Recently I wrote about various books that I’d found comforting, and one of these was Long Bright River, part police procedural, part sister pain, with a healthy dollop of drugs and murder and family dysfunction. Not too challenging, I said, which I meant as high praise (and self-castigation—my concentration muscles are shot after a year of pandemic and political horror). But mere weeks later, I see this comment also as blithely condescending. Because, spurred by how good that books was, I asked my library what else they had, and they offered up The Unseen World. And I realized this writer, while being a joy to read, has majorly bigger fish to fry than just that.
This book is so…lovely. And strange. And sad. But no matter how sad (and I have been struggling with sad this year), it is also engaging and compelling and alive.
The liveliness comes because of all the love—not so much directly, but as though the whole novel is built over a huge underground store of love, like a hidden spring that keeps welling up. Does that sound sappy? It’s not sappy, the writing is loath to touch the love directly, but it suffuses everything, making it possible, for me at least, to read without falling apart.
Remember how everyone was flipping out about trigger warnings? (Maybe they still are?) A few of those are wanted for all of us who are more fragile now than we might “normally” be (which makes me think they are always wanted), but not for self-destructive behavior exactly, more for heartbreak, which we’re not all able to stand right now: book covers the pain of dementia, misfits, loneliness.
The very end is…not what I needed. But maybe we can talk about that when/if you read the book.
Here’s where I get to brag: I went to graduate school with Jessica Blau, and while I guess a bunch of other people can say that, I also got an advance copy of her forthcoming novel, Mary Jane, and I am here to tell you that it is a pure joy.
She sent me a copy in November, when things were dark and cold and very scary, but my husband snagged it and read it straight through, in one day. He is not an easy audience. Our bedroom sidetables are littered with books begun and abandoned. But with this, he was happy. The whole time he was reading it he was trying to get back to it, and, was just…happy.
I got to read it right after him, as was only fair, and I just…. Remember how it feels to read books that completely absorb you? Books that are light and delightful, books that bring you the happiness of eating ice cream on a hot day? This is such a book. And it’s especially pleasurable if you like to read about music, and records, and the 1970s, and humans. Oh, it’s so much fun.
So there you go: this is my gift to any interested readers. It’s not out until May, but you can order it now, I think? At your wonderful local bookstore, which will (I am sure) be more than happy to have the business. And then, when May comes, and it’s warmer out, and you can sit on the steps of your building, or in the park, or on a bench, and maybe even in an outdoor cafe (oh happy upcoming day, I hope!), and read this book, you will be glad.
It’s been a year, has it not? And now all sorts of hope looms on the horizon, and I can feel it sometimes, but also…not. All too often I am still drawn to either being in fetal position beneath my bed (if not actually then the idea of it) or watching terrible television.
The note of hope I am prepared to recognize (in a personal rather than a global way) is that I am still reading. Books that are humble and unassuming, yet also vastly comforting, like scrawny cats (see Jasper up there, needing comfort, just like all of us). Here is what has been working for me:
Long Bright River by Liz Moore. Sisters! Murder! Feelings! Yeah, when I look at the list, I am not sure why I found this book comforting, except that: I kept wanting to read it. Instead of hiding under the bed. Or watching TV.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. Alcoholism! Feelings! Despair! Hope! More despair! Maybe more hope? I didn’t think I would make it at first, there was a lot of crazy Scottish talk, and I am, as mentioned, weary. But: apparently beneath my endless weariness there still beats a heart that can be reached, and that’s what happened. It broke apart the frozen sea within me, etc. And yes: that is still a good thing.
There are others, too—a bunch, even—but I can’t remember them now, and I am hoping to make actually posting such a heavy lift that I avoid it for another six months. So.
Are there any books that have been working for you? Will you tell me what they are in the comments? Do people still do that?
Remember when I wrote about middle grade books and (essentially) altruism, and how we don’t seem to be able to do things on behalf of others any more? Well guess what? A lovely bookstore is proving me so happily wrong!
They are offering the prize of a lifetime subscription of books—but you have to nominate someone else! I can’t quite convey how wonderful I find this. You can nominate anyone, and how gratifying would it be if they won? I find the whole thing a balm in these trying times.
Go ahead, do it, I wish I could do it every single day until the election.
I’m currently reading The Alice Network, and I’m finding it incredibly reassuring, despite its harrowing reality. I mean we’ve got war, betrayal, Nazis, inhumanity, poverty and famine. Trouble, no? But you know what we also have? A clear and agreed-upon enemy. Shades of gray, sure, but always with the awareness and omnipresence of Good and Evil. It made me think of Dory Previn’s Play It Again, Sam. It’s a record my parents had, and I loved it, the craziness of all her songs. But that one? That one is hitting me hard right now.
I mean, there are books like All the Light We Cannot See, which play out amid Nazism while trying to hold on to the humanity of all involved—even the Nazis. But generally, and rightly of course, books that even tangentially touch on Nazis, or Germany in WWII, do so with a clear understanding that Nazi ideology is the very essence of wrong, bad, evil. Of course that’s reassuring right now, when that same ideology is running rampant and we all seem to be in one of those dreams where you’re trying to scream and run, but your legs can’t move. Maybe, too, these WWII books are great because they remind us that there used to be things that we all agreed upon.
I haven’t finished The Alice Network yet. But it is offering my an oh-so-welcome respite these days. Play it, Sam/Play it for me/Take me where I want to be/Back to you, and good old World War Two/I just can’t face today.