I’ve been trying to read nothing but female authors for the late spring & early summer. I only had one slip-up, but I’m glad I read that one too : )
After Suite Francaise, I was looking for accounts of the daily realities of the Holocaust. Not camp memoirs or novels, not survival stories, but more stories like Nemirovsky’s that showed the way that towns & villages made possible the suffering of six million and more and their families. In that search I came across A Scrap of Time and Other Stories by Ida Fink. Originally written in Polish about Poland, A Scrap of Time is unforgiving in its … I was going to say in its slices of life, but it’s a collection that shows how cruelty and necessity slices through lives. The cast of characters is vast and believable, both those captured and those collaborating to liberate those hunted. Children, young women, the elderly, people alone, married couples, etc. There are moments of relief, but those are recounted in such a way that really had me reeling—was survival about luck? About personal bravery? Some cosmic tragic mix of both?
The blurb at the top of Gayl Jones’ Corregidora had me sold. Toni Morrison, Jones’ editor at one point, proclaims, “No novel about any Black woman could ever be the same after this.” The bar is certainly set high by this novel. It’s an unflinching look at the legacy of slavery & sexual violence, complete with wisdom of the ancients in Corregidora’s memory of her grandmother’s stories of enslavement. It’s a bold novel sexually, complete with frank and explicit depictions of loving intimacy and noncoerced submission. It’s written in a smoothly varied style that readers of Morrison & Hurston will appreciate, shifting effortlessly & powerfully between Black urban vernacular and modern stream of conscious prose and back again, often within the same paragraph. Finally, it’s driven by and complicated by Corregidora’s terrific freedom, in terms of her art, her friends, her family, and her career. A real stunner with a dizzying resolution.
Since I’ve read Dana Stevens’ criticism at Slate for years, I was really excited for her book Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century. It’s a biography as broad as the title. Stevens reconstructs every stage of Keaton’s career and the context surrounding it. The vaudeville stage and the advent of film that transforms / undoes vaudeville; the early days of film and the corporate consolidation of cinematic distribution and talent; the rollicking energy of Keaton in front of & behind the camera and the business errors he makes that compromise his financial stability; the cocktail parties of early Hollywood and the birth of AA; the meritocracy of the performing arts and the female directors, the Black artists that never got their due; Keaton’s struggles with alcohol and his success in his last marriage and as a gag writer for television stars. Like Elvis Costello’s memoir or Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution, this book is gonna be one that you’ll want to read with a device nearby so that you can relive & re-laugh at Keaton’s timeless genius.
I remember hearing about Richard Adams’s Watership Down as a kid. Even then, it was spoken of in reverential terms, spoken of as a book that would move you & change you. It is, and it did. Like most adult readers, I’d say that it’s not really a kids’ book. I don’t doubt that kids will enjoy the suspenseful adventure / survival story—I know that I had a really difficult time putting the book down every night. And I hope that kids and / or suburban readers like me will take the time to follow along in the novel’s map, to look up topographical terms like … y’know, down or copse and botanical terms that show the plentitude of nature, even in a little corner of a little island. When readers like me say it’s not really a kids book, we really tell on ourselves. All great books are books of ideas. In this case, citizenship & power, nature & ingenuity, the self & the Other. One of my desert island books for sure.
I am a sucker for books about books. Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book would count, I guess, as historical fiction. It is a fictionalized account of the Sarajevo Haggadah. A Haggadah is a book used during the Passover celebration to tell the story of the exodus & faith of the Jewish people; the Sarajevo Haggadah is, in history & in Brooks’s novel, a masterful work of art. The novel begins in the near-present with a manuscript conservationist hired to brave wartorn Sarajevo to work on the Haggadah. Brooks looks deep into the book—its fibers, its stains, its spine, its clasps—which take the reader back in history to see the inspiration & construction, the path & peril of this sacred text. The history is woven into the lives of the characters rather than inserted clunkily between their actions & journeys. The people of this book (in 1480s Seville, 1490s Terragona, 1600s Venice, 1940s Sarajevo) is distinct and deliberate in how they see & how they value the Haggadah. Highly recommend.