14 Feb 2019

keep up with what I’ve been reading lately

Photo by Lina Kivaka from Pexels

Sometimes, I feel like I’m enduring life instead of living it. However, that’s a story for another time. Today, I’m sharing the slew of books that I’ve been reading. Last year, I read over a hundred books and some were epic disappointments but most put my heart on pause. Also, I’ve been making a concerted effort to read books written by non-binary POC. I think it’s important to widen my white purview and support artists who are putting brave, wonderful work out into the world. I’ll use this space to document my book journey this year.

Imagine a world where men ceased to exist. They’ve been cast off, considered dangerous and impure, and a woman’s only way of survival was to take shelter on a protected island where they endure various physical and mental contortions to return to their former, healthier selves. the water cureNow, imagine the only man you’ve allowed trespass to that island is your father–he’s devoted his life to “protecting” the women–and suddenly he’s gone. This is the world we encounter in the opening of Sophie Mackintosh’s remarkable debut, The Water Cure. The novel seems to eclipse space and time–we know it may be the present day-ish, but we’re not entirely sure, and it seems this is a place that may be in Britain, but that’s uncertain too–all of which I think is the point of Mackintosh’s world. It doesn’t matter when and where we are, we’ve walked into the action–en media res, as it were–and we’re here to accept the world as delivered to us.

King is the father and he’s created a territory guarded with barbed wire for his wife and three daughters, Grace, Lia, and Sky. The men on the mainland are violent, dangerous. For most of their lives, they’ve continued to endure a series of cures–from drinking salt water until their stomach retches to deciding between murdering a small animal or hurt their sister–that are psychologically manipulative and a complete farce. But the girls don’t know that. Yet. Their fragile, idyllic world is disturbed after the death of their father and the arrival of the men–two adults and a young boy washed ashore. For a week, the women completely unravel. Their love and loyalty are tested, but mostly they discover cold truths about their family and the life they’d be living in isolation. Can they survive the men, the book asks? Absolutely.

Tommy Orange will punch you in the face with his arresting, powerful prose. I’m loathed to even use that term “prose,” but it’s true. I realize it’s odd to start off with fawning over the writing, but it is its own genius, a character that rises above the rest. Read the first few pages after the prologue and you’ll see what I mean. I’ll be honest and say that I’m not entirely familiar with the extensive history, brutality, and shame that has followed Native Americans since all of us (Americans) descended and stole their home from them. Sure, I’m familiar with the fantasy-land story that is Thanksgiving and the horrifying and brutal murders and tortures of Indians in the 1600s, and I’ve kept up with news reports, but nothing as deep, rich, and painful as Tommy Orange’s There There.

I read somewhere once that fiction has the ability to tell us more about our society at a particular point in time than nonfiction and I believe this to be true. I’ve learned so much about cultures through the novels and people who’ve written them, which has inspired me to continue to self-educate. I have a lot of opinions (mostly searingly negative) about this current wave of nationalism considering the fact that we’re all immigrants–we stole this land from Native Americans and pilfered California from the Mexicans and Spanish. But we’re not here for a history lesson or to chat politics. Orange weaves a series of disparate interconnected narratives of people who are traveling to the big Powwow in Oakland. It’s odd that I would buy this book around the same time I saw Blindspotting–both brilliant takes on the Oakland both artists knew as kids, and how they’ve witnessed the influx of money and the inevitable white-washing. We meet Jacquie Red Father, newly sober, cloaked in loss and grief, making her way back to her family after a shameful incident. Orvil, a curious teenager who teaches himself traditional Indian dance via YouTube videos in secret. Edwin Black, a shut-in who only just discovered his Native origin. Abuse, suicide, loss, addiction–Tommy Orange does not spare us from the greatness and burden of bearing your great heritage–one that white people keep trying to disappear.

OH MY GOD, I LOVED THIS BOOK SO MUCH. Okay fine, some of the alternative narratives were confusing and could’ve used a little bit more editorial life, but whatever. Fatima Farheen Mizra’s A Place for Us is devastating and extraordinary. The book opens with tensions flaring during the eldest daughter Hadia’s wedding–a match of love instead of tradition. The wedding is the Trojan Horse for a family reunion that basically takes a pitchfork and plunges it into everyone’s old wounds. Amar hasn’t seen his family in three years, and we don’t yet why his appearance sets everyone’s teeth on edge. All we know at the present is that everyone is tending to their wounds.

The book cycles back to Rafiq and Layla’s arranged marriage and arrival in America and various points in the children’s lives where we see them straddle tradition and their Muslim faith in a post-9/11 country that’s increasingly viewing people as if they’re the enemy. We see the pain of conforming and living steadfastly for your culture and beliefs. We also see how tradition can bind families but also wreck them when a little thing like love or loss comes into play, and how sometimes our parent’s best intentions can become our ruin. I know I’m being deliberately cryptic, but there’s so much beauty in this book–from the relationships between the siblings to the sometimes discomforting knowledge that parents don’t always love their children equally to the ways in which we deal with heartbreak and loss.

Okay, on to something lighter. Well, sort of. Julia Claiborne Johnson’s Be Frank With Me is downright charming! M.M. (Mimi) Banning is the J.D. Salinger of our time minus the questionable inappropriate relationships with young women/teenage girls. She wrote a seminal book when she was young, made a mint, and decided to hole up in her Beverly Hills mansion for most of her life until she falls prey to a Bernie Madoff-style Ponzi scheme. Flat broke, she needs to make cash so she’s back in front of the typewriter for the first time in decades. Her New York publisher sends Alice Whitley, an assistant, as his planted spy.

Soon Alice becomes enveloped into this eccentric world centered on a nine-year-old boy who sports the wardrobe of a 1930s movie star, lives on old movies, and finds that his ascots, cravats, and acerbic wit don’t fit in with the other fourth-graders. As Frank and Alice become close, Alice becomes consumed with finding out who his real father is, and how Xander–the hot handyman cum mentor–fits into the picture. And will Mimi ever write that book? I have a cold dead heart and I have to say this book warmed it up right quick.

I just finished this book and YOU NEED TO READ IT ASAP. I keep talking about how I was a book snob for years and I’m glad I recovered from the sickness that is stupid because I would’ve missed the best thrillers out there. Case in point, Jessica Barry’s Freefall is ACES. Allison wakes from a frightening plane crash in the Colorado Rookies. As the plane smokes, she gathers as much sustenance as she can because she knows the crash wasn’t an accident and someone is looking for because she knows the kind of information people would kill for.

The book is structured as a dueling narrative. As Allison makes her way down the mountain, starved and injured, and tries to make the journey east back to her mother, we learn about the life that forced her on that plane. We then meet her mother Maggie, who still hasn’t recovered from the recent loss of her husband and refuses to believe that her daughter is dead. After seeing a society photograph that barely resembles the daughter she’s known (yet is now estranged from), she embarks on a journey to learn everything that’s happened her daughter in the past two years. Barry’s pacing is incredible as the two narratives are always in synch and information is dropped at the right moments to increase and satisfy tension. You will never guess some of the twists!!! If you live thrillers involving big pharma and family stories, you will LOVE this one.

I’ll be honest, reading Lacy Johnson’s The Other Side was tough. Not because it wasn’t extraordinary–it was, reminding me of Maggie Nelson’s Jane: A Murder and The Red Parts for some reason, which is probably one of the finest compliments I can give a book because I love Maggie Nelson THAT MUCH. No, this disturbed me because of the subject matter. Like many women in America, I’ve also been sexually assaulted. Not on the level of Lacy’s horrific kidnapping and torturing at the hands of her sociopathic ex-boyfriend, but I identified with the aftermath. The need to be normal, yet you’re still frightened. The need for erasure as a form of self-protection, yet the desire for justice.

The memoir opens with Lacy’s escape. She shows up at a police station with a U-bolt still clasped around her wrist. Her captor flees the country and Lacy begins the work of piecing together their history and leans on her familial relationships as context for the relationship. This book is more than an account of the kidnapping, abuse, and rape. It’s about a woman looking back at an unconscionable act, the trauma she experienced, and the transformation that occurred as she now writes from the place of being a healthy mother of two children. I loved everything about this book, however, it’s DARK.

 

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Full Disclosure: I use Amazon affiliate links, which means I make a whopping $3 when you buy books, which contributes to my site hosting fees. So, in short, I don’t make any money off this.

2 Comments

  1. Pamela wrote:

    Thanks for these. Will add to my book club list.

    Posted on 2.15.19 · Reply to comment

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Trust me, I want to do ALL THE THINGS. Now, I ask myself what portion of my day have I committed to being a better writer, a better storyteller and brand builder? Am I learning something new, regardless of how minor that something is? Or am I zeroing in on the things that are conduits and bridges to and from the work. You’ve created all these points of entry to a thing that isn’t as good as the vehicle that got them to the thing.
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But an island in Scotland isn’t realistic, so I’m setting my sights closer to home, California. And I’ve got time to research, thankfully. .
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It’s bizarre that I’ve always been a city girl and all I want now is small. Quiet. Remote. I feel like my dad.
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My dentist tried to reassure me, after rejecting my pleas for a fifteen-year repayment plan, that this particular tooth had already booked a one-way ticket to a root canal, so I ended up saving $2,000! Oh, cool. So, instead of dropping ten grand on two teeth, I was only paying eight. Like I have eight thousand dollars just laying around, waiting to be flushed down the dental toilet. Apparently, the hazelnut was my salvation. I started laughing and continued laughing. For a while. To the point where everyone in the waiting room was uncomfortable.
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Today, I wrote a tutorial about crafting plots. Instead of vivisecting plot arcs — because frankly, I’d rather gouge out my eyes with an acetylene torch — I invite you to consider three simple questions: what story will sustain your interest for 70,000 words? Can you commit to your story and the sequence of events that unfold for months or years of your life? Does your novel have the weight to capture and hold your reader until the end?
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Characters are delicious. When I was small, I didn’t have many friends, so I surrounded myself with books and my imagination. It’s a strange, magical thing to live your life inside your head, but this is what I did. Long, sultry summers formed a backdrop for one of the many worlds I’d created, complete with a cast of characters who felt so real you could touch them. This was more than inventing an imaginary friend or anthropomorphizing a stuffed bear; my characters were fully-formed people who had their own personalities, a particular way of talk, and facial features I’d cobbled together from television shows and magazines. They clasped pearls around their thin necks and wore sweaters and shoes made of silk and dyed blue. They were carriers of credit cards, plastic rectangular shapes I’d only seen on TV — a far cry from the crumpled bills and pennies we hoarded. My characters were breathing Frankensteins, only far less frightening. What made them real was they refused to follow a script — they rarely behaved the way I wanted them to.
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  • Want to write a book? I got you. Below is an excerpt from my latest medium piece—the first tutorial of six I’ll be sharing on writing mechanics. You’ll get the other 5 later this month if you’re on my email list. Link in profile!
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Denis Johnson once said that dialogue isn’t about what characters are saying, but what’s left unsaid. The leaner the dialogue, the bigger the bite. Darkness fell. The summer in 2005 was unseasonably chilly, and we wrapped ourselves in light jackets and thin cotton sweaters, watching the author of Jesus’ Sonchain-smoke and dole out advice with humor and humility. We were at a writer’s conference where we workshopped our stories during the day and mingled with boldfaced names in the evening. This would be the summer before I sold my first book and I was floored that my teacher at the time, Nick Flynn, found something honest and worthy in my essays that would become my memoir, The Sky Isn’t Visible From Here. Back then, I was painfully shy and prone to giving violently awkward first impressions, so instead of the cocktails and conversation, I chose to sit on the wet grass and listen to writers whom I admired. One evening, Denis Johnson gave a talk on dialogue.
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Dialogue is difficult. I often think of it as the power-lifter of novel writing because it has to operate successfully on several different levels. Not only does it have to move the story forward, convey information quickly, and grant narrative breathing space (because who wants to plow through pages without an exhale), but it also has to reveal core character truths. Dialogue delivers what narrative can’t — a voyeuristic, in-depth look into the minds of characters through what they say, and more importantly, what they chose not to disclose. Characters come to life when they speak. We visualize them as living, breathing people who have a particular way of talk, a specific view of the world and their place in it. While the author has dominion over the narrative, serving as your tour guide through the story, the dialogue serves as the wild card, the wrench that could usurp everything you’ve just read and what you’re about to read.
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