Set in Victorian London and the countryside of Essex, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent follows Cora Seaborne as she journeys with her son and his nanny, Martha, to the marshy (fictional) village of Aldwinter for a change of scenery after the death of her cruel husband. There, Cora learns about sightings of a mythical sea serpent whose potential is fueling the imaginations of the locals and inciting creature panic.
While in Essex, superstition and religion intersect, friendships are born and tested, and the lives of Perry’s characters are forever changed.
I was hoping for something intensely readable like Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith or Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night, but the reading of this was fairly laborious. It’s a hefty book with some smart writing and well-crafted passages, but the story never fully grabbed me and the book put me to sleep a few nights in a row.
Rupi Kaur’s poetry arrives from a raw and deeply personal place. Kaur is young, still in her early 20’s, and her milk and honey poems flow with an eager and easy earnestness, an earnestness so achingly present at that age. Reaching for big feelings in a pared-down and approachable way, Kaur writes about early sexual abuse and trauma, intense young love, the pains of breaking up, and what it means to be a young woman today. She pairs her poems with simple line drawings, and the result is like reading a teenager’s intimate journal about sex and heartbreak and identity. There’s not a lot of depth here, but parts of my younger self could identified with the acute longing, the hunger for connection and for experience.
A good gift for a young woman heading off to college in the fall.
Darkly comic, Ian McEwan’s Nutshell brings a loose retelling of Hamlet into modern-day London and positions the tragic “prince” in utero, a witness to the murder machinations at play between his mother and her lover as they plot to kill his father.
Nutshell is definitely clever, in concept and execution, with fine writing throughout, though the novel bows under the weight of that heady cleverness. The plot hinges on one unsurprising act, and the story leaves no real emotional impact. While it is unlikely that there has ever been a more erudite or insightful womb-bound being, the other characters, blandly conniving caricatures, cannot live up to the narrative technique.
Hillbilly Elegy, my book club’s pick for the month of June, is J.D. Vance’s memoir of growing up poor and white in Ohio, in the heart of the collapsing Rust Belt of America.
Vance compares his familial story with a larger cultural issue at work in middle America, the decline of the white working class. A hillbilly among hillbillies, Vance grew up in poverty, with an unstable addiction-prone mother and a multitude of ever-disappearing father figures, within a family where loyalty was fierce and volatile, where every meal was fast food and struggling at school was a given. Despite these early challenges, and with an acknowledgment that his path isn’t the norm within the culture, Vance (now 32) enlisted in the Marines, attended college, and graduated from Yale Law School.
My reaction to the book is mixed. Hillbilly Elegy is definitely readable and Vance’s story is an engaging one. More memoir than sociological study, the mash-up leaves little room for a deep dig into the big issues – class disparity, the drug addiction epidemic, the failing education system, the disillusionment of the American Dream. While Vance makes a case for class divide limiting the opportunities available to Middle America, it can’t be ignored that the author, a white cis Republican male, and the hillbillies with whom he identifies, benefit from a system of white privilege that protects their white bodies every day and affords them more opportunities and higher paychecks than the multitude of others in America today.
I discovered Leigh Bardugo’s YA fantasy Six of Crows on Goodreads (V.E. Schwab, author of the Shades of Magic series, rated it 5 stars), and the cover pops up constantly on bookish Instagram feeds.
It took a few chapters for the plot and the characters to capture my imagination, but once they did I was hooked and stayed up reading 350+ pages, bingeing on Bardugo’s well-crafted fantasy world and her diverse ensemble of outcasts until midnight.
The plot centers on a heist led by a ruthless, cane-wielding criminal mastermind, the 17-year-old orphan Kaz Brekker. Brekker and his motley crew of miscreants voyage to the impenetrable Ice Court, which houses both a palace and a prison, to kidnap the creator of a drug that threatens to wreak havoc on the magical world they inhabit. The team is fueled by a large monetary reward, and the plan is swiftly put into action and summarily complicated by the conflicts that arise within the ranks. A wholly entertaining and delightful read… And I’m looking forward to escaping into the second in the duology, Crooked Kingdom.
Samantha Irby is funny and acerbic, and her candid personal essays cut the bullshit and get right to the meat of life.
In We are Never Meeting in Real Life, Irby, author of the blog bitches gotta eat, writes about growing up poor and black outside of Chicago, about her sick mom and her loser dad, about being a smart but underachieving student and going to a middling college. She also tackles sex and dildos, shit, stomach issues and body aches, eating and fatness, mental illness, and her love of television and staying indoors. She writes about how the world, in so many ways, asks her to apologize for her size and for her appetite; over and over her essays give the world the bird: No way, fuck you. That doesn’t mean she’s immune to self-doubt, complex body issues, and the constant struggle to be. She just doesn’t owe anyone an apology.
Irby’s humor, while honest, witty, and raw, isn’t for the faint of heart. She is sarcastic and cutting, as hard on those around her as she is on herself.
If you’re an avid reader of The New Yorker, a number of the short stories in Tessa Hadley’s recently-released Bad Dreams and Other Stories will be familiar to you. Personally, I can’t keep up with the stacks of New Yorker magazines that mock me around our house, so most of the stories were new to me.
Hadley’s stories are skillfully composed around a particular narrative tension. As if living in a bad dream, many of her characters face potential or inferred danger, with possibly shady characters in uncomfortable situations. A teenage girl in “An Abduction” is picked up by a car of boisterous drunk boys who want to take her for a ride. It seems only natural to think girl, that is just not a good idea. In “Under the Sign of the Moon,” an older woman with cancer, on the train to see her daughter, meets an overly friendly, albeit slightly off young man who won’t stop trying to engage her in conversation. Ugh, is he the pervert we suspect he might be? In “One Saturday Morning” a young girl, left at home to practice piano while her family goes grocery shopping, lets in a family friend, a man. They occupy the house together, moving quietly in separate rooms but deeply aware of each other, waiting for her family to return. Maybe I’ve been listening to too much My Favorite Murder, but something in that scenario sets off where’s he going to stash the body alarm bells. Within each story, however, is a measure of surprise; the possibility of danger doesn’t always signal a real threat, and Hadley’s characters luckily manage to walk away unscathed.