Last Week’s Reading: April 2-8

Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett: I requested this book on the recommendation of my friend Mary, who owns Newtonville Books, where Ms. Hartnett once worked. Rabbit Cake is narrated by precocious but not precious Elvis Babbitt, who recounts the events after her mother’s untimely death by drowning due to sleepwalking. As Elvis and her sister and her father try to hold their family together, each takes on different coping strategies of varying effectiveness (there’s a talking bird involved, and dozens of cakes). There was potential here to veer into over-stylized Wes Anderson territory (I love Wes Anderson, but I do not think I would care for his work in novel form), but Ms. Hartnett’s assured debut remains grounded in the Babbitt family’s frailties and love. Recommended.

Portrait of the Alcoholic by Kaveh Akbar: This slim, striking collection whetted my appetite for Kaveh Akbar’s full-length book of poems Calling a Wolf a Wolf, coming this fall. The poems in Portrait of the Alcoholic are intimate and beautiful, a catalogue of desires—for drink, for God, for understanding—fulfilled and unfulfilled.

Fortune’s Pawn by Rachel Bach: I’ve been on the lookout for Fortune’s Pawn ever since Rory recommended it years ago, and after striking out at bookstore after bookstore, I finally requested it from the library. Devi Morris (think Starbuck meets Ripley) is an armored mercenary with a big ego and the skills to match it. Ambition leads her to take a position on the Glorious Fool, a ship that gets into even more trouble than its name suggests. Devi thinks she can handle it, but she has no idea what she’s in for. This is a fun, action-packed sci-fi novel with a bit of romance—a perfect palate cleanser if you’re between more serious reads.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers: I’m on a bit of a sci-fi kick, as you see. I adored this novel, which is like a whole season of Firefly packed into a book, only with more aliens. The setup is conventional: Rosemary Harper wants to escape her past, and what better way than be joining the crew of a ship that tunnels wormholes through space? Of course the crew is completely unconventional, from the reptilian pilot Sissix to the friendly AI Lovey and the cook/doctor, six-limbed Dr. Chef. On a long deep-space assignment, the crew faces adventure and loss and meets some of the most interesting sapients in the galaxy. The concerns of the novel are serious—how families are made, what sentience means, how gender and sexuality might look in a galaxy filled with different species, how risk should be valued—but the tone is lighthearted and warm. It’s a delectable book, and highly recommended.

Lighthead by Terrance Hayes: Another entry in the “poets I should have read years ago” category. I’ve run across Terrance Hayes’s poems before, but this is the first time I sat down to read a whole collection. Lighthead is such a good collection: playful, melancholy, and multifaceted. These poems felt full to bursting with the richness of their language. My favorites included “The Golden Shovel,” a riff on Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool”; “Carp Poem”; “God Is an American”; and “Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Highly recommended.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris (not pictured since I read it as an e-book): This 2008 essay collection fell a bit flat for me; I’m used to breaking out into the kind of chortles that alarm small children and passersby when I read David Sedaris, but no one near me was the least bit startled while I read this book. I don’t mean to say that it isn’t worth reading—a few essays are quite moving—but I don’t feel the need to buy it for my own library.

Last Week’s Reading: February 5 – February 11


Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee: I loved this family saga about Korean immigrants in twentieth-century Japan. You can read my full review here.

The Lion in Winter, by James Goldman: I grew up watching the film adaptation (starring Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, and Timothy Dalton) of this 1966 play, and I was delighted to find that the screenplay matches the script almost exactly. It’s a firecracker of a play about Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their scheming sons, brought to life with some of the wittiest, cruelest banter you’ve ever read. My copy, which I found at Loganberry Books in Cleveland, is a first edition, and it includes stills from the first production–imagine my surprise at seeing a very, very young Christopher Walken in these pages! Perfect escapist reading.

Thrall, by Natasha Trethewey: This 2012 collection by former Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey is brilliant. Thrall takes as its focus the poet’s interracial background, interrogating classic paintings that depict mixed-race people and themes and exploring the poet’s relationship with her white father. Two of my favorites from this beautiful, necessary, American collection: “Rotation” and “Enlightenment.”

Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman: I’ve been looking forward to this book for months, and Neil Gaiman did not disappoint. In these tales, he brings the Norse gods to life—wise but fallible Odin, hulking Thor, dangerous Loki (and he points out that much of what must have been passed down about goddesses and other female figures has been, alas, lost—hence the disproportionate number of myths about male figures). A gifted storyteller and fascinating legends makes for a classic combination. Gorgeous cover, too.

A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro: A subtle, unnerving novel about a woman, Etsuko, who recalls one hot, eventful summer in post-war Nagasaki decades later, after she’s moved to England. Her older daughter has recently committed suicide, and her younger daughter comes to visit Etsuko at her country home. The writing is atmospheric and outwardly serene, but malaise creeps beneath the surface. I’m amazed at Mr. Ishiguro’s skill in showing how characters mean exactly the opposite of what they say. Even more amazing is that A Pale View of Hills was his first novel. Recommended.

5 Reasons I’m Glad I Read Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s The Bowl with Gold Seams

IMG_6764After I reviewed Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s excellent short story collection Contents Under Pressure this winter, we struck up a friendly correspondence via email, and so I think writing a straightforward review of her first novel,The Bowl with Gold Seams,* would fall into an ethical gray area.

However, I very much enjoyed the book, so instead, here are:

5 Reasons I’m Glad I Read The Bowl with Gold Seams
  1. The novel deals with difficult ethical dilemmas: Hazel Shaw, who narrates The Bowl with Gold Seams from the late 1980s, struggles to discern the right path forward when faced with accusations against one of the teachers at the boarding school she leads. As she ponders her choices, she encounters a figure from her past. When she was young woman, she worked as a secretary at a local hotel when it served as a detainment center for diplomatic prisoners (more on this below). She forged relationships with some of the “guests” while simultaneously processing her grief from a series of personal losses, leading to questions about honor, justice, and the shared experience of humanity.
  2. I learned something: Most of the narrative is set in Pennsylvania, at the Bedford Springs Hotel, which during the Second World War briefly became the detainment center for the Japanese ambassador to Germany (captured when the Allies took Berlin) along with his family and staff. I didn’t know that hotels served as (effectively) prisons during the war, while I’ve read about the shameful internment of Japanese Americans and about prisoner-of-war camps, I hadn’t given much thought to the fate of diplomatic prisoners until now.
  3. The writing is lovely: Ms. Campbell is a gifted storyteller, as I noted in my review of Contents Under Pressure, and I admired her portrait of the bright, strong, vulnerable Hazel, an observant and self-reflective narrator (“She loved him, I believe, but my father was married to his job, and in some quiet way, still married to my mother. I understand how that can be.”).
  4. It made me want to learn more about Quakers: Hazel and her father, the town jailer, are Quakers, and the school Hazel runs as an adult is a Quaker school. I found their methods and customs fascinating, so now I’m itching to read some good nonfiction about the Religious Society of Friends.  Any recommendations?
  5. I loved the way it plays with tropes: The Bowl with Gold Seams is a bildungsroman, but it’s also deeply engaged with how we continue to form our moral selves as adults. It’s a novel about the home front in World War II, but then brings the war to the home front with the introduction of the hotel as prison.

The Bowl with Gold Seams is available from Apprentice House, a small press based in Maryland.

[Readers, I’m curious: What do you think of this format for the occasional recommendation, as opposed to a standard review?]


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

Literary Wives: Wife 22, by Melanie Gideon

literarywives2If you’re new to Literary Wives, here’s the summary: we’re an online bookclub of five to six book bloggers, and we post every other month about a different book with the word “wife” in the title. When we read these books, we have two questions in mind:

1. What does this book say about wives or the experience of being a wife?

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

This month, we’re talking about Melanie Gideon’s 2012 novel, Wife 22.  We invite you to join the discussion by commenting on our blogs (links below) or posting your own review on our shiny new Facebook page.

We also hope you’ll join us next time, on Monday, December 1, when we’ll be discussing Adriana Trigiani’s The Shoemaker’s Wife.

Here’s the jacket copy/summary from the publisher:

Maybe it was those extra five pounds I’d gained. Maybe it was because I was about to turn the same age my mother was when I lost her. Maybe it was because after almost twenty years of marriage my husband and I seemed to be running out of things to say to each other.

But when the anonymous online study called “Marriage in the 21st Century” showed up in my inbox, I had no idea how profoundly it would change my life. It wasn’t long before I was assigned both a pseudonym (Wife 22) and a caseworker (Researcher 101).

And, just like that, I found myself answering questions.

7. Sometimes I tell him he’s snoring when he’s not snoring so he’ll sleep in the guest room and I can have the bed all to myself.
61. Chet Baker on the tape player. He was cutting peppers for the salad. I looked at those hands and thought, I am going to have this man’s children.
67. To not want what you don’t have. What you can’t have. What you shouldn’t have.
32. That if we weren’t careful, it was possible to forget one another.

Before the study, my life was an endless blur of school lunches and doctor’s appointments, family dinners, budgets, and trying to discern the fastest-moving line at the grocery store. I was Alice Buckle: spouse of William and mother to Zoe and Peter, drama teacher and Facebook chatter, downloader of memories and Googler of solutions.

But these days, I’m also Wife 22. And somehow, my anonymous correspondence with Researcher 101 has taken an unexpectedly personal turn. Soon, I’ll have to make a decision—one that will affect my family, my marriage, my whole life. But at the moment, I’m too busy answering questions.

As it turns out, confession can be a very powerful aphrodisiac.

photo (128)Meet Alice Buckle. She’s a former playwright, current children’s drama teacher, and her marriage to William, an ad executive, is not failing, exactly, but it’s not going exactly well, either. Both love their children; she loves their dog. They live in the Bay Area in a nice house, and have suitably cool friends. [Memo to novelists and screenwriters: enough with the token the San Francisco non-white lesbian friend, ok? Maybe try a non-white San Francisco lesbian as a main character? Sheesh.]

And of course she’s in the middle of a mid-life crisis, because “having a secret is the most powerful aphrodisiac in the world and, by necessity, exactly what’s missing in a marriage” (88).

In Wife 22, being a wife is difficult because it involves boredom and stagnation, and because the wife in question has difficulty communicating directly with her spouse. Motherhood seems equally difficult (for different reasons) but more rewarding. 

The novel’s plot is predictable, the characters mostly so, and the commentary bland, but the dialogue is lively and the format keeps things moving. If Alice narrated the whole thing, I don’t think I would have enjoyed the novel, but Ms. Gideon uses e-mails, Google searches, Facebook messages, and discussion board postings (that made me fear PTA parents) to break up the text. I did think that providing Alice’s answers to the survey questions without providing the questions themselves until the end of the book was pretty gimmicky. 

Wife 22 is about a very specific type of marriage: white, affluent, heterosexual, urban; Alice and William’s struggles feel frivolous and self-indulgent given the experiences of the great majority of couples in the United States and, indeed, the world.

But perhaps that’s not a fair assessment, since Wife 22 is really light reading. It has its moments of perceptiveness, of course, like this one, when Alice meets with her support group composed of women who, like her, have lost their mothers:

[. . .] we offered shoulders to lean on, hands to hold, and ears to bend. And when we failed at that, there was lumpia and waterproof mascara samples, links to articles, and yes, vodka-laced tomato juice.

But mostly there was the ease that came from not having to pretend you had ever recovered. The world wanted you to go on. The world needed you to go on. But the Mumble Bumbles understood that the loss soundtrack was always playing in the background. Sometimes it was on mute, and sometimes it was blasting away on ten, making you deaf. (106)

And it can be quite funny, especially when the novel focuses on the couple’s two kids, or when Alice makes an unexpected comparison.

I want to have a conversation with my husband that goes deeper than insurance policies and taxes and what time will you be home and did you call the guy about the gutters, but we seem to be stuck here floating around on the surface of our lives like kids in the pool propped up on those Styrofoam noodles. (33)

Wife 22 is like,  I think, a slightly more serious version of a post-2000 Nancy Meyers movie, only without the divorce. It’s good-natured, well-intentioned entertainment about a subset of Americans who get more than their fair share of screen (and page) time.

Please visit the other Literary Wives bloggers to get their takes on the book! 

Emily at The Bookshelf of Emily J. 

Ariel at One Little Library

Cecilia at Only You

Kay at WhatMeRead

Lynn at Smoke and Mirrors

(Audra at Unabridged Chick is on hiatus)

Recommended Reading: The Furies, by Natalie Haynes

photo (120)When I picked up The Furies*, Natalie Haynes’s debut novel, I think I was expecting to read something akin to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, given the ingredients the two novels share: Greek drama, a school setting, and a newcomer drawn into the lives of a pre-existing group.

Like The Secret History, The Furies is a gripping book with expertly paced psychological drama, but it’s very much its own story (and an excellent one at that), a tale of obsession and grief.

Successful up-and-coming theatre director Alex Morris leaves London for strikingly gloomy Edinburgh after the untimely death of her fiancé. Attempting to flee from her memories and her grief, Alex takes an old friend up on an offer: to teach drama to students enrolled in The Unit, a school for “troubled” students who have been removed from their regular schools.

The students are angry, anxious, bored, and difficult, but not hopeless; even in her dank basement classroom, Alex finds herself making headway with all her classes, except for one.

This group of five teenagers resists, in one way or another, her attempts to connect with them, until they start reading Greek tragedy together. Carly, Luke, Mel, Annika, and Jono take to the tales of rage and pain with gusto, helped in part by Alex’s willingness to meet them where they are and to allow them to twine together their own interests with their reading.

Progress is slow, and Alex often finds herself overwhelmed by the five students’ struggles outside the classroom, which she picks up in bits and pieces. And slowly we see that at least one of her students shows more than the normal fascination about a teacher’s personal life when it comes to Alex — much more. And that fascination could force Alex to confront her own fury.

Describing her future students to Alex about her future students, her friend says,

‘We take the ones who didn’t function well elsewhere, for whatever reason: they’ve been bullied, or they are bullies, or they don’t fit in, or whatever. The ones for whom we might actually be able to make a difference. But our aim is to get these children back into mainstream schools, if we possible can. [. . . ] We also lose some because they can’t function here any more successfully than they did at other schools. Even safety nets have holes in them, you know.’ (8-9)

One senses that he has the same plan in mind for Alex; he thinks that the school might make a difference for her. Though the plot hinges on her students, whether Alex herself will fall through a hole in the safety net is the novel’s crucial dramatic question.

The Furies is not, mercifully, an inspirational teacher-swoops-in-to-save-underprivileged-kids story, or a bereaved-adult-learns-to-look-on-the-bright-side-of-life story. Ms. Haynes resists stereotypes and easy answers in favor of what I’d call empathetic realism. Though mostly told from Alex’s perspective, the novel also includes diary entries by one of the students that flesh out events and help readers piece together the unfolding drama; Ms. Haynes is very adept at writing teenagers. As a former teenager, teacher (of students much less surly than Alex’s, to be fair), and person lost the depths of grief, I can attest to just how much this novel gets right.

The Furies is a suspenseful and moving novel—quite an achievement—and highly recommended.

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

Recommended Reading: Katy Simpson Smith’s The Story of Land and Sea

photo (116)Katy Simpson Smith’s luminous debut novel is The Story of Land and Sea*, a careful, spare tale of family in late-eighteenth-century America.

What interested me first in the novel was Paul Yoon’s advance praise; I loved his novel Snow Hunters, which was published last year. (Mr. Yoon teaches at the Bennington Writing Seminars, which Ms. Smith attended.) Like Snow Hunters, The Story of Land and Sea often reads like poetry; Ms. Smith’s prose is extraordinarily graceful.

Graceful and powerful, too — at a mere 240 pages, The Story of Land and Sea contains so much material that a lesser novelist might have molded it into a sprawling 500-page book, or even a trilogy. Yet Ms. Smith’s compact style is highly evocative and time and place, and studded with descriptive jewels.  For instance, one character picking roses “prefers the blossoms with petals tightly packed, like women’s skirts” (176-77); another “comes downstairs in bare feet, her head feeling crowded with sharp rocks” (18).

Told in three parts spanning twenty-odd years, the novel orbits around three parent-child pairings in a coastal North Carolina town: John and his daughter Tabitha, Asa and his daughter Helen (later John’s wife and Tabitha’s mother), and Moll and her son Davy.

John is a former pirate. Asa is a respected landowner. Moll is a slave — Helen’s slave.

These three parents love their children with ferocity, even in the face of overwhelming obstacles and losses. All the characters are rendered with compassion and imbued with full emotional ranges. The role faith (and despair) plays in the novel is incredibly nuanced, especially as it intersects with the most terrible of American institutions: slavery.

The Story of Land and Sea is a story of parents and children, but it is also a story of how America came to be, how a nation conceived in the hope of freedom came into the world blighted with the cancer of enslavement. It reveals the terrible price of the loss of empathy, or its fundamental lack.

Moll, who needs freedom most, is the least free of all the characters, so constrained that she cannot bring herself to love the children she bears after Davy:

Two years passed before her second child, and by then she understood that these babies belonged to someone else. Love was weakness. Love was acknowledging the rightness of the world, and this she could not do. The children were beautiful and they deserved affection and she would do her almighty best, but her firstborn son was the last thing she allowed herself to cherish. (167)

The Story of Land and Sea is an unflinching look at the worst and the best of human nature, a beautiful meditation on American origins, and a compelling family saga. Highly recommended reading.

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

Recommended Reading: Augustus, by John Williams

“For Octavius Caesar is Rome; and that, perhaps, is the tragedy of his life.”

photo (115)John Williams’s Augustus* is relentlessly brilliant. It is one of the best books I have ever read.

First published in 1972 to widespread acclaim (it won the National Book Award in 1973), and re-released Tuesday by New York Review Books Classics, Augustus is the third of John Williams’s three novels; the second, Stoner, has been receiving a great deal of critical attention lately. We appear to be in the midst of a Williams renaissance, and I’m all for it.

Augustus is an epistolary novel that chronicles the life of its Gaius Octavius, later Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (or Octavian, or Octavius Caesar), who became the Roman emperor Augustus. Augustus ushered Rome into an era of peace and prosperity after the death of his uncle, Julius Caesar — but not, as this novel makes clear, without great personal cost.

Readers who pick up the novel might want first to brush up a bit on classical Roman history and personages, or watch two of the most entertaining spectacles on Roman history every produced: the star-studded film epic Cleopatra (1963) and the equally star-studded  BBC tv-series I, Claudius (1976), based on the Robert Graves novel of the same name. Cleopatra, which features Elizabeth Taylor in the title role, is simply fabulous (and eminently quotable); Roddy McDowall’s Octavian is cold, calculating, and very young, a sort of icy wunderkind. We are not meant to like him. The Augustus of I, Claudius (played by Brian Blessed), is a jovial, kindly fellow who just wants peace and quiet and a break from his wife’s schemes. (I, Claudius is rather like HBO programming before HBO: sex, violence, top-notch acting, and great source material. It’s Game of Thrones without the dragons. Also, Patrick Stewart with hair: need I say more?)

Augustus‘s portrayal of the man is completely different, because it is only in the book’s brief and final section that we are able to look directly at him, at the way he sees himself. The first two sections are formed by correspondence, diary excerpts, and other documentation from figures who orbit Augustus. The first section chronicles the young Octavius’s rise to power through political acumen, battlefield victories, and strategic marriages; it is a success story, even though its central figure is by no means a saint. The second section delves into the now-emperor’s personal life, with its many missteps and disappointments, chiefly regarding Augustus’s only daughter, Julia.

In both sections, we see Octavius (or Augustus) in profile, as Williams pieces together a collage of the man from portraits by his friends, enemies, and observers. Julius Caesar, Cicero, Marc Antony, Horace, Virgil, Agrippa, Maecenas, Ovid, Cleopatra, Livia, Julia — they’re all in the book, all vivid characters themselves (it’s particularly wonderful to read how seriously Williams takes the female characters). I’ve never seen the epistolary form used to such perfect effect.

Williams’s technical mastery is overwhelmingly good; style, pacing, plotting, and thematic considerations all balanced. His command of the material is unimpeachable (he does acknowledge poetic license with facts and timelines, as necessary).  Each character is identifiable by his or her style of writing, but Williams never caricatures, never attempts to make a person memorable by inflating his or her worst or best characteristics. Livia plots and schemes, to be sure, but she’s not the arch-villainess of I, Claudius; she’s an ambitious and ruthless person, but still a person.

While much historical fiction recreates lost worlds through sumptuous (and enjoyable) description, Williams brings Rome to life through plain but subtle language, evoking the philosophy and outlook of a culture in transition. And since Rome — as a republic and as an empire — was a model for the founders of America, Augustus suggests many parallels and warnings about our own historical moment. (Look for an absolutely killer final line.)

While it is a novel about a poilitcal figure, Augustus is just as interested in the man: the father, brother, and friend who built an empire. In the novel’s last section, an elderly Augustus writes one last letter to an absent friend, reflecting on his life and the choices he made for the good of Rome. In the end, writes Augustus,

I have come to believe that in the life of every man, late or soon, there is a moment when he knows beyond whatever else he might understand, and whether he can articulate the knowledge or not, the terrifying fact that he is alone, and separate, and that he can be no other than the poor thing that is himself. (293)

Augustus is simply not to be missed. Masterful, elegant, erudite, and approachable. A sublime reading experience.

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

Recommended Reading: Land of Love and Drowning, by Tiphanie Yanique

photo 3 (7)Tiphanie Yanique’s debut novel, Land of Love and Drowning*, is one of the most unusual and spellbinding family sagas I’ve ever read. Set over six decades in the Virgin Islands, the narrative revolves around two strikingly beautiful, and strikingly different, sisters.

Anette and Eeona are the children of one Captain Bradshaw and his wife Antoinette, two volatile people who keep secrets from each other, their children, and maybe even themselves. Both have high hopes and expectations when the Virgin Islands trade hands from Danish to American rule in the early 1900s, hopes that are dashed. Their children are left orphaned, and when Anette and Eeona begin to navigate their straitened financial and social circumstances, the story takes flight.

Though they’re both bound to love the wrong kind of man, the sisters are different in terms of temperament, tastes, education, and worldview. Heavily influenced by her mother, Eeona longs to escape from the Virgin Islands (and from the responsibility of raising Anette); she’s aware of her beauty’s perilous power, and takes care to isolate herself in many ways. Given her education and upbringing, it’s no surprise that the sections of the narrative written in Eeona’s voice showcase her careful choice of words and formal style.

Anette, on the other hand, is much more open and frank (with other people) than her sister. Her voice is rendered in dialect; she’s warm and funny and curious, open to all kinds of experiences, even if they land her in trouble. While Eeona is wary of love and male attention, Anette welcomes what comes her way, accepting the devotions of three very different, but good men.

What this review can’t convey adequately is the grace with which Ms. Yanique renders her portrait of the Virgin Islands in a century of upheaval and change (war, tourism, protest movements, and a hurricane all affect the characters), and the deft way in which she weaves magical realism into the narrative to explore characters and emotions.  Land of Love and Drowning is a beautiful, vibrant book, and I hope it brings more attention not only to the talented Ms. Yanique, but also to Caribbean literature.

Coming Soon: An Interview with Tiphanie Yanique, author of Land of Love and Drowning

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

Recommended Reading: Malcolm Brooks’s Painted Horses

photo 2 (18)Malcolm Brooks’s debut novel, Painted Horses*, is a Western that’s not limited to the West. It’s ambitious, engaging, and sure to be the start of a long literary career.

In 1956, graduate student Catherine LeMay is hired by the Smithsonian to spend a few months in Montana proving that a canyon set to be destroyed by a proposed dam isn’t the site of any artifacts of archaeological significance. Catherine made a name for herself in London, and wjile North American archaeology isn’t her field of expertise, she’s eager to prove up to the challenge, facing down doubts from her parents, her fiancé, and her colleagues.

In Montana, Catherine is daunted by the canyon “as deep as Satan’s own appetites” and finds her guide, a horse breaker named Jack Allen, more adversarial than helpful. Still, in the small town near the canyon she finds people sympathetic to her project: Mr. Caldwell, a gas station owner and former dam worker himself; Miriam, a young Native American woman with loyalties to both the past and the future; and John H, a mysterious horseman with a penchant for painting and a knack for coming across Catherine when she least expects it.

The novel revolves around Catherine and John H. Their histories are slowly revealed as their paths start to intersect, and it’s in John H’s sections that Mr. Brooks’s writing shines brightest. John H is in many ways a classic Western (and Hemingway) hero: strong, silent, skilled, and deeply wounded by what he’s witnessed. By giving John H an early life far from Montana, and war experiences in Europe, Mr. Brooks expertly shows the lure of the West as it was.

Painted Horses is a novel of competing interests, particularly the perils of preservation and progress. Catherine in some ways embodies this tension, focused as she is on preserving history, while at the same time, both as a woman in a male-dominated field and also as an Easterner acclimating to the West, embodying different kinds of progress. John H, too, appears as a relic of a way of life that’s dead or dying, while also carrying with him the scars of the modern world. Like the best literature, Painted Horses offers more questions than answers, and resists easy political interpretations by giving us Miriam, who whirls in traditional tribal dances but wonders whether her family, too, shouldn’t want power and light.

The novel is filled to the brim with beautiful scenery, and unexpected scenes; a woman lining her eyes with kohl, a grove of carved aspens, a particular hat trod underneath a horse’s hoof. Mr. Brooks pokes fun at some of the Western’s favorite tropes; for every laconic horse breaker or sheep herder in Painted Horses, there is a character who speaks in paragraphs, a loquaciousness that seems unusual and a bit funny. Also unexpected, but most welcome, are the novel’s many references to Basque culture and language.

Painted Horses is a pleasure to read, bringing together as it does painting, history, archaeology, horses, and landscape into sharp focus. It’s a gorgeous exploration of the American West on the knife’s edge of change.

Coming soon: An interview with Malcolm Brooks, author of Painted Horses

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

If Roxane Gay is a Bad Feminist, Sign Me Up

photo 1 (20)The first time I saw the name Roxane Gay was on Facebook (see? It’s not altogether terrible). I’d just seen a trailer for The Help, and thought to myself: “Um, doesn’t that movie seem racist to anyone else?” A friend linked to a piece by Roxane Gay detailing her dismay over the film’s depictions of race in the 1960s south, which are, to say it in academic-speak, problematic. The essay was very, very good, and you can read it here.

Three summers later, it’s the year of Roxane Gay (or, at least that’s what I’m calling it). Her novel An Untamed State (review here) was published to critical acclaim this spring, and Bad Feminist* is available tomorrow. It’s a collection of Ms. Gay’s essays (most, if not all, previously published elsewhere), and you shouldn’t miss it.

Ms. Gay’s essays are short, intense views of a lively mind at work. They vary widely in tone, ranging from the hilarious (the world of competitive Scrabble) to the horrific (Ms. Gay’s traumatic experience of sexual assault as a girl). Her essay on rape culture, “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence,” in which she takes the New York Times to task (among others), ought to be required reading in high school (and, apparently, newsrooms).

Many of Bad Feminist‘s essays consider books, movies, and TV shows from the perspective of race or gender — Ms. Gay’s takes on The Hunger Games, Girls, and Django Unchained are a pleasure to read — showcasing Ms. Gay’s considerable prowess as a cultural critic. She is equally comfortable talking about “high” literary culture and Lifetime movies; this is the perfect book for anyone who’s a pop culture aficionado.

Here’s one of my favorite passages, on Quentin Tarantino:

But Django Unchained isn’t even really a movie about slavery. Django Unchained is a spaghetti western set during the 1800s. Slavery is a convenient, easily exploited backdrop. As with Inglorious Basterds using World War II, Tarantino once again managed to find a traumatic cultural experience of a marginalized people that has little to do with his own history, and used that cultural experience to exercise his hubris for making farcically violent, vaguely funny movies that set to right historical wrongs from a very limited, privileged position. (222)

Yes, yes, yes. Thank you.

Despite what the book’s title suggests, Ms. Gay is a wonderful feminist: engaged, interested and interesting, funny, respectful of others’ differing views. My politics overlap Ms. Gay’s, but not completely; even when we fundamentally disagree, I found much to consider in her arguments. Ms. Gay doesn’t espouse one right way of being feminist, and that’s a message we could all stand to remember. Bad Feminist is a book for feminists and for those who won’t call themselves feminists; it’s a book for everybody. Highly recommended.

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