Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman
(Harper, 2016, 356 pages)
This was the final selection for the spring 2018 Between the Covers book club. Girls on Fire is set in a small town in Pennsylvania in the 1990s; this is at a time when grunge is coming on the scene and the idea that kids are practicing Satanism is scaring parents everywhere. When a local teen is found dead in the woods this only leads parents to worry more about their kids. Hannah exists on the periphery of this apparent suicide. She knew the guy, but they didn’t really run in the same circles. What his death does lead her to is a friendship with Lacey. Lacey is the new girl at school who seems to exist in her own world; not caring what anyone else thinks.
As Lacey and Hannah grow closer we learn more about what happened in the woods. We also see Hannah distance herself from the quiet “oatmeal” life she had been living. With Lacey it’s like she can be a new person and operate more freely in the world. But with this freedom comes rebellion and unexpected jealousy. Not everyone is happy that Lacey and Hannah have found each other and secrets end up being divulged in ways no one could have expected.
Girls on Fire was most definitely a compelling read. Wasserman keeps you guessing where the book is going to go up to the very end. I knew it was going to be a dark read but I was surprised at how much it got into my head. I needed a literary palate cleanser after finishing this one. Graphic novels and romance quickly found their way to my nightstand. That being said, in spite of the darkness I enjoyed Wasserman’s literary talents.
My Boyfriend is a Bear by Pamela Ribon; illustrated by Cat Farris
(Oni Press, 2018, 176 pages)
My Boyfriend is a Bear is a graphic novel about a young woman and a bear who fall in love. The bear says little more than “grah,” but they seem to be able to communicate. The relationship is no secret. The bear is the life of the party, drinking and playing Twister with the woman’s friends. Her parents are skeptical though (you can’t have kids with a bear). The story, complemented well by brightly colored drawings, elicited a range of emotions. It was hard to put down. Highly recommended, but not for kids.
The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink by Olivia Laing
(Canongate Books, 2013, 340 pages)
After reading The Lonely City in December I fell under the spell of Olivia Laing. In The Trip to Echo Spring she decides to try and figure out the connection between the work of a few noted authors and their alcoholism. I was initially surprised because Laing chose to focus exclusively on men, but she acknowledges this within the text and has her reasons for limiting herself to one gender. The authors she focused on are: John Berryman, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Tennessee Williams.
Laing draws connections between the authors, their work and their drinking by following a route through the United States that has her stopping in locations that had significant impacts on all of the authors. This book is a combination of biography, history, literary criticism, and personal memoir. I was taking notes as I read because I felt like she just gave me a taste of all the men she profiled and I wanted to learn more. I wanted to dive into their biographies and read more of their work.
I’d definitely recommend the book, especially if you’re someone who appreciates reading about literary figures and their “processes.”
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
(Grand Central Publishing, 2017, 496 pages)
I’m sure you remember seeing Pachinko on “Best of 2017” lists everywhere this past December. It was primarily because of this that I bumped it up in my reading rotation. I’d previously read Lee’s Free Food for Millionaires and really enjoyed it so I had already planned to grab this at some point. All I can say is that this lived up to the hype and exceeded my expectations. I honestly didn’t want to put it down. I was so invested in the characters and their lives… It was a fantastic read.
Pachinko follows the lives of a Korean family throughout the 20th century. We are introduced to Sunja, our family matriarch, as a child in Korea. Then we go through generations of her family who struggle with holding on to their Korean identity while being exiled and ostracized.
To quote from Goodreads, this is “a sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, its members are bound together by deep roots as they face enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.” It’s a definite recommend.
The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy
(Random House, 2017, 207 pages)
I was introduced to Ariel Levy through the Longform podcast. That led me to her 2013 essay in The New Yorker, “Thanksgiving in Mongolia.” It’s powerful and devastating. When I started hearing the buzz about The Rules Do Not Apply I immediately added it to my to-read list.
The Rules Do Not Apply is a memoir about Levy’s journey to becoming the woman she is today. In the midst of losing her child, her marriage, and the life she’d previously believed was waiting for her in the future she learns (the hard way) that no one ever really has control over their life. No one knows what might be in store for them. She has to reclaim her sense of self and she takes the reader along with her. You grieve with her for the loss of her marriage and the loss of her child and you end the book wanting to know more about Levy’s life and how things are going for her.
The book ends on a hopeful note, leaving the reader with the notion that her life could have any number of outcomes – who is she to say she knows which one will come to pass?
The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing
(Picador, 2016, 315 pages)
I got so completely immersed in this book that I didn’t want it to end. Laing could have written hundreds more pages and I happily would have read them all.
Using the lens of loneliness Laing explores various artists whose work speaks to the feeling of being alone. She came to reflect on the connection between art and loneliness while she was living alone and lonely in New York City. Each chapter is essentially a biographic essay about a specific artist (Warhol, Wojnarowicz, Hopper…) that leaves you with an understanding of them and their work, but also has you poised to try and learn more. It’s no surprise this book was chosen as a 2016 best book of the year by a number of different publication, not to mention being a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist for criticism.
I’ll certainly be going back and reading Laing’s other pieces. I loved getting so wrapped up in her work.
The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
(Vintage, 2005, 391 pages)
Reimagining American history – disturbingly prescient.