“When I got home from school I did what I had always done, which was to read, curled up in the window seat in the library or lying flat on my back on the floor with my feet in a chair, in the darkest corner I could find. The house was full of places to read that fitted me like a glove, and I read the same books over and over. Children tend to derive comfort and support from the totally familiar – an umbrella stand, a glass ashtray backed with brightly colored cigar bands, the fire tongs, anything. With the help of these and other commonplace objects – with the help also of the two big elm trees that shaded the house from the heat of the sun, and the trumpet vine by the back door, and the white lilac bush by the dining-room window, and the comfortable wicker porch furniture and the porch swing that contributed its creak…creak…to the sounds of the summer night – I got from one day to the next.”
By William Maxwell
“I’m so sorry to hear that you’re in a book rut. Sometimes it’s good to let our fields go fallow. Walk around, read things other than books. Imagine the book you wish you could read, and tell people about it.”
Elizabeth ends her email with exactly the kind of recommendation that I was looking for: a single title and its author (So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell). I’ve since finished the book but I’m continuously re-reading it, settling in and opening to a random page, as if testing how much I remember. I love reaching the point in a book where no matter which page I flip to, I’m so familiar with the story that I can carry on without a hitch. So Long, See You Tomorrow is a simple story made rich by the details and emotions, much like our own lives. Books often have us dive into the ordinary lives of a cast of characters, only to lead us towards a bombshell that derails everything we’ve come to know and love/hate. In So Long, See You Tomorrow, the bombshell happens on the first page – Clarence kills Lloyd – and we work back and forth through time to answer all related questions. In her message, Elizabeth calls the book “generous and kind and brilliant,” and it doesn’t take long to discover exactly what that means. Maxwell takes great care in contextualizing the characters’ actions and motives, as if exonerating them, as if they have every reason in the world to behave exactly the way that they do. Perhaps we all do.
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
“I remember sitting in a library at Howard University and reading The Fire Next Time in one session. It was such a pleasurable experience, to be lost in a work of art. And in this age, where the Internet is ubiquitous, it’s very hard to have that experience. I had this vision of some 19-year-old kid in a library somewhere, picking this book up and disappearing for a while. That was all I wanted.”
Coates’ Between the World and Me is divided into three parts, each styled as a letter to his son. The book is a historical and personal study of race in America: “Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world,” and the outgrowth of this belief is racism (p. 7). He continuously contrasts his upbringing to “the Dream,” which involves “perfect houses with nice lawns,” “treehouses and Cub Scouts,” and in general a profound detachment from racial injustice. When describing a friend he meets at Howard University, Coates seems to also describe the mission of his book:
“He was, like me, from one of those cities where everyday life was so different than the Dream that it demanded an explanation. He came, like me, to [Howard University] in search of the nature and origin of the breach” (p. 49).
I read to expand my experiences, to learn and to feel. Between the World and Me offers all of those things and also reads beautifully, each word carefully chosen, each sentence carefully woven. I’ve just finished the first part, and I have a feeling there is far to go.
‘Is that where your father works?’
She nodded. ‘He teaches astronomy.’
‘Oh, the stars.’ Mrs. Kleinfelter said this as if she were saying the word God.”
By Val Brelinski
I finished Val Brelinski’s The Girl Who Slept with God as soon as I could, admittedly motivated by two new books on my shelf. The book brims with dialogue, so the pages fly in a way that reminds me of reading a play. There are several well-developed characters of various walks of life, but we don’t dive deep into their lives, and instead each character serves to further the story of the Quanbeck family, especially that of Grace and Jory, sisters who have been exiled due to Grace’s unexpected pregnancy.
The tension between Grace and her parents is wonderfully portrayed. They are angry and ashamed, yet confront a daughter who finds meaning in her pregnancy due to faith, due to God’s supposed will. Grace’s faith is flawless; she effortlessly spouts scripture and indulges every compulsion to evangelize. But the feverish faith that her parents have instilled in her turns on them, as she uses this very faith to defend what they believe is indefensible. The story’s ending is horribly sad, far more so than I imagined, and the strangest thing is that despite tragedy, several of the characters whom I consider largely to blame fail to learn any lesson whatsoever. People prove to be stubborn, and beliefs often remain intact regardless of evidence and events to the contrary. This idea surfaces at the perfect moment, as I think it may play a crucial role in the next book on my list.
There are keywords that readily sway me when selecting a book to read, including coming-of-age and family saga. The Girl Who Slept with God offers both, as well as a casual study of religious fundamentalism, another favorite subject of mine (see The Poisonwood Bible and A Complicated Kindness). The all-knowing, impenetrable quality of religion forever intrigues me, and I love stories that capture this within the context of growing up, asking questions, and shaping one’s own life.
The Quanbecks are a devoutly religious family living in small town Idaho. There is the kind husband, the depressed wife, and three sisters, Grace, Jory, and Frances. Early in the book, Grace’s faith proves feverish, and she travels to Mexico as part of her “freakish obsession with becoming the world’s youngest evangelist.” She returns home not only pregnant, but also believing that it is the result of providence, thus the title of the book. Though a seemingly sensational set-up, it is not treated as such, and in fact the book largely follows Jory, the middle child who daydreams of things “modern and current and popular and fun.” Jory and Grace are sent to live alone on the outskirts of town to preserve the family’s sanity and reputation, and what ensues is what I am in the midst of. I find myself continously turning the page, a highlighter poised to capture all that is noteworthy and beautiful, and I cannot wait to resume.
The Fourth of July was spent in Los Angeles, a city that taps into parts of us that we wish to ignore (see Dry by Augusten Burroughs). My favorite memory from the holiday is picking up vegan chicken pizza at 10pm with amateur fireworks exploding in all directions. I spent time in San Diego the following weekend, and ever since I have settled myself at home in the Bay Area, celebrating summer in the small ways like listening to Leon Bridges’ Coming Home nonstop, and taking road trips north to Napa and south to Santa Cruz.
A thought that I carry into August is that comfort is one of the biggest obstacles to change; comfort keeps us still. I have yet to discover what exactly I will do with this piece of information, so cheers to August.
By Janis Cooke Newman
Janis Cooke Newman’s A Master Plan for Rescue is unique in that I did not reach that pause for a very long time. In fact, I’m almost finished with the book. It is divided into two parts that ultimately intertwine, and though the story unfolds slowly, it is good enough to want to push forward, to feel eager for more information. The first part follows Jack, a twelve-year-old boy in Manhattan who loses his beloved father to a freak accident as WWII ramps up. The second follows Jakob, a Jewish mechanic in Berlin who falls in love as his life descends into the hell that is Nazi Germany.
A Master Plan for Rescue suggests that when faced with untold difficulty, people resort to magical thinking, as if our minds try to shield us from pain that we cannot handle. Jack, faced with the death of his father, continues to communicate with him via code-o-graph and tells himself that he left to hunt down Nazi spies. Jack’s mother, faced with the death of her husband, joins the “Desperate Catholics” who rush to the front row of church and look to the ceiling as they loudly repeat scripture. Jakob’s love, Rebecca, has a weak heart and knows that if the Nazis do not kill her, her heart will. She becomes fixated with escaping to Paris and desperately begins every conversation with, “When I go to Paris…” The pace quickens when the two stories merge in New York City, and I’m eager to discover whether the magical thinking can sustain itself. I always enjoy historical fiction more than I think I do, and A Master Plan for Rescue is making me consider that all over again.