Disaster Preparedness by Heather Havrilesky: I just finished this wry, sharp, and smart memoir and YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK. Whether you’re a kid of the 70s/80s aching for a deluge of cultural nostalgia or you want to feel connected to someone else who navigates the world without a first aid kit, you will find a story in Havrilesky’s book that will shift the ground beneath your feet. If you thought we were living in end times now (I certainly do), you will remember a time of alien invasions, plummeting airplanes, shuttle disasters, satanic cult rituals, and earthquakes that threatened to swallow us whole. Many of us Gen-Xers were reared in the wake of Boomer anxieties and paranoia and Havrilesky was no exception. What started as a childhood plan–her siblings decided to create their own elaborate escape and survival plans–grew into the blueprint for how they navigated the real earthquakes of their lives: parental discord and divorce, death, sadistic schoolteachers, men frightened of commitment, mothering a screaming two-year-old, and cheerleaders.
Havrilesky’s observations about life are acerbic and funny and always honest. She lays herself out to bear and I cleave to memoirs where the narrators aren’t afraid to parade out their imperfections. I found myself at turns laughing out loud and connecting to the minor and major hurts that shaped her life.
Transit by Rachel Cusk: It’s hard to describe Rachel Cusk’s marriage/divorce trilogy because on paper they’re about one thing (in this second installment, Faye’s unmoored feelings about her divorce as she relocates her two sons to a ramshackle home in London to start over), but then they’re about many other things–gentrification, rejection, acute loneliness, change, abandonment–all told through the lens of Faye’s interactions with other characters in the book. Akin to Outline, we’re eavesdropping on the interactions Cusk deliberately chooses to share and Faye serves as a conduit to understanding all the things going on in her life that she perhaps can’t explain. Or doesn’t know.
For me, the second part of her trilogy was about the importance and impermanence of connection. Relationships–familial, friends, neighbors, colleagues, strangers and lovers–are core to the story and central to Faye and how she navigates her life post-divorce.
You could say that this is a story about a woman rebuilding her life.
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson: I purchased this book a couple years ago and it sat on my bookshelf, half-read, ignored. However, over the past few months, I’ve been vigilant about keeping only what is useful, beloved, and functional in my home. So, I pulled out all the unread books and went to work. And I’m glad I did. Jansson’s tender novel, composed of 22 elegant vignettes, tells the story of a grandmother and her six-year-old granddaughter Sophie spending a summer on a small island off the Gulf of Finland, complete with ravaging storms, foreign interlopers, feral cats, and local bugs. The story takes place in the early 1970s after the granddaughter’s mother dies, leaving the remaining women of the house to meditate on love, death, God, and all of nature’s magic in between. The grandmother is acerbic and complacent. Sophie is curious, volatile, and passionate. They spar, squabble, and embark on adventures (from breaking into the house of a wealthy foreigner who has built what they consider a home that’s an obscene spectacle of wealth to weathering one of the island’s most ferocious storms). Their affection for one another is whole and complete, and while there isn’t a grand plot at play, you will come away with feeling that perhaps there’s still some magic left in the world–even if we’re forced to see it through the lens of a child.
Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran: This book couldn’t be more relevant to the nightmare that is our socio-political climate. In this devastating story, you’ll see the lengths that two women will go to in pursuit of the love and mothering of a small boy. Soli is a nineteen-year-old undocumented Mexican immigrant who leaves her small village on the outskirts of Oaxaca for the promise of the California landscape. After a harrowing journey across the border, she takes refuge with her cousin in Berkeley where she spends her days cleaning the homes of the monied and privileged. When she learns she’s pregnant, she keeps the child–much to the chagrin of her cousin–and you see Soli’s unwavering and intense devotion to her son. Soli’s story is juxtaposed with Kavya, an upper-middle-class Indian woman who is distraught over her inability to bear a child. Her desire is a constant, compounded by tradition, a demanding mother, and a frenemy best friend who seems to have it all. The two worlds converge when Soli is placed in immigrant detention, on the verge of deportation and her son, an American citizen, is handed over to foster care. Kavya has the son she’s always wanted and Soli aches his return and will stop at nothing to reunite with her son.
I’m not a mother and I’ve no intentions to have a child. I say this because I was surprised how parts of the novel made me feel…uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s because the concept of unconditional love and fierce familial attachment are foreign to me. Obviously, I could empathize with both women but sometimes they bordered on the verge of …annoying. I had to take a step back and realize that Soli is barely an adult and her ambition to make a new life for herself clashes with the reality of the perception of Mexicans, which is pronounced by how she’s treated by the wealthy Berkeley moms and most profoundly by law enforcement. Stereotypes abound. I also had to take a step back and understand that when someone is blocked from their one true want, their decisions and behavior isn’t always rational.
I say all of this because fiction should challenge you. It should wrench you out of your comfort zone. The best books are transformative, and while I sometimes wanted to punch both of the women, I had to ask myself WHY I was feeling this discomfort. And I felt better for having questioned my norms and values after having read this astonishing book.
Full Disclosure: I have included Amazon affiliate links, which means I make like $1/month when you buy one of these books.