Books We Loved, Apr. 2020
Cecelia Ahern, Roar
(Grand Central, 2019)
“I’m here, I’m here, I’m here!”
In this collection of tiny stories, some only a few pages long, Cecelia Ahern, author of the bestseller P.S. I Love You, has given us an insightful and witty look into the lives of thirty women. The women are fictional, but they could be any of us and all of us. The stories explore powerful gender politics but presented in a unique, witty and allegoric way, like Elizabethan fairy tales. All the story titles start with “The Woman Who.”
The first character we meet, “The Woman Who Slowly Disappeared,” feels invisible, like so many of us of a certain age. In fact, she actually is invisible. “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here,” she pleads to everyone and to no one. Then she sees all the other invisible women going about their business and wonders why she’s never noticed them before.
In my favorite story, “The Woman Who Was Swallowed Up by the Floor and Who Met Lots of Other Women Down There, Too,” our protagonist has a hugely embarrassing moment while presenting at an important meeting. She wishes the ground would open up and swallow her, and it does. While down there, she meets dozens of other mortified and humiliated women, and together they climb back up and carry on with their lives, deciding not to let their mortifications define them.
The most powerful story, “The Woman Who Found Bite Marks on Her Skin,” is the slightly sinister tale of a woman who, as the title suggests, finds herself mysteriously covered in raw and painful bite marks. The bite marks are in fact a manifestation of the deep and self-destructive guilt she feels trying to be a good mother to her two young children while maintaining her career. And like many of us, she heals when she accepts that she’s good enough.
Lighter stories include “The Woman Who Returned and Exchanged Her Husband” and “The Woman Who Blew Away.”
I loved this book—it is clever and funny and packs a feminist punch. I loved that the title was borrowed from a Helen Reddy song from 1975, and I loved that all the women did in fact find their roar.—DAS
Mari Coates, The Pelton Papers
(She Writes Press, 2020)
This captivating novel explores the life of the relatively unknown American painter Agnes Pelton, who found her unique vision in the western desert. Born in Germany, where her ex-pat parents connected while escaping family scandals and tragedies, Pelton came to New York at the age of seven. A sickly girl in a dark and brooding house, she survived her childhood with a deeply religious grandmother, an absent father, a strong-minded mother who supported the family by giving music lessons, and no social life to speak of by losing herself in colors and paint. That set her on a path that led, through training in modernism and more traditional instruction in Italy, to a deeply spiritual, intensely personal understanding of her own artistic mission.
Mari Coates—whose own family had a long and productive friendship with Pelton—draws on stories she heard growing up and numerous other sources to portray an emotionally complex, sometimes troubled, but always gifted heroine whose resilience and eventual triumph will warm your heart. Find out more from the author’s interview on New Books in Historical Fiction.—CPL
Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt
(Flatiron Books, 2020)
American Dirt is a damn good book, a hard-to-put-down, highly believable novel that explores the relationship between a mother and her young son as they attempt to outrun a Mexican cartel eager to destroy them. The intricate backstory that leads to their circumstances unfolds on a parallel track to the action, electrifying the plot with drama and urgency. The characters Lydia and Luca meet throughout their journey are perfectly drawn; Cummins tells us enough about each of them to render them essential as well as unforgettable.
Even if you think your heart is already open to the immigrant experience, this book is guaranteed to open it a crack more. American Dirt may be focused on particular immigrants in a particular place, but the fear and horror and, less often, moments of joy, the characters experience puts it up there with the best immigration literature of our times, including work by Mohsin Hamid (Exit West), Kamila Shamsie (Home Fire), Chang-Rae Lee (A Gesture Life) and Andre Dubus (House of Sand and Fog). Since there is so much controversy regarding Cummins “right” to write this book given that she herself was never a Mexican immigrant, it may be worth mentioning that Dubus and Lee are also American (Lee’s family immigrated from South Korea when he was three.) Lovers of moving, heartfelt, informative literary fiction would be remiss to let the cultural appropriation debate stand in the way of an excellent story.—JS
Paul Lynch, Grace (Little, Brown, 2017)
Grace is the journey through an Ireland ravaged by hunger, in which even the familiar becomes a threat and humans are made ugly through their desperation.
Grace is told through the eyes of its namesake, who wanders Ireland disguised as a boy. Her dead brother’s voice and advice accompany her. Grace’s thoughts are not so much those of a young woman as those of a force of nature, demanding to survive. As the child of an illiterate and poor woman, she has no emotional framework with which to couch her observations and understand her own reactions. Grace’s story is a flood of visual, auditory, and emotional sensations, though her conclusions are unsparing, speaking of inner strength and native intelligence. Her fear is often couched in supernatural terms—a woman with a large hairy mole who briefly hires her could be a witch made of spiders—and her anger is untinged by self-pity.
All this makes for a fluid and gripping narrative, with an unusual cadence, perhaps influenced by Gaelic. Lynch’s sentences are works of arts—“Then they are off again, giggles that soar into laughing, whoops, fall to earth in a wheeze. She laughs because everything is so wrong. She laughs because she no longer knows what is real and what is not real … if anything that is said has meaning. “
Ironic. For author Paul Lynch, all that is said has meaning. In the end, there is not one superfluous sentence in Grace’s terse but poetic narrative.—GM