January came and went in the blink of an eye, and after reading A Little Life over a month ago, I think I’m finally ready to write about it. I wanted to start the reading year off with something I knew would hit hard so when my boyfriend’s mom asked if there were any books I wanted for Christmas I asked for Hanya Yanagihara’s heartbreaking novel, A Little Life. After letting myself be knowingly and completely destroyed by it, I turned to a familiar childhood favorite to find a bit of comfort in my old pal Ralph. Beverly Cleary’s Runaway Ralph was one of my first favorite chapter books. I can still picture the section of my elementary school library where all of her books were shelved, and it was so lovely to go back there for a bit. I followed up my trip down memory lane with Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri, author of The Lowland, which I’d just read in December. I wasn’t prepared for how much I’d enjoy a different kind of writing from her. It was a quick but thoughtful read, and I hope she explores more of that type of fiction in the future. Along with Whereabouts, I picked up Such a Fun Age by Riley Reid from the library, a book I’d seen all over Instagram that had one of those very contemporary covers that I don’t love (pictures to follow, and yes I’m aware I’m literally judging a book by its cover). Following one current read with another, I picked up Tommy Orange’s There There on the same trip, and also chose it initially because I recognized it from the bookstagram community. Not to make a wide sweeping generalization, but while both of these books told important, interesting stories about topics we need more stories about, I just don’t think that that kind of popular-bookstagram-commercial fiction is my cup of tea. I closed out the month by returning to a poetry collection I’d read a few years ago, Brute by Emily Skaja. The cover art is so cool, the poems are accessible but an open vessel for interpretation, and it’s one I see myself returning to over and again when I want something both light and heavy.
Quick apology for the weeklong delay in posting, but I’m still working out how to divide my focus and energy between reading, writing, and writing about reading, so bear with me please and thank you! & Now, without further ado here are my thoughts about books, January edition.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
I found myself circling Hanya Yanagihara’s, A Little Life because I’d heard how much it destroys you. The emotional depth paired with its 800 plus page length had me file it to the backburner for a while, waiting for the right time. After taking stock of what I’d read in 2022, I wanted to make more room for books that reached further into the heart and soul of what it means to be human. Naturally, it felt like the perfect time for A Little Life and as my first read of the new year, I couldn’t be more satisfied with my choice. That being said, absolutely FUCK what happens at the end, the thing that doesn’t seem necessary and yet it makes sense to me from a writer’s perspective. I won’t hint at or give away anything, but all I’ll say is that countless times throughout the novel I found myself with my hand over my heard whispering “Oh, Jude,” with an empathetic shake of the head and a heaviness in my heart. It seems silly to include trigger warnings with a book of this caliber, but it is without a doubt one of the hardest books I’ve read – content wise – since Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling, a book disturbingly similar in its material, so if you read either of these, please proceed with caution and be gentle with yourself, always.
With a story so wide-sweeping and character based, Yanagihara’s prose and deliberate pacing allow for the articulation of the darkest horrors of man in a way that pays its respects to the subject itself. She pulls us into the lives of four lifelong friends – Malcolm, JB, Willem, and Jude. Amongst the four of them, Jude is the least known and the most loved. It’s implied that he experienced a rough childhood, alluding to extreme poverty and memories not worth sharing. Specifics are foregone and illusions leave enough space of understanding that it’s possible to continue reading despite the darkness. Yanagihara writes in a way that allows directness of the details to lie in the peripheral, receiving acknowledgement without derailing the readers focus. Jude’s traumas are relentless and beyond comprehension, yet the care and unyielding love the people in his life hold for him is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking. As a reader, each new revelation of Jude’s past makes you want to thrash against the injustice of it all. You want to reach through the pages and pull Jude into your arms, holding him against your heart to transfer all the love and understanding and acceptance that he’s been repeatedly denied, yet we all deserve. This story will offer a lesson in the incalculable importance of sharing the ugliest parts of yourself with the people who want to see them; it’s a story of the capacity of the human brain to protect itself in whatever way it can. Yanagihara’s prose is so achingly beautiful that I’ll limit myself to just one passage but will surely draft a separate post shortly including the countless others that make you pause as a reader, sittng back to admire the talent.
“You’ll find your own way to discuss what happened to you,” he remembers Ana saying. “You’ll have to, if you ever want to be close to anyone.” He wishes, as he often does, that he had let her talk to him, that he had let her teach him how to do it. His silence had begun as something protective, but over the years it has transformed into something near oppressive, something that manages him rather than the other way around. Now he cannot find a way out of it, even if he wants to. He imagines he is floating in a small bubble of water, encased on all sides by walls and ceilings and floors of ice, all many feet thick. He knows there is a way out, but he is unequipped; he has no tools to begin his work, and his hands scrabble uselessly against the ice’s slick. He had thought that by not saying who he was, he was making himself more palatable, less strange. But now, what he doesn’t say makes him stranger, an object of pity and even suspicion.” (p. 339)
Runaway Ralph by Beverly Cleary
Runaway Ralph by Beverly Cleary. Published by Dell Publishing Co., Inc. in 1970. The hardcover is 175 pages.
After the heaviness that is A Little Life, I turned to a childhood favorite to soothe my heart a bit. The late Beverly Cleary whom we recently lost in March of 2021 was one of my first favorite authors. Runaway Ralph finds our courageous mouse friend bored and living with his extended mouse family at a rundown inn off the highway. After receiving a small toy motorcycle complete with crash helmet (half a ping pong ball and a rubber band) Ralph decides to live life on his own terms and venture out into the world. He runs away (rides away) from his family and finds himself at a local summer camp where he befriends a young boy named Garfield. Before revealing himself to Garf, he hears him singing camp songs which he takes to be violent and decides he shouldn’t trust the boy. Eventually the two come together to strike a bargain that will help Garfield be less of an outcast amongst the camp boys and girls, and help Ralph live his motorcycle riding, thrill-seeking life to the fullest. A wholesome book that isn’t too exciting, isn’t too boring, but rather it’s justtttt right.
After reading just the first few sentences of Runaway Ralph I was brought back to my 7-year-old-self tucked away in that distinct section of the library I can still picture, reading about a little mouse who just wanted to be goddamn independent, goddammit! Even though I’d never felt trapped or like I wasn’t allowed to do anything as a child, Ralph embodied the sentiment of wanting to be just a little bit older so you could have a bit more freedom to do whatever you wanted. This story is one amongst several with the character of Ralph the motorcycle riding daredevil of a mouse, and reading this makes me want to return to some of her other classics like the Ramona and Beezus series or Henry and the Clubhouse. I need to use my library card far more this year, and I certainly intend on peppering in these nostalgic quick reads in between some of the more profound, thought-provoking ones that knock you on your ass.
Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri
At the library, I was immediately drawn to the cover design of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel Whereabouts – achingly simple, yet perfect for the overall mood of the book with dappled sunlight, comfort and warmth, a simplicity that feels like a Sunday afternoon nap where the low-hanging sun bakes the room warm as you doze.
Just six pages in I felt echoes of Rachel Cusk, perhaps because of its inclusion in the DWM genre. (Depressed Woman Moving, a term coined by online reviewer CJ Reads used to describe a plotless story with access to all the protagonist’s internal thoughts, usually depressing ones). Early on in our plotless story, our unnamed protagonists makes note of a plaque on the corner of an ordinary road – a memorial to a middle-aged man who died along the road accompanied by a handwritten note of gratitude from his mother to everyone that stops and devotes even a piece of their day to reading the plaque and honoring the memory of her son. Lahiri’s novel, translated from Italian by the author, is filled with these little moments. Small observations that don’t mean much to the overall story content-wise, but still strike the reader with a sense of importance, nonetheless. These inclusions suggest the mundane moments hold more significance than we often give them credit for.
Lahiri cleverly names her chapter titles, each indicating a different location and how the narrator feels while existing in that space. For example, a passage from her chapter titled “On the sidewalk”:
“He’s crossing a bridge at one end and I’m arriving from the other. We stop in the middle and look at the wall the flanks the river, and the shadows of pedestrians cast on its surface. They look like skittish ghosts advancing in a row, obedient souls passing from one realm to another. The bridge is flat and yet it’s as if the figures – vaporous shapes against the solid wall – are walking uphill, always climbing. They’re like inmates who proceed, silently, toward a dreadful end.” (p. 6-7)
And an excerpt from her chapter “In the office”: “My colleagues tend to keep to themselves, as do I. Maybe they find me prickly, unpleasant, who knows? We’re forced to inhabit close quarters, we’re told to be accessible, and yet I feel peripheral.” (p. 9)
At just 157 pages, Whereabouts is a quick read and contains all of my favorite aspects of autofiction writing – its character driven, plotless and instead filled with small moments of epiphany often paired with profound analogies to help describe or explain them. Nothing overwrought, but it still feels like you’re reading a meaningful piece of literature. A perfect example of upmarket fiction, the blend of approachability with the depth of literary aspects woven throughout.
I enjoyed the experience of this read, it was a step into the mind of a stranger whom I wanted to get to know as we moved through a space easy to picture and desirable to inhabit. Lahiri’s protagonist’s observations weren’t quite as overtly intellectual as Cusk’s narrators tend to be but felt as though she led more with an emotional intelligence as opposed to an intellectual one; observations equal in intelligence and depth but originating from a different place within the narrator.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
I’d seen this book floating around some bookstagrams and noticed it had the Reese’s Book Club stamp of approval, so I thought I’d give it a go when I saw on the shelves. I wasn’t necessarily disappointed, however coming off the everlasting reading experience that is A Little Life, and the autofiction perspective of Whereabouts this novel read more as an elongated short story than a full novel. The premise of the story is that 25-year-old Emira Tucker finds herself employed by one Mrs. Alix Chamberlain, an upper-class white woman who insists she means well throughout the entire novel but is the perfect example of the white savior complex at the very least. One night when Emira has Alix’s toddler at the grocery store, she’s accused of kidnapping and the incident is recorded on video which is later released without her consent for the world to see. The story picks apart the phenomenon of white people going to great lengths to prove they’re “one of the good ones”. Alix Chamberlain represents someone riddled with white guilt for reasons both earned and imagined. This is an important story, and it illustrates the many-layered sinister nature of racism in America today. Reid uses a non-violent anecdote which many white people would have no difficulty minimizing or not acknowledging at all. During the interaction with the security guard at the grocery store he repeatedly requests that Emira turn over her phone to him. Meanwhile, Emira is trying to get ahold of the father to come down to the store and sort it out knowing that a rich white man’s word will go a lot farther than hers, a dark-skinned black woman. Emira reacts to his insistence by yelling, “You’re not even a real cop, so you back up, son!” And then she watched his face shift. His eyes said, I see you now. I know exactly who you are, and Emira held her breath as he began to call for backup.” This moment demonstrates the ways in which racism can lie dormant beneath the surface of an interaction, waiting for the moment in which learned, preconceived ideas about non-white people find the confirmation they’ve been taught to look for.
Overall, the story was well told and kept me interested, although not necessarily invested. I appreciated the realistic nature of it – nothing seemed too overwrought or slid into the world of hallmark/lifetime movies, although the contemporary aspects of the plot – Alix being an “influencer” and references to social media/specific brands took me out of the story a bit. That said, the story takes place in Philadelphia in 2015 so those aspects unfortunately come with the territory of writing a contemporary novel. BUT, I digress… Such a Fun Age is a well-balanced story with real, moving characters and a perfect example of how white people can manipulate their own thoughts to center themselves in any situation. I particularly admired how Reid shows both sides of the situation when it comes to Alix and her perception. She’ll include Alix’s thoughts countered with dialogue from a character making valid points that Alix can’t seem to comprehend given her narrow scope of perspective. One of the biggest strengths of this book is the dialogue, it’s written so conversationally and realistically I’d find myself at times responding to a situation or a character only to keep reading and find the dialogue was almost exactly what I’d been thinking – nine times out of ten it was in conversation between Emira and her friends. These ended up being my favorite sections of the book, the moments that showed Emira and her friends being young and figuring out how to navigate a dangerously white world in a non-white body.
There There by Tommy Orange
There There follows several narrators, each connected to an Indigenous Powwow in initially disparate yet ultimately intertwined ways. The story highlights the paradox of what it means to be a Native person in America today, and the manyfold layers of inherited generational knowledge and trauma. Told through several narrative lenses, Tommy Orange lays out the tangled web of what happens to a people whose land is stolen and entire way of being is obliterated only to have the truth of it all rewritten through the lens of white supremacy’s “altruism”.
Twelve narrators can be a lot to keep track of so having a notebook to jot down a few points about each character is helpful. This number of narrators appears strategic as though the point is to illustrate how having overlapping voices share the spotlight allows for the filling in of all the details that then forms a fuller, more nuanced perspective overall. The pacing of the story is so well done, with an ebb and flow type of tone, picking up in rapidity for the last 40 or 50 pages, breaking it down to one page or less for a certain character’s experience before switching over to the next. It makes for an interesting reading experience because you feel satisfied with the quickness at which you’re getting the answers to your questions, but unfortunately those answers aren’t always what you hoped they’d be.
Without giving away too much, the culmination of the story is harrowing to say the least. Orange’s writing is real, and immediate and you see the end coming but you hope it doesn’t and then there it is. Tommy Orange as a writer reminds me of another author I read a few years ago, Nick Miller (not that one, New Girl fans) author of, Isn’t It Pretty to Think So? They both have a direct, conversational tone to their writing, and at certain points will narratively take over to deliver a soliloquy on something they’ve clearly meditated on in their own life. Whether or not these thoughts are personal to the author, or a fictional device is something we as readers can’t know, and don’t necessarily need to. Tommy Orange lays it all out there – the good, the bad, the horrible, the beautiful, the tragic, the redeeming – a necessary, wide-sweeping attempt to illustrate the entirety of what it means to be a Native person in America today.
Memorable quotes from There There:
“We’ve been defined by everyone else and continue to be slandered despite easy-to-look-up-on-the-internet facts about the realities of our histories and current state as a people. We have the sad, defeated Indian silhouette, and the heads rolling down temple stairs, we have it in our heads, Kevin Costner saving us, John Wayne’s six-shooter slaying us, an Italian guy named Iron Eyes Cody playing our parts in movies. We have the litter-mourning, tear-ridden Indian in the commercial (also Iron Eyes Cody), and the sink-tossing crazy Indian who was the narrator in the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. We have all the logos and mascots. The copy of a copy of the image of an Indian in a textbook. All the way from the top of Canada, the top of Alaska, down to the bottom of South America, Indians were removed, then reduced to a feathered image. Our heads are on flags, jerseys, and coins. Our heads were on the penny first, of course, the Indian cent, and then on the buffalo nickel, both before we could even vote as people – which like the truth of what happened in history all over the world, and like all that spilled blood from slaughter, are now out of circulation.” (p. 7)
“We did not come to cities to die. The sidewalks and streets, the concrete, absorbed our heaviness. .. This was part of the Indian Relocation Act, which was part of the Indian Termination Policy, which was and is exactly what it sounds like. Make them look and act like us. Become us. And so disappear.” (p.8)
“But what we are is what our ancestors did. How they survived. We are the memories we don’t remember, which live in us, which we feel, which make us sing and dance and pray the way we do, feeling from memories that flare and boom unexpectedly in our lives like blood through a blanket from a wound made by a bullet fired by a man shooting us in the back for our hair, for our heads, for a bounty, or just to get rid of us.” (p.10)
*kind of reminded me of the Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao without all of the distracting anti-blackness from the characters*
I also loved the simple moments of great writing – “Her thoughts wander, loosen, reach out aimlessly.” (p. 154)
“Jacquie had always slept hard as night stays until morning comes.” (p. 166)
Brute by Emily Skaja
Emily Skaja’s poetry collection, Brute, begins with the dedication: for the women in my life & for anyone vulnerable to flight. Divided into 4 parts, Skaja pours her pain onto the pages, granting her reader access to the lonely, hollow parts of being human. Her distanced yet descriptive approach creates a tone of safety and sadness melted together with a powerful blend of rage and resistance. This collection is, as the dedication suggest, for anyone who has been through the worst and refuses to lie down and let it define them.
I was gifted this collection a few years back and have returned to it several times now, something about the feral beauty of the cover and the openness of poetry in general draw me in whenever I need a certain kind of familiarity.
A Little Life set an impossibly high bar for my reading expectations, but I’m so grateful to have read it when I did. As difficult as it is to read, and as upsetting as certain plot points are (no spoilers here but my god Yanagihara, what have the readers ever done to you??) the simple message of the story, let those who love you fully love you and let them help you put words or some other form of recognition to the horrible shit you’ve endured. Let your life become about your present and future, not something defined by your past. Reading something so profound kicked me right out of my reading rut which led to the weeklong delay in this roundup post for February, but who friggen cares? What are they gonna do, fire me? (I am they).
I didn’t set any specific reading goals for this year other than I’d like to read more translations, try not to get caught up in what’s “trending” on bookstagrams, and utilize my library card as much as possible! Looking forward to future, very on time and perfectly crafted book roundups! Until next time, cheers to the first book roundup of 2023, and as always, thanks for being here.
Happy reading! Unless you’re reading A Little Life then, sad (but meaningful) reading!