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Savory picks for the free range reader

This Is Why I Read: Top Picks, Fall 2017

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The light changes in September – and so does our mood. Beach reads just don’t look as good as they did a few weeks ago. Today’s post features three novels, three memoirs, and one collection of short stories that shine gloriously in the Autumn sun.

My top pick for a shiny read right now is Gabrielle Zevin’s new novel, Young Jane Young, the story of a Monica Lewinsky-like congressional intern who falls in love with her older, married boss. He’s a Jewish JFK, she’s a zaftig Jewish girl, and you know what’s coming when she stays late at the office. His marriage survives, as does his political career, but things don’t turn out quite so well for Jane. It’s impossible to leave the past behind in the age of Google – at least for her. You’d think this novel might be angry or depressing, but instead, Zevin has written it with a light touch, more fable-like in some ways than strictly realistic. Four sections of the novel feature four different voices, as the intern, her mother, her daughter, and the congressman’s wife tell the story in their own words. The final section is written as a Choose-Your-Own Adventure book, which feels rather playful. “This book will not only thoroughly entertain everyone who reads it; it is the most immaculate takedown of slut-shaming in literature or anywhere else,” writes Kirkus Review. I enjoyed Zevin’s bestseller The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, but I enjoyed this novel even more.

Young Jane Young is – against all odds – a light read. It marries a heavy topic to a light style, and the author’s magic is that it works. My other top pick for the month sings a sadder, richer, more poignant melody. The author, Donal Ryan, is Irish: are we surprised? In his brand new novel, All We Shall Know, Ryan tells the story of a doomed love affair between a 33-year-old schoolteacher and her 17-year-old student. The teacher is unhappily married, while the boy leads an itinerant life with the Travellers, an Irish clan-based group much like the Roma. All We Shall Know chronicles the teacher’s pregnancy (unknown to the boy), her friendship with another young Traveller woman, her dissolving marriage, and her agonies of guilt, despair, and joy. Has a man ever written so movingly of pregnancy? As I read this novel, one thought kept occurring to me: This Is Why I Read.

In All We Shall Know, Ryan achieves the perfect marriage of language and content. His work is beautiful, heart-wrenching, transcendent – in substance and style. Curtis Dawkins achieves an equally impressive harmony of content and style in his short story collection The Graybar Hotel. His stories of jail, prison, and parole are conversational, patient, exhausted, observant, hard, inquisitive, yearning, and suffused with the strangeness of the human condition, especially among humans confined in close quarters having arrived there on very different paths. You meet (among others) Italian Tom, “a saucier until a Cadillac doing sixty hit him and knocked the recipes out of his head”; Catfish, half-Mexican and half-Irish, who’s incarcerated for his wife’s murder though he’s actually taking the rap for his sister; Doo-Wop, “an old-school convict – a stand-up guy, his word gold,” and Peanut, who fakes mental illness and gets called out for “Malingering with Intent.” What makes these stories especially fascinating – and controversial, to some – is Dawkins’ personal history: he is a convicted murderer, serving a life sentence without parole in Michigan. On Halloween night in 2004, after smoking crack, he put on a gangster costume and killed a man. At the time, Dawkins had already completed an MFA program at Iowa – one of the best graduate schools for creative writing in the country – and was married with two children. In his acknowledgements, Dawkins says that “[t]here’s often so much sadness and grief in my heart, it feels like I might explode. But you learn within twenty-four hours of hearing a prison door slam shut, either you will die regretting the past or you’ll learn to live in the present. For me, fiction is a large part of that present, and I hold on to it…”  His epigraph captures the mood of the book:

Cold blood
Flowing through the veins of
Me and all my friends.
Still love
Can be pumped out of our hearts.
This start might be the end.
-The Dears

For more on Dawkins and the controversy surrounding the publication of this collection, see this New York Times article.  

The Graybar Hotel has a lot of shock value. Saints for All Occasions, the new novel by Courtney Stevens, is in many ways the opposite: an established author (Commencement, Maine, The Engagements) writing on a topic that’s been thought about a lot (Catholics in Boston). Saints follows the lives of two sisters, Nora and Teresa Rafferty, who reluctantly leave the tiny village of Miltown Malbay in Ireland for Boston in the early 1960s after Nora’s fiancee has earned enough money to send for them. It’s a big, traditional family saga that follows its characters for decades – in this case, beginning and ending with the death of a troubled child both Nora and Teresa loved. It includes what you might expect: conflict, family secrets, Catholicism’s blessings and ills. As noted by New York Times critic Suzanne Berne: “By ranging over decades, family sagas offer general as well as personal history, giving Sullivan an opportunity to sketch Boston’s past, especially the shameful aspects that affect her characters: the busing crisis and the scandals in the Roman Catholic Church. Birth control, abortion and the struggle for gay rights are touched on as well, but Nora’s family remains mostly occupied by their personal upheavals, as families usually are.” If you’re looking for a big, rich family drama, Saints for All Occasions is a wonderful choice for right now.    

You can find big, rich drama without the veil of fiction in memoir. The rest of today’s post features three excellent memoirs with wildly different stories to tell. In The Rules Do Not Apply, Ariel Levy recounts her jetsetting career as an international journalist, her pregnancy, her miscarriage, and her separation from her partner, who had become an alcoholic. More broadly, Levy tells a story about growing up and outgrowing a sense of entitlement. Levy emphasizes the hard lessons she learned:

Until recently, I lived in a world where lost things could always be replaced. But it has been made overwhelmingly clear to me now that anything you think is yours by right can vanish, and what you can do about that is nothing at all. The future I thought I was meticulously crafting for years has disappeared, and with it have gone my ideas about the kind of life I’d imagined I was due.

Levy does not end her story bitter – rather, wiser. More humble. The other element of Levy’s story that my book club found particularly interesting (and in some ways confounding) is her gender fluid sexuality. When we first meet Levy, she’s dating boys. She ends up marrying a woman and having an affair with a man who used to be a woman. As her memoir concludes, she’s becoming friends – or something more – with a much older man. Really, you can’t make this stuff up.

Abigail Thomas has lived a more conventional life. She and her husband, both previously divorced, met after she placed a personal ad in the New York Review of Books. They fell in love and anticipated sharing their golden years in New York City. After he was hit by a car – chasing one of their dogs, who’d run out into the street – he never fully recovered from the brain trauma. In A Three Dog Life, Thomas tells the story of how she changed her expectations of their life together. Her husband remembers no past, he anticipates no future – he lives only in the present. It doesn’t escape her that their beloved dogs live the same way, mostly. A Three Dog Life is about embracing the now and finding the wonder and beauty in the present moment. Thomas’s book feels suffused with peace, a peace you can almost reach out and touch.

A Three Dog Life and The Rules Do Not Apply have a similar roadmap: this is my story, these are the lessons I learned, I hope my story might help you on your journey. These memoirs could almost be shelved in the “self-help” section of the bookstore, in a good way. But The Book of Separation, by Tova Mirvis, has a different feeling. It reads more like a novel. Mirvis, at age 40, left her husband and her religion (Orthodox Judaism), inflicting wounds that felt devastating. Still raising three children, Mirvis had to figure out how to respect and honor her heritage – and her husband’s – while becoming the person she wanted, instead, to be. The Book of Separation shows how a life can be shaped and determined by Orthodox Judaism – its beauties, its rigors, its limits – and then reshaped, entirely. You may remember Mirvis’s incredible novel from 2011, The Ladies Auxiliary, set in the Orthodox Jewish community in Memphis where Mirvis grew up. The Book of Separation feels like a continuation of that story – like something that began as a seed in that book and came to flower in this one. Mirvis is a beautiful and brave writer and thinker.

Finish your last beach read in the warm glow of a September afternoon, if you haven’t already – then turn to the light of a new voice for the new season.   

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Bonus pick:  Jennifer Egan is one of the best American novelists writing today (A Visit from The Goon Squad, Pultizer Prize winner 2011). Her new novel Manhattan Beach will be released on October 3d. It’s on my radar, and you might want it on yours as well!

From the publisher:

“Anna Kerrigan, nearly twelve years old, accompanies her father to visit Dexter Styles, a man who, she gleans, is crucial to the survival of her father and her family…

‎Years later, her father has disappeared and the country is at war. Anna works at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, where women are allowed to hold jobs that once belonged to men, now soldiers abroad. She becomes the first female diver, the most dangerous and exclusive of occupations, repairing the ships that will help America win the war. One evening at a nightclub, she meets Dexter Styles again, and begins to understand the complexity of her father’s life, the reasons he might have vanished.

With the atmosphere of a noir thriller, Egan’s first historical novel follows Anna and Styles into a world populated by gangsters, sailors, divers, bankers, and union men. Manhattan Beach is a deft, dazzling, propulsive exploration of a transformative moment in the lives and identities of women and men, of America and the world.”

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“This is Why I Read” originally ran at Styleblueprint on September 25.

Don’t miss their “14 Southern Finds for September” post!

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Top image copyright here.

 

8 Comments

  1. Loved Young Jane Young. While anxiously awaiting Manhattan Beach, will try one of these suggestions! Thanks Jennifer!

  2. Beautifully written post!

  3. Jennifer, I Love the way you write about the books. Makes me want to read everyone of them. Just wish I had the time or better yet, maybe I need to make the time !!..Miss seeing you. Mary

  4. Hi, Jennifer. We connected a few weeks on a Facebook thread of someone, (cannot recall whom,) about Bren McClain’s book, One Good Mama Bone….I LOVED Three dog life but read it about 10 years ago—? Has it been re-issued?

    • Hi Leisa! A Three Dog Life just found its way into my hands, courtesy of the very kind Mary Laura Philpott at Parnassus (editor of their online literary journal, Musing). I should have mentioned that it is an older release, for sure. Thank you so much for being in touch! All warmest wishes! xo

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