In Ivy Pochoda’s latest novel, Wonder Valley, we find ourselves amidst a scruffy, largely invisible subset of Los Angelenos: drifters, con artists, criminals, quack healers, the homeless. The few in their orbit who have money or a measure of success are in danger of losing their souls. Everyone is close to the edge, all the time. Yearning. Longing. Trying to get someplace. Anywhere but here.
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
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.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 The Great Gatsby is a simple story at heart: poor boy meets rich girl and, by dint of superhuman perseverance, transcends his origins only to find out it doesn’t matter because her kind will never accept him anyway. This slender novel has become shorthand for the Zeitgeist of the Twenties. Its language is flowery, even hothouse, Fitzgerald’s voice lush. Yet, using a detached character as narrator, Fitzgerald knits atmosphere, recurring objects, patterns, and themes into an iconic drama about the ringing failure of the American dream and a contender for The Great American Novel. Australian director Baz Luhrmann’s new adaptation of Gatsby is the third major film version and, though this Gatsby is a fun ride, its emphasis on spectacle muddies Fitzgerald’s masterpiece.