Maria Judite de Carvalho, Julietta Singh, and Claudia Rankine
Short reviews of recent reading
This has been a busy fall season with school in session, house repairs underway, non-newsletter writing projects, etc., etc. But I’ve read so many good books to tell you about!
Empty Wardrobes by Maria Judite de Carvalho, translated by Margaret Jull Costa
I so enjoyed the characters in this novel. Originally published in 1966, Empty Wardrobes (Two Lines Press, 2021) tells the story of Dora, who has spent ten years mourning her husband’s death. She worked hard to keep his memory alive, so much so that remembering him became her whole life and identity. Her husband’s death brought years of financial struggle, during which her well-off mother-in-law — a strong personality if there ever was one — never helped. Dora has a daughter, Lisa, who takes after that mother-in-law in her independence and strength. These two would never disappear into a man’s memory.
Eventually Dora finds a job working in a furniture shop nicknamed “The Museum,” and her life improves in stability, if not in variety. Then she learns a secret, and everything changes.
I loved the dynamics among these three women, each memorable and strange in their own way. But the story is told by a fourth woman, Manuela, who was Dora’s friend, or on-again, off-again friend. Manuela’s point of view on the story is fascinating from the very beginning and adds another layer of complexity to a text that already feels intricate in its relationships and emotions.
I don’t want to say anything more about the plot, but things do happen and they are fun to follow. Don’t miss the introduction by Kate Zambreno, which is partly a personal essay about her grandmother and partly a discussion of the plight of women, in this novel and elsewhere.
The Breaks: An Essay by Julietta Singh
The Breaks (Coffee House Press, 2021) is written as a letter Julietta Singh addresses to her daughter, telling stories from her life and expressing her hopes and fears for her daughter’s future, especially in the light of our current and worsening climate chaos.
The word “breaks” takes on multiple meanings, one of which is Singh’s consideration of how her daughter must and should break from her way of living, the way that is mired in capitalism and consumption, even as she tries to live as carefully and ethically as she can. The next generation is going to have to find new ways of living — by choice or by necessity. Singh looks ahead to this “break” with worry but also with anticipation and a sense of possibility.
Singh also writes about queer families and the story of how she formed her own — another “break,” this time from hetero norms. She describes her broken body and the childhood horse-riding accident that led to surgeries as an adult. And she writes about race, colonialism, and family, about her activist, Jewish mother and her Punjabi father whose life was shaped by the partition of India.
Singh is an academic, and I could feel it in the rigor and care she brings to her thinking on all her subjects, whether it’s her own life or the world around her. She writes personally and emotionally, but she also regularly references writers who have shaped her and the ideas she is trying to base her life on. The book feels committed to honesty and clear-sightedness above all else. I thought it was extraordinary. It’s a bracing book on a difficult subject, but I found it comforting.
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
I read and admired Claudia Rankine’s Citizen a while ago, but I really loved Don’t Let Me Lonely (Graywolf, 2004), and I’m glad I went back to it. It’s beautiful as an object, unusually tall and narrow, so it almost feels like you’re reading columns, with a gorgeous cover and images scattered throughout. Rankine writes in a fragmented way, often using only part of the page, sometimes leaving most of the page blank, and the result is that the book feels meditative, like reading poetry can be.
The book is broken into sections, each one containing multiple sections within it, and each of the main sections beginning with an image of a static-filled television screen. Many of the other images in the book are television screens with stills from the news or the movies. All the space in the book — the space between the various sections and that between Rankine’s prose and her images — gives you room to ponder and make connections among the book’s various subjects. You have space to think. The form somehow adds to the sense of sadness that permeates the book. It’s a slow, moody contemplation of a series of difficult events and ideas, and Rankine’s form invites you to take your time with it. (I’ve been thinking about uses of space in creative nonfiction after reading my friend Amie Souza Reilly’s really great essay on the subject in the journal Assay).
The book was published in 2004, and it is of its time in the sense that it responds to post-9/11 America and the political and cultural mood of that era. It’s about death, solitude, depression, pharmaceuticals, television, Princess Diana, Timothy McVeigh, George W. Bush, and other figures of the time. It’s about Black death at the hands of the police. It’s about bodily organs, including the liver and the heart. It’s such a sad, thoughtful, beautiful book.
New small-press books out recently that I haven’t yet read and am adding to my TBR. There are SO MANY good books out this fall, and since I haven’t written a newsletter in a while, this list is long. All quotations below are from the publisher:
Lemon by Kwon Yeo-Sun, translated by Janet Hong (Other Press): “Parasite meets The Good Son in this piercing psychological portrait of three women haunted by a brutal, unsolved crime.”
I Will Die in a Foreign Land by Kalani Pickhart (Two Dollar Radio): this novel “follows four individuals over the course of a volatile Ukrainian winter, as their lives are forever changed by the Euromaidan protests.”
The Letters of Mina Harker by Dodie Bellamy (Semiotext(e)): “Bellamy's debut novel revives the central female character from Bram Stoker's Dracula and imagines her as an independent woman living in San Francisco during the 1980s.”
The Pastor by Hanne Orstavik, translated by Martin Aitken (Archipelago): “Liv, an intense and reticent theologian, moves to a bitterly cold fishing village to take up a post as the church's new pastor following the death of her friend, Kristiane.”
Black Paper: Writing in a Dark Time by Teju Cole (University of Chicago Press): “‘Darkness is not empty,’ writes Teju Cole in Black Paper, a book that meditates on what it means to sustain our humanity--and witness the humanity of others--in a time of darkness.”
Phototaxis by Olivia Tapiero, translated by Kit Schluter (Nightboat Books): “Phototaxis is a fragmentary, darkly-humorous, and apocalyptic novel from a leading young voice from Montreal centered around questions of friendship, the commodification of globalized tragedy, ecological crisis, the griefs of migration, and the possibility of political coherence in today's world.”
Em by Kim Thuy, translated by Sheila Fischman (Seven Stories Press): “Emma-Jade and Louis are born into the havoc of the Vietnam War. Orphaned, saved and cared for by adults coping with the chaos of Saigon in free-fall, they become children of the Vietnamese diaspora.”
Exteriors by Annie Ernaux, translated by Tanya Leslie (Seven Stories Press): “Taking the form of random journal entries over seven years, Exteriors captures the feeling of contemporary living on the outskirts of Paris.”
The Interim by Wolfgang Hilbig, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole (Two Lines Press, originally published in 2000): this novel “interrogates with bitter wit and singular brilliance the detritus of twentieth-century life: addiction, consumerism, God, pay-per-view pornography, selfishness, statelessness, and above all else, the writer's place in a ‘century of lies.’”
Havana Year Zero by Karla Suárez, translated by Christina MacSweeney (Charco Press): “Sex, lies, and scientific history collide in 1993 Havana…What begins as an investigation into scientific history becomes a tangle of sex, friendship, family legacies, and the intricacies of how people find ways to survive in a country at its lowest ebb.”
Borealis by Aisha Sabatini Sloan (Coffee House Press): “Art about glaciers, queer relationships, political anxiety, and the meaning of Blackness in open space--Borealis is a shapeshifting logbook of Aisha Sabatini Sloan's experiences moving through the Alaskan outdoors.”
Brickmakers by Selva Almada, translated by Annie McDermott (Graywolf): “A piercing and passionate novel, set in rural Argentina, about violence and masculinity.”
New on the TBR
Rather than trying to list the books I’ve recently acquired, which would take a while, here’s a picture of some of them. Yes, I have acquired a lot of books lately, and I have many more on the way. Judge me if you want — I don’t care.
I also bought I, Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita, but it’s at the bottom of a pile of thick, heavy books, and I didn’t feel like pulling it out.
Matrix by Lauren Groff (Riverhead, 2021): I’m reading a library copy. A book about 12th-century nuns? Sure!
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris (Atria Books, 2021): my current audiobook.
The Cormac Report
This is the stack of Cormac’s books currently sitting next to his seat at our dining room table. And by “currently,” I mean it’s there now and has been there for … weeks? I’m not sure. He adds and removes books now and then, but the stack itself stays there until Rick and I feel the need to clean up. That doesn’t happen often. We’ll put the books away, or have him put the books away, and then they will creep out again and the stack reappears. He hasn’t read all these books, but it gives you a good idea of what he’s currently reading and planning to read next.
Have a great weekend everyone!