By Richard Derus (ExpendableMudge)
Richard Derus talks up 5 stunning novels that he’s thankful were published this year.
It’s the Turkey Holocaust again! I love everything about this meal, except the turkey — No fan of dinosaur meat, me — and the family. Stuffing, brussels sprouts, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie: all those are a go for my dinner plate. My solitary-except-for-a-book dinner plate.
Almost 49 million US residents are expected to travel for the Thanksgiving holiday this year, and the bulk will do so by car. The image of a traffic jam that concept brings to my mind is painful to contemplate. If you’re going to be among the millions traveling by car, plane, boat, train, or any means except astral projection, the exhortation to take a book is likely to be redundant. What might be less obvious is what book to take. Heck fire, buckaroos, I got your back! The world of fiction is, I think we can take it as read, a better place to escape from stress than say the world of science or the narcissism of memoir. Aunt Patsy will supply that dollop of drama, right? And Grandpa Walt will mansplain how climate change isn’t humanity’s fault, so there’s the science …
But on to what will refresh and repair your innards before, during, and after the mega-meal! A blend of “whew, not me!” and “wow, why not me?” novels published this most interesting year deserve to accompany you as you travel.
Margaret the First, by small-press publisher Danielle Dutton, was my six-stars-of-five read for 2016. Every year there is a book that, for whatever alchemical reason, hits my cynical and embittered emotional core with a dose of softener.
Off come her skirts and petticoats, her lace cuffs and collar, her shoes and whalebone stay, until she lies on her side in nothing but a cotton shift and endless strands of pearls. Dust hangs in a crack of light between red velvet drapes, like stars.
Her dreams are glimpses, bewildered — celestial charts, oceanic swells, massive, moving bodies of water, the heavens as heavenly liquid, familiar whirlpools, the universe as a ship lost at sea — but the ship she imagines arrived safely, years ago, loaded with their possessions.
Margaret Cavendish, dead these 350 years, has new life at Dutton’s calm, brightly colored hands. I think she’d be delighted, tabloid celebrity that she was. A woman writing books which she publishes under her own name — and with her husband’s proud and hearty approval! — was very similar to a unicorn in that time. In telling the tale of a unique woman and her world, Dutton does more than bring a moment of historical interest to life. She meditates on the ability and aptitude of women to make the world their own despite opposition, opprobrium, and derision. It takes a deftness of pen that is all too rare to do this without turning the pages into stodgy, indigestible glop. Thankfully, Danielle Dutton (publisher of other women’s books at Dorothy, a publishing project) possesses that pen.
Eleven Hours, by Pamela Erens, takes the reader on the difficult and painful journey that is childbirth. There’s a reason they call it labor, men.
Lore is a single mother, daughter of a single mother, and a scrappy survivor of an unenviable life … if you’re outside looking down, that is. What Lore is to herself, inside herself, is a woman making her life among strangers who are more or less well-disposed to her, if fundamentally indifferent and/or unreachable by her. It isn’t that she feels anger at the upper-class snobs who took her up on her arrival in Manhattan, even though they dropped her in the middle of a seething cauldron of emotions she has no contact with and no reason to know anything about. It’s that she is humiliated by the readiness she felt to trust, even to love, the tortured betrayers of her undernourished spirit. It took her becoming pregnant by Asa, her first friend in Manhattan’s one true love, to bring Julia’s double-dealing with Lore to light. That it wasn’t, so Julia and Asa protest, personal makes the reader’s hackles rise in outraged empathy.
How naive Lore had been, despite being the daughter of a father no one spoke of, despite the strange, incomplete conversations at her mother’s deathbed; how again and again she was caught up short by the discovery that other people had stories they didn’t tell, or told stories that weren’t entirely true. How mostly you got odd chunks torn from the whole, impossible truly to understand in their damaged form.
But here Lore is, in the midst of one of the most astounding acts imaginable, and without support. The heart bleeds! Unnecessarily, as it turns out. There is Franckline, the Haitian delivery nurse, pregnant herself but not any more sanguine about the whole idea than Lore is despite having a loving, accepting husband as the father. Her private pain surrounding motherhood goes back a long way, just like Lore’s does.
Her mother’s quiet disapproval and withdrawal was a death in itself, and Franckline’s despair at it was transmitted, she was sure of it, to the child. She transgressed twice, first by making the child, then by giving it her despair, the despair that left it unable to live.
It is the temporary, enforced partnership of these damaged and indomitable women that makes a new life seem like a good idea, not simply the end of a biological process and ultimately a burden. The hard work of birthing is followed by the damned-near-impossible task of parenting. And somehow, Pamela Erens makes that seem like a survivable job, instead of a dreadful and unending sentence. Amazing, impressive feat.
For me, however, I’m just darned good and grateful I’m not a woman, five-star prose and storytelling be hanged.
The Atomic Weight of Love, by Elizabeth Church, is my five-star choice for the one feminist novel that men of all types, sorts, ages, stations, and marital statuses must read.
Meridian Wallace Whetstone was born into a loving home. She was a late-life only child born to parents long settled into a relationship of quiet contentment. Her father is in love with learning and expects his daughter to emulate him. Her mother is a quiet, self-effacing tower of humble strength who, upon losing her husband too soon, works herself to exhaustion in order to provide for her daughter’s basic needs as well as to fund her daughter’s future by sending her to college.
It is while in Chicago during wartime that Meridian meets Alden Whetstone, an older worldly man and a giant in Meridian’s eyes. She falls hard, loses her virginity and her common sense at the same time, and puts her entire life on hold while Alden, a physicist, makes the world safe for democracy by helping create the atomic bomb.
As the years trot by, Meridian experiences many of life’s milestones at an emotional remove dictated by her arid marriage to a rigid and uncommunicative man. Her self-summation made me laugh, wince, and tear up:
Take one Naive Girl. Bring to room temperature in the Big City. Add three cups Academia. Sift in one cup Encouragement. Fold in two drops Love. Sprinkle with one teaspoon Adoration. Mix thoroughly. Spoon carefully into greased Pan of Matrimony. Bake in Desert Heat for 25 years. Test doneness with Careless Toothpick. Let cool on Wire Rack of Inertia. Serve with generous dollops of Benign Neglect.
Easily my favorite thing about Church’s story is the author’s wry way with words. Late in Meridian’s marriage, she finds love with the perfect stranger. He just happens to be young enough to be her son. He is also an environmentalist, and she is the wife of an atomic-bomb-maker. That is, I think, the least of their cultural divides.
Next to his stove lurked a bowl containing an ominous dark brown liquid and pale, beige cubes of some unidentifiable matter.
“This is dinner?”
“Tofu. I’m marinating it in soy sauce.”
“Tofu. It’s bean curd, or coagulated soy milk.”
“You can’t afford meat? I could have brought some steak or chicken.”
“I’m a vegetarian, Meridian. I don’t eat meat.”
I stood there, flummoxed. Now I was involved with a vegetarian hippie.
And that, my friends, is a lovely piece of multifaceted storytelling. Her insular worldview cracking open. His innocent indifference to the yawning chasm between them. Their mutual misapprehension of the other’s social code. Topped with a wry twisty little smile.
It’s the ending, though, that places this book on my grateful-it-was-published list. I won’t spoiler it. I will say that, when (not if, never if) you read the novel, set aside any initial misgivings about pace or character likability and let the events unfold as Author Church has arranged them. She will reward you handsomely with an ending to match her ambitions.
The Good Divide, by Kali VanBaale, tells the tough life story of a 1960s Midwestern farm wife. Jean isn’t raised with much or given anything much resembling love or kindness. Her father’s a ne’er-do-well whose many and various failures and failings led her a merry dance among the small towns where he could find some land to rent, then to mismanage into bankruptcy and ruin.
When she comes to meet Tommy, an exciting young cad with a welcoming family, Jean is lost. Her pain at never having Tommy’s love is something she buries in marriage to his brother, Jim, and in making a family for them both.
I was heartbroken at least a half dozen times, furious almost all the time, and ended the read with a gusty sigh for the many, many ways people hurt themselves and each other in the service of love. The book’s main point — that it is the Marthas of the world who suffer for their love, silently and passionately — is one I’ve got a very soft spot for. Women who give their all, receive little in return, and internalize their pain as completely as they can in order to get up the next morning and do it all again, are far more numerous than men or even their flashier sisters want to acknowledge.
Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was, by Sjón and translated by Victoria Cribb, gives Iceland a middle-distance past as World War I and Danish colonial rule end. Máni Steinn, Moonstone, is a young gay man in a society that has limited tolerance for suchlike goings on. He’s got no family and he’s got no roots because of it. Iceland is now, and certainly was then, a very tradition-oriented society, highly literate, highly interconnected. It’s a place where no one has what we in the U.S. think of as a last name. Your father’s or mother’s name is given the suffix -son or -dottir to identify you in the gene pool. So Moonstone’s rootless position is both liberating — He expresses his sexual nature instead of hiding it as would be expected of other males — and alienating, giving him no protection against the power of others to determine his fate.
This story is a joy to read; Sjón is a welcome addition to my pantheon of superb writers, and his translator, Victoria Cribb, earns my slack-jawed admiration for her sterling craftsmanship and fearless honesty in searching out the exact, precise word that conveys the very shade of meaning one can sense was there in the original; and last but far from least, Farrar, Straus and Giroux gets a prolonged standing ovation for making this joyous discovery possible for the US audience.
RICHARD DERUS (a.k.a. ExpendableMudge on Twitter) is a biblioholic, a tsundoku carrier, and a passionate reader. From underneath his tottering towers of unread tomes, he blogs obsessively about his darlings at Expendable Mudge Muses Aloud, where many otherwise unknown books are praised, panned, or poked fun at; The Oak Wheel, where he blogs enthusiastically about short story collections; The Small Press Book Review; Shelf Inflicted, where he was a founding blogger; and wherever else he can find editors who need content, as long as it’s about books.