January 2019


So, this is very delayed – last week I read Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward and Can You Ever Forgive Me: Memoires of Literary Forger by Lee Israel.  First up, Can You Ever Forgive Me (which was recently made into a movie) the true account of how Lee Israel during the 90’s forged and sold letters purporting to be from Noel Coward, Dorthy Parker, and several others. Israel is actually pretty likeable in print, although you get the sense you might not really want her as an officemate. The story itself is more of a short story than a memoir — I think it clocks in at 126 pages, and the font is not small. This might be one instance where you’re fine just seeing the movie or don’t get much out of reading the book and seeing the movie. I enjoyed the movie more than I expected to, so I requested the book from my library back in November. I’m still trying to figure out what the heck the person who had it out before me was doing for 6 weeks with the book — using it as a primer on how to become a literary forger???

I really liked Salvage the Bones — although that feels a bit strange to say since the book is about Katrina. I recently had the amazing opportunity to meet Jesmyn Ward and hear her read some of Sing Unburied Sing (and get my copy signed !). And that prompted me to decide it was high time I read the rest of her books.

Salvage the Bones is set in Bois Savage, Mississippi and begins about two weeks before Hurricane Katrina strikes. The main character is Esh, a fifteen year old girl, and her three brothers (Randall, Skeetah, and Junior) all play main roles as well. Their mother died giving birth to Junior, and their father isn’t great — although he takes storm preparedness pretty seriously so that’s good, although, against a category 5 hurricane, it doesn’t really end up being quite enough… Their lost mother is definitely a presence in the story (although not a ghostly presence as with Sing Unburied Sing):

When [Esh’s grandmother] died, Mam told me that she had gone away, and then I wondered where she went. Because everyone else was crying, I clung like a monkey to Mama, my legs and arms wrapped around her softness, and I cried, loved running through me like a hard, blinding summer rain. And then Mama died, and there was no one left for me to hold on to.

I miss her so badly I have to swallow salt, imagine it running like lemon juice into the fresh cut that is my chest, feel it sting.

I checked, and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that Esh is pregnant because that fact is included in the book flap summary. So there’s a fair amount of pre-storm drama – and I worried over this motherless soon-to-be mother especially knowing Katrina was coming. The storm doesn’t actually show up until page 215. There’s a lot of sort of dread in reading most of the book because you the reader have a sense of what’s coming and the characters very much do not. Hurricanes, they are somewhat used to. But not Katrina.

There is a lot of sadness in this book, and that sadness is beautifully conveyed. But, I will say that while the end was hardly happy, it was redeeming enough that you didn’t finish this book feeling nearly as bad as I expected to going in.

Read Salvage the Bones, skip Can You Ever Forgive Me.

Currently reading: Eloquent Rage and The Interestings.

This past week I read two memoirs, both of which cover very specific periods of the author’s life — in Glynnis Macnicol’s No One Tells You This we hear about Macinol’s early forties as she creates her own way to be a woman alone and okay with it and in Peter Sagal’s The Incomplete Book of Running we hear mostly about Sagal’s rebirth as a runner in his 40’s as he was getting divorced.

I enjoyed both, and although there was sadness in The Incomplete Book of Running it was a nice counterbalance to No One Tells You This, which I found quite sad. Now, don’t get me wrong, Macnicol’s book is very powerful as well — about how we live in this moment where for the first time really women have choices and can choose to be alone and childless and not be say, doomed to be eaten by their cat. That’s not the life Macnicol lives and she is not at all worried about being eaten by her cat. BUT. Her mother dies, of Parkinson’s, but of a variant of Parkinson’s that presents very strongly with dementia. And that hits me hard. Usually when I read about other people struggling with losing family members to dementia, I don’t relate all that much. My Mom was very young, I was very young, and her illness while interminable while it was happening, moved very very quickly and took her in only four years. But crappily for both of us, Macnicol’s mother’s illness had a lot of similarities, and well, it seems like we just really saw the illness in similar ways. That made this a very sad book for me, even if I was bookmarking every page like, SHE GETS IT.

So most people I think will read this as an interesting and powerful story of new options that are open to women. Macnicol takes us through the years where she started figuring this out:

I reveled in the fact that I was being jetted away on someone else’s dime and that I’d finally reached the point in my life where my career, and to some degree, financial has aligned to produce the life I’d fantasized about, though I couldn’t help but lament the fact that I was likely going to be doing it alone. All my other halves now had their own other halves to travel with or young kids who made travel difficult. Just as my life was catapulting me into some great beyond, theirs were tying them down to routines and caregiving – decades of both. … I had to be prepared to have adventures alone.

I loved her take down of, you’re going to regret not getting married, not having a kid, etc:

I wasn’t going to have a baby as an insurance policy against some future remorse I couldn’t yet imagine. I had more respect for myself than that. The truth was, no one knows what they’re missing in the end. You can only live your own life, and do your best with the outcome when you roll the dice.

This is sort of the crux of her book — no choices are bad. The power of this book is in telling the story of a woman choosing differently, and realizing there are different paths for women than have ever truly been available before. Although she is very honest about the emotional labor that is expected of a woman, and how sometimes when you don’t hit your own milestones, it can feel difficult to keep showing up for others again and again. But not because she’s bitter, or because she wants what they have, so much as because, when you have a baby, people know what to do and how to act (sort of…). But when you’re just sinking for some other reason, it can be hard to ask for help, and there’s no automatic jumping in of your friends as there can be for other life events.

Additionally, Macnicol isn’t anti-kid, and her story shows just how much kids and caregiving can be a part of your life, even if you don’t choose wife/mom — I loved her description of her nephew:

Babies are like that. They appear, tear themselves a hole in the world, and somehow it becomes immediately impossible to remember a time when that space did not exist.

If you read and enjoyed Rebecca Traister’s All The Single Ladies, this feels very much like a companion book to that to me.

Peter Sagal’s book is perhaps not as funny as you’d expect if you’re only familiar with him from the NPR news quiz Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me. But I happened to catch him talking about this book on RadioTimes (yeah… I listen to a lot of NPR and I read The New Yorker, I am very much that person…) and it was a great interview, so I found this book at my library.

There’s a fair amount of sadness in the book because of Sagal’s divorce (“Instead of a ‘conscious uncoupling’ it was turning into a brush war”), his honestly about his depression and body image issues, and the fact that he was about a 100 yards away when the bombs went off at the Boston Marathon in 2013. All that said, Sagal doesn’t want to force you to look at his pain, he kind of wants to make you laugh. So this somehow is not that intense of a book.

I am a runner, and so I enjoyed reading about Sagal’s love of running, and I related to some of what he says (but not all, despite not being a 50 year old man, I am much slower than he is, I do not think I will ever run a sub-5 hour marathon let alone a 3:09):

By the time I got to mile 22 … I would have quit happily, except that if I ever wanted to finish a marathon, I’d have to run twenty-two miles allover again and that seemed far more painful than the measly four miles I had to limp through now. … [At the finish line] I said to myself something I did not expect to hear myself say, something that became a hinge between my former life and my present, and led to, among many, many other things, the writing of this book.

“I wonder if I could do that faster.”

I totally relate to wanting to give up at mile 22 of a marathon, but I didn’t finish and decide to do another. I finished and decided half-marathons were great and you can finish them, take a nap, and feel fine! But, I did end up running my one and only marathon because I finished a half-marathon and thought, huh, I could do more.

I think a lot of people,sadly, will also relate to Sagal’s feeling about his body, although I love how he can make it sort of funny:

“If you’ve ever been fat, you will either be fat for the rest of your life or you will worry about being fat for the rest of your life.” I came across those words in the manuscript of the place Fighting International Fat, by Jonathan Reynolds, a pretty obscure place to find the underlying thesis of your waking life … That casual observation struck me then and now with the profound power of its obvious truth, much like Kafka’s observation: “The meaning of life is that it ends.” But of course, Kafka did not add that once you’re dead, you won’t gain weight. Which is a comfort to me, sometimes.

This is pretty much the tone of the whole book, walk up to a serious subject, poke it with a stick, and get out with a laugh. But maybe if that’s the way to be honest about how you feel, that’s the way to do it. The book doesn’t feel raw and honest quite the same way as Macnicol’s does, but well, they are rather different people.

Currently reading: Salvage the Bones and The Interestings (yeah, going back a few years to read more by Wolitzer and Ward).

January has been rather slow-going so far — but, last week I read Barbara Kingsolver’s latest, Unsheltered and also the second in a series, Lady Copy Makes Trouble by Amy Stewart. I stumbled upon this series at Powell’s, and bought the first book there (Girl Waits With Gun).  I think I actually liked the second book even better, nothing too intense here, a well-written but fun book with likable characters, I read it in a day.

The series is based on the real life of Constance Kopp, who really was the first female deputy sheriff in New Jersey. This second novel is all about Kopp searching for a man after accidentally allowing him to escape. These novels aren’t going to win the Pulitzer, but they are good fun. I’m going to grab books 3 and 4 as soon as I can, everyone needs something to get them through January, February, and March.

Kingsolver’s Unsheltered was a bit more depressing — it’s the story of two families, in the present we find Willa, her husband, two adult children, grandson, and ailing father-in-law all stuck living in a house that’s falling apart in Vineland, NJ, and in the past (1880’s) we find Thatcher, his young wife, and her mother and sister similarly living in a house falling apart in Vineland, NJ. The novel switches back and forth each chapter, and the two stories parallel each other, while Willa also is learning about Thatcher and his neighbor Mary Treat (who really was a 19th century biologist!). Yes, there are a lot of plays on what it means to be “unsheltered” literally and in terms of having an open mind in this novel — the most obvious being that both main characters are literally watching their shelters falling down around them.

Willa and her family are casualties of the financial crisis — she’s a freelance journalist (ie, her publication folded) and her husband is a college professor who had tenure, but his college closed due to bankruptcy, robbing them of all the security they had. Much of Willa’s story involves just her taking care of her family, but she starts to learn about Treat and Thatcher because she’s trying to get a historic grant to save her house.

Thatcher is a newly married science teacher who is quite taken with Darwin and wants to teach his students about science via real life exposure. No one in Vineland really likes this idea, because many of them cannot bear the idea that Darwin is right. It’s pretty depressing how little this debate has actually progressed in about 140 years:

You and I are not like other people … We perceive infinite nature as a fascination, not as a threat to our sovereignty. But if that sense of unity in all life is not already lodged in a person’s psyche, I’m not certain it can ever be taught.

People may be persuaded of small things … But most people refuse to be moved on the larger ones. An earth millions of years old appalls them, when they always have seen it otherwise. A humanity derived from the plain stuff of earth frightens them even more. Rather than look at evidence they would shut themselves up in a pumpkin shell like Peter Piper’s wife.

I read this book slowly because I found so much of it to be so sad (if compelling), I could see someone else reading it as hopeful (to be unsheltered is “to stand in the clear light of day”) but for me, it was very sad and identified with so much of it — Willa’s mother dies before the book opens (“When someone mattered like that, you didn’t lose her at death. You lost her as you kept living”), another death occurs in the opening chapter, and another character dies after needing significant heavy caretaking (which also strikes a painful chord for me), and global climate change is also a rather heavy character in the book (there’s a sort of analogy being made between people refusing to credit Darwin and people refusing to credit climate change).

So, well I would say, I enjoyed reading this book and I’m glad I read it (I do love Barbara Kingsolver, her book The Poisonwood Bible meant so much to me when I read it the first time, I was young and it was so interesting to read this book that challenged some of what I’d been taught, it made me think differently), I probably won’t be giving it to anyone for Christmas this year.

Currently reading: No One Tells You This and still Cutting for Stone (+200 pages in…400 pages to go).

The last book of 2018 was How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin, bringing the 2018 total to 106 books read. This is belated because I kept thinking I would finish another book and write about them both, but well, this week I mostly spent catching up on all the issues of The New Yorker that I’ve been carrying around forever (I’m currently only reading 2 issues of The New Yorker!).  Also, I’m always suggesting books to my mother-in-law so for Christmas she returned the favor and gave me 4 of her favorite books. We’ll see how it turns out, but the first one is a 650 page novel… So that’s taking some time.

Briefly, I will say that I recommend How Long ‘Til Black Future Month if you enjoy sci-fi, fantasy, or magical realism at all. It’s a great short story collection that really runs the gambit between other world sci-fi, fantasy (think dragons), and alternative history. My favorite was a bit of steam-punk alternate history (“The Effluent Engine”) — what if Haiti had been able to stay a free country after a slave revolt, and they’d been able to build a stable country? Also, everyone travels by dirigible and women can do stuff. It’s also a wonderful book because there really is sadly a huge dearth of black characters in sci-fi and fantasy generally. That’s changing, but I think it’s pretty much all thanks to Jemisin…

And now I want to also briefly recommend my favorites from my 2018 reading:

1. The Power – Naomi Alderman
2. Manhattan Beach – Jennifer Egan
3. Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng
4. How to Stop Time – Matt Haig
5. Sing Unburied Sing – Jesmyn Ward
6. Fever Dreams – Samanta Schweblin (this book is terrifying, but I can’t leave it off the list)
7. The Animators – Kayla Rae Whitaker
8. When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir – Asha Bandele and Patrisse Khan-Cullors (again, not on here because I enjoyed it per se, but one of the more powerful books I read this year)
9. The Idiot – Elif Batuman
10. The Female Persuasion – Meg Wolitzer
11. You Think It I’ll Say It – Curtis Sittenfeld
12. Everything Here Is Beautiful – Mira T. Lee
13. Happiness – Aminatta Forna
14. An American Marriage – Tayari Jones
15. The Friend – Sigrid Nunez
16. The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin
17. The Supernatural Enhancements – Edgar Cantero (looking back, I just really enjoyed the format of this book, not everyone will)
18. Dear Mrs. Bird – AJ Pearce
19. She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Power, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity – Carl Zimmer (Fascinating)
20. Let Me Tell You -Shirley Jackson

I held myself to only 20 (I was going for 10, but couldn’t whittle this down further…), so really I recommend almost every book I read this year. A lot of these are on the list because I just enjoyed reading them so much, some because the power of the book demands it (Fever Dreams, I’m looking at you), some because they really taught me something.

What were your best reads of 2018? What are you looking forward to in 2019?

Currently Reading: Unsheltered and Cutting For Stone