“If you are not feeling well, if you have not slept, chocolate will revive you.” Normally I’d be in total agreement with this sage advice from the late seventeenth century French writer Marie Rabutin-Chantal De Sévigne. There’s nothing like an elegant truffle from Godiva or a dreamy caramel scotchmallow from See’s—my personal favorite—to lift the spirts, especially during these unprecedented times. That said, I might have to take issue with this wisdom when it comes to reading. If chocolate and a good book were contenders for the label of which would best “revive” me, it would be a close race, but the bound volume of printed pages would definitely prevail. Reading has been especially crucial to my well-being over the past months, a constant in the ever-changing landscape of world affairs. Immersing oneself in the universe of a book has always been a hallowed form of escapism, but these days, I’m sure many avid readers would agree that it can also serve as a form of therapy. Below find selections that Literary Mama’s editors are currently digging into, captivating literature that deals with mystery, introspection, survival, and ultimately, revival.
Blog Editor Bridget Lillethorup shares her exploration of the work of an author she discovered in an English graduate seminar: “I read Randon Billings Noble’s essay, “Elegy for Dracula” about a year ago, and I remember being floored by the way she weaves classic literature, pop culture, and a personal love story into the piece. She draws connections between the literature and media that shaped her, and by doing so creates a tone of dark love that shadows her deeply personal and tragic love story. I’ve recently been exploring the way certain pieces of literature—like the words of Willa Cather and Truman Capote—have cast shadows and tones on my own life, so I decided to read more from Noble. I’m currently swimming through her essay collection, Be With Me Always. I feel my heart ripping open alongside hers, as she infuses heartbreak, false love, true love, and even motherly love into her experimental essays. In “Leaving the Island” she compares Robinson Crusoe‘s journey to her own battle with depression during her pregnancy. After learning she’s pregnant with twins, she writes, “I pretended to be simply overwhelmed as I filled out forms and made our next appointment and kept my eyes slightly wide and my mouth pulled into what I hoped looked like a bemused smile. But I, like Crusoe, was ‘terrified to the last degree.'” Noble’s hermit crab essay, “The Heart as a Torn Muscle,” is also a delight to read, as it takes the form of a WebMD posting. She lists the symptoms of a broken heart, suggestions for healing, and even some recommend reading on the subject of heartbreak, like the works of Tolstoy and Woolf. Through her use of comparisons with popular media, she brings the intersections of honesty and love into a new light.”
“Running and reading both soothe my soul,” writes senior editor Christina Consolino, “and thanks to my phone I can run and read when I’m on the treadmill, which makes for a bright beginning to my day. (We all need more of those these days, right?) This past week I read Ann Garvin’s I Like You Just Fine When You’re Not Around. Like many of us, the main character, Tig Monahan, wears too many hats: therapist, girlfriend, sister, daughter, and caregiver to a mother with advancing Alzheimer’s disease, to name a few. On top of those stressors, nothing seems to be going the way Tig expected. Her boyfriend wants her to move from Wisconsin to Hawaii (but isn’t that ‘excited’ about her anymore); her mother no longer remembers who she is; a disgruntled patient threatens a lawsuit; and her self-absorbed sister shows up pregnant. Tig’s experiences with life’s twists and turns remind the reader that every day is full of challenging moments, and our reactions make all the difference. If you like humorous, heartfelt fiction about complex relationships, Garvin’s book is for you.”
Photo and Blog Editor Stephanie Buesinger delves into her favorite crime writer’s latest book: “In these uncertain times, what’s better than curling up on the sofa with a much-awaited mystery? Like many, I eagerly anticipated the release of Tana French’s eighth novel, The Searcher. The American-Irish crime writer’s books are relatively few in number, so each new release is an event to be savored. Beginning with In the Woods (2007), French’s first six books are part of the “Dublin Murder Squad” series. Her two latest books are stand-alone novels, but the series itself is more a set of interlinked stories, with a relatively minor character from one book becoming the primary character in a subsequent book. French’s previous novel, The Witch Elm (2018), is a finely-crafted character study with a mystery at its core. The Searcher is also a stand-alone work that tells the story of a Chicago cop, Cal Hooper, who decides to retire to a seemingly bucolic rural Irish town. It’s not long before he’s drawn into a local mystery. Indeed, the book opens with Cal thinking someone is watching him. Or is it only the rooks in his yard? French’s novels are anything but your run-of-the-mill mystery/thriller series. In her “Dublin Murder Squad” world, the usual elements of crime fiction are there—a case to be solved, office politics, moody Irish landscapes. But the true mystery lies in the hearts and minds of the characters, as one of them reveals in In the Woods: “I had learned early to assume something dark and lethal hidden at the heart of anything I loved. When I couldn’t find it, I responded, bewildered and wary, in the only way I knew how: by planting it there myself.” Whether it be the legacies of a childhood trauma, the broken promises of the Irish economic boom, or the bonds and rivalries between partners, spouses, or students at a girl’s school, it is relationships in all their complexity that are at the core of a Tana French novel. French’s characters are so richly drawn, at times it is as if the reader experiences the events first-hand. Her dialogue is an adept mixture of local jargon, social status, and police slang. From a Dublin bar to a defunct housing development, Ireland itself is as finely rendered as the characters. The novels’ detailed settings are intensified by French’s skilled interweaving of Irish folklore and legend, and she deftly incorporates elements of magical realism that keep the reader guessing at what just happened. French does not always provide a clear resolution to her novels, instead, she makes readers do the work of finding their own answers. As in life, there are no neat endings in a Tana French novel. But the rewards are plenty.”
Poetry Editor Ellen Elder tells us of her timely foray into pandemic literature: “As a poet, I’m more drawn to lyrical novels, but I do enjoy post-apocalyptic literature. I’d never read any “pandemic lit” until I came across Canadian novelist Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, in which a deadly virus wipes out most of humanity in three weeks. Only a few pockets of people in ruined towns remain, including the novel’s main character, 28-year-old Kirsten, a member of a nomadic acting troupe. The story pivots back and forth between the time before what they call “the collapse” and twenty years later, when there’s no gas, water, electricity, healthcare, airplanes, countries, government institutions, or borders. Kirsten, who was eight when the virus took her parents, moves up and down the Great Lakes region in what was once Michigan performing in Shakespeare plays with a troupe poignantly referred to as “The Travelling Symphony.” Kirsten finds it harder than younger members of the troupe to cope in the apocalypse because she remembers the things from before the collapse—driving in a car with her parents, watching TV, hearing planes fly overhead, enjoying air conditioning. In her spare time, she obsesses over a series of graphic novels which, although she doesn’t know it yet, were penned by the wife of the famous King Lear actor who appeared on stage with Kirsten the night the virus struck, leading to his sudden death. As memories of her parent’s faces slip away, Kirsten’s clings to these graphic novels as if she’s grasping for something solid to hold onto, like a nurturing planet or, more likely, a surrogate mother. They serve connect her to the pre-collapse world. Station Eleven reminded me of another novel that is touted as sci-fi but is really more about human connection—Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, where we become gradually aware that orphaned boarding school students are actually clones reared to be harvested. Similarly, Station Eleven is not really about an apocalypse or a pandemic, rather, it’s about the fear of loss, or more precisely, of losing contact with each other. In the sparsely populated towns that “The Travelling Symphony” passes through, people camp out in abandoned Walmarts and fight for food and ammunition. Self-proclaimed prophets take over. Yet in a ‘midsummer’s-like dream’ plot twist, some towns welcome a Shakespeare performance, so the troupe lingers. It’s as if these townspeople consider art the last vestige of human culture—a celebration of human connection. Oddly, it’s not a quote from A Midsummer Night’s Dream that readers walk away with, rather, it’s a quote from “Star Trek” that follows the troupe through the region of the Great Lakes: “Survival is insufficient.” This makes me ponder the times we’re currently living through. If surviving the COVID-19 crisis is not enough, then what is? What do we do tell our children these days? I think about human contact and touch—something we have largely been robbed of as a result of the current pandemic. When my daughter walks to school wearing a mask that she cannot remove until 4pm, where she will be told not to eat too close to her peers, I hug her. I say ‘I love you,’ wish her a good day, and tell her how proud I am of her for doing such a good job at ‘surviving’ this. I don’t think we should pretend otherwise.”