Friends – I’ve had another excellent week of reading since we last gathered. I’m really struggling with writing today’s post because this week’s update is full of tricky books to talk about without including spoilers. But if you ever want to chat behind the scenes about anything in particular, just let me know in your comment; I will respond via email so that we can talk openly without spoiling anything for other readers. Now for the books:
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
“I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell the truth, I tell what ought to be the truth. And if that’s sinful, then let me be damned for it!”
I listened to a production of this on Audible for the Novel Pairings podcast. Once the audio started, I was so happy I chose to listen to it rather than read it — clearly it was intended to be consumed in ways other than simple words on a page! But after listening to the podcast yesterday, I realized that I might have missed some important elements in the stage directions.
This was all new to me — I’m planning to watch the movie on Friday night. It’s a prevalent piece of culture so I’ve heard about it and assumed the story was about Stanley and Stella. But this story focuses a lot on Stella’s sister, Blanche (who reminded me of Blanche from The Golden Girls). Blanche is staying with Stella for a while because of some difficulty back home – she’s lost her job and their family home and is down on her luck. She is shocked by Stella’s life in New Orleans – how tiny and unkempt her home is, Stella’s brute of a husband – and all of her delicate sensibilities seem to be insulted.
As the play continues, we learn more about Blanche’s actual life, which is not at all as it seems. I was relieved to listen to the podcast, because the hosts mentioned things I hadn’t considered – such as the effects of toxic masculinity in the lives of Blanche and Stella. I enjoyed listening to the play, but had a hard time putting my finger on why this has had such staying power and the value it has for society. So I’m really thankful that Novel Pairings dove into that discussion; it made this experience richer and more valuable.
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
“Our generation still carry the old feelings. A part of us refuses to let go. The part that wants to keep believing there’s something unreachable inside each of us. Something that’s unique and won’t transfer. But there’s nothing like that, we know that now. You know that. For people our age it’s a hard one to let go.”
There was so much in this book and it feels impossible to write about without giving anything away. This is my fourth novel by this author and I always walk away awestruck. He has such a way of creating a world that keeps you coming back for more, despite storylines and plots that seem to move rather slowly. Every time I try to write about one of his books, the word “undercurrent” always pops up – there’s an undercurrent pulling me along, a need to understand what’s happening in his world.
In Klara and the Sun, the premise is simple. Klara is an AF, an artificial friend, chosen by Josie Arthur. Josie is a teenager and is suffering from an unexplained illness and Klara provides company and practical help around the house. In this world, some parents choose to have their children “lifted,” which we vaguely come to understand as the novel goes on. “Lifted” children are seen to have a distinct advantage over children who aren’t lifted and one of Josie’s best friends is unlifted, which causes a great amount of tension.
I finished this book with so many questions and so many thoughts – I’d be happy to share a snapshot from my new reading journal via email with anyone who is interested. But bottom line for me: there are so many ways to live a happy and fulfilling life. We go out of our way thinking we and our children should jump through so many hoops to take advantage of every opportunity for “success,” but we’re not thinking about how many paths there are to happiness. I’m already looking forward to Ishiguro’s next book!
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
“I don’t need you to be mad that it happened. I need you to be mad that it just like… happens.”
This was a really fun book on audio! I picked it up because the Novel Pairings podcast paired it with Emma. It’s been years since I’ve read Emma, and I have to say that I didn’t get Emma-vibes from it. What I got was The House of Mirth!
In this book, Emira is in her mid-20s and has cobbled together a life she’s quite happy with, other than the fact that she’s about to age out of her parents’ health insurance plan and is always broke. She has two part-time jobs: transcription and baby-sitting. She enjoys and is really good at both of them. Late one night she gets a call from the mom of the child she watches during the week: they’ve had to call the police because of an incident at their home and they don’t want Briar to witness the chaos. Alix asks Emira to take Briar to the grocery store to keep her occupied for a while. At the store, another shopper suspects Emira of kidnapping Briar and alerts security at the store. The whole incident is recorded on cell phone and the story catapults from there.
Alix is horrified by what happened and is even more horrified of the thought that she might be considered a racist. She and her friends try to take Emira under their wings and make her their pet project (okay, maybe this part is a little Emma-like). They can’t imagine that Emira might not want to be made over. And like in The House of Mirth, Alix and her friends seem so conniving and use Emira to raise their own profiles. The images of them sitting around together and plotting were a bit nauseating.
This book is full of train wrecks. I spent a lot of time with my eyes wide open and my hand over my mouth, just waiting for the inevitable uncomfortable moment. The narrator is excellent. She made the story and the characters come alive and I couldn’t stop listening. I’m so glad I finally took the plunge with this one!
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris
“With heightened awareness of cultural sensitivity comes great responsibility. If we’re not careful, ‘diversity’ might become an item people start checking off a list and nothing more—a shallow, shadowy thing with but one dimension.”
I kept coming up with reasons to clean the house because I wanted to return to this audio again and again. It was so engaging, compelling, and surprising! It’s difficult to put this into a single genre, but it’s equal parts contemporary fiction, thriller, mystery, and sci-fi. I love how the author put together this world without making it fit into a specific box.
This was mostly set in 2018 and told from Nella’s perspective, a young black woman working in the mostly white publishing world. She is thrilled when another black woman, Hazel, is hired and will work in the cubicle right across from her. But Nella becomes wary when she notices that Hazel has somehow managed to make more inroads in their company in three months than Nella has been able to make in two years. How? And then she starts getting scary notes telling her to leave the publishing house. NOW. Are they from Hazel? Or from Nella’s boss? Who would so fiercely want her to leave the company?
This is a searing looking at the publishing industry – the gatekeepers of literature and our cultural touchstones. I loved reading about working in a publishing house: the constant book talk, the stacks of manuscripts, the cups of coffee and tea, coddling sensitive writers. But it also showed how publishers can truly make a difference by considering the stereotypes and tropes they have perpetuated for centuries.
I also felt like it was a call to arms for everyone to believe and honor black stories and people. A major plotline of this novel is how exhausting it is for people of color to always be the one speaking up for diversity and fair representation. This novel is a reminder that we all need to be engaging in the world with a critical eye and it’s imperative that we listen honestly and carefully when confronted with our own unintentional biases.
I’m always thrilled when a week is full of such good books. And when it rains, it pours because I have several library books waiting in the wings and hope to be able to share a couple more of them with you next week. I can’t wait to catch up with all of your reading today! I hope to be back on Friday with another update – take care!