Real Life is a Booker-nominated novel about a Black man working towards his PhD at the University of Wisconsin – my alma mater, and a place that doesn’t want to be racist but is. The action mostly takes place over one summer weekend, with all sorts of relationship cracks and repairs happening. Because it’s about racism, yes, but it’s also about how people are with each other. How they become friends and/or lovers. How they un-become friends and/or lovers.
I enjoyed Real Life (contrasted in the book with academic life, which, if you have ever gotten a masters or a PhD, you know how isolating it can be from the wider world), and not just because I got to remember the place I grew up. The relationships felt real and lived in, and the depiction of how isolating academic life can be was spot on.
So, Practical Magic. If you’re familiar with the story, it’s probably because you’ve seen the movie once upon a time. The movie is good – I like it. Very female-centric and all about women solving their own problems. Men are either plot devices or the reward at the end, which is a nice change from the patriarchy. But I’d never read the book before now.
The book is significantly different: after her husband dies, Sally moves to Long Island, and that’s actually where the action takes place, not the old family house in Massachusetts. It’s mainly in Sally’s ranch house in a nameless NYC suburb. The aunts don’t have to go away because they’re by and large not there to begin with (but I can totally understand wanting to use Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest as much as you can). And there are way more dudes in the novel, though they are still mostly either plot devices or the reward at the end. There is more romance in the book, but it is somehow less the focus of the story. The focus of the story is competent women and girls solving the problem of this creepy, abusive guy who needs to stop haunting them and their neighborhood.
There was a Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter a few weeks back that talked about the curse of the B+ show. It was good, fine, enjoyable even, but it was hard to write about or review. (The show, specifically, was Away on Netflix.) Why? Because there wasn’t enough to bite into; and there’s not for a B+ show, because it is good and it is enjoyable but you don’t want to rave about it, but there’s also not much to nitpick about.
There was a lot to like about Prodigal Summer: the cranky old man neighbor, the goat-breeding subplot, that one line about meditative lawn mowing that did really hit home*, and the way that everyone grew a little closer throughout the book and became more of a community. But it was a B+ book; it was fine without being remarkable.
* Why? After my father’s mother died and he and my mom needed to clear out his childhood home, the two of them would drive 4 hours on a Friday night, and then my mom would get up to tackle the house while my dad would mow the acre lawn. Only then would he join her in dealing with all of the stuff. They would drive 4 hours home on Sunday, and they did this every weekend for months. The lawn mowing drove my mom nuts – after all, they were cleaning out *his* family’s house. But maybe he needed the mowing to mourn his mother and the soon-to-come loss of the house he’d grown up in.
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead novels are a damn delight to read. They’re quiet and smart and thoughtful about people and relationships and how to be good to one another and faith. I’m less interested in faith than in anything else in that list, but she makes faith about how to be good to other people, and I’m very interested in that.
If you’ve read the prior novels (and I wish I’d re-read them before starting this one), you know that Jack is the screw-up who tests everyone’s ability to be good to each other. He’s the son of a priest who’s an atheist and a troublemaker. Before leaving town, he gets a girl pregnant. Yes, he runs off on her, and she eventually leaves their small Iowa town for Chicago. In Jack, this is all history, and he’s had a stint in jail to boot.
Now, he is in St Louis and aware that he is a malevolent force in the world. All he wants is to be harmless; it’s the goal he’s working towards. Alas, he has the unfortunate luck to fall in love with a Black woman, Della, and this is the 1950s. This is the opposite of harmless, and he knows it. So does she. They try to stay apart and sometimes it works better than others. But they are in love, and it’s a mature, understanding sort, these are not crazy kids making bad life choices.
Robinson has enormous sympathy for Jack and Della, and her kindness and love show in every word in Jack. I was eagerly awaiting this book, and it did not disappoint.
All Addie LaRue wants is to see the world. But she was born in a small town in 17th century France, where her only option is to become a housewife and have children and never leave the town she grew up in. So she makes a deal with… not quite the devil, but definitely a spirit of the night – she gets to live forever, doesn’t have to get married, but the catch is that no one remembers her. There are logistics to work out – how do you rent a room if the person you’re renting the room from forgets you the minute you leave their sight? But once she gets those under control, she has an amazing time exploring the wider world and learning and experiencing everything possible.
Fast-forward to 2014 in New York City, where Addie is at a bookstore, and someone remembers her.
I have been excited about this book for what feels like years – from the time VE Schwab announced she was working on it on her social media, to being envious of all the people who got advanced reader copies, to finally preordering it, and then actually holding it in my hands and getting to read it. And handing it over to my teenager the minute I was done with it so she could read it too.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue wasn’t perfect – I’m not convinced that one of the more important characters was developed enough, Henry’s (the person who remembers her) relationship with his family felt very one-note. But the characterization of Addie as being a person who lets most creature comforts go, as long as she has art to consume – that hit home. And the reveal of the framing of the book at the end? Masterfully done.
The Awakening is heralded as an early feminist book, as it shows a woman who is clearly in a not-great marriage decide to just be herself. She realizes that she’s a pretty good artist, and so she paints, eventually earning enough money to live on. She has some flings. Her husband goes on a long trip and her mother-in-law takes the kids so they can spend some time in the country. She moves out of their house. She keeps her own friends, not just the business contacts of her husband. Her husband, of course, has no idea what to do about any of this.
But I think it’s also a book about mental illness. Was she driven to mental illness by the repressive structure of her life? Her mood swings are written about in the book in such a way that you realize: oh this is a depressive mood, and here is when she’s manic. And like I said: an overly repressive life can destroy your mental health. When her husband is scheduled to come back, when the ordinary structure is going to overwhelm her again, well, she doesn’t handle it well.
Would I recommend The Awakening? Sure, to someone who’s interested in feminism or early feminist texts. It’s like The Yellow Wallpaper in that way. They’re both, incidentally, very short, novellas really. They would make a good one-two punch.
There is not much plot in Weather, by Jenny Offill, and that is to its credit. Plot would get in the way of the point, which is the day-to-day life of a librarian and mother of a small child in New York City who is increasingly worried about climate change. This book is full of hilarity, to wit (about a problem patron): “But how to categorize this elderly gentleman who keeps asking me to give him the password to his own email?” Reader, I laughed out loud.
Her brother is an addict who gets sober, finds someone to fall in love with, gets married, has a baby, freaks out, relapses, and gets a divorce. Towards the end of the book, she may or may not have an affair, her prepper tendencies get stronger. Her son gets a couple of years older, the dog needs to be walked. Somehow, this all results in us asking the question: how do we care for each other and how do we care for the world?
The language is lovely and wonderful, and if you told me that the author was a poet I’d believe you.
I’m also going to say that this is kind of a book about the end of the world, given that climate change features in it. Given that, is it a good book to read during the time of corona? I think it is.
The Grammarians is a lovely story about two twin sisters living in the late 20th Century in and around New York City. I don’t actually want to say too much about the plot, but I loved how familial the story was, how close the twins are even when they’re fighting, and how much love was interwoven. Even when everyone is driving each other nuts, they all still love each other – families are like that.
The action is driven by the women growing up – you get their entire life stories from birth to death 258 pages – but also by a dictionary, Webster’s Second Edition. The Third Edition is apparently very controversial, in part because the second was so stodgy. One of the women has a job writing about grammar, and so is the prescriptivist and is more akin to the second edition; the other writes poetry and stories using vernacular language and so is the descriptivist, and could be compared to the third edition. (A short definition of prescriptive vs descriptive lives here, if you’re interested.)
But that is all in-the-weeds, and you certainly don’t need to care about that particular argument in order to enjoy the book. You can (I did) enjoy the characters and their relationships to each other and New York City in the 1980s. I highly recommend The Grammarians.
I saw a tweet a couple of weeks ago, wondering why the media was continuing to focus on men and their idea about the 2020 election when the real story was how angry women are. How done we are with all this bullshit, the casual harassment, the serial rapist that’s in the White House, every story that has come out from #MeToo. (Because y’all of course: #MeToo.)
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo takes all of that anger – presumably her anger – and puts it into Alex Stern. She is a former teenaged drug addict who is found surrounded by a few people, mostly men, who had been brutally murdered. She had no blood on her, but she was so high that she was never a suspect. Oh, and she can see ghosts. The plot starts when, in the aftermath, Yale decides it needs her to keep their secret societies in check. The eight main societies each specialize in a particular type of magic, and a ninth house keeps an eye on each of them to make sure nothing gets out of hand or the students in them don’t get too greedy. Alex wants to be good, wants to fit in, but things keep happening. Eventually, her anger proves to be a very useful tool solving the central mystery.
It is scary and good and depicts rape, sexual assualt, and college students being the assholes that college students can be. Especially when alcohol is involved. It also features them occasionally being hit over the head with blunt objects when that happens.
I read The Secret History about a million times while in college. So reading it again was a bit more like comfort than exploring anything new or looking to discover anything new.
And yet, there is something in a book you can re-read that many times. While in college, I was in love with the over the top aesthetic of this book. Now, it’s hard not to look at the characters and see tragedy written all over them. Henry, the scholar who has always been able to do what he wants; Charles and Camilla, twins who can’t live apart, not even when they need to; Francis, who needs to be allowed to be himself when he’s not at college; Bunny, fatuous and full of charm but irritating as hell; and Richard, who just wants to fit in.
I still love the aesthetic of it, the romanticism of a small college in a New England town, the fascination with beauty that is both the author’s and Richard’s, who also happens to be our narrator.
I can’t at all tell you what it would be like to approach this book, written pre-internet, as an adult almost 30 years later. All I can tell you is that I still love The Secret History, whether its because the book is great or because I loved it so much as a twenty-year-old. I will always recommend it.