September 2021 Reading Round Up: Emotional Landscapes

In this round of microreviews, we’re focusing on feelings, from one author’s illustrated year with Seasonal Affective Disorder to the complex emotions contained with three generations of an Indian family. These books focus on the emotional landscapes of their subjects–and ultimately advocate for a world in which art, and the complex experiences and emotions it evokes, is inherently valuable.

Life and other shortcomings by corie adjmi

Genre: literary fiction/short stories | she writes press 2020 | Reviewed by meryl ain

In her award-winning debut short story collection, Life and Other Shortcomings, Corie Adjmi brings readers a fresh and insightful look into the lives of women before the #MeToo movementThrough 12 loosely linked stories, Adjmi’s engaging and colorful writing transports the reader into the hearts and minds of the women and girls whose stories she tells. Beginning in the 1970s’ and spanning more than 30 years, the action takes place in a variety of locales, from New Orleans, to Manhattan to Brooklyn, to Madrid.  

Adjmi has an exceptional gift for bringing alive her female characters; they all struggle mightily –mostly in their minds– with the patriarchal society in which they live. All have problematic relationships with men. They face their own demons, endure illness, abuse, and issues with children. They yearn for power and dream of asserting their rights in a man’s world. While the subject matter is at times difficult and painful, Adjmi’s writing style is consistently engaging and easy to read. As we navigate the innermost thoughts of her characters, it inspires us to reflect on our own secret struggles. 

In the first story in the book, Dinner Conversations, six young married couples, who call themselves “The Sixers,” are having dinner in a posh Manhattan restaurant. The dialogue among the couples is snarky and raw, with some of the men making off-color and unkind remarks.  

Many of the characters in the stories are Jewish – ranging from the loosely affiliated to the most observant Orthodox. One of my favorite stories in the collection, The Devil Makes Three, is about Iris, an Orthodox mother of six, who wears a sheitel and goes to the mikveh each month. One day, when Iris is alone at home, she turns on the computer and enters a chat room where she strikes up a conversation with a non-Jewish writer. The conversation has surprising results. Both the descriptions of the mikveh experience and the Internet chat are equally masterful.  

Corie Adjmi is a fresh and talented Jewish author, whose writing reveals great familiarity with diverse Jewish communities. I look forward to her next book. 

Why We Love It: These stories portray the diversity of the Jewish community, and speak to the pains of life for women under patriarchy.

feelings: a story in seasons by manjit thapp

Genre: graphic novel/memoir | random house 2021 | Reviewed by alicia banaszewski

In artist Manjit Thapp’s book, Feelings: A Story in Seasons, the reader is immersed in Thapp’s stunningly illustrated world. The book begins in summer with bursts of warmth and ample energy for productivity, but as the seasons change so do Thapp’s emotions. Although summer at first invigorates the author, the unrelenting heat eventually takes its toll.

Thapp’s work explores Seasonal Affective Disorder and works to dismantle the shame that comes with feeling “sad” during dark and dreary months. The book is organized into six seasons: high summer, late summer, monsoon, autumn, winter, and spring. The graphic novel normalizes the weather’s influence on our internal life by expressing and exploring moments of self-doubt and negative self-talk. 

Instead of fighting against the seasons, Thapp is gentle with herself. Feelings of guilt for needing to rest or not wanting to create are acknowledged and are so beautifully drawn, it coaxes empathy out of the reader. 

We too, move and change with the seasons. Feelings is a perfect reminder that sunnier days are always on the horizon and that the drearier days where all we do is rest can be lovely, too.

Why We Love It: This book is not only beautiful–it also sheds light on Seasonal Affective Disorder, and the profound impact of feelings on the trajectory of our lives.

Undertow by Jahnavi barua

Genre: literary fiction | penguin viking india 2020 | Reviewed by samiksha ransom

Jahnavi Barua’s Undertow traverses the complex tangle of family relations, loss, and conflict. Set in Guwahati in Assam, the novel also explores the beauty, culture, history, people, and  politics of that unique place.

Barua tells the story of Rukmini and Loya, Rukmini’s daughter. Rukmini goes against her family, particularly her mother, to marry Alex, a man outside of her religion and caste. Because of that, she is exiled from her home forever. Rukmini is emotionally destroyed and her embarrassment peaks when she and Alex get divorced. Years later, Loya, twenty-five, arrives at her mother’s house in Assam to research the Asian Elephant as a part of her thesis. But that is not all that Loya desires. She wants answers to tough questions, including her mother’s exile and her grandfather’s complicity with it.

Loya stays at her grandfather, Torun’s house. During her stay, we witness a clash between generations. Loya and Torun antagonize each other repeatedly. However, after a particularly heated conflict, Loya and Torun make up and healing begins. Eventually, they grow fond of each other and Loya begins to call Torun ‘Koka’ or ‘grandfather’.

At this point, reconciliation in the family is only half-achieved, as Rukmini continues to hold grudges against her father Torun. But, at the end of the novel reconciliation between Torun and Rukmini becomes possible when Rukmini is forced to return home because of a tragic occurrence.

Through her novel, Barua elegantly explores love and loss within the confines of a family, mapping the generational impact of the clash between the outsider and the indigene, and the journey to healing and reconciliation.

Why We Love It: This heartfelt novel explores how bias and the caste-system can impact families for generations-and how those families can heal.

funny weather: art in an emergency by olivia laing

Genre: essays | ww norton co 2021 | Reviewed by ingrid carabulea

Olivia Laing’s essay collection, Funny Weather, champions art and its ability to heal societal wounds and dissuade categorical thinking: life and death are not opposites, time is not linear, and love takes several forms.

Laing conceives of art as one of the greatest forms of resistance that does not show immediate effects but creates lasting change. Just as a seed provides a nation with gradual and enduring sustenance, so does art for a society lacking connection and community, divided into strict categories of race, class, and sex, and ruled by binary thinking.

With great heart, Laing extends her belief that art offers hope in times of crises and is proof of another, more powerful reality.  In shifting the way in which we appreciate art—from using it to avoid pain to finding pleasure in its restorative abilities—we become more hopeful, and can better envision a more promising future. Laing’s resounding voice is a necessary reminder of the artist’s essential role in reforming society—a role not to be forgotten or overlooked.

Why We Love It: This book champions art as a form of resistance, and artists as change-makers, at a time in history when we desperately need both of those things.

papaya salad by elisa macellari

Genre: graphic novel/memoir | dark horse books 2020 | Reviewed by alicia banaszewski

In Papaya Salad, Elisa Macellari tells the story of her great uncle Sompong, a lover of education who joined the diplomatic corps of the Thai army during WW2. The story is told around the table when the author tries papaya salad for the first time. The ingredients of the dish are then used as markers and chapter breaks in-between, linking the past and future in one dish.

Macellari’s great uncle grew up in a small village and did not want to become a doctor like his family hoped; he aspired to instead travel the world and learn languages. Little did he know what was to come as he traveled and moved around in the army and what would happen after Japan invaded Thailand.

After ending up at the Thai embassy in Italy Sompong meets his future wife–who makes papaya salad for him–they are transported to the United States with Japanese prisoners of war. While they were not taken to the internment camps, over one hundred thousand Japanese people were. It is my one gripe with this book: the missed opportunity not to expand on the life and death consequences of Japanese internment camps. While it is briefly mentioned, the gravity of others’ fates are breezed over as not relevant to the story.

As a freelance food writer, a memoir linked to and punctuated by ingredients of a significant dish is extremely appealing to me. What we choose to eat or not eat, where, and with whom dictates our life experience more than almost anything else. This concept is mainly what drew me to the graphic novel. While it is impossible to recreate certain moments after relatives inevitably leave us, you can eat something you once enjoyed together, and remember them. Or you can make a recipe from a book to feel that much closer to the story.

Why We Love It: This graphic memoir beautifully marries food, family, and world history to tell a story about what it means to be human in a time of war.

Want to review a book for our next round-up? Head to our submissions page for more information and to see a list of titles we’d love to cover.

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