An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

Available for purchase here.

So much of who we are as people is based on the social contract. We give non-committal answers to questions like “How was your day?”, we close the door when we relieve ourselves, then spray Febreze when we’re through. Even concerning the people with whom we are most intimate, there are some niceties that we all observe, a surface level veneer of politeness.

There are brief epochs of time when we suspend our superficiality and expose our most raw, primal selves. Extreme youth and advanced age, extreme illness and grief, childbirth. Know someone in those circumstances, and you truly know them.

Stealing that kind of intimacy is the cruelest act one can perpetuate, which is the circumstance Mirielle, the protagonist of Gay’s An Untamed State, finds herself. Mirielle is an American woman visiting her re-patriated parents in Port-au-Prince when she’s kidnapped in a smoothly orchestrated event outside the gates of her parents’ palatial home. She manages to remain calm at first–kidnapping is a common problem for wealthy families in an impoverished country. Mirielle can offhandedly think of five friends and family members who’ve experienced it.
Mirielle’s father is a man unmoved by sentiment and designed to play hardball. He refuses to meet the ransom demands, and the gang of kidnappers vent their frustrations and cruelties on Mirielle. She is beaten, raped, and starved. They withhold the bathroom, and her breasts, from which she’s still nursing her toddler son, run painfully dry.

In the aftermath of Mirielle’s kidnapping and eventual return, the true complexities of her trauma emerge. Her body has been destroyed, her brain is racked with PTSD, and upon her return to the United States, her casually racist mother-in-law becomes her port in the storm of her ordeal.

Mirielle is used as a pawn so frequently in her story–ignored by her father, abused by the ringleader of the kidnappers, beset by a husband who ignorantly tries to compare his fears to her trauma–but always she, and her native Haiti, are the crown jewels of the novel. Exposed at their ugliest, most primitive selves, Mirielle and Haiti could easily be dismissed as a tragedy, but both are so much more.

Neither Mirielle nor Haiti can be healed in one fell swoop. Only by peeling back the layers of what they’ve survived and exploring the root causes of their pain can anyone hope to be the port in the storm. But both woman and country have so much more to unveil to a world willing to offer support.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Available for purchase here.

When the leader of your country seems hell bent on a personal mission to antagonize the rest of the world leaders, spend every dime at his disposal and then some on policies that marginalize the already at risk while bankrupting the nation, and generally behaving like a coked out gorilla, literature can offer a respite, a sanctuary of black letters on white pages that can buoy the reader only to the limits of imagination.

Or, it can shine a light on the swift devolution of civility and the eruption of chaos that can break out instantaneously in a country with an ever widening gap between the privileged and the working class and a strident adherence to us vs. them mentality.

Exquisitely written as it is, Half of a Yellow Sun is unmistakably the latter of the two. The story is told from three perspectives: Ugwu, an Igbo houseboy to Nsukka professor Odenigbo, Odenigbo’s fellow professor and mistress Olanna, and Richard, British expat and lover to Olanna’s twin sister Kainene. In the early sixties, the characters interact with each other through the prisms of race, class, and gender. Ugwu receives an education thanks to his employer’s socialist ideals, Olanna is a daughter of privilege and enjoys the benefits of both beauty and education, but has to live with accusations of witchcraft from Odenibo’s old-fashioned mother. Richard is a perennial outsider who views Nigeria–all of Africa, in fact–as a wonderland peppered with self-fulfillment.

Following the military coups that lead to the persecution of the Igbo, the characters become caught in the civil war follows the attempted secession of an Igbo state called Biafra. Olanna witnesses the slaughter of her beloved aunt and favorite cousin at the hands of Hausa militants. Ugwu gets conscripted and perpetuates the same war crimes that leave Olanna traumatized. Richard uses his privilege as a white man to report the atrocities of war to the wider world. In real life, the Nigerian-Biafran War saw the birth of NGOs across the world.

Adichie knows well that a million is a statistic. By weaving the story of a country in turmoil around her characters, the readers see firsthand the horrors of war, rape, starvation, and the casual brutality of indifference. Of course, the war in Nigeria was the result of American and European imperialism, the need to stake out multiple recognized territories as a singular country, currying the favor of one tribe while systemically forcing down the others, and absconding when the consequences of our actions come raining in. We’ve shifted the geographic location, but not learned from the tragedy. See the rise of Daesh in Syria, or Al-Quaeda in Afghanistan.

Reading Adichie now is like gazing into a crystal ball, and we are running out of time to curtail the effects of monumental greed combined with political power. It’s easy to absorb the story in a mantle of fear, but better to heed the warnings, pinpoint the failings, and resolve to improve both our approach and our attitudes.

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

Available for purchase here.

A family patriarch who made his wealth in the private sector, hated by his employees and subordinates, notorious for his vicious temper, an unabashed rapist and known abuser, who turns to Conservative politics in his later years. Oh, and his last name starts with T-R-U.

I’m fully convinced in light of reading this in 2016 that Isabel Allende had psychic powers. Or, more likely, the tendency of history to repeat itself and the archetypical personalities associated with those who have an unbridled lust for power are as unchanging as the path of the Earth around the sun.

Allende’s story is a saga of the rise and fall of the Trueba family in a country that’s totally not Chile, chronicling the trends, movements, and mores of the ever-changing culture of the twentieth century. All the points are hit: two World Wars, the spread of first-wave feminism, communist ideology, a peaceful revolution, the underpinning of the accomplishments of the masses by the wealthy one percent, a military coup, the brutality of the regime. The House of the Spirits would be a grim read if its primary focus weren’t the rich lives of its women characters, both their magical prowess and the more earthly matters which concern them. They are rich in their passions, diverse in their characters, and blissfully faulty, real despite the fantasy that blurs the edges of their world.

The House of the Spirits was born in a letter from Allende to her aged grandfather, and inspired by her own life, twinned with political exile and her friendship with such key figures as Pablo Neruda, of whom the unnamed Poet is a clear expy.

Ideology ebbs and flows, but extremism is a fundamental human flaw, and in the United States is reaching its own tipping point. Every four years our presidential elections are deeply divisive, building on the excess of the preceding one, and here we are, less than a month away from casting our votes, the entire country adhering almost blindly to one candidate or another, turning neighbors into enemies and putting ugly words out into the public where they cannot be shirked or removed in a moment of clarity.

We all like to believe that the events that occupy the final third of Allende’s debut novel cannot happen here, that they do not happen in places like this or countries like ours, but this thought process is shared by everyone who lived before bloody coups and drowned in the aftermath. We ignore precedents set by history at our own peril, and now seems the most prescient time to pick up a copy of The House of the Spirits and learn the lesson crafted so beautifully within its pages.

“Embers” by K.B. Carle

Can be read here.

I’ve made the point before that my favorite storytelling medium is the short story. When well done, they have all the narrative strength of a novel, but their brevity packs a greater emotional punch. If that’s true, flash fiction is a bullet wound. And “Embers” is a powerful example of just that, detailing the rage, fear, dissociation, and hopelessness of a victim in the midst of an assault.

Carle’s victim is nameless, just as so many of real life victims are unknown, even as their attackers find themselves under the scrutiny of the spotlight. Brock Turner may be facing the righteous wrath of the social media masses, but where in all the public screes against his all-too-soon freedom, in the ring of protestors outside his house, is consideration for his victim? Out of both sight and mind.

What “Embers” does, in a story of few words but relentless image, is give a glimpse to the point of view of those who are glossed over and easily forgotten in pursuit of what we call justice. It serves as a reminder of what really matters in the face of violence.

The Girls by Emma Cline

Available for purchase here.

Some books are hidden gems, and some are beacons flashing from the shelves, suggested reading lists, and entertainment review pages for an entire summer. Guess into which category Emma Cline’s debut falls? No reader, no matter how casual, could resist the allure Cline’s fictionalized account based off Charles Manson and the Helter Skelter murders. It’s got all the ingredients of a delicious and scandalous summer read–young girls, teenage lawlessness, cults, the drug soaked days of the sixties, seduction, violence, murder.

The most compelling figure at the center of Evie Boyd’s first person account of being lured into the ranch dwelling cult in the wilds of California is, shockingly, not Russell, the Manson figure leading wayward youth into debauchery and rebellion, but one of his acolytes, Suzanne, the diffident free spirit who initially recruits Evie from her stifled life of upper class neglect.

Evie, who narrates both as a teen and adult, has been condemned to an ordinary existence by the divorce between her self-absorbed parents, and is drawn in by the feral freedom of Suzanne and her friends. But while she straddles the worlds of the commune and the suburbs, Evie never quite loses her fascination with Suzanne. It’s a combination of longing and lust that feels very much like love, but hurts far more than the affection and sex she receives for her efforts. Even those of us unmarked by manipulative egomaniacs and the worlds they create for themselves will recognize how very human and universal Evie’s plight is.

While the novel hurtles toward the inevitable conclusion, Suzanne uses the last flicker of her own independence to spare Evie her participation in the brutal murders that would come to define both Russell and the summer in the cultural consciousness. Neither Evie nor the reader truly knows why–it’s possible Suzanne herself doesn’t know.

Modern Evie’s life is quiet and unremarkable. There’s a sense of longing for the freedom of her misspent youth, tinged with guilt that she even misses it. But she remains fixated on Suzanne and the other girls, the innocent waifs whose fragile beauty is at odds with the brutality of their crimes. It’s a compelling reminder of how we underestimate those we perceive to be innocents–modern Evie, who should know better than anyone, finds the presence of a young woman reassuring when her quiet evening is disrupted by teen strangers. Luckily it’s a better outcome than the Sharon Tate expy of her youth.

Unspeakable Things by Kathleen Spivack

Available for purchase here.

If you’re planning on using these waning days of summer for a few final hours of sun-soaked beach vacations before the weather turns and the days shorten, do NOT bring Unspeakable Things with you. For all the world is well acquainted with the horrors of the Holocaust, there are as many ugly realities that lay hidden in the shadows of history that Spivack’s novel pulls back the veil on. It’s not an easy or comfortable read.

It’s nigh impossible to not draw parallels between the European refugee crisis during the advent of World War II, and the modern Middle Eastern crisis faced by refugees fleeing the Islamic state. When blocked from safety through legal means, desperate people will fall to shady and even immoral means to find shelter for themselves, which leads to innocents being holed away with the same people they were fleeing from in the first place.

Unspeakable Things lives up to its name. Eugenics, rape, and pedophilia are shaped into a story with language so gorgeous it only serves to highlight the horror of what is so lovingly rendered. It’s not without its problems: one of the vilest characters is gender non-conforming in a cultural landscape rife with vilifying depictions of trans, non-binary, and other GNC people, a gay son serves as the sacrificial lamb for the rest of his family’s freedom, leaving a guilt-ridden father to tend to his grieving, catatonic wife.

In a simplistic purview, Unspeakable Things could be seen as a treatise against the acceptance of refugees, but in a more thoughtful, analytical lens, it’s a highlight of our historical failings and missteps, a spotlight on the people we’ve failed to help in the past and a blueprint for how we can be better.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Available for purchase here.

Some books are the literary equivalent of a slice of birthday cake: sweet, delightful, easily consumed in one sitting, an escape from the ordinary and necessary solely by its luxury.

This is no such book. Americanah is a Thanksgiving meal, composed of many parts that must be delicately balanced, heavy with its importance, the focus of the celebration, and, when well done, ripe with layers and textures that can’t be quickly or easily absorbed.

Nominally focusing on two main characters, Ifemelu and Obinze, the continent-spanning novel is really Ifemelu’s story, leading the reader down the philosophical questions of identity through race, culture, mental health, family, love, and purpose. Zigzagging between her young life in Nigeria with her first love and her emigration to America in college, the novel opens as Ifemelu is closing up the boxes of American life and planning to return to her native Lagos, where Obinze, her first love, has returned from humble circumstances in England to become a wealthy and powerful developer.

Obinze’s story is one of growing up, trading his youthful ambitions and idealisms to become a success in the eyes of his friends and loved ones–rubbing shoulders with the crooked elite of Lagos, marrying an appropriately beautiful woman and setting her up in a similarly beautiful home, even having the requisite adorable toddler, but he faces a yearning similar throughout all art and life–the desire to be happy even among the trappings of a “successful” life. He’d have the richest introspective journey of all the characters of any other work, but in both narrative and substance he comes second to Ifemelu.

Ifemelu grows up under the influence of her beloved Aunty Uju, a mistress to a powerful politician whose fortunes turn when he dies. She’s forced to flee the luxurious home she’s built for herself in Lagos for the US, where bureaucracy forces her to start from the bottom. All the while, her niece is growing, absorbing the lessons from her aunt’s tragedy, and falling in love with Obinze, a boy whose mother is as compelling, engaging, and inspiring as he is. If Uju is the superego of life’s possibilities, Obinze and his mother are the id.

Nigerian politics turn Ifemelu’s and Obinze’s university years into a slow slog of lounging and listlessness while the turmoil of government continually keeps the resources out of the schools. Ifemelu turns to the promises of America, and once accepted, finds her very sense of self is upended in the culture shock–Ifemelu is Black.

Blackness, common to the point of being a given in Nigeria, is loaded with implications in the US, a lingering scar from our fraught history, and Ifemelu, being African in America while not being African American, has a unique insight into the ways race and class intersect and diverge in the day to day dealings of being Black in America. She doesn’t bear the brunt of slavery, but deals with its ramifications, she hears barbs from white people both well-intentioned and deliberately obtuse or cruel. And lest anyone believe she’s landed in some ass-backwards town where hers is the only dark skin to be seen, she spends her first years in the US in New York and Philadelphia.

During her student years she experiences the horrifying gamut of sexual objectification and violence, unemployment that threatens her future, and her first experience with depression. Though she struggles, she also finds purpose: her unique experience gives her an unparalleled voice to speak to issues of American race and class. When the novel opens, she’s a celebrity in the blogosphere, a thread she maintains even after she returns home.

Nigeria is not different when Ifemelu returns home, but it is to her, because she’s now the title “Americanah”, a foreigner in her own home, and sees Lagos through American eyes. She again turns to her laptop to speak her truths in the way others can’t–for her whole adult life, Ifemelu is a woman caught between cultures, part of yet separate from that which is familiar.

It would be wrong to talk about Americanah without mentioning something specific to Black women: hair. Black women’s hair in America is so fraught with political and social commentary that Ifemelu’s braiding appointment provides the framework for the first half of the novel. Being white myself I’ve never considered that what I do with my hair is anything more than my fondness for a given aesthetic, but for Black women, whether their hair is relaxed and assimilated or worn natural and proud, hair is a matter of identity politics. I’ve seen in more recently read works by Issa Rae and bell hooks–whole chapters are devoted to hair. That their hair is so symbolic is a thing of beauty and power, but I’m much more interested in what percolates beneath it.

Sex Object by Jessica Valenti

Available for purchase here.

Jessica Valenti is one of the most prominent voices in modern feminism. Her earlier work, Full Frontal Feminism, was the book that propelled me from passively considering myself a feminist to making it an active part of my life, my writing, and my worldview. She’s also the co-founder of Feministing, a political and pop culture blog that features analysis and alternative perspectives.

Her memoir takes a step back from the lens of global and social feminism to address her personal experiences with being sexualized from an age so young she barely understood what was happening to her, the double edged sword of being used for sex while shamed for her appearance, her experiences with abortion, and a pregnancy that nearly killed her, being a young mother to a daughter with health issues, the stresses of her marriage and her mental health.

If someone else had written this story, a tale of being masturbated to on the subway, a drug habit that veered dangerously close to addiction, the struggles of having a premature baby, the constant questions of how to best guide her daughter through the difficulty of selective mutism, if someone else had typed this manuscript and presented it to Valenti, or even just told her this story in person, Valenti, so sisterly seeming in her public persona, so proudly and unabashedly feminist, would’ve been supportive and comforting.

In her own story, her words are tinged with self-doubt. It is a particular characteristic of sexual violence–no other crime demands shame from its victims. She recounts her stories not only as they happened, but how she felt in the moment. Where shame is absent, normalcy is abundant. Valenti is among the same generation of women as I am, where it was expected that there would be a certain amount of leering and harassment, as much a part of growing up as other unpleasantries like root canals and menstrual cramps.

I found myself nodding along with many of her youthful experiences. We’re not the same: she’s a gregarious city girl and I grew up an introverted suburbanite, so many of her dealings with men lurking in subways were foreign to me until I was much older than she. But the sum is more important than the parts–we are just two drops in the bucket, sharing the same snippets of our past and present.

I was reading Sex Object on the train one evening, on my way to a magazine launch. When I arrived at my stop, my Uber app stalled, and men lounging on the street corner took the opportunity to get too close, give me “compliments” better left unrepeated, and ask to join me wherever I was going. In my head I was a feminist warrior, articulate and prideful, putting these men in their place and sending them home, cowering and repentant.

In reality, I ducked into the nearest cab, shaken and trying to shrug off my mantle of discomfort so my evening wouldn’t be ruined. (And it wasn’t, primarily because Apiary, the magazine hosting the party, was a hotbed of Black Lives Matter and feminist voices, the perfect antidote to feeling weak and worthless. If you’re in the Philly area, please check them out.) I didn’t engage those men in a torrent of modern feminist rage for one simple reason: there were three of them, each stronger than me. I didn’t want to win, I wanted to escape. I craved safety in a situation that I’d grown up internalizing as “normal”.

But hopefully, for my nieces, my students, my patients, for Valenti’s daughter and her peers, it won’t be.

Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat

Available for purchase here.

Continuing my reviews of short stories from yesterday, Danticat’s collection of stories culled from the brutal revolution era of Haiti read more like poetry than prose. She manages to make prison, death, and exile the stuff of fairy tales, all the more poignant because the brutality is caused not by trolls and dragons but by mere mortals.

How Danticat manages to find the beauty in the brutality is something to marvel at, but she finds it, and grants her characters an almost maternal tenderness that their real-life counterpoints would’ve ached for. Each story is a self-contained miracle, strung along in the greater narrative and referencing each other, but still existing whole and separate from each other.

The most heartbreaking story is at the end, not the tale of the drowned refugee, or the mother concealing her profession from her son, the woman and daughter struggling with prison, the tiny corpses mistaken for living children, but the story of the modern young woman living in New York, a consummate American in all but title, for whom her mother’s stories and traditions are nothing more than an affectation, sometimes embarrassing, sometimes endearing, but always old-fashioned and unnecessary.

It’s both a tragedy and a triumph when the subsequent generations are able to relegate their painful histories to the realm of school lessons and and mythological stories. All the pain and sacrifice becomes worthwhile, and also marks the end of the suffering. But there is no appreciation, no real life respect, for what the mothers and fathers of today went through to bring us to our modern lives, not unless they take the time to heed the words of a truly gifted storyteller.

Danticat’s title comes from the Haitian tradition of asking a group if they want to hear a story (Krik?) for the audience to respond that they do (Krak!). There’s an elegance to using the traditional structure to tell the stories of people who are rarely heard in mainstream America. The title itself demands that we pay attention to what we can’t be allowed to forget.

The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer

Available for purchase here.

Amanda Palmer is one of those people who’s so unreservedly cool she inspires immediate awkwardness in people like me. I deliberate, she decides. She finds jobs that will allow her to pursue her art until she reaches the point where she can support herself on her art, while people like me just sort of marvel at her ability to do so.

This, of course, is the kind of binary thinking her book The Art of Asking seeks to dismantle. Palmer may be unabashedly cool–and in fact, reading her book makes her seem even more so, but she’s also unflinchingly honest about her struggles as an artist and just as a person. She examines everything from the new sharing economy brought about by sites like Kickstarter to the inherent offer of dignity in accepting a gift to how questions shape a marriage to feeling like an imposter the whole time.

“Imposter Syndrome” is a real thing, the voice in our heads telling us we’re faking it even when everything outside our minds is telling us we’re good: at our jobs, at our relationships, at life. And it’s incredibly reassuring to know that someone like Palmer lives with it, despite all she’s done (short list: performance art, collaborative and solo musical acts, modeling, writing) because if the voice in her head is still shouting her down, it’s a good indicator that it’s more aligned with our insecurities than any actual reality.

Palmer’s life has taken so many twists and turns off the beaten path it’s amazing how relatable she remains. Her work as an artist means she is inherently asking of her fans: their time, their money, their attention. And coming from a privileged position, she struggles with the responsibility that comes from that request. She’s slept in the homes of people who had to double up on beds to accommodate her and her tour, she’s taken gifts from people who have little to give but freely offered anyway.

Refusing an offer sincerely given often comes from a place of love. We don’t want to take from those who have little to give, but there’s a beauty and dignity in taking that which we are offered, especially when the person offering has limited opportunity to be generous with what they have. When we deny a gift given in kindness, we do more harm than good.

Palmer’s struggle with acceptance makes up only one half of the overarching theme of The Art of Asking. She also struggles to articulate her needs, and imparts an important lesson: if you don’t tell people what you want, they can’t give it to you. One incident she relays after she and her husband Neil Gaiman (yes, that Neil Gaiman) suffer a personal tragedy strikes particularly hard. Gaiman is withdrawn and silent, Palmer is aching for some affection and reassurance. She summons up her courage and tells him she needs a cuddle and discovers that Gaiman grew up in an environment where he was taught that when people are sad they need space and quiet–in short, he took from her what she needed precisely because he didn’t know she needed it.

Palmer’s narrative is as warm and fuzzy as her stage presence is raw and aggressive. Reading her book feels like having a deep conversation with a wise best friend. She touches on human realities as well as artistic ones: she laments that her mother, a former computer programmer, never got the recognition she deserved for the creativity of her work, even from her professionally creative daughter. She deals with the reality of having a May December friendship and the implications of losing one of the foremost relationships/guideposts of her life, and has to deal with the ugly reality of rape culture when two concert attendants use her open trust and fondness for nudity as an opportunity to violate her. Even outside the creative fields, her writing has a very human reality.

Amanda Palmer TED talk