Summer 2021 Reads
Part One: Girl Power
Gabriela Garcia, Of Women and Salt
Gabriela Garcia’s Of Women and Salt is the book American Dirt was trying to be. It is one thousand times better. Garcia weaves together the stories of several generations of Cuban women, contrasting the lives of those who stayed and those who immigrated to the U.S., none of them free of the difficult choices required of mothers trying to protect their families. It’s gorgeous and unflinching.
Natalie Zina Walschots, Hench
Natalie Zina Walschots’ Hench is narrated by Anna Tromedlov (tiny complaint, but ugh! Her last name is “Voldemort” backwards), whose job is working for a temp agency that hires folks to be stand-in hench-people for super villains. You know, to stand beside guys like Electric Eel so they appear more menacing. That’s not even the best part. Through a series of unfortunate events, Anna is injured at work, not by a villain but by a hero. During her long convalescence she initiates a personal project to evaluate the expenses that heroes incur while saving the world from villainy. Like the actual monetary cost. It is genius, but of course leads to trouble with those powerful heroes, who prefer not to have their good deeds tainted by practical matters. Meanwhile, supervillain Leviathan sees Anna’s potential as his assistant and hires her to work for his team, which saves her from poverty and irrelevance. Her work consistently places her in danger because of Leviathan’s well, general villainy. What follows is a rollicking adventure of espionage that has us constantly asking ourselves how and why we tend to define heroism so narrowly.
Natsuko Inamura, The Woman in the Purple Skirt
In the tiny and powerful novel The Woman in the Purple Skirt, our narrator refers only to herself as “The Woman in the Yellow Cardigan”. This makes sense because she is obsessed with another woman, the one in the purple skirt, whom she stalks to a degree most would call criminal. The woman in the purple skirt does not lead an extraordinary life: she sits on a park bench (always the same one), she goes to the bakery, she has trouble holding a job. Yellow Cardigan insists that this woman is “impossible not to pay attention to,” though that seems debatable. Through a series of increasingly implausible personal interventions, the narrator entices the woman in the purple skirt to take a job at the same hotel where she works. Unfortunately for our narrator, Purple Skirt excels in her work, immediately becoming the favourite among her co-workers and managers. Yellow Cardigan remains invisible and unappreciated, frustrated by but still enamoured of this woman who remains unaware of her. The whole thing is fascinating in its unbelievability. Are they somehow the same woman? I found myself asking. I don’t think they are, but the level to which Yellow Cardigan alters the path of Purple Skirt’s life is a genuine marvel.
Lisa Taddeo, Animal
Lisa Taddeo is a journalist whose first book Three Women explores the love lives (but really the sex lives) of three American women she interviewed / got to know over eight years. It is a riveting and bleak book that presents three distinctly joyless intimate relationships. I can’t help but think Taddeo’s experience of spending years with these women influenced how she presents the fictional character Joan in her second book Animal. Early in the book, Joan’s ex-lover Vic enters a restaurant where she is having dinner with a different ex-lover and proceeds to shoot himself in the face. This shocking event leads Joan to pack up her car and drive from New York City to Topanga Canyon, where she rents a house from the elderly and ailing Leonard. As we get to know Joan, it becomes clear that Vic’s public suicide is only one of many traumas she’s suffered. She lives her life recklessly and without regard for the comfort of others, manipulating men with her sexuality to preserve her movie star-esque lifestyle. The story of Joan’s original trauma unfolds slowly. She tells it through recollections, allowing us to piece together the provenance of her dysfunctional relationships with men and women in the present. Animal is full of gory violence perpetrated by men against women; it’s not an easy read. And, like Three Women, I would not say it reflects the common experience, despite its realness and viscerality. Most of us do not live like Joan, rootless, disconnected and always hungry. Still, the relationship between trauma in childhood and self-destructive adult behaviour is absolutely clearly defined in both books. I don’t think I can say I “liked” Joan or her story, but I can for sure say I was unable to put it down, and I thought about it for a long time after I finished reading. And in my opinion, that all adds up to a certain type of "good" book.
Tig Notaro, I’m Just a Person
In 2012 Tig Notaro was diagnosed with c. difficile. While being treated for this illness, her mother died suddenly, the result of a random and tragic fall. A few months later Notaro was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy. This book is a reflection on that year and its impact on Notaro’s relationships, comedy career and approach to life. Is it an outstanding piece of literature? Nope. But is it a lovely and surprisingly humorous tale of resilience in the face of extreme personal tragedy? One hundred percent.
Dr. Jen Gunter, The Menopause Manifesto
Please follow Dr. Jen Gunter on social media. Even if you don’t have a uterus, you probably love someone who does, and she drops all kinds of wisdom about women’s bodies to her Instagram feed on the daily. In Menopause Manifesto she provides a thoroughly researched, objective, medical resource for women approaching menopause. It is a manifesto because somehow, still, the idea of presenting women with enough information to make their own choices about their bodies is radical. Gunter assures us there is nothing gross or sad about approaching menopause. And, as usual, the world has so effectively taught women to hate and fear our bodies that we fail to understand and appreciate our own beauty and power. Luckily, Dr. Gunter is there to remind you that it is completely reasonable to expect assistance from health care professionals as you navigate menopause. She’ll also remind you to be a feminist every damn day, and I don’t know what’s better than that.
Part Two: Guys and Their Bullshit*
(* Actual phrase I use to describe the subject of most mainstream media. Prove me wrong, summer blockbusters. Prove me wrong.)
David Stuart Maclean, How I Learned to Hate in Ohio
I actually don’t read a ton of male-centric books, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. I was, however, struck by the title of David Stuart MacLean’s How I Learned to Hate in Ohio, and brought it home from the library. It’s a super fast read about Barry, a high school outsider who makes friends with Gurbaksh, a new student and the only brown kid at his school. From this initial connection, the book could have gone in a direction that showed Barry’s resilience against bullies and willingness to stand up for what is right. Gurbaksh (aka “Gary” because it’s 1985 in smalltown Ohio) is a great character. He’s naively curious about Barry’s life and the high school they attend despite the fact that very few people respect him. He’s also a good friend to Barry, often more than he has to be, since Barry has no social skills and doesn’t actually know how to be or have a friend. Instead, despite a promising start, the book veers into high melodrama. Barry’s mother, who works for a hotel chain and travels constantly, is revealed to have been cheating on her husband with Gurbaksh’s father for the last several years. They met at a hotel she was opening in a different city, and it seems as though Gurbaksh’s father moved to Barry’s town specifically to be closer to his lover. It’s a messy revelation that destroys his parents’ marriage and drives Barry away from his only friend. Then, as if scripted for an episode of Degrassi High, terrible things continue to happen to everybody even after the affair is out in the open. Barry does not repair his relationship with Gurbaksh and experiences no growth or redemption. It’s a bit disappointing, really, since the opening of the book is so promising. There was no need for the story to engage in really obvious racial and emotional themes, when simply a tale of cross-racial teenage male friendship would have been, in my opinion, more subtly educating and enjoyable enough.
Melissa Maerz’s oral history of the movie Dazed and Confused contains exactly the right amount of melodrama and gossip. I think it’s safe to say the book is for lovers of the movie only, since it dives deep into its subject. Maerz seems to have interviewed every single person involved with the film and then assembled their conversations into a chronological narrative. Part of what makes the movie so great is its ability to manufacture nostalgia, even in those of us whose high school experiences were very different from those it depicts. Every character is like someone we’ve all met. As it turns out, filming the movie was kind of like attending a sweet summer camp that included endless pot smoking, casual hook ups and general recklessness. Also, it was Matthew McConaughey’s first ever role; before taking it on he had never considered becoming an actor. That is the power of Dazed and Confused. It gave us Matthew McConaughey and his unforgettably smooth “alright, alright, alright.” Thanks, Melissa Maerz, for piecing together this riveting companion to that rare gem: an enjoyable movie about high school.
Part Three: ...And That’s How You Tell a Story
Jessica Abel’s Out On a Wire is a genius piece of graphic text that explores how podcasters do what they do. Tell stories, essentially. It’s such a dense exploration of a medium that many of us take for granted that you cannot help but be astonished both by Abel’s comprehensive research and the level of effort it takes a team of people to make a one hour podcast. It’s also a beautiful example of meta text, using storytelling to explore the art of storytelling. If you were with me for my appreciation of George Saunders’s “A Swim In A Pond in the Rain” back in March 2021, you will find this book equally excellent. And if you love Ira Glass like I love Ira Glass, you will enjoy even more Abel’s depiction of him and the level of engagement and intellect that go into every episode of This American Life.
Michelle Good, Five Little Indians
Michelle Good’s Five Little Indians won the 2020 Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, so you’ve probably seen loads of copies at your local bookstore or in the hands of readers you know. The “five little indians” of the title are Kenny, Lucy, Clara, Howie and Maisie, survivors of residential schools who make homes and lives for themselves in Vancouver’s downtown Eastside. Through their stories, this book offers a complex and nuanced exploration of Canadian Indigenous experiences. It does not avoid the trauma of colonialism generally and residential schooling specifically, but it also is not trauma porn, dwelling only on its characters’ victimization. These are fully crafted and believable human beings, whose stories are unforgettably real. Go read it. It’s excellent.
Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles
Finally, Madeline Miller’s gorgeous Song of Achilles treats Greek mythology and, in particular, the siege of Troy as merely the backdrop to a sweeping love story between narrator Patroclus and legendary hero Achilles. Patroclus is sent to live with Achilles along with a group of other young boys to be trained in the art of fighting. Their mutual interests and respect for one another bind them together, ultimately leading them to become lovers. Theirs is a love for the ages, despite being impossible and forbidden. It’s not my thing, frankly, Greek mythology. I’m no good at remembering everybody’s name (let alone the fact that the same people also have Roman names…) and I can’t keep straight who is related to whom. However, this tale is so beautifully told that my ignorance of its mythological origins was completely irrelevant. It’s a really good story, really well told.
Part 4: The Afterthought
Sharon Jennings, Unravel *
* I received Unravel to review for Professionally Speaking (the good ol’ College of Teachers magazine most of us read for the Blue Pages only). If you are interested in my extremely neutral review of that not very good book, please look for it in the bathroom magazine holders of your teacher friends. Otherwise, this month’s reviews are thematic rather than chronological, which I hope makes sense.