Our recommended books this month explore unfamiliar territory, in both form and subject. We’re reading formats that do something different with time, place, and space on the page, through writing that is fiercely modern and refreshingly curious.
The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Lui, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel, That That by Ken Mikolowski, and Shining Sea by Anne Korkeakivi
“One late afternoon in June of 1880, a rather famous woman sat in a railroad carriage traveling toward Venice with her new husband, a handsome young man twenty years her junior.” Thus begins this accomplished tale, in which the honeymoon of a sixty-year-old bride is the frame for the life story of a woman who defied convention but had no wish to.
She is ruled, from the start, by her craving to be accepted, since her mother rejects all that is innate to her. The little girl just can’t sit and sew or keep her hair neat; exemplifying the wild passion her mother hates, the girl chops it off. The child seeks her brother’s approval as much as her mother’s, but his tolerance for his little sister is used up when she forgets to take care of his prized rabbits as promised, and he comes home from school to find them dead.
The fifteen stories in Odie Lindsey’s moving first collection, We Come to Our Senses,are war stories—but they feature little combat and no front-line heroics; nor are they of the war-is-hilarious-except-the-killing genre, such as Catch-22 or Fobbit. They’re stories of the PTSD generation, the all-volunteer, gender-integrated, post-don’t-ask-don’t-tell veterans of endless, metastasizing conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Written in a wry, poetic voice, Lindsey’s stories braid past and present into multiple narrative lines and often surprise us with which comes out on top at the end.
Like Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War classic, The Things They Carried, Lindsey’s book plumbs the psychic impact of war, but he takes his exploration farther from the battlefield. Many of Lindsey’s characters have no direct military experience, but are wounded by war nonetheless, sometimes fatally.
This July, join our summer staff in going deep with your beach reading. We’re taking on ambitious projects: books that span lifetimes, begin series, and jump between planes of existence. Here are novels for your existential angst, elegies for your crises of purpose, works to help you through your election-related anxiety—what better time than summer to disappear into a world that could take over your mental world for perhaps thousands of pages, letting you take on life’s most daunting questions?
A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh, My Struggle: Book I by Karl Ove Knausgaard, TheDuino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke, My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Book by TEFFI (Translated from Russian by ROBERT and ELIZABETH CHANDLER, ANNE MARIE JACKSON, and IRINA STEINBERG) Reviewed by OLGA ZILBERBOURG
Teffi, nom de plume of Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, was born in 1872 into a prominent Russian family. Following in the footsteps of her older sister Maria—poet Mirra Lokhvitskaya—Teffi published poetry and prose from the age of 29. She soon rose to fame by practicing a unique brand of self-deprecating humor and topical social satire. In her 1907 hit one-act play The Woman Question, subtitled A Fantasy, Teffi imagined a world in which a women’s revolution against men achieves a full role reversal. Women come to occupy the prominent political, military, academic, professional, and bureaucratic roles, while men are subjugated to the childcare and household management tasks. Though the play’s ending largely dismisses this scenario and trivializes the feminist cause, through humor, the piece makes the point that bad behavior—infidelity, sexual harassment, excessive drinking, pettiness—is a function of social status rather than of biological sex.
Garden for the Blind is a more idiosyncratic book than one might realize after a cursory read, a provocative and unconventional meditation on privilege, fate, and the city of Detroit. Kelly Fordon’s debut in full-length fiction is a collection of closely interlinked short stories that follow a small cast of characters from childhood to middle age. One of the satisfactions of reading linked-story collections is the sensation, a bit like time travel, of being guided through someone’s life by someone (think Ebenezer Scrooge and the Christmas ghosts) who knows all the most important moments to show you. Fordon seems to imply this in one of the stories near the end of the collection, “In the Museum of Your Life,” in which a gallery visit inspires the protagonist, Alice, to act as a guide to her own past. Paintings and objects become portals to memory, leaving her with nostalgia, guilt, regret, and unanswerable questions of fate and free will.
Nicole Dennis-Benn’s debut novel Here Comes the Sun opens with the stirring words, “God Nuh Like Ugly.” The melding of Jamaican Patois and English establishes an immediate authenticity, as does the disturbing discovery that ugly is synonymous with the blackness of one’s skin. The experience of reading this is akin to encountering Toni Morrison’s unflinching gaze upon the Antebellum South where she set her novel, Beloved. However, Dennis-Benn’s setting is not the slave-owning South of the 19th century U.S. but a black nation, the island of Jamaica, specifically, circa mid-1990s.
It’s a brave choice for Pamela Erens to write her third novel about a birth. Shining the spotlight on two women—one in labor, the other her pregnant nurse—during this passage feels almost subversive. Birth is rarely the main event of a book—it’s something that happens to a character or an entry point. But what a gorgeous book this is, dramatically taut, emotionally wrenching, the prose crystalline. It satisfies the reader as an entire universe in the space of a few hours and a rocking story as well. Perhaps that’s the most surprising thing: this novel keeps you turning pages. We don’t tend to think of labor as driving, propulsive, and yet the story reads more like a thriller than anything I’ve recently read.
It’s also a deeply feminine book. Where many novels are concerned with a Hero’s Journey, complete with tasks and dragons and epiphanies, Eleven Hours is a poster child for The Heroine’s Journey. The birth in a hospital provides the time and place but, beyond that, there is web-like interconnectivity between Lore, who is having her child, and Franckline, the Haitian maternity nurse assigned to her. Though these women are so different, socio-economically and culturally, they share their experience of men and pain and transition. Their relationship accrues in a very female way as time goes on and Franckline helps Lore navigate the peaks and swoops and plateaus of her labor.
After I finished reading Tram 83, the debut novel by Congolese writer Fiston Mwanza Mujila, a quote from journalist Adam Hochschild’s book, King Leopold’s Ghost, haunted me, and I went in search of it. With just a few lines, he laid bare the long-term effects of colonization on Congo:
From the colonial era, the major legacy left to Africa was not democracy as it is practiced today in countries like England, France and Belgium; it was authoritarian rule and plunder. On the whole continent, perhaps no nation has had a harder time than Congo in emerging from the shadow of its past.
Politics and history crackle through the plotlines of our recommended books this month, as we travel the world experiencing struggle and mourning in a many-layered collage of contexts. Here are four varied works of “healing imagination,” as books both simple and unconventional examine trauma unflinching and then look to what happens next.
Nora Webster by Colm Toibin, Book of Ruth by Robert Seydel, The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan, Jam on the Vine by LaShonda Katrice Barnett