September: Beach Reads, Dystopia, and Living Up to the Hype

I know September feels like ages ago, especially to those of us in the Northern Plains who are suddenly back in the bleakest dark of mid-winter again (which is thoroughly UNFAIR, Universe! *shakes fist*). Perhaps it’s all the more reason to think back on those golden late-summer days when the afternoon sun on your bare arms… oh wait, it rained constantly in September, didn’t it? And then the Kavanaugh hearings… yeah, let’s go back to forgetting September. Better yet, let’s nourish our souls with good books! Here’s what I read in September.

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63. There There by Tommy Orange

I first heard about There There on NPR early last summer. And then I kept hearing about it for the next couple of months as everyone raved about what Orange had managed to accomplish in his debut novel (which, in September, was included in the longlist for the 2018 National Book Awards). Let me assure you – the hype is well-deserved. The title refers to a line from Gertrude Stein’s famous description of her childhood home of Oakland as having changed so much, “there is no there there”. Orange explores this well-known modernist theme in an entirely new way. Taking Oakland as his setting and the hub around which the character arcs revolve, Orange examines how place – in particular, the city – becomes a sort of lens through which his Native American characters view the complex connections between tradition, modernity, identity, and the possibilities of their own lives. The structure of the novel – short chapters from the perspective of eight different characters – creates a disparate choir of voices that are sometimes hard to keep track of. The most compelling of these is probably Orvil Red Feather, a young teen who finds his grandmother’s traditional regalia in a closet and, after putting it on, stares at himself in the mirror waiting to feel a connection to his heritage. It doesn’t come, but he decides to act the part anyway, teaching himself to dance so he can surprise everyone by taking part in an upcoming Oakland powwow, the event that draws all the characters together by the novel’s dramatic end. As I read There There I couldn’t help but think of that quote by Jon Landau, who, after hearing Bruce Springsteen for the first time in 1974 said, “I saw rock and roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen”. Perhaps the most exciting thing about There There is the way Orange writes about history and tradition in a way that feels entirely new.

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64. Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

Erdrich is one of those authors whose work I will always read, damn the critics – and in this case, I’m glad I did. Future Home of the Living God received mixed reviews and I would agree that it does not accomplish the beautiful and nuanced character development of her National Book Award winner The Round House (go read that now if you haven’t), but I still found this dystopic story of the fierce bonds between mother and child gripping in its own way. A lot of that probably has to do with the fact that the pregnant main character, Cedar Hawk Songmaker, spends a good portion of the novel trying to escape a prison-hospital where, The Handmaid’s Tale-style, she will be killed after giving birth. America has turned into some insane cyber-authoritarian hellscape ruled by someone called Mother, whose digital avatar shows up on computer screens to make Cedar feel like she’s constantly being watched. Her pregnancy was meant to be kept a secret, lest she be taken to the aforementioned prison-hospital, because also in this future America (perhaps because of it), evolution has started moving backwards and Cedar’s baby might be one of the last of the ‘normal’ humans. Yeah, I don’t know either. It’s fair criticism to say that there’s a whole lot in the book that just doesn’t make any sense. Despite that, I truly enjoyed this imaginative and, at times, legitimately terrifying novel, and I will continue to read everything Erdrich writes.

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65. Night Flying Woman by Ignatia Broker

One of the problems with the 10th grade English course I teach, which is a survey of American literature, is that for far too long, it has lacked diversity in voices and perspectives. My colleagues and I are making a deliberate effort to change that this year, so as part of that project, we read a chapter from this collection of stories about the experiences of the Anishinaabe people in the second half of the 19th century. In Night Flying Woman, Ignatia Broker describes her great-great-grandmother’s experiences during a time of tremendous loss and change for the Minnesota Ojibwe. It begins with her birth, when she’s given the name Ni-bo-wi-se-gwe (Night Flying Woman) because she was born during an eclipse, when “out of the darkness, called the eclipse, was born a person who became strong and gave strength, who became wise and lent this wisdom to her people , who became part of the generation of chaos and change”. The book follows Ni-bo-wi-se-gwe and her family as they decide to leave their home on the Canada border and travel south to avoid being forced onto a reservation. From there, they fight to maintain their traditional ways as the prairie around them becomes increasingly dense with white settlers. Night Flying Woman is the first time these stories were set to paper and to read them is to hear the generations of oral tradition they so beautifully preserve.

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66. Earning the Rockies by Robert Kaplan

This slim but incredibly dense book  was September’s Now Read This book club pick and I have to admit that, despite its brevity, I had a tough time finishing it. In Earning the Rockies, Kaplan, who is a prolific writer on foreign affairs, posits that to understand America’s shift away from a geopolitical order it did so much to establish, one must look within our borders. The title refers to Kaplan’s argument that to really understand America, you have to “earn the rockies” – that is, travel overland. Flying doesn’t count. Kaplan uses this idea to support his larger thesis that geography is destiny. Moving east to west, Kaplan takes the reader on a sort of Travels With Charley road trip, talking to people and trying to capture the spirit of communities along the way. Earning the Rockies argues that the history of American foreign policy is inherently tied to its geography; the vast expanse of the continent, for example, and rich natural resources have traditionally protected America from both external threats and dependence. The problem I had with this book was that, in Kaplan’s Olympian view of American history, the atrocity of Indian removal is cast as not merely a reason the country was able to become so strong, but also inevitable and necessary. Despite this, I’m glad I read it, if only because it was so different from the type of book I’d normally choose, and readers with a stronger interest in geography, history, and geopolitics will probably enjoy it more than I did.

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67. The Banker’s Wife by Cristina Alger

When school started again after Labor Day, I wanted an audiobook for my commute to work (half an hour each way) that would be purely entertaining and perhaps let me believe, for a little while anyway, that I was still on vacation. Starting with the familiar trope of a tragic accident that is anything but (an accident, I mean), The Banker’s Wife was ideal in that capacity. It even included my personal favorite ingredient in any medium – reporters solving mysteries. For an hour a day, I got to pretend it was still summer, and that is probably the circumstances under which this book is best enjoyed. The action centers on two women: Annabel, whose desperate search for answers surrounding the mystery of her banker husband Matthew’s death in a plane crash, and journalist Marina, who, with her impending marriage into one of the most powerful families in America, is supposed to give up all that writing nonsense and assume her place in high society. But she’s drawn by the (also mysterious, of course) death of her mentor into investigating one last story. Separately, Annabel and Marina follow a trail of clues that lead back to Swiss United, the international bank Matthew worked for, and the network of powerful men who have been using it to hide some seriously shady financial dealings. There’s nothing particularly insightful or profound here and Alger did that thing I hate of making female characters  impossibly wealthy, beautiful, perfect and perfectly unrelatable. But it was certainly exciting and I’m eager to see the forthcoming Netflix series starring the wonderful Rosamund Pike. I have a feeling that she’ll make me forget any complaints I had about the characterization in the novel.

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68. A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen

This is another novel that critics loved when it came out late last summer, and again, the fawning praise is well-deserved. The terrible country in the title is Russia, to which the young post-grad Andrei Kaplan returns to take care of his grandmother. He’s not been since he was six and finds himself very much the outsider, trying to understand and navigate a cultural landscape that has undergone tremendous change since his parents emigrated to New York. The first half of the novel follows Andrei as he adapts and begins to develop connections in Moscow, all the while trying to secure a full-time professorship that will give him a reason to go home. It’s funny and endearing and impossible not to love the self-deprecating but always earnest Andrei. The second part takes a decidedly more serious turn as Andrei gets involved with a group of young communists whose devotion to Western values and ideals is so honorable and sincere, it’s little wonder Andrei finds himself actively aiding them in their quest to start a cultural revolution. The ending is a bit uneven and out of step with the tone Gessen took such pains to develop in the first two acts, but A Terrible Country is nonetheless an interesting and ultimately charming story that offers important insight on a place and people that the West doesn’t seem to have ever understood.

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69. Mother’s Milk by Edward St. Aubyn

The fourth installment in St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series, Mother’s Milk picks up the story several years after the interminable birthday party weekend in Some Hope. Patrick is married now and the father of two boys. He is so worried about falling into the same abusive pattern of his father’s life that becomes almost paralyzed by his anxiety, seeking the release valves of alcohol and infidelity and transferring the tension to his older son, Robert. The novel is very much Robert’s story too, and begins from his perspective as an infant, clinging to the warmth and security of his mother’s body. Robert grows into an incredibly sensitive child, perceiving much more than the adults around him realize. The abrupt shift to Patrick’s perspective is a bit of a let-down, mainly because he’s such an asshole train wreck much of the time. The surprising beauty of this novel comes in the last moments of Patrick’s ailing mother Eleanor, who is under the beguiling control of a charlatan guru called Seamus to whom she has willed what’s left of her family’s fortune. At the end of her life, all Eleanor wants is to fade into nothing. She gives away all her possessions, stops eating, and even asks Patrick and his wife Mary to help her commit suicide. It’s almost as if she’s trying to erase her existence and the legacy of trauma made possible by her complicity in husband David’s cruelty. In the end, she relieves Patrick and Mary of the burden of her death and the novel closes on an ambiguous note. Whether Patrick will be able to escape the generational feedback loop begun by his abusive father will be the question that the last novel in the series, At Last, will (hopefully) finally answer.

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