Summer Reading: Pairs Event

In which I pair three books read this summer with three books read before this summer that have similar themes but are in some way opposite. It’s a scientific process, people.

IMG_4256Summer Reading: The Gracekeepers,* by Kirsty Logan, takes place in a watery future world (I haven’t seen Waterworld, so I can’t tell you how it compares. Sorry about that). All land is inhabited by landlockers, who jealously guard their island holdings; some of them have returned to earth worship. Everyone else lives at sea. These damplings include scavengers, revivalists who live on converted cruise ships (no pun intended there), messengers, and the crew of the Excalibur, a tiny floating circus. North is the circus’s bear girl, who, like her parents before her, dances with a bear to entertain landlockers in the hope of earning dinner. One night a storm sends the circus crew into the path of Callanish, a gracekeeper—a person in charge of arranging damplings’ burials at sea. North and Callanish exchange secrets and part ways, but they can’t stop wondering about each other, and about the possibility that there’s a way to be of both the land and the sea.

The main characters aren’t as fleshed out as I would have liked, but The Gracekeepers is worth picking up for the atmosphere, the world-building, and the supporting characters.

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Pair it with: Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water,* another novel set in the future after some kind of environmental disaster—though this time, one that causes a scarcity of water. Memory of Water also features a pair of young women trying to make the best of a dangerous existence while hiding secrets.

IMG_3428Summer Reading: Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country is a hilarious tour through Australia. He talks to almost invariably friendly Australians, gets quite drunk and draws naughty cartoons on a napkin, lists the continent’s unrelentingly deadly wildlife, and doesn’t see too many kangaroos, among other exploits. I can’t say the book makes me want to visit Australia—though Mr. Bryson enthusiastically hopes that you will—but it definitely made me want to visit with Bill Bryson. The book’s one drawback: Mr. Bryson’s failure to write significantly or at any length about Australia’s Aboriginal population; as far as I could tell, he did not speak with a single Aboriginal person.

Still, if you’re one of the people who’s just discovering Mr. Bryson thanks to the press surrounding the upcoming movie version of A Walk in the Woods (which I highly recommend), I recommend reading this one.

photo 3Pair it with: A very different take on Australia, by an Australian. Christos Tsiolkas’s Barracuda* is a book with teeth, and a lot more anger than laughs. As I wrote in my review, “Danny is an teenage Australian swimmer who dreams of making it to the Olympics; thankfully, there’s no swelling inspirational music in this tightly-plotted, intricately structured novel.”

FullSizeRenderSummer Reading: Mark Forsyth’s The Etymologicon is a circular perambulation through the odd origins of English words. You could pick up the book, flip to any page, and have yourself a laugh reading any entry, but each entry connects in some way to its predecessor and successor, so I think it’d be more entertaining to read it start to (sort of) finish. Mr. Forsyth is the man behind the popular blog The Inky Fool, and The Etymologicon draws heavily from the blog’s content. Though it’s erudite and full of arcane trivia (Starbucks gets its name from the Pequod‘s first mate, whose name was drawn from a prominent whaling family, but the name itself came from a Viking word for an English stream. Really.), but also surprisingly snarky and scatological. Highly entertaining. But what else would you expect from an author whose biography begins, “Mark Forysth is a writer, journalist, proofreader, ghostwriter, and pedant”?

photo (34)Pair it with:  Erin Moore’s That’s Not English,* which I called “a beach read for nerds” in my review. Like The Etymologicon, it’s a funny read about words, but it’s less about etymology than it is about culture.

What bookish pairings have you found this summer, Dear Readers?

*I received a copy of these books from the publishers for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my reviews.

“All night it will say one name”: Tess Gallagher’s “Under Stars”

Photo by Blair Fraser via Unsplash

Photo by Blair Fraser via Unsplash

I am very fond of letters, though I am a terrible correspondent, so I loved the opening of Tess Gallagher’s poem “Under Stars,” which imagines what a letter does in a mailbox overnight:

The sleep of this night deepens
because I have walked coatless from the house
carrying the white envelope.
All night it will say one name
in its little tin house by the roadside.

Ms. Gallagher is a poet who I’m just starting to read. I learned from the biographical note on the Poetry Foundation’s site that she is also a short story writer, and I think this remark about how she approaches writing poetry and prose is illuminating:

Of the differences between writing prose and poetry, she said in an interview with Willow Springs: “I feel like prose comes much more from outside me than poetry does. Poetry is intimate and more generated in my own theater, shall we say. But in prose I have to be responsive to that story that’s coming to me and there has to be some part of me that goes out to meet it.”

I wonder how many other writers feel that way.

If you’re a Tess Gallagher fan, please let me know which poems and collections I should seek out!

What to Read While You Wait for the Magic Mike XXL Blu-ray: Dietland, by Sarai Walker

I’ll admit it: I did not believe the feminist hype about Magic Mike XXL that I kept reading on Twitter.

But then I went to see it.

There is a magic place where you can still see a movie after 6 p.m. for under 10 bucks. That magic place is Rhode Island.

There is a magic place where you can still see a movie after 6 p.m. for under 10 bucks. That magic place is Rhode Island.

In a tiny theater on a Tuesday night, my husband (the only man present, but let me tell you, men should see this movie) and I sat with about a dozen women, and all of us laughed and clapped and practically cheered. It was the most positive, enthusiastic, demonstrative crowd I’ve seen at the movies, bar none (this from a woman who saw the Lord of the Rings movies at 12:01a.m. on opening day, mind you).

Why, you ask?

Well, it’s not just the good looking guys dancing around, though that’s fun (for the record, I don’t find Channing Tatum particularly attractive. No offense, Channing—you seem like a nice guy and I’d be happy to chat with you over a beer, but let’s keep it to just friends, m’kay?). You can see the same kind of thing in the first Magic Mike movie, which was a Steven Soderbergh take on the guy-trying-to-get-a-break-and-start-new-life-gets-pulled-into-old-life story. It was a good enough movie, but it didn’t leave me with a grin on my face like this one did.

Nor was it the jokes, which were pretty good, but not Anchorman quality, if you know what I mean.

I think what made me (and the audience) so happy was that (1) this is a movie about men who are out to make women happy. Are they interested in sleeping with women? Sure. Does that drive the plot? No. It’s unbelievably refreshing.

And (2), in this movie, women don’t have to be afraid. No woman is killed, raped, beaten, harassed, pressured for sex, humiliated, called names, or treated as a passive object. Not one. Not a single one. It’s like an alternative fantasy world in which women are safe around men, period.

And (3) I’m talking about women of all colors and all sizes. The fat (which I am not using in a pejorative sense) women in this movie are happy and beautiful and sexy—and being treated that way by extremely (conventionally) attractive men. And those men rely on women—including a woman of color—for help of all sorts.

To see depictions like these in a mainstream movie is like some kind of feminist fever dream. Naturally, I loved it.

Which brings me, at last, to the book you should read while you wait to watch the movie at home.

Magic Mike XXL is a movie fantasy that’s explicitly about men trying to make women happy. Dietland*, by Sarai Walker, is a fantasy in book form about women making themselves happy.

IMG_4255Plum Kettle is convinced that her real life will start once she has weight-loss surgery and becomes thin. Then she’ll be Alicia, her true self—the self who won’t be stared at, or mocked, or judged simply for moving through the world. In the meantime, Plum works for a teen magazine, answering the agonized emails of teenage girls in the vapid persona of the magazine’s editor.

Then one day, she realizes she’s being followed by girl in combat boots and bright tights, and eventually she’s drawn into the orbit of Calliope House, which is a quasi-radical feminist collective funded by Verena, a diet guru’s daughter who completely rejects her mother’s work. Plum gets to know the women who filter in and out of Calliope House (artists, activists, the occasional spy at a beauty magazine) and finds her eyes opened to what’s expected of all women, fat and thin, in the culture around her: that they make themselves attractive, by any means necessary, for men. Diets, waxing, shapewear, contouring, lingerie ads, high heels, porn: all part of the world that normalizes and encourages the objectification of women.

As Plum undertakes a difficult challenge (to live as she thinks Alicia would before she has the surgery) something darker is afoot. It’s a literal feminist conspiracy, if you will: A mysterious vigilante group called Jennifer starts to fight back, worldwide, against male oppression. Rapists are dropped onto freeways. A male editor is kidnapped and forced to replace topless female models on page 3 with nude male models. People who make hard-core porn that glorifies rape are killed. Athletes and film directors who got away with rape (thinly-veiled analogues for real people), along with a revenge-porn website founder, and several other despicable men, are kidnapped.

And then other women start to fight back. Women at a “prestigious Connecticut university” (ahem) destroy the fraternity house of a group of men who walked around campus shouting an abhorrent slogan—when “in previous years, this type of misbehavior would have been handled by a tweedy disciplinary committee in a conference room” (231). Men start to think twice about what they do or say.

Now, would you believe me if I told you this novel is hilarious? It is.

While these two plots aren’t always perfectly woven together, reading a book in which genre tropes are turned on their heads and in which every ridiculous thing women are asked to do to be beautiful is laid out and subjected to scrutiny is so rare, so exciting, that I turned pages with glee. Plum is a wonderful character with a rich interior life; she feels real, and she holds this cri-de-couer of a novel together.

Think of every rom-com you’ve watched in which the happy ending depends on the woman becoming pretty and getting the man. When was the last time you saw a mainstream movie in which a fat woman was happy, sexy, confident, and treated as such (see, there’s Magic Mike XXL, standing  in not very much company)? Think of every diet ad you’ve ever seen. How many were marketed to men?  How much time out of our lives do women spend thinking and talking about what will make us thinner, or what will make us look thinner? Think of all the professional women you know—how much harder do they have to work to get ready in the morning than their male counterparts, not because they want to, but because their company and coworkers silently expect them to?

There’s a difference between getting gussied up because it makes you feel fabulous, exercising because you dig the endorphins, or eating food that makes you feel good—and working to change your appearance because if you don’t you’ll be embarrassed or shamed. Dietland lays out those differences in technicolor.

Dietland makes the point that if we didn’t have to waste our time on the expectations a male-dominated (and often women-enforced) culture has for us, we could not only grant ourselves more time and space to be happy (to read a book, play with our kids, visit with friends, watch a Channing Tatum movie, whatever) but also tackle the really big problems without needing Jennifer’s approach, problems like violence against women, human trafficking, and suffering in its myriad forms.

Now that’s a feminist fantasy.

P.S. Speaking of which, I also highly recommend Feminist Ryan Gosling to while away the hours. Hilarious.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

A Small Confession

Dear Readers, I hope you will not mind a post of a slightly different sort. I have a small confession to make: I’m a closet writer.

Sure, I write as part of my job, and of course I write about books here. But I also steal a little time, here and there, to write fiction and poetry. It’s slow going, so I’m pleased as punch to say that I’ve got a very short (really, as in 500 or so words) story in the latest issue of Midway Journal. You can read it here, if you’re so inclined, along with the work of writers whose company I’m very proud to be in.

Thank you for indulging this shameless self-promotion. Back to regularly scheduled programming next week.

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“larklike over the wheat”: Ted Kooser’s “So This Is Nebraska”

Photo courtesy of Jordan McQueen via Unsplash.

Photo courtesy of Jordan McQueen via Unsplash.

It’s been hot in Boston this week, certainly more hot than I like (which, to be fair, is not very hot at all), but not as hot as it could be. One of the hottest days I remember involved driving through Nebraska in summertime, years ago, when the temperature outside was 106 degrees. I don’t think I’ve seen a thermometer hit that temperature in all the years since.

“So This is Nebraska,” by former poet laureate Ted Kooser, describes that kind of hot day, though with far more attention to detail than I can conjure from memory. And oddly enough, it made me feel a little cooler.

By the way, there’s a bar before the poem that has a recording of Ted Kooser reading the poem. It’s great.

Writer to Watch: Nuala O’Connor

IMG_4252Nuala O’Connor’s Miss Emily* is an upstairs/downstairs novel about Emily Dickinson and an imagined Irish maid-of-all-work. While it is Ms. O’Connor’s first novel published in the United States, she has published two novels, short stories, and poetry in the U.K. and Ireland, where she often writes under the name Nuala Ní Chonchúir.

Miss Emily takes place over the course of a year or so, when 18-year-old Ada Concannon leaves Ireland for America, where she finds work in Amherst with the odd but locally esteemed Dickinson family. Chapters alternate between Ada’s voice and that of Emily Dickinson, who in her mid-30s is headed toward the seclusion she’s well known for. Despite the gaps in age, class, education, and origins, Ada and Emily form a friendship, trading recipes and observations about goings-on in the natural world.

The novel’s strongest aspects include its descriptions, particularly Ada’s recollections of Dublin and her grandmother’s cottage, and Ms. O’Connor’s rendering of Emily’s facility with language and adept way with peculiar images. Readers fond of realistic renderings of everyday life in historical fiction will find much to please them here.

Miss Emily moves very fast, thanks to its short chapters that change perspective, but I would have preferred a longer version with more expansion on the Dickinson family’s relationships and those within Ada’s family. Readers conversant with Emily Dickinson’s biography will pick up on the family dynamics, but those who don’t know much about the poet may find themselves lost at times.

Without giving too much away, I’d also add that I found the novel’s ending disappointing, shifting agency away from the main characters we’ve spent so much time with in favor of male characters who aren’t as fully drawn. In the last quarter of the novel, Emily and Ada react to events, rather than choosing their own paths, which is unfortunate and not in keeping with the tone of the novel’s first half.

Despite these issues, I’d still recommend Miss Emily for a quick summer read, and I’d be happy to read more of Ms. O’Connor’s writing, particularly her poetry. And I suspect that after you read this book, you’ll be curious to see, as I am, the Homestead, the Dickinson family home. I’ve lived about two hours from it for years, and I’m sorry to say I haven’t been to see it—but I hope to get out to Amherst later this summer, Emily Dickinson’s own words in hand.

You can read more about Nuala O’Connor here. And if you’re interested in visiting the Emily Dickinson Museum, you can read more about it here. 

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.


“the world it becomes”: Louise Erdrich’s “Turtle Mountain Reservation”

IMG_3990Ever since I read The Round House (brief review here), I’ve been on the lookout for Louise Erdrich’s books. In Vermont a few weeks ago, at Brattleboro Books, I found a copy of Jacklight (1984), her first collection of poetry, which, though it’s now thirty years old, still feels fresh, full of sharp observations and unexpected turns of phrase. I’ve been reading it slowly, finishing up last week. The poems tell stories that reflect Ms. Erdrich’s Native American and German American background; several are accompanied by short, explanatory notes or epigraphs, which is a poetic practice I happen to love.

I recommend the whole collection, but this week I’ll point you toward “Turtle Mountain Reservation,” the last poem in the book. Dedicated to the poet’s grandfather, it’s a powerful meditation on heritage, aging, and change.