Sunshine State: 2/5 Stars
A collection of essays ostensibly about Florida by Sarah Gerard, known for her previous novel Binary Star. Most reviewers (or at least the ones less impressed by this book) seem to land on the idea that the biographical essays are strong while the others are not. I think I fall in the other direction. The book is made of two-three kinds of essays: autobiographical/memoir pieces that range from quite impressionistic and meditative to more story-driven and then nonfiction profile pieces that also circle back some autobiographical details as they connect. So basically memoir pieces and Joan Didion-esque nonfiction. I think the autobiographical pieces are considerably weaker than the nonfiction/profile pieces because I feel like the memoir pieces feel less honest than the others. This all comes down to me in the long piece about Amway and Florida gated community wealth. This is the most Joan Didion of the pieces and the exploration of the lies inherent in Amway, any pretense that it’s not vulgar as hell and also clearly a pyramid scheme, really open up some of the wider lies that inhabit new money bullshit in the US. But the lie comes in when it’s slowly revealed that Gerard has had a lifetime of this life and while she and her husband sort of play at maybe buying one of these gaudy fake mansions on a golf course, they can definitely probably afford it. This opens up the memoir pieces to something those pieces don’t: this is some privileged upbringing and while she’s struggling with drugs and being a Queer teen, she almost never really interrogates not only being rich as hell, but also being the daughter of a local politician. Not only would these explorations be more honest, they’d make the writing actually better. So instead, there’s a kind of playing in others’ pain here that feels gross.
Wit’s End: 3/5 Stars
This is a weird timecapsule novel from the late 2000s. Like everyone else, I have zero idea what’s going on in the world and what’s going to happen next. But unlike a lot of people, I remember the Bush years pretty clearly and how painful and scary they were. For all the authoritarian talk, we had those same discussions in those years and all this while the president was committing a genocide that people almost never bring up anymore. So this novel plays in that context in some interesting ways. I don’t think the discussions of that context are particularly profound in this book, but they are a nice reminder.
The novel itself has some incredibly low rating on Goodreads. I think that this mostly comes from people playing themselves. This book is NOT a mystery novel but it is about a mystery writer. So I get that it might feel a little unsatisfactory to have a novel muse and ruminate about the ways in which families function and dysfunction and create unsolvable mysteries and lead to unaswerable questions. But that’s almost every good novel. This novel isn’t great, but it’s not a novel in which “nothing happens”.
The Warmest December: 4/5 Stars
This second novel by Bernice McFadden has a lot of the ups and downs of second novels: an attempt surpass the first, an opened sense of how to succeed, and the struggles inherent therein. We follow Kenzie who recalls a traumatic and dangerous childhood with an abusive father. Now older, she is struggling with alcoholism, a coping mechanism, while trying to make sense of how to feel with her now dying father. Families screw you up and because of the nature of families, and how love and guilt and shame inform those connections, you often spend large amounts of your adult life first trying to understand that pain, to overcome the shame of “failing” as an adult, and still are accountable to expectations of family. My own experience has informed a lot of these ideas, as I have experienced a lot of the same things as Kenzie (though she decidedly had it worse), and one of the things that happens is that in the US and a lot of other parts of the world, there’s a lot of cultural structures and messaging that demand conformation to certain expectations. In families where there’s abuse, those expectations don’t disappear and in some cases they get worse, as they are used as leverage against you, controlling you. I had a friendship for a bit that was informed by our mutual experiences with me, a father, and her, a mother, who taught and demanded of us a love that was twisted through a broken worldview. So this novel knows all that and works the body throughout.
Ordinary Light: 4/5 Stars
In Thick, Tressie McMillan Cottom talks about the ways in which white women have dominated the personal essay in recent years. I have found this to also be true, and this is sometimes situated in Huffington Post articles that are formatted as “I have six fingers on my left hand and here’s what I want you to know”. But more, the essay seems to argue that arbitrary and especially facile examples of the personal essay have subsumed the market and spent all the cachet the form has elicited. This is also probably true when it comes to white women giving out publishing favors to friends and colleagues, another problem for another day.
Memoirs often have the same problem. Too often a story with a conceit and an angle dominate the market of memoirs. Sometimes this is the case of someone mildly famous (a reality tv star for example) being offered the money and time to produce a book, and other cases involve someone who has a very particular niche story. What’s great about this memoir by Tracy K Smith is that the memoir (as in this book) argues for itself not for the particular and specific story it tells, but because of the voice and the talent of the writer. This is a memoir of a life that is interesting, but not so unique and particular that others couldn’t have written similarly detailed stories. Instead, this is a voice, experienced and proven through decades of writing, that can tell a story, make sense of a life (or a set of years) and find itself with something important to say.
Back When We Were Grownups: 3/5 Stars
This is another more or less ok novel by Anne Tyler. In this one, from the year 2000 or so, we find Rebecca, a middle aged woman from Baltimore, mother of three daughters and grandmother to six and soon to be seven grandchildren trying to make sense of where she is and how she got here. If you just said to yourself, wait, isn’t that basically the plot of 1/2 of Anne Tyler novels? Well, yes, more or less.
So Rebecca finds herself thinking about a moment of a diverging path early in her life. She was dating a boy in college from her hometown. Things were in that sort of engaged to be engaged place that happens and especially happened in the late 1960s. Out of nowhere, she meets an old man (early 30s) who sweeps her off her feet, marries her, gives her three young stepdaughters in one fell swoop, has one more daughter with her, and then dies in a carwreck. So Rebecca all in the space of 4 years has had what she feels her whole life spelled out for her. Now 25 years later, she calls her old beau who is now a divorced chemistry professor and department head at their old university. They meet up, talk a little bit, and have an immediate fight about their past.
As we move through the novel, the question is not so much “how will they get together” but “will they get together” and “should they get together”. Like a few others novels, this one feels less on a specific trajectory because it’s not required for Rebecca to fall in with this man. So long as she figures out how to have a sense of self-worth, that will be good enough (and possibly everything).
Unfinished Business: 3/5 Stars
A short little memoir piece by Vivian Gornick. Mostly what this book does is trace her re-reading a handful of different texts, writers, or groups of writers throughout her life. It’s a newer book, and in some cases she’s re-reading for the second, third, or fourth time. Some of the books and authors include DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, mid-century Jewish American writers like Saul Bellow and Louis Auchincloss, and plenty of others. The section on Sons and Lovers has her re-reading that novel at least three times: in her teen years, in her twenties, in her thirties right after a divorce, and then more recently and shows how she shifted her ideas of it through several decades of reading. The Lover is a more interesting case because Gornick would have been in her 40s when that book came back, which was written by the much older Duras looking back some fifty years. So Gornick’s rereading of this book is already someone in middle age rereading closer to the age of the author.
The book is not entirely instructive or deep, but obviously gives the reader a chance to reflect on their first, stance on re-reading, but second, on their experience of it. I often re-read, especially when it comes to certain kids books or books I read when I was a teen. But also to certain of those books I knew I had a connection to, even if I didn’t know why or understand much about. So Slaughterhouse Five, Moby Dick, Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and As I Day Dying are probably most re-read books. But I am not yet 40, so I am don’t know yet what books I am reading my 30s (both my most productive, but also my most clear decade of reading).
Thick: 5/5 Stars
A really stellar collection of essays that not only knocks itself out of the park on its own, but finds ways to critically engage with the marketplace of essay collections as they are right now. This is a blended collection using personal experience, academic experience and research, and engaged intellectualism to speak on a number of topics. It’s not an “academic” collection, though it is informed, but it’s something generally missing: a collection of essays by a writer who knows a lot, knows how to dig deeply into issues, is incredibly public and online with the writing, and uses personal experience to enhance and inform, but not define the thinking and arguing that happens in the writing.
We begin with the book talking about the ways in which white women have dominated the personal essay in recent years. I have found this to also be true, and this is sometimes situated in Huffington Post articles that are formatted as “I have six fingers on my left hand and here’s what I want you to know”. But more, the essay seems to argue that arbitrary and especially facile examples of the personal essay have subsumed the market and spent all the cachet the form has elicited. This is also probably true when it comes to white women giving out publishing favors to friends and colleagues, another problem for another day.
I would argue that beyond the personal essay, there’s a hot take publishing industry that rewards writers for scooping and playing in ideas but never really engaging fully in them. I think that there are a lot of media darlings who would find their work among the list that this book not only sub-calls out but also models mastery in the field by contrast.
Rosa Parks in Her Own Words: No Rating
This is a strange little library book. The title is a misnomer because we get very little of Rosa Parks’s writing in this book, save a few printed pages of letters and notes and documents. I would have loved that to be what this book actually is. Instead, it’s a long profile book (specifically information well organized, but about at the level of a Wikipedia page), and then a series of really wonderful photographs and photostats of documents. The story told here is familiar, but the photos are wonderful.