Last Month’s Reading: July 2017

August: Osage County, by Tracy Letts: I read this play about a hyper-dysfunctional, secret-keeping-and-spilling Oklahoma family with a semi-permanent cringing expression. It’s black comedy and melodrama with huge spikes of outrageous behavior; though I haven’t seen the film version, I can imagine Meryl Streep eating her role (as Violet, the vicious matriarch) for breakfast. However, I found the role of Johnna, the only Native American character, problematic, though perhaps that’s a misreading on my part (see Kimberly Guerrero’s piece on the play here).

Prairie Fever, by Mary Biddinger: Last month, I lucked into finding this collection at Loganberry Books (and if you’re in Cleveland, I highly recommend the bookstore for felicitous finds). Ms. Biddinger’s sharp focus on Midwest settings almost de-familiarizes them, making the ordinary new (I loved these lines from “Dirndl in a Tree”: “Yard flecked with trillium / like private school collars / spread open on green / and ochre.”) Some favorites from this collection: “Coyote,” “Velvet Season,” “The Flyers” (in which a tow truck’s “tail lights / are cherries pickled in gin and salt”), and “Red Sea.” Packed with gritty characters, hot days, bars and basements, and unexpected animals, it’s a dangerous-feeling collection. Recommended.

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay: A haunting memoir about trauma, its aftermath, and what it means to live in a body that contemporary American society has deemed unacceptable. Ms. Gay writes about her body—the kind of body that in person is usually read too quickly, without nuance, or even ignored—with directness and powerful vulnerability. This book is a gift.

How to Be a Tudor, by Ruth Goodman: Ruth Goodman is not only a social historian, but also a re-enactor who spends long stretches learning first-hand what it was like to live in another era (she was a consultant on Wolf Hall—so cool). That practical and professional experience is abundantly evident in How to Be a Tudor, in which she uses the structure of the Tudor day to show how people—commoners and aristocrats—lived five hundred years ago. It’s a treasure trove of detailed information (I often wished for diagrams) about everything from food (how to grow it and how to eat it) to ribbon-making to tooth-brushing (she prefers soot, of the available options). If you, like me, are a Tudor-era history/lit nerd, don’t miss this one.

Miracle Fruit, by Aimee Nezhukumatathil: Last year I read and mightily enjoyed the short book Lace & Pyrite: Letters from Two Gardens, a correspondence in poems between Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Ross Gay.  Miracle Fruit, Ms. Nezhukumatathil’s 2003 collection, is simply glorious, a feast of language and exquisitely described scents and tastes. Some of my favorites: “In the Potatoes,” “Wrap” (the speaker’s grandmother wraps her sari, “coughs it up over her shoulder”), “The Woman Who Turned Down a Date with a Cherry Farmer,” “Speak,” and “My Name.” Highly recommended.

Anything Is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout: I loved last year’s My Name is Lucy Barton, and this set of interlinked stories is a companion piece to that novel, focusing on some of the characters Lucy and her mother recall. In these quiet, often grim, slow-building stories, Ms. Strout treats desperate, lonely, and overlooked characters with compassion and respect.

June Fourth Elegies, by Liu Xiaobo, translated by Jeffrey Yang: Chinese dissident, human rights activists, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo died earlier this month, still under guard by the Chinese government, which announced his illness only after it was essentially incurable.  His wife, artist and writer Liu Xia, is still under house arrest. June Fourth Elegies collects his yearly poems written as offerings for the victims of the Tiananmen Square protests, as well as a handful of poems written for his wife. His introduction is searing in its condemnation of the Chinese state. I found these elegies moving in their appearance as a group, witness of their author’s unstinting sorrow for the dead and decades-long struggle for justice.

The Night Ocean, by Paul La Farge: Horror isn’t my thing and I’ve never been particularly interested in H. P. Lovecraft, but Paul La Farge’s novel about a modern couple attempting to suss out some of the truth about the writer’s life and afterlife drew me in after the cover first hooked me; I found the book hard to put down. It’s about yarn -spinning and the stories we tell ourselves, unreliable narrators and texts, the slipperiness of perspective and multiplicity. To say more would, I think, ruin its many surprises.

James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl (not pictured): I’m pretty sure my mother read this to us when we were kids; it was delightful to be the one reading it aloud this time. Peals of laughter, over and over.

All the Bayou Stories End with Drowned, by Erica Wright: As you might guess from the title, in this collection you’re in the hands of a gifted storyteller (Ms. Wright is also the author of two crime novels, including The Granite Moth). Many of these poems are eerie (“Spontaneous Human Combustion” or “Abandoned Doll Factory,” for example), darkly funny, suggestive of lurking longer stories. Some of my favorite poems in this collection were “American Highways in Billboard Country” (“What if the exit we choose / isn’t the one we wanted?”), “Our Wilderness Period,” “Select. Start.” (It’s hard to love men who played video games / as boys. It’s hard when you can’t picture them / skinning their knees on gravel [. . . ]”), “American Ghosts,” and “Trespassing.”  Highly recommended.

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.

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.

Recommended Reading: An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay

Critics have been calling Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State* “breathless” and “gripping” and “harrowing.” They’re right.

Tom Perrotta sums it up best: “An Untamed State is a harrowing, suspenseful novel about the connections between sexual violence and political rage, narrated in a voice at once traumatized and eerily controlled. Roxane Gay is a remarkable writer, an astute observer of Haitian society and a deeply sympathetic, unflinching chronicler of the compromises people make in order to survive under the most extreme conditions.”

Here’s the summary from the publisher:

Mireille Duval Jameson is living a fairy tale. The strong-willed youngest daughter of one of Haiti’s richest sons, she has an adoring husband, a precocious infant son, by all appearances a perfect life. The fairy tale ends one day when Mireille is kidnapped in broad daylight by a gang of heavily armed men, in front of her father’s Port au Prince estate. Held captive by a man who calls himself The Commander, Mireille waits for her father to pay her ransom. As it becomes clear her father intends to resist the kidnappers, Mireille must endure the torments of a man who resents everything she represents.

An Untamed State is a novel of privilege in the face of crushing poverty, and of the lawless anger that corrupt governments produce. It is the story of a willful woman attempting to find her way back to the person she once was, and of how redemption is found in the most unexpected of places.

I’m having a difficult time writing about the novel, which is unsurprising since I’m pretty sure that my usually low blood pressure was elevated to unhealthy levels while I was reading it. On every level –plotting, pacing, dialogue, characterization — the novel is pitch perfect. The subject matter simply makes it extraordinary difficult to read. An Untamed State is photo (87)an important book, because it lays bare the traumas —  emotional, sexual, racial, economic — that we don’t like to think about because of their painful nature.

One of my favorite people once asked me why I (sometimes) read fiction that’s so dark, that imagines such terrible things — isn’t there enough violence and sorrow in the world already? The news — no matter where you live — seems always to be showing us some new predator, some new house of horrors. No hometown is safe, not mine and not yours. People are ferocious creatures.

It’s a valid question, and I’ve struggled to find the right answer. I don’t read horror (rest easy, I’m not talking about Stephen King) or watch torture-porn (Saw, etc.) because I take no pleasure in being frightened, in watching the pain of others; it seems to me that no-one is served by that kind of violence. And I cannot watch those police procedurals that show only the aftermath of violence. I believe the creators of these shows have good intentions: to try to offer even a small measure of justice for victims and to draw attention to the impact and extent of sexual violence, but these shows never tell the full story.

But books like An Untamed State, Louise Erdich’s The Round House, and Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing (and there are many more) give voice to victims and survivors of violence, particularly sexual violence, which has been so deeply stigmatized for so very long. We cannot expect real-life survivors to relive or retell their experiences for us — though we should be very, very grateful when they do — and so fiction offers us a way to empathize with survivors without infringing on their privacy. Fiction gives us access to thoughts and emotions with nuance and depth that can’t be conveyed on a screen; books contain enough pages to tell what comes after, and what came before.

Rory, in her review of Cynthia Bond’s Ruby (another difficult-but-necessary novel), pointed to an essay by Ms. Bond in which she discussed her own experience (scroll down to find the essay), and these words have stayed with me every since: “Somewhere along the way, working with at risk and homeless youth in Los Angeles for 15 years, living with my own abuse, and hearing stories of such pain and torment, I thought—If you can bear to have lived it, I can at least bear to listen.”

Exactly. I read An Untamed State because somewhere out there, someone has lived it. And I can at least bear to listen.

* I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.


RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network):

National Violence Against Women Research Prevention Center:

What Men Can Do to Stop Violence Against Women: