Winter Reading

winter-reading
What I read last week: Roxane Gay’s story collection, debut fiction from Kathleen Arden, poetry by David St. John, and Claire Fuller’s second novel.

The first week of 2017 was a good start to the reading year; I had a bit more time to read than usual, thanks to the holiday, so I managed to zip through four books.

img_2913First up: Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women*, a collection of Ms. Gay’s previously published short stories. The women portrayed in these stories are troubled—by violence, abuse, miscarriage, lost children, lost childhoods—and troubling to those (mostly men) around them, who cannot come to grips with their struggles. Recurring motifs include knives, deer, hunting, mold, and sex, though the stories run the gamut in setting (Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Florida) and style (realist to fantastical). The exquisite “North Country” is worth the price of admission, and I loved the title story, which takes on the categories women often find themselves assigned to (“Crazy Women”, “Frigid Women,” “Mothers,” and more). Emotionally difficult but worthwhile reading, which is what I expect from the author of An Untamed State and Bad Feminist.

img_3432Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale* is perfect reading for a snowy weekend. In her debut, Ms. Arden (who has quite an impressive background in Russian studies) brings medieval Russia to life as she chronicles the extraordinary days of Vasilisa, the fearless, adventuresome youngest daughter of a boyar living in a small village at the edge of a wild forest. If that sounds like the setup for a fairytale, that’s because it is: myth and magic are intertwined with the everyday eking out of survival in Vasya’s world, as she and siblings forget their frozen fingers and empty stomachs as they listen to her old nurse’s tales of the frost demon and the smaller spirits of their home. While there were a few loose ends (meant for a sequel, perhaps?) and one subplot that was a bit trite, overall I found The Bear and the Nightingale to be a delicious, exuberant foray into a lost world.

img_3119Long ago, when this blog was young, it was a way to push myself to memorize poems—less than successful, I’m sorry to say. But the poets I read that year have stuck with me, including David St. John, whose poem “In the  High Country” is just lovely. I was happy to find a copy of The Shore (1980) at one of my favorite used bookstores, but while I liked the collection (and a few poems in particular, including “Guitar” and “Until the Sea is Dead”), it’s not destined for my all-time favorites list. I’m still glad to have read it, though.

img_3046I recommended Our Endless Numbered Days, Claire Fuller’s debut novel, when it was published in 2015, and her new novel, Swimming Lessons, is another great find (it’s an early pick for the Book of the Month club; look for it in bookstores this February). Like Our Endless Numbered Days, Swimming Lessons offers twin mysteries: in this case, both revolve around the disappearance of Ingrid Coleman, the wife of a semi-famous English novelist and mother to their two daughters. In the present, Flora, the younger daughter, returns to her childhood home to care for her father (with the help of Nan, her sister) and to investigate her mother’s disappearance. In alternating chapters, we read Ingrid’s letters to Gil (never sent; placed in several of his multitudinous books) that chronicle how she was swept away by their romance—and might explain why she disappeared. If you read and like Swimming Lessons, I recommend Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife and Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies.

I hope your first (and second) week of reading went well! 

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

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Recommended Reading: Our Endless Numbered Days, by Claire Fuller

photo (20)I first learned of Claire Fuller’s debut novel Our Endless Numbered Days* from Naomi’s review on Consumed by Ink. Once I picked up the book, I couldn’t put it down.

In reading Our Endless Numbered Days, I stepped  outside of my comfort zone; my reading (and viewing, for that matter) bête noir is child endangerment, and Peggy Hillcoat is in danger for quite a lot of the novel.

In 1976, when Peggy is eight, her father, a survivalist, packs up supplies and Peggy and leads her deep into a German forest, to “die Hutte,” where the two will live for the next nine years. Peggy’s experiences in wild living are juxtaposed with chapters about her life after she rejoins her mother, Ute, a noted concert pianist, in London nine years later (and this was what allowed me to read the book: knowing that she would come home alive, if not unscathed).

Peggy’s father tells her that they are the only two people left in the world, and decides to stop keeping track of time:

“We’re not going to live by somebody else’s rules of hours and minutes any more,” he said. When to get up, when to go to church, when to go to work.”
I couldn’t remember my father ever going to church, or even to work.
“Dates only make us aware of how numbered our days are, how much closer to death we are for each one we cross off. From now on, Punzel, we’re going to live by the sun and the seasons.” He picked me up and spun me around, laughing. “Our days will be endless.”

So Peggy—or Punzel, as she takes to calling herself and being called—settles into a routine of hunting and gathering and playing one piece on a piano that doesn’t make a sound—until one day she sees a pair of boots in the woods and begins to understand that all is not as her father told her.

Given the lies that James and Ute tell themselves, their daughter, and each other, Peggy isn’t the most reliable narrator—except where matters of practical living are concerned. The details of Peggy and James’s survival strategies are fascinating, particularly considering just how much effort it takes to learn how to live primitively (I just read a NYT story on a woman who walked 10,000 miles in three years, so I guess I’m on a bit of a kick). Their struggles do not recommend the outdoor lifestyle (though maybe I’m biased, since my favorite magnet says “I love not camping.”)

Ms. Fuller’s writing is strong and assured, her words gliding gracefully; I finished the book in two sittings. She skillfully builds tension as the novel’s twin mysteries unravel: How (and why) did Peggy escape the wilderness? And why did her father leave with her in the first place?

Once you pick up Our Endless Numbered Days, these questions will draw you into Peggy’s world, and it’s difficult to leave.

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