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From the 1930s through the 1960s a group of writers would meet every Tuesday afternoon in the back room of the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford. The collection of notable scholars was known as the Inklings, and their party is chiefly noted for including J.R.R. Tolkien, universally remembered as the author of The Lord of the Rings, and C.S. Lewis, the father of the beloved Chronicles of Narnia series. They were joined by visionary writers such as Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, Warren Lewis, Christopher Tolkien, and Hugo Dyson, among others. The Inklings would meet to read from their current projects, to drink beer, and to discuss literature at large. It’s said that the informal meetings of their society greatly affected the world of literature, and their legacy is carried on by new “Inklings” who meet to revel in the enlightenment and artistry of books, both in Oxford and abroad…
Dear Reader, Literary Inklings
In total, 13 novels make the list. Six are by women and seven by men, with five American writers, six British, one Canadian and one South African. (Three debut novelists, and a two-time Man Booker winner by the way)
The list includes Coetzee, who is the first person to win the Man Booker twice, and well known writers such as Deborah Levy, AL Kennedy and Elizabeth Strout.
There is no room on the Man Booker Longlist for literary giants such as Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Don DeLillo. But a first-time novelist who has just completed an online course in creative writing and likes to work from a VW campervan called Skye perched on the cliffs of the north Cornish coast is in the running for the prestigious award.
The shortlist will be released on September 13, with the official winner announced at a ceremony in London on October 25. Until then, here’s your guide to the books that made it this far.
J.M. Coetzee, The Schooldays of Jesus
Having won the Nobel Prize and the Man Booker (twice) already, South African novelist J.M. Coetzee is clearly the decorated veteran of this year’s longlist. The Schooldays of Jesus, the South African’s first novel in three years following 2013’s The Childhood of Jesus, is slated to be released in the UK in September. The story follows little Davíd, an inquisitive boy who immigrates to the town Estrella, where he lives on a farm, learns a new language, and hopes to make friends. He enrolls in an unusual dance academy where he’s faced with the necessities of growing up. Little has been said about Coetzee’s latest work, which seeks to combine allegory, memory, and history to question “how we choose to live our lives.”
Deborah Levy, Hot Milk
The British playwright and author returns to the Man Booker list four years after her novel Swimming Homemade the 2012 shortlist. Her latest work explores the tumultuous relationship between a young woman, Sofia, and her mysteriously ill mother. With seemingly no options left, Sofia and her mother travel to Southern Spain to meet with the unconventional physician Dr. Gomez, in hopes of finding answers. “The sun-bleached, Mediterranean setting,” The Guardian wrote, allows for “explorations of troubled familial bonds, of the nature of sexuality, an examination of exile—and repeated motifs of incantatory language.”
Ian McGuire, The North Water
The North Water is the second novel from McGuire, the English co-founder and co-director of the University of Manchester’s Center for New Writing. It’s a dark novel that drops readers into the heart—or hull— of The Volunteer, a 19th-century whaling ship carrying a mysterious killer aboard. From the freezing, rough waters of the Arctic to the 1857 British siege of Delhi, the novel takes a Melvillian journey and reimagines it as a nightmarish blend of historical fiction and thriller. The New York Times describes the book as “the result of an encounter between Joseph Conrad and Cormac McCarthy in some run-down port as they offer each other a long, sour nod of recognition.”
Wyl Menmuir, The Many
The English author’s debut novel is a surprising entry on the list, published by an independent imprint so small it doesn’t have permanent offices. Its protagonist, Timothy, looks to settle in an isolated coastal village, where strange fish and empty boats inhabit its polluted waters. But as he attempts to renovate an old house, he begins to ask unwelcome questions about its previous owner, raising the villagers’ suspicions. “Its portrayal of a community left behind by technology and bureaucracy, suspicious of the threat represented by ‘outsiders,’ is recognizable and timely,” wrote one review. “Perhaps even more so now than the author may have intended.”
Virginia Reeves, Work Like Any Other
The Montana native’s first novel is a pastoral story set in 1920s Alabama, where Roscoe T. Martin, an electrician, is forced to leave his life in the city and move with his son and wife to work on her family’s farm. There, he begins to steal electricity, until an official from the utility company who discovers the wires is electrocuted, and Roscoe is sent to jail for manslaughter. The novel follows Roscoe as he tries to survive in prison, disowned by his family, and consumed by guilt. The New York Journal of Books found Reeves’ debut to be “a deeply gripping portrayal of Americana in the Deep South, replete with racism, violence, and heartbreak.”
Paul Beatty, The Sellout
The American writer’s fourth novel, The Sellout, is a wild satire whose narrator, nicknamed “Bonbon,” tries to save his south L.A. hometown by bringing back slavery and segregation. Beatty mocks the absurdities of believing in a “post-racial America,” taking his characters to narrative extremes (when readers first meet the protagonist, he’s sitting in front of the Supreme Court). Despite its heavy subject matter—police killings, father-son relationships, servitude—The Sellout is alive with humor. NPR said the novel “isn’t just one of the most hilarious American novels in years, it also might be the first truly great satirical novel of the century.”
David Szalay, All That Man Is
Szalay’s fourth novel pulls together nine distinct narratives of men at different stages of their lives to ask a single question: What does it mean to be a man in the 21st century? Weaving a tale rife with boyish desire, psychological angst, and literary references, the Canadian-born author closes the gap between short fiction and the novel with this series of vignettes. “Szalay is in pursuit of the feel of a specific moment, whether that feel is lyrical or mundane,”wrote The Telegraph. “It is one of the many ironies of his work that it brings a sensory richness to the bleak and the drab.”
A.L. Kennedy, Serious Sweet
The British writer’s eighth novel tells the story of two troubled protagonists—one a middle-aged civil servant, the other a bankrupt accountant—who have been penpals, and are preparing to meet in person for the first time. Set over the course of a single day in London, Serious Sweet is an offbeat romance. “Serious Sweet portrays intense lives of quiet desperation,” said a review in The Guardian. “It is a novel about hope and muted courage and, at the end of the day, a very tentatively experienced optimism.”
Graeme Macrae Burnet, His Bloody Project
The Scottish novelist’s second book is another unexpected entry on the list—a crime thriller that’s only been sparsely covered. His Bloody Project focuses on a triple murder, the arrest of a young man for the crimes, and the question of whether or not he was insane when he committed them. The book is presented as the found memoir of Roderick Macrae, the man accused of committing the murders. “The sense of place, the characterisation and the evocation of a remote nineteenth-century rural community are as brilliant and assured as the suspenseful storyline is gripping,” said one review.
David Means, Hystopia
Means has written four critically acclaimed short-story collections, but this is the American writer’s debut novel—one that considers the ever-important question of the emotional costs of war. Hystopia is a book-within-a-book written by a 22-year-old Vietnam veteran before he commits suicide. The work in question takes place in a reimagined version of the 1960s and ’70s: an alternate history where President Kennedy has lived through multiple assassination attempts and has taken drastic means to eradicating mental illness in returning soldiers. The Atlantic’s Amy Weiss-Meyer writes that the structure of the novel “is a testament to Means’s belief in the power of stories that demand to be told.”
Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen
Set in Boston in the 1960s, the American author’s second novel revolves around an unhappy young woman who has to care for her alcoholic father while working a day job as a secretary at a prison for delinquent boys. But she longs for freedom, and when a new co-worker arrives, Eileen is intrigued, and things begin to change. NPR praised the “sweetly sinister humor in Moshfegh’s prose,” declaring that “Eileen is a coming-of age novel about a formidable, yet flawed young woman.”
Elizabeth Strout, My Name Is Lucy Barton
Published eight years after Strout’s Pulitzer-winning work Olive Kitteridge, the American author’s fifth novel tells the story of Lucy, a woman in the hospital recovering from an infection, and her mother’s efforts to reconnect with her. Over the course of the visit, old wounds are reopened—and the narrator’s painful childhood memories and family frustrations come to the surface. The New York Times writes, “There is not a scintilla of sentimentality in this exquisite novel,” determining that “My Name Is Lucy Barton offers us a rare wealth of emotion, from darkest suffering to simple joy.”
Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing
The latest work from the Canadian short-story writer and novelist follows the members of a single family in China, both before and after the country’s Cultural Revolution in 1966. The sprawling work stretches across decades and geographical regions as it delves into the lives of countless fascinating characters. The Globe and Mail has called the book “an intergenerational saga” that “will cement [Thien] as one of Canada’s most talented novelists.”
Winter is here and we are thinking of engaging and exciting ways to keep people reading! So many amazing books are coming out this winter so of course we will be featuring the most anticipated books of 2016...
We also thought it would be fun to feature a "Guest Bookseller" shelf, where we would feature the favorite books (old and new) of friends of the book store. The "Guest Bookseller" picks between 10 and 20 books and they "hand sell" them.
I've had a blast hearing from some of my favorite writers and readers about what books have inspired them. I've started looking at some of their writing in a new light now knowing the books they have loved. I'm honored to say that since the start of our Guest Bookseller Feature several writers and readers have contacted me asking to participate (Don't miss Susan Scarf Merrell author of SHIRLEY and Jessica Soffer author of TOMORROW THERE WILL BE APRICOTS handselling on April 20th in the store... I've been told there will be wine!)
Want to take a crack at bookselling? Send us your own #shelftalkers and we will feature them on our shelves!
The Weight of Things – Marianne Fritz, Dorothy: A Publishing Project
Whoa. A simply told simple story that ventures into dark and devastating territories. I put it first on this list for a reason. Please, go: read this book.
Dreambox of Another Kind – Alfred Starr Hamilton, Song Cave
Subtle, sublime, witty, wry, an other-worldly poetry collection. It changed the way I look at poetry, and is now one of the most important influences on my own work.
Preparation for the Next Life – Atticus Lish, Tyrant Books
Technically Preparation was first published in 2014, but after winning the Pen/Faulkner it was reissued with a new cover in November of 2015. It also happens to be incredibly, insanely, amazingly good.
A Manual for Cleaning Women – Lucia Berlin, FSG
Lucia Berlin spent several weeks this summer as my new favorite writer. This posthumous short story collection is full working-class people facing working-class problems. Her economy of language and use of humor to tell these gritty stories are just a little bit of what makes these stories so astonishing.
Tsar of Love and Techno – Anthony Marra
A novel collection of short stories. But don’t be fooled: read from front to back this is actually a novel with characters and events weaving seamlessly through each and every story, until it all wraps up at the end.
Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962 - 1972 – Alejandra Piznarik, New Directions (March 28)
Obsessed with themes of solitude, childhood, madness, and death Piznarik certainly has everything I look for in a poet. And New Directions has never steered my wrong.
Solutions and Other Problems – Allie Brosh (October 25)
I can’t even think about Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half without chuckling to myself – and sometimes out loud. If her follow up is half as fun and outrageous as her first, I’d be more than content.
Stork Mountain – Miroslav Penkov, FSG (March 15)
A personal, political, and historical novel set near the Bulgarian-Greek-Turkish border featuring a young Bulgarian who returns home hoping to escape his mediocre life in America.
Albina and the Dog-Men – Alejandro Jodorowsky (May 10)
Jodorowsky’s Where the Bird Sings Best probably should have been included in my top 5, but I wanted to spread the love. In Jodorowsky, everything is strange: magic reigns supreme in his carefully crafted worlds, the everyday takes on the power of myth. Albina is described as A modern-day Kafka story on hallucinogens. So yeah, sign me up.
Here- Richard McGuire
This time traveling graphic novel is a show-stopper.In this 2015 expansion of his 1989 6-page comic, McGuire imagines a single corner of a room over the span of millions of years. A simple enough premise, but this beautiful book will move you.
More Happy Than Not - Adam Silvera
16-year old Aaron growing up in the Bronx is on a mission to find his happiness. But there are just a few things in the way--like a program that can cancel out your memories and sorta-maybe-friends. This Young Adult debut from Silvera is what you were expecting and so much more.
Under the Udala Tree - Chinelo Okparanta
Ijeoma recounts her childhood in 1960s Nigeria--a time when the country was at war with itself, a time when Ijeoma herself first fell in love with another girl from a different tribe. In her debut novel Okparanta shines as she weaves the history of a country and a young girl seamlessly.
The Princess and the Pony - Kate Beaton
From the mind that brought you Hark! A Vagrant comes a lovely story about a sparky warrior princess who wants a strong, warrior horse for her birthday. Instead she gets a plump pony who does little but be silly. How will they ever get along?
The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley - Shaun David Hutchinson
Andrew Brawley is running from a traumatic event that killed his entire family. He chooses to hide in the hospital where they died, but soon finds he's no better there because there's a boy who was set on fire, and Death who forgot to take him the first time around. This book is a moving reflection on living, friendship, and being brave even when you're scared.
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours: stories - Helen Oyeyemi
Oyeyemi's newest work is framed by the idea of keys--all sorts of keys that do all manner of things (which is such an Oyeyemi premise). This is her first collection of short stories, and I bet it's every bit as breathtakingly magical as her 2014 novel Boy,Snow, Bird.
Morning Star - Pierce Brown
Brown stunned readers two years ago with a science fiction book set seven centuries in the future on Mars. And now, we get to see how the Red Rising trilogy ends. It's a marriage of Hunger Games and espionage that is near impossible to put down.
The Unfinished World: And Other Stories - Amber Sparks
Astronauts, sculptors, warriors--oh my! A successor to Kelly Link and Karen Russell, this bizarre but fantastical collection by Sparks is not to be missed.
The Literature Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained - DK
Thanks to DK's Big Ideas Simply Explained series, Shakespeare, philosophy, and science are NBD (no big deal). Lovers of literature can now explore the history of books in a 350-page compilation that will make you look like you've read every book ever written.
The Girl From Everywhere - Heidi Heilig
Your dad is a time traveler who is trying to return to the time before your mom died, to save her. Simple enough if it didn't mean your very existence might be erased too. Rae Carson meets Sabaa Tahir in this anticipated Young Adult debut.
Almost Famous Women - Megan Mayhew Bergman
These stories take inspiration from historical figures, women who attained a certain degree of celebrity but whose stories have never been fully imagined. We meet Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister, a conjoined twin, and a member of the first all-female integrated swing band.
The Half Brother - Holly LeCraw
LeCraw never eases the emotional tension. The novel begins with an epigraph from gifted teacher-writer Andre Dubus, who says he “learned to walk into a classroom wondering what I would say” rather than planning. The Half Brother captures his spirit, and the result is one of the finest school-set novels in recent memory.
ingle, Carefree, Mellow - Katherine Heiny
Nina is sleeping with her running partner; Sasha has agreed to meet her lover's wife for a drink; and Gwen is in love with her roommate. Each story in Katherine Heiny's collection doles out gems that are so authentic and outrageous I wanted to read them out loud to a friend over the phone — like the opening lines of the story "Blue Heron Bridge": "The worst thing about the affair, Nina thought, was that it made her so impatient with the children." Be ready to laugh and hoot, and then buy Single, Carefree, Mellow for all your girlfriends — but probably not your mother-in-law.
The Blondes: A Novel - Emily Schultz
Hazel, a graduate student who has been having an affair with her married professor, discovers her pregnancy and witnesses the beginning of an epidemic on the same terrifying day. The mysterious illness, in which blond women attack strangers with rabid ferocity before dying themselves, seizes the country, and Hazel struggles to get home in the midst of the madness. The Blondes is scary and deeply, bitingly funny — a satire about gender that kept me reading until 4 in the morning — and a fine addition to the all-too-small genre of feminist horror.
Summerlong - Dean Bakopolous
Summerlong is the story of a marriage disintegrating. Of youth fading. Of a single, hot summer in a small college town in Iowa and how it destroys the lives of a local real estate agent, a frustrated novelist, a floundering actor and a grieving young woman. It's a sharply observed and smartly written book, but it's also one that's haunted by death and sorrow and the terrible heartbreak of growing old. It captures the that instant of perfect equilibrium, where everything is exactly right — when love and family and career have come into exquisite balance. And then the instant after when everything you thought you've built just falls to pieces.
It's 1907 Los Angeles. Mischievous socialite Anna Blanc is the kind of young woman who devours purloined crime novels—but must disguise them behind covers of more domestically-appropriate reading. She could match wits with Sherlock Holmes, but in her world women are not allowed to hunt criminals.
Determined to break free of the era's rigid social roles, Anna buys off the chaperone assigned by her domineering father and, using an alias, takes a job as a police matron with the Los Angeles Police Department. There she discovers a string of brothel murders, which the cops are unwilling to investigate. Seizing her one chance to solve a crime, she takes on the investigation herself.
If the police find out, she'll get fired; if her father finds out, he'll disown her; and if her fiancé finds out, he'll cancel the wedding and stop pouring money into her father's collapsing bank. Midway into her investigation, the police chief's son, Joe Singer, learns her true identity. And shortly thereafter she learns about blackmail.
Anna must choose—either hunt the villain and risk losing her father, fiancé, and wealth, or abandon her dream and leave the killer on the loose.
Los Angeles 1907
Anna Blanc wore a six-inch hairpiece made from the tresses of a yak. She had crowned the abundant puffs and curls with the largest ostrich feather hat in Los Angeles. The look was dramatic, the latest from Vionnet at the House of Doucet, and a terrible choice when running for a train. She sprinted along the moonlit tracks, her big hair bun bouncing, her feathers shaking, her satin gown trailing an undignified sprig of rosemary snagged from the bush where she’d been hiding. Above her, the majestic dome of La Grande Station rose from the expanse of dust and steel, menacing her like some giant guardian of propriety. As she flew past a palm tree, her veil caught on a frond and tore, revealing an eye, a nose, a cheek. “Biscuits!” she swore.
It had occurred to Anna that she should wait to board the train until the last possible moment, so it would be harder for any pursuer to drag her back off. But, just as the last passengers were stepping on board the late-night train, and Louis Taylor was waving frantically from a car window, two men had approached from the tracks carrying a tin bathtub. One was very thin. One was a cop. This gave Anna pause. She had always admired policemen and wanted to be one, but not this one.
His face was scarred, like he had been mauled by a dog. More importantly, he might have come to hunt Anna but had gotten hung up by whatever was in the tub, in which case she needed to stay in the bushes.
As they passed closer to Anna, beneath a sputtering gaslight, she rose on tiptoes, peeking through the leaves of a hibiscus bush, and saw a large, lumpy sack oozing in the tub. It looked violent and disgusting and made her feel ill. It could be a deer, but she thought not. No one called the police when a train hit an animal. It had to be a corpse, likely a woman or a child, because the lumps were too small to be a man . . .unless parts were missing. She resented the sickening lumps for turning her stomach on this most special of all nights.
By the time the policeman had left, the train was rolling. Anna popped from the bush. She charged through the warm December night in glamorous shoes, her taffeta petticoats thrashing down the rails. She felt the rumble of the locomotive in her pounding pulse. It belched black smoke, filling her panting, petal lips with grit, showering her with dirty ash.
Louis hung from the door of the car, bareheaded, reaching for her as she sprinted, his eyes bulging, his tongue tip pasted to the corner of his mouth, his striped, silk necktie flapping in the wind. She grabbed his hand and leapt, losing one François Pinet shoe.
Louis leaned against the oak paneled wall, sweating, heart pounding, and exhaled deeply, as if he’d been holding his breath. He grabbed a perfect Homburg hat from the luggage rack and flipped it on. “So much for a quiet departure. There wasn’t a person at the station who didn’t see you board.”
Anna collapsed against the wall next to him, her mind racing with dangerous possibilities. “He might find out I was on the train, but he won’t know where I got off.” Even as she said it, she didn’t believe it. She half believed that there was nowhere beyond the reach of her father, the man who restricted her freedoms, down to the very books she read. She felt a quivering panic in her chest, and wetness spread under her arms. She looked down at her shoeless foot and made a little sound of distress.
Louis took her arm and cooed, “Don’t fret, darling. Your father can’t stop us from marrying, you know. It’s the twentieth century, and he isn’t in France anymore. This is Los Angeles.”
She looked up, dread clouding her grey eyes. “You have no idea what he can do.”
Louis raised one eyebrow, which, together with his spanking fine mustache, looked very debonair. “Darling, once the deed is done, it’s done.”
The car insides were cozy, like a nice hotel, with polished wood, vaulted ceilings, and emerald velvet seats. Anna scanned the faces on her getaway train. To her relief, she recognized no one among the traveling suits and black derbies. She barely recognized Louis, whom she’d spoken to only
twice, though they’d attended the same balls and exchanged a dozen mushy letters. They’d kept their affair entirely secret.
Anna’s father set a high price on her beauty, and would just as soon keep her as an ornament, like a prized Ming Vase, as relinquish her to another man. He’d driven away every suitor who had shown up on his doorstep with violets and honorable intentions. This being widely known, Louis had taken a different approach. He’d delivered his passionate declarations through Anna’s friend Clara, while studiously ignoring Anna in public and never coming to call.
Anna limped on one heeled shoe as Louis urged her down the aisle to an empty row at the back of the car. He walked so closely behind her that when she swayed with the train she fell against him. He had a man smell, humid and spicy, like her father’s Bay Rum aftershave.
“Someone was hit by the train,” she said. “That’s why the train was late.”
Louis shook his head. “Yes, I know. Let’s not speak of it. I mean, it’s not a nice topic for a lady.” He raised his eyebrows hopefully. “Unless you want to.”
“No. It’s just . . . it’s hard to get hit by a train unless you try.”
He nodded soberly.
Anna would have said a prayer for the deceased, but there was no point. All suicides went to hell. Plus, suicide by train was bad manners, as someone else had to clean it up. A considerate person would take too much laudanum or something, and die in their bed, or drown at sea, so as not to inconvenience other people. She opened her mouth to say so, but Louis clapped his hands over her eyes. “Don’t look.”
Anna smiled indulgently. “Why not?”
“Because my darling is a lady.”
This seemed like a bad reason for anything. Anna peeled his fingers off her eyes too late. The train was passing through a gully, and all she could see was darkness and scrub. She looked inquisitively at Louis.
He whispered, “Alameda Street. You know. The women, um, shall we say, wave at the train.”
Anna took her seat, scrunching her forehead, knowing there must be more to the story. It was long past midnight. Louis slid in closer than was strictly proper, turned his face to hers, and raised his eyebrows. Their legs touched through nine blessed layers of fabric. Anna blushed. A girl was supposed to object and scoot away, but she didn’t. She found she didn’t mind at all. His thigh was curiously hard and warm beneath his wool trousers. What she wanted to do was touch it.
“I haven’t had a single moment alone with you, and I intend to make up for it.” He gazed into her eyes as if checking to see if they were green or gray or blue, and whispered, “Take off your glove.”
Anna glanced up the aisle of the near-empty car and saw nothing but the backs of heads. She quickly peeled off her glove. He took her hand, hid it beneath the fold of his coat, and began to draw figure eights on her naked palm with one slow finger, sending shivers from her wrists to her lips, and to other parts.
“When the lights go out, I’m going to kiss you,” he said. Anna felt like she was still sprinting for the train.
A heavy bump, bump made the lovers start. Anna’s eyes cut to an old woman, who hobbled down the aisle, dragging a monogrammed Louis Vuitton case as cracked as her powdered face. Her dress had layers and layers of horrid black pleats and was so long out of fashion she could have worn it to Lincoln’s funeral. The old lady parked herself one row in front of Anna and Louis in the otherwise empty back of the train. She turned around and stared at them from under wiry gray eyebrows. Sour old lady breath floated over the seat. Louis glared back at her. She clucked in disapproval and turned to face forward. In a few minutes, her head nodded and she began to snore, snorting in, whistling out.
Anna giggled at this a little maniacally, fueled by the excitement of running away, of holding his hand. She had never touched Louis before—or any man except her father. Not without a glove. She felt dizzy, almost drunk, sitting next to him, fingers entwined and caressing, and she had not foreseen it. As eager as she was to marry Louis, it had never been because of love. She chose him because he was well regarded, dressed well—a real Beau Brummell—and was clever enough to circumvent her possessive father. People said lots of nice things about Louis in spite of his poverty—how presentable he was, how sympathetic and well mannered, and how that rumor about his mother, which had traveled clear across the Atlantic, couldn’t possibly be true.
Despite Clara’s romanticizing the affair, Anna had accepted his proposal not so she could have a life with him in particular, but so she could have a different life. She’d never confess this to Clara, who loved her own husband to distraction—almost as much as she loved Anna. Good, complicit Clara, who had smuggled Anna’s trunks out of the house and had them sent to Louis’s apartment in Glendale.
Being with Louis now, it occurred to Anna that she didn’t not-love him. And it was rather thrilling to be holding his hand, alone on a rough velvet seat, at night, in the back of a vibrating train.
When the lights finally went out, he kissed her in the dark, one soft brush of lips on lips. With dreamy, heavy eyes, he cooed, “You are the dandiest girl on earth.”
Anna sighed and held her face up for another, but he placed two fingers on her puckered lips and smiled. “No more kisses,” he whispered. “I’m afraid I’d cause a scandal.”
Anna flushed. He’d already caused a scandal by stealing her away, and, if no one were looking, she didn’t see why he shouldn’t kiss her again and for longer. Instead, he removed her hat, plucking out hatpins one by one, and coaxed her cheek down onto his itchy, tweeded shoulder. Her enormous, yak-hair bun crushed against his face, but he didn’t seem to mind.
“Now, go to sleep.” His voice was silky and low. “I don’t want you tired when I kiss you tomorrow night.”
Anna bit her lip. He was even more handsome than she had thought before, like a hero in a book. His hands were so lovely caressing hers. She couldn’t possibly sleep with him so near. She might never sleep again. She might actually be in love with him. Anna said a silent, sheepish prayer of thanks to Saint Valentine of Rome, patron saint of lovers, and promised to go to confession for deceiving her father and running off with a Protestant.
The train rattled through fragrant lemon groves, cool air whistling through a slightly opened window. Anna awoke to the pungent perfume, with her face pressed onto Louis’s chest, one hand in his lap. His head was thrown back, mouth slightly open, his thin mustache quivering with each exhalation. She reluctantly withdrew her hand, straightened up, and, to her horror, found drool on his shirt where her mouth had been. After dabbing a trail of spit from her cheek, she adjusted her towering, lopsided hair in a hand mirror and shook him awake. He opened his eyes with a yawning, “Good morning, darling,” and a crooked smile that said, “We just spent the night together.” Anna matched it with one of her own.
The train made a grinding, screeching sound as it pulled into the station at Riverside. Louis gathered up his coat. “This, my queen, is the beginning of a dream come true. We’re young. We have money. We finally have control of our lives.”
Anna smiled, but reserved her exhilaration for when the deed was done. Louis reached out to touch her cheek. He recalled his hand as the old woman one seat up turned her eyes on him. “In my day,” she said in a guttural Russian accent, “people didn’t make love on trains.”
Louis smirked. “In your day, madam, there were no trains.”
Anna’s eyes widened. She pressed her lips to prevent them from smiling, an act that she could not condone. The old woman harrumphed and looked at her old leather case. She looked at Louis, then to her bag, and back again. It was a gesture of command. Louis brushed past the old woman as if she were not there.
“In my day, gentlemen helped ladies with their bags!” the old woman called after him.
For the first time, Anna noticed the monogrammed letters on the woman’s case—TLS. She smiled and bobbed. “Good day, Mrs. Smucker.” Anna picked up the bag and carried it to the platform.
It was cool in the desert, though the morning sun made the bare, stony mountains golden. Anna hurried to catch up with Louis. He stood beneath a stand of fruited date palms, smoking a cigarette, waiting as a porter brought their trunks. He exhaled a stream of smoke. “Nasty old thing.”
Anna rubbed her arms beneath her satin wrap. “Shhh, Louis. She’s not some laundress. Her son’s the mayor of Los Angeles.”
“You know her?”
“Not by sight, but I know Mayor Smucker has a home in Riverside. His daughter Tasha, who was in my class, is named after her paternal grandmother. Tasha is a Russian name—like Natasha in War and Peace. This woman rolls her rs like a Russian. I know the mayor’s mother has a very hard time keeping servants . . .”
Louis gave Anna a sideways smile. “Clara warned me about this.”
Anna’s words tumbled out with increasing speed. “The mayor’s housekeeper calls our housekeeper every few weeks in search of new staff for his mother. It’s sort of a joke among the servants. Even a bad-tempered person can keep staff if she pays them well, so let’s suppose that she does not pay them well. She certainly has the money. So, let’s say she’s a miser. This woman’s bag is worn past respectability, but it’s a Louis Vuitton and cost a bundle. Her dress, too, was expensive, last century. This suggests either a change in fortune, or that its owner does not care to spend the money to replace it. I favor the latter explanation as her bag is monogrammed TS—Tasha Smucker.” Anna took a deep breath. “Which has no ring to it, whatsoever. I could never marry a man named Smucker.”
Louis grinned and hailed a cab. “Then I’m lucky I’m not named Smucker.”
The cab driver motored Anna and Louis through streets lined with feathered palms to the Mission Inn. The hotel catered to the East Coast rich, who came in droves to winter in sunshine and to see about their lucrative citrus groves. Louis chose it not only because it was fashionable, but because it had a chapel. It reminded Anna of a Spanish castle, with its wrought iron railings and gardens of purple bougainvillea. It dripped with bells. Anna stared up at the dozens of campañas adorning every arch, tower, and alcove beneath the red tile roof and wondered if they would ring for her when she was pronounced Mrs. Louis Taylor.
The couple passed through towering oak doors into the grand lobby. They strolled arm in arm, Anna hobbling on one shoe, ostrich feathers bobbing, her coat sooty, her satin frock looking slept in, her big hair tipping south. A fourteen-foot Christmas tree scented the room, adorned with baubles and tiny candles, waiting to be lit. There were bowls of oranges, red poinsettias, and elegant guests reading newspapers in leather chairs.
Louis sauntered up to a marble counter, wearing Anna like a badge of honor. “Mr. and Mrs. Louis Taylor. We have the honeymoon suite.”
The clerk took in the couple with one broad stroke. He frowned his disapproval. “Welcome, Mr. . . . I’m sorry.”
“Taylor,” Louis said.
The clerk found the name on a list and handed Louis a pen to sign the register. “I see you’ve reserved the chapel, Mr. and Mrs.Taylor.”
Somewhere in the lobby behind them, two men began a conversation. Anna heard snippets.
“. . . California has her grip on me . . . I bought citrus farms . . .”
“Riverside’s a world away from Boston . . .”
“. . . my home’s being built in Los Angeles.”
“Following the oil? The oil money? You and everybody else. We’re finding our place in the world. First city with electric lights. The streetcars are the best in the nation. Telephone system, too . . .”
“. . . I’m just here for the weather and the fruit . . .”
Anna didn’t care at all about their conversation or why so many people were coming to Los Angeles, making her city spread out like spilled lemonade. She was giggling at Louis who, reluctant to let go of her, was trying to sign the register with his left hand, having first nearly overturned the inkpot. He finished with an exaggerated flourish, grinning at his almost-wife. She hadn’t realized he was so charming.
The clerk turned his back to Louis and picked up a telephone. Louis cleared his throat, “I’m on my honeymoon, sir, and I’d rather not spend it in the lobby, if you know what I mean.”
Without turning, the clerk raised one heavy hand, indicating that Louis should wait.
“If you would just provide us with the key . . .” Louis said.
The clerk frowned and hung up the phone. “I’ll be very happy to provide you a key, sir, once you’ve paid.”
Louis looked to Anna. She had told him they could have the bill sent to her father.
“You want us to pay in advance? We never pay in advance,” Anna said. It was true. The Blancs always had a tab.
“Forgive me,” the clerk said. “I’m not acquainted with the Mr. Louis Taylors of—where did you say you were from?”
“You have nerve!” Louis said, though the clerk’s suspicions were entirely founded.
“Are you familiar with the Blancs of Los Angeles? You can send the bill to Christopher Blanc. He’s my father,” Anna said.
The clerk replied evenly, “Shall I call Mr. Blanc—just to tell him you’ve arrived safely?”
“No!” Anna’s exclamation echoed off the tile and faded into an uncomfortable silence. The clerk pressed his priggish lips.
A man’s smooth voice came from behind her. “I can vouch for them. This charming lady is Anna Blanc, and I’m sure her father is good for it.”
The clerk’s demeanor turned like a well-trained horse on a five-cent piece. He handed Louis the key and bowed to the disheveled couple. “I’m sorry, sir.”
Anna untwined her arm from Louis’s, her face as cool and white as the marble counter. She’d rather sleep in the desert than be helped by an ersatz friend who would give them away, accidentally or otherwise. She turned to face the threat and sized the man up the way a lady should—that is, without seeming to. He was well bred, barely noticing her shoeless foot and the toes sticking out of her stocking. His accent said East Coast. He must be important, to be shown such deference by the desk clerk. He was not a politician or a businessman. He didn’t have the doughy look of a man who worked long hours. He must simply be very rich. His clothes were perfect, his dark curls slicked back. He was toweringly tall and handsome. She searched her memory for his person and came up blank.
“It’s Miss . . . Mrs. . . . Taylor. You are . . . You know my father. Of course. He introduced us at . . .” She extended her hand and waited for him to fill in the blanks.
He smiled at her with the sweetness of a boy on the brink of adolescence, though he had to be thirty. “Edgar Wright.” He took her hand and then extended his hand to Louis. “Of course I know your father. Everyone does.” He smiled some more. “And don’t worry that you don’t remember me. We’ve never met. I saw your picture in the paper at your coming out. Was it two years ago? Of course you’d be married by now.”
Anna spoke with the barest tinge of bitterness. “You would think so.”
Mr. Wright studied her face with too much interest. “You’re even more beautiful in person.”
Louis stepped closer to Anna. “I appreciate your good word. Now, if you would excuse us, we’re on our honeymoon.” He slipped his arm through hers in a gesture of possession.
Mr. Wright bowed impeccably. “Congratulations. I won’t keep you.”
“You won’t be seeing my father soon? Or speaking to him?” Anna asked.
“Unfortunately not,” Mr. Wright said.
She smiled her relief. “Well then. Goodbye Mr. Wright. And, thank you.”
Louis jingled the keys in his pocket. “Goodbye Mr. Wright.” He squeezed her arm. “Darling, you should rest. Let me take you to our room.”
Anna immediately forgot Mr. Wright and thought of what might happen in that room. Her stomach flipped like she was on a swing. Louis led her off to a white staircase that wound around and around, up to love.
At the door to their suite, Louis felt for his watch. “Oh boy. I didn’t realize the train would be so late. We’re due in the chapel in . . .” He checked the time and winced. “Ten minutes. I’ll just pop down to postpone.”
Anna held his arm. “No, don’t!”
Louis looked surprised. “We can do it later, Anna. Don’t you want to change?”
“Yes, but . . . Let’s do everything right now. Everything.”
To Anna, fashion was a sacrament. It was a testimony to her eagerness that she dressed with no attendant and presented herself for her wedding with a crease in her veil, no powder, her robe nuptiale half-buttoned in back, and only one shoe. She pinched her cheeks mercilessly to give them color and tucked a sixpence into her slipper for luck. The coin was a token from her English mother, who was presently rolling in her grave.
The priest waited at the gilded altar under a domed ceiling painted like the sky. Two hotel maids in white caps and bib aprons stood as silent witnesses. The room smelled like incense and lemon oil. Louis and Anna processed down the aisle, Clara’s borrowed lace train flowing behind. For a brief moment, Anna’s feet revolted and she dragged on Louis like an anchor. She felt dizzy and had to lean against a wooden pew. Why was this so difficult? In her head she knew she was doing the right thing. Any future would be better than spinsterhood under her father’s roof, and she might have just fallen in love with Louis. She looked to the stained glass saints for guidance, then back at the door. The clock was ticking.
Louis put soft lips to her ear. “Don’t be anxious, my queen. I’ll be gentle.”
“Me, too.” She thought of cigarettes, lively dances, mystery books, brandy, and love—all the things her father denied her. She thought of Louis’s hands on the train. She squared her shoulders and willed her feet to move.
The priest began the rite in English. Anna groaned. Here was one more thing she’d have to bring to the confessional. “You promised you’d pretend to be Catholic and get a Catholic priest,” she whispered.
“I tried. The Catholic man wouldn’t do an elopement.”
“You could have said we were orphans.”
“We’d be very rich orphans. I don’t know what you’re so bothered about. People question your loyalties when you’re Roman, you know.”
Anna sighed. She’d rather be free and in need of absolution than postpone and get caught. “But now we’ll have to do it all over again.”
During the vows, Anna kept looking over her shoulder. She promised to love with sincerity, crossed her fingers when she vowed to obey, and said “I do” before the priest had finished his sentence. Louis slid a band onto her finger—a ring purchased on her father’s credit. His chaste, ceremonial kiss tasted sweet, like freedom, and Anna laughed at nothing in particular. She paid the priest and Louis led her back to their room to the peals of a thousand bells.
In their suite, a bottle of Cuvée Femme waited, chilling in a bucket of ice with a note from Mr. Wright: “All my best wishes for a blessed union.”
“How kind.” Anna dropped the note on the floor. She was thinking about Louis’s hands and wondering what exactly was involved in consummation. She smoothed her wedding gown and perched on a chaise.
Louis poured the champagne and raised his glass. “To you, my queen.”
After two glasses, Anna’s head was rushing. Louis was studying her, watching her bring the glass to her lips, watching her sip the amber liquid, watching her drain the glass. She felt scrumptiously self-conscious. He ran his fingers through his crispy, brilliantined hair. “Sunset seems a millennium away.”
“Why don’t you ravish me now?”
His eyebrow arched up. “It’s 10 a.m.”
Anna shrugged. “Not in China.”
“I see.” He lunged for her, toppling her onto the chaise. Her glass smashed upon the floor. A thousand bells rang in Anna’s head, and she knew for certain that she was very much in love with him.
The door burst open with a bang. The desk clerk stood on the threshold with his priggish arms folded, flanked by two breathless police officers.
That marked the end of Anna’s golden reputation and her marriage to Louis Taylor.
How long will it take a newly established literary genre to lose its stigma? The world may never know. After several centuries, novels are finally considered respectable, but it’s still an uphill battle for many young adult authors. Your typical avid reader of YA has probably been counting disrespectful assumptions for years: that the books are just for kids, that they’re unserious, and worst of all (because unserious things for kids can still be pretty cool), that they’re poorly written.
Here is a quiz for YA readers and nonreaders alike. Can you tell which of the following quotes came from a recent YA novel and which came from a honest-to-goodness, officially respectable, canonized classics?
May the odds be ever in your favor....
1. A “When I looked at my negatives once I’d developed them and hung them to dry, I saw each angle as a point of view. That was what a picture was, wasn’t it? A point of view? If you took a picture of a glass from above, it would look mostly empty. If you took it from below, it would look half full. A cliched example, but you understand. Everything we see is based on where we’re standing when we see it.”
B “One of the many ways of contesting level-zero, and one of the best, is to take photographs, an activity in which one should start becoming an adept very early in life, teach it to children since it requires discipline, aesthetic education, a good eye and steady fingers. I’m not talking about waylaying the lie like any old reporter, snapping the stupid silhouette of the VIP leaving number 10 Downing Street, but in all the way when one is walking about with a camera, one has almost a duty to be attentive, to not lose that abrupt and happy rebound of sun’s rays off an old stone, or the pigtails-flying run of a small girl going home with a loaf of bread or a bottle of milk. Michel knew that the photographer always worked as a permutation of his personal way of seeing the world as other than the camera insidiously imposed on it…”
2. A “A good player who loses at chess is genuinely convinced that he has lost because of a mistake, and he looks for this mistake in the beginning of his game, but forgets that there were also mistakes at every step in the course of the game, that none of his moves was perfect. …How much more complex is the game of war, which takes place in certain conditions of time and where no single will is guiding lifeless mechanisms, but everything is the result of numberless collisions of various wills?”
B “Have you ever asked yourself, do monsters make war, or does war make monsters?”
3. A “It is when we try to grapple with another man’s intimate need that we perceive how incomprehensible, wavering, and misty are the beings that share with us the sight of the stars and the warmth of the sun. It is as if loneliness were a hard and absolute condition of existence; the envelope of flesh and blood on which our eyes are fixed melts before the outstretched hand, and there remains only the capricious, unconsolable, and elusive spirit that no eye can follow, no hand can grasp.”
B “You think that the world we live in is ordinary. We make noise and static to fill the empty spaces where ghosts live. We let other people grow our food, bleach our clothes. We seal ourselves in, clean the dirt from our skins, eat of animals whose blood does not stain our hands. We long ago left the ways of our ancestors, oracles and blood sacrifice, traffic with the spirit world, listening for the voices out of stones and trees. But maybe sometimes you have felt the uncanny, alone at night in a dark wood, or waiting by the edge of the ocean for the tide to come in. We have paved over the ancient world, but that does not mean we have erased it.”
4. A “I have hated words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.”
B “What is language for? What the hell is language for? We go round and round. I supposed I’m an old fool who cannot understand your modern ways.”
5. A “The only way out of the labyrinth of suffering is to forgive.”
B “Trouble is so hard to bear, is it not? — How can we live and think that any one has trouble—piercing trouble—and we could help them, and never try?”
Check your answers below, and let us know how you did in the comments!
1: A is from Glory OBrien’s History of the Future by AS King. B is from Julio Cortázar’s short story “The Blow-Up.”
2. A is from War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky). B is from Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor.
3. A is from Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad. B is from All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry.
4. A is from The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak. B is from Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford.
5. A is from Looking for Alaska by John Green. B is from Middlemarch by George Eliot.
via Nicole Perrin of BookRiot
Bless the words with which I try to say
What I see, think, or feel.
With gratitude for the grace of the earth.
The expected and the exception, both.
For all the hours I have been given to
Be in this world.
– Mary Oliver (“Good Morning”)
Few poets capture the world with such ethereal grace and strict joy as Mary Oliver. In her 2014 collection, Blue Horses, she returns to some of her most poignant and witty moods to remark on nature, life, death, and just about everything else. In her beloved way, Oliver avoids her work becoming overly stylized by not really styling (or, at least, not visibly, earnestly styling) it at all.
“Stay young, always, in the theater of your mind.”
Her poems become conversations with the reader, the result of the way Oliver sees life with dauntless curiosity and an open heart. Her rhetoric takes on the vivacity of a delighted child, with a child’s wisdom – a wisdom gained by being open to the world as a rule. In her commonplace subject matter she uncovers opportunity for laughter, while in her consideration of the natural world she delivers the trademark significance her readers have come to love with as much otherworldly lyricism as ever before.
Oh, mother earth,
Your comfort is great, your arms never withhold.
It has saved my life to know this.
from “Loneliness” by Mary Oliver (Blue Horses)
The collection’s first poem, “After Reading Lucretius, I Go to the Pond”, draws the reader gently into the wild world of Oliver’s imagination as the poet observes a heron at mealtime, turning the circle of life into a kaleidoscope of wonderment. Meanwhile in poems like “What I Can Do”, “First Yoga Class”, and “On Meditating, Sort Of” Oliver turns the narrative spotlight onto herself, poking fun at gracelessness, age, and technology. But within those poems lies, as is so often hidden in her work (or sometimes put on valiant display), a profundity that sparks the imagination and ignites a deep shift in perspective.
Of particular note and celebration within Blue Horses is “Rumi”, a poem dedicated to Coleman Barks, the poet responsible for interpreting many of Rumi’s works, and paying homage to the great Sufi mystic. For those who read poetry as soul food, to have Oliver writing about Rumi is undoubtedly the jewel in the artistry’s crown. The poet doesn’t disappoint, speaking words at the heart of every Rumi enthusiast and capturing his effect on readers with an honesty and simplicity that only a Mary Oliver poem can deliver.
When Rumi went into the tavern
I heard a lot of crazy talk
And a lot of wise talk.
But the roses wouldn’t grow in my hair.
When Rumi left the tavern
I don’t mean just to peek at such a famous fellow.
Indeed he was rather ridiculous with his
long beard and his dusty feet.
But I heard less of the crazy talk and
a lot more of the wise talk and I was
hopeful enough to keep listening
until the day I found myself
transformed into an entire garden
“Rumi” by Mary Oliver (Blue Horses)
As a dedicated Mary Oliver fan – one who memorizes poems like “Why I Wake Early” and sets her pulse to the tune of “Wild Geese” – one particular poem stood out in Blue Horses that especially felt as though Oliver was reaching out the light of her wisdom and illuminating a forgotten, unspoken piece of my soul. That was “I Don’t Want to Be Demure or Respectable”:
I don’t want to be demure or respectable.
I was that way, asleep, for years.
That way, you forget too many important things.
How the little stones, even if you can’t hear them, are singing.
How the river can’t wait to get to the ocean and the sky, it’s been there before.
What traveling is that!
It is a joy to imagine such distances.
I could skip sleep for the next hundred years.
There is a fire in the lashes of my eyes.
It doesn’t matter where I am, it could be a small room.
The glimmer of gold Böhme saw on the kitchen pot
was missed by everyone else in the house.
from “I Don’t Want to Be Demure or Respectable” by Mary Oliver (Blue Horses)
In “Blueberries” and “The Mangroves”, the poet turns her attention from the New England wilds that have long dominated her work’s atmosphere to her Florida residence where she comes to terms with the foreignness of the tropical beauty and learns to handle what she discovers there with as much compassion and curiosity as her northern world. But then, in poems like “Such Silence”, she returns us to the familiar territory of her prose: an anonymous bench in an anonymous forest where she waits on angels and does not see them “only, I think, because I didn’t stay long enough.”
The title poem in the collection is named after the cover’s artwork, which was painted by 19th century German expressionist artist Franz Marc. Oliver’s poem describes her feeling of the painting and her experience of falling in love with the work. It’s an apt and beautiful tribute to a stirring creation by an artist whose career ended far too soon (he died at only 36).
Some days I fall asleep, or land in that
Even better place – half-asleep – where the world,
Spring, summer, autumn, winter –
Flies through my mind in its
Hardy ascent and its uncompromising descent.
So I just lie like that, while distance and time
Reveal their true attitudes: they never
Heard of me, and never will, or ever need to.
from “On Meditating, Sort Of” by Mary Oliver (Blue Horses)
With her subliminal charisma and earth-shaking, wide-eyed, compassionate wisdom, Mary Oliver once again proves herself with Blue Horses; her poems are truly food for the soul and fuel for the spirit. With a turn of phrase, Oliver summons the child in all of us – indeed, she summons the child in all things – and spreads onto that child the stardust of her great love.
By: Literary Inklings, Casee Marie
When I was younger -- nine, ten, eleven -- I detested novels with multiple narrators. Specifically, any book that switched points of view on a chapter-by-chapter basis: losing the eyes and ears that had been guiding me through a book was unsettling, and left me feeling betrayed. At the time I didn't appreciate that these switches were providing the novel with something it needed, that each time a narrator was left behind, my curiosity about what they were doing helped ratchet up the story's tension and momentum.
Swapping voices, of course, also gives writers a chance to demonstrate the fundamental untrustworthiness (or if you prefer, unreliability) of all first-person, or perhaps all, narrators: no two people see the same event in the same way. Playing on the contradictory experiences of two or more main characters not only makes a story bigger, it suggests our own lives might be bigger -- or at least different -- than we have previously imagined. A simple structural device in fiction can hint at the enormous complexity of existence: go figure.
As a child, though, I didn't care about craft as a proxy for experience. (Or, let's be honest, as craft.) When narrators disappeared, I missed them on a visceral, emotional level -- along with the sense of wellbeing that came with immersing myself totally in another world and mind. The changes may not have jarred me out of the story completely, but they did upset my ability to graft onto it, leaving me with an uncertain sense of loyalty. Which voice should I trust? Which voice should I love? I don't think I ever ditched a novel just because of point-of-view swaps -- I've always been a reading completist -- but I did view them with a suspicious eye, always waiting for the book that would make those swaps feel worth it.
Lauren Groff's new novel Fates and Furies may just have done the trick. The story charts the marriage of young lovers Lotto and Mathilde through the vicissitudes of talent, ambition, jealousy, family, and time -- and Lotto and Mathilde each own half the book. Granted, the structure is not quite identical to the ABABAB switcheroos that made me grumble at age ten, but I think the stark exchange -- wherein AAA (Lotto's POV) becomes BBB (Mathilde's) at the halfway point -- would in theory have bugged me just as much.
Except -- except. Remember what I was saying about multiple narrators expanding the world? Welcome to that bigger place, which is brighter, louder, and full of rage.
It would do Groff a disservice to suggest that this book rests on having any particular "point"; the novel exists in its sentences, its breaths, its sliding between the human and the sublime, as when Lotto walks through a Halloween party "past a covey of witches huddled over someone's Polaroid paper, faces summoned out of the murk." But nonetheless, the moment that most astonished me was reading about Mathilde for the first time from her own perspective, and realizing how eclipsed she'd been by Lotto's enthusiasm, love, and -- let's just say it -- masculine self-regard. With Lotto guiding us, Mathilde is a beautiful woman, self-effacing and calm, if at times a bit chilly, and it's her disappointment that he fears most. She is his loving wife who works to support his failed acting career and buoys up his successful writing. He worries that she'll leave him, that his lost family money (Lotto's rich mother cuts him off for marrying Mathilde) will prove too great a burden. And then, only eventually, he fears she's deceived him by cheating. This in and of itself is a rich, if familiar, story. Then you turn the page.
Not so long ago, television was full of male anti-heroes: Walter White, Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and so on. I wondered then, and not alone, what a female anti-hero might look like; the women on these shows were always faulted with being too kind or too shrill. The camera did not turn to them, directly -- it caught them in the periphery of their men, and so their faults were not allowed to be interesting. They were just faults, the women just types: the over-achiever, the perfect wife, the worst wife, the girlfriend, the shrew. In Lotto's hands, Mathilde is another of these beloved versions. But Groff takes us all the way back to Mathilde's beginnings, long before her husband was even a twinkle in her imagination. And what we find is that Lotto's ideal woman is more ruthless and estranged than he could possibly have known, and more aware of her power over him than he seems to have believed. Groff could easily have painted Mathilde as a pure villain, revealed partway through the story to illuminate something new about Lotto and rile us into pity for him. This has been the traditional use of female characters. It is not, however, what Groff has done.
The order of revelation is important. The fact that we begin to understand Mathilde on her own terms only halfway through Fates and Furies tells us a great deal about the character -- in fact, it's rare to see a structural device in literature that is at once so functional and so evocative. Groff might have bought more cheap suspense by using an omniscient narrator all the way through (arguably, her narrator is omniscient -- arguably, it's the Fates/Furies of Greek mythology themselves -- but for ease of explanation we'll consider it alternating close third) and making us wonder how far Mathilde's actions would stray from Lotto's expectations. (As it is, we already know what happens by the time we move into Mathilde's mind.) Instead, Groff used the structure to tell us something, without having to say it directly: Mathilde is hidden. Mathilde is waiting. Mathilde always allows herself to always come second.
Ultimately, this is not a book about either Lotto or Mathilde as individuals, though I do think Mathilde's particular pathology -- which I won't reveal, to save you the surprise -- elevates the novel in an important way. Instead, the book is about the living form of their union: yes, Mathilde hides her past from Lotto, using both charm and deceit to manipulate him. But she also loves him, sometimes in spite of herself. And Lotto, with all his rambunctious charisma, effaces Mathilde's personal ambitions completely (it's clear from the beginning that she's at least as smart as he is, and clear by the end that she might have preferred to do more than manage his playwriting career), without ever seeming to think it so much as a shame. But he loves her, too. As in any marriage, each character is keenly aware of what they give up for their paramour, and less in touch with what they gain from that compromise -- and yet, each gains enough to stay, and even to thrive, in the union. The cupidity is real. The sex is good. And if in the end both Lotto and Mathilde remain strangers to each other, they also know one another better than they'll ever know another soul. Groff gives them to us both together and separately, allowing us to experience them the same way they experience themselves.
Adrienne Celt via bookslut
The last month of the year offers a wealth of historical fiction, diverse nonfiction titles, and plenty of highly-anticipated series additions.
December’s new releases seem to highlight, in particular, the many talents writing in historical fiction. Marina Fiorato takes on Shakespeare with Beatrice and Benedick while Natasha Solomons conquers love and grief in the 1940s English countryside in The Song of Hartgrove Hall. More historical romance novels are available this month than I could fit into my little preview, but bestsellers Courtney Milan, Sarah MacLean, and Stephanie Laurens are among them. Nonfiction celebrates art, from journalist Molly Crabapple’s documentarion of her writings and artwork surrounding current events and recent history (Drawing Blood) to George Cotkin’s examination of the artists who birthed “the new sensibility” in Feast of Excess. For those with an interest in history, there’s also a new commentary on the works of C.S. Lewis by Wesley A. Kort (Reading C.S. Lewis) and a biography by Lucinda Hawksley of Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll (Queen Victoria’s Mysterious Daughter). Meanwhile, for genre enthusiasts, mystery has new work from Cleo Coyle, Jayne Ann Krentz, Lisa Jackson, and many others, while science fiction and fantasy offers new releases from Jeaniene Frost, Dean Koontz, Carl-Johan Vallgren, and more. New adult has new work from Abbi Glines, Penelope Douglas, and Anna Todd, while young adult sees the return of authors Lauren Morrill, Morgan Rhodes, and writing duo Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner. Enjoy the last new reads of the year!
New in: fiction
Medicis Daughter by Sophie Perinot (12/1)
A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copelton (12/1)
The Age of Reinvention by Karine Tuil (12/1)
The Seafront Tea Rooms by Vanessa Greene (12/1)
The Relic Master by Christopher Buckley (12/8)
Beatrice and Benedick by Marina Fiorato (12/8)
It’s. Nice. Outside. by Jim Kokoris (12/8)
The Violinist of Venice by Alyssa Palombo (12/15)
The Song of Hartgrove Hall by Natasha Solomons (12/29)
The Center of the World by Jacqueline Sheehan (12/29)
New in: nonfiction
Your Beauty Mark by Dita Von Teese and Rose Apodaca (12/1)
First Bite by Bee Wilson (12/1)
Drawing Blood by Molly Crabapple (12/1)
Reading C.S. Lewis by Wesley A. Kort (12/1)
Stoned by Aja Raden (12/1)
Life and Death in the Andes by Kim MacQuarrie (12/1)
How Not to Die by Michael Greger with Gene Stone (12/8)
Queen Victoria’s Mysterious Daughter by Lucinda Hawksley (12/8)
Feast of Excess by George Cotkin (12/11)
Presence by Amy Cuddy (12/22)
New in: mystery and suspense
Dead to the Last Drop by Cleo Coyle (12/1)
Blood Salt Water by Denise Mina (12/1)
What She Knew by Gilly Macmillan (12/1)
Splinter the Silence by Val McDermid (12/1)
Time of Departure by Douglas Schofield (12/1)
The Verdict by Nick Stone (12/7)
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By: Literary Inklings, Casee Marie
"Who had the bright idea when they woke up in the morning to create the most beautiful thing that ever existed?"
Mary Kubica, author of THE GOOD GIRL and PRETTY BABY, is back with her third thriller, set to release on May 17, 2016. To whet your appetite, we have your exclusive cover reveal and the full, goosebump-inducing first chapter below.
In hindsight, I should have known right away that something wasn’t quite right. The jarring noise in the middle of the night, the open window, the empty bed. Later, I blamed a whole slew of things for my nonchalance, everything from a headache to fatigue, down to arrant stupidity.
I should have known right away that something wasn’t right.
It’s the alarm clock that wakes me. Esther’s alarm clock hollering from two doors down.
“Shut it off,” I grumble, dropping the pillow to my head. I roll over onto my stomach and swim beneath a second pillow to smother the sound, throwing the covers up over my head, too.
No such luck. I still hear it.
“Dammit, Esther,” I snap as I kick the covers to the end of the bed and rise. Beside me there are rustles of complaint, blind eyes reaching out to reclaim the blanket, an aggravated sigh. Already the taste of last night’s alcohol creeps up my insides, something called a cranberry smash, and a bourbon sour, and a Tokyo iced tea. The room whirls around me like a hula hoop, and I have this sudden memory of twirling around a dirty dance floor with some guy named Aaron or Darren, or Landon or Brandon. The same guy that asked to split a cab with me on the way home, the one that’s still lying on my bed when I nudge him and tell him he has to go, yanking the blanket from his hands. “My roommate,” I say, poking him in the ribs, “is awake. You have to go.”
“You have a roommate?” he asks, sitting up in bed, yet beset by sleep. He rubs at his eyes and it’s then that I see it in the glimmer of a nearby streetlight that glares through the window and across the rumpled bed: he’s twice my age. Hair that looked brown in the hazy burn of bar lights—and under the influence of a healthy dose of alcohol—is now a pewter-gray. Dimples are not dimples at all, but rather laugh lines. Wrinkles.
“Dammit, Esther,” I say again under my breath, knowing that before long old Mrs. Budny from downstairs will be pounding the ceiling with the hard end of her sponge mop to silence the rumpus.
“You have to go,” I say to him again, and he does.
I follow the trail of noise into Esther’s room. The alarm clock, a droning noise like a cicada’s song. I mutter under my breath as I go, one hand dragging along the wall as I make my way down the darkened halls. The sun won’t rise for another hour. It’s not yet 6:00 a.m. Esther’s alarm screams at her like it does every Sunday morning. Time to get ready for church. Esther, with her silvery, soothing voice, has been singing in the church choir every Sunday morning at the Catholic church on Catalpa for as long as I can remember. Saint Esther, I call her.
When I enter Esther’s bedroom, the first thing I notice is the cold. Drafts of frosty November air sail in from the window. A stash of paper on Esther’s desk—held secure by a heavy college textbook: Introduction to Occupational Therapy—blows in the breeze, making a raucous noise. Frost covers the insides of the window, condensation running in streams down the panes of glass. The window is pushed up all the way. The fiberglass screen is removed, set to the floor with cause.
I lean out the window to see if Esther is there on the fire escape, but outside the world—on our little residential block of Chicago—is quiet and dark. Parked cars line the street, caked in the last batch of fallen leaves from nearby trees. Frost covers the cars and the yellowing grass, which fades fast; soon it will die. Plumes of smoke escape from roof vents on nearby homes, drifting into the morning sky. The whole of Farragut Avenue is asleep, except for me.
The fire escape is empty; Esther is not there.
I turn away from the window and see Esther’s covers lying on the floor, a bright orange duvet with an aqua throw. “Esther?” I say as I make my way across the boxy bedroom, hardly big enough for Esther’s double bed. I trip over a stash of clothes tossed to the floor, my feet getting tangled in a pair of jeans. “Rise and shine,” I say as I smack my hand against the alarm clock to shut it up. Instead, I wind up turning the radio on, and a cacophony of noise fills the room, morning talk against the drone of the alarm. “Dammit,” I swear, and then, losing patience, “Esther!”
I see it then as my eyes adjust to the darkness of the room: Saint Esther is not in her bed.
I finally manage to shut off the alarm clock and then turn on the light, grimacing as the bright light makes my head ache, the aftereffects of an overindulgent night. I do a double take to make sure I haven’t somehow or other managed to miss Esther, checking under the heap of blankets lying on the floor. Ridiculous, I know, even as I’m doing it, but I do it nonetheless. I check in her closet; I check the single bathroom, my eyes scanning past the prolific collection of overpriced cosmetics we share, tossed at random on the vanity.
But Esther is nowhere.
Smart decisions aren’t really my forte. They’re Esther’s. And so maybe that’s why I don’t call the cops right away, because Esther isn’t here to tell me to do it. In all honesty, though, my first thought isn’t that something happened to Esther. It isn’t my second, third or fourth thoughts, either, and so I let the hangover get the best of me, close the window and go back to bed.
When I wake for the second time, it’s after ten. The sun is up, and all along Farragut Avenue people scuttle to and from the coffee and bagel shops for breakfast, or lunch, or whatever it is that people eat and drink at 10:00 a.m. They’re blanketed in puffer jackets and wool trench coats, hands forced into pockets, hats on head. It doesn’t take a brainiac to know that it’s cold.
I, however, sit on the small apartment sofa—the color of rose petals—in the living room, waiting for Saint Esther to arrive with a hazelnut coffee and a bagel. Because that’s what she does every Sunday after singing in the church choir. She totes home a coffee and a bagel for me and we sit at the small kitchen table and eat, talking about everything from the children who cried their way through mass, to the choir director’s lost sheet music, to whatever vapid thing I’d done the night before: drinking too much, bringing home some guy I barely knew, some faceless man who Esther never sees but only hears through the paper-thin walls of our apartment.
Last night I went out, but Esther didn’t go with me. She had plans to stay home and rest. She was nursing a cold, she said, but now that I think of it, I saw no visible symptoms of illness―no coughing, no sneezing, no watery eyes. She was on the sofa, buried beneath the blanket in her comfy, cotton pajamas. Come with me, I’d begged of her. There was a new bar open on Balmoral that we’d been dying to go to, one of those chic, low-lit lounge types that only served martinis.
Come with me, I begged, but she said no.
I’d be a killjoy, Quinn, she said instead. Go without me. You’ll have more fun.
Want me to stay home with you? I asked, but it was a halfhearted suggestion. We’ll order takeout, I said, but I didn’t want to order takeout. I was in a new baby-doll dress and heels, my hair was done, my makeup was on. I’d gone so far as to shave my legs for the night; there was no way I was staying home. But at least I offered.
Esther said no, go without her and have fun.
And that’s just what I did. I went out without her and I had fun. But I didn’t go to that martini bar. No, I saved that for Esther and me to do together. Instead, I wound up at some shoddy karaoke bar, drinking too much, and going home with a stranger.
When I came home for the night Esther was in bed, with her door closed. Or so I thought at the time.
But now I can’t help but wonder as I sit on the sofa, considering this morning’s turn of events: What in the world would make Esther disappear out the fire escape window?
I think and I think, but my thoughts only land on one thing: an image of Romeo and Juliet, the famous balcony scene, whereby Juliet professes her love for Romeo from the balcony of her home (which is more or less the only thing I remember from my high school education, that and the fact that a pen barrel makes the best artillery for shooting spitballs).
Is that what sent Esther clambering out the window in the middle of the night: a guy?
Of course at the end of that tale, Romeo poisons himself and Juliet stabs herself with a dagger. I read the book. Better yet, I saw the movie, the 1990s adaptation with Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio. I know how it ends, with Romeo drinking his poison and Juliet shooting herself in the head with his gun. I think to myself: I just hope Esther’s story has a better ending than that of Romeo and Juliet.
For now there’s nothing to do but wait, and so I sit on the small rose-colored sofa, staring at the empty kitchen table, waiting for Esther to arrive home, regardless of whether or not she spent the night in her bed or crawled out the second-floor window of our walkup instead. That doesn’t matter. I still wait in my pajamas—a waffle henley and flannel boxer shorts, a pair of woolly slipper socks prettifying my feet—for my coffee and bagel to arrive. But today they’re a no-show and I blame Esther for it, for the fact that this day I’ll go without breakfast and caffeine.
By the time noon rolls around, I do what any self-respecting adult might do: I order Jimmy John’s. It takes a good forty-five minutes for my Turkey Tom to arrive, during which time I convince myself that my stomach has begun to digest itself. It’s been a solid fourteen hours since I’ve had a thing to eat, and what with the surplus of alcohol, I’m quite certain I’ve got the whole stomach bloating thing going on like those starving kids you see on TV.
I have no energy. Death is imminent. I may die.
And then the buzzer beeps from the first floor and I rise quickly to my feet. Delivery! I greet the Jimmy John’s guy at the door, handing him his tip, a few measly dollars I manage to find in an envelope Esther stuck in a kitchen drawer with the description Rent.
I eat my lunch hunched over an industrial iron coffee table, and then do what any self-respecting human might do when her roomie has gone AWOL. I snoop. I let myself into Esther’s room without a hint of remorse, without a whisper of guilt.
Esther’s room is the smaller of the two, about the same size as a large refrigerator box. Her double bed spans the room, popcorn wall to popcorn wall, leaving hardly anywhere to walk. That’s what eleven hundred dollars a month will buy you in Chicago: popcorn walls and a refrigerator box.
I slip past the foot of the bed, tripping over the pile of bedding that’s still left on the scratched wooden floors, and peer outside at the fire escape, a collection of ladders and platforms in steel gratings that adheres to Esther’s window. We joked about it when I moved in years ago, how she got the smaller room, but by virtue of the conjoined fire escape to her window, she’d be the one to survive a blaze should the entire building one day go up in flames. I was okay with that. Still am, really, because not only do I have a bed and a desk and a dresser in my room, I have a papasan chair. And the building has never once caught on fire.
Once again, I find myself wondering what in the holy hell would make Esther climb out her fire escape in the middle of the night? What’s wrong with the front door? It’s not as if I’m worried because, really, I’m not. Esther’s been on that fire escape before. We used to sit out there all the time, staring at the moon and the stars, sipping mixed drinks, as if it was a balcony, our feet dangling over a repugnant Chicago alleyway. It was sort of our thing, spreading out along the uncomfortable steel gratings of the dingy black fire escape, sharing our secrets and dreams, feeling the lattice grilles of the fire escape dig into our skin until our backsides fell asleep.
But even if she was there last night, Esther certainly isn’t on the fire escape now.
Where could she be?
I peer inside her closet. Her favorite boots are gone, as if she put on her shoes, opened the window and climbed outside with intent.
Yes, I tell myself. That’s exactly what she did, an assumption that reassures me that Esther is just fine. She’s fine, I tell myself.
But still. Why?
I stare out the window at the quiet afternoon. The morning’s coffee blitz has given way to a caffeine downer; there’s not a soul in sight. I imagine half of Chicagoland perched before the TV, watching the Bears claim another stunning defeat.
And then I turn away from the fire escape and begin my search of Esther’s bedroom. What I find is an unfed fish. A heaping pile of dirty laundry spilling out of a plastic hamper in the closet. Skinny jeans. Leggings. Jeggings. Bras and granny underwear. A stack of white camisoles, folded and set beside the hamper with care. A bottle of ibuprofen. A bottle of water. Grad school textbooks piled sky-high beside her ready-to-assemble IKEA desk, aside from the one that lies on top of it, holding random papers in place. I set my hand on a desk drawer handle, but I don’t look inside. That would be rude, somehow, more rude than riffling through the items left on top of the desk: her laptop, her iPod, her headphones and more.
Thumbtacked to the wall I find a photograph of Esther and me, taken last year. It was Christmas and together we stood before our artificial Frasier fir, snapping a selfie. I smile at the memory, remembering how Esther and I trekked together through mounds of snow to collect that tree. In the picture, Esther and I are pressed together, the boughs of the tree prodding our heads, the tinsel getting stuck to our clothing. We’re laughing, me with a complacent smirk, and Esther with her gregarious smile. The tree is Esther’s tree, one she keeps at a storage facility down the street, a ten-by-five box where, for sixty bucks a month, she keeps old guitars, a lute and whatever else she can’t fit into her pint-size bedroom. Her bike. And, of course, the tree.
We’d gone to that facility together last December, on a mission to find that Christmas tree. We trudged through embankments of newly fallen snow, our feet getting stuck in it like quicksand. It was snowing still, the kind of snowflakes that poured down from the sky like big, fat, fluffy cotton balls. The cars that lined the city streets were buried deep; they’d have to be dug out or wait for a forty-degree thaw. Half the city was shut down thanks to the blizzard, and so the streets were a rare quiet as Esther and I slogged along, singing Christmas carols at the top of our lungs because there was hardly anyone around to hear. Only snowplows braved the city streets that day, and even they skidded along in a zigzag line. Work had been canceled, for Esther, for me.
And so we plodded to the storage facility to hunt down that small plastic tree to haul home for the holiday season. We stopped in the facility’s concrete corridor to do a giddy dance for the security camera, plunging ourselves into hysterics as we did. We imagined the employee―a creepy, quiet introvert―sitting at the front desk, watching as we danced an Irish jig on screen. We laughed and laughed, and then, when we finally stopped laughing, Esther used her padlock key to let us into the unit and we began to search unit 203, me prattling on and on about the irony of that number, seeing as my own parents lived at 203 David Drive. Fate, said Esther, but I said it was more like a stupid coincidence.
Seeing as the tree was disassembled and stuffed in a box, it was hard to find. There were a lot of boxes in that storage facility. A lot of boxes. And I inadvertently stumbled upon the wrong one apparently, because when I lifted the lid of a box and exposed a mound of photographs of some happy little family sitting beside a squat home, lifting one up and asking of Esther, Who’s this? she snatched it quickly from my hand and said point-blank, No one. I didn’t really have a chance to see the picture, but still, it didn’t look like no one to me. But I didn’t push the issue. Esther didn’t like to talk about her family. That I knew. While I groaned and griped about mine all the time, Esther kept her feelings on the inside.
She tossed the picture back in the box and replaced the lid.
We found that tree and lugged it home together, but not before first stopping by our favorite diner where we sat nearly alone in the vacant place, eating pancakes and sipping coffee in the middle of the day. We watched the snow fall. We laughed at people trying to drag themselves through it, or excavate their cars from pyramids of snow. Those that were fortunate enough to dig themselves out called dibs on their parking spots. They filled them with random things―a bucket, a chair―so no one else would park there. Parking spots were like gold around here, especially in winter. That day, Esther and I sat in the window of the diner and watched this, too—we watched our neighbors lug chairs from their homes to stake a claim in the scooped-out parking spots, ones which would soon fill again with snow—feeling grateful all the time for public transportation.
And then Esther and I carried that tree home where we spent the night prettifying it with lights and ornaments galore, and when we were done, Esther sat crisscross-applesauce on the rose-colored sofa and strummed her guitar while I hummed along: “Silent Night,” “Jingle Bells.” That was last year, the year she bought for me a pair of woolly slipper socks to keep my feet warm because in our apartment I was cold twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I could hardly ever get warm. It was a thoughtful gift, an attentive gift, the kind that proved she’d been listening to me as I complained time and again about my cold feet. I look down at my feet and there they are: the woolly slipper socks.
But where is Esther?
I continue my search, for what I don’t know, but I find stray pens and mechanical pencils. A stuffed animal from her childhood days, ratty and worn, hides on the shelf of a piddling closet whose doors no longer run on the track. Boxes of shoes line the closet floor. I peer inside, finding every last one of the pairs to be sensible and boring: flats, loafers, sneakers.
Absolutely nothing with heels.
Absolutely nothing in a color other than black or white or brown.
And a note.
A note tucked there on top of the IKEA desk, in the stash of paper beneath the occupational therapy textbook, among a cell phone bill and a homework assignment.
A note, unsent and folded in thirds as if she was on the verge of sticking it in an envelope and placing it in the mail, but then got sidetracked.
I put the cap back on the water; I pick up the pens. How was it that I never realized Esther was such a slob? I muse over the thought: What else don’t I know about my roomie?
And then I read the note because, of course, how could I not read the note? It’s a note, which is all sorts of stalker-ish. It’s typed—which is such an anal-retentive Saint Esther thing to do—and signed All my love, with an E and a V. All my love, EV. Esther Vaughan.
And that’s when it hits me: maybe Saint Esther isn’t such a saint, after all.
Stuck in traffic on July 4th weekend somewhere north of San Francisco, I remarked to my travel companion how the rolling hills — the same that are sometimes rendered on the front covers of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath — looked dry, indeed crispy, as if they could set fire at any minute. Later this summer, new municipal restrictions on the number of times per week residents of the East Bay can water their gardens supposedly went into effect, and everyone was arguing about almonds and beef on the internet. My tomato plants were still producing fruit in the dog days of late September, their flesh splitting in the sun. Many agricultural operations in the Central Valley have folded. Many jobs have been lost. All of the shelters from here to Sacramento are full. It doesn’t feel to me like a crisis all the time, but.
When I first caught wind of the apocalyptic proclamation that the state’s water supply was going to run out within the year, I wrote it off as alarmist clickbait. We’re definitely in trouble, just not in this (my) lifetime. I’m just not that kind of environmentalist, I can’t be — paranoid ranting offends my cultural sensibilities.
This was the summer that the Valley Fire burned through Lake County in Northern California and destroyed more than 1,200 homes, making it the third most destructive wildfire in California history. The local news zoomed in on Harbin Hot Springs, a popular spot to soak in sacred waters and connect with the earth and/or other cosmic energies. The footage from after the fire is surreal: a gathering place for those who use phrases like “gathering place” in their daily lives covered in soot, toothpick tree trunks spearing a dense sky overlooking grounds that used to feel like an out-of-time paradise. Governor Jerry Brown says the Valley Fire happened because of climate change etc., and the people are happy that an important politician is connecting the dots. “This is the future,” he says.
And then a lake up north disappeared, drained like a bathtub, leaving thousands of fish dead on ground that won’t stay wet for long, not in this heat. Local fishermen are very upset — the fish could’ve been relocated! Pacific Gas and Electric, which owns the rights to the water, has yet to provide an explanation. It must smell horrible there.
I am almost 26 and precariously employed and not from here. Thinking about this stuff in earnest adds a layer of complication that I don’t feel quite ready for. Ready or not, Gold Fame Citrus landed in my lap, and asked me to more seriously consider what future world these mini-apocalypses might be leading us towards, providing harrowing visions of the California dream rotting in the scorching sun. As terrifying as it is entertaining, it speaks to the part of me that sees a drained lake as more than a localized crisis affecting only a handful of fish, and wonders about the texture and shape of the greater crisis that an event like this portends.
Claire Vaye Watkins situates California’s familiar tropes, mythologies, characters, and subcultures in a bleak dystopian setting, luxurious in detail and bold in scope, a California that’s been given up on and let loose. Long drained of water, its people are incidentally surviving in the chaos that’s mounted in its absence. In the years between our present and when the events of Gold Fame Citrus take place, the country has endured a civil war that must have been accelerated if not caused by a great paucity of natural resources (principally water). There are still militiamen guarding the border with Oregon, and Californians have been relegated to second class citizenship, referred to as ‘Mojavs’ and treated the way America treats all the refugees that it creates, which is to say poorly.
Back when the government gave a fuck about California and its people, or at least were still pretending, they assigned a poster child to their lie of a campaign to forestall the consequences of the drought. She was christened Baby Dunn, the product of a depressive Chicana woman who wouldn’t stick around for long and a white, deeply gynophobic pastor/salesman. Baby Dunn was one kind of authentic Californian: mixed race, middle class, destined for a weirdly spiritual upbringing. Her experiences growing up in a changing California were used as the yardstick with which the general public measured the material human consequences of drought and climate change; her face conjured to compel the general populous to rally behind efforts to halt the ruination of the Golden State. Baby Dunn was the reason behind the desalinization plants (that apparently never became fully operational), the reason for people like you and me to join forces with the powers that be in a mission to reverse the drought and preserve California’s abundance:
Baby Dunn, born with a golden shovel in her hand, adopted and co-opted by conservation and its enemies, her milestones announced in press releases, her life literal and symbolic the stuff of headlines, her baby book lousy with newspaper clippings: GOVERNOR SIGNS HSB 4579; EVERY SWIMMING POOL IN CALIFORNIA TO BE DRAINED BEFORE BABY DUNN IS OLD ENOUGH TO TAKE SWIMMING LESSONS. BABY DUNN STARTS KINDERGARTEN TODAY WITHOUT GREEN FIELDS TO PLAY IN. LAST CENTRAL VALLEY FARM SUCCUMBS TO SALT: BABY DUNN, 18, NEVER AGAIN TO TASTE CALIFORNIA PRODUCE. BERKELEY HYDROLOGISTS: WITHOUT EVACS BABY DUNN WILL DIE OF THIRST BY 24.
Baby Dunn would grow up in and then eventually out of the public eye into Luz, the protagonist of Gold Fame Citrus. When we meet her, she’s squatting with her boyfriend, Ray, in a formerly desirable area in LA in a tasteful modernist estate that used to be occupied by a starlet with a great wardrobe, a lackluster modeling/acting career already behind her. Luz’s compatriots, those LA’s dominant industries left behind and others who didn’t make it on the crowded eastbound buses, drift in and out of the palatial abodes of those who had a place to go when the drought and the heat chased them out. LA has become a ruinous, desertified hellscape populated by mostly crooked and inert zombie-like humans who are half-heartedly piecing together their own survival and not much else. Luz and Ray have recently extricated themselves from a community of cynical looters who sit in their Santa Monica garden apartment talking about the drought as a purifying force, cleansing the city of the owning and exploiting classes and anyone else who can’t hack the conditions. In their eyes, the only way to conquer destruction, or merely not to let it conquer you, is to get in bed with it, encouraging it along. This cast of Californians is caught in a nightmare of drought and ruin, trapped between the Pacific Ocean and a sea of sand and salt.
Luz and Ray head down from Laurel Canyon with “ration cola” and some sort of salty moonshine to Venice Beach for a rain dance, a crusty, druggy network of drum circles and fires. A black market has taken shape in the canals, as sellers hustle such delicacies as “hard sour strawberries and blackberries filled with dust. Flaccid carrots, ashen spinach, cracked olives, bruised hundred-dollar mangos, all-pith oranges, shriveled lemons, boozy tangerines, raspberries with gassed aphids curled in their hearts, an avocado whose crumbling taupe innards once made you weep.” After buying a can of slimy blueberries that ends up costing them over $100, Luz and Ray reemerge from canals and come face to face with a toddler, a rare sight in this undernourished LA. When they see the neglectful, possibly abusive junkies that she wanders back to they decide, drunkenly, to bring her back with them.
After the rescue/kidnap of the child who comes to be known as Ig, everything changes. Formerly a couple, Luz and Ray are now part of a family. They quickly internalize the weight of their new responsibilities as they come to grips with the reality that small children can’t survive on their own, and they also can’t survive the way Luz and Ray have been surviving. There is no longer time to try on ostentatious getups from the starlet’s wardrobe or reread biographies of John Muir and Sacagawea. They are no longer living their lives just to pass the days — there are coffee table corners to baby-proof, diapers to improvise out of the starlet’s supply of Hermes scarves and maxi pads.
Here was one worry: Ig. She was worry pooping into an Hermes scarf, worry with skittering coin eyes, worry moaning in the daytime, worry panting at the heat, worry howling through the night. Worry strung out on ration cola, worry with its bulbed head on Luz’s lap. Worry drowsy but fighting it, always fighting it, worry worrying the gauze blooming from her mouth. Worry gathering all other worries to them. But Ig was too delicate to resent, too pearly-skinned to solve, and right now, stroking the tip of her nose with the tip of the nine, vastly too gentle, so much like a godsend.
It’s clear, very early on, that they need a way out. The scope of Luz and Ray’s dreaming is widened by the strange small human under their care, and when they think alternatives to their life in LA, they think dewy forests in the Pacific Northwest or middle American domestic bliss in some place like Wisconsin. They’ve got a car, and they call on their estranged friends to help them pull together the resources they need — food, water, gas, and a vague sense of direction. People don’t just cross the Amargosa, the massive “dune sea” spanning thousands of miles that erased most of California, named for the first (and not the last) mountain range it interred. Navigation is nearly impossible as “Partial maps of one face or another are etched almost immediately to obsolescence by the ever-shifting sands.” Nevertheless, Luz, Ray, and Ig set out on their journey eastward, away from California.
The setting of Gold Fame Citrus is bleak and the plot progresses only from dark to darker. However, Claire Vaye Watkins manages to continually stoke the reader’s sense of wonder with an abundance of imaginative description. She delivers a deluge of rich, peculiar, sensory information at a rapid pace with her inventive, surprising prose. The details that make up this dystopic future-world are concentrated in voluminous lists, as here when Luz and Ray tear through Venice with Ig in tow:
They weaved through the sacked backyards of the abandoned craftsmen, past their shredded Burmese hammocks, drained koi ponds, groves of decorative bamboo gone to husks. Upended kilns, mosaics of pottery shards, slashed screens, slivers of smashed Turkish lamps lynched from what had once been a lemon tree, hummingbird feeders still half-filled with pink nectar, wire skeletons of dissolved paper lanterns, a splintering croquet mallet, terra-cotta pavers, disintegrating block walls, gutted cushions, a burnt-out miniature pagoda, a canoe filled with excrement and ancient newspaper.
It’s within these lists that the setting starts to feel believable as a mutation of the California we know and (try to) love, as quick glimpses of a recognizable world are tweaked, the author builds a bridge for the reader to be able to visualize a waterless world to come. We recognize the characters that populate this parched landscape — the wonky, druggy, dangerously charismatic cult leader, the former actress/model with frown lines and dead eyes at age 25, the surfer escapee of Midwestern origins who only stopped running away when he got to the edge of the continent, the hippie matron who begrudgingly endures the limiting and regressive gender dynamics of back-to-the-lander social traditionalism. We’ve seen them before but we’ve never, or perhaps haven’t yet, seen them quite like this. Gold Fame Citrus speculates on how the Californians of our cultural imaginary might react when water is taken out of the equation, as it inevitably will be if things continue as they are. It asks how the rest of the country might look Westward when “America’s Fertile Crescent”, the Central Valley, has turned to salt and all of Hollywood has gone back east.
Embedded within Gold Fame Citrus is a critique of the current efforts to halt the effects of global climate change and the overconsumption of natural resources. The scientists who came to fight the good fight (when people were still fighting) were “stalking tenure,” the journalists were byline hungry, governmental agencies were rendered ineffective by bureaucracy. Gold Fame Citrus doesn’t offer any recommendations for ways to fend off environmental catastrophe, or suggest different or better approaches. But in acknowledging some of the ways in which our current approach isn’t working, the novel impels the reader to seriously consider – to fully imagine – the possible consequences of climate change.
Prophecy lands differently when it comes in the form of a dazzlingly smart, brave, and nuanced novel, not from the lips of some wonky Facebook uncles, religious zealots, or out of touch academicians. Gold Fame Citrus sidesteps the question of “What are we gonna do?” to examine instead how the conditions of drought and climate change might transform a land and how that might, in turn, transform a people. The world is not ending, the world is changing, and it’s works like Gold Fame Citrus that can help us articulate literature’s place in the larger conversation.
This month literary icons bring in new work, Christmas comes early, and familiar faces from the big (and small) screen share their stories.
November offers a wide variety of reading just in time for holiday breaks, visits to family, and early nights in as the days get shorter. Fiction enthusiasts may be interested in debuts or any of the number of new works from returning authors (John Irving, Mary Gaitskill, Cecilia Ahern). For nonfiction, TV icons Rainn Wilson, Shonda Rhimes, and Mary-Louise Parker all have new memoirs available. In mystery, Gillian Flynn is back with a new short story collection, while Michael Connelly continues his Harry Bosch series. Sci-fi and fantasy readers can look forward to new work from Stephen King, Ilona Andrews, and Karen Chance, while romance enthusiasts can take their pick of contemporary (Samantha Young’s On Dublin Street series) or historical (new work from Courtney Milan and Elizabeth Hoyt). In new adult, Kristen Callihan continues her Game On series, and there’s also new work from sisters Krista and Becca Ritchie. Young adult has new series additions from Claudia Gray and Marissa Meyer, while highlights from middle grade include Anne Michaels’s charming The Adventures of Miss Petitfour with illustrations by Emma Block. Wherever your reading takes you this month, I hope it’s a fabulous journey.
New in: fiction
- Life and Other Near-Death Experiences by Camille Pagan (11/1)
- The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende (11/3)
- The Mare by Mary Gaitskill (11/3)
- The Word Game by Steena Holmes (11/3)
- Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving (11/3)
- The Bronte Plot by Katherine Reay (11/3)
- Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise by Oscar Hijuelos (11/3)
- The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro (11/3)
- Along the Infinite Sea by Beatriz Williams (11/3)
- White Collar Girl by Renee Rosen (11/3)
- The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild (11/3)
- The Marble Collector by Ceclia Ahern (11/5)
- The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya (11/10)
- The Light of Hidden Flowers by Jennifer Handford (11/10)
- A Wild Swan And Other Tales by Michael Cunningham (11/10)
New in: holiday stories
- Christmas at Carrington’s by Alexandra Brown (11/3)
- Heartsong Cottage by Emily March (11/3)
- Rest Ye Murdered Gentlemen by Vicki Delany (11/3)
- One Christmas Wish by Sara Richardson (11/3)
- Miss Featherton’s Christmas Prince by Ella Quinn (11/10)
- The Mistletoe Inn by Richard Paul Evans (11/17)
- A Cold Creek Christmas Story by RaeAnne Thayne (11/17)
- Away in a Manger by Rhys Bowen (11/17)
- Winter’s Fairytale by Maxine Morrey (11/16)
- It’s a Wonderful Tangled Christmas Carol by Emma Chase (11/30)
New in: nonfiction
- The Ice Cream Blonde by Michelle Morgan (11/1)
- The Only Street in Paris by Elaine Sciolino (11/2)
- Little Victories by Jason Gay (11/3)
- Black Dragon River by Dominic Ziegler (11/10)
- The Bassoon King by Rainn Wilson (11/10)
- Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes (11/10)
- Dear Mr. You by Mary-Louise Parker (11/10)
- Make ‘Em Laugh by Debbie Reynolds and Dorian Hannaway (11/10)
- 438 Days by Jonathan Franklin (11/17)
- The Brothers Vonnegut by Ginger Strand (11/17)
New in: mystery and suspense
- The Grownup by Gillian Flynn (11/3)
- The Secret Life of Anna Blanc by Jennifer Kincheloe (11/3)
- Crowned and Moldering by Kate Carlisle (11/3)
- No Good Deed by Allison Brennan (11/3)
- The Crossing by Michael Connelly (11/3)
- The Promise by Robert Crais (11/10)
- Home by Nightfall by Charles Finch (11/10)
- Tricky Twenty-Two by Janet Evanovich (11/17)
- The Guilty by David Baldacci (11/17)
- Cross Justice by James Patterson (11/23)
New in: science fiction and fantasy
- Reap the Wind by Karen Chance (11/3)
- The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King (11/3)
- Mystic by Jason Denzel (11/3)
- Black Wolves by Kate Elliott (11/3)
- Angel of Storms by Trudi Canavan (11/12)
- Sweep in Peace by Ilona Andrews (11/13)
- The Death of Dulgath by Michael J. Sullivan (11/15)
- Warheart by Terry Goodkind (11/17)
- The Vanishing Throne by Elizabeth May (11/19)
- Cast in Honor by Michelle Sagara (11/24)
New in: romance
- Hard Beat by K. Bromberg (11/3)
- One King’s Way by Samantha Young (11/3)
- Born of Betrayal by Sherrilyn Kenyon (11/3)
- Easy Melody by Kristen Proby (11/10)
- Reaper’s Fall by Joanna Wylde (11/10)
- Once Upon a Marquess by Courtney Milan (11/17)
- Sweetest Scoundrel by Elizabeth Hoyt (11/24)
- Denial by Lisa Renee Jones (11/24)
- Lone Star by Paullina Simons (11/24)
- Final Debt by Pepper Winters (11/30)
New in: new adult fiction
- Sweet Nothing by Jamie McGuire & Teresa Mummert (11/1)
- The Game Plan by Kristen Callihan (11/1)
- Untamed by S.C. Stephens (11/3)
- Cam Girl by Leah Raeder (11/3)
- November 9 by Colleen Hoover (11/10)
- When I Was Yours by Samantha Towle (11/10)
- More Than Enough by Jay McLean (11/16)
- Corrupt by Penelope Douglas (11/17)
- Long Way Down by Krista & Becca Ritchie (11/20)
- Endure by S.E. Hall (11/24)
New in: young adult fiction
- Ten Thousand Skies Above You by Claudia Gray (11/3)
- How to Be Brave by E. Katherine Kottaras (11/3)
- Need by Joelle Charbonneau (11/3)
- The Lies About Truth by Courtney C. Stevens (11/3)
- The Anatomical Shape of a Heart by Jenn Bennett (11/3)
- Winter by Marissa Meyer (11/10)
- Dangerous Lies by Becca Fitzpatrick (11/10)
- For the Record by Charlotte Huang (11/10)
- Soundless by Richelle Mead (11/10)
- Unforgiven by Lauren Kate (11/10)
- The Game of Lives by James Dashner (11/17)
New in: middle grade fiction
- The Adventures of Miss Petitfour by Anne Michaels (11/3)
- The Girl Who Could Not Dream by Sarah Beth Durst (11/3)
- My Diary from the Edge of the World by Jodi Lynn Anderson (11/3)
- How to Fight a Dragon’s Fury by Cressida Cowell (11/3)
- Neverseen by Shannon Messenger (11/3)
- The Wrinkled Crown by Anne Nesbet (11/10)
- Ninja Timmy by Henrik Tamm (11/10)
- A Bitter Magic by Roderick Townley (11/10)
- In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by Joseph Marshall (11/10)
- Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye by Tania del Rio (11/24)
By: Literary Inklings, Casee Marie
Poetic and expansive...and a reported $2 million book contract with a major publisher for this debut.
In this first novel set in the New York City of the late 1970s, a central artist character nails together a “four-by-four frame” and thinks “blame New York: he still had the conviction that American art should be Big.” City on Fire is big: 927 pages, a dozen substantial characters, numerous plots and subplots, all five boroughs represented, seven books and facsimile “interludes,” 94 chapters. And it has had big buildup: movie sale before publication, huge advance, pre-pub comparisons of Hallberg to world-class heavyweights.
A novelist in City on Fire has the Tristram Shandy problem: in the novelist’s “head, the book kept growing and growing in length and complexity, almost as if it had taken on the burden of supplanting real life, rather than evoking it. But how was it possible for a book to be as big as life? Such a book would have to allocate 30-odd pages for each hour spent living.” Regarding scale, Hallberg has mentioned his fondness for 19th-century triple-decker novels and for Bolaño’s 2666. He has eloquently defended DeLillo’s Underworld against James Wood. So I expect readers of Full Stop, especially those residing actually or notionally in NYC, will wonder if City on Fire is really “Big” like Underworld or other American novels of New York such as Gaddis’s J R or McElroy’s Women and Men or even Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge. Or if Hallberg’s novel is, in the famous words of Ed Sullivan, who hosted a TV variety program during the period the novel covers, a “really big show.”
At the core of City on Fire is a traditional dynastic plot: elderly plutocrat Stuart Hamilton-Sweeney owns a skyscraper with his name on it in Midtown. After the death of his wife, the gold-digger Felicia Gould and her crooked brother Amory worm their way into the failing patriarch’s firm and his family. The patriarch’s son William is a gay, drug-using, one-time punk musician, a painter and photographer who hasn’t spoken to his father or sister for years. In the present William is involved with a naïve African-American would-be novelist named Mercer Goodman just up from small-town Georgia. The patriarch’s daughter Regan, who does public relations for the firm, is married to money manager Keith Lamplighter, with whom she has two children. The Hamilton-Sweeney children’s lives cross at a squat in the Lower East Side, where William’s former band lives and where Keith begins an affair with a college-age groupie named Samantha. Will the Hamilton-Sweeney heirs accept responsibility and save the company from the Goulds and from an insider trading charge? And then can the building and family be saved from a bomb manufactured by the band that has, under the new leadership of Nietzsche-quoting Nicky Chaos, morphed into a radical anarchist group?
As an appetizer for the slow-cooking succession story, Hallberg early on introduces an attempted murder mystery when someone shoots Samantha in Central Park. Her weeks in a coma allow Hallberg to bring in her father, a fireworks contractor; her high school boyfriend from Long Island, Charlie Weisebarger; various misfits from the music and drug underworld; investigative journalist Richard Groskoph; his neighbor, the young gallery assistant Jenny Nguyen; and a crippled old police Inspector named Larry Pulaski. Eventually, the dynastic and murder plots come together and reach a literal cliff- (or skyscraper-) hanging climax on July 13, 1977, the night of the famous blackout.
The number of elements that Hallberg eventually unites is impressive, but City on Fire is essentially a traditional, even a formulaic work with a very long and high Freitag’s triangle. Compare the novel with one that Hallberg says he admires, Coover’s The Public Burning, which ends with Uncle Sam electrocuting the Rosenbergs in Times Square, and you will see the conventionality of City on Fire. Coover’s novel was an anthropological carnivalesque work with documentary features. Hallberg’s book presents itself as a sociological “documentary” with a moviesque ending. The interludes include handwritten pages by Stuart Hamilton-Sweeney, two typed sections of the journalist’s “Fireworkers” manuscript, too many illustrated pages of Samantha’s zine, a long letter from the patriarch’s grandson, and some photographs. The 96 short chapters usually focus on one or two characters and are heavily expository and narrative. As the stories move forward, the novel also moves backward with lengthy flashbacks to the earlier lives of the characters. They are sufficiently realistic (maybe too realistic, too familiar and recognizable) to support the documentary illusion, and the ‘70s mise en scene must have been heavily researched since Hallberg is only 39. But perhaps because his scale is so large, there is a paucity of dialogue and the drama it creates. In this regard, compare City on Fire with J R, which is almost all dialogue and trusts readers can follow complex relations without having their hands held by the author. J R seems more “documentary” — an oral history — than City on Fire, which is like an illustrated omniscient history. In his reviews and essays, Hallberg shows he knows modernist and postmodernist fiction, but in this novel’s plotting and character development, City on Fire could have been written by Dreiser had he lived long enough or Tom Wolfe had he damped down his style.
Hallberg’s “Note on Sources” mentions Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach and Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind. I was very surprised to find him crediting these two works that influenced my study of Big American novels of the 1970s and ‘80s entitled The Art of Excess. Surprised because the two works develop in great detail the importance of homology or analogy (form versus causality) as a means of creating conceptual systems and connecting disparate materials. Perhaps if I thought City on Fire mysterious enough to read again, I would find that Hallberg creates the kind of analogues that give, for example, Underworld, from its title onward, its original treatment of urban ecology, its inventive synecdoches and odd assemblages, crazed existential voices and potent abstractions. Hallberg knows DeLillo’s novel inside and out. But because Hallberg has chosen to commit himself to more accessible methods — old-fashioned character agency, plot causality, and documentary representation — City on Fire doesn’t provide a new and profound systemic understanding of the thick city that is its subject. Yes, Hallberg includes different meanings of fire — from fireworks in the sky to fire in the loins, from political arson to the fire of damnation — but for this kind of imagistic connectivity he didn’t need Hofstadter and Bateson — or DeLillo.
Given the number of pages Hallberg has written, it may be unfair to expect the kind of stylistic fire and variety we find in either McElroy’s Women and Men, which includes the voices of angels on high and of idiot savants on low city streets, or even the double-binding first-person banalities of Bob Slocum in Heller’s Something Happened. The sections of City on Fire that dip into the mind of Goodman the novelist are not so different stylistically from the sections about Regan the anxious mother or those that feature the teenage rebel Charlie. Different concerns, surely, but all expressed within a fairly narrow discursive range. McElroy and Heller, along with the other Big novelists of New York I’ve mentioned, felt, I believe, that the city as subject required some artistic deformation beyond mere supersizing — what I’ve called functional excess, formal and stylistic methods of defamiliarizing a place and people much depicted in every medium. Hallberg seems more interested in familiarizing his readers with the bad old days of New York City in the 1970s. Every year or two, the Times publishes a story about a person who has walked every street of Manhattan. In his prose, Hallberg is like that pedestrian until the final 120 pages when the blackout causes the pace to pick up and the style to rev up.
In 2011 I published an essay wondering why we didn’t have in the 21st century a New York novel that equaled those earlier works I’ve mentioned. The closest candidate was Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. Since then Pynchon has released Bleeding Edge, but it was a long, sappy entertainment, no Gravity’s Rainbow of the Big Apple. The last few years have seen some ambitious and excellent novels set in New York — Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life, Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World — but none combine the comprehensive vision and artistic originality of the late 20th century works. So I was hoping for big things from City on Fire. It is certainly large and seems to this recent arrival in the city widely informed, but it’s that third dimension — depth — that I didn’t find. The novel has an ambitious (if ineffectual) novelist and an experimental artist, but the character who most closely approximates the sensibility of the author is a journalist.
City on Fire has numerous literary allusions and metafictional pointers, a reference to the Great American Novel, several mentions of that Great American Poet Whitman. The walls of the artist William’s studio represent the fiction that describes them. The walls are “covered in signs, the kind you saw on subway platforms, or taped to the bulletproof glass of a bodega. Something was slightly off about them . . . A stop-sign was skewed, its angles foreshortened. An Uncle Sam recruiting poster was taller than she [Jenny] was and missing an eye.” Observing this trompe l’oeil work, the gallerist Jenny “couldn’t tell if it was good, exactly, but no one could say it wasn’t ambitious.” The paintings are reminders, not inventions, facsimiles like the novel’s interludes. Hallberg’s characters and events are factsimiles.[sic] Like that part-time New York City resident Jonathan Franzen in Freedom and Purity, Hallberg offers reams of data about familiar people within a slightly fractured but eventually closed form. Unlike Franzen, Hallberg has at least attempted the Great New York Novel — “no one could say it wasn’t ambitious” — but Hallberg has placed too much trust in the throw-weight of his subject and his pages, so the “great” is less qualitative than quantitative, as in the phrase “the greater New York area.” A devotee of Excess, I’ve never used the phrase “less is more.” But fewer characters and plots might have given City on Fire more of the metaphoric density of The Flamethrowers or the emotional intensity of Preparation for the Next Life or the meta-artistic insight of The Blazing World. Now, take those three medium-length novels and jam them together, and you’d have a new Big Book of New York.
I recently married someone. We drove to Vegas to get married. This is to say, we drove together through the desert.
We drove together through the desert to a city filled with neon signs, designed to distract from the fact that on all sides, the city’s surrounded by emptiness.
We drove together through the desert, and we got into an argument. I don’t remember what started it, but I remember driving down the strip at 1am, me squinting and crying, him slamming his fist on the wheel.
I looked at him and thought, how did this even start? He looked at me and said something that made the fight feel finished.
I felt an overwhelming warmth. I thought, this is the man that I love and the man I am going to marry. We’re staying together through strangeness, and that is what matters.
I also felt an overwhelming corresponding chill. I thought, he could have left me. I too could have left, in a burst of adrenaline.
We could have left each other standing in each other’s emptiness. Instead, we stayed together in the desert.
Every marriage is built of moments where two people stayed, but could have left. And all the moments in between. And all the emptiness between them.
James Tadd Adcox’s novel Does Not Love is a beautiful compendium of these moments within the fictional marriage of Robert and Viola. It is a study of ways that the couple makes meaning—and, trying and failing—attempts to make something. Appropriately, Adcox sets the novel within an alternate reality Indianapolis—a city which, to me, has always felt like something akin to a giant parking lot. Robert and Viola live in a blank space where people put new things. I feel that Does Not Love is about their unease with this space, and what they do to live with that unease.
Does Not Love analyzes this uneasy landscape in a tone that is—in many ways—redolent of Don Delillo’s White Noise. Just as White Noise describes an unfolding relationship drama against the background of a more literal “airborne toxic disaster,” Does Not Love is—in Adcox’s own words—“a domestic novel about domestic terrorism.” The imagined fears of Robert and Viola commingle with the worldly terrors of gun violence, secret service interrogations, and inhumane pharmaceutical drug tests.
In some ways, Does Not Love also reminds me of Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays. Play It As It Lays tells the story of a woman who grows apart from her husband and retreats deeper and deeper into that dreaded blank space. In Didion’s novel, that space is represented by the Mojave Desert. In Adcox’s novel, that space is Indianapolis—a different kind of desert.
Incidentally, Play It As It Lays and Does Not Love were the two books I brought with me to my desert wedding. Driving around Vegas, thinking about all the emptiness around and within me, I thought, “James Tadd Adcox gets this.”
Adcox is certainly very good at “getting” the emptiness of arguments. The novel begins with an argument that sounds terribly familiar to me. The couple is coming out of the doctor after Viola has experienced her third miscarriage, and there is a letting of frustration that means both everything and nothing:
“I don’t have diabetes,” Viola says. “I don’t have heart disease, or kidney disease, or high blood pressure or lupus. My uterus contains neither too much nor too little amniotic acid. I don’t have an imbalance of my progesterone nor a so-called incompetent cervix. I have had ultrasounds and sonograms and hysteroscopys and hysterosalpinsographys and pelvic exams. I have eaten healthy. I have exercised. I have refrained from tobacco and alcohol and caffeine. I have taken folic acid and aspirin and—” Viola starts crying, standing in the parking lot.
“You’ve done everything exactly right,” Robert says.
“I know that,” Viola says, “That is what I am trying to tell you.”
I re-read this opening passage a few times after my argument on the strip. I thought, “An argument is just a place to put things.” Sometimes the things can be matched up, arranged, compartmentalized. But often, there’s just too much there, and it doesn’t fit into the spaces your words make. No amount of aspirin or exercise will prevent Viola’s body from “spontaneously aborting” her pregnancies. No sonogram can reveal what their bodies contain that is acting against them.
Does Not Love adeptly examines the home as a metaphorical body of marital desires—the locus of all that is broken, mismatched, or in need of “renovation.” Post-miscarriage, Viola stares at the blinds and wonders why they don’t match the room. During sex, Robert thinks about all of the fixtures he wishes to buy to “remodel” the house. The couple visits the Indianapolis Museum to view an exhibition of miniature rooms and expresses awe that “someone had to make all this.”
Through each of the rooms windows are miniature bushes, trees, gardens. The windows have been designed so that one can imagine the scene going on and on into the world outside the windows, so that the viewer can’t quite see where it all stops.
The couple’s awe for these spaces—and yearning to fix them—is shadowed with feelings of dread. They realize that at some point, these worlds constructed by humans “just stop.”
“‘It might stop,” Viola says. “We have no assurance whatsoever that it won’t.”
“How from here you can see trees and beyond them, cars, but somewhere beyond all of that, just beyond where you can see it might just, you know. Stop.”
Adcox understands that the couple’s fear does not end where it “stops,” however.Does Not Love elegantly insinuates the paradox of this fear: That it doesn’t just stop, that there’s also something unnameable that just keeps going. Adcox describes a scene wherein Robert—attempting to perform a “home renovation” on his bathroom—instead opens a hole in the wall. He walks into the hole to find “he feels empty.”
“If I keep walking, will I find anything?” he says.
“No,” says the emptiness. “This is the space in every house reserved for emptiness. This is a space that cannot be filled.”
“Once I patch up the wall, this space will continue to exist,” Robert says.
“Correct,” says the emptiness.
“And this is the space that also consumes all our efforts to fix things, to make them right.”
This is the point where, when reading this novel, I put the book down, and said, “Fuck.”
Does Not Love is also a wonderfully nuanced examination of the violence in a marriage (and by violence, I mean sociolinguistic epistemic violence as much as literal, physical violence.) But the book discusses that, too. Viola wants Robert to engage her in more violent sexual play after her miscarriage, which leads to the conundrum of hurting someone you love even if it’s what they really want. Robert tries to wrap his head around this conundrum by re-watching an instructional DVD on rough sex over and over again while he takes notes.
Viola comes home to find Robert in his office, watching the instructional DVD on rough sex. “If I’m being one hundred percent honest, I don’t understand why you would want this,” Robert says to Viola.
“You mean, what’s wrong with me?” Viola asks.
“I didn’t say that.” Robert follows Viola out of the office and into the kitchen, where Viola starts putting away dishes a little too quietly. “Could you try to understand why this is difficult for me? People don’t naturally wish themselves harm.”
Viola keeps putting away the dishes. Robert sits at the kitchen table. He is suddenly very tired.
“There’s a difference between hurt and harm,” Viola says.
“Okay,” Robert says. “Which do you want?”
I tore up a previous marriage trying to answer both of these questions—both What is the difference between hurt and harm? and Which do you want? As I recall, when I made this the subject of marital arguments, I often said something akin to “I’ll know the difference when I see it.” I never saw it in that home, in that room, in the space of that argument, so I went searching for it elsewhere. This is what Viola does, too. She engages in an affair with an FBI agent who (at times) seems like an attempted human manifestation of the space reserved for emptiness.
The FBI agent handcuffs Viola’s hands behind the back of the chair. “Do you remember your safe word?” the FBI agent asks. Viola nods. The FBI agent slaps her. She cannot tell if he has an erection. She can barely see him, in fact, except as a shadowy figure just beyond the light.
“Do you love your husband?” the FBI agent asks.
“I think sometimes that I love him very much. At other times I am sure that I do not. The sureness of my not-loving him, at those times, seems to retroactively negate whatever love I once believed myself to hold, and I think to myself: I have never loved him, that it was a mistake, I was only wanting to love him.”
The FBI agent holds Viola down on the mattress by the throat. There is some fumbling with his fly. Viola thinks: I am not supposed to help him with his fly, I am being held down, I am “at his mercy.” The FBI agent spits on Viola and Viola closes her eyes in anticipation of being spat on again.
Even the FBI agent is too human to absorb Viola’s emptiness. Even Robert—upon learning how to “not feel anything” and thus fuck Viola the way she wants—thinks
What he wants, more than anything else in this moment, is for Viola to look up at him and smile.
What is wrong with me, he thinks, that I can have, from moment to moment, such disparate wants?
Adcox understands—and wonderfully conveys—the experience of this disparity: One’s shifting from moment to moment, attempting to form some collection of moments that feels like “love.”
Why do we need to be hurt (or harmed?) Why can’t we fix it? Why do we need to walk into these dark, fathomless spaces? Why do we need to try to think we love someone? Why do we write and read? Why do we build cities—and get married—in the fucking desert?
I don’t know. And Adcox doesn’t know. And I’m glad that he doesn’t.
But then again, I do. And he does. And I’m glad he does.
In the words of Does Not Love
And then there is a moment. Perhaps a week. Robert and Viola are happy.
Happiness comes unexpectedly while simply going through life, “[working] in the garden,” “[going] out to eat,” and “[making] extravagant plans for their future.” It is not something we can hold onto, except just to know that it’s there. And it’s real. And it’s beautiful. And maybe, it will come again.
Does Not Love
by James Tadd Adcox
Curbside Splendor Press, 2014
275 Pages / $14.95
A revered poet turns her pen on love, powerful female icons take to nonfiction, and the historical romance genre sees the return of a favorite author.
The ultimate season of reading is back – and here’s a portion of its fantastic new releases to prove it. There’s new fiction from Orhan Pamuk, Jane Smiley, Adriana Trigiani, and Colum McCann to look forward to, as well as a new Caitlin Strong mystery from Jon Land and a third Cormoran Strike novel from Robert Galbraith. The queen of the historical romance genre, Lisa Kleypas, is back after several years away from historicals with the first in a new series, and a few holiday stories are starting to make their appearances from the likes of Debbie Macomber (a must) and Joanne DeMaio. Rainbow Rowell is back with Carry On, something of a spinoff novel from her widely popular Fangirl, and Patti Smith has M Train, her highly-anticipated follow-up to her beloved Just Kids. For this month’s selection we've dedicated a section to short stories, essays, and poetry since there were so many titles we wanted to mention! Poetry enthusiasts can get ready for more Mary Oliver, Lang Leav, and Tyler Knott Gregson.
New in: fiction
- The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra (10/6)
- The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks (10/6)
- Pretending to Dance by Diane Chamberlain (10/6)
- The Clasp by Sloane Crosley (10/6)
- Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann (10/13)
- Upright Beasts by Lincoln Michel (10/13)
- The Tears of Dark Water by Corban Addison (10/13)
- All the Stars in the Heavens by Adriana Trigiani (10/13)
- City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg (10/13)
- Twain’s End by Lynn Cullen (10/13)
- Golden Age by Jane Smiley (10/20)
- A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk (10/20)
- The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray (10/20)
- The Hours Count by Jillian Cantor (10/20)
- Food Whore by Jessica Tom (10/27)
New in: short stories, essays & poetry
- Vertigo by Joanna Walsh (10/1)
- Mothers, Tell Your Daughters: Stories by Bonnie Jo Campbell (10/5)
- Memories by Lang Leav (10/6)
- Ghostly: A Collection of Ghost Stories introduced by Audrey Niffenegger (10/6)
- Felicity: Poems by Mary Oliver (10/13)
- Eyes: Novellas and Stories by William H. Gass (10/13)
- Mendocino Fire: Stories by Elizabeth Tallent (10/20)
- All the Words are Yours by Tyler Knott Gregson (10/20)
- The Early Stories of Truman Capote foreword by Hilton Als (10/27)
- The Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson (10/27)
New in: nonfiction
- M Train by Patti Smith (10/6)
- Humans of New York: Stories by Brandon Stanton (10/13)
- Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell (10/20)
- Do Unto Animals by Tracey Stewart (10/20)
- The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff (10/27)
- Wildflower by Drew Barrymore (10/27)
- Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein (10/27)
- The Outlandish Companion Vol. IIby Diana Gabaldon (10/27)
- Brand Luther by Andrew Pettegree (10/27)
- My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem (10/27)
New in: mystery and suspense
- The Survivor by Kyle Mills (10/6)
- Strong Light of Day by Jon Land (10/13)
- The Adventuress by Tasha Alexander (10/13)
- Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (10/20)
- Rogue Lawyer by John Grisham (10/20)
- The Lake House by Kate Morton (10/22)
- Playing with Fire by Tess Gerritsen (10/27)
- Corrupted by Lisa Scottoline (10/27)
- A Banquet of Consequences by Elizabeth George (10/27)
- Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante by Susan Elia MacNeal (10/27)
New in: science fiction and fantasy
- Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson (10/6)
- A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George R. R. Martin (10/6)
- Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suitsby David Wong (10/6)
- Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie (10/6)
- Brighter Than the Sun by Darynda Jones (10/6)
- Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor (10/20)
- Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente (10/20)
- After Alice by Gregory Maguire (10/27)
- Our Lady of the Ice by Cassandra Rose Clarke (10/27)
- Slade House by David Mitchell (10/27)
New in: young adult fiction
- Carry On by Rainbow Rowell (10/6)
- The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness (10/6)
- It’s a Wonderful Death by Sarah J. Schmitt (10/6)
- Dreamstrider by Lindsay Smith (10/6)
- A Step Toward Falling by Cammie McGovern (10/6)
- Ice Like Fire by Sara Raasch (10/13)
- First & Then by Emma Mills (10/13)
- The Masked Truth by Kelley Armstrong (10/13)
- Velvet Undercover by Teri Brown (10/20)
- What We Left Behind by Robin Talley (10/27)
New in: middle grade fiction
- Sword of Summer by Rick Riordan (10/6)
- The Nest by Kenneth Oppel (10/6)
- A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic by Lisa Papademetriou (10/6)
- Spinning Starlight by R.C. Lewis (10/6)
- Beyond the Laughing Sky by Michelle Cuevas (10/2)
- The Odds of Getting Even by Sheila Turnage (10/6)
- The Toymaker’s Apprentice by Sherri L. Smith (10/13)
- SandRider by Angie Sage (10/13)
- A Sliver of Stardust by Marissa Burt (10/20)
- The Peddler’s Road by Matthew Cody (10/27)
By: Literary Inklings, Casee Marie