A few months after I finished Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, the Chinese-born writer Yiyun Li’s 2010 story collection, only one piece lingered in my mind: a novella, entitled “Kindness,” about a girl’s complex relationship with her female commander in the Chinese army. The storytelling style of “Kindness” is pretty run-of-the-mill realism, but there was something in the narrative, some hint toward a deeper melancholia, that stuck with me. Li’s brand-new memoir, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, helps pinpoint what that profound sadness is and where it comes from. Li wrote these essays during her years-long struggle with suicidal depression, but most often she presents recollections from earlier in her writing life. One essay deals with her decision to forsake Chinese entirely and write in English, another with her unlikely friendship with the legendary Irish writer William Trevor, a third with her mentor at the Iowa Writers Workshop, a man just as flawed as the commander from “Kindness.” The publisher bills this memoir as a “richly affirming examination of what makes life worth living.” It’s not. The essays here are pained and painful, meditative and often oppressively sad. Readers willing to brave all that will find insight on nearly every page into the particular somberness of Li’s life and art. – Andrew R. ’17
It won’t take the reader long to realize that the stories in The Bloody Chamber, the most famous book by the late British master Angela Carter, seem strangely familiar. In fact, each of the ten pieces in this collection is a direct descendent of a well-known fairy tale. “The Company of Wolves,” for instance, in which a vulnerable young girl travels alone through a wood infested with monstrous wolves, brings “Little Red Riding Hood” irresistibly to mind; and the lovers at the center of “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” clearly represent Beauty and the Beast. Carter is much too canny a writer to freshen up these worn-out fairy tale narratives by changing the plot: none of the stories is given a modern setting, at least not overtly, and many end with “happily ever afters” if the original versions require it. What sets the stories in The Bloody Chamber apart from the tales that inspired them is a subtler kind of magic. Carter weaves a spell with her dispassionate, often slightly ironic narrative voice, which heightens the qualities of the original fairy tales—particularly their undertones of violence and sexuality—to make familiar narratives seem suddenly oppressive and strange. In Carter’s hands, even a tale ending “happily ever after” isn’t for the faint of heart. – Andrew R. ’17
Ours is a young nation, and its literature is a young literature. But in A Jury of Her Peers: American Women’s Writing from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx, feminist scholar Elaine Showalter profiles the enormous amount of progressive, boundary-pushing material that’s come out of America since the days of the Pilgrims. The writers featured in this encyclopedic book—more of a literary reference guide than a readable chronological account, although a few chapters are marked exceptions—tend to weigh toward the nineteenth century, with novelists like Harriet Beecher Stowe getting far more individual attention than the more modern women writers whose names come to mind when we think back on American literature. Civil War–era authors like Catherine Sedgwick may be in more dire need of recognition than better-known writers, but, with familiar names like Dorothy Parker and Flannery O’Connor on their way a few chapters later, it’s hard for the reader to stay invested in the dustier, more distant history of these early chapters. The core of the book is a long, engaging, and appealingly written dual portrait of Wharton and Cather. If Showalter had adopted this storytelling mode for the rest of the book, A Jury of Her Peers would have been not just informative but enjoyable, too. – Andrew R. ’17
There’s a malicious presence in the Blackwood estate, the imposing structure on the outskirts of town inhabited by the only surviving members of a reclusive aristocratic family. It might be wheelchair-bound Uncle Julian, who constantly relives the day most of his family dropped dead of arsenic poisoning. It might be Constance, who hasn’t left the estate in six years and is fanatically devoted to the rules of etiquette. It might even be Merricat, the younger sister, who surrounds the estate with wards and totems to keep the rest of the world at bay. Jackson is best-known today for “The Lottery,” her horrifying story of small-town insularity gone wrong, but of all her notoriously creepy works this one deserves the most attention. Its suspense works in two directions: the reader discovers unsettling details about the past even as the narrative creeps toward a chilling climax, leaving the present moment doubly uncertain and doubly tense. The question of who sprinkled arsenic in the sugar bowl is pretty easily answered, but don’t be fooled—that apparent mystery is just a diversionary tactic to let more frightening revelations approach unnoticed. Even if horror isn’t your genre of choice, as Halloween approaches, Shirley Jackson’s novels are worth a try. – Andrew R. ’17
In Fortune Smiles, which won the most recent National Book Award, Adam Johnson collects six short stories that showcase both his penchant for dark, uncomfortable subject matter and his startlingly powerful ability to treat unsympathetic characters with compassion. Johnson, who has garnered laurels in the past for a novel about North Korea, repeatedly takes on apparently unredeemable perspectives—a virtual-reality-obsessed programmer in Palo Alto, a reclusive pedophile with a traumatic past, a retired and unrepentant East German prison warden—and convinces the reader to replace at least some disgust with sympathy. Certain stories, like “Interesting Facts” (about a raging cancer sufferer) and “Hurricanes Anonymous” (about a displaced delivery man in Louisiana in 2005), miss the magic ratio of darkness to compassion and spoil the effect. But then you get a piece like “Fortune Smiles,” in which Johnson turns his focus back toward North Korea to explore the lives of two defectors to South Korea and their near-suicidal impulse to re-defect back into the North. This story closes the collection, cementing the book’s diverse but complimentary themes: the irrationality of obsession, the persistence of pain, and, most importantly, the essential humanness of everyone, even those we don’t understand.
Very occasionally, a book you’ve never heard of and wouldn’t expect to like by an author you don’t know will make its way into your hands and remind you why you read books in the first place. For me, Lark and Termite was that book. Jayne Anne Phillips’s subtle, looping novel combines the story of Leavitt, an American soldier mortally wounded by friendly fire deep in enemy territory during the Korean War, with that of his orphaned son Termite, a sufferer of severe mental and physical disabilities nurtured by his half-sister Lark and the few sympathetic members of their small-town community. Flitting through the book, seen only from a distance, is Lola, the biological mother of both Lark and Termite, whose abandonment of her two children and of the town of her birth casts a long, complicated shadow through the characters’ lives. Once the stage is set and the characters introduced, the novel’s plot is simple and unadorned. Viewed through the questioning gaze of Lark and the lyrical, kaleidoscopic perspective of Termite, though, even the simplest childhood memory takes on beautiful, subtle shades of meaning. There aren’t many books that I plan to read and reread and reread, but this is one of them.
In The Great Transformation, religious historian Karen Armstrong sets out to analyze the origins of Buddhism, Judaism, Confucianism, and Daoism in the context of political and social strife in the centuries leading up to the Common Era. As a primer to the study of ancient Mediterranean and East Asian philosophy, The Great Transformation occasionally hits the mark: its analyses of the historical realities of the Babylonian Captivity in the Middle East and the Period of the Warring States in China bring clarity to historical periods often overshadowed by the state-building that occurred on either side. Such moments of lucidity, however, appear far too rarely in this thick 500-page text. Having set out to compress an eight-hundred-year history of philosophical movements in the entire Eastern Hemisphere into a single volume, Armstrong falls almost constantly into disjointed, abstract accounts of wars, reigns, and migrations, indulging in so many disparate stories that her ostensible subject—commonalities of Mediterranean and Asian religious movements—disappears for twenty pages or more. Too wide-ranging to shed light on any particular historical subject and too bogged down in specifics to synthesize its parts into one coherent thesis, Armstrong’s book leaves the reader with little more than a mound of undigested historical facts by the last page.
Initially, Barbara Kingsolver’s debut novel is appealing but unremarkable: a native Kentuckian on the cusp of adulthood named Taylor Greer hits the road, hoping to escape the stifling small-town life that’s suffocated her for her entire life. As Taylor’s odyssey through the Southwest progresses, though, a warm, eccentric cast of characters emerges that begins to set the novel. Chief among these is Turtle, a Native American toddler unceremoniously dumped in Taylor’s truck while her back is turned, who quickly becomes the heart of this endearing, mostly light story. For me, the book’s appeal was rooted in its lively sense of humor: characters like Mattie, the owner of a middle-of-nowhere auto repair shop called “Jesus Is Lord Used Tires,” kept me engaged even when the plot got bogged down in sentimentality. Despite the lofty themes of motherhood and self-actualization that float through the narrative, The Bean Trees, at its heart, isn’t much more than a tale about a girl who leaves her small town to see the big wide world. That’s a story we’ve read before, of course, but Kingsolver’s talent for character and humor makes it worth reading again.
The premise of The Golem and the Jinni has an irresistible sort of cosmic balance to it: when a female homunculus named Chava and a male fire spirit named Ahmad collide in nineteenth-century New York, earth meets fire, the mythology of the West means that of the East, the Judeo-Christian tradition collides with one far older, and the ancient past meets the modern era. If only this novel could shed its affected writing, its chronically flat characters, and about a hundred and fifty pages, it might be able to meet this impressive potential. Wecker makes the unfortunate decision to relay the entire story in a faux-historical voice, weighing her sentences down with unwieldy vocabulary and convoluted syntax in a misguided effort (like so many other writers of historical fiction) to stay true to the literary style of the time she portrays. Uninspired prose might be excusable, but, in my view, weak characters are not; populating a fantasy world as Wecker does with transparent characters, single-minded and invariably “good at heart,” is a cardinal sin in any sort of fiction. I have to give the author credit for the alluring symmetry of her premise, but her execution is unremarkable and doesn’t nearly deserve the 500 pages it takes up.
To call The Handmaid’s Tale a dystopian novel would be to do it a disservice: while the near-future mockery of American society in which the novel is set does, technically, fall under that category, the freedom-fighting and romantic entanglements that we’ve come to associate with the genre have no place in this book. On its surface, the story follows Offred, a young woman assigned to a high-ranking official in the Republic of Gilead and tasked with bearing him children. With birthrates falling below crisis level, Offred and the other “handmaids” of this brutal patriarchy represent the society’s only hope, but Gilead’s fanatical and fundamentalist codes of conduct force all women into submission, their lives characterized only by traumatic memories and a fervent hope for pregnancy. Atwood intends this novel, it seems, to be a thought experiment that extends systemic gender inequalities and the “family values” that perpetuate them to their most oppressive extremes, which may explain why Gilead is sometimes so hard to distinguish from the postmodern America it replaced. The novel’s dystopian conceit is so complete that its cast of characters tends to feel more like symbols than humans in their own right; still, The Handmaid’s Tale achieves a level of social-justice-minded indignation that very few other works of science fiction manage to attain.