Well, we’re deep into pandemic winter. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been craving absolutely ANYTHING that makes me feel like I’m not at my house anymore - If you haven’t ordered ramen from Tokyo Japanese Restaurant yet, do so right away! It’s our family’s new obsession. The kids’ meals are really good too. Lots of delicious vegetables and warm, nourishing soup. Plus, take-out is always warm and well-packed. Anyway, the best method I’ve found for a bit of escape is reading a book. I’ve put together a list of some of my recent and upcoming favorites. Happy Reading!
Burnt Sugar is one of the sharpest and most challenging novels I have ever read. It’s a story of deep trauma between mother and daughter - such a complicated relationship in the best of circumstances. Antara, the book’s narrator, struggles to come to terms with her relationship with Tara, her mother, just as she is becoming a mother herself. When Antara was a small child, Tara left her father and took her to an ashram, an act of rebellion that manifested itself as a deep violence toward Antara. She has never forgiven her mother, who, in the present of the novel, is beginning to lose her own memory. What happens when a person who has deeply wronged you forgets her past, forgets you? Is part of your own identity erased? As the narrative progresses, Antara’s own identity begins to slip and merge into that of her mother. We’re left with two women desperate to be seen as individuals but somehow conflated with each other. It’s haunting and brilliant and, truthfully, quite unsettling; if you’re into that sort of thing I cannot recommend this highly enough.
Melanie Finn's The Hare is just the right blend of suspense and literary prowess, and it's perfect for a snowed-in winter day. Rosie, Finn's protagonist, who spend time with for thirty-plus years, is haunted by her past. Childhood trauma blends into the sexual, artistic expectation and obligation of early adulthood, into early motherhood survival, into middle-aged motherhood and a reassertion of individualism, and so on. Her evolution is fascinating, her resolve is inspiring, and her journey is both extraordinary and all too common to so many women who experience everyday sexism and sexual trauma throughout their lives. This is an unflinchingly honest portrayal of a woman who was denied the chance to become the woman she imagined in her youth, but thirty years later is finally ready to try again.
It doesn't feel quite right to call Lauren Fox's beautiful new book, Send for Me, historical fiction. Fox weaves the letters of her great grandmother into her narrative, making this a very personal story of grief and loss and the unfathomable ocean of moving forward without the ones you love. The narrative begins with Klara and Annelise, a Jewish mother and daughter living in Germany in the years before World War II. They watch in shock as their friends abandon them, their bakery is vandalized, and, eventually, Annelise is forced to make the terrible choice of leaving her parents in order to keep her husband and daughter, Ruth, safe. Years later, Clare, Ruth's daughter is faced with a similar choice as she falls in love with a man from London. Generational trauma haunts her family. They've lived in Milwaukee for generations now, guarding tightly memories of Klara and Germany and their flight across the sea. Clare must decide if love is worth the risk, if family can be both inherited and created, and if letting go can lead to more than just loss.
When I received The Butchers' Blessing, Ruth Gilligan's novel about the collision of contemporary Ireland and ancient folkloric traditions, it was impressively billed as a mile-a-minute literary thriller. I was eager for just that, so I started it immediately. What I got was something very different, and, in my opinion, much better. The Butchers' Blessing is rather quiet, weaving together the stories of four different characters - a mother and daughter, and a father and son - each navigating the Mad Cow crisis of 1996 Ireland in very different ways. It's a story of tension: tension between tradition and folklore and the bright, shiny, and new; tension of adolescence and sexuality and gender; tension of secrets kept and laid bare. This is a novel about interiors, about having the courage to know yourself. I'd absolutely recommend it.
The Removed by Brandon Hobson is the story of the Echota family. After the police shooting of their fifteen-year old son, they struggle to move forward. Their personal grief suspends them in time, haunts them. Fifteen years later, Maria and Ernest invite a foster boy into their home who reminds them so much of Ray-Ray. Sonja pursues a toxic relationship with a man she's been watching for a long time. Edgar is a drug addict struggling to maintain his relationships and his grasp on reality. As the anniversary of Ray-Ray's death approaches, each member of the family finds themselves spiritually connected to him in much the same way they feel connected to their Cherokee ancestors who endured the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma, where they still live. Hobson weaves Cherokee storytelling into his narrative, linking past and present, layering generational trauma onto personal trauma, and celebrating the unshakeable connection between the Echota family, their ancestors, and their home.
I’m going out on a limb to say that Before the Coffee Gets Cold is everything you need to be reading right now. I know - what do I know? I don’t know you. I don’t know what you like to read. How can I say that? Well, here’s the thing: this book is delightful. And honestly, who doesn’t need more delight in their lives? Kawaguchi’s book is split into four sections, almost small novellas. Each takes place in a small, back-alley cafe in Tokyo where, it has been said, customers can go back in time. Of course, time travel is complicated and rules must be followed. Over the course of one summer, four different people come to the cafe and go back in time. By the end of the book you’ll have fallen in love with each and every character and true love, kindness, and care will no longer feel like a novelty. Instead, you’ll see their presence everywhere.
Like so many others, I eagerly anticipated the release of the first volume of President Obama’s memoir. It was one of my favorite Christmas gifts (yes, booksellers love to receive books as gifts just as much as you do) and I specifically planned a time to start it when I knew I would have a good chunk of time to devote to it. Despite all of my giddy anticipation, I opened the cover with a bit of trepidation. This book is 700 pages and it is only the FIRST volume? Am I going to be bored? How long is this actually going to take me? Can I really enjoy Mr. Obama as much as I enjoy Mrs. Obama? My fears were immediately assuaged as I started the introduction to the book and was immediately in tears. A Promised Land is an excellent book, impressively well-written and engaging from start to finish. I was never bored. I was often moved and so grateful for the thoughtfulness and selflessness President Obama brought to his job. I also left the text with a more nuanced vision of the reality of the job of the presidency - the most recent occupant of the Oval Office is not included in my new perspective; if anything, my rage, disappointment, and shock at his incompetence only increased. While change often feels small, and progress seems to move at a glacial pace, real people are working tirelessly to do the most good they can. I wish everyone would read this book, no matter your political leanings or feelings about President Obama. This is the story of a man who continues to serve the public with grace and intelligence.
I’ll be first in line to read Volume Two.
One of my favorite things to do is read a book cover to cover, only breaking for a coffee and snack refill. Because of the generosity of my parents and an understanding partner who allows me to just sit for a few hours, I was able to read We Run the Tides by Vendela Vida on Valentine’s Day morning. That is love. Anyway, this is such an engaging book. Set in the 80s in San Francisco, Vida’s narrator, Eulabee, tells a story of growing up that we never tire of reading, probably because adolescence is such an unsettling and confusing time while we’re in it and we’re always looking for ways to understand it. Eulabee is thirteen going on fourteen and the events of the novel are definitely dramatic but also so accurate, and felt so deeply. And while some of the plot is fantastical, influenced by its setting in an affluent, white community and a private school, Eulabee’s home life is decidedly peaceful and loving. I’ve increasingly come to love novels that showcase a functional, loving family unit at their center. We all need a safe haven, and Eulabee is allowed rest with her parents and sister. If you’re looking for a page turner that explores the complexity of growing up and the unrealistic expectations that our society places on women while they're still girls, We Run the Tides is exactly what you’re looking for.
The Inland Sea, Madeleine Watts's debut novel, swells slowly. First washing over your feet, then inviting you to wade in, and by the last fifty pages or so, you're in over your head, grasping for something to hold onto. As a young writer plans her exit from Sydney, she begins working as an emergency dispatch operator, connecting calls from all over Australia to their appropriate emergency response teams. Understandably, each crisis erodes the barriers between her own lived experience and the trauma of those around her. Instead of protecting herself, she dives further into a toxic relationship and dangerous sexual situations. Eventually, all she hears are sirens. She realizes that she has never been good at valuing herself, that she doesn't believe she deserves protection. Watts brilliantly connects this lack of care to climate change. Extreme weather, from floods to fire, plagues the novel. If society does not value the environment enough to protect it, do we deserve to benefit from its terrible beauty? The Inland Sea is both exquisite and vital.
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The moment I started What's Mine and Yours by Naima Coster, I knew it was going to be hard to put it down. I read it standing up while making coffee; I read it folding laundry; I snuck away to read it while my children played in the other room. It's an immersive book, following the lives of two different families in North Carolina from the 90s to today. Each chapter is told from a different perspective and when the dust settles, each character is left to reckon with the way trauma has a long-lasting impact on the way we interact with others. There's a moral murkiness that feels real and complicated - no "good" and "bad," just clinging to survival and hope. Coster's exploration of motherhood is at the heart of this novel. How far would you go to protect your child? Can we ever step out of our own needs enough to give our children what they need?
Lucy Ives's new short story collection, Cosmogony, is heady and challenging, making for an entirely satisfying reading experience. Her stories, some quite strange, others relatively mundane, explore the nature of perspective and possibility. One of my favorites, "The Volunteer," considers time travel and its potential consequences. To me, this story ties the whole collection together and all of a sudden, anything is possible. The characters featured in each story could all be the same person, just pictured at different moments of her life. The scenarios each lives through might be just the result of a split second decision made differently. This collection is for the reader who doesn't mind being a little lost for a second, enjoys running to catch up, and then resting in the uncertainty of strangeness and possibility.
It's hard to express how much I enjoyed Jackie Polzin's debut novel, Brood. It's really a special book, understated in its complexity in a rare way. The narrator of the book, a woman living in a neighborhood somewhere in the Twin Cities, desperately works to keep her four backyard chickens alive through frigid Minnesota winters, raccoon attacks, and the unexpected dangers of highly processed chicken pellets. And while I now know far more about chickens than I did when I started the book, I also know more about myself, about motherhood, about the loneliness of fertility struggles, and the uncertainty and strength that accompany our relationships with those closest to us.
Influenced by her grandmother's talent for oral storytelling, J. Nicole Jones's memoir Low Country lyrically meanders through the story of her own fascinating and full life. Jones was born into a wealthy hotel and restaurant-owning family in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. She is one of very few daughters navigating an intense patriarchy of fathers, brothers, uncles, and grandfathers. After finally moving from the south to New York City, she finds herself haunted by the women in her life - as well as a few shipwrecked lady ghosts. Despite her best efforts, she is often borne back to the place she calls home. The responsibility she feels to these long-suffering women who have been expected to look pretty, cook dinner, and stand by their men is palpable. Ultimately, this is a love story to women who hold families, and themselves, together at all costs.
Jhumpa Lahiri has long been one of my favorite authors. Whereabouts cements her standing on that list. Lahiri's writing is on another level, diving headlong into the interior life of one unnamed character in an unnamed city. Every sentence is a master work, much like Rachel Cusk and Elena Ferrante. There's a sort of mystical quality in the way the part becomes the whole and yet is whole all on its own. It's beautiful.
Pop Song: Adventures in Art and Intimacy by Larissa Pham - Release Date: May 4, 2021Larissa Pham's memoir in essays, Pop Song: Adventures in Art & Intimacy, beautifully explores the ways in which love, lust, trauma, heartbreak can be experienced in much the same way that great art can. She generously and, at times, gut-wrenchingly mines her own life experiences for moments to splash onto a canvas, snap into a photo, craft on the page, laying bare her insecurities in such a visceral way. Her essays seem to move chronologically, through a relationship, pulling from parts of her past as she moves forward, into love, and onto the other side of it. Her collection suggests that while the pain of racial discrimination, coupled with all the perils of diving into an intimate relationship will leave scars, there will also be growth - and a new sunrise.