A Summer to Read: Ch. 3

Even though it’s sort of the Sunday night of summer, I have to say, August was just grand. We spent a week of it in England, where I spent an entire day visiting book shops I normally only see on Instagram and Twitter. I was thrilled to discover one of my picks, The Nickel Boys, on prominent display in every Waterstones and Foyles we happened upon, and I snagged a signed copy of Max Porter’s Lanny (UK cover, thank you) at The London Review Book Shop. All in all, a fantastic way to close out this summer of good reading and I’m excited to share what I read with you.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead is a national treasure and we are all lucky to be alive to witness and enjoy his stunning gift. The Nickel Boys is Whitehead’s hotly anticipated follow-up to 2016’s The Underground Railroad, winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award (and if you haven’t read it yet, please, I am begging you…). Based on the true story of the Dozier School for Boys in Florida, a reform school where for years students endured unspeakable cruelty at the hands of its staff, The Nickel Boys, set in the early 1960s,  is an unflinching examination of the realities of American racism. The novel begins with the introduction of Elwood, an ambitious young man being raised by his grandmother, who gives him a record of Martin Luther King, Jr. speeches in lieu of the pop music she refuses to let him play in the house because of her strict religious beliefs. He becomes active in the civil rights movement, and can almost see the moral arc of the universe bending toward his own freedom when he’s given the chance as a high school student to take classes at a local college. On his way to his first day, however, he hitches a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car. He is swiftly sentenced to spend the rest of his juvenile days (the boys are automatically released when they turn 18, if they make it that long) at Nickel Academy, named for one of the school’s first leaders, but according to the boys forced to endure its brutality, the name really refers to the fact that “their lives weren’t worth five cents”. There, Elwood meets Turner, a cynical loner who helps to disabuse Elwood of his notion that he’ll survive Nickel by cleaving to the straight and narrow. Elwood soon learns that the violence of the place is random and unremitting, and his only refuge is escape. The second half of the novel is told in alternate timelines, filling in a little more detail to Elwood’s stay at Nickel and skipping ahead years after his departure. The ending is beautiful and heart-wrenching, both satisfying and painful. Whitehead’s novels may have their roots in the past, but they are powerfully current in their insistence that we all must face the awful toll of racist cruelty and violence head-on.

Fleischman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

I read this entire novel on an 8-hour flight from London to Minneapolis, partly because I can’t sleep on planes, but mostly because it is insanely addictive. It’s also straight-up fucking brilliant. Brodesser-Akner does this amazing trick that I’ve never seen before but that I’m going to attempt to describe for you without spoiling anything. Okay, here goes. As it begins, the novel seems to be a fairly straightforward story of Toby Fleishman, a newly-divorced doctor and father of two living in Manhattan, just doing his best to adapt to life as a single man. He’s perhaps a bit whiney, a bit too enamored of sexting the anonymous women he meets on a Tinder-esque hook-up app. But we forgive him this; he’s been through a lot, and his ex-wife Rachel sounds awful. As the story unfolds, however, the unnamed narrator (a device I absolutely LOVE, see Andrew Sean Greer’s Less) begins to interrupt more frequently, and we learn that she is Elizabeth, a dear old college friend of Toby’s. Once a successful writer (she quit her job as a staff writer at a men’s magazine because she got fed up with the inescapable misogyny of the professional world) Elizabeth is bored with life as a wife and mom in New Jersey, eager for a story to tell. So she tells us Toby’s, and it’s full of affection and sympathy because that’s what we would expect. But (here’s the trick!) two-thirds of the way through, Elizabeth begins to realize (just as the reader is starting to get sick of him too) that Toby is actually kind of a prick, and that she’s been filtering everything – especially the characterization of Rachel – through a sympathetic lens because that’s the way it works. Man’s side of the story is the world’s default setting, and when Elizabeth wakes up to this and breaks free of Toby’s unconscious control, Fleishman is in Trouble really comes into its own as a wholly original tale of modern life. Brodesser-Akner flips everything on its head, especially the title. Perhaps Fleishman is in trouble because the days of his perception of the world being the default are numbered – perhaps all men are. The novel is intelligent, funny, at times maddening, but ultimately a refreshing and singular achievement. Don’t miss it. 

At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond – Essays, Daunt Books

I first heard about this wonderful essay collection via the Daunt Books Instagram, which kept posting that it was so popular they couldn’t keep it in stock. But even though I bought my copy at the Daunt branch that is literally across the road from Hampstead Heath in London,  I have never visited the Ladies’ Pond, which serves as the enchanting subject of the essays in this lovely little book. Featuring works by fourteen contemporary writers who’ve all heard the alluring call of the pond in some form or other, the book is arranged by season and reflects some of the most beautiful nature writing I’ve ever read. Many of the writers describe the Ladies’ Pond (no men or children allowed) as tucked away, hidden down a long, wooded path in a remote corner of the Heath, an element that makes the pond seem even more magical, a world of its own. Though each writer has her own unique perspective on the place and its meaning in her life, certain themes emerge: the singular feeling of the silky water gliding against your skin; the unspoken sisterhood of the women who swim and sunbathe in the nearby meadow; the impression that to slip into the water is to find yourself in a place outside of time, connected to something timeless. As I write this, I’m looking out on our beloved Spirit Lake, a blue-green gem wedged between cornfields in northwest Iowa. It’s raining and the weeds have all but taken over by this time of year, but I think I’m going to have to go for a swim anyway. I feel it calling to me.

High Wages by Dorothy Whipple

This terrific novel is another treat I picked up on our bookshop tour of London last month. I found it at Persephone Books, which I discovered courtesy of my friend Sophie, who had a feeling I would love it (she was right, as usual). Persephone is more than a bookshop, though. They also publish books by women writers whose works have long gone out of print, each bound in a sleek gray cover with its own unique endpaper (and matching bookmark!) Though they only have something like 130 titles in their collection thus far, I could have spent hours reading over all the descriptions of the books and trying to decide which ones I wanted to try. In the end I went with High Wages because the card said it was a staff favorite and its author Dorothy Whipple is apparently known as the Jane Austen of the 20th century. Its protagonist, Jane Carter, is certainly as bold and admirable as the best Austen heroines. Set in 1912 in a small Northern town (nearby Manchester is considered an exciting metropolis), Jane’s career options are limited. She is thrilled to be offered a job as a shop girl at a haberdashery called Chadwick’s, where she soon discovers how difficult it is to save the money to support her dream of opening her own shop someday – especially with her boss, Mr. Chadwick, cheating her on her wages. But Jane is undaunted. She forcefully argues that she is worth much more than he’s paying her, and Chadwick cannot deny her value. Others recognize how special she is too, from a pair of friends/would-be suitors to a kind matron who, though she’s married to the partner in the wealthiest business in town, has never gotten used to being of the upper class. At this point, you can probably infer that things work out alright for Jane, no worries on that count. What I loved is how, without mentioning politics or suffrage, High Wages is nonetheless sharply feminist. You can probably get it online somewhere but Persephone Books is such a marvel, I recommend making the trip in person. And I’m sure there’s probably other stuff to do in London after the shop closes.

Stay tuned next month for reviews of:

  • I Who Have Never Known Men by Jaqueline Harpman
  • Lanny by Max Porter
  • Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman
  • The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (of course)

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