WHAT THE HECK SHOULD I READ NEXT?
Okay, so MEXICAN GOTHIC (2020) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia! It is one of the new, HOT novels of summer, promising to play out the classic gothic tropes in exhilarating and contemporary ways. The reviews lured me in with teasers like – it is a little bit JANE EYRE, a little bit FRANKENSTEIN. I raced to my computer, and ordered the darn novel, then sat on my front steps until UPS arrived with the glorious promise of lost time and hot tea and my breezy porch. I read MEXICAN GOTHIC in a day. And … truth be told: I am not sure. It is intense. It is dark. Where is the JANE EYRE? WHERE IS THE FRANKENSTEIN? Were the reviewers gaslighting me? Noemi Taboada travels to the Mexican countryside, to the worn mansion where her cousin resides with her new husband and his relatives. Noemi is there to investigate why her cousin sent a cryptic message about the house being haunted and her being in danger, unable to escape. The dauntless Noemi arrives ready to do battle and to save her cousin. She encounters a cast of oddball characters, spooky rooms wherein the walls seems to move and tremble (re: “The Yellow Wallpaper”) , and a racism that is flagrant. All good – right? But then there is the supernatural element which seems to govern the entire plot. I always look beneath such devices to find the human agency hidden beneath. This is where Moreno-Garcia and I need to have a talk. Seriously, mushrooms? Fungus? Others LOVE this novel, and maybe, somewhere deep in my soul, I do too, but I am struggling to find those other readers who can help me get past the mushrooms, the fungi, the decrepit old man – ooooo, cannot even talk about him. Be in touch when you want talk. I will listen.
YOU EXIST TOO MUCH (2020) by Zaina Arafat explores the life and sexual identity of a Palestinian American girl whose mother tells her “you exist too much.” Indeed, our protagonist defies her upbringing and its expectations, but she is haunted by them as well. There are reckless romantic encounters, time spent inn a treatment center for “love addition,” and endeavors to find something approximating “true” love. A Bildungsroman, this story of growing up different, queer, and confused is a darkly entertaining, thoughtful novel about one young woman’s conflicted life that opens our eyes to the ways culture, religion, and social norms attempt to define us.
RODHAM (2020) is a novel by Curtis Sittenfeld that posits Hillary Clinton did not marry Bill Clinton but lived a thriving (though fraught with challenges) political life with deep friendships and romance. This is a fictional story knitted into actual historical events. While Sittenfeld’s Hillary does date Bill, does come close to marrying Bill, she chooses otherwise given his predilection toward unsavory behavior. The breakup is devastating but clarifying. This is a must read for those of us whose hopes were plummeted in 2016. It offers an alternate fictional universe in which we can abide for a few hours with Hillary’s iron determination, her superior intellect, and her raw humanity. I cheered her on throughout these 400+ pages, this inimitable woman who, let us not forget, won the popular vote. Once upon a time.
One of my favorite novels of the summer is THESE WOMEN (2020) by Ivy Pochoda. The Los Angeles Times said of it: “A dizzying, kaleidoscopic thriller that refuses to let readers look away from the dark side of Southern California.” That is nothing but the truth. We get to inhabit the lives of “these women,” characters who work street corners and bars. When they are victims of a heinous crime, many believe they get what they deserved. Pochoda offers us another way to understand Dorian, wayward after her daughter’s murder, and Jujubee, living hard and fast, and then Essie, a vice cop who looks for and sees patterns in the crimes that connect these (and other) and one man who remains a mystery for much of the novel. This is a tense and fast-paced book, a winner in my view! If it sniffs of stale tropes – forgotten women as victims of violence – Pochoda saves it with her intricate characterization.
THE CACTUS (2018) by Sarah Haywood attracted me because of the blurb: “Fans of Eleanor Oliphand is Completely Fine will love The Cactus.” I cannot say that I loved it, but I did read it through, and I did care about the ornery Susan Green and the men in her life. Too often, I kept going to keep going, and then Haywood would toss out a plot point that urged me to keep on for the sake of wondering about Susan’s job or her love life or her lawsuit against her brother or her grief/non-grief over her losses. I did it, but I am not sure I can suggest you do. It’s a risk!
Rivers Solomon’s AN UNKINDNESS OF GHOSTS (2017) is the ONE science fiction novel I read this summer, and I am happy I did. Frankly, some of it was lost on me, the world-building intricate and scienc-y, but the characters are gold. The novel takes place on the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized like the antebellum South. It is on its way to the mythical Promised Land and has been for generations. The ship’s leaders are immoral and dangerous to the dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster, the protagonist who has an ability with medicine. With a Civil War looming, Aster finds herself in trouble, some of which she brings on –for the greater good. The back of the book describes this novel “in the vein of Colson Whitehead, Samuel R. Delany, and Octavia E. Butler” (Tananarive Due), and that was enough for me to dive right in. Solomon takes on the topics of racism, hatred, misogyny, and fierce female determination with a contemporary nod to forbidden love/lust.
THE OTHER’S GOLD (2019) by Elizabeth Ames appears at first to be a romp – four girls who become friends at Quincy-Hawthorn College and inseparable. They are fun to follow, their antics with boys, their crushes, their studies and non-studies. Then they grow up. Some marry and have children, some not. And this is where the secrets each has withheld are revealed, changing the dynamic of the friendships. At some moments, these secrets are shocking both to the reader and to the other characters, and the secrets are far from run-of-the-mill – which is refreshing for those who read a lot and are used to the overwrought secret. This book is disturbing and angering and compelling, and I really do recommend it.
SAVING RUBY KING (2020) by Catherine Adel West is rough going in the best way possible. It is chock full of dastardly secrets that eat at each character’s being. Ruby King’s mother is murdered in their Chicago home, and the murder is dismissed by police as simply another killing in a black neighborhood. Ruby is left alone, devastated, with her violent father. Her best friend Layla is a consolation, but Layla uncovers secrets and questions loyalties, and she aims to save her friend Ruby from a crash. There are unholy pastors, there are brazen and admirable female role models, and there is the church that narrates several chapters. This one brings you to your knees.
Loved, loved THE BEAUTY OF YOUR FACE (2020) BY Sahar Mustafah. Afaf Rahman, daughter of Palestinian immigrants, is principal of the muslim Nurrideen School for Girls in Chicago. One morning a shooter enters and attacks the school. Hiding in a closet, Afaf recalls her life memories, her mother’s anger, her sister’s disappearance, her own promiscuity in early life, and her ultimate embracing of Islam. This past life is rich and beautiful and sad, its telling in the moment when a gun is pointed at Afaf, that history becomes both urgent and significant. Is this all she has left, those memories? This is a fast read that tugs at the conscience and heart, as do all good novels. Read this one.
THE VANISHING HALF (2020) by Brit Bennett is quite the rage, and I get it. Identical twins who are best friends until they turn sixteen and separate. One returns to live in her all-black southern community with her dark-skinned child. The other lives across the country, is married, wealthy, with one child – she passes for white. This story is both riveting and painful. When the lives of the daughters of the twins intersect – truths are on the line, truths that can upend lives. I loved these sisters, understood them, criticized them, and could not wait to reach the conclusion to see if they could be reunited. Great book!
QUEENIE (2019) is a novel by Candice Carty-Williams. It is a fast read, sort of like SEX IN THE CITY without so many outfits (but there are some!). Queenie is a hot mess: her boyfriend is gone. Her boss is angry with her lame work ethic. She has awesome best friends who are losing patience with her. She makes some pretty bad decisions, and as a reader you are shouting: STOP THAT, QUEENIE, STOP THAT RIGHT NOW. Little does she listen, until …. She comes face to face with herself. For much of this novel, I wondered where it was going, why I was reading about the protagonist ruining her life. Then I remembered that many of us “ruin” our lives when we are young and have no fully developed frontal lobes. If we survive, we can hope to make better decisions. Does Queenie survive? Find out.
THE WITCH DOESN’T BURN IN THIS ONE (2018) by Amanda Lovelace is a long narrative poem (do NOT be afraid!) that sizzles with anger and humor and revenge fantasies. It tackles misogyny in all of its multifarious forms, in all of its fairy-tale tropes, and squashes them all like bugs. This text is so much fun. It is not for the fearful; rather, it is for the reader who has had it, and who needs an hour or so (quick read) of relief. You will laugh and hoot and shout “holy crap” perhaps, but you will not come away unchanged or un-rattled!! Read this one.
RADICAL HOPE: A TEACHING MANIFESTO (2020) by Kevin M. Gannon was uplifting and useful. Gannon argues that teaching (his focus is on higher education) can be an emancipatory and hopeful act. Students, he says, are the primary audience and beneficiaries of teaching, and he stands strong for teachers and the important work they do. I took four pages of notes while reading this book, and I plan to incorporate many of his suggestions into my own syllabi and pedagogy. Too often, books of this sort preach and promise and leave you with little you can USE tomorrow. This is not one of those. Gannon is the real deal: an activist professor who shares his good ideas and practices and speaks honestly about the ways in which we should interrogate our curricular assumptions. I am on that case – Thank you Dr. Gannon.
I found every one of the 400+ pages of Ronan Farrow’s CATCH AND KILL: LIES, SPIES, AND A CONSPIRACY TO PROTECT PREDATORS (2019) fascinating. I buzzed through this book, appalled at the systemic abuse of real-life criminals like Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Leslie Moonves, Donald Trump and the corporations that covered for them. I learned how wealthy men abuse and rape women with impunity with the help of money and fame and influence and nondisclosure agreements. Farrow was harassed and threatened throughout his investigations of these men, and we are fortunate in his fortitude that we have this revelatory text. I recommend this to everyone, perhaps most particularly to anyone who does not believe in systemic abuse. Oh, it exists. Check it out.
Therese Anne Fowler’s A GOOD NEIGHBORHOOD (2020) is a read-in-one-day novel about a North Carolina neighborhood where Valerie Alston-Holt, forestry and ecology professor and a widow, lives with her biracial son. Next door, the Whitmans move in and build a McMansion, disturbing the ecology so precious to Valerie. Brad Whitman is a popular businessman whose TV commercials make him well known in the area. His wife Julia escaped poverty when she married Brad. Things come to a head between the families when one of Valerie’s beloved trees is damaged fatally by Brad’s sideswiping some laws in order to insert his swimming pool into the ground. There is a love story. There is anguish, ethical dilemmas, bad choices, and there is a death. The narrators are the “we” of the neighborhood, the women of Valerie and Julia’s book group, which gives this novel a bit of a Faulkner (“A Rose for Emily”) vibe. I wish Fowler had chosen a different ending – I’ve seen enough of what she provides, but still the novel is fast-paced, gripping, and important. Read this one.
Finally got to read all of WHITE FRAGILITY: WHY IT’S SO HARD FOR WHITE PEOPLE TO TALK ABOUT RACISM (2018) by Robin Diangelo, and why oh why did it take me so long? Shame on me. This book is essential reading for – well – everyone who is white. I learned so much, and I was the kind Diangelo talked about, the kind who thinks she knows some things about race but really needs to know so much more. Diangelo is clear, to the point, and life changing. There is no better time to read this book, or maybe the better time to have read it would have been 400+ years ago, before we committed our national mortal sin of slavery. Nevertheless, I have some clearer ideas of how to be a better person who was raised in and still abides in a racist country – as we all do. Time for action. Thank you, Robin Diangelo.
SALEM FALLS (2001) by Jodi Picoult is fast and engaging. Jack, a former teacher, Ph.D., makes a new life in Salem Falls after having served nearly a year in jail for raping a student. He falls in love with the local diner owner, Addie, who has her own dark secret. All nice, new start for both … until … four teenage girls who fancy themselves “witches” target Jack with malevolent allegations. True to Picoult form, there is a trial, lawyer characters with their own dark secrets and cops with shady backgrounds. Picoult is comforting when you need to be soothed by fiction that relaxes and pulls you through. She offers just enough surprises to keep you wondering. If she is sometimes predictable, whatever. She is fun and stress-reducing, like a frozen Margarita at an outside eatery in the summer waning sun!
FAVORITE BOOK of this pre-summer season – so far – is MOLLY OF THE MALL: LITERARY LASS & PURVEYOR OF FINE FOOTWEAR (2019) by Heidi L. M. Jacobs. English majors everywhere will buckle in for this literary ride. Molly is a college student, English major, who works at a mall selling shoes. She hates her job. She loves reading, especially Jane Austen. Molly MacGregor is the funniest narrator I’ve read in such a long time. I laughed out loud, cackling if truth be told, because of this character’s hilarious commentary on her life, her university classes, the dweeby boys she encounters, her caustic shoe store boss who dates two different Gordons, the guy she likes, the guy she loves, even her parents who are university professors. I could not stop reading this book. Absolute, unabashed recommendation: read this one!
LOST CHILDREN ARCHIVE (2019) is a novel by Valeria Luiselli and one of The New York Times 10 Best Books of 2019. It was longlisted for the Booker Prize (for those who care about such things). A mother and father and their boy and girl drive from New York to Arizona one summer. Lots of time in the car where bonds begin to fray between the parents. The father is focused on archiving Native American tragedies, the mother on the current tragedies befalling immigrant children. Against the backdrop of this one family’s impending breakup is the news stories of thousands of children trying to cross the southwestern border of the U.S. but being detained or getting lost in the desert along the way. This is, perhaps, a novel to be read more than once. Tommy Orange, author of THERE THERE, says it is “Impossibly smart, full of beauty, heart, and insight. Everyone should read this book.” So, there.
I really, really LOVED Lisa Braxton’s THE TALKING DRUM (2020). The novel takes place in a dying factory town in Massachusetts where cash and the political will of powerful men behind urban development will displace a thriving black community. Syndey Stallworth left law school to support her husband’s dream of opening a bookstore in the heart of this community. Omar Bassari is a drummer from Senegal who hopes to bring his African culture to the world. Other beautifully crafted and nuanced characters live robust, if poor, lives in Bellport, and all of them resist the coming gentrification even as suspicious fires ravage their town and livelihoods. What Braxton offers is a cast of characters who bravely take a stance against white power – and I cared deeply for all of them, for their indefatigable spirits, for their heartbreaking losses, for the crimes perpetrated against them. There were surprises. There was resilience. There was a heroic stance against brutal power – all of which makes for required reading.
THE HEART BEGINS HERE (2018) BY Jacqueline Dumas is another book featuring a bookstore – and a feminist bookstore -- something I cannot resist. At Common Reader Books, in 2001, is where we meet the quirky regulars, the giggling teenagers, and the author readings for which Sara Requier, the owner, has such high hopes. The store holds special ceremonies including one to remember the fourteen women murdered at Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal in 1989; it hosted a Women of the Left Bank night where customers dressed as their favorite writers (Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and James Joyce in drag!). Sara Requier is in a relationship with Wanda Wysoka. Wanda is in a relationship with a new lover, Cindy. Cindy is murdered. And bedraggled, yet optimistic, Sara is caught in a whirl of emotions: her abiding love for Wanda, her anguish at being left by Wanda, and her generous heartache for Wanda’s loss of Cindy. Meanwhile, the bookstore is struggling in the era of huge corporate bookstores and the Internet explosion. On top of that, Sara’s mother does not acknowledge Sara’s lesbianism. It may not sound like it, but this book is packed with humor and incisive social commentary. It takes up the issues of misogyny, homophobia, and loss. Though a brief novel, it is packed with much that is wise and warm.
I had not heard of CARMILLA (1871) by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu until a student chose to examine this novella for his final project in my English Romanticism, contending it is a legacy of that literary period. Carmilla is a lesbian vampire who preys on our young protagonist Laura who lives in a remote mansion in a central European forest (of course she does!). When Laura develops bizarre symptoms and declines in health, her father gets busy investigating – which leads to Carmilla, a young woman visiting their home. Other victims of Carmilla become identified, and what follows is the expected: ghostly escapes from locked rooms, hidden scars on young throats, a moss-embedded tomb, stakes and hatchets and the final reckoning with Carmilla. This brief fiction is delightful in the ways one might expect from vampire fiction. It is fast-paced and the Lanternfish Press edition I read has very cool graphics.
I find THE ILLNESS LESSONS (2020) by Clare Beams far more interesting now that I’ve finished it. It took me some time, nightly reading, falling asleep, having to start over, but all the while I had a Louisa May Alcott feel about the novel, and, indeed, as I found out, that is exactly what the author is going for. Sam Hood and his daughter Caroline start a school for teenaged girls in 19th century New England (should have been a dead giveaway, but – geez – the semester was dizzingly busy – until the virus – and so I did not pick up on the obvious). There is a flock of mysterious red birds that descends on the town. The girls develop symptoms: rashes, seizures, night wanderings. They bring in a doctor who ends up being – mendacious and predatory. Caroline must act, defy her father and the doctor and all the other patriarchs who claim to know best, but who know nothing. I am happy to have finished this, and it may be worth another read. What are those damned red birds about?
Even that dreaded stomach thing that gets passed around during a winter term could not keep me from reading DEAR EDWARD (2020) by Ann Napolitano in one day – this of course, once I could lift my head from the bathroom floor and could focus on anything but surviving. This novel is the fastest read I’ve encountered in a long time. The premise is addicting: 12-year-old Edward Alder and his beloved older brother and parents board a flight from Newark to Los Angeles along with 183 other passengers. We meet many of them, get to know them, long to hear more of their stories, when the plan crashes killing all of them but for little Edward. The nation is captivated by Edward’s survival, and when he makes his new home with his aunt and uncle, when he meets up with his new neighbor and best friend Shay, his days and years of reckoning begin. This book is really gripping in a BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY type of way, for those who read that one long ago in high school perhaps. I loved it.
THE MINIMALIST HOME (2018) by Joshua Becker is so motivating. I’ve taken more trips to Salvation Army with bags of well-loved items than ever before. Becker takes you room by room through your home, and nudges gently for you to remove them if they are not your most beloveds. The space created by removing STUFF is so energizing and breathable. I am a huge fan of minimalism, though I am a newbie at it. I even cleaned out my office at work, and though the books still threaten to topple the shelves, the files are less stuffed, and the desktop is not so rag tag. This is a good one.
I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED OLIVE AGAIN (2019) by Elizabeth Strout. I also loved the original OLIVE KITTERIDGE. Olive is a wonder of a woman. That does not mean she is always (or often) likable in the way many female characters are expected to be. She can be rude, dismissive, judgmental. But she is so complex and kind (sometimes) and quirky. She is older in this novel. Her husband Henry has died. She is “dating” Jack, still having issues with her son Christopher, and living in Maine. Cannot say enough about this one.
THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES 2019 edited by Anthony Doerr (author of ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE) has some really fine stories. I love this series, and I read it every year, and I use the annual collection in my fiction workshop. These are the “best” stories, chosen by Doerr this year, that appeared in magazines in the U.S. and in Canada. This collection, though not my favorite of all time, will impress. “The Era” by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is among my favorites, though I wish “The Finkelstein Five” had been the choice. Get onto this one.
IN THE DREAM HOUSE (2019) by Carmen Maria Machado is getting so much praise, I had to read it asap. This is Machado’s memoir of her relationship turned nightmare. She uses some clever literary devices, including footnotes linking her narrative to the Motif-Index of Folk Literature by Thompson. The story is harrowing and disturbing in that the woman with whom Machado is involved is cruel, mercurial, dangerous. What makes the chronicle desperate at times is Machado’s inability to get out sooner – which, and I emphasize this, is understandable if one knows how the cycle of domestic violence works. The author’s writing is honest and raw, her story crushing – but in an important way. I am VERY happy I read this one. While she acknowledges that domestic violence happens in lesbian/gay relationships, she has a deep sadness about this – as if it is a letdown, as if heterosexual couples cornered the market on such violence. She offers us an important reality, a tough reality.
WHAT RED WAS (2019) by Rosie Price is an interesting novel about Kate who meets Max during the first week at university. They bond, become a sort of best-friend duo. She meets and becomes immersed in his famous family; his mother is a film director much admired by Kate. Kate’s own home life is dire, different from Max’s in all ways possible. When Kate experiences a life-changing trauma in a bedroom at a party at Max’s family home, she finds unexpected support from one of Max’s family members. While I wanted this book to end sooner than it did, I was delighted with the surprise ending. It made it all worthwhile, though a bit of editing would have been welcome.
THE BODY LIES (2019) by Jo Baker is a book I bought in hardcover and really wanted to love. It had all of the ingredients that offered an exciting read: the protagonist is a writer who takes a new job at an English university where she teaches creative writing. She is longing to escape the violent assault she cannot forget. When her students – one in particular – start writing stories wherein she is the central figure, her fear not only returns but escalates. The backstory includes a husband who lives afar, a young boy child, and new neighbors she is unsure she can trust. I wanted more from this book – that’s on me. It is a fast read, a sometimes gripping read. Hmmmm …
KNOW MY NAME(2019) by Chanel Miller is wonderful. This is the memoir by the woman who was raped by Brock Turner in California when she was passed-out drunk. Her story is rich and layered, enhanced by her own words – as opposed to the trite and hackneyed stereotypes put forth by Turner’s defense attorneys and (sometimes) the press. Turner spend pitifully little time in prison for his crime, and the judge who sentenced him to that minimalist sentence was recalled – he is no longer a practicing judge. What Miller does is walks us through HER story, the anguish, her family and friends’ anguish, the overly extensive amount of time it took to get to trial. Miller is a brilliant writer, an English major, and she has written a memoir I will use in my Law & Literature course because it follows a victim through an ordeal that sheds light on our legal system’s successes and flaws.
AN UNSUITABLE JOB FOR A WOMAN (1977) by P. D. James is a Cordelia Gray mystery. Cordelia is a 22-year-old woman who inherits a private detective agency and finds herself on a case alone, shortly after her mentor dies. Hired by his father, Mark Callender is found hanging in his cabin, a faint trace of lipstick on his mouth. A dropout from Cambridge, and an all-around good buy, according to most of those interviewed by Cordelia Gray, Callender’s death haunts his father, who hires Gray to get to the bottom of his murder/suicide. This is a good one because: P. D. James. Female detectives are always fun, and this one is no exception.
THE EDUCATION OF BRETT KAVANAUGH (2019) by Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly was intriguing – still, I learned virtually nothing new. Brett Kavanaugh told us who he was clearly in his investigation on national television. What these authors provide is a background, a look into his college life, and what do we find: a guy who drinks to excess, acts out in ways that are embarrassing and crude, and a guy whose respect for women is – at very best – questionable. Do these authors let Kavanaugh off the hook? Not exactly. They aim to explain his former life, before he landed a Supreme Court position. They acknowledge that his performance during his testimony was boorish and intemperate, that it enraged those watching his clear and uninhibited rage. All of this the careful observer could not help but comprehend. It IS an interesting book. It does fill in some gaps. Ultimately – BK is who we have. The book may be more of a reflection on the state of the United States than on any one justice -- appointed for life.
10 MINUTES 38 SECONDS IN THIS STRANGE WORLD (2019) by Elif Shafak – one of my favorite Turkish writers – one of my favorite writers – is so good. It was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize (not always a good thing – those reads are hit or miss, to my mind). The protagonist is dead in this one. Tequila Leila enters a state of heightened awareness after being murdered – awake-ish and aware and telling us her entire life story – for, you got it, 10 minutes 38 seconds. Her brain is alive and remembering, and we are its beneficiaries. We learn about her childhood in a polygamous family, her authoritarian father, her escape to Istanbul, and her finding a home on the historic Street of Brothels. Leila is a beloved character, as are her dear friends, five of them who are crushed by her death and take bold action to correct a wrong: her burial in the Cemetery of the Companionless in Turkey. This one is a keeper!
THE GRACE YEAR (2019) by Kim Liggett you have a Hunger Games kind of story where girls are made to spend their 16th year in isolation with others of the same age in order to release their “magic” into the wild. What is this magic: it is the powerful aphrodisiac, the potent essence of youth, that drives men wild and uncontrollable and women mad with jealousy. Once in the wild, the girls turn on each other, becoming all Lord of the Flies. Why is this? Is it their “magic” being released? Well – if so, I would have closed that book and sent it back to the library. The book is, of course, a satire, and it is well done – if a bit redolent of those other titles I’ve mentioned here. It is a fast read. There are endearing scenes. There are grotesque scenes. Let me know what you think.