After covid, this must feel so different, the block schedule, getting off zoom & back in the classroom. He's so happy when he does his work once it's assigned. We expect that he'll have some late nights--but for school. Free period he plays chess in the locker room? I mean, his grades are strong, his attitude is good, and we're happy for him. He should be proud. In a few months, though, Joel, he needs to know that it's high gear time. Who will write his letter when all they see is him playing chess? Her mother & I are proud of her grades, but now is the time to find an office or club or something to show she took on a pinnacle experience somewhere. Find it quick, but make sure it's a thing you love ... robotics or service or an AP ... something you really love. It's time to step up. Colleges & universities are looking. When's your first college visit? I just don't know what we should be doing. There's no excuses anymore--you're not a freshman. You are a gift to us, Mr. Gar- za. Have a great day.
Category: things I read
I haven’t been great about keeping track of reading, or maybe I just need to reconcile myself to a method unlike my old one. Here goes some quick takes:
I’ve read a lot of memoir, and I’ve read a lot of border stories. And I’m still certain that I’ve never read anything like Javier Zamora’s Solito. I’ve taught excerpts from Unaccompanied, Zamora’s debut poetry collection, which focuses in parts on his journey north to join his parents already living & working in the United States. Solito, however, is a painstaking recreation of that journey, complete with near-crossings, re-crossings, various groups & safe houses & coyotes along the way. Short of walking the terrain oneself or experiencing Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s immersive artwork Carne y Arena, nothing will quite capture what you thought you knew of a border crossing quite like Solito will. Most importantly, how (despite the title) this is a shared experience, with collaborators & family members, with migrants & guides, all burdened with the same hope & fear, exhilaration & despair, fatigue & worry. Zamora animates & ennobles his memoir with the true account of three fellow travelers who became a kind of surrogate family. Truly unforgettable.
I am late to Louise Erdrich, and I began with Future Home of the Living God, a patient and engrossing novel (though not one as widely lauded as some of her others). It tells a story of unexplained social disintegration & the kind of grassroots fascism that grows most quickly & takes deep root during social unrest. The novel is narrated by Cedar Hawk Songmaker, the adopted daughter of a pair of big-hearted, open-minded Minneapolis liberals, and Erdrich stick to Cedar’s very limited first-person POV. We don’t know what exactly has happened to chickens & ducks, why archaeopteryx have returned, why Black & brown people are disappearing, why exactly pregnant women are feared, rounded up, & euthanized / punished / killed–but we do know that Cedar, pregnant with her first child, is being hidden & hunted. Erdrich makes believable to quick shift from neighbor to willing executioner, from life as normal to life or death. It’s a novel that satisfies more on the emotional (& at times spiritual) than social commentary level.
As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow by Zoulfa Katouh is a harrowing & haunting novel. Set in contemporary Syria, it blends stark realism with trauma-induced dreamworlds, the political horrors of war with the bodily sufferings of its victims, the rubble & unrest of Syria with the heart & hope of its people. Katouh focuses on Salama Kassab, a pharmacy student who has–through necessity–becoming something of a nurse, a doctor, a counselor … whatever is needed at the hospital at the time. While treating a young girl, she reconnects with the patient’s older brother, an activist via YouTube video and her near-match for an arranged marriage before the war undoes everything. It is a long look at a war still raging, one that slipped the attention of many Americans, due to events in Ukraine. In any time, it would be a necessary look at maintaining one’s humanity (not one’s moral perfection) in the worst of times.
I audiobook-read & loved Angeline Boulley’s YA thriller The Firekeeper’s Daughter. And I’d highly recommend the audiobook here, due to Isabella Star LaBlanc’s authentic & tasteful narration. Around the same time, I read an advance copy of Jas Hemond’s YA romance / suspense story We Deserve Monuments. It’s the rare novel that gets the messiness of family right and the messiness of young love right and the liminal spaces of American identity & ethnic / racial identity and the richness & sanctity of ceremony right. These two novels get all of it right in ways that any reader would love, including those skeptical of YA (like I used to be).
Okay, maybe Two Thousand Million Man-Power by Gertrude Trevelyan isn’t exactly a classic. But in the words of her most recent publisher, “If [Trevelyan] was a bloke, she’d still be in print”, some eighty years after she died.
It’s a novel that isn’t helped by its title, until you read the opening pages of Trevelyan’s novel and see how labor & human dignity, labor & human necessity are centered in the story.
Set between 1919 & 1936, Two Thousand Million Man-Power tracks the fortunes of Robert & Katherine, a chemist & a schoolteacher. Each just beginning a career or a life that could possibly be a career or a life of the mind. Every day, Robert, a recent graduate, works in a lab for ladies cosmetics, and every evening, he takes notes on a theory of time he hopes to one day complete. Kath has narrower ambitions but thinks big, mostly thanks to big dreamers around her, like Robert (and like a colleague who invites her to communist party meetings). Their courtship is slow & thoughtful–they attend weekly lectures–and it is bound by convention, which means they must sneak around in order to spend evenings together. Either due to true love or historical necessity, they get married. It is hopeful for a time.
It’s an honest love story–which includes daily pettiness & small joys, struggles over shared money & individual hopes, friendships & unavoidable comparisons with couples outside one’s relationship. It is deeply realistic about the loss of youth and the allure of materialism / comfort. It’s very nuanced & ambiguous about politics & history, cities & work, communities & countries. And it’s got a perfect ending.
Thanks to this one, I’ll definitely keep my eye on the publisher Recovered Books.
For four years, I tracked my reading, and as a result, I got to the point where it’s kind of a habit that I read broadly ([ahem] at least within literary fiction), that I read as much as possible in translation, and that I am deliberate about what I read next.
It’s been a while since I read R.F. Kuang’s Babel which I recommend enthusiastically. To aim to write a smart, accessible, thoughtful, & suspenseful novel is quite a narrow target to hit, and that one definitely did. Ada Limon’s The Hurting Kind is similarly smart & accessible, with a really gentle seasonal organization that never feels like it limits the poems. I reread Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, which is an engrossing story about a man pushed too far and the lengths he’ll go to set the story straight (even if it’s not entirely factual). But this post is about a chunk of reading that’s a little more deliberate, a set of books that I hoped would get outside of myself.
Usna Aslam Khan’s The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali is a historical novel about a place I’ve never even heard of–the Andaman Islands. Leave it to an independent press (Dallas’s Deep Vellum) to take a chance on a novel like this one, that deserves a wide readership and will challenge anyone that picks it up. Khan’s Nomi of the title is not the main character, nor is she explicitly any more of a witness or a survivor than her brother Zee (who suffers a terrible fate due to a single courageous act) or her father (bent low, literally, by his punishment for a crime he committed, which brought him to the islands) or her mother (who suffers losses that eventually become unspeakable). Khan makes the reader feel deeply about almost every character, no mean feat, given that some of the colonial administrators are complicit in, at best, cruel & unusual punishment. This might fit under historical fiction or post-colonial literature, and in ways that test the limits of each genre. It is a novel in which the bravest act of all is staying put and trying to find the beauty & the humanity around you.
I’ll update this post when I finish Rodaan Al Galidi’s light-hearted (or is that deep-heared?) refugee novel The Leash & the Ball, Melody Razak’s debut about 1947’s Partition Moth, Ingrid Rojas Monteras’s memoir about a journey into her family’s history in Colombia The Man Who Could Move Clouds
At some point months ago, I signed up for (and then forgot about) Open Letter Publishing’s Translator Triptych Bundle, which got me three Open Letter books written by Spanish female authors and translated by Katie Whittemore. I wrote about Mothers Don’t already. And I just finished Lara Moreno’s Wolfskin.
Like Mothers Don’t, this one focuses boldly on the interior lives of a mother, and the non-mother parts of that person, the parts that strain against the expectations of motherhood.
In Moreno’s novel, the everyday strain of being an independent fully formed person and a mother is exacerbated by a surprise—the protagonist Sofia is blindsided by her husband Julio’s wish for a divorce. “Wish” is not abrupt a word–more like “steps toward getting” a divorce. She thinks nothing of their regular marital spats or disagreements, and she thinks nothing when his toothbrush is missing one morning. When the conversation eventually happens, there’s little to discuss: He will leave their apartment, he will support her, and he has it all figured out—even with an apartment at the ready. Sofia, he assumes (correctly), need take care of their son Leo as if nothing has happened. Julio will carry on as if what has happened is precisely what he wants, which it is. Moreno renders this emotional turmoil in very relatable & shrewd detail. Tears, worry, unanswered texts, accusations, siblings and parents drawn into the separation, all while Sofia struggles to keep things normal—until she chooses instead to retreat to her recently deceased father’s home for the summer. That’s the opening thirty pages or so.
With this escape Moreno complicates our sense of what a good mother is, what an amicable separation should look like, what sibling support looks like, what stops and what continues when the disruption in our lives does not approach in sheep’s clothing, but instead when we realize that we let the wolf in willingly, we saw his skin all along.
I’d give away everything if I wrote more. Just know that Whittemore manages Moreno’s prose & the characters’ voices deftly, including shifting perspectives & timelines, as well as the sentences that unspool for a page or more when the emotions become … well, when it’s appropriate. Know it’s also a novel about sex, about trauma, about sisters, about innocence, about letting people in. Highly recommend for mature readers.
For four years, I tracked my reading pretty carefully. It was a worthwhile project for four years, but the user interface there got unwieldy. Now I post readings here. I’m proud that these four most recent books are all literature in translation. Four years ago, that kind of flurry of translated lit would have been planned, would have been a choice. Now, it’s a habit.
Since I teach a lot of students of Indian heritage, I had my antennae up for Indian authors. Two short story anthologies really hit the spot.
Dallas’s own Deep Vellum Publishing published The Shehnai Virtuoso, a collection stories by Dhumketu, translated from Gujarati and compiled by Jenny Bhatt. Compiled from his twenty-four collections, this anthology offers a great variety — but for me a kind of single authorial ethos emerged. There is real affection for the characters, even those that make lousy choices, especially those that are in dire straits. There is an adeptness at setting and tone (realistic or fantastic, mythical then or megaurban now), and there is a satisfying wrap up to each. Generally, good things happen to good people, and Dhumketu lets us know why.
Archipelago Books published The Dog of Tithwal, a collection of stories by Manto, translated from Urdu. These are darker and starker than Dhumketu’s. I’m not saying that it’s a fair or necessary comparison–I just happened to read these collections back to back, so forgive the apples to oranges comparisons. Manto’s cities are a little more unforgiving than Dhumketu’s, the relations between characters a little more selfish and amoral. The prose, as rendered in translations by Khalid Hasan and Muhammad Umar Memon, is direct. It reminded me often of the kind of mindset & prose that Sherwood Anderson called grotesque, that is, a set of stories about people who stick to their own truth and live with it during all their lives, but their truth turns to be faulty or even downright false.
New Directions recently published Yoko Tawada’s Scattered All Over the Earth, a novel I purchased because the cover looked really cool. It’s translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani, and in many ways it’s a novel about translation, about trying to connect, about moving beyond who we are to who we hope to become. There’s a fact of the world of the novel that was very compelling that isn’t explained much: Sea levels have risen so much that Japan no longer exists. It’s been so long that Japan hasn’t existed that Japanese speaking people, like one protagonist of the novel, cannot find their language fellows. The hook is for this character to speak her own language with someone who knows it. There are other translators and global wanderers, people looking for a language of love & family, gender & food, friendship & home. It’s the first in a planned trilogy, and it feels like it–the wrap up leaves you in true suspense.
Open Letters published Katixa Agirre’s Mothers Don’t this year, translated from Spanish by Katie Whittemore. The title is the beginning of a sentence: Mothers don’t kill. This novel is about a mother that does, who kills her two infant children. The narrator of the novel is a recently-successful novelist (of a political thriller about ETA) and a new mother (of a fourteen-month-old son) who follows the trial of the mother, a woman she had a passing acquaintance with in college. Like another book I read recently, Agirre’s book draws upon religion, mythology, anatomy, forensics, personal experience, family upbringing, socioeconomic mores, cultural norms, and more to bring this tragedy (crime? temporary insanity?) to life. Agirre is unflinchingly honest about what makes for a bad mother, and how difficult it is to be good in what one does and in what one fights against doing, in what one thinks and in what one tries to banish from thought.
I’m not sure I can convey the charms of Such a Fun Age better than Trevor Noah did when he interviewed author Kiley Reed. It’s a smart readable suspenseful and morally complex story about race and class, and the American dream of reinventing oneself, if not climbing financially and socially. Reid choreographs a tense & sometimes beautiful pas de deux between her two protagonists—Emira, Temple alumna uncertain of what her future should hold, months away from aging off her parents’ health care plan, and Alix Chamberlain, the Instagram-sorta famous girl boss who hires Emira to babysit her child. Black women have been caregivers for white families for years, end this relationship is front at times with a deep strain of racial history and mistrust. Especially when friends get involved, love triangles form, and things go viral.
Ada Calhoun’s Also A Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me is getting some well-deserved raves & attention. Like a couple of books I’ve enjoyed recently, Also a Poet blends cultural history, literary criticism, and personal memoir. Calhoun begins by trying to complete the unfinished project of her father–a biography of Frank O’Hara, a writer known primarily today as a poet but who was referred to famously in his NYT obituary as an art critic and “also a poet”. Through the course of the project, Calhoun battles her frustrations with her father, his friends, his past, and the executor of O’Hara’s estate. For all the insight that daughter & father gain into O’Hara’s life & times, it’s no spoiler to say that the book ends up being more about Calhoun & her father (an art critic and also a poet) than about the original subject, namely, Frank O’Hara. What the reader gets, however, is a complex & painfully true account of the process of writing, as well as the process of acceptance–of our families, ourselves, our pasts.
Even though I can’t remember reading a book like Juniper & Thorn by Ava Reid, I feel like I’ve confronted this story before. And I mean that in the best way. It’s got magic & love, sisters quarreling & dads exerting unreasonable control. Marlinchen is the youngest of the X family—Undine, the eldest sister, can read the future in water reflections, Rosenrot, the middle daughter, can create just about any potion or cure from herbs. And they’ve all been kept to their home (the mother deceased long ago, naturally) for years. Reid opens the novel with a rare, and fateful, journey outside the family’s grounds, a trip to the opera, which introduces a love interest in the main dancer, and which summons the father’s deepest rage that they have gone out into the city, full of temptations & modern conveniences (electricity, for example) that is making their magic obsolete.
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.
Over these past few years, we’ve had an embarrassment of riches with respect to cross-generational cross-cultural novels. Not all are immigration novels, but many are. Not all are trauma narratives, but many are. Not all are novels in translation, but many are. I’m sure you can think of many. Each time I read one of these important works, I’m humbled by the care with which the novelist crafts a difficult & deep personal truth. Dalia Azim’s Country of Origin is just such a novel.
Country of Origin begins and ends with women in transition, with women looking to the skies.
In the beginning of the novel (Cairo, 1951), a young woman looks to the skies from the roof of her comparatively luxurious, comparatively safe family home. She sees a city in ruins, a country in turmoil but one that her powerful, politically-savvy father can just navigate. Despite this father’s deliberate plotting & maneuvering, the young woman imagines, seeks, and secures an escape, an independence, a vista of safety & love. Sadly, it is not a permanent one.
By the end of the novel (Colorado, 1984), a young woman looks to the skies from the safety of a mountain preserve, part art project, part insect lab. She sees nature in its beauty & savagery, a landscape that has its hopes and its cruelties. This second young woman—the only child of the first young woman—has endured much: first-gen struggles, neurodivergence, family illnesses, and family losses. Despite all of this, the young woman sees in this mountain vista—one she will soon leave—a series of possibilities. Some of them quite firm, but many of them fleeting.
It’s that kind of novel. Every generation with its hopes, every generation with just enough to survive & testify to the next one.
Look, like most people who read Trust by Hernan Diaz, I had the immediate impression that this was going to win a lot of things. It’s a shame when that is one of my first instincts, but it wasn’t the only one. I didn’t only think “this one has a high literary fiction written all over it.” I thought about how elegantly Diaz navigates paths that are difficult to make accessible and relatable.
He writes about money in an exciting way, and in a way that doesn’t shirk moral questions. So many stories about money track the way that it can pull a person away from what they value. This novel by contrast demonstrates how money, particularly loads of money, reveals what we value.
He writes about gender in an unsettling way, a way that reveals itself the further you get into the novel, a way that reveals your own gendered perspective the further you get into the novel.
I guess I should say that this is a novel that plays with what a novel can be. It is in four parts, the latter two parts (and much of the second of the four parts) written in the voice of female characters. The further you get into the novel, the further Diaz moves you away from the fiction of part one, the kind of story that we have come to know of the novel at its best, at its peak.
There are spoilers that I’m avoiding here, as you’ve probably noticed. All I can say is that each part in each voice of Trust will have you thinking and feeling, and then thinking and feeling anew.