the Holocaust was, went on to complete her PhD in history at Cambridge. Her memoir confirms the idea that an education can be achieved in many ways, and if you liked Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle, this book is for you.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
A young girl is seduced by an older man in fine clothing. A kind but sickly visitor to the girl’s mother’s boarding house marries the girl and raises her illegitimate son as his own. The spurned biological father haunts and protects the girl, now woman, and her family throughout their long lives. Set against the backdrop of the Japanese occupation of Korea, and the events precipitating and following Japan’s aggression and defeat during World War II, Pachinko joins a rich, global canon of epic novels.
Author of Free Food for Millionaires, Lee writes that the idea for Pachinko occurred to her nearly 30 years ago, in 1989, when she was a junior at Yale. “One afternoon, I attended what was then called a Master’s Tea, a guest lecture series. An American missionary based in Japan was giving a talk about the “Zainichi,” a term used to describe Korean Japanese people who were either migrants from the colonial era or their descendants… the missionary relayed a story of a middle school boy who was bullied in his yearbook because of his Korean background. The boy jumped off a building and died. I would not forget this.”
Indeed, Lee remembered the story of the boy, how it moved her, and began to write with passion and focus about Koreans in Japan. In 2002, The Missouri Review published her prize-winning story “Motherland” about a Korean Japanese boy who gets fingerprinted and receives a foreigner’s identity card on his birthday. From there, Lee continued her work and with Pachinko, achieved her goal of spreading awareness of and sympathy for Koreans who lost their country amid the twists and turns of the 20th century.
Pachinko therefore is not just epic in its own right, but the story of how it came to be is epic as well. Lee’s ability to bring events, places and past times such as the game, pachinko, not well known to Western readers is unparalleled. Ultimately, though, it is her skill with moving readers to feel hope, sadness and regret for fully imagined and very human characters that secures her seat at the table with the greats.
Real American by Julie Lythcott-Haims
Julie Lythcott-Haims’ new memoir, Real American, lays bare the unique experience of being both black and white in America. Lythcott-Haims is the distinguished daughter of an African-American doctor and a British teacher who met and fell in love in Ghana in 1966. She attended Stanford and Harvard before becoming a Dean at Stanford, the renowned author of How to Raise an Adult, and one of the best public speakers I have ever heard.
Real American offers a riveting, loosely constructed narrative of growing up in the United States, a country that is so highly attuned to appearances in general and race in particular. In the American mid-west where she was raised, people simply could not fathom that Julie’s mother was white, or that her father, riding his own lawn mower at his own home, was not the hired gardener.
Messages about who she was and wasn’t were reinforced constantly by those she barely knew and those she knew well, including her parents who “raised her black” in predominantly white communities. “White boys will be your friend,” her father told her, “but they’ll never date you.”
What Julie internalized was that in the eyes of the world, she could not possibly belong to her own mother and that both parts of her, her whiteness and her blackness, were at different times and in different contexts an affront to others. When she was accepted to Stanford in 1985, she was asked by the father of a boy in her class, “Do you think it’s fair that you got into Stanford over Harris when his scores were higher than yours?”
What he meant to say, she intuited, was that with her blackness, she had stolen the proper place of a white boy in the Ivy Leagues. If only this story from the 1980s were a skeleton in America’s collective closet, a true relic of the past. For readers who enjoyed Debby Irving’s powerful Waking up White, I highly recommend this brave memoir of the unique challenge of waking up both black and white.
Women & Power by Mary Beard
This slender volume of scholarly fire is a “manifesto” bringing readers back in time to a major point of origin for Western sexism: ancient Greece and Rome. Although a golden age for public discourse and democracy, these cultures were largely inhospitable to women speaking in any forum with an audience, public or private.
One need only reread Homer’s Odyssey to quickly find an ancient example of a woman being told to hold her tongue, in this case the loyal Penelope whose son, Telemachus, tells her in no uncertain terms to go away and be quiet: “Mother, go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff… speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.” Fast forward thousands of years to a cartoon in the English paper, Punch, where men around a business table tell their female colleague, “That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.”
In Women & Power, Beard, a renowned Classicist at the University of Cambridge, aims to “take a long view, a very long view, on the culturally awkward relationship between the voice of women and the public sphere of speech-making, debate and comment.”
According to Beard, the Never Hilary movement has deep and global roots tracing back to the very beginnings of Western culture, where women who spoke in public were, by virtue of their public speaking, not seen as women at all. Beard’s book includes important images from art history and an entire semester’s worth of intelligence within its brief 100 pages. In the midst of the #metoo movement, Women & Power offers an important review of how, in part, we got here.
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach is a book I’ve been waiting a long time to read. She started it over 15 years ago, just after 9/11, but couldn’t finish it. In the interim, she wrote some other amazing books — The Keep and A Visit from the Good Squad. She wrote Black Box, a complete and unforgettable narrative made up of tweets. But all along, she was puzzling over what became Manhattan Beach, researching the time period — pre-war Manhattan — and revising the pages that, she says in a recent New Yorker article, made her sick to her stomach when she read them.
Manhattan Beach is a compelling mystery, a vividly depicted historical novel, a feminist bildungsroman. It charts the course of Anna Kerrigan, woman diver. Anna’s father, an affiliate of an underground crime network, disappears when Anna is young, and she spends her life balancing her grief and her certainty that he isn’t really gone. The book opens on the day that Anna and her father visit a wealthy man at his home on the beach and Anna first sees the sea. Her response is to kick off her shoes and stockings, to put her feet right into the water.
Like a young Edna Pontellier, Anna’s desire to dive into the unknown is a permanent fixture of her identity after that day. Anna’s relationship with ambition and her fearless exploration of the ocean’s vast territories, as well as her willingness to plunge the depths of her own heart, put her in the rarefied air of other great female protagonists. I expect to see many beach-goers reading this novel next summer, if they haven’t already read it this winter as an antidote to all kinds of cold.
Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
Some characters get under your skin, if not into your heart. Elizabeth Strout’s formidable Olive Kitterege of Maine is one such character; Lucy Barton, of Amgash, Illinois, is another.
Readers of Strout’s unforgettable fiction know Lucy from the tremendous My Name is Lucy Barton, published in 2016. In that slender book, Lucy tells a mostly sanitized version of her childhood in Amgash, where she and her family lived in terrible poverty. Like Jeanette Walls in The Glass Castle, Lucy and her siblings withstand indignities, confusion and isolation growing up with an inappropriate father and a cold mother who struggled to provide more than a roof above their heads.
In Anything is Possible, Strout widens her lens to include a number of other characters who lived near, but did not socialize with, the Bartons in Amgash when Lucy was growing up. Like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, these chapters come together to add vibrant color and luminous detail to what was a sketchy image of the town of Amgash in My Name is Lucy Barton. And while Lucy was certainly one of the most neglected children in the community, she was not the only one raised on insufficient food, education, and love.
Strout never fails to breathe truth and wisdom into her work, no matter how tough some revelations are: people are not all good or all bad, but some combination of both, all the time; everyone who is unkind to someone is sad or broken in some way that explains, if not justifies, his or her hurtful actions; people take care of each other to the best of their abilities. Lucy, who hasn’t been home in nearly twenty years, gives money to her sister, Vicky. Tommy, the school janitor, asks Pete Barton to work with him in a soup kitchen once a week, just to get Pete out of the house. Charlie, a war veteran who betrays his wife, accepts the love of the guidance counselor, Patty, who helps Lucy’s prickly niece apply to college. When Lucy has a panic attack after visiting her siblings Pete and Vicky at the end of the book, they drive her back to Chicago so she can resume her life without them.
Because the people in Strout’s powerful fictions are fully complex, anything – connection, redemption, happiness – is possible, if not always probable.
The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy
“Do you ever talk to yourself?” Ariel Levy asks on page one of her mesmerizing new memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply.
“I do it all the time,” she continues. “We do it, I should say, because that’s how it sounds in my head. We’re going to turn right on Vicolo del Leopardo, go past the bar with the mosaic tiles, and then we know where we are. My competent self is doing the talking; my bewildered self is being addressed. We’re going to go over to the phone now and call for help with one hand and hold the baby with the other.”
Levy’s self-talk is likely a big part of how she has gotten through different life experiences including the tragedy she suffered while on assignment in Mongolia, where she miscarried in her hotel room and nearly bled to death. After her placenta erupted, she told herself, “This can’t be good.” It wasn’t.
Levy first wrote about the harrowing experience of losing her son in an award-winning New Yorker essay entitled “Thanksgiving in Mongolia.” Readers were stunned by her brave description of birthing her son, taking a picture of him with her phone, and then being saved by Mongolian EMTs and a doctor from South Africa stationed in Ulaanbaatar.
Before this story catapulted her to fame, Levy was writing essays about unconventional women for whom the rules do not appear to apply, women like South African runner Caster Semenya and Edith Windsor, the 84 year-old plaintiff who helped to legalize same-sex marriage. Levy contextualizes this story in her memoir and invites readers to understand it as a chapter in a life lived bravely in the face of rules and conventions.
Levy’s interest in people who don’t follow the beaten path in life comes from an authentic place. An only child, she grew up with her mother, her father, and a frequent houseguest she later learned was her mother’s lover. Levy herself got “gay married” in 2005, living for many years with her spouse before deciding to have a child with help from a wealthy man whose identity she has kept confidential.
The Rules do Not Apply is a meditation on 21st century women’s lives, on the rules we are and are not bound by, and the importance of listening to that inner voice that tells us where we are, what we need to do, and how to survive. Levy’s story reveals that whether we like it or not, different rules apply to all of us at different times, and the work of our lives is to discern, accept, or resist those rules.
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
A bottle of gin. A gun. A tablet of Benadryl. A book.
In Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, these everyday objects take on resonant meanings for the blended family that is born in the wake of an adulterous kiss at a gin-and-orange soaked party.
Fix and Beverley Keating are picture perfect, for a few pages, at least. He is a police detective in LA and she is a beautiful housewife. They are raising two children in the 1960’s when, out of nowhere, a handsome lawyer avoiding his own family decides to pay his respects and join the celebration of little Franny Keating’s christening.
Bert Cousins is no friend of Fix Keating’s, and although Bert has not come to the Keating house to claim Fix’s wife, Beverley, that’s precisely what happens. The chemistry between Bert and Beverley is electric, and in the twenty-five minutes that Fix is absent, having gone to fetch ice and tonic to mix with the gin that Bert has brought as a gift, Bert and Beverley have fallen in love. Shortly thereafter, the Cousins-Keating children’s lives are completely upended when they each lose a parent and gain new siblings.
Bert and Beverley, who get custody of all six children for a few weeks each summer, are more keepers than parents, leaving them to entertain themselves and in some ways to raise themselves. When Cal, Bert’s oldest child by his first wife, Teresa, dies in an accident involving the other Keating and Cousins kids, the fallout is even more extensive than the impact of Bert and Beverley’s illicit kiss in the kitchen years before.
Things take an interesting turn when Franny Keating, the little girl whose christening was the backdrop for the kiss and the subsequent divorces, as a grown woman catalyzes further events by telling her family’s story to a famous author with writer’s block, Leon Posen, who writes it all down to great acclaim in his novel titled Commonwealth.
Patchett, author of so many amazing books including Bel Canto and State of Wonder, calls Comonwealth her “first autobiographical novel.” In an NPR interview, Patchett said, “What I’ve realized is that all of my books have been the same book. I write a book that is about a group of people who are pulled out of one family or situation and dropped into another one in which they are not familiar, and then I see how communities are formed.”
Commonwealth, a novel about the spontaneous communities that sprout up around the most chance of happenings, gathers readers in a tight embrace and doesn’t let go. Like all great books, it reminds us that our actions and words contribute always to the lives and experiences of others – that we are all in a commonwealth with one another, all of the time.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Did you love The Grand Budapest Hotel, with its quirky characters and old world charm? Do you like stories about small physical spaces made large by imagination and the resilient characters inhabiting them? Do you think it’s interesting to watch an aristocrat come down in the world while also moving up in a spiritual, if not a literal, sense? Are you a fan of Russian history?
If you answered yes to any of the above, then Amor Towles’ captivating A Gentleman in Moscow will be one of your favorite books this year. With lavish details and good pacing, this novel is a balm for whatever ails you.
Count Alexander Rostov, the eponymous gentleman, is a relic from another time, a wealthy man about town who cherishes the finer things in life and feels no shame in his privilege. He enjoys his food and his drink, appreciates arts and literature, pays attention to what others wear and how he dresses, and makes and keeps friends easily. From young girls wanting to know about what it’s really like to be a princess, to actresses wanting to know what it’s like to be a Count’s lover, this gentleman draws people to him like a magnet—despite the fact that he has essentially been sentenced to life in prison.
Perhaps that’s because his prison is Moscow’s Metropol Hotel, where he once lived in spacious quarters, but now must make due with a gilded cage on the top floor. On the face of things, the good Count is locked away for writing a poem in 1913 that the new government takes issue with. But Rostov’s real crime is being a relic of czarist Russia. During his “trial” in 1922, it is clear that the interrogating officer finds it offensive that Rostov doesn’t do anything purposeful with his life, but instead spends his days “Dining, discussing. Reading, reflecting. The usual rigmarole.” This list of un-workmanlike diversions displeases the Party, which sentences him to live out his life in the opulent hotel that was his temporary home.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of this book is the narrator’s wise and witty voice when he shares his observations about the imprisoned aristocrat’s experience. We watch as Count Rostov sorts his belongings in an effort to choose the few things that will fit in his new and much smaller lodgings in the hotel: “We come to hold our dearest possessions more closely than we hold our friends. We carry them from place to place, often at considerable expense and inconvenience; we dust and polish their surfaces and reprimand children for playing too roughly in their vicinity – all the while, allowing memories to invest them with greater and greater importance.” The Count then slips his deceased sister’s scissors into his pocket – a useful object that has both aesthetic and symbolic value for him.
The book doesn’t ignore Russian history exactly; the narrator provides footnotes explaining events and people of historical significance from time to time, and the people who come and go from the hotel bring stories with them from the outside, where communism marches on. But overall, the book offers an insight into what it might feel like to be a bug in amber or a fixture in a museum while time, political movements, and social norms move forward.
In an age where Fear of Missing Out is a motivator for many, this book clearly shows that being set aside and forgotten can bring its own blessings. Count Rostov creates an alternate and arguably safer world within the walls of the Hotel Metropole, a world that will draw you in and fill you with delight.
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
It’s true. What is not yours is not yours. No matter how much you want it, you can’t have it, if it isn’t yours.
Helen Oyeyemi’s collection of short stories, What is Not Yours is Not Yours, explores the longing we all have for the things and people that are not ours despite our best (and worst) efforts.
Oyeyemi has made a name for herself since her first book, Icarus Girl, was published while she was an undergraduate at Oxford. Her critically acclaimed fourth book, Boy, Snow, Bird, is one of the most interesting retellings of Snow White out there and is often taught in English classrooms where global perspectives are explored.
Her latest book is even more compelling. A master of her craft, Oyeyemi’s prose is lively, humorous, creative, and disciplined at every turn, mixing magical realism and the real world in a way that truly surprises the reader. When puppets and ghosts interact with human beings, we are more than willing to suspend disbelief. Hers is a kind of “Multicultural Uncanny,” as Porochista Khakpour wrote in a New York Times book review in 2014.
The opening story in the collection, “Books and Roses,” introduces readers to Montse, who as a newborn was left at a church in Catalonia, Spain, with a gold key around her neck and instructions that read, “Wait for me.” An orphan raised by monks, Montse makes her way in the world by doing laundry at a large estate called La Perdrera, where she meets Lucy, “a painter with eyes like daybreak.” Lucy also wears a key around her neck. “I suppose we’re all waiting for someone,” she tells Montse before launching into her story of love, abandonment, and mysterious roses that kill.
In another story, “Sorry Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea,” a young girl finds it hard to forgive and forget when the celebrity she is in love with, Matyas Fust, commits an act of violence against a woman that is captured on video and shared online. Despite his apology, the child, Aisha, can’t let go and colludes with Tyche, a woman with presumably magical powers, to conjure the mythological Hecate. Hecate haunts Matyas, who begs forgiveness, to no avail. Only Aisha can release him, but at the story’s end, she is still weighing what to do. Oyeyemi writes, “She reckons Fust is getting closer to identifying his mistake, and says he should keep trying.”
Oyeyemi plants keys and locks into each of her carefully plotted stories, suggesting again and again that when things we think are beyond our grasp, all we need to do is look harder or in a different way. She’s comfortable with the idea, too, that key and lock may not always make their way to each other. It’s the journey and the search that she’s interested in, and more often than not, what is not ours remains just outside our reach. These fascinating interconnected short stories, however, become ours through reading.
A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab
The few times I have been in London, I have felt a sense of magic in the air. Maybe it was due to the fact that my head is full of English folklore and my favorite stories belong to England – Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books, Susannah Clarke’s masterful Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, and of course, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.
It was my love for London and English fairy tales caused me to pick up V. E. Schwab’s delightful A Darker Shade of Magic when I was at my favorite independent book store a couple of weeks ago. I was immediately drawn to the eye-catching red, white and black book design showing a person stepping from one world to another, his red cape flowing upwards behind him. And once I began reading, I couldn’t put the book down. I was spellbound.
A Darker Shade of Magic tells the story of four parallel Londons – Red, Grey, White, and Black. Magic is plentiful and life is good in Red London, home to Kell, who is one of the last Antari, or travelers with a special ability to move between the worlds connected by the city of London.
Things are not so rosy in Grey London, home to Lila, an orphan and a thief who doesn’t hesitate to do whatever it takes to survive. Living in a London without much magic left, Lila dreams of adventure and of commanding her own pirate ship. All she needs is some luck and an ally.
Then there’s White London, a sparkling, cold place where power is held by two despotic twin regents, and Black London, a forbidden place that no one dares to visit or mention. At one point in time, these four worlds were open to ordinary travelers, but due to a terrible event in the past, now only the magical Antari can pass through the secret doors that connect the Londons.
Kell is an endearing character, one who tries to serve his royal family with the loyalty and contentedness of a well-paid employee – but he wants to be free to roam, much like Lila. The plot picks up pace when Kell’s secret collection of artifacts from the other Londons jeopardizes the safety and peace of Red London and brings him together with Lila.
As one who loves nothing more than to wander up and down London’s storied streets, and to read England’s magical stories, this was the perfect great new book to add to my library. If you like books about scrappy young people, enchantments, and battles between good and evil, you will love A Darker Shade of Magic.
Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood by Lisa Damour
My grandmother liked things to be neat. When she saw my long hair in knots, she would bribe me to sit still so she could run a comb through it. I really didn’t want to stop playing to get pretty, but the promise of chocolate was sufficient enough incentive for me to sit, relatively happily, through that and other unofficial lessons in what was expected of girls.
I thought about this experience when I read Lisa Damour’s Untangled, a great new book about girls’ development. Damour works at Case Western and at Laurel School in Ohio, a leader in secondary girls’ education and home of the Center for Research on Girls.
In her book, Damour describes seven stages in a girl’s life: parting with childhood; joining a new tribe; harnessing emotions; contending with adult authority; planning for the future; entering the romantic world; and caring for herself. Each stage is brought to life through research, anecdotes and analysis.
Damour’s thesis is simple and powerful: the majority of what girls say and do as they are becoming adults is not only normal, but necessary to their becoming independent and successful. For example, when a girl who is sweet and loving to her parent one moment and then suddenly responds as if that same parent is as lowly as an unwanted Brussels sprout, she is well within the bounds of normal, if unfriendly, behavior.
Although “it’s deeply painful to become a Brussels sprout,” it’s not bad or wrong for girls to express emotions that may shift on a dime. Damour tells readers that they can and should respond to that unanticipated chilliness with an “ouch” or “wow” – but shouldn’t ascribe ill motives or character traits to the one who isn’t sure how she feels about things.
Another key observation Damour offers is this: “like teenage boys, [girls] often want privacy for its own sake.” However, as a default or a rule, adults tend to deny them that privilege because, essentially, we believe they shouldn’t want privacy the way that boys do. Girls, argues Damour, don’t need to have any more reason than boys may have to want their own space, place, and time.
Damour is no Pollyanna, however. At the end of every chapter, she outlines some of the behaviors that are, in fact, quite worrisome. These behaviors include self-harm, bullying, substance abuse, and something she calls the “female Peter Pan,” or an extended immaturity in an adolescent girl’s outlook and attachments.
I loved and appreciated the wisdom in Damour’s book. I think about it nearly every night because one of my own daughters has thick, beautiful hair that is often quite a mess. She loves to wear it long and tangled. I do my best to refrain from remarking on it, not to mention trying to brush it out for her.
The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra
Anthony Marra’s The Tsar of Love and Techno is my favorite book so far this year. If you like historical fiction with interlocking plot lines and poetic turns of phrase, this is the book for you.
The Tsar of Love and Techno is an admittedly opaque title for a collection of interconnected short stories about Stalinist Russia, the USSR, and the modern conflict in Chechnya. But don’t let that put you off. Marra is a brilliant storyteller who brings characters and places to life like no other.
The Tsar in the book’s title is a figment rather than a person. Readers shouldn’t look for him, even in the story by the same name featuring Alexei, a young man who lives to go to dance clubs and get lost in the music. Alexei is no more the Tsar than his older brother, Kolya, a sensitive thug who is captured in Chechnya and spends his days planting seeds in a heavily mined hillside that once was the inspiration for a famous painting by the Chechen painter, Pyyotr Zakharov-Chechenets. Neither is the painter, nor the correction artist who adds a picture of a Communist party boss to the painting.
Marra’s stories are affecting tales of individuals whose seemingly small acts nonetheless have lasting impact. For example, Roman Markin is a government censor who erases enemies of the state from photographs and paintings in WWII-era Leningrad. A skilled painter, he is excellent at his job of removing people from the historical record. In their place, he secretly adds images of his brother, who believed in heaven and was convicted of religious radicalism and later executed.
Markin stages another small rebellion when he erases all but the hand of a ballerina deemed an enemy and slated for historical oblivion. Many years later, Nadya, a restoration artist and scholar, writes articles about Markin without ever knowing his name, cataloguing his handiwork left in ample evidence despite his own disappearance. In this interwoven plot, Marra makes a powerful argument that legacy is indelible despite the fact that names and faces may be forgotten.
Each story has its own depth of detail and its own devastating revelation while also connecting with the other stories. My favorite is probably “Granddaughters,” told from the collective perspective of a group of six girls who grow up in Kirovsk, a heavily polluted city in Siberia where Kolya and many other characters originate. These girls manage their jealousy of Galina, the pretty one who wins a rigged Miss Siberia Beauty Pageant, and their grief and acceptance when friend number seven, Lydia, is murdered for being a snitch.
The women speak in one voice, powerfully summarizing the victory in their intentionally underwhelming parenting in an area of the world where individualism has often resulted in punishment: “We’ve given [our children] all we can, but our greatest gift has been to imprint upon them our own ordinariness. They may begrudge us, may think us unambitious and narrow-minded, but someday they will realize that what makes them unremarkable is what keeps them alive.”
Without a doubt, this is a kind of love. In fact the whole book is inflected with deeply moving love stories. Love for a woman who has been scarred and blinded in a bombing. Love for a nephew without a father. Love for a brother who wanted to be an astronaut but turned out to be a murderer. Love for a painting that is plain but poignant. Love for a story that a fellow prisoner of war tells over and over again, a story that was always assumed to be true but was always a fiction.
Like Marra’s incredible book.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
Books about marriage always make me feel one of a few ways – grateful for the one I have, anxious about the one I don’t, and curious about what would have happened to me had I never married in the first place. Lauren Groff’s unputdownable Fates and Furies made me feel all of these things and more, revealing in glittering detail how marriage can bring out the best, the banal, and the absolute worst in each of us.
Mathilde and Lotto meet just before graduating from Vassar. He is a handsome actor from a wealthy but broken family. She is an enigma, a beautiful stranger to everyone at school, including Lotto, until he sets eyes on her, falls instantly in love, and swims to her like a Greek hero to a siren.
The first half of the book is told through Lotto’s perspective. Although he was sexually voracious from the time he was a teenager until the moment he met Mathilde, he is completely faithful to her, at least in body, throughout their subsequent relationship. He obsesses over the idea that she is too good for him by far and will leave him.
For the first years of their marriage, he gives her ample reason – he earns nothing, drinks to excess, gets few acting roles, is disinherited by his mother. He is needy, egotistical, brilliant, daft. He is the star of the show, the author of the play, the life of the party, the god clad in everyday clothes, the narcissist, the depressive. And at every turn, there is Mathilde, loving him unconditionally, picking him up when he has fallen down, inspiring his next move, and celebrating his success.
In Part I of the novel, Mathilde makes women both look good and feel bad. But questions start to nag the reader as Lotto’s story comes to a close – who is this perfect wife? Where did she come from? How did she become so selfless? And why are there no children in this sexually robust, passionate marriage despite the fact that Lotto continually expresses his desire for offspring?
Part II of the novel paints a stunning and often shocking picture of what darkness lies beneath this gorgeous exterior. To tell Mathilde’s story for her in this review would be to rob the reader of the unsettling pleasure of reading Groff’s work. Definitely for a mature audience, Fates and Furies is a memorable book that will undoubtedly set tongues wagging.
H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald
One of my favorite poems by Emily Dickinson is about grief. It’s not the subject of grief that I particularly like, but the way she compares it to different things that steal from us without our consent. Grief is a mouse that burrows into our hearts; grief is a thief that we catch in the act of taking what isn’t his; grief is a juggler, and we are his props being tossed against our will.
In Helen Macdonald’s beautiful H is for Hawk, grief is all that and more. But the good news is that there is an antidote to grief, although it is a rough remedy—the goshawk, what Macdonald calls “the birdwatchers’ dark grail.”
Macdonald was a professor at Cambridge in 2007 when her father, a photographer, died suddenly, catalyzing a renewed passion for the activity he had taught her to love: training hawks. In H is for Hawk, the goshawk, or “gos,” takes on a host of symbolic and literal meanings. She is a misunderstood female intentionally mastered because of her innate power. She is a criminal, a murderous predator without mercy. She is a mirror, showing those who try to master her who they really are.
Throughout the book, Macdonald shares fascinating details about falconry, English history, and her own biography. In addition, Macdonald tells readers about T. H. White, the author of The Sword in the Stone as well as a book on goshawks that Macdonald read throughout her experience training Mabel, the hawk she acquired after her father passed away. White’s story is nearly as compelling at Macdonald’s, and allows her to give us an even deeper understanding of what human revelations can come of close proximity to nature.
Macdonald’s writing is tightly packed with beautiful phrases and images, much like the feathers of a hawk’s wing. She writes about the baffling nature of grief, yes, but also about the beauty and mystery of nature and natural things: “Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace: it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say when or how.”
I didn’t know anything about this unique hawk before reading this book, but now that I do, I hope to see one at some point in my life. Because they are wild hunters that live in the forest, it’s not too likely, though, a fact that makes me both happy and sad. Happy that there is still something out there so wild that we can’t easily find or control, and sad because I am no Helen Macdonald, bravely facing all the difficulties in and outside of my life.
The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits
I was a faithful diary-keeper. I wrote in it every day and I thought some of my words were profound. But in my 30s, when my parents moved out of my childhood home and delivered my diaries back to me, I cringed as I turned the pages. Worse, perhaps, I didn’t even remember some of the events that I once spent pages detailing. As I placed the books into the trash, I wondered, Who wrote these diaries? If it was me, it wasn’t me any longer, and I wanted to be rid of them all.
Heidi Julavits, author of The Uses of Enchantment and The Vanishers to name two of my favorites, is known for creating just such disquieting experiences for her fictional characters. In a Julavits novel, a woman’s life exists on a kind of continuum of possibility and confusion. Female characters seek and almost find their doubles, their origins, their true homes. Along their journeys, they are challenged in unexpected and unsettling ways.
Her new book, The Folded Clock, is a compulsive read featuring the supposed diary entries of Heidi Julavits. Each entry is a carefully constructed essay camouflaged as a spontaneous entry beginning with a specific date and the word, “Today…” While it can’t possibly be Julavits’ real diary, these entries are nearly as authentic as a diarist (or reader of someone else’s diary) could wish: they are insightful, detailed, embarrassing, banal, honest, funny and haunting, but not all at once, and in no particular order.
It’s easy to become envious of or enamored with Julavits’ life as presented in this diary. She has a professorship at Columbia, fame as a published author, and a seemingly endless level of support and humor from her also-famous writer-husband. She has an adventurous life in the sense that she seems to always be in a different place. Her entries are written not only from New York and Maine but also from Germany, London, Italy. It doesn’t matter that we don’t know when or how she got to those places, or even why. She is one who must, she says, be on the move. “I am always thinking: where I am is not as good as where I could be.”
Heidi Julavits is preoccupied with objects, lost and found. She writes of a water tap handle that she found inside the wall of her home. It nags at her; although she has this thing in her possession, she neither understands it nor feels it is hers. She draws it and writes about it, wanting to capture and possess this thing, to make it hers through habit. She feels the same about words on a page. “If I underline a sentence, I temporarily own it,” she writes. “It’s mine. I have bought real estate in this book, laid down stakes, moved in. This does not mean I remember where I live. I turn the page. I lose my place.” To gain a greater sense of comfort in a disquieting world, she visits both psychics and libraries.
Julavits is also preoccupied with time, how it loops backward and forward in such a way that we can almost see our futures and almost grasp our pasts. Hers is a folded clock, keeping time in accordion-like pockets that can be enlarged or compressed. From the vantage point of middle age, she feels the compression of time and marvels at how long a single day used to feel when she was younger. She writes in the opening diary entry from June 21 of no particular year, “Today I wondered what is the worth of a day? Once, a day was long…days were ages… I would think, Will this day never end? Not anymore. The ‘day’ no longer exists. The smallest unit of time I experience is the week. But in recent years the week, like the penny, has also become a uselessly small currency.” Pennies do add up, but to Julavits, an individual penny is little more than a novelty.
Although The Folded Clock can be read as a single narrative, it is best in smaller doses, an entry or two a day. But it’s hard to put this book down precisely because we are never quite sure how much of it is fact and how much fiction, and there is always the promise of something unexpected on the next page.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Anyone who has ever had and tried to keep kept a best friend from early childhood knows that there are good days and bad.
There’s the initial spark of attraction followed by days, decades and months of joyful connection and jealous retreat, of recalibration and reevaluation. Questions and longings nag both parties often at different times: Who calls the shots? Who is happier? Who needs whom more?
I have read many books about female friendship, but none has ever made me as uncomfortable or as gratified as Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the first in the “Neopolitan” trilogy.
My Brilliant Friend is itself broken into three parts – Prologue, Childhood (The Story of Don Achille) and Adolescence (The Story of the Shoes). The story is told from the perspective of Elena in her sixties and begins with the apparent disappearance of her friend, Lina. Elena vows to restore the lines to Lina’s and her own existences through writing. “We’ll see who wins this time,” she says to herself as she turns on her computer
From the start, then, the reader grasps the degree to which Elena competes with Lina to control not only their lives but also their story. The girls grow up in a poor community in Naples, a community characterized by hard work, vaguely understood desire, and rage. There are shocking episodes of violence that are accepted as normal, even impressive. Men beat women and children; children beat each other; men kill men.
Amidst the bruises and tears is a mesmerizing story about the relationship between two dynamic girls whose relationship propels them to act and react in all manner of ways, together and alone. Lina’s schemes, words and deeds cause Elena to constantly feel tortured and insecure, but also more alive. And at a critical point in the novel, we realize that Elena spurs Lina along in similar ways.
Ferrante writes under a pseudonym and no one is certain of her true identity, or whether she is really a she at all. But the author’s ability to capture so well the fascination these women have with one another – not only as adults but during their childhood, as well – strongly suggests a female author.
I loved this book for many reasons, not least of which was because like all good books it filled me with questions both philosophical and personal: What is true loyalty? Who needs school? How is success measured? Where is the line between affection and obsession? What is more powerful, authorship or disappearance?
Into a literary canon made up of stories about hardscrabble boys like Huck Finn, Ferrante’s novel about two tough and brilliant girls is a distinctly familiar yet disruptive addition – and a marvelous read.