Recent Books I’ve Clutched In My Hands With Joy: February 2020

I think I’ve said before that this is the grand age of women finally writing plainly about sexual assault and/or suppressed anger. Just as we have whole classes on, say, Soviet Science Fiction that teach us about political dissent in Stalinist Russia, we will soon have more classes on The Cathartic Fiction of Women’s Anger that teach us (an overdue) revisionist history of the last half-century. And oh, the juicy books the professors will get to choose! The tears and stunned looks that will be shared in those classrooms—and the high fives. Below are just a few prime examples of the category, plus a few other gems.

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

You will read this book. This book will mess with your head and then your heart in the best possible way, if you’re patient enough to trust it (hence the title). I was tempted to put down Choi’s masterpiece a couple times in the first section despite the completely on-the-nose descriptions of the world of high school theater and high school Feelings. I wasn’t sure where it was going or why I wanted to put myself back in the emotional state of a teenage girl navigating the mercurial waters of a high school drama program and a sexual relationship that never gets off the ground. I’m so glad I didn’t turn away, though. There are three layers/sections to this book, all dependent on the previous one, and each an amazing whirlwind of craft and mindf*ckery. I laughed out loud a few times. Why don’t more women speak up when we’re assaulted? Where does that hurt go and how does it resonate across time and people? I’m not doing the story justice. You will read this book. Emotional.

Whisper Network by Chandler Baker

Whisper Network is the closest you can get to the opposite of Trust Network. It is overtly transparent about being a story about sexual assault and discrimination in the workplace, to the point that I initially wondered if it could possibly be any good. It is, though, in a much more commercial writing style than Choi’s literary fiction. It’s the story of five fairly different women navigating a workplace predator at a corporation in Dallas. It’s a buddy story but also a little bit of a mystery, with corporate politics thrown in to ratchet up the tension. You know the conflict is going to be bad, but you don’t yet know quite how bad (or cathartic). If you enjoyed The Morning Show, you’ll also enjoy this (much briefer) story. They’re absolutely homages to a moment—or, hopefully, the beginning of a new world—and fun.

The Grace Year by Kim Liggett

I went into this book thinking it would be something like The Power. It’s not. It’s written from the perspective of a relatively sheltered teenager in a repressive society who is forced onto a gated island with all the other girls who’ve come “of age” that year, ostensibly to rid themselves of their harmful feminine magic. If you’re looking for an immediate feminist empowerment story like The Power, don’t. This is a very literal Lord of the Flies experience meets M. Night Shyamalan, with a lot of heart, and it’s that heart that ultimately makes this story work. I cried at the end despite myself. So yeah, you got me, Kim. I particularly liked the bit about people in the society buying bits of the murdered girls to consume. Weird and horrific, but hey, kind of on the nose.

The Lying Room by Nicci French

French’s novel is a thriller about an English mum who runs afoul of the police when she tries to hide that she was having an affair with a married man. Now, of course, there are really a whole heap of books about dissatisfied wives in bleak, morning-egg-splattered London who find themselves in extreme circumstances. This one, though, was nearer and dearer to my heart than usual for a few reasons. First, the main character is a bike commuter. I feel so seen! Second, I loved the way French (which is actually a pen name for two collaborating authors) wrote the increasingly wild and out of control party scenes in the main character’s house. Scenes maybe only a mom in her 40s can appreciate—the drudgery of having fun. Finally, there’s something especially poignant about a mother of three in her 40s with a mortgage, hamster and flabby marriage getting in trouble for ... cleaning too well. We bleed and we clean, right?

Land of Enchantment by Leigh Stein

Stein’s book is a memoir, which I don’t usually read, but I’m glad I did. I appreciated Stein’s honesty about the messed up situations young (and occasionally, older) women will put ourselves in order to feel loved and valued—and how hard it is to climb out of those pits of dark, fun-house mirror feelings. Stein’s memoir is about a terrible relationship with a charismatic man-boy—maybe even one many of us can relate to. It’s not a redemptive tale; the relationship ends through catastrophic third-party means. It is very familiar, though, and the kind of situation too many of us only talk about in bar bathrooms at 2 am when we’re drunk. So I’m glad Stein is leading these conversations into the light. Also, I’m a softie for anyone writing about ‘90s era Internet technology. (Hence this blog, I guess.)

Walk Through Walls: A Memoir by Marina Abramovic

Again, memoir is so hard to write about. All I can say is that this book is the kind of jaw dropper crazy sh*t that that interview with Quincy Jones was a while back. Abramovic, as a child: “I used to have a recurring nightmare about symmetry—it was deeply disturbing.” I mean, who doesn’t, really?! Later on, after meeting her performance partner, Ulay, she writes, “we had lived together for almost a year, and we had come to feel that in many ways we were the same person, thinking the same thoughts. Now it was time to test that hypothesis.” Indeed. If you’ve followed Abramovic’s career, you know that she was all about breaking boundaries. Tolerance for pain, life and death, audience and self, self and other specific people, spoken and unspoken, etc. What she’s done in the name of art and, more broadly, freedom, is breathtaking. No, terrifying. This is not a dry book!

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alex E. Harrow

This well-reviewed YA book is a story about a mis-fit girl (hyphen intentional) trying to find her real family and sense of place in a world of Doors to other worlds and stories. It’s a book about shaking off expectations as a girl or woman, and daring to be yourself, come what may. As others have mentioned, though, it’s a slow-moving story. But that’s not a bad thing. I get the impression that Harrow is just so bursting with excitement to be writing about something she so clearly loves that she wants to linger and savor each sentence, each moment. I have no problem with that, though the book did feel like one long introductory chapter to a whole series of adventures. Maybe a TV series? You can like this book and still agree that there’s so much more to be explored in the world she’s built. Go, go, go, Harrow!


Recent Books I’ve Clutched In My Hands With Joy: January 2020