(Staff Favorites) Becky’s Picks
To rise from the ashes first there must be a fire. Someone must burn. When a train is bombed in the slums, a young girl is accused of the crime based on a comment made on Facebook. Her trial becomes tinder for the flames of national outrage touched off by the explosion and more interestingly, positions of two people on the periphery of her life to accept great gains. A chilling and mesmerizing warning about the dangers of social media under a corrupt government, and an examination of loyalty in a country in which a select few can achieve success – and always do so at the expense of the vulnerable. So well-written that it made me ache.
They both contain multitudes the ocean and the human heart, and are simultaneously capable of boundless beauty and deadly danger. A year of sea living is meant to change them – their family, their marriage, and their world – but the changes they face are much greater than their imaginations allow. This bracingly paced and cleverly constructed novel, inspired by a true story, dives into the complexities of marriage, and the depths of post postpartum depression, and the lifelong search for identity. This is the literary beach read of 2020, aka the perfect quarantine read.
Love is not immunity to hurt. Being born one person does not mean you can’t become another – for a price. Black can become white. Female can become male. Lost can become found. The day the Vignes twins disappeared is legendary in Mallard. But what started as a joint adventure diverged into not just separate lives – but disparate identities. Bennett explores racism, colorism, and the complexities of the human spirit in this story of family, sisterhood, and reinvention. This book will always be timely.
GIRL, WOMAN, OTHER
A play, written and directed by a black lesbian with an all black female cast, opens at the National in London. After a career of playwright activism, of slinging rocks at the castle walls, Amma finally has the theater world’s attention on her own terms. Amma’s story of art, politics, activism, and the body is a unifying but small piece of this powerhouse of a novel centered on people historically relegated to the fringes of society, about not just gender “but race, sexuality, class, and other intersections which we mostly unthinkingly live in anyway.” Evaristo’s unique stylistic choices read as an innovative blend of spoken word and longform fiction, each of her varied characters are rich and alive, and she balances brevity with a deep longing to belong. Co-winner of the 2019 Booker prize, GIRL, WOMAN, OTHER, has the attention of the literary community; let’s continue listening to, supporting, and disseminating the voices of girls, women, and others – Becky
SILENCE OF THE GIRLS
Homer’s Iliad is an epic of heroes, but what is a hero after all but a mere man who has won a war? And what of the women who birth these men, raise them, marry them, or are won by them as trophies of their violent exploits? At a time when women are raised to be seen and not heard, one breaks the silence—Briseis—a queen turned slave. Barker’s feminist re-imagining of the Trojan War is breathtakingly of the present moment, while simultaneously casting history in sharp, chilling relief. Silence of the Girls joins ranks with Penelopiad, and Circe. – Becky
I MISS YOU WHEN I BLINK
Mary Laura Philpott
“Sometimes, in moments of memory or daydream, I feel the different iterations of myself pass by each other, as if right-now-me crosses paths with past-me or imaginary-me or even future-me in the hallways of my mind. “I miss you when I blink,” one says. “I’m right here,” says the other, and reaches out a hand.”
What started as a sweet and funny sentence spoken by her then six-year-old son, became a touchstone for Philpott and eventually evolved into the tittle essay for this collection of refreshing and wittily wise essays. Philpott covers a range of topics: marital strife; existential spending; the unseen type-A personality; the perfect murder weapon; why, when temporarily relocating to a foreign country with small children, you should pack extra snacks. Reading this book is like discussing life with a long time friend over two steaming mugs of Irish coffee. -Becky
A WOMAN IS NO MAN
“She thought about the limits of her life and how easy courage seemed when you boiled it down to a few words on paper.”
Three generations of women, each with their own secrets. When Fareeda is six years old her family is forced from their home in Palestine and relocated to a refugee camp; even though she knows her place as a female. Decades later, living in Brooklyn with her husband and their children in the early 1990’s, she is determined her daughter-in-law Isra will also know-because a woman is not a man and her place is at home. In 2008, Isra’s eldest daughter Deya chafes against the cultural restrictions her grandmother claims are inescapable. One question binds these women together: when does the cost of preserving culture become too high? Powerful. Eye opening. This novel does what literary fiction is meant to. -Becky
A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE
This biography of Virginia Hall, one of the first women accepted onto the Career Staff of the CIA, reads like a spy novel. Hall rejected her mother’s matrimonial plans in favor of adventure and, even after losing her leg in an accident, Hall’s determination and spirit allowed her to parley her experience as an ambulance driver towards working as an undercover agent for a clandestine branch of the British Secret Service in Vichy, the hear of unoccupied France, during WWII. Later she worked for the American Government continuing to arm and organize groups of French guerrilla resistance fighters. This is a fascinating and thrilling read about a little known heroine of WWII whose work established tactics still used today.
ALL THE LIVES WE EVER LIVED
Megan K. Stack
When Stack gave birth to her son Max she left her prestigious job as a foreign correspondent to care for her newborn and to work on her novel. She discovered that, like birth, the experience of mothering a newborn can’t be anticipated. Despite the help of a full time nanny, instead of writing she was learning how to disappear. As time passed she began feeling her way first back into sanity, then her own skin, and the wider world. Then one child became two and her family relocated from China to India. Throughout the changes she reflected on the role of a nanny in her household. What must it be like to be a working mother, like herself, who leaves their child to go and care for another’s? Instead of reporting from a foreign war zone, Stack sends dispatches from the crossroads of domestic work and motherhood. Important. Compelling. WOMEN’S WORK is a study of motherhood, a work of cultural anthropology, a sociological argument, and a must read. -Becky
ALL THE LIVES WE EVER LIVED
“It’s difficult to believe in death for more than a few minutes at a time.”
Why is it that children seem to love the more tortured parent more? Maybe the same reason we love our tortured artists; we trick ourselves into believing their addictions and angers are marks of genius. Smyth grieves the loss of her father, the man she viewed with godlike reverence as a child, with increasing anxiety and fear as a teen and adult as his alcoholism consumed the man she knew, and with sadness and an ever deepening love as his failing body continued to carry him further from the living. Throughout this process she sought solace in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Just as Smyth has an instinct for Woolf (according to a college to tuor), she also has an instinct for combining memoir with literary criticism and for allowing the metaphor of Woolf’s work to tell deep truths about the love between parents and children. This book makes you want to read all of Woolf’s writing, and to reread Smyth’s once you’ve finished. Stunning.
“This book has been an effort to write my way to an understanding of how to be alive in the meantime, in the final days, if not of the earth, then at least of the earth as I’ve known her. Because it has only been in knowing her that I’ve come to know myself.”
In this unironic love letter to mother nature Houston tells the story of how an 120 acre ranch in Colorado, over the course of a quarter century and with the help of friends (human, canine, equus, and fowl), taught her, a woman who has literally run with near-mythical creatures, to be her own cowboy. There is death, of elk and chickens and dogs, and destruction by blight and fire, but there so much life and hope and beauty captured here too. Houston models how to remind ourselves to be the change, especially during the many moments every day when we are failing to do so, how to acknowledge that we are part of the problem, and how to “live simultaneously in the wonder and the grief without having to diminish one to accommodate the other.” An important, timely book that is for all times and for all of us.
DAISY JONES & THE SIX
Taylor Jenkins Reid
You know that feeling you get when you’re a few pages into a book and you just know that it’s going to explode your heart into a million pieces? It’s a tingle, a secret being screamed in your ear. Reading DAISY JONES AND THE SIX is like that. “It feels so good, in the beginning.” Daisy Jones is a LA “it” girl with the looks of a Titian angel and a voice like honeyed whiskey poured over gravel. The Six started as a blues and rock band, the brainchild of brothers Billy and Graham Dunne. Separately they are talented musicians; together they become a seminal part of the late 70s rock scene. Until it all falls apart. Written as a documentary, with all the drugs and sex and infighting that makes a compelling episode of MTV’s Behind the Music, DAISY JONES AND THE SIX is about how music can save a life—or destroy it.
Three not haunted houses, four women—three named Lee and one named Gretel—and one gingerbread recipe. The mythology of gingerbread is baked into the Lee family history in this beautifully layered story of family, friendship, and belonging. Like the cookie, Oyeyemi’s novel is substantial, its shape quirky, and its sweetness laced with fire. Devourable, down to the last crumb. I give it three clementines!
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF TIME TRAVEL
Can time travel prevent murder? Four women scientists fulfill the vision of HG Wells in the late 1960s by inventing time travel. Their discoveries will lead to madness, murder, and an unexpected love story. In unpretentious writing Mascarenhas explores how a cadre of time travelers invent their own laws, currency, and culture, which supersede the variances across time periods. Moreover, she delves into the psychological impact of time travel on a a traveler’s view of death. If we have the ability to visit our dead in the past, when they are still alive, does anyone’s death even matter—except our own? Funny, moving, philosophical, and relentlessly entertaining.
Karen Thompson Walker
The phrase “sleepy college town” takes on new meaning in THE DREAMERS. Where do we go when we sleep? And, at the risk of sounding like a freshman philosophy major, how do we know when we are really awake? As more residents succumb to this unknown virus, the town is quarantined and the scene takes on the proportions of a natural disaster. Who will survive and what will be left, if and when, the dreamers wake? Told through the individual stories of a few college students—both awake and infected—a couple and their newborn, two sisters and their survivalist father, a visiting doctor, and a man whose partner is hospitalized with dementia. Fantastic.
One swab of the mouth. That’s all it takes. Thanks to the growing field of at home genetic testing, Dani Shapiro’s identity suddenly shifts when she discovers her father is not biologically related to her. What unfolds is part detective story, part study of the early world of artificial insemination, and part examination of what it means to be a daughter. Shapiro’s writing is full of depth and heart and wisdom. Discovering the father of her soul is not the father of her body at 54 is devastating, but is also beautiful. Shapiro claims her life, her writing, and her ever present feeling of unbelonging suddenly make sense. Her memoir is compelling and wrenching and, ultimately, full of gratitude and hope and awe. This is a stunning book.
A LADDER TO THE SKY
If your primary focus in life is fame, what won’t you do to achieve your goal? Is there anyone you won’t hurt, any aspect of life considered sacred? For writer Maurice Swift the answer is no, there is nothing he won’t do and no one he will let stand in the way of his shining literary career. And shine he does. But it is a long, cold fall from the stars back to earth. As much as I loved Cyril Avery, from The Heart’s Invisible Furies, is how much I detest Maurice Swift. And yet I enjoyed my intense disgust towards him, savored it as I was compelled to keep reading Boyne’s parable on the perils and pitfalls of blind ambition.
“What we miss—what we lose and what we mourn—isn’t this that makes us who, deep down, we truly are.” An unnamed woman of certain, also unnamed but implied, age inherits a giant of a dog, a Great Dane named Apollo, in the wake of her friend and mentor’s suicide. These two unlikely companions, as initial apprehension transforms to appreciation, wend their way through grief together. Written as though the woman were addressing her deceased friend, this is a uniquely beautiful and bitingly funny, bitter sweet treatise on grief, the art of writing, the state of the current literary landscape, and the powerful love between people and their “pets.” Unforgettable.
What if a fortune teller told you the day of your death when you were just a child? Would belief or disbelief rule your life? The four Gold children each react to their prophesied deaths differently. Simon charges ahead to the San Fransisco of the 1980s, carrying the knowledge of his death in his back pocket but never consulting it. Klara becomes a magician in Las Vegas, treating her own demise as part of a greater magic act, but her greatest trick won’t be death after all. Daniel spends his career as an army doctor fighting the mortality of others. Varya is perhaps the most stubborn nonbeliever of them all, yet her work with longevity research belies her lack of faith in the old woman’s predictions decades before. Each section in this beautiful, heartbreaking book is narrated by a different Gold sibling, and begs deep questions about life, death, immortality, and inevitability. Would knowing the day of your death help you prevent or change it, or is there no intervention big enough to fight the end that comes for us all?
THE END WE START FROM
We are all born from water, from the dark, wet interior of the womb. As a flood consumes England, a young woman gives birth for the first time. The metaphor could feel like a mother spoon-feeding her child, but in Hunter’s stark and powerful prose becomes a poem.. The unnamed narrator and her partner, known as R, struggle to navigate a world remade by both water and parenthood. Their story dissolves and reforms in each distilled paragraph in writing that is achingly beautiful, and is full of a sense of searching and of yearning. Hunter draws from religious texts and mythology from around the globe in her slim but sublime and, ultimately, perfect parable.