Book chat

Mountain laurel

Today I started reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead. I’ve been wanting to read the book since it was published last year, but since it is loosely based on Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, I wanted to re-read that novel first.

Most of the reviews of Demon Copperhead insist you don’t have to have read Dickens’ novel to appreciate Kingsolver’s coming-of-age story of an impoverished Appalachian boy. But since I had read David Copperfield in high school, I wanted to refresh my admittedly fuzzy memories of the story.

All I’d remembered about David Copperfield was the character of David himself, the slimy villainy of Uriah Heep, and the financial disasters of Mr. Micawber. I’d forgotten all the other characters as well as the particulars of David’s rise from poverty to respectability.

It took me three months (!!!) to listen to an audio version of David Copperfield. Dickens’ novel was originally published in serial format, so listening to the story in small bits here and there felt fitting. Since the novel recounts David’s childhood and coming-of-age, there isn’t a single narrative arc: instead, each chapter describes an episode in the boy’s maturation. This makes the book perfect for slow, occasional reading.

Since Dickens’ David Copperfield is fresh in my mind, I’m enjoying the allusions Kingsolver weaves into Demon Copperhead. Since I know how Copperfield’s story ends, I can imagine where Copperhead’s story will eventually go…but Kingsolver’s retelling of a story from Victorian England to modern Appalachia provides enough novelty to make every episode fresh. I’m looking forward to turning every new page.

Quiet contemplation

Last night I started re-reading Judy Blume’s Deenie. When I turned 50, I bought myself box sets of books I’d enjoyed as a child with the intention of re-visiting them as an adult. Although I have re-read Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time trilogy, I haven’t yet revisited the Walter Farley, Laura Ingalls Wilder, or Marguerite Henry books I bought myself. Like a well-stocked wine cellar, my brimming bookshelves are full of pleasures I intend to savor someday, eventually.

This summer, I’ve decided, is time to revisit Judy Blume. I reread Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret in advance of seeing the movie adaptation several weeks ago, so now is the perfect time to reread the other books in her box set.

One of the humbling aspects of re-reading childhood favorites as an adult is realizing how much you’ve forgotten. When I started re-reading Deenie last night, I realized I’d entirely forgotten the tension between Deenie and her mother, who wants her to become a model. All I remembered about the book was that Deenie is diagnosed with scoliosis and has to wear a back brace to straighten her curved spine.

It’s not surprising I’d remember that detail, since I was diagnosed with a mild case of scoliosis before reading the book. Although I never had to wear a brace or undergo any kind of treatment, I was amazed to encounter a book that spoke frankly about a condition I’d never heard of until I was diagnosed with it.

As I’m starting to re-read Deenie, I’m realizing a lesson that was too profound for my adolescent self. Sometimes life, like a malformed spine, curves in ways you hadn’t anticipated. When multiple modeling scouts mention Deenie’s poor posture, she and her mother have no idea there is a medical reason for her slouch. The first time I read the book, I fixated on the back brace Deenie had to wear; I didn’t realize then there are other ways life can curve in surprising ways.

Time to Bloom

Last night I finished re-reading Judy Blume’s classic coming-of-age novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret in advance of (eventually) seeing the new movie adaptation. Although Blume’s book is tame by modern standards, it was a pivotal part of my adolescence: a book that talked out loud about the things girls like me were thinking.

I’d expected to be disappointed by the book, given how nostalgia can shift your perspective: surely a book that seemed epic when I was an adolescent wouldn’t have the same power today. Instead, I was thoroughly charmed. Re-reading Are You There God? made me remember how much I resonated with eleven-year-old Margaret Simon even though on the surface, our lives were very different.

Unlike Margaret, I wasn’t eager to start my period; instead of seeing menstruation as an exciting rite of passage, my adolescent self accurately predicted that getting your period would be a nuisance. Like Margaret, I was eager to start wearing a bra, but not because I belonged to a secret club where wearing a bra was a requirement for membership. Instead, wearing a bra made my middle-school self feel a little less awkward during gym class, where everyone could see what was (or wasn’t) under your clothes when you changed.

Re-reading Are You There God? reminded me that what I resonated with most in Margaret’s story was her spiritual struggle. Judy Blume gained my trust by talking about bras and boys and periods–the things I was too ashamed to mention out loud–and she used that trust to talk about another taboo topic, religion. Margaret isn’t “just” struggling with puberty; she’s also struggling with faith. As a girl raised without religion by a Christian mother and Jewish father, Margaret is trying to figure out where she fits as a girl who prays to God as comfortably as she interacts with her beloved grandmother.

Unlike Margaret, I never had to question what faith I belonged to: my upbringing was entirely Catholic. But like Margaret, I was unmoved by church services, and I often wondered whether God was really listening to the prayers I spontaneously said every night. Then and now, I resonate with Margaret’s claim that she feels God’s presence most strongly when she is alone, and I admire her child-like faith in an entity she can (and does) talk to about anything.

Modern readers accustomed to children’s and young adult titles that explore Deep Topics rightly note that Margaret doesn’t grapple with any pressing social issues: she doesn’t pray for world peace, nor does she beg God to save the planet. A girl growing up in an intact family in a middle-class suburb, Margaret doesn’t have to worry about crime, poverty, or other social ills. Her concerns are entirely self-absorbed and small in the larger scheme of things. Margaret frets that she’s slow to develop, and she worries about boys and her first kiss…but she doesn’t have to worry about coming out as gay or trans, and when she does confide in her mother about her concerns, her mother is supportive.

But even though Margaret’s worries are small potatoes, one lesson of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is this: God cares about small potatoes. Margaret talks to God about both her developing body and her religious questions. She reminds readers of all ages that there is no real distinction between spiritual concerns and “merely” bodily ones. God is there to hear them all.

Noh masks

I recently read Ruth Ozeki’s The Face: A Time Code, a slender volume written in response to an unlikely prompt: spend three hours contemplating your face in a mirror and explore what arises.

The thoughts that arise when a woman of a certain age considers her face are surprisingly deep. Initially, Ozeki’s observations are as superficial as you’d expect. Ozeki discovers she likes one eye more than the other, for example, and she notes the resemblances between her face and the faces of her white father and Japanese mother.

But if you spend three hours looking at a thing, you’ll eventually be forced to look more deeply. Ozeki notes the way faces are linked to identity: they are the public image we present to the world. Faces are like names: they are how we self-identify and how people judge us, for better or worse. Ozeki was born Ruth Lounsbury but took a pseudonym after her father asked her not to write about his family. A pseudonym is a mask–a crafted face–that both obscures and reveals.

As a middle-aged woman, considering how your face has changed over time is a psychological minefield. Ozeki describes her decision not to get a facelift and wonders if she should return to dying her hair. These seemingly insignificant personal decisions are rife with deeper issues. Ozeki explores, for example, the feminist implications of authorial headshots. Do glamor shots by professional photographers create an image that is impossible for an ordinary and aging author to live up to, or is the beautifying of one’s (female) face an inevitable part of marketing a book?

Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist, so her contemplation is also a meditation. The Buddha said impermanence surrounds us, and there is no better way to (literally) face that fact than to consider how your face has changed over time. Forget about seeing your face before you were born: can you accurately see the face in the mirror right now?

I’ve never spent three hours staring at my face, but years ago at a Dharma teacher retreat, we did an exercise where we spent several silent minutes looking into a random partner’s eyes. That activity was surprisingly eye-opening (no pun intended). Looking into an acquaintance’s eyes made me unusually self-conscious about my appearance and others’ opinions. Does this person think I look silly or stupid or ugly or boring? Should I smile or frown or maintain a neutral meditative expression? Should I try to tame my resting bitch face or just allow my face to rest in whatever expression it prefers?

The Face was published in 2015, years before the widespread masking of the COVID-19 pandemic, so the masks Ozeki describes in her book are the highly stylized masks of Noh drama. Ozeki describes the process of crafting a mask, and she describes how Noh performers embody their characters through voice and gesture instead of facial expressions.

In an unofficial sequel to The Face, last year Ozeki published an article exploring the impact of COVID masking and Zoom meetings on self-image. I remember the first time I walked outside after outdoor mask mandates had been lifted: I found myself smiling uncontrollably whenever I saw another bare face, and the experience of walking among many barefaced people was almost intoxicating.

One of the weird experiences of teaching remotely is having your face constantly on view–and visible to yourself–while most if not all of your students have their cameras turned off. It’s just you and your trying-so-hard-to-look-enthusiastic face trying to engage with the camera as you see nothing but your own thumbnail video surrounded by a sea of black squares. It’s like teaching into the void.

Facing one’s face and the issues of identity, aging, and superficial judgment is not for the faint of heart. What seems like a silly premise for a book is surprisingly profound.

Meet the Beetles

I’m currently reading Rachel Joyce’s Miss Benson’s Beetle, and although it is a novel, the humor of the story is reminding me of Bill Bryson’s dry, self-deprecating wit in A Walk in the Woods.

Middle-aged Margery Benson–a hapless home economics teacher who wants to find the fabled golden beetle of New Caledonia–is as ill-prepared for a natural history expedition as Bryson was for a hike on the Appalachian Trail. Both Benson and Bryson do extensive research before their respective expeditions, and both discover their research did not prepare them for the reality of back-country camping.

You can’t have an adventure story without a loyal but annoying sidekick: both Miss Benson’s Beetle and A Walk in the Woods are ultimately buddy books. Miss Benson’s assistant, Enid Pretty, is as absurd as Bryon’s fellow hiker, Stephen Katz. Both Enid and Katz have shady backgrounds, both know nothing about hiking, and both are perpetually on their “buddy’s” last nerve with their irreverent indifference toward the presumed goal of the journey. But since buddy books are an intrinsically upbeat genre, both Enid and Katz prove invaluable, as teamwork and camaraderie are just as important as comic relief is.

I don’t know if Miss Benson will find the beetle she’s looking for, but I’d argue it doesn’t really matter. At the end of A Walk in the Woods, Bryson and Katz disagree about whether they achieved their goal in hiking the Appalachian Trail: Katz says they did, Bryson says they didn’t. Is an expedition’s success judged by its product, its process, or the simple fact of living to tell the tale? I suppose every adventurer must decide for themselves.

Furniture & wedding cakes

An online book group I belong to has spent the past month discussing Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle, and I’ve been thinking of the book as a “coming of middle age” novel. The novel’s protagonist, Ray Carney, is a grown man–married with a child–when the novel begins, but he grows into middle age (and his family expands) as the story continues. Readers see Carney’s social and professional ambitions unfold over the course of the novel–his successes, shortcomings, and disappointments–as he settles into the realities of middle age.

There are two quotes about middle age that kept coming to mind as I read the novel. First is Thoreau’s remark about the difference between young and middle-aged men: “The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or, perchance, a palace or temple on the earth, and, at length, the middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with them.” Thoreau, who died in his forties and thus didn’t have much firsthand experience with the indignities of middle age, recognized the way that youthful idealism ripens into more mature practicality. Instead of shooting for the stars, Thoreau’s middle-aged man is firmly fixed on earth.

I also kept thinking about the quip that middle age is when you realize you’ll never read Proust. In youth, we are told (if we are lucky) that we can be anyone we want to be: the sky is the proverbial limit. But in middle age, we are far down the particular path we’ve chosen, and we’ve dug our own ruts. It’s no longer feasible to pursue the road not taken. We’ll never finish all the books on our to-be-read list, never reach the bottom of our to-do list, and never become the superhero, astronaut, or dinosaur-tamer of our childhood dreams.

In a traditional coming-of-age novel, a youthful protagonist gains wisdom and experience from a series of adventures and encounters. Said protagonist loses their childhood innocence during a crisis of faith where they question what they’ve been told or taught. Big lessons about mortality, betrayal, and disappointment are learned the hard way. By the end of a traditional coming-of-age novel, the protagonist will never be the same because they’ve learned the world is more complicated than they’d realized.

In Harlem Shuffle, Ray Carney has youthful dreams of succeeding in ways his father, a petty criminal, couldn’t…but because of his childhood as a criminal’s son, Carney was never entirely innocent. Instead, he’s an entrepreneur who runs a mostly respectable furniture store that occasionally sells used (read: stolen) goods. Carney wants to make it as a law-abiding, “straight” businessman in order to impress his respectable middle-class in-laws…but he is occasionally tempted by the crooked ways of his youth.

Ray Carney doesn’t have a turning-point crisis of faith; instead, he gradually realizes the difficulties of social climbing. Carney wants the American dream–he wants to provide his wife and family with the comfortable middle-class lifestyle he never had as a boy–but as a Black man in 1950s Harlem, he knows the path to success has never been straight. It’s hard to stay on the straight and narrow when a crooked system is stacked against you.

Still Life with Mary Cassatt prints and Lego orchid and bonsai

I’m about halfway through Sarah Winman’s Still Life: A Novel, and I’m completely enthralled after taking a good long time to get into the story.

I have a theory about books and readers. All books have a setting, plot, and characters, but not with equal emphasis. Some books, like mysteries, are primarily fueled by plot: you keep reading to see What Happens Next. Other books focus primarily on characters: not much might happen, or the story might meander, but you keep reading because you become emotionally invested in the inner lives of imaginary folk. And some books are centered in place: you might not connect with the characters or you might not follow the narrative thread, but you keep reading because you’ve been transported to a place–actual or imagined–that intrigues and fascinates.

This is my theory of books, and here’s my corresponding theory of readers: some readers are drawn to plot-driving books, and others are primarily interested in character and/or place. If you’re a plot-focused reader, gaps in the story, tricky timelines, or narrative details that don’t make sense will bother you to no end. But if you’re like me, plot is almost irrelevant as long as a book’s portrait of character and place are strong.

I’d be hard-pressed to describe the meandering plot of Still Life, which spans decades to unfold the aftermath of a chance meeting between a soldier and art historian in wartime Italy. Such a synopsis tells you nothing: what enchants me about Still Life is its ragtag cast of characters, those characters’ loves and losses, and the novel’s evocation of both Italy and England.

Since I’m only halfway through Still Life, I don’t know how the story will end, but what keeps me reading are the characters I’ve come to care for.

Maple leaves and reflected sky

I have fewer than 50 pages left in Richard Powers’ Bewildermentt, which is breaking my heart in profound and complex ways. The human and natural worlds are troubled and broken–deeply wounded and traumatized–and yet both are the site of great joy. Powers’ novel somehow captures all these emotions–the whole human gamut, from ecstasy to rage–while expressing the cosmic loneliness of these almost-end times.

Does it seem extreme to call these days apocalyptic? In some ways, Powers’ book is dystopian: he takes the political realities of the present moment–including climate denialism, anti-science conspiracy theories, and a xenophobic slide toward authoritarianism–and exaggerates them only slightly, which makes their impact that much more devastating. The world of Powers’ novel isn’t exactly the present moment, but it certainly could be.

Robin, the child protagonist who feels too much, has an empathetic connection with endangered creatures great and small. Robin embodies the limited emotional options for those of us living with open-eyes in an environmentally devastated world. Do we rage against the dying of the light as species disappear and the planet warms? Or do we ecstatically embrace the wondrous creatures who somehow, miraculously remain, endangered but still surviving (for now)?

If you knew the planet was dying, would you rage or grieve or make the most of your remaining time…or would you oscillate among all three? If you chose the latter, would that make you crazy and disturbed–a person in need of treatment–or one of the only humans on the planet who is clear-eyed and sane?

Recent reads

I just finished reading Miriam Toews’ Fight Night. I’d enjoyed Women Talking, and Fight Night is similar in theme albeit completely different in plot and tone.

Women Talking was a novel told in conversation: the minutes of a meeting where women from a Mennonite colony discuss what they should do after discovering they’ve been repeatedly drugged and raped in their beds by several men in the community. Should they stay and do nothing, flee, or fight? The novel sketches the personalities and relationships among the women, who in many ways live a life entirely alien to that of their fathers, husbands, and brothers. Whatever the women decide to do, they must decide together.

Fight Night shares this theme of female community, but in an entirely different context. Nine-year-old Swiv lives with her pregnant mother and sickly grandmother: a household of women. Swiv is precocious and feisty: she has been suspended from school for fighting, and it quickly becomes apparent where she gets her fire from.

Swiv’s mother, Mooshie, is an aspiring actress and single mother; Swiv’s grandmother, Elvira, is a freewheeling force of nature who talks to strangers, laughs in the face of pain, and regales her granddaughter with meandering stories of her youthful exploits, some of which might actually be true.

It is Elvira who tells Swiv she must learn how to fight, and it is Elvira who also encourages Swiv to write. Swiv’s family has a history of mental illness and suicide–many of Elvira’s stories center on people who are dead–and long after the family can no longer afford therapy sessions, Elvira holds “editorial meetings” where she encourages Swiv to write letters to her absent father in an attempt to make sense of her life.

Swiv is irrepressible and endearing. She clashes with her mother and adores her grandmother, chronicling their life together in a rollicking stream-of-consciousness Jack Kerouac would envy. Elvira is plucky, unapologetic, and entirely undaunted by physical ailments that require her to take fistfuls of pills each day. Even Gord, the unborn child who is taxing every last ounce of Mooshie’s energy and patience, has both presence and personality.

Whereas the women in Women Talking had to decide whether they wanted to flee or fight, in Fight Night it is clear that fleeing is never an option.


I’m currently listening to The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, and the repetitive nature of Addie’s immortal life is reminding me of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, which I’d read in 2014.

How often in November I wish for more time–for more hours in the day, or at least more hours of light–but both novels make me think I should be careful what I wish for.

More hours can mean more monotony, more chances to make the same mistakes over and over. Addie is given immortality but is doomed to be forgotten; the protagonist in Atkinson’s novel, on the other hand, has to die and be born again and again until she lives the one life that proves to be her destiny.

Instead of wishing for more lives or more time, maybe we should learn to cherish the moment we currently find ourselves in.

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