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):
- 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.
- 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.
- The 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.
- On 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.
- Brown 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.
- 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.
- It’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.
- I’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.
- Spit 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.
- 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.
- No Land’s Man, by 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.
- A 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.
- The Paying Guests, by 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.
- All 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.
- Still 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.
- All My Puny Sorrows, by 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