In our third reading round-up, we are taking stock, both physically and metaphorically.
Our selections for this month include lists and inventories, which use objects as a jumping-off point to explore memory and meaning. But these books also take stock in other ways — by examining and retelling ancient stories, diving into the colonial, patriarchal, and racist systems that plague our daily interactions, and sending characters on journeys of self-reflection and discovery. These inventories aren’t just lists. They are a means of determining who we are now, how we got here, and where we are going.
Bestiary by K-Ming Chang (One World 2020)
Reviewed by A. Mana Nava
Bestiary is a nonlinear, multi-generational experiment exploring how stories are passed down from generation to generation. K-Ming Chang plays with narrative structure by blending the epistolary form, fables, oral storytelling, and close third-person narration. In the narrative, the character Mother tells Daughter a story about a hungry tiger who eats toes to explain why she cut hers off and keeps them in a tin. Then, one day Daughter wakes up with a tiger tail. This novel turns impossible tales of rivers impregnating women, flying crabs, and holes carrying letters across the country into a plausible reality. There is no line between fantasy and reality as the two are brilliantly woven together.
You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat (Catapult Press 2020)
Reviewed by Isabella Scala-Natoli
In Zaina Arafat’s debut novel, You Exist Too Much—what some have called a bildungsroman, and a character study—an unnamed D.C. raised Palestinian-American narrator gets dumped by her girlfriend for her chronic infidelity and goes to rehab, then an MFA program. Across America, Europe, and The Middle East, she learns how to shape her life story into a love-story both shattering in impact and fractured in shape. Each place the narrator takes us to is tied to a person, and another manifestation of the same quest. That is, to find a mother—and in effect—a homeland. On this quest, as readers, we experience with the narrator what I can only describe as growing pains. What I got from reading YETM was the chance to bond with a character who by working out her own flaws, made me consequently realize my own. This sounds negative but it isn’t. It was a pleasant awakening. Like suddenly remembering where you know that person from, the one you saw on the bus earlier. You went to college together. Of course! Your dislike of others stems from your own insecurities. Of course!
Sisters by Daisy Johnson (Riverhead Books 2020)
Reviewed by Nora Poole
Sisters, the chilling second novel from British writer Daisy Johnson, is about, well, sisters: a pair of them, named September and July, who leave their home in Oxford with their mother Sheela after a terrible incident occurs at their school. The three retreat to a ramshackle family home near the seaside, where the girls go about their days listless and inseparable, seemingly waiting out the depression that has settled on their mother. We enter the story in what feels like the aftermath, a climax already nestled in the past. The entirety of the novel feels like it’s both building toward the moment we find out what happened at the girls’ school, and like it’s fleeing that same moment. The book is an unsettling portrait of the teenage sisters’ troubled- and troubling- relationship, asking how much of ourselves we are willing to sacrifice for love, groping for the line between protecting your loved ones and consuming them.
The Seep by Chana Porter (Soho Books 2020)
Reviewed by Edmondson Cole
In Chana Porter’s debut novel, an alien life form known as the Seep doesn’t conquer the planet in a military sense –instead it infiltrates humankind via their drinking water, achieving the “softest invasion” (9) earth (or the sci-fi genre) has ever seen. The effect of this invasion is not what one might expect. Not mind-control or bodily harm, but instead a oneness with the world, the ability to touch objects and feel their past, present, and future. For those under the influence of the Seep, “it was impossible to feel anything except expansive joy, peace, tenderness, and love.” (11) So begins an unconventional take on a classic sci-fi premise, a novel about grief and identity and those hardships of the human condition that persist even in a world where death is an “opt-in procedure” (44) and humanity has been freed to live outside “the old scarcity paradigm.” (13)
The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams (Doubleday Books 2020)
Reviewed by Summer A.H. Christiansen
Clare Beams’ new novel, The Illness Lesson is a gripping historical fiction that will leave you on the edge of your seat. The novel is set in Ashwell, Massachusetts in 1871, where Samuel Hood, a retired transcendental essayist, is establishing The School for the Trilling Heart. This private school for young women is the first of its kind. Its courses are taught by Samuel, young Civil War veteran David, and Samuel’s daughter Caroline. Throughout the novel, we follow Caroline as she struggles with her identity as an educated, unwed twenty-eight year old woman.
How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang (Riverhead Books 2020)
Review by Lane Berger
C Pam Zhang’s debut novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, follows a Chinese-American family without a name. Ma, Ba (father), Lucy, and Sam are immigrant, migrant, and the children thereof.
Divided into four a-chronological sections, the novel spans America’s Gold Rush Era. In Part One, Ba is dead, “And long gone, Ma.” But for Ba’s body and a stolen horse, Lucy and Sam are destitute when they set out to bury their father properly. While Lucy wills every step to take her away from her past, toward a white lace dress and civilization, Sam carries a disparate inheritance and disparate dreams. Begun as a journey to stay a spirit, the siblings take up the mantle of their parents’ search for self and home.
This Close To Happy: A Reckoning with Depression by Daphne Merkin (Farrar, straus, and giroux 2017)
Reviewed by Patricia Steckler
Not glamorous, not an artistically-hued state of suffering for the more sensitive souls on earth. Not a story that can be told with the dramatic climax and victorious transcendency that characterizes heroic tales. No. Depression is unabated suffering whose victims, often blamed for self-absorption, shunned as social pariahs, writhe in silence. Daphne Merkin, the writer and literary critic, tells her depression tale in the dark memoir, This Close To Happy: A Reckoning With Depression.
Obviously, it’s a weird time to be alive. I won’t say much more about COVID-19 here, other than the fact that I am grateful to find solace in books while home-bound.
In that vein, I asked our editors and frequent contributors to send over a book or two that has made their quarantine more manageable. Some of these are old favorites, some are new finds, but all are solid picks to stave off your quarantine-fueled boredom, and maybe even provide a little hope or inspiration in moments of chaos and confusion.