Three Books

Plus a whole bunch more

Big Girl, Small Town

I’ve been thinking about Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen for days now. I don’t like the title; I think it makes the book sound frivolous, which it definitely is not. It also emphasizes the main character Majella’s weight, which is part of the story but not the whole thing. The “small town” part of the title is more important: Majella lives in Aghybogey, a fictional town in Northern Ireland where she works in a chip shop and lives with her mother. She knows everyone in town, or least she knows the Catholics; the novel is set in the years after the Good Friday agreement, so the Troubles are over, but remnants of conflict remain. She sees the same customers ordering their fish and chips and their sausage suppers week after week. She has the same conversations and responds to the same jokes day after day.

She’s not exactly unhappy with this life; she’s smart, but she’s not ambitious and she loves her regular routine. She’s pretty clearly neurodivergent in some way, although it’s never discussed. Her life would be at least satisfactory except for some serious family problems: her mother is a volatile, demanding alcoholic, her father disappeared years ago and she doesn’t know if he’s alive or not, and her grandmother just died. Early on Majella learns she was murdered. This is an understated development — people think it’s a shame but they have seen this sort of thing happen before — and now Majella doesn’t know what to make of the situation, and the townspeople gossip and stare.

This novel is refreshingly frank about bodies. Gallen describes how Majella feels in her body repeatedly and at length: how her clothes fit and how warm her new duvet is, what it’s like to move, walk down the street, stand behind the shop counter, smoke a cigarette, eat. She describes what it’s like when her period starts. When Majella has sex, it’s narrated with the same straightforward detail. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about Majella, but Gallen describes her with seriousness and care and, after a while, every detail of what happens to her matters.

I’m now reading Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami (translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd), and I noticed immediately that this book talks about women’s bodies in the same way: lots of detail presented as inherently interesting, which it is, or can be when written about well. It’s so enjoyable and somehow comforting to read these books! There’s a whole tradition of books like this, I know, but not so many that I don’t notice how satisfying they are. Both novels take their time with their plots. There’s maybe one exciting event in Big Girl, Small Town, but it feels like enough.

Big Girl, Small Town is full of repetition, which makes sense since it mirrors Majella’s highly-structured, repetitive life. This mirroring works only if the writing is good, of course, but I would happily have read many more pages of this because Majella’s voice is a pleasure: she’s a funny, trustworthy, reliably smart character. This is one of those books I would have sworn was written in first person until I looked back at it and realized it’s actually a very close third. The narrator gets into Majella’s mind and stays there.

I haven’t even mentioned the book’s main structural feature: it’s written in a kind of list format, documenting in categories and subcategories the things Majella likes or doesn’t, or, in the words of the book, the things she’s keen on or not. The “not keen on” list is much lengthier. Each point and subpoint is documented with examples organized chronologically, and these examples are the book. It’s a structure that might sound gimmicky, but it works. It fits the way Majella thinks.

I read this as an audiobook, which may or may not have influenced my opinion. It’s impossible to know, but the audiobook is excellent. It’s read by Nicola Coughlin, who plays Clare in Derry Girls. She’s so much fun to listen to. I have her voice as the mother screaming “MA-JELL-AH!” at the top of her lungs lingering in my mind even now. If you listen to audiobooks at all, that’s the way to experience this book.

Under the Sign of the Labyrinth

Under the Sign of the Labyrinth by Christina Tudor-Sideri (Sublunary Editions, 2020) is a strange little book. It’s a mix of philosophy, essay, nature writing, folklore studies, and memoir. It’s hard to describe, but it veers between meditations on pain and trauma, descriptions of moments from the author’s childhood in a Romanian village, thoughts on fairytales and legends, nature writing, and ideas about the body, memory, emotion, and identity. I found it absolutely beautiful in places and in other places it was more abstract than I prefer. Overall, I enjoyed reading this book slowly (at 125 pages it doesn’t take long) and falling into a meditative state as I read, feeling okay about not understanding everything and soaking up the things I did.

Imaginary Museums

Imaginary Museums by Nicolette Polek (Soft Skull, 2020) is a collection of very short, very weird short stories. The longest ones are maybe eight pages, and many are just a page or two. Many of the stories are haunting, for example, “Coed Picnic,” which is not even two pages but conjures up young people in summer and then ends in a drowning. Another one is about four pages and captures marital misunderstandings in a way that’s both sharply defined and fable-like. Many of the stories head into surreal territory with inexplicable houses, mysteriously disappearing clothes, and bodies that grow strange parts. Polek is great at finding just the right detail to bring a story to life. The strongest of these made me think and feel new things. Others left me wondering what the larger point is. Overall, I liked the otherworldly sensibility that runs through the book (and it’s another short one at 125 pages or so).

Don’t Forget About

Home by Leila S. Chudori, translated by John H. McGlynn (Deep Vellum, 2015, originally published in 2012): Home is a sprawling family saga, which is not the sort of book I’m usually drawn to, but I reviewed this years ago and really enjoyed it. It moves between Jakarta and Paris as a group of friends leave Indonesia after the massacre of 1965 and try to remake their lives in France. It follows two main characters, Dimas and his daughter Lintang as they, in their different ways, try to answer the question of what they mean by “home.” An assignment from a professor sends Lintang on a journey to explore her roots, where she gets caught up in political movements of the 1990s. This is a satisfyingly rich novel, full of friendship, family stories, romance, and some really great food writing, while also exploring ideas about identity and home.

Publishing This Week

Books I haven’t yet read that I’m adding to my TBR:

  • Bina: A Novel in Warnings by Anakana Schofield (New York Review of Books): a “provocative, feminist novel”? Yes, please. This is a series of warnings from a woman telling the story of her life.

  • The Removed by Brandon Hobson (Ecco): a novel about a family in the years after the death of their fifteen-year-old son. Hobson is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation Tribe and this novel draws on Cherokee folklore.

  • Passages by Ann Quin (And Other Stories, originally published in 1969): an experimental novel exploring various meanings of “passage,” about a woman and her lover searching for the woman’s brother.

  • Trout, Belly Up by Rodrigo Fuentes, translated by Ellen Jones (Charco Press): a collection of seven interconnected short stories set in the Guatemalan countryside.

Newly Acquired

Yes, I’ve been acquiring books at a very rapid pace. Yes, I acquire at a faster rate than I read. Yes, this is not sustainable. No, I’m not stopping.

  • Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Amelia Nagoski and Emily Nagoski (Ballantine Books, 2020): a friend got this for me for my birthday. I only occasionally read self-help type books but every now and then they are just the thing. This one is about women’s experience of burnout and about managing stress and emotions.

  • Negative Space by Lilly Dancyger (Sante Fe Writer’s Project, publishing May 1st): an advanced review copy from the publisher. This is a memoir about the author grappling with the legacy of her father.

  • Little Snow Landscape by Robert Walser, translated by Tom Whalen (NYRB Classics, publishing March 2nd): An advanced review copy. This is a collection of previously unpublished short prose, written between 1905 and 1933.

  • Nervous System by Lina Meruane, translated by Megan McDowell (Graywolf Press, publishing May 18th): An advanced review copy. This is a follow-up to the novel Seeing Red, which I loved. This one is about Ella, who is working on a doctorate in astrophysics and struggling with writer’s block. Then she begins to experience mysterious symptoms.

  • Sea Wife by Amity Gaige (Knopf, 2020): another birthday present, a novel about a young family on a year-long sailing trip.

  • A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders (Random House, 2021): another present. In this one Saunders reads Russian short stories and uses them as a way to analyze how fiction works.

Currently Reading

  • A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders: I’ve read the introduction and the first chapter and so far am into it. For the first chapter, he takes a Chekhov story page by page — interspersing story pages with commentary — and analyzes how it works.

  • The Shame by Makenna Goodman (Milkweed Editions, 2020): a novel about a woman who gets in the car and drives away from her family in Vermont. I’m only maybe 40 pages in but so far I’m loving it.

The Cormac Report

Cormac hate-reads the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, and, honestly, I’m very glad he hate-reads them instead of the opposite because those books are annoying. I don’t remember how he discovered them, but it’s probably because I bought him the first one, eager as I am to give him any book he might like. We used to read them together, and I couldn’t help but comment on what a jerk Greg Heffley is, and then Cormac decided he agreed with me (this could easily have gone in the opposite direction depending on his mood), and ever since he occasionally picks them up on his own and comments every page or two on what selfish or mean thing Greg is doing. He enjoys pointing out how lazy, deceptive, and obnoxious Greg can be and how actually his friend Rowley is pretty interesting and much nicer. It’s become a way to think about why people are mean and where they learn it from, and that’s great, but it caused some problems when his best friend told him she likes Greg. He just didn’t get it. Why would anyone like that kid? Thus began his first lesson in how to let other people have their (wrong) opinions. It didn’t go very well, but he just turned eight, so he has a lifetime ahead to figure that one out.

Have a good week everyone!