Each page of my crisp, new reading log contains space for thoughts about the books I plan to read this year, along with room to jot down noteworthy quotes and award ratings for plot, characters, and overall enjoyability. Strangely, this will be my first time keeping such a journal. As a devoted, enthusiastic reader, one of my regrets is that there isn’t a log of the books I’ve feasted on since my clammy little hands first discovered the printed word. How fun and enlightening it would be to look back at notes written in my large, loopy preteen handwriting, or my more refined, sophisticated collegiate script, pouring over my thoughts on various books and themes, getting a glimpse into my inner life at mixed and sundry points in time. I’d love to see how I evolved both in my choices in literature as well as my own personal psychology as it related to the books I spent time reading. Just as music is often cited as the soundtrack to life, with different songs retrieving certain moments in memory, the books we read can also be signposts of growth and impact. True to its name, a reading journal is a diary of sorts—of a person’s interests, obsessions, inspirations. I’m starting one this year, and after the horde of calamities that made up 2020, I’m looking forward to looking back. Below find candidates for inclusion in the logs of Literary Mama editors, beginning with one that appears on the first page of mine.
The cover of Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom, with tones of blush, black, and rose gold, is just as elegant as the book’s content. This moving, contemplative novel traces the journey of Gifty, a scientist finishing up her doctorate in neuroscience at Stanford. The sole daughter of a family that migrated to the States from Ghana during her primary years, Gifty struggles to forge meaningful relationships and find joy despite the loss of her brother to an overdose years ago and her mother’s subsequent depression. The lackluster response of the church following her brother’s death prompts Gifty to question her faith and forge a new spiritual path for herself, while at the same time defending her family’s beliefs against those who would ridicule it. Gyasi deftly employs flashbacks between Gifty’s childhood and present day, inserting letters to God written at a tender age that allow readers a peek into her complex interior. First-person narration by Gifty lends intimacy with the character and her experiences, and through engaging scenes with colleagues, partners, and others, Gyasi explores matters of love and grief, the contentious relationship between religion and science, and learning to find one’s own way.
“I was recently given a copy of Emma Donoghue’s latest novel, The Pull of the Stars,” writes Profiles Editor Kelsey Madges, “and I have to admit that my first inclination was to forego diving into a story set during the flu pandemic of 1918. ‘Trust me,’ a friend said, ‘you need to read this book.’ Class disparities, sexism, rampant misinformation, supply shortages, war, grief, and a global pandemic are all concerns that could be tackled by a story set in present day, but Emma Donoghue takes readers on a journey back to a maternity ward in Dublin, Ireland, where expectant mothers are sick with the flu. Extraordinary circumstances bring together three women: nurse Julia Power, Dr. Kathleen Lynn, and young volunteer Birdie Sweeney. Over the course of three days, several different patients occupy the three beds in the ward, and these women navigate the razor’s edge between life and death. I found myself both captivated by the descriptions of labor and birth in 1918 and grateful that my pregnancies and birth experiences took place in the 21st century. While there is much that is bleak in The Pull of the Stars, it is a story that is hopeful and beautifully told. I’ve read that the 100 year anniversary of the 1918 flu pandemic is what propelled Emma Donoghue to research and write this novel. She could not have known how incredibly relevant it would be by the time of its publication, nor how much we might need the glimmers of light it offers.”
Reviews Editor Autumn Purdy has become fully immersed in a lovely collection of poetry: “In his newest publication, What He Did In Solitary: Poems, Amit Majmudar proves how shards of life and fragments of recollection can become centering points of literature. The book is segmented by mini-poems, interruptions of thought, and ruminations, all of which propel the sections forward to the next dimension and iteration of verse. I find much of Majmudar’s writing inviting, curious, and fascinating, and the poems and stop-and-go pieces chosen for this volume mesmerized me. His ability to write from beyond his inner-realm just as deftly as from the most intimate parts of himself is a wonder, and the variance and poetic exploration of humanity presented feels fresh with every turn of the page. The book begins with a selection of poems about a family’s migration to America, growing up without a Tom and Huck experience, bullies, first loves, basketball, and the legends and friends that define us. Moving on to forms of love and relationships, ‘Elemental’ reads: The sky goes naked. / Daylight cannot shame the air. / I try to write your body, but it feels like naming air. / Inside you: if you as your lover, then your breath. / I became my voice when you became my air. ‘The Syndrome’ cuts into the work of a pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon, slicing the reader’s heart in the rendering, while ‘Autumnal’ is a tear-provoking poem of parental loss. Majmudar’s verse triumphs on a plethora of imperative topics and sharper points, such as in ‘Grooming’ where the author speaks of facial hair and outright racism. In ‘Replacement Fertility (II),’ he addresses governmental control and two hearts refusing to adhere to population restraints, swept away instead by intent and desire. ‘Letters to Myself in My Next Incarnation’ is a mesmerizing litany achieving its pivotal point with, I didn’t used to be a decent man, / But fatherhood improved me. / When I was younger, kid,/ I spiked the karmic punch,/ And now what’s in me/ Is bound to be in you./ But don’t you worry,/ I’ll be good for you from now on./ You, my spirit changeling./ Metamorphic orphan./ Only child. Complex, creative, visceral, and benign, What He Did in Solitary chronicles a life exuberantly lived. Majmudar skillfully connects readers to their personal truths, widening hearts to a perspective beyond imagination. As the secluded winter months slog along, this volume may prove to be the balm readers seek, making the reading of poetry what they did in solitary.”
“Like many women,” writes Senior Editor Christina Consolino, “I’ve been fascinated with Annie Oakley since I saw a production of Annie Get Your Gun in elementary school. So I’m devouring Andromeda Romano-Lax’s forthcoming Annie and the Wolves, which goes beyond the myths perpetuated by the musical and cultivates fiction based around information revealed by Oakley’s relatives. Romano-Lax uses a dual timeline to weave science fiction and historical fiction into one timely, suspenseful, and complicated tale, and she places the reader directly in the action right from the beginning of the novel. In the early 1900s, we meet Annie at the moment a southbound train collides with the show train she’s traveling on. She thinks to herself, Away, and she does just that, moving through time, skipping ‘like a stone across a pond.’ Meanwhile, in contemporary times, we meet Ruth, an Annie Oakley researcher who is still working through the aftereffects of a car accident and the dissolution of her relationship with her fiancé. When Ruth receives a journal thought to be written by the sharpshooter, she enlists the help of Reece, a computer-savvy teenager, to help her determine the authenticity of it. They discover that the journal concerns Oakley but was written by a third person—possibly a therapist trying to help Oakley work through past trauma and abuse inflicted by someone called The Wolf. Full disclosure: the book addresses many topics and themes, some disturbing—abuse, mental illness, suicide, the human psyche, revenge, and memory among them—but it never feels heavy. Annie and the Wolves is Romano-Lax’s fifth book; I’ve put the other four on my TBR list.”