So it’s August. The twilight of summer. This week I had a two-day professional development session for the upcoming school year, and while it was valuable training and a wonderful chance to collaborate with my amazing colleagues, I couldn’t help feeling rather depressed by the end of it. “Well that’s it. Summer’s over,” I kept thinking to myself. But it’s not true! We still have a full month to enjoy the sunshine and hang out with our friends on weeknights and finish purging our dressers and – most importantly – READ! Hopefully you’ve been making a sizable dent in your summer TBR pile. Here’s what I read in July:
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
In this gripping retelling of The Iliad, Booker Prize-winner Pat Barker gives voice to Briseis, a princess taken as a slave for Achilles as a reward for his courage in battle. Her perspective on the Trojan Wars (and, by extension, all wars and all of recorded history, for that matter), is perhaps best embodied by her response to King Priam of Troy, who comes to the Greek camp to beg for the body of his son Hector. “I do what no man before me has ever done, ” Priam says, “I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.” His sorrow and humility are palpable, but Briseis doesn’t care. “And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do,” she thinks, “I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.” Barker carries this theme through the duration of the Trojan Wars; as Briseis is given to the cruel and apparently soulless Agamemnon after he’s forced to relinquish his own slave; as Hector’s widow, Andromache, driven nearly insane with grief, is given as a sex slave to the teenage son of her husband’s killer; as the Greeks joke about raping, then murdering Helen of Troy – and then consider digging her up to rape her again. The language is often rough but I found it wholly unsurprising. I could easily imagine men today disparaging women in exactly the same terms – oh yeah, probably because they do. The Silence of the Girls is captivating and empowering precisely because it does not shy away from the long-unspoken implications of the silence of women’s voices in literature. Which is what makes this novel about one of the oldest stories in the Western canon feel so current. The Silence of the Girls is part of a collective demand whose time has come: LISTEN. TO. WOMEN.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
Anyone who’s even vaguely aware of what’s happening in the world of literary fiction will certainly have heard of this beautifully-written coming of age story by the award-winning author of the poetry collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Every book podcast I listen to and independent bookstore I follow on Instagram has featured On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous; the New York Times Book Review even referred to it as the new great American novel. The book takes the form of a letter that the protagonist, known as Little Dog, is writing to his mother. The structure allows him to express himself freely because, owing to her school being leveled by an American napalm raid when she was seven, his mother is illiterate and will likely never read it. The purpose of the letter is difficult to pin down. Sometimes it feels like an extended attempt at forgiveness for the abuse she inflicted on him as a child. Other times it seems like an act of reflection, an adult coming to terms with the harrowing experiences his family has had to face: for him, the exclusion and cruelty of being an immigrant child bullied at school. For his mother and grandmother, the lasting trauma of war and the specter of mental illness. The second half of the novel reveals Little Dog’s own war – losing his best friend and lover, Trevor, (as well as countless friends) to the opioid epidemic. Tragedy stalks Little Dog and his family like a curse, and the book is definitely a heavy read. But there are also moments of surprising beauty, like when his grandmother, Lan, pulls the car to the side of the road one day and commands Little Dog hop a fence to pick some pretty flowers. She doesn’t know what they’re called – just that they’re beautiful. Despite their shattered lives, the strongest drumbeat underneath the tragedy seems to be the urgency of recognizing and treasuring beauty, a message that reverberates on every page with Vuong’s graceful, poetic language.
Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips
This stunning novel, Phillips’ debut, has been another darling of the summer – and I absolutely loved it. Set in the far northeastern Russian province of Kamchatka, where Phillips spent two years on a Fulbright grant, the story begins with the disappearance of two children, sisters Alyona and Sophia, who are abducted by a strange man who tells them he’s hurt his leg and needs their help. From there, the mystery of the vanished girls lurks in the background of what seems like a collection of short stories with a common thread. The book is organized as a sort of calendar, the eleven successive chapters titled for a month following the girls’ disappearance. In each, Phillips paints slice-of-life pictures of the experience of living in such a remote and inaccessible but also beautiful and wild place. There is a theme of tension between the indigenous people and the Russian settlers, made ever more prominent as details emerge about another girl, a member of the Even tribe, who went missing under similarly mysterious circumstances, but whose disappearance was never given the same attention by local authorities. The stories are all linked in some way – someone always knows someone connected to either of the abductions – and the final chapter, in which the mothers of the vanished girls come together to solve the crime themselves, brings the mystery to an exciting and satisfying conclusion. But beyond that, I loved how Philips explored the everyday pain and violence that touches so many women’s lives, and how they struggle to fight it. From a college student trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship, to a woman haunted by infertility who pours all her love into her missing dog, to the bereaved mothers themselves, the courage of the women and girls in Disappearing Earth is what impressed me most about this wonderful book.
Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn
Unlike On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, whose heavy subject matter required me to ingest it in small doses, Patsy is the most inhale-able-in-one-sitting sort of book I’ve read in a long time, mainly because of the deep affection I felt for the characters from the outset. It begins in Jamaica, where the title character, a single mother working an unsatisfying civil service job, has been trying for years to get a travel visa to visit America. Her best friend/first love Cicely has been living in New York for years, writing letters home to Patsy that depict the city as the center of glamour and romance. Patsy imagines that once she gets there, she and Cicely can finally be together, living the life they dreamed about as girls. When Patsy gets her visa, she leaves with no intention of ever returning – or of taking her six-year-old daughter, Tru along with her. Entrusting Tru to the care of her one-time lover Roy, who now has a family of his own to provide for, Patsy embarks on an arduous journey that begins with the heartbreak of discovering Cicely’s sham visa-marriage is anything but, and the struggle just gets harder from there. Because she doesn’t have papers, Patsy’s employment options are limited, and we see her bounce from one low-paying job to another, continually haunted by a dark shadow (fear of never claiming what she wants from her life? Regret over leaving her daughter behind?) that she can always feel in her periphery. Meanwhile, Tru grows ten years older, facing her own struggle to feel comfortable in her own body. It doesn’t help that in all that time, Patsy makes little attempt to contact her – one Christmas card and a hung-up phone call are all Tru has of a relationship with her mother. The novel explores some incredibly fraught territory – abuse, rape, gender non-conformity, self-harm, and the unrealistic expectations we place on mothers. But it does so without judgement or blame, and the result is a deeply engrossing and ultimately triumphant story of a woman who refuses to settle for any less than she deserves.
And that’s July! Thank you so much for reading. I’ll be back next month with reviews of:
- The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
- Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
- No Visible Wounds: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us by Rachel Louise Snyder
- And a surprise I haven’t decided yet… something I pick up at the London Review Bookshop on our trip there next week!