The perfect pandemic novel is a short novel, since our attention spans may be diminished by panic, or loss, or involuntary isolation. It is a novel set in a predictable world unlike the one we now inhabit, in order to offer us temporary relief from the 2020 shitshow.
Piranesi, the title character, lives in a labyrinth that offers the peace of solitude among beauty, interrupted only by brief interactions with “the Other.” He sets himself tasks, some wholly pragmatic, and some philosophic. His ongoing task is to know his world. Our task, as readers, is to discover how he ended up there.
The novel we need now might be one with an innocent protagonist like Piranesi because we ourselves may have become jaded by daily reports of infections and deaths and the callous responses of our government. We may need a likeable protagonist, too, because isolation may have made us unlikeable. Or perhaps the people we live with have become unlikeable, or even intolerable.
A perfect novel for this dark winter has a strange plot, original enough to be compelling, with just enough touchstones to invite us to try making sense of it. And because it is a novel, in the end we find a way through the strange yet familiar labyrinth. We reach a resolution. Sort of.
This is the book that kept me awake in the good way of reading because I believed whole-heartedly in a world, as opposed to the bad way of doomscrolling for jolts of “I cannot believe this bullshit.”
Piranesi, it turns out, is a man who can change his opinions when the facts demand it – a good lesson for us all in challenging times.
Right in time for #NAAM2019, my review of memoirs by adoptees Nicole Chung, Karen Pickell, and Lori Jakiela appear in the current issue of Hippocampus Magazine. Each memoir is lyrical and insightful, and each presents a distinct experience of being adopted.
Hippocampus Magazine, by the way, publishes terrific nonfiction stories. If you are a writer of nonfiction looking to publish a piece, check them out!
From the review:
“With its built-in interrogation of what it means to belong to a family, adoption offers a rich context for memoir. Quests to locate mysterious origins provide deeply archetypal narrative arcs for adoption stories, too, and the specialized dialect of adoption invites stories that consider the impact of language on life.”
Click here for the full review — and check out these excellent memoirs!
The publication of a new book by an author you love is a wonderful thing, perhaps especially when that author is no longer in this world Last month, a posthumous collection of Laura Hershey’s poetry and prose was published by The Unsung Masters Series, a project of Pleiades Press, Gulf Coast Journal, and Copper Nickel Journal.
Hershey passed away after a sudden illness in November of 2010; this came as a shock to her many friends and followers, including me. I’d met Laura when she organized a WOM-PO event at the 2010 AWP conference in Denver. About 30 women attended the lunch, exchanging news about recent books and publications.
I’d become familiar with Laura’s work through the WOM-PO listserv, and deeply admired her incisive intellect and her writing on personal and political facets of living as a disabled woman, and I was anxious to speak with her about her work. At the time, I was working on a chapbook of poems about my experience with hepatitis C and stigma. After some conversation, we embarked on an exchange of poems via email for mutual feedback.
Laura and her long-time partner Robin Stephens had recently adopted a teenage girl, and many of her poems in our brief exchange centered on her new daughter. As an adoptee raised in a fucked-up home, I had a bad taste in my mouth about adoption in general. Laura’s poems were a palate cleanser for me. I had no idea that an adoptive parent could focus, as she and Robin did, on learning all they could about who their daughter was, understanding her daughter as an individual, and acting for the benefit of their child.
The Unsung Masters Series project is an important one, but Laura Hershey was hardly unsung in the many communities she touched with her poetry, prose, and activism. For a sampling of her international influence, check out her website, which continues to live on after her death.
She put her considerable energies to work for both the theory and practice of LGBTQ and disability rights. In addition to her prolific writing, she worked with ADAPT, Not Dead Yet, and other disability rights activist groups. Among other issues, she advocated for universal design — a world that is ready-made for all of us — because, as she asked, “what could be more universal than having a body?”
One of Laura’s poems, “You Get Proud by Practicing,” was set to music and also became a rallying cry for many people with disabilities. It’s included in this important book. Here’s an excerpt:
You Get Proud by Practicing by Laura Hershey
If you are not proud
For who you are, for what you say, for how you look;
If every time you stop
To think of yourself, you do not see yourself glowing
With golden light; do not, therefore, give up on yourself.
You can get proud.
You do not need
A better body, a purer spirit, or a Ph.D.
To be proud.
You do not need
A lot of money, a handsome boyfriend, or a nice car.
You do not need
To be able to walk, or see, or hear,
Or use big, complicated words,
Or do any of those things that you just can’t do
To be proud. A caseworker
Cannot make you proud,
Or a doctor.
You only need more practice.
You get proud by practicing.
Somehow, even as a lifelong fan of British women novelists, I’d never read anything by Jo Baker until this month. It’s especially surprising that I never picked up Longbourn, her riff on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, one of my childhood/young adult faves.
Based on my reading of Longbourn and Baker’s latest, The Body Lies, Baker has the particular storytelling gift of exposing cultural lapses in logic and compassion, and similar lapses in individual readers. In other words, she sets you up like a bowling pin for your own personal epiphany.
Longbourne parallels the plot of Pride and Prejudice by prefacing each of its chapter with a quote from P & P. These function as a sort of shorthand for the where and when of the main characters of Longbourn: Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper, Mr. Hill, the butler, Sarah, the ladies’ maid, and Polly, the char. The acts and concerns of the gentry, however, are as the acts of insects — utterly insignificant, except when they happen to sting. And sting they do, in surprising, devastating ways, often with less consciousness of cause and effect than an insect.
The focus is on the hearts and minds of the people employed by the Bennett family. It is their secrets, their desires, their thoughts, and their concerns that move the novel forward. In the precarious and changing economy of early 18th century England, these characters are as concerned with stability and security as the Bennett daughters, and they make a host of distinct sacrifices to stay afloat. This is a page-turner with a deeply embedded treatise on class division.
Reading up a bit on Jo Baker, I learned that she is a writer who tries something new with each of her books. The Body Lies is set in modern-day England, first in London, and then at a university in the north where the unnamed protagonist, a novelist, is hired to teach creative writing. In addition to weaving characters’ thoughts about the nature of fiction into this tale, Baker also takes on misogyny and violence against women.
This was a difficult read for me because the novel’s antagonist, also a writer, was so much like the man who battered me as a teenager. My experience of intimate partner violence was a textbook example, and Jo Baker nailed the charisma, the narcissism, the sense of entitlement, and the drama-queen gestures of the typical batterer. Readers who’ve been abused may want to know this ahead of time.
That said, the writing is brilliant, the narrator/protagonist is complex, and the book reversed some assumptions I wouldn’t have expected myself to have. In other words, like any great book, it taught me something about myself and about others.
The title of the review, “Fresh Confessions,” refers to an observation about how the nature of confessional poetry has expanded in the twenty-first century, as exhibited in Penninsular Scar.
Like Sexton and Plath, Kaminski employs a set of private symbols that may accumulate meaning over time for the reader who follows her work. “Cypress,” for example, appears in many of the poems as a strong, durable building material that nevertheless falls to the same destruction as the rest of Florida. Unlike the confessional poets of the 20th century, however, Kaminski proceeds with a distinctively contemporary aesthetic. The confessions contained in the poems, even those contained in conversations with “my therapist,” avoid a coherent narrative by questioning a sense of self at the center of consciousness and employing syntactical disruption.