End-of-year fiction roundup

I’ve been a remiss blogger these last six or seven months, which means I have a hefty backlog of books, tv shows, and films that I keep meaning to write about here. At the start of November, I took a stab at NaNoWriMo, but houseguests arrived halfway through the month and my progress petered out. Now, with two weeks to go before the New Year, I’m making a resolution write more often, and how better to begin than with a list of five favorites that I read this year—and haven’t written about yet:

Conviction by Julia Dahl
I don’t often read crime fiction, but Conviction, which follows a freelance reporter in contemporary Brooklyn working to clear the name of a young black man convicted of murder in the early 1990s, has convinced me that I should be reading more of it. Julia Dahl has crafted a true page-turner that deftly addresses weighty topics like racism, police violence, gentrification, feminism, and the gig economy.

Normal People by Sally Rooney
I read Normal People straight through in two days, and then read it a second time a few weeks later. Normal People follows the friendship and romance of two characters, working-class Connell and affluent Marianne, from their final year of school in their hometown in rural Ireland, through their time at university at Trinity in Dublin. In some ways, the novel’s plot is a classic will-they-won’t-they, but issues like class and social capital are explored much more deeply here than in Rooney’s first novel, Conversations with Friends; and for me, Rooney’s depiction of how the power dynamic between Marianne and Connell shifts over time was just as compelling as her portrayal of the tenderness these two characters feel for one another.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
As someone who thinks a lot about cultivating supportive friendships and relationships while also pursuing creative and professional fulfillment, The Woman Upstairs offered me a vision of a kind of nightmare-future that awaits those who don’t have the nerve to admit what they really want and go after it. But what a haunting and cleverly executed nightmare-future it was! Would recommend to anyone who (like me) needs an occasional reminder that self-effacing modesty isn’t charming—it’s the enemy of your own happiness.

A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly
This YA novel was published as A Northern Light in the US, so I was already a few chapters in when I realized that I had read this book as a teen. Inspired by a real-life murder case, this feminist bildungsroman in a turn-of-the-century farming community reminded me what it felt like to be a sixteen-year-old dreaming of life as a writer in the big city. It also has the most graphic depiction of childbirth that I have ever encountered in fiction—something which felt revolutionary in a novel meant for teens.

Half of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I somehow managed to start this novel without realizing that it was a story about the Nigerian Civil War. I spent the first few chapters thinking it was going to be a coming of age story about a boy who leaves his village to work as a professor’s houseboy, or about two sisters, or about young academics falling in love; so it was all the more devastating when the war arrived and turned the lives of these characters upside down. I think what’s stuck with me most is the way Adichie not only made me love every single character but that she had the courage to show us those beloved characters doing terrible, unforgivable things in the midst of war.

Girl with Dove: A Life Built by Books

Girl with Dove is an uncommon book about an unusual childhood. Growing up in a crowded, ramshackle house where grownups often behaved in ways that were difficult to understand, Sally Bayley read and re-read Jane Eyre, Miss Marple, and David Copperfield, gleaning clues she hoped would help her make sense of her world. Girl with Dove is a memoir, but because Bayley delves so deeply into her childhood imaginings, blurring the lines between fiction, family history, and memory, the book often reads like fiction.

In her short preface to Girl with Dove, Bayley writes, “All stories have backstories, at least all stories worth knowing about, and all readers want to pry into those unlit spaces. We read to get back to those dark and dusty corners, to scrape back to old patterns: the strange symbol beneath the damp plaster, the squiggles on the crumbling wall.”

As I began reading the book, I assumed that this comment was primarily self-descriptive, that Bayley was telling us why she reads, and why she read as a child. But revisiting the preface after my first read through her memoir, I began to suspect that this opening is also a reminder to the reader, a prediction that, as we read this book, we will find ourselves searching for the backstory, trying to pry into dark corners of the author’s memories.

This idea of backstories runs through Girl with Dove, both in the sense that, as a memoir, it is the backstory of the author, a bildungsroman that tells us how she became who she is, and also in that it is a book that requires us to read between the lines, looking for subtext and history, clues to what we’ve missed. Like a crime novel, Girl with Dove relies on the reader’s desire to figure things out. As we read, we both construct a narrative for ourselves and watch young Sally struggling to use familiar stories like Jane Eyre and David Copperfield to understand her family and her place within it.

Through the young Sally’s literary imaginings, Miss Marple’s village, St. Mary Mead, is transposed on top of Littlehampton, where Sally grows up; Sally’s mother, with her shiny black handbag and coiffed blonde hair, becomes Margaret Thatcher from the newspapers, or, wandering around the house in her nightgown, transforms into a ghostly woman from a Bronte novel; and the discreet, reliable doctors from Agatha Christie novels amalgamate into the doctor who Sally visits on Maltravers drive. And then there are family secrets and histories, the kinds of memories that are half your own and half other people’s, stories assembled from things you saw and heard, and things the grownups said when they thought you weren’t listening. Sally recounts the story of her grandmother Maisie’s marriage to Awful Alfred, who “made her do the washing up and cook the dinner for years”; she imagines Maisie as a young woman, working as a maid for someone like Miss Marple; she pieces together stories of Sue, her aunt, who spoke in tongues and delivered prophecies and married herself off to Christ in the front room.

Early in Girl With Dove, Bayley writes, “Miss Marple likes to deal with facts, because facts are concrete. Mum likes facts too. […] ‘You’ve got to get your facts straight, Sally. First ask, what are the facts? You’ve got to get your facts first before you can begin anything!’” But facts are elusive. Girl with Dove is constructed around a rough timeline of facts: the death of baby David, the appearance of Aunt Di upstairs, a visit from a social worker, the arrival of a small inheritance, and Sally’s decision to put herself into care. But a look closer at any one of these facts raises new questions and uncertainties: What exactly happened to David? Who was Sue? Who were the strange singing people she had once brought to the house, and where did they all go off to? Not all of these questions are answered, which some readers may find frustrating; but it’s worth considering whether a memoir with loose ends is perhaps more honest than one that reveals all and wraps up neatly.

Bayley has a vivid, distinctive voice, and I was impressed with how deftly she handled the book’s more fraught moments, portraying her family with affection and humor, even when she has clearly been hurt by them. Girl with Dove is also unique in that it is as much a meditation on how stories and memories shape one another as it is a coming-of-age story, and I’ve found it difficult to think of books that do so in a similar way. The closest comparison I can think of is Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a work of auto-fiction that plays with genre in rather different ways. Readers looking for an inventive exploration of how books shape us will not be disappointed.

‘Am I Normal Yet?’ Holly Bourne tackles love, friendship, and mental health with honesty and humor

Am I Normal Yet? Holly Bourne

After spending weeks eyeing up Holly Bourne’s Spinster Club trilogy in the bookshop where I work, I finally bought a copy of the first book in the series, Am I Normal Yet?, and I was delighted to find that it was nothing short of brilliant. Am I Normal Yet? follows 16-year-old Evie, who is learning how to manage her OCD symptoms, and who hopes that the new school year will give her a chance to finally be a “normal” teenage girl. Evie throws herself into social life, but finds that her flirtation with a guy named Guy is starting to chip away at her newfound sense of normalcy. Yet throughout the novel, her most important relationships are with her supportive, wise-beyond-her-years younger sister, and her two new best friends, Lottie and Amber. Together, Lottie, Amber, and Evie form the Spinster Club, a kind of feminist discussion group that introduces readers to concepts like the Bechdel Test and the Madonna-Whore complex.

At one of their meetings, Lottie brings up the idea of the manic pixie dream girl. “She’s like this invention in men’s imagination,” she explains, “but girls pretend they’re real.” Reading these lines, I wished that I had had these books when I was sixteen. At the time, almost every girl I knew wanted to be Zooey Deschanel in 500 Days of Summer: elusive, glamorous, carefree, with smooth hair and a wardrobe of quirky vintage dresses and heels that we magically knew how to walk in. In reality, we sat at our desks in sweatshirts and jeans, sleep-deprived and anxious over AP exam results and the tryouts for the school play. We yearned to be beautiful like Zooey Deschanel, beautiful in the way that One Direction sang about: we didn’t feel beautiful, but maybe we were. Maybe our own inability to recognize our beauty was the very thing that would make us beautiful to the boys we lusted after. Maybe we, too, could be the manic pixie dream girl. It never occurred to us that she might not be real—and that’s exactly why books like Am I Normal Yet? are so important.

As I read, I was blown away by how deftly Bourne writes about Big Issues like feminism and mental health without being heavy-handed or compromising on honesty or humor. Am I Normal Yet? shines a light on OCD and the experiences of recovery and relapse, but it also tells a relatable story about friendship and teenage romantic entanglements. As a teen, I loved to swoon over passages describing protagonists falling in love, and Am I Normal Yet? does have plenty of thrilling kisses and gazing-into-each-other’s-eyes moments; but one of the things that I admire about the book is its refusal to glorify romance or sex as the thing that will ‘fix’ you, while at the same time acknowledging how easy it is to be misled into thinking that, maybe, if the right person kisses you, you’ll feel whole again.

The next two books in the Spinster Club series—How Hard Can Love Be and What’s a Girl Gotta Do?—follow Lottie and Amber, and I’m eager to get a glimpse of the world from the perspectives of two characters I’ve already come to know and love. I’m equally excited to read Bourne’s first novel for adults, How Do You Like Me Now? when it debuts later this year.

End of an Era: Reading the final installment of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels

Elena Ferrante My Brilliant Friend The Story of a New Name Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay The Story of the Lost Child

Last night, I arrived home from work, heated up some leftover takeout curry, and finished The Story of the Lost Child, the fourth and final installment of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. The books follow Ferrante’s narrator Elena and her friend, Lila, from their shared childhood in a poor, Camorra-controlled neighborhood in Naples; into their teens and twenties, when Elena leaves the neighborhood, attends university and establishes herself as a scholar and writer; their thirties and forties, when they are once more living nearby in the neighborhood; and into their fifties and sixties, when their friendship begins to disintegrate.

Ferrante’s narrative accumulates details, gestures, and interpersonal histories in a way that allows her to imbue a pair of shoes or a glance between friends with devastating meaning. Near the end of the first novel, one of the Solara brothers—Lila’s enemy and one of the most powerful figures in the neighborhood—arrive at a wedding reception wearing a certain pair of shoes. I gasped aloud. Without Ferrante saying so, I knew that a terrible betrayal had taken place, and I was stunned by how deftly Ferrante had given me all of the details that I needed to be able to understand what the shoes meant.

One of the things I love about Ferrante’s writing was the way that she captured what it feels like to be simultaneously in your own mind and in a world made up of other people. We all know what it feels like to be half in a conversation and also thinking about something else: how handsome the man you’re talking to is, what your best friend would say if she were here, how secretly uncertain you are of the opinions you’re expressing.

I’ve been reading my way through the series for the last six or seven months, interspersing Ferrante’s novels with other books along the way, and I felt a sense of both completeness and emptiness as I reached the last page of The Story of the Lost Child. In a sense, the process of reading the novels seemed to mark out an era of my own life. Like the narrator Elena, who has furiously written pages and pages of text recounting her friendship with Lila, I couldn’t believe it was over.

Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West—an empathetic, allegorical story of the refugee crisis

Exit West Mohsin HamidI have been eager to get hold of a copy of Mohsin Hamid’s slim and timely novel, Exit West, ever since reading a November review in the London Review of Books, and this past week finally I sat down and read it, devouring the book in three days. I’d previously read The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and I was impressed by how he had created a measured and idiosyncratic voice for his narrator, a man who may—or may not—be a terrorist. Exit West is a very different kind of novel, but it shares with The Reluctant Fundamentalist a slightly abstracted, allegorical sensibility.

The premise of Exit West is simple: in an unnamed city that we can guess is located somewhere in the Middle East, a young man and a young woman meet in a continuing education class and fall in love. Nadia and Saeed listen to music and cook for each other and smoke weed and dream of traveling. When war breaks out and the city is taken over by fundamentalists, they decide they will try to flee the country. This is where an element of the surreal comes into play: Nadia and Saeed have heard a rumor that doors around the city are transforming into portals that lead to other parts of the world. They pay a smuggler who takes them to a dentist’s office. They open a cupboard door, step through, and find themselves on a Greek island. The couple stays in a refugee camp there for a while before finding another door, which leads them to London. Months later, they pass through another door to California. The story of Nadia and Saeed’s journey and their relationship is interspersed with vignettes about other migrants in other places.

This conceit allows Hamid to explore the idea of migration without actually describing the arduous process of crossing borders. It feels almost impossible not to read the story as a commentary on the current refugee crisis, and the portals themselves suggest that borders, as delineated by the state, are arbitrary and impossible to enforce. In Exit West, the world remakes itself to allow migration to take place; like it or not, people always have, and always will, move from place to place. In London, Nadia and Saeed witness the fury of UKIP-esque nativists, but the locals eventually realize that they must find a way to live alongside the migrants who have come to their city.

Late in the novel, Hamid writes of a woman who has lived all her life in one house, and who nonetheless finds that much of the world around her seems foreign. “We are all migrants through time,” he writes, and I see meaning in Hamid’s choice to use the word migration throughout the novel rather than immigration or emigration. In Exit West, migration isn’t always a matter of where you are leaving from or going to. By the time Nadia and Saeed leave the city where they grew up, it must seem to them in many ways unrecognizable. Even if we ourselves don’t move, places will remake themselves about us.

Reading the Iranian Revolution

House of the MosquePersepolis

Last month, I found myself reading two very different literary takes on twentieth-century Iranian history: Kader Abdolah’s semi-autobiographical novel The House of the Mosque and Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir Persepolis. My book club had chosen The House of the Mosque as January’s discussion book, and so when I saw a copy of Persepolis at a local charity shop, I bought it—it would be interesting, I thought to read two books that follow the turmoil of Iranian politics through the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. This was a period that I knew little about before reading the two books, and even now I’d say that my understanding of Iranian history and politics during this era is rather hazy. Both books use political events as a backdrop for other stories, and in The House of the Mosque, I found it at times challenging to tell how much of the plot was historical and how much was imagined.

The House of the Mosque follows the rising and falling fortunes of the occupants of a house attached to a mosque in Senejan. Aqa Jaan, the patriarch of the family is a traditionalist, but not a fundamentalist, and we see him and other members of the family examining their relationship to Islam, first amid the Shah’s push for Westernization, and then under Ayatollah Khomeini’s religious regime. While many members of my book club enjoyed the novel’s atmospheric vignettes, I found myself frustrated by how characters dropped in and out of the meandering plot, often without a clear purpose. I was also unimpressed by the characterization of most of the women in the novel—Abdolah spends a lot of time depicting various women acquiescing to their lovers, but doesn’t tell us much about the women’s motivations for the actions outside of the bedroom (a plot line in which one woman becomes a brutal interrogator for the secret police is barely explained).

Persepolis, on the other hand, is primarily a coming-of-age story, and its plot follows Satrapi’s life from her childhood to her early twenties. Like The House of the MosquePersepolis shows characters evaluating their religious and political beliefs, but unlike most of the characters in Abdolah’s novel, Marjane and her family are radical leftists, and the graphic memoir is full of discussions of Marxist theory. When Marjane is eventually sent away to school in Austria, she falls in with a crowd of anarchists, thinking they’ll understand and respect her experiences in Iran. She is disappointed to find that her new friends are more interested in getting high than talking politics—for them, Marxism and anarchism are simply a cool shorthand for punk culture.

Though I decidedly preferred Persepolis to The House of the Mosque, I am glad that I read them in tandem. The two books refer to many of the same historical events, and it was informative to glimpse those events through the eyes of two sets of characters with very different values. I also left both books with a renewed sense of curiosity about Iranian history, and I was reminded of how, as a teen, reading historical fiction sparked my interest in studying history more formally. It’s always a good sign, I think, when you close a book feeling eager to learn more.

Rewatching “Girls”

Girls-TV-show-cast

This spring, I watched from my couch in Queens as Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) said goodbye to the city and moved upstate to an utterly unrealistic teaching job. Then, I opened my laptop and began reading the approximately 1,000 think pieces on the show’s final season.

I thought back to April 2012, when Girls had first premiered. At the time, I was a high school senior, one academic year behind Zosia Mamet’s character, Shoshanna. Six months later, I started watching the show because everyone at my women’s college seemed to talking about it: the nudity and cringe-worthy sex scenes, the cast’s problematic lack of diversity, and the gentrifying Brooklyn that it portrayed. The show was fresh and new and flawed but, true to the spirit of millennial hipster culture, no one was sure if it was deeply contrived or deeply honest.

There is probably little I can say about Girls that has not been said before. To rehash some of the key points: The show is at times good and at times terrible, and it is always messy. Like its obvious predecessor, Sex & The City, it features four white, single women living in New York, and it’s frank about sex and dating and love and friendship in ways that often felt groundbreaking. In both shows, characters who are “broke” can mysteriously live in their own spacious apartments. Sex & The City is sometimes described in aspirational terms, with  “I’m a Carrie” and “I’m a Samantha” comparisons, but no one really wants be one a character in Girls. I’ve never heard someone self-identify as “a Hannah,” “a Marnie,” “a Jessa,” or “a Shoshanna.”

This week, I’ve started re-watching Girls, and though I almost always rewatch shows from beginning to end, I found myself watching out-of-order. I skipped most of the season where Hannah is working as a teacher because her lack of boundaries with students frustrates me too much.  I watched Marnie’s (Allison Williams) wedding, and then skipped ahead to the aftermath of her divorce. I watched the season 6 episode where Shoshanna stages a friend-breakup in the bathroom of her engagement party, and the episodes in which Hanna’s father comes out as gay and her parents decide to divorce.

Girls doesn’t go as far as Master of None in exploring the potential of tv episodes that function as short films, but many of the best episodes of Girls can be watched as stand-alone stories. Marnie’s night walking through Manhattan with her ex, Shoshanna’s business trip to Japan, Hannah’s visit home to see her dying grandmother, and her interview with a manipulative and famous male writer are all slightly disconnected from the show’s central narrative.

As I zig-zagged through six seasons of a show that is, for better or worse, a voice of a generation, I wondered if this could be where a certain type of tv is headed: 25 minute mini-films that can be watched together or apart, in or out of sequence, neither pure comedy nor pure drama.