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The Women and Theatre Program Past Presidents’ Panel, 2015

Women and Theatre

 

These remarks were delivered at the Women and Theatre Program conference at McGill University in Montreal on July 29, 2015, right before the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) conference at the Fairmount Hotel.  Robin Bernstein chaired the panel, and I spoke with Charlotte Canning, Jennifer Brody, Lisa Merrill, and Sara Warner.  Thanks to them all for their smart remarks, and to the current president, Lisa Hall Hagen, and vice-president, Lindsay Cummings, of WTP for their leadership.  I’ve written about the Women and Theatre Program conferences over the years, because they’ve always been foundational to the field of feminist, lesbian, and now queer performance theory, history, and criticism.  A chapter on the conference can be found in Presence and Desire:  Gender, Sexuality, Performance (University of Michigan Press, 1993), which also reprints my essay, “In Defense of the Discourse,” to which I refer, below.  And it turns out I was WTP’s president in the early 90s . . . I think.–JD

 

I can’t even quite remember when I was the president of WTP, in terms of dates or years.  I only remember that I followed Vicki Patraka’s superb and energetic leadership, and that when I took over as president, she handed me a checkbook and a sheaf of papers that was the WTP archive at the time, and promised to talk to me on the phone whenever I needed her.  We talked on the phone a lot in those days.

I don’t want to sound like an “elder”—we don’t track in the language of “foremothers” or matriarchs anymore, even though, at almost 60, I’m starting to feel like one.  But in these brief remarks, I want to recall for you what it felt like to run and maintain a pseudo-professional organization for a field that barely existed, around keywords that drew us together and soon after blew us apart.

The stakes were so high in those days.  We needed one another to create community of mind and emotion, because some of us were academics and some of us were artists and we had to teach one another how to think about our mutual work because no one else would take it seriously.

We were women, and that gave us something powerful in common, not because of any fundamental similarities, but because gender determined how we were seen in the profession, in the theatre, and in the world.

We were different from one another politically, in our sexual preferences, our class backgrounds, our race, ethnicity, gender presentations, ability, and the host of other identity markers that we’d come to parse ever more carefully, together, over the years.

But what we shared was a profound commitment to “the discourse” (as I called it once when I was defending it), to the idea that we needed to create a way of thinking women, feminism, lesbianism (as we called it then), theatre, theory, and performance together.

I’m not sure anyone had tenure, back in those days.  Vicki, and Rhonda Blair before her, had entered the academy before me, but I don’t think they were tenured yet.  In those days (the mid-80s), I was counselled by a male friend at the university where I would soon accept my first job not to pursue that “feminist” stuff until after I got tenure (advice I didn’t take).  There was every possibility Vicki and Rhonda and other feminist theatre pioneers at the time would lose their jobs over their scholarship.  I still sometimes don’t believe that I got a job, as an out lesbian-feminist performance critic and theorist.

But soon, despite what felt like the danger and what people now like to call “precarity,” the world cracked open, bit by bit, and the academy, ever keen to sniff out trends, found us and began to publish us, and to let us teach, and to tenure us and promote us, and low and behold, even to appoint us as program directors and chairs and deans and provosts.

Who would have thought it?  Not me.

We still have a lot of work to do, as a professional organization and as a field.  Our work is still partial, our community still not diverse enough, in terms of race, class, areas of scholarship, thought, artistry.  There will always be other people, and academics who think in other ways, and artists who create other kinds of work, to attract to our conversations.

But I come back to these conferences proud and relieved that 35 years later, we still gather annually, that who we are keeps renewing itself, even as some of us return over and over again.

Look what we’ve built!  We’ve created community, however partial, fractured, and unstable; we’ve created an archive for the future; we’ve nurtured generations; and we remain the envy of all who come after us at that conference called ATHE, down the street, just as we always have.

It takes work to do this—so I want to end by thanking everyone in this room and everyone who couldn’t be here today for everything they’ve done to keep WTP thriving.  And let me encourage you all to step up—do the work, because it matters so far beyond each of us as individuals.

Step up, because this, right here, is the beating heart of our field.  I will always be delighted to have been one of its capillaries.  Thanks!

The Feminist Spectator

John, by Annie Baker, at the Signature

Annie Baker is a very brave playwright.  After her last play, The Flick, caused a ruckus in its initial run at Playwrights Horizons in 2013 because disgruntled patrons found it too long, the playwright now presents John, a play equally as long.  It’s also just a luxurious in its attention to time, the rhythms of quotidian life, and the tiny quirks of human behavior in which emotional information is encoded like so many strands of DNA.  I don’t believe in “feminine” or even feminist aesthetics, but something about Baker’s work pays attention to the ordinary in ways that seem to me productively and instructively gendered.

True to form, too, Baker doesn’t waste time on exposition.  The characters’ backstories unfold through anecdotes and behavior, but it’s their present circumstances that make them compelling.  Elias (Christopher Abbott) and Jenny (Hong Chau), a twenty-something-ish couple from Brooklyn, arrive in an overstuffed Gettysburg bed-and-breakfast run by an older woman named Mertis Katherine (Georgia Engel).  She prefers to be called “Kitty,” but everyone just calls her Mertis anyway.  Elias and Jenny arrive late at night, signaling already how they’re out of step with conventional time.  Mertis fusses over them in the always intrusive way of B&B proprietors whose lives are empty without boarders to exhort and entertain—or so we think.  In fact, Mertis has secrets and depths and a history that Elias and Jenny can’t begin to plumb.

Engel, Abbott, and Chau, as Elias and Jenny arrive and meet Mertis
Engel, Abbott, and Chau, as Elias and Jenny arrive and meet Mertis

Because this is Annie Baker’s world, the characters invite our interest and sympathy rather than antipathy or condescension.  In other hands, Mertis would be a flibbertigibbet.  And after all, she’s played by Georgia Engel, famous for her squeaky voice and surprised, faux-innocent expressions on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Everyone Loves Raymond.  But here, with her slight limp, her intensely focused presence, and her unexpectedly profound sense of what’s happening underneath the dialogue, Engel’s Mertis is the quiet, forceful center of Baker’s play.  At the end of each scene, she removes a key from her blouse with which she unlocks the face of the old grandfather clock that stands upstage center.  She carefully shifts the hands of the clock into position for the next scene, patiently circling the dial as the lighting adjusts the time of day accordingly, and then she moves off into her private quarters.  Engel-as-Mertis also begins the play by pushing aside the heavy stage curtains that hide the scene, walking each section of drapery down to the side with a deliberate, determined pace, and then pulling them closed just as doggedly at the end of each act.  Hers is the agency through which the story unfolds.

Georgia Engel as Mertis, the powerful heart of Baker's play
Georgia Engel as Mertis, the powerful heart of Baker’s play

What happens in John is less important than its thematic preoccupations, although Baker manages to create a level of suspense that compels the audience’s attention.  Elias and Jenny’s relationship is beset with problems, mostly around fidelity and trust, and they’ve left Brooklyn for Gettysburg to sort them out.  But the historical town and the B&B’s mysterious past pull them into a broader reflective mode, and place their concerns in the context of the more existential questions about truth and time and, well, God.  John reminded me of something out of Ionesco or Beckett throughout its three acts, but graced with Baker’s humanity and heart.

In fact, the appearance of Mertis’s friend Genevieve at the top of the second act puts the play’s absurdist heart on its proverbial sleeve.  Played by the redoubtable Lois Smith, Genevieve is blind, piercing, and possibly insane.  Her sunglasses and her retractable cane, along with Smith’s gruff voice and powerful, take-no-prisoners stance, signal the presence of the mythic blind seer.  That Genevieve’s engagements with the others has little to do with John’s apparent plot makes her that much more mysterious and interesting.  At the end of the second act, in fact, after the house lights come up and as the audience stretches and some begin to head for the lobby, Smith-as-Genevieve suddenly pops through the stage curtains to call us to attention.  She exhorts us to listen to the story of how she went mad, promising she’ll take no more than five minutes.  With the house lights up, the surprised spectators settle down to listen as Genevieve rants about the seven steps to her madness, all inspired by her abusive ex-husband, John, whose voice has taken up residence in Genevieve’s head to torture her further.  Then she disappears back behind the curtain and the audience proceeds with its break, stunned and amused by this unexpected turn of intermission events.

John is full of such surprises, even if few are as spectacular as Smith’s curtain speech.  Director Sam Gold, Baker’s frequent, masterful collaborator, perfectly modulates the play’s pace.  Where other directors and actors might rush through Baker’s elegant pauses and silences, Gold and the terrific cast sit with them comfortably, inviting the audience to contemplate, as they do, the mystery and awkwardness inherent in daily life.  Sometimes, whole scenes take place in near darkness, as Elias and Jenny talk through their relationship in the dead of night.  That we can’t see their faces makes us listen more closely to their murmurings, and invites us to read the subtext through our ears.  Other times, we overhear them talking or fighting in their guest room (up the magnificent set of stairs provided by the talented scenic designer Mimi Lien), but have to strain to make out their words.  (I saw a performance live-captioned for the hearing impaired, otherwise, I, too, would have been unsure about what the characters were saying—which is part of Baker’s method.)

The living room full of "matter" at Mertis's B&B (Engel as Mertis and Chau as Jenny)
The living room full of “matter” at Mertis’s B&B (Engel as Mertis and Chau as Jenny)

John is, in fact, all about who sees and who hears.  Mertis asks Elias and Jenny (in separate scenes, since this question, as FS2 points out, is too private to ask together of a couple who mistrust one another) if they feel someone watching them (“Do you have a watcher?” she asks).  They parse the difference between being watched and watched over.  The B&B has its ghosts, too, who become part of its existential schema of omniscience and omnipresence.  Genevieve observes that Mertis’s house is filled with “matter,” and Lien’s set design packs the place with tchotchkes and whimsy that become in turn malevolent and benign.  Jenny sees life in objects.  She tells stories about growing up with Samantha, the American Girl doll, who unsettled Jenny, as she felt Sam was always angry with her.  That Mertis has her own Samantha doll, prominently displayed on the stairs’ landing, unnerves Jenny all over again.  The doll becomes key in a pivotal moment between Elias and Jenny, but Samantha haunts each scene, as she, too, watches the action, always lit (by designer Mark Barton) in a way that calls her to our attention.

Despite the sometimes sinister undertones that all this watching and overhearing implies, Baker balances the balefulness with care-taking and affection.  At the end of one of Genevieve’s visits, Mertis offers to walk her friend out—and she does.  The actors cross the stage arm in arm as Genevieve snaps her cane into place and shrugs on her coat.  And we watch them, noting their intimacy, affection, and age as they cross the wide proscenium toward the door (which takes a while).  They’re gentle with one another in the casual way of old friends, which is only remarkable for how infrequently we see older women with long-standing relationships explored on stage.  By comparison, Elias and Jenny’s concerns seem so new and green, discontent because they’re young and unformed.  Still, Mertis’s sympathy extends through questions that might seem invasive and probing, but that sound kind and wise in Engel’s precise, empathetic delivery.

John is beautifully crafted.  Baker establishes subtle patterns, and threads references, themes, and images across moments.  Jenny as a child felt burdened by stuffed animals, as she couldn’t provide them all with what she thought proper homes; Mertis’s stairs are lined with stuffed animals that appear to Jenny a reproachful reminder.  Mertis’s first husband died when he was electrocuted in their basement as he worked on a handyman’s project; Elias suffers what he calls “brain zaps,” brought on by withdrawal from the Cymbalta he takes for his depression.  Mertis tells Elias and Jenny that some of her rooms are more “reliable” than others, and worries when Jenny decamps into the Jackson room to sleep when she’s trying to avoid her partner.  Genevieve admits she prefers to sleep in the Jenny Wade room, a little room hidden off the uneasy Jackson.  Mertis tells a story about the house’s history, when it was a Civil War hospital.  Mertis describes how so many soldiers’ limbs were amputated that arms and legs piled up ten feet high outside the windows, useless but potent.  Jenny describes the taste of something as like “rain on concrete.”  All of these images knit together to become both what they are and more than they seem, in a beautiful, lyrical, subtle ode to metaphysics.

Engel, Abbott, and Smith contemplate the angel chimes in the play's final moments
Engel, Abbott, and Smith contemplate the angel chimes in the play’s final moments

In the play’s last moment, Mertis and Genevieve sit on either side of Elias on the couch center stage.  Mertis lights her “angel chimes,” a set of candles whose flames prompt little angel-shaped figures to fly around a stem.  The three watch the angels flutter.  The plays’ final reveal, in that moment, comes from a text message Jenny receives on her phone, which Elias intercepts and Mertis reads over his shoulder.  The message appears to settle some of the play’s questions about fidelity and truth.  But in Baker’s hands, it also gestures out toward all that remains ineffable, unknowable, and undecidable, all experienced in the temporary but comfortable companionship of those who might not be watching over, but are there to witness with.

The Feminist Spectator

John, by Annie Baker, at the Signature’s Pershing Theatre Center, Manhattan, through September 6, 2015.

Fun Home Makes History

Fun Home made history at the 2015 Tony Awards, when Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori became the first female collaborators to win for Best Musical Score.  Kron also won Best Book for a Musical, and the production won the Tony for Best Musical.  (Lisa Kron’s glorious acceptance speech is a must-watch!)

From my perspective, Fun Home also makes history for its content, as the first musical about a lesbian coming of age (and finding out that her father is a closeted gay man) to appear on Broadway.

After enjoying the production twice in its run downtown at the Public Theatre last year (here’s my post on that production), I had the pleasure of seeing it on Broadway, the day after the SCOTUS decision on gay marriage and in the middle of New York’s Pride weekend.  The house filled with people equally buzzed by the turn of civic events; their moved responses to some of the show’s most poignant scenes were often audible.

Director Sam Gold has restaged the show to fit the in-the-round design of Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre, and the remounting only enhances the show’s emotional effects.  (Gold won a Tony for Best Director of a Musical for his work.)  Fun Home, after all, is about memory.  At the Public, the set revolved on a turntable to evoke various locations, as present-day, adult cartoonist Alison (Beth Malone) ruminates on her past, and Middle Alison (Emily Skeggs) finds herself realizing her sexuality among Oberlin’s lesbian community, and Small Alison (Sydney Lucas) negotiates a complex relationship with her father and begins to discover her own desires.  At Circle in the Square, the oval playing space is cut with lifts that hydraulically move pianos, tables, sofas, doorways, and other set pieces on and off the stage through traps that open and close over them.  David Zinn’s newly repurposed set now works metaphorically to underline how memory lurks beneath the surface of one’s life, appearing and disappearing sometimes by effort of will and sometimes on its own.

Small Alison (Sydney Lucas), Alison (Beth Malone), and Medium Alison (Emily Skeggs)
Small Alison (Sydney Lucas), Alison (Beth Malone), and Medium Alison (Emily Skeggs)

The new design and staging allows adult Alison to shadow her younger selves more precisely, in movement that feels fluidly choreographed.  That she ghosts the story she tells is more palpable and touching here, as we see her fully embodied within her own effort to understand her past.  Sometimes, she reads over a younger self’s shoulder (especially amusing are young Alison’s matter-of-fact journal entries:  “I saw my first dead body today.  I had an egg salad sandwich for lunch” [I’m paraphrasing]).

The compassion with which she considers her self-in-formation extends to her memories of her father, whose suicide four months after she came out prompts adult Alison to try to understand what happened to her father, and to allay her own guilt.  Michael Cerveris, who won a Tony for Best Actor in a Musical for his performance, plays Bruce Bechdel as a mercurial, emotionally bottled up, frustrated man, whose sublimated desires play out in inappropriate relationships with teenage boys and in his tight control over his baby-dyke daughter’s gender performance.  For example, Bruce insists Small Alison wear a frilly dress to a party, shaming her into submission by telling her that other girls will talk behind her back if she wears boys’ clothing.  He roughly pins her barrettes to her hair and, most painfully, tries to make her into the elite and effete artist that he wishes he could be himself.  When Middle Alison comes out to her parents, her confusion and resentment over her father’s behavior turns to confounded dismay when her mother, Helen (Judy Kahn), informs her of Bruce’s long-standing dalliances with too-young men.

Michael Cerveris as Bruce, with the Bechdel family arranged behind him
Michael Cerveris as Bruce, with the musical’s Bechdel family arranged behind him

Kron’s adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel, on which the musical is based, achingly captures the pain of trying to communicate what can’t be said between Bruce and Alison.  The last time they try to talk to one another, Middle Alison has returned from Oberlin for her first visit home with her new girlfriend, Joan (Roberta Colindrez).  In her only interaction with Bruce in the real-time of the show’s story, adult Alison takes Middle Alison’s place to go for a car ride with her father.  As they sit beside one another, neither can name the emotions that hover in the space between them.  Alison sings “Telephone Wire,” a song that begs him and herself to just say something to break the lock of silence around the truth of who they are.  But the ride ends with everything they might have said unspoken and Alison never sees her father again.

At Circle in the Square, with the audience close by
At Circle in the Square, with the audience close by

The theatre’s intimacy lends new colors to the production, and the lead performances have all deepened and seasoned.  Every one of the principals was nominated for a 2015 Tony Award.  Malone is particularly good in this remount, as she seems less peripheral to the action, more central to how Alison’s memories play out.  Emily Skeggs has filled in her performance as Middle Alison and finds all the role’s comedy and pathos.  Her central song, in which she ecstatically declares that she’s changing her major to Joan after the first time she and her girlfriend sleep together, is fabulous.  Judy Kuhn, as the long-suffering mother, has found new levels and knowingness in Helen’s sadness and resentments.  I saw Gabriella Pizzolo as Small Alison, a Saturday matinee understudy for Sydney Lucas, whose glorious performance in the song “Ring of Keys” rocked the Tony Awards audience when she presented it as part of the televised show.  But Pizzolo (who played one of the Mathildas on Broadway) was equally terrific in the can’t-miss role.

“Ring of Keys” brings me to tears every time I hear it, as it perfectly captures the moment when you see yourself in someone else in a way you never thought possible, and realize that there might be a life for you yet.

As a longtime lesbian feminist spectator, I’m so proud of Fun Home and everything it means for women theatre artists and the potential for telling new queer stories on Broadway and across the landscape of American theatre.  A tour is now planned, which will bring this lovely, plangent musical to communities across the country, and will allow generations of high schools and community and regional theatres to perform the sensitive, mournful, yet somehow hopeful story.  What a milestone.

The Feminist Spectator

Fun Home, on Broadway at Circle in the Square Theatre, Saturday, June 27, 2015.

 

Recent Reading Recommendations . . .

With a busy academic year slowing down my theatre-going (and film seeing, and even my television watching, though I’m halfway through the third season of Orange is the New Black and eager to share thoughts about that soon), I’ve spent some time reading novels and non-fiction this past spring.  I’m happy to recommend these titles (in the order in which I read them, not in order of preference):

StationElevenHCUS2

  1. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel (2014).  A dystopian novel that turns utopian by the end, beautifully written, wrenching and moving at once.  In some not-too-distant future, a virus kills off most of the world’s population, except for a band of survivors who roam across a newly reconfigured landscape that lacks electricity or fuel or any of the essentials that keep our contemporary world moving.  But Mandel narrates how community and humanity reform, intermingling the present with the past, and layers of story (including one about a graphic novel, the impact of which ripples through the tale) that overlap and echo.  A lyrical, original, gorgeous novel.
  2. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast (2014).  Chast’s graphic memoir about the growing infirmity of her aging parents, who’ve rented the same apartment in Manhattan their entire adult lives, is equal parts profound and hilarious, precisely etched in Chast’s inimitable graphic style.  I read this shortly after Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal:  Medicine and What Matters in the End, and found the two excellent companion pieces about how we tend to approach end-of-life issues medically, morally, and politically.
  3. Tana FrenchThe Secret Place, by Tana French (2014).  French is one of my favorite Irish writers, and one of the best in my go-to stable of mystery writers.  Her most recent, set in a prim boarding school that almost invites rebellion, is a beautifully wrought mystery about young girls’ shifting affections and the lengths to which they go to protect their carefully preserved but ultimately fatal intimacy and innocence.  French is also very insightful about class, as well as gender, issues.  Her detective investigators form an unlikely male-female, middle-/working-class alliance in the face of the snotty mores of the elite school.
  4. Chang Rae LeeOn Such a Full Sea, by Chang-Rae Lee (2014).  Lee’s latest is also about a dystopian society, in a richly imagined future in which economic classes are carefully segregated into inviolable communities and jobs are assigned for life. Lee’s hero, Fan, leaves her assigned community in search of her suddenly missing boyfriend, Reg, and encounters a complex, dangerous world beyond the borders of her own.  Some of Lee’s scenes remain scorched in my memory (for example, a group of women imprisoned forever in a room on which they paint a huge, continuously evolving mural).  Some of the plot points stretch credulity, but Lee beautifully renders his prose and insights about a future in which economic castes harden into immovable categories.
  5. ypl_woodson_Brown_Girl_DreamingBrown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson (2014).  Woodson’s lovely, free-verse autobiography about growing up in the ’60s in Greenville, SC, and then moving to New York to become a writer, won the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.  It might be categorized as “YA,” but it’s also beautiful, heartfelt, and evocative for all readers.
  6. Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins (2015).  This thriller-du-jour is a well-told story with enough curve balls thrown to keep a reader riveted.  The novel is really about addiction, but also about gender and the raw deal that women get from men and from a society that requires suburban coupledom as the appropriate measure of “normalcy.”  Like Gone Girl, Hawkins’ novel is hardly feminist, but it’s diverting and twisty and you don’t see the “reveal” coming until 90% of the way through.
  7. AddarioIt’s What I Do:  A Photographer’s Life of Love and War, by Lynsey Addario (2015).  Addario’s memoir, filled with plates of her photographs, describes her life as a photojournalist specializing in war zones, especially in the Middle East, where she works on stories that she hopes will change local and global politics.  Hers is a perceptive voice (she received a MacArthur “genius” award) and a sharp eye.  The book details the gender politics of being a war photographer and shares an insider’s story of what it means to chase after images when people’s lives, including your own, are at stake.  By the book’s end, her decision to be a mother becomes the focus, and she renders her choice a bit too much as redemption.  But her voice and her images are vivid, and how she evokes her work is often thrilling.
  8. sun_375wI’ll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson (2014).  This gorgeously written, poignant young adult novel is about guilt, shame, desire, and the ways in which artistic talent succeeds and fails to capture emotions and experiences.  A brother-sister pair of twins lose their mother to sudden death, and work to find their way back to one another when betrayals and misunderstandings rend them apart.  The boy finds his gay sexuality and the girl finds her talent.  Nelson captures teen emotions in a great rush of words and feeling and colors, evoking how completely the universe seems to revolves around you when you’re young.  But because the siblings share the narrative voice, the story is sharp and sweet instead of self-centered and oppressive.  Ghosts, in a nice touch of magical realism, also haunt the story, in a way that lifts it above the quotidian.
  9. SpitandPassionSpit and Passion, by Cristy C. Road (2012).  This graphic novel/memoir, about a Cuban-American girl who’s trying to come out as a pre-teen lesbian, describes how the heroine finds herself by embracing Green Day’s punk rock. Road’s voice is both innocent and knowing, as she writes her character into her “revolutionary” desires through her identification with the band.  A unique and compelling coming out story.
  10. Beautiful Chaos: A Life in Theatre, by Carey Perloff (2015).  Perloff’s memoir offers smart, cogent, useful reflections on her 20+ years as artistic director of American Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.) in San Francisco.  Perloff, along with Emily Mann, Timothy Near, Martha Lavey, and a handful of others, was among the first generation of women to lead major regional theatres.  Here, she meditates on the art and the industry of theatre, considering what works and why in the context of a very specific city at a very particular moment in history.  She writes as a responsible, thoughtful artist, director, and playwright, who runs an august institution with an ethical vision of what it might become and how it might continue to matter, rather than how she might preserve it (or herself) as a cultural museum piece.
  11. Mandvi2No Land’s Manby Aasif Mandvi (2014).  A smart, sharply funny and politically insightful memoir about growing up Indian-American in the U.S. and what it means to be a brown-bodied actor.  Mandvi performed as a commentator on The Daily Show and in Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Disgraced, at Lincoln Center, before the production moved to Broadway.
  12. OzekiA Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki (2013).  This beautifully layered meta-narrative is about a Japanese-American author (named Ruth) in British Columbia, trying to write her memoir, who happens on a thermal freezer bag filled with mysterious personal effects, including a diary written by a 16-year-old Japanese girl, about her 104-year-old Buddhist great-grandmother, her suicidal father, and her kamikaze great-uncle.  The gorgeously told, puzzle-like story is also about quantum physics, Buddhism, the simultaneity of time, and so much more.
  13. The Paying Guestsby Sarah Waters (2014).  I’m a huge Waters fan, and this one is a great pot-boiler about two women falling in love in London between the wars.  Like most of Waters’ novels, it’s also about class and sexuality and the blightedness of the period’s conservative, striving culture.  A romance and a trial story, with vivid characters and a terrifically fast and suspenseful plot.
  14. DoerrAll the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr (2014).  Doerr’s novel won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  Some people have told me they don’t like it, but I found it a terrific, elliptical, poetic novel about a blind French girl trying to survive WWII and a German boy whose engineering talent draws him into the web of Nazi military strategy.  Their lives parallel and finally, inevitably, momentarily intersect.  Doerr’s writing seizes your emotions and draws your admiration, although I found the ending a bit protracted.
  15. MinaStill Midnight, by Denise Mina (2010).  Mina might be to Scotland what Tana French is to Ireland.  She draws a keen sense of place and character in this psychological mystery, which dwells on loss, identity, betrayal, and family.  Mina is a precise and discerning writer, who captures the national and local atmosphere, as well as the often unsavory, impossible choices of being human.
  16. ToewsAll My Puny Sorrowsby Miriam Toews (2014).  This was the first novel I’ve read by this popular Canadian writer, an apparently semi-autobiographical story about a two sisters, one of whom is a brilliant pianist determined to commit suicide, and the other a writer, the mother of two kids from different fathers, divorced, and a self-described loser.  In an nice parallel, and part of what makes the novel feminist, the sisters’ mother also has a close sister, both of whom are tough, strong, non-observant Mennonite women. The story is brutally sad, but Toews writes with wit and humor that always catch you off-guard (and made me laugh out loud).  Her observations about what it means to commit to living are lightly drawn but sensitive and moving.

The Feminist Spectator